“Damn it, Brent. I can’t just drop everything and jump on a plane halfway across the world because of another of your crazy theories,” Lauren Masters was losing patience with her ex-husband.
Brent Jacobs was brilliant. A genius, in fact. It was what had attracted her to him from the moment they met at summer science camp. She had been just nine, and at twelve, he was already the star of their little world. His ideas were extreme at times, more fiction than science, but always with enough basis in accepted principles not to be easily dismissed. They had been an unlikely pairing.
Of course, it had been a decade before they became anything more than friends. His All-American blond good-looks and blue eyes set him apart from other doctoral candidates at Oxford. She was a lowly undergraduate taking his tutorial on plate tectonics. With her Scottish ginger hair, freckles, and hips, her Grandmam called ‘childbearing,’ the last thing she expected was for Brent to renew the adolescent flame that had resulted in her first kiss.
But from the beginning, he called it a meeting of the minds. And when their bodies met a few months later, Lauren swore it was a nine-point-eight on the Richter scale. But their marriage had ended more like the Pacific Ring of Fire…seemingly constant eruptions, molten lava, and endless destruction.
“Lauren, listen to me.” He pleaded on the other end of the video conference.
Even in the dim light that enveloped him, she could see the dark circles and worry lines that were beginning to mar his gorgeous visage. Of course, at forty, most men had a few lines here and there. But they seemed deeper, more pronounced than they had just a few weeks ago when he had visited their girls.
“Lauren, god damn it. Those are my girls too. And I want, NEED to know they are safe.” She could see him running his fingers through his short-cropped hair with just enough waves to tempt any woman to do the same. Goddess knew she had loved doing it. So many, many times.
“Brent, I am in the middle of exams here. I have two papers in the final stages of edits for Science and the Royal Society. And Elise has not been doing well lately. I was called to school twice this week. You know that she cannot manage these kinds of sudden changes. It just isn’t possible right now,” she tried to sound logical even if she knew his once-great mind was beyond logic.
He sighed heavily as his fingers scrunched in his short hair. Lauren knew what that meant; Brent was finished arguing. “I did not want it to come to this.” Then the screen went black.
Lauren considered trying to ring him back. Demand to know what he meant by ‘come to this.’ Her skin prickled. When he was determined, Brent was almost like the tsunamis that they studied, unstoppable and dangerous to anything or anyone that stood in his way.
But the clock on her office wall reminded her that she had just half an hour to get across town to the special school that their daughter attended. Picking up her keys and donning the rain slicker that hung on the back of her office door, she opened the door.
An odd feeling stopped her for a moment. She looked back inside the small office with its dark bookshelves and rows upon rows of texts and journals. The small window behind her desk provided little light on a dreary English spring day like this. She felt as if she were forgetting something. More accurately, as if she would forget it, as if she had to memorize this place.
A woman of science, Lauren was never comfortable with these odd sensations that came over her occasionally. Her grandmother had called it the ‘sight’ and claimed it was a gift that ran strongly in the women of their family. As much as Lauren had loved her eccentric Grandmam, it was all just mystic rubbish as far as she was concerned.
As ridiculous as the theories that Brent had pursued and espoused for the past seven years…doomsday prophesies that caught the Internet afire. When an eminent scientist and former ‘golden boy’ like Brent spoke, it gave needless credence to radicals.
Lauren walked swiftly across the lush green lawns dotted with the austere buildings of learning that had stood for centuries as a beacon to the world’s greatest minds. Before Elise’s birth and their divorce, Brent had been as much a part of this place as she was.
But as they sought out other great minds in the hopes of unlocking their child’s potential, Brent had drifted more and more towards radical pseudo-science. Lauren recognized that he had always stood upon the edge of accepted theory, but he seemed to slip further away from them and her with each disappointment.
Starting the engine of her eco-friendly hybrid car, she forced her mind from the past. Even though the school was just a couple of miles away, she focused on the road and driving. Not upon things which she could not change.
This school had a reputation as one of the best in the country in dealing with Autistic Spectrum Disorders such as Elise’s. But over the past month, her daughter’s increasingly erratic outbursts had strained even their resources. If Lauren were honest with herself, Elise’s behaviors lately were pushing her emotional reserves.
