Reckless Secrets

By: Gina Robinson

Chapter One

My bitch of a mother has kept a secret for nineteen years. A secret from me that I should have known from the very beginning, even before I was conscious of what it meant. A secret from my father. From my grandparents. From everyone. A secret that had blossomed over the years to such epic proportions that it now threatened my very happiness. Everything good in my life was hanging on one delicate silver strand of a web of deception. While I dangled helplessly at the end of it like a spider in the wind. At the mercy of fate and the truth.

If I had known the truth, my life would have been different. Would it have been better? There was no way to know. In any case, I wouldn't have been here, fighting for the love of my life against increasingly mounting odds.

I balled my fist and pounded the concrete step I sat on in front of my dorm, huddling against not just the cold air, but raw, cold, staggering emotion. My selfish, ultra-competitive mom had kept me from joy and a happy childhood. And dragged me through her three miserable marriages and countless other horrid relationships. Through three mostly bastards of stepdads and no real dad. Certainly no loving dad. I was no one's little princess.

All the while Mom played the evil queen to my Snow White, always striving to prove she was the fairest of them all. Fairer than I was, in any case. But then, I hadn't tried. I had never wanted to compete with her. So I made myself plain and invisible.

But a one-sided competition didn't stop her. She went after my boyfriend. Slept with him. Destroyed the best of her three marriages when my latest stepdad and I walked in on Mom and Austin making the sign of the two-humped whale on Mom's living room sofa. That was a sight I still couldn't fully get out of my mind.

Her ultimate betrayal sent me running to unravel her secret—who was my biological father? Why had she refused, all these years, to tell me, or anyone, who he was?

I had been hoping I had at least one biological parent who wasn't a complete skank. I just hadn't known tearing apart the deception would be like unleashing the evils of Pandora's box. Now, like Pandora, all I had left was a sense of hope, and even that was ebbing.

I wondered—without her lie, would I have ended up in this same spot, here at the same university? Would I be the person I am? Would I have met Logan? And fallen in love with him?

I blinked back tears, wiping them away with the back of my hand as I sat alone on the steps to the courtyard that conjoined my dorm with its twin. In the cold of a clear November morning, I held my cell phone in front of me.

After spending the night with Logan, I should have been ecstatic and glowing, not scared out of my mind that I would lose him. I touched my lips, still feeling the tingle of his kiss on them, longing for the heat of his body next to mine again.

I love you, El. I pictured the way he'd looked last night when he told me and my heart broke and the phone trembled in my hand.

Would I sacrifice his love, put it at risk, for a chance to get to know my father? Being fresh from Logan's bed clouded my judgment. But I was in too deep now. I couldn't back out, not even if I wanted to. My only salvation would be if Jason didn't want any relationship with me now that we knew he was really my dad. Then maybe we could sweep this all away and no one would ever be the wiser. But that would break my heart, too. And prove that I had two horrible parents. Biologically, I'd be doomed.

I'd tracked Jason Front, the only suspect in my paternity, to this university. Transferred here from a perfectly good college across the state. Gotten a student job that I really needed to stay in school working for him in the university IT department so I could study him and decide whether I wanted to reveal myself as his potential daughter.

Logan had simply fallen into the equation, another victim of fate. I met him the week before class at a Week of Welcome event in the most adorable way possible—when he played my support person while I got my bellybutton pierced. I tried not to fall for him. I tried not to ever see him again after that first night. Was it my fault that he worked for Jason, too? That he was Jason's favorite? I'd been as surprised as anyone when Logan strolled into the IT office on my first day of work and sent my heart beating out of control.

What was I supposed to do then, when I'd only just met Logan and all there was between us was a spark of something wonderful—walk away from the job I desperately needed to stay in school? Leave the chance for the dad I'd been longing for my whole life?

I hadn't meant to use Logan. I hadn't used Logan, not on purpose. He'd known all semester I was keeping a secret from him. I had told him I was and he was fine with it. But would he be when he found out what that secret was? Or would he feel like I'd used him all along?

My deceit was all so accidental. The situation just evolved until I was in too deep to tell him the truth. And now when Logan was so vulnerable and just starting to heal from his ordeal and when he loved me, now I was standing on a life-changing precipice where everything could go terribly wrong.

I glanced at the text I'd gotten from Jason last night while I was still in Logan's bed.

I got the results. Looks like I'm the one. Don't share this with anyone. We need to talk.

