Chapter 1

It had been nearly a month since Con left for Iraq, again, and Maeve was still missing him. The good-bye in the airport in Newark was tearful for the first time since she could remember. Probably the first time he left, for basic training, and Mom wound up draped across his chest crying about her "baby having grown up," Maeve thought with a sad sniff and a stern admonition to herself for thinking about all of this again. Shameera had left the next day for New York and then London to report back to work now that her ankle was more or less fully healed, though she still had to get it back up to strength. The beautiful Afghani woman had wryly told both Maeve and Con that her editors were probably conspiring to keep her out of the line of fire for a while after what had happened almost a year ago on the eve of the Marjah Offensive in Afghanistan. Shameera promised to write Con and call Maeve when she knew what she was doing. Then the two lovebirds had gone about twenty feet away from Maeve and the kids, whispering in each others' ears before Con gave the woman a soul-searing kiss that left her breathless, blushing, and smiling more than a little foolishly while her eyes glowed bright enough to start fires as she gazed lovingly at her warrior going back to battle.

Even now, a month later, Maeve shook her head at the intensity her brother had brought out in the woman in one afternoon's kiss in her backyard. Well, one kiss and a rescue from gang-raping, Taliban scumbags, Maeve amended ruefully with more than a little satisfaction at her brother's response to what he found in that farmhouse. That sort of thing would get the hormones flowing and the heart pounding. It was a chilly October afternoon, a couple of weeks away from Halloween, as she was shutting down her office computer to head home for the weekend, when her secretary poked her head into the office on her own way out the door to tell Maeve she had a call on line two. A Shameera Afghani. Maeve was about to be irritated with the woman, who had only been her secretary for three weeks but Maeve could already tell she would be looking for a new one. But she was also surprised and more than happy to talk to her future sister-in-law.

She picked up her ear piece and leaned back in her chair, clicking the line on. "Shameera, so good to hear from you!"

"Hello, Maeve. I was calling because I am in the air, bound west on a British Airways flight to Newark and I was wondering if you would have lunch with me," came the smooth, soft voice, making Maeve think she had the perfect voice for television ... or phone sex. Maeve shook that uncharitable thought from her head as Shameera continued, "I have a thing or two I wanted to talk to you about and it looks like I am going to be on the East Coast for a while. My cowardly editor in London refuses to send me anywhere near Afghanistan and apparently that includes Iraq. I tried to get assigned to Baghdad or Mosul, since that is the general operating area I think Con would be in right now based on what some of my friends are telling me is going on over there, but the cowardly little weasel got together with my publisher in New York to conspire against me. They have gotten me a post in Washington covering the Pentagon for six months, at the least. So, I figured that since I would be in the neighborhood, I would drop by and see my sister-in-law-to-be before heading down to DC. Are you available?"

Maeve smiled at the exasperation of protective male figures and wondered what she would think of Con in what she liked to call knight-in-shining-armor mode. More than once at Morristown High School she found herself thrust behind the broad back of her brother while he faced down her enemies, three years older than he was. It helped that he was already over six feet tall and close to two hundred pounds by the time he hit freshman year at MHS. She shook that thought off too, wondering why her mind was wandering down so many back alleys to the past lately. "I would love to sit down and talk over a nice lunch. There is a nice place here in Morristown that serves excellent Italian."

"Oh, you know how to get to a girl's heart! I love Italian!" she exclaimed with obvious relish. Then there was a long pause in which Maeve could only her Shameera's breathing and the low hum of the airplane in the background. "I have to warn you, I plan to talk to you about a couple of fairly serious subjects."

That sobered Maeve a bit. While she liked Shameera a lot, she still did not really know her that well. This sounded vaguely ominous. "I see. Well, Pazzo Pazzo has a few out of the way tables and I am sure the hostess will give us one of those. I am a regular there, so they tend to try to accommodate me when I ask for something special."

"Good. Then that is settled. I will get myself situated at the hotel and-"

"Oh, no you won't, Ms. Afghani! You will give me your flight number and arrival time and I will come pick you up. You can stay with us for however long you will be in New Jersey," Maeve shot back with asperity. "We have two guest rooms and they are probably far more comfortable than a hotel room. Besides, you are family. I would no more let my brothers stay in a hotel if they were in the area."

Maeve could hear the smile as Shameera replied. "Are you sure? I have not pre-booked, it is true, but I don't mind. In my line of work you get used to hotels," she said diffidently.

