Carolyn Croop

The Witness

 The Witness Chapter 1 The tires screeched as Brooke pulled into the city parking garage on a cold December morning. Brooke put the car in park and let out a sigh. Without much thought, she stepped out of the car and gathered her belongings. Her book bag was filled with two days of clothes and personal care items. Brooke was on her way to a shelter for women who had been abused. It was about two o’clock in the morning. Brooke had called the shelter to let them know she was on her way. She was escaping the mental, emotional, and physical abuse of her boyfriend. As Brooke walked down the ramp, she could only hear her own footsteps. A few cars passed by on the street below, but no people were in sight. She knew it was a dangerous location. The city had a reputation for crime. Brooke walked as rapidly as possible without making herself look vulnerable. The shelter was on the other side of Main Street, which meant that she had to walk through an unlit alley. Brooke approached the alley. The coast looked clear, and she continued through as the streetlights disappeared. Brooke heard male voices, and a shot was fired. The gunman ran out through the alley without noticing Brooke. Brooke’s nerves felt like they were about to burst. Though doing her best to stay calm, she decided to continue to the end of the alley. If she turned back, there would be nowhere for her to find a safe haven away from Raymond. The shelter was so close, and she made the choice to go forward. Three men ran from the scene. She caught a glimpse of their clothing. All three were dressed in dark hoodies and dark pants. One of the men made eye contact with her for a second. A few steps later, she witnessed the blood on the ground. Picking up her speed, Brooke entered the shelter. A weary security guard sat inside the entrance. Brooke thought that the security guard must see this sort of thing all the time. She looked at the guard and said, “I just witnessed a shooting.” The guard sat up, questioned her a bit, and called the police. Within four minutes, the police were questioning her. Sergeant Hannigan stepped away to take a phone call. Brooke was shaken up by everything—the shooting, the police, and the reason she was even at the shelter. She needed to escape the horror of the domestic abuse. Five minutes later, the FBI arrived and informed Brooke that they were taking her to safety elsewhere. Chapter 2 On the ride to FBI headquarters, Brooke was told to remain calm and not to ask questions. She was informed that she would soon be briefly meeting with Agent Miller and would be able to ask questions at that time. The only question Brooke was asked during the ride was if she was hungry. Brooke replied, “Yes,” and she said that she was tired too. Agent Scott told Brooke that she would be well taken care of at headquarters. The vehicle was between two other FBI cars. One car was in front of the car she rode in, and one car was behind her car. Brooke’s mind was spinning. The three-hour trip felt like an eternity. The car slowed down, turned left, and eased through a gate. The driver of the car ahead appeared to show the guard a badge. The gate opened, and the first car entered. It abruptly closed as the car Brooke was in approached the guard. The driver displayed his badge, and the gate reopened. They entered a long, winding road lined with pine trees. The sun had not yet risen when the three cars stopped outside a brick building. Several guards stood outside another checkpoint at the entrance. Agent Scott swiped his badge, and a steel door opened. Brooke was led inside and was introduced to Agent Miller. He shook her hand and offered her a seat inside a conference room. Brooke let out a sigh and began to relax a little. Agent Miller thanked her for being so cooperative and offered her flavored water and a cream cheese bagel. Brooke ate small bites as Agent Miller began asking questions. After she had answered a few questions, Agent Miller told her that the crime she had witnessed was under investigation. They would need to question her further. After she got some rest, he would follow up. At ten o’clock, there was a knock on her door. A woman wheeled a cart into the room with Brooke’s breakfast. “Thank you.” “You’re welcome.” As the woman began to leave, Brooke said, “Where am I? Can I call my family?” The woman told Brooke that someone would be meeting with her soon. After breakfast, there was another knock at the door. A stern man told her to follow him down the hall. She did as she was told and was motioned into an office. Inside the office, Agent Miller was with four other agents. Agent Miller explained that she had witnessed a highly sensitive and top-secret crime. She was a target of the criminals because they had a full description of her. Agent Miller put his hand on her arm and said he was sorry to inform her that she would be entering the witness protection program. Brooke would have no contact with anyone from her past life—and she would have to change her name and identity. Chapter 3 Maisie was Brooke’s new name. She wasn’t too sure if she liked the name, although she had no choice in the matter. Three months had passed since the morning of the crime. Maisie attended daily training sessions for the witness protection program. Maisie was a serious person with a humorous side. When Maisie was informed that she would be employed at Harvest Moon Shop as a store clerk, she said, “I wish finding employment was that easy when I was Brooke. It took me a year to find a job before.” The trainer that day was Eileen Harper. Although Eileen found Maisie’s humor delightful, she was forced by the rules to tell her not to ever mention the name Brooke when referring to herself. Training was rigorous and detailed. Because of all the extensive changes Maisie had to undergo, she met with a psychiatrist after each training session. The FBI staff told her that she was not being brainwashed; she was being transformed. Maisie learned every detail about her new life. She was single, thirty-three years old, and had a father, a mother, and a younger brother. She would work at Harvest Moon and live with her parents. Her brother Dominick lived in a nearby town with his wife and two sons. They were all Catholic, which Maisie knew little about. Learning the faith was part of her daily training. Maisie said, “Dr. Foreman, I feel as though I will be living a lie.” Dr. Foreman nodded and said, “Maisie, do yourself a favor and begin thinking as Maisie. Don’t let your past consume your mind. Soon it will become second nature to live as Maisie.” Dr. Foreman prescribed medication to ease the transition. It was a hard not to think about the past. She had a father, mother, siblings, and friends as Brooke. She loved them dearly and had pride in her former existence, but they were to never be talked about or seen again. Maisie began thinking about her new life. Dr. Foreman had been right. After daily training and memorizing documents full of details about her new life, thinking as Maisie became second nature. The time had come to put her new life into place. Chapter 4 Maisie’s new parents were somewhat snobbish. They lived in a large home in a wealthy community. The brick house had white pillars, a long porch, and many windows. Each house in the quiet neighborhood sat on an acre of land. Bob and Donna were a bit disgraced that Maisie was a clerk at a shop that sold mystic items, Buddha dolls, and healing stones, but it was part of the act. Bob, Donna, Dominick, and his wife all had training before bringing Maisie into their lives. They had been given a large amount of money for agreeing to their new lives as well. Only their closest friends and relatives knew about Maisie’s role in the witness protection program. The rooms were large and had oriental rugs and high-quality furniture. A beautiful crystal chandelier hung above the long glass dining room table. There was a big television in the living room and a large spiral staircase in the hallway. Maisie’s large bedroom was her retreat—a place to put up her feet, relax, listen to music, and shed some tears. She missed her old life. She missed her real mom and dad, and she was sure they missed her too. She wondered how they were handing her disappearance. During her three months of training, Maisie was informed that she had been listed as a missing person. She thought her real parents, Abe and Judith, must be heartbroken. She wondered if posters had been placed around her hometown and assumed that the story of her disappearance had been on the news. She would never know the answers. She would only be able to assume. Maisie met monthly with a psychiatrist from her new community. Her sessions with Dr. Stockton were the only time she could talk about her true feelings about the life she missed. Dr. Stockton knew about her involvement in the witness protection program. He consented to signing agreements and adhering to the utmost confidentiality. Dr. Foreman had been right about the life of Maisie becoming second nature, but the memories lingered. Dr. Stockton found this to be natural and showed no concern about Maisie’s dilemma. Maisie was a strong woman with good intentions and a loving heart. She had a charming personality that people were drawn toward. She had been trained to control her emotions on a day-to-day basis. She even attended acting classes during her training. Maisie trained herself to smile more as she peered into her bedroom mirror during her training. She worked at Harvest Moon every day but Sunday and Monday. Maisie drove a run-down, two-door sedan. She earned minimum wage plus an extra fifty cents per hour. Her life was uneventful. Her new state was warmer, and snow rarely fell. Snow was one of the few things she didn’t miss. On her way to work one day that fall, her front left tire blew. As Maisie looked at the blown tire, a sports car pulled and a handsome man stepped out. He was wearing a dark gray suit with a tasteful purple tie. He was tall and had dark hair. Maisie almost forgot she had a car problem. “Need help?” the man asked. Maisie replied, “If you wouldn’t mind, yes. But you don’t want to ruin your suit, do you?” The handsome man smiled and said, “I’m Emmett. Nice to meet you.” Maisie said, “Thank you. It’s nice to meet you too, Emmett.” Emmett asked if she had a spare tire and gladly changed the tire as they exchanged small talk. He gave Maisie his phone number after the spare tire was on her car. It had possibly been the best day of her life. Chapter 5 The following day, Maisie met with Dr. Stockton. Her appointments with him were at the same time every Thursday. Dr. Stockton informed Maisie that he had an agenda. The first topic was to inform Maisie that she would soon be meeting with a licensed therapist on Wednesdays. He had realized that he was not educated enough about domestic abuse, and he thought that Maisie would benefit from therapy with someone who specialized in that area. Maisie agreed, but she wondered in the back of her mind if her car would make it to work and back each day in addition to therapy on Wednesdays and psychiatrist appointments every Thursday. She could use extra help in sorting her thoughts and feelings. Maisie had never dealt with the abuse from her past, but she was open and willing to obtaining help from a therapist. Like Dr. Stockton, the therapist would adhere to confidentiality agreements. The next topic on Dr. Stockton’s agenda was her day-to-day life and how she felt she was handling the changes. Maisie began by discussing her physical appearance, which had been altered during the training. Her hair, which was previously short but stylish, had grown and not been cut. The style had been altered, and the color was changed from blonde to dark brown with highlights. In her former life, she typically wore sweatshirts and jeans. A stylist brought Maisie an entirely new wardrobe. The shirts were fashionable even though they looked like they had been made in the 1960s. Most of the shirts had flower prints, and she wore bell-bottom jeans. Maisie surprised Dr. Stockton by saying that she liked the changes to her physical appearance. She was losing weight every week. She had been seventy pounds overweight before. She liked her hair at its new length and color. The choice of clothing was beginning to grow on her. Dr. Stockton was pleased with Maisie’s progress. She was adjusting to the abundant changes