Released: Winter 2010
With the world on the edge of war, one wounded Delta soldier and one desperate woman are at the center of a horrific plot and running for their lives. As they unravel the deceit, they are thrust into a race to save her children and stop a global meltdown into anarchy.
Collateral Damage — Excerpt
Washington, D. C.
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death…
Pink Floyd’s Time hammered through Sergeant First Class Jack Hunter’s brain as he tightened his grip on the treadmill and ran harder, his heart pounding, his lungs burning. Rage tinged with fear made for a potent Power Bar that fueled his drive. Sweat poured from his brow and his body screamed for relief, but he couldn’t stop. Not yet.
His vision dimmed, and President Anderson’s address on the overhead TV calling for a swift but rational retaliation to al-Qaeda’s latest attack became nothing but a blur in his mind.
Jack knew life often hinged on the details, those seemingly insignificant microscopic events that most people trampled over obliviously. He’d trained to notice the details and to remember them. Yet no matter how hard he tried, his memory of the mission in Lebanon remained a kaleidoscope of combat images and one man’s mocking blue eyes.
Rescuing the kidnapped daughters of Israeli Prime Minister Shalev and U.S. Ambassador James from a radical Islamic group two weeks ago had been a crucial move to stop the pandemic of political chaos circling the globe. It might have worked–had everything gone right. But it hadn’t, and now the world was spiraling faster and faster to hell. He and Rico had been seriously injured. James’s daughter, a gold medal gymnast, might never walk again. Shalev’s daughter, a beautiful and dynamic singer, might never wake from her coma. Pecos was blind, and Neil was…
Jack clenched his teeth against the rising pain inside him. He took being team leader to heart both on and off the battlefield. The mission and his men were his responsibility. Rico, Pecos, and Neil were his Delta brothers, and it killed him that he could only remember bits and pieces of what happened.
They’re here, DT, and alive! Pecos’s distorted voice echoed in Jack’s mind, sucking him down a long tunnel of memories. Years ago, Pecos had been the first one to call him DT. It was short for “double tap” because Jack was damn good at headshots with any firearm, but not as good as the stories Pecos regaled them with over beer and poker. Jack had retaliated by dubbing Will Taylor as “Pecos” for telling such “Tall Tales.” Pecos had then taken the role to heart, spinning wild yarns about every man on the Delta teams, the most legendary one being about Neil “the Sandman” Dalton. Pecos claimed that Neil, while saving a wounded soldier, had put thirty Taliban insurgents permanently to sleep in Afghan’s Helmand Desert. Then Neil had disappeared with the injured soldier in a whirlwind of dust. The actual number of men killed was unknown for Neil’s recollection afterwards had been, “the militants kept coming and I kept shooting until I ran out of ammo then I prayed.” The sandstorm that had suddenly rose up at that moment, Neil had called a miracle. It had provided him with cover and he reached the nearby Helmand River. Once there, he’d floated the remaining miles to safety dragging the soldier with him. The story had spread and grown to the point that even the terrorists whispered it amongst themselves, and reportedly refused to go near the place the “Sandman” had conquered.
But Neil would never again walk through the door and give Jack shit about screwing up his personal life. And Jack would never again be able to slap Neil on the back and razz his ass for spending a fortune on pimping his muscle car to the max.
They’re here, DT, and alive was the last thing Jack remembered Pecos saying on the mission. With words echoing in his mind, he closed his eyes and chased after the memory. He ran harder and harder, his head throbbing as he battled to separate truth from nightmare.
He remembered everything going FUBAR in an eye blink.
They’re here, DT, and alive!
Jack looked across the smoke-filled room toward Pecos. Sweat, fear, and the growing heat of the fire eating the floor beneath them were suffocating. Nausea churned in his gut and he gripped his MP5 tighter.
“See if they’re wired,” he yelled to Pecos, his instincts screaming danger at him as he scanned the room they’d just invaded. Two terrorists lay dead at his feet. It would have been just like the sick sonofabitches to booby trap the hostages and blow the fucking world up at the moment of seeming victory.
Down the hall, the Sandman’s gunfire holding back militants from coming up the stairs kept a steady pace. Rico had taken a hit, his right arm hung useless and dripping blood. He’d slung back his machine gun, armed his left hand with his M9 Beretta, and kept moving.
Behind Rico, the door of armoire seemingly open a fraction wider.
“Get down!” Jack yelled. Diving, he shoved Rico aside as gunfire erupted from the slit, winging Jack in the leg. He twisted in mid air and let loose his MP5 in a spray of bullets that chewed and splintered wood in every direction.
A Caucasian, blond male in full business regalia fell from the armoire and face planted on the Persian carpet.
Jack kicked the AK-47 out of reach, flexi-cuffed the bastard then put his muzzle against the target’s head before flipping him over.
“Well, fuck me and you,” the man whispered, gasping and choking, his blue eyes full of mocking amusement. Coughing up blood, the man died with a smile. Then –
Suddenly Jack’s head jerked back as his headphones were snatched off and Lt. Col. Roger Weston, his Delta Team commander got in his face. “Son of a bitch, DT. Are you trying to kill yourself?”
Damn. Jack felt as if he’d been on the verge of remembering what happened next. He couldn’t stop. Not yet. Just a few more steps and he’d blow past this weakness in his mind and his body. Ignoring Weston, Jack kept running.
But the sterile-like surroundings and disinfectant smells of the physical therapy facilities at Walter Reed Medical Center and President Anderson’s mug on the plasma TV didn’t fade away again. The spell had been broken and the almost memory was gone.
