Lianne O'Mallory sat bundled up in an old quilt. The wind blew from the sea, the tang of salt filling the air. It was too cold to be outside, but she snuggled in the warmth of the quilt and stared out at the gray sea. It had been raining until a half hour ago. The gray skies looked as if they melded into the water at the horizon. It was a dreary day. One that suited her mood to perfection. Tears welled again. Sniffing, she refused to cry.
Staring over the deserted beach from the family cottage, she tried to make her mind go blank—but the doctor's words echoed over and over. Her recommendation—a hysterectomy. Lianne blinked back the tears. She was only twenty-eight, far too young to face this. Never married, she still held the hope she'd find the man of her dreams one day and get married and start a family. That wouldn't happen if she had the operation. She'd thought she had all the time in the world. Instead she was limited to months.
The painful menstrual cramps and heavy bleeding contributed to her being almost incapacitated several days each month. If she wanted relief from the pain, this was the option her physician recommended. She snuggled against the hot water bottle pressed to her abdomen. Pills and heat helped, but nothing fully relieved the pain.
Not that she'd get an operation based on one doctor's opinion. Lianne believed Dr. Wright, however, and expected a second and even third doctor to support her prognosis. But not yet. She couldn't bear to end all hope of having a family one day. She had already made an appointment with another ObGyn. But she knew it was only a matter time. Her doctor would not have recommended the procedure if she hadn't beencertain it was the only option left.
The pronouncement had been unexpected. Visiting the doctor yesterday afternoon, she'd been hoping for a new treatment, something that would work after five years of trying different medication. But the miracle she hoped for hadn't appeared. Each month the pain grew worse. This month she'd been driven to the doctor's again. Too distraught to even think after the doctor's recommendation, she'd hopped in her car and driven to the beach; to the cottage that had been in her family since her grandfather had been a little boy. It was a refuge, a haven. She sorely needed some time to come to terms with the change in her life.
Cottage was a bit of a misnomer—the house had five bedrooms and a kitchen large enough to feed a family of twenty. And there were usually that many in and out all summer long.
October it was deserted. The perfect place to hide away and come to terms with the realities of her life.
Lianne hadn't even told her twin yet. Annalise would drive out to join her as soon as she heard and at this moment, Lianne didn't want anyone around—not even the closest person to her in the world.
Her cell rang. It had rung a dozen times already today. Each time the chirpy ring startled her, bringing her out of her reverie for a few seconds. It lay on the counter in the kitchen. She could hear it but not bring herself to leave her warm cocoon to walk inside to answer.
The relentless wave action of the sea mesmerized. The cool breeze chilled her cheeks. Tucked inside the warm quilt, getting up would mean being enveloped in the cold until she went inside. Maybe she'd just stay huddled in the quilt forever.
The phone went quiet. No one knew where she was. She'd phoned in to the office after she'd left the doctor's office and just told her assistant she'd be out for a couple of days. Not stopping to check in with any of her family or friends, she'd driven straight to the beach. Sooner or later she'd have to call someone or they'd all worry. But not yet.
The phone rang again. For a moment Lianne thought it sounded angry. She smiled for the first time since seeing the doctor yesterday. Phone ring tones didn't sound angry. They just played whatever ring tone was set. Sighing, she rose and went inside. Her cramps were manageable, but she hunched over slightly. It would be Traynor Elliott—she could tell by the intense vibes winging their way over the airways. Her boss didn't do things by half measures. If he decided he needed to speak to her, she'd better answer or who knew what he'd do next.
She grabbed the phone and flipped it open. "Yes?" The door hadn't latched behind her and the wind whipped it wideopen, slamming it against the wall. Lianne winced as the cold air whirled around the kitchen.
"Where the hell are you and why isn't the Schribner folder where I think it ought to be?" Tray growled.
"I'm taking a couple of days off and the folder is with Jenny, ask her," she replied almost in the same snarl as she slammed the door shut. She was not in the mood to placate her boss. She had her own problem at the moment. "And when I take time off fromwork, I'm not supposed to beworking.You have a building full of employees, get one of them to find your blasted folder."
The silence on the other end lasted only a second. Then the silky tones of one trying to sooth a fractious child came over the line. "Are you sick? It's not like you to miss work at all, much less without any warning."
