In The Victim's Shadow

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Chapter 18

Katherine cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted across the sand toward John, who was trying, with little success, to secure a tarp in place. The wind whipped her words back at her. Nonetheless, John still strained to hear her, shouting, “What?”

Katherine sighed in exasperation, lifted both hands in front of her, and waved him off. Instead, she bounced toward him, her long blonde hair whipping behind her as she ran.

John smiled at the sight, still unable to believe they had a thing going. He would never have thought she’d fall for a guy like him…quiet, not bad looking but not overly handsome, either. A woman as beautiful as Katherine could have any man she chose, so why him? It didn’t matter. He was not about to question fate, lest it sweep in and steal her back.

She stopped in front of him and smiled up at him. Ten years dropped from her face, and she looked like a teenager again. “I said this is pointless.”

He nodded. “Oh.”

He watched her mouth as she formed the words. They had not even kissed yet, and that felt okay to him. They were taking it slow, getting to know each other on this new level.

“When’s your date due to arrive?” he teased. He laughed, and she playfully hit him.

“I can’t seem to shake this guy.”

“How did you get hooked up with him in the first place?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I met him in the elevator. He was complaining about the speed of it. I felt somewhat guilty, even though the speed of the elevator is hardly my fault—and isn’t all that bad considering its age, so I listened to him rant. The next thing I knew, he was sending me flowers and asking me on a date.”

“What’s he like?”

She pursed her lips and looked upward while she thought. She looked so cute John wouldn’t have cared if she thought all night. “He seems harmless,” she said, “a little on the testy side as if he’s angry and thinks the world owes him something.”

“Do you want me to check him out?”

She shook her head. “No, don’t bother. He lives in the building, so I know he can’t be too bad. They do a decent background check on potential tenants. I’ll find a way to end it with him. Wait…what am I talking about—there isn’t anything to end. We aren’t ‘together’ or anything.” She made quote marks with her fingers. “We’ve gone on a couple dates—bad ones at that, I might add.”

He pulled her against him, looked down into her eyes, and raised his eyebrows playfully. “Do you want me to end it for you?”

“Aw, you’d do that for me?”

“I’d do anything for you,” he teased. Then he sobered. “Seriously, though, Katherine, if you think the guy’s trouble, why not let me handle it?”

She stood up straight, looking over John’s shoulder. “He’s here.”

John turned and saw him making his way across the sand. When he spotted John, he began running toward them. He looked like an idiot, and John had to stifle a laugh.

“Hey,” he said, arriving out of breath. “What’s up?”

“We’re just setting up,” Katherine said.

He leaned over, trying to kiss Katherine. She pulled back. “Since you’re here so early, do you want to help?”

He flashed a moment of irritation at Katherine’s rebuff but quickly recovered. “Sure. That’s why I came early. What can I do?”

“John could use some help setting up the awnings.”

John narrowed his eyes at her, warning her with a glare.

She smiled. “I’ll start on the tablecloths.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have some help with those?” Chad asked.

“No, no. You stay and help John. He needs it more than I.”

She ran off, leaving the two men to their task.

“This requires precision timing,” John said. “First we’ll tie the four stakes to the four corners. Then, on the count of three we’ll raise these two sides,” he pointed to two corners, “and then those two sides.”

Chad followed his fingers with his eyes. “Can I ask you a question?”

John shrugged. “I don’t see why not.”

“I’ve been trying to get in with her for weeks, but she always puts me off. Is she always such an ice princess?”

John felt his anger flare, coloring his face red. He looked at him. The guy was handsome, no doubt about it. However, his lack of manners counteracted any appeal his looks might have. He shook his head at him. “You have to appreciate fine things to understand Katherine.”

“But why is she so cold? I mean—I only want to know how to get under her skin. I keep trying so hard, but she pushes at me.”

John counted to ten, closing his eyes against his anger. He would not ruin Beth’s birthday party. “Let’s just put up the awnings. We still have to set up the heaters.”

“I was thinking about asking her tonight.”

John started, pulling back from the man. “Ask her what?”

“Why she doesn’t dig me.”

John continued tying the stakes. “I hardly think this is the place.”

“Why?”