Jack wanted to snarl and didn’t hide his irritation.
Weston hit the switch, triggering the treadmill to wind to a halt. Gripping the handles tighter, Jack clenched his teeth again, sharpening the pain in his left temple. This was Weston’s third visit since Jack woke up in ICU last week and the personal attention frayed at his nerves. Not that he didn’t appreciate his commander’s concern; he just wanted to be left alone to get back into shape and–
“In case you didn’t hear me, I’ll repeat the question. Are you trying to kill yourself?”
“You come all the way from Bragg to ask me that, sir?” Jack faced his commander once his vision cleared and he was steady enough to stand on his own.
“I’m not here as your superior but your friend,” Weston said, his dark eyes stark and his mouth grim.
“Friend?” Jack stepped off the treadmill and mopped his drenched face. His head, back, and leg hurt like sons of bitches from the blood pounding in his veins and it pissed him off. He wasn’t even back to a quarter of what his pre-injury strength and stamina had been. “Then I’ll lay it on the line with you. Stay away and let me deal with this my way.”
“By running yourself until you’re six-feet under?” Weston smacked the treadmill’s frame with the flat of his hand. “You nearly lost an eye. You’ve fractured your skull and your back is cut all to hell. Oh and let’s not forget the bullet wound to your leg. It’s a miracle that you’re even upright. Refusing to cooperate with everyone who is trying to help you from rehab to psyche is making you worse.”
“Hairline fracture only and everything else is improving daily.” He gave a disgusted snort. “As for trying to help me, I had less ‘don’ts as a teenager in Southern Bible Camp than the crap here. It took an all out fight just to stand up to piss last week.”
“Damn it. You know what I mean. You’re not being reasonable.”
“That psyche therapist called you, didn’t she?”
“You could have sat through the session. It’s not just her, though. They’ve all called. Physical Therapy. The doctor. The nurses.”
“And?” Jack shrugged. “We’ve both been down this road before. Group therapy and PTSD platitudes aren’t worth a crap. You and I both know the dreams just have to run their course. The sooner I’m back on my feet and out of here doing what I do, the sooner that will happen.”
The nurses had reported his nightmares, but the daytime flashbacks he’d been able to keep hidden. Some know-it-all shrink who didn’t have a clue to the shit he lived with, wouldn’t do anybody any good by rattling around in his head.
Weston narrowed his gaze. “Have you looked in the mirror, DT? You’re not white as a sheet. You’re grayer than death itself. You’re over doing it. It’ll be months before we can even assess whether or not you can return to duty.”
Jack schooled his features into a blank stare. The fear that had been driving him wild, what he didn’t want to consider, had just been flung into his face and hung like a noose before his eyes.
Assess whether or not you can return to duty?
Fuck that. He was nowhere near ready to put his neck in the loop by even discussing the idea. He glared at Weston, determined to stand his ground.
“No, I haven’t looked in the mirror. I don’t care how the bastards rearranged my mug.” Jack nodded to the TV screen where President Anderson’s address to the nation had just ended and video from al-Qaeda’s attack on America’s oil hubs filled the screen. “This shit happened on our watch, sir, and I want back into the fight.”
Al-Qaeda’s latest move was their smartest yet. By crippling the US’s oil reserves and industry, they not only brought the country to an economic standstill but also divided it into factions. Crude oil rang in at two-fifty a barrel and was climbing higher. The tree huggers and libs shouted it was time to “go green” cold turkey and that gluttonous America was finally paying the price for their imperialistic agenda. The rest of the population was up in arms, wanting blood, and demanding that President Anderson act immediately.
The President and Weston were cousins with a remarkable resemblance to each other, even considering the twenty year age difference. Both men had intense dark eyes, square jaws and black hair. Their imposing six-three stature, sharp speaking skills, and determination made a dynamic combination. Unfortunately, Jack didn’t think there was anything the President could say that would stop the inevitable. An eye for an eye wouldn’t satisfy the Americans. They wanted blood for oil and mass destruction for economic devastation. An all out global war marched closer by the minute.
“Get back into the fight?” Weston shook his head. “You’re not being reasonable, DT, and you know it.”
Jack closed his eyes and counted to five. He was being reasonable. It wasn’t his fault the world had gone off the deep end. “Do they know who took out Aziz yet?”
One of Islam’s top Imams, Hassan Omar Aziz had been killed by sniper fire within the hallowed borders of Iran. That one act had inflamed the Muslim world and fired extremists to new levels of hatred. Evidence left behind fingered the Americans, as if they’d done the deed and then boldly said fuck you. Here’s proof. What can you do about it?
Muslims worldwide refused to see it was a set up.
Weston shook his head. “No. Everything possible is being done. Every asset is searching and every snippet of intel for months is being scrutinized.”
What did Meir say?” Meir Goldman, one of Mossad’s top agents, had worked with Delta on a number of operations. He was a man who’d proved his salt and had once saved Jack’s life. A man they could count on being honest with them when he could. Relations between Israel’s Secret Service and the US became strained after the assassination of Aziz as each looked to the other for the deed. Aziz had been very vocal in his hatred for America and in urging all Muslims to destroy Israel and reclaim the Middle East from the infidels.
“Meir had very little to say. He’s offended that we left Mossad out of the intel on Shalev and the mission to rescue her.” Weston paused then abruptly tuned and paced away, hands fisted. “If only things in Lebanon had gone right…”
A man could choke on the tension and flood of emotion in Weston’s voice. It was totally out of character for the “cool by the book” commander, and Jack studied him closely. Something had set Weston off his game.
