December 5, 2012 Leave a comment
Coming February 1, 2013
The 3rd book in the Lost, Inc. series of Love Inspired Suspense novels:
Vicki Hinze Books
Love Inspired Suspense
A simple trip home for the holidays is all former FBI profiler Maggie Mason wants. But a serial killer has other plans. Trapped in a deadly game of cat and mouse, Maggie finds an ally in Lost, Inc. with private investigator, Dr. Ian Crane. The handsome widower is reluctant to love again, and the last thing Maggie wants is to put Ian in the line of fire. Love could cost them everything . . . unless they can find their way to each other in time for Christmas.
By finding and helping the lost, these broken former military investigators heal
Survive the Night,Book 1
Christmas Countdown,Book 2
Torn Loyalties, Book 3
Lost, Inc. Series, Book 1
Mass Market ISBN: 978-0373445097
Large Print ISBN: 978-0373675302
Love Inspired Suspense
After losing everything, Della Jackson tries to begin again as an investigator. But she can’t forget the past . .. and neither can someone else. Someone who won’t let anyone–even Della’s best friend, former special operative Paul Mason–stand in the way. As Della is stalked and those closest to her are targeted, both Della and Paul realize there’s only one way to survive. They each have to face their greatest fears, overcome the scars of the past and dare to love again . . . before it’s too late.
By finding and helping the lost, these broken investigators heal.
Buy now at:
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Visit the Lost-Inc.com website HERE.
“Tired?”Delia Jackson latched her seat belt, then looked over at Paul Mason, driving his SUV. Her day had started just after five. It was now nineteen hours long, but she had to give credit to her boss, Madison McKay, owner of Lost, Inc. Holding an “open house” at the small private investigatingfirm where Della had worked since returning to Florida three years ago was a brilliant idea. Holding it during North Bay’s annual street festival was beyond brilliant and now a proven, resounding success.”I passed tired about nine o’clock. Not that your company hasn’t been great.” On a horse wearing a cowboy hat or in a black tux as he was now, Paul Mason was gorgeous and charming. Black hair, gray eyes and lean and fit with a face chiseled by a loving hand. More importantly to Della, he was a man of character, trusted, and he expected nothing from her. That made him the perfect nondate date for any event but especially for one of Madison’s formal soirees, which Della never attended without a direct command-performance memo.
Paul’s arm draped the steering wheel. “Can I say something without you going postal on me?”
Odd remark. “Sure.” In their three years of being close friends, hadn’t they always spoken freely? From the first time she’d talked to him on the phone from lennessee through his organization, Florida Vet Net, and he’d agreed to help her relocate to Florida, she thought they had done nothing but speak freely.
He braked for a group of about thirty festivalgoers to cross the street. One boy about twelve had the Seminole emblem painted on his cheek: Red is good.
Her dress. So he had noticed that she always wore black. Was he like her landlady’s granddaughter next door? Gracie, a precocious eight-year-old, had taken one look at the red dress her grandmother was rehemming because Della had hemmed the silk with dental floss and asked if Della was done mourning.
What mother ever stopped mourning the death of a child? What woman stopped mourning the resulting breakup of her marriage? “The black dress didn’t fit.”
Disappointment flashed through Paul’s eyes. “Ah, I see.” He turned onto Highway 20, then minutes later, south into her subdivision. “You seemed to have fun tonight.”
“You know I did.” They’d danced, enjoyed a battle of the bands and had a grand time. Fun. She’d had fun.
The thought sank in, and a flood of guilt swarmed in right behind it.
He clicked on his blinker to turn onto her street. “It’s okay for you to have fun, Della. And to wear clothes that aren’t black. It’s been three years.”
“I know.” She’d heard it all from everyone—her former pastor, her landlady, her boss, her boss’s assistant—and now from Paul.
“But knowing it and feeling it are two different things?” he suggested.
He understood. Paul always understood. “Exactly.” Days passing on a calendar didn’t change the grief or loss in a mother’s heart. That was the part the others didn’t seem to understand. The ache and emptiness were still fresh, the wounds still raw. She sighed, glanced out the window. Gracie stood on Della’s front porch. What was that she was holding? “But I am working on—Stop!”
Paul hit the brakes hard, screeched to a stop. “What’s wrong?”
Della didn’t pause to answer but grabbed the door, flung it open and scrambled out. “Gracie!” she screamed, her voice frantic, and ran full out toward her cottage. Oh, please no. Don’t let it happen again. “Put down that package!”
Gracie stood statue-still, her eyes stretched wide, like a terrified deer blinded by headlights.
“Put the box down, Gracie.” Della softened her voice. “Do it now. Right now.”
Gracie set the box on the porch’s floor and then just stood beside it.
Della snatched her off the porch, buried her against her hammering chest and ran across the postage-stamp-sized yard to the sidewalk near the street, putting the most distance possible between the package and the child, using her own body as a shield.
Paul ran up to them. “What’s wrong?”
Della ignored him. “Gracie, didn’t your gran tell you not to get my mail?”
“I—I didn’t, Della,” she said on a stuttered breath. “You’re squishing me.”
Della loosened her hold. “Where did you get the box?”
“It wasn’t in the mailbox, I promise. It was on the porch by the swing.” Her voice cracked. “I was scared you wouldn’t see it and—”
Della’s heart still banged against her ribs, threatened to thump out of her chest. She was shaking. Hard. “I appreciate it, but next time you listen to me. Don’t get my mail anymore or any packages. Got it?”
A fat tear rolled down Gracie’s cheek.
Paul smiled and flicked away Gracie’s tear. “Della knows you were trying to help, and she’s sorry she sounds so angry. She’s not, you know.”
“She sounds plenty mad.” Gracie’s chin quivered.
“No, I’m not mad.” Della felt like a slug. A terrified slug, but still a slug. “I was scared.”
“Why?” Gracie and Paul asked simultaneously.
Oh, boy. She was in for it now, but it was past time for the truth. “Gracie, you know what happened to Danny, right?” Just speaking her son’s name hurt, reopened the gaping wounds in her battered heart.
Gracie nodded. Light from the streetlamp had the glittery face paint from the festival sparkling on her cheeks. “His daddy was holding him and he opened the mailbox and it exploded. His daddy got hurt, but Danny went to heaven. Now he lives with your mom and dad and my grandpa.”
“That’s right.” Della said it, and would give her eyeteeth to still believe it. But her beliefs or lack of them were her problem, not Gracie’s. “This is my fault. I didn’t want to frighten you, but I should have told you I’m worried the man who did that to Danny might do it again. That’s why I don’t want you getting my mail and why I sounded so angry. When I saw you on the porch with that box… I was really scared.”
Gracie curled her arms around Della’s neck and hugged her fiercely. Her breath warmed Della’s neck, melted the icy chill steeped in her bones. “I’m not going to heaven yet. It’ll be a long, long time. Gran said.”
Gran was the ultimate authority on all things. “That’s good to know.” Della blew out a steadying breath, then set Gracie down on the sidewalk. “You run on home now. It’s late and your gran is waiting.” What was Miss Addie thinking, letting Gracie come outside this late at night alone?
“She doesn’t know I’m gone. She’s in the shower.”
That explained that. “What made you come out here?” Della should have asked that before now, and probably would have, if seeing the child holding that package hadn’t scared ten years off her life.
“I saw the man put the box on the porch.”
A chill streaked through Della. “Did you know him?”
She shook her head. “It was too dark. I just saw the box moving. He was carrying it.”
“He was wearing dark clothes, then?” Della asked.
“I dunno. I only saw the box until he left. Then when he got to the sidewalk I saw him.”
Because of the streetlight. “Would you know him again?”
“No. Everything was black.” She tilted her head. “Well, except his shoes.”
“Did you see his face?”
Paul spoke softly. “Gracie, are you sure it was a man?”
“I dunno. He was bigger than Della, but not as big as you. I couldn’t see.”
“Okay, honey,” Della said. “You go on home now before your gran can’t find you and gets scared.”
“And no more leaving the house without her knowing it,” Paul said.
“Yes, sir.” Gracie cut across the grass and headed next door. “Night, Della. Bye, Mr. Mason.”
“Good night, Gracie.”
“I wish she’d seen more,” Paul said. “I hope he didn’t see her.” Della’s gaze collided with Paul’s. “You’re not thinking it was FedEx, are you?”
“At midnight?” She muffled a grunt. “No.”
“Neither am I,” he said, then waited, clearly expecting her to explain her behavior and her concerns.
Della hesitated, staring back at the porch at the box, but Paul let the silence between them stretch, blatantly waiting for her to look at him. Resigned, she did. At least he wasn’t scowling.
“Spill what?” The porch light cast streaks of light across the sidewalk, but it wasn’t so dark she didn’t see the stern look in his eyes. She could try to act as if everything was fine now that Gracie was safely tucked into her own cottage, pretend that her being outside was what really terrified Della and hope he’d go home so she could examine the box on her own, but that required deceit. She hated deceit and she’d never practiced it with Paul. The idea of doing so now grated on her. Just considering it made her feel slimy.
“Don’t minimize this.” He frowned. “Your explanation satisfied Gracie, but I know you, Della Jackson. You’re not suddenly scared of another mailbox bomb. Not with Dawson locked away in a mental hospital. So what’s going on?”
