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The Hidden Room-Chapter 1

Introduction

 

 

 

 

July 2, 1923

 

Pain seared Elizabeth Hartley’s scalp, as Arthur Dumas grabbed a large handful of her hair and pushed her down the hallway. Never in a million years could she have predicted that things would have escalated to this degree. Just moments before, she had awoken to a loud noise and immediately run to the source of the commotion. Arthur was angry again. Even in the darkness, the rage in his eyes gored her soul, and suddenly she was frightened. For a moment, she wondered why he was home. He wasn’t supposed to be back for a few weeks. A dim light beckoned from the bottom of the large, curved stairway. As they passed a closed door, she prayed that God would keep the little one safe and sound in her bed.

 

Arthur grabbed her by the shoulder, hard, and pushed her toward the stairs. Once she was at the bottom, she saw the two women she had raised standing in front of her. Both were attempting to cover their naked bodies. His unexpected early arrival had caught them all off guard. Elizabeth was anxious for the safety of her daughters and granddaughter. Arthur’s yelling was a blur of noise bombarding her ears. She heard one word. Kill.

 

He pushed her dearest to the floor and came back for Elizabeth. Before she could stop him, he grabbed her by the hair again, pulling her out the front door. She saw a blonde head bent over a lump on the floor. They needed to be there for each other. She struggled against Arthur. Oh dear God, what is he going to do to me? Fear for her own fate overshadowed the pain of the porch scraping beneath her bare feet and the bite of the gravel he flung her onto.

 

She pressed her hands into the gravel and tried to get up. The weight of a large, booted foot ground her face into the small stones. “You are certainly good at keeping secrets, aren’t you Mrs. Hartley? I am going to make sure that you do not interfere with my plans for those abominations.” Releasing the pressure from her head, he leaned down toward her. Arthur’s rancid breath blew hot against her face, and she turned her head sharply away. He yanked her hair, forcing her to look directly into his eyes. His face blazed with anger.

 

“What are you going to do with me?” She knew he had just shouted that he would kill them all. Arthur’s threats were never empty. Although she had little hope of making it through the night alive, she had to try to stop him, no matter the cost.

 

“You need not worry about my plans for you.” Arthur sneered, as he grabbed her and pulled her back up and threw her onto the back of his horse. He mounted the mare swiftly, and they took off. He was trotting the mare instead of an outright gallop, a signal that he planned to ride a distance without tiring the horse. Her sides ached, as she bounced uncontrollably. She considered letting go and falling off, but she knew that he would just come back for her. So, she held on with all her might.

 

They rode for ten excruciating minutes before they reached a clearing. She recognized the front pasture near the entrance to the property. Arthur pulled her off the horse, and she fell painfully to the ground. She struggled to get on her feet. He kicked her in the back of the head, and she collapsed in a heap in the dirt. “Those two are disgusting and no longer deserve to live. If you know what is good for you, you will not come back to the house or tell anyone what is about to transpire.” For a moment, she felt relieved that he planned to let her live. She felt another sharp pain on the back of her head and everything went black.

 

Elizabeth awakened groggily, the sound of the horse’s gallop fading into the dense forest. She had only minutes to save her daughters’ lives. The familiar silhouette of the wrought iron gate soared up into the surrounding tree canopy. Tall, brick pillars held the gate in place and supported a fence that extended along the road. She looked up and down the road, seeing no lights. There would be no travelers at this hour. Even at full speed, she couldn’t run fast enough to catch Arthur. Just as all her hope was slipping away, she heard a whinny behind her. A small herd of Arthur’s horses wandered near the fence line, likely nervous about the activity.

 

Slowly, she approached and held out her hand to a quick gelding, one of her favorites. He walked curiously toward her. Just as her hand touched his muzzle, he threw his head upward and took a few steps back. “Easy,” she whispered. His head dropped, and he sniffed her for a moment. Realizing who she was, he eased his stance. Elizabeth grabbed a large tuft of his black mane. She gritted through the pain and mounted him as quickly as she could, then galloped all the way back to the house, praying she was not too late.

Chapter One

 

Present Day

 

Reese Iverson was supposed to be evaluating a proposal to the board for funding a new education program. Taken by the presenter’s strong cheekbones and chin framed by shining, dark hair, Reese wondered when the new grant manager had been hired. The woman’s features were more pronounced when she smiled. Julia Porter was athletic and tall, and could have been a character in one of Reese’s novels. Julia commanded the room with a soft voice that captured her audience. Helena did not seem keen on Julia’s proposal and made a point of stating that the program was not what the foundation typically dealt with. Julia clicked her presentation to the next slide and convinced Helena that her proposal would meet the foundation’s core objective of providing education, clean water, and housing for less fortunate people. Reese sat watching the woman work. No one ever had such an easy time convincing her mother of anything. Julia made a strong first impression.

