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Take Me to Fight

Take Me to Fight

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There's an imminent threat to national security and George Hartmann is one of only a handful of patriots who can thwart it.
George never imagined he'd be forced to come out of retirement and rejoin his former special ops colleagues. Not to mention, the timing couldn't be worse. Our military hero turned family man is embroiled in a fight to keep his loved ones safe from ruthless villains who are determined to rehash a vendetta.
With the fate of millions on the line, George must put his personal interests aside in service to his country. Will he find a way to navigate divided loyalties and save the day?
Take Me to Fight is the fourth book in the Ithaca Falls series and the continuation of an ongoing family saga. It was originally published as Limits of Protection in the George Hartmann Series. Fans of Melinda Leigh, Kendra Elliot, Lisa Regan, and Mary Burton will devour this pulse-pounding drama. 
Publication date: December 12, 2019.

About the Ithaca Falls Series:

The Ithaca Falls series chronicles the close-knit Hartmann and Davies family as they return to their cozy hometown of Ithaca Falls, New York after having lived in Washington, D.C. Little do they know what trouble awaits.

This suspense-filled story, anchored by the deep affection between George and Alessandra, reveals how the connections we share can ground us during even the most difficult times as we endeavor to learn what we're made of.

Join the family you'll feel like you already know as, together, they explore the meaning of life beyond what lies on the surface and fight against all odds to keep each other safe.

Look Inside

Chapter One
Within Reach


“I’m proud of you, kid.”

I’m still fast asleep as the morning sun shines through the windows of our vacation rental home, but I hear the words loud and clear. It’s Dad’s voice. I’d recognize it anywhere. He always called me kid. To a guy who lost his dad at sixteen, these words mean everything. I want desperately to make my father proud.

“I’m proud of you, son.”

This time, it’s my grandfather’s voice. When Dad left, John Wendell took to calling me son. He, too, is dead and gone from sight now. But in his case, it’s been less than a year. This is the first time I’ve heard his voice since he passed. It’s music to my ears.

I smile as I feel myself waking up to greet the summer sunshine. Dad and John Wendell are with me, yet just beyond reach. They’re probably close by because of what happened last night.

I open my eyes and look over at the other side of the king-size bed. My beloved Alessandra isn’t there because she’s still in the hospital, but our three kiddos are. I wanted to keep them near me. After what we’ve been through, I’m not sure I’ll let them out of my sight ever again. I know that isn’t realistic. But it’s what I feel right now. I need time to heal. We all do.

Little Will is snuggled tightly beside me with his back up against my chest. He’s warm and soft with that sweet, distinctive baby smell. He’s beginning to stir and I know it will soon be time to get up and prepare a bottle of infant formula for him to drink. It still pains me that he can’t nurse from Ali’s breast like he’s used to. She and I had been planning to start him on solid foods this month anyway, so I’m going to go ahead and do that today. We’ll begin with some rice cereal and pureed vegetables. It will be fun to see what flavors our littlest guy prefers. Maybe his older brothers will want to get in on the action and help prepare his food. We can make it a family affair. At least, what’s left of our family, anyway.

I asked Liam to take a trip to the grocery store for us this morning. He’s probably at the Bi-Mart now. The thought of my uncle casually shopping for groceries seems odd after all that has transpired this week at that very same store. Life can be strange, that’s for sure. Liam is scheduled to fly back to Ithaca Falls, New York this evening. He said he wanted to get me and the boys set up as best he could before he goes.

My little buddy Leo has casts on both of his legs from breaks he sustained during the vehicle accident. Dr. Paulette Adams assured me it was okay to take Leo home and that the casts would protect him from further injury. She said a two-year-old will heal quickly. He’s laying on the other side of little Will, sleeping soundly. I figure he needs extra rest after yesterday’s surgery to repair his fractures.

On the far side lays my dear Ethan. He’s sleeping at the moment, but has been tossing and turning. I don’t blame him. He went through a nightmarish ordeal last night. It’s more than any four-year-old should have to endure. He’ll be five soon, but still. I plan to make an appointment to get him in to see a counselor right away. I’d even be willing to let Joe work with my boy, if he’s willing. To hell with the fact that Joe is Mom’s boyfriend now and here in a personal capacity. Joseph Epstein is a top-notch psychologist and I trust him. I don’t know whether or not he’ll agree to help us out, but I’ll ask.

I would have expected to have been dazed after last night, but I’m not. I’m remarkably clear. I feel strong. I’m proud of myself.

