Pine Valley, PA
Leah Hayward sat at the piano when Robin entered the mountain cabin. What she was doing wasn't exactly playing but sometimes Robin thought she heard her sister string a couple of notes together. Maybe she was going to take after her Dad, after all.
Leah jumped from the piano seat when she her sister come into the room and ran into her arms.
Robin Scorpio scooped her up and held tight. Or at least as tightly as Leah let her.
In turn Leah planted a wet kiss on her cheeks.
"I am going to miss you so much," she whispered into the little girl's ear.
She didn't see her mother sneak up behind her and plant a kiss on the top of her head too. "We'll miss you a little too," she said with a smile.
"Stay Robin," Leah told her. Her black hair was past her shoulders now and its ends curled up. Robin loved to play with them, on the rare occasions when Leah sat still long enough to give her the chance.
Her mother scooped Leah up from her arms. "Good luck with that," she whispered to her youngest daughter. "Your Dad and I tried for two months. We even resorted to blackmail and bribing and it didn't get us anywhere."
Robin raised her brows. "I thought tonight we were going out to celebrate?"
Anna raised her hands in defence. "Sorry...I couldn't resist a last ditch effort."
"Nice try." Robin smiled and gave her mother a kiss too. "You look great, Mom. Judging from what you're wearing and the fact that you managed to get Leah into a dress, it's going to be a fancy restaurant."
"Nothing but the best tonight. It's not every day my daughter goes off to save the world."
"I'm going to be back before you know it. I wouldn't miss your summer wedding for the world."
Anna cringed. "Ah...David's wedding."
Robin laughed. "Last time I checked you were going to be in it too."
"Don't get me wrong...nothing will stop me from being next to him when we walk down that aisle. But the idea of a big wedding is about as appealing to me as spending an afternoon cooking."
"I think the idea of a big wedding is a whole lot more appealing than you cooking."
Robin was still wearing the jeans and sweater she'd worn on her drive down from Chicago, but she had enough clothes at the cabin that she could change into something more suitable. Looking at her mother holding Leah made her realize she'd miss them too. More than she'd admit, at least to her mother.
"Is David here?"
Her mother nodded, "He's getting ready upstairs. If you think I look fancy you should check out his suit."
"Do you mind if I go see him alone for a sec?"
"No...of course not. Go ahead."
Robin caught her mother eyeing her with curious eyes, instantly wondering what she had in mind. Robin bit her lip and avoided her gaze. If anyone could read her like an open book, it was her mother. She was the one person in the world that Robin couldn't keep anything from and knowing that, it had been a long time since she'd even bothered to try.
Suddenly the weight of the backpack she carried seemed unbearably heavy, making Robin doubt herself all over again.
Anna was still holding Leah in her arms and Robin took another look at her. It hadn't been flattery when she said her mother looked good tonight. It was fair to say she looked stunning; wearing a black evening dress that left one shoulder-bare and the other one draped in a shawl-like sleeve with a tiny row of crystal sequins that ran from her shoulder blade to her wrist. A diamond engagement ring, her silver Swiss watch and diamond stud earrings were the only jewellery she wore.
It was elegant and stylish to a fault, but what made Robin take notice more than anything else was that for the first time in a long time, her mother looked happy. Healthy. She finally gained some much needed weight and because she hadn't worked in the last six months and spent much of that time outside with Leah, her skin was tanned and glowing. She even sported a few freckles.
It was a stark contrast to the image she had of her mother just over year ago when all their lives had been vastly different.
Robin had been in Paris then, still studying at the Sorbonne.
Anna, David and Leah had gone back to the US. David had initially wanted to return to Pine Valley but Anna had protested, saying it no longer felt like home.
Robin thought they'd made a reasonable compromise when Anna suggested Chicago instead. They rented a Victorian town home there, while David kept both his job and mountain cabin home in Pine Valley, commuting to and from the two cities on a weekly basis.
Robin knew that in order to open to open her private investigation agency, she needed to be in a large, urban centre. Robin also knew that the job would give her the time and resources to work on finding Alex and that on occasion Sean Donley would help her with the task.
All of it made sense and Robin didn't think to question it.
But because she was an ocean away and consumed with her studies, Robin had no idea of the full extent of their fixation. She didn't realize that finding Alex Marick and Cesar Faison was a mutual guilt-fuelled obsession for both Sean and her mother. One that took up nearly every waking moment of their lives and that in turn, both their personal lives were coming apart at the seams.
It wasn't until long afterwards that Robin found out that Tiffany had threatened to leave Sean if he didn't stop.
