Due to the incredibly long delay since the last chapter, be forewarned that this is a super-size update.
Also, you may need a brief recap to refresh your memory:
Previously: The gang is at the Grenfords for the annual Christmas ball while Adel's uncle – Lee – is somewhere in France searching for clues about her mother's whereabouts. During the party, Tristan and Adel messes around some in the maze, but as they return back to the house, Adel realizes she'd left her mask outside. While retrieving it, she's attacked by the mysterious stranger from the ice rink. Tristan reappears and tries to fight off the man, shoving Adel back to the house. She runs for help and asks Justin to get the others. Except the next thing she knows, Justin is drugging her and everything turns black to the sound of Tristan's calling out her name. Just what the heck is going on?
Adel drifted awake, head throbbing. Her mouth was dry, as if she had swallowed a mouthful of cotton, and she sucked in an unsteady breath as she tried to open her eyes. Her lids felt heavy and her movements clumsy as she shifted against the cold ground.
She couldn't see anything. Panic bubbled up in her chest as she blinked furiously. Darkness. Everywhere. Dark. For a second there, she wondered if she had gone blind and her hands scrambled against the ground, flying up to her face. She touched her eyes and squinted, trying to make out her fingers.
Where had they taken her? She had no recollection of anything at all after Justin had drugged her and her insides twisted in knots as she tried to sort out her thoughts. Her pulse drummed relentlessly and she wondered where she was, if she should start screaming, if she should keep quiet, if Tristan was okay –
She swallowed the tightness in her throat. Gingerly, she sat up and she reached her right hand out, patting around cautiously until her hand made contact with what seemed to be a wall. It felt bumpy and cool, like concrete, and she leaned against it, scooting along the ground next to it. She was still a bit woozy so with some effort, she unfolded herself and got on her knees. All this time, she kept her hand on the wall, her sole source of support in this darkness.
It reminded her of her game in the maze with Tristan, but this time, she knew with an almost hysterical desperation that she wouldn't be able to find her way out so easily. God, had it really only been hours since the maze, when she was still kissing, laughing, joking with Tristan? Maybe more time had passed, but she didn't think so. She hoped not. She didn't want to think about the possibility that she had just laid unconscious and vulnerable for that long. She brushed her hands down her body and gathered that nothing seemed to be out of place. There were a few raw spots where she had probably scraped or bruised during the scuffle, but other than that, it didn't seem like anyone had done anything to her while she was out of it.
A bitter smile twisted her lips. If she couldn't maintain a smile, she'd rather thought she'd start crying and that would never do. Her hands were already trembling too much for her taste. Carefully, she made her way along the wall, keeping her hand out to feel for any obstacles.
She'd gone maybe five – seven steps when her thigh bumped into something solid and she jerked back in alarm, heart in her throat. Her hand had somehow missed the thing and she wondered what was so low on the ground. It didn't feel like a box or anything that might be in a storage room. Strangely, it had felt soft yet hard, warm, lumpish like a – like a –
Hesitantly, she reached out again, probing, and her fingers had just barely grazed what felt like cloth when a hand snapped around her wrist, fingers digging into her skin.
She let out a muffled shriek and whipped out her other hand, pummeling blindly at the lump – at her assailant.
There was a low groan, a curse, and then, "Adel?"
Her breath caught in her throat and she stopped herself from launching a fist at the guy. Shakily, she asked, "Tristan?"
His voice was wan, but he let out a weary chuckle. "I knew your punch felt familiar somehow."
She pulled her hand away from him and sat back on her heels, both hands searching for him. She could feel him struggling to sit up and she slipped her arms around him, trying to support him.
When he had managed to pull himself up, she didn't pull away from him. Her fingers curled against the soft fabric of his shirt, clenching spastically. She had this absurd fear that if she let him go, she wouldn't be able to find him in the darkness again. "Tristan –" To her humiliation, her voice cracked.
His arms snaked around her, pulling her body awkwardly to him so that she had to twist around to avoid kneeing him, but somehow, she ended up in his arms, on his lap, and she could feel his cheek pressing into her hair, his heart pounding next to her ear. His embrace was a tad too tight for comfort, but she welcomed it, clinging to his arm with one hand. She hadn't realized how cold she was until she was next to him, his heat seeping into her.
She mumbled thickly, "Why – how did you – why are you here?"
"As much as I'll like to say I fought my way to follow you, I believe I was caught in a somewhat similar way."
"Somewhat? You believe?"
"Apparently," His voice was wry. "I'm not Rambo."
She became rigid in his arms, but he didn't let her go. "Are you hurt?" she asked sharply.
"I was knocked out," he admitted. "Shortly after you passed out. I'm not too sure what went on after that."
Her stomach twisted. Her fingers flew up, running along his neck, curving over his cheeks, seeking for any traces of blood.
At her touch, he stilled and his voice softened. "I'm okay."
"What does okay mean? Are you in pain?" Her hands darted around him, running over his back, trying to check for any gaping wounds.
"I'm fine," he reassured her. "Head throbs a little, but I'm okay."
She went silent. If only there was more light in this room, but there was no windows and there wasn't even an outlined sliver of light from wherever the door was. If Tristan was hurt … if he was hurt because of her …
"Adel?" His voice was soft.
