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The TV weatherman's smooth, loud tones predicted rain for metropolitan Atlanta, while the computer speakers in the home office blared Iron Maiden and the old DVD player in the kitchen cranked Judas Priest. Claire Murphy pounded again on her ten-year-old son's door. The ever-present thudding of her heart sounded in her ears. They had to leave.
"Grey, honey, step it up. We're out of here in twenty minutes," she said.
Shuffling sounded through the door, along with a couple of muffled expletives. Claire frowned. "I heard that, mister."
The door cracked open and Grey peered at her, his auburn hair sticking out at odd angles. Dark circles ringed his eyes. "I'm up."
Concern quickened Claire's pulse. She lifted his chin. "Honey, you look exhausted. Didn't you sleep well?"
He rolled his sweet brown eyes. "You didn't sleep well."
She'd tried, but the night had pressed in around her. She hated that her troubles had such an effect on Grey. She shook her head, fighting the chronic fatigue she'd learned to live with over the past year. She could never explain to him how sleeping only made her feel smothered.
And gave her nightmares. She didn't always remember the specifics, but the terror often clung to her well into her waking hours. The nightmares made living without sleep a welcome alternative.
"I'm so sorry," she said.
"I don't get why you have to always crank your music. Even with your earphones on, I can tell it's cranked. How can you do that? Normal people sleep in the middle of the night."
"Well, normal's overrated." She ruffled his hair. "You'd better get in the shower. You're a mess."
"Mom?" He stepped out of his room, looking so grownup in his too-small pajamas.
Her gaze fell on a wrinkled image of Abe Lincoln on his left knee. Various presidents dotted the rest of the fabric and Grey could not only name each one, but he could also recite each man's years in office, as well as highest accomplishments. They'd bought those pajamas on their trip to D.C. almost two years ago, but Grey refused to give them up, even though the sleeves and legs were now far too short. He'd been so thrilled to see the capital, they'd spent an entire day on the Mount Vernon estate alone.
"Mom?" he asked again.
Her gaze met his and her throat tightened. The worry in his eyes these days was just one part of what haunted her sleepless nights. He was too young to bear the weight of that concern. "What is it, little man?"
He sighed in frustration over the pet name, but his expression didn't change. "Why can't you sleep?"
She waved her hand in dismissal, her gaze dropping. Why couldn't he remain an innocent child, unconcerned for her welfare? "I sleep. Besides, sleep is overrated."
"No, it isn't." Anger replaced the worry. "That's what you say about everything you don't want to talk about."
Claire tamped down her own frustration. She had to give him his anger. She'd be angry, too, in his position. She gave him her sternest mom frown. "Are you going to get into the shower?"
He shook his head, but said, "I'm going." He shuffled a few steps toward the bathroom, before turning to her. "You think I look bad this morning, you should check out a mirror."
She groaned silently. Grey could be brutally honest. She loved that and hated it about him. "I'll take your word for it. Hurry up. I need my espresso. And don't forget to keep the curtain in the tub and point the showerhead away from that spot I showed you, where the caulk is peeling."
"If we stuck around home more, maybe we could fix stuff like that."
"Maybe I'll get some caulk and we'll fix it this weekend," she said, though the thought of hanging around the house sent a shiver through her.
His only response was another shake of his head as he continued toward the bathroom, his shoulders stooped as if he carried the weight of the world. Claire pressed her lips together as her unease spiked into fear.
Had she bolted the door last night?
Though she clearly remembered turning the bolt, she hurried to check, to twist the knob to be sure the door held fast. She pulled aside the curtain in one of the long windows bordering the heavy door. A cat lounged on the hood of her neighbor's car. Claire scanned the cars in the other driveways, her stomach tight with anticipation, though nothing seemed out of place. A door slammed up the street and she heard the muffled sound of an engine roaring to life.
She inhaled slowly, trying to stem the racing of her heart as she hurried to the back door to check that bolt, as well. Satisfied that dead bolt remained drawn, she paused to pick up one of the cabinet drawer fronts that had fallen off in the night. The builders of this house hadn't cared for quality when they'd installed the wooden fronts on the plastic drawers back in the early seventies.