at a normal pace. The last part on the agenda was set aside for Maisie to ask questions or discuss anything she wanted to. Maisie said she had nothing to discuss. Dr. Stockton asked her to dig deep within and tell him what she felt. Maisie sat still for a moment and thought about how her mind was organizing all the information. She was happy about that, but she knew she needed to do some soul-searching about how she felt deep inside. “I’m angry and happy at the same time,” she said. Dr. Stockton smiled and said that he would see her next week. That evening, Maisie sat dazed in front of the television. Her mom and dad wondered what her mind was consumed with. Maisie was thinking about all the events of her day. Her shift at Harvest Moon had been easy. She would soon be meeting with a therapist, and she felt a sense of anticipation about dealing with the abuse from her former boyfriend. Maisie sorted all her thoughts of day and focused her thoughts on the best part of her day—meeting Emmett. She had already memorized his phone number. She studied it at work when there were no customers. Maisie wondered when she should call him. She didn’t want to call that night and appear anxious, yet she didn’t want to wait too long and appear uninterested. She decided that the following day would be the right time to call. The news broadcasters reported about the day’s events, which were mostly crime stories. Maisie began thinking about the crime she had witnessed. It was something she thought about often. She knew the crime had more significance to the law enforcement officers than solving a shooting, but she was never given the details about the crime for her own protection. She knew she was better off not knowing the details, but that didn’t stop her mind from wondering about it every once in a while. Maisie’s mom suggested that she get something to eat for dinner. Thursday was labeled “fend for yourself night” at home. No one was cooking dinner or ordering dinner in. Thursday nights were set aside to find leftover food and making their own meals. On the other nights, they took turns cooking dinner. They all got along well. Bob and Donna had deep empathy for Maisie’s circumstance, although it was never discussed. It was a new life for Maisie, and it was an opportunity to live life in a positive direction. Maisie spent the following day thinking about her phone call to Emmett. She decided that she would call him after dinner. The evening was her time to relax and wind down from the day. At seven o’clock, Maisie got her nerve up to make the call. She had rehearsed what she would say and how she would say it. She had never been starstruck by a man before. She did not want to make a mistake or say anything that would turn him away. Maisie stared at her phone’s contact list. She saw Emmett’s name and decided not to think about it any longer. She took the plunge and called him. “Hello?” Emmett said. “Hello, Emmett. This is Maisie—the girl you changed the tire for.” Emmett laughed and said, “Maisie, you don’t need to explain who you are. First of all, you’re the only Maisie I have ever met. Second, you’re the only person whose call I’ve been anticipating since we met.” They talked as though they had known each other forever. There was an instant connection—and a bit of love at first sight. Emmett admired Maisie’s personality and her looks. She was not every man’s desire, but Emmett sure was the beholder of Maisie’s beauty. He told her several times that she was beautiful, although he wanted to say it more than he did. Emmett and Maisie began forming a bond that was the start of their foundation. While trying to decide where to meet on their first date, Emmett suggested a local playground. Maisie was a bit taken aback. Emmett informed Maisie that he had a daughter—but he was not married. She was the child of his first girlfriend. They were no longer a couple. In fact, Emmett’s former girlfriend was married to someone else. Maisie was surprised. The thought never entered her mind that he would already be a father. She knew she had to say something quickly. “Are you sure you want to introduce me to your daughter already?” Emmett had no concerns that a relationship with Maisie would not work out. He had the utmost confidence that she was the one for him. “She’ll love you. Meet us at one o’clock tomorrow.” Maisie agreed. They said their good-byes and hung up. Maisie was still very much in awe of Emmett, but his having a daughter was something she was not prepared for. In her former life as Brooke, she was the youngest child in her family and was not accustomed to dealing with children. She had worked an office job in her former life and rarely spoke to children. She liked children, but she had limited experience with them. On Saturdays, Maisie only worked for four hours in the morning. The store closed at noon, which gave her a chance to meet Emmett and his daughter at the playground. She was still trying to familiarize herself with her new community. She knew all the main roads—but not the side streets. She wished she had a built-in GPS in her old Ford. She looked up the directions on her phone and pulled into the playground parking lot with a great amount of confidence. Maisie didn’t want to act as though she was unfamiliar with the territory, and she wanted to present herself as a confident woman. Maisie spotted Emmett immediately. He was hard to miss. His charm and good looks stood out from everyone else who was there. Emmett was pushing his young daughter on the swings. She had brown hair, brown eyes, and an outfit that looked like it was new. Maisie approached them and said hi to Emmett. Emmett turned toward Maisie with a big grin. “Maisie, this is Alexandria. We call her Alex for short.” Maisie smiled and said, “Hi, Alex. It’s nice meeting you.” Alex smiled and then asked her dad to push her faster. Emmett pushed Alex on the swing while Maisie and Emmett chatted. “You have a beautiful daughter,” Maisie said. “Thank you, Maisie,” Emmett replied. Alex wanted to climb on the slide. Maisie spotted a flower on Alex’s shirt and said, “We’re matching. We both have flowers on our shirts.” Alex had a big smile on her face and ran over to the slides. Emmett and Maisie followed close behind. Maisie felt a stranger staring at her. She got that type of attention from men occasionally, but something did not feel right about this man. He was standing beneath a tree. He was not at the playground with any children and immediately walked away. He wore a dark blue baseball cap, a dark shirt, jeans, and brown boots. She guessed he was in his thirties. When she caught up to Emmett, she told him about the stranger. Emmett looked toward the bench, but the man was nowhere to found. Emmett told Maisie that everything was fine. Emmett, Maisie, and Alex spent an hour at the playground and went out for ice cream. “You have a knack with kids,” Emmett said. “Thank you,” she said. Although Maisie’s first date with Emmett wasn’t what she had hoped for, it turned out to be wonderful. Maisie was beginning to truly like her new life. Chapter 6 On Wednesday, Maisie went to meet her new therapist. The office was near Dr. Stockton’s office. The buildings all looked the same. She checked in at the front desk and took a seat in the waiting area. As she glanced at the other patients, she noticed a man who looked familiar. Maisie thought she knew him from somewhere, but she couldn’t think of where. She assumed that he must have been a customer at Harvest Moon. It was gnawing at her, but she let it go. When her name was called, she stood up. Her new therapist introduced herself as Karen. Maisie sat down in Karen’s office, and Karen explained that her main purpose was to help Maisie deal with the abuse. However, the first session was just to get to know one another. It was the beginning of a long journey. They talked about Maisie’s life. She told Karen about her mom, dad, brother, sister-in-law, and nephews. Karen spoke a little about her life so that Maisie felt comfortable and would begin gaining trust in her. After thirty minutes, the session was over. Maisie was impressed with Karen. She had two college degrees and a therapy license. Karen was thirty-five, married, and had a boy and a girl. Maisie felt a bit of jealousy that Karen’s life had not been altered like Maisie’s life had been, but it did not get in the way of the therapy. The following day, Maisie met with Dr. Stockton. She told him that she liked Karen. Dr. Stockton and Maisie discussed her past life and the feelings she stored inside. Maisie’s head was adjusting to her new life, but her emotions were not. Dr. Stockton’s job was to help Maisie align her head with her emotions, which took numerous sessions. Maisie drove home after her appointment and blared the music in her car. She loved classic rock. Suddenly, she remembered the patient in the waiting room. She would not forget his eyes. He was the criminal from the alley. As soon as she walked in the front door, Maisie rushed up to her bedroom and called the police. When they arrived, Maisie explained that she needed to speak to the FBI. She no longer had any contact with them. They had severed all ties with her for her protection. They kept watch on her house and drove by her workplace every once in a while, but she had not been given the witness protection program training location or phone numbers. The police wondered if she had a mental issue until she mentioned Agent Scott, Agent Miller, and several other agents she had met in the training program. The police connected her to the FBI on speakerphone. Everyone at the FBI knew Maisie’s name. Agent Anderson immediately said that Maisie was credible and commanded Officer Ryan to bring her to the police department where the FBI agents would talk to her. When Maisie arrived at the police department, Agent Scott was already there. He greeted Maisie and brought her into an office. Maisie informed Agent Scott that she had seen the criminal, but Agent Scott thought Maisie was mistaken. She insisted it was the same man. Agent Scott removed himself from the room and called Agent Miller. Agent Miller instructed Agent Scott to bring her back to FBI headquarters for questioning. She met with a group of agents. Agent Miller said, “It’s been a while, Maisie. We thought we would not need you to come back here again. Would you mind speaking to us about what you claim to have seen?” Maisie sat down and told them what she had seen. Agent Miller showed Maisie a book of mug shots. Within thirty seconds, she pointed to the right man. “Hawk,” Agent Miller said to his staff. Hawk was a hardened criminal who was on the run. The FBI thought he was in Mexico, but they grew concerned about his whereabouts. They were concerned about Maisie’s safety. Maisie was stunned and angry. She wanted to scream and ask why they had changed her identity if he was going to find her anyway. She caught her breath and said, “I thought I was safe. I thought the witness protection program was going to keep the criminals from finding me.” Agent Miller said, “Maisie, we do our best job here, but one thing we don’t do is make 100 percent guarantees. Nothing in life is a guarantee. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but you might as well learn it now.” Maisie thought his words were a bit harsh. Agent Miller said, “We’re going to keep you here until we feel safe about allowing you to return to your new home.” Maisie was upset. She just wanted to live a normal life. She wanted to go to work every day and come home every day. And she wanted to date Emmett. “Will I be allowed to contact people from my current life?” Agent Miller said, “Not at this time. No, you cannot.” Maisie didn’t know whether to scream or cry. A tear formed in her eye. “I’m sorry, Maisie. It’s for your own safety and well-being.” Maisie was led to a room where she would stay until things were worked out. She knew Emmett would wonder what had happened to her. After a few days, Maisie poured her heart out to them. She said she desperately wanted to live a normal life and was willing to take the risk of Hawk finding her again. The FBI wasn’t too keen on the idea, but after an hour, they decided to allow her to go home. Agent Miller was against it, but his bosses made the final decision. When Maisie got home, Bob and Donna were on the couch. They had been informed about the incident. She felt a sense of relief that they already knew. Bob let her know that her job was safe. He had notified the owner. She was still worried about Emmett. She checked her phone to see if he had tried contacting her. His last text said that he was worried about her. Maisie texted him and said she was okay. Emmett called and they talked for two hours. They had a second date at a nice restaurant—just the two of them. Maisie thought it was worth the risk of Hawk finding her again. She had been through so much in her life that even short, happy moments meant everything to her. Chapter 7 Weeks and months passed by. Emmett told Maisie that he had fallen in love with her. Maisie said the same to him. Alex grew fond of Maisie. The world could not be brighter for them. Maisie learned a lot about Emmett, including that he was a high-level music manager. He had an office in a high-rise in the city, but he did most of his work from home. He managed his time so that their work hours were about the same, which gave them a lot of time together. Emmett and Maisie spent almost all of their free time together. Maisie was happy and living the normal life she had always wanted. One day at Emmett’s house, he sat down on the couch next to Maisie. He looked at her with love, placed his hand in hers, and said, “Honey, how would you feel about moving in with me?” Maisie’s heart skipped a beat. She thought for a moment, nodded, and smiled. “Is that a yes?” Emmett asked. “Yes, it is, sweetheart,” Maisie replied. Chapter 8 I would have to break the news to Bob and Donna. I was going to be moving in with Emmett. As I walked in the front door, I hung my keys on the key rack and set down my purse. My mother was in the kitchen. I wasn’t sure where my dad was. “Hello,” I said. Donna looked happy to see me and said, “Hello, Maisie.” My parents hugged me every time I returned home. In fact, they hugged everyone they knew who entered their home. I wasn’t used to that in my former life, but I was aware that some families were like that. Bob and Donna were practicing Catholics and attended church every Sunday. Both of them encouraged me to go with them since being Catholic was part of my new identity. I politely refused all but a few times. For some reason, I had trouble remembering the specific gestures that people made during Mass. It made me feel out of place, but I had a spiritual feeling whenever I walked inside the church. “Where’s Dad?” I asked. “Still at work.” Bob was an executive at a large car manufacturing company. “He had to fire someone that day, so he might seem a bit on edge when he gets home.” I never really thought about the downside of his job. I was usually more focused on the luxuries Bob and Donna had: the expensive, well-kept home, his executive position, and the stocks and money. Bob watched the stock market reports on the news every night while we ate dinner. The bookshelves were filled with books about investing money, the stock market, and real estate. All the books were hardcover. None of them were paperback. It made me wonder if the books were there for display purposes or if they were really read. Even though Bob and Donna came across a bit snobbish toward others, they were good people. After all, they had taken me into their home to aid in my protection. It was hard to get to really know them at first, but after a while, I realized they were reliable and caring people. My brother also worked at the plant as a manager in the assembly line. Dominick worked hard for his money, and he was a good husband and father. He lived in the town next to mine. That was helpful since Donna often babysat his two sons. Donna babysat at Dominick’s house because she didn’t want a mess in our home. Nothing was out of place at home. In fact, one room was roped off to keep the grandsons from going inside. The room had white walls, an off-white rug, and a white grand piano. I never saw anyone playing it. I questioned Donna about the piano one day. I asked if she or Bob knew how to play it. Donna said that both of them knew how. If I knew how to play the piano, I would not let an expensive grand piano go unused in my living room. Things like that were typical with Bob and Donna. They had expensive items that were never used. I believe their image was more important to them than actually enjoying the things they had. Donna liked expensive clothes and jewelry. She spent most of her free time at high-end department stores. Many times, she shopped with her daughter-in-law. Jillian had the same expensive taste. The two of them got along well, and Dominick got along well with Bob. They had work in common, and they liked the same football team. Even though the family welcomed me and treated me as one of their own, I still felt a bit out of place. Although that was not the reason I was going to be moving in with Emmett. I was moving in with him because I wanted to strengthen our relationship. When Bob got home, he did not seem on edge. During dinner, I broke the news that I would be moving in with Emmett the following day. Bob extended his hand and said, “Congratulations.” Donna looked as though I was intentionally rejecting living in their home—as if I had a personal grievance with them. She smiled slightly and said nothing. Later that night, I had a long talk with Donna. I assured her that there was nothing personal against the family. I was leaving to be with the man of my dreams. After an hour or so, Donna said she fully understood. Chapter 9 I was so in love. Things were definitely moving in the right direction for me. I went to work and had an appointment with Dr. Stockton. When I arrived at Harvest Moon at ten o’clock, it was still closed. As I walked up the steps, I turned the doorknob and peered through the window. It was dark inside, and the door was locked. I was never in charge of opening the store, and I wondered which employee had been scheduled to open that day. A car pulled into the parking lot next to mine. Amanda looked frazzled and out of breath as she stepped out of her car. Her purse kept slipping off of her shoulder while she walked as fast as she could toward the door. “Ugh. A bit late today. Have you been waiting long?” “No,” I replied, “I just got here. Are you okay?” We were about the same age. Amanda was the closest friend I had since my transformation to Maisie. Amanda said, “It’s my dad, Maisie. He had a massive heart attack last night. I just left the hospital.” I looked at her with shock and empathy and told her to go home and get some rest. “I will run the store. Don’t worry.” “Thank you, Maisie. I owe you one,” Amanda said as she unlocked the door. It was dark inside, and I was alone. I wasn’t even sure where the lights were. I had never been in charge of opening the store. After several minutes, I figured it out. I plugged in the “Open for Business” sign, and a few customers came into the store. They made small purchases and left. It was a typical day until a strange-looking older woman entered the store. She was slightly hunchbacked and dressed in black with a purple poncho. We were the only two people in the store. She browsed for a few minutes, touching the healing stones and admiring a four-leaf clover that was encased in a lucky coin. I asked how she was, and she replied, “Just fine. Do you believe in magic I hesitated and said, “Well, yes. Of course.” I wasn’t really sure about my answer. I worked in a shop that was geared toward items for people who believed such things—the type of people who believed in spiritual things like psychics, mediums, magic, voodoo, and the zodiac. “Very good, dear.” She put three crystals on the counter and asked me what my name was. “Maisie.” “Maisie, do you see these three crystals? Each one has a special power. I am going to explain each one to you.” The first crystal was light blue. “This holds the power of significance,” she said. “October 23—remember today.” “Okay,” I said. “But why?” “Because it is the date of significance.” She picked up the second crystal, which was golden. I looked at the crystal and then looked up at her. “Opportunity,” she said. I remained silent and looked at her. “Young lady, you are a gift from God. We all walk with the power of opportunity, but you possess one unique opportunity—the opportunity of connection. The power to feel and sense real things that are beyond your reach. Use it wisely.” As I listened to her words, my head scrambled to make sense of it all. I immediately wondered what she would say about the third crystal. The third crystal was as black as the darkest night. The old woman asked me for the total cost and motioned for me to get a shopping bag. As she began walking toward the door, my curiosity got the best of me. I opened my mouth and said, “Ma’am, what’s that black crystal all about?” She slowly turned toward me and said, “Mysteries. Mysteries of life. Never forget they exist.” I nodded, and she left the store. She had given me a lot of food for thought, but I didn’t have much time for that. My shift was nearly over, and I had an appointment with Dr. Stockton. Chapter 10 Amanda went home to get some rest. She was married and had two children. Her husband was at the front door when Amanda walked in. She knew immediately that something was wrong. Neil said, “We need to go back to the hospital, Mandy.” Amanda had felt weary before she opened the door, but after seeing the serious look on Neil’s face, adrenaline took over her body. Suddenly, Amanda was walking and talking like there was no tomorrow. The possibility was strong that there would be no tomorrow for her dad. Neil had already sent their two children to be taken care of by his parents while they returned to the hospital. In the intensive care unit, Amanda’s family had gathered. They appeared anxious, tired, and sad. “How is he, Mom?” Amanda asked. Amanda’s mother was speechless. Amanda’s uncle approached and said, “Mandy, your father is holding on.” “Why can’t we see him? And why is everybody in the waiting room?” “He’s in bad shape, sweetie. The doctor has been allowing us to see him every once in awhile—but only two people at a time.” Amanda immediately felt weak. She looked around and saw an unoccupied seat. Amanda asked the woman next to it if it was taken. The woman told Amanda that she was waiting for news about her daughter. Her daughter had been in a coma for months. Amanda was about to tell the woman about her dad, but a doctor walked in and told Amanda’s family that her father had died. The family gathered closer, cried, and talked with one another. Amanda got up to join them, and the woman next to her said, “I’m sorry for your news, dear.” Amanda said, “Thank you. Best of luck to you and your family with your daughter.” The woman replied, “Thank you dear.” Amanda’s family asked the doctor a few questions as they consoled one another. After an hour, everyone from her family had left the hospital. Funeral arrangements had to be made. Amanda offered to assist her mother with the dreadful task. She and Neil went home. It had been a long day for everyone. Chapter 11 My appointment with Dr. Stockton went well. In fact, he informed me that I was doing so well that I would begin seeing him only once a month and not every week. He had also lowered the dosage of my medication two weeks earlier. I had been on medication to help ease the transition from Brooke to Maisie. Dr. Foreman had originally prescribed the medication, but Dr. Stockton had continued it. Dr. Stockton asked how my therapy sessions were going with Karen. I told him that they were going well and that she had educated me about important lessons in life. For example, I learned the value of counting my blessings every day. I had been through so much in my life, but I learned to appreciate what I had and not to focus on what had been taken from me—my identity. I learned to think about the fact that things could be worse. I could be living in a foreign land with no water or food. I could be dead. I could have no one who cared about me. I learned to appreciate everyone who took the time to care—even paid professionals such as Dr. Stockton and Karen. Bitterness entered my mind occasionally. I would think about the fact that Dr. Stockton and Karen were being paid to care about me, but I didn’t entertain that thought for too long. I turned it around and realized that if I didn’t have their care, I didn’t want to think about where I would be at that point. I kept thinking positive thoughts. I