John shot him a puzzled look, lowering his eyebrows. “You have no class,” he said. “Now, on the count of three we’ll raise the stakes.” Chad wasn’t listening, so John nudged him gently. “Go over there and pick up the poles. Hold yours in place, I’ll get mine in and come and help you with yours.”

“You don’t have to shove. I heard you the first time.” He walked over to the pole and snatched it off the ground.

John shook his head, pounded his stake and pole into the ground and then did the same for the pole Chad was holding. When both poles were up, he pointed at the other two. “Now those.”

Without a word, Chad strode over to one of the poles and stuck it in the sand. John picked the other pole up, pounded the stake in and relieved Chad of his.

Chad wasted no time running off when John finished hammering the pole. “Never mind,” John mumbled, “I’ll get the heaters myself.”

“Need help with that?” Chad asked, coming up behind Katherine.

She turned and looked at him, looked over her shoulder, saw John struggling with the heaters, looked back at Chad and said, “I thought you were helping John.”

“We finished.”

She looked at John again, decided not to push the issue and thrust the stack of tablecloths at him. Then she handed him a bucket full of clips. “Put the tablecloths on and clip them like this.” She demonstrated. “Do you think you can handle that?”

He nodded. “Sure, looks easy enough.”

“Good,” she said. “I’ll help John.”

She bounded off, leaving Chad dumbstruck and irritated, staring after her.

John was attempting to drag the last of the heaters across the sand. He was sweating from the exertion of his efforts. “Sorry,” she said.

“That’s okay. Honestly, I would rather do it myself than put up with more of his flapjack.”

She giggled. “He certainly isn’t the greatest conversationalist.”

“I’m sorry about you having to do this by yourself. I guess I should have specified to the delivery people where I wanted them.”

He shrugged. It’s okay. He flexed muscle. “It keeps me in shape.”

Katherine laughed. The sound carried to Chad, who rushed up behind her, encircling her waist. “Hey there, my date, remember?”

Katherine rolled her eyes, thinking, who could forget. She pushed away his arms and stepped aside.

“Hello.”

They all looked up to see Beth waving at them as she approached. Timmy fluttered happily beside her. When he saw Katherine, he started on an all-out run, his little feet doing their best to keep from sinking into the sand. He flung himself into her arms. “Auntie Kat!” he screamed.

“Hey, Timmy.” She nuzzled his neck, making him squirm and giggle. “Mommy said I could come to the party as long as I stay away from the water.”

“That’s excellent advice, Timmy.”

He looked over at Chad and beamed a huge smile. “Who are you? I’ve never seen you before.”

“I’m Chad.”

“Are you Mommy’s friend?”

“No. I’m Katherine’s friend.”

“Do you like to play baseball? I brought my baseball so I could play catch with someone. I have a big person’s glove, too. It’s Uncle Austin’s, but I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if you used it.”

“I don’t play baseball.”

“How about Frisbee? I brought the Frisbee, too.”

“I don’t play Frisbee, either. I’m a grown-up.”

Timmy frowned. “Grownups can play. Uncle John plays with me. Uncle Austin plays with me, too.”

“Well, then. Maybe you could ask one of them.”

Timmy pursed his lips in a pout. He leaned his head closer to Katherine’s ear. “I don’t like him,” he whispered.

“It’s okay, Timmy.” She set him down on the ground. “I’m sure Uncle John will play with you.”

Timmy ran off to find the best place to build sandcastles. Katherine turned to Chad. “You didn’t have to be rude to him.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “So, I don’t like to play children’s games.”

“Still, you didn’t have to be rude.”

She saw John’s back as he followed Timmy. A warm glow flowed to her face. Chad did not miss it. He put a possessive arm around her shoulders. “Why don’t we see about some food. I’m starved.”

She allowed him to lead her away, knowing she needed to feed her guests. The caterers were still setting up when they arrived at the table. “We weren’t sure where you wanted us to set the food.”

She squinted, blocking out some of the sun’s rays. She looked around. “Hmm. There was supposed to be a screened-in canopy.” She put her hand above her eyes as if she were saluting an officer. Suddenly, she smiled. “There it is,” she said, pointing to a heap on the ground. “Chad…” she began but was surprised to find he had wandered away. “Of course, when it’s time to work…” She looked at the two caterers waiting for instructions. Seeing the smiles on their faces she said, “Oops…did I say that aloud?”

They shrugged. “It’s all good with us,” one of them said.

