It’s not like Lori to skip a meeting without calling one of us.” Kieran Jennings glanced at her watch for the umpteenth time. She’d been accused more than once of being obsessed with time, but in truth, she was just concerned with keeping to her tight schedule. There was so little breathing room in it.
Trying to dismiss her concern for Lori, she looked around the small circle. The Young Women for Professional Careers gathered in a small circle in the campus library every Friday morning. Out of the twenty-some members in high school, only seven were enrolled at Monroe College. Lori Blain, Taylor Cordette, DeAnne Foster, Pam Hamilton, herself, Dana Tappan, and Susan Wright. They were a sisterhood among sisters—bright, ambitious, supportive, and intelligent. She knew these girls as well as she knew her own family. Lori Blain, the starlet—blond, beautiful, and dramatic in an easy-to-take way. Taylor Cordette, the watcher—quiet and unobtrusive, with intelligent brown eyes that saw more than she let on. Still waters run deep. That was Taylor. DeAnne Foster, the conqueror—vivacious, petite, and unaffected by anyone’s opinion, she plowed through opposition and made her stand, dragging the timid along reluctantly or otherwise. Pam Hamilton, the artist—tender, sensitive, and always handing out money to the homeless, she was quick to tears and just as quick to laugh at DeAnne’s antics. Susan Wright, the dreamer—always optimistic, always seeing the gold at the end of the rainbow, always the hopeless romantic who still believed the world could live in peace if she could just get everyone to listen to her pleas.
“She didn’t call me,” DeAnne replied. “I haven’t heard from her since Tuesday.”
Dana tapped her foot impatiently. “There’s a first time for everything. Maybe she met some hunk last night and figured he was more important than we are.”
Kieran gave Dana a long, withering look. Dana Tappan, the princess with just a little too much attitude and none of it particularly attractive. She could be cool, aloof, arrogant, and a bit of a snob at times. Of course, she was the only one of the girls to come from a privileged background, being a judge’s daughter and heir to a great fortune, raised in a house that was the closest thing Monroe County had to a mansion, with servants at her beck _and call.
“I know this is hard for you to understand, Dana, but some of us actually care about the others.”
Dana shot her a hot glare. “For your information, I do care about Lori, but she’s an hour late and some of us have classes to get to. We can’t spend the entire time talking about Lori. I’m sure she’ll come bouncing in with a sweet apology and that will be that. Let’s not act like it’s some great tragedy.”
Kieran stamped down on her temper as hard as she could. Sometimes she really wanted to slap Dana silly. But this was not the time or place for petty arguments.
“Okay,” DeAnne interjected, once again taking the role of peacekeeper. “We have to decide if we’re going to do something at homecoming or not.”
“Not another bake sale, I hope.” Susan laughed.
“Please, anything but that.” Dana grinned at Susan. “I’m never going to try to bake a cake again. What a catastrophe that was.”
“We need to do something that’s more in line with what we’re all about,” DeAnne offered thoughtfully with a faraway look in her eyes.
“Like what?” Dana asked.
“I don’t know. I’m thinking.” Suddenly she straightened in her chair. “I got it! How about we offer resume services? You know. . . help students prepare a resume for a really reasonable price? Give them some pointers, ideas, suggestions.”
Susan wrote the idea down in her notebook. “It’s a good possibility. We can set up a booth, charge maybe ten dollars, and give them fifteen minutes.”
“This is homecoming, ladies.” Dana stretched out her long legs and crossed them at the ankle. “Most of the kids are going to be thinking party, not prosperity.”
“True,” Susan acquiesced, then glanced at her watch again. She shut her notebook. “We’re out of time. Let’s give it some thought and discuss it more next week.”
Dana shot to her feet, grabbing her backpack, hefting it to her shoulder. “We may need to think about meeting midweek. We don’t have a lot of time to put this together.”
The girls put their chairs back around the study table and headed out, splitting off outside and heading to their respective classes with hugs, waves, and promises to keep in touch.
