As I sat in the cafeteria, picking at the food on my tray, I couldn’t stop questions from going around and around in my mind. My whole world had been turned completely upside down. How could Ethan expect me to act like everything was totally normal? We’d driven to school that morning with very little discussion. He seemed subdued from the night before, no longer open and chatty about the future, or his job as my bodyguard. I didn’t know what to say to him either. I’d gone from wanting to know everything; to wishing I didn’t know anything. At some point during the night, I’d started feeling as though I was trapped in a reality I hadn’t asked for.
I took an absentminded bite of the muffin I’d grabbed in the lunch line. An idea consumed my thoughts; did Ethan know anything about my adoptive parents? What if, all this time, with all the roadblocks I’d faced trying to track down information about where I had come from, the one person that could answer all my questions was the last person I could ever have expected?
And what about my dad? I had been going over his strange behavior in my head: the lying about my biological parents, potentially snooping through my things, his protective behavior toward me regarding Ethan, and trying to persuade me to go to England. Did he know something about all of this Hleo stuff? That would explain so much, but if it were true, it would mean I didn’t know my dad at all, an idea I didn’t want to face.
Katie kept sending me questioning glances so she had obviously noticed my quietness, but there wasn’t an opportunity for her to ask me about it. Ryan and Luke were talking non-stop about some part Luke had bought for his car. They wanted Ethan’s opinion on Luke’s purchase, and asked me where he was. I didn’t know; Ethan had apparently decided to give me some space once we’d gotten to school, and I hadn’t seen him since.
On my way back to my locker after lunch, the need to escape became too strong to ignore. I grabbed my bag and gave Katie an excuse about feeling sick, hoping she would accept that as the reason I hadn’t said much at lunch. As I slipped out to the parking lot, I looked over my shoulder for Ethan, but he was nowhere to be seen. The town bus was pulling into the stop near the school, and I quickly crossed over to it and hopped on.
I rode aimlessly around town for a while until I ended up at a park that my mom had taken me to as a child. The sun shone down from a cloudless sky, but the breeze had the chill of autumn in it. The leaves on the trees were in the midst of changing and many more were scattered across the ground. I walked over to a bench overlooking a pond with swans swimming peacefully across its shimmering surface, and sat down. The playground area where I’d spent so much time running around as a kid, going down the slide and climbing on the monkey bars, sat behind me. As memories of those times came back to me, I suddenly missed my mom more than I had in a long time and a tear rolled down my cheek. She would have known how to deal with all of this somehow. Had she known anything about it?
While I sat there staring out over the pond, trying to sort out my feelings and bring my emotions back under control, I heard footsteps crunch through the leaves and stop behind me. I knew who it was without turning around.
“You’re always going to be around, aren’t you?” I quickly brushed the stray tear away so Ethan wouldn’t see me crying as he came around to face me.
“For now.” He turned to look out over the water as well.
I slid down a little so he could join me on the bench, and he sank down onto the metal seat. “I’m sorry Hannah, for all of this. It can’t be easy to understand, but I promise one day everything will go back to normal. Your moment will come, life will move on, and all of this will fade away.”
“Does my dad know about you?” I asked quietly.
Ethan didn’t answer. His silence confirmed my suspicions, but I hoped he would at least explain what he knew.
A little girl toddled towards us with her mother following close behind her. The two of them were within earshot of Ethan and me. I felt uncomfortable continuing our talk in front of them, so I got up and Ethan followed my lead. We made our way along the gravel path that ran around the edge of the pond.
“Your dad does know about the Hleo, who they are, and what they do. Your father and mother knew your birth parents, who were linked to the Hleo. When they decided to hide you, your parents, Richard and Julia, offered to take you and raise you as their own. They understood that you were unique right from the beginning because of who your biological parents were, but they believed they weren’t in any danger raising you, as long as no one could trace you back to your birth parents.” Ethan’s eyebrows knitted together in concern as he watched my face for my reaction.
So my mom and dad had been aware of the strange circumstances surrounding my heritage. They had known that there was something different about me. Not only that, but they had known my biological parents. My father had lied to me. I took a deep breath before I asked my next question. “You said I was different because of who my biological parents were. They were involved with the Hleo? What do you know about them?”
“I knew your mother. Your father, well, he had quite the reputation.” Ethan’s eyes took on a far off look.
“You knew my mother? Is she dead? Is my father dead? Why did they have to hide me?” My stomach ached. Would I never have the chance to meet my birth parents?
“I’m sorry Hannah, but yes, both your parents are dead; they died shortly after you were born. Your mother, Elizabeth Seaton, was one of the best Hleo I have ever had the privilege of knowing. She was fearless, unstoppable and had an almost perfect survival record for those she protected. She was better than anyone I know at
taking down Bana, until she met your father, Noah Carter.
“Noah was a very dangerous member of the Bana, one of the most sought after by the Hleo. The only one that was ever able to track him down was Elizabeth.
“The events that followed after they met are speculation; no one knows for sure exactly what happened, except for one thing. They fell in love and defected together.” Ethan ran his hand through his hair.
A middle-aged couple jogged by us and Ethan lowered his voice. “Desertion isn’t really an option in our line of work, especially since both of them had betrayed their organizations by engaging in a relationship with a sworn enemy. When you came along they feared for your safety, so they went to a couple they felt they could trust. Elizabeth knew your parents, and believed they wouldn’t judge her and Noah for the decisions they’d made. Richard and Julia Reed took on the responsibility of caring for you for as long as was needed. But caring for you was far more than a job to them. You should know that, before you start to question your parents’ love for you. They really did adopt you, using the Crestwood Adoption Agency, which I know you’ve been looking into, and they always thought of you as their daughter.” Ethan spoke with such authority. How could he be so sure?