“Yeah, we can spot the slackers a mile away,” the other one said. “Don’t worry. We’ll help you set it up.”

They trotted off, eager to be of assistance. She would have to see to an extra big tip for them, and a scolding to the party rental store. Her contract specified they were to set up everything.

The guests were starting to arrive in droves. “I haven’t even set up the gift table yet,” she said aloud. She glanced about, spying the table waiting for dressing. Well, at least they had the courtesy to stand it up.

She hunted down the box of table dressings she had brought along, located the silk flowers and the vase she was going to use as a centerpiece. When the cloth was on, and the flowers centered on the table, she stood back and admired her handiwork.

“If you ever get disbarred, you might just make it as a florist.”

She smiled, turning to face her father. “Hi, Daddy. I thought you said I could be a ballet teacher.”

He spread his arms wide. “What can I say, my kitten is multitalented.”

He wrapped his arms around her in an affectionate embrace. “The beach looks beautiful,” he said.

She sighed. “Thanks, Daddy.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“I don’t suppose you know how to start a big bonfire.”

He stood back, holding his arms in a wide circle, pointing to himself. His face took on a façade of hurt. “You happen to be talking to the bonfire champion of Boy Scout Troop 29. I hold the record for the fastest bonfire lighter, ever.”

She laughed at his pride. “Well, who would have thought?” She pointed to a fire pit. “There it is. Do you mind?”

He grabbed her shoulders with both of his hands, kissed her on the top of her head. “I don’t mind in the least.”

As she watched her father start the fire, a sudden image flashed through her head. She was five, and it was right before some thoughtless thug had taken her mother from them. They were picnicking on the beach, this very beach, in fact, and her father was starting a bonfire in the same pit he was leaning over now. He was much younger, of course, and her mother was alive and breathing, smelling like the lilac soap she always used.

It was one of those rare, exceptionally sunny days. Her mother wore a striped bikini, her father swim trunks. Katherine was in a white sundress with pink bows sewn across the bodice. She wore a matching hat and flip-flop sandals. In her mind, as clear as yesterday, she saw herself turn and wave at her mother. Her mother waved back, flashing the most brilliant, white teeth Katherine had ever seen.

Peter put a hand on her shoulder. “Are you okay?”

Katherine shook her head, a tear spilling down her face. She wiped it away. “I had forgotten you knew how to make bonfires. How could I have forgotten that?”

He held her against him. “It’s okay. You were very young.”

“Why did we stop going to the beach?”

Peter sighed. “Some memories are too painful.” Then, to lighten the mood, he said, “Come on, you have a party to throw. What else can I do to help?”

She cast a glance toward Chad, who sat lounging in a beach chair. “I don’t suppose you have a tactful way of getting rid of an annoying party guest.”

“I can do it,” he said, eyeing her carefully for any sign of joviality.

She shook her head. “No, it’s okay. I’ll bear it.”

“Who is he?” Peter asked.

“Some tenant in the building. You’ve seen him here before. Remember a couple months ago?”

He nodded as he recalled the afternoon. “How did you get hooked up with him?”

She growled. “I’m not ‘hooked up’ with him. Why do people keep using that phrase? He rather finagled his way into my life. Honestly, he’s creepy. It seems almost as if he has some hidden agenda.”

“Do you want me to check him out?”

“No. He passed the background check for the apartment. Remember, I told you that last time.” She stood back, looking at him. She gently shook her head. “Are you okay? We had nearly this same conversation a couple months back.”

Peter grinned. “Just getting old, that’s all. I want to wish Elizabeth a happy birthday,” he added, changing the subject. “Come with me.”

They found Beth in the middle of a large circle of friends. She stopped her conversation, then turned and smiled as she accepted Peter’s greeting of a hug.

“Happy birthday,” Peter said. “It’s the big one for you, right? The big three-o.”

Beth laughed. “Does it count if I still feel twenty?”

Everyone laughed.

Peter noted Walter Campbell, a long-time business associate. He smiled, reaching across to shake his hand. “How are you, Walter?”

Walter nodded. “Can’t complain,” he said. “Business is going well, the family’s healthy. I intended to call you, though.”

Peter’s eyebrows rose, as they always did at the mere hint of a business transaction.

“I have a real estate deal on the table, and I wanted to pick your brain on it.”

