Courage to Live

  • 67 99 3
  • Like this paper and download? You can publish your own PDF file online for free in a few minutes! Sign Up

Courage to Live

by Morgan Q. O'Reilly Lyrical Press, Inc. www.lyricalpress.com Copyright ©2011 by Morgan Q. O'Reilly First published

765 240 571KB

Pages 206 Page size 432 x 648 pts Year 2011

Report DMCA / Copyright

DOWNLOAD FILE

Recommend Papers

File loading please wait...
Citation preview

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Lyrical Press, Inc. www.lyricalpress.com

Copyright ©2011 by Morgan Q. O'Reilly First published in 2012, 2012 NOTICE: This eBook is licensed to the original purchaser only. Duplication or distribution to any person via email, floppy disk, network, print out, or any other means is a violation of International copyright law and subjects the violator to severe fines and/or imprisonment. This notice overrides the Adobe Reader permissions which are erroneous. This eBook cannot be legally lent or given to others. This eBook is displayed using 100% recycled electrons.

2

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

CONTENTS Highlight Dedication Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Epilogue About Morgan Q. O'Reilly About the Open Windows Series 3

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

****

4

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Back Cover Copy She's living in fear. He's a born protector. There's a missing man holding them apart. Candace Cutler intended to leave her abusive husband, until he vanished one snowy Alaska night. She lives in a limbo of dread, wanting only to care for her son. And now a cocky young pilot has moved in next door. Cayden Shaughnessy's instinct is to protect. He doesn't like the rumors about the guy who left a single mom and cute kid next door—and who's he kidding? He finds the mom pretty adorable, too, in a hot, can't-resist sort of way. But Candace doesn't have time for games. Too many loose ends leave her unsettled, and she can't help expecting violence to step once more from the shadows... WARNING: Contains two brief descriptions of violence; however, justice is served. Also contains hot loving, a Top Gun-worthy fly-by, sex and more sizzling Shaughnessys.

5

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Highlight "Let me tell you, Mr. HotShot. This isn't San Diego. There's no Top Gun here." In his uniform, duffle over his shoulder, he stared back at me, laughter in his eyes. "Hey—" "I appreciate what you guys do," I cut him off. "But once you step off that base, you're in the real world. That I'm-toosexy-for-my-jet thing doesn't work here. The other services all have a presence here, too. You're not remotely special or unique." Blue eyes twinkled at me across the lawn. Odds were he flew one of the F-22 Raptors stationed at the base to the north. Extreme confidence oozed from his pores. Even in the face of my rant, the wide grin didn't fade one bit. Although I'd just met him, the man and his arrogance were too much to deal with. "In fact," I added, "mind your own business and leave me to mine. Then everyone will be happy." "You realize Top Gun is Navy, not Air Force, right?" I hurried the through the open garage, grocery bags cutting into my shaking fingers. Before I hit the door button, his laugh carried to me. "Hey Jack," he called to his host. "She thinks I'm sexy." [Back to Table of Contents]

6

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Courage to Live By Morgan Q. O'Reilly [Back to Table of Contents]

7

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Courage to Live 9781616503505 Copyright © 2012, Morgan Q. O'Reilly Edited by Piper Denna Book design by Lyrical Press, Inc. Cover Art by Valerie Tibbs First Lyrical Press, Inc. electronic publication: February, 2012 Lyrical Press, Incorporated www.lyricalpress.com eBooks are not transferable. All Rights Reserved. This book may not be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in whole or in part by any means, including graphic, electronic, or mechanical without the express written consent of the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. PUBLISHER'S NOTE: This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer's imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content. Published in the United States of America by Lyrical Press, Incorporated [Back to Table of Contents] 8

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Dedication To my devoted husband, who resembles the hero, not the villain of this story. Acknowledgments There are Thanks which must be made for parts of this story. Retired police officer R.K., now living in Hawaii—much to my disgust—gave me his view on police procedure. If I got it wrong, it falls on my head, not his. Kenai, Alaska DJ Tom Randall gave me the coffee line Cay uses on Candace. I grabbed it with his permission. My editor, Piper, first for the inspiration to tell Cay's story, and then for the patience while I worked out a few issues, such as how to arrange the first chapter. To a few of my critique partners, Lizbeth Selvig, Maxine Mansfield, and Tam Linsey, you were right. All of you. Happy now? Love you! Last, but never least, Carlee, who reads every word, more than once, and next to my husband is my biggest cheerleader. Couldn't do it without you. [Back to Table of Contents]

9

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Prologue "Have the courage to live. Anyone can die."—Robert Cody "Mom!" A gentle hand patted my right cheek. The one that didn't hurt. Although with the red haze enfolding me, I would have been hard pressed to pick a place that didn't hurt or wasn't covered in food that had been on our dinner plates. The hand barely touched me. The voice called to me, sweet and sobbing like it hadn't in years. The cry of a hurting little boy. "I'm here, Robbie." My throat felt raw and a whisper was all I could manage. As much as I wanted to let the dark take me, I couldn't. Rob was only eleven and while he might have been my height, he was far from being a man. Forcing myself to breathe through the pain coming from my left side, I managed to lift my right eyelid. The left one felt about ten times its normal size. "Get me some ice, sweetheart. And a towel to cushion it, okay?" "We have to get out of here!" he protested, but scrambled for the kitchen anyway. My heart rate spiked and a surge of adrenalin pushed me into a sitting position. My ribs complained and I bit back a howl of pain, one arm wrapped around my middle, the other braced to hold me up. "Why? Is he coming back?" I gasped. The food that had been dumped on me slid off in a sickening sludge. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I made note that 10

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

the potato salad would be a bitch to clean out of the carpet where it had been trod in deeply. Robbie came back from the kitchen, a wad of dishtowels and ice pack in hand. The big blue one I sometimes used for my back. Ah well, keeping Robbie busy was the important part. If he kept moving, his panic would fade. I hoped. He used another towel to try and wipe some of the mess off my face. The towel came away streaked in red and yellow. Ketchup and mustard, mostly. Maybe some of that red was blood. "He broke all the phones. We need to get out and call the police." "Did he leave?" I winced as the ice touched my cheek. "Yeah, he drove away. Really fast." Maybe Quint would skid on the ice building up on the roads. With the latest snowstorm moving in, it was possible. If God were really on my side, a DUI would put him in lockup for a night. Possibly longer. It would give me the time to do what I needed to do. "We need to call for help. You look awful, Mom. I'll go next door and call an ambulance." He started to get up, but I grabbed his arm. "Here, let me get up. I just need to clean up and rest a bit." Robbie wanted to help, but he was afraid of hurting me more. Just as well, I didn't know how bad my ribs were and didn't want to risk breaking what might only be cracked. With luck, only bruised, but Quint had a big foot and strong legs. He also had a hundred pounds on me. "Mom!" 11

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"Relax, honey. It's your fight-or-flight reflex kicking in. He won't come back tonight." Although this was the worst he'd ever beaten me, it'd been years since the last time. Years since he'd left a large bruise, but I knew the routine. After a big fight, physical or not, he'd go somewhere and sleep it off. Robbie and I were okay for the night. Light-headed and breathing shallowly, I used the corner of the table to climb to my feet. "Help me clean up, then I'll go rest in my chair." "I'll clean up. You sit." Robbie carefully slipped an arm around my waist and helped me settle in my chair near the front window. He lifted my feet onto the ottoman and pushed my little computer table within my reach. "We should still have internet." He handed me more towels before returning to the kitchen. "The house base phone is smashed and he destroyed your cellphone. Can you call the police on Skype?" "First we'd better see if there's an around-the-clock locksmith who answers emails after hours." Using the towels, I wiped up as much of the mess from myself as I could. Later, I'd shower and worry about the stains. I wasn't willing to call the police, they'd never helped much before, but the locks were getting changed and the garage door opener disengaged. It was time. Five months ahead of my carefully planned and scheduled exit from hell for Robbie and me, but time nonetheless. Quint had finally punched my last button. [Back to Table of Contents]

12

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Chapter 1 "Okay, kid. You know the drill. Groceries up to the kitchen." My eleven-going-on-thirty son was already halfway out the car door. "On it." Rob and I had just come home from a particularly grueling day with a side trip to the grocery store. All I wanted was to go inside, crawl in bed and find oblivion. Too bad I'd have to wait a few hours. The neighbor to the north, Jack, had pulled in as well, but hadn't yet closed his garage door. Hoping he'd disappear into his house so I wouldn't have to talk to him, I took a moment to stare into my garage and wonder how much I could get for the tools and wood making it impossible for me to park the car inside. Considering my run of luck, I merely sighed when I saw two men from the corner of my eye. Since there was no point in sitting there longer, I opened the car door and climbed out, doing my best to look completely normal while letting my shoulder-length hair swing around my face. All the better to hide the spectacular swelling and bruise makeup and my sunglasses barely covered. As Rob and I gathered groceries, purse, gym bag and the usual daily detritus, Jack was giving his friend, a tall young man with red hair dressed in everyday Air Force blues, a verbal tour of the street. Robbie slammed down the rear hatch of the ubiquitous white minivan the insurance company had provided while a 13

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

shop tried to calculate the damages to my car sustained over the weekend. I was doing my best to extricate myself from the strange vehicle and not aggravate my new injuries. I straightened and turned so I could close the door with a hip swing, and made the mistake of glancing up. The redhead's eyes were aimed at me and, as he leisurely gave me the once over, he also gave me a slow, sexy smile. Somewhere deep inside me, something twinged. I straightened my back hoping I hadn't just added a pulled muscle to my list of pains. "That's Candy," Jack said. As usual, he had a derisive tone in his voice when it came to talking to me, or about me. The introduction was grudging. "My new housemate, Lieutenant Cayden Shaughnessy." Jack directly addressing me was a rarity. Usually he avoided looking at me. He'd answered a brief hello a time or two, but mostly he ignored my existence. Pointedly. I nodded. "Cayden, ma'am. Pleased to meet you. Lovely home you have." He nodded at my small balcony, where planter boxes held petunias, marigolds and spilling curtains of lobelia. "Mom? Can you handle those?" Rob took a protective stance in front of me, his hands and arms loaded with twice as many grocery bags as mine. Even then, he only let me carry lettuce and chips. "I'm fine, honey. Go on in." "Lawn's getting a little long," Jack said, frowning his disapproval at the grass a week overdue for mowing. During mid-summer, it meant twice as much work. If it wasn't 14

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

mowed every five to seven days, it got out of control. Twenty hours of sunlight did that. "I know." I turned toward the garage hoping to escape before Jack questioned me again about Quint's continued absence. I'd run out of things to say and didn't want to hear any jibes or questions about the switch in vehicles. "If you need some help, ma'am, just let me know." I glanced at the eager young lieutenant. He seemed to mean it. Tall and lean, military-short hair gleaming with golden highlights in the Alaskan summer sun still riding high in the early evening sky, the man was the very picture of young, cocky Air Force pilot. I pegged him at about twenty-six, maybe twenty-seven. A good six years younger than I was, at least. Hell, I might have been his babysitter at one point. "The woman's married and has a kid. Leave her be," Jack growled before turning his cold glare on me. "Where's Quint? What'd you do to him after the Super Bowl? New car, Candy?" I ignored Jack, as I had the last six months when he asked the same questions about my missing husband, but stopped walking when the lieutenant winked at me. "Damn sorry to hear you're married." He wasn't the only one. However, six months earlier Quint had disappeared into a snowy night. Not that I really cared about where he was, but my situation was precarious. Over the weekend, a dumbass drunk had hit me head on, leaving me reeling from a whole new set of injuries, worries and anger. In short, I was no closer to letting myself be charmed by a handsome face and 15

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

cocky grin than I ever had been. Didn't mean I hadn't noticed the sculpted hard body of the new resident next door. I just didn't have time, or energy, to fence or flirt with him verbally or otherwise. The cocky youngster's hit on me was like a match touched to tinder. Without stopping to think, I lit into the younger man, who suddenly looked more like a Golden Retriever puppy than a pilot who flew multimillion dollar, armed jets. "Let me tell you, Mr. HotShot. This isn't San Diego. There's no Top Gun here." In his pressed uniform, duffle slung over his shoulder, the man I directed my venom at stared back at me with laughter in his laser blue eyes. The amusement pissed me off even more. "Hey—" "I appreciate what you guys do," I rushed over his rebuttal, trying to sound reasonable, and failing. "But once you step off that base, you're in the real world, and you're expected to act like real people. That I'm-too-sexy-for-my-jet thing doesn't work here. National Guard, Army and Coast Guard all have a presence in town, not just Air Force. And we know all about behavior unbecoming an officer. You're not remotely special or unique and the sooner you figure that out, the better we'll get along." Bluer than blue eyes twinkled at me across the lawn separating our domiciles. I secretly bet he flew one of the F22 Raptors stationed at the base just a few miles north. Extreme confidence fairly oozed from his pores. Even in the 16

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

face of my ranting, the wide grin on his chiseled face didn't fade one bit. The grin unnerved me as much as the fact I'd blown up at him under far less provocation than I'd endured from Quint. Hell, I'd known Fly-boy mere heartbeats and had no insight into his intentions behind the flirting. I was running on nerves, caffeine, pain and little sleep. The compression around my chest that made my battered ribs bearable also limited my breathing to shallow, dizzying huffs and reminded me of the worst of it. I trembled as the tirade flew from my mouth. But really. Although I'd just been introduced to him, the man standing ten feet away across the narrow strip of lawn and his all-tooobvious arrogant attitude was too much on top of the previous couple of days. As my husband had learned, I could only put up with so much and then the words formed and burst from me, almost of their own volition. Rather like frozen pipes at thirty below. Usually without a thought given to the consequences. And with Quint, there were always consequences. Sometimes big, mostly small, but always there. Six months hadn't erased that lesson. That thought should have been at the top of my head. Science says that for every action there's an equal and opposite reaction. Not true. In some cases, the reaction is multiple times the force of the original action. As a result, the only thing holding me upright, my medical corset, a torture device marketed as a compression vest and posture aid, reminded me all too clearly of the last round of consequence. The barely healed ribs were newly injured, and came with 17

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

more bruises, strains and aches from the car accident. At least it hadn't been my estranged husband's foot. Lord only knew where the foot, and the rest of his body, was right then. I had no clue, and neither did the police. They seemed to care only slightly more than I did, which wasn't saying much. "In fact," I added, "just mind your own business and leave me to mine. Then everyone will be happy." Was I a glutton for punishment or what? I felt as if I breathed fire by the time I finished. "You do realize Top Gun is Navy, not Air Force, right?" In the face of his grin, I pulled back and hurried the best I could through the open garage, the plastic straps of the grocery bags cutting into my shaking fingers. My purse strap slid off my shoulder, unbalancing me that much more, jolting my already sore body. Just before I hit the garage door button with a carefully extended thumb, his laugh carried into my garage. "Hey Jack," he called to his host. "Did you hear that? She thinks I'm sexy." Fuck. Another conceited bastard living next door. [Back to Table of Contents]

18

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Chapter 2 I didn't hear Jack's reply, probably just as well. He'd almost certainly stated, yet again, that I was the bitch from hell. By no means stupid, I knew how most of the neighborhood saw me. Kind of hard not to in a tiny insulated community of twenty-three narrow, gray vinyl-coated homes built over twocar garages separated by small yards. The neighborhood consisted of one street that bent ninety degrees with a handful of homes on the outside facing a semi-major residential thoroughfare. Few features identified individual homes. Mostly, a strip of faux rock facing on either side of the garage or a slight variation in color on the narrow trims kept our homes from being identical. A few had large, versus small, balconies overlooking the driveways and only a handful of us planted baskets and pots of bright summer flowers. Because of these attempts at gardening during the short season of long summer days, we in the neighborhood tended to be in each others' pockets a fair amount during the sunny half of the year. Which was why the neighbors all knew and adored my husband. And missed him far more than Rob or I did. Quint wasn't his real name, of course. He'd been born with the mouthful of Stilwell Crosby Cutler the Fifth, hence the nickname. It was how the family identified him in the lineup of descendants, of which Trey—SCC-III—and Ivy—SCC-IV— were still alive and kicking. Another reason I was hated—I'd 19

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

refused to saddle our son with the sixth name in that line. Robert Crosby Cutler was plenty unwieldy and I called him Rob. His father called him Bob. One of our first big disagreements. In any case, I was the hated one, while Quint enjoyed the role of the poor, misunderstood, patient, saintly husband of the crazy woman. He loved to humiliate me by calling me Candyass, mostly at inappropriate times. Although I reminded people I preferred Candace, I routinely had to endure being called Candy. At work, my name had been shortened only once. My boss had gotten the message loud and clear. Thank God. With Quint and his truck missing from the drive and house, the looks had turned more suspicious, more furtive, more questioning. A few of the neighbors like Jack had even spoken with police when someone from Quint's office had filed a missing persons report. I told the police then, and whenever they thought to check in, that I didn't really care where Quint was, as long as he stayed far away. Since Rob had eventually convinced me to go to the hospital the night Quint left, they'd added the missing person's report to my file. I did ask that if they found him, I'd appreciate them informing him of the impending divorce and the settlement he owed me. And the active restraining order. I limped into the foyer that also held the front door, and the short hall leading to a small bathroom, tiny laundry room and two cramped bedrooms. One of which functioned as my office-slash-crafts room, the other Rob's bedroom. I kicked 20

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

off my sandals and hauled my load up the stairs to the center of the main living floor. Horrible house design in my opinion. The kitchen should be on the same floor as the garage. It was one of the main reasons I'd continuously begged for a second refrigerator for the garage to sit next to the large freezer Quint insisted we have. The extra large, Alaskan Hunter's Special from Sears. For the moose he meant to kill and butcher each fall. The last time the freezer had seen moose, or caribou, or salmon for that matter, had been when Pete, the neighbor to the south, had generously offered us some. Quint had picked the house and signed the loan while I was packing up our previous house and dealing with the movers. Because it took a minimum of three weeks to ship a container with household goods from the Lower 48—or Outside as Alaskans liked to call it—and the movers insisted on a destination address, Quint justified pouncing on the house before I had a chance to look at it. A fact I bemoaned every single time I had to haul in a load from the warehouse or grocery stores. I also routinely thanked my lucky stars that Rob was old enough to carry most of it for me. Bless the child, he was putting the groceries away while casting longing looks at the big screen TV. "Get the cold stuff in please, then you can play while I make dinner." Rob sighed, but he nodded. He didn't quite have the sigh down, but he worked on it. He was also an inch taller than my five-one and his feet were three sizes larger. I'd been raised to believe a child could do simple labor and contribute to the 21

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

running of the household from the moment they began toddling. The fact he could reach higher than I meant he got to empty the dishwasher. Only fair, considering he used the most dishes. He also spent hours on end playing various video games. As he tended to have the top grades in school, rarely missed a day, practiced piano, studied Tae Kwan Do and spent the days in a summer program at the local gymnastics center, I couldn't see being stingy with the playtime, especially over the long break. Sometimes it even served as a bit of bonding time with his father. Or had. It was one reason Rob did miss his father and sometimes looked at me with yearning, but never chastised me because I refused to put effort into looking for Quint. Lord knew I fought a battle of conflicting emotions. The fight with Quint six months ago had not only been our last, but the very worst. It had been building for years, just as his drinking had been increasing. Long story, but suffice it to say, our marriage had been over but for the shouting for at least a year before he took off. One of the reasons the neighbors thought me a shrew, surely, was Quint had a talent for subtle prodding. A cutting remark there, a bite of sarcasm over here. When he directed it at me, I could ignore him for a long time. When it came to our son, not so much. We'd been sniping at each other for months, and since I opened the windows whenever I could the sound carried outside far more than I liked. But Quint was that good at pushing my buttons. He never raised his voice, so everyone thought I was the evil one. They assumed it went with the red hair. But no, it's the quiet ones with sharp tongues, the 22

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

charming sociopaths, the subtle manipulators, who escalate the problems. The instigators. That night, Rob had eventually found an old landline phone to plug in and talked me into calling a cab to take us to the hospital where a doctor wrapped up my ribs, advised me to get the lovely and fashionable corset, then called the police. After the police took a cursory report, another cab drove us home through the thickly falling snow that had accumulated to about two feet over night. I had a locksmith at the house within the hour. Robbie figured out how to reprogram the garage door opener so Quint's remote wouldn't work. I was physically in no condition to move farther than my chair. I left the matter of finding Quint in the hands of the police. They had a description, his license number, the photo on file, as well as the information on his truck. The personalized plate made it easy. QUINT. Pretty unique. Later that day when the police came by to tell me they'd found the truck at the airport, my sense of panic eased, only I had no clue where he'd gone. Outside? Or had he climbed on a bush plane at nearby Lake Hood and flown into the wilderness? The police assured me they were investigating both options. The truck was searched and impounded. They found a dozen empty vodka bottles inside. I scanned and emailed the report to a lawyer and started divorce proceedings with a restraining order. Part of me shared a sense of relief with my son; the other part lived in fear of Quint's return. In keeping with the established pattern he usually returned full of remorse, yet other times I got a dose of the retribution he could dish out. I 23

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

never knew what to expect. Most often, he was too lazy to raise a hand beyond a butt slap or a hard squeeze, but sly, cutting words and cold silence could be far more cruel. Especially to a child. Fortunately, Quint directed his worst at me, but Rob was growing fast and Quint had been sizing him up. I didn't like it. With no sign of Quint for six months, life had finally settled into a routine that felt safe. Money was tight, but we were careful and making it. And then, the past Saturday afternoon, I'd been hit in a head-on collision on my way to get Rob from Tae Kwan Do. Poor kid, he'd seen the accident. I was most grateful he hadn't climbed in the car yet, and I'd sustained relatively minor injuries for the type of collision. The EMTs, police and medical staff at the hospital had all told me, repeatedly, how lucky I was to escape with only cracked ribs, a black eye, slight whiplash and overall muscle strain. In a way, I agreed with them, but I didn't have time to take off from work, no matter how good my benefits. With only my income, I needed to work every hour I could, and had even been looking into a second job. My finances couldn't absorb this hit, and now a second job was out of the question for at least a month, maybe two. Saturday night we'd stayed at the hospital. Sunday the car rental agency picked us up there. Monday we regrouped at home, but life, like the tide, continued to move on, regardless of my need to make it stop. Rob and I returned to our lives. As I had learned so long ago, other people really didn't want to get involved. And as Quint had been so good at turning the 24

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

sympathy tables to make himself look like the abused party, I had practice hiding my troubles from the outside world. Acting as if nothing had ever happened was my mission in life. Remain calm, carry on and all that. That Tuesday had been a long day, where I'd given the filing clerk a shot at my reception job while I hid in the file room—because the receptionist for the State's Healthy Families Program shouldn't look like Mike Tyson after going twelve rounds. Mostly I'd spent the day assuring my boss I was fine. Tired, hurting and stressed, upon leaving work I'd picked up Rob, shopped for easy food and come home to Lieutenant Sunshine. I only had the strength to pray he'd listen to Jack and, like the rest of my neighbors, leave me alone. [Back to Table of Contents]

25

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Chapter 3 The next evening, with the weather too good to pass up, I let myself relax, if only for a little while. In an effort to unwind, I'd changed into my summer pajamas of soft cotton. I had some idea that a half hour in the sun might speed my healing, and had pulled my hair up into a ponytail, thinking maximum exposure. Maybe a weak tan would help camouflage the ugly purple bruise on my left cheek, and since I'd washed off the heavy makeup, it was the side I carefully kept aimed at the house to hide what oversized sunglasses didn't. Although I could have used the incident to swing neighborhood sympathy my way, I didn't want to advertise my injuries. Why broadcast my troubles? No one had helped before, I had no reason to expect help now. As often happened in quiet moments, my mind couldn't help turning to the problem of my husband. No, the divorce wasn't finalized, and if I ignored the money situation, we were doing all right. Although I wanted closure, and the alimony and child support he'd owe me, for the time being it was enough that Quint had apparently left the state. According to the police, if he had, he'd used cash to buy his ticket, but even then, the airlines didn't turn up his name in a search of their passenger lists, so we had no idea where he might be. They currently had him listed as missing. In the back of my mind, I wondered if he was dead, but no signs of foul play had turned up anywhere. His truck remained 26

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

impounded, although I would have liked to sell it, as I considered selling his woodworking tools. The small infusion would go a long way toward easing some of my pending money issues. Determined to follow a normal routine, I sat on my balcony, acting as if my book was so good it held my complete attention. Rob had control of the TV and I was enjoying the sun on the back of my neck, doing my best to absorb some Vitamin D and relax. The ribs hurt every time I breathed, so we were taking things easy, living on a selection of microwave foods—burritos, mini pizzas and Lean Cuisines. I really couldn't lift anything heavier, and Rob was content to avoid dishes, which I'd worry about when we ran out of forks and spoons. Facing south, I had my back to Jack's house. This gave me a view of my mini garden and the flowers growing on the four balconies beyond lined up with eerie precision. The botanical display started at the corner and ended with me. When it came to gardening, Jack didn't do anything more than mow his lawn. In fact, I heard his mower start up and guessed he'd decided to cut the side between our houses to remind me to do my share. Fortunately, the yards were small and it wouldn't take him but five minutes to do his side of the invisible line. I ignored him and tried to pick up the thread of the plot in my book, but my thoughts turned to our need to mow the lawn or face a letter from the HOA president. Tomorrow, I decided, Rob and I would tackle our side. He'd grown strong enough to push the man-powered reel mower by himself that 27

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

year. If I could lift the string weeder, Rob could do the rest. He wasn't quite coordinated enough to send out alone with the power whacker. Overhead, a small plane steadily droned by. Probably headed for Merrill Field, or it had just taken off from there, headed out for a cabin or hunting lodge. Once again, I wondered if Quint had taken a bush plane out to some lodge or village. Detectives had made the rounds of the small plane operators out at Lake Hood. So far, nothing had turned up. Weary of thinking about Quint's whereabouts, I absorbed the background noise. The sound of planes went with Alaska. Not only did we have a couple military bases and an international airport, but there were two small plane airports. In addition to Lake Hood—the busiest floatplane base in the world—Merrill Field, which was nearly as busy, handled the small planes with wheels. We also had two hospitals with helipads a couple miles south and a little west of us. The north-south artery I lived near was often used for lining up with at least three runways. Normal noise to me, just like the cawing, cackling and croaking of the ravens and the gentle cheeps of the blackcap chickadees. On a quiet night, I could even hear the trains running. On a noisy night, sirens and the thumping music of teens out cruising. Because I wasn't engrossed in my book, I saw the unmarked police car turn onto our street. Immediately my heart began pounding and sweat ran down my spine. Please, dear God, don't tell me Quint's coming back. Tell me he's in jail, or something, anything, but don't let him come back or 28

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

try to get custody of Rob. A threat he'd voiced whenever the word divorce had come up between us. The black car slid past my house and I looked over my shoulder as it pulled up in front of Ben Weatherly's house. Ben's wife was the HOA president, so he kept an eye on things while grilling, tinkering or cleaning something. Air Force, like so many of the other military on the street, he kept his yard, driveway and garage immaculate. By comparison we looked like slobs, although I'd been slowly working on the issue. The houses were so close together, the cop was forced to park across the end of the driveway. Ben was in his garage messing with his four-wheelers. The officer in street clothes climbed out of the car and Ben strode down the drive and greeted him with familiarity, a grin and a handshake. Okay, friends. Nothing to do with me. I turned back to my book, silently cursing the buzzing of the mower that masked whatever bits of conversation I might have been able to pick up. It took a minute to penetrate my brain, but suddenly I realized the mower was passing directly beside my house. What the hell? I stood up and, with a painful grimace, knelt on the chair to look over the edge. The lieutenant was mowing my side of the lawn. He reached the street, swung the mower around and looked up at my balcony. The snotty brat actually grinned and waved up at me, but he didn't stop until he'd mowed the final strip that ended at the side of my garage door. The mower sputtered to 29

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

a stop and I leaned over the front railing to glare down at him. "I was going to get that tomorrow night," I snarled. "No problem, ma'am. I wanted the exercise. Not like there's much lawn here. Want me to do the rest?" The other side and the back yard were equally small. With the power mower, he could do it in ten minutes or less. Tempting though his offer was, I didn't want to create a debt. "No. We'll finish it up tomorrow. Rob needs the practice." The green scent of fresh-cut grass, hot oil and someone's hamburgers on the grill drifted up to me. As the man below wiped his brow with a bandana, I watched his muscles flex beneath his camo green t-shirt. Old jeans rode low on his lean hips. The boy did some serious physical activity. All gym? Or did he play hard, too? I hadn't seen any signs. Then again, I hadn't been looking and he'd only been in the neighborhood a day. He didn't even have a car yet. Probably still on a barge coming up from Seattle. He squinted up at me, a frown forming between his bright blue eyes. "What happened to your face? You okay?" Automatic reflex kicked in and my hand flew up to cover the part of my cheek the sunglasses didn't hide. I'd forgotten that my hair pulled back in a ponytail didn't provide cover. "Nothing big. It was an accident." "What kind of accident?" He wrinkled his brow with a dark frown and fisted his hands on the mower handle. Instinct to flee kicked in and I pulled back. "None of your business. Keep to your side of the property line." I hissed down at him and hoped my words hadn't carried. It occurred 30

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

to me Ben and his officer friend had stopped talking and watched my exchange with the new guy in town. Furious, I grabbed my book and shuffled inside. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang. Probably Ben's cop friend. And he knew I was home. Dammit. With shaking fingers, I pulled the elastic band from my hair and finger combed it over my face. "Want me to get that, Mom?" Rob looked up from his racing game. "No, I'll get it." The trip downstairs took another full minute. I opened the door to three men shoehorned onto my tiny porch—Ben, his cop friend and the sweaty lieutenant. Sunglasses back in place, I didn't say a word. "Ma'am." The policeman extended his card. "I'm Detective Burrows and I'd like to come in and talk with you for a few minutes." "Regarding?" "Friends are concerned about your husband." Nice of them to worry about Quint now. Never mind the man was twice my size. Did they ever consider what Quint had done to me? To Rob? Already high, my blood pressure cranked up a notch. "I'll talk to you, but it's none of their business," I told the detective. "What happened to your face, Candy?" the lieutenant asked.