Kieran fell into step with Taylor. “You were quiet today.”
Taylor looped her arm over Kieran’s shoulder. “Just had a lot on my mind. Family dynamics and all that.”
“Your mom’s new boyfriend?”
“I don’t know what she sees in him.”
Suddenly Kieran realized Taylor was heading in the wrong direction. “Where are you going? You don’t have a class this morning.”
“My dad’s filling in for one of the professors, and I wanted to sit in on his class.”
“Wow, really? I wish I could join you. He’s so good looking.”
Taylor wrinkled her nose. “I can’t believe you have a crush on my dad.”
Kieran laughed. “What can I say? I don’t get out much.”
“Still playing mommy and housekeeper? I don’t know how you do it.”
“You do what you have to do.”
Taylor rolled her eyes. “What you have to do is take a stand, or your dad’s never going to notice that you don’t have a life.”
“Look who’s talking. And have you taken a stand and talked to your mom about all this?”
Taylor blushed lightly as she nibbled her lower lip. “It’s different.”
“My dad said it’s best to wait for now. I think he’s working on getting my mom back.”
Kieran hugged her friend. “That’s great! You must be so excited!”
“I’m waiting to see it happen first. What my dad may want and what he may get could be two very different things.”
Talking stopped and whispers trailed off. Chairs scraped across linoleum, and the rustle of paper increased for a moment before silence suddenly ensued.
Dan Cordette dropped his briefcase on the desk at the front of the classroom, his gaze sweeping the room quickly, taking in the body of students that were quietly waiting for him. Twenty-four males and eight females. All eyes forward.
For the most part, they were young, somewhere between eigh-teen and twenty, and were eagerly looking forward to careers in law enforcement. Some even had dreams of ending up at Quantico. He knew all too well that somewhere between the first time they were forced to kill and the first time they craved something to numb the pain, all that eagerness would be long dead. There was nothing glamorous about death and nothing wonderful about killers.
Turning his back to the class, he picked up a marker and wrote his name in big, loopy letters on the white board. He turned and, out of the corner of his eye, saw his daughter, Taylor, slip into the back of the class and take a seat. He shot her a quick smile.
“My name—for those of you observant enough to realize that I am not Professor Brooks—is Dan Cordette.”
For most of his students, his name meant little to nothing, but at least one of the students, besides his daughter, knew exactly who he was. She stood out in the class like a dove among parakeets.
Oh yes, he knew the name Zoe Shefford. She was in her midthirties, blond, green eyes, with long, sleek lines and a killer smile. She was also infamous in law enforcement circles. For the past fifteen years, she’d been assisting police officers, parents, and the FBI to find missing and abducted children.
The last case he remembered hearing she was involved with was the Ted Matthews case last spring. Now she pops up in a criminal law class.
Why? The question plagued him as he edged his hip onto the corner of his desk.
He folded his arms across his chest and tried to keep from staring at her as he went through his opening statement. “And for those of you who don’t keep up with the latest news, Professor Brooks suffered a mild heart attack a few days ago and has asked me to fill in for a couple of weeks. Or until he can figure out a way to get back to work without his doctor finding out.”
There was a light flutter of laughter.
“I understand that I’m supposed to talk to you about jurisdiction and, if we have time, start on criminal liability.”
Sliding off the desk, he began to pace the front of the classroom. Why would Zoe Shefford, with nearly as many years in the business as he had, be sitting in a class like this? How many cases had she worked? Sixty? Seventy? Probably a lot more. She could practically teach it.
Shuffling his curiosity to the back of his mind, he picked up the textbook and began his lecture. Ninety minutes later, Dan tossed the book into his briefcase as students filed past him. Taylor stopped at his desk. “I have to run to class. Call me later?”
“Absolutely, sweetheart. Thanks for being here today.”
Taylor smiled up at him, her big brown eyes sparkling with love and admiration. He wished he could capture that look and bottle it. “Love you, Dad.”
