© 2006 Vicki Hinze
My purpose in writing these novels is to offer readers an opportunity to peek into the military world and to experience some of the challenges our service members and civil servants endure for all of us. Yet I consider it vital to do no harm, to include nothing to further jeopardize or to create a need for further sacrifices from them or their families. Much is already demanded of both.
For these reasons, I’ve implemented creative license, as I did in Shades of Gray, Duplicity, and Acts of Honor, and altered known technologies and some standard means of operation. Grayton Air Force Base exists only within these pages, and the Rogue missile is a fabricated compilation of other missile systems and a guess on where the technology will be in a few years. I hope you’ll agree with me that protecting those who serve us warrants these deviations, and you’ll be as grateful to them as I am for their service and commitment to fighting our wars–those declared, and undeclared.
My God, he’d found her.
Unable to believe her eyes, Dr. Julia Warner-Hyde turned her back to him, squeezed her eyes shut. Calm down. Think. Think!
She darted a frantic gaze up then down the shore, out on the churning Gulf of Mexico. Sand. Water. Deserted picnic area. Not even a trash receptacle close enough to hide behind.
He’s found you, Julia. Accept it. You have to face him.
Face him? She couldn’t face him. She didn’t want to face him—or anyone who reminded her of the past.
No matter how hard you try, some things you can’t outrun. Your history is one of them. You’ve got to accept that, too.
She did. But now?
The water crept up on the beach, soaking her shoes. Maybe it wasn’t him. Maybe it was an optical illusion. Maybe the bleak glare off the water or the blinding reflection of the sugar-white sand had tricked her. The stiff sea breeze was burning her eyes and blurring her vision. She could have seen a resemblance where there wasn’t one.
Squinting back over her shoulder, she double-checked. Six two, mid-thirties, black hair. Same familiar body and resolute stride. He sidestepped the beachside park’s picnic area, the brisk wind plastering his windbreaker against his white shirt and jeans-clad hip, and moved straight toward her.
It was definitely him.
The fine hair on her neck stood on end, and the chill cut through to her bones. Damn it, she’d been so careful. How had he found her? How had anyone found her?
Had to be Intel or the OSI, Julia.
Since she’d left the lab and come here to teach first grade, the Office of Special Investigations had been keeping tabs on her and briefing every Department of Defense honcho with a vested interest on her activities. She would resent that, but she couldn’t do it with conviction and a clear conscience. If an agent hadn’t breached protocol three years ago and warned she was in danger, she’d be dead now. Still, their keeping tabs on all former employees didn’t explain why her former Black World coworker, Dr. Seth Holt, was in Grace, Alabama, and not in his lab in New Orleans, designing ballistic missiles. What did this visit mean? Would she have to leave Grace now, too?
Seth stopped in front of her. “Hello, Julia.”
She crossed her arms over her chest and stared up at him, doing her damnedest to control her fear. “What are you doing here?”
His eyebrows inched up on his forehead. “I expected a ‘Hello, Seth. It’s good to see you,’ but I guess you still haven’t mastered the rudiments of tact.”
Tact? He wanted tact from a woman who was terrified her whole life was about to be ripped to shreds—again? Or did he think she was the world’s biggest sucker? This wasn’t a friendly visit; the grim slash of his mouth and jut of his jaw proved it, not to mention his finding her. This visit had purpose. Risks with grave consequences. And that had to be horrible news for her.
“We need honesty, not tact.” He’d always said honesty made their relationship special. Shifting uncomfortably, she edged back from the creeping water. “Now, why are you here, Seth?”
He fisted a hand in his jacket pocket, and professional distance filled his eyes. “I need your help.”
Definitely sucker bait. Seth Holt never allowed himself to need anyone, or anything from anyone. He was the most self-sustained, self-sufficient man ever born. “You prefer working alone,” she reminded him.
“Not when I’d fail, and innocent people would pay the price.”
So he wasn’t here to ruin her new life. That should be good news, but it wasn’t. It meant his back was against the proverbial wall in a professional crisis. And his crisis carried the capability of destroying many lives. Seth worked in the Black World: that shadowy and undiscussed segment of the military where everything—personnel, missions, and weaponry—was classified Top Secret or higher. He designed and developed new technologies and weapon systems that were incorporated into existing weaponry packages and used in covert military operations. Operations that typically remained classified for years after they occurred, if not forever. When Seth Holt said innocent people, he didn’t mean a sprinkling of civilians. He meant all the citizens of the United States.
