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Tate Addison stared down at the single piece of luggage on the dingy, threadbare carpet and felt the knot of tension cinch even tighter in his chest. How could that tiny suitcase hold everything Lucas owned in the entire world?
Tate frowned at the woman standing nearby, the woman who had given birth to him. He refused to call her mom. She'd never earned the title.
"Penny, where are the rest of Lucas's things?"
She blinked as if surprised by the question. "Well, Tate, this is it. This is all of it. You'd be surprised how much you can pack in one of these soft-sided suitcases."
"This isn't even the suitcase I sent him, and I've sent him enough to fill twenty suitcases. Where is his skateboard, his tablet, the movies and games, the game system
? His baseball glove?"
Penny swiped a casual hand through the air.
"You know how kids are. They break things, grow out of things, lose things
It dawned on him then. A hot flash of anger bolted through him. "You sold his stuff?"
"Just what was I supposed to do? He couldn't eat that baseball glove. Kids are expensive, not that you'd know anything about that while you've been living the high life and I've been stuck here taking care of him. Do you have any idea how hard that has been on me?"
Now she sounded like the selfish, defensive, passive-aggressive, alcohol- and drug-dependent mother he knew and despised, yet continued to care about. Out of some twisted sense of obligation or responsibility or
"What did you spend the money on I sent you every month to take care of you both? Why did you fight me for custody?"
"He's my grandson."
Tate narrowed his eyes menacingly, waiting for her to answer the first question even though he knew she wouldn't. They both knew very well what she'd spent it on.
"You mean your meal ticket?"
"Lexie left him with me, remember?"
Shards of grief and guilt and anger took turns jabbing at him. But not because of anything Penny said, but because he hadn't been able to save Lexie from their mother's poison. He had survived, and even though he hadn't been able to save his little sister, he was determined to save her son. His nephew.
His jaw flexed so tightly he could barely speak. "Don't talk to me about Lexie."
Penny crossed her bony arms over her chest, her face twisted into an ugly scowl. "I know you blame me, Tate. Just like you've always blamed me for every bad thing in your life and Lexie's. But it's not my fault she died, you know? I didn't pour those drugs down her throat. She never did know when enough was enough. Nobody's perfect, not even you. You don't know how hard it is, but you'll see and then you'll be begging me to take that kid back"
He had learned long ago not to engage with his mother. You can't reason with irrational and he couldn't fix her addictions, although he kept trying.
He interrupted sharply, "Where is he?"
She pinched her lips together as she lifted a finger and pointed down the hall.
He took a few steps before turning to face her again. "Viktor is waiting right outside the door to take you to the rehab center. After you get out this time you'll have two months of expenses paid. That's it. Do you understand? I can'tI won'tenable you anymore. I don't want to see you, hear from you, or even hear about you ever again."
She pitched her voice high and dramatic as she tried to squeeze out some tears, "But you're my son and you can't keep Lucas from me. He's my only grandchild"
"It's official now. I have legal custody. Lucas is my responsibility. He is no longer your free ride. Do you understand? When you get out, do not call or contact us in any way."
"Where are you going?" she cried.
Tate ignored her and went to find his nephew. There were only two doors positioned along the dim hallway of the sparsely furnished apartment. The first contained a small filthy bathroom so he continued on. He found Lucas in the next room sitting on a dirty, rumpled sleeping bag atop a bare mattress lying on the floor. The room smelled faintly of mold and urine. Shockingly few items were scattered arounda brown paper bag, a clothes hanger and a bright orange plastic bucket with a large crack in the side.
Lucas held a book clutched to his chest. He looked up when Tate walked in and he hoped he wasn't imagining the spark that lit amidst the weariness in the child's arresting blue eyes. A mix of love and relief and anger swirled within him as he studied the pale, forlorn face of his nephew, the only thing left of his sister, Lexie.
He knelt in front of the tiny boy with coal-black hair that so closely matched his own and wondered if, at six years of age, he should be so small.
"Hi, Uncle Tate."
"You ready to hit the road?"
He nodded. "Do I need my sleeping bag? I can't zip it up anymore because the zipper's broken."
"Nope, you'll be sleeping in a real bed with sheets from now on."
