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"It's time, Gabe."
Gabriel Taggert looked at his father-in-law and wanted to punch him out. Which was odd, because he admired, respected, and yes, loved the man. And he would never do it, since at his own six-foot-one he towered over the slighter man.
"He's right, dear," Gwen Waldron said quietly, agreeing with her husband. She usually did. Not that she wasn't more than capable of standing up for herself if she truly disagreed; it was just that the forty-years'-married couple rarely differed in opinion.
"Just like that?"
Gabe's voice came out low and harsh, which startled him. Shouldn't he be over it by now? They allmeaning every well-intentioned person who knew what had happenedtold him it was a process that was individual, that everyone had to do it at their own pace and in their own way. But despite the platitude, he was fairly certain most of them would expect his world to have gone on by now.
"Do you think we like this any more than you do?"
For the first time the undertone of emotion broke through in Earl Waldron's voice. Somehow that made the tightness in Gabe's gut ease a little.
"But it's been eight years." Gwen put her hand on his arm then, a touch he treasured because of who she was and hated because of who she wasn't. "You know she'd have been in touch, no matter what happened, if she could."
He supposed the worst part of what he was feeling was the knowledge, somewhere buried deep, that they were right. He fought to keep it buried, but with both of them digging at it now, he wasn't sure he could. The simple fact was, his wife was gone, vanished so completely that not having found a body didn't make it any less likely she was dead.
"We're not asking for a decision here and now. Just promise you'll consider it," Earl said. "Really consider it, son. We need to move on. And so do you."
"All right." He owed them that much, and he couldn't help it if the words came out a little sharp.
He stood there on the deck of the hundred-and-forty-nine foot boat that was his world these days and watched them walk down the gangplank. They'd been a huge part of his life for so longaccepting him as the son they'd never had and still treating him that way, even though the link between them was gone that he couldn't imagine going on without them.
But then, he'd gone on with an even bigger piece missing. Not well, or with any particular grace, but he had gone on.
"Everything all right?"
The soft inquiry came from behind him, and Gabe turned to look at his friend and boss, Joshua Redstone, who was also the designer and builder of this dream ship. Gabe had been in the depths of the darkest hole when Josh had offered him the job of heading up his boat-building enterprise. And when the desk-oriented job had begun to pall a couple of years ago, Josh had seemed to sense it. He'd given Gabe the chance to be at sea again, with the captaincy of this lovely vessel, the latest and biggest to bear the Redstone name.
It was to be, Josh had told him, the literal flagship of Redstone, not to be sold as others had been, but to be kept for the use of the Redstone family. From division managers to file clerks, anybody who worked for Redstone, Incorporated and had the need would have access to the boat.
And Gabe had been among the first to learn exactly what Josh meant; the first weeklong cruise he'd captained had been for the concierge of one of the Redstone Resorts, whose husband had died in a traffic accident. She was but one of thousands of employees, and at a relatively low level on the Redstone chain, but Josh, as he always did, had heard about the death and had offered the boat to the entire family.
He snapped out of the memory as Josh gently prodded. "I I'm not sure."
"Were they your in-laws?" Josh's drawl was barely discernable, telling Gabe how carefully he was picking his words. "Hope's parents?"
"Tough," Josh said.
Gabe turned to look at his boss then. "Yes," he agreed.
"They made a special trip out here to see you?"
Gabe nodded. And then, because no one knew better exactly how he felt, he let it out.
"They want my wife declared dead."
Josh was silent for a long moment. If it had been anyone else, Gabe might have assumed he had nothing to say, but the head of Redstone, Inc., was never one to speak lightly or without thought. That characteristic delayand the drawlgave some, to their detriment, the idea he was slow or lazy. They inevitably spent time afterward musing on the cost of their assumptions.
"They want their daughter declared dead?" Josh finally said, quietly.
And there, with the insight typical of him, Josh reminded him gently that their loss was as great as his. Greater, perhaps; they'd had Hope Waldron for twenty-nine years, he for only six of those.
