Catherine Lenora McKenna could hardly believe the long-awaited day had arrived. Her eighteenth birthday.
Now she was an adult, and her father would have to stop hovering over her as if she were a fragile china doll in one of his stores. She would be free. Holding her hands above her head like the ballerina in the music box on her bureau, she whirled in a circle that lifted the hem of her blue taffeta skirt to a scandalous height. That didn’t matter, because no one was here to catch a glimpse of her ankles anyway. Not even her personal maid, Julie, who had gone downstairs to grab Catherine a more substantial breakfast from the kitchen before she fainted dead away.
Aunt Kirstin wanted Catherine to eat very light before her party tonight, where a sumptuous banquet would precede the ball. There would be presents to open as well. Catherine hoped her father planned a spectacular gift for her birthday . . . maybe to send her on a tour of the Continent. Of course Aunt Kirstin would probably accompany her, but at least she would be able to see more of the world for herself, not just read about it.
Europe should be beautiful in the autumn, or in any season of the year. Since both of her parents were born in Scotland, she wanted to visit there as well as London, Paris, Rome. She had read every book and magazine she could get her hands on, and she knew so much about Europe. A thrill of anticipation shot through her whole body. Visions of crossing London Bridge, strolling along Avenue des Champs-Élysées, or touring the Colosseum danced through her head. Pictures she’d enjoyed studying with their Holmes stereop- ticon. She wondered if Father would accompany her or if he would allow Aunt Kirstin to be her only escort . . . besides a few servants, of course.
“Where is Julie with my food?” Catherine huffed out an exasper- ated breath. “Am I going to have to go to the kitchen myself?”
She thrust open the door and hurried down the hallway, the sound of her footsteps lost in the thick cushioning of the carpet. At the top of the front stairs she stopped to see if she could figure out where her aunt Kirstin was before she sneaked down the backstairs.
Peering over the balcony railing, she caught a glimpse of her aunt’s face through the partially opened door to the library. Her brows were knit together into a frown as she stared at someone in the room with her. Catherine had never seen such a fierce expres- sion on her aunt’s face.
Father’s voice was muffled as he said something to his sister- in-law. What is he doing home at this time of morning? Catherine wished she could tell what they were talking about. She had never heard her father use that tone with anyone, especially not Aunt Kirstin. As if he were angry or terribly upset.
Catherine leaned farther over but kept a firm grip on the railing so she wouldn’t tumble down. A drop onto a marble floor could be deadly.
Aunt Kirstin gripped each hand into a fist and planted them on her hips. “Just when are you going to tell her?”
Come to think of it, her aunt was using a harsher tone than Catherine had ever heard her use.
Father didn’t answer.
Catherine quickly crept down the stairs, being careful not to place her foot on the second step from the foyer, which would squeak and reveal her presence. At the bottom she straightened and checked her reflection in the gilt-framed, oval mirror beside the front door. When she found everything satisfactory, she tiptoed toward the library.
“I don’t know.” Her father’s words stopped her in her tracks. What did he not know?
“Angus.” Aunt Kirstin’s voice was firm and insistent. “She deserves to know the truth. And now she’s old enough to understand.”
Catherine didn’t hesitate to enter her favorite room in the house. She pushed the door farther open, and both her aunt and her father turned startled eyes toward her. The two looked as if they had been caught in an act of mischief.
“Tell me what? What will I understand?” Her questions hovered in the air, quivering like hummingbirds without a way to escape the net of tension that bound the three of them together.
Her father glanced at her aunt, and then he turned his attention back to Catherine. The deep scowl on his face dissolved, and he dropped into the closest chair, dejection dragging his shoulders into a slump. Tears welled up in his eyes and rolled down his cheeks unheeded. He didn’t even blink.
“I knew this day would come . . . eventually.” Each word sounded as if it had been wrung from his throat.
Catherine had never before seen her father cry. He had always been such a strong man. But right now he was draped in defeat. Her heart hitched in her chest, making her breathless. Something must be terribly wrong. Was he sick with a deadly disease? About to die? How would she live without him? She wanted to grab him in a tight hug and cling with all her might to keep him close.
Aunt Kirstin dragged two chairs closer to where he sat and offered one to Catherine before settling on the other. She smoothed her skirt over her knees and clasped her hands tight enough to blanch her knuckles.
Fear swamped Catherine, trying to drown her in its depths. The strong foundation her life had been built upon shuddered, and then she felt as if a crevasse opened deep within her. Tears leaked into her own eyes, blurring her vision as she stared first at her father and then at her aunt, the anchors in her life.
Her father raised red-rimmed eyes toward her, his face a pale, scary caricature of the man she’d always leaned upon. “There’s so much you don’t know, my precious daughter.”
Such a formal way for her father to talk to her, as if they were separated in some unseen way. Trembling started in her knees. She was glad she was sitting, so she didn’t sink to the floor in a swoon. The tremors rose over her whole body, and she shook as though a chill wind had swept through the room.
