The Marine

The Marine

Cheryl Reavis

November 2016 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-716-8

Semper Fi.

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Semper Fi

Newly widowed Grace James knows she’s at a crossroads. Raised by her aunt, she spent her life playing the role of the perpetual ‘good girl’—never rocking the boat, always fitting in. And where did that get her? She had an unhappy marriage, and now she’s singlehandedly raising two strong-willed teenaged daughters who have Trouble written all over them. Just once, Grace wished she had a different life. What would it feel like to be irresponsible, free . . . wild?

Then she meets two men who change everything.

Sergeant Josh Caven is a Marine, through and through. He’s also a single dad who’s going on deployment again—soon! He has to come up with a family care plan for his little girl, and he’s desperate. He tells himself that’s the only reason he shows up on Grace’s doorstep. Because maybe she could help—if she’s the mother who gave him up for adoption all those years ago . . .

Sergeant Joseph Kinlaw is also a Marine, though he’s retired now. But once a Marine, always a Marine. He put in his time overseas, and now he’s there for those that come home broken, mentally or physically. He’s a loner, his wounded warriors his only family. Until he meets Grace . . . and realizes she needs him as much as he needs her.

An award-winning published author, Cheryl Reavis’s literary short stories have appeared in a number of "little magazines” such as The Crescent Review, Sanskrit, The Bad Apple, The Emrys Journal, and the Greensboro Group’s statewide competition anthology, WRITER’S CHOICE. Her contemporary romance novel, A Crime of the Heart, reached millions of readers in Good Housekeeping


Coming Soon!


Chapter One

GRACE JAMES STOOD staring at the old beach house. The wind was blowing hard off the ocean, and after a moment, she had to turn her face away. It was as if she had never been here before, never belonged here. The feeling of peace and contentment her Aunt Barbara’s weather- beaten cottage had always given her was completely gone.

Empty, she thought, not knowing whether she meant the cottage or herself.

It was unsettling to think that she couldn’t seem to hang on to things that mattered to her, regardless of how big or small they were— her parents, when she’d still been in elementary school, a red leather wallet containing her brand new driver’s license when she was sixteen, her husband of more than two decades when she was forty-five. She could barely remember her parents’ faces; she had never found the red wallet. As for her husband...

In the strictest terms, she was a widow. Trent had died suddenly in a single car accident on a dry stretch of US 17 one hot summer afternoon nearly two years ago. It had been a terrible time for her and for their two daughters. She had finally stopped crying herself to sleep at night, but she couldn’t ignore the very real possibility that if he had lived, they would have been divorced by now.

Sometimes she liked to fantasize that, if the accident had never hap­pened, they might have been able to fix whatever had suddenly gone wrong between them, that at some point she might have been brave enough to confront the situation and demand that he tell her why he was avoiding her, and when he couldn’t stay out of her way, why he was so distant and preoccupied. The closest she had come was to ask him— offhandedly—if things were going all right at work. He had barely answered, and after that, she had done what she always did—leave well enough alone.

It was a good thing, she supposed, that she had finally stopped pre­tending that she had avoided the issue because she had wanted to protect her daughters. The truth was that she was hoping that the prob­lem—whatever or whoever it was—would eventually go away. She regretted that now. She should have done something—anything. Most likely, she would have come out of a divorce with her identity intact, but she had learned far too young that change could be a terrible thing. She had only recently begun to understand how much she needed to hang on to the status quo. When everything was said and done, she had no doubt that she would have continued to be the same old ploddingly dependa­ble Grace, pretending everything was fine until Trent forced her hand.

Opportunity, her Aunt Barbara used to say, always came in disguise at the worst of times. But in the months since Trent had died, Grace hadn’t run across anything she considered even remotely opportune. She certainly had no intention of accepting any of the several offers she’d received from Trent’s friends to buy the beach property—whether it still met her emotional needs or not. It was the past, herpast, and she needed it. She had sought refuge at the cottage most of her life, even before her parents had died. The property had been the only thing of any value in her Aunt Barbara’s meager estate, and she’d left it to her own daughter, Sandra Kay. Grace, in a fit of nostalgia that bordered on despera­tion, had persuaded Trent to make an offer to buy it from Sandra Kay, something he had regretted once he realized that Grace had no intention of ever selling it. She couldn’t sell it. It was the only tangible thing she had left of her family, and she had clung to it accordingly.

