Overview

Cinden Lai is a firstborn, a member of the Hunt. She found sanctuary with a reclusive old woman when the Hounds of Hamin brought her to Earth, but now her dreams and the increasing storms make her think it is time to leave her safe haven and seek out members of the Hunt. When a rich old man claims she is his missing granddaughter, Cinden knows he is lying, but she can't prove it--not without endangering the Hunt. He knows too much about her, and claims he has her brothers and sister. That is reason enough for her...
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Quartet [The Hunt Book 2]

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Overview

Cinden Lai is a firstborn, a member of the Hunt. She found sanctuary with a reclusive old woman when the Hounds of Hamin brought her to Earth, but now her dreams and the increasing storms make her think it is time to leave her safe haven and seek out members of the Hunt. When a rich old man claims she is his missing granddaughter, Cinden knows he is lying, but she can't prove it--not without endangering the Hunt. He knows too much about her, and claims he has her brothers and sister. That is reason enough for her to investigate. Are the other three part of a trap, or in need of rescue? When four members of the Hunt come together, amazing things can happen ... but they also discover a traitor among them, and learn a countdown has started: Time is running out for the Hunt, and life on Earth can be fatal for them in more ways than one.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781921314926
  • Publisher: Writers Exchange E-Publishing
  • Publication date: 3/24/2009
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Age range: 9 years
  • File size: 264 KB

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The spring storm let up just before dawn was due. Cinden stretched luxuriously in her bed, listening to the fading rain and wind and the last rumblings of thunder. As soon as the last grumble of the storm faded away over the mountaintops, she would dress and run through the streaming grass and under the dripping trees and soak up the fresh-washed air. Cinden liked storms. The louder, the better. They made her feel alive and full of energy. They reminded her of the Hunt, and the promises yet to be. If she ever found the Hunt again. If she ever got herself off this mountain and started looking. In all the years since the storm and the Hounds of Hamin had dropped her here, on Gran's doorstep, she had stayed and waited.

Cinden rolled out of bed, reaching for her clothes before her feet touched the floor. Her nightshirt flew across the room, to hang over the edge of her open dresser drawer. Shorts and T-shirt in place, she grasped the banister with one hand and slid down from her loft at a faster speed than Gran approved. Her feet made a soft thud on the rug as she landed, her knees bending deeply to absorb the impact. Two more steps, and she reached the bathroom.

The tang of wood smoke and the gurgle of the coffeemaker greeted Cinden as she stepped out of the bathroom, the aroma mixing pleasantly with the mint taste of her toothpaste and the tingle of her cold scrubbed skin. She soft-stepped to the kitchen door and studied the woman bent over a book at the table. Gran always managed to look ready for high tea, even at six in the morning. Her neat silver-white curls sat in perfect order. Not a crease from her pillow marked her skin, still soft andtranslucent and free of wrinkles and spots. Even her robe hung in neat folds, buttoned up around her neck in a stiff Mandarin collar.

"How long have you been up?" Cinden asked, coming into the kitchen. She pulled a chair from the table and perched on it.

"I have no idea." Gran slipped a ribbon into her place in the book and closed it. "I think I gave up trying to sleep around four."

"Storms still keep you up?"

"Ever since the one where I found you..." She smiled and reached out to brush dark locks of tangled hair out of Cinden's face. "Maybe I'm afraid a storm that bad will take you away."

"Small chance of that. I didn't arrive alone, and as long as I am alone, I can't leave." Cinden shook her head like a dog shaking out its coat. "Don't make us sad, Gran. The day is too beautiful for that. Come with me?"

"One of your romps?" She laughed and leaned back in her chair. "Hiding in these mountains may keep me young, but not young enough to keep up with you. Go on and enjoy your day, and remember to be home for supper by five."

"Oh, we dine early tonight?" She hooked her belt and carry pouch off the rack by the back door.

