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Pick Up the Pieces

Pick Up the Pieces

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George Hartmann thought he’d seen rock bottom. It turns out he wasn't even close.

Now his precious family is in peril, and his country requires his service for a second top-secret mission to thwart an international terrorist cell planning a chemical weapons attack on U.S. soil.

George is convinced his troubles have to do with a vendetta from his past, but he can't quite make sense of the connections. Faced with impossible stakes on multiple fronts, he must pick up the pieces and forge a path forward.

Pick Up the Pieces is the fifth book in the Ithaca Falls series and the continuation of a riveting family saga. Fans of Melinda Leigh, Kendra Elliot, Lisa Regan, and Mary Burton will devour this pulse-pounding drama.

Publication date: May 31, 2020.

About the Ithaca Falls Series:

The Ithaca Falls series chronicles the close-knit Hartmann and Davies family as they return to their cozy hometown of Ithaca Falls, New York after having lived in Washington, D.C. Little do they know what trouble awaits.

This suspense-filled story, anchored by the deep affection between George and Alessandra, reveals how the connections we share can ground us during even the most difficult times as we endeavor to learn what we're made of.

Join the family you'll feel like you already know as, together, they explore the meaning of life beyond what lies on the surface and fight against all odds to keep each other safe.

Look Inside

Chapter One


I think I’ve been sedated. Although, I can’t be sure. I see Ethan’s face in front of mine, which makes little sense. I’m half a world away from home.

They just told me he was missing. Kidnapped. I shudder as I think of the word.

But I see him so clearly. His wispy hair hangs loose over his ears. His big, round, trusting eyes look up at me, searching for answers. His shoulders are stiff. He’s scared.

“Ethan, son? Is that you?”

I call to my little boy with all the hope in my heart. I desperately want to connect with him. To keep him safe. It’s my job to keep him safe. If I fail, I don’t know how I’ll be able to live with myself. I can’t possibly imagine how I could.

How does any father live with himself if he fails to keep his family safe?

“Ethan! I’m here, son. Come towards the sound of my voice. Right here…”

I’m not sure I’m saying it out loud. Everything is hazy. It’s as if I can see both the hospital room I was in a little while ago and our house in Ithaca Falls at the same time. Ethan is in the living room in Ithaca Falls, sitting on our big sofa. He’s covered with a knit blanket. I hope he’s warm enough.

Even that doesn’t make sense because Ethan should still be in Lake Tahoe with the rest of the family. Last I heard, Ali wasn’t well enough to make the trip back to New York. Roddy and Marjorie were looking after the boys at the Tahoe rental house.

I call out to him again. “Ethan, my precious, precious boy. Do you realize how dear you are to me? You made me a daddy! And let me tell you, that was one of the best gifts I’ve ever been given. You did it, son. You’re my baby. And no matter how big you get, you always will be.”

All of a sudden, Ethan is gone from my view. He has vanished, much like the remaining threads of my sanity. My blood boils as my boy is taken from me once again. If I could only get my hands on the people responsible for all of this. I’d do my worst. Damn them.

Just as fast as Ethan appeared in front of me, my perception shifts and I’m talking to my brother-in-law on an old rotary telephone.

Nicky tells me Ali is wide awake and out of her medically induced coma. He says she’s sitting up in bed and eating solid food today. She follows Dr. Wong’s instructions and seems to understand what people say to her. But she hasn’t spoken a word.

She doesn’t know that Ethan’s been snatched.

“George, how can I possibly tell her?” Nicky implores, his voice choppy and swimming in distress. He wants to be a good brother. What would a good brother do?

Dr. Ava Claussen hovers nearby as I press the phone hard against the side of my face.

Her. Right.

Her presence helps ground me in the infirmary.

Oh, yeah. Camp Shorabak. Afghanistan. The raid in Syria. The drones. The chemical weapons. My injury. Colonel Becker. Colonel Winton.

It comes rushing back. Most of it, anyway. I’m elated that my wife is awake and okay. It’s just...

