Authors: Lisa Marie Rice
But some vestige of something—some sense of duty—made him stop by Metal’s desk. Metal was in the middle of planning the logistics of a bug-out encampment for a small company. ASI’s newest growth market was planning for when the shit hit the fan. An amazingly large number of people thought the apocalypse was coming in one form or another, and wanted to plan for survival.
ASI was planning its own survival encampment. Metal was the resident expert, with Jacko advising.
He was totally into the plan for the small company, nose an inch from his screen. Jacko tapped him on the shoulder. “Yo, bro.”
Metal sat up, shook his head as if just coming back from a long dive, turned around. He frowned. “Hey, man, you look like shit.” The exact same thing Felicity had said, only she’d said it more gently.
“I’ve got some personal time coming,” Jacko said. “I’m taking it now.”
He turned his whole body into a “don’t mess with me” zone. Jacko was good at that. He was an alpha male and was good at intimidating. But Metal was an alpha male, too. Metal stood up and got right in Jacko’s grill.
“You do have personal time coming, a lot of it. But right now is not a good time. We have the Ferrago contract coming up and—”
“Metal. Honey.” Felicity suddenly appeared at Metal’s side, a pretty hand on Metal’s big shoulder. “Jacko really does need the time off. He won’t be long, will you, Jacko?”
Jacko shook his head.
Metal shut up, but he had a big scowl on his face. Felicity had let him know he shouldn’t pursue this, and whatever Felicity wanted, she got. But Metal wasn’t happy about it and he was showing it.
Metal was his closest friend. If it were anything else, Jacko would have talked it over with him. Planned it, maybe. Taken time off when the company had a down moment, though those were rare. ASI was a fair company and if he gave notice, they’d work around his needs. Him suddenly disappearing like this wasn’t fair to the company.
He hated that. He hated not being able to talk to his best friend.
But the truth was—he couldn’t. He was vibrating inside. His throat was hot and tight. There was no way words could get out, even if he had words to explain what was going on, which he didn’t.
This was bad. All of it was bad. Lauren having a baby that was half his was
He couldn’t talk about it, any of it.
Jacko turned on his heel and left.
When the back employee door closed behind him, Jacko stood in the chilly air. He knew it was cold but the cold never affected him. And right now? He felt like a nuclear reactor. Unfortunately, one about ready to blow.
In his SUV, he drummed his fingers on the wheel. He had a go-bag in the back. He was always prepared. The go-bag had several changes of clothes, a basic toiletry kit and a very well-stocked medical kit. It also had about four thousand dollars in cash, a Glock 19 and a Sig Sauer P320 with a thousand rounds of ammo.
Besides the go-bag, there was an M24 sniper rifle in its case, a pup tent and sleeping bag, several cases of water and enough MREs to survive several days.
Because you never know.
The gates to the ASI compound opened and Jacko drove through and then stopped in the driving rain. He usually turned right, toward home. He should stop by the house, explain things to Lauren. She worried about him when he was out of town. She worried about him in general, fussing when he wasn’t eating properly, wasn’t dressed warmly enough, wasn’t getting enough sleep.
She loved him.
He had to swing by, tell her he was leaving for a few days.
North was home. South was California, and maybe Texas.
North was home and love. South was his painful past.
The rain swept a lash of water over the windshield so strong it overwhelmed even the SUV’s powerful wipers.
Jacko pulled out and turned left. South.
Lauren worried. Jacko was supposed to be home in the early afternoon. She’d been waiting for his call to say he was coming home but hadn’t heard anything at all. The celebratory dinner was almost ready. She had the roast in the oven and the house was filled with mouthwatering scents. They only made her stomach clench.
Wasn’t it early for morning sickness? Evening sickness, in this case.
In her heart, she knew she wasn’t nauseous because of the pregnancy. She was frightened of Jacko’s reaction. Nothing much shook him, but the news that they were expecting a baby seemed to have bowled him over.