"Gone with the Wind is on tonight, and I want everything out of the way before it starts," Gran replied as Cinden rummaged through the refrigerator. She might have snatched up satellite technology when it was offered to her, to catch up on the outside world and revisit her favorite old movies, but Gran didn't believe in recording anything.

"I'll be home in plenty of time," Cinden answered, coming out with two apples, a hunk of cheese and two cold sticky buns. She put one bun on the counter while she wrapped the rest in waxed paper and put them in the pouch. "Gran, have you seen my knife?"

"You left it by the computer last night." She returned to her book.

"I thought I'd check on that herb patch we found on the south slope last fall. See if anything has sprouted that we don't have in our garden."

"Fine. Oh, start making a list of what you want from town. Jason is coming up from Manhattan with our quarterly reports next week, and I'm going to order from Gilly's. I want to set a nice table for him."

"So soon?" Cinden laughed and stepped into the next room. Her knife, sheathed, lay in a jumble of papers and CDs next to the tower unit. "See you later."

"Take care, dear."

Cinden let the front door slam behind her and leaped off the top of the steps to the left. She skirted the satellite dish, and in moments the forest cut her off from the cabin. Her bare feet sank into the wet carpet of moss and leaves, muffling what little noise she made as she ran up familiar paths. The forest shook itself free of night and the last chilly drops from the storm, and raised its arms to the sun and the clear April day ahead.

She reached the herb patch and the moldered ruins of the ancient cabin mid-morning. She leaped over a stand of ferns growing in the shade of the tumbled chimney, and perched on top of the heap of rocks that rose up in a threatening hill behind the cabin, to feel the sun-baked heat through her feet. The warmth stored there all morning quickly drove away the damp chill gathered during her climb. Cinden settled down to rest and dug the second sweet roll from her pouch. It had come loose from the waxed paper and stuck to one apple. She licked the sticky off and put the fruit back into her pouch.

A shadow crossed her face, and she looked up. A hawk circled three times, then flew away, a dark blue against the cotton candy streaks that remained of the storm. Cinden chewed slowly and watched until it vanished into the trees. She wondered where the nest could be, but only for a moment. She had no real desire to risk her neck climbing trees or cliffs, only to be blinded by a mother's claws.

She smelled the unripe herbs as the sun-warmed air drifted to her, and wrinkled her nose at the various sweet, bitter, delicate scents.

"Later," she whispered, feeling for the draft of cooler air coming from a dark hole in the jumble of rocks behind her.

The warren of tunnels under her feet had filled her dreams all the night before. The song of the Hunt had echoed loudly through the chambers, thrumming into her bones. Cinden had awakened with her heart pounding, her breath thick in her throat. She had left the tunnels alone all last summer and through the winter, glad to concentrate on her studies, but now she dreamed she needed to prepare them for use. Could the storms that had crept down from the north all last summer be a signal of change? Or were they a warning of danger and disaster? Cinden knew she felt uneasy as every fall approached, just because she had been found in a winter storm. No matter how many times she told herself it was Hamin's blessing that she had arrived in the winter, so no one but Gran had found her, it was hard to remember every time a vicious storm rolled through.

Cinden licked the last trace of sticky bun off her fingers and scrambled down the opposite face of the rock pile. Creepers and rubbish screened the cave opening enough to hide it from the casual eye. She had spent many happy days exploring the dark, twisting, cool passages, until she could navigate without lights. It had been little more than a game, the sense of necessity that prompted her actions only a whisper in her thoughts, until dreams awoke memories she preferred to keep tucked into the dark closets of her mind. Those memories woke the fear that she had been fighting for the last seven years, that kept her nearly a prisoner on the mountain, safe in the sanctuary of Gran's cabin. With the fear came anger, so she gladly abandoned the tunnels and the sense of duty that came with them. Until now.