Would Logan resent my new relationship with Jason, my blood bond? Or would there be no relationship? Jason could just as well tell me to get the hell out of his life for good. He could reject me like all my mom's other men. I could lose Logan and my father.

A chill wind kicked up. I held the collar of my cute wool coat, the Kate Middleton knock-off, closed to block the wind, but shivered anyway. My legs were bare. I had refused Logan's offer of a shacker shirt and loaner sweats. I wore my short black and white polka-dot dress and cute strappy heels from going out to dinner with Logan and his dad the night before. My hair was tousled and my makeup smudged. I looked every bit the mess I was.

After Mom slept with Austin, I did something desperate. I tore up the house, looking for her private diary, the one she had supposedly kept when I was conceived and born. I hadn't even known if it still—or ever had—existed. My grandma had mentioned it once casually in passing. I had looked for it several times over the years with no success. But after her betrayal, I was a woman possessed. And I got lucky.

I found it and a single clue—a name in her diary. Ellie's father must be Jason Front.

That was all the ink she dedicated to him. All the information she revealed, even to her private self. You can see why I was leery about him—why couldn't my mess of a mother say more? What if he was even worse than my stepdads?

I was crazed. I left home and searched relentlessly for him, scouring the internet and tracking down leads. Finally I found him working as director of information technology at this university. He had no idea I even existed. No idea he was quite probably my daddy.

I was trying to assess what kind of a man he was and whether I wanted to reveal myself to him. If he was a douchebag like Mom, there really was no point. My life was messed up enough as it was. But as I got to know him, I quickly found out that everyone loved Jason. I did, too. He was a great guy with a pretty wife, a beautiful baby daughter, and a perfect life. Just when I decided I didn't want to screw it up for him and would continue to keep my existence a secret from him, he pulled a Mom on me. He caught me on a nanny cam while I was babysitting his daughter and telling her she was my sister.

He accused me of having some kind of daughter fantasy about him. So I confronted him with the truth and forced him to take a paternity test from a drugstore DNA kit. And now here I was on the Saturday of Dad's Weekend, surrounded by dads, in love with Logan, and the results were in.

Appropriate, really. Dad's Weekend of all times. I had just met Logan's dad. He was a complete ass in the fullest sense. But that's a big step, right? Being introduced to the dad.

And now I had a dad, too.

I stared at my cell phone. All I had to do was open the email from the DNA testing company, click on the link they'd sent, and read the results so I could see the irrefutable proof for myself. My hands trembled. I felt like I was made of ice and ready to shatter.

I steeled myself, brought up the email, took a deep breath, and clicked on the link provided, entering my password. I closed my eyes and prayed, though I wasn't sure for what. When I opened my eyes again, my hands were shaking so badly, I could barely read the results.

I was minoring in biology. I knew all about how paternity was figured, matching alleles in sixteen different DNA markers. I stared at the report. My DNA profile swam before my eyes.

Combined paternity index, CPI, which matched genetic markers, alleles—1,448,977. My heart stopped. Probability of paternity—99.9999 percent.

The alleged father, Jason Front, cannot be excluded as the biological father of the child, Ellie Martin. This paternity test excluded over 99.99% of the male population from the possibility of being the biological father of the child tested.

I dropped my phone into the folds of my coat in my lap, covered my face with my hands, and cried.

I sat there, crying, broken with emotion, as the morning wore into afternoon and people appeared on the sidewalk, stumbling out of the dorms and laughing. Enjoying their day. Going to lunch and pregame activities with their dads. Their dads. I had a dad. I'd always dreamed of having a dad. If I'd known from the beginning…

But now, knowing messed up our lives—his with his new wife and baby, mine with Logan.

Girls and their dads walked by and shot me anxious, sympathetic looks.

I heard the whispers: "Bad breakup, has to be. Poor thing. And on Dad's Weekend."

And maybe it was the beginning of one. After all he'd been through, Logan was so vulnerable. This was no time to add more doubt and emotional trauma to his plate. I had to pull myself together before the game. I'd promised Logan and his dad I'd go with them. His dad had bought us tickets on the fifty-yard line of the alumni side. We were supposed to tailgate at some big campus tailgate event before that. But first I had to meet Jason, Dad. We needed a plan to deal with this.

I replied to the text he'd sent me, saying we needed to meet. When? Where?

He replied immediately, like he'd been hovering with the phone in his hand waiting for my reply. My office. In an hour?

