.. P A R T . III ..

. The . Rocky . Mountains .

. C o l o r a d o .

.. . Summer . 2006 . ..

T h e S o f S n

.. XXII . . - . . XXII ..

"And, naturally, I spent several years in jail—eight, to be exact," Adam was sitting at the table now, in a chair beside Tommy. He took a deep breath as he ended his lengthy story. "I was in rehab for awhile beforehand, served my term, and two years ago I was released, determined to start over with my life. So I came to Eaden Hall, and Hannah and everybody else here has been helping me do that ever since."

Nobody in the room was quite sure what to say. Hannah, for instance, was incredibly shocked at the bluntness with which he told his story. She'd never heard it, only that he'd been involved with drugs and had murdered—but not this. What was more was that she had no idea how this fit in with her parents' case.

"Listen," Adam was saying, sighing heavily, "I know that my story was a shock, and that you all will probably never look at me the same way again. But I happened to have learned a few special things about these…conmen… that might help you out with your investigation."

Hannah leaned forward in her seat, interested.

"You see," he stood and began pacing around the room, not for the first time during his story, "I happen to have known personally every one of the men, and women, in the group I worked for—including the leader. His name was Thomas Wood, and I knew never to cross him. I had been told the stories of the men and women that had done so in the past, and they weren't pretty. You see, about ten years before I joined up with them, they had a serious loyalty problem. One of the men whom I'd made friends with explained to me that four important members of their group betrayed them—they were caught in the middle of a particularly important heist, much like the time ten years ago when I barely escaped, and then were thrown into jail. Thomas Wood, though, had connections in the law enforcement field, and by a stroke of luck, was able to go free.

"Wood devoted part of his time to finding out where those four members went—and found that the intelligence they had exhibited during their years in the group had also been put to work in secreting themselves from him. Their names had obviously been changed, and they lived in another part of the country, completely out of touch with their relatives and former friends. But he continued to look. My friend told me the rest of the story, that Wood was finally able to locate them… but also that they had managed yet again to outsmart him."

"Those four members were our parents, then," Jesse said, his eyes beginning to sparkle in comprehension. "And by outsmarting him, you mean that our parents staged their deaths and escaped."

"Leaving us behind," Hannah tactlessly added.

"For your own good," Adam turned and addressed her directly, gravely. "I know Thomas Wood, and I know the rest that are associated with him. Trust me; if your parents left in order to avoid endangering their children, they made a wise choice. Wood would have used anything to get back at them, including the kidnapping, or even murders, of their children."

Hannah fixed him with a steely gaze. "And so where do you think they've gone? And why haven't they tried to make contact with us?"

"I honestly don't know. But I wouldn't think badly of them yet. Perhaps they have tried to make contact, but only in a subtle way—to not attract attention," Adam suggested.

She thought back to the mysterious car that had chased her and immediately shook off the notion. Of course they wouldn't try to contact her in such a violent way.

Glancing at her watch, she stood with a sigh. "It's about time I head for work, if you'll excuse me."

Lunch had come and gone during Adam's endless storytelling, and now it was near two o'clock. She should be heading down to Denver. Now, if only she had a way to get there.

She focused her gaze on Jesse. "Would you mind—"

"—if I played the chauffer tonight? Why, no, I wouldn't mind at all," he replied with a smirk, and began to slide his chair back.

"Oh. Well, I was thinking more if I borrowed—"

"Some more of my time so that we could have a party on our way down to Denver? What a clever idea, Hannah. We'll simply have to do that."


"C'mon. Let's go."

Hannah stopped on the front porch, heaving a sigh of exasperation as Jesse continued walking, flipping his car keys in his hand. She shut the front door hard, and said, "Jesse, go back inside. I don't have to work until five."

He stopped, turned, and smiled sarcastically. "I know. That's why you need me to help you kill some time before you go in."

She tried to reply, but suddenly he moved closer and ran his thumb gently over her forehead. "You know, you can't do that to yourself. Lock yourself up in a stressful place like that," he gestured with his hand toward the house, "and then haul yourself down to sit straight as a board on that piano bench and play for hours."

