Once Pined

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Once Pined

Blake Pierce

Blake Pierce is author of the bestselling RILEY PAGE mystery series, which includes six books (and counting). Blake Pierce is also the author of the MACKENZIE WHITE mystery series, comprising three books (and counting); of the AVERY BLACK mystery series, comprising three books (and counting); and of the new KERI LOCKE mystery series.

An avid reader and lifelong fan of the mystery and thriller genres, Blake loves to hear from you, so please feel free to visit www.blakepierceauthor.comwww.blakepierceauthor.com to learn more and stay in touch.

Copyright © 2016 by Blake Pierce. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Jacket image Copyright GongTo, used under license from Shutterstock.com.

BOOKS BY BLAKE PIERCE
RILEY PAIGE MYSTERY SERIES
ONCE GONE (Book #1)
ONCE TAKEN (Book #2)
ONCE CRAVED (Book #3)
ONCE LURED (Book #4)
ONCE HUNTED (Book #5)
ONCE PINED (Book #6)
ONCE FORSAKEN (Book #7)
MACKENZIE WHITE MYSTERY SERIES
BEFORE HE KILLS (Book #1)
BEFORE HE SEES (Book #2)
BEFORE HE COVETS (Book #3)
BEFORE HE TAKES (Book #4)
AVERY BLACK MYSTERY SERIES
CAUSE TO KILL (Book #1)
CAUSE TO RUN (Book #2)
CAUSE TO HIDE (Book #3)
KERI LOCKE MYSTERY SERIES
A TRACE OF DEATH (Book #1)
A TRACE OF MURDER (Book #2)

PROLOGUE

The physical therapist smiled kindly at her patient, Cody Woods, as she turned off the machine.

“I think that’s enough CPM for the day,” she told him as his leg gradually stopped moving.

The machine had been slowly and passively moving his leg for a couple of hours now, helping him recover from his knee replacement surgery.

“I’d almost forgotten it was on, Hallie,” Cody said with a slight chuckle.

She felt a bittersweet pang. She liked that name – Hallie. It was the name she’d used whenever she’d worked here at the Signet Rehabilitation Center as a freelance physical therapist.

It seemed to her rather a shame that Hallie Stillians was going to disappear tomorrow, as if she’d never existed.

Still, that was the way things had to be.

And besides, she had other names that she liked just as well.

Hallie took the continuous passive motion machine off the bed and set it on the floor. She gently straightened Cody’s leg and arranged the covers around him.

Finally she stroked Cody’s hair – an intimate gesture that she knew most therapists would avoid. But she often did little things like that, and she’d never had a patient who minded. She knew that she projected a certain warmth and empathy – and most of all, complete sincerity. A little innocent touching was perfectly appropriate, coming from her. No one ever misunderstood.

“How’s the pain?” she asked.

Cody had been having some unusual swelling and inflammation after the operation. That was why he’d stayed here an extra three days and hadn’t gone home yet. That was also why Hallie had been brought in to work her special healing magic. The staff here at the center knew Hallie’s work well. The staff liked her, and patients liked her, so she often got called in for situations like this.

“The pain?” Cody said. “I’d almost forgotten about it. Your voice made it go away.”

Hallie felt flattered but not surprised. She’d been reading a book to him while he’d been on the CPM machine – an espionage thriller. She knew her voice had a calming effect – almost like an anesthetic. It didn’t matter whether she was reading Dickens or some pulp novel or the newspaper. Patients didn’t need much pain medication when they were under her care; the sound of her voice was often enough.

“So is it true that I can go home tomorrow?” Cody asked.

Hallie hesitated just a split second. She couldn’t be entirely truthful. She wasn’t sure how her patient would be feeling by tomorrow.

“That’s what they tell me,” she said. “How does it feel to know that?”

A sad expression crossed Cody’s face.

“I don’t know,” he said. “In just three weeks, they’re doing my other knee. But you won’t be here to help me through it.”

Hallie took hold of his hand and held it gently. She was sorry that he felt this way. Since he’d been under her care, she’d told him a long story about her supposed life – a rather boring story, she’d thought, but he’d seemed enchanted by it.

Finally, she’d explained to him that her husband, Rupert, was about to retire from his career as a CPA. Her younger son, James, was down in Hollywood trying to make it as a screenwriter. Her older son, Wendell, was right here in Seattle teaching linguistics at the University of Washington. Now that the kids were grown and out of the house, she and Rupert were moving to a lovely colonial village in Mexico, where they planned to spend the rest of their lives. They were leaving tomorrow.