appreciated that they were there for me. I appreciated my family and friends—and I appreciated Emmett. After my session with Dr. Stockton was over, I made it as far as the waiting room before my phone lit up. Amanda said, “Maisie, my dad died.” I said, “I’m so sorry, Amanda. Is there anything I can do?” “Just be there for me.” I told her I would always be there for her and that she was my best friend. I did not want to disturb the patients in the waiting room. I went outside and finished our conversation in my car. We talked for about fifteen minutes. I was never really sure what to say to someone who was dealing with the death of a loved one, but I think I did all right with Amanda. I let her do most of the talking, and I spent most of the conversation just listening to her. She was interrupted and had to say good-bye. She told me she would call later. She had to help her family with the funeral arrangements. I told her to let me know when the funeral was so that I could attend. She said she would have the information that night. When I arrived home, I went right to the kitchen. It was fend-for-yourself night. Bob was watching television on the couch as he ate his dinner. Donna was resting her feet on an ottoman as she ate. They were happy to see me. We chatted for a couple of minutes, but I really wanted to go up to my bedroom, eat my dinner, and reflect on the day. When I got to my room, I set my dinner plate and glass of water on my desk. I kicked off my shoes and put on my comfortable moccasins. I ate dinner at my desk and then retreated to my bed. My headphones were on my pillow. I had been listening to music that morning. I moved them aside and rested my head on my pillow. I looked out my window as and thought. It was beginning to get dark, and it looked cold. After a few minutes, I remembered I was moving into Emmett’s house the following day. I checked my phone. There were three texts from him: “Hello, my love,” “You there, baby?” and, “Hi, baby. Call me when you see this.” I didn’t hesitate to call. We talked about my moving arrangements. He would be at my home on Friday night to help move my things. We said our romantic good-byes, and I smiled. He always made hard days feel joyous. I thought about the old woman in the store and the crystals. I tried to piece it all together, but I could not figure it out. Maybe there is no meaning to it all. Maybe she was just a crazy lady. That must be it. The mystery crept through my brain until I finally fell asleep. Chapter 12 On Friday, I was excited to move into Emmett’s house. He was the man of my dreams and beyond. I had to go to work first. The owner knew Amanda’s dad had died and allowed her to have a few days off from work. When I arrived at ten o’clock, the owner had opened the shop. Charlie was an elderly man with gray hair, a gray mustache that was a bit too long, and wrinkles. He looked like someone who had worked hard all of his life, but he still had an energetic spirit. He would sometimes tell jokes that I found inappropriate, but I laughed anyway. I realized it was just a small part of who he was. I got to know him as someone who would give a person in need the shirt off his back. He was kind and generous, and he was a good person to work for. Charlie was very understanding. His shop didn’t earn him a fortune, but he gave Amanda the time off with pay. Charlie and I worked together. We took turns for our lunch breaks. During his turn, he left the store for an hour. I got a big surprise when Emmett showed up. He was on his lunch break and wanted to see me because he missed me. We were so in love with each other. Emmett had never been inside Harvest Moon. He looked around at the merchandise. I had a customer at the register, and I spent a few moments cashing her out. I turned my back from the counter for a second to reach for a shopping bag and heard a knock. The customer was standing to the side, and a fuzzy stuffed rabbit was peering at me from the counter. Emmett was squatting down with his arm extended. He was wearing a top hat that we sold in the store as part of a magic kit. “Very funny,” I said. Emmett smiled and said, “You just witnessed a great magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. This is your lucky day, ma’am.” The other customer laughed and smiled. “Cute trick.” When she left the shop, I told Emmett I loved him. He always had a way to make me smile. He told me he loved me too, and we discussed a few minor details about the move. Emmett had to return to his job after his lunch hour. Charlie had not returned, and I had no customers in the store. I called Amanda, and she sounded like she was handling the situation as well as she possibly could. Some of her family lived out of state, and they would be traveling for the funeral. She gave me the details about the funeral arrangements. When Charlie returned to the store, I gave him details about the funeral. We called the other employees to let them know the funeral was scheduled for Monday. Charlie scheduled an employee who did not know Amanda that well. Bob and Donna were sad to see me leave, but that they understood and wished me nothing but happiness. Dominick and Jillian were there to help. Robin and Edison (ages eight and five) spent time with their grandma and grandpa, and the rest of us transported my belongings. Dominick and Emmett got along well despite their vastly different styles and personalities. Dominick was a jeans and T-shirt type of man; Emmett was more of a well-dressed, shirt and tie type. Emmett was not adamant about his clothing. He usually dressed for the occasion. Since we were moving my things, Emmett was dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans. Dominick had a nice, easygoing personality. His priorities were beer and football. Jillian had short, well-styled blonde hair. She was thin and dressed well for any occasion. She acted like a snob most of the time. I sometimes wondered if she married my brother for his money, but I liked giving people the benefit of the doubt—and I hoped that wasn’t the reason. I got along well with Jillian, but she wasn’t someone I wanted to spend a lot of time with. We drove back and forth with my belongings, using my car and Dominick’s truck. Emmett was surprised by how much I owned. I was ready to hear a snide comment about how women pack too much, but Emmett didn’t say a word about it. He was a gentleman. I suppose I was waiting for a comment because relatives from my old life might have said something like that. After the move, Emmett and I hugged and kissed. He said, “Welcome home, my sweet love.” I smiled from ear to ear. It was a nice place to begin the next level of our relationship. Chapter 13 The funeral for Amanda’s father was on Monday morning. Emmett and Maisie were there with Charlie. The funeral service was at the Methodist church. Even though Amanda had grown up in that faith, she didn’t attend church very often. Amanda believed in God, but she also believed in fortune telling, voodoo, and astrology. Amanda’s mother was never too happy about that; Amanda kept her distance from her mom as much as possible. Amanda’s mom needed her, and Amanda did everything she could for her. The air was bitter cold. Winter was right around the corner. Maisie was freezing on the walk from the car into the church. Emmett told her that she should have dressed warmer. Maisie replied, “I know. I haven’t gotten it into my head that it’s not summer anymore. I’m not prepared for this type of weather.” Maisie had met Amanda’s father and talked with him a few times, but she was mainly at the funeral to support her best friend. The church choir was singing before anyone spoke. There were also people playing the organ and violin. Maisie was impressed, but she found out later that it only happened rarely. Amanda’s father had been very active in the church and was liked by many people at church and in the community. The minister started by saying his condolences and then read some passages from the Bible. The church was packed. There wasn’t an empty seat. Several people were standing in the back. Amanda’s uncle went up to the podium and spoke for about twenty minutes about his brother. Five other family members and friends did the same. The funeral service lasted two hours. It was followed by a buffet lunch in the church basement. Maisie and Emmett stayed until most of the people had filed out of the church. Before they left, Maisie gave Amanda a big hug and promised her that she would be there for her whenever she needed. Amanda said, “Thanks, Maisie. And if I can ever return the favor, I’ll do the same.” They said good-bye and walked toward the exit. The church was empty except for a man near the doors. He pointed to a pair of women’s gloves and asked Maisie if they belonged to her. Maisie looked at the gloves and said, “No, they’re not mine.” The man was a church member and said that he had asked everyone who attended the funeral the same question, and no one had claimed them. The man told Maisie that she could have them. Maisie thanked him and put on the gloves. When Emmett and Maisie returned home, Maisie told him that God must have been watching out for her that day. Emmett just smiled politely. Chapter 14 Maisie and Emmett spent the weekend enjoying each other’s company. Their house was green and had a small white porch. It was built in the 1950s, but Emmett kept it upgraded. The inside felt homey. It had wood floors and large rugs in each room. The furniture was tasteful. The colonial-style home had three bedrooms. Emmett and Maisie shared the master bedroom. One of the bedrooms was used for Emmett’s office. The third bedroom was for Alex when she spent weekends there. Alex lived with her mom, stepdad, and baby brother. She spent every other weekend and some vacations at Emmett’s house. Having Alex around part of the time made Maisie think about having a child with Emmett—a child who would call her “Mom.” Alex called Maisie by her name. Maisie started to think about the fact that she was getting older and wondered if Emmett had a desire for more children. Maisie decided it would be okay if she never had a child of her own. Alex was a blessing to her, and even though she wasn’t called “Mom,” she felt like one toward Alex. Maisie helped Alex with her homework on the weekends, and they did chores together. As time went on, they did things as a family. That weekend, they went to the movies with Emmett. The three of them had a great weekend together. Chapter 15 Maisie was glad the funeral was over and life was returning to normal. She went to work the next day. Charlie went at the store to unlock the doors, turn on the lights, and prepare for the day. Charlie handed her a set of keys and told Maisie that he would be giving her the responsibility of opening the store in the mornings. He increased her hourly pay by twenty-five cents. She was earning minimum wage plus an extra seventy-five cents per hour. Charlie told Maisie she’d be on her own that day since he had some business to attend to elsewhere. Maisie put her belongings in the back room, stood by the cash register, and waited for some customers. The door opened, and the bell above it rang as usual. It was the old woman who had purchased the crystals. “Welcome,” Maisie said. The old woman said, “Thank you.” She was wearing the same clothes and wandered around the store for fifteen minutes while Maisie attended to other customers. The other customers left without purchasing anything. The old woman carried something to the checkout counter and put the heavy magic links on the counter. Maisie asked what she would be using the links for since they were typically used for magic shows. The old woman said, “Maisie, these links represent all living creatures. We are all bonded to one another by forces that are not in view by the human eye. Wars develop within the world when a link is broken or disconnected. It must immediately be brought back together. The energy within these links is powerful.” Maisie replied, “I see.” The old woman headed for the door. Maisie said, “Have a nice day.” Chapter 16 Tuesday was Maisie’s birthday, but it was not her real birthday from her former life. It was the date that was on her birth certificate with her new identity. Maisie was turning thirty-four that day. Emmett made sure it was a day she would not forget. Even though it was not the weekend, he invited friends and relatives over to surprise