“What price?” She asked the question but, former rocket scientist to current rocket scientist, she understood, and Seth knew it.
“Millions could pay with their lives.”
Her skin crawled, and she wished that just once she could recall Seth’s damage-assessment estimates being exaggerated. But they had always been logical and uncannily accurate. He never elevated risks or potential—not even when refusing to do so had cost him the funding of a project. Even dead certain his request for funds to develop his own missile-defense sensor design would be denied, Seth had called it exactly as he’d seen it and, knowing it, made his “millions could pay with their lives” all the more chilling.
He sat down on the first of three tables. His feet on the bench and his arms braced against his knees, he stared across the beach to the rough water, blowing right out the window the stereotype of a rocket scientist and engineer as a squirrely old man with inch-thick glasses and a bowed back. He looked more like a bodybuilder; he had to be still spending an hour a day at the gym. Though he wore his hair longer now, it was still that rich, deep black, contrasting starkly with his green eyes and sharp features. He looked . . . wonderful.
She hated it.
Her pulse quickened, and she hated that, too—and it surprised her. Seth was gorgeous, true, but he always had been, and looking at him before never had affected her.
Considering your situation back then, this surprises you?
It didn’t. But maybe her reaction to him was a sign. Maybe she was finally healing.
You’ve got to be kidding, Julia. No human being can heal that much.
Certain her conscience was right, she sat on the picnic table beside Seth, propped her feet on the bench, and looked out at the water, giving herself a moment to absorb the gravity of this visit.
The gulf was rough, choppy, and whitecaps rolled into froth at the sandy shore. The wind carried a salty tang, and the lack of sun and the slate-gray sky only reinforced her gloomy mood. His showing up here rattled her through to the soles of her feet, but it had cost him a lot to come to her, and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to know it. For some reason, that helped her calm down. “How can I help you?”
A frown creased the skin between his heavy brows, and his square jaw tightened. “I’ve been advised against this but, before I get specific, I have to ask you something.”
Advised. Definitely work-related. Strangely disappointed, she worked to not tense up, taking this one breath at a time. “Okay.”
“I want to be clear. I am not prying into your personal life. I just…Oh, hell, Julia. The truth is, I need to know who you are now.” He leveled her with a steady look. “This situation …It’s sensitive.”
A sensitive crisis, and he needed to know if he could still trust her. After the way she’d walked out on him without notice, his questioning her shouldn’t have hurt. And yet it did. But she couldn’t blame him. She had earned his doubt. “All right.”
“Why did you leave without saying goodbye?” He looked her straight in the eye. “Was it something I said or did?”
She had hurt him. Amazing, because she hadn’t realized she could hurt him. Professionally, yes, but not personally. And why, on realizing she could hurt him personally, had he had to ask her the one question she couldn’t answer honestly?
Regret bit her hard, and she worked to give him a truth, if not the truth. “I loved working with you.” Hoping what she could tell him would be enough, she fingered the mini-flashlight on her key ring, avoided his eyes. “Leaving was my only option. I didn’t like it, but I had no choice, Seth.” And she had lived with the guilt and regret to prove it.
He stared at her, seeking the truth. “Why?”
She squeezed her eyes shut. “I can’t tell you that.”
“It had nothing to do with me or work?”
“No.” Oh, God. A half-truth, and now he knew her reasons had been personal.
Seth looked torn between pressing her and clamming up. A few beats passed and, oddly, he opted to press. “Did your husband’s job transfer here?”
She should tell him about Karl, yet she couldn’t make herself do it. In waltzing back into her life as abruptly as she’d waltzed out of his, Seth had caught her unawares, and for a split second, she had been mentally transported back into her kitchen in New Orleans, back to Karl, the man she had married who supposedly had loved her. Now the old memories rushed in and crushed down on her. A shudder rippled through her. She stiffened against it, furious that just thinking of him still terrified her. She respected and admired Seth but, God, how she hated her memories. That life was over, finished, and she resented like hell any part of it intruding into the new life she’d struggled and sacrificed to build.