"I know, I know." Gabe shoved a hand through his dark hair, realizing only after he'd done it that he'd still, after all this time, raised both hands as if he were wearing his officer's combination cap, to be removed before the gesture and resettled after precisely an inch and a half above his eyebrows, according to navy regs.
"Old habits die hard," Josh observed mildly, and Gabe knew he'd caught the lapse. "Old thoughts sometimes die harder."
"How long did it take you?"
The question escaped him before he could block it. Not for anything, even to ease his own pain, would he intentionally call up bad memories for this man he admired, respected, even loved, as did most who worked for him. Josh Redstone had built an empire that spanned the globe, employed thousands, and Gabe would be willing to bet there wasn't one of them who wouldn't walk into hell for the man. In part because they knew he'd do it for themand had.
"I'm sorry," Gabe began, but Josh waved him to silence.
"How long did it take me to accept that she was gone?" Josh asked. "In my head, I knew it right away. But then, she died in my arms. I felt her go."
Gabe's breath caught. He hadn't known that. He'd known Elizabeth Redstone had died of cancer several years ago, known that Josh had been alone ever since, knew the common wisdom at Redstone was that she'd been his soul mate and he would never even try to replace her. But Gabe had never really thought about the details of it. Hope, he thought, would likely have had the whole story within minutes of meeting the man; she had always been good at getting people to open up.
An odd smile curved Josh's mouth, lifting it at one corner in an expression of ironic sadness. "I never thought of that as a particular advantage before, other than being with her until the end. But from your view, it is, isn't it? At least I knew, without doubt."
Gabe couldn't deny that, and instead fastened on Josh's answer to his question. He repeated his boss's words back. "You said you knew it in your head."
Josh's mouth quirked, and the steady gray eyes closed for a moment. Then he opened them and looked at Gabe. "You always were detail oriented."
"Comes from years of dealing with politically oriented navy brass," Gabe answered. "Most of the time what they didn't say was more important than what they did."
"I'm sure," Josh agreed. And then, after a moment, answered what Gabe hadn't really asked. "I'm not sure my heart, my gut, have accepted it yet. I know, logically, that it's crazy after all these years, but I still catch myself expecting to hear her voice, or thinking that she's just in the next room ."
Gabe smothered a sigh. That was not what he'd wanted to hear. He'd wanted to hear that it was over, sealed away in some silent, impenetrable place in Josh's mind, never bothering him, never surfacing unless he wanted it to. If Joshua Redstone, one of the strongestand strongest-mindedmen he'd ever met, couldn't get past this, what hope did he have?
"What brought this on now, after all this time?" Josh asked.
"The U.S. Postal Service," Gabe said wryly.
Josh blinked. "The Postal Service?"
"They just delivered a postcard to Hope's best friend. From Hope, mailed right before she disappeared. It really upset them."
Josh let out a low whistle. "Ouch. Eight years?"
To his own surprise, Gabe had to stifle a chuckle. Josh, he knew, would never tolerate that kind of thing. Redstone wasn't consistently in the top five highest-rated places to work because it was easy. It was Josh himself, and his reputation, that made a Redstone job among the most coveted. He hired the best, let them do what they did best, paid them well, treated them all with fairness, and mostly stayed out of their way. But above all he let them know that if they needed it, the full power of the Redstone empire was behind them.
"Why don't you head for open water?" Josh said.
Gabe drew back slightly. "What?"
Josh shrugged. "Take her out. Clear your head."
Only Josh Redstone would make an offer like that, to take a hundred-and-forty-nine-foot luxury yacht, complete with a media room and helipad, out for a spin as if it were a new car rather than the latest, and as yet unnamed, design from his fertile and incredible mind.
"Thank you," Gabe said automatically, "but"
"You saying you don't do your best thinking at sea?"
Gabe's mouth quirked. "You can take the boy out of the navy, but you can't take the navy out of the boy?"
Josh grinned. "Something like that."