Her Aunt Barbara, her mother’s only sister, had saved her from fos­ter care after her parents died. It couldn’t have been easy for her. She’d been a divorced single parent already trying to raise a daughter on her own, but she’d done it, and Grace had loved her dearly for it. But the gratitude she felt had done little to take away her constant fear of losing her place in Aunt Barbara’s home. Neither did her relationship with her cousin, Sandra Kay. Sandra Kay had been a year older, and for a time, Grace had hoped the two of them could be friends as well as cousins. But Sandra Kay had had no time for childhood friendships. At twelve, she’d had breasts and hips, and she knew how to make good use of them, taking off halfway through her senior year, leaving a wake of sins and ineffectual punishments behind her. She did leave a note, a vague assertion that she "had plans” and there was no reason to worry. It had clearly been an afterthought, since she’d also casually mentioned that she’d helped herself to the emergency cash in the antique Brown Betty teapot on the topmost shelf in the kitchen cabinet. And she had stayed gone, never calling or coming back to visit—unless she needed more money. The best she could do was a hastily scrawled postcard now and then or usually belated Christmas greetings, both with ever-changing postmarks. Grace hadn’t seen Sandra Kay since Aunt Barbara’s funeral nearly five years ago. Sandra Kay had followed up her brief memorial service appearance with a telephone call purely for the purpose of asking Trent to verify the dollar and cents value of her inheritance. With Grace, she had been distant to the point of hostility; with Trent she’d been amusing enough to make him laugh. But, in the end, Sandra Kay had been only too happy to let go of the beach property—something that still surprised Grace. Not that Sandra Kay would sell it, but that she would sell it to her rather than holding out for a better offer. Sandra Kay had never cared about going to the cottage—it was located too far from the beaches that the Marines from Lejeune frequented. She had never cared about accommodating her orphaned cousin Grace, either, and Grace could only surmise that she must have caught Sandra Kay in a moment of genuine financial necessity. Whatever the reason, Grace was grateful for the tiny, four-room rectangle with a screened-in front porch and nothing but the fading memory of a coat of white paint. It was situated in what was essentially a yet-to-be-gobbled-up strip of land between resorts. There was a generous three-block walk to the beach and at least six blocks to the bus line. Fortunately, the no-frills fishermen who rented the place on a regular basis didn’t seem to mind.

Grace had come to the cottage this afternoon to do the necessary housekeeping before she advertised its availability again. Both her daugh­ters were supposed to meet her here after school to help—if they could keep from squabbling long enough. It was as if they had been storing up their mutual animosity all their lives and neither of them couldcontain it any longer. She had plenty of things she could blame it on— Trent’s death, teenage moodiness, the phases of the moon. What­ever the cause, they needed their father, and there was nothing she could do about that.

Grace gave a quiet sigh. Trent had loved his daughters. For a time, he had loved her, too. How could he have become such a stranger? She was right there when his metamorphosis took place, but she hadn’t seen it coming, even though she’d spent most of her life always expecting some kind of shattering change. She knew firsthand what it was like to suddenly become a charity case, and she had never wanted to be in that kind of situation again. And yet, in the last months of her marriage, she had been. Or it had felt that way. She supposed that it still did, and she didn’t like it. All the childhood fears she’d thought she had escaped were back again. She was trying so hard not to let her sense of failure affect her girls—Lisa, who was the oldest and the most mindful of what other people thought, and Allison. Grace had no idea what her irrepressible and impatient younger daughter was thinking these days. Allison’s true feelings were painfully glossed over by a layer of well-intentioned cheerful­ness Grace suspected she didn’t feel.

