CHAPTER ONE -
Ana Elise Torres sits among friends in a leather-clad booth inside of Seattle's trendy Contour nightclub.
Perfectly curled dark hair cascades over bare caramel arms and her elbows are propped upon the table. The candle-lit centerpiece brings a glow to her doe-shaped chestnut eyes. Her sheer, open-shouldered blouse, black with large red roses scattered about, and skin-tight black jeans enhance the over-all 'Sexy Mami' look that Ana is going for.
Big silver hoop earrings and multiple bangle bracelets accentuate her beauty, as do full wine-colored lips and dramatic silver smokey-eye.
Its her birthday, and Ana's best friend Jaiden has arranged for a few close friends to be at the club in a secluded booth when she and Ana arrive.
After a rough week of work and in much need of some fun, the girls hit the floor to show off their best dance skills.
Back in the booth, thoroughly exhausted and a little sweaty from busting her move, Ana sits smiling over the straw of her Margarita. She's mesmerized by the tall, handsome waiter who is eyeing her from across the room.
"What are you doing?"
In extreme contrast to Ana's insanely gorgeous dark features, Jaiden Knight is a petite blonde, and quite a beauty in her own right. Her gold-flecked green eyes are like jewels that enthrall the few men whom Jaiden has allowed into her life.
Her ensemble of a red halter dress with a simple black belt and cute strappy black sandals could be one spotted on the red carpet. Her hair is pulled into an elegant up-do. Soft tendrils falling here and there add a romantic touch. While Ana's style is casual and fun with a sexy side, opposite Jaiden is more sophisticated and demure.
Jaiden has been Ana's best friend since fifth grade. Both now twenty-five, Jaiden knows pretty much everything about Ana.
She definitely knows that look. Its Ana's slightly drunken and thinly veiled attempt at flirtation.
"Nothing," Ana says, drawing out the word, her amusement-filled Latina accent slurs ever-so-slightly.
She follows Ana's gaze until her eyes settle upon what Jaiden would describe as a marginally cute Hispanic-looking guy in a black and white waiter's uniform. He's standing with his back to the wall, hands folded, baring a brilliant white smile, and eyes locked on Ana.
"Ana, seriously? The waiter. Sitting in Contour - the place to be in Seattle with a room filled with gorgeous guys, and you pick a waiter?"
"He is muy caliente'," Ana replies, her voice husky, her eyes glassy. She munches on another Calamari Ring, never taking her eyes off of the seriously attractive object of her infatuation.
"I think it's time you take off the beer-goggles, my friend," Jaiden says with a groan.
"Anyway, how can you eat that stuff? Disgusting!"
"They're good! Try one."
Jaiden blanches and puts a hand in front of the offensive little piece of deep-fried tentacle that Ana is so addicted to.
"And here he comes," Jaiden mumbles defeatedly under her breath.
A deep voice says, "Hi!"
The young man addresses them both but it is a formality at best. It's hard for anyone to miss that he only has eyes for Ana.
Grabbing the opportunity to observe the guy up close, Jaiden sees that he really is quite handsome. Tall and lean, yet obviously works out, judging from the rippling muscles beneath his thinly made white button-down shirt. Not that she had really notices, mind you. Physical stature and looks don't impress Jaiden. It's what a person does to further themselves that she respects. He has a certain something, Jaiden concedes. But a waiter, still.
A huge belly laugh from waiter-guy, along with Ana's tinkling giggle breaks her from her judgmental reverie, and she notices that the guy has basically joined their table. Obviously his shift is over, and he has come to claim his prize.
"You really think that? A stripper name? That's hysterical and not one bit true. I think it's adorable," the guy says, amused.
Jaiden knows in an instant that waiter-guy has just found out Ana's full name. Born Tatyana Elise, Ana has shortened her first name and combined it with her middle, thus shunning her self-proclaimed "stripper name."
Ana is leaning in a bit too close, hanging on every word that waiter-guy is saying, which is apparently hilarious, given all of the laughter eminating from her.
"And whom might you be?"
Glancing over at a forgotten Jaiden, Ana gives her friend a look that says 'don't start,' and Ana's recent suitor gives Jaiden a friendly smile. The look she gives in return, suspicious.
"The name's Xavier Ramirez. I work here part-time. Graduated from ITT-Seattle last fall, majoring in Cyber-Securities. Started an internship at Microsoft six months ago. I'm a Sagittarius. Trusty-worthy and dependable. If there's anything else you'd like to know, feel free to ask."
Xavier extends his hand to Jaiden. Slightly impressed with his resume, not so much with his sarcasm, she ignores his gesture of friendship.
"I'll see you back at home, Ana. I feel a headache coming on."
As Jaiden says her goodbyes around the table, Xavier touches her arm. She impulsively jerks away.
"You know, for a pretty girl, you're not very nice."
CHAPTER TWO -
Fuming, Jaiden throws her purse onto a chair and goes to the kitchen of the apartment that she and Ana have shared since they started college. Both attended Seattle University, Jaiden through paid tuition, and Ana on Academic Scholarship. It made the stylish abode, so close to campus, ideal. Not to mention that Jaiden's daddy is a criminal defense attorney, and a good one at that. Loaded, he has been their generous benefactor.
Ana's family isn't so well off. So they were quite pleased when Jaiden made the offer of Ana living off-campus with her.
Jaiden has a Bachelor's of Science in Forensic Psychology, while Ana holds one in Psychology, with a minor in Child Psychology. They made their decision together to remain in Seattle and attend SU. Ana is a case worker for various hospitals as a Family Services counselor, and Jaiden works for the police department as a Victims Advocate. She's at the hospital frequently, helping victims of domestic abuse and violent crimes to recover from their ordeals.
