The next day, Dave drove as he, Maddie, and Cindy made their way up to Tennessee to visit his parents. Their destination was Lewisburg, a tiny little town about an hour south of Nashville; it was about as different from Atlanta as one could find while staying in the southeast, being a rural farm community. Though he loved his parents, Dave always dreaded these trips, as he was forced to unplug from technology for the most part. Hell, his parents didn't even have Wi-Fi! Still, this was important for everyone involved. There was no way he was going to marry Maddie without introducing her to his parents first. As they reached a long stretch of empty interstate west of Chattanooga, Dave spoke up.
"Ok, let's go over the story once more. We're all gonna have to be on the same page with Mom and Dad, or they'll know something's up."
"Agreed. Tell us again what you told your new boss, Maddie?" Cindy asked.
"First of all, I was born in small-town Kentucky, since that's what my birth certificate says. I told Jeannine that my mother was an American citizen who was working in the United States Army as a nurse. She was killed in the line of duty not long after I was born. Father was a British citizen with a healthy paranoia of governments in general, so he took me to England and brought me up through homeschooling. After graduating this past December, I decided to explore my American heritage on an extended vacation. This was when Father died in a fire that consumed my childhood home, as well as all his documents. That's why proving my citizenship was so difficult."
"There could be a hole in that story," Cindy said. "With homeschooling, you would have graduated a couple of years ago, not last December. Why did it take you so long to graduate?"
"Ah, good question. Perhaps I had decided years ago that I wanted to learn more of my American heritage, and Father spent an additional year or two teaching me about the nation's history before I traveled there myself. How does that sound?" Maddie wondered.
"That could work," Dave nodded. "The important part is going to be whenever your parents come up in conversation. Mom and Dad are sure to ask you about them, so your responses will have to be consistent."
"Indeed. Father shall be easy. Even the thought of him brings tears to my eyes," Maddie admitted. "I never knew my true mother, either, as she died in childbirth, but I know the stories Father always told of her. I suppose I could infuse some of those stories with the background we've created."
"Dave, are you sure about all this?" Cindy piped up from the back seat. "I mean, we're lying to Mom and Dad. You've never been good at it."
"Yeah, I don't like it, but it's our only real option," Dave replied. "If we told them the truth, either they'd think we're crazy, or they'd believe us and have to carry the secret with them the rest of their lives. You and I can handle that, but that's a burden they don't deserve, not with them looking forward to retirement."
"Fair enough. You're right about that," Cindy agreed.
Two hours later, they pulled into the driveway of Dave's childhood home. The house was unassuming by modern standards, being a three-bedroom ranch-style home, but it seemed somehow familiar and comforting to Maddie. She had seen it in Dave's memories, of course, but it almost felt as though she had grown up here as well. Seeing Maddie spacing out, Dave reached over and squeezed her hand a little.
"You ready for this?" he asked.
She gave a nervous smile. "As I'll ever be, I suppose."
"Step it up, ladies! Parental units at six o'clock!" Cindy barked, slipping out of the car with a giggle.
As Dave exited the car and popped the trunk, he saw that his dad was walking from the garage as usual to help with the bags. He was a slender man of medium height with graying hair and thick glasses. Though he spoke and moved slowly and had a thick southern accent, there was a sharp mind beneath all that. Dave knew damn well where his own intellect had come from.
"Daddy!" Cindy cheered, rushing to meet him with a hug.
"What's up, Doc?" he replied, using his pet name for his daughter.
"Seriously? You're gonna call me that 'til the day you die…"
"How you?" he asked Dave as he approached to help unload the car.
"Same old same old," Dave replied.
"Aside from her," he chuckled.
"Right," Dave said with a nervous laugh. "Maddie, this is my dad, John Brighton. Dad, this is my girlfriend, Maddie."
"A pleasure, Mr. Brighton," Maddie said with her beautiful smile. "Dave has told me so much about you."
"Glad to have ya. And you can call me John," he replied, shaking her hand. "C'mon in, we got Lawler's for lunch."
"Man, it's been too long since I've had Lawler's," Dave said, his mouth already watering.
"Your favorite food from home, I presume?" Maddie asked.
"Only the best BBQ in the state of Tennessee!" Cindy answered with gusto.
With that, John led the way through the garage and into the small kitchen, where Dave's mom prepared lunch. She was a tiny woman, the very definition of petite, and the ash color of her medium length hair made it clear that it had once been a vibrant color of honey blonde. Yet despite her size, her eyes seemed to carry a quiet confidence, similar to that of Dave, Maddie noticed. She turned to the group entering the house.
"Well, hello," she said, soft-spoken as ever.
"Hey, Mom," Dave replied.
"Glad you made it safe. Cindy, you ready for your exams?"
"As I'm gonna be," she answered. "I'll be studying most of the time here."
"Mom, I'd like you to meet my girlfriend, Maddie. Maddie, this is my mom, Sara."
"Wonderful to meet you, Mrs. Brighton," Maddie said, extending her hand.
"You, too," Sara replied, giving her hand a light shake. "I'm glad you were able to come on such short notice."
Though Maddie balked a bit at the slight dig, Dave stepped in. "That was my fault, Mom, not hers. I should have told you sooner that she was coming. Sorry about that."
"It's fine. Let's eat."
Dave and Cindy exchanged a glance as they made their way to the dining room table; neither had expected such a frosty reception from their mom. Maddie, on the other hand, had already forgotten, as her attention was now on the spread of food that awaited them for lunch. Pulled pork, BBQ sauce, buns, Wavy Lays, and deviled eggs sat on the table, ready for consumption. John and Sara took their places at the heads of the table, Cindy had a side to herself, and Dave and Maddie sat next to each other across from Cindy.
"Will you pray, Dear?" Sara asked Cindy.
Even though she was an adult, Cindy's go-to prayer was still the classic "God is good" blessing she had said all through her childhood. That business done, John and Dave began passing around the food for everyone to make their BBQ sandwiches. It was mundane enough for a few minutes as everyone savored the taste of Lawler's pulled pork, but Sara soon broke the silence.
"So, Dave, how did you meet your girlfriend?"
Swallowing his bite, Dave replied, "It was total random chance, to be honest. I was sitting in the back of the Starbucks near campus, doing some reading between classes. While I'm buried in The Once and Future King, I hear this voice saying it's her favorite story ever. I look up and see this gorgeous redhead smiling and asking if she can join me. Of course, as anyone who knows me would know, I can't even get a single word out. Old Babbling Brighton strikes again, right?"
