“I’ve finally found her,” Errol Harvey said as he leaned forward in the leather chair in his boss’ office. “But there’s a lot more going on here than you told me about. I’ve got lots of reasons to think that she’s been staying out of sight for a damn good reason.”
Eyes narrowed, Jarrod Marshall rested his forearms on his desk. “You’re sure it’s her? Where is she?”
“I’m sure. She’s changed her name and she’s done her best to cover all paper and electronic trails, which is why it took me a while to track her down. Her first name is Lana, like you said, but she changed her last name from West to Carson. Apparently, Carson was her mother’s maiden name. She’s moved around a lot since she left England, but she’s currently renting an apartment in a small town about three hours from here. She makes a living by doing consulting work. It all seems to be cash under the table, so it was harder than you’d think to find her, but she’s not dodging the IRS ‒ she files taxes, and yes, I checked. She uses her sister’s address here in the city.”
“So she stays in touch with her sister...”
“She does, but she’s careful about it. She’s not calling from a home phone or a cell phone registered to her name, since I couldn’t find any phone records. My guess is that she’s calling through Skype or from a burner phone.”
Jarrod nodded. “What else?”
“Well she’s not making a lot of money, that’s for damn sure. Particularly not for someone with her education and her skills. She keeps to herself. Doesn’t have a lot of friends, and doesn’t seem to try to make them.” Errol hesitated, leaning back in his chair, stretching out his legs, and crossing his ankles. “The thing is, Jarrod, she isn’t quite what you described.”
“In what way?”
“Now granted, I only watched her from a distance, but she seems... well... like a really nice woman. And she’s got a kid.”
Jarrod couldn’t stop the surprised look that flew across his face. “A kid?”
“Yeah, a little boy. Looks like he’s about four or five years old.”
Jarrod was silent, readjusting his thinking. He had no idea that Lana had a child. Could he be Daniel’s son? Quickly doing the math in his head, he realized that the timing was right. But whether or not the boy was his best friend’s son was anybody’s guess since Daniel had suspected that Lana was sleeping around on him. Still if her son really was Daniel’s boy, he belonged with his family. Bringing their grandson home to them was the least he could do for his best friend’s parents. Lord knows, he hadn’t done nearly enough for any of them while Daniel was alive.
Errol spoke up again, bringing Jarrod’s attention back to the present. “Two other things, Jarrod. You told me that she was your friend’s widow, correct?”
Errol shook his head. “I found divorce documents on file in Denver.”
“It was official two years ago.”
“I just found the decree, Jarrod. I can look into it more if you want me to.”
“Please do. And see if you can find the birth certificate for her son. I’d like to know if Daniel’s name is on it.”
“You said there were two things?”
Errol nodded. “The other thing is that a restraining order was filed against Daniel. It has both stay-away and no-contact provisions. He was also ordered to have no contact with the boy.”
“Was that filed before or after the divorce?”
“Looks like before the divorce was final ‒ I don’t know any more than that. Yet.”
“Any indications that he violated the order?”
“I haven’t looked yet. I’ve got an old army buddy in the police department there. I may be able to get some more information that I can’t get through standard channels.”
Jarrod nodded at Errol, standing to shake the man’s hand. “Thanks for your work on this, Errol. Leave the file with me, if you don’t mind.”
Errol stood to shake Jarrod’s hand, laying the file on the corner of his desk before heading for the door. He hesitated for a moment, looking down at the carpet before raising his head and saying quietly, “Look, Jarrod. I’m not judging or coming to any conclusions here but, in my experience, all of this points to the possibility that your friend might have had some issues after he got back from Iraq. It happens. You might want to consider that.” He held up a hand to indicate that he had said his piece and wouldn't mention it again. “I’ll keep digging. In the meantime, let me know what else you need from me.”
“I appreciate it, Errol. I’ll be in touch after I look through the file.”