Lucas's bland expression told Tate he'd heard similar promises before. Empty promises, broken promises, nights without a warm bed and days without food; memories he recalled all too well from his own childhood with Penny, before Viktor had taken him away.
"Uncle Tate, you won't leave me in the dark, will you?"
The fear in his voice seemed to pierce Tate's very soul. "No, Lucas, I won't." Placing a hand on each of the boy's thin shoulders, he caught his gaze. "Lucas, I know other people have told you things before that weren't true. Made promises they didn't keep. But I've never done that, have I? Made you a promise I didn't keep?"
He shook his head and whispered, "No."
"Well, I'm making you another one right now. I will never leave you. From here on outit's me and you and Viktor, okay? We're a family. No matter what." Tate silently vowed to do whatever was necessary to make a family for Lucas, even though he wasn't sure what one was exactly.
Lucas nodded and climbed to his feet and Tate thought that a child of six-years shouldn't look so tired and
broken. Tate reached for him and Lucas threw his hands around his neck and squeezed. The rush of love he felt was so intense he almost couldn't contain his sob.
Hannah James steered her SUV up her friend Edith Milner's long driveway. As she neared the massive architectural masterpiece of a home, she immediately spotted the tire tracks in the fresh dusting of snow. She was happy to see the renters had finally arrived.
She parked her car, climbed out and headed around the side of the house along the covered sidewalk. Edith had informed the management company that Hannah would be caring for the atrium in her year-long absence, absolving the renters of having to worry about the exotic plants or the koi that lived in the atrium's indoor pond.
Unlocking the door to the breezeway, she planned to slip in unnoticed and check on the plants and feed the koi without bothering anyone. The hallway to the right connected the atrium to the house. She turned left and pushed the button to open the pneumatic door. A blast of warm, humid air greeted her. She'd been coming here for nearly two years now, but she still couldn't get over the magic that Edith had managed to create in this remote Alaskan setting.
Edith and her husband had built their five-thousand square foot home nearly two decades ago, but Edith had only added the atrium after her husband of forty-two years had passed away.
Hannah took a moment to admire the atrium's inviting niches. The bluish-green light glowing through the fat panes of tinted glass. The mosaic tile floor sparkled in muted pastel colors, a perfect setting for the wrought iron garden furniture. The space was a work of art inside and out, and it soothed her soul to spend time there.
She stopped in front of a recessed control panel, checking to make sure the temperature and humidity readings were correct.
The storage room contained an electronic lock with a keypad. She tapped in the combination and went inside. After scooping out pellets for the koi she crossed to the far side of the room, smiling as she approached the large pond taking up roughly half the space. The pond's surface was smooth and peaceful, broken only by the gurgle from the fountain in the center. But as she walked closer, the swirl and soft splash of water let her know the koi were aware of her presence.
Enjoying the flashes of orange, white, silver, black and red gliding through the water, she began tossing in the pellets one handful at a time. She called the fish by name, commenting on the beauty of their markings or how gracefully they could swim.
As she silently practiced the spiel she planned to pitch later that day at her meeting, she looked up to notice a gorgeous tropical flower blooming. One she'd never seen before. That's when movement from the other side of the pond gave her a start. A flash of black hair followed by a pair of dark eyes peeking out from behind a ficus tree told her a child was hiding there. Relaxing, she realized Edith's renters must have a child.
"Hello, there," she called out.
"Would you like to come over here and meet these guys?"
She heard a rustling sound before a small black-haired child sprinted toward the house. The door made a swooshing sound as it opened and then closed again. Poor kid, she thought, must be shy.
She looked at the time on her phone. Too bad she couldn't stick around and introduce herself. She needed to get to work. As project manager of Snowy Sky Resort, it would probably be bad form for her to be late for her first meeting with the ski-area consultant the board of directors had hired.
Tate studied the figures in front of him, satisfied with the projections for the profits from the latest snowboard bindings he'd designed and patented. The Zee Tap had been on the market for only two years, but it was already fast approaching status as the year's top-selling binding in the world. Even though Tate knew he was doing well, something compelled him to keep continual tabs on his finances. He knew that "something" was undoubtedly his own poverty-ridden childhood.