31

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"The name is Candace, Lieutenant." My hand flew to my cheek again. "I told you. I was in an accident. The police have the report already. What business is it of yours anyway?" "Call me Cay," he said, not fazed one bit by my growling. Ben gave him an annoyed glance, but spoke to me. "Where's Quint? He tore out of here like the hounds of hell were after him six months ago and he never came back." The detective held up a hand, but Ben ignored him. "After all the yelling we heard, I can only assume he finally got fed up with your bullshit. What'd you do? Poison him? Dump him in the woods?" As thin as my nerves were, I lost it, shouldered the detective aside and got up in Ben's face. Well, considering he was a good ten inches taller than me, I did my best. I ripped off my sunglasses and pointed to my eye. "Yeah, he outweighs me by more than a hundred pounds and packs a punch that would knock you out, and did worse than this to me, but I'm still standing, dammit. If he's running, he'd better keep running because if he ever dares to show his face back here I'll have his forty-four loaded and aimed his way." Trembling with fury, I poked his chest with my finger. "The bastard will never touch me again. By the way, thanks for coming to help when you heard the screams. Six months have passed and you just now think to ask? Nice to know you think I can kick his ass. Which means you better keep away from me, because I might kick yours." Ben backed up enough he nearly fell down the three steps down to the walkway hugging the side of the house. 32

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Detective Burrows wrapped an arm around my waist to pull me back and I yelped. "God dammit! Get your hands off me! Those ribs hurt, bubba!" The man released me. I hugged myself, doing my best to breathe. Fly-boy grabbed my shoulders, holding me upright. "He broke your ribs?" He vibrated with fury, but his hold was gentle. I was too dizzy to notice much more. "All but. They were cracked but good. After I hit the ground, he kicked me. That was right before he left, and they'd pretty much healed. They were bruised again last Saturday when some drunk decided to play chicken." I gasped for air. He carefully leaned me against the side of the house. "Shit." The secrets I'd meant to keep had pretty much leaped from my mouth. My damn propensity for venting out loud. I fought to keep from lapsing into what I knew would be a painful coughing fit. "Nice neighborhood here, when men sworn to protect citizens let a bully beat up on a woman." The words were growled at Ben, who'd been stunned into immobility. The detective pulled out his notebook. "You're the vic in the accident on Tudor Saturday afternoon?" Nodding, I continued to focus on breathing. "It was on the news and in the paper. The police have full documentation on my injuries from the accident and from the night Quint left. Feel free to look it up. Two separate events." It was more than I'd planned on saying. More than my bruised body was able to handle. "Detective, get these two out of here," I 33

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

gasped. "One has never lifted a finger to help, the other ... wasn't in town at the time. They're not ... part of this." "Mom!" Rob's feet hit the entryway floor and he pushed the detective aside, also forcing the lieutenant to release me. "Are you okay?" His worry erased my anger. "I'm okay, sweetie. These men were just leaving." I glanced at the detective, but spoke to Rob. "They want to know where your dad is. The detective can look up our case and figure out everything from the file." Thankfully my breath was coming back by then. Burrows wasn't letting me go so easily. "I need your phone number, ma'am." I gave him the numbers and noted the lieutenant apparently concentrated on memorizing them. I'd never given Ben our new numbers for the HOA roster. Let him figure it out. The detective made a note as Rob took control. "She needs to rest." Lord love him, Rob grew an inch taller in that minute. He carefully wrapped his arms around me while glaring at the men, and helped me into the house. He locked the door and stayed beside me step by step up to the main floor. Through the open windows, I heard men growling. Ten minutes later, a lawn mower and weed whacker simultaneously circled my house. The sound of raking was soon followed by sweeping coming from the drive. Then the outdoor faucets came on. Rob didn't leave my side that night. We fell asleep to the sound of sprinklers. [Back to Table of Contents] 34

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Chapter 4 "Mom, there's a message on the phone." Robbie had his head in the fridge, as usual. We had twenty minutes before we had to leave for TKD. Of course he was hungry. I'd often pondered why I took the trouble to put the food away when it was just going to be inhaled in the next twenty-four hours. The kid was gearing up for another growth spurt, I could just feel it. "I'll check it when we get home." I had no desire whatsoever to deal with whomever. Despite changing, and unlisting, all the phone numbers, as well as removing Quint from the cellphone plan, I still had to deal with the callers. How they'd accessed my numbers, I didn't know, but somehow, they'd ferreted out the information. Since February, about a week after Quint had gone missing, I'd been doing my best to avoid his boss, buddies, jibes from the neighbors and occasional probing by the police. Unbelievably, someone had called him in as a missing person. Hadn't been me, Ben swore it wasn't him, and the caller had done his best to make me look guilty as hell. I suspected Quint's boss, since it was clear the man hated me, based solely on whatever stories Quint had told at work. So far, the cops hadn't found anything they could arrest me on. Considering I was innocent, I regarded this as a good thing. I had to recreate the chain of events for the police numerous times, going over each detail I'd wanted to gloss over. 35

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

On Super Bowl Sunday, Quint had spent the day with the neighbors, watching the game at Jack's. Mainly hanging with Jack, and Ben, incidentally Jack's CO. Quint and the guys had been drinking beer, swapping stories and yelling at the game. After spending the day doing the usual laundry, I'd also cleared my room of old clothes. We had a new, fancy, choose-your-number air mattress Quint had ordered at end of year clearance pricing. Rob and I spent a few hours assembling it, and hoping to rest a little, I'd hunkered down with my computer, trying to do a little writing. The weather plays a big part in whatever happens in Alaska. For instance, Alaskan homes rarely have central air conditioning. Which, in the case of our home, was too bad. With large windows fully facing west, in the summer my second floor great room could grow stifling in a hurry. I opened all the screened windows on the second floor sometime in mid-May and didn't shut them until September. I also kept the ceiling fan running day and night year round and used box fans as needed. The house could easily reach eighty degrees, or more, by mid-afternoon. The open windows were half the reason the neighbors considered me the bitch of our marriage. With them open four months straight, everyone on the street could pretty much hear everything when our voices were raised. I tried to remain conscious of this, but Quint knew exactly how much they could hear and used his knowledge to push my buttons when he wanted a little sympathy from the guys. I wasn't a screaming shrew. I bit back a lot of poison, mostly because 36

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

when I did explode, I paid. In many ways. I'd say, generally, once a year he pushed me far enough to create a genuine, hair-raising hissy fit. So when I hit the end of my tolerance, I'd been simmering a good nine months since the last one and, with a malicious twinkle in his eye, Quint had been ramping up the pressure for several weeks. To the point I was sleeping in the living room most nights and Rob found excuses to hide when his father was home. That year, though, it came about during the winter, when the homes were normally buttoned up tight. We'd had a warm spell with Chinook winds, however, and I had a few of the windows cracked to blow fresh air through before the next cold snap settled in. After the game, Quint had come home to grill dinner. He came into the house with a platter full of ice cold, charcoalblack burgers. He was also pretty buzzed. A case of beer over the course of a day was an easy guess. The guys thought he was hilarious with his stumbling jokes. I knew he'd probably pee all over the bathroom, leaving a wet spot on the front of his jeans in the process, then later demand a blow job. Like hell. He hadn't been able to get it up in over a year. I thought about going to bed, but seven o'clock was far too early. Hiding in my office and leaving Rob to fend for himself wouldn't work either. Quint wouldn't tolerate us abandoning him after he'd cooked dinner. Yeah. That was his take. I prepared the meat, toasted the buns, sliced the cheese, onions and tomatoes, made the potato salad and set the table, all in an effort to make it seem like summer in the middle of a long dark winter, then finished 37

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

up by doing the dishes. According to Quint, he'd given me a night off from cooking. Some treat. I'd been biting my tongue for a long time because of Rob. Were I on my own, I would have walked a lot sooner. But in order to leave, I had to be able to provide a home for my son. I'd crunched the numbers. I could make it month to month on my salary, but I needed several thousand dollars of seed money. First, last and deposit on an apartment, money to buy furniture, plus a nest egg for a retainer and the unexpected. And I needed a place near Rob's school. With him moving on to middle school in the fall, our options had widened considerably. However, I was about fifteen hundred dollars short of my minimum goal. It would mean having only one bed—Rob's—and we'd be sitting on the floor for awhile, but I'd have my grandfather's desk, my uncle's lawyer's bookcase, the desk set and dresser we'd bought for Rob, my laptop and a few dishes. If I could just hang on a few months longer, five ideally, we could pack up and leave. I had just the place in mind, a building with a secure entrance. Would a secure entrance stop Quint? No, but it would slow him down. I couldn't afford a place with a security guard, but the complex I had in mind had security cameras in the lobbies and the underground parking garage. Not much, but it was something. It also required a hefty chunk of cash to get in the door, provided there was an available apartment. So I kept my mouth shut, socked away every penny I could and quietly sold a few things online. Things small enough I could carry out in my purse, tote bag or lunch bag. Things I could quietly send off from the office. Picking just the right items that 38

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

would bring in at least twenty dollars was tough. But I managed and was adding about two hundred fifty dollars a month to my kitty. I took one look at the burned burgers and knew I couldn't last much longer. Quint slapped me on the butt and told me to serve it up. That was my first bruise. Everything else was on the plates. I pushed the platter back at Quint. "Eat 'em if you want, I'll pass." "What? A little black not good enough for you, princess?" The words slurred through his sneer as he swayed in the kitchen. Beer fumes enclosed him like a fog. That and sweat. "Give me a blow job first and the burgers will taste better. I deserve one for cookin' dinner for you. Hell, you should like 'em, you seasoned them." "Think about a shower and an early night, Quint." I said it quietly, fury digging deep into my soul. So deep, a wave of resigned weariness immediately followed. This dance had been choreographed before, but he'd never gone so far as to use the words blow job in front of Rob. Too embarrassed, I couldn't look over to see my son's reaction. I slapped one of the patties on Quint's bun and handed him the plate. "Dinner first." Maybe ignoring his statement and getting some food in him would help. Mollified for the moment, he took the plate and leered at me. "Gonna need my strength for later. I'm feeling a need for sweet dessert tonight. Nothing like poking some Candy in the ass, eh, babe? Gotta break in the new mattress." 39

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Determined not to rise to the bait, I reached into the fridge for some lunchmeat. Rob and I would just have sliced turkey on our buns. No big deal. If only I'd had roast beef, it would have looked more like the burgers. Quint noticed. "What? You not eating the meat I cooked for you? You bitch about standing over a hot stove and expect me to eat the slop you produce. What about me standing over a hot grill?" "You had plenty of beer to keep you company." Balancing Rob's plate and mine on one arm, I grabbed a bowl of cucumber salad to carry to the table and pushed past Quint. Rob was at the table and cast a wary glance at his father as he reached for his plate. Quint pulled his chair up to the end of the table and sneered at the food. "What's the matter, Bobby-boy? You not man enough to eat a real char-broiled burger? Have to eat the candyass pussy food your mama feeds you?" Rob kept his eyes on his plate and tucked his paper towel napkin into his lap without a reminder. I glared at Quint. Abusing me was one thing; turning on our son was another. "Your stomach is made of cast iron. We haven't built up such a tolerance." I sat down and placed my napkin in my lap. "Hell, woman, he's my son. Take that back and slap a patty on it. That expensive deli meat is pussy food." Quint grabbed Rob's plate and slapped it, upturned, on my chest. "Now make him a man's plate." Rob, the boy who'd held his tongue his entire life, chose that moment to talk back. "Why can't you leave her alone? 40

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

That plate was just fine with me." He pushed back his chair, preparing to stand. Probably to help me clean up the food now dropping to the carpet in large wet plops. Great. Ketchup, mustard, potato salad ... I'd have to dig out the carpet cleaner I'd bought a few months earlier when Quint had peed on the bedroom carpet in a drunken stupor. I was just standing when Quint's right hand drew back in preparation of backhanding Rob. For once, his drunkenness played to my advantage. He moved slowly enough I was able to grab his arm and keep it from swinging to make contact with my son. Drunk as he was, Quint still had the strength to drag me part-way across the table. Swearing a blue streak and calling him every vile name I could think of, I ended up wearing food from all three plates and the vinegary cucumbers I'd set down. Quint planted his fist in my face and used it to push me away and down to the floor at the same time a left backhand crushed into my stomach. Rob raced around his dad to get to the phone base sitting at the end of the kitchen counter, all the while screaming for Quint to back off and get the hell out. That's probably what the neighbors had heard, those who'd also opened their windows for a rare chance at fresh air in winter. Rob's voice hadn't changed yet, and on the phone he'd been mistaken for me more than once, to his great disgust. Trying to catch my breath, I yelled at Rob to get away from his dad. Quint ripped the phone from Rob's hand and threw the entire base unit across the dining area, where it hit a wall. Six inches to the left and he would have broken one of the windows over the stairwell. Rob already had his hand on 41

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

my cellphone, which had been charging on the counter. Quint quickly demolished that and turned on Rob in fury, his voice never rising above a normal volume. He was good at that. Let me do the screaming, or in this case, Rob. I threw myself at Quint's legs and knocked him off balance so Rob could escape from the confines of the kitchen. Rob was heading for the door when Quint kicked me. I screamed loud enough for the whole street to hear, hoping, for once, just one of them would come to the door to see what the hell was going on. My scream brought Rob back, but Quint pushed past him, down the stairs and out the door. As consciousness wavered in and out, I heard Quint rev his truck and the tires squealed as he tore out of the driveway. The snow just beginning to fall muffled the sounds of his truck as he drove away. Except for Rob's cries, not a sound followed. No one knocked on the door. No one touched the doorbell. Hell, not even police sirens ripped through the air. I could have died, for all my neighbors noticed. Rob could be lying at the bottom of the stairs with a broken neck. But all I could think, as I clung to the shreds of consciousness, was thank God. Quint was gone. Now if only he'd stay that way. For all their silence on Quint's departure, somehow word of my auto accident made it onto the neighborhood grapevine. Since the detective's visit, a few of the neighbors quietly began to take care of me. Lieutenant Sunshine and Ben had mowed my yard and he informed me they had plans to scrub the driveway over the weekend and put down a new layer of 42

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

asphalt sealant. Ben, the general and Jack had already planned to do their drives, they just added me to the schedule. I had a week's worth of casseroles filling the fridge. I'd been able to call off the committee a couple nights earlier. It was more food than we could eat, and some of it didn't look all that appetizing, although the Korean ladies down the street made some fabulous spring rolls. Our mailman's wife, who lived three houses down, offered to drive Rob to Tae Kwon Do, but I was reluctant to accept too much help. After all, these people had thought the worst of me. However, I wasn't above accepting a few tokens of their abject apologies for misjudging me. I made an effort to wave, and if they stopped me, I chatted for a few minutes, then gently excused myself. Rob had invites to play basketball with the mailman's son, who was a year older, and street hockey with the young teen directly across the street. They were the two black families in the neighborhood and the only kids close to his age. The Koreans didn't speak much English, but they smiled shyly and weeded the flowers along my walkway. My violas, herbs, daisies and hanging baskets had never looked better. Molly from next door, the one Rob called the crazy cat lady, kept them watered. Not everyone felt the need to apologize. Many kept their distance, treating me no better, no worse than before. As for who'd left a message that day, I didn't want to think about it. The microwave beeped and Rob pulled a burrito from the oven. "You want one?" he asked.

43

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"No. Thanks. I'll just grab a power bar." That, some water and a book would keep me company while I camped out in the car during the class at the dojo. Rob grabbed a bar from the pantry shelf and handed it to me. I wanted to ruffle his hair, but couldn't reach so high. "Don't you want to know who called?" Rob asked. "No." Rob and I both had new cellphones, just not dataphones, to his great disappointment. I also had two hardwired phones to go with the cordless handsets and the new house number. "Unless you recognized the number from Caller ID?" "No. Blocked caller." "Then I definitely don't want to know. Probably some politician or a survey company." We'd certainly had plenty of those calls. "Hurry up, you need to change." He shoved the last bite of burrito into his mouth and took the stairs down to his room, making enough noise to compete with a herd of elephants. A loud thump announced his arrival at the bottom just as the doorbell pealed. My fear of Quint returning hadn't entirely left, so my stomach clenched hard. "I got it!" Rob called out. The door opened and I held my breath, listening. The voice that carried up the stairs as a rumbly murmur came from a man. "Mom, the lieutenant is here." Damn. "Come up." My stomach relaxed, while my pulse zinged. 44

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

The boy was getting persistent. Apparently he was the leader of the Take Care of Candace Committee. I saw him every day and he greeted both of us with a smile. Rob showed an eagerness for the man's company that both soothed and frightened me. Maybe as much as I feared growing interested myself. Until I knew where Quint was, and my divorce came through, I had no clue what the future held. Although I'd removed my wedding rings, I had trouble getting used to the idea of being single. Until the decree was in my hand, probably many months, if not years, down the road, I couldn't in good conscience date. Nor did I want to. I had one man in my life—my son. I didn't want to rely on anyone. I had to take care of Rob and that was that. A fly-boy who might be around six months or a couple years before jetting off wasn't even a possibility. And yet, there he was. Golden and smiling with cheer that seemed to come straight from the Emerald Isle. The echo of the Celts could be heard in the lilt of his voice. His bright humor reminded me of my father and my younger brother, Rory, both of whom I missed dreadfully. Neither of whom were in a place to help, although they sympathized mightily and called regularly to check up. My grandmother sent small checks when she could, and every little bit helped. Rory had offered to come up after my accident, but he had a new baby, they were barely making it on his paycheck, and his wife needed him. Dad had his hands full caring for his mother, Grandma Aileen. My middle name came from her. 45

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Mom had passed on a few years ago, so we were pretty diminished. All three of them urged me to take leave and come down. Or better yet, move home. Another tempting thought, but California was too expensive. Rob was in a good place, the school district had him on the gifted track, and we were aiming for the International Baccalaureate program. Besides, I liked my job, made good money, and compared to the North Bay Area, the cost of living was manageable. For the most part, I felt at home in Anchorage. I was still considering a move to the secured apartment complex—it wouldn't be much cheaper than trying to pay the mortgage on the house—but other expenses would drop. Still, I didn't have to jump immediately. If Quint had split for good, then I had to decide what to do about the furnishings. I'd have to reduce the volume by seventy to eighty percent to fit into a twobedroom apartment. Cay's head popped over the half-height wall that separated the dining area from the stairwell. A second later, his tall form dominated the space at the top of the stairs. "First time you've let me up here," he said. "Nice." I glanced around the room nominally divided into dining, living room and media, kitchen and a small study area for Rob against the north wall. He'd voluntarily moved up from the office and set up his desktop computer so I could easily look over his shoulder. He didn't want me to worry about him hitting internet porn, he'd said. What a kid. He had a way of making me laugh. Where his ideas came from, I had no clue. "Like oak, do you?" "So?" 46

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"It goes nice with the green." He nodded at my jungle of indoor plants crowded against bookcases, all under grow lights near the south corner window. "Seems to work with the white walls and cheap carpet." I hadn't gotten around to painting the walls the soft sage and taupe I wanted. Quint had never agreed to it, and without his paycheck, I couldn't afford to. "Hope you like football. I'll be spending Sunday afternoons over here soon. Pre-season is about to start." Cay grinned at the sixty-inch flat-screen perched on top of the most original of entertainment centers, one we called the honeymooner special, made with cinder blocks and pine boards. Hey, it was cheap and held speakers, receiver, Blu-ray, cable box and three game consoles. With room left over for a couple plants and a few pictures. Not original, not pretty, but functional. The entire set up could probably add a grand or two to my escape fund. "Depends on who you cheer for. If you like the Niners, you're in. Denver, Dallas or Oakland and you're out." "Niners are good. I'm told Seahawks are the local team here, but I'm something of a Chicago fan, even though I should root for Detroit." He shrugged with an adorable sheepish grin. "My dad would disown me if he knew how I really felt." "Where are you from?" "East Lansing, Michigan. You?" "Northern California." "Oh yeah? I just moved from there. I was at Travis and my sister is in Livermore." 47

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Damn. He'd practically come from my hometown. "Benicia." His grin widened. "I know it well. What do you know, a sunny California girl with roots in Ireland. Can't ask for better than that." He stepped closer and touched a strand of hair hanging over my shoulder. I could smell the remnants of the aftershave he must have slapped on hours earlier, that and the unique scent of his skin. Heart fluttering, leaving me completely flustered, I stepped back and moved to stand behind a chair on the far side of the dining table. Was I back in high school, hoping the cute jock would ask me to the dance? "Is there a point to this chit chat? Was there something you wanted? Needed?" "My car arrived today. I cleared out the boxes and want to take it for a run. Go with me? It's too pretty a night to sit at home." "Rob has Tae Kwon Do in half an hour." I looked away from him to shout down to the kid. "You about ready?" "Almost!" "Let me drive you," Cay pleaded. "The car needs to stretch its legs, so to speak. Warm up the tires, move the oil around. I don't want to take Jack for a drive. He's not even remotely pretty enough." Something hot and sweet lanced through my veins. This was so not happening. "I—I can't. Don't ask. I can drive Rob just fine." I reached for my purse hanging off the back of the chair. "We're going to be late," I called down. "Just have to pee," Rob answered. 48

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Cay chuckled. "Reminds me of home. Five brothers, one sister. She's dead center, five minutes younger than me." "A twin?" Why did that surprise me? "Tiny little thing like you, but her hair's more orange and wild with corkscrew curls." He ran a hand over his hair. "Mine would be the same if I didn't buzz it off every four weeks. What's the harm? I need to learn my way around, it's a gorgeous night, which I've been told is all too rare, and winter will be here before you know it. Please?" "Please, Mom?" Rob bounded up the stairs in his gi, the green belt he'd earned only a few weeks ago in hand. "I saw the car. It's a Mustang. Major coolness." It was the first true spark of excitement I'd seen from Rob since everything had fallen apart. All spring, he'd alternated between clinging to me and occasionally letting on how much he missed Quint. Ever since the accident, he'd been especially good as gold. And while I could say no to Cay, I couldn't to my son. "Sure, honey." Rob whooped and Cay smiled. Between the two of them, I was toast. [Back to Table of Contents]

49

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Chapter 5 Rule Number One for courting a woman with a kid: Make friends with her kid. Cay never said it, but I repeated the mantra in my head. The funny thing was, it didn't feel forced, and Rob would have balked if it had. Rob loved the Mustang. What boy, big or small, wouldn't? It was a male dream. Okay, so I wouldn't have minded a chance behind the wheel. The seats were molded to hold a body snugly. The car was a crouching, growly silver beast, its rumble a slight vibration that came up from the floorboards with just the right intensity to warm a girl up, the ride smooth as glass. I had serious car envy by the time we reached the strip mall school, and Lieutenant Smug knew it. After climbing out to set Rob free from the back seat, Cay settled behind the wheel again, moving as if the car had been made for him. "Want to go for a drive? Rob said I could take you to pick up some burgers, as long we grab one for him." "I have a power bar, and Rob had a burrito. We'll heat up one of the casseroles when we get home." "Where's the fun in that?" Cayden's smile reminded me of Rob's when he was about four and learning his power to sweet-talk me. "The class is only forty-five minutes. Not enough time to go somewhere." Besides, the last time I'd tried to run an errand while Rob was in class, I'd ended up with a new hood ornament courtesy of a local drunk. Oh, and a totaled car to 50

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

go with a new hospital bill. I didn't much like the idea of making a quick run anywhere. "Isn't there a Red Robin around here? We call in the order, run over to pick it up, by the time we get back class is over, we go home and eat, or find a picnic spot." Cayden held up his iPhone. "Give me a restaurant name if you can think of one closer than the one just off base." "See, this is why I don't like to accept rides from anyone. I'm a captive audience." With a sigh, I rested my head against the high seat back and stared at the padded ceiling. "Fine. Red Robin on Dimond." "What do you want?" He started tapping on the screen of his phone. "What does Rob like?" In less than three minutes, we had an order placed for pick up, and he kicked the car into reverse. "Point the way." At half past six, traffic was manageable. It was still early enough the legendary summer sun was high in the sky, so it didn't blind us as we drove west. At the highway, we turned south. While waiting on the overpass for the light, I pointed north to the view of North America's highest peak, Denali, the Great One, also known as Mt. McKinley. "That is an awesome sight. Have you ever seen it from the air?" Cay asked. "No. Bet you'll fly over it a lot." From my office, a division of the State on the fifth floor of a building in mid-town, we frequently watched the fighter jets take off and land. An awesome sight, they usually flew in sets of four, one following the other. Most of the time they turned north over the inlet and less populated areas. Our neighborhood was due south of 51

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

one of the runways out there and the big cargo transports often flew over our house when lining up to land. Once, a Blue Angel on a practice run roared past, barely fifty feet over my roof. I could see the pilot's face. It was a thrilling experience. I didn't begrudge the base one bit of their noise. "I'm not supposed to tell you this, civilian that you are, but I'm going to trust you anyway. I've flown around it twice. Pretty incredible. I may spend some time up at Clear this winter." "I've heard the jets love flying in the arctic air. Heavy air, if I recall the program on TV." "Yup, the plane digs in. Flies like a dream." The light turned green and we joined the cars turning left onto the ramp to enter the southward flow. "What exit?" "Dimond Boulevard." "Number?" "No number, just a name. We don't have so many exits. One highway north, one south. Kind of hard to get lost." Cay chuckled and slid the car into traffic like a fish finding its place in a school. He asked about the names of the mountains to our left. I described the few hiking trails I'd been on. "Does Rob like to hike?" I shrugged. "He gets a lot of exercise between the gymnastics center and TKD. Sometimes we'll go for a bike ride, and he's getting into the Move, but Quint wasn't big on hiking, so before this summer we've done very little." Cay nodded and zeroed in on my reference to the game console accessory. "The PS3 Move?" 52

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"That's the one." "I have a few games. I'll have to compare notes with him." "Take the next exit and stay to the right. All the way to the right." "Yes, ma'am." I directed him to the restaurant and he insisted I wait in the car. "Program in the best radio stations if you want something to do," he suggested. "What do you like?" "Rock, news, maybe one country station." I could work with that. Except the country station. He could find that one on his own. In order of mild to wild, I gave him a taste of oldies, easy listening, popular, alternative on up to heavy metal. I didn't know where the news station was, so I left that one alone, too. Probably on AM anyway. For grins, I even programmed in the classical station and Mozart trilled from the speakers when he returned with two plastic bags holding four entree cartons. "Mozart, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, first movement, Allegro." Surprised, and mildly impressed, I regarded him with a raised brow. "You know that?" "Father is a frustrated musician. Kept hoping one of us would either be virtuoso or a conductor. Cassie played violin for a little bit, but the poor dear girl has a tin ear. Sings about as well as she can cook." The affection on Cay's face made my breath hitch. "Your twin, right?" 53

