Reading the Signs – Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

 “Come on, chica, move your ass!” Ana threw the words over her shoulder as she flew past Kate on the running trail. Kate laughed and took off after her friend. They jogged together every morning on the path along the old desert wash that meandered through their Las Vegas neighborhood.

“You sound like a drill sergeant. Where do you get the energy on such a hot day?” Kate wiped her brow. It was just past dawn, but heat waves already shimmered in the distance.

“You try chasing four active kids around all day and see what kind of stamina you build.”

Kate suddenly felt like she’d swallowed a tray of ice cubes. She’d give anything to have even one child to run after, but it wasn’t meant to be. So quit thinking about it, she scolded herself for the millionth time. She shook it off and refocused on Ana. “Yeah, I saw your oldest chasing his sister all over the yard with the garden hose yesterday. Goodness, that girl can scream.” With tongue in cheek, Kate glanced at Ana. “You still look pretty good in a wet t-shirt.”

Ana rolled her eyes. “If you saw that, then you know how they keep me moving.

“Well, I think you’re a lucky woman. The only other exercise I get is occasionally running to the courthouse for a hearing.”

They rounded a curve in the trail, and Kate saw him jogging toward them from a distance. They passed this particular male specimen every morning. She thought of him as the Geek God because he had a mouth-watering body wrapped in a deliciously delightful, but slightly nerdy, exterior. As he drew closer, he seemed to coalesce, like the god she imagined, out of the heat waves. He was tall with dark brown hair that curled on his forehead and around his ears. He also had intense, aqua blue eyes. Today they were covered with sunglasses, so Kate focused on the muscles that bunched and rippled under his tight t-shirt. Those muscles were well developed, but not bulging like a weightlifter. He was leaner, more compact, like a swimmer. Completely drool-worthy.

“Oh my gosh, here he comes.” Ana frantically raked her fingers through her hair to pull the stray strands back toward her ponytail. “You have got to meet that man, Kate. He’s like a smokin’ hot tamale.” She made an appreciative sound by sucking air through her teeth. “Even a spicy, hot chili pepper.”

“Do you want me to meet him … or eat him?”

Ana laughed and wiggled her eyebrows.

Kate groaned. “Seriously, what do you want me to do? Pretend to sprain my ankle so he’ll stop and see if I’m okay? We’ve been over this a million times. I. Don’t. Want. To date. Period.” Although, she had to admit there was something compelling about the Geek God. He fascinated her, and she looked forward to her daily glimpse. She told herself it was because of his funny t-shirts, not the rock hard muscles that rippled under them. Yeah, right. As the Geek God jogged closer, she saw today’s t-shirt read Nerd? I prefer intellectual badass. Kate chuckled. The Geek God smiled and nodded as he ran past.

“So, this would be a bad time to mention that Javier wants to set you up with a guy on his basketball team?” Ana asked.

Kate swatted at Ana, who jumped back with a laugh. “Yes, it would be. Please tell your charming husband to butt out of my love life.” In the last few months, Ana had tried repeatedly to convince Kate to date again. She wouldn’t let the subject drop, and today was no exception.

Chica, you’re a young, beautiful woman with lots to give. Don’t even try to deny it. A woman like you isn’t supposed to be alone for the rest of her life. You’re ready to move on. I know you don’t believe it, but you are.” Ana paused before going in for the kill. “Don’t you want children?”

Kate flinched as the old familiar pain sliced through her once again. Of course she wanted children … with Mark. It was one of the hardest things about his death. She not only lost her husband, she lost her future children as well.

“Yeah, I wanted kids. Now, I can’t see how it’s possible.” Kate thought about falling in love, and the inevitable pain that came when that love was lost. Nope, never again.

“Why not?” Ana asked.

“Because I have no intention of falling in love or getting married, so how could I ever have a baby?”

“You could always have a baby on your own. I’ve heard where women go to a sperm bank to get pregnant.”