“Where’s Roddy?” I ask into the receiver.

“Disappeared, right along with Ethan.”

“What do you mean? Did someone take them both? That’s impossible…”

Maybe we won’t be okay.

“No,” Nicky explains. “He took off to find Ethan immediately after calling the police to report him missing.”

“Oh?” I stammer, feeling a flash of hope. It comes in a burst and settles over me. It feels fleeting from the moment it arrives. “He called my Colonel, too. That’s how I found out.”

“Well, he sent me and Mom one text, then went off-grid. He must have ditched his phone, because authorities haven’t been able to track it.”

“What did the text say?”

“It said that he’d bring Ethan back to us or die trying.”

I’m glad to hear it. Roddy means business. I’m certain he does. “Good,” I say. “I know you’re worried about him, Nicky. But I hope Roddy can accomplish his mission and find our boy. I have to hold on to that hope.”

“I am worried about him,” Nicky whispers. “His health…”

It seems like he’s trying to keep Ali from hearing what he’s saying. If she’s in the room with him, I assume she will hear. Which means he shouldn’t be mentioning Ethan at all right now.

“Is Ali listening?” I ask, agitation in my voice.

“No,” Nicky says. “I’m out in the lobby. I’m keeping my voice down so other people don’t hear our family’s… situation.”

“Okay,” I say. I’m still groggy. Or confused. I can’t articulate what I am. I don’t even know. “I wish I was there with you and Ali. I’d be so happy just to hang out in the hospital again. I want to see friendly faces-- Clara Berry, Dr. Wong, the security guy. What was his name?”

“I wasn’t there for that part, George,” Nicky says, his voice timid. He’s wondering what’s wrong with me. I can tell that much. “I don’t think I met the security guy. I got here right before you left. Remember?”

“Oh, yeah. But I can recall his name on my own... Jeremy Lancaster. Then there was my favorite nurse, Jaz Foster. And Dr. Adams…”

“Hey,” Nicky blurts. He sounds nervous now. “Did they give you something? You sound weird.”

“What?” I ask. “I feel weird. But I’m not sure. I have to find Ethan. But I’m not sure what’s happening around me. One minute, I think I know where I am. The next, time and place are a blur.”

Nicky clears his throat. “Um, is there someone else there I can talk to?”

That’s strange. Nicky is pretty easygoing. He usually takes a back seat and lets others lead. At least, he does within the larger family unit. Maybe he’s stepping up since Roddy’s not there. And I’m… well, I’m not sure.

“If you want,” I say. “Dr. Claussen insists she’s here to tend to my mental health. She hovers around me. I don’t think I could get rid of her right now if I tried. Want to talk to her?”

“Yes, that would be great.”

“Okay,” I say as I put the receiver against my chest and turn to look for Dr. Claussen. “Ava?” I call out. “Oh, I guess I shouldn’t call you by your first name. Dr Claussen, then?”

In an instant, she’s there, just over my left shoulder. Has she been back there this whole time?

“You can call me Ava if you like. How can I help?” she asks.

Ava’s long blonde hair isn’t braided, which makes me think
it’s a new day. She’s wearing the same dark-rimmed glasses, but her hair falls loosely around her shoulders. It reaches all the way down to her bosom. The way it dances as she moves reminds me of Ali’s. Oh, how I love Ali and her sexy long hair. What I wouldn’t give to wrap Ali in my arms right now and make sweet love to her. To see her wavy hair bounce against her exposed breasts as I thrust inside her and make her squirm with delight. I miss my wife.

“It’s my brother-in-law on the phone,” I say. I think my words are slurred. Everything is in slow motion. “He wants to talk to you.”

“Okay,” she says, reaching for the phone.

“Now, don’t get any ideas,” I say to her before handing it over. “He’s happily married.”

I instantly regret it.

What in the hell is wrong with me? I am not myself right now.

On the plus side, I’m not feeling any pain. I remember my shoulder injury. I took a bullet. But I don’t feel it right now. I must be on some good drugs. I’ve never taken drugs before. Not on purpose. Maybe my tolerance is low and I’ve gotten loopier than anyone expected. Or maybe they want me feeling good for the second raid that happens… When? Tonight?

