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His head was pounding. Too much Jack Daniel's last night. When Ben Slocum pulled his big black SUV into the driveway in front of his garage, the only thing on his mind was getting a couple hours of sleep.
Reaching up to hit the garage door opener on his visor, he spotted a silver Buick with Hertz rental plates parked in front of the house. His gaze swung to the porch, where a woman in a conservative yellow business suit stood rapping on his door.
Ben groaned. Last night two of his best friends, Alex Justice and Sabrina Eckhart, had gotten married. Alex, one of his fellow private investigators at Atlas Security, had fallen hard for the pretty redhead. Ben had never seen a guy look happier about getting hitched.
Their early-October wedding had turned into good news for Ben, who'd gotten lucky with a slinky little blonde from Dallas he had met at the reception. He'd spent the night in her bed at the Marriott, and neither of them had gotten much sleep.
Still dressed in his black tuxedo, Ben glanced at the porch, shoved the Denali into Park and turned off the engine, cracked open the door and slid out from behind the wheel. His pants were wrinkled, his white pleated shirt haphazardly buttoned and opened halfway down the front. His black bow tie hung loose around his collar.
Company this morning was the last thing he wanted.
He took a long look at the woman whose attention was now fixed on him as he crossed the front lawn. She was tall and slender, with dark brown hair clipped back at the nape of her neck, and a very pretty face. High cheekbones, a heart-shaped face and full lips. Too bad they were currently thinned in a disapproving line.
He wondered what she was selling. Whatever it was, he wasn't buying. He just wanted to hit the sheets.
Ben strode up on the porch. "'Fraid nobody's home," he said, hoping she would just go away. He wasn't in the mood for another female, no matter how good she looked.
"I can see that," she said. "I'm looking for Benjamin Slocum. I presume that's you?"
He lifted a black eyebrow. "And you would be?"
"My name is Claire Chastain. I need to speak to you, Mr. Slocum, on a matter of extreme importance."
"I'll be in my office this afternoon. Why don't you stop by
say three o'clock? We can talk about anything you like."
"This can't wait."
Of course not. She was a woman. Everything was a matter of critical meltdown. "Is this business or personal?"
He let his gaze drift over her, taking in the soft curves. Slender and elegant, but there was plenty of female wrapped up in the pretty package.
"Do we know each other, Ms. Chastain?" As in, have we spent the night together? Maybe I drank too much and don't recall?
But he hadn't done much of that since he'd left the SEALs. Since then he had behaved himself. Well, more or less.
"No, we've never met. Please, Mr. Slocum. This is important, and I would rather not discuss it out on your front porch."
Irritation filtered through him. "Angel, this had better be good." Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his house key, stuck it in the lock and opened the door. He went in and turned off the alarm, stepping back to allow Claire Chastain into his living room.
Ben closed the door. "Look, lady, I just got home from a wedding and I need a shower. There's a cof-feemaker on the counter in the kitchen. Coffee's in the cupboard overhead. If you want to have a sensible conversation, I suggest you make us a pot."
The woman's dark eyebrows shot up.
"And don't be afraid to actually put some coffee in the pot."
Her mouth dropped open. Ben chuckled to himself as he turned and headed for the bedroom.
Of all the nerve! Everything she had heard about Ben Slocum appeared to be exactly correct. The man was arrogant and overbearing, downright rude. In his rumpled tuxedo and smelling of sex and perfume, it didn't take much imagination to know he had spent the night in a woman's bed.
He was a navy SEAL, she reminded herself. That had to count for something. They had a reputation for being tough, brave and honorable. Still, from the information she had, he had been out of the military for the past five years, a medical discharge at twenty-eight after a combat wound in some godawful jungle in the Philippines.
She had no idea the sort of man Ben Slocum had become. One thing she did know: he looked even better than the photo she had seen of him when he was twenty years old. At least six-two, maybe a hundred ninety-five pounds of pure masculinity.
Beneath his black tuxedo jacket, a set of ridiculously wide shoulders tapered down to a narrow waist and a pair of long legs. Jet-black hair cut short enough to hide a faint curl, and the stubble of a night's growth of beard just made him more handsome. She tried not to think of the glimpse of chest hair she'd seen beneath his unbuttoned shirt.