While her body attempts to look for a snack, her brain can't let go of waiter-boys parting remark.
\ You know, for a pretty girl, you're not very nice.
"Who does he think he is?"
Finally settling on a cup of peach yogurt, Jaiden goes into the den and snatches up the remote, annoyed. As she flips through the channels, unaware of anything she is seeing, Jaiden tries to relax. Her anger is quickly replaced by worry.
Omigosh! I left Ana with this guy. What if something happens to her? Immediately she calls Ana's phone. She hears the familiar voice greeting.
"Hi, this is Ana Elise. I'm currently unavailable, but if you leave your name and number, I'll get back with you."
This simple phrase that she has heard a thousand times now sounds ominous to Jaiden. As does the fact that the call went straight to voicemail. Something is wrong. Ana would never reject her call. Jaiden suddenly feels nauseous.
Like any best friend would, Jaiden had early in the evening made sure that Ana wasn't going to drink and drive by slipping the car keys from Ana's purse. And, as she said goodnight to friends Jax and Kristen, Jaiden asked them to please give her a ride home.
Not that the smitten Ana had noticed, all smiles and giggles over her newfound crush. Had she realized, Ana would've been irate. It wasn't that she would have tried driving intoxicated, mind you - Ana hates to be "handled." Jaiden believes this stems from years of living underneath the roof of an overprotective father.
Jaiden, knowing how irrational she's being, but too worried to care, dials 911. But just before she hits the Send button, she knows that Ana will kill her if Jaiden puts out an APB on her.
Instead, she calls Kristen's phone. She finds out that Ana Elise and waiter-boy had been huddled up in a booth when Kristen and Jax prepared to leave. Jax asked Ana if they could give her a ride. Ana politely declined. Apprehensive, Kristen says Jax told Ana that Jaiden had been worried about her, and made them promise to take her home. He assures Ana that she has no keys, and will not be driving herself home.
"No, she won't, I will," says a sober Xavier. "Ana's safety is very important to me, rest assured."
"But you just met her like ten minutes ago, Brah," Jax says in retrospect.
"She was important to me the moment I laid eyes on her - Brah," Xavier says.
Kristen says that Jax is very impressed with Xavier. She assures Jaiden that the dude is straight, and that they would have dragged Ana away had he been otherwise.
"He actually hugged us both and wished us a safe drive home. He is a very polite and respectful young man."
Young man? He's their age. Thanks Grandma!
Respectful. Hmph. Well, what did Kristen know anyway?
Jaiden thanks Kristen and hangs up. The clock says one-fifteen a.m. Jaiden will give Ana until three on the dot before calling the cops.
At two-forty, Jaiden awakes to the sound of Ana's key in the door. From her perch on the couch, she hears murmuring coming from the open doorway, so Jaiden knows the waiter is on the porch with her.
While she expects to hear Ana making excuses as to why she can't invite him in, what Jaiden actually hears is waiter-boy telling Ana what an amazing time he's had, and asking if he can see her again.
"Call me, okay?" Ana says softly.
"As if you even have to ask. Goodnight, beautiful Ana Elise."
CHAPTER THREE -
Ana sits in the small quaint kitchen at the breakfast nook, feet tucked beneath her. Hair pulled back in a pony, she is wearing gray sweats and an over-sized crimson sweater, which hangs off her right shoulder a bit. The color suits her, as the sun shines through the bay window, making her black hair shine like satin.
Back from her run, Jaiden walks into the kitchen, catching Ana staring down into her cup of coffee.
"Hung over?" a sweaty Jaiden asks, wiping her face with a towel, still irritated by the events of the previous night.
With a sly smile, Ana replies, "Not from the alcohol."
"God, Ana. Could you be more cheesy?" Jaiden rolls her eyes.
"And besides, I know you didn't do anything with him. You never do. It's not your style."
A cross look comes over Ana's face, and she pokes her bottom lip out emphatically.
"We didn't have to 'do it' for me to be addicted to Xavier, Jai. Just basking in his presence and listening to him speak was enough for me. He is so intelligent. And since when is hooking up on the first date a 'style' anyway?"
"Basking? Ana, you are just too much." Jaiden laughs, shaking her head.
"Jealous?" Ana asks in a teasing tone, grinning at her friend mischieviously.
"Of your Shakespearian ability to speak profoundly of love? Oh. I'm jealous. Jealous of you finding the waiter of your dreams? That is so my goal in life," Jaiden says sarcastically.
"At least I give love a chance. Look at yourself, Jaiden. You have guys hovering like bees to honey, yet you never give them a chance. Oh, if they have a nice car and trust fund, you might allow them to be graced with your presence, but what kind of happiness does that bring? You're too good for that, Jai!"
Tired of hearing the same old speech concerning her love life, or lack thereof, Jaiden turns the subject back to Ana and the waiter.
"Speaking of being too good, Ana why him? You have just as many guys buzzing around you. So what's the deal? What's got you so hung up on this waiter-guy?"
Jaiden just can't bring herself to call him by his name. Something about this guy just screams at Jaiden that he is not right for Ana - she just can't put her finger on it.
As if reading her mind, which is something she does well and often, Ana calls Jaiden out.
"His name is Xavier. Why is that so hard to say? Get used to it, because you'll be hearing it a lot from now on.
And as for why I think he's the one, it's just this feeling. It's like an electrical current running through me. It's hard to catch my breath when I'm near him, and he looks deeply into my eyes when he speaks to me. It's like... it's like trying to explain the color blue to someone who was born blind. I've never felt this before, Jai. I think he's my soulmate."