her that evening after work. The biggest surprise was waiting in the driveway. He had bought her a new car. Maisie had no idea there was anything for her as she walked into the kitchen. She thought that Emmett might have made her breakfast, but he hadn’t. She wasn’t even sure where he was until he stepped inside the front door. He wiped his shoes on the mat and said, “There’s the love of my life.” Maisie was wearing her bathrobe and moccasins. “Happy birthday, my love,” he said. Maisie’s hair was going in all different directions, and she had no makeup on. “Thank you, my sweet love.” “Look outside,” he said. Maisie looked outside. “Oh, it snowed last night. It’s pretty.” “No, look in the driveway, sweetheart.” A shiny silver sedan had a big sign that read: “Happy Birthday, Maisie.” Emmett looked at her and said, “It’s yours.” “Oh, wow, Emmett!” “Go over and look at it, my love. It’s yours. It’s paid in full. There are no monthly payments—we don’t owe a thing on it.” Maisie walked right over to the car. “Thank you so much, Emmett. Thank you. Thank you.” “You’re welcome. Enjoy.” Maisie wanted to admire the car, but she had to get ready for work. Emmett made breakfast while she got ready. By the time she came downstairs, a plate was on the table with eggs and hash browns, a side dish of mixed fruit, a small glass of orange juice, and a cup of coffee. Maisie knew she would be late to work if she sat down to eat the breakfast, but she was hungry—and she knew he worked hard to make her happy. She called Charlie to let him know she was running a little late. Charlie was scheduled to work that day, but Maisie was supposed to unlock the doors and open the shop. Charlie knew it was Maisie’s birthday and agreed to get there early to open the store for her. Maisie ate breakfast with Emmett. He had even placed a vase with a rose on the center of the table. After breakfast, Emmett handed Maisie the keys. They kissed, and Maisie drove to work. When she arrived at the shop, Charlie was talking to a customer. He broke away from his conversation to wish Maisie a happy birthday. Maisie thanked him for opening the store on such short notice. He told her it was not a problem and mentioned that Amanda would be returning to work the following day. “So soon?” Maisie asked. “I told her she could stay out a few more days, but she said she thought it was best if she got back into a normal routine.” Maisie didn’t want to come across as though she was bragging, so she wasn’t sure if she should share the news about her new car. Charlie looked out the window. “New car?” Maisie smiled and told him that it was a birthday gift from Emmett. Charlie tried to be funny and asked what she had to do to pay Emmett back. He reached for Maisie’s arm and led her toward the door. “Come on. Show me. I want to see it.” They went to the parking lot and admired the car’s exterior and interior. When a customer pulled into the parking lot, they returned to the store. Charlie unpacked some small shipments, and Maisie attended to the customers. It was an average day at the store. Charlie wanted to tell Maisie she could leave early, but he couldn’t. The plan was for the surprise party to begin after her shift. If she went home too early, it would ruin the surprise. When it was time for the store to close, Maisie got into her new car and cranked the radio. She and Emmett had texted a few times during the day, but Emmett never let on that there would be a surprise party when she got home. Maisie noticed several cars parked along the road and figured someone was having a party. As soon as she opened the front door, her friends and family shouted, “Surprise!” She saw Emmett, Alex, Bob, Donna, Dominick, Jillian, Robin, Edison, Charlie, Amanda, Neil, and a few other friends and family members. The house was decorated with balloons and streamers. Maisie’s favorite music was playing in the background. Everyone wanted to rush outside to see her new car. Dominick asked Maisie what she was going to do with her old car. Emmett said, “Out to the highest bidder.” Dominick responded, “That old clunker? Probably gonna have to pay someone to take it.” Maisie said, “My old car may look run down, but it never has any problems.” Emmett laughed and said, “Uh, Maisie dear, how is it that we met each other?” Maisie laughed and said, “Okay it had a problem one time.” They celebrated with dinner, cake, ice cream, and drinks. They left after the cake was served since most of them had to work in the morning. Maisie’s life had never been brighter. Chapter 17 Karen and Maisie met to discuss Maisie’s abuse. Maisie let out a large sigh and relaxed her shoulders. “How has your week been?” Karen asked. “Stressful but manageable.” Maisie spoke about her week for five minutes, and Karen asked her to describe her life as Raymond’s girlfriend. “Let’s see, Raymond was very controlling toward me. He would tell me what I could and could not watch on television. If I didn’t listen to him and changed the channel to something he didn’t like, he would hit me. He was a perfectionist, and if I made even the smallest mistake, he would yell and scream at me. One time after I had done the laundry and put his clothes away, he yelled at me for not putting the clothes in perfect alignment. He trained me in the correct way. One time, he put a knife to my throat. He said that if I left him, he would kill my family. So I stayed. And one time—” Karen said, “Maisie, let me start by saying that you did a very brave thing by seeking help. No one deserves that type of treatment. No one. I’m sure you have plenty of other stories to tell, and you can at another time. For now, let’s focus on two things: you are not in that situation currently and you’re a hero for escaping the abuse. I want to educate you on the subject of abuse so that you may begin to heal. I believe that education is the first step in the healing process.” Maisie quietly listened to Karen. She had never heard that she was a hero or that she was brave. Maisie began feeling better about herself. She had not been aware that she held deep feelings of belittlement and lacked self-confidence. Negative feelings began to surface like wildfire. Karen said, “Maisie, let’s begin by informing you that there are typical patterns of abusers. They use certain tactics to gain the trust of their victims and then manipulate and control them. You are not alone. Degrading their victims is one tactic. They do this so that their victims begin feeling worthless about themselves and then feel more needy of the abuser. There’s a term called ‘power and control.’ The abusers are very crafty in the process that they use. I will teach you some of the different ways they do this. For example, they use money as way to control their victims.” The word money triggered thoughts about how Raymond had ruined her financially. “Ray told me where to buy things and what to buy. He told me to use my own money. He said my money was our money because we were going to get married. I never saw a cent of his money. If I said anything about it, or asked about his money, I would end up regretting it because he would physically abuse me if I had. I did as I was told. I was scared all the time. I felt like I was walking on eggshells with every word I said and every move I made. He scared me. He even showed me where he would bury my family if I left him. He gave me details that led me to believe he was serious. I was so scared.” Karen said, “You’re a very strong woman, Maisie. You found the courage to leave that situation. Good for you. Let’s keep our time today short. I think you need time to process a few things that we brought up.” Maisie agreed and nodded. “We’ll meet at the same time next Wednesday,” Karen said. “Enjoy the rest of your day before the snow begins. I heard it’s supposed to snow on Friday.” Maisie said, “I thought it didn’t snow in the South. I never would have moved here if I had known.” Karen smiled, knowing that Maisie was joking. Chapter 18 Friday was Harvest Moon’s busiest day of the week. Charlie typically scheduled two people to run the store. Maisie and Amanda were working that day. They were glad about that. It gave them a chance to catch up on things. For the first thirty minutes, no one was in the shop. Maisie peered out of the window, but the parking lot was empty. As Maisie headed toward the checkout counter, the bell rang. It was the old woman with her husband. He was about the same height as his wife, and he was wearing a knitted hat. The old man was using a cane, and his back was a bit hunched. Amanda greeted the two customers with a big smile. They smiled at Amanda as the old man browsed the store. He laughed and said, “Voodoo dolls!” Amanda whispered, “Maisie, they shopped here before. The old woman is crazy. He puts up with her though. He must really love her.” The old woman admired the lucky penny with the four-leaf clover. “She looks at that penny every time she’s here,” Amanda said. The old woman picked up the penny and brought it to the counter. “Maisie, dear, how are you?” Maisie said she was fine. “And, Amanda, my dear, how are you?” Amanda replied, “I’m fine as well. Will you be purchasing this today?” “Yes, dear,” she replied. The phone rang, and Amanda answered the call. Maisie stepped up to the cash register to process the old woman’s purchase. “Miracles,” said the old woman. “They’re in every aspect of our lives. Do you exist in this world, Maisie?” “Well, yes. Of course I exist in this world.” The old woman said, “Then that is a miracle. Every living being in this world has been blessed with a miracle.” The old man paid for the lucky penny, smiled, and said, “Magic, voodoo, stones, hocus pocus.” Maisie let out a slight giggle as she finished her work at the register. The couple left the store as new customers arrived. Later that afternoon, Amanda said, “That woman is crazy with a capital C.” Maisie just smiled and said, “Oh, they looked so cute together. I bet she knits as a hobby. I bet she made that hat he was wearing.” Amanda agreed. The weekend had approached, and the two were excited to go home and enjoy a couple of days with their families. Maisie had to work Saturday morning, but she was still happy it was the weekend. Chapter 19 Maisie drove home to be with Emmett and enjoy a nice weekend together. It was their weekend to have Alexandria over. Maisie and Emmett greeted one another with a kiss as soon as she walked in the front door. “It’s so good to be home. I love you,” Maisie said. “I love you too, sweetheart. You’re my one and only,” he said. Emmett was wearing a white dress shirt, a gray-striped tie, dark pants, and black dress shoes. He had just returned from a meeting. “You look so charming,” Maisie said. “Not as charming, beautiful, and stunning as you do,” he replied. Maisie, for a brief moment, reflected on her life with Raymond. If Raymond had ever said those words to her, he would likely have an ulterior motive. She broke away from the thought instantly, realizing that Emmett’s words were spoken with the utmost sincerity. She trusted Emmett more than she had ever trusted anyone. He was kind to her—and he was kind to everyone he encountered. He was an all-around nice man, handsome, and charming. She felt like she had hit the jackpot. Emmett was just as much amazed by Maisie. He found her to be the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. No matter what she was wearing or how tired she was, she was absolutely beautiful. Nothing was a problem in their relationship. They never argued. Their personalities had slight differences, but they were very much alike. It was just the right mixture and chemistry to make it a nearly perfect relationship. “Do you want to ride along with me or do you want to stay home and begin relaxing?” Emmett asked. “No question about it,” Maisie replied. “I want to be with the man I love as much as possible while he picks up his wonderful little girl.” Emmett replied that her comment was sweet and joked that she made a wise choice. He wanted to be with her as much as she wanted to be with him. When Emmett and Maisie went to pick up Alex, her mother darted toward Emmett’s car. Emmett rolled down the car window. “You’re two weeks late on child support. No money, no visit,” Stacey said. Emmett said, “I’ll have it for you by next Friday,” “Send Alex out here now,” he said. She looked at Maisie and said, “Can’t do better than that “All right—enough. I