All Due Respect

All Due Respect

Vicki Hinze

December 2012 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-2026

Can a first-grade teacher from Grace, Alabama stop a terrorist group from its deadly mission?

Can she trust her heart again?

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Can a first-grade teacher from Grace, Alabama stop a terrorist group from its deadly mission?

Can she trust her heart again?

Former Air Force scientist Dr. Julia Warner-Hyde went into hiding three years agoto escape her abusive ex-husband. Her new life as a small town school teacher is safe and peaceful—until her old lab partner, Dr. Seth Holt, arrives.

 Terrorists have stolen the missile system Seth and Julia designed, and they fully intend to use it. Sethneeds Julia's help to find, outwit and halt them, but he and she didn't part on the best of terms. He doesn’t know that Julia has a secret enemy who might kill them both. Can she fight that threat and the terrorists—all while keeping Seth in the dark? How can she refuse to try, with millions of lives at stake?

Vicki Hinze is the award-winning author of 30 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. For more information, please visit her website at


"When it comes to military romance, Vicki Hinze is a four-star-general.” — Harriet Klausner, Book Browser

Nominated for Best Suspense Novel of the Year — RT Book Club

"A diverting romantic thriller.” — Publishers Weekly

"Five Stars!” —




Chapter One

My God, he’d found her.

Unable to believe her eyes, Dr. Julia Warner-Hyde turned her back to him, squeezed her eyes shut. Calm down. Think. Think!

She darted a frantic gaze up then down the shore, out on the churning Gulf of Mexico. Sand. Water. Deserted picnic area. Not even a trash receptacle close enough to hide behind.

He’s found you, Julia. Accept it. You have to face him.

Face him? She couldn’t face him. She didn’t want to face him—or anyone who reminded her of the past.

No matter how hard you try, some things you can’t outrun. Your history is one of them. You’ve got to accept that, too.

She did. But now?

The water crept up on the beach, soaking her shoes. Maybe it wasn’t him. Maybe it was an optical illusion. Maybe the bleak glare off the water or the blinding reflection of the sugar-white sand had tricked her. The stiff sea breeze was burning her eyes and blurring her vision. She could have seen a resemblance where there wasn’t one.

Squinting back over her shoulder, she double-checked. Six two, mid-thirties, black hair. Same familiar body and resolute stride. He sidestepped the beachside park’s picnic area, the brisk wind plastering his windbreaker against his white shirt and jeans-clad hip, and moved straight toward her.

It was definitely him.

The fine hair on her neck stood on end, and the chill cut through to her bones. Damn it, she’d been so careful. How had he found her? How had anyone found her?

Had to be Intel or the OSI, Julia.

Since she’d left the lab and come here to teach first grade, the Office of Special Investigations had been keeping tabs on her and briefing every Department of Defense honcho with a vested interest on her activities. She would resent that, but she couldn’t do it with conviction and a clear conscience. If an agent hadn’t breached protocol three years ago and warned she was in danger, she’d be dead now. Still, their keeping tabs on all former employees didn’t explain why her former Black World coworker, Dr. Seth Holt, was in Grace, Alabama, and not in his lab in New Orleans, designing ballistic missiles. What did this visit mean? Would she have to leave Grace now, too?

Seth stopped in front of her. "Hello, Julia.”

She crossed her arms over her chest and stared up at him, doing her damnedest to control her fear. "What are you doing here?”

His eyebrows inched up on his forehead. "I expected a ‘Hello, Seth. It’s good to see you,’ but I guess you still haven’t mastered the rudiments of tact.”

Tact? He wanted tact from a woman who was terrified her whole life was about to be ripped to shreds—again? Or did he think she was the world’s biggest sucker? This wasn’t a friendly visit; the grim slash of his mouth and jut of his jaw proved it, not to mention his finding her. This visit had purpose. Risks with grave consequences. And that had to be horrible news for her.

"We need honesty, not tact.” He’d always said honesty made their relationship special. Shifting uncomfortably, she edged back from the creeping water. "Now, why are you here, Seth?”

He fisted a hand in his jacket pocket, and professional distance filled his eyes. "I need your help.”

Definitely sucker bait. Seth Holt never allowed himself to need anyone, or anything from anyone. He was the most self-sustained, self-sufficient man ever born. "You prefer working alone,” she reminded him.

"Not when I’d fail, and innocent people would pay the price.”

So he wasn’t here to ruin her new life. That should be good news, but it wasn’t. It meant his back was against the proverbial wall in a professional crisis. And his crisis carried the capability of destroying many lives. Seth worked in the Black World: that shadowy and undiscussed segment of the military where everything—personnel, missions, and weaponry—was classified Top Secret or higher. He designed and developed new technologies and weapon systems that were incorporated into existing weaponry packages and used in covert military operations. Operations that typically remained classified for years after they occurred, if not forever. When Seth Holt said innocent people, he didn’t mean a sprinkling of civilians. He meant all the citizens of the United States.

"What price?” She asked the question but, former rocket scientist to current rocket scientist, she understood, and Seth knew it.

"Millions could pay with their lives.”

Her skin crawled, and she wished that just once she could recall Seth’s damage-assessment estimates being exaggerated. But they had always been logical and uncannily accurate. He never elevated risks or potential—not even when refusing to do so had cost him the funding of a project. Even dead certain his request for funds to develop his own missile-defense sensor design would be denied, Seth had called it exactly as he’d seen it and, knowing it, made his "millions could pay with their lives” all the more chilling.

He sat down on the first of three tables. His feet on the bench and his arms braced against his knees, he stared across the beach to the rough water, blowing right out the window the stereotype of a rocket scientist and engineer as a squirrely old man with inch-thick glasses and a bowed back. He looked more like a bodybuilder; he had to be still spending an hour a day at the gym. Though he wore his hair longer now, it was still that rich, deep black, contrasting starkly with his green eyes and sharp features. He looked... wonderful.

She hated it.

Her pulse quickened, and she hated that, too—and it surprised her. Seth was gorgeous, true, but he always had been, and looking at him before never had affected her.

Considering your situation back then, this surprises you?

It didn’t. But maybe her reaction to him was a sign. Maybe she was finally healing.

You’ve got to be kidding, Julia. No human being can heal that much.

Certain her conscience was right, she sat on the picnic table beside Seth, propped her feet on the bench, and looked out at the water, giving herself a moment to absorb the gravity of this visit.

The gulf was rough, choppy, and whitecaps rolled into froth at the sandy shore. The wind carried a salty tang, and the lack of sun and the slate-gray sky only reinforced her gloomy mood. His showing up here rattled her through to the soles of her feet, but it had cost him a lot to come to her, and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to know it. For some reason, that helped her calm down. "How can I help you?”

A frown creased the skin between his heavy brows, and his square jaw tightened. "I’ve been advised against this but, before I get specific, I have to ask you something.”

Advised. Definitely work-related. Strangely disappointed, she worked to not tense up, taking this one breath at a time. "Okay.”

"I want to be clear. I am not prying into your personal life. I just…Oh, hell, Julia. The truth is, I need to know who you are now.” He leveled her with a steady look. "This situation … It’s sensitive.”

A sensitive crisis, and he needed to know if he could still trust her. After the way she’d walked out on him without notice, his questioning her shouldn’t have hurt. And yet it did. But she couldn’t blame him. She had earned his doubt. "All right.”

"Why did you leave without saying goodbye?” He looked her straight in the eye. "Was it something I said or did?”

She had hurt him. Amazing because she hadn’t realized she could hurt him. Professionally, yes, but not personally. And why, on realizing she could hurt him personally, had he had to ask her the one question she couldn’t answer honestly?

Regret bit her hard, and she worked to give him a truth, if not the truth. "I loved working with you.” Hoping what she could tell him would be enough, she fingered the mini-flashlight on her key ring, avoided his eyes. "Leaving was my only option. I didn’t like it, but I had no choice, Seth.” And she had lived with the guilt and regret to prove it.

