***April 18, 2023***
What have we done?
Even with blinds shuttered and insulated curtains closed, the day's first light inserted itself around the edges of their bedroom windows, leaving the room illuminated enough to make out facial features. She didn't say the words aloud, but Alexandra Eames Goren's eyes popped open, staring at her husband with an expression that projected her feelings. He too was awake, and, judging by his face, was having the same thought.
"We can't be sorry we've done it now," Robert Goren said gravely.
"I'm not sorry!" she whispered back, stung. "Just...thinking too much."
But she knew it had been one thing yesterday to comply with imperious Evangeline Pepin and immediately bring Mignonno, Olivia, at the child's request!home with them, fueled by adrenaline and indignation, quite another to have her asleep in their no-longer-spare bedroom; so simple to shepherd the grieving child from a palatial home in France to their tiny Cape Cod in Connecticut to remove her from the negative presence of the woman Alex had waspishly christened "the Dragon Lady."
Then an equally troubling notion was prompted by her own childhood habits: Was Olivia already awake? Might she be outside the door listening to her new guardians expressing doubts? How would that make her feel? This was a relationship they couldn't afford to begin badly, Olivia having already experienced the worst trauma a child could suffer.
"Bobby, we can't let her see us like this," she said abruptly.
"Why are you whispering, Alex? She's in the other bedroom." Yet he'd taken her cue and his voice was pitched as low as hers.
"What if she couldn't sleep? What if she's at the door, listening like I used to do, and thinks I don't like her because I'm saying this?"
He asked soberly, "You used to listen at your parents' bedroom door?"
"Yes, and I heard too many things I shouldn't have."
He reassured her. "I can't see it. Olivia's used to a regimented schedule, possibly at home, certainly from two years of boarding school. My prediction is that she's awake, and may or may not be dressed, but is waiting in her bedroom for someone to 'get her up.'" He gently cupped her face with his left hand. "I've never seen you unsettled like this, Alex. What's wrong?"
"Aren't you afraid?"
"I've always been afraid, Eames, you know that," he said in a sober voice, and she regretted asking. His unstable childhood, including the gregarious but smooth-tongued and often-absent father, his clever yet mentally-ill mother, and a gambling-addicted brother who gradually descended into drug use, had led him to believe for years that he would be unsuitable for the things he craved: a long-term relationship, marriage, children. "But you've been like a lioness through this entire thing. I didn't think it had fazed you."
"Because when I have doubts it's usually a four-in-the-morning thing...when everything is quiet and I'm completely alone"
"'Hour of the Wolf,'" he supplied.
She bit her lip, nodded. "I want to make sure" Then she met his eyes. "You're not the only one who doesn't want to mess things up."
He'd expressed the same sentiment eighteen months earlier when they'd reunited, and he smiled briefly in acknowledgment, brushing a wisp of hair from her face.
Now she slid into his embrace, kissing his eyebrows and forehead in return, then began to breathe deeply and evenly as she did before her morning run, steadying herself as she should have when she'd awakened so suddenly. "It just happened so quickly...Bobby, a week ago at this time we were on our way to the airport not knowing what was going on!" She managed a small smile. "You know, I think subconsciously I figured once we finished the books, the story would be over, too."
He looked at her curiously. "As in our lives would stop?"
"No. But we've come full circle, haven't we? Your story, my story, us together, apart, and back together again, retired...or semi-retired in your case...peacefully enjoying our 'sunset years' together." A brief twinkle of mischief flashed in her eyes.
"I think you have the wrong Goren and Eames," he commented wryly, and now she suppressed a chuckle and finished, "So I suppose there's only one thing we can do."
"Yes, Captain Eames?"
"Get dressed, uncover Bandit, feed Samand invite...our daughter to breakfast."
She emerged from the bedroom in the ABBA t-shirt that had been a Christmas gift from her sister, black yoga pants, and slippers, immediately diverting to the right to enter the living room. After clicking the switch of the lamp over Bobby's reading chair, she rolled up the flannel birdcage cover like a curtain to reveal Bandit blinking at her from his sleeping spot. Her previous birds, Polly and Robbie, had slept on a swing, but Bandit with his lame foot perched more securely on a thick manzanita branch mounted high in the lavish two-level birdcage Bobby had bought for him. The mostly white budgie made a sleepy kissing sound and she whispered, "Day 1, little bug."
Now she turned on the radio/CD player on top of the DVD cupboard positioned under the wall-mounted television. When Morning Edition kicked in, Bandit immediately perked, stretched each wing, then gave a happy tweedle and headed for his food dispenser to munch pellets. Sam was awake on his dog blanket at the foot of the stairway, following her with his eyes and thumping his tail. "Come get your breakfast, mister," she bade, motioning to him, then retraced her steps to the hall with the stocky tricolor collie nearly treading on her heels. Like Bobby, Sam was almost too large for the tiny Cape Cod house and had to squeeze past her in the short, narrow passage, stopping at the closed door to the former guest room, tail still waving gently, looking expectantly at her.
Olivia's room. The nine-year-old was the daughter of Nicole Wallace, Bobby's particular nemesis back when they had worked for the NYPD's Major Case squad (but a thorn in her side as well), and her lover Marcel Pepin, orphaned by a car crash over a week ago, and sent, through the manipulation of Evangeline Pepin, the wife of Nicole's lover, and an agreement with the U.S. State Department, home with the Gorens after Nicole's will requested their guardianship of Olivia.
They'd first encountered the child the previous year, having learned Nicole had told her Bobby was her fatheruntil she'd discovered to her chagrin that it was biologically impossible. After the deaths of Wallace and Pepin in the mountains of France, Bobby and Alex had been mystified upon being summoned to Paris until they discovered the provision in the will. Unwilling to allow the child to remain in a household where she was virtually unwanted, they had ceded to Madame Pepin's wishes when the former diplomat's wife used her connections to abruptly evict Olivia from her home. They'd returned to the United States the evening before, having been greeted at the airport by a representative from Connecticut's child welfare department and welcomed home by Alex and Bobby's combined blood and adopted families, who'd presented them with a freshly-redecorated bedroom for their new ward.
Now Bobby emerged from their bedroom in his usual breakfast-prep outfit of stocking feet, worn t-shirt, and venerable pajama pants. They exchanged glances, then Alex rapped softly at Olivia's door.
"Time to wake up, sweetie," she said briskly, echoing her mother's words fifty years earlier.
"I'm awake, Mad- I mean, Mama," and indeed the voice did not sound the least bit sleepy.
"May we come in?" Bobby requested gravely.
"Of course, Papa." This softly.
Alex arched her eyebrows as they opened the door, for, as Bobby had predicted, Olivia was perched at the edge of her new bed in her pansy-patterned white nightgown, feet dangling, head bowed over The Secret Garden, one of the dozen books that had come home in her four suitcases (the remainder lined up on the bookcase headboard), her blond hair curtaining her face.
"I remember that story," Alex said fondly when Olivia looked up with a solemn expression. "I always loved Dickon and his pet animals. That's where the name for your fox came from." She looked thoughtful. "Wasn't there a squirrel, too? And some type of bird?"
Olivia picked up the stuffed fox that Bobby had bought for her at Aéroport Charles de Gaulle and hugged it tightly. "Yes. Dickon's fox was 'Captain.' There were two squirrels, 'Nut' and 'Shell.' And a crow called 'Soot.'"
"When you wake up before us, you don't need to sit by yourself," Bobby encouraged, recalling the weekend before Christmas 2021 when Luciana and Carlos Serrano, two of the children he and Alex mentored at Big Brothers, Big Sisters, had stayed with them while their grandmother Mrs. Diaz was hospitalized; the kids had risen early every morning and watched Christmas filMs. "It's fine to get dressed and come out and play with Sam, or have a bowl of cereal and milk, or just sit on the sofa and read."
"I'm sorry," Olivia earnestly responded. "I didn't know."
"Nothing to be sorry for," Alex returned with soft eyes. "All three of us are beginners here."
Olivia appeared puzzled. "Aren't adults supposed to know more than children?"
Bobby gave a low chuckle. "Not in this case. Why not get dressed for breakfast?"
"Luisa or Maman always told me what I should wear," Olivia observed solemnly; her tone of voice reminded Alex of self-possessed Sara Crewe in Frances Hodgson Burnett's other classic, A Little Princess, suddenly adrift when vindictive headmistress Miss Minchin broke the news of her father's death. "I don't know what today's schedule is."
"Well," said Alex, "after breakfast, we normally take Sam for a long walkwell, I usually jogthen we do whatever cleaning up needs to be done; sometimes by then it's lunchtime. Today we'll be having a visitor, but otherwise we have nothing planned until tonight when it's time to go to the Dark Crystal for our trivia game. Do you remember what you wore last year when you visitedthe blouse, shorts, and sandals? Something like that, but much warmerit's about 48 degrees outside, and the forecast is for 55."
"About 9C presently, 13 latermaybe," Bobby translated for the girl's benefit.
Olivia blinked. "I may dress myself without your choosing my clothes?"
"You may," Alex said, kissing her forehead. "Join us when you're ready."
Bobby was pouring pancake batter when Olivia emerged, while Sam crunched on dog food under the kitchen window. "How do you like your eggs?" he asked, without looking up.
"With the yolk in the middle?" Olivia said, taken aback by his presence at the stove. "Is there a word for it?"
"Sunny side up," Bobby told her. "Yolk soft or firm?"
"Soft, please, for soldiers. Do you always cook?"
"Usually. Would you please set the table?"
Olivia said slowly, "I...suppose I can. I never have."
"Nothing to it. Utensils are in the top drawer of the table, on the side closest to your room, napkins in the next drawer down," he instructed lightly. "Dishes are in the cupboard across from the refrigerator, right side, lowest shelf, and the glasses on the shelf above the dishes." When Sam made a motion to follow her, Bobby gave him a "sit" signal and the dog watched her progress instead.