"Please don't die," she said quietly.
That startled a laugh out of him and he coughed. "Wow, thanks for the vote of confidence."
"They didn't hurt me that badly, Adel. I mean, yeah, I'm a bit battered and bruised, but I don't believe anything's broken and I don't think I'm going to keel over anytime soon." He paused. "Unless you feel inclined to snap my neck now where no one can see."
His light bantering only made her feel worse. "Are you purposely joking so that I don't notice your fatal wounds and then by the time we escape, you collapse and give me one last gasping kiss before you die and then tell me to run for it by myself?" It was ridiculous, but when things get surreal like this, her mouth seems to run on overdrive. She couldn't seem to get her mind settled. Tristan was stuck here with her, in danger.
"I think," he mused, "That if I died first, I doubt I'd have the breath to tell you to run for it. Though I do like how you managed to fit in a last kiss –"
"And no, you should drag me behind you when you run. I'm not so heavy. You can hold me by one ankle."
Her hands were still roaming all over his torso and he caught her wrists. "As much as I like you manhandling me, I really am fine." He insisted gently, "Don't worry about me, Adel. Just … don't worry."
She let her hands dangle limply in his grip. "How can I not? We don't know where we are, what they want with us, what they're going to do with us –"
"It'll be fine."
She leaned forward, pressing her forehead against the side of his neck. "I'm sorry." Her voice was quiet. "This is all my fault. I'll get us out of here one way or another."
His words came out slowly, warily. "What are you planning?" At her silence, he continued, "Adel. Whatever it is you're thinking of … I don't like it."
"It'll be fine," she murmured.
His tone turned sharp. "Adel, what?"
Her hand dropped down, brushing his, and his fingers turned to interlace hers. "It's dark in here, but maybe I can find the door."
"And then what? You're going to hide behind it and leap out at them and attack?"
There was a long pause of silence. "No." Her thumb dragged over his knuckles. "Maybe."
His familiar biting tone was well in place. "Well, do you need a sidekick or would you prefer to cart me out in a fireman's hold in your one man army routine?"
She plucked at the hem of his sleeve and muttered, "It was just an idea …"
He tugged her hair and she blinked blindly in his direction. "Listen. This isn't an action flick. You can't do anything rash."
"What should we do then? Wait for them to kill us?"
"You don't know what their intentions are. We don't know what Justin's role in this is or how long they've been planning this, but they didn't bother to tie us up so either they're lazy criminals or they might not want to do us any harm."
"You mean besides beating you up and kidnapping us?" she retorted.
"Do we really have any other option besides waiting to see what they want with us?" He cut her off before she could open her mouth. "And no, you are not going to jump them."
A noise from across the room interrupted them and they stiffened. The door opened slowly and the yellow bar of light blinded them. Adel covered her eyes with one hand and she could feel Tristan shifting her over, practically shoving her behind him. She clutched his arm and pushed away his hand, trying to hinder his not so subtle maneuver to protect her. She cleared her throat, "Who are you and what do you want?"
Tristan didn't make a sound, but she could tell from the way his muscles bunched up in his shoulders against her that he didn't like what she was doing. She scooted forward, leaning toward the door, and Tristan hissed beneath his breath as he tried to elbow her back, "Stop it."
"No, you stop –" She turned to him and the words died. By the dim light, she could now see that one of Tristan's eyes was swelled up, puffy and reddish in the dim light, and dried brown coated the corner of his lips. His hair was messed up, falling messily into his eyes, and while his face held his usual "Shut up before I kill you" expression for her, she noticed that there seemed to be more to the way he was sitting, so straight and tense, as if he was holding back the pain by shear will.
She stared at him, horrified, and his lips pulled back in a painful smile. His words were a croak, "That awful, huh?"
She couldn't bring herself to answer, her hands clenching. Her attention flew back to the doorway where the man from before now stood and her tone was shaky as she snapped, "Why did you take Tristan? You said you wanted to talk to me. He has nothing to do with this."
The man shrugged. "I did invite you politely. You're the one who threw a fit and dragged the boy into this mess."
She blanched. The worse part of it all was that she knew he was right. As her gaze dropped down stonily to the floor where the light splashed across, she pulled away from Tristan.
His hand caught hers, holding tight, and Tristan spoke up coldly, "You have the both of us here now so what do you want?"
Another figure appeared in the doorway then and Adel could barely resist launching herself at Justin. The man moved to one side and the boy stood in the doorway, watching them calmly. Gently, he said, "How are you guys feeling? I was worried that you guys wouldn't wake up."
"Why are you doing this?" Adel spat out. "Are you planning to hold us for ransom or something?"
Justin's expression flickered and he shook his head. "Is that what you were worrying about? No, like we've said, we just want to talk to you."
"Then let Tristan go," she retorted. "If you want to talk to me, fine, but Tristan doesn't have anything to do with this. You have to send him back first."
The grip Tristan had on her hand tightened painfully. "Like hell I'm going anywhere," he hissed. In a louder voice, he snapped, "Let's just get this over with. Have your talk and we'll be on our way."
