Charlotte Taylor sat in her boss’s office Friday morning and wondered where all the oxygen in Chicago had just gone.
“I’m sorry to let you go Charlotte, I really am.” Alice Warren, Charlotte’s superior at Monarch Textiles, looked genuinely upset at having to deliver such news. “I know you just lost your grandmother, so I tried to put this off as long as I could.”
A layoff? Her? Charlotte felt the shock give way to a sickening recognition. She’d seen the financial statements; she’d written several of the sales reports. Sure, she was no analyst wiz, but she was smart enough to know Monarch wasn’t in great financial shape and a downsize was likely. She was also emotionally tied enough to Monarch and torn enough over losing Mima that she’d successfully denied the company’s fiscal health for months. As she watched her grandmother’s decline, Charlotte told herself she was finally settled into a good life. She’d boasted to a failing Mima—not entirely truthfully, she knew even then on some level—about feeling “established.”
She’d patted Mima’s weakening hands, those hands that had first taught her to knit and launched the textile career she had enjoyed until five minutes ago, and she’d assured her grandmother that there was no reason to worry about her. She was at a place in life where she could do things, buy things, experience things, to get all the joy out of life just like Mima taught her. How hollow all that crowing she had done about how she’d become “successful” and “indispensable” at Monarch now rang. Who was she fooling? In this economy, did anyone really have the luxury of being indispensable?
Except maybe Mima. Mima could never be replaced. Charlotte and her mother were just barely figuring out how to carry on without the vivacious, adventurous old woman who’d now left such a gaping hole in their lives. It had been hard enough when Grandpa had lost his battle to Alzheimer’s—the end of that long, hard decline could almost be counted as a blessing. Mima’s all-too-quick exit had left Charlotte reeling, fabricating stability and extravagance that were never really there. Hadn’t today just proved that?
Charlotte grappled for a response to her boss’s pained eyes. “It’s not your fault, I suppose.” She was Monarch’s problem solver, the go-to girl who never got rattled. She should say something mature and wise, something unsinkably optimistic, something Mima would say. Nothing came but a silent, slack jaw that broadcast to Alice how the news had knocked the wind knocked out of her.
Alice sighed. “You know it’s not your performance. It’s just budgetary. I’m so sorry.”
“The online sales haven’t been growing as fast as we projected. I’d guessed the layoffs were coming eventually—I just didn’t think it’d be—” she forced back the lump in her throat “—me, you know?”
Alice pulled two tissues from the box on her desk, handing one to Charlotte. “It’s not just you,” she sniffed, “You’re the first of four.” She pushed an envelope across the desk to Charlotte. “I fought for a severance package, but it’s not much.”
A severance package. Charlotte didn’t even want to open it. Whatever it included, the look on Alice’s face told Charlotte it wasn’t going to make much of a difference. Mima, did you see this coming? Of course that couldn’t be possible, but Charlotte felt her grandmother’s eyes on her anyway, watching her from the all-knowing viewpoint of eternity. It wasn’t that much of a stretch, if one believed in premonitions. Or the Holy Spirit, which Mima claimed to listen to carefully.
In true Mima style, Charlotte’s grandmother had left both her and her mother a sizable sum of money and with instructions to “do something really worth doing.” A world traveler after Grandpa died, Mima squeezed every joy out of life and was always encouraging others to do the same. Mima bought herself beautiful jewelry but never cried when a piece got lost. Mima owned a ten-year-old car but had visited five continents. She bought art—real art—but had creaky old furniture. Her apartment was small but stuffed with fabulous souvenirs and wonderful crafts. Mima truly knew what money was for and what really mattered in life.
That was how Charlotte knew the funds she’d inherited weren’t intended for living—rent and groceries and such—they were for dreams and art and life. Having to use Mima’s money to survive a layoff would feel like an insult to her grandmother’s memory.
Alice sniffled, bringing Charlotte back to the horrible conversation at hand. Alice was so distressed she seemed to fold in on herself. “I wasn’t allowed to tip anyone off. I’m so sorry.”
She was sorry—even Charlotte could see that—but it changed nothing. Charlotte was leaving Monarch. She’d been laid off from the job she’d expected to solidify her career. It felt as if she’d spent her four years at Monarch knitting up some complicated, beautiful pattern and someone had come and ripped all the stitches out and told her to start over.
Over? How does a person start over when they suddenly doubt they ever really started at all?
Charlotte picked up the envelope but set it in her lap unopened.
“You’ve got two weeks of salaried work still to go.” Alice was trying—unsuccessfully—to brighten her voice. “But you’ve also got six days of vacation accrued so...you don’t have to stay the whole two weeks if you don’t want to.” The woman actually winced. Was this Alice’s kinder, gentler version of “clean out your desk”?
The compulsion to flee roared up from some dark corner of her stomach Charlotte didn’t even know she had. She didn’t want to stay another minute. The fierce response surprised her—Monarch had been so much of a daily home to her she often didn’t think of it as work. “And what about sick days?”
It bothered Charlotte that Alice had evidently anticipated that question; she didn’t even have to look it up. “Two.”
She was better than this. She couldn’t control that she was leaving, but she could control when she left. And that was going to be now. “I don’t think I’m feeling so well all of a sudden.” Sure, it was a tad unreasonable, but so was having your job yanked out from underneath you. She had eight covered days out of her two-week notice. What was the point of staying two more days? Two more hours? Her files were meticulous, her sales contact software completely up to date, and next season’s catalogue was ahead of schedule. There wasn’t a single thing keeping her here except the time it would take to sweep all the personal decorations from her desk.
Alice nodded. “I’ll write you a glowing recommendation.”
It felt like such a weak compensation. Charlotte stood up, needing to get out of this office where she’d been told so many times—and believed—she was a gifted marketing coordinator and a key employee. “Thanks.” She couldn’t even look Alice in the eye, waving goodbye with the offending manila envelope as she walked out the door.
Monarch only had two dozen or so employees, and every eye in the small office now stared at her as she packed up her desk. Charlotte was grateful each item she stuffed into one of the popular Monarch tote bags—and oh, the irony of that—transformed the damp surge of impending tears into a churning burst of anger. Suddenly the sweet fresh-out-of-college intern she’d been training looked like the enemy. Inexperience meant lower salaries, so it wouldn’t surprise Charlotte at all if adorable little Mackenzie got to keep her job. She probably still lived at home with her parents and didn’t even need money for rent, Charlotte thought bitterly.
She reached into her file drawer for personal papers, her hand stilling on the thick file labeled “Cottage.” The file was years old, a collection of photos and swatches and magazine articles for a dream house. Apartment living had its charms, but with Charlotte’s craft-filled background, she longed to have a real house, with a yard and a front porch and windows with real panes. One that she could decorate exactly the way she wanted.
Just last week, Charlotte had nearly settled on using Mima’s funds to buy a cottage in nearby Gordon Falls. It would be too far for a daily commute, but she could use it on weekends and holidays. She knew so many people there. Her best friend Melba had moved there. Her cousins JJ and Max had moved there. Melba’s new baby, Maria, was now Charlotte’s goddaughter. She’d come to love the tiny little resort town three hours away on the Gordon River, and there was a run-down cottage she’d driven past dozens of times that Charlotte could never quite get out of her mind. Mima would approve of her using the money to fund an absolutely perfect renovation in a town where everyone seemed to find happiness.
Well, not now, Charlotte thought as she stuffed the file into the bag. In light of the last five minutes, a weekend place had gone from exciting to exorbitant. Get out of here before you can’t hold it in, she told herself as she stuffed the three framed photos—one of Mom, one of Mima, and one of baby Maria—in beside the thick file. She zipped the tote bag shut with a vengeance, yanked the employee identification/security badge from around her neck and set it squarely in the middle of the desk. Just last week she’d bought a beautifully beaded lariat to hold the badge, but now the necklace felt as if it was choking her. She left it along with the badge, never wanting to see it again.
With one declarative “I may be down but I’m not out” glare around the office, Charlotte left, not even bothering to shut the door behind her.
Jesse Sykes flipped the steak and listened to the sizzle that filled one end of his parents’ patio. He’d built this outdoor kitchen two years ago, and this grill was a masterpiece—the perfect place to spend a Saturday afternoon. He planned to use a photo of the fire pit on his business brochures—once his plans were finalized and they got printed. That, and the portico his mother loved. Filled with grapevines that turned a riot of gorgeous colors in the fall, it made for a stunning graphic. Only two more months, and he’d have enough funds to quit his job at Mondale Construction, buy that little cottage on the corner of Post and Tyler, fix it up and flip it to some city weekender for a tidy profit. With that money, he’d start his own business at last.
Move-in properties got plucked up quickly in Gordon Falls, so finding the perfect fixer-upper was crucial. He’d already lost out on two other houses last fall because he didn’t quite have the down payment stashed away. But the cottage he’d settled on now was perfect. It was June, and he’d planned to buy the place in March, but that was life. He’d needed a new truck and Dad sure wasn’t going to offer any help in that department. A few months’ delay shouldn’t make a difference, though—the cottage had been on the market for ages. It needed too much renovation for most people to want to bother.
“I’m pretty sure I’ll have Sykes Homes Incorporated up and running by the fall. I can still snag the fall colors season if I can buy that cottage.”
Dad sat back in his lawn chair, eyes squinting in that annoying way Jesse knew heralded his father’s judgment. “Fall? Spring is when they buy. Timing is everything, son. You’ve got to act fast or you lose out on the best opportunities, and those won’t be around in September.”
Jesse flipped the next steak. “I’m moving as fast as I can, Dad.” As if he didn’t know he’d missed the spring season. As if it hadn’t already kept him up nights even more than the Gordon Falls Volunteer Fire Department alarms.
“It might not be fast enough.”