Alex returned from the living room where she'd given Bandit a slice of apple and treated him to millet, just in time to see Olivia's look of surprise at Bobby's request, but the little girl gamely gathered three plates from the cupboard, then three glasses which she reached on tiptoe. She set the glasses on the stacked plates, then turned toward the kitchen table, one of the two long drop-leaf sides already opened so that it converted the narrow table into something that fit three. Olivia set the glasses aside, laid one plate on each available side of the table, then positioned the glasses, one at a two-o'clock position, the other two at the 10-o'clock spot, having noted that, like herself, Bobby was left-handed. Finally, she rummaged in the drawers Bobby had indicated, drew out three of each: forks, spoons, knives, and paper napkins, and stopped to look at Alex for guidance.
"Just set the napkins flat at the appropriate side of the plate, with the utensils on top," the woman encouraged, and Olivia followed suit.
"Perfect. You're a good helper. Thank you."
"May I help more?" Olivia asked.
"That's fine for now. Setting the table can be something for you to be in charge of from now on. It will be a big help. After breakfast we could use an extra hand cleaning off the table and with the dishes, too. Pick a seat."
Olivia chose the one nearest her bedroom door, and Alex regarded her outfit with a smile. She'd chosen a simple violet-colored long-sleeved pullover, a pair of straight-legged blue jeans, blue ankle socks, and white running shoes, and pulled her honey-blond curls back into a ponytail held with a green plastic clip. "You look nice, Olivia."
"Thank you. I tried to dress like Ana did yesterday," the girl said, looking slightly self-conscious, "Luisa always helped me at home unless it was her day off. And at school if they didn't like what you wore when you weren't in a school uniform, Miss Treadwell took you back to the dormitory to 'pick something more appropriate.'"
"I wouldn't have known it was your first time," Bobby said mildly, at Olivia's side with the frying pan. "Here you go," he added, stacking two small pancakes on her plate, three on his and on Alex's. He then wheeled to swap out pans and served each of them an egg. As he did so, the toaster popped; the two slices of bread were set next to Olivia's egg. Alex poured two cups of coffee from the carafe under the coffee maker (cups were stored with the drinking glasses, she saw Olivia's quick eyes note), and added milk as she returned to the refrigerator while also pouring a glass for Olivia, and retrieving yogurt for herself. Lastly she took her seat and helped herself to several spoonfuls of sugarOlivia's eyes widenedwhile Bobby restricted himself to only one.
"Sweet tooth," Bobby chuckled at the girl's reaction as he took his seat after retrieving the syrup pitcher. Olivia looked questioningly at the container.
"Maple syrup," he explained, then poured some over his stack of pancakes. "Have you had it before?" Olivia shook her head, so he passed her the pitcher and watched her bite her lip and imitate him, down to the amount, then pass the container to Alex.
"They're buckwheat pancakes. I hope you like the flavor."
"Maman told me I should try all foods, or how would I know how things tasted and if I liked them or not," she stated, sampling a forkful from the edge. Now they waited for her verdict as she chewed and swallowed, smiling when she looked surprised. "This is good, Papa! I love the...maple syrup?"
"It's a special treat for your first day home," he said. "It's traditional to put on pancakes, but you can have fruit, jam, or honey on them, too. Don't feel obliged to use syrup when I make them. We'll have simpler breakfasts once you start schooloatmeal and an egg wrap or something similar."
Alex asked if she wanted yogurt and she shook her head. "I don't like it." Then she appeared a little anxious. "Unless I have to..."
Alex shook her head. "Eating yogurt isn't a requirement."
Now Olivia fixed eyes on Bobby. "When I do go to schoolwill it be the one you mentioned at Madame's house?"
"St. Gregory's? It's the best choicecomparable to the school you attend in Cheshire." He exchanged a glance with Alex. "The nuns there aren't the same as they were when Alex and I were your ageno more dark habits or corporal punishment. They have lay teachers as well. We know a couple of the teaching nuns; they help the sisters of St. Rose of Lima with the Sunday buffet for the homeless community that's held at Big Brothers where Alex and I volunteer. Sister Rosamund is the admissions supervisor; we'll introduce you soon."
"Will I have to pray?" Olivia asked stiffly, freezing up a little.
"No. Instruction and students are nondenominational. Attendance at religious classes is by parental consent. We won't ask you to go."
"Thank you. I don't wish to pray to anyone."
Alex's eyes flicked briefly to Bobby. They weren't churchgoers, except for weddings and funerals, and they had no desire to force Olivia into anything that made her uncomfortable. But if this was connected with her parents' deaths, they knew her psychologist would need to be told about it before her first therapy session.
Olivia deftly made "soldiers" of her toast with the knife and dipped the strips of bread into egg yolk as she continued eating. "So after breakfast we'll walk...then there are chores?"
Alex nodded. "We need to finish unpacking, start the laundry, put away the suitcases. Tuesday's usually a work day for Bobby, but he's taken time off for your first day home. Tonight we have trivia, if you want to go. Otherwise, you and I can stay home together."
"What is trivia?" Olivia asked, then amended, "I know what the word means"
"There were so many people here last night for you to remember," Bobby explained, "but there were two gentlemen who said hello to you and then had to leave, along with the woman who had been taking care of the house, if you noticed them at all. Those were our friends Shard and TJ, who own a restaurant called the Dark Crystal, and Sharon, who's the head server. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, Alex and I run a quiz...a game for the customers at the restaurant. We ask a variety of questions, and the team that answers the most questions correctly earns credit to buy another meal."
"It's fun," Alex said. "Bobby and I dress uphe's The Wizard and I'm Princess Ozma."
Olivia's eyes brightened for the first time that morning. "From the Oz books?"
Bobby grinned. "In a way. You've read the books?"
"Most of them, even the Ruth Plumley Thompson ones. Maman liked them."
Alex found that she still needed to restrain a flinch when Olivia mentioned her mother and mentally shook herself. It was natural that Olivia would reference her, and she would need to make peace with it, no matter how she felt about Nicole Wallace. In an odd twist of fate, the Australian felon had wormed her way into the affections of Marcel Pepin, whom she'd only intended to manipulate in the manner of the previous men in her life, had become pregnant, and, in her own unconventional way, had formed a relationship with him. Alex and Bobby had both been surprised to learn how Nicole had wholeheartedly thrown herself into Olivia's upbringing, investing her with a curious spirit, both coddling and indulging her while simultaneously encouraging curiosity and independence.
"Would you like to come in costume, too?" Alex asked, wondering if she would pick Dorothy, a universal favorite among the few youngsters who attended in the summerBobby was asked at least once a week where she was.
Olivia asked unexpectedly, "Could I be Trot?"
Alex saw Bobby grin, but answered, "I'm not familiar with that character. I've only read a few of the books, maybe two or three. Then I moved on to Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. I always did like mysteries best."
Bobby explained, "Trot comes later in the series. Her real name was Mayre Griffiths." He regarded Olivia with a reflective smile. "You have the eyes for it. The illustration I remember has Trot in a middy dress and a picture hat with a ribbon."
Alex considered. "She could wear my sun hat with a scarf around it. We'd have to come up with a dress, though."
Olivia nodded, then continued her meal. After she finished her egg and went back to the pancakes, she looked pensive for some minutes, then gingerly inquired, "Um...please, what are the rules?"
Bobby asked, head tilted in curiosity, "For trivia?"
"No," she said, "for living here. At the start of term, we were always told the rules, and they were posted on the doors to the dormitories."
He exchanged glances with Alex, then responded casually, "Well, this isn't boarding school, so there will be no rules posted on doors. 'Please' and 'thank you" are always good words to useand you're allowed to correct us when we don't use them. But I'd say our first house rule is 'be kind.' Next is 'be truthful'because both Alex and I have learned by hard experience that most of our problems have come from not being honest with one another." Here Alex's mouth quirked. "'Be respectful.' 'Don't be judgmental.' 'Treat others the way you wish to be treated.'"
Olivia nodded, although they could both see by her expression that these might have been the oddest "rules" she'd ever heard.
"I can think of three rules," Alex added. "The first one could be withdrawn once you and Bandit get to know each other: 'Don't let the bird out of his cage without permission.' Never when outside doors are open."
Olivia's head bobbed again. "The other two are basic. If we're in our bedroom with the door closed, knock firstdon't come in unless we say so."
Now the girl smothered a giggle. "Maman and Papa Marcel had the same rule."
"Most adults will," Bobby replied, amused. "And the third and most important: if I'm upstairs working and the door is closed; don't come in, knock, and I'll come out."
"Why?" came the expected question, and he answered, "Because a closed door means I'm working on something private and not permitted to show it to anyone, not even your mother. When the door's open, feel free to come in, but be warned I might have time only for a hug."
"Oh" and they were certain that would have prompted yet another question, except that Bobby's cell phone began playing the theme song to the 1960s television series The FBI, and he hurried to retrieve it. When he returned, he reported, "Penelope will be here in around two hours. We'd better finish up and take Sam out."
Olivia sipped her milk as she made her way through the remainder of the pancakes. "Who is Penelope?"
"She's 'Ms. Saltonstall,' and she's the visitor I mentioned, your papa's supervisor. She was here last night, too, but left so we could spend time together," Alex explained.
"Is Papa in trouble?" was the girl's unexpected reaction.
"Penelope is our friend," Bobby said easily, but Alex knew that was an understatement; when Bobby had left Major Case it was Penelope Saltonstall, herself unique in both her family situation and as an FBI agent, who understood his quirks and smoothed the way for his eight successful years as an in-house agent. Like her, Penelope had been his defender, and at the Bureau had been his "rabbi" as well, and now that he worked as a consultant, was his supervisor. Alex knew, in fact, depending on who you asked, Bobby was either retired...or not.
"Before I forget," Alex added, "I owe you an apology, Olivia. You left your e-mail to Renata open last night. I saw most of it when I closed down my laptop. I'm sorry."
Her words surprised Olivia. "They would always read our e-mail at school before we were allowed to send it."
