Kevin held Evangeline's hand as they waited for the results of the test. The private waiting area kept them locked away in solitude. Layla had left them to check on Emerest. Evangeline hoped to meet her young niece very soon. With everything so tense between them, she hadn't pressed the issue with Layla. In time, maybe the younger woman would realize that Evangeline no longer harbored any ill will toward her.
"It shouldn't be much longer now," Kevin said quietly. "How are you holding up?"
"I've had better days." She smiled as he kissed her hand. "You're spoiling me, Buchanan."
"It's second nature. I'd give you the world if I could."
The words lodged in her throat. She couldn't bear to say them out loud. It wasn't fair to Kevin. He had no control over miracles that could save the little baby's life.
"I know." He released her hand to wrap his arm around her shoulders. "I wish for it, too."
The mournful tone of his voice captured her attention. Not too long ago, he learned the truth about his infant son. "Being here is bringing back memories, isn't it?"
"About Ace?" He cleared his throat. "I'll always love him, but he's not mine. He's with people who care about him. Don't worry about me. Save your prayers for Emerest."
"You are always the strong protector. It's okay to admit to needing someone to lean on," she said softly. "Believe me, I know. What did you tell me once? About tough girls crying?"
"I never really talk about Ace," he said. "No one ever mentions him so I... I just keep those thoughts to myself. It's no slight against you."
"You don't have to hide your sadness and disappointment from me. Not ever. I couldn't bear it."
He nodded once. "If I do, it's not intentional. What we have is different for me. I don't want to mess things up. I know you're still processing what happened with John. I'm trying so hard to give you the time and space you need—"
"I told you before that John is in the past."
"The past has a nasty way of resurrecting itself at the oddest moments."
"What would you do if Kelly suddenly came back into your life? Would you run to her?"
"More like away from her," he said with a deep chuckle. "And then I'd call the police."
"Kevin, I'm being serious. What if she gets the help she needs and becomes a whole person and when she's released, she comes looking for you, hoping to make amends?"
He frowned. "I'm not at the forgiveness stage, yet, Evangeline. She lied to me. She pretended someone else's baby was ours and then she blamed me for it. I'm no saint, but I'm not a monster either. The state of our marriage wasn't contingent on how many heirs we produced. Yes, I wanted children with her, but not like that. For awhile, I almost believed her accusations about me."
"She was grasping at straws. People stuck in an abyss like that do that," she said.
"You wouldn't. I've been with you every day since... Never once have you pointed the finger at John for his hesitation. You're a candidate for sainthood." He smiled and kissed her cheek.
She shook her head. "No, I'm not. Seeing John's indecisiveness hurt. It's something I'll never forget even though I'm trying so hard to forgive him."
"No!" She nudged his ribs. "Not sainthood. Self-preservation. Hating him could consume my life and make me ignore what's good about it. That moment forced me to realize that John didn't love me. It was a harsh way to learn that lesson, but I learned it. And I'm moving on."
"I'm proud of you."
She smiled. "I'm proud of both of us. Thank you so much for bringing Layla and me here. Thank you for looking into her background and getting to the heart of her arrival. Deep down, I think she was afraid to ask me. She was scared I'd reject her, too."
"That's because she doesn't know you and know what a good soul you have."
She blushed. "Buchanan, I swear you're great for my ego."
"I'm just telling it like it is."
Layla and Emerest's primary physician, Dr. Simone Hardy entered the room. The devastated look on Layla's face broke Evangeline's heart. She moved from Kevin's comforting touch to stand by her sister's side.
"I wasn't a match," she said in hoarse voice.
Layla shook her head. "No."
"What else can we do?" Kevin joined them in the center of the room.
"There's nothing else you can do," Layla said. "Evangeline was my last hope."
"What about Uncle Clay or Henry?"
"They won't do it," Layla said.
Evangeline frowned. "Have you asked them?"
"I don't have to." Layla ran a hand through her hair. Her shoulders slumped and she looked ready to fall.
Evangeline stood poised, ready to catch her sister if Layla's knees weakened. Tears blurred Evangeline's vision. "There has to be something or someone else who can be tested."
"What about Emerest's father?" Kevin asked.
Layla's jaw tightened. She turned her back to them as she said, "I don't know who he is, and Emerest's illness is my punishment for being wild and reckless."
Evangeline sighed. She couldn't imagine the life Layla led, but she wouldn't dare pass judgment. "This is not your fault."
"Yes, it is."