want my daughter out here now.” Stacey walked toward her house to get Alex. Maisie had only heard good things about Stacey via Emmett and Alex. Emmett kept it that way on purpose. He did not believe in speaking poorly about the mother of his child in front of Alex. He did not want to tell Maisie about Stacey’s true persona and arrogance. Stacey was a borderline evil woman, but she was a good mother. Emmett and Stacey never married because Emmett didn’t love her. Their relationship had only lasted two months. A month after they broke up, Stacey informed him of her pregnancy. Alex exited the front door with an old suitcase. Emmett wanted to help her, but he also wanted Alex to develop more independence. He knew the suitcase wasn’t too heavy for her to carry. Alex had a big grin on her face as she approached the car. Her teeth were large and bright white, and she was missing a tooth. She looked like the happiest kid on the planet. Stacey was a good mother, and Emmett was an awesome dad. And she had Maisie in her life. Maisie and Alex got along like a teacher and a student. Maisie was like a mentor to Alex. She taught her things that she didn’t learn in school—such as the names of different types of flowers—and Alex was always eager to learn. They had a pleasant conversation during the short trip home. They played a game and told each other one thing that they liked about their week and one thing that they disliked about their week. Alex began by saying she liked getting a letter from her pen pal. Maisie asked her about it. She wasn’t aware that Alex had a pen pal. “Yeah, he lived near me when we were little, but he moved away. His name is Sawyer.” Maisie chuckled because she still saw Alex as a little kid. Emmett smiled too. Alex said, “And I had to go to school.” Emmett and Maisie laughed because they knew she said that to be funny even though there was some truth behind it. Emmett told Maisie it was her turn. Maisie thought for a moment and said, “I liked two of the customers I had in the store this week. A cute old couple. And I disliked having to go to a funeral this week. Okay, your turn, Emmett.” Emmett said, “Having my two favorite people in the whole world with me. This is what I like about my week. This moment right now.” He agreed that the funeral was the part of the week he disliked. It was a good way for them to bond. Maisie ordered pizza for dinner. All three were having a great evening together, but Maisie had to cut the evening short. She had a four-hour shift at the store in the morning. Emmett spent a little bit of father-daughter time with Alex after Maisie went to bed. They would have the entire morning together while Maisie was at work. Alex went to her room and fell asleep, and Emmett watched a football game on television before he went to bed. The next morning, Emmett surprised Maisie with breakfast. She was running late, but she had time to eat quickly. She felt badly that she couldn’t spend more time enjoying the meal, but Emmett understood. At work, Maisie reflected on the encounter with Stacey. Although she knew it was none of her business, she wondered why Emmett was late with the child support. She wondered if she was the cause. She wondered if she was too much of an added expense in Emmett’s household. She and Emmett had made an agreement that Maisie would pay for the electricity and groceries. Emmett could not ask Maisie to contribute any more, but Maisie was beginning to wonder if that was enough. Everything she read about relationships said that money was the number one reason most couples fought. She did not want her relationship to end up as part of that statistic. Maisie vowed not to let money be a contributing factor in any arguments with Emmett. She wanted her relationship with him to be more like a team than two opponents in a boxing match. She had encountered the latter with Raymond—and she did not want anything like that to happen again. By the time she returned home, Emmett and Alex were enjoying a game of cards. A light dusting of snow carpeted the lawn, so the two of them found entertainment indoors. Maisie found humor in how southern people dealt with a small amount of snow. A trace of snow seemed to be nearly a nightmare to them. She also found it to be an enlightening change from the rugged attitudes about snow from people in the North. Emmett and Alex greeted Maisie. Alex asked if she wanted to join them in their card game, but Maisie said she was going to begin making dinner. She had planned an elaborate meal for the three of them. Maisie loved to cook, but she didn’t do it often. When she did cook, the meals turned out superbly. Emmett enjoyed cooking as well. He allowed Maisie to make the meal so that Emmett and Alex could have more father-daughter time. The meal was delicious and they enjoyed it as much as they enjoyed the rest of the weekend. By Sunday afternoon, it was time to take Alex back home. After Emmett and Maisie dropped her off at her house, they wound down at home. Emmett mentioned how wonderful his family time was with them. It was the first time Maisie had heard Emmett refer to the three of them as a family. It sounded like the ringing of bells to her ears. It was a pleasant way to end the weekend. Chapter 20 The week was going by quickly. On Wednesday, Maisie met with Karen. As she read a magazine in the waiting room, she glanced around at the other patients. It reminded her of Hawk. She thought about the eye contact she had with him in the alley and in Karen’s waiting room. Maisie typically lived without fear. After all, she was in the witness protection program. Somehow, Hawk had fallen through cracks of the system. He had tracked down Maisie—even with her new identity. The FBI chief made a rare apology to Maisie and assured her that it would not happen again. This incident brought an awareness to Maisie that the intelligence level of Hawk was extremely high and that he fit nowhere on the profile charts of a typical criminal. Maisie knew nothing was foolproof. She had been reminded at FBI headquarters that there were no guarantees for her safety, but they had reiterated that she didn’t need to waste her time worrying about it. She was told to live a normal life as best as she could and let the authorities do the worrying. They insisted that she was being protected. As Maisie continued to think about Hawk, Karen interrupted her. It was time for their appointment. Maisie placed the magazine on the table, stood up, and walked into Karen’s office. Karen asked Maisie about her week. Maisie spent a few moments talking about her job and home life. She briefly talked about Emmett. He was her favorite topic of discussion. Karen was always glad to hear how well she was being treated at work and home. Karen handed Maisie a piece of paper. The paper had typed words with a heading that said, “Power and Control.” Below the heading, there was a list. Karen asked Maisie to read the list aloud. “Coercion and threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, isolation, minimizing, denying and blaming, using children, economic abuse, and male privilege,” Maisie said. “Okay,” Karen said. “Now I want you to peruse the list again and tell me what you think about it.” Maisie glanced at the sheet and said, “Interesting.” Karen waited for Maisie to elaborate. “It’s interesting, but I’m not sure what it means.” “These are some behaviors that an abusive persons will use toward their victims—a list of patterns they use to gain power and control over their victims.” Maisie nodded. “Now, is there anything, after looking at this list, that you’d like to discuss?” Karen asked. Maisie smiled and said, “Yes, Emmett.” “I mean about the past abuse you suffered, Maisie. Is there anything you want to talk about?” “I’m beyond all that, Karen. It’s interesting—and I like learning—but as far as needing to vent from the abuse of the past, there is no need.” Maisie had been through so many changes in her life that were almost more than anyone could handle. She wanted to move on with her life and not dredge up the past. Karen said, “The emotions from your past needed to surface and be dealt with in order to happily move on with your life.” Maisie nodded. She understood the logic in Karen’s statement. “He degraded me all the time. I never realized how worthless I was feeling until the moment I left him. It was like breathing fresh air for the first time.” Karen said, “That is was a good start to healing, but our time is up for the day.” Maisie drove home and thought about the session. By the time she was home and saw Emmett, her mind shifted back to her life. She felt happy at home with Emmett and wondered why she had talk about the past. Maisie decided to talk to Dr. Stockton about it during her next appointment. In the meantime, life was good for Maisie. She felt happy and content. Chapter 21 The weekend arrived, but it was not Emmett’s weekend with Alex. Maisie and Emmett had the weekend to themselves. Emmett kept in contact with Alex on a daily basis. Even though Alex was young, Emmett made sure she had her own phone. It was a way for him to keep in daily contact with her, and he thought it was an important safety measure. After Emmett and Maisie were settled in for the night, Emmett called Alex. “Hi, honey.” “Hi, Dad. What’s up?” They both laughed. Alex was always trying to get others to laugh. “Just checking to see how you are today. Maisie’s here. Do you want to say hello to her?” “Sure.” Maisie reached for Emmett’s phone. “Hi, Alex. I haven’t talked to you all week. How’s school going?” “Good.” “Have you heard from Sawyer lately?” Alex said, “I just gotten a letter from him. He’s doing good. He invited me to California. He and said we could go to Disneyland and stuff like that. But my mom said we’ll see.” Maisie said, “That’s great, Alex. I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard how much fun Disneyland is. I’m going to hand the phone back over to your dad now. Glad you’re doing well. I’ll see you next weekend.” After the phone call, Emmett asked Maisie if she’d like to go out to dinner. Maisie, remembering that Emmett was late with the child support, said that she’d prefer to stay home for dinner. Besides, she had to work in the morning. They cooked together and enjoyed a romantic evening. Maisie said, “Is the amount of money I contribute to the household enough?” Emmett laughed slightly and said, “It’s all good.” “What about child support and what Stacey said?” Maisie asked. Emmett said, “It’s all good. Look, Maisie, I wasn’t going to let you in on this at this point, but I’m speaking to a lawyer about custody. I was advised to stop making child support payments.” “But you told me you already have partial custody of Alex.” “Yes. That’s right, but I want full-time custody. I know I can provide a better life for her. She needs me. I’m her dad.” It was a side of Emmett that Maisie had not seen. As an outsider, Maisie could see that Emmett was being selfish. His points about Alex’s happiness were invalid. Maisie was confident that Alex was a happy child and was taken care of at her mother’s house and Emmett’s home. “This is about what’s best for Alex—not what’s best for Emmett,” Maisie said. She was amazed that she had the courage to speak her mind like that toward Emmett. She felt it was worth the risk of losing him. She thought it was better to speak her opinions than to bottle them up for the sake of keeping a relationship. Emmett and Maisie discussed the issue for a couple of hours. Toward the end of the conversation, Emmett realized that Maisie was right. In the beginning of the discussion, he asked if Maisie was trying to free up his time for her own sake. By the end of the discussion, Emmett felt guilty for even entertaining the thought. He realized Maisie was sincere. He felt as though he had fallen in love with Maisie even more. The discussion brought them even closer. The evening was well spent, but Maisie had to go to bed. Emmett spent a little time reflecting on their conversation before bed. On Monday, he would call his lawyer and drop the case. Chapter 22 On Saturday morning, Charlie greeted Maisie as she entered the door to begin her shift. Charlie was very energetic. It was apparent to everyone who knew him that he was living his dream. He had a sense of passion for operating and owning the store. Charlie began the business after he became a Buddhist. Every once in a while, he would mention