Kara Martinson and Harry Canton weren’t exactly high school sweethearts, but they did share one night neither will ever forget. Twenty-seven years later, Harry surprises Kara at an art gallery opening and discovers he left her with more than just memories when he went away to college.
Desperate to connect with the family he never knew existed, Harry convinces his son to move to Stonehill—and pleads with Kara to come, too. Kara hasn’t stepped foot in their hometown since the day she was sent away to a home for unwed mothers. Now Harry’s back in her life and as they put together the pieces of his parents’ betrayal, old heartaches start to feel anew. She wants to be near her family, but returning to Iowa means facing some things…and some people…she isn’t quite ready to.
Can Harry convince her to forgive those who betrayed her so they can embrace the future they were robbed of so long ago? Or will the pain of the past be too much for Kara to overcome?
The Road Leads Back is available at these retailers:
Kara squeezed her way toward the crowded bar, nudging between two kids who she couldn’t quite believe were old enough to be legally drinking in public. Shouldn’t they be funneling cheap beer in a college dorm somewhere? Or sneaking shots from Daddy’s liquor cabinet?
Art gallery openings used to be much more sophisticated than this. When she was a young artist, openings were about appreciating the art and the artist, not the free booze.
Shit. Had she really gone there? Kara shook her head at her bitter thoughts.
The bartender, a walking tattoo with spiked black hair, leaned close so she could hear him. “What’ll it be?”
She realized all she wanted was wine. And quiet. The kids around her were acting more like pre-teens jacked up on sugar than art aficionados. One made a face, squished and reddened, as he held up an empty shot glass as proof of his triumph.
She wondered when she had gotten so damned old. She never used to snub her nose at a good drink. Actually, she completely understood what her problem was, and it had nothing to do with age. She’d conformed. She’d fallen in line. She’d done what she was supposed to do.
Agent? Check. Gallery opening? Check. Interviews with all the local fancy-pants magazines? Check.
But this wasn’t her. None of this was her.
Frowning, she leaned in as well, making sure he heard her over the jeering of the kids next to her. “Tequila.”
Within seconds he set a glass in front of her and filled it with amber liquid. He started to walk away, but she held up one hand and lifted the glass with the other. She downed the drink, slammed the glass down, and gestured for another—one shot wasn’t nearly enough to numb the misery of this evening.
The young man raised his brows and smirked as he gave her another shot. He laughed as she motioned for him to fill the glass a third time. “I can’t do this all night, lady.”
“Some of the crap in here costs more than my car. No puking. Got it?”
Kara chuckled. Clearly he didn’t recognize her as the artist who had made the crap. “Honey, I was doing tequila shots before your daddy dropped his pants and made you.”
The barkeep threw his head back and laughed, then filled her glass one more time. “Nice one, babe.”
Babe? Kara snorted as she lifted the glass. It was almost to her lips when someone squeezed her shoulder.
“Kara?” asked a deep, smooth voice as if the man wasn’t certain who he was touching.
She turned. Her eyes bulged as she looked into an intense dark gaze she hadn’t seen since the night she’d lost her virginity.
The music had been loud, the beer lukewarm, and everybody who was anybody—and several nobody’s like Kara and Harry—in their senior class of Stonehill High was at the graduation party. The only person she had cared about, though, didn’t care about her. Or so she’d thought. Until she’d somehow ended up on Shannon Blake’s disgustingly pink- and ruffle-covered bed with Harry Canton, book club president and algebra superstar, clumsily removing her clothes, leaving slobbery kisses in their wake.
Kara swallowed hard as the flash of a memory faded, and the man standing before her, looking as shocked as she felt, came back into view.
She downed the liquor, slammed the glass against the bar, and sighed before she announced, “I’ve been looking for you for twenty-seven years.”
He sank onto the vacant stool next to her and lifted his hands as if he were at a loss for words. Something that appeared to be guilt filled his eyes and made his full lips sag into a frown. She’d be damned if temptation didn’t hit her as hard as it had when she was a hormonal teen.
“I wanted to tell you I was leaving,” he said, “but I didn’t know how.”
“You should have tried something like, ‘Kara, I’m leaving.’”
“You’re right. But I was a kid. I didn’t have a lot of common sense. All I could think about was how I finally had my freedom.”
She tilted her head and narrowed her eyes at him. “You had your freedom? You selfish prick.”
His eyes widened. “Well, that might be a little harsh. I was just a kid, Kara. Yes, I should have told you I had no intention of staying with you, but I was a little overwhelmed by what had happened. I’m sorry.”