He knew her too well. “Dawson isn’t in the mental hospital anymore. He’s out.”
Surprised lit across Paul’s face. “Since when?”
“Apparently, for about six weeks—”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“There’s no need to shout at me. My hearing is just fine.” She frowned up at him. “I just found out two weeks ago.”
“A month after the fact? But they were supposed to give you advance notice.”
“Yes, they were, but they didn’t. I fell through the crack.”
2012 Bell Bridge Books
“Absolutely riveting.” — Philadelphia Inquirer
He survived a mysterious mission more horrible than the mind can imagine; only she can break through the trauma and get him to talk. But if she succeeds, they both may not survive.
Dr. Sara West knows only that her high-security military patient goes by the name “Joe,” that he’s in a catatonic state and can only repeat the code words, “I wept,” and that his post-traumatic stress disorder is a result of his last mission as a Shadow Watcher—a spy who spies on other spies. Her brother-in-law was also a Shadow Watcher. He committed suicide in the same sinister military facility where Joe, and other military men like him, are now in treatment. Sara wants to learn what caused her sister’s unshakable husband to kill himself and, in the process, to heal Joe, a compelling man who wins her love. But the secrets inside him reveal a shocking truth. One she isn’t sure they can overcome.
“Absolutely riveting.” — Philadelphia Inquirer
“An excellent story of awakening love.” — Miami Herald
“Gripping and adrenaline-charged, Hinze’s plot will appeal to fans who like their suspense razor sharp.” — Publishers Weekly
“A military intelligence/romance/mystery…about a secret military hospital and patients who are diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (or are they?) and the civilian doctor who is part of an undercover mission who’s goal is to figure out what happens to these patients and what dangerous secrets have they or have they not told. The story is very suspense filled and very well written. You never know who is telling the truth and who the good guys vs. the bad guys are. One of the main characters I didn’t have truly figured out until the second to the last page! If you like military–romance–suspense– just a great read–you have to pick up [Hinze’s] books!”
– The Jackson Journal
“Utterly thrilling from beginning to end. So suspenseful you want to put it down. Hinze has proven herself a true master of military romantic suspense tales.”
– Romantic Times
“FIVE STARS. Very few authors do military tales quite as well as Vicki Hinze. This time, Ms. Hinze combines a military espionage thriller, a medical research tale, and romance into a fabulous suspense story…[that] never eases up. Acts of Honor has cross appeal to readers of romance, espionage, and suspense as an entertaining thriller.”
– Painted Rock
“This was a truly amazing book. Ms. Hinze had me turning pages and hoping that the book would never end. This book shows quite a bit of how the secret part of the military works. It proved that Ms. Hinze has a true talent as a military suspense writer.”
– Old Book Barn Gazette
“Meticulous plotting, enough suspense to keep the reader guessing, and fast pacing make Acts of Honor top-notch.”
– The Bookdragon Review
“A nail-biting psychological military romantic mystery. Hinze has captured the mystique of covert military actions in her riveting portrayal. This is one book that won’t let you put it down!”
– Affaire de Coeur
“Vicki Hinze speaks in a voice unique to the genre. Acts of Honor reads like a mystery with touches of Tom Clancy. If you seek a story with characters of depth, a different twist, tingling suspense, and bittersweet love, buy Acts of Honor.”
– Reader to Reader
“Acts of Honor delivers. If you love military romantic suspense, this book is definitely for you.”
– Romance Book Reviews
“The reader develops…a newfound understanding and a deeply rooted respect for the sacrifices of our military personnel, and their families. Hinze wears her patriotism proudly and unabashedly with an enthusiasm we should emulate. As with Duplicity and Shades of Gray, Acts of Honor weaves a military background into a relationship between a man and a woman making their love even more meaningful due to the shared admiration for family, country, and freedom. [Hinze’s] books represent the good things we were brought up on, and while life can be complicated, she clearly demonstrates what should be important to us. A good, solid feel-good read.”
– Word Weaving
“I have never enjoyed a book more or found a book that difficult to put down. Acts of Honor is truly the “best” book I’ve read in a long time. This suspense filled story kept me on the edge of my seat and totally enthralled from the first page to the last. I’d love to see this made into a “movie of the week” or motion picture…it’s really that good! Kudos to Ms. Hinze for her stunning new release!”
– New-Age Bookshelf
“A fast-paced tale filled with enough unexpected twists and turns to give a reader whiplash. A compelling, military thriller that kept this reviewer, who normally is not a fan of military books, clued to her copy long into the early hours of the morning.”
– The Romance Reader
“Intense spine-tingling action. Shattering conclusion. I was exhausted when I finished Acts of Honor, it’s that intense, but it’s well worth every draining emotion that you feel.”
– Romance Communications
“Powerful, tender, passionate. Read Acts of Honor.”
–Stella Cameron, NY Times bestseller
“An electrifying, supercharged thriller.” — Meryl Sawyer, best-selling author
Top Pick Award – Romantic Times
Gold Medal Award – Romantic Times
Silver Star Award – Romantic Communications
Daphne du Maurier, Finalist, Best Mainstream Suspense Novel of the Year
Maggie Award of Excellence, Best Contemporary Novel of the Year
Reviewer’s Choice Award, Finalist, Best Contemporary Romance Novel of the Year
As a nation, we expect much from our men and women in uniform. Often we have no idea of their trials or sacrifices, and we have no idea how much serving us costs them personally. I hope that in reading this novel, readers will have an opportunity to become aware, to understand, and to appreciate those who dedicate, and sometimes sacrifice, their lives for us.
A writer has a responsibility to weigh the costs of portraying characters and events in their natural forms against the potential impact of those portrayals. Having been a military wife for over twenty years, I consider this impact of paramount importance. For that reason, as in Shades of Gray and Duplicity, I have implemented artistic license in Acts of Honor. IWPT and Braxton exist only within these pages and some of the procedures and disciplines have been altered out of respect and concern for the soldiers who perform sensitive missions and for their families. I feel strongly that their gifts to us warrant our concern and protection, and hope you’ll agree.
“Oh, no.” Sara West looked up from her desk and frowned. “What the hell are you doing here, Foster?”
That frank reaction earned her a rare smile. “Glad to see you, too, Dr. West.” He removed his cap and sat down in her visitor’s chair. “How long has it been?”
How long? How dare he do this? He ignored her inquiries into her brother-in-law Captain David Quade’s death, stonewalled her investigation at every turn, and then just waltzes into her office as if they were close friends? “It’s been seven months, two weeks, and four days–not nearly long enough.”
Sara closed the patient file open on her desk, then slid it aside. “Now, this is a private office–mine–and not your military base, Colonel, but I’m going to be gracious and ask you once more before I kick you out on your pompous ass.” She hiked her chin. “What do you want?”
His smile faded and he scanned the bookshelves spanning a long wall.
Sara grimaced. All of the titles were on post-traumatic stress disorder, and Foster definitely would notice. He never missed anything, or gave anything away. Likely a hazard of his job, though even after five years of discussions with him–mostly discussions aimed at him with her trying to get information from him about David–Sara still wasn’t exactly sure what Foster’s job entailed.
She knew he was military. An Air Force colonel who worked with the AID. But her discreet inquires at the Air Force Intelligence Division had convinced Sara that even regular AID personnel weren’t familiar with specifically what job Colonel Jack Foster performed for the military. He was an enigma to them and, by extension, to her. An enigma currently standing in her Pensacola, Florida office–which was a long way from his office at the Pentagon–staring at her in open challenge.
Being even thinner now than when they’d last met, Sara supposed she still looked fragile to him. God, how that rankled. With her blond hair snagged in a barrette at her nape, and wearing the lab coat and navy power suit she’d worn to give her PTSD lecture to two hundred psychologists and psychiatrists that morning, she felt almost prim. But she was not prim, nor fragile. She was thirty-four, stood five eight in stocking feet, and his unwelcome presence in her office had her and her temper rising to meet his challenge. “Well, are you going to answer me? Or do I get the delayed gratification of kicking you out?”
Foster grunted and tucked his cloth cap under his belt, between the loops on his slacks. “Still ticked-off at me, eh?”
“Forever, plus ten years. Count on it.”
“I did attempt to learn more about Captain Quade’s incident, Dr. West. Unfortunately, I was denied access to his files.”
Who was he trying to kid? Foster had clout. That much everyone in AID knew–even those who had needed a little friendly persuasion to admit they ever had heard of him. “Why?”
“That’s classified information.”
Sara grunted. He was lying to her. She’d heard whispers during her last fact-finding trip to the Pentagon that Foster’s security clearance exceeded Top Secret. He could get file access. He chose not to do it.
He looked her straight in the eye. “Isn’t it enough to know David is dead?”
“No, it isn’t enough.” Vexed that she couldn’t force Foster to be honest, she stabbed the toe of her shoe deep into the teal carpet beneath her desk. “Not when David’s widow–my sister–is collecting husbands like you are a chest full of medals.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. After five years . . .” His voice trailed off, and then he went on. “Well, I’d hoped Brenda, er, Mrs. Quade, would adjust.”
Foster sounded sincere. But Sara had experienced his sincerity before. She knew better than to believe it, and let him know it by arching a skeptical brow.