"Well, I don't believe in reading private things. I would only check your e-mail if we thought there was something very wrong, or if you were in danger." She bit her lip. "But now I'm a little curious and wondering what happened last year at school."
Olivia made a sour face, and Alex patted her shoulder. "Never mind. You don't need to tell. I guess I've never gotten over trying to be Nancy Drew."
"Renata at school loves mysteries, even the ones from America. I think she's read Nancy Drew." Olivia gave a big sigh. "It's nothing secret. When I first went to Creatwood, I found out how many British girls speak French. When they heard my name 'Mignon,' they teased me about it."
Bobby nodded. "That's right. It means 'cute,' doesn't it?"
Olivia rolled her eyes. "They went on about it for days. That's how I became friends with Renata. She finally told them to sod off and started calling me 'Min.'" She sat back in her chair, dropping her hands into her lap. "And Renata stood up for me when I got reprimanded. When I first arrived, there was an older girl, Eloise. Her father owned a chain of chemist shops and her mother was an MP. She was quite stuck on herself. On my second day, while the Maths teacher was posing a problem on the board, Eloise leaned overshe'd been given the desk next to mineand said that she knew all about Maman and that she was a whore." She gave Alex a defiant look. "I know that's a bad word, and what it means. So I slapped Eloise, hard, and then was...impertinent to the Maths instructor when he scolded me."
Alex's eyes were grave, but she confessed, "Well, it wasn't exactly proper behavior, but to be honest...in your place I probably would have done the same thing. It was very disrespectful of Eloise."
Olivia made a face. "Miss Bradford-Smith said that, too. But I was still punished."
Bobby patted her hand. "There are so many rude people in the world, Olivia. You can't just slap them without consequences."
"I know." Then she brightened. "I outlasted Eloise, though. A month later she was expelled!"
He tried not to laugh at the faint triumph in her voice. "Maybe it was karma catching up with her. But no slapping people in the future, unless it's to defend yourself, all right?"
"Yes, sir," Olivia said, almost meekly.
"If you'll help me clear the table," Alex said with a smile, "we'll do the dishes and take our walk."
Olivia nodded and rose, her plate in hand with utensils on it. She'd had her back to the refrigerator during the meal and been busy earlier, so only then noticed the front of the appliance, which functioned as a bulletin board pinned with several magnetic business cards, the phone number of The Ark veterinary practice in Waterbury, photos of Bobby's cousin Molly and nephew Donny, and Alex's nieces Sophia and Eleanor and nephew Eddie. Mingled within those homey mementos was something familiar to her.
"You kept...my drawing of Sam," she said, blinking a little.
Bobby smiled, recalling the flourish with which she'd presented it the previous year. "Of course. You gave it to us to remember you by."
The mute, searching look she gave them would linger in their minds until it was later made clear.
. . . . .
"Why does Mama run?" Olivia asked. She was bundled in the blue coat she'd worn to the funeral and had insisted on taking her stuffed fox on their walk. Bobby made yet another mental note to mention the behavior to Dr. Allyson in case it was pertinent.
"She likes the exercise, and says that she feels better after she runs," he replied as he glanced down at the little girl keeping pace at his right; he had already shortened his stride to accommodate her, "and that it makes her feel free."
"What makes you feel free, Papa?" Olivia asked.
"Your mama," he said, "and my books." Then he added, "I'm glad you like your fox."
Olivia shrugged. "The girls in First Form would call me a baby for carrying him."
He confided, "I don't think you're a baby. I think you're brave to have decided to cross the Atlantic with two people you hardly know and start a new life."
He had taken her further afield than he and Alex usually walked to introduce her to the neighborhood, the four blocks to the Dark Crystal and back, explaining how the restaurant now extended into the defunct drugstore next to it, identifying what family lived in each house on Main Street, beginning with Bruno Volpe's Colonial-fronted home on the corner of their own street. As they walked back from the restaurant, Olivia asked suddenly, "If I'm so brave, why must I see Dr. Allyson?"
"For one thing," Bobby replied, "it's a condition we have to meet."
"But I don't wish to be 'fixed,'" she said stolidly.
He looked down at her; her head was bowed and she was unconsciously scuffing her feet. "That's not what a therapist does, Olivia." And when she didn't answer, he continued thoughtfully, "Once I was fired from my job as a detective. I had superiors who disliked my working style and then I did something they thought was unpardonable." Olivia had halted at the word "fired," and he turned to regard her. "I was given the chance to return, but only if I attended seven therapy sessions. I refused at first, but your mother, who had quit after I was firedquit after so many years working toward her goal!coaxed me into it. She said, 'C'mon, Bobby, you can do this. It's only seven hours. Seven hours. We've looked at endless store surveillance tapes for longer than seven hours.' So I agreed. Then my captain, who was a friend of mine, had to order me to go one more time." He drew in a breath, then confessed. "Seven sessions in which I was a total brat, like your Eloise. I argued with her, I tried to play head games with her, I shouted at her, once I walked out on her. But when I finished I asked if I could come backand I had a lot of nerve, after what I put her throughbecause she'd made me consider things I hadn't before, about my anger, about my past, about...things that were missing in my life."
"And," he shrugged, "I wasn't 'fixed' because a therapist doesn't do that. Then I made another decision that led me to my job with the FBI. But that choice cost me, too, and that's why I found Dr. Chaudry to talk to. But I'm happy I did."
The skeptical look on Olivia's face made him stop. He offered her his hand again and reiterated consolingly, "It's a condition of the adoption, Olivia. All you need to do is chat with her. It'll be all right."
As they turned the corner of Courant Street, Alex approached at a jog with Sam romping next to her until he spied them, then the collie trotted to Olivia's side and thrust his head under her hand to be petted. Olivia's bichon frise, Tipsy, had been left behind in France because the little dog had bonded so strongly with Olivia's nanny after she went away to school in 2021, so she understood the dog's body language and stopped to hug him. In return Sam seemed to understand the child was feeling upset, crowding next to her protectively.
Alex halted next to Bobby, face flushed and glowing, and on impulse Bobby put his arm around her and kissed her forehead. He was normally not so demonstrative in public and she looked up with a question in her caramel-colored eyes.
"Happy to be back to our routine," he whispered in her ear, his eyes telling another story.
Once back inside Bobby hefted the overstuffed hamper of clothes and Olivia followed him into the basement, which was "fixed up" on one side with shelving for records boxes and a Murphy bed/sleeping area for visitors, along with a makeshift exercise space in the unfinished portion. As he loaded clothes in the washing machine on the opposite wall, he bit back a smile as she attempted to lift his lightest weights, and then pedaled on Alex's exercise bike. While she played on the bike, he loped back upstairs to collect the suitcases and return them to storage.
Finally the pair mounted the stairs to visit the one room she'd longed to see on her previous visit: his "Lair" in the upper story, both library and office, with his work area at one window and the squat safe underneath the other; the rest of the big room was wall-to-wall bookcases crammed full, an expanse she surveyed with unconcealed amazement. He'd done a serious cull of outdated reference volumes when Alex moved in, and transferred some books to the shed in the back yard now kitted up as dual workspaces, so that Alex's growing collection of replacement books was also incorporated into the library.
There was just enough space for another bookcase and Bobby told Olivia that it would be reserved for her own books since it was likely her personal library would overflow the space in her bedroomalthough he wasn't certain she heard him since she seemed spellbound wandering from bookcase to bookcase checking out the volumes, some double-shelved one row behind another; although many of them were obscure reference titles, she was fascinated nonetheless.
She was rocking back and forth in his leather desk chair while he explained his work when the doorbell rang concurrently with a salvo of barking.
"We'll talk more later," he said, offering her his hand. "Let's go say hello to Penelope."
Olivia halted halfway down the stairs to note what Alex jokingly referred to as "the rogue's gallery" on the landing at the rear of the living room, where Bobby had initially hung a collection of all his NYPD and FBI memorabilia on the two adjoining walls: police academy photograph, certificates, ribbons, Major Case farewell photo, portrait together with his FBI partners Karin Hirahara and Ben Siler. Now Alex's items, including her own ribbons, official captain's photo, and her retirement certificate, completed the display. Olivia found herself staring directly at a framed portrait of a younger Alex in an NYPD uniform with one arm around a tall, smiling, unfamiliar man in a similar outfit. "Who's that man with Mama?" she asked, stopping and pointing.
Alex had just opened the front door for Penelope Saltonstall accompanied by a barrage of chirps from Bandit, and she pivoted to see what Olivia was referring to. Her face softened. "That's my first husband, Joe."
Olivia reached the landing, still gazing up at the photo. "You had another husband?"
Bobby touched her shoulder gently. "She was a widow when I met her."
Alex said gently, "He was killed in the line of duty, while investigating a case."
Olivia blinked. She was still clutching Captain tightly. "I'm sorry."
"Joe was a good guy," Alex finished, then smiled at Penelope. "I've been lucky with the two men in my life. Penelope, this is Olivia. Olivia, this is Ms. Penelope Saltonstall."
The older woman, several inches taller than Alex, her silver-threaded blond hair bundled in a French braid, flickered ever-observant brown eyes over the solemn little girl, then softened her round face with a smile. As always dressed for business in a dark blue pantsuit and white blouse, she gravely extended her hand to Olivia. "Pleased to meet you, Miss Pepin."
As she'd been instructed by Luisa, her former nanny, Olivia automatically curtsied as she approached. "Pleased to meet you, Madame Saltonstall."
"Aimez-vous votre nouvelle maison, mon petit?" Saltonstall queried in flawless French as Sam shoved his nose under her hand and she gave him a quick caress.
"Oui, madame," returned Olivia politely.
"Ce sera plus facile, promis," said Saltonstall with a quick smile.
Alex's high-school French came back into play; she leaned over to hug Olivia. "We'll do our best to help," she said softly. Then she smiled at Saltonstall. "Coffee?"
"I could do with some, thank you."
Olivia regarded the three adults with childish amusement. "Is this the part where the adults talk and I have to go to my room?"
