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Table of Contents
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Hannah Roberts was late for lunch. Again.
Her backpack was on a roller board, and she pulled it as she darted down the hallway of the music wing at TJ Prep, a private school for kids in Washington, D.C.'s politically elite. Hannah had gone here since sixth grade. As a freshman, she knew her way through the halls as well as she knew her own house. She tore into the commons area and bolted by the glass-walled administrative offices, past the storied brick fountain at the front entrance. A bronze plaque read, "Bethesda, Maryland Welcomes You to Thomas Jefferson College Preparatory School for the Leaders of Tomorrow."
No doubt about that. A number of politicians, lawyers, and international ambassadors had made their way through TJ Prep. Hannah didn't care much about that. Right now all she wanted was lunch. If she hurried, she might still make it.
She burst through the lunchroom doors, her backpack flying along behind her. Several hundred students milled about, eating cheeseburgers and fries or sipping on pop cans while they caught up on the latest gossip. Most of the guys were gathered around a baseball game playing on the eight-foot flat-screen television at the center of the room. There was a line at the automatic teller machine in the corner, same as always, and a few stragglers remained at each of the food court windows.
There was still time.
Hannah tugged on her blue-plaid skirt and adjusted her white blouse as she rushed toward the Salad Sensation line. If she didn't eat now, she wouldn't have another chance until late that evening. Cheerleading practice went until five, and after that yearbook had a committee meeting until seven. By the time her driver picked her up, she'd barely have a minute for dinner before her dance instructor came at eight.
On her way to the salad window, two of her cheerleading friends approached her. "Hannah, you're so bomb!" Millie tapped her shoulder with her fingertips. "Where did you get that blouse? Bloomingdale's?"
"Saks." Hannah kept walking, but she smiled at her friends over her shoulder. "Save me a spot at the table."
"Save you a spot?" Kathryn put her hands on her hips. "Lunch is over in nine minutes. You'll never get here on time."
"I know." Hannah was next up. "Save me a spot anyway."
The girls looked put out. They hated when Hannah stayed late in choir and missed most of lunch. But they shrugged off their frustration and returned to their table.
It took Hannah three minutes to get her salad, and then, still rushing, she joined her friends. "Okay," she was out of breath. "What's up?"
"You won't believe it." Millie leaned low over the table, her voice little more than a whisper. "Brian—you know Brian, the senior in my algebra class—he came by my house the other day." She squealed. "Hannah, he wants to go out!"
"Really?" Hannah took a huge bite of salad. It didn't keep her from talking. "I thought you couldn't date a senior."
"I can't." Millie grinned. "My parents think he's a junior."
"Yikes." Hannah took another bite. "When they find out you'll be grounded until summer."
"So?" Millie made a brushing gesture with her hands. "My dad's gone till then, anyway. He'll never know." She raised her shoulders a few times and glanced at the others. "Besides, nothing ever happens when I'm grounded. My parents always forget about it."
Kathryn finished her pop and pushed her can to the middle of the table. "My parents took my cell away, which stinks. Just because I'm getting a D in English." She exhaled hard, and her frown became the beginning of a grin. "But at least I don't get grounded."
"Yeah." Hannah took another two bites. She lived with her grandmother in The Colony, the enclave for D.C.'s wealthiest families. Whatever she wanted, she got. She could stay out late, date whomever, and she never lost her cell or her privileges. Not that she took advantage of the situation. She was too busy to get in trouble.
"You're blowing me off tonight." Kathryn plopped her elbows on the table and stared at Hannah. "You have yearbook." She made a face. "Frank Givens in Biology told me."
"Uh-oh." Hannah downed another bite of salad and grabbed her Palm Pilot from her Coach purse. A few key taps and she had her schedule up. "Yep. Yearbook five to seven." She would call for a ride after that. Her grandmother had a full-time driver, Buddy Bingo, a retired Navy guy. Buddy was available whenever Hannah needed him. She took another bite of salad and then scrolled down. "You're right." She looked up at Kathryn. "We were supposed to study."
"That's what I'm saying." Kathryn gave an exaggerated sigh. "We planned it a week ago."
"I remember." Hannah raked her hand through her thick, dark hair. "Give me a minute." A few more taps on her Palm. "Okay, how about six-thirty tomorrow after cheer practice? Dance classes are at eight this week." She found Kathryn's eyes again. "That gives us ninety minutes."
Before Kathryn could answer, two guys—a blond and a freckle-faced brunet—walked up. Both were juniors on the debate team, sons of senators. The blond took a step closer. He wore his usual cocky smile, the one that convinced so many of her friends to fall at his feet. "How's TJ's finest freshmen?"
