Author's Note: We've finally reached the end! To everyone who stuck with me through this entire ride, thank you so much for reading. And a special thank you to those who took the time to leave a comment—it's always great to hear your thoughts. I hope you've enjoyed reading the story as much as I enjoyed writing it.
What little of the world could be seen outside the window looked deceptively peaceful—safe. Almost like somewhere she might actually want to live, if the choice were hers to make.
Dee Dee turned away from the pane and the small glimpse of the ocean visible from it. She met her audience of two apprehensively, attempting to warm the atmosphere between them with a smile, but failing. Overlooking Riley Porter's own miserable attempt at a smile, her gaze settled instead on the gold star affixed to the second man's breast pocket. She nodded, understanding, knowing, and before either stone-faced man could verbalize an actual greeting, she found herself searching frantically for the strength that she knew they were going to ask her for.
"Ms. McCall," Porter greeted. He stood at the foot of the hospital bed, nodding a further hello. "This is Marshal Guy Cleary. He's with the United States Department of Justice."
"Department of Justice…yeah," Dee Dee whispered, lowering herself onto the edge of the unmade bed. She slid her hand through the side of her hair, smoothing the strands behind her ear. "Before you, um. My daughter? The nurse took her—"
"To a playroom on the pediatric floor," Porter answered. He lifted his hands quickly, his palms steadied in Dee Dee's direction. "There's nothing to worry about, I promise you. Right now, she's in the middle of a cut throat game of Candyland with two FBI agents, and there are two Marshals standing guard." He smiled, small and nervous. "How're you feeling?"
Dee Dee touched a hand to the side of her face, inadvertently wincing as her swollen cheekbone retaliated with a flash of pain. "Just some bruises," she answered, lowering her hand and skimming it shakily over the thick tape that covered her torso and was concealed beneath the hospital gown. "Luckily, the ribs, too—just bruised. I'll be fine."
"Glad to hear it," Porter responded. "So, uh. What do you say? The sooner we get you out of here, the better. Are you ready to get to work?"
Dee Dee blew out a tense breath, her gaze darting between the two men's stony expressions. "I guess there's no time like the present?"
"Exactly right," Porter agreed. "Well, then. Let's get this briefing started—"
"Briefing?" she asked, laughing dryly. "That's how you've decided to sum up my life? As a briefing?"
"Sorry," Porter muttered, shooting a wary glance at the man beside him. "I know this is all happening suddenly, but it's crucial that we get you moved into a safe environment as soon as possible."
"Fine," Dee Dee responded curtly. "Whatever. Just tell me what's going on. And I want to know everything. Not just the bits and pieces you feel like telling me, but all of it."
Porter pulled an envelope out of the breast pocket of his jacket, holding it out for her. Dee Dee took it shakily, and he gave her a minute to look it over before continuing. "It's a subpoena. You're being called to testify against Elian Sandoval."
She dropped the envelope as if it had suddenly burst into flames, and pushed it toward the opposite side of the bed with a quick flick of her hand. "I won't live long enough to do that."
"The government's prepared to make sure you do," Porter assured her. "Marshal Cleary and I are going to take your daughter and you out of here, we'll move you to a safe house. You, uh…you remember how that process works, right?"
She responded with a faint, tight smile, one that made it clear that she wasn't in any type of mood to be patronized. Riley Porter was handling her with kid gloves, as if she might break. But what he didn't understand was that she felt stronger than ever, and she was prepared to keep fighting, just like they wanted her to do.
"Both your daughter and you will have around the clock protection until the trial ends," Porter explained. "You'll be guarded by both FBI agents and U.S. Marshals, and when the trial begins these men will be responsible for transporting you safely to and from the court house, as well keeping your daughter safe while you're gone. Trust me, every precaution will be taken."
"What about, uh. We're married. Can't Elian's lawyers fight me testifying?"
"It's not going to happen. By your own account, the marriage wasn't consensual, and we intend to use that against Sandoval instead of letting his lawyers use it to his advantage. It's just one more way for us to show how you've been victimized. So, we'll present you as a hostile witness. That way, you'll be able to take the stand and tell the jury your story in your own words."
Your story in your own words Dee Dee replayed in her head. The thought made her stomach ache, her chest burn, and for a second, one that she felt unusually strong through, she considered refusing to testify and taking her chances in jail, instead. In the big picture, it seemed like the lesser of the evils—waiting in a locked cell for one of Elian's men to kill her. And it seemed less frightening than exposing her degrading secrets to a room full of judgmental jurors, unemotional law enforcement, government bigwigs, and blood-and-gore-craving spectators.
"Once they find out I married him they won't hear anything else," she said, her gaze dropping as she hid from Porter's deceivingly understanding eyes. "They won't…no one will understand. And I don't know if I can…" If I can make them understand, she silently concluded. The humiliation Elian had subjected her to, the fear and hatred he'd instilled in her all seemed too horrific to be able to be explained with mere words. She didn't know where or how to begin. If she hadn't even been able to tell Hunter, how could Porter expect her to tell a room full of strangers?
"The FBI believes you, Ms. McCall," Porter said softly, soothingly. "And we fully expect a jury to believe you, too."
"You expect?" she asked, doubt darkening her eyes. "I was a cop, remember? I know what they do to victims in a courtroom. They tear them apart, piece-by-piece, ugly truth by ugly truth. And I know— Look, no one's going to believe me. How can they? Whether or not it's what I wanted, I am married to him. I've been married to him for almost six years."
Porter shook his head, seeming as unworried as he claimed to be by the information she re-stressed. "That doesn't mean anything. Rape happens in marriages, too. And in the end, Ms. McCall, what defines it as rape is one word—no."
"But. It was six years—"
"Six years of control," Porter argued, through a firm nod. "And isn't that what rape is about? Your case has everything—violence, control, isolation, abuse." He shrugged, as if it should all be so simple for her to recount, simple for others to believe. Open and shut, because she had all the elements that Riley Porter thought made up a good case, an interesting one. And it disgusted her. It made her feel disgusted, how excited he seemed by the ugliness that was her life.