Harry’s shoulders slumped, as if he had given up justifying sneaking out on her in the middle of the night. “Look, I saw a flier for your gallery opening, and I wanted to say hello. I thought maybe… I don’t know what I was thinking.” He sounded hurt, dejected even. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
He stood and she put her hand to his chest, shoving him back onto the barstool. The move instantly reminded of her their one night together. All of seventeen and totally inexperienced, she’d fancied herself a seductress and pushed him on the bed before straddling his hips like she had a clue what she was doing.
Touching his chest now, warmth radiated through her entire body.
She glared, pulling her hand away and squeezing her fingers into a fist. “Are you living in Seattle?”
He shook his head. “I had a conference in town. There were fliers at the hotel. As soon as I saw your picture, I knew I had to come.” His smile returned and excitement lit his face. “I can’t believe you have a gallery opening. This is amazing, Kare.”
She wasn’t nearly as thrilled by her accomplishment as he seemed to be. She felt like she was selling her soul instead of her art. She’d always preferred to go the indie route, but that crap agent had cornered her at a particularly vulnerable moment and convinced her she needed him…just like he convinced her she needed to be in a gallery.
Although, now she was glad she’d conceded on the open bar.
The tequila swirled through her, making her muscles tingle, preventing her from fully engaging the near-three decades of anger she’d been harboring. She had spent an awfully long time wanting to give Harry Canton a piece of her mind.
Even so, hearing him say she’d done something amazing warmed her in a way very little ever had. If he had come looking for another one-night stand, she hated to admit that she would consider reliving that night again—only this time with more sexual experience and less expectation of him sticking around.
He might be almost three decades older, but his face was still handsome and his brown eyes were just as inviting as they had been when he was a high school prodigy and she was a wallflower.
She smirked at a realization: he was in a suit, probably having just left a corporate meeting, while she was wearing a red sari-inspired dress at her gallery opening.
He was still the straight arrow. She was still the eccentric artist.
“Did you hear what I said, Harry? About looking for you for the last twenty-seven years.”
His shoulders sagged. “I never meant to sleep with you that night. I mean”—he quickly lifted his hands—“I was leaving and should have told you before taking you upstairs. I shouldn’t have just left like that, but I didn’t think you wanted to see me again anyway. If it’s any consolation,” he said giving her a smile that softened the rough edges of her anger, “I’d been working up the courage to kiss you since junior year when you squeezed a tube of red paint in Mitch Friedman’s hair after he made jokes about Frida Kahlo’s eyebrows in art class.”
She frowned at him. That hadn’t been her finest hour. Then again, neither was waking up thinking she was starting a new life as a high school graduate and the girlfriend of the cutest boy she’d ever met, only to find the other side of the homecoming queen’s bed empty. “There’s nothing wrong with a woman embracing her natural beauty.”
His smile faded quickly. “I’m sorry,” he said, sounding sincere. “I shouldn’t have left you like I did. I hope you believe that I regret it. Not being with you,” he amended, “but leaving without explaining.”
She laughed softly. He’d had that same nervous habit in high school. He’d say what was on his mind and then instantly try to recover, afraid his words had come out wrong. Usually they had. For as awkward as she’d been, at least she’d always been able to say what she meant and stand behind it. Of course, that ability got her in trouble more often than not.
She’d told herself a million times that Harry didn’t owe her an explanation. They hadn’t been in any kind of relationship. She’d drooled over him from afar, but he’d barely acknowledged her existence in high school. Even if he hadn’t gone off to start his Ivy League college career the day after graduation, he likely never would have looked at her again. Well, at least not until she could no longer hide the truth of their one-night stand from the world.
“I expected so much more from you, Harry,” she said sadly, the sting of what he’d done back then numbed slightly by the tequila.
His shoulders sagged a bit. “I know.”
“Why didn’t you ever write me back?” Her voice sounded hurt and pathetic. She was surprised that after so many years of being angry, there was still pain hiding beneath her fury. “I must have sent you a hundred letters.”
He creased his brow. “Letters? I didn’t get any letters.”
Kara searched his eyes.
He looked genuinely confused.
“I sent them to…” Her words faded. Suddenly the tequila-induced haze wasn’t so welcome. “Your mother said if I wrote to you…”
“My mother? I never got any letters.”
“But you sent money.”
Harry shook his head slightly. “What the hell are you talking about? Why would I send you money?”
She stared at him as realization started to weave its way through her oncoming buzz. He hadn’t responded to her letters because he hadn’t received her letters. And if he hadn’t received the letters, he hadn’t sent her money. And if he hadn’t sent her money, he hadn’t known that she needed it. Sighing, she let some of her decades-old anger slip. Her head spun, either from the alcohol or the blurry dots she was trying to mentally connect. Leaning onto the bar, she exhaled slowly. “They never told you, did they?”
