Chapter 13 – Unexpected

Brent shifted restlessly in bed. Lauren had been with the girls for over an hour now. While he knew how difficult it was to get Elise to settle, he had to admit he was getting more anxious by the moment. But they had agreed Lauren would do the nightly ritual this time since it might be a few days before she was back.

He inhaled deeply and ran his hands through his hair. Damn it; he wished there was some other way. He was not just uncomfortable with her going back east, being so far from them all right now, he was scared. Terrified. He was petrified, actually.

While Lauren was only prepared to go so far with her predictions, one thing still weighed on his mind: Cumbre Vieja. It was the absolute worst-case scenario.

If Katla and Laki’s repercussions were bad enough, there was not much immediate threat to human lives. Iceland was not densely populated the way that Italy was. Etna and Vesuvius were both significant risks. Vesuvius’ threat to Naples was mind-boggling, three million people endangered. Twenty-five percent of Sicily’s population lived in the danger zone around Etna. Its history of frequent, sometimes continuous, relatively minor eruptions lulled most into a false sense of security.

But all of that paled to nothing in comparison to Cumbre Vieja’s threat. While an eruption itself was seemingly minor in contrast to Etna and Vesuvius, if the western flank were weakened enough to give way, he did not want to even think about it.

Even all these many years later, he still had nightmares about Sumatra. And that was nothing compared to the disaster that a mega-tsunami centered in the Atlantic Ocean could generate. The west coast of Africa would be hit before warnings could even be issued. Then much of southern Europe and northern too. Hours later, the devastation would be visited upon the east coast of the Americas and the Caribbean Islands. The potential loss of life was numbing even to consider.

The idea that Lauren could be directly in that danger was more than he wanted to consider right now. As her husband and lover, he wanted to forbid it. Hell, tie her to the bed and keep her there. But she was right. The scientist, the humanitarian in him, knew there was no other way.

She was the only one that stood even the slimmest chance of convincing their colleagues to listen. And slight chance though it was, his moral code demanded that they take it, before raising the alarm themselves, perhaps inciting panic, chaos, and anarchy. And putting those here, those closest to him, at risk too.

As much as he trusted Daniel and Samuel, he felt torn: protecting this place and those relying upon him, or her. Even knowing Daniel’s assurances that this Commander Zane Rogers could be trusted to protect Lauren was scant solace. He wanted to be the one that did that. He should be the one. But he would be more of a liability on this mission than an asset. Besides, he was needed here. With more people arriving daily, everyone was being pressed into service to organize and assimilate the refugees.

Still, he wished, hoped, and prayed for some alternative, some other option. Anything. The last couple of days, and especially nights, with her, were more than he had ever dared hope for. The way that she had come to him in the barn that afternoon, sought out his comfort. It had been years since they had been that close.

Honestly, he was not sure that they ever had been. There was something totally raw and so damned vulnerable about Lauren then. It called to some deep and primal part of him. This was not his brilliant colleague, partner, and at times, nemesis. This was not his girly-girl turning to him to rid her world of spiders, snakes, and the sundry insects. This was woman. Soft, needy, and reliant upon him. Damn, he hoped it was not just some passing apparition. He wanted more. He wanted it all with her. He always had.

“Penny for your thoughts, Dr. Jacobs,” purred the sexy siren that stood in the doorway to his bedroom.

He recognized the cascades of fire that fell about her sweetly freckled face and down past her shoulders, almost to that soft curve of her round bottom. He was vaguely familiar with the generous swell of bosom bursting from the top of the most scandalously sinful black corset he had ever seen. Though on second thought, he might need a bit more remedial work on them. And those long legs encased in sheer black stockings that came to mid-thigh and attached to garters on the corset, those he most definitely needed to feel wrapped about his waist.

“Fuck me, babygirl,” he moaned as the tent grew under the white cotton sheet.

His heart stopped at her throaty laugh as she drew her arm from behind her back. The handcuffs dangled from one finger. “That will depend on just how good a boy you are, Dr. Jacobs.”

He inhaled deeply and steeled himself for whatever was to come this night as he held out his hands in front of him. “Do your worst, Mrs. Jacobs. I trust you. No limits. No rules. Just all yours.”

And he meant it too. He would do whatever it took to win this woman back.

Lauren hesitated in the doorway. Even after she chatted with Jill and Simone. Even after spending hours coming up with this plan, thinking about nothing else as she put their daughters to bed. Then shoe-horned herself into this ridiculous get-up that she had borrowed from Jill; even then, she was not sure she could go through with it. It just did not feel right…natural.

But she did want Brent to understand how hard it was for her to put this kind of trust in him. She wanted him to feel that tiniest bit of doubt that constantly ran through all the excitement and lust. She needed him to understand what he was asking of her. The cost of this gift when she did give it to him. And maybe this was the only way?