"Not quite," Maddie giggled. "I didn't really wait for permission to join him. As soon as I sat down, I could tell the poor boy was terrified, so I decided to help calm him down. And what better way to do that than to discuss the book he was reading?"
"Figures you'd finally meet a girl over that book," John chuckled. "You've only been obsessed with it since the third grade."
"Pretty much," Dave agreed. "But yeah, once she started asking me about the book and what my favorite parts were, the babbling just went away. I saw her as more than a pretty face, someone with a sharp mind and great interest in something I already loved. We talked for about three hours before we even realized how long we had been there."
"That sounds about right," Maddie said. "But even then, the poor boy was oblivious. I was sending every signal in the book that I wanted him to ask me out, but he wasn't getting it. I laughed at his every joke, maintained eye contact, and even leaned over to touch his hand, but nothing worked. Finally, I told him that any woman who spends this amount of time with him is likely interested in getting to know him better. But if he didn't act soon, this one's interest might begin to decline. That was all it took for him to ask me out, and the rest, as they say, is history!"
"Well… how interesting," Sara commented.
Before Dave could ask his Mom what she meant by that, John asked, "Maddie, where are ya from? I assume somewhere in the UK, by your accent."
"Yes, I was raised in England, grew up in the suburban area surrounding Liverpool," she replied.
"Liverpool, you say?" Sara asked, her eyes narrowing. "Beatles central. That must have been fun."
Doing a quick search of Dave's memories, Maddie replied, "Oh, absolutely. Their music pervades the entire area. Father would always play their albums for me."
"Who's your favorite Beatle?" Sara asked pointedly, almost as if she expected Maddie not to know the answer.
"I usually go nontraditional, so I'll say Ringo. Poor Ringo hardly ever gets any love," she giggled.
"Hm. Interesting," Sara said once again.
"So, what brings ya to our side of the pond? You a student at Tech?" John asked.
"I'd love to be, but not at present. I was homeschooled by Father growing up; he was more than a little paranoid of government education. My mother passed away when I was but a baby, though I've learned that she was an American citizen, working as a nurse in the U.S. Army, no less. When I came of age and graduated, I decided I wanted to learn more of my American heritage, so Father spent another couple of years teaching me all there is to know of American history and government. A few months ago, I began what was to be an extended vacation here, though I believe it may now become more permanent…"
Hearing the sadness in Maddie's voice, John asked, "Why do you say that?"
"You see… Father passed away not long after I arrived in America. There was a terrible house fire that consumed my childhood home and all my father's documents. He couldn't… couldn't…"
Placing an arm around Maddie's shoulder as she teared up, Dave continued, "Her dad had named his lawyer as the executor of his will, but the guy turned out to be a total sleaze ball. He had the documents proving himself the executor, but the will itself had burned up in the fire, so this lawyer worked everything around to claim the few remaining possessions and funds as part of his fees. He also knew Maddie was overseas and didn't have the funds to return to England and contest the will in time. The bastard played it perfectly…"
"Language, Dave," Sara said with a glare.
"Language aside, I happen to agree with him," Cindy muttered.
"Mm hmm," John nodded. "Have you done any research into what recourse you still might have?"
"No," Maddie replied, drying her tears. "To be honest, I consider this somewhat of a sign. God is showing me where I belong. After all, it was only a few days after the news of Father's estate that I met Dave. Losing my only family in such a dreadful manner is almost too much to bear, but Dave has helped me work through it. But to your original question, I have been able to prove my citizenship through my mother and obtain a copy of my birth certificate, but everything else was kept in Father's house, to my knowledge. At least I was able to find work at the Fulton County library. It'll provide some income while I work on a more stable long-term plan."
Glancing at his parents, Dave saw his Dad's face was one of understanding and sympathy. After all, John had lost his mother to cancer when he was just six years old. He identified with anyone who had lost a parent too young. Sara, on the other hand, was unreadable. She had always been a cool customer, but this seemed different to Dave. He could tell she was not pleased with the situation, but beyond that, he was at a loss. To Dave's relief, the meal was done with by then. While Cindy took Maddie to show her to her room and unpack, Dave's dad waved him down.
"Need your help with the computer. It's actin' up again."
"Sure thing, Dad." Moving to the office on the other side of the house, Dave took a seat and started to fiddle with the desktop computer. "You really ought to upgrade from Windows Vista, Dad. It's more than a little out of date."
"Yeah, and get Wi-Fi, and smart phones, and start texting," John replied with a laugh. He and Dave went through the same song and dance every time he visited home.
"Just sayin'. It'd make things easier."
"Yeah, but easier for who?" John shot back.
After a moment's pause, Dave lowered his voice and asked, "So, what's up with Mom? She seems… pissed."
"I dunno," John sighed. "She was like this last night, too. Came to me after you called all in a tizzy about you bringin' a girl home. Now, you know your mother; she don't get frazzled over nothin'. Seein' her like that was so strange…"
"You think it's Maddie?"
"No, I don't," John replied. "I think it wouldn't matter what kind of girl you brought home. But as far as Maddie is concerned, I like her. She seems smart and very grounded."
"Thanks. I wouldn't have brought her if I wasn't dead serious about her, nor if I didn't know for sure how she felt about me."
"I see. How serious we talkin'?"
"I plan to ask her to marry me."
Though John wasn't too surprised by this considering Dave's interactions with Maddie so far, he still cautioned, "You sure you've thought this through? How you gonna afford an engagement ring?"
"I have a plan," Dave said. "Don't worry, I'm well aware of everything involved in this."
"Well, if you're sure…"
"I am, and I honestly don't give a damn what Mom thinks."
"Watch your mouth, boy. Ya only get one mother!"
"And you only get to play the Dead Mom Card once a year," Dave shot back with a grin. "That's your one."
"Fine. But you get what I mean, right?"
Dave sighed. "Yeah, I do. As annoying as she can be, I don't want to alienate Mom over this. But I'm not changing my mind about Maddie."
"I know you're not; I'd expect no less. You got a double dose of stubborn from me and your mother, after all!"
John continued, "I'll try talkin' to her, see if I can calm her down a bit and get her more used to the idea of Maddie stickin' around. But you're an adult now; you've got a responsibility to come to terms with her on this. Pretty sure Maddie wouldn't be too happy with you if you didn't."
"Yeah, you're right about that. Thanks, Dad."
"And this is my room," Cindy said, leading the way for Maddie. "I've got a queen bed if you want to share, but you can also take the sofa out in the living room if that'd make you more comfortable."