It was a beautiful story, she thought.

And yet none of it was true.

She lived at home, alone.

Utterly alone.

“Oh look, your tea has gotten cold,” she said. “I’ll just heat it up for you.”

Cody smiled and said, “Yes, please. That would be nice. And have some yourself. The teapot is right there on the counter.”

Hallie smiled and said, “Of course,” just as she did every time they repeated this routine. She got up from her chair, picked up Cody’s mug of lukewarm tea, and took it to the counter.

But this time, she reached into her purse beside the microwave. She took out a small plastic medicine container and emptied the contents of the container into Cody’s tea. She did it quickly, stealthily, a practiced move she had down, and she felt certain he had not seen her. Even so, her heart beat just a little bit faster.

She then poured her own tea and put both mugs into the microwave.

I’ve got to keep these straight, she reminded herself. The yellow mug for Cody, blue for me.

While the microwave hummed, she sat down beside Cody again and looked at him without saying anything.

He had a nice face, she thought. But he’d told her about his own life, and she knew that he was sad. He had been sad for a long time. He’d been a prize-winning athlete when he was in high school. But he’d injured his knees playing football, ending his hopes for an athletic career. Those same injuries at long last led to his need for knee replacements.

His life ever since had been marked by tragedy. His first wife had died of a car wreck, and his second wife left him for another man. He had two grown children, but they didn’t speak to him anymore. He’d also had a heart attack just a few years ago.

She admired the fact that he didn’t seem the least bit bitter. In fact, he seemed full of hope and optimism about the future.

She thought he was sweet, but naive.

She knew that his life wasn’t going to take a turn for the better.

It was too late for that.

The bell from the microwave snapped her out of her little reverie. Cody was looking up at her with kindly, expectant eyes.

She patted his hand, got up, and walked over to the microwave. She took out the mugs, which were now hot to the touch.

She reminded herself yet again.

Yellow for Cody, blue for me.

It was important not to mix them up.

They both sipped their tea without saying much. Hallie liked to think of these moments as times of quiet companionship. It made her a little sad to realize that there would be no more of them. After just a few days, this patient would no longer need her.

Soon Cody was nodding off to sleep. She had mixed the powder with just enough sleeping medicine to make sure he did.

Hallie got up and gathered her belongings to leave.

And then she began to sing softly, a song she’d known for as long as she could remember:

 
Far from home,
So far from home —
This little baby’s far from home.
You pine away
From day to day
Too sad to laugh, too sad to play.
No need to weep,
Dream long and deep.
Give yourself to slumber’s sweep.
No more sighs,
Just close your eyes
And you will go home in your sleep.
 

His eyes closed, she stroked his hair from his face lovingly.

Then, with a gentle kiss on the forehead, she stood and walked away.

CHAPTER ONE

FBI Agent Riley Paige worried as she walked through the jetway at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. She’d been anxious all during the flight from Reagan Washington International. She’d come here in a hurry because she’d heard that a teenage girl was missing – Jilly – a girl Riley felt especially protective toward. She was determined to help the girl and was even thinking about trying to adopt her.

 

As Riley stepped through the exit gate, walking hurriedly, she looked up and was shocked to see the very girl herself standing there, FBI agent Garrett Holbrook from the Phoenix field office beside her.

Thirteen-year-old Jilly Scarlatti stood next to Garrett, blinking back, clearly waiting for her.

Riley was confused. It was Garrett who had called to tell her that Jilly had run away and was nowhere to be found.

Before Riley could ask any questions, though, Jilly rushed forward and threw herself into her arms, sobbing.

“Oh, Riley, I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I’ll never do it again.”

Riley hugged Jilly comfortingly, looking at Garrett for an explanation. Garrett’s sister, Bonnie Flaxman, had tried to take Jilly in as a foster child. But Jilly had rebelled and run away.

Garrett smiled a little – an unusual expression from a normally taciturn man.

“She called Bonnie shortly after you left Fredericksburg,” he said. “She said she just wanted to say goodbye once and for all. But then Bonnie told her that you were on your way here to take her home with you. She got really excited and told us where to pick her up.”

He looked at Riley.

“Your flying all the way here saved her,” he concluded.

Riley just stood there for a moment, Jilly sobbing in her arms, feeling oddly clumsy and helpless.

Jilly whispered something that Riley couldn’t hear.

