September 6, 2007
"I'm really kind of nervous today," Tara told her new doctor's nurse as the spiky-haired blonde prepared to take her blood pressure. "Because of my coma and rehab, I haven't been to a personal physician in years, only specialists and physical therapists. I figured I'd better get back on track with pap smears and all. Here I am, thirty years old, and I feel like a teenager facing her first time againfor a cervical exam, I mean."
The nurse, whose name tag said only Pamela, nodded and smiled. She was young but seemed kind and efficient. "I've got to tell you," Pamela said as she inflated the blood-pressure band around Tara's arm, "I've never known anyone in a coma that longa whole year?"
"Eleven months, and then a lot of physical therapy to get my body working again, especially my left leg. I went from a walker to a cane. I'm finally back to normal, though I guess I'll never be the same person again."
"I read that article in the paper about you, and about your friend being lost. I'm really sorry."
Tara blinked back tears and said, "Thanks."
She lay back on the examining table while Pamela prepared to draw blood. B.C.Before Comashe used to hate needles and shots, but they were familiar ground now, as were doctors, medicines, pain. But all that was nothing next to the agony of these last long months since she'd been out of the coma. She could recall no events from the day Clay had struck her with the butt of the gun with which he'd shot Alex, but other people had pieced everything together for her. Alex was dead, and Clay Whetstone was serving a life sentence for murdering his ex-wife, though his lawyers had claimed it was in self-defense. Seven-year-old Claire was in effect an orphan, but Tara had moved in with her at Alex's family's home when the girl's maternal grandmother had died. So much loss and grief
At least Claire's needs and love had kept Tara sane while she mourned not only Alex's death, but the death of her own marriage. No wonder this stranger and others pitied her. It was public knowledge that during her long coma, her husband had divorced her and left the area to start a new Lohan Investments office in the Seattle area. She had not seen or talked to him since. Tara had tried to tell herself it was all for the best. She'd been crazy to marry Laird, however wealthy, handsome and charismatic he wasPrince Charming in the well-toned flesh. Laird Lohan had, as the old saying went, swept her off her feet.
Why had he wanted her, when he could have had
almost anyone? Since he hadn't stuck with her when times got tough, she had only one answer: he'd been hooked by her looks, lust at first sight for her red-gold hair, green eyes in a heart-shaped face, and her slender, graceful frame. Probably he'd been initially drawn to her independent nature, too, though. Until that fateful day she'd gone after Alex, she'd taken few risks.
At first, she had thought Laird was a gift from heaven. His apparent adoration had gone straight to her heart. He'd declared that she was his ideal woman, but he'd obviously only meant superficially. Some men joked about being a legs man or a breast man; Laird had been a face man. "Just wait until you see what our kids look like!" he'd boasted to his parents and his brother.
"We got your medical records from Dr. DeMar." Pamela interrupted Tara's agonizing. She pressed a cotton ball to the puncture on Tara's inner arm where she'd drawn the blood into a plastic vial. Tara was surprised that part was all over.
"Yes, Dr. Jennifer DeMar, my old doctor. I mean, my former doctorshe's not much older than I am. She got her chance to be part of a bigger clinic near L.A. None of her patients were happy to have to switch doctors, though I'm sure Dr. Holbrook is good and your office is not far from where I live."
"He's very good. He's not even taking new patients, but he wanted toto help you. Bet your Dr. DeMar misses our lifestyle hereclean air, the mountains," Pamela rushed on. "Ick, L.A., with all those cars and smog. Now, if you'll remove your clothes and put this lovely little gown on, tied in the front." She forced a laugh. "I know everyone hates these things. I'll be right back, and Dr. Holbrook will be right in."
