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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

 The Abduction of Becky Potter

Chapters 11-Epilogue
A Novel by Eva Marie Everson
Copyright Eva Marie Everson, 2014
Do not copy


Chapter Eleven
          "Who are you, and what have you done with my wife?"
          Amanda swung around from the kitchen counter where she frosted a cake with a table knife, to see her husband standing in the doorway between the kitchen and dining room. With a smile she answered, "Just call me Model AR36. I’m your new Stepford wife."
          Returning the smile, Mark walked over and planted a kiss on her lips. "I like this model…what did you call it?”
          “AR36; as in Amanda Ryan. Your thirty-six-year-old wife.”
 “This new model, whatever she’s called, is not what I was expecting to find today."
          Amanda went back to slathering on frosting. "You were expecting me in bed with the sheet pulled up over my head."
          "Something like that," he answered, then pointed to a flour-encrusted, gold bangle bracelet lying on the counter. He recognized it as belonging to his mother-in-law. "What's this?"
          "Mama's bracelet. I found it in the flour bowl. Apparently she's decided to make it her jewelry box."
          Mark sensed that sadness tinged the humor his wife was trying to convey. "I see. No telling what will become her pantyhose drawer." He took an index finger full of chocolate frosting from the mixing bowl on the counter.
          Amanda playfully slapped his hand as he reached for another taste. "Stop that. I won’t have enough to frost my cake if you keep that up."
          Mark smiled and rested his hip against the counter. "So I'm mildly curious...what happened? Not that I'm complaining, or anything. I like the change. I've prayed for the change."
          Amanda shrugged as she dipped the last bit of frosting from the bowl. "Then God answered your prayer.”
          “And people say prayer doesn’t work these days. Okay, so what gives?”
          “I guess it all started with a visitor I had this morning. I'll tell you about it later. Want to lick the bowl?"
          Mark grinned. "Mommy, may I?"
          "Yes, you may," Amanda returned.
          Using the knife, Mark went to work the frosting as Amanda began the process of cleaning the counter top where she had been working. "How's your mother been today?" he asked.
          "Quiet. Watched a lot of television. Napped twice. Her confusion wasn't as bad today as it has been. Maybe she’s finally settling in without Daddy."
          "He’ll be here soon enough. Did she try to call her parents again?"
          "Once. I found her on the telephone with a very understanding woman. Mama concluded her father must have gone fishing. 'You know how much he loves to fish!'" she repeated with a smile. “I guess right now I just need to keep a positive attitude toward my mother's illness.”
          “Kids home yet?"
          Amanda shook her head, no. "Not yet. The "cheese-wagon", as they call it, should be here any minute. Hey!" she exclaimed turning to him. "What are you doing home so early?"
          Mark turned a sheepish glance out the kitchen window and pursed his lips. "Nothing really."
          She narrowed her eyes at him. "Oh, I know. Thought you would come check up on the mentally cracked little wifey."
          He smiled at her perception and returned his eyes to hers. "Something like that."
          "Something exactly like that."
          "I had a visitor today myself," he said. "At the office."
          "Really? Who?"
          "Remember Harold Madison? The attorney? Sits on the board of elders at St. Luke's...."
          Amanda stopped her cleaning. "Funny you should mention him."
          "Why's that?"
          "His partner's sister was my visitor this morning. Came calling with coffee cake and a thermos full of coffee."
          "There's an even bigger coincidence...or providence, whichever way you believe. Harold and his wife used to attend Dad's church in Mill Creek. They were golfing buddies."
          "You're kidding!"
          Mark chuckled. "Small world, huh? What else you got to eat?" he asked, making his way to the refrigerator. "I'm starving."
          "It's almost time for me to fix dinner, Mark."
          "And that should make me less hungry?"
          Amanda grimaced. "Turkey and cheese sandwich?"
          "Hold the mayo. Do you think I'm getting a little pudgy right here?" he asked, reaching for his waist.
          Amanda walked over to him and slid her arms around the still trim waist. She tilted her head up and kissed his chin. "I call them love handles."
          He drew his wife close. "Mmmmm. You smell wonderful."
          Amanda squeezed him tighter. "I'm not wearing any perfume," she replied, lowering her voice.
          "It's your shampoo. I love the way your hair smells when you use it. Don't ever use anything else."
          Amanda looked up at her husband. "I won't. I promise. Now hurry up and kiss me so I can make your sandwich."
          Mark grinned before answering. "I think I can comply with that request," he said, dipping his head and pressing his lips against hers. Amanda ran her hands up his back and the kiss deepened.
          Maybe today would only get better …
"E-yeeeew!" exclaimed a disgruntled voice from the doorway.
          Eleven-year-old Ryan was home.

Chapter Twelve
            "Good afternoon, son," Mark said with a groan.
            Ryan Rogers, a diminutive yet lanky replica of his father, grinned from the kitchen door. "Parents are gross!" he exclaimed.
            Amanda slipped out of her husband's arms and walked over to the refrigerator. She didn't know whether to laugh or scream. "Where's Brittany? In her room?"
 Ryan walked over to the breakfast nook and slung the books he carried on his hip onto the table. "I dunno. She wasn't on the bus."
            Amanda swung around, slamming the refrigerator door. "What do you mean?"
 Ryan shrugged. "I mean she wasn't on the bus, Mom."
            Amanda hurried over to the counter that separated the kitchen from the breakfast nook. "I don't understand you, Ryan. How could your sister not be on the bus?" Amanda felt panic rise within her. This wasn't like her daughter. Brittany wouldn't pull something like this. Not today. Not today of all days. It could only mean one thing...
            "Amanda," Mark said placing a hand on her shoulder. "Calm down. I'm sure there is an explanation for all this. Perhaps she had to stay late for school. A project. A club meeting. It could be anything. Ryan," he said, turning his attention to their son, “did Brittany say anything to you this morning, or last night? Anything that would indicate she would not be on the bus this afternoon?"
 "Nope. Can I go outside and play with Benji?"
            "No, you may not," Mark answered. "We need to see if we can't figure out where your sister is."
            "Dad! What's this got to do with me?" Ryan tilted his head and grinned, adding, "Am I my sister's keeper?"
            "Ryan!" Amanda exclaimed. She grabbed Mark's arm and commanded herself to think clearly. By some chance, had Brittany told her she would not be coming directly home from school?
            "Amanda, please," Mark said. "Ryan, take your books to your room. You and Benji can play in the back yard. But nowhere else."
            "Dad. We were gonna go bike riding!"
            "No!" Amanda interjected. "No! You are not leaving this property. Oh, my dear sweet Jesus! Where is Brittany?" Her grip on Mark's arm became a vise.
            Mark swung around and grabbed Amanda by her shoulders. "You have got to get yourself together, now."
            "Mark, I have to tell you something," Amanda said. "This morning...” She took a deep breath before going on. “This morning I got a phone call."
            "What phone call? When this morning?"
            "While you were in the shower."
 "Who was it?"
            "I don't know. I couldn't hear her at first—it was definitely a woman—but she was whispering..."
            Mark’s brow furrowed. "What did she say?"
"She said, 'You said I could always count on you.' That's what I had said to Becky. Mark, don't you see? Someone has stolen my baby!"
            "Amanda, I don't think …” He shook his head. “Why didn't you tell me this earlier?"
            Amanda raked her hair away from her face. "I don't know. I didn't think...I just thought...I don't know!"
            Mark glanced around the room for a moment before looking back to Amanda. "I want you to sit down for a minute. I'm going to make a few phone calls. Just sit down, okay?"
            Amanda nodded. She walked over to the kitchen table, clutched its rim and sat in the nearest chair.

Mark knew he had to stay calm. To do otherwise was to lose control of the situation. Amanda was right; this wasn’t like Brittany. She could be self-centered at times, but weren’t all teenagers? And what was this phone call about? Had Amanda gone back to sleep and dreamed it? Had it felt so real, she believed it had actually happened?
He  took a few steps backward, then turned and walked out of the room and down the hall toward his home office. He was met half-way by his mother-in-law, who said, "Good morning, Thomas." He wondered who Thomas could have been in the dear lady's past. Or, if he had been anyone at all.
            "Good morning, Mama," he replied. "I want you to go into the kitchen and sit with Amanda, okay?"
 "I'd love that," she answered, as if she had been asked over for tea.
            "Thank you," he said, then continued to his office, a small room off one end of the master bedroom. He reached for the phone on his desk that sat under the window facing the street, but instantly returned the hand piece to its cradle.
            A white convertible Mustang GT, top down, pulled up to the curb in front of the house. Brittany was in the passenger's seat; the driver was a young man he didn’t know, but recognized from church. He could hear the bass of the music even from where he stood. He watched his daughter throw back her head and laugh, then look toward the house as if she knew her father was watching her. She appeared uneasy. "I gotta go," Mark imagined her telling the boy.
            "Yes, you do," Mark said aloud. "And I suggest you do it quickly, young lady."

Chapter Thirteen

          Stately twenty-four-foot ceiling, Ionic columns and red oak floors of Harold and Celeste Madison's elegant foyer welcomed Dori and Patty as they swept past the full-time housekeeper who opened the door and requested they come inside.
          "Mrs. Madison is on the telephone with the caterer and asked that you wait for her in the living room," the middle-aged woman said as she’d been properly trained to do.
To Dori, her mother seemed to float in the ambiance of the gracious surroundings as she moved from the foyer into the adjoining living room. She didn't give the housekeeper so much as a nod, but Dori smiled warmly at the woman and replied, "Thank you, Marguerite. We'll make ourselves comfortable."
          Once inside the bright, sunlit living room, Patty turned to her daughter and admonished, "Really, darling. You must remember to treat those who are under you as though they are."
          "Mother, at times you can be such a snob."
          Patty sat on one of the matching cream-colored sofas, sitting straight and crossing her ankles. She glanced around the open room as if it were under the passing of inspection, then back at Dori.  "From day one I have tried to rear you in the utmost of dignity and decorum. You had the best of nannies. You were enrolled in top private academies, given instruction at Miss Anna Lee's Finishing School, and sent to Wellesley, one of the foremost lady's colleges in the country."
          In a mirrored image, Dori sat next to her mother and patted her shoulder. "And I love you for it," she said.
          "May I remind you that it was I—your mother—who encouraged you to formally introduce yourself to Matt Chandler?"
          "Something I can never fully repay you for."
          Patty nodded. "You've been such a lovely daughter, Dori. The pride of my heart. If I could have only had a dozen just like you."
          Dori chuckled. "Oh, Mother! As if you would have done so!"
          Patty looked into her daughter's eyes. "You're right, of course. When you came into my life and I looked at those lovely blue eyes for the first time I said to your father, 'I'll never need another. This is perfection in my arms.' I meant every word. Still do."
          "Well, it's no wonder.” The voice of Celeste Madison came from the doorway of the living room. "I always said they broke the mold when they made Dori and I see now that I was correct." She walked over to the two ladies who each stood and greeted the well-groomed woman Dori had always admired. She was tall, elegant, and remarkably put together for a woman in her early sixties.
          "Celeste," Patty said, placing a light kiss on Celeste's powdered cheek. "You are so good to do this for us. We are just elated about having the dinner here."
          Celeste gave Dori a tight hug. "You know I have always felt like she was one of mine," she said lovingly. "I also remember the first time I ever saw you, Dori. I said to Harold that you were the prettiest child I had ever seen. And the most loving! Oh, Patty, do you remember the day she decided to bake cookies for us?"
          Patty laughed as she returned to her seat with Dori beside her. Celeste walked over to an occasional chair, sitting as she continued with the story Dori had heard time and again. "I was visiting your family in Birmingham. You were about ten at the time. Your mother and I had gone out for tea. It was a wonderful spring afternoon--I remember it as if it were yesterday. A charming little tearoom in downtown Birmingham. Your mother had left you with that dreadful nanny ... oh, what was her name?"
          Patty shifted, looking uncomfortable at best. "Gabrielle."
          "A little tart originally from New Orleans, if I remember correctly. I never understood why you hired her, Patty. She clearly came from white trash."
          "I didn't. Bob did. He hired her while Dori and I were on vacation."
          At some point Dori learned about her father's "indiscretions." Gabrielle--Gabby--had been a thorn in Patty's flesh, but Dori had liked her. Years later she realized Gabby had been more than just a nanny. To her father, he had been a consort. But in those days, ten-year-old Dori was unaware of her parents’ imperfections. She only knew she loved Gabby and had been confused by her abrupt departure. Until that time, no matter what her mother threatened, her father wouldn't fire Gabby. Then all of a sudden she was gone…
          "Continue with your story, Celeste," Patty instructed.
          Celeste smiled knowingly. "When we returned from our tea--and a lovely tea it was--you, my precious Dori, had baked cookies for us. Homemade cookies and juice were in the living room and you told us we never had to leave home again for tea."
          "You are very graciously eliminating the part about the baking soda," Dori reminded her.
          "The recipe called for one tablespoon of baking soda, but you read it as one cup of baking soda. Those cookies had the most delicious flavor of toothpaste I've ever tasted."
          The three women laughed together.
          "I remember you kindly offered to take half of them home," Dori said.
 "Where I promptly threw them into the waste basket. Now, then. Let's talk about your dinner. I received a call from your mother-in-law and she asked that we invite the new pastor and his wife."
 Patty sighed. "I'm so sorry about that, Celeste. I'm sure Vivian had something to do with it."
          Celeste smiled. "No, no. Don't think anything of it. As it turns out, Harold went by the church this morning and invited the Reverend to play golf at the club this weekend, so it looks like we have two new additions to our little party."
          "And another gift for Dori," Patty beamed.
          "Mother!" Dori exclaimed, truly horrified at her mother's behavior. "I certainly don't expect them to bring me anything. Besides ... I told you ... I'd really like to get to know Mrs. Rogers."

          "And as I said before, I can't imagine why." 
Chapter Fourteen 
          Gabrielle Cibrianne stretched under the down comforter atop her bed. She pushed long, full, honey-colored hair away from her face. Glancing at the bedside clock, she realized she had slept longer than intended. Her usual hour-long afternoon nap had turned into something closer to two. She pouted and sat up in one graceful, catlike move. Her hair fell back over her face and this time she pushed it away with a toss of her head as she reached for her cell phone on the bedside table.
          Gabrielle dialed a number she knew by heart. Her call was answered on the first ring.
          "European Salon," came the thick French accent.
          "Monique, it's Gabby."
          "Gabrielle, you have an appointment in a half hour. Why aren't you on your way?" Monique's voice sounded terse.
          "I overslept. Can you push me up another hour?"
          "I'm booked solid, chère amie."
          Gabrielle frowned. She didn't like to be inconvenienced. "Monique, I must have my legs waxed today. I have a very important date tonight." There was silence on the other end. "Monique?"
          "I don't know what you want me to say, Gabrielle. Just because you and I are best friends does not mean..."
          Gabriel cocked one perfectly arched eyebrow. "I'll pay double."
          "Be here in forty-five minutes. I'll work you in."
          Gabrielle grinned in contentment. "I'll be there," she sang. "I only have to throw some clothes on and make a phone call." She disconnected the line, then dialed another number she knew all too well.
          "Dr. Sims," the baritone voice answered professionally.
          "Gabrielle Cibrianne," she bantered.
          There was a pause before he answered. "Yes."
          "Someone there with you?"
          "I'm afraid so."
          "You talk like a guilty man.”
          "How can I help you?"
          She pretended to be concerned. "Is it another woman?"
          "Don't be silly. Of course not."
          "What time are you picking me up?"
          "I told you nine, didn't I? Nine surgeries in all."
          "Nine surgeries? Oh. Don't want anyone in the office to know to whom you are speaking? Who’s there? One of your partners?"
          "That's correct."
          "This is fun...."
          "Is that all I can do for you?"
          "I just want to remind you that you are supposed to bring my check tonight..."
          "Yes."
          "...because rent is due."
          "I'll take care of it."
          "You always have."
          "Yes."
          "Nine o'clock then. Don't be late.”
          "Good-bye."
          Gabrielle ended the call with a smile. She pulled her long, tanned legs from under the comforter and walked over to the dresser. Leaning over, she looked at herself in the mirror. At forty-seven, she was incredibly beautiful, if she did say so herself. The best cosmetic surgeons and beauty treatments had seen to that. She ran a manicured finger alongside her temple and mouth. There was barely a sign of age.
She smiled at her reflection and pursed her lips as she spoke. "I simply adore blackmail."
Chapter Fifteen
          "What was that about?" Dr. Neal Barnes asked his partner.
          Bob Sims looked up. "Nothing," he answered. Too quickly, perhaps. "O.R. checking some records."
          "For what?"
          "I have no idea. At any rate, Neal...you were about to ask me something when the phone rang."
          Dr. Neal Barnes shoved his dark brown hands into the deep front pockets of his lab coat as he spoke. "I was asking what your plans were after your last patient. I thought you and I could grab dinner in the doctor's lounge, then go by the cath lab to view Mrs. Miele's films."
          Bob stepped around his desk and walked over to the picture window of his eighth floor office. He and Neal, along with four other cardiovascular surgeons, made up the prestigious medical team of Cardiovascular of Atlanta.
          "Ah--no, Neal. You'll have to go without me. I have some business I need to take care of."
          "Excuse me? Bob, Mrs. Miele's surgery is tomorrow morning. Can't your business wait?"
          "No. Sorry," Bob answered without turning away from the window. He stared at the congested Atlanta traffic in the street below.
          He listened as Neal strode across the carpeted office to the outer door. "Tell me this much, Bob. Is this office business or personal business?"
          There was an uneasy pause before Bob answered. "Personal." He spun away from the window, walked back to his desk, picked up a file and began to fan through it. "Look, Neal," he said, dropping the file back to the cluttered desk. "I wouldn't do this unless it was important. I'll come back to the hospital later to look at those films. And I'll meet you for breakfast in the morning. We'll talk then."
          Neal nodded, opened the door and walked out leaving his partner to stare at the door as it closed behind him. Bob momentarily closed his eyes and drew a deep breath, then reached for the phone on his desk. He dialed his wife’s cell phone number and exhaled slowly, as if he were cleansing his body of all its impurities. On the fourth ring the call went to voice mail. Bob said a silent prayer of thanks. At least he didn't have to speak to his wife personally.
          After the outgoing message played, followed by a beep, Bob spoke in a hurried voice. "Honey, I have to work late tonight. Got an important surgery in the morning that I need to prepare for. Don't hold dinner for me." He wanted to complete the message with the obligatory "I love you" but the words formed a knot in his throat. "I'll talk with you later," he finished, hung up the phone and, before the guilt could penetrate his already aberrant heart, quickly left his office.
Chapter Sixteen

          "Made it." Gabby’s words came in pants as she entered European Salon where the owner sat behind the reception counter. “What are you doing behind the desk there, Monique? Owners should never be seen in the front like this.” She winked. “Have I taught you nothing in all these years?”
          Monique looked at her watch, then back to Gabby. "You barely it, my sweet. And, for your information, I’m short staffed today and my receptionist needed … a break."
          Gabby removed her Armani sunglasses and tossed her hair with the back of her hand. "It's incredibly hot out there. Who's waxing me today?"
          "Did you not hear me say I’m short staffed? To answer your question, moi."
          "You?" she asked incredulously. "Really, Monique. For someone who is so savvy in the ways of the world, sometimes n business … well, I just don’t know. Where's Sherry? Or Candie?"
          "Candie's little girl is ill. Sherry is with another client. I do have other clients, you know, chère amie."
          Gabby smiled at the endearment. The thickness of Monique’s accent made it sound more like “charmie.” "Of course I know that, Monique. This is the best salon in the city. Everyone who is anybody comes here. You're too chic for chains and too polished for pretension." She pointed a manicured index finger up in mock salute.
          Monique smoothed a silk dress over her willowy form as she stood. She pointed toward the hallway. "Flattery will get you everywhere. Now follow me, s'il vous plaît.”
          A few minutes later, in a small room decorated in warm tones and scented by lavender, Monique smeared hot wax on Gabby's bare, tanned legs. Gabby's body temperature was typically a few degrees less than normal. Heat from any form felt good, so as she felt the wax's warmth penetrating her skin, she moaned. Monique smiled as she smoothed a muslin strip over the wax.
          "This important date," Monique said in a whisper-soft voice. "Would this be Dr. Bob?" She placed another strip of wax, followed by the muslin, then expertly removed the first strip of wax.
          "Ouch! It's almost the first of the month, isn't it?" Gabby retorted, pushing the curve of her neck against a rolled white towel.
          "Twice a month...dinner, dancing, a little hanky-panky, an exchange of money... In my way of seeing it, chère amie, you may as well be a prostitute." She repeated the waxing process on the next section of Gabby's leg.
          Gabby raised herself onto her elbows and grinned. "A prostitute would never be so lucky. One little discovery twenty-four years ago made me a very well-kept lady of leisure. All I have to do is see Bob twice a month and remind him that one little slip of my tongue and his whole world falls apart…ouch!"
          "Stop being such a baby. Gabrielle, listen to me. One little decision on his part to tell the truth and it will be your world that falls apart. You will be saying to me, 'Monique, s'il vous plaît, I need a job.' And you will be ripping hot wax off the legs of the rich ladies with their plastic smiles and plastic money." Monique applied more wax as she said the last few words. "Perhaps that would include Mrs. Bob, n'est-ce pas?"
          "Don't be silly. Bob would never want to tell the truth about what I know.” She grinned as she returned to her supine position. “Besides, I would love to rip hot wax off Patricia Sims. Ouch!” She lifted only her head this time, shooting what she hoped were daggers toward Monique. “You're doing this on purpose!"
          Monique chuckled. "You're my best friend. I would never want you to get hurt. Not in any form of the word."
          Gabby lay her head back against the plush towel once more. "I have this under control, Monique. I do appreciate your concern, so thank you very much and merci buttercups.” She gave her friend a gentle push with the tips of her fingers and smiled. “Now, hurry. I want to stop by Lenox Square on my way home. There's a scrumptious red beaded dress in the window at Saks with my name written all over it."

Chapter Seventeen
          Anabel Ryan sat in the living room, staring at her clasped hands resting in her lap. Periodically she looked up and glanced about the room. It was a pretty room, full of warmth and comfort, and she liked being here. She enjoyed the scent of potpourri from the bowl on the coffee table, the enveloping softness of the sofa and chairs. Looking out of the picture window she could see squirrels scurrying about in the yard and birds dancing around each other. Their songs filled the air with a sweet melody. That usually made her smile.
          But today she was frowning. She was rather upset by the sound of Mark and Amanda quarrelling over how much freedom Brittany should be allowed. Then again, her granddaughter had been rather careless recently.
          Anabel was aware of the fact she was losing her cognitive skills. Her short-term memory was nearly nonexistent. It came and went, but mostly it went. She did better at recalling all the yesterdays of yesteryears.
          She’d lived a good life, she thought. She’d grown up in Williamstown, Virginia, the daughter of the town's only barbershop owner. Her father worked hard at his trade and, during the depression years, did odd jobs for extra money. Her mother worked equally as hard in the small café that had been torn down years ago to make way for a shopping plaza. It took both of them working to support their five children, of which Anabel was the youngest.
          Her oldest brother, Richard, had been killed in the war. W-W-2 they now called it. Her father had referred to it as "the big one." Even in her present state she could vividly remember the clutching fear in her mother’s eyes as her eldest child said his final good-byes before boarding the bus that would take him to his waiting unit. A mother's instincts told her this was the last time she would see her son, in spite of the “I'll-be-the-greatest-hero” promise in his eyes.
          Anabel's part in the war had been to stand on the sidewalk in front of their home and wave to the jeeps filled with soldiers dressed in green fatigues as they passed through town in convoys. They would wave back, grinning and laughing in the warm sunshine, calling back, "Bye, little sister. Pray for us!" Or, "When I come back, we'll go dancing!" And, "Will you marry me, honey?"
          Anabel was five years old when the US entered the war. As the war progressed and she grew older, she contributed to the war effort in other ways, such as rolling cigarettes with her mother and aunt; these were put in Red Cross boxes for the men overseas. Anabel and her oldest sister, Kaye, rolled bandages while their mother and aunt knitted sweaters. In 1943 she and Kaye organized the neighborhood kids to collect tinfoil. The little kids would roll it into balls and vie with each other as to who could create the largest. Everyone who lived in a small town, even the youngest child, worked for the war effort.
          Anabel decided then and there she would one day marry a W-W-2 soldier. But instead, she married her high school sweetheart, Charlie Ryan, who became a pharmacist and escaped the draft during the Vietnam years. She and Charlie had two children, Amanda and Jeremy. His birth was the same year of the tragedy; the same year little Becky Potter had been abducted.
          Amanda and Jeremy had blessed her with three wonderful grandchildren who affectionately called her "WoWo" because of the little game she had played with them as babies. She placed them on her knees and gently bounced them up and down as she held their tiny hands and sang, "Ride a little horsy down to town. Little horse, little horse don't fall down. Whoa, horsy, whoa!!"
          As Brittany—the first grandchild—grew old enough to talk, she would say, "Whoa Whoa," by which her grandmother knew she wanted to play the familiar game. Soon Brittany referred to her grandmother as "WoWo." By the time the next grandchild came along, the nickname had stuck.
Anabel shook her head as she looked down at her hands again. Those memories… so easy to recall. Today… so easy to allow them to slip by. Everything fading into fluff… but right here, right now, she was cognizant of what was happening to Amanda’s little family and it broke her heart.
          "I don't understand what you think I did that is so horrible." Brittany's exasperated words carried from the kitchen into the living room.
          "Do not shout at me, young lady," Amanda countered.
          "Can we knock this down a few decibels?" Mark asked. "I'd prefer that our new neighbors not hear this. I am, after all, the new pastor of Saint Luke's."
          "Yes, Dad. We all know who you are. My whole life I've known who you are. And just what that makes me."
          Anabel shook her head again. Pastors' kids thought they had it so rough, she thought. Try growing up during the Depression, when mothers and fathers did whatever they had to do to keep food on the table and a roof overhead.
          "You are deliberately trying to change the subject," Amanda said. "And it won't work. Not this time. I don't want to hear the poor little me routine."
          “Only because that would take away from the poor little you routine.”
          A sharp intake of breath was followed by Mark asking, "Who is this boy?"
          So wise, her son-in-law. Change the subject.
          "Taran. Taran Connor. His brother is outside with Ryan for crying out loud. Why can Ryan play with Benji, but I can't go out with Taran?"
          "For one thing, Ryan asks permission first." Amanda explained.
Anabel recognized the tension in her daughter's voice, and so she rose, made her way through the dining room and into the kitchen where her granddaughter stood before her parents, hands outstretched. "And if I had called, would you have said yes?"
          "Well, we'll never know, will we?" Amanda answered.
          Anabel cleared her throat. "Excuse me."
          "Oh, Mama, not now."
          "Hi, WoWo," Brittany said with a smile to her grandmother.
          Ignoring Amanda, Anabel went on. "You see, Brittany. Your mother is just afraid. All your life you've heard about the horrible thing that happened on this date. But to you, it's just a story. To your mother ... and to me ... it's a reality."
          "Mama!" Amanda exclaimed.
          "I know sometimes I don't think so well, but right now I'm in my all-together. So let me finish, please." She took the necessary steps to reach Brittany and wrapped her in her arms. "You sweet child. You are so precious to me. And to your mother and father. Every parent fears his or her child being abducted. It's the worst fear in the world. There is only one degree worse. And that is the fear of what happened to the child who was actually taken. We lived through that, Sweetie. Your mother and I. We know the horror. And Pop Pop and I know the additional agony of wondering how things would have been different if your mother had been the one to count and Becky had been the one to hide. Don't add to that. You want to see this young man? He should come over first. Meet your father and mother."
          "Oh, WoWo," Brittany said rolling her eyes. "That's so yesterday."
          "But it means he respects you. That will never change."
          Brittany looked deep into her grandmother's eyes and smiled. Turning to look at her parents she said, "I'm sorry. Next time, I'll think to call." She kissed Anabel's cheek, her lips full and moist. "Can I go now?" she asked her parents.
          Mark nodded. Brittany slipped out of her grandmother's embrace and left the room.
          "Mama," Amanda began. "I'm impressed with you right now. Sometimes you absolutely surprise me"
          Anabel gave her daughter half a smile. "Sometimes I surprise myself."