He stared at her, seeking the truth. "Why?”

She squeezed her eyes shut. "I can’t tell you that.”

"It had nothing to do with me or work?”

"No.” Oh, God. A half-truth, and now he knew her reasons had been personal.

Seth looked torn between pressing her and clamming up. A few beats passed and, oddly, he opted to press. "Did your husband’s job transfer here?”

She should tell him about Karl, yet she couldn’t make herself do it. In waltzing back into her life as abruptly as she’d waltzed out of his, Seth had caught her unawares, and for a split second, she had been mentally transported back into her kitchen in New Orleans, back to Karl, the man she had married who supposedly had loved her. Now the old memories rushed in and crushed down on her. A shudder rippled through her. She stiffened against it, furious that just thinking of him still terrified her. She respected and admired Seth but, God, how she hated her memories. That life was over, finished, and she resented like hell any part of it intruding into the new life she’d struggled and sacrificed to build.

If there was any good news in this, it was that word of Karl’s being in prison evidently hadn’t filtered back to Seth or to others in the field—and she would rather it not filter back now. The truth was gruesome, the grapevine merciless. Seth might understand about Karl but, then again, he might not. And even if his opinion shouldn’t matter to her, it did. She didn’t want to risk losing his respect.

She had lost everything once. Every single thing. It had hurt like hell and nearly had killed her, but somehow she had dredged up the courage to start over. She didn’t want to regress—couldn’t afford to regress—and go through any of it again. She wouldn’t regress or go through any of it again. "I earned five times what Karl earned as a cop. If you were me, would you quit because Karl transferred?”

"No, but then I’m not you.”

Terrific. She’d let tension unleash her temper, and now Seth knew her reason for leaving his lab was personal and work-related. Brilliant move. "Karl’s job wasn’t a factor.”

"I take it Karl is fine, then?”

"Yes, he’s fine.” True as far as she had gone. During her last check with his arresting officer, Detective LeBrec, that’s exactly what he had told her. Karl is fine. So, okay, LeBrec had added unfortunately. But nothing compelled her to relate that to Seth. "I chose to come here and to teach.”

Clearly struggling to understand, Seth asked, "Did you know anyone here, before coming to Grace?”

Coming to Grace. If she told Seth she had come here for a fresh start on an omen seeking grace, he would forget needing her help and insist she be mentally evaluated. Seth worked with proven entities, with facts, not with omens, or with those who followed them. "No.”

"Why first grade, Julia? Why not college? I thought you gave up teaching after graduate school.”

Because kids have to learn to lie, just as they have to learn to hate. Because little kids weren’t yet corrupt, and if she could teach them that everything—everyone—deserves respect before they became corrupt, then she stood a chance of preventing others from going through the hell she’d been through. "I did give it up. But now I’m back.” She shrugged. "It’s what I wanted.”

"I don’t get it. You loved your work in the lab. I know you did.”

She had, and she’d had enough of this. She really had tried to ease Seth’s mind and to assure him he had played no part in her decision to leave the lab. God forbid he ever learn the truth. But she couldn’t stand his digging into her past anymore. She just couldn’t. "I said, it’s what I wanted.” She cooled her gaze, signaling him to back off. "Now, what do you want?”

His expression stiffened. Still resting his elbows on his bent knees, he leaned forward. "I’ve developed a system that will return a hostile, in-flight smart bomb to its launch site.”

He had to be kidding. But he didn’t look like he was kidding, and she’d never known Seth to kid around about his work. He was talking about an extremely innovative missile-defense system here. Until now, attempts to develop a missile-defense system had centered on interceptor "kill” missiles, where an incoming, hostile missile was rammed into and detonated by an outbound, friendly missile. So far, even that program hadn’t produced a stellar performance. Its personal best was a couple of hits and a truckload of near misses, and a near miss was a failure. Depending on the type of warhead the hostile missile carried, a near miss allowed catastrophic damage to occur. But Seth was talking about taking the entire ballistic-missile-defense program in a whole new direction. One refining and manipulating technology so an attack resulted in a self-inflicted wound. Excitement bubbled in Julia, overtaking the tension. "Is it successful?”

"The prototype is.”

"Seth, that’s wonderful.” She smiled. "Will it negate the need for traditional ‘kill’ missile interceptors?”

"If we’re lucky.”

Pursing her lips, she tilted her head. "Are you going to be lucky?”

"Maybe.” He glanced at a pelican perching on a dockside pier post. "They’re calling it Project Home Base.” He followed the pelican’s move down to the next post. "The contract to develop it is about to be awarded.”

"So why do you look so glum? You should be flying high.”

"I hold several patents on the system.”

"Okay.” Not unusual. Seth had often held patents on their previous projects. So had she.

"Because I stand to profit personally—financially, I mean—I can’t head the project.”

That had happened before, too. "So they’ll assign someone else to head it, and you’ll be assigned to the project as a consultant.” She shrugged. "What’s the problem?”

"No one else is qualified to head it.”

He meant that no one he trusted was qualified to head it. Julia stilled her jangling keys. Seth was saying more than she was hearing. Not atypical between them, but she was out of practice at reading between his lines. "You’re worried about this for another reason.”

Nodding, he confirmed her fears. "Two, actually.”

When he didn’t say any more, she resisted an urge to nudge him, then realized the problem. "To disclose them to me, you’re going to have to breach security.”

Expelling a sigh, he looked back at her. "Is your clearance still valid?”

"You know it’s not, Seth.” For all the good it had done her, when she had moved, she’d been extremely careful not to leave a trail. Seth had to have contacted the OSI or Intel to find her. No one except those who already knew what had happened would advise him not to pry into her personal life to determine who she was and what she stood for now. Seth had to know it all. Every sordid detail.

Heat crept up her neck to her face, and she flushed hot. He probably had been testing her, asking about Karl, to see if she would admit what had happened. And maybe she should have, but she just wasn’t that brave. That brave, or that strong.

"I’m going to trust you, Julia.” Seth laced his fingertips. "I’m not sure why, but I’m going to trust you.”

The hurt ran deep. Didn’t he understand that she wouldn’t have left as she had unless it had been completely necessary? Didn’t he know her better than this?

Obviously not. "You’re going to trust me because you know you can—and because you don’t have a choice.” Anything with the potential to kill millions rated as a crisis in her book, and no doubt in the OSI and Intel’s, too. They had authorized Seth to breach security and talk to her. Otherwise, he would never do it. Ever.

Now just how should she feel about that? Relieved or worried?

Damn worried, she decided. If they’d authorized disclosure to her, then the news had to be god-awful.

"I do still trust you,” Seth said. "But I’m not comfortable with the risks of being wrong.”

She frowned at him. "What makes you think I’m comfortable with your dropping back into my life, dumping this problem in my lap? I left, remember? I don’t get involved in these professional crises anymore.”

He slid off the edge of the table and shifted in the sand, half burying his loafers, then stopped directly in front of her. His jacket brushed against her knees. "I’m worried for two reasons. One, my professional reputation and financial security are on the line.” His expression turned dark, clouded. "And two, I’ve already noted what could be program irregularities.”

"Someone on the project is corrupt?”

"It’s possible. During Slicer Industries’ development of the prototype, I picked up on two minor incidents that could be significant. I’m just not sure.”

"But you’re sure enough to be concerned.”

"Of course.”

Of course. With Seth, any irregularity pertinent to his project or to a potential project, no matter how slight, warranted concern.

"What these two incidents were isn’t important,” he said. "What is important is that if this project is funded—which it will be—then I need someone I trust heading it.” He lifted his gaze from her shoulder to her eyes. "I need you, Julia.”

Oh, damn. She didn’t want to be in this position. Why had he put her in it, forcing her to choose? "I can’t,” she said before realizing the words had left her mouth. "I wish I could, but that isn’t my life anymore.” God, she felt disloyal, like an ungrateful traitor. Why did refusing him make her feel so rotten and hurt so badly?