"How can I expect anyone to believe me?" Dee Dee whispered. "I don't even know what I believe anymore."
"You'll be counseled by our attorneys," Porter offered. "They'll help you prepare your testimony."
"You mean they'll make me look as pathetic as you need me to look?" She frowned, her stare turning cold. "So, what? Is that supposed to make it easier for me to tell what happened, because I'll know people think I'm pathetic? Because they'll feel sorry for me?"
Porter cleared his throat, shuffling awkwardly from foot to foot as he dug his hands into the front pockets of his trousers. "Bottom line, we need to make sure Sandoval doesn't walk. And your testimony added to all the evidence we've accumulated regarding his drug trafficking, prostitution, murder…" He shook his head, grimacing. "We need you, Ms. McCall. We need you most of all, and my opinion? You need to be able to tell your story."
Dee Dee forced down a swallow, trying to fight down her fear, also. Riley Porter wanted her to tell her story; he thought it was what she needed to do. Screw him was her first retort, with her second being, Who in the hell did he think he was? Did he actually believe he knew her, that he knew what she needed or wanted? Because if that was what he knew, then what she really needed was for him to explain it to her so that she would finally know, too.
"We have a car waiting downstairs," Porter continued. "The doctor will be by shortly to check you one last time before you're released. After that, your daughter and you will be driven to the safe house. Keep in mind, it's imperative that you don't tell anyone where you are, your location. Both your daughter's and your safety are dependent on complete secrecy in this matter."
Dee Dee dragged her hand through the top of her hair, scattering the strands. Her eyelids fluttered, weighted by both exhaustion and disbelief. "What, uh. What about… I mean, can I at least say goodbye? I need to talk to Hunter, to explain—"
Porter shot down her plea with a sharp shake of his head. "I'm sorry."
She ducked her head, fighting back tears, trying to organize her frenzied thoughts, and calm her nerves that were one more unwanted change away from convincing her that running was the safer option than willingly making Avi and herself the government's own, personal sitting ducks. "What about after the trial?" she asked, her voice choked.
"That's where the Justice Department comes in, ma'am" Marshal Cleary answered, stepping up to the foot of the bed beside Porter. He towered over the agent by a solid four inches, his silvery hair cropped shot and his features chiseled, sharp. "The Attorney General has reviewed your case, and he's recommended that you be admitted into the Witness Protection Program. You'll begin the program as soon as you finish your testimony." He clasped his hands in front of him, clutching a large, overstuffed envelope. "Everything's already been arranged."
"Arranged?" she asked quickly, breathlessly. "But it's my decision, right? I mean, I can…I can say…no?"
"You really think that's an option?" Porter rebutted, an eyebrow cocked to drive home his point that, no, it wasn't one. "Elian Sandoval isn't just going to go away."
Wasn't that what she'd been saying all along, Dee Dee wanted to fire back at the nauseatingly sympathetic-looking Porter. Finally, when it was what she wanted least, someone had decided to listen to her. And not only listen, but also use what she'd been saying to her disadvantage.
"Ma'am, we've created new identities for your daughter and you," Cleary announced. "Given you a new life."
"You mean a life, don't you?" Dee Dee responded bitingly. "You're forgetting, I didn't have one before."
"Yes, ma'am," Cleary muttered uncomfortably. He cleared his throat, opening the eight-by-ten envelope and pulling out a stapled stack of papers. "Your, uh. Your name is Alexandra Ross. You were born September the twenty-third, nineteen-fifty-eight in Chicago, Ill—"
"Fifty-eight?" she asked, her brows rising as she revealed, for the first time, the beginning trembles of a smile. "So, I'm two years younger?" She shrugged faintly. "Maybe this new life will have its perks after all."
Marshal Cleary returned her hint of a smile. "Yes, ma'am. It's what the government hopes." He glanced down at the papers in his hand, quickly skimming the top sheet. "Your parents names were William and Katherine Davis. Both are deceased, and you don't have any siblings. You're widowed—"
"Wow…" Dee Dee interrupted softly, with barely a whisper. "Avi and I…can we, uh. Can we at least have a dog, maybe a goldfish? We sound kind of pitiful, don't you think?" She couldn't help but realize, even though sadly, how closely fantasy was mirroring reality. The last six years had been marked by loneliness, aloneness, and now it would continue in the make-believe world the government had created for Avi and her.
Cleary grunted unintelligibly under his breath, maintaining his clinical edge despite Dee Dee's weak attempt at humor and the perceptible sorrow that had settled on her face. "Your daughter…" He cast a glance at Porter, his frown deepening, wrinkling the tanned skin around the edges of his mouth. "She's, uh. She's rather…opinionated. When Agent Porter and I interviewed her, she made it clear that she didn't like the name we'd chosen for her, said if she had to have a new one, she would only answer if it was, uh. If it was…Cinderella."
Dee Dee chuckled softly, unadulterated. "Cinderella's her favorite princess."
"Yes, ma'am," Cleary agreed. "She made that very clear, also. But…well. Cinderella isn't exactly a viable option, so we—your daughter and myself—came to an agreement. We have birth certificates for both of you; the name listed on hers is Ella Ross, birth date the fourth of December, nineteen-ninety-two."
"Ella…" Dee Dee whispered, saying it even softer, twice more. Ella. It wouldn't have been her pick, but it hadn't been Elian's, either. And that fact alone made her like it.
"We understand you have somewhat of a talent for art," Cleary continued, "so that's the occupation we've chosen for you—an art teacher. A job has already been secured for you at a local high school in the area you'll be living, and you're scheduled to start work at the beginning of the next school term. We've rented an apartment for you, it's been furnished, and by the time you arrive the kitchen will be stocked and your daughter and you will both have complete wardrobes. Hopefully, everything will be to your liking." He dropped the envelope and stack of papers onto the end of the bed. "You have all the documentation you'll need to substantiate that you are Alexandra and Ella Ross. Besides birth certificates there's social security information, medical and dental records, an Illinois' drivers license, credit history…everything. I'd suggest you use your time at the safe house to familiarize yourself with it."