Grace suddenly remembered an incident in Allison’s childhood, a time when she’d gotten a terrible attack of stage fright at her third-year piano recital. It had been less than two weeks before Christmas. Trent had brought work home from the office so that he could babysit Lisa, who had the sniffles. Allison was supposed to play "Little Drummer Boy,” a piece she had practiced endlessly and knew well.

But something happened to Allison just before she was supposed to go onstage, something internal and real, something she couldn’t or wouldn’t explain. Grace didn’t try to cajole her or force her to play. She took one look at her youngest child’s pleading eyes and trembling mouth, made their apologies to the music teacher, took Allison by the hand and left. Then Grace drove to the mall in Jacksonville, ostensibly to appreciate the Christmas decorations and to people-watch as home­sick Marines from Lejeune tried to make themselves feel better about being away from loved ones during the holidays. But Grace and Allison both had known the real reason they were there. They were killing time so they wouldn’t have to explain their early return to Lisa and Trent. Neither Grace nor Allison had talked on the way to the mall. There had been no room for conversation. The car had been too full of a miserable daughter’s gratitude. Grace had never mentioned the recital again, and as far as she could tell, Allison hadn’t been ruined by her mother’s indul­gence. Allison had continued her piano lessons; she had played in all her subsequent recitals. There was even a bonus. As a result of that one episode of stage fright, Grace and Allison had bonded in a way that Grace and Lisa never had, even though Lisa was the firstborn.

It occurred to Grace suddenly that she had been overwhelmed by her own personal version of stage fright—only hers hadn’t yet been resolved. She was still struggling to find her way.


Aside from her daughters, there was no one left to complain about whatever departure from sane behavior she might decide to make in order to find it, but at this moment, she was a woman without a working plan for her life beyond cleaning a vacation cottage and taking a long walk on the beach.

"First things, first,” Grace said aloud. Her priority was the ocean and the always-pleasurable moment when she would first hear the surf and actually taste the salty air.

She locked the car and put the keys into her jacket pocket. She didn’t take the direct, backyards-and-hedges path from her little sliver of no-man’s land to the beachfront. She went in a parallel direction instead, down the street toward the more commercial resort area to the south. The farther she went, the more upscale and blatantly pre-fabricated the cottages became. In contrast, hers was a weather-beaten relic from 1940’s family beach vacations and quickie wartime honeymoons.

The good old days.

Traffic was light this afternoon. Only two vehicles passed by on the street—a privately owned patrol car making the daily property rounds for those vacation homeowners who subscribed to a security service, andtwo men in a faded blue pickup truck—military, she thought—because of the Camp Lejeune bumper sticker. The older of the two she recog­nized. He was a permanent resident somewhere in the area and a nodding acquaintance, a fisherman she sometimes encoun­tered on her beach walks, yet another military retiree who couldn’t quite let go of the old life and who ended up living somewhere in the shadow of Lejeune. It was another aspect of Semper fidelis, she supposed. Both vehicles slowed a little as they went by. The security officer in the patrol car raised his hand in greeting. The two men in the truck didn’t.

There were fewer people at the beach than Grace expected. Most of them were out on the pier and either fishing or about to. Ordinarily, she liked to walk the 600 foot length of the pier and back, but not today. Today, she wanted to be in the sand, to look for beach pebbles and unbroken shells, to dodge the waves rolling in, the way she had as a child.

She suddenly remembered something Sandra Kay had once told her about the pier fishermen, about how easily they could be taken in. Some enterprising young girl, who was as accomplished at thievery as the ever-present gulls, would innocently join the men and fish alongside them, sometimes for hours. Then she’d pointedly decide to go buy her­self something to eat. It naturally followed that she would be more than happy to bring her new friends some refreshments when she returned, especially the expensive liquid kind—only she wouldn’t return. She’d take off with all their money for parts unknown. Grace didn’t see anyone she suspected of being a pseudo-fisherman con artist this afternoon, and it occurred to her that Sandra Kay had probably known the details of the ruse because she herself had done it. What a pair she and Sandra Kay had been—Goody Two-Shoes and The Grifter.

