Chapter 10

 

“I’ve heard all this before,” Ravenswood grumbled as he turned the sound down on the monitoring equipment. The recorder was still going, so if there was anything important that was said, it would be caught on tape. The detective shifted in his chair, looking at the variety of monitors.

It was standard in Crystal Towers for all the condos on the higher levels to have a panic room installed. The room served as a place where residents could hide and be safe from intruders. Each one was equipped with a phone to call police, as well as monitors to keep an eye on the intruders via hidden cameras located throughout the home. Michael had moved into the penthouse after becoming a superhero, so he had thought that keeping the panic room would be silly. Ravenswood convinced him to not only keep it, but expand it into a full surveillance room. If anyone ever discovered Black Torrent’s secret identity, there was a chance they may blackmail him, or even try to attack him in his home.

Out of boredom more than anything else, the detective turned to one of the other monitors and flipped through a dozen camera views. He was able to see most of the public areas of the building, as well as some outside views. It would be very difficult for anyone to sneak in.

“What are you doing here?”

Ravenswood jumped, sucking in a breath to keep from screaming. He turned and saw Yule standing behind him. “Sorry. You scared me. I thought no-one else was here.” Shuffling, he stood, standing so he obstructed the view of the monitor. “Why aren’t you in New York?”

The man pushed his silver rimmed glasses more firmly onto his nose. “The closing got delayed until Monday. I wasn’t going to sit around there for four days. What are you doing? Spying on Michael?”

“What? Oh, no. We’re still working on that case. Michael’s in there with Bling’s girlfriend, talking to her, to see if she knows anything. I’m recording the conversation.” Ravenswood was glad he’d turned the volume down.

Yule squinted at him, then asked, “And what else?”

“What do you mean, what else?”

The man took a few steps forward. “You’re not telling me everything.”

Ravenswood did his best to remain calm, but he could feel the panic rising inside him. “That is everything.”

“Then why are you so nervous?”

Truth is, Ulysses David not only made Ravenswood nervous, but most of the time scared the crap out of him. The guy was old, but he had a build like a Mack Truck. Standing at 6’3”, he was also half a head taller than the private eye. “Maybe I wouldn’t be so nervous if you weren’t looking at me like that.”

Yule inhaled and flexed his muscles. The effect was the same as a cat arching its back to make itself look bigger. Ravenswood was suddenly terrified, but he kept his mouth shut.

“That’s it.” Yule rushed forward, grabbing the private eye by the front of his shirt.

Ravenswood realized Michael’s father probably wouldn’t hurt him, but he wasn’t going to take the chance. “All right! All right. The truth is, we were investigating her because she’s Bling’s girlfriend. But then we discovered something. We think she might be a relative.”

“What?” Yule took a step back, his face twisting in disbelief. “What do you mean, a relative?”

Ravenswood glanced back at the screen. He’d heard the doorbell a moment before. Michael was gone from the room, greeting the take-out delivery guy. Sara had risen and moved to have a look out the window. Her back was to the camera.

Michael had wanted to keep Yule in the dark, but the detective realized it was too late for that. “We think she might be a cousin or something. We think she might be your brother’s daughter.”

The look on the man’s face switched from disbelief to panic. He pushed the detective aside and leaned close to the screen. Michael re-entered the room with a brown paper bag in his hand and Sara moved to help him with the food. As she stepped into full view of the camera, Yule sucked in a ragged breath, his eyes widening in shock.

“Whoa!” Ravenswood grabbed the man’s arm and helped him into the chair. His face was ashen, his eyes glassy, and the detective was afraid he might actually have a heart attack. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

Staring at the screen, Yule shook his head and whispered, “Maggie—”

 

<<< “You look a bit nervous.”

Matthew Bruce looked up from the magazine, forcing a smile. “Just a little.”

The nurse gathered some stray pamphlets from the coffee table and replaced them in the slot on the wall. “Is this your first baby?”

“No, it’s our second.”

