Shades of Gray

Shades of Gray
Vicki Hinze

June 2012 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-162-3

A deadly terrorist attack is taking shape deep in the Florida swamps. It's Jake Taylor's job to stop it--and to rescue his wife from the perpetrators.
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

Laura and Jake Taylor have good reason to doubt they’ll live a long, happy life together. He’s a Special Ops soldier; she’s a former Special Ops intelligence officer. She has an insider’s knowledge of the risks he takes. Their marriage began as a practical arrangement: he needed to keep his young son out of the clutches of an unstable ex-wife. Laura knows better than to fall in love with her husband. Jake agrees—odds are, he’ll never return from the next mission. But when the dangers of his world engulf Laura, both find themselves fighting for their lives as well as for their marriage.

Vicki Hinze is the award-winning author of 28 novels, 4 nonfiction books and hundreds of articles, published in as many as sixty-three countries. She is recognized by Who’s Who in the World as an author and as an educator. Visit her at


"A wonderful combination of romance, family drama, and out-and-out thriller.”Anne Stuart, New York Times bestselling author

"Complications here go beyond the usual hurdles and make the romance more touching for being hard won. And if the main action—Laura and Jake must combat terrorists amassing anthrax in the Florida Everglades—seems far-fetched, just read The New York Times.” —Publishers Weekly



The banging on the apartment door threatened to knock it off its hinges.

Laura Taylor sat straight up in bed, her heart in her throat. She tossed back the covers, bumping the novel she’d fallen asleep reading to the floor. Fear clawed at her stomach.

Bury it, Taylor. She recalled the drill by rote. Bury it. Intruders seldom knock.

But that didn’t mean whoever was pounding on her door in the dead of night was friendly, and in her position assuming that it did could be lethal. Amateur intruders seldom knock, but at times professionals do. It could be a diversionary tactic.

Someone could already be inside.

Slinging on a robe, she grabbed the canister of pepper spray she kept in the drawer beside her bed, resenting that break-ins happened even in military communities like Fairhope, California. But they did happen. One had happened, to her.

She crossed her bedroom, her every nerve on alert. The hammering at the door mirrored the jackhammering of her heart, and her throat turned ash-dry. Hugging her back to the wall, she slid against its gritty surface and inched down the narrow hallway, broadening her focus, scanning for any shift or movement in the darkness, seeking sensations of any cool August night air drafting in through broken glass, an open window or door.

She stumbled over her shoes. Banged her hip against the edge of the kitchen bar. Pain shot through her side, and she swallowed a curse because she always left her damn shoes there, and she knew it. Allowing herself to get careless, her skills to get rusty, was a good way to wake up dead.

Steadying herself, she moved on through, skirted around the wicker-and-glass dinette into the adjoining living room, then on to the front door. It was at times like this one, and during the break-in, when she felt most grateful she’d had survival school training during her active duty days as Captain Laura Taylor, Air Force Intelligence Officer and Communications Research Specialist. Despite the sweat trickling down between her breasts and the fine hairs on her nape standing on end, whoever tried coming in wouldn’t find a docile woman waiting to become a victim. She had the Air Force to thank for that, even as she acknowledged her covert work for it could have prompted this midnight visit.

"Laura?” A man called out and rapped again against the wood. "Laura, it’s me—Jake.”

"Jake.” Relief washed through Laura, and then evaporated.

She and Jake Logan had been friends for a decade, but the only time he ever had come over in the middle of the night had been when his ex-wife, Madeline, had done something god-awful—usually to their son, Timmy.

One kind of fear replaced another and squeezed at her chest. Laura twisted the cold dead bolt, heard it click, and then opened the door. "What’s wrong?”

Bitterness seeping from his every pore, Jake slumped against the frame, looking like six-foot-two of defeated thirty-four-year-old man, his jet-black hair wind-tossed, his strong face all angles and planes, outraged and ravaged. "She’s suing me for custody of Timmy.”

Madeline. Again. Laura nearly cried. Jake had tried everything to make his marriage to Madeline work, but she’d opted to continue downing Scotch. He’d spent years trying to get her sober, but finally she’d committed the unpardonable sin: endangering their son, Timmy. And after that, the craziest in a long string of her crazy stunts, he’d issued her an ultimatum: dry out in a rehab center, or he’d sue for divorce. She’d opted to drink. Now she’d dried out—for the moment. Unfortunately, her dry spells never lasted long—and she was suing him for custody of Timmy.

The injustice stung. Deeply. It wasn’t fair or right. Madeline had dragged Timmy through enough hell. More than enough. And God knew Jake had been tried by her fire twice as often as his son. When would their aggravation with this woman end?