“Love you, too.”
He watched her as she made her way toward the door, then turned his attention to another female.
“Miss Shefford?” he called out. “May I speak to you for a moment?”
She hiked one eyebrow in surprise as she stopped and studied him. Then she walked over.
“Yes?” She came to a stop in front of his desk, her backpack slung over one shoulder. She hadn’t changed much since the last time he’d seen her. Except maybe to grow even prettier.
There was nothing but curiosity in her eyes as she stared at him. Smiling, he zipped his briefcase closed. “You don’t remember me, do you, Zoe?”
Her eyes widened just a bit. “You know me? We’ve met?”
Laughing, he pressed one hand to his chest. “Oh, I’m crushed. The lady so easily forgets.”
She tilted her head with a smile. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cordette. I just don’t recall. . .”
“New Hampshire. Nine years ago. A little boy with his parents on a camping weekend wandered off.”
A light seemed to spark in her eyes as the corners of her mouth tilted up. “Evan. He was just four years old. We found him in a ravine with a sprained ankle.”
“You found him,” Dan reminded her. “Murdock was sure that he’d been abducted because someone saw a car speeding off. But you kept arguing. . .insisting that he was sitting somewhere, hurt and scared.”
Actually she’d all but taken Murdock apart verbally, which stunned everyone within hearing distance. Murdock stood six-four in his socks, tipped the scales at two-forty, and was as tough as he was big. Few men had the courage to go up against him. Yet this little lady, delicate and as fine boned as china, had Murdock backing up and sputtering. When it came to Zoe Shefford, looks were very deceiving. She might seem as soft as a southern summer breeze, but underneath, she was pure steel.
“Wow. You remember all that? With all the cases you must have had over the years?” Zoe slid her backpack off and set it on the desk, resting her hands on top of it. “I’m impressed.”
He smiled. “What in the world are you doing in this class?”
“I’m going for my law degree.”
She shook her head. “Prosecution. I want to work for the district attorney’s office putting away the guys I’ve been chasing all these years.”
“So, you’ve decided to abandon fame and fortune to join the ranks of the overworked and underpaid.” Dan lifted his briefcase off the desk.
“Something like that, yes.”
It wasn’t quite the answer he was expecting. And from everything he remembered about her, the sudden look of uncertainty in her eyes took him by surprise as well. There was a story here, and he was just intrigued enough to pursue it.
But before he could ask his next question, she asked one of her own. “How in the world did you get from the police force in New Hampshire to teaching here in Monroe?”
“Long story and best told over a cup of coffee. There’s a little café across the Green. It’s not Starbucks, but they have wonderful pastries. Join me and I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”
She hesitated a moment, then nodded. “That sounds good.”
“Great! Just don’t let me forget to buy a box of pastries. I have to bribe someone later.”
Dan laughed as he held the door open for her. “The target in question has a real soft spot for the lemon and cherry Danishes. I never go to her for help without at least four of them to smooth the way.”
“Remind me not to let you know my weaknesses.”
“Oh, trust me. I’m a good investigator. I’d find out one way or another.”
They stepped out into a picture-perfect day. Students ambled around them in groups of two and three, talking animatedly, still revved up by the new school year.
“You know, I feel ancient,” Zoe remarked as they crossed what was commonly referred to as the “Green,” a small parklike area between the school and University Road, which housed coffee shops, fast-food restaurants, taverns, bookstores, and at least two Internet cafés.
“I can imagine why you would feel that way, being older, wiser, and far more experienced than your classmates, but trust me, you are far from ancient.”
Dan took hold of Zoe’s elbow as they crossed University Road, dropping his grasp to open the door to a small coffee shop tucked between an Internet café and a gift shop.
“If even one of them calls me ‘ma’am,’ I’m gonna have to hurt them.”
“If someone did, it would be one of the girls, and she’d be doing it because all the boys are too busy gawking at you to pay any attention to the rest of the girls in the class.”
