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Cincinnati, Ohio Saturday, December 19, 3:30 p.m.
"Are you sure this dress looks okay, Mer?"
Meredith Fallon sighed patiently as she turned to the younger woman walking beside her. "It looks amazing, Mallory. You look amazing. Very stylish. No one will think you're any different than any other eighteen-year-old who's just signed up for her classes."
But there was far more to Mallory Martin, who'd actually left the safe house where she'd stayed for four months, healing-which was huge. She still had so much healing left to do. In the ten years that Meredith had been counseling children and adolescents, she'd encountered few clients more victimized than Mallory-and even fewer with her courage.
"Yeah, but they're signing up for college. I'm just . . ." Mallory looked away. "Dammit."
"You're taking charge of your life. Have I told you how damn brave you are?"
"Twice. And that's only today." A small smile was followed by a self-conscious grimace. "I know I'm being stupid, fishing for compliments. I'm sorry."
Meredith's sigh wasn't so patient this time. "What did we agree about that word?"
"Well, yes. But mostly 'sorry.' Strike them both from your vocabulary right now."
Mallory drew a breath and gave a hard little nod. "Eliminated."
"Good. Let's walk faster. It's not much further to the caf, and my toes are freezing."
They were going to celebrate. Mallory had signed up for adult education classes today. Her first step toward getting the high school education she'd been denied by the monster who'd held her captive for six long years.
"You should have worn warm boots," Mallory said archly. "Without four-inch heels."
Meredith glanced at her brand-new suede knee-high boots with a happy little grin because Mallory was lecturing her, a small thing, but so normal. The girl had become one of Meredith's all-time favorite clients. "But these are prettier. And they were on sale."
Mallory shook her head with affectionate exasperation, as if Meredith were a child. "At least you needed them. They can keep all the other suede boots with four-inch heels in your closet from getting lonely."
Meredith's smile dimmed. Not from the criticism, because (a) it was clear Mallory was teasing and (b) her friends had given her shit over her overflowing shoe closet for years.
It was because she had needed them. Not the boots, necessarily, but she'd needed something. The boots were an early Christmas present to herself, because it didn't look like she was going to get the one gift she really wanted. Back in the summer it had appeared that things might work out, that for the first time she'd have someone, other than her family, to snuggle with while watching the lights sparkle on her tree.
She'd been stupid to hope. The hours that she and Adam Kimble had spent together had been precious and few-and obviously not as important to him as they'd been to her. They'd been working the same case. The case had closed and he'd disappeared. Again.
Which took talent and forethought, because they shared a circle of friends. There had been many opportunities over the last four months for them to run into each other, purely by accident. But they hadn't. Finally, she'd had to conclude that he was purposely avoiding her. And it hurt. A lot.
Except that he hadn't avoided her entirely. She thought of the envelopes she'd found in her mailbox every few weeks. No name, no return address.
They'd been from Adam. No question. Pages torn from coloring books, the designs having been carefully filled in with crayon or colored pencils. Not a stray line on the page. Detective Adam Kimble was careful to stay inside the lines.
The early pictures were colored in shades of red, but as the weeks had passed, he'd added more colors. One of the recent pictures had been done with watercolor paint. She'd counted fifteen distinct colors. It hadn't been too bad, actually, as art went. As messages went, his was clear: I'm working on it. I'm getting better. Don't give up on me.
Or maybe it was just wishful thinking on her part.
"Meredith?" Mallory's voice was timid. "I'm sorry. I was just trying to tease you."
Meredith came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the sidewalk, realizing that Mallory had stopped in front of the caf, was watching her seriously, and that they'd walked an entire city block in stony silence. Shame filled her in a rush, leaving a bitter taste in her mouth. This is supposed to be Mallory's day, but I made it all about me.
Meredith forced herself to smile. "Oh, I know, honey," she assured. "It wasn't you or what you said. Sometimes I get caught up in my own head."
"Good to know that it can even happen to you. Makes me feel better."
Meredith's lips curved. "Good to know that I can help even when I mess up." She pointed to the caf's sign. "Let's go in. I hope you like it. They have the best pasta in town."
"Good, because I'm hungry. But I do have one question," Mallory said gravely.
