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FUNNY, HOW SMALL the house looked from the curb. It was the exact same size as all the other cookie-cutter houses on the base with the exact same size lawn in front, but now that it was no longer her home, it looked sad and abandoned and small. The lawn was dry and brown and the bushes against the foundation drooped in the Southern California heat. The street was quiet. No curious onlookers were on hand for her departure. Her CO had kept his promise that there would be no farewell fuss or fanfare. Her furniture and belongings were packed away into the moving van and the crew was ready to roll. One of the men was closing the van's rear door while the other approached with a clipboard.
"If I could just get your signature on the bottom, ma'am, we'll be on our way."
She took the pen and clipboard and signed her full name on the line: Katherine Carolyn Jones. She left off the part she was leaving behind—"Captain." As of three days ago, when ten years of Navy life had come to a premature end, she was officially a civilian. She handed the clipboard back. "Thank you. See you in a few days."
"Montana's not that far. We might even beat you there."
"You will. We're taking the scenic route," she said.
He climbed into the cab of the moving van with his partner, started up the truck and pulled away from the curb.
She wasn't aware that her mother was standing beside her until she spoke. "Honey? You all right?"
"Sure. Just a little hot, that's all." Kate slipped her arm around her mother's waist. Ruth Jones had been like a rock the past few days, throughout the long, arduous process of packing up. Dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt, Ruth radiated that ageless Montana cowgirl vitality and had the lean, fit build to match. Her graying hair was neatly bound into a braid that hung between her shoulders.
"Montana'll seem chilly to you after all these years away." She glanced toward the car. "Maybe we should get going. Hayden's getting antsy. He keeps asking where Rosa's gone."
Kate followed her mother's gaze to where her young son fidgeted in the backseat along with Wiggins, the family cat. Neither of them enjoyed riding in vehicles, and the journey was just beginning. This was the first time Hayden would be separated from the woman who'd cared for him during Kate's frequent absences from his life. Rosa's tearful goodbye the day before had been heartrending, but she'd refused to come to Montana. It was too far from her family in Mexico. Too cold and snowy. She would stay in California and find another nanny job. Kate knew that wouldn't be difficult. The fifty-eight-year-old woman was marvelous with children, and an excellent cook and housekeeper to boot. Kate would miss her calm, cheerful competence very much, along with her chicken relleno, green chili stew and guacamole salads.
Hayden was already missing her. He was fussy and irritable and nothing his mother or grandmother did or said seemed to comfort him. It would take them at least three days to drive to Montana because Kate was determined to make it an enjoyable road trip and not a marathon. Her mother's company would be a good distraction. It would keep her from thinking about why she was giving up the life she'd loved and the career she'd worked so hard for.
She took one final look at her house and was walking toward the car when the base's postal truck turned the corner and made the requisite stop at the bank of mailboxes that served all the houses on the street. She groaned as her own mailbox was opened and a handful of what were no doubt huge medical bills were stuffed inside. "Hang on a sec, Mom. I'll be right back." She trotted up to the postal truck and leaned in the window. "Hey, Charlie, do me a favor?"
"Sure, Captain. What's up?" A fixture on the base, Charlie had a broad, friendly face and a ready smile.
"I put in a change of address form a couple of days ago. Can you check to make sure it's gone through? I shouldn't be getting any more mail delivered here."
Charlie frowned. "You being transferred?"
"Something like that. Will you do that for me?"
"You know I will, but I wish I didn't have to. Good luck, Captain. Won't be the same around here without you stirring the pot and keeping the flyboys on their toes, but I figured something was up when I passed that moving van."
As he drove off, Kate reached into her mailbox for the last time, drawing out a sheaf of envelopes. Some junk mail, a phone bill and two medical bills. She stuffed the junk mail back in the box for Charlie to deal with and tucked the bills into the visor pocket when she slipped into the car. The hot seat stung her legs, so when she started the engine, she maxed the air conditioner. Cool air poured forth from the vents as she put the car into gear. "Okay, gang, let's rock and roll."
Hayden was complaining loudly that Wiggins had clawed him—he'd let the cat out of the pet carrier against her orders—and her mother was talking about the wildflowers blooming on the flanks of the mountains back home, naming each and every one, but the voices faded into silence as they approached the guardhouse.
"Wow," Ruth said. "I've never seen anything like that before." Kate had slowed the car but forced herself to continue driving toward the gate. Ranks of officers in dress uniform flanked both sides of the road and stood at attention, saluting her as she exited the base for the final time. She recognized them all, of course. She'd flown with some of them, commanded others and lived among many for the past four years. She focused her eyes forward, tightened her hands on the wheel and willed herself to remain visibly impassive while inside she fell completely apart. Her CO had promised her this wouldn't happen. He'd sworn to keep her resignation and departure, and the reasons for both, in the strictest of confidences. Yet here they were, the men and women she'd served with, saying a final goodbye the only way they knew how, even though she was no longer a naval officer—just a thirty-two-year-old civilian mother returning home to fight the toughest battle of her life.
At the very end of the row of uniformed officers, Kate saw her CO, and next to him, in the flesh, stood the legendary Fleet Admiral Ransom Gates, the highest ranking officer in the United States Navy. Feeling overwhelmed as Admiral Gates approached the car, Kate put the vehicle into Park and struggled to unbuckle her seat belt. He waved a hand, stilling her. "At ease," he said, leaning toward her open window. "Your commanding officer informed me of your resignation. But since you're one of the finest officers in my fleet, I'm not accepting it. As of now you're on an extended emergency medical leave, with full benefits and pay."