“Who? Told me what? What are you talking about?”
Kara couldn’t speak. Her words wouldn’t form.
Someone wrapped an arm around Kara’s shoulder, startling her and making her gasp quietly. She turned and blinked several times at the man who had just slid next to her.
“Sorry to interrupt,” he said, “but I need to get home.” Leaning in, he kissed her head. “Congratulations on the opening, Mom. It was great.”
“Um…” She swallowed, desperate to find her voice. “Thank you, sweetheart.” She flicked her gaze at the man sitting next to her. The longer Harry looked at her son, the wider Harry’s eyes became.
Phil cast a disapproving glance at Harry then focused on his mother again. “Don’t forget that Jess is expecting you to make pancakes in the morning. You promised.”
“I haven’t forgotten.” Kara returned her attention to Harry. His jaw was slack and his cheeks had grown pale.
Phil nodded at Harry as if he were satisfied that he’d made the point that his mother didn’t need to be staying out all night and walked away. Harry watched him leave while Kara waved down the bartender and pointed at her glass. The tattooed kid hesitated, likely debating the ethics of giving her another shot. She pointed again, cocking a brow for emphasis, and he finally filled her glass.
“Kara…” Harry’s voice was breathless, like he’d been kicked in the gut. “Was…was that my…son?”
No. His mother definitely hadn’t given him the letters Kara had written. She lifted her shot, toasting him.
“Congratulations, Harry. It’s a boy.”
Harry couldn’t deny Phil was his if he tried. The picture on Kara’s phone might as well have been a picture of himself from twenty years ago. The man had Harry’s dark—almost black—hair and his dark brown eyes. He had the same oval face and long nose. Phil had Kara’s smile, though. Wide and inviting. Or at least that’s how Harry remembered it. She hadn’t exactly smiled at him since he had surprised her.
When he’d walked into the gallery and saw her, she looked as beautiful as she had back in high school. His heart had nearly exploded. Her long strawberry blond hair hung in waves down her back, and when she’d turned to him, he could easily make out the splatter of freckles across her nose he remembered from so many years ago. The deeper lines caressing her mouth reminded him how he’d once traced his thumbs over her cheeks before delving in for their first kiss. He’d seen that in a movie and had played it over and over in his mind, imagining Kara instead of Molly Ringwald.
If only he’d stuck around to give Kara the happy ending the movie had implied Molly’s character had gotten.
Almost thirty years may have passed, but he felt like he had instantly been transformed back into that awkward teenager who wanted nothing more than to profess his undying love and promise her forever—if only she’d want him, too. She never had. Whenever he’d smiled at her in the hallways at school, she’d always looked away. He’d tried talking to her several times in art class. She’d blown him off each time, muttering responses, too focused on her work to give him the time of day.
But he wasn’t that awkward teenager anymore. He was confident and successful. He took life by the balls and dragged it where he wanted it to go, not the other way around. Not anymore. So when he spotted her walking toward the bar, he had taken a breath and headed straight for her.
He expected her to be a little miffed by his disappearing act all those years ago, but he thought they’d talk it out and move on. He even had a little light of hope that she’d forgive him. He wanted to ask her to dinner, catch up on her life, find out if she was as fascinating to him now as she’d been all those years ago.
What he hadn’t expected was for his life to be turned on its ear.
He had a son. He was a father. A real father. Not a stepfather who had never been quite good enough for his ex-wife’s kids.
He had a kid. His own kid.
Not that Phil was a child anymore.
“I still can’t believe this,” he said.
While she ate pecan waffles and drank coffee, he stared at the picture. The sounds of her coffee cup and silverware clinked in the empty diner as they put together the pieces of how their parents had sealed their fates.
Kara’s parents had kicked her out without a second thought. She had run to Harry’s house, desperate for help. His mother had assured her all would be well. She fed Kara and tucked her away in Harry’s bedroom while discussing the issue with Harry’s father. Then, Elaine sent Kara away with false promises and never, not once in twenty-seven years, said so much as a word to Harrison about his child.
While Harry was in college getting the degree he’d been working toward practically since birth, Kara had lived in a community that not only supported, but embraced girls like her—single mothers with no one else in the world. They’d both lived lives that they seemed destined for—Harry with corporate friends and family and Kara with likeminded artsy types who embraced a bohemian lifestyle.
