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Children's voices, bright and happy, punctuated the late afternoon. Several houses down, a lawn mower rumbled its distinctive hum. The breeze carried the light perfume of flowers along with the appetizing scents of charcoal and grilled burgers. Cars drove by, leaves rustled and birds chirped. In all ways, the street was alive with the normal sounds and smells of spring.
Normalcy, Captain Seth Foster thought, was a type of heaven that most folks never really considered. Well, most civilians. He, on the other hand, had given the idea of normalcy a great deal of thought throughout his deployment in Afghanistan.
He'd returned to the States less than a week ago, and today, Seth had driven to his parents' house in Portland, Oregon, for an extended leave. Four weeks of rest lay in front of him. His plan for every day of those four weeks was to engage in completely normal activities.
Activities such as eating a home-cooked meal with his family, verbally sparring with his two older brothers, reconnecting with his parents and now, sitting on the front porch of the Victorian home he'd grown up in, enjoying a beer with the company of his brothers.
Seth had anticipated this moment, this exact second in time, when life wouldfor a little while, at leastbecome ordinary again.
Of course, he hadn't anticipated that his lamebrained brother had been keeping a secret for months. Or that Jace would choose this moment to reveal that secret, and in doing so, dispel all of Seth's plans for a normal visit home.
Seth took a long draw from his beer before settling his gaze on Jace, the middle brother in the Foster clan. Their older brother, Grady, seemed as shocked by Jace's disclosure as Seth was but had wisely kept his mouth shutthough he hadn't left his brothers alone to battle it out. Nah, he'd stay put and watch over them, ready to jump in if what followed took a nasty turn.
Keeping his attention on Jace, Seth said, "I'm not going to kill him, Grady. Even if I was so inclined, the Air Force doesn't take kindly to fratricide."
"I figured that much." Grady stretched out his long legs. "Still, think I'll sit right here for a while. Enjoy my beer."
"I'm not going to hit him, either."
"I would." Grady's tenor was flat. "If he kept that type of news away from me."
Jace cleared his throat. "If either of you want to clock me across the jaw, go for it. But you should know I'd make the same choice today under the same circumstances."
The temper that Seth had managed to contain flared into being. "Watch it, bro, or I might take you up on that." God, he still couldn't wrap his mind around Jace's announcement.
"You're one hundred percent in this? There is zero doubt that Rebecca is pregnant?"
"I'm certain." Jace raked his fingers through his shaggy black hair. "I wasn't when I originally met with her. Which is partly why I didn't tell you then."
Seth remembered asking Jace to look in on Rebecca Carmichael, a woman he'd corresponded with for nearly a year before their meeting the prior October. He'd been given a short leave from active duty to recoup from an ill-fated mission. After attending a funeral, he spent his time here, in Portland. It had taken several phone conversations, but Rebecca had finally agreed to meet for coffee.
Closing his eyes for a millisecond, Seth savored the taste of the icy-cold microbrew. Coffee became dinner, which turned into drinks, which then became a weekend Seth would never forget. When he returned to duty, his goals for the futurewhich had always been absoluteshifted into something different than he'd ever seen for himself. A future he hoped might include Rebecca. He'd been all set to take it slow, to keep their relationship on the easy and familiar ground on which it had started, when Rebecca stopped writing. Concerned, he tried reaching her by phone, only to find her number disconnected.
This remained the status quo until sometime in January, when Seth emailed Jace and asked him to ascertain that Rebecca was okay. Jace's response that Rebecca was fine, that her life had been busy but she would get in touch when she could, eased Seth's worry. When another month passed without a peep, Seth figured that was Rebecca's way of saying goodbye.
He'd written her once more, wished her well and focused on the day to day. Every now and then his thoughts would return to her, to the future he'd barely glimpsed before it dissolved into dust. For the most part, though, Seth had pushed Rebecca out of his mind.
Until now. Until faced with the possibility that she was pregnant with his child.
"How do you know for certain?" Seth asked, picking up the conversation where Jace had left off. "Have you talked to her again? Seen her?"
"I haven't, but a friend kept tabs on her." Jace spoke quickly, as if worried Seth would interrupt him. "I know she's pregnant. What I don't know is who the father is."
"What friend? You didn't involve Olivia or Melanie in this, did you?" Grady asked, speaking of his wife and Jace's fiancée.
"If I'd told Olivia, I might as well have told you," Jace shot back. "And you'd have gone to Seth right away, which is what I was trying to avoid. Nor did I tell Melanie. She wouldn't have approved of what she would describe as my ah kinglike attitude."
Grady chuckled. "She's called you out on that a few times already, hasn't she?"
"You're one to talk." Jace glowered at Grady. "Because talking Olivia into dating you instead of giving her the divorce she wanted was so unkinglike."
Grady shrugged, apparently not bothered by Jace's statement. "We didn't get divorced, so I'd say my methods worked fine. Besides, what happens between."