Grace stood for a moment looking out to sea, tasting the salt on her lips. Then she began walking down the beach, just above the tide line debris, mindful of the sound of the surf and the cries of the gulls hanging suspended in the air currents overhead. She thought of Isak Dinesen and her assertion that salt water—sweat, tears and the sea—cured anything. Perhaps it was true. At least for this moment, Grace worried about noth­ing. She savored it all and let go of regrets.

She kept walking, and eventually she saw a group of young women standing close together a few yards ahead. She realized that they were singing, a chorus from a school or a church choir practicing on the beach, their eyes firmly fixed on their intense, bird-like little director, who seemed to be willing them to hit the right notes. They sang a cappella and in tight harmony, something wistful and beautiful Grace couldn’t recognize.

She stood and listened, appreciating their skill and their obvious pleas­ure in executing it. Other people stopped as well, respectfully at a distance as Grace had. A runner trotted by, giving the group two thumbs up as he passed. One of the girls offered him a discreet little wave of acknowledgment, reminding Grace of her uncontainable Allison.

The song ended to a smattering of applause, and Grace abruptly de­cided she was ready to go back to the cottage. Home, she would have said before that abstract concept had been replaced by the reality of financial necessity.

Grace began walking at a quicker pace, needing to get the cleaning job finished. The same blue pickup truck passed by her again, this time with only one occupant, the young man who had been driving previ­ously. He looked at her briefly as he rode by.

She expected to find the car Lisa drove to school parked in front of the cottage when she returned, but it wasn’t there yet. She entered the screened-in porch, noting, with some relief, that the big three-over-three windowpanes in the old-fashioned front door were still intact. She needed to replace the old door with one more secure. She needed to replace a lot of things.

She unlocked the door and stepped inside, raising windows and turn­ing on lamps. By the time she had gotten out the cleaning supplies and found her kind of music on the recycled, thrift store radio, enough chilly April air had blown through the house to take away most of the musty smell.

Grace looked around when the screen door to the porch squeaked open. Allison and Lisa had finally arrived, and one look at their faces immediately engaged the "suspicious mother” part of her brain. She kept waiting for them to say something, but they were too busy looking around at everything—except her. It reminded her a little of the kind of interest Trent had always shown when he came here. In his case, it had been because he had never understood what she saw in the place that would keep her from selling it. In this instance, the girls’ looks were more a bold attempt at nonchalance.

She glanced out the window. She could only see one vehicle. Hers.

"How did you get here?” she asked, deciding to start with the obvi­ous and work back.

"We rode the bus, and then we walked,” Allison said, ignoring the look Lisa gave her. "Lisa was terrified somebody she knows would see us.”

"You don’t know what kind of people ride buses,” Lisa said in her own defense.

"Let’s not get sidetracked. The car would be where?” Grace said, ad­dressing the daughter who seemed more inclined to be forthcoming.

Neither of them answered. Grace had always been the warden par­ent, and both girls knew it. She might have been leery of rocking the marital boat, but she had always taken her parenting responsibilities seriously. She’d had to. Trent was the one who had opted to be the girls’ "friend.” She had never wanted friendship. She’d wanted to give her daughters what Aunt Barbara had given her—a sense that someone was in charge, someone who could be depended upon no matter what.

"Okay. Here’s the deal,” Grace said. "We’ll just do the cleaning while we’re waiting for the big revelation.”

"I... lost the car keys,” Allison offered immediately—anything to put off swinging a broom.

"Allison, you don’t drive. What were you doing with the keys?”

Allison looked at the floor. "I wanted to make Lisa think she’d lost them—only I really did.”


"Well, she was being such a butt-head—” She stopped, apparently be­cause of the look on Grace’s face. "I’m... sorry, Mom. I’ll... pay for them out of my... allowance?”

"Yes, you will and I think you’re going to be surprised by how expen­sive they are,” Grace said, ignoring Allison’s blatantly clear hope that her token offer wouldn’t be accepted. "So where is the car?”