"Well, you don't necessarily have to go to your room," Bobby answered, engaged by her matter-of-fact attitude. "You could always go back upstairs."
"You mean I may look at your books again?" One would have thought that by taking her upstairs he'd handed her the key to the Library of Congress.
"Why not stick with the fiction books?" Bobby responded, leveling his gaze at her. "My Oz books are up there. Back wall, to the right of the safe."
Olivia blinked. "With the Denslow illustrations? Maman said those were the best."
"Definitely with the Denslow illustrations," he affirmed.
Her eyes brightened. "Yes, Papa," and he shooed her off with his hand. She called "Sam! Come, Sam!" and ran for the stairs, the collie trotting after her. Bandit gave a little tweedle and Alex laughed and made a kissing noise to him.
Penelope Saltonstall shook her head, smiling. "She's extraordinary. I wouldn't have abandoned her to Evangeline Pepin either."
"It still has us slightly thrown for a loop," Alex admitted quietly as they moved into the kitchen, where Bobby started the coffee maker.
"Well, children do that naturally; even without wills and Dragon Ladies tossed into the mix," Saltonstall observed.
"Someone's been telling tales out of school," Alex said with tongue-in-cheek at the "Dragon Lady" reference, and Bobby outspread his hands with a shrug.
"I assume," Saltonstall said, still to Alex, "that he told you about Cavanaugh."
"Now you've ruined it," Alex chuckled. "I was supposed to act surprised."
"Oh, I know he tells you everything," was the response as Saltonstall sank into the chair Alex had earlier occupied at breakfast, "so I wouldn't tell him anything he wasn't allowed to pass on, unless I needed to give him information on a classified file. I can also tell you Harry will accept the deal. Between Robert's and Cristina's testimonies, he knew we had him in a corner." Then she paused. "Robert...I'd watch out for him."
Bobby was leaning against the counter waiting for the coffee to finish, arms crossed stiffly and a dour look on his face. "Just chalk up another one to the list of people who might want to 'get even' with me."
"Who's first on the list?" Saltonstall asked, already knowing the answer.
"Still Mike Stoat, I believe."
Saltonstall watched Alex shift in her seat, her face paling. "We ride herd on Stoat. He won't be anywhere where he'll do either of you harm. Or Olivia."
"What can we get you for your coffee?" Alex asked, her voice subdued.
"Just milk. The doctor's advising me to watch my sugar."
"Eames will take yours," Bobby teased gently, then poured three mugs, setting them one by one on the table, placing the half-gallon of milk on a trivet so they could help themselves. Alex spooned sugar into her coffee quietly, and Bobby reached a hand across the table to squeeze hers.
Saltonstall caught Bobby's eye and then gestured upward with her head. He nodded silently, padding to the archway leading into the living room and craned his neck around the corner. Then, with relief, he returned to the table. "She is up there. What's the word on the street?"
"That it wasn't an accident."
Alex searched both faces, then hissed, "That bitch!"
Saltonstall smiled. "So you're not blaming the ambitious younger son?"
"Laurent?" Alex scoffed. "Maybe someday, after she's corrupted him thoroughlybut now? To work up a plot that ambitious? No. No way. Nicole would have seen right through him. The spider in the web has to be Madame."
"You should have lured her from the NYPD," Bobby said regretfully.
"My loss," Saltonstall agreed.
Alex ignored them. "But why? She's put up with Nicole for ten years. I can't imagine she thought her that much of a threat, not to mention that she had her own secrets. And after all," and cynicism crept deeper into her voice, "it's not like Marcel was celibate with either woman."
"Unknown. A combination of indignities, perhaps? Nicole's own personality being an improvement on her own, or that Olivia is brighter than any one of her own children? Perhaps her being fed up with Pepin's other peccadillos? I heard from my sources that one of his ladies showed up at the funeral."
Alex recalled the buxom young woman in the snug dress. "Yup," she said dryly. "What about Laurent? Was he feigning his affection for Olivia?"
"I don't think so," Bobby said, leaning back to sip his coffee. "Laurent isn't an actor by any stretch of the imagination. Underneath he's generally benign. He strikes me as being lazy...does just enough work to get along. What he seems to want most is to be liked. Otherwise he does his maman's bidding, and I'm sure he didn't know beforehand."
Alex tipped her head to one side. "Think he knows now?"
"He's lazy, not stupid. I hope someday he'll see the truth, before it's too lateLaurent is worth saving, if only for showing Olivia some semblance of affection."
"And Nicole's will?" Alex persisted.
"What about it?"
"At the reading of both wills the attorney stated that she initiated hers right after Pepin frog-marched her home last year."
Saltonstall pulled out an iPhone to check her notes. "She contacted Théodore Achard on May 14, 2022."
"Two days after visiting this house." Alex looked puzzled. "Bobby must have told you...she acted as if she envied me. She was living like a queen, and I just couldn't understand it. Could she have known"
"Madame certainly made no secret of her hatred," Bobby began, then lifted his head, gesturing with his left hand while flashing a warning look. A second later, when Sam's toenails announced their return to the first floor and he trotted into the kitchen with Olivia behind him, they were leaning back in their chairs sipping coffee as if they'd just been discussing the weather.
"I found a picture of Trot," Olivia announced, handing a book to Alex. "It's like Papa saidI need a...middy dress? Is that what it's called?"
Bobby fell into "avuncular librarian" mode. "It was the...um...fashion when L. Frank Baum wrote the books to dress little girls, as well as small boys, in middy blouses and middy dresses, so they looked like old-fashioned midshipmenthey also called them 'sailor suits.' I don't think we can buy one anywhere. Is that the illustration of her in a wide-brimmed hat?"
"It's a different one," Alex said thoughtfully, tilting the open book toward him to reveal a black-and-white sketch. "You can see the middy dress. If we want to do the hat, right now my sun hat will do. If we can find a pattern, ViolaMrs. Perrino," she explained for Saltonstall and Olivia's benefit, "can probably run up a middy dress if we bought all the material and trimmings. She'd probably jump at the chance to make a vintage dress. In the meantime, a short-sleeved, fairly plain white dress with a long narrow blue scarf around the neck would do. I have a long blue scarf."
"I have a white dress with black piping on it, Mama," Olivia said. "It should be with the clothing Luisa packed for me. We haven't yet put everything away."
"Then you may borrow my hat and a blue scarf to tie around it for tonight." Alex gingerly curved her arm around Olivia to see if she'd accept a hug and the girl leaned her head against her shoulder with a tiny sigh. Saltonstall smiled to herself.
"We still have a problem to solve, though," Bobby remarked, as if that had been the object of their conversation all along. "Our book tour starts in a month, but Olivia's school year ends in June. I suppose we can c-continue as we are now, with her schoolwork sent on from Creatwood via computer...and Alex and I can tutor her."
"How are your pre-algebra skills? Not to mention geology" Alex asked wryly.
He admitted, "I'm better at statistics."
Saltonstall had a droll expression on her face. "Well, it so happens I can probably assist you with that."
"Now, hang on," Alex said skeptically, cuddling Olivia. "Finding lilacs in California in November I get, and your help with the State Department I understand, and I know Bobby thinks you're a miracle worker. But this"
Now the older woman laughed. "I don't claim to be a miracle worker. But I do have a little 'in' on this. My daughter may be able to help you."
Bobby set his cup down. "Your...what?"
"My daughter." Saltonstall met his eyes, then chuckled. "You really didn't know?" She added, teasing, "I may have to pull your badge for that, Robert."
"Your daughter." Bobby restated, looking nonplussed.
"I have both a daughter and a son, and I've been divorced almost longer than you two have known each other," explained the older woman, still tickled at being one up on him. "It is not, in my opinion, a good thing for two agents be married, at least not when he actively objects to you going into the field because he's afraid there will be 'no one to care for the children.' Ironically, by the time we were divorced, they were pretty much old enough to manage on their own." She smiled to herself. "But people do change. Matthew got over his patriarchal streak, so we get along quite well now, and he's always been an exemplary father."
"Wait," Bobby said, amused. "Matthew Hogarth? That explains" He gestured at her. "I thought you two knew each other on more than a superficial level when we partnered with his team on the Anderson case, but"
"I had less trouble getting information from my kid brother's old fourth grade 'girl haters' club. Someone please clue me in?" Alex interjected, and Olivia giggled.
"My ex, Matthew Hogarth, is now director of the Boston office," Penelope explained, finishing her coffee. "Back thenit must be six years ago nowour team and his people collaborated on an interstate kidnappingthe Anderson case. We found Ms. Anderson unharmed, thankfully. Our son, who uses my last name, lives in the 'granny flat' in Matthew's home in Brookline. Charles has gone back to his roots, and practices in my brother's law firm. Now Donnawho still uses Hogarthis another story." She pulled out her phone again. "Donna's taught middle and high-school Englishpardon, 'language arts'in York County, Maine, for fifteen years. She resigned at the end of last school year, completely burned out by the COVID chaos. She took last summer off, and since then has been providing private tutoring. When I spoke to her last week, she was still looking for a new opportunity."
"Most tutors expect to go home at night," Alex pointed out.
"I know it really isn't done to brag on your children, but Donna isn't like 'most' of anything." Saltonstall flicked through photos on her phone. "She flies her iconoclast flag proudly. Ah, here it ismy favorite recent shot of her. She posted this on LinkedIn, so, as she told the family, 'everyone will know what they're getting into.'"
Alex saw the photo first and laughed, and Olivia's face brightened; Bobby's high-wattage grin unfolded a few seconds later. The smiling woman in the photo had struck a pose as if she was modeling for a Target back-to-school flyer; the three-quarter view of her face showed a version of her mother but in her late 30s, with perhaps slightly rounder cheeks, an olive complexion, and striking hazel eyes, dressed for work in a conservative, long-sleeved white blouse with a Peter Pan collar, crisp-creased navy blue slacks, and sensible two-inch heels. She looked the very picture of an idealized schoolteacher with three books and two spiral-bound notebooks held in the crook of her right arm until you noted the clearly visible Time Turner from the Harry Potter books dangling from her neck and a Star Trek IDIC in the hollow of her throat. Her right nostril was pierced, a pink-and-green tourmaline stone replacing a standard metal stud, and the tightly-curled brown, shoulder-length hair that spilled softly over her right shoulder was shot with a streak of day-glo pink.