Before Jaiden could stop herself, she lets out a laugh. The look on Ana's face makes her regret it, but she decides to press on.
"Soulmate? Oh my little Ana. You have always had a flair for the dramatic!"
CHAPTER FOUR -
Jaiden has just stepped from the shower when she hears the doorbell. Toweling dry, her mind unwillingly wanders back to her childhood. Jaiden didn't have what one could call a normal childhood - not like Anas.
Much as she complains about being smothered, Ana's home had been filled with a bunch of warm, loving people who would take a bullet for her. They may have been crazy, Jaiden conceded, but they were a family.
Chuckling, Jaiden remembers how once when they were thirteen and she'd slept over, Ana's father had knocked on their bedroom door for what seemed like five times that night.
"Come in, Poppy," Ana would say in exasperation.
"Just making sure you girls are alright. Need anything?" Justino Torres asked, his thick Latino accent tinged with worry.
"No thank you, Mr. Torres," Jaiden would always say, smiling warmly.
"No, Poppy, we are fine. Just like all the other times! Goodnight."
Jaiden always cringed at Ana's tone. He only did it because he cared, afterall.
After the door closed, Ana threw herself across the bed, rolling her eyes dramatically.
"Aye! Why does he keep doing that?"
Ana's voice whiny and dragging an 'UH' out at the end. Jaiden hated that sound, and gave Ana 'the look.' It was met with an eye roll, Ana's silent, okay - with a silent 'UH' on the end, no doubt. This habit of Ana's made Jaiden crazy.
"Because he loves you, Ana, geez! Give him a break, okay? He worries."
"Worries about what?" Ana asks incredulously. "What, does he think somebody's gonna break in here and get us?"
"Maybe! You know it's been all over the news about that little girl, Polly. Just look what happened to her!"
Ana's head drops immediately. She had prayed for the little girl every night, but it wasn't good what happened to her. Saddened and ashamed, she scolds herself for being so selfish.
"Ana, you gotta know he's gonna worry. He loves you, crazy girl!"
Smiling, Ana says, "Yeah, I guess you're right. I am pretty lucky, huh?"
Jaiden, now back in the present day is choking back tears.
"Yeah, you are so lucky."
A knock on her bedroom door startles her, and Jaiden quickly wipes the tears before they can fall.
Jaiden clears her throat after her voice cracks, betraying her.
Ana pokes her head around the partially open door, a goofy grin on her face.
"Guess what I've got?" she says in a sing-song voice.
"Oh, let me guess," Jaiden says, sarcasm dripping. "Flowers from your wai - um, Xavier?"
The name comes out with a bit too much flourish, making it sound as forced as it truly had been, but there it was. For her Ana.
Ignoring the sarcasm, Ana laughs aloud.
"Nope! A basket of Calamari Rings!" she squeals, delighted.
"What kind of - "
Jaiden stops herself, unwilling to spoil her friend's obvious joy.
"Well, I'll give him that. He's original," Jaiden laughs, shaking her head.
"As well as gorgeous, brilliant, and exceptionally kind. But yeah, I'm adding original to his amazing qualities," Ana grins.
" 'To Ana Elise, who brought radiant light into my life.'
Isn't that the sweetest thing?" Ana asks, reading Xavier's card.
"Yeah. Sweet." mumbles Jaiden.
Noting the sarcasm, Ana waves the basket beneath Jaiden's nose; making a wafting motion with her other hand.
"Ugh! Will you stop?" whines Jaiden.
"Girl, you know you want one!" Ana teases, laughing hysterically as Jaiden pushes her out the door.
CHAPTER FIVE -
Jaiden was born and raised on Mercer Island, a small suburban town in the Puget Sound region. While it happens to be adjacent to Seattle, it is a moated community, cut off from main city life.
A very affluent and elite neighborhood as Washington cities go, it is indeed an island, surrounded by water on every side. There are two roads entering and exiting the island. The I-90 expressway bridge takes you to West Seattle, and State Route 550 toll-bridge takes you into downtown Seattle. It is a very safe and secluded place to live.
The safety factor doesn't apply to the roadways, however. Narrow as can be, these two roads account for almost all traffic deaths in the town. Sheer drop, no shoulder, no visibility, no passing.
Jaiden's father, Robert Knight, is a powerful criminal defense attorney. He moved his family there from modest Renton WA, when Jaiden was five. He felt that Renton just was not up to par with his growing financial status.
Jaiden tells Ana that her father is almost never home, but that the nights he is, she wishes he were gone. Ana can't understand this, because she herself hates when her Poppy has to go away due to work, counting the days on the calendar until he returned. When she says this to twelve year old Jaiden, her friend just stares at her sadly.
"Ana, I'm so glad you don't understand."
As strange and cryptic as her words are, something in Jaiden's eyes pleads for her not to ask more.
Tatyana "Ana" Torres lives in Beacon Hill, another subdivision of Seattle, yet nowhere near reaching the hierarchy of Mercer.
Young Ana attends Beacon Hill International Elementary School, a K-5 school that offers bilingual and diverse programs, until the end of fourth grade. Ana's father, Justino wants Ana to attend school on Mercer, and requests a grant from the No Child Left Behind program. His dream is fulfilled. It isn't that the schools in Beacon Hill aren't good enough, but Justino Torres wants the best for his baby daughter.
In his request letter, Justino pleads to the Washington State Board of Education.
" I came to this country filled with hope for a brighter future. We have all that we could dream of, but for one thing. For our precious Tatyana to attend a grand school. Although outside of our district, I believe Mercer Island Elementary to be that school. I have read that the education level on the island is comparable to University. I just know that my daughter would excel there."