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"Cassidy. She's about your size, and just like you she quits eating when she's stressed." "What do you mean, I quit eating?" "You're about five pounds lighter than the first time I saw you." With ease, he found the cloverleaf on-ramp to the highway going north. As we came up onto the overpass, he whistled in appreciation of the huge, white mountain in the distance. We could even see the two to the west, Mt. Foraker and Mt. Hunter, the short one in the middle. Yeah, short. Thirty-five feet short of fourteen thousand. Next to Denali at twenty thousand, three hundred twenty feet, it looked short. They were covered in glaciers and marked the start of the Alaska Range. "Gorgeous." "This is what people mean when they say the mountain is out. We don't see it every day. What do you mean I've lost weight? How can you tell? Look for the Tudor Road exit and again, stick to the right lane." "You've lost weight." He shrugged. "I can tell. I learned to pick out the signs when my sister's husband was dying a couple years back. Ryan couldn't eat much and she was too stressed to worry about food for herself. Then he died and she was too sad. I drove down from Travis every weekend and stuffed her full of burgers, Mexican food, pizza, whatever packed the most calories. I even made sure she had leftovers and easy-to-nuke meals in the fridge. Most of it went in the trash or down the disposal, I'm sure. The first weekend I came back, the fridge was still full of what I'd put in it. After that it was cleaned out but she didn't look any fatter." 54

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"I'm sorry for your sister's loss." She probably didn't feel lucky, but part of me envied her the freedom. "Does she have kids?" "No, no kids. But she's got a new guy. Met him a few weeks ago. About a week before I moved up here. He should have a ring on her finger by Christmas." Accompanied by a smug grin, satisfaction oozed from him. "Long story short, he saved her life when she got shot in the leg. They, of course, disagree on how it came about that she got shot, but she'll recover just fine." "Oh, my God! She got shot?" I was so fascinated I didn't pay attention to Cay's driving. Apparently he was good at finding his way, because he made the eastward turn back onto Tudor Road with no problems. "I'll give you all the details another time, but someone stole her husband's identity, used it to steal some government secrets to sell to a mobster. Her new guy was investigating the situation from the government side and there was a little gun fire. She got hit by accident, but he had a line on some military guys training nearby. He called them in, the bad guys were apprehended, she got sewn up and he's doing his best to talk her into moving in with him. Personally, I think he's going to have to get her pregnant first. She loved her husband an awful lot and it hasn't quite been two years." "You like him?" "Well, he's not a red head, but he's Irish, and she won't have to change her name. Her first husband was Ryan Malone. This guy is Niall Malone." He shrugged and shifted 55

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

into the left lane. "What's the name of the chopped off mountain? The one with the flat top?" "Flat Top. There's a well-worn trail up the side. People like to go up there and party on the Solstice. She found another guy with the same last name?" "He found her. Searched her house from top to bottom, too. Something happened that day, but neither one of them is speaking and he grins while she blushes when the topic comes up." He grinned at me and pulled away from the intersection where we'd been stopped by a red light. With a nod at the dash clock, he teased, "Look, mama bear, we've only been gone thirty-five minutes, and we're only a couple miles away. Plenty of time to be there when your cub is done." "Funny, Lieutenant." "Cay." "And my name is Candace. Not Candy, not mama bear. Just Candace." "Candace what?" "Cutler." "What's your maiden name? Murphy? O'Brien? Shannon?" "Stenson. From County Sligo. Sixth generation American. You?" "Second generation. From the Shaughnessy's of Galway." "Ah, that explains the hint of lilt that every now and then creeps into your accent." "A left over from my grandparents. Pappy was a talker, a story teller in the finest of tradition." 56

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"The first turn-in is best." I pointed the direction and he eased the car into the center turning lane as I squelched a shudder. The exact spot where I'd been creamed only days before. I had to drive here often, and had no room to be squeamish about it. Chances of me getting hit here again were practically nil, according to the insurance company. I forced myself to look beyond, into the parking lot itself. The bingo parlor was filling fast for a Wednesday night and taking up most of the parking. Good thing we didn't need a spot for long. Cay got the last one in front of the dojo and we could see the class paired off and sparring inside. Food fumes filled the car to the point my stomach growled. Slapping my hand over it did nothing to muffle the sound. "I love being right." Satisfaction filled his voice while I directed my gaze forward. "Stop being so smug, Lieutenant." I located Rob at the nearest edge of the mat through the oversized plate glass windows. He held the pads for his partner, who raised her fists and rocked back for her kick. He glanced our way just as her foot flew ... and landed with full force right on his eye. Shit. I reached for the door, but Cay's hand shot out and grabbed my arm. "Easy there, Mama. We'll go in, but do it slow and casual. Let me come around and help you." The teacher was already beside Rob and someone else appeared with an ice pack. Cay made it around the rear of the car by the time I had my seat belt off and the door open. He handed me out, shut the door, and held me back by lacing his fingers with mine. 57

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"Easy now. Don't get excited. Kids get banged up, and this should teach him to pay attention, but you getting hysterical won't help." I knew he was right, but dammit, my baby had been hurt. Despite the foam helmet, the pads and every lecture on safety, he'd lost focus for a moment and now would have a shiner to match mine. Kids. [Back to Table of Contents]

58

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Chapter 6 Cay was right, I knew that. He held me back, kept me calm. The teacher breathed a sigh of relief, told us to ice it in intervals. The sparring partner was nearly in tears apologizing and Rob took it like a man. He even asked about the food waiting in the car and we made it out in just a few minutes. I wanted nothing more than to hug the stuffing out of him, but Cay kept hold of me and got Rob laughing. By the time we reached home, we were making jokes about our matching eyes. Not really a laughing matter, but if I'd fussed the way a mother wants to, I would have undercut Rob's personal growth. Or so Cay informed me while Rob took a shower and changed into shorts and a t-shirt. Dinner was on the table by the time he bounced up the stairs as if nothing had happened. "Got wine? Tequila?" Cay asked. "You look like you could use a drink." "I don't drink." Somewhat unfairly, I snapped the answer at him. "I don't allow alcohol in my house. I couldn't control the garage, but the house is off limits." He didn't flinch, just nodded. "Fair enough. I'll give you a neck rub later." Neck rub? Considering how good my hand had felt in his, I wasn't sure I wanted his hands on any other part of my body. And yet ... he found little ways to touch me. A hand on my shoulder. The small of my back as he guided me toward the chair Quint normally used at the table. Apparently Cayden knew better than to sit between me and my child. 59

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

The same child squeezing a mountain of ketchup onto his plate with one hand while shoveling fries into his mouth with the other. At least he didn't talk with his mouth full. Talking only happened when half his food was gone. By then, the hunger pains had subsided to a manageable level so he could breathe between bites. Breathing being a requirement for speaking. "This is so good. Thanks, Cay," Rob said when he could form words. I had to smile to myself. At least he remembered his manners. Probably more due to the fact it was the first really good food he'd had since the night before my accident. Except for the homemade spring rolls. He'd inhaled most of those. "When do I get to go for another ride? I want to scream down the highway." The memory of crunching metal and breaking glass was still a little too close for me to feel comfortable with that idea, but I hid my flinch while Cay laughed and dropped some onion rings on my plate. Making up for the salad I'd ordered instead of fries with my burger? "We'll go for a drive soon. I've got a couple days off coming up and I'm not quite sure what to do with myself. Jack mentioned some easy hiking trails nearby, but I haven't looked into them yet. You know any of them?" "There's Flat Top," Rob answered between fries. "Thunderbird Falls, Eklutna, McHugh Creek, Alyeska. There's a bunch." I raised a brow at this. How did he know so much? 60

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"Sometimes I sign up for the day hikes at summer camp." Ah. Made sense. He didn't always tell me exactly where they'd gone. Sometimes he went on the bike rides, sometimes he hung out and played in the gym, working on his gymnastics moves. A couple kids from his TKD class were there as well. He told me sometimes they practiced their forms out on the big mats. "Think your mom would let you hang with me one day? I could use a guide and if she's got to work..." Sneaky bastard. I'd just stuffed a bite in my mouth and couldn't respond other than to glare at him. I set the burger on my plate and grabbed my napkin. "Mom? Please? I could use a change." Two pairs of blue eyes looked at me, both begging. Robbie with his spiky dark blond hair looked more like Cay in that moment than he'd ever looked like Quint. I managed to swallow without choking, but reached for my water to give the chill running down my spine a chance to dissipate. So fast. We'd barely known this man a week, and pretty much because he'd found ways to slide into our lives, not because I'd gone looking. A man in the house was the last thing I wanted. God, if Quint walked in at that moment ... The horror of the thought killed my appetite. "Let me think about it." "Fair enough. Didn't mean to spring that on you, but the idea just occurred to me." Cay back-pedaled and dumped another onion ring on my plate, followed by a dab of the chipotle ranch dressing that came with the appetizer. "Are you about done there?" I asked Rob. 61

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

The last fry had disappeared into his mouth as he eyed the untouched rings on my plate and the remaining half of burger. "You gonna finish that?" Forget about me cleaning up his food. He cleaned up mine. I shoved my plate at him and he set it on top of his empty one. "When you're done, please empty the dishwasher. I'll do the rest of the kitchen." Mouth full, he nodded, but his gaze returned to Cay. Time to take care of that situation. "So, don't you have an early day, Lieutenant?" At the moment, I wanted peace. It was about time for Rob to lie down with ice on his eye for a bit. After that ... well, there was always the kitchen to clean and laundry to push through. I'd fallen behind on both chores and my body was calling out for a pain pill and rest. Appearing to take the hint, he gathered up his dishes and headed for the kitchen. I finished my water and nearly ran into Cay as he carried the empty containers to the trash at the end of the counter. Gee, a man who cleaned up and took hints? "Go move that table away from the ottoman and sit on it. I promised you a neck rub." At my hesitation, he took the glass and unused utensils from my hand. "Go on. Don't argue. You'll sleep better tonight." "I doubt that," I muttered and got a light pat on the rump. My glare was met with a raised brow. The same action from Quint had often left a bruise. The last one had taken weeks to fade, but the memory of it lingered. From the younger man, it had the quality of a caress and didn't raise anything more than a twinge of heat. The kind that indicated interest, not 62

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

outrage. Not a good enough actress to feign that kind of emotion, I shrugged and gave in. Frankly, I was too tired. Putting in a full day at work, then rushing off to kid activities pushed me to the very edge of endurance when I still had to force myself to take deep breaths on an hourly basis. The rib pain was manageable because of the compression garment I continued to wear, but it didn't allow much room for air. Beyond the pain, I still counted myself as emotionally dead. What Quint hadn't stolen from me, worrying about money and Robbie's frame of mind had. For the most part, he didn't act out much, apparently accepting Quint's desertion, but I still watched for a reaction. Robbie was the sun and moon of my existence and he kept me going. Every woman has her tolerance levels and her own supply of courage, whether grand or small. It's all too easy to ask how a woman can stay in an abusive situation, but until a person has actually lived her life, the question can't be answered. I'd read stories, looking for inspiration to deal with my own. Every woman made bad decisions. Some lived with those decisions, others bailed. Some had the means to escape, some had nothing and no one. I'd known of a few who tried to break away, only to go back because the remaining choice was suicide. Some chose suicide, sometimes by the slow route of drugs and alcohol. Even eating, or not, could be used as a slow form of suicide. Lord knew I'd been tempted to check out a time or two, especially this last round, but Robbie had only me to protect him and I would defend him with my very last breath if it meant his father never laid a hand, or fist, on him in anger. I did my best to erase and 63

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

counteract the words, but I couldn't get rid of them all. Some of them would make him a better man in the long run, but I still did my best to shield him from the worst. If that meant I took the blows, then so be it. But there was a price to pay. In my case, for the most part, I felt numb. Dead. Worn down. I had little in the way of defense from someone who spoke with kindness and acted on the words. I didn't know how to shield myself, short of being rude. For just me, I probably would have opted for that route. But there was Robbie. He bounced up from the table, picked up everything that was left and charged into the kitchen. Then he started filling the sink to soak the dishes and proceeded to empty the dishwasher. Dumbfounded, I let Cay pull me down onto the ottoman while he settled himself behind me in my chair. As big as he was, he barely fit in the low leather armchair. Moving carefully because of my ribs and assorted bruises, he eased the over shirt off my shoulders, exposing the vest I wore over a soft cotton tank top. Completely not sexy. Didn't seem to bother Cay much. "Do you need to take that off to do some deep breathing? My little brother almost got pneumonia when he cracked a couple ribs one wrestling season. The little bugger kept his wraps on too long and didn't do the breathing exercises." I shook my head. "Later." "I'll be gentle," he murmured in my ear. His warm breath sent coils of sensual heat down deep inside of me. I didn't want it to. I didn't want to physically react to him, to 64

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

encourage the familiarity. I wanted to blame him for seducing me. I was tougher than that. I didn't fall for a pretty face and a smooth line. I was stronger than the obvious lines of an Air Force Casanova. Wasn't I? Apparently not. Slowly, gently, with great precision, he rubbed my shoulders, arms, neck, and before I knew it, he had me cradled between his arms, his warm chest supporting my back. I had as much substance as overcooked noodles. I was on the verge of drooling on Cay's neck, where my head rested so comfortably and I could enjoy the warmed scent of his aftershave, when Robbie announced he'd filled the dishwasher. How the heck could I kick out a guy who inspired a kid to such feats of initiative? Especially while lying against him like a cheap blanket? I must have fallen asleep. The next thing I knew, Cay was lifting me, the sore side of my ribs against his chest as he held me gently. Apparently he'd lifted my arm up around his neck without me stirring. I clung to him as he rose with my legs draped over his other arm. At least I'd worn pants that day, instead of a skirt. "Her room's back there," Rob whispered. Cay nodded and I had the sensation of floating. Relative darkness closed around us as we entered my room at the back of the top floor. The bathroom was to the left with the walk-in closet just beyond. The king-sized bed was against the opposite wall and Cay carried me to the nearest side. I hadn't been careful when making the bed that morning, so it 65

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

was obvious I slept on the other side, but the way he carried me made it awkward. Then again, I hadn't taken into account the fact he was big and strong. Kneeling on the bed, he leaned over and gently deposited me in exactly the right spot. My arm tightened about his neck and he slid his arm from under my legs only to brace it on my far side so he could slide his arm from under my back. "Under the covers," he murmured. "Undo your pants and if you need help, I'll pull them off. Nothing exposed that way." Opening my eyes required effort, but I didn't let him go. The hair at his nape brushed my fingers. So soft. Warm. And he smelled so good. Clean. A little like burgers and fries. Not even a whiff of hops. Nice. "Let go a minute, so I can come around." I didn't want to, but my limbs felt heavy enough my arm almost fell away by itself. A few seconds later, Cay sat by my right hip and pulled the light sheet over me. "You okay to sleep in your clothes?" he asked quietly. I considered the options. Beneath the covers, I unfastened my pants and weakly pushed at them. Cay stood, reached under the sheet by my ankles, grabbed my pants and tugged. Completely innocent, yet a wicked fantasy flashed in my brain. Him crawling up my body, his lips trailing up my legs ... Yearning like I barely remembered flashed through me. I heard my pants hit the hamper near the door. Cay tucked the sheet securely about me. "You tempt me, lady. Were I not a gentleman, I'd crawl in there with you right now. But I have too much respect for you and your kid to act on that impulse." The bed dipped and his 66

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

presence surrounded me like a canopy. "Just remember, I'm your friend, and if you'll let me, I'll do my best to protect the two of you." I didn't want protecting. I could handle it myself. But it felt nice to know he was there. It was nice to be treated gently. It was even nicer to be kissed as if I were as fragile as fine crystal. Like a butterfly, his lips brushed mine and then they were gone. [Back to Table of Contents]

67

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Chapter 7 I woke the next morning relaxed and paradoxically frustrated. Dreams of Cayden, in and out of uniform, had stayed with me all through the night. It pissed me off. I had no room for getting horny. None. I was living in limbo waiting for Quint's next move, treading as fast as I could to keep my head above water with the bills, dealing with another round of injuries, and the need for a new car since insurance declared mine totaled. I needed to stay focused. I'd lost concentration with Quint and it had earned me cracked ribs and a black eye. The ribs from my accident reminded me of the days following Quint's disappearance, as if I could easily forget them. As for my face, the bruise and swelling had faded enough I could easily hide the damage with regular makeup. Well enough my boss sent me back to the reception desk. At least with my car accident, I could put up the after photo of my car, and explain my bruises away, to the relief of our clients. When I got in that morning, Lucille, a well-padded black woman with half a dozen grandkids and a been-there-donethat-don't-mess-with-me attitude gave me the once over and raised a brow. "Something's changed. Not just the healing. You've got a glow I don't think I've ever seen on you. You're looking good, baby." "With Quint out of the house, I'm finally sleeping better. Just wish I knew where to send the divorce papers." 68

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"Hang in there, honey, it's almost Friday. Only a couple weeks until school starts and you'll have a whole new schedule to deal with." Lucille patted me on the shoulder. The day dragged. Outside, the summer sun reigned supreme, and not a cloud hindered the view. I'd heard people exclaiming we were getting close to eighty-five degrees. Eighty was practically unheard of, eighty-five a veritable heat wave! At four, the director of the division declared the rest of the day an unofficial holiday. Due to excessive solar radiation, he said we needed to get out of the office. There were signs the air conditioning might fail, he added with a wink. We didn't argue. Rob rushed to me with a deep frown when I showed up an hour early, but I smiled to let him know things were all right. On the way home, we picked up ice cream for dessert. Nathan, the boy a few houses down with the basketball hoop, was out and invited Rob to shoot hoops for a while. Fine with me. Maybe I could have the house to myself for an hour. "I'll leave the front door unlocked," I told him. "I'm going to lie down for a bit." With a wave, he bounded off, leaving his gym bag at the base of the stairs. So what? He could carry it up later, or take it to his room. I really didn't care. Still itchy from the previous night, I dropped the ice cream in the freezer and headed to my bedroom, where I shut the door. On second thought, I locked it. If anyone really needed to get in, there was a key at the top of the doorframe, an emergency contingency. Without the luxury of air 69

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

conditioning, the house was hot, so I turned on the box fan in my room, unbuttoned my blouse and dropped it into the hamper. When I got dressed again, I'd go straight for a tank top and pj shorts. It was a relief to unzip the torture device and get down to bare skin. Instant cooling. We had no plans for the night and I had a story beginning to form in my head. It'd been weeks since I'd let my fingers dance across the keyboard. I hadn't published anything, but I loved dabbling in erotic romance. Somehow it was easy to drift away on dreams of hot steamy romance when my life was in the toilet. Back when Quint had heaved on top of me in the name of making love, I had pretended he was someone else and occasionally actually found release. Most often, though, my trusty little friend took care of business after Quint had passed out. Not once in the previous three years had he ever noticed that I used my vibrator to satisfy myself. I was very careful to use it only when I knew Rob was sound asleep, or like that afternoon, when I was completely alone. I had an hour, maybe, before Rob would want dinner. I didn't need that long, but it would allow me to bask in afterglow under the gentle breeze of the fans in my room. I'd also flipped on the small fan clipped to the headboard for really hot nights when sleeping naked wasn't cool enough and provided gentle stimulation other times. The button of my skirt gave way and the skirt slipped to the ground. Maybe Cay was right. Maybe I had lost a little too much weight. Couldn't tell it from my breasts, which felt heavy from the erotic fantasies playing in my head all day. I cupped them and teased my nipples. I could easily imagine 70

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Cay holding me from behind, his big hands supporting the weight that fit into a C cup, his fingers brushing over the tips of my nipples. Anticipation shimmered through me and heat filled the empty space between my legs. Conscious of my limited time, I wiggled out of my panties. They were so wet I could smell the rich musk of my arousal. In my fantasy, Cay knelt at my feet, his face to my mons as he inhaled, growing drunk on my scent. Sliding deeper into the fantasy, I sauntered to my side of the bed and turned on the radio. The noise would mask both vibrator and moans. Before turning to the bed, I leaned on the windowsill and breathed in the fresh air from the backyard. From that angle, I could see bits of the yards on either side, but behind our row of houses was a thick grove of birch and spruce. No one could see in. Probably what I like best about the house—freedom to keep my windows and drapes open to the fresh air. The screening scraped my hardened nipples and moisture gathered deep, down low. The fantasy returned and I reclined on the bed, taking time to use my hands to spread my bent legs, rubbing the skin smooth from shaving in the morning. I loved the feel of newly shaved skin. Every nerve tingled and in my mind, it was Cay's hand petting my neglected body. Large and warm, he knew just where to touch and how. A little pinch, a stroke, I could see the desire in his blue, blue eyes. We didn't have many blue eyes in our family, on either side. Mine were a hazel that was mostly brown, which tended to make people look twice and think I dyed my hair its shade of auburn. But Cay would know the difference, the proof laid 71

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

bare for his eyes. So eager for release I shook, I reached for the vibrator I kept plugged in and hidden under my pillow. Always ready to give satisfaction. How could any woman live without one? That's the original Hitachi Magic Wand. Loud and proud, it did the job like no other. From time to time, I added a dildo, but my ribs still hurt too much for that contortion. Starting on low, I dragged it up and down, teasing, building anticipation until I couldn't stand it. I pressed the head to my clit and clenched my legs tight around it. My hands free, I cupped my breasts and teased the very top of each nipple. A fingernail provided just a hint of sharp stimulation and my heat level rose. I tried to keep my moans quiet, but it'd been so long, my dreams were so close, and my need too great. A quick flip of the switch on the handle and the vibrator moved into top speed. The orgasm hit me fast and I barely heard my own moans over Nickelback's S.E.X. The door suddenly burst wide and my eyes flew open. Reacting as fast as I could, my finger hit the off switch. I threw the vibrator off the side of the bed and frantically pulled the corner of my sheet over me. Cay slipped into the room and shut the door behind him. "Oh, God, I thought ... Don't cover up," he pleaded. "What are you doing here?" I had some thought of screeching this, but I was too breathless. And horribly embarrassed. He was flushed and looked adorably abashed and turned on at the same time. "Rob said ... He said I could come in ... that you might be ... well..." He scrubbed a hand through his hair and grinned 72

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

sheepishly. "He said you'd be resting." His body fairly vibrated, still dressed in uniform of pants and short-sleeved blue shirt. Did I see an extra bulge in his pants? Mortified, I pulled the sheet over my head. "Go away." I groaned the order. Cay chuckled, but as far as I could tell he stayed by the door. "I ... I can't at the moment. That was so hot. Well, after I figured out you were, um, well, okay, and not being hurt." I pulled the sheet down enough to peek over the edge. "You thought I was being attacked?" "Glad I found the key. I was ready to break down the door." His smile faded into a frown. "It's kind of hard to tell with certain noises. I've heard crying that sounded like laughter. Cries of passion that sounded like someone was being strangled ... you get the idea." "Oh, God." I did, which was why I had the radio playing. John Cougar Mellencamp was singing about dabbling off Diane's Bobby-Brooks. I reached over and turned it off. Silence filled the room until soft sounds drifted in from outside. Birds chirping, wind brushing the upper canopy of the birch trees, the faint but steady pounding of a basketball on pavement. Cay cautiously took a step closer. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to embarrass you." He stared at me as if transfixed, but not in a threatening way. I'd imagined the look on his face perfectly. In the dim room, I could see his eyes darken as he breathed in deeper, faster, tension tightening his entire body. "My blood is up, Candace." 73

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

A quick glance at his groin confirmed it. "I'll leave if you want me to, but I want just a minute. Just a taste, a touch if you'll allow it." His nostrils widened as he inhaled. "I can smell your desire. It's the most intoxicating scent I've ever breathed in. And your legs, God, your legs. Lady, they're perfect. So sweetly curved, and muscled, I'd love to see you in heels and nothing else." His words, his reverence, mesmerized me. "You're gorgeous. You're a goddess among mere mortals." After the shock subsided, my pulse had dropped only to spike again, this time in renewed lust. If the truth were told, I'd been imagining this scene in one way or another since I'd first seen him. I slowly pushed the sheet down, not enough to fully uncover myself, but enough that I didn't feel like a frightened virgin. It caught on the peaks of my nipples, where I let it stop. With slow steps, he came around to my side of the bed. I shifted over enough that he had room to sit or lie down. Showing amazing restraint, he sat beside me, gaze locked on mine, and cupped his big hand around my face. I didn't have words. Couldn't have spoken if I'd known what to say. Saliva gathered in my mouth and I swallowed heavily to clear it. Cay's thumb drifted over my chin to lightly touch my throat, coming to a gentle rest over the hollow at the base. Our gazes held as I released my death grip on the sheet. Cay's hand drifted downward, his fingertips barely touching me. Goose bumps rose and shivered over my skin. His hand 74

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

detoured to my shoulder and drifted down my arm when I wanted him to touch my breast. To my everlasting frustration, his hand stopped moving and pressed into the mattress. "So soft, so beautiful," he whispered. The memory of his fleeting kiss from the previous night came back to me. I wanted more. Now that I no longer clung to my covers, my hand needed a job, an action. I reached for him, touched a finger to his jaw. Hands braced on either side of me, gently caging me in, he leaned forward until I could rest my hand on his cheek. I couldn't use the words, but he understood me. Turning into my hand, he kissed the palm and my breath caught in a small gasp. "I'm going to kiss you, Candace. If you want me to stop, say it now." I didn't. We regarded each other from narrow slits between eyelids as his mouth lowered. A deep breath brought me his scent, the softened notes of a woodsy, leathery aftershave and warm skin. I couldn't name the fragrance, but rather what it did to me. My head swam, my pulse raced and all I wanted was a kiss. I needed his kiss. Our lips touched. A spark, warmer, more powerful than static, flared and we both gasped. Cay angled his head for a better fit. Our breaths mingled. Pure heaven wrapped around us, the world centered on our two bodies straining toward the melting point. Cay took it slow, so slow, drawing out the anticipation in exquisite torture. My hands reached out to draw him down. 75

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Downstairs the front door crashed open and we both flinched, Cay shooting to his feet. I barely had the presence of mind to breathe, much less react to the interruption. "I'll go." He was already in motion as Rob shouted from the bottom of the stairs. "Mooom!" Cay silently opened the bedroom door. "She's changing," he said just as coolly as if he'd been lounging in the hall while I did my best not to cough at the rough intake of air my lungs hadn't been ready for. "Oh, ask her if I can have dinner at Nate's house?" "Candace? Did you hear that?" Cay let his voice rise as if talking to me through a door. "Yes, he can go. Tell him to keep his phone handy and be home no later than nine, if they let him stay that long." Cay repeated my words while I crawled from the bed and slipped into my closet for something to wear. Rob must have been looking up the stairs because Cay didn't look my way, yet I had the feeling he saw everything. Just how good was his peripheral vision? Did he see the bruises the sheet had covered? God, what had I been thinking? What had almost happened? Shame flooded me. I hadn't been thinking, that was clear. I'd been a heartbeat from inviting a man I barely knew into my bed. A man not my lawful husband. What kind of slut was I? My husband missing and I was trying out his replacement? Rob's first uncle? Next thing I knew he'd start staying out late to avoid being home, picking up the wrong kind of friends, sliding into smoking, then drinking, followed 76

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

by drugs. All so I could get laid. I was the worst mother around. By the time I came out wearing a black maxi sundress, Rob was gone and I'd convinced myself I had to kick Cay out. Immediately. Cay had a crooked smile on his face. Oh God, he could see right through me, I knew it. This had to be dealt with fast. I opened my mouth to speak but he beat me to it. "How about I fix you dinner?" he asked, hand held out to me. Determined to do what I had to do, I stopped a step away from him. "Cay—" "Hush. Don't say it. I know. This wasn't right for so many reasons, but I refuse to apologize. I'm not sorry." His hand bounced, reminding me it was there. "I'll keep a certain distance, but I need to touch you, hold hands, a hug now and then. Maybe even some good old-fashioned necking after Rob is safely asleep. But I won't press for more. That has to come from you. You're not ready, and I know it. I just want you to know you're a beautiful, amazing woman. I can't help being attracted." My cheeks heated and I felt as skittish as a colt. He'd completely stolen the wind from my sails. Weak, evil woman that I was, I took the offered hand, and we left the bedroom. "How do you cool this place down?" Sweat trickled from his brow as we entered the great room where the temperature easily soared close to ninety. "Fans and ice cream." 77

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

[Back to Table of Contents]

78

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Chapter 8 Cay tossed a bagged salad with dressing, tomatoes and cheese while I heated a casserole in the microwave. He wanted to grill, but I had nothing thawed. I also didn't want to do something so obvious in front of the neighbors. Ben and his wife still steered a wide berth around me, as did Jack. I could only imagine what he said to Cay. I was curious about the living arrangement, but didn't ask. Were they friends, or had Cay answered an ad posted on base by Jack looking for a housemate? Other than my father-in-law, who was career, I had little clue as to the ways of the military. Quint, to his father's dismay, had chosen a civilian engineering career. Cay and I sat down to a light dinner and we talked about anything but my past with Quint. At some point I would, but not yet. Each day it grew easier to breathe, I worried a little more, not believing I'd be so lucky he was gone forever. Where was Quint? What was he doing? How messy would the divorce get? Or would he walk away at all? More likely he'd be back with diamonds and promises to never hurt me again. We still had debt, enough that paying it on my own was making it very hard to keep my head above water, especially on top of paying for Rob's summer camp. These thoughts swirled through my mind on a nearly constant basis, but I didn't voice them. They weren't Cay's problem. "Do you know if there's a book of hiking trails? Where can I get maps?" He stabbed at the salad. 79