Jesse straightened his stance before turning to his father. “True, but learning to adapt is a good lesson, too. This won’t be the first time I’ve had to retool a plan because I’ve hit a hitch.”
Dad stood up and clamped a hand on Jesse’s shoulder. “Son, all you’ve hit is hitches so far.” This time he didn’t even bother to add the false smile of encouragement he sometimes tacked on to a slam like that. Jesse thrust his tines into the third steak and clamped his teeth together.
“Is it that older cottage on Post Avenue?” his mother asked. “The one by the corner with the wrought iron window boxes?”
The wrought iron window boxes currently rusting out of their brackets and splitting the sills, yes. “That’s it.”
He caught the “leave him be” look Mom gave Dad as she came over and refilled Jesse’s tall glass of iced tea. “Oh, I like that one. So much charm. I’ve been surprised no one’s snatched it up since Lucinda Hyatt died. You’ll do a lovely job with that.”
“In two more months I’ll be ready to make an offer.”
“You could have had the money for it by now if it weren’t for the firehouse taking up all your time, with no salary to show for it, and keeping you away from paying work. You’d better watch out or this place will be sold out from underneath you like the last one, and you’ll be working for Art Mondale for another five years.” Dad’s voice held just enough of patronizing tone to be polite but still drive the point home.
“Mike, don’t let’s get into that again.”
Dad just grunted. Jesse’s place in the volunteer fire department had been a never-ending battle with his father. Jesse loved his work there, loved helping people. And by this point, he felt as if the firefighters were a second family who understood him better than his real one. Chief Bradens was a good friend and a great mentor, teaching Jesse a lot about leadership and life. Fire Inspector Chad Owens had begun to teach him the ins and outs of construction, zoning, and permits, too. It was the furthest thing he could imagine from the waste of time and energy his father obviously thought it to be.
Mom touched Jesse’s shoulder. “You’re adaptable. You can plot your way around any obstacle. That’s what makes you so good at the firehouse.”
Jesse hoisted the steaks onto a platter his mother held out. “That, and my world-class cooking.” Then, because it was better to get all the ugliness out before they started eating, Jesse made himself ask, “How come Randy isn’t here?”
Dad’s smirk was hard to ignore. “Your brother’s at a financial conference in San Diego this week. He said it could lead to some very profitable opportunities.” Jesse’s younger brother, Randall, would be retiring in his forties if he kept up his current run of financial success. Randy seemed to be making money hand over fist, boasting a fancy condo in the Quad Cities, a travel schedule that read more like a tourist brochure, and a host of snazzy executive trappings. It didn’t take a genius to see Jesse fell far short of his brother in Dad’s eyes. A month ago, when Jesse had pulled up to the house in a brand-new truck, Jesse couldn’t help but notice the way his father frowned at it, parked next to Randy’s shiny silver roadster.
“He’s up for another promotion,” Mom boasted.
“Good for him, he deserves it.” Jesse forced enthusiasm into his voice. Somehow, it was always okay when Randy missed family functions because of work. It was never okay when Jesse had to skip one because he was at the firehouse.
“Someday, that brother of yours is going to rule the world.” Dad had said it a million times, but it never got easier to swallow. Every step Randy took up the ladder seemed to push Jesse farther down it from Dad’s point of view. While Dad never came out and said it, it was clear Jesse’s father felt that a man who worked with his hands only did so because his brain wasn’t up to higher tasks.
“I don’t doubt it, Dad.” Jesse admitted wearily. “I’ll just settle for being King of the Grill.”
Mom looked eagerly at the petite filet he’d marinated just the way she liked it. “That is just fine by me. Jesse, honey, this smells fantastic. You will make some lucky lady very happy one of these days.” Her eyes held just a tint of sadness, reminding Jesse that the ink was barely dry on Randy’s divorce papers. His brother’s raging career successes had inflicted a few casualties of late, and Mom had been disappointed to watch her grandma prospects walk out the door behind Randy’s neglected wife. This past winter had been hard on the Sykes family, that was for sure. Was Dad clueless to all those wounds? Or did he just choose to ignore what he couldn’t solve?
They were in love...once...his mom and dad. Now they just sort of existed in the same life, side by side but not close. Randy had married because he was “supposed to.” As if he needed to check off some box in his life plan. Jesse didn’t want to just make some appropriate lady “very happy.” When he fell, it would be deep and strong and he would sweep that the love of his life clean off her feet.
It just wasn’t looking like that would be anytime soon.
“4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .” The small crowd’s voice rose in pitch and trembled with the chill as the lights flickered into life on the eighteen-foot tree in the small park in Hollings, North Carolina. Along Main Street, lampposts and white lights popped to life and bathed downtown in a warm glow.
Taryn McKenna shoved her hands deeper into the pockets of her coat to keep from blowing on her fingers again. It only made them colder in the end. What global warming? It felt like every year was colder than the one before. The wind coming off the mountain tonight had a particular bite to it, like it had heard the same news as Taryn and wanted to make sure she felt it inside and out.
“Have you seen him yet?” Her younger cousin Rachel leaned close and did her best to whisper, though over the small crowd it seemed more like a shout.
Even Ethan, Rachel’s recently-adopted thirteen-month-old son thought his mom’s voice was too loud. He pressed four chubby fingers against her mouth with a wet, “Shhh . . .”
For a minute, Taryn forgot she was supposed to be vigilant. She arched an eyebrow so high she could almost feel it touch the knit cap she wore over her shoulder-length dark hair. “It’s pretty bad when the baby tells you to keep it down.”
Rachel flicked honey-blonde hair over her shoulder and planted a smacky kiss on the little boy’s cheek, eliciting a high-pitched squeal. “Come on, Mr. Manners. Let’s go down to the fire station and see if we can find Daddy.” She headed off to walk the three blocks out of downtown. “And we’ll get Aunt Taryn out of the crowd before she can have an uncomfortable moment.”
Taryn shoved her hands deeper in her pockets and planted her feet. After Rachel’s comment, she should stay right here and let Rachel make the trek back to find her EMT fiancé all by herself. She looked over her shoulder toward her own house, two streets over from the park defining the center of Hollings. If she started walking now, she could have hot chocolate in hand and It’s a Wonderful Life on the TV in under ten minutes.
Not as if she’d be hiding the way Rachel implied. She’d just be warm and comfortable and out of the crowd jostling her as they headed for the community center where the county’s Christmas craft festival was cranking up.
The craft festival. She winced. “Rach?”
Several feet ahead of Taryn, her cousin miraculously heard her and turned around. “You coming?”
“I promised Jemma I’d come over and help with her craft booth.” Jemma. The name was warm on her tongue. Born of the time her tiny toddler mouth couldn’t quite get the grandma to work like it was supposed to. Her Jemma. The constant love in her life. As much as she wanted to go home and tuck in under a quilt, Taryn had promised and she wouldn’t let her grandmother down. “She’s got some quilts she’s selling in the community center.”
Rachel’s gaze bounced between the small brick building at the edge of the park and the fire station, invisible down the street and around the corner, where her fiancé probably waited for her to show up with his chicken and pastry dinner from the little church on, yes, Church Street. “I’ll come with you and visit your grandmother for a second. I need to thank her for the cute little fireman quilt she made for Ethan’s bed. I can’t wait until he sees it on Christmas morning.” She hefted her son higher on her hip without missing a step. “Mark is hoping the house will be ready by then so we can take Ethan over after he wakes up and have our first Christmas morning as a family in our own house, even if it’s empty of everything but a tree.”
“That’s the single sappiest thing I’ve ever heard. And maybe the sweetest.”
Ethan giggled like he knew exactly what Taryn had said.
Taryn knew better than to offer to take the boy for some snuggles of her own. This was all still new and joyful to Rachel. Give it a month. She’d be begging for a babysitter, and Taryn would be more than willing to oblige. The way her arms ached to snuggle the wiggling, giggling bundle told her so. She shoved the longing aside and slid sideways between two people. “Excuse me.”
“Where did all of these people come from, anyway?” Rachel fell a half step behind her as the crowd thickened to funnel through the double doors into the community building.
“It’s Christmas in the mountains and it’s tree lighting night. Half of them are tourists.”
“Sure enough,” said an older gentleman with a Boston accent. “Cold down here is a lot better than cold up north.”
“Cold is cold.” Taryn smiled into his kind face.
“But here, with all the evergreens and the rolling hills . . .” He breathed in deeply. “Feels like you ought to be able to catch Christmas in a bottle up here. Sell it maybe. It’s like Christmas magic.”
Okay, right. Because there was such a thing as Christmas magic. Where all your dreams came true. Taryn fought the urge to screw up her lips. Never going to happen. She scanned the crowd again, wanting to spot a familiar face and yet dreading it at the same time. It was miserable being torn in two by your own emotions.
“I know what you’re thinking.” Rachel was right on top of her, one hand holding Ethan’s head to her shoulder protectively. “It will happen for you, too. Who knows, maybe with what you heard tonight . . .” She wiggled her eyebrows.
Taryn knew her expression hardened, just from the way her jaw ached. “No. Don’t start.”
“You can’t hide forever. Especially helping Jemma. If he’s looking for you, this is the first place he’ll go.”
“If he was looking for me, he would have found me before tonight. Frankly, I told Jemma I’d help her before I knew he was in town, and had I known, I’d be home right now avoiding a scene.” Maybe she should make an appearance, tell her grandmother she wasn’t feeling well, and leave fast. It wouldn’t be a lie. Her stomach was tying into deeper knots by the second. If she wasn’t careful, the country-style steak Jemma had cooked for dinner might just make an encore appearance. “He won’t look for me. He’s home to see his family. And I’m not his family.”
“You could’ve been, if you hadn’t been so stubborn.” Rachel may have meant to mumble under her breath, but it came just as a lull in the crowd’s conversation dropped, making it a loud and clear indictment.