“What a nice compliment. You’re Irish, aren’t you?” She smirked up at him, and he couldn’t help laughing.
“Not at all. Just speaking the truth as I see it.”
As soon as they had a table and the coffee was ordered, Dan dropped the polite banter and got down to the question that had been nagging him.
“Now why don’t you tell me why you feel the need to go work for the DA? The last time I checked, the police were calling you for help.”
Zoe leaned back as the waitress set the cups down. They’d ordered simple Colombian coffee rather than opting for the fancier blends or lattes and declined any pastry.
“It’s a long story. Suffice to say, I had to walk away from the work I was doing, and prosecuting criminals is something I’ve always felt passionate about. There are far too many of them out there getting away with murder. Literally. And when they do get caught, they manage to use the law to either get reduced sentences or off altogether.”
She brushed back a lock of hair. “Well, I know this evil face-to-face, and I can make sure they don’t win. I’ll make sure they go away and stay there.”
Dan studied her closely while she reached for the sugar, loosely measured out two teaspoons, then added cream. When he worked with her years earlier, she’d been an attractive woman with a wild mane of blond curls and big eyes that didn’t seem to miss anything. She’d been focused and intense with a restlessness that gave you the impression she was moving, even when she was standing still.
She’d grown older and, without a doubt, more attractive. The long, blond hair was still curly but not nearly as wild around her face. Not only had she managed to tame the curls but the restlessness in her eyes as well. Her body was still all long, lean lines, but she appeared softer for some reason. More at peace with herself.
“Why did you have to walk away from it?”
Zoe sighed. “Because I became a Christian, and being a psychic didn’t line up with scripture.”
“Really? I never knew that.” He scowled. “Are you sure about that?”
“Positive.” She offered him the sugar. He shook his head, so she set it back on the table. “Now, you were going to tell me how you went from being on the police force in New Hampshire to teaching here in Monroe.”
“I don’t normally teach. I’m just filling in for Professor Brooks, who happens to be a friend of mine.” He took a couple of sips while he collected his thoughts. “As for how I got here—long story short, my wife decided I loved my job more than I loved her, woke up one morning, and realized she was living with a stranger, packed up, and moved here to be near her parents, taking my two daughters with her. Six months later, I realized that I didn’t want to live so far from my kids and miss out on any more of their lives, so I quit the force and moved here.”
“How are things between you and your ex-wife now?”
Dan shrugged. “Better. We’re actually finding a friendship of sorts. She’s dating someone, and it looks pretty serious, so she’s happy. That makes it easier. And as for my girls, they’re thrilled that I’m actually showing some interest in their lives finally.”
“How old are your girls?”
“Tanya is twenty-one and Taylor is nineteen.”
Zoe raised one eyebrow, bringing his attention back to those big expressive eyes of hers. “Wow. They’re grown. Somehow I pictured two little tomboys climbing all over you.”
“They were when they were younger. Taylor is still pretty much a tomboy. She was in the class today. She just sat in to hear me. She’s majoring in economics, not law.”
“She was there?”
“The pretty brunette in jeans and a red sweatshirt.”
Zoe smiled. “Ah, yes. I noticed her. She is pretty.”
Dan nearly blushed with pride. “She’s my baby. Tanya, however, has discovered the power of being female and is playing it to the hilt.” The thought of his little girl flashing those big brown eyes at every available man in sight sobered him. “I worry about her sometimes. She goes through boyfriends at the rate of about one a week.”
He stared down into his coffee, sighed, then looked up at Zoe. He was surprised to find that she was staring at him, her head tilted a little to the left, a strange little smile on her face.
“What?” he asked, more than a little curious.
The smile broadened across her face. “She’s just discovering who she is. Relax, Dad. She’ll be fine.”
“Is that Zoe, a fellow female talking, or Zoe Shefford, psychic extraordinaire seeing something in her crystal ball?”
The smile vanished from her face as she drew back in her chair. A sudden look of vulnerability in her eyes made him realize that he’d just made a very big blunder.
