The rural farmhouse was exactly where she expected to find it--smack-dab in the middle of nowhere. The yard had all the requisite junk cars and spare parts she'd anticipated, with multiple barking dogs sending up their warnings as soon as she came into sight in her compact car. She sensed eyes gazing on her from the house as she got out, and she looked around without hurry. Tense excitement--that it was about to begin--filled her.
Calming the dogs with a soothing greeting, she let them sniff her before she petted them. Then she proceeded, unhindered, to the cluttered porch. She could see stained and tattered curtains drop back inside as she knocked on a door in desperate need of new paint.
When the door opened, her gaze moved from the height of the adult she'd anticipated seeing down to a kool-aid-moustached, freckled and cowlicked boy peering up at her through the screen. The scent of fried chicken, buttery biscuits, and fresh corn made her realize suddenly just how hungry she was. But she needed information more than food. Besides, she wasn't sure she'd be welcome.
The matriarch--matriarch according the files she'd read about the family--appeared suddenly. Jolie Porter was a short, plump, older lady. She wore her graying hair in a messy bun at her nape.
"Can I help--" Jolie started to say, and then recognition flooded into her reddened face. "Adrienna? Adrienna Kelly?"
Adrienna jumped back to avoid the screen door, which flew open inches from her face.
"Well, gosh, we never expected... Come in! I can't believe it's you. It's been so long, and look at you. Just the same as always."
Engulfed in Jolie's arms, Adrienna intuited the hug was as much about relief as welcome.
Adrienna, as she wished to be known, walked into the kitchen.
"Jolie, I'm looking for Reb. I've searched everywhere, and he's all but dropped off the face of the earth. Yours is basically the only place I haven't looked. Have you seen him?"
Jolie waved away her question. "There's time for that later. You look famished. Come in and sit down. Have dinner with us first. Then we'll talk."
The no-nonsense tone of Jolie's voice made her aware there was no way she was getting out of the place until she'd been sufficiently stuffed with Porter hospitality. Figuring it was the quickest way to get what she wanted, she made no argument.
Reb's aunt eased her inside the house, into the massive dining room where the family ate dinner.
"Everyone, look who's here. Rebel's old friend Adrienna Kelly. Remember the summer she spent with us years ago?"
The faces were familiar from the files she'd read. Jolie's husband--Reb's uncle--looked like he'd spent every single day of his life working his fingers to the bone. The oldest daughter--someone who would have known Adrienna--was present with two teenage boys, a teenage girl, and the little boy who'd opened the door. Three farm workers were also at the huge table.
Overwhelmed by their warm, almost giddy welcome, she felt a little dizzy as Jolie bustled out and back into the room, gently urging her into a chair before laying down a place with another plate, utensils and a glass.
During the delicious meal she found herself devouring eagerly, she kept reminding herself why she was here as she handled the flood of questions about what she'd been up to in the past twenty years.
At one point, Jolie mentioned it was a pity Reb didn't talk about her much anymore. The fact that no one seemed uncomfortable with her presence was curious to her. Clearly, they knew nothing of her bitter parting with Reb.
Adrienna pondered on the issue as they all ate and talked. Are they just friendly, or do they consider me to be a part of the family after my single stay here long ago? Or do they see me as someone who might be able to help Reb? Something like relief radiated strongly in their enthusiasm toward her.
The family and workers dispersed after apple pie, and Jolie began cleaning up.
Now was the time to strike.
"Can you tell me anything about Reb? Have you seen him? Do you know what's happening?" she asked as soon as they were alone. She picked up a pile of dishes and followed the older woman into the kitchen.
"No. Only that Reb doesn't wanna be found. You've probably already guessed that since you haven't found him in all the places you said you looked."
It was the answer she expected, but she couldn't leave it at that. "I know, but I really need to see him."
Jolie glanced at her, her pale gray eyes filled with concern. "Why? Is there more trouble following him?"
"I think there may be. I know he asked you not to tell anyone where he was, but will you do it for me, Jolie? You know I'd never do anything to hurt him."
While she couldn't be sure Reb hadn't told his aunt certain things, she had a feeling he'd kept his private relationship with Adrienna to himself. Jolie wouldn't be anywhere near as friendly to her if she knew all the bad things that'd happened between them in the years following their break.
Turning the water on and squirting in dish soap, Jolie began to fill the sink. She talked as she worked, rattling plates busily. "He needs a friend right now. Maybe you can help him. Lord knows I've done all I can, with no headway."
"So is he hiding here?"
Jolie sighed. "None of us have seen him for some time. He told us not to go to him. He comes to us if he runs out of supplies. I just don't know how he survives out there..."
When she put a hand on her shoulder, Jolie looked back at her helplessly. "Please, Jolie. Tell me where he is. I think he'll want to see me."
"I think he'll want to see you, too, honey, but it's so dangerous. He told us not to tell anyone. That he'd shoot any visitors who came close. How can I let you risk it?"
"I can take care of myself. And I can help Reb."
The distress Jolie felt was plain on her weathered face. But Adrienna could see the decision there before Reb's aunt slammed off the water and reached with wet hands for the keys hanging near the door. "I don't know if I'm doing the right thing, but I'll take you to him. Let me go get a shotgun."
It was obvious that no one in Reb's family knew Adrienna Kelly had died in the September eleventh tragedy of 2001. Maybe Reb would accept her cover without question, too.