something about Buddhism, but he never pressured anyone to study it. Maisie had a strong desire to learn about different cultures, religions, and environments. When Charlie spoke about finding balance in life, Maisie intently listened. Maisie wanted to learn as much about the world as possible so she could eventually formulate her own opinions. Living in disguise made it more difficult to live by her own values, but Maisie counted her blessings everyday. She focused on what she had—and not on what she lacked. Charlie wasn’t married, but he had been for a short time in his twenties. Maisie wasn’t sure if he dated, although there was a rumor that he was very fond of a woman who lived in his apartment complex. Charlie would probably have a thousand people at his funeral. Even Bob and Donna knew Charlie prior to Maisie’s employment at his shop. There were several customers that morning. Charlie was running a contest in the store. He asked her to tell each customer to complete a short form and put it in the box near the cash register. “What’s the prize?” Maisie asked. “The opportunity to meet me and take me to dinner.” Maisie laughed. “The real prize is fifty dollars’ worth of store merchandise.” Maisie couldn’t wait to go home to Emmett, but she counted her blessings that she even had a job. Chapter 23 It was Emmett’s birthday. I felt like I needed to give him something special after all he did for me on my birthday. I had a good amount of money in my savings account. I made sure to put a little from my paycheck into the account each week. I had also sold my old car. Even though it wasn’t much, I put the money into the account. I had just enough to buy concert tickets to see Emmett’s favorite band. The band was performing on the West Coast, and I reserved a room at a luxury hotel for a full week. I took the day off from work and decided to surprise Emmett by showing up at his office. Although he worked at home most of the time, he spent every Wednesday at his office. I parked in the four-story garage and walked toward the building. My head started to pound, and my stomach felt sick. Emmett’s office was on the top floor. The elevator made my headache worse. When the doors opened, I showed my identification to the security officers and told them who I was there to see. The security officers called Emmett to notify him that I was there. When I saw Emmett walking toward me, my head stopped pounding and my stomachache was gone. Emmett greeted me with a big smile, and I wished him happy birthday. I had never been to Emmett’s office, and he gave me a short tour of the office area and the recording studio. Emmett showed me all the recording equipment and told me to step up to the microphone. “Put the headphones on,” he said. My favorite song was playing, and I had the opportunity to sing as my voice was being recorded. Emmett showed me how my song was edited. It was starting to feel like it was my birthday and not his. I told him I had a gift for him. Emmett led me into his office, and I handed him a large envelope with a heart on it. He smiled, gave me a kiss, and said, “Thank you, sweetheart.” Emmett opened the envelope and opened the card. The concert tickets fell out. He picked them up and said, “Thank you.” “Emmett, read the card,” I said. Emmett read the card and said, “Honey, you shouldn’t have. How could you afford a vacation for us and concert tickets?” I told him that I had been saving for a long time. He was amazed. Emmett and I went to a classy restaurant for lunch. We had a nice conversation as we ate. I had an appointment with Karen, and he had to return to work. He thanked me, and we said our romantic good-byes. Chapter 24 I drove to the medical complex and met with Karen. I told her about my week, and Karen said she had spoken to Dr. Stockton about my progress. The two thought I was doing great. I had spent months talking about the abuse. Karen said she thought it was time to focus on my current life and the future. I agreed. She gave me the option of continuing with therapy or not. I chose the latter. We spent the rest of the appointment talking my current life. She shared a little about her life too. Her two children were a handful, and she was taking a couple of classes online. She also volunteered with the homeless. It made me wonder if she would need therapy in the future. After all, she had a husband, two children, a full-time job, a volunteer job, and she was taking classes. But that was none of my business. I told Karen about life with Emmett and Alex and my job. I told her it wasn’t my career of choice, but I was content. I told her that Emmett and I would be going away on vacation soon. She was sure I could use the break. Chapter 25 Emmett and Maisie packed their suitcases in the trunk of Maisie’s car. While Emmett set the GPS, Maisie looked around the house to see if she forgot anything. Once she felt confident that the necessities had all been packed, they were on their way. Emmett drove first, but they would take turns driving. The highway was close to their home. Emmett picked up speed and merged into the traffic. Maisie turned on the radio and blared the music. When either one of them had something to say, Maisie turned the radio volume down a notch. Emmett and Maisie were wearing their sunglasses since the sun filled the morning sky. It was a long drive to their destination, but they had a great time together along the way. The GPS led Emmett and Maisie to the front of their luxury hotel. It was on the beach. They used valet parking. The walkway was lined with palm trees, and their room had a view of the ocean. Emmett and Maisie decided to give themselves their own hotel tour. They found the workout room, an indoor pool, a bar, and vending machines. A large glass door led to an outdoor pool. Wind chimes outside the glass door sounded peaceful. There was another bar in the pool area. Emmett and Maisie decided to take a seat and order drinks. A waiter asked what they would like to drink. They asked for exotic mixed drinks, and they were served with small umbrellas. Their view was incredible. As they sipped their drinks, the looked at people swimming in the pool and people walking along the beach. Some were wading in the ocean, and there were several surfers. Emmett and Maisie at dinner at the hotel restaurant. A DJ was playing music by a dance floor. Emmett asked Maisie if she wanted to have a dance with him. She said, “Yes, of course.” Emmett had never seen Maisie dance. She was a bit klutzy and seemed to only know one dance move. Emmett didn’t have the heart to tell her that she wasn’t that good at dancing. She seemed to be having the time of her life. The DJ played a slow song, and Emmett and Maisie embraced and danced to the music. Maisie was much better at slow dancing. During the fast-paced songs though, Emmett stole the show. People gathered around the dance floor to watch Emmett dance. Maisie felt a bit jealous when several beautiful women began staring at him. Emmett noticed too, but he didn’t make it obvious. Maisie was a bit worried that Emmett would find them more attractive. She didn’t realize that Emmett was totally committed to her—and he was a completely loyal man. Maisie sat back down at the table, and Emmett followed her. “Are we done dancing for the night,” Emmett asked. “Those women were drooling over you. I had enough of it,” she said. Emmett laughed until he saw that Maisie was hurting inside. He took her hand and assured her that no one would ever get in the way of their relationship. Emmett and Maisie decided to return to their hotel room for the night. After Emmett and Maisie woke up, they went for a continental breakfast. They were able to sit outside. It was warm outside, and the birds came close to their table for food. Everything was so different from their hometown. It was the perfect place for their vacation. The concert was the next day, but in the meantime, they shopped. There were cute novelty shops and restaurants to visit. Emmett and Maisie held hands almost the entire time. They gave a tourist Maisie’s phone and asked him to take a picture. It was perfect. They stood by a palm tree, and the wind blew Maisie’s long hair. They were wearing sunglasses and summer clothing. That evening, Maisie and Emmett viewed the most beautiful sunset above the ocean. It was so picturesque. Emmett turned toward Maisie and gave her a big hug and kiss. “Thank you. This has been the best trip I have ever been on.” The following day, Maisie and Emmett wandered around the hotel and visited an art museum. They spent two hours catching up on sleep and got ready for the concert. Chapter 26 Maisie drove to the concert. It was a short trip from the hotel. They were both excited to see the show. When they arrived, people in orange shirts were directing traffic in the parking lot. One of the people was collecting the parking money. Maisie forgot to include small costs such as that in the vacation budget, but Emmett had no problem chipping in. As Maisie looked for parking money, Emmett reached over and paid the fee. “Thanks, honey,” she said. “Not a problem,” Emmett responded. The walk to the stadium was long. Many other people were walking with them. When they reached the gate, Emmett handed the guard the tickets and was handed back the ticket stubs. Inside the stadium, the seats were mostly taken. The sports stadium was also used for concerts. They sat on metal benches. Emmett and Maisie walked up twenty rows to get to their seats. Maisie sat on the end of the row, but Emmett sat between Maisie and a woman who was extremely loud. Her body frame was large, but her weight was size proportionate. It was apparent to everyone that she had been drinking too much. She was there with a group of ten people. Maisie hoped that the group would not be too loud and unruly. Emmett, however, was not concerned. A band was playing ahead of the main attraction. They sounded really good, but Emmett and Maisie had never heard of them. Maisie commented to Emmett that they would probably end up making it big in the music world. Emmett agreed. The weather was absolutely perfect. The air was warm with a slight breeze. It was dark outside, but the stadium lights lit up the entire place. Emmett’s favorite band walked on stage. There were guitarists, a keyboard player, a drummer, and the lead singer. They started by playing Emmett’s favorite song. Maisie turned to Emmett and joked that she had talked to the band ahead of time to arrange that. He laughed and continued to enjoy the band. Maisie was able to capture some of the performance on video. She used her phone for the video and several pictures. Emmett was absorbed with listening to the band’s performance. He wasn’t concerned with pictures and videos, but he was happy Maisie was doing it for him. A man in a baseball cap, glasses, a lightweight jacket, and jeans walked up the stadium steps. He paused two steps below Emmett and Maisie’s seats and looked in their direction. His eyes focused on Maisie. Emmett thought something was abnormal about the situation. Maisie knew immediately that he was the man who she had pointed out to the FBI. Hawk turned around and walked down the steps. Maisie thought he had purposely walked up the steps to look at them. It was too loud in the stadium to whisper, so Maisie texted Emmett’s phone that he was the man who was after her. Emmett texted: “Remain cool. We’re not going to make a scene by leaving now. As soon as the concert is over, we’ll get out of here.” Maisie thought they should leave immediately. She texted him and said she thought she should report him to the police now. Emmett had already alerted the police, but he texted: “Later.” After the concert, Emmett and Maisie walked to Maisie’s car and headed back to the hotel. Maisie said, “Shouldn’t we contact the police now?” Emmett said they would call when they were back at the hotel. When they got to their room, Emmett told Maisie that she could call the police. Maisie called, and the police said they would follow up with her later. Maisie felt scared, but Emmett comforted her. He assured her that everything would turn out all right. He turned on the television, and they relaxed for the night. Chapter 27 Hawk was part of a crime ring. The FBI had been working on the case for years. The crime ring was nearly shut down. They had everyone involved in custody except the ringleader—Hawk. The FBI immediately sent a team to track