“What?” Riley asked.

Jilly drew her face back and looked into Riley’s eyes, her own earnest brown eyes filled with tears.

“Mom?” she said in a choked, shy voice. “Can I call you Mom?”

Riley hugged her close again, overwhelmed by a confusing onslaught of emotions.

“Of course,” Riley said.

Then she turned to Garrett. “Thank you so much for everything you’ve done.”

“I’m glad I could help, at least a little,” he replied. “Do you need a place to stay while you’re here?”

“No. Now that she’s been found, there’s no point. We’ll catch the next flight back.”

Garrett shook her hand. “I hope this works out for both of you.”

Then he left.

Riley looked down at the teenager who was still clinging to her. She was struck with an odd mix of elation to have found her and concern for what the future might hold for them both.

“Let’s go grab a burger,” she said to Jilly.

*

It was snowing lightly during the drive home from Reagan Washington International Airport. Jilly sat staring silently out the window as Riley drove. Her silence was a big change after the more than four-hour flight from Phoenix. Then, Jilly hadn’t been able to stop talking. She’d never been on a plane before and was curious about absolutely everything.

Why is she so quiet now? Riley wondered.

It occurred to her that snow must be an unusual sight for a girl who had lived all her life in Arizona.

“Have you ever seen snow before?” Riley asked.

“Only on TV.”

“Do you like it?” Riley said.

Jilly didn’t reply, which made Riley feel uneasy. She remembered the first time she had seen Jilly. The girl had run away from an abusive father. In sheer desperation, she had decided to become a prostitute. She’d gone to a truck stop that was notorious as a pickup place for prostitutes – “lot lizards,” they were called, because they were especially down-and-out.

Riley had gone there investigating a series of murders of prostitutes. She’d happened to find Jilly hidden away in the cab of a truck, waiting to sell herself to the driver whenever he came back.

Riley had gotten Jilly into Child Protective Services and had stayed in touch with her. Garrett’s sister had taken Jilly in as a foster child, but eventually Jilly had run away again.

It was then that Riley had decided to take Jilly home herself.

But now she was starting to wonder if she’d made a mistake. She already had her own fifteen-year-old daughter, April, to take care of. April alone could be a handful. They had been through some traumatic experiences together since Riley’s marriage had broken up.

And what did she really know about Jilly? Did Riley have any idea how deeply scarred the girl might be? Was she the least bit prepared to deal with the challenges Jilly might present? And although April had approved of her bringing Jilly home, how would the two teenagers get along?

Suddenly, Jilly spoke.

“Where am I going to sleep?”

Riley felt relieved to hear Jilly’s voice.

“You’ll have your own room,” she said. “It’s small, but I think it’s just right for you.”

Jilly fell silent for another moment.

Then she said, “Was it somebody else’s room?”

Jilly sounded worried now.

“Not since I’ve lived there,” Riley said. “I tried using it as an office, but it was too big. So I moved my office into my bedroom. April and I bought you a bed and a dresser, but when we have time, you can pick out some posters and a bedspread that you like.”

“My own room,” Jilly said.

Riley thought she sounded more apprehensive than happy.

“Where does April sleep?” Jilly asked.

Riley more than half wanted to tell Jilly to just wait until they got home, and then she’d see everything for herself. But the girl sounded like she needed reassurance right this minute.

“April has her own room,” Riley said. “You and April will share a bathroom, though. I’ve got my own bathroom.”

“Who cleans? Who cooks?” Jilly asked. Then she added anxiously, “I’m not a good enough cook.”

“Our housekeeper, Gabriela, takes care of all that. She’s from Guatemala. She lives with us, in her own apartment downstairs. You’ll meet her soon. She’ll take care of you when I have to be away.”

Another silence fell.

Then Jilly asked, “Will Gabriela beat me?”

Riley was stunned by the question.

“No. Of course not. Why would you think that?”

Jilly didn’t reply. Riley tried to comprehend what she meant.

She tried to tell herself that she shouldn’t be surprised. She remembered what Jilly had said when she’d found her in the truck cab and told her that she needed to go home.

“I’m not going home. My dad will beat me up if I go back.”

Social services in Phoenix had already removed Jilly from her father’s custody. Riley knew that Jilly’s mother had gone missing long ago. Jilly had a brother somewhere, but nobody had heard from him in a while.

It broke Riley’s heart to realize that Jilly might be expecting similar treatment in her new home. It seemed that the poor girl could barely imagine anything better in life.