Frustration roared through Seth's blood. On a different day, he'd love to hear every detail of his brother and sister-in-law's reconciliation. The couple had separated after their five-year-old son Cody had died in a tragic car accident. A drunk driver had lost control of his vehicle and smashed into Grady's, killing the boy almost instantly.
It had been a horrible time for all of them. Seth hadn't believed that Grady and Olivia would be able to move beyond such an allencompassing pain. Somehow, though, they had. He was happy for them. And when he learned Olivia was expecting a baby in August, now only a few months away, he'd been even happier.
Now, though, he wanted to hear about Rebecca and the baby she carried.
"How did your friend keep tabs on Rebecca, Jace?" Seth asked, dragging his brother's attention back to the current topic of conversation.
"It's like this I hired an investigator friend of mine to"
"You hired a P.I. to spy on Rebecca?" Seth was three seconds away from leaping out of his chair and strangling his brother. "A little overkill, don't you think?"
"All he did was employ Rebecca as his accountant and set up monthly appointments to see how she was doing. He didn't spy on her." Jace pulled in a breath. "Look, if she needed something, I wanted to know. But no one followed her around or snapped pictures of her."
"So you hired a P.I. to spy on her," Seth repeated, his anger growing by the second. "Whether he saw her once a month or sat in front of her house every damn night, his goal was to retrieve information in a covert manner. Is that correct?"
"Okay, yes." Jace planted his elbows on his knees. "I know it was wrong, but I wanted to be in a position to help if she needed anything. I swear, Seth, my intentions were honorable."
Seth gave a short nod, hearing the truth in his brother's words. "You realize that you wouldn't have had to go to such lengths if you'd shared your suspicions up front? Dammit, Jace! If she is carrying my baby, I had a right to know the second you thought that was a possibility."
"Why?" Jace countered, his eyes unflinching. "She wasn't responding to your emails or letters. You couldn't reach her by phone. There was nothing you could do."
"I would've liked the opportunity to try." Seth swore again. "I'm working real hard here to keep my temper in check, but you're making that difficult. We're brothers. We're supposed to look out for each other, so for the life of me, I cannot comprehend"
"What do you think I was doing? I knew you'd be ticked." Jace gave a tired shake of his head. "But I was looking out for you. My goal was to protect you."
"Protect me?" Seth said, his voice dangerously soft as he deduced what Jace was getting at. "You believed I wouldn't be able to do my job safely if I knew Rebecca might be pregnant with my child? Am I getting this right?"
Seth's job, as a pilot in the Air Force, typically didn't carry that much risk. And while his deployment to Afghanistan, where he was part of a planning cell, had placed him in a few precarious situations, his role there had also been relatively safe. Even so, his family worried.
"I wanted you to come home safe." Jace's jaw set in the stubborn line all Foster men were known for. "So yeah, bro, I decided to wait until you were here to tell you. So you could focus on facts and not what-ifs. Why is that so wrong?"
"Because it was an idiotic move," Grady said without rancor. "Imagine if I knew something about Melanie that involved you and I kept that away from you?"
"That's an idiotic statement," Jace retorted, also without rancor. "I'm here. I have the ability to go to Melanie and deal with whatever you might have discovered. Seth wasn't here. Seth was in Afghanistan, doing God knows what." He set pleading eyes upon Seth. "I worried about you nonstop. This family can't take another loss."
Jace was referring to Cody and the pain everyone in their family had gone through, still went through. If there was one thing Seth would change if he had the power, it would be the senseless death of his nephew. The fiercest edge of his anger receded. He didn't agree with Jace's decisions, but he understood his brother's motivation.
"I get it," Seth said with a sigh. "However, you went about it the wrong way. I have been trained to focus on the job, on the objective of any given mission. Emotions do not, cannot, interfere when you're on the job."
"Look, you're my baby brother," Jace said. "I'll always want to protect you. I can't apologize for that, but I'm sorry for upsetting you."
Well, that was considerably more than Seth figured he'd get. He remained frustrated with Jace, and he was drowning in the knowledge that he might have a child coming into this world. How could Rebecca keep that away from him?
The possibility existed the baby wasn't his, and that was why Rebecca had stopped communicating. On a logical level, that scenario made the most sense. But his ramped-up intuition and the facts of that weekend told a different story. Even without those facts, Seth had learned years ago to trust his instincts. He wasn't about to stop now.
Clenching and unclenching his empty hand, he considered if he should push the subject with Jace. Why, though? Wasting minutes arguing wasn't the smartest use of Seth's time. A better use would be deciding how to proceed.
In any mission, the first step was gathering all of the necessary intel. Only then could the following steps be planned and executed with success.
"Fair enough," he said in a controlled manner. "I'll set your misguided actions aside because you're my brother and I believe you were operating with good intentions." Seth finished his beer, waited a beat and said, "Tell me everything you know."