Excerpt from Unnatural Relations

     
     "George Washington was a wuss!"
     Barbara Johnson shot a disapproving glance at her son, Matthew, then returned her attention to backing their weather-beaten Honda Civic out of the driveway. After so many years of Matt being too timid to say much of anything, she hesitated to reprimand him now that he'd begun behaving like other nine-year-old boys.
     "Let me guess," she said, as if she were giving it serious thought. "Kenny gave you that bit of information."
     Matt looked about ready to defend his friend, but he reconsidered. "Well, sort of. But it was in the movie we saw in class the other day."
     She shot him a quizzical glance. "The Father of Our Country was called a wuss in an educational movie? What did your teacher say about that?"
     Matt rolled his eyes over his mother's obvious teasing. "Ma-a-aw. They didn't use that word exactly. They just showed how when he was a kid, he liked to dance and write mushy poems. Junk like that."
     "Oh, I see," Barbara said, nodding solemnly. "Girl junk."
     Something on the side of the road distracted Matt. "Where did you say we're going today?"
     His abrupt change of subject made her grin. He knew he had stumbled into sensitive territory where Mom was concerned. Rather than repeat her equality of the sexes speech, she answered his question.
     "Since Washington's birthday just passed, I thought we'd go see where he was born. It sounded interesting. Besides the memorial house, there's a farm where the animals and crops are raised the same way they were in colonial days."
     He perked up at the mention of farm animals. "Is it far?"
     "About thirty miles. The brochure said it opens at nine. We should get there a little after that."
     When she and Matt first moved into the little house in Fredericksburg, Virginia, she had vowed they would see as much of the surrounding historic area as possible before they were forced to move again.
     So far, during Matt's short life, the two of them had lived in eleven other cities, but had never really become familiar with any of them. Their stay in Fredericksburg had now stretched to nearly two years, and it definitely looked as though they finally would be able to stay somewhere for as long as they wished. Nevertheless, at least one Saturday a month, Barbara still selected a famous site between Richmond and Washington, D.C., for them to visit.
     The last two outings had been to the Smithsonian, where they spent the day indoors, but an unseasonable warm spell allowed Barbara a wider range of choices this weekend. And when given a choice, she knew her son's preferences well.
     Just as his father had, Matt loved animals and they seemed to love him right back. An image of Howard being nuzzled by his horse popped into her mind and she quickly erased it. She never purposely called up memories of Matt's father anymore. It was simply impossible not to think of him when every time she looked at her son's face she saw the gentle, artistic young man who had once meant the world to her. Perhaps she could have dismissed the similarities in their personalities if Matt had inherited her dark features rather than Howard's fair coloring.
     Then again, perhaps not. She was a realist and the fact was, Matt's existence, regardless of his appearance or behavior, was a constant reminder of Howard and how falling in love with him had turned her pleasant life into a roller-coaster ride through heaven and hell. But none of what had happened was Matt's fault and she never allowed memories of the father to diminish her love for their child.
     As she drove onto the bridge that would take them across the Rappahannock River, she could see the downside of the week of sunny weather. Rapidly melting snow and ice had caused the river to rise higher and flow faster than usual. Last night, the weather report predicted rain by the end of the weekend and warned of a possible flood.
     "Hey, cool," Matt said, pointing at the railroad bridge that spanned the river a short distance from the bridge they were on. A long, sleek passenger train had started across moments ahead of them. "If you could make all the other cars on the road move out of your way, which would get to the other side first, the train or us?"
     Barbara smiled as Matt began counting the railway cars. Trains came right under animals on her son's favorite things list. "Hmmm. I think that's one of those trains that carry people and their cars, so it's probably too heavy to go very fast." She gave the dashboard a loving pat. "I bet this old girl would win even on a cold day."
     Unable to make all the other cars vanish, however, they were only halfway across the car bridge when the train's engine reached the other side of its bridge.
     "Maw!" Matt shouted, and tugged on her sleeve.