Harry had married who he was supposed to, and Kara had moved from place to place with Phil in tow. She’d lived all along the west coast, only settling in Seattle after Phil had asked for help raising his daughter. Harry had returned to Iowa after college and took over his father’s marketing firm. Kara hadn’t set foot in her home state since the day she left it.
“Phil?” he asked. “Why Phil?”
Harry wasn’t sure if her clipped tone was from sarcasm or frustration or something in between—she never had been black and white like that—but her meaning was clear. He had no business questioning decisions she’d had to make without him.
He lowered her phone. He didn’t blame her for being angry, but he couldn’t help that his mother had deceived him.
If anyone other than their respective parents knew that Phil existed, they had kept it a very tightlipped secret. In all the years since Harry had come home from college, his mother never even hinted that she had a grandson. How many times had he told her how disappointed he was that his ex-wife hadn’t wanted children with him? How many times had he said he wanted a family of his own? Elaine could have given him the one thing he’d been missing all his adult life. Instead, she has stolen his one chance to be a father.
He was angry, too, damn it.
He clenched his jaw. “I was robbed of my son as much as he was of a father. I would have stood by you, Kara.”
She narrowed her eyes. “The only standing by me you ever did, Harrison, was to sneak out while I was sleeping.”
“I’m not proud of that, but if I’d known about our son, I would have been there.”
She looked out the window at the deserted street. “Your mother was so sweet when I went to her. So understanding. She let me stay at your house that night. The next morning she fixed me breakfast. She said she’d talked to you and you wanted to finish school, which was the most logical thing because you couldn’t support a family without a job. She said she’d help me out until you could. I was so relieved. I remember wishing I knew her well enough to hug her because I’d been so scared she’d turn me away, too. And then she put me on a bus, and I never heard from her again. Other than receiving a check once a month.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
She blinked but the sheen of unshed tears in her eyes caught the light as she focused on him again. “I sent you letters every week. Stupid, stupid letters, thinking you were reading them. That you cared about us. But you never responded. Finally, I stopped writing. It took five years,” she said with a bitter laugh, “but I finally caught on that you weren’t coming for us. Even so, I felt obligated to let you know where we were. Every time we moved, I’d send a note with nothing but an address inside. I kept you…your mother up to date on our whereabouts until about seven years ago.”
“What happened seven years ago?”
She hesitated, as if she didn’t want to share the next bit of information. “Phil became a father himself. I figured at that point, if you hadn’t opted to be a part of our life, I wasn’t going to invite you to be a part of hers.”
Harry’s heart leaped in his chest, and he sat a bit taller. “I’m a grandpa?”
Kara actually smiled, and it was as dazzling as he remembered. “Her name is Jessica. Scroll through the photos. There are plenty on there. She, um…”
Harry paused on a picture and his smile dropped a bit. The girl had Phil’s dark hair and dark brown eyes; her eyes, however, were set wide apart and slanted, and her face was flat and broad.
“She has Down syndrome,” Kara said.
Harry stared at the photo. The girl wore a long sundress and yellow rain boots. A pink bandanna kept her braids away from her face as she held up dirty hands. He looked at the next photo and the one after that. Jessica was smiling in all of them. Not just smiling, beaming.
“Is she always this happy?”
“No.” Kara laughed. “She’s as moody as any other seven-year-old girl. But I don’t take pictures of sulking.”
Harry chuckled. “She’s beautiful.” He looked up and saw doubt playing on Kara’s face. “She’s beautiful,” he said more firmly.
“Yes, she is,” she whispered. “Do you, um… Do you remember what song was playing when we were together?”
He creased his brow as he thought back. It may have been a lifetime ago, but he still had a clear memory of that night. He’d wanted to be alone with her, to tell her what he’d been wanting to say for two years—that he thought she was amazing. Wonderful. That he wished he’d been braver and had asked her out. That he was sorry he’d blown their high school years being a chicken shit.
While everyone else was getting drunk, he’d taken her hand and led her upstairs so they could talk. It turned out the only empty room they could find was Shannon Blake’s bedroom. He hadn’t planned to have sex with Kara that night, but before he could work up the nerve to say anything, her curious gray eyes lured him in. He kissed her—his first real kiss. And then somehow they were on the bed, and he was pulling at her clothes. In true virgin nerd fashion, he was inside her and both of their first sexual experiences ended before they even knew what they were doing. Their time together couldn’t have lasted more than five minutes, but being with Kara had changed everything for him. From that moment forward, every woman in his life was judged on his own personal Kara scale. And none of them had ever measured up to the memory he’d cherished, and probably embellished, over the years.
He could remember that. All of that. But he couldn’t recall any music playing.
“‘One More Night,’” she said. “Phil Collins.”