Because, aside from your Uncle Lou, Seth Holt is the only man in your life who always backed you up and never demanded anything in return. He’s always been special.

Julia shut out her nagging conscience. The last thing she wanted was a man carrying "special” status in her life. "Look, Seth. If you suspect corruption, then why not contact the lab commander, the general, or the OSI?” By regulations, the Office of Special Investigations and the general and lab commander should be notified, and they both knew it.

"Colonel Ed Pullman is the lab commander.”

"The gutless wonder from the TDY trip to Edwards?” A Colonel Pullman had headed their team on a temporary duty trip to the desert Air Force base to test the Rogue missile. He’d been spineless.

"That’s the one,” Seth confirmed. "And I can’t go to the OSI yet. I don’t have hard evidence.” The wind blew his hair down over his broad forehead. "If I report this without hard evidence, people’s careers and lives will be destroyed. Innocent or guilty. I can’t do that to them, Julia.”

Many could and would. But not Seth. He wouldn’t risk wrongly accusing anyone. And any accusation he levied would be investigated under the standard premise of guilty until proven innocent. Considering the stakes were national security, the Department of Defense—or the government, for that matter—had no other choice. "Does this technology fall under the Black Operations umbrella?” Black World technology often had dual uses, military and civilian applications. In the lab, Black Ops signified military applications only.

He shifted on his feet, clearly uncomfortable. "It’s... extremely sensitive.”

Definitely Black Ops. Of course, Black Ops. So the project would be considered violated, too. Congress could pull the funding, demand extensive modifications, or scrap the entire project. Without a missile-defense program, the United States would remain extremely vulnerable. Very disturbing thought, considering the findings about the Chinese having access to secret nuclear warfare technology. "I see.”

"Not yet. You’re missing a key element,” he said. "I need your help to protect us.”

Us. Americans. All Americans. Resisting an urge to drag specifics out of him, she patiently persisted. "From what?”

"You remember the Rogue missile?”

"Of course.” The most advanced missile in the U.S. arsenal. Five thousand pounds of explosives. A hundred sixty-six bomblets that scatter when disbursed. A warhead capable of carrying conventional, chemical, biological, or nuclear ordnance. A new metal alloy construction and a stealth system that made the Rogue undetectable by standard countermeasures, such as early-warning satellite launch-detection systems that alert ground-based radar when a hostile missile is inbound. Seth held two system patents on the Rogue. Julia held one. "What’s wrong with it?” A system malfunction? Some overlooked flaw in the design?

"Nothing is wrong with it. The Rogue works just fine.”

"So what’s the problem?”

Seth’s expression turned grave. "We no longer have sole possession of it.”

The heat seeped from Julia’s body. Chills rippled up her back, down her arms, and her left biceps began to spasm. She rubbed it, shoulder to elbow. "H-how?”

"I don’t know. That’s for Intel to determine. What I do know is, if a hostile faction launches a Rogue against us, with Home Base I can minimize the damage.”

"But Home Base is still a simple seeker missile. The Rogue isn’t some mousy missile, carrying a five-hundred-pound bomb, for God’s sake. How can you negate the impact of a hostile Rogue with a simple seeker missile?”

"First, the Rogue is even more powerful than you know. After you left the lab, I modified its booster-ignition and explosives systems. That expanded its kill and damage zones substantially. Secondly, Home Base isn’t a simple seeker.”

"Well, what is it?”

A pleased-with-himself smile hovered on Seth’s lips. When a woman jogging along the shore ran out of earshot, he continued. "With Home Base, I can determine if the Rogue is live ordnance or a decoy. I can track it, forecast its trajectory, and most importantly, if it’s a smart bomb I can reverse its trajectory while it’s in flight, return it to its home base, and detonate it.”

Damn. Julia brushed her windblown hair back from her eyes. He really had taken a totally innovative approach in his design of this missile-defense system. "You can actually track, forecast, and return it to its own launch site? Even a Rogue?”

"Theoretically, yes.”

"Magnetic energy?” Altering it could abort a launch.

"No. Existing arms treaties prohibit the use of an adequate power source.”

Julia played out defense strategy scenarios. He couldn’t alter the trajectory, only reverse the existing programming. "So anyone launching against the U.S. would, in effect, be attacking themselves?”

"Yes. And depending on its warhead type and payload—which I can’t determine—when they attack themselves, they’re going to damage or destroy everything within a hundred-kilometer radius of their chosen launch site.”

A hundred kilometers? Three years ago, the zone was the size of two football fields, end to end. Now it was a hundred kilometers. "How? Isn’t the zone dependent on the missile’s payload and capability?”

"Home Base is also armed,” he said. "Kill zone is roughly thirty kilometers. Damage zone, a hundred kilometers.”

Visions of the aftereffects of a hydrogen bomb detonating flashed through her mind. She didn’t dare ask with what Home Base was armed. Not with a hundred-kilometer damage zone. But factoring in compliance with existing international arms treaties, it had to be armed with some new explosives technology.

Seth’s eyes gleamed. "Do you see how valuable this technology would be to hostile factions?”

"Oh, yes.” Devastation. Destruction. The creation of a wasteland. A moron could see the danger—and the challenge. Corrupted, the Home Base technology would fail, and the hostile Rogue would hit its U.S. target. Worse, with the Home Base technology, a hostile faction could reprogram any smart-bomb missile the U.S. launched to return to its U.S. home base and detonate.

"We both know traditional interceptors only have an eighty-percent success rate. That leaves a big window of vulnerability, Julia. We need an actual missile-defense system. Right now, several countries are capable of targeting us, and we have no functional, effective response. Home Base will give us both. Naturally, it’s equally important that only we have this defense system.” Seth’s worry crept into his voice. "One well-placed, hostile Rogue could cripple this country.”

"And kill millions.” Julia shuddered. Seth hadn’t exaggerated the damage-assessment estimates.

What if a hostile faction targeted a metropolitan area? Take out even segments within a hundred-kilometer radius of a metro area, and that would wipe out a lot of Americans and a lot of resources. And if the hostile Rogue carried a chemical, biological, or nuclear warhead, then the damage-assessment estimates soared.

Millions. Literally.

When her heart dropped down from her throat and back into her chest where it belonged, she responded. "I understand why you need someone you can trust.” But could she do it? Could she risk helping him?

Karl’s in jail. It’s safe. Considering the risks to others, how can you not do it?

Her conscience made a strong case with valid points. If she refused and something happened, she would never forgive herself. Millions could die.

"Well?” Seth interrupted her internal debate. "Will you help me?”

She swallowed her fears about stepping back into her old life. It would be hard. There would be so many reminders, so many demons, waiting to confront her on every street corner. She couldn’t avoid them. But the stealth system, which prohibited the Rogue from being detected and tracked by standard countermeasure devices, carried her patent, and refusing Seth and turning away, denying her responsibility, would only create more demons.

She couldn’t live with more demons.

Staring out at the water, she accepted the inevitable. She would just have to find a way to deal with this. Just as she’d had to learn to deal with the other challenges.

One demon at a time. One challenge at a time. One breath at a time.


She looked into Seth’s eyes and couldn’t refuse him. "Yes. When the contract is awarded, I’ll take a leave of absence from school and head the project.”

"Good.” He sighed his relief. "Good.”

Julia’s mind chugged ahead. "But how are you going to get me back into the system?” Knowing he hadn’t forgotten, she still felt compelled to remind him. "I walked out without notice. They’re not just going to let me come back.”

"Normally, they wouldn’t. But there’s a new program, and, under specific conditions, we’re allowed to bypass competitive bids on certain slots and hire direct.”

"Specific conditions?”

"Extreme threats to national security,” he said. "The Rogue is loose, Julia.”

That qualified in her book. "What about my security clearances?”

"They’ll be in place within a couple of days.”

A couple of days? It normally took weeks.

He’d already started processing them.

Seemed he had an answer for everything, and she wasn’t at all sure she liked it. It made her feel manipulated, and she hated that. She stared at him until he looked at her. "You knew I’d say yes.”

