I looked both ways as I headed into the alley behind the store, not because I was embarrassed, but because I didnâ€™t want to get Payden in trouble for slipping out to meet me there. The boy was going to a lot of effort to help me, and my runaway girls always
|House Without Lies by Rachel Branton|
needed the food he donated. Unfortunately, I didnâ€™t have my car today, and I was already balancing two bags of groceries Iâ€™d purchased when Iâ€™d gone inside the store to signal Payden that I was here. So whatever he had for us would make my walk home that much more difficult. He was already outside in the alley, waiting at the back door by the green Dumpster, his round, heavily-freckled face grinning as always. The roundness made him look younger than his seventeen years, and rather innocent. â€œHey, Lily,â€ he greeted me, shifting the large box in his arms so he could give a friendly wave. His blue apron was splashed with something that had turned it purple, and the sagging material made him look chubby. He puffed a breath upward to blow away the straight-cut brown hair that hung like a shield over his brown eyes. â€œHey, Payden.â€ I hooked the grocery bags over my wrists and pushed them toward my elbows, freeing up my hands so I could take the box from him. â€œThank you so much.â€ â€œGot bread, bagels, muffins, and cookies today. Should last if you freeze them.â€ I could also see dented cans, a few vegetables that would make a fabulous soup, and a gallon of expiring milk. â€œThis is great. Are you sure you wonâ€™t get into trouble? That other clerk in there was looking at me kind of strange.â€ He shrugged. â€œMakes no sense to throw it in the trash if youâ€™re right here.â€ He laughed. â€œI can always say you wrestled me for it.â€ His smile dimmed slightly, and he waited only a second to add, â€œHow is she?â€ â€œElsieâ€™s doing great. Really. The bruising is almost gone. Iâ€™ll try to bring her next time, if sheâ€™ll come.â€ His smile returned. â€œThen she didnâ€™t run away again.â€ â€œNope. She still thinks whoever sheâ€™s running from is looking for her, but no oneâ€™s tracked her down yet. Plus, sheâ€™s worried child services will find her and make her go back.â€ He folded his arms, looking for all the world as if he wanted to do battle for her. The expression sat oddly on his young face. â€œThey probably would. Sheâ€™s better off with you.â€ If going back to her family or staying with me were the only options, I was the better choiceâ€”one glance at the picture Iâ€™d taken of Elsie after finding her in this very alley three weeks ago was proof of that. Iâ€™d heard Elsieâ€™s pitiful sobs from the main street and hurried to find her collapsed on the ground near the Dumpster, which sheâ€™d apparently been trying to open to find food. Her numerous cuts were old, but not healing, and a deep black and green bruise mottled most of her feverish face. When Iâ€™d lifted Elsie up, her battered ribs showed through a gaping rip in her shirt. Thatâ€™s when Payden had found us and given me that first box of expired groceries. He was a kindred spirit. Too bad he wasnâ€™t five years older. But then, even men my age seemed too young these days. All they cared about was partying, scraping by in their university courses, and more partying. â€œThanks again.â€ I didnâ€™t tell him Elsie hadnâ€™t gone outside at all since last week when our neighbor on the second floor had seen her in the stairwell and questioned her about where she lived. Knowing would only make Payden feel bad, and it wasnâ€™t something he could change. â€œYouâ€™re welcome.â€ He turned to go inside but hesitated at the door. â€œHey, you should really talk to my cousin. I told you heâ€™s working at a place here in Phoenix that helps troubled kids. Teen Remake, or something. Heâ€™s got connections, you know? Heâ€™s dropping some stuff off for me soon. If you wait just a minute, I could introduce you.â€ â€œI donâ€™t think so. I canâ€™t betray Elsieâ€™s trust. Sheâ€™s been through enough.â€ I could probably be charged for harboring a minor, and if my own family found out, I suspected they would come down on the side of the law. Well, all but my sister, Tessa, who had helped me out more than once in the past few months. Anyway, it wasnâ€™t likely Paydenâ€™s cousin could do anything more than I could about helping Elsie. â€œThink about it,â€ Payden urged. â€œI will.â€ I trudged up the alley, tripping once on an old tire someone had left in the way but catching myself before I fell. Lugging the groceries all the way back to my apartment on foot wasnâ€™t something I was looking forward to. Saffron, the oldest of the runaways who lived with me, had chosen a rotten day to borrow my car, but her job interview this morning had to come first. Cars honked and whizzed past as I reached the main street. Downtown Phoenix was never quiet, it seemed, and today was particularly busy. The air already felt hot and dry on my face. â€œLily!â€ I turned at the voice and saw Payden, but this time he stood in the front doorway of the small grocery store. A man Iâ€™d never seen before was with him, and I hoped Payden wasnâ€™t in trouble for helping me. Would they take back the groceries? As I watched, the man pushed past Payden and stepped out onto the wide sidewalk. My heart stopped. He was a good two heads taller than Payden and handsome enough that I remembered I wasnâ€™t wearing makeup, and that my messy ponytail had to be more mess than ponytail. â€œMy cousinâ€™s going to help you get those to your car,â€ Payden said, nodding encouragingly. He jerked his head to the side, as if listening to someone from behind him. â€œGotta go.â€ The relief inside me that Payden wasnâ€™t in trouble was canceled out by the amused smile on the manâ€™s face. Without introducing himself, he reached for the box. â€œSo, whereâ€™s your car?â€ His black hair was short except on top in the front, where it partially waved, arching up and then down in a way that I found compelling. His eyes, also dark, spoke of something exotic. Up close, not even one freckle marred his face, but there was a bit of a five oâ€™clock shadow, as if heâ€™d missed shaving today. This was Paydenâ€™s cousin? If Iâ€™d known he was this attractive, I might have hit him up for help a long time ago. I kept hold of the box. â€œI didnâ€™t bring it. Sorry. But itâ€™s okay. I donâ€™t need help.â€ â€œI donâ€™t mind walking to your place. Where do you live?â€ He tugged again gently on the box, his bronzed arms brushing mine. I couldnâ€™t tell if his skin color came from heredity or the sun. â€œAre you sure youâ€™re Paydenâ€™s cousin? Because you donâ€™t look like him.â€ He laughed, a sound that warmed me clear through to my stomach. â€œPeople say that a lot. But we are cousinsâ€”our mothers are sisters. I just have a bit more variety in my gene pool from my dadâ€™s side.â€ Definitely a combination that was working for him. â€œWell, Iâ€™m used to carrying the boxes Payden gives me. But thank you.â€ He lifted the box from my arms anyway. â€œWhat kind of gentleman would I be if I didnâ€™t walk you home?â€ â€œMaybe you just want to know where I live.â€ Again the laugh. â€œActually, I do want to know. That way Iâ€™ll know where to pick you up when we go out.â€ When we go out? A thousand butterflies took flight in my stomach. â€œWho said Iâ€™m going out with you?â€ He gave me a slow grin that only increased my heartbeat. â€œYouâ€™ll come around. Now where are we going?â€ All at once, I wanted to let him help. Iâ€™d been doing this alone for so long, and I couldnâ€™t recall when Iâ€™d last been on a dateâ€”or flirted with a guy. Certainly not in the past six months. â€œOkay,â€ I said. Letting this gorgeous stranger carry a box ten blocks wasnâ€™t going to hurt either of us. â€œBut keep up. I have stuff to do. And my roommates are waiting for me.â€ â€œRoommates, huh?â€ â€œI have a few.â€ Six to be exact. Girls living on the street seemed to have some kind of internal radar where I was concerned. They appeared in my vicinity, obviously in need, and I couldnâ€™t help taking them home. Elsie, our newest addition, had been the last straw for my old roommates, but I was still trying to see getting kicked out of their apartment as a good thing. My new place was a dump, but at least the girls didnâ€™t have to hide in my room or sneak in only at night to sleep. And there were no complaints about them stealing food. â€œSo, have you lived here long?â€ I asked him. â€œFive years. I came for school, but I love it here and I donâ€™t think Iâ€™ll ever leave. Iâ€™m from Tucson originally. You?â€ â€œFlagstaff. Iâ€™ve been here for most of three years. Itâ€™s a nice placeâ€”well, not downtown so much but the city in general.â€ I wouldnâ€™t tell him what I liked best was being away from Flagstaff and my parents. â€œIs your whole family here?â€ â€œJust Payden and his mom. His dad died a few years back. Thatâ€™s one of the reasons I moved here, to help them out. My familyâ€™s still in Tucson. I have three brothers and two sisters.â€ â€œThat many?â€ He laughed again, and it made me smile just to hear it. â€œYeah. You have any?â€ â€œOne sister. Sheâ€™s here, too. Across town.â€ Tessa didnâ€™t know Iâ€™d moved, and I was a little embarrassed to tell her. Sheâ€™d warned me it would happen, but how could I have left Elsie in the street? No, Tessa would understand, and sheâ€™d volunteer to help, if I needed her. She managed the swing shift at Crawford Cereals, our dadâ€™s factory, so our hours overlapped, and it would be easy enough to pull her aside and tell her there. If my parents got wind of it, however, there would be repercussions. Theyâ€™d wanted me to come home after the college semester ended and, when Iâ€™d stayed, had barely let me continue my part-time job at the factory. They didnâ€™t know about the girls, or that I was their only support. Now that school was out, I was thinking about finding a second job. The twenty hours at the factory werenâ€™t cutting it, and Iâ€™d already used much of my savings account. Beside me, Paydenâ€™s cousin slowed. â€œHey, whereâ€™d you go?â€ I refocused on him. â€œSorry. Just thinking about something I have to do later.â€ Then before he could probe further, I said, â€œI donâ€™t even know your name. But I can keep calling you Paydenâ€™s cousin, if you want.â€ â€œIf I tell you, will you go out with me?â€ â€œIf you donâ€™t tell me, I wonâ€™t go out with you.â€ â€œThatâ€™s not exactly a yes.â€ â€œNope.â€ I gave him a slow grin. â€œOkay, my name is Mario Perez.â€ An unexpected laugh burst through me. He didnâ€™t look like a Mario Perez. â€œMario? You mean like the game?â€ â€œNo way, you play video games?â€ â€œOf course I play video games.â€ Games were one way to connect with the girls, so I learned to play, and sometimes I even enjoyed it. â€œWell, thatâ€™s really my name. Iâ€™m named after my grandfather who came from Spain.â€ Europe. So that explained the olive skin and exotic features. â€œYou donâ€™t look like a Mario.â€ I studied him more closely. In the video game world, Mario was short and, well, a cartoon. â€œMy middle name is Jameson,â€ he offered. â€œBut only my mom and my aunt call me that. Everyone else calls me Mario.â€ â€œOkay. Iâ€™m sure thereâ€™s a story behind that.â€ He grinned, and once more that strange heat curled through my belly. If he asked me to go out again, I was definitely saying yes. â€œMy mother named me, but she changed her mind about calling me Mario after the birth certificate was filed and began using my middle name instead. But my dad said that if Jameson was the name sheâ€™d wanted, she should have put it first.â€ He laughed. â€œItâ€™s become a friendly little tug-of-war between them. Basically, Iâ€™ve learned to answer to just about anything.â€ â€œSounds fun,â€ I lied. Not if their wars were anything like the ones my parents waged. Those always sent both Tessa and me running for cover. â€œYou do look more like a Jameson to me. But maybe Iâ€™d better pick something safer. Like MJ.â€ I regretted the words the minute they escaped my lips because MJ didnâ€™t fit him at all. His grin grew wider. â€œA nickname. Does that mean youâ€™ll go out with me?â€ I was prevented from responding as a motorcycle roared by, and when I could hear again, the moment had passed. I jerked my head toward the four-story apartment complex. â€œThatâ€™s where I live. I can take it from here.â€ â€œI donâ€™t mind walking you to your door.â€ As long as it was only to the door. With seven of us crammed into the one-bedroom apartment, I had no idea what to expect of the inside. Iâ€™d given the girls chores, but this early most of them would still be in bed, except Saffron, who was at her job interview, and the two sisters I had guardianship over, who were in school. â€œItâ€™s on the fourth floor,â€ I warned, â€œand thereâ€™s no elevator.â€ â€œOf course there isnâ€™t.â€ Heâ€™d obviously taken in the peeling paint, the planter boxes filled with weeds, and the litter on the ground. But it was cheap, and the owners didnâ€™t mind the girls â€œvisitingâ€ me. Or at least as long as we didnâ€™t make too much noise or come in large groups around the other tenants. Mostly, the place was so run down that they were eager to accept just about anyone. I hurried up the four flights of open stairs, and Jameson wasnâ€™t puffing hard as he kept up. That was a good sign. But the closer we got to my apartment, the more worried I became. I had a lot to hide, and maybe thinking I could date like a normal person was crazy. Why did Jameson have to be so incredibly yummy? He followed me down the inner corridor, where I paused in front of my door. â€œThis is it,â€ I announced. He waited expectantly, but there was no way he was carrying that box inside, not when I could guess what was waiting. And Iâ€™d have little time to clean before I rushed to my four-hour shift at the factory this afternoon. A tiny tendril of moisture curled down from Jamesonâ€™s temple, and even that was sexy. His dark eyes met mine. â€œSo, Lily, will you go out with me? Payden says youâ€™re my type.â€ The door in front of us whooshed open, revealing Halla, a sixteen-year-old with blond hair so short she reminded me of a marine. She also had a penchant for army camouflage and tank tops, which added to the impression. Halla was tiny, though, mostly from malnutrition, so her tough act didnâ€™t carry much weight, but we were working on getting her what she needed. â€œElsieâ€™s on the roof again!â€ Halla blurted excitedly. â€œShe was just sitting out there on the balcony and then bang, up she went.â€ â€œOh, no.â€ I darted a worried glance at Jameson. Forget about yummy or dating; I wished heâ€™d leave. Another face appeared behind Halla. This time a tall black girl who was only fourteen but looked at least eighteen. Ruth had shoulder-length hair that I usually plaited in tiny, meticulous braids, although today it was a frizzy mess under a baseball cap. She was model gorgeous, but she always covered her lithe figure in too-large clothes to hide any trace of femininity. After what sheâ€™d been through, I didnâ€™t blame her. â€œI told you we shouldnâ€™t let anyone up there, even with you,â€ Ruth said. â€œElsie thinks none of the rules apply to her.â€ She had it wrong. I was pretty sure I knew what had spooked Elsie. I pushed a sack at each girl and reached for the box. â€œSorry,â€ I told Jameson. â€œGotta go.â€ His eyes went from me to the girls and back. â€œYou need some help?â€ â€œNo. Elsie will only get hurt if she thinks youâ€™re here for her.â€ â€œHere for her? Why, whatâ€™s she done?â€ A crease marred his forehead. Great. Iâ€™d known his following me home like a Boy Scout was a bad idea. I yanked the box from his unwilling arms and shoved it at Ruth. â€œNothing. Goodbye, Jameson. And thanks.â€ I pushed past the girls and entered the apartment, leaving Ruth to get rid of him. She was a protective mother hen, and sheâ€™d know his presence here was dangerous. â€œSo no nickname?â€ he called after me. I didnâ€™t answer. What had I been thinking? Any kind of a romantic relationship now was completely out of the question. I had to think of Elsie and the other girls. Two of them had already tried to kill themselves. The balcony ran the length of our apartment, which meant the living room and the bedroom, but the ladder that led to the fire escape and up onto the roof was located on the living room side. I stepped over blankets and backpacks and other strewn belongings on my way across the tiny living room, where a lump told me one of the girls was still sleeping. I kept walking a few paces until it dawned on me that I had no idea who the lump might be. Elsie was on the roof, Saffron at her interview, Ruth and Halla were here, and the other two were in school. I shook my head. Iâ€™d have to deal with whoever it was later. It was my fault Elsie was on the roof. One night Iâ€™d climbed up in search of privacy, and when a couple of the girls had come looking for me, Iâ€™d answered their calls. Before long, all of us were up there. Now it had become almost a nightly ritual for whichever girls were home, a place where we could talk in the dark with only the stars as witnesses. Iâ€™d learned more about their lives there than anywhere else. Except for Elsie, who never talked but would sometimes reach out and clutch my hand. The rules were that no one could go up without me because while the roof was large and barely slanted, we were on the fourth floor and some of the girls were still recovering from substance abuse. A couple of them also had quick tempers or were big jokers and as of yet didnâ€™t understand things like gravity and permanent consequences. I jumped on the chair and climbed the ladder, easing over the edge on my hands and knees for a few feet until I reached the almost flat part and could walk upright. Elsie wasnâ€™t in plain view, but I found her hiding behind several air conditioning units that were already working overtime. Her forehead was pressed to her bare knees, and her long hair splayed outward in a wild, tangled mess, looking dark against her pale skin. â€œHey,â€ I said, sliding into the empty space next to her. She looked past me before replying, her brown eyes deep and unrevealing. â€œIs he looking for me?â€ The throaty words were full of dread. â€œOh, honey. No. Never.â€ She gave a little sob and pushed into my arms. At twelve, she was the youngest of the girls, and with how beaten sheâ€™d been when she arrived, the rest of us felt protective toward herâ€”a good thing, or Halla and Ruth wouldnâ€™t have even noticed she was on the roof. â€œWho is he?â€ she said after a few moments. â€œPaydenâ€™s cousin. He helped me bring home some groceries.â€ The remaining tautness in her body eased. â€œGood.â€ â€œIs there something youâ€™re not telling me?â€ Elsie pulled away and nodded. â€œYesterday when everyone was gone, I was on the balcony and I saw a little cat out in the parking lot. I thought Iâ€™d just go down to pet him for a minute and see if he was hungry, but that guy downstairs saw me and followed me, so I ran around the block and snuck back in.â€ Elsieâ€™s teeth clamped down on her lips. â€œIt was like he knew something and wanted to ask me more questions.â€ Tears filled her eyes, spilling over when she blinked. â€œI wonâ€™t go back. Iâ€™d jump off this roof before Iâ€™d go back.â€ Terror clutched at my chest. â€œNo, Elsie. Thatâ€™s not going to happen. Weâ€™ll find a way. Once I graduate, itâ€™ll be different. Youâ€™ll see.â€ Changing my major twice now seemed ridiculous. The nursing classes had come in handy when Elsie arrived, but I should have pushed on with the business degree my parents had wantedâ€”or at the very least avoided the year deviation into psychology. I could have finished by now, and have a good job cutting paychecks and balancing books at Crawford Cereals, even if it was a job I knew Iâ€™d detest. At this rate, Iâ€™d be an old woman before I graduated and had a job with enough money to do my dream work of helping lost girls. The terrible irony was that I had moneyâ€”a lot of moneyâ€”just out of reach. An inheritance left to me by my grandfather, whoâ€™d founded Crawford Cereals: a half million dollars and monthly payments thereafter. But I had to be twenty-five and married, or thirty if I was still single, to access the funds. My parents had means, but convincing them would be impossible. I needed to find a way to become legitimate, so the girls could get health and dental coverage and other benefits, but I didnâ€™t know where to begin. Risking that Elsie or any of the others might be sent back to the horrible situations theyâ€™d run from was not an option. At least with me, they didnâ€™t have to prostitute themselves or endure abuse by the very people who were supposed to protect them. â€œThanks, Lily.â€ At Elsieâ€™s soft words, the fear in my heart melted. I would make it work. Somehow. Until I did, gorgeous and witty guys like Jameson were a distraction I didnâ€™t need. 2 After another twenty minutes, Elsie was calm enough to climb down from the roof. Heat gathered on the tile, so we were drenched in sweat, and all my thoughts were on how fast I could get into a cool shower and then to work. Had Saffron returned with my car? If she hadnâ€™t, Iâ€™d need to call my sister for a ride. What I didnâ€™t expect to see was Jameson sitting on our ripped-up couch from Goodwill with girls perched on either end, huge slices of pizza in their hands. â€œWook!â€ Ruth said, her mouth crammed full. â€œPipa.â€ â€œPizza? Atâ€â€”I reached into the pocket of my jeans to check my phoneâ€”â€œten in the morning. Seriously?â€ The girls laughed, but Jameson had the grace to look embarrassed. â€œWe got hungry waiting for you,â€ he said. â€œRuth mentioned you had to go to work, and she wanted to make sure you got food, so I suggested pizza.â€ Of course Ruth had been thinking of me. â€œIt was a good idea.â€ Halla finished her piece and reached for another. Jameson had no idea what heâ€™d gotten himself into because these two and Elsie would probably eat the entire pizza inside ten minutes. Good thing heâ€™d ordered a large. I was more worried about why he was still here. â€œYou want one?â€ Jameson leaned forward and offered the box to Elsie. She didnâ€™t smile, but she took a piece after Ruth nodded encouragingly. â€œYou?â€ Jameson moved the box toward me. He held my gaze, his smile tentative. I became all too aware of my sweat-drenched body and my messy hair. â€œMaybe in a minute. I need to shower.â€ What I really needed was for him to get out of here. I couldnâ€™t exactly leave a man I didnâ€™t know with my underage girls, even if he was Paydenâ€™s cousin. I took a step forwardâ€”and my foot landed on the lump Iâ€™d seen earlier. â€œUmph!â€ groaned the figure. Trying to keep my balance, I whipped my other foot forward, but I was already falling. Jameson obligingly leapt up, grabbing me with his free arm, and we tumbled to the couch together. â€œBeans!â€ I muttered. I didnâ€™t allow cursing in the apartment, and that included me, so some days we heard more about beans than we did most any other word. Jameson laughed and released me. Seated on the couch, I reached for the blanket and pulled it off to reveal my best friend, Makayla Greyson. â€œMakay! When did you get here?â€ She sat up, her single dark braid hanging over her shoulder. She rubbed her eyes with one hand, the other still protectively touching the small figure of a sleeping child. â€œSorry. My place got too rowdy last night. I couldnâ€™t keep Nate there.â€ I wasnâ€™t surprised. Makayâ€™s roommates were so awful that the landlord had threatened to evict them five times in the past two weeks since sheâ€™d found me this place. â€œWell, thatâ€™s why I gave you a key,â€ I said. With Makayâ€™s stepmother descending into substance abuse, Makay had taken over the primary care of her little brother, and she didnâ€™t have a lot of options. â€œHowâ€™s Nate?â€ I added. Makay smiled, revealing a slight gap between her two front teeth. â€œBetter than meâ€”he sleeps like a rock.â€ She sniffed. â€œIs that pizza?â€ Jameson leaned over me and offered her the box. I could smell his cologne, and that meant he could probably smell me. I stifled a groan as I pushed myself out from under his arm and stood. â€œSorry for stepping on you.â€ â€œBelieve me, Iâ€™ve had worse,â€ Makay said. â€œAnyway, I needed to wake up. I have to work. Can any of you watch Nate today? I canâ€™t pay, but Iâ€™ve got some great coupons for some free stuff Iâ€™m going to pick up on the way home. Iâ€™ll share it all.â€ Ruth reached for the toddler. â€œYou kidding? Iâ€™d love to. Heâ€™s such an angel. You donâ€™t have to buy me nothing.â€ â€œThank you, but I will anyway.â€ Makay looked at me. â€œCan I talk to you for a minute?â€ â€œSure.â€ Feeling eyes on my face, I glanced over at Jameson. His expression was just the slightest bit confused, and I had to give him points for that. Most people would be really over-the-top crazy with all the chaos here. â€œGo ahead,â€ he said. â€œI can wait until you need to go. Iâ€™ll walk you down. Got some pizza to finish.â€ Fine, he could eat his stinking pizza and then get out of my life. Because even if he wasnâ€™t over-the-top crazy, he was still a complication I obviously couldnâ€™t afford. I had to put these girls first. End of story. â€œI wonâ€™t be long.â€ Makay and I went to the bedroom together, where the double mattress Iâ€™d bought at a yard sale rested on the floor near our two single Walmart-special, fold-out chair mattresses, leaving an open path around the outer edges. Blankets, pillows, backpacks, clothing, and other belongings lay heaped on top of the mattresses. I made the girls organize it every day, but it was hard to keep it clean with four of them sleeping in this small room and so few places to store things. Makay shut the door and grabbed me with the hand that didnâ€™t hold the pizza, squealing softly. For a moment she looked like the almost nineteen-year-old she was. â€œWhoâ€™s the hunk? Heâ€™s beautiful!â€ â€œIâ€™m not sure.â€ â€œWhat?â€ â€œHeâ€™s the cousin of the boy at the grocery store.â€ â€œOh, I see.â€ But her smile was knowing as she took another bite. â€œThereâ€™s nothing going on. I just met him.â€ I took out my phone and checked the time. â€œWell, there should be. Look how well he gets along with the girls.â€ â€œYeah, maybe too well.â€ Seeing how much theyâ€™d been hurtâ€”mostly by menâ€”I wasnâ€™t sure letting him get close to them was a good idea. I didnâ€™t even know him. Makay frowned. â€œYouâ€™re probably right. Still, there have to be some great guys left in the world, right?â€ â€œMaybe.â€ There was a hurt in her face that I knew was because of her father, whoâ€™d become an alcoholic after her mother died. Makayâ€™s life had gone downhill from then, and by twelve sheâ€™d pretty much been on her own, sleeping at friendsâ€™ houses or in parks. That hadnâ€™t stopped her from somehow finishing high school, but sheâ€™d flunked out of college last semester because sheâ€™d missed too much class taking care of Nate. â€œSo howâ€™s Fern?â€ Makayâ€™s expression sobered. â€œActually, thatâ€™s what I want to talk to you about. Sheâ€™s getting worse. Ever since my dad died, sheâ€™s like an accident waiting to happen. Iâ€™m scared about what thisâ€™ll mean to Nate. I mean, itâ€™s not like heâ€™s a newborn and isnâ€™t aware of whatâ€™s going on. He needs me.â€ She paused and said, her voice almost angry, â€œHeâ€™s mine, but you know theyâ€™ll never let me keep him. So I canâ€™t call anyone about Fern. I just have to keep him with me and hope she straightens up.â€ â€œYouâ€™re doing the right thing. Nate needs you.â€ Tears gathered in her eyes. â€œI love him so much. Iâ€™d give anything for him not to go through what I went through, but Fern, she wonâ€™t sign him over to me. She doesnâ€™t care about anything except her next fix. So I just have to keep taking him back to visit whenever she calls.â€ She sighed and added, â€œI can do this. I have to.â€ She nodded hard, as if to convince herself. â€œYou can,â€ I said. â€œAnd Iâ€™ll help. Weâ€™ll help each other.â€ â€œYou have already. A lot.â€ She grinned suddenly. â€œYouâ€™d better get going with your shower. I need to run back to my place and get some clothes for Nate, and something to eat. I doubt thereâ€™ll be any pizza left by the time he wakes.â€ I laughed. â€œIâ€™m sure of that.â€ When I emerged from the bathroom, I found Jameson waiting for me in the tiny kitchen that adjoined the living room. Surprisingly, he and Ruth were washing dishes. Halla was playing with Nate, whoâ€™d awakened, her shaved head bent close to his. â€œI got it from here,â€ Ruth said to Jameson. â€œBut thanks for the help.â€ He nodded and pulled his hands from the suds. â€œCan you make sure Zoey and Bianca do their homework?â€ I said to Ruth. I usually drove the sisters to school in the mornings, but they had to find their own way home, or call me when I was off work. â€œSure.â€ Ruth smiled. â€œOh, and Saffron called your phone when you was in the shower. She says sheâ€™s coming home, but she ainâ€™t gonna be here in time for you to take the car to work.â€ â€œThatâ€™s okay.â€ Iâ€™d already texted my sister. â€œI have a ride. Call me if you need me.â€ We couldnâ€™t afford more cell phones, but there was a pay phone at the Circle K they could use. Ruth rolled her eyes. â€œItâ€™s Wednesday, right? So you only work four hours. What could happen?â€ Right. I swept up my purse and headed for the door. I tried to ignore Jameson as he said goodbye to the girls and followed me, but every one of my senses was on high alert. What was he thinking? Somehow I had to make sure that he didnâ€™t run off and call social services or whatever. He didnâ€™t say anything all the way downstairs, and when he started to speak at the bottom of the steps, I shook my head and urged him to walk with me. Iâ€™d asked my sister to pick me up at the Circle K, so I wouldnâ€™t have to wait for her to come all the way to the apartment, and I wanted to get there before she did. Plus, I didnâ€™t want any of my neighbors hearing whatever he planned to say. The day was beautiful, not too hot now that I wasnâ€™t on the roof, and the sky was filled with fat, puffy clouds that reminded me of teddy bears and fabric softener. Of commercials where mothers made cinnamon rolls for their children to eat after school. Iâ€™d always wanted one of those rolls, or at least the mother who went with them. When we were partway down the street between another apartment complex and a gas station, I glanced up at Jameson. â€œWell?â€ â€œWell, what?â€ â€œI know you have questions.â€ He stopped walking, forcing me to also come to a stop. â€œOh, I have a lot of questions. Fortunately, Ruth and Halla answered most of them.â€ â€œNo they didnâ€™t.â€ The girls knew how to keep their mouths shut. Inside our apartment, we told each other everything, but not to outsiders, no matter how charming or good-looking, because that meant danger. Iâ€™d found both Ruth and Halla while serving Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless at a church here in Phoenix where we still attended on Sundays, and I was glad Iâ€™d overheard them talking about where theyâ€™d sleep, or they might have ended up in danger. They had just as much to lose if they were discovered as Elsie, and they were expert at keeping secrets. Whatever theyâ€™d talked about with Jameson, it hadnâ€™t been anything real. He blew out a breath of frustration. â€œYouâ€™re right. They didnâ€™t say anything.â€ His jaw worked, but he fell silent as a Hispanic woman pushing a stroller passed us by. A car brake squealed as a driver slowed enough to pull into the gas station, and the sound was like an alarm reminding me that I needed to hurry, or Iâ€™d be late to workâ€”again. When the woman was gone, Jameson said, â€œWhat they didnâ€™t say told me a lot more than what they did. Look, they need help. You know that, right?â€ Fury waved through me. How dare he judge me from just this little bit that heâ€™d seen. â€œOkay, stop right there. You know nothing about where theyâ€™ve been and what theyâ€™ve gone through.â€ â€œI know more than you think. The system can help them.â€ â€œYouâ€™re wrong! The system has already failed!â€ Stupid tears started as I fumbled in my pocket for my phone. â€œRuth was sexually assaulted by two of her motherâ€™s boyfriends, and the system kept putting her back thereâ€”and her mother doesnâ€™t even want her, hasnâ€™t even reported her missing. And Halla? She was starved into submission by her drunk father. No one believed her, and she was locked in a room for six months until she finally jumped out her window and broke her arm. She escaped from the hospital after her father convinced everyone it was an accident and not attempted suicide.â€ Jamesonâ€™s eyes widened, but he didnâ€™t look as surprised as I expected. Maybe he didnâ€™t believe me. There was much more. â€œTwo of the girls you didnâ€™t meet? I only got guardianship of them to stop their uncle from molesting them. The oldest still cuts herself when sheâ€™s stressed. And Elsie . . .â€ Finally, I found the picture on the phone and shoved it into his face. â€œThis is what she looked like when Payden and I found her in back of the store. Ask him if you donâ€™t believe me. If youâ€™re going to send her back to the monster that did this, I need to know that now.â€ The tears skidded down both cheeks, but I didnâ€™t care. These were my girls. â€œBecause youâ€™d all disappear.â€ I didnâ€™t reply, but he was right. I had a few hundred that would keep us at a cheap motel for a few nights, at least. Tessa and Makay would help me figure out what to do then. Jameson slowly gave me back the phone. â€œAnyway, thatâ€™s not what I meant. I want to help, and there are ways to get that from the system.â€ â€œHow?â€ I asked. â€œAfter I lose the girls? Iâ€™m the only family they have. The only stability. I know itâ€™s not a lot, but itâ€™s more than where they came from.â€ I knew because Iâ€™d grown up in a family with money, and I felt more love in my dingy, rundown apartment with runaways than I ever had in my parentsâ€™ million-dollar house. â€œIâ€™m twenty-two. I havenâ€™t even graduated from college. I have a part-time job that Iâ€™m lucky to have because it pays me triple minimum wage, but it isnâ€™t enough.â€ Another tear fell, and I wiped it away impatiently. The tears came only from frustration, because inside I was strong and my resolve was hardening. The girls and I could pack fast. He didnâ€™t know my last name or the name of the girls I had guardianship over. Heâ€™d never find where weâ€™d gone. No more groceries from Payden, but that couldnâ€™t be helped. A young couple passed us on the street, giving us a sidelong stare. â€œIâ€™m okay,â€ I told them. â€œWeâ€™re just breaking up.â€ They nodded, looking embarrassed, and continued walking. â€œBreaking up?â€ Jameson gawked at me, one side of his beautiful mouth twitching upward. â€œOh, no, Lily. Weâ€™re just beginning.â€ â€œWhat?â€ My turn to gawk. â€œI went to the store today because Payden told me about what youâ€™d done for Elsie. I came because I wanted to see if I could help you and her.â€ No wonder heâ€™d just happened to be there in time to help me carry the box. â€œIf you really want to help, youâ€™ll just leave us alone. I told Payden I didnâ€™t need you.â€ I started to walk back in the direction of the apartment to pack up the girls, but he grabbed my hand. â€œWait, Lily. Please.â€ Something in his voice made me stop. Or was it his touch? Because it was warm and made my heart pound, but it also felt strangely . . . familiar. â€œI have no intention of reporting you or the girls.â€ â€œReally?â€ I met his eyes, searching for signs of deceit. â€œBelieve it or not, I do understand. Iâ€™ve seen parents do things they shouldnâ€™t, and Iâ€™ve seen kids getting lost in the paperwork.â€ A crease appeared between his eyes, and for a brief instant, his eyes had the same haunted look that I still found far too often in Elsieâ€™s. â€œBut I also know you can do a lot more for these girls with the system on your side instead of working against you.â€ He paused for a minute, thinking. He hadnâ€™t let go of my hand, and I didnâ€™t pull away. â€œThe first thing to do is get you licensed as a foster parent. Then weâ€™ll see what you can do from there.â€ â€œYou canâ€™t know how much I want that.â€ I didnâ€™t mean it to come out as a whisper. â€œTo be legitimate.â€ â€œI think I do. Iâ€™ve been to your crummy apartment.â€ I slowly took my hand from Jamesonâ€™s, because we werenâ€™t together and ultimately it was my problem, not his. â€œIâ€™m not sure where to begin. Iâ€™ve still got a couple years left of school, maybe more if I change majors again.â€ I wasnâ€™t even sure if the college would give me more than another year of scholarships. â€œFoster parenting isnâ€™t about school, itâ€™s more about learning skills to deal with kids in crisis. I work at a place called Teen Remake, and we offer classes that count with the Department of Child Safety. Itâ€™s for anyone whoâ€™d like to be a foster parent or work with kids, even for those of us who donâ€™t want to major in social work. I could get you hooked up if youâ€™re interested. Plus, there are other opportunities to learn or be involved. They step up their programs during the summer months and always need more helpâ€”and not just for volunteers. There are paid openings. Call me, and weâ€™ll figure out a time for you to go in.â€ He reached in his back pocket and from his wallet pulled out a card that listed his name and his accounting services. â€œYou work in their program or do their accounting?â€ I asked. â€œActually, both. I started out helping with their budgeting. Then I got interested in the programs. Iâ€™ve been there three years now, two full time, but Iâ€™m dropping down to part time again when I go back to school this fall to finish my degree.â€ â€œIf I go, my girls stay out of it?â€ He nodded. â€œFor now.â€ That irritated me. Who did he think he was? But the offer of a license was temptation enough to overlook a lot. What should I do? There was no one really to ask besides Tessa, and if I was honest, she usually came to me for advice these days. â€œOkay,â€ I said finally. â€œIâ€™d like to try.â€ Being legit was everything. â€œIt helps that you have guardianship over two of the girls. Their relatives must trust you.â€ â€œActually, their uncle had custody, and I threatened to tell the police that he tried to rape me if he didnâ€™t agree to give me guardianship so I could put them in school.â€ I met Jamesonâ€™s eyes straight on. â€œHe was guilty of more than attempted rape. Just not with me.â€ Jamesonâ€™s nostrils flared and his fists clenched. I could just imagine his opinion of me falling a couple more notches on his measuring stick. Well, Iâ€™d already determined that it wouldnâ€™t work out between us. â€œI doubt heâ€™s going to cry blackmail if heâ€™s already given you the girls. How long have you had them?â€ â€œFive months.â€ â€œThey doing well in school?â€ â€œBetter than before.â€ Jameson smiled, and my stomach did the same funny dance it had when Iâ€™d come down with the stomach flu. Itâ€™s the girls heâ€™s interested in helping, I told myself. Heâ€™d only come to the store to check on Elsie. The rest had been a smokescreen. My theory was blown to bits when his hand moved slowly to wipe the tear from under my left eye. The sound of traffic faded and it was just us, as if someone had sucked away all the sound and everything around us to another dimension. â€œI donâ€™t know what Iâ€™d expected when Payden first told me about you, but youâ€™re much more than anything I thought up.â€ His voice lowered as he added, â€œI think youâ€™re even a bit amazing.â€ His words were so unexpected, I couldnâ€™t even blink. His eyes drank me in. One part of my mind knew there were cars in the street and people nearby, but I couldnâ€™t sense any of them. Jamesonâ€™s hand dropped. â€œWith all that stuff out of the way, letâ€™s get down to the most important thingâ€”will you go out with me?â€ 3 As I ran to meet Tessaâ€™s car, a vision of Jameson doing dishes with Ruth kept pushing into my mind. She hadnâ€™t been cringing or afraid of him. Even Elsie had taken a slice of his pizza. Didnâ€™t that say something? I didnâ€™t want to put a lot of trust in him, but it was too late to worry about that now. Standing on the sidewalk looking into those eyes had made all the romantic dreams Iâ€™d tried to squash come roaring to life. I believed him. Tessa peeked at her phone as I slipped into the passenger seat of her compact Toyota. â€œYouâ€™re going to be late.â€ â€œI know. Iâ€™m sorry.â€ â€œDonâ€™t tell me. Itâ€™s the people on your lines who might start asking questions.â€ I shrugged. â€œTheyâ€™ll think Iâ€™m in a meeting. Besides, Iâ€™ve got them all well-trained. Everything should run smoothly for a few minutes without me.â€ I tried not to think about the dull hours ahead, watching my line workers as they hurried to meet their daily quota. I suspected that moving me from accounting to line supervisor was a punishment for transferring out of the business classes my father had been adamant I should take. The lines were boring and tedious, but in the end, I was good at it because it was only a matter of organization. Managing workers was far easier than taking care of my girls. Tessa didnâ€™t reply as she concentrated on pulling into traffic. She was two years older, and growing up weâ€™d been inseparable. College, work, and different interests had changed that a little, but not enough to make a difference. Sheâ€™d always been a constant in my life. She liked to joke that someone had upended a bucket of orange paint on her head, but I thought her â€œstrawberry blondâ€ hair was stunning. I also loved the freckles that blotted most of her face. Iâ€™d tried counting them as a child but had given up after ninety-nine. Iâ€™d always been annoyed that I had blond hair and only seven freckles. â€œWhat?â€ she said, apparently feeling my stare. â€œThanks for coming.â€ â€œWhat happened to your car anyway?â€ â€œI lent it to Saffron. She had a job interview.â€ Tessa laughed. â€œAre you sure sheâ€™s going to bring it back?â€ There was that. â€œUnless something spooks her, she will. Sheâ€™s only got two more months before sheâ€™s eighteen. Sheâ€™s actually very reliable.â€ Tessa frowned as she glanced in the rearview mirror. â€œHowâ€™s she doing?â€ â€œA lot better. Sheâ€™s been going to those free counseling sessions at that church near the college.â€ Saffronâ€™s family had kicked her out when sheâ€™d turned up expecting last year. Sheâ€™d survived several months on the street before she lost the babyâ€”and her hope. Sheâ€™d crashed after that, blaming the babyâ€™s death on herself. One day she took too many sleeping pills to end the pain. Fortunately, I found her passed out in a classroom at the college where sheâ€™d been sleeping during the days, trying to blend in with the regular students. After I took her to the hospital for emergency care, where she refused to tell them her real name, sheâ€™d had nowhere to go and ended up staying with me in my old apartment. â€œSo glad for her. Sheâ€™s lucky she has you. All of the girls are.â€ Tessa glanced at me and then back to the road, her mouth curving in a smile. I wanted to tell Tessa about the move and about Jameson, but something pressed deeper on my mind. â€œI just need a bigger place.â€ â€œYou mean something like that house you used to dream about.â€ â€œOh, I still dream about it.â€ I laid my head back on the seat and sighed. â€œA big house with a ton of rooms and a big yard. It can be old and rundown, and full of weeds. Or have broken siding or old wallpaper.â€ â€œEven a green fridge?â€ I laughed. â€œEven a green fridge, because none of that matters. Itâ€™s full of love and music and fun.â€ Tessa laughed with me. â€œAre the girls there in this dream?â€ â€œOf course! Itâ€™s all for them.â€ Tessa bit her lip, and this time when she glanced over, I saw the tears glistening there. â€œI remember us talking about it at night when we were kids. Youâ€™d come and snuggle in my bed with me.â€ When Mom and Dad were screaming, she meant. Fighting over my fatherâ€™s lies. I reached out and touched her leg. â€œIâ€™m going to do it! As soon as I get Grandpaâ€™s money, Iâ€™ll find a place. Or before if I can find something I can afford.â€ A house without liesâ€”that was my dream. â€œIâ€™ll help,â€ Tessa said. I clapped my hands, startling her with the noise. â€œRight! You could get the money next year. Well, if you hurry and get married.â€ â€œThere is that.â€ She grimaced. â€œBut thatâ€™s probably not going to happen. Weâ€™d better stick with plan A.â€ â€œEither way, Iâ€™m going to make it happen.â€ Tessa nodded and grinned. â€œI know you will.â€ â€œSpeaking of houses, Iâ€™ve been meaning to tell you that I moved.â€ â€œWhat!â€ She did a double take at me before looking back at the street. â€œYeah, some of my old roommates got upset when I brought Elsie home. I couldnâ€™t exactly hide her, since she was all beaten up and I had to carry her inside. But at this place, we donâ€™t have to sneak around all the time.â€ â€œWhy didnâ€™t you tell me? I would have helped you move.â€ â€œWe didnâ€™t have muchâ€”just a couple of car loadsâ€”and it happened so fast. Weâ€™re at the same place as Makay now. Itâ€™s a dump, but we have a lot more room.â€ I laughed as I said it. Who would have ever thought Iâ€™d call that tiny apartment more room? We pulled up at Crawford Cereals, and Tessa leaned over to hug me. â€œHave I ever told you how proud I am of you? Youâ€™re like a light in this dark worldâ€”thatâ€™s why those girls trust you so much and want to do anything you say.â€ I laughed suddenly, feeling more positive than I had in weeks. â€œWell, they donâ€™t do everything I say, but Iâ€™m working on it. Anyway, Iâ€™m proud of you, too. Youâ€™re the one who changed my diapers when you were only a baby yourself, and made sure I was safe. Iâ€™m probably alive because of you.â€ I didnâ€™t add that sheâ€™d been all Iâ€™d had growing up, but we both knew it. Or at least after our grandfather had died. Our mother had been into charities and entertaining, not children. And our father, well, he was into work and money. There had been a series of housekeepers after the nanny left when I was two, but they werenâ€™t the loving, motherly kind you read about in story books. Mother liked to hire efficient and silent help. â€œGrandfather never would have made you wait for the money if he were still alive,â€ Tessa said. â€œYou know he did that because of how Dad was when he was young. He wanted to make sure the money wouldnâ€™t ruin us.â€ â€œMaybe heâ€™s right. Itâ€™ll mean more once we get it.â€ I hugged her. â€œBut Iâ€™ll have the house before then. Youâ€™ll see.â€ I started to get out of the car, then paused. â€œI almost forgot to tell you. I met someone.â€ â€œNo way.â€ Tessaâ€™s eyes grew large. I could see the darker blue ring around her iris and the gold flecks near the pupils, like shimmering freckles. It was like looking into my own eyes and practically the only thing that marked us as sisters. â€œWhat do you mean, no way?â€ â€œIt was how your face looked when you said â€˜I met someone.â€™ Like it was important. Whatâ€™s his name?â€ â€œMost people call him Mario, but I call him Jameson. He asked me out and I said maybe. Iâ€™ll have to explain it all some other time, or Iâ€™ll be even more late.â€ I slammed the door. â€œYouâ€™d better!â€ she called, her voice muffled now. I waved and ran to the factory. Inside, my lines and all my workers were in chaos. One of the packing machines had broken down, and the cereal boxes had been misprinted. But in ten minutes, I had new boxes delivered, and all but the broken line functioning. Fifteen minutes after that, the machine was fixed. To make up for the lost time, I planned to fill in at each station as the workers took their breaks. Weâ€™d still make our minimum quota that way, but my father had already peeked in the room, and he didnâ€™t look happy. I knew I should have been there on time, but I didnâ€™t know how to change that. The girls had to come first. Unfortunately, working the line myself meant Iâ€™d have to do my quarterly employee reviews and my other reports at home. Fleetingly, my thoughts went to Jameson and getting licensed as a foster parent. Maybe that would work out. Heâ€™d also said the company might be hiring, and Iâ€™d give almost anything to work anywhere but here, even though the factory was my beloved grandfatherâ€™s legacy. But Grandfather had left his own fatherâ€™s law firm to start this factory, so heâ€™d understand. My phone buzzed as I was walking to relieve the third employee, and I picked up, feeling trepidation when I didnâ€™t recognize the number. â€œHello?â€ â€œLily! Good, you answered.â€ â€œRuth? Is everything okay?â€ The last time theyâ€™d called me at work was when Zoey had been sent home early from school for fighting. There was always the chance that Jameson had reported us, though the girls knew well enough not to open the door to strangers, so there might be time to salvage things if that was the case. The thought made my mouth go dry. â€œI just had to tell you!â€ Ruth gave a little squeal. â€œSome delivery guy came with flowers. At first we wasnâ€™t gonna open the door, but Saffron was home and she had us hide while she answered. And they turned out to be flowers for you! White lilies. A whole dozen of them! And we opened the cardâ€”sorry, we couldnâ€™t wait.â€ â€œWho are they from?â€ â€œSomeone named Jameson?â€ Relief cut through my anxiety. â€œOh, good.â€ â€œWhoâ€™s Jameson? We thought they might be from Mario, since itâ€™s obvious heâ€™s totally in love with you. You holding out on us, girl?â€ I laughed. â€œNo, Mario is Jameson. I just call him that.â€ â€œOoooh, I get it. A secret nickname.â€ â€œNot secret. His mother uses it.â€ â€œAlways best to make nice with the mother, I say.â€ â€œI havenâ€™t even met his mother.â€ â€œOh, you will. I have no doubt. Well, I gotta go. Iâ€™m going to vacuum the apartment. See you later.â€ Vacuum? Ruth was the mothering kind, but she didnâ€™t ordinarily do Saffronâ€™s job. In fact, most of the girls still had trouble getting their chores finished without my nagging. Iâ€™d have to look into that later. Ruth seemed happier than I thought sheâ€™d be about my dating someone. She usually showed nothing but revulsion for any male we encountered, including Saffronâ€™s frequent dates. Jameson had sent me flowers. I waited until my own break to call the number on the card heâ€™d pushed into my hand, and he picked up on the second ring. â€œOkay,â€ I told him. â€œIâ€™ll go out with you. No nicknames though. Iâ€™m confused enough about what to call you.â€ â€œGreat!â€ he said. â€œUnfortunately, I met this girl today, and Iâ€™m crazy about her. She has the most amazing eyes, and she knows how to climb roofs. In fact, Iâ€™ve been waiting for her call, but she didnâ€™t give me her number, so I wonâ€™t even know itâ€™s her if she calls. Do you think Iâ€™m waiting for nothing?â€ A laugh bubbled up inside me. â€œI donâ€™t think so. Maybe I could give her a message for you?â€ â€œReally? Will you ask her if I can pick her up tonight at six? Will that be too soon do you think?â€ A thrill shot through me; he wasnâ€™t wasting any time. â€œItâ€™s cutting it short, but I think sheâ€™ll be home.â€ â€œOkay. Tell her Iâ€™ll see her then. Tell her itâ€™s for dinner.â€ â€œIâ€™m sure sheâ€™ll love that.â€ My stomach growled at the thought. During the chaos today, I hadnâ€™t even snagged a piece of pizza. Iâ€™d have to run by Tessaâ€™s office to see if she had any food stashed in her desk. Jameson hadnâ€™t hung up, so I hurried to say, â€œThanks for the flowers.â€ He laughed. â€œAh, the magic of flowers. Never fails.â€ â€œRight. Especially lilies. Remember that.â€ â€œOh, I will.â€ â€œSee you tonight.â€ When I arrived at the apartment, the living room looked surprisingly organized for a change. The blankets that were usually in mounds had been folded into a huge stack on the couch, and two more Walmart fold-out mattresses, like the ones in the bedroom, had been doubled into soft, distorted chairs. Ruth and Halla slept on those, while I used the couch, but often the other girls would crash with us instead of in the bedroom, if they fell asleep in front of the small television. That meant it normally looked like a bomb had gone off unless I was home to make everyone clean up. â€œI got the job!â€ Saffron grabbed me and twirled me around. â€œThatâ€™s great! When do you start?â€ â€œMonday.