Taryn stopped right in the flow of traffic just inside the door and turned to look Rachel hard in the eye. It was a mantra she’d stopped telling herself a long time ago, but hearing it now from her cousin, out loud for the first time, the words fired anger and released pent-up emotions Taryn thought she’d tamed long ago. “What did you just say?” The words bit through the air, hanging with icicles.
“Taryn . . .” Rachel’s eyes widened like the eyes of a deer Taryn had once hit heading down the mountain into Boone. She looked just as frozen, too. “I never should have spoken out loud.”
“So it’s okay to think it?” Was it how everyone saw Taryn? As the poor girl who let the love of her life get away? Waving a dismissive hand, Taryn turned and stalked off as best she could, leaving Rachel frozen in the crowd. Good. She deserved it. All those years she’d had Taryn’s back, now the truth came out. The whole mess was Taryn’s fault, and even her cousin thought so.
By the time Taryn arrived at Jemma’s tables, she was angry and over-stimulated. The crowd was too loud, the lights too bright, and the air too stuffy. More than anything, she wanted to pack a bag, hike up to Craven Gap, and pitch a tent for a week. She huffed into a spare metal folding chair and crossed her arms over her chest, garnering a warning glance from her grandmother, who was chatting with their preacher. Taryn sat up straighter and dropped her hands to her lap. She might be thirty, but Jemma still knew how to put her in her place.
Taryn let herself scan the room, filled with familiar townspeople and stranger tourists alike, but no jolt of adrenaline hit her at the sight of any of the faces. It disappointed and relieved her. Over the past dozen years, she’d managed to bury every emotion about the year deep down, so deep she hadn’t realized how badly she wanted to see Justin Callahan.
Despite the longing, a conversation with him couldn’t end well. Still, her eyes wouldn’t stop searching, even though something told her she’d know if Justin walked in, whether she spotted him or not. From the time she was a child, her heart had always known when he was nearby.
Rachel stood on the far side of the room at Marnie Lewis’s booth, which overflowed with all manner of jams and jellies. If she could, Taryn would slip over there and lay her head on Marnie’s shoulder, unburdening herself of the tense anticipation knotted in her stomach. Where Jemma was all practicality, her best friend Marnie was the soft shoulder for Taryn’s many tears. There had only been once when she’d had to refuse Marnie’s comfort, because the secret of those tears would have been too much for the older woman to bear.
But there was no time for pouring it all out now. Taryn shoved out of the rusting metal chair and busied herself straightening the quilts hanging from curtain rods hooked to a painted black peg board. Her fingers ran down the stitches of a red and white Celtic Twist, one of Jemma’s latest creations. This one was done on the trusty Singer machine in the upstairs sewing room at the white house in the center of the apple orchard. Tourists loved Jemma’s work, so she packed up the quilts she stitched by day and brought them to large craft fairs around Asheville and smaller ones in tiny valley towns like their own. The more tiny Hollings made its mark on the map as a North Carolina mountain tourist spot, the more out-of-towners discovered they had to have Jemma’s work. Her Celtic designs practically walked out the door right by themselves.
Taryn ran her hands over a complicated Celtic Knot to smooth the wrinkles as a shadow fell over the fabric. “This one’s a beauty, isn’t it?” She angled her chin up, ready to put on her selling face to the latest tourist.
Instead, she met all too familiar hot chocolate brown eyes. His brown hair was shorter than she’d ever seen it, though the top seemed to be outpacing the sides in growth. His shoulders were broader under a heavy black Carhartt coat, his face more defined. Every muscle in her body froze even as her stomach jumped at the heat of seeing him. She’d known this day would come, knew he was in town now, but still, she wasn’t ready.
Clearly, neither was he. He looked at her for a long moment, opened his mouth to speak, then was jostled by a tourist who stopped to peruse the lap quilts on the small plastic table. “This was a bad idea.” Justin shook his head and, with a glance of what looked like regret, turned and blended into the crowd, leaving Taryn to watch him walk away. Again.
“What exactly was that all about?”
When Jemma offered Taryn a ride home as the craft show wound down for the evening, Taryn figured she was safe. After all, Jemma hadn’t said one word about Justin’s awkward appearance and rapid disappearance. Maybe she hadn’t even noticed the entire exchange. In the bustle of answering questions and selling quilts, all she’d asked was if Taryn would come over tomorrow and spend part of her Saturday decorating the Christmas tree and working on Rachel’s wedding quilt with her.
But now, as she pulled Taryn’s kitchen door shut behind her, Jemma revealed just how much patience she had. About three hours’ worth.
Taryn pulled two chunky diner-style coffee mugs down from the white wood cabinets and thunked them onto the ancient butcher block countertop. “What’s all what about?” It was a long shot, but maybe the question had nothing to do with Justin at all. Maybe this was more about how she’d stalked into the booth and plopped into her chair like a three-year-old in full pout. Taryn rolled her eyes heavenward. Please, God? I’m not ready to have the Justin conversation yet.
“The little two-second exchange between you and a man who looked an awful lot like Justin Callahan all grown up.”
Nope. It was exactly what Taryn had feared it was about. She yanked open another cabinet and dug out a plastic container of Russian tea. Every year, when the first breath of winter blew along the valley, Taryn mixed instant tea with dried lemonade, orange drink, and spices just like her mother always had. It kept her close, made Taryn feel like she could close her eyes and have her mother reappear whenever she needed her. Boy, did she ever need her tonight. “Want some tea?”
“It was him, wasn’t it, Taryn?” The voice wasn’t demanding, just gentle, maybe even a little bit concerned.
Demanding would have been better.
Taryn turned and leaned against the counter to find Jemma still by the back door, arms crossed over her red and green turtleneck sweater. “I asked you to come in for something warm to drink, not to answer questions, well, I don’t have answers to.” She threw her hands out to the sides. “But yes, it was Justin. And why he came over to speak to me, I have no idea.”
Jemma nodded, one gray curl falling out of place over her temple. “Looked to me like he wanted to talk to you and thought better of it once he looked you in the eye. Can’t say I blame him. You looked scared to death.”
Yeah. Because she didn’t want him reading her mind and ferreting out all of her secrets. She might have done the right thing for him nearly twelve years ago, but it didn’t mean he ever needed to know about it. “I was surprised.”
“You always knew he’d come home someday. I’d have never thought it would take him this long. The Army’s kept him pretty busy, I’m guessing.”
“He’s been stationed overseas a lot. Too far to come home often. When he has been home, he’s kept to Dalton on his side of the mountain. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t been to Hollings since we were in high school.” The minute the words left her mouth, Taryn wished she could pull a Superman and make the world spin backwards just long enough to stop herself from saying them in the first place.
Jemma’s eyebrow arched so high it was a wonder it didn’t pop right off of her forehead. “You kept track?”
“I’d run into his mom occasionally. Rarely. Every once in a while.” Awkward encounters for Taryn, because Ellen Callahan was always so friendly, so open, as though Taryn and her son hadn’t flamed out in a screaming match in their front yard the night before he left for basic training. While she told Jemma almost everything, she’d kept those brief conversations a secret. The less they talked about Justin, the better, because talking about him kept her from pretending anything ever happened.
“I’ll have some Russian tea.” Jemma finally answered the long-asked question, then pulled a spoon from the drawer by the sink and passed it to Taryn. “You’re going to have to talk to him sooner or later.”
Taryn dug the spoon into the fall leaf-colored powder and dumped it into a mug. “I never plan to talk to him. At least not the way you’re implying. And aren’t you the one who told me for years not talking to him was the better option?”
A car hummed by on the road in front of the house, loud in the sudden silence of the kitchen. Jemma didn’t move, then she shook her head. “Opinions change. Maybe . . . Maybe I was wrong.”
“No, you were exactly right. Besides, he’s home for Christmas this year, and then he’ll be back off to parts unknown in the world. If history is any indicator, he won’t be back in Hollings for another dozen years, and by then . . .” She shrugged a no big deal. By then, she’d probably still be Taryn McKenna, schoolteacher, living in the small green house on School Street, except maybe she’d have half a dozen cats for company. It was what she deserved, and it was likely what she’d get.
With a long-suffering sigh, Jemma pushed herself away from the counter and ran light fingers down the back of Taryn’s dark hair. “It’s your choice, but I’ll be praying.”
Something in her tone froze Taryn’s fingertip on the button for the microwave. “Why?”
Jemma let her touch drift from the crown of Taryn’s head to the tips of her shoulder-length hair, just like she had when Taryn was a child, then planted a kiss on her granddaughter’s temple. “Because I had a little chat with Marnie while you were taking down the booth tonight. You know how she knows everything about everybody.”
“And you’re nothing like her at all, are you Jemma?” Taryn smiled in spite of the dread. If anyone knew the business of everybody on the mountain, it was her grandmother.
“Don’t be cheeky, hon. Your mother and I taught you better.”
The spoon clinked against the ceramic of the coffee mug as Taryn stirred her grandmother’s tea, the spicy orange scent like a much-needed hug from her mother. The restlessness in her stomach settled. In a couple of weeks or so, Justin would be gone again and she wouldn’t have to worry about running into him, wouldn’t have to worry about the split in half feeling of wanting to see him, yet wanting to hold him at a distance. “What did Marnie say?”
Jemma pulled Taryn close to her side and pressed her forehead to Taryn’s temple. “Justin’s not home for Christmas. He’s out of the Army. He’s moved home to Dalton for good.”
The sky was dark as pitch except for the streaks of lightning skittering across the heavens. Fat drops of rain pelted the top of Mercy’s head as she hid from the world inside a vertical tomb. The muscles in her legs, pressed against brick on either side, trembled, and she tried to shift positions even as she listened for noise unrelated to the storm. Faceless men had been chasing her; now it seemed they had found her. She felt the rain run down the back of her neck and shivered. Maybe this is my punishment for leaving the protection of Elijah and Isaac At the moment, wedged into a brick chimney on the second story of a boardinghouse, she regretted that action greatly.