"I prayed you would say yes,” he corrected her. "And I prepared for it.”

"Of course.” It wasn’t manipulation. It wasn’t. Seth always prepared. He was rock-solid, and always had been. It was a damn shame more men hadn’t emulated him. Karl, in particular. "When will the contract be awarded?”

"I’m not sure exactly,” he said. "Is it critical?”

"It is to me,” she said. "I have a special student, Jeff. His mother died a few months ago, and I suspect his father is emotionally abusing him.” Jeff had become the son Julia never had, and never would have. She couldn’t just leave him. He needed her—almost as much as she needed him. "I have to talk to him, file a report with the school counselor, and then work with her and the authorities to stop the abuse. I’m all he’s got, Seth. I can’t leave him, knowing that’s going on. I won’t.”

"Of course not,” he said. "You’ve got a week, maybe two. I’ll get you set up and find you an apartment near Grayton.”

"Grayton?” Her confusion carried in her tone.

"Grayton Air Force Base,” he said. "It’s about thirty miles north of Hurlburt Field, on the Florida gulf coast.”

"You mean, I don’t have to go back to New Orleans?”

"No.” He blinked hard, then grunted. "I guess I forgot to mention I’d transferred.”

"Yes, you did.” No New Orleans. No demonic memories to confront. No new demons. She smiled her relief when she really wanted to weep it. "What brought that on? The transfer, I mean.” He was king of the lab, well treated, and seldom questioned.

The smile left his face, and his eyes clouded. "I could say I transferred to pursue other professional endeavors.”

Her official reason for leaving. The barb hit its mark.

"But the fact is,” he went on, "Grayton’s the new location of the Battle Management Center. Its lab is under the direct command of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization.”

"I see.” Still stinging from his "professional endeavor” remark, Julia scooted off the table, down to the sand, and dusted her backside with her hand. "I’d better get back to school.”

He looked down at her. "Thanks for bailing me out on this.”

How could she refuse? That she didn’t want to refuse him concerned her. "You present a compelling case.”

"Yeah, unfortunately, I do.” Seth sighed. "I’ve missed working with you, Julia.”

They’d worked together like hand to glove, finishing each other’s thoughts and sentences, instinctively agreeing on what to test next in their designs, on which battles to fight with the honchos and which ones to postpone. They had shared a unique relationship, based on trust and steeped in mutual respect. Neither intruded, but both were there if needed and called on. She’d hated losing that, resented losing him, and, for once, she let down her guard and admitted it openly. "I’ve missed you, too, Seth.”

Sand lifted by the wind stung her foot. Julia swiped at it. "Is Home Base the sensor design you were working on privately before I left the lab?”

"No. Different systems, different tasking. But mine can piggyback on Home Base. At least, I hope one day it will.”

"So it hasn’t been funded.”

"Not yet.”

That had to be disappointing for him. To invest that much into something, to know it would work, and to have it put on permanent hold for a lack of money had to gnaw at him. It gnawed at her for him. "I’m sorry.”

"Me, too.” He let out a sigh. "I’m still perfecting it on my own. Who knows? Maybe its time will come.” He shrugged, then stilled, staring at her key chain. "You’ll need to get rid of that before you come to the lab.” He nodded at the miniature black flashlight dangling from her key chain. "They’ve become terrorists’ new weapon of choice.”

Julia methodically challenged its potential uses. Only one passed her barrage of tests. "Scanners mistake explosives for batteries?”

"For the moment.” Seth nodded.

Meaning, scanner modifications in progress had a solution on the near horizon. Thank God. Having to fear every flashlight in the country incited nightmares, and she already had all of those she could handle.

Sometimes, knowing these little tidbits could drive a person to paranoia. Unfortunately, if you knew them, odds were it wasn’t paranoia but a clear and present danger routinely encountered by service members in the field.

"Julia.” Seth sounded hesitant. "Your coming to Grayton will be okay with Karl, won’t it?”

The question caught her off guard. Was it a deliberate second chance to confess about Karl? Even if it was, she couldn’t do it. Doing her best to cover, act nonchalant, she smiled. "No problem at all.” It wouldn’t be, since Karl wouldn’t know it.

"Good. I’ll be in touch.” Seth turned and walked toward the parking lot.

Julia watched him go, unsure if his asking twice about Karl meant Seth knew what happened or he was fishing to find out. If she asked, he would tell her. Seth never lied. But she didn’t want that Pandora’s box opened. And maybe that wasn’t what had her uneasy. Maybe it was the angle of his head or the stillness in him, getting to her. Maybe it was because he had delivered the news about the Rogue she had helped design now being in hostile hands or the possible corruption on Home Base, a project not yet even developed. Or it could be that tidbit about terrorists using flashlights to house explosives.

Or it could be just the man himself.

Damn it, it could be. He was special. He always had been special, and that made him dangerous.

In the last three years, she had come a long way on the road back to becoming more of her old self. A very long way. But she hadn’t come far enough, or remained innocent or unchanged by her experiences enough, to risk trusting another man.

Not even Seth.

Men with good intentions could get you killed just as fast as those with bad intentions. And it was all but impossible to tell the difference between them. Hadn’t she married Karl Hyde believing he was a good man? A really good man? Hadn’t he seemed kind and gentle and loving—all the things she wanted in a husband? And hadn’t her experience with him proven that any man could deceive any woman he chose to deceive?

It had. Karl had seemed all those good things and more, and he had ended up being a heartless bastard with a black soul. He’d ended up in jail. And, thanks to him, she had barely escaped with her life, and she was still being threatened.

Those truths made the bottom line with any man the same. Give him your trust, and odds are good you’ll end up dead.

That was a lesson learned she would never forget. And it applied even to Seth Holt.



Chapter Two

A week later, Seth sat in his office as perplexed about what had triggered the massive changes in Julia’s life as he had been before he had gone to Grace.

All his life, he had done his damnedest to avoid asking for favors, but he had searched for her on his own since she’d left, and he had failed to find her. When he had noted irregularities on the project, he’d had no choice but to go to the OSI, meet with Agent 12, and ask for his help to locate her.

Though neither publicly acknowledged it, Seth and Agent 12 had a history. Before Seth had left active duty in the Air Force and had gone civilian to work in the lab, he and Agent 12, who had been Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Grant back then, had worked in Special Forces together. Because the Rogue was loose and in hostile hands, and because Seth had invoked the crunch-time code they had used on covert operations in critical circumstances, Matthew had agreed that Julia could be trusted and they needed her to help Seth save their asses, and he had told Seth where to find her: Grace, Alabama.

Julia, teaching first grade in a tiny gulf coast town that didn’t warrant a pinprick on most maps and could never offer her the opportunities she’d had in his lab.

Seth cranked back in his chair and lifted his feet to the corner of his desk. She had often surprised him, but this move confounded him. Julia was bright; a genius gifted with common sense and vision. Reserved, in a way, and beautiful, though she had never been a wrench-your-neck-looking-at-her kind of woman. She was too serious, smiled too seldom for that. But she had this way of making a man feel important, strong and weak at the same time. By the time he figured out she was strong and vulnerable, she’d snagged him. And she’d snagged plenty. Half his engineers, contractors, and all of the guys in the lab had been crazy about her. Oddly enough, the other women hadn’t seemed envious. They had been protective of her. Seth never had figured that out.

Now, she had the same somber brown eyes. The same sleek, stubborn chin, and chestnut-brown hair the sun streaked gold—every bit as beautiful as the day she had last walked out of his lab—but for someone miserable enough to leave the research-and-development work she loved to "pursue other professional endeavors,” she hadn’t seemed a damn bit happier. Less rigid, but no happier. And if she wasn’t happier, then why had she left?

And why had she nearly gone into cardiac arrest when she had seen him on the beach? She’d looked... haunted.