I suddenly remember Colonel Becker’s instructions. I’m supposed to gather additional intelligence during a raid on the terrorist’s second facility. Damn. I can’t seem to keep all of this straight in my mind. How am I supposed to get home to find Ethan if I have to go on a second raid in Syria? And it feels like I’m forgetting something big.


Ava takes the phone and places it gently against her ear, ignoring my comment about Nicky being happily married. Thank God. “Hello, Nicholas?” She listens. Then, “Nicky, yes. I’m Dr. Ava Claussen, the psychologist caring for Major Hartmann. You may call me Ava.”

She nods and pulls out a pad and pen from a pocket in her sweater, then scribbles down notes. She writes furiously, as if Nicky is talking a mile a minute. That’s strange.

“Um hmm,” she says. “Yes, that makes sense. And his wife?”

I instantly feel protective when I hear that they’re talking about Ali. What does Ava care, anyway?

“Ah, I see. And his sons? He has two of them, right?”

I sit up straighter in bed. She’s missing Will. Or maybe she isn’t counting Ethan. “Three,” I say, holding up fingers on my uninjured side. “I have three sons.”

She glances at me, but keeps her attention focused on the telephone and Nicky. What is he telling her? “Does he ever hear voices of people who aren’t there? Or does he see people others don’t see?”

I’m sick and tired of this line of questioning. And here Ava is, asking Nicky about me like I’m an invalid.

“Three!” I try again. I don’t want anyone skipping over any of my children. They all deserve to be named and counted. “I have three sons: Ethan, Leo, and Will. Three!”

That doesn’t even include the baby growing in Ali’s belly. Before long, I’ll have four sons. Or three sons and a daughter. The possibilities bring a tear to my eye. I can’t wait to get everyone home safely. Four boys, or three boys and a girl. Just like Ali and I always wanted.

Ava doesn’t even look at me this time. I slide back down into the bed, feeling invisible. Without any trying on my part, I drift off to sleep. I can’t seem to keep my eyes open.

The next thing I know, I’m home in Ithaca Falls. I can feel every muscle in my body relax as I soak in my surroundings. It’s good to be home.

I’m standing in the foyer, on the inside of the front door. It seems I’ve just arrived, though from where I don’t know.

“Ali?” I call out. I’m not sure who’s here. “Ethan? Leo? Little Will?”

Lady acknowledges me first. She rushes down the stairs, her tail wagging happily behind her. We’ve been away from Ithaca Falls for weeks, and I’ve missed my dog. I hope she’s had a nice time staying with Jen while we were gone.

“Ladygirl!” I say cheerfully as she jumps up to greet me. Lady wouldn’t dare jump on Ali or the boys like this, but she knows she can be rougher with me.

She’s moving around well. Seems she’s completely healed from the bullet she took in January when she saved Ethan in our front yard. I raise a hand and touch my own bullet wound as I think about hers. I squat to pet her head.

“We match now, Ladygirl. I took one, too. We can be bullet buddies, right?”

I know I sound ridiculous. I don’t care. I love this furry girl more than I’d like to admit. She isn’t just a dog to me. She’s a real hero. She put her own life on the line to save Ethan’s. How could I ever repay her? I’m so happy to be home with her.

“Where’s the rest of the family?” I ask.

I walk into the living room and look at the sofa where I saw Ethan a little while ago. He isn’t there. I feel a pang of concern, but I don’t let it overtake me. Lady stays close at my side.

This reality seems different. It feels real. I’d like to think I’m really home and that everyone will be here, safe and sound, waiting on me. Maybe everything we’ve been through was nothing more than a bad dream. I know that’s wishful thinking, but at a minimum, maybe it’s all over. That seems possible. Maybe.

“Ali?” I try again.

I walk around to the kitchen and into the food room, as Ethan so astutely called the pantry when we first moved in. I remember that day, when Jen and Duke came over and Ethan was showing Duke around. Our future seemed so bright then.

