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Authors: Tara Taylor Quinn

Hidden

BOOK: Hidden
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Praise for the novels of Tara Taylor Quinn

“Quinn smoothly blends women's fiction with suspense and then adds a dash of romance to construct an emotionally intense, compelling story.”

—Booklist
on
Where the Road Ends

“One of the skills that has served Quinn best…has been her ability to explore edgier subjects.”

—Publishers Weekly

“Quinn ties you up emotionally as her wonderful voice explodes into the mainstream.”

—Reader to Reader
on
Where the Road Ends

“One of the most powerful [romance novels] I have had the privilege to review.”

—Wordweaving
on
Nothing Sacred

Street Smart
is filled with “deception, corruption, betrayal—and love, all coming together in an explosive novel that will make you think twice.”

—New Mystery Reader Magazine

“Street Smart
is an exciting novel…action-packed and fast-moving…Tara Taylor Quinn has done a beautiful job.”

—Writers Unlimited

“Quinn writes touching stories about real people that transcend plot type or genre.”

—All About Romance

Also by
TARA TAYLOR QUINN

STREET SMART

WHERE THE ROAD ENDS

TARA TAYLOR QUINN
HIDDEN

Dear Reader,

There are some stories that just insist on being told. They come to you without warning or explanation. They take up residence in that corner of your brain reserved for private thoughts, and they nag at you, sometimes incessantly, sometimes quietly, sometimes in the middle of the night when you aren't sure if you're dreaming or awake. If you don't heed them they take a seat and stay put until finally, out of desperation, you agree to listen and to write.
Hidden
is one such story. It first came to me almost three years ago in the middle of a long-distance telephone conversation. I listened to the story for a second, losing track of the real-time conversation because of the interruption—and I don't know that I'll ever regain credibility with the person who was at the other end of the phone and doesn't understand writers at all. And then I told the “voice” to shut up. It quieted but didn't leave.

I told the story to get lost. I was contracted for seven books, and it wasn't one of them. I didn't write that kind of book. But even as I thought the words, silently listed the reasons, I knew the story wasn't leaving.

It hung around for a couple of years, bugging me periodically, reminding me that it was waiting. And in a meeting with my agent, in reply to a question she'd asked, this story stood up from its seat in a corner of my mind and suddenly it was all I could see, all I could think about. I told my agent about it. Her response was completely positive. Surprised, I then talked to my editor, who also showed no signs of shock or hesitation. Only I remained, secretly, doubtful of my ability to pull this off.

And then I sat down to write. I opened myself to the story, and I can now honestly tell you that this is the best work I've done to date.
Hidden
is a story about people who, at least to my mind, are very real. I'd love to hear what you think about it! You can reach me at P.O. Box 13584, Mesa, Arizona 85216 or at www.tarataylorquinn.com.

Till then, enjoy!

Tara Taylor Quinn

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

For Quinnby, Henry J, Maya and Abrahamburger, who are the angelic bearers of unconditional love and support. If they were my only teachers in life, it would be abundant.

Thank you to California senator Jack Scott for his generous insights into a day in the life of a California state senator, and to Phil Blake, EMS Management Analyst with the San Diego Fire Department for cheerfully and enthusiastically answering a plethora of questions. Any mistakes in representing either career are mine.

A heartfelt thanks also to Lynn Kerstan, who shared her hometown of San Diego with me and who not only chauffeured me around but took me to dinner. And thanks to Jill Limber for running down to her local San Diego fire station to find out what color uniform the firefighters were wearing. And to Lisa Kamps, former firefighter turned romance writer, for all the tidbits about the life of a firefighter.