A faint flush swept up his neck and flooded his face. “No progress on your research, I take it.”
He’d caught the gesture. Foster was a pain, but he was swift on the uptake. “Plenty of progress on PTSD, just not on how patients’ families successfully cope with it.” She let her gaze slide to the window, unwilling to let him see how deeply her failure affected her. “Brenda stood on shaky ground before David committed suicide. Now, in a way, she’s doing her damnedest to join him.”
“Through the marriages?”
Sara nodded. “Five in four years.” Guilt swam through her chest and settled like heavy stones in her stomach. Brenda was thirty-six, the older sister, and yet Sara always had been the big sister. Not by choice, but by necessity. Since grade school, Brenda had gotten herself into more scrapes than a teen with her first training bra. And Sara always had pulled her out. But on this, when it mattered most, Sara couldn’t seem to find a way out.
Foster let his gaze drop to his knees. “And you feel responsible because you’re an expert on PTSD and yet you still can’t seem to help her.”
How typical of him to lay out her feelings like bare bones and then peck at them. Bristling, Sara snapped. “Wouldn’t you?”
“Yes, I would.”
Surprised by that admission, Sara pursed her lips and opted to be a little more civil, though she had to work at it. She didn’t like Foster any more than he liked her. The only thing that made their interactions possible was that they both knew it and were never hypocritical enough to deny it. “Thanks for holding off on the platitudes and absolutions.” She meant it sincerely.
“You’re welcome.” His smile returned. “Does that mean all is forgiven?”
“Not by a long shot.” She tugged at her lab coat cuff and slid him a glare. “I make it a practice never to forgive men I don’t trust.”
“Unfortunate.” He feigned a sigh that held a breath of truth.
Tired of this mousing around, Sara cut to the chase. “Why are you here?”
Foster’s demeanor changed dramatically, turned somber and serious, deepening the creases to grooves streaking across his forehead. “I’ve got a problem, Sara. A significant one.”
Worry seeped into her. In five years, Jack Foster never once had used her first name, nor had he admitted a weakness. Both unnerved her. She tried her best to bury her reaction under the sarcasm common between them. “Welcome to the human race. We’ve all got problems. That’s why we’ve got shrinks, and we shrinks have shingles on our doors.”
“We don’t all have problems like this one.” He again scanned the row of dog-eared books, clearly avoiding her eyes. “I need your help.”
Surprise rippled through her. Men like Foster didn’t need help, they created a need for help in others. God knew he’d given her more than her fair share of trouble–and nightmares. And his type never asked for favors. Intrigued, she paused to let her tone steady, and then quizzed him. “What? The Air Force doesn’t have its own shrinks anymore?”
“This is different.” He shifted uneasily on his chair. “It’s . . . delicate.”
Delicate? More likely, the matter was classified and he wanted it buried far from other military eyes. “Is this problem personal, or professional?”
“Professional.” He sighed. This time, it was genuine, and tinged with discomfort and impatience. “I don’t need military assistance. I need yours.”
“This, I know. Therapy would work wonders for your disposition. But I can’t treat you, Foster. A doctor should want to cure her patients, not to murder them.” She rolled the end of a pencil over her lower lip, then nipped down on it. “The licensing board discourages murdering patients–though in your case, it might be willing to make an except–”
“Stop it.” Foster stiffened. “We both know you’re about as apt to kill someone as the tooth fairy.” His gaze turned piercing, stone-cold. “This is serious, and only you can help me.”
“Me? Help you? After all the times you’ve refused to help me?” Her temper reared and she guffawed. “Forget it.”
“I can’t do that.” His terse tone proved he’d like nothing better.
She slid forward in her chair, laced her hands atop her desk blotter. “Look, I don’t like the military and I don’t work for it, aside from cleaning up the messes you guys make of some people’s minds. I work with five patients at a time–no more, and no less–in a private practice. I work only with PTSD patients and/or their families, and I damn sure don’t help arrogant military bastards who needlessly let others suffer–especially when those suffering others are members of my family.”
“I’m well aware of what you do and do not do. I’m also aware that many of your professional peers consider your methods extremely unorthodox.”
There’s a good reason for that.” She lifted a hand. “By traditional standards, my methods are extremely unorthodox.”
“Some consider you out in left field.”
“And some think I’m a brick short of a full stack. So what? I don’t need their approval, or care if I have it. Intensive one-on-one therapy–treating the mind, body, and spirit–works.”
Foster lifted his chin, annoyingly calm and typically arrogant. “Frankly, the professional acceptance of your methods means nothing to me. You have an eighty- percent success rate on the PTSD patients you treat–far higher than the standard–and that means everything.”
“Success is hard to dispute.”
“Yes, it is.” He stood up. His knees cracked, and he walked across the office to the bookshelf and then let his fingertip drift across the spines of the books, obviously mulling over what to tell her and what to withhold. “I can’t disclose certain things without physician/patient privilege. You don’t have security clearance.” He stopped and looked back over his shoulder at her. “You understand?”
David. This was about David. Her heart thudded deep in her chest. Low and hard. A little breathless, she nodded. She didn’t trust Foster–after five years, she had hundreds of valid reasons not to trust him–but could she afford to brush off a potential opportunity? They were so rare. “Okay.” She conceded with as much grace as she could muster. “I’ll make an exception–short-term.”
Foster turned toward her. Bars of light slashed through the vertical blinds at the window, streaked across his pale-blue uniform shirt, and glinted on the metal eagle rank pinned to his collar. “So, you’re my doctor now?”
“Give me twenty dollars.” He fished a bill from his wallet. She took it. “I’m your doctor.” After scribbling out a receipt, she thrust it at him. “Now, what do you know about David?”
Foster leaned a shoulder against the bookshelf and crossed his chest with his arms. “I know if you do what I ask, you’ll find your answers about what happened to him.”
Sara’s skin crawled. Foster’s tone and the look in his eyes swore she’d find more. Far more. “Exactly what answers will I find?”
“The ones to all the unanswered questions that made you become an expert on PTSD so you could help others like David, Brenda, and Lisa.” Foster rubbed at his chin, spoke slowly. Distinctly. “You and the Quades’ daughter are very close.”
He’d been monitoring them. All of them. Sara, Brenda, and Lisa. An uneasy shiver slithered up Sara’s spine, and her gaze slid to a photo of the three of them on the corner of her desk. For some reason, Foster must feel threatened. “Of course we’re close. Lisa is my only niece. But what does that have to do with this?”
“It’s irrelevant,” Foster said. “What is relevant is that I won’t tell you anything more about David’s situation because I’d have to breach national security to do it. But I will put you in a position where you’ll have the opportunity to discover your answers for yourself.” Pacing a short path before her desk, Foster stopped and fisted a hand at his side. “I know you don’t forgive and you never forget, but let me be clear about something, Sara. Playing games with me is not honorable, nor is it in your best interests.”
“Now why does that remark strike me as a threat?” Tight-lipped, she glared at him. “You know, in five years, I have never–not once–given you a reason to question my honor.” She cocked her head. “Can you say the same to me?”
“Our topic isn’t my honor, it’s your family’s best interests.”
Chilling her tone even more, Sara looked up at him from under her lashes. “Obviously, you don’t know me as well as you think, or you’d know warning me against game-playing isn’t necessary. Not when it comes to my family.”
“Oh, I know you, Sara.” Foster leaned forward and bracketed her desk blotter with his hands. The muscles in his forearms twitched. “I know you’re weak when it comes to defending yourself, but tougher than nails at defending others. And you’d like to be even tougher on me.”
She would. She didn’t like this conversation, or him. Yet Foster’s palms were glistening with sweat and he looked as if he wanted to heave. He clearly needed something from her–why else would he be here? But whatever it was, he didn’t feel certain of getting it, which meant he had failed to stack the odds in his favor. The master manipulator felt vulnerable, and that worried her.
“I also know you avoid relationships because you feel guilty,” he went on. “It wouldn’t be right for you to have all your sister has lost, would it? You have to fix things for her and Lisa first–and for your brother, Steve. It really got you that his wife had him committed for psychiatric evaluation, didn’t it? Isn’t that incident what drove you to become a psychiatrist?”
Sara stiffened. Foster had been thorough, and he’d investigated Steve, too. “Considering my brother is one of the most well-balanced human beings walking the earth, and his wife pulled that stunt and had him committed for thirty days because they’d had a disagreement about moving out of the state of Mississippi, yes. You’re damn right, it got to me. That there are laws on the books allowing that type of injustice should get to you, too.”
“We all deal with injustice in our own way.” He let his gaze drift to the door. “You’ve taken blanket responsibility for every injustice to everyone and everything in your sphere of influence since the cradle.” He grunted. “If I had to guess, I’d say you’re a victim of your genes. Maternal genes, or influence.”
He’d be right. Sara’s throat went dry. Foster made her feel invaded, as if she had no privacy, not even in her thoughts. She fought the sensation, determined not to let him get the upper hand. Once he did, she was screwed, and they both knew it. “Goodness. Amazing that I warrant all of this attention from you merely because I’m a responsible adult. I suppose I should be flattered.” She rubbed at her temple with a long fingertip. “Instead, I’m asking myself why you fascinate so easily.”
