About the Author
Barbara Freethy is a #1 New York Times Bestselling Author of 41 novels ranging from contemporary romance to romantic suspense and women's fiction. Traditionally published for many years, Barbara opened her own publishing company in 2011 and has since sold over 4.8 million copies of her books. Nineteen of her titles have appeared on the New York Times and USA Today Bestseller Lists. In July of 2014, Barbara was named the Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) Bestselling Author of ALL TIME! She was also the first Indie Author to sell over 1 million copies at both Barnes and Noble and Amazon.
An author known for writing emotional stories about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations, Barbara has received starred reviews from Publishers' Weekly and Library Journal and has also received six nominations for the RITA for Best Single Title Contemporary Romance from Romance Writers of America. She has won the honor twice for her novels Daniel's Gift and The Way Back Home. Barbara recently launched a new contemporary series, The Callaways, featuring a family born to "serve and protect". For more information, visit Barbara's website at www.barbarafreethy.com
Read an Excerpt
It felt like earthquake weather.
Nicole Prescott slipped off her bright orange sweater and tied it loosely around the waist of her jeans. It was unseasonably warm for the last day of October, not a trace of breeze blowing off the bay, not a hint of fog sweeping across the tall red spires of the Golden Gate Bridge, just blue skies, and an eerie stillness, as if something momentous was about to happen.
It was just her imagination, she told herself, heightened by the ghosts and goblins running through the Halloween carnival at Washington Elementary School. The school sat at the top of one of San Francisco's many steep hills and overlooked the bay and marina.
The auditorium had been turned into a haunted house, and wooden booths dotted the playground offering games ranging from darts to a water balloon toss and a cakewalk. Smells of popcorn, hot dogs with mustard and salty pretzels warmed the air while children in costumes roamed the playground. Everything seemed normal, and yet it wasn’t—at least not in Nicole’s quiet corner of the yard.
Glancing at her six-year-old son, Brandon, Nicole bit back a sigh of frustration. She’d hoped that Brandon would find a way to join in the carnival fun. She’d dressed him up as Hercules, with a chest plate, a black cape and some muscled armbands. She’d even given him a sword to carry. Her son had ditched the sword upon arrival, and a few minutes ago had tossed the chest plate onto the ground. Instead of playing games with the other children, Brandon knelt by the line of rosebushes that ran along the fence at the furthest end of the school property and as far away from the carnival action as he could get.
Digging into the dirt, he pulled out pebble after pebble, his entire being focused on the stones as he arranged and rearranged them in patterns on the cement path. Every few minutes, he would swap one rock with another, his small fingers moving with a passion and a purpose Nicole could not begin to understand. She watched as Brandon picked up a stone, sweeping his finger across the surface, tracing the rough edge, as if he were memorizing the curves, the cracks, the weight. Then he set the stone down and picked up another one, seeking a pattern, a conclusion, that would bring some sort of closure to his obsession, but the end never came. Even when he seemed to find the perfect match, he was never completely satisfied with the result. Lately, there appeared to be a greater urgency to his movements, as if he thought he was running out of time.
Nicole yearned for some way to connect with her only child, but most days Brandon seemed unaware of her presence, his focus so pure, so single, and so solitary. His world was his own, and she had no place in it. When she tried to interfere or help, he would go into an angry, agitated frenzy, hitting his forehead with the palm of his hand over and over again until she backed away.
For three years she’d battled her son’s diagnosis of autism, researching every new therapy, constantly changing his diet, taking him to doctor after doctor, but while she’d seen small changes in his behavior, nothing significant had occurred. Her son was trapped in his own head, and she couldn’t find a way to get through to him. The pain of that broken connection was relentless.
While Brandon might not remember the first few years of his life, she had forgotten nothing, from the sweetness of his joyous smile when he woke up in the morning, to the feel of his soft arms around her neck when he’d hugged her, the sound of his laugh—half snort, half giggle—and the touch of his hand in hers. He’d been perfect for two years, eleven months, and six days, and then he'd changed. He'd become withdrawn, isolated, and unresponsive. It was as if the light in his brain had gone out.