Hannah looked up, a little surprised at the intimate gesture, and suddenly he pulled his hand away and walked down to the car. She watched him, unsure of what to do, and for the first time since she came back to Eaden Hall to find that he wasn't there, an inexpressible warmth came rushing into her heart, and she found herself smiling as she followed him.

"So, I was thinking we could go and meet my sister, Nichole, in Lyons," Jesse was saying as he started the engine of his car. "And then we could go down and have fraps at Starbuck—they have at least five at the strip mall."

"I don't drink caffeine after four."

"So, live life on the edge for just one afternoon."

"Oh, I'll be on that edge all night."

He smiled over at her, as if surprised at her suddenly cheerful and sarcastic attitude, but he said nothing. "I promise that as soon as we get to the restaurant, you can sit at your piano and play just as if it were any other evening. It will be like nothing out of the ordinary happened—especially the coffee."

Hannah didn't say anything, but just smiled, not giving in but not exactly protesting. At the moment, an evening with Jesse at the mall seemed like something she'd enjoy, especially after listening to her entire life being chipped away back in her own home. "So, I'm meeting your sister, am I?"

"She just doesn't know it yet. But I'm sure she'll be home."

"And this is the sister from…"

"My foster home, yes. But they might as well have adopted me. The only reason they didn't was because I didn't want them to really be my parents, even though I love them like they are."

"So…" Hannah took a breath. "Do you call them—"

"Mom and Dad?" Jesse finished for her. "Well, no, I don't." He reached over to give her wrist a small squeeze. "They'll never be my real Mom and Dad. And they know that."

Their conversation fell into silence, but it wasn't uncomfortable. Still, Jesse's mind found itself consumed with one question. As they began winding along the narrow mountain road, he asked, "Tell me about your foster parents."

Hannah looked over at him, frowning at the sudden question. Of course, he would have gotten the idea that her life hadn't exactly been a fairy tale after she'd been put with a foster family. But to reiterate everything that had happened? "Well… it honestly wasn't horrible, Jesse. But it wasn't heaven, either. My foster parents were Christian, apparently the model mother and father, and my siblings were, too. Straight A's and excellence in sports, all three of them—and I was the oddball. I was interested in music, reading, and even though I achieved even better grades than their children, my parents still didn't deem me worthy of their 'love'—or at least not the kind of love they gave their own children. I always felt left out. They were affectionate, yes, but at the kitchen table I could tell whom they really considered their children, and it certainly wasn't the wild-haired foster kid they'd been such fools to take in.

"And then my foster brother, Joel, got in a car wreck. He'd been picking me up from band practice. He was in the hospital for three weeks—if he'd lived, he wouldn't have been able to play soccer or football, like the sports star he'd been before. He lost his leg, above the knee, and the doctors doubted giving they could fit him for a prosthesisprosthesis. But he died after a month in intensive care.

"They blamed it on me, all four of them. I graduated valedictorian of my class, and they only hated me more because I took that away from Vicky, my foster sister, who'd been competing with me all four years of high school for that exact position. And so, I came back to Eaden Hall."

Hannah finished her story without once making eye contact with him. She couldn't bear the thought of him thinking the same as her foster family did.

"You know, the only reason they were hateful toward you was because they hadn't expected you to rival their own children," Jesse said at last, relieving her of the pressure of the uncomfortable silence that had followed her explanation.

"But I strove for excellence so I would make them proud!" she said exasperatedly. "I thought along those lines once. I even got C's my entire eighth grade year, before it mattered in high school. Vicky was proud to be getting better than me, but my parents' opinions of me never changed. So I resorted to being who I wanted to be, and I admit it was a bit selfish of me. I wanted to be Valedictorian."

"Nothing is selfish about wanting to be the best of your class," he assured, giving her a slight smile as if the notion was quite silly, and he was trying to hide his humor.

"It is very selfish when you only want to be the best of your class in order to beat your foster sister," she said quietly.