A tight smile threatened the corner of his lip, and he narrowed his eyes. “Actually, I bore easily. But you are your work, Sara. And that intrigues me.”
Amused him, more likely, and that grated at her.
“You’ve pushed me hard, from all sides–as thorough as a crack operative with a dozen years’ experience under your belt. At times, you’ve been persuasive, tenacious, and charming enough to have the devil caving in to you.”
No way was she falling for this. Foster used praise just as he used people. “So the devil would cave, but you were immune. Now, what am I to make of that?”
“Perhaps the devil enjoys luxuries I can’t afford.” He stared at her. “Perhaps the same is true for you.”
He knew her as well as she knew herself. The realization spilled over her, burned and branded into her mind. She hated it, too. And she hated even more that he was right about her work and her personal relationships. She’d never verbalized it, or dared to focus her thoughts on it, but she did want a family of her own and someone to share her life with, yet she couldn’t have everything Brenda had lost. She just . . . couldn’t.
Gruesome thought, but maybe Foster knew Sara better than she knew herself. Fighting not to wince, she shifted topics, heading for safer ground. “So what’s your problem?” Did she dare to hope, a guilty conscience? “Why do you need my services?”
“First, some ground rules.” He straightened and stepped back from her desk. “Everything I tell you falls under patient/physician privilege. I have not, and will not, grant you authorization to release any information I share with you. None whatsoever, under any circumstances, at any time, to anyone.”
“I gathered that.” Sara met his gaze, and saw the tension of an emotion she’d never expected to see in Jack Foster’s face. Fear. It tugged hard at the healer in her. “So what’s the problem?”
“I’ve got an officer with scrambled brains and I have no idea why or who scrambled him.” Foster stiffened, as if relieved and uneasy with revealing that. “He was on a mission–classified, of course–and went missing. Seven days later, he showed up at a secluded facility, and we have no idea how he got there.”
“Could you clarify his condition? Scrambled, how? Is he a vegetable, psychotic, or what?”
“He’s been diagnosed PTSD.” Foster grimaced. “I need to know what happened to him, why, who did it, how, and if he’s salvageable.”
If he’s salvageable? Flabbergasted, Sara leaned back in her chair. “And you want me to make this determination?”
“Yes, I do. Quickly.” Foster didn’t miss a beat. “This man has been on a lot of high-risk missions. He has Top Secret security clearance and he’s having moments of lucidity. Frankly put, he’s a critical security risk.”
Foster’s voice turned gritty, as if forced to speak, and the words burned his throat. “You have the highest success rate in the business, Sara. I need success. Until we determine the specifics I mentioned, every AID mission and operative working worldwide is vulnerable. I can’t afford to lose this operative without discovering the facts of his case.”
“The patient is an AID operative?”
Foster hesitated. “He is, but don’t bother checking on him. You won’t find any more on him than you found on me.”
Not surprised Foster knew she’d checked him out, Sara didn’t flinch. “Why is that?”
“Because he’s one of my men.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. Her white lab coat bunched at her ribs. “Your men. Who are . . .?”
Foster paused. “I head an elite group of specialized operatives called Shadow Watchers.” He gave her a chilly smile. “You won’t see that organization listed on any official documents. Actually, most military personnel don’t realize our group exists, and those who do realize it would never admit it to other service members much less to anyone outside of the military.”
“I see.” An empty hole stretched and yawned in her stomach. She’d gotten into something deeper than expected. “What exactly do Shadow Watchers do?”
“We perform a vital service in a system that requires checks and balances.”
“Could you be a little less philosophical and more specific?”
Foster answered without embellishment. “We spy on spies.”
David had worked for Foster–as a Shadow Watcher. Suddenly, so much made sense. Except for the suicide. That would never make sense. David had been happy with Brenda, had adored her and Lisa. From all signs, he had been content.
Had David’s death been suicide? An eerie feeling crept through Sara. She stared into the cool, detached depths of Foster’s eyes. Or had David been declared “unsalvageable”?
The question begged to be asked, but Sara resisted. Foster wouldn’t answer, and it could be advantageous not to let him realize the question had occurred to her just yet. She pursed her lips, tilted her head. “Serious problem.” National security implications, integrity of ongoing missions, safety of all Shadow Watchers and regular AID operatives–those were but a few of the considerations and hazards.
No wonder Foster always seemed wired too tight. Carrying around responsibilities this weighty would do that to any man. “What you’re telling me is that I cure your operative or he’s deemed unsalvageable–without your finding out what happened to him.”
“That’s correct. Certainly not our preference, due to the potential complications I mentioned, but our resources have been exhausted.”
His resources hadn’t yet been tapped. Foster couldn’t risk alerting non-AID personnel or his superior officers that his missions weren’t secure. In his world of red tape, the man had to answer to someone, and his credibility would be shot. But she’d give him the lie. “So if I don’t do this, or if I fail, then that means you terminate this operative, right?” What else could unsalvageable mean to spies?
Foster’s gaze slid away.
Sara girded her loins and persisted. No way was she getting involved in this without knowing the full scale, scope, and consequences. “Am I right, Foster?”
The blinds streaked slatted shadows across his face. “We prefer canceled.”
“Damn it, just once would you call a spade a spade? Forget your military jargon and sidestepping semantics and just tell me the truth.” Sara glared at him. “I fail, and the man is murdered. Yes, or no?”
The breath left her lungs. She’d expected it. But expecting it and hearing him admit it were totally different things. She studied Foster’s expression, his posture, his eyes. No remorse, regret, or apology. He would kill the operative. Reeling, she struggled to pull together a cohesive thought, settled for a mumbled, “I see,” and felt damn grateful for it.
“I’m glad you grasp the gravity of the situation.”
“It’s hard to miss.” Sara put the pencil down on her desk. Her instincts warned her to back off; she was in over her head. But if she did, then the operative would die. She had no doubts about that, nor any illusions. And then some other family would be in the position Brenda and Lisa were in, suffering the same hell they were suffering, wondering what they had done to make their loved one prefer being dead to living with them.
David hadn’t committed suicide. He’d been canceled. Sara knew it as well as she knew she couldn’t condemn a man to death, or a family to hell. “So who is the patient?”
Foster didn’t falter. “I can’t tell you that.”
Typical. Just . . . typical. She squeezed her chair’s arms until her palms and fingers stung. “Then how am I supposed to treat him?”
“Actually, you’ll treat five patients. He’ll be one of them.”
“Five?” The man was arrogant and absurd. “I can’t take on five new patients at once.”
“Of course you can.”
Sara bit down on her temper, resisted an urge to shout at him. “Look, let me explain something to you. In therapy, I operate from a base of trust, and that takes time to develop. Without it, I have no foundation–and no hope for success. That aside, I already have a full caseload and a healthy waiting list, so what you’re asking me to do is utterly impossible.”
“It’s possible,” he countered. “And your current patients won’t be adversely affected. You have my word on that.”
Won’t be adversely affected? Was she supposed to feel grateful he wouldn’t cancel them to get them out of his way? “Not to antagonize you, Foster, but your record with me on trust-inspiring issues leaves a lot to be desired. What’s your word worth on this?”
He didn’t so much as blink. “Finding out the truth about David Quade.”
Her throat went tight. Those were the ones. The magic words. The irresistible offer.
And both she and Foster knew it.
There was no way she could take her deductions on David to Brenda and Lisa without proof. Sara straightened in her seat. “It appears you already have a plan. Why don’t you just lay it out and let me see if I consider it acceptable?”
“Fine.” He laced his hands behind his back, strode a brisk path between the bookcase and the door. “You’ll enter a facility under the auspices of performing a short-term research project on PTSD as a psychiatrist, Major Sara West.”
“Major?” Sara grunted. “Forget it. Impersonating an officer would cost me my license, and you know how I feel about your military protocol and red-tape nightmare of a system. If I do this–and I’m not saying I will–then I want civilian status, total control, and full latitude–personally, and with my patients.”
“Which is exactly why you’re heading the PTSD research project. The only person you’ll have to answer to at the facility is the director, and, of course, to me– though, obviously I won’t be inside the facility. You’ll have total control over the patients and therapy, but not over the facility. I can’t give you that, or civilian status. Not without exposing your cover.”
“You honestly expect me to go in undercover?” She rolled her gaze heavenward, dragged her hands over her head. “For God’s sake, Foster. I’m not one of your spies, I’m a doctor. What do I know about covert operations? And what about my current patients, and my license?”
“The cover is essential.” He sat down, leaned forward, and then linked his fingers, bracing his forearms on his knees. “I don’t know who is responsible for this, Sara. I can’t take unnecessary chances with my operative, with the other Shadow Watchers and AID personnel, or with you.” Foster lifted his gaze to meet hers. “Look, you wanted me to call a spade a spade. Well, here it is. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. You dislike the military and you resent its dedication to discipline, rules, and order. Yet every day of your life, you enjoy the personal freedom the military provides you.”
“Excuse me, but it’s the Constitution that guarantees my personal freedom.”
Foster’s eyes blazed. “Try exercising it without us.”
Valid point. She didn’t like it, but historically speaking, she couldn’t deny it.
“We’ve served you, Doctor. Now, we need your service. That military operative is one of many who provide you your freedom. If you won’t assist for David or for the sake of your country or under your oath to heal, then do it for him. Make it personal. Hell, it is personal. Every day of his life, this operative sacrifices for you in ways you can’t begin to fathom. Simply put, Sara, you owe him.”