She was not sure how she managed to cross the few feet to the bed without breaking her neck in the too-high heels that had been Simone’s contribution to this circus show. But somehow, she did, as she placed a knee on the mattress and began to crawl up the bed where Brent leaned back against the headboard.

Why did the man always have to look so fucking sexy? Whether it was bent over some computer screen with those brows knit together in thought. Or dressed in jeans and a t-shirt doing fieldwork. Hell, he had even managed to pull off stodgy khakis and button-down shirts as a guest lecturer. Of course, her favorite was probably naked, those early mornings when she woke first and just stared down at him while he snored.

Damn, girl, you got it bad, she admonished herself as she clicked one of the handcuffs into place around his wrist. She lifted his arm above his head and laced the cuff through the metal bar on his headboard. Then she lifted the other arm and tightened the metal bracelet about it too.

Fuck, this position did have to make his chest stick out even more. Make him even more irresistible. But then again, why did she want to resist? As the man said, he was all hers. She let her fingers play lightly across the sprinkling of springy chest hair that she had long since gotten used to tickling her nose as they slept.

She took her time. They had until dawn at least as she ran her fingers over and through it. The pattern was random and erratic. Brent had closed his eyes and was leaning his head back against the headboard even more. But she could tell his breathing was more shallow. She could feel his heartbeat pounding faster and stronger beneath her fingertips.

She leaned down and bit his left nipple as her nails pinched the other one. Those blue eyes flew open on a quick intake of breath, “Lauren?”

She giggled as her tongue traced the outline of the faint teeth marks. “I did not want you falling asleep on me, Dr. Jacobs,” she turned her attention to the other nipple.

“Not much chance of that, I promise you, sweetheart,” he lifted his hips. His hard cock beneath the sheet rubbed against the front of the corset, almost directly between the bulging mounds of tits that she feared would erupt from it at any moment.

She played a bit more, alternating between the hard brown nubs. She almost lost the plot a couple of times, barely restraining the outbursts of girlish giggles as she tried to figure a delicate and discrete way of getting chest hair from between your teeth. She was afraid she would spoil the whole thing with her wry sense of humor, but that was one thing she had most loved about this man: how easy it was to laugh with him.

He chuckled, and his chest moved beneath her face. Those hairs gently abraded her cheek, causing the wetness that had been building between her legs to spread. “Yeah, I guess it is so much easier for me without a mouthful of hair every time I want to play with your tits. Next time we play this game, I’ll shave it if you want?”

“Don’t you dare.”

Brent’s deep laughter echoed off the walls, “Yes, Ma’am. Or is that Mistress?”

While Jill had been more than forthcoming about Mistress J, some part of Lauren rebelled at the thought. She was no Mistress. She probably never could be, even if Brent did enjoy these games. That was all it ever could be for her, role play. “No,” she whispered, afraid she would disappoint him.

“Then I don’t suppose you’d like to undo these?” Brent tossed her that sweet good ole’ boy grin as he rattled the chains.

Lauren found herself considering it for a moment. The truth was that this role was not one she wanted to engage in again, but there was one part of her plan that she very much wanted to try. Just this once. So, she shook her head as she leaned in and kissed him slowly and sensuously.

She allowed her tongue to toy with his for long moments as her hands and fingers followed the trail of hair down his stomach. There might be more than a bit ‘cushion for the pushin’ as Simone had called it, but that change was growing on her more each day. Sure, she could still feel those rock-hard abs just beneath, but the layer of softness was intoxicating in its own way.

It was entirely something else rock hard that she sought as her hands slipped beneath the sheet and wrapped about his erection. She felt Brent’s quick intake of breath as it stole her own. Or maybe that was the feel of him beneath her fingers? The way his pulse throbbed in her hand, the slight moisture that spread from the tip and coated her hand as she began to work them up and down his length in firm but steady strokes.

The rumble in his chest that rose to a growl in his throat before erupting into pained moans inside her mouth was deeply satisfying. It was the perfect accompaniment to the tinkle of chains as he writhed beneath her.

This role might never feel completely natural to her how it must for Jill, whose eyes had lit up talking about the naughty things that Mistress J enjoyed tormenting Daniel with when it was her turn. But at that moment, Lauren could glimpse the attraction of domination. The power and control you held over another person’s body, pleasure, and even mind were a tiny bit heady and intoxicating.

It was something else she wanted to drink this night, though. She broke away from the taste of her lover’s sweet lips and began trailing kisses down his firm jaw and neck. She stopped and nibbled at his jugular vein, which she could see pulse in perfect time and synchronicity to the deep bass throbbing through his cock.

She did not tarry long as she continued her journeys across broad shoulders that had comforted and given her solace so many times. She smiled as she once more caressed and kissed her way across his chest. This time she was in more of a rush though she took a moment to tease and bite each nipple once more.