â€ She grinned and pulled her hand through her hair, the color a pale version of Tessaâ€™s, which was how Saffron had chosen her nickname. No one called her Rosalyn, her real name, or she threatened to kill them. â€œIâ€™m a little worried about clothing. I mean, I know itâ€™s only a mall kiosk, but I need to look cool to sell things.â€ She looked at me pleadingly. I laughed. â€œYes, you can borrow my clothes.â€ That was one thing I didnâ€™t lack because every time I went home, my mother took me out shopping for whatever event she was throwing. Instead of protesting, Iâ€™d taken to buying things that were bigger or smaller than my real size, and then passing them on to the girls. Saffron was a good ten pounds thinner than I wasâ€”but it was close enough. â€œCan you help me with my hair that morning?â€ â€œSure. Iâ€™ll even drop you off the first day, but youâ€™ll have to buy the bus pass for the rest of the time.â€ â€œI stopped and bought a pass on the way home.â€ She laughed. â€œI canâ€™t believe Iâ€™m going to be selling jewelry and scarves. Me! No more slinging hamburgers.â€ I didnâ€™t remind her that her hamburger job had helped us with the down payment on this apartment, but I did remember how easily sheâ€™d offered, even though I knew she was saving up for a car. The white lilies on the kitchen counter caught my attention, and I leaned over to smell them. Anticipation tingled through me at the thought of seeing Jameson tonight. â€œWhere are the girls?â€ I had a little over an hour before he was supposed to be here, and I needed to make sure they had dinner. â€œThey took Nate to the park. Makayâ€™s going to meet them there to pick him up. Donâ€™t worry. Zoey and Bianca did their homework before Ruth let them go.â€ Saffron made a face. â€œElsie stayed home, though. Sheâ€™s in the bedroom. Sheâ€™s acting funny.â€ â€œShe had a scare this morning. Iâ€™d better go talk to her.â€ I hurried down the hall and opened the door slowly. Inside, I found the same organization that prevailed in the living room. The blankets were tucked nicely around the double mattress and also around the two fold-out beds. Today the path around the beds was perfectly clean. Elsie was curled on top of her blue fold-out mattress, the one Iâ€™d used before her arrival, her tangled hair fanned around her. A faded pink backpack that held most of her belongings sat near her flattened pillow, and she cuddled a small stuffed wolf Iâ€™d bought for her the day after I found her. I felt a momentary dismay that she had so little. How different from the way Iâ€™d grown up, surrounded by dolls, toys, stuffed animals, and electronic gadgets. Iâ€™d had thirty-one nail polishes that I rarely used, and even lip glosses to put into every one of the dozen purses my mother had bought for me. Thatâ€™s not love, I reminded myself. Love had been Tessa reading to me every day for the two months Iâ€™d been sick during the year I was supposed to have started kindergarten. I went around to Elsieâ€™s mattress and sat next to her. She opened her eyes, but she didnâ€™t return my smile. â€œIs everything okay?â€ I asked. She nodded and scooted closer, which I took as an invitation to put my arm around her. She gave a soft sigh and let her head rest on my lap. Absently, I started smoothing her hair but stopped before she pulled away. Elsieâ€™s hair desperately needed attention, but she refused to let anyone style it. While I believed she washed her head once a week, she never combed her hair or used conditioner, and her dark mane was nearly as frizzy as Ruthâ€™s when it wasnâ€™t in braids. The frizz didnâ€™t look bad on Ruth, but on Elsie, it was all wrong. I stroked her cheek, so pale under the still-fading green bruises. I needed to get her out of the house and soon, before her reluctance became a phobia. â€œIs he coming here again?â€ she asked in a small voice. â€œMario, I mean.â€ I tried to think of the best way to respond. I needed to know what was bothering her so much that she was curled here in a ball instead of out in the living room reading the books Iâ€™d borrowed at the library or watching her allotted television time. â€œWould that bother you?â€ She hesitated, giving a little sigh. â€œI donâ€™t know. He was nice. But Iâ€™m afraid heâ€™s going to find me.â€ â€œHe?â€ Obviously, she didnâ€™t mean Jameson. â€œDo you want to talk about him? About what happened before I found you?â€ She shook her head. â€œDo you like Mario?â€ â€œWell. He seems nice, and he promised he wouldnâ€™t say anything about us. Is that whatâ€™s bothering you?â€ One shoulder lifted in a shrug. â€œItâ€™s okay to feel that way after what youâ€™ve been through, and I donâ€™t know him myself that well yet, so I canâ€™t say heâ€™s a good person, but Payden says he is.â€ â€œI like Payden.â€ â€œSo do I. You know, he asked after you today. I told him you might come with me on Friday.â€ We went every other day to pick up expired groceries, and telling her now gave her the rest of today and tomorrow to think about it. â€œMaybe.â€ â€œOne important thing is that Jamesonâ€”or Mario, as everyone calls himâ€”works with some therapists. They can help me become licensed so I can keep girls like you for real.â€ â€œYou mean youâ€™d be their guardian? Like you are for Zoey and Bianca?â€ â€œEven better. Guardianship basically just lets me put them in school and take care of them, but I donâ€™t get money from the state or from their uncle. Iâ€™ve just been too happy for that much to push for anything else. I worry if the state tried to take them permanently from their uncle, heâ€™d fight for them. Or the state might not place them with me, especially living in this little apartment. Itâ€™d be awful for Zoey and Bianca to have to start over again.â€ â€œItâ€™s not bad here. I love it.â€ Once more, a deep sense of sadness filled me that having so little meant so much to her. While I wanted Elsie to feel safe, this wasnâ€™t the dream I had for her and the others. No, I wanted more. â€œBut if I meet someone where Mario works, someone we could trust, who can see that youâ€™re safe with me and could maybe help us, it would be a good thing, right?â€ â€œWhat if they want to send me back?â€ She had the right to ask. â€œWell, Iâ€™m not saying Iâ€™d tell them about you right away. Iâ€™d want to feel them out, see what the policies are and everything. Then if I felt it was safe, Iâ€™d figure out things for Zoey and Bianca first, since theyâ€™re already with me officially. Then weâ€™d go from there and figure out the rest.â€ â€œWhat if it doesnâ€™t work?â€ â€œI have emergency money in the bank, and Iâ€™ll take you somewhere safe.â€ She knew this routine. We talked about it enough. â€œThe park?â€ â€œThe park bench by the big tree is just where weâ€™ll meet, if we get separated. Then weâ€™ll go to a hotel, or stay with Tessa or Makay. But Iâ€™ll be careful, I promise.â€ Elsie didnâ€™t reply, but she appeared to be considering my words. I snuggled closer. â€œYou know, my sister reminded me of something today. When I was even younger than you, we used to sit together in bed at night and talk about our dreams. And you know what my dream was?â€ Elsie twisted her neck to look up at me, her brown eyes eager. â€œWhat?â€ â€œA big house with a big yard. A house with tons of kids and more love than you could ever need. You could snuggle on the couch with your feet on it without anyone getting upset, and there would be a wall where we could put handprints or draw pictures, and someone would also be cooking something that tasted good, and we didnâ€™t always have to eat all our vegetables before we had dessert. And when people got upset, everyone would hug them until they were happy again. No one would tell lies, but weâ€™d make up plenty of fun stories to share. There would be lots of music and laughter. Oh, weâ€™d still have to brush our teeth and do choresâ€”we donâ€™t want to live in a pigstyâ€”but no one would yell about it. And if mud came in on our shoes, weâ€™d just laugh and clean it up. We could sleep outside on the grass if we wanted and have a pit where we could roast marshmallows. Weâ€™d probably have pets too, just for fun. Maybe rabbits to make fertilizer in case we want a garden.â€ Elsieâ€™s mouth opened in a laugh that didnâ€™t quite escape her throat. â€œAnd no one would use belts for hitting, and I could eat as much cheese as I want. I like that.â€ My gut clenched at the belt comment, but I knew better than to pursue it. â€œSo thatâ€™s whatâ€™s happening to all our cheese?â€ I started tickling her. She laughed aloud then, and hearing her made me happy. â€œBut, Lily,â€ she said, her expression sobering, â€œwe already have that all right here, donâ€™t we? No one yells, and we get enough food, and even when the girls argue about jobs, they never hit.â€ I had to clamp my mouth hard for a moment not to burst into tears at how she saw things. â€œWell, I guess youâ€™re right, except I want a few more rooms, and we canâ€™t fit a horse in here yet.â€ She giggled. â€œA dog?â€ â€œThe landlord wonâ€™t let us, but I bet I could find big sheets of paper to put on the wall for us to draw on.â€ We lay there quietly, thinking about that for a while. Then Elsie said, â€œSo Mario might be able to help?â€ â€œI think so.â€ â€œYou should try then.â€ I knew what it cost her to say it. I hugged her tighter. â€œHalla and Ruth said he was hot,â€ she added. â€œDo you think heâ€™s hot?â€ â€œWhew! Iâ€™ll say.â€ I pretended to fan my face. â€œIâ€™m thinking I might have to start carrying ice cubes in my pockets.â€ Elsie grinned again, making me feel like Iâ€™d won the lottery. â€œEveryone can tell he likes you, so maybe heâ€™s the one who needs the ice.â€ I laughed. â€œMaybe so.â€ We heard a door shut, followed by voices. â€œLooks like the others are home, and I have to get dinner ready. Iâ€™ve got a date tonight.â€ â€œWith hot guy?â€ â€œYep, but letâ€™s go start the tuna salad.â€ Makay had found tuna coupons that made the cans nearly free a few months ago, and weâ€™d stocked up. Great source of protein, but I had to admit I was a little sick of tuna. I started the water boiling in the kitchen, put Ruth in charge of the noodles, and set Halla opening cans. Then I went to the bathroom and let Elsie comb my hair. I added a little lip gloss. â€œDo you think I should wear my pink blouse?â€ I asked her. â€œYeah. You look really pretty in that.â€ After changing, I returned to the living room. Saffron tore her gaze away from the blaring television long enough to say, â€œYou going somewhere? Because if youâ€™re going out on a date, you need more makeup.â€ Next to her on the couch, sixteen-year-old Zoey looked up, shifting her bulk awkwardly. Her weight and the heavy makeup were a mask every bit as much Ruthâ€™s layers of clothing. â€œNope, sheâ€™s taking us to the art display tonight at school.â€ She said something in rapid Spanish to her too-thin sister, Bianca, who was a year younger but attended the same high school. Bianca nodded emphatically. â€œYep, itâ€™s tonight. We get extra credit for going.â€ Thatâ€™s right. Iâ€™d completely forgotten. They each had a piece of pottery on display, and they needed any help they could get with their grades. That was when the doorbell rang. No doubt it was â€œhot guy,â€ and I was going to have to send him away. 4 I pushed aside disappointment as Halla sprinted to look out the peephole. Go with the flow, was my motto. I just hoped Jameson was still willing to help me when I put him off again. Itâ€™s not as if I was really interested in starting a relationship. Okay, maybe I was, but I shouldnâ€™t be, not with my responsibilities. â€œItâ€™s him!â€ Halla said in a loud whisper. â€œHeâ€™s back. Mario or Jameson, or whatever weâ€™re going to call him.â€ â€œHeâ€™s Lilyâ€™s date,â€ Elsie said, her voice sounding loud in the sudden quiet. Everyone stared at me. â€œYouâ€™re going out with him?â€ Saffron gave a smile of approval. â€œCool.â€ â€œNo, not anymore.â€ Halla looked over from the door. â€œShould I open it?â€ â€œIs anyone with him?â€ Ruth asked. Good girl, I thought. â€œLet me get it, okay? Is the food ready?â€ Ruth nodded. â€œWe have stuff for sâ€™mores, too, for watching Nate today. Makay gets a kick out of how we roast marshmallows over the electric burners.â€ The girls murmured approval, but no one started for the stove. â€œWell?â€ Halla said. â€œArenâ€™t you going to answer it?â€ They waited expectantly, their faces bright, except Elsie, who rolled her eyes and ran toward the bedroom. Halla moved aside, and I pushed her toward the kitchen area before opening the door. I caught my breath just a little as I saw him. Dark jeans, a black and gray short-sleeved shirt with buttons and a collar, his hair combed back, his face newly shaven. His eyes seemed to pull me in, and for a long instant, I couldnâ€™t speak. â€œYou going to invite me in?â€ he asked. I shook my head. â€œWe ran into a little problem.â€ â€œWell, we can talk about it while we put these away.â€ He handed me a heavy plastic sack and bent over for a box I hadnâ€™t noticed. Plump yellow grapefruit filled the entire thing, and I peeked in the sack to reveal more of the same. â€œMy mother was in town,â€ Jameson explained. â€œShe doesnâ€™t think I get enough fruit, and apparently my neighborâ€™s grapefruit trees were ready to harvest. I kept some, but I canâ€™t eat more than one a day. Girls like this stuff, right?â€ He looked so anxious, I had to laugh. â€œCome on in.â€ The girls were all eating tuna salad, sitting or standing around the small table. â€œAnyone like grapefruit?â€ I asked. â€œMe,â€ chimed Saffron and Ruth, while Zoey and Bianca nodded. Only Halla wrinkled her small nose. â€œI knew theyâ€™d save me,â€ Jameson said. â€œFrom death by grapefruit.â€ Zoey snagged one of the fruits from Jamesonâ€™s box. He grinned. â€œSomething like that.â€ â€œI need to lose a little weight anyway,â€ she said. â€œI think thereâ€™s such a thing as a grapefruit diet.â€ â€œKnock yourself out.â€ He set the box on the counter. â€œThanks,â€ I told Jameson. â€œIâ€™ll put as many as I can in the fridge later.â€ â€œHey, Lily, I want to go to the art show. Can I?â€ Ruth stood by the stove with a bowl of tuna salad close to her face, her fork shoveling it in. Someday Iâ€™d get around to teaching her etiquette, but for now, her grammar was going to be my next focus. Halla nodded. â€œMe too.â€ â€œNot me.â€ Saffron made a face. â€œNo offense, but Iâ€™ll wait to see their stuff when you bring it home. High schools make me claustrophobic.â€ Zoey smirked. â€œYou think Iâ€™d go if I didnâ€™t have to?â€ Saffron laughed, and the girls bumped fists. â€œArt show?â€ Jameson looked at me. â€œIs that what you were going to tell me?â€ I rummaged in the cupboard, searching for another bowl to put tuna salad in. â€œYes. Zoey and Bianca have pottery in the art show tonight at the high school.â€ â€œItâ€™s so lame,â€ Zoey added. â€œBut we get extra credit if we go.â€ â€œI think my piece is kind of cool,â€ Bianca said in way that told me it meant a lot more to her than she was letting on. Jameson checked his watch. â€œI bet it is. What time does it start? Seven?â€ When she nodded, he said, â€œMind if I tag along?â€ I stared. â€œYou want to go?â€ â€œI love art.â€ Biancaâ€™s grin spread across her thin face. â€œSure, you can come. Do you know how to throw pots?â€ â€œNot exactly, but Iâ€™d like to learn.â€ He held up a finger. â€œWait a minute, Iâ€™ve got to run down to my car and bring something up.â€ Ruth was already sticking a marshmallow on the end of a metal hanger. â€œSo, this means itâ€™s still a date, right?â€ she said when Jameson was gone. â€œWith all of you along?â€ Saffron gave a snort. â€œIâ€™d like to see him try to give her a goodnight kiss.â€ She had a point. Zoey rolled her eyes. â€œWeâ€™ll look the other way. Give me some of those.â€ She grabbed for the bag of marshmallows. â€œWhat happened to your grapefruit diet?â€ Ruth held them out of her reach. â€œShut your stupid trap! And give â€™em to me!â€ â€œFine, but this time I ainâ€™t cleaning up if you drop your marshmallows off the hanger.â€ Ruth relinquished the bag, but Halla grabbed it from Zoeyâ€™s hands. The girls were still involved in a friendly game of keep-away with the bag of marshmallows when Jameson returned carrying a picnic basket that looked like something from a classical movie. â€œI have chicken salad,â€ he called, setting the basket on the counter and pulling out a large plastic container. â€œAnd croissants.â€ â€œMore salad?â€ Ruth moaned. Saffron let her fork clatter to the table as she abandoned her dinner. â€œHey, at least itâ€™s not tuna.â€ â€œDid you make these?â€ I examined the container of croissants, which smelled delicious. Obviously, this had been part of our planned date tonight, and with regret, I wondered where he might have taken me so we could enjoy it together. I had a sneaking suspicion the girls had disclosed how much I utterly adored croissants. â€œI could tell you yes,â€ he said, â€œbut then Iâ€™d be lying. I bought it all at a deli near my house.â€ â€œLily doesnâ€™t let us lie,â€ Ruth said. Saffron rolled her eyes. â€œHeâ€™s kidding.â€ She grabbed the bowl of chicken salad. â€œIâ€™ll try some.â€ â€œLily first.â€ Jameson passed the salad to me, and I was only happy to spread some on one of the rolls. â€œWow,â€ I said, forgetting that my mouth was full. â€œItâ€™s really good.â€ â€œThe secret is in the spices, or so they say.â€ He layered a healthy spoonful of the mixture on another roll for himself before passing it to the girls. â€œSave Elsie one,â€ he warned. Heâ€™d remembered her! I stepped back and glanced down the hall, just in time to see the door to the bedroom click shut. Evidently, Elsie wasnâ€™t as indifferent to his visit as she pretended. When I looked back at Jameson, he was helping the girls with their sandwiches. I offered him an apologetic grin. â€œSorry about all the chaos. But it never really gets any quieter here.â€ â€œItâ€™s exactly like home. Remember, I have five siblings.â€ Behind him, Saffron was pulling a bottle from the basket, but Jamesonâ€™s hand shot out to stop her. â€œSorry, thatâ€™s not for kids.â€ â€œOh, beans,â€ she said. â€œLily never has alcohol here. Canâ€™t even sneak it like I used to at my parentsâ€™ house.â€ â€œExactly,â€ I said. â€œIf I donâ€™t have it, you guys canâ€™t sneak it.â€ Ruth in particular had a weakness for alcohol, a genetic predisposition I was sure sheâ€™d gotten from her mother, and I had to keep a close eye on her. â€œGood thing I have chocolate mousse, which is even better.â€ Jameson pulled out a small bowl, and everyone dived for a spoon. Jameson chuckled. â€œItâ€™s like feeding time at the zoo. Next time, Iâ€™ll bring more.â€ Next time. The words sent anticipation tingling through my body. â€œRight.â€ I reached over for my purse. â€œCome on, everyone. Time to hit the road.â€ Jameson took us in his car, which turned out to be a red Mustang that was far older than the new Honda my parents had bought for me years earlier, but his paint was new, and with the bench seat in front, it fit all six of us. The bench seat was very rare, we were told, and Jameson had restored the car with his dad as a teen. Zoey gave him directions to the school from the front seat, while I sat between them trying not to be so aware of Jamesonâ€™s thigh against mine. It didnâ€™t help that he kept glancing over at me every few seconds. â€œDo I have chicken salad in my teeth?â€ I finally asked at a light, stretching to see the mirror. His smile made my stomach flop. â€œNo. But you do have a little mousse here.â€ He touched the corner of my mouth, wiped slowly, and then licked his finger. â€œMmm, even better.â€ He might as well have kissed me for the response in my body. I wanted to lean forward and let him kiss me for real. â€œThat is totally gross,â€ Ruth said, ruining the moment. Halla and Bianca howled with laughter. â€œIâ€™m glad you think so,â€ Jameson said. â€œBecause I donâ€™t want to share.â€ That made me turn red, and the girls laugh harder. His hand slipped over mine where it lay on my thigh, and except for shifting gears, it didnâ€™t leave until we arrived at the high school. Inside, the school lobby had been transformed with portable walls and tables, where paintings, photographs, sculptures, and pottery were on display. Some of the drawings and photographs were quite good, but the pottery was mostly lopsided, malformed, or painted oddly. Four or five looked exactly like pieces Iâ€™d done in the third grade, ones my mother had thrown into the trash when she thought I wasnâ€™t looking. Zoey grimaced as she showed her mug that sported an elephant snout and ears. No matter how we tried to stand the mug straight, it kept tipping over. â€œYeah, itâ€™s pretty bad,â€ she said. â€œBut, hey, itâ€™s art credit, and I donâ€™t have to play an instrument. The class is pretty fun.â€ â€œWhereâ€™s yours?â€ I asked Bianca. Her eyes strayed to a grouping on a table at the end. I immediately saw the difference between these three pieces and the other ones on display. The three made even the best of the other pieces look careless and awkward. One was a short vase, graceful and perfectly formed and painted a vibrant blue. The second was a mug with an elaborately twisted handle, and inside it, a little fairy peering over the side. The final piece was a smooth, nearly flat plate with a swirling design that even my mother probably wouldnâ€™t mind hanging on a wall. â€œTheyâ€™re beautiful,â€ I said. â€œWhich oneâ€™s yours?â€ Bianca blushed. â€œTheyâ€™re all mine.â€ â€œIncredible!â€ I hugged her. Bianca loved to draw and always carried a notebook around, but this was a pleasant surprise. â€œIâ€™m so proud of you!â€ I reached out and ran a finger along the edge of the plate. â€œIt must have taken forever to get this so straight.â€ â€œIt did take forever,â€ Zoey said. â€œEvery time I stay after for drama, sheâ€™s in the art room.â€ Jameson ripped a couple of twenties from his wallet. â€œAre they for sale? I want to be the first one to buy one of your originals.â€ Bianca looked startled. â€œUh, no, um . . .â€ She petered off, her face brilliantly red, a mixture of pleasure and reluctance. â€œOf course they arenâ€™t for sale!â€ I slapped his hand away. â€œBut weâ€™ll let you know if she changes her mind. Now put that away.â€ â€œHey, guys, Iâ€™m getting cookies before theyâ€™re gone.â€ Ruth made a beeline for the refreshment table, and the other girls dashed after her. Jameson picked up Biancaâ€™s mug. â€œShe really has a talent. If sheâ€™s got the dedication, sheâ€™ll be able to make a living with it someday.â€ â€œAs long as her uncle doesnâ€™t hear about it.â€ I paused, and then rushed on, â€œIf she had more opportunities, she could go even further, but I donâ€™t have money for extra classes or training . . . or whatever she needs.â€ He shook his head and carefully set down the piece. â€œYou canâ€™t focus on what she doesnâ€™t have. There will be opportunitiesâ€”you just have to keep an eye out for them.â€ Jameson had a point. I could make sure they let her take more pottery and art classes, and talk to the teacher to see if he was willing to keep letting her come in after school. He must have noticed her talent. â€œYouâ€™re right,â€ I said. â€œOne step at a time.â€ I glanced around the room, but her teacher didnâ€™t seem to be here, so Iâ€™d have to discuss things with him another night. â€œWe have other resources and connections at Teen Remakeâ€”and we often hook parents up with the additional resources offered by DCS. Thatâ€™s why getting licensed is important.â€ He glanced down at the pieces. â€œBut honestly, if she loves it, she wonâ€™t give up. As long as anyone doesnâ€™t try to force her to become something she hates, sheâ€™ll be fine.â€ I thought fleetingly of my parents enrolling me into business classes and how Iâ€™d hated them. â€œYou sound like you speak from experience.â€ He laughed. â€œNot me. My dad. He worked as an accountant when I was young, but now he does woodworking. Makes almost nothing, but heâ€™s happy.â€ â€œWhat about you? Your card says you do accounting.â€ â€œThatâ€™s right. I actually worked with my dad in his shop for a year after high school, but it turned out that while I enjoy working with my hands, I like numbers more. So now I have a year left in college before I dive into an MBA. But I still donâ€™t plan to work for anyone but myself in the long run.â€ â€œBelieve it or not, business was my original plan,â€ I said with a laugh. â€œBut after basic accounting, I was ready to call it quits. Then I studied psychology. And I just finished a year of nursing classes.â€ â€œI bet thatâ€™s all come in very handy with the girls.â€ â€œOh, yeah, but Iâ€™m going to change again. I just donâ€™t know to what.â€ â€œYou donâ€™t?â€ He glanced at the girls, who were standing together laughing near the refreshment table. â€œThat surprises me. You seem to have a pretty good idea of what you want for your future.â€ For a fleeting instant, I thought of telling him about my dream house and helping more girls, but I wasnâ€™t ready yet to scare him away. â€œSome things I do know. It gets complicated when you involve family, at least with mine.â€ â€œOh?â€ His look invited me to confide more, but I didnâ€™t want to waste the night talking about my fatherâ€™s dream of Tessa and me running the factoryâ€”or better yet, married to rich husbands who would take over and make him even more money. â€œWe should grab some cookies before my crew eats them all.â€ As we walked toward the girls, I couldnâ€™t help noticing how different they looked from one another. Ruth in her big clothes and baseball cap that didnâ€™t quite hide her beauty, towering over the others, her dark skin contrasting sharply with short little Hallaâ€™s pale skin and shaved blond head. Plump Zoey made almost as drastic a contrast next to thin Bianca. Iâ€™d always thought everyone could tell just by looking at them that there was something broken insideâ€”I could see itâ€”but here at the school, in their tight little safety knot, they resembled any of the other kids here. I took a couple cookies from the table and wrapped them in a napkin. â€œI already got Elsie and Saffron some,â€ Ruth said with a grin. â€œGo ahead and eat â€™em. Theyâ€™re actually good.â€ I bit into one. â€œUgh, seriously? Good? I guess if you like chocolate-flavored cardboard.â€ Zoey grabbed a couple more. â€œThey have sugar; what more do you want? Not everyone can make them as good as you.â€ Jameson made a face, but he finished his cookie. â€œThey are pretty bad.â€ â€œLily makes great cookies,â€ Halla said, rubbing a hand on her camouflage pants. â€œSeriously.â€ â€œCanâ€™t wait to taste them.â€ Jameson looked appropriately eager. On the way home, the girls sang a camp song Iâ€™d taught them. Iâ€™d gone to two or three camps every summer since I was eight, and I knew all the songs. They scattered from the car when we pulled up in the parking lot at the apartment, Zoey giving catcalls as she left until Ruth hushed her. They hurried up the stairs, past a figure leaning on the second-floor railing, a glowing cigarette in his mouth, his face nearly obscured in the darkness. Only experience told me it was the neighbor who made us all feel uncomfortable, especially Elsie. â€œWhat is it?â€ Jameson asked, watching them through the windshield. â€œJust my neighbor. He was asking Elsie questions the other day. Kind of freaked her out. Then yesterday he followed her to the corner. Thatâ€™s why she was worried when you came today.â€ â€œWhat happened to her?â€ I sighed and leaned back on the seat. â€œShe wonâ€™t talk about it yet. I believe from what little she has said that it was her father who hurt her. Sheâ€™ll talk when sheâ€™s ready. She has to feel safe first.â€ â€œIâ€™m sure youâ€™re right.â€ â€œI am. They always take time.â€ After a few moments of silence, he said, â€œYou want to come down to Teen Remake in the morning?â€ â€œYeah, I have time. I have to drop some of the girls across town at nine, but I can come right after.â€ â€œI already talked to our liaison with DCS, who provides oversight for our program, and let her know youâ€™re coming in. Sheâ€™ll be there tomorrow, so I can make sure that time works and let you know.â€ â€œIâ€™m not telling her about the girls.â€ He rubbed his hands along the steering wheel. He had nice hands, strong-looking with long fingers, and I could see them working with wood like his father. â€œI really think you should talk to her at least about Zoey and Bianca. They take sexual assault seriously where teen girls are concerned. I canâ€™t see her sending them back to their uncle.â€ â€œWhat if theyâ€™re sent someplace worse?â€ His hands slid down the sides of the steering wheel and rested on his leg. â€œNaw. Theyâ€™re happy with you, and doing well. There are too many children in the system to worry about something thatâ€™s working. Trust me on this.â€ I wanted to trust him because it was what I cravedâ€”to give all the girls more. â€œIâ€™ll talk to her.â€ â€œYou wonâ€™t regret it.â€ All at once, I became aware of how close I was still sitting to him. Our eyes met and held. We were parked near the only working streetlight, and the shadows it threw on his face made him appear mysterious and more than a little sensual. â€œSorry about the messed up date,â€ I murmured. â€œDonâ€™t be.â€ His eyes dipped to my lips. â€œIâ€™d better go.â€ He nodded. â€œIâ€™ll walk you to the door.â€ â€œThatâ€™s okay. I can find my way.â€ â€œYou should know by now that Iâ€™m still going up thereâ€”especially with that guy hanging around.â€ I was tempted to point out that my neighbor was no longer standing by the railing, but I was far more interested in the way he was staring at me. He swallowed hard. â€œOkay, you can walk with me,â€ I said. â€œAll right.â€ I didnâ€™t move and neither did he. Except closer. And closer. I was dying for it to happen. Maybe I had been all day. He didnâ€™t look away. He held my gaze for several heartbeats, giving me every opportunity to pull away. His lips met mine tentatively, as if asking permission, and it was me who moved forward to deepen the kiss. Fire raced through my veins and shuddered through my stomach. A thousand fireworks could have been going off overhead, and I wouldnâ€™t have noticed. All the girls could bang on the windows, and Iâ€™d keep kissing him. When we broke apart, he was grinning. I was tempted to pull him back and try again, to wipe off the grin, to daze him as I felt dazed. Iâ€™d been kissed before, but this was something incredible. â€œHey, I have an idea,â€ he said. â€œWe can still make our date.â€ Reality crashed over me. â€œTonight? I donâ€™t think so. If I donâ€™t get the girls in bed, theyâ€™ll watch television all night, and itâ€™s a school night for at least some of them.â€ He might as well learn the truth about my life. There wouldnâ€™t be any late night bar-hopping or impromptu road trips. No private movie nights or sleepovers. â€œNo, I know you have to go in. But how about in the morning? Iâ€™ll pick you up at five.â€ â€œFive?â€ Was he some kind of maniac? â€œWho in their right mind ever gets up at five?â€ He laughed. â€œYouâ€™ll be home in time to get the girls to school. I promise.â€ He looked ready to kiss me again, but I reached for the door. I needed to leave now, or I might regret this later. â€œOkay, itâ€™s a date.â€ Guess I was just as crazy. He laughed and jumped out of the Mustang, running around to help me before I had the door halfway open. We raced up four flights, our arms brushing. I tripped him near the door and squeezed into the lead. â€œCheater!â€ â€œPlaying to win,â€ I countered. I stood in front of the door, my heart pounding, keys to the apartment in my hand. He stepped closer. He was going to kiss me again, and I was going to let him. Steps pounding up the stairs jolted my attention from Jameson. For a brief instant, fear shuddered through meâ€”and then Ruth and Halla appeared. â€œTwo little lovers sittinâ€™ in a tree,â€ they sang. â€œSeriously? Are you guys like two?â€ They collapsed in laughter against each other. â€œYou didnâ€™t even see us,â€ Halla said. â€œWe were spying on you.â€ I met Jamesonâ€™s eyes and was grateful to see that he was laughing and not annoyed. â€œYou guys remind me of my little sisters.â€ â€œNot Lily,â€ shot Ruth. â€œYou donâ€™t kiss sisters like that.â€ Still giggling, they pushed past us, their keys rattling. Light sliced onto Jamesonâ€™s face from inside the apartment. â€œTomorrow at five,â€ he said, backing away. â€œOkay, see you then.â€ I went inside and found Halla and Ruth recounting everything to the other girls. â€œWell,â€ Saffron asked, â€œhow was the kiss? A dud? Or fireworks?â€ â€œDefinitely fireworks.â€ Saffron faked seriousness. â€œWell, then, young lady. Iâ€™ll have none of that in this house. Just so you know.â€ â€œIt was just a kiss.â€ â€œThat excuse never works for me,â€ Saffron said with a grin. â€œAnyway, it must have been some kiss. You took long enough.â€ I was going to argue, but it had been something amazing, so I took the easy way out and changed the subject. â€œWell, itâ€™s time for bed, everyone.â€ I clapped my hands. â€œIf you get ready fast, weâ€™ll watch something.â€ â€œAnother science show?â€ Zoey groaned. But she was the first one to the bathroom. While the girls took turns in the bathroom, I started downloading a science program from the internet for us to watch on the television. I was determined that even those who didnâ€™t go to school would learn something. Saffron had taken the GED successfully with my help, even though sheâ€™d had to forge her parentsâ€™ signature to take it, and that was the route weâ€™d go with the others, if we had to. Sure that everything was in order, I went to check on Elsie. She was reading in the bedroom, curled on her bed. She sat up immediately, her face softly lit by the dim light. â€œSo, was he mad?â€ she asked. â€œAbout canceling your date, I mean.â€ â€œNo. And if he was, then it would have been his problem. People donâ€™t have the right to be angry about things like that, or at least not to take it out on others.â€ â€œThen heâ€™ll still help us?â€ I put my arm around her. â€œYes. Iâ€™m going to see a woman at his work tomorrow.â€ â€œIs he going to be there?â€ â€œYes.â€ Elsie grinned. â€œBetter take some ice.â€ 5 My hair was still damp when I crept out of the house without awakening the girls. Jameson was just pulling up in the dark parking lot. â€œSo where are we going?â€ I asked as he jumped out to walk around the car and open my door. â€œWell, my plan had been to take you for a sunset picnic. Now itâ€™ll be a sunrise.â€ As if to approve of his plan, my stomach rumbled, and we both laughed. â€œIs getting up early a habit with you?â€ â€œActually, sometimes.â€ His hand stole up to take a lock of my hair. â€œIn a big family, thatâ€™s really the only time thereâ€™s any quiet. I used to get up to run before I helped my dad in the shop.â€ â€œI was never a morning person,â€ I said, â€œbut I am now, so I know what you mean. Itâ€™s the only time I can get stuff done.â€ We drove twenty minutes and arrived at a park near the entrance to one of the Camelback Mountain trails. â€œI knew we wouldnâ€™t have time to hike,â€ he said as he parked. â€œAlready getting a little light,â€ I agreed, pulling up the hood of my jacket for added warmth over my mostly dry hair. â€œNext time.â€ The comment sent a fluttering through my stomach, reminding me of last nightâ€™s world-stopping kiss. I still wasnâ€™t sure what he saw in me, but I was glad that he did. Dew marked the table, and Jameson made a face. â€œDidnâ€™t think of that, but I have a table cloth.â€ â€œI have something.â€ I dug in my shoulder bag for the small pack of wipes Iâ€™d learned to carry in my purse since Ruth and Halla had come to live with me. You never knew when it would come in handy. Instead of closing around the wipes, my hand met a block of cold. Puzzled, I drew it out to see one of the blue ice packs weâ€™d used with Zoey and Biancaâ€™s lunches before they qualified for the free meals at school. â€œElsie,â€ I murmured. I hadnâ€™t seen her up, but it had to have been her, making sure I had ice for my very hot date. â€œWhatâ€™s that?â€ Jameson asked. I held up the ice pack. â€œApparently, the girls think youâ€™re hot, so Elsie is making sure I have ice.â€ He laughed. â€œIâ€™ll have to thank them.â€ â€œThey are definitely on your side.â€ I put the blue rectangle back into my bag and found the wipes, wondering if the girls were a good judge of character, or if we were all setting ourselves up for some kind of letdown. Mario Jameson Perez was a man, after all, not some rich hero who would ride in on his white horse to save us. Jamesonâ€™s hand touched the sleeve of my jacket. â€œWhat is it?â€ I sighed, pursing my lips. â€œItâ€™s just, even after all theyâ€™ve been through, theyâ€™re still trusting, and sometimesâ€”okay, all the timeâ€”I worry about letting them down.â€ â€œBut you are doing something,â€ he said. â€œDonâ€™t forget that. Thatâ€™s more than the rest of the world.â€ â€œRight. Look at the positive.â€ We wiped down the bench and much of the table, barely finishing in time to watch the sunrise. Fingers of light reflected from the beaded dew on the grass and trees. Jameson put his arm around me, and a peace settled over me. My stomach chose that moment to remind us about the food. â€œI hope you like eggs and bacon.â€ Jameson hurried to open his picnic basket and pulled out round biscuits filled with still-warm eggs and several half strips of bacon. There were no wrappers, so I had to ask, â€œIs there a deli open this early?â€ â€œThese I actually made. The biscuits are even fresh.â€ â€œIâ€™m impressed.â€ â€œWell, donâ€™t be. It takes like ten minutes.â€ He still got up early to do it. I took a bite. â€œMmm. I canâ€™t remember the last time anyone made me breakfast.â€ â€œSince you left home?â€ I smiled and swallowed another bite before answering. â€œMy mother doesnâ€™t make breakfast. Neither did my father. We had a housekeeper who made sure they had their omelets, or whatever, but my sister and I grew up on cold cereal.â€ â€œLike most of America, huh?â€ We ate for a few moments in easy silence, and then he said, â€œWhen did you decide to start helping girls? Was it when you found Saffron? I heard them say sheâ€™s been with you the longest.â€ â€œOf the girls I have now, yeah. Saffronâ€™s been with me since last September. But I had two other girls on and off the year before that. They were older, though, students at my college who were having family problems. But it really all began when I was six.â€ â€œSix?â€ He laughed and shook his head. â€œDonâ€™t tell me. I can just see you sneaking a kid into your room. From what little youâ€™ve said about your parents, youâ€™d have to be pretty brave to do something like that.â€ I didnâ€™t think Iâ€™d told him anything about my parents, but we had talked a lot about other things, and I guess the relationship we didnâ€™t have showed through. â€œActually, sneaking something into my room was much later, and it was a cat.â€ â€œSo what happened when you were six?â€ I gnawed on my lower lip, wondering how much to tell him. â€œI missed two months of my kindergarten year. I was really sick, and my mother hated the idea of me being behind because â€˜thatâ€™s not what Crawfords do.â€™â€ I made quote marks with my finger to show they were her words, not mine. â€œSo when I was better, instead of putting me into school, she sent me back to my old preschool, where I was bored enough that I started helping out with all the kidsâ€”getting the drinks, playing with the sad ones. That sort of thing. After I finally got to kindergarten, I just kept it up. I didnâ€™t like it when they left people out.â€ â€œI can believe it. And the cat?â€ â€œI was seven, and I found a kitten someone had abandoned in a field. Little tiny thing.â€ I showed him with my hands. â€œI had to feed her with an eyedropper. I had her hidden in my room for a week before my sister found out and three months before our parents discovered it.â€ â€œResourceful.â€ Jameson pushed the container of biscuits toward me. â€œNo wonder youâ€™re good with the girls.â€ â€œWell, hopefully, with your help, I can do more. But weâ€™d better get back. I need to drive the girls to school, and Ruth and Halla have some errands theyâ€™re doing for people today, so I need to drop them off as well.â€ We cleaned up our picnic and walked back to the car. His fingers closed over mine. â€œThanks for coming.â€ â€œThank you for asking.â€ We reached the car, and he leaned over to kiss me. The kiss was so brief and chaste that my heart had no reason at all to be threatening to pound out of my chest or for my knees to lose all function. I sank gratefully into the seat as he opened the door, my hand going inside my bag to touch Elsieâ€™s ice pack. It had only been two days, and I couldnâ€™t possibly be falling in love, but there was so much right about this man, and all my responsibilities hadnâ€™t scared him off yet. That alone was a miracle. After her first few weeks with me, Saffron had started walking dogs, running errands, and cleaning for several widows at the church we attended. It had been her way of helping me buy our foodâ€”and to appease my roommates, who were at that time mostly too busy to notice I had a continuous, non-authorized visitor in my private room. When they did notice, they were never above eating our bribes. Later when Ruth and Halla joined us, Saffron moved on to the burger place and passed her old jobs onto them. Since both Ruth and Halla had poor social skills and dressed funny, it was unlikely they would have convinced strangers to trust them without Saffronâ€™s hearty recommendation, so it worked out perfectly. It had taken encouragement in the beginning, and many times Iâ€™d been late to class to go with them, but now the girls were reliable, and the widows loved them. They had regular clients on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The errands didnâ€™t pay a lot, but the income helped them buy clothes, food, and other necessities my income wouldnâ€™t stretch enough to cover. Unfortunately, their first job was far enough away that they needed me to drive them if they were ever to arrive on timeâ€”they were still young girls and liked their sleep. From the first widowâ€™s house, theyâ€™d go from job to job until they arrived home. â€œWhat about Elsie?â€ Ruth asked as we climbed into my car. â€œSaffron is staying with her.â€ I hoped Iâ€™d remembered to put everything in my binder. Iâ€™d brought the court papers for Zoey and Bianca, but they were the only girls I was willing to talk about to Jamesonâ€™s friend. Maybe Iâ€™d add Ruth, eventually, because her mother didnâ€™t seem to want her home, but I needed to find out what I had to do to be qualified. I couldnâ€™t let any of the girls return to dangerous situations. As I dropped the girls off, making sure they had their lunches and money for an emergency phone call, I worried about the meeting. What if Zoey and Biancaâ€™s uncle changed his mind and wanted them back? Maybe this wasnâ€™t such a great idea. Still, I decided to go to the meeting because if I didnâ€™t change something, I didnâ€™t know how we could ever do more than simply survive. Teen Remake was located in a corner office in downtown Phoenix, next to a dentist and a chiropractor. The front office even looked like a dentistâ€™s office, down to the young receptionist, who looked up from behind a desk when I walked in. â€œMay I help you?â€ â€œIâ€™m Lily Crawford. Iâ€™m here for a meeting about becoming licensed as a foster parent?â€ â€œOh, Marioâ€™s friend.â€ Her smile put me at ease. â€œSure, the interview.â€ What she meant by that wasnâ€™t exactly clear, but I was glad I hadnâ€™t mentioned Jameson by name, or she would have wondered. I might have to rethink the name choice. â€œYeah, is he here?â€ The words were barely out of my mouth when he came through the open door. â€œHi, Lily, come on back.â€ He held out a beckoning hand. The receptionist gave me a nod and turned her sweet smile to a stressed-looking couple who had come in the door after me. They were probably here about their child. â€œWhat exactly does Teen Remake do?â€ I asked in a low voice as Jamesonâ€™s hand touched my back, leading me though the door. â€œItâ€™s not one of those boot camp behavioral places, is it? Where parents ship off their kids and donâ€™t see them for months? Iâ€™ve heard terrible things about those.â€ â€œNo, weâ€™re not like that. Well, we do take the kids camping, but itâ€™s not abusive or threatening the way some programs are. Parents are always invited, and why not? In most cases, theyâ€™re the ones paying for the treatment. Basically, what Teen Remake does is to figure out whatâ€™s gone wrong in the childâ€™s life and try to remake that part so the rest can work as it should. The first step is understanding why the teens donâ€™t want to do whatever it is their parents and society requires of them. It involves a lot of talking and activities, and thatâ€™s why we use not only paid counselors, but a lot of volunteers. For the most part, the children are still living at home or in foster homes, so we donâ€™t have children staying here, though we do have connections with a group home we sometimes send them to.â€ Jamesonâ€™s face had become animated, telling me how much he enjoyed his work. â€œA lot of the time, weâ€™re working with the parents just as much as the kids,â€ he added, lowering his voice, even though we were far enough away from the front now that no one could overhear. â€œFrankly, there are far too many instances where parents simply expect too much too fast from kids. We find that easing the expectations, without abandoning them all together, of course, helps them show the child the love they really need. Teaching the parents to moderate their responses and to take time to think about their actions helps everyone.â€ â€œYou sound like you really love it.â€ We rounded a bend in the hall. â€œI do. Iâ€™ve seen kids completely change. Of course, the really violent ones or those with severe addictions arenâ€™t referred to us. But we do get a lot of kids with depression, kids who cut themselves, refuse to do homework, sneak out at night, steal stuff. That sort of thing.â€ Half of this new hallway was full of windows, allowing us to see into the rooms. In one, young teens sat in a circle, throwing a ball. In another, they were playing video games. â€œI know what youâ€™re thinking,â€ Jameson said. â€œBut those video games are specifically designed for depression. Itâ€™s a pilot program.â€ â€œThe girls and I play games quite a bit on the weekends.â€ I hesitated before adding, â€œZoey still cuts herself sometimes, but a lot less than she used to.â€ â€œWell, if we get you approved, maybe she can come here. Sheâ€™d probably do really well because our programs are hands-on instead of bookwork or lectures.â€ â€œIâ€™ll be interested to see more.â€ â€œOh, youâ€™re going to love it.â€ He paused in front of a door. The window on this room had shutters that were angled upward, obscuring most of the inside. â€œHere we are. Bea, the woman youâ€™re seeing today, is a counselor with the Department of Child Safety, or DCS as we call it, and she comes in part-time each week to check on the progress of the children theyâ€™ve sent to us whose programs the state is subsidizing.â€ He reached for the door as he added, â€œI talked to Bea this morning when I arrived and gave her the heads up on Zoey and Bianca.â€ Unexpected anger made me catch my breath. Iâ€™d wanted to test out the woman first, to see how I felt about her. Now there was no going back. Jameson tapped on the door. â€œCome in,â€ called a voice. We went inside, and the woman behind the desk stood up to greet us. She was probably in her late thirties, but it was hard to tell by the ebony smoothness of her skin. Her hair was as dark as Ruthâ€™s frizzy mess, but it was gelled and conditioned and scrunched to a beautiful perfection. Iâ€™d researched this style for African-American women and had tried it on Ruth in the hope of getting her to lose the hat, but we hadnâ€™t been all that successful. Maybe it was time to try again, because this womanâ€™s hair was amazing. She came around the desk, her slim hand extended. â€œHi, Iâ€™m Bea Lundberg. Iâ€™m a social worker with the Department of Child Safety, but I also provide oversight here at Teen Remake. You must be Lily. Nice to meet you.â€ â€œNice to meet you too.â€ â€œPlease have a seat.â€ I glanced at Jameson, who nodded and thumbed at the door. â€œI have to get back to work. Check in with me before you leave?â€ I felt a slight panic, but I pushed it away. Of course he had to work. â€œYou just want to play video games.â€ â€œBusted. I could get someone else to fill in for me, if youâ€™dâ€”â€ â€œNo, no, Iâ€™m good.â€ It was better this way because heâ€™d met all the girls, and I didnâ€™t want him slipping. Heâ€™d already said more than enough. I gave him a wave and sat down in the nearest of the three seats Bea had indicated in front of the desk. Instead of returning to sit behind her desk, Bea sat down next to me, tugging down her pencil skirt and crossing her legs. â€œSo, Mario tells me you have a few girls living with you, and youâ€™re interested in becoming their official foster parent.â€ â€œWell, Iâ€™m already their guardian, but itâ€™s basically for school purposes.â€ I drew out the papers from my binder and handed them to her. â€œThe judge was clear that it didnâ€™t mean I had custody.â€ â€œYeah, thereâ€™s a lot more involved for that.â€ Her eyes skimmed the papers briefly. â€œTell me about the girls.â€ I told her about their mother dying and how theyâ€™d gone to their uncleâ€™s to live, where theyâ€™d stayed for two years before finally running away in December. â€œI found them in a park. I usually go to Flagstaff over the Christmas break, but luckily, I stayed.â€ My mother had been livid at that, but I hadnâ€™t dared leave Saffron, Ruth, and Halla for more than one day. It would have been different if my mother had been the kind to open her home to visitors. Saffron, she might have welcomed, thinking she was a roommate, but not Ruth or Halla. â€œThey were sleeping at the park?â€ â€œNot until right before I found them. Theyâ€™d been staying with different friends, but it was the day after Christmas, and I guess they ran out of places to go.â€ Ruth had seen them first on Christmas afternoon when Iâ€™d been at my parentsâ€™ during the day, and weâ€™d gone looking for them when I returned to Phoenix, but they must have hidden. Iâ€™d gone back the next morning, just to be sure, and found them cold and unhappy. â€œBianca was crying, and they were both hungry and needed baths,â€ I said. â€œIt didnâ€™t take much to convince them to come home with me. Later, I talked to their uncle, and he agreed to let them stay.â€ â€œJust like that?â€ Beaâ€™s raised eyebrow implied doubt. I met her gaze. â€œI told him I knew heâ€™d been abusing Zoey sexually and had started on Bianca. Thatâ€™s why Zoey ran and took Bianca with her. She didnâ€™t want her sister to be abused like sheâ€™d been.â€ Beaâ€™s lips tightened. â€œPoor kids. And the uncleâ€™s given you no money?â€ â€œNo. I was able to get the girls free lunches, though, using my income and the guardianship papers.â€ â€œGood.â€ Bea uncrossed her leg and leaned forward. â€œThe first thing that needs to happen here is I need to talk to Zoey and Bianca. I can do that at their school, if itâ€™s more convenient. Then Iâ€™ll go visit their uncle as a precursor to getting you some funds for their care.â€ â€œHe wonâ€™t pay,â€ I said. â€œAs he said to me, theyâ€™re not even his kids.â€ â€œSince heâ€™s not the birth parent, itâ€™s unlikely heâ€™d be charged maintenance anyway, unless there was an inheritance he received when the girlsâ€™ mother died. Or unless he wanted to work toward keeping custody.â€ I took a deep breath before saying, â€œThat canâ€™t happen. Zoey was also abused by at least three of his friends. Sheâ€™s pretty sure they paid her uncle.â€ Beaâ€™s nostrils flared, hinting that she was as upset as I was about Zoeyâ€™s situation. â€œNot the first time Iâ€™ve seen that. At any rate, because heâ€™s already assigned guardianship to you, weâ€™re almost there. We just need the state to take custody.â€ â€œI donâ€™t want to do anything if that means theyâ€™ll be uprooted again. Not even for help. Theyâ€™re happy now.â€ Her eyes bore into mine. â€œIâ€™m good at what I do, and that is helping children like Zoey and Bianca. I believe from what Mario told me that theyâ€™re in a good situation now, and since you mentioned sexual abuse, I am required to conduct a thorough investigation. Even if their uncle wants them, they wonâ€™t be returned to him any time soon, as long as both girls are claiming abuse.