She loved her youngest child, but sometimes she could not help wishing things had been different. Wishing that Elise had been as bright and caring as her older sister Megan. Hoping that science could give them the key to unlocking the world in which her child lived. Wishing that just once, when she hugged Elise at the end of the day, her child would look into her eyes, smile, and embrace her back.
But as her father had said when her mother left them for another man and family, “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.”
Brent Jacobs ran his fingers through his hair, stopping halfway and bunching them up until the mild pain registered enough to quiet his mind.
His ex-wife had never been one to ‘buy his snake oil’ as they used to tease about it jovially. She was always the first to challenge his theories, to punch holes in them. And he was a better man and scientist for it.
Damn it; he missed that almost as much as he missed making love to her until neither could breathe and then falling asleep in one another’s arms, too tired to even move. Of course, waking her up with a steaming cup of her favorite English breakfast tea only to make love again was not bad either. The perfect start to the day. A perfect start that Brent had not known for over seven years now. Seven long lonely, celibate years. Because once you tasted the kind of love they shared, twin flames Grandmam called it, you did not settle for anything less.
No, seven years of missing her perfect mind. The only one that could ever match his own…since that summer when the tiny red-head with the freckles, big green eyes, and attitude had spoiled his summer fun at science camp. He never stood a chance once his childhood nemesis began to blossom into womanhood. She was the only one he wanted — the only one he ever would.
He missed the team that they had always been. He was the big ideas man, and she the logistician. The only one that could make his ideas work. And he needed that right now. Almost as much as he needed to protect her and their daughters. Lives depended on it. Lives of people he cared about.
Over the past twenty years, he had seen enough lives destroyed at the whim of Mother Nature. But none of that, not even the worse, that still brought the occasional nightmare when he awoke trembling, sheets tangled, his bed wet with sweat, not even that utter destruction would match the global scale of what he knew was to come.
But what he knew did not matter as much as what he did not know – when. And Lauren held that key. If anyone could tweak the algorithms of their simulation to give an accurate enough prediction to save lives, it was his wife.
Ex-wife, he corrected himself. But that word never seemed right. He smiled as he thought of the sad country song he had first heard as a little boy. Yes, Lauren Masters Jacobs was the only woman he had ever loved and the only one he ever would. And that would not change until the day they placed a wreath upon his door and carried him away. He found himself humming the melody as he fought back the tears.
“Damn it, Lauren. Why do you have to be so stubborn?”
The husky laughter broke into his reverie, “Because it is the only way she stands a chance against you, my boy,” replied the older woman whose eyes always had reminded him of her, even if the green was a bit faded and their depths a bit sadder.
Pulling into the tree-lined driveway in front of the modern brick and glass building that housed Elise’s school, Lauren noted that she had five minutes to spare. Other parents might take the opportunity to pick their child up early, but Lauren knew the importance of schedule and structure to her daughter. Such an impulsive action might cause an outburst that could last for hours and have ramifications for days to come.
She shook her head, which was another reason that Brent should have known better than to make such ridiculous demands on them. Sometimes, it seemed as if he lived in his own world every bit as much as their daughter did.
Instead, Lauren pulled out her phone, checking emails and messages. One text, in particular, drew her attention. It was from Megan. Opening it, Lauren frowned. I hope to see you soon, Mum. I really, really love you and can’t imagine my life without you.
Her words made no sense to Lauren. Of course, they would see one another soon. Once she picked up Elise, they would drive across town to the secondary school that Megan had begun in the fall.
At twelve, her older daughter was everything a mother could wish for. Her mind was as bright as her parents’. Besides excelling in academics, Megan had also thankfully inherited her father’s athletic ability. Lauren had struggled throughout school to manage gym class, but Megan played football on the school team, the first squad even. Lauren welcomed her games as a chance to be a ‘normal’ mum for a bit, leaving Elise with her Grandmam or a carer for a while.