And that David had contemplated suing for full custody of Leah only days before he made that phone call to her in Paris, in the middle of the night.
It still gave Robin chills when her mind drifted back to that phone call.
One year earlier
"David? Is that you? It's three in the morn..."
"Robin, it's your Mom. There's been an accident."
The words had cut to the bone and shaken every last bit of sleepiness from her.
"An accident...what do you mean?"
"She was crossing a street in Toronto, when a car hit her."
"A car hit her? In... Toronto, as in Canada?"
None of what he was saying made sense then.
"She went up there to follow some sort of lead on Alex."
"I don't know, Robin. But I need you to come here."
"No, Chicago. Anna left Leah with Sean and Tiff thinking she'd be back tonight. I'd feel better knowing you were there with her...Robin, I need you to take care of your sister for me."
"But David...I can't just....why don't you go to Chicago, you're so much closer? And what about Mom?"
"That's why I need you here, Robin. Because I need to do something I should've done a long time ago...I need take care of your mother."
"David, is something else wrong?"
She remembered asking more questions. Wondering why he was so insistent. He'd never before sounded as angry and determined as he did that night.
That night, for the very first time, David reminded Robin of her father.
"Please, Robin, can you do this for us? For all three of us? I know it's asking a lot, but I wouldn't ask if I didn't think it was really important."
Robin knew what her answer would be before he finished asking. Of course she wouldn't say no. She could make up a class, or an exam, but with the exception of her uncle; her mother, Leah and David were the only family she had left. They meant the world to her. She had already lost one family once. She wouldn't risk losing this one too.
"Okay, okay...I'll go to the airport right away. I'll take the first flight to Chicago..."
"I'll reimburse your fare, sweetheart. Whatever you need to pay, just take the first flight, alright?"
"Will you call me as soon as you know more about mom?"
"Of course. I'll be in Toronto before you're in Chicago. I'll call you as soon as I get there."
Robin remembered trying to swallow because suddenly her mouth felt completely dry.
"Please make sure she's okay."
"You bet. And Robin..."
"I love you."
She didn't remember much of what happened until she arrived in Chicago. There was a mad dash to pack something. Anything. Bundles of clothing were tossed into a dusty suitcase. A hurried taxi ride to Charles de Gaulle. Desperate, irritated pleading with an unhelpful ticket agent to find her seat. Any damn seat that would bring her as close to Chicago as soon as possible.
What happened afterwards was still clear in her mind though.
She remembered her shock at seeing Sean Donely, who came to pick her up at O'Hare, and barely recognizing him. He'd been happy to see her, but he looked nothing like the man she knew so well. He'd lost weight and sported a week-old beard and the suit jacket he wore was rumpled. On the ride back into the city, the tension between him and Tiffany was so thick, Robin could have sworn she could cut it with a knife.
It was a feeling so foreign to her that she didn't know what to make of it. Didn't know what to say or how to react. For the first time she was at a loss of words with two people who'd always been as close to her as if they were her flesh and blood family.
Leah, on the other hand was blissfully oblivious to it all. She'd greeted Robin with a beaming smile and ran into her arms the moment she arrived, leaving them only with considerable protest when Sean insisted on putting her into the car seat. She babbled all the way home, managing to do something she didn't think was possible. She made Robin laugh with the smattering of new words she'd mastered and now used in completely random sentences, every other one of which seemed to end in a question.
"Since when have you been such a chatterbox?"
"What's a chatterbox?"
Robin laughed and Leah pulled at Robin's hand, declaring that she loved her big sister, words that made Robin wonder how she'd managed to stay away from Leah for many months.
True to his word, David called shortly after she landed, while they were still on the highway, and Robin gave Tiffany a grateful look when she saw her making an effort to entertain Leah while she was on the phone.
"I'm with Leah..." Robin started.
David didn't make small talk. "Your Mom's okay. Some bruised ribs and a twisted ankle but thankfully nothing more serious. I took her back to the hotel and we're flying back to Pine Valley tomorrow."
"Can I talk to her?"
"She's sleeping now."
"Do you want me to stay in Chicago, or come to Pine Valley?"
"Can you come to Pine Valley with Leah? I think it would be good for your mother to have her whole family around for a while. To make her realize what she's been missing..."
The things he didn't say made Robin worry more than those he did.
"David...is everything okay?"
His pause was long enough that he didn't need to answer.
"No, Robin. They haven't been for a while. But I'll be damned if I'm not going to try one last time to make things right."
Robin remembered doing as he asked, in spite of Sean and Tiffany's protests, who tried to convince her to stay in Chicago. At least for a few days.