Behind the fear and anger came other, better memories, and shame that cooled her anger and bolstered her to fight her fear. She had learned to go down the winding road from Gran's cabin to the town that served all their needs, to talk to people and smile and not tremble when strangers frowned at her. Cinden had convinced herself she had been forgotten, by the Hunt and by Gahlmorag. Being safe was worth the price of feeling forlorn and abandoned.

The storms that began last summer, rumbling in the distance and steadily creeping closer, had brought about the changes. And last night's dreams had prompted her to action now.

Action sometimes helped keep her from thinking about unpleasant things, the foremost being how she would feel when she had to leave Gran behind forever.

A few vines dragged across her back as she went in, leaving a trail of shadow-chilled dew. Cinden giggled at the sensation and moved inside. Her first steps in total darkness were slow, until she regained the feel of the place. Drafts of air came from different directions, from chimneys up to the surface and other entrances, caves, slits in the rocky face of the mountainside. Despite the long absence, Cinden read the drafts of air as easily as a book, helping her navigate. No animals inhabited these tunnels. Her ability to control vibrations and energy had let her set up a resonance that filled the tunnels and drove animals away, and kept them away.

Cinden walked downwards with one hand on the chill wall to her right. She counted forty steps, then turned to her right, walking blind. The passage widened into a room here, low in the ceiling. She followed the curve of the wall to another opening and turned in. The sound and feel of breezes immediately deadened. Her questing fingers found a long spike of rock where she had left it on a natural ledge. She tapped the spike against the wall, testing. The echoes bounced back sharply, giving her a sound picture of a room with no other exit. Here, she felt along the sides, near the floor, until she found the wooden crates she had brought in and put together for shelves. Another moment of search, and she had the tin box of matches in one hand and a candle in the other. With a scratch and a puff of sulfur, the match sputtered against the candle and sent flickers of light into the darkness.

Cinden set the candle into a holder fashioned of clay and twigs in the wall, and set about an inventory of this first storeroom. First aid kit. Enough candles, lanterns, oil and matches for a winter of nights. Canned food. Paper and pens stored in a plastic box wrapped in plastic. A radio and spare batteries. An antique kerosene heater she had scavenged and repaired, and four one-gallon cans of kerosene. Everything was just as she had left it last summer, preserved against the damp and cold, for the day the Hunt needed to take sanctuary here. If any other members of the Hunt ever arrived. If anyone ever found her.

Everything remained in perfect, waiting condition. But was it enough? Cinden moved on to the little room she had chosen as her office. Three planks, wedged with rocks and clay, spread across some rocky outcroppings in one corner of the semi-triangular room. A battered metal strongbox sat on one side, and an oil lamp filled with pine-scented oil sat on the other. A wooden bucket turned over served as her chair, with a scrap of ratty cushion on top. No animals had penetrated into the tunnels to steal the cushion for nests.

Cinden sat down on the bucket, waiting a moment when she heard a soft, rippling echo far down one tunnel. Nothing more came. It sounded like something from the river entrance. Cinden supposed a frog had jumped up on the rock ledge of the tunnel that opened onto the riverbank.

She didn't open the box, knowing she would find the unprotected sheets of paper moldy with damp. Before her anger and fear took over and she walked away from this lair of safety, she had written everything she could remember of the members of the Hunt. Names, ranking, clans, alliances, and even what little bit of history she remembered through the nightmares and growing fury.

A snort escaped her when she admitted that she had never let her anger touch the Hounds of Hamin. Just thinking about them made the icy-white scars on her wrists tingle, as if with rebuke. Cinden never let herself blame the Hounds. That would be tantamount to blasphemy. Besides, they had brought her to this mountainside, to Gran, who had opened her recluse heart to help a lost, terrified, battered child who landed almost on her doorstop in the worst winter storm the county had ever endured. The Hounds had saved her life. It was the Hunt and their parents who had abandoned her.

However, in last night's dreams, Cinden realized something. She was a Firstborn, one of the designated leaders of the Hunt. Shouldn't she be out and about, looking for the others?