“Hmmm, maybe I should have listened to Jill. Been a bit more willing to try some of the toys she suggested,” she bit down hard into first one then the other. The teeth marks that encircled the brown peaks did send those butterflies into flight. “She mentioned something about clamps. Said clover clamps worked just as well on male nipples as female ones.”

She loved the look of shock and perhaps even a bit of trepidation that momentarily slipped through Brent’s mask of calm. “Maybe next time,” even though she seriously doubted that there ever would be one. But she would not tell Brent that, not yet anyway. Let him squirm a bit.

Squirm he did as her mouth followed the trail that her fingers had, southward across his stomach that seemed a bit tauter than before as Brent tensed beneath her exploration. “Fuck, babygirl,” she brushed the sheet back at last.

She was torn. She wanted to see his face, watch the play of emotions there. But her lungs burned for oxygen as she came face to cock with his throbbing manhood. She was drawn to it. The pea-sized bead of clear liquid that leaked from the tip hypnotized her.

This was what she had been waiting for. Even after all these years, it was relatively uncharted territory. Not that she never had. She had tried a couple of times, but Brent was always the giver in their relationship. So, when she did make her feeble and admittedly half-hearted attempts at oral sex, fellatio, blow jobs, he quickly took the lead back, overpowered her, and made her forget her intent.

Not this time, though. Brent was her prisoner. At her tender or not so tender mercies. And she intended to see just how far she could push him. Just how much control her husband had. Or did not have. She stuck out her tongue and tasted him. He growled like that wounded animal again, “Damn it, Lauren.”

She was not deterred. She used her tongue to encircle the head, licking like his cock was an ice cream cone on the hottest summer day, her only job was to get every single drop before it melted, and the sweet cream dripped to the ground. And she would, too, this time.

She smiled as she slid her hand lower to cup his balls as her whole mouth swallowed him. She kept her movements shallow, at least for now. She blushed as she remembered the almost comical teen girl game of pickle sucking that the three of them had giggled their way through over chocolate cake and tea.

But Brent’s cock was much larger than a gherkin. She had to concentrate, turning her undivided attention back to the task at hand…and mouth. She slowly worked her head up and down the shaft, taking just a bit more in each time. She knew that she would never be able to ‘deep throat’ him, not tonight anyway. So, she used her hand in time with the movement of her mouth to give him pleasure.

Brent was beginning to moan louder, and his hips were starting to rock and thrust upwards with each downward motion of her head. Until the soft, springy head hit the back of her throat. She gagged a bit and backed off. But returned to it a moment later as it went just a bit deeper. Once more, she choked around it and retreated. She kept at the task for a couple of moments as her hands continued to caress and roll Brent’s balls.

“Baby…. fuck, babygirl…stop,” Brent panted as she once more swallowed over half of his cock.

She smiled around his thickness as she tilted her head back just enough to look up into those deep blue waters. She shook her head, and the movement caused him to slip a fraction of an inch deeper into her throat. She was rewarded with a growl as he shut his eyes tightly and almost banged his head against the headboard.

“Damn it, Lauren. I can’t take much more,” he spat through gritted teeth.

She released his cock from her mouth as her hands continued to toy with his balls. She moved up his body, hers silk-clad rubbing against his naked one as she went. Her lips once more captured his, and those eyes flew open.

Her tongue plunged deep into his mouth, perhaps not as deeply as his cock had in hers, but she tried. One hand moved up to encircle his cock again, her spit lubricating it, making the rhythmic motions easier this time as the other one continued to toy with his sack which she felt tightening. But she was not finished with this little game yet, so she tried another of Jill’s tricks, tugging firmly at them. “You will take as much as I want to give, Dr. Jacobs.”

Her finger slipped a bit lower, past his full scrotum. She was far from comfortable with the anal play that had turned her face scarlet as Jill described it. But she did manage to find a spot on his perineum that had Brent moaning and writhing even more if that were possible.

This time she leaned in, and the kiss was brief, almost chaste. She drew back, and their eyes met once more. “And when I’m done playing with my toy, I’m going to let you come. In my mouth, Brent.” She leaned in for another kiss, eyes wide open this time as she whispered against his soft lips, “And I’m going to swallow it all.”

She did not give Brent time to think, let alone respond, as she lowered her head once more to his cock without preamble. If before she had taken her time, toyed and teased, this time, she was determined. She worked her mouth and hand up and down his shaft. Her eyes never left his face. Locked with his, she dared him to look away, to break the intimacy of the contact, the moment.

It took her far less time than she had thought, though why that should surprise her since her hands had never ceased their playful torture, kept him right on edge the whole time. She felt Brent tremble, heard him roar as his testicles once more rose up. She toyed with the idea of another gentle tug to forestall his orgasm, but the truth was she was soaking wet. Her own game had backfired on her. As she had said, she wanted, almost needed, to taste him.

