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ALWAYS IN MY HEART
Ellie Grant tugged her son Kody's basketball jersey from between the cream-colored sofa cushions. The white knit was streaked with mud and covered with black dog hair, and the team name, "Trojans," in green lettering across the front was smeared with what appeared to be mustard. Scrunching the nylon in her fist, she almost lifted it to her nose and then caught herself. What on earth was she doing? Granted, she missed her boys, but they'd be gone only until tomorrow night. She could survive another weekend without them-no shirt sniffing allowed.
Turning, she stared at the television, which was usually on and blaring when they were home. Light from the adjoining dining room reflected off the dusty screen, highlighting the words, "Wash me." Ellie grinned in spite of herself. The brats. In the time it had taken one of them to scrawl that message, he could have polished the glass.
Her smile slowly faded. The quiet inside the house seemed so loud that it echoed against her eardrums. Most mothers would probably take advantage of the reprieve to read a good book or take a luxurious bubble bath, but Ellie just felt lost. For two weeks straight, she hadn't had a second to call her own. Now she suddenly had twenty-four hours of emptiness stretching before her.
It was always this way when Tucker had the boys. She never knew quite what to do with the time. She stared at the dog hair on the mauve carpet and briefly considered hauling out her old Kirby, but like an alcoholic tempted by drink, she shoved the thought away. Instead, she stepped to the entertainment center and punched on the stereo. Zach, her fourteen-year-old, kept the CD player filled with his favorite country-western disks. Garth Brooks would chase away the silence and lift her spirits in short order.
She cranked up the volume, grabbed the portable phone from the end table, and headed toward the kitchen. As she passed through the dining room, the first strains of "Every Breath You Take" by the Police thrummed in the air. She stopped dead in her tracks. In July of her sixteenth year, that had been the song blaring on the radio of Tucker's rattletrap Chevy when she lost her virginity. She hadn't listened to it since the divorce, and Zach surely hadn't put it in the player. He disdainfully called all songs from his parents' era "oldie moldies."
Ellie almost swung around to change the selection. But no, it wasn't a problem, she assured herself. Two years ago, she might have fallen apart if she'd listened to that song, but she could handle it now. A stroll down memory lane might even be good for her, proof at long last that she was completely and forever over Tucker Grant.
Continuing toward the kitchen, she let the music carry her back to that summer night nineteen years ago. The details came so clear in her mind that it might have happened yesterday. She could almost smell the breeze rolling in off the river, redolent with the perfume of wildflowers and the scent of pine. She and Tucker had climbed into the back where they could stretch out on the seat without the steering wheel and gearshift getting in their way. Heads bent, hands shaking with nerves, they'd shyly undressed, neither of them completely sure how to proceed once they got naked. Finally, Tucker had simply taken her in his arms. Don't be scared, Ellie girl, he'd whispered. I'll love you forever—until the rivers stop flowing and the ocean goes dry
Snapped back to the present by the coldness of the worn kitchen linoleum under her bare feet, Ellie sighed and shook her head. Talk about a sappy line. She was surprised she hadn't giggled. Back then, of course, it had seemed terribly romantic, just the sort of thing a young girl yearned to hear.
Determined not to think about Tucker a second longer, Ellie advanced across the floor. Halloween was only a month away. She would put this time to good use by making sugar cookies for her sons-great big round ones, decorated to look like jack-o'-lanterns. In the morning, she'd go up to the attic and dig out the Halloween decorations. By tomorrow night, the house would be cheery and bright with pumpkins and witches hanging at the windows, and she'd welcome the boys at the door with a big smile and a plate of treats for them to devour. They'd love that.
Images flashed through her mind of holiday baking sprees when her boys had been much younger, their faces smeared with icing, their pudgy fingers gooey and coated with multicolored sprinkles. The kitchen had fared no better than their faces, unfortunately, and afterward she'd always felt compelled to scrub the floor on her hands and knees.
Looking back on it now, Ellie wished with all her heart that she'd let the floor go and just enjoyed having cookies and milk with her sons. But no, before Sammy's death and the ensuing divorce, her priorities had been seriously skewed. She'd been caught up in the super-mom syndrome back then, convinced she had to be a perfect wife, mother, and homemaker, all while she pursued a career. She'd had no time to sit around on a winter afternoon, eating cookies with her precious little boys.
It had taken a tragedy to make her realize that nothing was more important than her kids. Nothing. These days, if it came to a choice between devoting time to her sons or scrubbing the floor, the floor lost every time. When the boys were grown, they wouldn't remember how clean her kitchen had been, but they'd have fond memories of this holiday season and the goodies she'd baked for them.
A cook who habitually washed up as she worked, Ellie stopped the sink drain and squeezed in dish soap. While the water ran, she lighted the candle on the windowsill that Kody had given her for Mother's Day, a misshapen lump of yellow wax he'd poured for her at school. He'd used one of Bucky's dog food cans as a mold, and the rings in the aluminum had left telltale lines. Every time she looked at it, she smiled.