Dee Dee lifted a brow, glancing lazily at the papers. "Am I allowed to ask where you're sending Alexandra and Ella?"
One side of Cleary's mouth curled upward with the hint of lightheartedness, offering the first indication to Dee Dee that he might actually be human after all instead of the emotionless robot he was trying to pass himself off as. "How do you feel about Hawaii?"
"Hawaii?" She shrugged. "I've heard it's a nice place to visit."
"Well, let's hope it's an even nicer place to live. You're going to the island of Oahu." After retrieving the paperwork, he stepped around the bed and handed it to Dee Dee. "There's a smaller packet inside the envelope containing five thousand dollars in cash. It'll help you get started." He took a step back, shooting a quick glance at Porter. "Immediately following the end of your testimony, you'll be taken back to the safe house. We'll have marshals waiting who'll help alter your daughter's and your appearances. Trust me, they know what they're doing so there won't be anything to worry about."
"Boy. You guys think of everything, don't you?" Dee Dee muttered nervously.
"As soon as you're finished with the marshals, you'll be taken to the airport. You'll be given your airline tickets and a travel itinerary at that time. Marshals will be situated throughout MIA to make sure you make it to your gate safely, but keep in mind, once you board the plane, you're on your own. We won't be able to protect you any longer, and as far as the government will be concerned, Dee Dee McCall and Ava Sophia Sandoval will never have existed."
"Dee Dee McCall never existed…" she whispered, her hands twisted in her lap. "I've wondered for a long time if she ever really did."
"I know this is difficult, Ms. McCall," Porter interjected, offering a concerned smile.
"Do you?" she asked quickly. "How do you know, Agent Porter? Has anyone ever taken away everything that mattered to you?"
Porter's gaze dropped and he shrugged stiltedly, awkwardly. "It's difficult, I understand. But I'm afraid it's the only choice you have. I don't have to tell you what kind of man Elian Sandoval is."
"No, you don't have to tell me."
"Ma'am," Cleary broke in. "It's important to remember that you can't make contact with anyone. From this moment on, there shouldn't be any communication with family or friends. It's imperative that no one knows where your daughter and you are."
His announcement wasn't unexpected; she'd known it would be at the top of the list of rules. But still, hearing it said out loud sent a jolt of fear speeding through her. It was paralyzing, suffocating. Making it all too real for her to keep pretending that it wasn't her life being discussed so damned clinically. "No one?" She shook her head, laughing softly, sadly. "Come on, Porter. Don't do this to me, please."
"I'm sorry," Porter responded, sounding as regretful as Dee Dee had sounded frightened. "But it's the only way. I don't have to tell you that."
"No. No, I know. But…if I could…just…" She massaged her forehead with trembling fingers. "Before, I didn't…I never got to say goodbye, you know? If I could…just let me talk to Hunter. Please? Let me—"
"If I let that happen, I'll be putting both Lieutenant Hunter and you in danger," Porter said sternly. "Anyone you contact from this moment on could potentially become a target for Sandoval. It's important you keep that in mind."
She nodded hesitantly, resignedly. She understood; she knew Porter was right. But that didn't mean she was ready to submerge herself in the same nightmare again. Disappearing without anyone knowing where she was, without her knowing about anyone else. The people she loved most would die all over again, and she didn't know if she could bury them a second time. Not when, in her heart, they'd all just begun living again.
"Well, ma'am. I guess that's it," Cleary said. "Do you have any questions?"
"Do I…um. I…" Shakiness momentarily stole her voice. "I understand why I can't contact anyone but, uh. Since I've been out of Coral Gables, I haven't been able to see or talk to my mother. I haven't even been able to tell her that she has a granddaughter. Could I at least write her a letter?" She climbed off the bed, facing down an openly disagreeing Porter. "I won't tell her anything, all right, and you can read the letter if you want. I just. I need to let her know that I'm okay. I want her to know about Avi, and that she doesn't have to worry about us—that she doesn't have to worry anymore. Please, Agent Porter. It's been six years. That's long enough for her to have to wonder, don't you think?"
Porter hesitated, landing a cautious glance on Cleary before answering with a hesitant nod. "Give the letter to me. I'll make sure it gets delivered."
Dee Dee nodded, responding with shaky, tear-laden, "Thank you."
"Sure," Porter said. "Well. We've brought a change of clothes for you, so Marshal Cleary and I'll step outside while you get ready. Like I said, once the doctor releases you, we'll transport your daughter and you to the safe house."
"So, this is it? It's…really—"
"This is it," Porter confirmed, touching a hand to her shoulder. "I'm sorry, Ms. McCall. I really am."
Dee Dee watched the men make their way across the room. As Porter pulled the door open, she jumped forward an anxious step, calling after him, stopping him. "What're you going to tell Hunter?" she asked, as Porter glanced back at her. "He'll tear this city apart, you know, looking for us."
Porter hesitated only a second, before agreeing with a faint nod. "He'll tear it apart, but he won't find you."
"What the hell is going on? You underhanded son of a bitch!"
Hunter charged through the conference room, skidding to a stop on the opposite side of the rectangular-shaped table from Riley Porter. It was the same table he'd paced around as Porter recited facts that hadn't mattered about a sham of a marriage and a faceless child, and it was the same table a shell-shocked Avi had been sitting at the first time he'd seen her. "They're gone, damn it!" he hissed, a finger aimed at Porter's tensed face. "Where the hell did you put them?"
Porter responded with a deliberate shake of his head, an expectant grimace further tightening his expression. "Go home, Hunter," he grumbled tiredly, his gaze dropping to the papers scattered in front of him on the table.