"It’s still at school—in the student parking lot. We didn’t let any­body try to hotwire it,” she added helpfully. "Joe-B said he could do it, but we knew you wouldn’t want the car window broken—” She stopped in response to her sister’s elbow. "The car’s all right, Mom. Really.”

"For both your sakes, I hope so.”

"Ididn’t do anything,” Lisa said.

"And yet...” Grace said. "You’re the oldest, Lisa, and a situation like this is what you have a cell phone for. Now go sweep or something. Both of you.”

They gave the collective sigh of the unfairly persecuted and trooped into the kitchen, first to bicker over changing the radio station and then over who got what cleaning supplies. The screen door to the porch squeaked open again, and Grace looked in that direction. She saw the same faded blue truck first, then the same young man who had been driving it. She opened the front door just when he was about to knock.

He was neither short nor tall, but was athletic-looking and muscu­lar. He also seemed vaguely familiar in a way that had nothing to do with having seen him earlier on the street. His hair was cut very short, and he stood back from the door, as if he didn’t want the rest of the people in the house to see him. Surprisingly, he was holding a plump and curious baby girl in one arm, and he had a business-size envelope in his free hand. The baby looked all around—at him, at Grace, at the distance to the floor—clearly on a quest for something to smile at.

"Yes?” Grace said.

"Excuse me, ma’am,” the young man said. "I... are you Mrs. James? Grace James?”

"Yes,” she said.

"Your maiden name was Justin.”

It wasn’t a question.

"Yes,” Grace said again, wondering suddenly if she should have. She waited for him to say something more, but he didn’t. The baby gave him a big, mostly-gums-instead-of-teeth smile, one he tried not to re­turn. He didn’t quite make it.

"What is it?” Grace said quietly, because it was obvious to her that all this constituted something, in spite of how hard he was working to make his arrival seem routine and matter-of-fact.

He moved the baby’s inquisitive hand away from his face with prac­ticed ease, briefly bending the envelope, then took a deep breath. "Ma’am, I think you’re my mother.”

She looked at him, startled. Her first impulse was to laugh, to make light of the remark, but she didn’t because of the look on his face. It reminded her of Allison’s at the failed piano recital.

"Why in the world would you think that?” Grace asked instead, be­cause of her innate curiosity, the same curiosity she’d passed on to her youngest daughter.

Whatever response he’d anticipated, she didn’t think that was it. Or perhaps it was because he thrust the envelope at her. She didn’t take it. He let his hand fall.

"I’m sorry but you’ve made a mistake. I’m not your mother,” Grace said.

"I know I’m intruding, ma’am—”

"You’ve made a mistake,” she said again, as kindly as she could be­cause he was obviously in some distress. "I don’t have a son.” She moved to close the door.

"Wait. Please. I don’t have a lot of time to get this done, ma’am. I was hoping we could talk—” He broke off and took a deep breath. "I don’t want to cause you any problems with your family. I wouldn’t if I didn’t have to—if there was—I know you’ve got your own life.”

He stopped again and glanced at the baby. "I’ll go... but maybe you can look at these,” he said.

"There’s no point—” Grace started to say, but he placed the enve­lope on the seat of the one aluminum folding chair on the porch, then turned and left, letting the screen door slam behind him.

Grace stood there, watching as he walked to the truck and buckled the baby into the car seat. Some part of her—the mother part—crazily wondered whether a truck that old had air bags and if they could be turned off. She left the envelope where he’d dropped it on the chair.

Both girls stood in the living room behind her. The minute she turned around, she realized that they had heard most, if not all, of the exchange.

"Mom?” Allison said first, clearly alarmed. "Mom, is that—is he our—?”

"No, he is not,” Grace said, but she realized immediately that they didn’t believe her.

"But he knew your maiden name,” Lisa said, her voice rising.

"Lisa, I’m not his mother. It’s some kind of mistake,” Grace said.

"Why would he come here and say all that, then?” Lisa cried. "What is he trying to do?”