“I’m sorry. I offended you. I didn’t mean to.”
“I know, and I’m not offended. I just wish no one knew that I’d ever considered myself a psychic.” She picked up her coffee but didn’t drink any. “So when you’re not filling in for professors at the college, what do you do with your time?”
“I have a private investigation firm.”
“A private investigator,” Zoe responded softly. She wrapped her hands around her cup. “How’s business?”
“Good. Busy. I now have six employees.”
“And here I thought you were a one-man show.”
“I was for the first year, but then the business took off, and I had to keep hiring people to handle the workload.”
“It must be fascinating.”
“Absolutely. And sometimes challenging and oftentimes boring. Why don’t you forget the DA’s office and come to work for me?”
He set his cup down and leaned forward, propping his elbows on the table. “Start working for me at Cordette Investigations.”
He continued to stare at her, smiling as he watched the emotions racing across her face. Confusion, doubt, skepticism. “I’m serious. I could really use someone like you to help with missing persons investigations.”
“Wow.” She stared down at the table for a long moment. Then she raised her eyes. “Sorry. I can’t.”
“You’d be great at it.” Dan struggled with his disappointment and, determined to change her mind, he reached down and dragged his briefcase to the table. Opening it, he pulled out a file and slid it across the table to her. “I have this case. Janet Ayers. Age thirty-four. Last-known whereabouts were Monroe College. Her uncle is dying and wants to leave her his estate. She is his only living relative that he knows of. He lost touch with his sister not long after Janet enrolled here after high school. We have to find her as quickly as possible. The uncle doesn’t have a great deal of time left.”
Zoe picked up the file and began to read through it, turning the pages slowly. “Wow. One-point-two million. Nice inheritance.”
Dan closed his briefcase and waved the waitress over. “I need two lemon and two cherry Danish to go, please.”
Zoe began to tap her fingers on the table. “It’s been sixteen years, and women tend to marry and change their names. This won’t be fun.”
“Missing persons rarely are. You know the score, Zoe. Some-times they’re cases like this. Happy ending if we find her. But sometimes the end isn’t so happy.” He flashed a charming smile. “First stop is Gladys Knittel. She works over in admissions. Take her the pastries. Tell her I sent them to her. Then ask her to help you go back through the records and see what you can find out.”
Zoe looked up and laughed. “The bribe is for the woman in admissions?”
Dan shrugged with a sly grin. “And you thought all I had to do was flash my credentials? You’ll learn. Bribery always smoothes the way. Danish, football tickets, theater tickets. You’d be surprised what you can find out after handing over a couple of passes to the hockey finals.”
Slowly she closed the file and slid it back across the table. “I can’t do it, Dan. I appreciate the offer, but I’m out of this business, and I’m not going back.”
Kieran Jennings tossed her backpack on the kitchen table and, glancing at the clock on the wall, headed for the refrigerator. She had two hours to get dinner going, grab the laundry from upstairs, check the mail, and run the vacuum before her dad got home.
“Rachael!” she shouted as she pulled the chicken out and set it on the counter. “Are you home yet?”
There was no response from her younger sister, but that didn’t mean anything. She turned the oven on, set the temperature for three-fifty, and jogged up the stairs, yanking her sweater over her head.
She knocked on her sister’s bedroom door. “Rachael!” There was only a muffled response, but it was enough to prompt Kieran to open the door and stick her head in.
Fifteen-year-old Rachael was curled up on her bed, head bobbing to the music blasting in her ears through headphones while she read some textbook. Unlike Kieran, who favored their father with gray eyes and light brown hair, which tended to go blond midsummer, Rachael was a picture of their mother—black hair, dark brown eyes that hid nothing of what the young girl was feeling at any given moment, and freckles that scattered across her nose and irritated the young girl to no end.
Kieran felt the old familiar pain sweep over her. The same pain she’d felt ever since their mother had died four years earlier, leaving her to take the responsibility of raising Rachael, looking after their dad, and taking care of the house.
