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Sebastian Hunter felt exhausted as he and the three hundred and twelve other passengers packed closely around him ended their eleven-and-a-half-hour international flight by finally getting off the plane at LAX.
Concerned ever since he'd gotten off the phone with his mother a scant two days ago, he'd been far too wired even to catnap on the flight, which had covered more than five thousand miles and had taken him from the heart of Tokyo to Los Angeles.
It didn't help matters any that there was a sixteen-hour time difference between the two cities, not to mention that he felt as if he'd been traveling backward. He'd left Tokyo early on Saturday morning only to arrive in Los Angeles late Friday night, which technically made it the night before.
And he wasn't done yet.
There was still customs to go through, despite the fact that he had brought nothing with him to declare. He'd packed hastily, informed his employer of the family emergency that necessitated his presence and arranged for a leave of absence. And now, perilously close to fraying his very last nervebecause airport security had the passengers as well as its staff on edgehe was forced to pretend he was cool, calm and collected. Otherwise, if he allowed any of the tension he was feeling to show, he might just find himself detained far longer than it would take to queue up for a random search. Tense passengers were regarded with suspicion.
He struggled to curb his impatience, although he was losing the battle.
C'mon, c'mon, how long are you going to spend going through her underwear? he wondered irritably as the customs agent rifled through a young woman's suitcase.
The process seemed to take forever. Where were Dorothy's ruby-red slippers when you needed them, Sebastian thought darkly.
The phrase echoed in his brain, startling him. God, he had to really be punchy if he was thinking about donning the fairy-tale footwear just to get him home.
His mind was goingand that was in part thanks to his lack of sleep.
But he wasn't in a hurry because of fatigue. He was in a hurry because, for the first time in his life, at the age of twenty-nine, he had become acutely aware of mortality.
Not his own. The thought of not being around someday didn't bother him in the slightest. What would be would be, as his mother always liked to say.
However, somewhere in the back of his mind, he'd grown comfortable with the concept of always having his mother around. His image of her had stabilized somewhere between what she'd looked like when he'd last seen her and a little older than an actress she had always admired, Barbara Stanwyck, playing the matriarch of a large family. To him his mother wasand always had beenproud, determined and incredibly capable.
He knew the image wasn't eternal and certainly not realistic, but he couldn't entertain the idea that his mother would someday decline and eventually cease to be. Nor did he want to.
He would have traded in his soul to be able to break into a run, make time stand still and miraculously appear at her side the moment he hung up the phone, ending the unexpected, unnerving call he'd received from her.
And now it seemed as if it had been forever before Sebastian was finally standing outside the terminal where he had deplaned, signaling to the closest taxi driver that he needed a ride to get to his final destination.
He hoped, because the hour was so late, that for once he would be spared having to deal with an infamous Los Angeles traffic jam. But it was also Friday night, which meant that everyone was out on the road.
Being as sprawled out as Los Angeles was, nothing was ever close by and thus necessitated obligatory travel from one point to the next, which in turn, like as not, resulted in gridlock.
"Business or pleasure?" the gypsy cabdriver asked him as they found themselves inching along the San Diego Freeway.
Preoccupied, trying not to worry about his mother, Sebastian barely heard the question. Looking up, his eyes met the driver's in the rearview mirror. "What?"
"Are you here on business or pleasure?" the man repeated, looking to kill some time by striking up a conversation.
How did you categorize flying halfway around the world to ascertain whether or not your only living relative, the mother you loved, would be around to welcome in another year? It still felt very surreal to him.
"Oh," the driver muttered in response, obviously taking the answer to mean that his passenger didn't want to be communicative.
Sebastian thought of saying something inane to show the driver that he wasn't trying to be rude, but decided if he did that, it might leave him open to an onslaught of conversation. He allowed the silence within the vehicle to continue by default.
Outside the gypsy cab, the typical sounds of engines, horns and vehicles whose drivers were impatient to reach their destinations echoed through the night air like a bad symphony.
Sebastian tried to relax.
Despite the fact that the house in Bedford where he had grown up was located only forty-five miles from the airport, it took him over two hours to reach it. But eventually, Sebastian could finally make out the silhouette of the familiar two-story building.
In his hurry to get out, Sebastian gave the driver a fistful of bills he'd pulled out of his wallet. The man's pleased grunt in response told him that he had probably well exceeded the amount due, even when taking a generous tip into account.
Pocketing the money, the cabdriver jumped out of the vehicle, quickly removed the carry-on luggage and set it on the sidewalk. In two seconds, he was back behind the wheel and driving swiftly away, as if he was afraid that his fare would suddenly change his mind and take back some of the cash.
Alone, Sebastian stood and looked at the dark house where he'd lived for all his formative years.
The relentless sense of urgency that had dogged his every move throughout the five and a half thousand miles slipped into the background, pushed there by a very real, gnawing fear that once he was in his mother's company, he would hear something he wasn't prepared to hear.
He knew he wasn't being realistic, but as long as the details were not out in the open, he could pretend that they didn't exist, or at the very least, that they were better than he'd been led to believe.
Sebastian frowned in the dark.
Since when had he become such a coward? he silently demanded. He'd always gone full-steam ahead, hiding from nothing, consequences be damned. His philosophy had always been that it was far better to know than not to know. That way, he felt that he was always prepared for anything.
Yes, but this is your mother, your home port. Your rock. The cornerstone of who and what you are.
He was, he realized, afraid of losing her. His mother had always been the one steadfast thing in his life. She was why he felt free to roam, to explore the depths and extent of the possibilities of his life. As long as she was there to anchor him, to return to, he felt free to fly as high as he wanted.
But if she wasn't there
Grow up, Hunter, Sebastian ordered himself.