Her fingers hovered to press the button to phone her daughter, hoping to clarify this mystery. But according to the clock on her phone, it was time to pick Elise up. Just as she did not want to be early, she absolutely could not be late.
Tucking her phone back into her purse, she reassured herself that she would have answers soon enough. Once she collected Elise, they would grab Megan. Perhaps even pick up a takeaway curry for dinner as well, she thought as she walked up the path to the school.
Lauren shivered as she pushed open the glass double doors to the school. She wished she could shake off this uncomfortable feeling, dismiss it. But something did not feel right. It was probably just anger and hurt leftover from her conversation with Brent, she assured herself.
Heading to her daughter’s classroom down the hall to her right, she took comfort in the steady clack, clack of her pumps on the tile floor. Some things never changed, it seemed, remembering her own days at school fondly.
She quietly popped her head into Elise’s class, scanning the room for her daughter. Her heart sank. Elise was not in the classroom. That meant she had had another bad day and was in the sensory room most likely. At least, they had not needed to call her.
Just as she turned to head further down the hall to the sensory room, Elise’s teacher noticed her. Lauren noted the odd expression on her face as she rose carefully from the table where she was working with a couple of children, finger painting their letters in shaving cream.
“Hello, Dr. Masters? I was not expecting you this afternoon.” t
“I came to pick Elise up, of course,” confusion in her voice.
“But Dr. Jacobs picked her up before lunch. He assured me that he would contact you himself.”
Lauren gripped the doorway tightly. Her world was tilting as if the ground beneath her feet were giving way to an earthquake. “What?” she stammered.
“I thought you knew. He is on the pickup list, of course,” the woman sounded more and more distressed.
The school had policies about these sorts of things. Divorced parents were common enough, especially in families dealing with the stress of a special needs child. Lauren had just never considered it necessary to utilize those policies, preferring to foster her daughters’ relationships with their father.
“Wait a minute,” the teacher walked back to her desk and picked something up. Returning to the doorway, she held out her hand, pressing a neat envelope into Laurent’s trembling fingers. “Dr. Jacobs said to give this to you, just in case he did not manage to reach you.”
Lauren nodded as she clutched the envelope and forced a reassuring smile at the woman. She did not bother saying farewell. She was much too afraid to speak at that moment.
She was not certain how she managed it, but somehow, she found herself back in the safety of her car, clutching the steering wheel. The note lay with her purse on the seat next to her. She felt light-headed, faint almost. She forced her breathing to slow. She tried to calm her racing mind and heart, but it seemed a futile attempt.
“What in Hades are you up to, Brent?”
Sighing, she forced her unsteady fingers to pick up the missive that her ex-husband had left for her. She tore it open and unfolded the paper.
I did not want it to come to this. If you are reading this note, then I failed to convince you with reason. I know that you do not recognize my theories. You have made that abundantly clear over the past seven years. But I cannot allow you to put our daughters at risk with your beautiful red-headed stubbornness.
One week. That is all I ask. If I am wrong, you and the girls return to England, and I will never bother you again.
But I know I am not wrong. The world, as we know it, is about to change forever. I need to have you all with me, to be able to protect you, to keep you safe.
If our love ever meant anything to you, Lauren, meet us at Kidlington. Our plane leaves at 4:15. We all want you on it. Please.
Suddenly Megan’s text made perfect sense. There was no need to race to her school or even phone. Lauren knew; Brent had both of their daughters with him.
She fought back the sense of betrayal. Elise did not have the faculties to tell her. But Megan? She must have known what her father was up to. The text made it sound as if she were even in cahoots with him.
Lauren crumbled the paper between her fingers. Brent had left her no choice. She had less than half an hour to get across town to the only airport in Oxford. It was hardly used these days and certainly would not have any trans-Atlantic flights. Then again, that did not matter. Thanks to his family’s oil wealth, Brent could well have any of several private jets at his disposal.
Of course, she could phone the police. But the amount of time it would take to explain the whole situation, combined with the fact that they shared custody of Megan and Elise, meant that the authorities were unlikely to prove useful in this situation.
Turning the key to start the car, Lauren sent out a plea to whatever entity there was out there, if any, “Let me be on time.”
