Hleo

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Chapter 27

I looked through my closet and picked out a pair of dark jeans and chocolate brown wool sweater. The outfit was casual, but dressy enough that hopefully Ryan would feel like I’d tried in some way. Most importantly, it would be heavy enough to keep me warm during our time outdoors. I showered and dressed then loosely braided the sides of my hair, pulling and pinning them at the back of my head. After throwing on some lip-gloss, I did a once-over of myself in the mirror, and headed downstairs to find Ethan. I suspected he would follow Ryan and me on our date and stay in the shadows, since these days he was a constant presence in my life. An idea I found oddly comforting.

“Ethan?” I called from the bottom of the stairs. The dining room was empty.

He was slipping his cell phone back into his pocket as he rounded the corner from the living room to join me in the front hall.

“How do I look?” I did a quick twirl.

“You look beautiful, as always.” Ethan gave me a smile that didn’t quite make it to his eyes.

“Thanks,” I murmured. Was that tension I felt between us?

“I called Evelyn. She’s going to keep an eye on you this evening and let me know if anything comes up.”

I frowned. Why was he pawning me off on the mysterious Evelyn?

“I want to upload more of your drawings onto the computer, and we can’t afford for Ryan to see me watching you. It might compromise our situation.” Ethan’s logic was sound, but his tone was stiff.

“Of course, that makes sense.” A small wave of disappointment washed over me at the reminder that I was just a job to him.

I grabbed my autumn-colored crocheted scarf and headed outside with Ethan on my heels. Evelyn’s silver BMW was parked in the driveway.

“Why is Evelyn here? Is she following me right from the house?” I glanced apprehensively from the car to Ethan. I’d expected her to just meet me at Jo’s Place, and monitor me from a distance.

“Evelyn is going to drive you. With everything that’s been going on, I don’t think you should be alone, especially after such an obvious attempt on your life with the SUV. She’ll drop you off, and pick you up when your date is over.” Ethan’s voice suggested I shouldn’t bother arguing. His eyes seemed darker than normal. Was he annoyed that I’d left him scrambling to come up with a protection plan by not telling him about this date earlier?

“Okay,” I agreed quietly, and walked over to the car. As I approached, Evelyn stepped out of the driver’s side looking stunning. She wore a beautiful, deep-turquoise pea coat and a pair of knee-high caramel colored boots over dark brown tights. Her hair was twisted into a French bun, and her smile was reserved. What did she think of me?

“Hannah, this is my partner Evelyn. Evelyn, this is Hannah Reed.” Ethan motioned to each of us as he said our names.

“Nice to meet you.” Evelyn extended her slender hand for me to shake. She seemed pleasant enough, but a definite coolness in her manner suggested she wasn’t overly pleased to be on chauffeur duty this evening.

“You too.” I forced myself to meet her eyes. I found her incredibly intimidating, but I fought the urge to let her know that.

“I’ll see you later; have fun on your date.” Ethan gave me a strained smile.

“Thanks,” I muttered, as I made my way to the passenger side and climbed in the car. I felt like a child, and he and Evelyn were my parents escorting me on a chaperoned outing.

Evelyn grasped the door handle, but Ethan rested a hand on her arm to stop her. He gave her some instructions, too quiet for me to hear through the window, much to my annoyance, before heading back up the porch.

Evelyn climbed into the vehicle without a word and we drove off towards Jo’s Place.

We traveled in silence for a few minutes, until I turned in my seat to face her. “So, how long have you and Ethan been partners?” I flashed her a friendly smile. Maybe she just needs to warm up to people. If Evelyn had worked with Ethan for a long time, she probably knew him better than anyone, which would mean she would know what the story was between him and Charlotte. I’d better work up to that question though.

“On and off for about eighty years.” Evelyn kept her eyes on the road. Her smile seemed more for herself than me. What exactly were her feelings towards Ethan?

“You’ve protected lots of people together then?”

Evelyn shrugged. “I guess so. Our numbers must be getting pretty high. After a while the work sort of all blends together.”

I tilted my head and studied her, amazed by how different her attitude was from Ethan’s. From our talks and what I’d witnessed while he was going through my drawings, I’d gotten the impression he remembered, not only the numbers, but every person he had ever protected. Maybe it was the different roles they took. Ethan got to know the people personally while Evelyn stayed in the background.

“Would you remember one of them, a girl named Charlotte?” I asked, trying very hard to make the topic seem like simple polite conversation.

“Who?” Evelyn frowned. “Do you mean Charlotte Dubeau, that silly girl Ethan protected like seventy years ago?”

“Yeah, that’s her. Ethan has been telling me about the people he protected when they show up as one of my drawings, and he was kind of vague about her. I was just wondering if you knew anything about her.” I’d been fidgeting with my scarf while we drove, but dropped the ends of it and met her gaze.