She remembered packing Leah's essentials the next day and hitting the road in her mother's Mustang just as the sun rose, with her sleepy sister in the car seat behind her.
It would be a long drive to Pine Valley and the jet lag was just starting to hit her, but Robin didn't care. She turned up the radio, bought a large cup of coffee at the first drive-through she saw and realized it had been a long time since she felt quite as at home as she did that morning, driving down an American highway with her little sister.
It was the calm before the storm.
She arrived at the cabin with Leah before David and her mother did and she wasn't sure anymore how she'd gotten both of them to bed, but she did remember ordering a pizza and that it was cold and she was fast asleep, when she was woken by the sound of David and her mother stumbling into the cabin.
Robin grabbed a robe and silently made her way down the stairs. There hadn't always been an 'upstairs' to the cabin. That is, until David decided that she and Leah both needed their own rooms here. He'd told Robin that he her to think of the cabin as her home, just as much as Leah and Anna did.
A trench coat was draped over her mother's shoulders and David had an arm around her as she entered the cabin.
"Mom..." Robin turned on the light and rushed towards her mother, wanting to hug her, but David held out a protective hand.
"Maybe wait until the ribs..."
"Oh, I'm sorry...I wasn't thinking, " she squeezed her mother's hand, getting a look at her for the first time, shocked at what she saw. "I'm so... glad you're okay."
To say her mother looked terrible would've been an understatement. She'd lost weight since Robin had last seen her, and at first glance she looked not only hurt, but completely spent and exhausted.
Anna's eyes widened, in equal shock. "Robin? What are you doing here?"
Robin turned to David, "Didn't you tell...?" He didn't quite meet her eyes and it was all the answer she needed. She sighed. "I'm guessing you didn't."
Her mother turned to David in silence, her look making it obvious that she didn't appreciate being left in the dark.
"I thought you could use your entire family around you for a change," David mumbled.
"You could have let me know."
"Mom..." Robin suddenly felt like an intruder.
Anna touched her shoulder and gave her a lopsided smile. "It's good to see you, sweetheart. I'm just...surprised." She managed a genuine smile. "In a good way."
Robin wasn't convinced. "I brought Leah here. She's asleep upstairs."
"Leah's here?" Anna was even more surprised now. "I thought she was in Chicago with Sean and Tiff? Robin, what made you decide to bring her here..."
David didn't give Robin a chance to answer. "I asked her to."
Robin cringed, sensing what her mother's reaction would be.
Anna turned to David, fuming. "You feel like deciding anything else for me? Like what I should wear tomorrow?"
David didn't look even mildly apologetic. "Pyjamas." He shot back without missing a beat. "Since you're going to stay in bed tomorrow."
"Don't bet on it..."
"Oh, I will. Bet on it."
Robin was beginning to feel like an unwanted fly on the wall and it was making her angry. As if the jet lag and the lukewarm welcome weren't bad enough, she now had to play peacemaker. "Mom...why don't you get some rest and finish this argument tomorrow?"
Her mother's lips tightened. "Thanks. I needed one more person telling me what to do."
Robin's cheeks flushed. "It's just a suggestion. And while I'm...suggesting, maybe have a look in the mirror, Mom. You look like you could use more than a day's rest."
David flashed Anna a triumphant smirk. "That is exactly why I needed her here."
Robin was already sitting in the kitchen cradling her second cup of coffee when she saw David make his way in, still in his sleep wear, looking like he hadn't slept much longer than she did.
He gave her a grin nonetheless. "Still on Paris time?"
Robin nodded. "Probably will be for another couple of days."
He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down at the table next to her, yawning.
Robin loved this room. It was bright, spacious and had a giant window with a view of the forest that surrounded the cabin. A birdfeeder hung outside and Robin had been watching at least a dozen birds of just as many colours make use of it this past hour.
"Since it's just you and me, you want to tell me what's going on with you and Mom?" she asked, cupping her ceramic mug with both hands.
David swallowed. "No small talk about the weather with you, huh?"
"I didn't fly across the ocean for that."
"No, I suppose you didn't."
"Well? On the phone you told me that things haven't been okay for a while. What did you mean by that?"
David stared into his own coffee mug and his eyes didn't meet her gaze. His silence seemed to last forever, until he finally raised his head to look at her. "I'm not sure I have a right to discuss my marital problems with you. I said some things in the heat of the moment yesterday..."