Justin inclined his head in an abrupt nod. "Then if you'll please follow me, Adel …"
She didn't know how Tristan could get up so fast, but the next thing she knew, he was on his feet and helping her up. Before they could move, the man in the doorway took a step in with his hand raised. Casting a meaningful look in Tristan's direction, his voice rumbled, "Alone."
Tristan started, bristling. "Again, like hell I'm going to –" Adel smoothed her palm over his arm.
Her eyes narrowed. "What are you guys going to do to him?"
"Nothing," Justin assured her. "He'll just stay here until you return."
"And if I refuse to go without him?"
Justin opened his arms, shaking his head. "I think that if you had to come all the way here, you deserve to know at least what we have to say." At her continued hesitation, he added, "Especially if it concerns your mother."
At that, chills danced across Adel's skin and her heart started a steady drumming. "Are you saying …"
Justin returned her gaze squarely. "We won't hurt either of you. Will you come?"
Tristan seized her hand, giving it a little shake, but even as she turned her eyes back to him, she knew what her answer was. "I'll be right back," she promised.
His brows snapped together. "Adel …"
She turned back to Justin. "You'll leave Tristan alone?"
The boy nodded and Tristan tugged her back to face him. "You can't go off with them alone," he murmured.
She touched his hand. "It'll be okay. I'll be right back."
She pulled away from him and started for the door. Tristan stood there blankly for a few seconds before taking a step in her direction. The man blocked him.
Tristan cursed, eyes glittering icily. "Adel!"
She paused at the door, throwing him what she hoped was a confident smile. Inside, she felt shaky and uncertain – desperate to learn the truth and at the same time, so fearful of what to come. "It'll be okay," she repeated and she didn't know whether or not she was saying them for Tristan or for herself.
Lee made a mistake. He shouldn't have come here. It was all a mistake. Still, he gripped the paper he'd scrawled the directions on and headed off along the path past the black gates.
When his brother-in-law had informed him that all his sister had left for Adel in that mysterious chest was actually an apology note from the late Mrs. Harland, he didn't want to believe it. Even though he'd all but written his sister off these past few years, somehow a deep part of him still hadn't given up hope that there was a meaningful reason as to why his sister had just disappeared on them like that. As it turned out though, all this engagement mess served to do was to reinforce the rumors that his sister had ran away with a lover, abandoning her whole family.
She wasn't like that. She couldn't be like that. Not his sister.
So when he'd spotted the words le monastère de – the last word began with a S, but letters were smudged badly as if his brother-in-law had crushed his fingers across the words before the ink had set - scrawled in his brother-in-law's notes on his desk, circled over and over, he recalled a faint memory of his sister's wistful dreams: "Someday, Stephen, I shall live in France. I'm going to spend the rest of my life there in a quaint cottage in a beautiful city with cobbled streets. Paris? Bordeaux. Avignon. Maybe Nice."
It wasn't an address, but why would his brother-in-law have the name of a church in France?And then came the mysterious letter with pictures of his sister in a yellow dress, grinning at the camera. She stood in a cobbled street with shops behind her that had blue shuttered windows and wild purple flowers that spilled out from the windowsills. The note was simple: Memories in France, Stephen. He didn't understand, but he thought that it might be a message from his sister. With a desperate resolve, he dropped everything to go on this mission to find this mysterious church. Except of course, with the staggering number of monasteries, churches, and convents in France, going off blindly with just the letter S didn't exactly help him much.
But he was coming close. Here, in Nice, he'd actually managed to find the same street pictured in the photograph. After all he'd sought to find out about her, he was coming too close to a truth that left him cold, that he didn't want to face. And god, he hoped he was wrong.
Justin and the mysterious man flanked her on both sides as they went through the corridors. She'd come to realize that they must be on a level in a large office building or warehouse. The white chrome hallways were lit with fluorescent fixtures, some flickering with a dull buzz. Tristan was still locked in what was probably an abandoned storage room and the thought of him alone in the dark room gripped her heart.
"Where are you taking me?" she blurted out.
"We're almost there," Justin responded. His tone was polite and even friendly, as if nothing was amiss and he was just walking her to class.
"Why are you doing this, Justin?" she continued, exasperated. "I thought you were … I thought you were a …" She trailed off, unable to complete her words. She thought she'd sound too whiny, too nagging.
"What?" Justin glanced at her mildly. "A friend?" The same easy smile he always had spread across his lips. "I am. I'm your friend."
"Right," she bit out sarcastically. "I'm sure you must have hundreds of friends then if you treat them all this way."
Justin laughed and Adel, so close to losing her temper and socking him in the face, looked away. Her eyes landed on the man next to her and she snapped, "What about you? You must be Mr. Popularity, I suppose."
The man didn't even acknowledge her.
Justin swung to the left and they came to a stop before a nondescript door. He knocked and a voice called out, "Come in."
"Hey, did you see Tristan anywhere?" Caine stepped up to Will, hands jammed in his pockets.
Will paused mid-chew, putting down a cookie. "I think he went out with Adel to the gardens."
"Oh." The music was light and soft, easy for dancers to follow. The boy watched the couples twirling on the dance floor, an ensemble of whirling colors. Caine shrugged carelessly, dropping his eyes to the floor. "Tristan's always been a better person than I am."
