What Happened to Hannah

Chapter One
e should have called her three years ago. Now he had no choice. Opening the center drawer of the old oak desk in his office, Grady removed a folded piece of yellow notepaper and spread it out flat in front of him. He rubbed his damp palms on his khaki pants and sighed out loud. The creases in the note were pliant and soft from frequent folding, the writing a bit faded. A name and two sets of numbers, nothing more. But how many times had he slipped them from the drawer, dialed all but the last digit and hung up? She was twenty years and a phone call away, yet there were moments when he could feel her standing next to him, catch the scent of her hair, hear an echo of her voice. How pathetic is that? He blew out another long breath and picked up the receiver, trying to ignore the knot in his stomach. If he thought about her long enough, a familiar guilt would bore holes through the memory; anger would trickle in, pool, and eventually congeal into a sense of hopelessness and failure.

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Mostly he tried not to think about her—but he couldn’t help being curious. Leather creaked as he pushed himself straighter in the chair. He should make the call before he remembered too much, before he lost the tenuous hold on his professionalism. Changing his mind was no longer an option. He dialed the numbers. He stared at the phone and grappled with his doubts. Who was she now? Still the strong, brave, serious Hannah, so beautiful that a teenage boy would risk his friends and reputation— everything—to be with her? Or was she someone else entirely? He didn’t know if she’d married or if she had children. Both her business in Baltimore and the private number were listed under her name, but that didn’t mean anything except that she had her own life and her own business. Well, part of a business. Insurance, for crissake. He smiled and let loose a soft private chuckle. Insurance. The night she disappeared he’d feared for her life, prayed desperate prayers that she’d run away. He’d worried himself sick. Then slowly and gradually, as months piled up to years and no word of her returned to Clearfield one way or the other, he still refused to believe what everyone else assumed to be true. She simply couldn’t be dead. She couldn’t be. Bright summer days were still glorious, snowy nights with full moons were still magic, and rainbows still brought her to mind. He had fantasies of her popping up on television or a movie screen or in some magazine showing off her chateau and rich, handsome husband— Clearfield and Grady Steadman an empty lapse in her memory. But never, not in his wildest imaginings or his simplest dreams, had he pictured her selling life insurance to Main Street, America.

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It made perfect sense, of course, and he wasn’t disappointed when he found out where she was and what she’d been doing. Aside from the relief that she was alive, he felt satisfaction, pride even, that she’d been smart enough to hide herself in plain sight. She was living a normal life out in the open, where those who might have hunted for her would never think to look. A male voice answered, clear and crisp. “Benson Insurance & Investments.” “No Levitz?” The short response had thrown him. “I’m sorry?” “It’s not Levitz and Benson Insurance anymore?” “No. I’m sorry. Mr. Levitz retired a couple of years ago. My name’s Jim Sauffle. Can I help you?” “It’s just Hannah now?” “Hannah and three other full-time agents, but she owns the business. Is there something I can do for you today?” “No. I need to speak with Hannah Benson.” “Of course, may I tell her who’s calling?” Better not. She might refuse to pick up. “It’s a personal call.” Three years ago, when he’d felt compelled to track her down, he prepared a speech and never used it. Dozens of times since then he’d thought of calling, simply to say hello. Too late for that now. This wasn’t a personal call, not really. He had three times the ground to cover with her, all of it rocky and full of potholes. He’d wing it, he decided. There was no telling how she’d react to any of it, so he’d handle her like he would any other stranger. He held his breath and listened to the loud pulse in his ears over the soft Muzak on the other end of the line. He reminded himself, once again, that whoever answered next wouldn’t be the same Hannah Benson he’d known so long ago. It would not be a sweet, beautiful young girl, but a grown woman who

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very likely wasn’t going to be too thrilled to hear from him. “Hannah Benson.” Her voice soft and expectant, and so familiar. “Hello?” “Hannah. Hi. You might not remember, it’s been a long time. This is Grady Steadman. We went to school together in Clearfield. Virginia.” He added the state as an extra nudge, in case it was amnesia that had kept her away for so long. A guy could hope. If some silences were golden, this one was pure lead. “We used to be friends, Hannah. My mother taught at the high school and—” “Hello, Grady.” Jesus. That hadn’t changed—the warm chill that ran up his spine when she said his name, the way she dragged on the r and went light on the y. It rang the same, despite the lack of warmth and welcome. “Hi. It’s been a long time.” He grimaced. He said that already. “Yes.” “I know you’re at work. I tried your home number a couple of times last night and couldn’t reach you. How are you?” He was stalling. After a brief pause came, “I’m fine. How are you?” “I’m good. I . . . Okay, I wish I were calling under different circumstances. I wish . . .” What did he wish? That things had turned out different between them? That he’d called three years earlier? That he hadn’t called her at all? He cleared his throat. “I wish a lot of things but, unfortunately, this isn’t a personal call.” Like an idiot he waited half a second, holding his breath, wondering if she’d make some sound on the other end to convey her disappointment. He couldn’t even hear her breathing. “Hannah?” “I’m listening.”