Jack couldn’t blame Meir. If the shoe had been on the other foot, Jack would be pissed too. But when the actionable intel had come through on the whereabouts of Shalev’s and James’s daughters, there’d been no time to coordinate an operation with Mossad.
If everything had gone right with the rescue, all of Israel would be singing the US’s praises, but it hadn’t. Now Meir and every other Mossad agent thought they could have made a difference if they’d been there. Hell, Jack had been there and even he felt the same way.
“You know, it’s still not making sense to me,” he said, rubbing the ache in his temple.
“That the terrorists blew themselves and us up. I clearly remember the second floor was on fire. We were on the third. They could have waited, and picked us off as we climbed out of the windows.”
“With Beck’s team on the perimeter, maybe they didn’t think they had any other option. Who can ever really understand the suicide mindset?” Weston shrugged, dismissing the subject. “Listen and take a chill pill. Every agency with an acronym from A to Z has men on the job and you’re a long way away from getting back into the fray.
Jack exhaled at the force of the frustration ripping at him. How could he just do nothing? “Have you found out anything about the blue-eyed blond son of a bitch who hid in the armoire?”
“We’ve been through this a dozen times. There’s no record of the guy. No blond men in the photos of dead. Nobody in rescue and recovery remembers seeing a blond man. Rico doesn’t remember seeing him. Maybe you’re confusing him with someone else–”
“Rico doesn’t remember anything after the initial assault into the building. And no, I am not confusing anything. He was there and I killed him. I’d bet my life that not only was he American but Jihad wasn’t even a whisper in his mind. Something more than a Holy War might be behind the kidnappings.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve run every available avenue into the ground.” Weston turned and raked his fingers through his short hair. “For now, just let it go. Put the mission behind you and give yourself time to heal. Why don’t you take a vacation?”
Jack closed his eyes and counted, making sure his response sounded damn reasonable. “Take a vacation? Neil’s dead, and I doubt his wife is holding her own. Beck’s on a major bender. Pecos and Rico are struggling. Not to mention that the entire world is on the verge of war over al-Qaeda’s latest and you want me to go take pictures of Yellowstone?”
“You’re in no shape for active duty and no amount of treadmill running will change that for a while,” Weston shot back. “So let the al-Qaeda shit go. There are plenty of us picking up the fight. Go see Livy. The daughter you were frantic for when you thought you were dying. The one you’re always saying you don’t see enough.”
Jack exhaled as if sucker punched. He didn’t remember the pleading for Livy part, but he didn’t doubt it was true. Livy was the only good thing about his seven year marriage to Jill. But he’d only seen his daughter twice a year for the last four years thanks to Jill’s manipulations and move from Fayetteville to Asheville, North Carolina.
Everything regarding their joint custody was spelled out in their divorce agreement, which Jill completely ignored. Jack saw Livy only when it was convenient for Jill and that was on Father’s Day and Christmas. Up until the divorce when Livy was six, Livy had been Jack’s joy. Jill knew it and had done her best to rip his heart out. The divorce had been bitter and things hadn’t improved much since despite her remarriage.
He could have taken Jill to court and fought for his rights, but then he had no doubt Jill’s animosity level and the poison she fed Livy about him and his career would only increase. Besides, things were better off the way they were. He really sucked at relationships and he never knew when and where he’d be called to duty.
The last time he’d seen Livy had been on Father’s Day. She’d asked him why he was a killer. She’d bought into her mother’s views and those protesting the US’s involvement in the war on terror and the hands on stabilization of several Middle Eastern countries.
Weston continued, “Beck will snap out of it. You can’t help Rico or Pecos right now, not until we know if the damage is permanent or not. And I’ve checked on Neil’s wife. Mari’s doing okay.” He looked away as if bracing for a blow. “There’s something else you need to know. She’s pregnant. So she has something of Neil to hold on to.”
Jack’s knotted insides wrangled tighter. Neil and Mari had been trying for kids for a couple of years. “Damn. Life never fails to deliver, does it?”
“Yeah. So why the hell are you making it worse? You keep driving yourself like this and you won’t be around to see the kid born or help us stop al-Qaeda’s bandwagon. The doctors say you’ll be well enough to leave the hospital shortly and do outpatient PT. We can arrange for that at the Medical Center in Asheville. Go see Livy and give yourself time to heal.”
“I’ll think about it,” Jack said. But once he looked in the mirror after Weston left, he knew he wouldn’t be seeing his daughter. He looked as rough as Weston had described. Livy already thought Jack was a monster and right now with the demons eating at him over the failed mission in Lebanon and the world’s situation, his daughter’s assessment wouldn’t be too far from the truth.
“We must take this to the police,” Thomas Ettinger said, a hint of panic edging into his voice over the cell phone. “Bill might be in real trouble. He’s not answering his cell and I get nothing but voice mail at his home. God, he could even be dead.”
Ya think? Conrad Gardner clenched his teeth, stifling his sarcastic retort, and barely restrained himself from throwing his cell phone in frustration. Instead, he stomped on the gas pedal–several times–but with the sputtering AC on, his clunker was already at top speed.
It amazed him that Thomas even considered Bill might be alive. The “you’re receiving this because something has gone seriously wrong” opener to Bill’s letter was a big clue. Besides, posthumously would be the only way Conrad would reveal where he’d stashed six million.
