Gina stared at Ciarda over the steeple of her perfectly manicured fingernails. Ciarda frowned and looked away from her mother's unrelenting gaze. She didn't have to guess that her dad told Gina about the earlier crying episode. Silently, Ciarda cursed herself and her inability to keep her emotions in check. Would she ever learn?
"Do you really believe that leaving your home is the answer?" Gina asked. "There must be a better way this can be resolved."
Ciarda signed and looked down at her clenched hands in her lap. "I'm not one of your patients, Mom. I just want a fresh start. Why is that so hard for you?"
"Because you're my daughter and I love you."
Ciarda's throat tightened as a fresh crop of tears lodged there. She swallowed hard and replied in a strained voice, "Leaving wouldn't mean you or Daddy failed. It's just something I need to do for myself."
"Alanna will always be your sister," Gina said. "Moving away to Connecticut won't change that. Maybe your dad and I should talk to your teachers-"
"Don't!" Ciarda shot from her perch on the window seat like a rocket heading for the skies. "Why can't you just let me go? Why do I have to keep going through this? It's not fair!"
Gina left the edge of her desk to go to Ciarda. Ciarda avoided her mother's outstretched arms and ran from the den. Tears blurred her vision and she never looked back. Not once.
Tommy lowered the receiver into the phone's cradle and sighed. Tension hung over the room like a dark cloud. Nikolas felt Tommy's despair without his friend having to say a word. He lowered the security checks of prospective employees he'd been reviewing and moved to stand at the edge of Tommy's desk.
"Tommy? What's happened? Who called you?"
"That was Gina," Tommy answered with another weary sigh. "She tried to talk to Ciarda, but she didn't want to listen. Ciarda ran out and Gina is worried."
Nikolas sat on the guest chair in front of Tommy's desk. "What's going on with Ciarda?"
The muscles in Tommy jaw worked as he shook his head. "It's starting again, Nik. She's comparing herself to Alanna, and since she doesn't like how she measures up, she wants to go away to a boarding school in Connecticut."
"What?!" Nikolas couldn't believe what his friend was saying, but one look at Tommy's tortured green eyes told him that his friend spoke the truth. "Call Keesha. She helped before."
Tommy shook his head. "I don't think Keesha can help this time. Before, Ciarda was little and it was easier to get through to her. Or so we thought. We were wrong. This has been living inside her for years. Gina and I missed it."
"Don't blame yourself. We all missed it. Is there anything I can do? Maybe Dominik could help. They've always been good friends."
Tommy grimaced. "I hadn't thought about him. I don't think talking to Dom would work. Thanks, but no thanks."
Nikolas gave his friend a long look. "Why not? Of course, it would work. He fell hard for your girls when they were infants. Of course, he'll want to help. I'll talk to him about it tonight, and I'll let you know what he says. Who knows? Maybe this will help both of them."
"You were mentioning him when the phone rang," Tommy said. "Do you think he's having problems at the university? He's a smart kid. I don't see how any of the coursework could be too difficult for him."
"Me either, but he won't talk to me. He's always been a quiet child, but there were times he'd open up to me or Father. I think those times are in the past now."
"He's older now," Tommy said. "Everything changes when they get older. That sucks."
"Doesn't it, though?"
Jason-Everett and Marisa rode past AJ and Keesha on the backs of two thoroughbred horses. Keesha waved at her smiling children and couldn't help but smile herself. Their happiness was contagious.
"Looks like they're enjoying this," AJ commented. He took her hand and led her to the nearby wrought-iron bench. They sat and AJ rested his arm along the back of the bench, his hand closing around Keesha's shoulders. He sighed when she didn't pull away. "I am, too. Are you?"
She looked at him and her smile widened. "I needed this. Everything has been hectic lately at the house. Ben moving out and Marisa moving in. Jason-Everett doesn't seem to know if he's coming or going."
"Kids get excited over the smallest things," AJ said. "When Michael was young, he was a fireball of energy. Eve and I could barely keep up with him."
Keesha nodded. "I remember. He turned out to be a fine young man, AJ. You should be proud."
He made a show of puffing out his chest. "I am."
She laughed and he joined in. "You're so silly sometimes."
"Laughter makes the world go round, my lady." He pulled his arm from behind her back and took her hand.
They sat quietly for a few minutes, simply enjoying each other's company. Then, Keesha said, "I'm surprised you haven't said anything."
"About the marriage proposal and desperately wanting to hear you tell me you'll marry me?" He shrugged. "I'm learning a new virtue this week. It's called patience. How am I doing?"
"You're surprising the heck out of me is how you're doing." She looked down at their laced fingers. His hand was so warm and the fit of her hands in his was perfect. She even felt a tingle when their palms touched. Against her best intentions, he was getting to her. It was scary.
"Hmm… Surprise is good. Right?"
His fingers flexed against the back of her hand, and seconds later, his mouth nuzzled her neck. He nibbled her earlobe before swooping forward to capture her lips. She surrendered to his kisses, shivering when his tongue invaded her mouth and took possession of her senses. By the time the kiss ended, Keesha found breathing difficult and coherent thought impossible. Her gaze found AJ's staring at her with intense, passion-darkened blue eyes.