Chapter Eighteen

          Bob Sims took time to reflect as he drove his midnight blue, XJ6 Jaguar into the parking garage of the Atlanta condo he rented for Gabby. He had two weaknesses in life. The first—undeniably the most important—was Dori. He would push heaven and earth for the child he had thought he and Patty would never have. From the moment she entered their lives, everything seemed to be for her and about her. He watched her grow from a precocious child to a charming young lady and eventually to a respectable woman who married well and lived the “happily ever after” with her husband. He had hoped she would have made him a grandfather by now, but that didn't appear to be in their plans. As long as she was happy, though, he could live with any decision she made.
          His second weakness was Gabrielle Cibrianne. He’d first met her when she was 23 incredibly gorgeous years old. Her grandfather had been one of his patients. He had never seen a more breathtaking young woman, nor one more dedicated to an ailing grandparent.
          "He practically raised me single-handed," she told him as they stood in the hallway of Birmingham Medical Center on that fateful day so many years ago. The old man's surgery was scheduled for the next day and Bob had made a bedside visit to explain the procedure he would perform the following morning. "I'd do anything for him." She’d sounded so earnest as she said the words. It was then, he thought, that something had radically changed within him. The people in his social circle only thought of themselves.
 "I've noticed you haven't left his bed these past few days. Has your employer given you time off?"
          "In a manner of speaking," she answered. "They laid me off. But I had a choice to make: my grandfather or my job. My grandfather won."
"That's too bad," he sympathized though he had never been in such a position. Everything in life had come easily to Robert Sims. "What kind of work did you do?"
          "Nothin’ fancy. I worked at a daycare center, is all."
          From that moment, after every meeting with Gabby and her grandfather, Bob wrestled with the devil. Everything good and decent inside him told him to run, not walk, as fast as he could from her. But eventually the devil had his way.
          "Miss Cibrianne," he said in a professional tone during a post-op visit in his office. "May I speak with you privately for a moment?"
          Gabby looked at her grandfather, still sitting on the examination table, then back at Bob. He knew she feared something was wrong with her grandfather; something so wrong he could not discuss it in front of the patient. "Oh, no," he interjected. "I wanted to talk with you about a job. Do you still need one?"
 "She sure does," her grandfather answered for her. "Needs one in a bad way."
          "What do you have in mind, Dr. Sims?" she asked, her voice no louder than a whisper.
          "My wife and I are looking for a full-time nanny for our daughter. Dori is ten. She's a delightful, well-mannered child. Most of the day she's in school, so you'd be helping Mrs. Sims around the house. Then, in the summer months, you'd be solely with Dori."
          Gabrielle smiled as though she’d just won the lottery. "When do I start?" she asked.
          Hiring Gabby had been a mistake, but one he couldn't go back and erase. Having her in his home was like being on a diet with a box of Belgian chocolates on the kitchen counter. He had tried to avoid her and had refused to fire her, even when Patty had become suspicious of his motives. He was a man driven by a passion he could not control, didn't want to control. Finally he gave in to his desire and had lived in the thrill and misery of it ever since.
          And everything had been good, had been manageable, until Gabby discovered his secret; the one thing he could not allow anyone to know. If the truth ever got out, his first weakness would be crushed, and that he would never allow to happen. No matter what it cost him.
          Gabby became the stronger of the two of them. She demanded and he gave. She left his household employ and began earning a salary for doing nothing. He set her up in an upscale apartment complex in Atlanta, a three-hour trip from Birmingham he gladly made once a month. But then, eventually his need for Gabby became more powerful than any emotion he had ever felt, and he moved his family to Highland Park, a suburb of Atlanta, so he could be closer to her. Fortunately his old friend Harold Madison lived there, too. Being closer to Celeste Madison was the trump card he had played to persuade Patty to leave her position in Birmingham’s social circles.
          And so, for the past twenty years, twice a month, he had driven to the Italian villa-style condo he rented for Gabby's exclusive use. It was all the time she allowed him, and nearly all the time he could afford. At a virile sixty-three years of age, he was busier in his medical practice and social obligations than he had been in his youth. He knew he could just mailed Gabby a check, or deposit it in her account, but this gave him an excuse to see her. She was the very essence of life to him and he couldn't live without her. As wrong as it was, he just couldn't give her up. Wouldn’t give her up. Making matters worse—or perhaps better—over the years she had become even more beautiful and desirable than he could have ever imagined. Of course the beauty came with a price tag, but he didn’t care about that either.
          Bob's partner, Neal Barnes, was no fool. Bob knew that Neil had suspected Bob's affair for years. Bob also knew Neal disapproved; that he was truly a godly man. Bob merely played the game...church on Sunday's, an elder of his church, good provider for his wife and loving father to his daughter. It was what was expected of him. He and Harold Madison were a lot alike in that regard, which was why, when Harold discovered the truth about Gabby, Bob had not been too concerned. Not much, anyhow.
          Because Bob Sims knew another truth; perhaps one Harold hadn’t picked up on yet. He knew no man mocks God. Deep down he knew this game he played would one day claim his soul as the prize.
Chapter Nineteen

          "Now this is not your average domicile." Mark’s voice was low as he and Amanda stood on the front-porch entrance to the Madison's home the night of Dori’s party.
          Amanda slowly tilted her head and raised her eyes to the triple fanlight over the door, painted glossy black. Behind her, warm spotlights illuminated the expansive entrance and the walkways and gardens surrounding a fountain in the center of the rambling, lush lawn.
          "What did you say he does for a living?" Amanda asked.
          "Attorney."
          "And he used to be friends with your father?" Amanda's eyes grew wide.
          Mark's lips drew to a fine line. "That's what he said. Are you ready for me to ring the bell now?"
          Amanda looked down at her attire. For Dori’s birthday celebration, she had chosen sashed, loose-fitting black slacks and a beaded, sleeveless bronze sweater. Her shoes were black, two-inch heel sandals and she carried a black beaded handbag. She wore her hair up with wispy ringlets falling to her shoulders and around her face. "Are you sure I look okay?"
          "You look stunning. But you look great to me in curlers, so who am I to say?"
          Amanda grinned. "Well, all I have to say is that a tux sure does look good on you, Reverend Rogers."
          "Yeah, well it's choking the life out of me. So, what's say we take the plunge and actually go inside?"
          Amanda nodded and Mark rang the doorbell. Within seconds the door opened and the couple was greeted by a woman properly dressed in a server's uniform. "Good evening,” she greeted them.
          Mark cleared his throat. "Yes. Good evening. I'm Reverend Rogers. This is...um...my wife--"
          "Amanda," Amanda supplied.
          "Amanda," Mark verified. He pulled at the collar of his crisp white shirt.
          "Mr. and Mrs. Madison are expecting you. Won't you come in?" The woman stepped aside to allow them entrance. As Amanda slipped ahead of Mark, she turned and whispered, "That was slick."
           The two stopped short as they took in the elegance of the home's spacious foyer. Amanda whirled around to face Mark and whispered, "For whom is he working? The mob?"
          Mark shrugged, but before he could answer heard the footsteps of Harold on the red oak floor.
          "Mark! So glad you could make it. Amanda," he welcomed with the flare of a well-seasoned host.
          Amanda extended her hand in greeting. "Yes. We haven't really had an appropriate opportunity to get to know one another at St. Luke's."
          "Always such a crowd," Harold answered with a teasing frown. "My goodness, don't you look lovely? She's beautiful, Mark," he said turning to shake Mark's hand. "You are a lucky man."
          "That's what she keeps telling me."
          Harold chuckled. "Come on in and meet everyone," he said, gesturing to his left and leading the way into the formal living room where he was immediately joined by Celeste, who greeted Mark and Amanda.
          "Your home is lovely," Amanda admired.
          "You're so kind to say so," Celeste replied. "I like it, but sometimes with the children gone it gets a little too big, if you know what I mean." She took Amanda by the elbow and guided her away from Mark's side. "Let me introduce you to the ladies. I'm sure Harold will bore your husband with the gentlemen," she quipped.
          Amanda clutched her purse. As a pastor's wife she had acquired the gift of hospitality and had learned to be comfortable in most any home, but this was the most elaborate estate she had ever been in.
          Celeste noticed the purse in her hands. "Oh, darling, I'm so sorry. Did you want Marguerite to take your bag?"
          "Oh, no. I'm fine. It's fine, really."
          Celeste motioned to an attractive woman sitting on one of the cream-colored sofas. "Amanda, this is Mrs. Robert Sims."
          "Patricia." The woman said. "It's so nice to finally meet you, Mrs. Rogers."
          Amanda had the distinct impression she had just been introduced to the Queen of England. She smiled, extended her hand and said, "Call me Amanda, please."
Patricia Sims merely nodded.
          "And this beautiful young lady," Celeste continued, motioning to the exquisite woman sitting next to Patty, "is our birthday girl. Dori, this is Amanda Rogers."
          Amanda and Dori shook hands. "So nice to meet you," Amanda said.
          Dori's hand lingered in the handshake then slipped from Amanda's. "I'm so happy to meet you, too," Dori responded. "Please, won't you sit next to me?"
          Amanda took a seat next to Dori at the end of the sofa. She looked across the room to the men who had gathered around the wraparound mahogany bar. Mark eye's caught hers. He lifted his glass of ice and cola in a mock toast. She replied to the gesture with a wink.
          "Your husband is a wonderful minister," Dori whispered.
          Amanda turned to face her. "Thank you. I understand your husband works with Mr. Madison."
          "Yes. They've been partners for quite a few years now."
          "What about you? Do you work outside the home?"
          Dori gave Amanda an award-winning smile. "I like the way you phrased that. I have my own interior design company."
          Amanda swept a glance around the room. "Did you do this? Because it's just gorgeous."
          "Isn't it? No, I'm sorry to say that I didn't. Celeste has a remarkable talent all her own."
          Amanda cast her eyes upward to the crystal chandelier hanging from the center of the ceiling.
          "It's a nineteenth-century piece from New Orleans," Dori supplied. "Celeste bought it last year while she and Harold were on one of their separate vacations."
          Amanda looked back at Dori. "Separate vacations?"
          Dori nodded, shifting slightly toward Amanda. "The Madison's take two vacations a year. One together and one separately. Last year Celeste went on a shopping spree for antiques in New Orleans. She returned with that lovely piece you're admiring."
          "And Mr. Madison?” Amanda asked, somewhat amused. “Where did he go on his vacation?"
          Dori looked across the room at the handsome, older man. There was a fleeting moment of sadness in her eyes, replaced by a twinkle. "Oh, Harold never tells," she answered with a smile. "He doesn't even tell Celeste. I asked him once if he'd tell me--my being his godchild, you know--but he teased me by saying he had only told one other person and they were never seen nor heard from again.” Her smile widened. “Isn't that funny?"
          More strange than funny, Amanda thought. But to Dori she answered, "Yes. That's very funny."
          Just then the doorbell rang.

          All eyes turned toward the foyer. 

Chapter Twenty
          Brittany slipped undetected out the front door, down the porch steps and then ran across the lawn. She slid into the passenger's seat of the white Mustang GT, clicked the door shut behind her and leaned over the central console to give the waiting driver a quick kiss.
          Taran Connor cocked a brow. "Is that the best you can do?"
          Brittany grinned, wrapped her arms around Taran's broad shoulders and kissed him with more passion than she’d ever kissed a boy. "How's that, Your Grace?" she asked without a hint of coyness in her voice.
          "You are one great kisser," he whispered. "Even for a P.K."
          "Especially for a P.K." Brittany looked toward her house, then back at Taran. "Look, my grandmother's watching television and my kid brother has my entire month's allowance to keep his mouth shut, so let's go. Where are you taking me, by the way?"
          Taran started the car, put it in gear and peeled onto the road.
          "Hey! Do you want to alert every neighbor we have?" Brittany asked.
          "You're too uptight," he said, but gave her a wink to soften the harshness of his words.
          "You would be too if you were on restriction until your thirtieth birthday," she groaned, hunching down in the seat. "You still haven't told me where you're taking me."
          "I thought we'd go to my best friend's house," he said, making a right turn.
          "Oh? What's his name?" Brittany leaned over and adjusted the music on the CD player. "Can we turn this just a little lower? I want to be able to hear you," she said sweetly, slanting her eyes up at him and hoping to appear alluring.
          "You really know how to play the game, don't you, Cupcake?"
          Brittany reached across the central console and planted a light kiss on Taran's neck. "I don't know what you're talking about," she toyed.
          "The heck you don't," he answered with a chuckle. "And to answer your question, my best friend is a she, not a he."
          Brittany sat up. "A she?"
          "You got a problem with that?" he asked, making a quick stop at a red light.
          "No, I don't have a problem with it. It's just unusual."
          "Nina and I go way back," he explained, pulling away from the traffic light. "She's from the old neighborhood, where my family and I used to live before my dad got his big break in business."
          "Does she go to Highland Park High?"
          "Nope. She dropped out last year, got her G.E.D., went to beauty school and does hair now. She's real good, too."
          Brittany watched the landscape outside the car window become wooded and dark. Taran turned down a rutted dirt road and the car bounced along the way. "She lives way out here?" Brittany asked.
          "Back in the sticks," he teased. "See that house there?" he asked, pointing to an abandoned, white-framed house that seemed to be collapsing under its own weight.
          Brittany nodded.
          "That used to be Home Sweet Home. Nina lives just down the road here. She's a riot. Her daddy owns a good deal of farm land around here, so Nina bought a trailer and lives on part of the property."
          "Is he rich? Her dad?"
          "He would be if he didn't have so many kids."
          "Really? How many?"
          "Ten. Nina's number four. Couldn't wait to get out of that house with all those rug rats running wild."
          "And now she lives alone?" Brittany felt her stomach tighten. If her parents caught her going out with Taran, she would be grounded till her forties, but if they found out she had gone with him to a girl's trailer where no adults lived, she may as well change her religion and check into a future as a nun.
          "You're not going to be a baby, are you?" he asked with aggravation in his voice.
          She turned to him and shook her head. "No. Of course not."
          He caressed her cheek with the back of his fingers. "That's my girl. Besides, I'm sure we won't be the only ones there. Saturday night is Party Central at Nina's house."
          Brittany's emotions contradicted themselves. She melted at being called "his girl" while struggling to keep her anxieties at bay. "Just remember I can't stay out late," she reminded him. "If I don't get back before my parents return from that dinner, both of our heads will be on the chopping block."
          "Don't worry, Cupcake. I'm an ole’ pro at this. You just gotta trust me."
          Brittany nodded and gave Taran a whisper of a smile. "I do. I trust you."
Chapter Twenty-one 
          "That should be the rest of my family," Matt Chandler announced. "I'll show them in."
          Amanda watched as the handsome, impeccably dressed man stroll comfortably from the room. She marveled at the manner in which he carried himself and how he appeared to have been chiseled from a fine cut of granite. Even his clothes seemed tailor made. Yet, it wasn't just the tux, she thought. It was the way it appeared to have been pressed after he put it on rather than before. Amanda recalled the son of one of the nurses from the maternity ward of the small hospital where she had worked in the early years of Mark's ministry. After Mark graduated from college he accepted a position as a youth minister at a small country church outside of Asheville. Money was tight, and to help with their finances, Amanda, who’d dropped out of her nursing courses to marry Mark, took a job as a ward secretary at the local hospital. Tammy Maples, the charge nurse of Amanda's shift, had a three-year-old son named Wesley who was the darling of all the women who worked the ward.
          "Wesley is, for all the world, the kind of child who should be memorialized in an oil painting," Amanda said to Tammy one evening during their evening shift.
          "It's hard enough to get someone around here to paint your house much less your children," Tammy beamed.
          "What I want to know is," Amanda continued, "Do you press his clothes before or after you dress him in the mornings? Because, I declare, I've never seen any one male dressed so impeccably! What is it someone once said? The clothes make the man? Or is it, the man makes the clothes?"

          "They're late as usual." Amanda now heard Patricia Sims mutter to Dori, bringing Amanda out of her reverie.
          Dori sighed. "Mother, please. Not tonight."
          Amanda watched Harold as he moved toward the sofa where the ladies were sitting and tried not to appear as though she were eavesdropping. He carried a filled glass in each hand.
          "No doubt Vivian's fault," Patricia continued. "I swear, if a dinner begins at seven, we should tell her six."
          Amanda smiled up at Harold as he presented her with one of the glasses. "Your husband tells me you like ginger ale."
          Amanda accepted the glass graciously. "Yes, thank you."
          "I suppose being the pastor's wife, you must refrain from taking the occasional social drink," Dori commented.
          Before Amanda could tell her yes, she did at times indulge in wine with dinner, Matt reentered the room, followed by his mother and father, Vivian and her husband, Carson. Amanda and Vivian locked eyes and gave each other wide smiles, a gesture that did not slip past Patricia Sims.
          "Hi, Amanda," Vivian greeted. She clasped her husband's broad shoulders in her hands and steered him toward the sofa. "Sweetie, this is Amanda. Amanda, my husband, Carson."
          Vivian had been correct. For an older man, he was good looking. Amanda smiled and responded, "It's nice to finally meet you, Carson."
          "Nice to meet you, too. Hello, Dori," he said, walking around the cocktail table to kiss her cheek. "Happy birthday."
          "Thank you, Carson. I'm so glad you could join us tonight."
          "It's always a pleasure. Mrs. Sims, how are you this evening?"
          "Fine,” she said, remaining aloof in her answer.
          Carson smiled in acceptance of his contemporary's rude behavior and moved to the chair where Mrs. Madison was sitting. "Celeste, as always you look stunning," he complimented as he bent to kiss her cheek.
          Celeste Madison patted him on the shoulder and laughed. "Oh, Carson. No wonder Vivian fell in love with you!"
          Amanda decided she truly liked Celeste Madison. There wasn't a snobbish bone in her body. She would, however, have to ask for God's guidance with Patricia Sims. Dori ... she hadn't quite made a decision on Dori yet. She seemed nice enough. Even genuine, to a degree. But it was that degree that puzzled her most.
          Again Dori turned to Amanda as the newcomers moved to the bar for their before- dinner drinks. "Where are you from originally, Amanda? May I call you Amanda?"
          "Yes, please do," Amanda answered with a smile. "Originally from a small town in Virginia."
          "I've never been to Virginia," Dori said. "But I understand it is quite beautiful. I've been through it, of course, but never stayed and visited."
          "It is beautiful," Amanda told her. "Especially in the fall of the year. The turning of the leaves is reason enough to take a vacation there."
          "What part of Virginia are you from, dear?" Celeste asked.
          "Williamstown. It's very small, but a wonderful place to grow up."
          "I'm sure that it is," Celeste responded. “That's what I love about Highland Park. It has that charming hometown feel, but it's close enough to Atlanta not to be primitive."
          Dori stood. "Would everyone please excuse me? I'm going to powder my nose before dinner, as the old saying goes."

          "Everyone," Celeste announced from the entrance of the oak-paneled dining room. "I hope you enjoy tonight's dinner." The room was warm, illuminated by dim light from matching sconces adorning both sides of the fireplace mantel and the glow of vanilla scented candles perched in Sheffield candelabras atop the Georgian mahogany double-pedestal table. Gold-bordered china, burgundy-colored Czechoslovakian crystal and heavy antique silver flatware graced each place setting. The table's centerpiece, a silver and crystal epergne, spilled over with bunches of grapes. Its base was encircled with gardenia blossoms floating in small, ornate silver bowls.
          "Please look for your name cards. I've arranged our guests--boy, girl, boy, girl--but not with our spouses. We can eat with them any old time. Dori, darling, I've placed you to Harold's right because you are the only left-handed one here and I know that's your preference. Unless either one of you are left-handed," she quickly added, turning to Mark and Amanda.
          They both shook their heads. "No," Amanda said. "Dori gets the special seat."
          "Not to mention I'm the birthday girl," Dori said with a laugh.
          Everyone laughed with her.
          When the dinner guests were seated in the tapestry-covered chairs, Harold Madison raised his wineglass in a toast. Mrs. Madison and the ten guests responded by raising their glasses as well. "To Dori, the most wonderful child a man ever had the pleasure of calling his god-daughter."
          "Hear! Hear!" the group echoed. Amanda glanced down the table to where Dori beamed at her godfather.
          "Thank you, Harold. I adore you, too," Dori responded with a tender smile as she touched the rim of her glass to his for the final mark of the toast.

          Sometime later, Marguerite entered the room and stepped to Harold's seat, leaned over and whispered into his ear. Conversations at the table stopped in mid-sentence. "Did you tell him I was in the middle of a dinner, Marguerite?" he asked.
          "Yes, sir. But he insisted."
          Harold stood abruptly. "I believe we are ready for dessert anyway," he said. "Celeste?"
          "Yes, Marguerite," she confirmed with a bit of frustration in her voice. "Kindly wait until Mr. Madison has returned to bring in the cake."
          "I'll be back in a moment," Harold said good-naturedly to Dori. "I couldn't bear to have you blow those candles out without me, young lady."
Dori nodded and Harold left the room.
          "Excuse me," Amanda announced to the dinner guests. "I also need to leave the table. I have to call home and check on the kids and my mother."
          Celeste smiled at her. "It's been a long time since I had to deal with any of that. I think I actually find myself a bit jealous of you."
          Amanda rolled her eyes. "My day will come," she said, laying her loosely folded dinner napkin to the left of her plate.
          "Don't rush it, Sweetie. You'll want these days back. I'm sure Harold went to his upstairs office to use the phone there. You'll find another in the downstairs library. Just follow the main hallway. It's the fourth door to the right."
          Amanda smiled. Yes. She really liked Celeste Madison. "Thank you."
          Amanda followed Celeste's directions to the small, intimate library. The scent of pipe tobacco permeated the room. The furnishings were simple and tasteful, enabling Amanda to easily locate the telephone, an older one … the kind one typically saw in movies set in the 60s and 70s. She noticed that there were four lines and that line four was in use. Pressing the button for line one she picked up the receiver and dialed her home number. Ryan answered on the third ring.
          "Hi, Mom."
          "How's WoWo?"
          "Good. She's gone to bed."
          "And Brittany? What's Brittany doing?" Amanda ran her fingertip along the edge of the telephone.
          "I dunno."
          Amanda smiled. "Okay. I know. You're not your sister's keeper," she mocked as her fingertip moved along the grid of number buttons.
          There was a moment of silence.
          "Has anyone called?" Amanda's tracing moved to the outside line buttons.
          "The phone rang once, but I was in the bathroom."
          "The answering machine got it then," Amanda concluded, her fingertip lightly brushed over the button for line one, then line two.
          "Yeah. Can I go now? I was watching a movie on TV."
          "Ryan, do try to miss your mother, okay?" she teased, her finger grazing the top of line three's button.
          "Huh? Oh, yeah. Miss--"
          Amanda's finger slipped, pushing the button for line four.
 "...telling you again," she heard Harold Madison say. "I'll be leaving for my vacation soon. After that, we'll do business."
          "I have the five-hundred grand," a man replied. "I'm ready to do business now."
          Amanda covered the mouthpiece of the phone with the palm of her hand, not knowing what to do. If she hung up now, Mr. Madison would know she had overheard an obviously important business call. But if she continued to listen she would be eavesdropping. Pressing her lips together and looking up to the ceiling, she prayed silently for the call to be over soon.
          "In cash?" Harold asked. "I told you I only take cash."
          "Yes. Just like you told me."
          "Good. Now you listen to me. It's five hundred grand before the pick up and five hundred grand after the pick up. Have it in cash or its no deal. Understand?
          "I told you I understand."
          "I've never had this much trouble with any of my other clients. You keep this up and I'll drop the whole thing. Am I making myself clear?"
          "Don't do that, Mr. Green," the now submissive voice responded. "It means too much to my wife."
          Amanda's brow furrowed. Mr. Green? Amanda shifted, glancing at the open doorwayThe sweet scent of tobacco became overpowering, burning her nostrils. Dear God, she prayed, please don't let anyone walk in….
          "That's better. I like that attitude. I'll call you in two days. Two days, do you hear me? Do not let me hear from you again. And don't give out my home number." He took a deep breath and sighed. "You'll get us all in hot water. There are people’s lives to be considered. You understand the risks just like I do. And I have no intention of going down. Not after all these years. Now, good-bye."
          Amanda jumped at the sound of the phone being slammed into its cradle. She quickly replaced her receiver so as not to be detected and looked toward the library door.
          "I’ve got to get out back to the dining room," she whispered to no one. "He can't know I wasn't at the table when he took that call." 
Chapter Twenty-two
          "You've been awfully quiet," Mark commented as they entered the quiet darkness of their living room.
          "What?" Amanda asked.
          Mark stepped around and switched on a table lamp.  "I said you've been quiet.”
          Amanda’s eyes met her husband’s. "Mark, how well do you know Harold Madison?"
          He lightly touched her arm, coaxing her toward the hallway and, if she knew him at all, to bed.
          "Harold Madison?”
          “Mmm,” she answered with a nod.
          “Why do you ask?"
          Amanda stopped at Ryan's bedroom door, opened it and peeked inside.  She smiled at the upturned nose of her sleeping son.  Closing the door she turned back to Mark. "Don't answer a question with a question, please."
          "I know him as well as you, I suppose.  He's an old friend of Dad's.  Is there a problem?"
          Amanda shook her head as she opened Brittany's bedroom door.  Again, she smiled.  Brittany's shiny blond hair lay against her pillowcase, illuminated by the moonlight streaming through the windows.  Amanda stepped into the room and closed the blinds.  She heard Brittany take a deep breath, then sigh.
When Amanda turned back toward the door she saw Mark leaning against the doorframe, watching his sleeping daughter.
          "She's beautiful, isn't she?" he whispered.
          "Yes."
          "Like her mother."
          Amanda shook her head.  "Like your mother.  She's the spitting image."
          Mark nodded in agreement.  "Come on, let's go to bed."
          Amanda followed her husband down the hall and into their bedroom.  As soon as she closed the door he asked her, "So are you going to tell me?"
          "Tell you what?" Amanda asked, pulling off her shoes and discarding them onto the floor.
          "Why you asked about Harold?"
          Amanda took a deep breath.  “I’ve wrestled all through dessert and the drive home as to whether or not to tell you this…”
          “Tell me what?”  Mark pulled off his tux jacket and threw it across the back of a nearby chair.
          “Something I overheard.” 
          “Were you eavesdropping?”  Mark eased himself into the chair and pulled off his shoes, setting them side-by-side to the right of his feet.
          Amanda paused, pulling her sweater from inside her slacks and sitting on the edge of the bed in one fluid movement. “What makes you think I was eavesdropping?
          “You know how I feel about eavesdropping.”
          Amanda frowned.  “No.  Enlighten me.” She stood and walked toward the dresser, removing her earrings and dropping them onto the surface.  “You know what?  Never mind.” She tossed her hair. “I’m too tired to even talk about this.”  She looked over her shoulder and smiled as Mark stood and removed the rest of his clothes. 
          When he caught her stare, he returned the smile.  "I have lived for the moment I could come out of this monkey suit," he remarked.  "And keep smiling at me like that, Mrs. Rogers, and I’ll forget all about the eavesdropping and make you into one happy woman.” 
          Amanda winked at her husband.  “Hold that thought.” She crossed the room and walked toward the office.  "I'm going to check the answering machine.  Ryan said someone called while he was in the bathroom."
          She entered the dark room and flipped on the overhead light. The answering machine next to the desk phone blinked once. Paused. Blinked again.  Amanda pushed the button and waited. She was met only by silence from the other end. Then, a moment of heavy breathing, as though someone were trying to catch their breath after sprinting.
          Finally the caller spoke. "Want to play a game of hide and seek?" the whispery voice asked.