Alone again, Jarrod swiveled his chair to look out the large window that made up one full wall of his office. None of what Errol had just told him fit with what he knew about Daniel, or what Daniel had told him before he died. He’d never mentioned divorce, for one thing. He kept referring to Lana as his wife. But then, he’d never mentioned a kid, and he’d certainly never mentioned a restraining order. All he’d ever told Jarrod were stories of an unfaithful wife who had married him for his money, and who had been clever enough to get Daniel to the altar without a prenuptial agreement.
Thinking back now, there was a lot that didn’t add up. Daniel had been dead for two years. If Errol was right, it looked like he had been killed at about the same time that his divorce had been finalized. A divorce would probably have led to a splitting of his friend’s assets, or at least a substantial payout or an order of child support, but there had never been any indication that Daniel’s accounts had been touched.
What bothered him the most, though, was that his old friend’s stories didn’t match up to the reality that Errol had found. He shook his head in frustration. Daniel’s parents needed to know what to do with their son’s portfolio, and they were hopeful that Jarrod would find some answers, but he was only finding more confusing facts. The possibility that Daniel and Lana had divorced was something that had never occurred to him, and the restraining order certainly gave him pause. Reconciling Errol’s research with Daniel’s point of view was proving difficult.
So what next? he thought. He could easily get an address from Errol and show up at Lana’s door, but Jarrod didn’t think that would give him what he needed. He needed to have some idea, before he talked with her, about what kind of person she was. He needed to know if her son was Daniel’s son as well. From what Daniel had told him about Lana, she had wanted nothing to do with Daniel’s family, but if she had married him for his money, she would have come looking for them after his death, especially if Daniel was the father of her son. None of this was adding up, and he was starting to worry that it all hung on the reasons behind the restraining order that Errol had found. What kind of man had his best friend become after he had returned to the US? And, more importantly now, what kind of woman had he married?
He needed to see Lana for himself. He needed to meet her, to interact with her, and to find out for himself what kind of woman Lana Carson was without her knowing anything about him, or his friendship with her husband. He couldn’t do that by going to her ‒ he had a business to run. But her sister was here in this city, so maybe the easiest way forward was to draw her and her son to him.
“Are you sure this is the right thing to do?” Samantha asked her sister Lana, leaning across the dinner table and eyeing her with concern.
Lana shook her head slowly. “I’m not sure of anything, Sam. But the life I’m leading is no life for Matt. He needs to start school. He needs roots. And I’m so tired of looking over my shoulder. Tired of not letting myself get close to people, tired of picking up and leaving at the drop of a hat, tired of pulling Matt away from his friends. I haven’t seen or heard anything from Daniel in over two years now. Maybe it’s finally over.”
Sam sighed, reaching across the table to clutch her sister’s hand. “It won’t ever be over, Lana,” she said softly. “You know that. He will always be looking for you. If he’s still off his meds and he finds you...”
“I know,” Lana said, squeezing her sister’s hand. “I’ve got a network that I’ve used before, though, and I can use it again if I need to. We both know that Daniel could find me in a small town in the middle of nowhere just as easily as he could find me here in a big city.”
“But I’m here,” Sam reminded her. “And Daniel knows that we’re close.”
“He knows that I’m way too smart to do something so stupid as to move back here close to you,” Lana said with a slight smile.
Sam rolled her eyes. “Lana...”
“I know it’s a risk, but it’s a good job offer. The best I’m likely to get, given my situation. I’ve thought about this a lot. If I’m ever going to give Matt any stability, and if I’m ever going to be able to send him to college someday, I need full-time work. And we need the insurance, Sam. Matt’s getting older, and I don’t want to be an overprotective mom because I’m worried about what a trip to urgent care might cost.”
Samantha couldn’t argue with any of that. Lana would walk barefoot on nails for her son, so if her mind was made up, Lana was going to get Sam’s full support. Looking soberly at her sister, she nodded slowly. “OK. I’m in. But at the first sign of anything going wrong...”
“I won’t mess around, Sam. I’ve been through this before. I know the dangers.”
Sam leaned back in her chair and fingered her coffee mug. “Then tell me about the job,” she said with a rueful smile.
