And Father Makes Three

      He wasn't going to say a thing, Sarah realized. Her only hope of clarification—oh, please, let her have heard wrong!—was to ask him right now. Before he could head out the door of the hospital cafeteria, she threw down a shaky challenge.

      "I heard you telling the doctor about Jesse."

      Ryan froze. From the look on his face, she could tell he knew what she'd overheard. But she had to say it out loud, to hear the words fill the sudden chasm between them.

      "Why didn't you tell me he's your son?"

      Ryan took two steps toward her, and stopped. "I..." he began. "I, uh..."

      "You've known it the whole summer, haven't you?" Sarah whispered. He'd known all along, and he hadn't said a word. "What did you do, set up this whole trip just so you could get to know him?"

      "No, of course not!" But he sounded too defensive, too quick to deny it. "I had no idea until last night—"

      Last night, when she'd felt as if the earth had shifted under them. When he'd asked if she ever wanted to have an adventure and had swept her into a fever of passion so intense that she couldn't have remembered her own name.

      Oh, dear God.

      "And even then, I wasn't sure," Ryan was saying. "I didn't want to sayanything when all I knew was—"

      "So when were you planning to mention it?" she blurted, already dreading the answer. Already knowing what he must have planned. "Tonight?"

      "No! Sarah, come on—"

      "Did you think all you had to do was give me an 'adventure' and I'd let you have him?"

      He stared at her in horror. "Damn it, that's not what—"

      "But you want him, don't you!" she cried. "All this time, you've been criticizing the way I raised him."

      "No, you've done a great job."

      Was this the same man who'd told her she worried too much, that she couldn't keep Jesse tied to her apron strings for the rest of his life? That her nephew would learn more in six months on the road than he would by going to college?

      Suddenly she knew what was coming.

      "If you think," she said desperately, "that after seventeen years you can waltz back into his life, show him a couple of tricks and yank him out of school..." She stopped, appalled by the guilty awareness that flashed across his face. "That's why you weren't going to tell me, isn't it?"

      "Wait a minute," he protested. "This is all news to me, too."

      But she could see it already. The two of them taking off for Alaska with a blithe, "So long, Sarah," leaving all her dreams for Jesse shattered in the dust. The vision hit her with such force that she swayed against the edge of the table, and Ryan caught her arm.

      "You all right?"

      She jerked herself away. "You know what's really funny? All these years I've worried about Tom Bradley coming back and trying to take over. When all this time, it was you!"

      "Sarah--"

      "I believed you," she persisted, not even hearing the edge of hysteria in her voice, "when you said no more bombshells! And it never even occurred to me--"

      "Look," he interrupted, grabbing both her wrists and holding them up so she could see how her hands were trembling. "Look here. This is why I didn't say anything. I didn't want you to worry."

      "And that's supposed to make it all right?"

      His grip tightened. "Sarah, listen."

      With a sudden wrench, she twisted her hands free and took a step back. "What were you trying to do, anyway—see if he met your standards for a son? Is that why you invited him on this trip?"

      His jaw dropped. "You don't think I'd really—"

      "I don't know what you're capable of!" she cried, and with that the wave of anger broke free. "You promise no more bombshells and then you come up with this. But yes, if you want to know, I can see you setting up to meet him, inviting him to help you photograph Route 66, and then when I wouldn't let him go, you offered me the research job." And a romp in the grass for good measure. "My God, Ryan."

      He winced, but made no move to touch her. Instead he only fixed his eyes on her and said slowly, deliberately, "I don't like what you're thinking. It isn't true."

      Of course he knew just what she wanted to hear. And part of her wished she could believe him, wished he could prove this was a coincidence and nothing more.

      Well, all she could do was ask. Straight out. "Can you honestly tell me,"Sarah demanded, watching his eyes as she spoke, "that until we walked into this hospital you had no idea you might be Jesse's father?"

      His gaze shifted, and he hesitated. "Uh..."

      Oh, she had been foolish to expect anything else! "Never mind. There's nothing left to talk about. Go ahead and get the motor home fixed. Do whatever you have to. As soon as the doctor says it's okay, Jesse and I are out of here."

      He stared at her in disbelief. "No way."

If he thought she'd stick around for another month or even another day, he was dead wrong. Even if it meant losing a summer's pay, this was the only solution. She couldn't spend another hour with this man, and there would surely be flights out of Amarillo.

      "Ryan, there's no use even talking about it. You are not getting your hands on him." Or on her either, but she couldn't bear to think about that now. She picked up her coffee cup and pushed past him, just as he reached out and grabbed her shoulder.

      "Sarah..."

      She jerked away. "Don't touch me!"

      He stopped, looking as if the possibility of her leaving was only beginning to sink in. She could see the awareness flickering on his face as he protested, "You can't just walk out."

      Two hours ago she would have said the same thing. But two hours ago no one could threaten to take Jesse away from her. "Watch me," Sarah told him, and started for the door.

      His answer halted her in her tracks. "I know where to find you."

      She hadn't thought of that. Still holding the crumpled coffee cup, she swung back around to face him.

      "Ryan, please." There was a tremor in her voice, and she made an effort to swallow it. She couldn't let him see how close to the edge she was. "Please. Just forget you ever met us."

      He shook his head, as if she was asking the impossible, and when he spoke his voice was as raw and husky as it had been last night on the grass. "I'm not letting you go," he said simply. There was a pause, and then he went on, "Or Jesse, either."

      The very idea sent a wave of apprehension crashing through her. "You're not going to tell Jesse about this!" she gasped.

      "Sarah, he's my son."