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Excerpt for RUNNING SCARED

Zebra
July 2010, ISBN: 142010182X

Genre: Romantic Suspense

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PROLOGUE

Boston, Massachusetts   1980

      Free!

      Kate Summers pulled the last page from her word processor and dropped it with the others in her OUT basket.  Now for the hard part—saying good-bye and making a quick exit.  She glanced at the pebbled-glass door to Tyrell Clark’s office.  His desk lamp shined through the opaque barrier.

      Get a grip, Kate.  You can do this.

      She’d agreed to work late, hoping that he wouldn’t return, but she hadn’t been so lucky.  She’d heard his heavy tread on the back stairs just forty minutes before, and though he hadn’t paused at her desk, hadn’t so much as glanced in her direction as he’d beelined to his office, she knew she couldn’t leave without collecting her last paycheck and a letter of recommendation.

      The rest of the building was quiet.  Only the soft rumble of the building’s tired furnace and the muted sounds of traffic outside disturbed the silence in the once-hallowed halls of Clark & Clark.  The elder Clark, Tyrell Senior, had died just two years before and new there was only his son to carry on the tradition.  In the meantime business was shrinking.  The staff that had once filled eight offices now occupied just two.  Tyrell, a brilliant lawyer, also loved women, drink, and a friendly, if fatal, wager at the race track.  And he had not only the IRS after him but other, more sinister adversaries—loan sharks and bookies and the like.

      In two days Kat planned to leave Boston—and the nightmare she’d been living—behind.  She’d never have set foot in the offices of Clark & Clark again.  All she had to do was ship her meager belongings to Seattle and hand her keys over to the landlord of her small apartment—four tiny rooms that had been her home for the past three years.  A lump filled her throat, but she ignored it.

      No more memories.  No more pretending.  A new start.  That’s what she needed.

      “Kate?”

      She sucked in her breath.

      From the adjoining office, Tyrell Clark’s voice, smooth as well-oiled machinery, caused a chill to creep up her spine.  She hated that well-modulated, nearly patronizing tone.

      “No more,” she whispered under her breath, and one of her hands curled into a tight fist.  She didn’t have to put up with his advantages—gentle touches and suggestive innuendos—a second longer.  She found her coffee cup, favorite pen, address book, and dropped them all into her oversized bag.

      “Before you leave, I’ve got something I want to discuss with you.”

      The light in his adjoining office snapped off.  Her stomach knotted in apprehension.

      Now what?  Bracing herself, she glanced at the clock.  Nearly seven.  And she was alone with him.  The building was probably empty.  Nervously she looked out the single window in the reception area, through the trails of rain that drizzled down the glass.  Outside it was dark except for the illumination from streetlamps and flash of headlights from cars as they passed.  She’d been a fool to stick around after Ava had gone home for the day, but she’d needed the money the overtime would bring, had naively thought that Tyrell wouldn’t return from his late afternoon meeting with a client.  She’d been wrong.  Stupid, stupid girl.

      He scraped back his chair and it squeaked as he stood.  His familiar tread followed.

      Just a few more minutes.  You can handle it, Kate.  Whatever you do, don’t blow it; you need his letter of recommendation so you can get another job in Seattle.

      She managed a thin, watery smile as he approached her L-shaped desk.  Fake it, she told herself, though her palms began to sweat.  Be friendly, but firm.  She resisted the urge to wipe her suddenly moist hands on her skirt.  A few more minutes, then you’ll never have to see him or put up with his harassment again.  Just hang in there.

      Tyrell was an imposing man and a cliché of the highest order.  Tall, dark, and handsome, he’d been compared to Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler time and time again.  He made a point to see that his tie was never askew, his dark hair always in place, his three-piece suits without so much as a thread of lint or wrinkle to detract from his polished image.

      Except lately.  He’d been slipping.  His shoes weren’t always shined to a high gloss, a few gray hairs had dared invade his temples, and lines of worry had collected near the corners of his mouth.  But it was his eyes that had changed dramatically.  Usually full of a mischievous light, they’d dimmed with worry and he was forever playing with the wristband of his watch, as if he were running out of time.  She knew why.  The continuous correspondence from the IRS explained it all.

      “So this is good-bye,” he said.

      “Yes.” She reached for her purse.  “I was just getting ready to call it a day.”  Her mind was spinning ahead, creating an excuse to flee the building.

      “I thought we might have one last drink together.”

      “Sorry.”  Not really.  “I told Laura I’d stop by.  I’m already late.”

