A/N: So... it's been about six years, I think, since I've posted anything here. Life got in the way and threw me a few curveballs - and I thank everyone who offered their thoughts, prayers and kindness during that time. I kept all of your messages and re-read them many, many times. I can't begin to tell all of you how much they helped! I believe everything happens for a reason, even if you don't know what that reason is at the time so when life does throw those curveballs at you, if you just keep putting one foot in front of the other eventually you come out on the other side. I think I made it to the other side and life is pretty good again. I still miss my boy Rebel every single day, but my "new" baby Deuce (not really so new - he's 3 1/2 years old now!) has helped fill the void in my life and the hole in my heart; and he got me through some pretty rough times.
As for the story, it's the next one in my series. I wrote it about seven or so years ago, before life blew up in my face. I did have it beta'd and proof read it way back then when I was getting ready to post it, but I will honestly say I haven't looked at it since. So if you find any mistakes, errors, continuity issues, etc., feel free to let me know. All comments, positive as well as constructive criticism, are welcome. I try to write the Hardys as real people. They're not perfect. They have flaws. They have faults. They make mistakes. Just wanted to give a little 'heads up'. ;-) As with all my other stories, this one is complete so it won't be abandoned halfway through. I'll try to post chapters 2-3 times a week. Hopefully I still remember how to do it!
Jeff Cutter pulled his rental car to a stop across from the large home on the corner of High and Elm Streets. Killing the engine, he looked at the house noting only the porch light was glowing, indicating the occupants weren't home. Jeff had anticipated Fenton and Laura Hardy might not be home when he arrived, but hadn't wanted to announce his visit ahead of time. He knew he was unwelcome in the Hardy home; his brother-in-law had made that abundantly clear in their final conversation all those years ago. Not that he blamed the man at all, considering what Jeff's one moment of lapsed attention had cost Fenton Hardy and his family.
Settling back to wait, he gazed at the house. Hoping to keep the all-consuming guilt at bay for a while, he recalled bittersweet memories of happier times within those walls. The birthday parties, the Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays, the cookouts on lazy summer days… if he concentrated, Jeff could almost hear the adults' laughter mingling with the children's squeals of delight.
His son and daughter were the same ages as their cousins, Laura and Fenton's two sons. Frank Hardy and Kevin Cutter had been born two months apart, while their respective younger siblings, Joe Hardy and Kelly Cutter, had come into the world only two days apart. The four children had been almost inseparable, owing in large part to the extremely close relationship shared by their mothers - his wife Carole, and her younger sister, Laura Hardy.
'Had been…' Jeff thought sadly.
The memory resurfaced in agonizing detail as the guilt ate away another piece of his soul. Not a day went by that he didn't wish he could turn back the clock and change what had transpired that afternoon. The passage of time hadn't dimmed the images or emotions one bit. If anything they grew clearer and more painful with each recollection…
Leaning back on his elbows, Jeff reclined on the blanket that was cushioned by the lush grass beneath it. Ever vigilant, he never took his eyes off the group of children playing several yards away. He easily picked out his own two children, Kevin and Kelly but had a little more difficulty tracking his nephew, Joe. He often thought if he looked up the words 'perpetual motion' in the dictionary, there would be a picture of six-year-old Joe Hardy; the child was in constant motion. Even when he was asked to sit for whatever reason - to eat a meal, watch television or have a story read to him - the tow-headed little boy was still moving, fidgeting, gesturing... laughing and talking a mile a minute.
Shaking his head, Jeff smiled as he recalled the tangle of sheets and blankets he had encountered that morning when he'd gone in to wake his nephew. It had taken a good thirty seconds for him to find Joe buried in the knotted bedding, proof positive that even sleep couldn't completely still the overactive child.
Chuckling to himself, Jeff recalled Fenton once commenting that engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the world's most hardened criminals wasn't nearly as tiring as a single afternoon spent trying to keep up with his younger son. He'd always had the feeling Fenton was only half joking.
To Jeff, watching as his three charges played tag with a group of children from the nearby orphanage, Joe seemed to be a blur of movement. He ricocheted from one end of the grassy area to the other, successfully avoiding all attempts by the other children to make him 'It'. At times it seemed to Jeff that his nephew was almost teasing the other kids, letting them get close enough to think they might have a chance before he darted away.
Joe's infectious laughter echoed above the other children's and Jeff couldn't help but smile. Once again, he marveled at his nephew's perennially sunny disposition. He'd never seen such a happy child before, or one who delighted in sharing that joy with everyone around him - children and adults alike. Jeff fervently hoped that as his nephew grew up, he never lost that youthful jubilance. He watched Joe happily evade the other children when a child's piercing scream suddenly grabbed his attention.
With a parent's 'internal radar', he immediately zeroed in on his daughter. She was clutching her brother's hand tightly, tears streaming down her face and wailing at the top of her lungs as Kevin guided her back to the safety of their parents' arms. It took only a few seconds for Jeff to see the skinned knee and scrapes on her chin were minor injuries. As Carole and Kevin tried to soothe the sobbing child, Jeff planted a kiss on the top of her head and stood up. Turning around he was slightly embarrassed to find Kelly's diva-like performance had garnered the attention of everyone within hearing range. He shrugged and gave the other parents a rueful smile, relieved to see several nod in understanding.
With the 'crisis' over, everyone returned to their own activities as Jeff scanned the group of children for the familiar white-blonde hair of his nephew. He frowned when he wasn't able to immediately pick Joe out of the crowd, wondering how it was possible to miss the curly mop of hair that shone like a beacon in the sun. Taking a few steps forward, he looked to the left, scanning the area near the trees with no luck. Beginning to panic, he jerked his head to the right, anxiously checking the parking lot. Nothing.