Laura opened the door wider and motioned him inside. "Have you talked to your lawyer?” Gregory Radon was a great attorney. Surely he could put a quick stop to this insanity.

"I’ve talked to him. And then I tried to find Madeline.” Jake came in. As tense as strung wire, he paced between the sofa and wicker dinette table, dragging his hand through the black hair at his temple. "No luck. She’s pulled a disappearing act.”

It was probably a good thing for them both that she had, and that he hadn’t found her. Laura clicked on a lamp, set the canister of pepper spray on the coffee table, then relaxed back in a chair beside the sofa and waited for him to vent enough so that they could talk this through. She hated seeing him upset. Not only because she literally owed him her life and they’d been best friends for years, but because she loved Timmy as much as Jake loved his son.

"The upshot is that Lady Justice isn’t just blind,” he said, stopping at the edge of the light pooling on the mint-green carpet. "She needs a reality check.”

A prick of irritation at that remark slithered up Laura’s back. But she knew this wasn’t Jake talking so much as his anger and frustration, and so she let the comments slide, and straightened a sprawled stack of magazines on the coffee table. Modern Family looked comfortable there, beside Popular Science.

"Because my job is risky, and I’m away a lot, I provide a ‘less than stable growth environment’ for my son. In other words, it’s a toss-up,” he muttered, a warranted amount of anger riddling his tone. "My odds of retaining custody of Timmy are about equal to Madeline’s odds of getting custody of him.”

Shock, stark and deep, surged through Laura. "But she’s a drunk,” she said, too surprised to pause and state that bald truth diplomatically.

"Sad commentary, isn’t it?” Jake looked down at her, letting her see his weariness of fighting Madeline in his eyes. "I’m a Special Operations officer in the United States Air Force, and, because I risk my neck so often for my country, I’ve got the same odds as an alcoholic of keeping custody of my son.”

It was a sad commentary. An infuriating one, too. "So what did Radon say you can do about it?” If Jake said "Nothing,” she swore she’d spit nails.

He rapped the back of a chair in his pacing, then stopped in front of her. "According to the good attorney, I could ‘greatly enhance’ my odds of winning a custody battle by getting married.”

"Oh, God.” Anything but that. Anything but that.

"My feelings exactly.” Jake nodded. "He says a wife would be there when I can’t be, giving Timmy ‘a higher probability’ of having a more stable home life with me.” Jake let out a grunt that clearly depicted his thoughts on that recommendation.

After the hellish years he had spent married to Madeline, that suggestion and comment had to sting. Sting? Hell, it had to scorch. They’d had any and everything but peace and stability.

Agitated, she shifted on her chair and swept her auburn hair back from her face. Her thoughts raced. Jake married again? And Madeline gaining custody of Timmy? Just the thought of either soured Laura’s stomach.

She couldn’t let this happen. Not to Jake or to Timmy. She knew how much pain it would cause them, especially Timmy. How could she not know? She had grown up as an only child in New Orleans without much of a family. Her parents had loved each other to distraction; so much so, they’d had little love left over for their daughter. Laura had never belonged. She had been alone, an outsider, and she had never forgotten how much that had hurt. She’d sworn to herself that one day, she would have children of her own, and things would be different. But thanks to a ruptured ovarian cyst and a non-functioning ovary, she’d had to watch that dream die. Then Timmy had been born, and from the moment she had first seen him, just minutes after his birth, she had considered him her surrogate son.

No, she couldn’t let this happen. Not to him. The anger and guilt of not preventing it from happening would eat her alive. Resolve hardened in her chest. She’d be damned before she would risk Timmy being raised by a neglectful alcoholic who loved Scotch more than her son. He would not feel like an outsider.

As a resolution occurred to Laura, she said it aloud, having no idea what kind of reaction to expect. "You could marry me.”

Jake stared at her for a long moment, his soft gray eyes shining with gratitude, then hardening with determination. He plopped down on the sofa and buried his face in his hands. A minute elapsed, then two. Finally, he leaned forward and propped his elbows on his knees. "You’ve been the best friend a man could ask for, but you’ve done so much for us already. I can’t ask you to marry me, too.”

"You didn’t ask.” Laura shifted over to sit across from him in her favorite chair. The beige velour snagged her silk robe, exposing her thigh. She tugged it closed, then smoothed it over her kneecap. "I offered.”

Thinking it over, he vacillated between the pros and cons, his expression shifting half a dozen times. "No.” He sighed, as if he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, rolled the copy of Popular Science into a tube, and then smacked it against his open palm. "No, you can’t.”

The more Laura considered it, the more sense it made. And the more reasonable it seemed. "Why not?”

"Why not?” His tone turned incredulous.