"Only one?" Meredith had to chuckle when the girl rolled her eyes. Again, so normal. Be thankful, Meredith. Don't pine for what you can't have. She couldn't force Adam to want her and it was time she stopped mooning over him. "Shoot. What's your question?"
"What happens when I get a license and start driving again?"
Meredith paused, her hand on the handle of the caf door, puzzled. "Please?"
One side of Mallory's mouth lifted in another teasing smirk. "Well, if I can't say 'stupid,' how can I possibly drive? I mean, you said it at least three times when you were looking for a parking place. How do I drive without using that word? Or 'bastard'? Or 'fuuu-'" She drew the "u" sound out, her dark eyes dancing. "'Fudge'?"
Meredith threw back her head and laughed. "You little stinker."
Mallory grinned, clearly pleased with herself. "Maybe, but I made you smile. Really smile, I mean."
Meredith swallowed hard. "Get inside before I turn into an ice cube." She held the door open, her throat thick, but now for a different reason. Mallory had made a joke. To cheer me up. That the young woman who'd been so cruelly abused had somehow managed to retain her ability to care . . . it left Meredith humbled and clearing her throat harshly.
Her voice was still raspy when she told the hostess, "Reservation is under 'Fallon.'"
"Right this way." The hostess, a young woman about Mallory's age, led them to a table by the window. "The best place to people watch," she said, seating them with a smile.
"And to wait for the fireworks where it's warm and comfy," Meredith said.
Mallory's wide eyes lit up, but she waited for the hostess to leave before leaning in to whisper, "Fireworks? Where?"
"Out on Fountain Square," Meredith told her. "We'll have a nice meal, linger over our coffee, then go outside and see them from the street."
"Is that why you picked this place?"
"Oh, no." Meredith looked around the caf fondly. "My gran and I came here after the Nutcracker ballet every year, just the two of us. Back then, the ballet was at Music Hall and very fancy." It had returned to Music Hall this year after a long building renovation, and Meredith had wanted to take the girls who lived at Mariposa House, but decided against it. Most of the girls would have panic attacks around that many people. Maybe next year.
"How fancy?" Mallory asked wistfully. "Long dresses? Gloves?"
"Not quite that fancy," Meredith said with a smile. "But I'd be all dressed up in my Christmas dress with a big bow in my hair and Gran would wear her best Sunday suit. And pearls. Gran always wore pearls."
"So do you," Mallory said. "Your earrings. I've never seen you not wear them. Pearls"-she glanced at Meredith's hands-"and bangles."
Meredith gave one of her earrings a fond stroke, because her wrist bangles were not up for discussion. "They were my gran's. You'd have liked her. She was a real pistol."
Mallory's smile was amused. "A pearl-wearing pistol."
"Yes, indeed. She carried a pistol, too. Gran was a pearl-wearing card shark who cursed like a sailor, packed heat in her enormous purse, and still managed to fool everyone into thinking she was just a sock-knitting granny."
Mallory glanced up from her menu, brows lifted. "Don't knock the sock knitters. I know lots of knitters now and they carry, too."
Meredith snorted a laugh. Her newest friend, Kate, was an FBI agent, a sharpshooter, and a compulsive knitter. Kate was quickly winning knitting converts from their circle of friends. Now their monthly movie night included wine, chocolate, and yarn.
Meredith wasn't a knitter, but she'd quietly carried a gun for years, either in the pocket of her blazer or snugged up into her bra holster. As a therapist to children and adolescents, she sometimes encountered family members who threatened her with violence. She regularly trained at the range, but thankfully she'd never had cause to use the weapon.
"I miss my gran," Meredith said wistfully. "She was my rock after my folks died."
Mallory tilted her head, curious. "When did she die? Your gran?"
"Three years ago," Meredith told her, acutely aware that she'd never divulged personal information to Mallory before. I need to transition Mallory to another therapist. Soon. The thought hurt. But it should have been done already. They'd grown too close over the last few months. "She had a heart attack. It was fast, at least. She didn't suffer. But it was a shock, even though she was in her eighties. I wasn't ready to let her go."
Mallory's lips drooped. "I wouldn't have been, either. What about your parents?"