“I know that she was in love with him.” Evelyn’s eyes narrowed.

I tried to keep my surprise under the surface, but I wasn’t sure I was very convincing. “So they were a couple?” I looked out the window to avoid further eye contact. The trees that lined the side of the road zoomed by rapidly. I was glad to see we were only minutes from Jo’s Place.

“Charlotte and Ethan?” Evelyn sputtered. “He really must have been vague. No, there was nothing romantic between them. Ethan is always, foremost and above all, about the job; he doesn’t allow himself to become emotionally involved. Unfortunately, Charlotte wasn’t satisfied with that, and she was incredibly persistent. Because he was acting as her bodyguard, she would make him stay with her in her bedroom through the night, claiming that she thought someone was watching her. She told everyone they came into contact with that he was her ‘beau’ as she put it, so that he would be forced to pretend to be to keep up appearances. Eventually he went and talked to another Hleo, seeking advice about what to do, then he went to his mentor, Lucien, and he got switched out for a much older, less attractive Hleo.” Her words sounded matter-of-fact, but there was a sharp edge to them. She was clearly issuing a warning. If I was planning on doing anything similar to what Charlotte had done, the results would be the same.

“They can do that?” I pushed back a surge of panic. Could Ethan simply be replaced on me?

“They do what they have to do to make sure a protected is in the best possible care.” Evelyn sounded slightly amused. Obviously she thought of me as nothing more than an infatuated schoolgirl girl, just like Charlotte Dubeau. “Ethan has this effect on girls, one that he seems completely unaware of.”

I turned back to face her. “So, have you and Ethan ever had anything romantic between you?”

“It’s not like that between us.” Her voice dropped flat. She was trying to conceal the truth, but even through her steely gaze her eyes betrayed her. My guess was that he had the same effect on her as on every other girl. I imagined that would be especially hard, since she worked so closely with him.

“Sorry,” I said softly.

We drove in silence the rest of the way. It was so awkward I was ready to just jump out of the car, tuck and roll style, but she pulled into a parking space near Jo’s Place before it came to that. It was far enough away that it was unlikely Ryan would see me get dropped off, although I had a story ready if he did notice and question it.

“You know he’s not supposed to tell you the things he has,” Evelyn declared out of the blue, just as I was about to exit the car.

“What?” I spun around to look at her, completely caught off guard.

She glared at me, her mouth a hard line. Apparently asking her about Ethan had hit a nerve.

“Ethan’s job is to stay in the shadows of a protected’s life. He isn’t supposed to expose who he is unless it’s absolutely necessary, and even then he’s supposed to keep the information vague.” The words poured out, as though she’d been keeping her opinions to herself for as long as she could, and now nothing would keep them in.

“So why didn’t he do that with me then?” I crossed my arms, trying to sound firm without getting her any more upset. She could probably kill me with one punch if she wanted to, and I didn’t need to goad her into action.

“He seems to think you’re special or something. He has right from the beginning for whatever reason. With your ability to draw protecteds from the past, maybe he’s right, I don’t know. All I do know is that if any of The Three were to find out what Ethan has shared, he would be gone, for good.” Evelyn added emphasis to her voice at the end, in case I didn’t get her meaning. Since she was in the middle of chastising me, I suppressed a smile at her assertion that Ethan thought I was special.

“Secrecy is their number one priority and they take guarding it very seriously. For Ethan’s sake, you need to keep your mouth shut about all of this.”

“I would never do anything to jeopardize Ethan’s job or safety. I’m not going to say anything,” I shot back. How dare she think I would? A movement outside the window caught my attention. “There’s Ryan. I have to go.” I hopped out of the car and slammed the door behind me, refusing to turn around to see how mad I had made her.

My mind reeled as I walked down the sidewalk towards the restaurant. Why would Evelyn think she had to warn me to keep quiet? What sort of person did she think I was? She didn’t like me, that much was obvious, but why? We’d never even interacted before, and Ethan had chosen to confide in me, I hadn’t forced him. Before I could give it any more thought, Ryan came bounding toward me, clearly ready to begin our date.

Jo’s Place had been a mainstay in East Halton since the 1950’s, when the original Jo, Joanne Wesson, and her husband founded the restaurant. The same red vinyl booths from the original design still lined the walls, and the same chrome stools I’d spun around on as a child sat in front of the counter. Twenty years ago, their daughter, Jolene, had inherited the place, and she and her husband Ernie were determined to maintain the 50’s diner atmosphere. Any time one of the seats needed to be repaired, they would simply replace it with the exact same piece of furniture. A big jukebox at the back of the establishment played non-stop Elvis, Everly Brothers, and Chuck Berry. The menu included items like root beer floats and chocolate malts, and the smell of fresh-cut fries always hung in the air. Walking through the doors was like entering a time warp. I’d always loved eating there as a child with my parents.