Harry stared at her for a moment before he finally realized why she was telling him this. He had asked why she’d named his son Phil. “You named our son after the artist singing the song he was conceived to?”
She shrugged. “I had asked for permission to name him after you, but you didn’t answer my letter. I didn’t want to name him after my father; he’d disowned me. I was at a loss. Phil was all I had.”
“What’s his middle name?”
Kara gawked as if he’d just asked the dumbest question she’d ever heard. “Collins.”
He let her admission process for a moment before he laughed outright. She threw a wadded up napkin at him.
“I’m sorry, but…Phil Collins Canton?”
“Martinson,” she corrected. “He has my name.”
His smile faded at the sting in his heart. His only son didn’t have his name? But why would he? Harry hadn’t been there. He hadn’t married her. He hadn’t raised his son. “Right. Of course he has your name.”
Tension rolled between them for a moment before she grinned. “If you’d been able to figure out how to get me out of my clothes faster, I would have had to name him Starship.”
Harry laughed, but it wasn’t as heartfelt. “That’s better than calling him Mr. Mister, I suppose.”
“Oh, I considered it.”
He chuckled as he scanned the diner, not really seeing the booths and bored waitresses. He couldn’t fully grasp how the night had turned out like this. The one girl he’d never been able to get out of his head was sitting across from him, and she was the mother of his child.
“You said you’ve been looking for me for twenty-seven years.” He scoffed. “You couldn’t have looked very hard, Kara. I moved home after I graduated college. I never left. I’m on social media. I own a business. I’m not exactly living under a rock. And my mother still lives in the same house. If you sent me letters back then, you knew how to find me.”
“Yeah. ‘Looking’ might have been a stretch. Like I said, I stopped writing to you on Phil’s fifth birthday. I always kept you—or so I thought—up to date on where we were living. I figured if you were so inclined, you’d reach out to us.”
Harry frowned. “I know it doesn’t mean anything now, but I would have been there. I would have given up everything to be there.”
“I guess your mother knew that, huh?”
He nodded. “I guess.”
“I’ve never been back.” She focused on her coffee mug, but before she looked away he glimpsed the hurt she must have felt at being shunned by her family. “Not for class reunions or birthdays or Christmas. I don’t even know if my parents are still alive. I’ve thought about contacting them, but…what would I say? What could they say? Sorry doesn’t cover it. And I don’t know if I could forgive them. Every time I think about how they threw me out, I just get so angry. I could never be so cold to Phil.”
Guilt tugged at him. She shouldn’t have had to face that alone.
“The last time I saw my father, he was shutting the door behind him after shoving me out. He told me I was never welcome in his home again.” She worked her lip between her teeth as she blinked rapidly. The sheen of tears returned. “I sat on the swing for what seemed like hours, thinking they’d calm down and let me back in, but they didn’t. I didn’t know where else to go. I didn’t exactly have friends back then. So I went to the closest phone booth and looked up your address. Thankfully you were named after your father. It made narrowing down which Canton household to go to much easier.”
Harry lowered his face as her voice quivered. He figured these were memories she didn’t dredge up too often. “This place that my mother sent you. What was it like?”
“It was nice, actually. I don’t think she could have found a better place. There were women there who had been through similar situations. When Phil was born, they taught me how to change diapers and nurse him and all those things that…that my mother should have shown me. They taught me how to garden and sew and barter for the things I couldn’t make. We left there when Phil was five and landed in another place like that. It kind of started a trend. I moved a lot, learning and growing. Phil resents not having a regular childhood, but we saw so much and did so much. I think he’ll appreciate it someday.”
“I bet you were—are—a great mother.”
She scoffed, and Harry thought the pain in her eyes deepened. “He’s like you, Harry. He’s just like you. He needed a stability that I couldn’t provide for him. I couldn’t stand to be in one place for too long. I still can’t. Whenever roots start to grow, I get twitchy. I need to keep moving. I’ve only stayed in Seattle this long because of Jess.”
“Running,” he offered.
She looked offended, but he suspected he was more right than wrong. She was still hurting from her parents’ rejection. She was still angry over raising a son on her own. She was still feeling alone, even if she had Phil and Jessica.
“It’s called running,” he said. “And I hope you’ll stop now, Kara.”
She held his gaze. “But I so enjoy it, Harry.” She responded with the sarcastic bite she’d had since he’d met her.
He was tempted to call her on it, but they had more pressing matters to discuss. “I’d like to meet them. My son and my granddaughter.”
She frowned and drew a slow breath. “Well, I’m sure they’d like to meet you, too.”
The Road Leads Back is available at these retailers: