With a watery laugh, Maddie stepped out of her mother’s arms. She turned to the man standing in the hallway, wiping at her tears.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
Tahlia stepped back to make space for the two of them to enter her suite.
“Come on in. Make yourselves at home.” She gave a little smile of her own, just as she too wiped at the tears on her cheeks. Once they were seated, she asked, “Can I get anyone something to drink? Tea? Coffee? Perhaps something a little stronger?”
Maddie shook her head and patted the seat beside her. “No, Mama. Come sit. We have so much to talk about.”
Tahlia took the seat beside her daughter, worrying at the Kleenex in her hand. Eventually, the other woman took her hand in her own, rubbing a thumb over the back of it. She held tightly, unable to do more than savor the moment. There had been many nights she’d cried herself to sleep, believing she would never experience a moment like this one again.
With a jolt, Tahlia realized Maddie had been speaking to her.
“Sorry, darling. Did you say something?”
“No, thank you on anything to drink.”
She nodded her acknowledgement. “Well then …” She faltered.
Giving the man sitting opposite them a smile, Maddie turned back to her mother. “Mama, I’d like to introduce you to my fiancé, Darryl Montgomery. Darryl, my mother, Tahlia Forrester.”
A confused look on his face, Darryl asked Tahlia, “Forrester? I thought you said O’Connor on the phone.”
“Yes, that’s correct. I took my maiden name again when my divorce from her father went through.” Tahlia answered, before turning to her daughter. “Oh Maddie, I’m so sorry, my love. I wish things had been different. I regret the years we’ve lost. I don’t know how to make it up to you.”
“I don’t understand, Mama. What happened? Why did you disappear like that? Why did they tell us you were dead?”
Tahlia braced herself. She knew she owed her only child answers, and she’d known this conversation wouldn’t be an easy one. She just hadn’t realized quite how hard it would be to put it all into words. The emotion thickening her throat didn’t make things any easier. With a sigh, she squeezed the hand that still clung so tightly to her own.
“When Aunt Clary found me after the last beating, she called in a favor from a friend. She knew, with your father’s connections, that if we simply reported it to the local precinct, it would be made to quietly disappear, like the first few times I’d filed complaints. Her friend knew of an organization called Friends of Patty who help victims of domestic abuse find safety.” Stopping a moment to gather her thoughts, she couldn’t bring herself to meet Maddie’s gaze. As if from a distance, she heard the other woman murmur to Darryl. The next thing, she felt her free hand being lifted and a glass being pressed into it. On pure reflex, her fingers closed around the glass. Focusing on it, she saw it contained water.
“Have a drink, Mama.” Maddie started the soothing rubbing over the back of her hand again.
Tahlia took a sip, then another. Gathering her composure, she continued. “They were more than willing to help, but it meant I had to disappear. Tahlia O’Connor would cease to exist, and in her place, someone new would emerge. When they said that, I didn’t realize it meant they’d tell everyone I’d died. Although, it makes sense, I guess. So, I disappeared. I gave up everything that day. But in the end, I couldn’t do it. I got tired of living in fear that someone your father hired would find me and that I’d have given it all up for nothing. So, here I am.”
When she finished speaking, absolute silence reigned. No one said a word. Eventually, she gathered the courage to look up at Maddie. “I’m sorry, baby. Sorrier than I can adequately express. I would never have agreed to it if I’d known they’d put you through such hell. I would have found another way.”
Maddie’s eyes welled with fresh tears. “Oh Mama, I’m so sorry you had to go through all of that. I won’t deny it was a difficult time. And I can’t tell you how much of a shock it was when I heard your voice on the phone earlier. But I understand why you did it.” Dashing away tears that had escaped, she continued. “After you, well, I guess, left, Aunty Clary gave me time to grieve and then she sat me down, said there was something she needed to tell me. She warned me it wasn’t pretty, but dear god Mama, never in my wildest dreams did I expect what she told me. Aunt Clary laid it out for me, everything that Daddy did to you all those years.”
Her words faded away as a sob broke free. Tahlia folded Maddie in her arms and rocked her like she used to when she was a little girl.
“Shh, baby. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
Without a word, Maddie tightened her hold on her mother.
After some time, when both had their emotions under control again, they shared stories of their lives over the years that Tahlia had been gone. Maddie told her how she’d met Darryl, sharing photos of their engagement party and all about the wedding.
“You know you’re going to have to come to the wedding now, right? There’s no way I can get married without you, now that I know you’re alive and well. In fact, I would love it if you would walk me down the aisle. I’d intended asking Darryl’s dad, but I want you to do it. Please, Mama?”
Tahlia couldn’t hold back a soft gasp. She’d hoped Maddie would be willing to let her be a part of her big day, but she’d never imagined she’d go so far. Her heart was full to bursting with love and happiness.
“Maddie, I would love that!” She could do nothing else but agree.
Giggling like two little girls, they hugged.
“Maddie, sugar, I hate to ruin your reunion with your mama, but we need to get going. We have to be at the caterer’s in thirty minutes.”
“Oh damn. I forgot all about the caterers.” Clapping her hands, she grinned at her mother. “Why don’t you come with us? I’m not ready to say goodbye, Mama. Please say you will?” She turned to Darryl. “It’s okay if Mama comes with, isn’t it, Darryl?”