Too much just didn’t make sense. Matthew had access to Julia’s Intel reports and would have enlightened Seth, but his commander nixed that by reclassifying her file Eyes Only. Seth couldn’t slot the logic for that smooth move, and Matthew couldn’t explain, but Julia had been distant and secretive at Grace. Actually, she had been damn scared. She had never been afraid of Seth, and he didn’t like her being afraid of him now. What triggered her fear?

One thing was clear. Speculating wouldn’t give him any answers... but talking to her might. It was worth a shot. He lifted the phone and dialed her number.

She answered on the third ring. "Hello.”

"Julia, it’s me, Seth.” He thumbed the pages of a magazine. "Notification came in today. The contract has been awarded.”

"That’s terrific.”

She sounded down. Julia didn’t get down, except maybe when alone. "The realtor’s ready to hang me, but I finally found the right apartment for you. It’s ready and waiting.”

"When do I need to be there?”

Worried. Definitely worried. He tossed the copy of Scientific American onto his desk and frowned at the cover. "What’s wrong, Julia?”

"Nothing. I’m fine.”

Right words, wrong tone. The woman was anything but fine. "Is it Jeff?” She had said that student was special to her. Whether or not she knew it, she loved the boy; Seth had heard it in her voice. And even knowing Jeff had been abused and needed loving, Seth envied Jeff Julia’s love, and condemned himself for the envy.

"I’m worried about him,” she said. "He’s not supposed to stay alone after school.”

A latchkey kid? In first grade? "Isn’t that against the law?”

"Yes. He has to be twelve,” she said. "I wrote his father a note about it, but Jeff came to school again today with his BAMA key ring. William Camden ignored the note.”

So Jeff was a fan of the Alabama football team, too. Seth mentally stored that detail. "I’m sorry to hear that.”

"An observer joined us on the playground, and Jeff said some crazy-sounding things. Until this incident, I thought it was part of the grief. His mother died a few months ago.”

"What did he say?”

"He asked the observer if he was mad at me. The man said no. Jeff looked at me and said, ‘If he gets mad, just yell. I’ve got my listening ears on.’”

"Nothing crazy about it,” Seth said. "Grief-stricken kids don’t think mad men hit. Abused kids do.”

"You’re right. I talked to Jeff for a long time.” Strain muted her voice. "He is being emotionally abused.”

Curious about Jeff’s special-to-Julia status, Seth had done some checking on the boy and had sensed abuse—he’d seen shades of himself in Jeff—but the confirmation still made him sick. "What have you done about it?”

"Reported it to the school counselor, who reported it to the authorities. Now Camden’s out for my blood and my job. I’d give him both, if he’d just stop hurting Jeff.”

She would. Jeff was lucky to have an ally. Seth hadn’t, and making his way on his own had been hell.

"Now Camden’s really ticked off, and he knows I’m leaving. What if he takes out his anger at me on Jeff?”

"He won’t.” Seth stared across his office at the glass-panel wall. The inner lab was dark; the glass reflective. Cold determination lined his face. "Call Jeff for me, Julia. I’m going to see him.”

"You can’t do that.”

"Of course I can,” Seth said. "I am.”

"But you don’t have any authority—”

"I don’t need any,” Seth interrupted. "Jeff needs a friend. I’m going to be one.”

"Camden will have a fit. He’ll blame Jeff for your interfering, and things will get worse.”

"I’ll handle Camden. You just prepare the way for me with Jeff, so I’m not a stranger. He’ll be nervous around me.”

"You’re a big man, and Jeff is tiny. He thinks all men get mad, and mad men hit.”

"Then don’t you think the sooner he learns different, the better?”

She hesitated, then said, "Okay, I’ll call. But be careful. I don’t want Camden coming after you, too.”

Julia’s concern felt good. Too good. "I will.” Seth beat down the hope that Camden would come after him. He’d welcome any excuse to give the man an attitude adjustment.

"You’re special for caring, Seth.” Her voice dropped low, husky. "You’ve always been special.”

Seth started to respond, then thought better of it. For five years, he had loved this woman and never had said a word because she was happily married. From his parents, Seth knew happy marriages were a rare and special thing. The world already had too much ugliness in it for a man to deliberately ugly up a rare and special thing. Still, he would remember her "you’re special” for a long time to come.

Only on the gulf coast could a kid play shirtless in his front yard in November.

Seth leaned against the Lexus and glanced away from Jeff down the oak-lined street. Nice neighborhood. Pretty two-story, white clapboard house with a wide front porch and a hurricane fence enclosing the yard. At least Jeff wasn’t going home alone after school to a rough neighborhood. Not that his safety was assured here, but his odds seemed better.

Jeff tossed the football up in the air and then caught it. He hadn’t yet noticed Seth, and that worried him. The boy could be taken by surprise. But Seth liked seeing him play as if he didn’t have a worry in the world, and he wished down to his bones that was true.

Julia had been damn upset, scared Camden would lash out at Jeff over her report. Seth had calmed her down but, during every minute of their conversation, he had gotten more and more angry at Camden. For hurting a defenseless kid, and for upsetting Julia.

Jeff dropped the ball. When he picked it up, he saw Seth and grinned from ear to ear. "You’re Dr. Seth,” he said, running up to the fence. "Dr. Julia told me you were coming to see me.”

"Dr. Julia?”

Jeff nodded. "So we don’t get her and Mr. Warner mixed up. He’s a teacher, too.”

"Ah, I see.” Julia had paved the way, all right, including a photo or Jeff wouldn’t have recognized him on sight. Where had she gotten one? Regardless, Jeff didn’t seem at all wary of Seth, and for that he felt grateful. "I wanted to talk with you. Dr. Julia was a little worried about you bringing your house key to school.”

"I have to have it when I get home to get in.”

"Didn’t she send your dad a note about that?”

"I gave it to him.” Jeff looked up at Seth, round-eyed. "I promise.”

"Well, what did he say?”

Biting his lip and avoiding Seth’s eyes, Jeff swayed side to side. "I dunno.”

"Yes, you do.”

A resigned sigh hiked his slim shoulders, and Jeff shuffled his feet in the sandy dirt, kicking up a little cloud of dust. "Do I have to tell you?”

"Yes, you have to tell me.”

Blinking hard, Jeff tucked his head to his chest and mumbled, "Goddamn your mother for dying, and goddamn you.”


"I’m sorry for cussing, Dr. Seth, but that’s what he said.” The boy’s cheeks blistered, and his eyes filled with tears. "I hate it when he cusses.”

What Jeff hated was his father cussing him. Seth didn’t give a tinker’s damn for it, either. He’d never in his life hugged a kid, but he wanted to hug Jeff. How many times had Camden pulled this stunt, damning them? "Losing your mom’s still hard, isn’t it?”

"I miss her.”

Three little words, but ones so powerful they threatened to knock Seth to his knees. "I know. My mom died when I was six, too. I still miss her.” And he still felt guilty about her death. At least Jeff had been spared that.

"Dr. Julia’s sure Mom misses me, too.” Doubt riddled the boy’s voice. He pushed away from the fence and stared down at the dirt. "But I think she might be too hurt to miss me.”

Confused, Seth pressed him. "What do you mean, buddy?”

"My mom’s burning in hell.” Jeff studied the sand-crusted toe of his sneaker. "Dad says she’ll burn there forever.” He choked down a sob rooted in hopelessness. "Every time I close my eyes I see her on fire.”

The depth of the kid’s suffering stabbed through Seth’s heart, and every instinct in his body urged him to beat the hell out of Camden for doing this to the boy. But that was a selfish response. Seth had to focus on what was best for Jeff.

He squatted so they could see eye to eye. "I have a question for you, Jeff. It’s not a test or anything, just a question,” Seth said. "Do you believe in God?”

The boy rolled his gaze. "Everybody believes in God. They gotta cuz He’s everybody’s father and Mom said.”

Universal, Mom being the ultimate authority on everything. "What else did she tell you about Him?”

"That He loves us and always will, no matter what.”

So far, so good. "I think she’s right.”

"She was real smart.” Pride tinged Jeff’s voice.