She took a deep breath. Her private life was just that. She wasn't best friends with her boss though they had worked together for years. The longer she worked there, the more she and Tray meshed. He'd bounce ideas off her. She'd bring up situations that were beyond her for his input. For a moment she wished she could confide in him. He was good at problem solving. But close as they were at work, they'd kept their personal lives private.
"I'll be back in a couple of days. You can manage until then." Lianne disconnected and then turned off the phone. She'd have to call her sister soon. Once she came to terms with things, she'd want Annalise's wise counsel. But in the meantime, she wanted to hole up and not talk to anyone—especially her sister. Not that she was envious of her twin precisely. Okay, maybe she was just a little.
Annalise and Dominic had married five years ago. They lived in a lovely apartment near Dupont Circle in the District. Both successful in their respective professions, they traveled often, frequently to exotic locations. Sometimes trips were connected with Dominic's work as a troubleshooter for a computer company. Other times just for fun.
The only person Annalise loved more than her twin was her husband. And once in a while Lianne almost wished he'd not come along. Almost, but not really. Her sister was blissfully happy in her marriage and that was what Lianne envied.
If Lianne had married five years ago, she'd have had children by now. Sometimes she wondered why Annalise didn't. The answer to the question—they weren't ready— seemed vague. But she'd never pushed for more. Everyone had their own timing. The next oldest in a large family, Lianne had always planned on having a large family of her own. She loved holidays and birthdays with her family. The closeness, the love, the feeling there was always someone there for her. She had deliberately sought to build a successful career before settling down to marriage and a family. Now it looked as if time had run out.
She dropped the quilt across one of the wooden chairs that surrounded the large plank kitchen table. Time to fix something to eat. If she had more energy, she'd go out to one of the local restaurants where the crab cakes were melt-in-your-mouth good. Or try one of the fish grills that dotted the town of Baden Harbor. But not tonight. She'd just heat up some soup and make toast. She wasn't hungry, but practical enough to know she needed to eat.
Things would look better in the morning, as her grandmother always said.
Lianne didn't know how, but she hoped so.
Traynor Elliott carefully replaced the phone, stunned at the reaction of his normally cool-headed senior analyst. Lianne had worked for him for the last five years. He'd only seen her angry enough to yell twice. What set this episode off? He thought back over the last couple of days. He had not been more difficult to work with than normal. So that wasn't it.
In fact, if asked, he'd have said they had a great relationship. She stood up to him when she thought he was wrong. Something other employees could learn. She voiced her feelings about projects, sometimes pinpointing exactly what was missing. And he relied on her more than any of the other analysts to give him sound advice.
He rose and went down the hall and peered into her office. Tidy as always. She was neat beyond normal, he often thought; while his own desk was piled high with folders and printouts and reports. Lianne loved order, spreadsheets and tons of data to analyze. He counted on her to have the information he wanted when he wanted it. He was used to Lianne being there whenever he needed her. This wasn't like her at all. Now he'd have to find Jenny and see if she could locate the file. And maybe give him some information on what was up with Lianne.
The younger woman was diligently typing a report from one of the field agents. She looked up when Tray stopped at her desk and almost grimaced before giving him an artificial smile.
"What can I do for you?" she asked.
"I'm looking for the Schribner folder," he said.
"Oh, dear. I remember seeing that. Just hold on a sec and let me remember where." Jenny jumped up and began to rummage through the stacks of folders on her desk. It resembled his, but there the similarity ended. Traynor knew exactly where every piece of paper was on his. Jenny was still rummaging through piles.
"Lianne was working on it, making sure everything was up today because you're meeting with them soon and she wanted you to have every iota of intel at your fingertips," Jenny mumbled as she rifled through yet another stack of folders. "She called in yesterday and had me get it from her office. It's here. Wait a sec."
Tray took a breath, trying not to let his frustration spill over. His first tendency was to snap and then make amends, but he wouldn't do that today. He had more control over his behavior. But he didn't have much patience in the best of times and this was not the best of times. Dammit, why had Lianne taken off at this juncture? He needed her.
"Here it is!" Jenny beamed with success and handed him the thick folder.