 

There was something more than that strong first impression that intrigued Reese. For nearly six months, Reese found herself going into the foundation’s office more often than usual, hoping to catch a glimpse of Julia. She rarely caught her.

 

One particular evening, Reese had walked by the conference room and noticed Julia putting finishing touches to a presentation. Reese watched for a moment, before returning to her own office. She sat at her desk to read through some proposals, in order to prepare for the next day’s board meeting. It was getting late; the cleaning crew had arrived. Her glasses were slipping down her nose, as she carefully read through file after file. Reese saw Julia and two others heading out. When they stopped outside her door, she could make out part of their conversation. Julia wanted to invite Reese, and the others thought it wasn’t a good idea. Reese looked up when she heard a knock on her door. She was surprised by the slightly disheveled, yet still very beautiful woman standing in her door.

 

“Hello, Ms. Iverson. Bill, Kimberly, and I are going out for a few drinks. We wanted to invite you along.”

 

Reese didn’t spend much time thinking about it. “I’d love to go. I just have to finish this email. Are you going to the little place across the street?”

 

Julia nodded.

 

“You go on ahead and find a table. I’ll be there shortly.”

 

Reese found the three staffers sitting in a booth. She took the open seat next to Julia and smiled at the group. Julia smiled warmly in return. Reese felt pressure building in her chest and needed to remind herself to breathe. She’d never had such a reaction to another person and welcomed the warmth that flooded her body. She looked around the table and realized she had stopped paying attention to anything else going on. She checked back into the conversation.

 

The other two were laughing at something Julia had said. As the laughter died down, the dark-haired woman put her arm on the booth seat behind Reese. A smile lingered on Julia’s face. “Is that not ok with you, Ms. Iverson?” she playfully asked.

 

Flustered by not having heard what they were discussing and embarrassed by the flush now creeping up her chest, Reese stammered. Julia put her hand on Reese’s shoulder and squeezed. Fire had surely scorched her skin through the silk dress. She could feel the heat radiating down her arm and into the rest of her body. She started having difficulty breathing again.

 

“Ms. Iverson?” Julia said again. “I’m sorry, it’s just a joke. I thought you knew the guys upstairs called your mother that. The Iron Fist just means that she is tough with her questions and really makes sure that we cross our Ts and dot all the Is. I guess we only laughed because we’re assholes.” The two on the other side of the booth simultaneously jumped and yelped in pain. Leaning forward, they shook their heads in agreement.

 

Reese realized what they must have been talking about. She relaxed. “Ms. Porter, I am not offended. I don’t believe I have ever had someone give such an eloquent description of Mother’s nickname before.” The two women sat staring at each other with smiles on their faces. The seconds began to tick by, and the other two across the table looked at them expectantly.

 

“Julia.”

 

Reese frowned slightly, surprised. “I beg your pardon?”

 

“Just call me Julia. You don’t have to call me Ms. Porter all the time.” Julia extended her open hand, palm up. “That’s Kim. He’s Bill. On most days, you can just call him, ol’ man.” Julia’s hand was still on Reese’s shoulder. The simple touch was the most comforting thing she had ever felt.

 

“Ol’ man my ass! I can still run circles around you!” Bill protested loudly. Julia removed her hand and pointed at him. Reese wanted her to put her hand back, but it was too late, the contact was broken.

 

“Bullshit!” Julia’s deep laugh transmitted vibrations Reese felt in her chest.

 

“I may be a bit older than you, but I ain’t no old man.”

 

Reese cringed slightly at the use of ain’t but laughed all the same. She thoroughly enjoyed the rest of her evening. It was the first time in a long time that she felt a part of the team. She enjoyed each person that she worked with at the foundation but no one more than Julia.

 

The Iverson Foundation was a family affair. Helena was born into great wealth and married a wealthy man. They wanted to use their money to help less fortunate people in the world. Their only daughter had been raised to serve on the board. However, Reese had served as a grant administrator and worked her way up through the ranks. Despite this, she’d always been seen as Helena’s daughter. The staff kept their distance.

 

After that memorable night, Reese was accepted into the fold a bit more. Maintaining professionalism around Julia became more and more difficult. There was something about this woman that was different. She exuded self-confidence. This was a woman completely comfortable with who she was, who did not care what people thought about her. Reese found that many women felt they needed to compete with her. Julia’s security allowed them to relate as peers, friends.

 

They began to see each other outside of board meetings and nights out with the group. Reese invited Julia to come over for dinner and meet her husband Aiden and son Zachary. She loved that Julia was meeting her son, the best part of her. Yet, when she watched Julia and Aiden shake hands, she couldn’t quite describe the weird feeling in her chest. After that first introduction, she only had Julia come over when Aiden was away on business.