â€ I believed her, but she didnâ€™t know how Iâ€™d threatened him into signing. Would he tell her? And there was still the other side of the issueâ€”whether or not theyâ€™d stay with me. Iâ€™d heard horror stories about some foster homes. â€œLook, I know you mean well, but Iâ€™ve heard of so many times where kids keep being sent back into situations that turn out to be dangerous. I just donâ€™t want that to happen to them.â€ â€œItâ€™s true kids fall into the cracks. Iâ€™ve seen parents lie like crazy to get their children back, fooling everyone but the child, and Iâ€™ve seen social workers who are too overworked to see through the lies or to check up as often as they should. Iâ€™ve even seen children who die before we can help them. But thatâ€™s not going to happen here. These girls have you to fight for them. And now they have me.â€ On the surface, her comments were great for Zoey and Bianca, but they were also one more reason not to tell her about the other girls. I wasnâ€™t willing to risk their lives, especially when Halla had barely escaped her father, and I still had no idea what Elsie had been through. â€œIâ€™m not sure I can even pass any tests that DCS might require.â€ Bea leaned back again with a little sigh. â€œFortunatelyâ€”or unfortunately in some casesâ€”thatâ€™s the easy part. It takes about thirty hours of training, but almost anyone can qualify to be a foster parent. And thatâ€™s why youâ€™re here, right? To get licensed and learn how you can help the girlsâ€”though from what Mario has told me, you are probably a step ahead of most potential foster parents in terms of experience.â€ My stomach clenched as I wondered what else heâ€™d said, but asking would look suspicious. â€œBut Iâ€™m single, and my apartment isnâ€™t the best.â€ She shook her head. â€œThat might factor in with young children or children in high demand, but two Hispanic teenagers who want to be placed together arenâ€™t going to be at the top of anyoneâ€™s list. As long as they have a place to sleep and food and a bathroom, and itâ€™s not too crowded, itâ€™ll be fine. We will have to do an onsite check, of course.â€ Thatâ€™s what I was afraid of. Seven girls in a one-bedroom apartment was probably far too many, though we could clean up the fold-out chair beds and hide the other girls during the visit. Bea must have read something in my face that told her I was okay with her suggestion. â€œFirst let me get the ball rolling with the uncle. Until the state takes custody, there is no issue about the girls staying with you. Your guardianship papers give you all you need. So if youâ€™ll give me their school information, I can drop by and chat with them. Itâ€™ll facilitate things if you call the school to let them know.â€ â€œI can do that.â€ No doubt she wanted to talk to them about staying with me, and that didnâ€™t worry me. They wouldnâ€™t talk about the other girls. â€œWhile Iâ€™m working it all out, you can concentrate on getting licensed.â€ â€œOkay.â€ With the decision made, the tension in my gut eased. â€œSo, is there anything else youâ€™d like to discuss?â€ My heart lodged somewhere in my throat. Just how much had Jameson told her? Had he hinted about the other girls? I was so going to kill him. As soon as I had the chance. For now, I needed to answer the social worker, but already my delay would have told her I was hiding something. Slowly, I shook my head. â€œNothing you can help with.â€ That much was true. â€œI do have another girl living with me, but sheâ€™s almost eighteen, and she already passed the GED. Her parents kicked her out about a year ago. Her birthday is in less than two months, and sheâ€™s very in charge of her own life. She has no desire to see her parents or get involved with the state.â€ I smiled and added, â€œBut Iâ€™ll ask her.â€ Bea studied me for a few seconds before nodding. â€œFair enough. Youâ€™re probably right on all accountsâ€”as long as sheâ€™s not technically a runaway with someone looking for her. Anyway, if sheâ€™s working and has a place to stay, a judge would probably emancipate her. Not all seventeen-year-olds are that independent.â€ Saffron hadnâ€™t been either, not when Iâ€™d found her. But she was resilient, and sheâ€™d come back. Sheâ€™d learned from her mistakes. â€œIâ€™m glad she has you,â€ Bea added. I hoped she was sincere and wouldnâ€™t show up at the apartment to harass Saffron. At least I hadnâ€™t given her my address, and the court papers listed my previous residence. I hadnâ€™t gotten around to changing the school records either, and I wouldnâ€™t do it until I was sure how things would go with Zoey and Bianca. Bea stood and waved the guardianship papers. â€œIs it okay if I take a copy of these?â€ â€œYes.â€ â€œCome with me, then. Iâ€™ll show you where the copy center is.â€ She laughed as she waited for me to go through the door. â€œActually, itâ€™s a glorified name for a closet with a copy machine in it. But you may need to make copies for activities, so I might as well show you now.â€ Huh? I followed her out, my brain scrambling to keep up. â€œDid Mario tell you that the job requires one evening a week?â€ Bea looked at me as we walked down the hall. â€œHe didnâ€™t say.â€ â€œIs that going to be a problem with the girls? Theyâ€™re old enough for you to leave for one evening, I think. Or do you have someone who could stay with them?â€ I stopped walking. â€œIâ€™m not even sure what youâ€™re talking about. Is that whatâ€™s required for the license?â€ She laughed. â€œGoodness no. Iâ€™m talking about a job here at Teen Remake, especially working with our Teens Back to Nature camping program, or Teen Nature for short. I thought you were also here to interview for one of the part-time jobs we have open, but if youâ€™re not interested . . .â€ An image of my job at the cereal factory flashed through my mind. Hair nets and gloves and bits of cereal in my eyes. Machines humming, standing for hours in the same place, reports and more reports. And looming over everything, my fatherâ€™s expectations. â€œOh, Iâ€™m interested,â€ I said quickly. â€œI have another job, but itâ€™s only part time so I could finish college, and I need full time work now.â€ I was actually still on my college work schedule: four hours on Mondays and Wednesdays, and six hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. â€œI can possibly adjust my schedule there, and I have a friend who can stay with the girls, if needed.â€ Bea held out her hand. â€œThen welcome to the team. Youâ€™ll still have to meet with the director here to talk about a schedule, but he often has me screen his applicants, so I donâ€™t anticipate any issues. Heâ€™s actually meeting with some parents this morning, or heâ€™d have been in on this meeting.â€ â€œThis is because of the girls, isnâ€™t it? That youâ€™re offering me the job.â€ Her smile widened. â€œPartially, yes, but also because Mario recommends you so highly. After meeting you, I have to agree that youâ€™ll be great. Half the boys are going to fall in love with you, and half the girls will want to be just like you. Plus, you look like someone the parents will trust. You can do a lot of good here, Lily. We do have a lot of applicants every year, but itâ€™s hard to find people we know will be good.â€ â€œDonâ€™t the kids have school? How are you even open during the week?â€ â€œMost attend school, but our programs count for credit, so the kids come here a few times a week like they do for regular classes. There are those who canâ€™t function yet in a regular school, and we have extended programs for them. Teen Nature currently runs from Thursday morning to Saturday night, so they only miss two school days for the camping experience. Kids can participate once every two months, and it has to be approved by their regular teachers, and usually they get credit toward an assignment. The camps are really fun, so most of the kids try hard to make it. When school lets out for the summer, weâ€™ll hold longer camps.â€ One evening a week? I could do that, and having a foot in the door would only help me with the battles I still had ahead for Elsie, Ruth, and Halla. The extra money might mean we could afford a better apartment. I was still upset at Jameson for telling Bea about Zoey and Bianca before I had the chance to check her out, but I was grateful too. Trusting him did seem to be taking me in the right direction. Bea showed me the copy machine and how to work it. Then she took me to several of the rooms and introduced me to the teens who crowded around us. They liked Bea, and that made me feel excited for what she could do to help my situation. We found Jameson in one of the rooms with five teenage boys. They were no longer playing video games, but tossing a foam basketball into a hoop. They waved lazily as they saw us coming. Jameson hurried toward the door, a welcoming smile on his face. Bea nudged me and whispered, â€œRemember what I said about the boys falling in love? Looks like one of them is already halfway there.â€ 6 When I arrived home from work that evening after a grueling six-hour shift, I was surprised to see Ruth running down to the parking lot to meet me. â€œSomeone came by earlier,â€ she said as we climbed up the stairs. â€œA woman. I didnâ€™t open the door, of course.â€ â€œWhat did she look like?â€ â€œWhite woman with blond hair. Older, real pretty. Rich-looking.â€ So not Bea Lundberg. Of course, it couldnâ€™t have been, unless Jameson had given her my address, because on Teen Remakeâ€™s employee papers, Iâ€™d listed Tessaâ€™s, just in case. â€œDid she say anything? Leave a note on the door?â€ â€œNo, she just rang and left. She did seem kind of familiar, though. Not sure where I saw her before.â€ â€œDid she look like Saffron or Halla?â€ I was going to get a stomach ulcer with all the worry. â€œNo. I donâ€™t think so. Maybe.â€ â€œWell, you did the right thing. Hopefully soon, we wonâ€™t have to worry. I talked to a social worker today.â€ Weâ€™d reached the landing on the fourth floor, and Ruth stopped walking, her brow furrowing. â€œAbout me?â€ â€œNo, honey.â€ I put my arm around her. She was getting so tall that sheâ€™d already passed me by an inch. When had that happened? And her body was much thinner than all the clothes led one to believe. â€œAbout Zoey and Bianca. Iâ€™m going to get licensed as a foster parent, so I can officially have them as my foster kids. Once that happens, Iâ€™ll go talk to your mother and feel her out.â€ Ruthâ€™s brow furrowed and her dark eyes looked sad. â€œShe ainâ€™t gonna sign any papers. Not if sheâ€™s still living with that white piece of trash. He wants me there.â€ â€œDonâ€™t worry. Thatâ€™s not going to happen. And I donâ€™t plan on talking to him.â€ â€œI know.â€ But she frowned as she glanced over my shoulder at the vehicle that was pulling into the lot below. â€œHey, isnâ€™t that Marioâ€™s car?â€ Sure enough, it was. â€œHe texted me about stopping by, but Iâ€™m surprised heâ€™s here already.â€ His text had acted on me like a huge dose of caffeine, pushing away the tiredness Iâ€™d felt for the past two hours. Thereâ€™d been no time for private talk at Teen Remake before I left for work, and I was eager to have it out with him, or give him a hug. I wasnâ€™t sure which. Ruth grinned at my expression. â€œMaybe he wants to go out with you again.â€ â€œIâ€™ve got to help Bianca with a report.â€ â€œToo bad. He is fine on the eyes, Iâ€™ll say that much,â€ Ruth murmured as we waited for him to join us. I rolled my eyes, however right she was. â€œHow did work go today?â€ â€œGood, but that Mrs. Jenkinsâ€™ poodle seriously needs an attitude adjustment. Halla had to rescue him from a big dog this morning that was finally sick of his yapping.â€ She giggled. â€œYou should have seen it. That teeny, tiny rat of a dog, going after a big black lab, or whatever he was. Weâ€™re just glad the rat canâ€™t talk or the spoiled little thing would probably tattle on us for not letting him do what he wants, and then weâ€™d get fired.â€ I laughed, but all my attention was on Jameson now, who was coming up the final flight of steps. His grin answered mine as he saw me. He looked good for having spent an entire day at work. Really good. Though at some point heâ€™d changed from the dress slacks and polo to worn jeans and a T-shirt that had seen better days. â€œSo,â€ I said. â€œWhatâ€™s up? Your text was kind of cryptic.â€ Was it too soon to hope heâ€™d ask me out again? He reached into a canvas bag he was carrying and pulled out a tool belt. â€œI thought Iâ€™d fix your cupboard, if you donâ€™t mind.â€ â€œOur cupboard?â€ I stared at him blankly. He glanced at Ruth, who grimaced. â€œUh, yeah,â€ she said. â€œBeen meaning to tell you about that. The other day, Halla and I got messing around in the kitchen, and that cupboard where you keep the extra canned food? Well, it sort of . . . came off.â€ I counted to ten before I responded. Iâ€™d lost track of the times Iâ€™d told them to stop horsing around in that tiny kitchen. But really, it wasnâ€™t their faultâ€”there wasnâ€™t much room and nowhere for them to play or to work off their energy. â€œWhen was this? I havenâ€™t noticed anything.â€ â€œIt was Tuesday when you were at work. Halla and I taped the hinge, but it came off when Mario was helping me wash dishes yesterday.â€ â€œI see.â€ â€œYouâ€™re not mad, are you?â€ Ruth gave me a puppy dog look. â€œNo, but next time tell me. Itâ€™s better to fix it before it gets worse.â€ Besides, there was no way I could be upset when it meant I got to see Jameson again for the third time today. Still, I didnâ€™t want him to think he had to be taking care of us all the time. Weâ€™d been doing fine before he showed up. Then again, the world had moved when heâ€™d kissed meâ€”and that hadnâ€™t ever happened that I could remember. Shooting him a quick glance, I saw that he was watching me with a grin that turned my stomach to mush. â€œThey make these places as cheap as they can,â€ he said. â€œBut it wonâ€™t take long to fix. The screws have just stripped the channel theyâ€™re in. Iâ€™ll put in some wood putty and tomorrow we can screw it back in. Good as new. Or better, probably.â€ â€œWell, thank you.â€ I led them to the apartment, where Ruth had left the door slightly ajar. That made me nervous with Elsie so concerned about being found, but Iâ€™d talk to Ruth about it later. All the girls were home, except Saffron, who had sent me a text about a hot date that she promised to keep at armâ€™s length. I knew she meant it; sheâ€™d learned a hard lesson that was still fresh, and sheâ€™d gone through five guys in just the last month because they demanded more than she was ready to give. I was proud of her for that. While Jameson went to work removing the cupboard door, I went to check on Elsie, who was reading, and then started Bianca on her paper, letting her use my laptop that was normally off limits when I wasnâ€™t home to supervise. â€œWell, everyone, listen up,â€ I said, finally joining Jameson in the kitchen. â€œI have an announcement to make.â€ I waited until the girls looked at me or clustered around, even Elsie, whoâ€™d decided to emerge from the bedroom. â€œI am now working part time at Teen Remake, mostly for their camping program, but also one half day each week at their regular offices. The only catch is I have to be away one evening a week. That means Iâ€™ll work noon to ten on Fridays.â€ A disappointed chorus of â€œAaaaawâ€ met my announcement. â€œDonâ€™t worry,â€ I said. â€œWeâ€™ll switch our movie night to Saturday. I also have to work four hours Thursday and Saturday mornings, to get in the eighteen hours theyâ€™re allowing me, but itâ€™ll be a lot more money coming in overall. I donâ€™t begin until next week.â€ The girls were satisfied with that and became more excited when I told them about Bea and training to be a foster parent. â€œBut for the record,â€ Zoey said, â€œif it doesnâ€™t work out, weâ€™re running away again.â€ â€œItâ€™ll work out,â€ I assured her. Zoey and Halla wandered back to the living room where Bianca was tapping on my computer. Elsie and Ruth stayed close. â€œMaybe your house dream is going to come true,â€ Elsie said, low enough for only me to hear. I smiled at her. â€œWhat about your other job?â€ Jameson asked from where he knelt on the floor with his screwdriver. I shrugged. â€œThere is some job security being the bossâ€™s daughter, even if heâ€™s not exactly happy with my choice of degree, but the days donâ€™t overlap except on Thursdays. I get off at Teen Remake at noon and have until one to get to the factory. I will have to drop off Ruth and Halla at their jobs a little sooner on Thursdays, or have my sister do it.â€ â€œIâ€™m good with that,â€ Ruth said, settling at the small round table, a book in hand. â€œTessaâ€™s nice.â€ I was more worried about what to do with Elsie on Thursdays. Iâ€™d have four hours at Teen Remake, training hours that hadnâ€™t been optional, and six at the factory. Saffron would be working by then, and with the other girls gone most of the day doing errands for their older ladies, Elsie would be alone. Twelve was plenty old enough to stay by herself, but she wasnâ€™t just any twelve-year-old, and I didnâ€™t like it. Maybe Makay would have room in her schedule to pop in and check on her. Or Ruth and Halla could take her along on their jobs. Or if things worked out with the foster parenting and Teen Remake, I could cut Thursday afternoons at the factory altogether. Iâ€™d do that in a heartbeat, but not until I had another way to pay for food and rent. Jameson began stuffing putty inside the stripped holes. Iâ€™d fixed another cupboard once before using paper glue and the ends of a couple matchsticksâ€”a tip Iâ€™d read about in a novelâ€”but this certainly looked more professional, though once the hinge was back on, no one would see it. Finally satisfied, he stood the cupboard door up against the wall to dry and put his spatula back in his tool belt, now around his waist. There was something compelling about him in those old jeans and that belt. Sexy and manly. It was so clichÃ© I had to roll my eyes at myself. â€œWhat,â€ he said, sounding slightly offended. â€œNothing.â€ I turned away and started looking through the other cupboards, hoping to hide the color flushing my face. â€œGuess we need to find something for dinner.â€ â€œIâ€™ll be heading out, then,â€ he said, still with that wounded tone. I didnâ€™t want him going away offended. â€œYou could stay.â€ The words were out before I could stop them. Iâ€™d only just met him, and I didnâ€™t want to push things any faster than I already had. I quickly resolved to be less eager. His grin melted my resolve to a warm puddle of contentment. â€œIâ€™d love to,â€ he said, â€œbut I have to grab a shower before I head to South Mountain. A Teen Nature group went out this morning, and Iâ€™m doing a campfire activity for them.â€ He laughed. â€œActually, itâ€™s more of making an idiot of myself. The kids get a real kick out of it.â€ â€œOh, I can imagine. So do you always help out with Teen Nature?â€ â€œYeah, at least one day a week, but Iâ€™ve asked to switch to Fridays.â€ He gave me a wink that made me wish for Elsieâ€™s ice pack. Guess my asking him to stay had smoothed over the awkwardness between us. The doorbell ringing saved me from responding. Ruth jumped up from the table where she was examining the repaired hole in the cupboard and hurried to the door. Everyone else froze. Elsie grabbed my hand. â€œItâ€™s okay,â€ I murmured. â€œItâ€™s that woman again,â€ Ruth said in a whisper that carried through the apartment. â€œDo we need to go up on the roof?â€ Elsie asked, pressing herself against me. â€œNo.â€ I glanced at Jameson and saw him frowning at Elsie, and I knew her fear bothered him. I hated it too. Ruth stepped back as I hurried to look through the peephole. The older woman standing there was blond and beautiful and well-dressed. Her hair swept up into a stylish twist in the back, and her trim suit and high heels looked completely out of place here. I had no idea how sheâ€™d found me. â€œItâ€™s my mother,â€ I said. A collective sigh of relief ran through the room. Only I remained tense. Ruth snapped her fingers. â€œRight, she looks like you! Thatâ€™s why sheâ€™s familiar.â€ There might be a family resemblance, but after working at the factory and being up since four, I looked more like her scraggly stepchild. For a moment, I was tempted to not open the door at all, but if sheâ€™d tracked me here, sheâ€™d be back. Nothing left to do but face her. Taking a breath, I opened the door six inches, placing myself in the space so she didnâ€™t have much of a view inside. Ruth started to come around the door to peer out, but I shook my head, and she retreated into the kitchen. â€œMother! What a surprise.â€ She gave a delicate snort. â€œIâ€™ll bet. Why didnâ€™t you tell me you were moving? I went to your old place, and your roommate, that nice dark-haired girlâ€”Brette, I think she said her name wasâ€”told me youâ€™d moved here.â€ Her lips pursed as she tried to see past me, where everything was still quiet. â€œShe knew the apartment number? Thatâ€™s good.â€ And unlikely. Brette Silvan had been my only supportive roommate, and sheâ€™d helped us move, but I hadnâ€™t seen her since, and I doubted she remembered which apartment I was in. â€œWell, I did have to knock on the managerâ€™s door here and talk with him.â€ Her nose wrinkled. â€œHe told me the number.â€ â€œHavenâ€™t you heard of texting?â€ I kept my tone light because that was the best way to deal with my mother. â€œOh, darling, texting is so . . . so tedious. I called but you didnâ€™t answer. I left a message.â€ Now that she mentioned it, I vaguely remembered seeing my message light blinking, but the calls had come when I was at work on the line, and it was impossible to answer then. Once Iâ€™d seen Jamesonâ€™s text, Iâ€™d forgotten everything else. Not very smart since the call could have come from the girls. She gazed around the outdoor hallway, and for a moment I saw the chipped and stained cement, the dusty old brick, and the flimsy black railing that was scraped in more than a few spots. â€œYou live here? This really isnâ€™tâ€”â€ â€œItâ€™s not so bad,â€ I said brightly. â€œWas there something you wanted to tell me? Or were you just in town?â€ â€œLily.â€ Her voice showed disapproval. â€œThe management at your previous apartment told me you had unauthorized visitors. That your roommates complained.â€ Each statement was an accusation. â€œWhatâ€™s going on? I talked to Tessa only a few days ago, and she didnâ€™t mention youâ€™d moved.â€ â€œYeah, it happened so fast. I didnâ€™t have the chance to tell her.â€ No way was I dragging Tessa into this. Next, our mother would be asking her to keep an eye on me and report any bad behavior. â€œWell, arenâ€™t you going to invite me in? Itâ€™s getting dark, and I donâ€™t think itâ€™s quite safe out here.â€ â€œNow isnâ€™t really a good time.â€ â€œLily, Iâ€™ve driven all this way.â€ Now that she was here, there was no stopping her. I sighed internally and stepped away from the door. Inside, everyone watched my mother uneasily, except Elsie, who was probably hiding in the bedroom again. â€œOh, I didnâ€™t know you had company.â€ My motherâ€™s eyes fell over the girls and stopped on Jameson. He nodded at her and then looked expectantly at me. I so did not want to introduce him. Not in a million years. Especially with that tool belt on. I knew my mother would never think him worthy of my notice with that tool belt. â€œThis is my mother,â€ I announced unnecessarily. â€œMom, these are my roommates.â€ Her eyes widened and went to Jameson again. I felt a sneaking gratification at her reaction. â€œNot me,â€ Jameson said quickly. He checked his hand and came toward us as he extended it, â€œHi, Iâ€™m Mario Perez, Lilyâ€™s friend. Nice to meet you.â€ My mother shook his hand gingerly. â€œYou too.â€ If her voice was any stiffer, itâ€™d break. To me, he added, â€œIâ€™d better go.â€ â€œThanks for fixing the cupboard.â€ At that, my mother relaxed, and the little girl inside me who had seen her drop my rescued cat off at the pound felt both saddened and angry. I liked Jameson, and I didnâ€™t care if my mother thought he was a blue-collar worker with no future. Money could help dreams come true, but it couldnâ€™t create them, and there was a whole lot more out there that was more important than rich friends and the right silverware. â€œIâ€™ll see you tomorrow night?â€ I asked Jameson. Or maybe the little girl inside me asked. His dark eyes actually gleamed, completely blotting out my motherâ€™s disapproval. â€œOf course. Looking forward to it.â€ Our gazes caught and held, and I knew that if my mother and the girls werenâ€™t around, weâ€™d be doing a whole lot more kissing and a lot less staring. I wet my lip with my tongue and saw his eyes follow the motion. Suddenly, I couldnâ€™t wait to be alone with him. â€œIâ€™ll walk you down.â€ His grin widened. â€œThatâ€™s okay. I wouldnâ€™t want to interrupt your chat with your mother.â€ With another nod to her and the girls, he strode through the door, radiating so much power and confidence that even my mother stared, and leaving me feeling . . . what, I didnâ€™t know for sure, but it might be a little bit of pride. When I turned from shutting the door, I found my mother watching me, her arms folded. That was how it was with herâ€”hands not on her hips but tucked under her arms as if holding herself apart from the world. From me and Tessa. â€œI was just about to make some dinner,â€ I said. â€œWant to help?â€ â€œAre you dating him?â€ There it was, the condescension Iâ€™d heard her use when talking about the boy at the car wash whoâ€™d hit on me senior year, or whenever she signed a package for the UPS guy. â€œYes,â€ I said. One date didnâ€™t mean we were dating, but I wanted it to. â€œIs he Mexican?â€ How did I know that was coming? She had him weighed and judged, if not in the instant sheâ€™d stepped into the room, then certainly from the moment he told her his name. I glanced at the girls in the living room, but they didnâ€™t appear to be paying attention to either of us. Only Ruth was close enough to hear the intended slur, but she was deep in a book. â€œIâ€™m not sure his nationality matters. Look, Mom, heâ€™s a nice guy, and I like him.â€ I wanted to tell her about his family coming from Spain, about his plans for an MBA, and how he worked at Teen Remake, but at the last second, I couldnâ€™t force the words past my lips. Sheâ€™d already made up her mind, and my answers to her inevitable questions about his roots and his fatherâ€™s employment would likely send us both over the top. She sighed. â€œYou need to come home.â€ A sudden intake of breath told me Ruth wasnâ€™t as occupied with her book as she pretended. â€œActually, what I need is to make dinner. Itâ€™s my night.â€ I forced a bit of apology into my voice. â€œBut Iâ€™d love to get together another day.â€ My mother looked from me to Ruth, to the other girls in the living room. She was smart enough to notice that most of them werenâ€™t anywhere near eighteen. But she didnâ€™t call me on it. Instead, she cracked a partial smile. â€œYour father is thinking about opening an overseas factory. You were always good at languages, so that might be right up your alley. If you could work in some French classes next semester.â€ There it was, as Iâ€™d known it would be. It always came down to my mother placing me to her advantage, or in this case the factoryâ€™s. And of course, French would be the language of her choice, because in her mind it represented romance, society, and culture. The exhaustion Iâ€™d been fighting came rushing back like water closing over my head. â€œThatâ€™s a good idea. Thanks for letting me know.â€ Her smile was real this time because sheâ€™d said what sheâ€™d come here to say, and Iâ€™d listened. â€œYou will be coming for the Fourth, right? Itâ€™s just around the corner. Weâ€™ll stake out a place for the parade, of course. Iâ€™m inviting some friends. Iâ€™m so excited to show you and Tessa off.â€ â€œIâ€™ll be there.â€ Oddly enough, the event was the one thing we did that gave me a sense of family. I didnâ€™t know if that was because I loved the park where we picnicked after the parade, or because my mom would always invite some other family and I enjoyed the peek into their lives, especially if they seemed more normal than our family. At any rate, my parents were always on their best behavior for the day. No arguing or irritation or isolating silences. We played at being the average family. â€œWell, Iâ€™ll be going.â€ She held out her arms for a hug, which I allowed. â€œYou really should do something with your hair,â€ she whispered, fluffing it as she drew away. â€œI have some deep conditioning Iâ€™ll send you.â€ â€œItâ€™s just from the hairnets at work.â€ But I didnâ€™t refuse her offer. The conditioner might be good for Ruth or even Elsie, if the child would ever let me fix her hair. I opened the door. â€œThanks for the visit, Mom. Iâ€™ll walk you out.â€ She smiled. â€œThank you, dear.â€ On the way down the stairs, we passed my second-floor neighbor with his ever-present cigarette between two fingers, his unshaven face contrasting with his new-looking jeans and black dress shirt. He had dark eyes most women would call sexy, but I thought they were calculating, and the way his long hair fell into his face made me think of a teenager. He watched us unblinking as we passed, with no emotion and not even the barest nod of his head. Heâ€™d hit on me the first week weâ€™d been here, and since Iâ€™d refused a date, he hadnâ€™t so much as cracked a smile. My mother glanced back at him after we had passed. â€œI donâ€™t like you being here with his kind.â€ She was right about him, so I couldnâ€™t object, but she had to add as we arrived at her white Lexus, â€œIt was good to see you, but please remember what I said about that man in your apartment. He isnâ€™t from our circle. You need to look for men who have a similar status to your own.â€ The ridiculousness of it made me laugh. â€œI donâ€™t have any status. I havenâ€™t even graduated from college. I work part-time at a cereal factory, and I live in a dump.â€ Not to mention that Jamesonâ€™s major was the exact same one my parents had tried to push on me. I didnâ€™t fool myself that even a finished MBA would be enough to endear him to them, unless he had a rich relative I didnâ€™t know about. â€œYou work as a line manager at your fatherâ€™s successful factory.â€ Her voice was full of sharp points and angles. â€œAnd you had a perfectly respectable apartmentâ€”which, I might add, you paid for with the very generous wage we give you for your work at the factory. You would still have that nice apartment if you didnâ€™t collect stray girls like cats. You also have a perfectly wonderful house to go home to.â€ â€œThe girls arenâ€™t strays. They have me.â€ â€œYou know that I have always believed in charity work, but this is a little extreme, donâ€™t you think? Organizations have been created to take care of these things, and the best thing we can do to help people in need is to support those organizations.â€ Organizations were my motherâ€™s specialty. She was good at raising money for charities, being on committees, and talking about how to improve things for the less fortunate. Good at it as long as it didnâ€™t sully her hands or her houseâ€”or, apparently, her daughters. Weâ€™d never even served dinner in a homeless shelter as a family. â€œWell, someoneâ€™s got to be in the trenches,â€ I said. â€œFoster parents are the solution the organizations use to help kids.â€ â€œYou should be focusing on finishing your education and launching your career.â€ â€œI will finish, but I am also the girlsâ€™ guardian, and I need to make sure they finish out the school year.â€ I was hoping the half-truths would mollify her. Because the end of the school year wouldnâ€™t mean the end of my involvement, and I was only guardian to two of the girls. Lies by omission were what Tessa and I called these half-truths. My parentsâ€™ house thrived on them. My mother heaved a sigh, one hand resting on her open car door. â€œLily, you canâ€™t help all of them. There are too many runaways and too many abuses in this world for one person to correct. You really arenâ€™t doing those girls a favor.â€ As if the pressure in my head were suddenly released, my anger faded. This woman, this â€œpretendâ€ mother, had no comprehension of what I was doing, no understanding of the girlsâ€™ needs, and she was separated from ever understanding by her money and her precious status. That meant she was forever excluded from knowing the joys of being involved. Not something to be angry overâ€”it just made me very, very sad. â€œThanks for coming, Mom. Iâ€™ll see you on the Fourth.â€ My neighbor was nowhere to be seen as I went back upstairs. The minute I walked into the apartment, Ruth popped out of the chair. â€œI donâ€™t know why we havenâ€™t met her before. She wasnâ€™t so bad.â€ â€œIf you like ice queens,â€ muttered Zoey from the couch. I couldnâ€™t hide my smile. â€œSo, you know that you and Mario donâ€™t have plans tomorrow, right?â€ Halla added. â€œAt least, you didnâ€™t tell us anything about a date.â€ â€œNo, not a date. Weâ€™ll both be at Teen Nature for my new work.â€ Ruth grinned. â€œI thought you said you donâ€™t start until next week, and heâ€™s going tonight. He only does one night a week, right?â€ â€œYep,â€ Zoey said. â€œThat means you made a date with himâ€”we all heard you.â€ Now the gleam in Jamesonâ€™s eyes made sense. Heâ€™d thought I was asking him out! I crossed the room and sank down on the couch, uncertain how I felt about that. I mean, I wanted to go out with him, but I didnâ€™t want to appear desperate or have him think I asked him because of my mother, which in a way, I guess I had. â€œSo where are you going to take him?â€ Bianca asked. â€œI donâ€™t know.â€ I could explain everything to him and heâ€™d understand, but I hadnâ€™t imagined the attraction between us, and that meant dating him was a good idea. Even if Iâ€™d done the asking. â€œIâ€™ll let you know when I figure it out. For now, we need to finish your report.â€ Whatever I did with Jameson, I was sure there would be fireworks, and that made me all shivery inside. Shivery good. I might just be falling for him. Maybe. 7 Friday morning came earlyâ€”probably because Iâ€™d been tossing and turning on the couch. Truthfully, I hadnâ€™t slept well since Iâ€™d moved to this apartment and had to sleep on the couch, and I was seriously considering using a pillow and blanket in the bathtub, or squeezing in with the girls in the bedroom. If they were really my sisters, thatâ€™s what Iâ€™d do, but I didnâ€™t know how that would go over with DCS. Halla took Zoey and Bianca to school, so I went back to sleep on Zoey and Biancaâ€™s double mattress for a half hour. I still needed to go see Payden at the grocery store, but I didnâ€™t have to work at the factory, which made me want to weep with joy. Just feeling that way made me depressed about going back on Monday. Sometime later, I opened my eyes to see Elsie standing over me, her hands behind her back. â€œOh, is it time?â€ My phone alarm hadnâ€™t buzzed yet. â€œNo, but . . .â€ She trailed off. â€œI was just . . . well, maybe Iâ€™ll go with you to see Payden.â€ I smiled. â€œIâ€™m sure heâ€™d love that.â€ I was just as sure she had a crush on him. He was five years older, but he was socially a lot younger that most seventeen-year-olds, and I wasnâ€™t concerned. Heâ€™d been a good friend to both of us. She brought out her hand and showed me a brush I recognized as mine from the bathroom. â€œI was going to ask . . . maybe could you comb my hair?â€ Trying not to act excited, I stretched and sat up. â€œSure, but we should probably start with washing and conditioning it. That might help.â€ Ruthâ€™s detangler should work on Elsieâ€™s long hair. Twenty minutes later, I was on the couch, combing out the strands. It wasnâ€™t as difficult as Iâ€™d expected, but still ten times more trying than my own. When we were finished, the difference was startling. She no longer looked like a street urchin. â€œYou look beautiful,â€ I said. A darkness waved momentarily across her face, but she shook her head abruptly, as if shaking out an unwanted thought, and smiled shyly. â€œThank you.â€ â€œLetâ€™s go.â€ I had no time to shower, of course, or put on makeup, but I wasnâ€™t trying to impress Payden. I dragged the brush through my hair as I waited at a traffic light. â€œSo, did you decide where to take Mario?â€ Elsie asked. â€œNot yet.â€ â€œMaybe a movie?â€ â€œMaybe.â€ Then because Jameson had told me how much time he spent with Payden since his father died, I pinched my cheeks and ran a tube of lipstick over my lips before getting out of the car. Just in case Jameson stopped by on a break or something. Inside, we bought a small bag of Elsieâ€™s favorite chips, and Paydenâ€™s face lit up when he saw her. By the time we got around to the back of the store, Payden was already there. â€œHey, Elsie,â€ he said. â€œYou look nice.â€ She shrugged and blushed. â€œLily helped with my hair.â€ â€œIt was a challenge, I tell you,â€ I said. â€œShe had like five rat nests. We had to evict all the tenants.â€ Payden laughed, but Elsieâ€™s blush deepened, so I added, â€œKidding, of course. She has great hair. What have we got here today?â€ I took the box from his arms and pretended great interest while the two stared at each other without talking. Elsie wasnâ€™t usually this reticent and neither was Payden. â€œSo,â€ I said, after a bit. â€œMaybe you can come and hang out with us sometimes. Maybe with your cousin.â€ Paydenâ€™s smile turned on me. â€œI told you he was great, right?â€ â€œRight.â€ Payden gave me another secret smile and turned back to Elsie. â€œIâ€™m glad youâ€™re okay.â€ She nodded, and they stared at each other for a couple more long seconds, and then Payden had to go inside. â€œIâ€™ll talk to Mario about getting together.â€ â€œYou do that.â€ We turned and retraced our steps to the car. â€œHeâ€™s so nice,â€ Elsie said. â€œHe looks at me nicely. Not likeâ€”â€ She broke off. â€œLike who?â€ I put the groceries in the back seat. â€œNobody,â€ she mumbled. Her face was pale and her eyes glued to the ground. I waited until we got in the car to say, â€œYou can tell me when youâ€™re ready. It wonâ€™t surprise me. It isnâ€™t fair and it isnâ€™t right, but whatever happened, I promise you Iâ€™ll do my best to see that it doesnâ€™t happen again.â€ Elsie lifted her eyes to mine. â€œI know. But some people . . . I just donâ€™t ever want to talk about him. Itâ€™s like if I do, heâ€™ll find me.â€ â€œOkay,â€ I said simply. At least sheâ€™d verified again that it was a â€œhimâ€ sheâ€™d been running from. Of all the girls Iâ€™d helped, so far the only woman whoâ€™d been abusive was Saffronâ€™s mother. Mothers were often neglectful, addicted, absent, or victims themselves, but not quite as prone to beating a child half to death. When we arrived at the apartment, Makay was there with Nate. â€œHey.â€ She looked up at us from the couch where she cuddled her brother. Ruth and Halla were tickling his toes and trying to get him to come to them. Saffron was in the corner with her iPhone that she currently used only as an iPod, since she lost her cell phone service after her parents kicked her out. Makay set Nate in Ruthâ€™s arms and came to help me put away the groceries. â€œCan I store a few packs of diapers here? I had some double coupons for them, but I donâ€™t dare leave them at Fernâ€™s. She has a great talent of turning baby items into cash for her drugs, and my roommates are almost as bad.â€ â€œSure, come on.â€ Leaving Nate with the girls, Makay grabbed her grocery bag and followed me to the bedroom closet where I kept a large trunk with a heavy combination padlock. Though I mostly trusted the girls, it didnâ€™t make sense to tempt them, not with their background of survival. So I kept the trunk, and each of them were allowed to put their private or personal belongings inside, separated into labeled flat rate boxes from the post office, which Makay had once pointed out was an improper use of the boxes and was probably prosecutable by law. One more thing for me to worry about. But the setup worked nicely, and nothing had been stolen or misplaced since Iâ€™d started it last January. None of us had much, so there was enough room for the two diaper packs. â€œYou donâ€™t have to put them in there,â€ Makay said. â€œThereâ€™s enough room on that top shelf.â€ â€œItâ€™s okay. Iâ€™d feel better being sure.â€ â€œSo,â€ Makay said, dropping onto one of the mattresses and bringing her knees to her chest. â€œI hear you have a new job.â€ â€œThatâ€™s right. Iâ€™m really excited about it.â€ I relocked the trunk and sat next to her on the mattress and told her about Teen Remake and the Back to Nature program. â€œItâ€™s different from what Iâ€™m doing now because the parents are involved, paying for the programs and working with their kids, but itâ€™ll be similar in a lot of ways, Iâ€™m guessing.â€ â€œYouâ€™ll be great,â€ Makay said. â€œDoes this mean you donâ€™t have to go to your dadâ€™s sweat shop?â€ I laughed. â€œHardly. It just means maybe we can find a bigger place.â€ She shook her head. â€œNot with just one income. Itâ€™s impossible.â€ â€œMaybe I can, if Iâ€™m an official foster parent.â€ Makayâ€™s eyes widened. â€œSeriously? That would be great! I mean, even a little bit that you can use for food and lodging would make a huge difference.â€ â€œI know, right?â€ I felt happy inside. Hopeful. â€œIt means Iâ€™ll be out late on Fridays, and Thursdays are going to be hard, since Iâ€™ll have to go to both my jobs. At least on Thursdays Iâ€™ll be working at Teen Remake instead of at the camp, so there isnâ€™t added driving time. But I was hoping you might stop by to check on Elsie for me. I donâ€™t like leaving her alone so long, and Iâ€™m not sure sheâ€™s ready to run errands with the other girls.â€ â€œSure, Iâ€™d be glad to.â€ Makay rocked back on the mattress, her arms around her legs. At the moment she looked as young as Elsie, her dark hair almost as long. â€œIt wonâ€™t interfere with your job?â€ She frowned and shook her head. â€œActually, I was fired from the restaurant. I went to drop off Nate yesterday morning because Fern had called me, bawling, late Wednesday night and said she wanted him. Usually when she does that, sheâ€™s sober for a few days, and thereâ€™s a neighbor there who keeps an ear out for Nate, just in case. But when I got there, she was passed out, and I had no one to watch him. I tried to call in sick, but apparently Iâ€™ve done that one too many times.â€ â€œYou couldnâ€™t just bring him here?â€ â€œI knew you would be taking the girls to their job.â€ â€œSaffron and Elsie were here.â€ She sighed. â€œYeah, but Iâ€™d have still been late, and they gave me a boatload of warnings. It was be there on time or hit the road. Honestly, I canâ€™t blame them.â€ â€œWhat are you going to do about rent?â€ Before she answered, I hurried to add, â€œYou know youâ€™re always welcome here.â€ â€œI have another gig coming up. Itâ€™s only an occasional job, but Iâ€™ve done it before in the past, and it usually gets me enough.â€ I didnâ€™t like the way her face blanched as she said it. â€œDoing what?â€ â€œBasically, Iâ€™m a courier.â€ Something inside me screamed a warning. â€œItâ€™s not drugs, is it?â€ â€œYou kidding? After what drugs have done to Fern? No way. No drugs or alcohol involved. Basically, this guy tracks people down on the Internet and connects them with others who want to find them, mostly kids looking for their birth parents. I do some running around for him, delivering or picking up stuff. The only setback is that heâ€™s kind of a jerk. But Iâ€™ve known him for years, and he helped me survive after I left home as a kid.â€ She frowned. â€œThat was back when I thought I could find my birth parents.â€ â€œWait, I thought your parents died.â€ â€œThey were my adoptive parents.â€ How did I not know that? Poor Makay, losing her adoptive mother, then her fatherâ€”though he hadnâ€™t been much of a prize to begin withâ€”and now being stuck with her stepmother, Fern. â€œWell, like I said, you can always stay here.â€ â€œI know, but I hate to add to your burden. Seven women in a one bedroom, one bath apartment is too much already.â€ â€œThey donâ€™t need much.â€ â€œIâ€™ll keep it in mind. Maybe we can find a bigger place together.â€ I stared at her. â€œYeah, maybe so.â€ For a moment, my dream of a house seemed a step closer. The foster parenting, Makay helping . . . but Makay had Nate to worry about, and her stepmother. She could barely afford the low rent she paid in the apartment she shared with five other girls, and having Nate with her so much made working even part time difficult. No, I needed to do it myself. â€œWhat is it?â€ Makay asked, her dark eyes concerned. â€œAh, itâ€™s nothing. Thanks for agreeing to check in on Elsie. Sheâ€™s finally warming up a bit, and I donâ€™t want any setbacks.â€ â€œSheâ€™ll be all right. Kids are resilient.â€ If anyone knew that, it was Makay. I still didnâ€™t know how sheâ€™d survived on the street so young after her drunk father had married the horrible Fern. Without warning, the partially ajar bedroom door slammed the rest of the way open. Ruth stood there, her eyes large. â€œCome quick, you got to see this! Itâ€™s Hallaâ€”sheâ€™s all over the Internet.â€ I leapt from the bed and followed her into the living room, where Saffron was booting up my computer. â€œLook!â€ she said, pushing her phone at me. I glanced at the picture on Saffronâ€™s Facebook page. It was Halla all right, though her hair was a few inches longer in the photo. No mistaking her blue eyes and the small, narrow nose. Instead of her customary army pants and tank top, she wore a pink T-shirt and her lips had been brushed with gloss. â€œEveryone is posting this,â€ Saffron said. â€œShe looks a little different, but itâ€™s obviously Halla. Anyone who sees this is going to know itâ€™s her.â€ I sat down in front of my laptop and put in the password. Sure enough, my own friends were posting the missing girl picture, which already had over five thousand shares. I glanced at Halla, who was standing by the couch, her eyes round and her face frightened. â€œI wonâ€™t go back,â€ she said. â€œOf course not.â€ I thought a moment. â€œLook, we recognize her because we know her, but most people wonâ€™t. Her hair is so short and with her camouflage, itâ€™s almost like a disguise.â€ â€œItâ€™ll pass,â€ Makay predicted. â€œThe next thing will come along and replace it. Everyone will forget in a few days.â€ Saffron shook her head. â€œThereâ€™s more.â€ She clicked on the link, and it went to a blog run by Hallaâ€™s parents, who looked nice and normal and concerned. Smack dab in the middle of the page was a picture of Halla with her short hair and camouflage. â€œWe believe she is now in Arizona,â€ her father wrote. â€œWeâ€™ve left Idaho and will be staying in Arizona until we bring her home.â€ â€œHe even has their pastor making a plea on a Go Fund Me account,â€ Ruth said. â€œItâ€™s sick.â€ â€œHow did they even get that picture?â€ Halla sank down on the couch beside me. â€œI didnâ€™t cut my hair until I left home.â€ Saffronâ€™s jaw clenched, her eyes blazing. â€œThe jerk must have gotten it from someone at one of the homeless shelters you stopped at on the way here from Idaho.â€ â€œIâ€™ll have to leave,â€ Halla whispered as I slipped my arm around her. â€œIâ€™ll have to run again.â€ Ruth squeezed in next to Halla and grabbed her hand. â€œIâ€™ll go with you. I ainâ€™t lettinâ€™ you go alone.â€ â€œNo oneâ€™s going anywhere,â€ I told them. â€œWeâ€™re all sticking together. Makayâ€™s rightâ€”this will blow over. We just have to stay low until they move on. Meanwhile, Iâ€™ll get certified as a foster parent, and talk to the lady I met yesterday and figure things out.â€ Elsie reached past Ruth and laid a small hand on Hallaâ€™s shoulder. â€œIâ€™ll help Ruth with your jobs until they leave.â€ Hallaâ€™s frozen face suddenly relaxed. â€œThank you.â€ She jumped up and hugged Elsie. Saffron had turned my laptop toward her and was reading the rest. â€œNothing here from your mother, Halla. Besides the picture of them together, itâ€™s only him. He says heâ€™s taken a leave of absence. Theyâ€™ve raised a couple thousand dollars on the Go Fund Me, but it looks stalled now.â€ She paused, considering. â€œI think we should give you a new look, make sure you always wear different clothesâ€”â€ â€œShe could dress like a boy,â€ Ruth said excitedly. I looked at Halla doubtfully. â€œShe wouldnâ€™t pass for a boy any more than you do in those clothes, but changing her appearance isnâ€™t a bad idea. And keeping her out of sight until this dies down. You willing to do that, Halla?â€ She nodded. â€œIf it means I donâ€™t have to leave. Iâ€™ve got a few books to read anyway.â€ â€œYou can use my phone for a few weeks until I have enough for cell service,â€ Saffron said. â€œI downloaded a ton of really great free books from mybookcave.com. Theyâ€™re even rated for content like movies.â€ She hesitated before adding. â€œBut I do have an idea. What if I post that this whole blog is a hoax?â€ â€œUh,â€ I said, â€œmaybe not. They can trace these things.â€ â€œThere might be a way.â€ Saffron smiled. â€œI met a new guy today. Computer whiz. I bet heâ€™d know.â€ â€œYou canâ€™t trust him!â€ Halla sounded panicked. â€œOf course not. But that doesnâ€™t mean I canâ€™t learn a few things from him.â€ There was a determination in Saffronâ€™s voice that Iâ€™d heard before. She was going to research this, whatever we said. â€œYou learn all you want,â€ I told her. â€œBut donâ€™t do anything until we talk.â€ She frowned but nodded slowly. â€œOkay.â€ Makay reached over and picked up Nate, who was clawing at her pant leg. â€œI might have some ideas on that myself,â€ she said. â€œI know a guy who finds people, and Iâ€™ve learned a bit about how to make being found harder.â€ I snapped my fingers. â€œNow thatâ€™s a great idea. You two work together. Saffron, just run everything past Makay, okay?â€ Since I had no time for social media and was barely on the Internet, Makay would police the situation better than I ever could. I believed in delegation. â€œHalla,â€ Makay said, â€œyou havenâ€™t used your Facebook lately, have you?â€ She shook her head. â€œOnly twice since I left Idaho, and not since Lily brought me and Ruth home.â€ Home, meaning the old apartment. I still felt grateful my parents held their Thanksgiving celebration at noon, so I was able to drive back to find Ruth and Halla eating dinner at the church. If I hadnâ€™t found them, they wouldnâ€™t have discovered Zoey and Bianca a month later. â€œThatâ€™s good.â€ To Makay, I added, â€œLet us know.â€ â€œWell, since weâ€™re staying in anyway,â€ Saffron said, â€œwho wants to do nails?â€ â€œMe! Me!â€ yelled Nate. We all laughed. They crowded around the small kitchen table, and as I listened to their chatter, I thought about how the girls had come into my life. Funny how the two largest family days of the year, Thanksgiving and Christmas, had each increased our little misfit family by two. Saffron had arrived first around Labor Day, and Iâ€™d found Elsie a few days after Easter, which had come in mid-April this year. I couldnâ€™t help wondering who I might find on the Fourth of July. 8 Makay left to track down some coupon deals at the grocery store, and the girls spent the afternoon fiddling with Hallaâ€™s appearance while I replaced the screws in my repaired cupboard door. After an hour, Saffron went out and bought a cheap brown wig, and that made all the difference. I was touched that sheâ€™d spent the money she was saving for a car and phone service to help Halla. It was a far cry from when she and Zoey almost had fist fights over who was going to shower first, or when she accused Ruth of hoarding food. I realized that somehow, at some point, theyâ€™d changed from a bunch of troubled, runaway girls into a family. A real family. That only made me more determined to fight for them. Ruth sat next to me on the couch, watching the final transformation. â€œI almost donâ€™t know you myself,â€ she said to Halla. I had to agree. Halla still looked fourteen instead of sixteen, but with subtle makeup instead of thick black liner, dark hair, and normal clothes, she wasnâ€™t easily recognizable. â€œWeird how hair can make such a difference.â€ There was a wistfulness in Ruthâ€™s voice. I turned to her. â€œWe can do you next.â€ Her eyes dropped to her oversized pants. â€œI donâ€™t think so.â€ As if sensing her friendâ€™s distress, Halla stopped turning around and dropped to her knees in front of where we sat. â€œI told her sheâ€™d look beautiful in girl clothes, but she doesnâ€™t want to look beautiful.â€ â€œWell, sheâ€™s beautiful anyway,â€ Saffron said, hands on her hips as she stared down on us. â€œI bet you could be a model.