Foster orchestrated this deliberately, to make her feel responsible for the operative. Even knowing it, the tactic worked. That infuriated her. “I do not owe him, or you. I haven’t asked anyone in uniform to do anything for me.”
“No, but you certainly haven’t objected to all we have done.” He thrust out his chin. “You’ve benefited from our sacrifices, Doctor. That’s a fact.”
“Sorry, this mind-set doesn’t wash with me.” Her palms were damp. She pressed them flat on her desk blotter. “The draft has been abolished for a long time. Everyone in the military freely chose their career, just as I chose mine.”
Foster lifted and then set back down her nameplate. It thudded against her desk. “Think, Sara. Whoever did this to him is dangerous. Human life means nothing to him. Do you think for a second a person capable of deliberately destroying a man’s mind would hesitate to kill you or thousands of others like you?”
“Him.” Sara picked up on the pronoun. “You said him. So you do have an idea of who is behind this.”
“Him, or her, or they,” Foster replied. “Likely they. And if I had any idea who was behind this, would I be here?”
He wouldn’t. And her deduction proved true. This was a serious problem. For the country, the operatives, and now, for her. If overt, she’d be an assassin’s target. If covert, and discovered and exposed, she would be canceled. Some choices. Either way, if she got caught, she was dead.
But what if you don’t get caught? You find out about David, get Brenda and Lisa straightened out, save an operative’s life, and you live.
And Foster owes you.
Sara rocked back and forth in her chair, absorbing, reading between the lines. “What you’re telling me–underneath all the God-and-country-and-duty talk–is that once I’m in, I’m on my own.”
“Totally. No support and, if you blow it, no knowledge.”
If exposed, definitely canceled. She looked up at Foster. For the first time, she saw complete, unvarnished truth in his eyes. And she hated it most of all. It scared her in ways she’d never been scared. Her throat muscles quivered, and she swallowed hard. “I don’t have a choice about this, do I?”
“No.” Foster softened his voice. “I wish I could give one, but I can’t. If you refuse, I’ll manufacture whatever evidence it takes to have your license revoked. You’ll lose everything, Sara. I know you won’t believe it, but I regret having to issue this ultimatum. I oppose force and do all I can to preserve freedom.”
“You stand here and say that, knowing your ultimatum will cost me everything?”
“Yes. For the greater good of a nation, I’ll sacrifice you.” He looked straight into her eyes. “You, or many, many others, Sara. In my position, which would you choose?”
She’d choose the lesser of the two evils. She’d choose to sacrifice herself. What else could she choose and still live with herself? “I’d look for another option.”
“There are no other options.”
True, or he wouldn’t be here. She didn’t want to ask, but she had to know. Her mouth dust-dry, she lashed at her lips with her tongue. “Will I be canceled?”
“The moment you become a risk. Yes, you will.”
At least he was honest about it. Still, the concept was difficult to grasp. This had been just another normal day. Now, there was nothing normal about it. “And if I don’t become a risk?”
“Then no good would be served by canceling you.”
Sara studied him. Foster was worried; his forehead was sweat-sheened. If he’d had any other way of resolving this, he never would have come to her. She wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but if there was a snowball’s chance in hell she could help Brenda and Lisa, then Sara had to try it. God knew, helping them her way, she’d failed again and again. Foster’s insight about David could give her what she needed to succeed. She didn’t relish the idea of losing everything she had worked for, either. Especially her life or that of the unknown operative, and she had made an oath to heal. A damn shame they hadn’t added, “when it’s convenient.”
Obviously, whoever had written the oath hadn’t crossed paths with Foster.
Okay. Okay, she’d do it. Something flashed in Jack Foster’s eyes. Something dark and evil. “No,” she said before she could change her mind. When it came to a battle between logic and instinct, she went with instinct every time. “I’m sorry. I understand your dilemma, but I can’t help you. Find yourself another doctor.”
“I can pull you in, Sara.” Foster stood up. “I’d prefer not to have to do it, but when it regards a matter of national security, I have the authority.”
Yet another threat. Enough was enough. “Look, you do what you have to do. My gut’s telling me you’re not playing straight with me, and until it tells me differently, I’m refusing. You want to make my life miserable? Pull my license? Fine. Go ahead. I’ll deal with it. But I won’t have you jeopardize my reputation and my life when you’re bent on playing the very games with me that you warned me against playing with you.”
“What games?” Foster elevated his voice. “I’ve told you everything you need to know.”
“You’ve told me everything you want me to know. There’s a difference. Look me in the eye and tell me you haven’t held out on me.”
He looked away.
“Good grief, Foster. Your body language has been screaming at me since you walked through my door. It’s still screaming at me now.”
He folded his arms across his chest. “What exactly is it screaming, Doctor?”
Sara stood up. Though a good six inches shorter than his six two, she glared up at him. “It’s screaming that you’ve got a hidden agenda.”
Foster stared at her for a long moment, as if torn between choking her and laughing at her. “Of course I’ve got a hidden agenda. I’m AID, for Christ’s sake.”
He had a point. Still . . . “You know what I mean. Don’t you dare make this sound trivial. Not when you’re talking about lives.”
“There’s nothing trivial about any of this.” Foster pecked a piece of lint from his dark blue slacks. “But my agendas are of no consequence to you.”
Was he joking or suffering from delusions? “Let me get this straight. I do what you want or I lose everything–including my license, right?”
“Simplified, but, yes, that’s correct.”
She crossed her chest with her arms. “Well, for something that is of no consequence to me, this proposition stands to have a huge impact on my life.”
He ignored that remark and dropped a business card on her desk. “You have twenty-four hours. Phone me at the handwritten number on the back.”
Sara glared across the desk at him. “I won’t call.”
“Yes, Sara, you will.” Foster spoke softly, just above a whisper, and his eyes reflected pity and regret. “Because if you don’t call, Brenda is going to marry and divorce again, Lisa is going to run away from home, and an innocent man, who has devoted his life to his country and to keeping people like you safe, is going to die.”
Don Jordan, CEO of Resurrection Road Media will collaborate on an upcoming feature film based on Vicki’s novel, “Acts of Honor.” The movie version of “Acts of Honor” will be produced in association with G-Star Studios, Palm Beach, Florida and film/video professionals Shane Reynolds (www.ColorEarth.tv), Earl Newton (www.StrangerThings.tv), Scott Clements (www.BrownDogSound.com) and Paul Sinor (www.ValhallaMilitary.com). “Acts of Honor” is expected to go into production in late 2013.
First published in December 1999 by St. Martin’s Press under ISBN: 0-312-97273-3.
Bell Bridge Books
“Complications here go beyond the usual hurdles and make the romance more touching for being hard won. And if the main action–Laura and Jake must combat terrorists amassing anthrax in the Florida Everglades–seems far-fetched, just read The New York Times. 500,000 first printing. (July)”–Publishers Weekly
“With her impressively realistic portrayal of the jeopardy faced by Special Ops members, dynamic author Vicki Hinze guarantees her readers an edge-of-their-seat thrill ride. You want intrigue, danger, and romance? Ms. Hinze proves she can supply them!” — Romantic Times
“Hinze slides into the major leagues with this novel. Shades of Gray has it all: adventure, romance, intrigue, and danger. Impossible to put down.”
– Under the Covers
“Readers will have no doubts about Shades of Gray being a first class military romance leaded with non-stop action, plenty of intrigue, and a great romance. Hinze demonstrates that she is the Chief of Staff of the military romance sub-genre.”
– Painted Rock
“Vicki Hinze’s new book, Shades of Gray, is a wonderful combination of romance, family drama, and out-and-out thriller. Her characters are wonderful and vivid, the plot engrossing, and the setting is utterly fascinating. A terrific read.”
– Anne Stuart, best-selling author
“A great story line that easily could sell as a romance or an action-thriller. Hinze is clearly one of the leaders of military romances that emphasizes action, suspense, and romance. A winner for fans of romantic suspense.”
– Affaire de Coeur
“Hinze does an exemplary job of weaving a terrorist tale full of romantic suspense and compassion. Many twists and turns with the storyline coming full circle after some interesting surprises. A great book from a terrific author.” — Reviewer, Sunny Adcock
“A roller coaster ride of suspense and terror. Hinze may just have initiated a new genre. A page turner from beginning to end.” — Site101
“A high-tech, romantic thriller. Suspense at its best! This book accurately delves into the world of Special Ops and the men and women who lay their lives on the line for our country anytime, anywhere. If you like Tom Clancy, Nelson DeMille, or Tami Hoag, you’ll love Hinze’s Shades of Gray.” — Lorna Tedder, author of Access
“Hinze takes the reader on a very exciting, suspenseful ride. Splendid!”
– Bell, Book and Candle
“Shades of Gray is an exciting, suspenseful drama that will keep readers on the edge of their seats. Hinze has created an adventure filled with twists, turns, betrayal and romance leaving readers clamoring for more. Do not miss this brilliantly crafted story.”