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"The book stores all have local sections. I think I remember seeing a guide to the trails of South Central Alaska." I swirled my fork through the casserole on my plate. Some sort of cheesy, rice, chicken thing, possibly made with broccoli cheese soup. The kind of thing I excelled at, but this version left me uninspired. For the most part, the food brought over by the neighbors had been pretty good. This was also getting a little old, having been kept in the fridge. Cay stuck his fork in. "This is horrible stuff. Tell me you didn't make it." "I didn't make it, but it's not bad. Probably even better than mine." Then again, I hadn't had to cook, so how bad could it be? I pushed a forkful into my mouth while he cringed. "I can make better. Is there anything else in the fridge?" "Ice cream. Some frozen chicken and hamburgers. Lots of burritos. Maybe some eggs." I shrugged and ate another bite. "This isn't so bad." His mouth dropped open in a parody of horror. "No, say it ain't so." "What?" "Tell me you can cook. Tell me you make magic in the kitchen. You could win culinary awards if you wanted to." A snort escaped me. "Why me?" he moaned at the ceiling. "I'm plagued with women who don't or can't cook. At least tell me you can get by without poisoning anyone." "Who else?" I snickered and stabbed some salad greens. "How many women are you counting here?" 80

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"My sister." Elbows on the table, Cay dropped his face into his hands and shook his head. "One girl in the family and she's the worst cook of us all. When Mom died, we nearly starved until Dad discovered the convenience of canned, boxed and frozen meals. Anything she could merely heat and serve. As long as she didn't have to try and figure out the difference between salt and sugar, baking powder versus baking soda, things like that, we were okay." "How old were you when your mom died?" Sympathy twisted my heart. "We were thirteen. Aiden was seventeen. The youngest was five. He's actually starting cooking school this fall. Wanted to follow me into the Air Force, but he's got a touch of dyslexia and decided he'd be better off feeding the world." Cay picked up his fork and poked at his casserole. "I'm sorry, but I can't marry you if you can't cook." He winked at me. I laughed, but with little humor. "I can't marry you anyway. I'm already a wife and don't intend to be one again as soon as I'm free, if ever again." "Now that would be a damn shame. Just remember the immortal words of Donny Osmond, 'One bad apple doesn't spoil the whole bunch.'" The exaggerated leer he gave me looked ridiculous over a fork full of cheesy casserole. Why that struck me as funny, I'll probably never know, but I burst into giggles. Probably leftover nervous energy bouncing around in the form of extreme sexual tension. The ten-thousand-pound gorilla in the room neither of us wanted to talk about. "That line is cheesier than this casserole." 81

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"Fits the menu. Last time we're eating crap like this." "So, you can cook?" I asked as casually as I could. "Had to learn in self defense. Cas got married after our first year of college and moved to up-state New York. That's when we all pitched in. Fortunately, Finn proved somewhat adept for a twelve-year-old. Ethan does pretty well, but Declan ducks KP whenever possible." "I'm sensing a trend here, Cay and Cas, followed by Declan, Ethan and Finn? Who came first? Aloysius and Barnaby?" "Aiden and Brennan." He gave me his signature grin. "All good Irish names, lined up alphabetically so they could keep us straight. Mom used to joke Dad wanted an even dozen, all boys. She was willing to get pregnant six times, Cassidy was her bonus." Cay glanced over at the food left on my plate. I'd pushed the carrots and radishes to the side. "Hey, don't you carrot all?" I giggled. "Why did the cheesy chicken cross the road?" "I don't know, why?" "To see what would turnip." "Cay, that's awful!" But I howled anyway. The doorbell rang. "Want me to get that?" Cay asked. "No, no, I'll get it." Giggling, I pushed away from the table. I was half-way down the stairs when he called after me, "Knock, knock." "Who's there?" I called back while twisting the doorknob. I could see two figures through the wavy glass of the insert. 82

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

I pulled the door open. "Detective Burrows," the first man said. The grim lines on his face evaporated my mirth. The second figure dropped my heart to my toes. "You fucking whore, my son's not even in the ground and you're entertaining?" My father-in-law, Stilwell Crosby Cutler IV, Ivy for short, tried to push past the detective, who threw up an arm and blocked his way. My blood ran cold. Older and leaner, his short hair thin and gray, he still looked enough like Quint I shrank back a step. "Is this what you've been doing for the past six months when you should have been searching for him?" My inner smart ass, however, had to comment. Oh look. The family's arriving. At least I didn't voice it out loud. My throat was barely dry enough to say, "Detective?" "May I come in?" "Do I have to let him in?" Ivy had been one of the first to unearth my new phone number and called weekly to ask where his son was. I'd been letting the voice mail take his calls for the last month. Apparently he was tired of my stonewalling. Ivy snarled behind the policeman. "It might be advisable," Burrows said. I opened the door all the way. "Please kick off your shoes." "Pretentious bitch," Ivy snarled under his breath. "You may leave if you don't like it," I said quietly. While I'd never truly bonded with the man, he'd never taken such a tone with me. With his wife, yes, and usually when drinking. Sober, he'd been cold but not abusive. 83

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"Mind your manners, or I'll personally escort you out," the detective said to the old man. Fifth generation Army, Ivy was hard as nails in a way that had everyone around him straightening up, military or not. He commanded—demanded—respect, and usually got it. His last tour had been during the Gulf War, round one. It had left him deeply embittered for reasons I hadn't been interested enough to inquire about. "After you, ma'am," Burrows said. "By the way, I left a message yesterday." "Oh. I thought it was a politician and haven't picked it up yet." Clutching the rail, I carefully pulled myself up the stairs. This couldn't be good news. Well, maybe it was, but not what most people would consider good news. Reaching the upper floor, I noted Cay had cleared the table and was starting a pot of coffee. I pointed to the dining room table and took a seat on the far side. Burrows pointed Ivy to a chair on the opposite side. Cay came to stand beside me. Just his proximity was enough. I guessed he'd figured out that resting a hand on my shoulder would push my snarling visitor too far. His hearing was good enough he would have figured out Quint's father had come to call. "You've met my neighbor," I said to Burrows. For Ivy's benefit I added, "Lieutenant Cayden Shaughnessy, US Air Force." "Your lover? Is that why Quint left?" Ivy growled, but Burrows held up a hand. 84

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"Your husband has been found." I carefully drew in a deep breath. Here it was. The answer to my many questions of the previous six months. "He's not with you, so I'm guessing the news is not good." "He never left the state. A jogger with a dog found him this morning. His license ID-ed him, but we'll check medical and dental records to be sure. He's..." Burrows cleared his throat. "He's still mostly frozen." I closed my eyes and leaned against the high back of the solid oak chair I sat on. Dead. Somehow, I'd never imagined that scenario. Off licking his wounds at a fishing lodge, sure. Working a grunt job on the Slope under an assumed identity. Living off the grid at a friend's backwoods cabin. Working odd jobs for cash across the US, even. But dead? It didn't feel real as I shook my head. Burrows continued, his voice toneless, factual. "We guess he died within a day of when he left here. The coroner will tell us more after the autopsy. We finally found one airline clerk who's been out on maternity leave, who refused to sell him a ticket the night he left here. Apparently he was falling-down drunk." I nodded once. I'd told them so from the beginning. "As we were bagging up the body from a snow dump site, a homeless guy mentioned hearing about a man who'd stumbled into a camp during a snowstorm last winter. The investigation is assuming he tried to find his truck, got lost, wandered over to Lake Hood where he met up with vagrants. He had cash, so they bought more booze. From what our witness said, he'd heard they partied until there was a fight. 85

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Allegedly your husband started beating up on a native woman who'd wandered into their group." "Figures," I muttered. Dinner rolled in my stomach and I swallowed heavily to keep it down. "Where was he found?" "At the edge of a lot where the airport and city both dump snow. Because of his location, the snowfall since that night would have buried him. Subsequent loads of snow from street clearing would have continued piling up higher until late March. That section finally melted down low enough in the last few days, so he's fairly well preserved." "How did he die? Did they beat him to death? Did he fall down and break his neck? Or was it alcohol poisoning?" "None of the above." Burrows frowned. "He was shot." [Back to Table of Contents]

86

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Chapter 9 Detective Burrows let me process for a moment, then hit me with the next step. "I have to confiscate the weapon you mentioned last week." Stunned, I stared at the fake plant in a basket over the architectural bump-out detail over the door to my bedroom. "All right. I'll get it." "Hope you don't mind me accompanying you," he said. "No, but I suspect I also have no choice." He didn't smile, but I sensed it was there. Ivy stood. He and Cay assumed identical stances, legs spread, arms folded over chests. Cay had an inch on him, but Ivy had mass. Even in his early seventies, he kept fit. Burrows put himself between Ivy and me as we passed, headed for the bedroom. I flipped the switch for the closet light and stood back. "It's on the top shelf, back right hand corner. I can't reach it without a stool. If you need one, I can get the kitchen step." He pulled on a latex glove, reached up and felt around. It took a second, but he found the gun under an old sweater covered in dust. "Guess I should clean up there more than once a move," I said. He didn't answer, but checked the gun to make sure the safety was on, the chamber empty, and slipped it into an evidence bag he pulled from a pocket of his sport coat. "You're not a suspect at this time, but I need you to come 87

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

down to the station to fill out some forms and identify his belongings. Can you do that tomorrow?" "Yes. How did Ivy get involved?" "He flew in this afternoon and came straight to the station. According to him, you've been avoiding his calls the last month, so he called us. He wasn't satisfied we were doing all that could be done, so he jumped on a plane. And here he is. Caught up with me as I was leaving to come here." "How fortunate he arrived on the day you found Quint." If only I could make the facts support the theory of Ivy offing his own son. Sadly, it was a no-go. "You want me to make him leave?" "I'd like that. As you can see, we don't have the closest of relationships." Sighing, I also knew throwing him out wouldn't be smart. "But I suppose he'll want to see Rob. If the lieutenant is willing to stay, he can play referee." Burrows nodded. "I'll see you about nine in the morning?" "I'll be there." He sighed. "I hate to do this, but I need you to bring your son along. He's old enough to tell his version of the events." A mother's nightmare? I supposed there were worse things my kid could be asked to do, but really, I didn't want him involved any more than necessary. Apparently a murdered father made it necessary. "He'll be there. Will we need lawyers?" "You're entitled to one," Burrows said carefully. "I remind you, you're not a suspect. The hospital report confirms the injuries that sent you to the ER that night." "I have nothing to hide." 88

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"Your choice, ma'am." I merely nodded and led the way from the bedroom to the great room, where Ivy and Cay continued their silent staredown. "Where's my grandson?" Ivy demanded. "Down the street. I'm just about to call him home." I had to reach into my purse for my cellphone, and the purse hung from the chair near Ivy. "Excuse me." He stepped aside, but just enough to stay in a position of intimidation. I found the phone, punched a few buttons and had Rob in thirty seconds. "Honey, I need you to come home. Remember to say thank you." Rob agreed and we quickly disconnected. I turned to the detective. "Is there anything else you need tonight?" He shook his head. "Let me see you out." I wanted to greet Robbie at the door anyway. I'd just opened the door for the detective, once again wellshod, when Robbie bounded up, his eyes bright and his cheeks flushed with a glow of health. The brightness dimmed a bit as he took in the detective. "Mom?" I held my arms open and he stepped into them. Heart aching, I cut to the chase. "Your dad's been found. He—he's d—dead, baby." Blunt and to the point? Sure. Was there any good way to deliver such news? We'd have no privacy upstairs. I had that moment to be alone with my son and the news. I took it. 89

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Robbie's arms tightened around me. I winced at the pain, but didn't let go. The detective's gaze met mine over Rob's shoulder. He stood there a minute, his eyes questioning, asking if I needed him. I shook my head and he walked away. Rob clung to me as if he were three again. "I'm glad. I don't care, I don't care!" he whispered in anguish. "It's okay, honey. You do care, and it's okay. I care, even after all that happened, I still care. He didn't deserve to die. Or a least he didn't deserve to be murdered." "Where? When?" Hot tears seeped through my hair and touched my neck. "Out by the airport. He never made it on a plane. He's been in town this whole time. He's been dead long enough he was deeply buried at a snow dump." The rough growl of his grandfather on the landing interrupted. "And I want to know why you weren't out searching for him. You should have been combing the streets day and night, looking for him, not changing phone numbers and the locks. Bet you called a lawyer, too." The accusations hit me as hard as any slap I'd ever taken. Ice rushed through my veins and I froze in place like a rabbit too scared to move. Defend myself and invite an escalating attack? Or pray to melt into the woodwork and hope Ivy tempered any further reaction because of his only grandchild? Rob's head whipped up. "Grandpa!" However much Ivy hated me, he loved his grandson. Rob let go of me and turned to face his grandfather for the first time. A small sigh of relief escaped me, a moment too soon. I'd forgotten Ivy didn't know about his black eye, which 90

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

was in full Technicolor and since we knew it was acquired innocently, we didn't think much about it. Ivy, on the other hand, exploded. "What the hell happened?" He leaped down the last three stairs and grasped Robbie by the shoulders. "Who did this to you, boy? Did your mom slap you?" "No!" Robbie shouted in surprise, one hand wiping away his tears with a watery smile. "It's okay, Grandpa, happened at TKD last night. I lost focus and took one to the eye. My fault. No big deal." Ivy gently cupped Robbie's face. "You don't have to lie for her, son. You can tell me the truth." "I am," Robbie insisted. "There are witnesses, Ivy," I added. Shaking and heart racing, I barely kept my voice cool, but I was furious that he'd leap to such a conclusion. Granted, because he'd been known to knock his wife and kid around from time to time, he would make that leap. "You can talk to his teacher if you don't believe us. The Tae Kwon Do center near the bingo place on Tudor. They're open tonight, so you can check it out. Master Ward's class for juniors." "Don't think I won't," he growled. "In the meantime, my son is dead. You don't need to lift a finger, I'll see to the arrangements." I saw red. Clenching my fists, I did my best to keep my voice low. Maybe my marriage had gone to hell, but Quint was still my husband. No, it didn't make sense even then, but I didn't want Ivy in my life any more than necessary. Instinct told me not to let him take over the funeral or I'd regret it, in 91

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

more ways than one. "Like hell you will. I know his wishes. We both laid them out in our wills years ago." I sensed Cay hovering at the top of the stairs. Robbie broke away from his grandfather and put his arm around my shoulders. "She's right, Grandpa. They were still married. Even though he hit her and ran out on us, she's still his wife." When had the kid become so smart, and so brave? Nonplussed, his grandfather stared at him, mouth hanging open for a minute before morphing into a scowl. "Talking back, I see. You should know better, boy." "That's enough!" The short leash on my temper snapped. "This is my house. You have no rights here and no right to talk that way to my son. You should be ashamed of yourself!" My finger stabbed the air. Ivy merely folded his arms and stared back, his scowl deepening, his face turning red, so much so that fear raced through my blood. A vague notion of him being provoked enough to raise a hand to me flashed through my brain, but I had something to say and only so much nerve left. "He saw his father beat me up and leave me with broken ribs. He watched his father run out and disappear without a word. Don't you dare take my son to task for speaking up." Going against every nerve screaming at me to turn tail and run, I tried stepping in front of Rob, but my son held me at his side. The little bugger was strong. And all this time I'd thought he'd had his head so deep in video games he hadn't paid much attention to what was going on around him. 92

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"Get out!" I squeaked, my voice barely stronger than a whisper, and pointed a shaking finger toward the still wideopen door. "You can read about the funeral arrangements in the paper, or if you're in touch with Burrows, you can get details from him." "We'll see about that," Ivy growled, but he pushed past us and out the door. "I'm staying at the Comfort Suites. If I don't hear from you by tomorrow afternoon, I'll be back." I slammed the door behind him. Rob threw the deadbolt. I had one question in mind, as my abused lungs insisted on trying to bust my ribs from the inside. Was it time for my nervous breakdown yet? [Back to Table of Contents]

93

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Chapter 10 The rest of that night was pretty much a blur. Rob and Cay hauled me up the stairs and bundled me up on the sofa where they bookended me until I was calm. At my request, Cay quietly left us to deal with our news after giving Rob a manly half-hug, half-handshake. Torn and hurting, Robbie swung between crying and telling me it was okay, we were better off. I agreed with him, but I shared many of his emotions, foremost amongst them, relief. Relief and dread. I knew I hadn't killed Quint. I knew that gun hadn't been fired in a couple years, and then only at the shooting range south of town. Quint had used the session to teach Rob how to clean it. In the morning, Friday, I called work and told them I'd be late. Lucille said to take the day off, almost everyone in the office had, and there were no scheduled appointments. Besides, I was entitled to bereavement leave. Cay was on the balcony next door drinking coffee as we left for the police station. Right, one of his days off, otherwise he would have been in the air by then. "You okay?" He leaned on the railing, looking bright and freshly scrubbed, hair shining fiery gold in the morning sun. "Yeah. Appointment with Burrows. Don't know what we'll do after. Probably come home and mow the lawn." "Don't worry about it. I'll get it." I waved him off. "Not your problem. It'll be good for us." "Fine. I'll wait until you get back and then I'll help." 94

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Exasperated, although his puppy-like cheerful persistence made me want to smile, I blew out a breath and slid my sunglasses on. "Whatevah." Cay laughed and lifted his coffee cup. We made it to the station and Burrows came to collect us from the lobby. It didn't take a genius to see him assess Robbie's black eye, but he didn't ask, just as he hadn't asked the night before. As a cop, he was almost certainly used to seeing the worst, which he probably assumed. My defenses started to ramp up, but my lawyer's advice echoed in my head. Remain calm. State things factually, don't defend or embellish. Be clear. Oh, and most important of all? Remain calm. Burrows ushered me into a small room. I felt like a criminal. Of course, they separated us. During my turn, I answered succinctly, gave them the information about Rob's black eye and bit my tongue. Burrows walked me through that night again, although he'd heard the story at least twice before. I didn't change a detail, since I'd told the truth from the beginning. Advice from my father. Never lie to your doctor, priest, or lawyer, and my lawyer had told me to tell the truth. She didn't see where I had anything to hide. The police didn't have any more information about Quint's murder, but Burrows assured me it was a matter of following procedure. I was allowed to sit in as they questioned Rob, only Burrows moved us to the station cafeteria for coffee and soda. While driving to the station, I'd told Rob to be calm and 95

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

tell the truth without going off on tangents. He was scared, but said he could handle it. I didn't blame him for being scared. I was practically petrified. My heart pounded, dizziness assaulted my head and my palms were wet. I tried to blame the sweat on my strangulation garment and the over-warm building. The air conditioning, apparently, wasn't used to working so hard. They were predicting another hot day, with possible late afternoon thunderstorms. When Rob demonstrated the accidental hit at TKD, my blood began to simmer. My God. Had Burrows heard Ivy's accusations? Rob pointed vaguely in the direction of his school, which was kitty corner to the police station. I wanted them to get the documentation down on this one once and for all. The questioning didn't take long, maybe fifteen minutes, but it seemed much, much longer. As the expression on Rob's face smoothed out, so did my heart rate. Enough I mentally reviewed the funeral plans put in motion first thing that morning. The previous night, I'd drafted an obituary, and emailed it to the mortuary downtown after a short phone discussion. Not much could be done until the police released Quint's body, but I'd staked my claim as the widow and alerted the funeral director of possible interference from my father-in-law. They assured me they'd head off what problems they could, but until the body was released, they could provide an obituary stating scheduled details would be released at a later date. They had my numbers, they could reach me if there were problems. 96

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

I'd repeated all this for Burrows, and he made note. Hopefully he'd take care of Ivy if he tried to stir up trouble. I was drained by the time Burrows let us go, and it was close to noon. I could see Robbie eyeing me with concern, but I didn't have much left to give him at that point. We made a quick trip through the nearest Subway, rather than McD's, since the hovering threat of government interference had me thinking healthy thoughts. I wouldn't put it past Ivy to call Youth Services or to hire his own lawyer to sue for custody. Acting on impulse, I picked up a sandwich for Cay. If he was serious about mowing the lawn, he deserved to be fed. Hell, as nice as he'd been to us, he deserved more, but a sandwich was all I could handle right then. By the time we pulled onto the street, a shot of fortifying Diet Coke in my stomach, Rob and I were loosening up. He reviewed the questions they'd asked and his answers. I told him he'd done well, though he apologized for repeating his father's crude words. "It's okay, honey. No soap on the toothbrush this time," I joked. He was just learning the really nasty swear words, and I was fighting back with alternative terms. Like fudge for fuck. He came up with shitake mushrooms for shit. Pussy still went over his head, more or less, and I think he would have thrown up before using the really bad C word. One of his father's favorites when he was pissed. Or had been pissed. Quint dead. It really hadn't hit me yet. Sooner or later I'd cry, really cry, for the loss of the potential we'd once had. I'd cry for the love that had died so long ago. I'd cry for the man who might have been. I'd cry for the relief of finally having 97

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

closure. But I wouldn't cry for the man who'd consciously taken the road that ended in his murder. I'd thought about it a lot. Quint wasn't wholly evil. We'd had love and good times. But he'd also been far from angelic. Sliding shades of gray, never black, never white, but somewhere in between. Sometimes darker, sometimes lighter, but always gray. When we reached the house, Cay was scrubbing down our driveway with a push broom and the hose. Soapy water ran down the depression in the middle of the street, mixing with run-off from the sprinklers running in a couple yards. He gestured for me to park at the end of the drive. His car stood in front of Jack's, sparkling clean and looking freshly waxed. I carried the drinks while Rob bounced out of the car with the sandwiches. "We got you a turkey with the works." Rob lifted the bag like a captured flag. Wearing only faded jeans shorts, old sneakers and aviator sunglasses, Cay paused and leaned on the handle of the broom with a grin. A white t-shirt hung from a branch of Jack's tree. "Perfect timing. I'm just finishing and I'm starved." The way he looked me up and down put a question mark on exactly what he was hungry for. "What are you doing?" I asked. "It's the perfect weekend to reseal your asphalt. At least two more days of this weather, and I have the time off. Jack's doing his tomorrow. I figure we'll be on a roll and can do yours at the same time. We leave this to dry over night, then get started as soon as the sun hits this side of the house." 98

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"Oh good, I get to sleep in until nine." Summer was waning and the sun no longer crested the mountains at fourthirty in the morning, it merely began to grow light then. The sun cleared the mountains closer to six at just the right angle to hit my bedroom window. Good blackout shades got me through the year, providing sun block in summer, insulation in winter. Cay's brow rose at the mention of sleep. An all-over flush started at my chest and washed outward, from head to toe. Despite my depleted energy and raw nerves, he had the ability to get my motor revving with just a look. The fact his bare torso was lightly tanned, about as much as a redhead could tan, and gleamed with perspiration, only made it worse. "Are we allowed to walk on the driveway?" I asked. "It'd be better if you stuck to the grass. Don't want dirt or oil on it right now." "Of course not." I directed Rob toward the grass and front door. Since the asphalt formed the walk alongside the south side of the house right up to the steps of the porch, getting in and out of the house would be tricky. I knew the sealant had to cure for at least three days. There was always the sliding glass door off the office, but I had no way to lock it from the outside. "Let's eat on the grass," Cay suggested. Rob and I exchanged shrugs. "Let's sit in the shade, at least." Sweat trickled down my back. Now that we were home, I wanted to shrug off the lightweight, dark blue over shirt I'd put on to cover the vest I wore. A second glance at Cay and his hot blue eyes, and I chickened out. 99

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Cay laughed. "This isn't so hot." "Says you," I muttered. "I lived in Houston and Denver, and I know hot, but we also had AC and swimming pools down there. Makes a world of difference. That and the humidity, or lack thereof." We settled on the lawn. I was glad for the loose cotton skirt I'd worn. The generous cut allowed me to cross my legs and retain modesty. It also served as a makeshift blanket to sit on. I'd forgotten how itchy grass could be, but it was soft and cool. Cay came from behind the house after turning off the hose. He had his t-shirt in hand, but not on, and sat close enough that his knee touched mine. When a mosquito buzzed me, he waved it away. Rob didn't notice a thing, his concentration centered on digging out sandwiches. "Hope you like iced tea." I handed him a large plastic cup from the holder. "Sweet tea?" "No, sugar is bad, haven't you heard?" Rob snorted. He had a fully sugared Coke in his cup. The rule was one per week. I ignored the fact that the extra large cup was most likely the equivalent of two or three cans. We'd had a stressful couple of weeks. Quiet reigned while we ate. Lord knew Rob and I needed the calm moment for decompression. Slowly I felt the tension ease from my shoulders and when Cay braced himself on his hand beside me in the grass, I didn't pull away from the little finger that touched mine. Rob may have noticed, but the 100

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

blades were long enough, he probably didn't. When he excused himself to take the trash inside, and use the bathroom, neither Cay nor I moved apart. Rather, we moved a touch closer, although I kept an eye out for spying neighbors. I realized then how long it had been since Quint and I had touched in affection. Several months to be sure, possibly close to a year, considering since the previous summer I'd spent more than half my nights sleeping on the sofa, using the thin excuse of a hurting back to avoid sharing the bed with my husband. Hence the reason we'd replaced the mattress. Quint's attempt to get me back into our marital bed on a regular basis. Instead, I'd enjoyed it every night since, and he'd not slept on the new mattress once. "This is nice," Cay said, his deep voice soft and so very close. "Mmm." "You're blushing." "Stop. This is so bad." "You deserve a little happiness, Candace." "Maybe, but there are appearances to keep up. Details to see to. Plans to make. I had a plan to leave. Everything's changed now. I need to adjust." "What do you mean?" "I was saving money so Rob and I could bug out. Even had my apartment complex picked out and a list of what to take with us. All I needed was five more months to save money when Quint took off. Now I have the entire house to deal with and it's sucking up everything I had saved." 101

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"Why deal with it? Why not stay here?" "Money, memories, the hassle of homeownership? I can't pay the mortgage much longer on just my salary, especially if the insurance company decides not to pay out on death by murder." But selling off Quint's truck, his tools, at least half the furnishings, maybe even the best of his clothing, maybe I could hold out for a few months. I could even sell my finer jewelry and silver, my last ditch fallback plan. Selling the house would net some cash if the market didn't crash. Or, I could keep it, but move out and rent it. On the other hand, I still needed to replace my car and cover not only doctor, but lawyer bills. "Surely they won't hold that against you? It's obvious you didn't kill him." "Is it?" "The crime lab will discover his gun didn't fire the killing shot. You don't have any others in the house, do you?" "Sure we do. Shotguns, rifles, even a BB gun. But Burrows didn't ask and I didn't volunteer the information." A leftover of Quint's paranoia, for sure. Cay slid his hand over the top of mine. A sizzling spark of heat zinged up my arm, straight to my heart. The hitch in my breath brought a small smile to his face, although he didn't turn to look at me. Once more, I had the feeling his peripheral vision picked up plenty. "None of which were the murder weapon, since you didn't shoot him." His hand squeezed mine and my pulse leapt for a reason that had nothing to do with fear. "Damn, I want to 102

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

kiss you. Guess that's not a good idea at the moment, though, is it?" Gulping, I had to wait a moment before answering. "Probably not." We sat in silence a few more moments before I asked, "What's the hurry? Why are you so interested?" Aside from the physical attraction I was slowly losing the battle to ignore. "I'm drawn to you in a way I've never felt before. Can't explain it any better than that. Maybe it's a simple matter of God wanting me to be here." "You're so devout?" "Not necessarily, but Da is and he did his best to instill some faith in us. Anyhow, he has a saying he loves to repeat. I'm sure you've heard the one about God opening a window when he closes a door. Quint's a closed door. I like to think I'm the best view on the other side of the wide open window you only have to turn around to see." I heard the sound of a car coming up the hill from the west. The hill that gave our little enclave the name of Wolf Hill. Parked as it was across the end of my driveway, the rental blocked most of the narrow view. We listened as the vehicle stopped, idled for a minute before the engine was cut off, followed by the creak of a door opening. To my ears, it sounded as if the car parked on the one side of the street faced by the sides of houses. No driveways, plenty of parking without blocking the community mailboxes planted in the middle. Overflow parking for when anyone had guests. The door slammed shut and footsteps followed. They could be 103