Well, semi-revealed. According to the letter that arrived less than two hours ago, Conrad had one-sixth of the clue. Bill had given each of his five buddies and his wife a part of the puzzle. Of course, the windfall wasn’t free. They were supposed to bring down billionaire Andreas Miles with hidden evidence of criminal activity as part of the deal, and Thomas didn’t want to have any part of what might be shady dealings and dirty money.
Conrad wasn’t interested in nailing Andreas either, but he was damn well getting his hands on the money. Sometime this year would be nice. He’d been arguing with Thomas for over an hour now. By keeping the prig on the phone, Conrad was assuring himself that the man couldn’t screw things up by singing his righteous song to the cops or any of their other friends. Thomas was as narrow minded as a needle eye and as unyielding as his extra starched Armani dress shirts.
The cities and exits skirting Georgia’s Interstate 85 had passed in a blur as Conrad had made record time from his South Carolina home off Lake Hartwell to Thomas’s Buford, Georgia estate north of Atlanta.
“I’ll be there in a few minutes and we’ll work it out,” Conrad said with as much assurance as he could muster. “Bill entrusted us. If he wanted this information in police hands, he would have sent it to them.”
“Which is exactly my point,” Thomas replied. “Because he didn’t, means the money is not on the up and up. I hate saying this, but he may have stolen it from Andreas Miles. Two wrongs don’t make a right. If Miles is a criminal then let the police handle it.”
“Hold on,” he told Thomas as he avoided hitting a semi then sharply cut across the lanes to make the right exit. Conrad argued with Thomas another ten minutes as he ate up the roads. The more he thought about the unfairness of it all, the more pissed he became. His ass should be living on a multi-million dollar estate instead of in a rundown double-wide. The moment Conrad had shown up at Clemson on a football scholarship years ago, he’d realized he was destined to be rich. And it all would have been his, too, if he hadn’t blown his knee in his junior year. His name and the Heisman had been buzzing in the same sentence and the scouts had him pegged for the top NFL teams.
Now he sold security systems, repaired boat engines while all his friends lived the high life. Every time he’d gone to Vegas with them over the past twelve years, he heard the stories of their luxurious lives. They threw cash about like Mardi Gras beads while his credit card debt mounted into the thousands. He now had a chance to change all of that and Thomas’s self-righteous bullshit wasn’t going to screw him out of it.
“Open the gate for me,” he told Thomas. “I’m coming up the drive now.”
Thomas agreed and hung up the phone.
When Conrad arrived, they knocked knuckles as usual and went to the back deck of the three story mansion for a beer. Thomas’s wife had left him a few years back. Ran off with her tennis instructor and reamed Thomas for half of everything, and the man was still rich. It boggled Conrad’s mind. If it had been him, he would have figured out a way to keep what was his no matter what.
Far below the deck, Lake Lanier’s green waters rippled with boats and jet skies. Tree tops swayed in the pine scented breeze and the evening sun bored holes in his head as his blood pressure rose with every word Thomas spoke. Conrad thought he would explode as they argued more about Bill’;s letter and the waiting fortune.
Forty minutes and three beers later, Thomas had completely entrenched himself in doing the “right” thing and their numerous calls to their other buddies, Ray, Edward, and Bob, went unanswered. Conrad hoped Thomas might be swayed if the others had agreed to keep the cops out of it.
Head pounding, Conrad raged inside as the thought of six million escaping his grasp edged him closer toward desperation. He studied Thomas intently wondering if the asshole was waiting for him to beg. Out of all of the men in their group, he’d always considered Thomas the most compassionate.
“At least let me look at the letter Bill sent before we call the cops,” Conrad said. “How do we know this isn’t another one of his pranks? The Shit is always making me or you the brunt of a joke.”
Thomas’s eyes widened as doubt hit and he pulled a folded letter from his back pocket. He went to hand the letter over, but then shook his head and jerked the note back. “No. This just goes too far even for Bill. And if you read my part of the clue for the money then you’ll take off and end up in trouble. Believe me, Con, I’m doing this for your good as well as my own.”
“To hell with that. This is millions you’re pissing away with your righteous dick.” Conrad snatched the letter, moved back from Thomas, and held his friend at bay as he skimmed the letter. His six-two height made keeping it out of five-nine Thomas’s reach easy. Still, Thomas kept jumping and yelling for the letter until he’d backed Conrad to the deck’s rail. Conrad was in the middle of reading the clue for the hidden money when Thomas caught the bottom of the letter and ripped it.
Roaring in anger, Conrad lashed out and slammed his fist into Thomas’s face then watched in disbelief as his friend pitched through the splintering rail to the rocky ground thirty feet below. Conrad quickly grabbed the rail post and regained his balance, keeping him from the same fate. He had to take several deep breaths before he could look down. Thomas must have landed on his head because he lay unmoving with his neck at an odd angle. His eyes stared blankly up toward the sky as blood flowed from his nose and busted lip.
Conrad descended the steps in a surreal haze and found the torn part of Bill’s letter lying on the ground.
After staring at Thomas’s body for a long few minutes, Conrad realized the upside of the situation. He now had the clue and he didn’t have to deal with Thomas’s righteous shit ever again. The sense of relief flooding him was akin to escaping a death sentence. He finished reading the clue then tucked the pieces of the letter away before he erased evidence of his presence. The clues on where Bill had hidden the money didn’t make sense yet. There once lived a king. He died on a throne. Hopefully with a third letter, Conrad could piece the whole of it together.
Selling security systems to his best friends turned out to be worth something after all because he knew exactly how to erase his tracks at Thomas’s and how to get into Bill Collins’s house. Tonight he’d get Lauren Collins’s letter and be halfway to his six million.