     Barbara shifted her gaze back to the center of the railroad bridge to see what Matt was pointing at. For a second she thought her eyes were playing tricks on her as she watched one of the concrete pillars buckle and collapse. Like a row of dominoes, the cars of the train tipped and tumbled one after another into the raging river below, while only a whisper of sound leaked inside the Honda to accompany the horrendous sight.
     "Maw!" Matthew exclaimed again and she managed to slam on the brakes a heartbeat before colliding into the car in front of them. Everyone had stopped to gawk.
     Eventually the line of traffic began to creep along again. By the time they were across the bridge, the initial shock had worn off sufficiently for Barbara to absorb the reality of the situation. There were people inside those train cars bobbing in the river and overturned on the banks, people who needed help.
     As she turned the car toward the railroad bridge and pulled off the side of the road, she was relieved to see that she was not alone in that realization. Dozens of other cars were already parked and a crowd of men and women were heading for the crash site.
     "What are we doing?" Matt asked, his bright blue eyes filled with curiosity.
     "I'm going to see if there's anything I can do to help."
     "Me, too," he declared, pushing open the passenger door.
     As Barbara stepped out of the car, she considered ordering him to stay there but with his new sense of independence, she wasn't certain he'd obey. "All right. But you hold my hand." Though he grimaced at being treated like a baby, he went to her side and took her hand.
     Hurrying toward the accident, Barbara noted a number of people talking excitedly into their cell phones and one trucker using his CB radio. Professional help would surely be arriving any moment. But she also saw a lot of people using their phones to take pictures and videos. There were even a few using iPads to record the catastrophe.
     For the next four hours, Barbara, Matt and scores of other volunteers assisted the rescue workers in any way they could. They fetched and served hot coffee, comforted terrified children, and ran errands for anyone who voiced a need. They prayed for the victims trapped inside the railway cars as they began sinking into the icy water, cheered each time someone was pulled out alive, and ached for the families of those who were not so fortunate.
     When their assistance was no longer needed, Barbara and Matt drove home feeling good about their contribution, yet too exhausted to proceed with their original plans for the day. At any rate, the experience had been worth more than a hundred trips to historical monuments.
     Before Matt went to sleep that night, Barbara told him one more time, "I'm so proud of you, honey. You were as helpful as any of the grownups there today."
     "I keep telling you I'm not a baby anymore."
     Tucking the blanket under his chin, she smiled and kissed his forehead. "I know, sweetheart, but it's hard for me to remember that after so many years of taking care of you."
     "Yeah, I know, but I'm going to start taking care of you now."
     Barbara laughed and gave him a hug. "Don't be in such a hurry to take over. Making all the decisions isn't half as much fun as you think." She gave him one last good-night kiss and left the room, his promise echoing in her mind.
     Once, before he was born, because she was too tired and sick and broken-hearted to keep going on her own, she had accepted someone's offer to take care of her. She discovered too late that the price of that care had been her freedom. Although Russ Latham proved to be a man of his word, he also turned out to be brutally possessive and dangerously unbalanced.
     It took a long time but she finally made a new life for herself and Matt, without giving up her independence. Even if she met the perfect man someday and fell in love, she would never allow him total control over her or her son.
     * * *
     As soon as Barbara opened the front door to bring in the newspaper the next morning, she felt the extreme drop in temperature. Wondering if it would be enough to prevent the predicted flood, she pulled the newspaper out of its plastic wrapper to see what the weather report had to say. The photo on the front page banished all thoughts of the weather, however.
     It was not surprising that the headlines of the Washington Herald focused on the train accident. What she hadn't expected to see was her face beneath those words. Shards of panic pierced her mind and froze the air in her lungs. Quickly she skimmed the caption beneath the photo—Fredericksburg residents, Barbara and Matthew Johnson, lend a hand to drenched survivor, Louise Pilcher.
     She recalled the moment pictured—Matt placing a blanket over the elderly woman's shoulders while Barbara handed her a cup of steaming coffee. She even remembered telling the woman their names and where they lived. But she had not noticed anyone taking their photograph. It could have been anyone with a phone.
