Read an Excerpt
"Mrs. Rafferty? After what you told me in your phone message last evening, if you were my daughter I'd advise you, unofficially, to pack a bag and get to a safe place fast. Don't tell anyone where you are. Trust no one. If you tell anyone your location, you're exposing them to danger, too."
"I understand. How long do I need to be away?"
"I'll know better when I've talked to your exhusband's attorney. After I find out what's going on, I'll call you back. But be prepared to be gone a week."
Gabi groaned. She would have to dip into her savings. And in three weeks she was due back at her elementary school in Rosemead, California, getting her classroom ready.
"Whatever you do, don't go home for any reason."
"I won't." Fear had caused Gabi's mouth to go dry, making it difficult to form the words.
"Good. We'll both keep in touch."
"Thank you for returning my call on a Saturday, Mr. Steel." Her voice shook.
"I know how anxious you are. Be careful."
"I will." She hung up and rushed around the little guest cottage on the strand in Oceanside, California, packing things in her suitcase as fast as she could. Too bad she couldn't stay here longer, but the place was booked up a year in advance and the vacation she'd been planning since last fall was over. New guests would be moving in by three in the afternoon.
After grabbing some clothes and shoes for Ashley, she rushed into the living room, where her sevenyearold was watching morning cartoons. They hadn't eaten breakfast yet. Her precious daughter was still in her jammies.
"Honey?" Gabi picked up the remote from the arm of the couch and turned off the TV.
"How come you did that?" Ashley looked up in surprise.
"Because I decided we'll take that other little trip I promised you before school starts. Hurry and get dressed."
"But I thought we didn't have to check out of here until lunch. I want to play on the beach with those kids next door."
"I know you do, but we're going someplace else really neat and I want us to get an early start. It's the weekend, and the freeways will be crowded."
"What's it called?" Ashley asked as she put on her denims and savethewhales pink top.
"Yosemite National Park." The answer had come to Gabi a split second after she'd hung up the phone. At least there she'd be well away from home while she got her head together and waited for Mr. Steel's next call. She would find the cheapest lodgings available to make their money stretch.
"Will it take a long time to get there?"
"Part of a day in the car, but you've got your portable DVD player and your favorite CDs. Don't forget Mr. Charles. I think he's behind the pillow on the bed." Ashley never went anywhere without her stuffed beagle. It was so old you couldn't tell the dog's breed anymore. "We'll stop for breakfast on the way. Okay?"
"Can I have sausage?"
"Yes." Anything to make Ashley happy on this stressful day.
After one more inspection to be certain she hadn't overlooked anything, Gabi dashed back to the bedroom to put on jeans and a Tshirt that matched Ashley's. They'd bought them at Sea World after seeing the show a few days earlier. Once she'd slipped on her sneakers, she packed all the toiletries in the bathroom, and they were ready.
The room had been paid for ahead of time. Gabi left the cottage key on the side table and they went out to her Honda Civic, parked in one of the tiny garages off the courtyard away from the beach. Ashley climbed in back with her things and fastened her seat belt. Gabi put their suitcases in the trunk and they headed to a nearby drivethrough for breakfast.
After they'd eaten, she stopped at an ATM a few blocks away, then gassed up at the Mini Mart around the corner from the Coast Highway. While she waited for the tank to fill, she reached in her purse for her hairbrush and tried to make herself a little more presentable. She and her daughter both had short, curly dark hair, which, when rumpled, looked adorable on Ashley, but messy on her.
Soon they were on their way. Fortunately, the heaviest traffic was going the other way, to the beach cities. Before long they were headed north toward Fresno via Bakersfield. As the car ate up the miles, Gabi hoped the painful thudding of her heart would subside. But the phone call from her former foster mother, Bev White, now a widow but still living in Alhambra, California, had thrown her into a state of panic.
Your exhusband is looking for you. He said he's back from his military service for good and wants to see his child. He left his phone number and address with me. When I reminded him he'd given up his parental rights, he told me his attorney would see about that.
Gabi was in shock. She was also outraged that he'd involved Bev. The woman who'd given Gabi foster care from the time she'd turned fourteen until she was eighteen still fostered other children. She shouldn't have to be involved in Gabi's problems at this stage in life. After Mr. Steel's warning, Gabi knew she couldn't tell Bev where she was going.
Gabi couldn't comprehend why Ryan suddenly wanted to see Ashley after all this time. He'd willingly given up all claim to their child, without even knowing the gender of the baby.
Gabi had met Ryan in Los Angeles at a wedding. She'd worked evenings for a catering service to help put herself through college. He was back from basic training in the Army, joining a unit that wouldn't be deployed to Japan for another year.
After she graduated from California State University, they got married and moved to San Marino, where he had an apartment. Their marriage, so promising in the beginning, had broken down fast when, ten months later, she told him she was pregnant. They'd used precautions, agreeing not to start a family for a couple years, but it had happened anyway.
Like turning on a dime, he'd suddenly presented a dark side she didn't understand.
We can fix that in a hurry. You're going to get an abortion. I don't want us going to Japan with a baby.
While Gabi stood there horrified, he'd said he'd changed his mind about ever wanting a family, that she was all he needed. Then he'd refused to talk about it.
He knew Gabi's feelings on the subject. Having been placed in five foster homes in her life, she would never end her pregnancy! What if her birth mother had made that decision? Gabi's mother had abandoned her at a train station when she was a newborn. Though she never knew her parents, they'd given her life!
But Gabi couldn't move Ryan. When she'd told him she wanted the baby more than anything in the world, he'd pushed her against the wall, bruising the back of her head.
