Nikki's thoughts leaped back and forth between the two opposing reactions to the proposal as she hurried through the house and outside. First, there was the pressure of doing a good job for the foundation, helping the Mission, doing something worthwhile for the town and the church where she had grown up. Then there was the discomfort of facing all those people she had grown up with, who had watched her turn her back on all her values and break her foster parents' hearts by running away with a con man who worked as a front man for a drug runner. Nikki knew she was forgiven, by the Holwoods, by the people in her church family who really mattered, and by God, but that didn't make it any easier.
She ended up in one of the lower, sheltered gardens of the massive old estate, where the willow trees were still misty bright green with fresh growth. Nikki thought she would have ended up there in the willow garden, even if she had come out here in the middle of the night, in a raging storm, with her eyes closed. Her heart led her here.
"Hey, sweetheart," she whispered, and went to her knees in front of the brass marker set in the polished chunk of stone. Nikki brushed a few cherry blossom petals off the plaque, which had blown over from a garden several levels up in the terraces, and her fingers traced the raised letters spelling out Mercy Grace Kathryn. "Mommy's here."
At times of stress, she could still feel the ache in her womb and the bruises and cuts that came from the car wreck when Ringo, Brock's former boss, had rammed a roadblock and rolled his car. He had kidnapped her to use her as a human shield when he fled the authorities. She had been seven months pregnant. The doctors said her daughter would have survived being born prematurely, but the injuries from the accident eventually led to her death. What made the loss so ironic was that Brock had ordered her to abort when she first told him she was pregnant, but Ringo wanted her to have the baby, to provide another layer of camouflage for his drug running operations. What could be more disarming than a happy little family with an adorable baby?
"So, do you think I should do it?" Nikki said, adjusting her position so she rested on her bottom with her legs drawn up to her chest, arms wrapped tight around her legs, and her chin resting on her knees. "Time to face the music?"
Gray settled down next to her, his muzzle resting on her foot.
There were so many reasons to go back to Tabor Heights, to face her past and her shame, look people in the eye when they sneered at her, and go on with her life. She would be able to prove she had gotten past her adolescent, selfish stupidity, by bringing something beneficial to the town. How long could she justify staying in the safe, warm, nurturing nest of Quarry Hall and the Arc Foundation?
How long could she keep visiting her daughter's tiny grave and vow to make up for her bad choices before she actually did something to fulfill that promise?
"Please, God… it's going to be so hard. Bring good out of this, please?"
She sat there a while longer, between the two markers, letting the peace soak in again, until Gray nudged her and whined, and looked toward the house, hidden by the trees and raw stone walls and the sloping terraces of Quarry Hall's grounds. Nikki nodded and slowly got to her feet.
"I'll be back. I promise," she whispered.