Brent strode into the cockpit of his father’s corporate jet. An older man bent over the control panel, double and likely triple-checking the instruments and flight plan. Jason Murphy, a senior Air Force pilot, was actually more of a father than the one who had sired him. He had undoubtedly made more time for the mischievous little boy with the never-ending questions than the too-busy billionaire ever had.
Jason had flown him almost everywhere since the day he was born. Even into some of the hottest and most dangerous places in the world, headline-making natural disaster areas that few others were privy to.
As if he sensed his presence, could hear his thoughts, the old man turned in his seat and smiled at Brent, “Almost ready, boy. Just as soon as that wild filly of yours shows up, we can get outta here. Damn, I’ve missed that girl.”
Brent shook his head as he chuckled, “Trust me, not nearly as much as I have, you old coot.”
“You always did have it bad for that one. Ever since that summer, when I picked you up from that silly camp you always went to, I knew.” The man inhaled deeply and got that far off look that he had been getting more often, ever since…
“I knew that look cause it was exactly how I felt about my Mildred.”
He clasped Jason’s shoulders that, despite his years, was still ramrod straight. “I miss her too. She was a good woman.”
Jason turned back towards the controls as he brushed his eyes with the back of his hand. “Yeah, well, thems hard to find. And when you do, you don’t let’em go.”
“Sometimes, you don’t get a choice in the matter.”
“You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar,” came the voice of his oldest daughter behind him.
He had to chuckle as he wrapped his arm around Megan and drew her into his embrace, “Jason or Grandmam?”
Jason raised his hand, “Guilty as charged.” They all snickered over another of the man’s pearls of wisdom.
When his daughter turned back to him, there was no smile on her face, only lines of worry that she was much too young to have.
Brent felt the pain stabbing deep into his chest at that look. While he and Lauren had done their best to insulate their daughters from the nastiness of divorce, he knew it too well. It was why he had fought his ex-wife so hard.
He always found it ironic that Lauren, the child of a particularly bitter divorce, had been the one who had ended their marriage. He shook his head as he remembered those last couple of years as they drifted further and further apart, fighting more and loving less. If he had it all to do over…
“What if she doesn’t come, Daddy?” His daughter’s words echoed his own worst fears.
“Oh, she’ll come,” he kissed Megan’s forehead. “She has to. I have the one thing she loves more than even her work. I have the two of you.”
He did not tell their child that he had no idea how to get her on board the plane once she was there. But he had better come up with something quick as the familiar car drove up next to the plane.
Even he was smart enough to know that he was in big trouble as he watched her open the door and walk towards the plane. Her shoulders slung back, her always impressive chest jutted proudly in the air.
‘Damn it, down boy,’ he cursed his body’s natural reaction to her assets that had driven him insane since the time he was a fifteen-year-old virgin.
He had far more to worry about than getting her back into his bed at the moment. He could almost feel the anger radiating off her like harmonic tremors before a violent eruption. And her eyes shone with a black fire hotter than Erta Ale. He just hoped he could survive another blast from the one person capable of utterly destroying him.
When Lauren drove up to the tiny airport, it was not hard to find what she was looking for. The Jacobs Energy jet was parked just outside of a large hanger. Shoving her keys into her purse, she drew a deep breath. She hated confrontation. She always had. Especially with Brent. But he left her no choice this time.
Stepping from the car, she drew herself up to her full five-foot-four-inch height. Squaring her shoulders, she thrust out her chest. As prepared for battle as she could be, she marched to the waiting plane.
Brent stepped from the doorway as she approached. “Lauren, you came.”
God damn him, why, after more than a quarter of a century, did this man still have the ability to take her breath away? The only man who ever had. But she did not have time to think about that now. She had decided seven years ago that she was through playing things Brent’s way. Now more than ever.
“Did you think I wouldn’t, Brent? You took our daughters.” She felt the heat rising in her face, confident that her cheeks were as red now as the hair that he alluded to in his letter.
“Come on then. Get on broad. The pilot is ready to take off.”
“No, Brent. I am not getting on this plane. I am here to take the girls home. Where they belong. Now.”