"I've done a little research. I know what you're up against and I'm aware it could be two years before you're out of the woods, but there isn't a doubt in my mind that you'll make it all the way back." He passed her a letter-sized sheet of paper and riveted her with eyes as blue and cold as the oceans he ruled.
"You're a fighter, Captain. Beat this thing. That's an order."
"Yes, sir." Kate took the paper from him, recognizing her own signature at the bottom. It was her formal resignation. The word Void had been stamped across it in bold red letters.
"Good luck, Captain," Admiral Gates said, then stepped back from the car and saluted her. As she drove off the base, she narrowly avoided sideswiping the guardhouse. Suddenly her twenty-twenty vision wasn't all that sharp.
BAD THINGS happened in threes. Three months ago Kate had been diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. Three days ago, upon being released from the hospital after her second month-long chemo treatment, she'd resigned her commission, or tried to, after getting her health insurance coverage extended through the proper channels, and just yesterday the doctors had told her that as yet no suitable match had been found for a bone marrow transplant. That made three very bad things, which meant that for a while, at least, things should go pretty smoothly.
Sure enough, the first two days of the road trip were good. Hayden settled down, Wiggins resigned himself to riding in the pet carrier and had stopped his bloodcurdling howls, and she and her mother shared long rambling conversations about everything and nothing at all while the Sierra Nevadas fell behind and the Rockies loomed ahead. The one thing they never discussed was the reason Kate was going back home, which suited her just fine. Her mother had a tendency to become emotional when the topic came up, and emotional displays were something Kate had never been comfortable with. Her life in the Navy had protected her from that. The military discipline, male-dominated upper ranks and stern emphasis on protocol had served as her sword and shield.
It hadn't been lost on Kate that her mother had put a huge box of tissues on the seat between them, no doubt for their mutual use should the waterworks ever start. If Kate had her way, the box would still be full at the end of the trip. Tears were pointless.
On the third day, about an hour after stopping for lunch at a little diner on Interstate 15 in Idaho, her mother looked into the backseat, saw that Hayden was napping, then faced front, folded her hands in her lap and sighed. "Kate, maybe it's none of my business, but in all these years you've never volunteered much information about Hayden's father."
The subject was bound to come up sooner or later. Kate was surprised that it hadn't been sooner. A whole lot sooner. She couldn't blame her parents for wanting to learn everything they could about their grandchild. "That's because there's not much to tell. I've made a few mistakes in my life and that man was one of them. I'd rather not talk about him."
"That's been obvious ever since you told us you were pregnant, but he is the father of your child—one of the only two parents he'll ever have."
"And the only one, once I'm gone. Is that the point you're trying to make?"
"You're going to get well, Kate. That's not what I meant at all. It's just that I know how stubborn and unyielding you can be when it comes to men. I'm not saying I blame you," Ruth was quick to add. "You've fought hard in your career and more than a few men have tried to trip you up. Nevertheless, at one time you must have felt something for this man."
Kate felt herself flush. "Mom..."
"Did he treat you badly, or abandon you when you told him you were pregnant?"
"Was he married?"
"I don't think so."
Her mother frowned at this. "Does this guy even know he has a child?"
A long silence passed between them and Kate realized her hands were cramping around the steering wheel. She forced herself to relax her grip and drew a slow breath. "I don't think so," she repeated.
"You mean, you never told him?"
"No. I never told him."
"Because he was never a part of my life. In fact, I know very little about him. Our relationship was nothing more than a one-night stand. That sometimes happens between two sexually deprived individuals. You know."
"Sorry. I can't say that I do, and I'm surprised to hear that you behaved that way."
"I don't make a habit of it, Mom, but that's the reason I never told you about Hayden's father. You expect me to be perfect and I'm not. Boy, am I ever not. But in spite of how Hayden came about, he's one of the best things that's ever happened to me, and if I should die, I want to know he's with my parents, the other two most perfect things that ever happened to me. End of discussion."
There was another long silence as they both stared out the windshield, then her mother pulled a tissue out of the box and blew her nose. "I think that's very selfish of you," she said.
Kate exhaled an exasperated breath. "How so?"
"Think how much your father would have missed if he'd never known you."
"That's different. The two of you were in love. You were married.You wanted to have a child together.You planned me."
"I can't imagine you'd have slept with just anyone no matter how 'sexually deprived' you were at the time. You're too smart and independent minded. Besides, if the worst happens, what are we supposed to tell your son when he asks us about his father? This is something we need to know, Kate. It's important."
"As soon as he figured out there was suppose to be a daddy in his life, I told him his father died in a plane crash. He never asks anymore, so you don't have to worry."
"Why didn't you just tell him the truth?"
"That his mother hopped into the sack with a man she'd just met and hasn't seen since that night? What point would that serve?" Kate felt her heart rate accelerate as she fought to keep her cool. "Okay, here's the deal. You want to know who this guy is? I'll tell you. His name is Mitchell McCray. He was a major in the air force when I met him, stationed at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. I have no idea where he is now, but worst-case scenario, you could contact the base and find out. Just promise me you'll never, ever hand my son over to a man you don't even know."