“Don’t feel guilty or anything about not being in there,” the woman said with a sympathetic smile. “Lots of dads can’t handle the blood.”

Matt shook his head vigorously. “Oh, that doesn’t bother me. I was in the military for ten years. I’ve seen men’s heads blown off. I could handle that. I just can’t handle childbirth.”

The woman’s smile went from sympathetic to uneasy. “All right then. We’ll let you know when everything’s over.”

Nodding, Matt sat down, glancing at the clock. He hadn’t planned to be there so long. Everyone had told them that second babies were easier, that the labors were much quicker. Sally had been lucky with Stephen. She’d only been in labor four hours before giving birth. Both of them figured their current baby would come in two hours, tops.

She’d been in there for ten.

Standing up, he began to pace again. He’d manage to make it back and forth across the room a dozen more times when the door opened. Matt expected to see the nurse. Instead, it was a short, balding man wearing John Lennon spectacles. His mouth spread into a smile. “Matt!”

“David?!” Even though Matt was a decade younger than his brother, he was a foot taller and several inches broader. The two embraced, then stood to face each other. “I had no idea you were here. When did you get back into town?”

“Last night,” he answered. “I called your office to let you know and they told me Sally was having the baby, so I came right over.”

“I thought you had decided to stay in Africa for another year. What brought you home?”

The man glanced down. “Well, I kinda wanted to get back and start my practice. Get myself situated and make some kind of life for myself here. Especially since—”

Before he could go any further, the door opened again and a woman entered. She was tall, with long red hair that reached well past her shoulders. Her fair skin was tanned a warm beige and her sleeveless dress showed off toned arms and long, slender legs. Matt felt his heart race. The woman was enchanting, and in a split second all he wanted was to know her name.

“Maggie,” David called, motioning to the woman.

“Sorry it took so long, I couldn’t find a parking space.” The woman’s voice was deep and husky. She looked at him and smiled. “You must be Matt. David’s told me so much about you.”

Matt was confused and looked at his brother for an answer.

“Maggie’s my wife,” David revealed.

“How did that happen?” Matt asked, still a bit stunned.

“I was a volunteer in the Peace Corps and placed in the same village as David. I guess it’s kinda cliche, but we were off in this foreign land, working together, and fell in love.” She slipped her hand into her husband’s. “Your brother is an amazing man.”

Staring at the woman a moment longer, Matt slapped his brother on the back. “Well, that is incredible. Congratulations. I’m sure you’ll be very happy.”

Maggie’s smile widened, and while Matt was sure she could not get more beautiful, suddenly she was. “I hear congratulations are in store for you, too. Your wife’s having a baby. Do you know what it is?”

“No. We wanted it to be a surprise.”

“That’s so sweet.” Maggie sighed, her eyelashes fluttering. “I can’t wait to have kids. I love babies.”

Matt shot his brother a quick look. David glanced away.

The door to the room opened, a different nurse entering. She was holding something in her arms. “Mr. Bruce?”

“Yes?” both men answered in unison. David blushed and stepped back. “Oh, I think she means you, Matt.”

The bundle of blankets she was holding started to wiggle, a cry of protest coming out. “You have a son,” the nurse announced.

“Oh, my God.” Tears welled in Maggie’s emerald green eyes. “He’s so beautiful.”

Matt took the baby into his arms. The boy already had a full head of dark blonde hair, just like his mother.

“What are you going to name him?” David asked.

Stroking his son’s face, it took Matt a moment to get his bearings. “We said if it was a boy, we would name him Michael.”

“That’s a good, strong name. I like it.”

“He’s beautiful. He’s special, I can feel it. He’s going to do something incredible in his life.” Taking the baby into her arms, Maggie began to coo, “Michael, Michael.”

Matt stared at the woman, his heart racing. “Maggie,” he whispered.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

A flash of lightning streaked across the sky, followed a second later by a loud clap of thunder. Rain poured down in sheets, drenching everything in sight. Matt held open the door, gesturing to his brother. “C’mon,” he yelled. The couple darted from their car, into the house. Even though they were in the open air for just a few seconds, they were drenched when they entered.