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“Hannah, your mother passed away yesterday. I’m sorry. There’s just no easy way to say it.” He wanted to see her eyes. She had the truest, bluest eyes he’d ever seen— always frank and honest, if you took the time to look. He’d come to know and trust what he saw in those eyes. If he could look into them now, he’d know if she was in pain or indifferent; sorry or glad. The silence told him nothing. “Doc Kolson says it was probably a heart attack. She died quietly in her sleep.” Quietly, like Ellen Benson had done everything else in her life. Quietly tolerating years of abuse and regular beatings at her husband’s hand, then just as quietly she bashed his head in with a fry pan when she’d had enough. Hannah’s mother had been a very quiet woman. “Hannah?” “Yes.” He heard the hesitation in her voice as she gathered her thoughts. “Ah. If you’ll give me an address, I’ll send a check for the expenses.” As cold as that sounded, it was more than he had anticipated. As far as he knew she hadn’t seen or spoken to her mother since she was sixteen years old, and things were . . . complicated between them before that. “I wish it was that simple, Hannah. I truly do. But you have to come home.” “I don’t think so.” “If it were simply a matter of burying your mother, I might not have called. There’s more to it than that.” “Look, I appreciate the call. I do. It can’t have been easy to track me down like this, but I’m afraid it’s a waste of your time. I’m willing to pay to see that she has a decent burial and if she has debts I’ll pay them if need be, but that’s all. I can’t go back there, Grady. I won’t.” He took a deep breath and opened his mouth to blurt out the rest of it, but she spoke again. “What

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about Ruth? If this has to do with half the farm being left to me or something like that, then send me the papers. I’ll sign everything over to her. I don’t want anything except to be left alone. No offense.” She added the last as an afterthought. “It’s nice of you to let me know.” “I’m not offended. I can’t even blame you. I don’t know what all happened that day or the night you left, but I know it was bad—bad enough for you to risk your life to get away from it and to stay away. But that was a long time ago, Hannah. And now there’s another life on the line.” There was another short silence. Then in a softer, kinder but still tentative voice she asked, “Is Ruth ill?” He held the phone to his ear with one hand and rubbed the other over his face then back through his short dark hair. What the hell was he doing? Why hadn’t he given the number to Doc Kolson and asked him to call her? Pastor Barnes would have done it. The new priest at the Catholic church, Ellen Benson’s priest, would have made this call. But no, he had to do it. He had to hear her voice. He leaned back in his chair and swiveled a bit to the right to look out the large window in his office—through the blinds, across the street, beyond the sleeping March gardens and the leafless bushes and trees to the large white gazebo on the shallow knoll in the center of town . . . where he’d taught Hannah to kiss. “No, not ill. Ruth died five years ago, Hannah.” He heard her sharp intake and closed his eyes. “Jesus. I feel like I’m peeling this Band-Aid off so slow I’m taking skin with it. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I would have called you when it happened, but your mother never hinted that you might still be alive for another two years— after her first heart attack. Then when I tracked you through the DMV she asked me, begged me, not to call you. She said if you were happy somewhere she didn’t

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want to ruin it for you; and if you weren’t, why add to your troubles. Now I’m serving you a double dose of sad and . . . I should have called sooner. I’m sorry.” She sighed soft and sad over the line. “I am, too. I’m so sorry. Poor Ruthie. So young.” She paused and was thoughtful. “I suppose I should be curious as to how she died or why but . . . I feel like they’re both finally at peace and the rest of it doesn’t matter. Not now. Not anymore. I suppose that makes me sound heartless and insensitive, doesn’t it?” “Not to me. But some of the rest of it does matter. I haven’t gotten to my primary reason for calling.” There came a soft, humorless laugh at the other end. “I’ve run out of relatives, Grady. So, again, if it’s about the farm . . .” “It’s not. And you haven’t quite.” “I haven’t quite what?” “Run out of relatives.” He waited for her to say something. “Hannah?” “Don’t say it.” “I have to. Ruth had a daughter. Fifteen years ago. And she needs you.” “She needs me.” She didn’t sound like she knew what that meant. He heard her moving around, the pattern of her breathing changed. “What, she needs a kidney or something?” “She needs a home.” “Come on, Grady, get real. What the hell am I going to do with a fifteen-year-old girl I’ve never even met before?” “Get to know her. Make her a part of your family.” “What family?” she exploded. “You just told me my whole damned family is dead.” “You never married?” “No! I didn’t.” Christ, he was a total ass to feel so elated . . . wasn’t he? Then she made a point to add, “On purpose! To avoid this very thing. I don’t want to be responsible to or for anyone.