"No, this will be fine, thank you. Either way, it will feel so strange not sleeping with Dave…"
"Keep your voice down. Parents might be listening," Cindy warned. "As much as I think you two should be able to sleep together, it's not gonna happen at Mom and Dad's."
"Indeed. A certain level of propriety is expected around parents," Maddie nodded. "That doesn't make it any easier, though…"
"Um, you doin' ok?"
"But of course. Should I not be?" Maddie replied in confusion.
"It's just that… Dave and I saw Mom's face during lunch. She's not happy about something, and I can only assume it's you."
"Me? Whatever for?"
"Hell if I know," Cindy shrugged. "You've already got Dad locked up tight; the story about your father's death did that."
"Ah, your father did lose his mother as a young child, yes?"
"Yeah. He's pretty sympathetic to anyone else in that situation. But Mom? I have no clue what she's so uptight about."
"I see no need to fret," Maddie replied. "She is simply a protective mother for her son; it's only natural. I am certain she will grow to love and accept me as one of her own. You'll see."
"I hope you're right…"
After lunch, Cindy decided to lock herself in her room to get some serious studying done for her finals, so Dave decided it would be a good time to take a drive up the road and introduce Maddie to his Uncle Sam and Aunt Regina. As they made their way along the small county roads, Maddie was enamored by every passing thing, from barns and hayfields to the various crops growing. All the while, Dave identified everything she wanted to know about. As the saying goes, you can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy. Soon, they arrived at Sam Brighton's cattle farm.
"Dave! How ya doin'?!" Regina called out, having come out onto the deck to meet Dave.
"Doing ok, Regina," he answered, turning to accept the short stocky woman's hug.
"And who is this?"
"This is Maddie, my girlfriend."
"Hello, Mrs. Brighton. Wonderful to meet you," Maddie said, extending her hand.
"Oh, forget the handshake. Get over here!" Regina replied, giving Maddie an enthusiastic hug. "Look at you! All these years, we don't see a single girl hanging around with Dave, and now he brings home a gorgeous young thing like you? What're the odds?!"
"Oh, you're too kind," Maddie blushed.
"Is Uncle Sam around?" Dave asked. "Thought I'd make all the rounds with Maddie while we have the chance."
"There he is, walkin' over from the barn," said Regina.
Now, it's important to remember that just because someone is from the country doesn't mean that one immediately knows what kind of person they are. For example, John Brighton spoke slowly and had a thick southern drawl, but he was still well-educated and dressed quite well. Some had come to define this sort of personality as a good ole' boy. Sam Brighton, on the other hand, was the very definition of a lovable redneck. Always clad in a t-shirt and either a baseball cap or a trucker hat, the man farmed for a living and loved every second of it. His voice was more high-pitched and nasally than one might expect, making him a bit of a jolting experience for anyone ill prepared for him. But beneath his obvious blue-collar roots was a man with a heart of gold and unerring loyalty to anyone he holds dear, even if he shows that affection in irreverent or peculiar ways.
Dave watched as Sam strolled the forty yards from the barn to the house. As he twitched his graying moustache and wiped his balding head, Sam stood up straight all of a sudden at seeing that Dave had brought a guest with him. Dave knew Sam would have some smartass remark once he got within earshot, and he had the entire walk from the barn to think of it. Regina and Dave just smirked at each other as they braced for whatever was bound to come out of the man's mouth.
"What's this?!" Sam chortled as he arrived.
"Hey, Uncle Sam," Dave grinned.
"Dave brought his girlfriend over," Regina said with a massive grin.
"Maddie Adams. A pleasure."
"Oh ho! Got ourselves a Brit!" Sam laughed. "You sure you're here by choice? Blink twice if ya need me to call the sheriff! I'll do it!"
"That's enough, Sam," Regina scolded him.
"Hey, I ain't sayin'! I'm just sayin'!"
"Don't worry, Mr. Brighton. I promise I am here of my own accord," Maddie giggled.
"Aw, hell, it's Sam. Seems our city-boy Dave found himself a city-girl!"
"Don't underestimate her," Dave said. "Maddie knows her way around a horse."
"Well, I'll be! We ain't got no horses, but we got cattle out the wazoo. You interested in meetin' some of 'em, Maddie?"
Before Dave could even attempt to bail her out, Maddie replied, "I'd love to!"
Sam led the way to the barn and around the back to the cattle pen while Regina returned to the house to finish her chores. Most of the adult cattle were out grazing, but two young calves basked in the sun together near the fence. At a nearby workbench sat Riley, Sam's fourteen-year-old son.
"How we lookin'?" Sam asked.
"I think they're ready to eat, Dad," Riley said.
"Sounds good." Turning to Maddie, Sam continued, "Them two twins was born 'bout six weeks ago. Poor mama didn't make it through the delivery, though; had to put 'er down…"
"That's so sad when that happens," Maddie agreed.
While Sam grabbed a couple of oversized bottles for feeding calves and began mixing the formula with Maddie, Riley stepped back to hang with Dave for a moment.
"That your girlfriend?" Riley asked, lowering his voice so he wouldn't be heard.
"Yep," Dave grinned. "Her name's Maddie."
"Dang…" After a few moments of staring at Maddie, Riley snapped back to reality and saw Dave glancing at him. "Oh, s-sorry, Dave-"
"Dude, don't worry about it."
"Huh? You ain't mad? But… I was lookin' at your girl?"
"Riley, you're fourteen, so I'm guessing that you're starting to notice things about girls that you never noticed before. That they're pretty, they smell nice, maybe you like the way they wear their hair, or the clothes they have on. Most guys? Yeah, they won't like it if you look at their girl. But you're my cousin, and she," Dave gestured to Maddie, "is probably the prettiest girl you've ever seen in person, am I right?"
"Yeah," Riley admitted.
"So, it would be downright mean of me to expect you not to find her attractive," Dave continued. "Personally, I don't have any problem with it if you want to appreciate her beauty from a proper distance. You have my permission. Just be discrete, of course, and no matter what, don't let your mama catch you!"
Riley laughed at this. "Yeah, I bet she'd run me over with the tractor." Dave couldn't tell if he was kidding or not.
Meanwhile, Maddie was hard at work with the calves, feeding them both with a bottle in each hand. Sam had explained it was just like feeding a baby, having to test the heated formula to make sure it wasn't too hot. He also emphasized that the twins needed to feed together, since they would have had to do so if their mother had survived their birth. Sam chuckled the entire time at seeing Maddie's eyes light up at the calves' antics, pushing against each other as their lapped at their bottles greedily. When one of them finished his bottle first, Sam instructed her to keep offering him the empty bottle until the other finished. Otherwise, he would go after his brother's bottle. Soon, they both had finished, and Maddie returned the empty bottles to Sam as the calves plodded off.