"Go…" Hunter's voice faded, more with disbelief than the anger that had been raging inside of him when he'd arrived at the Federal Building. "I just left the hospital. There's no record of Avi or Dee Dee ever being treated or admitted, not under their names or the aliases you gave them." He leaned over the table, slapping his hands down on top of the papers Porter was pretending to read. "I sat with Dee Dee while the doctor checked her out, and I watched the nurse put name bands on both Avi's and her wrists when they were admitted. And now, today, no one remembers them." He straightened, his arms tensed at his sides. "Tell me what in the hell is going on, or I swear to—"
Porter slammed his hands down on the tabletop, raising his gaze slowly, indignantly, and with perceptible remorse. "What's going on? Exactly what you think is going on." He slumped in his chair, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger. "Elian Sandoval is locked up in solitary, okay, but do you really think that's enough to keep him cut off from the outside? I mean, come on. What'd you want me to do? Sandoval got to Dee Dee once already, and there's no reason to think he won't try to get to her again. So, what? Did you want me to let you take the kid and her back to the sunny beaches of California? Is that it? Because if I would've let you do that, how many more hours do you think they would've lived?"
Hunter grunted a laugh, sashaying nervously from one foot to the other. "So, this is about your case. Right? It's the only reason you need Dee Dee alive—to give the FBI the win against that son of a bitch."
"Of course it's about the case!" Porter hissed, jumping to his feet. His chair rolled backwards, coming to a slow stop only a few inches from the wall. "I want that bastard behind bars for the rest of his miserable life! And you're right! I need Dee Dee in order to make that happen!"
"Yeah? Well, what about what Dee Dee needs? What about what that little girl needs? Don't you think they've been through enough already?"
"I need her testimony!" Porter barked. "I need her to bring a jury to their fucking knees out of sympathy and disgust for what Sandoval put her through! And I need her to reveal every repulsive secret he was stupid enough not to care if she overheard! This is our one and only chance, Hunter, and I'm not going to blow it!"
"And when does Dee Dee get her chance? You want to tell me that?"
Porter sucked in a sharp breath, and then another. Letting Hunter's question hang between them for a moment before answering. "As soon as the trial's over," he said, his voice lowered, less shaky. "That's when."
Hunter took a step back, locking his hands around his hips. "You don't think Sandoval is going to turn up the heat once he finds out she's testifying against him? She won't even make it up the courthouse steps before one of his guard dogs puts a bullet in her."
"She'll make it," Porter retorted sternly, convicted. "You can bet your ass she'll make it."
"Okay, fine. So, you need her to testify. But let me see her. Let me at least talk to her—"
Porter answered first with a strong shake of his head. "I can't, you know that."
"You mind telling me why the hell not?"
"Because for all intents and purposes, neither Dee Dee McCall nor Ava Sandoval exists anymore. From here on out, they never existed." He spiked a brow, meeting Hunter's narrowed stare. "You get it now?"
What remained of Hunter's argument morphed into a sickened, disagreeing grunt, and he felt his heart skip a beat before stopping altogether. They never existed. He got it; he understood. Just like he knew, in that moment, staring into Porter's remorse-filled eyes that he'd lost again.
"They've been moved to a safe house," Porter admitted reluctantly. "They'll stay there until the trial ends, and then they're going into WITSEC. The, uh, the Witness Protection—"
"I know what the fuck it is!"
Porter nodded, giving Hunter a moment before continuing. "Dee Dee's already been briefed and the wheels have been set in motion." He shrugged, looking as helpless as Hunter suddenly felt. "It's done. I'm sorry."
"No," Hunter rebutted, a hint of pleading in his voice. "You can't do this to them."
"I can't do, what? I can't try to save their lives?"
Hunter took in a raspy breath, scrubbing his face with his hand. "No. She just got back, Porter. Damn it, I just got her back."
"And now she's gone again." He said it simply. Not as if it didn't matter—their fate. But with the reality that it was out of their hands. "Prison won't stop Sandoval. He'll keep looking for Dee Dee and Avi, and if we don't step in, he'll find them. Dee Dee knows that, just like she knows this is her only chance."
"She agreed to it?"
"What else could she do?"
Hunter turned a half-circle, tilting his head back and hitting the ceiling with an angry glare. "I just need to talk to her," he pleaded, turning his focus back on an expressionless Porter. "Let me do that much?"
Porter hesitated, before answering with another, fainter shake of his head. "She's alive, and for a long time that was more than anyone hoped for. She fought hard for six years, so let's make the next six a little easier for her. Huh? If I let you see her and fill her head with all sorts of crazy ideas, I can't guarantee her safety. And, damn it, Hunter, I want her to be safe. I want her to have at least that much to take away from all of this."
"So do I."
"Then leave her alone. Let her accept all of this so she can move on."
"Let her accept it, right. You wanna tell me how I'm supposed to accept it?"
Porter shrugged, not having a useful answer, only more, ineffective regret. "I don't know. The same way you did before, I guess. Only this time at least, you know she's all right. And all things considered, maybe that'll make it a little easier."
Hunter turned his back to the agent, crossing the room slowly. Stepping up to the door, he stopped. His conversation with Dee Dee that night in the park came back to him, and he could hear her broken voice again with as much clarity as if she were standing beside him at that moment. "I'm forty- years-old, and what do I have? I don't have my own home, or money, or friends. I'll never have my career again. I'll never have any of the things I had before." He dropped his hold on the door handle, turning back as Porter was dragging his chair back to the table. "You can't expect me to do this, to let her go again."
"Hunter. Damn it…" Porter sighed, exasperated but not seeming surprised by Hunter's tenacity.
"We need to talk about this," Hunter pushed, determined. "We're going to talk about it. Because Dee Dee and Avi deserve more than to be forced to spend the rest of their lives alone and on the run, and if we have to sit here until Sandoval's trial ends, we're going to figure out how to give them more."
