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Authors: Annabel Wolfe

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BOOK: Gone
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Not with everyone there pretending to not be avidly interested but most of them failing. Jack noted his great-aunt Marjorie, ensconced in a lawn chair under the awning, was openly watching and chatting with several other older ladies. “Beautiful,” Eric said as if he agreed with her comment on the weather.

“Couldn’t be prettier,” Jack chimed in blandly, gazing at her.

Nicole blushed, faint color coming into her face. “Look, the two of you aren’t going to say that sort of thing to me all afternoon, are you? If so, I’m leaving and—”

“Okay, no teasing,” Eric interrupted with a laugh. “Sorry. Not that I didn’t mean it, but I promise to stick to boring comments and talk about sports or crops, or the state of the stock market.”

“What the hell do you know about crops?” Jack stifled a laugh. Eric’s father had also been in banking.

“Hey, the futures market?” Eric looked affronted. “I am more attuned to soybeans than you are, farm boy.”

That was probably true. Jack turned to Nicole. “We have to behave, huh? I suppose that means I can’t ask Nikki in front of a crowd if she had that tattoo on her left breast that says
I love Jack
removed.”

“Don’t go there. I’m way too smart to speak up and mention that I know for a fact no such tattoo exists,” Eric retorted, his mouth twitching.

“You both are treading on dangerous ground,” she warned.

But she also laughed.

It broke the tension at least a little, and Jack was glad. He said quietly, “Just relax, we’ll both behave. Just have a good time. Can I get you something to drink?”

“No, but thank you. I am now going to go steel myself and talk to your collection of relatives. I want both of you to come with me, because first of all, I shouldn’t have to go through it alone, and secondly, if anyone is thinking of asking awkward questions, it is less likely with the three of us together.”

She was probably right, but then again, her intellect was as attractive as the rest of her.

“If you think either one of us is going to object to spending most of this afternoon with you, then you don’t know us as well as I suspect you do.” Eric moved to her side but otherwise didn’t make any kind of claim, glancing back at Jack. “Let’s go get something to eat. Once everyone sees there’s not going to be a problem, they’ll lose interest.”

He was perfectly right. To a certain extent.

The question was still going to hang out there, and Nicole wasn’t the only one who would get asked.
Who will she choose?

Friends and family weren’t the only ones interested in the answer.

It was a life-changing question in his future too.

But Jack was also sure that this sunny afternoon, when his mother
had
gone to too much trouble and people who cared about him had bothered to take the time to come, was not when to address it. “Hey, I’ll go grab us more beers and the two of you can get me a plate. A hot dog, whatever…you can toss anything on it and it would sound good to me.”

“I know how you like it.”

“Yeah, baby, you do.” He gave her his best imitation lewd look.

Nicole flushed again. “I meant…oh, forget it.”

Eric said dryly, “Ignore him, Nikki. I know how he likes it too. Mustard and relish, right? We’ll take care of it.”

Jack watched them walk toward the tent, his chest tightening just a little. They looked good together, Eric’s blond good looks complementing Nicole’s fair beauty. No doubt they’d have gorgeous, perfect children…

And Eric had said straight out that he wanted to marry her.

He was secure and successful, and no doubt would make the world’s best husband, while Jack on the other hand was unpredictable, would not be there to mow the lawn or take out the trash every Monday, and he couldn’t envision himself ever settling into that kind of life, either.

Was it selfish of him not to just bow out?

“Have you eaten yet?”

He glanced up as his father joined him. He wore an old blue-and-white-striped grill apron over his button-down shirt and slacks, and had no expression at all on his slightly weathered features. Jack replied, “Eric and Nikki are fixing me a plate. I need to go say hello to a few people.”

“Fixing you a plate. Are they now?” His father’s brows rose. “Glad to see, I must say, that you and Eric aren’t sacrificing a lifelong friendship.”

“So far, so good.” Jack grimaced. “Now I have to go talk to Aunt Marge. Glad you are here. You can come with me and run interference.”

“Not for all the tea in China, son.” His father said it with a serene lack of repentance. “I’ve been dealing with Marjorie for over thirty years, so I’ve put in my time. I’m going to go get a plate myself and join Nicole and Eric.”

“Traitor,” Jack muttered as his father strolled away.

 

The sky was a perfect arc of blue with only the occasional fluffy cloud wandering by, and the breeze smelled exactly like late summer should, in her opinion. A hint of campfire and warm grass.

The event was paradoxically better than she thought it would be, and worse. Nicole ate a bite of potato salad—Jack’s mother put bacon in hers, and it was absolutely delicious—and did her best to pretend everything was perfectly normal.

Not so easy when Jack’s father sat straight across from her at the picnic table and Eric had just excused himself to go rescue Jack from some chatty relative.

“The food is wonderful,” she said in a lame attempt to make conversation.

The older man looked at her with his usual pragmatic expression. She’d always liked him and his easygoing disposition, which was much different from his son’s edgy charisma.

“I can hardly take credit for flipping a few burgers, but we both know how happy Madeline is to have Jack back, so she knocked herself out.”

Nicole nodded. She’d been worried about Madeline too. “I understand.”

He settled his elbows on the warm tabletop, his eyes the same steely gray as his son’s. “I know you do. I was a little afraid I might lose her too when we got the news he was gone…she would never physically do herself harm, but part of her was missing, if that makes sense. When people talk about dying of a broken heart, I am not sure some of them know what they are talking about, but I was starting to worry I did.”

“I think you know it resonates with me.” Nicole spoke evenly.