The clock tower chimed the hour. Noon. I texted back. Give me an hour and a half.

I needed time to shower and pull myself together.

Done. See you then.

The hour and a half both flew by and dragged on at the same time. I showered and dressed for the game in jeans and university logoed everything—football jersey, cap, sweatshirt, even down to my thong underwear. As I blow-dried my hair, it felt like I was moving in slow motion. Yet I was rushed as I applied my makeup.

My cell phone rang. I jumped. Logan was calling. I felt guilty already as I grabbed it.

"Hey." His voice had a sultry quality.

"Hi. Miss me already?" I asked, sounding way too happy just because the sound of his voice did that to me, yet at the same time trying to hide my nerves and my guilt.

"Yeah, that too." He had a grin in his voice that made my heart constrict and my lips curl into a smile almost against their will. "And calling with a slight change of plans. Dad wants to meet at the south entrance of the field house for the tailgate function at two instead of two thirty. Think you can swing arriving a half an hour early?"

I glanced at the alarm clock on my nightstand. That was cutting it close. Two only gave me half an hour with Jason. And there was so much to say…

Logan sensed my hesitation. "El?"

"Sorry. Just running behind and feeling rushed. That's cutting it close for me." I slid into my coat as I talked, grabbed my purse, and locked the door of my door room after me as I left.

"The old man has something up his sleeve, El, otherwise he wouldn't request an earlier audience."

I bit my lip as I let myself out of the dorm. The last thing I needed in my delicate emotional state was a run-in with Harlan Walker. "I'll give it my best shot. I'll try to be there. I have a few errands to run first."

"Okay. Fair enough. It's short notice. Text me if you're going to be late."

"Will do. Are you and Harlan going to any of the dad events while you wait?"

Logan laughed. "You mean like playing rec basketball or building a birdhouse together? My old man? Are you kidding?

"Collin, Zave, and I are tailgating in classic style—drinking heavily. I need the fortification if I'm going to be hanging with Dad the rest of the day."

The thought of Logan getting hammered before the game scared me just a little. Before I met him his drinking had gotten out of control after a labrum injury ended his college baseball career and dreams of the major leagues. His dad had been pissed about both. I pushed the worry aside. Logan could handle himself.

"A word of warning," Logan said, "keep your guard up. Dad will be itching for a fight with you today. You may have bested him last night, but he doesn't take losing lying down. You have his grudging respect, but that won't stop him. Dad plays dirty. Watch for a sucker punch."

"Thanks for the warning. Isn't that why I have you around, to protect me?"

He laughed again. "Yeah, El, I'll have your backside. But after twenty-one years Dad knows all my weak points. He's the king of the surprise attack."

My pulse raced as I rounded the corner to the open, pedestrian-only avenue we called the mall and the SUB came into view. "I'll be on guard. Gotta go." I slid my phone into my pocket, trying to compose myself.

Jason's office was in the computer science building, which was sandwiched on a hill between the student union   building and the alumni entrance to the football stadium. People had already begun milling into the stadium for the afternoon game as I ducked into the quiet comp sci building like I was a spy off to a clandestine meeting.

As my heart raced, I hoped no one had seen me. Though I didn't know why I was so worried. Paranoia. I could have been one of the many computer geeks who would rather program than watch a football game. Must have been my guilty conscience. I felt almost nauseous.

Jason's text had given no indication how he felt about becoming a daddy twice in such a short amount of time. There was no ha ha in it to indicate joy or playfulness. I tried to console myself that people over thirty were weird about texts. They didn't know how to indicate emotion like they should. Everything came out serious, almost like a scolding.

Jason's baby Mia, my now confirmed half-sister, was only six months old. And here he was suddenly the dad of a bouncing nineteen-year-old, girl, too. For just a second, I wondered whether I should have brought a cigar with a pink band. Maybe that was too much. A pink balloon?

The IT department office was nearly dark and ominously silent as I approached it. The door was slightly ajar. Odd, because it was usually locked on the weekends. Jason had obviously opened it for me. Karen's desk was dark and so was mine. Jason's walled office was behind Karen's desk. His door was open and his light on. I slid into the main part of the IT office and closed the door behind me even though I felt like running in the opposite direction.

I hardly knew how I felt about this turn of events. I couldn't blame Jason if he was confused or angry, too. But that didn't mean I wanted to face him.


I jumped at the sound of his voice. "Yeah. It's me."

"Lock the door," he said. His voice was neutral and controlled.