“Holy cow, this is the worst storm I’ve seen in years,” David said, shaking his arms. “And I saw some pretty nasty ones out in the Serengeti.”

Maggie leaned over, shaking her hair out. It was a simple action, but one that turned Matt on immensely. “Let me help you with that,” he said, assisting his sister-in-law in removing her raincoat.

Sally entered the foyer, a wide smile on her face. She had worn a rainbow sundress for the occasion, and it seemed out of place with the dark clouds outside. “I’m so glad you were able to make it. I was worried the party would be a bust when I saw the weather report this morning.”

David shook his head. “A child only has one first birthday, we wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”

The group moved into the living room. There were several other relatives and friends sitting in clusters throughout. In the center, on the Oriental rug, Stephen sat Indian style. Near him, his younger brother pulled into a standing position, toddled a few steps, then tumbled over. Michael started to whimper but quieted when his older brother held him.

“Mom! Mom! Mikey took four steps that time!”

“He’s going to be walking in no time,” she said.

On the far side of the room, there were several tables set up. Two were covered with a variety of finger foods and salads. The other held a large chocolate cake and three bowls of homemade sweets. Matt walked over and grabbed a cookie, popping it into his mouth.

“I can’t believe he’s already a year old,” David said, sneaking a carrot stick.

Sally hurried to the table, rearranging the platters so they were evenly spaced. “I know. And he’s such a smart child. He’s already saying so many words and has such comprehension.”

“Must take after your side of the family, eh Sally?” David laughed before giving Matt a poke with his elbow.

Maggie had gone over to sit with the boys. She had brought several presents, one of which was a stuffed tortoise. As she held it out, Mikey took a few steps towards her. Matt sighed and turned back towards his wife. “Can we start eating now?”

“My parents aren’t here yet. I want to wait until they arrive.”

“Your parents are coming?” David asked.

“Yes, my father hasn’t seen Mikey since a few weeks after he was born. He insisted on coming to the party.” Turning to fuss with the dishes again, she gasped. “Oh goodness, I didn’t bring out the punch. Matt, can you get it out of the fridge?”

“I’ll get it,” Maggie said.

Matt followed after. “I’ll help.”

In the kitchen, the redhead moved to the center island, gathering the punch cups onto a tray. Glancing at her sleeveless shirt, Matt smirked. “Your bra-strap is showing. It’s quite sexy.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed, her lips spreading into a sly smile. “You know, Matt, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were hitting on me.”

Matt opened the utensil drawer, sifting around for the ladle. “Would that be a bad thing?”

“No. But we have one very big problem.”

“And what’s that?” he asked, leaning closer.

“I love your brother.”

Maggie walked from the kitchen, taking the tray of cups out with her. Matt sighed. His advances on the woman over the last year had been met similarly. It was a little dance they had, where he would make a move, she would act scandalized, then tell him she was happily married. It was frustrating to say the least. But one thing gave him hope—she had never mentioned it to David.

Fetching the crystal container, Matt carried it back into the living room. Most of the guests had moved from the main area and were gathered around the doorway. An older man and woman stood there, thoroughly wet, but pleasantly greeting everyone. Depositing the punch bowl on the table, Matt walked over to welcome his in-laws.

Mary Frank was holding Michael, piping about how big he had gotten and how blue his eyes were. Sally was beaming, overjoyed to have her parents there. Stevie was talking with his grandfather, showing him the toy gun Matt had gotten him for Christmas. Maggie was standing next to David, her arms wrapped around his waist and head resting on his shoulders.

Matt grimaced.

“All right, everyone. Let’s eat,” Sally announced.

“About time,” he mumbled, suddenly in a bad mood. He held back as the other guests approached the table. Taking advantage of the lull in the crowd, General Frank made his way towards him.