“Watch out, Matt!” Lauren Collins grabbed her son from the proximity of the horse’s hooves in a harried rush. Hank, the pony ride handler, was more focused on the moms than the kids. At twenty-something he was an Alan Jackson look alike with country written from his boots to his curled hat and treated every woman as if he were Mr. Irresistible.
“Go Mitch! Go faster and shoot the bad guys!” Squirming against her hold, Matt egged Mitch on, his blue eyes as bright as a Christmas star. They were identical in looks except for tiny moles on their temple. Matt’s was on the left. Mitch’s was on the right. In everything else, they were different. One liked chocolate ice cream, the other vanilla. One liked the color blue, the other green. Mitch took things slow whereas Matt charged full steam ahead and wasn’t happy until he’d pushed everything to its limit–even his brother.
“Let me go help him, Mom. We’re soldiers like Uncle Jason, and we’re taking over the enemy camp. Please!”
Lauren braced against the sting in her heart and bit back the was that cut through her mind. A year ago, her brother had gone missing in action and her hope of him being found alive dwindled with every passing day.
Matt wiggled harder. “Please, Mom?”
“Only if you promise to stay beside the horse and not get behind it again. It could kick you.” At least that’s what she’d always heard.
“I pomise,” he said. “It’s not a real horse, though. It’s a pony.”
She let Matt go. “I’m sure ponies know how to kick too.” But she spoke to empty space. He’d already taken off, wind ruffling his golden hair as he scrambled to dodge enemy fire.
“Giddy up! Shoot’em! Go!” Mitch yelled, practically standing in the saddle and jumping as he pointed his finger at an imaginary foe.
“Sit down, Mitch!” Lauren yelled as she squinted against the low hanging sun. If she survived the last few minutes of the boys’ birthday party, she’d count it a miracle.
“You’re the one who needs to sit before you fall down,” said Angie Freemont, best friend and official birthday bash photographer. After snapping a couple of pictures of Mitch on the pony, Angie grabbed Lauren’s elbow and steered her to a shaded chair. She brushed her red curls back from her face and sighed. “Man, it’s hot.”
“You can say that again.” The summer sun and humid heat were still powerful forces to be reckoned with despite the evening hour. She melted into a chair and picked up her sweet tea, brushing her forehead and cheeks with the icy glass before taking a long, cool, drink. There were a number of things one could always count on having in the South like grits, biscuits, and gravy, but steamy and sweet were at the very top of the list.
Holding an outdoor birthday anytime between ten and four would have been scorching. So she’d gambled for a five o’clock party time, hoped it wouldn’t thunderstorm, and won. Few trees shaded the expanse of rolling green grass that surrounded the Southern Plantation-style home. She’d have preferred to keep the sprawling oaks and blooming dogwoods that had covered the lot, but Bill had wanted an unhindered view of the world class golf course. That was before he’d traded his family and eighteen classic holes to tango with Double-D’s in and out of bed.
Don’t go there, she chastised herself.
The remnants of Sally’s Honey Barbeque scented the air and a rainbow of rented umbrellas dotted the lawn, each marking tables where neighborhood kids licked icing off cake and dug through GI Joe goody bags. All in all the party was a resounding success and she should relax. Would relax if Matt and Mitch would show just a little more caution. But that would be like stopping the ocean from rushing to the shore. Completely impossible. Just as impossible it would be for her not to worry.
“You look frazzled to a pulp.”
Lauren tried to smile at Angie, but winced instead. “Am I that bad?”
“Worse. I was being kind. So what’s up?”
They’d met six years ago and had forged a bond that went deep. Angie had been Matt and Mitch’s nurse in the Neonatal ICU at Northside Hospital and Lauren swore it was the woman’s sharp instincts and devoted care that helped the boys survive those first desperate hours and days. Born at twenty-seven weeks, hope for their survival had been dim. But they were a miracle of life and she didn’t breathe without remembering and thanking God.
“I’m fine,” she said, deliberately ignoring the root of her anxiety. Or roots she should say. Bill was only part of it. The other part involved restless nights and her feeling as if she’d been hanging in limbo forever. But at the moment the Bill dilemma churned on the surface and had her strung tight.
Angie lifted her brow, disbelief in her sharp green gaze.
“Really, I’m fine,” Lauren said then nearly spilt her tea as she started to jump up. Matt had managed to get behind the beast again. Before Lauren could shout, Hank scooped up Matt and plopped him on the pony with Mitch. She sat back down.
Angie took several pictures of the boys together then let the camera drop to her chest. Holding up three fingers, she eliminated them one by one as she spoke. “First, let me point out that the pony is only a little taller than the beasts you call dogs, which would likely make mince meat of the pony. Secondly, the pony is presently moving less than a mile per hour. The boys never move that slow, even in their sleep, so they’re actually being good. Thirdly and most importantly, something besides the boys has you upset.”
Lauren sighed. “You’re right on all accounts.” Angie never missed a thing, which made her a great nurse and an excellent part-time photographer. The “beasts” she referred to were Sasha and Sam, White American Shepherds who guarded her sons with fervor.
When Bill had brought the puppies home on Matt and Mitch’s first birthday, Lauren thought her husband had lost his mind. She had twins with multiple health and developmental problems. She didn’t need to add two puppies to the mix, no matter how adorable they were. Matt and Mitch had squealed with delight at the puppies, but when the boys had begun rolling and then crawling across the floor to get to Sasha and Sam, Lauren had cried with joy. Bill had found the key to motivating their sons through their developmental difficulties. They wanted to go and do everything that Sasha and Sam did. It was something she kept reminding herself about after Bill changed.
