A well-dressed woman led two little girls to a state vehicle. The younger of the two elementary school-aged girls was crying, clutching a stuffed animal. The older girl adjusted a green backpack over her shoulder. The sight brought back memories so vivid Denise could hardly breathe.
Her stomach ached as all the muscles in her body tensed up and her lungs fought to draw breath. Unable to move and surrounded by strangers, Denise fought the urge to escape her car. Her hands clamped on the steering wheel, turning her knuckles white as she was swamped with memories that refused to go away.
She relived the terror of not knowing what was going to happen next. Where would she stay when the doctors sent her home? Was she in trouble? She heard again the commotion of her mother being handcuffed and carted away.
Her stomach rolled and Denise lowered her car window part way, desperate for fresh, cool air. The tepid September breeze barely took the edge off, but she pulled her chin-length brown hair back from her face and gulped in gratefully, her blue eyes sealed shut as she tried to push the emotions away.
She was surprised when she heard a knock on her window and looked up to see an officer peering through the opening. “Are you okay, Ma’am?” She had been too wrapped up in memories to notice the police car in front of her move out of the way.
“Yes, fine. No problem.” Just falling apart here.
The young officer looked as though he wasn’t sure he believed her. “You don’t look well. Are you sure you don’t need some help?”
She shook her head. “I’m fine, really. I just need some dinner. I live right over there.” Denise motioned in the general direction of her building. When he nodded and stepped back from her car, she slid it into gear and headed for her parking space further back in the lot. Pulling herself together, she returned to her apartment knowing she would have nightmares again. It had been years since she experienced such a strong physical reaction to the memories.
With any luck this would be a short episode.
Denise ignored the waiting mailbox tonight, desperate to get inside before anyone else stopped her, or noticed the tears now running wild down her face despite her efforts to wipe them away. The halls were dark and musty like the string of hovels her birth mother dragged her through, but all similarities ended when she entered her apartment.
The scented oils plugged into electrical outlets infused the air with the smell of strawberries. The walls were off white, the carpet light blue—a color she’d always considered daring for an apartment building considering what tenets could do to carpets, but one that always gave her comfort. The kitchen and bathroom flooring gleamed. Bright pictures and flowered crafts, mostly supplied by her roommate, dotted the walls.
The apartment was quiet. Her roommate, Lily Cox, was probably stocking shelves at the toy store. Lily hated the graveyard shift, but Denise was grateful to have the place to herself. Just this once. She inserted thanks for small miracles into the silent prayer she offered for the little girls. A note was taped to her bedroom door
Denise, when you get a minute, could you send my cousin a list of companies who hire people with your skills? He’s trying to find a job in the area.
An e-mail address followed. Denise pulled the paper from her door and tossed it onto her laptop, which was sitting on the desk beside the door. She’d worry about it later. She hurried through a shower, then collected her dirty clothes and took them down to the laundry facilities on the first floor.
While the washers did their magic, Denise returned to her apartment, put on some grinding rock and emptied her dresser drawers. Her room was in perfect order already, but she managed to spend the next forty-five minutes scrubbing every nook and cranny. She rearranged the drawers and gave the space a white-glove cleaning.
The distraught look on the little girls’ faces haunted her through it all, making her heart weep. Denise knew well the confusion and terror of being taken from home. The loss of control, the uncertainty, not knowing if the place she was going to would be better or worse. The emotions pouring through her pushed Denise to keep cleaning. The anxiety attacks hadn’t been this bad in years.
After moving the laundry to dryers, Denise turned to her tiny bathroom. She scrubbed corners of the floor with an old toothbrush and reorganized bathroom drawers. Stretching, she rubbed her sore back muscles with her hands before bringing her hands around to look at them. Her skin was red and irritated from all her scrubbing, her fingers as long and thin as her body, as suited to basketball as her well-trained muscles. She put away the laundry before deciding to give into the exhaustion bullying her. Though she still felt anxious, most of her desperation had drained away, and she might as well try to sleep. She had to work in the morning.