The airport was busy, alive with activity. People scurried here and then there, dragging suitcases behind them, some looking lost, others looking bored. But none seemed to notice anyone else.
Except for him. He saw everyone.
Standing at the front of the busy terminal, he was partially hidden behind a stone pillar and completely hidden, he hoped, behind the dark, wire-rimmed sunglasses. He searched the faces that passed by, dissecting each one, prepared to move when he caught sight of the ones he was looking for. His directive was etched into his mind. He'd practiced and rehearsed it, and then he'd practiced and rehearsed it some more.
He wouldn't fail, not again. She wouldn't slip away.
The yellow cab came to a stop at the curb, unremarkable on its own. But when the woman emerged from the backseat, the tinier hand clutched inside of her bigger one, everything insignificant about the car that looked exactly like hundreds of others passing through the terminal made an instant switch to significant.
The two joined the crowd effortlessly and inconspicuously, and if it wasn't for the hint of nervousness on the older one's face, he might not have noticed them at all. Her auburn-shaded hair fell in soft waves, touching the tops of her shoulders, and her eyes, dark and haunted, searched the passing faces intently. The little one's hand was locked inside of hers, and she held onto it tightly, with a death grip. As they walked through the sliding doors into the building, she made a last glance over her shoulder, seeming to soak in for a final time the scenery she was leaving behind. And he wondered, was she saying goodbye or good riddance?
After the doors slid closed behind them, he stepped out of his hiding place and followed them. Cutting through the corridor with the skill of a football player dodging his opponents as he headed for the end zone, he didn't slow down or stop for pedestrians but shoved anyone in his way out of it. He saw the little one look back, look in his direction, and afraid he'd gotten too close too quickly, he slowed his steps and let the two of them move further ahead. He couldn't afford to blow it by making either of them suspicious, not when he'd finally gotten so close.
They waited for their turn at the ticket counter, producing identification when requested, and the older one secured their boarding passes in the front flap of her bag. After another cautious look around, she led the little one into the seating area, settling into two chairs side-by-side in front of the large, plate-glass window. Airplane engines rumbled outside and conversation slurred throughout the room, but they seemed removed from it all. Too preoccupied with each other, he could tell, with fear. Too preoccupied, thankfully, to notice him.
He sat down at the opposite end of the room, folding himself into a chair and sneaking peaks at them from behind a newspaper. But he didn't read what was written, he couldn't. He was as preoccupied as they were—with them. It was almost time, and he was ready. And when the time was absolutely perfect, he would finally make his move. There wasn't room for error or doubt, but he wasn't worried. Somehow, he knew everything would fall into place.
The right moment would arrive, the perfect opportunity would present itself, and he would be prepared.
They wouldn't slip away.
"You heared him, Mama? He says Spanish same like us."
Dee Dee shot a cautious glance at the man seated beside Avi, as he turned away from the window and switched off his cell phone. He smiled, nodding as he leaned in closer toward Avi and her.
"Perdone que le moleste—"
"I'm sorry." Dee Dee shook her head, what little of a smile she'd managed wilting. "I don't, uh. No Espanol."
"Uh-huh, Mama," Avi piped up, staring up from her seat sandwiched between Dee Dee's and the stranger's. "Do so. We know lots of Spanish words. Papa and Isabel teached us. 'Member?"
Dee Dee touched the top of Avi's head, softly sushing her as she ignored the man's quizzical stare. Looking past him, she focused outside the window. Think. Think. Think. She had to remember—who the government had decided she would become, whom she would be from then on. But it was all a jumble, even though it was supposed to have started making sense. Her name, date of birth, parents' names, dates of their deaths…
"Excuse me. Mrs. Ross?"
Dee Dee glanced up, meeting the flight attendant's excited smile with a hesitant one of her own.
"I'm sorry to bother you," the blonde-headed woman continued, her smile holding. "But it seems there's been a bit of a mix-up. I need to ask that your daughter and you come with me, please."
"A mix-up?" Dee Dee stuttered, her gaze landing on the dark-haired man again, as if he could offer some sort of explanation. "Is something wrong?"
"If you'll just come with me," the flight attendant reiterated, motioning toward the front of the plane. "There's nothing to worry about, I can assure you."
Dee Dee climbed to her feet, pulling Avi's hand into her own. As she entered the aisle, Avi only a step behind her, she heard their seatmate call out a friendly, "Que tenga un buen dia." And without thought, without looking back, she muttered in return, "Thank you. You have a nice day, too."
He spied cautiously, staring down the aisle until finding them seated near the back of the plane.
The tension she was feeling was obvious, palpable. She made strained smalltalk with the stranger seated beside them, her lips trembling as she put effort into smiling. Her eyes never stopped moving, roaming, searching the faces around them. And after she'd thoroughly studied each one, she studied them again.
He made himself as comfortable as possible, offering absent niceties to the flight attentendants and ignoring the other passengers as they filed past him. He couldn't concentrate any further than her—than them. The time was right, he'd decided, although he wasn't entirely sure why. His nerves were on edge, making it difficult to breathe, to concentrate on anything other than them and the plan he had so intricately devised. He would have to be careful, of course. The last thing he needed was to draw attention to himself, and he couldn't afford to place any attention on them, either. She had gone to great lengths—played exactly by the rules—to make sure they blended in and remained unnoticed, and he knew that was how it needed it to stay.
As the overly bubbly flight attendant made her way toward him, he stopped her with a wave, and then directed her closer with another one. After whispering his secret—his hope—to her, he motioned toward the back of the plane, before adding, "The woman in seat twenty-six-A, with the little girl? Think you can help me out?"
After he shared his secret, his hope, she reacted excitedly, answering with a broad smile and enthusiastic, "Leave it to me."
He settled back in his seat, crossing one leg over the other and thinking through his plan for the thousandth time. It was all he had thought about for the past six weeks, and with the time to execute it having finally arrived, he could hardly sit still. Nerves and anticipation and what ifs had chased relaxation away, but even still, he felt prepared. He was prepared. He had to be, because she would fight him. Her will hadn't been destroyed, she'd proven that much. So, he had to be stronger, more persistent. Insuperable.