1

San Francisco Gazette
Tuesday, April 5, 2005
Page 1

Single Socialite Disappears

Leah Montgomery, one of the country's most sought-after and elusive heiresses, was reported missing by her brother, San Francisco attorney Adam Montgomery, and sister, Carley Winchester, in San Francisco last night after she failed to attend the $200 a plate orphaned children's fund-raiser she'd spent the past six months organizing. The thirty-one-year-old was last seen yesterday at 3:20 p.m. leaving Madiras where, according to the upscale salon's owner, Samantha Ramirez, Montgomery received her weekly massage and manicure and had her hair cut and styled, in preparation for that evening's event.

Again according to Ramirez, Montgomery
had been planning to wear a black satin gown with red lace trim. Late last night, when police searched Montgomery's penthouse condominium, they found a dress matching that description hanging from one of the two shower heads in the woman's shower. Montgomery's white Mercedes convertible is also missing.

There are no leads in the case, though police are rumored to be questioning California's newest state senator, attorney Thomas Whitehead, who was to have been Montgomery's escort at last night's fund-raiser. Whitehead was elected to the Senate last fall, just fourteen months after his six-months-pregnant, fashion-designer wife, Kate Whitehead, disappeared without a trace. Before her disappearance, Mrs. Whitehead was frequently seen in the company of her longtime best friend, Leah Montgomery.

“Mama! Mamama!”

Shaking, heart pounding so hard she could feel its beat, Tricia Campbell lowered the newspaper enough to peer over the top at her eighteen-month-old son. She could see him sitting there in his scarred wood high chair in their modest San Diego home, pajamas covered with crumbs from the breakfast he'd long since finished, wispy dark curls sticking to the sides of his head. Could smell the plum jam he'd smeared all over his plump chin, cheeks and fingers. And she could definitely hear him…
“Mamamama! Down!” The baby, pounding his clenched fists on the stained tray of his chair, was working up to a frustrated squall.

The paper fell to Tricia's lap. She stared at her son, seeing him as though from afar—as though he belonged to someone else. The little boy was almost the entire sum of her existence—certainly the basis of every conscious decision she'd made in the past two years—and she couldn't connect. Not even with him. Not right now.

“Maamaa?” The little voice dropped as though in question.

Wordlessly, she glanced down at her lap, staring at the small, grainy picture that accompanied the article. It must've been pulled from the vault in a hurry. The likeness was old, an image captured more than two years before. Taken at yet another of Leah's constant stream of charity events—a Monte Carlo night with proceeds to offer relief to recent hurricane victims.

Tricia recognized the dress Leah was wearing. The smile on her face. The picture. She'd been standing right beside her when that photo was snapped. Had posed for one herself. After all, they'd both been wearing gowns from the latest Kate Whitehead collection—gowns that were to have their own showing later that year.

“Ma! Ma! Down! Mama! Down!” The loud banging, a result of her son's tennis shoe kicking back against the foothold on his chair, caught her attention.

With a trembling hand, she pushed a strand of her
now-mousy brown hair toward the ponytail band that was supposed to have been holding it in place, watching as the toddler screwed up his face into the series of creases and curves that indicated a full-blown tantrum. And felt as though the expression was her own. Grief. Anger. Confusion. Leah was missing. Leah—her best friend. A piece of her heart.

Leah, whose memory afforded her a secret inner hold on sanity in a life that was nothing but secrets and insanity.

“Down!” The squeal of fear in her son's voice catapulted Tricia out of her seat, across the foot and a half of cheap linoleum to his secondhand chair. In no time, she had him unstrapped and clutched his strong little body tight, cheek to cheek, the tears streaming down her face mingling with his.

She was shaking harder than he was.

 

“…Engine Eleven respond, overturned traffic…”

“Let's go!” Captain Scott McCall dropped his sponge in the bucket of water he'd been using to clean the windows in the station's kitchen and ran for the door. An overturned vehicle on the freeway couldn't be good.

A flurry of heavy footsteps hitting cement rang through the station. Silent men, focused on the moments ahead, or perhaps the pizza they'd just ordered, all doing the jobs they'd been trained to do. Street boots off, Scott pulled on the heat-resistant pants with at
tached boots that he'd thrown over the side of the engine when they'd returned from a Dumpster fire that morning. He grabbed his jacket off the side mirror and jumped aboard, scooping up the helmet he'd left in the passenger seat.