“Nobody’s going to beat you, Jilly,” Riley said, her voice shaking a little with emotion. “Never again. We’re going to take good care of you. Do you understand?”

Again, Jilly didn’t reply. Riley wished she would just say that she did understand, and that she believed what Riley was saying. Instead, Jilly changed the subject.

“I like your car,” she said. “Can I learn to drive?”

“When you’re older, sure,” Riley said. “Right now let’s get you settled into your new life.”

*

A little snow was still falling when Riley parked in front of her townhouse and she and Jilly got out of the car. Jilly’s face twitched a little as snowflakes struck her skin. She didn’t seem to like this new sensation. And she shivered all over from the cold.

We’ve got to get her some warmer clothes right away, Riley thought.

Halfway between the car and the front door, Jilly froze in her tracks. She stared at the house.

“I can’t do this,” Jilly said.

“Why not?”

Jilly said nothing for a moment. She looked like a frightened animal. Riley suspected that the thought of living in such a nice place overwhelmed her.

“I’ll be getting in April’s way, won’t I?” Jilly said. “I mean it’s her bathroom.”

She seemed to be looking for excuses, grasping for reasons why this whole thing wouldn’t work.

“You won’t get in April’s way,” Riley said. “Now come on in.”

Riley opened the door. Waiting inside were April and Riley’s ex-husband, Ryan. Their faces were smiling and welcoming.

April rushed toward Jilly right away and gave her a big hug.

“I’m April,” she said. “I’m so glad you came. You’ll really like it here.”

Riley was startled by the difference between the two girls. She’d always considered April to be rather thin and gangly. But she appeared positively robust next to Jilly, who looked skinny by comparison. Riley guessed that Jilly had gone hungry from time to time during her life.

So many things I still don’t know, Riley thought.

Jilly smiled nervously as Ryan introduced himself and hugged her.

Suddenly Gabriela came rushing in from downstairs, introducing herself with a huge smile.

“Welcome to the family!” Gabriela exclaimed, giving Jilly a hug.

Riley noticed that the stout Guatemalan woman’s skin was only slightly darker than Jilly’s olive complexion.

“Vente!” Gabriela said, taking Jilly by the hand. “Let’s go upstairs. I will show you your room!”

But Jilly pulled her hand away and stood there trembling. Tears began to stream down her face. She sat down on the stairs and cried. April sat down beside her and put her arm around her shoulders.

“Jilly, what’s wrong?” April asked.

Jilly shook her head miserably.

“I don’t know,” she sobbed. “It’s just … I don’t know. It’s all so much.”

April smiled sweetly and patted her gently on the back.

“I know, I know,” she said. “Come on upstairs. You’ll feel at home in no time.”

Jilly obediently got up and followed April upstairs. Riley was pleased by how graciously her daughter was handling the situation. Of course, April had always said that she wanted a younger sister. But April had been through some difficult years herself, and had been severely traumatized by criminals eager to get even with Riley.

Maybe, Riley thought hopefully, April will be able to understand Jilly better than I can.

Gabriela gazed sympathetically after the two girls.

“¡Pobrecita!” she said. “I hope she will be all right.”

Gabriela went back downstairs, leaving Riley and Ryan alone. Ryan stood staring up the stairs, looking somewhat dazed.

I hope he’s not having second thoughts, Riley thought. I’m going to need his support.

A lot had gone on between her and Ryan. During the last years of their marriage he’d been an unfaithful husband and an absent father. They’d been separated and divorced. But Ryan had seemed like a changed man lately and they were cautiously spending more time together.

They’d talked about the challenge of bringing Jilly into their lives. Ryan had seemed enthusiastic about the idea.

“Are you still OK with this?” Riley asked him.

Ryan looked at her and said, “Yeah. I can see that it’s going to be tough, though.”

Riley nodded. Then came an awkward pause.

“I think maybe I’d better go,” Ryan said.

Riley felt relieved. She kissed him lightly, and he put on his coat and left. Riley fixed a drink for herself and sat down alone in the living room.

What have I gotten us all into? she wondered.

She hoped that her good intentions weren’t going to tear her family apart all over again.

CHAPTER TWO

Riley woke up the next morning with a heart full of apprehension. This was going to be the first day of Jilly’s life in her home. They had a lot to do today and Riley hoped that no trouble was in store.

