weeks, she told herself. Three at most.

She went downstairs and heard the sound of excited voices. There were racing footsteps on the porch, then the front door flew open.

Two girls stood there, the taller and older one looking both scared and relieved, while the younger hung back shyly.

“Aunt Liz?” Melissa, the fourteen-year-old, asked tentatively.

Liz smiled at them both and nodded. “Hi. I hope it’s okay that I let myself in. The key was right where-”

The rest of what she was going to say got squeezed out of her as both girls raced to her and hugged her hard, holding on as if they would never let go.


LIZ HUGGED THEM BACK, recognizing the relief and desperation in their embrace. They were too young to have been left on their own. What had Roy’s wife been thinking?

She mentally added that question to the growing list she would deal with later. For now she wanted the girls to feel safe and get them fed.

“You’re really here,” Melissa said, looking at her. “Really?”

“Yes. I got your e-mail this morning and came right away.”

Melissa, thin and nearly as tall as Liz, drew in a breath. “I’m really glad. I was trying so hard to make it okay, but I couldn’t. The money Bettina left us ran out really fast.”

Abby, a little shorter and also thin, bit her lower lip. “Are you our aunt?”

“I am. Your dad’s my brother.”

“You’re famous.”

Liz laughed. “Not really.”

“But you have books in the library. I’ve seen ’em.” Abby glanced at her sister. “I don’t read them because Melissa says they’ll give me bad dreams.”

Liz reached out and touched the girl’s cheek. “I think she’s right. But maybe when you’re older.”

“Or you could write a book for girls my age.”

“Something to think about.” She looked past the girls and saw Tyler standing in the doorway to the hall. “Girls, you have a cousin. My son Tyler is with me. Tyler, these are your cousins, Melissa and Abby.”

The girls turned. Tyler smiled.

“Hi,” he said, sounding more curious than uneasy.

“Hi,” the girls responded together.

“Tyler’s eleven,” Liz told them. “His last day of school was today.”

Melissa wrinkled her nose. “We have to go until Friday. Then we’re off for the summer.”

A fact that would make life easier, Liz thought. If she ended up taking the girls back to San Francisco, she wouldn’t have to worry about pulling them out of school.

Abby turned back to her. “Where’s Tyler’s dad, Aunt Liz?”

Not a question Liz wanted to deal with right now. She saw her son’s expression sharpen, as if hoping she would share some information. Not likely, she thought, wishing things had been different and Ethan had at least wanted to be a small part of his son’s life.

“Not with us,” Liz stated lightly. “Why don’t we go into the kitchen and get you two something to eat? I picked up a cooked chicken and some salads on the way into town. Then we’ll get to know each other a little and you can tell me what’s been going on.”

She had more to say, but both girls ran into the kitchen, as if desperate for food. Based on how they’d been living, they probably were.

She served them each a large portion of the chicken, along with coleslaw and potato salad.

The girls fell on the food, practically shoving it in their mouths. Liz poured the milk she’d bought and they gulped two glasses each. As she watched them devour the meal, she felt herself getting angry. How could Roy’s wife have simply abandoned the girls like that? What kind of heartless cow left two kids on their own? The least she could have done was phone social services on her way out of town.

She decided she would find out all she could about Bettina then kill off a character just like her in her next book. The death would be grisly, she promised herself. Slow and painful.

Tyler watched the girls wide-eyed, but didn’t say anything. He seemed to sense they’d been hungry for a long time, which was sad but probably a good lesson for him. Not everyone got to have three meals a day.

Liz took in their worn, not-very-clean T-shirts. Their jeans had seen better days, as well, and their sandals were in need of replacing. She knew most fourteen-year-old girls would be humiliated to be without stylish clothes and at least a hint of makeup. Was Melissa without both by choice?

When the feeding frenzy slowed, Liz settled across from Melissa. Tyler stood by Liz’s shoulder and she wrapped her arm around his waist.

“How long has Bettina been gone?” Liz asked.

“A while. Nearly three months. She left us with one hundred dollars. When that ran out…” Melissa dropped her gaze to her plate, then pushed it away.

Liz thought about the potato chip wrappers in the trash. The small apple on the counter. If there wasn’t any money and no one was taking care of them, there was only one way they could have survived. Melissa had been stealing from local stores.

“We’ll talk about that later,” Liz offered. “Privately. We can talk to the store owners and explain. I’ll pay them back.”

Melissa flushed, then swallowed. “I, um… Thanks, Aunt Liz.”

“How about just calling me Liz? Aunt Liz is too long.”

“Okay. Thanks, Liz.”

“Did your friends know Bettina was gone?”

Abby shook her head. “Melissa said not to tell. She said we’d be taken away and put in different homes. That we’d never find our way back to each other.”

“I wasn’t going to let them take Abby from me,” Melissa claimed fiercely, her green eyes flashing with determination.

An admirable sentiment, if slightly impractical when the alternative was starving. Of course Liz might be the wrong person to make a judgment on the issue. She’d adored her big brother and he’d taken off without a word, leaving her behind.

“A couple of my friends figured it out,” Melissa admitted. “They would bring us food sometimes. It’s been hard. I really thought I could take care of us both.”

“It’s a big responsibility,” Liz conceded. “You did the best you could, but the situation was impossible. I’m glad you e-mailed me.”

Abby grinned. “She’s read all your books, just like Dad. He has them all upstairs. Can we go see him?”

“Let me find out what’s going on first,” Liz explained, stalling for time. She didn’t even know where Roy was, let alone what he’d been convicted of or where he was incarcerated.

“Dad’s really proud of you,” Melissa told her shyly. “He talked about you all the time.”

Liz wasn’t sure how she felt about that. Roy’s pride hadn’t extended to getting in touch with her. As his daughters had proven, finding her wasn’t all that hard.

Abby raised her face to the ceiling. “The lights are on.” She grinned. “It won’t be dark anymore.”

“Everything’s back on,” Liz confirmed. “Even cable.”

Their eyes lit up. “We can watch TV?” Abby asked.

Tyler looked at Liz and grinned as if to point out he wasn’t the only kid who wanted to watch TV all the time.

“Not until your homework is done,” Tyler informed them. “And not every night.” He sighed heavily, as if his life was pain.

Liz laughed. “It’s true. I insist on reading nights every week, where we just sit quietly and read.”

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