"That was so much fun!" she squealed.
"Huh, got a little country in ya, eh?" Sam laughed. "You're welcome to do that anytime ya want; it's one less chore for me!"
The group headed to the house and joined Regina inside, deciding to sit and visit for a little while. Dave told Sam and Regina about his upcoming job interviews, and Maddie regaled them with how she first met Dave. She had told the story so many times by this point that she almost believed it herself. Riley sat off to the side playing on his Nintendo 3DS, though he would glance up every so often and sneak a peek at Maddie. Dave smirked at this, but soon had to give him the eye, as his glances were becoming rather obvious. Thankfully, Regina was engrossed in conversation with Maddie at that moment, and Sam just stifled a laugh. Riley was his son, after all. As the afternoon drew to an end, Dave and Maddie decided to head back to his parents' house for dinner.
"Now, don't y'all go gettin' married 'fore I see ya again!" Sam shouted as they left, earning a slap to his shoulder from Regina.
"We're back, Mom!" Dave called out upon entering the house.
"Good timing. Roast is almost done. Would you go fetch your sister, please?"
"Woo hoo! My favorite!" Dave cheered as he scampered off.
"Oh, my! I haven't seen him this excited about hardly anything," Maddie giggled.
"Well, I've been making this recipe for years. Nobody knows better than me how to make Dave happy," Sara replied.
Ignoring the dig, Maddie asked, "What's in your recipe? It smells amazing!"
"Oh, it's pretty simple, actually. Just get a big enough roast, about a half a pound per person, then mix it in the dish with your potatoes, sliced carrots, and a can of cream of mushroom soup. Four hours in the oven, and it'll fall off the bone."
"Mmm, sounds divine," Maddie agreed.
A few minutes later, Dave and Cindy had finished setting the table and John got to work carving the roast. Not that it was very difficult; Sara's deion of it falling apart was pretty spot-on. As they took their seats at the dinner table, Dave hoped it would be a less passive-aggressive meal than last time, but he soon realized it was not to be when his mother spoke.
"Maddie, would you say the blessing?"
In an instant, Dave's blood pressure went through the roof. His mom knew damn well how disillusioned he was with religion in general, and he had thus far made no mention of Maddie's religious beliefs. For all she knew, she could be as much an Atheist as he was! As he was about to unload on his mom for such an assumption, Maddie saved him from the powder keg he was about to light.
"I'd be delighted, thank you." In her studies of modern Christianity, Maddie had come across a prayer known as the Moravian Blessing. Remembering that she had rather liked it, she prayed, "Come, Lord Jesus, our guest to be, and bless these gifts bestowed by thee. Bless our loved ones everywhere and keep them in thy loving care. Amen."
"Amen," said Cindy and John. Not a sound came from Sara, but she certainly wore a look of derision.
The meal progressed as usual from there. There was the expected silence early on as everyone enjoyed the freshly prepared roast and potatoes. Maddie found that she rather liked it with A1 sauce, which pleased John to no end. He was of the belief that A1 sauce wasn't an addition, but rather a completion of the perfect roast. Dave then told of Maddie's first experience with Sam and Regina, specifically being roped into helping Sam feed the calves, which John chuckled and rolled his eyes at, since Sam was his little brother. Still, Maddie loved every second of it, as evidenced by her inability to stop talking about the animals. After a while, the conversation settled again, and Maddie began cutting into her second helping of roast.
"That's very interesting," Sara remarked. "Where did you learn to hold your silverware like that, Maddie?"
She froze at this. Maddie had worked to be nothing less than a civil and respectful houseguest since her arrival, but she honestly did not know what to say in response to this. All she could manage was a weak, "Beg pardon?"
"Your utensils. Where did you learn to eat like?" Sara asked again, pointing to her holding her knife and fork European style.
Though Sara's voice was normally very even keeled, the contempt was apparent to everyone else at the table. The silence at this point was deafening; one could have cut the tension with a knife. Dave would have immediately jumped to her aid had he not been so stunned that his mom would call her out so blatantly, and over something petty and meaningless, no less. All poor Maddie could do was to turn to Dave and mouth the words, "What did I do?"
"Oh, I didn't mean anything by that. It was just a question," Sara said, attempting to backtrack, but the tiny smile on her lips gave her away.
"Enough!" Dave finally replied, slamming his fork down on the table. "Let's stop dancing around the topic and get this out in the open. What's your problem, Mom? Why are you acting like this?"
"Acting like what?" she asked softly.
"Cold, standoffish, passive-aggressive, take your pick!" said Dave.
"I'm quite sure I don't know what you mean."
"Bull. You've been like this from the moment I called you and said I was bringing my girlfriend with me. That's it, isn't it? You don't like Maddie, do you?"
Clearing her throat Sara replied, "I don't see why it should matter to you what your old mom's opinion is."
"That wasn't exactly a denial," Cindy pointed out.
"Stay out of it," John recommended to her.
"No, Dad. Maddie's my friend, too."
"It's ok, Cindy. I've got this," Dave assured her. Turning back to his mom, he continued, "Of course it matters to me what my mom's opinion is! Why else would I want her to meet my girlfriend?! If it didn't matter to me, we would've just shown up married one day!"
"Well, in my opinion, if this," Sara said, gesturing to Maddie, "is what makes you happy, far be it from the first person who ever loved you to stand in the way."
"Sara, quit it!" John shot across the table. "You can stop with the passive-aggressive putdowns and actually talk to your son, dammit!"
Dave and Cindy gasped at this; their dad never swore under any circumstance.
"Fine," Sara said, tossing her napkin onto her plate. "My opinion is that my little boy is making the biggest mistake of his life, and I don't want to see that happen. You have not thought this through, Dave. You haven't fully considered the consequences of your actions. For that matter, you barely even know this girl, and you certainly don't know if her story is true. It sounds fantastic, which makes that much more unbelievable to me. I understand you've always been jealous of your sister's many boyfriends over the years, but that doesn't mean you should just fall for the first girl that flips her hair and strokes your ego a bit."
"You will NOT talk about Maddie like-"
"David, if I may?" Maddie cut him off gently.
He was about to protest, but took notice of her using his complete first name, as she had done back in Camelot. With a begrudging sigh, he nodded.
