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The woman's scream pierced the air. The room was dark, and she was struggling with the man, trying to escape his strong grasp. But the more she jerked and fought to free herself, the rougher he was with her.
She screamed again, a blood-curdling cry. And then the man slapped her. Slapped her so violently that she fell to the ground.
Deanna Hart awoke, bolting upright in the bed. Her chest was heaving, and her pulse was racing. And the sheets were damp with her sweat.
It took no more than a couple of seconds for her to realize that she'd been dreaming. That the last scream came not from the woman in her dreams but from her own lips.
Deanna drew in a deep breath, the image still fresh in her head. She'd had this dream before. And it was always the same. The man roughing up the woman. The woman being slapped and falling to the ground.
Every time, that's when Deanna woke up. As the woman fell to the floor in the dark room.
Her heart still beating rapidly, Deanna hugged her knees to her chest. She'd been having this dream ever since Brian James had hit her when she tried to end their relationship six months ago.
Glancing at the clock, she saw that it was just after three in the morning. The house was quiet and still. But she could hear the pounding of her heart in her ears.
Deanna was at her uncle Dave's house in Cleveland. She was out of harm's way. And yet, whenever she had this dream, she felt distinctly unsafe.
There are thousands of miles between you and Brian, she told herself as she lay back down and snuggled up against her pillows on the opposite side of the bed, where the sheets were still dry. Besides, since that night, you haven't heard from him. There's no reason to fear him anymore.
Her mental pep talk helped ease her mind. He had hit her only once, but it was a truly ugly exchange that Deanna never wanted to experience again in her life.
We 're better off as friends, Brian. I realize that now.
You're breaking up with me?
We shouldn't have mixed business with pleasure. Things have become complicated. Let's finish my album first
That was when Brian had violently grabbed and shaken her, and Deanna had been seized with fear. But she wasn't about letting a man terrorize her, so she had wriggled and pushed against him, struggling to get free of his grip.
"You think you're going to walk away from me?" Brian had screamed, spittle flying from his mouth. And as Deanna had continued to tussle with him, he had smacked her. Smacked her so hard that he'd busted her lip and drawn blood.
Seeing the blood, he had immediately looked horrified. Then he had apologized. Apologized over and over again, as if that would absolve him of what he'd done.
Deanna now understood how some people suffered post-traumatic stress for long periods of time over one lifealtering event, because something about Brian's attack had left her with a disconcerting feeling. Even though she had cut off all contact with him, had not returned his calls and had not heard from him since April, here she was, away from Los Angeles for four months, and she was still dreaming about the attack.
Deanna frownedthere was something weird about the dream. Something she couldn't quite place. And it went beyond the fact that she couldn't see her own nor Brian's face. Every time she woke up, there was a sense of something that left her anxious. Because sometimes, she got the odd sensation that she wasn't even dreaming about her and Brian at all.
Which didn't make sense, of course. The nightmares had started only after Brian had assaulted her.
Deanna closed her eyes, but it took only a short time for her to realize that she wasn't going to fall back asleep. So she got out of bed, opened up her MacBook and did what she had done practically every day for the past three weeks. She went online to do a search for "Hart" in Georgia.
Georgia was a big state, and Deanna had been hoping to find a trace of her mother online. Ever since her sister Natalie had gone to Philadelphia to search for their mother and found a clue that pointed to her being in Georgia, Deanna had been extremely hopeful. Natalie had met a woman who had known their mother, and she had been adamant that Miriam Hart, who'd gone by a different name, had been in Philadelphia as recently as a few months earlier. According to this woman, Miriam had headed to Georgia to deal with an issue "once and for all."
What that issue was, Deanna had no clue. But during the talks that she'd had with Natalie and their other sister, Cal-lie, they'd come to the conclusion that something bad had happened with their mother and aunt. Auntie Jean had never talked about her parents, nor any other members of their extended family. As kids, neither Deanna nor her sisters had questioned that. Uncle Dave had had plenty of relatives, so they hadn't paid attention to the fact that Auntie Jean had none. Now, in the wake of their aunt's deathwhere no one from her side of the family had even shown up at the funeralit finally dawned on them that something was odd.
Of course, Miriam and Jean's parents could have been deceased, and perhaps they had been the only two children. There were certainly logical explanations as to why Auntie Jean had never been in touch with extended family members.
She went back to deal with something once and for all
Those were the words that gave Deanna pause. The words that had all of the sisters both hopeful and concerned.
Callie, the eldest sister and always the most rational in her thinking, was adamant that whatever their mother needed to deal with could have been taken care of in three months. Deanna tended to agree.
So where was she? Why hadn't she finally come back for them?
Was her mother still afraid of her old boyfriend, Rodney Cook, the man she had run from twenty-three years ago? Back then, Miriam had agreed to testify against him, but she had fled before doing so, deciding to take her chances on her own while leaving her three daughters with her sister. Did Miriam not know that Rodney was back behind bars? Could she still view him as a threat to her life all these years later?
Still so many questions, no answers.
Though Deanna had thus far not had success with her search, she would not be deterred. She opened her browser and typed in the White Pages search engine. It was easier to search city by city, so she chose one she hadn't already, looked up the Harts that were listed and saved those numbers in a document. Come morning, she would call each.
Callie's fiance, Nigel, was, of course, doing things on his end as a police officer, and he certainly had more resources than Deanna and her sisters did. But Nigel's investigation had led to a dead end in Philadelphia. It was Natalie's search in the neighborhood that had yielded results.
Which only served to show that with more hard work and determination, Deanna and her sisters could track down their mother on their own if need be.