â€ Ruthâ€™s face paled. â€œI hate being pretty. My mom says itâ€™s my fault her boyfriends couldnâ€™t help themselves.â€ Iâ€™d told her before that what happened to her wasnâ€™t her fault, but this was the first time sheâ€™d admitted that her mother also blamed her. â€œWell, your mother is plain wrong. Itâ€™s their faultâ€”and hers. You were only thirteen. She should have protected you.â€ Her eyes lifted to mine, and I hoped I was getting through. â€œYou have every right to be beautiful and dress beautifully and not be afraid of being attacked by scumbags pretending to be men. Real men donâ€™t attack women, and certainly not kids. Iâ€™m not saying you should go around half-naked or walk into dangerous situationsâ€”that would be stupidâ€”but you have the right to be safe in your own home. And you are perfectly safe here.â€ There was no doubt in my mind that Ruth needed counseling, but we didnâ€™t have access to that, not yet. All she had was me and the others. Iâ€™d researched myself crazy on this, and most of it boiled down to love, patience, security, and reassurance. I hoped it was enough. â€œI know Iâ€™m safe now,â€ Ruth said. â€œBut if they send me back againâ€”â€ â€œNot going to happen,â€ Halla retorted. â€œCome on. Letâ€™s dress you up.â€ Ruth was weakening. â€œWell, maybe it would be okay, just for a little while.â€ â€œYes!â€ Saffron clapped her hands and went to dig in the closet. She couldnâ€™t find any pants long enough, but some tan shorts and a fitted white tee did wonders. I still hadnâ€™t figured out how to style Ruthâ€™s frizzy hair, but we braided it in tiny cornrows that made her eyes and face stand out. Iâ€™d really have to see if Bea from DCS could give me any hair pointers. Of course, that might mean telling her about Ruth. Maybe soon. That was when Zoey and Bianca arrived home from school, having caught their usual ride with friends. Zoeyâ€™s jaw dropped, and Bianca did a double take. â€œWow,â€ Zoey said. â€œYou two look so different! For a moment, I thought Lily had brought home some new girls.â€ â€œYeah, me too.â€ Bianca fingered Hallaâ€™s wig. â€œCan I try it on?â€ â€œYes! Ugh, itâ€™s getting hot anyway.â€ Halla slipped it off. â€œWho wants chocolate chip cookies?â€ I asked. The girls cheered and chatted together in the kitchen, snapping pictures with my phone until the cookies were ready. Five oâ€™clock had rolled around before I got up the nerve to text Jameson. So, I wrote, what time are you off? Just left. Want to see a movie? A long pause and then he sent: I have something better in mind. Is that okay? More than okay. At least he wasnâ€™t bailing on me. Sure. Pick you up at six? I could pick you up. No, thatâ€™s okay. Iâ€™d rather drive the Mustang, if you donâ€™t mind. Iâ€™m fine with that. I looked up from my phone to find Ruth staring at me. She appeared eighteen with her transformation, but no doubt in four years when she really was eighteen, sheâ€™d still look the same. â€œSo, does he like the movie idea?â€ â€œHe says he has something better in mind.â€ Saffron squealed. â€œOoh, I canâ€™t wait! Weâ€™d better do your makeup now.â€ I let the girls fuss over me and choose my clothingâ€”a rather snug pair of jeans and a fitted Hard Rock CafÃ© T-shirt from Cabo San Lucas, where my parents had once taken Tessa and me on a cruise. Iâ€™d been collecting Hard Rock shirts for years, though all the European ones except London had been gifts from my motherâ€™s friends. â€œI donâ€™t even know where weâ€™re going,â€ I protested. â€œWhat if itâ€™s someplace nice?â€ â€œIf there was a dress code, heâ€™d have told you,â€ Saffron said. I was beginning to have second thoughts. Surprises usually werenâ€™t good these days. â€œBut I forgot tonightâ€™s our movie night.â€ â€œNot when you have a date,â€ Zoey said. â€œStop trying to find excuses to stay home. Besides, weâ€™re moving it to Saturday, right?â€ â€œAnd Halla canâ€™t go nowhere right now,â€ Ruth added, â€œso weâ€™ll all hang here and watch TV without you. Weâ€™re fine with that.â€ â€œOr we can grab some movies from Redbox,â€ Bianca suggested. â€œRemember, I have a date tonight too.â€ Saffron gave me a mischievous grin. â€œBut I wonâ€™t be late if you wonâ€™t.â€ â€œDeal.â€ We shook on it, and then I took Zoey, Bianca, and Elsie to pick out some movies. We passed our second-floor neighbor on the landing, and his eyes wandered over us, pausing briefly on Elsie, but the girl was in the middle of the others and didnâ€™t seem to notice. What was his obsession with her anyway? One thing was certain: the sooner I got out of this dump, the better. By the time we returned with three DVDs, Jameson was already there. We found him pacing outside the apartment, his hiking boots loud on the concrete landing. Hiking boots? â€œAh, there you are,â€ he said, flashing the smile that made me feel as if I were the only person in the world. He must practice that smile in the mirror at home. â€œI was beginning to think you stood me up.â€ That made the girls giggle. â€œNope,â€ I said. â€œRemember, I was the one who asked you.â€ I opened the door with my keys and ushered everyone inside. Halla and Ruth stared at us from the couch, and I felt a rush of pride that they hadnâ€™t cracked the door even to â€œhotâ€ Jameson. Halla was wearing her wig again, and Ruth was still wearing my clothes. â€œHey,â€ Jameson said to them. â€œYou two look nice. Did you dress up for me? Whatâ€™s with the wig, Halla?â€ â€œAw, youâ€™re not supposed to recognize me.â€ Halla stuck out her bottom lip in a pout. â€œWell, I almost didnâ€™t. But there was no mistaking your sidekick. Honestly, Ruth, Iâ€™m loving those braid thingies in your hair. Youâ€™re going to have to show me how you do those.â€ It was exactly the right response. No comment about her beauty or the clothes showing her figureâ€”just that she looked nice, and he liked the cornrows. â€œWe thought you was gonna leave when we didnâ€™t answer the door,â€ Ruth said. â€œWe bet on it.â€ â€œNo way. Itâ€™s not every day I get asked out by a pretty girl.â€ â€œWhereâ€™re you taking her?â€ This, surprisingly from Elsie. â€œItâ€™s a secret,â€ he whispered, winking at me, â€œbut sheâ€™ll tell you when we get back.â€ Then he saw the DVD in her hands. â€œWhat, seriously? You found a Redbox with a copy of Back to the Future? No way. I always have to find that somewhere else. No one stocks classics these days.â€ I gaped. â€œYou think thatâ€™s a classic?â€ â€œYou bet! And if we didnâ€™t already have plans, we could stay right here and watch it.â€ That was going overboard. â€œCome on,â€ I said. â€œWeâ€™re out of here. Girls, you know where the leftovers are from last night. Enjoy dinner.â€ To Jameson, I added, â€œI hope these plans include something to eat because if they donâ€™t, weâ€”â€ â€œThey do,â€ he said. â€œBut youâ€™ll need a jacket.â€ I grabbed one from the small closet by the door. With a final glance at the girls, who were grinning at me and giving me the thumbs-up when Jameson wasnâ€™t looking, I closed the door behind me. I didnâ€™t remind them to lock the deadbolt, but I stayed close until I heard it. Jameson grinned at me. â€œTheyâ€™ll be okay. We wonâ€™t be long.â€ Strangely, I felt comforted. Once again, Jameson drove us to South Mountain, but not to where weâ€™d watched the sunrise. This place had a lodge, three cabins, and a small stage set before rows of stadium-like benches. Teens emerged from the lodge, talking and laughing. Jameson grabbed my hand. â€œCome on. If we miss dinner, I donâ€™t know if I have enough strings to find us anything.â€ He waved at some teens as they passed. â€œTeen Nature?â€ I guessed. â€œYep. I thought it might be a good idea to get you acclimatized before you jump into the fire next week.â€ â€œItâ€™s really cool. Iâ€™m not sure what I expectedâ€”they told me there werenâ€™t tentsâ€”but this is more like a . . .â€ â€œA motel in the mountains?â€ He laughed when I nodded. â€œI told you it wasnâ€™t a wilderness survival thing. We do a lot of getting back to nature, but we donâ€™t want kids to hate it. We even have showers.â€ He opened the door at one edge of the lodge, and we walked into a cafeteria. There were two lines of food, but one had already shut down, and the workers looked ready to clean the other one up too. Jameson hurried over, grabbing both of us a tray. â€œHey, guys,â€ he said to the two young men and the young woman, who were all near my age or maybe a year or two younger, â€œthis is Lily. She starts next week. I thought Iâ€™d bring her to see what sheâ€™s getting into.â€ â€œHey,â€ said the men together. The woman smiled and waved. â€œGood to see another woman around here.â€ Jameson introduced them, but I only caught the womanâ€™s nameâ€”Daliaâ€”before I was distracted by the food and my rumbling stomach. It was soft tortillas with all the fixings, and little containers with sherbet ice cream for dessert. Jameson pointed to a group of kids still at a table. â€œWe usually have about fifty kids up here each time, and twenty counselors. And some parents.â€ â€œThe parents stay all night too?â€ I heaped a portion of taco meat onto my tortilla. â€œSome doâ€”not all of them. Not all the counselors stay, either. Only a certain number are required to, and only those few employees get paid for sleeping here. Itâ€™s a great way to put in your forty hours.â€ He grinned. â€œSo I always opt for it when I can, now that I have enough seniority to be considered. Iâ€™ll be sleeping here on Friday nights starting next week, and cutting down my day shifts accordingly.â€ I was glad they hadnâ€™t asked me to stay overnight, even though the drive out here to South Mountain on both Friday and Saturday would make my shifts longer. I might sleep better in a real bed here, but Iâ€™d worry too much about the girls. We laughed and joked for the few minutes it took us to eat our food. The sun was already out of sight in the sky when we finished, though it was still fairly light, and Jameson took me to the benches in front of the stage, where the kids were gathering. â€œYouâ€™ve got to see these skits,â€ he said. â€œTheyâ€™ve had only today to work on them. Some make you feel like youâ€™re back in kindergarten, but every now and then you get some really brilliant ones.â€ Numerous teens greeted Jameson as we approached, offering high-fives or complicated handshakes. They gave me subtle glances, but when Jameson introduced me, it wasnâ€™t as a future camp counselor, which made everyone assume I was his girlfriend. I decided I was okay with that for now. There were six skits, and to my surprise, a few parents participated as well. The first four skits were funny only because they were so awful, but the fifth, a parody of a hospital stay, had me laughing out loud. â€œThat kid in the bed?â€ Jameson whispered. â€œHis mother died last year, and that was when he started giving his father trouble. Heâ€™s been writing some short stories, and Iâ€™m pretty sure this idea is based on one of thoseâ€”very cathartic for him.â€ The boy had brooding eyes, and he delivered every line with deadpan humor, but every now and then a smile escaped his control. Heâ€™s going to be okay, I thought. The final skit was heads above most of the other presentations, but only half as good as the hospital one. â€œOkay, letâ€™s vote by clapping,â€ said a counselor in a blue shirt with Teen Nature stamped in bold across his chest. The microphone squawked with feedback, and he grimaced before continuing. The hospital skit won a standing ovation, and the actors received oversized chocolate bars and pats on the back for encouragement. â€œOkay, card games in the lodge,â€ said the counselor, â€œbut donâ€™t stay too late. Remember we have Chat Time in the morning, bright and early at six.â€ The kids booed, but only softly, and no one seemed very upset as they beelined for the lodge. â€œWell?â€ Jameson asked, his arm around me as we sat close together on the bench. â€œHow do you like it?â€ â€œThis is what Iâ€™ll be helping with on Fridays?â€ â€œIn the evenings, at least. How are your acting skills?â€ I thought of my roommates, school officials, and my mother. â€œPretty good, I think.â€ â€œThen you have nothing to fear. Earlier, they had trust exercises, activities, and counseling sessions led by certified therapists. Youâ€™ll get the hang of it, but I didnâ€™t want you to be in complete shock your first day on the job.â€ â€œIt looks really great.â€ I wanted to help the kids here, but I was even more excited about the things Iâ€™d learn to help my girls. He offered a hand, and I took it, allowing him to pull me to my feet. â€œCome on. Iâ€™ll show you my favorite spot.â€ He led me along a path and up some wooden stairs laid into the mountainside and then down another path, his footsteps sure in the dark. Obviously, he knew the place well. â€œThere,â€ he said, as we rounded a bend in the path that opened up to the valley below. â€œOh,â€ I said, the word coming out as a partial sigh. â€œItâ€™s beautiful.â€ In the distance, we could see city lights shining and twinkling like an early Christmas display. Even better were the overhead stars, glistening in an uninterrupted blanket of darkness, infused with mystery and magic. â€œStars are always brighter here than in the city.â€ Jameson stood close, our jacketed arms touching. â€œItâ€™s like a surprise, appearing around that bend so unexpectedly.â€ He chuckled. â€œYeah, just like our so-called date.â€ I turned to face him. â€œYou knew?â€ â€œThat you were referring to work? That you werenâ€™t really asking me on a date? Oh, yeah.â€ Now I understood the gleam in his eyes. It hadnâ€™t been excitement at being with me, but rather enjoyment at my slip. â€œWhy didnâ€™t you say something?â€ The moonlight illuminated his face, and there was no mistaking the way his eyes drank me in. â€œAnd miss out on my opportunity to do this . . .â€ Deliberately, he placed his lips on mine. Warmth flooded through me in a delicious, heady rush. Okay then. I didnâ€™t know what to say, so I kissed him more deeply. He tasted of the mint gum weâ€™d had after dinner, with maybe a hint of hot sauce, which turned out to be an intoxicating combination. His arms went around my back, anchoring me in the moment. He was significantly taller than I was, but our bodies fit together effortlessly. Slow down, I told myself. I didnâ€™t listen. He pulled me closer, his hands running over my back on top of my jacket. My stomach fluttered, my heart pounded, and my mind was full of nothing but him. Being here like this, having him hold meâ€”it was new and familiar all at once. A contentment Iâ€™d never experienced settled over me. After long moments, Jameson drew reluctantly away. â€œI guess we should get going,â€ he said, his breath short and his voice husky. â€œYeah.â€ I had no idea what time it was. It could have been three days for all the awareness I had of anything besides him. â€œIf we hurry,â€ he added, reaching for my hand, â€œwe might be able to catch the last of Back to the Future.â€ â€œOh, brother.â€ I rolled my eyes, but I was glad. Halla had been upset about her fatherâ€™s disruptive activities on the Internet, and I wanted to see if she was still as okay with everything as sheâ€™d been after the makeover. Because I wasnâ€™t as sure as Iâ€™d acted that I could keep her safely hidden. I was still thinking of Halla and what to do about her all the way to the car, down the mountainside, and most of the drive back to Phoenix. As if sensing my preoccupation, Jameson kept up the conversation, talking about the camp and the kids, but I was only half listening. â€œWhat are you thinking?â€ Jameson asked, sending me a worried glance. â€œIs it all more than you bargained for?â€ â€œOh, no. Sorry. Itâ€™s just something that happened today with Halla.â€ â€œSomething, by chance, that explains the wig?â€ Internally, I cursed his perceptiveness. â€œMaybe.â€ I wanted to tell him, to share the burden, but months of keeping certain things to myself stilled my tongue. His hand slipped across the space between us, landing on my thigh and sending spikes of electricity through my nerves. â€œYou can tell me. I mean, if you want.â€ I made the decision the way I always had with the girlsâ€”with my heart. It hadnâ€™t led me astray yet. â€œRemember how I told you that Halla escaped from a room her father had locked her in?â€ â€œFor six months, right? Until she jumped out the window and broke her arm.â€ I nodded. â€œWell, heâ€™s somehow tracked her here. There are pictures of her plastered all over Facebook and elsewhere on the Internet. Heâ€™s saying he wonâ€™t leave Arizona until he finds her. We saw the pictures today, and it freaked Hallaâ€”all of usâ€”out.â€ â€œSounds like he really wants to find her.â€ â€œItâ€™s more than that. Iâ€™m afraid sheâ€™ll run again. Because if he knew where she was, heâ€™d come for her, and I . . .â€ Would he think I was exaggerating? â€œI donâ€™t know if sheâ€™d survive it.â€ â€œYou need to talk to Bea about her.â€ â€œWhat? No! Itâ€™s only Hallaâ€™s word against his. Her mother knows, but apparently sheâ€™s a spineless idiot. Remember, Halla already gave in to despair once when she jumped out that window. I canâ€™t let that happen again.â€ Jameson didnâ€™t say anything but stared at the road ahead. I wished heâ€™d say somethingâ€”anything. His hand was still on my leg, but I wanted it off. I wished I hadnâ€™t sat in the middle seat. â€œDid you ever consider that maybe Halla is stretching the truth?â€ he said finally. â€œNo.â€ I was offended that heâ€™d even suggest it. I was glad when he reached an intersection and he had to lift his hand to shift. Maybe it was my silence or my stiffness, but he didnâ€™t return his hand to my leg. I felt both glad and bereft, which made no sense. â€œKids do that all the time. You know thatâ€”you have to know that.â€ Anger flooded me, as hot as the passion Iâ€™d felt for him earlier. â€œHe starved her and locked her in a room. She tried to kill herself because her life was so bleak.â€ â€œThatâ€™s what she says. Did you see her arm broken?â€ â€œNo, it had healed by the time I found her. She went to a free clinic and had the cast cut off on her way here from Idaho.â€ Jameson glanced over. â€œThere are two sides to every story, and Iâ€™ve seen a lot of kids and parents at Teen Remake butt heads because neither side is willing to bend.â€ â€œAre you saying Hallaâ€™s a liar? Because Iâ€™m telling you sheâ€™s not. Iâ€™ve known her for six months. Youâ€™ve known her for, what, three days?â€ Questioning her was the same as questioning my judgment, because Iâ€™d taken her in. â€œIt doesnâ€™t take much for these kids to begin to believe what theyâ€™re saying. Perceptions vary, and time changes perceptions. Besides, if her father does want her back, maybe heâ€™s willing to make changes. Being with a parent is the best thing for a child, if theyâ€™re willing to make changes for the better.â€ â€œNot if he abuses her. Look, I donâ€™t want to talk about this anymore. Just take me home.â€ We were already on the street heading to the apartment. When he pulled into our lot, Jameson said, â€œIâ€™m only saying you need to check out both sides. Thatâ€™s where Bea comes in. Just like you, I want Halla to be safe and happy. What if Halla is exaggerating and she belongs with her parents? Iâ€™ve seen it happen so many times at Teenâ€”â€ â€œAt Teen Remake!â€ I finished. â€œYou said yourself they never have the toughest cases. You have parents paying for their children to go to camps and for themselves to get training. Those parents want the best for their kids. Generally theyâ€™re not hurting them, right?â€ â€œThatâ€™s true, butâ€”â€ I pushed opened the door. â€œYou only know a tiny slice of what these girls have been through. Youâ€™re not the one who was with Halla six months ago when her body was so wasted she could do little more than sleep. Hallaâ€™s not a liar. But now you want to tell everyone about herâ€”and you probably will, just like you did with Zoey and Bianca.â€ â€œWhat are you saying? How do Zoey and Bianca figure in this conversation?â€ â€œI should have been the one who decided to tell Bea about them after I checked her out.â€ â€œBut I thoughtâ€”â€ â€œYou thought wrong. It was my choice! Iâ€™m the one who cares for them, not you. Iâ€™m the one whoâ€™s sacrificing to feed them. Iâ€™m the one who comforts them when they cry with their nightmares.â€ â€œIâ€™m not saying we turn Halla over. I just think we ought to researchâ€”â€ I hopped out of the car, my voice rising with my anger. â€œYou go ahead and do all the research you want. The fact remains that if you report this, itâ€™ll boil down to what it always hasâ€”Hallaâ€™s word against her fatherâ€™s. Before she ran away, she went to school counselors. She even went to her pastor, and the only thing that happened was that they told her father, and he locked her up. And you know what? I canâ€™t trust someone who doesnâ€™t believe me. Itâ€™s as simple as that. I think itâ€™s better for all of us if you donâ€™t come here anymore.â€ I slammed the door hard. For a moment, I felt a sharp satisfaction at the sound of the door and the hurt on his face. But every step away from him felt like an ever-widening chasm we could never cross. Why did he have to be so stubborn? Why did he have to interfere? Because if I had to choose between them, there was really no choice. I was all Halla and the other girls had. Not that Jameson would care. He probably had women lined up to take my placeâ€”if Iâ€™d even meant anything real to him in such a short time. I sprinted up the stairs, almost running into my second-floor neighbor, who let out something that might have been a chuckle or maybe a cough. I didnâ€™t wait around to decide which. On the fourth floor landing, I glanced out to see Jameson standing by his car, looking up at me. His earnest expression reminded me of our kisses on the mountain. I shouldnâ€™t have told you, I thought. I didnâ€™t even tell my sister most of what happened to the girls, and she was on my side. My heart was usually right, but this time, Iâ€™d endangered Hallaâ€”and all the girls. â€œLily!â€ Elsie exclaimed as I walked into the apartment. The others crowded around me, asking questions: â€œWhereâ€™s Mario?â€ â€œHowâ€™d the date go?â€ â€œDid he kiss you again?â€ I held up a hand. â€œOkay, guys, I know you like Jameson, but Iâ€™m not sure I like him enough, you know? Just because heâ€™s hot, doesnâ€™t mean Iâ€™m going to fall in love with him or something.â€ â€œOh, beans!â€ Ruth said. Zoey shrugged. â€œLoveâ€™s overrated anyway.â€ To distract them from more questions, I hurried to say, â€œDid you watch all of the videos?â€ â€œWe still have Back to the Future left,â€ Ruth said. â€œWe saved it in case . . . never mind.â€ Great. Just great. I grabbed the video from the stack on the television. â€œPut some more popcorn in, Halla,â€ I said. â€œLetâ€™s get this show on the road.â€ The girls fell asleep long before the movie ended, and Saffron came home before one, as she promised. Double-checking the locks, I left the girls sleeping together like a bunch of newborn kittens and climbed up on the roof, where I sat looking at a muted version of the stars Jameson and I had seen from the mountain. A single tear rolled down my cheek as I thought about the blanket of magic. I wiped it away. I had to make sure Jameson didnâ€™t interfere further. Iâ€™d have to keep him away. Iâ€™d lie outright, if necessary. If I didnâ€™t let him into my life, he couldnâ€™t do something Iâ€™d forever regret. A small hand slipped into mine, startling me. â€œOh, hi,â€ I murmured to Elsie, who snuggled her head against my shoulder. â€œYouâ€™re sad,â€ she said. â€œA little.â€ â€œBecause of him?â€ â€œYeah.â€ â€œMen suck.â€ Her serious tone made me smile, until I realized she wasnâ€™t kidding. â€œNot Payden,â€ I said. â€œNot every man.â€ She sighed. â€œWell, Paydenâ€™s not really a man yet, is he?â€ She had a point. We sat there for a few minutes, staring at the muted sky. â€œLily?â€ â€œYeah?â€ â€œI wish you were my mother.â€ Her mother. Should I ask what she was like? No, not tonight. It was too soonâ€”at least according to my gut, which, given the fiasco with Jameson, might not be working anymore. I pulled her tighter. â€œI wish that too.â€ 9 On Monday evening, I left Teen Remake feeling depressed after a foster parent class on the effects of abuse and neglect on children. The concepts werenâ€™t new to me. Zoey had cut her arm again over the weekend to relieve stress after her chat with Bea at school on Friday, Bianca had issues talking to adults, Halla would barely eat, and Ruth still dressed like a boy. Saffronâ€™s flippancy about her dates worried me as well. So Iâ€™d seen firsthand the effects of child abuse, but it wasnâ€™t anywhere near as severe as the stories Iâ€™d heard in class tonight. Some of those were horrific and left a distaste in my mouth and the urge to climb a tall building and scream my lungs out at the injustice. Thankfully, my girls were comparatively well adjustedâ€”and I was honest enough to admit it was probably due more to their own resilience and mutual support than to my nurturing. Iâ€™d sat through another class about loss and grief the Saturday before, the day after my disastrous date with Jameson, and Iâ€™d viewed two presentations online about discipline and sexual abuse. The discipline problems had surprised me because the girls and I had been too busy surviving to worry about making or breaking many rules. I enforced only the bare essentials, instinctively doing the right thing about curfews and dealing with stealing. The sexual abuse class had shown me nothing new, but it was a sober reminder. Since Ruth came to live with me, and then Zoey, Iâ€™d researched the topic so much that I felt I could teach a class on it myself. Still, after Iâ€™d watched the video on Sunday, Iâ€™d had the urge to wash my entire body and scrub out my eyeballs, and maybe go to church and confess to a priest for having even taken the class. It was unspeakably terrible what children endured at the hands of those who were supposed to protect them. At least Iâ€™d made significant headway on the thirty hours I needed to finish my foster parent training, and that was my current goal: get that finished so I could become official. I hadnâ€™t expected to see Jameson at either of the two classes held at Teen Remake, but I looked for him anyway, wishing things had gone differently between us. Was there any possibility he could be right about Halla? On Friday Iâ€™d been certain she hadnâ€™t lied to me, but the class tonight had shown me that desperate children were capable of far worse than lying if that meant protecting themselves from further pain. But if she wasnâ€™t in pain to begin with, if sheâ€™d lied about it, what would she be lying for? I had to stop this. If I couldnâ€™t trust my own judgment, how could I help the girls? â€œLily, wait!â€ I turned to see Bea Lundberg coming from the building. She had introduced the speakers tonight, so Iâ€™d seen her here, but now I tensed, wondering if Jameson had told her about Halla. â€œHi, Bea.â€ â€œI just wanted to let you know that Iâ€™ve been busy this weekend.â€ She flashed me a smile. â€œZoey and Biancaâ€™s uncle is everything you said he is. I definitely know his kind.â€ Hope spilled through the barrier Iâ€™d made around my heart. â€œHe signed them over?â€ â€œHe could hardly sign fast enough when he realized that if he didnâ€™t, there would be an inquiry, and heâ€™d have to pay child support. I had the papers completed at my DCS office today with our attorney, and I have a temporary foster care assignment for you that will be in place until after our home visit and your training completion. Weâ€™ll need you to sign a few things.â€ â€œThatâ€™s great. Thank you so much!â€ â€œWill tomorrow morning be a good time to visit?â€ â€œYeah. The girls wonâ€™t be home, though, if thatâ€™s important. And I work in the afternoon.â€ â€œThatâ€™s okay. The caseworker assigned to you will have to meet the girls at some point, but my talk with them is enough for now. You will be receiving a stipend for both girls, but checks are always post-paid for each month. So the money will start accruing today, and youâ€™ll get a check around the first of July for these last few days of May and all of June.â€ At an average of twenty dollars a day, Iâ€™d be able to make the rent for July and pay for food without dipping into my savings or asking Tessa for help. I could actually buy Zoey that new pair of jeans she desperately needed, and get Bianca an appointment for an eye exam. Maybe someday we could buy a bedframe. â€œThank you,â€ I said, barely able to speak past the lump of emotion that had somehow lodged itself in my throat. Bea smiled. â€œIâ€™m glad to help. Now why donâ€™t you verify your address for me? Unless youâ€™re still at the same place thatâ€™s on the court documents.â€ I shook my head. â€œNo, we moved.â€ â€œGlad I asked. Caseworkers hate it when I send them to the wrong place.â€ â€œOkay.â€ I wrote it down for her, realizing that meant they could show up anytime now. I needed to make sure the girls knew, and that we had a plan to hide the truth about how many lived there. Zoey and Bianca shared the double mattress, which wasnâ€™t approved, and having four girls in such a tiny room was never permitted. Weâ€™d have to do some juggling, and keep all but one of our fold-out mattress chairs folded when we werenâ€™t using them. Maybe Iâ€™d even move Elsieâ€™s to the living room. She seemed to be falling asleep on my couch more often than not these days anyway. Tomorrow Ruth and Halla were supposed to be doing errands for their ladies, but we hadnâ€™t decided what we were going to do about Halla yet. The disguise would probably be enough, unless one of their clients had seen the Facebook posts. Bea turned to leave, but I stopped her. â€œHey Bea, this might be a weird question, but how do you get your hair to look like that? I know this girl, and sheâ€™s been trying to get her hair to look . . . well, anything other than a frizzy mess. Braids only go so far.â€ â€œOh, I hear you there. Let me tell you, the first few times arenâ€™t easy, but if you have the right products, itâ€™s not too difficult to keep up once you figure it out.â€ She launched into a long explanation, which had me jotting notes on my phone. I wished I could just bring Ruth to her, but I had to talk to Ruthâ€™s mother first. I wasnâ€™t sending her back to be abused. Maybe it was Beaâ€™s success with Zoey and Biancaâ€™s uncle, or her easy sharing of her hair tips, but instead of going home, I drove the twenty minutes to Glendale where Ruthâ€™s mother lived in a tiny run-down house in a neighborhood that looked sapped of life. The front light was on, and one inside as well, so I went up the walk, my can of pepper spray in my jacket pocket, and knocked on the door. No one answered. I was about to leave when a crash inside alerted me to someone coming. I turned back around as a woman opened the door. Her black hair was cut to less than an inch, and her brown eyes dominated her small, narrow face. Ruthâ€™s eyes, but that was all Ruth had gotten from this woman. Ruthâ€™s mother was two shades lighter and at least a foot shorter, and while she was pretty, she had none of Ruthâ€™s beauty. The bags under her eyes and the small bruises on her upper arm, in the shape of a manâ€™s hand, screamed abuse of some sort. â€œCan I help you?â€ she asked, her lip quirking a bit and showing a dark spot on her right canine tooth, near the gum. â€œIâ€™m sorry to bother you this late,â€ I said. â€œAre you Wanda? Iâ€™m a friend of Ruthâ€™s.â€ â€œRuthie?â€ Her eyes narrowed. â€œShe ainâ€™t in trouble, is she? Because I ainâ€™t responsible. Sheâ€™s fourteen and does what she wants.â€ â€œNo, nothing like that . . . itâ€™s justâ€â€”I took a deep breath before plunging onâ€”â€œIâ€™d like to talk to you about getting her into school. Sheâ€™s really bright, and Iâ€™ve been working with her this past year. I think she could get in and catch up without too much trouble, but sheâ€™s going into high school, and after that, itâ€™s a lot harder. Do you have a moment to talk about it?â€ â€œYeah. You come on in.â€ She opened the door wider, and I entered a room that was almost as small as our living room. Stacks of clothes cluttered the stained carpet, and she gathered up several used plates and cups so I could sit on the couch, which looked like real leather and was nice compared to the rest of the room. Or maybe it only seemed so in the dim light. â€œSo how could you help her?â€ Wanda asked, sitting next to me. I tried not to stare at a dark, unidentifiable smear on the wall. â€œIâ€™d like to become a foster parent to Ruth.â€ No use sugarcoating it. â€œThat way I can get her clothing and medical care.â€ Wanda had gone stiff the moment I mentioned foster care. â€œIs this about what happened last year? I told the social worker I donâ€™t know what went on. I wasnâ€™t home. But she throws herself at my boyfriends, just like I said. It ainâ€™t really their fault.â€ â€œWhat?â€ The idea of shy Ruth throwing herself at a man was absurd. Was that why the caseworker had sent her back? â€œI told her she could come or go as she wants,â€ Wanda added. â€œIâ€™m fine with that, but I heard they make you pay for foster care.â€ â€œI donâ€™t think so, not if you canâ€™t afford it.â€ â€œYeah, theyâ€™ll make me pay, or take her away.â€ â€œWell, would it be so bad if they were responsible for her? She only has a few years left in school.â€ Wandaâ€™s hand went to her chest. â€œGive up my baby? What kind of mother do you think I am? I donâ€™t want to give her up. I need my baby. And she donâ€™t have to worry. I have a new boyfriend now, not that white trash I was with before.â€ Her eyes fell from mine to scan the messy room. â€œIâ€™m sure heâ€™ll be fine with her here, especially if she helps clean up.â€ The sinking feeling in my chest grew. Clearly, Wanda wasnâ€™t willing to sign Ruth over to the state, allow foster care, or admit there was a problem. â€œWhat if Ruth doesnâ€™t want to come home? Would you consider a temporary guardianship situationâ€”just for school?â€ She snorted. â€œSheâ€™s a child. Sheâ€™s got to do what I say, and I want her home. Iâ€™ve been meaning to track her down, soon as I had the time. When she gets back here, she can go to school.â€ Her daughter had been gone for over six months and only now she wanted to find her? Wanda was a study in contradiction: one minute she was saying Ruth did her own thing, and in the very next breath, Ruth was a child who should obey her mother. â€œIs he home? Your boyfriend, I mean.â€ I didnâ€™t really want to meet him, but foster parent training had drilled into me the importance of reuniting families when possible. Maybe this new man was good for Wanda and Ruth. Maybe Wanda was sincere in wanting her daughter. She shoved off the couch, leaning heavily on her arm to do so. â€œSure. Iâ€™ll go get him. Then you can tell Ruth to come on home.â€ She returned with a short, wiry black man, with a bald head and a trim beard. â€œSheâ€™s here about Ruth,â€ she said by way of introduction. He laughed and reached out a hand, which I let him take. â€œI canâ€™t wait to meet Ruth.â€ He winked at me, and for an instant, I could see the charm that might have attracted Wanda. â€œFrom the pictures I see sheâ€™s a beauty, just like her momma. Iâ€™m fine with her coming back, if thatâ€™s what youâ€™re here to askâ€”youâ€™re one of them social workers, right?â€ He stood with his hands inside his pockets, jingling some keys or change. â€œCourse sheâ€™ll have to help out â€™round here. We get food stamps for her, but everyone has to pull their weight.â€ â€œFood stamps,â€ I repeated. At least that tidbit of information shed more light on Wandaâ€™s unwillingness to let Ruth go to a foster home. â€œBaby, she donâ€™t need to hear about that,â€ Wanda cooed, wrapping an arm around his waist and staring at him pointedly. He leaned over to kiss her lips. â€œI just meant that I got me some ideas on how Ruth can help out. Sheâ€™s a fine-looking girl, and I got a friend that has a barâ€”not that sheâ€™d serve alcohol, of courseâ€”but thereâ€™s always dishes to wash.â€ He didnâ€™t meet my eyes as he spoke; in fact, they wandered everywhere but to my face. Heâ€™s lying, I thought. But about what part? â€œA bar, huh? Sounds interesting. Whatâ€™s your name, by the way?â€ A fleeting discomfort marred his face. â€œTyron Fisher.â€ I took out my phone and wrote it down. â€œOkay, weâ€™ll be in touch.â€ â€œWait!â€ Wandaâ€™s fingers dug into my shoulder as I headed for the door. â€œIâ€™m still getting the food stamps for her, right? You ainâ€™t taking them away?â€ Tears for Ruth stung my eyes. â€œIâ€™m just here to see if I can get Ruth enrolled in school. I donâ€™t have anything to do with food stamps.â€ â€œOh. All right. Then tell her weâ€™re waiting for her. Sheâ€™ll have to sleep on the couch, though. We got borders staying in her old room.â€ â€œCouple of my friends,â€ Tyrone added. Great. The guy with the bar, no doubt. I hurried back to my car, reaching it before the tears fell. Not one question about how Ruth was doing, or if she was happy. I wasnâ€™t sending her back here. No, I had all summer to figure out what to do before Ruth was supposed to start high school, but I wasnâ€™t giving her back to this woman and her creepy boyfriend. I drove down the street with my lights off for a good block, in case they snuck out of the house to write down my license plates. If they actually went searching for Ruth, they wouldnâ€™t be able to connect her to me. Back at the apartment, I checked my face in the car mirror, to make sure there was no trace of tears. I wasnâ€™t falling apartâ€”or at least not where the girls could see. There had to be a way. Bea had gone to battle for me with Zoey and Biancaâ€™s uncle. Could she do the same for Ruth? I clung to the hope that she would, or that I could find a larger place and have more official foster children to help pay for Ruthâ€™s needs. A knock on my window startled me, and my head jerked toward it, expecting the girls, or even my second-floor neighbor, which had me wishing Iâ€™d locked the door. Instead, it was Jameson. Warmth rushed through me at the sight of him, followed by an equal amount of coldness, all of which I was sure was reflected in my face. â€œCan I come in?â€ he said, his voice muffled. â€œI need to talk to you.â€ I nodded and waited as he slipped inside the car, shutting the door after him. â€œDonâ€™t you know how to text?â€ â€œDonâ€™t you know how to answer them?â€ A hint of a smile softened his response. Admittedly, I hadnâ€™t looked at my phone since using it to find Wandaâ€™s house. â€œIâ€™ve been occupied.â€ â€œI guessed that.â€ He gestured to my face. â€œWhat happened?â€ â€œYou mean why am I upset? Oh, I donâ€™t know. Besides parents hurting their children and my having no way to protect them, and certain people thinking Iâ€™m the one keeping them from a happy family reunion, nothing.â€ He winced at the hardness in my tone. â€œOkay, I deserved that.â€ Something in me wilted at the admission. I didnâ€™t want to fight; I just wanted to sleep for a month straight. â€œLook, itâ€™s been a long day, and tomorrow I have to get ready for a visit from DCS, or whatever that department with fancy initials is called.â€ â€œI heard about Zoey and Bianca. Thatâ€™s great. It usually takes three months to get approved, so Iâ€™m glad Bea was able to pull some strings to get the wheels going faster.â€ â€œIt helped that the girls were already with me.â€ I shut the mirror, feeling too exposed to him under its light. â€œLook, you were right about Halla.â€ His words froze my hand on its way to the door handle. I turned back to him slowly and waited for more. â€œI made a few calls to some friends I have in Idaho, and they made calls to their friends and so forth. I talked to a lot of peopleâ€”no one official, but it raised enough flags to make me think Hallaâ€™s father is exactly what she claims.â€ He paused and ran a hand through his hair in a way that made my heartbeat pick up. There was a tiny scar on his chin that Iâ€™d never noticed before, and I wondered where heâ€™d gotten it. â€œThe neighbor actually told me if I knew where Halla was, I should hide her. She said Hallaâ€™s mother used to be a friend of hers but when she started commenting about Hallaâ€™s dadâ€™s strictness, the mother stopped calling.â€ â€œSo youâ€™re not going to turn her in?â€ â€œIs that what you think of me?â€ â€œIt sure seemed like it Friday night.â€ He sighed and leaned back. â€œIâ€™m sorry. I really am. I just . . . Lily, you have to see that you canâ€™t do this alone. Are you going to finish school? What about the future? You know the girls need counseling and to go to school and live in a place that doesnâ€™t have questionable men lurking around.â€ â€œIâ€™m changing all that. Iâ€™ll get legit, find a big house, and put as many girls as I can there, even those I canâ€™t become an official foster parent for. I donâ€™t want . . . I canâ€™t . . .â€ I couldnâ€™t finish. I didnâ€™t want to admit that I knew by experience how devastating it was to grow up feeling unlovedâ€”and Iâ€™d had it nowhere near as rough as my girls. Iâ€™d had Tessa and that had saved me, had allowed me to develop into a person who could love and care for others. My girls had no one except me and each other; I hoped that would save them. He shook his head, but he was smiling. â€œWhen you say it, I believe you. Thereâ€™s this . . . light in your face, and I believe you completely.â€ â€œYou do?â€ â€œAnd I want to help.â€ I didnâ€™t know what that meant exactly, but I recognized the look in his eyes. Whatever else he meant, he also wanted to kiss me, and there was no way that was happening, not yet. Not until I could really trust him. â€œTruce?â€ he said. â€œOkay. But you do nothing about the girls unless I say. That means you donâ€™t talk to anyone about them being with me.â€ He tucked my hair behind my ear and ran his finger along my cheek, sending hot, exhilarating tingles to my stomach. â€œDeal. But you have to tell me why you were crying.â€ I couldnâ€™t, not after what had happened with Halla. What if he thought Ruthâ€™s mother wanted her back for the right reasons? No, for now, I wasnâ€™t going to trust him with anything more. â€œI went to one of the foster-parent classes tonight. You know, trying to get my license. Itâ€™s pretty horrible what children go through.â€ â€œI know. Itâ€™s why I keep working at Teen Remake. I feel Iâ€™m making at least some difference. Anyway, I documented everything I learned about Hallaâ€™s family, and we can use it if we need to. At sixteen, Halla will probably have a lot to say about what happens to her, especially if we can prove abuse.â€ â€œI canâ€™t risk it yet. Sheâ€™ll runâ€”I know she will, and Iâ€™m not going to betray her. We need more solid evidence. So youâ€™d better tell me right now if you plan to turn her in.â€ He shook his head. â€œWeâ€™ll find another way.â€ The pressure building in my head eased. â€œIâ€™d better go in,â€ I said. â€œIâ€™m already late. The girls will be wondering where I am.â€ Besides, I didnâ€™t trust myselfâ€”a few kisses, and Iâ€™d probably be telling him everything again. Better to keep my distance completely. â€œIâ€™ll walk you up.â€ I knew better than to object. We hadnâ€™t yet reached the stairs when movement in a nearby car halted my progress. â€œWait a minute. Is that . . .?â€ I hurried over to the car and tapped on the window. Sure enough, Saffron was inside, making out with her newest boyfriend. She jumped away from him and shot out the door, her hair looking almost as orange as Tessaâ€™s under the fluorescent street lighting. â€œSaffron,â€ I began. She flashed me a grin as she slammed the door. â€œDonâ€™t worry. I already made that mistake once, and Iâ€™m never going to let a boy get that close again. You should know that by now. It was just a bit of harmless making out.â€ She waved to the boy as he pulled away. â€œHarmless?â€ Jameson said. â€œYou know boys donâ€™t feel the same way about it, right?â€ â€œOh? You speaking from experience?â€ Saffron said. â€œI heard you two gave the girls a show the other night.â€ Jameson looked sheepish, and I felt my face flush. Hopefully, neither of them could see it in the darkness of the parking lot. â€œThatâ€™s different,â€ I said. â€œIâ€™m a lot older. Iâ€™m supposed to be . . .â€ What, trying to find a husband? So not going to say that in front of Jameson. It wasnâ€™t as if I was an old maid. Saffron laughed. â€œI know. But I promise, I learned my lesson when I got pregnant. Thatâ€™s never going to happen again. Ever. I know there arenâ€™t many guys out there that are worth anything.â€ â€œHey,â€ Jameson protested. â€œOkay, maybe you. But I hear the juryâ€™s still out on that one.â€ With a flip of her hair, Saffron turned toward the stairs. â€œYeah I know.â€ Jameson looked at me as we followed more slowly. He was so appealing that I wanted to wrap my arms around him and kiss him senseless, but things were too up in the air between us right now. I thought he was on my side, but there was too much regulation in him. How could it possibly work between us? After saying hello to the girls, Jameson left me at the door with a glance at Saffron and a chaste â€œfriendâ€ kiss on my cheek. Even so, his touch sent my heart racing again. Well, Iâ€™d given up a lot for the girls, and I could give him up too. The minute the door was shut, the girls clustered around me. â€œI thought you werenâ€™t going to date him,â€ Bianca said. â€œWell, a woman can change her mind,â€ Elsie put in. â€œThatâ€™s right, we can change our minds,â€ I said. â€œBut for now he and I are just friends.â€ Saffron rolled her eyes. â€œSure, you are. Anyone can tell he is so into you. Like he said, itâ€™s not the same for guys.â€ â€œThat doesnâ€™t mean I have to be into him.â€ Time to change the subject. â€œNow why arenâ€™t you guys ready for bed? We have to be up bright and early.â€ â€œWhy?â€ groaned Zoey, one of her long sleeves riding up enough to show that recent cut on her arm. â€œSchool is already early enough.â€ â€œBecause DCS is coming to see this place, and we have to clean it and make it look like only you and Bianca live here.â€ Bea knew about Saffron, but I wasnâ€™t sure how that might figure into the equation. If it came up, I could always say Saffron slept in the living room. â€œReally? Weâ€™re approved?â€ Zoey had started to sit on the couch, and now she jumped back up, her eyes wide. â€œWell, temporarily, but yes.â€ I hugged her and Bianca, and then Halla and Ruth, who were jumping up and down. â€œSomeday youâ€™ll all be legit.â€ More jumping up and down and excitement until a pounding came on the floor from the apartment below. â€œOops,â€ I said. â€œQuiet down! Everyone to bed. Donâ€™t forget to brush your teeth. I canâ€™t afford a dentist.â€ As the girls scattered, Elsieâ€™s hand slipped into mine, as if she were a much younger child. â€œIt wonâ€™t happen for me,â€ she said. â€œMy father will never let me go. Heâ€™d kill me first.â€ A chill crawled over my shoulders. The words that came to me were the ones Jameson had just said to me in the car: â€œThen weâ€™ll find another way.â€ 10 Elsie went with Ruth on Tuesday to take care of the errands, while Halla walked over to Makayâ€™s. The apartment was all ready for DCS when the caseworker arrived. She was a plump, older woman with thin, bowl-cut hair, who seemed distracted and uninterested, breezing through the place without really seeing it. The only thing she wanted to verify was if the girls slept in the bedroom by themselves. Calling on my high school drama classes, I smiled and pointed to Hallaâ€™s chair bed next to the couch that weâ€™d left unfolded. â€œI sleep in here, which works out well because I stay up later than the girls. Iâ€™m a student most of the time. Still got a couple years left. But weâ€™re hoping to get a two-bedroom apartment soon.â€ She nodded. â€œIâ€™ll be talking to the girls, of course, but this is as good as many foster homes I see. Itâ€™s a good thing youâ€™re doing for them. Siblings this old are extremely hard to place together, especially where thereâ€™s been sexual abuse. Do you have a boyfriend?â€ â€œNo. I donâ€™t usually even date.â€ But unless that seemed too weird, I hurried to say, â€œI have recently gone out a few times with a guy who works at Teen Remake.â€ â€œHe doesnâ€™t sleep here, though?â€ â€œOh, no!â€ She cracked her first smile at my shock. â€œWell, youâ€™d be surprised at what goes on. I donâ€™t like to place young girls in homes where boyfriends sleep over.â€ I thought of Ruth and had a surge of hope. â€œWhat if theyâ€™re with their own mother?â€ The social workerâ€™s face sobered. â€œThatâ€™s the one exception. Unless the boyfriend has a record of some sort or is abusing the girls, we donâ€™t have much control over who the mother is sleeping with.â€ She took a final look around. â€œDo you have your landlordâ€™s approval letter?â€ â€œI need his approval?â€ Uneasiness fluttered in my stomach. She drew out a form from her binder. â€œYeah. Just have him fill this out. It tells us he knows youâ€™re fostering the girls here and that itâ€™s all right.â€ â€œOkay.â€ That shouldnâ€™t be too bad, admitting that two of the girls lived with me. â€œJust send it in when you have it, or give it to Bea.â€ â€œI will.â€ â€œWeâ€™ll schedule regular visits, but weâ€™ll let you know when. As long as everything works out with the girls, I think weâ€™re good for now.â€ â€œThanks.â€ Just that fast, my dump of an apartment became Zoey and Biancaâ€™s official home. When I arrived for my one oâ€™clock shift at the factory, the receptionist told me my father wanted to see me in his office. Unease shifted through my mind, followed by a not-so-subtle increase in my heart rate. Until Iâ€™d begun working for him, Nolan Crawford had really been a non-entity to me. When we were young, Tessa and I had been careful to answer his questions promptly and not to upset him with our noise, but as he was home so rarely, it wasnâ€™t much of an issue. He was practically a stranger. I didnâ€™t know what his favorite color was, heâ€™d never come to any of my plays, and aside from Christmas and the Fourth of July, we didnâ€™t act like a typical family. The factory in Phoenix was two hours away from our house in Flagstaff, and heâ€™d more often than not stayed at his apartment in town, coming home on Thursday or Friday for the weekend. On the weeks he didnâ€™t return to Flagstaff, my mother wouldnâ€™t leave her bed. I didnâ€™t understand that until I was older and overheard him on the phone with a woman, whispering seductive things Iâ€™d never even imagined him saying to my mother. When I entered his office, he looked over the reading glasses perched on his nose and gave me a smile that didnâ€™t reach his eyes. â€œHave a seat,â€ he said, indicating a chair at the desk. His blond hair had streaks of gray, and he was carrying at least fifty extra pounds, but he exuded power. I sat. You didnâ€™t say no to my father. He watched me settle before dropping his gaze back to the report on his desk. â€œI heard your mother came to visit you at your new apartment?â€ â€œYes.â€ This didnâ€™t sound good. Again he looked up from his reading, his bushy eyebrows slightly drawn. â€œSheâ€™s worried about you. She wants you to come home.â€ â€œIâ€™m fine. Doing great, in fact. I love Phoenix.â€ â€œYou can return here in the fall when you go back to college. Have you made the new changes to your schedule? I think youâ€™ll pick up French quickly enough.â€ He looked down, as if the conversation had been concluded, though I knew he expected an answer. â€œNo, I havenâ€™t. Look, Dad, can we talk about this later? Iâ€™m going to be late for my shift.â€ His eyes met mine. â€œYou no longer have a shift. Thatâ€™s what Iâ€™m trying to say. So youâ€™re free to go home and spend some time with your mother.â€ He raised a hand before I could protest. â€œYour job will be waiting for you when you return to school in the fall.â€ With that, he went back to his report. Spend time with my mother? Was he joking? After sheâ€™d made me lose the job I needed to support the girls, knowing full well how devastating that would be for them and for me? â€œI canâ€™t leave.â€ My father didnâ€™t look up for a full two seconds; then he leaned back and removed his glasses, keeping them in his hands. â€œWhy not?â€ â€œIâ€™m doing some work at Teen Remakeâ€”helping kids. Iâ€™m becoming licensed.â€ I didnâ€™t mention licensed at what. â€œPlease, I need this job.â€ â€œDoes this have to do with those girls you have living with you? Lily, itâ€™s good you want to help, but you will go home and forget this nonsense. Your family needs you.