"Positive, now give me your info," Maeve said, reaching for a pen and writing as her sister-in-law-to-be acquiesced. "Got it. I am going to go home, change, and I, and probably the kids if they are home, will be there when you land. Ilsa will probably have something light to eat made and ready when we get to the house, or if you want, we can stop somewhere on the way home for something."

Shameera giggled and gave up. "I would not want to put the people of MacDonald's out, so we can make do with the victuals Ilsa can come up with."

Maeve laughed. "My thoughts exactly. So I will see you at 8:35."

Hanging up the line, Maeve speed dialed home. "Devlin Residence, Ilsa speaking," came the Germanic voice from the other end of the line.

"Ilsa, it's Maeve. I just got off the phone with Shameera. She is on her way into the States and the kids and I will be going to pick her up at Newark. What did you have planned for dinner?"

"Ah, that is good to hear, Liebchen. I was going to make a goulash and some bread and if the children and you will be out from under foot that will be good, too," the maid replied with a smile in her voice. "It will be good to see Con's Shameera again, too."

"Her flight doesn't get in until 8:35, so it will be a late dinner," Maeve informed her. "Are the kids around?"

"Ja. Sean just returned from his friend's house and Alex's practice broke up early for some mysterious reason that makes her blush," Ilsa replied with a hint of warning in her tone that told Maeve she would be interrogating her daughter on the way to the airport.

"Thanks, Ilsa. I will be leaving as soon as I hang up and let the HR chief know I want a new secretary ASAP," she said with a grimace to herself. "So I should be home in a half hour, forty-five minutes at the most."

"Good, Liebchen. I will inform the children that plans have changed and tell them to be ready to leave when you get here."

"Alright, thanks. Bye-bye."

Maeve clicked the line dead, took her earpiece off and stuffed it into her desk drawer and quickly scribbled a note to the head of the HR department about a new secretary. Not wanting to completely destroy the young woman's career, she passed it off as a conflict of personalities and left it at that. No need to emphasize that the woman had more irritating habits that anyone she had ever come across. Or that she was incapable of following the office rules that Maeve laid down when the woman showed up for her first day. Maeve was not above killing someone's career, but it usually had to be for stunning incompetence or corruption. Being irritating was simply justification to get said person away from her and her office. Maeve laid the note on the HR chief's desk on her way to the parking garage.

The drive home was uneventful and both Sean and Alex were waiting in the living room for her when she walked in the door. She left them to the show they were watching to go change into something more comfortable than the power suit she was wearing. It was almost sensual to slip into a worn pair of jeans and a sweater that had been darned by Ilsa in at least three places. A comfortable pair of running shoes and she was ready.

"Alright you two, get in the car while I go talk to Ilsa for a minute," she ordered over her shoulder as she breezed through the living room on the way to the kitchen. Ilsa was chopping up hunks of beef when she walked into the kitchen. On the stove was already sitting the hugely ancient pressure cooker Ilsa used for goulash, an onion and garlic sizzling away in some bacon fat. Carrots, potatoes, herbs, and tomato stock were piled on the counter, ready for use. "We're off, Ilsa. Her flight gets in at 8:35 which probably means closer to 9:00. We probably won't be back until close to 10:00 p. m."

Ilsa nodded. "I will keep it warm for you. That will give me plenty of time to bake bread and maybe a little something for breakfast tomorrow," she said stoically, her strong hands running the large chef's knife through the beef with ease. "Do you know how long Con's Shameera will be here?"

Maeve shook her head with a wry smile. "I got the feeling this was an impulse side trip on her way to Washington, D. C. She danced around what she really wanted to talk about. Speaking of which, what was Alexandra's story, so I know what to look for when I begin my cross-examination in the car?"

Ilsa smiled wickedly, shaking her head and waving the knife at Maeve. "You are a bad girl!" she admonished her employer before adding, "She claims the coach had an appointment she forgot about and cancelled practice."

"And she blushed while telling you this? Hmm. You were right to call that mysterious," Maeve mused before waving it away and smiling. "I will get to the bottom of it before we get to Newark. See you later."

"Drive safely, Liebchen. Die Fahrerinnen in Newark sind völlig verrückt!" the housekeeper said, slipping into German as she rolled her eyes and shook her head.

Maeve giggled and headed for the car. She noticed Alex had put on some make up and changed into nicer clothes than she normally wore after school. Sean, she noted, had not. Apparently he did not like the looks of Shameera Afghani enough to fawn over and impress her. Not enough hormones breaking through the detached supercomputer he uses for a brain, Maeve thought with amusement.

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