Although he loves both of his princesses, thirteen year old Pilar, who happily attends school in Beacon Hill, and eleven year old Ana, he sees something in Ana that he just can't deny. She excels at everything she tries, and she simply exudes success.
On the first day of fifth grade, Jaiden's housekeeper, driving the spare Beamer for appearances sake, drops her off in front of the school. Heavens knows that Jaiden's mother Patrice is still passed out from her affair with Jose' Quervo from the night before, and is in no shape to take Jaiden to school...not that she ever has before.
Daddy Dearest was already at work, fighting for the rights of rapists and murderers.
Which left housekeeper/nanny, Gabriella Santos to fend for young Jaiden. Being quite fond of Gabby, who acts more like a mom to Jaiden than just a housekeeper, Jaiden reaches over and hugs the girl as she often does. Jaiden jumps out of the car, and quickly opens the door once more.
"Te Amo, Gabby!" smiling.
As Gabriella drives away, a huge smile on her face, Jaiden heads to the front door of the school.
As she runs up the steps in her new Tommy t-shirt and jeans, and sporting her one-hundred-fifty dollar sneakers, Jaiden notices a new girl standing near the entrance. She is wearing faded jeans, like the kind that weren't like that when you bought them, an out-dated-style knit sweater and last year's sneakers, worn. "Por lo que hablan español?"
"I'm sorry, what? Were you talking to me? Jaiden asks, embarassed.
"Yes. I said 'So you can speak Spanish?' I heard what you said to your mom."
"Oh, no. Not at all, really. It was just something I picked up from a book."
Ana nods, embarassed that she'd asked.
"And actually, that wasn't my mom, it was my housekeeper. But she's my friend as well. She's really cool," smiles Jaiden.
"Sweet. So where is your mom?"
"Why do you ask so many questions, anyway? Where's yours?" Jaiden asks, taking the defensive.
"I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to be nosy; just couldn't think of anything else to say."
Ana's little lip begins to quiver, and Jaiden feels horrible for snapping at the new girl.
"Don't sweat it. So what's your name? I'm Jaiden," She says, extending her hand.
Taking the proffered hand in hers, "It's Tatyana. And she's at the market, buying cow's tongue. My mother, I mean."
"Cow's tongue! What would anyone want with that?" Jaiden asks, grimacing.
"We eat it! They are huge, too!"
"You eat it? Why did I ask?"
Ana tried hard to stifle a giggle.
"Yeah, you are looking a little greenish right now."
With that, both girls burst into fits of laughter. They have barely contained themselves by the time the bell rang, and as they walk along together down the hall, intermittent snickering could still be heard.
And so it happened that Ana Torres and Jaiden Knight came to meet in fifth grade, and became immediate, lifelong friends.
CHAPTER SIX -
Jaiden walks by Ana's open bedroom door. She starts to ask if she wants to grab some lunch with her, but realizes that Ana is on the phone.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that Ana is talking to Xavier. Just as she is about to tiptoe away for fear of looking like a stalker, Ana glances her way. Crap. Busted.
"Hold on, here she is. Lemme ask her."
Bounding from the bed to the doorway, Ana is on her like a flash. So much for a quick getaway.
"So Jai, I was just talking to Xavier. He wants to go out and do something fun today. I told him I'd ask you and Pilar if you guys would like to hang out with us this afternoon."
"Geez, Ana, I don't know, ya know? I mean, I don't even know this guy, and Pilar - you know she doesn't exactly like me..."
"Don't be silly! Pilar likes you, she and Mom just have this shared delusion that I think I'm better than them because you have money. It's absurd, of course, and I've told them that, but they're just stubborn, ya know?
As for Xavier, what better time to get to know him, right?"
"Well, ya know, Pilar and your mom have known me since we were twelve, and they still don't like me!" Jaiden side-steps the question.
Ana is fidgeting with her fingers, and Jaiden knows that means she isn't being honest. But before Jaiden could call her on it, Ana startles her by blurting out the truth.
"Okay, okay! Look. Jaiden. Here's the thing. I need you to do this for me. We have a date planned for tonight, but I'm freaking out. I'm afraid I'll make a total fool of myself alone with him for the first time - without alcohol to make me brave. For me, please?"
"Ana Elise, you most surely do test the bounds of friendship."
Her strong, fake southern accent serves her well. Jaiden remembers that line from a movie once - Steel Magnolias, maybe - and how she loves to use it on Ana.
"Whirlyball?" Jaiden asks, perplexed.
"Yep! Its gonna be a blast," Ana says, giddy with anticipation.
Pilar looks a lot less enthused than her sister. Actually, Pilar seems to try to look a lot less attractive than Ana, although it really does takes some trying. Only two years apart, Pilar looks and acts much older.
Strait-laced and lackluster, an otherwise lovely Pilar wears her long, straight dark hair severely pulled back in a pony. The clothes she chooses could be described as matronly. Poorly-fitted black slacks and a pale yellow blouse topped off with a tan cardigan is her outfit of choice. Sensible black shoes complete her ensemble.
Once when Ana tried to get close to Pilar by offering to help with makeup and fashion advice, Pilar lashed out at her.
"I don't need cute clothes. I have responsibilities that have been dumped on my plate - you know, like taking care of our aging parents while you get to go out and live your dream. We can't all go to college and party on the weekends.
You and Barbie just stay in your little dream house and stop judging me, okay?"
Ana, stunned and hurt, could say nothing, but the guilt and shame of realizing that Pilar felt she was neglecting her parents hurt her to the soul.