â€ My family. I knew by the set of his jaw there was no use arguing. My father was always, always right, except when he wasnâ€™t, and then we all still pretended he was. I stood slowly and started toward the door, pausing there. â€œYouâ€™re right, they do need me. Thatâ€™s why Iâ€™m staying.â€ Shock registered on his face before he rose, as if his height would force me into compliance. â€œLilyâ€”â€ â€œThank you for the offer of a job this fall, but I need a job now. Iâ€™ll have to find something else.â€ â€œWhat about your schooling?â€ If his voice could be any more rigid, it might shatter with his next breath. â€œDoes this mean you donâ€™t want help from us?â€ It was a threat, but the only help theyâ€™d given me was this job, and if they used it as a way to control my life, how could I accept? â€œActually, I could really use your help now by letting me keep my job.â€ â€œThatâ€™s not possible.â€ â€œRight.â€ I left before he could say any more, hurrying to my car, where I stared out the windshield, seeing nothing and feeling only shock. What was I going to do? No more income from this job. That meant no better apartment. I had enough coming for Juneâ€™s rent, and whatever Teen Remake gave me in the meantime would have to do for food, but they barely paid above minimum wage, so that meant scraping by yet another month until the foster care check arrived in July. Even with that, I wouldnâ€™t be able to save enough for a down payment and first monthâ€™s rent on another place. Wiping away the tears, I drove to Tessaâ€™s apartment. I needed my big sister. She took one look at my face and hurried me over to her couch. â€œWhat happened?â€ â€œDad fired me because Mom wants me home. I told him no.â€ Tessaâ€™s freckled face flushed with her shock. Only she understood what it was to stand up to him. Slowly, a smile spread across her face. â€œGood for you! Iâ€™m proud of you.â€ â€œReally? Iâ€™m not being stupid?â€ She hugged me. â€œNo. Youâ€™re my hero. And youâ€™re a hero to those girls.â€ â€œWhat if I canâ€™t pay the rent? Or buy food?â€ â€œIâ€™ll help you. And you can get another job.â€ Tessa drew away and looked into my eyes. â€œBesides, you hate it there. I know you do. We should be celebrating.â€ A bit dazed, I sat there as her comments sank inside me, pushing past the paralyzing fear. Deeper and deeper until they reached my heart. My sister was right, and now that she mentioned it, the idea of never going back to the factory made me feel giddy with happiness. â€œIâ€™m free,â€ I whispered. â€œFree!â€ â€œNow thatâ€™s what Iâ€™m talking about.â€ Tessa gave me a high five. â€œThe factoryâ€™s not right for you, and if Dad and Mom had any idea of who you are, theyâ€™d know that. I know what you want: your dream house, helping the girls.â€ â€œBut what about you?â€ I thought she hated working there just as much. Tessa shrugged. â€œItâ€™s different for me. I donâ€™t mind the factory for now. I like the people I work with.â€ â€œYeah. I did too.â€ My co-workers were the only thing that had made it tolerable. â€œSpeaking of which, I think Iâ€™d better jump in the shower and get ready for work.â€ Tessa rose from the couch. â€œIâ€™ll talk to Mom and Dad,â€ she added. â€œLetâ€™s just give them a few weeks to settle down.â€ â€œMaybe by the Fourth.â€ That was still over a month away. She laughed. â€œMaybe.â€ When I arrived at my apartment, I found Makay mixing up the ingredients from my chocolate chip cookie recipe, while Halla played cars with Nate. Halla wasnâ€™t wearing her wig as she had been when sheâ€™d gone to Makayâ€™s that morning. â€œHome already?â€ Makay asked. â€œYep. Apparently, I no longer work at Crawford Cereals. My mother wants me home.â€ Makay laughed. â€œHa! Thatâ€™s the best news Iâ€™ve heard all week! Letâ€™s celebrate.â€ She grabbed a spoon, scooped out a large portion of cookie dough, and handed it to me. â€œHurray for freedom and pursuing your dreams.â€ â€œSo you werenâ€™t even worried Iâ€™d go home?â€ â€œNot on your life. You hate that place.â€ She scooped more dough onto a second spoon and shoved it into my hand. â€œThis is a two-spoon celebration.â€ Halla laughed and joined us, reaching for a spoon. â€œMe too!â€ I was glad Iâ€™d gone to see Tessa first. Scaring Halla would have been inexcusable, especially with her father looming over us like some kind of terrifying phantom. The ringing doorbell cut through our laughter. Immediately, Halla ran toward the bedroom. There, sheâ€™d be opening the sliding door, ready to go out onto the balcony and up onto the roof, just in case. I set down my spoons and went to the door, peeking through the hole. A boy in a delivery uniform stood there with a vase of fuchsia lilies, bordered in white. â€œItâ€™s flowers,â€ I whispered to Makay. â€œWell, open it!â€ With Nate on one hip, she dragged the door open. â€œI have a delivery for Lily Crawford?â€ â€œThere.â€ Makay thumbed at me. I signed his delivery pad and took the flowers. â€œThank you.â€ Iâ€™d no sooner shut the door than Halla was out of the bedroom and peering over my shoulder. â€œWell? Who sent them?â€ I was just as curious. There was only one man Iâ€™d been dating. I opened the envelope and removed the card, my heart doing funny little jumps as if it could already read what was inside. Sorry, it read. I was wrong. Please forgive me. Love, MJP. P.S. I hope lilies are still magic. â€œMJP,â€ mused Halla. â€œThatâ€™s Mario, right?â€ I nodded. â€œMario Jameson Perez.â€ Halla took a bite of dough from her spoon. â€œSomething tells me he didnâ€™t get the memo about you being just friends.â€ Makay found that hilarious. â€œThat,â€ she announced, â€œcalls for even more cookie dough.â€ She was absolutely right. 11 The days flew by, with me having the time to complete many household tasks Iâ€™d been putting off because of work. Thursday morning, Halla stayed home again while Elsie worked with Ruth. After dropping off the girls, I drove to Teen Remake for my first official day on the job and attended the opening ceremony for the next Teen Nature that I would be helping out with on Friday and Saturday. The kids looked excited for the most part, some trying and failing to look bored. One girl kept staring at her father, as if sheâ€™d never seen him before, and I felt a rush of . . . envy? My father had never gone on any camping trip with me, and the fact that this father was here meant he was trying. I was going to like it here. Within forty minutes, they were on buses heading toward South Mountain. The rest of my four hours, I sat in group therapy sessions, which was apparently part of my training. It was a lot like my sessions on the roof with my girls, and before I could help myself, I was contributing as much as the therapist, a large black woman whose name was Jill. As the kids filed from the room, Jill put her arm around my shoulders. â€œLily, youâ€™re a natural. In another couple weeks, those girls will be telling you everything.â€ I grinned at her a bit sheepishly. â€œYouâ€™re the one whoâ€™s great with them. I think youâ€™ll have me telling you everything in the next few weeks.â€ Her laugh made me feel happy inside. â€œOh, honey, we all have issues, and the more we can get them out, and talk about how we dealt with them, the more we can reach these kids. I know therapists will tell you that you need some distance, and itâ€™s trueâ€”for a therapist. But youâ€™re here to be like their big sister, at least with the girls. You just love them and leave the distance to me.â€ â€œThat I think I can do.â€ â€œI know you can.â€ Jameson came in then and said, â€œHey, can we borrow her for a video game contest?â€ I was glad to see him, but there was no way I wanted to play today. â€œIâ€™m not that good.â€ He grinned. â€œThatâ€™s what Iâ€™m banking on. Youâ€™ll be on the other team.â€ â€œWhat?â€ â€œTrust me.â€ The words spoke volumes. â€œShe can go,â€ Jill said. â€œBut sheâ€™s only scheduled until twelve, so you be sure to let her go by then.â€ To me, she added, â€œNow with the boys, you can leave a little distance, or theyâ€™ll be flirting up a storm. They wonâ€™t even mind if they lose to you.â€ She gave a hearty laugh and waved us out the door. Jameson took me to the room where Iâ€™d seen him playing before. A crowd of kids had gathered for the contest. â€œTwo against two,â€ Jameson explained. â€œThe others are here to cheer us on.â€ His team player was a Hispanic boy, and my partner was a young man of indeterminate race. â€œHey, sista,â€ said the boy, offering me a fist bump. â€œIâ€™m Felix. Donâ€™t you worry. After you get killed, Iâ€™ll still beat â€™em.â€ â€œOkay.â€ I sat down on the couch, and the game began. Jameson and his partner quickly ganged up on Felix, so I took my time learning the game. It wasnâ€™t all that different from the games I played with the girls, except instead of shooting everyone, you had to beat them by talking to teachers, doing service for needy bystanders, and preventing attacks on your competition by evil terrorists, all of which gave you points. You stopped your opponents from winning by asking them to help you perform different tasks, which they had to do, or lose points, and then while they were occupied, beating them to each kind deed. While Jameson and his partner inundated Feliz with requests for service, I found my way through a maze to the mayor of the city and got permission to start a Feed the World campaign, saving a cat, an old man, and a little girl on the way. Then I went for the jugular and prevented attackers from taking out my competition with a toilet bomb. By the time Jameson realized what I was doing, Iâ€™d earned enough points to win the game. â€œWay to go.â€ Felix gave me another fist bump. â€œYou like my game?â€ â€œYou made this? Yeah, I like it a lot.â€ Felix grinned. â€œIâ€™ll burn you a copy, and give you a link where you can send all your friends to buy it. Itâ€™s gonna pay my way through college.â€ â€œYou have to graduate high school first,â€ Jameson reminded him. â€œYeah, yeah. You nag like my old man.â€ We all laughed. It was time for me to go, and Jameson had another group session, but he walked with me into the hallway. â€œAre we okay?â€ he asked. Iâ€™d texted him a thanks for the flowers, but we hadnâ€™t talked since. Two long, torturous days. â€œYeah. Fine.â€ â€œGood, because Iâ€™ve been wanting to askâ€”would you like to come to Sunday dinner at my parentsâ€™?â€ His parents? Before I had too much time to get excited, my logical self kicked in. â€œWait, doesnâ€™t your family live in Tucson? Thatâ€™s what, about a two-hour drive?â€ â€œYeah. So itâ€™s really a full day, not just dinner. I donâ€™t go home that often, but I sort of mentioned you to my mother, and sheâ€™s been after me to invite you.â€ I wondered if this was before or after our argument Friday night. Still, he had talked to his mother about me, and excitement over that vied with my reluctance to leave the girls. My mind raced over the possibilities. But in the end, I knew it wasnâ€™t going to work. â€œYou know, it sounds fun, but with the weekend hours here and looking for a new job, I wonâ€™t be spending as much time with the girls, except on Sunday, and I canâ€™t leave them all day.â€ Canâ€™t, meaning I didnâ€™t want to. â€œOh, didnâ€™t I say?â€ His smile widened and his eyes gleamed with his customary amusement. â€œTheyâ€™re invitedâ€”in fact, my mother would have my hide if I didnâ€™t bring them. Paydenâ€™s coming with me, and I was thinking of borrowing his motherâ€™s van to fit us all.â€ â€œYou sure your mom wants all of us?â€ My mother would be throwing a fit. It was one thing to call a caterer for her elegant dinner parties, but quite another to feed runaway girls. â€œYou kidding? My mom loves to cook, and sheâ€™s used to doing large amounts.â€ He gazed at me with his head titled to the side, an expression on his face that was both pleading and hopeful. â€œPlease come?â€ â€œIâ€™ll talk to the girls.â€ â€œGreat. Theyâ€™ll so want to come.â€ He took a few steps back into the room where the teens were sitting in a circle on the carpet. â€œMake sure you tell them I have two really good-looking brothers in high school.â€ I laughed. â€œOkay.â€ I watched him turn and join the circle of kids. There was no counselor, and that told me heâ€™d completed whatever hours were required for him to run this session alone. Would that be me someday? I hoped so because it was a lot more interesting than making sure cereal packers met their daily quotas. â€œI canâ€™t believe heâ€™s taking you home to meet his mommy,â€ Saffron teased as Ruth and Elsie darted inside the apartment to inform us that Jameson had arrived in his borrowed van. â€œYou sure you wonâ€™t go with us?â€ I asked Saffron. â€œNope, Iâ€™m sort of away from that whole family dinner thing right now, no matter how cool the family. It would be different if you werenâ€™t just friends, but why should I waste my time if heâ€™s not going to be around in a few months?â€ She winked and flashed me a grin. â€œDonâ€™t worry. Iâ€™m going to hang out with Russ instead, but I donâ€™t like him enough to get into trouble. Weâ€™re just friends.â€ â€œFriends with kissing benefits,â€ Zoey shot back, with more than a little envy in her voice. Zoey might try to hide herself with pounds, but like every other girl, she dreamed about having a boyfriend who really loved her. Saffron laughed. â€œYep. Itâ€™s a beautiful relationship.â€ â€œJust friendsâ€ was Saffronâ€™s way of protecting herself. That worked fine for now, given her age, but someday, sheâ€™d need to get beyond what happened to herâ€”with her family and with losing the baby. I planned to learn enough before then to help her when that time came. Saffron grabbed the bags of snacks Iâ€™d put together and passed them to me. â€œHave fun, you guys.â€ â€œYou too,â€ I said. The rest of the girls and I thundered down the stairs, Halla in her wig and Ruth in her boy clothes. At least Elsieâ€™s hair was brushed. That was some progress. We met Jameson on the second-floor landing, just as our neighbor was coming out for a smoke. The neighborâ€™s face was dark with stubble, and on one of his arms was a tattoo of a dragon. Elsie noticed him and buried her face into me as we passed. The reaction wasnâ€™t missed by Jameson. â€œIs that the neighbor you told me about?â€ he asked in a low voice when we reached the last stair. The girls had already started across the parking lot to the van, where Payden had opened the side door for them, too far away to hear us. â€œYesâ€”the one who freaked Elsie out last week. I donâ€™t even know his name.â€ â€œMaybe you should report him to the management.â€ â€œFor what, smoking? Besides, Iâ€™m too worried heâ€™s been taking notes on how many girls I have living with me. My lease says up to three people for the one-bedroom apartments, and I just had my landlord sign the foster parent form that says heâ€™s aware that Zoey and Bianca are living here.â€ I sighed. â€œThe landlord might not even care about the others. At least, he hasnâ€™t said anything, and there are a bunch of people here who donâ€™t follow that rule. I swear, one family here has like twenty-five relatives in a two-bedroom apartment. But if DCS ever talks to him, I donâ€™t want him to know anything officially.â€ Jameson glanced up at the second floor, where my neighbor was no longer in sight. Maybe he hadnâ€™t been coming out for a smoke but to see what was making noise on the metal stairs. â€œWe should look him up on the child predator list. They have one, you know. But what you really need is to move. Iâ€™ve been looking up different places. I hope you donâ€™t mind.â€ â€œI donâ€™t.â€ Weâ€™d reached the front of the van. â€œBut Iâ€™ll probably need to find a second job first. Iâ€™m no longer working for my dad.â€ He stopped walking. â€œYouâ€™re not?â€ I didnâ€™t want to vilify my parents, though part of me felt they deserved it. â€œWe came to the mutual conclusion that I wasnâ€™t going to work there anymore.â€ â€œGood for you.â€ When I raised my brows in puzzlement, he added, â€œYou hated it there.â€ â€œHow come everyone seems to know that? Itâ€™s not as if I complained.â€ â€œI can just tellâ€”your eyes are different when you talk about the factory. Look, itâ€™ll work out. Iâ€™ll help you find a place you can afford.â€ I gave a gentle snort. He laughed. â€œDid you just snort?â€ â€œUm, no. Maybe. I just think youâ€™re biting off more than you realize.â€ â€œHey, Iâ€™ve got connections.â€ â€œWell, Iâ€™m going to need more than just an apartment at the rate Iâ€™m picking up girls. I seem to get at least one on every major holiday.â€ â€œWow, if I used the term â€˜picking up girlsâ€™ like that, someone would put me in jail.â€ I snorted loudly this time. â€œYes, it was a snort. Youâ€™re funny.â€ Again the deliberate grin that sent delicious heat through my belly. â€œGood. I like to see you smile.â€ His dark eyes held mine, and the heat spread through my limbs. I felt rooted to the spot, held by his gaze. His face shouldnâ€™t be so familiar to me, but it was. For several heartbeats we stood there, as if at the mouth of a raging riverâ€”and I wanted more than anything to jump inside and get wet, without worrying about drowning. Before meeting him, Iâ€™d been so careful with my plans, my feelings. Maybe I was a lot like Saffron, holding back because of the love Iâ€™d been denied as a child. Yet Iâ€™d had Tessa, then Makay and the girls, and here was Jameson, staring at me like heâ€™d never seen a woman before. Was this how the beginning of love felt? I didnâ€™t know because it was certainly the first time Iâ€™d ever experienced it. If only so much didnâ€™t ride on trusting him. The sliding door on the van opened. â€œHey, are we going or not?â€ Payden asked. â€œItâ€™s already getting a little stuffy in here.â€ â€œRight.â€ The connection broken, I hurried toward Paydenâ€™s sliding door, but Jameson sprinted after me and opened the front passenger door instead. â€œYouâ€™re riding here with me,â€ he said, offering me a hand up. â€œIf thatâ€™s okay.â€ I nodded and took his hand. His touch felt warm and comfortable and exhilarating. I wanted more. More of him. More than friendship. He tipped forward, brushing a kiss over my lips. It was all I could do not to grab him and kiss him again. â€œI hope youâ€™re ready for this,â€ he said. â€œMy family can get loud.â€ I glanced toward the two rows of back seats, where Zoey and Halla were arguing about bands as Ruth tried to play peacemaker. â€œYouâ€™re kidding, right?â€ â€œNope. You havenâ€™t seen anything yet.â€ 12 The supposed two-hour trip took an extra half hour with all the potty breaks, and the girls and their tiny bladders became a joke between Jameson and Payden. Between the stops, we sang along with CDs and played the alphabet game, which the girls claimed Jameson and Payden cheated at by using the gas line warning signs. The warnings were periodically pasted on wooden posts along the roads, and the men couldnâ€™t possibly see the letters they alleged were there. But by the end of the trip, the girls were also using the signs, skipping all the way from A through J, or L through P, or R through W. Only the K, Q, X, Y, and Z were missing from the sign and had to be found elsewhere. They went through the alphabet dozens of times before they finally grew bored. We pulled up at his parentsâ€™ house, which was a squat, stuccoed affair. The whole thing could almost fit into the kitchen and family room of my parentsâ€™ house. Shaking the image from my head, I followed Jameson up the walk and waited as he knocked on the front door. It swung open to reveal a teenage version of Jameson. The boy hugged his brother and blushed as he was introduced as Tim. â€œCome on in,â€ he invited. â€œEveryoneâ€™s in here.â€ I wouldnâ€™t be my motherâ€™s daughter if I didnâ€™t notice the outdated wallpaper and the short, emerald green carpet in the living room that might have been popular in the 1990s. Tim led us through the room to the kitchen, which had to be the largest space in the house but was barely able to fit a long wooden table. The kitchen ceiling had boxes of fluorescent lighting that would have my mother shaking her head, but to me it felt just right. There was no mistaking the sense of coziness here. The kitchen connected with a small family room that was set down a couple feet, separated from the kitchen by a few stairs. Most of Jamesonâ€™s family were gathered there, and at least three different board games were in play. A TV also blared, but nobody appeared to be watching it. A woman I assumed was Jamesonâ€™s mother turned from the sink. â€œAh, youâ€™re here,â€ she said, drying her hands before hugging him. She was of average height and weight, with dark blond hair, blue eyes, and a smile that put me at ease. â€œYou must be Lily,â€ she said. â€œMy son goes on and on about you. Your eyes, how good you are with the girls. I am so pleased to meet you. Iâ€™m Heidi.â€ â€œUh, Mom,â€ Jameson said. She laughed as he quickly began introducing the girls. â€œAre you guys hungry?â€ Heidi asked when he was finished. â€œDinner wonâ€™t be ready for several hours yet, but I have some chips and stuff on the table.â€ She gestured to the table, which was covered with clear plastic. The legs were intricately carved, and the surface gleamed even beneath the plastic. Now this piece of furniture my mother would covet. â€œPlease, help yourselves.â€ â€œThanks,â€ I said, â€œbut all weâ€™ve been doing for the past two hours is eating. Jameson and I both brought too many snacks for the trip.â€ Her laugh once again filled the kitchen. â€œYou call him Jameson? Good choice.â€ I wanted to say that mothers were always right, but it wasnâ€™t true, or my girls wouldnâ€™t be with me, and Iâ€™d be in Flagstaff right now. â€œHe looks like a Jameson. I hope thatâ€™s okay.â€ â€œOh, I donâ€™t mind sharing it with you. It means youâ€™re on my side.â€ She winked at me to show she was kidding as she hooked her arm around one of mine. â€œLetâ€™s go meet the rest of the clan.â€ We crossed the kitchen and went down the three steps into the family room, where Jamesonâ€™s family had stopped the games they were playing and stared, a sea of interested brown eyes. Heidi released me and started the introductions, her hands moving in front of her in sign language as she presented her husband, Antonio, and their children Linda, Robert, Eric, and Angela. â€œYou met Tim already,â€ she added. I knew from Jameson that the three oldest after himâ€”Linda, Tim, and Robertâ€”were each a year apart, eighteen, seventeen, and sixteen, coming like a flood after five years of Jameson being an only child. Eric was twelve, and Angela ten. What he hadnâ€™t told me was that Angela was deaf. As the family members were introduced, each spoke and signed their greetings. When the girls or I responded, Jameson or one of the others translated our speech. It was a beautiful thing, the ease with which they spoke and signed simultaneously, and for several minutes I found it difficult to look past their hands. Angela was the only light-haired Perez, taking after her mother, but her eyes were definitely her fatherâ€™s. Antonio Perez had black hair sprinkled liberally with gray and was a foot shorter than Jameson. He was handsome with a sort of European flare that reminded me of vampire movies. â€œCome play with us!â€ Eric demanded. â€œWe can play Bang! But at the table because thereâ€™s more room.â€ Heidi leaned over and turned off the television. â€œOh,â€ she said, sighing with relief. â€œThatâ€™s so much better.â€ The girls didnâ€™t know what Bang! was, but the Perez kids were eager teachers, and soon they were at the large kitchen table firing bullets, playing misses, and using their alcohol cards to gain life points as outlaws, deputies, and renegades had a shoot-out to the death. Jameson didnâ€™t join the game but knelt between a beautiful checkered coffee table and his youngest sister, who had remained on the couch. Her arms and hands moved at light speed as she talked to her brother. â€œWhatâ€™s she saying?â€ I asked. â€œThat youâ€™re pretty.â€ He signed as he spoke. â€œThat your eyes are kind. And some other stuff Iâ€™m not translating because itâ€™s embarrassing.â€ Angela laughed at that. I reached into the only experience I had with sign languageâ€”a single season viewing of Switched at Birthâ€”and told her thank you. She grinned and signed something before hopping up and running into the kitchen to watch her family play the card game. â€œShe says â€˜youâ€™re welcome,â€™â€ Jameson said, rising from the carpet. â€œI figured. Why didnâ€™t you tell me?â€ â€œWhat? That sheâ€™s deaf?â€ He shrugged. â€œHonestly, I didnâ€™t even think about it. Not until we arrived, and I saw you guys watching my mother sign. Angelaâ€™s been deaf all her life. We all learned ASL because we wanted to be a real part of her world. Itâ€™s an entire unique community. Even Payden and my aunt learned. It was kind of funny because my father picked it up better than he has English.â€ Tears choked me. Because if Angela had been born in my family, I couldnâ€™t say that my parents would have reacted the same way. She would have more likely been hidden from view, maybe institutionalized. â€œI like that you know sign language.â€ In fact, I liked it a lot. â€œWill you teach me?â€ He nodded and signed â€œYes,â€ another of the few signs I recognized. â€œWhat about Spanish? Do you know that too?â€ â€œNot as well as ASL. My mother speaks Spanish too, and my parents tried to teach me when I was young, before I began school. My grandparents would also come to visit, and I spent a summer in Spain with them when I was seventeen. But Iâ€™m not as good as I should be, and none of my other siblings, except Linda, speak it at all. With my mom being American, and my dad kind of quiet, it was just too hard to keep it up.â€ I wondered what else I didnâ€™t know about him. â€œGuess itâ€™s strange to have the last name Perez and not speak Spanish.â€ He laughed. â€œIt happens a lot around these parts.â€ The Perez household was louder than I expected, even after Jamesonâ€™s warning, but the girls were having a great time. There was no awkwardness that wasnâ€™t immediately laughed away. At dinner, all fifteen of us fit around the table, with one spot to spare. After a blessing on the meal, everyone raced for the food, and when I was slow, Jameson began filling my plate. â€œAround here itâ€™s who can grab the best food first,â€ he said. My girls already seemed to know that, and they beat even the Perezes for seconds. After dinner, Antonio and Jameson took me to see Antonioâ€™s garage-turned-shop. He was working on a bookcase, a fireplace mantle, and another dining table like the one heâ€™d made for his family. â€œYour work is amazing,â€ I said. â€œI donâ€™t make lot of money,â€ he responded in heavily accented English. â€œBut I am happy, and it is honest work. I have been home these past ten years with Angela.â€ I knew I shouldnâ€™t be jealous of a little girl for having a father who wanted to be home with her, but for a moment, I felt very much alone as I recalled my relationship with my own father. â€œI think thatâ€™s perfect.â€ Antonio grinned and gave me a wink. â€œIf you stick around, eh? One day I make you a table.â€ â€œWell, Iâ€™m going to have a big house with a ton of foster girls who will probably ruin it.â€ He laughed. â€œOh, yes. Good. Happy house. Lots of children. A big table is what they need. For nowâ€â€”he picked up a pair of bookends from a table full of similar onesâ€”â€œyou have this.â€ The entwined pair of cheetahs was decidedly heavy. â€œOh, itâ€™s beautiful, but you canâ€™tâ€”â€ â€œWe sell them at craft fairs,â€ he said. â€œThey are easy to make.â€ â€œOur bread and butter,â€ Jameson explained. â€œMy mother sells them while he finishes the big pieces.â€ â€œHow did you learn to work with wood? Who taught you?â€ I asked Antonio. â€œMy father and grandfather. I no think it was for me, and for a long time I denied the call, but it finally found me.â€ His words reminded me of what Jameson said about his father leaving his accounting job. â€œMario is also an artist,â€ Antonio said. â€œOnce I thought he would follow my footsteps, but now he follows my first profession.â€ His smile showed he didnâ€™t care. I looked at Jameson. â€œWill you show me something you made?â€ â€œThe coffee table,â€ Antonio said. â€œThe one with different colors of wood on the top? Wow, Iâ€™m impressed.â€ Jameson groaned. â€œJust donâ€™t look too closely. Angela can do better, and sheâ€™s only ten.â€ At that, Antonio looked proud. â€œShe only lacks strength, but she feels the wood. In here, I wear earplugs. She does not hear the saw. We make a perfect pair.â€ We all laughed and returned to the house, with me clutching my new bookends. The noise hit us again in a wave, but I was more used to it now. I made a dash to the coffee table for a second look. Squatting next to it, I could see a few places where the joined wood was beginning to separate slightly, but it was still beautiful. â€œVery nice.â€ Jameson shrugged but looked pleased. â€œItâ€™s okay.â€ â€œYour family is nice.â€ I ran a hand idly over the coffee table. â€œThank you for bringing me.â€ Jameson stood with his hands in his pockets. â€œI wanted you to see where Iâ€™m from, and I wanted you to meet them.â€ He glanced into the kitchen, where the kids were playing a round of Skip-Bo. â€œThey are a big part of me.â€ â€œI can see that.â€ I wondered if he knew how lucky he was. I didâ€”and being here changed the way I felt about him. I still wanted him, he was still attractive to me, but now there was an added depth, one I couldnâ€™t resist. I looked down at the coffee table to hide the tears seeping into my eyes. He must have sensed something because he squatted beside me. â€œWhat is it?â€ â€œI have this dream,â€ I said. â€œA big house with all the girls. Thereâ€™s lots of laughter, music, and even a dog.â€ â€œA dog?â€ â€œYeah.â€ All weekend, Elsie had talked non-stop about the dogs she and Ruth had walked on Thursday and Saturday, and seeing her come alive made a dog a permanent part of my dream house. I risked a glance and found his mouth curved into a smile. â€œAnd thereâ€™s chaos, messes, and sometimes fighting, but most of the time thereâ€™s just a sense of . . . family, even for strangers. Thatâ€™s what you have here, and itâ€™s really . . . good.â€ â€œIâ€™m glad you think so.â€ He put his hand over mine, and this time his touch caused an ache inside me that I couldnâ€™t name. â€œYou should know that my family is nothing like this,â€ I felt compelled to say. â€œMy sister is great, but you saw my mother, and . . . I donâ€™t even know my father.â€ â€œThatâ€™s okay. In that house of yours, you can do it any way you want. You donâ€™t have to do what they did.â€ â€œDessert!â€ Heidi called from the kitchen. â€œHurry and get it. Itâ€™s starting to get dark and you guys need to get going.â€ â€œShe hates me leaving in the dark,â€ Jameson said. â€œI donâ€™t think sheâ€™s realized that itâ€™s going to be dark before we get back to Phoenix, however fast we get out of here.â€ Laughing, we hurried over to the table for large slices of double-layer chocolate cake with whipped raspberry filling. This time I found myself at the counter with the wall on my left and Payden on my right. For the first time since our arrival, he was away from Elsie, who was separated from him by Angela. He leaned over in my direction. â€œLily, I need to talk to you about something.â€ The seriousness of his voice made me put down my fork. â€œWhat?â€ â€œA guy came to the store asking questions. He put up these.â€ He passed me a folded sheet, which I started to open. His hand shot out to stop me, but not before I caught the slightest glimpse of Elsieâ€™s face on the paper. â€œNot here. Sheâ€™ll see. I didnâ€™t tell him anything, of course, but one of the other clerks remembered seeing Elsie. You canâ€™t bring her to the store anymore.â€ He glanced over to where Elsie and Angela were busy writing notes to each other and giggling, though Iâ€™d learned that Angela was fairly adept at reading lips. â€œIâ€™m sorry,â€ Payden added. My stomach had fallen with that glimpse of Elsieâ€™s picture. First the Internet plea to find Halla and now flyers of Elsie. â€œThank you,â€ I said mechanically. â€œIâ€™ll take care of it.â€ Payden nodded, staring down at his cake as though heâ€™d lost his appetite. My own cake had no flavor, but I forked up a mouthful anyway. What was I going to do? Feeling eyes on me, I turned to see Jameson at the table, wedged between his father and his brother Tim. There was a question in his eyes. â€œLater,â€ I mouthed. Somehow I finished the cake and said goodbye to Jamesonâ€™s family without puking or bursting into angry tears. Heidi hugged me as I left, whispering in my ear. â€œYouâ€™re everything he said and more. I hope youâ€™ll come see us again.â€ â€œThank you. I will.â€ As the girls piled into the van, Jameson pulled me aside. â€œWhat was on that paper? Paydenâ€™s not in trouble, is he?â€ Wordlessly, I handed it to him, and he opened it, shock immediately registering on his face. â€œOh, no.â€ I was glad his back was to his parents, who stood at the door to wave goodbye. â€œShe ran away at least five and a half or six weeks ago,â€ I said. â€œMaybe more. Sheâ€™s been with me for more than a month of that time, and thereâ€™s been nothing like this before. Why now?â€ â€œI donâ€™t know. But this says her fatherâ€™s from Tempe. All his contact info is here.â€ I took back the flyer. â€œI knew she had to be from somewhere in Arizona from the comments sheâ€™s made, but Tempe is so close. I . . . these flyers are going to make it impossible for her to go anywhere. And one of the clerks at Paydenâ€™s store already identified her.â€ â€œIâ€™m so sorry.â€ â€œâ€˜Missing and endangered,â€™ it says. So what do you think? Could he have thought sheâ€™d come back, and when she didnâ€™t, he finally put out flyers?â€ â€œPossibly.â€ â€œWhat should I do?â€ His jaw tightened with resolve. â€œWeâ€™ll think of something.â€ 13 The weeks flew by with me working to keep everything together. Halla started going with Ruth again to work, using her wig, and Elsie didnâ€™t leave the house, except to Makayâ€™s or on errands with me at night in the car. We spent a lot of time on the roof once the heat of the day had eased enough to make it tolerable. I also finished the rest of my foster parent training. For the first time in my life, work was a welcome distraction. I loved being with the kids at Teen Remake, especially on my full Friday at Teen Nature, where I worked from noon to ten. Makay was with Elsie and the girls, so I didnâ€™t worry about them, and seeing Jameson at the camp was a plus. Though we didnâ€™t have much time for privacy, we did steal a few kisses under the moonlight at the camp before I headed home. I was falling for him, I had no doubt about that. I only hoped he felt the same way. During the days or evenings we didnâ€™t have work, Jameson was with me and the girls, watching more than our fair share of videos, playing games, or making something in the kitchen. Heâ€™d taken to bringing groceries, and somewhat guiltily, I let him. Between my last paycheck from the factory and a gift from Tessa, Iâ€™d paid Juneâ€™s rent and our utilities. We were scraping by on food, even with Jamesonâ€™s help and Paydenâ€™s offerings, but we would be getting funds from DCS soon, and I expected a paycheck from Teen Remake any day. Most nights we tried to kick Jameson out before midnight because I worried that DCS would somehow find out and think he was living with us and take Zoey and Bianca away. Since the girls were finally out of school, we could sleep in many mornings, but there were still Ruth and Hallaâ€™s errands, and Saffron, who woke us up every day with her blow dryer as she got ready for work. The knock weâ€™d feared on the door hadnâ€™t come yet, though the flyers of Elsie were plastered everywhere. I began to hope it would all die down. Some three weeks after our visit to his family, Jameson came into one of my Thursday morning sessions with Jill and asked to see me. Jill smiled knowingly, and the girls in our session tittered. My face flushed, and that made them laugh harder. â€œBe quick about it,â€ Jill said, grinning. â€œWhatâ€™s this about?â€ I asked as Jameson pulled me into an empty room. He didnâ€™t answer, his lips closing the distance between us, and for the next few blissful moments, I let myself become lost in his touch. When we broke apart, he was smiling and so was I. â€œI donâ€™t think theyâ€™re paying us to make out,â€ I whispered. â€œNo, but I had an idea last night, about Ruth. It was something you mentioned that social worker said when she came to your apartment, and why you keep kicking me out every night so early. I didnâ€™t want to get your hopes up, but my hunch panned out.â€ â€œWhat hunch?â€ â€œThat guy Ruthâ€™s mother has living with her? Tyron Fisher? Well, I asked Bea to look him up through her connections with the police department. Turns out, he did time for rape.â€ I stared at him. â€œWhat?â€ â€œYes. And get this, the girl was only sixteen. Thereâ€™s no way DCS would place a child in any house he was living in.â€ â€œCan it be that easy?â€ Goose bumps rippled up my bare arms. â€œHard to believe, but I think so.â€ â€œWhat if Ruthâ€™s mother dumps him when she finds out sheâ€™s losing her extra food stamps?â€ â€œThatâ€™s where Bea comes in. She can feel her out just like you did, and once she determines that Ruthâ€™s mother will likely do it again . . .â€ â€œBut theyâ€™ve interviewed her beforeâ€”several times. After the first time, she just got another boyfriend, and he assaulted Ruth too.â€ â€œBeaâ€™s more determined than whoever had the case before. I think we should trust her.â€ I hesitated. Jameson was making a lot of sense, but it was still hard for me. Ruth had been through too much already. Jamesonâ€™s smile was nervous. â€œThe worst that can happen is they send her home, and she runs away again. Ruthâ€™s mother only wants the food stamps, right?â€ â€œAnd to clean her house, I think. Ruthâ€™s the only one of my girls who does her chores without me riding her.â€ â€œGood.â€ Jameson smirked. â€œI might have had something to do with that.â€ â€œWhat?â€ â€œYeah, remember that first day we met? While you were getting ready for work, I told Ruth and Halla Iâ€™d give them ten bucks if theyâ€™d make sure your place was clean when you got home.â€ I gaped. â€œIt was. I remember being surprised. Please donâ€™t tell me youâ€™re still paying them.â€ â€œOh, no, but I do bring Ruth a box of toaster tarts a couple times a week. She loves that junk.â€ â€œThat would explain the boxes I keep finding stashed behind the couch. I thought she was hoarding food again.â€ â€œShe probably is hoarding them,â€ he said with a grin, â€œbut I hoard chocolate-covered cinnamon bears and you hoard croissants, so who cares? Anyway, if she gets sent home, we tell her not to clean and to eat a lot. That way her mother wonâ€™t care when she runs. I really donâ€™t think it will go that far, but by then youâ€™ll have a new apartment. The point is sheâ€™ll be safe from the boyfriend. Besides, once Bea knows Ruth was assaulted, she wonâ€™t send her back if thereâ€™s a chance itâ€™ll happen again.â€ He waited, and I knew it was my decision. Jameson cared about Ruth, and Iâ€™d seen her blossom these past three weeks under his care. Heâ€™d even helped me with her new hairstyle that had turned out quite well. Ruth trusted him so much that she hardly ever wore her boy clothes anymore when he was around, and that was becoming a problem because we didnâ€™t have enough clothes to fit her long legs. â€œOkay,â€ I said. Jameson didnâ€™t wait for me to change my mind. â€œGood. Beaâ€™s gone back to DCS, but Iâ€™ll ask if she can come talk with you after you get off. Iâ€™ll have a session at that time, though. Can you do it alone?â€ â€œYeah.â€ He kissed me again, his hands around my back, pushing me closer until I felt I would melt into him. It was all I could do to pull myself away. Weâ€™d have to decide what to do about us soon because I wanted him as much as he wanted me, but a casual relationship was out of the questionâ€”just like alcohol and staying out too late. The girls watched our every move, and they knew me too well for me to keep secrets. Besides, what I felt for Jameson went far beyond casual. He could break my heart. â€œSo how long has she been with you?â€ Bea wasnâ€™t smiling after my hurried explanation about Ruth. â€œSince last Thanksgiving.â€ â€œSo before Zoey and Bianca.â€ I nodded. â€œWhy didnâ€™t you tell me about her?â€ â€œBecause DCS sent her back twice before, and she canâ€™t go through that again.â€ Bea frowned. â€œWell, itâ€™s been six months, and her mother hasnâ€™t reported her missing. So Iâ€™d say that woman is in a world of trouble already. She might have gotten away with it if she didnâ€™t have that man there, but I think I can ask just the right questions to give enough doubt. I will have to contact the former caseworker on this, though. I want to see if they properly documented her abuse, and why there wasnâ€™t adequate follow up.â€ â€œThank you.â€ â€œYouâ€™re going to have to find a new place to live,â€ Bea said as I headed for the door. â€œEspecially at the rate youâ€™re finding girls.â€ She didnâ€™t know the half of it. â€œIs there anything else youâ€™re not telling me?â€ she asked. â€œNo, but I canâ€™t wait until you meet Ruth. She has your hair.â€ Friday and Saturday morning passed with no word from Bea. I came home from my Saturday morning shift at Teen Nature worried that no news was bad news. I hadnâ€™t dared tell Ruth anything for fear Iâ€™d scare her. I was scared enough for both of us. I busied myself with washing our clothes at the Laundromat and getting the girls to clean the apartment. When night fell, we still had a mound of clothes on the couch, and Hallaâ€™s and Ruthâ€™s beds were laid out in preparation for our movie fest. Halla and Ruth volunteered to pick up our Saturday night videos. â€œCome with us, Elsie,â€ Ruth said. â€œItâ€™s dark and you can wear my hat. No one will see you.â€ Elsie hesitated, looking at me. â€œItâ€™ll be okay,â€ I said. â€œJust use my hoodie.â€ She nodded with a smile that told me she was growing stir-crazy sitting inside all day. â€œYou guys coming?â€ Halla asked Zoey and Bianca. â€œNo, weâ€™ll stay and help get rid of these clothes so we have somewhere to sit.â€ Zoey thumbed at the couch, and I felt a little rush of pride that she was thinking of me. I only hoped Jameson wasnâ€™t bribing her with toaster tarts. â€œAnd Iâ€™ll make popcorn,â€ Bianca added. I gave Halla my credit card. â€œThree movies only,â€ I told her. â€œDonâ€™t go inside for snacks.â€ She grinned. â€œWe donâ€™t need â€™em. Your friend who is a boy but not your boyfriend will bring some.â€ Giggling, they left the apartment. Theyâ€™d only been gone a few minutes when the doorbell rang. Bianca ran to look through the peephole, while Zoey and I froze. Bianca turned back to me. â€œItâ€™s the landlord. Heâ€™s got a guy with him. Never seen him before.â€ A few minutes earlier, I would have sent the girls to the roof, and now I didnâ€™t know if it was good or bad that they were out in the street. I turned to Zoey. â€œIf itâ€™s someone looking for the girls, you go warn them not to come back, okay? Tell them to go to the park, to our meeting place.â€ She nodded, her eyes frightened the way theyâ€™d been when Iâ€™d first found her at that same park. â€œBut first fold up those two beds. Quick!â€ I didnâ€™t want the men thinking we had more than us sleeping here. â€œDump the blankets on the other side of the couch. Then just sit and watch television or something until you can get past them.â€ Saffron was still home, in the bathroom, getting ready for a date, but there was no warning her now. At least she wasnâ€™t at risk like the others, and she knew well enough to keep her mouth shut. Pounding on the door sent my heart into overdrive. I wished Jameson was here. â€œIâ€™m coming,â€ I called to the men. â€œJust wait a moment.â€ Glancing at Zoey and Bianca, I was relieved to see theyâ€™d already folded the chair-beds and were sitting on them, the television on. I opened the door to the landlord, a short, thin man about my own age with a blond scruff of a goatee that made him look five years younger. Rumors had it he was the son of the owner, and I suspected it was true because he lacked the ability to fix anything. No one would ever hire a non-relative so inept. â€œSorry,â€ I said with false brightness. â€œIâ€™m in the middle of laundry, as you can see, and I donâ€™t let my girls open the door in this neighborhood.â€ I gave the landlord a bland smile at my not-so-subtle dig. â€œMay I help you?â€ The man with the landlord craned his neck to see past me, obviously not content with his limited view of the girls. â€œSheâ€™s got to be here. That guy downstairs swears she is.â€ â€œWhat are you talking about?â€ But I knew, because the stranger looked like Elsie. He had the same dark curly hair and soulful brown eyesâ€”he was gorgeous in every sense of the word. But his unsmiling mouth had a cruel, demanding twist that was missing in Elsieâ€™s sweet face. The landlord said, â€œMr. Reynolds here is looking for his daughter. Her name is Elsie. Do you mind if we come in?â€ â€œWe were just about ready to go out for some videos. Is there a problem?â€ â€œWe need to search your apartment,â€ Mr. Reynolds said, his voice staccato and sharp. â€œI know youâ€™re hiding her!â€ â€œWhat? Are you crazy? Maybe I should call the police.â€ â€œMaybe you should,â€ he retorted. â€œBecause Iâ€™m not leaving until I find her.â€ â€œI donâ€™t know who youâ€™re talking about. Thereâ€™s no one here but us.â€ I glanced back at Zoey and Bianca, who stared at me with wide, frightened eyes. â€œIâ€™ll see for myself.â€ Mr. Reynolds pushed past me, forcing his way into the apartment. â€œYou canâ€™t do this!â€ I shouted. â€œLook, youâ€™re scaring my girls.â€ â€œSheâ€™s right, sir,â€ said the landlord, who stayed nervously in the hall. â€œYou need a warrant.â€ â€œI donâ€™t need anything. Sheâ€™s my daughter!â€ â€œIâ€™m calling the police.â€ I ran for my phone in my purse on the kitchen counter, but Elsieâ€™s father was already heading down the hallway to the bedroom. I watched helplessly as he opened the door. The three beds there could be for Zoey, Bianca, and me, but would he see anything he recognized as Elsieâ€™s? Had she taken her pink backpack with her? Sheâ€™d worn it everywhere at first, but she didnâ€™t anymore. Pushing open the door, Reynolds stared inside while my heart panicked so much that I couldnâ€™t drag in a breath. My head began to buzz. He turned back to me, coming fast down the hall, and my laboring heart couldnâ€™t even feel relief that he hadnâ€™t found anything. â€œWhere is she?â€ he demanded. I had the sense that if the landlord hadnâ€™t come hesitantly into the apartment, Elsieâ€™s father would have shoved me up against the wall. â€œThereâ€™s no one here but us,â€ I repeated. â€œYouâ€™ve got the wrong apartment.â€ At that moment, a sound came from the bathroom. Triumph filling his face, Reynolds reached for the door, just as Saffron opened it. â€œWhat is going on out here?â€ She looked from me to Elsieâ€™s father and back again. I started to talk, but Elsieâ€™s father beat me to it. â€œIâ€™m looking for Elsie.â€ Saffron shrugged. â€œSorry, I donâ€™t know anyone by that name. Iâ€™m just here visiting my friend.â€ She gestured to Zoey, who had come to stand by me. Why was she still here instead of warning Elsie? â€œGirl,â€ Saffron added, â€œif this is what goes on here, next time we should hang out at my house.â€ â€œSo you donâ€™t know my daughter?â€ Reynolds shoved a picture under her nose. â€œSorry. Cute kid, though.â€ â€œCan I see that?â€ I took the picture from his unwilling hand. Sure enough, it was a younger Elsie, smiling sadly at the camera. My heart ached for her. â€œSorry,â€ I said. â€œYouâ€™re sure?â€ Reynolds was backing down now. Finally. â€œShow it to her.â€ He pointed at Zoey. Zoey pretended to study it. â€œNo. And I donâ€™t recognize her from school either. If it was that guy downstairs who said she was here, well, heâ€™s a perv. Heâ€™s always staring at my little sister. She has dark hair too. He probably just wants a reward.â€ To me, her voice sounded strained, but Elsieâ€™s father couldnâ€™t know that. He wasnâ€™t blind, though. With her darker skin, anyone could see Bianca didnâ€™t resemble Elsie in the least. No way could the neighbor be confused. Except that Bianca was no longer in the apartment for Elsieâ€™s father to compare. â€œWell, call me if you hear anything.â€ No apology or â€œplease.â€ Grabbing his picture from Zoey, Reynolds fished a flyer from his pocket and thrust it in my direction. It was identical to the one Payden had given me. â€œHow long has she been missing?â€ I made myself ask. â€œA couple weeks.â€ He didnâ€™t look at me as he told the lie, but started for the door. â€œSorry about this,â€ the landlord said in an undertone as Elsieâ€™s father exited the apartment. â€œI didnâ€™t expect him to go all ballistic like that. And I didnâ€™t think it would hurt to ask if youâ€™d seen her since you seem to have a lot of girls running in and out all the time.â€ I dredged up a smile. â€œZoey and Bianca have a lot of girlfriends, thatâ€™s all.â€ He stepped outside, and I shut the door with relief. What now? Obviously, our downstairs neighbor had recognized Elsie from the flyers and had called the number. I was grateful Mr. Reynolds had come here himself and not with the police because they would have probably been more thorough, maybe even holding me here until they received a warrant to search through our things, including my phone with the pictures Iâ€™d taken of the girls. I needed to remove the photos, maybe ask Jameson to store them on his computer. Because I knew it was only a matter of time until Elsieâ€™s father returned, this time with the police. The downstairs neighbor wouldnâ€™t be the only tenant here who would remember seeing Elsie. The police could also search the camera feeds at the nearby convenience stores or traffic lights, and no matter how careful weâ€™d been in the past few weeks, theyâ€™d identify Elsie and connect her to us. I had to take her somewhere safe. â€œBianca?â€ I asked Zoey. â€œI told her to meet the girls. He looked like he might start hitting you.â€ Zoey wasnâ€™t much for physical affection, but she hugged me now. â€œI couldnâ€™t leave.â€ I understood. Of course she couldnâ€™t. Just like she hadnâ€™t been able to leave Bianca with her uncle. â€œInteresting that he only started searching for Elsie a few weeks ago,â€ Saffron said. â€œAfter all the bruising would be gone. I bet he knows how long they take to fade.â€ Which meant the last time heâ€™d beaten Elsie hadnâ€™t been the first. No wonder she was so frightened. â€œWe have to get out of here!â€ Zoey said. â€œNot all of us.â€ My mind raced. â€œYou two and Bianca can stay here with Makay. Iâ€™ll go to Tessaâ€™s with the others. Just temporarily. Weâ€™ll figure it out.â€ â€œWhat about tonight?â€ Zoey looked ready to cry, and I knew it wasnâ€™t because of the DVDs. She was scared for Elsie, because of what she herself had endured. â€œLetâ€™s all go to Tessaâ€™s. Weâ€™ll talk about it there.â€ â€œUh, I still have my date with Russ,â€ Saffron said. â€œBut heâ€™s taking me to start service on my phone, now that I can pay for it, and Iâ€™ll call you and give you the number so you can tell me what youâ€™ve decided. Meanwhile, I can stay here with Makay to watch the apartment. Iâ€™m not scared.â€ It was the start of a plan. Impulsively, I leaned over to hug Saffron. â€œThanks for keeping it cool there. You did great.â€ I reached to pull Zoey into our embrace. â€œBoth of you.â€ â€œThatâ€™s what familyâ€™s for,â€ Saffron said. â€œAnd you guys are mine.â€ Zoey nodded forcefully. â€œWhich reminds me,â€ Saffron added, â€œMakay and Iâ€™ve been working on something with Russ for Hallaâ€™s dad. I think Iâ€™m almost ready to show you.â€ My mind could only hold one trauma at a time, but I trusted Makay to make sure Saffron abided by my stipulations. â€œOkay, good. But help me gather up some stuff for the girls tonight. Just a couple things in some of my big handbags. In case theyâ€™re watching.â€ 14 Tessaâ€™s two roommates were out, so no one objected to our arrival. Tessa, whoâ€™d canceled a date, met us at the door. â€œIâ€™m sorry to make you stay in on one of your only nights off from the factory,â€ I said. She waved my words aside. â€œThatâ€™s okay. Come on in.â€ â€œWe brought videos.â€ â€œGreat.