Will squinted at him, brushing crumbs off his front. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Caine picked at a loose thread on his shirt sleeve, fiddling with the button on his cuff. "Nothing much. Just that if a girl was to up and disappear on me for months, I won't even look at her again let alone get back with her. So I guess it's nice that they're happy. For once."
Will made a face, complaining, "You're still not over that? Dude, stop holding a grudge. Be a man!"
Caine's eyes darted skyward. "Wow, that helped. I feel the love surging in me now. I'll follow Adel to the ends of the world –"
"That might be hard to do if you're going to have to split yourself in half between Dani and Adel." Will saluted him with his crystal glass.
Caine's upper lip curled. "Can you stop bringing Danielle up? The girl is as insane as you are and the sooner we get back to school, the better my health and mental welfare will be."
"You're no fun." Will thrust his plate out. "Here. Have a cookie."
The other boy rolled his eyes. "No, thanks."
"It's a really good cookie."
"No, I don't think you understand. It's a really good –"
"Shut up before I cram it down your throat," Caine hissed between his teeth.
"Yah," the other boy whistled lowly. "Something's wrong. What happened? Dani kicked you in the nuts?"
"Ah. So she's feeling up new boy's -"
"Then whose –"
"There are no nuts of any sort involved, Will, thank you." He sighed, carding his fingers through his hair. "Except for maybe you."
Will snorted. "Heh. You're thinking about my nuts."
"You are a nut," Caine retorted dryly. "And nice to see your sixth grade humor hasn't gone away." He stretched his arms over his head. "I'm done with this party. I think I'm going to call it a night."
"You can't! Where are the others?" Will glanced around the room. "We have to play a game."
Caine rolled his eyes. "No, thanks. Vince and Sammy got waylaid by Mr. Grenford –"
"Oh my god!" Will gasped. "Mr. Grenford's here? Like, really here? Oh, I worship the man."
"If only Vincent felt the same –"
"The man is awesome. The coolest dad ever! We can all play a game!"
Caine reared back, giving him a weary look. "Let's not."
"Flip cup!" Will pumped his fists into the air. "We'll break down into teams and see who can guzzle beer faster – I bet Dani can totally chug down a keg without batting an - hey, Hannah!"
The maid was cutting through the crowd at breakneck speed and at the sound of her name, jerked to a stop. Her eyes flitted around her and when they landed on Will, a hesitant smile wavered on her lips. The boy beckoned at her impatiently and she edged her way toward them.
"Hi!" The hazel eyed boy greeted her, swiping away a wavy lock from his masked eyes. "It's Will, by the way, if you're confused about who I am. I know, this mask does wonders to disguise, yet enhance my charming good -"
"No … I think I knew who you are."
"Aw, you're so smart. You busy?"
Hannah couldn't seem to look at them directly, fumbling with the hem of her apron. "I – yeah, I need to go to the kitchen –"
"Okay, great, can you pick us up some paper cups on your way back?"
The maid looked confused, gesturing weakly at the crystal cups lining the punch bowl on the table. "But there's –"
"We want to play flip cup," Will informed her patiently, clasping his hands together. "Do you know what flip cup is? Do you want to play too? We welcome all drunkards!"
"No, we don't. Ignore him." Caine cocked his head at her. "Did you happen to see Tristan and his girlfriend anywhere?"
Hannah blinked. "Uh … no. Sorry."
Caine frowned, narrowing his eyes. "Where the hell could they be? When was the last time you saw them?"
The maid gave him a faint smile. "I … believe they were going out for a short drive –"
"A drive?" Caine said sharply. "To where?"
Will grinned. "Motel 9, baby."
"Tristan? Really?" Caine scoffed, but when they turned back to the maid, she was no longer there. "God, good going. You scared her off."
Will drummed his fingers against the buffet table. "Oh, stop sulking. Just because no one loves you and everyone ditches you doesn't mean you should be all grumpy and cranky –"
Caine walked off without a response. Will leapt to follow his friend, chattering away, "And that's exactly why no one loves you. But you can be on my team. We'll flip cups like nobody's business."
The room was not large. It wasn't small to the point of suffocation, but the room definitely wasn't the grand, evil spy's lair she had expected. Instead, it was bare, hospital white and steel, and minimalistic with only a metal desk in the center of the room. No decorations, no plants, no picture frames. Behind that desk was an average-looking man in a gray suit with dark hair peppered with white and she instantly recognized him as the man from the picture. The man her mother had ran off with.
Adel's heartbeat quickened and her ears felt stuffed up, as if she was hearing everything from a distance. "We'll be right outside," Justin murmured and backed out quietly. She barely noticed him, her attention solely focused on the man at the desk. Twisting her hands together, she scrutinized him, unable to blink. He certainly could have been an attractive man in his younger years with his broad shoulders and square jaw, but was that really all it took to draw her mother away from her family? He hadn't looked up at her when she stepped into the room and he still didn't look up now when the door closed behind Adel, leaving her alone with him. He didn't even seem to be aware of her presence, reclining back in his leather chair with his hands folded over his stomach and his eyes distant.