“No shop talk at Beth’s party,” Katherine scolded.

Beth smiled, shook her head.

Walter cleared his throat. “Oh, um…yes, of course. Say, Peter. I want to get your opinion on Beth’s birthday gift,” he said, leading Peter away from the group.

Katherine shook her head. Beth laughed. “It’s okay, Katherine. As long as they’re having a good time, I’m fine with it.”

John and Timmy walked up. “We want to play Frisbee,” Timmy said.

“That’s a great idea,” Katherine said. “Why don’t we break into teams and have a big game of Frisbee.”

“Guys against girls,” Beth said.

Timmy and John high-fived each other. “We can beat them hands down,” John said, grinning.

Katherine took on a defiant pose with her hands on her hips, head tilted to the side, a firm smirk set to her mouth. “Want to put a wager on it?”

“What are you offering?” John asked.

“The losing team serves the winning team dinner.”

Everyone laughed, but John balked. “I don’t know, Katherine. Should we be betting in front of Timmy?”

Beth laughed. “Are you chickening out?” she asked.

Timmy stepped in front of John, thrusting out his chest. “Uncle John’s not chicken,” he said, defiantly. He turned to John. “We can beat them, Uncle John. I know we can.”

John smiled down at Timmy, and then looked at Katherine. “Okay, then. You heard the little man. The bet’s on.”

They broke into two teams—boys against girls. Katherine found a long rope and spread it across the sand. “This is the net,” she said. “The Frisbee must cross it to be valid.”

When each team was on its side of the net, Katherine scanned the beach. “Where’s Chad?”

Beth pointed at a figure standing a little ways down the beach.

Katherine cupped her hands around her mouth. “Chad,” she screamed. She had to shout five times before his head finally turned her way.

Chad shook his head. “How many silly games must I engage in?” he said, but not loud enough to carry to the others.

He stood, brushed the sand off his shorts, and wandered down to stand beside Katherine.

Timmy laughed. “No, silly. You’re on the boys’ team.”

Chad scowled at him. “I’m not silly,” he snapped.

Timmy cowered back.

“Take it easy,” Katherine said, annoyed. “He’s just a little boy.”

“Yeah, well…his mother needs to teach him some manners.”

Katherine turned to look at Beth, hoping she hadn’t heard. She had, but she just shook her head and waved it off. “Let’s play,” she said.

Chad crossed the net and stood beside John. That’s a portent for disaster if I ever saw one, Katherine thought to herself.

The guys went first, Brett Snyder serving. The Frisbee flew straight to Beth, and she caught it with ease. She did a little dance of triumph, making Timmy giggle. She threw it back, straight to Timmy. He danced excitedly, as he waited for it to come. As the Frisbee threatened to soar over his head, John scooped him up, raising him high enough to catch it, which he did.

The spectators cheered.

“That’s cheating,” Chad said.

John scowled. “He’s just a little boy. Besides, whose side are you on?”

Chad shrugged him off, returning to stare straight ahead.

Timmy looked as if he might cry.

“It’s okay. Just throw back the Frisbee,” John said.

Timmy did, straight to Katherine, who missed it by mere inches. Timmy danced, pumping his fist above his head. “Woohoo!” he cried.

Katherine laughed. “You’re pretty good at this,” she said.

She threw it back. It headed straight for Brett. Chad, eager to show off, jumped in front of Brett, snatching it a few inches from his hands.

“Hey, man, we’re on the same team,” Brett said, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring at Chad.

“Sorry,” Chad said, but smiled triumphantly, holding the Frisbee high for all to see.

He threw it back, arcing it wide as it flew toward the ocean.

“Out of bounds,” Peter, the official scorekeeper, called.

“They can catch it,” Chad argued.

“Out of bounds,” Peter repeated.

Beth retrieved the Frisbee, serving it, sending it soaring toward Timmy again. It flew past his outstretched hands and landed on the ground, giving the girls their first point in the game.

Timmy set his mouth in a pout. John clapped him on the back. “It’s okay, buddy. We’ll get the next one.” Timmy smiled and took on his ready pose.

The girls served again. This time, it came directly to Chad. He caught it, quickly soared it back, straight to Katherine. She caught it and quickly sent it back, straight to Lance Bedford, who caught it and returned it quickly.