Kate stopped short, bent to put her hands on her knees, and tried to catch her breath. She remembered her own childhood without a father, and she knew she couldn’t choose that for her child. Not on purpose. “I’ve thought about that … a lot, actually.”

She straightened and met Anna’s concerned eyes. “Here’s the thing. Whenever I think of having a baby on my own, I imagine myself after the delivery holding my precious newborn. I’m bursting with awe and love for this child, but then I realize there’s no one in the world who shares those feelings with me. There’s no one who recognizes a tiny piece of himself in the miracle that’s just happened—and it’s all because I wrote him out of the picture from the beginning. I can’t choose that for my child. I know there are many reasons why women choose to use a sperm bank, but it isn’t right for me.”

Anna scrunched her brow. “I never thought about it like that.”

“I know. Look, I’m destined to be alone. I’m mostly okay with that. I love my job, and it keeps me busy. It’s not how I expected my life to unfold, but it’s okay.”

They began jogging again, but Kate was lost in her thoughts. After a moment, she glanced over to find Anna regarding her with a mischievous smirk. “What?” Kate asked.

“I’m wondering. What if you could skip all the love, romance, and relationship stuff and have a baby with a man who wanted a child as much as you do? Your baby would still have a father, but you wouldn’t have to be in love with the man. Would that work?”

Kate snorted. “Yeah, like any worthwhile man would agree to such an arrangement.” She shook her head. What a crazy idea.

“But if there was a willing man, what you want is a family, father included, but you don’t want a romantic relationship with the man. Maybe it’d work if you and the father shared a friendship instead of love.”

Kate rolled her eyes. “Gosh, Ana, that would be perfect. But that kind of thing doesn’t exist, at least not for intelligent, attractive, and sane people.”

“You may be wrong about that, chica. There’s a woman, she’s psychic, and her specialty is arranged marriages.”

This conversation was becoming more ridiculous by the minute. “You have got to be kidding me. Matchmakers don’t exist anymore. And if they did, what person in their right mind would agree to an arranged marriage? They’re probably all mental cases, or people with no spine, or, I don’t know, people with strange sexual fetishes. I don’t want anyone like that.”

“Ha ha, Kate, seriously, she doesn’t work with people who wouldn’t make good spouses. Besides, if your weird sexual fetishes match your husband’s, why complain?” Ana winked as they ran around a slower jogger who had obviously overheard Ana’s last comment. Kate mouthed an, “I’m sorry,” over her shoulder to the startled woman. Ana continued, “Anyway, she’s choosy. My sister’s cousin-in-law used her to find her husband, and they’ve been happy for years. You should call this matchmaker. She helps people find the right spouse. If the right husband for you is a friend, maybe she can help. I’ll see if I can track down a phone number for you.”

“Whatever.” Kate was skeptical, but she knew from experience there was no stopping Ana once she got an idea in her head.

They soon approached their houses, which were next door to each other. As Ana jogged backward up her drive, she pointed at Kate and said, “I’m not giving up on this. I’ll see what I can find out.”

“Knock yourself out, but I’m not getting my hopes up.”

Ana waved before disappearing through her front door. Kate shook her head. She loved Ana’s optimism, but she seriously doubted anything would come of it. Ana’s idea was too outrageous.

Kate entered her house and headed to her bedroom. While she peeled off her sweaty running clothes and jumped in the shower, she couldn’t help wondering. What if Ana’s idea was possible? Could Kate really have a family with a man who was only a friend? How would that work, exactly?

She thought of Mark and the love they’d shared. It was intense, all-consuming. They’d had it all. When he died, he took large and vital parts of her with him. Like her heart. And her soul. It had taken two years of grieving and counseling, as well as hundreds of painful little baby steps, to find herself again and build the simple life she now lived.

She couldn’t go through it again. Even if it were possible to find another man to share that kind of love with—and she seriously doubted it was—she wasn’t willing to take the risk of losing it all again. Just thinking about it made her chest tighten with panic.