With a sigh, Tara followed orders and lay back on the examining table, staring up at the white ceiling with its recessed lights. That was what she remembered seeing first when she came out of her coma: instead of darkness, she saw blankness, then cautious, curious faces staring down at her as they performed their cognitive and physical tests on her. But no Laird, no Dr. Jen, who had been a friend as well as her physician. Yet Alex's mother, Linda MacMahon, had been there for her, visiting almost daily, even bringing Claire now and then. Laird's mother, Veronica, had come to see her, too, holding her hand, filling her room with bright sunflowers and saying, "So, so sorry about how things have worked out between you and Laird. Maybe it's for the best he's moved away
Tara sensed her former mother-in-law's visits were secret, not at the behest of the rest of the Lohans, who never showed up or even called. Still, it was through the beneficence of their family clinic that she'd been so well taken care of all those blank months.
Tara sniffed and tried to stop her tears, but they ran down her cheeks into her ears. She swiped the tracks of water away. Her new doctor didn't need to see her crying. She'd been doing so well lately, working hard to resurrect Finders Keepers and growing closer to Claire. Tara was pretty much back on her feet when Alex's widowed mother had suddenly died of a stroke.
Tara was certain it was partly from grief over her only daughter's death. She'd been given temporary custody of Claire by Claire's new legal guardian, Nick Mac-Mahon. Claire's uncle Nick was working in the Middle East helping the troops train tracker dogs. Tara and Claire's makeshift family included his pet dog, Beamer, a beautiful, smart golden Lab.
The good news and the bad news was that Nick was coming home soon. Claire was so excited, but she didn't fully realize he would probably take her and Beamer away. And then Tara would be alone again, with only her job helping strangers find their children to focus on.
Nick MacMahon, still in fatigues and field boots, dropped his heavy rucksack in the front yard of his boyhood home on Shadow Mountain Road. He inhaled deeply, grateful not to breathe in hot desert dust. The air, crisp and clean, bit down into his lungs. Thank God, he was home where he didn't have to watch his back, where the sun felt warm instead of scorching. Nothing like being nine thousand feet up in the fresh air of the Colorado sky, above the little valley town of Conifer.
His family home, surrounded by rocky outcrops with thick pine and aspen forests, stood where Shadow Mountain and Black Mountain hunched shoulder to shoulder in the foothills of the Rockies. His family had always described their location as about twenty miles and forty minutes southwest of Denver on the edge of the Arapahoe National Forest.
He lifted a hand in farewell to his buddy. With a honk! honk! their rented truck roared away; Jim was eager to get back to his fiancée near Vail by dark.
Nick heard Beamer start barking, either at the sound of a stranger's vehicle or because he just plain scented his best friend and partner. Nick couldn't tell if the dog was in the house or around in back. Leaving his gear where it was, he jogged up the gravel driveway. Though he was in good physical shape, he felt the altitude and slowed to a walk. He'd have to get used to "high living" again, as his dad had jokingly called it.
Nick's carpenter father, who had died eight years ago, had designed and built the cedar house and its elevated wraparound railed deck with his own hands almost twenty years ago. Yeah, his dad had known how to build a house, and a strong family, too. Nick could remember helping him clear the lot of heavy stones. The place had large panoramic windows and side wings, which made it seem poised for flight. The interior boasted two-toned hickory flooring, well-insulated paneled walls and custom-made cabinetry.
Three bedrooms and two baths were upstairs; the middle floor had a kitchen and a two-story great room. Downstairs, the large garage was one way, and down a few more stairs was a huge area which had once been his dad's carpentry workshop. Now it was a rec room that could double as a guest suite. He and Alexis had been their only children, but the senior MacMahons had planned space for lots of grandchildren visiting. At least to their only one, Claire, it was home for now. Nick figured he'd never sell it. Maybe he'd lease it to Tara Kinsale, if he decided to take the job in the East.
"Beamer! Beamer boy, your partner's home!" he shouted, but the dog was not in the fenced-in run out back. The run was required by law, whether to keep the dogs safe from marauding bears or smaller wildlife safe from dogs, Nick wasn't sure. Beamer was not a hunter; he retrieved escaped or lost people. He was one of the best dogs Nick had ever trained. Put a working collar on him, give him someone's scent and he was off to the races. What a team they'd been. At eight years, Beamer was getting pretty old to work long days now, but he'd always have a home as Nick's pet.
