A/N: Hi everyone! This is the beginning of my new story(duh, lol). As the summary said, however, it's only a preview for now. I'm 99% sure I won't be posting the rest of it until it's completely written. That's a little up in the air at the moment, though, so we'll have to see. Maybe any reviews I receive will motivate me to write more quickly and get it up faster;)
Sorry to those of you whom I told I would have something up this past summer...guess I was a little overly optimistic. It might've happened, except I kinda had an overabundance of inspiration...for several different story ideas:| Those will be up eventually, too.
Also, thank you to anyone who voted for Better Late Than Never in Round 12 of the SKoW awards—I truly, beyond what words can express, appreciate the support I've gotten, and continue to get, for my work.
Well, anyway enough sappy stuff...here's the prologue to Where She Belongs. I hope you like it!
The female face that filled the currently paused television screen was vaguely familiar to him, immediately snagging James' eye as he entered the bedroom. He couldn't quite pinpoint when, but he knew he'd seen her before...somewhere. Lush black lashes were swept down to rest against lightly tanned cheeks, hiding the color of her eyes, the revealing of which, even if they were just plain old brown, would undoubtedly help him place how he knew her.
His own dark blue eyes traced over features that struck him as being faintly Hispanic, although perhaps he was falsely basing that assumption on her black hair and olive complexion. Her bold black eyebrows, one of which was dotted, like an exclamation point, by a small beauty mark, were gently arched, and a small crease in the smooth cheek opposite indicated that a dimple would make an appearance when she smiled. Whatever her ethnicity, her straight nose with the slight ski-jump at its tip, her high cheekbones, and plump, well-formed lips were all quite pleasing to the eye—well, to his eye, at least.
She wasn't drop-dead gorgeous by any stretch. But she was definitely attractive, albeit in a somewhat plain, every-woman kind of way.
Suddenly, in the four-poster bed, at the foot of which James stood, a body stirred. He tore his eyes from the TV to flash a fond smile at the elderly man struggling to sit up against his pillows. While at his sides, James' hands curled into tight fists as he fought the urge to help. Ali, crotchety bastard that he was, would only become more so if he tried to assist without being asked.
The old guy might've had one foot in the grave, as he'd taken lately to saying, but he still had his pride.
James, of similar personality, could respect that. Even if watching the formerly robust man—who was both his boss and his honorary grandfather—fight to do something he'd once done without thought nearly broke his damn heart. But Ali's indomitable will to hold on to himself for as long as he could only made James love him all the more.
"Have a nice nap, old man?" he inquired once Ali was comfortably settled.
Ali had called him a while ago, sounding rather excited, telling James to come quickly. He'd done so, finishing up the work he'd been doing down in the basement immediately. Even so, about fifteen minutes had passed between ending the call and entering Ali's bedroom. Just enough time for Ali to have caught a few z's.
"Bah, naps are for babies." Ali sniffed derisively. "I was just restin' my tired old eyes."
James nodded as if he believed that. "Of course," he said blandly, focusing back on the TV to hide his smile. "This what you wanted me to see?"
Reaching for the glasses on the bedside table and slipping them on, Ali fiddled with the remote control. While he reversed the tape, James went into the small, dorm-sized fridge tucked into the corner on the far side of the bed for a bottle of water and the nutrition shake Ali drank every afternoon. On some rare days, when they were all he could keep down, he had them morning and night as well.
"Tell me what you think," Ali ordered as he hit play and then took the chocolate-flavored drink from James.
Propping his hands on his hips, James watched what turned out to be a news story from a station down in Florida. A couple nights before, a young woman had saved two children, one an infant, the other preschool age, from an apartment fire in the building. When the smoke seeping into her house awakened her, she went in next door using the spare key she'd been given, and found the kids in a smoke-filled bedroom. The mother of the children had apparently decided to leave the children home alone in the middle of the night while she went out for reasons not disclosed.
