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Alex Penny gave a start when the front door to the offices of Penny Tours, located in the tiny town of Wofford Heights, California, opened to admit a stranger. Almost nobody used the front door, since most people wanting to make reservations did so by telephone or online, and when they showed up in person, they would have been directed to the Rafting Center farther along and on the other side of the highway. Guides and drivers coming in from the equipment yard and warehouse used the back door.
Once in a great while, though, someone did wander in looking for information on available tours, or maybe directions to the Rafting Center, so she gave the visitor an automatic smile and was well into her customary speech. "Hi. If you're looking for the Rafting Center, it's about a block down on " Then the man's face came into full focus.
Behind rimless glasses, the stranger's eyes were a dark and penetrating blue, but it was his smile that made her heart give a kick she wasn't prepared for.
"I think I'm in the right place. I'm looking for Alex. Are you ?"
"That would be me." She could hear her own voice, hear that it was even more hoarse than her normally froggy croak, and she cleared her throat as she clicked the save button and pushed back from the computer.
"We spoke on the phone. I'm"
"Yeah, you'd be Matt's brother. Cory, right?" She was on her feet, hand extended, the expected words she hopedon her lips. But her mouth was on autopilot and her heart in overdrive, because her brain had temporarily disengaged, having gotten hung up, for the moment, on that smile.
"Cory Pearson. I hope I haven't come at a bad time. Youdid say afternoons were usually best."
"No no, this is, uh fine. Can I get you anything? Water? Coke?"
"Water's fine. Thanks "
Ridiculously glad to have a specific job to do, Alex darted into the kitchen alcove, opened the refrigerator and took out two bottles of water. She turned to find that the strangerwho was no stranger at all, it seemed had followed her.
"Nice Lab," he remarked, gazing at the large slumbering form sprawled on the floor, taking up most of the space between the fridge and the small sink and counter.
"That's Annie." Alex stepped over the dog to hand one of the bottles to her visitor. The other she cracked open for herself. "She was Matt's, actually. She's pretty old, now. Mostly just sleeps. So" she took a gulp and waved the bottle at the empty office "you said you wanted to"
Before she could finish it, the back door opened a crack and a voice called through it. "Hey, Alex, Booker T just called. The Las Colinas group's on its way in. I'm heading over to the center, unless you want"
"I'm kinda busy right now, Eve."
The door opened wider, and Eve Francis, one of the river guides who sometimes doubled as office staff, stuck her head through the opening. Her blond hair was caught up in its usual stylemessy ponytail with wisps flying aroundand sticking to her face, which, since she'd been working all morning in the warehouse, was red-flushed and sweaty. And she still managed to look disgustingly gorgeous. Partly, Alex was sure, because of the smile that lit up her face when she saw they had a visitor.
"Ohhey!" She turned the smile, full wattage, on Cory Pearson. "I didn't see you come in. Welcome to Penny Tours." The smile didn't dim as she switched it to Alex. "I'll take care of him, if you want to go. Those guys were kind of your babes, I know."
Cory looked a question at Alex and had his mouth open to spit it out, but she waved it aside before he could say the words. "Nono, it's okay. You can take it. This is something I need to, uh " She paused to take a breath. "Eve, this is Matt's brother. Matt Callahan, my, uh "
Eve's smile went out like a light. "Oh yeah! Matt your old partnerright. So well. Okay, I guess you " She cocked her head to give Cory a long look, eyes glittering with curiosity and something Alex couldn't define, then shrugged. "Hey, I'm gone. See you later." Her head vanished and the door thunked closed.
"Look," Cory said, "if you need to go take care of something, I can wait."
Alex waved a hand at the chair she'd vacated and settled her own backside onto the edge of her desk. "No, it's just that well, the kids from Las Colinas Academy are kind of a special bunch, is all. Teenagers. They're all mentally disabled."
As he took the relinquished chair, the visitor's eyes lit up with a new kind of interest, and Alex remembered what Matt's brother Wade had told herthat their long-lost and recently found older brother was a journalist. A reporter, and a fairly famous one at that. "You take disabled people down the river rapids?"
"Oh yeah, sure. We take all kindsphysical and mental disabilities both. These people come every year. Have a ball, tooyou should see 'em. But hey, Eve can take care of things. She's a guidealso a friend. She won't mind."
She drank the last of the water in the bottle, then looked around for a place to put it. Finally she set it on the desk with great care, as if she'd never done such a thing before. After that there was no place else to put her eyes that wasn't Matt's brother Cory. And since he looked way too much like Matt, she went on staring at the bottle. The silence stretched.
Which they both broke at the same time.
"You said you wanted to"
"I guess Wade told you I"
Cory's face broke into Mattie's smile as he gestured for Alex to go first.
So she did, in a voice gone gruff and edgy again. "Yeah, so Wade said you got separated from him and Matt when you were little, or something?"
"I did." Cory still smiled, though there was a deep sadness in his eyes now, and Alex remembered the way Matt used to smile like that, sometimes, in a way that made her heart ache. That last day "How much did Matt tell you about his childhood?"
She shrugged and shifted the empty water bottle from one spot to another on her desktop. "Just that he was adoptedhe and Wadewhen they were little. He told me he had a happy childhood, though. Said his adoptive parents were greatolder, but nice. Good people. I don't think he even remembers anything before that."
Cory nodded. "Wade didn't, either. Actually, I was hoping you could tell me"
"So, what happened?" She broke in on the question, hoping to stall it. "How did you guys get separated?"
He smiled again, wryly, and his eyes told Alex he was onto her tactic and okay with itfor now. "Wasn't just us 'guys,' actually. We have two sisters, too. Twins. They were toddlers at the time." He hitched a shoulder apologetically. "Haven't had any luck finding them, yet."