She glanced at her watch. Eight o’clock. If Bill planned on showing for their sons’ birthday party, he’d be here by now.
“You still haven’t heard from the toad, right?”
“Not a word.”
To Angie there were three kinds of men. Toads who were always toads–a prevalent breed. Prince Charmings who were always Prince Charmings–a rare breed. And Prince Charmings that turned into toads—a dangerous breed. Bill fit her dangerous category. He’d been Prince Charming until about two years ago when he became head of public relations for BioLogic–a company geared toward the promotion of save-the-earth green technology. After that he began keeping secrets “for business.” Going places and seeing people he couldn’t tell her about. When she asked what about being an environmentalist had to be so top secret, Bill became surly. Then his behavior worsened. Other women had been Lauren’s last straw. They’d been separated for a year and a half. The divorce would be final next month.
“He said he’d be back for the boys’ birthday and they’re expecting him. I called his secretary earlier today and she hasn’t heard from him. Neither has anyone else. It’s been two weeks since he left and he hasn’t called once. How can he disappoint them like this?”
Angie set her hand on Lauren’s. “I wish I could wave a magic wand and fix it.”
“Me too.” Lauren focused her gaze on Matt and Mitch. They were laughing, their blond hair gleaming like spun gold, their smiles bright. If she didn’t hear from Bill in the next hour, she would have to tell the boys that their father had a business problem and couldn’t make it. Then they’d want to talk to him and they’d demand to know when he was coming back. He was their father and this was their birthday. She glanced at her watch and faced what she’d been avoiding all day. It was an hour later in Sao Paulo. Last month Bill had called the boys from there. The name Milania Carridas had shown on the caller ID that night.
Google revealed quite a bit about the Brazilian actress and her lush curves, right down to what amounted to a G-string and pasties on her Double-D’s. To top it off, a video popped up of Milania with Bill at a high-end Brazilian resort doing the tango up close and personal on the dance floor. It left no doubt where else they were doing the tango.
Why should she hunt Bill down to remind him about his sons’ birthday? He was an adult and he should have to bear the brunt of his mistakes. But it wasn’t Bill who would hurt the most. It was Matt and Mitch. How could she not somehow make the effort to find out if Bill was there?
Yet the thought of calling made her ill.
“I’d castrate the toad, too,” Angie added.
“Hmm?” Lauren blinked at Angie, surfacing from her dilemma.
“The toad. While I’m waving my magic wand to fix things, I’ll fix him, too.”
Lauren’s half-laugh fizzled. “I’m mad enough to “Bobbit” him and have been for a while. But being pissed off at Bill only makes things harder for the boys. I know they sense my anger, and I’m sure that’s making them more insecure.”
“Good. You do that. Fortunately, I’m not under such responsible constraints and therefore can express enough mad for both of us.”
Lauren shook her head. “Then by all means castrate the toad, but we’ll have to find him first.” She groaned then. “Which means someone should call Brazil and see if he’s there.”
“Call Double-D G-string?” Angie winced. “Ouch.”
“Yeah. Can you just shoot me now?”
Angie’s smile turned devilish. “I’ve an idea. I’ll call for you. I’ll tell her that MetroSouthern is considering an article on jet-setting couples, and that I saw her picture with the toad. Even if he’s not with her, she might have an idea of where he is at. And you know she won’t turn down U.S. exposure.”
Angie’s mother was the editor for the hip mag that featured who’s who in the new generation of business people and trendsetters in “Hotlanta.”
“You’d do that?”
“In a heartbeat. While I am at it, I’ll see if she can be bribed enough to strangle the toad with her G-string.”
“Have I told you lately that I love you?”
Angie held up her hand. “Not so fast with the feel good. There’s a catch.”
Lauren didn’t like the sound of this one. “What?”
“You must promise me that you’ll come to the next MetroSouthern Soiree with me. The guys are good looking, dynamic business men, with plenty of money. The next step for you is a date where you engage in conversation with an interesting man, even if you aren’t ready to jump into bed with him.”
Each month MetroSouthern magazine held a gathering for the people who were featured in the current issue and Angie had been nagging her to go since Bill waltzed out the door.
Lauren shook her head. “How can I even consider dipping a toe into the dating pool again when I was so wrong about the kind of man Bill is? MetroSouthern men sound as if they’d only be more of the same.”
“Don’t throw out the whole barrel because of one rotten apple.”
“Yeah, well. I bit into that rotten apple, so you’ll have to forgive me if I’m not interested in having apple pie any time soon. I won’t attend the soiree, but I will promise to go out. How’s that?”
Angie narrowed her eyes. “On a date?”
Lauren winced then nodded, her mind quickly zeroing on how she could get around going on a “real” date.
“With who?” Angie demanded. “It’s only a deal if it is a date date. Not your cousin, a friend, or that to-die-for gourmet cook pal from Faire Fureur. The only thing that lights his eyes up besides his masterpiece meals is a man.”
She blushed, because that exactly what she had in mind.
“So who?” Angie asked.
“I don’t know yet. Someone different. Someone who doesn’t remind me of Bill.”
Angie did the three finger thing again. “He must be hetero, single, and between twenty-five and forty-five.”
“You don’t ask for much, do you?” Lauren shook her head.
“Just wait. You haven’t heard anything yet. Those are the qualifications for a talking date. The criteria for a sex date are a lot more vigorous, pun intended. But we’ll worry about that one next month.”