The pretty anchor reporting the story was replaced by shaky cell phone video that showed a woman exiting lobby doors along with a huge cloud of smoke. An older child, a towel wrapped around her face, clung to her back like a monkey, while the tender way the woman cradled a lump beneath her t-shirt hinted where she had stowed away the baby, protecting it as best she could from the smoke and any falling embers.
Sure enough, she turned her back so one of the firefighters arriving on the scene could take the little girl, and when she faced the camera once again there was a blanket-wrapped bundle in her arms.
Obviously having been more concerned with protecting the children, her own mouth and nose were uncovered. Even in the poor lighting one could see the soot that smudged her face, and as they watched, harsh coughs wracked her slender frame. A paramedic rushed over to her, simultaneously taking the infant and leading the woman out-of-frame.
James found himself wishing the camera would follow them. Instead, it shifted to show the flames erupting from an upper story window before cutting back to the perfectly coiffed anchors in the studio.
"Miss Fletcher was released from the hospital this afternoon after being held overnight for observation and says she was given a clean bill of health. She answered a few questions outside the hospital as she was leaving and this was what she had to say about being called a hero."
"I don't think I did anything different from what anyone else would've done in the same situation," the woman, Miss Fletcher, was saying as once again the reporters were replaced by taped footage, this time professionally shot by the station's cameraman. "Or I at least hope I didn't."
This interview, showing the young woman with her face freshly scrubbed and her eyes still slightly reddened from the smoke, was what had been on the TV when James came into Ali's bedroom. He sat down on the edge of the bed, resting his elbows on his knees as he stared, wide-eyed, at the television.
His earlier assumption that he would remember how he knew her once he saw her eyes had been absolutely correct, and yet so completely wrong. In reality, he didn't know her at all, but he did recognize who she resembled—so closely it was eerie.
With one eye a warm chocolate brown and the other an icy pale blue, Miss Fletcher—first name Gemma, according to the banner at the bottom of the screen—was a dead ringer for Ali's baby sister, Elaine, when she was younger. And who hadn't been seen by family in over fifty years.
The screen paused again, this time with Gemma's eyes open and seemingly staring right at them. Those eyes, tilted up just slightly at the corners, were downright stunning, taking her average looks and bumping them up to extraordinary. James twisted his torso to look over his shoulder at Ali, whose gaze was glued to the screen; his eyes appeared suspiciously damp, which confirmed James' suspicions.
"Christ, Ali. You think she could be Elaine's granddaughter?"
"Now that I see I'm not the only one picking up on the resemblance, I do think it's a possibility," Ali replied.
"Resemblance? Hell, she could be her twin," James said. "What do you wanna do?"
"Can you do some research? Find out who her family is?"
James nodded, facing the television again. "Of course. Shouldn't take long. With all the news coverage, I'm sure enough of her background will be mentioned that we can figure out who she is. And if not, I'll hire it out."
The video began playing again, a voice from off-camera shouting a question. "Miss Fletcher, how did you know to look for the kids in that apartment? Did you hear them crying?"
After an almost imperceptible hesitation, Gemma's jaw tightened, her lips thinning slightly, but when she responded her tone was remarkably even given how pissed off she appeared. "After the fire alarms began going off, I could hardly hear myself think. No, what made me check was because I didn't see their mother's car in the parking lot and I knew she had a bad habit of leaving them alone when she ran out to the store late at night." She shrugged her shoulders. "I'm just glad I was home."
"And how are the children doing?
Turning her head, her eyes softening, she looked towards the reporter from another station who posed the question. "I don't have any specifics, but I'm told they're doing well and should also make a full recovery." She no commented a few more questions, mostly regarding the kids and their mother, before she smiled, revealing a slightly crooked eyetooth. "Now, if you will all excuse me, I'm going to go get some rest. As I'm sure many of you know, hospitals aren't exactly conducive to a good night's sleep and I am...exhausted."