Lana reached over and squeezed her sister’s arm quickly, and then crossed her legs in the chair and tucked her shoulder-length chestnut-brown hair behind her ears. “It’s perfect, Sam. Basic nine to five hours, no weekends, paid vacation, and full benefits.”
“This is the job at Marshall Industries, right?”
“Yes. Their HR department contacted me three weeks ago, and said that they had heard about me through one of my consulting contracts. They were looking for someone with my background, and I had been recommended to them. That was the interview that I had this morning, and they called and offered me the job a few hours later.” Lana's dark brown eyes showed excitement ‒ something Sam hadn’t seen in her sister for a long time.
Samantha leaned back in her chair and let out a long sigh. “That’s great, Lana. I’m really glad for you. You deserve this, and more. I wish I could be happier, but I’m just still so scared for you. This is the first time that you’ll be ‘findable’. If Daniel is still looking…”
Lana’s face clouded again as she looked at her sister. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried. But it’s been over two years since the divorce. Two years since I last heard from him. I can’t imagine that I was that good at disappearing into thin air. It’s not like I had any experience at this. Depending on if he’s being treated for his illness, he might not be capable of finding me anymore, and he might not even remember enough about me to care. Besides, we have to remember that the law is on my side.”
“That’s all true. But the restraining order didn’t do much good before, and you know as well as I do that if you hadn’t left town and disappeared, you might not still be here for Matthew. You’ve hidden yourself well for a long time,” Samantha pointed out. “This is different.”
Lana nodded. “I know. You’re right. I know this might be hard for you, too. I don’t want to put you and Nick in a bad situation, so as soon as I find a place for Matthew and me...”
“Lana,” Sam protested gently. “You are both welcome to move in with us for as long as you want. I know that you need your independence, and I can understand that, but I like the idea of knowing that you’re here, and that you’re OK. Nick and I can help keep you and Matt safe.”
Lana nodded. “I appreciate your offer, Sam.”
Samantha smiled at her sister ‒ a genuine smile this time. “I’m glad that you’re thinking about staying around for a while, Lana. I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you too. So much. We have a lot to catch up on. But for now, I’d better run. I have a million things to do tonight. Thanks for watching Matt for me.”
Sam hugged her sister as she pushed her out the door. “Talk to you later tonight,” she said. “And don’t worry. Matt will be fine here.”
Lana flew down the stairs outside of her sister’s townhouse and hopped into her small car parked in the street. As she pulled away from her sister’s home, she automatically checked her rear-view mirror to be sure that no one was behind her. It was a habit with her, and one that was hard to break, even as she became more and more hopeful that it wasn’t and wouldn’t be necessary. As she pulled out into traffic, she thought back over her day and her interview at Marshall Industries.
The only dark spot had been her meeting with the CEO of the corporation, Jarrod Marshall. Everyone else she had talked with had been enthusiastic, but while he had been polite, he had been very reserved with her from the moment that she was ushered into his office by Grace Bailey, the senior office manager at Marshall. Lana had tried to mask her surprise when she first met him ‒ not only was he extremely good looking, but he was much younger than she had expected. Beyond that… well… yeah. He was probably the sexiest man she had ever met in her life. Tall, with dark brown hair cut short to perfection, and broad shoulders that seemed to strain the seams of his very expensive suit, he sent out waves of authority and masculinity that had caused her knees to quake slightly as she stood before him.
When she shook his hand, she tried desperately to hold her breathing steady and to prevent any tremors from reaching his fingers. Of all times for her hormones to kick back in after years of dormancy, now was NOT good. This man could eventually be her boss, so she simply could not let him know that he affected her. As he grasped her hand and looked down at her, his icy blue eyes seemed to pierce right through her, and he raised his eyebrows in inquiry when he felt her tremble. Aw crap, she thought. He had seen her reaction. That was not good. Pulling her hand back, she clasped her hands in front of her, and tried to get a grip on both her racing pulse and her wayward thoughts as Grace introduced her to the man.