“Life has a way of working things out.” He said the words very quietly. “Don’t let anyone make up your mind for you. Whatever feels right usually is.”

“Are we now talking about Eric?”

“Honey, this isn’t a discussion. I’m giving what is probably unwanted advice, and you are listening politely, which I appreciate.”

“I’m not being polite. I could use a little guidance, to be honest.”

“Then shouldn’t the three of you just sit down and talk about it?”

She’d always respected this man with his dedicated work ethic and love for the challenging existence every farmer faced. “We have…a little. I have to admit that when your life is turned upside down—twice—that—”

“That now you have no idea what expect next?” He finished it for her. “Jack has been putting us through that for quite a while. His whole life, I think. Eric is more settled.”

An interesting observation.

“I’m starting to wonder what discussion we
are
having.”

“We aren’t having a discussion at all, as I said. That is the exact point. What happens next is entirely up to you. Be happy.” He rose. “More lemonade?”

“No. But thank you.” Nicole stared at him as he nodded and walked away.

Eric and Jack joined her a moment later, and both of them looked irritatingly amused, relaxed and more than attractive on a purely masculine level. When they sat down in lawn chairs, she said accusingly, “What’s so funny?”

“You. Cornered by my dad.” Jack crossed his ankles and lounged back. “I’m dying to know what he had to say.”

“He hardly cornered me.”

“I’ll take a stab at it. He picked me,” Eric said, his mouth pulling into a little teasing smile. “Told her I was the better choice. Wise man. Always has been.”

“Yeah, right, Janssen. I’ll take a stab at
you
. I do have a knife, you know that, right? They once dropped me in the desert for ten days with one set of rations and a clean pair of skivvies. I thought about eating this big spider on day two, but luckily stumbled across something else that seemed a better choice because I am still alive, but if offered it again, I’m iffy on whether or not I’d accept it or just starve instead.”

“You always have been kind of a wuss about spiders, Templeton.”

Jack laughed. “Really? And you?”

Eric countered, “I’ve swum with sharks in boardrooms, every single predator there eyeing my throat. Those people don’t play clean either. At least if someone points a gun at you, you know a bullet is on its way. Those people are ruthless and it is personal and underhanded.”

“You’ve got a point. I think I’d rather be me,” Jack said with heartfelt conviction, and all three of them knew he meant it. “I couldn’t do a boardroom. If you’d like to get stabbed in the back, that’s the place to be.”

“And I wouldn’t eat the spider either, for the record.”

“Well, we agree on quite a few things, but we always have.”

They both looked at her.

They were best friends but two very different men. No one knew that better than Nicole did.

“This is all warm and fuzzy, but no one is stabbing anyone.” Nicole knew Jack didn’t mean it literally anyway. She swept a hand through her loose hair and exhaled. The afternoon had been nice…but stressful. “Your dad just said we should sit and talk about it. The first straightforward comment anyone has made.”

“One on one. And wait, one more? Party of three, huh?” Jack was being funny, but then again, he wasn’t. He said soberly a second later, “I actually agree.”

“We are past this anyway.”

“What? Our first mutual gathering with the three of us being watched like an exhibit in a museum?” Eric tipped up his beer. “So let’s do it. Let’s have an official meeting.”

“My house.” It was a little difficult to keep control with two such dominant males, but Nicole could at least have it on her own turf. “I’ll leave first.”

“Okay. We’ll follow you in a few.”

Nicole was only too aware of the speculative gazes as she got up to leave. She thanked Jack’s mother and father and got into her car, wondering if what she felt was relief or regret or just plain confusion. Probably all three, if she was honest about it.

A meeting.

She had no idea what she was going to say to either one of them.

Chapter Ten

Peter finished typing the message and read it over.

 

To General Pierce, United States Army Intelligence, Washington, D.C.

 

Confidential

 

Hello Art:

 

I hope all is well. As you know I am currently on leave after the recent operation and rescue which ended as satisfactorily as we both hoped it would. The rate of casualty to benefit was above expectations, the team performed with precision and professionalism, and our mission was fulfilled.

On a personal level, however, I have a small problem.

 

He stopped typing, thinking of the sonogram picture he’d saved to his hard drive, and smiling. Small problem. Nice pun. With a few clicks, he attached the picture, and then added:
Kathy and I are trying to work things out. I’ll be back in Washington as planned, but then I request more leave to be home when the child is born. You have four of your own, so I am sure you understand.

 

Respectfully,

Peter

 

“Dinner is ready.”

He glanced up, seeing his wife in the doorway of his office, her smile faint but still a smile. “It smells fantastic,” he told her, sending off the message with a click and getting out of his chair. “What is it?”

“Garlic chicken without the garlic, I’m afraid. I can’t eat anything that tastes too strong right now, so let’s call it plain roast chicken, but I tried to make it up to you by making mashed potatoes and gravy.”

“Hmm.” He drew her into his arms and dropped a kiss on her forehead. “And here I was hoping for frozen pizza.”

“I suspect you’ll have a few of those once the baby is here.” She didn’t precisely kiss him back but did rest briefly against him. “I’m tired already just thinking about it.”

“You’re tired because you are seven months pregnant.” He ran his hand over her stomach yet again, because even though he’d been in over fifty-six countries in the course of his career, made decisions that might affect entire nations and had classified information at his fingertips, the idea of her nurturing his child amazed him.

He was very used to death. Life was something completely different.

“I’ve thought about it.” His wife looked him in the eyes. “Yes, I’ll move back in. That means if it doesn’t go well, Peter, then you’ll have to be the one to leave.”

BOOK: Gone
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