If there was any good news in this, it was that word of Karl’s being in prison evidently hadn’t filtered back to Seth or to others in the field—and she would rather it not filter back now. The truth was gruesome, the grapevine merciless. Seth might understand about Karl but, then again, he might not. And even if his opinion shouldn’t matter to her, it did. She didn’t want to risk losing his respect.
She had lost everything once. Every single thing. It had hurt like hell and nearly had killed her, but somehow she had dredged up the courage to start over. She didn’t want to regress—couldn’t afford to regress—and go through any of it again. She wouldn’t regress or go through any of it again. “I earned five times what Karl earned as a cop. If you were me, would you quit because Karl transferred?”
“No, but then I’m not you.”
Terrific. She’d let tension unleash her temper, and now Seth knew her reason for leaving his lab was personal and work-related. Brilliant move. “Karl’s job wasn’t a factor.”
“I take it Karl is fine, then?”
“Yes, he’s fine.” True as far as she had gone. During her last check with his arresting officer, Detective LeBrec, that’s exactly what he had told her. Karl is fine. So, okay, LeBrec had added unfortunately. But nothing compelled her to relate that to Seth. “I chose to come here and to teach.”
Clearly struggling to understand, Seth asked, “Did you know anyone here, before coming to Grace?”
Coming to Grace. If she told Seth she had come here for a fresh start on an omen seeking grace, he would forget needing her help and insist she be mentally evaluated. Seth worked with proven entities, with facts, not with omens, or with those who followed them. “No.”
“Why first grade, Julia? Why not college? I thought you gave up teaching after graduate school.”
Because kids have to learn to lie, just as they have to learn to hate. Because little kids weren’t yet corrupt, and if she could teach them that everything—everyone—deserves respect before they became corrupt, then she stood a chance of preventing others from going through the hell she’d been through. “I did give it up. But now I’m back.” She shrugged. “It’s what I wanted.”
“I don’t get it. You loved your work in the lab. I know you did.”
She had, and she’d had enough of this. She really had tried to ease Seth’s mind and to assure him he had played no part in her decision to leave the lab. God forbid he ever learn the truth. But she couldn’t stand his digging into her past anymore. She just couldn’t. “I said, it’s what I wanted.” She cooled her gaze, signalling him to back off. “Now, what do you want?”
His expression stiffened. Still resting his elbows on his bent knees, he leaned forward. “I’ve developed a system that will return a hostile, in-flight smart bomb to its launch site.”
He had to be kidding. But he didn’t look like he was kidding, and she’d never known Seth to kid around about his work. He was talking about an extremely innovative missile-defense system here. Until now, attempts to develop a missile-defense system had centered on interceptor “kill” missiles, where an incoming, hostile missile was rammed into and detonated by an outbound, friendly missile. So far, even that program hadn’t produced a stellar performance. Its personal best was a couple of hits and a truckload of near misses, and a near miss was a failure. Depending on the type of warhead the hostile missile carried, a near miss allowed catastrophic damage to occur. But Seth was talking about taking the entire ballistic-missile-defense program in a whole new direction. One refining and manipulating technology so an attack resulted in a self-inflicted wound. Excitement bubbled in Julia, overtaking the tension. “Is it successful?”
“The prototype is.”
“Seth, that’s wonderful.” She smiled. “Will it negate the need for traditional ‘kill’ missile interceptors?”
“If we’re lucky.”
Pursing her lips, she tilted her head. “Are you going to be lucky?”
“Maybe.” He glanced at a pelican perching on a dockside pier post. “They’re calling it Project Home Base.” He followed the pelican’s move down to the next post. “The contract to develop it is about to be awarded.”
“So why do you look so glum? You should be flying high.”
“I hold several patents on the system.”
“Okay.” Not unusual. Seth had often held patents on their previous projects. So had she.
“Because I stand to profit personally—financially, I mean—I can’t head the project.”
That had happened before, too. “So they’ll assign someone else to head it, and you’ll be assigned to the project as a consultant.” She shrugged. “What’s the problem?”
“No one else is qualified to head it.”