In spite of my fears, I jumped out on a literal ledge to save my boy. I pursued his kidnapper to the roof of a four-story building, then I took on two guys who were bigger and stronger than me with my bare hands until, finally, I grabbed Ethan’s shirt as he dangled over the edge, pulling him to safety in the knick of time. It feels good to have been so useful. I feel like a real hero.

But something else about last night is piquing my interest this morning.

It’s Clive. I can’t get him out of my mind. I can’t help but wonder if he’s the one who murdered Ethan in Ancient Greece.

How many people get a chance to look one of their enemies right in the eye? How many get to stand shoulder to shoulder with them while working together towards a common goal?

I'm not sure whether it is a good or a bad thing, but it’s what happened to me. Clive and I were apparently adversaries in a past life which we lived together in Ancient Greece. I only remember fragments and I'm still working to piece them all together, but what I do know is significant.

We both loved the same woman. She's my wife now and I'm connected to her deeply. I've been connected to her through time and space. But I remember a period in Ancient Greece when Clive Roland was also connected to my Alessandra. The two of them were lovers. I don't know the rest of the story, but I saw them together, intimately, in my memory. Though it pains me to admit it, there was also a stretch in this life when she and Clive apparently had some sort of relationship. There's a picture of the two of them together, taken around the time Ali became pregnant with Ethan.

Clive claims he is Ethan's biological father. I don't take his claim lightly, but I haven't asked my wife about it yet. Because I can’t.

Ali has been through one hell of a nightmare recently. She and our three little boys, along with her mother Marjorie, were run off the road and pushed into a ravine where they remained for many hours. Marjorie and the boys were eventually able to leave the crash scene and walk to find help, but my wife was pinned by a tree which entered the vehicle upon impact. She was found alive, thank God. But she’s in the intensive care unit at the South Lake Tahoe Community Medical Center in critical condition, fighting for her life.

It's been quite a week. And it isn’t the first time this year that my world has descended into a tailspin. The first time was back in January. Seemingly out of nowhere, an intruder broke into our house through a second-story bedroom window where Ethan and Leo were sleeping. The guy got his hands on Ethan and carried him out the window. I was alerted to what was happening through a dream where my long-deceased father warned me to wake up and be ready. With the help of our German Shepherd, Lady, and my father-in-law, Roddy, we saved Ethan as he was just feet away from being placed into a getaway vehicle and taken from us.

Less than a week later our beloved patriarch, my grandfather, John Wendell, passed away, but not before our youngest son, Will, was born. We named the baby John William after my grandfather. Thankfully, we were able to place little Will in John Wendell's arms before he passed and we had a chance to tell the old man that the baby was named after him. It was beautiful. For sure, a cycle-of-life moment.

A lot of good came out of that week. Our family learned that we can count on each other. We came through the cold and the dark and the terror, stronger together. We emerged wiser. We’re more whole. More of the best parts of ourselves.

That was also the week I first remembered having lived a past life in Ancient Greece. Those memories were a jolt to the system, but at the same time, they felt natural. Like they had always been there. The psychologist who hypnotized me and facilitated those memories coming to the surface, Dr. Epstein, initially treated me like he thought I was crazy. And I do mean certifiably mentally ill. It was a lot to take in at once.

So, I spent the better part of six months avoiding the break-in trauma, the grief from losing my grandfather, and the past life memories altogether. I knew there were things I should have been doing. On the plus side, I strategized about my business plans to protect my loved ones through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. My uncle Liam and I are both aerospace engineers and we've spent the better part of our adult lives working on aerospace technology in the Air Force. Our technology is sound. I expect the business to be a success once we get it going. But regrettably, I didn't move fast enough in making that happen. We came out here to Lake Tahoe for a vacation, thinking that life was back to normal and we would be safe. We had only been here a few days when my family was run off the road and our world descended into chaos again.

The forty-eight or so hours after the accident were some of the most intense of my entire life. I thought I had known difficulty, having been in Special Operations in the Air Force and all. But nothing could have prepared me to withstand what happened to us this week. For an entire day and over an entire night, my wife, my three little boys, and my mother-in-law were missing. I had no idea what was happening and no idea if they would ever be found and returned safely. It was maddening and heartbreaking. I felt like I nearly lost my mind at a few different points. I passed out twice and had a huge panic attack in front of a lot of people I didn't even know. If it weren’t for the other close family members and friends in my life, I don't think I would have gotten through. My father-in-law, Roderick Davies, my uncle, Liam Hartmann, my friend, Duke Hale, and my friend, Taye Jackson, are the best. They held me up when I literally couldn't stand on my own. They used their training to get involved in the investigation and to do what they could to assist. I’m incredibly grateful to have those guys.