Last night she had realized that Jilly’s transition to her new life would mean hard work for all of them. But April had pitched in and helped Jilly get settled. They had picked out clothes for Jilly to wear today – not from the meager possessions she’d brought along in a grocery bag but from new things that Riley and April had bought for her.

Jilly and April had finally gone to bed.

Riley had too, but her sleep had been troubled and restless.

Now she got up and dressed, and headed straight to the kitchen, where April was helping Gabriela get breakfast ready.

“Where’s Jilly?” Riley asked.

“She hasn’t gotten up yet,” April said.

Riley’s worry mounted.

She went to the base of the stairs and called out, “Jilly, it’s time to get up.”

 

She heard no reply. She was seized by a wave of panic. Had Jilly run off during the night?

“Jilly, did you hear me?” she called out. “We’ve got to register you at school this morning.”

“I’m coming,” Jilly yelled back.

Riley breathed a sigh of relief. Jilly’s tone was sullen, but at least she was here and being cooperative.

In recent years, Riley had often heard that sullen tone from April. Now April seemed to have gotten past it, but she still had lapses from time to time. Riley wondered if she was really up to the job of raising another teenager.

Just then there was a knock at the front door. When Riley answered it, her townhouse neighbor, Blaine Hildreth, was standing outside.

Riley was surprised to see him, but hardly displeased. He was a couple of years younger than she was, a charming and attractive man who owned an upscale restaurant in town. In fact, she had felt an unmistakable mutual attraction with him that definitely confused the issue of possibly reconnecting with Ryan. Most importantly, Blaine was a wonderful neighbor and their daughters were best friends.

“Hi, Riley,” he said. “I hope it’s not too early.”

“Not at all,” Riley said. “What’s up?”

Blaine shrugged with a rather sad smile.

“I just thought I’d stop by to say goodbye,” he said.

Riley gaped with surprise.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

He hesitated, and before he could answer, Riley saw a huge truck parked in front of his townhouse. Movers were carrying furniture from Blaine’s home into the truck.

Riley gasped.

“You’re moving?” she asked.

“It seemed like a good idea,” Blaine said.

Riley almost blurted out, “Why?”

But it was easy to guess why. Living next door to Riley had proved to be dangerous and terrifying, both to Blaine and his daughter, Crystal. The bandage that was still on his face was a harsh reminder. Blaine had been badly injured when he’d tried to protect April from a killer’s attack.

“It’s not what you probably think,” Blaine said.

But Riley could tell by his expression – it was exactly what she thought.

He continued, “It has turned out that this place just isn’t convenient. It’s too far away from the restaurant. I’ve found a nice place that’s much closer. I’m sure you understand.”

Riley felt too confused and upset to reply. Memories of the whole terrible incident came flooding back to her.

She’d been in Upstate New York working on a case when she’d learned that a brutal killer was at large. His name was Orin Rhodes. Sixteen years earlier, Riley had killed his girlfriend in a gunfight and sent him to prison. When Rhodes was finally released from Sing Sing, he was bent on revenge against Riley and everyone she loved.

Before Riley could get home, Rhodes had invaded her home and attacked both April and Gabriela. Next door, Blaine had heard the struggle, so he came over to help. He’d probably saved April’s life. But he’d gotten badly hurt in the attempt.

Riley had seen him twice in the hospital. The first time had been devastating. He’d been unconscious from his injuries, with an IV in each arm and an oxygen mask. Riley had blamed herself bitterly for what had happened to him.

But the next time she’d seen him had been more heartening. He’d been alert and cheerful, and had joked a bit proudly about his foolhardiness.

Most of all, she remembered what he’d said to her then …

“There isn’t much I wouldn’t do for you and April.”

Clearly he’d had second thoughts. The danger of living next door to Riley had proven too much for him and now he was going away. She didn’t know whether to feel hurt or guilty. She definitely felt disappointed.

Riley’s thoughts were interrupted by April’s voice behind her.

“Oh my God! Blaine, are you and Crystal moving? Is Crystal still there?”

Blaine nodded.

“I’ve got to go over and say goodbye,” April said.

April dashed out the door and headed next door.

Riley was still grappling with her emotions.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Sorry for what?” Blaine asked.

“You know.”

Blaine nodded. “It wasn’t your fault, Riley,” he said in a gentle voice.

Riley and Blaine stood gazing at each other for a moment. Finally, Blaine forced a smile.

“Hey, it’s not like we’re leaving town,” he said. “We can get together whenever we like. So can the girls. And they’ll still be in the same high school. It’ll be like nothing has changed.”