Seth smiled to lend weight to what he was about to say, hoping the boy would find comfort in it and maybe, just maybe, a little peace. "What she told you is how we know she’s not burning in hell, Jeff.”

Hope filled his face, but doubt quickly chased it. "Then how come Dad said she was?”

Because he’s like my father was. He’s a cruel and selfish bastard who has no idea how much he’s hurting you. Because even if he did know how much he was hurting you, he wouldn’t give a tinker’s damn. Because making you feel worse makes him feel better. Stronger. Like more of a man.

Seth thought it all, and said none of it. Instead, he searched for a reasonable explanation that wasn’t hard on Jeff’s dad. If Seth came across hard, the boy would feel compelled to defend his father. Sad, but that’s the way it always worked. The parent abused, the kid protected.

"When somebody you love dies, you miss them. Your dad hurts way down deep, but he can’t go around crying all the time, so he acts angry with your mom for leaving you both.”

Jeff’s jaw dropped open, and his eyes stretched wide. "You mean, Mom wanted to die?”

"No, she loved you too much to ever want to leave you.” Sensing Jeff’s doubt and confusion, Seth lifted a leaf from the ground and then dusted away the grains of sand clinging to it. They showered against his shoes. "It’s like this leaf.” He pinched it between his forefinger and thumb. "It was green and on a tree limb up there.” He pointed to a wintering oak. "But when it was time, the leaf turned brown and fell off.”

Understanding dawned in Jeff’s eyes. "Grass turns brown, too.”

"In a way, everything does.” Seth smiled. "People are born, and, when it’s time, they die.”

"But the leaves and grass don’t burn in hell. Just people do.” A frown creased the skin between Jeff’s brows. "So if God loves us, then how come He’s burning Mom?”

"He isn’t, son,” Seth said softly. The little skeptic shrugged, and Seth countered, offering logic. "Think about it. If God is everybody’s father, then He’s your mom’s father, too.” Seth slung an arm over his bent knee. "Now if you were a father who loved your children—no matter what—would you make them burn in hell forever?”

Jeff didn’t hesitate. "No.”

"Neither would God, Jeff,” Seth said. "Your mom isn’t burning in hell, son. She’s watching over you from heaven.”

Confusion muddied his relief. "But Dad says—”

"I know. But you’ve thought this through for yourself now. You know the truth in here.” Seth gently touched Jeff’s chest through the fence, felt his heart pound against his fingertips. "People say and do all kinds of things when they’re in pain. They keep hoping something will make them feel better.”

Jeff’s lip trembled. "It makes me hurt.”

Rage threatened Seth, but he swallowed it back down. More rage, Jeff did not need. "Your dad hurts you?”

"When he says stuff.” Jeff dragged in a deep breath that lifted his chest. "He doesn’t love me. I don’t know why.” Jeff glanced at Seth. "Is something wrong with me?”

"No, it’s just grief. It’s not your fault.”

"Maybe it is.” He bowed his shoulders and stared at Seth’s shoes, as if confessing the most shameful, unmentionable sin. "Dad says only Mom wanted me and then she died. Now, he’s stuck with me.”

Camden was a real piece of work. A bastard, through and through. "I don’t know a lot about kids, Jeff. But I know a good one when I see one, and you’re a good one. Don’t you ever let anyone tell you different.”

"It’s hard to remember.”

It was. Particularly when you heard you were lousy a lot more often. Seth’s voice went thick. "Are you scared he’ll hurt you, buddy?”

Jeff stared off into the pin oaks. The wind slicked his hair back from his face. "Maybe. He—he used to hurt my mom.” Turning, Jeff stared hard, willing Seth to believe him. "But he was always real sorry. Mom told me he was.”

Seth sincerely doubted it, but he kept his opinion to himself. Jeff needed the lie. "Okay, but no more nightmares of your mom burning, because she’s not. She never was. I said so, and I never lie.”

"Dr. Julia told me.” A weak smile touched Jeff’s lips, and he swatted at a mosquito buzzing his neck.

Seth’s smile froze on his face. It wasn’t just dust and dirt, Jeff was bruised. Even under the armpit. He’d been grabbed and jerked. Hard.

The front door creaked open, and a man stepped out onto the porch. Had to be Camden. Mid-twenties, brown hair, CPA slump in his shoulders. He topped out at about five-eight and moved with a giveaway swagger that pegged him as a severe sufferer of the little big-man syndrome. So you’re short. Act tough, bluster and bully, and people will consider you important.

Seth pretended not to see him but made sure his voice was loud enough to carry. "I told Dr. Julia I’d check on you everyday while she’s away.”

"You did?” Jeff’s smile got broader. "Every day?”

Camden’s grimace deepened. "Yeah,” Seth said. "You know how women are. Worrywarts.”

"Yeah.” Jeff’s nod nearly cracked his neck. "Worrywarts.”

Seth bit back a smile. Jeff loved it. Knowing Julia was worrying about him made him feel safe, as if he mattered. And, of course, he did. "So is that okay with you?”

"It’s not okay with me.” Camden came off the porch and walked three steps down the sidewalk, toward the fence.

Seth looked down at the man, debating. He couldn’t hit him; he’d kill him. And though he had left the Special Forces, his hands and feet were still considered lethal weapons. Camden might deserve killing, but if Seth did it, then he’d be in prison. He couldn’t help the boy from prison. He had to give diplomacy a try. It’d set a better example for Jeff and keep Julia off his back.

Seth turned a cool gaze on Camden. "Why would you object?” he asked, letting the implication that Camden had something to hide hang between them.

He went red. "Who the hell are you?”

"Dr. Seth Holt.” Seth didn’t offer to shake the man’s hand, not that Camden had ventured within reach. He’d stopped a good twelve feet away.

"I don’t want you around my son.”

"Last I checked, this was a public sidewalk.” Seth folded his arms across his chest. "Are you saying I’m committing a crime by standing on a public sidewalk?”

"I’m saying I want you to stay away from my kid.”

Seth glanced down and saw that Jeff had paled. Not wanting to upset the boy, he softened his expression and his voice. "Jeff, you’ve got some dirt on your face. I don’t want to have to tell Dr. Julia your face was dirty. How about you go wash it up, so I can tell her you were spit-shine clean?”

He dropped his voice so only Seth could hear. "Are you and Dad gonna... talk?”

Seth nodded.

"Don’t hurt him, okay?”

Damn it. "I won’t.”

The little skeptic gave him the once-over. "You look awfully mad.”

"I know, but mad men don’t always hit.”


Gritting his teeth, Seth staved off a sigh. "Yeah, I promise.”

Jeff ran up the walk, giving his father a wide berth, paused on the porch to look back and double-check Seth, then went on into the house.

When the door slammed shut, Seth turned his attention back to Jeff’s father. "Camden, let me be perfectly clear. Jeff is my friend, and I am going to check on him every day. That isn’t negotiable.”

"The hell you say. You can’t stick your nose in my personal business.”

"I’m using every ounce of restraint I possess to keep from kicking your ass for beating on a kid,” Seth warned him. "Now, I can check on Jeff without you causing any grief, or you can cause grief, I’ll kick your ass, and then check on him anyway.” Seth shrugged. "Your choice. I’m up for either.”

Camden’s Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. "Don’t come on my property. You come on my property, I’ll have you arrested for trespassing.”

Seth stiffened his stance. "You’ll let me see Jeff whenever and wherever, or I’ll have the cops riding your back, nonstop.”

"Don’t threaten me, Holt.”

"No threat.” Seth would report the bruises to the social worker and to the cops, and he’d call them daily for a report. In his experience, cops had a low tolerance level for men who beat up on kids. "It’s a solemn promise. I saw the bruise.”

Camden paused on the first step up to the porch and looked back at Seth. "What?”

"I saw the bruise.” Seth let his anger seep into his voice. "Don’t hurt the boy anymore.”

"He fell playing football.”

"Sure he did.” Seth grimaced. "It’s a little tricky to bruise your inner and outer arm, your armpit, and your ribs by falling down, Camden.”