The pantry is stocked. We still live here.

I try the formal dining room. Lady follows, my faithful companion. The room is empty, but seeing it brings back memories of Ali opening boxes in here while Leo napped on an ottoman brought in from the living room. That was the day we moved in, too. In the months that followed, we shared so many good memories around the dinner table in this room. I want to do it again. I want more good times with my family.

Where are they?

“Ali? Ethan? Leo? Little Will?” I call out, louder now. I’m getting anxious.

I head towards the master bedroom. Our sanctuary. The door is closed when I reach it, but it isn’t locked.

Maybe they’re in there, cuddled up in our big king-sized bed and waiting for me to join them. Or maybe the boys are asleep upstairs and Ali is waiting on me to make love to her.

I could get into that. I feel myself growing hard just thinking about it.
I open the door eagerly. I can’t wait to see my wife and little boys. Lady shares my excited energy. She woofs softly as I move.

“I’m home!” I yell as I burst through the door.

The way I say it reminds me of all the years I was away with the Air Force, back when it was just Ali and me in D.C. Every time I returned home to Ali, I’d open the door just like this and announce my arrival in the same tone. She’d leap from wherever she was and bound into my arms, planting a warm kiss on my lips. Every time.

This time, no one is here. I open the door to an empty room.

My enthusiasm wanes. As I look around the room, memories flood my mind. This room has to be my favorite in the house. It’s the retreat Ali and I used to dream of when we were young and living poor. It still reminds me of our Pennsylvania hotel room on the trip we took from D.C. to meet each other’s families. It’s everything we ever wanted for our most private physical space. We’d planned to grow old here together, making love in front of the fireplace as the seasons change. Year after year. Time after time.

The emptiness physically hurts. It feels unfair that this room would go unused. Such a shame.

I take a few steps inside, breathing it in. My olfactory senses seem real. I can smell Ali’s perfume hanging in the air. I close my eyes and let it seep into me. Lady sits at my side, ready for whatever I do next. I can feel her reassuring warmth as she leans into my leg.

I recall the night I gave Ali the necklace with five diamonds to represent the five of us. We were here, in our bed, in this room. She was pregnant with little Will then. I told her that when she wears the necklace, I want her to remember how the five of us belong together and how we can get through anything with each other’s love and support. I also remember how she straddled me and rode for a long while as she stimulated her own nipples and I admired the way the necklace looked on her luscious body.

I’ll need to get her a necklace with six stones now. For the baby.

I wish Ali were here. Badly. My entire being aches for her. I don’t know how much longer I can wait.

I walk into the big ensuite bathroom, another place with countless good memories. I used to love watching Ali get dressed and put on her makeup. I often thought she looked like a present, wrapped up and ready for me to open. It was all I could do to keep from unwrapping her when we were around other people. Sometimes, I had to pull her aside and have my way with her while the others waited. I admit, I can be insatiable. Anyone with a wife as smoking hot as mine would be the same.

I remember the night of our big dinner party, the one we threw a couple of days before we left for Lake Tahoe. Ali was getting ready as our guests began to arrive. I’ll never forget seeing her in her party dress, her hair and makeup flawless. She looked like an angel. My own angel. She thought she needed more makeup, and that she wasn’t presentable yet. I just wanted her. I wanted to ravage her. As soon as the boys were in Roddy and Marjorie’s capable hands, I did exactly that. I snuck into this bathroom with my wife as she applied more makeup, and I made passionate love to her. We let ourselves submit to the flames of desire as we pleasured each other, my body on fire from her touch.

When we were finished and Ali said she was disheveled, I remember thinking how I’d never seen her look more beautiful than she did at that very moment. I’d had that woman many times, but I always wanted more. I don’t think I could ever get enough. There’s no such thing as enough when it comes to me and Alessandra Davies.

My head low with longing now, I leave the bedroom and make my way upstairs. Lady follows.

These stairs are the scene of the crime that started our family’s downhill tumble.