He meant that no one he trusted was qualified to head it. Julia stilled her jangling keys. Seth was saying more than she was hearing. Not atypical between them, but she was out of practice at reading between his lines. “You’re worried about this for another reason.”
Nodding, he confirmed her fears. “Two, actually.”
When he didn’t say any more, she resisted an urge to nudge him, then realized the problem. “To disclose them to me, you’re going to have to breach security.”
Expelling a sigh, he looked back at her. “Is your clearance still valid?”
“You know it’s not, Seth.” For all the good it had done her, when she had moved, she’d been extremely careful not to leave a trail. Seth had to have contacted the OSI or Intel to find her. No one except those who already knew what had happened would advise him not to pry into her personal life to determine who she was and what she stood for now. Seth had to know it all. Every sordid detail.
Heat crept up her neck to her face, and she flushed hot. He probably had been testing her, asking about Karl, to see if she would admit what had happened. And maybe she should have, but she just wasn’t that brave. That brave, or that strong.
“I’m going to trust you, Julia.” Seth laced his fingertips. “I’m not sure why, but I’m going to trust you.”
The hurt ran deep. Didn’t he understand that she wouldn’t have left as she had unless it had been completely necessary? Didn’t he know her better than this?
Obviously not. “You’re going to trust me because you know you can—and because you don’t have a choice.” Anything with the potential to kill millions rated as a crisis in her book, and no doubt in the OSI and Intel’s, too. They had authorized Seth to breach security and talk to her. Otherwise, he would never do it. Ever.
Now just how should she feel about that? Relieved, or worried?
Damn worried, she decided. If they’d authorized disclosure to her, then the news had to be god-awful.
“I do still trust you,” Seth said. “But I’m not comfortable with the risks of being wrong.”
She frowned at him. “What makes you think I’m comfortable with your dropping back into my life, dumping this problem in my lap? I left, remember? I don’t get involved in these professional crises anymore.”
He slid off the edge of the table and shifted in the sand, half burying his loafers, then stopped directly in front of her. His jacket brushed against her knees. “I’m worried for two reasons. One, my professional reputation and financial security are on the line.” His expression turned dark, clouded. “And two, I’ve already noted what could be program irregularities.”
“Someone on the project is corrupt?”
“It’s possible. During Slicer Industries’ development of the prototype, I picked up on two minor incidents that could be significant. I’m just not sure.”
“But you’re sure enough to be concerned.”
Of course. With Seth, any irregularity pertinent to his project or to a potential project, no matter how slight, warranted concern.
“What these two incidents were isn’t important,” he said. “What is important is that if this project is funded—which it will be—then I need someone I trust heading it.” He lifted his gaze from her shoulder to her eyes. “I need you, Julia.”
Oh, damn. She didn’t want to be in this position. Why had he put her in it, forcing her to choose? “I can’t,” she said before realizing the words had left her mouth. “I wish I could, but that isn’t my life anymore.” God, she felt disloyal, like an ungrateful traitor. Why did refusing him make her feel so rotten and hurt so badly?
Because, aside from your Uncle Lou, Seth Holt is the only man in your life who always backed you up and never demanded anything in return. He’s always been special.
Julia shut out her nagging conscience. The last thing she wanted was a man carrying “special” status in her life. “Look, Seth. If you suspect corruption, then why not contact the lab commander, the general, or the OSI?” By regulations, the Office of Special Investigations and the general and lab commander should be notified, and they both knew it.
“Colonel Ed Pullman is the lab commander.”
“The gutless wonder from the TDY trip to Edwards?” A Colonel Pullman had headed their team on a temporary duty trip to the desert Air Force base to test the Rogue missile. He’d been spineless.
“That’s the one,” Seth confirmed. “And I can’t go to the OSI yet. I don’t have hard evidence.” The wind blew his hair down over his broad forehead. “If I report this without hard evidence, people’s careers and lives will be destroyed. Innocent or guilty. I can’t do that to them, Julia.”
Many could and would. But not Seth. He wouldn’t risk wrongly accusing anyone. And any accusation he levied would be investigated under the standard premise of guilty until proven innocent. Considering the stakes were national security, the Department of Defense—or the government, for that matter—had no other choice. “Does this technology fall under the Black Operations umbrella?” Black World technology often had dual uses, military and civilian applications. In the lab, Black Ops signified military applications only.