"He did fall,” Camden insisted.

"Okay, fine. Let’s keep this simple. I don’t give a damn how he gets bruised, if I see another one on him, I’m holding you responsible.”

"What gives you the right—”

"You grab the boy hard enough to leave a bruise that covers half his body, and you want to talk to me about rights?” Losing it. Control slipping. Promised Jeff. Seth took in a deep breath and dropped his voice to just above a whisper. "I’m holding you responsible.”

"Okay. All right. You can see him.”

Typical. Back a little big-man against the wall and he folds, provided you’re big enough to stomp him.

The front door swung open and Jeff ran outside, up to the fence, and then cranked back his neck. "This okay?”

Seth leashed his rage, forced himself to relax, and then looked down at Jeff’s upturned face.

He’d washed it, all right. But only it. A thin rim of mud circled his jaw line. The face was clean, but his throat and neck were dust covered and mud splotched from water droplets. Seth nearly laughed. "Looks good to me.”

Camden slipped into the house.

"Dr. Seth?”

"Yes, Jeff?”

He licked at his lips, then stared up at Seth. "Thank you for checking on me.”

Hell, when a kid looked up at you as awed as if you were Michael Jordan, what was a measly couple hours of driving time and a few phone calls? "No problem, buddy. That’s what friends are for.”

"Yeah, buddy.” Jeff smiled.

The warmth in it captured a corner of Seth’s heart, and he smiled back. "Yeah.”

Jeff tapped the tip of his shoe against the metal fence, and his smile faded. "Dr. Seth?”

"What is it, Jeff?”

"Buddies don’t lie to buddies, right?”

"Buddies don’t lie period.”

"I didn’t have my listening ears on, but I heard Dad when he yelled at you.” Jeff rubbed at his bruise. "I didn’t fall playing football.”

Admitting that took guts. And of all the people in the world he could have chosen to trust, Jeff had picked him. The kid had courage—and he’d snagged another corner of Seth’s heart.

Honored and humbled, Seth squatted down. He curled his fingers through the wire fencing and around Jeff’s tiny ones, and then looked the boy straight in the eye. "I know, son.”

Jeff’s eyes stretched wide. "He told you?”

"No.” Hard to admit even to Jeff, even after all these years. But necessary. "My dad used to get mad and hit, too.”

"Did you have to live with him?”

"No. I lived with strangers.” Twenty-three foster homes in twelve years.

"You didn’t have nobody to love you, neither?”

"Just myself,” Seth said, then winked at Jeff. "But now I’ve got a buddy.”

"Yeah, two buddies. Me and Dr. Julia.”

Seth smiled, wishing that were true.

Julia stared through the windshield at the four-story beige brick building. Deep down, she felt the stir, the old surge of excitement and enthusiasm she had always felt on entering a lab. But this return was temporary, and this lab was unlike any she had worked in before—it had windows.

Someone rapped on her car window.

Startled, she darted her gaze, saw Seth, and chided herself for being so jumpy. Her living on an adrenaline rush, being ready at all times for fight or flight, once had been normal, but she couldn’t afford the costs of stressing her nerves anymore.

She grabbed her keys out of the ignition, her purse from the passenger’s seat, and then got out of the blue Camry she had bought before moving to Grace—and had reregistered three times since in three different states, creating a paper trail away from her true location.

A lot of good that did.

"’Morning.” Seth closed her door behind her. "Did you have any trouble finding the place?”

"None at all.” Julia shifted around him and moved to the sidewalk. "The maps you faxed over were great.”

Seth stepped to her side. "Is the apartment okay?”

It was beautiful. Lots of pastels and cushy furniture. Definitely feminine, welcoming, and it had great locks on the knobs and keyed dead bolts that slid a full inch into the metal door’s frame. "It’s perfect.” The best thing about it was that Seth had leased it and put all the utilities—including the phone—in his name. She really would get a break from Karl and his threats.

At least until some uninformed, well-intentioned soul made the connection between her and Seth and passed it along.

She gave Seth a broad smile. "Thanks for stocking the pantry and fridge.” What a nice surprise to arrive thirsty and tired and find something to drink and no need for immediate shopping. Julia hated immediate shopping. She had just finished doing some the night she had been attacked and nearly had died. Too many bad memories there. "How did you know my favorite brands?”

"We worked together for over two years, Julia. You brought your lunch every day. It didn’t take a genius.”

She supposed not, though for the life of her she couldn’t recall even which kind of soda Seth preferred. God, but she had been unconscious in those days.

No. Not unconscious. Preoccupied with staying healthy and sane, and then with staying alive.

"You look stressed.” Seth steered her toward the lab’s entrance. "Is everything okay?”

She forced herself to smile. "I’m just a little nervous about being back in this environment. A lot changes in three years.”

"You’ll be up to speed in a couple of days.” He passed her a name badge. "Clip this to your collar on the left.”

That, she hadn’t forgotten. She took it and attached the clasp to her jacket lapel. Thin laminated plastic, but it felt strange. "Why is it so heavy?”

"There’s a chip inside. It allows security to track you anywhere in the building.”

They knew who was where at all times. Considering the nature of the work, that was clever and, in a sense, comforting, but it also felt damned invasive. "Why are there windows in the lab?”

"There aren’t. Just in the outer-rim offices. They’re bulletproof,” he assured her. "Not a security threat.”

Seth seemed displeased about the lack of windows away from the outer-rim offices, which made no sense. After all his years of working in secure labs, he should be used to it. Though many did suffer physical and emotional challenges due to the lack of natural sunlight and fresh air. It was a hazard of the job that a couple weeks’ rest and relaxation typically cured. Those not cured transferred out to jobs that required less secure environments.

They stopped at the back of a line of four people waiting to get through security’s entrance checkpoint.

When they stepped up to the desk, a brash young lieutenant greeted them. "’Morning.”

"Lieutenant Dean,” Seth said. "This is Dr. Hy—”

"Warner,” Julia interrupted. "Dr. Julia Warner.” She smiled and offered him her hand. "It’s nice to meet you, Lieutenant.”

"Thank you, ma’am.”

Seth looked at her strangely, but said nothing about her dropping Karl’s name. "I’ll show her the ropes.”

The lieutenant nodded, Seth swiped his ID card in the system’s slot, and when the light turned green, he crossed the threshold of a metal archway.

Julia followed suit, clipped the badge back to the lapel of her navy suit jacket, and then followed Seth, her heels clicking softly on the gray tile.

The inner building was a maze of long and winding corridors that all looked alike: bare white walls, gray tile floors, and closed doors. "It would take six months to stop getting lost in here.” Julia stepped around two colonels who had paused to talk in the hallway. A map of the place would help tremendously, but Security would veto one being drafted, much less one being distributed for use.

"It’s not bad, really.” Seth chuckled. "Just visualize the layout. The center of the building is the inner lab. The vault surrounds it. There’s only one corridor leading to it, no windows, and one door. Security is far more extensive and sophisticated here than the lab in New Orleans.”

"How extensive and sophisticated?” Already, her every move was being monitored by a chip in her ID badge. And she would have to be blind not to see the cameras at every intersecting corridor and door.

"Very.” Seth led on. "The offices out here are for the general lab. Lots of dual technologies being developed. Secure, but not—”

"I understand.” Dual-technology programs had civilian and military applications. The projects in the outer lab weren’t Black Box projects developed solely for military use. Black Box projects were developed in the inner lab, and unless you headed the program or you were the sole-source contractor’s project representative, you knew only the portion of the project you worked on. You might have a general understanding of the overall mission, but more than likely, you knew only your own specific personal mission. In the general lab, you were more apt to know not only both the civilian and military applications of your entire project, but those of the others being developed around you.

Seth stopped at a junction in the corridor. A studious security guard stood sentry at a small podium-type desk. "’Morning, Dr. Holt.”

"Good morning, Sergeant Grimm.” Seth smiled. "This is Dr. Warner. She’ll be working with me in the vault for a while.”