I remember racing up these stairs on that fateful night. I remember my sons’ bedroom door being locked. The sound of a man’s voice in their room. My pregnant wife collapsed into a ball on the floor at the top of these stairs, overwhelmed and unable to cope. How could I forget? The memories feel fresh. They’re burned into my subconscious with the stain that only terror makes. We’ve had happy memories since, and I remember those, too. But it takes effort to push away the bad and focus on the good.

I check little Will’s room first. Empty. His crib and changing table sit unused. He usually sleeps in our room, anyway, so that isn’t so strange. But I’d be happier if he were here.

I move on to Ethan and Leo’s shared room.

“Boys? Are you home?”


My heart races. I try the last room at the end of the hall. The one Marjorie and Roddy stay in when they’re in town.


Frantic now, I race downstairs and continue through a second set of stairs, making my way to the basement. Lady follows again, keeping pace. She’s as concerned as I am.

“Ali? Boys? Come on. Anybody here?”

I reach the basement and search through all the rooms. Nothing. I race back to the main level to look in the last remaining place they might be. My pulse is pounding as I exit onto the screened porch. They aren’t there either. I’m devastated. I look out into the yard as it touches the lake. It’s empty. Nothing but a few chirping birds.

No Ali. No boys. No extended family or friends. Lady and I are all alone.

What in the hell is happening?

I sit down on the cushioned wicker sectional and pull a gray cable knit blanket over me. Ali placed the blanket out here on the day we moved in. She has such a flair for decorating. Her personal touches make our house feel like a home.

I lean back as Lady leans hard against my leg again. She knows she isn’t supposed to be on the furniture, so she stays down like a good dog. She’s trying to comfort me though. I appreciate it more than she knows. I pause to wonder why Lady is here if no one else is, but something else is tugging at my mind. Something about this screened porch and the memories of the day we moved in. I feel like I’m forgetting something important.


I let my memories take over in the hopes that they’ll help me remember whatever it is I’m forgetting. I close my eyes. In a flash, I remember being right here in this spot on the snowy January day we moved into this house. The fire was going, and the Bose stereo system wired into the walls was cycling through a playlist Ali had started earlier. Coldplay sang an acoustic version of Fix You. I called my Uncle Liam to let him know we were in the house okay.

Wait. That’s…

I struggle to face what my subconscious knows. It’s too much. Too sad.

Come on, George. Let it out.

I tell myself to focus. Whatever it is, I can’t avoid it like an ostrich with its head in the sand. I have to be brave.

It comes in a wash of knowing that swims around me, cold and dark. All of a sudden, I do remember. It’s Liam. My dearest friend and uncle. The raid in Syria took him. Or, at least, that’s what Colonel Becker said, that Liam was missing and presumed dead along with the rest of Bravo Two’s team.

I yell out loud, a long, guttural sound that practically shakes the rafters. What do I care how loud it is? No one is around to hear it, anyway. I’m alone, wasting time wallowing in my sadness when my uncle needs me. The police and Roddy are looking for Ethan. But no one is looking for Liam.

“I have to go,” I say as I stand.

Lady looks up at me in anticipation. She’s ready to defend the family again. She wants to go with me. Ignoring her, I bolt through the door and back into my house. I don’t know where I’m going, but I know I have to get there right away. I have to get to Liam.

Inside the house, a crowd has gathered. I’m in total shock. I have no idea what they’re doing here or why. I see a sea of faces-- young, old, male, female, and all races and ethnic backgrounds. They look like a perfect melting pot mix, like the crowds of my childhood in Brooklyn. I don’t recognize anyone. They’re milling around, chatting amongst themselves. The best I can guess, they’re here for an open house. They strike me as home buyers. I wonder if our house has been put up for sale without my knowledge.

The thought hurts my heart. I can feel my insides squeeze like they’re in a vice. This house is so special. We have so much more life to live here. Ali and I bought the place to raise our family and grow old in. We aren’t ready to sell it. We aren’t ready to give it up. I don’t want these people to be here.