No other sounds came from the house but frenzied barking. Nick was glad to be here before Claire got off her school bus from West Jefferson Elementary. They'd passed the school below and he'd been tempted to have Jim let him out there, to find Claire's classroom and hug her and tell her everything would be all right now that he was home.
The kid had been fighting battles of her own. She'd lost her motherthanks to her bastard fatherand her grandmother. He wanted to assure her that she would not lose her uncle Nick. It was his duty to take care of Claire. He had a great job offer to train more dogs at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, though his dream had always been to start a school near Denver for tracker dogs and their human partners. Wherever they ended up, Claire would have to learn to love it. Though he'd never been married or had a child of his own, he had no doubt he could somehow learn to be both parents to her.
"Beamer!" he shouted again as he walked back around to the front of the house. Puffing from the altitude, he went up on the elevated deck. The Lab jumped on his hind legs, trying to paw his way through the picture window. Considering this manic display, he was sure no one but Beamer was home. Nick's reluctance to leave his beloved pet was one reason he almost turned down the military consulting job with Delta Force in the desolate, dangerous province of Nuristan, Afghanistan, but duty called.
Nick cursed the fact he didn't have a house key. Maybe there was one still hidden where his mother had always left it. It was so bittersweet to come home but not find her here for the first time in his life.
He strode behind the house and heard Beamer follow him to the back door. He had hoped Tara, his sister's best friend and Claire's temporary guardian, would be home. He should have called her from the Denver airport, but at the last minute he and Jim had flown standby from Dulles in D.C., and then he thought it would be fun to surprise them.
Nick had met the beautiful, redheaded Tara here at the house a couple of years ago. He couldn't quite recall when, but he could recall her. It was before he'd signed the contract with the army to train dogs to sniff out the cave-clinging Taliban, including Bin Laden, who had a reward of a cool fifty million dollars on his head. They'd located a lot of the enemy but not the man himself, a small regret compared to his tragic failure while he was there.
Trying to deep-six that memory, Nick glimpsed a photo of Tara and Claire together, all dressed up for some event. The picture was on the coffee table, in great danger of being swept off by Beamer's tail. The photo reminded him of Tara's lavish wedding to big money. She still looked like how he'd picture an old-fashioned Irish lass though, not someone on the society pages of the paper. She was a natural, windblown-looking beauty with red hair to her shoulders. He only really knew her through a couple of phone calls and their sporadic e-mails, all dealing with Claire. He'd been stationed so far out in the boonies with the Delta boys that he hadn't even known Clay had murdered Alexis until she'd been buried for over a week. Anyway, if he'd been here, he probably would have tracked Clay down and then strangled his former brother-in-law with his bare hands.
This homecoming was also tough because Nick had been incommunicado with a Delta chalk squad when the stroke killed his mother. Tara and some distant relatives had taken care of the arrangements, as well as of little Claire. He owed Tara Kinsale big-time.
He checked for the house key under the flower crock where his parents had always kept it. Negative. With walls still between them, he and Beamer raced for the front of the house again. He'd just bivouac on the front deck, waiting for Claire and Tara to show. But if he didn't calm Beamer down, the high-ceilinged great room was going to look like a bomb blew up in it. He shuddered at that imagethat memory.
"Good dog," he shouted through the window. Time to see if Beamer still knew who the senior partner was, the alpha pack dog, after their time apart. If Beamer obeyed him, he'd take that as a sign that Claire would happily do whatever he decided was best. After all, how hard could it be to take care of a young girl when he'd trained dogs and given orders to the Delta boys, no less.
"Sit," Nick commanded solemnly. "Beamer, sit. Beamer, quiet."
Tears blurred Nick's vision of the big, wide-eyed, panting dog as he immediately sat silent with his tail thumping the floor like a pendulum.