With Grace in the office, Jarrod had been very civil to her, even though his eyes remained distant. When Grace left them to talk, he had remained standing, as if to show her that this would be a brief meeting. Lana had remained standing as well, when it was clear that no invitation to sit would be forthcoming.
“So, Ms. Carson. Tell me why you want this job,” he had asked, his arms crossed in front of him as he leaned back on his desk.
“It’s an excellent position, and I’m well-qualified for it,” she had responded firmly. “But more than that, I like what your business stands for. I like the company ethics, and I like the products. I’ve been doing consulting work in this area for years, and I’d like to move on to full-time work. This is a good fit for me, Mr. Marshall. I can do this job and do it well. I’m excellent at what I do, and I care a great deal about succeeding.”
He had looked at her, eyebrows raised in skepticism. “How do you define success?”
That question, admittedly, had given her pause. She would have answered it in a very different way in the past.
“I think success is reaching a mixture of personal and professional goals,” she had said at last. “The idea of success is likely to vary from person to person, since what I see as an admirable end to a project may be way beyond what others would see. Conversely, it may only be a starting point for some people. But I think I tend to set realistic and yet challenging goals, and then I seek to attain those goals.”
“And do you normally get what you want?”
That had seemed like a loaded question to Lana. Not too sure how to answer it, she simply shook her head and replied honestly. “No. I think only those who are very rich and very spoiled get everything they want.”
He seemed to jump on her response. “Money means a lot to you?”
“No, not really. Certainly no more than to most people, I suppose. It provides food, shelter, clothing... but if you’re asking if it’s a driving force in my life, I’d say no. I realize that isn’t a very good thing for someone in business to admit,” she had smiled slightly, hoping still to develop some sense of rapport with this man.
But Jarrod’s eyes had remained cool and his face set as in stone. Suddenly, this seemed like far more than a job interview. It was more like an interrogation. By the time Lana had answered all of Jarrod’s questions, she was growing increasingly uncomfortable and anxious to move on with her interview in someone else’s office. She was quite sure when she left the building an hour later that she hadn’t gotten the job. After all, how could anyone who so obviously didn’t like her want to hire her?
But when she got back to Sam’s townhouse later that afternoon, there was a message on her cell phone to call Grace Bailey, who enthusiastically offered her the position. Lana would have hugged the woman if she had been next to her, but she simply accepted the position gladly, and set up a time to meet the following day to start her paperwork with the HR department.
After that, she needed to find a place to live. While she loved staying with Sam and Nick, she knew that she and her son needed their own space. It would be important to establish a routine for Matt as soon as possible. She would pick up apartment listings tonight, and then use the day tomorrow to start looking around at the options. Her meeting with Grace wasn’t until 2:00, and with any luck, she might be able to find something in the morning. Then she’d have to drive three hours back home to the small apartment she and Matt had been renting month-to-month, pack their things, and be back in the city to start work in a couple of weeks. It was all moving so quickly, and Lana couldn’t help but feel excited. Even with the unsettling thought of Daniel lurking in the distance, it was a wonderful feeling to be employed full-time again, and settling back into a ‘normal’ life.
Jarrod Marshall was pacing. His short interview with Lana hadn’t been revelatory. She had answered his questions well, and was professional throughout. More importantly, Grace had been incredibly enthusiastic about her, and Jarrod trusted Grace’s judgment implicitly. There was nothing in the time they’d spent together that raised any red flags, but it had been too benign of a meeting for him to have learned anything of importance about Lana Carson.
They would hire her, he thought. Not just because he wanted her close, but because she really was qualified. He’d watch her, learn more about her, and see if he could reconcile the Lana West that Daniel had complained about with the Lana Carson that Errol described.
All of this bothered him, though. He didn’t like being underhanded in any way, and this felt sneaky, but he couldn’t come up with a better way to learn more about the woman. From what Errol said, she was too cautious to let a stranger into her life, and she didn’t have a network of friends that he could tap into in order to learn more about her. Hiring her and working with her daily was the only way he could think of to learn more about her personality and her ethics. He’d have to give it time, and eventually he’d come clean with her, particularly if he wanted to learn more about her son.