“Hello, Matt,” he said, gripping his hand with the strength of a man half his age. “How are you? Still missing the Corps?”

“Every day, sir. Though, I have to tell you, I think corporate America is far more dangerous than most of the enemies I fought out on the field.”

“I have no doubt about that.” Glancing around, he grabbed his son-in-law’s arm, pulling him a distance from the crowd. “Mary really wanted to come today. She hasn’t seen the grandkids in a while and wanted to be here for Mikey’s birthday. But I have to admit, I came here to talk to you.”

Matt’s eyes shifted as he took a few steps further away from his guests. “What’s on your mind?”

“I’m involved in a new project. We’re looking to base it out of Gale City. We’re searching for a candidate to be our lead operative and I thought you might be a good match.”

“There’s one problem. I’m not in the service any more.”

Rick nodded, pulling a cigarette from his chest pocket. “That’s just the thing. We’re looking for someone who has the training and the loyalty to the military, but who isn’t directly connected. It makes things less complicated that way.”

Matt arched his eyebrow, the idea tempting. “What about my business?”

“This wouldn’t be full-time. You’d have to make some adjustments to your routine, of course. But we’d see to it that you’d be able to maintain both.” Pulling out a lighter, he took a drag as he lit the Marlboro. “So do you think you’d be interested?”

“I think I’d definitely like to hear more about it.”

“Fair enough.” Rick put his arm around the man’s shoulder, leading him out into the foyer. “It’s called the Black Torrent Project.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Seven were seated around the large table, Matthew Bruce sitting at the far end. He hadn’t planned to come in costume, but Rick had told him it would be more impressive that way. It was a bit embarrassing wearing spandex and a cape while the rest of the men were dressed in suits and military uniforms. He had, however, removed his mask before the meeting started.

Matt had been operating as Black Torrent for three months. During that time, he had averaged one or two “cases” a week. All of them, with the exception of one, had been based around specific orders from the project team. The one stray incident was a woman he’d encountered who had been trapped in a car which was on fire.

Nathan Hammer, the project head, folded his hands and smiled as he addressed the group. “We’ve gotten a report back from Washington and they are pleased with the results of our work here. The Black Torrent project has been deemed a success and they’ve approved funding beyond the test period. We expect to continue operations for the next eighteen months.”

Everyone around the table applauded.

Gavin Williamson was Matt’s best friend while in the service. When Matt had entered the private sector, Williamson had moved on to higher administrative levels within special operations. The man had made an unexpected trip to attend this meeting, and Matt realized he must have gotten word of the approval beforehand.

“Congratulations.”

He shook Gavin’s hand and smiled. There wasn’t a time in his life he felt more proud, and he thought he should call someone to help him celebrate. While he realized his first thoughts should have been his wife, instead they fell to Maggie.

General Frank rose. “As much as this is good news, we’ve just gotten word of your next assignment. We need to move quickly, so we’ll save any celebratory stuff for later.”

Matt leaned forward, his eyes locked on the general’s.

“Javier Rosa has been an enemy of the state for several years. Problem is, he has high connections to the Cortez family who is friendly with the U.S. Government. As difficult as Rosa is, if there was any attack upon him by the military or law enforcement, it could cause an international incident and result in instability in the region where the Cortezes rule. However, if the Black Torrent were to go in and neutralize Rosa, it would be easy for the White House to deny all knowledge and involvement.”

“What do we have on Rosa?” Matt asked.

“Seventeen known murders, over a hundred cases of drug trafficking, as well as eight cases of rape and child endangerment.”

“Just the type of scum that needs to be taken off the street. I’ll expect a packet with information soon.”

Across the room, Rick Frank smiled. “It’s gonna be a great eighteen months.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Matt held his wife close, running his hand up and down her arm. It had been nearly a month since they had made love. Work and the office had been keeping him busy, and his nightly excursions as Black Torrent had put a dent into his family life. He had missed being with her and was happy they had managed to find the time to be intimate. Though as he sat in the afterglow, relishing the soft sound of her breathing, his mind turned to someone else.