He had to succeed.
Because he hadn't been left with any other choice.
Dee Dee struggled to keep up with the flight attendant's quick steps while dragging Avi behind her, the four-year-old more preoccupied with peeking down each row they passed versus staying close to her mother. They slid through the curtain sectioning off first class, Dee Dee arguing with the flight attendant through a persistent shake of her head. Stopping abruptly, in the spotlight of the other woman's wide, pleased smile, she stared at the man through sudden tears. Her chest deflated and the tiny hand inside of her own wriggled free.
"You should've told us," the flight attendant said lowly, her head leaned in closer to Dee Dee's. "I'm just glad your husband did."
Still with a smile, the woman spun around and took off back down the aisle. Dee Dee shook her head, tears sprinkling her cheeks. "Oh…God…" she whispered, continuing forward, toward the exit. She rounded the corner, ready to break free, but the strong hands locked around her upper arms, stopping her. Bowing her head, sniffling, she dragged a shaky hand beneath her nose. "How'd you find us?" She cupped her hand over her mouth, keeping her gaze lowered from the curious stares that were being directed at her. "You can't—no. No, no…no. No. What're you doing here?"
Hunter directed her in a turn, greeting her with a lopsided grin. "What am I doing here? Well, now. Unless I got on the wrong plane, I'm on my way to Hawaii."
She pulled out of his gentle hold. "Oh God, no. No, Rick, you…you can't. No." She turned toward the door again, staring down the empty walkway. "Please," she whispered, as Hunter's hands draped her shoulders. "This is…it's crazy. You know that. It's— You can't."
"Hey. I'm not here to ask for permission."
She spun around quickly, swallowing him with widened, shock-filled eyes. "No!" she hissed, her voice hushed but her anger unmistakable. "No. I won't let you, Rick—"
"Uh-uh," he corrected, taking the stuffed bag out of her arms. "The name's Tennant—Declan Tennant."
She shook her head, her brows creasing. "Does Riley Porter know you're here?"
His grin reemerged. "Who do you think pushed my paperwork through? And let me tell you, the Attorney General was as receptive to this idea as you seem to be."
"Oh, God. Rick, please," she whined. He dropped his hand to the small of her back and gave her a tiny push forward, toward their side-by-side seats that Avi had settled into the center of, balancing her tiny bottom on the inside arms of the chairs. She initially met their return with hesitance, her quizzical stare locked onto her mother. With a whispered, "Everything's okay, sweetie," Dee Dee swiped at her cheeks, clearing her tears.
After Dee Dee filled the window seat, Hunter sat down beside her, pulling a fidgeting Avi off the chair arms and settling her in his lap. "Look it," he began, his head tilted toward Dee Dee's. "It's already done, which means it's too late to turn back." He nudged her shoulder with his. "And just in case, by some chance, you haven't managed to figure it out yet, this is exactly what I want."
She settled stiffly into the seat, her dark eyes arguing with him. "You'll lose everything."
"If I let this plane take off without me, I'll lose everything. This way, I'm finally getting it back." He leaned foreard, reaching into a black duffle bag shoved beneath the seat in front of his. After a quick second of searching, he pulled a rag doll into view. Her yellow yarn hair hung in two pigtails, both flowing over the fronts of her shoulders, and her blue button eyes stared out at the world unblinking. Red thread that was sewn into a smile and just a hint of a nose finished off the simplistic face, one that Hunter decided must be comforting, as Avi grabbed the doll out of his hands and hugged it to her chest.
"You finded another Lily?" the four-year-old gushed, wide-eyed. She held the doll out for Dee Dee to inspect. "See, Mama? Looks just like my other Lily. 'Cept this Lily's not so dirty."
Dee Dee's lips trembled, her smile unavoidable. "You got her a new doll," she whispered, blinking back grateful tears. "Thank you. She's, uh…the other one. She's missed her a lot."
"Yeah, I know," Hunter responded dryly. "The hotel room, remember? Never knew lungs could be as strong as hers are."
"Know what, Hunter?" Avi said, spinning around on Hunter's lap to face him. "Can't say my name no more. Not ever." She smiled, wide and toothy, with a hint of pride toward remembering the secret she'd been sworn to keep. "Now gotta call me a new name—Cinderella."
Hunter frowned, his brows wrinkling. "Cinderella?"
Avi nodded adamantly. "Uh-huh. That's what I telled the man with the star I want my new name to be. 'Cept…" She took in a breath, her chest inflating. "He didn't like it, so I gotta be Ella instead. But I'm gonna say Cinderella anyways, 'cause I think it's bestest."
Hunter chuckled, nodding his agreement. "You know what? I think it's best, too." He pursed his lips, sizing up an expectant-looking Avi. "Cinderella, yep. I like it. It fits just right."
"Avi," Dee Dee whispered, shaking her head. "You can't…you have to remember our secret. It's important that you remember."
"I do 'member," Avi answered, nodding. "But you don't, Mama. You just said my old name, the one we're not 'posed to say no more. I telled Hunter Cinderella, just like I'm 'posed to." Taking in a pensive breath, with the doll still cradled against her chest, she drew Hunter into her dark stare again. "You wanna know our secret?" After Hunter answered with a nod, that he did, she shot a cautious glance at Dee Dee. "We gotta go really super far away, but only me and Mama. Papa don't getta come, too. Neither does Isabel. We don't getta see them no more. And Mama said that means forever."
Hunter dragged his fingers down the length of Avi's hair, nodding his understanding. "That's what I heard. And, you know, that got me to thinking…" He shrugged a shoulder. "What if I come with Mama and you? Then it'll be our secret—all of ours."