The sergeant skimmed Seth with a handheld scanner, then moved to scan Julia. "Welcome to the Zone, ma’am.”

Julia smiled at the reminder. People often referred to the vault as the Twilight Zone because, in it, strange and bizarre ideas were considered the norm. "Thank you.”

He finished scanning and then nodded toward the card-system machine attached to the wall near his shoulder.

Seth inserted his ID card, then walked through.

Julia followed.

They moved on, down yet another seemingly endless, winding corridor. "We’ve walked at least a mile.” And she had the screaming arches to prove it. "How much farther?”

"We’ve walked just under half a mile, actually.” They stopped again. "I’ll explain more once we’re inside.”

She nodded, staring at the two glass cylinders behind Seth. Bordered by solid walls, the cylinders ran from ceiling to floor. You either went through them, or turned around.

"They’re not glass,” Seth said. "They’re sound-and bulletproof, and strong enough to sustain the force of a reasonable explosion.” He shrugged. "Perfectly safe.”

Julia gave him a sidelong look. "Define reasonable.”

Seth laughed and motioned for her to follow his lead.

She stepped to the side of the cylinder and inserted her card into the appropriate slot. With a little high-pitched whir, it sucked the card inside. The cylinder’s door opened. When she’d moved inside, the door sealed shut. Locked in, she noted the absence of airflow: a necessary precaution against biological or chemical invasion, if not exactly comfortable. A moment passed, and another, and then the door in front of her glided open. She stepped out and dragged in a deep breath of crisp air.

"Don’t forget your card.” Seth motioned toward the machine.

He looked a little green around the gills. Wondering why, she stepped aside, and then pulled her card from the tray. "You okay?”

"Yeah.” He grabbed his card. "I just hate this damn thing.”

Evidently, being locked inside the cylinder unnerved him. Funny, how differently people react to things. To her, it was a rare place. One where she felt safe.

Seth smiled sheepishly. "Almost there.”

"Good. People have children in less time than it takes to get into this place.”

"It’s not that bad, Julia.”

"No, it’s that good.” It was time-consuming and irritating, but the precautions were definitely warranted.

They walked down yet another deserted gray corridor to the next checkpoint. This one was unmanned, though cameras littered the wall, covering every possible angle.

Passing through, they took the first right, and then stopped at a set of double doors. Two machines hung side by side on the wall next to them. Seth stepped up to the first machine and centered his forehead against a plate glass, as if he were peeking inside. Given a green light, he moved to the second machine and placed his palm flat against a pad that resembled a small computer screen.

Julia mimicked him. Iris and palm print scanners. "Biometrics?”

"Enhanced biometrics,” he corrected. "Including facial-structure scans.”

Something in his tone alerted her: "And what else?”

"That’s classified.” The double doors opened. "We’re here.”

Julia looked at the doors, then above them. "After all that, just one camera at the entrance to the vault?”

Seth laughed. "We’ve been in the vault since we went through the transporter—the glass cylinder.”

"Oh.” Julia wanted to cringe but refused to do it. She should have realized that. Transporter was an apt slang name for the cylinder. Working in the vault’s inner lab was like working in another world. "Just how thick are the walls in this place?”

"Well over eighteen feet.”

Not an exact response, which meant he had no intention of stating specifics, but the footage cited was thick enough to sustain a direct hit from any missile known to man, except for the Rogue, without concerns of penetration compromising the vault’s integrity.

The double doors closed behind them. Julia looked around. Offices on the outer perimeter, the inner lab in the center of the complex. A handful of men and women sat at their workstations. Same gray tile floors and white walls as everywhere else, but the lab didn’t feel abandoned. Pulsating energy, it felt alive.

"Come on,” Seth said. "I’ll give you the nickel tour. Maybe we’ll run into Dempsey.”

"Who’s Dempsey?” Julia looked at the lab tables with pure envy. Everything imaginable, right at the fingertips. And for the thousandth time, she felt that hollow ache of loss at having to leave her work behind. The lab had been the one place she had felt comfortable. The one place she hadn’t felt compelled to lock doors and constantly look back over her shoulder.

The only place she had been safe.

"Dempsey Morse,” Seth said, pausing at the water fountain to get a quick drink. "He represents Slicer Industries on the team.”

Home Base’s contractor. "Ah, I see.”

"We have a briefing set up for ten. You’ll definitely meet him then. I think you’ll like him. Dempsey’s sharp. A UCLA graduate with about twenty years’ experience. A little gruff, but a good man to have on our side.”

"Sounds charming.”


Ignoring him, Julia looked around. Three offices, a conference room, an employee’s lounge, several sets of restrooms, a showering facility, and a detox sterilization chamber formed the outer perimeter, and the hub—the inner lab—at the complex’s center. An admin section stood in the southeast corner, across from the three offices. In it, she saw an unmanned desk—administrative assistance was banned in the inner lab—a keyed copier that tracked who made copies, when, how many, and of what, and a one-way fax. Anything could come into the Black Box, but nothing went out.

"The computers in here are on a closed system,” Seth said. "No networking to the outside, no Internet access. We have two offices outside the vault with access and e-mail. You can use those, but on nothing regarding the project, of course.”

"Electronic mail wasn’t a big deal before I left.”

"It is now.”

As she had thought. In three years, a lot had changed.

Seth ducked in through an open door. "Your office. Mine’s next door.”

"Terrific.” She stepped inside and sat down at her desk. It felt good. Strange, but good. Almost like home.

"Why don’t you settle in? Files on the desk there relate to the project and team members. Specific project files, you’ll have to sign out one by one. Greta handles that for us. You’ll meet her at the briefing.”


A frown knit Seth’s brow. He seemed hesitant. Finally, he worked his way up to asking what he wanted to know. "Julia, why have you dropped—” He stopped suddenly. "Never mind.”

He looked at her, seeking encouragement to finish his question. Knowing what it was—why she’d dropped Karl’s surname—she didn’t give it.

"Well.” He motioned to the far wall. "Conference room is on the other side of the lab. See you there at ten.”

Julia nodded, and then watched him through the glass wall, giving her a view of the lab. He walked straight to his office. Seth had done everything in the world to make her comfortable—at the apartment and here. He even had quelled his curiosity about her name change. Grateful for that small mercy, she shoved her hair back from her face and looked around.

The office was decent. About twenty feet long and twelve wide. Tiled, like everything else, but the far white wall had been decorated with a mural of an English garden. Pretty scene. And her desk even faced the door.

Seth had remembered. He’d often remarked on her "fetish” for seeing what was coming. He had no idea how on-target he had been, of course, and it wasn’t so much what but who. His not knowing had been one of the reasons they had worked together with such comfort and ease.

Don’t be a coward, Julia. There were a lot of reasons you were at ease with Seth. Admit it.

There were. She loved his honesty. Knowing that if Seth said something, she could bank on it. Anyone could. He always played straight. And he had courage. When necessary, he would go toe to toe with anyone short of God, and yet he genuinely respected other people’s ideas, views, and opinions. He seldom teased, but often laughed.

You always loved Seth’s laughter.

She had. For some strange reason, in it she heard hope. After she had left, when times had gotten really, really tough, and the urge to quit trying overwhelmed her, she would hear Seth’s laughter in her mind and find the strength she needed to keep struggling. Without his laughter, she might have given up.


Yes, but only in a general sense. Nothing personal or remotely intimate. She’d have to be crazy to ever let herself get personal or intimate again.

Julia, Julia, Julia. Wake up, woman. You already have.

No way. No damn way. Not now, not ever again. She’d nearly died, for God’s sake.

Whatever you say.

Oh, shut up.

Her conscience had to be wrong about this. Had to be.

Slightly nauseous, she stretched to the stack of files, pulled out one labeled Profiles, and dug in, eager to get her mind off Seth and familiarize herself with the team and the project.

"Okay,” she said, lifting a page with an unsteady hand.

"First, let’s get a fix on you, Dempsey Morse... ”




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