Neither of them mentioned that in Gabe's case, he hadn't been taken out of the navy, he'd quit. Gabe knew he'd had no choice, and Josh, when he'd learned the full story of what had driven a man who'd once chosen the navy as his career to leave, had answered in the best possible way: he'd offered Gabe a way out that didn't require him to leave his love of ships and the water behind.
"I've got to head back to my office," Josh said, and Gabe knew the reluctance he heard in his boss's voice was real. Josh was not an office-bound executive, even at Redstone Headquarters, which was as much a paragon of comfort and thoughtful design as this boat was.
"Take her out," he said again. "Put all this on the back burner, focus on something else for a while. It'll help you work through it, where chewing on it up front won't."
Gabe smiled at the rustic simile, thinking again of those who made the mistake of assuming the drawl and the down-home manner were all there was to Josh. It amazed him how anyone could look at the size and scope of Redstone and think that anyone less than a genius could have built it, but people were often ruled by their own filters and perceptions, a fact Josh frequently used to his advantage. And since his naval career had come to a crashing end because of such people, Gabe couldn't help but appreciate Josh's talent in that area.
"And," Josh added as he went down the gangway steps, "if you need anything, if Redstone can help, call."
Gabe nodded, knowing that what would have been a casual offer, never really intended for acceptance from most people, was something quite different coming from Josh Redstone. When he offered help to one of his huge familywhich meant anyone who worked for and with himhe meant it.
In the seven years he'd worked for Josh, overseeing the smallest but one of the most lovedby Josh, anywaydivi-sions of the empire, so small it didn't even have its own name but rather existed as a sideline of the aviation division, he'd both seen and heard of the kinds of things Redstone had done for its people. The cruise he'd captained for the bereaved family had only been the latest in a very long string of things done that Josh took for granted; if you were Redstone, Redstone helped when you needed it.
Later that morning, when Gabe stood out on deck, having let the eager young first mate take the wheel for a whilealthough the boat had the newer, joystick type of controls, Josh was enough of a traditionalist to have also included the wheelhe had to admit his boss was right. Being out here, on blue water with the smell of the salt air and the sounds of the sleek red-and-gray vessel cutting powerfully through the water, soothed his mind and soul in a way nothing else could.
By the time they were back at the dock and he was overseeing the cleanup and making his log entry, he was resigned. He would do as the Waldrons had asked; he wouldn't fight them. Gwen's pain had been too real, too palpable, and he couldn't stand in the way of anything that might ease it, no matter how ambivalent he might be about it.
Besides, he thought, it might be a relief to him as well, when people asked, to be able to say with some truth that she was dead. It was so much more finite than "She vanished," less painful than "She walked out on me without a word," and certainly less uncomfortable than "I have no idea where my wife is."
Of course, even if Hope were declared legally dead, it wouldn't resolve anything for him. He knew too well that it would always be there, hovering, that her "death" would be of legal status only, that he would be forever no closer to knowing what had really happened. No closer to knowing if she'd had an accident, or if the worse-case scenario that haunted him was true, that she'd been murdered and dumped somewhere.
But after eight years, he'd gotten better at living with that. He'd learned
He looked up from the ship's log entry at Mark Spencer, the young first mate he'd given the wheel to earlier.
"I thought you'd gone for lunch."
"I was, but there's someone here to see you, sir," Mark said, seeming oddly nervous.
"The Waldrons?" he asked, hoping they would understand why he'd disappeared out to sea after they'd left.
"No. A woman."
The way he said it, as if he'd had to choose among many descriptions, alerted Gabe. Whoever it was, she'd made an impression. Hiding the first real smile he'd felt coming on since his in-laws had arrived this morning, he stood up.
"She asked for you personally, by name," Mark added, unable to mask the curiosity in his eyes. Gabe read the speculation there, knew what the younger man was wondering; had their reclusive, loner captain been holding out on them?
Not likely, he muttered inwardly, and the smile that threatened this time was wryly self-knowing.
"She give you a name, Mark?"
"Cara. She said you'd know."
Any urge at all to smile vanished. It seemed his painful day wasn't over yet.
"Where did you put her?"