Beyond the glass, the drizzly gray of afternoon had given way to the deeper shades of early evening. Still leafy from summer, hydrangea, lilac, and camellia bushes crowded the weathered board fence, creating a dense jungle of rain-drenched foliage that needed to be pruned back. Lending some bright relief from all the green, splashes of autumn orange decorated the drooping maple trees. Soon the grass would be hidden beneath a carpet of fallen leaves that would crunch cheerfully underfoot and turn the backyard into a colorful wonderland.
The wavering candlelight washed the windowpane with patterns of gold. As the flame licked its way down the wick, the sweet smell of vanilla wafted to Ellie's nostrils, reminding her of the task at hand. She wrenched off the faucet and turned from the sink. Studiously ignoring the range top, which only got washed when one of the boys decided to give it a few swipes, she climbed on the step stool to get the salt and vanilla from the spice cupboard above it. As she hopped down, she kept her gaze carefully averted from the stove's crusty burner plates. A vow was a vow. No matter how filthy they got, she would never scrub them, so why drive herself crazy noticing the buildup?
Singing along with Bonnie Tyler, she belted out the refrain of "Total Eclipse of the Heart" as she measured ingredients. She was about to soften some butter in the microwave when the portable phone on the counter rang. She jumped and then stared at it, knowing before she answered that it was probably Marvin calling. Great. She had grown very fond of him over the last few months, and most of the time she was glad of his company, but she didn't want to have him over when the boys weren't there. Whenever she was alone with him, he grew amorous, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to fend him off.
What to do, what to do? The phone jangled again, the sound urgent and demanding. She considered not answering. Only what if it wasn't Marvin? There was always a possibility that one of the boys might call.
On the fourth ring, she groaned and pressed the talk button. "Hello."
That deep, silky tenor was one she would have recognized anywhere. Tucker. Her hand tightened over the phone as an image of him took shape in her mind. Tawny hair, hazel eyes sharp with intelligence, and sun-burnished features, every chiseled plane of which had once been engraved on her heart. Now just thinking about him filled her with resentment.
She pictured him in a sunshine yellow kitchen with fake butcher-block counters. He'd be leaning against the wall, she decided, his booted feet crossed at the ankles, his rangy, well-muscled body showcased in a wash-worn flannel work shirt and faded denim jeans that hugged his long, powerfully roped legs like a second skin.
"Hi," she said stiffly. He so seldom called that she had to grope for something else to say. She opted for a note of humor. "If you're about to tell me the state has screwed up the child support again, I'll jump off a tall building. I just dropped a hundred and sixty bucks on football cleats and basketball shoes."
She hoped he would offer to kick in a little extra this month to cover the expense just so she could turn him down. He'd argued against her moving to Springfield, predicting that the cost of living would be much higher in the Eugene area and she would come to regret the decision. In your face, she wanted to say. I'm doing just fine over here. I love my job. I just got a raise. I have a fabulous new boyfriend. I don't need your help, thanks very much.
Instead of offering her money, he said, "No, it's nothing like that, Ellie."
His tone was taut and oddly expressionless. After being married to him for thirteen years, she knew when he was upset. Alarm raised goose bumps on her skin. "What's wrong?"
"I don't know how to say this."
Oh, God. Memories sped through her mind, all splashed with crimson. Her vocal cords felt like overstretched rubber as she struggled to speak. "What happened?" She braced a hand on the counter, feeling as if her knees might buckle. "It's one of the boys, isn't it? Who's hurt? Tucker, answer me."
"No, no, it's nothing like that. As far as I know, they're both all right."
"As far as you know?" Her heart was pounding so hard that it pained her. She pressed a fist over the spot. "Something's wrong. I hear it in your voice."
"They've taken off."
For a moment, the words circled in her mind, making no sense. "What do you mean, they've taken off?"
"Exactly what I said. I just got home, and the little snots are gone."
She stared stupidly at the roses on the faded hunter green wallpaper. "Gone? This is your weekend. You're supposed to be watching them."
"I worked today."
"So? I have a job, too. Have I ever called to tell you the kids were gone?"
"That isn't fair. Zach's fourteen, for Pete's sake, and the old lady next door is always available in case of emergency. You leave them alone on Saturday all the time while you're working."
"I also call to check on them. If they don't answer the phone, I hightail it home to see what's wrong."
"I was way out past Wickiup Reservoir, overseeing a team of stream surveyors. I tried to call home on my cell phone and couldn't get out."
Ellie knew the cell phone reception wasn't as good in Central Oregon as it was in the valley. There were fewer towers over there, and the mountainous terrain sometimes interfered with the signals. Knowing that and admitting it were two different things. She wasn't obligated to give Tucker Grant a fair shake. When the shoe had been on the other foot, had he been fair to her?
