This Time Love
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I couldn't have heard right.
Joy Anderson closed her gray eyes and fought to breathe. Hand clenched on the radiophone, she prayed that she hadn't heard her boss say Gabriel Venture's name. This was just a nightmare and all she had to do was wake up.
Warily her eyes opened.
She was still sitting in a patch of pure yellow sunlight pouring through the cottage's four-paned kitchen window. The phone was hot to her touch, all but burning her ear.
She couldn't see the man she was talking to. She didn't have to. The memory of Harry Larkin's broad, professionally amiable face was imprinted in her mind. He was the one who had managed to land the two-year grant that was running out while she sat in the New Mexico desert and listened to the name of her nightmare.
Gabriel Venture rising out of the past, haunting her in daylight as he had in dreams.
"Yeah, it's quite a shock, isn't it? The great Gabriel Venture is coming to your very own boondocks to do a major article." Satisfaction rang in Harry's voice. "But then, he makes a specialty of places that are so remote they don't even have cell phone coverage. He was even here some time ago, back when nobody but dedicated amateur cavers knew much about Lost River Cave."
Some time ago?
Joy started to close her eyes, then forced them to stay open. No place to hide. No way out. Just herself and the past crashing down around her, bruising and cutting and battering.
Oh yeah, Gabe was here. Six years, eleven months and twenty-nine days ago, give or take a few hours. But who's counting?
The bitter words went no farther than Joy's mind. She was too shaken to speak and much too careful of her own and her daughter's privacy to reveal that she knew the time of Gabe's departure to the day and hour.
It was hard to forget. Kati had been born nine months after Gabe drove out of New Mexico's pale, searing deserts in pursuit of the Orinoco River's steamy green mysteries. Joy had loved Gabe then, and had envied him the freedom of the world waiting at his feet.
When he left, she'd hated him.
And resented his freedom even more.
Joy slammed the door on that line of thought. No matter how difficult it had been to watch while Gabe explored the world the way she had always wanted to, she wouldn't have traded Kati for all the freedom on earth. Not then. Not now.
Resenting what couldn't be changed was a game for spoiled children. She was no longer either spoiled or childish. A mother couldn't afford to be. Especially a single mother.
"I told Gabe's editor that we would be only too happy to help him," Harry continued, unaware that he had lost his distant audience. "It's about the only way the Lost River grant might be renewed."
Realizing that it had been too long since she had put air in her lungs, Joy took a quick, shallow breath, then another.
"I don't have to tell you what a grant renewal would mean," Harry said. "Not only your own job, but those of the people who work for you. The National Park Service has been very pleased with your groundbreaking exploration and academic papers on Lost River Cave. So has the university. The whole thing has been quite a feather in our cap, publicity-wise." He paused, waiting for her response.
With an effort Joy pulled her shattered thoughts together. From her subconscious she called up the last few moments of Harry's speech.
Only too happy to help him.
She shuddered as she felt the full force of feelings she thought she'd buried so deep she would never have to face them again. Or face herself ... the child she had been, certain that all she had to do was ask, believe, love, and what she wanted would come to her wrapped in a shiny big bow.
She had been wrong.
When she realized how wrong, she'd wanted to bury her foolishness in the past along with Gabe, bury it beyond recovery. But it was all coming back now, knives of rage twisting through her.
All I want to do with the great Gabriel Venture is never to see him or hear his name again.
Barring that piece of good fortune, I'd like to drop him down Lost River Cave's deepest, blackest hole and throw the damned rope in after him.
The savagery of her own bleak emotions shocked Joy even more than hearing Gabe's name had. Until this instant, she believed that she'd forgotten -- if not forgiven -- Gabe's sweet smile and sweeter touch, and the terrible bitterness of his betrayal.
Betrayal? No. Stop right there. That's the spoiled child whining about life being unfair. That child grew up.
She had to.
Unconsciously Joy squared her shoulders.
The adult knows that Gabe didn't betray me. He never promised me one single thing. He just took what I offered, thanked me kindly, and left me holding the bag. Quite literally.
But Kati was inside that bag.
Hating her father won't do me any good, won't do Kati any good, and it sure as hell won't bother Gabe. Hating him almost destroyed me once. I won't let it touch me now. I won't let him touch me.
Ruthlessly Joy shoved her emotions into the dark pit she called the past. After Gabe had left her, she'd raged in silence against him, cried out her loneliness in her parents' arms until her throat was raw, and kept on raging inside herself until she was emotionally exhausted.
Then her parents had stepped on the wrong helicopter and died ...