Sex date? She didn’t do…she couldn’t just do…she couldn’t even think about…could she?
Her palms broke out in a sweat. Even though her restless nights stemmed from eighteen months of denying she was a woman, didn’t mean she was ready for anything to change that.
She obviously sucked at judging character in men. She’d not only erred once, but twice. The boyfriend before Bill had been a mistake too, a big one, which had made Bill so Prince Charming-like in her mind. Yet, neither mistake should translate into never taking a chance on a relationship again, right? That would be irrational. Just as irrational as her supposition that she could sustain herself on just being mom.
“Don’t look so serious,” Angie said. “We’re talking in terms of casual not commitment.”
Fortunately, a loud whoop saved her from having to reply, and she snapped her attention back to her sons. Hank lifted them off the pony, which meant that any second they’d be headed her way and Bill would surely be on their minds.
“Do we have a deal?” Angie pressed.
“This is blackmail, but yes,” Lauren said as the boys looked her way, their eyes shining. “It’s a deal. You’ll find her number on the desk calendar in my office. Top right hand side, written in red.” She’d find a way around Angie’s date plan.
“I’m on it,” Angie said, sliding back her chair and taking off just as the boys reached the table.
“That was the bestest ride ever!” Mitch said. “Did you see me, Mom? I rode like a real soldier.”
Lauren brushed back the hair from Mitch’s eyes. “Yes, I saw you. You rode like a pro.”
Mitch looked about the lawn and his smile fell flat. “Dad didn’t see, though. I wanted Dad to see the pony.”
“Yeah,” said Matt. “Me too. Tell the pony man he can’t go until Dad comes.”
“I can’t do that, honey. The man must take the pony home so it can eat and rest.”
“But Dad has to!” they cried at the same time.
“Your father can see the pictures Miss Angie took. You both know it wouldn’t be fair keeping the pony from resting after he’s worked so hard for you and your friends. I promise there are plenty of pictures to show him, even some of you two riding the pony together.”
Matt folded his arms across his chest in a symbol of manly independence. “I’m not going to sleep until Dad comes and sees the pictures. He pomised he would.” Then he looked up, a sheen of tears in his eyes. “Why isn’t he here yet?”
“He’s never here anymore,” muttered Mitch, looking down as he kicked at the grass with the toe of his sneaker.
Lauren sighed. “I don’t know why he isn’t here. There could have been a plane delay. There could have been a business emergency. But I’ll make you a deal. You two can stay up as late as you want, only you must sit and watch a movie. No hide and seek with Sasha and Sam or War Zone.”
Both of their favorite games pretty much destroyed the house and led to hours of wild fun. After the party, Lauren wasn’t up for all of that tonight. Things had to settle down and get quiet. With luck they’d both be asleep before the movie ended.
“Just a little hide and seek?” asked Matt.
“Tomorrow. Not tonight. Now do we have a deal? Or do you two just want to go to bed at your usual time?”
“Deal!” they chimed.
“Then go say thank you and good night to all of your friends.”
The boys took off and Lauren leaned back in her chair. She’d only delayed and distracted them in regards to Bill, but the discussion had gone better than she expected. Signs that they resented their father’s absences were emerging, and if she wasn’t careful, their hurt could affect them for the rest of their lives.
Her parents had died in a car accident when she was sixteen. They’d been driving to pick her up from camp. And even though they had loved her, and they hadn’t left her on purpose, she’d still felt abandoned. That feeling sometimes reared an ugly head, especially since Bill walked out and Jason had gone MIA.
Setting her thoughts aside, she pasted on a smile and joined Matt and Mitch for the thank-yous and goodbyes. She’d picked the perfect day for her sons’ birthday. There wasn’t a dark cloud in the sky, but plenty shadowed her heart.
Disaster struck after the last family left.
Sasha and Sam barreled out the back door as Angie exited. She heroically tried to keep them in, but was knocked aside as Sasha and Sam sprang straight for the pony, barking like hounds from hell. The pony jerked free from Hank then proved it could move like the wind and kick as it bucked like a Brahma Bull through the open gate with her dogs on its heels.
Lauren yelled for Sasha and Sam as she took off running, but three people beat her into the front yard–Hank, Matt, and Mitch. She gave up on the dogs, which by some miracle stayed out of range of the pony’s kicks, and started yelling for Matt and Mitch. Unfortunately, they were whooping so loud she didn’t think they could hear her. If they’d heard her and ignored her, then she’d ground them until their sixteenth birthdays.
Her worst fears took shape as Hank slipped in the grass and the boys ran past him. Twenty yards and the whole crew would hit the street, running like bats out of hell without a brain in their heads.
Lauren yelled for the twins again. This time they looked back over their shoulders, saw her, and slowed slightly as they pointed at the pony and the dogs. From the fear in their faces, she knew they were saving their beloved pets from the now Godzilla-pony and wouldn’t likely stop until their mission was accomplished.
Suddenly the sprinkler system came on full force, shocking everyone with blasts of cold water. Something that wasn’t scheduled to happen until four in the morning.
Matt and Mitch cried out. Lauren could hardly see through the mist as she kept running, but as she neared the dark silhouettes of the twins, she found Sasha and Sam with them. The boys’ cry of surprise from the water blast had brought the Shepherds to them. She anchored a hand on each of their collars as Hank passed them, shouting for the pony named Clementine.
While she assessed his progress, worried that the pony would be hit by a car, the sprinklers cut off, bringing instant visibility. Hank had caught the reins, halting the pony about halfway into the street. Luckily no cars had been coming by.