Cliff Ralen, his engineer, already had the rig in motion. They traveled silently, as usual, having worked together so long they had no need for words. Scott was the captain, but he rarely had to give orders to any of the three men on the engine with him. They were well-trained, as firemen and as co-workers. He was damned lucky to have a group of guys who shared a sixth sense when it came to getting the job done.

The engine couldn't get to the freeway quickly enough for Scott. Was it a multiple-car accident? Someone could be trapped inside. More than one someone. It was interstate. A second engine would be called. Police would be on-site.

With a rollover accident, there was a greater possibility of explosion.

And a greater possibility of severe injury—or death.

Sweating, impatient, Scott clenched his fists, waiting. This was always the worst part for him. The waiting. Patience wasn't his strongest suit. Nor was inactivity.

Waiting could be the hardest part of his job because he knew what it was like to be on the other side, helpless, feeling time slip away while you waited for help to arrive….

He tapped a foot against the floorboard.
He
was help.
He and his men. The guys would secure the area. Check for signs of fire danger. Rip car doors from their jambs. Break through back windows.

And Scott, as the engine's paramedic, would…

Do whatever needed to be done. He always did. He wouldn't think about the people. He wouldn't feel. They didn't pay him to think too much. Or to feel.

Feeling
weakened a man. Got in the way. Could make the one-second difference between saving a life and losing it.

Scott wasn't going to lose a life. Not if there was anything humanly possible he could do to save it.

He wasn't going to witness another life fading away while he stood helplessly by and watched.

Period.

With his door open even before Cliff pulled to a halt, Scott jumped out. He took in the entire scene at a glance—the circle of tragedy, with bystanders on the periphery and his men moving forward checking for fuel leaks, other signs of explosion danger, trapped victims.

Engine Eleven was the first on-site. Goddamn, it was ugly. A pickup truck, the mangled cap several yards away. Off to the other side, also several yards from the smashed vehicle was a trailer hauling a late-model Corvette. Whoever had been driving that truck had been going too fast, jackknifed the trailer, lost control. Judging by the roof flattened clear down to the door frame, the truck had rolled more than once.

Whoever had been driving that truck was nowhere in
sight. He hoped it was a man. Or an old woman who'd lived a full life.
Please, God, don't let it be a young woman.

“She's trapped inside!” Joe Valentine called out. He'd worked with Scott for six of Scott's eleven years with the department.

If she's young, let her be okay,
he demanded silently as he grabbed his black bag and approached the truck. She's just trapped.
Between the steel frame of the truck, the air bags and seat belt, the vehicle might have protected her.
Cliff took a crowbar to the upside-down driver's door. Metal on metal, screeching over raw nerves. He'd treat her for shock. Rail at her about the reason for speed limits. Make sure she understood how lucky she was to have escaped serious injury.

It was half an hour before Scott had his mind to himself again. He'd filled out his report.
Tuesday, April 5, 2005. 11:45 a.m. Responded to call at…

Kelsey Stuart, the young woman who'd borrowed her boyfriend's truck to pull her recently deceased father's car to her apartment in San Diego, had been pronounced dead at the scene fifteen minutes before.

 

By the time she heard Scott's black Chevy pickup in the drive shortly after eight on Wednesday morning, Tricia had had twenty-four hours to work herself into an inner frenzy and an outer state of complete calm. Much of her life had been spent learning things she'd never use. But little had she known, growing up the
daughter of a wealthy San Franciscan couple, that the ability to keep up appearances had also equipped her with the skills to lead a double life.

“Hi, babe!” Even after almost two years of living with this man, sharing his bed and his life, she still felt that little leap in her belly every time he walked into a room.