 

 

Aiden Davis was a man in his early forties. His thick, dark hair had started disappearing from the top of his head. Reese didn’t seem to mind, but Aiden had trouble with anything that wasn’t in his control. The hair just started thinning one day and had not stopped. At least his salt and pepper goatee gave him a certain charm that seemed to work well with his investors. The development business never seemed to end. There was always a project that needed more cash flow. His charm was helpful in finding deals and funding sources.

 

By the time he was thirty, he had opened his own development office. His biggest investor was Helena Iverson. When he landed the Iverson account, he offered to take Helena out for celebratory drinks. She agreed but insisted that her daughter accompany them. When he first laid eyes on Reese, he thought she was the most beautiful woman to grace the Earth. The way she carried herself was as if she walked on clouds. She was quiet and a bit shy during the evening, which to Aiden, made her the perfect woman. He began pursuing her. She turned him down on numerous occasions.

 

Their first date was a little more awkward than he’d anticipated. She talked. She talked a lot, about a lot of different things. She’d just returned from a trip to Africa on behalf of the foundation. Still, she was very beautiful and her connections would be good for business. After dinner was over that first night, Aiden was going to make sure he sealed the deal with this woman.

 

When they made it back to her house, she invited him inside. She seemed into kissing him, and he was pleased he had won her over easily. In the morning, she kicked him out of the house.

 

Aiden pursued for weeks, before she finally answered his calls. They began to date a little more formally. Several months later, Reese gave birth to Zachary.

 

Aiden liked to tell the story as if he was so charming that he finally broke down her walls. More than ten years later, he still had her. She still slept with him when he required it. He was certain that she had never cheated on him. She was too busy writing her silly books.

 

She was still beautiful, but Aiden wasn’t satisfied. Even if he didn’t really love his wife the way he used to, he wouldn’t…couldn’t leave her. Helena Iverson had seen to that.

 

 

Reese Iverson had never loved Aiden Davis. He was a mistake that ended up giving her the most precious thing in her life. She loved Zachary more than life itself. Staying with Aiden was all for Zachary, her beautiful son. She’d never known that she could feel real love until he was born. He opened the door to her heart.

 

She’d returned from Africa. Her time in the field for the foundation changed her outlook on life. She’d seen horrific things. She’d seen the pain and suffering people inflicted on others. Some of the villages she worked with had no toilets and no access to clean water. Whenever the foundation’s trucks arrived, filled with potable water, the frenzy nearly became a bloodbath. People fought over needing to fill their tanks first. Most of the time, they contaminated the water.

 

People, desperate for the water, pushed one another out of the way. Fighting began between neighbors. Reese called out and begged for them to stop and create a line. No one listened. Men climbed onto the truck and opened the top hatch and shoved in a hose they’d drug across the ground. Her heart sank. All that work and money wasted. Clean water was no longer. She did what she could to explain that the contaminated water was useless for human consumption. Not many listened to her, and she witnessed the death of children she’d spent time with. The experience changed her.

 

Reese was frustrated when she came back to Portland. She felt restless and wanted to find a way to blow off steam. She started going out to clubs to dance. She’d met Aiden Davis through her mother, then ran into him one night. He started calling, incessantly. Finally, she decided that one night of sex might be worth it if he’d leave her alone afterward. Not her most thought-out plan. She never expected to get pregnant.

 

Julia was running late, and Zachary was pacing in the hallway. “Mom, we’re gonna miss the game!” He was wearing a blue shirt and a pair of cargo shorts, Mariners cap on his head, glove on his right hand. Reese marveled at how fast his first ten years had flown by. He had been ready for over an hour. They were just waiting on Julia. “Where is she?”

 

“Zachary, she’ll be here. She was finishing up at work.” A loud revving of a motor grew louder, until tires screeched into their driveway. Zachary opened the front door and ran outside. Reese grabbed her purse and followed her son.

 

Julia’s door swung open, and she hopped out of the car. “Little man! I am so sorry, Zach. I bought this for you to wear at the game today. Don’t worry, we won’t be late.” She tossed him a jersey. He ran to the door and jumped in the car. Reese walked around to the passenger side and got in the Audi S6.

 

“Reese, this is official, serious business. It’s our first game together. Right little man?” Zachary yelled in the back seat, as Julia pulled out of the driveway and sped off down the road. Reese looked out the window and gave a discreet smile, as she watched the streets zoom past.