     "Maw!" Matt called from the doorway. "What's taking you so long? You always yell at me if I leave the door open."
     Barbara pushed aside the paralyzing fear and hurried back into the house. Forcing a smile, she said. "Looks like we're celebrities, kiddo. I guess somebody thought you were so cute yesterday, they decided to put you on the front page."
     Matt's eyes opened wide with delight when he saw the photo. Then, just as suddenly, he frowned up at his mother. "Do you think he might see this, too?"
     At times like this, she wished her baby wasn't quite so smart. Keeping her smile in place, she did her best to reassure him. "I doubt it. I'm sure they only used it in the Herald because we're local residents. There's no way he'd see this paper."
     Matt looked at her suspiciously but he wanted to believe her badly enough to let it go. "Good, 'cause I like it here. I don't want to have to move again."
     She gave him a quick hug. "Neither do I, kiddo. Neither do I."
     * * *
     Russ Latham squinted at the photo on the front page of the Boston Times, then abruptly laughed out loud, despite the fact that he sat alone at the table in the coffee shop. The handful of other Sunday morning regulars turned toward him expecting to be let in on the joke but he waved them off. They wouldn't see the humor in the touching picture, nor was it something he could share with them. This joke was very, very private.
     The last name was different but that didn't mean anything. She had used other names before and he'd found her anyway. But she had learned how to cover her tracks better and better over the years, until she disappeared completely and he was forced to give up the hunt.
     Apparently, fate decided it was time for him to get back to his original plan and the photo was just the help he needed. He immediately thought of several other people who would be extremely interested if they saw it and realized who the Good Samaritans were. He would just have to move faster than they would.
     He took a long drag on his cigarette and snickered more quietly as he thought about the new angle he had come up with to gain Barbara's sympathy. He wondered if her different last name might be due to a marriage, though that wouldn't matter. Any man she might have married would be a mama's boy like Howard Hamilton had been—someone she could push around. Russ didn't even consider Howard's kind men, let alone obstacles to his goal.
     A bitch like Barbara needed a real man to control her. He had known from the first that he was that man but she kept running from the truth. He knew what was best for her and this time, no matter what he had to do, he was going to make her accept the inevitable.
     She was his, and always would be.
     The boy, on the other hand, was a Hamilton and, as such, his value could be measured in dollars. But to Russ, the child represented something greater—the means to pay back the Hamilton family for what they'd done to him and his mother.
     It took several phone calls to track down the source of the newspaper photo, but he finally reached a helpful person at the Washington Herald. "This is the Main Street Flower Shop in Fredericksburg," he told the woman. "We have an order for Barbara Johnson, whose picture was in the paper this morning, but no address. I was hoping you could give it to me."
     "I'm sorry. You're at least the twentieth call we've received about her, to say nothing for the emails! We're trying to locate her ourselves, but in the meantime, if you deliver it to our office, we'll see that she gets it."
     Though Russ had hoped for more than that, he thanked the woman and hung up. A second later, his sense of humor returned.
     All he had to do was take a special bouquet to the Herald then follow their delivery person to Barbara's door.
     * * *
     Simon Decker stopped his Mercedes sedan beside the guardhouse and waited for the security officer to emerge. Once upon a time, he had been impressed by the elaborate iron gates, the high brick wall and the screening process required to enter the huge estate. It wasn't long, however, before the routine irritated the hell out of him and he started calling the grandiose mansion the mausoleum.
     He had been the Hamilton family's senior legal advisor for nineteen years, ever since his father had retired from that position, yet they still treated him like an outsider.
     "Simon Decker," he told the young man, as if the guard couldn't recognize him on sight. "And yes, they are expecting me." He noted the time on his Rolex and pinched the bridge of his nose as the guard went back inside the compact brick building. Simon didn't need to see him to know he was buzzing his entombed employers to announce the presence of a visitor. As required, the attorney had called his only clients for an appointment before heading there, but they still insisted on going through the whole routine before letting him drive onto the hallowed Hamilton grounds.
     The gates began to open and Simon glanced at his watch again. Only thirty-two seconds had passed, barely half the usual time. Perhaps they knew what he wanted to speak to them about.