Dare I ask another question? When she tried, her tongue stayed glued to the roof of her mouth, so she waited for him to continue.
Aunt Kirstin didn’t utter a single word either.
“I’ve brought Miss Catherine a bit of a snack.” Julie bustled through the open doorway, breaking the unbearable tension for a moment. “There’s enough for all of you . . . and a pot of that new tea you just received from China.” She set the tray on the table that stood beside Aunt Kirstin’s chair, then exited the room.
Mechanically Catherine’s aunt poured three cups of the steaming liquid and added just the right amount of milk and sugar to match each person’s preference. When she handed the saucer and teacup to Father, both of their hands shook, rattling the china.
Catherine received her tea and kept one hand on the cup, warming her icy fingertips.
“Would you like a sandwich or a piece of cake?” Aunt Kirstin’s whispered words were only a bit louder than the clink of the dishes.
Catherine didn’t think she could get a single bite down her throat that now felt like a sandy desert. She shook her head.
Father didn’t glance at her aunt before he handed his cup back without even taking a sip. He turned his gaze toward Catherine and took a breath, releasing it as a soul-deep sigh. “Some things happened when you were born . . . that I’ve never shared . . . with you . . . with anyone, except your aunt.”
She set her cup and saucer back on the tray and waited for him to continue.
“Would you like me to leave?” Aunt Kirstin stared at Father, a look of something akin to pity on her face. “Would that make it easier?”
“Nothing will make it easier.” Father roused more than he had since Catherine entered the library, his voice slicing through the room like a sharp dagger. “And no. Since you’ve opened the subject, you’ll sit right there until I’m finished.”
Her aunt shrank back against her chair and lowered her gaze to the Aubusson carpet where she traced the intricate pattern as if she had never seen it before. Catherine doubted she noticed any of the colors or flowers right now.
If Father didn’t tell her what he was talking about soon, Catherine was afraid she would scream. The atmosphere in the room hung heavy with suspense. She cleared her throat and covered the cough that ensued with one fisted hand.
“There is no easy way . . . to say this.” Father shifted in the chair, the wooden legs creaking under his slight weight. He stared at her. “I’m going to tell you what happened. Please don’t interrupt me until I’m finished. Otherwise I might not get through the whole story. Then you can ask any questions you want.”
Her nose itched, but she didn’t dare rub it. She didn’t want to do anything that might stop this tale from pouring forth from her father. She gritted her teeth, ready to face whatever it was, no matter how grim.
“You know that your . . . mother and I were on a wagon train on the Oregon Trail. Lenora had some . . . difficulties near the end of our journey.” He swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing convulsively. “She had to ride in the back of the wagon for a couple of weeks.”
Catherine knew she was born on the Oregon Trail, and she knew that her mother died in childbirth. Their family friend Odette Marshall had told her that much before Aunt Kirstin finally came to California to help her father. Even though Catherine had been only six years old when she’d heard it, the story was burned into her heart.
“When you were born, one of the women who assisted Dr. Horton brought you to me. I held you in my arms, huddled beside the campfire on that bone-chilling night.” A faraway look filled his eyes, and she knew he didn’t see her sitting nearby. “I loved you the moment I laid eyes on you . . . .Curly red fuzz covering your head . . . .Blue eyes.”
He held one palm toward her, stopping her question in midsen- tence. “They didn’t turn green until later.”
She hadn’t known that. Other questions fought to escape, but she clamped her lips tightly to restrain them. The turmoil inside her made her stomach roil. She swallowed the acid that crept to her throat.
“Before long a different woman brought another baby girl to me . . . .Curly red fuzz . . . .Blue eyes. The spittin’ image of you. I cud- dled both of you close to my heart and kissed each of your cheeks.”
Catherine almost gasped. She couldn’t remember the last time her father had held her close and kissed her cheek. She knew he loved her, but he wasn’t demonstrative anymore. That was why he showered her with gifts so often, wasn’t it? To show her he loved her.
“Then a few minutes later another identical girl was brought to me. I didn’t have enough arms to hold all three of you.” He rubbed one hand over his chin, the rasp of unshaven stubble loud in the quiet room.
Three? . . . Of us? How could that be? Did her two sisters die when her mother had? Sisters! She had always wished for siblings. Yearned for them.
Grief ripped through her. Tears streamed down her cheeks. To find out she had sisters and lose them all within a few minutes. She didn’t feel like celebrating her birthday. Instead she wanted to mourn the sisters she lost before she even knew she had them.
Catherine started formulating questions in her mind, waiting for the chance to ask them. Before they were half-formed, her father rose to his feet and walked out the door without saying another word. She waited a few minutes in a silence so heavy it felt oppressive. She realized he wasn’t coming back when the front door opened then closed. Why hadn’t he waited until she asked her questions?