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"Mom would kill me if she knew where I was right now," Violet Bell whispered, though no one was around to hear her. The words bubbled out of her mouth anyway as she ran across the street to change her hiding place for the zillionth time. The alley was the best place to hide, but then she couldn't see the front of the building without being noticeable. She didn't want to be noticed.
Dashing into the alcove of a parking garage, she pressed against the wall and waited, straining to hear any sound from inside. The garage echoed like a cavern, so she'd hear an approaching car with lots of time to get out of the way before the door opened.
Violet knew the drill by now.
Daring a glance, she shifted her gaze from the locked doorway of the brick condo building across the streetshe'd already tried to get into the garage entrance.
Nada. Not a soul in sight.
She swallowed a laugh. Hysteria, probably, because she felt really bad. She wouldn't lie. Mom and GigiMarie would be having total cows right now, not knowing for sure where Violet was. Mom was insane about that kind of stuff on a normal day. And GigiMarie, who called herself Violet's honorary grandmother, wasn't much better. They were on a whole different continent today, which was hardly normal.
Or maybe Violet was distracting herself from how badly she needed to pee. She'd been stalking this building ever since the taxi had dropped her off around two o'clock this afternoon. It was after ten now.
The only thing saving her was that she hadn't had anything to drink in forever. On purpose. Earlier there'd been places open with bathrooms. She'd found a bunch of art galleries and a kids' museum in one direction. But she couldn't get in without paying admission and she hated wasting Mom's money on something so stupid. Not on top of everything else she'd been spending.
The tire place a few blocks in the other direction had been perfect. She pretended to belong in the customers' waiting area. Someone's kid killing time in front of the TV while the car was serviced. That had worked until the tire place closed.
Violet hadn't taken one sip of water since. Of course, she'd barely been able to choke down the crumbled gra-nola bars that had made up one very crappy dinner, but she'd been starving so, oh, well.
And now that he'd come home she wasn't moving from this spot. He'd been driving an unmarked police cruiser. She'd only caught a glimpse of him through the windshieldthe only window that wasn't too darkly tinted to see throughbefore he'd turned, but she would have recognized him anywhere.
She'd searched him on the internet before leaving Chile and had found a few photos. The best had been on the New Orleans Police Department website, but there'd been others. The newspaper had published one with the mayor who'd appointed her dad as chief of police. Another had been an announcement that a brother who looked like her dad had accepted some fellowship at Charity Hospital.
Violet had an uncle, too. And he was a doctor.
Just the thought gave her a thrill. Who needed a drink or a bathroom? She'd hold it all night if she had to because now that her dad had come home, she wasn't leaving until he did. She didn't want to miss him.
Not that he was likely to be going anywhere at this time of night, but he was the chief of police. Cops got dragged out on calls all the time if she could believe SVU and NCIS.
Resting her head against the wall, Violet swallowed another laugh. She couldn't believe she was really here.
Of course that thought lasted about one second before she thought about Mom again. Ugh.
It wasn't that she wanted Mom to get gray hair. But what was Violet supposed to do? Let Mom keep her from her dad? That wasn't fair. And Mom was usually pretty good about things like that. She always let Violet and GigiMarie decide what projects to accept with that nutty job of hers. Not that Violet didn't like traveling. She did. So did GigiMarie. But Mom's projects always lasted at least a year who wanted to get stuck in a jungle somewhere for that long?
But this time Mom had turned down a project without ever even saying a word. And a project right here in New Orleans at that. They hadn't been in the States since Violet was eight, and this was the only place in the world they had any real family.
Okay, so Mom wasn't tight with the grandparents. Violet had only seen them, like, three times in her whole life. Something was up with that, but would it have really killed Mom to suck it up so Violet could see what being around family was like?
She didn't think that was asking too much. But Mom hadn't even asked what Violet thought about going to New Orleans, which was totally un-Mom. Instead, she'd shot back an email declining to even think about the project until some other time. Violet made it her life's quest to find out why.
And found him.
Which had been sheer brilliance, if she had to say so herself. Her birth certificate hadn't helped one bit.
That was the stupidest thing she'd ever heard. Mom had to know. Violet thought about asking, but hadn't had to. One trip into Mom's locked fireproof box had given Violet a big head start.
A hiss echoed through the quiet. She frowned in the direction of the sound, gaze riveting to the front door of her dad's building as it swung wide and someone stepped outside.
OMG! Her dad!
Just the sight of him melted away all the bad. She was in New Orleans, the only place in the world she had any family. But now she had a real family. A dad and a doctor uncle.
And there her dad was, walking quickly across the street, as if he knew exactly where he was going and wanted to get there fast. Her heart just came to a complete stop when he got close enough that she could actually see the expression on his face. Serious. Kind of like his photo on the website. His face was all hard lines and his hair was buzzed short.
Then he passed and her heart started beating again. He hadn't noticed her. Whew! Still, she didn't leave the shelter of the garage until he'd turned the corner of Magazine Street. Then she hauled butt after him.
Thank God the street was lined with cars to keep her out of sight. Her dad was a cop, so he noticed things. If he spotted her, she'd have to explain who she was. She wasn't ready to do that yet. Stupid, since she'd traveled all this way to see him, but He didn't scare her. He looked okay, as far as dads went.
He was tall and rugged. Buff but not too buff, and he had her dark blond hair and tan skin. But she'd already known that from the photo. She was Italian. Who knew?
Violet shouldn't be surprised that he was fit. Mom was obsessed with fitness, always eating right and taking vitamins and getting enough exercise She could hear the familiar litany streaming in her brain even on a different continent.
