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Natalie Hart snatched the phone from the wall mount in the kitchen the moment she saw Nigel Williams's name displayed on the caller ID.
"Nigel, thank God," she said without preamble, gripping the phone tightly, desperate for word about her sister's condition. "How is she? How's Callie?"
Nigel sighed wearily before speaking. "She's okay." His voice sounded strained, as if he was trying to be brave. "Patrick Jackson did a number on herhe is lucky I didn't get to him before the Tallahassee police didbut Callie is strong. The doctors say her injuries are mostly superficial and she'll be fine."
"You're sure?" Natalie asked. Yesterday, she had heard the words beaten and concussion and been terrified. "Because if we need to head down there, Deanna and I will be on the next pl"
"No, that's not necessary. We won't be here more than another day. By the time you'd get here, you'd have to turn right back around. So it makes more sense for you to wait until we get back to Cleveland."
Deanna, who waited in the kitchen with Natalie, was biting down on her bottom lip and watching her sister closely.
"What's he saying?"
"He's says that Callie is going to be okay," Natalie explained. "That we don't have to head to Tallahassee." She paused. "Nigel, are you sure? Because I know Callie might not want us to go out of our way, but wewe're family." Her voice cracked around the word family, which suddenly meant so much more now that she and her sisters had reunited. "We need to be there for her."
"Yes, I'm sure," Nigel told her. "I know you're worried, but I wouldn't lie to you about this. If you needed to be here, I'd tell you."
Natalie's shoulders sagged with relief. She believed Nigel, knowing he wouldn't sugarcoat the severity of their sister's injuries.
"What exactly happened?" Deanna asked. She began to pace the small kitchen at Uncle Dave's house, where she and Natalie had been staying since the death of their auntie Jean. "How did this Patrick guy get to Callie in the first place? My God, she could have been killed!"
Nigel, who had clearly heard Deanna's question, said, "That's a story Callie will have to tell. I'm not sure of all the details. But tell Deanna not to worry. I've got it under control. Callie is in good hands. I'm taking her home as soon as I can."
Taking her home
The words caused a small smile to form on Natalie's lips. Just over a month ago, she, Callie and Deanna had returned to Cleveland for their aunt's funeral after being away for several years. The three of them had been estranged for far too long, and sadly it took their aunt's passing to bring them together again.
Auntie Jean's funeral had also led to Callie and Nigel reuniting. Ten years ago, Natalie had been certain that Callie would marry Nigel. It hadn't taken a psychologist to determine that the way they looked at one another proved they had a very deep and special connection.
But then Callie had up and left Cleveland, abandoning her sisters, her aunt and uncle, and Nigel. No one had known she was pregnant with Nigel's child at the time, least of all Nigel. Natalie had assumed that Callie had left to get away from her and Deanna, who had been foolishly feuding over a guy. But she'd also had problems of her own and had run to escape them. However, the two of them had never stopped loving each otherno surprise to Nataliebecause after so many years apart, they had finally worked out their differences together. Natalie knew it couldn't have been easy, especially not when Nigel felt betrayed at having never known he had a son. But the love between them was still there, and in the end, that love was greater than any of the pain. Now Callie and Nigel were moving forward as a family, not backward. Which was especially wonderful for their son, Kwame, who would now finally have his father in his life.
Natalie couldn't help reflecting on her own marital relationship. While Callie had reunited with her true love, Natalie and her husband of two years had recently split. That special love Callie had found with Nigel was definitely not the kind of love Natalie had found with her cheating husband, Vance.
At the sound of Nigel's voice, Natalie realized her mind had drifted. It was hard to stop thoughts of Vance from invading her brain, considering their breakup was still fresh. "Sorry. What were you saying?"
"Just that Callie wants me to make sure you and Deanna don't worry. Patrick Jackson is behind bars, and he won't be going anywhere for a long, long time."
Patrickthe estranged husband of Callie's best friend, Tamarahad retaliated against Callie for trying to help Ta-mara escape him.