“Yes, of course. You’re most welcome to join us, Ms. O’Connor.”
Maddie’s excitement was contagious, and Tahlia couldn’t, didn’t want to, say no.
“I’d love to, princess.”
“It’s settled then. Come on, let’s get going.”
She watched as Maddie bounced off the couch and headed for the door. Rising from the couch at a slower pace, she fetched her purse. Her heart singing with joy, she joined her daughter and soon-to-be son-in-law.
Larry had spent days combing through the accounting records Tahlia had given him. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so excited about something, anything. It reminded him of how he’d felt as a young boy on Christmas morning, dying to see what Santa had left him.
For years, he’d looked for ways to take Marcus Forrester down. Before Larry’d joined the FBI, Marcus had hired the private company he’d worked for as security detail for his family. As Tahlia’s personal bodyguard, he’d seen firsthand how the bastard had beaten his young wife. In fact, Larry had almost lost his job because he’d intervened on one occasion. His boss had to do some fancy talking to save his job. Back then, he’d been stupid enough to believe he could save Tahlia from her husband.
He’d finally wised up when she’d refused to leave Forrester, despite the fact that she’d just come out of the hospital because of the last beating Marcus had given her.
Now, the key to incriminating Forrester had been handed to Larry, and the man was going to be his own downfall. Larry couldn’t have planned it better if he’d tried.
A knock on his open door had him looking up from the document he was going over again. Mary-Beth stood with another sheaf of papers in her hand.
“What can I do for you, Mary-Beth?”
“It’s more like what I can do for you, sir. I’ve got more on Senator Forrester.”
“Excellent. Thank you,” he said, holding out a hand.
Once she’d returned to her desk, Larry scanned the new information. Nothing jumped out at him on his first pass, so he laid them on his desk, going back to the financial records he’d been reading.
A sudden thought had him reaching for his desk phone and hitting the speakerphone button.
“Mary-Beth, do me a favor and get Jim Wilder, the warden of Colombia Penitentiary, on the line for me?”
“Yes, sir. Right away.”
While he waited for the call to be put through, he swung back and forth in his chair, formulating a plan in his head.
He picked up the handset on the first ring.
“Warden Wilder on the line for you, sir.”
“Thanks. Please give Finn a call and ask him to come see me as soon as he’s able?”
“Yes, sir. Patching the call through now.”
“Yeah. Thanks.” He heard the transfer taking place, and when the line connected, he said, “Jim, how’s it going?”
“Hey, Larry, my man. I’m good. How about you?”
“Yeah, I’m hanging in there.”
“So, what can I do for you today?”
“Listen, I hear you’ve got former Senator Forrester enjoying your facilities on the taxpayers’ dime. You reckon you could organize a visit for me?
“Yeah, I reckon I could swing it. What’s got you wanting to chat with our guest?”
“Seems he’s had his fingers in some nasty pies. Just wanted to have a little talk, see if he’s willing to share a little information.”
“Gotcha, gotcha. Yeah, give me a few. I’ll come back to you with a time”
“Thanks, man. Appreciate it.”
“Haven’t seen you at the club lately. You got a new subbie you keeping to yourself?” Larry heard the man chuckling.
With a laugh of his own, Larry replied, “Nah, just haven’t had the time. This case I’m working on has had me tied in knots. It’s run cold, and we’re scrambling to heat it back up. That’s why I’m hoping Marcus Forrester’s going to hand me a match. I need to make a plan to pop in soon though.”
“All right, my man. I’ll give you a call as soon as I have that time for you.”
“Thanks, Jim, I appreciate it.”
Hanging up, he dialed Mary-Beth’s extension.
“Sir. I got hold of Finn. He said he’ll be back in the office around two. I told him to come straight here.”
He returned the handset to the receiver and sat back in his chair. With a grin, he contemplated how difficult he could possibly make Forrester’s sequestered life. Damn, he was looking forward to it.
Much as he anticipated his visit, he had work waiting for him. This case wasn’t going to solve itself.
While he waited for Finn to join him, he returned to the pile of files lying on his desk. Television glamorized his job, but when you got right down to it, it was boring, repetitive fact-checking and clue searching that made up the bulk of any investigation. The exciting bits were fewer and farther between than they like to make out.
Eventually, he picked up the file Jackson had put together for him on Marcus. She’d been pretty thorough in her search, and he was surprised at some of the things she’d managed to dig up. Although he shouldn’t have been. She’d been on his team for a good number of years, and she’d proven her worth, time and again.
He had no idea how or where she found the information that she did, but he had never known anyone quite as talented at ferreting out the kinds of things she managed to dig up on suspects. The kinds of things nobody wanted discovered.
He became so engrossed in the file it took a moment for him to realize there’d been a knock on his door. Looking up, he found Finn standing in the open doorway.
“Finn. Come on in. Have a seat.”
“You’re looking for me, Boss?”
“Yeah. I’ve got some interesting reading for you,” Larry stated as he handed the file over. “Jackson’s found us some interesting tidbits. Also, I’ve had a chat with the warden at Colombia Penitentiary. Thought you might want to ride along on the day.”
“Yeah, I’m down for that.”
“Great. As soon as I’ve heard back from Wilder with a time, I’ll let you know.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll get the file back to you.”
Larry watched as Finn left, his mind already turning to thoughts of his impending visit.