"Of course that was four months ago," Saltonstall explained with impish intent. "Her hair may be a completely different color right now. Donna changes the color almost as much as I change my bed, although she's partial to pink and green. She's loved 'watermelon stones' since she was a little girl. If you're interested in her CV, she holds a Masters in education and another in English literature, not to mention a separate bachelors in history, and she loves to travel."
"Besides," she finished fondly, "I know she'll like all of you. Interested?"
Alex spoke first after a glance at Bobby's expectant face. "I am."
Bobby glanced at Olivia. "What do you think? You can interview her, too."
"I...would talk to her," the girl said in a soft voice, squirming slightly as they all turned their attention to her, but her eyes flicked one more time to the allure of the friendly woman in the photo.
Penelope returned to her home screen, tapped a tiny photo, and a Zoom dialog popped up. In a minute, Donna's face appeared on the screen; she was flushed and perspiring. "Hi, Mom!"
Robert Goren had known Penelope Saltonstall for nearly a dozen years and thought he was familiar with every one of her voices, ranging from quiet approval to indignant rage, but he'd never heard this one, rich with sweet indulgence. "Have I caught you at a bad time, dearling?"
"Just back from my rundid four miles today," Donna panted happily, and Bobby telegraphed "running partner!" to Alex, who raised her eyebrows and smiled. "You don't usually call this time of day. There's nothing wrong, is there?"
"No, dearling. Something may be right. Have you found a new tutoring job yet?"
"Almost had one," Donna returned, making a face, "but the male chauvinist pig decided he needed a male to tutor his son. Is this 2023 or 1923?"
"Not worth your time, then. I have a better lead for you. Do you remember my mentioning Robert Goren?"
"You mean your pet agent? Of course. Geez, Mom...how could I forget, especially since Dad asked me once if you were sleeping with him."
Saltonstall froze with mouth ajar and Alex couldn't suppress an audible chuckle. Even on the small phone screen, it was evident when Donna turned scarlet. "Oh...man...you're not alone right now, are you?"
"I am not, dearling," and Saltonstall stifled her laughter.
"And since that was a woman's laugh and that's my luckthat was probably Mrs. Goren." Donna shook her head. "Only me! Well, now they know my big secret: I manage to put my foot in my mouth about once a day."
Now Olivia giggled audibly and Donna cocked her head good-naturedly. "Is that my potential student? I really have done it this time."
It was Bobby's turn to grin and he offered in a clear voice, "I wouldn't worry about it. I've had 'foot in mouth' disease many times. Did your father actually"
Donna's face pinked once more. "Only once! Mother disabused him of the notion."
Saltonstall handed Olivia her phone. "Here's your 'potential student,' dearling. Donna, this is Miss Olivia. Olivia, this is Ms. Hogarth."
"Good afternoon, Ms. Hogarth," Olivia responded, rearranging her face as if she was back in the Creatwood headmistress's office.
"Hi, Olivia. So...you're in need of a tutor? What's happened, have you been out of school because of illness? Or are you behind in your classes?"
"Behind?" Olivia said indignantly. "I've never been behind in my life! I'm in First Form conditional!"
"First Form?" Donna squinted at her. "You're what, ten?"
"Nine. I'll be ten on September 13."
"Well, good for you, kitten!" Donna responded enthusiastically. "So, you've been at a British school"
"The Creatwood School, in Cheshire," Olivia returned, and Bobby eased the phone from her hand. "Hi, Donna, this is Bob Goren."
"Hi, Agent Goren," and Donna looked apologetic. "Mother will tell you, when I'm not at school my enthusiasm sometimes overwhelms my tongue."
Alex met Saltonstall's eyes, biting her lip, and mouthed to her, "No wonder you understood him so well" which made the older woman's eyes crinkle with laugh lines.
Bobby explained further. "A friend of ours...passed away recently. She asked that if something happened to her as well as her...partner...Olivia's father...that we be guardians of their child. So we have an...um...unexpected" and here he smoothed Olivia's hair, "but very welcome daughter."
"Oh, I'm so sorry to hear...Olivia, I'm sorry to hear about your mother and father. That must...hurt very much. How are you doing right now?"
Olivia cuddled close to Alex again. "It...hurts...a good deal. But Mama and Papa are taking care of me. Thank you, you, Ms. Hogarth."
"I'm not certain how much your mother," and here Bobby tilted his head at Saltonstall, "has told you about us"
"You're her favorite consultant. Charliemy brotherand I always called you her pet agent. And you're married to your former partner at the NYPD...the one who made captain and whose photo you had on your desk."
"Well, you're several up on me. I never knew Penelope had children."
"Well, don't feel bad. Not even the CIA sussed us out. Mom kept us wayyyyy under the table," responded Donna. "She...always worried that the wrong people would learn about us, so the right people seldom did, either."
Bobby continued, "Well, the lady in the photo on my desk has written a very wonderful book"
"As did the man on the phone," Alex added sternly, tilting her head sideways so Donna could see her.
"Hello, Ms. Eames," Donna said instantly.
"You missed your calling," Alex said dryly. "You're smarter than half the recruits who walked into my office before I retired."
"But could you really see me as an op?" responded Donna with barely-concealed mirth. "I'd blurt out the location of the surveillance van within an hour." She prompted, "So you've both written a book"
"Our publisher is sending us on a book tour, but we have a little girl who needs her parents with her and an education at the same time."
"So I'd come along on the book tour? Might I ask the itinerary?"
"New York. Boston. Charlotte. Richmond. Atlanta. Tampa. Birmingham. Orlando. St. Louis. Miami..." Alex began.
Now Donna laughed. "How much do I have to pay you to come along?"
"Hey, she didn't even hit the sweet spots," Bobby chuckled. "Chicago. Seattle. San Francisco. Los Angeles. Las Vegas...you know, it's a shame Dr. Grissom isn't at the Las Vegas crime lab any longer"
Donna's eyes brightened. "Are you talking Grissom the forensic entomologist? I've used a couple of his books with my AP seniors."
Alex feigned exasperation. "Oh, no, two of them..."
"So, are you interested in the job?" Bobby asked.
"Hold on, hold on," Donna said sternly. "I still need to interview my potential student. Hand me back to Olivia. We need to see if we're a fit."
Bobby did as asked, after which Olivia eagerly responded, "Yes, Ms. Hogarth?"
Saltonstall crooked a finger to Bobby and Alex, who followed her into the living room. "So, what do you think of my unicorn? That's what Matthew and I always called her. Charles was my sweet boy, but became a generally serious, very conventional man like the uncle he's named afterthen we had her."
"Your unicorn appears to be into lime green now," Alex observed with a smile. "I think I like my unicorn better, though."
"He is a very charming, handsome, and intelligent unicorn," Saltonstall concurred, then smiled at Bobby. "I'm sorry, Robert. I don't mean to embarrass you. Did you need something from me?"
He began apologetically, "You know...I won't be able to work m-much during the book tour"
"You shouldn't be working at all during the book tour, or during these first few weeks with Olivia," she remonstrated. "Between the media interviews and the book signings you'll have little time to yourselves as it is. Close what cases you have or update them sufficiently to pass on, then transfer them to Marcus or to Benjamin; I won't be assigning anything else to you until the end of the tour."
"Penelope, I've already cut down on my workload"
"No," she said firmly. "You wrote an outstanding book. Now relax. Show your daughter the country. Walk the Charles and the Chattahoochee with your heart's desire" and she smiled at Alex, who pinked upon mention of Bobby's book dedication. "who also wrote an outstanding book. You've both earned this. Enjoy it."
"Pa-pa!" came Olivia's eager voice as she reappeared with Saltonstall's phone. Automatically, she curtsied. "Thank you for the use of your mobile, Madame...I mean Ms. Saltonstall." She gave a bright look to Alex and Bobby. "Donna wants to be my tutor. May she?"
"It's 'Ms. Hogarth,'" Bobby corrected.
"Donna said," Olivia stated precisely, "that I might call her that. May she be my tutor?"
"She may," Alex said with a smile.
"But she wants to speak with one of you," she finished, "I suppose about my tuition?"
Saltonstall handed the phone to Alex, who balanced it in her hand for a moment, glanced at her husband, met his eyes with shrewd knowledge, then passed it to Bobby. "Here, you finish the negotiations. We'll be on the porch. It's too nice a day to be inside."
He could read her face plainly and gave her a pleased, confidential nod.
"This way," Olivia directed, offering Saltonstall her hand, and the three of them walked to the kitchen and out the back door. Bobby strolled toward the archway to the living room, and immediately Bandit jumped from his perch to the bars of the cage, his bright eyes following Bobby's every move. He murmured, "Give me a few minutes, buddy," and then held up the cell phone. "Donna?"
"I'm here, Bob," she said comfortably. "Olivia and I suit each other just fine. I guess it's time to dicker about price."
"Since she's accepted you so enthusiastically, you can name your price," Bobby said calmly. "You're the first knowledgeable but neutral person who's talked to Olivia privately. How is she?"
Donna returned an understanding nod. The unicorn was gone, replaced by the professional. "Didn't fool you, did I, Mr. Profiler? Mother said you were smart." She paused. Some time during her chat with Olivia she'd taken the opportunity to sit down, presumably at a table, and now rested her chin on her fist. "I take it Olivia has spent a lot of time with adults."