He shifted on his feet, clearly uncomfortable. “It’s . . . extremely sensitive.”
Definitely Black Ops. Of course, Black Ops. So the project would be considered violated, too. Congress could pull the funding, demand extensive modifications, or scrap the entire project. Without a missile-defense program, the United States would remain extremely vulnerable. Very disturbing thought, considering the findings about the Chinese having access to secret nuclear warfare technology. “I see.”
“Not yet. You’re missing a key element,” he said. “I need your help to protect us.”
Us. Americans. All Americans. Resisting an urge to drag specifics out of him, she patiently persisted. “From what?”
“You remember the Rogue missile?”
“Of course.” The most advanced missile in the U.S. arsenal. Five thousand pounds of explosives. A hundred sixty-six bomblets that scatter when disbursed. A warhead capable of carrying conventional, chemical, biological, or nuclear ordnance. A new metal alloy construction and a stealth system that made the Rogue undetectable by standard countermeasures, such as early-warning satellite launch-detection systems that alert ground-based radar when a hostile missile is inbound. Seth held two system patents on the Rogue. Julia held one. “What’s wrong with it?” A system malfunction? Some overlooked flaw in the design?
“Nothing is wrong with it. The Rogue works just fine.”
“So what’s the problem?”
Seth’s expression turned grave. “We no longer have sole possession of it.”
The heat seeped from Julia’s body. Chills rippled up her back, down her arms, and her left biceps began to spasm. She rubbed it, shoulder to elbow. “H-how?”
“I don’t know. That’s for Intel to determine. What I do know is, if a hostile faction launches a Rogue against us, with Home Base I can minimize the damage.”
“But Home Base is still a simple seeker missile. The Rogue isn’t some mousy missile, carrying a five-hundred-pound bomb, for God’s sake. How can you negate the impact of a hostile Rogue with a simple seeker missile?”
“First, the Rogue is even more powerful than you know. After you left the lab, I modified its booster-ignition and explosives systems. That expanded its kill and damage zones substantially. Secondly, Home Base isn’t a simple seeker.”
“Well, what is it?”
A pleased-with-himself smile hovered on Seth’s lips. When a woman jogging along the shore ran out of earshot, he continued. “With Home Base, I can determine if the Rogue is live ordnance or a decoy. I can track it, forecast its trajectory, and most importantly, if it’s a smart bomb I can reverse its trajectory while it’s in flight, return it to its home base, and detonate it.”
Damn. Julia brushed her windblown hair back from her eyes. He really had taken a totally innovative approach in his design of this missile-defense system. “You can actually track, forecast, and return it to its own launch site? Even a Rogue?”
“Magnetic energy?” Altering it could abort a launch.
“No. Existing arms treaties prohibit the use of an adequate power source.”
Julia played out defense strategy scenarios. He couldn’t alter the trajectory, only reverse the existing programming. “So anyone launching against the U.S. would, in effect, be attacking themselves?”
“Yes. And depending on its warhead type and payload—which I can’t determine—when they attack themselves, they’re going to damage or destroy everything within a hundred-kilometer radius of their chosen launch site.”
A hundred kilometers? Three years ago, the zone was the size of two football fields, end to end. Now it was a hundred kilometers. “How? Isn’t the zone dependent on the missile’s payload and capability?”
“Home Base is also armed,” he said. “Kill zone is roughly thirty kilometers. Damage zone, a hundred kilometers.”
Visions of the aftereffects of a hydrogen bomb detonating flashed through her mind. She didn’t dare ask with what Home Base was armed. Not with a hundred-kilometer damage zone. But factoring in compliance with existing international arms treaties, it had to be armed with some new explosives technology.
Seth’s eyes gleamed. “Do you see how valuable this technology would be to hostile factions?”
“Oh, yes.” Devastation. Destruction. The creation of a wasteland. A moron could see the danger—and the challenge. Corrupted, the Home Base technology would fail, and the hostile Rogue would hit its U.S. target. Worse, with the Home Base technology, a hostile faction could reprogram any smart-bomb missile the U.S. launched to return to its U.S. home base and detonate.