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You got that? It’s selfish, I know, but there you are. That’s me. Selfish. Selfish, selfish Hannah.” This wasn’t quite what he expected, but it didn’t make any difference. Hannah was still the girl’s only living relative. He’d envisioned a little initial resistance, but he’d been counting on some maternal instincts to kick in and save the day. A little empathy maybe, so she could put a child of her own in the same situation. But all was not lost. In his experience people who were truly selfish didn’t think about being selfish or call themselves selfish. They simply were selfish—the lack of thought and intent being part of the definition. He had a feeling Hannah wasn’t as selfish as she was scared. And scared didn’t cut it—her niece was scared, too. “Don’t you want to know about her? Aren’t you curious?” “No. I don’t and I’m not. Now, if you’ve covered everything you called to tell me . . .” “She looks like Ruth. A little taller, I think, but slim and blond. Her eyes are more like yours, though. A darker blue.” “Grady.” “She’s a nice girl. Smart. She’s a sophomore over at the high school. She runs. She’s on the track team. I understand she writes poetry, too. And . . . Oh! One good thing—her hair’s always the same color. I’m not sure if it’s because she doesn’t care for green or purple hair or because she didn’t want to trigger her grandmother’s heart attack prematurely, but it all works for me.” “Well, it’s not working for me. I’m not going to change my mind. I’m not equipped to raise a child.” “She’s not a toddler. Most of the messy stuff is done. She wants to go to college in two years. Things could get very screwed up if she’s made a ward of the court. Two years, Han-

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nah. It’ll be over in a heartbeat. She’ll be eighteen and legal. Her share of the farm will pay for most of her education. In the meantime, all you’d have to do is sort of . . . supervise her. Sign a couple of field-trip permission slips. Make sure she eats. Nothin’ to it.” “Right. Nothing to it. For two years. In Clearfield. I’m sorry—” “No! Not in Clearfield. Well, yes, but only for a couple of weeks. You’d have to come get her, sign a few custody papers, take care of things at the school, get things rolling on the sale of the farm, but that’s it. Two weeks tops, I’d think.” “You’d think?” “Two weeks tops.” Now to drive the point home. “She needs you, Hannah.” He gave her moment. If a spark of the girl he once knew still existed in this woman, she’d do the right thing. If this was the right thing. For all he knew she could be a mild-mannered insurance saleswoman by day and a kinky-freaky sadomasochist by night—to whom he was delivering an innocent young girl. He doubted it, but he’d sure as hell check her out as thoroughly as he could before she left town again. For now, he’d go with his gut instincts. And they were telling him that the mere fact that she was now silently contemplating the issue at the other end of the line meant that, deep down, the girl he knew survived. “And this person’s been living with my mother for the last five years, I take it?” “A while longer than that. Ruth was pretty sick for a while.” “What about her father?” “Never in the picture as far as I know. No name on the birth certificate.” There was a loud sigh and more silence. He rubbed the back

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of his neck to ease some of the tension and impatience he felt, reminding himself that Hannah hadn’t had three years to prepare for this phone call. “What if we meet and hate each other?” she asked, keeping her tone stiff and uncommitted over the misgivings and trepidation in her voice. “She’d have to come and live here. I’d be taking her to a different state, aren’t there laws against that?” He grinned. Victory, satisfaction, anticipation. He felt them all and had to pull—hard— on years of practice to stay cool and professional. “Only if you’re stealing her and crossing state lines, which you wouldn’t be . . . And you knew that already. Let’s not make this any harder than it has to be right now. Just come down and meet her and we’ll take it from there. We’ll see how it goes. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t. At least you will have tried. I can’t ask for more than that.” “Even that is asking for a lot.” “I know.” She didn’t speak again for several seconds. “You always were very persuasive.” He glanced out at the gazebo, memories tugged at him. He wouldn’t pretend not to know what she meant. “Some things are worth a little extra effort.” Once upon a time she had been worth a lot of extra effort. “Sometimes some things are best left alone.” “Sometimes some things need to change.” “It doesn’t sound like you’ve changed. You’re relentless.” Her laugh was soft, but he could tell she wasn’t amused. “You’re not going to give up, are you?” “I can’t. It’s important.” That importance clawed at him from within, for the girl, for Hannah, for him— and it went beyond his job, his civic duty, and his responsibilities as a decent human being. This was his chance at redemption, to attempt success where he

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failed before; to right a wrong in a convoluted, circular fashion. Because once, a long time ago, Hannah had come to him for help and he’d failed her. Miserably. Young and powerless, shocked and confused, no excuse, no amount of adult reasoning had ever been enough to abate the monstrous guilt, the ego-shattering self-doubt, or the tender pain of a first love lost. Second chances didn’t come along often enough to be ignored or taken lightly. It was too late to change things for Hannah, to be of any use to her, to change what happened so many years ago. But it wasn’t too late for her sister’s child. He heard her shuffling papers and moving around. “I need time,” she said. “To think. And I can’t just drop everything here and take off for two weeks. When would I have to be there?” “Your mother’s funeral is scheduled for Monday morning at ten.” “Christ, Grady, will you give me a break? I have a life. I can’t possibly—” He cut her off. He didn’t want to give her too much time to think. And it wasn’t only her life they were talking about. “This will be Anna’s second funeral in five years. She shouldn’t be alone.” “Who’s—?” “Anna. That’s her name. It’s short for Hannah.” The background noise ceased and she waited a beat. “Are you making that up?” “Nope.” He laughed silently. “Frankly, I never would have thought to . . . but I did save it for the very end. Just in case.”