But where should she start? How could she leave the mountain?

She had to. Somehow. Somewhere out there, according to her dreams, other members of the Hunt waited. Knowing there were others just as lost and feeling just as abandoned as her helped. Not much, but enough to urge her to fight the mental and emotional glue that kept her fastened to this mountainside as if her life and sanity depended on it.

* * * *

The afternoon shadows stretched out behind her as Cinden came up the trail to the cabin from the long way around. After all the odd dreams she had been having, the returned memories, the stirring of her hope ... she knew better than to ignore the itching down her spine and in her fingertips that warned of danger. Caution was never wasted, but complacency wasted everything. She had learned that from her mother, head of Clan Lai. Cinden's hazy memories grew clearer every time she examined them. She remembered now how her mother had raged in private at the obliviousness of some members of the Council of Firstborn, how they refused to believe Gahlmorag would come against their world, let alone demand the surrender of all the next generation of Firstborn.

Cinden almost laughed as she came up the narrow trail between two massive fallen trees and saw the dark green SUV, parked with its nose in the tangle of vines and forest rubbish that had settled in the upper branches of those trees. Cinden caught her breath as a tingle of energy buzzed along her scalp. Her sensitivity to radio waves and other waves used in communication and data transfer had been a nuisance when Gran decided to leap into the 21st century and get the most advanced high-tech equipment for their cabin. Learning to block those waves, and the practice of trying to access the information and decipher it, had been good discipline. Cinden frowned and wished she had practiced a little more, as she crouched down in the shadows and studied the lone occupant of the vehicle.

He was little more than a square-built male shape in camouflage shirt and jeans, perched in the open hatch back of his SUV, with a complex arrangement of lenses and three cameras. They were all digital. Two were video cameras, one a still-shot. He also had a pile of recording equipment behind him, from what she could see through the side window of the vehicle, and two long contraptions on telescoping poles, that she supposed were microphones.

All pointed at Gran's cabin.

Who would spy on Gran? What could they possibly want? The few relatives who could want anything from her were all on good terms with the feisty old recluse--and the two who weren't knew better than to try to get any kind of dirt on her, to take her controlling shares of the family enterprises, or even have her committed and given into someone's guardianship. Jason, the cousin who stood to gain the least when Gran died, was the one who fought the hardest to make sure she stayed safe and happy and free.

Cinden only knew a little about Gran's past, but she supposed that someone who had a grudge against Gran's family, her dead husband, the industries that she had discarded as shady or outright irresponsible, might try to find some way to harm her. From reading and watching movies, however, Cinden had learned that such people either hired a hit man, used home-made bombs, or launched a tsunami of lawsuits to get whatever revenge they wanted. This man quietly sitting in his camouflaged vehicle, recording anything that happened around the cabin, didn't fit.

What did he want?

Cinden's dreams of Gahlmorag coming to Earth and capturing all the members of the Hunt, wherever they had landed--if anyone had reached Earth besides her--filled her mind now. A moment later, she nearly laughed aloud at the thought of her world's cruelest enemy using a private investigator to sneak up on her. It didn't make sense.

Frowning in thought, Cinden turned and crept down the aisle between the trees, back the way she came. She needed to think this over, and the onslaught of energy and electrical communication between all those bits of equipment were just distraction enough to make her cranky. She knew she didn't think clearly when she was irritated.

The irritation stayed, despite nearly twenty minutes sitting in a tree looking down through the lush foliage at the spy. The sandwich he pulled out of a cooler and munched on reminded her that her meager supplies for her hike had been eaten long ago--and Gran was making dinner and would be expecting her home very soon. Since Cinden was never late, Gran would worry, even if all she could do was come out onto the porch to watch for her to come down the mountainside, or even hike half a mile up the clearest trail. If she did that, the man watching their cabin might grow suspicious and wonder what was out of the ordinary.