So, she’d resolved to avoid love at all costs. She’d thrown herself into work and focused on building a career. She loved being an attorney, and she concentrated all her time and energy on her clients. That had worked well for the last two years. But lately, she wondered if it was enough. She longed for children of her own. Maybe it was because she had so little family left. Her father-in-law, Tom, was all she had. In the two years since Mark’s death, Tom had become her rock, her father in every possible way.

She wished she could be content, but the idea of having children plagued her. Nothing relieved her bone-deep yearning for her own children. It was like they already existed, but were far away where she couldn’t reach them. She missed them with an intensity that was sometimes painful.

Could Ana’s harebrained idea really be the answer to her problem? It was outrageous, to be sure. It was nuts. It was the craziest thing she’d ever heard. But, was it possible? She thought about having a baby with someone who loved the child as much as she did. She imagined holding a newborn and having her best friend, the child’s father, there with her, sharing the miraculous moment. Huh. That might just work.

* * *

At noon, Kate walked in to the air-conditioned wonder that was Metro Pizza. Metro was much more than a pizza parlor; it was a comfortable, classy, friendly haven. Kate loved everything about the restaurant. The décor reminded her of a San Gennaro street festival, and the music was usually Frank Sinatra or one of his pack. The friendly waitresses who always remembered her name were a bonus. Mostly, she loved the garlic knots.

Sitting at a booth waiting for her was Tom, her father-in-law. He had shiny silver hair and warm chocolaty-brown eyes. His eyes were exactly like Mark’s—they glowed with intelligence and often danced with amusement. Seeing Tom’s eyes always gave Kate a jolt, but with time the jolt had become warm and comforting, not raw and anguished like it used to be. Tom was tall and fit, with a slightly professorial air. It was well deserved, since he’d been a professor of psychology at Nevada University for the last thirty years. When Kate approached, Tom stood and opened his arms to give her an affectionate hug, which she returned.

“Hey, Pop, it’s so good to see you. How’ve you been?”

Tom pulled out a chair for her. “I’m good, Katie.”

When they settled into their seats, the waitress stopped by and they ordered their usual. A salad with garlic knots for Kate and a chicken parm sandwich with garlic Romano fries for Tom.

“Those fries are deadly, you know.” Kate smirked.

“I don’t care,” Tom replied. “I have few indulgences in life, so I’ll enjoy the ones I have, including garlic Romano fries. I could tease you about the garlic knots, you’re just as addicted.”

Kate laughed. “I know, they’re my downfall. The other day a client told me you can order them by the dozen to take home. Apparently, they freeze really well. I keep telling myself I can’t go there, but it’s tempting.” Kate shifted in her seat and leaned forward. “Now tell me, what’s going on with you? I know you have something on your mind. What is it?”

“Can’t a guy enjoy the company of his favorite daughter without an inquisition?”

Kate leaned back, crossed her arms, and waited.

Tom cleared his throat. “I see I’m not fooling you. After all we’ve been through, I’m not sure what your reaction will be. I’m nervous.”

Kate’s attention arrowed to Tom’s face. Something really had him rattled. “Just tell me. It’ll be okay.”

“You know I love you. No one could ever replace you in my life. I don’t want to ruin our relationship or change it in any way.” Tom blew out a breath and glanced down as if searching for courage. When he focused on Kate again he spoke in earnest. “I’ve met someone. We’ve spent some time together, and she’s funny and light-hearted, everything that’s been missing in my life since before Mark died, maybe since I lost my wife.”

Kate could barely contain her enthusiasm at the news. She wanted to bounce in her seat and clap her hands like a little kid. “That’s fantastic! I’m so happy for you. Now, tell me everything—how did you meet?”

Relief washed over Tom’s face at her words. “Well, remember that conference I spoke at last month? She was another speaker. She has a private practice in marriage and family counseling, and we have a lot in common. I asked her to have coffee with me, and the rest is history. We’ve seen each other several times and every time I’m with her, I’m more fascinated by her.”

Kate laughed in glee. “When can I meet her?”