It hadn’t been easy, and it was even harder now when she’d added college to the list of responsibilities.
Rachael looked up, smiled, and pulled her headphones off. Kieran picked up the sound of guitar and drums vibrating through the headphones from across the room.
“Hey, Kier! I didn’t hear you come in.”
“You wouldn’t have heard a drum corps come in. Can you run the vacuum for me so that I can get the laundry and dinner?”
Rachael turned off her stereo and scooted off the bed. “Sure. I should have thought about it when I got home, but I wanted to finish this math homework before the weekend. I’ll take the clothes to the laundry room for you.”
“Thanks. Big plans for the weekend?”
Rachael shrugged as she started picking up the dirty clothes she had left scattered all over the room. “Maybe.”
Smiling, Kieran left Rachael to the laundry and entered her room. As always, the bed was made, the drapes open, her clothes nowhere in sight. Neat as a pin, her mother always bragged.
At the thought of her mother, tears misted her eyes. She could still see her mother rushing out the door. . . . “I have to run and pick up your dad’s stuff at the cleaners. He has a business trip tomorrow, and I’ve been running behind all day. I’ll be right back, Kiki. Keep an eye on your sister for me.” That was the last time Kieran saw her mother alive. A truck ran a red light and hit her mom’s car, killing her instantly.
Kieran never allowed anyone to call her Kiki ever again.
Blinking away the tears, she hung her sweater in her closet, then changed into jeans and a sweatshirt and headed back downstairs to get dinner in the oven. Not a day went by that she didn’t miss her mother. She knew her dad felt the same way. Four years, and he hadn’t even started dating again. “Your mom was my soul mate,” he’d told her once. “I can’t believe I’d be lucky enough to have two of those in one lifetime, so why bother looking?”
After washing the chicken, she seasoned it and put it in the oven. Then she headed for the laundry room just off the kitchen. Ever since her mom had died, she’d taken care of her sister, double-checking homework, signing permission slips for field trips, playing mom as best she could. Her dad had never asked, but she had simply taken over running the house as well, making sure dinner was cooked, laundry was washed, shopping was done, and the place was clean.
Frowning, she eyed the chocolate stain down the front of Rachael’s favorite shirt. Even after four years, she hated the man who had killed her mother. Dad said she shouldn’t; that it was an accident. But she did anyway. And didn’t even feel guilty for it.
Her dad’s voice echoed through the house just ahead of the sound of the front door slamming shut. Tossing Rachael’s shirt on top of the washer, she went to greet her dad.
“I’m right here,” she responded, entering the kitchen from one direction as he entered from another. “What’s up?”
“Have you heard from Lori?”
Kieran’s brow furrowed. “No. She wasn’t at the meeting this morning.”
Mel Jennings frowned. “She didn’t show up for work today. That’s not like her.”
“Maybe her class ran late?”
“She never showed up at all and never called.”
“Did you try calling her?”
He nodded as he shrugged out of his coat. “No answer at home or on her cell. I just thought maybe she’d called here and left me a message.”
“Oh well.” He reached over and dropped a kiss on her forehead. “She may be finding out that working part-time while in high school was one thing and working while in college is another.”
“Yeah, but she’s only putting in, what? Two days a week with you?” Kieran thought of her school load as well as the house and her sister and her dad. It didn’t seem that three hours, twice a week, would be that big a deal for Lori.
“We’ll see what she says on Tuesday. Maybe something came up and she just forgot it was Friday.” He rubbed his hands together and inhaled with a smile. “Something smells good.”
“Do I have time for a shower before dinner?”
“Plenty of time.”
He picked up his coat, draped it over his arm, and headed upstairs. “Is Rachael home?”
“In her room, I think.”
She watched her father disappear up the stairs, then she sighed heavily and went back to start the load of laundry. Friday night. She should be getting ready for a date. But who had time for dating?
Just once, she wanted to cut loose and be irresponsible. Wild. Have fun. Not worry about anyone but herself.