The volley went on for several throws, neither team dropping it. Finally, Chad, eager to catch a throw that went straight toward John, so he could return it with a hard slam, and thus score a point, leaped in front of Timmy and caused him to crash to the ground.

Timmy sat crying. Beth came across the net in a flash, roaring like a mother lioness. “What the hell do you think you’re doing!” She pushed Chad out of the way.

Chad said nothing. Katherine rushed to Beth’s side. “Is he okay?”

John lifted him to his feet. “Hey, little buddy,” he said. “You’re okay, right?”

Timmy nodded, trying to swallow his tears, so as not to appear like a baby. “I’m fine, Mommy. It didn’t hurt.”

Beth wanted to scoop up her son and fold him in her arms, but she didn’t do it. She knew Timmy was trying to be brave. Any interference from her would sabotage his attempts. She ruffled his head instead. “That’s my boy. Are you ready to go on?”

He nodded. Beth and Katherine turned to walk back to their places. Beth cast a disgusted look toward Chad but also said nothing.

Chad kicked at the sand, feeling somewhat foolish. He looked at Timmy. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I guess I just got caught up in the momentum.”

John looked at Chad but said nothing.

“It’s okay,” Timmy said. Nonetheless, John took Timmy by the shoulders and switched places with him.

“I apologized,” Chad protested.

John ignored him.

“I call interference,” Peter said, and the girls served again.

Just into the third volley, the caterers called dinner. The Frisbee hit the ground as everyone rushed to form a line. Chad walked past John, shouldering him as he did. John took a step toward him, eager to get into his face, but Katherine grabbed his arm, pulling him back.

“It’s Beth’s birthday,” she reminded him.

John shook his head and walked on.

Katherine fell into step beside Chad. “You’re not scoring any brownie points,” she said.

“Am I supposed to be?” He looked down at her. “When can we lose the party, and start one of our own?”

She shook her head, hiding a mocking smile. “Oh, Chad. You have no clue how to act socially.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means you flunked charm school.”

“I didn’t go to any stinking charm school.”

She shook her head. “I was speaking metaphorically.”

At the puzzled expression on his face, she sighed. She laced her arm through his, propelling him toward the food line. “Just try to be nice.”

“I am trying.”

“Try harder.”

After the meal was over, they gathered around the gift table. Beth exclaimed exuberant cries of pleasure as she opened each package. She loved the perfume John gave her. He smiled as she thanked him. Even Chad managed to delight her with a pair of delicate gold hoops. She smiled at him, despite their earlier exchange, and thanked him.

She picked up the last gift on the table. There was no card attached. “Who’s this from?” she asked, scanning the group. She was sure she had opened everyone’s gift, but each of her guests shook his or her head.

She opened it, revealing a silver locket. She opened it to reveal a picture of herself and Timmy as a baby. She looked at her father. “Daddy?”

Chandler shook his head. “Not I, Baby.”

She looked at her brother. “Austin?”

“I’m afraid not,” he said. “Although, I wish I had. It’s beautiful.”

“Then who?”

She turned the locket over, inspecting the back. Engraved in tiny letters were the words. Happy Birthday, Love, JC.

Jack? She scanned the beach. As she did, everyone stared at her in puzzlement. Katherine stepped forward. “Is everything okay?”

Beth nodded, forcing a smile. “Everything’s fine.” She swallowed hard. “It’s a beautiful party. Thank you.”

Katherine squeezed her hand. “Let’s cut the cake.”

Beth nodded and stepped to the cake table. They all laughed as Katherine tried unsuccessfully to light the candles.

“How about I just pretend,” Beth suggested.

They laughed again as Beth made a wish, and then blew out imaginary flames.

She cut the first piece, gave it to Timmy, and grabbed one for herself. She passed the knife on to Katherine. “If you don’t mind?” she said.

Katherine shook her head, taking the knife from Beth.

Beth carried her cake in one hand and guided her son toward the beach with the other by gently nudging his back. They sat down side-by-side on a blanket.

“Are you having fun?” she asked Timmy.

“Tons of fun, Mommy, but it’s getting dark. Does that mean I have to go to bed soon?”

“Soon, but first we’re going to roast marshmallows and sing songs by the bonfire.”

Timmy brightened and then took on a sullen look. “I don’t like Auntie Kat’s friend.”