She tucked the drawer front into the gap between her refrigerator and the wall, along with the other two that had previously broken away from the cracking plastic. The missing fronts made her bottom cabinets resemble a child's toothless grin, with the gaping holes revealing the contents of her junk drawer, her silverware and now all her cooking utensils. Grey would have one more thing to complain about. She'd have to figure out how to repair them or work new cabinets into their budget.
As she headed to the living room to check the sliding glass doors, she grabbed her phone from her purse on the entry table. She made a quick note about shopping for new cabinets on her to-do list. Swiping her thumb along the screen, she scanned the long list of notes.
Confirm Sunday with Becca.
Call car place about noise. Research winter break programs.
She frowned as she checked the bar that secured the sliding glass doors. What did add oil mean? To a recipe? To the car? Her memory wasn't what it used to be. If she didn't write everything down, she'd lose half the thoughts in her head, but sometimes she couldn't interpret her own notes.
While the splash of the shower echoed in the bathroom and the music and TV blared, Claire methodically continued her check of each room, each window and each point of entry. Then she rechecked each room, behind each door, inside each closet. Not until she'd completed the circuit did she breathe a sigh of relief.
They were fine. They were safe, and that was all that mattered. She forced herself to take slow, deep breaths, silently repeating her mantra.
I am safe. I am strong. No one can hurt me.
Still, the thudding of her heart contradicted her as she turned to finish getting ready.
Lucas Williams, owner of The Coffee Stop, frowned as he reviewed the employee schedule spread across his monitor and his gaze fixed on Friday's date. September twenty-eighth. Had it been two years already?
Ken, a retiree who worked most mornings, leaned through his open office door. "Do we have any more coffee sleeves?"
"I have some on order. They should come in this afternoon, but there should be one more case." He moved past the older man. "Here, I can grab them faster than I can tell you where they are."
A few moments later, as Lucas headed toward the front, box in hand, Ken spoke up. "I can take those. You've got better things to do, boss."
"I've got it." Lucas nodded toward the counter. "You've got customers."
As Ken hurried away, Lucas smiled at the kid trailing behind the petite brunette who stopped in every morning. She and her son shared the same wide brown eyes. Double-shot Americano, two pumps of vanilla, room for cream and the kid always had a banana-strawberry smoothie.
"Hey, mister," the kid whispered and motioned Lucas over, while he glanced nervously at his mother, who was placing their order at the other end of the counter.
Lucas was curious as he set down the carton of sleeves and turned toward the boy. Curious, and a little cautious. Kids weren't his thing. "Can I help you, little man?"
The boy scrunched his face. "I hate when my mom calls me that."
Lucas shrugged. "Okay, how about just young man?"
"Grey," the kid said. "That's my name. You can call me that."
"Grey it is. I'm Lucas. What can I get for you? Your usual smoothie?"
"How much is that?" The kid pointed to a wall display of espresso machines. "The one on the right. In the green box."
"Ah, good choice." Lucas reached for the machine.
"Don't. She'll see." The youngster glanced again at his mother, who'd moved along to the pickup area.
She stood with her arms tightly crossed, her gaze darting over her shoulder at intervals. Ken dropped a metal filter and she jumped, hands splayed, eyes wide. Lucas had seen that look and that reaction beforein Iraq and Afghanistan, and later with Toby. He hoped this woman wasn't like Toby, harboring some horrible trauma.
"It's a surprise." The boy drew Lucas's attention back to the espresso machine.
"You want to get that for your mom?"
"Maybe if we have one at home, we won't have to rush out every morning. Not that we don't enjoy frequenting your shop " The boy grinned, nervously. "But maybe sometimes we could have breakfast at home, instead. Just the two of us."
His wistful tone tugged at something deep inside Lucas, called to the part of him he'd retired when he'd finished his last tour with the marines and walked from his medevac days. The boy's eyes were almost pleading, as though he were grasping at a lifeline. Lucas glanced around for a reason to excuse himself, to retreat from that haunted look in the child's eyes. It reminded him too much of himself at that agelost and looking for an anchor.
The boy shrugged. "It's worth a shot."
"Pun intended?" Lucas grinned, though he felt anything but lighthearted.