Chapter Twenty-three
          Mark waited until ten o’clock on Monday to place a phone call. Eight o’clock Montana time. By then Jeremy Ryan would just be sitting down to a nice cup of hot coffee before continuing with the ranch's morning chores.
          When his brother-in-law answered, Mark stayed purposeful in what he had to say, keeping his voice steady. Sure.
Jeremy met his words first with silence. Then with, "What are you telling me?"
            "I don't know," Mark answered wearily.  He propped his elbows on his desk in the church office and rested his forehead in his hand.  "She says she got a phone call on the twenty-eighth..."
          "The anniversary of the kidnapping."
          "Yeah."
          "Did you actually hear that one?"
          "No.  Only this one.  And only because it's on the machine."
          "Did you call the police?"
          "And tell them what?" Mark asked, his voice rising. He swallowed. Forced his voice to drop. “Sorry.” The conversation was beginning to sound a lot like the one he'd had two nights earlier when Amanda insisted on calling the police.  "It's like I told your sister, it’s not like the call is obscene.  Someone is simply asking if she wants to play Hide and Seek.  What kind of police code do you think they have for that one?"
          "Look, I know you're under a lot of stress..."
          "You don't know the half of it."
          "What do you mean?"
          Mark leaned back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling, silently praying for clarity of mind and speech so he could confidently explain to Jeremy his fears and apprehensions.
          "Mark?"
          "Yeah, I'm here. Jeremy, every year this gets worse.  Every year.  This year...with the baby...and your mother...and the move...and Brittany..."
          "What about Brittany?"
          "I'm sure it's totally normal.  I'm sure of it.  She just wants to cut a few of those apron strings."
          Jeremy chuckled on the other end of the line.  "Oh.  That.  Met a boy, did she?"
          "Something like that."
          "Again I ask you: what are you saying, Mark?  What is going on with my sister?"
          "Well...I..." Mark struggled with his thoughts and putting those thoughts into words.  "I'm just wondering if perhaps...now, don't think I'm trying to put anything off on Amanda...but what if she made that phone call?”
          "Amanda?  What makes you think Amanda would do something like that?  She's a levelheaded girl. One day a year she gets a little blue, but that's one day a year."
          "It's more than a little blue.  You're not following me.  Every year it gets a little worse.  And this year she has more on her.  A lot more.  No one but Amanda heard the first phone call.  The night of the second phone call we were have dinner at the home of the Madison’s, members of the church. She left the table to call home.  But what if she called, and when she got the answering machine, paused for a moment and then whispered, 'Want to play a game of Hide and Seek?' "
          "Wouldn't you recognize Amanda's voice, though?"
          "The voice was barely audible, Jeremy. And sort of...raspy."
          "Mark, I know my sister.  I mean, we haven't always been so close.  Not like we are now, since the two of you lived out here for awhile.  I can't imagine a single reason why Amanda would do something like this, can you?"
          "What if for no other reason than to prove to me that the first phone call really happened?  Not that I'm saying I really believe it did."
          "Why wouldn't you believe it?"
          "Oh, come on, Jeremy. Who would do something like this? Becky? That little girl is dead."
          "Is she? No one ever proved she was dead, Mark. No one ever found a body."
          "You don't truly believe somewhere out there, Becky Potter, all grown up, has decided to get in touch with Amanda, do you?  Wouldn't she call her mother first?  And why the telephone games?  Why not just call and say, 'Amanda, this is Becky’?"
          From the other end of the line Jeremy blew, sipped, and swallowed. Mark pictured him, clad in dark blue jeans, plaid shirt and boots sitting in an old rocker on the wide front porch of his ranch home.  There, he imagined, his brother-in-law's bright green eyes narrowed as he gazed out on the horses grazing in the surrounding pastures.  He knew what Jeremy was thinking and Jeremy's next line told him he was correct.
          "You think my sister is losing it?"  It was said more as a statement than a question.
          "Have you ever known Amanda to discuss the details...the fine details...of that day?  I just the other day found out about the ‘count on me’ line."
          "Not to me.  Obviously not to you.  Maybe to a girlfriend?"
          "I don't think so. Unless it's this woman, Vivian, that she met down here.  They meet each other and in one morning Vivian has made more progress with Amanda than I have in all these years. Amanda actually baked a cake on the anniversary of the kidnapping."
          "That is progress. Then allow me to play devil's advocate.  If she was better, why would she be playing these games with you?"
          "I said she baked a cake.  I didn't say the mood swings were over.  Later that day Brittany didn't come home on the school bus.  Amanda nearly went insane.  That's when I found out about the first phone call.  I don't know if it really happened or if she was just so hysterical...look, between me and you, Amanda's got a little girl's broken locket hidden in her jewelry box.  She doesn't know I found it years ago and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out who it belonged to.  But not once has she ever mentioned to me about Becky's wearing a locket that day or about finding it. Gut instinct tells me, though, that is exactly who it belonged to. No one but Amanda knows the fine details of that day.  So no one else could have made that call."
          "Except Becky."
          Mark rubbed his forehead with his fingertips.  "I said it once.  I'll say it again.  That little girl is dead."
          Jeremy took a deep breath and sighed before he commented.  His sister carefully thought through her options before she acted.  He carefully thought through his options before he spoke. He took another sip of coffee and swallowed hard. 
          "I'll play devil's advocate again. What if she's not?" he finally responded.


Chapter Twenty-four


September 9, 2013
          Mama believes the church is the answer for everything. Not God necessarily, but the church. She never misses Sunday school or church on Sunday morning. Tuesday nights she attends her ladies meeting where she plans charity events. "Those poor people on the other side of town," she says with a tsk-tsk. "Whatever we can do is surely appreciated." Raffles and bake sales and a pay-for-play bingo game and all the problems those poor people have will go away. At least that's what those women think. Silly, isn’t it. That's what they say over cocktails at the club on warm Saturday afternoons.
Silly, stupid, self-righteous women.    
Problems aren't solved by handing someone a few bucks and saying, "God bless you, dear. God bless."
          Attending Wednesday-night social dinners held in the church basement is nothing more than Mama's way of making excuses as to why she must have a new dress or a new hat. Who wears hats anymore for crying out loud? Last month the preacher decided the ladies needed to begin their Bible study again. And Mama ought to teach it. Naturally, she said she would. She knows everything about the church. She's older than the bricks that make up the cornerstone. Who else to teach but Mama?
          But Mama can't tell me why my baby had to be taken. Mama can't tell me. The church can't tell me. Sunday school classes don't reveal the answers. Neither do the fifteen-minute sermons I have grown to hate. I purchase a raffle ticket. I bake a cake. I play a game of Bingo. Still, no answers for me, and the poor people on the other side of town continue to go hungry. Their children still wear other children's hand-me-downs and play with other children's cast-off toys.
 I would be poor if I could have my daughter back. I would dress her in hand-me-downs and give her Toys-for-Tots dolls at Christmas if I could only celebrate it with her.
          Mama gets the denomination magazine once a month. Wise words from retired ministers written to bore readers. Articles and photos of missionary activities are exploited within the pages in some lame attempt to wring sympathy and financial contributions out of unsuspecting members of the flock. I don't read the articles, but Mama does. "God bless them," she says. "I know I couldn't do what they are doing." And then she sends them part of my inheritance, just as the editors hoped she would.
          In the back of the magazine are the names of all the denomination’s ministers within the country and the names of their churches. And that is how I know...that is how I keep up. Little Amanda Ryan is Mrs. Mark Rogers. A preacher's wife. Two darling children. Two.
          But I have none. All because of a game of Hide and Seek. A silly game.
A child's game.

Chapter Twenty-five

            Tuesday at lunch, Brittany and Taran sat across from each other at a well-shaded picnic table on the school grounds. She ate her traditional peanut butter and jelly sandwich while he wolfed down a sub he purchased at a nearby convenience store on his way to school.
            Taran pulled a pretzel twist from Brittany's lunch bag and fed it to her. "So did you enjoy the other night? The party?"
            Brittany nodded. "It was fun. Your friends are a little wilder than the kids I knew in Montana, but I had a good time.” She pulled another pretzel twist from the bag and nibbled on it. “But I am confused about something. It's like you have two sets of friends. The sort of rich, upper class kids here--at school and at church--and the older, more brazen bunch from the other night. I mean, I like them both, but they are just different."
            "Yeah, I get ‘cha. My way of looking at is this—you get different things from different people. The people in my family's social circle will get me where I want to go in life. But the people from the other night are fun. Really fun, not the pretentious stuff. They let down their hair and go with whatever life gives them and make the best of it. I'd rather drink a beer with Nina than champagne with a prince. Anyway, did I get you home in time so you could get to bed without being found out?"
            Brittany took a sip of her soft drink. "Yeah. In fact I was asleep before my parents got back from the party. I wish I hadn't been though."
            "Oh, yeah? Why?"
            "From what I can make out, Mom got a phone call. Something to do with Becky...you know, the little girl who disappeared back when they were kids. Apparently this is the second call Mom’s gotten in a few days.” She shrugged. “I don't know what’s going on. But that's why Mom wasn't at church on Sunday. She had another one of her 'bed' days. She's fine now, I guess, but I can tell my Dad is beginning to think she's going to lose it."
            Taran looked away to the other picnic tables occupied by other Highland Park High students. A warm breeze stirred. He tilted his head back slightly, closed his eyes then suddenly looked back at Brittany. "Do you think your father always wanted to be a preacher?" he asked. "I mean, I can't imagine, like, actually choosing to be a preacher."
            Brittany grinned. “I dunno. I guess, you know, the retirement plan is good." Taran chuckled and Brittany continued. "He says he made the decision in high school. Revival at church sort of thing. Up until that time he wanted to be in public relations, which I guess he still is, but not in the capacity he thought he would be."
            Taran leaned over and brushed a strand of hair from Brittany's cheek. "I want to be a doctor." His voice was low and beguiling.
            "I'll just bet you do," Brittany replied with a laugh.
            "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
            "Who says I'm not grown up?" Brittany teased as she popped the last bite of her sandwich between her teeth.
            "You are rotten," he grinned, tipping his can of soda to his lips. "Answer the question."
            "No. Tell me what you really want to be?" she countered.
            "I told you. A doctor."
            "You were serious about that?" she asked, brushing sandwich crumbs from her fingers.
            "Yeah. I get good grades. And I'm interested in things like that. But I want to research diseases, not just treat the symptoms."
            "Admirable. I'll be sure to tell my father. You need all the brownie points you can acquire after last week."
            Taran shook his head. "Your old man stared at me a lot during church on Sunday."
            "Don't be paranoid."
            "I'm not. He cocked that eyebrow at me when he was talking about fearing the father."
            Brittany laughed. "His eyebrow is always cocked and furthermore, he was talking about fearing the Father. Not my father."
            Taran grinned. "I know. I'm just giving the little peasant girl a hard time."
            Brittany kicked him under the table. "Enough of that."
            "Ow!" he said, feigning injury. "Now I won't be able to play football!"
            Brittany narrowed her eyes at him. "Since when do you play football?"
            "I don't. But if I wanted to..."
            Brittany kicked him again.
            "So answer my question. What do you want to be?"
            "You won't like this.”
“Try me.”
“ I want to be the wife of a very rich man."
            Taran's eyes widened in amusement. "Oh, yeah? Why's that?"
            "Because you get to go to all these parties. You know, la-de-DA kinds of soirees where everyone acts fake, like they truly like you, when actually they'd cut your heart out in a skinny minute. But that's okay because you'd cut theirs out, too and furthermore you’d serve it on a silver platter at your next social gathering."
            "Oh, this is a lovely side of you," he commented.
            "I knew you'd love it."
            "Tell me about these...what did you call them?"
            "Soirees? It means party, basically. I'll go out days in advance and buy the one dress I think will be better than all the other women's dresses. And the day of the event I'll get my nails done and my hair fixed. I'll wear jewelry that would blind you if you looked at it just right."
            "Your father teach you this? I mean, somewhere after honoring him and your mother and fearing God?"
            "Don't interrupt me with your commentaries. I'm telling you about the evening. See, the women will sit in little clusters gabbing, saying things like, ‘Next year we're definitely going to Brazil because Paris was lovely, of course, but everybody is going there, you know, and we want to do something different.’ The men will stand around and talk about business. They'll all be in business, of course. Big business. And the women will just sit and think how much better looking their husbands are than the woman's sitting next to them while their men are trying to make a deal over cocktails so he can make more money...so she can buy an even better dress for the next party."
            Taran burst out laughing. "I like you, Cupcake. I really do. You are about as devilish as I am."
            Brittany grinned. "I beg your pardon?"
            "Oh, no! You're a classic. Miss Goody-Goody on the outside, but the real you is out there going, 'What's in it for me?' Which means you and I are two of a kind."
            "Maybe. All I know is, I don't want to be status quo. I want to be the radical one in the bunch. Kind of like our neighbor, Vivian Bishop. She shocks the women, but the men find her alluring. That will be me. Shocking but alluring."
            "Oh, I bet you will! And I know one way you can start right now. Remember the other night I told you Nina is a hairdresser? Well, she and I were talking on the phone last night and she says you should cut your hair short--not a buzz like Miss Viv, but short--and dye it really blond. Like Marilyn Monroe."
            Brittany brought her hand up and ran her fingers through her hair. "I dunno. My mother would bust something if I did."
            Taran stretched across the table and gave Brittany a lingering kiss. "Isn't that the point? If you are going to be a radical adult, don't you think you better start now? Besides, what's it gonna hurt? She doesn't like it, you grow it back and let the roots grow out."
            Brittany smiled lazily. "Would you like it if I did?"
            "MmmHmm. Nina can do it. She's good. And--if you really want to make me happy--you can let her do a little body piercing."
            "I'm not piercing my tongue. That's out. And I already wear two earrings in each ear."
            "But not one in your bellybutton," he grinned. "And I really like girls with rings in their bellybuttons. Do it for me?"
 Brittany thought a moment, took a deep breath and sighed. She couldn't explain it, even to herself, but this boy had a captivating way about him. She'd do anything for him. Anything.
            She nodded. "When?"
            "Tomorrow. After school. This time, though, let your parents know you're gonna be late."

Chapter Twenty-six

            "You look better today," Mark commented to Amanda Wednesday morning over hot coffee and scrambled eggs.
            Amanda smiled from across the kitchen table. "I feel better. Every day that goes by without another phone call helps.”
            Mark waited, purposeful in what he was about to say next. "I talked with Jeremy the other morning."
 "About all this?"
            Mark nodded as he raised his coffee mug to his pursed lips.
            Amanda grimaced. "What did he say?"
            "He's wondering about the possibilities of Becky still being alive."
            Amanda's eyes held a far away gaze. "What do you think?"
            Mark continued to choose his words carefully. "I don't think it makes a lot of sense, Amanda. If Becky were alive, why wouldn't she just give you a call and say, 'Hello'? This game playing is nuts. And it's making you nuts.” He took a deep breath. “I checked the last number that called the other night by dialing star sixty-nine.”
“And?”
“It came from the Madison's."
            "That's when I called and talked to Ryan. He said the phone rang earlier, but he couldn't get to it. He was in the bathroom, or something."
            "What about Brittany?"
            Amanda's eyes widened. "I don't know. He said he didn't know where she was when I called. You don't think..."
            Mark brushed his mouth with his napkin, took a last sip of coffee and stood. "There's no telling. I'm not sure I even know that child anymore. She's spent the last three nights on the telephone with that Connor kid. Maybe I'm acting like an overprotective father," he concluded with a deep breath. He placed his hands on his hips and looked out the window.
            Amanda smiled up at her husband. "That's the only kind of father to be. Especially with a daughter."
            Mark nodded, then shook his head to clear his thoughts. "Okay, then. You gonna feel like going to church tonight?"
            "I don't see why not. It’ll be nice to be in the house of God.”
 “Which one of the kids watches your mother?”
            “Brittany."
            "Why don't we talk to her when we get back?"
            Amanda reached across the table for Mark's plate and coffee mug. "Good idea. I think it's time for a little heart to heart. Time to set some boundaries. I just didn't think it would happen so soon."
            "Okay, then.”
 "Mark," she began, her voice uneasy. "I still want to talk with you about Harold Madison."
            Mark's brow furrowed. "Amanda, don't start. You've been muttering insinuations about him ever since the other night. He's a nice man--"
            Amanda looked down to the dirty dishes on the table. "I think he's hiding something.”
            Mark stepped to the table and loomed over her by bracing one of his hands on the table and the other on the back of her chair. "Let me see if I've got this straight, Amanda. You think Becky is alive and well and living somewhere in the Atlanta area--"
            "I didn't say that."
            "--and you think Harold Madison is hiding something."
            "Mark." She turned her face up to meet his. "I heard something--"
 "No, Amanda. I don't want to talk about this right now. I'm going to have to be firm with you and tell you to stop this nonsense," he said in quiet, but forceful tones.
            Anger rose in his wife’s eyes. "You're talking to me as if I were a child, Mark Rogers!"
            "You're acting like a child." Mark turned, walked out the room and down the hall. "Brittany! Ryan! Time for school!"

            After Mark left with the kids and she’d gotten her mother settled in front of the television, Amanda made another cup of coffee and took it to the master bathroom. A hot shower. That was what she needed.
She looked at her reflection in the mirror and sighed. Life was getting away from her, she thought. Her daughter was growing up, her mother was growing senile and someone knew too much about her past. But why, she asked herself, would this person want to play this mind game? And if Becky was alive, why didn't she--as Mark had suggested--just come out and say so?

Chapter Twenty-seven

 By five o'clock Wednesday afternoon, Vivian had worked herself into a frenzy. Earlier in the day she asked Harold if she might have a minute of his time and he told her to come to his office a little after five. Now, as the digital clock on her office desk read 5:01, she folded her hands, glanced up at the ceiling and said a hurried prayer for help.
          "I really need You on this one," she whispered. "I want this more than I've wanted anything for a long time. Stay with me."
          Vivian shut down her computer, grabbed her purse out of a bottom drawer, pushed her chair under the desk and made her way down the hallway to Harold's office. She mentally went over what she wanted to say.
          Earlier in the day, while upstairs in the attic of the hundred-year-old-house-turned-legal-office, she’d discovered a filing cabinet, pushed into a corner. The perfect size for her home office, she’d decided. And, if it were empty, she’d ask Harold if he wouldn’t mind her dusting it off and taking it.
Then she opened it. Discovered the files. Old files. Old secrets wrapped in manila.
Keeping an occasional watch over her shoulder, Vivian spent time—probably too much—going through a handful of them, working hard to keep the dust off her clothes and out of her nose. By the time she’d read no more than five, she knew …
Something was rotten in Denmark, as the old saying went.
Whether Harold Madison knew it or not, Vivian wasn’t one to sit on this kind of information. No way. No how. But she wasn’t stupid either. She couldn’t march into Harold’s office and declare what she knew. She had to come up with something else. Something … logical.
Only a millisecond was necessary to come up with it. She’d ask Harold whether he knew anyone who handled adoptions. She would tell him, yes, she was infertile and, yes, she and Carson were getting on up there in age. Especially Carson, she would add with a chuckle. But they were good people who had an awful lot of love to share.
Nothing could be more logical.
          She arrived at Harold's closed door and tapped lightly.
          "Come in," he called from the other side.
          She opened the door just enough to allow herself entrance. Harold was already meeting her half way across the richly decorated office.
          "Vivian, my dear! What can I do for you?" He indicated a chair in front of his desk and she quickly sat. As Harold made his way around to the other side of his desk, Vivian adjusted her purse in her lap and said another silent prayer.
          When they were both comfortable she looked up at him and smiled.
          "Let me guess," Harold began. "You want a raise."
          "What? No!” She forced herself to laugh. “Now Harold, you know me better than that.  If I wanted a raise, I would have hounded Matt until he asked you for me."
          "No raise then," Harold chuckled. "This isn't something serious, is it? Not a divorce?"
          “Nothing like that … but it is serious. At least I think it's serious." She cleared her throat discreetly before moving on. "Harold, Carson and I were thinking about adopting a child."
          Harold's face registered something Vivian couldn't read; like a poker player who was an expert at his game. "That's wonderful, Vivian," he said somewhat unconvincingly. "But why are you coming to me?"
          Vivian felt heat rise to her face. "I was hoping you could recommend a good attorney. Someone who deals in that sort of thing. I'm assuming one would need an attorney."
          Harold nodded. "One could have an attorney. Or there are hundreds of agencies; many fine ones in the Atlanta area. I'm surprised you didn't go to Matt."
          Vivian smiled. "What was it Shakespeare said? Only a fool has himself for a client? I would think the same would go for family. Not to mention that Matt might accidentally say something to our mother or to Dori, who would no doubt mention it to her mother. It's no secret that Mrs. Sims doesn't think a lot of me, Harold."
          "I will never understand that, Vivian. You're a charming woman. You just got a little side tracked for awhile there."
          Vivian smiled. "Thank you, Harold. So, do you know of anyone?"
Harold made a show of shuffling through his old Rolodex before answering. "There are many different types of adoptions, Vivian. Surrogacy, domestic, foreign, open, private...."
          "What are the differences?"
          "Are you interested in meeting a birth mother? Supporting her through the last part of her pregnancy? Allowing her to have some contact with you or with the child?"
          "I don't know...." Vivian trailed off.
          "Naturally you would want to talk with Carson about that. But I will tell you this—adopting a baby, and I’m assuming you’ll want it to be white and healthy, is going to cost you time. Lots of time. You may never get there."
          "What if I wanted an older child?"
          "Are you willing to take the risks?"
          "Risks?"
          "Older children are usually from foster homes or state homes. Many come with a variety of emotional problems. Some with physical disabilities. Some with both. These are the children overlooked by prospective parents."
          Vivian grimaced. "Wouldn't it be nice if I could just order one? Like from a catalog?"
          "One perfect child?" Harold asked, leaning back in his chair.
          Vivian had been jesting. But something in Harold's demeanor told her that there could be a way. She smiled and said, "Yes. I guess you could say that. Would that be so wrong?"
          "There is a way. But it's expensive. Very expensive."
          Vivian's breath caught in her throat. Something about this didn't sound right, even to her ears. "How expensive?"
          "It could cost you a million."

Chapter Twenty-eight

          The late afternoon sun spilled through the breakfast nook windows and onto the table, illuminating the pamphlets in Amanda's hands.  She scanned them briefly, mumbling to herself as she went along.  Occasionally she reached for a glass of juice in front of her and took a drink.
          "The Atlanta Area Alzheimer's Chapter annual dues...."  She breathed heavily as she read aloud.  Everything about moving was so difficult.  Everything new had to be located and tried. A grocery store, a new dentist, a new dry cleaner, a new health care provider, new schools for the children, new friends, and, in her case, a new Alzheimer Chapter.
          "Educational programs...legislative advocacy...research...Emory University and drug studies...caregiver resources.” This was the one she needed to look at..."  She took another swallow of juice before opening the pamphlet.  "As an Alzheimer’s caregiver you have already realized there can be many challenges in everyday life."  Amanda rolled her eyes.  "You're telling me.” 
          Amanda's days were filled with helping her mother locate anything from her eyeglasses to her toothbrush, deciphering her mother's requests, making certain she didn't burn the house down, retrieving the telephone from her mother's grip and apologizing to the poor soul on the other end of the line...
          Every day wasn’t filled with these kinds of moments.  Some days were dotted with normality.  But the dots were getting further apart and Amanda knew that eventually she would have to get full-time help or, heartbreakingly, be forced to place her mother in a nursing home.
If her mother's health were the only concern in her life, she might be able to handle it differently.  But Amanda Rogers was the wife of a minister—a job in itself—the mother of two children, and a woman mentally shaken by the certainty that her childhood friend was alive and that Highland Park's most respectable citizen was a man with two faces.     
      She raked her fingers through her hair as she glanced over to the clock on the kitchen wall.  It was almost five-thirty; time to call out for traditional Wednesday night pizza.
Because Wednesdays were short school days, Ryan had been home for hours.  Brittany had asked permission to visit friends after school with the promise that she would be home by six.  Amanda knew one of those friends would be Taran Connor.
          She stood and hurriedly shuffled the pamphlets and booklets together. The sound of the chair scraping against the linoleum under her feet blended with the laughter of her son from another room.  She smiled.  If Brittany was her heart, Ryan was her heartbeat.  He was the one person who could make her smile when all else seemed dark.  His impish grin and sense of humor had carried her through some tough trials, most of them recent.
          "Ryan," she called out.  "What do you want on your pizza?"
          Ryan raced into the kitchen from the hallway.  "Mom!" he exclaimed as he breathed heavily.  A huge grin spread across his face and his eyes danced in the amber glow of the sunlight.
          Amanda smiled warmly and embraced her son.  "What, you little nut?" she asked, patting his face with the palm of her hand.
          Ryan grinned up at his mother.  "I just saw Brittany drive up with Taran."
          "And why, pray tell, is that so funny?"
          "Because," he said with a giggle.  "Wait till you see her hair!"

Chapter Twenty-nine
          Five minutes after Vivian Bishop left his office, an obvious conclusion settled in the pit of Harold Madison's stomach like a lump. He tapped his open pen against the yellow legal pad, dotting it as he rubbed his left hand over his face and muttered, "She knows something.” And even if she didn’t … even if she had never been to the attic ...
But what if she had? 
What if that brother of hers ever got nosy?
“Mr. Green,” Harold Madison spoke out loud, “you'd have a monster of a problem."
          Harold reached for his Rolodex, flipping through the cards until he came upon to the name he was searching for.  He picked up the telephone and dialed the number quickly, taking a deep breath so that he could regain his composure.
          "S and S Securities," answered the female voice on the other end of the line.
          "Betty, my dear," Harold said with his usual charm and finesse.
          "Good afternoon, Mr. Madison.  How are you today?"
          "Couldn't be better.  You're a sweetheart for asking!  And how is that little granddaughter of yours?"
          "She's just precious, Mr. Madison. Growing like a weed and becoming more beautiful with every passing minute."
          "Like her grandmother!"
          "Hardly!  But thank you for saying so.  Do you need to speak with Mr. Sanders?"
          "Yes, my dear.  It was good to talk with you and you tell that daughter of yours to send me some pictures of little Alexi."
          "Yes, sir.  I sure will.  Hold just a moment, please."
          Harold sighed deeply as he listened to canned music coming from the phone.  Sometimes being such a nice guy got old.  Though he did mean some of what he said. He wasn’t a total monster …
          "Mr. Madison?"  Harold's thoughts were interrupted by the voice of Percy Sanders.  "How may I help you, sir?"
          "Glad I caught you still in the office," Harold began.
          "Yes, sir.  We're working a little late tonight."
          "Tell me, Percy, if I have a room that I need surveillance on, but not all the time, what can you do for me?"
          "I can put in a motion-sensing camera. It detects changes in the image.  When that happens you can use it with a multiplexer or a time lapse recorder."
          "What is a multiplexer?"
          "It allows two or more cameras to be recorded simultaneously on a single video tape.  But it's a little pricey."
          "Ball park."
          "A few thousand."
          "Not a problem."
          "What do you have, exactly, Mr. Madison?"
          "Percy, as you know this office is an old Victorian two-story home from the latter part of last century.  It was remodeled in the early eighties, as far as plumbing and electrical are concerned. We use a room up in the attic for storage.  I've been a little concerned about someone getting in and taking a peek at old files.  You can understand that these files are confidential."
          "Naturally.  Doctors, lawyers, priests...."
          "Yes.  I need something put in that will catch anyone other than my staff going into that room.  And I need it yesterday, if you get my drift."
          "The time schedule will depend on the construction of the house, wires, availability of light, AC power..."
          "I'll double the price if you get it done by the end of this week."
          Percy Sanders cleared his throat nervously.  "Sure, Mr. Madison.  I can put a couple of my best guys on it."
          "What about the camera?  How do you hide it?"
          "We can disguise it as a clock, or a smoke detector, or a sprinkler head...."
          "Perfect!  Make it a smoke detector."
          “The next issue will be the receiver…the recorder.  We can either put it in the room with the detector, or another room.  Best, of course, to put it in another room.”
          “How about on an extra laptop in my office?”
          “That would more than work. When do you want me to come by and look at it?”
          Harold straightened his shoulders.  "Like I said, yesterday."
          There was a moment of silence before Percy Sanders spoke again.  "How ‘bout if I’m there in ten minutes?"

Chapter Thirty

          "Two inches," Amanda said to Vivian on Thursday morning. Her hip rested against the white-tiled kitchen counter in Vivian's brightly decorated kitchen. Amanda's kitchen received the afternoon sun, while Vivian's received the morning sun. By painting the room stark white and accessorizing with vivid reds, yellows and greens, muted with warm gold tones, Vivian had added a luminous brilliance to the room. "Two inches long and platinum blond. I barely recognize my own daughter."
          Vivian poured hot coffee into green and white checkerboard mugs and laughed lightly. "She's just testing the water," she said, handing a mug to Amanda. "Sounds like me at her age and I turned out just fine."
          Amanda chose not to say anything about the fact that Vivian now sported a buzz cut. Only slightly shorter than her daughter’s. "She's driving her father and me crazy," Amanda countered. "I can't help but wonder where this relationship with Taran Connor is leading."
          "She'll be fine," Vivian spoke with all the authority of a woman who’d never raised a teenager but had somehow managed to survive the horrors of those five years. "Besides, if you make this into some big deal, she’ll think she really has you over a barrel. Take a breath, act cool, and wait it out and the next thing you know she'll be married to some darling young man and will have two children tugging at her legs. Or she'll become a successful businesswoman who manages to have it all. You'll see."
          Amanda grimaced. "I'm not so sure anymore."
          "Let's go sit in the living room," Vivian suggested, then moved toward the front of the house. "Who's with your mother?" she asked over her shoulder.
          "Mark. The kids took the bus to school this morning so Mark could work from his home office rather than his church office."
          Vivian sat in a French-style armchair with hand-worked petit-point back, seat and armrests. Amanda joined her in a matching chair. "Really? How come?"
          "I don't know. But I fear Mark thinks I'm totally losing it. He's probably afraid to go to the office."
          "Why do you say that, Amanda? Why would Mark think that?"
          Amanda placed her mug on a nearby table, then gently rubbed her forehead with her fingertips. "Because maybe I am..."
          Vivian straightened. "Don't be silly. Where is this coming from?"
          Amanda opened her eyes wide and sighed deeply. "A long history of depression toward the end of August, two phone calls from someone I believe could be my childhood friend, a miscarriage, an ailing mother, a move clear across country and a daughter who has suddenly become someone I don't recognize. Anything else you need to know?" She chuckled just in case Vivian took her too seriously.
          "How about a partridge in a pear tree?"
          "How about a member of the church I'm suspicious of?"
          "Now what are you talking about?" Vivian asked, setting her coffee mug on the large, round coffee table.
          Amanda answered by shaking her head slightly.
          "No, no, no! Don't do that to me!" Vivian teased. "You cannot come over here and start something like that and refuse to finish it."
          "Mark would kill me," Amanda whispered as tears stung her eyes.
          Vivian paused before speaking. "Are you crying?"
          Amanda stood and walked over to a nearby window. Folding her arms across her abdomen, she gazed out to her home across the street. Vivian remained wisely silent, waiting … But Amanda wasn’t sure. Not yet, anyway. Not sure she could trust Vivian. Not sure she was on the right track with Harold Madison.
Within a few moments, Amanda turned back to Vivian and smiled weakly. "Tell me what's new with you."
          Vivian grinned broadly. "Carson and I are going to adopt."
          "What?" Without waiting for an answer, she crossed the room and wrapped her arms around Vivian, who stood in expectation.
          "All we have to do is decide what method."
          Amanda pulled Vivian over to the sofa. "Tell me everything!"
          "There's so much to decide on," Vivian began. "I mean, at first this was just a … a way to … well, anyway, I came home and talked to Carson and the next thing I knew, we were being serious about the whole thing.” She clasped her hands. “We can adopt from outside the country, you know."
          "Yes, I know. I've done some counseling as a minister's wife with a few couples. But that's very costly in time and money. There are a lot of risks, too. Not that I'm trying to influence you in any way, but you have to know."
          "What I know is that I want a child to love. I'm ready. Carson's ready."
          "What about agencies. Including Christian agencies. I'm sure Atlanta has several."
          Vivian looked perplexed. "There's so much to know...so many things to choose from. I haven't thought about that."
          "Christian adoption agencies provide for women who are in unplanned and unexpected pregnancies and for their children...the innocents who were not planned or wanted."
          "Maybe that's one of the things Harold is looking into for me."
          Amanda felt her heart fall to her lap. "Harold?"
          "I talked to Harold about---"
          "I wouldn't talk to Harold about anything, Vivian." Amanda knew her tone was hard, but she couldn't help it.
          Vivian narrowed her eyes. Knowingly. Or was she just suspicious of Amanda’s words? "What are you talking about, Amanda?"
"I know he's an old friend..."
          "A very old friend..."
          "...and you've just met me." Amanda stopped suddenly and a moment of stillness passed.
          "What?" Vivian asked in a whisper.
          "Maybe I am crazy."
          Vivian blinked hard. "You can't just come in here and make off the wall statements about Harold Madison, Amanda. He's an elder in the church, a pillar in the community, and my brother's law partner. There's not a soul in this town that doesn't love and admire him. Not to mention respect him.” She sighed. “But on the other hand, I don't believe you would ride into town and a few weeks later make such a statement unless you think you knew something. So why don't you just tell me what you think you know and we'll take it from there."

