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"How old are you, Talia?"
The tanned teenager, straight from the mold of California-model gorgeousness, looked Sedona Campbell in the eye. "Fifteen."
Sedona believed her. "You told Lila McDaniels that you're nineteen."
The five-foot-five-inch blonde, with a perfect figure, perfect makeup and skin, wearing all black, looked about twenty-five.
And, at fifteen, on a Tuesday in the second week of April, she should have been in school.
"I didn't want her to call the police. I'm not pressing charges."
"You're a juvenile. You claim you've been hit. The staff here have to notify the police. It's the law."
"Not if they think I'm nineteen and I say I don't want the cops called. I checked. They don't have to call for adults who don't want the police notified, especially if they're not getting medical attention."
The law didn't read quite like that. But the girl wasn't wrong, either.
"They'd have to prove they had no way of knowing that you're underage."
The girl said nothing.
"They know you lied about your identity."
Talia Malone, aka the juvenile sitting in front of her, slid down into the plastic chair on one side of the table in the small but private card room Sedona used as a makeshift office during her volunteer hours at The Lemonade Stand. Her gaze darted from the floor toward the edge of the table, and back again.
Sedona was not a psychiatrist, but as an attorney specializing in family law, specifically in representing women going through divorce or in need of protection orders, she was well versed in reading people.
"I'm here to help, Talia. You can trust me." And here in the middle of a workday because Lila McDan-iels, managing director of The Lemonade Standa one-of-a-kind, privately funded women's shelter on the California coasthad phoned asking that she drop everything to tend to this situation.
Talia curled a strand of hair around her little finger. With a covert glance, she met Sedona's gaze, but only for a second.
Sitting next to the troubled girl at the table, Sedona touched her hand. "I believe you were hurt," she said, her tone compassionate, but professional, too. By the time she got to the victims, they needed help, not drama. "But I can't do anything for you, no one here can, if you aren't honest with us."
Talia's eyes were blue. Intensely gray-blue. They were trained on Sedona now.
And that emotional crack that opened sometimes, the one she'd never quite managed to close within her professional armoran armor that hid a natural instinct to nurturemade itself felt.
"Why wouldn't you agree to see the nurse?" Sedona tried another way in.
"Do you have any injuries that need to be tended to?" Lila had already told her that Talia had refused to be examined by Lynn Duncan, the on-site nurse practitioner, saying she didn't have anything wrong with her.
If Talia saw the health professional, and Lynn determined that there were injuries due to domestic abuse, California law would require them to report to the police or risk a fine at the very least. Lynn could risk her license.
And still, only about ten percent of California's health professionals actually reported. For various reasons. Talia's lower lip pouted. "There's nothing right now."
"Have you had injuries in the recent past?"
She nodded but didn't elaborate.
And Sedona's mind riffled through possibilities like cards on the old Rolodex her father used to keep on his desk when she was a kid.
Was this young woman on the run?
From one or both of her parents?
Another family member?
Or a nonrelative? A teacher at school?
Was the abuse sexual in nature?
Hiding information was classic behavior for someone being abused. With her near-perfect features, Talia didn't look as if she'd taken any blows to the face. But that was more typical than not, too. A lot of abusers kept their blows to parts of the body that could be covered. Hidden.
"Has anyone touched you sexually?" An officer would ask more bluntly. And with Talia's age, if they didn't find her family, the police were going to be called in. That was a given.
"No." Talia met her gaze fully on that one.
Satisfied that the teenager was telling the truth, Se-dona asked, "How long ago was the abuse?"
Another shrug was her only response.
"A week? Two weeks? A year?"
"A month. Maybe. And then last week."
Okay. So "What brought you here today?"
According to Lila, Talia had called from a public phone that morning and been picked up by a staff member not far from a nearby bus stop. "I was talking to someone who told me about this place and this morning I had a chance to get on a bus without anyone knowing."
"On a bus from where?"
"Where I live."
"Where do you live?"