She poured laundry detergent in the washer and shut the lid. Maybe it was time for her to break free of the restrictions she’d placed on herself and just. . .just. . .do something. Anything.
Maybe she’d get all dressed up in her sexiest outfit and go hit one of the local bars around the college. Meet some men. Dance. Laugh.
And not worry about whether her sister had clean clothes to wear tomorrow. Or if there were enough canned vegetables in the pantry to last the week. Or if the electric bill was paid on time.
Yeah. Maybe she would.
What’s the worst that could possibly happen?
“I promised. I promised. I promised.” Lanae Oakley kept chanting under her breath as she stepped into the dark apartment and turned on the light. A light coating of dust draped over every stick of furniture, every knickknack, every lampshade. She had never seen it like this. Never. Gammy had always kept the place spotless.
Tears welled up in Lanae’s eyes as she took in the enormity of the task at hand. Sort through Gammy’s belongings, pack up, toss out, save, give away. Empty the apartment, dispose of anything she wasn’t going to keep, and close out her grandmother’s life in a flurry of cardboard boxes and packing tape.
She hated it. She didn’t want to close up the apartment. She wanted to come in on Saturday mornings to the smell of cinnamon French toast and sizzling sausage, to the sound of the classics on the radio playing softly in the background, to the sight of Gammy’s smile just before she was swept into a warm hug. Who was she going to pour her heart out to? Who was she going to celebrate a job promotion with?
She didn’t know where her mother was and had stopped caring years ago. She didn’t know who her father was and had stopped wondering about him even longer ago. Her world had centered around Gammy. And now that Gammy was gone, her world felt upside down and tilted sideways.
And she felt so alone.
The silence seemed determined to suffocate her as surely as the grief was haunting her. She turned on the old wooden radio on the kitchen counter, took a deep breath, and began hauling in boxes from her car.
She started in the kitchen, made it through two cabinets, then shifted to the living room. After packing all the books on one bookshelf and filling three boxes, she found herself moving to the bedroom. She ran her hands lovingly over the handmade quilt on the bed and swiped at the tears.
Lanae opened one of the dresser drawers and began to lift out piles of sweaters, blouses, and floral print nightgowns in both cotton and flannel. One, a pink and white cotton nightgown, still had the price tag on it—from a store that went out of business ten years earlier.
She began to make two stacks. Things she would keep and things she would just send to Goodwill. When she finished with the dresser, she moved to the closet, her nose wrinkling at the faint odor of mothballs.
Her grandmother’s fur coat and a beautiful lace shawl were set aside to keep while everything else was taken off hangers and folded into a box. When all the clothes were removed, she started on the boxes stacked in the corner on the floor. Under several shoeboxes, she found a box that was taped, tied with string, and marked with her mother’s name.
Curious, she took the box out of the closet. Sitting on the bed, she untied the frayed string, cut through the tape, and set the lid aside. Peeling back the tissue paper, she lifted an infant’s christening gown, yellowed with age. Was it hers? Trembling with emotion, she set it aside and continued to go through the box. A couple of pictures, mostly of her and her mother, a manila envelope full of papers, a book of poetry, a Bible, a small cheap jewelry box filled with costume jewelry, and two diaries.
Her mother had kept a diary? Somehow that surprised her. Lanae felt as if she were invading her mother’s privacy, but this was all that was left of a mother she never knew.
The twinge of hurt surprised her. After all these years without her mother, she thought she no longer cared, and yet, there it was—that familiar old hurt of being left behind, unwanted and unloved by her own mother. What secrets did her mother have? And why should she even care after all these years? She didn’t even know if her mother was still alive.
How old had she been when her mother had run off? Two? Three? If it wasn’t for pictures, she wouldn’t even know what her mother looked like. Her grandmother had tried to find her, but to no avail. The police were of little help, telling her to file a missing person’s report and wait. Well, they’d waited years, and her mother had never come back.