"Well," Hannah lowered her chin and raised her brow at the boy. She wasn't interested, so why not have a little fun? "We're fantastic." She raised her voice above the conversations and clanking lunch trays in the cafeteria. In a school marked by money and madness, Hannah Roberts was one of the wealthiest, most prestigious girls on campus. There was no shortage of interested guys. "The question isn't how are the finest freshmen, but why the jerky juniors care?"
"Nice." The blond was unfazed. His grin crept a little higher into his cheeks. "Nothing gets to you, does it, Hannah Roberts?"
"Not much." She gave a practiced little wave to the guys. "See you around."
The bell rang before they could answer. The blond cocked his head. "Give me a call when you want a real man, Hannah."
"Okay." She took a long sip of water. "If I run across any, you'll be the first to know."
They walked away, Freckle Face laughing at Blondie. Hannah chuckled, took the last two bites of her salad, stood, and tossed the plate into the nearest trashcan. Millie and Kathryn took up their places on either side of her.
"I can't believe you did that!" Millie's eyes were wide. "That was Jaden Lanning!"
"So?" Hannah picked up her pace. "I can't stand him." She rolled her eyes. "He thinks he's every girl's gift. Besides, I don't have time for guys."
"You don't have time for us, either." Kathryn hugged her books to her chest. She was doing her best to keep up as they maneuvered their way through the halls to their next class—a speech course, the only one they all shared. Kathryn blew at a wisp of her bangs. "Ever think about slowing down?"
"Never." Hannah's answer was even quicker than her pace. "I like staying busy."
"All right." They reached the classroom door and Kathryn lowered her voice to a whisper. "I just wish I knew what you were running from."
Hannah didn't answer. Already the conversation was too close for comfort. She gave her friend a smile that said she was finished talking. Then she made her way to her desk.
Her speech today was on the challenges of international politics—a topic normally reserved for juniors and seniors. But Hannah handled it like a master, no trouble. She could've given the talk without a bit of research. International politics was her parents' life.
After school she led the cheerleaders in a new dance routine, one the cheer coach had asked her to create. "You're a better dancer than me, Hannah. Would you mind?"
"Not at all," Hannah had told her. Every challenge was a reason to keep going.
By five o'clock the squad had the dance down. Hannah grabbed her duffel bag and her roller backpack and sprinted across campus to the yearbook room. It was seven-thirty before she called Buddy for a ride. She must've looked exhausted because when he pulled up he gave her a worried frown.
"Runnin' on empty again, Miss Hannah?" He caught her look in the rearview mirror.
"A little." She smiled back.
Some days she spent more time talking to Buddy Bingo than anyone in her family. That wasn't saying much. Most of the year, the mansion she lived in was empty, home to just her and her grandmother.
Her father was the U.S. ambassador to Sweden, a former senator well known in the highest political circles. Her mother kept his social calendar, but for the past year she'd worked some at the embassy, serving as liaison between Swedish bankers and various politicians on several key projects.
There was talk that sometime in the next five years, her parents might return home so her mother could run for senate in Virginia. "Then I'll take over the social calendar," her father had quipped more than once during their last visit that summer.
The ride home was quiet. Hannah wondered if Buddy was praying. Buddy was a man who talked to God, and most nights he'd tell her he was praying for her—something she didn't quite understand. God—if there was a God—seemed far away and uninvolved. Hannah wasn't sure if He had time to know who the real Hannah Roberts was, the reason she ran from one event to another without ever taking a day off.
"Things okay at school?" Buddy took a slow left turn onto the hilly road that led to The Colony.
"Great." Hannah yawned. "Aced my speech on the challenges of international politics, tore up in cheerleading, and designed the layouts for a third of the yearbook."
"You mean you didn't solve world hunger between classes?" Buddy's voice was upbeat, teasing her.
"Not today." She pressed her head back into the leather seat. "Maybe tomorrow."
"You'll probably try." Buddy chuckled. "Busy, busy girl. You sound like a twenty-five-year-old grad student. Not a high school freshman."
"My teachers say that." She breathed out. This was her resting time, and she made the most of it. She could've fallen asleep in the backseat of the new Lincoln. "I guess it comes from hanging out with adults. That and staying busy."
"But you're a kid first, Miss Hannah. Don't forget that."
"I'm all right, Buddy. Staying busy keeps me sane." Her feet were sore, and she wiggled her toes as she stretched them out in front of her. That was the nice thing about Town Cars. Lots of leg room. "I have to be moving."
"That's because you're a butterfly, Miss Hannah. Nothing could ground you."
