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I am haunted by the image of a woman I saw running from the militia, a baby in one arm and a small boy gripping her hand. They looked terrified. There is little chance they survived, but I do not know for sure, because they were the last people I saw before my capture, the final vision of a city destroyed by war and descended into chaos. Sometimes it's not the sight of violence and death that is most disturbing, but rather the moments just before.
From Through a Soldier's Eyes by Aidan Caldwell
Promise Lake, California
This was not her fairy-tale ending.
This old Mercedes loaded down with possessions, artifacts of a scattered life and broken marriage, this weary, battered pair of travelers, limping toward a new life, they were no prince and princess riding off into the sunset.
The contrast almost made Emmy Van Amsted laugh.
She glanced into the rearview mirror at the one happy thing she could point to in her life right now. A round, scruffy head bowed, studying a book about rocks and minerals that Emmy knew from bedtime reading last night contained words she had trouble pronouncing.
When everything else about her life sucked beyond words, she comforted herself again and again with the physical fact of Max.
At the age of thirty-five, she had at least acquired enough wisdom to know her son was a much more precious prize than any Prince Charming. She knew enough now, a year after the end of a very public and very painful divorce, to understand that there were very few helpful truths in fairy tales anyway.
If only life were as simple as evil stepmothers and valiant men on white stallions.
But no, a woman had to make her own happiness, slay herown dragons and ride off into the sunset on her own steed. Exactly what Emmy was doing now. Well, not into the sunset, but rather the soothing comfort of the northern California redwoods and the peaceful silence of Promise Lake, that placid blue body of water in the woods that had haunted her dreams since childhood.
"Mom, can we look up Tibet on the computer again when we get to the cabin?"
Emmy's stomach lurched.
"Sure, soon as we get an Internet connection. We might not have one for a few days, okay?" She suffered a stab of guilt at denying her son even the ability to search for things online right now, when it seemed as though nearly everything about his normal life had been taken away.
"Um, okay," he said.
Maybe she was overreacting a wee bit, she'd realized yesterday when she'd caught herself promising him any toys he wanted once they were settled in their new place.
But if their old life had crumbled, she felt like she might be able to grab on to some real and lasting happiness for them both if she could build a new life here in the midst of so much rubble.
No, not if. When. Looking in the rearview mirror at Max reminded her that there was no option of failing now. She owed himand maybe even herselfa better life than they'd left behind. She could not live with herself if her own failures caused her son permanent scars that wouldn't heal.
"Do you think Daddy has the Internet in Tibet?"
"I doubt it, honey. At least not every day."
As she steered her car onto the gravel road that led to their family's summer house, she willed the anger to drain from her. She was not going to be one of those bitter divorced women who blamed her every problem on her ex. She was going to accept the part her choices had played in leading her to her current destiny, and she was not going to point fingers.
She didn't want to give the selfish bastard that much power over her.
"Does Tibet have Internet cafés like in San Francisco?"
"Yes, I imagine there are some."
"Will Daddy write e-mails to me?"
"I'm sure he will. And he'll call too, okay?"
Except he hadn't in the two weeks since he'd left the U.S. on his spiritual quest.
"Mommy, what's the capital of Tibet?"
"I'm not sure, honey. We'll have to look it up."
Max had been reading since a few months before his fourth birthday, and was, much to the amazement of most of the adults around him, a genius. Sometimes Emmy wished she could take that burden away from her little boy and let him be normal. Let him be possessed of an average imagination rather than an out-of-control one, let him have a level of knowledge that matched his six-year-old emotional development, let him not already be suffering from existential angst the likes of which most adults never faced.
But she could not do that any more than she could undo the past two years of stress and sadness she'd put him through while divorcing his father.
"Can we go looking for rocks when we get to the cabin?"
"Maybe later, honey. We should probably get unpacked and buy some groceries first."
They rounded the curve into the clearing where the house sat at the end of the long gravel drive, and Emmy was surprised to see a black motorcycle parked out front.
Fear filled her belly. Squatters in the cabin? It wasn't unheard of, but as far as she knew it had never happened to anyone on this side of the lake. She parked the car and sat for a few moments, reviewing her options. She could leave, call the sheriff to report an intruder and let them handle the situation. But that seemed kind of a drastic reaction in a town where the most dangerous thing that ever happened was people getting drunk and going swimming after dark.
Or she could knock on the door and pretend she was a lost tourist if the person who answered seemed menacing.
She flipped open her cell phone, was relieved to see she had a strong signal, and predialed 911, just in case, so she could hit the call button if necessary.
"Stay in the car, sweetie," she said to Max. "I'm going to lock the door just to be safe while I'm gone."
"But we're in the middle of the woods," he argued logically.
"There might be bears."
"Bears can't open car doors. Hey, whose motorcycle is that?" he said, finally noticing the intruder.
"I don't know. I'm going to go check now."
Emmy braced herself and got out.
She locked the car and marched up the drive, past the spot where she'd fallen at the age of six and cut her knee open on a sharp rock, past the shiny black, unwelcome Harley-Davidson with California plates, and up the wood steps onto the cabin's porch. Her stomach still clenched, she knocked loudly. Her palm holding the cell phone was damp with sweat.