“Lauren,” she felt the tremors run through his taut body. “Lauren, please, I can’t…”

This time she only smiled and nodded around her full mouth as she drove her head down further than she had dared. Yes, she gagged. She was afraid for a moment that she would do far worse, but she willed herself to relax. Consciously commanded the muscles in her throat to open for their invader. In the end, she managed, just barely, as Brent exploded deep in her throat with an almost pained scream, “Lauren!”

She was not sure what she had expected. It was not the same sweet and thin consistency as that first drop she had so eagerly licked from the tip. It was saltier and thicker. But it was not unpleasant. Not disgusting or distasteful the way she had once feared it might be. She had tasted far worse things in her day, sushi and caviar among them. No, it was not unpleasant at all.

It was a long moment before he stopped throbbing in her throat as she swallowed a couple more times. She felt the tension drain from his body beneath her as he collapsed back against the headboard with a loud bang. She chuckled as she released his still hard cock from her mouth.

She shifted on the bed, reaching into the bodice of the corset for the keys hidden within her cleavage. She quickly released his hands from the cuffs, doing as he had and as Jill had warned her she should, massaging the blood firmly back into his hands and fingertips. She bent forward with a smile and placed a tender, closed-mouth kiss on his lips.

She was shocked when his fingers laced through her hair, capturing her and holding her prisoner as he deepened the kiss. His tongue thrust deep into her mouth. She was a bit shocked at the intimacy of it, knowing he must taste himself on her. She supposed she should not be, though. It was not like she had not drunk her nectar from Brent’s lips more than once.

Then he rolled them so that she was beneath him. His hard cock entered her smoothly and deeply, she was soaking from their earlier play, and of course, Jill had advised that this outfit was strictly ‘knickers’ optional. Her orgasm was hard and fast as Brent bit into her ear and whispered, “My turn now, babygirl.”

And oh, what a turn it was too as he extracted penitence for each of the torments, teases, and tortures she had inflicted upon him. By the time he finally finished, coming once more deep inside of her, Lauren was mindless and more complete, more whole than she had ever been in her life. She fell asleep in his arms, her head resting on his chest, those hairs softly tickling her nose once more.

There was so much she wanted and needed to say to this man, but it would have to wait for morning. She could not force her brain to put two coherent words together – if their lives, the girls’ lives depended upon it. She slept, safe and happy with the man she had loved for a lifetime. Knowing that come what may, they would find a way. Together this time.

Brent helped Elise stroke Doctor Do-Little. Not that his daughter needed any assistance. No, it was more that he needed the slow, repetitive motions to calm his own mind.

Last night had been perfect. Even Lauren’s turn at being dominant had not been as bad as he feared. He laughed out loud, and Elise chortled along with him. Hell, if he had known his wife’s secret fantasy was giving him a pornstar-worthy blow job, it would not have taken handcuffs to get his acquiescence.

Their sex life had always been good, better than most couples. That was never the problem. But he was coming to see that it was a bit staid. He had always kept his wife on a pedestal…and their lovemaking reflected that. Now he was beginning to wonder what other dirty, kinky shit might be lurking beneath Lauren’s calm, professional, and very British demeanor. He sure as hell hoped he got to find out.

And that was what had sent him scurrying to the barn with his youngest daughter. He needed some time to think. Because the reality was: as enjoyable as last night had been, as the past few days had been – nothing was settled between them.

Oh sure, they had exchanged whispered words of love as they both drifted off to sleep after that last time, as the sun was peaking over the horizon. But as Lauren said, love had never been the problem. Were they any closer to solving the issues that had resulted in the divorce seven years ago?

He was so deep in thought that it was not until he felt arms wrapped about his waist and her soft tits pressed into his back that he even realized Lauren had joined them. “Sleep well, sweetheart?” He turned enough to press a kiss to the top of her head.

He loved the way she purred and nodded her head as her arms tightened about him. “You should have woken me when you got up, though. Half the morning is gone, and the plane…”

He nodded as Lauren stuttered to a halt. So, she was having the same difficulties facing what was to come soon. “Yes, Jason is fueled and ready to leave. He will be flying you to D.C. after lunch.”

She nodded as Brent released the brush, allowing Elise to take complete control. He turned to face her and drew her tighter into his embrace. He knew they needed to talk, and that time was running out, but he had no idea where to begin.



They both laughed. It was way too familiar an occurrence with them, finishing one another’s thoughts.

Her fingers covered his lips as she stared up at him with those intense green eyes. “Please, Brent, let me go first before I lose my courage. I have been practicing what I want to say for hours,” she stared at the hay beneath their feet.