She put an arm around his shoulder. She wanted to tell him she didn’t, either, but that wasn’t the type of lesson she wanted to teach her son. “Some people have bad manners,” she said. “Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do about that. We just have to know not to act that way, ourselves. Otherwise, people won’t like us.”

“Is he going to come to my birthday party, too?” he asked. His little face looked as if her answer might send his world crashing down on him.

Beth glanced over to where Katherine stood, looking completely bored with whatever nonsense Chad prattled on about while John served the cake she sliced. Beth chuckled. “I’m pretty sure you don’t have to worry about Auntie Kat’s friend much longer.”

While Timmy busied himself with eating his cake, Beth studied him, noting that as he grew, he increasingly took on more of Jack’s characteristics.

“Timmy?”

He looked at her with his innocent eyes. “Yes, Mommy?” he mumbled, his mouth full of cake. His hand flew to his mouth, suddenly remembering how his mother had told him it was bad manners to speak when he had food in his mouth. He swallowed. “Sorry.”

Beth smiled and cupped his chin, putting him at ease. “It’s okay. I wanted to ask you if you’ve seen any strangers at the party.”

Timmy looked quizzically at her. “Strangers?”

“You know…people you don’t recognize.”

He shook his head. “No, Mommy.” Then he remembered something. “Oh yeah. I saw a family down the beach when Uncle John raced with me. They had a little girl and a dog with them.”

Beth had seen them, too. “Anyone besides them?”

Timmy shook his head again. “Well,” he began. Beth tensed. Timmy looked around at the party guests. “Some of the people here I don’t know very well, but they don’t count, do they, Mommy? Because they aren’t ‘really’ strangers.”

Beth smiled at him. “That’s right.” Then she added, “You know not to go off with anyone,” she reminded him.

Timmy gave her a ‘duh’ look and stuffed his last bite of cake into his mouth.

“Okay,” she said, confident he would listen.

They finished their cake and then sat in silence, watching the golden glow of the sun as it began its descent to earth. Then the moon began to ascend, a beautiful, bright white orb against the blackened sky. Beth scooted close to Timmy, took in a deep breath, smelling the fresh scent of the evening, and the ocean, content with nature’s beauty and the feel of her son against her. She wished she could freeze her and Timmy at this moment and keep the ugly outside world from ever harming them.

Jack suddenly leaped into her mind, and she wrapped her hand around the locket, which she had fastened around her neck. Where had he gotten the picture of Timmy? She had never sent him any, and she knew very well her father wouldn’t have. A smile came to her lips. Was it possible for Jack to change? Could they be that fairy-tale family?

She looked down at Timmy. His eyes grew heavy with sleep. Perhaps she should take him home.

She was pondering the thought when she heard the sound of a guitar begin. She knew without looking it was Katherine playing. It was all Timmy needed for revival, and he jumped to his feet. “Come on, Mommy. The singing’s starting.”

Chandler Reynolds approached them. He patted Timmy on the back and pulled Beth to her feet. “You run ahead, son. I want to talk to Mommy for a minute.”

Timmy did as his grandfather bid, leaving Beth and Chandler staring after him.

Beth looked at her father. He smiled at her as his eyes misted over, creating sparkling pools of water against the reflection of the moon.

“Happy birthday, sweetie,” he said as he pulled her against him for an embrace.

She smiled, breathed in the woodsy smell of his aftershave, reminding herself of her childhood. “Thank you, Daddy.”

“I have another gift for you.”

“Really. Daddy. The check was enough.”

He shook his head. “That’s nothing. A drop in the bucket of what you deserve.”

She grinned from one side of her mouth. “Thirty-thousand dollars is hardly a drop in the bucket.”

He smiled. “You’re going to need it for the rest of your gift.”

She shook her head. “You’re not making sense.”

Her mother joined them. “Did you give it to her yet?”

“I was just about to.”

He extracted an envelope from his back pocket and handed it to her. Then he shined a flashlight on it. She opened the envelope, puzzled. Inside the envelope was a key and a picture of a house, a tidy little house with a manicured yard. Vibrant rose bushes climbed trellises below two, two-storied windows.

“What is this?” she asked.

Her mother smiled. “Turn the picture over.”

She did, gasping at the words written there. Elizabeth and Timmy’s first house.

