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Nearly ten years later
CONNOR SMITH HAD SPENT the last decade attempting
to outrun the past, but it caught up with him. Again.
The pattern was as familiar as the long, straight rows of gravestones in a cemetery. Just when he thought he'd relegated J.D.'s murder to a terrible memory and started to live in the present, something happened to pull him back into the abyss.
The latest something was his niece, Jaye, an unusually pretty little girl with pale blond hair swept back from the widow's peak on her high forehead and gray-green eyes that were reminiscent of his dead brother's. She'd got her first name from J.D., too.
The girl sat on a stool at the counter-height island in the kitchen nook of his Silver Spring town house picking at the piece of toast and jam he'd fixed her. Her skinny, nine-year-old legs dangled well above the porcelain-tile floor.
He stood between the island and the state-of-the-art black microwave that was built into his golden-maple cabinets, cradling his second cup of black coffee of the morning and waiting for a bagel to defrost.
On an ordinary Saturday morning, he'd already be at the office figuring out how to make one of his clients money. But there was nothing routine about a morning in which his sister chose to abandon her daughter.
"Where's Mom?" Jaye asked.
There it was, the question Connor had been dreading. The microwave beeped, signaling that the bagel had thawed.
He ignored the summons and kneaded the throbbing space between his brows. He'd found his sister Diana's note more than an hour ago but still hadn't figured out how to break the news to Jaye that her mother had taken off for God only knew where.
"She's gone, isn't she?" Jaye asked abruptly in a hard voice that didn't sound as if it belonged to a child.
"Yeah, she's gone," Connor said softly, futilely wishing he could soften the blow. "I think she needed to be by herself for a while."
He expected Jaye to dissolve into tears, the way he imagined any young girl would react upon hearing that her mother had cast her off and left her with an uncle who was essentially a stranger.
Jaye's chin quivered slightly, but her eyes were dry, her petal of a mouth pinched. "What's going to happen to me?"
That was the question that had been swirling around and around in his brain since he'd read Diana's note. She'd claimed she'd be in touch but made no promises about when she'd be back for Jaye. He doubted it would be any time soon.
Diana had nearly jumped out of her skin every time he'd asked her a question last night. He'd recognized that something was wrong, but had unwisely decided to wait until this morning to confront her about it.
He swallowed his anger at his sister and focused on the sad girl with the hard eyes. "Your mother left a note asking me to take care of you."
How, he wondered, had Diana managed to look after Jaye for this long? She'd given birth less than a year after J.D.'s murder, when she was barely seventeen. She'd had sex with so many boys, she said, that she couldn't figure out who the father was. Their parents, still drowning in grief over J.D.'s death, hadn't been able to deal with a new blow.
After arguing bitterly with their mother, Diana had run off. Connor had spent a night and a day looking for her before their great-aunt Aggie had called to say that Diana had turned up at her house outside Roanoke in southwest Virginia.
There Diana had stayed for the next four years until Aunt Aggie's death, when she'd cashed in her meager inheritance and simply taken off with Jaye. She'd called now and then to let the family know she was alive but hadn't resurfaced until last night at ten o'clock when she rang the doorbell at his town house.
And now she was gone — again — but this time she'd left her daughter behind.
"My mom said I have a grandma," Jaye continued, still in that tough, cold voice. "Maybe I should stay with her."
"No," Connor said. His mother could barely take care of herself, let alone a granddaughter. His father, re-married and living in Richmond, was only a slightly better choice. All his energy went to his second wife and their young son. "Then where am I going to stay?" Jaye asked.
He looked around at the interior of his pricey three-story town house, which a maid cleaned twice a week until it sparkled. It was no place for a child, and he was a poor choice for a guardian.
He worked upwards of sixty hours a week at a high-powered brokerage firm in Washington, D.C., where he was so well regarded he'd recently been fielding offers from Wall Street. The rest of his waking hours, he spent at the gym or on the bar and restaurant scene with his girlfriend, Isabel Pennington, who'd been making noises about moving in with him.
He didn't know anything about raising a child, especially one he wouldn't have recognized as his niece until a few hours ago.
Though, for the moment, there was no other option. He was it.
He swallowed the lump of trepidation in his throat and strived to make himself sound self-assured. "I already told you that I'm going to take care of you. So you'll stay here. With me."
Jaye's mouth flattened in a mutinous line, then she hopped down from the stool and shoved it so hard that it overturned. Without another look at him, she ran out of the kitchen and up the stairs to the guest room where she'd slept the night before.