Her mind wrestled with the emotions while her fingers moved of their own accord to turn the pages. She couldn’t have stopped herself from reading if she’d wanted to. And she wasn’t so sure she wanted to.
November 18, 1981. I called LT today. The creep wouldn’t even take my call. His daughter is now two-and-a-half years old, and he hasn’t even seen her. Of course, he’s just too consumed with showing off his little prince, his precious son and heir. Well, his daughter is his firstborn, not this kid that snob he calls a wife has dropped for him! He said he loved me! Yeah! Until he found out I was pregnant! Well, he’s going to pay and pay dearly for this!
Lanae’s brow furrowed as she stared down at the angry scrawl. LT? Her father’s initials were LT? And she had a half brother? Her heart began to pound as she realized she wasn’t alone in this world after all. She had family. A brother! Wow. What was he like? Did they look so much alike that it was obvious they were brother and sister? Would they like each other? Become fast friends and pals?
What was she thinking? She didn’t even know who LT was, much less where to find him!
She turned the page to the next entry.
January 4, 1982. Momma is really giving me a hard time about this. She doesn’t think I can make LT pay up. Well, Lanae is his daughter and he deserves to pay! I sent him a letter a couple of days ago and told him that I had his precious book and that if he didn’t talk to me and make arrangements for her care, then I was going to the press with the whole story. I’ll bet that will bring him running. The last thing he wants are family secrets on the front page! That perfect image and his perfect family exposed as thieves and murderers. No, he wouldn’t want anyone to know that, would he? He’ll pay up. He’ll give me anything I want. You just wait and see.
Lanae’s hands shook as she absorbed the emotions flowing off the page and mingling with her own confusion and pain.
Quickly, she turned to the last page and looked at the final entry.
February 22, 1982. Tonight’s the night! LT has been doing everything he can to get out of this, including siccing his bloody lawyers on me, but I held out and it worked. He’s agreed to meet me tonight and give me money for Lanae. No more scrounging for every little penny. No more listening to Mom’s lectures. No more wondering how I’m going to be able to pay the rent or buy food. I’m so tired of this life. I can’t wait to get my hands on all that money. As if LT will even miss it! Drop in the bucket for him. He’s got more money than God. And now I’m going to have some of it. And all I have to do is hand over that stupid book and promise to never let Lanae know he’s her father. Big deal. She doesn’t need to know him and is better off never knowing him. He’ll only hurt her.
Lanae slammed the book shut as tears began to stream down her cheeks. It had taken blackmail to get her father to pay support.
She reached into the box and pulled out the other book. An-other diary, but not the cheap dime-store variety. This one was of beautiful leather with gold trim.
Hesitating, she took a deep breath. She hated to even think how bad this was going to be. She slowly flipped it open and scanned the page.
July 8, 1951. I still can’t believe it. Byron is dead. It’s so hard to grasp. He was so young and so full of life and plans and ambitions. Another couple of months and he’d have been married and starting a family, and now he’s gone. They said the car skidded on wet pavement, but I have my suspicions. William has been acting very strangely the last few weeks. I hate to think this of my own husband, but I can’t help it. With Byron gone, he’s going to inherit everything, the entire Tappan fortune. Could William have hated Byron so much? Could he really be capable of murder? Unfortunately, I know he’s well able. The question now is—did he kill his own brother just to get his hands on the inheritance?
Lanae shivered and closed the diary, unable to read more. Know more. Dear Lord, what am I to do with this? And then suddenly a thought slammed into her. This is the book that LT would have wanted back. The book he would have been paying her mother a great deal of money for. If she got the money and left town, why was the book here? Did she try a double cross at the last minute? And if she didn’t give him the book, he wouldn’t have paid her, and if he didn’t pay her, why did she disappear?
What if. . .what if her mother hadn’t come back because she hadn’t been able to? What if she hadn’t come back from that meeting because she was. . . ?
Lanae couldn’t finish her thought as a low, keening wail crept up in her throat.