 

They made it to Safeco in record time. Julia and Zachary looked like they were meant to be at the ballpark. Both were wearing Mariners gear, with a glove at the ready for any fly balls that might come their way. Reese was fidgeting in her designer jeans, with heeled sandals and a simple white tee. After a while, Julia headed out to buy some food and drinks. When she came back, she reached over Reese and handed Zachary his soda and hot dog. Suddenly, she pulled something out of her back pocket. She quickly placed the blue ball cap on Reese’s head. “There, now we match.” She motioned to the three of them.

 

The quick placement of the hat made it slightly crooked. Reese attempted to straighten it out. “Whoa! Don’t touch it!” Julia reached up and pulled it over to the side, exaggerating the slant. “Just leave it, you look good.”

 

“Julia, it’s not supposed to sit on your head like this. They shape it so that the bill is above your eyes to minimize sun exposure.” Julia raised her hands in the air and leaned back slightly.

 

“It’s a baseball cap, Einstein. Don’t overthink it. Just enjoy it.” Julia smiled at her as their shoulders touched. “You do that a lot you know. You overthink and analyze everything. Just enjoy this.” They held each other’s gaze for a long moment. Reese was enjoying the roguish moment. The crowd started yelling, and Zachary popped out of his seat screaming “run” with the rest of the crowd. Julia turned her attention to the field and was soon out of her seat, yelling and waving her arms above her head. Reese sat and looked between Zachary and Julia. Seeing them happy made her heart flutter. It was a strange feeling. She didn’t often feel happy and whole at the same time. She joined them and started cheering with everyone else.

 

“Reese. I have to talk to you.”

 

“About what? Did you hear from Jennifer? She just had a few more questions for you on that last proposal from…”

 

“It’s personal.”

 

“Ok, Julia.” Reese sat in her office chair and listened quietly through the phone.

 

“Can you meet me later? At the bar?”

 

“Of course. I’ll call and see if Aiden can pick up Zachary.” Reese made her phone calls to make sure Zachary was taken care of. She left work and headed toward the bar, where she chose a quiet booth in the back corner. She started to stand when Julia came in.

 

“No.” Julia held out her hand to indicate Reese should stay in her seat. She seemed uneasy. “I met someone last night.”

 

A weighted net closed around Reese’s heart. She had no right, no right to expect Julia to stay single for the rest of her life, just because Reese was trapped in a loveless marriage. Years of practice confined her emotions behind a veil of polite interest. Julia looked as if Reese was breaking her heart, when the truth was the other way around. “That’s great, Julia.”

 

“No, it’s not. I slept with her, Reese.”

 

The involuntary gasp that escaped her lips was the last breath Reese took for several moments. She started to feel something in her eyes, and Julia started to look a little blurry. Quickly, Reese tried to blink away the tears.

 

“I support you and whomever you want to date. Does this woman have a name?” Reese smiled to comfort Julia.

 

Julia started pacing. She walked back and forth a couple of times and stopped to look at Reese. “Her name is Caitlyn. I like her. I’m going to see her again.” She leaned forward with both of her hands on the edge of the table. Reese was caught and held captive by midnight eyes. They were full of tears threatening to fall down Julia’s cheek. There was pain in those eyes. Julia was struggling with whatever it was she was feeling. “Please. Don’t hate me.”

 

The words surprised Reese. She could never hate Julia. She could never blame her for wanting to find someone. Sex would bring about plenty of healthy attributes for her friend.

 

Even though she was struggling with her commitment to Aiden, following her own heart was not an option. She couldn’t think of “her” Julia. She was just Julia, a friend. They stared at one another. Reese struggled to keep the tears from escaping her eyes.

 

“I will never hate you, Julia. You’re my friend. I am happy that you found someone. I truly am.”

 

Julia dropped her head. Reese saw a shorter woman walking toward them. “Hello, Kim.” Kimberly had walked over holding a couple of drinks.

 

“Sorry to interrupt, I need Julia for a few minutes.”

 

Julia brought her head back up and looked at Reese. “I’ll be right there.”

 

Kim nodded and walked over to the bar and started talking to the bartender.

 

“Promise me. Never.”

 

She was begging. Reese knew that Julia Porter never begged for anything. It was against their rules.

 

Reese stood up next to Julia. “I promise.” She pulled her into a hug, and Julia’s soft hair caressed Reese’s face. They held each other for a moment, then Reese pulled back. “We’ll be ok. I will see you tomorrow night. Are we still on for movie night? I can’t stay for a drink tonight. Will you drink mine for me?”

 

Julia nodded her head. Reese wished Julia wouldn’t be so sad over this new development. Her circumstances were not going to change.

 

“I’ll bring the pizza and ice cream,” Julia finally said.” Tell Zach I’ll get rocky road. OK?” Julia smiled weakly and walked over to the bar.

 

Reese walked out to her car, got in, and began to cry. After a few moments, she wiped her eyes and pulled herself together. She went home and crawled into bed, where she cried until she fell asleep.

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