Badd to the bone, p.10
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       Badd to the Bone, p.10

         Part #3 of Badd Brothers series by Jasinda Wilder
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  "How generous of you," Mom said, sarcasm dripping from her tone.

  "We'll come by tomorrow. Probably around midmorning."

  "Very well, then."

  I hugged Tab and Hayley, waved at Mom, and then we left the cemetery. I felt Mom's gaze on me as I walked away. I wondered if she suspected what our conversation was going be about, and if she was afraid of it. But I didn't really care--this was going to be about me.

  The next morning, after a late breakfast, Brock drove me to my parents' house--Mom's house, I suppose it was now. She answered my knock, and admitted us without a word. Tab and Hayley were both gone, which was a good thing, as this didn't really concern them. Mom was still in her bathrobe, wearing her slippers, cat's eye glasses on her nose rather than the contacts she usually wore; the fact that she was still undressed at nearly noon was a testament to her grief, as Mom was always fully dressed with makeup on and her hair immaculate by seven in the morning, no matter what, even on Saturdays. And she'd certainly never have let a complete stranger see her in such a state of undress.

  After letting us in, Mom led us into the living room, and then left to go a make a pot of tea.

  The house was much the same as it had always been: a single-story ranch, a little dated, low ceilings, a compartmented floor plan. The living room was the brightest room in the house, with a picture window taking up much of the front wall of the room, admitting sunlight. There was a lot of religious iconography on the walls, as one might expect from the home of a Catholic deacon, a painting of what I always thought of as Pansy White Jesus, a lot of crucifixes, some half-burned Yankee Candles, a shelf full of thick tomes of Biblical analysis texts and a few select fiction titles, and a new flat screen TV on the ancient wooden TV stand from my own childhood. The couch was the same scratchy cloth in an ugly blue-green paisley, with a mismatched love seat and a truly ancient La-Z-Boy recliner, Dad's favorite spot to sit and read and drink tea.

  Brock and I sat on the love seat, and when Mom returned, she poured the tea and sat down opposite us on the couch. She tucked her legs beneath her on the couch, and wrapped a fleece throw blanket over herself, then cupped her huge mug of tea in both hands. "So. You have something you want to talk about?"

  I took a moment to gather my thoughts. "I don't really know how to ease into this, or how to ask nicely, so I'm just going to come right out with it." I hesitated, sucking in a deep breath, and then let it out. "Am I the biological daughter of Connor Collins?"

  Mom's eyes slid closed slowly, and she let her mug rest on her knee, covering her mouth with her palm. "Claire, I--I..."

  "Am I?"

  "That's not a simple question, Claire."

  "Actually, it kind of is. There's a one-word answer, here--yes or no."

  Mom opened her eyes and looked at me, and her eyes were full of tears. "No. You're not his biological child."

  "But Tab and Hayley are."

  Mom nodded. "Yes."

  I felt a bizarre and complicated tangle of emotions rippling and roiling inside me. Relief, hurt, confusion, and anger were chief among the emotions, but it was all mixed up together. "Were you ever going to tell me?"

  "No."

  "So you were just going to let me go through my whole life never knowing the truth?"

  "Your father raised you, Claire. He loved you, he--"

  "Mom, come on!" I shouted. "He did not fucking love me. He didn't. He never told me he loved me. Not once. He rarely hugged me. He was never kind or sweet or loving with me, not like he was with Tab and Hayley. I was a burden to him."

  "Your father loved you, Claire," Mom insisted.

  "He...did...not," I snarled. "There is absolutely no reason for me to think that he did. You don't love someone and then do to me what you two did to me."

  Mom sobbed, a short choking sound. "Claire, that's not fair, we--"

  "Not fair? Not fair? I nearly committed suicide because of what you and--and Connor did to me. If it wasn't for an Army recruiter, I would have killed myself. It's no thanks to you or him that I'm alive right now, let alone even close to stable or well-adjusted. Which, I'm not, really, truth be told. I'm not stable. I'm not well-adjusted. I'm fucked up, Mom--I'm a mess."

  Mom shuddered, and had to set aside her tea so she could wipe at her face. "You don't understand, Claire."