The wind ripped down around her, causing her to look up. Something wasn’t right. She squinted hard at another layer in the darkness—grayer, moving, closer than it should be. She had only a few seconds to think of the possibilities before a surge of lightning backlit a man leering down at her. Thunder followed, and her scream dissolved into the vortex of night noises.
“Come out, come out wherever you are, Miss Mercy.” The singsong tone of his voice mocked her, and her heart hammered. The sheer speed of what happened next took her off guard. A hand shot out and strong fingers wrapped around her arm. She tried to pull free as he tugged and yanked, moving her inch by inch toward the opening. His face was so close at one point she could smell alcohol on his breath as his other hand grappled for purchase anyplace on her body. But still she had the crazy thought that in other circumstances she would think him a nice-looking young man. Not at all like the bounty hunters she’d conjured up in her imagination.
She resisted with all her weight as he tugged, but it wasn’t enough and she could feel the end of her journey coming at her with ferocious haste. Thunder cracked overhead—so close it felt as if it was sitting right on top of them—and the young man seemed startled by it. Mercy seized the opportunity. She pushed upward, giving slack to the man’s grip on her arm, and catching him off-guard. For a second, his hold loosened, and she yanked her arm back with all her might. Without the tension and her weight, he lost his balance, staggered for a moment, tried to grab the edge of the brick, but missed. The angle of the roof lent itself to his swift tumble down the shingles and off the edge. She could hear his scream over the sound of a brief lull in the storm. More telling than the scream from his fall was the way it abruptly ended. An alarmed voice from below yelled out. “Hell’s bells, he’s down!”
Mercy swallowed big gulps of the wet air just before she felt herself slip down the brick toward an even darker place. She struggled against the fall, knees bent, twisting and turning until she thwarted gravity by wedging herself sideways in the chimney. She tried to still her escalating panic and told herself she was safe for the moment. At least, she thought, if anyone else came out on the roof and looked into the chimney, they’d not be able to see her. Now, if they looked up the chimney from the fireplace in the parlor, that might prove to be a problem. She had no idea how far she’d fallen—only that the sky above seemed further away. She wondered about the man who’d fallen from the roof, and wondered how many were left. She’d heard two men whispering in the hall outside her rented room, seen another standing thirty feet below as she’d stood barefoot on slippery shingles and contemplated her escape. Did the man survive his fall from the roof? What kind of people hunt someone for money? How long will they wait to catch me?
* * *
A soft but steady shower of rain hit the young man lying on the wet grass behind the boardinghouse. A man called Gus kneeled beside him. Behind them, three other men stood in an uncomfortable semicircle. Luther and Newt, two ex–Union soldiers who had saved each other on the battlefield more than once, traded sad glances. The third man, Harland, had spent the last four months of the war confined to an army hospital for two bullet wounds. Vengeance for the Confederate who’d shot him had gone unmeted. It was Harland who finally broke the silence.
“He’s gone, Gus,” Harland said. “Let’s get him outta the rain.”
But Gus didn’t move. Harland traded looks with the other men, who shrugged. Luther looked up at the pitched roof and shook his head. “I swear that vixen is half witch. Disappeared is what she did.”
“We need a new plan,” Newt said.
Gus never took his eyes from the man on the grass. “You keep after her,” he said. “I’m taking my boy home to his mother.”
* * * * *
It was the sound of garbled voices that made Mercy open her eyes again. She stared at a triangle of light on her arm and then looked up. Daylight. Broad daylight overhead that left her wondering how on earth she’d passed the rest of the night in the chimney. Her head throbbed, her joints ached, and her back felt as if she’d never be able to straighten it again. She shivered in her damp dress and, ironically, wished she were sitting next to a warm fire. Had she really fallen asleep in such nightmarish conditions?
The sounds below her floated up the flue, which magnified people’s voices. She pictured the interior of the boardinghouse, specifically the parlor with the large fireplace and the worn velvet chairs placed in close proximity to the hearth.
“Really, Mr. Douglas, that is most unkind!”
Mercy recognized the voice of Mrs. Douglas. She and her husband of fifty years had a strange way of addressing each other so formally; Mercy wondered if the two even remembered each other’s first name.
“I am not being unkind, Mrs. Douglas.” The old man’s voice was querulous. “I am simply stating the truth. That young woman was too beautiful for her own good. Beauty like that gets a woman in all kinds of trouble.”
“I liked her,” his wife said. “She was sweet and didn’t gossip.”
“We knew her all of three days. Not nearly enough time to form a suitable opinion of her.”
“You just said she was beautiful,” Mrs. Douglas responded tartly.
“That is not an opinion,” Mr. Douglas said. “It is a fact.” His tone said he regarded the subject closed. “I don’t remember a spring as cool as the one we’re in now, do you?”
If Mrs. Douglas was miffed at being dismissed, the pleasant modulation of her voice gave no evidence of it. “I don’t believe I do,” she said. “Well, maybe the spring of ‘32. Remember how cold it was the day Joseph was born? Positively frosty in April.”
“Yes, you’re quite right. That was a cold spring. And right now, it feels rather frosty in here,” he answered.
From her perch in the chimney, Mercy tried to shift her weight. She tried not to think of her thirst. Then she tried not to think about her other basic needs that needed to be met.
Below her, she could hear Mr. Douglas moving very close to the fireplace. More sounds carried up the shaft. Someone seemed to be stacking kindling as if intending to start a fire.
Mercy looked up at a sky that seemed miles away while she wriggled and turned to get her feet wedged in a better position on the brick. She’d have to climb up. Her legs quivered, muscles protesting every move she tried to make, as gravity seemed to grab hold of her ankles and pull her back down. She heard Mr. Douglas ask Mrs. Douglas for a match. Her nerves frayed to a breaking point, Mercy had a quick mental picture of a fire below her. The thought was so frightening her urgent need for the outhouse vanished and was replaced by sheer panic.
“Don’t light the fire!” Mercy yelled.
Silence from below, then, “Did you hear that, Mrs. Douglas?”
“I think it came from the stairs, Mr. Douglas.”
Mercy yelled again. “It came from in here. Don’t light the—”
She slipped and the hearth of the fireplace came quickly at her. She clawed at the creosote-covered brick to slow her descent, but it didn’t help—she dropped like a rock into the wide opening of the hearth in the parlor. She landed on the stack of kindling feet first, but her legs buckled and she found herself on her backside staring at the astonished faces of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas.
“Good day,” Mercy said.
Mrs. Douglas, holding a teacup, opened her mouth as if to scream, but no sound came out. Mr. Douglas stood rooted to the spot, a box of matches in hand, his jaw dropped in shocked surprise.
“I’m sorry if I startled you,” Mercy said, struggling to get out of the hearth.
“What the blazes is this?” Mr. Douglas demanded. “Where did you come from?”
Mercy tried to dust the chimney soot from her dress but then noticed her arms were as black as her dress.
Mercy looked around nervously. “Who else is here?”
“No one,” Mr. Douglas said. He went to the fireplace, braced his hands on his knees and bent to look up the chimney.
“How in the world …?”
“Where is Mrs. Kline?”
Mrs. Douglas seemed to have found her voice. “Bess hasn’t been down yet. It was a late night here. Lots of commotion.”
“She knows it was a late night, Mrs. Douglas,” Mr. Douglas said. “I believe we can surmise the commotion was about her.”
“I’m sorry about that,” Mercy said.
Mrs. Douglas swallowed hard, then pointed a trembling hand at Mercy’s chest. “You … you appear to have a gun in your bosom.”
Mercy pressed a soot-covered hand against the pistol tucked into the bodice of her dress, more to reassure herself it was safe than to apologize for it. “Yes,” she said. “I don’t have pockets.”
Mr. Douglas glanced at her pistol, then caught himself and looked away. “It seems you’re in a tight spot,” he said. He looked at the chimney. “No pun intended, my dear. Let’s get Bess and maybe we can help you figure this out.”
“Thank you for your kind offer, but I’ll be fine,” Mercy said. “No need to wake Mrs. Kline. I’ll just get my things and leave you all in peace.”
Mercy hurried out of the parlor. She tread lightly on the steps, carefully avoiding the two she knew creaked, and made her way toward her room. The door stood open and she could see the splintered wood of the door jamb where the lock had been kicked in. She should probably pay Bess, the landlady, for damages, but she’d spent her last dollar securing the room.
Mercy entered and went straight to the bed, got down on her knees and did a sweep with her hand to feel for her saddlebags and shoes. Nothing. She tried again, pressing herself even closer to the floor so she could extend her arm further—but again, her hand came in contact with nothing at all. She lifted the bed skirt, pressed her cheek to the floor and looked under the bed. She had little in this world—just her pistol, the clothes on her back, a pair of shoes, and a saddlebag. She might have been able to leave without the shoes, but the saddlebag was another matter. She didn’t know if the men had taken it or if it was still in the house. She stood and thought of what to do next, and that’s when it dawned on her—the bed was made. Neat as a pin. Quilt pulled up, pillow fluffed. It certainly didn’t look like the rumpled bed she’d deserted in the middle of the night. It looked like someone had done some housekeeping in the wee hours. Mercy had never been in her landlady’s room, but she knew where it was. She padded barefoot down the hall.
Rosanna peered out the kitchen window, trying to see through the sheets of rain. What was taking her husband so long? Had the wheels of his rig gotten buried in mud somewhere? After days of hard rain, the ground was saturated. Or was her very social husband simply visiting with his brother, thinking he had more than enough time to get Rosanna to Viola Mae’s house?
Rosanna glanced at the clock. Viola Mae had called two hours ago, thinking her labor may have begun. Perhaps it had, but from her experience as a midwife, Rosanna was pretty sure Viola Mae’s first child would take all night and perhaps half of tomorrow before entering this world. And that was if Viola was actually in labor.