"Yes. Why not?” Laura narrowed her gaze in warning. "We know what kind of antics Madeline’s capable of, Jake. We’ve got to do whatever it takes to protect him from her.”

"I have to do whatever it takes,” he corrected, dropping the magazine back onto the coffee table. It landed with a firm thunk. "Look, I’m grateful for everything you do for Timmy and me. Trying to figure out how to deal with him most of the time... well, I’d always be floundering without you, and I know it.”

"Then doesn’t it make sense that we do this?”

"No, it doesn’t,” he insisted, forking both hands through his hair. "It’s exactly why we shouldn’t.” Jake leaned back and put on his most serious I-mean-it look. "When Madeline got pregnant and her father insisted she abort, you helped me to accept what I had to do for Timmy’s sake. You helped me through that nightmare of a marriage, and the even worse divorce.”

"Of course. Friends do that kind of thing for friends, Jake.”

"You’ve done more, and we both know it. You’ve always helped me with Timmy. Hell, you’ve been more of a mother to him than Madeline ever thought about being. But I can’t have you marrying me for him, Laura. I won’t. Even for a best friend, that’s just... too much.”

"Do I have any choice in the matter?” It was her life. And it should damn well be her decision. The man would protect her to death, if she let him.

"Don’t get your hackles up.” Jake let his gaze roll toward the ceiling, then focused back on her. "I just think that you deserve a life with a man you know is going to be there for you when you need him. I work missions with survival odds between two and ten percent. That’s not going to change.”

She resisted a compelling urge to sigh and just announce that they were going to do this, and to tack on an "and that’s final.” But it was too soon. Jake had to vent and discuss this some more to see the big picture and draw the same conclusion she had seen and drawn. "I was in Special Ops. I know what goes on there.”

"Then I shouldn’t have to remind you that when one mission is over, there’s another one waiting in the wings.”

Did he think she had forgotten? How could she forget a job that had determined her whole lifestyle? A job drilled into her until she lived, breathed, and ate it? How could anyone? No one forgot it. Ever. "Listen, all of this is just smoke. And smoke doesn’t change facts. You need a wife.”

"The last thing I need is a wife.” He grunted, slicing his hand down the thigh of his black slacks. "Even a damn divorce hasn’t given me peace from the one I had.”

How could Laura dispute that truth? "You need a mother for Timmy,” she rephrased. "I can be that, ifI’m your wife.”

"And what do you get?” he asked, then answered himself. "Nothing.”

"I get a son.” Only she knew how much that would mean to her.

Jake’s broad shoulders slumped, telling her he had more than an inkling of the importance of that to her, and his voice softened. "I can’t be a husband again, Laura. I won’t.” He rubbed at his forehead, clearly irritated and unsure of what to do with all his frustration. "Don’t you understand? We’d have no future.”

"Of course. I understand.” She stiffened and persisted. "But to keep Timmy, you need a wife. I know there isn’t anyone special in your life, so that leaves me.”

"Why in hell would you marry a man with a son and no future? You, of all people, should have better sense.” He laced his fingers atop his head and closed his eyes, as if silently cursing, or praying.

When he reopened them, he glared at her. "It’s highly likely I’ll never live to see thirty-five, and we both know it. Think about that. And think about yourself, not just Timmy. Are you forgetting who you are?”

"No. But I think you might be.”

Agitated and obviously bent on reminding her anyway, from his perspective, Jake began pacing again, hanging in the shadows just beyond the lamplight. "Look, you went into the military to do high-tech communications research, and you became an expert—a captain in Intel who could pick her pet projects and her terms, and you did it. Yet all of that still wasn’t enough for you.”

She’d loved her work in the Special Ops intelligence community, and she still loved her research. But it hadn’t been enough, which was exactly why marrying him made sense. "I haven’t forgotten, Jake.” Nor had she forgotten Madeline’s part in why she was no longer in the military. That, however, Laura had sworn to herself she’d never tell Jake.

He’d said the last thing he needed was a wife, but it wasn’t. He didn’t need more guilt, which is exactly what he’d feel if she told him how Madeline’s antics had affected her and her career.

He stopped near the table and glared over the slope of his shoulder back at her. "Damn it, you know you hated the constant danger of working Intel. You hated not knowing where you’d be tomorrow or next week, never mind next year.”

"Yes, I did. Enough to get out of the Air Force to get away from it.”

"You hated having no idea what mission you’d be on, or where you’d be performing it, and you walked out—as much as anyone can walk out of Intel—to get yourself a personal life.”

Was he going to laundry list her whole life here? "All of that is true, but—”

"Then why are you telling me you’re willing to give up a personal life and put yourself right in the middle of all of the things you hated again?”