"Is it good?" he asked, his voice husky and seductive.
"Very," she answered honestly.
"So patience has some merits."
Hypnotized by him, she nodded and answered as if in a trance. "Yes."
He sat up straight and his eyes narrowed. "Is that your final answer?"
His abrupt movement ended the spell his passionate kiss had created. She looked away from him and frowned. "I'm not sure, AJ. I'm still not sure."
"Okay," he answered. "Then, I'll wait until you are."
"Are you sure we're going the right way?" Grace asked, looking at the pacing scenery on Santa Monica Boulevard as fiancee navigated their rental Jeep and George looked at the map. "The guy at the rental place said that Venice was adjacent to Palms. We left that area awhile ago. Maybe we're too far north. We should turn around."
"That bozo was too busy flirting with you," Michael said, "to know which way is up. I've been here before. I know where I'm going."
They drove in silence for several more miles until Michael hit the steering wheel with the heel of his hand. "See! The ocean's right there and Venice isn't too far away. We'll be there in no time."
And he was right. The afternoon crowd packed the beach and it took several turns around the block before Michael found a parking space. They hopped out and George fed the meter. Michael made sure to set the car's alarm before grabbing Grace's hand. George moved in place on Grace's other side.
"The file says the guy is a mechanic at a motorcycle shop."
"He's not just some 'guy'," Michael reminded George. "He could be your father."
"Well, until we know for sure, he's just some guy to me."
"Don't you want him to be Dad?" Grace asked her brother. "I know I do."
"I know you do," he said with a faint smile. "It's just that the more I think about it. . . I dunno. Mama is finally moving on."
"But Jason-Everett doesn't even know his father," Michael said. "If this guy is Jason, we're reuniting a son with his father."
"That's another thing that's been getting to me," George said. "If he is our dad, where the hell has he been all this time? He knew Mama was pregnant. He could have picked up a phone to see how she and their baby were doing."
"But what if he has amnesia?" Grace asked.
George rolled his eyes. "Come on, sis. Amnesia? You've been watching too many of those silly soap operas. Nobody has amnesia in real life."
"You don't have to be a jerk, George," she retorted. "It does happen. Simone had amnesia."
"When?" The two males asked in unison.
"When we were kids," Grace said. "I heard her and Mama talking about it once. She didn't remember what happened to her when she, Tommy and Gina were held prisoner. Don't you remember? Daddy saved them. That's when he and Mama fell in love again."
"I don't remember," George insisted.
Michael laughed. "Yeah, sure you don't. Even I remember hearing about that. I've been wanting to get the details from Tommy, but I didn't want to bring up bad memories."
"You can ask him about it," Grace said. "Tommy's cool. I'm sure asking won't jeopardize your job."
"Very funny," Michael said, kissing the tip of her nose as she laughed.
They came to the end of the block where it connected with the boardwalk. George pointed to the motorcycle shop a few yards away. "There it is."
"Do you want me to do the talking?" Michael asked.
The twins looked at each other and then George gave his friend a faint smile. "We can play it by ear. Get a look at him first and see how he reacts."
"The picture is him," Michael said.
"You can't always believe everything you see," George told him. "I'm an artist. Trust me on this."
They didn't say anything else and took off towards the shop. A few biker types with long hair, beards and leather jackets milled around outside. Michael closed his arm around Grace's waist and held on tight. She didn't try to pull away, but leaned against him.
George moved to the front and stepped inside the garage first. The smell of Penzoil and gasoline filled the area, overpowering the refreshing salty ocean air. A man with a baseball cap covering his hair sat on the ground. A motorcycle engine rested between his legs. Grease-stained overalls covered him from head to ankle and worn work boots covered his feet. His head moved in time to an old DJLS song and he didn't move as they approached him from behind.
"You can give your job to the receptionist in there," the man said, pointing to the office. "She'll let you know if I can get to it today."
Grace reached for her brother's hand. The voice was so familiar. Her heart raced in anticipation.
George squeezed her hand and cleared his throat. "We didn't come here with a job."
"Well, if you're selling Girl Scout Cookies, I don't want any. You can ask Sybil inside there. She may by a few dozen boxes from you."
"We're not selling anything either," Michael said. He decided to do the talking now since George and Grace seemed too caught up in the man's voice to think straight. Michael released his hold on Grace and moved closer. "We're looking for someone and thought you could help."
"Not me," he said. "I don't know anybody."
"A few minutes of your time is all we ask," Michael coaxed.
"I don't have a few minutes. Once I finish with this, I have two Harleys to look at. I don't have time to play hide and seek with you."
"Please!" Grace cried. "We've been waiting ten years. Why can't you spare two minutes?"
The man threw down his wrench and jumped to his feet in one movement. He whipped around and through gritted teeth said, "Because I said I couldn't!"
The voice sounded a lot like Jason, but it was the face that did it for them.
Grace swooned, Michael caught her, and George said,