How can you love one woman but still covet another?

“What are you thinking about?” Sally asked, breaking the silence.

Matt sighed. “There was a boy I ran into the other night when I was working as Torrent. He told me that there’s a group of men in the area who are paying young kids to take pictures without their clothes on. I think I’ve figured where they’re working out of.”

“That’s not one of your assignments, is it?”

“No.”

“Then why are you worried about it?”

Matt pulled away, sitting up. “Because the boy was just a few years younger than Stevie. He’s somebody’s son. There are these dirtbags preying off kids and nobody is stopping them.” He fell silent, thinking long and hard. “I want to stop them.”

He rose from the bed, pulling on his pants.

“What are you doing? You’re not thinking of going out, are you?” His wife slipped her nightgown over her head. “Matt, you can’t keep doing this. You’re not supposed to be going out on your own. This is no different than when you were in the Corps. You follow orders and you wait for orders.”

“And I do.” He moved to her, stroking her face. “But there’s nothing that says I can’t do this, too.”

“Mommy?”

Both adults turned, staring at the boy who had wandered into the room. Mikey was rubbing his eye, dragging a blanket behind him.

“Baby, what’s wrong?” his mother asked.

“I had a bad dream.”

Scooping the boy into her arms, she kissed his head. “It’s okay. I’m here.”

Matt looked at his wife, his expression somber. “It could be him in a few years, Sally.”

Sighing, she pulled the boy close and nodded. “All right. Go on.”

With a small smile, the man headed to his private dressing room in the basement.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The superhero sat on the rooftop, keeping the criminal in his sights.

Matt had just gotten word that the Black Torrent Project had been extended again, this time for 36 months. Everyone was ecstatic: Washington was happy, the project team was happy, and Rick Frank was happy. Matt, however, was only lukewarm. Over the past several months, he’d found himself more and more reluctant to take on the assignments given him. The missions were becoming less humanitarian and more political in nature. Not to mention the fact they had all but ordered him to stop helping the people of Gale, and that had left a bad taste in his mouth.

In the beginning, while headquarters frowned upon his side-jobs, they tolerated them for the sake of public approval. However, as Matt started doing more on his own, his superiors became anxious, afraid his extra-curricular work would muddy his focus. They denounced all non-program crimefighting and made it clear that if anything happened to him during an unofficial assignment, it would be out of their hands.

I’m the hope of the city, he thought. It’s going to take more than that to stop me.

Torrent watched as the man in the ski-mask left his car and headed into a nearby alley. The criminal moved to the back of a jewelry shop and pulled out a crowbar. It only took a few moments before he had the door open. By then, Matt was on the ground and in pursuit.

He preferred to apprehend suspects after the core crime was committed, as it made dealing with the police easier. Hanging back, he watched as the thief made his rounds of the store. He expected the criminal to hit the safe or break into one of the cabinets. Instead, he meandered around, finally stopping to tie his shoe. Though the action was innocuous enough, it made Torrent nervous and he decided to nab the thug now.

In a fluid movement, the masked criminal grabbed something from his shoe and lunged. Torrent didn’t notice the knife until it sliced into his abdomen. Fighting off the pain, he kicked the thug back, only to see him pull another blade from his jacket. Matt caught the man’s arm with both of his, twisting it until there was a cracking noise. He then hooked his leg around the thief’s, forcing him to the floor. With trembling fingers, he yanked the bloodied knife from his body and held it above his head.

“No,” the thug screamed as the weapon thrust down towards him. The blade slid through the fabric of his jacket, embedding deep in the floor. Tethered to the ground, he began to thrash, a string of expletives leaving his lips. Torrent turned and ran from the store.

Matt had been stabbed once, during a covert operation in the South American jungle. The wound had been to his leg and he had manage to crudely bandage the injury until help arrived. This time was different, though. The hemorrhaging was far worse than anything he’d experienced before, and from the taste of blood in his mouth, he realized it had probably pierced an organ.