Terrified, she’d fought desperately to find first a diagnosis and then a cure. But the enemy she fought was winning the war, invincible at every turn. She’d prayed for a miracle, but none had come. She'd put Brandon before everything and everyone else in her life, including her soon-to-be ex-husband, Ryan.
Another ache filled her heart, this one having nothing to do with her son, and everything to do with the man she'd vowed to love for all time. She tried to shake Ryan out of her mind. There were only so many emotions she could handle at one time.
Brandon paused, his body stiffening as he stared down at the two stones in front of him. He glanced over at her, and Nicole’s heart stopped in amazement. There was a rare spark in his blue eyes, a moment of triumph, satisfaction, and in that brief glance he connected with her in a way he hadn’t done in a long time. He had looked to her to see his achievement.
Her eyes blurred with shocked tears. Maybe this was the momentous thing she’d been anticipating. But the moment vanished as quickly as it had come.
Brandon’s gaze dropped away, and he sat back on his heels. After a moment, he picked up the rocks and put them in the pocket of his jeans. Then he scampered down the path, searching for more stones among the rose bushes. Even though he had found the perfect pair, he would have to do it again and again and again.
She wanted to take him by the hand and lead him over to one of the game booths, get him involved in the world around him, but she wouldn’t be doing it for him; she’d be doing it for herself. Brandon had no interest in playing with the other children. And while she could interact with the mothers, the truth was—she rarely did. The moms were always polite to her, but they were often wary, as if they thought their kids could somehow catch autism from Brandon. They wanted distance, and most days she let them have it.
She glanced across the playground, seeing Theresa and Kathleen organizing the cakewalk. At one time they’d all been so close. They’d taken walks together, bought strollers, complained about sleepless nights. They'd looked to each other for advice about pacifiers, night terrors, and thumb sucking. Seeing them huddling together now, she could imagine their conversation. They were probably planning their evening. They’d gather at Kathleen’s house before trick-or-treating, share wine and appetizers while the children ate pizza. The men would take the kids through the neighborhood while the women stayed behind to hand out candy. Kathleen’s husband, Patrick, would take pictures.
Patrick, she thought with a sigh, another good friend gone. Since she and Ryan had separated, Patrick had chosen to stick with Ryan. It was no surprise. Patrick and Ryan had grown up together. She couldn’t blame Patrick; she couldn’t really blame anyone. A lot of the distance was her fault. She’d drifted away, and they’d let her go. That was the way of relationships. If no one fought for them, they ended. Or maybe that was just the way of her relationships. She had only so much fight in her; what she had left she saved for Brandon.
Taking a seat on a nearby bench, she reached into her purse and pulled out the folder of essays she needed to grade. She’d cut back on her teaching in the past three years, but she still taught a class in Greek Mythology at San Francisco City College three mornings a week. The Gods had always fascinated her. They represented the best and the worst of humankind. While they rose to heroic proportions, they also battled deep and sometimes fatal flaws within themselves, representing the good and bad within each individual.
A passion for history and mythology was something she’d inherited from her biological father, David Kane, who was a professor of history at UC Berkeley. Her love of learning was the only thing David had given her before he divorced her mother, Lynda, when she was six years old. Everything else she'd gotten from her stepfather, Jack Callaway, a man who had given her love and treated her like his own daughter. A soccer ball came rolling towards her. She put down her folder and grabbed it. Then she stood up as Derek, Kathleen’s three-year-old son came running over, followed by his mother.
"Sorry about that," Kathleen said, her cheeks red from chasing after Derek. She was a tall, slim woman with blond hair and a lightly freckled complexion.
"No problem." Nicole tossed the ball back to Derek, who squealed with delight. "Your baby is getting big."
"That’s for sure, and he’s hard to keep up with. He has so much more energy and stubbornness than William did at this age," she finished, referring to her six-year-old, who was in the same class as Brandon.
Derek dropped the soccer ball and kicked it in Nicole’s direction. It took her a second to realize that Derek was playing a game with her. It had been a long time since a child had played with her. It felt surprisingly good and ridiculously sad all at the same time. She kicked the ball back to him. "Don’t encourage him," Kathleen warned. "He'll never leave you alone."
She wanted to encourage Derek. She wanted to keep on playing. She just wished it was Brandon who was the child kicking the ball to her.