Twisting her pudgy lips to the side, Avi's brows wrinkled and lowered, as she mulled over his proposition for only a minute before giving her consent with a hesitant nod. Seeming satisfied with Hunter's insinuation of a promise, she turned her attention back on the rag doll. Petting her face, tangling her fingers in her yarn pigtails, and recounting tales about the recent past, days that the original Lily had missed out on.
Dee Dee scrubbed her forehead with her fingertips, the uncertainties crowding their future crashing down on her. Uncertainties about starting over, starting new, with unfamiliar identities and responsibilities and expectations, all of which she knew were unfair to force on Hunter, too. "Going into this program doesn't mean anything, you know," she said. "Not against someone like Elian. And I don't want you to get hurt. I couldn't survive that."
He shrugged a shoulder. "The way I see it, we already did survive it. We did it alone the first time and made it, so just think what'll happen if we do it together this time."
"But." Her argument faded into rambling in her mind, as she silently tried out idea after idea, trying to find one that might actually send Hunter off the plane. "What about Mallory?"
He shrugged again, hesitantly, his tensed expression foretelling his regret without him having to verbalize a single syllable of it. "Mallory is, uh. She'll be okay. We talked and, well, she understands this is what I need to do. Believe it or not, she even said it's what I should do."
"She understands?" Dee Dee deadpanned, through a roll of her eyes. "She thought you were going to marry her."
"And I thought I was going to marry her, too. Once." He retrieved an envelope from the breast pocket of his jacket, emptying it of a folded piece of paper. "Turns out I can't, though," he continued, handing the paper to Dee Dee. "According to the U.S. Government, I'm already married—to one Alexandra Ross. Apparently, the happy event took place just this morning in Chicago."
"Married? This morning?" she repeated, confused. She took the paper from him, unfolding it slowly, cautiously, like she was more afraid of than curious about the information written on it. Scanning it quickly, she shook her head. "This morning, right. Convenient, isn't it? The ceremony took place only fifteen minutes after I finished testifying?"
He smiled faintly, smugly. "Convenient, yeah. Kind of fitting, too, if you ask me."
"But not legal."
"Well, now." He combed his fingers absently through Avi's dark tresses. "I don't know. I have a marriage certificate right here that says it is legal. So, what're you implying—the government would actually lie to us?" He forced a frown, his expression scrunching. "That just wouldn't happen."
She chuckled softly, although not nearly as amused as sadly. "I'm already married. Remember?"
He nodded once, firmly. "I remember. According to the government, you're married to Declan Tennant, and he's…uh. Let's see here." He pulled another paper out of his pocket, unfolding it and scanning over the typed information. "Looks like he's a Bostonian—born and bred. Went to college, graduated top of his class, and has made a comfortable life for himself as a restaurateur."
Dee Dee dropped her head back against the seat, closing her eyes. She felt his fingers against her cheek, but she didn't look at him, she didn't acknowledge his touch. Because she didn't want to give in to him yet, and she knew she was close to doing just that. It was wrong for her to want him to make the sacrifice he seemed so intent on making—she knew it was wrong. It was selfish. But still, she couldn't remember a single time throughout the past six years when she'd felt as relieved as she did in that moment. For the first time in what seemed like a lifetime, she almost felt safe.
She opened her eyes, finding him staring. With Avi slouched against him, her head nestled against his chest, eyelids drooping sleepily, and the new Lily clutched safely in her arms.
"It's going to be okay," he said, sounding more like it was a belief than a breakable promise. "We're going to be okay."
"But you can't come back. Once the plane takes off, that's it. It's forever."
"It's forever," he repeated, snaking his arm around Avi's waist, hugging her against him. "Got it."
"You're sure? I mean, this…it's what you—"
"I'm as sure as you are."
She laughed softly, tearfully. "That's not saying much."
"Yeah, well. Don't worry, huh? We're gonna make it work."
He closed his hand around hers, and she let him. She didn't fight or flinch; she didn't try to pull away. She simply let it happen, let it be. "Have you talked to Charlie? Were you able to explain what's happened?"
"I saw him a few days ago." Leaning into her, he caressed her forehead with a kiss. "He said to give you that."
"He'll be safe?"
"He's moving to Seattle to be closer to his sister and her family. Porter thinks he'll be okay."
"God. I really missed him." She smiled faintly, with longing. "I will miss him."
"This is the only way."
"For Avi and me, but not you. You're giving up too much. You're giving up…" She sighed, her tears beginning again. "You're giving up everything—your family, your job…Mallory. It's not fair, and I don't want you to do it. I want you to get off the plane, all right? I want you to find Mallory and work out your problems. Marry her like you planned, and just…God. Go on with your life." She didn't try to stop her tears as they hit her cheeks; she only tried to stop the truth. From being seen in her eyes, or heard in her voice, or noticeable in the ways she moved, or, damn it, breathed. Because as much as she didn't want Hunter to leave, she knew it was what she needed to force him to do.
"That's exactly what I'm trying to do," he countered, touching his fingertip to her cheek and stealing a lone tear. "I'm trying to get on with my life." As her watery stare met his, he nodded. "I want you to understand something. I'm not here because I expect anything. There's no pressure, no demands. I just want to be with you, and…uh…" He glanced down at the sleeping child in his lap. "With Cinderella here."
She chuckled softly, mulling over his confession for a moment, tossing it around in her mind, dissecting it and searching for any hidden meanings behind it. But the sincerity she found in Hunter's eyes—the sincerity that she remembered him possessing—convinced her that it was finally safe to drop her defenses, completely even if still cautiously. After years of co-existing with suspicion and lies and deception, honesty was finally right in front of her, wanting to be a part of her life again. It was in the familiar blue eyes that wouldn't release her stare and in the strength of the arms protecting the child who was only just beginning to feel like hers.
"You want to be with us," she repeated through a whisper. "Why?"
He hesitated. "Because it was too hard without you."
She pulled her hand out of his, turning toward the window. "You don't know what you're getting yourself into."