He left it at that, not wanting to follow his thought to its logical conclusion. Instead, he made up his mind that if his mother needed him, he would be there for her, no matter what it took, just as she had always been there for him.
From the time that he was five years old, it had been just the two of them. It was time that he paid her back for that. For all the support, emotional and otherwise, that she had so willingly, so freely given him.
Exhaling a long breath, he braced himself. Sebastian slipped his hand into his right pocket, feeling around for a moment.
His fingers curled around a very familiar object.
His house key.
He always kept the key on his personfor luck more than anything else. But now he held it in his hand, intending to use it for its true purpose: to get him inside his house.
For a moment, he considered doing just that. Unlocking the door, walking in and surprising his mother. But given the fact that she had suffered a recent, mild God, he hoped it was truly just thatstroke, surprising her like that might bring on a heart attackor worse. Most likely not, but he was not about to take a chance on even a remote possibility of that happening.
So he took out his cell phone and pressed the second preprogrammed number on his keypad. A moment later, he heard the phone on the other end ringing.
Two more rings and then a sleepy voice mumbled,
Why was he choking up just at the sound of her voice? He wasn't going to be a help to anyone if he kept tearing up, he admonished himself.
"Sebastian!" Besides instant recognition, there was also an instant smile evident in her voice. "Where are you?"
"I'm right outside your front door, Mom," he answered.
"My front door?" she echoed, suddenly wide awake.
"You have another front door I should know about?" Sebastian joked.
She sounded great. Just the way she always did. Maybe there'd been some mix-up, he thought hopefully. Maybe she hadn't had a stroke. After all, her blood work had always been good.
So good, in fact, that it had been the source of envy among her friends.
His mother had always been the healthiest woman he'd ever known. Which made this news so much harder for him to accept.
Barbara didn't answer her son's question. Instead, she said, "Well, don't just stand there, Sebastian. Come in, come in," she urged.
Before Sebastian could pick up his suitcase and cross from the curb to the tall, stained-glass front door, it all but flew open. His mother, wearing the ice-blue robe he'd sent her last Christmas, her salt-and-pepper hair a slightly messy, f luffy halo around her head, was standing in the doorway, her arms outstretched, waiting for her only son to fill them.
Sebastian stepped forward, ready to embrace his mother. But when he reached out to her, he almost wound up stepping on a very indignant gray-and-white-striped cat that was weaving itself in and out between his legs.
The cat was not shy about voicing her displeasure at having to put up with an intruder in her wellorganized little world.
Sebastian pretended to take no notice of the feline as he bent over and hugged his mother. Relief surged through him like unleashed adrenaline.
"Come in, come in," Barbara urged eagerly, stepping back into her living room.
As Sebastian took a step forward, the cat again wove in and out between his legs, narrowly avoiding getting into a collision with him.
When he almost tripped on the furry animal, he frowned more deeply. He looked down at the offending territorial creature with sharp claws.
"When did you get a cat?" he asked. His mother had never been one for pets, and he had grown up without one.
"Don't you recognize her, Sebastian?" Barbara asked in surprise.
He shrugged. "Sorry. You've seen one cat, you've seen them all," he tossed out casually.
"He doesn't mean that, Marilyn," she told the cat in a soothing voice. Turning toward her son, she said, "That's the kitten you gave me before you left for Japan. She's grown some," she added needlessly.
"Grown 'some'?" he questioned incredulously, looking back at the cat. The cat looked as if she could benefit from a week's stay at a health spa. "She's as big as a house."
"Don't hurt her feelings, Sebastian," his mother requested. "She can understand everything that we say about her."
A highly skeptical expression passed over his face.
As much as he would have liked to humor his mother, there had to be a line drawn somewhere. He fixed the cat with a look meant to hold her in place for a moment.
"Get out of the way, cat." The feline didn't budge. Sebastian grinned as he turned to his mother. "Apparently not everything."
"Oh, she understands," Barbara maintained good-naturedly. "She just chooses not to listen, that's all. Not unlike a little boy I used to know," his mother concluded with affection.
Sebastian brought in his suitcase, leaving it next to the doorway. He closed the door, then paused and took full measure of his mother, after she'd turned on the lights inside the room.
"Mom," Sebastian began, partly confused, partly relieved, "you look good. You look very good," he underscored. "How do you feel?"
It was then that Barbara remembered she was supposed to be playing a part. For a minute, seeing her son standing there on her doorstep, every other thought had fled from her mind. As she considered what she was about to say, the deception threatened to gag her. But then she recalled the afternoon of coaching she'd undergone with Maizie. The matchmaker had seemed so sure of the outcome of all this.
She had to give it a chance.
"I don't feel as good as I look, I'm afraid. Makeup does wonders."
Now that was a new one. "Since when do you wear makeup to bed?"
"Since I had to call nine-one-one in the middle of the night," she answered primly.
"You do realize that when they respond, they're here to possibly take you to the hospital, not escort you to a party," he told her.
"I didn't want them to have to see an ugly old lady," she said simply.
"You're not an ugly old lady, Mom. You're a pretty old lady," he said, tongue in cheek.
"Remind me to hit you when I get better," she answered.
That had been the test. Had she taken a swipe at him, the way she had in the past when the teasing between them had escalated, he would have felt that perhaps there'd been a false alarm, that she was really all right.
But her restraint told him the exact opposite. That she wasn't all right.
He pressed a kiss to her temple. "You're not an old lady, Mom. You know that. You look younger than women fifteen years younger than you are."
She smiled at him, grateful for the compliment, even though she knew it was a huge exaggeration.
"Nevertheless, a lady should always look her best," she maintained.
He shook his head, but unlike the old days, this time it was affection rather than impatience that filled him. That was his mother, determined to look her best no matter what the situation. He had to admire that kind of strong will.