down Hawk. They were grateful for Emmett’s tip. The FBI and the police had been informed of Hawk’s presence on the West Coast. He had been placed on the most wanted list that day. Hawk was considered armed and dangerous. The search for him was broadcast on every news station. Hawk was driving a stolen vehicle. He knew the police were on his trail. He drove back roads toward the Mexican border. His power in the crime world had dissipated. Most of his connections were already jailed, which made it harder to escape. Hawk was running low on gas. He knew he had no choice but to stop at a gas station. He stopped in a rural area to fill the gas tank, but he was spotted and reported to the police. After he pulled out of the gas station, he headed south down a long country road. Two police cars quickly approached behind his car. He knew they were on his trail. Hawk kicked his car into high gear and sped down the road. As the police followed, more police cars appeared. Hawk made it to a main highway and headed south. By then, more than ten police cars were chasing him. Suddenly, Hawk’s car got a flat tire and began spinning. The police had put a spike strip on the highway and blocked off the roads to other traffic. Hawk’s car stopped, and he began running. Several police officers followed him on foot. Hawk’s path was blocked by a wire fence. He jumped over it and continued into a wooded area. He remained in view of the police. One of the police officers was able to get ahead of him from a different direction. Hawk just about ran right into the officer’s path. Hawk looked stunned when he saw the officer. Just then, the other officers got close enough to grab him and push him to the ground. Handcuffs were placed on his hands, and he was then taken into custody. The criminal ring had been brought to a final end. Chapter 28 A year after Hawk was taken into police custody, the FBI closed the case. Hawk and the others from the crime ring were sentenced to federal prison for twenty-five years and more. There had been talk inside FBI headquarters about Maisie and her role in the witness protection program. Now that the case was closed, her safety was no longer at risk. A special meeting was held at headquarters for all the agents involved in Maisie’s case. It was led by Agent Miller who had been given information by his superiors to share at the meeting. After all of the agents were seated in the conference room, Agent Miller stood in the front of the room and said, “Welcome and good morning. I have asked you all to be here so that I may make you aware of a decision made by my superiors in the Brooke Alden/Maisie Lexington witness protection program case. It is with rare exception that I am here to tell you that Brooke Alden/Maisie Lexington will be given the option to remain living her current life with no contact from anyone in her past or going back to her old life and family. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has come to the decision that Brooke Alden/Maisie Lexington is no longer in danger—and that returning to her old life would not put her or anyone else at risk.” The agents were then given the opportunity to ask Agent Miller questions. They had dozens of questions. The last question was about when Maisie would be notified of her choice. Agent Miller said that he would contact Maisie immediately after the meeting; he hoped to be able to meet with her within a day or two. That afternoon, the police arrived at Harvest Moon and spoke to Maisie. Maisie told them that she could meet Agent Miller after her shift. The police arranged to pick her up and drive her to headquarters. She left her car in the parking lot, and the police drove her to FBI headquarters. Maisie made sure to let Emmett know that she would be coming home late. Chapter 29 Agent Miller spent an hour with Maisie after he informed her about her options. She looked at Agent Miller is complete shock. It had never entered her mind that this opportunity would present itself. She had never heard of it being done before. Agent Miller stated that his precinct had never done anything like it. For a few moments, Maisie absorbed the information. Agent Miller told her to take a few days before making a final decision. Maisie spent the next twenty-four hours trying to make her decision. She came to the conclusion that she would like to return to her old life and bring Emmett with her. That would mean that she’d have to inform Emmett about her old life. Emmett had only known Maisie’s current life; anytime Emmett asked anything about her past, Maisie had to lie to him. The following evening, Maisie told him the truth. Emmett said his stomach didn’t feel well, and he left the room. He returned thirty minutes later, looked at Maisie, and said, “You liar. You’re nothing but a liar. You led me on. You lied about everything. I love you. How could you do this to me?” The heated argument went on for fifteen minutes. Emmett said she could stay in the house for another week, but he would be spending the week in a motel. He wanted nothing to do with her—even though he was still deeply in love with her. Emmett packed a few things and went to a motel. Chapter 30 After the argument with Emmett, Maisie thought she’d be better off returning to her old life. She knew that major change was not easy—and she really missed her mom, dad, siblings, and friends. Maisie and Emmett broke up. Emmett was angry that Maisie had not told him about her true identity from the start. Maisie decided to return to her old life. She informed Agent Miller the following day and was set to return home. Her family had been notified that she would be returning. They were given full details of her disappearance. Maisie’s family was relieved that she was still alive. For two years, they had wondered if she was dead or alive. Her family was ecstatic. They could barely wait for the following day, but Maisie’s dad had died the prior year on October 23. Maisie thought of leaving without saying good-bye to anyone. She thought it might be too difficult on everyone. She decided it was best to say her good-byes to the closest people in her life. Besides, they had already been informed by the FBI that Maisie was no longer in danger. Right after she informed Agent Miller about her decision, he instructed his staff to brief everyone involved in Maisie’s secret life that she was leaving the area and heading home to her real family. Chapter 31 Maisie was distraught and heartbroken. It was Thursday, and she had an appointment with Dr. Stockton. They talked about her decision for forty-five minutes. Maisie told Dr. Stockton about her breakup with Emmett. He said she looked sad, but seeing her old family was such a great opportunity for her. Over time, she would heal. Dr. Stockton told Maisie that he would connect her with a new doctor. She would need a psychiatrist to aid in her transition back to Brooke, and he felt that she needed medication to help with the changes. Dr. Stockton told her that he enjoyed being her doctor and that she would be missed. He wished her the best of luck. She said, “Thank you. Good-bye.” Chapter 32 It was time for Maisie to say good-bye to the people who were close to her. She was still living in Emmett’s house, but she had not heard anything from him. She would be leaving the next day. Maisie thought the most important visit was Bob and Donna. They knew about her decision. Maisie drove to their house and saw Dominick’s truck in the driveway. She rang the doorbell, and Bob and Donna welcomed her inside. Dominick was there with Jillian and the kids. Robin and Edison ran up to her and gave her a big hug. They had always called her Aunt Maisie. Maisie didn’t think leaving would have a big effect on her emotions, but she felt a tear in her eye. Jillian walked over to her and hugged her. “We’re going to miss you, Maisie.” “I’ll miss everyone too,” Maisie replied. Bob and Donna stepped in and gave her a hug. Donna was sobbing. Maisie didn’t realize how much of an impact she had made. “Thank you for taking me into your home and accepting me as part of your family.” Bob said, “It was our pleasure, Maisie.” Maisie had no idea it was going to be so hard to leave. Charlie and Amanda arrived. They had been informed about the situation and Maisie’s true identity the day before. They gave their word that they would not say anything to anyone until it was public information. Amanda and Maisie hugged, tears streamed down Maisie’s face. “I’ll miss my best friend.” Charlie gave Maisie a hug and told her that she had been a good employee and that she would be greatly missed. Everyone stayed at Bob and Donna’s house for several hours. Bob took down the rope from the living room, sat down at the piano, and played several songs for Maisie. Before everyone left, they said good-bye to Maisie once again. Maisie returned to Emmett’s house, packed her things, and wrote a thank-you note. Chapter 33 A secret agent escorted Maisie during her trip. This arrangement was made as a precaution but was set to cease as soon as she arrived back home. As Maisie was about to ring the doorbell, the door flew open. Her family was greeting her as though it was an important birthday. Old friends were there—as well as family and distant relatives. A big sign said, “Welcome Home Brooke.” Her mother was first to give Maisie a big hug. She almost didn’t let go. Tears rolled down her mother’s face, but Maisie felt a bit numb. It was overwhelming and amazing at the same time. She hugged everyone who was there. One person was missing though—and she was aware of it. She looked at her brother and asked, “Where’s Dad?” Jeb stared back at her with a serious look. She knew the answer was not going to be good. “Brooke, he died. Dad had a heart attack about a year ago.” Brooke no longer felt numb. A tear rolled down her face. “Was it a sudden death—or did he suffer?” Jeb replied, “It was a massive heart attack, Brooke. He held on for a week.” Brooke nodded. “Here. Dad wanted you to have this.” Jeb handed Brooke a black crystal. Brooke was stunned. “The mysteries of life,” she muttered. “What?” Jeb said. “Oh nothing.” Brooke thought about what the old woman at the store had said: “The mysteries of life—never forget they exist.” Brooke’s mother approached her and said, “If this is all too much for you, I can ask them to leave.” Brooke said, “No, they can stay. It’s good to see everyone.” A month went by, and Brooke settled back into her old life. She was unhappy and heartbroken. She missed Emmett. She also missed her southern family. She felt empty inside. Returning to her old life was not as glamorous as she had thought it would be. Her phone lit up with Emmett’s name. With excitement, she immediately answered. Emmett asked how she was and asked how the adjustment was going. Brooke poured her heart out and told him how much she missed him. Emmett said he missed her too. A few weeks later, Emmett arrived in the North to be with Brooke. When they were finally together, Emmett said, “I have a surprise for you. Pack your things.” “Why? Where are we going?” Brooke asked. “Niagara Falls.” Brooke packed her belongings, and they drove to Niagara Falls. Since they didn’t have passports, they stayed on the American side. Emmett bent down on one knee and pulled a box out of his pocket. The other tourists were minding their own business. When he opened the box, Brooke was completely stunned. She was shaking. Emmett said, “Will you marry me?” “Yes,” Brooke said with no hesitation. The two smiled at each other and hugged. While Emmett and Brooke embraced, Brooke turned her head to the side. Without intending to, she made quick eye contact with a male tourist. It reminded her of Hawk and the crime she had witnessed. She looked away as fast as she could and looked into the eyes of Emmett. They kissed again. Brooke and Emmett married and lived the rest of their lives with contentment and love. *** The phone rang at FBI headquarters, and Agent Adams picked it up. “Adams speaking.” “Sir, this is Agent Sullivan. I have important information in the Brooke Alden case.” “How is Brooke Alden doing these days, Sullivan?” Agent Sullivan said, “Still in a coma, sir. Poor thing. Escaping from abuse and gets shot in an alley on her way to safety. Such a shame. We have a strong lead about the person involved in her shooting. Someone who goes by the name of Hawk.”  

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