  "No, you're right, I don't. How about you enlighten me, then?"

  Brock held my hand, sitting as close to me as he could, and remained silent, a strong support beside me. I couldn't have handled this conversation with Mom without him next to me, I knew that much.

  "Your father and I married very young. Eighteen, and barely out of school. We'd dated for only a brief time before we married, and it was against the wishes of both of our parents." Mom let out a slow, thoughtful breath, staring into space. "We barely knew each other, but we knew we loved each other. Or...that's what we thought, anyway. Your father--Connor, he...he wanted to go to seminary, and so I went with him."

  "I thought you met at sixteen or something?"

  "Oh, well yes, sort of. We met at sixteen, but only started properly seeing each other a few months before he started his post-primary schooling. We got married just before we moved for him to go to seminary college." Another pause. "Those were long, lonely years, while Connor was at seminary. I was so young, and I'd never been away from my family and now suddenly I was in a different city, alone, with little to do. I had no friends, I wasn't in school, and Connor was gone all the time, at his classes. I made the best of it I could, I suppose. I found a job at a bakery, joined a ladies group...anything to pass the time and not feel so alone."

  "Spare me the Hallmark sob story, Mom," I sniped.

  Brock squeezed my hand. "Let her tell the story her way, Claire."

  "Thank you, Brock." She managed to not make that sound snarky, but I could tell it took effort. "It is relevant, I promise. I began to doubt whether I'd done the right thing in marrying Connor. I had no purpose. You don't understand, growing up here in America and in this generation as you have, since things are so different...but then, in Ireland? There were fewer options."

  "I can see how that would be difficult," I said.

  "It was...well, hellish, really. I barely saw my husband, and when I did it was in passing, so to speak. He would come home to sleep, to eat, and then go back to school. I was a young woman, and I had--desires, to put it bluntly. And he didn't seem interested. We'd been barely able to keep our hands off each other up until that point, and I'm sure you don't really want to hear this, but it's relevant, so hear it you shall. He stopped touching me, in basically every way.

  "It took the loneliness to a new level, especially because then, at that time of my life, I didn't exactly share his faith." She paused, then, and took a sip of her tea, then resumed her story. "Three years. The prime of my youth, and it was spent mostly alone, working at a bakery, and playing bridge with a bunch of old matrons and mothers. I had no children, because Connor was too busy with school and we weren't in a financial position to start a family. I wanted children, desperately, just so I wouldn't be alone, so I'd have some purpose in my life, but he refused, and we still rarely...came together...in that way. I think I went a little crazy, to be honest."

  "I guess I can see where this is going."

  "I suppose you might, at that." She let out another sigh. "There was a young man who came by the bakery regularly. He was handsome, and he seemed to find me attractive. It was nothing but smiles at each other as I handed him his bread in the morning, but it felt like...the attention I so desperately needed. Three years, and all I ever did was smile at Brennan. And then one day I was leaving the bakery after it closed. Late in the evening, it was, and I knew Connor wouldn't be home for hours yet, studying in the library most like.

  "I walked home, not really hurrying. I very literally ran into Brennan, not far from home. He was leaving a pub, and I wasn't really paying attention, and we collided. It was...one of those moments. You know? A moment where you know you're face
d with a choice, and you know what's right, but that's not what you want, and what you want is just...far too strong? It was...well, you said it yourself--it was a moment from a Hallmark movie.

  "I collided with him and ended up with his arms around me, looking up at him, and he looked down at me like he'd never seen anyone so beautiful, and I hadn't felt wanted like that in so, so long. I knew I was supposed to pull away and go back home, but I didn't. Brennan lived above the pub...we'd collided right outside his door. He pulled me into the stairwell and he kissed me, and...I couldn't stop, after that. If it's the truth you want, then I'll tell you I didn't even try to stop. Even with Connor I'd never felt such all-consuming...passion. Like a fire I couldn't put out, a fire that only burned hotter no matter what I did."

  Mom stared into nothingness, probably seeing Brennan, seeing that moment.

  "I slept with him, right there on the stairs."

  I boggled. "Holy shit, Mom."

  She blinked, glanced at me. "This is the first I've spoken of this since it happened."