"Damn straight they aren't," Ali muttered, switching off the television. "If she is related to my Elaine, I want to meet her."
James stood. "I'll get right on it," he assured him as he made his way to the door. "Let you know as soon as I find anything."
Quitting the room, pulling the large double doors closed behind him, he paused in the wood-paneled hallway and sent up a prayer that Ali's hopes weren't dashed. For his sake, he wished that girl was exactly who Ali thought she was. That he'd never known what happened to his sister after she ran off to Hollywood at the age of twenty-three was something that had always disturbed the man; it would be nice if he could go to his grave finally knowing the truth about her fate.
Two days later, James leaned back in the leather executive's chair behind his desk, listening to the voice of the Florida private investigator that he'd hired to check into Gemma Fletcher. There would be a file emailed to him, as well, but James had instructed the man to call with the information as soon as he had it. The man was quick, yet thorough, and James couldn't believe what he was hearing as the man gave his report.
When they hung up with each other, James eyed the notes he'd taken during the call, and then got to his feet to go find Ali. It was late morning, and on sunny days like this one Ali could typically be found on the back patio off the conservatory, soaking in the sun's rays. An outdoorsman at heart, one of things about his illness Ali hated most was being cooped up inside four walls. Even walls as luxurious as the ones in the home the eighty-year-old man had lived in all his life.
James made his way out of his office, through the two-story library, and out a side door that opened into the warm, slightly humid greenhouse. Especially during the frigid winters, he and Ali both spent a lot of time in the glass-walled sanctuary, but it was a nice spot all year round. Nearer the kitchen there was an herb garden, and the scents of rosemary, sage, lavender, and basil filled the air, along with sweet florals and the fresh citrus smell coming from the lemon and orange trees that grew in a line down the center of the space.
"Hey, Ali," James said when he stepped outside and saw him in his usual spot, his wispy white hair blowing wildly in the stiff ocean breeze coming in over the top of the bluff. He dropped into the chair beside Ali's lounger and took a moment to look out over the bay, a stunning vista no matter how many times one viewed it. "Just got off the phone with the detective I hired."
Ali perked up, his squinted blue eyes brightening with eagerness. "And what did he have to say?"
"Well, as you know, her name is Gemma Fletcher, middle name Danaë. She got her Bachelor's in Business Administration, just graduated last year and is the manager of a small, independent bookstore. She's twenty-three, was born January twelfth, and is an only child," he began. "Her father is Eduardo Fletcher; his mother, Maria Lucia, was a Cuban exile who came to the States in 1959. His father, Edward, was in the Coast Guard, though that's not how they met."
"And what of Gemma's mother?"
James smiled in expectation of the elderly man's reaction. Ali was going to love this part. Hopefully, however, the rather shocking news wouldn't cause him to have a stroke.
The thing about Ali was that he'd had a lot of loss in his life. His father died when he was a young boy, leaving him and his infant sister to be raised by his mother, with their paternal grandfather as their sole male role model. Then, as a young man, only a few years after he was married and had a child of his own, his beloved younger sister ran away. And to top it all off, as soon as she graduated high school, his only daughter also ran away—much like her aunt—and disappeared without a trace.
"Gemma's mother..." James trailed off, deciding to string Ali along a little. "Well, you were right in thinking Gemma was a relation of Elaine's."
For the second time that week, Ali's blue eyes, the left with a brown spot in the iris, grew misty. "I was?"
"You were. But the thing is, Gemma Fletcher isn't Elaine's granddaughter."
Ali frowned. "She's not?"
James shook his head. "No." He waited a beat. "She's yours."
"My..." Ali placed a trembling, liver-spotted hand over his heart. "My Catherine is her mother?"