Denise’s fingers flew over the keyboard at work a month later as she created software. A system upgrade the previous night left a tangle of bugs in its wake. She paused to consider the next line she should add and typed it in. She spent the whole day, including her lunch break, working on the issue so she could return to the Web page she’d been working on.
It was late afternoon when Joan walked into the room Denise shared with four other programmers. Joan was a dirty-dishwater blond receptionist who knew the business better than almost anyone.
“What’s going on?” Denise looked up from her computer and smiled. She grabbed the remains of her frozen yogurt and scooped out a final spoonful before tossing the Styrofoam bowl in the trash.
“Southwick said to bring these to you.” Joan handed Denise a sheaf of papers. Denise opened them and saw they were specs for a new program she was going to be writing when she finished her current project.
“I told him I wouldn’t be ready until Monday. That was before this mess came up.” Denise rolled her eyes, and flipped through the file a little more. “They’re not complete either. Surprise, surprise.”
“He’s been too busy clearing his office to deal with silly details like paperwork,” Joan said with a wave of her hand. “He’s got interviews for his replacement today. I get the feeling there’s one who looks pretty promising. They flew him in from Chicago.”
“I hope he’s not some newbie out to prove himself. A ladder-climber who’s going to go ballistic over every flaw.” Denise held back a grimace. Wally Southwick hadn’t been a pleasure to work for. Still, when he decided to take early retirement, everyone wondered if his replacement would be better or worse. The city Chicago nagged at the back of her mind, but she couldn’t remember why.
Joan pointed at Jake’s Room Defender, a movement-sensitive and remote-controllable machine that shot foam discs at anyone within range. “Don’t turn that on today if you value your job,” she told him. “Southwick will have your head if you make him look bad.”
Jake Cornwall, the twenty-eight-year-old office jokester, who sat next to Denise nodded. As soon as Joan left, though, he leaned over. “Better buckle up, DeWalt. Whoever they hire, he’s bound to be twice as ambitious as Southwick. The young geniuses always are.” His eyes skimmed over her. “Then again, maybe he’ll have a soft spot for you as the only woman in the department.”
Denise grabbed a pen off her desk and tossed it at him, hitting him in the shoulder. “Whatever.” She couldn’t hold back a smile though, coming up with another possibility. “You never know, maybe the person they choose won’t be a guy. Could be a woman, maybe you’ll end up in the soft spot.”
Jake grinned. “There’s something I could handle. Too bad the rules outlaw interoffice dating.” He seemed to consider this, winked at her. “You and me could even go out.”
“Yeah, shorty, like that would happen. Get back to work, Cornball, I’ve got things to do.” He shrugged and she shook her head. Jake was only a friend, more a brother than anything. She glanced up and caught smirks from a couple of the other guys, but ignored them. Denise enjoyed the office banter.
The afternoon was almost over when Denise caught her first look at the promising interviewee. Southwick ushered him into the room like an old friend. The younger man exuded authority and self confidence from the tip of his well-polished shoes to the mass of brown hair on his head. The body in between was broad shouldered and powerful looking as well. It wasn’t until he turned his gaze around the room that Denise saw his confidence went all the way to the core.
His dark eyes saw right through her, jolting her, stealing her breath, and there was something familiar about him. Denise wondered if the lightening bolt of recognition wasn’t where the aura of power came from. Or was it the other way around? His eyes widened for a moment before he blinked and returned his gaze to Southwick.
Denise could feel her pulse beating a wild tattoo in her veins. She calmed her expression and fought to make her insides comply as well. Maybe he attended the University of Utah or had a sibling who did. Or maybe he reminded her of someone she once knew. She clung to those explanations, though none of them accounted for the something more than recognition bouncing around inside her.
When Southwick reached her and Richard Jensen extended his hand, she took it in her own. A strange tingle began at her palm and extended up her arm. She met his brown eyes—eyes that would have seemed too big on any other face. Somehow the strong chin and cheekbones seemed perfectly suited to them. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Denise.” The words flowed like Southern honey from his lips—strange for a guy from Chicago.
“Finally?” Denise smoothly withdrew her hand from his grasp, desperate to break a connection that had her antenna standing on end. She wondered why her hands weren’t shaking when her insides were doing a tango.