"Yes. Her mother was her father's mistress. That's one of the reasons we brought her home: if we'd left her behind via the contingency plan her father provided, she would have been...um...required to live in his wife's home when she wasn't in school or at camp, with a new governess since her old nanny was leaving. I wouldn't trust Madame Pepin with a b-bowl of sea monkeys. Olivia went to a primary school, but spent most of the time with her mother, and only in the past two years has been at boarding school mixing with other children. And since she's in class with older children due to her grade level, she has a different purview from your traditional nine-year-old. She reads voraciously, loves museums, and is curious about almost everything. Thankfully her mother brought her up in an open environment and encouraged her to ask questions and seek answers, d-despite" And there he stopped, his head bowed.
Donna stared at him pointedly. "Now you're keeping secrets."
"Alex and I can tell you more in person," he quietly admitted, "when Olivia's elsewhere, but the book she wrote is about her career at the NYPD; the middle portion of the book was our work together tracking down criminals, chiefly murder suspects. Olivia's mother...isunder a completely unrecognizable name, with a gender twistChapters 15 and 16."
"Wow." He saw Donna chew her lip for a second. "Does Olivia know anything about her mother's past?"
Bobby considered. "At the funeral, the congregation was asked if they wanted to render any tributes. Olivia was the...only one to speak for her mother. She'd heard gossip about her and stood next to Alex and s-spoke right up." He quoted, "'Maybe you don't think I listen when all of you talk, but I do, and I...do understand. I know my maman has not been a good person all her lifeshe told me that herself.' Now, what d-details Olivia was told...I don't know, but the last thing she said was 'I just wanted you to know that she was always a good mother.'"
"Poor kid." Donna smiled at him gently. "Look, if you want me to take this job, I'll come out early, scope things out. For now my feeling is that Olivia's very self-possessed, that she was treated as both a child and as an adult depending on the circumstances, and she's rolled with it and she's coping very well, but I'm concerned that it may be cover, the way a bird will pretend not to be sick so the flock won't drive it out. If Olivia is brittle right now, we would want to keep her from shattering. How long has she been with you?"
"This is only our first full day home with her. We flew in from Paris yesterday. She had a nightmareAlex and I reassured her, then sang her back to sleep. You might say we winged it this morning...um...tried to act as if she'd lived here all along. I asked her to set the table, and she helped us with the dishes and some chores, and came along on our daily walk. Alex offered to stay home with her tonight, but she seems eager to come with both of us to our trivia game. I don't think she wants us out of her sight. So we discussed making a costume for her. It seemed to cheer her up."
Donna nodded. "It takes her mind off her loss. And easing her into small chores establishes a routine. That should make her feel safer, part of your lives. At the same time you've given her choices. Good start. But slow down a little, too. Maybe have a movie night? See if you can find her favorite film. Or a picnic"
"I was thinking of a movie for tomorrow night. We had a picnic near the Eiffel Tower last weekanother might be fun. Somewhere at the shore if it's warm enough. Did she mention she conducted us through the Louvre, and we took her to Compiégne? We could hardly keep up with the questions!"
"Questions are good. She told me all about your little expeditionsshe really did enjoy them."
He tilted his head at her, smiling knowingly. "That Masters degree of yours in 'education'it's special ed, isn't it?"
"Damn, you are good." She toyed with the Time Turner at her neck. "Yes. Which is probably why Mother threw my hat into the ringbesides my being unemployed, of course. What's Olivia's schedule until you leave on the book tour?"
"Tomorrow we're going to introduce her to our own therapist, Dr. Chaudry. She's very good at what she doesshe dealt with me, after all!and we'll see if she can't m-manage a private interview. Next Monday Olivia has an appointment with Dr. Allyson, who specializes in pediatric therapy. It's one of the conditions of our being able to bring her home so quickly. We may have some friction about thatOlivia complained about having to go only this morning. The DCF rep Ruth Dunbar will be here next week; we had a text from her early this morning. Olivia's already met her and appears to like her. Once we're on the road, there will be a regular schedule of online therapy and we'll have to report to DCF from each city."
"First, give Ms. Dunbar my number," Donna said briskly. "207-555-8474. I know DCF language and can assuage some of her reservations."
"Whereabouts in Maine?"
"Kittery, the only place to live." She was smiling now. "Ms. Eames onboard for all this?"
"Why do you think she handed me the phone? Normally I let Alex handle negotiations; it's her specialty."
Donna laughed. "By the way, I do put my foot in my mouth occasionally."
He said dryly, "I didn't sleep with your mother."
Donna chuckled. "It's not like it matters. Mom's a grown woman and can do as she likes, so even if you had, it's none of my business." Then she grinned. "See you in two weeks. And call me if you need me. Oh, and give Olivia a message for me"
When she concluded the call he smiled to himself, entering her number into his cell phone as he strolled back to the porch, just in time to hear Olivia ask hesitantly, "Donna's papa...he is le noir?"
"Yes," Saltonstall answered.
Alex was facing in his direction as he approached, and he saw her bite her lip. "Bobby said you went against your family tradition by joining the FBI. I take it they...didn't agree with your choice of husbands, either?"
"Oh, Dad was fine with it. My father liked everyone and didn't care if you were the Mayor of Boston or the street sweeper. But Mother" She pursed her lips and held her fingers steepled before her. "Mother was a Cabot. And, of course, daughters of Cabots don't associate with 'rabble' from Roxbury, even if the so-called 'rabble' graduated summa cum laude in Criminal Justice. After I married Matthew she never spoke to me again." She paused with a sigh. "Even after we divorced, she avoided me. She wouldn't talk to my children. Dad sent birthday and Christmas gifts and put her name on them along with his. He always believed that grandmotherly love would eventually trump bigotry. But even when Mother was dying...Charles and Donna came to say goodbye, and she turned her head away. They prayed for her anyway." She lifted her chin, eyes proud. "It was her loss. She never spoke with my beautiful children and missed knowing two of the best people on earth."
Unexpectedly, Olivia stepped from Alex's side to give Saltonstall a hug. The two blond heads met and Bobby, standing in the doorway leaning against the frame, gave a wistful smile. Then he said aloud, "Olivia, you have yourself a tutor."
The little girl looked up, sober-faced again. "Thank you, Papa."
"I wouldn't say 'thank you' yet," he said with a grin flickering over his lips. "She has an assignment for you. She wants to see a sample of your writing. And she means 'in writing,' not typed on the computer. She'd like a composition of not less than 100 words about your visit to Compiégne. It must contain three things you learned there. She says this will tell her your skill at writing, your ability to observe places you visit, and what you retained from your visit. She'd like it by next week."
Olivia loosed her hold on Penelope Saltonstall and looked him in the eye. "Is this a challenge for me, Papa?"
"I think so."
"I accept," she said serenely, and Bobby nodded in understanding.
"You can start working on it tomorrow if you like," he said.
"Maybe even this afternoon," she said, flashed a smile, and trotted inside.
Saltonstall chuckled, "That sounds very familiar," and Alex just shook her head.
"We are in so much trouble," she said.
. . . . .
After Saltonstall left, Bobby put together lunch while Alex connected Olivia's laptop to their home wifi, then set up a new e-mail address for her. The web server message said the e-mail would take thirty minutes to initialize, so Alex went through webmail to download the lessons sent from the Creatwood School.
"If it gets too quiet in your room," Bobby told her, reminded of the list her nanny Luisa had provided them before leaving France, listing Olivia's biggest fear as "being alone," "you can do your schoolwork here on the kitchen table. I remember doing that as a kid. There wasn't enough money for Frank or I to have desks."
"Is Frank my uncle?" Olivia asked. "Will I meet him?"
"He was," Bobby said quietly. "He passed away over a dozen years ago."
"Oh." Olivia bit her lip. "I'm sorry."
"So am I. We never did resolve our differences."
Alex interjected quietly, "We'll need to reimburse Liz and Jack for the furniture."
"Plus fit a narrow bookcase on the other side of the bed," mused Bobby.
"You would think of the books," she said, amused.
"Where should I put my important things?" Olivia asked, finishing the last of her milk.
They exchanged surprised glances. "I'm sorry, Olivia," Bobby apologized. "You've talked about books so much I didn't know you had other important things. Are those in the suitcase that we didn't unpack?"
Olivia nodded. "Would you like to see?"
When the suitcases had been brought to the basement earlier, the fourth and last of Olivia's suitcases had been stored under the desk Alex has bought while writing her book, but rarely used because she'd preferred working in the living room with Bandit for company, reference documents stacked on the sofa and end tables around her. Now Olivia slid to the floor next to it and Sam joined her, nosing curiously at the piece of luggage. She warned gravely, "Not for you, Sam," and Bobby stroked the dog's head and said firmly "Leave it," whereupon the collie lay down, watching Olivia unlock and unzip the suitcase with bright eyes.
Alex wasn't sure what she'd expected, but she was intrigued when she saw the interior neatly divided with a long, thick piece of cardboard. On one side, jumbled from baggage handling but relatively still segregated, there were watercolor paint boxes, paintbrushes bound with rubber bands, some water reservoirs, what Olivia explained were water pens, a big box of colored pencils, and a smaller one of watercolor pencils, drawing pencils and erasers and drawing tools, fine-line permanent drawing pens, several watercolor tablets, and a standard drawing pad. On the opposite side were three rectangular containers crammed full of multicolor embroidery floss wound on square bobbins, a clear plastic box stocked with needles and other embroidery equipment, wrapped packages of embroidery fabric with different-sized squares on them, pattern leaflets, and, in a large, clear zippered bag, some finished projects of assorted sizes.
"How pretty!" Alex said when she saw a three-inch diameter circular piece framed in gilt plastic with a little round hanger at the top; it said "Mignon" on it and below was a design of books. "I knew you could draw but I had no idea you painted or did...is this needlepoint?"
"It's cross stitch. I learned in Needle Arts class."
"Some European schools have needlework classes," Bobby offered. "For boys as well as girls."
Olivia's eyes were wide. "Don't you have Needle Arts here? We could learn knitting or crocheting, or do needlepoint or cross stitch or just plain embroidery. Maman particularly picked out a primary school in Paris that included Needle Arts. I was in the same year as a boy who chose needlepoint. He made très beaux pillows for his maman, and none of the other boys dared tease him because he was so good at football. I picked cross stitch because it was like painting with a needle." She pointed to the item Alex had admired. "That was on our Christmas tree at school."
