“We’ll turn yourcloset into a nursery and open up the bedroom next to yours for you to use as an office and additional storage,” Elizabeth’s mother announced. “We can pick out baby furniture whenever you’re ready.”
The Bensons were having breakfast in the sunroom off the kitchen while planning their day. Gusts of rain lashed the glass panels. Flashes of lightning firebombed the bleak sky. Rumbles of thunder left the walls quaking. Elizabeth loved a good storm. Outside, chaos reigned. Inside, the sunroom was tidy and cozy and safe.
She dusted toast crumbs off her fingers and onto the clear crystal plate and considered the significance of her mother’s words. The bedroom next to hers had once been Marianne’s. It wasn’t a shrine, all of her sister’s belongings had been removed and the furniture replaced, but neither had it been occupied since her death. That her mother planned on letting it go was a major step forward and so Elizabeth picked her answer with care.
“My being here is only temporary,” she reminded her gently.
Meredith Benson patted her daughter’s hand. The faraway cast to her eyes suggested she was sorting through color palettes, not listening. “Of course, sweetheart. We know that. But there’s no harm in us making room for you when you and the baby stay over on holidays, is there?”
Absolutely no harm at all. Elizabeth hadn’t seen her parents this happy or excited or animated in years and seeing it now warmed her heart.
“Of course not. Thank you for thinking of it,” she said.
They’d been wonderful ever since she broke the news that they were going to be grandparents. Their enthusiasm hadn’t spilled over into helping her find a place of her own, but she’d already called her father’s office and his executive assistant was on it.
They hadn’t been pleased when they’d learned who the baby’s father was, though. She’d had to do a lot of fast talking to keep Theo Benson from boarding the next flight to Montana in order to“set Ryan O’Connell straight as to what a man’s responsibilities are.”She didn’t want her father to hate him, but sharing his confidences wasn’t her right, so she’d settled on,“It’s complicated,”as an explanation for where their relationship stood at the moment.
“The hell it’s complicated,”her father fired back.“The sonofabitch was your boss.”
The ring of the doorbell cut through the roar of the storm, startling Elizabeth out of her thoughts.
Her father set his napkin down and started to rise. “Who could that be on a morning like this? Anyone expecting a delivery?”
“I’ll get it,” she said, waving him into his chair. “Finish your breakfast. I’m done with mine.” Dry toast was still the best she could manage.
The doorbell pealed again, escalating to a persistent buzz as its assailant leaned into it. Whoever it was, they were impatient. A seed of hope took root in her chest.
She quickened her steps and hurried through the foyer. When she answered the door, the seed sprouted roots. Her heart tripped over its own feet in excitement.
Ryan’s presence in the portico was heralded by a deep roll of thunder and accompanying flash of the sky. Rain dripped from the brim of his hat. He had on the same long, oilskin duster he wore herding cattle, and he’d paired it with a Stetson, denim jeans, and a scuffed pair of cowboy boots—not an outfit one saw too many men wearing on the streets of Chicago. He couldn’t screamcowboywith a bullhorn any louder.
Dark eyes soaked up every detail of her appearance in return, from the messy bun and lack of makeup, right down to the black sweatshirt and leggings and felt slippers. His mouth clenched at the corners.
“And you thought a little Montana downpour was an extreme weather event,” he said, typically foregoing any displays of affection.
But she saw what he held bottled up in his eyes.
“I’m so happy to see you,” she began, but his eyes had drifted over her head to the far worse dark force of nature looming behind her.
“You must be Ryan O’Connell.” Her father’s tone was as cold and unwelcoming as she’d ever heard it. “Come in.”
Unfortunately, Ryan managed to channel his grandfather at the worst possible time. “I’d prefer to speak with Elizabeth alone,” he said, dismissing her father, a catastrophic mistake if he’d come here to make peace.Great going, Heathcliff.“Come for a drive with me,” he said to her.
No one dismissed Theo Benson, particularly in his own house. The storm had nothing on what was about to occur. “While I’d prefer you not speak to my daughter at all, I accept that you’re the father of her child and you have legal rights.”Should you ever dare try to enforce them, his caustic tone added, and wasn’t this going well. “Let’s take this opportunity to get a custody agreement on paper before the baby is born.Come in.”
“I’ll sign anything she wants. First, I’d like to speak to her in private.” Ryan didn’t take his eyes off Elizabeth. “Come with me,” he said softly.
“The streets are a mess.” Her father stared pointedly at the pellets of rain bouncing a foot off the walkway. “The safety of my daughter and grandchild might not mean much to you, but they’re of the utmost importance to her mother and me.”
“That’s unfair,” Elizabeth said, frowning at him.
“I’ll take care of her.” Ryan’s attention reverted to her, the hardness in his eyes cracking. “Please.”
Hope bounced around in her chest. She’d half-expected a letter from his lawyer, outlining his obligations in impartial detail. Instead, he’d come here, himself.