“Soon, I think. But before we discuss that, there’s something else on my mind.” Tom hesitated for just a heartbeat and his face grew more intent. “I’m so happy, and I want the same for you. Have you given any more thought to dating again?”

Kate sucked in a sharp breath. First Ana, now Tom. “We’ve been over this. I know I’m supposed to move on, and I have in a lot of ways, but every time I think about dating, I can’t do it. I don’t see the point.” She paused, then continued in a near whisper. “I could never love anyone as much as I loved Mark. But even if I did, what if I lost him, too?”

“You know the chances of that are small. You can’t let it hold you back.”

“To me, the chances seem pretty good. My dad left before I was born. My mom died when I was seventeen. Then Mark. I can’t lose anyone else.” Kate blinked several times to keep tears from falling. “You better keep yourself healthy and safe, or I’ll be really pissed. Just saying.”

Tom smiled and reached across the table to wrap his hands around hers. “Don’t worry, I take my cholesterol pill every night, and I always look both ways before I cross the street. I’ll try harder to eat all my vegetables, but I’m not making any promises on that one.” He squeezed her hands. “But seriously, Mark wouldn’t want you to be alone. He was my son, and I know for a fact he’d want you to be happy.”

Kate swallowed in a futile attempt to clear the lump in her throat. “I know, and I am happy, mostly. I have my work and it gives me a reason to get up every morning. And I know you’re right, Mark would want me to be happy, but losing him hurt almost more than I could bear.” One of those tears finally escaped and slid down her face.

Tom rubbed a finger gently across her cheek to wipe it away. “I know you were hurt, but your work isn’t enough to keep you satisfied in the long run. You need to give away all that love inside you. As a grieving father, I know something of the pain you carry. I miss him, too. I also know what it’s like to lose a spouse. As a psychologist, I understand the stages of grief. Katie, honey, I see you working through them. I see the progress you’ve made, and whether you believe it or not, you’re ready to move on. Please consider the possibility of dating. There’s nothing wrong with meeting new people and having some fun. It doesn’t have to be anything serious.”

Kate sighed. “I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t think I can do it. I don’t know how to keep things light. I’ve never done ‘casual.’”

Tom dropped his hands into his lap and leaned toward her over the table. Those warm chocolaty eyes sparkled, exactly like Mark’s used to. It made Kate smile. In a conspiratorial voice, Tom said, “Well, I was hoping you’d be ready to at least explore some options. There was a consultant in the office recently, and he was a really nice guy—”

“You want to set me up on a blind date?” Kate nearly screeched it. “No! No way.” When she saw the humor on Tom’s face, she relented and laughed, but she was unsettled. “I can’t let my father-in-law set me up on a blind date. There’s something seriously wrong with that.”

Tom laughed. “Well, if you change your mind, let me know.” He wiggled his eyebrows. “The ladies at the office thought he was quite a catch.”

Kate rolled her eyes as she picked up her diet soda and sipped. She couldn’t believe her own father-in-law wanted to set her up on a blind date. “The world has gone insane,” she muttered behind her glass.

CHAPTER TWO

 The next day, Jack Cardwell ran around a curve in the trail and smiled when he saw two women jogging toward him. Here comes the best part of my day. He passed these women every morning during his run, but he only had eyes for the auburn-haired beauty. He thought of her as the Knockout because she was just so damn beautiful.

In the last several weeks, he’d grown more and more addicted to his daily glimpses of her. She had thick wavy hair and luminous jade green eyes that seemed to reach across the distance and grab him by the throat. He couldn’t tear his gaze away from her. The best were her long limbs, which moved in a graceful symmetry of well-toned muscles as she ran. Like perfectly running source code—a smooth and flawless thing of beauty. Last night he dreamed she wrapped those exceptional limbs around him and … don’t get your hopes up, Jacko. She’s probably like all the others.

He mentally sighed. He had no luck with women, so what would be the point of trying? He smiled and nodded as the ladies passed by. He noticed the Knockout got a kick out of his new t-shirt—Talk nerdy to me. He couldn’t help himself. He spun around and jogged in place as he watched her continue along the trail away from him, finally disappearing around the bend in the path. He was pathetic.