Chapter Thirty-one
      Amanda rose from the sofa; Vivian's hand slipped from hers as she moved toward the window where she had stood a few moments before.  Again, and in silence, she stared across the street.  The front lawn of her property was lush, tastefully landscaped with miniature azalea bushes and dogwood trees.  A tree bench, painted white, wrapped around a tall pine near the edge of the property. A squirrel dart across the lawn, then back again as though he had thought better of the direction.  She wondered if she should do the same—think better of the direction the conversation with Vivian was going. 
      She had always been like this.  She made decisions only after carefully thinking the facts through. If she told Vivian what she knew about Harold Madison, and Vivian told anyone else, she would endure the wrath of Mark.  Not to mention the disapproval of the entire town.  But if Vivian believed her and kept what she said in confidence, she would keep her friend from possibly being hurt.
      The faint tick-tocking of a clock from another room interrupted her reasonings.  Apart from her own breathing, it was the only sound she heard. But not more than six feet away, Vivian sat on the sofa, patiently waiting to hear her explanation.  She could change the subject, but their relationship would never be the same...Vivian would always wonder...she would always wonder.
      Amanda turned to find Vivian staring at her. Her brow furrowed, but only for a moment.  Amanda slowly licked her bottom lip before she spoke.
      "Do you remember the night of the Madison's party?"
      "Dori's party?"
      "Yes."
      "Of course I do.  What about it?"
      "Do you remember my leaving the table to make a phone call?"
      Vivian nodded.
      "Do you recall that Harold also received a phone call?"
      "Just before you left the table..."
      "Yes."
      "Okay."
      "I went to the library.  Downstairs."
      "I know the room."
      Amanda returned to the sofa.  "Have you ever used the Madison's phone?"
      Again Vivian's brow furrowed. "A couple of times."
      "The phone in the library has more than one line."
      "They all do.  Amanda, what do you think you know?"
      Amanda sat next to Vivian and looked her squarely in the eyes.  "It's what I know I know.  I accidentally pushed the line that Harold was on.  I heard..."
      "You heard?"
      Amanda pondered her next words.  "Have you ever heard of a Mr. Green?"
      "There's old Mr. Green. Thaddeus Green.  He runs a fruit stand on the corner of—"
      "No.  Not Thaddeus Green.  A Mr. Green who would do business with Harold Madison."
      Vivian shook her head.  "Not to my knowledge."
      "The man who was talking to Harold referred to him as Mr. Green."
      Vivian shook her head as though clearing the cobwebs. "You better start from the beginning."
     Amanda took a deep breath.  "Harold wasn't talking to this man as he talks to you or to me.  He was abrupt.  Rude and demanding.  He told the man to bring him five-hundred thousand dollars or they didn't have a deal."
      "What kind of a deal?"
      "I don't know.  But it involved the man and his wife.  The man said, 'It means too much to my wife.'  Harold told him five-hundred thousand now and five-hundred thousand after the pick up."
      "Pick up of what?"
      "I don't know.  But his voice, Vivian...it was menacing. Threatening. I'm telling you I almost didn't make it through the rest of the evening.  Harold Madison is not who everyone thinks he is."
      Vivian stood.  She paced a few feet. Turned. "Let me see if I've got this straight.  Harold referred to himself as Mr. Green?"
      "No. The man did."
      "Whatever.  And he talked about a pick up?"
      Amanda nodded.
      "And he spoke as if he were threatening the man?"
      "Yes."
      "Five-hundred thousand now.  Five hundred later...” Vivian's hand covered her mouth. “Ohmigosh …” The word was muffled by her hand.
      Amanda stood.  "What?"
      "That's a million dollars!"
      "I'm aware of that."
      Vivian moved to where Amanda stood and grabbed her hands.  "The other day I jokingly told Harold I wished I could buy a perfect child.  Like, put in an order."
      "And?"
      "He told me I could.  But it would cost me a million dollars. I nearly choked, and he quickly told me it was a joke..."
      "But what if it wasn't?"
      "There's files," Vivian added quickly.
      "What kind of files?"
      "In the attic.  Adoption files.  That's why I went to Harold in the first place. Curiosity killing the cat, and all that."
      "Why would adoption files be kept in the attic?"
      Vivian returned to the sofa and Amanda followed. "I thought perhaps they were just old.  But now that I think about it, files aren't kept according to type.  Like adoption … bankruptcy … They're in alphabetical order according to year."
      "Now what are you thinking, Vivian?"
      Vivian shook her head. Rubbed her temples with her fingertips. "I can't believe I'm even thinking this..."
      "What?"
      "I think we need to go back and look at those files."
      "We? Don't you think that would be a bit suspicious?"
      "Okay.  I'll go back and look."
      "When?"
      "I don't know.  In a few days. Tomorrow is Friday and Fridays are always busy.  I'll have to play it safe.  Harold leaves for a vacation soon.  Maybe I'll wait until then."
      "One of his and Celeste's separate vacations?"
      "I think so.  Why?"
      Amanda cast her eyes downward.  "I think if we wait that long, it will be too late."
      "Too late?  For what?”
     Amanda glanced up to see Vivian's questioning eyes. "I don't know," she answered truthfully.  "It's just something I feel."

Chapter Thirty-two
September 12

     I had a dream last night...a strange dream...mysterious.  I don't usually remember my dreams, but this one was so vivid I cannot get it out of my head.
     I stood on a beach.  The sun had already set.  Everything around me was tinted in hues of blues and grays.  The tide, blue-black water capped in frothy white foam, roared toward the shore.  I stood on the water's edge...facing the ocean...counting the waves....
     The jagged breakers to my left stretched outward like an old woman's finger.  As the waves pounded against the black rocks, the silvery spray leapt heavenward.
     In the distance came a rhythmic rumble, blending with the sounds of the ocean.  It grew in intensity...like a drumming against my brain.  It came from the right.  I turned.
     A lone rider galloped toward me, sitting high upon her white horse.  She wore yards of baby pink georgette; it floated behind her like flags in a storm.  Her hair was long and wavy, white-blond against the gray-blue sky.  She sat erect in the saddle.  Her shoulders were squared.  Her chin, proudly lifted.  Her face, milky white.  Her eyes, piercing blue.
     I faced her fully.  Waited patiently for her to come to me.  Suddenly, I realized that she could not see me...was not aware of my standing there.... I thought, I must move.  I must get out of her way.  But my feet would not cooperate with my thoughts. 
     And so I stood there and waited for the beautiful lady and her horse to hit me.  But miraculously they did not.
     Instead, they passed right through me.
     And then they were gone.

Chapter Thirty-three                   
At one o'clock that afternoon, Amanda hurriedly grabbed her purse and car keys, then headed for Mark's office next to their bedroom.  She found him at his desk, bent over a large Bible, an exhaustive concordance, a Hebrew chalde and a Greek dictionary.  He wrote furiously on a white legal pad.  Until she spoke he seemed completely unaware she had entered the room.
          "Hi, there," he greeted her, removing his reading glasses.  "Going somewhere?"
          "I have to run to the grocery store real quick. Mama's taking a nap. Do you mind?"
          "Well, I am kind of busy right now..."
          "I won't be gone more than half an hour," she said, holding up three fingers.  "Scout's honor."
          He smiled.  "Whatcha going for?"
          "Almonds."
          "Almonds?"
          "I can't make green bean amandine without them.  I could have sworn I bought some the other day, but apparently I didn't."
          "Will you buy me some ice cream?" he asked with a grin, his voice sounding more like Ryan’s than his own.
          Amanda laughed lightly.  "What flavor?"
          "Rocky Road."
          "You got it," she said as she bent over to kiss him good-bye.  "I love you."
          "I love you, too.  Just remember not to dawdle.”
          "I promise, I promise."  Amanda swung out of the room and quickly made her way through the house and to the garage.  Once inside the car, she programmed the radio for an oldies station, turning the volume as loud as she could stand it.
          After her conversation with Vivian that morning, she felt good.  She felt alive! Someone believed her!  Even though what they suspected was critical and bordering on unbelievable, at least she had a partner in this insanity.
          Within minutes Amanda pulled into a parking place at a nearby grocery store.  She slipped out of the car, locked it, then nearly sprinted into the store.  The coolness of the air-conditioning felt good against her fair skin.  As soon as she walked in, she grabbed a hand basket and scanned the signs above the aisles, looking for the section with baking items.
          "Row four," Amanda said to herself, then headed in the direction of the aisle.
          Amanda found the small bags and cans of nuts suitable for baking in the center of the aisle.  She grabbed one of the cans and scanned the label.
          "Hello, Amanda," a soft voice behind her said. 
          Amanda swung around to see Dori Chandler.  Her shopping cart was half-filled with items.  A designer handbag occupied the child’s seat.
          "Dori. Hello."
          "I thought I saw you when you walked in.  You look like a woman on a mission."
          "Oh, I am," Amanda said with a smile, displaying the can.  "Green beans amandine. But I was out of almonds.  What about you?  This store is out of your way, isn't it?"
          "There's a boutique I'm quite fond of around the corner.  It's called The Porch.  Have you ever been there?"
          "No, actually, I've not.  Do you buy a lot of your clothes there?"
          Dori pushed her cart closer to the left to allow another shopper to pass.  "I do.  You should come with me sometime.  We could go out for lunch, then do a little shopping."
          "That would be fun. I’d like that.” And then she remembered. “ I'd just have to arrange for someone to come stay with Mama."
          "Your mother lives with you?"
          Amanda nodded.  "Yes. She's...not well.”
          “Nothing serious, I hope.”
          “She’s in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's."
          Genuine care registered in Dori’s eyes. "I'm so sorry."
          "Thank you.  We're getting through it one day at a time."
          "I guess something like that really changes your life."
          Amanda laughed.  "Like you wouldn't believe. My mother was such an active lady before this happened.  I would never have suspected she would ever be dependent on anyone."
          "I understand, my mother being so independent."
          Amanda dropped the can of almonds into her basket. "The two of you seem to be close."
          "We are. I can’t imagine anything one of us likes to do that the other doesn’t also like to do. Shopping, lunches, sports..."
          "I pegged you as an athletic person.  What kind of sports?"
          "Golf and tennis mostly.  Do you ever play?"
          "Golf? No. Mark does, though."
          "He and Matt played a couple of weeks ago, didn't they?"
          "Yes.  Mark really enjoyed it, he said."
          "What about tennis?"
          Amanda stood quiet, reflecting back to that fateful day; her mother and Mrs. Potter playing tennis while she and Becky played Hide and Seek.  Amanda recalled her childish desire to grow up and play tennis with Becky while their daughters played nearby. "Yes.  I play from time to time. And until recently I ran a lot. And rode horses.  My brother owns a ranch in Montana."
          "I adore horses. We have some friends with stables.  Promise me you'll come riding with me. Do you ride English or Western?"
          Amanda laughed.  "Western.  I suppose you ride English."
          "I do, but my friends have both types of saddles.  So, you'll come? I’ll call Harriet tonight and set a date …"
          "I'd love to.” Amanda glanced into her basket, remembering the time. “Right now I'd better purchase these almonds, though."
          Dori smiled.  "I'm done, too.  I'll walk with you to check out."
          "Actually, I have to get some ice cream for Mark.  But I look forward to your call."
          "I'll call tomorrow if I get Harriet tonight."
          Amanda answered with a nod, then walked to the freezer aisle. She reached into the chest-style freezer for the ice cream when a vision of Vivian came over her. No doubt about it, Vivian would frown at the idea of horseback riding with Dori. But Amanda smiled at the thought, then slipped into the express lane at the check-out center. She saw Dori standing a couple of lanes down.
          A minute later, Amanda glanced at her watch as she walked out of the store's automatic doors.  If she hurried, she would be home within the thirty-minute time allowance.  The conversation with Dori had cost her, she thought.  But Mark would be pleased to know that she had formed another relationship from within the congregation.  He considered it part of her "job" as the minister's wife.
          She threw her purchase and her purse into the front passenger’s seat and pulled out of the parking lot without incident. A block later, Amanda rolled the car to a stop at a traffic light.  She reached for her purse and dug around its insides until she found a stick of gum. She unwrapped it and popped into her mouth.  After tossing the wrapper into the grocery bag, she glanced up at the rear view mirror and smiled.  Dori’s red BMW idled directly behind her with its pretty driver staring straight ahead.  Amanda raised her right hand and waggled her fingers in a gesture of hello.
          But Dori continued to stare, as if she were attempting to lock eyes.
          Amanda dropped her hand and felt a frown settle on her face.  Her eyes darted ahead to check the light, then back to the rear view mirror.  Without blinking, Dori continued to stare.  Amanda blinked, then forced herself to stare directly into Dori’s unshaded eyes.
Dori’s lips moved.
Amanda shook her head. “What?” she whispered.
The words formed again; this time Amanda read them perfectly. "Help me."
          And in that moment, Amanda knew the truth. 
          Dori Chandler was Becky Potter.
Chapter Thirty-four
Harold Madison glanced at the small clock sitting on his desk. It read exactly three o'clock.
She should be home by now.
          He looked at the clock again. She lived in Nashville and there was an hour's difference in Nashville and Atlanta. She told him her appointment was at eleven o'clock, which was now three hours ago.
          He decided to call…to check on her. She needed to know that he was concerned. Or, at least to believe he was. He pulled a cell phone from his leather brief case and dialed the number.
          The phone rang once...twice...three times. On the fourth ring she answered, her voice sounding every bit like the teenager she was.
          "Kaci, darling..."
          "Hello, Mr. Green. I knew it was you." She sounded tired but happy to hear his voice.
          "And how is it that you knew it was me?" he asked, pulling from his natural charm. He charmed everyone, including young girls in trouble.
          "You're the only one who ever calls besides my mother and she usually calls at night, when it's cheaper."
          Harold laughed. "Pretty soon you and your mother won't have to worry about things like that. You're going to be a rich young lady."
          "I know. I've already made a Christmas list. I'm going to buy everyone I ever knew a present. Wait till you see what I'm going to get you."
          "That's not necessary, sweetheart."
          "I know. But I love you, Mr. Green. You're like a father to me...the father I never had. And … I always wanted a dad to buy a Christmas gift for."
          "You're too kind, my dear."
          "No, Mr. Green. You are. Did you call about my appointment?"
          "Yes, I did. What did the doctor say?"
          "He says I'm doing fine. Baby should come within the month if all goes well."
          "Does he still believe the baby is a boy?"
          Kaci laughed lightly. "According to the sonogram he certainly is. All boy."
          Harold chuckled as though the notion brought him great joy. Not that he cared. Not in the least. Boy or girl, there was always a couple out there somewhere … ready to pay good money. "You are a very brave girl, Kaci."
          "I don't know about that, Mr. Green. The physician’s assistant went over the details about the whole birthing process and … well, I'm pretty nervous about the whole delivery thing."
          Harold lifted his eyes toward the ceiling. If he had a nickel for every time he’d heard that line, he wouldn’t have to run his private practice the way he did. He’d have more money than his lovely wife could spend in two lifetimes. "Now, now,” he said. “There's nothing to worry about. Millions of women have done this before and I’ve no doubt you’ll do them all proud.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll try.”
“Do you remember what I told you to do?"
          "As soon as I go into labor, I’m to call Theresa."
          "That's right."
          "She'll come and get me. When I get to the hospital, I am to say that Theresa is my aunt."
          "Exactly."
          "Theresa will call you and let you know I am in the hospital."
          "And I'll come immediately. You know, my pet, I wouldn't miss this for anything in the world."
          She took in a deep breath. Exhaled. "I'm glad you're going to be there. Um … Mr. Green? Are you sure my mother cannot be there?"
          “Now, Kaci …”
“All right. I know. It’s imperative that no one know who you are.”
“You do want to get paid, do you not? To provide well for you and your mother?”
“Yes, sir.” Disappointment hung on her words.  Not that he cared. The girl managed to get herself in this condition without her mother holding her hand; she could surely spit the child out with only him and Theresa nearby.  “I do.”
“Very good. Now then, after the baby is born we will take care of him from there. You will not see him---"
          "That’s the other thing. I was thinking that maybe I could hold him for just a minute..."
          "Kaci, we've talked about that, darling. That would not be good. And, as I told you before, I only have your best interests at heart. You must trust me. I've been through this many, many times. And each time the birth mother comes back to me and thanks me for not allowing such a thing. I’m an old pro. Besides, you’ll have plenty of time in your life to hold many other babies."
          "I know. And I trust you. I just feel so sad about it."
          "Would it make you feel better to know the adoptive parents are the most lovely couple? Good Christian people, Kaci. I've been in their home. Your son will have the best of everything. They are paying a handsome fee for your baby; a fee you are getting a sizable portion of. So you must know they are well off. Your child will never lack for a thing in life. And one day, if he desires, I'll tell him who you are and he can contact you." Harold paused. It had become too natural, too easy, to tell the lies. Oh, yes! The couple was wealthy. They had to be to pay a million dollars for a child. But he had never been in their home. They might be devil worshipers for all he knew. And part of his deal was that the birth mother's records would be forever sealed. Conveniently lost with all the other files in the attic.
          "Yes, sir."
Harold was sure he heard a tear slip down the child’s face. He decided to change tact. "Now, then. For the best part! As soon as the doctor releases you, I will take you home to your new condo, the one you are living in now. I will sign the papers and it will be all yours. I will sign the car over to you as well, and deposit twenty-five thousand dollars into your checking account. I will help you get back into school, if you'd like. All your medical bills will be paid and I will always be here for you if you need me."
          "But I don't have a phone number for you, Mr. Green."
          "I know, my little one. I know. I will call you every month for a year. And of course you have Theresa's number. Theresa can always find me."
          "Yes, sir."
          "Do you need anything more before I say good-bye?"
          There was a pause before Kaci answered, "No, sir."
          "Good. I love you, Kaci. You are a special young lady. I love you like my own daughter, you know that, right?”
This time he was certain of the tears. “Yes, Mr. Green. I love you, too.”
“Oh, sweet child. You have come to mean so much to me. I've helped dozens of young ladies such as you. But never before have I met anyone quite like you. You'll do just fine in life, my dear. You'll grow up and make me proud."
          A tender sob came from the other end of the line. "I will make you proud. You'll see,” she said, then softly hiccoughed. “You'll see."
Chapter Thirty-five
     Vivian stood in the center of Amanda's kitchen, gaping at the freckled, red-haired woman who paced frantically before her. "Would you like to run that by me one more time?" she asked.
     Amanda stopped.  Her hands formed fists at her side.  "I said, Dori Chandler is Becky Potter."
     Vivian smiled as sweetly as she knew how, then walked over to Amanda and placed her hands gently on her shoulders.  "Sweetie, I think you need a Valium or something."
     "Don't start with me, Vivian," Amanda said.  "I mean this."
     Vivian relaxed her shoulders.  A moment passed before she burst out laughing.  "Amanda, I'm not going to ask if you've lost your ever-loving mind, because undoubtedly you have!  Dori Chandler is no more Becky Potter than I am!"
     "Shhhhh!  Keep your voice down. Mark's in his office."  Amanda closed the hall door gently.
     "Well, honey, maybe he should hear this," Vivian commented as she followed behind her.
     "You believed me about Harold Madison, right?"
     Vivian paused before answering.  As far-fetched as it sounded, she had become even more suspicious of Harold Madison in the past hour. As soon as Amanda left her home, Vivian had logged on to the Internet, looking for information about adoption, most specifically black-market adoption.  What she learned appalled her. There were high statistics of infertile couples who were willing to pay high prices for babies.  In the white-infant arena the prices were often astronomical. Desperate, searching couples were able to adopt the baby of their dreams, women in trouble were made a deal they could not refuse, and shady lawyers lined their pockets quite handsomely.
     Vivian had often wondered about the lavish lifestyle Harold and Celeste Madison enjoyed.  She had assumed the bulk of their money belonged to Celeste or had been in Celeste's family.  But if Amanda's suspicions were correct, then small pieces of a large puzzle were falling into place.  But this!  Perhaps her new friend was going a bit too far. 
But if she could be right about Harold, why not Dori? 
And if that were true, then maybe the best thing to do was pacify Amanda and in doing so she would get the facts.
          "Okay, I believe you.  Tell me again what happened.  This time go a little slower."
          Amanda repeated her story, telling Vivian in exact detail what had occurred at the grocery store and then what she had seen later while in her car. 
          "And you are absolutely certain she was saying 'help me'? It couldn't have been anything else?"
          Amanda walked over to the breakfast nook windows, crossed her arms and shook her head.  "No. She said ‘help me.’"
          Vivian came up behind her.  "What about everything else?  The phone calls?"
          Amanda swung around.  "That night at the party Dori asked me where I grew up.  I told her about Williamstown.  If you will remember, just after that she excused herself--"
          "To go to the bathroom."
          "I think she went to make a phone call."
          "Here?"
          "Ryan said the phone rang, but he couldn't get to it."
          "Where was Brittany?"
          "I don't know, but I suspect she was out with Taran.  Mark and I were going to talk with her about it the other night, but then she came home with...well, you know."
          "Two-inch hair."
          "Yeah."
          "It's a phase..."
          Amanda rolled her eyes and sighed deeply. "So you keep telling me. Though I’m wondering when you’ll get through yours…."
          Vivian couldn’t help but laugh.  "Moving on … so you think that was when she made the phone call to your house?"
          "Yes."
          Vivian got a glass from the cabinets and filled it with water from the faucet.  "But, Amanda, why didn't she just come out and say something?"
          Amanda stood near the bar separating the kitchen from the breakfast nook.  "I don't think she knows she's doing it. I took psychology when I was studying nursing.  Psychology.  Psychiatry.  All that mental stuff."
          "Your point?"
          "I think it's repressed.  There's something about me she's remembering; though she's not aware of it.  The memory triggers something else and she does these off-the-wall things.  Phone calls.  Mouthing pleas for help…."
          Vivian finished her water and nodded.  "Are you a natural red-head?"
          "What?” Amanda pulled at the ends of her hair. “Yes. Why?"
          Vivian smiled again.  "Always that red?"
          Amanda sighed.  "I've always hated my hair.  Fire red and…oh, my goodness.  My hair.  She's remembering my hair."

Chapter Thirty-six
          Gabrielle Cibrianne sipped her dry white wine, lowered her eyes slowly and smiled at the man who sat across the restaurant table from her.  His eyes narrowed as he watched her cautiously.  
Gabrielle returned her glass to the starched white linen tablecloth. She slyly looked beyond her date toward a handsome man, sitting a few tables away, who had caught her attention with his periodic stares.  He winked at her.  She bit her lower lip.
          Bob Sims turned to see whom it was his date flirted with.  The man at the other table nodded his head slightly in concession and went back to his meal.  Bob turned back to Gabrielle.
          "Why do you do that, Gabrielle?" His voice held all the annoyance she’d banked on.
          Gabrielle smiled; made sure it was ever so sweetl.  "Is it my fault the man was staring at me?"
          Bob leaned over the table. "You don't have to reciprocate.” He spoke through clenched teeth. “Just keep your eyes on me, do you understand? Me.  The man who has paid you handsomely to do so for quite a number of years."
          Gabrielle leaned across the table as though to challenge him head-on, but her voice was whispered soft.  "I love it when you stake your claim, darling."  She reached across the table and gently stroked the sleeve of his jacket.  "You know how I feel about you."
          Bob sighed deeply as his eyes found hers. He loved her; the flame within the irises said it all. "And you know how I feel about you.  You're beautiful tonight.  Did I tell you that already?"
          Gabrielle laughed lightly, leaned back in her chair.  Under the table she ran her slender foot along the calf of his leg.  "About ten times, my sweet."
          "New dress?" His eyes roamed the short, black, beaded cocktail dress that clung dangerously to her body.
          "MmmHmm. Purchased only for you."
          Bob laughed.  "Purchased only by me."
          Gabrielle smiled again, then gently tossed her head.  Her long, honey-colored hair cascaded behind her ears, along her shoulders and down the upper part of her exposed back. She could feel it, knowing full well the effect it had on him. On everyone, really. She deliberately ran her manicured nails over the top of her ears, as if to brush the hair away.
          "You're not wearing earrings tonight," Bob noticed, almost as if on cue.
          Gabrielle's leaned over the table again and pouted.  "I could find only one pair to go with this dress that I truly liked."
          "Why didn't you get them, then?"  Bob glanced around and signaled for the waiter.  He mouthed "coffee, please," then turned back to Gabrielle.
          Gabrielle lowered her lashes.  "They were quite expensive."
          "How expensive?" Bob asked.  The waiter appeared just then, poured the dark coffee into the china cups and stepped back.
          "Anything else, sir? May I bring our dessert menu?" His words were polite. Polished.
          Bob looked up at the young man.  "No, thank you. Bring the check in a few minutes, would you?"
          "Yes, sir," he replied, then turned and walked away.
          "Are we leaving so soon?" Gabrielle asked.  "Without dessert?"
          "You are dessert," he teased.  "Now. Tell me. How expensive were the earrings."
          "Seven thousand, give or take a dollar."
          "For earrings? You've got to be kidding me."
          Gabby tossed her hair again. "No, I'm not kidding. But, Pet, they’re exquisite. Large, blindingly brilliant diamonds surrounded by pavé diamonds.” She folded her hands together as if in prayer. “You'll buy them for me, won't you? You can stay over tonight and we’ll go together to get them tomorrow."
          "I have patients tomorrow, Gabrielle.  You know that. Besides, I don't think what you have just described is worth seven thousand dollars."
          Gabrielle was not surrendering her cause so quickly.  "They're platinum, Bob.  And something that, God forbid, I could fall back on should anything ever happen to you."
          "I told you I have you taken care of."
          "Which Patty or Dori could contest.” She paused. Counted the seconds. “Please? My love?"
          Bob's face visibly flushed.  He took a sip of his coffee.  "I still have patients tomorrow."
"Then come back Saturday," she said deep and breathy.  "You can stay over that night.  Tell Patty you're going on a business trip."
          Bob chuckled.  "Don't worry about what I tell Patty."
          "Then you'll buy them?"
          "I didn't say that.  Seven thousand is a lot of money for something you won't find remotely interesting this time next month."
          "That's not so.  I'll love these till the day I die.  Maybe even longer.  In fact, bury me in them."
          "Don't be so dramatic, Gabrielle.  It's unbecoming."
          Gabrielle pouted again.  "Why do you treat me so badly?"
          "Now there's hyperbole if I ever heard it."
          "You'd buy them for Patty."
          “Not true.”
          “How so?”
          “Because Patty would never ask for them. She’d just buy them and lay the receipt on my desk.”
          Gabrielle could have exploded right there. Patty Sims held her position in life. She should have—could have—demanded Bob leave her years ago. Not that he would have. Even her charms couldn’t hold a candle to …
          “You’d buy them for Dori.” She said the words, wondering if she’d live to regret them. Bob had put up with a lot from her over the years, but she knew where the line had been drawn.
          When Bob didn't answer her, Gabrielle continued, "Maybe I should give Harold Madison a call."
       "Maybe you shouldn't," Bob said tersely.
       The time was now or never. She wanted those earrings. More than anything she’d seen in a long, long time. Maybe even six months. Gabrielle looked straight into Bob's eyes.  "I want those earrings, Bob."
          "I know you do.  Maybe for Christmas."
          She tilted her chin slightly.  "Maybe I could convince that gentleman over there that I'm worthy of such a gift."
          Bob narrowed his eyes.  "I’m sure you could."
          "You'd better believe I would.  I like being treated well."
          "Gabrielle, for a woman who came from nothing, you sure have tried to have it all.  Sometimes I wonder just who you think you are."
          Gabrielle leaned toward her lover.  "I think I am the love of your life, Dr. Sims. Short of your daughter, that is. And the last thing I want is to be your daughter.” She purposefully raised her brow. “Am I wrong?"
          Bob was quiet for a moment.  "No.  You're not wrong. You're the love of my life.  I'll come back Saturday. We'll buy the earrings then."