"I don’t know. I don’t know anything about him. But I can assure you I don’t have a male child.”

"Mom, is that the truth?” Lisa demanded.

"Of course, it’s the truth.”

"Then why aren’t you calling the police or something?”

"All right, that’s it. He made a mistake, and I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I want to get this place cleaned up and go home.”

"Mom, aren’t you... ?” Allison began.

"I don’t know what’s wrong with you, Mother,” Lisa interrupted. "I really don’t. You’ve been totally weird ever since Dad died.”

"I’m fine. So are you. Now let’s get busy.”

But Allison abruptly ran out onto the porch. She picked up the enve­lope still lying on the chair and opened it, taking the pages out and flipping through them. "Mom,” she said after a moment. "Your name and your birthday are on all of these.”

Chapter Two



MAN, I SCREWED this up.

Josh Caven hadn’t realized the daughters were there. Even so, he didn’t know how else he could have done it—except maybe to let some­body else go in first and prepare the woman for the breaking news that her long lost baby boy had found her. Sergeant Kinlaw would have done it if Josh had asked him. He was into that kind of thing—helping out guys with their drinking-PTSD-women-kid troubles—when he wasn’t fishing. But Josh hadn’t asked. The sergeant would have had too many questions, questions Josh didn’t have the time to consider and couldn’t begin to answer. He’d done all the research he could. He must have read every magazine article the library had about searching for birth mothers. Just about all of the women resisted at first, and he could understand that. He already knew the mission had a high possibility for failure, but still, there was a chance, and he had to go forward anyway. End of discus­sion.

He didn’t know what he’d expected—except that it wasn’t what he got. As far as he could tell, Grace Justin James hadn’t been all that rattled by his announcement. She’d seemed perfectly clear about the situation from the get-go—he was either seriously misinformed or crazy. Or both. She hadn’t even asked his name.

If he had thought having the baby with him would make her more in­clined to hear what he had to say—grandmothers and all that—he’d missed the mark there, too. He could have been the paperboy, stuck withdragging his baby sister along while he made his collections, as far as she was concerned.

She could run a good bluff, he’d say that for her. He should have asked her why they used to call her "Lizzie.”

"I should have showed her the picture. I should have made her look at the adoption papers,” he said out loud. How was she going to argue with that—copies of a goddamned birth certificate with her name on them? Signed. Notarized. Delivered. As it was, there was no guarantee that she wouldn’t just toss them in the nearest garbage can without look­ing.

The baby was growing fretful, and he reached out to stroke her soft hair as he drove, thankful that they were almost home—or what they called home anyway. It was an aging trailer one of Sergeant Kinlaw’s buddies had offered him while he tried to dig his way out of the sham­bles of his life. The baby was teething, and she clutched his hand to gnaw on it. Hard. He could feel the sharp edges of the new tooth coming through.

"Damn, Spike! That’s your old dad’s shooting hand. Growing teeth is a bitch, huh?” he added in sympathy. He smiled slightly to himself. He had to stop doing that—using inappropriate language and calling her "Spike.” Pretty soon, she was going to be saying words she ought not say and thinking "Spike” was her name. His smile broadened. She was one tough little girl—that’s why he did it. He really liked that about her. There was no denying that she was gorgeous, but he liked the way she could get her vaccinations and then look at his face to see if she was supposed to cry or not. She had a "Baby Marine” T-shirt, and he was pretty sure she was one of the few kids who actually deserved to wear it.

But tough or not, gnawing the nearest fist wasn’t doing it for her and the fretting escalated. He tried giving her a pacifier. She sucked on it a few times, then burst into real crying, letting it fall out of her mouth and onto the floorboard.

He wondered suddenly what Angie was doing, if she was still with the sneaking son of a bitch she’d dumped him and their baby for. A goddamned sand sailor she’d met over there, a fast worker who looked her up as soon as he got back to the States and who knew how to make her feel like a woman—she said. He thought he’d seen him in a hallway once, when he’d gone to Camp Lejeune hospital to see one of his guys. He’d been surprised that the bastard was a corpsman, one that had to worry about IEDs and house to house combat just like the rest of them.