Suddenly two figures appeared beside Brent. Lauren was, of course, expecting the fresh-faced innocence of her older daughter, but the creased face of the white-headed woman on his left took her by utter surprise.
Her voice was barely more than a whisper at this latest betrayal. Though, she was not completely surprised. The woman that had cared for her after the breakup of her parent’s marriage shook her head. Grandmam had always adored Brent, counseling against the divorce even.
“You were always as stubborn as your mother. And look where that got her, child.”
Lauren shivered at the verbal reminder of the string of betrayals and broken promises that had driven her from the woman who had given birth to her.
“Grandmam, you don’t understand. This is crazy. Running away because Brent believes that a string of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes will destroy civilization as we know it. That is the stuff of science fiction, not science.”
“Perhaps you are right, child. But what exactly do you have to lose? You are so stressed at work that you have a headache almost constantly. Elise has been so troubled lately that it takes you, me, Megan, and two carers to manage.”
Turning to Brent, her grandmother placed her arthritic hand on his broad shoulders. “Look at it this way. The boy is offering you a week’s holiday. You write an email to your dean explaining that Elise is not well. The man gets some doctoral student to cover your classes. You can even focus on finishing those journal papers if you like, while the boy and I take care of the girls. What do you say?”
Lauren shook her head. The way her grandmother explained it made it seem like a Caribbean cruise ship holiday. But the truth was that her crazy ex-husband was kidnapping their daughters – and her.
Any doubt that might have remained was washed away by the pleading look in her eldest child’s bright blue eyes. Eyes that were so like her father’s that it took Lauren’s breath away. “Please, Mum.”
Lauren shook her head as she began to climb the few steps into the luxurious private jet. She stopped at the top and faced her ex-husband. “One week, Brent. And I expect you to keep your promise. The girls and I come home, and you leave us alone. No more of your crazy theories.”
If she did not know better, Lauren would have sworn that for a single moment, the obstreperous little boy that she had fallen in love with at science camp all those years ago stood before her. Then he was gone, replaced by the determined and almost demented man who her husband had become after Elise’s birth.
“You have my word,” was his only response. He placed his large hand at the small of her back and escorted her to the half a dozen or so opulent brown leather seats that filled the small cabin.
Lauren smiled weakly when she noted Elise and her favorite carer buckled into two of them. Megan and her grandmother took two seats facing them. That left the two front seats for her and Brent. She did not relish spending the next few hours of a trans-Atlantic flight with the man that was the cause of all this. But it seemed she had no choice.
As if reading her mind, Brent offered her the window seat. “I have the data I told you about. I’d like to show it to you, but if you aren’t interested, I understand.”
Lauren sighed as she buckled herself in, “Maybe later, Brent. Like Grandmam said, the past month has been a nightmare, and right now, I want to rest.”
Brent nodded his blond head and turned towards the front of the plane. “Alright, then. I’ll just let the pilot know that we are ready to take off.”
As Brent disappeared into the cockpit, Lauren questioned her sanity. Since the day she met Brent Jacobs, her logic had rarely won against his smile and the funny tingle in the pit of her stomach when he looked at her.
After that last summer of science camp when she was fifteen, she had resigned herself to nothing more than idol worship. Something inside of her recognized that this man was unlike anyone she had ever met before. Or ever would.
From a scientific perspective, she supposed it was a matter of the female’s desire to choose the best possible mate to sire her children. Any eugenicist would recognize that Brent Jacobs had superior DNA. Not only was his IQ over 160, but he had physical prowess not usually coupled with such a great mind. Of course, his blond hair, blue-eyed good looks made him model worthy. ‘Admit it, girl,’ she chided herself, ‘you will never get over that man.’
Lauren shook her head; relaxing into the enveloping seat, she forced her mind from that course of thought. Despite the troubling day, she was asleep even before the plane took off. Then again, as the child of a bitter divorce, who rarely saw her mother and whose father was cold and distant at best, Lauren had never felt safe and secure with anyone other than Brent. She supposed that the fights over Elise’s course of treatment, the divorce, and even this could not change some things.