Chapter Thirty-seven

          Thursday evening, in a burst of nervous energy, Amanda, clad in yellow rubber gloves, began the process of cleaning her home.  Dinner had been finished a half-hour earlier. Ryan and Brittany retired to their bedrooms so they could do their homework.  Anabel watched Wheel of Fortune in the family room.  Mark lounged on the living room sofa and read a book.  Periodically, he raised his head from the throw pillow and gave his wife a curious look as she zipped through the room.
          "What are you doing?" he called out after her third trip through, but she didn't answer.  In Amanda's mind, it was obvious what she was doing.  Mark shrugged and went back to his book. 
          Amanda was in the middle of pulling everything out of the refrigerator when the phone rang. She heard Brittany yell, "I'll get it!" followed by, "Mom! Telephone!"
          Amanda pulled the rubber gloves off, threw them in the nearby kitchen sink and reached for the telephone.  "Hello?"
          "I've been thinking," Vivian said from the other end.
          "And?"
          "When Dori and Matt got married, Mother had a dinner.  You know, before the wedding."
          "You mean like the night before the wedding?"
          "Yeah.  Anyway, Mother wanted to have some photos of Dori and Matt at different stages of their lives sitting around the banquet room.  She called Patty but Patty thought it was a horrible idea."
          "Why?"
          "That's what Mother wanted to know.  Mother said she would buy the frames-- matching silver ones--for each stage of their lives.  Mother wanted a photo of Dori at age one, age six, age twelve and age eighteen.  Patty kept bawking until Dori told Mother that before they had moved to Highland Park, while they were still in Alabama, someone had broken into their home and robbed them.  Among the things stolen were Dori's baby items."
          "Who steals baby items?"
          "That makes sense now, but at the time I didn't think anything of it.  She was able to supply tons of photos of Dori at age three, but none at birth."
          "Age three?"  Amanda felt the wind being knocked out of her.
          "Yeah.  You sound like you just lost your best friend. Pardon the pun."
          "Becky was four, Vivian."
          "Oh, I see."  Vivian remained quiet for a moment before she spoke again.  "Wait a minute, Amanda.  Becky was four, but who's to say her age couldn't have been changed?"
          "That's true," Amanda replied, feeling a little more hopeful.
          Vivian was quiet again.
          "Vivian?"
          "I'm thinking about something else."
          "Would you like to share?"
          "Can you come over?"
          "Sure.  Why?"
          "I think I can easily lay my hands on the pictures taken that night.  Some of the shots were of the photos. Surely there's one of Dori and Matt at the three-year-old stage.  If I can find the photo, you could identify Dori as Becky, right?  Providing she is Becky."
          Amanda smiled.  "I'll be over in a skinny minute!"

Chapter Thirty-eight

     Amanda flew out of the front door, calling over her shoulder to Mark, "Watch Mama!"
     As the door slammed shut behind her, she heard him as he called back, "What is going on?"  But she didn't stay to explain.  He wouldn't believe her anyway, she reasoned as she ran across her front lawn, the street, and the walkway leading to Vivian's front door.  Before she could knock, Vivian swung the door open.  She was immodestly dressed in an oversized, white tee shirt that most probably belonged to Carson.  Her trim, long, tanned legs looked all the thinner against the size of the shirt. Her feet were bare.  Her face was scrubbed free of all make-up, which brought Amanda up short.  Vivian Bishop looked all of twenty years old.
     "Woah," she said with a laugh.
     Vivian laughed.  "Don't tell anyone you ever saw this," she said.  "My reputation is soiled enough."
     As they walked through the foyer, Amanda commented, "Vivian, I like you without the make-up.  Or at least, so much of it.  You're adorable!"
     "That's what Carson keeps saying.  He's prejudiced."
     Amanda grabbed Vivian’s arm. "Vivian, what about the pictures?"
     "They're in a drawer in one of the guest rooms.  Come with me," she instructed.
     Together they passed through the open and spacious living room where several scented candles burned on tables, emitting the soothing scent of vanilla.
     "Where's Carson?" Amanda asked.
     "In his office," Vivian answered with a tilt of her head, indicating the opposite side of the house from where they were going.  "We have four bedrooms.  Split plan.  Two over there, two over here.  I think the bedroom near the master suite is supposed to be for a nursery which, God willing..." Vivian trailed off.  "Of course now, with what we suspect about Harold Madison, I may have to wait...” Vivian stopped speaking as they reached a closed door.  She opened it and together they stepped into a dark guestroom.
     Vivian went directly to a bedside table, switched on a light, then moved toward a four-drawer chest of drawers.  She knelt on the floor before it and opened the bottom drawer.  Amanda knelt beside her.  Placing her hand on Vivian's shoulder, she spoke softly, "It'll happen, Vivian.  There are legitimate organizations."
     "I don't have to have a baby, you know." Vivian choked on the words.  "I would love to have a child.  I have a lot of love to give.  So does Carson.” She swallowed. “He's the best."
     Amanda nodded, unsure what to say.  "Yes, he is."
     They remained quiet for a moment, and then Vivian took a deep breath and said, "Let's get to work."  She dug through stacks of photograph envelopes until she came upon a large manila envelope with "Matt and Dori's Wedding" scribbled across the front.  "Here it is," she said, opened the envelope and poured the smaller envelopes onto the hunter green carpet.  "I have about what...six envelopes here?  You take three and I'll take three."
     "Okay," Amanda replied, then took one of the envelopes and opened it slowly.  Wordlessly, she looked through amateur shots of what appeared to be a bridal shower given for Dori in the fellowship hall of St. Luke's.  Everything was beautifully decorated.  Dori sat in a paisley wing back chair, looking more radiant than Amanda had ever seen her.  Her frosted, light brown hair fell past her shoulders, spilling over the corsage of white roses pinned to her powder blue suit.  Her blue eyes twinkled at the natural joy of being an upcoming bride.  Photo after photo showed Dori unwrapping packages, then displaying the gifts, while Patty looked on dutifully from the chair beside her.
     Amanda felt a twinge of anger.  If Dori was Becky, then she, as Becky's best friend, had missed out on this time.  It would have been different, of course.  Becky would not have married Matt Chandler.  Constance Potter would have been sitting in the chair beside her.  But the joy and beauty on Becky's face would be the same.  Geography could not change the natural beauty of Becky Potter.
     "These are a bridal shower," Amanda said as she stuffed the photos back into the envelope.
     "These are of Dori's tea, held at Celeste Madison's.” She paused. “Amanda, what are you thinking?  Do you think Harold Madison took Becky from the playground that day?  I mean, exactly what are we talking about here?"
     Amanda's shoulders slumped.  "You told me the Madisons and the Sims knew each other before they moved here, right?"
     "They all lived in Alabama."
     "Mark said Harold and Celeste lived in Virginia at one time."
     "Before Alabama?"
     "I think so.  So, what if Harold has been involved in gray areas of adoption for years.  His friends, Bob and Patty Sims want a baby.  Or, more specifically a little girl with blond hair and blue eyes?"
     "The other day I jokingly remarked I wished I could special order a child.  You know, one perfect child..."
     "Which is exactly what Patty Sims would have wanted.  A guaranteed perfect child."
     "I still can't believe Harold Madison would stoop so low."
     "I don't know what the price was then, but now it's a million dollars."
     Vivian stared into Amanda's eyes.  "That would account for a lot.  I just have to wonder if Celeste knows."
     "I hope she doesn't.  I like Celeste.  It will break my heart to know she's been involved."
     Vivian didn’t answer right away. Then, "Let's keep looking," she said.  Together they each opened another envelope.  Before Amanda could concentrate on the first photograph, Vivian said, "Here they are!"
     Amanda looked up quickly.  Vivian shuffled through the pictures as if she were shuffling cards.  "Bingo!" she said.  "Here it is."
     Without taking her eyes off of Vivian's face, Amanda reached out her hand and took the extended photograph from Vivian's hand.  She swallowed then lowered her eyes.  The picture was exactly as Vivian had described it: a small table, draped with white linen and swaged with a rose and ivy garland, holding two photographs framed in sterling silver.  One was of a little boy with dark hair and an impish grin.  The other was of a little girl with short, white-blond hair, peaches and cream complexion, twinkling blue eyes and a broad, child-like smile.  Amanda felt tears forming on her lashes.  She blinked hard and they spilled down her cheeks.
      She raised her head and looked at Vivian, biting her lower lip to keep it from trembling.
     "Well?" Vivian whispered.
     "They must have cut her hair," Amanda replied.  "But the child in this photograph is most definitely Becky Potter."

Chapter Thirty-nine

          "What are you going to do?" Vivian reached over for the photograph in Amanda's hand.
          Amanda stood. "I'm going over there! To Dori’s."     
Vivian stood as well. "Amanda, you can't do that."
          "Why not?"
          "For one thing, you have no proof."
          Amanda pointed to the photograph.  "I have plenty of proof."
          "Amanda," Vivian tried earnestly to sound like the voice of reason.  "All you truly have proof of is that the child in this photo looks like your childhood friend.  That's not a whole lot to go on."
          "You don't under--"
          "Furthermore," Vivian interjected, stopping Amanda in mid-sentence.  "You are talking about turning the world of my brother's wife upside down.  Not to mention my brother, my parents, the community..."
          Amanda buried her face in her hands.  "What am I going to do?"
          "I think you should tell Mark for starters."
          "I can't," she replied, looking up.
          "Why not?"
          "Vivian, he already thinks I'm having a nervous breakdown.  He called my brother, for crying out loud."
          Vivian nodded. She understood. Not entirely, but enough.  "Okay.  We'll hold that plan of action for now."
          "We have to think.” Amanda thumped her forehead with her index finger. “My father always said I was a thinker.  He said I never made a move without thinking it through first."
          "So think."
          The women stood quiet.  The sound of Carson opening the refrigerator door, then closing it, came from the kitchen. Vivian looked toward the door, but didn’t move.
Finally, Amanda spoke."You work tomorrow?"
          "Yes."
          "What time do you get off?"
          "Five."
          "What time does Harold Madison leave?"
          Vivian shook her head.  "Depends.  I'd have to check the books, but tomorrow is Friday and he may be leaving early."
          "We've got to get to that attic, Vivian.  The proof is in those files.  I can feel it."
          "I think you're right," Vivian said.  She put the envelopes of photographs back into the chest of drawers.
          "Call me tomorrow and let me know what time I should get there."
          "Maybe you shouldn't.  Maybe I should do this alone."
          Amanda stepped closer to Vivian as she closed the drawer.  "No.  This is my battle."
          Vivian nodded.  "We'll have to be quick."
          Amanda smiled.  "And quiet as little church mice."

*****
          On Friday morning, as the clock’s display flipped toward six o'clock, when Harold Madison's home telephone rang. An early riser, he sat at his home office desk, drinking a cup of coffee and browsing through the case file of a client who would be his first appointment of the day.
          "Hello."
          "Mr. Madison.  This is Percy Sanders."
          "Yes, Percy," Harold replied exuberantly, as if he and Percy were best friends.
          "It's taken my men all of Wednesday and Thursday nights, but we've got the system in.  Your attic is ready for surveillance."
          "Perfect!  Just perfect.  And the camera?"
          "Smoke detector, sir.  Just as you requested."
          "And you are sure it works."
          "Yes, sir.  Anybody walks in this room, you got yourself a video of a trespasser."
          Harold took a sip of his coffee, then smiled in appreciation.  "Thank you, my dear man. Send yourself and your men home, get some sleep, and send me a bill as soon as you get into the office.  Just make sure it comes to my attention."
          "Yes, sir."
          "And Percy?"
          "Yes, sir?"
          "Let's just keep this business transaction between you and me.  No one at the office need know about it."
          "You got it."

Chapter Forty

          Vivian called Amanda at ten o'clock Friday morning.
          "Looks like Harold has a late appointment this afternoon."
          Amanda, who was just getting around to making her bed, sat heavily on its side, working her bottom lip with her teeth. "What about during lunch?"
          "Sure, we could do that. It would be a bit trickier, but most of the employees never go upstairs.” She chuckled lightly. “They say there are ghosts.”
“Ghosts …”  Amanda shook her head. Perhaps ghosts of another kind …
“But what about your mother?” Vivian asked. “Who would stay with her?"
          Amanda glanced at the closed office door. "Mark's working here again today."
          "He's been doing that a lot lately, hasn't he?"
          Amanda frowned. "He thinks I'm going nuts, remember? I think he's just sticking around to make sure I'm okay."
          "Sweet. Unnerving, but sweet."
          "What time should I be there?"
          "Noonish. We won't have long, though."
          "What if we find something?"
          "We can come back later and photocopy it. I don't want to take any of these files. I think that's illegal."
          "And photocopying is not?"
          "Probably. So."
          Years of angst stirred, making Amanda’s head feel as though it were about to burst from the top. "And what about stealing children? Stealing children is okay?"
          "Calm down. Apparently you don't understand how the law works. We can have all the proof in the world and a mere technicality can ruin it all."
          Amanda took a deep breath. "Okay, okay. I'll be there at twelve."
          "What will you tell Mark?"
          Amanda thought for a moment before answering. "That we have a lunch date. I'll tell him it will be good for me to get out. Besides, he thinks our friendship is a good thing."
          "He said that? Most people don't say that about me.”
          "Not in so many words, but I can tell. He likes you."
          "What about you?" The bantering continued. "Do you like me?"
   "If you help me prove that Dori is Becky, I'll love you. See you at noon."

  
Leaving Anabel with Mark was easy. As Amanda suspected, he was thrilled she was getting out of the house for a lunch date with Vivian. But Amanda knew he would be furious if she told him the truth.
          At two minutes till noon, she stepped into the coolness of Madison and Chandler, P.A. In the middle of what had once been the large foyer of someone's home sat a U-shaped desk with a small telephone switchboard on one side and a computer on the other. The front of the desk was open with only a few items on top. A young woman, pretty and slightly overweight, sat behind it. As the door closed behind Amanda, the receptionist punched a phone line and recited, "Madison and Chandler, P.A."
Amanda thought she sounded like a songbird.
          "One moment, please," she continued to the caller. "Sylvie, a call for you on line two." Another line rang. "Madison and Chandler, P.A....yes, this is...would you like to make an appointment? I’ll transfer you to his secretary. Hold, please." Another button punched. "Trace, you have a call on line one."
          The receptionist turned her attention to Amanda. "How may I help you, sweetie?"
          "I'm here to see Vivian Bishop."
          "May I tell her who's here?"
          Amanda cleared her throat. "Amanda. Amanda Rogers."
          "Would you like to have a seat, Mrs. Rogers?" she asked, indicating a sitting area a few feet away. Amanda turned toward the chairs flanking a marble-topped coffee table with neatly stacked magazines on top. As she walked toward them she heard the receptionist punch the phone button. "Viv, someone is here to see you.”
          Amanda sat on the edge of the first chair and looked back at the receptionist.
"She'll be right down, honey."
          Amanda nodded, clasped her hands together, then looked over to the wide, dark wood staircase at the far left of the room and waited for Vivian to descend. Within seconds she did and Amanda rose to meet her.
          Vivian wore a short-sleeved denim dress with bright red buttons beginning at the opened collar and continued down the front of the dress to the hem that barely brushed the top of her bare knees. She wore heeled denim crisscross sandals exposing her red painted toenails. Large red dangling earrings swung from her earlobes. She reminded Amanda of summer at the beach.
          "Hi, there," Vivian greeted gaily.
          Amanda marveled at her composure. "Hi."
          Vivian placed her hand on Amanda's arm, then turned to the receptionist. "Krissy, we're going out to lunch."
          "We are?" Amanda whispered. Vivian's grip tightened. "We are," Amanda confirmed.
          "If anyone needs me, I'll be back in an hour."
          "Sure thing, Viv," Krissy said with a smile.
          Vivian escorted Amanda out the front door and onto the massive front porch. When the door closed behind them, Amanda turned to Vivian. "Why are we going out?"
          "There's a back entrance," Vivian said, guiding Amanda down the wide, front steps. "I unlocked it earlier today. Best that no one knows I'm in the building."
          The two women continued down the steps to the walkway where they turned right and made their way around the large white old Victorian office building. Amanda glanced at the narrow, floor-to-ceiling windows framed by deep green shutters. Magnolias grew thick along the border of the lot, shielding the view of the property next door. The back was shaded by two large oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, providing food and a play land for the numerous squirrels darting up their trunks and along their branches. The employee's cars were parked beneath their shade.
          "I'm so nervous," Amanda blurted.
          "Me, too."
          "Who are Trace and Sylvie? They won't be a problem will they?"
          Vivian smiled. "Tracey is Matt's secretary and Sylvia is Harold's. Krissy likes to shorten everyone's name. Cutesy, cutsey, cutsey. Yuck."
          Amanda smiled, too. "I suppose her real name is Kristin?"
          "Oh, you're good. Master detective."
          "We'll see about that," Amanda concluded as they arrived at the backdoor steps.
          The two women stopped and simultaneously took deep breaths. Vivian turned and looked at Amanda. "Okay. Matt and Harold are both out of the office. They aren't due back until two. The secretaries take alternate lunches. Tracey ought to be leaving any minute. So will Krissy. One of the file clerks will take her place while the other goes to lunch. That leaves Sylvia and a file clerk in the office. Sylvia is our main concern. She has ears like a wolf and the curiosity of a mountain lion. She thinks nothing happens around here she doesn't know about. And basically, she's right."
          "Do you think she's ever gone into the attic?"
          "I doubt it. Ghosts, remember?”
“Who came up with the ghost story?”
Vivian paused. Her brow rose. “Harold.” Her head tilted. “And no wonder.”
“Mmmm.”
“We’ll have to think about that later. Now … we’ll go through this door and into a kitchen. It’s where we take our breaks. Then through a narrow hallway to the right. We’ll go up the hallway and into a wide hallway where the back stairs are. It’s also right behind Krissy, so move very quietly."
          “Got it.”
          “Straight up to the second floor, then just follow me. A door at the end of the hall leads to the attic.”
          “Won’t our footsteps be heard overhead?”
          Vivian looked at their feet. “Not if we take our shoes off and walk softly. And I do mean softly.”
          Amanda nodded.
          Vivian grinned. "Ready, Sherlock?"
          "Ready, my dear Watson."

Chapter Forty-one

          Monique stared at Gabrielle from across the counter of Monique's salon.  "I cannot believe you, Gabby.  Seven thousand dollars for a pair of earrings?"
          Gabrielle shifted and smiled.  "They're platinum."
          "I don't care what they are.  Seven thousand dollars?  Do you know what I could do with seven thousand dollars?"
          "You, my friend, are not sleeping with Bob Sims."
          Monique sighed deeply.  "Chere amie, you have sold your soul to the devil for these things you hold so dear.  Your car.  Your condo.  All those clothes.  Enough jewelry to fill ten cases.  But it's not enough for you, is it?  Why do you have to have it all?"
          Gabrielle leaned over the counter.  "Because he owes me."
          "For what?  For some little piece of information you hold over his head?"
          "You don't know what I know."
          "Then why don't you tell me?  All these years, you have never told me what you know that is so vital a man would keep you as Dr. Bob keeps you."
          "What?  You don't think my company is enough?" Gabrielle straightened and ran her hands down the length of her torso.
          "You think you are so funny. So to answer your question, no.  I do not think so.  This man has spent a fortune on you, Chere."
          The front door opened with the tingling of Chinese chimes.  Gabrielle turned and stepped back, allowing Monique's customer access to the counter.
          "I'm Doris," the middle-aged woman stated.  "I'm here for a facial."
          "Yes, Doris," Monique greeted.  "This is your first time, no?"
          "Yes."
          "I have a little form for you to fill out," she informed.  She produced a clipboard from a drawer, retrieved a pen from a decorative holder, and then extended them toward the new customer.
          "You have a lovely accent," Doris said as she took the items.  "Paris?"
          "St. Mandé. Just outside of Paris."
          "I'm not familiar with it.  I adore Paris, though."  The woman wrote as she spoke.
          "You go often to my country?"
          "Not often enough," the woman said with a laugh.  "My husband and I have been twice."
          "The next time you go," Monique began as she reached for a business card and a pen, "go to St. Mandé.  It is near Le Bois de Vincennes.  It is rich but peaceful, if you understand my meaning. Here I am writing this down for you.  There is a little shop there where a lady such as you can buy wonderful perfumes.  My brother owns it.  You tell him Monique sent you and he will treat you like a queen."
          The customer beamed.  "I will go home tonight and tell my husband to call the travel agent. You've put an idea in my head that only another trip to Paris will satisfy."
          "Très bien.”
The new client finished the form Monique had given her. “Here you go."
          Monique took the clipboard and pen, picked up the phone and announced, "Mrs. Johns is here for her appointment."  Then to her customer, "Charlotte will be with you in a moment.  You may have a seat, if you'd like."
          Gabrielle stood silent as the clunk-clunk of Charlotte's low-heeled pumps made their way up the hallway.  Seconds later, the new customer was whisked away to the back for her facial, all the while chattering about her decision to visit Paris and St. Mandé.
          "You are suddenly quiet.” Monique turned her attention to the laptop where she entered client’s information.
          Gabrielle narrowed her eyes.  "It has just occurred to me…”
“What?”
“Bob has never taken me to Paris."
          "Bob has never taken you anywhere but to dinner and to bed."
          Gabrielle stepped up to the counter.  "Why do you always say things like that?  You are supposed to be my best friend."
          "I am your best friend, Gabby.  That is why I say things like that.  You deserve better than two nights a month."
          "Two nights a month?  Is that why you think I've blackmailed Bob all these years?  I don't love him, Monique. Good heavens, no.” She shuddered at the thought. “I very nearly detest him. But I love what he buys me.  I love having a cushy little life with all the perks.  I don’t get two nights a month with him. I tolerate them.” She couldn’t help but smile. “Not a bad price, if you ask me."
          "No one asked you.  And, for your information, I will gladly take you to France with me for Christmas if you like.  It would be fun.  It will even be my treat."
          Gabrielle crossed her arms and shook her head firmly.  "No, thank you.  Not that France at Christmas wouldn't be fun.  Especially with you.  But I think I will put Bob to the ultimate test.  I want to see just how much he loves me."
          "Oh, Chere.  What is it you plan to do now?"

Chapter Forty-two
          Mark had spent more time doodling on a legal pad than actually working. And no wonder; there was too much going on in his world. How could he possibly concentrate on the speech he had been asked to give to the Kiwanis Club next week or the meeting the financial board had suddenly called for that evening? He momentarily closed his eyes against the realities of the day and became vaguely aware of the sounds around him; the occasional car cruising down the road, a daytime soap opera filtering through the den wall and into his office. He pictured his mother-in-law quietly watching, only briefly aware of the show's storyline. Mark shook his head sadly. God love her heart, he thought. And God love Amanda's. The dreaded disease, Alzheimer’s, had attacked Mrs. Ryan at such an early age. No one seemed to know why. Doctors couldn't tell them anything more than how to tolerate the effect it would have on the family.      
          The telephone rang, startling him. He grabbed it on the second ring as his eyes readjusted to the brightness of the room. "Hello?"
          "Mark? Jeremy. Thought I’d call to check in. Check up. How are things?"
          Mark took a deep breath. "Better I think. With your sister it's hard to say."
          “She home?"
          "Uh … no, actually. She's gone out to lunch with our neighbor, Vivian. I think she may have found a good friend here … someone capable of taking her out of this yearly funk."
          "You mentioned that the last time we spoke. What about the phone calls? Any new ones?"
          "No. No more."
          "Well that's something, I guess."
          "Mmmmm. I dunno. It's like the calm before the storm if you ask me."
          There was a pause before Jeremy continued. "And Brittany?"
          Mark laughed out loud before he could catch himself. "I'll send you a photograph."
          "What does that mean?"
          "It means I'll send you a photograph. Ryan's doing good though. And your mother's about the same. How's your dad?"
          Another pause. "That's another reason I called. Dad wants to come to Georgia. I know the plan was to allow you guys to get settled before sending him out there for a visit…maybe a little longer than the short period of time you've been there---"
          "Jeremy---" 
          "Let me finish, Mark."
          "Jeremy, with all that's going on---"
          "---with all that's going on, Dad could be of help to Amanda with Mom."
          Mark rubbed his eyes with the pads of his fingers. "Let me talk to Amanda about this before we move any further with it, okay?"
          "Will you call me soon? What I'm thinking is if Dad comes there for---say---a couple of weeks, maybe three, then comes back here, that should make him happy."
          "Does he know what's going on down here?"
          "No. I saw no need to go there until we know if he's going or not. Mark, he and Manda always had a bond. Maybe she'll even talk with him about all this. It may be a good thing."
          The chiming of the doorbell interrupted the call. "Okay, then. Listen, someone’s at the door. I'll call you later, after I talk with Amanda."
          Mark said goodbye, then jumped from the chair and headed toward the front of the house. The faint sound of the dead bolt being turned indicated Anabel had gotten to the door first. He walked faster and rounded the corner from the hall to the living room.
          The front door was opened wide and the form of his mother-in-law silhouetted against the afternoon sun as it cut through the glass of the storm door.
          Beyond her, on the front porch, stood Dori Chandler.
Chapter  Forty-three   

     Mark moved quickly to avoid his mother-in-law saying anything he might live to regret. “Dori … hello. What brings you all the way over here?”
     Anabel turned quietly and moved away from the door, past Mark and, he assumed, back down the hall to the family room where The Young and the Restless or some other such show played on the television.
     “I, um…” Dori’s eyes watched the older woman from beyond the glass separating them.
     Mark opened the door.  “I’m sorry … Amanda’s mom … I …” He smiled. There was no explanation he could give and none needed, really. “Come on in. I’m hope there’s nothing … wrong.”
     Dori smiled brightly as she moved past Mark.  “Oh, no …I … Oh.” She took in her surroundings.  “How lovely.” Then to Mark, “I’m a decorator, you know.”
     “Amanda mentioned that.  Would you like to sit down?  Amanda’s not here, but I can offer you some iced tea, if you’d like.”
     Dori took a seat on the sofa, all the while saying, “No, no.  I’m not staying.  Actually, I dropped something off at my sister-in-law’s—Vivian’s—and I thought I would see if Amanda might be free for lunch.”
     Mark left the front door open and remained standing within clear view of anyone who might drive by or walk up. “Actually she’s having lunch with Vivian.” He crossed his arms. “What a shame. The three of you could have had lunch together.” 
     Dori smiled again, folding her hands in her lap. “That would be nice.” She seemed to struggle before adding, “Thank you again for coming to my birthday party.” 
     “Thank you for having us.  We enjoyed the evening.”  For the most part… “Very much.”
     “I’ve been blessed with a loving family and good friends.  My birthday reminds me of this every year.”
     “It’s nice to be reminded, isn’t it?  Sometimes we take things like family and friends for granted.”
     “Oh, no. Not me. I can’t imagine my life without them.”  She laughed lightly.  “I’ve lived the life of a princess, Reverend Rogers.”
     “Call me Mark, please.  Reverend Rogers seems so formal…too formal…”
     “All right…Mark. I—” She looked from him to the front door. “Did I come at a bad time?”
“Of course not.”
“You’re not sitting …If you’re busy …”
He shook his head. “My wife isn’t here … it’s a precaution.”
“Oh. Of course.” She stood. “I can come back another time if …”
“Don’t be silly.” Mark indicated that she should take her seat again. “I’ll just perch right here,” he said, resting his backside on the armrest of the love seat.
Dori chuckled lightly, leaving Mark to feel both vulnerable and foolish. “As I was saying, I’ve lived the life of a princess.  I can’t think of a thing my parents didn’t do for me or bought for me. Then I married Matt and the fairy tale continued.”
     “What about brothers or sisters.  I take it you didn’t have any.”
     “I am the one and only.”
     “Stop me if I’m being too personal, but will you and Matt have children in the near future?”
     Dori paused.  “I don’t know, to be honest with you.  I’ve thought about it from time to time, but something always stops me from talking to Matt about it.” She looked around. “I don’t really know that I can say what it is.  Something about being around children…it’s sort of unnerving.”  A laugh escaped her and she added, “I suppose not every woman was meant for motherhood.” She stood again. “I’d really better be…” she began, then paused and looked beyond Mark.
     Mark turned to see Anabel standing in the doorway.
     “Hello,” Dori said.  “I’m Dori Chandler.”
     Mark stood, walked over to Anabel, and guided her into the living room. “Dori, this is my mother-in-law—”
     Dori extended her right hand for a handshake.  “Mrs. Ryan.”
     Mrs. Ryan? “You’ve met?” Mark asked.
     Dori stopped short.  “No.”  She withdrew her hand with a light shake of her head.  “I don’t know where that came from.  Maybe Amanda told me.”  She extended her hand again.  “That’s it. Must be.  Hello, Mrs. Ryan.”
     Anabel only stared, then turned and returned to the den.
     Mark looked down.  “Alzheimer’s.”
     “Oh, yes, yes, yes. Amanda told me in the grocery store. She’s so young though, really …”
     “The disease knows no boundaries.” He looked down the hall again. “Or so we’ve learned.”
     Dori stepped toward the door.  “Please tell Amanda I came by and that I’ll call her soon.”
     “I’ll do that.  I’ll do that.  She’ll be so sorry she missed you.”
     Dori nodded.  “I’m sorry, too.”

