Whatever is has already been,
and what will be has been before;
and God will call the past to account.
The car plunged off the cliff. _ “No!” _ David Stancowsky catapulted from sleep in time to hear the final echo of his cry fall away in his empty bedroom. In his empty house.
He gave himself the requisite ten seconds to allow his breathing to return to normal. There was no need to turn on a light, because he slept with one on. He grabbed the hand towel, which he placed on the bedside table every night, and rubbed his face roughly, then wiped his balding head. Would he ever be free of this nightmare?
Millie. Her car flying off the cliff. His fiancée dead.
Over the past forty-six years he’d come up with many scenarios as to how and why it had happened. Bad brakes, speed, she’d fallen asleep. . . One police officer had even broached the idea of suicide, but David had cut him off. How dare anyone even suggest. . . Their life together had been perfect, their wedding imminent. They had their entire lives in front of them.
If the crash had happened today, modern forensic technologies would have been able to show him exactly what had happened. But in 1958, a car that crashed into the ocean was lost, and a splintered guardrail told all the story that could be told.
Or that would be told.
David burrowed back into the covers, arranging his two body pillows on either side of him, remaking the moat that he nightly created in the middle of the king-size bed. Once settled, he adjusted the pillow for his head around his ears.
Drowning out the silence.
If only. . .
They’d buried her mother a week ago.
Vanessa Caldwell sat in the lawyer’s office with her husband, Dudley, ready to hear the will of a mother she hadn’t had contact with in thirty-four years.
The lawyer had his back to them as he fiddled with a VCR.
“Can we please get this over with?” Vanessa asked. “I have things to do.”
Dudley put a calming hand on her knee and gave her a behave yourself look.
Vanessa didn’t feel like behaving herself. She wanted this over. At her father’s request, she’d skipped the funeral. Gladly. She wasn’t in the mood to play the grieving daughter before a crowd. What little grief she did have was a one-act show that would be played out best here, as a way to expedite this last necessary step before she left the whole incident behind. And if she didn’t have to act at all? That would be even better. She’d play it by ear.
Actually, she was interested in the will more for curiosity’s sake than a desire to get anything. Whatever pittance her mother might have left her meant nothing. Materially, she and Dudley were more than well off, so a few extra dollars would merely be added to their bank account. And from a sentimental point of view? There was no sentiment left. At age sixteen, when her parents divorced, Vanessa had chosen to live with her banker father rather than her independent, hippie mother. She had no regrets. Until Vanessa’s marriage to Dudley, her father had provided the material requisites of life, while in return, Vanessa had filled the void caused by her mother’s absence. The truth was, her father was a weak man. He would have fallen apart if it hadn’t been for her capable presence. They’d been a good team, the dependent and the dependable.
Bottom line: He was Daddy. This woman who’d died was Mother.
“There,” the lawyer said, finally facing them. “Sorry for the delay. These machines make me all thumbs. Are you ready?”
He pushed the PLAY button and moved out of the way. Vanessa could only assume the old woman who came on the screen was her mother. She looked like an aged flower child, her white hair long and unruly, the design on her East Indian top punctuated with beads. Vanessa would not have been surprised if she’d flashed a peace sign.
Yet when the woman started speaking, when she said, “Hello, Nessa,” the voice spiked a connection, a memory to Vanessa’s childhood before her mother had abandoned them. Vanessa felt the faintest hint of warmth, startling her with the knowledge that such an emotion had existed between them. Once.
“I hope you appreciate how this old free spirit is resorting to something very establishment by making this video for you, Nessa. But I see no other way to talk to you, to tell you what’s on my mind and my heart. I hesitate to leave you anything because that’s where your father excelled. I never could compete with that, nor could I compete with—or condone—the heady manipulation of people and events that is the hallmark of your father’s life. There is no peace in such an attitude. No peace with the world, with God, or with oneself. We both know that what Yardley Pruitt wants he gets one way or another. But you need to know that I wanted you, Nessa. I fought for you in the courts. You remember that, don’t you? I fought for you, but since your father could always make justice sing his own tune, I lost. I lost everything. I lost you, then lost sight of you. . . Are you married? Do I have grandchildren?”
The woman on the video sniffed then rearranged the flow of her broomstick skirt. “Life is often difficult, Nessa, but I’ve found it’s best to ‘rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.’_” She smiled at the camera. “Wise words. If only we’d listen.”
She gave her head the slightest shake and continued. “But I mustn’t digress. The message I want to leave you with, dear daughter, is one of regret. My deep regret, and my desire to relieve you of your own. The truth is, I don’t know how your life turned out. Are you happy? Are you fulfilled? Through the years I’ve seen a few clippings of your father’s life—bank PR stuff—but never any mention of you. Your father’s penchant for manipulating every breath of those in his domain under the guise of need cannot have been to your advantage. It grieves me to think about how many chances you may have missed to find your true character just by the fact that you are your father’s daughter.”