“I’m Lily’s cousin. You are the one who told me about this company,” he murmured.
“And we’re sure glad you did. I’m sure Jensen here will do well, though he’ll have quite a job to fill my shoes!” Southwick said, pounding Richard on the back and grinning.
“Oh.” Denise felt stupid the moment the sound left her mouth. No wonder he had seemed vaguely familiar, Lily had shown her his picture after Denise had sent him a list of companies he might want to check into. “Well, welcome to our little family.” Hoping to inject a note of levity, she jerked her thumb toward Jake. “Don’t take the joker here too seriously. And don’t let him anywhere near your soda if you don’t want it tampered with.” She forced a smile and hoped it looked sincere.
Richard glanced over at Jake and smiled, turning his slightly nicer-than-average face into something only a step below breathtaking.
Or maybe she was a bit short of breath after all. His gaze returned to her. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
They were gone before Denise could decide what she thought about Southwick’s replacement. Richard Jensen couldn’t have been more than a few years older than her age of twenty-six. She remembered the jolt that ran through her when their eyes met, pushed it away. She didn’t have time for strange fancies.
As Denise pulled into the apartment parking lot that evening, she told herself she had completely cut Richard Jensen from her thoughts. She ignored the fact she was reminding herself every few minutes that she wasn’t thinking about him. It didn’t count. She collected the mail from her box and waved at the redhead working in the apartment manager’s office as she walked past. The sign out front said there were openings in the complex. With over 350 apartments squeezed together there were always openings.
The apartment was silent. Lily was probably out with John. Denise made a face at the thought. She pulled out her laptop and checked her personal e-mail and the online bulletin board for adoptees.
Denise had stumbled across the adult adoptee Web site several years earlier, coming across a link and deciding to see what it was all about. To her surprise, she had found a few people there who had been through experiences similar to her own. She found a support and camaraderie with this group that she never felt before. No one knew her real name or what state she lived in, but among these people she felt more herself than anywhere else.
For the past couple years, she had been using her Internet search skills to help others find family members. What had started as a lark gave her great satisfaction.
It had been a slow day on the bulletin board with no new requests for help finding family, but it was almost a relief to have another day off. After twenty minutes, she was typing a note to her brother Gerald who attended Utah State University.
She heard the front door open. Lily’s laughter and John’s low tones trickled from the living area. It occurred to Denise that she could use a workout, especially if John was going to be over for long. John was a real estate agent from a well-known family who was already making a name for himself in Utah Valley.
On the surface, he seemed like the perfect man for an elementary education major like Lily. He made a good income and seemed nice enough. But the subtle eyebrow raises and fleeting smirks she often caught told her there was far more going on below the surface. If there was anything she had learned in her years living under her birth mother’s thumb, it was how to read people.
By the time Denise changed into workout gear, Lily had dinner started already. Lily’s long, sable locks were pulled away from a bright, happy face with a large barrette. “Hey, I saw your car in the lot and wondered where you were.” Lily put a pan on the stove.
“Hey, Lils, you’ve got a message.” John smiled at Denise and greeted her. He handed Lily the phone, which was blinking to announce the in-line voice mail.
Denise never made an issue of her feelings, for Lily’s sake. It wasn’t Lily’s fault John didn’t seem to like Denise, or that his opinion of her seemed to drop after he heard she had been in foster care. He had been careful never to be less than polite to her, but he had still changed.
Lily dialed into the voice mail and soon let out a squeal. She scrambled for the pen and pencil on the counter top and dialed with a grin. In a moment she invited someone to eat with them. Lily loved to entertain, to cook for a crowd. It didn’t surprise Denise that she invited someone at the last moment, though she doubted John would appreciate it. He seemed to prefer having Lily to himself.
“What was that all about?” John asked, settling himself at one of the bar stools. He snitched some of the cheese Lily was shredding. When Lily slapped playfully at his shoulder, he merely grinned.
“My cousin’s in town. He’ll be up in a minute. I’m sure you’ll love him.”
The doorbell rang seconds after Lily finished the thought. Seeing that Lily’s hands were full, Denise answered the door.
Denise’s opened the door to reveal Richard Jensen.