Wrapping his hand beneath her chin, he turned her face back toward his. Gently, he brushed his fingers across her cheeks, wiping away what remained of her tears. "Yes, I do. I know."
They fell into silence—nervous silence, frightened silence. After a moment of combating what ifs, what could be's and what probably never should be, Hunter broke through Dee Dee's brooding. "Porter and I talked a lot," he admitted. "He, uh. He gave me some names, names of people on Oahu. You know, therapist kind of people, and we…I think… Maybe once we're settled, we should check into them."
"No." She gave his suggestion another second to sink in, before shooting it down again with a shake of her head. "No. It'd be too dangerous. To talk to someone, tell them—"
"Hey. These are people connected to WITSEC. Porter guaranteed it'd be safe."
"I don't know," she responded hesitantly, disgust making a slight emergence in her voice. "I don't know if I…can…" Both her secrets and she had been put on display at the trial—blatantly, with nowhere for either to hide. Each day she was forced to stand naked and exposed in front of the jury, and each day her hatred for Elian grew. The stories she recounted disgusted her as much as she could tell they did the engrossed spectators and so, finally, she removed herself from them completely. She reported events in the third person, referring to Dee Dee McCall as if she were the nonexistent and powerless victim the government viewed her as being. She did her best to ignore Elian's threatening glare from across the room, because the few times their stares did meet, she could tell exactly what he was thinking—plotting. And in the end, it gave her a small amount of satisfaction to know that he regretted his quick decision years earlier to steal her life from her. His sanctimonious prediction replayed in her mind daily—No one will find you. And for a while, he had been right. But that was only because she hadn't understood yet that it had never been anyone else's responsibility to find her, it had been up to her all along to find her own way home.
Glancing at the worried face beside her, she quickly found the sincerity in his eyes, and seeing it took her back in time. To a time that was safe and happy and comfortable, a time that didn't have any knowledge of Elian Sandoval, a time she wished more than anything else that both Hunter and she still belonged in. "All right," she agreed, although not sounding entirely confident. "I'll talk to someone. But I have to do it alone. I just. I'm not ready, Rick. I don't know if I'll ever be ready for you to hear…to know."
"Whatever you want. It doesn't matter, Dee Dee, whether or not I ever know. But I was thinking, maybe I'll talk to someone, too. Maybe if I do, it'll help us both in the long run."
She watched as he slid his fingers between hers, connecting them. Locking them together. "You know, you're still the best friend I've ever had."
"Yeah? You, too."
With her free hand, she reached for Avi, smoothing flyaway strands of hair behind the little girl's ear. "So, uh. It's Declan, huh?" She smiled, her dark brows rising teasingly.
"You want to tell me what's wrong with Declan? The way I see it, it's a good name. Solid."
"Solid…" She agreed with a nod. "That's what you definitely are—you're solid." Her smile widened. "So? How'd you get first class seats, anyway? Avi and I got stuck at the back of the plane."
"Well, I'll tell you," he began, leaning his broad shoulder against her smaller one. He pulled a third, letter-size envelope out of the breast pocket of his jacket, dropping it into her lap. "Like I said, Porter and I had a long talk, and I told him about some plans I'd made. Plans that got a six-year kink thrown into them."
Dee Dee pulled the faded airline tickets out of the envelope, her puzzled stare darting between Hunter and them. "Miami?" With a soft, surprised breath, she added a whispered, "Oh my, God. These were bought…" She shook her head, retracing the printed words with her fingertip. "That was a long time ago."
"A lifetime ago."
"You should've gotten your money back."
"Oh, I don't know," he said, directing her attention toward the aisle and the awaiting flight attendant. She smiled patiently, a tray in her hands that supported two crystal glasses. "I figured if I held onto them long enough, I'd get the chance to cash in on them."
"Champagne, Mrs. Tennant?" the flight attendant asked, handing them both a glass. "Really, you should've told us when you checked in that you were on your honeymoon."
"It, uh. It was kind of a surprise," Dee Dee stammered, chuckling. "I didn't know about it myself."
After the flight attendant took off down the aisle, leaving behind the promise of an endless supply of champagne throughout the flight, Dee Dee took a sip of the bubbly liquid. She closed her eyes as it tickled a path down the back of her throat, whispering contentedly, "It's good."
"Yeah. It is good."
Neither of their compliments, she instinctively knew, had anything to do with champagne.
Turning into him, she swallowed him again with a frightened stare. "You're sure about this—really sure? Because it's not too late to back out, you know. I don't want you to wake up one morning regretting your decision."
Hunter propped his finger beneath her chin, lifting her face toward his. "Usted es todo." She received his unpolished Spanish with a polite smile, but it quickly faded as he repeated his confession. "You're everything. And that's why I'm here, because without Cinderella and you, I'm nothing. I don't have anything, and I'm ready to have something again."
The safety Hunter was so unselfishly offering shot through Dee Dee, making her shudder. He was promising kindness and security and gentleness, all the things she remembered him giving—being—before. He was promising to help her heal and find herself again, to help her find her child, instead of threatening to take more from her or force her to remain lost and powerless. Finally, someone was offering hope, instead of forcing more hopelessness on her.
She nodded weakly, through more tears. Her head began to spin dizzily, but she didn't know if it was because of the changes taking place, or Hunter's unexpected presence, or maybe just the champagne. But whichever it was, through the sudden haziness, she found herself teetering once again on the edge of a cliff. Below her, at the end of what would prove to be a free-fall marked by self-discovery and exhausting recovery was a new life with her daughter and Hunter. A life she had wished for and dreamt about, a life that would be full of uncertainty, but even more excitement and acceptance and love. And behind her, still chasing her so ruthlessly, were fears and insecurities and self-doubts. Behind her was uncontrollable and unimaginable anger.
Behind her was Elian.
And she knew the time had come, the decision had to be made for herself as much as Avi. There was no time left for hesitating, not a minute to spare second-guessing. She had reached the second most defining moment in her life, the moment that held within it the power to change everything.
And she jumped.