"Let him watch all he wants," Cinden muttered. She snorted as a plan snapped into her mind, full-grown. "Just don't let him record anything. No evidence means a whole day wasted."

She had destroyed two hard drives, a video camera, and a satellite dish in the process of learning to manipulate and decipher the signals moving through Gran's high-tech wireless equipment. Cinden knew how not to do it now, which meant she had to know how to do it, too. She imagined telling Gran what she had done, and the two of them laughing down in the cabin tonight, while their unwanted watcher fumed and fussed over his malfunctioning equipment.

Cinden slid down the tree and walked up the aisle between the fallen trunks again, moving slowly as she concentrated and called up the gifts granted her by Hamin and the Hounds that had taken the Hunt to safety. Legends said that power over lightning resided in Clan Lai. She prayed silently for a little bit of lightning at her fingertips now.

Blue sparks danced on her fingertips and the ends of her hair as she got down on her hands and knees and crept up to the door of the SUV. Most of the vehicle body was plastic, to her disgust, but the frame was thick, high-quality steel. She pressed one hand against the underbody of the vehicle, closed her eyes, and sent her sensitivity through the metal frame, feeling her way along it to the cache of equipment behind the man in the hatch.

Layers of insulation and plastic lay between the steel frame and the equipment, but Cinden directed the streams of power at her command to leap the gap. They rode on the same wireless signals that made the spy equipment work so well. Tiny sparks danced over the equipment, blue and gold, and puffs of ozone drifted up to the ceiling of the vehicle, all of it silent, so the man never noticed anything, all his concentration focused on the quiet cabin.

Cinden took the time to ride the wireless signals while they fizzled and wavered, and looked inside the memory chips of the equipment. She muffled a snicker as she pulled a few magnetic waves down inside and wiped not only the images and sounds the man had already stored, but caused the equipment to overheat inside and melt the memory cards into uselessness.

Her head swam a little from the effort, and she saw black spots dancing in front of her eyes as she crept on hands and knees away from the SUV. Cinden's nose burned from the smell of scorched plastic and ozone. That nose wrinkled in disgust for the man who was so numb in his senses that he couldn't tell something was wrong. What kind of a private investigator was he, to be so oblivious to his surroundings?

Cinden kept moving, despite the wobbles in her knees when she stood upright. She wanted to be as far from this man as possible when he finally noticed any telltales of trouble with his equipment. She had only been able to disrupt signals and wipe the memory, not permanently disable the equipment. He would get most of it working again by tomorrow. For long-term damage and protection, she would need the help of a Hound.

Were her dreams right, about Gahlmorag and other members of the Hunt wandering the world? If so, were her dreams also right about Hounds coming out of the storms that hovered in the distance? What sort of things could she do with equipment and energy waves with the help of a Hound?

Cinden thought she might never be afraid again, if she could walk this world with her hand resting on the neck fur of a Hound.

She resisted the temptation to be thoroughly nasty and walk down the path right past the SUV. That would be foolish, tempting trouble. Cinden took a long, curving path around the vehicle in its hiding place, so she emerged from the forest a good twenty yards further down the mountainside. She gathered some early berries and succulent leaves on that little detour, which put her in a good mood, thinking about Gran's pleasure in having that addition to their dinner. Cinden didn't turn her head even a few degrees in the direction of the hidden SUV, though it made her neck ache not to. She felt the sudden stirring of tension in the air when the man in the vehicle sighted her. Cinden heard the faint click-whirr of the camera as he shot--or tried to shoot--multiple pictures of her.

That realization made her stumble. Why was he so interested in her? Had he been waiting all this time for her to show up?

A moment later, she pushed the idea away as ridiculous. She was nobody, a lost child with no identification or history. The only people who knew she was there on the mountainside with Gran were the social services people, who had to give permission for her to stay there and take schooling through the Internet, and the people in town. And Jason, of course. Cinden speculated that some of Gran's more distant, laissez faire relatives didn't even know she existed.