Finally exhausted, Deanna went back to bed, where she hoped she would sleep and not have another bad dream.
"Auntie Deanna," Kwame said excitedly. "Will you come to my school and talk to my class?"
Deanna looked up from her iPhone, where she had been once again searching for Harts in Georgia. Every one she had called that morning had led to more dead ends.
"What's that, sweetheart?" Deanna asked her nephew. She had zoned out of the family gathering at Callie and Nigel's place which was only a few blocks from Uncle Dave's. Having consumed a burger, potato salad and a cup of lemonade, Deanna had headed inside, where she had picked up her phone and begun her search again.
"Will you come to my school and talk to my new class?"
"Talk to your class?" Deanna repeated. "About what?"
"About your music!" Kwame said with enthusiasm. "You're famous. Everyone in my class is excited that you're my aunt. So I asked my teacher if you could come and talk to us, and she said that'd be awesome."
Deanna wouldn't exactly say that she was famous
not now, anyway. Not when she had dropped off the map for three years. But that wasn't something that Kwame needed to concern himself with. To him, she was an aunt who had had success in the music industry. There was no doubt that the kids in his class would be fascinated with her, as he was.
Kwame had asked her a million questions about her career, but the toughest one was, "When are you gonna make another album?"
That question had been the hardest to answer, and the most painful, given what had recently happened with Brian.
Pushing the thought from her mind, Deanna said, "Sure, hon. That sounds like something I can do."
"Cool!" Kwame exclaimed. Then he bounded out of the room and back onto the patio.
No sooner than he was gone Callie stuck her head through the door and said, "Why are you in here by yourself? Everyone's going to think that you're antisocial."
"Sorry," Deanna said. "I was just trying to check something." She held up her iPhone.
"That's the problem with today's technologypeople are too addicted. They forget their families exist, even when they're at a family gathering."
"I know, I know," Deanna said. "And you're totally right. It's just
I was trying to find more leads regarding our mother. I keep feeling that the one clue we need is just around the corner."
"I hear you," Callie said. "And you know I want the same thing. But there'll be time for that later. Besides, who knows how many more beautiful weekends we'll have like this?"
Callie was right. It was mid-September, and the weather had already started to cool down. There had been some downright chilly days in the past couple of weeks, but today was bright and sunny, definitely a day that should be spent outside.
So Deanna slipped her phone into the pocket of her slacks and headed back out onto the patio. Happy chatter filled the air. It was a small gathering, the immediate family with one notable guest: Michael Jones.
Natalie was now dating the wide receiver for Cleveland, and they both seemed radiant. Even Uncle Dave's spirits had improved dramatically in the past month. Seeing two of his nieces find love was bringing him immeasurable joy.
Deanna's gaze went from Natalie and Michael, who were sitting side by side and holding hands, to Callie and Nigel. They both stood at the barbecue, where Nigel was placing the newly grilled corn onto a plate, and Callie was basting them with butter. The two had fallen into a happy, domestic routine, and to the outside world it would seem they had been together for years. Perhaps they had beenin their hearts. Deanna had never seen two people more in love than Nigel and Callie, and the fact that they had reunited after being apart for ten years proved that they had the kind of love that could stand the test of time.
"Grilled corn," Callie announced, walking with the plate toward the patio table. "Get it while it's hot."
"My favorite," Deanna said, snagging the first piece. The others quickly snatched up the remaining ones.
"So, Deanna," Callie said as she took a seat beside her. "Nigel's wondering if you have a boyfriend in California."
At the question, Deanna's eyes widened. "What?"
"A boyfriend," Callie repeated. "You know, someone you're seriously dating."
"I know what you mean." Deanna made a face. "But I'm wondering why the question. I've been here four months and you haven't heard me mention any male friend."
"I know," Callie said, "but Nigel didn't want to assume."
Deanna eyed her sister tentatively. "I don't have a boyfriend."
"Oh, good." Callie smiled. "So you're free and single." Deanna noticed that Michael and Natalie were no longer gazing into each other's eyes but staring at her with interest. She made a face. "I'm wondering why Nigel is concerned about the status of my love life."
Callie looked toward Nigel. He gave a nod, indicating his agreement for her to explain why. "Nigel has a friend at the police station," Callie said. "He thinks that maybe you two will hit it off."
Deanna raised both eyebrows. Her future brother-in-law was interested in her finding a man? Deanna highly doubted that. She would bet her last nickel that Callie had put him up to it, and maybe even Natalie, too. Now that both Cal-lie and Natalie had found love, would they have a steady stream of police officers and football players for Deanna to choose from?
"So because both of my sisters are happily coupled off, I have to find someone, too?" Deanna asked.
"Something like that," Natalie said, grinning widely. Though she and Michael were sitting beside each other and holding hands, Natalie's legs were now extended and stretched out on Michael's lap. They were completely at ease together, totally content. Deanna didn't remember seeing her sister ever look quite so happy.
"And Nigel thinks that Marshall would love you," Callie went on. "You said he's a fan of her music, didn't you, sweetie?"
"Yep," Nigel agreed. "He said he's followed your career, loves your music, thinks you're beautiful."
Deanna refrained from rolling her eyes. She didn't want a man who liked her for her music. All too often, a man was enamored with her public persona and not the real her.
"If it's all well and good, I think I'll pass on being set up."
"Come on," Callie said. "What could it hurt?"
"I never do well on blind dates. I don't know why, I just don't. I guess I feel too awkward, which causes the whole date to spiral downhill."
"Then don't think of it as a blind date," Callie said. "Think of it as an evening where you'll be meeting someone new."
"I'll still say no," Deanna said with a frown.
Callie shook her head. "So stubborn."