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

headed anywhere. There was absolutely no reason to assume they were headed toward my house. I was about to answer Cay's observation that he was the view through my open window when the person stopped behind my van and stared at the front of my house. Cay and I sat very still. I hardly breathed. Maybe she wouldn't notice us and would keep going. Yeah, and I owned some fabulous land down in NE Louisiana. Great waterfront with lots of recreational possibilities, particularly if one liked offering toes to the alligators. The tall woman wore jeans that didn't flatter her shape and a baggy Hawaiian shirt that almost hid a multitude of sins. Her dark hair reflected the sunlight as red. It only took a moment, but she found us. "Mrs. Cutler?" "Who wants to know?" Cay asked. "Joan Waggoner with the Anchorage Daily News." She started up the driveway. "Stop." Cay said. "We just scrubbed that and the surface needs to stay clean." "Oh. Sorry." She stepped onto the grass, but kept coming. "What do you want?" Cay took the words right out of my mouth. He leaned forward and rested his arms on his raised knees. I did my best to stay braced on my arms, giving the appearance of being relaxed and unconcerned. Flight sounded good about then. 104

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"Mrs. Cutler?" After flicking a glance at Cay, she looked directly at me. "I called, but the last known number for you is disconnected. I'm here to flesh out the obituary for Stilwell Cutler." "He died," I said. "Yes, ma'am. I'm aware of that. It was picked up from police reports this morning. His co-workers also called it in. I have some information, but if you could provide more, it would be helpful." "I'm sure the mortuary will be in contact. They have all the information necessary." I made to stand up. Cay beat me to it and held out a hand to help. Once on my feet, I let go of his hand, brushed the grass from my rear and accepted my purse and the drink cup Cay picked up for me. "I have some more questions, if you wouldn't mind being of assistance." "He's dead. The police are looking for his murderer. The mortuary will post the pertinent details when the funeral is scheduled. Have a good day." I turned away. "But, ma'am, is it true he'd been at a homeless camp the night he left home? That he's been missing since shortly after the end of the Super Bowl? I've heard reports he left here in a hurry. What prompted him to leave?" I ignored the woman and stepped onto the porch. "Did you have a fight? Is it true you filed for divorce? Why did you change the phone number? Were you the one to cut off his cell service?" The questions came fast and furious. "It's been noted that you had a black eye and were seen holding your ribs. Did he beat you? Is that why he left?" 105

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

I had the door opened by then and Rob stood on the other side, his face blank with shock. Cay followed me, shut the door and threw the deadbolt. Of all the unmitigated nerve! I shook as I pulled Rob into my arms. Cay's arms came around both of us. In a world that seriously sucked, the embrace felt right. I slipped one arm around Cay's waist and thrilled to the pressure of his lips on the top of my head. Rob snuggled close as one of Cay's hands cupped the back of his head. The moment could only be a fantasy, but oh, how I ached for the reality. The temptation to lean on Cay's strength sucked at my very soul. But this was my shit storm, and if he had any sense at all, he'd run as far as he could. Jack, Ben and Cay's CO would all tell him the same. His arms tightened around us. "What's going on, Mom?" Rob's little boy voice was back. "The shitake mushrooms are just starting to fall, Robbie." [Back to Table of Contents]

106

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Chapter 11 "Who are you?" I knew only one person with a voice that rough and smooth at the same time. Cay had offered to get the door, which had been under assault all afternoon and now faced off with a visitor I hadn't counted on. Didn't these people have family, children, pets to go home to? Didn't they have plans to get out of town? "A friend of the family. And you are?" Cay spoke calmly. "Candace's boss, Lucille Whitaker." "She can come up," I called. She wouldn't go away, so might as well let her in. I'd hear about it for the rest of my life if I didn't. "Welcome," Cay said politely. "Please kick off your shoes." "Yeah, yeah, I've been here before. Told her to lose the white carpet, but does she ever take my advice?" Footsteps started up the stairs and Cay threw the deadbolt. "Also told her to leave the bastard, God rest his rotten, putrid soul, but she didn't listen to that either." "Is that a touch of moonlit magnolia I hear in your voice, ma'am?" Lucille arrived at the top of the stairs laughing. "I like him. You better hang on or I'm adopting him," she told me. "Where'd you find him?" "I didn't. He found me." I cocked my head to the north side of the house. "He lives next door." I was in my chair doing my best to pick up a crochet project I'd started in 107

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

January. Writing was out, even though I had a living, breathing, world-class inspiration in my house. Good thing he didn't know about my little hobby. In my dreams and in my writing, we'd had a raging hot affair for the past week. However, because I couldn't concentrate, I'd shut down the computer and pushed the little table aside. "Come here, child, give me a hug." Lucille dropped the hobo bag she called a purse on the table and waved an imperious hand at Rob, who obediently saved his game. He still had a few inches to go to match her in height, more with her big hair. Even though he was coming into a no-hug stage, he never said no to Lucille. It just wasn't done. She set him free, then came over to look at my project. "What did that ball of yarn ever do to you? What did it do to deserve being tortured that way?" With a snort of disgust, she sat in Quint's chair. "And how can you stand to be working on a blanket when it's so gawd-awful hot up here?" She picked up a magazine and fanned her face. I'd changed into a tank top and shorts and I was still sweating. I'd even laid towels on my leather chair to keep from sliding off. Every fan in the house was on high, every screened window open, as was the balcony door. We could clearly hear the reporters outside. There were only four of them. Three with cameramen from the local televised news stations and the one from the paper. With the six o'clock news hour approaching, they were warming up their on-air story lines. Hopefully they'd leave soon, taking their uninformative tapes with them. My lawyer had issued a statement requesting privacy for the family, but 108

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Ivy had retained his own lawyer and, based on some of the comments and questions from the reporters, he was stirring the pot. Otherwise, I figured it was a slow news day, and discovery of a body had livened things up for them. Neither Quint nor I were all that important in the overall scheme of things. Outside, cars traveled the street as my neighbors came home from work. A few packed their trucks and were heading out to the many lakes and rivers for the weekend. Whether fishing or boating or both, the weekend was prime time for communing with the great outdoors and a case of beer. The salmon were running strong from all reports and people were eager to stock up for the coming winter. A year ago, we would have had similar plans. Reporters approached the neighbors and requested interviews. I couldn't always hear the answers, but one floated up to my window. "She's a nice lady going through a tough time. Leave her alone." I peeked through a crack in the curtain, but couldn't tell who'd come to my defense. Later I'd send out an email to the homeowners' list apologizing for the inconvenience and thanking them for their patience and support. "The project keeps my hands busy," I said mildly. "What are you doing here?" She'd been to the house before, especially when Quint had taken the rare trip out of town, but we weren't in the habit of dropping by one another's homes out of the blue. "Can't I drop in to see how you're doing? Why is your car parked across the drive and not in it?" 109

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"We're sealing it tomorrow." Cay carried a glass of iced tea from the kitchen and held it out to Lucille. "Sorry it's not sweet tea. She doesn't allow sugar in the house." "Huh." She took the drink and drained half in one tip of the glass. "Lordy, you should consider running away from home for the weekend if you've got those vultures hanging about out there. Tried to talk to me, but I just waved and walked on past with a big fake smile on my face." Cay poured more tea into the cup sitting on the table at my side. "Got decaf bags? You're going to be wired soon." "In the pantry." Lucille raised a brow. "Wow, you got him trained fast. How long you known this boy?" "Little over a week. Three days after my accident." "What? He didn't like your shiner, so volunteered for knight in shining armor duty? I approve." Cay grinned. He and Lucille had reached near-instant bonding. I rolled my eyes and returned my attention to the unevenly stitched blanket in my hands. Well, it was supposed to be a lap blanket, but was only twelve inches long. About three feet wide. More or less. Variegated yarn hid most of my mistakes. Bright and busy. Cheap acrylic yarn. Perfect. "So why are you really here? Not that I don't appreciate the visit." Lucille snorted. "Just trying to look out for you. Heard a nasty rumor about an hour ago. Not sure how long it will take those overworked idiots to move, but you'll have a visit from Youth Services soon. As swamped as they are, they still have 110

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

to follow up on every call. Might be next week before they get here, but they're coming." My heart stopped. For one long moment, my blood froze in my veins and I couldn't breathe. Cay lifted my feet from the ottoman and sat down, facing me, big hands wrapped around my icy toes. "Breathe." His warmth stole into me, inch by inch and I shakily drew in air. "Again." I took another. All I could see were his blue eyes staring back at me. "Good. Again. Deeper this time." Mesmerized, I did as he ordered and the dizziness began to recede until I started coughing. "DYS?" I choked out. I had to drop my feet to the ground and sit up as straight as possible. Cay braced his hands around my ribs until the coughing subsided, leaving me dizzy. "Easy, girl, easy. You've seen the dance," Lucille said. "You've got the director, me, the gymnastics folks, the TKD school, all kinds of witnesses, to back you up. You're not an unfit mother. The caseworker will be by to ask a few questions, talk to the boy, poke about a bit, and then be on their way, leaving you in peace. Won't even make the hearing stage. But they do have to investigate. You know that." I did. Our part of the division may have been Healthy Family, but we interacted with DYS. Many of their cases were heartbreaking, but a few fell into the frivolous column. Unfounded malicious reports from non-custodial parents or overbearing grandparents. A neighbor who saw or heard 111

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

something out of context and invented wild claims. A teacher who witnessed a parent tap a misbehaving child on the head. A store manager who saw a mother swat a child's rear to get his attention. "So now what?" "Nothing," Lucille declared. "Your house is mostly clean, and there's food in the pantry. Might want to get some laundry done and wash the dishes. Never hurts to push a vacuum around and do some dusting. I'm guessing Rob should probably clean his room, but other than that, just answer the questions and then forget about it." Rob, once more seemingly engrossed in his game, grimaced at the mention of cleaning his room. Yeah, he had selective hearing. Heard most things when his name was mentioned, but when it came to chores, deafness settled in. Normal in that respect. A sound came from Cay's hip. Paul Simon's Kodachrome. "My brother Brennan. I should take this or he'll try to hurt me the next time I see him." The twinkle in his eye explained the comment as a joke. I shrugged, indicated he should answer, and glanced at Lucille, who launched into me with her nosy questions. "It's dinner time. When was the last time you fed that skinny chile?" "He had a huge sandwich a few hours ago," I told her. "Can't you see he's wasting away to nothing?" She heaved herself from the oversized recliner. "Let's go see what you have on hand. Bet you don't even have fresh greens in the fridge." 112

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Cay squeezed my knee and slid the ottoman back so I could stand up as he spoke to his caller. "What? You're here? No warning? I'm sure we can find enough floor space for your sleeping bag. Just one night, right? Okay, yeah, come on up," he said into the phone. "But before you do, I want you to do your reporter thing and get photos of everyone standing around looking at the house." He winked at me and it hit me that his brother was here. Outside. Standing in our street. "Yeah, the house with the white van across the bottom of the drive. If they ask who you are, just say you're a friend of the family, or a reporter from the New York Times doing a story on men who beat the crap out of their wives. Your choice." "No!" Heart pounding once more, I held up a hand. "Don't throw gas on the flames." "Ixnay on the reporter cover. Go with friend of the family if you have to say anything at all. I'll meet you at the door." "God, Lieutenant, that's all—" A finger on my lips stilled the rest of my complaint. He shoved his phone back in its holster. "Hush. He wouldn't have done it anyway. He's too seasoned a reporter to let his mouth smart off when he doesn't know the whole story." "Great. A reporter in the family." I followed Lucille into the kitchen while Cay ran down the stairs. "Where's the good food, girl?" Lucille had her head in the fridge. "In the freezer."

113

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

She lowered her voice. "Woman, that boy is just too adorable, and at least five years younger than you. What's going on?" "Like an overgrown Golden Retriever, he's adopted us. Every time I turn around, there he is. He's mowed the lawn, which I couldn't do with these ribs, he's carried groceries up, he keeps feeding us, and now he's taking care of the chores Quint never seemed to get around to." I leaned against the stove and shrugged. "And I think he's six years younger, maybe seven." "All I see are mini pizzas, Hot Pockets and burritos." Lucille shut the door with a snort of disgust. "A growing boy needs better than that." "I fed him Subway for lunch. Scrambled eggs for breakfast. There's peanut butter and canned soup and I make him choke down a multivitamin every morning. He eats well." "How's he doing with all this?" The men appeared at the edge of the kitchen and I didn't have time to answer, much less ask Lucille why she was risking some sort of legal issue. Warning the suspect, or something like that. "Candace, this is Brennan." Cay waved to a slightly older, bearded version of himself. The squint lines were more noticeable around his eyes, he had a pinkish-sunburned glow to him, and sun streaks in his deep auburn hair. His short beard was neatly trimmed and a tad more orange than his hair. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am." "This is my boss, Lucille." 114

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Brennan's hand was large and warm when we shook and he released my hand to shake Lucille's. "Pleased to meet you as well, ma'am." Cay turned Brennan toward Rob. "This is Candace's son, Rob. The man of the house." Rob waved over his head and leaned into his game once more. I was about ready to banish him to his room with a book. "Turn down the sound, please." He didn't answer, but the sound decreased. "The repeated music gets old fast," I said. "Can I get you anything? We have iced tea, a few sodas, juice or the best tap water in the world." "I'd love an ice tea." "If you want sugar, I might be able to find some." Lucille snorted and Cay coughed. Brennan's eyes twinkled, but he didn't smile. "Unsweetened is fine with me." "Let's sit at the table," I suggested. "I'm sure Brennan wants to know what's going on." While I found a bag of pretzels and poured them into a bowl, Cay brought the drinks, then held a chair for me. He left Lucille and Brennan to find their own seats across the table. The way he blocked me in and pulled his chair up close was almost funny enough to make me laugh. If I'd felt like laughing. Instead, I let him summarize the situation for his brother. Lucille showed no sign she was in a hurry, so I forced myself to relax. 115

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"Going to watch the news?" Brennan asked when the reporters outside were explained. "No," I said. "Doesn't hurt to know what they're saying." "I can read about it in the paper." I glanced over at Rob. Everyone got the message. The doorbell rang. Again. "Let me get it," Lucille volunteered, her black eyes sparking with mischief. "I'll chase them off." "Be my guest." I sighed and nibbled on a pretzel. Cay grabbed a handful, dropped them on a paper napkin and pushed them at me. Brennan's sharp eyes took in the gesture and a silent communication passed between the brothers. My nerves were strung too tight to spend time wondering about it. We all listened as Lucille opened the door. "Oh. Whitney. What are you doing here?" "Lucille. I might ask the same question of you. I need to speak with Mrs. Cutler. Is she available?" I leaned on the table, face in hands propped on elbows. I wanted to throw up. That was fast. Too fast. Youth Services was at the door. [Back to Table of Contents]

116

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Chapter 12 "Come on up," I said, mostly resigned to the inevitable. Better to cooperate and end this as quickly as possible. I hadn't yet met Whitney Rusotti in the flesh, newest caseworker in the Division of Youth Services office. However, we had spoken on the phone when her director used her as a fill-in secretary. Low person on the totem pole, as it were. With the ink barely dry on her degree, now at the beginning of August, I wondered if the shine had worn off her new position, or if her soul burned with fervor to do good. Cay and Brennan both stood when the women reached the top of the stairs. Brennan held Lucille's chair, but his eyes were glued to Whitney. She wore her short, dark brown hair in a simple, cute, pageboy cut, and a navy blue suit that looked hideously hot. She glanced around the house noting the windows were wide open and the ceiling fan ran at full speed. A quick glance over my shoulder confirmed the inside temperature was seventy-six. "Please," I said. "Get comfortable. It won't get any cooler." Reluctantly she set her briefcase on the floor and shrugged out of her suit jacket to reveal a plain white, sleeveless shell. Silk rather than rayon if I had to guess. Cay dug into the dishwasher and came up with a clean glass. How was it I hadn't yet fallen head over heels in love with him? I didn't answer that, not even in the deepest corner of 117

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

my heart. I wasn't sure I had a heart right then. I hadn't lied when I'd said I didn't want to turn around and get married again. Something told me I needed to learn to be me again. Although I'd slowly been making progress since February, the essence of me had been lost somewhere along the line. I was Rob's mother, Quint's wife. Widow. I had little identity on my own and needed to change that before I became an extension of someone new. If ever. Whitney picked up her shiny-new briefcase and set it on the table, but hesitated to take the chair offered. "I need to speak with Mrs. Cutler and her son. And do a home inspection." The fine hairs on the back of my neck rose. Cayden, as smooth as silk, spoke first. "Mrs. Cutler will let us know if she wants us to leave, otherwise we were here visiting before you showed up. As for an inspection," he cast me a glance, "it can wait a few minutes. Sit, have some iced tea, or water, which I hear is the best in the world, and let's discuss this rationally." "Who are you?" "Cayden Shaughnessy. You're sitting next to my brother, Brennan. Have a seat, no one here wants to string you up." Whitney frowned at first Cay, then Brennan, but just like Cay, it didn't faze him one bit. Interesting. Irish good humor, or men assured of their own charm? The glare she gave him was filled with extreme distrust. Since she was outnumbered and I had a significant number of allies, I supposed she'd earned a moment to scowl. 118

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Cay sat beside me and Lucille took the seat at the end. Obviously she still had no intention of going anywhere. Whitney reluctantly sat and Brennan followed, turned in his seat so as to fully face her profile. I broke the uncomfortable near-silence. "What's the routine? I'm guessing you're here because someone filed a complaint." I didn't feel like dancing around the issue. The whole situation pissed me off. Greatly. But it wasn't her fault someone had called it in. Or insisted she come out tonight. That had to come from higher up. "If it's in regards to Rob's black eye, he'll be happy to tell you exactly how he got it." Whitney shifted uncomfortably, ignoring the glass of tea Cay poured for her. "That's part of the issue, Mrs. Cutler, but there's more." I waited. In part because Cay placed a hand on my leg, and in part because I knew if I opened my mouth, my Irish temper would make an appearance. The hand on my bare thigh, however, claimed most of my attention, calming much of my ire. Had I hoped for this when changing into shorts? I slowly drew in a breath and searched for that Zen spot we're all supposed to have. The silence stretched out. Rob looked over his shoulder at me, eyebrow raised. "Rob, why don't you come tell the story of your eye," Cay suggested. "Yeah, I guess." He couldn't quite carry off disgusted. The game went into pause mode, and he came to stand behind my chair so he faced Whitney. As he spoke, he pointed to his left eye, now a lovely shade of purple and green. "We both 119

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

have black eyes, but hers is almost healed. Difference is, this time she got hers from a car accident. Last time she got one it was from my dad." Whitney's gaze followed Rob's pointing. My makeup had long since worn off and the faint yellow of the fading bruise was still visible to those who looked. Her flinch was subtle. Brennan's angry frown was not. "I got mine by not paying attention at Tae Kwon Do." Rob rested a hand on my shoulder. "I was holding kick pads for my partner. I looked away for a second and—pow!—I got it in the eye. Susan was hysterical over hurting me. Master Ward gave me a look. I could almost hear him say, 'Remember the lesson about focus?' Yeah, I lost focus." Finished with his speech, he rested an elbow on Cay's shoulder. I was too astounded to comment. When had he started acting so grown up? Whitney pulled a notebook from her briefcase and flipped it open. "When did this happen?" "Night before last. I don't remember what time. Class started at six-thirty, so maybe a little after seven? Is that about right, Mom?" He didn't wait for my answer, but continued talking to Whitney. "She saw it through the window, so did the lieutenant here. They were in the car waiting for me." "Where is the school?" I took this one. "You can double check the story with Master Ward. The police have made note of the incident as a part of my husband's murder case." The instructor was about 120

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

to get overrun with people asking questions. We'd be lucky if he didn't suggest we find lessons elsewhere. Whitney made notes of the address and names. "I've been tasked with performing an inspection of the house, to make sure it's a safe and healthy environment for the child. Sufficient food in the house, clean clothes, reasonably sanitary conditions, weapons under lock and key, that sort of thing." Although I'd expected it, I still had to say, "Better have a search warrant on you." A knee jerk reaction from watching too much TV? Rob drew in a breath as if to speak, but Cay beat him to it. "I believe there has to be just cause for such an action. What is the complaint, and who brought it? Don't they have a right to know who they're up against? I can't imagine anyone with pure motives would instigate such an investigation. Sounds more like malicious mischief meant to cause pain and anguish to a woman already dealing with traumatic circumstances." "As you are not family, I'll have to ask you to not interfere, Lieutenant." Whitney jumped when Brennan lightly touched her shoulder. "If my opinion counts for anything at all here," Brennan said, "sounds to me like it's a diversion engineered to distract you from children in true need and it's a waste of taxpayer money." "And I'll thank you," Whitney said to the man beside her, "to stay out of this entirely and don't touch me. That could be construed as harassment." 121

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

I caught Lucille's smirk. Maybe Whitney wasn't quite as icy as she portrayed. Between her clothes and her precise accent, her entire being screamed socialite. East Coast. Good breeding. What the heck was she doing here? Brennan sat back, and held up a bit of white fuzz. "No harassment intended. This was on your shoulder." He gave her a wide grin as Cay's hand tightened on my knee. "Looks like fluff from the cottonwood trees dumping their seed pods right now. But in case you're wondering, you're as soft as you look. You smell good, too." Well, he had flustering down pat. Did these Shaughnessy men practice the technique at home? I almost laughed at Whitney's heated blush and nonplussed expression. To hide my snicker, I turned to Rob. "Did you pick up your room this week?" "Nope." Not an ounce of chagrin. "But I have put most of my dirty clothes in the laundry room." "On the floor and picking up sawdust, no doubt." "Sawdust?" Whitney's perfectly plucked and shaped brow raised. "My husband is—was a woodworker of sorts. Sawdust gets tracked in from the garage and from there it spreads, with a lot ending up in the laundry room. I haven't had the energy to deal with it since he left. Might have something to do with the cracked ribs he gave me. Used his foot for that blow. Guess it was easier since I was already on the floor." I tried to make it sound dry, witty, a hint facetious. From the way Cay's fingers stroked my knee, I suspected I'd failed. "I was 122

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

nearly healed from that when I got hit head on. You can get the police report on that, too." Instead of answering, Whitney once more made a note. Because she was taking a low-key approach, I decided to take pity on her. The sooner she got her job done, the sooner she'd leave. I said to Rob, "Honey, why don't you show Ms. Rusotti your pit, I mean your room. Afterward we'll have a discussion on the old proverb about cleanliness being next to godliness." "Mom." He groaned it perfectly. The ham. "Isn't it enough I shower every day?" "Consider this penance and maybe you'll figure out girls like guys who keep their spaces neat." Cay grinned, but Brennan flushed and looked off into the distance. "If a guy is too neat, people tend to think he's, uh, not normal, or, um, not into chicks. Girls. Women." "You mean gay?" Rob asked. "Um." Brennan tossed me an apologetic look. "Yeah, something like that." Whitney's glare could have set off forest fires. Obviously she didn't approve of Brennan. I, on the other hand, could fall in love with him quite easily. Almost as easily as I'd fallen in love with his brother. Shit. From the corner of my eye, I looked at Cay and found him smiling at me. Almost as if he could read the thoughts in my head like an ebook scrolling across the screen of my laptop. Thankfully, Whitney didn't notice, but then again, Lucille did. As Whitney followed Rob down the stairs to his room in 123

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

the darkest corner of the house—he swore he liked it that way—I tried to hide my face by sucking down half a glass of iced tea. Cay's large hand spread over my thigh, heating my skin and sending sparks along nerve pathways that led directly to erogenous zones. More so when his hand slid up my thigh to the hem of my shorts. My short, shorts. Which put his pinky finger very much in the no parking zone. He was in danger of me hauling him into the bedroom and doing him with no regard for anyone else currently in the house. Or the dead spouse I had yet to bury. But no one spoke. We all listened to the voices downstairs. Because of the bend of the hallway, we couldn't hear words. About ten minutes passed before they came back to the foyer and tromped up the stairs. Rob cleared the top step with a small collection of plates, a few utensils and a stack of plastic cups. At least he had the grace to blush. I sighed. "Rob." "I know, I know." Speaking low and calm, I repeated my old lecture. "Bugs, mice, mold. These things are all attracted to dishes and food, neither of which are allowed in your room. I'm not pleased." "I know, I know." "And what do you think will help you remember?" "Um, a marathon round of Mario Brothers? With Cay and Brennan?" The hopeful look on his face almost made me laugh. But the lesson needed to be driven home. "Hmm, I'm thinking first, your room cleaned. Dusted, vacuumed, clothes all folded and neatly put away in the dresser and closet. Bed made with clean sheets." 124

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

His face took on the persecuted expression of a kicked puppy. My heart hardened. I knew that look. The little faker. "Second, your bathroom scrubbed top to bottom using real cleaning products and not shower gel. Toilet and floor both scrubbed, particularly the toilet, inside and out. Possibly with a toothbrush if the whining gets too loud." He gulped but didn't say a word. "Towels, rug and bathmat washed and returned to their proper places. Folded as needed." He heaved a sigh, his shoulders slumping. "If this takes longer than an hour and a half, I'll add the guest bathroom as a bonus." His head shot up, eyes wide with surprise. "An hour and a half?" "You can do it, if you don't dawdle. Take the vacuum down with you." "Yes, ma'am." The perfect tone of persecution. "Set the timer, please." He muttered as he took the dishes to the sink, but he set the timer on the stove and waved as he thumped down the stairs with the vacuum. "Oh, and Rob?" "Yes?" "Vacuum the stairs on your way up, please." He groaned, but acknowledged the order. Lucille chuckled. "You're so cruel. Friday night, the sun is out, he should be outside playing." Whitney watched the entire exchange with a blank face. 125

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

I stared at her a moment before asking, "Any comments or questions?" She met my gaze and I detected a slight softening of her expression. "No, no more questions. I looked around down stairs and from what I can see here, I'm satisfied. For what it's worth, I think you handled that beautifully." Throat too tight to talk, I nodded. Maybe this would be the end of it. God willing. She took a business card from her briefcase and set it in the middle of the table. Brennan stole it. She frowned and pulled out another one for me. "I don't often get to see functional homes and well adjusted children. I'll do my best to make sure this is the end of the matter. However, I'm the new kid in the office and your father-in-law is loud and not shy about using his rank as a hammer, and spouting his service record." Tears burned at the back of my throat. "Let's put it this way, he trained his son. I should have walked the first time I heard Ivy castigate his wife. Poor woman, her only way out was to drink herself to death. But by then I was pregnant, far from home, very young and idealistic. For the most part, I had it better, but sometimes you can't take the boy's upbringing out of the man." Her clear amber eyes warmed and she nodded. We had an understanding. "Sorry to interrupt your evening." Lucille pushed up from the table. "I'll walk you out." 126

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Brennan all but leapt to his feet. "Ladies, allow me to join you." "Don't lock yourself out," I called after him. "On second thought," Cay said, "please do." [Back to Table of Contents]

127

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Chapter 13 Cay stood and held out a hand to me. I touched it briefly, but picked up the mess on the table. I hadn't noticed until then that most of the pretzels Cay had given me earlier were broken into tiny pieces. So much for displaying my cool. He helped me clean up and followed me into the kitchen, where he cornered me at the sink. The high counter pressed into my stomach as his arms caged me, his chest providing a nice support for my body. "You did good, Candace." Neck too tight, throat too dry, I could only manage a short nod. More than anything in that moment, I wanted to lean on Cay, take comfort from his strength. I felt like the worst sort of weak woman. His arms came around my middle, careful not to hold me tight. "I know this is bad timing, highly inappropriate, but I can't help it. I want to kiss the mother of the coolest kid ever born." My vision wavered and a smile spread across my face. Damn the man. "You know how to woo a girl. Praise her kid and she's all but putty in your hands." "Not empty praise. Honest compliment. He's the coolest kid I've ever met, and that includes my siblings, who are pretty damn cool. You have every right to be proud of him, but right now, I'm not really thinking about him. It's you on my mind. I've never been attracted to a mother before. It's 128

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

messing with my head." A hint of laughter rumbled in his chest. "What's wrong with mothers?" "Not a damn thing, but all the ones I know come with a big ugly man attached. I've never known a divorcee or widow before." "We're people too, you know." "So I'm discovering. Or maybe it's just you. A cool kid with an ubercool mother. Makes sense to me." A tear slipped from the corner of my eye. "Ubercool? I think that's the best compliment I've ever had." "And beautiful. Smart. Compassionate. Tough as nails, yet with an obvious soft spot for her kid. All adds up to incredibly sexy." The words were softly spoken, brushing over my ear like the faintest breeze on a hot day. With the impact of a meteorite. Heart pounding, I melted against him to discover his breathing was as uneven as mine. Something inside me loosened. I couldn't remember the last time I'd been called sexy in such a reverent manner. "Cay..." He heard the plea in my voice because he turned me to face him. My hands rested on his chest covered with an old, soft t-shirt, but nothing could hide the smooth ridges of hard muscles. Blue eyes stared down at me, coming closer as the lids lowered. Just before his lips touched mine, I did a sound inventory. Voices murmuring outside. Washing machine running 129