     He hoped not. He was counting on his news to surprise the normally unflappable couple, while proving to them that their best interests were still of primary importance to him. Nothing specific had been said by either Howard Hamilton III or his wife, Edith, but in the last year or so, Simon had the distinct impression that they were no longer satisfied to pay him an enormous retainer for doing little more than standing by.
     Between his advancing age and his taste for expensive possessions, two ex-wives and four children, he couldn't afford to start over. In fact, ever since he'd met the woman he was hoping to make number three, he had been wracking his brain to come up with a reason to increase his fees. What he needed was a grandstand play to renew the Hamiltons' faith in him.
     The touching photo in the newspaper seemed like the answer to a prayer.
     He hadn't seen the woman in the picture in nearly ten years. Actually, he had completely forgotten about her until this morning. It was the boy that had captured his attention. He was a carbon copy of Howard Hamilton IV as a child.
     A wild speculation had sent him rummaging through old files in search of a picture of the mother. Comparing that picture to the one in the paper, checking the dates involved and the fact that her first name was Barbara was enough for him to order a background search to confirm what his eyes had guessed.
     The investigator easily confirmed the date and place of birth of a boy named Matthew Howard Mancuso. But he was going to have to dig a lot deeper though to explain why the Mancuso mother and child dropped off the grid a few years ago or why the Johnson mother and child's records seemed sketchy prior to that time.
     Decker had used the investigator often enough to trust his instincts and those instincts were saying Barbara Mancuso and Barbara Johnson were the same woman. If anyone could prove or disprove it that guy could.
     His foot pressed a bit harder on the accelerator. He could hardly wait to see his clients' faces when they realized they might have a grandchild.
     * * *
     Only a handful of people knew Barbara's cell phone number and every one of them called her by Sunday night.
     Two coworkers who knew nothing of her past called to congratulate her on appearing on AOL's home page. Her mother further confirmed what she had feared the moment she'd seen the morning paper. The picture had been picked up by a wire service. A search for her name on the internet showed the picture had been posted in enough places for her to want to cry.
     After all, it was the image of compassion, a story without words. The photographer would probably win some sort of prize for it. He couldn't have any idea what damage he may have caused. Since she hadn't given any sort of permission she supposed she could sue someone but no cash settlement would undo the exposure.
     They may as well have hand-delivered it to Russ Latham.
     One of the calls was from Shelley, a friend who had helped Barbara and Matthew slip out of Albuquerque in the middle of the night four years ago. She was also the one who put Barbara in touch with the organization that eventually helped her establish a completely new identity two years ago.
     Barbara had been certain she had finally outsmarted Russ and he had quit trying to find her. She desperately wanted to be able to go back home, even if it was only for a weekend visit. But it wasn't safe. So she and her mother limited their communication to sporadic calls using throw-away phones.
     Two years ago, she would have already begun packing. A part of her was tensed in preparation for flight, but a greater part of her resisted. She and Matt were truly happy here. He had friends and was doing well in school. She had a good job with excellent benefits. The house they were in was only rented, but they had turned it into a real home.
     There had to be a way they could stay in Fredericksburg. In the past, her flights were nearly always prompted by mindless panic. Perhaps this time, knowing in advance that Russ might try to find them in the near future, she might be able to prepare better. If nothing else, she would hold out as long as possible without endangering Matthew.
     She had been making choices based on her son's welfare for so long, it was hard to remember that she was once a young, carefree girl whose toughest decision was whether to follow her dream of being an actress to Broadway or Hollywood.
     She smiled as she recalled the stunned expressions on her girlfriends' faces that long-ago day when she made her selection by plucking petals off a daisy. To her, life had been that simple. She had identified her dream and outlined a plan to achieve it. All she had to do was go for it. Thus, she had left for New York City immediately after graduating from high school, with a two-year plan in mind. If she wasn't well on her way to becoming a Broadway star by the end of that time, she would head for Hollywood and try her luck there.
     The smile that memory triggered faded as she thought about how terribly naïve her plan had been.
