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WITH ONLY THE DIM GLOW of the bathroom night-light to guide her, Diana Smith moved silently through the upstairs hall of her older brother's pricey town house. The low heels of her boots sank into the plush carpeting, muffling her footsteps.
Shifting the weight of her backpack more comfortably on her shoulder, she stopped in front of the bedroom where her nine-year-old daughter Jaye slept and carefully eased open the door. The hinges groaned in protest, the sound gunshot-loud in the quiet house. Diana froze, her breath catching in her throat.
She glanced down the darkened hall to her brother's bedroom door, waiting for Connor to emerge and find her awake and fully dressed. But the door remained closed.
She exhaled, her breath coming out ragged. Careful not to nudge the door, she peered around the crack into the room.
Jaye was still asleep but stirred restlessly, turning over onto her side. Diana stood perfectly still until the girl settled into position and her chest expanded and contracted in a rhythmic motion. Weak moonlight filtered through a crack in the blinds, bathing Jaye in soft light.
Her face was relaxed, her cheeks rosy and her full lips slightly pursed as she slept. Her long, blond hair spilled over the pillow like a halo.
A wave of love hit Diana hard. Three days ago, she'd decided on the course of action she must take. Gazing upon her daughter now, however, she wasn't sure she had the strength to carry through.
She was reminded too vividly of another place, another time and a man whose features she glimpsed in the sleeping child. She'd done right by Tyler Benton, too, but the doing had shattered her heart.
From necessity and long practice, she shoved Tyler from her mind and concentrated on the moment. Before she could muster the will to retreat, she broke into a cold sweat, her muscles and her very bones aching. She fought off a bout of nausea as her stomach pitched and rolled.
If she needed a sign that leaving Jaye was the right thing to do, her physical condition couldn't have provided a better one.
Since losing control on a slick stretch of road and slamming her car into a towering oak tree, she'd felt ill, but not due to injuries sustained in the crash. She'd walked away from the one-car accident remarkably unscathed, considering she might have died if she'd struck the tree a few inches left of impact.
The police had attributed her accident to bad luck, but Diana feared the pain pills she'd popped after leaving her job at a Nashville clothing warehouse had been the true cause.
She'd been using the drug since straining her back six months before, devising new and clever ways to secure the tablets long after her prescription ran out.
Horrified that Jaye could have been in the car with her, she'd faced the fact that she was addicted. Then she'd flushed the rest of the Vicodin down the toilet, only to find a new stockpile a few days later in one of her hiding places.
Since then, she'd lost her job after failing a random drug test at work and confronted some more harsh truths. She needed help to kick her habit and she wasn't fit to be around her daughter.
After much thought, she'd packed up Jaye and the child's meager belongings and boarded a bus for the two-day trip from Tennessee to Connor's town house. They'd arrived in Silver Spring, Maryland, not even six hours ago, surprising a brother she hadn't seen in years.
Jaye made a sweet, snuffling sound in her sleep and hugged the soft, stuffed teddy bear that Diana had bought her when she was a toddler. Diana longed to rush over to the bed and kiss her one last time, but couldn't risk waking her.
"I'm sorry, baby," she whispered.
Tears fell down her cheeks like rain as she memorized the planes and angles of the sleeping child's face before moving away from the door. She left it ajar, unwilling to risk making another sound.
She crept down the hall and descended the stairs as silently as a ghost. When she reached Connor's state-of-the-art kitchen, she turned on the dim light over the stove, dug Jaye's school transcripts and birth certificate out of her backpack and set them on the counter.
After locating a pad and pen, she thought for long moments before she wrote:
Connor, I need to work some things out and get my head on straight. Here's everything you need to enroll Jaye in school. Please take good care of her until I come back. I don't know when that will be, but I'll be in touch.
She put down the note, read it over, then bent down and scribbled two more words: I'm sorry.
A fat teardrop rolled from her face onto the notepaper, blurring the ink of the apology.
Wiping away the rest of the tears, she headed for the front door. Her chest ached. Whether it was from being without Vicodin or from the hardest decision she'd ever had to make, she couldn't be sure.
Within moments, she was trudging down the sidewalk by the glow of the street lamps toward the very bus station where she and Jaye had arrived.
She knew that abandoning her child was unforgivable, just as what she'd done to Tyler Benton ten years ago had been unforgivable.
But it couldn't be helped. She'd been barely seventeen when Jaye was born, no more than a child herself, grossed out by breast-feeding, impatient with crying and resentful of her new responsibilities.
A tidal wave of love for her daughter, which gathered strength with each passing day, had helped Diana grow up fast. She tried her best, but harbored no illusion that love alone would make her a good mother.
Diana waited for the sparse early-morning traffic to pass before crossing a main street, placing one foot in front of the other when all she wanted was to turn back. But she couldn't. Not only did she lack the courage to confess to her brother that she had a drug problem, she couldn't risk having him say Jaye couldn't stay with him.