He noticed then that she had dressed in the conservative suit and pumps that she had been wearing the day he ‘kidnapped’ her. He supposed he should not be shocked that she would want to hit the ground running the moment her plane landed in D.C., but he missed the worn jeans and tight t-shirts. This woman was so far removed from the laid-back and approachable one that had shared his bed the past three nights.

But his bed would be cold and lonely again tonight. The only question was: for how long?

“I am coming back, Brent.”

He chuckled again that she could read his thoughts. He started to open his mouth to respond, but she pressed her finger to his lips once more. This time he nipped at it playfully and sucked it into his mouth. His eyes never leaving hers as without words, he reminded her of other things he had suckled last night.

“You are so bad,” she accused with a blush and girlish giggle.

“Yes, but you always loved that, sweetheart. Your bad boy of science.”

This time her laughter was robust and delicious like the sweetest crème brulee. “That sounds like some kind of cheesy Mills and Boones romance series.”

“Brains over brawn in a hero? Women could do worse.”

Her hands squeezed his biceps, but it was another muscle that flexed against the teeth of his zipper. “I never had to choose. Brains. Brawn. Looks. And rich too. You always were the total package. Some Darwinian, eugenicists ideal of reproductive supremacy.”

Brent closed his eyes as she touched upon the very nerve that not even she knew. His failure as a father. From the moment the doctors had used the A-word, he had delved deep into the research, seeking to wrap his mind around it. Somehow solve the puzzle that no one else had.

But one of the things he had discovered brought him up cold: the genetics links. Passed from father to child. His throat tightened as the self-recriminations began again. He had created a mental laundry list of all the signs of his place upon the spectrum. Something he could never deny, and something that had for nine years eaten at him. Wearing away so damned much of his heart and soul as he blamed himself for the prison of her mind in which his precious child was locked.

“Look at me, Brent,” Lauren’s hands cupped his face. He rubbed against her softness even as he fought to hold back the tears.

Not that he had ever been ashamed to cry around Lauren. She was his other half. There were no secrets between them, except for this one. He finally managed to get his emotions under control enough to blink away those tears. He forced a smile as he inhaled deeply and prepared for whatever was to come.

“It’s not your fault,” her simple words blindsided him like a sucker punch to the solar plexus.

He forced a smile wider and started to shake his head in denial, but his wife was having none of it. “Elise’s autism is not your fault, Brent. Any more than it is mine. What I ate or drank. The stress I was under finalizing my dissertation. The chemicals in the water or air. Vaccines. Gluten or processed sugars. None of that, and all of it, matters.”

Only by sheer will was Brent able to remain standing as Lauren’s words of absolution embraced him. Even if he did not fully believe them, he drank them deep into his withered soul like a cactus sucking up the rain that fell in the desert only once every few years. Precious and life-giving. Stored up to sustain it for a thousand dry, hot days to come or more. He shook his head and opened his mouth to argue, quote statistics, articles, and experts.

“What caused her autism does not matter. It never did. And if we spend all our time blaming each other, blaming ourselves, we will lose our way.” She caressed his cheek, her thumb drawing little circles on his skin, “We lost our way, Brent.”

“I don’t want to do that again. I love you. I always have. And I want to rebuild everything we once had. And more. But if I have to learn to trust you, then Brent, you have to forgive yourself for something that is not even your fault. Something that is just Fate…”

He shook his head this time as the tears began to fall in earnest. “But…”

“No buts, Brent. You have to let it go.”

“Yet id go, yet id go.” They both burst into tears and laughter as their daughter picked up on the familiar phrase and broke into the one song that she had memorized from beginning to end.

Lauren squeezed him tighter and stared up into his eyes. “I know it is a stupid cliché, but our daughter is different, not less, Brent. And why that is, is less important than how we handle it.”

“And you, sweetheart, have managed it so much better than I have. And you are damned right; that is hard for me to say. But this time, you were right. Doctor Do-Little and the way she is here proves that.”

“So with the wisdom of the innocent…” She began to sing, “It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small. And the fears that once controlled me, can’t get to me at all.”

This time it was Brent whose fingers covered her lips. “You know I love you more than life itself, sweetheart. But please, the Geneva convention on torture should have included some prohibition on your singing.”

“You wound me deeply, Dr. Jacobs,” she feigned hurt through tears of laughter.

He brushed a kiss on her forehead and held her tighter. He knew things were far from settled between them, but for the first time in more than seven years, he had hope. True, honest-to-goodness hope that they could work things through. Hope, not just faith. He inhaled deeply and filled his senses with her. Even amid a barn full of animals, it was Lauren that filled him. “I wish…”

“Me too, Brent. But we both know it is the only logical choice.”

“Logic…and you call me a Trekkie.”

She shrugged and turned in his arms to watch their daughter. “I don’t know; it seems to me that Captain Kirk and Spock made a pretty good team…passionate curiosity and analytical reserve.”