Her mouth gaped as her gaze fell on her parents.

“You only turn thirty once,” her mother said, “and we’re so proud of you.”

“It’s mine?” she asked.

Her mother laughed. “Of course it’s yours.”

She hugged both her parents. “Hey, Timmy!” she cried, but Timmy didn’t answer. “Timmy,” she called again. Still, no little voice said, “Yes, Mommy.”

Beth’s voice grew frantic as she looked wildly for Timmy. “Timmy, where are you?” she called.

The singing stopped, and the guitar fell silent as people became aware of Beth’s agitation. She ran to Katherine. “I can’t find Timmy.”

“He was just here singing with us,” Katherine said.

Beth looked toward the ocean, roaring with its evening voice, encroaching upon their party with each lap of its wave. Soon, the tide would force them off the beach.

Katherine put her hand on Beth’s arm. “No, Beth. Timmy wouldn’t have gone near the water.”

“Then where is he?” she asked, racing toward the water’s edge.

John wrapped an arm around her waist as she flew past him. He put a tiki torch in her hands, looking her firmly in the eye. “He’s not in the water,” he said.

Beth nodded, knowing they were both right. “Then where is he?” she asked.

“Jack!” she cried.

“What about Jack?” Katherine asked, narrowing her eyes suspiciously at Beth.

Beth’s hand instinctively went to her throat, grabbing the locket. “He’s the one who gave me the locket. I don’t know how he got it on the table without being seen, but I know it’s from him.”

“And you think he took Timmy?”

She shook her head. “I don’t want to think it, but where else can he be?” Her eyes wandered to the water again, but she shook away the idea.

Austin came up to them. “That Chad guy is missing, too.”

Beth looked at Katherine. “Would he take Timmy?”

“I don’t know what reason he would have…” she began, breaking off and hanging her head. “I don’t know, Beth. I honestly don’t know him that well.”

“Well, I think the guy’s creepy,” Austin said.

“Let’s break into pairs and comb the beach. They couldn’t have gone far.”

Katherine and John formed a team. A few yards down the beach John said, “I’m getting a bad feeling about this guy.”

Katherine nodded, even though John couldn’t see her. She called, “Timmy!”

John joined her, and their voices joined the others in a chorus as each group called his name.

The search went on for ten minutes. Tiki torches waved as shouts of “Timmy” went out.

Suddenly, Katherine stopped, halting as she pointed at a small figure standing on a hill, silhouetted against the full moon, waving toward them. “It’s him,” she cried, as she began to run toward him.

John cupped his mouth and yelled, “We found him.”

Katherine reached him in no time. Dropping beside him, she grabbed him to her. “My God, Timmy. You had us so frightened when we couldn’t find you.”

Beth reached them, ripping Timmy from Katherine’s grasp, showering him with motherly kisses. “Where did you go, young man?” she asked when she finally finished.

“I’m sorry, Mommy. We were playing hide and seek.”

Beth looked past her son’s shoulder and saw Chad sitting beside him. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she screamed. “I ought to file charges of kidnapping.”

Chad grinned, shaking his head. “For what? As the kid said, we were playing a game. That’s hardly a crime.”

Katherine looked at John, pleading with him. John stepped forward. “Look, Chad. It’s getting late. I think we’re going to clean up and head out before the tide comes in. Perhaps you’d better just go on now.”

Chad shrugged. He extended his hand toward Katherine. “Coming?”

She shivered and took a step back, stepping into a dip in the sand and losing her balance. John caught her and held on tightly. “I’m going to stay and clean up.”

Chad looked first at Katherine and then at John’s hand on her arm. He took a deep breath and, for a moment, Katherine thought he would erupt in an angry outburst. Instead, he just shrugged and walked away. As his figure became more distant, he turned and saluted them. A faint sound of whistling started, and they all watched as Chad disappeared over a small hill.

“You okay?” John asked. She nodded. John picked up Katherine’s hand, swinging it as they all returned to the beach.

“I can’t believe he would just take him like that,” Katherine said.

“I’m going to start an investigation of him tomorrow. Is there any way you can get him out of your building?”

“He has a lease, and he hasn’t done anything that would warrant me evicting him.”

“I’m going to take Timmy home,” Beth said, cradling her son against her.