I was stunned. I didn’t know what to say or what to think. Mazy Jones had been right; my parents’ real names were close to the names from the file. I almost laughed at how close I’d been to knowing the true names of my birth parents, but with all that Ethan had told me, knowing their names wouldn’t have helped me any. Like Ethan, my parents had been shadows, not really part of everyday life. I bit the inside of my cheek. What does that mean for my genetics?
Before I could voice my worries, Ethan flung his arm across the front of me to stop me from walking, and stuck out his other hand to catch a stray soccer ball headed right for us. He dropped the ball to the ground and kicked it back to the young boy running toward us.
“Nice catch,” the boy called out as he retrieved the ball with his feet and kicked it back over to the friend he was playing with near the playground.
“Thanks.” I looked from the boys to Ethan. Once again, his lightning-quick reflexes startled me.
“No problem.” Ethan gave me a small smile before getting back on topic. “Elizabeth and Noah were tracked down about two years after they hid you by a member of the Bana who felt particularly betrayed by Noah. Elizabeth had killed the partner he had been incredibly close and loyal to, and all he could think of was revenge against the two of them. The trail from Elizabeth and Noah back to you was so elaborate, you were forgotten by almost everyone involved on both sides. Your parents did a very good job of keeping you off of any radar. It wasn’t until the seer, Miriam, foresaw you as a protected, that all the old history regarding you and your parents resurfaced.”
I pressed my fingertips to my temples. My biological parents had been some sort of spy versus spy super couple that had essentially sacrificed being with me so that I could live. And my parents, Richard and Julia, had known the whole time and never said anything, never prepared me for this, even though there had always been a possibility of me finding out.
We had wound our way back around to the parking lot and now stood close to Ethan’s Jeep. I wrapped my arms around my body as though trying to shield myself from everything I was hearing.
“So, I’m a protected because of my birth parents?”
“I honestly don’t know. Protecteds are usually ordinary people. There is no particular known reason they are chosen. No one seems exactly sure if your biological lineage has anything to do with your calling. At the moment, that appears to be nothing more than a strange coincidence.” Ethan’s forehead creased. He was clearly having as much trouble wrapping his mind around the oddity of my situation as I was.
“You said there are no coincidences.”
“I know,” he murmured. The breeze picked up, rustling the leaves on the surrounding trees, and I shivered. Ethan motioned to his Jeep. I nodded and climbed into the passenger seat to warm up.
“Does my dad know I’m a protected? Or is he still under the impression he’s just hiding the daughter of two notorious betrayers of a secret world?” I turned in my seat to look at Ethan. “Is that why he doesn’t like you, and why he pushed me so hard to go to England with him?”
“Your dad was never told that you’re a protected. The Hleo believed it would be better for him not to know, in case he was tempted to tell you and affect the decision you are meant to make. I can’t really explain his distrust of me; maybe it’s just the father protecting his daughter from wanton young men thing,” Ethan offered.
I was sorting through everything Ethan had said when a comment he’d made earlier suddenly struck me. “You said no one believed that my mom and dad would be in danger. What did you mean by that?” A horrible thought materialized in my consciousness, and I fought the urge to be sick.
Ethan hesitated. From the expression in his eyes I knew what I feared was true. My mother’s car accident had been no accident.
“No,” I whispered. The control I was fighting so hard to retain was slipping away.
Ethan reached over the gearshift and put a gentle hand on my shoulder. “The same member of the Bana that killed Elizabeth and Noah somehow got to her. Everyone thought that the issue was done when your birth parents were killed. You had nothing to do with what Elizabeth had done to him, but he was crazed with anger. He eventually found you in East Halton. The day of the accident he believed that you were in the vehicle with your mother, that he’d killed you both.
“Hannah, I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine what you’re thinking right now, but I wanted to be honest with you. You deserve to know the truth about everything.” Ethan’s voice was filled with compassion, but I barely heard him; my mind was reeling, and my emotions were on overload. It was all too much; it hurt so deeply to think that my beautiful, amazing mother’s death had been my fault, part of a bitter man’s vendetta. I couldn’t keep the tears from spilling over, blurring my vision.
They flowed harder, and quickly turned into sobs. Ethan wrapped his arms around me and pulled me close so my face was buried against his strong shoulder. He held me tightly and let me cry for what felt like a very long time, until I was able to pull back, take a breath and compose myself.
We sat in his Jeep for a little while longer, watching the happy children enjoying the playground, until Ethan suggested we head home. When we got back to my house, he left me alone for the rest of the evening. I needed some time to clear my head, and was grateful for the solitude. I knew he was around, but I couldn’t hear any more. My brain couldn’t take in any more information; my world had effectively been rocked and I needed a little time for it to settle back into place again. I holed myself up in my bedroom, glancing out my window sporadically for any sign of someone watching, but all I saw was the same peaceful, tree-lined backyard I had grown up playing in.
I took the night to think through everything, and forced myself to get a grip again. I was embarrassed that I’d fallen apart in front of Ethan. I couldn’t let that happen again. His job was to protect me, to keep me alive until some predetermined time. He didn’t need me to be an emotional wreck, and I was fairly certain that providing me with a shoulder to cry on wasn’t in his job description.