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

downstairs. Music thumping right along with it, Rob singing along. For the moment, we were alone. Cay's hands held my hips, his lips touched mine, and the world ceased to matter. He tasted of tea and pretzels. He smelled of clean sweat and the faintest trace of soap. He made my head swim, my breath shorten, and my blood race, hot and thick, filling my breasts and pooling in the tender flesh between my legs. A moan rumbled deep in his chest. Before we broke the kiss, he cupped my butt cheeks and lifted me onto the sink edge. Of their own will, my legs wrapped around his waist and pulled him tight. The fit was perfect. The ridge formed by the fly on his denim shorts, supported by an impressive erection behind it, aligned perfectly where I wanted to feel it most. The only thing better would be our clothes magically disappearing. Our lips parted and Cay angled his head for a better fit. I never got the chance to close my mouth. I didn't want to. Ravenous and aching, I did my best to pull him inside me any way I could. Large hands, warm and gentle, eased up under the edge of my top. Arms tight around his neck, I speared my hands into his short hair, crushing my breasts against his chest. I was living flame, burning, needing, craving. All I could think of was devouring and being devoured by the man, touched by those hands, kissed by that mouth. Each inch of skin he touched tingled. I needed more to live and greedily reached for it, rubbing against the one who breathed life into my soul. Warmth encircled my thigh, long fingers curling under, edging into the red zone. I was in danger of exploding like a 130

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

keg of gunpowder. The other hand slid under the elastic band of the built-in bra of my top, carefully skimming my ribs. I'd taken off the heavy-duty compression vest when I'd changed, and loved the freedom. The need to be touched and to feel was almost beyond my control. My arms slipped down his chest until I could reach around his waist and slide my hands up under his shirt. Smooth skin and the fantastically hard muscle underneath were a treat to my fingertips. So close, his finger was so close to sliding under the elastic of my panties, I panted with want. Was that why they were called panties? A thought to ponder another time. I did all but use my hand to move his into place, and still, he held back, teasing, taunting, driving me wild. "Cay..." I swallowed my moan as he kissed me from another angle. I gasped his name again as we made another fast break for air. "I want you, honey. Bad. But not here." "Fine. My bed—" He stopped me with his mouth once more. What seemed like seconds later, could have been hours, we gulped more air, the deep breath I hauled in drawing up a cough with it. I buried my face in his chest as he once more used his hands to hold my ribs for me. When I stopped coughing, he held me. I was weak as a kitten. "Damn ribs," I was finally able to whisper. "Not been doing your breathing exercises?" His lips brushed my ear. "Still sexy?" 131

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"Yes. Always. But a warning to back off for the moment. Besides, there are ears downstairs. Wonder if we can get Brennan to take Rob out for an hour? I still haven't got that picture from last night out of my head. Doubt I ever will." Smoldering blue eyes seared me with hot desire, reminding me he'd seen me mid-orgasm. Naked and sprawled on my bed. Inches from making love. I drew in a deep breath that killed the erotic haze with one weak cough. Coming back to my senses, I heard Brennan's baritone mixing with Rob's soprano. I'd miss that voice when it changed. They were both downstairs and it sounded like Brennan planned to stay down there, keeping Rob company while giving us privacy. "Your brother is a smart man." "Yeah, he is." Judging by the chuckle, there was a story or two there. "Let's go cuddle on the couch. If we go to the bedroom, I won't be able to control myself. Hold tight." Hands under my butt, he lifted me again. Had we been naked, I would have been impaled by an impressive spike. Instead, I got a good tease as he walked to the sofa, Rob's normal domain. My chair wasn't big enough for both of us and by silent agreement, we avoided Quint's chair. First item of furniture to go, I decided. It wasn't right for Cay. Or Rob. That's what I'd meant, right? "Unlock your legs, I don't want to mash them." Feeling like a horse rider, I pulled my heels back, thighs clamped to his hips. "God, that gives me wicked ideas." He settled onto the sofa with me straddling his lap. All the better to snuggle his 132

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

erection. Impressive that I could feel it through our clothes. He groaned. "We may have been safer in the kitchen." "We can lock the bedroom door," I whispered in his ear. His hand traveled up my back until he cupped my face. "When we go in that bedroom, we won't come out until morning. Which means it won't be tonight." The fact he was right in no way eased my frustration. What held me back from voicing my complaint was simple exhaustion. "Yes, you have your brother in town. Did I hear you say for only a night?" "He's headed to Talkeetna tomorrow afternoon to meet up with some climbers. They've hired him to document their climb to the top of Denali." "Bit late in the season." "Really?" "I seem to recall hearing the season ends about mid-July." "We'll have to get the scoop, then. About how long is a typical climb?" "A couple weeks? I'm not really sure. We watched a program a couple years back. I don't remember much, but they do call the mountain a weather maker. Surely you've been briefed on it? It is sort of the biggest landscape obstacle up here." Cay touched the end of my nose. "See, I said smart and I'm just beginning to realize how smart." "Funny, Lieutenant." "It's been at least three whole minutes, kiss me." 133

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

It occurred to me I should be feeling shame over my attraction for Cay. My husband had been killed and I barely noticed. Cay was obviously several years younger than I. If I really took the time to think about it, I might buy into his open window theory. However, since kissing him was more fun, I pushed all those thoughts aside. Live for the moment. Oh so typical of our luck lately, my lips had barely touched Cay's when the vacuum started at the bottom of the stairs. We shared a sigh, and I climbed off Cay's lap. He patted the space beside him, and I wanted to sit there, but since I was on my feet, I retreated to my chair. All the better to look like a respectable, newly widowed matron. Cay pouted for a moment, then gave me a wink and picked up Rob's game controller. I felt a gaming marathon coming on. As far as male bonding rituals went, I supposed it could be worse. They might have wanted to watch something violent and gory. [Back to Table of Contents]

134

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Chapter 14 Two extra large pizzas and one Greek salad later, the guys were deep in their gaming marathon. Cay and Brennan sat on either side of Rob and traded quips, caught up on news. In general, they earned forever hero spots in not only Rob's heart but mine as well. They could have gone off for a beer to do their visiting, but they chose to stay with us, drinking soda and iced tea, munching on popcorn. I ignored the soda Rob consumed and silently reminded myself to nag him into brushing twice. Tomorrow he'd get nothing but milk or water to drink. And I'd buy some fresh fruit and vegetables. I counted myself lucky because he liked salad. We also learned more about Brennan's trip. Friends of his had talked him into first learning to climb mountains, then photographing those climbs. They'd been training for a year and felt they were ready to tackle North America's tallest peak. The season had been so heavily booked, and the weather so good, they'd been scheduled as one of the last two climbs. After them, the park service was shutting down the mountain and dismantling the base camps for the year. Because of the lateness of the season, they'd hired an expert guide, one who'd made the climb numerous times. Brennan was pretty excited. I also got to see a gallery of family photos he kept stored on his iPhone. No doubt about it, the seven of them had the same parents. Cassidy looked tiny next to the brawny males, all of whom had slightly different shades of red hair but 135

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

matching blue eyes and freckles. And they all looked so damn young. "That's the last time we were all together in one place," Cay said. "Ryan's funeral." "That explains the black." And the suits. They were a handsome lot. "I expect the next gathering will be Christmas. I'm already booked to go back and I'm betting there'll be a wedding." His eyes sparkled. "Yeah, I'm stopping off in California on my way home," Brennan said. "Da wants me to look over this Malone character." "He's cool." Cay twisted with his controller and cut across the finish line, much to Rob's howling dismay. "But he can't do that." "Well then what good is he?" We were all laughing when Cay's phone rang. Danger Zone? I couldn't help lifting a brow. Who did he think he was? Maverick? Did that make me Goose or Charlie? I'd rather be Charlie. What woman wouldn't want to be Kelly McGillis? Then again, Meg Ryan did have one of the best lines in the movie. "Damn." Cay connected and listened, standing as the message carried on. "Affirmative." He disconnected and handed his controller to Rob. "Got to fly. Brenn—" "Can sleep on my couch." I stood. "Heaven, or the Air Force, only knows when you'll be back." Cay pulled me into his arms. "Since we're new here, it's probably a drill, to test response and see if we can find our way. With luck we'll stand down in a few hours." 136

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"But in case..." "Just in case..." He kissed me long and thoroughly, then let me go. "Got to run!" He exchanged a back pounding with Brennan, high-fived a grinning but blushing Rob, then flew down the stairs and out the door. Brennan shook his head with a laugh. "He's always been like that. Intense." He turned his blue eyes on me and smiled. "You don't have to put me up—" "Not a problem. I kind of like the idea of a man sleeping in the living room tonight. It's been a tough day, as you saw when you arrived. I'll feed you breakfast, provide a hot shower, then send you on your adventure in the morning." Rob echoed my sentiments with vigorous nodding. At least he didn't appear shocked or weirded out by the kiss Cay had laid on me. "I don't have to be there until five in the afternoon. How long is the drive?" "About two hours." "Then I can help you with the resealing." "Better catch him then, he has the supplies in Jack's garage." "Come on, Rob!" The guys dashed off while I followed at a slower pace. They forgot to open the garage. Cay was already roaring down the street as Jack's garage door closed and the other two lugged heavy pails and a couple of specialized brooms to my house.

137

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"Looks like we're set." I pointed to a corner in the crowded garage. I really needed to get the sawdust vacuumed up at the very least. "Nice shop." Brennan looked around with approval. "Have plans for all this?" I shrugged. "Don't know yet." "Aiden, the eldest, is in construction. He could advise you on values. If there weren't massive shipping costs involved, he'd probably buy most of it off you. He wants to build a shop out behind his house so he can do custom cabinetry and play with furniture designs. This looks like top quality equipment." "I have no idea. His opinion would be helpful because I need to sell it." I shrugged. "Come on up. I'm thinking of making a pot of decaf." "Works for me." Upstairs, I glanced at the clock. Only half past nine. The sun wouldn't set for another hour, it was Friday night, and I was beat. But leaving Brennan to be entertained by Rob at this point would be rude. Besides, this might be my only chance to finesse some information about Cay from a relative. The pain and joy of living in Alaska. Most of the family gathered around the table at the holidays were the ones we chose, not the ones we were born to. I had Lucille and now, apparently, one Cayden Shaughnessy, whom I considered part of that exclusive club of chosen family. "Hey, bub," I said to Rob. "Did the stuff from the washer ever make it to the dryer?" Mouth full of popcorn, he didn't bother answering, but instead ran down the stairs. 138

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"Good kid there," Brennan chuckled. The newly emptied popcorn bowl in his hand, he met me in the kitchen where I measured grounds into the filter basket. "Yeah, more due to Nature than Nurture. Don't know how I got so lucky. I'm just waiting for the terrible teens to hit. The twos were a breeze, it was the threes that knocked me silly." "I wouldn't know about that." His blue eyes twinkled. "The last time I was around a toddler was my brother Finn and he's eighteen now. I was ten when he was born and not much into analyzing the behavior of rug rats." I laughed. "I can't imagine a family that size." "I'm enjoying the peace of only one kid." "This is peaceful?" I stared back at him, eyebrow raised. "I've had peace with Quint gone, but this place has been a hive of activity ever since Cay showed up." "I told you. Intense. There're two things that drive him crazy. Quiet and spiders." Once the water tank was filled, I switched on the coffeemaker. "Spiders? He came to a good place. We have few spiders. Daddy Long Legs seem to be the most prolific, but nothing like we had in Houston or Denver." A shudder fled down my spine. Denver had brought a whole new meaning to arachnophobia for me. Quint once stepped on a pregnant spider and we'd watched in horror as her babies, thousands of them, scattered across our driveway. We stomped out as many as we could, but I knew hundreds of them had escaped. The garage and driveway had received a good scrubbing that very day. Rob still teased me about the time I opened a 139

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

plastic egg as we were getting ready for Easter and found a big, black spider inside. He swore it was as terrified as I was when I screamed and threw it back in the box. I think that was the first time my child lied to me. "Ah, sounds like a good place for the boy, then." He didn't even bother to hide his wicked laugh. "I'll have to dig up a plastic spider to leave on his pillow before I leave." "You're mean." I couldn't help chuckling myself. The sound of charging elephants announced the imminent arrival of the child. He was cute, but oh so loud at times. Particularly with his father gone. I still had a tendency to tiptoe, but not Rob. His natural exuberance had started coming out as spring progressed, and these days it burst forth unrestrained. I couldn't see any reason to smother it. Not yet, anyway. He would calm over time, but for now, he had a few years of repression to let loose. "Brenn, ready for a new challenge?" "In a bit," I said. "We're having a coffee break." A pleading expression immediately came over Rob's face. "Yes, it's decaf." His grin widened and his fingers folded into a clasp of supplication. "I take it you'd like a mocha?" "Yes, please!" "Status report." While he reeled off the chores completed, I gathered the cups, the cream and the cocoa packets. As long as it was decaf, and more cocoa than coffee with a healthy dose of milk, I figured a cup a week wouldn't stunt his growth. 140

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Considering he stood a good two to three inches taller than most of his contemporaries, I felt solid with my assessment. "All right," I said when he wound down. "One mocha coming up. Find a quiet-down activity or game, if you would." "KK." At Brennan's questioning expression, I explained. "The new texting short hand for 'okay'." "Ah. I do little texting myself. The family is too long winded for something so limiting as texting." I held up a packet of cocoa for him and he nodded. Three mochas. The air coming in the windows finally showed a hint of cooling. "Want to take these outside? The balcony is a nice place to watch the sun go down." Brennan ruffled Rob's hair as we walked past the back of the sofa to get to the balcony. I handed my son his mocha and he found a movie on Netflix. I noted the PG-13 rating, language not violence, and drifted out the door to where Brennan stood, surveying the area and my little garden. "Oh shoot." I noted the wilting leaves of my marigolds. "I need to water." "Where's the can?" Brenn took a drink from his cup and set it on the railing. "On top of the fridge." "Anything special you do with it?" "Run it lukewarm. Otherwise the water is too cold and will shock the roots." 141

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

He didn't question me, but found the watering can, filled it and brought it out. I took it from him and nodded at a chair. "Have a seat." We chatted and I listened to stories of some of his assignments and the climbs he'd done over the last year. Like Cay, he had hard muscles and looked extremely fit. From his shirt pocket, he pulled a small digital camera and shot pictures of my reviving flowers and my small two-plant tomato greenhouse. And a few of me, to my chagrin. "Relax," he laughed. "You're beautiful and everyone wants to see how much you look like Cassidy. Not enough for Cay's attraction to be creepy, but enough you'd fit in at a family reunion. Your eyes make you stand out." "Stop already." Laughing, I held up a hand to block his view. "I've only known him a week and a half. He's years younger than I am, as are you by the way. I suspect I'm still older than Aiden. I'm barely single, my husband's not even buried, and I'm not in the market for a new one. You're both cute and sweet but, seriously, I'm not eager to take on a new, larger, family." Brennan shut off the credit card-sized camera and slipped it into his t-shirt pocket. "Fair enough, but I think you're basically spitting in the wind. He'll wear you down eventually, and yes, the family will be part of the assault." "You people don't even know me." I waved a hand at the street. "Most of the people here think I'm a raving bitch. That doesn't faze you at all, does it? Does this caveman act come naturally to you all, or is it only Cay?" 142

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Brennan snorted. "Did he tell you that or did you figure it out for yourself?" "What?" "Cay's pilot handle. His nickname." "Ah, the theme from Top Gun. You mean like Maverick, Goose and Ice Man? Does that mean I get to play Charlie?" And he'd had the nerve to tell me Top Gun was Navy, not Air Force. He was so busted. He laughed softly. "Yeah. And you're no raving bitch. You're Irish. We understand Irish. We consider Maureen O'Hara a goddess, especially when she's in a temper." I rolled my eyes and ignored the Irish comment. They didn't know about my Scots side. Yeah, I had it all going for me. "No, he's never told me." "Actually, he's not really a caveman, he's got the knight in shining armor thing going, but that's what they call him. Caveman." I stared at Brennan. "You're kidding." Shaking his head, he drained the last of his coffee. "Nope. It's for real. I don't have it on the phone, I'll email it to you, but I've got a photo of his plane with the name stenciled on it." My head dropped back and I stared at the wide-open blue sky. In the distance, a small plane buzzed in a steady, soothing way. A block or two away, someone's mower fired up. A normal night. Peaceful. "It fits him, in a weird, twisted way, doesn't it?" Brennan laughed and I heard the movement of his camera again. 143

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"You're a menace with that thing." "I've been called worse. You'll have to do better than that to scare me." A sense of inevitability swamped me, but I wasn't giving in just yet. "He's still way too young for me." "What, are you Grandma Moses? Give it up, Candy girl. He's sweet on you." Because he didn't mean the nickname as a derogatory term, I kept my correction mild. "My name is Candace. Not Candy, got it?" "Yes, ma'am. Shall I go find a walker for you?" The laughter was infectious. Yeah, the Irish charm was inborn. Dammit. The sound of thunder started soft, more like a strong wind, but quickly grew. Brennan looked around. "What's that?" "Keep your eyes peeled." I searched the clear blue skies. Unless I was mistaken ... "There it is." I pointed to the south and slightly west. The distinctive triangular shape of a fighter jet was on course for the north-south base runway. He'd pass close. "Rob, come watch." The three of us stood at the railing as the first jet screamed by. Maybe one hundred twenty-five feet off the rooftops. Not the closest I'd seen, he was about a block and a half away, flying over a strip of woods to the west of us. Pretty darn close and near enough to rattle the windows and see the helmet of the pilot. The delicate leaves of the plants on the balcony trembled. "Wow! Now that's a rush," Brennan exclaimed while shooting pictures. 144

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"Get the next one!" Rob pointed to the south again. The next jet was a little higher, but it too roared past, leaving a wake of adrenalin pounding my veins. God, to handle all that power ... I could only dream of the rush and fully understood why Cay ran when called to fly. It'd been my dream as a young girl to fly fighter jets, but, alas, I was too short, so turned up my nose at the military altogether. If I couldn't fly, well then, I guessed they didn't need me. I didn't like the physical fitness requirements, either. Run? Me? Right. Not happening. The third jet came through and Brennan laughed. "This is awesome! Just wish I had my big camera." I'd seen the case, but to run inside to get it, he'd miss the show. We watched it zoom off to the north and waited. The subwoofer from next door belted out something low and dangerous, while we turned our attention south. A minute later, we saw it coming. "Here comes the fourth. Should probably be the last. Up here they tend to group in fours." I pointed at the jet coming in, lined up on the same course as the other three. The pilot started his run from a little farther away. I held my breath, imagining it was Cay. Okay, so I fantasized it was Cay. What could be cooler than a jet jockey buzzing the house? Not every day, but just once? My traitorous heart beat faster, hoping, anticipating. The jet streaked toward us, a little closer and lower than the others. Excitement gripped me and I held Rob's shoulders. 145

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"I've moved it to video," Brennan said. Gaze glued to the incoming plane, I couldn't let his brag pass. "I want your camera if it can do all that. How's the zoom?" He chuckled. "I'll show you when the show is over." And then the plane was there, no more than one hundred feet over our heads. Probably closer to fifty. We could make out the pilot's helmeted head and his right hand raised in salute as he screamed past. "That was Cay!" Rob turned and hugged me. "I know it! He waved at us." "That was a salute." I looked up to see Brennan's camera aimed at us and I blushed. I could just imagine the look on my face. "Put that thing away, once and for all, or I will steal it from you." The infuriating man laughed, but he lowered the camera and played with the buttons. "Mind if I plug this into your computer?" "Rob, go power up my laptop." [Back to Table of Contents]

146

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Chapter 15 The next morning dawned clear and bright, not even a hint of dew on the grass. While I made breakfast, Brennan used my scrubbed-that-morning shower. Hell, I'd even made my bed, picked up the worst of the fluff littering my carpet, and made sure no underwear was visible in the hamper. Rob wandered up about the time Brennan came out and the scrambled eggs were done. They got warmed slices of ham instead of bacon and a stack of wheat bread for toast. Nothing fancy, but easy and hearty. Once we figured out what we were doing, I had some time to think. I'd tried earlier, but the caffeine hadn't kicked in yet. Because my strokes were neater, I got to paint the sealant on the outside edges of the drive, to keep the lines straight. Brennan rode herd on Rob as they filled in the middle with broader sweeps. The previous night, Brenn had downloaded the photos and the short video to my laptop, as well as to his computer. He had a way knack for framing a shot. My poor wilted flowers looked like works of art through his lens. However, where he excelled was candid portraits. I wasn't entirely comfortable with the pictures he'd taken of me. For years I'd been camera phobic, insisting on being the photographer, not the photographed. The few times I'd been caught showed a progression of fading light in my eyes. As the subtle abuse piled on, my essence had been sliding into hiding. A woman 147

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

giving up on life. But the night before, that pathetic woman had been nowhere in sight. The woman Brennan had caught in his lens had sparkled with life, and heaven forbid I should admit it—love. A completely frightening thought. I may have admitted in my own head I'd fallen for Cay, but I didn't want the world to see it. If this were a temporary infatuation, there'd be no point in pursuing a relationship. Chances were he'd be off to war before we could exchange those three little words. To my chagrin, there, on the view screen of Brennan's camera, on the monitor of my computer, was the photographic, full color evidence of my love for Cay. Brenn had also captured some great photos of me with Rob and I didn't mind my open emotion in those. I adored my son and didn't care if the world knew it. In contrast, Cay ... well, therein lay the problem. The other shots that thrilled me, pulled from the video and enlarged, were of Cay. We could clearly see his grin and name just below the canopy. The helmet covered the rest of his face, but that grin ... wow. All he had to do was flash it and my body responded by softening all over, starting with my heart. The three of us working together made quick work of my driveway. We'd just set up the stakes and contractor's tape to warn away foot traffic across the sticky surface and turned our attention to Jack's driveway when Jack pulled up, parking on the street. 148

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"Oh. I didn't expect you to do that," he said. The confused expression warring with his scowl almost made me laugh. He still didn't know how to treat me now that Quint's abusive nature had been unveiled. "No problem. Seemed the least we could do." I shrugged and resumed sweeping a light layer of dust and cottonwood debris from the drive. "Uh, well, yeah," he stumbled. "Any idea when Cay will be back? I'm sure he'd like to see his brother before Brennan heads north." Had I been casual enough? I didn't look up. "For that cute stunt last night, he's confined to base for the rest of the weekend. Won't be back until Monday night, unless the base commander is still pissed, then it could be Tuesday night." "Stunt?" "The low fly-by on the neighborhood. He says you were on the balcony and saw it. All four pilots saw you." I looked up in time to see Jack's lips twitch. "He caught holy hell for it. The whole squadron was held overnight and just released, but he claimed full responsibility and argued for the punishment. He got it." The scowl returned for a moment, then relaxed. "Damn kid." "Yeah, well, it was pretty spectacular." Brennan joined the conversation. "I sent him a few of the better shots." "Which helped—or not, depending on your view— determine his guilt, and got everyone else a slightly reduced reprimand." Jack sighed and stared upward. "In fact, they 149

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

love the photos and the reprimand settled about as well as water on a duck's back." Brennan and I shared a secret grin and Rob gave him a high-five. "Yeah, that's about the size of it." Jack headed into the garage. "Let me change and let's knock this out. There are two other drives to do today." By then, Ben had also returned. With all the vehicles parked on the street, it looked like we were having a party. His wife came out and backed her car from their garage. Like Jack, he approached me wearing a scowl. "Your boy— " I held up a hand to stop him. "First of all, he's not my boy. Second, I didn't ask him to buzz the neighborhood. Third, he's big enough to take his lumps for doing something so silly." "Dangerous, stupid, irritating ... Do you know how many phone calls we got over that? The base CO is pissed." I shrugged. "He can deal, I'm sure." Jack joined us. "Half the calls were people wanting to know why the base hadn't advertised an air show. A few others said they didn't mind the noise, but could training runs be done a few hours earlier in the day. Base command is more exasperated than pissed." Ben shrugged, his shoulders tight with irritation. "Still didn't change the tone of the ass-chewing we all got." Something in his manner made me the faintest bit uneasy. To gloss it over and move on, I said, "Well, it's over for the moment, what do you say we get these driveways done?" 150

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Ben growled and stared at me for a long moment. "When did you get put in charge of this project?" Still feigning nonchalance, I shrugged him off. After all, I'd dealt with far worse in private for twelve years. Quint had never gone beyond verbal abuse disguised as joking in the company of others. I didn't think Ben would even go that far, but there was a glint in his eye, a tenseness to his posture that put me on edge. As long as his hands stayed unfisted and on his hips, I'd give him the benefit of the doubt, but I'd assumed a defensive, ready-to-duck-and-run posture when Rob wrapped his arm around my shoulders. "You all were gone and the time of your return was unknown. The prep work was done, the day is perfect. Didn't seem like a good idea to sit on it." I forced myself to relax. Brennan's sharp eyes didn't miss the entire nonverbal exchange. Neither did Ben, whose frown deepened even more. "You should be getting ready for the funeral." I rolled my eyes. "I have a red dress. I'm ready." Brennan coughed, but Ben's eyes nearly bugged out of his head. "Your husband isn't even in his final resting place. Your blatant disrespect is appalling." "His blatant disrespect while he lived was worse." I spoke calmly, but inside I began to seethe. How dare he? "You never saw the man who fought with cruel words and left bruises where no one could see. Sure, you may have seen a bruise or two, but on any given day, had I elected to show them, you could have seen bruises on my legs, butt and arms. The shouting you heard came when he turned his 151

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

vicious drunken temper on my son. In fact, the voice you might have heard shouting back was Rob, not me. Then again," I glanced at his wife, "I have to wonder if you're the same sort of man behind closed doors." The woman flinched and Ben took a step back. "What the hell does that mean?" "An abuser always knows another of his kind. Is that why you liked him, Ben?" Red infused his face from the neck up. "You were the abuser. Always henpecking him. That's why he spent so much time in the garage, to get away from you." "He spent so much time in the garage because I didn't allow his beer in the house. One of my small victories, but a victory nonetheless. However, I paid for that one. I paid every time he came to bed drunk and pissing on himself." The wife winced and Ben frowned at her before turning on me again, angry and doing his best to control it. "You shouldn't speak ill of the dead. He was a good provider, gave you everything you ever wanted and all you can do is complain." "What am I supposed to do, Ben? Go out to the bar, pound down a few shots and drafts and reminisce about how I'm going to miss the bruises no one ever saw? Cry in my beer about how I won't know how to go on without him telling me I'm no good? Collapse and prove to the world I can't stand on my own without his paycheck to provide a cushy lifestyle? How do you recommend I memorialize my husband, Ben?" Rob held my arm, otherwise I would have been stabbing my finger into Ben's chest. "Cuz to tell you the truth, 152

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

engraving beloved husband on his headstone doesn't cut it for me. My son can speak for himself. Thankfully, most of Quint's abuse fell on me and not Rob. I'd take it all again to keep it away from my son, but I don't have to worship at his twisted altar. If I choose to drink champagne and wear scarlet at his funeral, I think I've damn well earned it." I shoved the handle of my broom at Jack. "Sorry. I'll be back in a bit. I don't have to stand here and take this shit." I stomped away, only to come up against the band of yellow tape outlining my drive. Dammit. It was either detour into the street, around my car and up the other side of the yard, or go left and around the back of the house. I opted for the latter route, less visible now that people had come out of their garages or onto their balconies to see the cause of the ruckus. When I reached my porch and tried to open the front door, I realized my error. The only way into the house was through the garage, and the only point of possible entry was on the other side of the house where the grass was close enough to the garage door to avoid stepping on the now-sticky drive. The north side, where everyone I'd just yelled at was gathered. A litany of raw language streamed through my head when I wanted to kick the door and scream them at the top of my voice. Just what I needed to cement my reputation. Five minutes later, Rob and Brennan found me sitting on the top step, hands holding my head. My temper had ebbed away sitting there in the cool shade with the scent of herbs and flowers surrounding me. 153

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Rob braced his hands on his hips, an eerie imitation of me dishing out a lecture on this very situation. "Locked out?" I let my narrowed gaze flick over him, but didn't say a word. He let out a dramatic sigh. "How many times to do we have to go over this? Always make sure you have your house keys and phone on you when you leave the house. No exceptions." Smug grin on his face, he easily made the leap from garden to porch step and had the nerve to pat the top of my head before hauling out the keys attached to a belt loop of his jeans with a carabiner. Brenn bit his lips and bent his gaze to the iPhone he fiddled with. I glared at him. "If you're taking a photo of me, your phone will break." "Nope, I'm not that dumb. I'm taking pictures of the flowers. Do you call those violas or Johnny Jump-ups?" Wordlessly, I snarled at him. Rob opened the door. "After you, Mom." [Back to Table of Contents]