Aware of the knot that was forming in his stomach, Jeff rushed forward his heartbeat increasing with each step. He circled the group of children from the orphanage, calling out his nephew's name.
"Joe? Joe, it's time to go…" he called out, not surprised to hear a frantic edge to his voice. "JOE! Where are you?!"
Seeing the growing panic in his eyes, several other parents realized what must have happened. Those who had been captivated by Joe's outgoing, mischievous personality volunteered to help Jeff look for his missing nephew. However, after a thorough search of the park, the play area, the woods and the parking lot, they reconvened with no one finding any sign of Joe or having encountered anyone who had seen him. The scent of fear permeated the air. Parents distanced themselves from Jeff and pulled their own children close.
Praying Joe had simply wandered off after something that had captured his attention and by now had returned to his aunt's side, Jeff sought out his wife. He found Carole kneeling on the blanket, clutching Kelly and Kevin to her. When she saw Jeff returning to them - alone - her eyes widened. Jeff stared at her, the guilt already starting to eat him alive. As reality sunk in, he saw the same emotion overwhelming his wife.
Fenton and Laura had entrusted them with their most precious 'possession'- their baby - and in an instinctive moment of parental concern for their own child, Jeff and Carole had committed the ultimate sin. They had taken their eyes off Joe for what seemed only a split second but it had been long enough. When they turned around, he was gone.
Jeff shuddered, the emotions as raw and painful as they had been that horrible day. The phone call to Fenton and Laura telling them their son had disappeared was, to this day, the hardest thing he'd ever done in his life; the subsequent three days the longest he'd ever endured. He had wanted to help in the search for Joe, an offer Fenton wouldn't even consider.
"You've done enough already!"
Jeff hadn't been the least bit surprised at the venom in his brother-in-law's voice. Fenton and Laura had trusted him to look after Joe as he would his own child and he had broken that trust - obliterated it. Joe was the light of their lives and for three long days it was a light that they all feared had been permanently extinguished.
Over those three days Fenton, his close friend and associate Sam Radley and the local authorities searched for Joe tirelessly, taking time only to grab something to eat. Sleep was out of the question. Not wanting Laura to be alone with nothing to do but wonder what was happening to her son, Carole refused to leave her sister's side.
After Fenton expressly forbid him from setting foot in the Hardys' house, Jeff retreated to his own home and waited for word on Joe, hoping for the best yet fearing the worst. Looking after Kelly and Kevin was both a blessing and a curse. The children had kept him distracted to a certain degree, but also fed his enormous sense of guilt. His own children were safe and sound, while Joe was being subjected to…
Even now, the bile rose in his throat as Jeff recalled the video Fenton Hardy forced him to watch, wanting him to know what Joe had endured thanks to his negligence. It had taken only thirty seconds for Jeff to flee to the bathroom, becoming violently ill at the sickening images on the tape. He had returned to Fenton's office and tearfully asked if Joe had been forced to participate.
Although Fenton said Joe had only been forced to watch, Jeff had always harbored a doubt. Had Joe been spared the horror of being a pedophile's fantasy come true? Or had the real truth of what Joe endured simply been too much for Fenton Hardy to acknowledge?
Jeff never got the chance to find out. Once Joe was finally rescued and returned to the safety of his parents' arms, Laura and Carole's relationship rapidly deteriorated. As for Fenton, he couldn't possibly have hidden his anger and rage at Jeff and Carole even if he wanted to - and he didn't want to. He held them completely responsible for what had happened to his beloved child and it was clear that 'forgive and forget' was out of the question.
Word had quickly spread through town that Joe had been abducted while in the care of Jeff and Carole. When the resulting 'cold shoulder' they received from friends and acquaintances was extended to their children who suddenly found themselves with no playmates, they knew there was only one option.
Within a month of Joe's return, the Cutter family packed up and left Bayport, moving to Arizona. The bond they'd shared with Fenton and Laura had been damaged beyond repair. Remaining in the town they loved would only serve as a constant reminder of what Joe had been subjected to and they had already caused the Hardys enough pain.
After getting permission from Laura and Fenton, they had made a brief stop at the Hardy home on their way out of town, so Kevin and Kelly could say goodbye to the cousins they had grown up with. It was the last time either of them had spoken to Fenton and Laura Hardy.
Sitting up, Jeff forced himself not to look at the house across the street. He'd known it would be hard to come back to this house that had held such happy memories, but he'd never anticipated it would be this difficult. Was he really prepared to face his brother-in-law again? He didn't have time to ponder the thought as a pair of headlights suddenly appeared in the rearview mirror.
Slouching back down, Jeff watched the expensive luxury car turn into the Hardy driveway. Seconds later the driver's side door opened and Fenton Hardy emerged. Even from this distance, he exuded an air of confidence and authority. Walking to the passenger side, Fenton opened the door and helped his wife from the car.
As the couple walked towards the house, Jeff heard Laura's soft laughter, apparently in response to something her husband said. They looked happy. Content. Unaware their world was about to be turned upside down by a man they were sure they'd never see again.
A momentary rush of fear caused Jeff to hesitate, as the Hardys approached their front door. His nerves were on overload and he was no longer sure he could convince Fenton Hardy to temporarily put the past aside. Praying for the words that would at least make his estranged brother-in-law listen to his plea, Jeff got out of the car and quietly closed the door, barely making a sound. Fenton Hardy's investigative skills and intuition had been impressive eighteen years ago, there was no telling how much they'd improved since then. It was unlikely he would have heard the car door at this distance, but Jeff wasn't taking any chances - he did not want to do anything that would alert the detective to his presence.
Taking a deep breath, Jeff started across the street as the last words Fenton Hardy had uttered to him echoed in his mind…
"If you ever come near my family again, I will kill you."