Recently, I came to learn that my father-in-law used to be British Intelligence back when he was a young man. Roddy was a field agent and was well trained for all kinds of espionage-related tasks. Most people who have known him as a famous playwright in New York City all the years since would have no idea about his dangerous background. Our friend Duke is a police officer back home in Ithaca Falls, New York. He just so happened to have a friend on the South Lake Tahoe Police Department who allowed Duke to get involved with the investigation after my family disappeared. And Taye is former FBI. He worked for the Bureau in Albany, New York for many years before moving to the Gold Coast of Connecticut. He now owns and operates a private security firm that helps high-end, wealthy clients secure their multimillion-dollar homes.

Roddy and Liam came to Tahoe with me for the family vacation. But Duke and Taye came out to talk business. The business idea began as a venture between me and my uncle Liam, then expanded to include Roddy. But the three of us agreed to bring Duke and Taye into the fold soon after. The five of us conducted our first meeting in the waters of crystal-clear Lake Tahoe on the afternoon my family went missing. Aside from those horrors which the guys and I were blissfully ignorant of it, the business meeting was productive. It left me excited about the possibilities and feeling sure about my future.

But it all came crashing down when I received a call to inform me that someone had placed a tracking device on our rental vehicles. That information tipped us off and we instantly knew the ladies and the kids were in trouble. What followed has kept me from moving forward on the business as planned. But at the same time, it’s made me think perhaps I should accelerate that progress and get things moving immediately.

It wasn’t a total win, but we experienced relief as my mother-in-law and little boys were found alive. Ali, unfortunately, was still missing. My mother-in-law, Marjorie, had to leave her daughter to get help for herself and the boys. They were becoming dehydrated and hungry. Leo had broken his legs in several places and he needed immediate medical attention. Marjorie had no choice but to leave Ali, really. I understand that. Marjorie was able to free herself and get out of the wrecked vehicle with the boys, but Ali was pinned by a tree trunk which had entered during the crash. She had lost a lot of blood and her mom didn't think she’d make it out alive. Selfless as always, Ali insisted that her mom take the boys and go to save them.

I experienced a roller-coaster of emotions as I was reunited with my boys while thinking Ali was dead. Until, against all odds, Ali was found alive later that night and brought into the hospital clinging to life.

It's been a day and a half now that Ali has been in a medically-induced coma, but later this afternoon they're going to try and wake her up. Dr. Wong remains cautiously optimistic, just like he has all along. He gave me the whole speech about how Ali might not wake up right away. He also told me we don't know what kind of toll the trauma she’s experienced will have taken on her body and mind. He told me to prepare to be disappointed and that anything better would be a bonus. But I'm expecting better. I'm an optimist. I can't help it. When they first brought Ali into the emergency department, Dr. Wong didn’t think she would last through surgery. And he didn't think she would last through the first night. And now here we are, still going strong. Her healing has exceeded his expectations.

Most notably, our baby growing inside Ali’s womb has hung on despite the overwhelming odds against its survival. I was elated when Dr. Wong first told me Ali was pregnant. We've always wanted four kids. Even though we didn't expect the fourth to come along so soon, it's always been a part of the plan for us. Dr. Wong repeatedly told me that a fetus won't typically survive when the mother has been through all that Ali has. He told me to expect a miscarriage at any time. But it hasn’t happened. Our baby is hanging on.
At this point, Dr. Wong is cautiously optimistic about that, too. He estimates the baby at about eight weeks gestation. He says that if the pregnancy lasts past the end of the first trimester at twelve weeks, then odds are good for a full-term birth. Four more weeks to go until that milestone and I'm counting down the days.

As for what’s happening now, the boys and I are going to stay put right here in South Lake Tahoe to be near Ali. We're staying at the same vacation rental house. Luckily, the realtor who helped us lease it in the first place was able to get our stay extended for as long as we want. Given our unusual situation, she was more than happy to juggle reservations and place the guests who would have been coming in after us in alternate properties.

My in-laws, Marjorie and Roddy, are staying in Tahoe as well. They want to be close to their daughter, understandably. And they're a big help with the boys. Ever since Leo's surgery on his broken leg, the poor little guy can't get around like normal. Between that and little Will being an infant, it takes two people at any given moment to care for the group of boys. Taye and Duke are planning to head home over the next couple of days, but Mom and Joe are also going to stick around awhile.

I don’t prefer being stuck here like this. Who would? Ethan is supposed to be starting preschool in Ithaca Falls soon and I’ll bet he’s going to miss it. But it can't be avoided. I’ve considered sending the boys back home with Marjorie, Roddy, and Liam to watch over them, but I think it's too much to ask of my extended family members. Besides, I feel most comfortable being around to protect those little boys myself.