“Hi, you look really nice.” Ryan held out a small bouquet of gerbera daisies. He had gotten his hair cut and I narrowed my eyes to study him. Why did the style look so familiar? Ethan. It was almost exactly the same. I laughed to myself. What would Ethan think if he knew the kind of effect he was having on not only the girls but also the guys at our school?

“Thank Ry, you look good too. I like the hair, and thanks for the flowers.” I took them from him and smelled them to be polite.

Ryan touched his hair self-consciously. “Our table is this way. I got here a little early to scope out the best seat.” He led the way into the restaurant and over to a booth near the back. Two empty drinking glasses sat on the table. How long had he been waiting for me? I checked my watch to make sure I wasn’t late, but it was only 4:58.

“So, you weren’t at school today,” Ryan observed, settling in on his side of the booth.

“No.” I sat down in the seat opposite him. I tried to think of a

reason I could give as to why I’d stayed home. I hadn’t even thought to prepare an excuse in advance, and scrambled to come up with something.

“I thought maybe you were pretending to be sick to get out of our … well, tonight.” Ryan shifted in his seat.

“Oh no, I had an essay due in history that I hadn’t quite finished, so I stayed home to get it done. I’ll hand it in tomorrow.” I hoped he wouldn’t prod any further.

“History, your dad would be majorly disappointed,” Ryan joked, and he seemed to relax a little.

“Yeah, I guess he would.” I laughed.

We both opened our menus; after a few minutes Jo came over to take our order.

“Look at that, she did show; Ernie owes me twenty dollars. He said for sure that after an hour you must have been stood up, but here she is and a pretty thing at that too.” Jo pulled an order pad and pencil from her apron pocket.

Ryan turned three shades of red with embarrassment. “Jo, you exaggerate, I haven’t been here that long. And Hannah came right on time.”

“I think we’re ready to order.” I jumped in before Ryan was humiliated any further.

“Right, sorry love, so what can I get the two of you?” Jo tapped her pencil on the pad.

“I’ll have the clubhouse sandwich on whole wheat with a side garden salad and a diet Coke.” I closed my menu and handed it over to Jo.

“I’ll have a burger and fries and a regular Coke.” Ryan also handed over his menu.

“I’ll get that ready for you in a jiff,” Jo promised. She took the menus and walked away, but I noticed her wink at Ryan as she went.

Dinner wasn’t actually that bad. The food was delicious, as it always was at Jo’s Place, and Ryan was on his best behavior. He wasn’t his usual jokes and innuendos self; the closest we got was when he reached across to pick some lint off my shoulder.

We talked and laughed and when Jo brought us the check, she included a complimentary sundae for us to share, in what looked like a fish bowl. Ryan wanted to pay, but I didn’t want to send him any mixed signals, so I insisted on splitting it.

East Halton’s miniature golf course was only about half a block away, so we walked, which was good because I was stuffed after all that ice cream.

We grabbed our clubs and balls from the clubhouse. Ryan stuck the scorecard into his shirt pocket. “Which course do you want to try, The Captain’s Quarters or Shipwreck Cove?”

“Which on is easier?” I eyed the course that looked like we’d be making our way through an actual pirate ship.

“Probably Shipwreck Cove.” Ryan motioned to the other course that had a tropical island theme.

“Sounds great. Lead the way.”

The sun began to dip below the trees since it was already after six, but Pete’s was well lit up with lampposts.

Mini golf was fun; neither of us took it too seriously, which made it that much more enjoyable. Ryan did pretty well. He stuck close to par for most holes, and got a hole in one on the seventh hole. I wasn’t doing too badly either for someone who had little hand-eye coordination. On the ninth hole I sunk the ball in just two shots, and Ryan gave me a high five.

We were almost done the fifteenth hole when Derek Henson, an obnoxious miscreant from our school, and his cronies showed up on the course. They clearly weren’t there to play golf; they were wreaking havoc, yelling at people close by about to take a shot, or putting their balls so hard that they jumped the edges of the course, interrupting other players’ games. We kept our heads down, and I hoped they wouldn’t notice us, but we weren’t that lucky.

“Deluca,” Derek yelled, making his way across the course towards us. Ryan groaned quietly, and I glared at Derek. He was the type of guy that liked to feel superior to everyone around him, and that usually meant making others feel small. He’d harassed Ryan on more than one occasion, tripping him in the cafeteria when he held a tray of food, pushing him into lockers, small things that could be easily explained as accidents if a teacher were to notice. Ryan always tried to take it in stride and laugh it off, but what sort of resentment was buried deeper?

“Hi, Derek,” Ryan muttered.

“How you doing, loser?” Derek jeered. His buddies laughed.