“We both know traditional interceptors only have an eighty-percent success rate. That leaves a big window of vulnerability, Julia. We need an actual missile-defense system. Right now, several countries are capable of targeting us, and we have no functional, effective response. Home Base will give us both. Naturally, it’s equally important that only we have this defense system.” Seth’s worry crept into his voice. “One well-placed, hostile Rogue could cripple this country.”
“And kill millions.” Julia shuddered. Seth hadn’t exaggerated the damage-assessment estimates.
What if a hostile faction targeted a metropolitan area? Take out even segments within a hundred-kilometer radius of a metro area, and that would wipe out a lot of Americans and a lot of resources. And if the hostile Rogue carried a chemical, biological, or nuclear warhead, then the damage-assessment estimates soared.
When her heart dropped down from her throat and back into her chest where it belonged, she responded. “I understand why you need someone you can trust.” But could she do it? Could she risk helping him?
Karl’s in jail. It’s safe. Considering the risks to others, how can you not do it?
Her conscience made a strong case with valid points. If she refused and something happened, she would never forgive herself. Millions could die.
“Well?” Seth interrupted her internal debate. “Will you help me?”
She swallowed her fears about stepping back into her old life. It would be hard. There would be so many reminders, so many demons, waiting to confront her on every street corner. She couldn’t avoid them. But the stealth system, which prohibited the Rogue from being detected and tracked by standard countermeasure devices, carried her patent, and refusing Seth and turning away, denying her responsibility, would only create more demons.
She couldn’t live with more demons.
Staring out at the water, she accepted the inevitable. She would just have to find a way to deal with this. Just as she’d had to learn to deal with the other challenges.
One demon at a time. One challenge at a time. One breath at a time.
She looked into Seth’s eyes and couldn’t refuse him. “Yes. When the contract is awarded, I’ll take a leave of absence from school and head the project.”
“Good.” He sighed his relief. “Good.”
Julia’s mind chugged ahead. “But how are you going to get me back into the system?” Knowing he hadn’t forgotten, she still felt compelled to remind him. “I walked out without notice. They’re not just going to let me come back.”
“Normally, they wouldn’t. But there’s a new program, and, under specific conditions, we’re allowed to bypass competitive bids on certain slots and hire direct.”
“Extreme threats to national security,” he said. “The Rogue is loose, Julia.”
That qualified in her book. “What about my security clearances?”
“They’ll be in place within a couple of days.”
A couple of days? It normally took weeks.
He’d already started processing them.
Seemed he had an answer for everything, and she wasn’t at all sure she liked it. It made her feel manipulated, and she hated that. She stared at him until he looked at her. “You knew I’d say yes.”
“I prayed you would say yes,” he corrected her. “And I prepared for it.”
“Of course.” It wasn’t manipulation. It wasn’t. Seth always prepared. He was rock-solid, and always had been. It was a damn shame more men hadn’t emulated him. Karl, in particular. “When will the contract be awarded?”
“I’m not sure exactly,” he said. “Is it critical?”
“It is to me,” she said. “I have a special student, Jeff. His mother died a few months ago, and I suspect his father is emotionally abusing him.” Jeff had become the son Julia never had, and never would have. She couldn’t just leave him. He needed her—almost as much as she needed him. “I have to talk to him, file a report with the school counselor, and then work with her and the authorities to stop the abuse. I’m all he’s got, Seth. I can’t leave him, knowing that’s going on. I won’t.”
“Of course not,” he said. “You’ve got a week, maybe two. I’ll get you set up and find you an apartment near Grayton.”
“Grayton?” Her confusion carried in her tone.
“Grayton Air Force Base,” he said. “It’s about thirty miles north of Hurlburt Field, on the Florida gulf coast.”
“You mean, I don’t have to go back to New Orleans?”
“No.” He blinked hard, then grunted. “I guess I forgot to mention I’d transferred.”
“Yes, you did.” No New Orleans. No demonic memories to confront. No new demons. She smiled her relief when she really wanted to weep it. “What brought that on? The transfer, I mean.” He was king of the lab, well treated, and seldom questioned.
The smile left his face, and his eyes clouded. “I could say I transferred to pursue other professional endeavors.”