“Excuse me,” I say, my voice breaking.

No one pays any attention. Only a few even glance my way.

“Hello?” I say, louder this time.

Lady whimpers from her position at my side. She’s sticking by me. I find it odd that she isn’t barking at these people though. Shouldn’t she be barking? They’re intruders in our home. The day of the break-in, Lady barked furiously. And she barked the same way at one of the movers the day we arrived. Now, all she offers is a whimper?

I’m so confused.

“People, please!” I shout as loud as I can. “This is my house. Listen to me!”

Finally, they stop chattering and look my way. They don’t speak, but the crowd parts, opening a path between me and the big farmhouse table that we love so much. It’s the beating heart of our home, where special meals, important discussions, and family celebrations take place. I wonder why these strangers have created a path right to it, of all places. How do they know it’s important to me?

“What?” I ask no one in particular.

Lady whines again, almost like she’s urging me on now.

“You want me to go to the table? Why? And who are you people? What are you doing in my house?”

No one says a word, they just turn their heads slowly towards the table. It’s clear they want me to go there.

Reluctantly, I follow. What choice do I have at this point?

I walk slowly through the parted crowd as three familiar figures come into view in the distance. They’re seated at the table, and they have their backs to me. As I get closer, I think I recognize the one nearest the back of the house. I recognize her profile, the hunched back and puffy, snow white hair.

“Miss Tessa!” I exclaim. “I’m so happy to see you!”

“Hello, George,” she says as she gets on her feet to give me a hug. Her grandmotherly vibe is always so comforting. I need comforting right now.

“What are you doing here?” I ask as she pats my back firmly. I help her return to her seat.

“I’m here to see you,” she replies. “Is that okay?”

“Of course, it is,” I reply. “But how did you know where I live?”

Miss Tessa smiles her knowing smile, then tilts her head towards the other two figures seated at the table. Just beyond her, an old man comes into view. He’s sitting up straight. His face is blurry, but I’m sure I know him.

“Good to see you, son,” he says with a smile.

John Wendell. Oh my God. My grandfather started calling me son around the time my dad died, when I was sixteen. I’d know his voice anywhere.

Chill bumps cover my entire body in an instant. I feel like I might throw up, like my body is short circuiting from the shock. He’s… dead. Yet, here he is in my house. Sitting at my farm table.

“John Wendell?” I ask as I step closer to him.

“That’s right.”

He reaches out a hand and takes mine, his face coming into full view. He looks just like he did the day of his going away party at Yellow Cob, when he sang The Way You Look Tonight in front of the crowd and danced with an invisible Grandma.

“John Wendell? How…? You’re...“

He chuckles. “Dead?”


“It happens,” he replies. “Not a big deal, really.”

“But?” I have so many questions.

John Wendell uses his other hand to pat the top of mine, then stands and grabs hold of my elbow while my arm is bent, just like he’s done ever since I was a kid. It’s familiar and comforting, but I’m a little freaked out right now. I tell myself to be brave.

He leads me to the far end of the table where the third figure is seated. My grandfather doesn’t have to tell me who it is. I know before I see.

“Hi, Dad,” I say quietly.

Alec leans forward, his face emerging from the haze. “Hey, Kid!” he says enthusiastically. He called me Kid.

Just like it did the night of the break-in when Dad warned me to wake up and be ready, the sound of his voice takes me right back as if no time has passed since he left us. He doesn’t get up out of his chair, but I lean down to hug him. He wraps me tight and hugs me hard. I remember this feeling. It’s one of the best.

I turn and hug John Wendell, too.

“You two know Miss Tessa?” I ask.

That question seems more pressing than the one about why they’re all in my house. Now that I understand Dad and John Wendell’s status as deceased, I’m confused about Miss Tessa’s.

“Have a seat,” John Wendell instructs. “We’ll explain everything.”

He glances at the crowd. The strangers are now gazing at us curiously. They seem like they might want to help. Only this makes less and less sense all the time. They can’t be here for an open house. If they were, how would they see Dad and John Wendell?