The girl frowned. "I thought this was a safe place. Where people who had to hide wouldn't be found."
"It is," Sedona assured her. "But the people here have to know who you are, they have to know the particulars of your situation, or they can't help you. This isn't a runaway haven, Talia. It's a shelter for victims of domestic violence."
The girl's chin was nearly on her chest, but she looked up at Sedona. "I know." The words were soft. And not the least belligerent or defensive.
And nothing like the tone one might expect from someone as fashionably perfect and seemingly confident as Talia's appearance implied.
"Are you a victim of domestic violence?" If not, Sedona would still see to it that the girl got help. Just not at The Lemonade Stand.
The answer was unequivocal. Which satisfied Se-dona's first concern. Between her, Lila and Sara Havens, one of the shelter's full-time counselors, chances were they'd get the rest of the information they needed to be able to help their mystery child.
To be most effective, to represent the girl's best interests and to see that all of her rights were properly respected, Sedona needed answers before the police were called.
"Then we'll help you, but we have to know who hurt you, Talia. We have to know where you live and what you're running from. We have to know your real name."
"I don't want you to tell the police."
Talia looked at the floor again, where her sandaled feet sported perfectly manicured toes. "Because."
"That's not good enough. Are you afraid that if we go to the police whoever's abusing you is going to know where you are? Because you don't have to worry about that. I promise you. The police are our friends here. They will protect your location as vigorously as we do."
"What happens to me if I don't answer your questions? What if I don't tell you who I am?"
"We still call the police. You're a juvenile on the run. We can't let you just leave here on your own."
"Maybe I lied about my age."
Talia gave her a hard look. A determined one. And then her entire demeanor changed. Her chin dropped and she shook her head. "But I need a little time to think," she said. "If you call the police they'll take me away, won't they?"
"It depends," she said. "Child protective services could be called. Someone would be assigned to you. Once everyone figures out what's going on and what's in your best interest, decisions will be made."
"And what about you? Do you have anything to do with this?"
Sedona was careful about the cases she took. Because, based on her clients' emotional states, she had to be able and willing to stay with them for the long haul. Her assistance was needed when a woman's deepest trust had been abused. In a big way. Her clients were victims. Injured. Vulnerable. She had to be able to go the distance .
"I'm willing to represent you, free of charge," she said, already aware that Talia, while well dressed and expensively groomed, had less than a hundred dollars on her person. "Whatever happens, I'll be by your side, making certain that, legally, you will get the best care."
"What are my chances of getting to stay here?"
"It's a possibility, depending on the facts." She wasn't telling what those were. Or giving any hint. The troubled teen was in survival mode and clearly not above lying to save herself if she knew the right things to say. Lila had asked Talia if she had a cell phone. The question was common practice at The Lemonade Stand after one resident's abuser found her through a downloadable tracking app he'd placed on her phone.
In response to her question, Talia had produced an old flip phone that was out of battery charge and couldn't be turned on. The phone was so old Lila didn't even have a charger that would fit.
"They said you're a lawyer." Talia's gaze was solemnand searching.
"And you deal with this kind of thing all the time."
"Will the people here get in trouble if they let me stay just one night? Until I figure out what to do?"
There were rules. And there were circumstances.
"I might be able to get you one night. But only because it's late in the day and we know that the chances of getting you to social services are slim. We could determine that it's better for you to stay here than to spend the night in jail, which is where, as a runaway, you could end up."
Because Talia didn't display any overt signs of abuse. No broken bones. No bruises or scarsat least of a physical nature.
"But you won't be free to leave," she added.
"I don't want to leave." Talia sat up. "I just want to make certain that my. That no one can make me leave here."
The girl's desperation to stay at the shelterclearly not a cool hangout for kids her agehelped convince Sedona to fight for her.
"I'll see what I can do," she said. "But only with your understanding that if by tomorrow morning you haven't told me who you are and what this is about, I will have you turned over to the police."
Talia didn't flinch. "I understand."
And for now, that was that.