"Because I am willing.” Laura looked him right in the eye. "And that’s exactly what I’m telling you.” She lifted a hand, palm upward. "I’m willing.”

He dragged a hand through his hair, spiking it. "You’re forgetting about Madeline. As much as I wish she would, she isn’t going to go away.” A grimace flattened his generous mouth to a tight slash. "If I’ve accepted nothing else in the two years since the divorce, I’ve accepted that she’ll be a thorn in my side until the day I die. You can’t be willing to accept that, too.”

"Yes, I can,” Laura said without hesitating, then leaned forward in her chair, a little amused by the disbelief in his tone. "Listen, you’re right about all of this. But you’re forgetting the one reason that makes all of it insignificant.”

He lifted his hands, and the button on his left shirt-cuff winked in the lamplight. "What the hell could make all of this insignificant?”

"Timmy.” Her throat sandpaper dry, Laura dredged up her courage and then spoke from the heart, something she had rarely let herself do with anyone, including Jake. "I’d do it for Timmy,” she said. "I love him, Jake.”

The skepticism in his expression wilted, and the hard lines in his face softened. "I know you love him, but we’re talking marriage here. This isn’t a day at the park in San Francisco, or a week in the Sierras playing in the snow. You’d be sacrificing your shot at a happy, normal life with a real marriage.”

She bristled, and her tone went flat. "I’m aware of the difference.”

"I didn’t mean to insult you.” His exasperation escaped on a sigh. "Ah, hell, Laura, you know what I mean.”

"Yes, I do. I got out of the Air Force because I wanted to put down roots in a quiet and peaceful life. But, in case you haven’t noticed, my friend, it’s been four years since I took off my captain’s bars, and my roots and the rest of me are still single.”

Unable to sit and speak this frankly, she stood up and moved behind the stuffed chair, then grasped the back of it in a knuckle-tingling grip, wondering why in heaven she smelled lemons. She despised them, and she knew for a fact there was nothing in her apartment that even resembled the scent. "You know how much I wanted children. You also know my biological clock didn’t get a shot at ticking before it shut down. I’ll never have children myself, but I have had Timmy. In my heart, he’s my son, Jake, and he always has been. And right now, my son needs me.”

Jake stared at her, a little surprised but even more awed. Laura had let him glimpse inside her on occasion, but never like this. And in her expression, determined and yet vulnerable, he realized the truth. Her suggestion to marry him truly had nothing to do with him. It had to do with what was best for Timmy.

Relieved by that, Jake moved out from the shadows on the floor into the lamplight and plucked at the nubby fabric on the back of the sofa. He considered her proposal from that perspective, and, in the end, he decided she made a lot of sense. But they had to be perfectly clear on the terms of this agreement. He didn’t dare to not be crystal clear.

"You’re right,” he said. "I do need a mother for Timmy. But I don’t need a wife.” His gray eyes turned steely. "If we should do this, as egotistical as it sounds, I would have to know you’d never make the mistake of falling in love with me. Not ever.” The skin between his brows furrowed. "My mortality rating is bad at best. We have no future. You can never forget that, and you can never take the chance of loving me.”

They had been friends for over a decade. Did he think this was a news flash? "I know.”

His frown deepened, and his voice grew even more stern. "I won’t love you. And I won’t forget it—not for a second. I can’t forget it, and I can’t handle any guilt or regret or the worry of wondering that you might. I won’t worry, and I won’t regret, Laura. And even five or ten years from now, I won’t tolerate recriminations or reprisals being tossed into my face because of the way things are. I’m telling you now exactly how things will always be. I’ve got to know you understand that, and it’s okay with you. Otherwise, I can’t do what I have to do.”

The job. Duty first. How well she remembered the drill. And as warnings went, this one wasn’t so bad. She’d heard worse from him, and those had worked out amicably. "Quit ranting and listen to me, okay?” When he stopped at the other side of the coffee table and stuffed his fist into his pocket, she went on. "I don’t love you, Jake. I’m not in love with you, and I can’t fathom, even in my wildest imagination, ever being in love with you. So none of that is a problem.”

That blunt disclosure had the logical man fighting the male ego in Jake, and he suspected Laura knew it. What looked suspiciously like a smile tugged at her lips. A muscle in his jaw twitched.

"You’ll have your home and your life, and I’ll have mine,” she said in a tone so calm and reasonable it set his teeth on edge. "We’ll just do what we’ve always done: work together for whatever is in Timmy’s best interest. The only difference is we’ll be married.”

"So you accept that’s all our relationship can ever be?” Jake asked, still unconvinced. How could she be satisfied, settling for so little for herself? He had to be missing something she hadn’t considered. "I’m serious about all this. We’ll never be emotionally close. We’ll never be a real couple, or any more of a family than we are now.”