154

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Chapter 16 After cleaning up, we had several hours before Brennan had to leave. Cay sent his brother a photo of The Mountain from an unspecified location on base. It was out in full glory. About as perfect as it ever got, especially this late in the summer. Based on that, I talked Brennan into returning the rental car he'd meant to turn in at Talkeetna. Rob and I drove him north, catching glimpses of the impressive pile of rock, ice and snow along the way. I remembered most of the best turnouts, where we stopped and Rob learned to play with our little digi-cam. Brennan taught us a few tricks to get the best from it. We stopped at a few of the more colorful tourist traps along the way and Brenn bought a chainsaw-carved bear about two feet tall he intended to send to his sister. I offered to hold it until he returned to town. But for the lack of Cay, who we tortured with photos sent via cellphone, the day was pretty much perfect. Brennan entertained with more of his stories on the drive and as we wandered about the main street. I splurged on a book of hiking trails for Cay, a t-shirt for Rob, and a bag of specialty coffee for me—Wicked Wolf blend by Raven's Brew Coffee. I'd seen it in other tourist stores and finally decided I had to try it. I also picked up several brochures with everything from fishing trips, to flight-seeing and even cute little places to stay a night or two. Maybe in a few weeks, we could arrange 155

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

a night or two away. Maybe be there when Brenn's team made it back down the mountain. The plans for a trip grew stronger in my mind when the climbing team invited us to stay for dinner at the Talkeetna Roadhouse, a common gathering spot for climbers, tourists and locals alike. Clearly, they were all good friends and eager to try themselves against the giant covered in ice and snow. Finally, about seven we wished them good luck, reluctantly waved goodbye and made the drive home, stopping for more photographs along the way. Rob had found himself a new hobby. Thankfully, it was digital and not film. On the highway, Rob also texted with Cay, who didn't specify the nature of his penance, but said it was just. And while he regretted missing our day out, he didn't regret the fly-by. At home, we had an unpleasant surprise in the form of Ivy sitting in his rental car in front of the house. The drive remained untouched—I checked and let out a small sigh of relief. Ivy took one look at our sun-kissed cheeks and happy smiles and lit into me with a scathing lecture. Shockingly, he did it right there in street in front of the house. I refused to move inside, which only pissed him off more. Most of all, I wanted him to leave. Barring that, I wanted witnesses. He started in on me with a quiet voice that didn't carry far. "I always knew you were a faithless whore, just married Quint for the good life he could give you." To anyone watching, it appeared he spoke calmly, but I saw the flush climbing his face, the malicious glint in his cold eyes. 156

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Arms folded over my chest, I stood my ground. I hadn't even pulled my purse from the car, though I did give Rob my keys to get Brenn's sculpture out of the back and into the house. "And this is why I work full time, yet did all the housework, shopping and cooking. Yeah, that's some cushy lifestyle he provided for me." A part of me was shaking, very much afraid of Ivy based on whispered bits and pieces through the years. But I also didn't see where I had any option but to stand up to him. Let him see my fear and he'd use it against me. Maybe, if I stood up to him, pushed back, he'd retreat, a bully confronted with someone who refused to back down. Wasn't that what we taught our kids? Don't be a victim? "You don't know how good you had it, and you drove him away. You're as responsible for his murder as if you'd pulled the trigger yourself, and I'm not convinced you didn't. You're smart enough not to use a gun that could be traced back to you, but you're also smart enough to find another one. I bet you knew where he was every moment." "Yes, Ivy, after most of the night spent at the ER, and all the painkillers they gave me, I had the energy to creep around the woods and hunt him down in a snowstorm. Yeah, that makes real sense, except my son and others can tell you exactly where I was. Ask the hospital. Ask the police. And the locksmith." I nodded at Rob and cocked my head toward the house. He didn't need to witness this. For a moment he stood firm, but I signaled again and he reluctantly lifted the log sculpture from the car. 157

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

I turned back to Ivy and spoke as quietly as I could, even as I trembled. "You behave yourself in front of your grandson, old man. It's bad enough he saw what his father was capable of, but he still has a shred of respect for you. I don't give a good goddamn what you think of me, but that boy deserves to grow up without realizing just how violent and misogynistic his male relatives are. Quint and I were done a long time ago, I just hadn't walked yet. I wanted to give him every chance to straighten up for the sake of his son." "You fucking self righteous bitch. Always so smug and superior. I told him to beat that attitude out of you, but he was too pussy-whipped. A man's gotta establish his authority good and early." The blood in my veins froze as I recalled the first time Quint had slapped me. I'd just found I was pregnant and was so excited, waiting for him to come home from work so I could tell him. He'd gone out with the boys from the office and didn't call home first to tell me he'd be late. Repeated calls to his cellphone went unanswered, and I swung from worry to anger like a pendulum. By the time he got home, I was in a rage, but held my angry words until he tried to force me to give him a blow job. When he was drunk, it was the only way he could get hard. I refused and found myself on the floor with a stinging cheek. I lost my temper then and told him if I'd lost our baby, he could only blame himself. The news dropped him to his knees where he cuddled me and wept, apologizing and begging my forgiveness. 158

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Why didn't I leave then? So many reasons. Dad was in no place to help. Mom had just been diagnosed with stage three cancer and he needed to stay focused on her. My brother was still in high school and looked up to Quint. I had no access to money other than my weekly grocery allowance, and I had no friends since we were newly moved to Houston. Most of all, I wanted to believe him when he promised to change. And he did, for awhile. The drinking stopped for a few months, then gradually returned. The reversion was slow, subtle and clear only with the distance of time. Back then, I was too busy being a good wife and mother to pay attention. The small bruises left when he gripped my arm or spanked me a little hard under the pretense of love play were easily hidden and never mentioned, though he would find remorse, bring home flowers, and do his best to make up for it. Looking back, our life was filled with instances of Quint fighting to be a better man than his father, only to fail and repeat the abuse he'd surely witnessed growing up. By the time we left Denver, hoping for greener pastures and better times in Alaska, I was pretty much resigned to keeping the peace until Rob went off to college or I could earn enough to support us both. The rest, as they say, was history. But there, in the middle of my street, the monster who'd spawned Quint appeared before my eyes. Ivy's face turned red-hot and his hands clenched at his sides as his breath sawed in and out of his chest. "You emasculated him. You turned my boy into a pussy whipped candy ass. Is that how this marriage worked? He bent over while you shoved the 159

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

dick up his ass? Is that what you turned him into? A simpering fairy? You're nothing but a trashy whore. My boy's not even in his proper grave and you're already screwing around on him. Even then, one man's not good enough for you. You've got to do the brother, too. You've blocked me from putting on a proper funeral, but you can't stop me from holding the memorial service he deserves." "Be my guest. I'll be sure to wear my sluttiest dress. The one he bought me for our last anniversary. The only occasion it's suitable for is his funeral. Just don't expect me to cry tears of sorrow." Instinct warned me, but I'd underestimated his speed, or his rage, and didn't step back soon enough. I'd counted on staying in a public place to keep him in line. Striking out like a rattler, his fist caught me on the left cheekbone, my flinch saving me a direct hit to my eye. Pain exploded with a force I'd never felt from Quint, worse even than the accident, blinding me as I fell to the street, where my right cheek hit the solid asphalt. Fire exploded from both sides of my face and down my right side. I rolled to my knees with the intention of climbing to my feet and running. Again, Ivy was too fast for me. This time it was my right side that stopped the kick as I heard a scream. It didn't come from me, because I couldn't breathe. I landed on my nearly healed left ribs and couldn't do anything but curl up in a gasping ball and hope someone witnessed the whole thing. That was when Quint would have realized what he'd done and take off. Not Ivy. Conscience didn't play into it. I saw the booted foot headed for my face and knew I couldn't avoid it. Eyes 160

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

closed, I did my best to tighten my curl and hope he missed the more delicate bones. If asked, I would have sworn he'd broken both cheekbones and ruptured something inside. My ribs were unquestionably broken. Time suspended. Darkness closed in and my soul wailed at the injustice. I wanted Rob safe, but how could I keep doing this? Each beating was worse. There were only so many places in the world where I could hide, but eventually, Ivy, or his brothers, would find me and seek vengeance for Quint's death. They'd take me to court and gain custody of my son. Defenseless against the pain, I curled tighter, tears of weakness and defeat finding their way from my eyes. I couldn't breathe enough to fight any more. I prayed for God to find a safe and loving home for Rob. It was obvious I'd failed. I heard Ivy roar and knew my time had come. [Back to Table of Contents]

161

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Chapter 17 When I stirred, I knew for certain I wasn't in heaven. Heaven wouldn't hurt so bad and wouldn't have people weeping nearby. So. Hell it was. Fine. As long as Robbie was safe. Would Cay be able to help? Would he find my family and get them to claim custody? Something pressed to my face and I winced. "Sorry, ma'am, but you need the oxygen. Just breathe as naturally as you can." The voice was male, soothing and yet authoritative. "Easy, Lieutenant. You and the boy can see her at the hospital. She's coming around, that's a good sign." "What?" My lips moved, but did the sound come out? Hurting all over, I recognized the pain of black eyes and hurt ribs. The rough stinging sensations along my arms didn't make sense. Crisp sheets covered me and something held my left hand stiff. Slowly sensation returned and the surface beneath me moved. "Easy there. We'll get you to the hospital. Your boy can ride along." "Robbie..." Reaching out for him was merely a thought and not the action I wanted. Through choked sobs, I recognized a new strength in Rob's voice. "Mom!" "She's going to be okay, Rob." Cay's strong voice shook, but I heard them both clearly. Where had Cay come from? Those voices wrapped a tendril about my heart, holding me in place. The dark receded just a bit, so I could open my 162

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

eyes enough to make out their shapes. Focus would come later. I could see their outlines, one smaller, one taller, and was content. "Are you sure? She's not going to die? They have so many wires stuck to her..." "She's a fighter, Rob. Anyone can die, but she has the courage to live. She won't leave, not when you need her. Not when I need her. She has everything to fight for." Finally, a finger answered the demand of my brain and lifted. Two hands latched on. "There, she hears us. She's gonna make it, buddy." "Time to go," the first voice said. "Once we get her loaded, you can sit beside her and hold her hand, okay, son?" "Yessir." "Candace," Cay said. "Rob's riding with you. I'll be right behind. Hang on, sweetheart." "Rob," I gasped. "Take care ... of Rob." "Rob's covered. Just worry about you." The bed moved and the world shifted. A shaft of sunlight cut between the houses and touched on a head of bright hair. For all the broken ribs in the world, I'd fight to see that face smile at me once more. Rob's hand, once so little, held tight to mine. "Die this time, you fucking bitch!" Ivy screamed the words and Rob's hand tightened even more. I shook him off a little, just enough I could curl a few fingers down, leaving one extended. Laughing wetly, Rob raised my hand. "Go, Mom." 163

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

I heard a chuckle and a few coughs, then the doors slammed shut and someone slapped them twice. "Rob," I whispered. "What? How?" "Don't talk, Mom." He leaned over so I could better see his face. My neck was braced and my eyes could barely open. "I called Cay. His CO let him go. But I took down Grandpa. I couldn't stand to see him kick you. I was just so mad." I caught the motion of his free hand wiping his face as the ambulance turned a corner. Fortunately, it went slowly enough I barely felt it. On my other side, the EMT was busy pumping up a pressure cuff and monitoring bleeping machines. "What?" I asked again. "Oh, I knew Cay wouldn't get there fast enough, and Jack was headed our way, but I was closer. So I used Brennan's bear." A touch of manly pride filled his voice. Satisfaction at doing a protector's job. "I rammed into his side and knocked him down. That bear is heavy. Jack got there in time to pin Grandpa to the ground and Ben had already called the police. Cay, too, I think. He made it back in about ten minutes, just after the cops and ambulance." "Good job, kid," the EMT said. "I wouldn't be surprised if the old man had some crushed ribs himself." "Yeah." I smiled as best I could under the mask, and squeezed Rob's hand. "Good job." [Back to Table of Contents]

164

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Chapter 18 "Where are my coffee beans?" I dug into the freezer, looking for the bag of coffee I'd picked up in Talkeetna. In the hospital, they'd had me sipping tea until I wanted to spit if I ever saw another teabag. But at least the tea had tasted better than the coffee. My first morning at home, I wanted the good stuff. Had they used that in my IV bag, I would have healed much faster. "What are you doing?" Cay came up behind me and gently held my hips. "I want coffee. Where is my bag of Wicked Wolf beans? I just bought it. Did Rob bring it in from the car?" The minor exertion of searching the packed freezer took almost all my strength. The compression vest back in place kept me upright, as did Cay's hands. "Did you steal them? Drink it while I was in that prison?" "You were in the hospital, not a prison." He chuckled against my hair. "And as much as I would enjoy grinding your beans and drinking in your flavor, I swear I didn't do it." His lips touched the tender spot behind my ear, as soft as a butterfly, hardly more than a breath. "Not yet." The promise left me weak for another reason and I giggled. Oh Lord. I giggled. And rested back against his chest. Cay had taken custody of Rob and moved into my house while I was out of commission. I was still out of commission, but at least I was at home. They told me I'd only spent three 165

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

nights away, mostly because of a concussion and internal bruising, but it had felt much longer. "Then find an explanation for the missing beans." "If you go sit in your chair like a good girl, not only will I go search for your beans, I'll make you breakfast." "I'm not completely helpless." "I didn't say you were. Any woman who can flip the bird in the face of her attacker while barely conscious and being hauled to the hospital is not helpless." Gentle laughter rumbled from the man behind me. "Your son is completely impressed by your coolness, you know." "Is he? And here I've spent so long trying to teach him not to make rude gestures or swear." A small sigh turned into a rib-wracking cough. "Yes, you're very cool. Now go rest. I fluffed your pillows and lined your chair with clean blankets to keep you cozy." The summer rain had set in at last, cooling things down dramatically. Cay probably would have carried me to the chair if it wouldn't have hurt my ribs more. My legs worked very well, thank you, except when they shook. I grumbled, but didn't fight when he herded me into the nest he'd built. "Do you want your computer?" He lifted my feet onto the ottoman. "No." Truthfully, I'd fall asleep in a minute. Didn't mean I had to admit it. Cay's eyes twinkled at my cantankerous mood. Someone had told him it meant the patient was healing. Bah. Rob appeared at the top of the stairs, startling me. "When did you get so quiet?" I growled. 166

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"Didn't know you were awake." The cheeky boy with freshly washed hair grinned at me. I, on the other hand, hadn't yet showered and still wore the brand new penguin pj's the guys had presented me with the night before as a home coming gift. Penguins with hearts. I loved them. "I'm awake," I groused and accepted the light blanket Cay pulled up over my lap. "Want the window open?" "Maybe an inch." Even reaching over to open the slider was too much. I sighed, a very tiny huff this time. "Rob, do you remember your mom buying some fancy coffee beans?" "Um, yeah, I guess..." He frowned. "I'm not sure they made it out of the car. I'll go look." Cay tossed him the keys to my van. "If you're going to take it out for a spin, fill the tank and check the oil. Don't leave your mom with fumes." Rob snorted and took the stairs at a more normal volume, that's to say, loud. The door to the garage slammed behind him as the overhead door rolled up. "Well, if Brenn wasn't awake before, he is now," Cay said with a laugh. "I like knowing where Rob is and the noise is excellent for that purpose." Through the open window I heard the side door slide open, then shut again. We were able to follow his return trip and I smiled. "See? Never have to worry about him creeping around the house." The guys had had a few busy days. Before bringing me home the day before, they'd cleared space in the office and 167

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

dropped an air mattress on the floor for Brennan. The same weather system that brought our current rain had closed in and stalled the climb before the group landed at the lowest base camp. The park service turned their plane around and closed the mountain for the season. Looking a little scruffier, he'd caught a ride back to town and Cay invited him to stay. I'd insisted he stay at the house, rather than a hotel. Another change, as far as I could tell, Cay had moved in. Somewhere in all the fuss, he'd helped Rob remove Quint's clothes from the bedroom, a chore I hadn't been looking forward to, to tell the truth. I was beginning to wonder when the two of them had slept. The result being that many signs of Quint were gone. Rob had wanted to throw everything out, but Cay had sorted out a few things he thought Rob might appreciate later—a few pieces of jewelry, Quint's belt buckle collection, the all-in-one tool he'd usually carried. The box had been sealed and stashed on a shelf in the garage. When I could open my eyes enough to see, I'd signed the title to Quint's truck and Cay had a buyer coming to look at it later that night. With the money from the truck and the insurance settlement on my wrecked car, I could go shopping for a new one. The clothes had all gone to a charity thrift store. In place of Quint's clothes, Cay's were all lined up and neatly organized in my closet and the other half of my dresser. Since he'd proclaimed himself our caretaker, it only made logical, and logistical sense, he'd said, explaining his maneuver. Had I been less hurt, I might have objected. As it was, well, I could see the sense in it, and planned to wrestle with my conscience later. In the meantime, he made me look 168

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

like a slob, and I was a little embarrassed he'd straightened my clothes. But all that faded in significance when he'd slept on top of the covers, holding me gently all night long. "What about the bed?" he'd asked as he helped me slide under the covers the night before. I took the remote from the nightstand and adjusted the comfort level. "What about it?" In the dim room his eyes were shadowed so I couldn't quite see the expression as he asked, "Do you want to get rid of it?" "No. This mattress cost a mint and it's brand new. In fact, we assembled it the day the world fell apart. By that I mean Rob and I put it together. It took us a few hours to wrestle all the foam and air bladders into place on the existing frame. I shudder to think how much more work it would have taken to assemble a new frame, too." I rested a hand on his arm. "Cay, Quint never slept on this mattress. Or these sheets, for that matter." I'd had to buy new ones to fit the extra-deep mattress. Cay frowned. "What?" "He insisted on buying this one because our old mattress hurt my back. Actually, it hurt his, too, but he liked to appear generous to his friends. He bought it for himself, and used me as an excuse. I didn't really care because he was right, we needed a new one. I love this mattress." Shaking his head, Cay rubbed the back of his neck. "Okay. I suppose I can live with that." At my raised brow, he hurried on. "In case you haven't figured it out, I'm here to stay, lady. I'm not telling you how 169

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

to arrange your house, but from my point of view, I'd like to see some redecorating happen." He huffed out a breath. "I'm not saying this well. We'll work out the details later. Much later." "You're telling me you're staying?" "For now I'm telling, but when you're in fighting form I'll switch to begging." He fussed with the sheet. "For now, sleep on it. No decisions of the major kind will be made for the next several weeks. Just let me take care of you." Too tired to argue, and secretly glad he was there, I'd readily fallen asleep. Only to wake that morning sore and cranky. Unfazed, Cay helped me out of bed, made sure I was okay in the bathroom. Afterward he handed me a pain pill and watched as I swallowed it with a full glass of water. Settled in my chair, I felt the pill kicking in and I wanted my coffee. Rob ran up the stairs, holding the bag above his head like it was the freaking Olympic torch. "Found it! And the book you got for Cay and my t-shirt. Forgot all about that." Although I winced at the noise, it sure beat the sounds of the hospital. "Good. You can eat today." He laughed and tossed the bag to Cay, who found my grinder and set about brewing up the magic potion. A hot blush bloomed across my cheeks when he looked at me from beneath lowered brows. "You bought me a book?" "Yeah, it's no big deal. Hiking trails around here." For some reason, I felt a little bashful. Not like I'd bought sexy lingerie or anything. Just a book on hiking trails, for Pete's sake. 170

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"That means you like me." He punched the button on the coffee maker and took the book Rob held out to him like it was the Medal of Honor. Hell. Heat spread through my veins, weakening my limbs, melting my core. "Yeah, and you can stay. For a bit." Maybe it was the pain pill kicking in... In the week that followed, while recuperating at home, I had several visitors who cheered me up. First was Detective Burrows. They'd caught Quint's murderer, a vigilante they'd been chasing for months who'd targeted vagrants. Quint's body was cleared for burial. I had him cremated and let his boss arrange an ash-spreading event. Last I heard, they had plans to take him out on the Kenai River and feed the fish. They had my full blessing; however, I'd asked the mortuary to reserve a small jar of ashes for Rob. He could do what he liked with it later. For the time being, it was tucked into the box Cay had filled for him. As for Ivy, Burrows reported he was cooling his heels in jail and sooner or later I'd need to take my turn testifying. We had many witnesses ready to go first. Chances of him making bail were slim. Whitney Rusotti returned, much to Brenn's delight. She spent half the visit fending off his flirting while informing us Ivy's complaint had been dismissed. A huge weight lifted from my shoulders at the news. At home, with the two men added to the household, we fell into a comfortable routine. It almost felt as if we played house with me making my best recipes for them as my strength returned. Sadly, I ran through my repertoire in five nights. Except for sex, Cay and I were the perfect couple, 171

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

with the perfect kid. One night I tried to lure Cay under the covers. The next I tried lying on top of the covers to tease him into making love to me. I'd even taken to leaving the bathroom door open when taking my shower. Nothing was working, despite the fact I knew he was looking. And touching. He touched me all the time. But he was waiting for something, I just didn't know what. Nearly two weeks later, Friday night came around, Brenn was making noise about going home, though he didn't show signs of packing. He'd been trying to get Whitney to meet him for coffee after she'd turned down numerous dinner invitations. For Brenn's sake, I'd invited her to dinner the night she'd come to visit. She'd politely declined and said she'd look for me at the office. Brennan wasn't one bit dissuaded. On the other hand, I grew increasingly frustrated. Rob and I had spent the days ordering school clothes and supplies off the internet. What I couldn't order, Brenn took him shopping for, things such as shoes, while Cay was at work. Rob's feet were growing too fast to guess at sizes. No one would let me drive yet and school started the following Thursday. Cay said we'd go for a drive Sunday so he could make sure I was fit to navigate the roads. I reminded him he'd been younger than Rob and still playing with action figures when I'd earned my license. The man didn't even flinch at my glare. Already hints of fall were making themselves known. The flowers of the fireweed had opened at the top, while lower down the seed pods had popped. Tradition said winter was only six weeks away when the purple flowers on top opened. 172

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

In a few weeks, the birch trees would turn yellow and would burn gold for a week before the leaves dropped. We sat down to dinner, a stir-fry Brennan had made. Not really hungry, I picked at my food. "Candace," Brennan said. "Do you mind if I take Rob down to Seward for the weekend? I want to go out on a halibut charter and it seems to me it would be more fun with a friend along. The charter I've been looking at also does a scenic tour of Resurrection Bay and we can visit the aquarium." I blinked and stared at Brennan. A dozen reactions raced through me. My gut response was a resounding no. But Rob looked like he wanted to jump up, beg and cheer all at once. I could feel his excitement sizzle in the air. My next thought involved Cay. It would mean a night alone. Just the two of us. In the house. I swallowed and glanced at the man sitting beside me. He carefully continued eating, but his knee pressed against mine. "Um, I guess. Where do you plan to stay?" "I was thinking about camping on the beach, but the people I've been talking to say it can get cold, and with all this rain..." He shrugged. "I found a bed and breakfast that has lofts in each of the rooms, so it'd sort of be like a suite, but not quite. I'd make him crawl up in the loft. I'm too old for that," he added with a wink. Rob fairly quivered in his seat. "When would you leave? Tomorrow? Will Rob need a fishing license? Gear?"

173

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"A rain coat and layers. Maybe an extra pair of shoes in case his get wet. I'll share my photos with you, so he won't need a camera, unless you want him to take the digital." Rob was ready to explode with excitement. "If you're willing to put up with him..." Rob let out a whoop. "Yeah. Okay. Sounds like a good trip. Of course you'll let me cover Rob's expenses." Brennan shrugged. "Not a problem. I invited and I can cover it." Mouth open, I was ready to argue, but Cay squeezed my thigh and my body ran hot. What came out was, "Thank you." Rob, still bouncing, added his enthusiastic thanks as well. His dinner disappeared in minutes and he excused himself to go pack. "He might be able to wear the raincoat I take camping," I said. "It's top quality." Brennan nodded and reached out to lightly touch my arm. "This is the kind of thing I do with my younger brothers all the time. I'll keep him safe." My throat tightened, so I nodded. I sipped some water until I thought I could speak. "He's loved having you around, both of you, treating him like a little brother. I can't tell you..." I choked up again. Brennan lightly squeezed my arm and Cay leaned over to kiss my cheek. "He's a great kid," Cay said. "I seem to recall telling you he's the coolest kid I've ever met." I nodded. 174

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Brenn laughed. "I won't repeat that to Finn." "Hey, Finn knows he's cool. Rob will figure it out soon, then watch out world." And just that simply, Saturday morning we watched from the driveway as Brennan and Rob loaded their duffels, a small cooler with drinks, and the all important iPod, into my newto-me van. Precisely at seven, they backed out of the drive and turned down the street. Rob was in charge of the map, despite the almost non-existent need for one. Seriously. One highway north, one south. There was only one turn-off to get to Seward and it was clearly marked. Brennan had the route mapped on his phone, and knew where to turn to get to the B and B. If they went one block too far, they'd hit the end of the road and could circle the block to get back to the right place. My problem was already missing my baby. Few were the nights he'd slept away from home. Even fewer were the ones he'd gone so far without me. Did he even feel a twinge at the separation? I'd stuffed enough money into his pockets he could catch the train home if he needed to. Or buy Brennan dinner. Or get a souvenir. Or ten. Probably all of the above. I'd also made him charge his phone the night before. Yet when they pulled out, I could have sworn my heart drove away that morning. Cay circled my shoulders and turned me back to the house. "I have plans to keep us occupied until they get back tomorrow night, and Brennan has strict orders to call as soon as they hit the south side of town." 175

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Just like that, Bad Slutty Mother appeared. I'd made the effort to bend enough to shave my legs in the shower that morning. Silky smooth all over, my skin warmed to the fabrics brushing intimately against me. The garage door went down and Cay closed the door behind us. Passing the front door, he double checked the locks, then followed me up the stairs. I'd chosen a romantic skirt and poet's shirt that morning. To the close observer, one could easily make the deduction that I wore no more than skimpy panties under the skirt and nothing under the shirt. Of course, some men might also guess about a lack of underwear altogether. A glance over my shoulder assured me Cay's stare was firmly directed at my butt. "What plans?" I asked. "First, turn down the volume on the phone ringers." "Okay." Not off, I noticed. "I won't cut you off from your son. He can still reach you if he wants to. In fact, Brenn will make sure he calls tonight and when they come off the boat tomorrow." One worry eased. The cord wasn't being snipped, just stretched. I reached the top of the stairs and waited for Cay to join me. "What else?" "For the most part, you're in control. I have ideas, you choose which you like best, we proceed accordingly." "Such as?" I backed up against the wall, until I rested there, hands wrapped in the folds of my skirt. Go left and we were in the bedroom. Go right and we entered the great room. Both had advantages. 176

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Loosely caging me in, Cay leaned over me, hands on the wall at either side of my head. Our gazes locked. "We have two whole days ahead of us." My heart hitched. I reminded him, "And one night." "True." His gaze dropped to my lips. "There are many things we can do." "For example?" "I haven't done the tour of downtown yet. We could go wander around the Weekend Market. Visit an art gallery. Eat someplace with a view. Visit the Ulu Factory." "Mmm, all good tourist activities. Lot of walking involved." "Or there's the Botanical Gardens. A drive down the inlet, or up to the Matanuska Valley." "Or enjoy the view up Arctic Valley Road. See if the blueberries are ready." "All excellent suggestions. Topped off with a good steak or fresh salmon dinner somewhere. Or king crab. Haven't had one of those yet." "Several good choices in town for all of the above." "However, the weather isn't quite what I'd hoped for. Rob has your raincoat." I swallowed. It almost didn't matter what he said. His voice alone was downright sexy. "One of them, yes." "We don't have to go out." "No, there are the usual Saturday chores." Cay grinned. "Brenn did the grocery shopping last night, so that's out of the way." "When?" "After you fell asleep. I gave him a list. He filled it." 177

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"Sneaky." Cay leaned in a little closer. I could feel his body heat and breathe in the scent that was all him. I'd never smelled anything sexier. "Mmm, maybe, but convenient ... if we choose to rest and be lazy." "I don't feel lazy. Not exactly. But I don't have a mad desire to go out..." I stretched, tilting my head to expose my neck. "Staying in has plenty of options as well." His head bent until his lips brushed my neck. "Mmm, you smell awfully good. Bacon, pancakes and sweet oranges." I laughed. "Breakfast and shower gel." "Never underestimate the aphrodisiac power of bacon." His lips touched and I arched into him. "Or, maybe, we could..." Cay's lips traveled over my face to my mouth. "We could go back to bed." "Caveman, you big stud, take me to bed, or—" [Back to Table of Contents]