“Analytical reserve? Was that what it was last night when I had to push your face into the pillow to keep you from waking the girls with your screams?” He growled as his jest backfired. The image of her round backside, the smooth curve of her back, and cascades of red flames falling about her face as he took her from behind had him hard in an instant.

“Uh, excuse me,” came the low voice from the doorway behind them.

They turned to see Katie shifting nervously from foot to foot. “I thought I would come to say goodbye to Elise if you don’t mind,” the diminutive young woman stared at the ground.

“Of course, Katie. Are you all ready to go?” asked Lauren.

But before the young woman could answer, the barn practically shattered with a shrill, ear-piercing scream that sent even poor Doctor Do-Little scrambling for safety as the other horses in the neighboring stalls picked up the chorus braying and kicking.

They all turned to see Elise hurtling herself towards the open doorway, her hands covering her ears as she bounced from foot to foot. Brent reacted quickly enough to scoop her into his arms, but just barely.

He…they…had never liked restraining her in any way. Unless, like now, it was an issue of safety. He wrapped her arms around her body, holding her firmly but as gently as he could. These moments, as rare as they were, always tested his will and taxed his emotional reserves.

Elise threw her head back, connecting with his mouth. The coppery taste of blood filled his mouth as he struggled to maintain his hold without harming her. He looked to Lauren for her assistance. “Let her go. We’ll try following her instead?”

He nodded his agreement as the three of them exited the barn into the light, knowing that both Elise and the animals would be safer this way. The moment her little feet hit the ground, she ran across the compound, narrowly missing a couple of people, who did not attempt to intervene but merely nodded towards them.

Lauren was not capable of keeping up in her heels. So Brent ran ahead, staying close enough to protect his little girl if necessary but giving her the freedom of movement that she needed. He followed her into his home and watched as she made a beeline for the room she shared with Megan.

His older daughter was sitting on her bed, texting on her phone, when he entered. He frowned when he did not immediately see Elise. But she could not have disappeared into thin air. Megan looked up at him with a sigh and nodded her head to the twin bed on the other wall. “She’s under the bed, Dad.”

He sighed with relief but did not bother checking. He knew that to intrude now might only upset Elise more as she strove to self-soothe. Tight, dark places were among her favorite options for doing so, which was why there was nothing stored under her bed. This was certainly not the first time she had retreated there.

“What happened?” Megan whispered, knowing that any noise, even voices at this point, could set her baby sister off again.

“I don’t know. Everything was going fine. We had spent the whole morning grooming Doctor Do-Little, and she was fine. Your Mom and I were talking when Katie came in to say goodbye, and Elise just started screaming.”

His daughter frowned, “I know she loves Katie, but I can’t remember the last time she was this bad.”

“Me either, princess, that’s what worries me. Especially with both Katie and your Mom gone.”

“We’ll be fine, Dad.”

Brent nodded as guilt once more assailed him. Even Megan’s life had been forever changed by autism. When other siblings shared clothes, secrets, and fought over boyfriends, his older daughter bore some of the weight of caring for hers. He smiled in gratitude, though.

“Just leave her, Dad. Give her time to calm down, and I’ll bring her to the plane to say goodbye to Mom and Katie.”

“Are you sure, sweetie?” Brent was reluctant to add more burdens to her small shoulders.

“Sure, Dad. It will be easiest for her. And besides, you should spend some more time with Mom before she leaves.”

He nodded his head and made it back outside, where Lauren and Katie were chatting. He was approaching them when Monique came running from the direction of the command center. He smiled in greeting, but she did not seem to notice.

“Brent, we need you. Now,” she yelled as she approached.

“What is it?”

Lauren froze. As if a blast of icy arctic air had hit her full force, almost knocking her to the ground. Her heart stuttered to a stop. She could not breathe, let alone speak as the woman approached them.

She did not know what was wrong, but something was. Terribly wrong. She had known it since she woke this morning. But she had dismissed it as nothing but silly superstition. When first her daughter, then the animals in the barn, went wild, the bad omen only intensified.

The problem was – she did not believe in such things. The ‘sight,’ as Grandmam called it, was not real. It meant nothing. It was illogical and unscientific.

Monique was ashen. Even through her perfectly applied makeup, Lauren could see the pallor and the dark circles beneath her eyes that were breaming with unshed tears. She was breathless and seemed to be trembling as she approached them. But that made no sense either. The woman was in perfect shape. How could a two-minute walk, fifty yards, even at a sprinter’s pace, wind her this much?

To Lauren, everything seemed to be stuck in some bad fifties sci-fi movie in slow motion. “What’s the matter, Monique?” She could see now that his face mirrored concern too.

Monique stopped in front of them, “Vesuvius.”