     Barbara had no idea how long it might take for Russ to find them, but she began taking protective measures the next morning. She drove Matt to and from school rather than let him take the bus. She reminded him to keep alert, stay with the crowd and run for help if necessary. She notified the school principal and Matt's teacher, filed a watch order with the local police and advised her employer of a potential problem. But being prepared didn't stop her from quaking inside or jumping at every sound.
     She felt some relief when she picked Matt up from after-school care on Tuesday and he assured her that everything was still fine. As they approached their house, however, there was a familiar-looking van parked in the driveway, and a man wearing a parka and ski hat was at the door.
     Because she had been anticipating a problem, she was able to outwardly control her fear for Matt's sake. The man turned around when she pulled the car onto the swale in front of the house and shut off the engine. Even from that distance, the dark skin on his face confirmed that he wasn't Russ, but that didn't mean they weren't in danger.
     "Pop quiz, kiddo. You come home with a friend, my car's in the driveway but there's a strange car out front. What do you do?"
     Matt rolled his eyes at her, wordlessly expressing his boredom with her constant reminders. "I look at the living room window. If the elephant is there, it's okay for me to go in. If it's not, I should run to a neighbor and call the police."
     She had originally purchased the foot-high Indian elephant because Matt was intrigued by its colorful mosaic tiles. When they moved into the house and saw the wide sill of the picture window, they decided the statue looked very impressive standing guard there. Using it as a part of their code only came to her yesterday.
     She rubbed the top of his head. "Perfect. Okay, that man might not be anyone to worry about but just in case, you stay here while I go speak to him. Watch for my hand signals." Satisfied that he was paying attention, she got out of the car and walked up to the stranger.
     "May I help you?" she asked.
     "If you're Barbara Johnson, you sure can," he answered with a broad smile. "I'm Otis. I deliver the newspaper."
     Now she knew why the van looked familiar. "Oh, yes, of course. I'm Mrs. Johnson."
     "Great. They got some stuff at the Post addressed to you. They asked me to deliver it, but I wasn't sure if I should just leave it—"
     "What kinds of stuff?"
     "Mostly letters but there were some plants and flowers too. It'll only take me a few minutes."
     She waved at Matt to come help then opened the front door. Otis made several trips to the van, bringing back a small bag of mail, two small packages and a number of plants and floral arrangements.
     Barbara had Matt take in the mail but instructed Otis to return the packages unopened. She then carefully inspected each plant and bouquet. Once she saw that there was nothing hidden in an arrangement and that the card was not from Russ, she let Matt take it inside. She was about to relax when Otis set the last two vases on the porch. They both contained beautiful sprays of roses, but one sent a shiver down her spine. She stopped Matt from carrying them inside and hurriedly dug a few dollars out of her purse to give to Otis.
     Though she was fairly certain the bouquet of yellow roses was innocently sent, she read the card just to be sure, then handed the vase to Matt. As he went inside and Otis headed for his van, she carefully searched the bouquet of peach Oceanias—the same variety as the first Russ had cut for her at the Hamilton estate ten years ago. There was nothing within the greenery to frighten her, not even a card to identify the sender, but that didn't mean they weren't from him.
     With trembling fingers she slowly examined one rose stem after another until she found what she was looking for. Just beneath one blossom, where a person might place her fingers when sniffing the rose, was a sharp thorn. If one didn't know better, one would assume that the florist simply missed it in the process of removing all the thorns from the stems.
     But Barbara did know better. That single, hidden thorn had been left on intentionally. It was all the message Russ had to send to cause her stomach to clench.
     She straightened and looked up and down the street. She saw no sign of him, but that meant nothing. He was nearby. She could practically smell the cigarette smoke she had come to associate with him. He might even be watching her that moment from behind a tree or bush in a neighbor's yard.
     She wanted to scream loudly enough to shatter windows. She wanted to go hide under her bed and cry her fears away.
     But more than anything else she wanted someone to explain how an affair that had begun so sweetly had turned into a ten-year-long nightmare....
 

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