She was in the kitchen and plunged her hands into the sink of dirty dishwater to keep from flinging them around Scott. He wouldn't recognize the needy, clinging woman.

“Hi, yourself!”

He'd been gone four nights—part of the four on, four off rotation that made up most of his schedule, broken only once or twice a month with a one or two day on/off turn. She could have justified a hug.
If
she'd been able to trust herself not to fall apart the moment she felt his arms slide around her…

“Daaaddeee!” Taylor squirmed in his high chair, seemingly unaware of the toast crumbs smeared across his plump cheeks and up into his hair. His breakfast was a daily pre-bath ritual.

“Mornin', squirt!” Scott rubbed the baby's head and bent down to kiss his cheek, as though he was spotlessly clean. “Were you a good boy for your mama?”

“Good boy.” Taylor nodded. And then, “Down!”

He lifted his arms up to the man he called Daddy. Someday Taylor would have to know that Scott wasn't actually his biological father, but maybe by then Scott would have adopted him and—

She abruptly yanked the plug in the bottom of the sink, watching as the grayish water and the residue of bubbles washed away. She couldn't think about the future. It was one of her non-negotiable rules.

Unless things changed drastically, there would be no future for her. Only the day-to-day life she had now. Only the moment.

Hearing her son squeal, followed by silence from the man who usually made as much or more noise than the little boy when the two were playing together, Tricia glanced over her shoulder.

“Scott?” She dried her hands, moved slowly behind the man she'd duped—yes, duped—into taking her in. She'd played the part of a destitute homeless woman, and then grown to love Scott more than she'd ever believed possible. Face buried in Taylor's neck, he was holding on to the boy.

Almost as she had the day before…

“Is something wrong?” she asked, her throat tightening with the terror that was never far from the surface. Had he had enough of them? Was this going to be goodbye?

Could she handle another loss right now?

He didn't look up right away, and Tricia focused on breathing. Life had come down to this a few times in the past couple of years—reduced to its most basic level. Getting each breath to follow the one before. Clearing her mind of all thought, all worry, her heart of all fear, so that she could breathe.

“You want us to leave?” she made herself ask when she could. Probably only seconds had passed. They seemed like minutes. Her arrangement with Scott wasn't permanent. She'd known that. Insisted on it.

The back pockets of her worn, department-store jeans were a good place for hands that were noticeably trembling.

“Can we put him in his playpen with Blue?” Scott asked.

Taylor's addiction to
Blue's Clues
could easily buy half an hour of uninterrupted time.

“I need to talk to you.”

It was bad, then.

He wouldn't look her in the eye. Hadn't answered her question about leaving. And his thick brown hair was messier than usual—as though he'd been running his hand through it all morning.

Scott had a habit of doing that when he was working through things that upset him.

She wanted to speak. To tell him that amusing Taylor with Blue while they talked was fine with her. That she was happy to hear whatever was on his mind.

She just didn't have it in her. She'd hardly slept. Was having trouble staying focused. Jumping at every innocuous click, bump or whoosh of air. She'd even dropped Taylor's spoon earlier when the refrigerator had clicked on behind her.

With a jerky nod, she followed him into the living room, where one entire corner was taken up with
Taylor's playpen, toys and sundry other toddler possessions. She would've moved the changing table out of the crowded room now that he was older and it was easier to have him climb onto the couch rather than lifting his almost twenty pounds up to the table for a diaper change, but they didn't have anyplace to put it. Scott's house, as was the case with most of the homes in the older San Diego South Park neighborhood, didn't have a garage.

And the crib and dresser in Taylor's small room left no space for anything else. Which made the fact that they had little else less noticeable.

 

“What's up?” They were in Scott's room—their room for now—with the door open so she could hear Taylor.

He paced at the end of the king-size bed, staring down at the hardwood floor. Sitting in the old wooden rocker that had become a haven to her, Tricia hugged a throw pillow to her belly and waited.

BOOK: Hidden
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