The silence in the room consumed her. There wasn't even the ticking of a clock to fill the quiet and her stomach twisted into knots. "I'm not telepathic so whatever you have to say, you'll have to actually speak out loud."
The dark eyes slid up toward her and the corner of his lips quirked in a humorless smile. "Just like Julia."
She felt slapped. "Don't ever say I'm like my mother."
"Why not?" His expression was half-mocking, half-curious and her temper boiled over.
"Go to hell," she snapped. "You had an affair with my mother and then ran off with her. What nerve do you have now to come force me to talk to you?" Her nails dug into her palms. "What's the matter? Did my mom have a change of heart and decided she wanted to get to know her children?" Her eyes were wild, her smile a twisted grimace as she turned, scanning the room pointedly. "Where is she then? Hmm? Why don't you bring her out? Or is she still too much of a coward to face us?"
The man pinned her with a cool look.
Flustered, she continued, "What?" A smirk touched her lips. "Oh. Wait, I get it. Did she pull the same act on you? Ran off with another guy and you wanted to see if I knew where she went?" She shook her head sorrowfully, spreading her hands out. "My apologies, mister. I haven't seen her since I was a child."
"Your dad …" He paused. "What exactly did he say to you?"
"Exactly what I just said," she spat out. "You ran off with my mom while my brother and I were just mere children and disappeared with her without any trace for the last decade or so. You –"
"Your mother's dead," he stated emphatically.
Her breath caught in her throat. She stared at him and he gazed back at her evenly as if daring her to say something, anything. "What?" was all she could come up with at last.
"Your mother – Julia – she's dead."
She shouldn't feel sad. She shouldn't feel anything at all. She hadn't even known her mother. But for some reason, a heavy weight settled in her chest, making it difficult to breathe and all she could think was Now what are we going to do? What's Dad going to do? What am I going to do?
With difficulty, she sucked in a breath and tried to compose herself. "What –" She cleared her throat, licking her dry lips. She started again in a clear, steady voice. "What did she die of? Was she sick? How -" How did she feel? How did she look like? How was she? "How did she die?"
"No," he answered simply and she nodded as if she understood, even though he hadn't really answered her questions.
She continued to bob her head up and down and her mouth formed her next question without her fully realizing it. "Does my dad know?"
That stunned her. She didn't know what she'd been expecting, but the idea of her father knowing about her mother's death felt like a blow to the gut. Numbed, she nodded and she mustered up her next remark, trying to be glib, trying to cut him the same way he had hurt all of them. "Right. Of course he'd know. He's her husband after all. He'd be contacted first if anything happened to her."
The man remained silent, his eyes piercing through her.
"So when did it happen? Is that all you dragged me here for? You do realize my dad could have easily told me himself. You didn't have to go through so much trouble –"
"But he didn't," he interjected quietly.
"He didn't tell you."
Her eyes narrowed. "He didn't get a chance to –"
"He had nearly six years, my dear," he commented dryly. "I'd say that's more than enough time. More than enough chances for him to enlighten you, wouldn't you say?"
She gave him a blank stare, not quite processing his words. A dull roar filled her ears and her pulse throbbed, blood coursing through her body too fast. A disbelieving laugh ripped out of her. "W - what? I don't understand what you're trying to -"
"Your mother died. Six years ago. She's dead. She's been dead." With each line, each word, she flinched a little. His eyes turned chilling and the sardonic smile on his lips twisted as he murmured, "And your father couldn't even be bothered to inform you."
He never knew his face liked to make so many expressions until now, when even sighing started to hurt like a bitch. The corner of his lip was definitely split and he grimaced as he pressed his thumb against it.
The sound of footsteps neared and he straightened up. Was Adel back so fast? He was going to kick her ass. He didn't care what she was thinking, but to go off by herself like that – he had to strangle her.
But when the door swung open, it was Justin who stepped through. Tristan narrowed his eyes. "Where's Adel?"
"They're still having their talk." Justin gave him an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry that we had to hurt you. You wouldn't stop fighting and it was getting into a bigger mess than we expected."
"I'll try to make myself more kidnapping friendly next time." Tristan drawled, leaning his head back against the wall behind him. He pulled his legs up, dangling his hands over his knees. "Who's Adel talking to?"
"You're not too hurt, are you? Do you need anything for your cuts?"
"Just get Adel and we'll be along our way," Tristan said curtly.
"They're still talking, but I think we'll be done pretty soon. You'll be home in no time," Justin answered politely.
Tristan gave him a look of disbelief. "I feel like I'm talking to my concierge. What exactly are you getting out of this? Just why are you doing this?"
The other boy shrugged.
"Well, then can I at least know who do you work for?" Tristan continued, sarcasm heavy in his tone.
Justin studied him for a brief moment and then sighed. "You wouldn't understand." But he didn't stop. "The man I work for is a good person, Tristan. He practically raised me and I can vouch for his character."
"Oh good, you like him," Tristan commented. "I'm so relieved now."