She pushed a shank of blond hair from her eyes. She was shaking so hard that the strands shivered back down over her forehead the instant she withdrew her hand. "Where do you think they went?"
His voice turned gravelly. "According to the note they left, they're somewhere in the Baxter Wilderness Area."
Ellie knew the place. While they were still married, they'd taken the boys camping there several times each summer. "Somewhere in the area? I'm not following. That's a long way from Bend. How did they get there?"
"I think they rode their bicycles." He paused as if the next words came hard. "Ellie, they've run away."
She heard a rustle of paper come over the line. "The note is in Zach's handwriting, but Kody signed it as well."
Iridescent hues of blue and pink shimmered in the froth of dishwater suds. The scent of vanilla from the candle suddenly made her feel nauseated.
"Ellie, are you still there?"
She nodded and then realized he couldn't see her. "Yes. I'm here. I'm, uh, just trying to assimilate this. Are you sure they've run away, Tucker? Maybe they just got bored while you were gone and—"
"No. I wish that were the case, but it isn't. They've definitely run away."
"Why? Did something happen to upset them?"
"Nothing that I'm aware of."
This was so unlike her sons she felt sure there had to be an explanation.
"My guess is that they left shortly after I did this morning." Tucker went on. "All that's in the dishwasher are two cereal bowls. I don't think they had lunch here. It would also take them quite a while to reach Baxter on bicycles. At least five or six hours, depending on how often they stopped to rest. They had to leave here fairly early to get there before dark."
Panic clawed at the edges of her mind. She held it at bay by trying to concentrate on absolutes instead of possibilities. "Did they take camping gear?"
"Yes. All that's left in the garage is mine."
She pictured her boys pedaling along the shoulder of that busy road, and her self-control took another hard hit. She caught the inside of her cheek between her teeth.
"Ellie, don't," he said softly, as if he knew exactly what she was thinking. "They've done this expressly to scare the bejesus out of us."
"And they've succeeded. Highway 97 is the most dangerous road in Oregon."
"Ah, now, it's not that bad."
Ellie remembered another time when he'd pooh-poohed her concerns, and she'd ended up standing over her child's grave. "I've warned them a hundred times not to ride their bikes in heavy traffic." Pain bunched in her temples.
"I'm sure they're both fine. If anything happened, someone would contact me."
"They don't carry ID."
"No, but the bicycles are licensed. The cops could easily trace them back to me. They're fine, Ellie. We need to keep our heads."
That was true. Panic would accomplish nothing. She took a deep breath. "Right." Kody's face flashed through her mind, and she wished she'd never let him out of her sight. "We'd, um, better call someone. We need to find them as quickly as we can."
"I can find them, Ellie. You know that."
She made a small sound of agreement. Tucker's reputation as a tracker was well known in Deschutes County. Search-and-rescue teams frequently called upon him to help locate lost hikers.
"I'll gather my gear and head up there as soon as we get off the phone," he said. "By first light, I'll be on their trail. Riding bicycles, they weren't able to take the dog with them. Bucky can help sniff them out. They'll be fine for the night."
"In a wilderness area?"
"They have warm sleeping bags, and they ransacked my cupboards and fridge, so they shouldn't go hungry. Even if they run low on food, they both know how to catch fish with whatever they have on hand, and I've taught them damned near everything I know about the edible plant life in that area."
"There are cougars and bears out there, Tucker. They're just little boys."
"Not so little anymore. Zach's fourteen, and Kody's eleven. I know grown men with less wilderness savvy. No worries, Ellie, I promise."
"I can't believe they've done something so harebrained."
"Yeah, well, they have. As for finding them quickly, I'll have them home tomorrow night, guaranteed." He released another weary sigh. "You know, Ellie, getting them back isn't the primary worry. We have to figure out what the hell we're going to do once we get them home."
"Shaking them silly sounds highly appealing at the moment." She stared bewilderedly at the half-mixed cookie dough, remembering all her grand plans for a cheery welcome-home party. How many kids got homemade cookies, just because? She lived with ring around the toilet, dirty grout, and dust bunnies under her furniture, and this was the thanks she got? "I can't believe they've done this. What earthly reason do they have?"
She heard the rustle of paper again. "They've made a couple of demands."
"What kind of demands?"
He hesitated before answering. "They refuse to come home until we agree to get back together."
"You heard me. They want us back together again, no discussion, no bargains. It's that or nothing. They've made it very clear they won't settle for less."
In the background, Kim Carnes belted out the lyrics of "Bette Davis Eyes." Now Ellie understood why Zach had put that particular CD in the player. He knew she usually turned on the stereo while they were gone, and he'd been hoping to soften her up with old favorites from her and Tucker's dating days.
How long had he and Kody been planning this, anyway?
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