She knew he wasn't quite sure as to what to reply with. But he soon recovered, saying, "It may not have been right to do it with that mind set, but you have every right to achieve what you wanted, despite what your foster parents thought."

They approached the city of Lyons, having already passed the familiar Welcome to Lyons sign a few miles before. In silence, they arrived at Jesse's sister's house, a small apartment near the center of town. It wasn't far from his apartment complex, so she figured the two of them had a close relationship. For some reason, she felt a sensation she couldn't describe as she thought of this—could she be jealous? What should she be jealous for? They were hardly siblings, even though they'd grown up that way. And she'd spent just how many years hating him? The question was, did she still hate him? Oh, she wanted to. But the insistent niggling in the back of her mind, telling her that they had been the best of friends once, well, it wasn't helping.

As she followed Jesse up the sidewalk, she shook her head and pushed the notion aside. She could not be jealous because Jesse had a sister he was close to. It made no logical sense whatsoever.

He pressed the doorbell, and she heard the melody of a song as it rang inside. Just by the look of the house and the landscaping of the lawn, Hannah was already thinking she might like this Nichole—despite the fact she was part of the reason he hadn't returned to Eaden Hall as he'd promised.

The door opened, and out stepped a woman who looked to be in her late twenties. She had reddish blonde hair, straight, and that hung down to frame her face. She pushed aside light bangs to see who was visiting her at such a rare time.

Her face bloomed characteristically in recognition as she surveyed her foster brother, and she barely covered a grin as she planted her hands on her hips and said loudly in a very commanding voice, "And just where have you been, young man?"

Jesse grinned and spread his arms to welcome her into a hug. She closed the door behind her so as to not let the summer warmth into her air-conditioned house. "I've been at Eaden Hall, actually."

She pulled back to look him in the face, an appearance of shock on her own. "Honestly?"

"I'm sorry about that phone call," he said, and by the honesty expressed in his eyes, Hannah couldn't help but wonder as to which phone call he was referringAH1 .

She waved away the apology, and then turned to Hannah, warmth filling her face. Before she had time to react, Hannah was begin pulled into a whole-hearted hug as well, and she looked at Jesse over his sister's shoulder. He was grinning from ear to ear.

"And you must be Hannah," Nichole said, pulling back to look at her. "I've heard a lot about you."

Hannah hadn't doubted that. She had thought, though, that those things said about her would hardly make the other woman want to hug her.

"It's absolutely wonderful to finally meet you," Nichole spoke with such honesty that it surprised Hannah yet again. "Would you guys like to come inside? I'll make smoothies."

"Actually," Jesse cut in, "we were going to head down to 16th street in Denver to get some Starbucks before Hannah had to go to work. She got in an accident here just the other day, and so I've been her chauffeur. Anyway, I just wanted to stop in to see you before we did that, since you were on our way."

Nichole nodded enthusiastically. "Good plan. So how about I invite you two—and whoever else that wants to come—over for dinner sometime? Maybe in the next couple of days?"

Looking over at Jesse, Hannah found that he was expecting her to make the decision. She smiled and nodded. "That would be great, Nichole. Thanks."

"Well, like I said, it was wonderful to meet you. I'll call Jesse to make the arrangements?"

Hannah nodded again and found she was being led back to Jesse's car. They slammed their doors and he started the engine, waving to his foster sister.

"She's very nice, Jesse. I can see why you two have a great relationship," Hannah said as they backed out of the driveway, dismayed to hear a bit of wistfulness in her voice. At the same time, however, she found herself immensely looking forward to dinner with Nichole.

"Oh, and I'm sure my easygoing attitude has nothing to do with it," he retorted sarcastically. "It's all Nichole's responsibility."

She laughed lightly. "Well, I wasn't going to say anything, but…"

They exchanged smiles, and suddenly Hannah wondered at the amazing difference she felt while with Jesse. He was right, this was just what she needed, even if he was astounded at her ability to be sarcastic, which he probably thought hadn't even exist