You’re gonna die out there, Matt, he heard Sally’s voice warn.

Managing to make it a block away, the dizziness finally hit him, and he sank to his knees. If he could get to Grover Naval Base, get medical care, maybe. As his hand grabbed his communicator, realization hit. This was a solo mission—they wouldn’t respond.

Closing his eyes, he tried to focus. There was a gas station a block away. It was bound to have a rest room with water and towels. It would also have a pay phone.

Matt wanted to run, to make it there quickly. But he knew if his heart-rate rose too much, it could be fatal. So he forced himself to walk instead, each moment passing like an eternity.

Making it to the Amoco station, he thanked fortune it was late enough that there were no patrons, only a clerk behind a pane of bulletproof glass, and he was asleep. Matt moved to the phone, his fingers shaking as he dialed.

A groggy voice answered. “Dr. Bruce here.”

“David.” The weakness of his voice scared him.

“Matt? What’s wrong?”

“I’ve been stabbed. You have to come now.”

“Where are you?”

Matt gave his location and instructed his brother to pull up to the left side of the building. He then hung up the phone and glanced around once to see if anybody was watching. Staggering to the door marked “Men”, he picked the lock.

It was about a half an hour before he heard the knocking. He’d managed to slow the bleeding by ripping off his cape and tying it around himself, but his mind was clouding and he was having a hard time concentrating. He knew he wouldn’t be able to make it much longer.

The tapping turned to pounding and Matt crawled over, unlocking the knob. David Bruce entered, grimacing at the sight of the blood—and gasping at the sight of his brother.

“Oh my God, you’re the Black Torrent.”

“Help,” was all Matt could manage.

David pulled him to his feet, dragging him to the car.

The world faded in and out. Matt could see the street lights flashing by in a blur outside. David was muttering to himself, questioning why his brother would do something so dangerous. The sound of the revving engine thundered in his head.

Twenty minutes later, the car stopped. He could hear David leap from the driver’s seat—he was screaming, calling to his wife.

“Maggie,” Matt whispered with a small smile.

The door opened. He heard the woman gasp. “He’s that superhero.”

“Help me bring him inside.”

The woman’s hands were on him, then David’s, lifting him.

“There’s so much blood,” Maggie gasped again.

“Pull out the sofa bed,” David ordered. “We’ll... take care... Get... tools. Shock... loss of blood.”

As Matt’s mind hazed, he could only make out every few words. His consciousness began to slip.

Someone removed his mask, gentle fingers soothing his forehead. “Hang in there, Matt.”

Maggie.

Everything went black.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“Hey, how are you feeling?”

Matt’s eyes fluttered open and he forced a weak smile. “I thought I was dead.”

“You almost were. We came very close to losing you.” David’s eyes became pained for a moment and he turned away to hide his emotions. “I always cursed those years in Tanzania, in those makeshift hospitals, trying to save lives with inadequate tools and lack of proper anesthesia. Little did I know I’d be doing the same in my own home.”

Matt glanced down. “I’m sorry to put you through that.”

“This should help ease the pain.” David poked a needle into his arm. He then moved his hand to his wrist. “I have always admired the Black Torrent. Little did I know, he was you.”

“It’s a long story,” Matt said in a tone which made it clear he’d share it at some future time.

Maggie walked into the room. Her eyes were red and her color pale. She looked exhausted. “I talked to Sally. She said she had to get a sitter for the boys, but she’d be over as soon as she could.”

The doctor glanced back at his brother. “I honestly don’t know how you made it, Matt. You must have some killer stamina, because you lost a ton of blood. I’m going to head into the hospital now and make my rounds. I’ll grab a couple of units when I leave.”

“Will they let you do that?” Maggie asked.

“No, but I don’t have a choice. I’ll think of something.” Moving to his wife’s side, he kissed her cheek. “I should be back in an hour.”