Deanna stopped pacing and extended her hand to Natalie. Despite the reassuring words Natalie had told her, Deanna looked worried to the point of being ill. "Let me talk to him."
Natalie passed her sister the phone. And as Deanna began to speak to Nigel, Natalie took up the job of pacing the kitchen floor as Deanna had been doing.
To say that the last eighteen hours had been nerve-racking was an understatementlearning that Callie had been attacked by a madman in Tallahassee, that she was injured and in hospital. Then making the decision to stay behind to comfort their uncle, who couldn't handle another loss after so recently losing his wife, when all Natalie and Deanna had wanted to do was get to Tallahassee as quickly as possible. The hours that passed were agonizing as they waited for Nigel and Kwame to arrive in Florida so that Nigel could give them an update. Yes, they had heard from Tamara more than once that Callie was in stable condition, but hearing from Nigel would be the much-needed additional confirmation that Cal-lie was going to be all right.
And even still, while Nigel's phone call brought the news they so desperately wanted, hearing their sister was okay wasn't quite the same as seeing with their own eyes.
Perhaps that was a side effect of having a mother walk out of your life and never come back. You needed to see things in order to believe them.
I'll be back for you soon, my darlings. I promise.
But despite their mother's promise, she had never returned.
"Natalie and I don't mind heading down there," Deanna was saying. "In fact, I feel guilty that we didn't. I know our uncle needed us here, but we should be there for Callie, too."
Natalie looked at her sister, who was leaning against the wall. Deanna wiped a tear from her eye. Natalie understood how she felt. Having lost their mother years ago, and with their auntie Jean dying so recently, neither of them wanted to endure another loss in the familyespecially not now when they had just reunited.
"Okay," Deanna said, nodding. "It's just that we're so worried. Callie didn't deserve this. I can't believe anyone would hurt her in this way."
Seeing her sister distressed caused Natalie's stomach to twist as she relived the moment she heard that Callie had been attacked.
But then she said silently, Callie's alive, Callie's alive, reminding herself of what was important.
"Well, she should have let the police handle it," Deanna said into the phone. "Wishful thinking, I know. Callie's never been the kind to take a backseat in any situation."
Natalie couldn't help shaking her head. Oh, that sister of hers. Callie was always charging in to save the day. It was a role she played as the oldest sibling, protecting her and Deanna when their mother left them with their auntie Jean that day so long ago. Callie had offered assurances that their mother was okay and would keep her promise. She was fiercely protective of her younger sisters, always stepping in when anyone gave them any hassle.
A smile touched Natalie's lips as she vividly recalled Cal-lie charging up to Allan Cobb the day after he'd snapped the head off of Natalie's favorite doll at school. Callie had pushed the nine-year-old class bully into a puddle of mud in front of a crowdnot caring that it meant a trip to the principal's office. Callie never regretted her actions, because as a result Allan never bothered Natalie again.
As a teen, Callie had joined all kinds of groups to help those in need, and proudly protested against injustice. She wasn't the kind of person who could sit back and do nothing with so much inequality in the world.
From what Natalie understood, Callie's best friend, Tamara, had been in troublethe woman's possessive ex posed a threat to her lifeand Callie had done what came naturally to her. She immediately took a flight to Florida to help her friend, only to find herself in the middle of a domestic dispute.
"So you really don't need us to come down there?" Deanna asked.
"Wait a minute," Deanna suddenly said, her tone of voice changing to shock. "What?"
Natalie paused in her pacing to stare at her sister with interest.
"Please tell me you're kidding." Deanna's eyes bulged as she drew in a horrified gasp. "No, Nigel. No
"What is it?" Natalie asked. Though her heart was already racing. In the minutes that Nigel had been talking to Deanna, had Callie's situation taken a turn for the worse?
"Rodney Cook," Deanna said, mentioning the name of their mother's ex-boyfriend, the one Miriam Hart had been running from. "Nigel just said that he was stabbed in prison yesterday!"
The words were like a physical blow to Natalie's stomach. Rodney Cook had been stabbed? The one man who could provide the clues that would lead to finding their mother?