"We certainly won’t,” she firmly insisted. "But we will be married, and that’ll ‘greatly enhance’ your odds of keeping custody of Timmy. That’s what matters most to me.”

Jake stared at her in disbelief. "Why?”

Laura accepted it. He wasn’t going to relent. Not until he felt satisfied, and to give him satisfaction, she had to bare even more truths. Ones she preferred not to think about, much less discuss. Still, this was for Timmy. She would do it, but she’d be damned if she could look Jake in the eye when she did. She focused on the placket of his gray corduroy shirt. "I was a vulnerable child.” Saying that out loud, even after all these years, still rattled her. "I didn’t like it. And I won’t have a child I consider my son vulnerable. Not if I can stop it.”

He dipped his chin and stayed silent a long moment. Obviously her disclosure about being vulnerable had taken him by surprise. Or maybe it hadn’t, and he didn’t want her to know that he had surmised that truth a long time ago.

He lifted his chin to look at her. "We’d be taking a shot, but it could be for nothing. Madeline could win the custody suit, anyway.”

"Highly doubtful,” Laura countered. "I’m clean, with strong credentials and no history that could hurt him. Dr. Laura Taylor, formerly Captain Laura Taylor, will round out your superiority nicely, I would say.” Lord, how she wished she felt as confident about that as she had sounded.

Surprise flickered through his eyes. "You’re even willing to flaunt your titles on this?”

Hating pretentious titles, she blanched. But for Timmy? Anything. Even that. "Yes.”

Jake’s lip curled, hinting at a crooked smile. "You really are sure about this.”

Finally, he was coming around. How could she not be sure? "To keep Timmy away from Madeline, I’d marry the devil himself. You can be ruthless, friend, but you’re far less daunting than the devil.”

Laura had thought this through. And Jake supposed he could understand why she would find settling for him acceptable. Even without a future, she wanted to feel connected to someone outside herself—to Timmy. And from living through Jake’s marriage to Madeline along with him, Laura knew the hell a traditional marriage involved. Not loving him and being Timmy’s stepmother, when she already considered herself his mother, was emotionally safe. "Can you tell me straight out you know and accept that the only reason I’m marrying you is to keep Madeline away from Timmy?”

"I know and accept it,” Laura said without reservation, then issued a warning of her own. "And I want to know you accept that Timmy is the only reason I would marry you.”

"Of course.” He shrugged. "Why else?”

The man had no idea of his appeal. Which is probably why they had been able to be friends and keep their relationship purely platonic.

It took a lot more discussion—actually, until dawn was breaking outside—but finally, Laura settled his fears, and the worry cleared from Jake’s face.

"Okay,” he said, rubbing his lower lip between his forefinger and thumb. "Okay, let’s do it.”

"Okay.” Laura stood up, feeling buoyant. It wasn’t the traditional proposal or acceptance, and theirs wouldn’t be anything like a traditional marriage. But it would serve the purpose and hopefully put a damper on Madeline’s plan to bring more turmoil into Timmy’s life. A sacrifice for both Laura and Jake, but one that—please, God!—would spare Timmy.

That possibility alone made any sacrifice worth the price they had to pay.

Two weeks later, in a Lake Tahoe chapel, Laura Taylor put on an antique white lace dress, held a bouquet of pale yellow roses and baby’s breath, and became Jake Logan’s wife.

It never occurred to her or Jake to exchange wedding rings, and the justice of the peace had to remind Jake to kiss his bride.

Two weeks and three days after the wedding, Madeline went on another drinking binge and dropped the custody suit.

That news came to Laura via Jake, who met her for lunch at the Golden Dragon, a tiny Chinese restaurant they frequented. He suggested they have their marriage annulled.

Awash in relief over the dropping of the suit, Laura considered the annulment for nearly two minutes before deciding against it. "No,” she said, watching a brunette waitress who was as thin as a rail scurry from table to table, refilling glasses from a frosty pitcher of iced tea. "No annulment.”

About to take a bite of spicy-smelling lo mein, Jake paused, his fork midair. "No?”

"No,” Laura insisted, removing a smelly lemon wedge from the saucer of her hot tea and dumping it into an empty bowl. "What if something should happen to you? Considering the job, we know it’s a strong possibility.”

He put his fork down. "Custody of Timmy would automatically revert to Madeline.”

"Exactly.” Laura leaned closer, across the red-clothed table, then dropped her voice to a whisper to avoid being overheard by the two women lunching at the next table. "I know that’s eaten at you inside for a long time—worrying about that happening. It’s worried me, too. And now we have the opportunity to do something about it. I think rather than get an annulment, we need to pursue a stepparent adoption.”