As if September twenty-eighth wasn't enough to deal with, the thought that this poor kid believed an espresso machine would solve his troubles added to his weariness. Lucas glanced again at the kid's mom. The kid wanted more time with her, a quiet breakfast, at least. That seemed a reasonable request. What kind of mother wouldn't give her kid that? Was she a workaholic or did she suffer from some other affliction?
She looked healthy enough. Even Lucas wasn't so dead he didn't notice the shape of her body, the tone of her muscles. The woman was physically fit, if nothing else, but that in itself could be a symptom. His buddy Toby had been fanatical about working out. After Iraq, he'd stepped up his daredevil activities, jumping from planes, scaling impossible cliffs, diving from that seventy-foot rock. He'd needed the endor-phins just to feel normal.
But even that hadn't helped in the end.
Was the kid's mother just going through the motions? She spent plenty of time in Lucas's coffee shop, always on the phone or her laptop, conducting her business from the comfort of his overstuffed chairs. Something in her overly vigilant attitude made it seem she wasn't ever at ease, though.
He'd gotten to know a good many of his customers, chatting with them on a regular basis, but Grey's mom always kept to herself. No matter how involved she was with whatever she was doing, she remained on edge, contained.
No, he guessed she wasn't comfortable, at least not here. Was she uptight at home, too?
The kid cleared his throat, drawing Lucas's attention again to the espresso machines. "How much?" he asked.
"Well, that's top-of-the-line." Lucas tilted his head to the left, indicating another machine. "That one isn't as pricey, but does the basics. It's eighty bucks."
"Eighty?" The boy bit his lip. "Do you have some kind of payment plan?"
"Not really, but I know the owner. I think we can work something out, probably even get you a discount," Lucas said. Though why he felt compelled to help the kid, he didn't know.
"Really?" Relief filled those brown eyes.
"Grey?" The kid's mother moved toward them, espresso and smoothie in hand. Her gaze skimmed over Lucas, than quickly away. "We've got to go, honey."
"Okay." Grey took his smoothie and turned to leave with his mom, but then he ran back to Lucas. He stuck out his hand, held Lucas's gaze and kept his voice low. "We'll take care of the details next time."
Lucas hesitated for half a second as his stomach tightened over the hope in the kid's eyes. He had no business getting into some secret deal with the boy. A stupid espresso machine wasn't going to do shit to solve the kid's problems.
As the boy's mother took a nervous step toward them, Lucas shook the small hand, feeling he was committing to so much more than helping Grey surprise her for her birthday or whatever, but knowing he couldn't turn back now. "Deal."
A smile split the boy's face, sending a sense of guilt spi-raling through Lucas. Why did he feel like he was promising something he couldn't deliver?
Grey sighed as Paul Cooper plopped into the seat beside him later that afternoon. He'd been stoked about the espresso machine for most of the day, but Paul had a way of bringing him down.
"So, what does your dad do?" Paul paused only long enough for Grey to frown. "Mine is an attorney. He goes to court. He helps people. Does your dad help people?" Again, the breath of a pause before he continued. "I don't get to see him as much as I'd like, but he brings me really cool stuff when he visits. Last week he took me to see the Falcons. It was so cool. Where do you go with your dad?"
Paul swatted at a stray fly that had found its way into the classroom. "He's coming to see me next weekend and I get to spend the summer with him," he said. "He has a place on the beach. Do you like the beach?"
Now he stopped and stared, waiting for Grey's response. Grey stared back, his stomach tightening. He used to like the beach, but Mom said she didn't believe in vacations anymore. Too much relaxing and peace and quiet.
He shrugged, saying, "The beach is cool."
"My dad said if I wanted I could live with him at the beach all the time, but my mom said no way. It's in Tybee, which is still Georgia, but Momma says it's too far. Does your dad live with you, or are your parents divorced?" Again, the stare, while Paul waited, his eyes round.
My dad's dead.
Grey gritted his teeth. He should just say it. It wasn't true, but it could be. For all he knew his dad had kicked the bucket in the years since they'd last heard from him. If he told Paul his dad was dead then Paul would quit asking all these stupid questions. Grey opened his mouth, but the words refused to form.