Ali's brother, Nicky, is in town and plans to stick around for several more days as needed. Nicky and Roddy stayed at the hospital with Ali last night. The two of them said they wanted to watch over her, just in case Clive and his accomplice tried to get to her at the medical center. Marjorie came home with me and the boys, as did Liam, Mom, Joe, Duke, and Taye. I’m glad we rented a large house.

I hear someone rustling around in the kitchen now. It’s probably Marjorie trying to make us breakfast. She and Roddy love to cook and I imagine it's therapeutic for her, even when she's exhausted or the circumstances are difficult.

I suppose I should be worried that Clive or perhaps an unidentified threat will try to break into this house. It's on my radar and I am somewhat concerned. But I feel so much better having been the hero and having saved the day on my own. I truly did switch from being reactive like prey to being aggressive like a predator. It paid off big. I feel like I have some measure of control now. Like I can actually protect my family. I feel ready. If someone else wants to try me, let them.

The change began with my new attitude yesterday and it will continue with my business. We plan on moving quickly to get drones in the air as soon as possible for surveillance and security. And I'm dead set on weaponizing the things. I don't care what regulatory agency I have to go through. It's going to happen.

I'm still lost in my thoughts when I hear a knock on the door. It sounds gentle. It’s most likely Mom or Marjorie.

"George?" It's Marjorie. She's here to check on us and to offer to help with the boys.

"I'm here," I say quietly, trying not to wake the boys up any sooner than they're ready. "Come on in."

Marjorie walks in the door slowly, closing it softly behind her. She still looks exhausted from everything she's been through. The stress of being outdoors at the crash site and stuck in the van for so long has taken a toll. Not to mention, the fact that she had to carry both Leo and little Will when they left the van and went looking for help means she really exerted herself. Because Leo's legs were broken, he couldn't walk on his own.

I can't begin to express how grateful I am that my mother-in-law was there to carry my boys to safety. She’s in excellent shape. She takes care of herself and has always been big into yoga. She certainly seems youthful for her age and that vitality was a big help when it came time to carry the boys. But everyone has their limits.

"How are you, George?" Marjorie asks as she sits down on the bed near my legs.

"Actually," I say. "I'm pretty damn good."

She pulls her chin back and raises her eyebrows in surprise as the corners of her mouth turn up into a smile.

"Really, now?" she asks.

"Really," I reply. "I'm happy that I was finally able to do something. You understand. You probably feel the same way about carrying the boys away from the crash site, right? It feels better to take action and make some progress as opposed to being completely at the mercy of fate."

My mother-in-law smiles bigger. She does understand.

“I think I do," she replies. "Although, I wasn't able to do nearly enough. I feel so bad about leaving my daughter in the van in that condition."

"Oh, don’t feel guilty, Marjorie,” I say. "I know Ali wouldn't want you to. You said yourself how she insisted that you leave her to get the boys out."

"That's true," she says. "I didn't want to leave her. I stayed for a long time when I could have left with the boys because I figured Ali wouldn't make it if left alone. But I'm definitely in favor of not beating ourselves up over what we couldn't do. We need to focus on what we could and what we can. We're all doing our best."

"I agree,” I say. “One hundred percent.”

We both look over at my three sleeping boys. We all love them so very much. I'm grateful that my boys have an extended family to look out for them. If nothing else, the hell we've been through this year has shown us how fiercely we will fight for each other. We will not let each other down.

"Have you heard from Roddy or Nicky this morning?" I ask.

“Yeah, I have," Marjorie says. "I spoke with Nicky before I came here to your room. No change in Ali’s condition, but doctors are very pleased she's holding steady."

"That’s such good news," I say. "Really good news."

Marjorie shakes her head up and down in agreement.

"No disturbances at the hospital overnight?" I ask.

"No, none that we know of."

"That's also a relief,” I mumble to myself. I can tell my mother-in-law has something else to say. "Well, what is it?" I ask. “Something is on your mind.”
Marjorie chuckles. "Am I that easy to read?"

"Pretty easy," I say with a laugh. "Maybe it's because we've known each other for so long now. I'm sure the fact that I know your daughter so well doesn't hurt either. The two of you are a lot alike."

"I suppose you're right," she says.

"So?" I ask.

"Okay," she answers. "It’s, well… you’re all over the news."

“Yeah," I say without hesitation. "I figured as much. I tried to tune out the news helicopter as it hovered overhead. It pissed me off because of the bright light in my eyes and all the wind it kicked up. Those assholes made it hard to stay on that ledge. All the wind might have had something to do with Ethan tipping over the side of the roof."