"No," Natalie wailed. "God, no. Not after finally locating him! Is he dead?"
Deanna held up a hand to silence Natalie as she listened diligently to what Nigel was saying.
After their auntie Jean's passing, Natalie and her sisters had learned of a letter their aunt had left for them, one that gave all of them hope that their mother was alive somewhere. For Natalie, the letter had proven what she'd always believed in her heartthat their mother wouldn't just up and leave them without a compelling reason.
And it turned out that their mother had left to protect them, because she'd been dating a guy who was involved in criminal activity, someone she had planned to testify against. Testifying against that kind of person could have dire repercussions, not just for the witness, but also for anyone the witness cared about. Miriam knew that Rodney might try to retaliate against her children as a way to punish her, so she had left her children with her sister in order to protect them.
The problem was, Rodney Cook was the only person they knew of who might know their mother's whereabouts and the friends she'd had twenty-three years ago when she'd taken Natalie and her sisters from Cincinnati to Cleveland to stay with their aunt.
"So he's going to be okay?" Deanna asked. "Because he can't die
not before we even have a chance to talk to him!"
Natalie held her breath as she waited for Deanna to say more.
"Thank God," Deanna finally uttered. Then to Natalie she said, "Nigel says Rodney is alive, and they're keeping him in a guarded hospital room. Nigel stressed to the authorities there that Rodney needs to stay alive."
Natalie simply nodded, her heart pounding furiously from the moment of fright that their only lead regarding their mother had just been lost.
"All I can say is that it definitely pays to have a cop in the family," Deanna went on. "Maybe we can all head to California to question him."
There was silence, and then Deanna shook her head. "No, of course not. We wouldn't think of going anywhere until you're back with Callie." Deanna paused and her eyes misted. "No, let her get her rest. Tell her we love her and we'll talk to her a bit later. Bye, Nigel."
When Deanna hung up, Natalie went to her sister and took her hands in hers. Her own eyes filled with tears as she squeezed Deanna's hands. "Good Lord, what a crazy twenty-four hours."
"Tell me about it," Deanna agreed.
"But at least the news is good on both fronts. Callie is going to be fine, and it sounds like Rodney will be, too."
"Mercury must be in retrograde," Deanna commented.
astrology." When Natalie looked at her blankly, Deanna said, "Forget it."
Ah, that's right, Natalie mused, a memory coming to her. Deanna and her horoscopes. She'd been into astrology as a young teen, always blaming the good or bad in her life on how the planets had aligned.
"The bottom line is, even though bad things happened today, the outcome is still positive," Deanna said. "God was watching out for Callie. And for Rodney."
"Exactly," Natalie agreed. "The positive happened for a reason. It's a sign from above that we have to keep believing. And I believe it, Deanna." Natalie's throat filled with emotion. "We're going to find our motherafter all these years!"
Deanna nodded, but her expression instantly changed from excited to cautious. "I want to believe that, but"
"Then believe it," Natalie told her. "We can't allow ourselves to think the worst."
For Natalie, Rodney surviving the stabbing was further proof that they would find their mother. She knew that her sisters were more wary in general, fearing that their mother might not be found alive. After all, twenty-three years had passed since she had left them with their aunt. According to Callie, that was enough time for her to come out of hiding, no matter how afraid she was.
Natalie had to believe otherwise, that her mother had good reason to continue to stay out of their lives. And not because she was cold in a grave somewhere. She could accept nothing else.
The doorbell rang. Deanna hurried through the kitchen exit, saying, "I'll get it."
Moments later, she said, "Natalie, it's for you."
"Me?" Natalie asked, making her way to the door.
A man in a suit stood on the porch, holding a large envelope and a clipboard. "Are you Natalie Cooper?"
"Yes," she said, tentative.
"I have a delivery for you," he said. "You'll need to sign here."
He handed her the clipboard, indicated where she needed to sign, and Natalie obliged. All the while, she wondered what on earth could have been delivered to her at her aunt and uncle's home.
He took the clipboard, then gave her the envelope. "Have a good day."
And then he was off.