So Ana once again is trying to bring her sister into her circle. She wants to be able to laugh and share her happiness with Pilar the way that she does with Jaiden, which is one of the sources of animosity for Pilar. But Pilar only pushes her away more and more. Even their mother Marta is quite chilly around Jaiden, and sometimes even around Ana, her own flesh and blood.
"I haven't played since junior high. Is it really age-appropriate at this point?" Pilar asks, raising an eyebrow.
A knock at the door leaves the question hanging unanswered.
"Hi! Please, come in."
Ana is gushing with excitement at actually seeing Xavier again. Even sober, she can't believe how gorgeous he is.
Dressed in a turquoise Polo that shows off his ripped arms, and well-fitting jeans, Xavier is very much model material. His flawless skin, chiseled face and roman-esque nose are nearly breath-taking, with just enough five o'clock shadow to exude 'cologne ad' manliness. He even smells like he stepped straight from a cologne ad, Ana notes.
His wavy dark hair is combed to the side. Dark eyes shine bright as he gazes at Ana, giving her another of his dazzling smiles.
"Hey you," Xavier says tenderly, pulling Ana in for a hug. "I've missed you."
He's just a huggy guy, that one. Jaiden thought, hiding her amusement.
"I've missed you too!" Ana says, smiling shyly.
"Xavier, this is my sister, Pilar. Pilar, this is Xavier Ramirez. Xavier's family is from Guatemala."
Pilar shakes his hand politely, but by what is apparently his style, Xavier gently closes in for a shoulder-hug.
Pilar gives Xavier an awkward smile and backs away in case another hug might be coming on.
"And of course you remember my best friend, Jaiden."
Xavier and Jaiden eye each other cooly, not in a completely impolite way, but the air of distrust can be cut by a knife.
A simultaneous, "Hello," is the extent of their greeting.
"Wow. That went well," Ana says with cheerful sarcasm.
A small laugh escapes Pilar from her safe spot near the corner. It is a sound reminiscent of a puppy's yelp.
Ana shoots her a look that says, 'behave,' and snuggles in a bit closer to Xavier's warmth.
"About this 'Whirlyball' - what exactly is it?" Jaiden asks, confused.
"Oh please tell me you're joking."
Xavier can't hide his disdain for such a lapse in fundamental entertainment.
"Jaiden grew up on Mercer. She didn't get to see a lot of attractions being out there."
Ana feels very defensive over Jaiden being scrutinized this way.
"So what you're saying is she didn't get out much," teases Xavier.
"I am perfectly capable of speaking for myself."
Jaiden speaks coldly, holding up a palm to Ana, who's lips are parted, ready to respond.
"The fact is, I was born and bred to behave in an almost regal manner. Fun and nonsensical activities were not priority in my household. Academics, music lessons, and reading the classics were widely recommended by my father, who was off to war. The housekeeper had to tend to me, and she was not one for putting up with any horseplay, you see."
"Are you serious?" Xavier looks taken aback.
"Nope! It's a scene from The Little Princess!" Jaiden laughs.
Xavier raises an eyebrow, his expression, 'really?'
Pilar lets out a laugh-snort. She might actually grow to like this Jaiden, afterall.
"Jaiden! Shame on you for teasing our guest."
Between her sister and her friend, Ana wonders if she will even have a boyfriend by the end of the day.
CHAPTER SEVEN -
As they drive in Xavier's Honda CR-V, Ana and Xavier hold hands and chat happily in the front; Jaiden and Pilar sit stoic in the back. The twenty minute drive from Ana and Jaiden's apartment in Seattle to Edmonds, Washington seems much longer to Jaiden.
They arrive at Whirlyball around 2 p.m. to find there are very few cars in the parking area.
"Hey, that's a good sign," an enthusiastic Xavier says, grinning.
"Place hasn't changed a bit," Pilar says, and Ana agrees.
Once again painfully reminded that she is the only one who has never heard of this place, Jaiden decides to stay quiet, lest she incite another jab from Xavier about her sheltered childhood. One can only laugh something like that off once in a day.
Noticing Jaiden's apprehensive look, Ana nudges her and gives her a wink.
"It'll be fun. Trust me, babe," Ana whispers, playfully hip-bumping her friend. Jaiden grins and bumps back.
"Just keep bumping, and you'll have the hang of it in no time," Ana laughs.
"What are you two up to over here?"
Xavier and Pilar join them by the rear of the car.
"Just girl talk," Ana grins, sliding her arm around Xavier and snuggling close.
"Well I guess teams have been chosen," says Pilar, eyeing Jaiden with disdain.
"Yep, and we're gonna beat you guys' butts out there," taunts Xavier good-naturedly.
"There's little doubt of that," Pilar mutters under her breath.
As they walk in the door, Jaiden hears the sounds of heavy objects being banged into each other, followed by shouts of "Yeah!" and "Good shot!"
"Have you guys had lunch yet? They make a mean panini here," Xavier says.
"I could go for some food," Ana proclaims.
They enter the snack bar and scan the menu.
"The Avocado Panini sounds good to me," says Pilar. Jaiden and Ana agreed.
Xavier motions for the counter girl and orders three paninis and a steak fajita.
They grab a booth and begin chatting as they wait for their order.
"So Xavier, Ana says you're from Guatemala?" Jaiden asks.
"Actually my parents were. They came to America just before I was conceived. Having two kids already, they wanted a better life for their family."
" 'Were?' Does that mean your parents are no longer with you?"
"My father died when I was ten from complications after heart surgery. He contracted pneumonia. His body was just too weak to fight it off," Xavier states sadly.
"Mama raised us alone. My brother Agustino was fifteen and my sister Sofia was thirteen when he passed. Mama was an amazing woman. We lost her two years ago. The doctors said congestive heart failure, but we know she had finished her duties to us, and was ready to be with Papa again."