      “Your sister will understand.” He picked up her favorite paperweight—a crystal porcupine—and tossed it lightly, as if testing its weight.  “This is important.”  He offered her an infectious smile that had worked its magic on dozens of women with weaker hearts and landed them in his bed.  The sorcery hadn’t affected Kate.  She wasn’t interested in a man, any man, and especially not one as well worn as Tyrell.  And now his grin seemed forced, his usually tanned skin, paler, as if the life were being sucked out of him.

      “What?”  Her damned curiosity always got the better of her.

      “I thought you might like to be a mother again.”

      She felt as if the floor had just dropped out from under her feet.  “A mother?” she repeated, her voice a whisper.  Her head began to pound.  She’d never known him to be so outwardly cruel.  “If this is some kind of joke—“ 

      “It’s not.”

      She could barely breathe, hardly hear above the dull roar in her ears.

      “I’m offering you a son.  No strings attached.  Well, not many.”  Easing his hip onto the edge of her desk, he clasped his hands around one knee and stared at her with dark knowing eyes.  The tic beneath his eye kept up its steady rhythm.

      “I don’t understand,” she replied, trying to calm down.

      “It’s a long story and one I’m not privileged to discuss in too many details, but I have a client, and important, socially prominent client, whose daughter just had a baby—a little boy—out of wedlock.  He was born this afternoon.”

      “You—you want me to adopt him?”

      He hesitated, his eyebrows drawing together.  “Not just adopt him, Kate.  I want you to take him with you to Seattle and pretend that he’s yours.  The child’s white, his hair dark and he could certainly pass as yours.”

      “What? Wait a minute—“

      “Just hear me out, Kate,” he insisted and the roar in her ears became louder.  He reached into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and withdrew an envelope.  From within, he found a Polaroid snapshot, which he handed to her.  The picture was of a newborn infant, still red, eyes out of focus as the camera had flashed.  Little fists were coiled and his expression was one of shock at being brought into the harsh lights of the real world.

      “Oh, God,” she whispered.

      “I thought you wanted another child.”

      “I do, but …” There was nothing—nothing—she’d love more than a child.  But the idea was impossible.  A pipe dream.  You had your chance, she reminded herself grimly before the tears could come again.

      “Are you serious?” she asked.

      “Absolutely.”

      A small drop of hope slid into her heart.

      “I don’t understand.”  This conversation was moving too fast.  Way too fast.  “You want me to adopt him?” She felt as if she had cobwebs in her mind that were slowing down her comprehension, as if she couldn’t quite keep up with the discussion.  “What’s the catch?”

      “The catch,” he repeated under his breath and bit his lower lip.  “Unfortunately, there is one.”

      “Always is.”  Trepidation chased away that little bit of hope.

      “I prefer to think of it as a condition that comes with this kind of instant motherhood.”

      Motherhood.  The sound of the word brought back images of her own mother and a small farm in Iowa.  Spring flowers, the scent of mown hay, and cinnamon lacing the air form Anna Rudisill’s prize-winning apple pies.  Her mother’s kind smile or razor-sharp tongue when one of her daughters dared take the name of the Lord in vain whispered through Kate’s mind.  Summers had been full of hard work and long days, nights staring up at a wide dark sky sprinkled with millions of stars.  The winters had been fierce, frigid, and brutal as well as gorgeous with the thick blanket of snow that crunched under Kate’s boots as she trudged through the drifts to the barn holding on to her mother’s hand.  Icicles had hung from the eaves of the barn, and even the moisture collecting on the flat snouts of the cattle had sparkled in the pale winter sunlight.

      From those few glorious years, Kate’s mind spun ahead as it always did, past the unhappy and horrifying part of her childhood to her short-lived marriage and her won darling baby girl.  Erin. Sweet, sweet baby.  If only her precious daughter had lived!  Guilt squeezed Kate’s heart in its cruel, unforgiving fist.  She blinked and found Tyrell still balanced on the desk’s corner, that pulse beneath his eye jumping.

      “Why?” she finally asked.  “Whose baby is this?”

      “I can’t say, but he mother doesn’t want him—she’s broken up with the father and the family just wants to get the whole unhappy incident behind them.  They don’t want any publicity, any hint of a scandal, and so far they’ve managed to keep the pregnancy a secret.  Now, all they have to do is make sure the baby is bought up by someone who will keep their secret and love the little boy as her own.”

      “But I’m single…I don’t have a lot of money and there are hundreds of couples anxious to…”  Something was wrong here.  Very wrong.  She glanced at the picture again and already this precious child, this unwanted and unloved baby, was starting to attach himself to her.  “What about the father?”

      “Bad news.”

      “He doesn’t know?”

      Tyrell shook his head.  “The family doesn’t want him to ever find out.”

