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Authors: Amanda Lance

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BOOK: Conviction
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“Waiting for what?”

“For t-that day when you figure out how bad I am for ya. Or maybe when you get bored with me.”

I twisted his wrist at an unnatural angle. “You big jerk! Don’t you know you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me? If it wasn’t for you, I think I’d have my nose stuck in a book for the rest of my life. And I could never be
with you.” I began to laugh and was glad to see him crack a smile at my dramatic imitation.

“Honestly, Charlie,
?” I turned and watched his expression change. “What a terrible word.”

Despite my consolation efforts, I cringed. The closer the day came to me leaving for school, the more anxious Charlie was about one thing or another. First it was the logistics of the situation. For example, while I originally opted to live on campus, Elise threw a fit at the idea, insisting that I stay at the house and keep her company amongst the miscreants. And while I didn’t particularly enjoy the idea of being indebted to Ben and Elise, Charlie was hell-bent on providing the payment for a dormitory, which I also didn’t want.

Given the unspoken ultimatum however, I signed up for a dormitory anyway, doing my best to convince Charlie and Elise that it would provide the look of normalcy, and because neither of them wanted to hear that it was actually mandatory. For awhile I thought his fears were relieved, but he often found new things to fret about: how I might commute, my class schedule, the time difference…then I wondered if maybe these ‘fears’ were just a token excuse for something else. Charlie seemed to be perpetually worried that I would leave him, that I would flake out on him at any given moment. However, it was only now starting to occur to me that maybe I should be the worried one.

“You do still want me to come out, right?”

He squeezed me tighter until the air was expelled from me; something he did that was startling but at no time unpleasant. “I’ve never wanted anything as bad as I want you.”

“Then what is it, really?”

“What happens when you get out there and you hate it? I could put up with a lot, Addie, but if you decide you hate me for making you come out there, I’ll hate myself a lot worse.”

I circled back around and slid off his lap, taking refuge on the root beside him. “This is what I want, Charlie.
are what I want.”

I felt his fingers clumsily reaching for my pocket. It was hard to tell if he was letting go intentionally, or if I was just getting better at detecting his tricks, but I loved the grin that grew on his face when I batted his hand away.

Charlie shook his head. I watched as large puffs of breath emerged from his lips. “I’m losin’ my touch.”

Before he could respond, I fixed my lips to his own, excited that I could hold onto something that was both humbling and essential at the same time. After a second, I felt him deepen the kiss, taking my face in his hands and electrifying me with the shocking temperature difference of our bodies.

When we finally did part, I rested my head against his shoulder and double-checked the security of the cigarette. Sure enough, it was gone.

I huffed out the words, barely capable of breathing through my laughter. “I beg to differ.”  










Chapter 2



It took longer to get to the airport than it should have. Dad was driving unbearably slow. Then when we got there, he insisted on going through my supply checklist for the seventeenth time.

“Are you sure you don’t need anything else?”

“Just my laptop, some clothes, and the shoes on my feet.”

Dad shifted the weight of my duffle bag from shoulder to shoulder. I saw his eyes wandering around the crowded terminal and the many unfamiliar faces that moved around escalators and corridors. In the moment, I felt bad for him. He reminded me of the same protective parent he was when Robbie and I were too young to go places by ourselves or understand why we shouldn’t talk to strangers. But as long as ‘they’ were out there, these mysterious, evil people who I couldn’t remember and had taken me away in a split second, he might always be wary of the world. Would Dad always be looking into the faces of strangers and wondering if they had been the ones who had abducted me? Would he constantly be on the lookout for Charlie?

“You will call me when you land?”

“Yes, Dad.”

“Do you have your phone?”

“Phone? Phone? What in the world is a


“Yes, Father. Calm down, I do, in fact, have my telecommunication device.”

“And who is this person picking you up?”

“Elise, Dad. A friend of mine, remember? You talked to her on the phone a couple of times…” I let myself fade out. Once again, I figured this wasn’t a complete lie since Elise and I
friends; I just avoided Dad’s questions about the details pertaining to that friendship.

“Yeah, she seems nice.” Dad coughed into his hand. “No drinking, no drugs.”

“I don’t even like wine, Dad.”

“Stay focused on your studies.”

“Really, Dad? Which one of your kids are you talking to right now?”

“Addie, just let me pretend like I’m the parent here for a minute.”

I laughed and went in for a hug; obviously, the regular coffee I had inconspicuously switched for decaf wasn’t being as effective as I’d hoped for, his nerves were as jittery as ever. “Stop worrying, Dad. Everything is good—I promise.”

The familiar set of numbers that identified my flight were announced over the intercom, telling me I could now board.