"I'd have to be blind not to notice that things aren't good with you and Mom," Robin interjected. "And I think if you ask me to leave Paris on a moment's notice to bring Leah here, I deserve at least the courtesy of an explanation."
David exhaled. "Fair enough."
"Tell me one thing first...is Mom okay?"
"No...she's not okay. She's beyond exhausted, Robin. It's why she walked into an oncoming car."
"I don't understand? What's changed?"
"Look, Robin...I'd never ask Anna to give up her career. Part of what made me fall in love with your mother is her passion for what she does. I'm guilty of the same. Establishing a new business is hard enough as it is without spending every spare minute trying find her sister..."
"I thought she stopped trying to find Alex?"
"It's no longer a professional case for her. But that doesn't mean she stopped. Now it's a personal obsession. Between work and Leah and finding Alex there's no room for anything else in her life."
Robin raised her brows. "No room for you, you mean."
David gave her a lopsided smile. "No...no, it's not what I mean. It's not about me feeling jealous. Or left out." He sighed. "God...I wish it were that simple." He gave her another disarming smile. "Then I could just buy a self help book. Or a really fast new car."
Under a ray of sun that burst through the window, Robin suddenly caught the shadows under his eyes, making her realize he was as tired as he sounded. Making her regret her words nearly as soon as she'd said them.
"It isn't even really about Alex. It's about Anna feeling so weighed down by her guilt and regrets, that she's pursuing this at the cost of everything else. At the cost of her health and her family. She could've been killed yesterday when she walked into that oncoming car, do you realize that? Killed." He cupped his face in his hands and paused before meeting her eyes. "I can't watch her self destruct, Robin. I just can't do it anymore....I love her too much for that."
Anna Devane winced when she fastened the belt on her bathrobe, stopping just short of biting her lip.
Her ribs were killing her and it was impossible to take a deep breath without her body punishing her for it.
Yet when she thought back to the sleek, black Lincoln town car whose hood she collided with two days ago, she realized that things could've been worse.
She could still be unconscious in a Toronto hospital bed.
A faint knock on the bedroom door made her turn around, and that action too, made her wince.
The sight of Robin's silhouette standing in the doorway, was enough to bring the hint of a smile to her lips. Seeing her beautiful daughter in front of her made her realize that it had been much too long since they'd been on the same side of the globe.
"Should you be up?"
Anna nodded. "I think it hurts worse to lie down."
Anna put an around her shoulder. "I'll be fine. Honestly. It's just going to be really sore for a while. All things considered, I got off lucky."
Robin frowned, looking at her as thought she didn't believe a word.
"Sweetheart, believe me. I don't want you to worry."
Robin's face was serious and for a moment Anna couldn't read it.
She used to pride herself on knowing her daughter well enough to be able to read all the subtle nuances on her face. A raising of an eyebrow or pursing of her lips could tell whether she was trying to hide anger, disappointment or irritation. Now she wasn't so sure anymore.
"I owe you an apology for last night," Anna told her. "You flew halfway across the world and I barely gave you a decent hello. I love that you're here, Robin. Always. It's just that I didn't feel like David had to scare you into coming here..."
Robin leaned against her drawer. "He is scared for you."
Anna frowned as her anger rose. It was one thing to ask her daughter to come to Pine Valley without so much as telling her, it was another altogether to share his unfounded worries with her.
"What exactly did David tell you?"
"Nothing I didn't already guess."
"And what is it that you guessed?"
"You're still trying to find Alex aren't you?" There was a hint of accusation in her voice.
"Yes," Anna shot back, feeling all defensive all of a sudden. "I've never made that a secret."
Robin sighed. Unlike her mother, Robin didn't believe that Alex was still alive.
She didn't think her aunt would have stayed from them if she was. There was no reason for her to think she would. After having spent time with her and Dimitri at Vadsel, Robin didn't think it was possible for Alex to willingly stay away from Dimitri. She'd never seen two people more in love. Then there was Andrei. Crazy, impulsive Andrei whom Alex couldn't have loved more if he were her own flesh and blood. No, she decided, there was no way that Alex would willingly stay away from all of that.
Robin might not have been able to keep a dry eye every time she gave it a moment's thought, but she had made peace with the fact that Alex was gone.
The fact that her mother couldn't think straight on this subject if she tried, made Robin want to shake her.
"If Alex were alive she'd let us know. I think I knew her well enough to know that much."
"You don't know everything that happened to her at Alexei Estate...or the state of mind she was in when I last saw her..." Anna said softly.
Robin balled her fist. "It doesn't matter, Mom! Don't you get that? Can't you get that through your thick skull? Alex isn't some WSB spy who's gone into hiding to protect her family or something crazy like that! It's been two years without a word from her! She's...gone. Dead."