Jake opposed. Strongly. "No, you’ve sacrificed enough for us already.”

While other diners came, ate, and departed, he went on to reiterate every logical reason in the book why she shouldn’t want to do this, informed her that Madeline would never give her consent, and then reiterated it all some more, in case Laura had missed anything the first time he’d said it.

When he paused for breath, Laura interjected, "But she’s an alcoholic, Jake.”

"True, but she’s one with substantial credentials. She spent years in the intelligence community as an assistant to Colonel James, and that will strengthen her custody odds.”

"Even if she was only there because of her father?” Of course, Colonel James had hired her. Her father, Sean Drake, was a well-respected CIA legend, and offending him was paramount to offending God. James was far too slick to offend God.

"It doesn’t matter,” Jake insisted. "She was there. That’s what shows up on paper.”

Laura groused and fidgeted on her red vinyl seat. "But everyone knows she was an airhead and a drunk, Jake. Even her boss knew it.”

"She got excellent ratings on every employee review.”

"Okay,” Laura conceded. "So to stay in Sean Drake’s good graces, Colonel James covered for her. But, over the years, she’s pulled a respectable succession of crazy stunts. They can be verified and testified to, and that would have to strengthen our case.”

Jake mulled that over, and after Laura swallowed her last bite of sesame chicken, she interrupted his ponderings to remind him of the bottom line. "We have to do everything possible to never leave Timmy vulnerable to her,” Laura insisted. "We have to, Jake, because otherwise only God knows the damage she could do.”

Timmy could not be an outsider.




Two years later

Cheese dripped from the tines of Timmy’s fork. "What if Judge Neal asks me why Mom’s got an apartment and only lives with us some of the time?”

Swallowing a bite of hot lasagna, Laura waited for Jake’s answer. After two near-misses at getting this adoption through, and two times of surviving Madeline sobering up and withdrawing her consent, they were all worried about the court hearing with Judge Neal tomorrow. And reassuring Timmy, when feeling unsure herself, wasn’t the easiest thing in the world for Laura to do. So much could go wrong.

Jake put down his fork, then wiped at his mouth with his napkin. "The judge isn’t going to ask you that, son.”

"How do you know? He could.”

"Because I know,” Jake insisted. He set the napkin down on the light oak table and let his gaze wander over to the lacy white curtains on the back door’s window.

Laura couldn’t get upset about Jake’s terse response. They’d been at this "what if” business the entire time they’d cooked dinner and all during the eating of it. Everyone’s nerves had worn thin.

Timmy stabbed a green bean with his fork. "What if Judge Neal asks me how come my mom and dad don’t sleep in the same room? All my friends’ moms and dads do. He could ask me that.” Concern and curiosity burned in Timmy’s eyes. "What am I supposed to tell him?”

"Tell him your father snores,” Laura suggested, insinuating a mischievous lilt in her voice in an attempt to ease Timmy’s concerns and to diminish his curiosity. She hated seeing him worried—no nine-year-old should be under this kind of pressure—and she hated even more him seeing himself as different from his friends. She remembered how awkward being different had made her feel. While she and Jake tried to minimize those things for Timmy, their situation was different, and that was the simple, unavoidable truth.

"Dad snores?” Timmy grinned.

"Loudly.” She winked at him. "Now stop worrying, Tiger. Your dad and I will be there with you when you talk with Judge Neal. Everything will be just fine.”


"It’ll be fine, Timmy.” Laura too had wearied of the worry, and she still had to tell Jake that Intel had reactivated her as a communications consultant on Operation Shadowpoint. Lousy timing, with court tomorrow, and the news would surely go over with Jake about as well as a lead balloon.

What exactly the operation was, she had no idea, and she had no need to know. She rarely did know the mission on these consultations, which were growing less frequent because more trainees now had the required expertise. Still, times arose when an expert was needed, and during those times, Intel would temporarily activate her to do the consult. She was also subject to recall as an active duty military officer, though the odds of the Air Force recalling her were slim, unless the United States got involved in yet another war. Most Intel consults took only a couple of hours to clear. Some, a few days. So far, none had kept her activated longer than that.

On Shadowpoint, she’d been asked to identify and eliminate the reason for a communications breakdown between Home Base and three operatives in the field. She had to admit that she enjoyed feeling the adrenaline rush again. It had been a while, thanks to Sean Drake. If not for Madeline’s father’s resentment of Laura’s friendship with Jake, she would still be an active duty military officer working on her communications designs full-time and a full-time communications consultant for Intel. Drake had threatened to destroy her career, with an assist from her research funder, Colonel James. Deactivating in Intel and leaving the military was the only way Laura could stop them. So she had. Now, she was a civil service employee attached to the Publicity Office who did her communications research and development designs quietly—actually, covertly—on the side, and she assisted Intel when her expertise was needed. It wasn’t a perfect situation, or what she’d wanted but, under the circumstances, it was the best she could do.