As her husband left, the redhead moved to Matt’s side, adjusting his pillow. “I think it’s pretty amazing. All this time you’ve been a superhero.”

Matt’s eyebrow perked upward. “Does that turn you on?”

“Don’t you ever stop?”

Licking his dry lips, he pressed. “So, does it?”

Staring into his eyes for a moment, she slipped her hand into his. “Yes, it does.”

In the distance, there was the sound of the door opening and footsteps running. A female voice called from the hallway. “Matt? Matt?”

“You’re wife’s here,” Maggie said, pulling her hand from his fingers.

With a deep sigh, Matt nodded. “Thank you.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The two couples sat around the table. Sally and Maggie had taken to talking about the latest fashion in shoes, while David and Matt chatted about how the Gale City Sluggers had blown yet another chance to make it to the World Series. It was the first time the couples had gotten together in several months. The real estate market was booming and Matt was up to his ears in mergers and acquisitions. He had also been sent to several U.S. cities to conduct official Torrent business. During that time, he had seen little of his brother and Maggie. In fact, he had seen little of Sally and the kids, as well.

The women’s talk turned to children, specifically the subject of babies. Sally mused how she couldn’t believe how big Mikey was—he was going to be four and was already starting to read. Maggie talked about how they had been trying for a baby for a few years but it just hadn’t happened yet. She then spoke of going to a doctor to see if there was anything that could be done to help them, and Sally mentioned the names of a few specialists her friends had been to. Sally then went on to give her sister-in-law some general advice in the babymaking area.

A bit embarrassed, David excused himself into the kitchen to refill everyone’s glasses. Matt followed, though his intentions weren’t to help his brother.

“Why the hell haven’t you told Maggie you’re sterile?”

David glanced down, not answering.

Matt had approached the subject before with his brother a year earlier, during a time when Maggie had been distraught after having gotten a false positive on a pregnancy test. David had assured him then that he was going to tell his wife. Apparently, he hadn’t.

“David?”

“I don’t know,” the man answered, his face flushing red. “She knew I had cancer. I told her about it before we got married. She just doesn’t know all of the other details.”

Halfway through medical school, David had started to experience groin pain. Testing revealed he had testicular cancer. After undergoing surgery and aggressive post-operative treatment, the cancer had gone into remission. However, follow-up tests had shown that the chemotherapy had left him unable to have children.

“All she has talked about from the first day I met her is having a baby. What the hell are you doing?”

“I’m scared, Matt,” he confessed. “I didn’t know about her obsession with kids until after we were married. I was afraid to tell her. I was scared that if she ever found out, she would leave me. I can’t lose her, Matt.”

“And you think lying to her all these years is going to help? She’s going to find out sooner or later. What then?”

“I don’t know. I had hoped that maybe she’d be inclined to adopt. I’ve already mentioned it, but she wants a baby of her own.”

Sighing deeply, Matt shook his head. “You have to tell her, David. Before she has a myriad of tests and realizes you subjected her to all of this on a lie.”

“I know, I know.” David closed his eyes, nodding. “I’ll tell her soon. I promise.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Matt looked up from his paperwork and rubbed his sore eyes. His work as Black Torrent was taking up so much time he was having to forgo rest in order to keep up with things at the office. He was averaging two to three hours of sleep a night and it was catching up with him. He glanced over at his office couch. There was two hours until his meeting and he wondered if he could manage a nap until then.

A tap came at the door.

“Yes?” he called.

The door opened. Maggie Bruce entered, her normally coiffed appearance gone. She looked distraught, disheveled, and her eyes were swollen as if she’d been crying.

“I’m sorry to come in here like this. Your secretary told me to just go on back since she realized I was so upset.”

Matt rose, moving to her side. “Of course. Are you all right?”

Tears started to stream down her face. “You knew, right? Didn’t you?”

In a moment, Matt realized what had happened. “He’s my brother. Of course, I knew. I told him to tell you, several times, but he was worried that you’d leave him.”