I don't want this baby. Understand?
She'd thought he was going to do something worse. Like a bloodpressure band, his hands had tightened on her arms before he'd shoved her away.
Remember what I said. Let's get this pregnancy terminated.
Gabi had lived around other foster kids who'd come from homes filled with domestic violence. She'd learned early that if you didn't want to be violated, you didn't tolerate any abuse. When Ryan had hurt her and demanded she abort their baby, any love for him died on the spot, never to be resurrected.
Desperate for help, she'd left their apartment and driven to Bev's. The older woman told her to go straight to the YWCA and get into a shelter.
Gabi followed her advice. Once they took her in, the staff helped her find Mr. Steel, a divorce attorney in Los Angeles who was willing to work out the cost of his services in manageable payments. While Gabi stayed at the shelter, the attorney had her husband served with divorce papers, forcing him to find his own attorney.
In a surprise move, Ryan's attorney went for a plea bargain. Ryan would sign away his parental rights and agree to the divorce if Gabi refrained from pressing charges of abuse, so there'd be no chance of it showing up on his military record. He planned to make the Army his career.
That was fine with Gabi. She let him take more belongings from their apartment than was fair, so he'd have nothing to hold over her. In her naivete she'd assumed that with the divorce decree granted, she would never have to see him or deal with him again.
"Now you will feel no rain, for each of you will be shelter to the other. Now you will feel no cold, for each of you will be warmth to the other. Now you will feel no more loneliness, for each of you will be a constant companion to the other."
With those words, Chief Sam Dick, the old, venerable Paiute chief of Yosemite, dressed in ceremonial garb, brought the wedding ceremony to a close. He nodded to the married couple, who turned to each other, their faces glowing with ineffable joy before they embraced.
To Ranger Jeff Thompson, chief steward of resources for Yosemite National Park, the sight of his best friend claiming the woman he'd loved for so long brought a lump to his throat. And a stab of envy.
The wedding blessing summed up what marriage was truly meant to be. But for circumstances beyond his control, Jeff knew he and the girl who'd stolen his heart years ago would have had that kind of union.
Ninetynine percent of the time, he tried not to think about it. At this morning's ceremony, however, he'd been forced to relive his past, bringing back the ache that was never far from the surface. The only terror he'd ever known was at the possibility that he'd go to his grave never finding that kind of joy again.
After taking some pictures, he looked up at the giant sequoia trees forming the openair cathedral. Their tops grazed the brilliant blue sky where an August sun blazed. Shafts of light found their way to the forest floor, gilding the small crowd gathered, and setting the silverygold hair of the bride on fire.
Alex Harcourt, exquisite in a simple white wedding dress that fell to her knees, was now the wife of Ranger Calvin Hollis. He stood tall in his uniform. Besides family and colleagues, the guests included the Zuni teenagers from New Mexico she'd brought to the park as volunteers. The scene was surreal, enchanted.
While everyone congregated around the ecstatic couple, Jeff slipped away, having celebrated with them the night before. Right now he was on duty and had to drive back to headquarters in Yosemite Valley.
As he climbed into the cab of his governmentissue truck, Cal's blackandwhite Karelian bear dog barked a greeting. "Hey, Sergei." Jeff gave him a rub behind the ears. "It's official. You're a family of three now. But for the next ten days, you're stuck with me." He started the engine and they took off.
Cal and Alex were starting out their life together by taking the teenagers back to their homes in Albuquerque. After a few days on her parents' ranch, they were flying to the Caribbean to enjoy a honeymoon. On their way back to the park they'd be stopping in Cincinnati to visit Cal's family.
It was a lot to pack in, but Jeff had never seen his friend happier. After their troubled history, if two people ever deserved some time off together, they did.
A little while later Jeff attached Sergei's leash and they entered the rear door of headquarters. Jeff popped his head inside his secretary's office. "I'm back, Diane."
"Hey! How was the wedding?"
"Out of this world. I'll show you the pictures later. With Chief Sam Dick presiding over the ceremony against those ancient trees, and Alex looking like well, like only she canthere was a real spiritual feeling, you know? It gave me gooseflesh."
Again he found himself craving the same thing, but there was no chance of it happening to him again. One per customer in this life, if you were lucky.
"Now you've got the hairs standing on the back of my neck."
He smiled. His AfricanAmerican assistanta wife and motherwas one of the park's secret treasures.
Maintaining the human infrastructure that supported all the services provided within Yosemite Park was a Herculean task. Jeff couldn't do his job without her.
"Has Bryce arrived for the meeting yet?" Bryce Knolls was the chief construction engineer Jeff relied on to oversee big projects.
"He and the others you requested are in the conference room. At the moment they're enjoying doughnuts and coffee."
"You're a saint. I'll get my stuff together and join them." He walked into his office and reached for the files he'd been working on. Juggling the costs of maintenance to stay within the park's budget was a continual nightmare. When he'd been promoted from district ranger to chief steward of resources in May, it had come as a mixed blessing. More money, but more headaches.
"Come on, Sergei. I'm afraid you're in for a boring session, but I'll take you for a run this afternoon after my meeting."
The obedient dog trotted alongside him, alert. Last month Sergei had become famous nationwide for his help in cracking the worst bearmutilation case in the park's history. Since he and Cal, along with two of Alex's teens who'd helped in the criminals' arrests, had been on TV, many tourists passing through the entrances to the park wanted to see Sergei and take pictures of him. One of the rangers jokingly commented he was as popular as Yosemite Falls.