Hannah smiled. She liked that. A butterfly. Dear, sweet Buddy Bingo. He was a single man, the age of a grandfather. Blue eyes with a shock of white hair on his head and his face. Her friends thought he looked like Santa Claus, and when Hannah was little she used to wonder herself. He'd been a faithful driver for the Roberts family since Hannah was in third grade.
They pulled into the spacious entrance to The Colony and stopped at the guard station. Buddy waved to the man in the booth, and the man raised the gate. Buddy was beyond passwords at this point; all the guards knew him. When they pulled up at her house, he stopped the car and turned around, the way he always did. "How can I pray for you, Miss Hannah?"
Buddy asked her this every time he drove her. Usually she shrugged and told him it didn't matter; he could pray however he liked. But this time she thought a little longer. "I know: pray for a miracle." She could feel her expression warm at the idea. "A Christmas miracle."
"Okay." Buddy gave a thoughtful nod of his head. "But Christmas miracles are the biggest, most amazing ones of all." He squinted. "Any certain kind of Christmas miracle?"
"I'm not sure yet." She grabbed her bags and waited for Buddy to open her door. One of her friends had talked about Christmas miracles during the yearbook meeting. The idea sounded good. Christmas miracles. Whatever that meant. And since Buddy was willing to pray, she might as well ask.
He got out, walked to her door, and opened it. "Well, Miss Hannah, you let me know if you decide. Meanwhile, I'll pray just like you asked. For a Christmas miracle."
It was a nice thought, one that settled her racing spirit and gave her peace even as her dance instructor forced ten minutes of pirouettes at the end of practice that evening.
She didn't see her grandmother until ten o'clock as she trudged up to her suite. "Hannah." The elderly woman stood, proud and stiff, outside the double doors of her own bedchamber. "How was your day?"
"Very well, Grandmother." It was always Grandmother. She stopped three steps short of the landing. "Thank you for asking."
"Have you brought up the B in Spanish?"
It was Hannah's only low mark. She bit the inside of her cheek. "Yes, Grandmother. It's an A-minus now."
"Very well." The woman smiled, and in it was a hint of warmth. "You'll have it up to a solid A soon, I imagine."
"Yes." Hannah took another step. "Soon."
"I assume you finished your work in class today?" Her grandmother raised her chin. "It's very late for extra attention to your studies at this hour."
"I'm finished, thank you." Hannah looked at her grandmother and felt the corners of her lips push up into her cheeks. The woman was too formal, too taken with her parents' world, their money. But still, she was all Hannah had, the only family she shared her daily life with.
The conversation stalled, and her grandmother bid her goodnight.
Not until Hannah was alone in her room did she let the truth she'd found out earlier today set in—a truth she couldn't share with anyone yet, not even Buddy Bingo.
Her parents wouldn't be coming home for Christmas this year.
They'd sent her an E-mail that morning before school. Usually they visited in summer and at Christmas—both times for a few weeks. But this year the schedule at the embassy was too busy.
"The social calendar is full, my dear," her mother wrote. "I'm afraid we'll be Christmas'ing in Sweden this year."
And like that, Hannah's Christmas had gone down the drain. Without her parents, there would be no Christmas parties or trips into the city to see the Living Christmas Tree and the annual pageant performances in the theater district. No one to exchange presents with or share a cup of cocoa with on Christmas Eve.
Her parents were even busier than she was, so she wouldn't miss out on any deep conversation or sentimentality or warm, cozy traditions—the things that made up Millie's and Kathryn's Christmas holidays. But without her parents home, the time would be quiet and lonely, just her and her grandmother—a woman who didn't believe in wasting resources every twenty-fifth of December simply because the calendar read, "Christmas."
She pulled off her dance clothes, tossed them into the hamper, and laid her blazer and skirt on the back of the sofa. The housekeepers preferred she didn't hang up her own clothing. Their method was better, easier to work with.
When the lights were off she lay there, considering her friend Kathryn's comment from earlier in the day again. "I just wish I knew what you were running from."
The idea bounced around her brain like a pinball. She was running from a dozen things, wasn't she? From her empty mansion and her grandmother's unsmiling face, from quiet dinners and a forgotten childhood. And now she was running from Christmas. At least when her parents came home for the holidays she could convince herself they cared. They might not talk to her much or show a genuine interest in her life the way other parents did, but at least they came.
Now, though, there was no denying the obvious. Her parents had chosen their friends and social obligations over spending Christmas with their daughter. She felt a stinging in the corners of her eyes.
Of course she was running.
- On Sale
- Nov 15, 2008
- Page Count
- 176 pages
- Worthy Books