“If you get homesick or anything, you can come home, okay?”

“Un-huh. You are aware that I’d still have to pay that $20,000, right?”

“Seriously, Addie. If things get to be too much, just pick up the phone.”

I still wasn’t used to seeing Dad in serious mode. But looking at it from his perspective, the last time he said good-bye to one of his kids, he almost lost the
one for good. I tried to put my own happiness aside for a second and focus on his needs. “Dad, are you going to be okay?”

Dad coughed again. “Just call when you land.”

“I love you, Old Man.”

“You too, Missy.”

I kissed him on the cheek and made a run for it—wearing what I considered my lucky sling bag as a carry on. Though it had been confiscated and run through forensics, returned, washed, and secretly thrown away by Dad, I had saved it, and it was still my favorite carrier.

I watched the cumulus clouds pass in sharp white bubbles outside of the airplane’s window. They collapsed into each other, forming puffy trestles that evaporated as the plane soared its way through the sky. The tint of the window itself prevented the sun from damaging my vision, but it also kept me from really seeing anything beyond the scope of the clouds. There were moments after take-off when I thought I saw a few birds, though at this altitude, it wasn’t very likely. And though I understood how fast the plane was probably traveling, it wasn’t nearly fast enough for my purpose. I tapped my foot against the rim of the seat in front of me as if I could ward the impatience away.

The excitement made it almost impossible to read, though I did try, flipping through a
National Geographic
Reader’s Digest
. It was difficult to sit still without accomplishing anything, knowing all the while that I was getting that much closer to Charlie and my continuing education as a pre-law student. I reran every detail in my brain. It would have been much easier to write everything down—the pros, the cons, and every decisive possibility of our arrangement. But I knew that anything like that might be construed as potential evidence in a court of law if the very worst should happen. So I kept my thoughts to myself. I made no outline or reports like I would have done with any other major life plans, and instead just memorized my ideas, even keeping them to myself, so I wouldn’t have to agitate Charlie’s anxiety further.

Only now on the plane was I beginning to feel the innate guilt of leaving home, Dad was, of course, an adult, but he hadn’t been so alone in a long time, and neither of us was unaware of that. But I’d have to leave home sometime, whether he liked it or not. Still, I promised to call a minimum of four times a week and do my best to return home for Spring break—in return, I made Dad promise to go golfing at the first sign of nice weather and at least
taking a cooking lesson.

I knew that I would have to get a job when I settled in; preferably, something on campus or under the table. I was afraid to express it to Charlie, but if something went wrong, and I had to disappear quickly, then cash would be the only way to go. The authorities might look at my meager bank statements and credit card receipts and reject the idea that I was probably involved in the mischief. I also reasoned that by accepting Charlie’s offer of tuition, it may be construed as a bribe if he were ever caught.

The airport was miserably crowded when I escaped from my flight and finally got through security. I could feel the instant temperature difference and ended up taking my sweater off, stuffing it my wheeled suitcase. Though it was almost January, I couldn’t help but notice those arriving from return flights were wearing t-shirts and the women had chosen open-toed shoes and shorter dresses. Immediately, I felt out of place by the tans and highlights. I began to count and felt around in my pocket for my phone, remembering my promise to Dad, and wanting to get it out of the way as soon as possible.

Charlie wanted to meet me at my flight exit but I convinced him it would be better for him to avoid the airport altogether, considering the tides of security personnel and cameras that would be washing over an international airport would be too risky for a FBI Most Wanted drop-out. And before I could even explain over the phone, Elise volunteered to be my chauffeur.

I spotted her in the parking terminal almost immediately. It was easy, as she was leaning her hand against the horn and flicking the headlights without reprieve.

Laughing, I flung my duffle bag over my shoulder and waved. Several people looked at her strangely as she stuck her head out of the open driver’s side window and began to shout.

“Addie! Hi! Over here!”

I cupped my hands to radiate the sound, “Yes! I see you!”

She waved me over, and I crossed the busy streets filled with taxis and beeping cars to the all-too-familiar black SUV.

“Hey, Elise, thanks so much for taking the time to do this.”

She stepped out and closed the door behind her. “Are you kidding? I get a chance to participate in the conspiracy for a change. You think I’ll pass that up? Anyway, driving always puts Tyler to sleep straightaway. This is probably the greatest nap he’ll ever have.” She smiled that warm, bright smile that was especially hers and embraced me in a hug. I thought she was wearing a different perfume from the last time I saw her.

I climbed in the backseat, eager to see the little guy. “Hello, young sir.” I plopped down my duffle bag and tossed my suitcase aside—glad to be rid of the heavy weight. Gently, I pulled at the pudgy toes that could only be shoe free in a California December.