â€ My phone buzzed. I knew it was Jameson again. Heâ€™d already texted three times when I canceled the movie night, and he was still waiting for an explanation. His concern made me feel slightly weepy. Tessa saw my face. â€œIs that the mysterious boyfriend I still havenâ€™t met?â€ â€œMaybe. Iâ€™ve got to call him.â€ â€œYou should invite him over. No reason not to.â€ I took my arm from Elsie, who hadnâ€™t said a word since Iâ€™d picked her up at the park but had cried silent tears. â€œHoney, Iâ€™m going to talk to Jameson, okay? My sister will stay right with you. Donâ€™t worry. Youâ€™re safe here.â€ I wasnâ€™t really sure how long that would be true. Elsie didnâ€™t respond, but she let Tessa take her hand and lead her into their family room. I called Jameson. â€œSorry,â€ I said. â€œItâ€™s been crazy.â€ Despite my attempt at control, my voice broke on the last word. â€œWhat happened?â€ I started a rundown, but he stopped me as I described how Elsieâ€™s father had pushed inside the apartment and screamed at us. â€œDid he hurt you?â€ â€œNo. Just scared us all. Elsie was with the girls getting videos, and itâ€™s not that farâ€”I was afraid sheâ€™d come home when he was still there. If sheâ€™d been home when heâ€™d come, Iâ€™d have sent her to the roof. He was like a madman. I donâ€™t know what to do.â€ â€œWhere are you now? Not still at the park, I hope.â€ â€œNo, weâ€™re at my sisterâ€™s.â€ â€œWell, thatâ€™s good. They wonâ€™t know that address, at least until they figure out youâ€™re related.â€ My heart plummeted. â€œI put Tessaâ€™s address on my employee papers for Teen Remake. I didnâ€™t trust that Bea would figure out things for Zoey and Bianca.â€ â€œThen weâ€™ll have to tell Bea. Sheâ€™s the only one whoâ€™ll be able to do anything. Elsieâ€™s father is sure to go to the police, and theyâ€™ll identify Elsie and find you. Thereâ€™s no way they wonâ€™t. If we come forward and show Bea those pictures you took when you found her, weâ€™ll at least have a chance.â€ He paused before adding, â€œAnd some follow-up on her case, if it doesnâ€™t work out.â€ I remembered how on the roof Elsie had said sheâ€™d rather die than go back. I was failing her, and I didnâ€™t know how to turn it around. â€œI can call her if you want,â€ he said. â€œBut either way, you should stay there through the weekend.â€ â€œOkay.â€ â€œCan I come over?â€ â€œPlease.â€ â€œText me the address. Iâ€™ll be right there.â€ Iâ€™d no sooner rejoined the girls than Saffron called my cell phone. â€œOkay,â€ she announced. â€œThis is my new number. Iâ€™m official. I canâ€™t believe I finally have a phone again.â€ â€œCongratulations.â€ â€œIt gets better,â€ she said. â€œI donâ€™t know if itâ€™s going to work, but Makay, Russ, and I are fighting Hallaâ€™s dad right this minute onlineâ€”with some other people too. Hurry and go look at his Go Fund Me. And before you ask, none of the posts can be traced back to me. For the past few weeks weâ€™ve been using Russâ€™s old laptop at a restaurant with free Wi-Fi to talk to a group of people who fight abuse. Thereâ€™s a lot of girls in the group, former victims. Anyway, Makay helped us track down some of that information Jameson gave you, and we turned it over to themâ€”all anonymously, of courseâ€”and they checked it out. So now theyâ€™re posting about it. Youâ€™ve got to see it!â€ I ran for my laptop that was in one of my bags, motioning for the girls to gather around. â€œIâ€™m putting you on speaker,â€ I told Saffron. â€œWhat was that URL?â€ When the Go Fund Me site came up, there were hundreds of comments, all of them negative about Hallaâ€™s father. â€œYou gave your daughter only broccoli and water for two weeks after she refused to eat her broccoli,â€ Ruth read. â€œI think a sixteen-year-old should decide if she wants carrots instead of broccoli.â€ I skimmed ahead, reading snippets to myself. â€œ. . . made her miss school for a month after a boy called the house . . . heard about the donation you gave to your priest . . . is that why he didnâ€™t tell the police your daughter went to him? School officials have repeatedly visited your house . . . sixteen is old enough for emancipation . . . sheâ€™s taken care of herself for almost seven months without you . . . leave her alone . . . wonâ€™t let her use the phone . . . threw out all her clothes . . . told your wife not to talk to the neighbors . . . living on bread and water . . . weighed only ninety pounds after you handcuffed her to the bed for six months . . . finally jumped from the window to kill herself to end the pain . . . broke her arm . . . ran away from the hospital when they said she had to go home . . . living on the street better than locked away . . . shame on you for abusing that poor girl . . . you are abusive and insane . . . scamming money from good people.â€ That was only the beginning. There were hundreds of comments. Tessa made a sound in her throat. â€œI canâ€™t believe it!â€ â€œItâ€™s all true,â€ Halla said in a small voice. â€œOh, honey, I know that.â€ Tessa hugged her. â€œI just meant all those people posting for you. The police will have to look into it now.â€ â€œMaybe.â€ Halla didnâ€™t look convinced. â€œThey posted them on his blog first, but he started moderating comments,â€ Saffron said through the speakerphone. â€œI think the pastor might have started the Go Fund Me account, and maybe heâ€™s not online yet to delete them there. But even when he does, theyâ€™ve commented on all the Facebook posts as well, and Hallaâ€™s dad canâ€™t delete comments on other peopleâ€™s pages, so itâ€™s going viral. Theyâ€™ve also emailed Go Fund Me directly, asking for the payments to be halted. Iâ€™ve made screen shots of everything. Weâ€™re all posting them.â€ I looked at Tessa. â€œWhat do you think?â€ â€œI think itâ€™s a great way to catch a rat.â€ â€œHeâ€™s not going to be happy,â€ Halla said, her voice trembling. â€œHeâ€™ll do something.â€ â€œBut not to you,â€ I said. â€œHe doesnâ€™t know where you are. By the time he does, weâ€™ll get my friend at DCS to stop him.â€ â€œNo. Not yet. Please?â€ Halla looked frightened. But I knew I had to actâ€”and soon. Jameson had been right all along about getting legitimate. I needed the support, and these girls needed to live without fear. Besides, I felt I now had enough proof and support to free Halla from her father forever. Even so, I nodded. She didnâ€™t need to know what I was going to do. I could spare her the knowledge as I had Ruth until I could work it out. Sometimes being the adult meant doing what was right, especially when it was difficult. Jameson and I met Bea at the nearly deserted DCS offices on Sunday after church. She was wearing jeans instead of the suit attire she normally used when popping in at Teen Remake. Elsie was holding so tightly to my hand that Iâ€™d lost all feeling in my fingers, but I didnâ€™t let her go. I turned her toward me and bent over slightly to look into her eyes. â€œWeâ€™re never going to stop fighting. Got that? I donâ€™t know whatâ€™s going to happen, but you hold onto those words. Iâ€™m going to fight for you, no matter how long it takes.â€ Jameson stared down at us, moisture glittering in his eyes. â€œThatâ€™s right. Me too. And if we have to, weâ€™ll run away to another country.â€ My jaw dropped. This from my toe-the-line, letter-of-the-law, trust-the-system boyfriend? If Iâ€™d still had any reservations about him, they were gone now. I loved him for that comment. Really loved him. For a moment, I didnâ€™t know what to do with the knowledge. It was wonderful and exciting and mind-shattering all at once, yet it vied with the devastation I felt over having failed Elsie. There should be fireworks and rockets and celebration. We should be in each otherâ€™s arms. But we were exactly where we wanted to be: helping Elsie. Together. He took Elsieâ€™s other hand and tapped on the door. Bea was waiting for us, her desk here utterly clean except for three neat piles of paper. Jameson placed a folder weâ€™d made on top of one of her piles. It contained blown-up copies of the photographs Iâ€™d taken the day Iâ€™d found Elsie. My notarized statement was accompanied by one from Payden, Zoey, Bianca, Saffron, and Ruth. Halla had been upset that we hadnâ€™t let her make one, but if things didnâ€™t go well when we told Bea about her situation, we planned to keep her whereabouts a secret. Elsie was trembling and crying now, so I pulled her onto my lap as we sat, though she was really too big for that. Beaâ€™s eyes were sad as she regarded Elsie. â€œFirst off, Iâ€™m here unofficially. I canâ€™t take Elsie today, or anything like that. Just so you know.â€ Elsieâ€™s body slumped against me in relief. â€œElsie,â€ Bea continued, â€œthe reason youâ€™re here is that I wanted to ask you about your mom. Iâ€™ve done some research, but I havenâ€™t been able to locate her. Do you know where your mother is? Because if we knew, we could get her statement and that would really help us.â€ Elsie whispered something, and I had to lean down to catch it. â€œShe says her mother left two years ago.â€ â€œShe left? Are you sure?â€ Bea looked at us significantly. Did she suspect that something else had happened to Elsieâ€™s mother? â€œShe sent me a birthday card.â€ Elsie looked up to say. â€œAre you sure it was from her?â€ Elsie nodded and pulled off her backpack. Her hand disappeared inside and out came a ragged envelope Iâ€™d never seen before. From it, she removed a card with a bluebird flying near a tree. Inside it read: Happy birthday, darling. I will always love you. I didnâ€™t know how that was true, if sheâ€™d left Elsie with a man who physically abused her, but the tender way Elsie held the card told me she believed. â€œMay I see that?â€ Bea examined the envelope, but Iâ€™d already seen that there was no return address. She gave it back. As Elsie put it away, she said, â€œShe left because he was going to kill her.â€ She looked at me, and I could see the unasked question there: Why didnâ€™t she take me? I had no answer. Bea asked what seemed like a million questions, and to my surprise, Elsie answered them. She told us her father hadnâ€™t started hitting her until a few months after her mother left. Before, heâ€™d scream and yell, but it had been her mother whoâ€™d taken the brunt of the abuse. Finally, Bea got to the question Iâ€™d wanted to ask Elsie for a long time. â€œHas your father ever touched you in your private places, somewhere that makes you feel uncomfortable?â€ Elsie glanced at me, her face even more frightened. â€œGo ahead, answer her. Itâ€™s important.â€ Iâ€™d suspected since she arrived that Elsie feared her father or someone sexually, because every time anyone mentioned how pretty she looked, she curled in on herself and a darkness would pass over her face. â€œHe never touched me, but . . .â€ She swallowed hard. â€œI think he watched me when I was in the bathroom. I donâ€™t know how. He says things that he couldnâ€™t know, and he touches my hair. Or sometimes, heâ€™ll rub his hand over my back.â€ She looked at me helplessly. â€œI donâ€™t know how to explain, but itâ€™s not like when you or Jameson touch me. Itâ€™s . . . creepy.â€ I knew exactly what she meant because Iâ€™d dated guys like that. It was in their eyes, the comments they made: lust, intent, darkness. My gaze flew to Beaâ€™s, and I saw my worry reflected there. She asked a few more questions without learning additional information, and then asked Jameson to take Elsie out to the hallway. When they were gone, she said, â€œIâ€™m not going to pretend this isnâ€™t difficult. Mr. Reynolds contacted our office as well as the local police when he tracked Elsie here, and someone in my office searched our records for any trace of her. Sometimes we get kids who wonâ€™t tell us their names, or who donâ€™t know their names, and they were all examined carefully. Reynolds is playing the bereaved parent, and as far as I can tell, everyone believes him. In fact, the social worker I talked to was completely charmed by the man. Iâ€™m really worried.â€ â€œWhat about the abuse?â€ â€œOh, my gut tells me it occurred. Whatâ€™s more, I think thereâ€™s a likelihood he will sexually abuse her in the future. Howeverâ€â€”she opened the file weâ€™d brought and took out one of my picturesâ€”â€œthis is the only thing we have to substantiate Elsieâ€™s claims. And we have no proof that he was the one who did this to her.â€ â€œWhat about Elsieâ€™s testimony?â€ â€œKids lie about their parents all the time. They lie so much they often start to believe the lies.â€ She held up a hand to prevent my objections. â€œYes, the pictures prove sheâ€™s not lying, but at this point, he could contest that it happened after she left his home.â€ â€œWhat about his delay in trying to find her? Sheâ€™s been with me seven and a half weeks now, and she ran away from home at least a week before that. Yet he sent out flyers only three weeks ago, and he told me personally that sheâ€™d been gone only two weeks.â€ â€œIt just boils down to his word against yours. Heâ€™ll say he was looking, just not in Phoenix. The photos do at least give our agency enough evidence to conduct oversight, and Iâ€™ll put in an emergency request for an inquiry, but Iâ€™m not going to lie to youâ€”I think heâ€™ll get her back. Afterward, thereâ€™ll be a home visit or two, some interviews. Or there will be as long as he doesnâ€™t move and drop off our radar. He might be kind to her for a while, but even if he is physically abusive, she probably wonâ€™t tell on him for fear it will make things worse because sheâ€™s already been sent back once.â€ â€œI canâ€™t let her go back to him.â€ Her voice took on a weariness I had never associated with her. â€œI know you want to stop this, but if you run with her, youâ€™ll be liable for kidnapping, and youâ€™ll lose your other foster children.â€ I shut my eyes to hold back the stinging tears. â€œIsnâ€™t there anything we can do?â€ Bea nodded. â€œWe find the mother. Assuming she really did leave on her own.â€ And that he didnâ€™t kill her. â€œHer maiden name is Michelle Luce.â€ Bea pushed a sheet across the desk. â€œYou didnâ€™t get this from me, but it contains all the information Iâ€™ve been able to gather since last night on the motherâ€™s family, including what we have from our contact in the police department. There have been no hits on the mother for two years. Absolutely nothing.â€ â€œSo she might very well be dead.â€ Bea inclined her head. â€œOr in hiding. Her family might be able to give us a clue which.â€ â€œWhat about before the two years? Is there anything else that might help us? Didnâ€™t anyone notice Michelle was being abused by her husband?â€ â€œThere are several doctor reports over a ten-year period about suspicious broken bones, but nothing was ever proven, and Michelle never verified anything herself. Thatâ€™s all. But abusers learn how to do the most damage without calling attention.â€ Beaâ€™s fingers tapped on the desk, as though releasing pent-up energy. â€œIâ€™m afraid the family is our only lead. Michelleâ€™s parents are dead, but she has a sister, an aunt, and five cousins. Like Elsieâ€™s father, theyâ€™re from Tempe, but theyâ€™ve spread out some. Only one of the cousins is out of state. Iâ€™ll send someone out myself to chat with those who live here, of course, but without proof that Reynolds has done something wrong, heâ€™s going to look a lot like a victim himself. You know, wife leaves him with a child and runs off with a lover or something.â€ â€œIn other words, you think we have more vested in finding her than they would.â€ â€œExactly. And maybe you can get something more out of Elsie that will help.â€ â€œSo if we find her motherâ€”â€ â€œAnd if she agrees to make a complaint against her husband,â€ Bea interjected, â€œthen we can put in place a temporary order to keep her in a foster home or with her mother.â€ â€œWith her mother?â€ That made me angry. â€œYou mean the woman who abandoned her?â€ Bea smiled and interlaced her fingers on the desk. â€œLily, when youâ€™ve been at this as long as I have, you will learn there are many reasons mothers leave, but some of them actually end up making good parents once they straighten out whatever caused them to break down. As much as I can see youâ€™re bonding with Elsie, the best thing for her, if her mother is healthy and ready to take on a child, is to be with her mother. But keep in mind itâ€™s not a competition. Thereâ€™s room for everyone in Elsieâ€™s life. Donâ€™t judge Elsieâ€™s mother for doing this. Not until you know everything.â€ I nodded, because Bea did have more experience, and I hadnâ€™t mistaken that look of longing in Elsieâ€™s eyes. I felt like weeping, but I managed to choke out. â€œOkay.â€ Silence fell, and I took that as my cue to get to my feet, but as I did, Bea spoke again. â€œI did go to see Ruthâ€™s mother this morning, with the social worker who was originally assigned to them. My colleague wasnâ€™t exactly excited about working on the weekend, but I find that Sunday mornings tell me a lot about a family.â€ Reaching out to steady myself on the desk, I held my breath against the possibility of bad news. â€œAnd?â€ â€œAnd I can tell you that after what we heard from them both, Ruth is never going back there. Unless she wants to, of course.â€ The tears Iâ€™d held in check spilled over. Iâ€™d embrace any good news at this point. â€œThank you. I donâ€™t know what you did. Wanda seemed so determined.â€ â€œSheâ€™s more determined to stay out of jail. Weâ€™ll talk more next week, but youâ€™re pushing things at your current apartment, if you want to keep Ruth with you. I could send her somewhere elseâ€”â€ â€œNo! Please. Iâ€™ll figure it out.â€ Bea shook her head, looking up at me. â€œYou know, if you can get through all this, you are either going to be the best single foster parent Iâ€™ve ever known, or the biggest pain in the butt. Iâ€™m hoping for the former. Donâ€™t disappoint me.â€ I nodded, clutching the paper sheâ€™d given me like a lifeline. â€œWell,â€ she said when I didnâ€™t leave. â€œIs there something else?â€ This was the third time sheâ€™d asked me that question, and this time I was going to tell her the truth. â€œThere is one more thing.â€ She sighed and indicated the chair. â€œWhatâ€™s her name?â€ I sat down again. â€œHalla.â€ When Iâ€™d told her everything, she tried to look at the Go Fund Me, but the page had vanished. â€œWe have screenshots,â€ I told her, â€œbut itâ€™s also all over Facebook, and Jamesonâ€”Mario, I meanâ€”contacted the neighbor himself. He can give you the information.â€ â€œHave him email it to me. If this evidence is true, thereâ€™s a good likelihood we can get the father to back off completely.â€ She arched a brow. â€œNow are we done?â€ Saffron would be eighteen in a month, and weâ€™d already decided there was no way she wanted to be tossed into the Social Services do-good machine. â€œYeah, weâ€™re done.â€ â€œIâ€™ll get to work on all this, then. Let me know if you find out anything about Elsieâ€™s mother.â€ I slowly walked toward the door, where I stopped and turned around. â€œWhat happens to kids like Elsie when theyâ€™re sent back? In the long run, I mean?â€ Beaâ€™s mouth became a tight line, and then she said, â€œDepends on how bad it is. Mostly, they endure until theyâ€™re old enough to leave. If itâ€™s really bad, they run again, which at Elsieâ€™s age opens her up to a lot of other dangers. Sometimes they die from abuse.â€ Not very comforting. In the hallway, Elsie and Jameson were playing something on his phone. Her face was somber, but she was intent on the game, and I motioned for Jameson to join me. As we walked some distance away, I told him what Bea had said about finding Elsieâ€™s mother. We glanced down the hall to see her watching us, her entire body tense. Did she think we were talking about turning her over? â€œLetâ€™s get her out to the car and see if she knows anything,â€ Jameson said. â€œWe can go visit the most likely relatives today. Maybe call the others.â€ His hand slid up my arm, leaving a trail of warmth. â€œThank you. But you donâ€™t have to . . . this isnâ€™t really your . . . I . . .â€ I no longer knew what I was trying to say, and each time I began it sounded like I didnâ€™t want him with me. â€œWeâ€™re in this together. You should know that by now.â€ His voice chided me gently, but his eyes emitted that same warmth as his hand, sending much-needed heat into my numb heart. â€œI canâ€™t fail her.â€ â€œWeâ€™ll do everything we can.â€ In the car, we told Elsie everything Bea had said. I didnâ€™t want to hide any of the facts; she was twelve, not a baby. Old enough to have run away. â€œI donâ€™t know where my mom went,â€ she said. Tears leaked from her eyes. â€œWere she and her sister close?â€ Jameson asked. Elsie shrugged. â€œThey talked on the phone sometimes.â€ â€œDid anyone come over?â€ â€œYeah, Felicia. Sheâ€™s my momâ€™s cousin, I think. They used to laugh a lot.â€ A fleeting smile slid across her face. â€œShe was over a lot when I was little. But she didnâ€™t like my dad. They had a huge fight, and then she didnâ€™t come anymore. Mom was weird after that. She slept a lot. Sometimes she went to a doctor.â€ Pain filled the last words. I put my arm around her. â€œOkay, weâ€™ll go talk to her. But first weâ€™ll drive you back to Tessaâ€™s.â€ â€œBut what if my momâ€™s with Felicia?â€ That was exactly what I was afraid of: finding the woman enjoying a wonderful life while her child suffered under the abusive hand of her estranged husband. â€œSheâ€™s probably not,â€ I said. â€œWeâ€™re just going to see if they know anything. Weâ€™ll tell you what we learn.â€ â€œPromise?â€ I nodded. I might soften the truth, but I wouldnâ€™t hide it from her. When we arrived at Tessaâ€™s, Elsie turned to me. â€œWhy didnâ€™t my mom take me with her?â€ A gaping chasm of hurt filled those few words. Beaâ€™s admonition not to judge rang in my head. â€œI donâ€™t know. Maybe she didnâ€™t have any choice.â€ 15 Felicia Grange lived in Surprise, off Greasewood Street. We decided not to call her but to show up unannounced, hoping weâ€™d learn more. â€œWeâ€™ll surprise her in Surprise.â€ Jamesonâ€™s joke was lame, but I smiled anyway to show I appreciated the effort. â€œIâ€™ve been looking at some apartments here for you,â€ he added. â€œHavenâ€™t found much of anything.â€ â€œBit of a commute to Teen Remake.â€ Forty minutes aboutâ€”forty long minutes that had me wondering if Iâ€™d done the right thing leaving Elsie with Tessa. What if the police came for her while we were gone? Nothing I could do about that now. Felicia Grange lived in a tan and red two-story apartment in the middle of similar dwellings. The place looked much better than where I lived now but was still compact, perhaps designed for couples with young children or empty nesters who didnâ€™t want the burden of a yard. She was home, which was a stroke of luck for us, but her slightly bulging green eyes narrowed the second we mentioned Michelle. â€œI donâ€™t know where she is,â€ Felicia said, leaning against the edge of her partially open door as if she wanted to slam it on us. â€œPlease, can we just come in for a moment?â€ I asked. â€œWeâ€™re not just looking for Michelle. Itâ€™s about her daughter, Elsie.â€ Feliciaâ€™s tight mouth softened slightly. â€œOkay.â€ She pulled the door open and let us in, adjusting her messy ponytail slightly. Her hair was blond, and I wondered if Michelleâ€™s was too. â€œPlease, have a seat.â€ Felicia indicated the brown leather couch. â€œIâ€™ll be back; Iâ€™m going to tell my husband I need a few minutes.â€ She disappeared up the nearby stairs, and I immediately popped up to examine the pictures on the wall. There were some of Felicia with a man, whom I presumed was her husband, and only one of a much younger Felicia with a thin blond woman. The photograph was slightly blurred, and I couldnâ€™t really make out the womanâ€™s features, but the child in her lap reminded me a lot of Elsie. â€œThink thatâ€™s her?â€ I asked. Jameson nodded. â€œLooks like Elsie in her lap.â€ Felicia was laughing, but the smile on Michelleâ€™s face didnâ€™t quite reach her eyes. â€œElsie was four,â€ said Felicia from behind us. I started at her voice. â€œIs this her mother?â€ â€œYeah.â€ Jameson and I returned to the couch, while Felicia dropped onto the matching loveseat. â€œIâ€™ll get right to the point,â€ I said. â€œElsie ran away from her father a couple months ago after he beat her severely, and not for the first time. I found her near a Dumpster in Phoenix, trying to forage for food. Sheâ€™s been with me ever since.â€ â€œHe beat her?â€ Felicia shook her head. â€œOh, no.â€ â€œYes, and now heâ€™s trying to take her home, and DCS pretty much is going to hand her back to him.â€ I hesitated before adding. â€œI have reason to believe that his abuse is starting to become sexual.â€ â€œBut youâ€™ll fight him from taking her back, right?â€ Felicia said. â€œOf course. But you donâ€™t understand. Itâ€™s her word against his, and everyone believes him.â€ â€œEveryone always believes Brad,â€ she said bitterly. â€œI told Michelle not to marry that jerk. He was controlling and mean. They hadnâ€™t been married six months before he began to hit her.â€ â€œSo she left,â€ I prompted. â€œEventually. It took thirteen years too long, if you ask me.â€ â€œWhy didnâ€™t she take Elsie?â€ I tried to hold in my anger at the words. Felicia looked away, her eyes going to the photograph on the wall, though she couldnâ€™t possibly see Michelle or Elsieâ€™s faces. â€œShe was expecting again, and she lost the baby because he hit her. She ended up in the hospital with all the blood she lost. She started taking prescription meds. I told her she needed helpâ€”that they both needed helpâ€”but the drugs made her compliant, and she didnâ€™t care anymore. It was like she was dying right in front of me. I had it out with Brad, and then suddenly she stopped answering my calls. Or maybe she didnâ€™t have a phone any more. I went there at least a dozen times during the day when I knew he wasnâ€™t home. No one answered.â€ â€œYou think she might be dead?â€ My words sounded too loud in the silence of the room. â€œNo. Two years ago, she called me from a mall, higher than a kite. Asked me to come get her. She slept for two weeks straight, popping pills whenever she wokeâ€”prescription onesâ€”and when those ran out, she found more. I donâ€™t know where. I asked about Elsie, but she wouldnâ€™t answer.â€ Felicia frowned, her face grim. â€œIf Michelle had stayed with Brad, sheâ€™d be dead. I donâ€™t doubt it. She wasnâ€™t okay. I donâ€™t know if sheâ€™ll ever be okay. She canâ€™t be, or sheâ€™d never have left Elsie.â€ I clenched my hands with frustration. â€œWhere is she now? If she could testify to any of this, we could save Elsie.â€ â€œReally? Sheâ€™s a drug addict. I donâ€™t see how anything she says will help.â€ â€œJust tell us where she is.â€ â€œI donâ€™t know. I hooked her up with a place that helps people with addiction, and she calls every now and then from a payphone, still high a lot of the time. Iâ€™m sorry.â€ Felicia seemed sincere, but there was something odd about the way she met my gaze, as if doing so made her uncomfortable. â€œI donâ€™t see how she can help,â€ Felicia continued, â€œbut if she calls, I can ask her to call you.â€ â€œWhat about you?â€ Jameson asked. â€œWould you be willing to testify against him? If you could, maybe that would stall him long enough for us to find Michelle.â€ â€œI can, but I never saw him hurt her. I saw bruises, thatâ€™s all. No one has ever seen him hit her. Heâ€™s really careful.â€ â€œWell, something set him off.â€ Jameson drew out the new copies heâ€™d made of my photographs. â€œIf we donâ€™t do something, this is whatâ€™s in Elsieâ€™s future.â€ Felicia gasped. â€œOh, no. Oh, poor baby.â€ â€œPlease tell us something,â€ I said. â€œWhat about her other relatives? Her sister? Were they close?â€ Felicia tore her gaze from the photographs of Elsie. â€œMichelleâ€™s sister lives in Peoria, if you want to ask, but sheâ€™s a lot older, and they were never close. I doubt sheâ€™d contact her. Same with my brother, and our two other cousins. All much older.â€ â€œWhat about your mother?â€ â€œShe passed away. We have an aunt, whoâ€™s in a rest home. Sheâ€™s got dementia, though, and half the time she doesnâ€™t recognize her own children.â€ Felicia had just covered all the other relatives, but that didnâ€™t mean I wasnâ€™t going to check them out. â€œOkay,â€ I said, standing abruptly, wanting to get to the next address on the list. â€œAt least when the police and the social workers contact you, tell them the truth.â€ â€œTheyâ€™ll be contacting me?â€ No missing the consternation in her voice. â€œBut I donâ€™t know where she is.â€ â€œThen I guess thatâ€™s what you tell them.â€ Felicia walked with us to the door. â€œYou will find a way to help Elsie. You have to. They canâ€™t let her go back to him. Heâ€â€”she gave a shudderâ€”â€œalways made me feel he was undressing me with his eyes, you know?â€ â€œUnfortunately, we canâ€™t stop him. The only thing DCS can do is visit.â€ â€œThatâ€™ll be enough. He wonâ€™t dare hurt her again.â€ I turned to her on the step. â€œBeating or molesting a child isnâ€™t the only way to hurt them. Given your experience with Michelle, you should know there are other ways. One of my foster girls has a father who handcuffed her to her bed for weeks. At this point, Elsieâ€™s best bet is to run away again, but it wonâ€™t be to me because Iâ€™ll be the first place the police will look. All sheâ€™ll know is that every single adult in her life failed her.â€ Tears glittered in Feliciaâ€™s eyes, making them bulge even more. â€œIâ€™m sorry. I really am.â€ â€œYou know whatâ€™s really sad?â€ I said. â€œShe keeps a card her mother sent her and prays sheâ€™ll come back. But her mother isnâ€™t coming back for her, is she? Not ever.â€ Felicia opened her mouth and closed it without saying anything. Then she tried again. â€œMichelle does care, but sheâ€™s too afraid of him. I think thatâ€™s why she canâ€™t stop the drugs. And drugs change everything.â€ â€œIâ€™ll tell that to Elsie.â€ I wouldnâ€™t of course, but I couldnâ€™t stand anyone giving Michelle a break, not when it came at Elsieâ€™s expense. I left Jameson to give Felicia our contact information. She tried to pass back the photographs, but he didnâ€™t take them. â€œIn case Michelle shows up,â€ he said, and hurried after me. In the car, he didnâ€™t start the engine right away. â€œIf you tell me not to judge,â€ I muttered, â€œI swear, Iâ€™m going to hit you.â€ â€œNo. I just wanted to ask which address weâ€™re going to next.â€ We visited Michelleâ€™s sister in Peoria, a cousin in Glendale, and two more cousins in Mesa. The two in Mesa hadnâ€™t even heard Michelle was missing. We left pictures of Elsie with all of them, hoping the shocking images would prompt some kind of action. Theyâ€™d all heard rumors that Michelleâ€™s husband was abusive, but none of them had tried to help her, presumably because they hadnâ€™t any proof. I cried silently all the way home, and Jameson said nothing. He just held my hand. â€œDid you think something was odd about Felicia?â€ I recovered enough to ask him as we arrived at Tessaâ€™s. â€œShe seemed kind of vague, or distracted.â€ â€œYou mean like she was hiding something? Maybe. I thought it was weird that she wasnâ€™t wearing a wedding ring.â€ â€œShe wasnâ€™t?â€ â€œNo.â€ He gave me a crooked grin. â€œDonâ€™t tell me you donâ€™t check these things.â€ â€œI guess I do, but not for women. Why would she lie about a husband?â€ He shook his head. â€œShe looked like sheâ€™d slept in really late. She probably just never put her ring on. I hear a lot of women donâ€™t wear them at night. But I agree there was something weird about her. She really seemed convinced that Michelle wasnâ€™t in control of her actions.â€ I sighed. â€œShe probably isnâ€™t.â€ â€œWhat are we going to do?â€ â€œI canâ€™t run, not with all the girls.â€ â€œNo.â€ â€œI guess Iâ€™ll take the girls home. I might be able to hide Elsie on the roof for a few days, if they come for her. I canâ€™t do that at Tessaâ€™s. Maybe weâ€™ll find Michelle by then.â€ â€œYou could go to jail.â€ â€œThatâ€™s a risk Iâ€™m going to have to take.â€ â€œCome on.â€ He took my hand, and we went inside. Our plans changed again when Bea called before we were ready to leave Tessaâ€™s to let us know the police had interviewed my neighbors and tracked the address information Iâ€™d listed with Teen Remake. â€œIâ€™m really sorry,â€ she said, â€œare you there now?â€ â€œYes.â€ â€œWell, theyâ€™re on their way over. I had to tell them she was with you. Please, just turn her over, and I swear Iâ€™ll do my best for her.â€ Bea used a falsely bright voice, and I knew it was for my benefit. â€œTheyâ€™re coming right now?â€ I asked. â€œActually, theyâ€™re probably already there. Or nearly.â€ My eyes met Elsieâ€™s, and she started to shake her head. â€œNo, no,â€ she whispered. I hung up the phone and hugged her tightly while the other girls peppered me with questions. â€œHoney, weâ€™re going to figure things out,â€ I told Elsie. â€œSomehow. Youâ€™re strong. You can get through this.â€ I sank down to the couch, pulling her with me. â€œI want you to do exactly what he says. No backtalk, nothing.â€ â€œHeâ€™ll still get mad. He even yells at the TV.â€ How can I possibly let her go? I couldnâ€™t. I was getting her out of there now. â€œCome on! Letâ€™s go, girls. Just leave everything. Weâ€™ll get it later.â€ â€œLily, no,â€ Tessa said. â€œThey canâ€™t take her if they canâ€™t find her.â€ â€œYouâ€™ll go to jail.â€ â€œI donâ€™t care.â€ We were halfway across the room when the doorbell rang. Tessa sprinted ahead of us and looked through the peephole. â€œItâ€™s the police. I have to open it.â€ â€œIâ€™ll talk to them,â€ Jameson said. Ignoring them, I gripped Elsieâ€™s shoulders. â€œBe strong,â€ I whispered. â€œI will do everything to get you out of there. I promise.â€ It felt like a lie. Hadnâ€™t I already done everything? Tears streamed down her face. â€œI know.â€ â€œWeâ€™re looking for Lily Crawford and Elsie Reynolds,â€ I heard an officer say at the door. â€œAre they here?â€ Elsie fumbled in her backpack and pulled out her motherâ€™s letter. â€œKeep this for me. Heâ€™ll throw it away. Iâ€™ll get it later.â€ â€œOkay.â€ What else could I say? It was her most precious possession, and she was entrusting it to me. â€œYou have my number memorized, right? You need me, you call. Even if you just want to talk. Borrow a phone from the neighbors or anyone you can. Do whatever you need to do.â€ â€œIâ€™ll try.â€ â€œElsie?â€ A blond-haired woman with the two officers came toward us. â€œI need you to come with me, honey. Everythingâ€™s going to be all right.â€ I wanted to scream that it wouldnâ€™t be all right, but I didnâ€™t want to scare Elsie or the other girls. One by one, the girls hugged Elsie and whispered encouragement. Jameson hugged her too, and his devastated expression resembled my own. Elsie put her hand in the womanâ€™s and looked back as they left. Wearing her pink backpack and with the stuffed wolf Iâ€™d bought her clutched to her chest, she looked so young and defenseless. Her eyes grabbed onto my heart and took it with her. 16 â€œThereâ€™s got to be something we can do,â€ Ruth said as we sat around our apartment moping the next day. I nodded. â€œWeâ€™ll go see her. He canâ€™t stop us from visiting.â€ â€œMy father could,â€ Halla said darkly. â€œHe stopped everyone.â€ She looked as if she hadnâ€™t slept at all, which she probably hadnâ€™t, worrying sheâ€™d be the next one the police came for. Saffron appeared ready to burst into angry tears. Of all the girls, she hadnâ€™t been there to say goodbye, and it bothered her. â€œWe wonâ€™t take no for an answer.â€ It was all talk. I knew it, if they didnâ€™t. We would try, but ultimately that angry man would control the situation. â€œSheâ€™ll run away again. I know she will,â€ Zoey said. â€œThatâ€™s what I would do.â€ The other girls murmured in assent. â€œIf she can,â€ Halla muttered. Saffronâ€™s chin went up. â€œMaybe we should help her.â€ I had to say something to turn things around before they made it worse. â€œOne good thing happened yesterday,â€ I said. The girls looked at me hopefully, as I continued, â€œI went to see Ruthâ€™s mom last week, and I found outâ€”â€ Belatedly, I realized that I should probably be talking to Ruth alone. â€œRuth, maybe I should tell you first.â€ â€œNo, no. Go ahead. Whatâ€™d she say?â€ I chose my words carefully. I didnâ€™t want her to feel rejected, but I didnâ€™t want her to run back there either. â€œShe has new boyfriend, and in talking to her, it became apparent that while she could use your hand keeping the house tidy, it wouldnâ€™t be good for you to live with him.â€ â€œHeâ€™s a creep, isnâ€™t he?â€ â€œYeah, but thatâ€™s good because now itâ€™s official. You can stay with me.â€ Her mouth dropped. â€œReally? Why didnâ€™t you tell me when you went to see her?â€ â€œI didnâ€™t want to get your hopes up.â€ She hugged me tightly. â€œI can go to school?â€ â€œYes. Oh, yes.â€ Zoey rolled her eyes. â€œYouâ€™ll be hating it soon enough.â€ The girls laughed. â€œWhat about finding a new place to live?â€ Saffron asked. â€œThey wonâ€™t let you keep three foster kids here, will they?â€ Biancaâ€™s brow furrowed. â€œBut if we move, Elsie wonâ€™t know where to find us.â€ We were back where we began. Was Elsie already with her father? Probably. Was he behaving himself? Had he hit her for leaving? â€œShe has my phone number, so she can call. But Saffronâ€™s right that I had better get started on finding a new apartment. Why donâ€™t you help me?â€ Taking my laptop, I sat on the couch with the girls crowded around me. I had to go pick up groceries from Payden in an hour, at the very latest. What would I tell him? Heâ€™d be as upset as the rest of us. â€œI donâ€™t like any of these apartments,â€ Ruth said after fifteen minutes of searching. â€œNot one of them will let us have a dog.â€ â€œI guess weâ€™ll have to do without a dog for a while,â€ I said. â€œWait, wait, wait!â€ Saffron looked up from her phone. â€œOh, youâ€™re not going to believe this.â€ We all stared, eager to hear more. â€œHalla,â€ Saffron continued, â€œyour dad just sent three of the girls who posted on his blog a private message threatening them. Said heâ€™d blow their heads off and bury them in the woods if they didnâ€™t stop posting on Facebook. Is he a total idiot?â€ â€œWhen heâ€™s mad, yes.â€ Halla leaned over to look at Saffronâ€™s phone. â€œOnce when I was eight, he told me heâ€™d cut me into little pieces and flush me down the toilet if I ever disobeyed him again. Then he brought in his chainsaw and kept it in the upstairs bathroom. I had nightmares for a year.â€ â€œTell them to forward the messages to you,â€ I said. â€œI need them.â€ â€œWhy?â€ Halla asked. â€œBecause weâ€™re going to send them to the newspapers.â€ And to Bea at DCS. The excitement of the messages occupied us until even after we went to Paydenâ€™s store for the expired groceries. I felt guilty at being grateful for the distraction, and a little disloyal to Elsie. But I wasnâ€™t giving up. I called Bea four times, and got her answering machine. Jameson came over, bringing food and videos, but no one was in the mood, and the girls ended up going to sleep early. I didnâ€™t blame them. The strange call came after Jameson left, from a blocked number. â€œHello?â€ I asked. A breath and then nothing. â€œWho is this? Elsie?â€ No answer. The line was dead. Monday crawled into Tuesday and even more slowly into Wednesday. There was no news about Elsie. I called the number Reynolds had listed on his flyer about Elsie, but the number was no longer working. After three more calls to Bea, she finally rang back and told me to stop, that sheâ€™d let me know if they had news about Elsieâ€™s mother, or if the caseworker discovered something unusual at the home visit scheduled for the first of next week. I tried to busy myself looking for another part-time job, but the offerings were slim, especially since Iâ€™d have to give the job up when I started school again in the fall. If I didnâ€™t have a full tuition scholarship, I might not go back at all because I still didnâ€™t know what I should graduate in. Besides, with all the girls home, I was busy finding them activitiesâ€”anything but computer games or television all day. If I had to work another job, I didnâ€™t know what theyâ€™d do. So far weâ€™d learned how to cook three different dishes, and Makay had taken them grocery shopping with coupons. I missed Elsie, and worry about her was slowly eating at my composure. I was sure the blocked call had been from her. Why didnâ€™t she call back? Had he caught her calling and forbidden it? It was almost dinner time when Ruth asked the question on my mind, â€œDo you think Elsieâ€™s okay?â€ No, I didnâ€™t think she was. I grabbed my purse from the counter. â€œLook, Iâ€™m going out for a drive.â€ Zoey looked up from the stack of magazines sheâ€™d found discarded near our apartment Dumpster. â€œWhere?â€ â€œCan I come?â€ Ruth asked. â€œIâ€™m bored.â€ Saffron tore her gaze from her phone. She was off work and apparently didnâ€™t have a date tonight because her boyfriend was working. â€œIâ€™m in. Where we going?â€ â€œWe could get some videos,â€ Halla said hopefully. â€œNo. Iâ€™m going to see Elsieâ€™s motherâ€™s cousin. Again. She knows something about Elsieâ€™s motherâ€”I feel it.â€ â€œIâ€™m definitely going,â€ Zoey said, accompanied by a chorus of agreement from the others. I texted Jameson about my plan, and he shot back, Almost there. Wait for me? Felicia opened the door only about a foot, but she didnâ€™t seem surprised to see us again, despite our increased numbers. â€œThese are our foster girls,â€ I said. â€œMay we come in?â€ Felicia kept her hold on the door. â€œI donâ€™t think so. Iâ€™m about to leave.â€ Her long hair did look freshly styled, but she still wore no wedding ring. â€œHave you heard from Michelle?â€ I asked. â€œNo. I told you Iâ€™d call. Why, did something happen?â€ â€œThey gave Elsie back to her father on Sunday night. Thereâ€™s been no word from her. I think she might have called me on Monday, but she hung up before she said anything. Or someone made her hang up.â€ Feliciaâ€™s upper teeth worried her lower lip. â€œI didnâ€™t think theyâ€™d give her back to him.â€ â€œWhat do you mean?â€ I was glad Jameson was holding my hand or I might be tempted to smack her. â€œWe told you they would.â€ â€œYou know where Michelle is,â€ Jameson said, â€œdonâ€™t you?â€ Felicia let out a long breath. â€œYou donâ€™t understand. Sheâ€™s so fragile. This could set her back. Sheâ€™s barely off the drugs, and sheâ€™s afraid sheâ€™ll have to go back to him. She canâ€™t survive that.â€ â€œSheâ€™s an adult. No one can force her to go back to him. Not like they can Elsie. She has no one to protect her. Michelle doesnâ€™t even have to see him. Or Elsie, for that matter. We just need someone to verify Elsieâ€™s story. Even if thereâ€™s no proof, itâ€™ll be enough to help. Please. Sheâ€™s just a little girl. Iâ€™m not asking Michelle to take care of Elsie or be responsible for herâ€”or for you to take herâ€”I just want her safe.â€ Felicia started to shake her head, but the door was suddenly pulled from her hands, opening all the way to reveal a painfully thin woman I barely recognized from Feliciaâ€™s photograph as Michelle. I searched her for signs of similarity to Elsie, but there was none. Michelle had blond hair, a sallow complexion, and her green eyes were far too large in her thin face. Elsie definitely took after her father. â€œThere is proof,â€ she said. â€œI have some notes he wrote, pictures of meâ€”what he did. It was to save her when I could. I thought it would only be a few months, but Iâ€™ve been . . . not right in my . . .â€ She touched her head. â€œHeâ€™d kill me if he could. Maybe he still will.â€ Felicia grabbed her arm. â€œHeâ€™s not going to find you. I know a place you can stay.â€ â€œI called him a few months ago,â€ Michelle continued, as if her cousin hadnâ€™t spoken. â€œI asked him if heâ€™d let me see her.â€ She wiped tears as they fell from her eyes. â€œHe said heâ€™d kill us both if I called again. I recorded that too.â€ â€œWill you come with us to DCS?â€ I asked Michelle. â€œThey need to hear this.â€ I didnâ€™t mention the police because I was fighting for Elsie, and it might scare Michelle off, but Iâ€™d make sure they were there as well. Michelle nodded, and Felicia said, â€œWeâ€™ll both come.â€ For the second time, Bea Lundberg met us outside of regular hours at the DCS office. With her was a police officer, but to my surprise, Michelle didnâ€™t balk. They listened as she told her story, and I breathed a sigh of relief when she turned over a small packet of notes and pictures. Bea grinned at us. â€œThis is enough for a full inquiry, and to remove Elsie from the home as an emergency measure. Iâ€™m sure once the police question him and the psychologists are allowed to talk to Elsie, theyâ€™ll get what we need. Reynolds wouldnâ€™t agree to it before. Now he has no choice.â€ I stood up. â€œGreat. When can we get her back?â€ â€œNot until tomorrow, Iâ€™m afraid. Weâ€™ll need to get our attorney involved and a signed order by a judge. And a police officer to go with the social worker to pick her up.â€ Tomorrow? It seemed forever away, especially if Elsie was hurt and desperate. â€œYouâ€™ll let me know?â€ Bea nodded and went back to talking with the officer about the evidence. â€œCome on,â€ Jameson said. â€œLet them do their jobs. The girls are still waiting out in the hall.â€ Before we reached the door, Michelle arose from her chair and touched my sleeve, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. â€œPlease understand. Leaving her was the only way I could leave at all. I always planned to go back for her.â€ I hadnâ€™t lived her life. I didnâ€™t know what the drugs and desperation had done to her perception. Was there a point when despair made you think only of yourself? I hoped Iâ€™d never know. â€œYou did a good thing here today,â€ I told her. Better than Hallaâ€™s mother, or Ruthâ€™s and Saffronâ€™s. â€œWhen youâ€™re ready, I know sheâ€™ll want to see you again.â€ It was true, no matter how I disliked the idea. The tears welled over and fell unchecked down her face. â€œThank you for taking care of her. I hope you will still take care of her until . . . for a while.â€ â€œOf course.â€ I blinked back my own tears. We took the girls home and put in a video, but I couldnâ€™t watch it. Instead, I paced the small kitchen until Jameson put his arms around me. â€œI canâ€™t stand this,â€ I whispered. â€œThen letâ€™s go see her. Itâ€™s barely eight, and I have his address.â€ â€œReally?â€ â€œAt least youâ€™ll be able to tell her itâ€™s going to be okay.â€ Outside the sun had set, but its light still sent red and gold cascading through the clouds across the horizon. It was beautiful, but it was painful too, as I recalled the times Elsie and I had watched a similar sky from the rooftop. Twenty minutes to Tempe and then Iâ€™d know she was okay. â€œMan, does this get worse with your own kids?â€ I mumbled. â€œBecause this is awful. Maybe I shouldnâ€™t have kids.â€ â€œNo, because our kids are never going to have to worry about their parents hurting them.â€ â€œOur kids?â€ I asked, my heart doing a little skip in my chest. â€œYeah, yours and mine . . . uh, not necessarily together . . . uh, I just meant . . .â€ Was he blushing? It was hard to tell with the red reflection of the sky. But I let his comments pass. Now was not the time for a discussion about our future. The closer we got to Tempe, the more worried I was. â€œWhat if he wonâ€™t let us see her? We canâ€™t say anything about Michelle. It might set him off.â€ Jameson glanced over at me, worried. â€œYou think he might wig out anyway?â€ â€œMaybe.â€ I flopped my head back on the seat. â€œOh, this is a bad idea. But I still feel we should go.â€ â€œMe too.â€ There it was. We were admitting it now. It was a feeling, a dread Iâ€™d experienced even before Iâ€™d decided to go to Feliciaâ€™s. The Reynolds lived in an ordinary single-floor house with red stucco, desert landscaping, and a tiny bush near the house. No flowers or anything that hinted of femininity. The ordinariness of the house took me by surprise. How could it not stand out in some way? It should be sinister or unkempt, or at the very least have a No Trespassing sign. â€œWell?â€ Jameson asked. Lights glowed from the main areas of the house, but none came from the other room facing the front. â€œSheâ€™s probably in bed.â€ â€œAt eight-thirty in the summer?â€ â€œLetâ€™s go ask.â€ We walked up the steps, moving faster now that weâ€™d actually made the decision. I knocked on the door. Footsteps echoed inside the house and seemed to take forever to reach the door. Then suddenly it opened, and there was Mr. Reynolds, with his dark curling hair and those liquid eyes that most women would drool over. â€œCan I help you?â€ he began. â€œWait, I know you. Youâ€™re that woman who lied about having my daughter.â€ â€œThat was a mix-up,â€ I insisted. â€œYou said sheâ€™d been gone two weeks, and Elsie had been with me for seven and a half. Please, could I just see her for a few minutes? I brought some things she left at my apartment.â€ That had been Jamesonâ€™s idea. Basically, weâ€™d thrown a couple of candy bars, knickknacks, and a shirt into a bag to pretend to give to her. â€œNo.â€ Reynolds started to shut the door. â€œPlease, I just want to give her a hug.â€ â€œI said no.â€ His flushed face indicated that he was getting angry. â€œThen you give it to her.â€ I thrust the bag at him. At least sheâ€™d know Iâ€™d been here. He opened the bag, glanced inside, and tossed it back to me. â€œJunk. She doesnâ€™t need it. Now get off my property.â€ He punctuated his demand with a curse. As heâ€™d tossed the bag, Iâ€™d caught sight of a couple of taped moving boxes in the house behind him, with more folded boxes next to them. Was he going someplace? Bea had mentioned that the one way he might slip away from DCS supervision was to move. Oh, no. Would Beaâ€™s judge give us what we needed before he disappeared? â€œPlease,â€ I begged. â€œJust for a moment.â€ Another string of curses. â€œFor the last time, she canâ€™t see you. Sheâ€™s asleep.â€ I glanced at Jameson, feeling a sense of dÃ©jÃ vu. â€œAt eight-thirty?â€ Something really wasnâ€™t right here. Youâ€™d think if he was trying to get DCS off his case, heâ€™d be willing to let us talk to her for a few seconds. Unless heâ€™d hurt her. Jameson had apparently come to the same conclusion. Or maybe heâ€™d also seen the boxes. â€œWeâ€™re not leaving until we see her,â€ he said. â€œCall the police if you want. We need to make sure sheâ€™s okay.â€ Mr. Reynolds eyes widened. â€œSheâ€™s my daughter.â€ Spittle flew from his mouth with the force of the words. â€œYou have no rights here. Now leave or Iâ€™ll make you leave.â€ When we didnâ€™t move, he threw open his door and dived at us. Jameson jumped in front of me, hands up to block. Reynoldsâ€™s fists pummeled into him, catching him in the stomach and face. Jameson stumbled down the two steps and fell into the grass. Reynolds pounced on him. I heard a scream, and I glanced toward the house before I realized it was my own. More punches as I stood there, frozen with fear. Move! I told myself. Then I was free, pushing my feet down the porch stairs toward them, raising the bag in my hand. The knickknacks might stop him for a moment. But with a grunt, Jameson bucked Reynolds off, blocking and punching back. The two rolled over the cement and into the rock flowerbed until finally Jameson pinned Reynolds under him. â€œGo find her,â€ Jameson told me. â€œSheâ€™s not here!â€ Reynolds spat at him in triumph. Horror spread through me. â€œWhat did you do?â€ â€œMe?â€ He gave a sharp laugh. â€œNothing. That ungrateful brat stole my phone on Monday and took off, but I canceled the service yesterday morning. When I get my hands on her, Iâ€™ll teach her a lesson.â€ Not believing him, I shouted into the house, and then finally went inside, calling her name. Moving boxes were everywhere, most of them already sealed. Heâ€™d been at this a lot longer than a few days. I found a childâ€™s room, where the bed was neatly made and all the clothes still in the closet. No Elsie. No backpack or stuffed wolf, either, I thought. Reynolds might be telling the truth. To make sure, I checked in all the other closets and unsealed more than a few of his packing boxes. â€œIâ€™ll sue you for trespassing!â€ Reynolds shouted when I emerged from the house. His voice definitely carried to the two neighbors heading in our direction. â€œSheâ€™s not here,â€ I told Jameson. Jameson jumped up from Reynolds as the neighbors arrived. â€œWhatâ€™s going on here?â€ asked a big guy who looked like a football player. â€œYou okay?â€ he addedâ€”to Jameson, not Reynolds. Reynolds climbed to his feet, wiping the blood from his lip. â€œHe assaulted me!