"I can understand your position," Marjorie says. "That would piss me off, too."

"But I don't blame them," I continue. "The local news station has a duty to keep residents informed. There probably would have been questions about what the helicopter was doing and why the hospital was on lockdown. It only makes sense that the news crew would explain."

“Oh,” Marjorie says. "You thought I meant just the local news?”

"Yeah," I say. "Isn't that who was filming?”

Marjorie places one hand on my leg and pats my calf a couple of times. “George," she continues. "This is one of the reasons we all love you. You’re humble to a fault."

"What do you mean?” I ask.

"Stay here," she says. "I'll show you."

Marjorie stands up and walks over to turn on the television which sits high on a dresser across the room. I wonder what she's doing. Local news shouldn’t be on right now. It's past time for the morning report and it's not yet time for a midday broadcast.

My mother-in-law picks up the remote and begins searching through the guide until she finds cable news. My stomach does a flip inside me as the realization dawns on me.

"Oh, no,” I say. "Did I...?"

"You did,” she answers. "Your heroism made national news. The footage the local news crew recorded from their helicopter is being shown all over the world. You're being hailed as a hero."

To say I’m uncomfortable with media attention is an understatement. I like my privacy. I don't need random people heaping praise on me or, for that matter, knowing who I am in the first place.

"Wow,” I reply.

Marjorie looks at me and smiles. "You deserve some positive attention," she says. "What you did was nothing short of heroic. I know I'm proud of you."

I smile back at my mother-in-law. The word hero sounds good when she says it. I’m reminded of hearing Dad and John Wendell’s voices say they’re proud of me. Marjorie is the most spiritual and intuitive member of our family, so I can talk to her about this sort of topic anytime.

"You know," I begin. "I just heard Dad’s voice and then John Wendell’s. They each said they were proud of me, too. I heard them, clear as day, while I was waking up. Do you think it was really them?"

"It's hard to say for sure about that type of thing," Marjorie replies. "But, personally, I think it probably was them. For some reason, it seems easiest for our loved ones who have passed on to communicate with us through dreams. Maybe because our conscious minds aren't working to block out the input and dismiss it like they typically are when we’re awake. Or maybe there's another mechanism we don't yet understand. Either way, I tend to believe it's real communication most of the time.”

"I hope so," I say. "I sure do miss them."

"I know you do, George," Marjorie says kindly. "I think I speak for everyone who has ever loved you when I say we’re incredibly proud of you right now. You have a whole group of us cheering you on."

“Thank you,” I say. "It's funny you mention a group, because last night when I was standing in that waiting room before I stepped out onto that ledge to go after Ethan, I could feel Dad and John Wendell as if they were standing right beside me. Then others seemed to join in, too. I could feel Grandma. And Grandad and Grandmother Marks. I even felt an old friend from my time as a drone pilot in the Air Force who passed away tragically in Las Vegas. It seemed like there was a whole group of them cheering me on and supporting me as I faced my fears.”

“That’s beautiful,” Marjorie says. "You should cherish that experience and tell the story to your children and grandchildren. Not everyone receives a gift like that from their deceased loved ones and ancestors."

"It was pretty special,” I say. “I'm not going to lie. I was terrified before stepping out on that ledge. I needed all the support I could get.”

“I don’t blame you,” Marjorie says. “I think anyone would have been scared to step out on the ledge like you did. Especially with the helicopter hovering overhead, light blaring in your eyes, and winds whipping up wind all around the building. You did a tremendous job in an intense situation.”

“At the time,“ I begin. “I had to give myself a quick pep talk before I stepped outside. I knew I was going to do it, but it took me a minute to gather the nerve. It made me think about heroes and how many of them say they were scared. It seems like, in general, we tend to think of heroes as fearless. But I now know for certain that’s not the case. I was scared as hell.“

We both turn our attention back to the TV as a cable news anchor wearing a dark suit and tie summarizes what happened to me and Ethan. He sounds impressed as he describes my pursuit on the way to rescuing my boy.

“How long have they been talking about us?“ I asked.

“I don’t know, “Marjorie says. “Maybe we should check with some of our friends on the East Coast who woke up earlier. I started watching this at seven local time. They’ve been replaying it ever since.“

The noise from the television is waking the boys. It’s time for them to get up anyway. I take a moment and consider whether or not to let them see me on TV news, but decide that I might as well. They’re going to know about it. I don’t think keeping it from them would do any good. Little Will rises quickly, sitting straight up in the bed and smiling as big as ever.