"Mrs. Brighton," Maddie began, "I do not know what I have done to earn your scorn, but whatever it may be, I am truly sorry. In spite of my eagerness to learn, I am still a stranger in a strange land, a land different from the one I grew up in. I can assure you that I mean no offense or insult, and if anything I may have said or done has brought about such feelings, my only desire is to make it right. But in regards to Dave, I can say unequivocally that we are together for the right reasons. Our relationship is strong; it is built on trust, dedication, and most importantly of all, love.
"I love your son, Mrs. Brighton. He is the most wonderful man I have ever met. He has a brilliant and agile mind, shows an uncommon amount of compassion, and possesses a courage I have not seen in anyone else I have known. I do understand your concerns and your desire to protect your son, but I can assure you he needs no such protections, not from me. Dave and I have discussed our goals and dreams at length, and it is our plan to marry and spend the rest of our lives together. In doing so, I realize that I would not simply be marrying him, but also his extended family. Mrs. Brighton, the last thing I want is animosity between us. I do not know what I can do to prove myself to you, but I want nothing more than to earn your trust. For now, all I can say is that you have my word of honor that I am with your son for the right reasons."
Sara eyed her for several seconds before replying, "I simply don't know what to make of you, young lady. You seem so genuine and convincing, it's no wonder you've managed to wrap Dave around your little finger. My son may be an adult who can make his own decisions, but I still don't trust you, and I don't know that there is anything you can do to change that. We'll see. But I do thank you for your words, even if they aren't genuine."
Now close to tears, Maddie muttered, "If you'll excuse me. I don't seem to be feeling all that well…"
As Maddie beat a hasty retreat, Dave stood and glared at his mom. "She's not going anywhere, Mom. I love her, and nothing is going to change that." With that, he turned on his heel and joined Maddie in Cindy's room.
"Well, that was unpleasant," Sara remarked to nobody in particular.
"You're wrong, by the way," Cindy piped up.
"About what, Dear?"
"Everything. You're definitely wrong about Maddie. She's the real deal. You know me; nobody can lie to me, least of all, Dave. They're in love for the right reasons, Mom. But you're also wrong about Dave. He's stronger than you know. Sure, he hasn't ever had a girlfriend until now, but that doesn't mean he was always jealous of my success. He just has his own methods, and I'd say they work pretty damn well. I would have thought, as his mother, you'd be happy."
"Dear, I-" Sara began, but Cindy had already stormed out. "I don't understand all this," she sighed to John. "Where did these kids go so wrong?"
"These kids ain't kids no more. That's all there is to understand," John replied. "They're growin' up, Sara. You need to accept that."
"I do accept it, but that doesn't mean I have to stand by and watch Dave throw his life and future away for some loose girl he barely knows."
"If Maddie was loose, you really think Dave would want to be with her?!"
"She's very convincing," Sara answered. "She's already got you on her side with that little show about her father."
"You forget that I've lived the pain she's feeling. I'd know if she was faking it."
"If you say so, Dear. I'm afraid you might be too close to the situation to be unbiased," Sara said.
Standing, John replied, "We're getting nowhere fast. I'm goin' to watch the Braves game…"
Just like that, Sara Brighton sat alone at the dining room table. One-by-one, her family had walked out on her. She had everything she thought she had ever wanted in a family, yet it all seemed to be falling apart before her eyes. Was John correct? Was she refusing to accept her children growing up? And what of Maddie? Everyone seemed to love her, but Sara's gut was screaming at her that something was not quite right. Still, she wondered about Maddie's deion of Dave, that he was stronger and more courageous than anyone knew. What could cause her to say something like that? Dave was brilliant, to be sure, but strong and courageous? She had never seen these qualities in him. Perhaps Maddie and Dave did indeed know something she did not. Perhaps being on his own and falling in love had changed him for the better. In spite of her objections to Maddie, Sara couldn't deny that Dave seemed somehow more confident than he ever had in his life. He seemed content and at peace, as opposed to the oddball he had always described himself as.
"Maybe they're right. Maybe…"
The next morning, Dave and Maddie sat at the breakfast nook, munching on doughnut holes from the local grocery store. Neither had slept very well; Maddie had spent most of the night crying and talking with Cindy, and Dave could hear every word of what was said. More than anything, his anger at his mom would not subside. Maddie had poured her heart out in front of the entire family, and his mom had callously rebuffed her and called her a liar. Deep down, Dave knew family was forever, but he had no idea how long it would take him to be able to forgive his mother for this. As they ate in silence, John soon entered the kitchen.
"Mornin', y'all," he said.
"Good morning," Maddie yawned.
"Listen, about last night," John began. "I can't tell ya how sorry I am that Sara said those things to you. You didn't deserve it. I talked to her at bedtime, and she seems a little better, but you don't have to say anything more to her. I made it clear to Sara that the ball's in her court; if she wants peace between you two, she has to take the initiative."
"Fat chance of that happening," Dave muttered.
"I'll ignore that under the circumstances," John fired back. "Anyway, I'll be headin' off to church in about an hour with Sara and Cindy. You're welcome to come with, but no obligation. If you need to sleep some more, I get it."
"No, that sounds lovely," Maddie answered. "A bit of normalcy will help, I think."
Swallowing hard, Dave said, "I'll come, too."
John's eyebrows shot up at this. "Really? You ain't been to church in over five years. What's changed?"
Dave shrugged. "I don't want to hang Maddie out to dry. It's still an unfamiliar situation for her, and I want to be with her. But honestly… she and I have also had some serious conversations about religion in general. My experiences aside, I'd be a thickheaded fool if I couldn't at least admit the possibility that my opinions of the last five years might end up being incorrect. I've come to the conclusion that I need to gather more information."
"So, what's that mean?" John asked, chuckling at the impact Maddie was having on Dave. "You're startin' to believe again?"
"Hard to say," Dave replied. "I'd say I've shifted from Atheism, belief in no higher power, to being more Agnostic. She's made it clear that there is all the evidence in the world that a higher power does exist, I just don't know if I'll ever be able to comprehend it. And if I can't comprehend it, I can't devote myself to it yet, if that makes sense."
"Yeah, I think it does. You don't necessarily have faith, but you're also not opposed to the overall ideas religion presents, right?"
"Pretty much, yeah."
"Well, we're leavin' in an hour, so you two better go get ready," John said, shooing them out of the kitchen to scrounge for food himself.