â€ Jameson held up his hands and backed away. â€œIt wasnâ€™t like that.â€ â€œWe just wanted to talk to his daughter,â€ I added, â€œand give her the stuff she left at my house.â€ I lifted the bag to show them. â€œSheâ€™s been staying with me. Then he went crazy.â€ The shorter man snorted. â€œThat, I believe.â€ â€œShut your stupid mouth!â€ Reynolds said with a sneer. He lunged at the short neighbor, but the football player held out his arm to prevent him from landing a punch. Reynolds wasnâ€™t loved by his neighbors, apparently. â€œYouâ€™d better go,â€ said the shorter neighbor. â€œIâ€™m sure it was all a misunderstanding like you say. Brad is the king of misunderstanding.â€ Jameson and I didnâ€™t need a second invitation, but I had to ask, â€œHave you two seen his daughter?â€ They shook their heads. We hurried back to Jamesonâ€™s car. He was limping slightly and his eye was darkening, but nothing appeared broken. â€œWant me to drive?â€ â€œAnd wound my manhood? No.â€ He opened the door for me and went around to the driverâ€™s side. â€œSo where is she then?â€ I asked. â€œNo idea. But that call you received on Monday was probably her. Something must have happened right then, or the phone lost service, if Reynolds is telling the truth about when he disconnected it. If she left on her own, is there any place sheâ€™d go?â€ I started to shake my head, but suddenly I did know. â€œYes! The park where we found Zoey and Bianca. Thatâ€™s our meeting place if anything goes wrong. Elsie wouldnâ€™t go back to the apartment because heâ€™d find her, but she might go there.â€ â€œThatâ€™s twenty minutes by car.â€ â€œElsieâ€™s resourceful, and she had his phone, right? It worked for a time.â€ â€œSheâ€™s had two days to get there.â€ Jameson pushed on the gas. â€œI bet she made it. If she hasnâ€™t, we need to call the police.â€ Jameson might have broken a few speed limits getting us back to Phoenix. Even so, night had fallen completely by the time we arrived at the park. I couldnâ€™t get out of the Mustang fast enough, forgetting about Jamesonâ€™s ruined eye and his hurt leg. â€œElsie!â€ I shouted when I was still too far away to see if anyone was near our bench. But before I reached it, there she was, coming from another direction, carrying a stuffed backpack and two other large shoulder bags. She dropped them all as she ran to meet me. â€œFinally!â€ she said. â€œSorry it took me so long.â€ I hugged her tightly, and she winced. â€œAre you hurt?â€ She nodded and drew up her shirt in the back. Even with only the dim illumination from the nearby streetlight I could see the deep bruising. â€œI couldnâ€™t stay,â€ she said. â€œAfter he did it, he said we were going to move, that the social workers would never leave us alone, so we had to get away. I knew if I didnâ€™t run, it would be too late.â€ I hugged her again, more gently. â€œItâ€™s all over. We found a way. Youâ€™re not going back there again.â€ â€œI knew you would. I just didnâ€™t know if you could do it in time.â€ â€œYou did great.â€ She buried her face in my chest and held on while I smoothed her hair that was once again back to its wild state. Soon I would have to tell her about her mother, but not now. This moment was for us. Jameson finally caught up to us, and Elsie looked at him, puzzled. â€œWhat happened to you?â€ â€œIâ€™ll tell you later.â€ But she wasnâ€™t letting it go. â€œDid my father do that? Did you go see him?â€ â€œYeah, but Iâ€™m okay and so is he.â€ â€œI hope you hit him hard.â€ Jameson grinned. â€œI did. Come on. Letâ€™s get you home.â€ Back at our apartment, while the girls surrounded Elsie, we called Bea, and she came with a police officer to take down our statements and get pictures of Elsieâ€™s bruises. Elsie waited until they were present to fill us all in about how sheâ€™d made it to the park. â€œThat first night I barely made it close to Phoenix,â€ she said, snuggling against me on the couch. â€œThat was when I gave up and called you. But Iâ€™d used all the battery with the GPS, and it died. So I slept in someoneâ€™s backyardâ€”I brought a blanket this time. I woke up really late the next day, and I got a little mixed up without the map on the phone, so I didnâ€™t get to the park until late last night. But I eventually found it.â€ Pride seeped into her voice. â€œThen I waited there. I was going to borrow someone elseâ€™s phone to call you, but I had food, and I decided it wasnâ€™t too bad living there for a while. I thought it might give you time to find my mom.â€ I leaned my head against hers. â€œYou should have come home.â€ I couldnâ€™t believe sheâ€™d been so close all this time. â€œSomething might have happened to you.â€ â€œI didnâ€™t come back here because I knew thatâ€™s the first place heâ€™d go.â€ â€œBut he didnâ€™t,â€ Saffron said. â€œAnd he probably wouldnâ€™t while you have those bruises.â€ Anger ran through me just thinking about him touching her. â€œAnyway, Iâ€™d have never let him take you after hurting you again.â€ Elsie looked down at her hands. â€œYeah, but I didnâ€™t want him to hit you. I was just going to ask if youâ€™d help me get away until you found my mom.â€ â€œAh, honey,â€ Jameson said. â€œWeâ€™re not afraid of him. He punches like a girl.â€ That made the girls laugh. â€œWell, you still got a black eye,â€ Saffron pointed out. Jameson shrugged. â€œEven girls get lucky.â€ â€œYou ainâ€™t going nowhere but with us,â€ Ruth said to Elsie. â€œWe already found your mom, and sheâ€™s going to testify.â€ â€œMy mom?â€ Elsieâ€™s expression changed, becoming hopeful and wary. I took her hand. â€œSheâ€™s been wanting to see you, but youâ€™ll still stay with us for a while, okay?â€ I glanced at Bea, who nodded. â€œThatâ€™s right,â€ Bea said. â€œYour momâ€™s been through a lot. For now, sheâ€™ll come and visit you while youâ€™re with Lily.â€ Elsie squeezed my hand, looking relieved. â€œIâ€™d like that.â€ I was her stability, not her mother. At least not yet, but I needed to accept that my job was helping her and Michelle to a point where Michelle could be a mother again and Elsie could trust her. After the police officer left, Bea folded her arms and shook her head as she looked around the apartment. â€œThis is never going to pass for all these girlsâ€”I canâ€™t even give you a temporary pass. The best I can do will be to delay the paperwork until you have something more adequate.â€ â€œActually, I think I might have found a place,â€ Jameson said. â€œWith all thatâ€™s happened, I didnâ€™t even get a chance to tell Lily yet.â€ His voice held suppressed excitement that made me look at him closely. â€œGood,â€ Bea said. â€œJuneâ€™s almost over, so Lily should be receiving the check for Zoey and Bianca any day now for that month, but checks for Ruth, Halla, and Elsie will be a lot longer in coming. I could apply for an emergency payment, though. Iâ€™ll look into it.â€ â€œDid you say Halla?â€ Halla asked. In all the confusion, she hadnâ€™t hidden from Bea or the officer, but she did have her wig on. Bea turned, her sharp eyes searching Hallaâ€™s face. â€œYes, I said Halla. I know about you, and Iâ€™m working on your case now. Itâ€™s going to take a few weeks to settle this, but for now, youâ€™re officially staying here. Or rather, wherever you guys move.â€ â€œYes!â€ Halla squealed and jumped, raising her fist in triumph. â€œThank you!â€ She pulled off the wig. â€œBecause this thing is horribly uncomfortable.â€ Everyone laughed, but Bea wasnâ€™t finished. Her gazed settled on Saffron. â€œWhat I donâ€™t know is who are you?â€ Saffron raised her hands. â€œDonâ€™t mix me up in this. Iâ€™m not a kid. Iâ€™m an adult with a job. I just help Lily.â€ Beaâ€™s gaze went to me, and I nodded. â€œI already told you Saffron was living with me when we first talked about Zoey and Bianca, remember?â€ â€œRight, the one whoâ€™s almost eighteen. I vaguely remember something about that. Itâ€™s just as well, because youâ€™re only cleared for three foster kids for the first two years, and youâ€™ve already got too many. Only after two years are you allowed to have five.â€ â€œWhat?â€ Jameson and I said at the same time. How could we have missed something like that? Bea raised her hand to silence further protests. â€œItâ€™s not something that usually comes up in the beginning because we never place more than a few children at first. But I realize this is an unusual situation, and like always, we are extremely short on foster parents. Iâ€™m going to see what I can do.â€ She sighed. â€œThat seems to be my mantra where youâ€™re concerned.â€ â€œUh, thank you?â€ I said. Bea gave me a smirk. â€œIâ€™ll be going now. Let me know about the new place.â€ Ruth walked with her to the door, chattering about their similar hair styles. Jameson sat down next to me on the couch, the bag of ice Iâ€™d given him for his eye leaking over his jeans. â€œI thought Iâ€™d make an appointment for us to see the place I found tomorrow after I get off work. Can you make it?â€ I smiled. â€œYeah. Thank you.â€ His hand closed over mine. â€œLily, I can honestly say that the past weeks Iâ€™ve known you have been the strangest and most interesting in my entire life.â€ I wrinkled my nose. â€œInteresting good? Or interesting bad?â€ Seriously, I was surprised he hadnâ€™t run for the hills to get away from my crazy life. He moved closer until our faces were only a few inches apart. â€œDefinitely good.â€ Then he kissed me, and I kissed him back, even with all the girls watching us. 17 Jameson picked me up after work the next day. He was no longer limping, but his eye and the skin around it was mottled black. â€œHowâ€™s your eye?â€ I asked. â€œLooks painful.â€ â€œLots better. Looks worse than it feels. Ankleâ€™s good too. Amazing what a little ice and an elastic wrap can do.â€ We talked on the drive, but his comments were distracted. Iâ€™d never seen him so nervous. â€œItâ€™s okay,â€ I told him. â€œIf I donâ€™t like it, weâ€™ll just find something else. Bea will give us a few more days.â€ â€œYouâ€™ll like it. But, well, itâ€™s not perfect.â€ Then he hurried to add, â€œBut it could be with some work.â€ Work? What kind of an apartment took work? And why was it so far away from downtown? I had my answers when he pulled into a residential area with older houses set far apart. He stopped the Mustang in front of a white two-story Victorian with a covered wraparound porch. It was big and the lines were beautiful, but it was, kindly put, a horrible wreck. The paint was peeling, the porch railings were missing or broken, the glass in almost every window was busted and patched with cardboard and duct tape, the screen on the front door was ripped, part of the rain gutter hung loose, and the overgrown yard looked like something from a horror movie. To me it might just be The House. â€œHow many bedrooms?â€ I asked, climbing from the car without taking my eyes from the house. â€œSeven, and thereâ€™s enough land out back to extend the house, if itâ€™s ever needed. The fields on either side and out back donâ€™t belong to the house, but the owners might be persuaded to sell them in the future. I think the yardâ€™s plenty big as it is.â€ â€œCan we go inside?â€ â€œYeah. The neighbors down the way have the key, and they should have unlocked the door for us. Theyâ€™re related somehow to the owner.â€ We passed a picket fence that was more gray than white and had at least a dozen fallen or damaged boards. The walkway was also cracked and broken and would need replacement. â€œAbout the only thing that doesnâ€™t need fixing is the roof,â€ Jameson said. â€œThatâ€™s why itâ€™s still integrally sound. But Iâ€™m afraid the inside is just as bad as out here.â€ â€œYou saw it before?â€ â€œYesterday on my lunch break. I wanted to make sure there was a possibility before I brought you here. Actually, my dad came to look at it as well. He knows about these things.â€ Antonio had come to look at my house? The idea made me feel almost weepy. Jameson hadnâ€™t exaggerated about the inside. Every single bit of carpet would need replacing and all the walls repainting. Many would have to be repaired first. There were four bathrooms, but they were all missing toilets. The master bedroom was on the main floor, looking over the back yard and the fenced field beyond. It had a private bathroom and a little alcove for a desk or maybe a crib. The rest of the rooms were small, but enough for two beds. There was a mudroom, and I could envision a row of wooden lockers for each of the girls. The kitchen was the biggest mess of all, but it was spacious. Plenty of room for a large table, though the tiny window in the dining area would need to be replaced with something five times that size. Was that even possible? It had to be. The yellow laminated countertops werenâ€™t beautiful, but they were in decent shape. Even the cracked linoleum might be salvaged for a time, though it would be the first to go if I found the money. Iâ€™d have to find used appliances to replace those that were missing, and the cupboards needed sanding and painting. White, I thought. It would be so much nicer and more welcoming than that scuffed, dark color. It was definitely The House. My house. I turned to Jameson, who was looking at me with a hesitant expression in his eyes. â€œItâ€™s perfect,â€ I said, taking both his hands. â€œAbsolutely perfect.â€ He threw back his head and laughed. â€œOnly you could see the potential in this mess.â€ â€œBut you worried I wouldnâ€™t.â€ â€œKind of. You didnâ€™t grow up like this; I did, and I know it can work.â€ I hugged him, kissing him firmly on the mouth. â€œThank you. We can do the work ourselves, if the monthly payments are . . .â€ I looked down feeling suddenly shy. Heâ€™d found the house, but did that mean he was in for the work? Did that mean he wanted me? â€œThe monthly payment . . . it might be more than I can swing.â€ Jameson blew out a breath that I sensed had worry in it. â€œWell, the house isnâ€™t cheap even in this condition, mostly because of the size and the land, but there are loans that have a balloon payment.â€ â€œA balloon payment . . .â€ My thoughts churned, bringing up what Iâ€™d learned about those in my accounting classes. â€œThatâ€™s where you pay a lower amount for five or seven years every month, and then you have to pay the rest in one chunk or refinance.â€ â€œExactly. We take the lower monthly payments in the hopes that things will get better in five years.â€ He hesitated several heartbeats before adding, â€œAnd they will. Weâ€™ll both be graduated by then.â€ We, heâ€™d said. No mistaking that. My mind was already running along those same lines. In eight years Iâ€™d receive my grandfatherâ€™s inheritance. Eight years, that is, if I was single. If I was married, it would only be three. Three yearsâ€”which meant in plenty of time to pay down the mortgage enough to refinance, if not pay it off altogether. We could definitely do it! Of course, Jameson didnâ€™t know about my inheritance, or not the details, though I might have mentioned something in passing. It hadnâ€™t been relevant until now. Jamesonâ€™s hand tightened on mine. â€œRenting out a room or two might also be an option, but with my job and yours and some of the foster care money, I think we couldâ€”â€ â€œYou have to marry me,â€ I said. Jamesonâ€™s eyes had a deer-caught-in-the-headlights expression. Did that mean he was averse to the idea? â€œItâ€™s just that I have an inheritance,â€ I hurried on. â€œI get it when I turn twenty-five, if Iâ€™m married. Otherwise, itâ€™s not until Iâ€™m thirty, and so if we got married, weâ€™d have enough money toâ€”â€ He put his hand over my lips. â€œReally? Youâ€™re proposing to me? Because of an inheritance? Youâ€™re ruining everything!â€ His tone was only half teasing. I laughed, my confidence surging at his expression. His worry was gone and so was his hesitance. â€œYeah, I guess I am. The question is, are you man enough to handle it?â€ â€œLook, maybe you should just zip it for a minute, okay? Let me get a word in edgewise. Because I am so not marrying you for an inheritance.â€ â€œOkay,â€ I said meekly, but I couldnâ€™t help nibbling the finger he still held near my lips. Stifling laughter, he knelt down on the dusty linoleum and pulled a folded manila envelope from his pocket. A piece of loose tile shifted under his knee, but he simply moved over and started talking. â€œYouâ€™ve turned my life upside down since the first day I met you, but Iâ€™ve loved every crazy minute. Youâ€™re a light to me, and Iâ€™ve seen enough to know that the only way Iâ€™m ever going to be happy is if Iâ€™m a part of your life. A part of you. I want to slay your dragons, fend off the abusive fathers of our foster girlsâ€”or whatever else you need. I want to hold you every night when I go to sleep and see your face first thing in the morning. I want to make love to you knowing that weâ€™re never going to end. I love you, Lily Crawford. So much.â€ He opened the flap of the manila envelope. â€œThese are the offer papers I want to put in for the house. I know itâ€™s not a ring, butâ€”â€ I grabbed the envelope. â€œItâ€™s a thousand times better.â€ â€œWill you marry me?â€ â€œI think we already established that.â€ I pulled him up to kiss him, my mouth opening to his. Heat shuddered through me as his tongue slid over mine, setting my skin on fire. I loved this man. I loved his eyes, his mouth, his hands and the way they touched me. I loved his kindness, how good he was with the girls, how willing to step into danger. I even loved his family, and I wanted to spend every second of the rest of my life with him. â€œBut,â€ I told him, when we came up for breath, â€œI still asked you first.â€ He grinned. â€œThatâ€™s not the way I remember it. Guess itâ€™s your word against mine. But since weâ€™re getting married, and Iâ€™m already licensed as a foster parentâ€”â€ â€œWait, you are?â€ â€œYeah, for two years now, but itâ€™s just for emergencies. My roommates donâ€™t like it since I have to give up my room and sleep on the couch for however long Bea needs me. But the point is, we can keep all the girls without Bea going crazy.â€ â€œTwo years? You can have five kids then. That means we can get more.â€ Jameson laughed. â€œCan we get moved in first? The ones we already have are going to make a honeymoon awfully hard.â€ He kissed me again, and for a long time we forgot about foster girls and housesâ€”and we were almost locked inside the house when the family down the road came to check the doors. â€œThere is one thing,â€ I said as we walked out to the car, hand in hand. â€œIâ€™ll need to tell my parents.â€ â€œI thought we could elope.â€ He winked to show he was kidding. â€œThat actually might be best.â€ My parents had big dreams for me, and those didnâ€™t include marrying into a blue-collar family and buying a rundown house. I didnâ€™t fool myself into thinking theyâ€™d come around any time soon. My mother still hadnâ€™t talked to me since I refused to go home, except through Tessa when she wanted to make sure I still planned to come home on the Fourth. That was it. The Fourth was on Saturday, only a few days away, and I could tell them then. If all went well, Jameson could come down on Sunday. Whatever happened, I vowed to make this my last holiday away from the girls. From now on, if my parents wanted me there, it was all of us or nothing. â€œWhat are you doing on Sunday?â€ I asked. His kisses trailed up my neck to my lips, as if he couldnâ€™t get enough of me. â€œGoing to see your parents?â€ â€œHopefully. You mentioned slaying dragons? Better bring your sword.â€ 18 We gathered the girls and told them the good newsâ€”that we were about to spend all the rest of their summer vacation painting, repairing, and otherwise refurbishing an old house. No one seemed to mind. â€œI just want to know one thing,â€ Saffron said. â€œCan I have my own room?â€ When we nodded, she grinned. â€œThen Iâ€™m in, but Iâ€™m paying something for food and rent. I want to pull my weight.â€ â€œI think weâ€™ll allow that,â€ Jameson said, settling on one of the folded-up chair beds, â€œjust as long as we agree that only married people get to make out in that house. In other words, no boy sleepovers.â€ â€œAh, you take all the fun out of it.â€ Saffron rolled her eyes. â€œIf I ever find a boy worthy of sleeping over, Iâ€™d probably marry him. But donâ€™t hold your breath because Iâ€™m sure he doesnâ€™t exist.â€ The girls began talking about rooms and how theyâ€™d contribute to the new house, and the din grew to a point that I almost missed the doorbell. Ruth beat me to the peephole. For a moment I tensed, though I knew Elsieâ€™s father had been arrested. â€œItâ€™s Makay and Nate!â€ Ruth flung open the door. Makay was carrying a sleeping Nate and a large suitcase. Her face was white and tear-stained as she struggled under the weight. I took the toddler from her while Ruth grabbed the suitcase. â€œWhat happened?â€ I asked. â€œItâ€™s Fern. She died. This is some stuff from her apartment.â€ â€œYour stepmotherâ€™s dead? What happened?â€ â€œItâ€™s been so awful.â€ The girls jumped up from the couch, clearing a place for Makay, which she sank into with a sigh. â€œI found out this morning,â€ she said. â€œApparently, sheâ€™s been gone a few days.â€ Her face dropped to her hands, as if covering it would remove the image from her mind. â€œYou found her?â€ Jameson asked. Makay lifted her head. â€œYes. I called the police. They suspect a drug overdose.â€ â€œWhy didnâ€™t you call me?â€ I asked, sitting next to her. â€œI was fine. Itâ€™s not like we got along, and all she does is confuse Nate. It was only after we got to the police station that things got bad.â€ She stopped talking, biting her lip to stop herself from crying. â€œNow I have to prove Iâ€™m a fit parent for my brother, or theyâ€™ll send him to foster care. Thereâ€™s no way theyâ€™ll ever approve me where I live now. At least I donâ€™t think so. Iâ€™m pretty sure all my roommates are doing drugs.â€ â€œThereâ€™s a lot more leeway with related siblings,â€ Jameson said. â€œIâ€™m sure theyâ€™ll give you time to work it out, but even if they donâ€™t . . .â€ He paused, looking at me. I knew what he was thinking, and it made me love him all the more. â€œBut Iâ€™m only eighteenâ€”well, nineteen in another month,â€ Makay rushed on, missing the look between us. â€œAnd I have no family and no real job and no one to leave him with so I can work.â€ She reached to take Nate from me, as if needing him back in her arms. â€œThe social worker who came to the police station told me heâ€™d be better off with an established couple.â€ I settled him in her arms. â€œYouâ€™re Nateâ€™s motherâ€”youâ€™re all he knows. He belongs with you. But what do you mean, you donâ€™t have family? You have us.â€ â€œThatâ€™s right,â€ Halla said. â€œIâ€™ll watch Nate. Iâ€™ve been wishing youâ€™d leave him more. We all have.â€ The other girls murmured in agreement. Jameson lifted a finger. â€œUh, I also know how to babysit. And our new house is going to be plenty big for you and Nate.â€ Makay looked around us, her panic fading. Suddenly she laughed. â€œOkay, okay. Iâ€™m an idiot, a total idiot. Of course Nate is better off with me, and of course I have all of you. But our new house? What did I miss?â€ â€œTheyâ€™re getting married!â€ Ruth said. â€œAnd buying a big house,â€ Elsie added. Saffron dropped to the carpet by our feet. â€œI hope you know how to paint.â€ â€œNope.â€ Makay shook her head. â€œNot at all. But Google knows everything.â€ â€œYou mean Bing.â€ Saffron began to type on her phone. â€œI like that search engine better.â€ â€œWhatever. Iâ€™m sure we can figure it out.â€ To me, Makay added, â€œIt wonâ€™t be for long. Just until the adoption is final and I figure things out. Of course, Iâ€™ll help with rent.â€ I grinned. â€œOne thing for sure is that wherever you live, youâ€™ll always have plenty of babysitters.â€ Jameson pointed at himself and mouthed. â€œIâ€™m the best.â€ Once again a holiday had rolled around, bringing me another girl, this time Makay, a little older than the others, but every bit as much mine. The other two additions, Nate and Jameson, made it the best holiday yet. My mother finally called me on Friday. Because of the holiday, there was no Teen Nature campout, and Iâ€™d spent the day with Jameson and the girls picking out paint colors. Iâ€™d decided to let them each decorate their rooms however they wanted, except for the carpet, which Iâ€™d choose. Paint was changeable, but not carpet. â€œHi, Mom,â€ I said. Could she tell anything was different by the tone of my voice? The entire world felt different to me now with my future looking so bright. â€œIâ€™m just calling to make sure you really are coming.â€ â€œYes, Mom.â€ I walked away from Jameson and the girls so they wouldnâ€™t hear. â€œHey, I was wondering how youâ€™d feel if I brought some of my friends.â€ â€œFriends?â€ Her voice was wary. â€œDo you mean those girls? Sweetheart, I know youâ€™re helping them, but surely you can spend just one day alone with your parents. Just one.â€ She really knew how to lay on the guilt. It wasnâ€™t so much the words, but the wounded, put-upon tone. Fine. Iâ€™d give her this one final day. â€œOkay, Mom.â€ â€œGood.â€ She was all peaches and cream now, the kind of cream that was sour just under the surface. I hung up and stared into the rows of paint cans, seeing nothing, my happy mood shattered. Then Jamesonâ€™s hand slid over my back. â€œBad news?â€ â€œJust my mom.â€ He put his arms around me and pulled me close. â€œYouâ€™re really worried about tomorrow.â€ â€œYeah. My family . . . theyâ€™re not like yours.â€ â€œSo you keep saying, but itâ€™s okay. I love you no matter what happens. Are you sure you donâ€™t want me to come with you tomorrow? Because Iâ€™m willing to talk to them. It doesnâ€™t matter what they say about me. Or to me.â€ â€œIt matters to me.â€ â€œI can take it.â€ â€œI hope so, because youâ€™ll have to on Sunday, and I have the feeling this is a train wreck about to happen.â€ His laugh filled me with sunlight again. â€œGood thing weâ€™re survivors.â€ Tessa picked me up early on the Fourth. I felt grouchy at leaving the sleeping girls. Theyâ€™d be going to a parade later in Arcadia with Jameson, and Iâ€™d much rather stay with them. Iâ€™d almost canceled the trip to Flagstaff, but I needed to tell my parents about Jameson before he came to meet them tomorrow. Knowing how nervous I was, heâ€™d asked three more times to come with me today, but I wanted to make sure it was okay first. I didnâ€™t want his perception of them to be forever colored by their surprise. â€œSo youâ€™re really going to tell Mom and Dad about Mario?â€ Tessa glanced over at me. â€œYeah. Heâ€™s a great guy.â€ â€œYou know theyâ€™re not going to be happy, right?â€ â€œI know. Heâ€™s lacking a couple million dollars and a different last name.â€ â€œTheyâ€™re not that bad.â€ I stared at her. I wanted to say, Yes, Tessa, they are, but instead I said, â€œI hope youâ€™re right.â€ â€œWell, I do really like him.â€ I grinned. â€œSo do I.â€ â€œA big wedding would really help you furnish the house.â€ This time Tessa kept her eyes on the road. If my parents agreed to give me a wedding, she meant. â€œAre you really going to be able to afford the house?â€ â€œJameson has a good employment history, and heâ€™s been full time for the past two years. I have my record with our company, and Teen Remake gave me a letter saying they plan to keep me on. With my inheritance coming, weâ€™ve been told weâ€™ll be able to get the loan. Coming up with the down payment is the problem.â€ â€œRight. A house that size, you have to put down at least ten thousand, right?â€ â€œActually, they wanted fifteen or twenty, but because of Grandpaâ€™s money, theyâ€™ll take ten.â€ â€œAnd you have that?â€ â€œNot quite. Jameson has been working for two years to save money for college, and he thinks he can put five thousand of that down on the house. Makay talked to this guy she works for, and she says she can get a thousand, which weâ€™ll just take off the rent sheâ€™s going to pay us until we pay her back.â€ â€œYou donâ€™t have any saved?â€ â€œI did, but I spent most of it on the girls. Theyâ€™ve needed so much this past year. I think Iâ€™ve got enough left for paint and material for curtainsâ€”if Google can teach us how to make themâ€”and Iâ€™m planning on using the check I get for the girls to buy used appliances, or at least a fridge and a stove. Weâ€™ve already got mattresses that will have to do for beds. Well, except for Jameson and me.â€ â€œYou two can use the double mattress and get Zoey and Bianca more of those chair beds.â€ â€œYeah, thatâ€™ll work. The carpet is the biggest cost, and the windows.â€ I sighed. â€œJameson says if we canâ€™t get them to go lower on the down payment, heâ€™ll work full time another semester or two and use all his savings on the house. Heâ€™ll probably have to anyway.â€ I made a face. â€œIâ€™m sad for him to delay it again. I told him I should be the one to work full time, but he doesnâ€™t want me to risk my scholarship.â€ Silence fell as Tessa sped up around a curve. My sister might toe the line with my parents, but she was a bit of a speed demon on the road. â€œI have money saved,â€ she said. â€œClose to seven thousand. You can have all of it.â€ â€œYou canâ€™t do that. You might need it.â€ She flashed me a bored look. â€œIâ€™m not getting married any time soon, or buying a house. Besides, itâ€™s not like you wonâ€™t have the money to pay me back once you get the money Grandpa left us.â€ I reached out and took her hand. â€œThank you. How about we use just what we need for the rest of the down payment?â€ â€œOkay, but itâ€™s there if you need it. I know you, and itâ€™s not like youâ€™re only going to help girls who are in the foster care system. Like Makay and Saffron. Iâ€™m sure there will be others.â€ She was probably right. I wasnâ€™t going to turn any needy girls aside, not as long as I had room to keep themâ€”and now Iâ€™d have a lot more rooms to fill. The two hours under the sweltering sun with my parents at the parade werenâ€™t so bad, but the picnic in the park afterward was already shaping up to be something of a horror story. Theyâ€™d invited the Boswells, whose son, Steve, Iâ€™d briefly dated. My mother loved Steve, but his roaming hands and eyes had made our relationship short. Did my mother know me so little that she expected me to lay eyes on the boy and decide Iâ€™d been too hasty? Unfortunately, I knew my mother well enough to know that was exactly what she planned. I groaned. â€œThis is to punish me for having Jameson in my apartment when she came. I just know it.â€ Tessa giggled. â€œMan, every time you say Jameson, it throws me off. Should I call him that instead of Mario?â€ â€œNope.â€ I liked reserving it for myself. Well, and for his mother. Tessa and I had driven her car instead of riding with our parents, and weâ€™d stopped at a gas station for a cold drink with plenty of ice, which had made us fifteen minutes late to the park. â€œMaybe we should just leave,â€ I said, glaring at the Boswells. Sweat dribbled down my back, despite the air conditioning weâ€™d had running in the car. â€œYeah, right.â€ Tessa rolled her eyes. â€œThat would get you off to a good start with Mom and Dad about your new boyfriend.â€ FiancÃ©, I wanted to say, but Tessa knew that, and we were too close to the table to discuss it now. Telling my parents about Jameson in front of the Boswells was not an option. Motherâ€™s face flushed as she saw us coming. â€œThere you are. I was beginning to worry. Look whoâ€™s here, Lily. Itâ€™s Steve.â€ â€œHi,â€ I said. Steve grinned. â€œHi. Good to see you. Iâ€™ve been meaning to call.â€ He patted the bench next to him. Great. I sat as far away from him as possible, but he scooted over to close the gap. The food came out: fried chicken, coleslaw, potato salad, green salad, gelatin, croissants instead of biscuits, chocolate cake, and more. All from a restaurant, of course. I filled my plate with chicken and three flakey croissants. Steveâ€™s hand snaked up my back as he leaned over to say. â€œHey, you want to go see the fireworks tonight?â€ He wasnâ€™t bad looking, with dark hair, a niceâ€”if unremarkableâ€”face, and bedroom eyes, but for some reason I couldnâ€™t explain, his touch made me cringe. â€œSorry, I canâ€™t. Tessa and I have plans.â€ â€œThatâ€™s okay. She can come.â€ â€œYou kids go ahead,â€ my mother said. â€œWeâ€™re staying in this year and watching them from the balcony.â€ Steve smirked at me, and I shrugged off his hand. â€œActually, weâ€™re staying in with you guys. I have some things to discuss, and Iâ€™m only here for today.â€ My mother looked ready to argue, and my fatherâ€™s face grew red. They must suspect something. â€œWeâ€™ll talk about this later,â€ my father said. â€œLetâ€™s eat.â€ Not even Steve Boswell dared to go against my father, so everyone fell to eating. I concentrated on the yummy croissants. They werenâ€™t quite as good as the ones Jameson had brought to my house, but they were close. Lunch couldnâ€™t end fast enough for me. I finally finished the rest of my three croissants while standing up near Tessa to get away from Steve and his hands. I was anxious to get home, but my parents decided to walk around the park and look at the Fourth of July booths with the Boswells. â€œCould you kids pack all this in the car?â€ my mother asked. â€œIâ€™m sure Steve will help.â€ â€œLove to,â€ he said with a winning smile that made me want to gag. Mother took me aside. â€œWeâ€™ll meet you back at the house. But give him a chance, Lily. He comes from a good family.â€ Not giving me an opportunity to respond, she headed off with my father. â€œSo, about tonight,â€ Steve began. â€œSorry,â€ I said. â€œIâ€™m engaged. I just havenâ€™t told my parents yet.â€ He let out a long sigh. â€œMan, what a wasted afternoon.â€ â€œYou should have known that already,â€ Tessa told him. â€œBut you can leave now.â€ â€œYeah, right. See you around.â€ He stood and ambled away. Tessa shivered. â€œMan, I dislike that guy.â€ â€œYou didnâ€™t have him rubbing your back through half of lunch. Come on, letâ€™s get this stuff into their car and go back to the house.â€ â€œWhy the hurry?â€ I smiled sadly. â€œI want to get as much of my stuff as I can into your car before they come home.â€ We packed Tessaâ€™s car and gathered a bunch of other things to put in Jamesonâ€™s Mustang when he came tomorrow. I hadnâ€™t much use for my belongings at college, but Iâ€™d need them as I furnished a new home. Pictures, electronics, knickknacks, beddingâ€”all of it would be useful. My clothing Iâ€™d already moved over the past months, but there was a lot Iâ€™d left here because I didnâ€™t have the room. Tessa went into our six-car garage and came out with a box of outgrown clothing, old sets of dishes, and small appliances my mother had replaced. â€œI already have a toaster,â€ I said. â€œYouâ€™ll need another one.â€ Tessa tucked it in. â€œAny material or curtains?â€ â€œNot yet. She has a lot of junk out there, though. Might take me weeks to find anything useful.â€ Tessaâ€™s foraging was put to an abrupt halt by our parentsâ€™ arrival. â€œCome help me put the leftovers away, girls,â€ Mother said, as our father set the cooler on the kitchen counter. We dug obediently into the cooler, but our mother didnâ€™t move to join us. She paused before the large window overlooking our back yard and the horse pasture where Tessaâ€™s horse, Serenity, grazed peacefully. â€œWhatâ€™s wrong, Mom?â€ I asked, hoping she didnâ€™t have some plan that involved getting rid of the horse. If she did, sheâ€™d regret it, because Serenity was the main reason Tessa came home so often. â€œMrs. Boswell heard that an ex-con is buying one of those homes,â€ she said with a disgusted snort, frowning at the tract homes you could barely see through the row of fast-growing trees sheâ€™d planted when she learned the property was being developed. â€œWhatâ€™s this neighborhood coming to?â€ â€œItâ€™s probably just a rumor. Do you mind if I take some of these croissants back with me?â€ My mother turned. â€œOf course not. I know how much you like them. Thatâ€™s why I bought so many.â€ I snagged one and stuffed a bite into my mouth. Here was a glimpse of the mother of my dreams, the one who thought about details and could show small kindnesses that always surprised me. â€œThanks.â€ â€œSo,â€ she said with an encouraging smile, â€œare you going out with Steve tonight?â€ I glanced at my father, who had settled at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and the newspaper. Heâ€™d be reading the financial section, though weâ€™d told him he could find better news online. â€œNo,â€ I said. â€œLook, Iâ€™ve been wanting to talk to you guys. Iâ€™ve met someone. Iâ€™d like you to meet him tomorrow.â€ Silence fell, and for a long moment no one spoke. Even Tessa froze by the refrigerator, her eyes wide. My father lifted his gaze from the newspaper, his glasses on the end of his nose. â€œWhatâ€™s his name?â€ â€œMario Perez.â€ I didnâ€™t know what made me use Mario, because Jameson would have been more appealing to them. My motherâ€™s smile vanished. â€œIs that the man who was in your apartment?â€ â€œYes, butâ€”â€ â€œOh, Lily,â€ she said, folding her arms over her stomach in a pointed gesture. â€œThis is your future, and your childrenâ€™s future. You have no idea what it is to manage a household or to pay for it. You need someone who can support you, who will be an asset to our family and your dadâ€™s company. You canâ€™t throw your life away on a sexy accent and hormones.â€ Accent? What was she talking about? â€œLook, you go ahead and get this guy out of your system if you must,â€ my father said. â€œBut when youâ€™re ready to settle down, you need to make a choice youâ€™re not going to regret.â€ The only thing I regretted was coming home. Train wreck did not even begin to cover it. Or maybe the train analogy was a mistake because our train hadnâ€™t even gotten underway. Anyone could see that it didnâ€™t matter what I might say about Jameson or his family. Jamesonâ€™s plan for the future and his love for me and my girls wouldnâ€™t change anything. My mother had made up her mind, and my father agreed with her. â€œAre we clear?â€ my mother asked. At the table, my father had already gone back to his newspaper. â€œOh, weâ€™re clear.â€ Just like that, her words freed me. Freed me from having to introduce them to Jameson, from seeking their blessing. â€œGood. Now what shall we have for dinner?â€ 19 The house was dark and quiet. It was after one in the morning, and the alarm was on, but Tessa and I had long ago figured out how to bypass the sliding glass door leading to the second-floor balcony, which had stairs leading down to the lawn. We had carried several loads out to the front and were now waiting for Jameson. Iâ€™d texted him after the conversation with my parents, and heâ€™d started driving the minute heâ€™d dropped the girls off at the apartment after the fireworks were over in Phoenix. Tessa leaned over to whisper. â€œI had no idea theyâ€™d be so . . . hard. Theyâ€™re never going to let you marry him.â€ â€œWell, fortunately, they donâ€™t have a say.â€ â€œWhat do you mean?â€ â€œI mean, weâ€™re going to elope.â€ â€œTonight?â€ â€œOr tomorrow. Why not?â€ Her mouth rounded to an O. â€œAre you absolutely sure? Youâ€™ve known him such a short time.â€ â€œYeah, Iâ€™m sure. I canâ€™t explain how I know or how he makes me feel.â€ How could she understand before she loved someone herself? â€œI love him so much. Heâ€™s like the air that I breathe. We love the same things, we want to help people, and we donâ€™t care if our dishes and silverware match. We just want a house with love.â€ A house without lies. â€œHeâ€™s a hard worker, and I know weâ€™ll make it. You donâ€™t have to worry about me anymore.â€ Tessa hugged me. â€œAir that you breathe, huh? I hope someday I find someone who means that much to me.â€ â€œYou will.â€ At least she would if my parents didnâ€™t interfere. â€œThey do want the best for you,â€ Tessa said, as if reading my mind. â€œI know.â€ The best in their view. â€œAnd Mom did buy me those croissants.â€ â€œDo you have them?â€ â€œNo. I donâ€™t think I can.â€ I couldnâ€™t take anything like that from her, not now, not after the scene weâ€™d had today. She nodded. â€œRight.â€ My phone buzzed. â€œHeâ€™s here.â€ â€œI should come with you. Someone from your family should be there when you get married.â€ I thought of the girls and Makay and knew I wouldnâ€™t be alone. â€œIâ€™ll call you and let you know what we decide.â€ I hugged her. â€œGoodbye! Lock up.â€ When I rounded the house, Jameson was packing my belongings into his car, but he stopped to hug me. The ice that had encased my heart all evening melted. This was right where I was supposed to be. â€œThatâ€™s some house,â€ Jameson said, staring up at the mansion. â€œI knew your family was well off, but I didnâ€™t expect this.â€ â€œHaving second thoughts?â€ â€œNo. I love you. How could I ever have second thoughts?â€ Oh, his eyes were doing amazing things to my insides. â€œI may not be able to give you all this, but I promise to give you everything I have.â€ He already had. â€œGood, because I want to elope.â€ â€œTonight?â€ He sounded like Tessa. â€œWhy not?â€ â€œOkay. But can we tell my family first?â€ Not exactly what Iâ€™d envisioned when I talked about eloping, but suddenly it was exactly right. â€œIâ€™d like that.â€ â€œGood, because I donâ€™t know if my mother would forgive me if I didnâ€™t invite her.â€ â€œShe would too.â€ â€œYeah, but Angela wouldnâ€™t, and neither would our girls.â€ Our girls. I laughed. â€œYou already convinced me.â€ â€œIâ€™m glad. Hey, I have a surprise for you.â€ He opened the car door and scooped up something from the seat. â€œThe girls and I picked it out today.â€ A velvet ring box sat in the middle of his palm. â€œItâ€™s just a band, but I swear Iâ€™ll get you the biggest diamond you could ever want someday.â€ I kissed him. â€œI donâ€™t want one. I already have everything I want.â€ Thirty-two hours later on a brilliant Monday morning, Tessa stared out at me from a computer screen. â€œYou look beautiful! I wish I could be there.â€ â€œYou canâ€™t. Iâ€™m not coming between you and Mom and Dad.â€ We both knew that if they ever found out sheâ€™d known about my elopement and not told them, sheâ€™d suffer. â€œThat would make your work life miserable.â€ â€œI donâ€™t care about them.â€ I knew differently, but somehow I had to make her feel okay about this. â€œYou donâ€™t understand, Tessa . . . youâ€™ve been there for me all my life, whenever I needed you. You were mother and best friend. You kept my secrets and took care of me. Today isnâ€™t the end of everything. Just the beginning. So what if youâ€™re watching from a screen instead of holding my hand? I know youâ€™re with me in your heart. And you can be sure that after today, Iâ€™m still going to need you, and probably your money, so you have to keep your job. Besides, someday youâ€™re going to bring us all together. I know it.â€ She gave me a sad little smile. â€œYou think theyâ€™ll ever come around?â€ â€œI donâ€™t know. Everyone changes. Now I have to go!â€ I handed the computer to Jamesonâ€™s brother Tim, who had arranged for Tessa to virtually attend the ceremony. Except for the suddenness, our attempt at elopement wasnâ€™t anything like eloping at all. Weâ€™d shown up at his parentsâ€™ house yesterday, the girls and Makay with us, and this morning, Heidi had arranged for her local minister to perform the ceremony. Her friends had also organized a small celebration afterward, and Antonio and Jameson had somehow even come up with a two-night, three-day honeymoon on a Californian beach. Heidi insisted that I wear her wedding dress, which was a little tight, but with a girdle Makay ran out to buy, I managed to squeeze into it. The simple sheath and modest train made my figure look amazing, but my favorite thing about the dress was the slight yellowing of the material. Jameson wore a suit I didnâ€™t know he owned, and he looked so handsome and intelligent that I felt a moment of panic. Could he really love a woman like me? But the second he took my hand, all doubts vanished. It didnâ€™t matter where either of us came from, only how much we loved, what we dreamed, and how we worked for those dreams, no matter how impossible they seemed. I would be his light, and he would be my anchor, and together weâ€™d build our future. He leaned forward and whispered in my ear, â€œI love you.â€ I closed my eyes and breathed him in. He could always do that to me, make the world go away until there was just the two of us and no one else. This man, my heart, my soul, and keeper of my dreams. Wrapping my arms around his neck, I kissed him deeply. â€œI will always love you.â€ Epilogue Four Months Later I stood on the chair, stretching to screw in the curtain rod holder. It was the cheapest we could find, and rather ugly, but the curtains Michelle had made, not only for Elsieâ€™s room but for the entire house, covered the rods entirely. Michelle had visited here often during the three months since weâ€™d moved into the house, and though she wasnâ€™t ready yet to take responsibility for Elsie, the two had shared a few overnight stays at Michelleâ€™s. Both Michelle and her cousin had helped clean and paint the house, as well as make the curtains. Outside, I glimpsed Jameson working in the yard by the front gate, my view of him partially obscured by a tree. He and I were both back in school, me with a new major in family sciences, and so far we were making it, but only because Makay, Tessa, and Saffron helped run the house. We still had the living room to paint, bare wood peeked through in the kitchen where pieces of linoleum were gone, and the yard was awful, but someday weâ€™d get it all finished. Makay had planted a few flowers near the porch that made me happy every time I looked at them. Weâ€™d added four girls to our family in the past month, but only one officially through DCS. The other three were runaways whoâ€™d shown up on our doorstep one day, all together, with a ragged scrap of the newspaper article someone had run about our efforts in refurbishing the house. After the article, someone had donated a green refrigerator, and a used washer and dryer were dumped off anonymously during the night. The new girls, however, were our best gift. Ten girls and Makay and Nate meant we were already over capacity in our seven bedrooms, and Iâ€™d ended up clearing out the small office downstairs so Saffron could still have the private room Iâ€™d promised. We had a living room and a family room we could use for more girls in a pinch. Or maybe in another year, a baby of our own. The mailman was driving down the road, and Jameson went to meet the truck. Jameson accepted the handful of mail and scanned through the envelopes, freezing on one. His gaze shifted to the house, and our eyes locked through the window. He waved, but there was something odd in his expression. I jumped down from the chair and went to meet him. He was faster than I was, joining me at the top of the stairs on the second floor. He handed me the envelope. â€œFrom your parents.â€ Trepidation filled me. Iâ€™d sent them pictures of the wedding and of the house, but they hadnâ€™t responded. I knew from Tessa that they were furious with me. Slowly, I opened the envelope. Inside was the same article the runaways had carried here with them, but with it was a check. For ten thousand dollars. I gasped and sat abruptly on the top stair. This must be a portion of the money theyâ€™d someday planned to spend on my wedding. Tessa had probably been working on them. â€œWhat is it?â€ Jameson sat next to me. â€œNew tile for the kitchen,â€ I said, trying to blink back tears. â€œMaybe enough for grass in the spring, and a walkway, if we do the kitchen tile ourselves.â€ I let the check fall into his hands. We desperately needed the money, but what I really wanted was a letter, a phone call, a visit, or some indication that they had accepted my choices. That they understood the choices were mine to make. Jameson wiped the tears on my cheeks, gazing into my eyes. â€œSweetie, itâ€™s a start. Itâ€™s their language, thatâ€™s all. You should write to thank them.â€ He hesitated. â€œUnless you want to send it back.â€ â€œNo!â€ Iâ€™d accept for the girls. They needed so much, and Christmas was in less than two months. â€œYouâ€™re right, and I will send them a thank-you card. But I think . . . instead of the grass, letâ€™s use some of it for bunkbeds in the bigger rooms. That way we can helpâ€”â€ â€œMore girls,â€ he finished. Because the girls who werenâ€™t official foster children didnâ€™t count against our current joint eight child limit, so DCS might give us two more. â€œI guess grass can wait, and Iâ€™ve always wanted to learn how to tile.â€ He kissed me then, and my sadness vanished. My parents would come around someday, maybe after Jameson and I proved ourselves. But I wasnâ€™t going to live my life wishing I could remake them. Iâ€™d made the right choices. â€œCome on outside,â€ Jameson said. â€œI have something to show you.â€ He took me down past the girls, who were watching a video in the living room, and outside to the gate. â€œIâ€™ve been working on it in the garage for three weeks. Just got it up. How do you like it?â€ He pointed to where heâ€™d erected two elegantly carved wooden posts and a beautiful, handmade sign, white with carved letters painted in black that read Lilyâ€™s House. I laughed and threw myself into his arms, kissing him with abandon. â€œI love you Mario Jameson Perez.â€ â€œNot as much as I love you.â€ â€œShut up and kiss me, would you?â€ He did just that, stealing my breath and infusing me with delicious heat that radiated to every part of my body. Lilyâ€™s House. Now I was definitely official. NOTE FROM RACHEL BRANTON: Thank you for downloading this book and for spending a little time with me in my world! If you enjoyed House Without Lies (Lilyâ€™s House Book 1), please consider telling your friends or posting a short review. Word of mouth is an authorâ€™s best friend and much appreciated. For your enjoyment, I have included in the next section the first chapter of Tell Me No Lies, book two of the Lilyâ€™s House series, followed by a bonus preview of Take Me Home, the first novel in my Finding Home series. You can see all my books on the About the Author page, or sign up for new releases here. Thanks again! THE END Sneak Peek 1 I blinked to hold back the tears, stunned by what I was hearing. No! I donâ€™t believe it. But I did. Hurt followed the disbelief, growing to an agony that urged me to physically lash out at Sadie, my best friend and bearer of the terrible news, but I was frozen in place, as though my heart had stopped pumping blood to my suddenly useless limbs. Besides, it wasnâ€™t Sadieâ€™s fault. Oh, Julian. How could you? Sadie put a hand on my shoulder, but the sympathy in her eyes did little to comfort me. â€œIâ€™m sorry, Tessa. I really am. I didnâ€™t want to tell you, but . . .â€ She sighed and continued in a whisper, â€œI would want to know if it were me.â€ Her words released me from my mute state. â€œI need to be alone.â€ â€œOf course. I understand. Call me if you need me.