“Loser. Good one.” Ryan shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

“So, you two on a hot date tonight or what?” Derek shot me a glance. We knew each other, since it was a small town, but luckily I’d never personally had any encounters with him.

“Something like that.” Ryan didn’t look over at me.

Derek put his arm around Ryan’s neck and pulled him close, like they were all buddy-buddy and he had some secret information to share.

“So, be honest with me Ryan; are you going to hit that?” Derek looked me up and down like I was livestock he was considering purchasing. I crossed my arms, shuddering inwardly in revulsion.

“You know it.” Ryan’s laugh was uncomfortably loud.

My eyes widened. He was only doing it to get Derek off his back, but I was still shocked that Ryan would say something like that. I didn’t need Derek Henson telling people that Ryan and I had been fooling around; that would really complicate my life. And frankly, my life was already about as complicated as I could handle right now.

“That’s my guy.” Derek shook Ryan’s shoulders then whispered something in his ear too low for me to hear, but from Ryan’s reaction it was something truly disgusting, and then they were gone to disrupt someone else’s evening.

We stood there in silence for a moment. I was mad at Ryan for letting Derek believe that he and I were going to, in any way, get physical, but I knew his pride was already hurting from a run-in with the jerk.

Finally Ryan pointed at the hole with his putter. “Do you want to finish the course?” Clearly his strategy was going to be to pretend that nothing had happened.

“I don’t know, Ryan. Why would you tell Derek that we were going to fool around? I mean, you know this date isn’t like that, right?” I wanted to yell it loud enough for Derek and his goons to hear, but they were nowhere in sight now.

“I know,” Ryan snapped, stunning me with the hostility in his voice.

“Oh,” was all I could say.

“You think I don’t know that Katie practically had to beg you to come tonight? She only told me like, a thousand times, that it was just a ‘friends’ thing. I get it Hannah. I only said that to Derek so he’d leave us alone. If I’d told him the truth he’d still be here bugging us.” Ryan swung his putter hard with one hand as though to hit the frustration away.

“You’re right.” My cheeks warmed. I didn’t know what to say to fix the mood, but I didn’t want the entire night ruined, until Derek had shown up, we’d actually been having a good time.

“Besides, with a guy like Ethan Flynn hanging off of you, I know I don’t stand a chance.”

I blinked in surprise at the mention of Ethan. “Trust me, it’s not like that between us,” I assured him with a sigh, letting my own pent up aggravation spill out.

Ryan looked at me, and the resentment melted from his face. “Well, if he doesn’t see how amazing you are, then he’s an idiot. Any guy would be crazy lucky to have you as his girlfriend.”

“Thanks Ryan, that really means a lot.” I walked over and gave him a hug.

We stood awkwardly for a minute then I decided to have a little fun with him. I twirled my club in my hand and grinned mischievously. “So, do you think you could show me the proper way to take a swing?”

Ryan took a second to process what I was saying, but then he perked up.

“Sure.” He wrapped his arms around me and gripped my club in his hands.

Before he said a word I could sense him smelling my hair, and I quickly pushed him away from me. “Ryan!” I pretended to be annoyed.

“You just smell so good.” He laughed, and I rolled my eyes.

“Can I give you a ride home?” He asked after we had finished our game, and handed in our putters.

I hesitated. I was supposed to go with Evelyn, and Ethan probably wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t, but I really didn’t want to climb back in a car with her after the way I’d left things earlier. She can just follow us home.

“Sure.” I kept pace with him as we crossed back to Jo’s parking lot where he’d left his mom’s minivan. I glanced over my shoulder for any sign of Evelyn, but her silver BMW was nowhere in sight.

“I just have to swing by my mom’s work and drop off her cell phone. She’s on nights this week and she left it in the van.” Ryan unlocked the door.

“No problem.” I was interested in getting back to see if Ethan had made any progress, but I didn’t let on to Ryan that I was in any sort of hurry.

Ryan’s mom was the manager of The Sutcliffe Inn, one of the more luxurious places for tourists to stay in town. It was built up on a hill and surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens with a great view overlooking the water. Ryan headed down Main Street and turned onto Lakeshore—a twisting road that followed the shoreline heading away from the busy downtown area—towards the inn. When we arrived, I waited in the van while Ryan quickly ran in to the front lobby to hand off the cell phone. It must have taken him a while to track his mom down, because he didn’t come out for about fifteen minutes, but that gave me some time to reflect on our evening. Much to my surprise, I’d had a lot of fun with Ryan.

When we got back to my house, I let him hug me goodbye in his van, but pulled away before he could try to come in for a kiss. I got out of the vehicle and made my way to the porch, waving to Ryan from the front steps.

Knowing a lecture would be waiting for me about not following Ethan’s instructions, I took a deep breath and headed inside.

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