"I hope you'll make some for our tree," Bobby requested, checking out some of her other designs: a little sheep that said "I love ewe" underneath, a larger book design, and a French flag with "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" below.
"If you'd like." Olivia returned doubtfully. "I would think you had a beautiful tree already, like I see in the American magazines."
Alex answered, "Even if we did have 'a tree from a magazine,' anything you could make for it like this ornament would only make it more beautiful. But our tree is very eclectic, not like a magazine at all, but just as we like itwith special ornaments we bought along with some homemade ornaments Carlos and Ana did for our first Christmas together." Alex picked up the ornament, examining the neat stitches more closely. "Do you suppose you could make one for each of us?"
Olivia looked droll. "But what could I put on Bandit's ornament?"
Alex laughed. "What he likes best, maybea sprig of millet."
. . . . .
They awakened to Olivia screaming.
Bobby launched himself from bed so quickly that Alex was bounced awake. He was ready to open the door when she gasped out his name and he realized he was nude, as was she. Switching on her night table lamp, she scrabbled in the sheets for his t-shirt and pajama bottoms, and tossed them to him, fishing her own garments from the bedclothes. She heard him muttering as he fumbled with his clothes, "It was going too well, it was going too well..."
That afternoon they'd chatted a few more minutes and Olivia had decided a pair of wheeled under-bed boxes would work to store her craft supplies. Once her e-mail address was initialized, Bobby sat at the table to review her school assignments with her before leaving her to concentrate, with Sam sleeping at her feet, then he retired to the living room with Alex to search websites while Bandit sat under Bobby's chin doing his favorite thing, placidly preening his beard. IKEA would do for the bookcase; the under-bed boxes could be purchased at a nearby storage store. Then, while Bobby assembled the materials for Tuesday's trivia game, Alex rummaged in Olivia's clothing and found the white dress with the black piping, added the blue scarf, and arranged it in a rough approximation of a middy dress. Fishing in her jewelry box, she found both their American flag pins and set them on either side of the collar. With Alex's sun hat decorated with a scarf tied around the crown, she had her outfit. Every so often one of them would go into the kitchen, ask her if she needed any help, or offer her a snack.
Olivia appeared to have enjoyed herself at the Dark Crystal. They had arrived earlier than usual to introduce her to the staff, and TJ let her watch while he prepared their meals. She was introduced to red-haired Tim Stratton, who maintained the trivia portion of the Dark Crystal's Facebook page, and Alex's cousin Phil Cochran presented himself at the dais (his fiancée Becky was on ER duty) to say hello again. She sat next to them as they ran the game, watching everything with scholarly interest, while occasionally writing on the college-ruled notepad Bobby gave herAlex peeked and smiled to see that a few lines were notes for her composition for Donna. They'd walked home a little after nine-thirty and Olivia was perfectly willing to take her nightly shower and tumble into bed, clutching Captain.
Now it was just after 3:00 a.m. and they were bolting into the hall bumping into each other as the child's sobs echoed from her bedroom. A frantic flapping of wings came from under Bandit's cage cover, and Alex switched on the reading light to uncover and soothe the frightened budgie for a moment while Sam crowded next to her, panting, then the dog joined Bobby at the bedroom door, where Bobby knocked and called the child's name.
"Olivia!" Bobby knocked on the door. "Olivia!"
"Just go in!" Alex whispered as she came behind him, concerned about the thumping that was coming from inside the room.
"Go away!" Olivia wailed.
Bobby took a breath. "We can't, Olivia. We want to make sure you're all right."
"Go away!" came the hysterical reply. "I want to go home! I want to go home!" Then she added, "Why couldn't you have died instead of Maman?"
Alex squeezed her eyes shut for a second.
"I'm coming in," Bobby said firmly, regretfully, signaling to Sam to return to his bed, then opened the door.
The illumination in the room was askew because in her agitation Olivia had flung every book she had brought with her into all corners of the room, and one had tipped over the bedside lamp, which laid oddly-shaped shadows on the walls. She'd even cast away the beautifully-illustrated Hannah Dale journal with the rabbit on the cover that her mother had given her as a New Year's gift, and the fountain pen that had accompanied it was creating a black puddle on the shiny hardwood floor. Captain the fox was lying upside down just outside the swing of the door and Bobby nearly trod upon the stuffed animal before Alex rescued it. Olivia was standing upright in the middle of the bed, wobbling back and forth on the foam mattress, tears streaking her cheeks, her face scarlet. When she saw them, her disoriented expression faded, then she cried out thickly, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"
Bobby opened his arms to her and she stumbled into them, almost falling off the bed, but he caught her and held her tightly as she wept and repeated, "I didn't mean it, I didn't mean it!"
Alex, righting the bedside lamp so that the shadows returned to their proper places, was surprised to hear Bobby say gently, "Of course you did, but it's okay."
The words stunned even Olivia, who gasped to get her breath back, panting out, "But"
"Shhhhhh," he said, rocking her tenderly for several minutes before he held her away from his body so he could look into her blotched face. "Of course you meant it. Your mother and father have died. Who hasn't thought 'why couldn't it have been someone else?' when they lose someone they love? Death's a monster who's hunted down the special people in your life." He used the thumb of his left hand to dry the tears under her eyes. "On Monday you can tell Dr. Allyson all of this and she will help you understand how to sort it out in your mind, and you won't have to worry about hurting anyone's feelings. You can be completely honest with herit will be just between the two of you."
Alex quietly took a handful of tissues to mop up the ink, then retrieved the pen and laid it on a second pad of tissues. As Bobby continued to comfort Olivia, she re-shelved the tossed books on the bed's bookcase headboard, then returned to the opposite side of the bed to hand Captain to Olivia, who clutched the fox gratefully. Alex then opened her arms to her with a questioning look on her face, and Bobby loosed Olivia so she could nestle in Alex's arms.
"What happened, sweetie?" she asked after a minute, hugging her tightly. "Was it another nightmare?"
"Madame was there," Olivia sniffled and Alex thought grimly to herself that if Madame Pepin had featured in the dream, it truly was a nightmare. "I was asleep in my bedroom, my real bedroom, at our flat, and Madame came in, then she stood over me, like Pantagruel over my head, and said 'She's never coming back, you little brat,' and then I was at the funeral, only Maman's coffin was open and she was a skeleton and sat up and I screamed at her to get away."
"I don't blame you for screaming," Alex said gently. "That sounds very scary." She stroked Olivia's hair. "Did Madame ever do that? Call you a brat?"
"Not to my face," admitted Olivia, "but I know she said it. Delphine told Luisa so."
Alex's lips folded tightly at this revelation, but she merely asked softly, "Do you want me to stay here until you fall asleep?"
"Could you?" Olivia asked quickly, then glanced at Bobby. "May I borrow Mama again?"
"Of course," he said, touching her shoulder. "See you in the morning."
She bit her lip, then said shyly, "Good night. Thank you," and allowed Alex to help her climb between the sheets again.
He partially bowed to her. "Certainly, my lady," then turned toward the door. Alex requested softly, "Cover Bandit up again, okay?" He nodded and was just about to exit when Olivia gave a sharp intake of breath. "Papa, stop!"
Surprised, Bobby wheeled and she said hurriedly, "I need to tell you something first."
"Tomorrow's soon enough," he soothed, but Olivia's face twisted as if she wanted to cry again. "Now, Papaplease?"
He and Alex exchanged a look, then he unfolded one of the kitchen chairs that were stored in the entryway to the room and sat in it backward, resting his arms along the top. "Will it help you to sleep if you tell us now?"
She nodded, then began, "When we came home from America last year, Papa Marcel was furious with Maman. I didn't hear the argumentMiss Cornetto took me awaybut I did hear the shouting. Afterwards Papa Marcel told me he wouldn't see me again before I returned to school and gave me pocket money and something for a 'bean feast.'" She added, "It's nothing to do with beans; British schools are so odd. To give a 'bean feast' means you buy treats for your friends and have them after lights out."
Bobby nodded and she continued, "Next day Maman went out for the morning escorted by Miss Cornetto. When they came home, Maman whispered to Luisa that she could have the whole afternoon and evening off if she could distract Miss Cornetto so we could go out alone, and Luisa did it. Maman and I used the service entrance; we rode the Metro to the Bois de Vincennes for lunch, then we bought eclairs. We walked for almost an hour, then finally we came to a tiny park, and Maman sat with me on a bench in the middle of the park."
Alex hazarded, "She wanted to talk with you...privately?"
Olivia nodded. "She apologized for abandoning me again that morning, since she'd been away so long, but she was turning into a funny old woman and had to do tiresome adult things. And then...remember the day before yesterday when you told me about the will and Papa said I needed to listen carefully like an adult and make a decision? Maman said almost the same words that day, that I needed to be very grown up and listen to her. She said" For a moment Olivia faltered. "She said...that it would probably never happen, but there was a chance...maybe sometime in the future, that she might have to leave me again, and she wanted to be sure I would be safe if that happened."
Alex's eyes widened, flickered to Bobby in alarm, and then hugged Olivia when she shivered.
"I was only eight then," Olivia explained, as if twelve months had seen her age twelve years instead, "and of course I started to cry. But Maman put her arm around me and smiled. She said it was only a precaution. I asked her, 'But Papa Marcel, he would take care of me if you had to go away, wouldn't he?' and she hugged me again. 'Of course he would, darling, but this is an extra-special precaution, remember? Just know that I've made very strict arrangements so that you'll always be safe and loved. I couldn't bear...leaving you knowing there would be no one to love you.'"