And those eyes. So pale a blue they looked otherworldly. She had seen a pair like them, but on a nine-year-old, the effect just wasn't the same.
Thinking of the little boy and the help he so desperately needed set her feet in motion. Making the arrogant jerk a pot of coffee tweaked her ego, but that was hardly important. She took down the can of Folgers and began the steps necessary to get a pot brewing. Once the coffee was looked after, she took a moment to check out the house.
Neat was her first impression. The dishes clean and put away, no crumbs on the round oak table in the kitchen. No messy stacks of papers on the white ceramic tile counters. Decidedly male was her second thought. Brown leather sofa and chairs in the living room, oak end tables and pottery lamps. A big flatscreen TV on the wall, and a stack of hunting and fishing magazines sitting on the antique oak coffee table in front of the sofa.
She felt something soft brush against her and looked down to see a big gray tomcat winding between her legs. His golden eyes looked up at her as she bent down to scratch his ears.
"Well, aren't you a big fellow."
The cat began to purr. Ben Slocum was a cat person? She was more a dog lover herselfnot that she actually had onebut she liked all animals. From the look of the cat's glossy gray fur, he was definitely well cared for.
The sound of a door opening caught her attention. Claire looked up to see Ben Slocum striding down the hall, towel-drying his not quite wavy black hair. In jeans and a black T-shirt that stretched over the muscles on a very impressive chest, Ben was a formidable presence. Claire had to force herself not to take a step back as he walked into the living room.
"Smells good." He paused long enough to lean down and run his hand over the big cat's thick fur. "I see you've met Hercules."
"You like cats?" she blurted out before she could stop herself.
"I like animals in general. I tend to prefer them to people." He continued on to the kitchen. "Coffee looks ready. You want a cup?"
She definitely needed something to bolster her courage. "Yes, I think I do."
Ben took down a pair of mugs and poured them full, handed one to her. He didn't offer her cream or sugar. He took a sip, seemed to approve.
"What's so important it couldn't wait till this afternoon?"
"Why don't we sit down?" She started for the oak table, but Ben caught her arm.
"Why don't you just tell me what the hell is going on?"
Her patience was thinning. "Why don't I just show you?" Ignoring his request, she marched over to the table, set her coffee mug down and sat in one of the captain's chairs. Pulling the strap of her purse off her shoulder, she reached inside to retrieve Sam Thompson's fifth-grade class picture.
Slocum walked over, crossed his arms over his impressive chest and stood eyeing her from a few feet away.
Claire looked up at him. "I'm here, Mr. Slocum, because of your son. His name is Sam, and he needs your help." She didn't show him the photo. She wanted to choose exactly the right moment.
"I don't have a son. I'm a lot of things, lady, and careful is one of them."
"Do you know a woman named Laura Schofield?"
"Her name was Laura Thompson when the two of you were engaged."
A muscle tightened in his jaw. "If Laura has a kid, it isn't mine."
"I'm sorry to tell you that Laura Thompson is dead, Mr. Slocum."
The color drained from beneath his swarthy complexion. He pulled out one of the chairs and sat down facing her. "What happened?"
"Breast cancer. She passed away two months ago."
Ben leaned back in his chair. Clearly he was upset. She hadn't expected him to take the news so hard. She thought maybe it was a good sign.
He took a drink of his coffee, seemed to steady himself. "I'm sorry to hear about Laura. But as I said, if Laura had a kid"
She turned the photo over and slid it across the table. "This is your son, Mr. Slocum, Sam. He's nine years old."
Ben stared at the photo as if it were a hand grenade about to explode. He was shaking his head, but those pale eyes remained riveted on the pair staring up at him from the smiling face in the picture.
"Do you remember a night nearly ten years ago when you went to see Laura? The two of you had ended your engagement years earlier. You were still in the SEALs, home on leave in San Diego. Laura was living in L.A."
She could see that he recalled. He reached over and picked up the photo. There was no mistaking whose child it was. With Sam's black hair, strong jaw and ice-blue eyes, the two were nearly identical.
He didn't look away from the picture. "She didn't tell me." He glanced up. "Why didn't she tell me?"
"It's a long story, Mr. Slocum. If you give me a chance"
"Ben. My name is Ben."
"All right, Ben. The important thing is that you have a son and that Sam is missing."