178

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Chapter 19 I never finished my parody of the line from Top Gun. Cay kissed me and I forgot what the line was. Moving slowly, his hands cupped my head as we ate at each other's mouths. I gripped the waist of his jeans until I felt cool air on my torso. The neckline of my blouse was big enough, stretchy enough, he slid it down over my shoulders before he pushed it—and my skirt—over my hips and they fell at our feet. As we kissed, his hands discovered the secret of my nudity. "Damn, woman." He'd scarcely breathed the words before taking my mouth again. I followed the waist of his jeans until I found the button above the fly. The fabric was taut where his erection strained for release. "You must be horribly uncomfortable," I said between kisses. Probably because my hand outlined his cock at the time, he merely grunted and thrust into my hold. He was too busy holding onto my butt to help otherwise. The zipper took careful maneuvering. I proved equal to the job, releasing him without injury. At the touch of my hand inside his clothes, he growled and all but ripped them off. Careful of my healing injuries, he herded me into the bedroom, hands gripping my shoulders while I gripped his joystick. The plane humor was cheesy, but I couldn't help thinking it. 179

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

At the bed, he pulled the quilt and top sheet off with such force they sailed to the ground. So much for the freshly made bed. It had lasted all of an hour? I didn't care. My dream was coming true. Gently, he pushed me back so I lay with my hips on the edge of the bed. He even took care of the problem of my legs by placing them on his shoulders as he sank to his knees. I was open. As exposed as a woman could be. And it turned me on so much I could barely make sense of my heart rate. While I waited, he stared. "God, I've wanted this every moment of every day since I first laid eyes on you." Puffs of warm air teased my newly shaved flesh. I couldn't remember ever feeling this sensitized, this eager to be touched. Careful fingers stroked my thighs, the underside first, then inner. "Please," I begged. "All in good time. We've got thirty-six hours, more or less." By lifting my head, I saw his grin. "You're so beautiful, Candy. Sweet." His nose brushed the outer edge of my labia. "If you're going to make candy jokes, I get to make jetjockey jokes." "You'll get your chance to handle my joystick, never fear. But I'm in control right now. My plan is to give you so many orgasms you'll swear to be my love goddess forever." My body clenched and heat raced through my veins. I didn't have blood in them, I had molten honey. It even leaked from me. 180

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

With the tip of his finger, Cay touched the drop and rubbed, painting the inside of my thighs. "I'm going to spread this on your nipples and suck it off, but first..." The touch of his tongue was exquisite. The world spiraled down to the point of contact where he worshipped me with first his mouth, then the addition of his fingers. Every stroke of finger or tongue sunk soul deep. The man had clearly found a way deep into my heart, soothing the bruises, healing the hurts. Quint had only touched me that way when he wanted forgiveness. Cay had done nothing to forgive. All he wanted was my love in exchange for everything. Love, protection, companionship, but most of all love. I moaned his name. The two fingers inside me stroked, finding just the right spot as his lips tightened on my clit. I didn't have a chance to beg—he took me to the stars. I clung to the bed, sobbing his name. Slowly I grew aware of him kissing his way up my body, my legs sliding down his sides, his fingers still deep inside me, keeping the heat on. Weakly, I reached for him, combing my fingers into his hair when he stopped to kiss my breasts. "Cay, I need you." "Just a minute, sweetheart. Gotta get a condom." My eyes popped open. "A what?" His grin was a little sloppy, but very sweet. "A gentleman always dresses for his first date with a lady." He leaned over and kissed me deeply, both of his hands busy driving me crazy, keeping me breathless. "The only problem is, they're in the drawer. I want you to stay right here. Don't move." 181

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

He waited for my nod, then slowly slid his fingers from me. The torture was exquisite and I missed him immediately. Hands on my ankles, he helped me plant my heels on the edge of the bed. "Don't move," he repeated the order. Agreeing reluctantly, I watched as he swiftly retrieved a strip of three. My breath caught. Three? And how long had they been stashed in the drawer? I'd never had sex with a condom before. Cay grinned as he ripped one off, opened it and rolled it on. My eyes widened as I watched. Sure, I'd seen photos, but had I believed a man could be that size? "It'll fit, I promise," he said, eyes nearly black. Lips dry, I licked them, seeking moisture. Cay groaned and leaned over the side of the bed for a kiss. The way he kissed could easily distract me from just about anything. Had anyone asked my name right then, I'm not sure I could have answered. "Come to me," I ordered. Not one to be asked twice, Cay came around the foot of the bed, fitting himself between my spread thighs. To relieve the tightness growing in my legs, I lifted first one foot and then the other to his shoulders. "No more teasing. I want you, now." "A lady who knows what she wants. Enticing." But did he listen? Not immediately. Gaze locked with his, I stared up at him as he used his cock to stroke me, up and down. The emptiness inside grew to the point of aching. "I said, don't tease." 182

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"Not teasing, just preparing, making sure you're properly warm." "I'm warm, already." He slipped one finger inside me again. "Yeah, oh yeah, you're pretty warm. Hot, in fact." "Cay..." Warning filled my voice, but halted when he set the head of his cock in my opening. "So pretty." The reverence in his voice humbled me and brought a lump to my throat. "Fuck me, Cay." "No. But I'll love you." The tenderness in his gaze undid me. If there'd been any doubt of my love for this man, it evaporated. Right then, my heart committed. Irrevocably. "Love me, then. Love me and let me love you." He slid into me then, slowly, carefully, his hands holding my thighs. "Ah, sweetheart, you feel ... so ... good." Two groans acknowledged the fit as he filled me. "Just a little more..." He pulled back, then pushed in again, "...yes, there she is." "Oh, Cay, I've never ... so full." My eyes tried to roll back in my head, but I didn't want to miss one second. "More." "As she commands." Out, then in, he started slowly, almost methodically. Each slide grew a little easier, a little smoother, a lot hotter. My blood fired my need and I did my best to thrust against him. That didn't work so well, as I had little leverage. With his gaze on me, watching the movement of my breasts, I cupped them, feeling the bounce. I didn't think his stare could grow fiercer. He amazed me. The force of his thrusts increased. 183

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Still holding my breasts, I captured my nipples between thumb and forefinger. "Oh yeah," he growled. "Let me see you. Make them hard." Pinching, I tugged, feeling the pull all the way down to where Cay filled me. "That's good. So good." My head rolled side to side and keeping my eyes open grew harder to do. "That's beautiful, you're beautiful. Ah, Candace, you couldn't be more perfect." The pressure built up, I needed to come. I needed to feel him come inside me. "Hurry, Cay, hurry." Both my hands were busy on my breasts. I wanted stimulation on my clit. The man read my mind and reached around one thigh to provide the touch I needed. Once he did that, I no longer cared if he was with me. "Fly, baby, fly," he said. "Come for me." With a keening wail, I flew. Based on his shout, he joined me half a heartbeat later. The power of his thrusts increased and the ecstasy overwhelmed me. [Back to Table of Contents]

184

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Chapter 20 We spent the weekend in bed. We did actually leave the house for a couple hours, and only then because we needed more condoms, so we turned it into a dinner run as well. I directed Cay to my favorite little neighborhood Mexican place and he declared it the equal of a similar place in California. In his enthusiasm, he won the heart of the waitresses. I shouldn't have been surprised. He'd won my heart, after all. Although he hadn't said anything—beyond the fact he loved me and planned to worship me often and well, for a very long time—I felt the plans simmering inside him. I'd just ended one phase of my life; I was content to drift for a while. As he said, no big decisions. Other than him moving in with us. We briefly talked living expenses and he offered to pay a percentage based on pay to make things more equitable. I explained that wouldn't be fair because he was one person, while I represented two. We agreed to table the discussion, because we had so little time to just luxuriate in each other. Brenn's phone call came at just the perfect time Sunday afternoon. We'd just finished making love, for what we figured would be the last time for a few days. At least until Brenn was gone. With the bed directly over my office where he slept, well, the floors weren't so sound proof. I'd noted in times past the frame made a lot of noise, which could be heard quite clearly through the floor. I wasn't taking a chance. 185

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

We were fresh from the shower and dressed when the car pulled up, and made it downstairs to greet the travelers. Rob was exhausted, but still buzzing with excitement. The whales, the fish, the puffins, even seals. There were pictures to be seen, clothes to toss in the wash, even fish to bake and some to freeze. A level of chaos returned and about an hour later we sat down to fresh salmon and salad. Of the two, Brenn was more observant and his gaze kept bouncing from Cay to me and back again. Rob talked nonstop about all they'd seen and done. As I brought out the ice cream for dessert, he finally wound down enough to ask about our weekend. "Oh, we took it pretty easy," Cay said casually. "Talked a lot and your mom rested." I didn't have to work hard to imagine Brenn's little knowing smile. If I smeared strawberry ice cream on my face, would it cool and hide my blush? "Oh. That doesn't sound very exciting." Cay coughed. "It was very exciting for grownups. But there's one thing we didn't talk about, because I wanted to talk to you first." "Okaaay." Rob drew out the word. "See, I like your mom, but I guess you already know that. I like her a lot. But not just her. I like you too. In fact, I like you both so much, I want to marry you. Well, marry your mother, but that means I'd make you my family, too. What I want to know is, if that would be, well, cool with you." I stopped moving, and from the silence, so did everyone else. 186

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"I'd hope you'd actually love my mom before wanting to marry her," Rob finally said. "Well, I do. I mean I really love her, I just didn't want to gross you out with mushy talk. But seriously, I love her so much I want to shout it to the world. I guess I pretty much did that with the fly-by, but if I do that again anytime soon I'll be cleaning latrines with the prisoners and seriously, I'd hate that." Rob snorted and I resumed scooping ice cream into bowls with a trembling hand. "Anyhow, she and I were talking about something else this weekend and she made it clear the two of you are a package deal. Which is fine with me, because I want to make this a family of three, not two. Maybe more. I haven't asked her about more kids, but you'd have some input there as well. One or two, not a whole lot more." I'd filled the bowls and couldn't stall much longer. I stole a peek at the table when I turned to put the carton back in the freezer. Rob had a goofy smile on his face. "That's right," he said. "We're a two-fer, but it's up to Mom if she wants more babies. But I wouldn't mind a little brother. See, here's the thing though, you'd have to actually adopt me. I don't want to be the odd man out with a different last name." The freezer door slammed shut and I stared at my son. Cay did as well. Brenn had a little smirk in place and carried some silverware into the kitchen. Without saying a word, he got out fresh spoons and carried two bowls to the table. His and Rob's. 187

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"You're a mind reader, kid." Cay laughed and his shoulders relaxed. "I was going to wait awhile to bring that one up, but I had every intention of talking the two of you into it." Rob nodded and dug into his ice cream. "So, when you gonna ask her?" Cay glanced over his shoulder at me. The twinkle in his bright eyes weakened my knees. I stood where I was, braced against the counter, holding on to keep from running into his arms. It was that or run into the bedroom and lock the door. "I think I want to give her some time to think it over. She's feeling a little rushed, but as long as she knows what I want to eventually happen, maybe she'll let me move in here all the way." Rob sucked on his mouthful before swallowing. "Does that mean you'll keep sleeping in her bed?" Cay nodded and my cheeks heated. He left his chair and slowly advanced on my position. "Of course she'll have to remember that Maverick was Navy and not Air Force." "So I can't be Charlie?" I finally found my inner smart ass. "Charlie is fine, but I like Candy better." "I don't. I don't like that nickname at all." "Well, you need a nickname. Is Candy the only one you've ever had?" "Pretty much." "We'll work on it. I'm sure something will pop up." He pressed me into the counter and I felt something starting to pop all right. "Down, boy," I muttered. 188

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"So, are you willing to entertain the proper affirmative response to a proposal I wish to present?" "Lieutenant, are you asking me to marry you?" "I am." "Say yes, Mom!" "Shh, kid." Brennan slapped his hand over Rob's mouth. "Don't interrupt these moments." Didn't stop him from getting out his camera and clicking away. A wave of shyness swept over me. I'd imagined this all weekend, but never dreamed it would be this way. With an audience including a personal photographer. "Ignore him," Cay said. "He did this to Cassie when she met Ryan. Malone Two tossed me a camera when he asked Cassie to marry him last month. I find it's a tradition I like. So please, say yes, and spare us all the agony." Vulnerability hid behind the laughter in his eyes. A rarely seen glimpse of the little boy behind the cocky fly-boy. "You want to adopt Rob?" "Yeah. He's the coolest kid I know, but that's probably because he has the coolest, smartest, most courageous mom around. And lest we forget any of her other traits, she also happens to be the prettiest, sexiest, sassiest woman I've ever met. The fact that she has a cool kid is a bonus. Like extra whipped cream on a hot fudge sundae." He crowded me, arms loosely caging me in against the counter. "I love you, Candace. I'll stay here forever until you agree to marry me. I didn't get to fly the hottest jets around by turning down a challenge, and I won't lose out on the hottest woman ever by 189

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

walking away from a little rejection. I never seem to hear the word no." "No, I don't suppose you do. What would you say to a trial period?" My heart pounded so hard I was sure he could hear it. "Okay, if the first sixty years don't work out, we can go our separate ways. Deal?" "Sixty years? That would make me, well, ninetysomething." His lips touched the corner of my mouth. "How old are you anyway? I need to know when to sign you up for AARP." "You didn't snoop?" "No. The hospital had all your basic stats, so I didn't need to dig that deep. Come on, how old?" Hot breath skimmed the edge of my ear. He so had me. "Thirty-two." Cay kissed me. "Ancient. I'll buy you some hair dye and Geritol for your birthday if it will make you feel better." Coming up for air, I tapped his chest. "No smart mouthing from you, Lieutenant Sunshine. I outrank you in this house. Always will." "Speaking of smart mouths, will you give me an answer sometime this year?" If possible, he pressed even closer. "Say yes, Candace. You know you want to." He had me cornered. Three males stared at me. Waiting. Losing patience. "Oh, all right," I said. "Yes, I'll marry you ... sometime in the future." "Date to be determined," he murmured against my lips. 190

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

I had a feeling he wouldn't let me hold out for long. Wrapping my arms around his neck, I kissed him back. "Better get used to seeing that, kiddo," Brennan said. "Not to mention you're going to have to get used to funny noises coming from their room." "Ewww." Rob sighed. "I suppose I've heard worse. Maybe they'll buy a new house and my room can be on the far side." "See?" Cay lifted his head. "Told you the kid was smart." "Oh, shut up and kiss me." [Back to Table of Contents]

191

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Epilogue "Will you get in here and get dressed, already?" I didn't have time to answer. Cassie pulled me into the room set aside for dressing. Cay and Brennan had been right. Cassie and I were of a size, but our hair and eyes kept us from being mistaken for one another. That and her incredible talent with a crochet hook. At least she'd shared a bunch of her handmade wardrobe with me. All of it black. Niall kept nagging her to get rid of the mourning colors, so I was happy to provide a home for some of her pieces. I like wearing black, and her work was beyond gorgeous. I'd be the envy of the office. "Ladies," she called to the women in the room. They'd been introduced as Niall's sisters, nieces, cousins and somewhere in the crowd was his mother. "Get her made up." She was already dressed in elegant silk she'd embellished with sparkling ivory handmade Irish beaded crochet lace at the neck of her strapless gown. A line of crocheted vines, leaves and flowers trailed down from her neckline, across the bodice to her waist and down the long skirt, bringing attention to the thigh-high slit up her right leg. The slit was just high enough to show a hint of lace-topped stocking. She had a modest three-foot train on her gown and it suited her exquisitely. Her wild curls had been tamed into a romantic up-do with tendrils framing her face. A short veil with a sparkling tiara held the greater mass of her hair and magnificent emeralds graced her ears and neck. The pride 192

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

and princess of the Shaughnessy clan, she ruled with a healthy dose of humor and self-deprecation. "We have thirty minutes and the photographer wants in here. Get her into her under things at least, and then he can get the rest." I wouldn't normally sit around and let people order me about, much less when it came to hair, makeup and clothes, but Cassie was not one to be ignored. Only a few days in her company and I'd learned plenty about large Irish families. Most of all, how overwhelming they could be with their cheerful affection and humor. And determined. They couldn't have been any less subtle if they'd used a cattle prod. We'd been in California a week and we still had Christmas before us. The next day, in fact. Our wedding was scheduled for four o'clock, so we'd be away from the church before Christmas Eve services started at six. Since the church was fully decorated, Cassie decided it would be at its most beautiful and we'd save on flowers. The priest had agreed, and suggested our donations to the church could be all the larger for it. Wiley old guy. How had we gotten here? As I bent to pull up my ivory lace stockings and attach them to garters hanging from my matching satin bustier, I asked myself that question. It had started when Brennan emailed a photo to the family. Clearly talented, he'd documented the moment Cay asked me to marry him and my acceptance. He also sent one of the two of us with Rob. The Shaughnessy family latched onto them, and us, and started suggesting good dates. Travel to plan and all that, they said. Cay managed to put them off 193

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

for a month, but once Cassie agreed to marry Niall, well, all stalling efforts were ignored much like a tank running over a garden gate. Cassie immediately set her heart on a double wedding with her twin and swore all I had to do was pick out a dress, get Rob a suit and she'd take care of the rest. Well, it wasn't quite that easy. Still, there we were, in a huge catholic church in Livermore, California. An hour south of my hometown. The reason I was nearly late for my wedding had to do with a quick run up to Benicia to lay flowers on my mother's grave. A way of paying tribute to her and making her part of the event. My father and grandmother had insisted on joining me, and since Grandma no longer moved fast, well, the short trip had taken twice as long. As I dressed, Dad and my brother, Rory, were getting Grandma into the church. I shimmied out of the plain dress I'd worn over my wedding undies and reached for the long slip one of the girls held out. Once that was on, Cassie threw open the door and bellowed for the photographer, a friend of Brennan's. Apparently Brennan was with the grooms and we'd have double coverage from all angles. For such a little person, Cassie had a big voice. But then, Cay had described me that exact way to his family. Slipping on the light petticoat had covered up the stockings and thong well enough I didn't mind the photographer in the dressing room. So much. 194

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

He caught them putting the dress on me, a tight, v-neck beaded bodice that flared over my hips. From under the bodice, a long skirt of softly gathered ivory silk fell to the floor. No train. I'd been really tempted to go with burgundy red, but Cassie had insisted we had to at least match by color if not by style. So ivory it was. Both of us also had short veils. None of that over-the-face stuff for me. I'd done that the first time. I really wanted a hat, Jackie Kennedy style with a little netting and some Christmas greens, but Cassie skewered that idea. We weren't identical, but we were in harmony. No kidding, that's the exact word she used. Harmony. Once zipped into my bodice, I looked in the mirror. Not bad. I had a pretty good hour glass figure, especially when corseted. I'd found the undergarment helped my back and Cay certainly drooled over the shape it enhanced. I had a selection of corsets I wore on a regular basis. Not all were sexy, but even the sexy ones were functional and comfortable. "That is so hot!" Cassie clapped her hands. "He's going to faint when he sees you. He hasn't seen the dress, has he?" "No, he hasn't." I adjusted the lace sleeves that ended half way down my forearms. "Sit, sit," one of the women said and pushed me into a chair to have my hair arranged. My hair had grown, so it pulled back easily and was secured with pins before the headband of my veil was fitted over my head. They appeared disappointed that my hair was done in five minutes flat. Cassie's looked like it had taken at least an hour of pinning and spraying. They wanted to use a curling iron on me, but it 195

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

would have been a waste of time. My hair flat out did not curl. Ever. Someone found my shoes, then Cas and I took turns putting the garters on each other. They had blue ribbons. Navy for her, Air Force blue for me. Finally we were handed our bouquets of red roses, white poinsettia and green holly tied with red and green satin ribbons. Bits of holly tied in red bows were arranged in our hair as well. We looked very Christmassy. Despite the grandiose splendor of the church, we'd opted for the simplest of ceremonies. No attendants. We were their witnesses, Cassie and Niall were ours. Rob got drafted as ring bearer to both couples since we both had our fathers to escort us down the aisle. For the second time. Dad made me promise it was the last time. We'd just posed for one last photo together when Rob stuck his head in the door. "Mom? It's time." "Wait, honey, get in here. One photo with us first." Good thing Cassie and I wore heels, otherwise Rob would have towered over us. As expected, the boy had hit a growth spurt over the fall. I'd had to put off getting his suit until nearly the last minute. He wore a deep blue, chosen to match Cay's dress mess, complete with bow tie. The photographer nodded. Four photos quickly snapped off and one of the brothers—Ethan or Declan, I mixed them up— stuck their head in and insisted we get a move on. Father Langdon wanted us to clear out in time for Mass. 196

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Because the double ceremony was simultaneous, we'd decided against the Air Force sabre arch, but instead went with a more generic style. Or so the men said. Niall had been Navy, so they made arrangements that combined traditions. Fine with me. All I knew was I walked down the aisle first. Age before beauty, and all that. I wasn't thrilled with that reasoning, but then Cay insisted since we'd been engaged longer, and besides, he was older than Cassie. I had no intention of mixing up in that argument and kept my mouth shut. I honestly don't remember much of the actual ceremony. I remember Rob proudly walking up the aisle before me, and Cay's eyes in the soft light of the church. He stood tall and looked so handsome in his uniform, I nearly cried with happiness. My men waited for me at the altar. Both of them. The candles had been lit and the sanctuary smelled of incense, beeswax and balsam. Poinsettias lined the altar and the gold vestments sparkled. The spirit of Christmas filled the air and all I could see was Cay's blue eyes. We said our vows, listened as Cassie and Niall said theirs, exchanged rings, accepted the blessing and kissed to the cheers of the raucous Stenson, Shaughnessy and Malone clans. The sabre arch on the church steps was spectacular, steel blades glittering in the late afternoon sunlight. Traffic slowed to watch us pass under the arch created by eight men in uniform, until the last two stopped us with lowered and crossed blades. The officer closest to me politely requested we kiss, which I was more than happy to do. Cay's kisses were always a highlight and he was more than happy to put 197

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

on a show by dipping me. The officer then gave me a light swat on the backside with his blade and the men shouted, "Welcome to the Air Force!" Brenn, of course had been briefed on the tradition, so stood ready and caught every second with his high-speed camera. Including my look of surprise. Cameras clicked from all angles and we posed for the family shots on the wide marble steps. There were a lot of pictures. By the time we finished, the faithful were gathering for the first Mass of the night and we made our escape. Cassie had booked a large banquet room at a vineyard and we partied until about nine. The three fathers in attendance ganged up and shooed both couples from the reception. And since I refused to spend Christmas Eve without Rob, he came with us. Cassie had already moved into Niall's home, so we took over her house. The one she'd lived in with Ryan. That night still ranks at the top of most magical nights in my life. The three of us, still dressed in our finery, although somewhat less pristine by then, cuddled on the sofa. Cay plucked the holly from my hair and tossed the veil into a chair. I pulled off his bow tie and took off his jacket. The only thing more handsome than a man in uniform is a man half undressed from said uniform. I had a hard time remembering to keep my actions clean for my son's sake. Under the lights of the decorated tree, we watched The Santa Clause, Rob's favorite Christmas movie. We also nibbled on picnic food someone had kindly stashed in the fridge and even sipped a small bottle of champagne. Really small. Cay called it a split. 198

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

The first I'd had in years. When midnight rolled around, we heard the church bells and Rob yawned. "Sorry, guys. I'm tired. Long day, you know." Leaning back in my arms as Cay held me in his, Rob grinned up at me. I kissed his forehead. "Yeah you had a tough day there, big guy." Cay chuckled and ruffled Rob's hair. "Not one, but two weddings to bear rings for. Must have been heavy holding that pillow." "Hey, touch not the hair," he protested. "It's stylin', ya hear?" Of course that meant both of us had to ruffle the pomaded do. "Okay, okay," Rob laughed as he flung himself to his feet. He turned to gaze down at us where we remained sprawled on the sofa. "Without getting mushy, I just want to say I'm glad you're married." He smiled at me, then raised his gaze to Cay's. "And even though I'm not adopted yet, I'm gonna start calling you Dad. That way you'll get it taken care of sooner." Cay swallowed deeply as his heart raced at my back. "I'm proud to have you call me Dad. And we've got the paperwork ready to go the moment we get home. Never fear, you'll be a Shaughnessy soon. You are already, we just need to change your name." My vision turned watery, and I could have sworn Rob's did as well. "Yeah, well, I won't wake you guys up in the morning. I got a lecture on wedding night etiquette from some of the 199

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

uncles. You knock on my door when you're ready to open presents, okay?" His blush was so cute, Cay and I laughed. "Honey, you can knock on the door any time, okay? We all got married today, for better or worse," I assured him. "Cay and I will get time alone in a couple days. Right now, it's Christmas. Even if there are palm trees outside and no snow." Christmas was for family. For our honeymoon, we had two nights booked at a spa in Napa while Rob would be spoiled rotten by both sides of his family. Dad and Rory both argued for him to stay with them and the Shaughnessys finally caved when my grandmother thumped her cane on the floor. She outranked them all and they bowed before her authority. Then promised Rob he could go to Michigan in the summer. "Well, goodnight." He started to turn away. "Wait a minute," I said. Cay helped me stand. "You forgot something." "What?" Silk swishing around my legs, I advanced on him. In my stocking feet I had to reach up and pull his face down for a kiss. "Sleep well." Rob's arms came around me and squeezed tight. "I love Aunt Cassie, but you were a prettier bride. Glad I got to see it live this time." "I won't tell her you said that." Before I let him go, Cay's arms hugged us both. "I agree with you, Rob-man. Your mom is the prettiest bride there ever was." 200

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

Pleased, but embarrassed all the same, Rob wiggled away from the group hug. "Go. Goodnight. I'll be wearing the ear plugs Brenn gave me." We watched him enter the hallway and returned to the sofa where we listened to him go through his routine until his bedroom door shut. Cay breathed out a sigh. "Good thing the bathroom separates his room from ours." I turned in his arms so I lay against his chest. "Yeah? Does this mean you think we'll get loud?" "Affirmative. There'll be some high flying going on tonight, Mrs. Shaughnessy. The air space is clear and as soon as little flyers are snoring, there'll be a uniform inspection." "How detailed?" "Very. Right down to the last rose on your garter. Possibly even the polish on your little toe." "I lost my garter at the reception, remember? Brenn caught it." Actually, he'd caught both mine and Cassie's, sealing his doom. "So he did, poor suffering bastard. Think Whitney will cut him some slack soon?" "Why should she?" I pulled away and began to work the buttons on Cay's shirt. The first few were undone, but I thought they all needed to be undone. "Didn't you say something about a uniform inspection? Yours seems to be falling off." "Mmm, I did. Let's take it to the bedroom." Before I could move, he flipped me in his arms and lifted me, skirts and all. 201

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

"This feels very romantic. A handsome officer, fluffy skirts..." "A beautiful lady with killer curves—have I mentioned how much I love this dress on you?—soft, warm, smelling of flowers and sin. Best of all..." He stopped by the switches so I could turn off the lights. "...the lady is mine forever now. The priest said so." "You mean for the next sixty years." I touched another switch and the hall light went out as he shouldered the bedroom door shut. "I lied." "Oh, did you, now?" "I tricked you into thinking there was an out. But you'll see, you won't want out." He carried me to the bed before setting me on my feet. "I won't?" He turned me so he could unzip my gown and help me step from it and the petticoat I shoved over my hips. His fingers trailed down my spine, teasing me into a shiver of delight. His hands slid around my waist encased in satin and ribs. "You won't, because I'll keep you too breathless." At the touch of his lips to my neck, I shivered again. "I'll keep you so wrapped in love, you won't have time to think of anything else." One thing Cay proved time and again—he never lied. I didn't find my breath before dawn, and he stole it again when he draped a gold chain with a diamond pendant around my neck the next morning. My heart hitched even more when he 202

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

presented Rob with a gold watch, engraved with the date of our wedding, the day we became a family. As for Cay, he said he had the best gifts of all. A wife and son. But I knew I had the best gifts. My son and a man worthy to be his father. Both of whom gave me everything to live for. [Back to Table of Contents]

203

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

About Morgan Q. O'Reilly www.lyricalpress.com/store/index.php?mainpage=authors&au thorsid=26 Born in New Orleans, raised in California, Morgan moved with her family to Alaska in 1977. With a few years of escape back to California for college and more recently a few years in Colorado, Alaska is where she's remained ever since. Married to a born and raised Alaskan, it is unlikely she'll ever get to move "Outside" again. This could account for some of the oddities and attitudes in her writing. Or maybe that was the two years she worked with laser physicists. Or growing up around engineers. Or maybe it's just her never-ending imagination and the really strange dreams she has each night. These days, Morgan is fortunate to be an empty-nester who spends her days engaged in writing, when she's not knitting and critting with her local RWA group. Romance for all your moods. Come Play with Morgan and Get Some Tonight. Morgan's Website: morganqoreilly.com Reader email: [email protected] 204

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

[Back to Table of Contents]

205

Courage to Live by Morgan Q. O'Reilly

About the Open Windows Series Book 1: Til Death Undo Us Available in ebook from Lyrical Press Book 2: Courage to Live Available in ebook from Lyrical Press Book 3: Weathering the Storm Coming soon from Lyrical Press

206