“Do you want me to turn it off?” Marjorie asks.

“No, don’t bother,” I say. “I’ll talk to the boys about it.”

Marjorie nods her head in agreement. “Do you think it will be hard for Ethan to watch?” she asks quietly.

“I don’t know,“ I say. “I don’t think he’ll be able to escape it. Seems better that he sees the footage with us, right?“

“It will certainly help for him to be with family members who can explain things to him when he sees it,” Marjorie answers. “I’m just concerned about the replay being too overwhelming for him. He needs time to process what happened. He probably needs professional help to process it.“

“I hear you,“ I say. “I was thinking of asking Joe if he’d be willing to talk with Ethan. I know that counseling kids who have been through trauma is within his area of expertise. I’m not sure whether or not he’ll do it though. He refused to hypnotize me last night when I wanted to try and learn more about Clive to figure out his motivations and to find Liam. In fact, Joe got pretty angry when I asked.“

“Maybe he needs some time to process as well,” Marjorie says. “He has professional ethics to consider. And it’s a lot to take in.“

Little Will crawls on top of my chest and looks hard into my eyes. He wants to eat breakfast and to play. Babies are amazingly resilient. As long as the basics are taken care of and they’re connected to a loving caregiver, they can get through just about anything. It’s a survival mechanism.

“Do you want me to feed the baby his breakfast?“ Marjorie asks.

I look at her reluctantly, debating whether or not I should lean on her. I don’t want to overwhelm my mother-in-law. We’ve all had a terrible time. I’m feeling energized at the moment and could probably manage on my own, but it will be a big job to take care of three little boys by myself. Especially considering that one has casts on his legs and another is, no doubt, deeply traumatized from the events of last night. I decide to let Marjorie help. I’m grateful for the assistance.

“I had better say yes to that offer. Thank you, Marjorie. I don’t know what we’d do without you.” I kiss little Will on the cheek and hand him up to his grandma. “Go to Mama Marjorie, little buddy,” I say. “She’ll get you breakfast.”

“I’ve got him,” Marjorie assures as she takes Will into her arms. Will smiles and babbles in response. He’s probably saying good morning to his Mama Marjorie.

“Marjorie?“ I ask. “Do you think we’re safe here today?“ It’s strange to hear the words come out of my mouth. I sound like a child looking for reassurance when I should be the one reassuring my children.

“I think so,“ she says.” There are a lot of us adults here. Liam is out at the grocery store, but he’ll be back soon. I’m here. Plus, Linette and Joe, Taye, and Duke are here. The security system is armed. And besides, there’s so much media camped at the edge of the property that I doubt anyone who wants to do us harm could get through without being captured on camera.”

“You’re right,” I say. “I should have known the damn media circus was still here. I guess it was foolish of me, but I let myself think they were leaving us alone. Didn’t they get enough footage from the helicopter last night?“

“I’m afraid that was just the beginning,” Marjorie says. “They’re out there waiting for you. And they’re desperate for a scoop.“ She bounces Will on her hip as she talks. He’s easily entertained and giggles while being bounced. Ethan and Leo are both waking up now.

“I don’t know what kind of scoop they think they’re going to get from me,“ I say. “I don’t have any comment. What happened on the roof was pretty clear. You’d think they would be glad to have that footage and would leave the rest alone.“

“You know how they do it,” Marjorie says. “They want to talk about every angle of what happened. They’re probably trying frantically to get in touch with people who you’ve known to request interviews. The public wants to hear every single thing about you they can. It’s the way it works.“

I turn and smile at Leo and Ethan as they stretch and work to focus their tired little lies. They both look exhausted.

“Hello, my boys,“ I say. “How are you this morning?“

I’m not sure what I should say to Ethan. I don’t want to traumatize him any further, so I start by pretending nothing is wrong. I don’t mean to ignore what has happened, but I want to get a read on how he’s feeling first. I don’t want to add any more tension to an already precarious situation.

“Good morning, Daddy,“ Leo says with a grin. He looks down at his little legs as if he suddenly remembers the casts, then pulls the knit blanket and the sheet down to take a closer look. “My legs got broken,” Leo says matter-of-factly.

“I know they did, buddy,” I say. “And you did a really good job during your surgery. Dr. Adams fixed your legs with an operation. Remember?“

Leo shakes his head up-and-down, looking proud. “How will I walk?“ he asks.

“We will carry you,“ I reply. “Like we did when you were a baby.”

“Forever?” he asks.”I be a baby forever?” The poor little guy sounds like he would accept the situation if I told him he had to be carried forever. Kids really are resilient.

