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|Strings of the Heart(Runaway Train #3) by Katie Ashley|
“Okay,” I replied cautiously. At that moment, I didn’t know what to expect behind that door. Between what Elliot and Margaret had said, coupled with Rhys acting so mysteriously, I didn’t know if Ellie was just your typical rebellious daughter that her uptight parents were ashamed of or if there was something else—something much more serious.
“Ellie is different.”
“Different how?” I pressed.
He grimaced. “I hate even saying that about her. The truth is she’s severely autistic. She isn’t anything like Lucy.” He shook his head. “It’s a horrible thing to do, but I guess to prepare you in the best way, she’s an autistic savant, like Rain Man, except she’s nonverbal.”
My heart ached for the pain I could feel coming from Rhys. “Why don’t your parents want her coming to the party?” I questioned softly.
Rhys ran a hand over his face that wore an agonized expression. “Although my mother may head up charity campaigns for autism research, she prefers to keep Ellie out of sight. Most of the time, Ellie does fine in crowds—loud noise or music doesn’t bother her like some autistic people. She even seems to thrive on being with people, or at least she has at her group home. But my mother would never risk having Ellie at one of her parties. To her, Ellie will always be an embarrassment—like a crack in a beautiful piece of Waterford crystal. You would think after twenty-three years, she would have accepted the imperfection, but she hasn’t. During the week, Ellie lives at the Brandewine Institute, which is a group home for adults with disabilities. Basically, it’s a place where a lot of wealthy society families from Georgia and South Carolina, stick their mentally challenged adult children.”
“That’s so sad.”
“I wouldn’t stand for it if Ellie wasn’t happy there. She fits in well, and she spends hours painting.” He stared pointedly at me. “That’s where she painted your necklace. She really enjoys painting intricate details like that on small objects.”
“She truly has a gift.”
Rhys gave me a sad smile. “She’s good at so many things, but unfortunately, my parents refuse to see it. They only focus on what she can’t do, rather than what she can. She never got to be a debutante and have a coming out party, and she’ll never be in the papers for a society wedding.”
Reaching out, I once again touched his arm. “I still want to meet her.”
“Okay,” Rhys replied, with an edge of caution in his voice.
A few seconds after Rhys tapped on the brass knocker, the door flew open. A silver-haired woman with a warm, friendly smile appeared before us. “Rhys McGowan, aren’t you looking dapper this evening?” she exclaimed.
Rhys bounded forward to hug the woman. “Thank you, Trudie. I do clean up well, don’t I?”
Squeezing him tight, Trudie patted Rhys’s back. “Yes, you do. Why I almost wouldn’t have recognized you out of your ratty jeans and T-shirts.”
With a chuckle, Rhys argued, “Hey now, you act as if I look like some homeless person. I may wear that around the house, but I always dress up at the Brandewine Institute when I come to see Ellie.”
I couldn’t help raising my brows at Rhys’s admission of how he had been sneaking around the past two weeks. Truthfully, it was none of my business what he had done during the times he wasn’t with me. But it was surprising that I was just now learning about Ellie.
“Yes, that’s true. It doesn’t matter what you have on. You’d be as good-looking as any movie star, even in a potato sack.”
“Thank you, Trudie. You always flatter me.”
Trudie grinned. “I bet Ellie is going to be excited to see you again. She lights up whenever you are around.”
Rhys grimaced. “I know. I’ve been down to the Brandewine Institute every day since I’ve been back. But it isn’t enough. I’ve got to start coming home more when I’m on break, if only for Ellie’s sake.”
Patting Rhys’s arm reassuringly, Trudie replied, “In her own way, she understands. And she loves to do those camera talks with you on the computer.”
Rhys smiled. “The Skype chats.”
Trudie snapped her fingers. “That’s it.” She then turned her attention to me as if realizing for the first time Rhys wasn’t alone. “Well, who do we have here?”
“This is my friend, Allison. She’s my bandmate, Jake’s, little sister.”
A knowing look came over Trudie’s face. “I see.” When I stuck out my hand for her to shake, she drew me into her embrace instead. “It’s lovely meeting you, Allison.”
“Thank you. It’s nice meeting you, too.”
As she pulled away, she tenderly cupped my cheek as if we were lifelong acquaintances. “What a beautiful young woman you are,” she remarked.
Warmth rushed to my face at her compliments. “Thank you.”
She glanced from me to Rhys. “How fortunate you are that your bandmate has such a pretty sister.”
Rhys cleared his throat, and I could tell he was uncomfortable with the attention that Trudie was giving me. “Yes, I am. Although I’m pretty sure Jake wouldn’t appreciate me saying that.”
“Did you make the trip down with Rhys?” Trudie asked.
I shook my head wildly at her assumption. “No, no, I’m from Atlanta, but I’m here in Savannah for college at SCAD.”