Nevertheless, the young mom-to-be had to be seen tonight. Rosanna drove herself when the weather was good or even halfdecent, but her easygoing, supportive husband insisted on driving her whenever there was snow, fog, or heavy rains. If Rosanna’s examination indicated Viola Mae was in labor, Rosanna would stay the night, and her husband would return home.
She wished, and not for the first time, that the Amish in Winter Valley weren’t so cut off from the rest of the world. The serenity of living in northwestern Pennsylvania couldn’t be beat, but there wasn’t a clinic or doctor in the valley, and after her Mamm passed away, Rosanna was the only midwife in the region. When at twenty years old Rosanna had given birth to her first child, her own Mamm had delivered the baby girl, declaring the little one would also become
a midwife. That was nineteen years ago, and Jolene was many wonderful things, but a midwife was not one of them.
A thud pulled Rosanna’s attention to the happenings in the room. A book had fallen from the kitchen table. Her three schoolage
children were sitting around one end of the kitchen table, homework spread out in front of them as Jolene helped. Four-year-old Hope sat at the table with them, but she wasn’t in school yet. She liked homework hour, though, and Jolene had her close to reading and writing already. But the child who required the most help was Ray. After his near-fatal accident three years ago, no one had believed he’d be able to attend school at all—no one except Jolene. Rosanna’s
chest tightened with anxiety when she considered how difficult an adjustment Ray would have when Jolene moved out of state.
The light aroma of cooked celery hung in the air. Dozens of jars of freshly canned goods filled half the kitchen table. She and Jolene had made good use of the last three days of rain, finally catching up on their canning of September’s produce, especially the overabundance of celery for Jolene’s wedding. They’d planted more potatoes than ever before just for the wedding feast, but they didn’t need to can those. Her eldest child, the one Rosanna couldn’t get through a day without, would marry and leave the state in a few weeks. Was Rosanna doing a decent job of hiding the grief she felt? As for her daughter, she was so excited to embrace her future she could hardly sleep.
Where had all the days gone between giving birth to her and giving her away to be wed?
Jolene glanced up from the mounds of papers and looked out the kitchen window. “Is that his rig coming down the road?”
Rosanna couldn’t tell, not yet. But she did notice her lone and beloved dogwood, the one her husband had given her as a wedding present. Most of its red leaves had been beaten from the branches, and it’d been looking rather puny the last few years. Would its roots survive such a drenching? At the end of last winter, she and Jolene had cut a few shoots from the tree, hoping to grow new trees before this one died. They should’ve started that years ago when the dogwood was still healthy.
“It’s Daed.” Jolene recognized his rig before Rosanna. She didn’t have to ask Jolene to finish helping with homework or to get supper on the table. If Viola Mae wasn’t in labor and Rosanna returned home in a couple of hours, the kitchen sinks and counters would be spotless. Maybe the floors too if Jolene and her siblings got into another soapsuds battle. They loved those, and the upside was that the floors had to be mopped dry when they were through.
But on the nights when their Daed wasn’t home by eight, Jolene would put her sixteen-year-old brother in charge, and she’d retreat to the phone shanty to talk with Van Beiler for hours. Jolene’s loyalty to her brothers and sisters had a clearly marked line when it came to Van. Once he was home from work or arrived for a date or visit, he came first. Rosanna supposed that was how it should be, especiallysince Jolene was mere weeks away from her wedding. And when he’d said he thought the best place for them to live was in Ohio near his parents, Jolene hadn’t hesitated for a second. She’d said that as long
as he was by her side, she could live anywhere and survive anything. Later Jolene told Rosanna that Van wanted to move there to support Jolene’s desire to do artwork. Painting and drawing scenery and animals and people weren’t considered idolatry by the bishop in that district. Van was perfect for Jolene, but did he have to take her to
What on earth was beeping so loudly? And annoyingly.
Sophia Montgomery blinked. Brightness burst through the slit she’d managed to force open. She squeezed her eyes shut tight again and sucked in air.
A strange stench curled her nostrils. It was almost rancid . . . disinfectant mingled with sweat. That made no sense . . .
There had been two men, banging at the door. Barging in. Knives. Big knives. Grabbing her by the hair and throwing her to the floor. She hit her head against the leg of the chair. The coppery-metallic taste of blood filled her mouth.
Sophia tried again to open her eyes. W-what? she mouthed, but not a sound escaped. Burning shards closed around her throat as she tried to swallow against a gravelly resistance. Dear God, what’s happening?
“Shh. Don’t try to talk,” a woman’s crackly voice soothed. “The doctor will be here in a moment.”
Doctor? Sophia struggled to sit, but every muscle in her body resisted, a sure sign she’d overdone at practice. Gentle hands eased her still. A cool, damp cloth stroked her forehead.
“You thought you could get away with it?” one of the men had yelled. His breath hissed against her face. Her neck.
She blinked again, this time prepared for the light. Or so she thought. The brilliance burned. She moaned and snapped her eyes closed.
“I’m sorry. Let me turn down the light,” the woman whispered in her guttural toned voice.
Click. The sound echoed in Sophia’s head.
“There. This should be better.”
Sophia tried squinting a third time. While still brighter than the darkness she’d been comfortable in, the light wasn’t so searing. She barely made out the figure of a woman at her side, hunching over her bed.
Wait a minute. Something wasn’t right. Where was she? God?
“Well, good morning,” a man’s cheerful voice boomed.
Still squinting, Sophia shifted her gaze to the voice’s origin. The fuzzy silhouette moved close to her.
“I’m Dr. Rhoads. Nod if you can hear me okay.”
A doctor? What was going on? She nodded and forced her eyes open wider as pain ricocheted around her shoulders.
“Good.” Cold hands touched her forehead. She must have reacted in some way because he chuckled softly and said, “Sorry. Everyone says I have the coldest hands in Arkansas.”
Arkansas . . . but she lived in Texas. Plano. Close to the gym where she trained.
Training! Lord, what is going on?
The doctor shined a light in her eyes, searing them with its intensity. She snapped them closed and turned her head, moving out of his hold.
“I know it’s uncomfortable, but I had to check your pupils.”
Sophia forced her eyes open, willing them to focus on the man. She could now see his white coat. Dark hair. Big smile—too big. She opened her mouth to ask what was going on, but razors sliced inside her throat.
“Don’t try to talk. You sustained serious damage to your throat, including your vocal chords. We’re treating the injury, and you’ve responded well, but you won’t be able to talk until the swelling of your larynx subsides considerably.”
She closed her eyes as scattered images raced through her mind. Pinned to the floor. The bulky man straddling her, putting all his weight on her abdomen. His hands around her neck. Squeezing. Not enough oxygen! Can’t breathe! Tighter. Tighter.
She sucked in air and reached for her neck, but her arms wouldn’t lift her hands. Red, hot arrows of pain shot from her shoulders down to her wrists. Oh, God! She opened her eyes wide and looked into her lap. Everything was in clear focus.
Sophia reclined in a hospital bed, the standard white sheet pulled up to her chest. Her arms sat on top of the sheet. Her hands were wrapped in gauze, big as footballs. Her right arm was in a cast up above her elbow.
The skinny man holding a knife to Mamochka’s throat. Yelling. Demanding. The bulky one stepping on her right hand with his heavy, big boot. More pressure. The pain! Stop! Harder. Bones snapped. Please, please stop. The sobbing. Hers. Mamochka’s.
The pounding of her heart echoed in her head, shoving aside the beeping sound getting faster and louder. No, Lord. Please!
“Calm down, Ms. Montgomery. Your blood pressure is too high. I don’t want to have to give you anything right now,” the doctor said.
“You must relax now, MIlaya Moyna,” the older lady whispered as she patted Sophia’s head with the cool cloth again. There was something so familiar about her . . . but . . . not.
“There you go,” Dr. Rhoads said. “Breathe slowly. In through your nose and out through your mouth.”
Even breathing hurt, but Sophia controlled her panic. Years of practicing self-control had made her a master despite her fears. Her hands. How would she compete?
“Well done, Ms. Montgomery. I’ll go over your injuries with you in detail, if you’re ready.” Dr. Rhoads stared at her, a single brow raised.
She nodded, sending slicing pain shooting down her spine. Sophia set her jaw and refused to wince.
“Okay.” The doctor reviewed her chart. “You have sustained a laryngeal fracture with some mucosal tearing. We’re keeping you on voice rest to minimize edema, hematoma formation, and subcutaneous emphysema. We will continue the use of humidified air to reduce crust formation and transient ciliary dysfunction. We’ll also continue treatment by use of systemic corticosteroids to retard inflammation, swelling, and fibrosis and to help prevent granulation tissue formation.”
Tears threatened, but Sophia blinked them back and concentrated on what the doctor said.
“Since you sustained compound fractures of the larynx, we have you on systemic antibiotics to reduce the high risk of local infection and perichondritis, which may delay healing and promote airway stenosis. You’re also taking anti-reflux medications to reduce granulation tissue formation and tracheal stenosis.” Dr. Rhoads smiled. “Of course, this means you can’t eat or drink anything for a few more days. Understand so far?”
Sophia swallowed instinctively, and regretted it immediately. She didn’t understand everything the good doctor said, but she got enough to know her throat was damaged enough that she couldn’t talk or eat. Still, it didn’t sound permanent, so it was something.
He leaned forward, letting his weight add strength to his hands closed around her throat. No! She couldn’t see past his face anymore. His scowl. His eyes. They weren’t filled with rage, but just . . . empty.
“Sophia? Do you understand?” Dr. Rhoads asked.
She ignored the scattered images and gave a little nod. Her head began to throb in cadence with her heartbeat.