Kathleen snagged the ball. "Sorry to break this up, but I have to do my duty in the haunted house. Why don’t you and Brandon come by tonight, Nicole?" Her gaze softened. "We miss you. Everyone would love to see you."
"I miss you all, too," Nicole admitted.
A guilty expression flashed in Kathleen’s eyes. "I know I haven’t been in touch since you and Ryan split up. It's not because I don't care. It's just—"
"It’s fine," Nicole said, cutting her off. "You’re busy. We’re all busy."
"It is that time of the year."
Kathleen had barely finished speaking when the buzz of a small plane drew Nicole’s head upward. It was a reflex she couldn’t quite shake. The plane dipped its wings as if it were saying hello. Her heart skipped a beat, an old memory of Ryan, seventeen years old, cocky as hell, taking off at the small airport in Half Moon Bay with his flight instructor. Back then he'd thought he could conquer the world; she'd thought the same thing.
With a sigh she lowered her gaze from the sky. Kathleen gave her a speculative look. "Do you miss Ryan?"
More than she'd ever imagined.
"It's complicated." She looked past Kathleen to see Joni waving at them, and she was relieved at the interruption. "Joni is calling you."
Kathleen turned her head and groaned. "I have to go. Sorry."
"We need to catch up, Nicole. Let’s make it happen before too much more time passes."
Nicole nodded. "See you later."
As Kathleen and Derek returned to the carnival, Nicole thought about trying to take Brandon through the haunted house. Even as the thought crossed her mind, she immediately dismissed it. Brandon would hate it. He’d throw a screaming fit, and everyone would be uncomfortable.
Enough was enough. It was time to put an end to yet another moment of wishful thinking that this day would be different—normal. She had to accept the fact that this version of her life was normal. She could put Brandon in a costume. She could bring him to a carnival, but she couldn’t make him care about Halloween. She couldn’t really make him care about anything. It wasn’t his fault. It just wasn’t in him.
She turned around to see what Brandon was doing, and it took a moment for her to register the fact that Brandon wasn’t playing in the rosebushes where she’d last seen him. Her gaze moved down the fence. Brandon wasn’t there. Had he gone over to the carnival on his own while she was talking to Kathleen and Derek? She looked around the playground, trying to catch a glimpse of Brandon’s tousled blonde hair, his black cape, but all she could see was a blur of costumes and children in the playground, and none of them were her son.
Her heart began to pound against her chest, her breath coming short and fast. She told herself to calm down. Everything was fine. This was Brandon’s school. He knew his way around; he’d probably just gone to the bathroom.
The sound of a car speeding down the street brought her head around. She caught a glimpse of the tail end of a white SUV. Then her gaze fell on the black cape lying on the ground by the gate. Had Brandon left the yard?
It seemed to take forever to get her feet to move. She was frozen in fear, a terrible certainty ripping through her soul. Brandon had gone through that gate. But why?
He didn’t like change, new environments, or strangers. He wouldn’t leave on his own.
Her feet finally took flight. She ran across the yard and picked up the cape. It was still warm from the heat of Brandon's body. She walked through the gate to the sidewalk, looking in either direction.
There was no sign of her son. Where was he?
She ran back into the playground, calling Brandon’s name. She searched every game booth, every corner, running into the halls of the school. A couple of the other moms came over to help her search. The principal made an announcement over the loudspeaker. Everyone started looking for Brandon. Forty-five minutes later it became clear that Brandon wasn't in the school or the yard. She’d checked under every desk, looked in every closet. The lights had been turned on in the haunted house to make sure Brandon hadn’t gotten lost in the cobwebbed maze.
And then the police arrived.
She answered their questions with what little knowledge she had and took them out to the spot where Brandon had been playing. Then she saw something she'd missed before—a small trail of rocks leading down the sidewalk. They must have fallen out of Brandon’s pockets. The trail ended at the curb. She looked up and down the street again.
The two cops were talking to her, but she couldn't hear what they were saying. The fear was overwhelming.
The scream came from down deep in her soul, the raw agony of the torn connection between mother and child.
Her baby was gone!
The ground shook beneath her feet. It wasn’t an earthquake – it was worse.