Since retiring from his professional snow-boarding career, he was aware that he only had a limited amount of time to capitalize on his past success. That's why he'd diversified and taken on consulting jobs like this one at Snowy Sky Resort. Although accepting this particular job happened to be motivated by much more than business.
"Uncle Tate!" Lucas ran up to him nearly out of breath, his eyes wide with excitement.
"Slow down, buddy. What's the matter?"
"There's a fairy woman in the fish room."
"A fairy woman. She's in the fish room."
Tate smiled. Lucas had taken to calling the atrium the fish room. He loved to hang out in there. At first Tate had been concerned because of the water feature, but after a few days he felt certain that Lucas wasn't going to get in the pond with the fish and if he did somehow fall in, Tate was confident he could climb out.
Even so, he had been thrilled to learn Rankins had a community center with a pool. He'd already enrolled Lucas in swim lessons.
He wondered if it was normal to worry and fret about most everything where a child was concerned.
"Come and look at her."
Tate stood and moved from behind the desk in the spacious room the owner of the house had graciously cleared for his use as an office. She'd left the antique books in the floor-to-ceiling shelves that took up one entire wall and he was glad. It lent the room a cozy feel.
"Okay, but what makes her a fairy exactly? Does she have wings?" Tate assumed Lucas was referring to the woman caring for the atrium in the homeowner's absence. He'd been relieved when he had learned that he wouldn't have to look after it. There were plants in there he was certain his brown thumb could wilt without ever touching, not to mention the goldfish.
Lucas explained patiently as he led the way. "No, Uncle Tate, fairies don't let humans see their wings. Only other fairies can see their wings."
"I see. So
is she wearing a certain dress or playing the flute or something? Is that how you know she's a fairy?"
"She talks to the fish."
"Fairies talk to fish? Do they talk back?"
Lucas had picked up his pace and kept glancing back as if he wasn't moving quite fast enough. Tate walked faster.
"No, this fairy talks to the fish. I'm not sure if they talk back because I don't speak fish."
Tate felt a mixture of affection and amused confusion.
But when they entered the atrium they found it empty of both humans and fairies.
" Lucas's face fell as his eyes darted around the warm, bright space. His voice was filled with such abject disappointment it tugged at Tate's heartstrings. "She's gone."
* * *
Hannah slipped on her snow boots and wrapped the soft, teal-colored mohair scarf around her neck. She arranged the matching hat on her head and silently thanked her cousin Janie who had knitted the set.
Lift number two had become fully operational today and she was going to check it out before her meeting. She wanted everything to be perfect for Tate Addison. As not only project manager of Snowy Sky but founder and shareholder as well, she was used to doing things her way. She relished the freedom she'd had thus far in seeing her vision becoming a reality.
Hannah was fine with getting a "second opinion," and yet, having the resorther hard work, her dream, her baby, her second chance at achieving successevaluated in this manner? Well, it was bound to be a little nerve-racking for anyone.
Hoisting a hip onto one of the many railings gracing the lodge's massive front steps, she slid down to the frozen ground and then headed for her snow machine. She couldn't help the welling of pride as she took in the tall T-shaped metal poles marching up the hillside. Snowy Sky wouldn't be officially opening until next year, but enough had been accomplished that it was already looking like a real ski resort.
Tate Addison had recently retired from the sport of snowboarding with one of the longest and most successful careers of all time, and although he was several years older than her, she had seen him compete when she'd been on the professional skiing circuit.
She squelched a ping of jealousy; thinking of her own career cut short so cruelly still filled her with a painful longing, a yearning for the medals and accolades she'd been so close to achieving.
Jeez, Hannah, she told herself, bitter much? Mourning the past was most definitely not a part of the "postaccident healing plan" she and her sports therapist, Dr. Voss, had developed and that she had executed over the past few years.
Hers and Tate's different backgrounds and experiences shouldn't matter, though. When he looked at the big picture, as he'd been hired to do, everything would be fine. All she really needed to do was collect his stamp of approval. She would answer every one of his questions thoroughly and eloquently. Then, at the board meeting next week, he would inform them of what a great job she was doing, collect his fee and be gone. Simple.