The family of five soon strolled up to the tiny Methodist church on the Lewisburg town square. It was so small that it didn't even have its own dedicated parking lot, with most members parking along the town streets or in the funeral home parking lot opposite the church building. Still, John and Sara had been attending since before the children were born and had no intentions of changing their membership while they still lived in Tennessee. If they someday moved, perhaps, but not until then.
"Um, is you-know-who still in charge?" Dave whispered to his dad as they entered.
"Yeah, Mark Iger is still the pastor," John sighed. "He's as good at politicking as ever, so the church conference is happy enough that he won't get moved until he retires."
"Figures… I don't get why you two put up with him."
"I only wanna stay on account of the other ushers," John admitted. "They're my best buds. But other than them, yeah, I'd wanna get away from Mark. Your mother feels the same way; she's been tryin' to convince me to try another church in the area. I'm just not ready, yet." Glancing back at Cindy and Maddie, he continued, "Get yourself mentally prepared. I'd bet Mark's gonna call ya out; Cindy, too. He always does when she's home visiting. I wish he wouldn't, but…"
"Thanks for the warning," Dave said.
They entered the tiny sanctuary, which was only big enough for around three-hundred people if everyone packed together. Thankfully, only about a hundred people were there this morning, and John ushered the family to his normal pew halfway back from the pulpit. As the service began, Maddie was enthralled by the twelve women composing the chancel choir; they were neither talented nor in the prime of their lives, but the sweet old ladies were enthusiastic nonetheless. Even Dave cracked a grin at Maddie's reactions. But once their prelude had concluded, Dr. Mark Iger stepped up to deliver the morning announcements. As he stood, he adjusted his tie and black suit jacket, which were perfectly tailored to complement his salt-and-pepper hair while hiding his slight potbelly.
"Good morning to all, dear friends," he said in a buttery smooth voice, his accent typical of highly-educated southerners. "And it truly is a good morning that our Lord has blessed us with. We have wonderful fair weather today, and a forecast for rain later this week to ensure our crops will grow tall. So many things to be thankful for. I see most of our familiar faces here today, which always warms my heart. I thank you all for your regular attendance. I'm also pleased to see Cindy Brighton return home from her studies down in Atlanta. But I am especially happy to see our Prodigal Son, David Brighton, return to our congregation at last after nearly five years away. Welcome, David, and welcome to your guest, as well. I do hope everyone will bless them with their greetings in a few minutes."
Cindy squirmed in her seat at his words, and Dave had to clench his fists to keep a straight face. Mark never cared one bit how introverted or extroverted one might be, he always loved drawing attention to them. Dave surmised this was because it inadvertently drew attention to Mark. Whatever the reason, Dave's only concern at this point was making sure Maddie wasn't put in any awkward spots.
The rest of the service progressed as usual. The hymns were familiar enough to Maddie from her time at the Georgia Tech Wesley Foundation that she kept up with little issue, and Dave found an easy distraction in the pages of music and words. Mark's sermon was unremarkable to Dave's ear, and it seemed the same to the rest of the family, judging by their facial expressions. As the service ended, there were the expected family friends coming up to chat with John and Sara, as well as to shake hands with Dave and Cindy. They, of course, inquired about Maddie, who Dave introduced as his girlfriend. As they were about to head for the exit, Mark strolled up and intercepted the group.
"John, Sara, always wonderful to see you," Mark said with a grand smile.
"Thank you," Sara managed politely.
"Cindy, David, I understand your final exams are upcoming soon. I'll be praying hard for success for the both of you," Mark continued. "Now, I don't believe we have been introduced, young lady."
Clearing his throat, Dave replied, "This is my girlfriend, Madison Adams. Maddie, this is Dr. Mark Iger."
"A pleasure, Dr. Iger. Your church is quite lovely."
"Why, thank you, but it isn't really my church so much as it's God's church. I'm merely the humble servant appointed to shepherd its members," he replied, extending his hand. As Maddie shook hands with him, Mark grasped her hand a bit longer than usual, almost as if he was analyzing something. "Madison… that is a lovely name, I must say. Is it a family name?"
"No, not to my knowledge. As my Father told the story, he wanted to name me after his mother, but he saw me at birth and knew I did not look like an Elizabeth, so, he named me Madison."
"Ah, well, I happen to agree with his assessment; your name suits you quite well, if I do say so myself, almost as if you chose it yourself," Mark said. "It is my sincere hope to see you and David again soon, Madison."
"Thank you. I also hope to come 'round again."
"Maddie, I'm curious as to what your impressions of Dr. Iger were," Sara said.
Looking up from her Bojangle's chicken sandwich, Maddie replied, "He seems nice enough, and he says all the right things one would hope the leader of a church would say…"
"But?" Sara asked, sensing her hesitation. Dave's ears perked up at this; it didn't seem like his mom was trying to take a swipe at Maddie, but he was on edge all the same.
"Well, it's just that something about him feels… off," Maddie explained. "I can't quite place my finger on it, but there seems to be something untrustworthy about him. I could be wrong of course, but…"
"What makes you say that?" John asked with a grin.
"A number of things, actually. First was his decision to mention both Cindy and Dave by name during the morning announcements with no warning whatsoever. That struck me as a bit inappropriate and unfair. Second was his manner of speaking during the congregational prayers. His cadence was just enough off from that of the rest of the room that his voice could still clearly be heard amongst the crowd. Both of these things seemed to draw attention to himself in subtle ways. But the most unsettling thing about him was when he introduced himself to me after the service. When he was shaking my hand, it felt almost as if he was attempting to discern something about me, as if he knew something about me that I didn't. Perhaps I'm being silly…"
"I don't think you are," Sara replied. "You're right, he projects the image one would want in a church leader, but there is a massive ego hidden beneath the surface. Dr. Iger is actually the biggest reason Dave left the church in his senior year of high school."
"It's true," Dave sighed.
"Why was that? Did something happen?" Maddie asked.
Dave said, "My grandmother, Dad's stepmom, was in hospice care at that time, and we knew she didn't have long left. She had been a member of the church all her life, but never made an enormous amount of money. She donated what she could to the church, but Mark never made a visit to her in the hospital; he would always send his assistant. One afternoon, it was just me and the assistant in the hospital room, and while Granny was sleeping, I asked him why Mark hadn't come in person. He said it's because Mark often prioritizes his time in hospital visits based on how much money the member has given to the church."
"That's horrible!" Maddie gasped.