"He cares about Adel. He's kept tabs on her all these years and he would never want her to get hurt –"
Tristan stiffened, expression going black. "He's been stalking her?" The idea that Adel was now alone with some obsessed lunatic left him reeling and he had to struggle to maintain his composure. Thoughts of Sammy's own demented uncle and the way he had hurt the girl – "That's it. Time's up. I need to see Adel now." He pulled himself up from the ground, nearly swaying from the rapid shift in his balance, but he pushed forward anyway.
Justin looked conflicted, moving to intercept the boy. "It's not like that."
Tristan's hand shot out, clutching the other boy's collar. "The hell it isn't. I've had enough of this whole covert operation you guys are playing."
Justin blinked, but he didn't seem fazed. "We're tired of this too," he admitted. "You think I like tracking Adel's love life?"
Tristan gave him a bewildered look.
"First it was Calhoun and everything worked out well. We became friends and I was close enough to him that I could follow up on whatever he was doing. Then they tell me she's engaged to you. It was touch and go for a while until we could get someone to run a background check on your household – but of course, by the time we got things settled, it was back to Cal." Justin rubbed the back of his neck. "You guys made my life quite difficult."
Tristan was astonished, but fury quickly took over. "Am I supposed to apologize for that?"
The boy shrugged wearily. He was still dressed in the black tuxedo he had worn to the party and the only difference appeared to be the loosened collar. "We just wanted to make sure Adel wasn't hurt."
Justin's gaze was steady. "You must know how her father is. We wanted to make sure that he wasn't forcing Adel into something she doesn't want."
"Why?" Tristan said sharply. "So that your boss can have her for himself?"
Justin blanched. "No. I told you, it isn't like that."
Again with the long pause. By the dim light, the muscles along Justin's jaw flexed as he swallowed. "The man I work for … he's more than a good friend –"
Tristan cleared his throat, discomfited. "I don't need to know about your relationship, man."
Justin blinked and then made a face. "Damn it, I'm not gay! Ugh, he's – ugh. I meant, he's been a father figure to me all my life and I -"
"Okay. Whatever you say."
Justin waved a hand with a muffled groan. "He's in love with Adel's mother."
Tristan sucked in a breath, recalling the picture they had found in his attic. Adel's mother with the man she had ran away with. Then he eyed Justin. "I'm sorry."
Justin gave him a look, repeating flatly, "I'm not gay."
Tristan shrugged and it gave him a sense of perverse satisfaction to see Justin's expression darken. His attention turned back to the matter at hand. "So Adel's mother wanted to check up on her now? After all these years?"
Again, Justin looked conflicted and finally, with a low mumble, he said, "Something like that."
"What do you mean?" Adel choked, still reeling from the thought that her mother had died, had been dead for six years. Her hands shaking, she screamed at the man, who continued to sit in his chair, calm and distant, "How could you have kept this from us? We're her family!"
The man's eyes glittered. "I'm not the one who kept this a secret. You can blame your father."
"When she died – when she – you didn't tell my dad. You didn't let him see her. You didn't let him bury her. You bastard. Bastard," she rambled on in a rage.
He didn't respond. He didn't flinch. If anything, he seemed to withdraw even more. His face was stony cold and his words were clinical. "We were together in France and heading back to the hotel after a late theater showing. I was driving and a car came out at us as we were making a turn. The driver was drunk. He didn't make it." His voice was restrained. "Neither did Julia."
"Six years! Why didn't you tell my dad?" she muttered numbly. "He loved her so much. He loves her so much."
"I did," he said, this time a note of impatience creeping into his tone. "I called him from the hospital. Told him his wife was dead. He didn't believe me." A bitter smile twisted his lips. "I told him to come collect her body if he wanted to see for himself. He called me a liar. I told him he needed to come bury her. He hung up on me."
"No. No." She shook her head, stumbling back. "You made a joke out of things. Of course he wouldn't believe you. You ran away with his wife. If you hadn't - everything is your fault."
His expression was grim. "Yeah, I was a bastard. I stole his wife. I took her away. I'm not sorry either. For all my faults, Julia loved me and we were better together than your father and she could ever be –"
"I don't care if you were soulmates," she seethed. "That's still no excuse for adultery. There's no excuse for running away like that. My mother was a coward for not facing my dad! She couldn't face the consequences and she couldn't go through getting a divorce. She was selfish and stupid and – and you know what?" Cruelty set into her smile. "Maybe she deserved dying in the car you drove." His eyebrows snapped together – the only hint of emotion she'd seen so far – and buoyed by this, she continued, volume climbing. "You two screwed up my father's life. You messed up my family. You two don't deserve a happy ending! It's called karma, jackass!" she hurled at him, anger making her see red.
The man stood up so abruptly, she stumbled back. His features were stretched taut and he glared at her with eyes so cold, they raised goosebumps along her skin. "I don't mind your insults, but that's your mother you're talking about," he growled.
"She lost the right to be my mother the day she left," she rejoined.
"She didn't want to hurt any of you. She didn't want to hurt your father or her brother. She loved you and your brother so much."
"But not enough." She stated it flippantly, but in her heart, she knew it was true and the weight in her stomach increased.
He watched her stoically. "We met by the road at one of those sidewalk hawkers."
"I don't want to know." But she couldn't offer up any more complaints.