Only he and Karen had keys. That secretive feeling washed over me again as I did what he asked, then went to his office. He was sitting in his desk chair staring at his computer screen. When I walked in, he looked awful, like he hadn't slept at all. There were bags under his eyes. If this had been a normal day in the office, I would have joked with him about Mia having a bad night. Instead, I stood hesitantly just inside the door.

"Come on in," he said, just like the first time I had met him—only he sounded a lot more tired than he'd been on that hectic first day of class. "I don't bite." He smiled, but it was obviously forced and tight at the corners. He looked uncertain as he studied me intently. "You know what my biggest fear as a parent is?"

I shook my head as I slid into the chair across the desk from him.

"Parenting a teenager." He tried to laugh, but it came out as more of a snort. "I thought I'd have years to gain experience and grow into the role."

"Don't sweat it. In another four months I'll be twenty." I forced myself to smile and sound jokey.

He smiled for real then, and there was admiration shining in his eyes, like he liked that I could joke about this sudden upheaval in our lives. "I don't even know when your birthday is."

"February twenty-fifth. You look awful," I said.

"As it turns out, mulling over the implications of a paternity test was worse than standing by helplessly while Lyssa gave birth." He made that snorting sound again. "February twenty-fifth." He sounded almost wondrous. He nodded, but it was like he was thinking and making a mental note of it. Or maybe he was counting backwards to the day, the one time he'd done it with my mom.

Yeah, that much I knew. He'd told me they'd only done it once.

I had a million questions I wanted to ask. I started with the most basic, phrasing it without accusing. "Does Lyssa know?"

He took a deep breath. "No. You and I made a deal. Until we decided together what to do…"

I nodded, but I felt sick. He didn't sound like he wanted Lyssa to know or that he cared to acknowledge me. Ignoring the whole situation was definitely one way of dealing with it. But it still hurt.

I took a deep breath, bit my lip, and nodded. "I don't want anything from you. That suing for college expenses, that was just to scare you into taking the paternity test." I had threatened him with a lawsuit to get him to take the damn test.

He looked sad. He nodded. "No, I know. I didn't think you were serious." He took another deep breath. "It's not that, Ellie. We promised each other to keep this just between us until we decided what to do." He sighed and ran his hand through his hair. "It's complicated with Lyssa."

I nodded. I had known it would be. What woman wanted to hear her baby was not the special first child of her husband like she thought? Or that she was not the woman who made her husband a daddy? And if she ever met my mom, she'd really go crazy and wonder what kind of a man she'd married. Like I said, Mom is no prize. And I was willing to bet if Mom ever found out about Lyssa, she'd make her life miserable.

"I want to help you, Ellie. I do. But we have to think this through carefully. For one thing, there's your job." Suddenly, Jason was all business. Maybe that was his coping mechanism. "If the university finds out you're my daughter, you can't work for me. It's their policy. I've never heard of anyone getting around it." He paused.

I knew that already. It was part of the risk. And since Mom had frozen my college funds, I needed my job.

"I have plenty of connections in other departments, but mid-semester it will be difficult to find you something. All the positions are filled. It would be better, in that regard, to wait until the new semester, or even next fall for the new academic year."

What he said made sense, and was nothing I hadn't thought of before when I was trying to decide whether to reveal myself to him or not. But I sensed there was more to it. "Will you be in trouble because of me?"

He hesitated. "I don't think so. I shouldn't be. Not when the truth comes out."

"But you'll be embarrassed?"

He stared at me, obviously assessing me, looking like he didn't want to hurt me. "By the beautiful young woman you've become? No."

He was trying to be kind. I admired him for that. He really was a nice guy. But I knew all too well what kind of damage was possible for him. I didn't want to destroy either his career or his reputation.

"But?" I knew from his tone there had to be a but.

As he studied me I could tell he was trying to decide whether he could trust me. "It will be an issue with Lyssa."

My opinion of Lyssa involuntary plummeted. Me being an issue with her was natural. A shock. But I wasn't as much of a threat as I would have been even just a few years ago. I was grown, not a little kid she had to raise or share him with. I frowned. I liked her and had hoped she would be a good stepmom. Now it suddenly looked like she might be of the "wicked stepmother of fairytales" variety.

Jason rushed to her defense. "Don't get the wrong idea. Lyssa likes you. When she finds out you're my daughter, I know she'll love you. It's…" He sighed, looking like he was up against it. "Can I trust you with a secret?"