Josh had already had two deployments when Angie was sent over­seas. When she got home, she’d been crazy to start a family. He was fine with that. By then, both of them knew the value of not wasting whatever time they had. And their situation wasn’t all that unusual. They were surrounded by military couples who had to figure out what to do with their children when one of them got sent someplace. The baby was six months old when his third tour came around, and he thought she’d manage fine while he was over there. She was a good mother, a good Marine. They had their Family Care Plan. They had all the logistics worked out.

But they hadn’t factored in her change of heart—or at least, he hadn’t. Man, he hadn’t seen that coming, but he should have when the emails got scarce. He thought it was because she was trying to look after a new baby while readjusting to not being in a war zone.

He’d been in-country three weeks when he got the word that there was a family emergency and he was being sent home because his CO had opted to let him go fix whatever was wrong instead of staying and worry­ing and maybe endangering his men. It took a while before he could even find out what the emergency was, and then, all he’d learned was that nobody was sick or hurt.

He’d arrived back at Lejeune to find his house and his wife very quiet. Angie had taken Elizabeth to daycare, and she couldn’t have been any calmer. With no distractions, she didn’t waste any time informing him that she "wasn’t going to do this anymore.”

It had still taken him a while to get it. His military mind had been full of possible glitches in their care plan and the revisions they might need to make. Then, he realized what "this” actually meant. They no longer needed a plan. He did. Angie was dumping the whole package. Everything. She didn’t want their baby girl, and she didn’t want him. And clearly the sincerity of her complaint to higher ups about her state of mind had been enough to get him home. He was already all too famil­iar with the concept—women dumping their inconvenient baggage and moving on—but it had nearly killed him anyway. The only thing he had going for him now was the knowledge that he and his daughter were better off without her.

They were doing all right. He was doing all right—except that he had trouble sleeping, and when he did, sometimes just as he dropped off, he thought Angie was there, warm and loving and still his. He could feel her arms around him, her body against him, and hear her whisper his name.


He had loved it when she did that—said all of his name.


Oh, yeah. He was all right.

And he was crazy.

The biggest problem was that there weren’t any viable options. Angie didn’t have much in the way of reliable family—even if they had been on better terms—and he didn’t have any at all. He had only one possibility—his birth mother. He wanted to finally meet her. He wanted to see if he could make a revised Family Care Plan with her in it as some kind of supervised caregiver. She wasn’t a stranger to him—exactly— and he was desperate. Semper fi could open a lot of doors in this part of the world, and thanks to a roundabout access to the DMV, he knew that Grace Justin James lived in the area. But he hadn’t made any attempt to contact her. He hadn’t needed to contact her. He had his own life and so did she. It had been enough to read about her and her husband and daughters in the local newspaper and to drive by her house—once—out of curiosity, nothing more. He just wanted to see what she’d traded him for—a big rustic-looking brown two-story house with a wide front porch, a manicured lawn and a red front door. And mature hardwood trees, expensive trees. But now, thanks to Angie, he needed more. He had driven back to her neighborhood, and he’d gotten out of the truck to walk around, hoping to catch a glimpse of her.

Or something.

It wasn’t a well thought-out plan, but he’d run into a talkative old man leading a pair of greyhounds. Josh had been curious enough to ask about the dogs—rescued racers with easily damaged skin, he learned, from the Florida dog tracks, the male so intimidated by the decidedly alpha female that it would no longer hike its leg to pee. Josh’s sincere inquiry had thrown open the door for a flood of information. The old man had been happy to tell him all there was to know about the strict adoption process for recycled dogs and that Mrs. James owned the house with the red door he’d been admiring and also a house close to the beach. The worldwide web being what it was, it hadn’t been hard to find the beach house. It had been harder to find her.

Maybe he should have worded things better, he suddenly thought.

And said what?

Hello, I’m your son—this is your granddaughter—help me?

