And the saga continues… ;-) This story takes place about two months after Happy Birthday. Hope you enjoy.
(Psst… If you're just joining us for the first time, I write in a series; an AU series. The list of stories and order they were written in are on my profile page, although it's not imperative that you read them all before reading this one. :-) )
Disclaimer: Still don't own them, still wish I did.
Joe Hardy pulled his car into the driveway of his parents' home. Sitting in the passenger seat, his fiancée Vanessa Bender pulled down the sun visor and did a final "check" of her appearance in the small mirror. She smoothed down a few runaway strands of her ash blond hair and, as had become a habit, checked the look reflected in her blue-gray eyes. The haunted, fearful look that had been so apparent right after she had been raped had diminished considerably. She was happy to note that tonight she could barely see it at all.
Leaning across the seat, Joe kissed her on the cheek. "You don't need to look, you know. You're always beautiful," he smiled at her.
She returned the smile. "And you're biased. But thank you just the same."
It seemed the 23-year-old couple had been through one frightening ordeal after another in the past eight months. The chain of events started when Vanessa had been raped by a man who had been nursing a grudge against Joe for over ten years. Joe had subsequently been arrested and charged with murdering the man. The stress of the ensuing trial, at which he was found innocent, resulted in Joe remembering a horrifying childhood trauma that he had repressed for seventeen years. The entire incident also inflicted a deep wound in Joe's relationship with his older brother Frank that had only recently healed.
Soon after, Vanessa had been kidnapped in an attempt to blackmail Frank's wife, Callie, resulting in underlying friction in Joe and Callie's once close friendship for months afterward. Shortly on the heels of this, Joe had been abducted from O'Hare Airport after stumbling onto a planned assassination of a U.S. Senator. In the twenty-four hour period it took for Frank and his father to find Joe, he'd been beaten and tortured almost continually by his abductors before finally being rescued. The Hardys had initially been told to prepare for the worst, but Joe had enough fight left to make an unexpected recovery, although he had physical scars he would carry for the rest of his life as a reminder.
When Joe recovered enough to return to work almost two months later, a madwoman intent on inducing severe, permanent brain damage stalked Frank and almost succeeded in her plan. During that time, the brothers were able to heal the few tears in their relationship that remained and were now closer than ever.
While it seemed, initially at least, that this sequence of events would tear the Hardy family apart, in the end it brought them closer together than ever. Both Vanessa and Joe had been seeing a therapist and their lives were returning to normal.
Tonight, the couple was visiting Joe's parents for what had become a weekly ritual of dinner and enjoying time spent together. Laura Hardy, Joe's petite blonde-haired, blue-eyed mother had become slightly unnerved at the events of the past year, and she now insisted on her family coming together at least once a week for dinner, an outing or simply a night of reminiscing.
Getting out of the car, Joe took Vanessa's hand in his, happily stealing another kiss as they walked towards the house.
Vanessa noted the absence of Frank's car. "Looks like we beat Frank and Callie for once."
Joe's brother and his petite, blonde wife were notoriously punctual, something Joe took great joy in teasing them about.
"Hey, more appetizers for me!" Joe smiled, his mouth watering at the thought of his mother's culinary skills. He pulled the screen door open and held it for Vanessa as they entered the house. "Mom! Dad! We're here!" he called out fully expecting a response from the kitchen or the den. When they were met with silence, Joe and Vanessa looked at each other puzzled.
"Maybe they're out back," Vanessa suggested.
Joe shrugged. "Must be."
Following the hall back to the kitchen, Joe pushed open the swinging door, instinctively keeping Vanessa slightly behind him and looked around the empty kitchen. "Mom?"
Clutching Vanessa's hand tightly, he moved towards the back door. Looking out onto the deck, he let his gaze move slowly and methodically across the yard, concern now marring his handsome features. World-renowned private investigator Fenton Hardy, an older version of Frank, and his wife Laura were nowhere to be seen. Feeling a tug on his arm, Joe turned back to Vanessa who was looking around the kitchen from her spot beside Joe.
"The stove is still on and so is the oven," she pointed out.
As if to confirm her observation, a sudden hiss sounded as whatever was in the pot on the stove boiled over and splattered onto the flame beneath it. Joe walked over to the stove and turned off two of the burners and the oven. He leaned over slightly, looking first in the pot that had boiled over, which contained gravy and then in large pot filled with boiling potatoes. Opening the oven, the scent of a pot roast and seasoned vegetables wafted out at them.
"Nothing's burning, so if they left for some reason it wasn't very long ago," Joe noted. "Let's check the rest of the house."
As Joe held tightly to Vanessa's hand, keeping her close to him, they systematically searched every room in the house and the attached offices of Hardy and Sons Investigations, even venturing out into the garage. As they stepped out of the garage into the driveway the mildly uneasy feeling Joe had earlier started to grow. While he debated what to do next, Joe was relieved to see his older brother's car pull into the driveway behind his.
"Hey, guys." Frank waved a greeting as he got out of the car and walked around to open the door for his wife. Joe quickly approached his brother, and Frank could see immediately that Joe was troubled about something.
"What's wrong?" He didn't miss the way Vanessa held onto Joe's hand and practically glued herself to his side. Frank's radar went off immediately. He knew Vanessa had made amazing progress in coming to terms with the rape and no longer had the constant need to feel physically "attached" to Joe… unless she felt threatened or scared.
"Mom and Dad are gone." Joe anxiously slipped an arm around Vanessa and pulled her even closer to him.
"Gone?" Frank repeated in surprise. "What do you mean gone?"
"I mean GONE!" Joe said again, getting agitated. "As in gone, not here, nowhere to be found."
"Let's go inside and you can explain everything." Putting a hand on Joe's shoulder, Frank turned his younger brother towards the house, following Joe and Vanessa while exchanging a frown with Callie.
Once inside Joe and Vanessa headed straight for the kitchen. Pushing the door open, Joe hoped he'd see his parents standing there putting the finishing touches on dinner, resulting in a good laugh for all at his thinking they'd disappeared. His heart sank when the room was still empty.
"See?" Joe waved his hand around the room. "Gone."
"You checked the house?" Frank asked as he scanned the room, knowing Joe had already done so.
"The house, the office, the garage," Joe confirmed looking at his older brother nervously. "They're not here, Frank."
"The front and back doors, and the windows were open, and the food was still cooking when we got here," Vanessa added. "Just no sign of your parents."
Frank moved towards the stove. "Was anything burning?"
He turned back to the other three, immediately assessing the situation and taking charge. "Cal, you and Vanessa go talk to the neighbors. See if Mom and Dad went over there for any reason. Both sides and across the street."
"Sure," Callie nodded.
"Joe and I will re-check the house, office and yard," Frank told them and then focused on his brother. "Did you check the attic and basement?"
"Not yet," Joe admitted. "I was just about to when you got here."
"Okay then, let's go." Frank steered his brother towards the door to the basement.
Twenty minutes later, the foursome reconvened in the kitchen, none of them wanting to say it out loud – Fenton and Laura Hardy had disappeared.