"I'm sorry, sweetheart...but I don't believe that...."
Robin was crying now, even though it was the last thing she wanted to do.
"You know what I believe, Mom? That if you don't stop this obsession with Alex and Faison, that you're going to lose the only family you have. I think you're going to lose David and that he's going to do everything in his power to take Leah with him." She wiped away a tear with the back of her hand. "I think you need to make a choice...between chasing a lie and fighting for what you have in front of you."
One look at her face told her how much the words stung her mother. But just then Robin didn't care.
"I don't think you're being fair..."
"Fair?" Robin looked at her incredulously. "I spent the first six years of my life not knowing my father! I'd hate to see my baby sister grow up not knowing her mother!"
Knowing she'd crossed a line, she couldn't bear another look at her mother's face.
Instead she'd turned around and slammed the door behind her.
Robin cringed when she thought back to that day, wishing there was a way to take back some of the things she'd said.
Her words might've changed things for the better. In fact, Robin was almost certain that they'd been more of a catalyst that her mother would admit. Still, she didn't deserve that kind of tirade.
Some much changed after that day.
Not just with her mother. That morning instigated Robin's decision to finish her studies not at the Sorbonne but at the University of Chicago.
Even so, thinking back to that day filled her with guilt now. 'Especially after what I know now...' Robin thought uncomfortably. 'I convinced you that you were wrong about Alex, when I think I might have been the one that was wrong.'
Reaching the top of the staircase, Robin paused before knocking on the door of her parents' bedroom.
"Come on in," was the cheerful reply.
Robin smiled when she saw David trying to put on a bowtie with mixed success. It was tied in decent looking knot but when he put it around his neck it drooped off to one side.
"Need a hand with that?"
David returned her smile. "Absolutely not. What kind of heart surgeon can't tie a simple knot?"
"This one apparently," Robin answered with a chuckle. Her mother had been right. He looked like a movie star in his all black tuxedo. Together they'd make stunning couple tonight.
"You have to hurry and get changed if you want to try and look as good as us," he told her with a wink.
"I will," Robin told him, serious now. "But first there's something I wanted to talk to you about."
"Sure. Anything." He was still focused on his bowtie and the mirror in front of him.
"It's kind of important..."
Now she had his full attention.
"Alright..." he sat down on the bed, gesturing for her to join him.
Robin took a deep breath, pondering one last time whether she was doing the right thing. Whether this wouldn't change everything all over again. Whether David wouldn't hate her for it.
"Before I show you something, will you promise me not to tell Mom until we know more?"
"Robin?" There was concern etched in his handsome face now. "What's going on? Is it the HIV? Are you alright? Are you having second thoughts about Africa?"
She shook her head. "No, no...I'm fine. It's nothing like that. Please, will you promise me? I need to have your word on this."
He nodded solemnly. "Alright...you have my word."
Robin set her backpack down on his king-size bed, pulling out a file folder from it.
"After Alex...disappeared, I read a lot of her research papers," she started. "I mean, it's not like I understood a whole lot of them. Her field is totally out of my league. But I..." she paused. "I thought it was a way for me to get to know her a little better. By trying to understand something she was really passionate about."
David squeezed her hand. "I understand. I think she'd be flattered."
"The more of her papers I read, the more I thought I was starting to get a feel for her research vision. I started to understand her work a bit better. It was fascinating."
"Alex was a groundbreaking researcher," David added. "A lot of advances in stem cell therapy can be attributed to her ideas. Crazy, radical, brilliant ideas."
Robin opened her file folder and handed twelve sheets of paper, stapled together. "I found this paper online last month. Something about adding anti-oxidants to a certain medium used for the growth in mouse cells."
David glanced at the paper. "And?"
Robin handed him another paper. "Here's a paper Alex published a year before she disappeared. It's about how vitamin C increases the pluripotency of cell populations."
"One's a continuation of the other, is what you're trying to say? That's someone's carrying on Alex's research? That's not unusual or even unlikely..."
"No," Robin corrected him. "I think...I think it's more than that. I think was written by the same person."
Robin didn't give him a chance. "The second paper was published a month ago in an online journal put out by some Midwestern research centre. Check the name of the author at the end."
David flipped through the pages and Robin could have sworn he was a notch paler when he took a look at the final words.
A. Merrick, MD, PHD.
"I think all this time Mom may have been right about Alex being alive and..." She took a deep breath. "I need your help to confirm that for me. I need your help finding her."