Her dad wasn't really dad material, she decided, the more she watched him. At least not like other dads she knew. Her friend Camille's father always joked about the doughnut around his middle, but that doughnut was more like the tire on a 4x4.
And Maddie's dad was even shorter than Maddie. That was saying something. Gabby's dad never came out of his shed so Violet couldn't be sure about him.
Esperanza's dad was about the only one who was remotely babe material, and he was gay. Of course, he'd only figured that out after marrying Esperanza's mom. But guilt worked big-time on Christmases and birthdays and whenever Esperanza needed the newest technology, so she didn't make it a big deal.
Nope, Violet's dad wasn't really dad material, after all. Totally not the kind of guy she could see Mom hooking up with. Violet shook off that thought fast. The idea of Mom hooking up made her twitch. Puh-leeze. Fortunately, her dad distracted her by crossing the street.
She could see better now and not worry so much that he'd hear her and turn around. If she'd have known she'd be doing the whole stalker thing, she'd have worn sneakers and not flip-flops that made stupid soft slapping sounds with every step she took. And she couldn't even change because all her clothes were still in the duffel bag she'd stored in a locker at the airport.
But her dad didn't notice. He seemed pretty focused actually, distracted. Violet wasn't sure. She tried to blend in, but there weren't many people around. She guessed tourists weren't in this part of town at night.
And it wasn't too, too dark, either. The almost-full moon still let her see the sky through the trees and the buildings. And the streetlamps helped her keep her dad in sight.
The cell phone in her pocket vibrated and she automatically slipped it out to see who was calling. Mom.
For a second, Violet froze. Oh, man. The very last thing in the world she wanted to do right now was pick up. She'd been shooting Mom drive-by texts since leaving Chile, telling her not to worry. Of course, Violet hadn't told her where she was going. She'd left Mom to figure out that part on her own.
The vibrating stopped. The call had rolled to voice mail.
Mom would be in a panic, Violet knew and felt bad. She should shoot another text to keep Mom from having a total meltdown. But Violet couldn't. Not right now. Not when she was stalking her dad. If she took her eyes off him for a second, she might lose him.
The vibrating started again.
Mom would know that Violet's phone was on since it took so long to go to voice mail. She'd know Violet was ignoring the call. Or, knowing Mom, she'd think Violet was being held captive by some pervert and couldn't pick up the call. Or, even worse, that she was dead.
She hit the talk button. "I'm alive, Mom."
The dead silence that greeted her from the other end of the phone swelled so loud that Violet felt guiltier than she'd ever felt in her life. She breathed a sigh that had nothing to do with how fast she was walking.
"Mom, I'm okay."
More silence. Now her dad was approaching a big intersection, so Violet had to hang for a sec to see what he did. And pay attention because there were lots of cars zipping up and down this street.
"Violet." Mom totally didn't sound like Mom.
"I'm perfectly okay, so please stop worrying."
If one didn't count crossing a busy street against the light. But her dad was crossing when there was a break in the trafficsome chief of police!so Violet had no choice.
"I know you're going to kill me." She cut right to the chase. "I'll probably be grounded forever, but please give me a chance to explain"
"Violet, we can discuss everything when I get there," Mom shot back, suddenly sounding like Mom again. "Right now all I'm interested in is your safety and your location."
"I'm in New Orleans"
"I know you're in New Orleans, and I'm glad you're okay. Where are you in New Orleans?"
Mom did not want coordinates. Oh, man. Here goes
"With Dad." Violet watched the figure in the distance, still slipping in and out of the light from the streetlamps.
"You're with your father now?"
"Yes." Sort of, anyway.
"Okay." More silence. "You'll be safe until I get there?"
"You don't have to come"
"Violet Nicole Bell, I'm not sure what part of this you think is acceptable, but"
"Violet Nicole Bell DiLeo. You forgot"
"I did not forget anything, young lady."
Whoa! Violet pulled the phone from her ear and glanced at it. She'd never heard that tone before.
"I would have explained if you'd given me the chance," Mom continued, her voice a raw whisper. "All you had to do was ask. You didn't have to put your safety at risk by running away."
"Really, Mom? Really?" The words were out of Violet's mouth before she could stop them. "Like I haven't traveled before."
"We'll discuss this in person. Now please put your father on. And don't vanish. I'll speak with you when we're through."
Violet didn't have a chance to respond because one second her dad was in front of her and the next he was gone. Oh, man. She was lagging because she wasn't paying attention. Did he turn the corner? She started to run.
"Dad can't talk right now. Can we call you back?"
"First give me the details about where you're staying, and a phone number, too"
"Gotta go. Battery's dying." She tried not to sound winded, but she was starting to breath heavy. "I'll charge my phone and call you back, okay?"
Calling back wasn't okay. That much Violet knew, but she had to find her dad before she lost him completely.
"Don't worry, Mom," she whispered, even though Mom wasn't there to hear her.
Megan Bell sank into the chair, relief sapping every drop of strength from her legs. She stared disbelieving at the BlackBerry as the display darkened. Violet.
Then she let her eyes flutter shut, blocked out everything but the sound of her daughter's voice, impatient, irritable, alive Okay, Violet was alive.
Start there, Megan, she warned herself. Don't get too far ahead here. Violet's alive.
Since this whole nightmare began, Megan had received three texts. She'd tracked credit card purchases to piece together a trajectory that had her daughter heading to New Orleans of all places, but until she'd heard Violet's voice.
"Take a deep breath, dear, and tell me what she said."
Megan did exactly that then forced herself to open her eyes to find Marie looking as relieved as Megan felt. As always, Marie's presence had a calming effect.
A slender, stately woman with bright white hair that fell in gentle waves around her face, Marie Gleason was an honorary grandmother to Violet and dearest friend in the world to Megan.