Olivia shivered. "When I was aged six, Maman and Papa Marcel had a dreadful quarrel, and she had Luisa pack up and we rode the train to Nice. She refused all his calls. After a month Papa Marcel finally sent a man with a note, to apologize, then we went home. That's when he brought me Tipsy. You see, I thought- I thought when Maman said she might have to leave me...I thought it would be like thatthat she would run away for a little bit, like two years ago when I first started at Creatwood, to teach Papa Marcel what was important." She blinked tears back. "I didn't know she...she meant she was going to die! Or Papa M-M-Marcel, either" and she buried her face on Alex's shoulder and was rocked back and forth.
Presently Bobby returned to their room, wearily crawling into bed, but was unable to fall back to sleep. About ninety minutes later Alex tried to slip into the bedroom unnoticed until she realized he was awake, reading his forensics text under a tiny book light. In a moment he had pulled her into his arms.
"Is Olivia all right?" he finally asked.
"Cried herself to sleep. I rocked her for a little while even after she slept. I kept whispering to her that it would be okay, hoping there was something to subliminal suggestion." She sighed. "Bandit okay?"
"He was already fluffed back up when I covered him. What did you think of her story?"
"Something triggered Nicole's suspicionsshe was worried for Olivia's safety."
"She was checking us out last year," Bobby agreed. "I think it's why she took the chance of coming back when Nora Loughran was feeding her all that false information. She was worried that if Madame Pepin got to her that Olivia might get caught in the crossfire."
Alex's voice was dazed as she dredged up memories of the previous year's visit. "She told me that I was very kind to Olivia. And I said to her 'I like her. She's a wonderful little girl.'" She drew in a breath. "And I said 'I could only wish for a daughter like that.' Dammit, Bobby...I didn't think- I told you that she quizzed me about being an 'ice queen' and I remember that I said to her 'You have your luck next to you...' before they left." Alex looked up at him. "She wasn't checking us out at all. Nicole was already certain you would love Oliviaafter all, she thought for eight years that you were her father. She knew you always advocated for children. It was me she had to be certain of. What use would it be if Olivia went from Madame to an evil stepmother?" Then she finished wearily, "So I passed her damn test."
Bobby added numbly, "When we talked about the will and asked Olivia to come home with us...she knew then. She remembered Nicole's talk last year and realized what it all meant. And never let on." He kissed her forehead.
"Let's get some sleep," Alex said finally. "Do you think...Olivia might talk to Dr. Chaudry?"
"We'll introduce her," Bobby said, "and go from there. Penelope charmed her well enough...oh, I told Donna she might come early."
"I feel bad now, about the book tour," Alex said with a sigh. "Here we should be providing Olivia a good foundation, an orderly lifenow she'll have four weeks to get used to our home routine and then we're off gallivanting around the country"
"We're the ones providing the foundation, a routine, balance. Not the house," Bobby countered. "The entire family will be together. Us. Wherever we live, we're still a family. Donna will help. So will Dr. Allyson and Ruth Dunbar."
Alex curled under the blankets, then said as if just realizing, "Donna coming early...and she'll stay...where?"
"I explained about the bed downstairs, and the one bathroom, and offered to put her up at the TraveLodge. She said if we didn't mind a fourth person in the house, she could live with it...she said she'd been 'real camping' with her best friend, and a nice warm basement with no insects and an indoor toilet and a shower sounded like paradise! She can use the shed as a classroom if she likes, and she'll be here when we enroll Olivia at St. Gregory's. Someone knowledgeable to ask pertinent questions."
Alex chuckled. "Assigning something to Olivia right off the bat, too! Although it didn't seem to faze her. You know, I used to hate those essays that had to be so many words. You'd sit there and sit there, counting the words and trying to figure out what you could add to make it to one hundred words or whatever the count, remember? You'd stick in an adjective, or try not to abbreviate words...why are you looking at me like that?"
"Most of my essays were too long and I'd have to cut sentences to bring them in close the word count."
She kissed him. "Why am I not surprised?"
He snuggled under the covers with her and she teased, "And you really didn't know that Penelope had children?"
"Not a clue. I warned you once that she'd surprise you." Then he caressed her face. "In the morning we make another try at this. I wish"
"That we could take on Olivia's nightmares and spare her?" Alex guessed.
"I'm that transparent already?" he asked ruefully.
"Partially. Because I wish we could, too. But we can't." She looked thoughtful. "When she opened that suitcase...with her 'important things'...we hardly know her, Bobby. So much to learn."
He settled back on his pillow, smiling a little. "Olivia's back to her classes, and we're students again, too, with Olivia as the teacher."
"Gee, Bobby Goren, at lunch can I sit with you in the cafeteria and swap sandwiches?" she replied, her voice light.
"I'll even share my cupcake with you, Allie Eames," he promised in return, rolling on his right side. "We've got this. It will just take time."
"One day at the time for now," she agreed and shut the light. There was some shifting around under the blankets, then Alex asked sleepily, "Bobby...who the heck is Pantagruel?"
He chuckled. "Rabelais. Two giants, Gargantua and Pantagruel. French satire, not really the stuff of children's stories. As she kept saying to us in France, it was probably in one of her books."
. . . . .
Olivia's door was once again closed when they emerged for breakfast. Bobby waited while Alex uncovered Bandit, this morning providing him with music from an online station, then he bade Sam to come get his breakfast. This time the dog stopped in front of the bedroom door, sniffed, then sat, looking back at Bobby and whining.
"Not doing well, is she?" he asked Sam, stroking the dome of the collie's head. It was the tell Sam exhibited at the veterans' hospital or the hospice when he realized a patient was in distress.
"You go ahead." Alex patted his shoulder. "But I won't be making pancakes."
He smiled. "Eggs and toast it is." Then he knocked on the door. "Olivia?"
There was no answer; he sighed, then slowly opened the door.
She was still under the covers, her face to the wall. He watched her for a few minutes from inside the doorway, Sam held at his side. He suddenly flashed on times his mother had done the same thing to him, angry or upset about some slight real or imagined.
"Olivia," he said finally, gently, "I know you're not asleep. I can tell by your breathing, and the set of your shoulders."
He patted Sam and sent him out of the room, closing the door so it was just slightly ajar as Olivia gave a deep sigh. "Maman said you could do that. Look at people. Figure out what they're thinking."
"Your mother was fairly skilled at it herself. Besides, it's part of my job."
Olivia rolled over. She had, as he expected, Captain the stuffed fox snuggled under her chin. "Could I do it?"
"Properly trained, probably. You're very observant. But part of me wishes you wouldn't."
"Because it's...not always an easy job. You go places in people's minds where you find out a lot of hurtful things you don't want to know, learn many things that are painful. Some of it stays in your head, even when you don't want it to."
"So why do you do it?"
He smiled thinly. "Christmas before lastChristmas of 2021our friend Russ had a little b-boy about your age dumped at Big Brothers. He'd...um...been kidnapped by adults who planned to hurt him. With a little h-help from Ana and Carlos, I was able to get him back to his mother and father. That's why. To make things right."
Now he sat at the edge of her bed. "Is this about last night?"
Olivia looked away, then she whispered in a choked voice, "You rescued me from Madame. And I said I wished you were dead."
He smoothed her cheek with his finger. "Olivia, we didn't 'rescue' you from Madame to receive eternal gratitude for it. We did it...because your Maman asked us to, because neither of us would trust Madame with a goldfish let alone a little girl, but...mostly because we really like you and couldn't leave you behind."
He paused. "I told you we valued honesty in this house, so I'll be honest: what you saidit did hurt. But coming from someone who loved her mother and father as much as you did...it wasn't a surprise. And it doesn't change how we feel."
She bit her lip and then said, "Madame couldn't take care of a...a worm."
Bobby smiled, then said confidingly, "Do you know what your mama told Madame after you and Luisa went to pack and we went downstairs to speak with her? I'll bet you can't guess."
Olivia thought about it for a few seconds. "I can't. What did she say?"
"She told Madame that she wouldn't even trust her to change the newspaper at the bottom of Bandit's cage. And then she turned on her heel and walked out!"
Olivia's eyes rounded. "C'est vrai?"
"It certainly is!" Alex said from the doorway. "She deserved it, too." Then she smiled at Olivia, and the girl unexpectedly smiled back. "C'mon, how about getting dressed? I'm a slouch on pancakes, but I made scrambled eggs with diced ham and chives, and there's applesauce, and toast with the best-tasting blackberry spread you've ever eaten."
"I second the vote on the blackberry spread," Bobby added.
"You had better, since you get me addicted to it! Olivia, we do need to get moving," explained Alex. "I have my appointment with Dr. Chaudry at ten, and then your dad is at eleven. It would be best if you wore play clothes since after lunch we'll be going to Big Brothers. You can bring a book or some of your stitching in case you don't feel like playing. I'll bet some of the kids would like to see your cross-stitch."
"Will Ana be there?"
"Unless she's ill. She loves playing basketball."
"I don't know how to play," returned Olivia, sounding troubled again. "Doesn't anyone play tennis?"
"There used to be a court out back, but it's all overgrown." Bobby looked back at Alex. "If you, Miss Olivia, can get enough interest in playing tennis, we could go into the general fund, buy some rackets and balls, and get the court cleared. Your mama and Ana and Carlos' abuela and Mrs. Perrino have been working hard to raise money for more things, so we have cash in the kitty for a change."
Olivia sat up, setting the stuffed fox in her lap. "I could ask."
Alex tilted her head in imitation of Bobby, a tiny smile appearing. "Remember you told us how your maman suggested you try all foods? Maybe you could do that with...other things, too?"
For the first time that morning, Olivia's pert expression returned. "I suppose if no one wants to play tennis I could try to learn basketball."
"You might even like it," Bobby said, smoothing her hair, "but, just like yogurt, it's not a requirement. Now we'll clear out so you can get dressed. Remember what I said."
"Thank you, Papa." A pause. "Mama...would...would you like me to...say hello to Dr. Chaudry...when you talk to her?"
"That's your choice," Alex said gently, "but I think she'd at least like to meet you, since we have talked about you several times."
"You've talked to her about me...more than once?" Olivia answered, with just a little mischief in her eyes, "I suppose then I'd better tell her my side of the story, no?"