"Oh baby!" Ana throws her arms around Xavier, hugging him tightly. "I'm so sorry!" Wiping tears from her eyes, she kisses him tenderly on the lips.
Jaiden desperately hopes this was just a "gotcha back" story for the one she'd teased him with earlier, yet knows it was not. Instantly regretting trying to make small talk, she feels deep compassion for Xavier.
"Xavier, I'm sorry..." Jaiden begins.
"It's okay. You didn't know. And besides, we were blessed to have them as long as we did. We rejoice that our parents are together again," Xavier says with a smile.
Jaiden smiles back. She also did something very out of character for herself - she impulsively reaches out and squeezes Xavier's hand. He returns the squeeze.
Ana, while feeling badly for her boyfriend, is ecstatic to see the two of them getting along. She puts her hand atop of Xavier and Jaiden's. Even Pilar joins in, smiling tearfully and putting her hand on top of Ana's.
This...this is Mi Famila, thinks Ana, happily.
"If you all are ready to play, a court just opened up," says the friendly snack bar attendant.
"I'm ready when you ladies are," Xavier says.
As they follow the attendant into the room in which is basically just a big gymnasium, with one exception - this one is filled with bumper cars, ten to be exact.
Red and yellow cars divide teams. The "referee" explains the rules, which are few. Jaiden learns that there is one softball-sized whiffle ball, the kind they used to hit with big red plastic bats in elementary school.
But instead of using bats, the ball is placed on the polished wooden floor. The players climb into their respective team-colored cars. In one hand the player has a Jai-Alai style plastic scoop and in the other hand a steering crank. At each end of the court there are vertically hung backboards with a 15 inch hole in the center. Behind the hole is a swing gate equipped with a buzzer to notify the referee when a score is made. The referee will call play by play during the game, keep score and assess any penalties incurred.
Since there are only four of them, and the official rules call for two teams of five, the referee brings in another group who are waiting their turn - six of them, how perfect!
After greeting and shaking hands with the newcomers, the referee blows his whistle and the game begins.
Jaiden notices a gleam in Pilar's eyes. With an evil grin, Pilar floors it and crashes hard into Jaiden's car.
"Hey!" yells a jolted Jaiden. "We're team-mates. What is your problem?"
The referee blows his whistle and shouts, "Penalty - yellow team!"
Pilar throws her head back in a delighted laugh.
"It was worth it! That felt good!
CHAPTER EIGHT -
Jaiden Knight is not an only child. She has a brother, Hunter. Jaiden can remember having such a happy childhood. She was everyone's princess, especially Hunter's.
Hunter is tall and handsome, and captain of the football team. Guys idolize him, and all the girls are apt to fall head over heels in love. With blonde hair, so much like Jaiden's, and cerulean blue eyes, Hunter could have been quite the heart-breaker if so inclined. While he dates frequently, he makes it clear that it is casual, and that in no uncertain terms are he and the girls more than just friends. More times than not, hanging out within his circle.
The fact of the matter is that Hunter doesn't want to get involved seriously with anyone until at least his junior year of college. He feels there is no point in making a commitment with someone locally, then trying to force a long-distance relationship to work. Hunter is wise beyond his years, and brilliant as well - holding a 4.0 GPA throughout his years at Mercer Island High. This not once garnered a 'great job, son' from his father.
He is enrolled at Stanford and will major in Political Science and earn his degree toward joining the Airforce, and later the CIA as an Intelligence Agent.
Hunter Knight knows exactly what he wants in life, and it is as far from the sleazy lawyer that his father had become as he can possibly get.
And the old man would foot the bill. Hunter finds a sweet irony in this fact. That the man he despises will have to pay for Hunter to become the person whose first and foremost agenda will be to personally analyze each and every dirty case he's tried, and bring him down for corruption of the Justice System.
Seven years apart, Jaiden was nine when Hunter got his license. Every Saturday, he would take her into Seattle to Scoop De Jour for a grilled cheese. Then they would take their waffle cones, Jaiden's favorite was strawberry; Hunter's Rocky Road. They'd grab the picnic blanket from the car, and head down to the waterfront to hang out and enjoy the view. On that warm late fall day, the sun glistens on the water like diamonds.
The usual laughter and jokes are absent that day, and Jaiden feels a little sick, like something bad is going to happen. She asks her brother what's wrong.
"You know I'm going away to college in a few weeks, right kiddo?"
"Yeah," Jaiden says, her voice shaky with trepidation.
"And you know I'll miss you. You know that, don't you?"
Jaiden nods, sad that her brother has to go away, yet wise enough to know that this is the next step after graduating high school.
"I'm gonna miss you too, Bubby," Jaiden says wistfully.
Hearing the name Jaiden has called him since she was a baby, yet not in a long while makes Hunter's heart ache.
"It's just that - "
Hunter pauses, unsure of how to engage this particular conversation, but it is one that must be had.
"Jaiden, does the old man...does he ever do anything that makes you feel weird?"
Knowing that Hunter means their father, although she can't remember him calling him Dad or Daddy in years, Jaiden shrugs her shoulders, confused.
"What do you mean, 'weird?' "
Hunter knows he is going to have to take the direct approach, and it worries him. He has been witnessing the man who is their father being more than a little physically playful with Jaiden lately. He is afraid of what her answer will be.
"Weird like something that doesn't feel right. Something that daddies aren't supposed to do with their little girls," Hunter said.
"Well," Jaiden thinks for a minute.
"Well, sometimes when Rosa lets me play in the tub for a while, Daddy comes in there and sits on the toilet, talking to me," she says.