"Oh, it gets better," Dave assured her. "Mark actually had the nerve to show up for Granny's funeral once she had passed. Spoke to me as if I was an old friend, like he'd done nothing. I was already questioning religion in general at that point, but that was the final straw; I couldn't be a part of a church led by a man with such blatant hypocrisies about him. I told him off in front of everyone and withdrew my membership from the church then and there. Haven't seen him once until today."
Sara chimed in, "The man is full crap, pardon my French."
That got a giggle from Maddie, considering her natural thoughts regarding the French. She was still a Brit, after all. The conversation flowed naturally from there, with Maddie appearing much more comfortable to Dave than she had all day. Even his mom seemed to be enjoying Maddie's company to some extent; he guessed she probably liked Maddie's initial assessment of Mark, a man she truly despised. Dave smiled to himself, realizing that this was what he had hoped his family would look like once Maddie was involved.
Maybe this'll all work out after all…
"Dave?" Maddie asked, entering the kitchen that afternoon.
"Hey, Maddie. What's up?"
"Well, your parents left for a while, said they needed to visit a neighbor. And with Cindy off to see her old high school friends, that just leaves you and me… here… all alone…"
Dave's ears perked up at the syrupy sweetness in her voice. Clearly, she had something fiendish in mind, but Dave wasn't so sure they had enough time.
"Maddie, our neighbors are literally a stone's throw away; Mom and Dad could be back any minute, so-"
"I suppose I'll have to be quick, then," she cut him off.
In a flash, Maddie had Dave pinned back against the kitchen counter and was already lowering his shorts down to his ankles. Before Dave could even think to protest, she was on her knees, stroking his stiff erection and licking her lips.
"Holy shit, girl…" he moaned as she kissed his tip.
"I simply must thank you properly for last night, defending me so passionately to your mother. I know I was so very upset afterward, but once I had calmed down and went to bed, thinking about how you stood up for me… it got me so wet. Be it here or in Camelot, you really are my hero, David Brighton, and I wish nothing more than to give you a lifetime of hero's rewards. Starting right now…"
Maddie took him in her mouth and proceeded to give Dave the best blowjob he had ever received. She was no longer the timid girl from Camelot, unsure about what she was doing in this regard. No, she had been reading some erotic stories that Cindy happened to have, giving her all the information she needed. Tongue swirling, ball fondling, knowing when to speed up or slow down, all of these tools were now at her disposal. Poor Dave never stood a chance against Maddie's newfound skills, not that he was complaining. Within a matter of moments, she already had him spewing his load, which she now swallowed with expert precision. As she released him and covered his softening cock back up with his shorts, Dave leaned back on the kitchen counter in baffled amazement.
"Where did you learn to do… that?!"
Maddie giggled. "Cindy introduced me to the world of… erotic literature. Some of them almost read like instruction manuals."
"Damn. You never cease to amaze me…"
"I aim to please," she replied, pecking him on the cheek.
In one swift motion, Dave spun Maddie around and pinned her against the kitchen counter as she had done to him.
"Now, it's my turn," he growled, reaching for her panties.
"Where are we going, John?" Sara asked. "Why did you lie and say we were going to a neighbor's house?"
"I didn't lie, exactly. We'll stop by Mrs. Adams' house on the way back. But I need to pop in the office real quick."
Sara's eyebrows rose at this. John never took anyone to his actual office. It was one of his strange personality quirks, but one that Sara had always respected. She trusted him, after all. Still, she was curious.
"What's this all about, John?"
"Dave and Maddie," he said. "I trust them and I believe them when they say they're in love, but there's somethin' I'm missin' here. There's gotta be a reason they wanna get married so quickly."
"I must admit, that worries me, too," Sara sighed.
"I ain't worried, but there's still somethin' off about it."
"And you think you'll find the answer at your office?" she wondered.
"You'll see," John grinned.
A few minutes later, they pulled into the empty parking lot of the Marshall County extension of the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. It was a nonde single-story brick building, unremarkable in every way, which suited John just fine. Without a word, Sara followed her husband into the building that she had seen so many times, yet had never entered. After strolling down the rows of cubicles, John stopped at the closed door to his office.
"Just remember: you can't tell anyone what you're about to see in here, Sara," John said. "You ok with that?"
She nodded. "I trust you, John."
Once inside, his office seemed just as unremarkable as the building itself. A single desk sat in the middle of the room with a standard Dell computer sitting on top of it. But to Sara's surprise, John didn't even touch the computer, instead unlocking the bottom drawer of his desk. As he slid it open, she saw what appeared to be a sturdy lockbox within. John punched a combination on the keypad and opened the box, revealing a laptop that Sara had never seen before.
"What is that?" she asked.
"My big secret," John began with a chuckle. "Dave and Cindy think they're so much ahead of the curve than me on computers. I let 'em think that. But this ain't no normal laptop. It's a powerful computer originally built for gaming. I've upgraded and modified it over the years to make it better able to handle dives into the dark web."
"Dark web? John, what are you talking about?" Sara pressed, growing more concerned.
Looking his wife in the eye, John said, "I'm a member of Anonymous, Sara."
"The… the WikiLeaks group?"
"Some of our members have done deals with 'em in the past, yeah, but not me. I don't trust that Julian Assange character."
Sara's jaw dropped. "My husband… is a hacker?"
"Not so much a hacker as a watchdog. I'm one who always tries to stay within the realm of legal actions. Frustrates the hell out of the other guys in Anonymous, but I do good work for 'em regardless. Anyway, I've got a contact that might be able to give us a little piece of mind about Dave and Maddie."
Sara watched as John powered up the laptop and wired it to his office's secure internet connection. At home, he was more of a hunt-and-peck typist, but here, his hands became a blur of motion, at least as much as was possible for a man who had previously had a stroke. After a minute or two, he grabbed a microphone connected to the computer and dialed out. Soon, he and Sara heard a voice pick up on the other end of the line.
"Who has blinded me?" the voice asked.
John grinned at the reference to The Odyssey. "Nobody," he answered.
"Welcome, Anonymous. You're on with The Wizard."
"Wizard, this is The Milkman. How you been?"
"Just surviving, Milkman. Just surviving. Whatcha need?"
"I wanted to ask you about my boy, specifically about him and his new girl," John said, making sure not to reference names or relationships. "He's brought her 'round and said they plan on getting married soon. I like her, but I got this feeling that I'm missing something."
"Why would you think I know anything?"
John chuckled. "You ain't gotta be coy with me, Wizard. I know how much you and he trust each other. You two are confidants, especially after he helped ya out a few years back."
A slight pause, then, "True, fair enough."
"So, have you met her?"