â€ Sadie stepped close and hugged me while I stood without moving. I barely noticed her departure. My eyes wandered the room of my childhood, only recently familiar again since Iâ€™d come home to Flagstaff to prepare for the wedding. Mother had insisted on dinners and celebrations, and because Julian and I planned to live in Flagstaff, where he would work in his family business, it only made sense for me to leave the job at my fatherâ€™s factory in Phoenix several weeks early. I missed the job and my friends the minute Iâ€™d left, but Julian and I were ready to take the plunge into matrimonyâ€”or so Iâ€™d thought. The door to my walk-in closet was open, and I could see the wedding dress I was to have worn in just over forty-eight hours. Bile rose in my throat, and a tear skidded down my cheek. I brushed it impatiently away. I wouldnâ€™t cry for a man who had betrayed me. Since tonight we were having the rehearsal dinner, last night had been Julianâ€™s bachelor party. Sadieâ€™s brother had been at the party and had told her all about Julian disappearing early with a woman whose hands had been altogether too familiar with a man who was about to be married. I slumped on my bed, covered with the homemade quilt my grandmother had made, my eyes still locked on the white satin dress. Drenched in lace and small pearls, it had a sweetheart neckline and a gorgeous chapel train. The dress cost seventeen hundred dollars and had taken three weeks of daily shopping to find. My mother had been with me every one of those days, which had been a torture in itself. I bit my lip until I tasted blood. Iâ€™d met Julian Willis when Iâ€™d come home to visit for the Christmas holiday, though if the truth be told, my visit had more to do with my horse, Serenity, than seeing my parents. At my motherâ€™s insistence, Iâ€™d tagged along on their invitation to attend a party thrown by the Willises. I hadnâ€™t minded going, once I met Julian. If his blond good looks and toned physique hadnâ€™t won me over, his attentiveness and charm would have. After countless trips to Phoenix on his part and numerous weekends home on mine, the inevitable had happened: weâ€™d fallen in love. He asked me to marry him, and I said yes. Two weeks later, my father and Julianâ€™s had negotiated a business arrangement to take effect after the wedding. The Willis family owned a huge frozen food conglomerate, and my father produced a line of breakfast cereals, where I managed the swing shift. With the help of the Willises, our business would expand to new markets my father had never before reached. I wasnâ€™t sure what the Willises were getting out of the deal since our business was stable but not growing. Maybe they would simply have in-laws who were up to their standard of living. Not that weâ€™d ever been poor in my lifetimeâ€”thanks to my grandpa whoâ€™d worked himself into an early grave to create that first bowl of sugar-coated cereal. I still missed him terribly. What am I going to do? The awful thing was that a part of me wasnâ€™t all that surprised. Julian was attractive, thoughtful, and a big flirtâ€”a hit with ladies of every age. Half of the marriageable women in Flagstaff had chased him at one time or another, and before weâ€™d met heâ€™d had a bit of a reputationâ€”one heâ€™d assured me was complete fabrication. I wonâ€™t marry a liar and a cheat. Every woman deserved better than that. I wondered if Iâ€™d purposely been blind or if heâ€™d been good at hiding things. Perhaps his betrayal had been a momentary lapse, but if so, what did that say about our future? If I couldnâ€™t trust him now, how could I trust him for the next sixty or more years? Maybe itâ€™s all a mistake. I latched onto the idea. Yet in the next minute I had to discard it. Sadie had been my best friend since kindergarten, and Iâ€™d trust her with my life. There was no way she would have spoken unless she was certain it was true. More likely she hadnâ€™t told me everything she knew, not wanting to hurt me further. A knock on the door startled me from my thoughts. â€œWho is it?â€ â€œYour mother.â€ â€œCome in.â€ Elaine Crawford didnâ€™t so much as enter a room as sweep into it. She was the epitome of grace and elegance. Even at eight oâ€™clock on a Thursday morning, her hair was styled in an elaborate twist that was both attractive and left her beautiful neck bare. â€œMy, Sadie was in such a hurry this morning. Iâ€™ve never seen her run off so quickly. Did you two have a disagreement?â€ I shook my head, unwilling to trust my voice. My motherâ€™s eyes didnâ€™t leave my face. â€œWhat happened? We canâ€™t be losing your maid of honor at this late date.â€ She smiled to show she was teasing, but there was a warning under the words. â€œSadie and I are fine.â€ â€œWonderful.â€ She walked to the closet and peered inside. â€œYouâ€™re going to look like a princess in this dress. Even without you in it, I could stare at it all day. Julian wonâ€™t be able to take his eyes off you.â€ I gave her a weak smile. I did love the dressâ€”a good thing, since it had taken so much time to find one we both agreed on. My mother wasnâ€™t a woman to give up on any goal, and her goal had been to find a dress that not only would I agree to wear but that would make people sigh with admiration for years to come. She rambled on, going over a last-minute menu change and reminding me we needed to pick up my fatherâ€™s tuxedo. â€œI hope Lilyâ€™s man comes dressed appropriately,â€ she said, almost as an afterthought. â€œMarioâ€™s wearing a suit. Lily said he looks great.â€ â€œI wish you hadnâ€™t insisted on their coming.â€ â€œLilyâ€™s my sister. Of course sheâ€™ll be at my wedding.â€ â€œYou werenâ€™t at hers.â€ I didnâ€™t say anything. Lily had done what she felt she had to, and Iâ€™d been happy for her. â€œHe will never amount to anything,â€ my mother added. â€œAnd you think Julian will?â€ I couldnâ€™t hold it back any longer, though I knew my mother was the worst person to confide in. Sheâ€™d never been the kind of mother to bake cookies, to take her kids to the park, or sit and discuss school and boyfriends. As teenagers, Lily and I had agreed that she was like Mary Lennoxâ€™s mother in the Secret Gardenâ€”too occupied with her own life and goals to really care about her daughters. â€œWell, youâ€™re wrong. I just found out he cheated on me. Maybe more than once.â€ My mother didnâ€™t gasp. She didnâ€™t hug me and ask me how I knew. She showed no sympathy for me or anger toward my fiancÃ©. She simply stared, her arms folded tightly against her stomach. â€œI canâ€™t marry him,â€ I said. That brought her to life. â€œOf course youâ€™ll marry him. Itâ€™s you he loves, no matter what youâ€™ve heard.â€ Something in her demeanor tipped me off. â€œWait. What do you know about this?â€ â€œI know that Julian is good for you. Heâ€™ll take care of you. His familyâ€™s business is doing well, and our contract with them will do wonders for our company as well. Your company someday.â€ â€œYou knew? All this time, you knew?â€ It was one thing for my mother to disown a daughter because sheâ€™d married a man she didnâ€™t approve of, but I couldnâ€™t believe sheâ€™d want me to commit my life to a man who cheated before he was even married. â€œHow long has it been going on?â€ I asked. â€œDoes everyone in town know?â€ I could imagine it now, people wagging their tongues and in the end sympathizing with Julian because he was oh-so-handsome and exciting, as if that excused everything. Not in my book. â€œThe truth is,â€ my mother said, â€œmarriage is little more than a business arrangement. Eventually you will realize that, and then you will understand this is a problem you can overcome. Besides, Julian will see the error of his ways. Heâ€™ll always come back to you.â€ I hadnâ€™t even known heâ€™d left me. I shifted on the bed, searching for something to make her see reason. â€œWould you have married Dad if heâ€™d been cheating?â€ â€œI would and I did.â€ I gaped at her. I knew my parentsâ€™ marriage wasnâ€™t perfect. Growing up, Lily and I had often clung to each other at night as theyâ€™d argued loudly in their bedroom. Iâ€™d been glad to escape to college, though it had hurt to leave Lily behind. But she was far more resilient and determined than I ever was, never wavering from her dreams of leaving and building her own life. It was she whoâ€™d fallen in love and eloped in the middle of the night a year ago when she was only twenty-two. Weâ€™d both come home for the Fourth of July, and telling our parents about her engagement to Mario hadnâ€™t gone well. Iâ€™d helped Lily pack the rest of what was in her old room, and sheâ€™d left during the night while our parents lay sleeping. Iâ€™d never forget how happy she looked. â€œI love him so much!â€ Sheâ€™d told me. â€œHeâ€™s like the air that I breathe. Heâ€™s a hard worker, and I know weâ€™ll make it. You donâ€™t have to worry about me anymore.â€ They had made it, at first, while both were working. Theyâ€™d even bought a big, old, run-down house to fix up. Then a leaky water heater and a small fire set them back, and theyâ€™d cut their work hours at the beginning of summer semester to finish school. Now Lily was expecting and so sick she had to quit her job altogether. Meanwhile, sheâ€™d filled every vacant space in their house with teenage girls who had nowhere else to go except the street or back to the unloving homes from which Lily had rescued them. In a few years, Mario would finish school and be able to support them, but for now they survived on love, money from the state for a few of the girls whoâ€™d been placed with them officially, the little money I could spare, and the funds I begged for them from my parents. Now thinking of how Lilyâ€™s face lit up every time she talked about Mario, or whenever he entered the room, and how careful he was of her, made me strong. I wanted that for myself. â€œI canâ€™t go through with the wedding,â€ I told my mother. â€œIâ€™m sorry.â€ â€œAt least talk to Julian. Heâ€™ll make it right. I know it.â€ I knew it, too, and that was exactly why I didnâ€™t want to talk to him. When I was with Julian, he was all too persuasive. He should have been a televangelist, because he could convince anyone of just about anything. Since heâ€™d been over sales in his fatherâ€™s company, he bragged that the business had doubled in profits. My mother drew herself to her full height. â€œThink of the caterer. All our friends coming from out of town. I swear if you do this, youâ€™ll be making the biggest mistake of your life.â€ â€œThe mistake would be marrying a man who doesnâ€™t love me!â€ Tears were coming, despite my effort to stop them. â€œHe does love you. Every bit as much as you love him. Please, Tessa, you must talk to Julian.â€ Would it be too much to ask to have her on my side for once? I jumped to my feet and walked past her. â€œIâ€™m going to see Serenity. Then Iâ€™m emailing Julian to tell him everythingâ€™s off.â€ â€œWhat about Lily? Sheâ€™ll lose her house without our help.â€ I froze at the door. â€œWhat?â€ I turned, feeling stupid and slow. â€œYou heard me.â€ My mother lifted her chin, and not for the first time did I notice her beauty. Lily took after her, with her blond hair, even-toned skin, and swan-like neck. My hair was altogether something else, looking as though someone had upended a diluted bucket of orange paint on my head. Strawberry blond, they called it, though that was a big stretch of the word strawberry. A genetic gift from my grandmother, Iâ€™d been told. I didnâ€™t remember her myself, but when my grandfather had been alive, heâ€™d touched the splotchy freckles that nearly covered all my face, and told me I looked exactly like her. Iâ€™d heard the love in his voice, and it was the only time Iâ€™d really felt beautiful. â€œIâ€™ll give her my money,â€ I said without thinking. â€œYou forget that if you arenâ€™t married, you wonâ€™t have your trust fund. Not until five more years. And your father has already filled your place at the factory, so you canâ€™t help her out with a regular paycheck. Since Lilyâ€™s married, sheâ€™ll get her inheritance in two more years, but her house canâ€™t wait that long, which means all her foster girls are going to end up in the street.â€ She was talking about the trust fund my grandfather had set upâ€”a half million dollars up front at age twenty-five if we were married or thirty if we werenâ€™t, and monthly payments of one thousand dollars thereafter. Lily was married, but too young at twenty-three to receive anything. Being twenty-five, I qualified if I married, and Iâ€™d planned to lend Lily my money to buy her house outright after my wedding. Now it looked as though sheâ€™d have to wait two more years. I stared at my mother, fury racing through my body. â€œAre you saying you wonâ€™t help Lily anymore if I donâ€™t get married? I donâ€™t believe this! Being angry at her because of Mario is one thing, but letting her lose her house because youâ€™re upset with me isâ€”â€ I couldnâ€™t think of a word bad enough, not one I would say in my motherâ€™s presence, so I quit speaking. My motherâ€™s eyes narrowed, and when she spoke her voice was as brittle as ice. â€œItâ€™s not for you to judge my relationship with your sister, but what Iâ€™m saying is that weâ€™re not in a position to help Lily furtherâ€”thatâ€™s why weâ€™re pushing for this merger. With the economy the way it is, you are the only one who can save your sister.â€ â€œThen Iâ€™ll drive to Vegas and marry the first man I meet!â€ She laughed. â€œOh, Tessa. Stop this. You love Julian. Go talk to him. Thereâ€™s been a mistake, thatâ€™s all. Go ride Serenity, or take a walk or whatever you need to do, and then get this taken care of. All the relatives will be here tonight. All your friends from Phoenix.â€ She swept past me. â€œOr you can let Lily finally see what a big mistake she made marrying that boy.â€ She was gone before I could protest. Before I could remind her about the baby, who would be her grandchild, regardless of who his father was. Neither Lily nor I had ever discovered why our parents hated Mario so much, but it seemed to go much deeper than his race or his familyâ€™s blue-collar status in society. I didnâ€™t understand their objection. Mario Jameson Perez came from good, hard-working parentsâ€”an American mother and a father from Spainâ€”both of whom had taught him and his numerous siblings the meaning of love. Mario was fun and intelligent, and he loved Lily more than anything. That he was handsome was simply an added bonus. He was also good with the girls they fostered, helping them realize how special they each were by the courtesy he extended them. The example he was of an adoring husband changed the way many of them thought about love. If I couldnâ€™t help Lily, and my parents couldnâ€™t or wouldnâ€™t, my little sister would lose everything sheâ€™d been working for. Except Mario, of course. And the baby. I went out to see Serenity, putting a few sugar cubes in my pocket as I always did without thinking about it. I was on autopilot. What was I going to do? I couldnâ€™t marry Julian, not if what Sadie said was true, but neither could I leave Lily without help. Iâ€™d been mothering her since I was two and she so tiny that all she could do was suck at the bottle the nanny taught me to give her. After the nanny left when I was four, I became more of a mother to Lily than our own mother. Serenity was out in the far pasture near the copse of trees that marked the border of our three-acre plot, almost as though she was trying to get as far away from the house as I was. When she saw me, she trotted over with a soft whinny, her brown coat glistening in the morning sunlight. She was beautiful, grace incarnate, and for a strange instant, she reminded me of my mother. She put her face close to mine in greeting. I could feel the heat of her breath and the smell of freshly chewed grass. â€œI know what you want.â€ I gave her a cube of sugar, which she ate greedily, her soft brown eyes begging for more. I gave her another before walking toward the trees. She hesitated a moment, as if confused about why I didnâ€™t head for the barn to get the tack so we could go for a ride, but I didnâ€™t feel like riding now. I felt like collapsing into a ball and crying my eyes out. I wanted a mother to turn to for guidance. Yeah, right. There was a gate at the end of the pasture, which bordered a wide path on the other side of the fence line. The city had built the path before selling the land beyond it to a developer, who had promptly put up a myriad of tract houses that had infuriated my mother and the other neighbors. Thus the thick row of fast-growing trees that almost hid the abomination from our sight. I, on the other hand, had been the one to put in the gate. I loved riding Serenity on the path that extended for several miles. I liked seeing mothers jogging behind strollers, children on bicycles, runners stopping for breath after their runs. Today none of that mattered. I slumped down at the base of a tree and let my head drop into my hands. What was I going to do? Lily. I was calling her cell before Iâ€™d thought twice about it. â€œHello?â€ she said a little breathlessly. â€œItâ€™s me,â€ I said. â€œOf course itâ€™s you, or I wouldnâ€™t have answered. I would have stayed hugging the toilet.â€ â€œThat bad, huh?â€ â€œWorse than bad. On top of all this sickness and the house problems, Iâ€™m spotting, and the doctor told me Iâ€™m going to have to drop out of school to stay in bed. I donâ€™t mind, except that means Iâ€™ll soon have to start paying on those student loans I took out. Not exactly what we need right now with the mortgage three months overdue. Itâ€™s all we can do to get food in the house at this point. If not for you, the food I get from WIC, and what Mario and the girls make, I wouldnâ€™t know what to do.â€ She heaved a sigh. â€œThe worst is all the phone calls from the mortgage company. I tell you, I will be so relieved when the house is paid for, and I can tell them to bug off. You canâ€™t know how much you are saving our lives. Well, I guess you know exactly how much, but I will be forever grateful. Youâ€™ve always been there for me.â€ I shut my eyes for a moment. What was I going to tell my sister? I couldnâ€™t marry Julian, but I couldnâ€™t let her down, either. â€œDonâ€™t worry,â€ Lily added, as if suddenly figuring out the reason for my silence. â€œI have permission from the doctor to go to your weddingâ€”just not the rehearsal dinner. Sorry about that. At least Iâ€™ll be there for the real thing.â€ â€œThatâ€™s good. Weâ€™ll make sure you have a comfortable chair.â€ â€œIs Mom okay with us being there? I mean, I know you must have had to sacrifice a limb to get her to help with our last mortgage payment.â€ â€œShe doesnâ€™t have a choice. Youâ€™re my sister. Iâ€™m just really sorry things are so hard right now.â€ â€œWeâ€™ll make it. Iâ€™m happy, Mario and I are still crazy in love, and I want to be helping those girls. Theyâ€™ve had it so hard. For some of them, this is the only place theyâ€™ve ever felt safe.â€ Lily sounded fierce and a little bit scared. As if to make up for that, she tried to make the next comment light. â€œAnyway, the hard times are almost over with. The real problem is going to be losing this weight after this baby comes. I was fat enough to begin with. So whatâ€™s up, anyway? Why did you call?â€ I hesitated, still unsure what to say. I twisted the engagement ring on my hand, which all of a sudden felt too tight. It was a beautiful ring, though in lesser circles the diamond might be considered ostentatious. â€œTell me,â€ Lily urged. â€œIs it Julian? Whatâ€™s he done now?â€ â€œWhat do you mean, now?â€ â€œWell, heâ€™s always doing something.â€ She paused before adding, â€œAre you sure you should be marrying him?â€ Sheâ€™d asked me this a dozen times in the past two months. I usually got mad. â€œLook, itâ€™s not too late to call it off.â€ What about the catering, the flowers, the guests? I wanted to say. What about your house and all those girls? â€œTessa, we both promised ourselves that weâ€™d never have the kind of marriage our parents have. They barely talk. They live separate lives. If you arenâ€™t sure, you canâ€™t go through with it.â€ I had the sense she was speaking to me as if I were one of the girls she was trying to save. â€œI love him,â€ I said. â€œDo you really? Do you love him so much that you feel like youâ€™ll die if he doesnâ€™t love you back?â€ I imagined her holding a hand to her heart and gazing out the window as she spoke. â€œIt certainly feels like it right now.â€ Yet I knew I wouldnâ€™t die because thickly layered over the hurt was a growing coat of anger that was urging me to do something. To act. To show Julian I didnâ€™t need him. â€œMaybe this is a sign. Iâ€™ve told you before that heâ€™s not real. I canâ€™t tell when heâ€™s being truthful or making something up. The worst thing is that youâ€™re not yourself when heâ€™s around.â€ â€œMom would be furious if I canceled the wedding.â€ â€œThen leave and come here. Weâ€™ll make it work somehow. I hope you know that Iâ€™d rather have you happy than all the houses in the world.â€ I did know that whatever the cost to her, Lily wouldnâ€™t want me to sacrifice myself. But she was the one who needed help now, whether she admitted it or not. â€œMaybe itâ€™s just pre-wedding jitters,â€ I said, faking a casualness I didnâ€™t feel. â€œI should talk to Julian.â€ â€œI donâ€™t know. That might not be a good idea. If youâ€™re having doubts, maybe you should delay things a few weeks and decide without him around. You only have one chance to do this right the first time.â€ I didnâ€™t know if delaying things would help. It certainly wouldnâ€™t change his infidelity. If Lily knew about that, sheâ€™d probably hunt him down herself. Sheâ€™d think I was crazy for even considering going through with the wedding. But for all the young women sheâ€™d saved, she didnâ€™t know what it was like to protect a younger sister. Iâ€™d been doing it all my life. â€œEverything is going to be fine,â€ I said. â€œIn a few months, when weâ€™re sitting inside your mortgage-free house playing with your little baby, weâ€™ll laugh about this.â€ â€œOh, Tessa. Are you sure?â€ The tone in her voice told me she was smiling. â€œIâ€™m sure. Donâ€™t worry about a thing.â€ â€œI love you, Tessa.â€ â€œLove you, too.â€ I hung up but remained sitting in the tall weeds, my back against the tree, staring into nothingness. Serenity nuzzled my head in worry. â€œItâ€™s all right, girl.â€ But it wasnâ€™t. I have to think. Why couldnâ€™t I think? I kept seeing my motherâ€™s face drawn in disapproval and my fatherâ€™s flushed with anger. Lily sick in bed, her girls sleeping in the streets. Julianâ€™s smileâ€”mocking. I rubbed my face with my hands, and they came away wet. I hadnâ€™t even realized I was crying. The creak of the back gate signaled someoneâ€™s approach. â€œTessa? Are you okay?â€ A manâ€™s voice, one I recognized. I hurriedly dried my face with the hem of my shirt before he came into view around the trees. â€œOh, there you are.â€ He was a tall, broad, scruffy-looking man with restful green eyes. I thought he was nearing forty, but it was hard to tell with the brown beard and the hair that fell to below his ears. He lived in one of the tract houses, and many times over the last year, Iâ€™d caught him petting Serenity over the fence. I didnâ€™t mind because, except for the groom who fed her after I moved away, she didnâ€™t have company. â€œHi, Gage.â€ I knew little more than his name, though weâ€™d talked on numerous occasions. The rumor around town said he was an ex-con, recently released from prison, though no one seemed to know what he might have been in prison for and were either too lazy or unbelieving to research it. My mother had at least checked with the local police to make sure he wasnâ€™t on any child predator list, which he wasnâ€™t, but she still would have taken up a petition to force him from the neighborhood, had it been possible. I was glad sheâ€™d deemed it a waste of time. Over the months of talking to him and observing his gentleness with Serenity, I doubted the rumors were true. I suspected only his shaggy appearance kept the gossip alive. â€œI saw Serenity, and she was looking kind of nervous. Thought maybe youâ€™d had a fall.â€ â€œAh, Gage, sheâ€™s not even wearing a saddle, and I donâ€™t ride bareback. Not usually.â€ He looked at the sorrel. â€œOh, right.â€ He gave me a tentative smile, which didnâ€™t have much effect on his face under all that hair. â€œWell, as long as youâ€™re okay. But shouldnâ€™t you be shopping or at the hairdresser or something? Youâ€™re still getting married Saturday, arenâ€™t you?â€ I closed my eyes for a painful moment. I wondered if heâ€™d heard the rumors about Julian, and if he felt sorry for me. â€œI donâ€™t know.â€ An emotion I couldnâ€™t define passed over his face. In a swift movement, he squatted down beside me. â€œWhat happened?â€ â€œWhat makes you think something happened?â€ He gestured to the grass. â€œBecause youâ€™re sitting in a bunch of weeds two days before your wedding, looking like you wished a hole would open up and swallow you.â€ A hole would be nice, except then how would I help Lily? My father had hundreds of applications for each job opening in his factory, and other companies were just as flooded. No one would want to pay me what Iâ€™d earned with my father, and my degree in liberal arts now seemed rather useless. Of course, Iâ€™d never thought Iâ€™d actually have to find a job outside the family business. A burst of anger blotted out the despair. How could I have been so stupid? Lily had at least tried to become independent, while Iâ€™d stayed reliant on my family. Now they controlled my lifeâ€”and they wanted me to marry Julian. No! For a moment the hurt and betrayal were too great to endure. Yet I didnâ€™t die, and after a moment the pain receded enough to breathe again, and I knew what I had to do. I arose, brushing my hands on my pants. â€œIâ€™m getting married,â€ I said, â€œbut not to my fiancÃ©.â€ Gageâ€™s eyes narrowed as he stood. â€œWhat are you talking about?â€ At that moment he looked hard, like a man who actually might have served time. â€œHeâ€™s a liar and a cheat, and Iâ€™m getting out, even if I have to hitchhike my way to Las Vegas and marry the first man I meet.â€ â€œThatâ€™s crazy.â€ â€œSo is marrying someone who doesnâ€™t love you.â€ â€œAt least you know him. Donâ€™t you think marrying some stranger in Las Vegas would be even worse?â€ â€œNot if itâ€™s a business arrangement. Temporary.â€ Take that, Mother. I was a quick learner. Iâ€™d find a way around the trust fund requirements because I knew if my grandfather were alive, heâ€™d be the first one to help Lily, and he certainly wouldnâ€™t see me married to a man who would betray me. Heâ€™d been faithful to my grandmother not only for all the time they were married, but for twenty years after she was gone. I stuck out my hand to Gage. â€œItâ€™s been nice knowing you, Gage. I hope you have a wonderful life.â€ His hand swallowed mine with a strength that made me slightly uneasy. â€œWhat about Serenity?â€ Serenity had been a constant in my life for seven years, but I couldnâ€™t see walking down the Las Vegas strip with a horse in tow, looking for a likely marriage candidate. If I managed to get the trust fund, I could move Serenity to wherever I ended up. Maybe I could buy the field next to Lilyâ€™s house. That is, if my parents didnâ€™t sell the horse first. I bit my lip, tears smarting in my eyes. â€œSheâ€™ll be okay here for now.â€ I turned to go, but Gageâ€™s hand shot out to grab my arm. I felt a momentary shiver of fear, and he must have seen it in my eyes because he dropped his hand instantly. â€œSorry. I justâ€”are you in trouble? Is there something I can do to help?â€ He was uniquely appealing at the moment, a mix of little boy and wild-looking ex-con. I hadnâ€™t noticed how tall he was before or how broad his chest, and I wondered what he looked like under all that facial hair. I forced a smile. â€œHow about a ride to Las Vegas?â€ My old car had been sold, and the new one, a wedding gift from Julianâ€™s parents, wasnâ€™t scheduled to arrive until after Julian and I returned from our honeymoon. â€œIâ€™m kidding. Look, thanks for your concern, but everything is fine. Iâ€™m not the first woman to have her heart broken.â€ He arched a brow, and I noticed he had nice ones. Expressive. â€œYou look more mad than heartbroken.â€ He was wrong. My heart did hurt. I hated knowing that I wasnâ€™t enough for Julian, that he didnâ€™t love me the way I loved him. Yes, I was also furious at him, and at my parents, but most of all at myself. I was the reason I was in this mess, the reason Lily was in danger. Iâ€™d trusted the wrong man. â€œThen you donâ€™t know me very well,â€ I told Gage. â€œGood-bye. It really has been nice knowing you.â€ I could feel his eyes on me as I left. Grabbing Serenityâ€™s mane, I pulled myself up on her bare back and let her take me to the other side of the pasture. â€œIâ€™ll miss you more than anyone here,â€ I whispered, giving her the last cube of sugar in my pocket. â€œBut Iâ€™ll be back some day. I promise.â€ END OF SNEAK PEEK. If you would like to purchase Tell Me No Lies on Smashwords, please click here. Or continue to the next page for a bonus sample of Take Me Home, the first book in Rachel Brantonâ€™s Finding Home series. Enjoy! To learn more about the author and her books, please continue to the About the Author section following the bonus preview. Bonus Preview PROLOGUE Saturday, August 29, 1981 Unalterable and unforgiving as a gaping hole in a cemetery, the event would forever after stand out in memory. There was nothing out of the ordinary to signal its coming. The pans sat on the immaculate stove as they always did each afternoon in preparation for dinner, their empty interiors open, ready, beckoning. Sounds from the television floated in from the adjoining family room. Somewhere outside a dog barked, and a horn honked as a car passed the house. Clarissa Winn set out the vegetables. Steamed broccoli florets with sliced carrots would go nicely with the meatballs and spaghetti. She picked up a knife. The shrill of the kitchen phone broke through the sounds of the television. Clarissa looked up from the broccoli and reluctantly reached for the phone, hoping it wasnâ€™t someone from the PTA asking her to take on another project, or the pastor needing a pianist for services the next day. â€œHello?â€ she asked, tucking the phone between her ear and neck. If it was one of her friends, sheâ€™d get a start on cutting the vegetables while they talked. â€œIs this Mrs. Clarissa Winn?â€ a man asked, his rich, melodic voice boasting a distinct British accent that made her think of exotic places to which she had never traveled. â€œYes, Iâ€™m Clarissa Winn.â€ â€œMy name is Dr. Mehul Raji. I am calling from Calcutta, India, from Charity Medical Hospital. It is about your sister.â€ â€œMy sister?â€ Clarissaâ€™s grip tightened on the knife in her hand. Sister. She hadnâ€™t heard the word in relation to herself for far too long. â€œYou mean Karyn?â€ â€œYes, Karyn Olsen Schrader.â€ â€œHas something happened?â€ The words hurt Clarissaâ€™s throat. â€œIndeed. It is with great regret that I must inform you of the death of your sister and that of her husband, Dr. Guenter Schrader. They were killed in a plane accident last Saturday as they traveled to give medical care to the inhabitants of several remote villages here in India.â€ The words were measured and exact, but now the doctorâ€™s British English was heavily accented with whatever language he called his own. â€œPlease accept my heartfelt condolences. Both Karyn and Guenter were valuable members of our staff and will be deeply missed.â€ Clarissaâ€™s eyes filled with tears. My sister is dead. The hand with the knife shook. Her reflection in the shiny surface of her four-quart saucepan was distortedâ€”as distorted as her soul. The television blared. Outside came the happy ringing of the ice-cream truck. Life as usual. â€œI would have called sooner,â€ Dr. Raji continued, â€œbut only today did we manage to track down your telephone information. I am happy to be able to reach you.â€ Clarissa barely heard his voice. Karyn is dead. The words came with a furious pounding of her heart. She still gripped the knife, poised over the broccoli, her hand turning white. â€œI wish to know what instructions you have for me regarding their four-year-old daughter, as you appear to be her only living relative.â€ Suddenly Clarissa was listening again. So Karyn had given birth to the daughter sheâ€™d longed for. â€œIs she okay?â€ â€œShe is unhurt, but there is concern. She has not spoken to anyone since the accident. At the moment, she is in the care of a woman in whose house Dr. and Mrs. Schrader were living, but we expect that you will want her sent to America. Is this not correct?â€ Sobs pierced Clarissaâ€™s awarenessâ€”bitter cries that hurt her to hear. She tried to answer the doctor, but words refused to come. Karyn is dead. Her husbandâ€™s arms came from behind, wrapping around her body. â€œWhatâ€™s wrong, honey?â€ Only then did she realize that the bitter crying was coming from her own throat. She swallowed her sobs with an agony that threatened suffocation. The knife moved in her hand. Travis reached for it, rubbing the flesh and loosening her grip before taking the knife. â€œGive me the phone,â€ he said softly. Clarissa watched as he talked with the doctor from India, her own disbelief and shock mirrored in his dark eyes. Finding a pen in the drawer, he wrote down a number. Then he set the phone on the cradle. â€œItâ€™s my fault,â€ Clarissa moaned. And it wasâ€”as surely as if she had forced Karyn onto the plane that would eventually crash. â€œNo, itâ€™s not. Itâ€™s not anyoneâ€™s fault.â€ â€œIt is.â€ He sighed. â€œIf itâ€™s yours, then itâ€™s mine, too.â€ She shook her head. â€œNo, no. Mine. Iâ€™m her sister.â€ Was, her mind corrected. She was my sister. Travis put his arms around her. She gazed up at his familiar, dearly loved features, stared into the eyes she would never have known had it not been for Karyn, the sister she had betrayed. Oh, dear Godâ€”how did I let this happen? There was no chance for making amends now. â€œHer daughter,â€ she said aloud. â€œWhat about that poor little girl?â€ â€œSheâ€™ll come here, of course.â€ She nodded. â€œWeâ€™ll raise her as our own.â€ An unexpectedâ€”unwantedâ€”surge of joy welled within Clarissaâ€™s breast. Only fleetingly did she consider that someday they would have to tell Karynâ€™s daughter the truth. CHAPTER 1 March 2007 Liana Winnâ€™s fingers flew over her calculator, making long tallies of numbers that spewed onto a long curl of white paper. She hated working on this account for more reasons than one. Wealthy Jim Forrester, the obscenely young owner of a computer consulting firm, didnâ€™t exactly cheat on his taxes, but there were many points she felt stretched the realm of belief: vacations in Hawaii, elaborate gifts for clients, deluxe hotel rooms with heart-shaped bathtubs. After two years of doing Forresterâ€™s taxes and avoiding his blatant advances, Liana had tried to refuse being assigned to his case. But he was Klassy Accountingâ€™s most important client, and when he had requested her personally, her boss made it clear she had no choice but to accept. â€œYou about done with the Forrester case, Liana?â€ Lianaâ€™s fingers stiffened over her calculator as she looked up into the small watery eyes of Larry Koplin, her boss. He was a tall, balding, barrel-chested man who wore tailored suits and who might have been commanding if not for his swollen cheeks, thin shoulders, and scrawny limbs. â€œNearly, Mr. Koplin,â€ she said, keeping her voice calm. â€œIâ€™m just finishing a few numbers. Once I put them into the computer, Iâ€™ll be finished.â€ Koplinâ€™s pale face darkened with a brief frown, which Liana knew was because he had invited her time and time again to call him Larry instead of Mr. Koplin. Liana had tried, briefly, half-heartedly, but the time when he had inspired friendship was long past. â€œGood.â€ He twisted his thin, too-long fingers, as though washing them. â€œI knew youâ€™d be done soon. I told him to come over in an hour. Heâ€™d like to take you to lunch.â€ Distaste rolled through Liana, but she was careful not to show it. â€œThank you, Mr. Koplin, but I wonâ€™t be able to go. I need to finish at least two more accounts before I leave tonight.â€ Koplinâ€™s smile did not reach his leaking eyes. â€œNonsense, a girl has to eat.â€ Liana stifled a sharp retort that would have detailed her womanly capability of buying her own meal. She had learned to do at least that in her nearly thirty years of life, thank you very much. Instead, she said, â€œI think we promised Jones and Dean that their accounts would be finished by morning, didnâ€™t we? Lunch with Forrester could take hours.â€ She watched contrasting emotions battle in Larry Koplinâ€™s puffy face as he pitted the money he would receive from those accounts against the points he would earn if he could coerce her to have lunch with Forrester. Liana remembered a time when she had believed in himâ€”a time when his smile and a promise of a bright future had drawn her away from her previous job. It was an offer he still touted, but Liana had discovered that his â€œbright futureâ€ meant this minuscule office and nothing more. Koplinâ€™s greed for money won out. â€œIâ€™ll tell Mr. Forrester you canâ€™t possibly get away now. Just see that you finish those accounts.â€ Liana felt the sudden urge to quit right that instant, to turn her back and walk out, just to see him scramble for a replacement. Maybe then he would recognize the four years of hard work that had earned her this pitiful closet she called an officeâ€”an office she now despised. But she had bills to pay, which her monthly paycheck barely covered, so she had no choice but to swallow her anger. â€œI will, Mr. Koplin.â€ He nodded sharply, causing the loose skin under his chin to wobble, and turned on feet that seemed small for his towering height and protruding chest. As he walked down the aisle between the gray cubicles, he was followed by surreptitious stares from his employees. One of the nearest women, a new employee named Jocelyn, cast Liana a sympathetic glance through the door, and Liana smiled politely before returning to her work. The anger gradually faded as she put the incident aside. She would not allow anything to affect her work or her state of mind. She was in control. Anything else was unacceptable. When the phone rang, she reached for it, eyes glued to her computer screen. â€œLiana Winn,â€ she said. Tilting her head to support the phone, she continued entering numbers. Earlier in the day, sheâ€™d hoped to finish work early, but that hope was fading fast. â€œHi, itâ€™s me.â€ She smiled despite her dark mood. Her brotherâ€™s voice was always a welcome sound. â€œHi, Christian. Whatâ€™s up?â€ â€œActually, I need a favor.â€ â€œHa, what else is new?â€ She rolled her eyes. He was forty, and she was still bailing him out of one thing or another. â€œWell, a friend of mine has to get a bit of tax work doneâ€”pronto.â€ â€œSorry.â€ The phone pressed hard between her ear and shoulder, and already her neck was beginning to ache from the awkward position. â€œIâ€™d like to help your friend, but I canâ€™t. Maybe next month, after the fifteenth.â€ Her brother wasnâ€™t having any of it. His voice took on a pleading note, one she always found difficult to ignore. â€œOh, Liana, come on. The company he works for is a client of mine. If I lose that account, my boss will kill me.â€ Through the open door of her tiny office Liana could see a buzz of activity in the cubicles where she had worked until her promotion a few months earlier. Fingers typed at keyboards, creating an unlikely symphony that hummed evenly on the air. There were voices, too, but lower, almost covered by the incessant tapping. Ringing phones added shrillness to the din. March was one of the accounting firmâ€™s busiest times of the year, surpassed only by the madness that consumed the first half of April. She willed herself to be strong. â€œIf this guy changes advertising firms because I canâ€™t work him in, then heâ€™s no friend of yours.â€ â€œItâ€™s his company I need to impress, not him, and that means if they need a favor, I deliver. This accounting thing isnâ€™t even Austinâ€™s department. Heâ€™s their sales manager, but he got stuck with filing the tax forms because he works with me, and I opened my big mouth.â€ Not again! She stifled a sigh. â€œAnd how on earth did that happen?â€ â€œWell, I was in this meeting yesterday, and they were discussing my new advertising designâ€”which they seemed to like, by the way.â€ â€œChristian,â€ she groaned. â€œOkay, okay. So they started in about how their financial manager had run off on them and how the new oneâ€”the ownerâ€™s nephew or somethingâ€”canâ€™t start until he finishes college next month. Bottom line, theyâ€™re in a big bind and need help quick if they want to avoid paying more penalties. Next thing I know, my mouth opens all on its own, and Iâ€™m telling them I know someone.â€ â€œKnow someone? Who do you think you areâ€”the Mafia?â€ He gave a short laugh. â€œCome on, will you just meet with him? If itâ€™s too much work maybe you could file another extension. Pleeeeease? His office is just outside Vegas, only a couple of miles away from yours. Itâ€™s a quarterly thing, I think, so it canâ€™t be too big, can it?â€ Liana sighed. Christian had no idea how difficult quarterly filings could be. He was a genius at dreaming up creative advertisements, but numbers escaped him completely. â€œDepends on the size of the company. Canâ€™t your friend come in and meet with my boss? Maybe someone else could work him in here.â€ â€œCanâ€™t see that happening. Austin would never trust a company with a corny name like Klassy Accounting.â€ Christianâ€™s voice rose in mimic of the commercials that were being run on the radio. â€œKlassy Accountingâ€”no job too big or too small.â€ He snorted. â€œNo offense, but itâ€™s stupid. Please, Liana Banana? What do you say? Do it for me?â€ The use of her childhood nickname made it more difficult to deny his request. â€œLet me think a moment,â€ she said, raking her hand through the long strands of her dark hair. If she skipped her twenty-minute lunch down at the corner deliâ€”againâ€”and didnâ€™t take her afternoon break, she might be able to finish work by seven or so, and that would leave enough time to see Christianâ€™s friend. Even as she thought this, the strong aroma of a TV dinner, coming from the small alcove that lamely served as an employee break room, wended its way into her office, making her stomach ache with emptiness. â€œOkay, okay,â€ she agreed with resignation. â€œIâ€™ll take a look. But youâ€™ll have to pick me up and stop at some fast food place on the way so I can eat as you drive. Iâ€™m famished.â€ â€œDeal. You wonâ€™t regret this, Banana. I love you.â€ â€œHmm.â€ She hung up the phone. Daylight was already beginning to fade as Liana exited the front door of her building. Outside, she found Christian parked in a no-parking fire zone, lounging against his green BMW, a car he was still paying for and would be for at least another three years. He greeted her with a wave and a grin that always made people feel he shared their secrets. â€œI got you Chinese,â€ he said as he opened the passenger side door for her. â€œI know how you love it.â€ â€œI enjoy it.â€ She slid into the car. Christian rolled his eyes. â€œOh yeah, I forgot. You donâ€™t love anything . . . or anyone, right? Except for me.â€ Grinning, he placed his hands on his khaki dress pants and leaned down until his eyes were even with hers. â€œCome on, tell me you love me. Tell me Iâ€™m your favorite brother. Why donâ€™t you ever say it?â€ They both knew he was teasing, and yet there was an undercurrent of sincerity to his plea. To him things like saying â€œI love youâ€ made a difference, but Liana knew that saying so only set a person up for loss. She snorted in annoyance and pulled her door shut. Her brother barely had time to jump out of the way. â€œHey!â€ He slapped the side of the car, but lightly so there was no chance of damaging the finish. She watched him saunter around to the driverâ€™s side. Handsome by any standard, Christian had dark, laughing eyes and longish brown hair combed back from his square face. He was fun-loving, adventuresome, generousâ€”and completely irresponsible. Though Liana was more than ten years his junior, she often lent him money, patted his back when his relationships didnâ€™t work out, and handled all his finances. He joked that heâ€™d never marry until he found someone exactly like her. What he didnâ€™t seem to realize was that someone like her was unable to maintain a stable romantic relationship. â€œBe careful of the seats,â€ Christian warned, sliding behind the wheel. â€œLeather and Chinese donâ€™t mix.â€ â€œI know, I know.â€ As Christian drove through Las Vegas, Liana ate her Chinese food with the plastic fork provided. Heâ€™d bought her favorite, curry chicken, but had ordered fried rice instead of regular white. She closed the rice carton with distaste and opened the chicken, careful not to spill it on her black suit or Christianâ€™s precious leather seats. Her stomach rumbled in anticipation, even as the spicy flavors brought her mouth to life. Weaving through the post rush-hour traffic, Christian babbled about his job, a girl at work that he was thinking about asking out, and how much it had cost to repair a scratch in the paint on his car. There was no pattern to his speech, and he punctuated his stories with unexpected exclamations. His voice was a welcome relief from the monotonous sounds at the office. Sometimes the continuous tapping at work was more than Liana could endure, and she had to envision herself elsewhere to survive the day. When sheâ€™d first started in the cubicles, her daydream had been a quiet beach with nothing but the occasional cry of the seagulls to interrupt her peace. Then two summers earlier she had taken a vacation to Catalina Island in California, where the beaches had been filled with boisterous people and the constant roar of the waves hurling themselves up the beach. After a while, the rise and fall of the white-crested waves had been as bad for her as the tapping on the keyboardsâ€”too much rush and hurry. Sheâ€™d gone home disappointed and had begun to dream of a remote cabin in the mountains. Last summer she had stayed in her other brother Bretâ€™s cozy new cabin in the mountains of Utah. She wanted to hike over the soft, fragrant layers of pine needles and escape Nevadaâ€™s penetrating heat. It had been wonderfulâ€”at first. Then at night the wind singing through the trees became a constant sound, somehow hauntingly familiar, as though someone had only muffled the tapping from the keyboards. After three sleepless nights, she went home early, resigning herself to never escaping the cacophony of the accounting office. From that time on, sheâ€™d hated her job. â€œHere we are,â€ Christian said, all too soon. Swallowing a bite of chicken, Liana gazed at the new three-story building liberally dotted with impressive windows. Large gold lettering on the front window next to the double glass doors spelled out Goodman Electronics. â€œWhat did you say the company does?â€ â€œThey sell televisions, DVD players, that sort of thing. Austin also runs a charity organization to help orphans in Ukraine. His grandmother started it. But that doesnâ€™t have anything to do with his job here.â€ â€œI hope theyâ€™re not too big.â€ The larger the company, the more work she would be in for. Setting aside the remains of her chicken, Liana grabbed her black briefcase, climbed from the car, and walked with Christian to the doors. Almost immediately, a buzzer sounded and they were let inside. Behind the wide, room-length reception desk sat a lean man dressed in a dark business suit. He was tilted back in the chair with his hands behind his head and his feet on the desk. His eyes were fixed on the monitor in front of him, as if nothing could tear him away. Black hair covered his head, the corners arching high in the frontâ€”a sign of intelligence, her father used to sayâ€”and the tanned, chiseled face already sported a five oâ€™clock shadow. He moved as they approached, languidly pulling down his arms and coming to his feet. He was tallâ€”at least a head taller than Liana. His eyes stayed on the screen a few seconds longer, and Liana wished she could catch a glimpse of what so fascinated him. Then his face turned in their direction, his welcoming smile echoed by a friendly gleam in his black eyes. Individually, his features werenâ€™t anything to speak ofâ€”his nose was too large, his chin too wide, the forehead too highâ€”but taken all together he was positively the most arresting man she had ever seen. Liana didnâ€™t know if it was because his eyes were the color of midnight or if it was the way he looked at her. Certainly he wasnâ€™t the most handsome man sheâ€™d met. Take Jim Forrester, for example. That man had the blond good looks of a surfing king, though his merits were decidedly spoiled by his certainty of his beautyâ€”not to mention the existence of a Mrs. Forrester. Liana never allowed good looks to impress her. â€œAustin, this is my sister, Liana Winn,â€ Christian said. â€œLiana, this is Austin Walker.â€ He walked around the desk, offering his hand. She looked up into his face and murmured something, schooling herself to show nothing of her momentary admiration. Austinâ€™s eyes didnâ€™t leave hers. â€œAre you the wonder woman whoâ€™s going to free me from this accounting mess?â€ His voice was low and rich, with a hint of familiarity that made her uncomfortable. â€œThat depends.â€ She averted her eyes from his stare. â€œWhere are the papers so I can get started?â€ The smile on Austinâ€™s face faltered but steadied quickly. â€œRight this way.â€ He took an ID card hanging from his waist on a thin retractable elastic cord and swiped it through a metal reader near the door next to the reception desk. â€œThrough here.â€ He held the door open for them. As Liana passed, she caught a whiff of Austinâ€™s cologne, or perhaps it was only fabric softener someone had used on his white button-down shirt. The scent reminded her of hiking outside Bretâ€™s cabinâ€”a slight fragrance of pine mixed with the freshness of a mountain breeze. The scent was gone almost before she could identify it. She slipped past, felt his gaze boring into her back, and wondered why he so disturbed her. Itâ€™s not just him, came an unbidden thought. She remembered Jim Forrester and Mr. Koplin. They were only a few in a long line of men that made her feel uncomfortable. Truth be told, the only men who didnâ€™t make her nervous were her brothers, Christian and Bret. Liana forced the thoughts away and continued down the hall. Men were irrelevant. She didnâ€™t need anyone. No, not even Christian, who had called her Liana from her first day in Americaâ€”instead of Lara, the legal name she detested. Not even Christian, who had held her shaking body while she sobbed for her mother during those first weeks and months after the plane accident, and who had eased her hunger with ice cream stolen from the freezer in the middle of the night when she had been too upset to eat her dinner. Not even Christian, who had promised never to leave herâ€”a promise she couldnâ€™t bear to elicit from his parents, the aunt and uncle who had adopted her. If she kept telling herself she didnâ€™t need himâ€”or any of themâ€”it might become true. â€œItâ€™s that one over there.â€ Austin slipped around them and opened another door with a swipe of his card. The accountantâ€™s office was dim, lit only by the darkening light coming through the wide, unshuttered windows. Austin flipped on the overhead lights, and the room sprang from the shadows. To one side sat a nice oak desk, and beyond the desk, tall oak filing cabinets lined one wall. A high oak bookcase bordered the opposite wall, and a narrow table held a vase of flowers. But the most obvious piece of furniture was a small round plastic table in the middle of the room, standing awkwardly alone, unattached to any chair and of notably different quality from the rest of the furniture. â€œEverything should be here on the table,â€ Austin said. â€œI had a secretary make hard copies of everything and do the best she could to organize it.â€ Liana grimaced at the mounds of papers and files lying on the small table. Though neatly organized, the stacks were thick and numerous. Generally, she preferred to leave everything on the computer until the final go-through. Everything except her tallies of numbers. Those she liked to have on tangible paperâ€”either created on her adding machine or, in the old-fashioned way, with pencil and pad. â€œI know it looks like a lot,â€ Austin said. â€œBut I can help. Iâ€™m good with numbers. Iâ€™m just not sure what to file or when.â€ Carefully, Liana set her briefcase on top of one of the stacks. She looked around the room and spotted a chair behind the desk. Thankfully, it was padded. â€œThereâ€™s a chair.â€ Austin started for it at the same time she did. â€œI can do it.â€ Their hands touched on the back of the chair, and Liana pulled away hard. The chair shot from the horseshoe desk toward the table, banging into it. â€œWheels. What a nice invention,â€ she said, not meeting Austinâ€™s gaze. She felt like an idiot. Ignoring the menâ€™s polite chuckling, she sat down to work. After a while Christian and Austin started whispering, breaking her concentration. â€œIsnâ€™t there somewhere you two can go for about forty minutes?â€ she asked. â€œUh, yeah.â€ Austin motioned Christian to the door. â€œWe have an employee lounge where we can catch a little TV. And I should check my email. Are you sure youâ€™ll be okay?â€ â€œDonâ€™t worry about me. Iâ€™m only stealing your company secrets.â€ Her eyes returned to the papers. Austin hesitated, but Christian pulled him away. â€œSheâ€™s joking.â€ â€œOf course she is.â€ Liana didnâ€™t look up until they left. Though she was alone in the room, she still felt Austinâ€™s midnight eyes upon her.