Chapter Forty-four
      “What’s new, peasant girl?”
     Brittany stood at her open locker and smiled at the now familiar voice and the mixed scent of Calvin Klein cologne and spearmint gum.  She turned and greeted him with a quick kiss.  “Hi, there.”
     Taran feigned surprise.  “What?  You’re going to let me get away with calling you that?”
     “Why not?  I’ve grown kinda fond of it.”  Brittany turned back to her locker, removed her lunch, and slammed the door shut.
     Taran slipped his arm into the crook of hers to pull her away.  “What’s on the menu today?  Peanut butter and jelly again?”
     Brittany looked up and stuck out her tongue.  “You’re so funny.”
     “I know.  Better idea than the same ‘ole same ‘ole—why don’t you join me for a tasty treat at Mickey D’s?”
     Brittany stopped short.  “McDonald’s?  Taran, we’re not allowed off campus.  I mean, you are, but I’m not.”
     Taran shook his head.  “Just when I think I’m getting somewhere with you.”
     “What does that mean?”
     “Come on, Brit.  Who’s gonna know?  Think about it…Big Mac…French fries….”
     Brittany looked at the sack lunch clutched in her hand.  With the other she ran her fingers through the short blond stubs of her hair.  “I dunno.”
     “Would a milk shake seal the deal?”
     Brittany narrowed her eyes.  “Vanilla?”
     “If that’s what you want,” Taran replied with a smile. “All on me.” His face was readable.  He was winning each and every game he played wither , and he liked feeling the power.
     “You are so smug,” she said.  “You think you have me wrapped around your little finger.”
     “I know I do,” he said, now pulling her toward the outside door.  “And I’ll admit I like it.”
     “Uh-huh.” 
     Taran swung the heavy door open and together they descended the cement steps leading to the senior student parking area.  “But, I’ll also admit that I like you even more.”
     Brittany squinted up at the new man in her life.  “Really, Taran?  I mean, you aren’t just saying that?”
     Taran laughed.  “You’re something else, you know that?” he said, answering the question with a question.  “You and I are gonna have a lot of fun, Brit.  A lot of fun.  Whadaya say we blow school for the day?”
     “No,” Brittany answered firmly.  “I’ve got an English Lit exam after lunch.”
     “Oh, yeah?  Well, I got an idea that’s better than an English Lit exam.  And a lot more fun, too.”
Chapter Forty-five 
          Vivian opened the back door to the law office slowly and eased herself into the kitchen.  Amanda kept directly on her heels.
          “Steady now,” Vivian whispered over her shoulder.  “Don’t let that door slam.”        
          “I won’t.  I won’t,” Amanda whispered back.
          Amanda closed the door with a gentle push from the palm of her hand, then turned to take in her surroundings.  The kitchen/break room was narrow but deep and the Formica countertops dated by time and coffee rings. The refrigerator stood too narrow for the built-in cubbyhole. A large microwave next to a gas stove looked as if it hadn’t been used for nearly two decades.  Coffee mugs of various size and color rested in a drain next to the deep, white porcelain sinks.  A small tile and oak table with matching chairs tucked neatly underneath created the room’s centerpiece. 
          The women stepped into the hallway. Without so much as a tap-tap from their shoes they slipped between its narrow cream-colored walls.  Amanda looked up and noted the twelve-foot ceilings and she shivered in the chill that seemed to hang heavily in the air.  “Vivian,” she whispered.
          Vivian stopped, turned and shushed her, then resumed the mission.
          Amanda continued to follow Vivian.  The sound of Krissy answering the phone traveled to them and they paused.  “Madison and Chandler, P.A. … yes, Mr. Madison.”  
Vivian looked at Amanda, who held her breath as the phone conversation continued.  “No, sir.  Vivian’s gone to lunch with a friend … oh, let me see if I can remember….” A giggle followed the stall.  “Oh, Mr. Madison.  You are so sweet.” 
          Vivian rolled her eyes.  “Get on with it,” she whispered through clenched teeth.
          “Oh, yes.  I remember.  Amanda Rogers … yes, sir, I’m sure. Amanda Rogers.”
          Amanda mouthed her question to Vivian.  “Why would he want to know that?”
          Vivian shook her head.  “I don’t have a clue,” she mouthed back.  “Come on.”
          The sound of footsteps descending on the back stairs pushed Amanda and Vivian into a utility closet where they waited and listened.  Amanda cut her eyes over to Vivian as footsteps echoed beyond the door. “Krissy,” a voice said. “ I’m here to relieve you, honey.”
          “Oh, hey, Retta.  Listen, here.  Mr. Madison just called and he’s on his way back to the office.  But he wants all his calls held.  Says he needs some quiet time to look into something.”
          “All right.  I’ll make certain no one knows he’s back.”
          The expected shifting of the office chair, opening and closing of a desk drawer and Krissy’s footsteps toward the back of the building followed.
          “Quick!” Vivian whispered. She opened the closet door and darted into the hallway.  Again, Amanda was directly behind her.  When they stopped they were halfway up the stairs.
          And face to face with Sylvia.
          
Chapter Forty-six
          “Sylvia!”
          Sylvia Banek, an attractive middle-aged woman with perfectly coifed strawberry-blond hair, notable green eyes and a creamy complexion stood against the right side of the narrow stairwell. She wore a sharp black suit.  A large gold necklace encircled her throat near the hollow and matching earrings hung heavily from her earlobes.  Small, gold framed reading glasses rested near the tip of her nose. She carried a large law book and looked every bit the professional woman.
          “Vivian.”  Sylvia spoke to one woman, while looking at the other.
          Vivian cleared her throat.  “Sylvia, this is Amanda Rogers.”
          Amanda extended her hand.
          “Sylvia Banek.  I’m Mr. Madison’s personal assistant.”
          “Amanda is Reverend Rogers’ wife,” Vivian supplied.
          Sylvia glanced from Amanda to Vivian.  “I don’t know Reverend Rogers, I’m afraid.  Is he someone I’m supposed to know?”
          Vivian took a step upward and took hold of Amanda’s arm.  “Reverend Rogers is the new pastor at St. Luke’s.”
          Sylvia made a grand gesture with a nod of her head.  “Oh, I see.  I’m a Presbyterian.”
          Amanda smiled as Vivian continued.  “We were on our way out to lunch.”
          “I think you took a wrong turn. The way to our cars is usually out the back door.”
          Amanda jumped slightly.  “I asked for a tour of the office and Vivian was obliging me.”
          “I see.”  The reading glasses were removed and placed atop her head.  “Vivian, I can scarcely see what one would want to see upstairs.  Why don’t you run along to lunch before your lunch hour is up.”  A quick glance at her watch and she added, “In fact, I don’t see how you’re going to have time to take a lunch now.”
          Vivian glanced at her watch.  “Oh, dear.  Amanda, I’m sorry.  Excuse us, Sylvia.” 
          Vivian and Amanda moved back down the staircase with Sylvia on their heels. At the base Vivian and Amanda turned left to continue on into the kitchen and Sylvia stepped down the hallway to the right.  “We’re out of time, sweetheart,” Vivian said.
          “But Vivian …  Becky…”
          “We’ll come back, Amanda.  Later tonight.  I’ve got the keys; I know the combination to the security system.  We’ll come back. That attic isn’t going anywhere.”

Chapter Forty-seven
          “I’m looking for Dr. Sims.” Gabrielle Cibrianne stood before the sliding glass window of the reception area at Cardiovascular of Atlanta.
On the other side, a young black receptionist dressed in a crisp, powder blue uniform sat just beyond an L-shaped white counter that hugged two of the walls. Another of the medical office’s employees sat nearby, logging information from a stack of patient charts into a computer. She glanced up briefly, then resumed in her tasks.
Gabrielle’s eyes scanned the color-coded files running floor to ceiling on the opposite wall. On both sides were opened doors that led from parallel hallways.
“Are you a drug rep?”
What?”
“Ma’am, are you a drug rep? A representative of a pharmaceutical company?”
“No. Do I look like one?”
The receptionist paused, but only for a moment, as though she were put out by Gabby rather than the other way around. And Gabby was most certainly put out at that moment. She wanted to see Bob and she wanted to see him at that moment. “Ma’am, are you a patient of Dr. Sims?”
“No.”
“Would you like to set up an appointment?”
“No. I want to see Dr. Sims. It’s personal.”
“Well, then, ma’am, I suppose you need to call him at home.”
Gabby laughed lightly. “I see.” She leaned forward and glanced at the young woman’s name tag. “Julie?”
Her chin jutted forward. Indeed, this was one tough cookie. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Julie, I am an old friend of Dr. Sims. I’ve known him for nearly a lifetime, but Mrs. Sims and I have never been especially close, if you get my drift.”
“Ma’am, really…I don’t think this is any of my business.”
“Tell me this, then Julie. Is Dr. Sims in his office or is he with patients now?”
“I can’t give you that information.”
“I see.” With a quick turn of her head, Gabrielle looked out to the patient waiting area where nearly ten patients sat, flipping through magazines or resting their eyes against the agony of waiting. “Excuse me? Can any of you tell me where Dr. Sims’ office is located on this floor?”
Ma’am!” Julie called from the other side of the glass partition. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave, and if you don’t, I’m going to call security.”
Gabrielle turned just in time to see that Julie had stood and Bob was walking into the receptionist’s office from the back door, busily scribbling on a patient’s chart. When he looked up, Gabrielle gave him a cat-like smile. “Oh, there you are Dr. Sims. I really need to see you.”
Bob looked anything but pleased. “Ms. Cibrianne.”
“Oh, good. You remember me,” Gabby improvised. “Dr. Sims I really need to speak to you about my grandfather.”
“Dr. Sims, I—” Julie began to apologize but was cut off.
“It’s all right, Julie. I’ll see Ms. Cibrianne, but we will only be a few minutes. Please let my patients know I’m now running a few minutes behind, will you? Ms. Cibrianne, you may come through that door over there. I’ll meet you on the other side.”
Gabrielle gave a victorious grin to Julie. “Thank you, Dr. Sims,” she purred, then glided toward the indicated door …
… but not before she caught a glance of another doctor, who now stood at the opposite side of the receptionists’ area, taking in the entire scene.

   Chapter Forty-eight

Bob Sims whirled around to face Gabby the second he closed his office door behind him to find his beautiful mistress innocently fingering through some papers on his desk. “Don’t,” he said through clenched teeth. She looked up immediately, startled, but only smiled. “Don’t touch anything, Gabby.”
          She gazed at him with cat-like eyes. “Are you angry with me?”
Was he angry? Of course he was angry. Angry and intrigued. She’d never done anything like this. In all the years they’d been together, Gabrielle had been the utmost of discreet. “What were you thinking? My wife could have been here. Or Dori …”
Cat eyes changed to those of a puppy, dully scorned for wetting the carpet, and yet adorable at the same time. “Don’t be angry, darling.”
          Bob pulled the stethoscope from around his neck and threw it on the nearby leather sofa he kept for napping during long hours. “Gabby,” he moaned, feeling his mood change instantly. “You know how I love it when you call me that.” And she had probably said it on purpose. Not that he cared.   
          He opened his arms and she stepped into them, kissing him fully. “I’ve been missing you,” she whispered against his ear. Her breath was warm and inviting.
          “Really, Gabby?” How could it be that after all these years she still had this effect on him? “Tell me you mean that.”
          Gabby hugged him close, crushing herself against him. “Of course, I do. Bob … you are my life.” She teased him further by nipping at his ear.
          Bob pulled away. He had to. Otherwise the nearby sofa would be used for more than a nap. “Stop, sweetheart. I’ve got patients…”
          Gabby stepped to the windows and looked down on the streets. “I know.” She whirled around and pouted. “But I couldn’t help myself. I’ve never done this before, Bob. You know I haven’t.”
          Bob reached her in two quick steps, wrapped his arms around her and kissed her again. “You make me so happy. Oh, Gabby, why…” He nuzzled her throat, inhaled the scent of her perfume—expensive and delicious.
          Gabby pulled back. “Darling?”
          “Mmmmm?”
          “Remember the earrings I told you about?”
          Bob dropped his arms. He should have known. Hadn’t all these years taught him that much? “Is that was this is about? Those earrings?”
          “Shhhh … darling,” Gabby whispered, taking his hands in hers and placing them on her narrow hips. He slid them to the small of her back and pulled her close again. Her eyes grew wide. Innocent. “I’ve been thinking and I’ve decided that I don’t want them.”
          One thing Bob Sims knew about his mistress. If she was pushing $7,000 earrings aside, it wasn’t because she suddenly didn’t want them anymore. She wanted something else. “Something more expensive, I should guess.” Not that, at this moment, he cared.
          “No. Not at all.”
          He grinned at her. “What then?”
          Gabby broke free of his embrace, grabbed his hand and brought him over to the sofa. “Sit, my love,” she said.
          “Gabby…”
          “This will only take a minute…what I have to say.”
          That wasn’t his concern, but he complied and, as soon as he did, she sat beside him, knee-to-knee. The sofa seemed to sigh under their weight--an idea not lost on him.
          “How would you like to go somewhere with me…anywhere with me…in public…and it be all right? For more than a dinner or a movie. For days and days and days.” She winked. “And nights.”
“Like when we went to New York?”
“Mmmhmm …”
“And the time I took you to Chicago?”
She glanced at the ceiling. “Oh … Chicago … remember the—”
He placed his fingertip against her mouth. “Stop. I can’t afford to walk down that memory lane right now.”
          Gabby’s tongue darted out and moistened her lips, pushing his finger away. “Well, if you thought Chicago was amazing, wait until you see me in Paris.”
          “Paris?”
          “Think about it, Bob. Paris. The city of love…”
          “It’s the city of lights, Gabby.”
          “Not when we’re done with it, it won’t be. Say yes, Bob.”
          Paris. With Gabrielle. Dear God in heaven, what a time away that would be. If he spent too much time thinking about it—especially right now—this close to her, he’d be on the phone with his travel agent and on a plane by tonight. “Gabby, I have patients.”
          Gabby frowned. “Bob Sims, the last time we took a vacation was how many years ago?” Her face grew cold and she backed away from him. “I’ll bet you’ve taken that wife of yours to Paris.”
He had. And all she’d wanted to do was shop. The time had been the most miserable ten days of his life. “That’s not the point.”
“And where do you take me? No where.”
          “That’s not true, Gabby.” He reached for her but she kept her distance. “You yourself just mentioned New York and Chicago … and what about the time we went to San Diego, hmmm?”
          “I know you, Bob Sims. The only reason you took me was because of some half-baked medical convention or school or whatever and you knew your wife would be the damp rag of the party.” Gabby stood and returned to the window. When she turned back to Bob several tears had tracked streaks down her cheeks.
          Bob stood and walked toward her, knowing full well she’d forced those tears to come. And knowing full well that a week or so in Paris with Gabrielle would do more for him than it ever could for her. “Okay, okay. Paris. You and me.”
          Gabby threw herself into his arms. “Whee,” she said with a laugh.
          Bob chuckled. “Happy, now?”
          “When? When do we go? How soon? How soon?” She jiggled up and down.
          “Tell you what.” He patted her backside. “I’ll talk to my partner. I’ll have to look at the schedule with him before I can commit to a time.”
          “But soon, right?”
          “Soon.”
          “Oh, Bob, you do love me.”
          Bob kissed Gabrielle again. “I do. And I’d do anything for you, Gabby.” He held her as close as he dared. “Anything.”

Chapter Forty-nine 
          Vivian walked Amanda to her car with the promise to call her as soon as she got home.  “I get outta here about three.  I need to stop by the grocery store, but I should be home no later than four.”
          “I’m going to the store as well.  Is there something I can get for you?  To lighten your load?”
          Vivian paused for a moment to think about it.  “That would be good, if you don’t mind.  All I need is a carton of milk…whole, please…and enough fruit to fill the fruit bowl.  Bananas, apples, oranges…oh. And kiwi. Get eight kiwi.  They’re four for a dollar, I think.  Not that it matters.”
          “Vivian,” Amanda had to laugh at the woman.  “Okay.  Eight kiwi.  I can handle that.  Now, when do we come back?”
          “Tonight.  Just tell Mark you are going to run an errand with me.  We won’t be gone an hour…maybe an hour and a half.  Okay?”
          “Sure.  He shouldn’t mind.  Okay, call me when you get home.”
          At two-thirty walked into her kitchen carrying the sacks of groceries for her and Vivian.  Mark entered from the hall as she set the last bag on the counter.  “Need any help?”
          She laughed lightly.  “I’ve got it now, but aren’t you just so gallant to offer once the work is finished?”
          Mark smiled, but only briefly.  “Honey, we need to talk about a couple of things.”
          “Yeah, I need to talk to you, too.”  Amanda pulled grocery items out of the sacks and separated them into groups: perishables, staples, cleaning supplies and Vivian’s.  “I need to run out for awhile this evening. With Vivian.  She needs to run an errand and I need to go with her.  Well, I don’t need to go with her, but she wants me to go with her.”
          Mark stepped over and started the task of transferring the perishables to the refrigerator and freezer.  “No can do, honey.  I’ve got a meeting of the financial board this evening.”
          Amanda stopped in her work.  “Since when?”
          “I just found out myself.  They called a little earlier.  Can’t you put this errand off, or does Vivian really need for you to go?”
          “Yes, Vivian really needs for me to go.”  Amanda felt her temper rise.
          “Careful, Red,” Mark teased.  “That Irish temper is beginning to show.”
          Amanda retrieved a glass from the cabinet, walked over the sink and filled it with water.  She drank it slowly, all the while thinking how she could get back to Harold Madison’s office without it becoming a fiasco.  When she finished, she placed the glass in the sink and turned back to Mark who was completing the job she had started.  “Brittany can stay with Mama and Ryan.”
          “That’s actually the other thing I needed to talk with you about.  I got a call from the school a little while ago.  Brittany didn’t make any of her after lunch classes.  Neither did Taran, as a matter of fact.  I’ve called his house and talked briefly with his mother.  She’s going to notify his father and tomorrow night the four of us are going to get together to discuss this whole thing.  I think this has gotten totally out of hand.”
          Amanda nodded.  “I agree.” She put the staples in the pantry.  “But what does that have to do with tonight?”
          “You’re kidding me, right?  You think she’s responsible enough to stay here?  I don’t trust her, Amanda. There was a time I did, but not anymore.”
          “Mmmmm.”

          Mark picked up the gallon of bleach from the counter and walked toward the laundry room. “So what I’m saying here is that I think you need to stay home.”

Chapter Fifty 
          Sylvia stepped into the office of Harold Madison as soon as he paged her.
          “Yes, Mr. Madison?” She kept her voice steady. She was, after all, the consummate professional.
          Harold stood as soon as she entered. In Sylvia’s mind, he looked as handsome and as intelligent as ever.  The late afternoon sun spilled through the window at just the right angle to wash over his desk with its neat stacks of magazines, files, and legal pads.  He pulled his reading glasses from his face, dropped them on the dark green ink blotter and motioned for her to sit down.  “Thank you, Sylvia, for being so prompt.  I can always count on you to come when I call you.”
          “Of course, Mr. Madison.” Sylvia sat in spite of her next words.  “Did you need a file? I’m happy to get whatever you need from me.”
          “No, no, Sylvia.” Harold chuckled.  “My goodness, Sylvia. You are by far my best employee.”
          “Thank you, Mr. Madison.  I appreciate that.”  Sylvia crossed her legs, fully exposing her knees.  “I think you know how I feel about working here.”
          “Yes.”  Harold sat.  “Sylvia…”
          “Yes, Mr. Madison.”
          “I need some information but I must ask that you not pry as to why I ask you this question.”
          “Of course not.”
          “Krissy tells me that Vivian had lunch with Amanda Rogers today.”
          “Not exactly.”
          “What do you mean?”
          “They were supposed to go to lunch, but after the grand tour—”
          “The grand tour?” Harold walked to the wet bar on the other side of the room to pour himself a glass of water.  Sylvia followed him quickly, took the pitcher and glass from Harold’s hands, and finished the process for him. She handed the filled glass to him. “Thank you, my dear. Now then, you said something about a tour?”
          “Yes, sir. I was coming down the stairs when suddenly these two women, Vivian and Mrs. Rogers, came charging up like, well—to be honest with you—like bandits.”
          “Bandits you say?” Harold returned to his desk.  Sylvia followed to her seat.
          Sylvia laughed lightly.  “Yes.”
          “Then?”
          “Naturally I asked Vivian what she was doing. She tells me she is giving her friend a tour of the office.  Really, Mr. Madison, I realize Vivian is Mr. Chandler’s sister, but I just don’t think the employees of Madison and Chandler, P.A. need to bring people off the streets and parade them around.”
          Harold cleared his throat before answering.  “I believe you are correct, Sylvia.  But, as you say, Vivian is Mr. Chandler’s sister and the sister-in-law of my god-daughter, so I will ask you not to say anything to her about this.”
          “Mr. Madison, I wasn’t suggesting—”
          Harold stood once more and walked over to Sylvia, who stood.  Patting her on the shoulder, he soothed her with his words, “Now, now, Sylvia.  Let’s not get ourselves upset.  Let me handle Vivian.  I’ll simply ask her not to do that again, but I would think coming from me would be much better than coming from you.  Let’s keep peace in the office, shall we?”
          Sylvia smiled as Harold’s hand guided her to the door.  “Of course, Mr. Madison.  “I’ll leave this to your discretion.”

          As soon as Sylvia left the room, Harold returned to his desk and picked up his phone to call Celeste.  “Hello, my darling,” he said, soft and low, when she answered.
          “Hello, my darling,” she returned.
          “How has your day been?”
          “It’s been lovely.  I had brunch with Patty, then the two of us went shopping. Patty found the loveliest cocktail dress. The four of us should do something soon, Harold.  Dinner at the club or something like that.”
          “Sounds good to me.  Why don’t you set that up for next week sometime?”          “Perfect. I’ll do that.  Hurry home, will you, dear?”
         “I have to check something after everyone leaves, but I’ll be home shortly after that.  Until then, all my love, my dear.”          “I’ll see you soon.”


Chapter Fifty-one

Amanda stood near one of the living room windows, whispering into her cell phone, staring at the brick house Vivian and Carson called home. “I can’t make it this evening. Mark’s got a meeting.”
          “Oh …. Noooo….” Vivian said.  “Okay, we have to keep our heads about ourselves. Think.” But before there time for thought could pass, she added, “Then how about tomorrow night?”
          “Tomorrow night he’s set a meeting with the Connor’s.  Apparently Brittany and Taran skipped school today.”  Amanda glanced down the street, the school bus rolled toward the stop.
          “Why are you whispering?” Vivian asked.
          Amanda paused and began to speak normally.  “I have no idea.” She chuckled. “You’d think we were in the middle of some spy novel.”
Vivian laughed lightly. “Maybe we are. Where is your family?”
“Mark’s in his office and Mama’s taking a nap. Anyway, I told Mark you and I had an errand to run this evening, but…he has a meeting of the financial board.  What I’m thinking is this: I’ll call Mrs. Connor later tonight and see if the family will join us on Sunday, after church.  That way you and I have tomorrow night to go back to the office.”
          “Sounds good.  We’ll slip in, pull some files, make copies and be out of there.” She paused. “Maybe this is better anyway. Maybe, Amanda, we’re moving too fast on this. A few weeks ago Dori was my sister in law, and in the blink of an eye she’s the kidnapped friend of my new pastor’s wife. Maybe …”
          “Vivan … don’t you dare back out on me now.”
          A short pause and Vivian continued.  “Let me ask you a question, here, Amanda.”
          “Hurry. I see Ryan getting off the bus and I’m sure Brittany and Taran will be pulling up any minute, faking a typical afternoon after school.”
          “It’s a phase, Amanda.”
          “Yeah, well I don’t want to hear that anymore.  If I weren’t so concerned about this thing with Becky, I’d probably explode the minute she walks through the door.” She sighed. “You have a question?”
          “Yeah. What do you plan to do when and if you find what you want in the files? What’s your next step?”
          The school bus came to a stop, the door swung open, and a moment later her son jumped from the steps.  She smiled. Such pure energy, that child.  “I don’t know.  Maybe tell Mark?  Maybe call the police? The FBI? Kill somebody? I don’t know.”
          “Well, you need to think about it.  One thing’s for sure you can’t take the information and go waving it under Harold’s nose. My gosh!  I still can’t believe this.  Harold Madison, of all people. Do you think Celeste knows?”
          “Ryan’s nearly at the door, Vivian, but no, I don’t think she knows.  She’s a nice lady.”
“And Harold is a nice man. A good man. Salt of the community.”
“There’s something … I don’t know … fake about him. I felt it the minute I met him. But Celeste Madison is the real deal. And she’s a woman.”
“Good call, Sherlock.”
“What I’m saying is … she wouldn’t … she couldn’t do this to another woman. Taking children from their mothers is not something decent women do.”
          “Until a few days ago, I thought Harold Madison to be decent.”
          “Okay. Ryan’s home.  I’ll talk to you later.  Tomorrow night.  Plan on it.”
          Amanda ended the call.  As soon as she turned from the window, she stopped short.  Mark stood directly behind her.
          “Mark,” she exclaimed with a smile.
          But Mark appeared anything but cheerful. Instead he looked worn out. Frustrated.  “What’s going on, Amanda?  What are you up to now?"

Chapter Fifty-two


I haven’t been able to shake my dream from the other night. I have returned to my bed time and again and willed myself to return to the dream…return to the beach and the waves and the moon’s dancing reflection upon the black waters…and the girl on the horse…
          Who was she? Why does she haunt me so? Why is it that I can still feel her very presence passing through my body? My soul?
          Becky? Sweet child of my youth, was it you?
          And if it was, why won’t you return to me again?
Don’t you know? Mother is waiting. 

Chapter Fifty-three


          “Kaci, my darling,” Harold cooed into the phone as he glanced at his watch, the hands indicating that four o’clock in the afternoon had come.
          “Mr. Green!  I can’t believe it’s you.” 
          “Kaci, darling, you sound a bit winded."                      “Oh, it’s nothing.  Well, it’s something, but it’s nothing big…not yet, anyway.”
          Harold leaned back in his chair. “Oh?  Perhaps you should tell me.” 