Alex glared fiercely down at her hand and the empty bottle, daring the burn in her eyes and the ache in her throat to produce tears. She won that battle but didn't trust her voice, and finally just shook her head.
"Our father was a good man, before Vietnam changed him," Cory said softly into the silence. "I was born before he left, old enough to remember how he was then. I remember his gentleness, and the way he liked to tell me stories. Then he was gone. And he never came back. Some stranger came in his place. Wade and Matt were born after that, and then the twins. But Dad never told them stories. He'd drink instead. And he'd have flashbacks. At those times, Mom would lock us kids in the bedroom and tell me to look out for themkeep them safe. Then she'd try to talk Dad back from whatever hell he'd gone to. She took a lot from him, to keep him from hurting us, or himself."
He drew a hand across his face, and the movement caught Alex's gaze like a magnet and held it fast so she couldn't look away even though she wanted to.
"Then one night I guess she couldn't bring him back. He tried to break down the door to the bedroom where us kids were hiding. I don't know exactly what happened, but anyway, that night he shot her, and then himself."
"God " The whispered word slipped from her before she could stop it.
"We were taken away to some sort of sheltera group home. I don't remember much about it. Then we were divided up among several foster homes. I kept running away from mine, trying to keep in touch with the others. I was considered a disruptive influence, I guess, because nobody would let me see them. Eventually, I landed in juvenile detention. While I was there, Wade and Matt and the twins got adopted by two different sets of parents. I got out when I was eighteen, of course, but nobody would tell me where they were. Nobody would tell me anything. Which was probably a good thing, I suppose, in retrospect. I was angry enough, I don't know what I'd have done if I'd been able to find the little ones. Kidnapped 'em maybe. Something stupid, I'm sure."
"So how did you find them? I mean, after so longthat had to be, what, twenty-five years ago?"
"Well, it hasn't been easy. I have my own resources, but we didn't make any real headway until we hired a P.I. who specializes in this kind of thingreuniting adoptees with biological parents. A man named Holt Kincaid. He's the one that made this happen. He found Wade first. Up in Portland. And Wade put us in touch"
"With Matt." She folded her arms across her middle and frowned at him, concentrating on keeping all traces of emotion out of her voice. "So have you seen him?"
How is he? How does he look? Does he still have the smile, now that he can't walk? Can't climb, can't do any of the things we both loved to do.
"Matt, you mean? I've talked to him," Cory said. "On the phone, a couple of times. I'm on my way to meet him now. But I wanted to " He shifted abruptly, leaned forward and propped his forearms on his knees, hands clasped between them, head bowed in what seemed almost an attitude of prayer. After a moment he cleared his throat and looked up at her. "I wanted to talk to you first," he said carefully. "I need to know what I'm in for."
Alex pushed away from the desk, scooped up the water bottle and went to drop it into the recycling bin that stood beside the door to the warehouse. "What can I tell you?" she said without turning. "I haven't seen him since he left rehab."
"I mean, about the accident. You were with him when it happened."
She shrugged. "We were rock climbing, he fell, broke his back, now he's paralyzed. That's about it."
"Come on." The smile in his voice made it a gentle rebuke. "That much I got from Wade."
She spun back to him, firing questions in a breathless rush, again hoping maybe with the sheer volume of them she might hold him off a little longer. "How is Wade, by the way? I didn't even ask youhe told me he got shot? What's up with that? And he said he's getting married? Man, that's just I didn't think Wade would ever settle down. I don't think cops do too well with relationships. So I'm really surprised. What's she like? Have you met her?"
"I have," Cory said, while his eyes regarded her steadily from behind the rimless lenses in a way that made her feel he could see inside her head. And knew how desperately she was trying to avoid thistalking about Matt. Thinking about Matt. "Tierney's some-thing special." He paused, then added with a secret little smile, "I think she and Wade will do well together."
"What about you?" She tilted her head back, still smiling at him, though his steady eyes told her it wasn't fooling him one bit. "Are you married?"
And she watched his face light up in a way that altered his whole being. It reminded her of watching a film of a land blooming from winter into spring in fast-forward. "Yes, I am. My wife's name is SamSaman-tha. She's the reason for all this, you know. The reason I decided to start looking for the little ones."
"Wow," Alex said, her own smile hanging in there, resolute and meaningless. "Sounds like there's a story there."
Cory studied the young woman facing him with arms folded and smile firmly in place, barricades she struggled valiantly to maintain. She wasn't tall, he'd noted, but looked wiry and fit, with long, thick dark hair worn in a single braid. Not beautiful, but definitely attractive. Her skin was a warm golden brown, with a sprinkle of freckles across her nose and the tops of her cheeks that gave her face a poignancy she probably wasn't aware of and would have hated if she'd known. Beyond any doubt, her eyes were her best feature, hazel fringed with thick black lashes. They had a brave and haunted look now, and he felt a deep sympathy for her, along with an aching sense of familiarity.
I know what you're doing, Alex Penny. I know because it's what I used to do. Ask the questions to keep from having to answer any. Concentrate on someone else's story to avoid having to tell your own.
He said gently, "I'd gotten very good at burying everything that had happened to me the loss of my family. That, along with teh anger. Fortunately, I'd learned to channel that anger into writing, and I think I took to writing aboutand reporting onwars because on some level I was trying to understand what had happened to my dad. But I never let myself think about my brothers and sisters. That was an emotional minefield I didn't crossdidn't even want to try. Sam changed all that. But not before I almost lost her, trying to keep my secrets."