Wait. Are they all dead, too?

Suddenly, I remember the night at the hospital when I was gathering the courage to go out on the ledge after Clive. I had to go to save Ethan, even though I was terrified. Deceased relatives and ancestors gathered around me then in the waiting room. For a minute, it made me afraid that I was going to die. Yet, I survived. I followed Clive and his right-hand man. I saved Ethan. We all made it through okay.

“Who are all these people?” I ask as I sit down in the chair between Dad and John Wendell. Miss Tess remains on the other side of my grandfather. Dutifully Lady lays down at my feet. She sighs, then closes her eyes to rest, apparently satisfied that I’m in good hands for the moment.

John Wendell gives a look to the people in the crowd, and they each take a few steps back. They’re giving us space, but they aren’t going away.

So strange.

“These people are friends,” John Wendell says. He seems to be leading whatever it is that’s happening here today.

In a flash, I remember Liam. I’d been distracted by seeing Miss Tessa, John Wendell, and Dad, but I have to find my uncle.

“Dad,” I say with urgency in my voice. “Liam is missing in Syria. We were on a top-secret mission. We got split up. His team is presumed dead. I have to find him.”

Dad nods and folds his strong arms across his chest in his signature pose. John Wendell nods, too, while Miss Tessa gives me a sympathetic smile.

“We know,” Dad says. “We know about Ethan, too. And about Ali having been injured.”

“We know it all,” John Wendell adds. “That’s why we’re here. We’re here for you.”

A rush of emotion brings tears to my eyes. I’m incredibly grateful to have these three in my corner.

“It’s okay,” Miss Tessa says as she puts a hand on my shoulder.

“I have a lot of questions,” I say through tears. “Miss Tessa, how do you know my father and grandfather? And how are you here with them?”

“We’re here to look out for you, George. To let you know you’re not alone. That’s all.”

“That’s all? This is strange, Miss Tessa, you have to understand. Can you explain the other people in my house?”

She pats my shoulder. If things weren’t such a mess in my life, I’d relax and soak this in. I actually love the fact that Miss Tessa knows Dad and John Wendell. Maybe she has recently died, or maybe she’s an angel. I don’t know. I’m open to those possibilities. After what I’ve seen and experienced recently, I wouldn’t count anything out. Right now, though, I don’t have the luxury of relaxing. Time is of the essence. My family needs me, starting with Liam because no one else is looking for him.

“Dad,” I try again. “Liam is your brother. I know you want us to find him. I have to go and search. There’s a whole hospital staff looking after Ali. And a whole police department plus Roddy looking for Ethan. Hopefully, they get Taye’s F.B.I. contacts involved again, too. But no one is looking for Liam. He’s been left for dead behind enemy lines. I’m the only one who can save him.”

“I love my brother deeply,” Dad says. “You know that, Kid.”

“Then help me get out of here so that I can look for him. I’m not sure how I got here.”

Dad smiles sympathetically. In fact, all three of them have similar looks on their faces. Like they all know something I don’t. Something big.

I stand, growing frustrated. “Can I maybe come back and see you later?”

“Son,” John Wendell says. “Miss Tessa is exactly right. We’re here to let you know you’re not alone.”

Yeah, I got that. But…

Before I can say anything else, a car alarm blares outside. It is loud and incessant, causing me to put both hands over my ears. I wince, it’s so loud. The car must belong to one of these people. The alarm beeps and blares in long, startling tones.

“Is someone going to shut that off?” I ask.

The group looks around at each other, some shrugging their shoulders and others nodding. They seem to hear the noise. No one moves to stop it.

“Anyone? Whose car is that?”

John Wendell pats the top of my hand. “Hang in there, son.”

Everything goes dark. The sound fades, and then stops completely. The next thing I know, I’m back in my bed at Camp Shorabak. I think I’m alone in the room. I sort of sense someone’s presence behind me, but I don’t have the energy to turn and look at them. I close my eyes and drift off. To where, I honestly don’t know.

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