“Good. Moving on . . . you’ve sustained serious, traumatic crush injuries to both of your hands. In surgery, we were able to remove all the tissue we couldn’t salvage. We were able to repair most of the damaged blood vessels to reestablish circulation in your fingers. All the broken bones were realigned and stabilized with temporary pins called K-wires and screws. We repaired the damaged tendons and ligaments. Post-op, you’re doing great. You should be able to begin physical therapy as soon as the bandages are off.” Again, the doctor smiled.
“Tell us.” He stepped down on her hand. Pain. Bones cracked. Sophia cried out. “Stop!” Mamochka screamed. “Tell us.” He put all his weight on his foot. Bounced. Sophia screamed and tried to roll over to protect her hand. He slung her backward and plopped onto her hips, straddling her.
The image disappeared. She stared at her hands lying gauzed and lifeless in her lap. Everything within her wanted to scream . . . cry . . . hit something. Why was this doctor smiling? Didn’t he get it? Her hands were her life! If she couldn’t sustain her weight on her hands, her career was over. Dear Lord, no. Anything but this.
“О'кей MIlaya Moyna,” the woman whispered.
No, it wasn’t okay. And who was this woman to be calling Sophia my sweet? Especially in Russian.
Despite the excruciating pain the movement caused, she twisted her head to meet the woman’s stare. Sophia was certain she’d never met the woman before, but there was something . . . her eyes. They were just like Mamochka’s.
Could it be? The woman looked to be about the right age.
“Now,” Dr. Rhoads interrupted her thoughts, “about your pelvis girdle fracture.”
Her pelvis was busted, too? He straddled her. Mamochka yelled out. Sophia kicked, trying to buck him off of her. She had to help her mother! He pinned her with his weight. Pain shot through her midsection and hips as if she’d missed a dismount and fell off the balance beam. “You aren’t going anywhere. Ever,” he whispered as he leaned over her and wrapped his hands around her neck.
Unaware of her agony, the doctor continued. “There’s only one breaking point along the pelvic ring, with limited disruption to the pelvic bone and no internal or external bleeding. This means your pelvis is still secure despite the injury, and we can expect a prognosis of a quick, successful and complete recovery.”
Great. So her pelvis would have a complete recovery. She could live without being able to talk. But would her hands totally recover? If so, when?
She closed her eyes, refusing the tears access. All her life, coaches and instructors had drilled into her head crying was not an option. Tears were to be saved for her pillow.
So many before her had sustained injuries and left the circuit, only to never return. Was it her fate? Abba!
“The rest of your injuries are minor cuts and bruises that should heal without incident. Several areas required stitches. You have a laceration at the back of your head where you were hit from behind—”
“Doctor,” a man’s deep voice cut off Dr. Rhoads.
Even though things were a little fuzzy to Sophia right now, even she didn’t miss the frown etched into the doctor’s brow.
Dr. Rhoads smiled at her. “Ms. Montgomery, you were very lucky. With the extent of your injuries, you could have been in a coma.”
The other man cleared his throat.
The doctor frowned as he looked at her. “Now, if you feel up to it, there’s a detective here who would like to ask you a few questions. Only if you feel up to it. Do you?”
A detective? She swallowed, then regretted it, but still nodded.
The doctor nodded and stepped back. “Keep it brief, please, Detective. She needs her rest.” Dr. Rhoads patted the bed beside her feet. “I’ll be back later to check on you.”
“Ms. Montgomery, I’m Detective Frazier.” There was the deep voice again, authoritative, but with a hint of danger.
Sophia stared at him as he stepped into her line of vision, and took a full inventory of her first impression of him. Hard to gauge his height since she was in the bed, but he stood taller than Dr. Rhoads. His black hair held a wave, even though it was short. He had broad shoulders and muscular arms apparent under the short-sleeve, button-down Oxford shirt he wore. He was probably no more than twenty-eight or so, at least in her estimation based upon the weariness in his face covered in stubble. His chin was cut and his cheekbones well defined. His nose had been broken at least once. But it was his eyes drawing her attention. They were so dark they appeared like a bar of dark chocolate.
Then again, maybe it was just her distorted vision.
Detective Julian Frazier had been silently assessing Sophia Montgomery from the corner of her hospital room since she’d been brought here following her surgery. Over the last two and a half hours, he’d gotten over the shock of her appearance. He’d been a cop for enough years that the damage a victim sustained shouldn’t have affected him, but he’d seen the pictures of Sophia Montgomery before the assault and to see her now . . .
He pushed off the wall he’d been leaning against and approached her bedside. “I have a few questions. Do you know who you are?”
She nodded, and unless he was imagining things, she actually rolled her eyes.
Attitude. Good. She’d need it. According to the doctors, she had a long, painful road to recovery in front of her. “Do you know where you are?”
She stared at him from her swollen, cut, and bruised face. There wasn’t one square inch of her face and neck without some visible sign of her assault. Even her lips were cut and cracked as she tried to lick them. With her head resting on the pillow, she gave a nod.
“Do you know why you’re here?” he asked, flexing and unflexing his fingers against the coolness of the hospital room. It might be June outside, but the nurses had set the thermostat low enough it felt like winter in the critical care ward.
He met her stare with his own. Something about how small she was and the damage inflicted on her, yet she’d survived, nearly undid him. He’d overheard the nurses talking. They’d seen more people struck by vehicles with less damage than Sophia had endured. Whoever had attacked Sophia Montgomery and her mother had been especially vicious. Julian couldn’t stand it. Whoever was responsible would face justice.
“Do you know why you’re here?” he asked her again.
She tilted her head to the side. With her injuries, it had to hurt.
Great. If she didn’t remember anything, it would make his job so much more difficult. As it was, he was at a loss how he’d proceed at this point. With her extensive injuries, she couldn’t speak and couldn’t write, so how he was supposed to get her statement was more than a little confusing. He’d definitely have to think outside the box on this one.
She mouthed something. He couldn’t tell what. She mouthed it again. It was one syllable, but he couldn’t make it out. She mouthed it a third time.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.” He snapped his fingers. “Let me get someone to help, okay?”
She nodded, but not before she shot him a look of pure frustration.
He could relate. Ever since he’d been called to the crime scene at almost eleven last night, frustration had been his constant companion. Frustrated this had happened. Frustrated no one had gotten there in time. Frustrated there were no immediate suspects.
Julian turned and stepped out of the hospital room, grabbing his cell phone from his hip. He quickly called his partner.
“She awake?” Brody Alexander asked without greeting. His partner was not one to waste time or breath with small talk when there was work to be done.
“Yep. Listen, we need to get Charlie up here ASAP to read her lips, so I can take her statement.” Julian stared over his shoulder at Sophia’s small and broken form lying so helplessly in the hospital bed. “And send some uniforms. I want someone posted by her room twenty-four-seven until we know what’s going on.”
“Got it.” Brody hung up, business concluded. He might have an abrupt personality that had earned his reputation as an unappealing partner, but he suited Julian. After what happened with Eli, he wanted someone like Brody Alexander: all business.
He needed someone like Brody.
Julian put his cell back in its belt clip and strode back into the hospital room and observed. It had taken the police some time to locate Alena Borin as Sophia’s next of kin, only finding the connection through Sophia’s mother’s maiden name. The older woman fussed over Sophia, but Sophia didn’t look like she recognized her grandmother. Maybe she had suffered some sort of brain injury in the attack. It would make his job much more difficult.
But not impossible. Because Julian refused to let whoever was behind this go unpunished. Someone would pay for this violence. He owed it to Sophia and her mother. The image of Sophia at the crime scene was one he would never forget. It would probably haunt him forever.
He returned to Sophia’s bedside. Her eyes were guarded as she watched Alena Borin’s every move: straightening the covers, gently bathing Sophia’s forehead with the damp cloth. Sophia shifted her focus to collide with his gaze.
The uncertainty in her stare tugged at something buried deep within him. Something he didn’t want to pull out and inspect. He cleared his throat until Ms. Borin gave him her attention.
“I’ve called in a lip reader to take Ms. Montgomery’s statement,” he said to her privately, in a low enough voice Sophia couldn’t hear him. “This will take some time, and I’m sorry, but you can’t be present. Why don’t you go have some lunch?”
The older lady scowled at him, shaking her head.
“Ma’am, you don’t have a choice. This is official police business.”
She glanced down at Sophia, then back to him. “I will not leave her alone.”
“She won’t be alone. I’ll be here the entire time, and there will be officers outside her door within the hour.”
A long moment passed. She didn’t say anything, nor did she move.
“Ma’am . . .”
Ms. Borin snatched up her purse. She smiled at Sophia. “I will be back in less than an hour, MIlaya Moyna.” After patting the foot of the bed and throwing Julian another glare, she marched out of the hospital room.
Julian pulled the chair closer to the bed and sat. Sophia stared at him from behind her swollen face. He could read the wariness in her eyes as if it were a blazing neon sign.
“Do you know who that woman was?” He made a deliberate effort to speak just above a whisper level. The nurses had mentioned she’d probably have a horrible headache when she woke.
She shook her head—no, tilted it.
“You don’t recognize her?”
She tilted her head again.
“You aren’t sure who she is?”
Julian stopped. Maybe he should wait for the lip reader, so he didn’t misunderstand. She wasn’t sure if she recognized and knew who Alena Borin was.
Sophia made a sound, but the pain it caused her marched across her face. She mouthed a single word, and this time, Julian understood exactly. “Who is she?” he asked.
He sat up straighter and looked her dead in the eye. “She’s Alena Borin, your grandmother.”
A banyan tree begins when its seeds germinate in the crevices of a host tree. It sends to the ground tendrils that become prop roots with enough room for children to crawl beneath, prop roots that grow into thick, woody trunks and make it look like the tree is standing above the ground. The roots, given time, look no different than the tree it has begun to strangle. Eventually, when the original support tree dies and rots, the banyan develops a hollow central core.