Connor dragged a hand through the hair on his throbbing head. He made snap decisions involving tens of thousands of dollars every day, but he was lost in how to deal with a nine-year-old child. Should he follow her? Explain that he wanted her with him but had grave doubts about his ability to care for her? "Diana, how could you do this?" he asked aloud. The hell of it was that Connor didn't blame Diana for abandoning her daughter. He blamed Drew Galloway.
Galloway hadn't been in direct contact with anyone in the Smith family other than J.D., but the knife he'd thrust into J.D.'s chest had ripped the family apart. It had certainly precipitated Diana's tailspin.
The hate that always simmered beneath the surface of Connor's skin boiled up, nearly singeing him. Even though Galloway had been in prison for almost ten years, the killer was still leaving a trail of victims in his wake. The latest was the discarded little girl who pretended she didn't want to cry.
Connor tamped down the surging hatred. He needed to focus on Jaye, not on Galloway. It was mid-February, more than halfway through the school year. He'd have to figure out which was the nearest elementary school and find out how to get Jaye enrolled. More immediately, he needed to visit the grocery store so the refrigerator contained something healthier than leftover pizza and beer.
Deciding to give Jaye time to get used to being stuck with him, he walked to the table and righted the chair she'd overturned.
He'd have a much tougher time righting the wrong that had been done to Jaye.
He had a fleeting thought of the teenage girl and the sobbing woman who had sat behind Drew Galloway that dark day in the Laurel County Courthouse.
Had Galloway's family suffered even a fraction of the pain and the ramifications as Connor's family?
Somehow, Connor didn't think so.
ABBY REED WAS GOOD at spotting troubled children.
She should be. She'd lived with one for fifteen years until he'd been sent away for murder to the maximum-security Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center.
She'd had nearly ten years to come to terms with what her only sibling had done, but still couldn't accept that he was a cold-blooded killer. In her gut she knew there was more to what had happened that night than had come to light.
Her heart bled for the boy who'd died and the people who'd loved him, but the Drew who used to read her bedtime stories while their single mother worked two jobs hadn't been evil. He'd been a kid in trouble.
After the murder, hardly anybody in the small Maryland town of Bentonsville had agreed with that assessment.
Her mother had moved their family of three from inner-city Baltimore to Bentonsville two years before the boy's death in a failed attempt to get Drew away from the potential to do wrong. After Drew was convicted, sentiment against him had run so high and so hot that Abby and her mother had had to move again.
They'd gone to Wheaton, a suburb of Washington, D.C., that was only fifty miles from Bentonsville but lacking in the acres of unspoiled countryside that had made the little town such a beautiful place to live. The trade-off, though, had been worth it.
Nobody directed hateful looks at them or pointed and whispered behind their backs.
Nobody recognized Abby as the frightened fifteen-year-old half sister of the boy who'd been labeled a murderer.
Nobody maintained that the sister of a convicted killer shouldn't be hired to teach in the Montgomery County public-school system.
Abby had secured the job after graduating from Towson University with a major in music and minor in education. She spent the bulk of her time running the orchestra program at Blue Moon Middle School, but once a week taught a beginning class for fourth-and fifth-graders at the neighboring elementary school.
Montgomery County, with the nation's capital on its southernmost border, was among the nation's richest. The students Abby taught were largely the carefree children of privilege.
The fourth-grader in her strings class at Blue Moon Elementary was not happy-go-lucky. She wasn't in the deep, dark trouble that Abby's brother Drew had found himself immersed in, but trouble nonetheless.
Abby heard a new story about the girl every week. She'd splattered paint on the wall in art class, refused to participate in PE and wrote pithy sayings on classroom blackboards like School Stinks, Down With Learning and Reading Is Wrong. Considering she'd arrived at Blue Moon just four weeks before, it was quite a résumé.
Two weeks ago, she'd noticed the girl standing at the door to Abby's classroom wearing a wistful expression. Abby had impulsively offered to work it out so she could take the class, even though in reality it was much too late to enroll.
After finding all the music stands overturned on the girl's first day, Abby feared she was in for a long couple of months.
But then the girl had taken her violin from the case and followed Abby's simple directions about how to coax sound from it. The violin had sung, the girl had been enchanted and Abby's problems with the difficult child had been over.
Until today when she'd turned in a forged permission slip to hear an ensemble of National Symphony Orchestra musicians perform at the Kennedy Center.
She stood in front of Abby in the empty classroom, looking adorable in her pink Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt and designer jeans. Abby handed her the permission slip.
"I know your father didn't sign this so don't bother telling me he did," Abby stated.
The child looked down at her feet, which were encased in brand-name tennis shoes. Her eyes were filled with unshed tears when she gazed back up at Abby. "Am I in trouble?"