Squelching her resentment against Drake and James, she avoided looking at Jake and gazed across the table at Timmy, who was still hard at the what-if questions. The only good thing about her not being on active duty in the military or active full-time in Intel was that her absence removed her and her family from the dangers inherent to the job. Her consults did pose the potential for danger, but typically she was in and out of the operation quickly, and only those with the highest security clearances ever knew she had been involved. Much safer for Timmy. There was solace in that.

Still, this Shadowpoint consult was serious enough that she had to tell Jake about it, and she would—just as soon as they got Timmy calmed down and into bed for the night. "Stop worrying, Tiger,” she said to him. "Your dad and I will be there.”

Outside, tires screeched.

Seconds later, the beams of bright headlights flooded in through the kitchen window. A car jumped the curb and headed straight for the kitchen. Oh, God, was it going to hit the house?

"It’s not stopping.” Jake jumped up.

Closest, Laura snagged Timmy, knocking a chair against the wall. She pulled him away from the outer wall, out of the kitchen, then shielded him behind her and watched Jake run toward the front door.

Through the arched opening between the entryway and the kitchen, she saw the car finally stop. Its still running engine had the walls and window vibrating, and Laura’s nerves shot. And Timmy was as white as a sheet. "It’s okay, Tiger.” She swept a shaky hand down his hair, praying she wasn’t inadvertently lying to him. "Just stay put until your dad assesses the situation.”

A car door slammed. "Where is she?” a woman shouted, her voice slurred. "Where is she?” A pause, then, "Don’t you dare tell me to lower my voice, Jake Logan. I’m not married to you anymore. You can’t tell me what to do. Where is the bitch?”

Madeline. And Timmy had to have heard her. For God’s sake, why couldn’t the woman think of him just once? Just once?

"Timmy.” Laura cupped his trembling chin. From the pain haunting his eyes, she knew he’d recognized Madeline’s voice. "Why don’t you go take your shower now, okay?”

The fear and anger burning in his eyes seeped into his voice. "It’s Madeline.”

"Yes, it is,” Laura admitted, more relieved that it was her than someone else. There were other possibilities. With Jake’s job, terrorists or malcontents seeking revenge or intelligence information were a possibility and a potential threat.

Timmy’s chin quivered, and he looked a blink from tears. "She’s drunk again.”

"I’m afraid so.” Laura swallowed hard. How could the woman keep doing this? Why did she insist on continuously hurting Timmy this way? "Go on now, and don’t forget to brush your teeth. Dad and I’ll be in a little later to say good night.”

Biting down on his lip, Timmy clenched his jaw. "She’s gonna do it again, isn’t she, Mom?”

Laura didn’t have to ask what he meant. Twice Madeline had pulled her consent before Jake and Laura could see the adoption through to fruition, and this felt frighteningly like a prelude to a third withdrawal. "I hope not.”

"Me, too.” He walked through the entryway, then across the family room and down the hall toward his room.

"Damn it, let go of me, Jake! I want to talk to the bitch, and I’m not going anywhere until I do.”

Fuming, Laura forced herself to stay in the entryway until Timmy stepped out of sight, then she went to the door. Madeline was yelling loud enough to wake the dead. No way could Timmy—or every neighbor in a three-block radius—not hear every word. Jake and Timmy deserved so much better than this. So much better than this.

Laura stepped outside, down onto the concrete landing, and saw Madeline sway on her feet. Her car had stopped closer to four feet than six from the kitchen window. The engine was still running, the lights were still on, and half the sod that had been the lawn now clung splattered on her car’s back fenders. So much for all the work they’d put into grooming every blade for the past two weeks. Laura grimaced. "I’m right here. What do you want, Madeline?”

She jerked around, her black suit as crumpled as if she’d slept in it for a week. Her once beautiful face, puffy and bloated by alcohol, twisted with hatred that ran soul-deep. "You’re not getting him. Timmy’s mine.” She thumped her thin chest with a wild, waving hand. "You got Jake, but you’re not getting my son.”

"I understand.” Laura crossed her arms over her chest, hiding the hurt and holding it inside. "Is that it?”

"You coldhearted bitch. Timmy belongs to me. He’s mine. M-I-N-E.”

Laura ignored the woman and swiveled her gaze to Jake. "Should I call the police?” That had been their attorney’s advice.