In a kampong—village—on the island of Java, in the then-called Dutch East Indies, stood such a banyan tree almost two hundred years old. On foggy evenings, even adults avoided passing by its ghostly silhouette, but on the morning of my tenth birthday, sunlight filtered through a sticky haze after a monsoon, giving everything a glow of tranquil beauty. There, a marble game beneath the branches was an event as seemingly inconsequential as a banyan seed taking root in the bark of an unsuspecting tree, but the tendrils of the consequences became a journey that has taken me some three score and ten years to complete.
It was market day, and as a special privilege to me, Mother had left my younger brother and twin sisters in the care of our servants. In the early morning, before the tropical heat could slow our progress, she and I journeyed on back of the white horse she was so proud of, past the manicured grounds of our handsome home and along the tributary where my siblings and I often played. Farther down, the small river emptied into the busy port of Semarang. While it was not a school day, my father—the headmaster—and my older half brothers were supervising the maintenance of the building where all the blond-haired children experienced the exclusive Dutch education system.
As we passed, Indonesian peasants bowed and smiled at us. Ahead, shimmers of heat rose from the uneven cobblestones that formed the village square. Vibrant hues of Javanese batik fabrics, with their localized patterns of flowers and animals and folklore as familiar to me as my marbles, peeked from market stalls. I breathed in the smell of cinnamon and cardamom and curry powders mixed with the scents of fried foods and ripe mangoes and lychees.
I was a tiny king that morning, continuously shaking off my mother’s attempts to grasp my hand. She had already purchased spices from the old man at one of the Chinese stalls. He had risen beyond his status as a singkeh, an impoverished immigrant laborer from the southern provinces of China, this elevation signaled by his right thumbnail, which was at least two inches long and fit in a curving, encasing sheath with elaborate painted decorations. He kept it prominently displayed with his hands resting in his lap, a clear message that he held a privileged position and did not need to work with his hands. I’d long stopped being fascinated by this and was impatient to be moving, just as I’d long stopped being fascinated by his plump wife in a colorful long dress as she flicked the beads on her abacus to calculate prices with infallible accuracy.
I pulled away to help an older Dutch woman who was bartering with an Indonesian baker. She had not noticed that bank notes had fallen from her purse. I retrieved them for her but was in no mood for effusive thanks, partly because I thought it ridiculous to thank me for not stealing, but mainly because I knew what the other boys my age were doing at that moment. I needed to be on my way. With a quick “Dag, mevrouw”— Good day, madam—I bolted toward the banyan, giving no heed to my mother’s command to return.
For there, with potential loot placed in a wide chalked circle, were fresh victims. I might not have been allowed to keep the marbles I won from my younger siblings, but these Dutch boys were fair game. I slowed to an amble of pretended casualness as I neared, whistling and looking properly sharp in white shorts and a white linen shirt that had been hand pressed by Indonesian servants. I put on a show of indifference that I’d perfected and that served me well my whole life. Then I stopped when I saw her, all my apparent apathy instantly vanquished.
As an old man, I can attest to the power of love at first sight. I can attest that the memory of a moment can endure—and haunt—for a lifetime. There are so many other moments slipping away from me, but this one remains.
What is rarely, if ever, mentioned by poets is that hatred can have the same power, for that was the same moment that I first saw him. The impact of that memory has never waned either. This, too, remains as layers of my life slip away like peeling skin.
I had no foreshadowing, of course, that the last few steps toward the shade beneath those glossy leaves would eventually send me into the holding cell of a
Washington, DC police station where, at age eighty-one, I faced the lawyer—also my daughter and only child—who refused to secure my release until I promised to tell her the events of my journey there.
All these years later, across from her in that holding cell, I knew my daughter demanded this because she craved to make sense of a lifetime in the cold shade of my hollowness, for the span of decades since that marble game had withered me, the tendrils of my vanities and deceptions and self-deceptions long grown into strangling prop roots. Even so, as I agreed to my daughter’s terms, I maintained my emotional distance and made no mention that I intended to have this story delivered to her after my death.
The lab had either made a big mistake and none of the results could be trusted, or else her world was about to be turned upside down. It was this Libby Slater thought of as she rushed from the stationery store, bag in hand.
The day had started out pleasant enough. The weather was beautiful, she’d met Rob for lunch, and not one of her clients had dropped a shoe box of receipts on her desk, assuming she’d sort it all out. But then, in the mid-dle of her ordinary day, she’d logged on to her online health account to check the results from Rob’s and her premarital genetic counseling workup and gotten the shock of a lifetime.
The results should put her mind at ease, the doctor’s note read, but they did just the opposite. Although her fiancé was a carrier for cystic fibrosis, the disease that had taken the life of his younger sister, Libby was not. This was good news, because apparently it took two to tango. Other than that, all the results were a very positive negative. She would have been relieved if it weren’t for her blood type, listed innocently along with the rest of the results: A positive, which wasn’t positive at all. Both of her parents had O blood types, and two Os couldn’t produce an A child. It had to be an error. Had to.
The screech of sirens ripped Libby from her thoughts. Hunching, she slapped her free hand over her ear and waited for the pulsating red lights to pass. Two city blocks later, her ears were still ringing.
A bus with a giant cell phone carrier ad scrolled across it, dotted by finger-smudged windows, screeched to a halt in front of an empty bench. Pneumatic doors hissed open and passengers hurried off so fast they were almost a blur. After the last passenger filed past, she stepped off the curb to cross the street.
She assumed the approaching cab would stop, or at least not accelerate, but she assumed wrong. Jumping back onto the concrete, she felt a whoosh of exhaust part her long hair. In lieu of an apology, the driver screamed as he flew by. Although she couldn’t decipher what he said, the vulgar hand gesture he thrust out the window gave her enough of a clue.
Soon her heartbeat returned to normal, and traffic broke just long enough for her to make a run for it. Hav-ing crossed the one-lane freeway of death, life and limb intact, she stepped again onto the relative safety of the sidewalk.
As she trudged forward, she could practically taste the tiny particles of soot and smog falling on her like mist, and couldn’t help but wonder if breathing them in was making the inside of her lungs look like a coal miner’s.
At last she reached her mother’s brownstone. It was unfathomable that Caroline had paid almost a million dollars for what basically amounted to an old row home, even if it was located on the so-called Park Avenue of Casings.
Although the city was located in North Carolina, Cas-ings was about as un-Southern as a city below the Mason-Dixon Line could be. This muggier, less-sophisticated parody of New York was a place she’d vowed to escape the second she graduated from college. Of course, that was before she fell in love with a man who just happened to be as dedicated to his job here as he was to her. She tightened her grip on the bag of wedding invitations she carried and couldn’t help but smile at the thought of spending forever with the love of her life. But first they needed to survive this fiasco her mother called a wedding.
She climbed the brick stairs and peered over her shoulder, checking to be sure a mugger hadn’t sneaked up behind her before unlocking the door. Inside, the foyer stood dark except for a rectangle of sunlight streaming down from the stained-glass transit window above. The flip of a switch flooded the hall in artificial light.
“Elizabeth?” Caroline’s shrill voice echoed from the dining room. “You’re late.”
Libby rolled her eyes. “I had to pick up the extra invi-tations,” she said, not quite loud enough for her mother to hear. Though, really, it wouldn’t matter if she yelled it; the only person her mother listened to was herself.
Her Danskos thumped against the marble floor as she made her way through the corridor and into the dining room. Caroline sat at the long table with a stack of invi-tations tall enough to invite the entire state. The fact that she’d called Libby at work to tell her to pick up yet more invitations didn’t bode well for Libby’s vision of a quaint ceremony.
“It’s positively barbaric to be doing this ourselves,” Caroline said. “They have companies that take care of these things.”
It was all Libby could do not to delve right into an in-terrogation about her questionable blood type. It was probably a mistake, but just in case, she didn’t want to put Caroline on the defensive and get stonewalled before she got to the bottom of it.
She sighed as she hung her purse on the back of the chair. “So you’ve said. And as I’ve said, I want to know who’s coming to my wedding, and I want to be the one who invites them.” She eyed the invitations dubiously.
“You don’t trust me?” Caroline asked in a sarcastic tone, but her expression was without humor. They both already knew the answer. “We could at least have hired a calligrapher to make them look pretty. Handwriting was never your best subject.”
Libby gave her mother a dull look as she took a seat across from her. She hadn’t realized how sore her feet were until she was finally off them. She kicked off her clogs and stretched her socked feet. “If I left it up to you and the Internet, my only guests would be the who’s who of Casings.” None of whom would be in the who’s who of her small circle of friends.
A bottle of opened champagne sat in the middle of the table along with two crystal flutes. Caroline slid her ten-nis bracelet back on her wrist, then reached for the bottle and poured herself a glass. When she picked up the sec-ond, Libby shook her head. “Nice try.”
Caroline huffed and flipped her blonde hair over her shoulder, revealing a dangling diamond earring—most likely another bauble from one of her long list of admir-ers. “I just thought it would be nice to celebrate a little while we work.”
“No,” Libby said. “You thought it would be nice to get me a little tipsy so you could sneak more of your debutante friends onto the guest list.”
Caroline brought the champagne to her lips and sipped. “You certainly do think the world of me.” She set her glass down and picked up a fountain pen. “Please tell me you didn’t park that piece of junk out front.”
Libby felt her cheeks flush in anger, but certainly not in surprise, at her mother’s superficiality. “No, Caroline. I took a cab to the stationery store, then walked three blocks and almost got run over, all so the snobs you call neighbors wouldn’t know your daughter drives a Jeep.”