"She was running some errands and was wearing this long yellow sundress, a pair of sunglasses on her head." Pain shot through Adel; she could still remember that yellow dress. A memory of her mother opening the window in the kitchen, standing on her tiptoes while the yellow fabric swayed around her ankles. It had been her mother's favorite.
"Julia saw this vase she wanted – it was pretty ugly, all mottled green and brown." A smile touched the corners of his lips and Adel caught a breath at the change in his expression. All of a sudden, he seemed younger and more alive than before, the ice in his eyes melting. "But there she was, bargaining with the owner. Your mom liked to wear her hair in a ponytail and run her fingers through the ends while she talked –"
"I don't – I don't want to know this. I don't care."
"So she wanted that vase. And I wanted her." His brows climbed and he heaved a sigh. "I joined the conversation and tried to buy it for her. Julia thought I wanted to steal her buy and told me off in the middle of the street, screaming and hands flying. I thought she was the most beautiful, irritating woman ever. And … and we were …" He shrugged tiredly. "We were happy."
"Didn't she tell you she was married? That she had two children?"
"I couldn't let her go," he stated simply.
"And just like that, she was willing to throw over her marriage for you?" she said bitterly.
"Your father is a good man, I'd admit that. He has every right to hate me. Before she met me, Julia was content with her marriage. It was a comfortable one, even happy. She'd met him in school and developed feelings for him on her own so it wasn't some arranged marriage she hated. But sometimes, even the arrangements that once seemed so perfect in your mind have a way of disappointing you. It wasn't enough."
All of a sudden, she felt drained and the anger she'd tried to hold on to seeped out, leaving a hollow ache in her heart. Monotonously, she said, "And you were more than enough."
There was silence in the room and the man leaned against the desk. "Together, we were enough."
"Then you should have at least the courtesy to inform my father that you were –"
"Julia asked for a divorce. And custody of you and your brother."
Adel trembled, shaking her head. "But –"
"Your father can be remarkably deaf when he doesn't want to hear something he doesn't want."
She couldn't believe that. No, not her father. Not the cold, unyielding man who remained unflappable. He was too strong for that. "You're saying that as if my father purposely turned a blind eye to your affair and – and kept my mother –"
"In a way, he did." The man straightened up. "For what it's worth, I never doubted that your father really did love Julia. Sometimes, I'd wonder if the love we had for her was comparable. But whatever that meant, he refused to let Julia go. Worse, he kept you and your brother by his side as if he could bind her to the family through you guys. In the end, there was no choice but for her to quietly leave you two with him until he accepted the idea that their marriage was over … but then the accident happened and there was nothing left to discuss."
"No." Her thoughts were a jumble in her head, criss-crossing wildly. "You're wrong. You're making him seem like … like he was weak. He'd never have put up with my mom if he knew she was having an affair. He would never be so – so desperate and –"
"He'd rather believe that I was lying than come to terms that Julia's gone."
"No. No, that's not how it is. If he knew that you weren't lying, he would have gone for my mother's body. He would have told us that –"
"I sent him the burial information. She's buried in a small cemetery in Nice. He knows."
"No, he thinks you're lying. Of course, why would he trust you? You broke up his marriage –"
"Death can be easily confirmed, Adeline," he stated. "All he had to do was contact the hospital, the morgue. Why didn't he? Why did he lie to you and your brother all this time?"
Her lips were dry and she licked them, unable to come up with any answer. Instead, she repeated, "He didn't believe you. He couldn't believe you. You lied to him. You've always lied to –"
"You can't make excuses for him forever, Adeline." His voice was firm.
"You don't know what he's been through. How – how could he have possibly – he wouldn't –" Her eyes burned and she gritted her teeth, glaring at the man. "How could any of us trust you? For all I know, you're lying right now. You're just messing with my mind and my mom is somewhere in France, lounging away in the sun, while you're here to make sure we all think she's dead so we won't try to track her down anymore –"
His eyes darkened and he snapped, "That's enough!"
"Why would I believe you over my father? Why would you do this -"
"I thought you were better than this, Adeline. You're supposed to take after your mother –"
"I'm not like her! I'm not!" It was childish, but she couldn't help her instinctive response. Refute and escape.
"You can't be like your father, Adeline. Do you really want to hide from all this? Are you going to live in denial all your life too?"
The words cut into her, leaving her speechless, and for a moment, she thought she'd stopped breathing. Suddenly, she saw herself, priding herself on running so fast, on escaping touchy matters, running until she slammed headfirst up against Tristan's unwillingness to leave her alone and she wrapped her arms around her tightly. She saw her father sitting at his desk, burying himself in work until shadows played along the walls and swallowed him up. All along, she didn't want to be like her mother, but could she actually be turning into a mere shadow of her father?
"Am I?" he rejoined. "You think you're strong now and that you're never afraid to back down from a fight, but when things truly get tough, you disappear."
"You don't know that. I don't."
"For Julia, I kept tabs on you. I owed her that much to make sure her children are okay. But your father completely bulldozed over you, didn't he? You went along with absolutely everything he said."
"No." She shook her head. "No."