"I have. He's told me all about her, but in confidence."
"Yeah, even from the rest of Anonymous. I'm sorry, but I can't betray his trust by telling anyone… even you."
"Huh. Must be some story."
"It is, but believe me, it's better left unsaid."
"Well, what can you tell me? Are they in any trouble or danger?"
"No, I helped make sure of that. But what it boils down to is that they have their reasons for wanting to marry so quickly. They're gonna be just fine. Believe me, he's stronger and more courageous than you realize."
Both John and Sara's ears perked up at this. "You're the second person in two days to say that to us," John replied.
"Then there must be something to it, eh?"
"Still, I'm curious as to why the secrecy is necessary."
Another pause, then, "What is our core belief in regards to information pertaining to oneself? Why should someone unrelated to said information be deemed untrustworthy of controlling it?"
Grinning, John replied, "Because the safest hands are our own."
"Exactly. Trust him, Milkman. He has his reasons for doing this."
Seeing his wife smiling, John said, "Thanks, Wizard. I think we're good."
As he disconnected, Sara asked with a wry grin, "Who was that, John?"
"A friend of Dave's, but Dave don't know that he and I know each other. He certainly has no idea how we know each other. Dave ain't no member of Anonymous, but he helped this guy out in a big way a couple of years back. Ever since then, they've trusted each other with things they wouldn't trust anyone else with. I figured if anyone might know what's really going on with Dave and Maddie, it'd be him."
"But, he didn't tell you anything."
John smiled. "He didn't have to. Dave's got some big secret around all this; I respect that. I've got my secrets, too, as you've seen today. But I had to know from The Wizard just how prepared Dave is for whatever is at the center of all this. If he says Dave knows what he's doing, then Dave knows what he's doing."
"So, if Dave were to get married next week?"
"Then I'd support and trust him one-hundred percent."
Sara sighed. "I'm sorry, I just can't help but worry…"
"You wouldn't be his mother otherwise," John chuckled. "But our boy's grown up more than we ever realized he had. I think he's earned our trust in this. And as for Maddie? She ain't goin' nowhere."
"Do you think Dave will ever tell us the whole story about whatever is really going on here?"
"Don't know, but it's his decision, regardless. All we can do is be there for him and Maddie when and if they need advice."
Sara got a wistful look on her face. "My little boy really is all grown up, isn't he?"
"Yeah, and I think the world's gonna be a better place for it. C'mon, let's head over to Mrs. Adams' house."
"Yes, and while we're driving, we need to have a little chat about your extracurricular activities, Jonathan," Sara teased.
"I've told ya not to call me Jonathan. It ain't my name!"
"Could be why I keep doing it…"
That night, long after everyone had gone to sleep, Dave sat alone in his bedroom with two small items on his desk in front of him. One was a piece of charcoal he got from the garage, the other an old broken earring from his mom's jewelry box. She had no intention of repairing or melting it down, so she was happy to let Dave have it for an "experiment." Taking a deep breath, he began to focus on the task at hand.
Dave had been preparing for this spell for some time now, but the weight of the situation was still nerve-wracking. First, he took the charcoal in hand and focused on it with all his willpower. As the blue stone on his ring began to glow, he applied concentrated amounts of heat and pressure, simulating the years it would normally take to achieve these results. At the same time, he began to filter out the impurities and trace elements contained within the coal, reducing it to pure carbon. As he neared the end of his task, he focused on the molecules within and formed them into a crystalline structure before then bonding them with each other into tetrahedral shapes. After ten minutes, he sat back in his chair and gazed upon the raw diamond he now held in his hand. A few more pulses from his mind, and he had the stone cut into a brilliant round shape weighing more than two carats.
Next was the broken earring, which would be far simpler for Dave than the piece of coal had been. First, he determined that there was plenty of metal present for what he required; he would not need to conjure additional material. Taking the white gold piece in hand, he connected to it with his mind, finding it quite malleable once he was in focus. He spread the metal out into a smooth circle, reinforcing it when needed to ensure it would remain strong once the spell was complete. Thanks to his connection with Maddie, he knew it would be a perfect fit on her left ring finger. At last, he drew the metal on top into six prongs, twisting them a bit to give them the appearance of a tulip. Now with both the ring and diamond in hand, he focused his mind on setting the two together, creating a bond that would not be broken by even the passage of time. Dave smiled as he held the ring with which he would propose marriage to the girl of his dreams. Setting it in his desk drawer, he stripped nude and was soon fast asleep in bed.
Soon, Maddie… soon…
"Mr. Secretary? You have an incoming secure communication. Urgent."
"Very well, close the door, please." Once the room was secured, he said, "What is it?"
"Mr. Secretary, it's Mark. It's truly wonderful to talk to you this fine day."
"Skip the fluff, Dr. Iger. This better be important if you're contacting me like this."
"But of course. I wanted to inform you that I met a very interesting young lady this morning: Madison Adams."
Sitting straight up in shock, he replied, "As in… Elise Madison Adams?"
"How certain are you that this is the same one?"
"Positive. Although I met her in Tennessee, she happened to disclose that she's from the Atlanta area, just as the BOLO says. Besides, I wouldn't have contacted you like this if I hadn't done my homework beforehand."
"I see… then it's as we suspected?"
"It is. She possesses tremendous magical potential, perhaps on par with you and me. How do you want me to proceed?"
"Don't engage, not yet. I'm researching things from my end; there's still too many unanswered questions. Who is this girl? How did she suddenly become so strong with sorcery without our knowledge? Why does she need a new identity so desperately that she'd take a dead girl's name? Something doesn't add up, and we still don't know if she's friend or foe."
"If I may say so, I suspect that her boyfriend might know something about it, Mr. Secretary."
"Boyfriend? What about him?"
"His name is David Brighton, and his family have been members of my church for years and years. David left the fold of believers some five years ago, but turned up this morning, much to my surprise. It would not be a stretch to think that Madison influenced his decision to return, at least for her sake. Anyway, David is quite intelligent, about to graduate from Georgia Tech. It's possible he aided Madison in some way with this identity theft, though I have yet to confirm this."
"Hmm… very well. Monitor the situation from a distance, but don't let them find out. We don't want to spook them. If this David is as smart as you say, we need to investigate him more in depth. I'll send Steven to make contact."
"You're sure his presence wouldn't raise suspicion? Steven's a rather well-known public figure, after all."
"We'll use Georgia Tech's graduation as a cover. He'll fit right in. For now, just keep an eye on them. No direct contact with either David or Madison, clear?"