“What about it? Have you heard from Benito? Is she waking too?”

She nodded, “Harmonic tremors started two hours ago.”

Brent inhaled and ran his fingers through his hair, “But still, that does not necessarily mean an eruption is imminent. They can start and then stop. I am sure that he is on it.”

It sounded strange, hearing Brent voice her conservative views. Usually, he was the rash and passionate one, not the cold, calm voice of reason and science. Lauren realized then just how much the past seven years might have changed him. Them.

“No, you have to come. Come with me now.”

“Sure, of course, Monique,” Brent tried to reassure their seemingly erratic friend as she grabbed his hand and dragged him back the way she had come.

Lauren forced herself to follow. Though she knew somehow that she did not want to see whatever had frightened Monique this way. She knew she must. She, too, must see for herself whatever this was.

If the command center had been chaotic when Laki began to erupt, then what greeted them once Monique opened its doors was utter panic and pandemonium. People ran about aimlessly. Others huddled together in groups talking in hushed whispers. A couple sat at their desk with tears streaming down their cheeks.

She turned her head to the big screen television on the wall. Even the stoic BBC announcer’s voice cracked as he spoke. She recognized him. Had met him on a few occasions. This man, who had seen over five decades upon this planet, covered natural disasters, war, and famine, was finding it virtually impossible to hold back tears as he forced each word slowly from his mouth.

“It has now been confirmed by Italian authorities. At 4:35 this afternoon, Mount Vesuvius erupted with sudden and unexpected force.” The man paused. She saw his hand that held the microphone tremble, “The loss of life is estimated at…”

He broke then, “Naples is gone, the whole fucking city is just gone.”

Lauren felt her knees begin to give way. Her head spun. Her stomach churned. She was afraid that the Mississippi Mud cake and tea that her ‘gurlfriends’ had plied her with as they pumped her for details would just as suddenly and violently erupt about the room.

Three million. Potentially three million lives or more. Gone. Just gone. Dead. One of the most beautiful and ancient cities in the world lost forever. Priceless works of art and architecture destroyed. It boggled the mind.

Of course, as a scientist, a volcanologist, she had always known the danger. Their friend Dr. Bianchi had spent his whole life trying to warn of this very eventuality. And there was no doubt in her that he was one of those who had lost their lives this day.

Still, she was human. She felt the loss. The pain. The senselessness of human hubris that built empires at the very edge of danger. Dared Mother Nature like some petulant child testing the boundaries of its parent. Senseless.

Quiet had fallen all over the room as they all seemed to turn towards Brent. She saw his shock and pain. His mentor and friend was gone, among the millions lost.

Still, they turned to him. Her husband. She reached out. Laid a hand upon his shoulder. It was not the first time they had shared this bond. He turned towards her, covered her hand with his, and gave that same gentle squeeze he had all those years ago when they faced another seemingly unfathomable loss of life. Both knew that this would surpass even that.

He tried to force a smile, to reassure her or himself, Lauren was not sure. But that was impossible, so he merely nodded in recognition of her unspoken support and comfort.   

As he had then, he turned to the others and began to issue orders. “Get me whatever fucking data you can find. I don’t care the source,” he barked to his scientific team.

“Find Daniel and Samuel…Now,” he said to another young woman.

“No need, boss. They already did.” Even Samuel’s usually jovial expression was tight and all-business.

Brent nodded again, “Okay, everyone else, I need numbers, readings. You know the drill. Etna. Cumbre Vieja. Stromboli. Montserrat. Fuck it…all of them. Yes, even the supposedly dormant ones.”

Then he turned back to them, “Monique, Daniel, Samuel, Lauren, my office now.” He did not wait as he strode straight to the glass-enclosed area.

Of course, they were all on his heels, taking places about the room as he paced and ran his hands through his hair. “Security first – did our last plane make it out of Morocco before this?”

Daniel nodded, “Yeah, Doc. It was halfway across the Atlantic when it blew. Winds are going the other way too. So they should be okay, but we have alerted them just in case.”

“Were Jill’s boys on it?”

The man dropped his head, “Nope. They did not make it there in time.” He lifted his face and smiled tightly as he added, “But three of Megan’s friends and their families made it.”

Brent nodded, “Come up with another plan, …quick. But those boys are a top priority. Any word on my stupid kid brother?”

“Nothing more since we managed to use GPS to locate his cell in Rosarita,” supplied Samuel.

“West Virginia? Are all non-essentials there?”

Lauren’s head spun with all the details and preparations that Brent had made. And all the responsibility that now rested squarely on his broad shoulders. But not even Atlas could manage this alone.

“Is my plane ready?” asked Monique.

“Yeah, both of them are fueled and waiting,” Daniel replied.

“Only need one now,” Monique looked directly at her.