"I didn't care about the little things as long as he didn't hurt you, but when it came to him pushing you into an arranged marriage …" Disgust was evident in his face. "How could you have accepted that, Adel? Any girl with half a spine would have refused."
Shame washed over her and even though she could once reason out her decision to accept her father's choices for her, she couldn't seem to think of any now that wouldn't sound trite, that wouldn't sound like the excuses they were. "You don't understand …"
"You can't blindly make people happy without offering your real self up. You can't hide behind a mask forever."
But she didn't even know who her true self was. The one who stayed quiet whenever her father got disappointed? The one who found it more comfortable to be a loner? The one who always fought with Tristan? She'd never felt more confused or out of her element. Slowly, she started, "Don't come barging in here and telling me who I am. I – I'm happy right now. I'm real right now. I'm with Tristan and we – he understands me –"
"Does he?" The man gave her a mocking smile. "Then why did he follow you back out after you went out to the gardens to get your mask?"
She stared at him, bemused. "I – he was worried about me. He knew I was in trouble."
"He knew you were in trouble?"
"I – no – I –" Her pulse drummed steadily and her throat worked. Why had Tristan come back out? She had told him to go on ahead without her and that she'd come find him in the ballroom later. Why had he followed her? Did he hear her arguing outside? But how could he have overheard with such loud music? How could he have … Her eyes lifted searchingly to the man as if he held all the answers.
"You can't love someone without trust, Adel," he said flatly.
The blood drained out of her face as she cleared her throat. "What are you saying?"
"If you can't even trust yourself, how can you expect others to trust you? How can you expect Tristan to believe you after all the times you've given up on yourself and ran away, taken the easy road? When will you learn that escaping your problems just won't work?"
Funny, but her first thought was to tell him that he's wrong. She wanted to tell him to go to hell and to stop bothering her and to stop lying because she was perfectly fine. And that's when she realized that she definitely had a problem. She let out a choked laugh. "Wow. I didn't expect to get psychoanalyzed too while I'm here."
He didn't laugh, but his voice was gentler than it'd ever been. "Everything's going to come unraveled after this, Adel. I hope you'll learn to stop running away."
She lifted her chin, though she had to hide her trembling fingers behind her. "Don't assume you know everything about me."
"Out of respect for your father, I didn't want to step in and reveal your mother's death without his consent, but things have been getting out of hand. I can't put up with your father's methods anymore. I sent a letter to Stephen and I'm pretty sure he's going to figure out the truth soon."
"Lee?" Her eyes widened. Her uncle was going to have a worse time finding out that his brother-in-law has been lying about his sister's death all this time. All these years, her uncle had worked faithfully for her father. Maybe it was out of guilt for what her mother had done, maybe it was out of retribution for the care her father had shown him even after Julia had left, but Lee seemed to respect her father and she couldn't imagine what would happen once he found out the truth.
"The shit's going to hit the fan, Adel," the man said calmly. "Deal with it."
Sorry about the long wait for this update, everyone! As a guilt-ridden apology, I kept adding to this chapter so I'd at least leave you guys with most of the answers instead of another huge cliffhanger so this might have been a ridiculously long read. Thanks for the reviews and PMs, everyone!
For those who have left anonymous reviews filled with anger – seriously, I can feel the hatred wafting off the screen – I'm sorry that you had to wait. I'm not lying when I say I am busy, but I will try to write faster and keep the updates coming in a more timely manner. However! If you're one of the readers who were wondering about my writing status and wanted to get at least an Author's Note update to see if I was still breathing, please check out either my blog or even my Twitter page to get your answers. The links are in my profile, but I don't believe I've ever mentioned them in my notes before. So yup, if you have any questions or just wanted to check out on what the heck I've been messing around with, I generally keep my entries and responses up there pretty current.
That being said, again, I've noticed the plagiarism incidents lately and I will definitely take action on you if you ever decide that it'd be a nice idea to plagiarize any of my stories. It's happened before and I don't like it, period.
But kudos to the FP community and the awesome readers who keep their eyes peeled for plagiarists – especially the new kickass The Fictionpress Watchers community on livejournal. They've helped me out a lot in the past and recently. And my deepest condolences for the many great authors who've been forced to remove their writings from FP. It's a shame to see so many stories gone, especially since I haven't even had the chance to sit down and go through some on my list that I'd wanted to check out. Depressing.
As for those of you who were wondering if I was planning to remove my own stories, as mentioned in a recent post on my blog, I have no intentions of that yet. I removed False Facades once before, but I came to the realization that the plagiarists most likely still had copies of my story and could and in fact, were still posting up copies online while the readers who really deserved to read the story could no longer do so. Also, the stories I have up here are still fun, fluffy drafts that just aren't ready for real publishing interests unlike the other authors who have been hurt and are actively interested in preserving their publishing rights. Thus, my stories will probably remain on FP for now unless excessive plagiarism crops up. But I figured that if I kept these stories up here, they can at least help out with Googling matches for plagiarists out there.
Well, it's back to studying Neuroanatomy for me, but I hope all of you have a wonderful summer! And once again, thank you for all your patience and support!
© Copyright 06/18/2009 Maeven (FictionPress ID:349779). All rights reserved. Distribution of any kind is prohibited without the written consent of Maeven.