"Does the match have to come from a blood relative?" Kevin asked. "If not, test me."
"Before you test him, you should give me a try." Duke's sudden appearance shocked Evangeline to the core.
"What are you doing here?" Kevin asked.
Duke headed straight to Layla. He clasped her hands when she tried to move away from him. "It's possible, isn't it? I could be Emerest's father, couldn't I?"
"I think so, but I don't know. God, I wish I knew." She broke into sobs.
He pulled her into his arms. "Stop blaming yourself. You weren't the only one who was reckless." He directed his attention to the doctor. "How soon can you test me?"
"We can do it right now," Dr. Hardy said. "Follow me."
Duke stroked Layla's back before he released her and followed the doctor from the waiting room. Evangeline looked at Kevin. The stunned look on his face mirrored what she felt. She didn't know what to say, but the tense silence demanded soothing words.
"You think I'm a slut," she said in choked whisper. "I never did anything for money so at least I'm clear of being a whore. Don't hold anything back. There's nothing you can say that's worse than what I already think of myself. Emerest doesn't deserve this."
"Neither do you." Evangeline patted her shoulder. "Let's sit for awhile."
"Would either of you like coffee or water or something?" Kevin asked.
Layla shook her head. Evangeline said, "Nothing for me. Thanks."
"I'll be right back."
After he left, Layla's mouth twisted into a faint smile. "I bet he's dying over the thought of being a grandfather to my child."
"Kevin's in shock."
"Shock." Layla released curt laugh.
"Not in a bad way. He didn't know that you and Duke know each other. He's allowed to be surprised."
"You're so diplomatic."
"That may be an oversimplification of who I am," Evangeline replied. "Let's make a deal. I won't pass judgment on you and you won't pass judgment on me. Can we do that?"
"Old habits die hard, but I'll try."
They shared a few moments of companionable silence. Kevin returned. Apparently aware of Evangeline need to get to know her sister, he sat on the other side of the room. Several times, he caught Evangeline's eye and smiled. She appreciated his presence. Just seeing him there gave her peace.
"I bet you're wondering where my mother is," Layla said.
"Lisa and Nicole couldn't be further apart in temperament or maternal devotion." Layla folded her arms around herself. "I don't know if she ever loved our father. He was her ticket to security and I was supposed to cinch the deal. Unfortunately for her, it didn't work out that way."
"Where is she now?"
Layla shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine. Once I hit eighteen, she said her duties were over. I haven't seen her since."
"How did you survive?" Evangeline couldn't imagine not having the support of her family. Maybe if she had known about Layla earlier, the younger woman's life would have been much different.
"I did the best I could. Clifton set up a savings account that Nicole couldn't touch. Clay has dropped a few bills my way to guarantee that I stay as far away as possible. I won't pretend to be an angel. I took the money. What I didn't waste having fun, I used for acting classes."
"You're an actress."
Layla smiled. "I'm a little bit of everything."
"Have you had much success?"
"A few months before Emerest's diagnosis, I got a national commercial. It's helped to take care of her medical expenses."
"You don't have to worry about that now," Evangeline said.
Layla stiffened. "I don't want your charity."
"I'm not offering charity. It's an investment in my niece's future."
- - -
Duke anticipated his father cornering him as soon as he returned to the waiting room. "Dad, I know what you're going to say—"
"How can you when I don't know myself?" Kevin asked. "I don't know what to say. I've been sitting there trying to think of the right words, but I keep drawing a blank. Why didn't you tell me?"
"About Layla?" Duke shrugged. He glanced across the room at the two sisters. They seemed to be getting along and he was glad about that. "I knew you didn't like her so I didn't see the point."
"I thought we were doing better than that."
"It's complicated, Dad." Duke swallowed hard. "We had one night together. How do you explain a one nighter to your father?"
"Were you drunk?"
"No!" Duke ran a hand through his hair. This was the conversation he dreaded. He sighed. "There was a party. We clicked."
"Why didn't you pursue a relationship?"
"Because when I woke up the next morning, she was gone. I asked around, but her friends weren't talking. In the end, I chalked it up to an incredible experience. When I opened the door and saw her standing on the other side, I thought a miracle had happened. Now, I'm hoping for another one."
Kevin nodded. "Do you want to be the father of her baby?"
"Yes. I haven't even met her, but I want that more than I've ever wanted anything in my life."
The door to the waiting room creaked open. Everyone turned their attention to Dr. Hardy who stood there. "I have the results."
Duke stood. "Am I a match?"