And yet they had so much sex, it was a miracle she hadn’t become pregnant before this.
A wave of heat shot through her as she thought of their sex life. For the two years she’d been on the run from her murderous step-cousin, she hadn’t had sex at all. And even before then…well, she’d always been kind of picky. She had more sex in a week with Jacko than in the previous decade. She couldn’t even remember sex with other men, though she had had a few boyfriends in college. They were wiped from her mind, as if they had never existed.
Sometimes she thought Jacko was imprinted on her. She spent so much time in his arms, her skin sweaty with the heat of sex, she thought it was a miracle his tribal tattoos didn’t transfer themselves to her skin.
She was sitting on the couch, having given up any pretense of work. No way could she settle down and work while waiting for Jacko, unsure of his reaction.
She had a monthly shot but it couldn’t possibly be a bulwark against the kind of sex she had with Jacko. Long, intense, endless. No shot of chemicals in the world could counteract all that sperm. Some nights her whole groin was wet with their juices.
She fingered a cushion as another flash of heat shot through her. The night before Jacko left for Mexico, they’d made love right here, on this couch. They hadn’t even made it to the bedroom. That look she’d come to recognize so intimately had flashed across his dark face and the next thing she knew, they were both naked and he was buried in her, thrusting hard…
Lauren tilted her head back and closed her eyes. Wanting her lover with every fiber of her being. They had no barriers between them. She loved that. Loved that they were so attuned to each other. That stiffness this morning between them broke her heart. She couldn’t stand it, not one second more. When he came home they’d have it out, though if he didn’t want the child—
If he didn’t want the child, what was she going to do? Because she
want it. Her hand curled over her stomach. It was still flat. According to the billion articles she’d read on the internet, their child was still basically just some cells, multiplying furiously. But she loved it already and nothing on this earth would keep her from it.
If Jacko didn’t want this baby, there was no compromise possible. She wasn’t aborting, she wasn’t going to give it up for adoption, this baby was hers. She loved it. She loved Jacko. If she couldn’t have both…
The doorbell rang and her eyes popped open. Jacko didn’t ring the doorbell. He just entered, quiet as a panther. Who could it possibly be at this hour?
Felicity, Isabel and Summer. That’s who. She stared at her friends on the wall panel and hesitated just a second before pressing the button that would open the door.
She loved her friends. Seeing them at her door under ordinary circumstances would fill her with happiness, because she’d know for a fact that laughter and probably excellent cake supplied by Isabel would follow.
But not tonight. Tonight she and Jacko had things to thrash out.
But they were here and they loved her so she pressed the button.
“Surprise!” Felicity came in first, kissing her cheek. “We bring gifts. Or rather, Isabel brings gifts. You wouldn’t want my cooking.”
“Or mine.” Summer Delvaux, married to Isabel’s brother, stepped into the room and kissed her. She shuddered. “Jack complains all the time about my cooking. Lucky thing Isabel lives so close.”
Isabel brought up the rear, holding a tinfoil-covered pan to one side as she kissed Lauren’s cheek, too. “Double chocolate fudge. Pure evil sin. We’re definitely going to hell, but not before having a really good time.”
Lauren forced herself to smile as she shut the door behind them. She checked the time on the ormolu clock on the mantle that had belonged to her great-grandmother. 8:00 p.m. Jacko was late. He was never late without calling, which meant he’d be coming home any second now. He enjoyed the company of Felicity, Isabel and Summer. Metal was his best friend. Isabel’s guy, Joe Harris, was another good friend. Joe and Metal and Jacko had served together as SEALs. Summer’s love, Jack Delvaux, Isabel’s brother, was a recent addition to ASI.
They all hung out together a lot and always had a really good time.
But not tonight.
Felicity, Isabel and Summer were making themselves at home. They knew where to hang the coats and made a beeline for the kitchen. They stopped on the threshold when they saw the small dining room just off the kitchen. The table was set for an occasion with a lace tablecloth and Lauren’s best china. Two tall candles in crystal candleholders were just waiting to be lit.
