And in that instant, he understood that there was only one way he could prove his love to Christie, only one path to having a solid, loving relationship: He needed to deal with the demons that had been eating away at him for twenty years.
His gut clenched, tightened even further, at the thought of seeking out his mother. He had to speak with her soon.
But first, he'd go make his apologies to his father, who had only ever wanted to love his son.
Liam found Henry in his workshop, surrounded by saws and hammers but not using any of them. His father looked crushed. Shaken. So shaken that Liam knew without a doubt that his mother had finally told him everything.
"I'm sorry I pushed you away," Liam said without preamble. "I didn't know what else to do. I worried that if I was around you too much, one day her secret would slip out. You loved her. Wesley and I both saw how much. I didn't want to be responsible for anything happening to your marriage."
Henry walked across the workshop and pulled him into a hug. And Liam didn't want to move away. Not when he and his dad had twenty years of lost hugs to make up for.
Finally, his father said, "I wish you hadn't felt like you needed to protect me. But you've always been so honest. Such a good person--even when you were a little boy, you were helping the other kids at school, protecting your little brother from bullies." Henry grimaced. "I've always known what happened that afternoon. What she did. If only I had confronted her right away, then it would all have come to light and you wouldn't have had to live with her secret for so long. Will you ever forgive me?"
"There's nothing to forgive. You're the best father I could ever have asked for."
"No, I wasn't. Not even close. But I'd very much like to be, if you're open to letting me try again."
"I am," Liam said. "Of course I am. But what is going to happen with you and Susan?"
His father's face shuttered. "I don't know." He sighed, deep and long. "The only thing I know for sure right now is that no matter what happens, I don't want you to feel responsible in any way for my marriage. All I want is for you to be happy."
"I'm going to talk to her. I have to finally confront the mess we've been in for so long." Because if he didn't, Christie might never consider coming back to him. And he would do anything to persuade her to give him another chance.
"I don't know that I deserve the privilege of giving you advice," his father said, "but can I give you some anyway?"
Every muscle in his body tight, Liam nodded. "I'll take whatever you've got."
"With every new house I build, somewhere in the middle of it all, I look around at the mess and disarray, and the easiest thing is to let it overwhelm me. To let it defeat me. But what I always work like hell to make myself see is the potential for what's coming. The new building that will soon stand tall. Proud. Of course, this is also right when clients worry that everything's going wrong, that we'll never be able to turn the piles of wood and shingles and cement and tile into a home. But there's no use in trying to placate them. It's better to be honest. To tell them, yes, things are messy, bordering on being out of control--and I'm sticking to my vision anyway, along with my hope that, with focus and determination, all is going to go well." He held his son's gaze. "You're focused, Liam. And you're determined. Let yourself be honest too. Getting things out in the open won't necessarily make them any less messy. But at least everything will finally be laid out on the table. And then if you ever decide that you want to rebuild, you can do it on a solid foundation."
Liam's mother was in the house, standing at the kitchen counter, staring out the window above the sink into the darkness. When he walked in, she turned to him, and he could see she was still crying, the tear tracks fresh on her cheeks.
Black. White. That was the way he'd seen the world since he was fourteen. He'd never looked for the shades of gray. Even as a child, he'd liked what he liked and disliked what he didn't.
But standing in the kitchen of the house he'd grown up in, the same kitchen where his mother had asked him to keep her secret, he wondered if things were ever really completely black and white.
Yes, his mother had cheated on his father.
Yes, Liam had climbed into her car and crashed into a tree in a foiled, childish attempt to forget what he'd seen.
But if he'd known that one day in the future he'd find a love like Christie's--then didn't that mean it had all been worth living through?
Just to be with her.
"Liam?" His mother's voice shook on his name.
"I don't really want to forgive you," he told her, taking his father's advice to tell the truth, no matter how messy, how complicated. "But I'll do anything for Christie. Even put what happened behind us with the hope that forgiveness will come someday."
"I'm so sorry."
He nodded. "I know." And, for the first time, he truly did.
He wasn't going to solve things with his mother today. But they'd made a start. At long last.
Liam made it back to the inn just as Christie was coming out with her suitcase. As she stood on the inn's front porch, her delicate beauty that he'd been so aware of from the first moment he'd set eyes on her was made even more beautiful by the moonlight that illuminated her features.
"I'll be back to help with the wedding this weekend," she told him.
Then what? Would she leave again? And the next time, would it be forever?
"I talked with my father tonight. About--" The words choked in his throat, but he made himself push them out. "About everything."
Her expression softened. "That's good." The edges of her lips moved up, almost making a smile. "Really, really good."
"I also talked to Sus--to my mother."
Christie's eyes widened at that news, and in the moonlight, he swore he could see tears. A moment later, as she blinked, two tears fell from her eyelashes to her cheeks. "Liam."
She whispered his name, and there was so much love in it, he could feel it wrap around him, almost warm enough to chase away the chill of the wind blowing across the lake.
Liam had never begged a woman f
or anything. Not for attention. Not for love.
"Please don't go." When she didn't put the suitcase down, he said, "Earlier today, you said nothing had changed, that you couldn't stay until I worked things out with my parents. I'm trying. I swear to you, I'm trying."
He watched myriad emotions move across her face: hope, longing, love. Then she said, "Why? Why are you trying?"
He didn't have to think about his answer. "Because I don't want to lose you."
A cloud drifted in front of the moon, making it impossible for him to see her expression. "Wesley knows to call me with any problems while I'm away this week." She moved her suitcase into her other hand. "Good night, Liam."
As she walked away, the only thread of hope he had to hold on to was that she'd said good night.
And not good-bye.
Wesley called Christie's cell early the next morning. At first, she thought he was calling to ask for help with something at the inn. But he never even brought that up.
"Liam loves you."
Three words. That was all it took to pierce her already shattered heart. "You needed time to go away," she reminded him. "To think about your life and what you wanted from it. Now I'm asking you for the same thing." And then she hung up to do some more of that thinking.
Only, Wesley continued to call every day without fail. And Christie knew why: Her friend cared about her. He cared about his brother. He wanted to see them happy. And, preferably, together.
After that first conversation, Christie let Wesley's calls go through to voice mail. Because she truly did have a lot to think about. Namely that for her entire life, she'd been running when things got too complicated. Not because she was weak or afraid or unable to take care of herself. But because she'd never had a reason to stay--and she'd never had anything important to lose.
Liam had been important right from the first moment he'd spoken to her, touched her, looked into her eyes and connected with her despite all the reasons not to. This time around, he'd been her reason to run.
But he was also her reason to go back.
And to stay.
She returned to Summer Lake early Saturday morning, just in time to witness the first outdoor wedding of spring. She was happy for the couple, who had just said their I do's and kissed in front of their applauding family and friends. And still, she was crying, just like she always did at weddings. Because there was nothing she loved more than a happy ending.