– CompuServe Reviews
“Shades is very fast-paced, filled with the kind of intrigue and plot twists that make for a great action movie…a great read if you’re a fan of Clancy-type novels and movies. A perfect combination of the two [intrigue and romance].” — The Middlesex News (MA)
“A first class military romance… The crisp story line is driven forward at a frenzy pace by a brilliantly developed set of secondary characters.” — BookBrowser Review
“High tension, riveting action, and characters of extraordinary integrity and self-control make Shades of Gray informative and entertaining.” — Amazon.com Review
“An edge-of-your-seat thrill ride.” — BarnesandNoble.com
“…suspense is paramount, the stakes high, the bad guys truly bad, and the main characters inseparable from their work for the American military. Hinze writes with convincing authenticity about the complex military world of exact rules, rigid discipline, constant preparedness, and covert missions, a world in which men and women and their families, make tremendous sacrifices to protect their country. In Jake and Laura, Hinze creates two people of exceptional honor and self-control whose struggle to resist the pull of love goes down in glorious defeat.”
– Ellen Edwards, Amazon.com Article Excerpt
“…takes us behind the scenes on missions of danger and national prominence. Creating two unforgettable characters of strength, integrity and honor, Ms. Hinze quickly captures our attention and our hearts. Keeps the pages turning and the pulse pounding. Shades of Gray has it all.” — New and Previously Owned Books, Reviewer
“Skillfully combines an action thriller with an engaging family story. Hinze is a gifted writer with an engaging style reminiscent of Karen Robards.” — Gothic Journal
“An exhilarating, fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat story filled with love, honor, and betrayal. Smooth as silk. This book will keep you reading long into the morning. Definitely a keeper!” — Romance Communications
“Hinze explodes onto the scene as an author of top-notch military romantic fiction. Fans of Anne Stuart, Tami Hoag, and Iris Johansen will be thrilled to discover the talent of Vicki Hinze. Fasten your seatbelt for a wild and wonderful ride.”
– Romance and Women’s Fiction Exchange
“Twists and turns abound. A crazy ex-wife, a terrorist group, and the rigid discipline off the military all come together to make this book a real page-turner.”
– WCRG on America Online
“Hinze leaves the reader hanging with each word. This book is impossible to put down…” — Word Museum
“A Roller Coaster Reader! Shades of Gray has it all–breathtaking suspense, heartstopping romance, and fabulous characters. Hinze is a master at crafting a book you simply cannot put down! Watch for this book to hit the NYT Bestseller List and for Hinze to join the superstars.” — Delia Parr, Author of Sunrise
“Hinze moves from the cozy surroundings of the Seascape romances she writes as Victoria Barrett to a setting where love takes especially hard work. Members of the Special Operations unit of the U.S. Air Force certainly have a tough life. Dads and moms aren’t always around for their kids, not if they’re out on “”TDY””–active duty fighting bad guys in swampy parts of the world. Hinze’s hero, Jake (the ubiquitous name for macho heroes), has a 2% survival rate on most of the assignments he gets, so he’s never really tried to put down roots, although he longs to. In order to keep his son Timmy out of the custody of his alcoholic ex-wife, Jake accepts his friend Laura Taylor’s offer of a marriage of convenience. Laura is a former Special Ops officer who designs complicated communications equipment. Given their lives, love isn’t an option, but after two years together, resisting it isn’t either. The complications here go beyond the usual hurdles faced by romantic protagonists and make the romance more touching for being hard won. And if the main action–Laura and Jake must combat terrorists amassing anthrax in the Florida Everglades–seems far-fetched, just read The New York Times. 500,000 first printing. (July)”–Publishers Weekly
Top Pick Award, Romantic Times
Reviewer’s Choice Award Nominee,
Best Contemporary Suspense Novel of the Year, Romantic Times
© 2006 Vicki Hinze
The banging on the apartment door threatened to knock it off its hinges.
Laura Taylor sat straight up in bed, her heart in her throat. She tossed back the covers, bumping the novel she’d fallen asleep reading to the floor. Fear clawed at her stomach.
Bury it, Taylor. She recalled the drill by rote. Bury it. Intruders seldom knock.
But that didn’t mean whoever was pounding on her door in the dead of night was friendly and, in her position, assuming that it did could be lethal. Amateur intruders seldom knock but, at times, professionals do. It could be a diversionary tactic.
Someone could already be inside.
Slinging on a robe, she grabbed the canister of pepper gas she kept in the drawer beside her bed, resenting that break-ins happened even in military communities like Fairhope, California. But they did happen. One had happened, to her.
She crossed her bedroom, her every nerve on alert. The hammering at the door mirrored the jackhammering of her heart, and her throat turned ash-dry. Hugging her back to the wall, she slid against its gritty surface, inched down the narrow hallway, broadening her focus, scanning for any shift or movement in the darkness, seeking sensations of any cool August night air drafting in through broken glass, an open window or door.
he stumbled over her shoes. Banged her hip against the edge of the kitchen bar. Pain shot through her side, and she swallowed a curse because she always left her damn shoes there, and she knew it. Allowing herself to get careless, her skills to get rusty, was a good way to wake up dead.
Steadying herself, she moved on through, skirted around the wicker-and-glass dinette into the adjoining living room, then on to the front door.
It was at times like this one, and during the break-in, when she felt most grateful she’d had survival school training during her active duty days as Captain Laura Taylor, Air Force Intelligence Officer and Communications Research Specialist. Despite the sweat trickling down between her breasts and the fine hairs on her nape standing on end, whoever tried coming in on her wouldn’t find a docile woman waiting to become a victim. She had the Air Force to thank for that, even as she acknowledged her covert work for it could have prompted this midnight visit.
“Laura?” A man called out, rapped against the wood again. “Laura, it’s me–Jake.”
“Jake.” Relief washed through Laura, and then evaporated.
She and Jake Logan had been friends for a decade, but the only time he ever had come over in the middle of the night had been when his ex-wife, Madeline, had done something god-awful–usually to their son, Timmy.
One kind of fear replaced another, and squeezed at her chest. Laura twisted the cold dead-bolt, heard it click, and then opened the door. “What’s wrong?”
Bitterness seeping from his every pore, Jake slumped against the frame, looking like six foot-two of defeated thirty-four-year-old man, his jet-black hair wind-tossed, his strong face, all angles and planes, outraged and ravaged. “She’s suing me for custody of Timmy.”
Madeline. Again. Laura nearly cried. Jake had tried everything to make his marriage to Madeline work, but she’d opted to continue downing Scotch. He’d spent years trying to get her sober but, finally, she’d committed the unpardonable sin: endangering their son, Timmy. And after that, the craziest in a long string of her crazy stunts, he’d issued her an ultimatum: dry out in a rehab center, or he’d sue for divorce. She’d opted to drink. Now she’d dried out–for the moment; unfortunately, her dry spells never lasted long–and she was suing him for custody of Timmy.
The injustice stung. Deeply. It wasn’t fair or right. Madeline had dragged Timmy through enough hell. More than enough. And, God knew, Jake had been tried by her fire twice as often as his son. When would their aggravation with this woman end ?
Laura opened the door wider, and motioned him inside. “Have you talked to your lawyer?” Gregory Radon was a great attorney. Surely he could put a quick stop to this insanity.
“I’ve talked to him. And then I tried to find Madeline.” Jake came in and, as tense as strung wire, he paced between the sofa and wicker dinette table, dragging his hand through his black hair at his temple. “No luck. She’s pulled a disappearing act.”
It was probably a good thing for them both that she had, and he hadn’t found her. Laura clicked on a lamp, set the canister of pepper gas on the coffee table, then relaxed back in a chair beside the sofa and waited for him to vent enough so that they could talk this through. She hated seeing him upset. Not only because she literally owed him her life and they’d been best friends for years, but because she loved Timmy as much as Jake loved his son.
“The upshot is that Lady Justice isn’t just blind,” he said, stopping at the edge of the light, pooling on the mint-green carpet. “She’s needs a reality check.”
A prickle of irritation at that remark slithered up Laura’s back. But she knew this wasn’t Jake talking so much as his anger and frustration, and so she let the comments slide, and straightened a sprawled stack of magazines on the coffee table. Modern Family looked comfortable there, beside Popular Science.
“Because my job is risky and I’m away a lot, I provide a ‘less than stable growth-environment’ for my son. In other words, it’s a toss up,” he muttered, a warranted amount of anger riddling his tone. “My odds of retaining custody of Timmy are about equal to Madeline’s odds of getting custody of him.”
Shock, stark and deep, surged through Laura. “But she’s a drunk,” she said, too surprised to pause and state that bald truth diplomatically.
“Sad commentary, isn’t it?” Jake looked down at her, letting her see his weariness of fighting Madeline in his eyes. “I’m a Special Operations officer in the United States Air Force and, because I risk my neck so often for my country, I’ve got the same odds as an alcoholic of keeping custody of my son.”
It was a sad commentary. An infuriating one, too. “So what did Radon say you can do about it?” If Jake said “nothing,” she swore she’d spit nails.
He rapped the back of a chair in his pacing, then stopped in front of her. “According to the good attorney, I could ‘greatly enhance’ my odds of winning a custody battle by getting married.”
“Oh, God.” Anything, but that. Anything, but that.
“My feelings exactly.” Jake nodded. “He says a wife would be there when I can’t be, giving Timmy ‘a higher probability’ of having a more stable home life with me.” Jake let out a grunt that clearly depicted his thoughts on that recommendation.