A moment later, she heard footsteps inside, and the door opened. Through the ancient screen door, she saw a man whose face she recognizeda face that brought memories flooding back.
"Aidan?" she said, stunned, her tone forming a question mark.
He blinked, silent. She hadn't seen him in well over a decade. The sight of him, right here in person after all these years, struck her like a physical blow. Here was the life she hadn't chosen, standing right before her.
She swallowed the sick, acidic taste in her mouth and willed herself not to panic.
Aidan, her college sweetheart at Stanford, the man her parents had considered a part of the family before everything went wrong. She'd been too young, too ambitious, too everything back then.
And him, he'd been a wild mustang ready to charge out into the world, which is exactly what he'd done after she'd ended their relationship.
Some part of her had been proud of him for moving on, and some other less-rational part had felt a little abandoned, even though she'd been the one doing the breaking up. She'd always thought, back then at least, that he'd be a part of her life in one way or another.
More recently though, she'd seen him on the news the tragedy of his time as a peacekeeper in Darfur, his capture, the torture, the bloody escape .
Finally, he spoke. "Emmy."
His voice resonated deep inside her, creating a warm humming sensation that she forced herself to ignore.
"What are you doing here?"
"Your father loaned me the cabin," he said.
She shouldn't have been surprised. It was as if the man thought up ways to annoy his oldest daughter in his sleep.
"But my mother told me we could stay here, that it was empty."
This was the problem with a set of divorced parents who still shared a vacation property neither of them much used. Utter and complete lack of communication. Not that she could blame her mother for not speaking to her father. Emmy rarely spoke to the son of a bitch either.
"We? As in your husband?" he said, peering over her shoulder at the car.
"No." He didn't know about her divorce then. Or her child. "My son, Max. He's six."
She flipped her cell phone shut and slipped it into her pocket, figuring she was at least safe from squatters.
His gaze cut back to her. "Oh."
His eyes looked tired, like he'd seen too much, and at the same time, oddly keyed up, like he might bolt at any moment. Still darkly gorgeous as ever, he was only thirty-seven, but he'd lived a lot in those years. He'd always been in the middle of the action, for as long as she'd known him. It hadn't completely surprised her to see his name pop up in media, since he'd spent his entire career in the military working overseas, and he'd gained experience peacekeeping in Bosnia, so it made sense that he might end up in Darfur, too.
"We just drove up from San Francisco. I'm moving here, actually."
His eyebrows shot up. "You? Moving? Here?"
"Why is that so hard to believe?" His disbelief stung, not so much because it was misplaced as because it suggested he didn't know the real her anymore. And why should he? Their lives had gone down different paths. They'd both changed in response to their differing terrain.
"Weren't you living on Nob Hill in a mansion with your investment-banker husband?"
He didn't use Steven's name, of course. He probably refused to even speak it aloud.
Emmy felt a surge of anger that she fought to quell. "We're divorced now," she said evenly.
"Oh." He had the grace, at least, not to look smug at the news, which diffused her anger a bit.
"You'll have to excuse my abruptness, but I don't want to talk about all that now. It's really not your business why I'm moving. What matters is that you're living in the house I intend to live in, and you need to vacate."
"Yeah, that's a problem. I guess you'll have to find another place to stay though, because I can't leave," he said, his voice flat.
After a long drive, half of it through heavy traffic as she'd made her way out of the Bay Area, she felt the last of her patience vanish. "I don't remember you being such an asshole," she said.
He looked unimpressed by her anger. "You used not to be a backstabber."
Emmy didn't let him see her reaction. She deserved that one. She shouldn't have let herself fall for his childhood best friend, shouldn't even have considered it, even though Aidan had gone off to serve in the military.
"You know everything's booked for the season up here. I can't just find another place to stay at the drop of a hat."
"Neither can I."
"This is my family's house."
"And I'm your father's guest."
His angry undercurrent had a way of making him seem larger than life. He was already an imposing man, six foot two and solid muscle. Where once he'd been a college kid, now he looked menacing in a way he never had before, and Emmy felt the tiniest hint of fear, because she didn't know him anymore. He'd seen a world of pain and suffering since those carefree days of their youth.
Since it had all fallen apart with Aidan's proposal of marriage and her answer that they were too young, that it would never work, that she wasn't ready. Instead of saying yes to him that night, a few days before graduation, she'd broken up with him.
Emmy, uncharacteristically, felt her throat constrict with a grief that welled up out of nowhere. She wasn't the type to cry when she didn't get her way. No, she knew how to fight for what she wanteda skill she'd honed to perfection in the male-dominated architecture world. But maybe this felt too much like her luck lately, too much like one more obstacle she didn't have the energy to overcome.
Something about Aidan's demeanor, brittle and nervous, told Emmy not to push him right now. She willed the grief away and amazed herself by saying, in a firm, steady voice, "I'll stay in the guest cottage out back, until you find another place to live."
It was a temporary solution, but it wouldn't last for long. Maybe when Aidan stopped looking as though he was about to go postal, she could convince him to move to the guest cottage. Or, better yet, maybe her uncomfortable proximity would convince him to vacate the property altogether. Whatever happened, it needed to happen soon, because the one-room cottage would be cramped quarters for Emmy and Max. And if Aidan couldn't see that, then he was just as crazy as that look in his eyes suggested.