Her official reason for leaving. The barb hit its mark.
“But the fact is,” he went on, “Grayton’s the new location of the Battle Management Center. Its lab is under the direct command of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization.”
“I see.” Still stinging from his “professional endeavor” remark, Julia scooted off the table, down to the sand, and dusted her backside with her hand. “I’d better get back to school.”
He looked down at her. “Thanks for bailing me out on this.”
How could she refuse? That she didn’t want to refuse him concerned her. “You present a compelling case.”
“Yeah, unfortunately, I do.” Seth sighed. “I’ve missed working with you, Julia.”
They’d worked together like hand to glove, finishing each other’s thoughts and sentences, instinctively agreeing on what to test next in their designs, on which battles to fight with the honchos and which ones to postpone. They had shared a unique relationship, based on trust and steeped in mutual respect. Neither intruded, but both were there if needed and called on. She’d hated losing that, resented losing him, and, for once, she let down her guard and admitted it openly. “I’ve missed you, too, Seth.”
Sand lifted by the wind stung her foot. Julia swiped at it. “Is Home Base the sensor design you were working on privately before I left the lab?”
“No. Different systems, different tasking. But mine can piggyback on Home Base. At least, I hope one day it will.”
“So it hasn’t been funded.”
That had to be disappointing for him. To invest that much into something, to know it would work, and to have it put on permanent hold for a lack of money had to gnaw at him. It gnawed at her for him. “I’m sorry.”
“Me, too.” He let out a sigh. “I’m still perfecting it on my own. Who knows? Maybe its time will come.” He shrugged, then stilled, staring at her key chain. “You’ll need to get rid of that before you come to the lab.” He nodded at the miniature black flashlight dangling from her key chain. “They’ve become terrorists’ new weapon of choice.”
Julia methodically challenged its potential uses. Only one passed her barrage of tests. “Scanners mistake explosives for batteries?”
“For the moment.” Seth nodded.
Meaning, scanner modifications in progress had a solution on the near horizon. Thank God. Having to fear every flashlight in the country incited nightmares, and she already had all of those she could handle.
Sometimes, knowing these little tidbits could drive a person to paranoia. Unfortunately, if you knew them, odds were it wasn’t paranoia but a clear and present danger routinely encountered by service members in the field.
“Julia.” Seth sounded hesitant. “Your coming to Grayton will be okay with Karl, won’t it?”
The question caught her off guard. Was it a deliberate second chance to confess about Karl? Even if it was, she couldn’t do it. Doing her best to cover, act nonchalant, she smiled. “No problem at all.” It wouldn’t be, since Karl wouldn’t know it.
“Good. I’ll be in touch.” Seth turned and walked toward the parking lot.
Julia watched him go, unsure if his asking twice about Karl meant Seth knew what happened or he was fishing to find out. If she asked, he would tell her. Seth never lied. But she didn’t want that Pandora’s box opened. And maybe that wasn’t what had her uneasy. Maybe it was the angle of his head or the stillness in him, getting to her. Maybe it was because he had delivered the news about the Rogue she had helped design now being in hostile hands or the possible corruption on Home Base, a project not yet even developed. Or it could be that tidbit about terrorists using flashlights to house explosives.
Or it could be just the man himself.
Damn it, it could be. He was special. He always had been special, and that made him dangerous.
In the last three years, she had come a long way on the road back to becoming more of her old self. A very long way. But she hadn’t come far enough, or remained innocent or unchanged by her experiences enough, to risk trusting another man.
Not even Seth.
Men with good intentions could get you killed just as fast as those with bad intentions. And it was all but impossible to tell the difference between them. Hadn’t she married Karl Hyde believing he was a good man? A really good man? Hadn’t he seemed kind and gentle and loving—all the things she wanted in a husband? And hadn’t her experience with him proven that any man could deceive any woman he chose to deceive?
It had. Karl had seemed all those good things and more, and he had ended up being a heartless bastard with a black soul. He’d ended up in jail. And, thanks to him, she had barely escaped with her life, and she was still being threatened.
Those truths made the bottom line with any man the same. Give him your trust, and odds are good you’ll end up dead.
That was a lesson learned she would never forget. And it applied even to Seth Holt. *