He had liked her, he realized. She had seemed genuine. She had been dressed professionally in a black suit and low heels, with a light blue top underneath her jacket that accented her warm brown eyes. Her brunette hair had been pulled up into a loose bun, with a few tendrils escaping to frame her face, and her makeup had been tastefully applied.
But none of that explained the fierce attraction that he had felt as soon as he’d seen her. Her professional attire and demeanor did nothing to mask the haunting vulnerability he’d seen in her eyes, and for a quick moment, a surge of violent protectiveness had reared up in him. When he touched her and felt her tremble, it was all he could do to keep from pulling her into his arms, telling her who he was, and doing everything he could to keep her safe from whatever she feared. It took his own internal voice practically shouting at him to remind him that this woman had been the wife of his best friend, and that same best friend had described her in fairly brutal terms. So he had shuttered his reaction and made sure that the rest of their interaction was completely appropriate for the office, even though it had nearly killed him to do it.
By the time she left his office, Jarrod knew that he had confused the hell out of Lana, who was expecting a job interview but got something different. He knew that he’d been able to hide his attraction to her after that initial response to her touch, and that she had done an equally good job of overcoming her own obvious reaction to him. There was something electric between them, though, and it worried him. The heat he had felt when she smiled had moved straight through his bloodstream, muddying the waters of an employer/employee relationship before she was even hired. And that was before he even thought about her relationship with his best friend.
At some point, Daniel had fallen hard for Lana ‒ enough to marry her and possibly have a child with her. In the past, he and Daniel had never been attracted to the same women, and he wondered about that now. Daniel had always gone for the girls who were sexy, loose, and wild, while Jarrod had pursued women who, while attractive to him, were smart and had spirit. On first meeting, Lana seemed more Jarrod’s type than Daniel’s. So what was it about her that had gotten Daniel’s attention? Had he felt the same spark with Lana that Jarrod had in his office? If so, that was a first, and a troublesome first at that.
Time, Jarrod thought. He needed time to get to know Lana, and to see what kind of woman she was. Once he had a better idea, he’d know what he needed to do. In the meantime, he’d give Errol a call and see if he’d come up with any additional information about her life with Daniel.
The next morning, Lana visited a few different apartments, and found one that she thought she and Matt could be comfortable in. It was small, but clean. Better still, it had a private entrance, so there was no danger of a neighbor letting a stranger into the building. She looked around carefully, checking locks on windows and doors, and making sure that there were no tall bushes that people could hide behind. She knew that she may be taking unneeded precautions, but life had taught her that it was far better to be safe than sorry.
After he had checked her credit record, the manager clearly had serious reservations about renting to her, but Lana quietly talked him into it after writing him a check for three months’ worth of rent. If the check didn’t bounce, she could move in the following weekend. Lana thanked the manager, and reminded herself to thank Sam for loaning her the money to write that check.
It was hard being so deeply in debt, she thought to herself. Money had never been a problem for her, until the last year of her marriage. She was good at saving, scrimping, and making a penny go further than anyone she knew, but when you’re married to someone who is spending it faster than you’re making it, the debt just grows and grows. She was slowly digging her way out of it, and now that she was settling in one place, she was hoping to get herself firmly on her feet financially and to start saving for Matt’s education, but she could only do it if Daniel stayed out of their lives.
Lana spent the rest of the morning arranging for electricity and internet connections before running back to Sam’s to check up on Matt and change her clothes for the afternoon. She wore the same suit that she had interviewed in the previous day, and just added a different camisole beneath the jacket. It was a basic black suit, and a fairly good one, so she was hopeful that people would not notice the lack of variety in her wardrobe until she had the time and the resources to improve it.