      “But he has rights—“

      “He’s in prison.”

      “Oh, God.”

      Tyrell’s lips flattened together and he sit the paperweight back on the desk.  “The guy’s bad news—someone my client’s daughter hung around with just to rebel against her folks.  He’s into drugs, leather, chains, motorcycles, and crime; everything my client abhors.  The guy also has a history of violence—serious, domestic violence.  There’s a rumor floating around that he already had a son who died suspiciously as an infant.  The police couldn’t prove that he was the reason the kid quit breathing, but they suspect him.  My client doesn’t want anything like that to happen to his grandchild.  Right now the kid’s safe as the father is locked up for assault so he’s out of the picture.  Won’t be paroled for a few years.  Believe it or not, the family wants what’s best for the baby.”

      “As long as he doesn’t inconvenience them.”

      “If you don’t want to do this, Kate—“

      “No!”  she said so vehemently she surprised herself.  It’s not the baby’s fault that he isn’t wanted, is considered nothing more than a nuisance.

      Kate felt sick inside but the first little glimmer of what he was suggesting tugged at her heart.  Could she?  Could she take this child and pretend that he was hers?

      A baby. A newborn. Her own child. A mother again.

      Tyrell tugged on his tie.

      “You know, Tyrell, this just sounds like trouble.  Big trouble.”  But there’s a baby involved, a baby who needs a mother, a child whom you need to care for.  “The pregnant girl should tell her folks to take their Machiavellian opinions about children being born out of wedlock and shove them.  That child belongs with his mother!”

      “It’s not that simple,” Tyrell said, the patience in his voice belied by the lines of tension near the corners of his mouth.  “The baby’s mother…she’s not well either, or at the least stable.  She’s been in and out of mental hospitals for depression; always on some kind of medication, though the doctors have assured everyone that the baby’s healthy.  The girl’s been monitored ever since she found out about the pregnancy.  It’s been decided that the best thing would be for the baby to be adopted privately to someone who lives out of state.  You’re moving to the West Coast, and since you lost your own family, I thought it would only make sense…”  He let the thought trail off, leaving it to be finished by her own imagination, attempting to persuade her that he was only trying to help.  She didn’t buy it.

      “As I said, the deal would be that you would claim the baby as yours—we’d even manage to make the birth certificate say as much.”

      “How?”

      “When you have money, anything’s possible.  My client has money, lots of it.  And influence.  It’s not that difficult to get a phony birth certificate and you’ll be moving so far away that no one will ever guess the truth.”  He glanced pointedly down at the pictures resting on the corner of Kate’s desk, then picked up a framed photograph of Kate holding Erin as an infant.  Her husband, Jim, was standing beside them, ever the proud father.  Jim was smiling widely, his arm around Kate’s shoulders, her own eyes shining with pride and happiness.  The perfect family.  How long ago it seemed.

      Kate’s heart tugged and tears clogged her throat, tears she needed to hide.  Oh, God, could she go through with this?  Could she not?  She knew she should leave, right now, before he reeled her in and she became a part of something corrupt, something darker than it appeared on the surface.  Something she wanted.  Standing, she slung the strap of her purse over her shoulder.  “I think I’d better go.  Laura’s waiting for me—“

      Setting the picture back in its resting place on the desk, Tyrell straightened, then walked slowly around the desk to stand behind her.  Gently, he placed his hands on her shoulders.

      She shifted away, turned, and glared at him.  “Don’t.”  

      “I know how hard it was for you to lose Jim and Erin,” Tyrell said kindly.  “You…well, you’ve never been the same.  I thought that this might be a godsend to you, to give you new purpose, a child.  But if you’d rather pass—“      

      “No!” she blurted out, though her rational mind told her to walk out the door, to stay as far as possible from Tyrell and his unethical scheme.  This was crazy.  Ludicrous!  Impossible!  Illegal, for crying out loud! And yet despite all her well-laid arguments, she couldn’t let this opportunity slip through her empty fingers.  A baby!  Her baby!  “I—I don’t know what to say, I mean, I’d have to know more.  How do I know this baby isn’t kidnapped?”

      His face muscles relaxed.  He knew he had her and she felt incredibly weak and manipulated.  “Trust me, Kate.  We’re talking about a newborn who isn’t wanted, who needs a mother, who deserves to be loved.  He’ll have to be hidden far away so that his psycho of a father never finds him.  This is an opportunity that may never happen otherwise.”

      She blinked against a sudden wash of hot tears.  For the past two years she’d felt and overwhelming sense of guilt and remorse for the deaths of the two people closest to her.  Maybe this was a chance to make it up; or maybe it was God’s way of giving her a reason to live.