Ben came up out of his chair. "Missing? What do you mean, missing? He's nine years old. How can he be missing?"
"Sam disappeared ten days ago. I've been talking to a detective named Owens in the missing-persons division of the Los Angeles Police Department. Unfortunately, the police believe Sam's a runaway. Which is what his foster parents believe."
He carefully studied her face. "But that isn't what you believe."
"No. I believe Laura's ex-boyfriend, a man named Troy Bridger, took the child. The police have looked into it, but so far they haven't been able to find any trace of either one of them. That's why I'm here. I need your help, Ben. I know you're a private detective. I need you to help me find your son."
Ben was blown away, his mind in disjointed pieces.
Feelings of unreality that this could be happening. Disbelief that Laura would have his child and not tell him. Anger at her and everyone else who had kept the boy's existence a secret. Those emotions and a dozen more sliced through him with brutal force.
He had a son. There was no mistake. The boy looked just like him. And the timing was right. He had been stationed in San Diego with SEAL Team One. He'd come home from a mission and found a letter from Laura. She wrote that she was living in L.A. and that she would love to see him. It was an opportunity, he'd thought, to find out if there was any chance of rebuilding the relationship they'd once shared.
He and Laura had met in his first year of junior college and he'd fallen hard for her blond beauty and outgoing personality. He had asked her to marry him and Laura had eagerly accepted.
A few months later, he had caught her in bed with one of his best friends.
Laura's betrayal had stabbed like a knife, cutting out part of his heart and soul. For years, he hadn't been able to stop thinking about her, unable to get her out of his head.
At first it had been like old times, laughing, talking late into the evening. That night, Laura had invited him into her bed and he wasn't about to turn her down. The sex was great as always, but his feelings were no longer the same. The resentment was still there, buried deep inside him, the old animosity. He hated her and he loved her. And he hated himself for loving her. That hadn't changed.
It was the last time he had seen her.
He looked over at the woman sitting across the table. He needed to get moving, take some kind of action. Do something to find his son. But he needed information first. Without it, his efforts would be useless.
He called on his years of training and self-control and forced himself to sit back down. "Exactly who are you?"
She kept her fingers wrapped around her coffee mug. He thought that she was more nervous than she wanted him to guess.
"As I said, my name is Claire Chastain. I'm a social worker in Los Angeles County. I worked with Laura and Sam a few years back. They became more than a case to me. Laura and I were friends."
He thought of the woman he had loved. Blonde and beautiful. Sparkling. That was Laura. Everyone adored her. But she was never what she seemed.
"You think this guy Bridger took him. Why would he do that?"
"To get even with Laura. He knew how much Sam meant to her. He was furious when she kicked him out."
There was something in her eyes, the way they couldn't quite meet his. "Laura's dead," he said. "I don't see how taking my kid is going to hurt her. What aren't you telling me?"
She returned her eyes to his face. "There's a good chance he's also trying to punish me. I disapproved strongly of Laura's relationship with Troy. I think he blames me for the breakup. And he knows how much I care about Sam."
"What kind of a man is he?"
"Not the sort you would want Sam to have for a father. He's an alcoholic. He gets mean when he drinks. I never knew what Laura saw in him. Maybe his tough-guy persona appealed to her." She looked up at him. "She loved you, and you were a SEAL. Troy Bridger looked a little like you. Maybe he reminded her of you in some way."
"She never loved me. I was just an amusement to her."
He could tell she wanted to argue. Instead she took a sip of her coffee. "Laura was trying to get sober, but Bridger was a drunk and he pulled her back to the bottle. She ended the relationship when she started getting sick."
"How long did she live with him?"
"Only a couple of months. I can't imagine why she stayed even that long."
"He isn't some kind of pervert? Some guy on the sex offender's list?"
"The police checked. They said he wasn't on the list. At least not under that name. The few times I talked to him, he never seemed inclined in that direction."
"But you don't know for sure."
He didn't miss the guilt that moved across her features. "No, I don't know for sure. But my guess is his motive was more about revenge against Laura."
The guilty look returned. "That's right."
"Because she dumped him and he blames you."
"Yes. And Troy has this men-are-superior thing. He doesn't value women very highly, and Sam's a boy. He would go on and on about boys becoming men
real men. As if he could make it happen for Sam."