So why had he tried to snap more than two dozen pictures of her in the short time she was out in the open and crossing the field to the front door of the cabin?

"There you are." Gran smiled, looking up from her latest soduko printout. "Oh, good, I was hoping you found something nice to add to our salad."

"We need to call the sheriff." Cinden's hands shook a little--she hoped it was anger more than fear--as she crossed to the stainless steel kitchen and dropped her gleanings in the washing basket next to the sink. She hooked her thumb over her shoulder. "There's some goon in an SUV taking pictures and movies of us. Or at least he thinks he is," she added, baring her teeth in a grin as she looked over her shoulder.

Gran's answering laughter rolled out bright and rich and mischievous.

* * * *

Gran called Jason, then the sheriff, then sent Cinden to wash up while she threw their salad together. They had settled down in the den with their dessert to watch Gone with the Wind before the commotion started on the slope above the cabin. Gran shook her head, eyes sparkling, and glanced at Cinden, who had her mouth full of whipped cream, and fought not to burst out laughing.

"I tell you, sometimes the neighbors are so inconsiderate," the elderly lady murmured.

Cinden ended up with whipped cream up her nose, but at least she didn't spray it across the couch.

* * * *

The next evening, with her eyes and nose full of the overly generous armful of herbs and wildflowers she brought home, Cinden didn't see or smell the long, black car that sat in front of the cabin until she had stepped into the clearing. Jason, son of Gran's cousin and the family lawyer, always wisely rented a Jeep when he traveled up to the cabin. A Jeep sat in the shadows on the far side of the clearing, with a rental sticker on the bumper--most likely Jason's. Cinden couldn't figure who could be visiting them or even how that big car got up the narrow, rutted road to their cabin. She almost turned and ran back into the woods at the thought of uninvited, unexpected visitors.

"Don't be stupid," she scolded herself, finally taking her eyes off the car to study the cabin for signs of danger. "You're a Firstborn, part of the Hunt, and whoever they are ... they can't belong to Gahlmorag."

She carefully wiped the mud off her feet onto the grass, and then scraped them clean on the flagstone path as she approached the front steps of the cabin. Cinden knew from movies that big, expensive cars meant rich and powerful people. It meant just as little to her as the thousands of shares of stock, the vineyards, orchards, and train cars that brought in the money she and Gran lived on. Unseen, always there, she never considered them.

The sheriff, Bill Parker, met her at the door, waiting for her as she climbed the steps. Cinden studied his brown, square face for some clue. He looked more concerned than upset or worried. She smiled to thank him when he opened the door for her. The sight of him made her think of the intruder she had sabotaged last night. Had the spy's employer come to apologize, or to at least explain what he was up to? She couldn't imagine Jason threatening the intruder or his employer with a nasty lawsuit, no matter how much their privacy had been violated.

Especially since I made sure there was no evidence that our privacy was violated, she thought ruefully, as she stepped into the main room of the cabin.

Jason was nowhere to be seen, but Cindent could hear his voice from the computer room. She guessed he was on the phone. Two strangers sat on Gran's favorite couch. Both men, in dark, three-piece suits. The taller, thin one had a briefcase on the floor by his feet. The other looked like he hardly opened his mouth, and was hired to look big and elegantly dangerous. Cinden suspected he carried a gun. They both studied her with intent gazes that made her feel she was being taken apart, nerve by bone by shred of muscle. She ignored them and moved straight to the kitchen, where she could hear Gran using the old-fashioned, totally unnecessary pump with angry jerks.

"What do they want?" she asked, setting her day's harvest on the table. Her quiet entrance and sudden words wrung a gasp from Gran, who turned and wrapped her arms around the girl. Cinden felt the thumping of the old woman's heart. Anger made her eyes sparkle. "Gran, what's wrong?"

"They've come to take you away!"

"For what?" Cinden felt an urge to laugh at the sudden, melodramatic turn to the day.