“Oh, no,” I say. “Just for a while. Your legs need time to heal.“ I don’t bother to specify how many weeks or months, because I know that won’t mean much to a two-year-old. “But once they are all healed up, you’ll be able to walk again. Just like before the accident.”

Leo smiles and appears okay with this. Ethan is wide-awake now, but he seems distant. I reach a hand over and pat him on the back.

“How is our big boy doing this morning?“ I ask.

He turns and looks at me and then looks over at Marjorie. “Did Mommy die?“ he asks. Our poor, sweet boy. His question guts me.

“No, son,” I say. “Mommy is still alive. She’s at the hospital. Papa Roddy and Uncle Nicky are there with her. They stayed all night.“

“Is she awake?” Ethan asks.

I sit up in the bed and scoot towards the middle to make space so both Leo and Ethan can sit close beside me. I can see the lake out of the bedroom windows from this vantage point. It’s sparkling, beautiful as ever, in the morning sun.

“Come around the side,“ I say to Ethan as I motion towards the other side of the bed. “I want to hold you.“

Ethan looks at me reluctantly. “Why do I have to, Daddy?“ he asks. He’s usually pretty agreeable.

“I want to be closer to you,“ I say. “Come on over.“

“Are you going to tell me something bad?“ he asks as he climbs down and walks around to the other side of the bed as I requested.

“I'll always tell you the truth,” I say. “Some bad things have happened to our family. But we’re strong together and we’re going to get through it all, just like we have so far.“

“Okay,“ he says softly. He leans on me and scrunches up his little face. “Did something bad happen while I was sleeping?“

My heart hurts for my little guy. Ethan‘s questions are perfectly legitimate. Hell, I’ve felt the same way each time I’ve woken up lately. There’s been so much bad news to process. Marjorie sighs and looks at us sympathetically as she sways gently to soothe Will.

“Nothing bad happened while you were sleeping,“ I reassure.

Ethan seems satisfied with that answer. He burrows his little head into my chest, covering his eyes. “Daddy?“ he asks as he looks up at me.

“Yes, son,“ I answer. “You can ask me anything.”

“What you mean is nothing bad happened that you know about?” he clarifies.

“I guess you’re right,” I concede. “Nothing that I know about.”

“Will you always be here to keep me safe?“

I look at Marjorie. It hurts us both to hear Ethan so scared and unsure. I’m reminded of the morning we flew out here to Lake Tahoe when Ethan woke up after having had a bad dream. I told him then that I would keep him safe. But I didn’t. I was ultimately successful in protecting him after the save on the roof at the hospital last night, but I didn’t keep him safe from the crash. I didn’t keep his mom safe. If I had listened to my uneasy feeling before the guys and I went out on the boat the other day, maybe I could have prevented what happened to my family. Maybe Clive wouldn’t have been able to get to them if I had kept them closer to me.

I should have done more.

I don’t have any choice but to reassure Ethan and tell him I will always be here to keep him safe. At his young age, he needs that reassurance. He needs a father who can give him that reassurance.

“Yes, Ethan,” I confirm. “I will always be here to keep you safe. I can’t promise that bad things won’t happen, but I can promise I will do everything possible to make sure that you, your brothers, and your mom stay safe.“

“I promise to keep you safe, too,“ Marjorie adds. “Just like I did when our van crashed. It was very scary for all of us. But like your daddy says, we will get through it together if anything else bad should happen.“

Ethan stares off into the distance. It seems like he isn’t entirely convinced. I don’t blame him. His eyes rest on the television which is still showing cable news footage of us on the hospital roof. His eyebrows raise as he realizes.

“Daddy, is that us on the TV?“

“Yes, it is,“ I say simply. “Mama Marjorie saw us on the news this morning. She came in to tell me about it and was showing me on the TV right before you woke up.“

Ethan climbs out of bed and walks over to stand close to the television. He has to lean his head back to see it.

“That’s you and the bad man,“ he says, pointing up at the screen.

Upon hearing this description, I think about Clive claiming to be Ethan‘s biological father. If that should turn out to be true, I probably ought not to label him as a bad man. It sickens me to think about. But if Ethan ever ends up having to spend time with Clive, I don’t want my boy to be scared. And as strange as it sounds, I don’t think Clive would harm him. He proved that on the roof last night.

“That’s me,” I say. “You’re right about that part. And the other man standing next to me… well, I’m not sure that he’s bad. I think maybe he’s confused.“

“Being confused made him do bad things,” Ethan summarizes.

“I guess you could say that, yeah,” I confirm. “Good thinking.”