"Yes. Catherine Fletcher, née Graham. Born August eighth, 1957 in Graham's Harbor, Maine," James said and repeated what he'd been told by the investigator. Shaking his head slowly from side-to-side, Ali didn't say anything for the longest time. His expression was a little dazed; James couldn't even begin to guess what the old man was thinking. He was, however, curious about something. "Why didn't you ever look for Catherine?"
Ali blinked a few times, seeming to come back to himself. "I was always afraid of what I'd find. For so long we searched for Elaine, without there ever being a trace," he explained. "I couldn't bear the same thing happening with Catherine. It was just easier to pretend she was off, happily living her life somewhere. She was always so unhappy here."
A small-town boy through and through, James couldn't fathom anyone being unhappy living in an area with so much natural beauty. While in college, he'd lived for several years in Boston. He'd hated nearly every minute of it. Big cities, and all the commotion that came with them, just simply weren't for him. Too many people, too many cars...it all had made it so he felt like he couldn't breathe sometimes.
Give him little Graham's Harbor, with its population of just over two-thousand and where most of the locals knew your name. It was a pretty, Down East coastal town, located not far from Machias, the site of the first naval battle in the American Revolution. As a result of that bit of history, and because it was a damn picturesque place, they got a fairly steady stream of tourists through to break up the monotony that was often part and parcel of having such a small permanent population.
James sighed. "So. Now you know Gemma's your blood. What's next?"
"I want to meet her."
Hearing that instantaneous response pained James like a knife to the heart. Thanks to the cancer, there was no way Ali could travel. On a good day, it took up just about all of his energy simply being wheeled outside to sit in the sun. James didn't want to think about what a plane trip—anywhere, let alone one all the way down to Florida—would do to him, especially since lately the good days were coming farther and farther apart.
"Ali, my man, you can't make that trip," he told him gently.
"No," Ali agreed. "But she can."
Running a hand through his hair, James chuckled. "Ali, you're a charming old goat—" Ali barked out a laugh at that; old goat, maybe, but he'd never been called charming a day in his life. "—but what makes you think she's gonna drop her life to come visit an old man she's never met?"
There wasn't an answer to that. Not immediately. "Well, I'd like to think when she hears the grandfather she never met is dying of pancreatic cancer and his last wish is to meet her, she'd agree to come," he mused. "But if not, I'm sure when she's told she's to be the primary beneficiary of my will, that'll do the job."
"I take back what I said before. You're not a charming old goat; you're a wily old fox." James pushed out of the chair, patting Ali on the shoulder. "Alright. You'll get your wish, if it's the last thing I do. I'll go contact the investigator again, tell him to approach her with your request." He paused before the patio doors. "Anything specific you want me to include? Maybe something she can verify with her mother, so she knows this isn't bullshit?"
"There's a photograph from Christmas '61, of Elaine and Catherine in front of the family room tree. That should be sufficient," he replied after a moment's contemplation. "I would think the girl knows what her mother looked like as a child, and the resemblance between herself and Elaine is so apparent a blind man could see it."
James nodded. "Alright, I'll scan the picture and send it along as soon as possible, so Grant can make contact."
"Thank you, James."
Although he told himself it was just the wind, tears stung his eyes at the quavery note in Ali's typically, in spite of his illness, booming voice. "Don't mention it, old man. You know I'd do anything for you."
And, anyway, what am I really doing? James questioned as he made his way back the way he'd come. Making a few phone calls?
It wasn't as if he was traipsing down to Florida himself to convince the girl to come meet her dying grandfather.
Thank God. Considering how close he was to Ali, he wasn't sure he'd be able to get through that conversation without getting emotional himself. It was far better to have it done through a neutral third party, that way she wouldn't feel obligated to come if she truly wasn't interested.
James' only wish was that her presence could give Ali some measure of peace. Because, despite his wealth and the ease of living that all that provided, it hadn't all been lollipops and rainbows for Alistair Graham the Seventh. Perhaps meeting the granddaughter he'd never known about would make up, even slightly, for the other two women in his life who had walked out on him without a backwards glance.