"What does he talk about?"
"He tells me how pretty I am. He says Mommy used to be pretty like me, but she doesn't like him anymore. He's usually been drinking a lot when he talks to me in the tub.
When I put my knees up to my chest, he tells me to stop it. He says we were born naked, and God doesn't want us to be ashamed of our bodies."
Hunter's jaw clench, nostrils flare as the blood rushes to his face, furious. His heart pounds so hard he can hear it.
"Did I do something wrong?" Jaiden asks, biting her lip, a worried look on her face.
"No, no way. You're amazing. You couldn't disappoint me if you tried."
Hunter, cuddling Jaiden against his side, wishes he could protect her forever.
"Hey," he says, tilting Jaiden's face to look at him.
"You know I'm coming back for you, right? You'll come live with me in California and leave this island for good."
Jaiden's face lights up in transcendent delight. She can think of nowhere else she would rather be than living with her brother.
That evening after Jaiden has gone to bed; his mother in her usual alcohol and chemically - induced stupor in their parents' room, Hunter confronts the old man.
"What are you doing?"
Hunter walks into his father's study. The solemn, drawn look on his face making him appear to be much more mature than his tender age of seventeen.
"At the moment I'm making myself a bourbon rocks. Would you like one?"
"I'm seventeen. But aside from that, I think there are more than enough people drinking in this house," Hunter says icily.
"Don't say I never offered," Robert Knight says, detached.
"Yeah, because that's what all good dads do, right?" Hunter says sardonically.
"Here's something I hope I can never say - that you've put your hands on Jaiden."
His back to Hunter, Robert's head jerks upward. Hunter, expecting him to wheel around, shouting and cursing at him for the audacity of such an accusation. Maybe even get physical. But that doesn't happen.
Instead, his father, still facing the mini-bar, pauses for a few seconds before speaking.
"It's about time for you to head off to college, isn't it?"
Hunter knows an answer isn't expected, and the elder Knight doesn't give him the opportunity.
"I think it's time. I believe you should drive on up there this weekend and get settled in. Yes, this will be good for you. It's time for you to become a man," Robert's voice, ominous.
Hunter stands just to the left behind his father, fists clenched, breathing becoming ragged. Hot tears sting his eyes, threatening to escape. Hunter squeezes his eyes closed tightly, holding them back. He will never let the devil see him cry.
Taking two steps forward and pivoting on his heel, Hunter stands glaring at the side of his father's face. Spittle flies from his mouth as he speaks.
"If I ever find out you've done anything to her, I'll KILL you!"
Robert Knight says nothing. He slowly takes a sip of his bourbon, staring straight ahead.
As Hunter storms out of the room, he grabs his keys from the side table in the foyer, slings open the front door and doesn't stop until he gets to his car.
Nine year old Jaiden, hearing the commotion, runs out the door just as Hunter opens the driver's side door.
"Hunter! Wait, let me go with you!"
Running to his side, Jaiden knows Hunter is upset. She throws her arms around his waist and hugs him tightly, crying.
"Not this time, Kiddo," Hunter says gently, kneeling to her level, wiping away Jaiden's tears, while fiercely trying to hold back his own.
"I just gotta get out of here for a while. How 'bout when I get back, I'll read you your favorite bedtime story?"
Jaiden nods, throwing her arms around Hunter's neck.
"I love you, Hunter!" she says, trying to be a big girl and make him proud.
"I love you more, Kiddo," Hunter says, his voice cracking a bit.
"Now back to bed with you."
Jaiden runs back inside as Hunter gets into his black '65 Camaro, the engine roaring to life. Waving frantically, Jaiden tries to smile. Hunter waves back, blowing her a kiss. Pretending to grab it, Jaiden holds her closed fist to her heart. Shutting the heavy oak door, Jaiden finally allows her tears to escape.
Huge, wracking sobs escape her, as she collapses upon the cold marble floor.
Suddenly the door to her father's study flings open.
"There, there. Whats the matter with daddy's little princess?"
Scooping Jaiden up into his arms, and swaying more than a bit from the three double bourbons he'd just knocked back, Robert Knight carries his daughter up the winding staircase and into her room.
As he lays her tiny body back into her pink and white canopied bed, tucking her in, Jaiden has finally stopped sobbing.
"Time for lovely little girls to be asleep," her father whispers.
"But Hunter's gonna read me a story when he gets back."
"Daddy can read you any story you want, my darling," Robert said.
"No! I want Hunter to do it!" Jaiden cries stubbornly.
"Very well then," Robert says indifferently.
Robert Knight has an adept way of turning his emotions on and off at will, making him an impressive adversary in the courtroom. He can easily mesmerize a panel of jurors.
Exhausted from her emotional outburst, a huge yawn escapes her. As her father bends down and kisses her lips, Jaiden blanches and wrinkles her nose. The smell of alcohol is something normal in little Jaiden's life, but it never fails to make her tummy feel sick.
As Robert Knight closes his daughter's door, she is already asleep.
Just before the door closes, he hears her whimper, "Hunter."
Later that night, Jaiden hears the doorbell ring. Thinking it might be Hunter forgetting his keys, she lays in wait for her door to open and his head to peek around.
Instead she hears muffled male voices in the foyer. She hears her father run up the stairs and into the room that he and her mother used to share, but that Mommy now insists on sleeping in alone.
"Wake up! Wake up, damnit! Come downstairs. It's about Hunter."
"What? What the hell do you want? I told you to keep your hands off of me, you fuckin' perv!" slurs Patrice Knight in her usual stupor.
"Get yourself together and come downstairs, now!" Robert says, his voice low and menacing.