“You should go for it, Jack.”

Jack jumped at the voice suddenly right beside him. He turned and found Andrew Harlow, the fit but graying middle-aged federal agent assigned to his security detail—and the guy shadowing him on this morning’s run—smiling and wearing a pair of bug-eyed aviator sunglasses. They almost completely obscured his face.

Jack rubbed his neck and momentarily focused on the clouds above his head. He couldn’t believe he’d been caught gawking at the Knockout like a pimply preteen in lust for the first time. He certainly didn’t want to talk about it.

“Jesus, Harlow, where did you get those glasses? You look like a TOPGUN instructor straight out of the ‘80s.” He resumed jogging, and Harlow fell in beside him.

Harlow removed the glasses and polished them lovingly with the bottom of the t-shirt. “Pretty awesome, huh? They’re especially great when I need a disguise.” He hung them from the collar of his t-shirt. “Seriously, Jack, why don’t you ask that woman out?”

Jack wanted to groan. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Sure you do. I’m a trained observer; you can’t fool me. Why not go for it?”

Jack couldn’t help the snort that escaped. “You, of all people, know what a disaster my last date was. I can’t believe you’d be okay with me going out with anyone. Wouldn’t it be easier if I skipped a social life until after the computer program is finished and I don’t need federal agents to protect my ass?”

Harlow scrunched his brow before he answered. “Let me worry about your security, you focus on living your life. Look, I know the last girl caused some problems, but that’s exactly why you need to get back in the saddle and ride that horse. Well … so to speak.” Harlow reddened at the unintended imagery his words evoked and he looked away. Jack laughed. It seemed Harlow was more than a super-efficient federal agent. He was also a gentleman.

“Thanks, I appreciate it, but I don’t think this is a good time to start something new.” Jack said.

“Just don’t have regrets. You don’t ever want to live with regrets.”

Harlow glanced at him, and Jack was startled at the profound grief that briefly hollowed the other man’s eyes. There was definitely a story there, but rather than ask, Jack let it drop. He was more interested in ending this conversation than he was in Harlow’s love life.

As they ran in companionable silence, Jack’s thoughts drifted to Janie, the last girl he dated. He got pissed off all over again thinking about what she’d done. He needed to let it go, but it was nearly impossible considering the disaster his life had become as a result. At the time, he had no idea how a simple dinner date could bomb so completely that it sent concussive shock waves through all aspects of his life. Not only had he lost a woman he thought he could love, but it led to the government demanding he accept federal protection until he finished the program he was developing for the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Jack was stuck with the federal agents day and night. While he understood the need for protection, he didn’t like losing his privacy. The agents tried to be invisible, but Jack felt their fingers rifling through every aspect of his life. Although, Harlow seems okay.

Unfortunately, Harlow’s boss was not. The agent-in-charge was Roman Janosky, a man way more interested in pushing Jack to finish the program ASAP than he was in protecting it. If he could, Jack swore the jerk would chain him to his desk and not let him up until the program was finished. Janosky’s attitude and interference had gotten old, fast.

“Hey, Harlow, what’s the deal with Janosky? Is he always such a hard ass?”

Harlow barked a laugh of surprise. “You don’t beat around the bush, do you?”

“He’s been on my back for weeks, and I wanna know why.”

Harlow thought for a minute. “I’ve worked with Janosky here and there over the years. No, he’s not usually so uptight. Rumor has it he’s about to retire. Once your program is delivered to the SEC, he’s on permanent vacation. Maybe he’s itchy to get started.”

That could explain why he was riding Jack so hard. Well, maybe there was something to be said for finishing the program sooner rather than later. Once the program was done, Jack could lose the security detail and get his life back. He smiled to himself. Maybe then he’d take Harlow’s advice and trip over the Knockout during one of his morning runs. She already liked his t-shirts, maybe they had other things in common, as well. If her brain was half as attractive as the rest of her, he might just get lucky … very lucky, indeed.

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