He took it and walked away. At least one thing had gone right today. Where the hell was Lianne? She had not previously requested vacation time. She wasn't claiming sick leave. Was something wrong with someone in her family? He didn't know much about her personal life, just that her family came from Maryland and she had more brothers and sisters than anyone else he knew. Most of whom also worked in the District of Columbia.
He returned to his desk and opened the folder. His curiosity over Lianne and her odd behavior wouldn't let him focus on the material therein. If she were sick, wouldn't she have said something? Normally he knew her schedule as well as he knew his own—and vice versa.
Tray tried her phone again. The not-in-service message came on. He uttered a brief expletive and hung up.
Ten minutes later Tray closed the Schribner folder and rose. His security firm specialized in keeping people safe, especially when traveling to dangerous locales. The agents assigned the Schribner account could handle things. Tray'd check on Lianne one more time and then call it a day. Maybe put in some time at the gym. The exercise tired him out enough to sleep at night. Though the nightmares still struck without warning.
He'd given Lianne a ride home a few times over the years. Her apartment building was out near Key Bridge. He'd never been inside. Entering the building a short time later Tray noticed it was as nondescript as most modern buildings. The elevator was quiet and quickly rose to her floor. Ringing the doorbell brought no response. He leaned against the door to listen. He could hear nothing. He tried her phone again. No service. Where was she?
After eating her soup, Lianne perused the books in the shelves. She'd read all of them, a couple more than once. Light summertime reading, none would hold her attention today. She considered going to bed, but it was too early—though darkness had fallen. Sighing softly, she went to the cottage phone and called her sister. Time to tell Annalise what was going on.
Lianne felt marginally better after their conversation. Her twin had been as shocked with the news as Lianne had and wanted to jump right in the car and drive over, but Lianne had convinced her talking on the phone was good enough. So then her sister had come up with a dozen of different scenarios all in which Lianne was miraculously cured.
When they'd exhausted those options, they settled into a heart-to-heart.
"Mostly I wanted a family one day, like ours," Lianne told her. "Can you imagine life without all the kids running around and grandparents and aunts and uncles?"
"Actually, I can. That's what Dominic and I have."
"But if you did want children, at least you're married. I'm not even seeing anyone," Lianne said.
"That's because you're too involved with Tray."
"I'm not involved with my boss," she denied quickly. Immediately his image came to mind—tall with dark brown hair and a body to die for. He turned the heads of lots of women, but never settled on one. She could picture his concentration at work. The serious focus of his eyes on the reports. Running his hands through his hair when frustrated. His laughter if they took a break and ordered pizza while staying late because of some crisis.
"Not that way, silly. I mean too caught up in work. You're more of a workaholic than Dominic is. If Tray says he needs you, there you are. I'm surprised you're not at work right now."
"Now you're being silly. I'm not there all the time." Though she did work more closely with Tray than any other analyst. But that was because he needed her. "I enjoy what I do. I thought I could have my career for a little longer and then think about getting married and starting a family," Lianne said pensively.
"Well, you'd enjoy finding someone with lots in common and falling in love. Set some boundaries—let Tray know you can only work for eight hours a day, not twenty-four. You have time. Just not as much as you always thought. The doctor didn't say get into hospital next week."
"She did say soon. There's always so much to do at the office. The business keeps expanding as Tray's reputation grows. He's really providing a terrific service with fabulous results."
"Great, he can hire some more help if business is booming. Let him deal with that. Your next assignment is to find a husband, get married and start that family," Annalise said.
Lianne sighed. "That sounds so calculating. These days a woman doesn't really have to be married to have a baby." She always thought she'd fall in love like her twin, with a man who was perfect for her. One who also wanted a large family. Was that a pipe dream?
"You're not thinking of a sperm bank?" Annalise asked, the incredulity coming clearly across the phone line.
"No. I can't imagine raising a child alone. Wait, before you say a word, I know you'll be there for me as will the rest of the family. But I want my baby to have a father. Can you imagine our lives without Dad? That wouldn't be fair to a child, to deliberately bring him or her into the world with no father."
"You have five brothers, each would be a perfect father figure. Dominic would as well."
"It's not the same thing as having your very own. So even if I don't marry the father, I want a man who will be a part of the child's life forever."
"Women who fall in love and get married don't even get that guarantee," Annalise said.
"I want it anyway."