Jaiden lies in her bed, listening. She feels sick. Where was Hunter, and who are these people downstairs?
After what seems like an eternity of hearing her mother moaning as she makes it down one step, then another, Jaiden hears the deep male voices again. Then she hears her mother scream. It sounds more animal than human to Jaiden. It goes on for what seems like minutes before turning into gut-wrenching, wailing sobs. From her father, Jaiden never hears one sound.
"We're sorry ma'am. We are so, so sorry," are the only words Jaiden makes out.
Inconsolable, not that anyone but Rosa and Grandma Knight had even tries, the days leading up to the funeral find Jaiden lying on her bed staring out the window, clutching the Cabbage Patch doll that Hunter had given her for her seventh birthday.
This is where she has been and this is where she's stayed since her daddy came upstairs and explained to her what the men had been murmering about. Hunter isn't coming home. He is dead, and dead is forever.
"They should have never had kids at all."
Jaiden hears Grandma Knight talking to her Great-Aunt Louise as they checked in on her one night, believing her to be asleep.
"It's true! They never once appreciated Hunter. He was such a beautiful little boy, and grew into a mature, polite young man. Rosa raised that child - both of them, really.
After Patrice still-birthed between Hunter and Jaiden, she turned into a useless mess. Locked in her room, drinking and popping pills. These kids had to suffer for it."
Louise murmurs in agreement. A pathetic waste, it is.
"I'm going to tell Robert that Jaiden needs to come live with me. Connecticut is a lovely place to raise a child."
Jaiden has caught bits and pieces through her accute state of shock. Hunter was driving too fast. He was trying to leave the island. There was lots of fog that night. As he topped the hill on the 90, he couldn't see that he was over the center line. He swerved to avoid a head-on collision. But all Jaiden really heard was that her beloved Bubby was gone.
The funeral came and went. Her parents go into hibernation and so did Jaiden's heart. It is as broken as all of the China that her Mommy had thrown at Daddy the night Hunter died.
"You killed him! You killed my baby!" Patrice screams.
"He was driving too fast. It was an accident," stated Robert calmly.
"You drove him away! You said something to him that night that made him want to get the hell away from here - away from you ! His blood is on your hands," Patrice says, breaking into sobs.
"Your baby is upstairs in bed this very minute! Have you been in to check on her? Have you comforted her since Hunter died? Of course not! All you care about is your pathetic binges and sending Rosa out for more booze.
You've never shown Jaiden one ounce of affection. That girl has needed you her whole life thus far, especially now! Do you think you're the only one who lost him? Jaiden loves her brother more than life itself, even I can't ignore that fact.
You stupid, insipid excuse for a woman. You disgust me!"
And with that, Robert enters his study, slamming the door. He turns the stereo up loudly, as Mozart blazes through the speakers, so that he cannot hear his estranged wife.
"Disgust? I disgust you? Go on back to your whores! Maybe they can stomach your sick, unnatural desires!"
Sitting in the Great Room, slumped against the wall, porcelain and China pieces surrounding her, she falls into another alcohol-induced blackout.
She doesn't want to go live with Grandma Knight, but can't bring herself to talk to her father about it - to talk period. Jaiden has not uttered a word since the night of the accident. She just wants to wish all of this away. If only she could just wake up from this nightmare.
It turns out Jaiden doesn't have to talk to her daddy about not wanting to move away. She listens outside of his study as he and Grandma are in a heated discussion.
"Jaiden is staying with me, end of subject!" Robert Knight shouts.
"So the hired help can finish raising her? I will admit, they did an excellent job with Hunter. God knows you and your pathetic excuse for a wife didn't help.
Rosa is the one who's grieving. She raised that child. Have you not seen the toll that Hunter's death has had on her? Of course not. She is Hunter's mother, and now she's Jaiden's. She's always been there to fix boo boos, read bedtime stories, go to their soccer games - to show them love. All you provide is money.
Sure, they have the best clothes, the best toys - but what they needed was their parents! Face it Robert, money doesn't buy happiness!"
"You may be my son, but I haven't known you for a long, long time."
"Let's keep it that way, shall we? You know your way out," Robert says with a smile, bourbon in hand.
And that was the last Jaiden saw of her Grandma Knight.
Other than the occasional sightings of her daddy in the kitchen when he is running late for work while she and Rosa are heading out the door to Jaiden's school, she would have forgotten that she has parents.
But then something changed. About a month after Hunter's death, Daddy begins to come into her room at night.
"What is it, Daddy?" Jaiden asks.
"Can Daddy lay down and snuggle with you, Princess? I can't sleep."
Jaiden scooches over and makes room for her father. As they lay facing each other, he gives her a gentle kiss on her lips. Jaiden nearly gets sick because this smell is much stronger than last time he'd kissed her. The night Hunter died, she thinks sadly.
Rolling over to escape the horrible smell of alcohol, Jaiden, back turns to her father, feels something strange against her bottom.
He must still have the bottle of liquor in his pants pocket, Jaiden thinks, naively.
"Goodnight Daddy," she whispers.
Something wakes Jaiden a short time later. There is something very heated against her bottom. She can tell that her pajama shorts and panties are pulled down and some object is being rubbed against her bare skin. She suddenly remembers that her daddy is sleeping in her bed with her.
"D-daddy," she whispers, frightened.
"Shhh, be still," her daddy says, his voice sounding strange.
Weird like something that doesn't feel right. Something that daddies aren't supposed to do with their little girls.
Suddenly Jaiden feels her daddy stiffen up, and simultaneously there is something wet on her buttock. She feels a quick swipe of a tissue, and then her shorts and panties are pulled back up.
"Go back to sleep, Princess. You're just dreaming."