A bitter taste rose up in Riley’s mouth.

That’s not true, she thought. Everything has changed.

Disappointment was starting to give way to anger. Riley knew that it was wrong to feel angry. She had no right. She didn’t even know why she felt that way. All she knew was that she couldn’t help it.

And what were they supposed to do right now?

Hug? Shake hands?

She sensed that Blaine felt the same awkwardness and indecision.

They managed to exchange terse goodbyes. Blaine went back home, and Riley went back inside. She found Jilly eating breakfast in the kitchen. Gabriela had put Riley’s own breakfast on the table, so she sat down to eat with Jilly.

“So are you excited about today?”

Riley’s question was out before she could realize how lame and clumsy it sounded.

“I guess,” Jilly said, poking her pancakes with a fork. She didn’t even look up at Riley.

*

A while later, Riley and Jilly walked through the entrance to Brody Middle School. The building was attractive, with brightly colored locker doors lining the hallway and student artwork hanging everywhere.

A pleasant and polite student offered her help and directed them toward the main office. Riley thanked her and continued down the hall, clutching Jilly’s registration papers in one hand and holding Jilly’s hand with the other.

Earlier, they had gone through registration at the central school office. They’d taken along the materials that Phoenix Social Services had put together – records of vaccination, school transcripts, Jilly’s birth certificate, and a statement that Riley was Jilly’s appointed guardian. Jilly had been removed from her father’s custody, although he had threatened to challenge that decision. Riley knew that the path to finalizing and legalizing an adoption wouldn’t be quick or easy.

Jilly squeezed Riley’s hand tightly. Riley sensed that the girl felt extremely ill at ease. It wasn’t hard to imagine why. As rough as life in Phoenix had been, it was the only place that Jilly had ever lived.

“Why can’t I go to school with April?” Jilly asked.

“Next year you’ll be in the same high school,” Riley said. “First you’ve got to finish eighth grade.”

They found the main office and Riley showed the papers to the receptionist.

“We’d like to see someone about enrolling Jilly in school,” Riley said.

“You need to see a guidance counselor,” the receptionist said with a smile. “Come right this way.”

Both of us could use some guidance, Riley thought.

The counselor was a woman in her thirties with a mop of curly brown hair. Her name was Wanda Lewis, and her smile was as warm as a smile could be. Riley found herself thinking that she could be a real help. Surely a woman in a job like this had dealt with other students from rough backgrounds.

Ms. Lewis took them on a tour of the school. The library was neat, orderly, and well stocked with both computers and books. In the gym, girls were happily playing basketball. The cafeteria was clean and sparkling. Everything looked absolutely lovely to Riley.

All the while, Ms. Lewis cheerfully asked Jilly lots of questions about where she’d gone to school before, and about her interests. But Jilly said almost nothing in reply to Ms. Lewis’s questions and asked none of her own. Her curiosity seemed to perk up a little when she got a look at the art room. But as soon as they moved on, she became quiet and withdrawn all over again.

Riley wondered what might be going on in the girl’s head. She knew that her recent grades had been poor, but they had been surprisingly good in earlier years. But the truth was, Riley knew almost nothing about Jilly’s past school experience.

Maybe she even hated school.

This new one must be daunting, where Jilly knew absolutely nobody. And of course, it wasn’t going to be easy to get caught up in her studies, with only a couple of weeks left before end of the term.

At the end of the tour, Riley managed to coax Jilly into thanking Ms. Lewis for showing her around. They agreed that Jilly would start classes tomorrow. Then Riley and Jilly walked out into the bite of the cold January air. A thin layer of yesterday’s snow lay all around the parking lot.

“So what do you think of your new school?” Riley asked.

“It’s OK,” Jilly said.

Riley couldn’t tell if Jilly was being sullen or was simply dazed by all the changes she was facing. As they approached the car, she noticed that Jilly was shivering deeply and her teeth were chattering. She was wearing a heavy jacket of April’s, but the cold was really bothering her.

They got into the car, and Riley switched on the ignition and the heater. Even as the car got warmer, Jilly was still shivering.

Riley kept the car parked. It was time to find out what was bothering this child in her care.

“What’s wrong?” she asked. “Is there something about school that upsets you?”

“It’s not the school,” Jilly said, her voice shaking now. “It’s the cold.”

“I guess it doesn’t get cold in Phoenix,” Riley said. “This must be strange to you.”

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