"They say you're not mine."

"Gran, we know that. I'm sixteen, for Hamin's sake. It's a little late for Social Services to decide to put me in another home."

"They claim to come from your real family, and if you don't go with them, Jason and I are both going to jail." Gran shuddered at the idea, but she headed back toward calm once the words left her lips. "They say we interfered with due process and a load of other idiotic legal terms, by not trying to find your own family."

"They're lying!" Cinden fought to keep her voice down, but the force alone was enough to make the old woman's eye widen, and straighten her shoulders. "I know who I am. I know my parents and where they are. They sent me away to protect me, Gran. And they would not send someone to fetch me this way."

"Then what do they want from you?" Gran sat down, an angry calm replacing the trembling.

"I thought they were with the goon we ran off last night."

"They are," Jason said, coming into the kitchen to join them. He smiled sadly and held out his arms. Cinden let him hug her. "I filed a subpoena to have all those tapes and disks that P.I. recorded turned over to us, without his employer having a chance to look at them. Then for some reason..." He narrowed his eyes at Cinden. "He was mightily upset that there was nothing recorded and some of his equipment was, as he put it, slag. Do you know anything about that, young lady?"

"I didn't drag any equipment out into the forest with me, to sabotage people we didn't even know were coming," Cinden replied truthfully. Jason didn't know about her talent with magnetic and radio waves, but he suspected her of having a technological bent, ever since Gran had so much trouble with her audio and computer equipment.

"Uh huh." He rubbed at the spot between his eyes. "The fact of the matter is, I have the feeling our opponent has been prepared for quite a while for any defense we might launch. I had to bring these two out here to head off a judge ordering you being hauled out of here in chains."

Cinden snorted, recognizing Jason's tactic of exaggeration and humor to fight the frustration eating at him.

"What do they want with me?" she asked, settling down into the nearest chair.

"You'd better hear it straight from them. They're treating Gran and me like we're kidnappers, ready to sell you into white slavery or some such thing."

"The best defense is a good offense," Gran murmured, meeting Cinden's gaze.

"Exactly. They're attacking because they don't really have a legal leg to stand on."

"They want something pretty badly, then." Cinden nodded and stood up again. "Then we play along until we find out what they're really after. Gran, I can always run away from them once you're out of danger."

"Oh, Cinden..." Gran grasped the girl's shoulders for a moment. "Sometimes, and this is one of those times, I think it was a mistake keeping you in seclusion with me. You're too innocent about the real world and how it works."

"I know enough. The world is dangerous, and people hurt you. That's enough to make me very careful. Let's go face the lions."

"You're not very encouraging, do you know that?" But she managed a brief chuckle as the three stepped out of the kitchen.

The man with the briefcase stood as they returned to the main room. His smile was cool and perfunctory. Cinden noticed the sheriff stepped closer, meaning he didn't trust the visitors any more than she did.

"Miss Wolcott, it's a pleasure to meet you at last." He held out his hand. Cinden only flicked her gaze down to it, then back up to his face. Nothing could induce her to touch him until she had more information. His smiled faded and he cleared his throat. "I'm Andrew McMartin, your grandfather's administrative assistant."

"I'm afraid you've made a mistake. My name is Cinden Radcliffe," she responded calmly, as she and Gran settled down on the other sofa, with Jason stepping up behind them, to rest a hand on each of their shoulders.

"Excuse me, but I have papers which say otherwise. To all intents and purposes, you are Cynthia Renee Wolcott, granddaughter of Arthur J. Wolcott, kidnapped seven years ago."

"Hold on a second," Bill Parker broke in, his hand shifting to rest on his gun. "You're trying to say Mrs. Radcliffe kidnapped Cindy?"