It was Caroline’s turn to roll her eyes. “A Jeep from this century would be fine. Honestly, Elizabeth, you make enough money to afford something less dilapi-dated. I saw an Audi that you would look so—”
“Stop. Just stop,” she said, swallowing the indigna-tion. She’d already fought with her mother three times this week, and what had it accomplished? Nothing but two sleepless nights and a headache. Caroline was al-ways going to be Caroline, and she was paying for the wedding, after all. Something Libby had told Rob they never should have agreed to for this very reason. Be-sides, there were bigger fish to fry tonight.
She reached into her purse, bypassing the test results, and pulled out her guest list. Holding her breath, she set the list of names down on the table and slid it across to her mother like a lawyer offering up a settlement. “I went through this last night, and—”
“I have my own list,” Caroline said coolly as she glanced at her. “Don’t look so glum. I took your requests into consideration.”
Requests? Libby thought. What a joke. It was going to be the biggest day of her life, and she had no more say in who was going to be there than the caterer did. “Is Rob at least on your roll?”
Unfazed, Caroline ran a manicured nail slowly down Libby’s list, pausing every so often to consider a name. “Don’t be smart with me, young lady. It’s my hard-earned money paying for every plate.”
Libby looked away, disgusted. If she had the cere-mony she wanted, she wouldn’t need Caroline’s money to pay for it. Caroline wanted the wedding she never had, and through her only child, she was finally going to get it. It wasn’t fair; but then, as Rob always said, life wasn’t.
“I don’t recognize half these people,” Caroline said as her finger slid to the bottom of the page.
An all-too-familiar pain began to throb behind Libby’s left eye. The sooner this wedding was over, the better. “Of course you don’t, because they’re my friends, not yours.”
Shaking her head, Caroline sighed. “Fine, we’ll add them to the master list, but just so you know, this brings the guest count to three hundred.”
“Three hundred?” Libby heard herself shriek. “I said I wanted a small wedding.”
“It was going to be smallish,” Caroline said, “but here you’ve gone and brought me another fifty names. Whose fault is that?”
Covering her face, she took a deep breath, willing herself not to cry. Two more months of this. That was it. She could do this, she told herself. For Rob, she could do most anything.
“Fine,” Caroline said after a few seconds of uncom-fortable silence. “I’ll just cut out the DA’s office, but if you get into any legal trouble, you’re on your own.”
Libby looked over her fingertips. “Why would I—? Never mind.” She reached into the stationery bag and pulled out a sheet of the fancy return labels they’d cho-sen for the invitations. At least she could get started sticking those on. Any progress was better than none. Her phone rang, and she grabbed her purse off the chair, riffling her hand blindly through it. By the time her fin-gers touched the phone, the ringing stopped. As ex-pected, her call log showed Rob’s number.
“What’s he want now?” Caroline asked, sounding more perturbed than usual.
Finally, the perfect segue. Keeping her tone as neutral as she could, Libby decided this was as good a time as any. “We had our genetic counseling, and the results were posted today. I was supposed to tell him what they—”
“Genetic counseling?” Caroline raised a barely visible eyebrow.
“You know Rob’s sister, Heather, died from cystic fi-brosis.”
Caroline downed the rest of her champagne and reached for the bottle. “Rob had a sister?”
She couldn’t tell by her mother’s blank expression if she was just trying to get her goat or if she really was that oblivious. “That disease is hereditary. He wanted to make sure we weren’t both carriers for it or anything else we could pass on to our future children.”
Caroline finished filling her glass and set the bottle down with a clank. “And?”
“Rob’s a carrier; I’m not.”
“Of course you’re not.”
“But I did find out my blood type—A positive.” She held her breath as she waited for her mother’s reaction to the bombshell she’d just dropped, but Caroline had al-ready lost interest and started writing names on the front of the invitation envelopes.
“That’s good to know,” she mumbled.
Directing her nervous energy toward something pro-ductive, Libby began working like an assembly line, carefully affixing address labels to the top left corners of the envelopes. “Yes, it is.” She finished her stack, slid it to the right, and grabbed another. “Did you and George get genetic testing before you had me?”
Caroline shook her head as she worked. “They didn’t really do that when I was . . .” Her voice trailed off. She never could bring herself to say the word pregnant, as if the thought of Libby inside her was too repulsive. Unless, of course, Libby hadn’t been inside her after all.
“Your blood type is O positive like Rob’s, isn’t it?” Libby asked as nonchalantly as she could.
Caroline finally finished scrolling out the first invite. At the speed she was working, it was shaping up to be an excruciatingly long night. “That’s all we have in com-mon.” Caroline could barely stand Libby’s fiancé, but Libby tried not to take it personally. After George had abandoned them, Caroline pretty much hated all men equally. “How do you know my blood type, anyway?”
“I pay attention.”
Caroline squinted at her.
“Wallet,” Libby said, sliding another small stack of envelopes over to the finished pile. “You gave blood that one time, and you still carry the donor card.” So every-one can see how fabulously altruistic you are, she wanted to add. She carefully peeled another label off the plastic sheet and pressed it onto an envelope. “George’s dog tags say he’s O positive too.” For reasons she didn’t know, she still kept her father’s dog tags tucked away in her jewelry box. The military must have made a mistake. Lucky for him, he never got injured enough to need blood.
“I don’t know what his dog tags say. I thought I threw those out with the rest of his junk.” Caroline checked the first name off her list with a satisfied smile. “I just know his blood type is the same as mine because he donated for my hysterectomy.”
That was it, then; the geneticist had gotten her results wrong. They’d just spent nearly a thousand dollars for results they couldn’t trust. Rob was going to be ticked.
Caroline set her pen down and furrowed her brow in Libby’s direction. “Why are you interested in everyone’s blood type?”
Libby curled her toes. “Two O parents can’t have an A child. It’s impossible.”
Caroline’s face turned as white as the tips of her French manicure.
It was in that moment that Libby’s life flashed before her eyes . . . and she knew.
The baby books with no pictures of Caroline preg-nant. Her mother’s claim that she’d lost not only her baby bracelet, but also the umbilical clamp and crib card. Was this why she hadn’t minded when, as a preteen, Libby had defiantly taken to calling her by her first name? “Why didn’t you tell me?” was all she could manage around the boulder in her throat.
Caroline put on a plastic smile. “Tell you what?” she asked, her voice cracking under the facade. “Don’t be silly. The lab made an error. That’s all.” She was usually such a good liar.
“Fine,” Libby said coldly. “I’ll get another test tomor-row.”
Caroline’s expression hardened. “Why can’t you ever leave well enough alone?”
Before Libby could answer, Caroline left the dining room in stony silence.
So that was it? She didn’t even have the decency to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Typical. Libby walked to the kitchen, poured herself a glass of water, and downed it like a shot, trying to decide what would give her the fastest escape—calling Rob to pick her up or a cab.
Before she could make up her mind, Caroline re-turned, her spiked heels clicking sharply against the wood floor. She closed her eyes and handed Libby a stack of papers.
Glancing down at the raised seal on the top document, Libby tried to process the unfamiliar names typed neatly on the lines.
With her arms crossed, Caroline tapped her nails against her tanned arms. “Say something . . . please.”
When Libby’s gaze fell on the birth date—her birth date—her mouth went dry again.
After parting her thin, red lips, Caroline closed them without saying a word. It may have been the first time Libby had ever seen her mother speechless.
Caroline strode to the kitchen window and pulled open the roman shade. Sunlight flooded the room, casting her face in harsh light, which gave up every fine line. “With you getting married soon, I guess it was about time any-way. I thought about telling you when you turned eight-een, but . . .” Her voice began to crack. “But I chickened out. I was just so afraid you’d find your real parents and you’d . . .” She said more, but all Libby could focus on was the adoption papers she held.
The smell of Caroline’s perfume wafted by, and sud-denly Libby felt as though she might vomit. The hand that held the papers dropped to her side, while her other hand covered her mouth. This was real. This was really happening.
“I actually thought you should grow up knowing, but your father . . .” Caroline looked out the window, sud-denly interested in the Pathfinder pulling into the neighbor’s driveway.
Libby’s father had left them when she was four. It seemed like only yesterday he had sat her on his lap and, with tears in his eyes, told her to be a good girl and look after Caroline. She thought he was just going to the store and couldn’t figure out why he was being so melodra-matic about it. She’d tried to fill the void with friends, sports, and of course Rob. But not a day went by that she didn’t feel the absence of a daddy in her life. No wonder he’d had no qualms about abandoning his daughter . . . because she hadn’t really been his daughter.
“I’m adopted,” she said, more as a statement than a question. The brownstone had always been stuffy, but at that moment the air felt as heavy as the news being dropped.
So it was true after all. She shouldn’t be surprised. She and Caroline couldn’t have been more different. She and all of her family, really. In a gene pool full of girly girls and country-club men, she had always been the black sheep, preferring cutoff shorts and catching frogs to debutante parties and Gucci bags. They had never got-ten along. And now it made sense why. They weren’t cut from the same cloth.
What would have brought relief in childhood felt heavy and cold now. Caroline was far from a storybook mother, but she was all Libby had ever known. Feeling unsteady, she leaned against the counter. She thought she was on the verge of tears until she heard herself laugh.
Caroline whipped around. “There’s nothing amusing about this, Elizabeth.”
She knew the laughter was inappropriate, especially since she wasn’t feeling happy in the least—confused maybe, scared, angry . . . and sad. Very, very sad.
Her laughter slowly died as she searched Caroline’s eyes for any sign this all might be some sort of terrible joke. But Caroline didn’t joke.
Her gaze darted back to the adoption papers—her adoption papers—and her biological mother’s name: Adele Davison. The place where her father’s name should have been was conspicuously blank.
“Who’s my father?”
Caroline licked her lips nervously and slowly shook her head.
The child’s name—her name—had been Grace. And she had been born in Wilmington, North Carolina, not Casings as she had always believed. Her head swam as she tried to process the fact that nothing was what she thought it was. Not even herself.