“Ah, ladies?” Lauren gave a weak smile. “I’m delighted to see you, and Isabel? That fudge is not leaving this house, but tonight isn’t the best of evenings to get together. I’m having, um, a special dinner with Jacko.”
Felicity turned and caught Lauren’s hands. She was taller than Lauren so when she bent forward to give her a hug, Lauren fit against her shoulder.
“Honey…” Felicity looked at Isabel and Summer, then back at her. “That’s why we’re here. There’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just come right out with it. I don’t think Jacko is coming home.”
Her head swam. Lauren shot out a hand to steady herself, but she found herself held upright by her friends.
Lauren whispered, shocked to her toes. Her knees trembled.
Isabel and Summer held her, made her sit down on one of the dining table chairs. Summer gently pushed the nape of her neck down between her knees. “Breathe,” Summer said calmly.
Lauren barely heard her. Jacko wasn’t coming home? He was
her? She tried to imagine a universe in which Jacko left her, but she couldn’t.
She lifted her head in time to see Isabel roll her eyes at Felicity. “Way to go, Felicity. Don’t mind her, honey. She’s a nerd, hopeless around humans.”
“Yes, I am. I’m really sorry to give you a shock.” Felicity hung her head, long blonde ponytail hanging to the side of her face. “And Jacko is not leaving you. I don’t think he knows how to leave you. But he
gone away. For a little while.”
Lauren’s head was still whirling. Nothing made sense.
Summer stuck her head in the fridge. “This situation calls for Prosecco and fudge, stat.” She pulled out a bottle of Prosecco Lauren had been keeping for Jacko. Jacko disliked champagne but loved Prosecco, go figure.
“Not for me,” she said.
“Not for Lauren,” Felicity said at the same time.
Summer stopped, bottle in hand, and looked between the two of them. She was super-smart and put it together in a flash. “You’re pregnant,” she said to Lauren.
God. Summer was a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist. She’d uncovered the conspiracy behind the Washington Massacre. One pregnancy—even if just a few cells along—was nothing to her eagle eyes.
“Barely.” Lauren sighed. “Barely pregnant.”
“No such thing as barely pregnant.” Isabel sat down beside her and took her hand. “How far along are you?”
“Far enough along to avoid alcohol. And you guys weren’t supposed to know for a while.”
“Nothing escapes us,” Summer said smugly, taking the dinner plates off the table and setting it with dessert plates. Isabel placed the big pan of fudge on the table and started cutting squares. “We are all-knowing and all-seeing.”
“And we have brought the panacea for all ailments. Chocolate.” Isabel started serving, giving Lauren an extra-large portion.
Lauren was worried sick about Jacko, but the large square of luscious-looking dark chocolate on her rose-covered dessert plates took a little of the edge off the anxiety. She was about to say so when her cell rang.
She rushed to pick it up. The breath whooshed out of her lungs when she saw who was calling. Jacko. Thank God.
She moved quietly into the bedroom for privacy. The girls were busy with the fudge, but looked up curiously when she moved away. She looked at them fondly, Isabel, Felicity and Summer, each with a bite of fudge speared on a dessert fork. They cared for her and she cared for them, but right now, she needed to talk to Jacko like she needed air.
Closing the bedroom door, she clicked the connection. “Jacko? Darling, I’m so glad to hear your voice. Why aren’t you home?”
There was nothing but silence on the other end.
Lauren pressed the cell harder against her ear. She could make out the faint sound of breathing. Jacko’s breathing was like everything about him—strong and steady. But this sounded ragged, stressed.
Silence. But she could almost hear him listening on the other end. She had no idea where he was but could picture him, listening hard, unable to speak.
For an instant it scared her—Jacko unable to speak. Jacko could do anything. He was the strongest, most capable man she’d ever met.