After the hellish years he had spent married to Madeline, that suggestion and comment had to sting. Sting? Hell, it had to scorch. They’d had any and everything but peace and stability.
Agitated, she shifted on her chair, swept her auburn hair back from her face. Her thoughts raced. Jake married again? And Madeline gaining custody of Timmy? Just the thought of either soured Laura’s stomach.
She couldn’t let this happen. Not to Jake or to Timmy. She knew how much pain it would cause them, especially Timmy. How could she not know? She had grown up as an only child in New Orleans without much of a family. Her parents had loved each other to distraction; so much so, they’d had little love left over for their daughter. Laura had never belonged. She had been alone, an outsider, and she had never forgotten how much that had hurt. She’d sworn to herself that one day, she would have children of her own and things would be different. But, thanks to a ruptured ovarian cyst, and a non-functioning ovary, she’d had to watch that dream die.
And then Timmy had been born and, from the moment she had first seen him, just minutes after his birth, she had considered him her surrogate son.
No, she couldn’t let this happen. Not to him. The anger and guilt of not preventing it from happening would eat her alive. Resolve hardened in her chest. She’d be damned before she would risk Timmy being raised by a neglectful alcoholic who loved Scotch more than her son. He would not feel like an outsider.
As a resolution occurred to Laura, she said it aloud, having no idea what kind of reaction to expect. “You could marry me.”
Jake stared at her for a long moment, his soft gray eyes shining with gratitude, then hardening with determination. He plopped down on the sofa and buried his face in his hands. A minute elapsed, then two. Finally, he leaned forward and propped his elbows on his knees. “You’ve been the best friend a man could ask for, but you’ve done so much for us already. I can’t ask you to marry me, too.”
“You didn’t ask.” Laura shifted over to sit across from him in her favorite chair. The beige velour snagged her silk robe, exposing her thigh. She tugged it closed, then smoothed it over her kneecap. “I offered.”
Thinking it over, he vacillated between the pros and cons, his expression shifting half a dozen times. “No.” He sighed, as if he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, rolled the copy of Popular Science into a tube, and then smacked it against his open palm. “No, you can’t.”
The more Laura considered it, the more sense it made. And the more reasonable it seemed. “Why not?”
“Why not?” His tone turned incredulous.
“Yes. Why not?” Laura narrowed her gaze in warning. “We know what kind of antics Madeline’s capable of, Jake. We’ve got to do whatever it takes to protect him from her.”
“I have to do whatever it takes,” he corrected, dropping the magazine back onto the coffee table. It landed with a firm thunk. “Look, I’m grateful for everything you do for Timmy and me. Trying to figure out how to deal with him most of the time . . . well, I’d always be floundering without you, and I know it.”
“Then doesn’t it make sense that we do this?”
“No, it doesn’t,” he insisted, forking both hands through his hair. “It’s exactly why we shouldn’t.” Jake leaned back, put on his most serious I-mean-it look. “When Madeline got pregnant and her father insisted she abort, you helped me to accept what I had to do for Timmy’s sake. You helped me through that nightmare of a marriage, and the even worse divorce.”
“Of course. Friends do that kind of thing for friends, Jake.”
“You’ve done more, and we both know it. You’ve always helped me with Timmy. Hell, you’ve been more of a mother to him than Madeline ever thought about being. But I can’t have you marrying me for him, Laura. I won’t. Even for a best friend, that’s just . . . too much.”
“Do I have any choice in the matter?” It was her life. And it should damn well be her decision. The man would protect her to death, if she let him.
“Don’t get your hackles up.” Jake let his gaze roll toward the ceiling, then focused back on her. “I just think that you deserve a life with a man you know is going to be there for you when you need him. I work missions with survival odds between two and ten percent. That’s not going to change.”
She resisted a compelling urge to sigh and just announce that they were going to do this, and to tack-on an “and that’s final.” But it was too soon. Jake had to vent and to discuss this some more to see the big picture and to draw the same conclusion she had seen and drawn. “I was in Special Ops. I know what goes on there.”
“Then I shouldn’t have to remind you that when one mission is over, there’s another one waiting in the wings.”
Did he think she had forgotten? How could anyone forget a job that determines their whole lifestyle? One drilled into them until they live, breathe, and eat it? No one forgets it. Ever. “Listen, all of this is just smoke. And smoke doesn’t change facts. You need a wife.”
“The last thing I need is a wife.” He grunted, slicing his hand down the thigh of his black slacks. “Even a damn divorce hasn’t given me peace from the one I had.”
How could Laura dispute that truth? “You need a mother for Timmy,” she rephrased. “I can be that, if I’m your wife.”
“And what do you get?” he asked, then answered himself. “Nothing.”
“I get a son.” Only she knew how much that would mean to her.
Jake’s broad shoulders slumped, telling her he had more than an inkling of the importance of that to her, and his voice softened. “I can’t be a husband again, Laura. I won’t.” He rubbed at his forehead, clearly irritated and unsure what to do with all his frustration. “Don’t you understand? We’d have no future.”
“Of course, I understand.” She stiffened, and persisted. “But to keep Timmy, you need a wife. I know there isn’t anyone special in your life, so that leaves me.”
“Why in hell would you marry a man with a son and no future? You, of all people, should have better sense.” He laced his fingers atop his head and closed his eyes, as if silently cursing, or praying.
When he reopened them, he glared at her. “It’s highly likely I’ll never live to see thirty-five, and we both know it. Think about that. And think about yourself, not just Timmy. Are you forgetting who you are?”
“No. But I think you might be.”
Agitated and obviously bent on reminding her anyway, from his perspective, Jake began pacing again, hanging in the shadows just beyond the lamplight. “Look, you went into the military to do high-tech, communications research and you became an expert–a captain in Intel who could pick her pet projects and her terms, and you did it. Yet all of that still wasn’t enough for you.”
She’d loved her work in the Special Ops intelligence community, and she still loved her research. But it hadn’t been enough, which was exactly why marrying him made sense. “I haven’t forgotten, Jake.” Nor had she forgotten Madeline’s part in why she was no longer in the military. That, however, Laura had sworn to herself she’d never tell Jake.
He’d said the last thing he needed was a wife, but it wasn’t. It was more guilt, which is exactly what he’d feel if she told him about Madeline’s antics affecting her and her career.
He stopped near the table, and glared over the slope of his shoulder back at her. “Damn it, you know you hated the constant danger of working Intel. You hated not knowing where you’d be tomorrow or next week, never mind next year.”
“Yes, I did. Enough to get out of the Air Force to get away from it.”
“You hated having no idea what mission you’d be on, or where you’d be performing it, and you walked out–as much as anyone can walk out of Intel–to get yourself a personal life.”
Was he going to laundry list her whole life here? “All of that is true, but–”
“Then why are you telling me you’re willing to give up a personal life and put yourself right in the middle of all of the things you hated again?”
“Because I am willing.” Laura looked him right in the eye. “And that’s exactly what I’m telling you.” She lifted a hand, palm upward. “I’m willing.”
He dragged a hand through his hair, spiking it. “You’re forgetting about Madeline. As much as I wish she would, she isn’t going to go away.” A grimace flattened his generous mouth to a tight slash. “If I’ve accepted nothing else in the two years since the divorce, I’ve accepted that she’ll be a thorn in my side until the day I die. You can’t be willing to accept that, too.”
“Yes, I can,” Laura said without hesitating, then leaned forward in her chair, a little amused by the disbelief in his tone. “Listen, you’re right about all of this. But you’re forgetting the one reason that makes all of it insignificant.”
He lifted his hands, and the button on his left shirt-cuff winked in the lamplight. “What the hell could make all of this insignificant?”
“Timmy.” Her throat sandpaper dry, Laura dredged up her courage and then spoke from the heart, something she had rarely let herself do with anyone, including Jake. “I’d do it for Timmy,” she said. “I love him, Jake.”
The skepticism in his expression wilted, and the hard lines in his face softened. “I know you love him, but we’re talking marriage here. This isn’t a day at the park in San Francisco, or a week in the Sierras playing in the snow. You’d be sacrificing your shot at a happy, normal life with a real marriage.”
She bristled, and her tone went flat. “I’m aware of the difference.”
“I didn’t mean to insult you.” His exasperation escaped on a sigh. “Ah, hell, Laura, you know what I mean.”
“Yes, I do. I got out of the Air Force because I wanted to put down roots in a quiet and peaceful life. But, in case you haven’t noticed, my friend, it’s been four years since I took off my captain’s bars, and my roots and the rest of me are still single.”
Unable to sit and speak this frankly, she stood up and moved behind the stuffed chair, then grasped the back of it in a knuckle-tingling grip, wondering why in heaven she smelled lemons. Despising them, she knew for a fact there was nothing in her apartment that even resembled the scent. “You know how much I wanted children. You also know my biological clock didn’t get a shot at ticking before it shut down. I’ll never have children myself, but I have had Timmy. In my heart, he’s my son, Jake, and he always has been. And right now, my son needs me.”
Jake stared at her, a little surprised but even more awed. Laura had let him glimpse inside her on occasion, but never like this. And in her expression, determined and yet vulnerable, he realized the truth. Her suggestion to marry him truly had nothing to do with him. It had to do with what was best for Timmy.