He had to make a decision. When he got right down to it, the choices were pretty simple. He could put Spike in foster care—except that he had been there and done that himself when he was a kid. He didn’t want her in foster care. He wanted her with family. Real family. What kind of world was it when adoptions worked out better for dogs than it did for little kids?

His other choice was to leave the corps. How was he supposed to de­cide when he couldn’t stand to do either one?

Damn you, Angie!

He glanced into the rearview mirror and changed lanes. It was eat­ing him up inside. He cursed himself for being a stupid bastard. He was a goddamned sergeant in the goddamned Marine Corps—and so far his only solution to the problem had been to run to his mother.


Allison stared out the car window at the passing scenery and didn’t an­swer. They were almost home, and she had a lot to think about. The ride to the school parking lot to get the car had been its own special kind of torture. Nobody had said anything, but the unasked questions practi­cally lived and breathed.


"No! I don’t believe her!”

"Well, you don’t have to bite my head off,” Lisa said.

Actually, Allison did. The alternative was bawling like a little kid, and she didn’t want to do that.

"Mom didn’t want us to know. That’s all there is to it,” she said when she was reasonably sure she had the urge to cry under control. She had always trusted her mother; she wanted to trust her now, but she’d seen her wannabe brother with her own two eyes—and his baby. He hadn’t looked or sounded like a nut job or somebody who was playing some kind of stupid, tasteless joke. Who would do that kind of thing, anyway? Nobody she knew, even if she included Lisa’s hateful friends with the double first names. Ana Camilla. Julia Rose.

"Well, she didn’t tell us Dad wanted to get a divorce,” Lisa said.

Allison took a quiet breath and stared at the spare set of car keys in the ignition, at the green Care Bear with a four-leaf clover dangling from the key chain. She had given it to her father for his birthday as a kind of lame pre-teen joke, and, he, being the kind of father he was, had actually used it. "Maybe because he didn’t,” she said. "Maybe they were just going through one of those rough patch things.”

"Yeah, right,” Lisa said, turning onto the street where they lived. "All I know is they were acting just like Julia Rose’s mom and dad.”

"Well, maybe she didn’t know he wanted one. How could she? They didn’t even talk to each other.”

"If we could figure something was wrong, she could. She was mar­ried to him. I bet that guy is the reason Dad was acting like he was. Maybe he didn’t know she’d had a baby, either.”

Allison had nothing to say to that. She kept thinking about the way "that guy” had looked. She wondered where he’d come from, if he’d actually been around here all the time and none of them had known it. She didn’t wonder why he thought what he obviously thought, however. She’d seen the paperwork.

"I think the baby is his, that’s what I think,” Lisa continued. "What if we’ve got a brother nobody bothered to tell us about? Or a niece? I can’t believe Mom did this to us. What if he wants to live with us or something? What am I supposed to tell people? What if he wants us to give him money—then what? We can’t afford to do that—I’m going to college in September.”

Allison was only half listening. Her sister wasn’t interested in her opinion. She was only concerned with the possible fallout from this situation and how it would affect her social standing at school. She was worried about what the...

Allison tried to remember the word. They’d just talked about it in her English class—it had come up in the discussion about Jane Austen.

Ton. That was it. The Ton—the special people, whose opinion could make or break you socially, or, in this instance, could open or close the door to all things high school. There was no doubt that a long lost bastard brother would cause Lisa’s image to take a serious hit. It was too... redneck. Poor Lisa. She had enough trouble living down her dorky sister, Allison.

"I thought he looked worried,” Allison said as Lisa pulled into the driveway.

"He didn’t look worried to me. Did you get the haircut? He’s a jar­head—or a pretend jarhead—which is worse. Mom’s car’s not here. Where do you think she is? Oh, God. You don’t think she went after him?”

Allison opened the car door and got out without answering. If she had been the one with a grown up baby on the doorstep, and she’d brushed him off the way her mother had, she’d be out looking for him. As it was, she was only the possible sister, and she already had a plan.

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