Maggie broke down into sobs. The sound was so deep and full of sorrow, Matt had to struggle against his own emotions. He pulled her to him, stroking her hair.

“How could he have done this to me? All these years.”

There were no answers. Matt simply held her, hoping to somehow take away the pain.

The woman finally pushed back, staring into his eyes. Her fingers cupped the back of his head, bringing his mouth to hers. It was a forceful kiss, deep and hungry. There was some irony that this was the first time he had been alone in a room with the woman and had not thought about her sexually. But that all changed in a moment. He tightened his hold around her, his mouth devouring hers. His lips moved to her ear, then to her throat. She gasped as she ran her fingers through his hair.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Matt whispered.

Stroking his cheek, a smile spread across her lips. “Yes.”

Locking the door, Matt lifted the woman and carried her to the sofa. >>>

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Sara Wolff clicked on the mouse button, advancing the page. “That’s our pitiful playground. We did get a grant for some new equipment, but we have to wait until next spring to have it installed.”

Michael listened to the woman, taking in every word. Once he had finished telling the story of his family’s death, Sara had shared her journey. Her adoptive parents had died when she was six, and she’d been placed in various London orphanages before a foster family had taken her in. When she reached adulthood, she had moved to Gale City in the hopes of finding her birth parents. She had searched for years with no success and had all but given up hope of ever finding them. Though she was vague on most of the details, Michael didn’t pry. Her childhood had been sad and he could see talking about it brought up a lot of pain. Despite it all, however, one thing was clear: she knew little about the circumstances surrounding her birth or who her real family could be.

Talk had then turned to her work at the group home. It was amazing to hear her fervor and love for the children. Sara had spent her career trying to make the lives of the kids happy—far different from her own experiences. The idea that the woman could be his cousin made Michael proud.

It was nearly 9:30 when the conversation lulled and Sara checked her watch. “It’s late. I need to get home. I already missed lights out.”

Michael helped the woman gather her purse and coat. “How did you get here?”

“I took the bus. But, I’ll just grab a cab home.”

Michael pulled out his cell phone. “I’ll have one of our drivers take you. It’s only fair since I’m the one that kept you here so late.”

Crystal Towers consisted of two connected buildings. One held retail stores and office space. The second spire housed a hotel on the lower ten levels and condominiums on the floors above that. Several chauffeurs were on staff to shuttle patrons and residents around.

“All set,” he announced as he hung up. “Just go down to the lobby and the doorman will get you into a car.”

Sara extended her hand. “Thank you for everything. I really enjoyed our talk.”

“The pleasure was mine.” As Michael went to grasp her hand, his fingers brushed her arm, causing her to shriek and jerk back. The sleeve of her shirt rose enough that he could see a large bandage on her arm.

“What happened to you?” he asked.

Sara blushed bright red and pulled her arm around her back. “Oh, it was silly, really. We were cooking at the Home and I got splattered with hot grease.”

A burn on her arm, just like...

Michael stared at the woman, taking in her features with a whole new perspective. In a moment, he recognized everything about her... and kicked himself for not seeing it earlier.

Fearful his silence might give too much away, he forced himself to smile. “Yeah, well, that happens. Listen, why don’t I give you a call next week about a tour of the Home and we can talk some numbers.”

“That sounds great.” Pulling on her coat, she squeezed his fingers again. “Good night.”

As Sara disappeared out the door, Michael’s heart started to race. How could he have been so blind?

There was a sound from the kitchen and two sets of footsteps approached. His father flanked to one side, Ravenswood to the other.

“Do you know who that woman is?” Yule asked.

For the first time, he did, and it was not what Michael had dreamed of. “Yes. She’s the Dark Flame.”

He expected the revelation to take his father off-guard. Instead, the man’s jaw hardened. “She’s also your sister.”

“What?” Michael gasped.

“Don’t you mean, cousin?” Ravenswood offered.

Yule stared hard at his son. “No. I mean your sister.”