Lauren shook her head. Her mission seemed even more crucial now. She opened her mouth to defend herself, but the other woman cut her short.

“Brent needs you here now, even more. You wanted another data point, mon cheri. Well, you just got it. Now work your magic and help us save some lives. And before you argue, you know damned good and well that you are the only one here with the skills to do it. Besides, your husband and daughters need you here now. And unless you are the biggest damned fool that ever walked, you’ll realize that before it is too late.”

Lauren still wanted to argue Monique’s points but the pain in the woman’s eyes spoke louder than even her brash words. She sighed, “I’m still not comfortable inciting panic without first giving the proper channels a try,” was the best argument she could come up with.

But the truth was she did not want to leave Brent to face all this alone either. He did need her. She had always been his only comfort, and she wanted to be again.

“We still have my contact in D.C.,” volunteered Daniel. “Geology may not be his specialty, but he knows statistical analysis well enough to make sense of any model or simulation. And he has contacts in NOAH and USGS too. It may not be perfect, but if we can get the information to him. I know he’ll try.”

“I’ll take it,” came a quiet voice from the corner.

Lauren had not even realized that Katie had followed them from their cabin, let alone into Brent’s office. Their eyes met, “I have to get back there. I have to,” her voice trembled.

Lauren crossed the room and took her tiny hands in hers. “Are you sure about this? I mean, you don’t have to. We’ll get you back there somehow, I promise. You don’t need to delay with this.”

Katie shook her head, “No, it’s important. Other people need the chance to save their families too.” She turned to Daniel and Brent, “So, what do you need me to do? How do I get this data to your contact?”

“The files are massive, but I’ll have them uploaded to an external hard-drive. Just deliver that to Daniel’s friend and then find your family, Katie. I’ll give you a map to the extraction point in West Virginia. Since they are traveling overland in a small caravan of vehicles, we are delaying as long as possible with them.”

“But we can’t run the risk of them getting caught up in panic or strife. There are other safe houses along the way, though. I’ll make sure you have a map of all of them. Just get back here, however, or whenever you can. You’re family too,” Brent said with as reassuring a smile as Lauren knew he could manage.

Katie’s eyes glistened with tears, “Thank you both. I wish I deserved your faith and trust. Wish I could tell you more.”

“You don’t need to…and we do trust you. With our daughter’s life. So, let us help you with yours now,” Lauren squeezed her hand tighter.

Katie nodded and turned to Daniel, “You’ll get word to your friend that there’s been a change of plans?”

“Yeah, I make certain that Zane knows. I’ll have him meet you at the airfield tonight when you land. That way, you can get straight onto your errand.”

Katie’s face went white, and Lauren had to reach out and grasp her elbow to keep her from collapsing. “Zane?” her friend whispered.

“Yes, Commander Zane Rogers. Why? Do you know him?”

Katie squared her shoulders and shook her head. “Nyet,” her hand flew to her mouth, “No, not yet, but I look forward to meeting any friend of yours.”

Lauren studied the nervous way her friend shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “I better go and make sure I have everything. I suppose the sooner we take off, the better,” her friend replied.

“Yeah, me too,” agreed Monique.

“Not without my say, Monique,” Lauren was surprised at how sharp a tone Brent took with his friend. “I want your word.”

“Oui, mon ami, your word…or forty-eight hours. We do not have time to waste. People’s lives depend upon this,” to emphasize her point, Monique pointed to the live news feed that was beginning to have video footage of the continuing eruption of Vesuvius.

Lauren saw the dark cloud that passed over Brent’s handsome face as he nodded his head reluctantly. “But a full forty-eight, Monique. No leaks. No games. Not this time.”

“You have my word, cheri.”

Lauren just hoped that the woman could be trusted to keep it and not seek out the limelight that was her reputation. “Well, I better get to work on the new data.”

It seemed so callous that so many millions of lives were nothing more than ‘new data.’ But there could be millions, or even tens of millions, more counting on her getting that new data right. Her calculations could save lives, or cost them.

She smiled at Daniel and Samuel as best she could manage. “If you could ask your wives to keep the cake and tea coming, I’d appreciate it.”

They nodded as everyone filed out of the room, leaving just her and Brent. The door was not even closed before they found one another’s arms. This was not sexual. It was as it always had been two halves seeking comfort and solace in the whole. Something they both needed at the moment. Without words, they held one another until each found the strength to face the challenges that lie ahead.

“Time to get to work, Dr. Masters,” he teased as he powered up the simulation once more.

Lauren shook her head, “Mrs. Jacobs will do. Dr. Mrs., if you insist.”

“Watch your cheeky mouth, woman, or it will get you into trouble.”

She winked as she took a seat, “Or you, Dr. Jacobs.” Licking her bottom lip as a tantalizing reminder.

“Only the best kind of trouble, sweetheart.”

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