"No.” Jake frowned. "Timmy’s upset enough without having to see that, too.”

Truthfully, Laura felt a little relieved. The neighbors were gawking. Discreetly peeking out from behind their drapes and through the slats of their mini-blinds, but gawking. That infuriated and embarrassed her. Hell, it humiliated her, and she knew it had the same effect on Jake. "She obviously can’t drive.” A diplomatic understatement; the woman could barely stand. It was a shame her overindulgence hadn’t shut her mouth. "I’ll go call her a cab. You get the car off the lawn.”

"Don’t talk about me like I’m not standing here.” Madeline tried to sling off Jake’s grasp on her upper arm.

He held fast with little effort. She was tiny, about Laura’s five-five height, and Jake towered over them both. "That’s enough, Madeline.”

"Nothing is black and white,” she shouted at Laura. "I told you, there’re always shades of gray. Damn it, I told you...”

She had told Laura that. Repeatedly. But what exactly she had meant by it, only she, God, and the demons that drove her to drink knew. Laura turned to go inside.

"Don’t walk away from me, bitch.” Madeline fought Jake harder, spitting her words out from between her teeth. "I hate it when people walk away from me!”

Jake restrained her, kept Madeline from going after Laura. The woman was sick, and they should have compassion, but a resentful part of her half-wished Jake would turn Madeline loose so Laura could legitimately belt her in self-defense. It would be wrong, but after so many years of these type altercations, her tolerance level had dipped low. At the moment, it had dipped to nearly nonexistent. Yet Laura understood the value of discipline, so she restrained herself and retraced her steps on the walkway to the covered landing at the front door. Only she would know she tasted blood from biting her tongue. There was solace in that.

Madeline screamed. "Don’t walk away from me!”

Without looking back, Laura went inside, shoved the door shut, resisted an urge to kick it. She jerked up the phone, shaking in fury and fear that Madeline would stop the adoption again. Muttering intermittently against the aggravation, the frustration, and the indignity of putting up with stunts like this one, she first called a cab to come get Madeline and then phoned Bill at Green’s Automotive to come and tow away her car.

In the morning, the woman wouldn’t have a clue where she’d left it, and Laura would rather pay the towing fee than risk Madeline returning here so soon. Laura’s tolerance definitely had sunk too low to risk her having the patience to deal with that.

Hanging up the phone, soul-weary and worried half-sick about tomorrow, she glimpsed Timmy out of the corner of her eye. Hunkered against the hallway wall, he looked so lost, so alone and afraid, it broke her heart. The urge to physically force Madeline into a serious attitude adjustment hit Laura hard. Instead, she went to Timmy, stooped down, and then hugged him close, trying to absorb all the fears from him. "I’m so sorry, Tiger.” The child was shaking like a leaf. "Are you okay?”

"She scares me, Mom.”

"She’s sick, honey.” Laura rubbed little circles on his back, trying to soothe him. "Really sick.”

A few minutes later, Jake came back inside.

Timmy was still shaking. "Is she gone, Dad?” he asked, his eyes wide.

"Yes, son.” Looking as weary as Laura felt, Jake tried to reassure Timmy. "And Bill Green just left with her car. Everything’s okay, except the front lawn. We’ll need a truckload of dirt and a good bit of sod to get rid of the tire ruts.” Jake heaved a sigh and rubbed at his neck. "Guess that settles the question of what we’ll be doing next weekend.”

"Guess so,” Laura said. "But Sutter’s Mill will still be there the weekend after for us to visit. We can handle this.” That was true, if annoying. Repairing the lawn only required time, money, and hours of backbreaking work and sweat. The real worry was in wondering what Timmy would require to heal from this.

Jake scooped up Timmy and hugged him to him. Though Laura felt down to her core the regret and worry Madeline had put in Jake’s eyes, she pretended not to see it.

Half an hour later, they had all calmed down considerably, and Timmy was back to the what-if questions Judge Neal might pose to him.

"Stop worrying.” Jake ruffled Timmy’s hair. "You’ll turn gray before you’re ten. Mom and I will be there, son. Didn’t she tell you everything would be fine?”


"And doesn’t she always tell the truth?”

"She always has,” Timmy conceded, sliding a longing look at Laura that this time she was being honest with him, too.

"We’ll be there,” Laura repeated to reinforce it, hearing the phone ring.

Closest to the phone, Jake grabbed the receiver, then answered. "Logan.”

His shoulders tensed, and he buried his expression under his professional mask. "Fine.” He glanced at his watch. "I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

Laura’s heart wrenched in her chest. It was a business call. He was being sent out on a mission.

Tomorrow in court, Jake wouldn’t be there.

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