Elise sighed and pulled herself back into the car. I thought that if she didn’t have those long legs, she wouldn’t be able to drive the tall vehicle at all. “He climbs everything and anything now. When he figures out he can walk, I think I’ll have a full-fledged nervous breakdown. He must have inherited Benjamin’s need to drive me crazy.” She threw her hands in the air, exasperated.

“Speaking of which,” she continued, “You’ll have to ignore the baby gates around the house.” I moved up to the passenger seat and began playing with the radio. I started laughing to myself, thinking that at this point, I’d traveled in almost every part of that vehicle. “Don’t worry, though,” she added. “We’ll take them down for the party tomorrow.”

I cringed. “Party?”

Elise almost swerved off of the road. “Charlie didn’t tell you?”

“Elise! The road, Elise! Maybe stay in-between the dotted lines and that big white one?”

She waved me away but at least, her eyes focused forward. “Those boys of ours are completely useless sometimes,” she mumbled.

“Um…what party are you talking about, Elise?”

“Oh, right!” She started tapping the wheel excitedly with her French tips. “We’re having a New Year’s shindig tomorrow. I can’t believe Charlie didn’t say anything—”

I tried cutting her off. “Just how big is this shindig going to be, Elise?”

“Small,” she emphasized. “Very small. No more than one hundred, maybe one hundred and twenty people at the absolute most.”

Elise did most of the talking on the drive back to the house. She filled me in on every detail, both major and minor about the party, and the ups-and-downs of Tyler’s first Christmas. Although I had already seen the pictures with Santa, I flipped through the photograph versions when Elise handed them to me, musing that Charlie’s sketches of the event were better. Eventually, we pulled into the marathon of a driveway after two hours of traffic and having to stop to change a crabby Tyler. At one point, he reached for my hand and I gave it to him, wincing as he promptly placed my fingers in his mouth for nibbling.

“Ah, thanks, Tyler?”

At the base of the garage, I could see the other two black SUVs, along with the steel blue LFA Lexis that I knew belonged to Yuri. I also saw a white industrial van with its side doors open, and a glossy orange convertible. But what stuck out the most to me was the motorcycle that had the tact of something out of a spy movie. I had never seen any of these vehicles before and just the idea of meeting so many new people so soon had my social awkwardness flared at a code red.

“Good, everyone is home!” Elise still seemed enthusiastic despite the long ride. And I had to hand it to her for not complaining. “Oh damn, the fountains and chairs are here already? They aren’t supposed to be here until tomorrow morning. They better not expect me to pay the extra day for that.”

She continued mumbling about the rental company as she parked, though truthfully I hadn’t been listening for the last five miles. As the fields of Healdsburg drifted into view, my excitement drove me straight into a mild state of frenzy. I naturally began doing the primary inspection for Charlie in the orchards—though they were wilted with the season. He had mentioned many times he enjoyed sketching there because of its quiet. Something he said was difficult to find, even in the vastness of the gargantuan house.

Elise caught me looking and laughed. “I think he’s in the West end of the house, Addie.”

I blushed, embarrassed that my emotions were so transparent.  “Thanks.”

Elise struggled with Tyler and the diaper bag while I struggled with my own luggage into the main house, which was in a flurry of activity. I couldn’t check into my dorm until the day after New Year’s anyway, so there wasn’t much sense in unpacking.

As soon as we walked in I saw Reid and Polo busy at work moving around furniture. Ben was hovering around the corner, speaking with someone I guessed was from the rental company.

Elise groaned and pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head. “This should have all been done by
.” I waved to Polo and Reid, but only Polo waved back, dropping his share of a glass table on Reid’s foot and causing him to curse loudly. When Reid saw the cause of Polo’s distraction, he glared at me but still nodded to acknowledge my presence.

At least, we’re making progress.

By then Elise had handed Tyler off to Ben Walden, who were both extremely pleased to be rid of their current situations and see one another. Elise took over the negotiations with the manager of the rental agency.

Ben and Tyler immediately began to play helicopter, though it seemed to me that Tyler giggled way too much for a propeller.

“Hello, Addie.” He laughed. “How was your holiday?”

“Fine, thanks. Um, how was yours?” I was officially bouncing from foot to foot in my eagerness to get to Charlie. It never escaped me though that one of the last conversations I’d had with Ben Walden revealed what could have been a terrible fate for me and the awkwardness was great, even for me.

I had experienced many events and conversations with Ben Walden, though they were always through Charlie, and seeing him in person again was intimidating, even if he was imitating a helicopter.

BOOK: Conviction
6.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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