          “I just called Teresa, and I thought she would have called you.  Has she called you?  Is that why you are calling me now?  I mean, you just called yesterday and all..."
          Harold Madison felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle. He’d had nearly too many years of dealing with these half-wit teenage girls who didn’t know any better than to keep their knees together. Or that, yes, you can get pregnant the first time. Or only one time. “No, Teresa has not called. Why don’t you take a deep breath and tell me what’s going on.”
          Harold heard scraping of chair legs across a tile floor. He imagined Kaci in the kitchen, about to sit at the table.  She took a deep breath, exhaled. “Okay.  I’m calm now.” Kaci giggled. “I’m having Braxton-Hicks.”
          “That’s false labor, Kaci.  Why are you so excited about that?”
          “Because it’s not so bad, Mr. Green.  And it makes me feel like a woman, ya know?  A real woman.”
          Harold chuckled. Why did he have to handle these kinds of things. Why didn’t Teresa warn him? He closed his eyes, rubbing them with the pad of his thumb and index finger. “You certainly are that, my dear.  Have you spoken with your doctor about this?” he asked, now eyeing the wet bar across the room.  He needed a drink…
          “No, sir, but I called the nurse.  She said I’ll probably have the baby within three weeks.  Just think about it, Mr. Green. Within three weeks I’ll see you again, and the baby will be here, and his new parents will have the son they’ve been waiting for and—”
          “---and you’ll be one very rich young lady, Kaci.”
          “Yeah.  I’m kinda excited about that, too.  I mean, it’s gonna be hard to give the little guy up and all, but my mama and I sure could use this money, Mr. Green.”
          “I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more, Kaci.  You’ve been very brave. Now, then, my dear.  I need to check on something here, but I’ll call you again on Monday.”
“Yes, sir.”
“If you need anything, you can call Teresa.”
          “Yes, sir.  Bye, Mr. Green.”
          “Good-bye, my dear.”
          Harold replaced the receiver on the phone, then stood and walked across his office to the bar where he mixed a gin and tonic.  He moved quietly to the window and peered out.  The street where Madison and Chandler, P. A. was located had been a respectable residential area at the turn of the century.  Antebellum and Victorian houses dotted the avenue, some restored and used as offices, a few still lived in by the families of the original builders, and still a few dilapidated and beyond hope.  The shrubbery and trees had grown up around them, giving them an abandoned look all the more. 
Why do people do that, he wondered.  Why do they just walk away from structures that took years to build and lifetimes to fill?
          It was the same with his business…his other business.  It was a carefully planned structure, filled with lifetimes…some destroyed, others made better.
          He closed his eyes against the cars cruising by, the few children riding their bikes down the sidewalk stretching in front of the office in time-worn squares, and the giant oak on the side of the building whose branches were visible even from his window.  He remembered another oak tree…an oak tree from so long ago…the one time when he had done his own dirty work, where a little girl with fair skin and white-blond hair counted aloud.  One…two…three…
          He had stepped out of the shadows so slowly, she had not been aware of him at all.  He stooped down and accessed his position.  The other child had run to the middle of the park and stared at the grounds around her…for almost too long, his prey allotted too much time. He looked beyond the park and watched the two women—no doubt their mothers—as they knocked the fuzzy yellow ball back and forth across the net.  Nice form, he had thought. Both of them.
          …thirteen, fourteen, fifteen…
          The awkward child who “hid” darted toward a row of trash cans and ducked behind them.  Perfect, he thought.  No one to see…and he must not fail here.  This was the child, exactly what Bob and Patty had asked for.  Bob had been his friend for many years…he would not fail him or Patty.
And he would make a bundle in the process. He could have never known—at that moment—how he would one day love this child like his own daughter.
Typically he had a man who did the taking. Once the child was safely put away, he came in and played “uncle” for a few days. “Mommy and Daddy want you to come with me, now,” he would say.  “They want you to go to a new place…wait till you see!” 
Children that young…two or three years of age, never more…forgot so easily.
And because this taking was for Bob, he had taken the job himself.  There could be no mix-ups…no mistakes…
          …ready or not, here I come!
          Now, Madison! Move now, or lose your chance.
          There had only been a momentary struggle.  His hand had clasped her tiny mouth so quickly there had been no time for her to scream.  She merely kicked, as he was sure they all did, and flailed her little arms.  To this day he could still smell the child-sweat from her body.
          As he scurried with her through the wooded area, he backtracked around the park.  Before he slipped into the thick foliage that led to his awaiting rental car, he caught a glimpse of the other child…the little redheaded girl…standing up on her tiptoes; looking around.  “Becky?” he heard her call out.
          Harold Madison opened his eyes and took a sip of his drink.  Something was nagging him, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. What was it, exactly?  Did it have something to do with Vivian and Amanda Rogers and their “tour” of the office? If Vivian were suspicious of the records in the attic, why would she involve Amanda?  Furthermore, if the camera caught Vivian in the attic at some point, as he expected it would, what would be his course of action?
          He took another sip, drawing it through his teeth.  “Dear Vivian, if you’ve been in that attic,” he spoke softly.  “I’m going to so hate to have to kill you.”  

Chapter Fifty-four

          “Amanda?”
          Amanda stood frozen in place. “Ryan’s about to walk in the door,” she said quietly. As if on cue, he did.
          “Hi!” he greeted them.
          Amanda moved from her place at the window. “Good afternoon, sweetheart. How was school today?” Amanda heard the quivering in her voice.
          So did Ryan. He stopped half way across the room and looked from parent to parent. “What’s up?”
          “Nothing,” they answered together.
          “Oh. Okay. Can I have a snack?” Ryan resumed his trek to the kitchen.
          “Sure, sweetheart.”
          Mark moved to stand near Amanda, then took her by the arm. “Ryan, Mom and I are going to my office to talk. Listen out for your grandmother, will you?”
          Ryan never looked back. “Sure, Dad. But I can tell something’s up. You can’t fool me.”
          “Smart kid,” Mark said as he tugged at Amanda’s arm and led her down the hall.
          “Mark,” she whispered.
          “Don’t, Amanda. Not until we get in the office and close the door.”
          As soon as they had done so, he turned to her. “Now tell me what’s going on. What are you up to?”
          Amanda took a deep breath. “Mark, just listen to me, okay? Just open your mind to the possibilities.”
          Mark crossed his arms.
          Amanda moved to the desk and perched on its edge. “Okay. Where do I begin?”
          “Try the beginning.”
          “All right. Remember when I told you that the night of the Madison’s party I overheard Harold Madison—”
          “For crying out loud, Amanda. He’s a pillar in this community.”
          “He’s not who you think he is.”
          “And just who is he?”
          “A kidnapper for one thing.” Amanda prepared herself for the response she knew would come.
          “What?” Mark moved toward his wife, placed his hands firmly on both forearms and looked her in the eyes. “Amanda, I love you. I’ll get you some help if that’s what you need. There are doctors…”
          “No! Listen to me, Mark. Harold Madison kidnapped Becky. Becky is Dori. Don’t you understand? She asked me to help her and then there were the pictures.” Amanda’s breath became short and uneven. She felt tears stinging the back of her eyes.
          Mark’s grip became more firm. “Amanda, get a hold of yourself, now.”
          “Listen to me, Mark,” Amanda repeated, twisting and freeing herself from Mark’s grip. “Every time Harold Madison goes out of town on one of his vacations, some mother out there loses her child.”
          Mark stood silent for a few moments before he spoke. When he did, it was nearly a whisper. “Amanda. Amanda.”
          And then he began to cry.

Chapter Fifty-five


          “Mark, don’t,” Amanda pleaded, her own tears streaking down her face.  She put her arms around him, crushed him to herself. 
          “I can’t help it, Amanda,” he whispered, the words broken by emotion.  “I love you and—”
          “I love you, too.  Let’s just not talk about it anymore okay?  I’ll work this out for myself.  You’ll see.”  Amanda took a step back and looked into the intensity of her husband’s blue eyes.  “Okay?”
          “Amanda, I can get you help.”
          “No. No, no.  I don’t need it, Mark.” Amanda laughed. “Now that I’ve said it, I guess it does sound pretty ridiculous, doesn’t it? Dori Chandler? Becky Potter?” She blinked several times, willing herself to stay in control. “It’s the stress of the move, Mark. The baby … Mama …” She paused. “Brittney. I mean … ridiculous.”
          “I’d say so.” He pecked her lips with his.  “I mean, really, Amanda.”
          Amanda brushed her wet cheeks with the pads of her fingers.  “I know.  I know!” She turned and walked over to the desk, picked up a paperweight and pretended to study it.  “You know, my father always said I was pretty good at thinking things through. Now that I have, I can see how silly this all must sound.  I’ll work this out in my head, Mark.  You’ll see.”
          Mark’s exhale sounded as though he’d held every breath from that morning on. “Oh, yeah.  Speaking of which…your father wants to come down here soon.  He misses your mother.”
          Amanda nodded. “I didn’t think he’d be able to stay away too long.”  She nodded again.  “It’d be good to have Daddy here, but…things are so crazy right now….I don’t know what to say.  I mean—”
          “Just one more thing to add to the list of growing things around here.”
          Amanda nodded.  “Yes.  I don’t know what to say, Mark.  I’ll think about it.  Daddy will understand that I want to think about it.”
          Mark joined Amanda, wrapping an arm around her shoulder.  “Why don’t you go wash your face?  Brittany should be home soon.  Let’s not mention to her what we know…”      
          “What we know?”
          “About this afternoon…her and Taran.  Let’s leave that for tomorrow night, okay?”
          “Yeah.  Okay.”  Amanda raised her eyebrows and smiled a half-smile.  “I’ll go wash my face then.”
          She opened the office door and stepped into her bedroom then crossed to the master bath.  Without looking in the mirror over the sink, she turned the cold water handle and watched the clear water streaming into the porcelain white pedestal sink.  She leaned her forearms on its edge, cupped her hands under the water’s flow.  She stretched her right leg and, with her foot, closed the door.  As soon as she heard it click shut her sobs released themselves and shook her body.  She quickly splashed her face with the cold water, over and over. When she finally straightened, she gazed at her reflection in the mirror.  Droplets of water clung to the hair around her face, which was red and blotchy. Her eyes seemed void of color.  She appeared to be an empty shell of someone she once knew…so very long ago.
          “With or without your help, Mark,” she whispered.  “With or without your help, Harold Madison is coming down. ”

Chapter Fifty-eight

          From his office window, Harold Madison watched the last of his employees drive away from the back parking lot.  He was alone in the building now and could safely climb the stairs to the attic undetected.  He switched the overhead light off before exiting, then closed his office door behind him.  He walked steadily down the hallway, turning to look into each room along the way.  Each was empty, including Matt’s.
          What a lucky man. A beautiful and successful wife…a wife any husband would be proud to call his own.  They suited each other, just as she had suited Bob and Patty so many years ago.
          Harold inched his way up the stairs to the attic, one methodical step at a time. Yes, he assured himself, Dori was much better off with her new parents than she would have been with her biological parents. They could have never given her the kind of life she deserved…the only life she remembered. What were biological parents anyway?  Sperm and egg.  Nothing more. 
          Harold continued up the darkened staircase until he reached the attic floor.  He opened the door and slipped in, his eyes relying on what little outside light snuck in from the two dormer windows to find the old filing cabinets. Had he been foolish to think he could have hidden them all these years?
          His eyes darted about, looking for any activity since the camera had been installed. Nothing. Nothing out of place. Not a single new footprint on the dusty flooring.
          Harold leaned his hip against an old desk for a few moments.  He crossed his arms and rubbed his chin.  What was it Mark had said about his wife when they first arrived?  Something…something…

          Harold straightened.  He’d see Mark tonight at the meeting.  Somehow, he vowed, he’d get to the truth of the matter.  Somehow…
           

Chapter Fifty-seven 

          The financial board meeting had lasted only an hour and a half.  By eight-thirty chairs had been slid under the table of one of the Sunday school rooms that had doubled as a meeting room, empty Styrofoam coffee cups had been discarded into a lined trash can sitting next to the doorway and conversation had changed from business to pleasure.          “I don’t know how she’s talked me into it,” Sam Meadows said to Gilbert Boddiford.  “When I said ‘a new vehicle,’ I was talking about a truck. I came home with a four-door Camry.” Then he shrugged. “It’s a nice one, though.”

          The two men walked out of the room and down the hall.  “Reverend, if you need any further documentation on any of this that we’ve talked about this evening…” Jason Smythe said to Mark.
          Mark shook his head.  “No, I don’t think so, Jason, but thank you.  Between what I received before I arrived and what you have presented this evening, I think everything is in order.”
          Harold Madison walked up behind Jason and clapped him on the shoulder.  “That’s our Jason. Never leaves an “I” without a dot or a “T” without a cross.  Which is why he’s one of our best CPA’s and why he’s on this committee.”
          Jason, a shy young man who was at least fifteen pounds too thin and two inches too tall, blushed.  “I just want to make sure I’m doing my job, Mr. Madison.”
          “You’re doing fine, Jason.” Harold sounded nearly congratulatory, something Mark couldn’t help but pick up on. How could his wife say the things she said about this man? “We couldn’t have picked a better man for the job, could we, Mark?”
          “Absolutely not,” Mark confirmed.  He didn’t know Jason well, but he liked what he knew.
          “Now, then, Jason.  Why don’t you leave the clean-up to the Reverend and me.”
          “Oh, no, Mr. Madison.  I don’t mind…”
          “Nonsense, my boy. A fine young man at your age,” Harold began with a wink to Mark.  “I’m sure there’s some pretty young thing just waiting for you to come over tonight.”
          Mark watched in awe from the other side of the table as the young man blushed even more than he had earlier.  “Well, as a matter of fact…”
          “Ah? What’d I tell you?  Who is she?”
          Jason smiled broadly.  “Jennifer Lovelace.”
          “What a lovely young lady. Gracious, I’d have to say she’s perfect for you. Don’t you think so, Reverend?”
          Mark drew from his recent memory a picture of a plain but gentle young woman who worked as a nurse at the local emergency clinic.  “I’d have to say that from what I know you two seem like a great couple. If things progress and you’d like to talk about pre-marital counseling, or wedding dates, just let me know.” Mark winked to keep the young Jason from falling apart completely.
          “Thanks, Reverend,” Jason replied with downcast eyes, then moved toward the door.  “Well, then I guess I’ll go. Thank you, Mr. Madison.”
          “Think nothing of it,” Harold replied.  As soon as Jason’s footsteps faded down the hallway, Harold turned to Mark.  “Nice young man.”
          “Yes, he certainly is.  Well, then. I’ll put these files in my office and I guess we can lock up.”
          “I’ll walk with you,” Harold offered.
          Mark flipped the light switch as they left the room. “You amaze me,” Mark commented honestly as they walked toward his office.  “I’ve never known anyone who is so willing to make everyone else feel comfortable and at ease.”
          Harold chuckled.  “Well, Mark, I genuinely like people. Always have. I suppose that’s why it comes so easy to me.  Now take Jason for example.  I’ve known him since he was a boy practically. He and his father moved here when Jason was…oh, I’d say…eleven or twelve years old.  Never met a more homely-looking child in my life. But, smart. He was a smart one.”
          “What about Jason’s mother?”
          “She had cancer, I believe it was.” He paused. “Yes, cancer.”
          “Sad.”
          “Yes, very.  Now then; on to better things,” he said with a smile. “How’s that pretty little wife of yours?”
          “Amanda?  She’s ah---she’s…”
          Mark stopped in front of his office door and opened it with his key.  “Come on in. This will only take a minute.”
          Harold followed him in. Mark switched on the overhead light.  “I’ll just put these on my desk for Beth to file in the morning.”
          “Mark?  Is something wrong with Amanda?”
          Mark stopped and placed his hands on his hips. “Wrong?  No…I wouldn’t say that.”  She’s just got it in her head that you’re a kidnapper…
          “Well, I hope not. You know, Celeste really likes her and, if I may say so, Celeste is a good judge of character.”
          Mark smiled.  “Thank you, Harold.  Amanda thinks a lot of Celeste as well.  Ah … listen, I’d better be getting home.  Amanda’s going to need some help with her mother and the kids and all.”
          “Oh, sure. Sure.”  Harold moved toward the door.  “While we’re walking to our cars, tell me a little more about the two of you.”
“Like?”
“Well, for starters, how did the two of you meet?”
          “College.  Duke University, actually.  I saw her in church and made a bee line to meet her.” He chuckled. “She didn’t like me at first though, I can tell you that.”
          “You’re kidding, of course!”
          Mark closed the office door behind him and locked it.  “I’m afraid not. In fact, I’d say she got downright mad at me for even speaking to her.”
          The two men moved toward the outside door.  “Well, my boy, you know what they say about redheads.”  Suddenly he stopped.
          “What’s wrong?” Mark asked.
"Oh, nothing…nothing…I was just thinking…Amanda has such an unusual shade of red and … I can honestly say I’ve only seen hair that shade of red once before.”

Chapter Fifty-eight

          Gabrielle slid a disc into the DVD player in the entertainment center of her den.  She had lit several scented candles, turned out all the lights, poured herself a glass of white wine, and slipped into her favorite satin pajamas and robe.  Tonight was going to be a night for pampering herself, she decided.  Earlier she had soaked in a tub full of bubbles and now all she wanted to do was curl up in her favorite chair, watch one of her favorite romance classics and sip wine.  When the movie was done, she’d finish reading the trashy novel she had been enjoying over the past couple of days and sip some more wine.  By then it would be midnight. 

After her performance this afternoon, Bob would sneak a call from his cell phone to tell her how much he loved and desired her. She would tell him she was about to slip between the cool sheets of their bed and how much she wished he were with her.  Then she would inform him that first thing in the morning she would be driving to a travel agency to pick up the brochures on France, which in all honesty she had already done.  He would tell her not to get too anxious and then she would tell him exactly what she planned to do to him upon their arrival in Paris at which time he would tell her to make the arrangements for as soon as possible.

          Gabrielle giggled.  How she loved being herself.
          Carefully retrieving her glass of wine from a nearby table, she curled up in her chair, reached for the remote control and pressed “Play.”  No sooner had she done so, than the front doorbell rang.
          “Oh, surely not,” she moaned.  “Bob Sims, don’t you dare be here.  Tonight is my night, not yours.” Still, she stood from the chair and padded from the room in her satin slippers, down the hallway and into the foyer.
          She peered through the peephole, then pulled back slightly.  She looked again.  “Yes?”
          “Gabrielle Cibrianne?”
          Gabrielle set her glass of wine on the foyer table and looked into the large, gilded mirror over it.  She quickly slipped the knot out of the sash of her robe and allowed it to fall open.  “Yes?” she called back.
          “My name is Harold Madison, Gabrielle.  I’m a friend of Bob Sims.”
          Gabrielle ran her fingers through her hair and fluffed it, giving it a tussled look.   “Is something wrong?” she asked sweetly, retrieving her wine.              “Gabrielle, may I come in from the hallway, dear?  I’d like to discuss something with you.”
          Gabrielle opened the door and stood poised in the entryway.  “Has something happened to Bob?”
          Harold smiled, his eyes never leaving hers as though trained.  “May I come in?”
          “Of course.  Please, come in.”  She stepped aside as Harold moved past her, then closed the door and locked it. “I was having a glass of wine.  Would you care to join me?”
          “Oh, no, my dear.  I won’t be here long.  I thought it was time for us to meet face to face.”
          Gabrielle stared a moment before nodding toward the living room.  “Would you care to sit down?”
          Harold accepted the invitation, sitting in the first chair he came to.  “You and I have a lot in common, Ms. Cibrianne.”
          Gabby moved to the sofa and draped herself across it.  “How’s that, Mr. Madison.”
          “Call me Harold.”
          “Only if you call me Gabby.”
          Harold smiled. Pushed himself back in the chair and crossed one leg over the other. “So, Gabby, how long have you been Bob Sim’s mistress?  No, my dear, don’t bother to answer that.  The question is rhetorical.  I’ve known about you all along.”
          Gabby raised her chin.  “And I’ve known all about you, too.”
          “I know, I know.”  Harold chuckled, pointing a playful finger at her.  “You’ve been milking Bob all these years because you found out about Dori.  You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you?”  There was a hint of teasing in his voice.
          “I know I’m pretty smart.”
          “Well, then, my dear, why didn’t you come after me?  After all, I have more money than Bob.”
          Gabby smiled as she sipped her wine.  “Don’t think it hasn’t crossed my mind.  But the fact of the matter is you are a much smarter man than Bob Sims ever thought about being.  You’d have had me killed not ten minutes after I … told you what I know.”
          Harold roared with laughter.  “You’re good, Gabby.”
          “I know.  I also know that Bob wanted me more than he’s ever wanted anything other than Dori.  I just played my cards right, now didn’t I?  Bob was only looking for an excuse to make me his mistress.  If I had let him---just merely let him---that would have put him in the driver’s seat.  Finding those papers…and the newspaper clippings from Williamstown…well, well.”
          “Well, well indeed.” Harold slapped his hands on the arms of the chair and stood. “As you said, Bob isn’t as smart as he should be.  Putting those clippings with the adoption papers…tsk…tsk.”
          “So why are you here?  I’ve not bothered you and you’ve not bothered me.”
          Harold walked over to the bar.  “May I?  I believe I’ve changed my mind.”
          Gabrielle joined him.  “Allow me. Scotch?”
          “Neat.” He paused, watching her. “My dear, I’m concerned our worlds are about to come to an end.”
          “In what way?” Gabrielle poured the golden liquid into a crystal glass.
          “When Dori was taken…many years ago…she was playing with a little girl.”
          Gabby handed Harold his drink.  “I read that.”
          “That little girl has grown up, I’m afraid.”
          “Again, what does that have to do with you and me?”
          “She’s living in Highland Park and she’s onto me.”
          Gabby looked deeply into Harold’s eyes.  She felt her throat go dry and her lips begin to parch.  “Are you certain?”
          “Oh, yes.  It took me a little while to put all the pieces together, but now that I have…I’m afraid she’s planning to go to my office with one of my employees to pull some very important files.”
          “Why don’t you remove the files?”
          Harold touched the tip of Gabby’s nose, then moved back to his seat.  “I could.  But that wouldn’t stop her.  You see, Gabby, on my way here this evening I came to the conclusion she already knows the truth.  If that’s the case, there’s no point in moving the files.  They’re just a small portion to all of this.  Don’t you see?”
          “What do you want me to do?”  Gabrielle remained at the bar.
          Harold pulled a paper from his coat pocket.  “If I call you, I want you to follow the instructions on this paper to the letter.” His eyes found hers. “Come on, take it.”
          Gabby moved to where Harold sat and took the folded paper without opening it.  As soon as she did, he took a long drink of the scotch, stood, handed her the empty glass, and walked toward the door.
          “That’s it? You’re leaving so soon? Don’t you want to stay?” she asked.
          Harold chuckled lightly as he turned toward her.  “My dear, I haven’t strayed from my wife once in all the years we’ve been married.  I shan’t begin tonight.” He opened the door slightly. “Remember…follow my instructions to the letter. Good night.”          


        

Chapter Sixty-one

          As soon as Mark walked out the door for his meeting, Amanda called Vivian.  “I can’t go in the morning, Viv.  Can you go without me?”
          “What’s going on?”
          “Mark.  He overheard our conversation this afternoon.”
          There was a pause before Vivian answered.  “Oh.  Okay, I guess I could do it by myself.  Carson doesn’t know about any of this and I could just tell him I’m going back to the office to pick up something that I left.  I could go now, for that matter.”
          “Wait,” Amanda said. She didn’t want Vivian doing this alone; this was her battle, after all. “Let’s just let this sit, okay?  Let’s put this on hold until one evening next week.  Like…say…Monday?  You and I can tell the guys we’re going shopping.”
          “Amanda, I don’t mind…”
          “I don’t want you doing this without me.  If anything goes wrong…I’d never forgive myself. And it may take both of us looking through those files to find the ones on Becky.”
          “If they are even there. No, I can do this on my own,” Vivian insisted. “Besides, if anyone sees me I can explain my being there but I don’t know what excuse I would give for your being there.”
          Amanda didn’t like it, but she couldn’t argue with Vivian’s reasoning. “Okay.  Look specifically for records on Becky.”
“I know.”
“They’ll be there; I can feel it in my bones.”
          “Maybe that’s an omen, Amanda.”
          “Yeah. Maybe.”
          “I’ll call you later…soon as I get home.”
          “I’ll be waiting.”

Chapter Sixty

          Amanda watched from the living room window as Vivian drove her metallic blue BMW out of the driveway. She whispered a prayer after her.  Later, she and Mark curled on the sofa talking about the financial meeting and their planned dinner with the Connor’s for the following evening. Amanda kept her ears toward Mark, but her eyes cut to the semi-opened blinds enough that she saw the light’s from Vivian’s car when she returned. 
          She sighed without meaning to.
          “What’s wrong?”
          “Nothing,” Amanda said with a forced smile.  “Vivian went shopping this evening.”
          He studied her. “And you’re wishing you could have gone?”
          “It might have been nice,” she said. “But I’m needed here right now. My family comes first.”
Mark stood and walked toward the dining room.  “More wine?” 
          “That’d be nice,” she answered without turning to look at him. As soon as he was out of sight, she walked to the window and opened the blinds more fully, watching as Vivian opened the front door of her home. The light from the foyer illuminated her and she waved, letting Amanda know she could see her silhouette at the window.
She pulled a manila envelope from under her arm and held it high, then shut the door.          Amanda dropped the slat.  “Gotcha,” she whispered. “Gotcha.”

Chapter Sixty-one

          Brittany sat on a barstool the kitchen watching her mother prepare a salad.  “Let me see if I’ve got this right. You and Dad invited Mr. and Mrs. Connor over for dinner tonight.”
          Amanda looked up from across the counter.  “Mmm-hmm.  And Taran and his little brother.”
          Brittany pursed her lips.  “For no reason.”
          “Do we need one?”  Amanda walked to the sink and retrieved a luscious, red tomato from a colander.  She stepped back to the counter, picked up a knife and sliced it as she held them in her hand.
          “Mom, I hate it when you do that.”
          “What?  Invite your boyfriend and his family over?”
          “No. Well, yes. That, too.  But I hate it when you slice tomatoes in your hand like that.  Do you know how many cases of sliced hands there are at the emergency room each year?”
          Amanda stopped and stared. “No, why don’t you tell me.”
          Brittany rolled her eyes.  “Mom, please. Use the cutting board.”  Brittany hopped off the stool, walked to a cabinet and brought one out.  “Here.  That’s what these are for.”
          “But it’s so easy to do it like this,” Amanda said, dropping the neatly diced cubes of tomatoes onto the iceberg lettuce and spinach leaves.  “See? Just the way your grandmother used to do it … before we took knives away from her.”
          “Mom.”
          Amanda took the cutting board from her daughter.  “Okay. Okay. To appease you.”
          Brittany returned to the barstool with a heavy sigh.  “So, again. Why are the Connor’s coming over?”
          “Scared?”
          “Of what?”
          “You tell me.”
          Brittany looked out the window briefly, then back to her mother.  “I think I get it.  You think Taran and I are getting too serious and the four of you are going to gang up on us.”
          “Are you?”
          “Right?”
          “Are you?”
          “Are we what?”
          Amanda dropped more tomatoes on the salad, then walked back to the sink and washed a cucumber.  “Getting too serious.”
          “Define ‘too.’”
          Amanda stopped her washing and turned to face Brittany.  “What does that mean?”
          “We’re not having sex if that’s what you mean, Mom.”
          For a moment, Brittany thought her mother would self-combust. “Well, I should hope not.”
          “Mom, don’t be so melodramatic. Oh. Em. Gee. What time are they gonna be here?”
          “Six-thirty.  Your father ought to be back from taking Ryan to the park to throw the football by six.  What are you wearing?”
          “Do I have to dress impressive?”
          “He’s your boyfriend and they are his parents.” Amanda smiled and brought the cucumber to the cutting board.
          “My new black skirt with the tiny split up the side?”
          “That’s be nice,” Amanda nodded her approval.  “What blouse—” The telephone rang, interrupting her.
          Brittany practically leapt from the stool. “I’ll get it.”
          “I’ll get it,” Amanda said firmly, reaching for the phone.  “You go get ready. Your father will be home shortly and I’ll need your help with Mama.”
          “Fine …”

Amanda watched her daughter leave the room with a roll of her eyes. She pressed her lips together to keep from smiling. “Hello,” she said just after the fourth ring.
          “Amanda,” the voice whispered.
          Amanda hand gripped the phone and her breathing stopped mid-intake. “Who is this?”
          “You know.”
          She blinked. “Becky?”
          “Yes. I need you, Amanda …”
“Ohmygosh. Becky. You know? You know who I am?”
“I know. And I need to see you.  Can you meet me at the Highland Park Motel?”
Amanda looked at her watch.  “When?”
“Now.”
“Why … why are you whispering? Why do you want …”
“Matt. I can’t let Matt hear. Please, Amanda. Please. The Highland Park Hotel. No one would expect me to be there. Now. Please.

Chapter Sixty-two


          Mark glanced at the digital clock in the dashboard of his Explorer.  “We need to be home in a few minutes, Sport.”
          Ryan stared out the passenger’s window as he squirmed.  “This is gonna be the coolest day of my life.”
          Mark laughed.  “Why do you say that?”
          Ryan turned back to his father.  “Because first of all you and I got to go to the park and throw the ball.”
          Mark smiled warmly as he reached over and tousled his son’s hair. “That was fun, wasn’t it?  We need to do that more often.”
          “I’m game.”
          “What else makes this day so special?”
          “Are you kidding me?  Benji is coming over with his folks for dinner.  Benji and I are gonna play some games in the den, okay, Dad?”
          “What kind of games?”
          Ryan grinned at his father.  “Don’t worry, Dad.  I know what kind of games you don’t approve of…” He paused and his head whipped to the rear of the car. “Was that Mom?”
          Mark turned his head to look out the side window, then glanced in the rear view mirror.  “Certainly looked like her.”  He glanced at the clock again. “She probably forgot something and is heading for the store.  I’ll bet she’s nearly crazy right now.”  Mark laughed.  “Probably something simple like dinner rolls.  You know your mother.  Everything’s got to be perfect.”
          Ryan nodded.  “Yeah.  She’s really kickin’ it though isn’t she?”
          “Kicking it?”
          “Speeding.”
          Mark glanced in the rear view mirror again, but Amanda was long gone.  “I wouldn’t say she was speeding…maybe five miles over the limit.  That’s not too bad.”
          “Dad.” Ryan twisted in his seat.  “Are you sure we’re on the same planet?  Mom was speeding like a you know what and if I say it I’m in trouble.”
          Mark’s mouth twisted slightly. “Okay.  I’ll have a talk with Mom about that.  Now tell me: what do you think of your sister and Benji’s brother?”
          “You mean, like, how do I feel about them being into each other?”
          “Yeah.”
          Ryan shook his head.  “I dunno. Far as I’m concerned, the whole married thing is gross.”
Married?
“Not like literally, Dad. You know, on Facebook.”
“What about Facebook?”
“When you’re dating, you say you’re married.”
Mark shook his head. What had it been in his day? Going together? “Amanda and I are going together, Mom.”
“Going where?”
“We’re not going anywhere in particular!  It just means we are exclusive.”
“Going steady?”
“If that’s what you want to call it…”
“Amanda seems like a nice girl.”
“She is a nice girl.”
She just speeds when she’s in a hurry because she forgot to buy dinner rolls, Mark concluded as he turned into the driveway.  But that was okay. He’d talk to her about that later.