Meredith drew a breath, because their deaths hadn't been quick or painless. And because the anniversary of their deaths was looming over her. Another reason for her recent retail therapy. "Plane crash," she said quietly. "Seven years ago."
"Oh." Mallory's gaze was full of trepidation. "What about your grandfather?"
Thoughts of her grandfather made Meredith's lips twitch and she saw Mallory relax in relief. "Oh, he's still alive and quite the troublemaker. He retired to Florida. Has a place on the beach and he fishes every day. He says he catches fish every day, but I'm pretty sure he lies. You might get to meet him. He'll be here for Christmas." He never let her spend Christmas alone. "Now, let's check out the menu. I'm going to indulge." She went straight to the desserts. "Otherwise, running every morning makes no sense whatsoever."
She was trying to decide which chocolate dessert would be her reward when she heard Mallory's sharp intake of breath. Looking up, Meredith's breath did the same.
A young man stood between their table and the window. Pale and terrified, he was shaking like a leaf. Her first instinct was to run and she'd learned not to ignore her instincts. She didn't run, but she set the menu down, forcing her lips to curve as she rose. She slipped her hands into her blazer pocket casually, releasing the snap on her holster. "Can I help you?"
The man swallowed hard. "I'm so sorry." Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a gun. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm so sorry."
And then he pointed the gun at her.
Meredith drew a breath, ignoring the startled cries around her. She'd talked down gunmen before. She could do it again. "All right," she said calmly. "Let's talk about this."
He shook his head, obviously desperate. "It's too late for that. I have to."
Meredith risked a glance at Mallory from the corner of her eye. The girl was staring at the barrel of the gun, her eyes wide and glassy. She'd gone into shock.
"You don't have to," Meredith said to the young man, keeping her voice calm. "We can fix this. Whatever it is."
The young man shook his head. "Just . . . be quiet. Please." The gun in his hand jerked as his body trembled violently.
He doesn't want to do this. He doesn't want to be here. He was being coerced.
Meredith held out one hand in supplication while her other slid the gun from its holster, keeping it in her pocket. "Don't do this. I can help you. What's your name, honey?"
Another desperate shake of the man's head. "Shut up! I need to think!" He flinched, his free hand flying upward to slap at his ear. "Stop yelling at me! I can't think!"
No one was yelling. The restaurant had gone completely silent around them.
He jabbed his finger in his ear. "I said I'd do it!" he cried.
Schizophrenia? she wondered. He was about the right age for emergence, but schizophrenics didn't generally hurt people. Except maybe when they heard voices telling them to shoot people. It was also still possible he was being coerced. She needed to figure out which was the case. Talking him down would require different approaches, depending.
Meredith didn't dare look away from him. "Get down, Mallory," she said levelly.
"No!" the man shouted, his eyes darting to Mallory's sheet-white face. "Nobody moves!" He pointed the gun at Mallory, then back at Meredith. "Do not move."
Meredith used his momentary distraction to pull the gun from her pocket. Her hand did not shake when she pointed it at the man, whose eyes grew even wider.
The only sounds were heavy breathing from the restaurant patrons and an occasional muffled sob of terror.
"Put the gun down, honey," Meredith said softly. "I don't want to hurt you. I know you don't want to hurt me."
The young man whimpered. He was barely older than Mallory. Just a boy, really. A scared boy. "I can't do this," he whispered.
"I know," Meredith soothed. "I know you can't. It's all right. Please drop your gun. Let me help you. I want to help you."
"He'll kill her," the young man whispered hoarsely.
Who? she wanted to ask, but did not. It was far more important to talk him down. "We can help you. I know we can. Please . . . please just drop your gun."
Cincinnati, Ohio Saturday, December 19, 3:55 p.m.
"Dammit," he hissed, watching Andy through his binoculars from inside his SUV, parked on the curb outside the little caf. Fallon had a gun.
The transmitter in Andy's pocket picked up Fallon's calm voice trying to talk him down. It seemed like she was succeeding because Andy had not fired yet. It didn't really matter. Giving Andy the gun had merely been the best way to get the kid as close to their table as possible.
He'd used the radio receiver in Andy's ear to urge him closer to the table where Fallon and her young charge sat. He'd told Andy to pull the trigger, reminding him that Linnea would die. Which was going to happen anyway. The girl had seen his face.