I snorted, like You have to ask? "Isn't that what this is?"

He grinned back at me like he was embarrassed. "You got me there." His Adam's apple bobbed. "Lyssa was engaged before she married me. To another professor here. Of computer science of all things." He paused again.

I imagined an eggheady PhD would probably lord his degree over Jason. "It must be awkward."

He nodded. "He doesn't like me, to put it mildly. Lyssa broke off the engagement when she found out her fiancé had a four-year-old son he'd 'forgotten' to mention. With a former grad student of his who wasn't so former when the boy was born."

I made a sympathetic sound. "That's rough."

"Yeah. It wasn't so much the child, but the lie. He was more of a player than she realized. And a liar. She couldn't live with that."

I wasn't so sure about it being just about the lie. Maybe it was about the child. Maybe she didn't want any competition for Mia. "You haven't lied to her. You didn't know about me when you married her."

"No, but I'm not sure she'll see it that way. I've kept my suspicions from her. I haven't shared what we're going through. She'll see that as a betrayal. And after the scandal of her broken engagement…

"Let's just say the university may seem large, but it's really a very small community. I don't want to hurt her or make it worse for her here, professionally or otherwise." He took a deep breath. "She's barely gotten over her postpartum depression from having Mia. I can't risk upsetting her now, just at the point when she's becoming herself again."

Postpartum depression, that was new. I hadn't even heard any rumors of it around the office. I didn't know whether to be impressed with his secret-keeping ability, or worried.

"I need some time to figure out how to tell her. To think everything through. To know exactly what you and I want of each other first."

His behavior was typical of analytical types. I had some of those tendencies myself. "Won't it be worse the longer you keep it from her?"

He gave me another of his sad, but impressed smiles. "You're very mature."

"For someone my age." I smiled. "I've had to be. Mom sure isn't." I could have kicked myself. I hadn't meant to bring her up. Jason got a funny look on his face when I mentioned her. I had to divert his attention. "So you're asking me to keep this a secret?"

Jason nodded, looking guilty. "It's selfish—"

"Forever?" I stared him directly in the eye, willing him to come clean and tell me the truth—did he want me to leave without Lyssa ever knowing?

"No." He shook his head, emphasizing the point. "Just until the time is right."

But who knew when that would be?

"And if Lyssa finds out before you tell her?"

"She won't." He sounded confident. Overly positive.

Which worried me. "Secrets have a way of finding the light." That was something my grandma used to say to me.

He arched an eyebrow and pointed to me. "You were a secret for a long time."

"Yeah. What's your point? Mom's the queen of deceit, as tightlipped as they come. It took nineteen years, but here I am." I shrugged. "See what I mean?"

"It won't be forever. Not even for nineteen years." Then he laughed. "Maybe eighteen." He winked.

I bit back what I wanted to say about wanting to have a father in my life and hoping he'd be there to walk me down the aisle someday, hopefully before eighteen years were up.

"Maybe this is best," I said, trying to find the bright side of being kept secret for a while longer. "Logan will be upset when he finds out I've been hiding my search for you from him since I met him. It would be natural for him to think I've been using him to get close to you. As you know better than almost anyone, he's really vulnerable right now. Relieved that Dr. Rogers has been arrested. But he has a lot to deal with. I don't want to lose him." I paused. "So we're both doing this to save our love lives?"

"Yeah. Like father like daughter." He choked on the word "father" and his eyes misted up. "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

My eyes misted, too. "Where do we go from here?" I hesitated again. "I'd like to get to know you better. As a person. Or as a dad." I choked up on the word "dad" like he had on "daughter."

In a flash, Jason was out of his chair. He came around to my side of his desk and pulled me into his arms. He was tall, over six feet, and strong and firm and warm. He smelled clean, like pleasant soap and cologne. I rested my head on his chest as he wrapped me in his arms. A sense of wellbeing washed over me as I was cradled in my father's firm embrace for the very first time. Unlike my baby sister Mia, I'd always remember the first time our dad hugged me.

"It sounds crazy, and you may not believe it," he said, "but I'm glad to have another daughter. I always wanted girls."

I sniffed a little, trying to hold back my emotions. "I bet you'll have a son, too. I'd like a brother."

"I love you, Ellie."

Someone gasped loudly. We started and turned in unison toward the sound. Our office administrator Karen stood in the doorway to Jason's office, staring at us with her mouth open and a look of horror on her face.

Caught already.

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