“What about the other man?” Ethan asks, pointing towards Clive’s accomplice. “That’s the man who pretended to be a nurse and took me away. He’s a bad man.“

It’s hard to know how much detail I should provide Ethan. Especially when it’s hard to make sense of the whole thing myself.

“I didn’t get as close to that man,“ I say. “He was further away from me. I don’t even know his name. He does seem like a bad man though. I know he scared you. And that was definitely a bad thing to do. Very bad.“

I can’t help but wonder if the accomplice had good intentions. What if he’s related to Clive and thought he was doing the right thing by trying to take Ethan? I suppose if he thought Ethan was his nephew, for instance, his intentions might have been good. I know that if Liam was trying to get Ethan back to us, he would have done what Clive’s accomplice did. And more. I again think about the possibility that Clive turns out to be Ethan‘s father. If his accomplice is a relative, then Ethan might have to someday meet the guy. I don’t want my boy to be scared of that either.

These are impossible scenarios. I have no idea how I’m supposed to reassure Ethan. I’m doing my best. I wish Ali was here to help. She always seems to know the right thing to say.

“The man with the black hair,” Ethan says, pointing to Clive again. “He caught me from falling off the roof like you did.”

“That’s right,” I confirm. “I’m glad he did.“

“Why did he do it?“ Ethan asks.

I have to be very careful about how I answer this question. When we were all on the roof, in the heat of the moment, Clive called Ethan his boy. I’m not sure Ethan was emotionally present enough to catch the reference, let alone process it. But in case he did, I want to be sure he knows he can always talk to me about it.

“I think because he didn’t want you to get hurt,” I reply.

Marjorie offers me a reassuring nod, letting me know I’m handling the discussion well. I appreciate her support.

Ethan stares at the TV as he thinks about my answer. I wait expectantly, hoping he’ll be satisfied enough to let the topic drop for now. I need more time to figure out what’s going on before I’ll know how to explain it to him.

“Daddy?” Ethan asks, still staring at the television. “When can we go home?“

I take a deep breath before I answer. It’s a tough question, but I prefer it to any more talk of Clive. “This is our temporary home for right now,” I say. “We’re going to be staying here a while longer. We could think of this as one of our homes if you like. What if we call it our Lake Tahoe house?“

“I want to go to our Ithaca Falls house.“

I get out of bed and walk over to hug Ethan. I kneel in front of him and open my arms wide. He accepts the invitation and leans his little chin on my shoulder as he wraps his arms around my neck. I sure do love this little human. He and his brothers and his mom are my world.

“I want to go to our Ithaca Falls house, too,” I say. “But we have to wait here in Lake Tahoe until Mommy is healed up enough to travel back home to New York. I don’t know how long it will take for that to happen.“

“But I want to go to our favorite places,” Ethan pleas, beginning to cry. “I want things to be like what I’m used to. I want my room and my toys. I want to go to the farmers’ market with you and pick out fruits and vegetables. I want to see Lady. I miss her a lot.“

He breaks down and begins to sob with big, fat tears.

“Awe, buddy,“ I say, wrapping my arms tightly around him. “I want to do those things, too. And I definitely want to see our Ladygirl. She’s waiting on us at Jen and Duke's house. She’s safe there. Jen is taking good care of her. But I understand how you feel. It’s okay to cry.”

Leo scoots himself up in the bed, becoming concerned about his big brother. Little Will is concerned as well. He sits up straighter in Marjorie‘s arms as he looks on. I had better sound more convincing. My boys need reassurance. They need to believe in me.

“I’ll tell you what,“ I say. “When I go to the hospital today to visit Mommy and talk to her doctor, I’m going to ask when he thinks she’ll be able to travel home to Ithaca Falls. If Dr. Wong thinks it’s going to be longer than a few more days, then I’ll talk to Jen and we will find a way to get Lady here at our Lake Tahoe house with us. How does that sound?”

Marjorie looks at me skeptically, probably wondering why I just made things more complicated for myself. But I can tell she understands. Getting Lady out here would be a relatively easy thing to do. Her presence would make a huge difference in the well-being of my boys. Not to mention, I wouldn’t mind having our German Shepherd around to help watch over the place. She came through for us in a big way the night of the break-in. I know she’d do it again in a heartbeat if duty called. I’m sure we can work something out to get her here. Those logistics are not a big deal in the grand scheme of things.

The mood in the room immediately lightens with this news. Marjorie and I get the boys dressed and fed, then I shower and prepare to face the day.

Maybe it won’t be so hard to comfort the boys after all. Maybe, with the help of our canine hero, we’ll all be okay.

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