At exactly 2:00, Lana showed up Marshall Industries. She took the elevator to the fifth floor and made her way easily to Grace’s office. The older woman had left a note on her computer for Lana, telling her that she needed to step out for a moment, but that she’d be back shortly. Lana was just about to sit down to wait when the door to Jarrod’s office opened, and Mr. Marshall himself came strolling out. He stopped suddenly when he saw Lana standing there, and his eyes locked on hers.
She felt the same intense scrutiny in his gaze that she’d felt yesterday, and the same electric current arced between them. She sucked in a quick breath as she felt heat flame into her cheeks. Her body trembled visibly, and she watched as his expression quickly turned distant. She fought to regain control, wondering what it was about this man that had led to her complete inability to think straight. He must think of her as such an idiot, she realized. Women must fall over him all the time. She needed to get her head together, act professionally, and stop with this stupid adolescent behavior. Shaking herself internally, she forced herself to greet the man politely, praying that her voice would stay steady under his penetrating observation.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Marshall.” Oh thank God, she thought. Polite and steady. Perfect.
His response was short. “Are you looking for Grace?”
Lana nodded. “Yes, sir, I am. She left me a note that she’ll be back shortly and asked me to wait.” She purposefully inserted the ‘sir’ into her sentence, needing the slight distance she hoped it would provide.
It seemed to work. Jarrod’s eyes shifted away from her to the door leading to the hallway, then back again. This time, when his gaze returned to her, he seemed to watch her with an equal mix of curiosity and interest, but the intensity had disappeared. Still, Lana nearly sobbed with relief when Grace came hurrying in, a big smile on her face. “You’re right on time, Lana,” she said. “Have a seat while I just take care of a couple of things, and then I’ll walk you down to HR and we can take care of all of your paperwork. Was Mr. Marshall putting you to work already?” she asked, unaware of the tension between the two of them.
And just like that, Lana refused to let this man know how unsettled she was by him. The truth was, she was good at her work, and she was doing nothing wrong. She had no idea why the boss seemed to be so curious about her. Still, she had developed a serious backbone over the past couple of years, and it was time she showed it. “Not yet,” she answered politely. “I’m sure he was considering it, though.”
Grace smiled warmly at her. “Did you find a place to live, dear?”
“I did,” Lana answered. “It’s small, but nice. It should be a fairly easy commute to work, too.”
“Sounds perfect,” Grace said immediately. “Mr. Marshall, I’ll have this letter on your desk in one minute for your signature, and then I’ll get Jenna to fill in for me while I take Lana downstairs.”
“Don’t be gone long,” he warned her. “Barton is calling this afternoon, and I’ll need you to find me the figures I need for that conference call.”
“Already on your desk,” Grace responded. “But this won’t take much time at all.”
Nodding, Jarrod slipped back into his office, and Lana felt her entire body relax. Grace noticed. “He’s a little intimidating at first,” she confided softly. “But he’s a good man, and a good boss. You’ll get used to him.”
Lana laughed softly. “I hope so,” she replied quietly. “And I hope you only noticed my reaction because you read people well, and not because I’m so obviously nervous.”
Grace pulled a piece of paper from the printer and stood up. “You hide it well, dear. I’m just going to drop this off, and then we’ll go take care of getting you on board.”
Waiting for Grace, Lana scolded herself for letting Jarrod Marshall get to her. Yes, he was good looking, and yes, he was sexy as all hell, but he was just a man. Well, a man who was her boss, but still. She simply could not allow herself to think of him in anyway other than professional. It wouldn’t do. Other than the fact that he was her employer, she was not interested in a relationship with any man, and certainly not a man who seemed to thrive on keeping her off-kilter.
For the rest of the afternoon, Lana filled out forms and extensive paperwork in the Human Resources office. The staff was friendly, and Grace stopped down a few times to be sure things were going well. By the time 5:00 rolled around, Lana had a good feeling about this job. She would start in a little over a week, and she was looking forward to it with enthusiasm. The boss might intimidate her, she thought, but there was nothing overwhelming about the work that she was hired to do. It was like the position had been made for her.