Relieved by that, Jake moved out from the shadows on the floor into the lamplight and plucked at the nubby fabric on the back of the sofa. He considered her proposal from that perspective and, in the end, he decided she made a lot of sense. But they had to be perfectly clear on the terms of this agreement. He didn’t dare to not be crystal clear.
“You’re right,” he said. “I do need a mother for Timmy. But I don’t need a wife.” His gray eyes turned steely. “If we should do this, as egotistical as it sounds, I would have to know you’d never make the mistake of falling in love with me. Not ever.” The skin between his brows furrowed. “My mortality rating is bad at best. We have no future. You can never forget that, and you can never take the chance of loving me.”
They had been friends for over a decade. Did he think this was a newsflash? “I know.”
His frown deepened, and his voice grew even more stern. “I won’t love you. And I won’t forget it–not for a second. I can’t forget it, and I can’t handle any guilt or regret or the worry of wondering that you might. I won’t worry, and I won’t regret, Laura. And even five or ten years from now, I won’t tolerate recriminations or reprisals being tossed into my face because of the way things are. I’m telling you now exactly how things will always be. I’ve got to know you understand that, and it ‘s okay with you. Otherwise, I can’t do what I have to do.”
The job. Duty first. How well she remembered the drill. And as warnings went, this one wasn’t so bad. She’d heard worse from him, and those had worked out amicably. “Quit ranting and listen to me, okay?” When he stopped at the other side of the coffee table and stuffed his fist into his pocket, she went on. “I don’t love you, Jake. I’m not in love with you, and I can’t fathom, even in my wildest imagination, ever being in love with you. So none of that is a problem.”
That blunt disclosure had the logical man fighting the male ego in Jake, and he suspected Laura knew it. What looked suspiciously like a smile tugged at her lips. A muscle in his jaw twitched.
“You’ll have your home and your life, and I’ll have mine,” she said in a tone so calm and reasonable it set his teeth on edge. “We’ll just do what we’ve always done: work together for whatever is in Timmy’s best interest. The only difference is we’ll be married.”
“So you accept that’s all our relationship can ever be?” Jake asked, still unconvinced. How could she be satisfied, settling for so little for herself? He had to be missing something she hadn’t considered. “I’m serious about all this. We’ll never be emotionally close. We’ll never be a real couple, or anymore of a family than we are now.”
“We certainly won’t,” she firmly insisted. “But we will be married, and that’ll ‘greatly enhance’ your odds of keeping custody of Timmy. That’s what matters most to me.”
Jake stared at her in disbelief. “Why?”
Laura accepted it. He wasn’t going to relent. Not until he felt satisfied, and to give him satisfaction, she had to bare even more truths. Ones she preferred not to think about much less to discuss. Still, this was for Timmy. She would do it, but she’d be damned if she could look Jake in the eye when she did. She focused on the placket of his gray corduroy shirt. “I was a vulnerable child.” Saying that out loud, even after all these years, still rattled her. “I didn’t like it. And I won’t have a child I consider my son vulnerable. Not if I can stop it.”
He dipped his chin, stayed silent a long moment. Obviously her disclosure about being vulnerable had taken him by surprise. Or maybe it hadn’t, and he didn’t want her to know that he had surmised that truth a long time ago.
He lifted his chin to look at her. “We’d be taking a shot, but it could be for nothing. Madeline could win the custody suit, anyway.”
“Highly doubtful,” Laura countered. “I’m clean, with strong credentials and no history that could hurt him. Dr. Laura Taylor, formerly Captain Laura Taylor, will round out your superiority nicely, I would say.” Lord, how she wished she felt as confident about that as she had sounded.
Surprise flickered through his eyes. “You’re even willing to flaunt your titles on this?”
Hating pretentious titles, she blanched. But for Timmy? Anything. Even that. “Yes.”
Jake’s lip curled, hinting at a crooked smile. “You really are sure about this.”
Finally, he was coming around. How could she not be sure? “To keep Timmy away from Madeline, I’d marry the devil himself. You can be ruthless, friend, but you’re far less daunting than the devil.”
Laura had thought this through. And Jake supposed he could understand why she would find settling for him acceptable. Even without a future, she wanted to feel connected to someone outside herself, to Timmy. And from living through Jake’s marriage to Madeline along with him, Laura knew the hell a traditional marriage involved. Not loving him and being Timmy’s step-mother, when she already considered herself his mother, was emotionally safe. “Can you tell me straight out you know and accept that the only reason I’m marrying you is to keep Madeline away from Timmy?”
“I know and accept it,” Laura said without reservation, then issued a warning of her own. “And I want to know you accept that Timmy is the only reason I would marry you.”
“Of course.” He shrugged. “Why else?”
The man had no idea of his appeal. Which is probably why they been able to be friends and keep their relationship purely platonic.
It took a lot more discussion–actually, until dawn was breaking outside–but finally, Laura settled his fears and the worry cleared from Jake’s face.
“Okay,” he said, rubbing his lower lip between his forefinger and thumb. “Okay, let’s do it.”
“Okay.” Laura stood up, feeling buoyant. It wasn’t the traditional proposal or acceptance, and theirs wouldn’t be anything like a traditional marriage. But it would serve the purpose and hopefully put a damper on Madeline’s plan to bring more turmoil into Timmy’s life. A sacrifice for both Laura and Jake, but one that–please, God!–would spare Timmy.
That possibility alone made any sacrifice worth the price they had to pay.
Two weeks later, in a Lake Tahoe chapel, Laura Taylor put on an antique-white lace dress, held a bouquet of pale yellow roses and baby’s breath, and became Jake Logan’s wife.
It never occurred to her or Jake to exchange wedding rings, and the justice of the peace had to remind Jake to kiss his bride.
Two weeks and three days after the wedding, Madeline went on another drinking binge, and dropped the custody suit.
That news came to Laura via Jake, who met her for lunch at The Golden Dragon, a tiny Chinese restaurant they frequented, to tell her, and to suggest they have their marriage annulled.
Awash in relief over the dropping of the suit, Laura considered the annulment for nearly two minutes before deciding against it. “No,” she said, watching a brunette waitress who was as thin as a rail scurry from table to table, refilling glasses from a frosty pitcher of iced-tea. “No annulment.”
About to take a bite of spicy-smelling lo mein, Jake paused, his fork mid-air. “No?”
“No,” Laura insisted, removing a smelly lemon wedge from the saucer of her hot tea and dumping it into an ashtray. “What if something should happen to you? Considering the job, we know it’s a strong possibility.”
He put his fork down. “Custody of Timmy would automatically revert to Madeline.”
“Exactly.” Laura leaned closer, across the red-clothed table, then dropped her voice to a whisper to avoid being overheard by the two women lunching at the next table. “I know that’s eaten at you inside for a long time–worrying about that happening. It’s worried me, too. And now we have the opportunity to do something about it. I think, rather than get an annulment, we need to pursue a step-parent adoption.”
Jake opposed. Strongly. “No, you’ve sacrificed enough for us already.”
While other diners came, ate, and departed, he went on to reiterate every logical reason in the book why she shouldn’t want to do this, informed her that Madeline would never give her consent, and then reiterated some more, in case Laura had missed anything the first time he’d said it.
When he paused for breath, Laura interjected, “But she’s an alcoholic, Jake.”
“True, but she’s one with substantial credentials. She spent years in the Intelligence community as an assistant to Colonel James, and that will strengthen her custody odds.”
“Even if she was only there because of her father?” Of course, Colonel James had hired her. Her father, Sean Drake, was a well-respected CIA legend and offending him was paramount to offending God. James was far too slick to offend God.
“It doesn’t matter,” Jake insisted. “She was there. That’s what shows up on paper.”
Laura groused, fidgeted on her red-vinyl seat. “But everyone knows she was an airhead and a drunk, Jake. Even her boss knew it.”
“She got Excellent ratings on every employee review.”
“Okay,” Laura conceded. “So to stay in Sean Drake’s good graces, Colonel James covered for her. But, over the years, she’s pulled a respectable succession of crazy stunts. They can be verified and testified to, and that would have to strengthen our case.”
Jake mulled that over and, after Laura swallowed her last bite of sesame chicken, she interrupted his ponderings to remind him of the bottom line. “We have to do everything possible to never leave Timmy vulnerable to her,” Laura insisted. “We have to, Jake, because otherwise only God knows the damage she could do.”
Timmy could not be an outsider.
Release date: April 3, 2012
Format: Trade Paperback, eBook
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A short excerpt…
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“Hinze has penned a heart-stopping story about true commitment. You may need a hanky.”– Sandra Brown
Prepare for heart-racing suspense in this original collection by thirty of the hottest bestselling authors and new voices writing romance suspense today.
Love Is Murder is the third Thriller anthology written exclusively by members of International Thriller Writers, Inc. Barely seven years old, ITW has a roster that reads like a who’s who of thriller writing, with 1,635 members representing 28 countries worldwide and over three billion books in print.
Hardcover: 608 pages Publisher: Mira (May 29, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0778313441 ISBN-13: 978-0778313441
Praise for Love is Murder: Thriller 3
Thriller 3: Love Is Murder–Starred Review
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