Chapter Sixty-three

          Amanda was only vaguely aware of passing Mark and Ryan on their way back from the park.  She wondered, though only briefly, if he had seen her, too.  If so, would he know something was wrong, or would he think she had forgotten something at the grocery store?  She hoped he didn’t suspect the truth.  Becky insisted she tell no one.
          “I’m coming, but I don’t know the Highland Park Motel is.  You’ll have to tell me.”
          “Go toward the church, but don’t go all the way…”
          “Hold on…I need to write this down…”
          Amanda now looked at the passenger’s seat where she had thrown her purse.  “Oh, dang it!”
The paper with the directions was not with her purse.  She looked up and assessed her surroundings.  She had to slow down. Surely she had thrown the paper into her purse. She neared a strip mall. The logical thing to do would be to pull into its parking lot and check her purse and car for the paper.
          Two minutes later her purse’s contents were strewn all over the front seat of her car.  “I don’t believe this,” she said, slamming her hand against the steering wheel.  “Okay, Amanda. Think!
          A slight chill ran up her spine and she began to shake.  “Dear God, help me,” she whispered.  “Okay. Okay.  Think Amanda.  Think.”
          Amanda sat quietly, gripping the steering wheel as she tried to regulate her breathing.  As she calmed, the directions to the hotel came back to her.  “Turn left at the intersection before the church.  Three traffic lights.  Turn right going toward the interstate.  Turn right again on Robert E. Lee Boulevard.  The hotel is on the left,” she repeated the directions.
She put the car in DRIVE. “Got it.”

         

Chapter Sixty

          At the precise moment Mark put his key in the front door lock, Taran’s car radio announced that he had arrived. He glanced over his shoulder, pushing the front door open for Ryan and watching as Taran stepped out of the driver’s side door.
          “Good afternoon, Reverend Rogers.” Taran ambled toward Mark, who called inside the house to Ryan. “Go get ready. It must be later than I thought.”
          Taran smiled.  “No, sir. I told Brittany I’d come over a little early.”
Taran looked completely put together for a punk who was leading his young daughter astray.  “I see,” Mark commented. 
          “How are you this evening, sir?” Taran walked up the front steps.
          Mark extended his hand, keeping his eyes directly on Taran’s, who seemed to be doing the same with him. “Couldn’t be better.” Well, I could…but that would involve you leaving town.
          Taran stepped past him and into the coolness of the house.  Mark was aware of the scents of cologne and gum.  The boy covered all the bases. “Was that Mrs. Rogers I just saw speeding through town?”
          “Yes, I’m going to have to talk with her about that.  She must have forgotten something at the store.”  Mark closed the door behind him.  “Britt?” he called out.
          “Right here,” she said from just inside the hallway. She entered the room, nearly floating on a cloud of pink and pretty.
          “Wow,” Taran said.
          Mark was a bit too stunned for words, but he thought he’d try anyway.  After all, he thought, this was the same daughter who had skipped school yesterday.  “You look fantastic, sweetheart.”
          Brittany smiled warmly as she turned slowly to show off her attire.  “You like?”
          “I’d like it better if your hair was a little longer, but I’ll admit you’re cute.”
          Taran walked over to Brittany and gave her a quick hug.  “She’s better than cute, Rev.”
          Mark’s eyebrows shot up at the term.  He took a deep breath.  “Mom forget something at the store?”
          “What?”
          “Your mother.  She forget something at the store?”
          Brittany shook her head.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.  She’s not in the kitchen?”
          “Just saw her flying out toward the interstate,” Taran commented.
          “The interstate?” Mark and Brittany asked simultaneously.
          Taran stepped back.  “Yeah.”
          Mark headed toward the kitchen.  “Brittany, Mom didn’t say anything to you?”  His voice sounded anxious, even to himself.
          Brittany and Taran followed close behind.  “No. I went to take a shower and Mom was still fixing dinner.”
          Anabel sat at the table, holding a piece of paper. Studying it.
          “Where’s Amanda?” Mark asked.
          Anabel smiled.  “She must be playing with Becky.”
          “Wo Wo!” Brittany laughed.  “What are you talking about?”
          Mark stepped over to the table.  “What are you talking about?”
          Anabel handed Mark the paper.  “See?  It says: Becky.”
          Mark looked down at the paper.  “What is this?”
          Brittany and Taran joined him at the table.  Taran peered over his shoulder.  “Looks like directions.”
          “I can see that,” Mark snapped, then instantly pressed his lips together. Took a deep breath.  “What’s going on here?”
           “Wo Wo,” Brittany asked.  “Why would you think Mom’s playing with Becky?”
          “Becky came over to play yesterday,” she answered.
          “When?”
          Mark shook his head.  “She’s regressing.”
          Anabel shook her head.  “You were here.”
          Mark looked from the paper to his mother-in-law again.  “What are you talking about?”
          “When Becky came to play.  You remember and so do I.  She rang the doorbell and I answered it.  Then she came in and talked to you.  I saw you from the hallway.”
          “That was Dori Chandler.”
          “Noooo.  That was Becky Potter.  I’d know her anywhere.”
          Mark reminded himself to keep breathing. Taran slipped the paper from his hand. 
          “Reverend, I don’t know what’s going on here, but these are the directions to the Highland Park Motel.”
          “Why would Mom be going to the—”       
Mark’s shoulders squared and he turned.  “Brittany, right now. Call the police.”

Chapter Sixty-

          Gravel crunched under Amanda’s tires as she pulled into the Highland Park Motel parking area.  The hotel was old but basically well kept and its parking lot ran along the sides and back of the one-story, U-shaped structure.  Low-cut shrubbery gave the establishment a welcoming feel, in spite of the folding chairs under the outside corridor propped up beside each of the doors.
          Amanda stopped the car in front of the office then looked first to her right and then to her left.  The numbers on the doors were peel-n-sticks; on the right they began with 101.  The first door on the left was 150.  She peered back at the office door and noted that it had the number 100 stuck overhead.  If she were calculating correctly, Room 125 would be dead center in the back.  She turned the car right and drove slowly around the building and past a few parked cars until she came to the back of the motel.  She pulled up beside a BMW she would have sworn was Vivian’s. 
          Amanda rolled to a stop, then turned off the ignition.  She stepped out of the car and looked around for Dori’s.  It wasn’t among the few cars parked in the back; two sports cars, a RV stretched across the back, a beat-up Ford F150, and a maintenance van.  Amanda took a deep breath before walking to the door marked 125.  In spite of the fact that she had waited her whole life for this moment and she had sped from her house to the motel, she knew she had to remain calm. If not for her sake, for Becky’s.
          She knocked on the door.  Within seconds it swung open, revealing a beautiful woman with long hair.  Amanda’s brow furrowed.  “Who are you?”
          Harold Madison stepped from around the back of the door.  “Come in, Mrs. Rogers,” he said with a frown.  Amanda’s gaze lowered. 
          Harold held a gun pointed straight at her.

Chapter Sixty-


          Mark instructed Brittany to take her grandmother to the back of the house, Ryan to get in the shower, and Taran to call his parents from his cell phone.  To tell them dinner would have to be postponed.
          Then, using the house phone, he called the police. “How long will it take to get someone out there?” he asked after telling them what he knew.  
“We’re sending someone right away, sir. They’re already in route.”
The words brought him no comfort. His wife had been telling the truth. Somehow he knew it now. Somehow he understood. And somehow he knew Becky Potter—or Dori Chandler or whatever her name was—had not called and asked Amanda to meet with her. A motel? “I want you to listen to me,” he said. “You tell them that my wife is in danger. In danger. I’m afraid she’s walked into a trap.” The words sounded silly. Like they’d been written for some TV drama. He didn’t care. He knew what he knew and he didn’t care how that knowledge sounded to the police or anyone else.
          “Sir is there a call-back number?”
“No need,” he said. “I’m heading out there myself.”
“Sir, I would advise you to—”
Mark ended the call, turned to see the young man he’d forgotten was in his home. “Taran, can you drive to that motel?”
          “Sure I can.” He smiled as though they were in the middle of a game. “And as fast as you can take it.”
          Mark pulled his cell phone from his pocket. Dialed a number.
          “Who are you calling now, Dad?” Brittany asked from the doorway to the hall. 
          “Vivian…there’s no answer.  Brittany, can you take care of Wo Wo and Ryan for me?”
          Tears slipped down his daughter’s face. He hated that. Hated it. They’d all been through so much. But he had to go. He had to.
“Dad, what’s going on?”
          Mark walked over and wrapped her in his arms.  “I can’t talk right now, sweetheart.” He planted a kiss on her temple. “But I want you to stay here and pray.  Pray hard.  Taran and I are going to see if we can find Mom.”

 

Chapter Sixty-


          Amanda stepped into the semi-dark motel room.  Two double beds separated by a built-in nightstand dominated the center of the L-shaped room.  Against the far right-hand corner of the room a small round table and two chrome and vinyl chairs were barely visible next to the heavy paisley drapes Amanda surmised were pulled to cover a sliding glass door.  Through the slit where the drapes didn’t quite meet, Amanda could see the shimmering of blue water.  A swimming pool. In the center of the motel’s property.
          The door closed firmly behind her.  She turned to see Bob Sims escorting Vivian through the adjoining room door.  Duct tape was stretched across her mouth and her hands were tied behind her back. Her eyes expressed sheer terror.
          Amanda started toward her. “Vivian.
          “Stop!” Harold snapped and Amanda obeyed.  Bob shuffled Vivian over to the first bed and helped her to sit down. Not like a captor but more like someone roped into something. Something beyond himself. 
The beautiful woman walked past Amanda to the table and chairs where she picked up a pack of cigarettes. Her fingers trembled as she pulled one out of the pack and then picked up a small, yellow Bic lighter. Amanda watched her struggle with lighting the cigarette.
Whoever she was, she was afraid, which made Harold Madison outnumbered. One thing Amanda knew for sure—she’d rather be afraid than crazy. Fear would drive people to do things they otherwise would never dream of.
Then again, if Harold Madison thought he was about to be found out … about to finally be caught for what he’d done to Becky. To the Potters. Not to mention all the other families …
          Amanda turned to face him, meeting him eye to eye.  “Where is Becky?”
          “Becky? Becky who, my dear?”
          “Would you mind pointing that gun somewhere else?” she asked.
          Harold chuckled.  Bob moved to the second bed and sat down, his eyes downcast, confirming Amanda’s suspicions.
          Amanda lifted her chin.  “Becky didn’t call me, did she?”  She was aware of the slight shaking of Vivian’s head, back and forth, as if to say, “No, she sure didn’t, Sherlock.”  Vivian’s eye’s closed briefly then reopened.
          “You are a very smart woman, Amanda.” Harold feigned a pout. “Oh, how I wish you would have left well enough alone.”
          Years of heartache, of feeling as though she’d held on to false hope grabbed at her throat and squeezed. “Well I didn’t. I couldn’t.” She threw her hands out to her side. “So here we are. One kidnapper. Two prisoners of war.” She indicated herself and Vivian. “And two people who … well, I don’t really know what they’re doing here, I only know they don’t want to be here. Any more than Vivian and me.”
Harold’s eyes narrowed. “You think you are so smart, don’t you, Amanda?”
“I know I am. So, let’s cut the BS and talk about it. What are your plans, Mr. Madison? What exactly do you plan to do with all of us?”
          “What would you have me to do, my dear?”
          “For starters you can stop calling me ‘my dear.’  I’m not your dear.  You sicken me, Mr. Madison.” She raised her voice purposefully. “Do you hear me? You sicken me.”
          Bob Sims stood.  “Shut up,” he said.  “No screaming.”
          Amanda turned to him, studying him. Remembering Becky’s father and the destruction of a marriage.  “Did you know Becky was stolen?”
“Her name is Dori.”
“Call her what you want. Did you?  Did you know she was just a little girl playing in a park?”
          “Not at first…” His answer came with a sigh, like an old tire losing its air.
          “Shut up, Bob,” the woman said.
          Bob Sims turned toward her and covered the space between them within a few steps. “You. Shut. Up.
          “Both of you shut up!” Harold barked, then took a deep breath and exhaled.  "Amanda, would you care to sit down next to your friend?”
          “I’ll stand, thank you.”
“Well, aren’t you brave. Were you always like this?”
“Always.”
“Then I guess I took the right child, didn’t I? Little Becky Potter—as you call her—didn’t put up too much of a fight.”
Amanda pushed the rage down. “I’d like to ask a question if you don’t mind.”
“By all means, my dear.”
“You’re going to kill us, aren’t you?”
          Harold nodded.  “I’m afraid so.”
          Bob returned to the first bed, bringing the woman with him.  “Oh, God,” he moaned. “I don’t want to know this, Harold.  Let me and Gabby go now.  Don’t make us a party to this any longer.  You do what you have to do but don’t tell me anything.”
          “But, dear Dr. Sims. I’m going to need you to help move the bodies,” Harold said.
          Vivian screamed—muffled and pitiful—came from behind the tape.         Amanda swallowed.  She stared at her friend. Her neighbor. The woman she’d roped into something that might very well take her life. She begged Vivian with her eyes to stay focused. To trust that everything would be all right. “Tell me, Mr. Madison,” she said turning back. “Just what do you plan to do?”
          “In a little while it will be dark.  Bob and I will take you and your friend here to one of the abandoned houses near the office.  I promise your death will be quick and painless…or as painless as possible. And I’ll make sure you have a Christian burial.” He patted Bob on the back. “Bob here will help dig the graves and our sweet Gabrielle will make sure they’re deep enough.”
          The woman closed her eyes and drew deep on her cigarette. By now the smoke had filled the room; Amanda’s eyes watered.
           “Well, if I’m going to die, would you at least do one thing for me?”
“If I can.”
“Tell me why. Why did you take Becky? And the others.”
          He smirked. “My dear, it’s all about money.”
          “And you never stopped to think about the parents of the children you stole over the years?”
          Harold shrugged.  “What’s to think about? Life goes on. They made one  baby they can make another.”
          Amanda looked over her shoulder at the drapes covering the sliding glass window.  She could hear the occasional bell of laughter from children—not many it seemed, but at least more than one—and she imagined them playing in the water. Their mothers or fathers nearby.
Amanda remembered then a story she’d read when a teenager about a girl who ran through a glass door while at a party.  She had cut herself pretty bad, but she lived. 
She wondered if the girl had run through heavy drapes. And if she did—Amanda—how much physical damage would there be?
No matter how much, it wouldn’t be as bad as dead.
She could do it, but, that still left Vivian
          She turned back to Harold.  “How did you know we knew, Viv and I?”
          “Two things gave it all away.  A camera hidden in the attic and your flaming red hair.  I told your husband last night that I had only seen hair that red one other time in my life.  That’s when it dawned on me.  You were the other little girl in the park.  So I drove to Gabby’s,” he motioned to the woman with his gun, “and recruited her to make a little phone call. She and Bob and I met here this afternoon to discuss all this.  Then she called Vivian.  Once Vivian was here, she called you.  I guess you know the rest of the story.”
          Amanda turned her head back to the sliding glass door.  “If Vivian and I promise to go with you quietly, will you take the tape off and untie her?”
          The woman—Gabby—scoffed.
          “Who is this woman? Your mistress?”
          Harold laughed.  “I have never strayed from Mrs. Madison.  This beautiful woman has been with Bob for many, many years, hasn’t she, Bob?”
          Bob took another deep breath.  “Gabby found out about Dori’s adoption years ago.  She’s been blackmailing me ever since.”
          “Oh, like you got nothing from it,” Gabby shot back.
          “Not nearly as much as you.”
          Amanda looked at Harold again and, as best she could, pretended not to care. “I can die with answers. That’s good. And tonight I will die. I know that …”
          The door to the front door banged open. Sunlight spilled in. Sunlight and men in dark blue.
          Amanda turned toward Vivian who now stood and pushed her to the floor. Without thinking she rushed for the draperies, the glass, and the pool beyond. She felt herself going through, heard the shattering, felt the jabs, and then something … hot … blistering, penetrated her left shoulder blade.
          She tasted blood, sweet and thick.
          “Amanda!”
          With a shroud of paisley wrapped around her, she felt the sunshine disappear.

Chapter 68


          For Amanda the next few hours were a blur. An ambulance ride, emergency room doctors and nurses, being lifted onto a gurney and raced toward the operating room; Overhead florescent lights…one…two… three…whew…whew…whew….
          “How many fingers am I holding up, Mrs. Rogers?”
          “We’re going to give you something for pain, Mrs. Rogers…”
          “Are you still with us, Mrs. Rogers?”
          Days of pain and unknown, distorted faces looming over her, “Mrs. Rogers?  We’re changing your dressing now.” 
“Mrs. Rogers, I need to take your blood pressure.” 
          “Mrs. Rogers?”

Amanda opened her eyes, blinking through the sleep. She lay in a hospital bed. There were machines around her. Tubes. A television hummed on the opposite wall.
She turned her head. The muscles pulled and she prayed it wouldn’t fall off. Mark slept in a chair next to her.  “Mark?” she whispered. Her throat was parched and her voice barely audible.  “Mark?”
          Mark’s eyes opened. He sprang out of the chair.  “Honey?  Amanda?”
He leaned over the chrome railing of the hospital bed.  “Hold on, baby.  Let me call the nurse.”
          Mark reached for the call button as Amanda whispered, “Thirsty.”
          A nurse walked in and Mark turned to her.  “She’s thirsty,” he exclaimed. Tears welled in his eyes.
          “Well, then, let’s get her some ice chips to start with, shall we?”  The nurse walked over to the bedside table, retrieved the Styrofoam pitcher and then briskly walked out of the room.
          “Don’t try to talk yet, honey,” Mark said as he brushed Amanda’s hair from her face.
          “Becky?” Amanda mouthed.
          “Hold on, honey.”  The nurse returned. After placing the pitcher on the bedside table, she pulled out a piece of ice and rubbed it along Amanda’s mouth, then slipped it between her lips.
          “Mmmm,” Amanda moaned.
          “Take this,” the nurse said to Mark. “Keep doing this while I call your wife’s doctor.” She offered a smile. “Looks like she’s finally back with us.”
          Mark lowered the railing and sat on the bed next to his wife. A few ice chips later, Amanda swallowed and said, “Becky?”
          “She’s fine.”
          “Does she know?”
          “Yes.  Her mother and Matt told her.”
          “When?”
          “The day after…my gosh, Amanda.  I could have lost you.”
          Amanda shook her head.  “How is she?”
           “She’s having a difficult time with all this, but her mother—Patty—is going to get her some counseling.  Patty didn’t know, Amanda. She never had a clue that her daughter had been stolen.”
          “But Bob knew.”
          “Yes.”
          “Where is he?”
          “He and that woman, Gabrielle Cibrianne, were arrested for attempted murder as well as a host of other charges.  They’ve both posted bail and as far as I know they’re staying at her apartment in Atlanta.”
          “Vivian?”
          Mark smiled.  “Tough as nails.  A few cuts and bruises, but she’ll be fine. She says she’s more damaged from you throwing her on the floor than what Madison did to her.” He winked. “She is worried about you, though.”
          Amanda closed her eyes. “Madison?”
          Mark leaned over and kissed her forehead.  “Madison is dead.”
          Amanda let the fullness of what her husband had just told her settle in. Over. All of it. Over. But that means … “Celeste?”
          “Taking it very hard.  But the church and her friends will be there for her.”
          Amanda began to shake.  Mark pulled the blanket up around Amanda’s chin.  “It’s okay, honey.”
          Amanda shook her head as a tear slipped down her cheek.  “No, you don’t understand…”
          “What is it?”
          She shook her head again.  “I’m so sorry…Will God forgive me?”
          “For what, Amanda?  Tell me.”       
          “I can’t help it….” The tears were coming more rapidly.
          “What?”
          “I’m glad…glad that Harold Madison is dead.” 

A week later Amanda sat in the padded recliner of her hospital room, gazing around.  Floral arrangements filled every table, shelf, and the top of the air-conditioning unit.  Several of the arrangements sent to her had been “donated” to other patients and to the nurse’s section of each ward.  Get Well cards—some store bought and others hand-made--made a train around the wall of the room.  A poster made by Brittany and Ryan dominated the back of the door.

 Get Well Soon, Mom!!
We love you and are so proud of you!
Brittany and Ryan.

          Amanda read it for the umpteenth time and smiled as a faint knock came to the door.
          “Come in,” Amanda called out, much stronger than she had been a week earlier.
          The door opened slowly.  Amanda saw the arrangement of two-dozen pink roses before she saw the gift-bearer.
          “How beautiful,” she whispered.
          “Where should I put them?” her guest asked.
          Amanda pointed to a small table with a potted plant on it.  “Move the plant to the floor and place them there.”  
          “How are you?” the woman asked, turning from the table.
          “Better.  Much better. I…I don’t know what to call you.”
          “I’m most comfortable with Dori.  I hope that’s okay.”
          Amanda smiled back and nodded.  “Of course it is.”
          Dori walked to the bed and sat on its edge.  “They should have more chairs in these rooms.”
          Amanda laughed.  “Especially mine.  I’ve had so many visitors.”
          Dori looked down, but only briefly.  “I can imagine…being the pastor’s wife and all.  You’re something of a celebrity in this town right now.”
          Amanda took a deep breath.  “I’m sorry. Dori.”
          Dori stood again, walked over to the window and looked out.  She waved to someone, then turned back to Amanda. “Matt,” she said.  “He’s out there. In the parking lot. I asked him if I could come up alone.  I wanted to see you…to ask you a question…or two.  To talk.”
          Amanda braced herself.  “You want to know how I could have let all this happen.”
          “All what?”
          “The kidnapping…Harold Madison’s death…”
          Dori grimaced. “No, of course not.  We were only children.”
          “Do you remember? Any of it?”
          “Not really.  Just little things.”
          “Like?”
          Dori began to pace as she wrapped her arms around herself.  “An oak tree—”
          “Where you were counting.”
          “Counting?”
          “We were playing Hide and Seek.”
          “Oh, yes.  I heard all about that, but I don’t remember it.”
          Amanda nodded.  “What else?”
          Dori stopped and tilted her head as she shook it.  “A locket?”
          Amanda brought her hands together. “Yes. I still have it.”
          “Was it mine?”
          “Yes.”
          Dori nodded.  “That’s really all I remember.  My doctor says I’m not ready to remember the actual kidnapping. Matt has sent away for copies of the police reports and, when I’m ready, my doctor and I will read over them.”
          Amanda was silent for a minute.  “Do you remember your mother and father?”
          “No.”
          “I see.”
          “They know about me, though.  The police notified them and they’re flying in tomorrow.”
          “They haven’t come yet?”
          Dori shook her head.  “I’ve asked them to wait.  I need time to…to process all this. I’m a little nervous,” she added. 
          “You’ll do all right,” Amanda said.
          Dori walked over to the chair, knelt down before Amanda and gathered her hands in her own.  “Be with me?” she asked, her voice trembling.
          Amanda squeezed Dori’s hands. “Was that the question you wanted to ask?”
“Yes.”
“Oh, Becky,” she began to weep. “I’ll never let you go again.  Never.”
Dori reached up, wiped the tears from Amanda’s face, and then those that cascaded down her own.  “There’s something else I wanted to tell you.”
Amanda nodded in answer.  She was ready to hear anything.
“It’s kind of a funny thing—“
“Will it make me laugh?”
Dori grinned.  “Maybe.  It will definitely make you smile.”
“I’m ready.”
“I found out the day of…the day you were shot and … all that …”
“Found out what?”
“Isn’t life funny?  Guess what. I’m going to be a mother.”

Epilogue

Epilogue

          Celeste Madison answered the phone in the library on the third ring.  Before lifting the receiver she glanced at the caller ID; the call came from Hillside Hospital in Nashville.
          "Hello, Teresa," she answered matter-of-factly.
          "Kaci had a little boy about a half hour ago.  Seven pounds, fourteen ounces."
          Celeste smiled.  "Perfect. Everything all right?"
          "Oh, yes.  Ten fingers.  Ten toes.  A perfect baby boy.  There were no complications."
          Celeste sat in the chair that had belonged to her husband.  He had conducted all the business here and now it was her turn. She ran the slender fingers of her right hand along the shiny patina of his desk. "I'll notify his new parents and call you soon with an update as to the meeting with them."
          There was a break of silence.  Then: "I haven't told Kaci…about Mr. Madison."
          Celeste's mouth formed a thin line.  "Why don't you take Kaci on a special vacation…say to Jamaica?  If she should catch the news on cable or in the papers…"
          "I'll take care of it."
          "Very good.  Just send me the receipts."  Celeste stood, smoothed the faint wrinkles from her linen slacks.
          "Mrs. Madison, may I ask---"
          "Don't worry, Teresa," Celeste interrupted, knowing full well where the question was heading.  "As far as anyone's concerned, I'm the grieving and shocked widow.  Not only is my husband dead, he was running a black market adoption agency that I was completely oblivious to.  I've supplied the FBI with the old files that were kept in the office and a few from the house.  Everything else is as it always has been.  Mr. Green's clients are safe and so are you.  Understood?"
          "Yes, ma'am."
          "Good.  No looking back, then.  Business as usual."

          "Yes, ma'am.  Business as usual."

Did you enjoy The Abduction of Becky Potter? You can read more of Eva Marie's work by clicking on the photo of her book's covers to the right.
         

19 comments:

  1. This is what I've been begging for from you!! More of that intrigue and mystery comparable to Things Left Unspoken. I can't wait for the next chapter, but I hope this one is on it's way to print. Bravo! More, more!

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    1. Then you are going to enjoy "The Road to Testament" releasing in April, my friend! (Who do the graves out in the field belong to????)

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  2. I am 100% agree with this line "If this is not a good time, I can come again. But you are welcome to the coffee cake and coffee". Coffee is the best way to share and spend time together.

    Regards,
    Kopi Luwak

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    1. You're going to LOVE that character! She has always been one of my favorite to write!

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  3. I cannot WAIT to read the rest of the novel! I absolutely love the way you describe scenes and characters. It's almost like one climbs right into the scene. The prologue had me hold my breath a couple of times.

    I also want to say that the blog page design is fabulous.

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  4. Thank you Aliki! I thought of you yesterday; I was on a plane next to a man from South Africa! :)

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  5. I am so glad that I finally had a morning free to catch up with all the chapters. I can't thank you enough for posting this book free for us. I love all the characters described so beautifully, but this last poignant chapter, written from the heart of a broken-hearted mother...well only the Lord can heal wounds like that. I love you, dear Southern woman and everything about you.

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  6. Enjoying this!!! Can't wait for more!

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    1. Hey, Jodie!! So glad to see you here and to know you are reading along!

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  7. I delete the individual chapters each day so sometimes your comments (if you post them there) will disappear. I've been questioned as to why I had Brittany tell Taran so much so quickly. Well, for one ... she's my character (LOL) so I already know things about her you don't. She's self-centered. She's playing Taran as much as he is playing her. She's lived her whole life with this "issue" of Becky Potter and she's sick of it ... but does not see it from her mother's point of view. She only sees how it affects HER (like many teens would be). So, she makes it "about her." Keep reading ... you'll see how Brittany and Taran play into the story of discovering what really happened to Becky Potter. :)

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  8. I had my face in the computer screen tensely, reading rapidly just waiting for her to get home with that young man! (hoping it was going to be in this chapter!) Good now I can rest! :)

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    1. Yep! She is alive and well ... and in a heap 'o trouble! :)

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  9. This is sooooo good Eva! Can't wait to read more.

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    1. Thank you, Kathy! I appreciate your comment. Please let others know about this serial novel ... and ask them to pass it along as well. :)

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  10. This is really good. I was behind so got all caught up today. I really enjoy getting immersed in a great story. Thanks for sharing.

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  11. Ahhh, I missed a whole week while traveling, so it was great to get caught up today. Fun to read multiple chapters at once, although I do like the daily dose too! ALthough my fingers were getting tense and my temples were throbbing as I envision a black-market adoption scheme coming soon . . . . .

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  12. Oh dear, am I the only one commenting? Well, well, we do have something rotten in Denmark! An adoption scheme . . . . . you had me hooked before, but now of course, I am double-hooked. As one adoptive mom to another - I'm waiting with bated breath!

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