"Not at all." McMartin chuckled, sending a shiver up Cinden's back. "We've started off on the wrong foot here. I'm not accusing anyone of anything. Please, listen to my facts, and I'm sure you'll agree with me. My employer is, to be brutally frank, dying. His last wish is to see his granddaughter and know she is safe. And ready to inherit his rather vast holdings." This last he directed at Cinden, but she didn't blink an eye. McMartin seemed just faintly disgruntled by her lack of reaction.

"We'll listen, Mr. McMartin. But you have started on the wrong foot. If you were completely honest and trustworthy, you would have approached us through the front door, instead of sending that private investigator to spy on us," Gran announced with just the right touch of icy civility. She gave Cinden the faintest wink, her face turned so McMartin could not see.

"Fine. If you'll give me a moment?" He sat, giving his silent associate a sideways glance, and lifted his briefcase to his lap. He lifted out a thick stack of papers sitting on top inside. "Here we are. Amelia Fernhurst Radcliffe, retired fashion designer, widow of J.G. Radcliffe, owner of ... let's skip those details, shall we?" He chuckled. "We don't have all day to read this list."

He flipped through a few pages, searching again. "Ah, here we have it. Miscarriage at seven months with her first child. Mrs. Radcliffe rendered unable to carry to full term. No adopted children." He looked up expectantly at Gran and Cinden.

"Yes?" Gran sat back and folded her hands together. Her voice grew too quiet, yet pierced the room. "What is it you are trying to say?"

"Just that it is impossible for the girl named Cinden Radcliffe to be your granddaughter, as everyone around here seems to believe. In fact," and here, he returned to his sheaf of papers, "as far as records are concerned, Cinden Radcliffe does not exist. No medical records, no adoption papers, no birth certificate. Now, why is that?"

"No medical records because I have never been sick," Cinden began in a soft voice.

"I stand corrected." McMartin made notes on one of the papers. "In that area, at least. Let me read to you what I have here. Cynthia Renee Wolcott, now age sixteen, kidnapped at age nine. Brunette, hazel eyes, medium fair skin. Allergic to strawberries, pineapple and penicillin. No fingerprints on record. Only distinguishing marks are two sets of puncture scars on each wrist, received when the family dogs dragged her from a fire. Aged six at the time. From the age of three to nine, Cynthia Wolcott traveled with her biological father, a micro-biologist, through South America and Asia. Because of her multitude of foreign nannies, she spoke little English at the time of her abduction by her non-custodial mother--my client's estranged daughter."

"What does that have to do with Cindy?" Bill Parker asked. "You don't have any real proof as far as I can see. Just a lot of circumstantial evidence."

"Circumstances that fit together too well to be coincidence, you must admit. Don't you agree, Cynthia?" McMartin asked, turning to her with a pleading smile.

"I agree. Too much coincidence. But what brings you here now? This girl has been missing seven years," Cinden added quickly, when Gran inhaled sharply at her easy admission.

"Maria Wolcott was, quite frankly, psychotic. And had the morals of an alley cat. She made a practice of becoming pregnant, milking the biological father for everything she could get, and when the well began to run dry, regularly dumped her children on their fathers. Nine years ago, in a final fit of instability, she demanded to have her children returned, claiming they were all taken from her under duress. When the courts decided against her, she kidnapped all her children. Her body was found, but not the four children. My employer has been hunting for his grandchildren ever since. New information that recently came to light indicates Cynthia was put on a private plane that flew through these mountains at the time of a heavy electrical storm. It is more than possible the plane crashed in these mountains. The survivor of such a traumatic experience could very well have amnesia. Once we narrowed down the geography, we learned that Mrs. Radcliffe's granddaughter came to live with her almost immediately after that storm."

"You have gone to an enormous amount of trouble, Mr. McMartin. Your employer had better pay you well for this," Gran said in a soft, slow voice. "I don't believe a word of it, however."

"Ma'am, you really have no choice. We have a court order to take Cinden Radcliffe into custody to perform tests to prove conclusively whether or not she actually is Cynthia Wolcott." He turned to Cinden, trying to look apologetic. "You really have no choice."

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