  "Did Dad know? Did he ever find out what happened?"

  Mom dipped her head to one side. "It wasn't just the once, Claire. I had an affair with Brennan for over a year. He knew I was married--it was the first thing I said to him, after that first time."

  "Holy shit." It was the only thought running through my head--holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.

  "It all came to a rather abrupt end. Connor had finished his schoolwork for the day, and since he was nearly done with his degree, he decided to come home earlier than usual. Four years, and he'd never once come home early. I don't know what would have happened, had he not come home early that day. Honestly, I think about it sometimes, and I wonder."

  "Was it just sex, with Brennan?" I asked.

  Mom took a sip of tea, and shook her head. "No. It was more. I cared for him. I was thinking of leaving Connor, actually." She seemed startled, somehow. "I don't think I've ever said that before, right out loud. I was thinking of leaving Connor to be with Brennan. He took care of me. Gave me the attention and affection I needed, seemed to genuinely enjoy my company. We both knew what we were doing was wrong, but I saw Connor so rarely it was almost like he didn't exist. I'd leave the bakery, go to Brennan's flat, and we'd...you know. We'd eat together, talk, read books, listen to the radio. I'd go home around midnight and go to bed, and Connor would come home eventually and sleep, but he'd wake up and eat and leave for school before I woke again. I saw him on the weekends, but even then he'd often scarper off to the library for more studying. And I never understood it--why was religion so important to him? Why it was more important than me? I...with Brennan...I mattered. He liked me. He listened to me."

  "And then Dad came home early."

  She nodded. "He saw me leaving the bakery, which was on the way from the university to our flat. He followed me, but didn't announce himself or catch up. I don't know why, maybe he was thinking to surprise me or something. Well, instead of going to our flat, of course, I went into Brennan's. Connor followed me in, and caught Brennan and I in the act."

  "Damn. That had to have been intense."

  Mom laughed, strangely. "Actually, no. He just stood there staring at us, naked in Brennan's bed, and he didn't say a word. We stared back for a moment, too surprised to do anything else, really, and then Connor just turned around and walked out. I was rather relieved, actually."

  "So you went after him?"

  Mom didn't look at me, but gazed into her tea. "No. I was planning to leave Connor, remember? I stayed with Brennan."

  "Damn. That's kind of cold."

  "Perhaps. But I thought it was over. Why would I want to go back to him, and why would he want me back?"

  "So what actually happened?"

  "Brennan..." She let out a shuddery breath. "Brennan was involved with the IRA. I don't suppose you know much about that, but...well, it was a violent time. Brennan had ties to the IRA, family and friends who were very active in the movement. And he, um...he told me had to take a trip. Down to Dublin, he said. For business. And he never came back. He was involved in a bombing in London, and was killed."

  "Wait, go back. This was after Dad found out?"

  Mom nodded. "I stayed with Brennan until he left for London. Connor just...he was going to let me go, I guess. Then, about two months later, Brennan left for his trip, and never came back. While he was gone, I discovered I was pregnant. I was alone again, and I had no idea when Brennan was going to be home again. This was before cell phones, obviously, so I had no way of contacting him."

  "Oh my god."

  "Indeed, yes. It was...very difficult. I stayed in Brennan's flat, alone, for days. I went to work, came back, went to work, came back...and I heard nothing. A week passed, and I began to feel afraid he wasn't coming home. Had he left me? I didn't think he would have done that, not when we were talking about me trying to get a divorce so we could be together more openly.

  "Then, one day, I was at work. A man entered the bakery, and handed me a letter. It was from Brennan. He'd been fatally wounded in the bombing, but hadn't died immediately. He wrote me a letter. He knew he was dying, and he..." She shuddered, sniffed. "He told me he loved me, and that he was sorry it had happened this way, that he wasn't leaving me intentionally. So I was pregnant with another man's baby and that man was dead, and I hadn't seen my legal husband in over two months, almost three at that point."

  "Oh, Mom."

  "I went back to our flat, the one I'd shared with Connor. I..." She laughed. "I actually knocked on the door. I didn't know what else to do, or where else to go. Connor let me in, and I told him everything. That Brennan was dead, and that I was pregnant with Brennan's baby."