His head fell upon her shoulder as he began to drift off to sleep. “I’m tired,” he said. Beth hoisted him higher to get a better grasp.

Austin reached out to relieve his sister of her burden. Her grasp tightened. “Thanks all the same, little brother. But I think I’ll keep him with me.”

Austin nodded, following her to her car. “I’ll bring all the gifts by in the morning,” he said, as he shut the door.

She nodded through the closed window, blew her brother a kiss, and sped off.

They all pitched in with the cleaning, and within record time, they had the beach cleared. They stored all the tables, chairs, and awnings neatly in the back of Peter’s pickup truck, ready for him to haul to the top of the hill. The party rental store would pick them up in the morning.

When the last guest left, Peter turned to Katherine. “Are you staying over tonight?”

She shook her head. “I rode here with John. He’ll take me home.”

Peter looked between the two of them, noting that John had his arm wrapped around Katherine’s shoulder—something he had done a million times, except this time it was different. This time, the stance spoke of possession. He nodded, smiled knowingly, and bid them goodnight.

They rode back to Katherine’s in silence. Katherine, exhausted from the day’s drama, drifted off to sleep.

When John pulled into the parking garage, Katherine woke. He got out, came around to her side of the door, and opened it. She stepped out. “Will you come up?”

He nodded, and they walked to the elevator. She took out her pass card and swiped it.

As they rode up, Katherine’s glance stole to the tenth-floor button, making her think of Chad. She shivered.

John looked at her, concerned. “Are you cold?”

She shook her head. “Just thinking.”

When the elevator opened, John took her hand, then her key, and opened the door.

“I’m going to take a bath,” she said.

“Okay.”

“If you want, you can use the shower in the guest bathroom.”

John nodded but said nothing.

Twenty minutes later, and still not showered, he knocked on the bathroom door.

“Yes?” Katherine asked.

“Are you okay in there?”

“I’m fine, John,” she answered, but John could hear the nervousness in her voice.

“Do you want a glass of wine? I’m having one.”

“Sounds wonderful,” she said.

She heard his footsteps fall away and closed her eyes. The warmth of her bathwater seeped down to warm her inside. A few minutes later, rapping sounded on the door. Grinning playfully, she said, “Come in. It’s not locked.”

The door slowly opened. John stepped inside, turning his gaze away from the tub. “Are you sure you want me to bring it in?” He stole a quick glance, noted the suds covering Katherine, and sighed with relief.

Katherine reached out her hand to receive the glass. The water shifted and, for a moment, John saw the outline of one breast. He felt the effects immediately and shifted uncomfortably.

Katherine laughed lightly, her eyes filling with mischief as she shifted slightly in the water, causing the water to shift again, giving him a closer peek. John averted his gaze.

“Why, John,” she teased, “you act like a little schoolboy.” She took a sip of her wine and cocked her finger, motioning him toward her in a come-hither gesture.

John stood his ground, shaking his head.

Katherine smiled seductively. Then she narrowed her eyes in a demanding gesture. “I said, come here.”

John chuckled, bent down on his knees beside the tub, leaned in closer as Katherine’s finger continued to call him forward.

“Did you pour yourself one of these?” she asked, raising her glass and then taking a large sip.

John raised his own, which was already half empty. “I said I would. Didn’t I?”

She shook her head at him. “You didn’t take a shower.”

“I didn’t have anything clean to change into.”

She took his glass from him and then placed both their glasses on the ledge above the tub. She grabbed hold of his jacket, pulling him roughly toward her. The sudden movement caused her to raise her entire chest from the water, giving him his first full glimpse of her bare breasts.

He moaned. “Aw, Katherine. What are you doing?”

“Kiss me, John,” she said.

“This is how you want our first kiss to be?” he asked.

She pulled him forward in answer, locking her lips together with his. She pulled harder, pulling him into the bath with her.

He laughed. “These are hundred dollar shoes, you know.”

She giggled. “I can afford to replace them.”

He looked down at her. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever known. He lowered his mouth to hers, kissing her passionately, trailing kisses down her neck, finding her breast hidden again beneath the suds.

She gasped as his mouth found its mark. “Oh, John,” she whispered.

She helped him strip off the rest of his clothes, their hands exploring places they had never known as friends.

When he was fully naked, they looked deeply into each other’s eyes, and in the next moment consummated their new relationship.

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