Hank led the pony to the grass, faced her then stood staring at her. He looked shell-shocked, as if he’d been tossed from a Kansas-sized tornado. Water dripped from his hat and nose and plopped onto his drenched clothes that clung to a very fit body. Mud and grass had made their mark on his boots and she wondered if they were scarred for life. “Ma’am,” he drawled.
“Welcome to Oz,” she muttered.
“Is everyone all right?” Angie cried out as she splashed her way across the lawn and set a hand on Matt’s and Mitch’s shoulders. “I didn’t know what else to do and the sprinkler valve was right there.”
“You did well.” Lauren said, giving the dogs’ collars a gentle tug back. Sasha and Sam dutifully sat. If the water hadn’t surprised and slowed the runaways, the results could have been very, very bad.
“You might change your mind about that.” Angie cleared her throat and looked pointedly downward twice. “Why don’t you take the beasts and the boys inside and I’ll help Hank?”
Lauren glanced down and nearly groaned aloud as a twinge of heat flushed through her. Her white sundress, white bra, and white thong had become transparent, nipples to shadowed V. Hank was still staring, only he had more of a you-need-me-don’t-you look to him than the “lost in Oz” she’d first thought. You’d think she was on Desperate Housewives or something. And, Oh God, maybe she was–as in appeared as if she was desperate.
Surely the heat was embarrassment only and not remotely connected to the fact that a man, albeit eight to ten years her junior, had looked at her with real want. Want that had disappeared a long time ago from Bill’s gaze and been replaced with impatience and disdain, unless of course he happened to be horny and she was conveniently near.
“Thanks,” Lauren told Angie in a strangled voice. Gathering her courage and entourage, she headed for the front door of her house. Her wet dress lay plastered to her backside and had to be just as see-through as the front.
While she appreciated Hank’s appeal, she wasn’t attracted to him. For her, even if everything else had been perfect, the age difference was a major killer. Yet a flood of feelings swamped her. She’d been so consumed with meeting Bill’s expectations in a wife and nurturing her premature babies into thriving kids that she’d lost herself somewhere.
The boys started asking questions about their father again and she forced her disturbing emotions to a back burner. Trying to ease their growing hurt, she asked them to help her get Sasha and Sam inside. They each grabbed onto a collar and coaxed the dogs toward the house.
Within ten feet of the front door, Matt and Mitch squealed with delight and took off running. She nearly lost her grip on the dogs as they leaped to follow the boys. Two bright red packages sat on the porch.
“Hold up,” Lauren shouted before the boys reached the boxes. “Let me see who sent them first.” Call her paranoid, but in today’s world, everything should be suspect.
She wrestled Sasha and Sam inside the house and then examined the labels. Her heart pounded a bit faster when she saw Bill had sent them from Brazil. One was for Matt and the other for Mitch. They each grabbed their present and hopped up and down with joy.
“He didn’t forget,” Mitch said.
“Told you so,” said Matt.
“No, you didn’t.”
“Yes, I did.”
“I told YOU!”
“No, YOU didn’t!”
“Boys!” Too much sugar and too much excitement. “If you’re going to fight you might as well save the presents for tomorrow and go on to sleep tonight. Maybe you’ll enjoy them better in the morning.”
Matt and Mitch looked at her dumbfounded.
Before they could burst into tears or rebel, she smiled. “Ah, I don’t hear any more arguing. Good. Then maybe you aren’t too tired after all. So hurry up and change into dry pajamas and then you can open your presents and watch a movie. I’ll even make popcorn.”
They both nodded. She opened the door and they scrambled inside, immediately going for the stairs and their room. She hurried after them, knowing that she had about two-point-five seconds to get out of her wet clothes before the twins descended.
Make that less. She was naked in the bathroom when the thunder of their feet came down the hall.
“Wait on the bed. And no jumping,” she warned as she jerked on sweats.
She could hear the bed springs squeaking and Sasha and Sam barking. The dogs knew Matt and Mitch weren’t supposed to jump on the bed. She opened the door and the twins plopped onto their butts, hair still flying up and mischief in their eyes. They had their presents clutched in their arms and their pajamas turned about every wrong way possible. Matt had his Thomas the Tank Engine underwear on the outside of his pajama pants.
Shaking her head, she let it all go. “Okay. Open the boxes!”
From a shower of Styrofoam peanuts, two Dale Earnhardt Jr. #88 green racing cars emerged. The boys squealed in excitement and took off racing down the hall, sounding like the Daytona 500. Barking up a storm, the dogs were fast on their heels. Peanuts lay in their wake and Angie was nearly bowled over as she appeared at the top of the stairs.
It wouldn’t be a quiet evening after all.
Angie entered the bedroom and plopped down in the peanuts. “What was that? Greased Lightning?”
“No, Dale Earnhardt Jr. cars courtesy of Bill. He didn’t show but he didn’t forget after all.”
“Interesting. I talked to Double-D G-string.”
Lauren sat and blew at a peanut that had somehow landed in her hair. She already knew what she’d hear. Bill and the supermodel were slumming in a million dollar resort, surviving on caviar and champagne. Not that she cared anymore on her own account, but for the boys’ sake she did. “Give it to me straight.”
“She gave me all of her contact information and I promised to call her when we speak to Bill. He’s a week late for their date.”
Lauren snagged a red box and checked the postmark. It had been mailed from Sao Paulo, Brazil four days ago. “Maybe he’s dumped her for a Samba dancer.”