Despite his bachelor status, Connor represented her best hope. Her parents, to whom she hadn't spoken to in years, were out. She had no doubt that her brother would take good care of Jaye. Until Diana kicked her habit and put her life back on track, Jaye was better off with him. And without Diana.
She blinked rapidly until her tears dried, then turned her mind to her uncertain future. Once she spent a portion of her dwindling cash on a return bus ticket to Nashville, she'd need to find a cheaper apartment, search for a job that paid a decent wage and somehow figure out how to get into drug treatment.
Even now she craved a pill. She reached into the front pocket of her blue jeans, her fingertips encountering the reassuring presence of the three little white Vicodin tablets left from her stash.
Despite her desire to do right by her much-loved daughter, she couldn't say for sure whether the pills would still be in her pocket when she reached Nashville.
Six months later
DIANA SMITH WIPED away the bead of moisture trickling down her forehead with the pad of her index finger. It felt warm against her skin, a marked difference from the drenching sweats that used to chill her body when she denied herself the Vicodin that held her in its grip.
It had been months since she'd stopped desiring the prescription pain pills, longer since she'd done an abbreviated stint in detox and then gone through the hell of withdrawal. And longer still since she'd crept from her brother's town house in the dark of night while Connor and Jaye slept.
The air had been crisp then, cold enough that she could see her breath when she exhaled. Now it was stagnant and sultry, the kind of heat typical of Maryland in the waning days of August. But the heat wasn't what had Diana sweating.
She sat in the driver's seat of her secondhand Chevy with the driver's-side window rolled down, a good half block from her brother's brick town house. No lights shone inside as far as she could determine, suggesting nobody was home. She had no way of knowing if anyone would arrive soon, although it was past six o'clock on a Friday.
She waited, her entire body on alert whenever a car appeared. But it was never the silver Porsche her brother drove. She counted up the months since she'd last been here in Silver Spring, surprised that six of them had passed. It felt twice that long, because every day without her daughter seemed to drag to twice its normal length.
She hadn't spoken to Jaye once in all that time. She'd picked up the phone countless times, but fear had paralyzed her. How could she expect a child to understand she'd done what she thought best when her own adult brother didn't?
She'd left phone messages on Connor's answering machine to let him know she was okay but had only spoken to him the one time, after he'd tracked her down through a private investigator.
Connor had kept his temper in check, even offering to put Jaye on the line. Diana had ached to hear her child's voice and longed to promise her they'd be together soon. But she'd resisted the allure, unable to face the questions about why she'd gone or when she'd be back.
As she waited, she heard birds singing, the distant sound of a stereo playing and a quiet that made little sense. A neighborhood like this should be alive with activity late on a Friday afternoon, after businesses shut down for the day. Only holiday weekends followed a different pattern.
"Oh, no," she said aloud, as the importance of today's date sunk in. The last Friday in August. The start of the long Labor Day weekend.
Connor could have gotten off work early and headed somewhere with Jaye to enjoy the last gasp of summer. She might not glimpse her daughter today after all.
Her hopes rose when she heard the whoosh of approaching tires on pavement, but a blue compact car and not her brother's Porsche came into view. Before discouragement could set in, the car pulled into Connor's driveway.
Diana slouched down in her seat, her right hand tightening on her thigh. Both doors opened simultaneously. A woman with short, dark hair emerged from behind the wheel, something about her vaguely familiar. But Diana barely spared her a glance, her attention captured by the passenger. By Jaye.
The little girl reached inside the car and pulled out a number of plastic shopping bags. Her hands full, she bumped the door closed with her hip, then came fully into view. Her long gilded hair was the same, but her skin was tanned by the sun and she appeared a few inches taller. A growth spurt, common enough in a nine-year-old. But Diana had missed it.
The sun was low in the sky. It backlit Jaye so that she looked ephemeral, as out of reach to Diana as if she were an other-worldly creature.
Diana remembered the unexpected wave of love that swept over her the first time she held Jaye in the hospital. The love no longer surprised her. She braced herself for it, but it still hit her like a punch.
The dark-haired woman joined Jaye at the foot of the sidewalk and took a few of the bags from her. The woman said something, and Jaye giggled, the high-pitched girlish sound traveling on the breeze. Diana's lips curved. She leaned closer to the open window, closer to Jaye, forgetting her notion to be inconspicuous.
The woman ruffled the top of Jaye's blond head, and then Jaye skipped up the sidewalk to the front door of the town house.
The woman followed, a small object that could only be a house key in her free hand. Despair rolled over Diana, settling in the pit of her stomach. The woman unlocked the door. A cry of protest rose in Diana's throat. Feeling as though she was choking, she watched helplessly as the woman opened the door.