  "And he took you back? Dad--Connor took you back?"

  She nodded. "He said it was his duty to forgive me, and so he would. I made it very clear why I'd had the affair, and told him if he was going take me back, that if we were going to do this, then he couldn't just abandon me again."

  "You cheated on him, went back to him with another man's baby inside you, and you had the audacity to make demands of him?" I laughed. "That took some serious confidence."

  "I felt justified in what I'd done. He had, for all intents and purposes, totally abandoned me. It wasn't right, what I did, I'm not saying that--it wasn't, it was wrong, it was a sin, and one I've struggled with every day of my life. But I had good reasons for doing it."

  "So you and Dad got back together, and you had me."

  Mom nodded. "It wasn't easy. We had to learn how to be together all over again, on top of getting past my affair with Brennan and being pregnant." She paused a moment, drank more tea. "You were born in Belfast, and then six months later, Connor received an opportunity to come here, to America."

  I took a moment to absorb all that. "Tell me about Brennan."

  "Why?" Mom asked. "He's gone."

  "I'm just curious."

  She didn't answer for a while. "He was...very kind. But he had an edge to him. I only rarely saw it, since most of the time we spent together was at his flat. But a few times we'd pop down to the pub for a drink, and I caught a glimpse of...another side to him.

  "You look a lot like him, actually. He wasn't a large or intimidating man, but he had a lot of presence. He had blond hair and dark eyes, and he was very, very attractive. I think you're much like him in many ways, really. He never showed it to me, but he had a temper. Sometimes he'd have black eyes or bruises from fighting, but with me he was never anything but gentle and kind." She stared off into space, fiddling with her tea. "He was...how do I put this? He was a man of insatiable appetites."

  I couldn't help laughing. "Well I certainly got that from him."

  Mom blushed, but looked directly at me. "And how do you know you don't get it from me, too? He wasn't the only one with an appetite that wasn't easily sated, you know."

  "Was Connor that way too?" I asked.

  Mom looked away, but shook her head. "Oh, no. Not really."

  "You were n
ever satisfied with him, were you? With Connor, I mean."

  Mom frowned. "I don't see how that's any of your business, Claire. I loved Connor with all my heart."

  "I know, Mom. I've never doubted that." I hesitated, and then continued. "It's him I doubt. Connor. I don't look like him at all, and now I know why. But I'm also not...I'm not like him in any way. And he never loved me, so this just...it explains it."

  "He tried, Claire," Mom said, through tears. "He tried. He was there the day you were born. He signed the birth certificate. He was there when you said your first word and took your first step. He taught you to ride a bike, gave you your first communion. He...he tried. He tried."

  "It wasn't enough, Mom," I said. "I never received equal treatment from him. Everything I did was wrong, and nothing was ever good enough. I grew up wondering what was wrong with me, why my daddy didn't love me. I knew it from an early age, Mom. I think I was...nine, or ten maybe when I first really realized that Dad--that Connor--didn't love me. I'd gotten straight As, the best grades I'd ever gotten, and he barely noticed." I mimicked Dad's voice. "'Good job, Claire. Do better next marking period.' Nothing was below a ninety-three percent, and yet it wasn't good enough. Tab got worse grades than me, and you guys took her out for ice cream to celebrate. You took Hayley with you, but me--you made me stay home and study."

  Mom cried, and didn't wipe away the tears. "He was never able to look at you without seeing Brennan. It was a reminder of his failure as a husband, and my failure as a wife. You were a constant reminder that I'd sought solace and companionship in the arms of another man. We couldn't just forget and put it behind us, because you were always there, reminding us."

  "But that wasn't my fault!" I shouted. "I didn't do anything wrong! I was a child, a little girl who just wanted her mommy and daddy to love her. But you didn't, and I could never figure out what was wrong with me that made my parents hate me but love my sisters. They could do no wrong, and I could do no right."

  She looked at me then, tears shining in her eyes and dripping down her face. "I'm sorry, Claire."

  I stood up. "Yeah, well...being sorry doesn't give me my childhood back." I tried to think of something else to say, but couldn't. "But thanks for telling me. It makes sense of everything I've never been able to figure out my whole life."

 
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