Her mother sighed deeply. “I would have given you those chances, Nessa, by letting you blossom out of your own dreams and desires, instead of letting your father maneuver your life and emotions by playing the guilt card. I would even have let you fail, face consequences, and earn things on your own merit—not by having the right connections. This is a lesson I’ve learned in my own life. It’s one I cherish. But every instinct, every fiber of my being doubts that you’ve ever been afforded the opportunity to grow in yourself, your faith, or your character. From the moment you chose your precious daddy—”
“That’s enough!” Vanessa said. “Turn it off.”
The lawyer hit the PAUSE button, and Dorian Pruitt’s face froze oddly on the screen. “You really need to let her finish, Ms. Caldwell,” the lawyer said.
Vanessa stood, gathering her purse. “I see no reason to listen to my mother now, when she didn’t have the decency to contact me in decades. You heard her. She doesn’t even know my married name. She knows nothing about me. I’m going to be fifty this year. I am past the age of needing to listen to my mother. Especially an odd, estranged one.”
Dudley pulled her arm. “Come on, Vanessa. Just a few more minutes. What can it hurt?”
She was weary of the whole thing. “It hurts plenty when she says Daddy has ruined my character by being kind to me, nice to me, needing me, loving me. That’s absurd. He’s a wonderful man.”
Dudley cleared his throat.
She glared at him and clipped each word. “Don’t start.”
He adjusted himself in the leather armchair. “You know I won’t, but maybe I should. What your mother says makes sense. You have to admit he does push our guilt buttons a lot.”
“We don’t help him out of a feeling of guilt, we help him out of love. I am no one’s pawn.”
He shrugged and pointed at the screen. “I like her. I wish I’d known her.”
“You can’t like her.” I won’t allow it.
He sighed. “I’m not your enemy, Vanessa. And if you’d stop being so defensive and finish listening to the video, you might discover your mother isn’t either.”
It was not like Dudley to confront her. Theirs was a flat-line relationship. Any deviation above or below that line was quickly dealt with in the fervent pursuit of the status quo. “How can you be on her side? My father and I are the ones who were left behind when she ran out on us.”
The lawyer stepped between them. “Ms. Caldwell. Please listen to the rest of the video. It was your mother’s wish that you see it.”
“So she can belittle my father and me?”
He patted the back of her chair. “Please.”
It was evident they were not going to let her leave until this was finished. So be it. She returned to her seat.
The lawyer messed with the remote. “How do I back this thing up a few seconds?”
“Here,” Dudley said, reaching for it. “Let me do it.”
He relinquished the control, and Dudley made the picture dance backward before hitting PLAY.
Vanessa’s mother continued. “. . .the moment you chose your precious daddy. . .you don’t realize it, Nessa, but your entire life changed at that moment. What could you have become, what kind of person might you be now, if we’d been allowed to keep our mother-daughter relationship alive?”
What was this “allowed” business? Her mother was the one who’d made the choice never to see her again.
Her mother put a hand to her chest. “I know my life would have been richer for it. And maybe all my worries about your father’s influence are moot. Maybe your life is full of joy and purpose and all good things. The tragedy is, I don’t know. And so I must go on what I suspect. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but my greatest hope for you stems out of my greatest fear.”
Vanessa crossed her arms. Joy? Purpose? Good things? She’d like to shove those blessings in her mother’s face. It was disconcerting how correct this woman was about how Vanessa’s life had turned out, as well as her father’s continued presence. And yet, it was also annoying. Her mother was acting as if it was inevitable that her life was less than perfect, full of weakness, and void of meaning. Vanessa knew exactly what she was doing. And if anyone was controlling things, it was she. Not her father.
“. . .giving you all my possessions—such as they are. And I want you to know that I’ve been very fulfilled being a second-grade teacher. It has not brought me your father’s kind of riches, but it has made me rich. Find that kind of wealth, Nessa. Find the wealth that comes from having faith, from trying your best, and from doing good out of love, not out of guilt or as a power play. I love you, flower-baby. Always have. Always will.”
The tape mercifully came to an end. Dudley shut off the machine as the lawyer returned to his desk. “Here are the keys to your mother’s house. It, and the contents, are yours to do with as you please. She was a nice woman, your mother. An interesting woman who knew her own mind. I liked her very much.”
Good for you.
Vanessa stood to leave and Dudley followed. Once in the parking lot, he asked, “Where to?”
“My mother’s house. I want this done with. Over.”
He opened her car door. “Hasn’t this got you thinking, Vanessa? Don’t you wonder how your life would have been dif—?”
Vanessa shook her head vehemently. “I will not deal with ‘if onlys.’ I won’t.”
Lane Holloway sat on her deck overlooking the Pacific, sipping a hazelnut mocha. Joggers teased the edge of the waves as they sped past, flipping up sand behind them. Seagulls dive-bombed fish and crustaceans in the shallows. In her lap was a script—the script for the movie that would finally win her an Oscar. Although she knew it wasn’t a sure thing, she had a feeling about it. Her agent concurred. This was one of those special parts that would test her mettle as an actress and provide her with a vehicle to either shine or flop. It was up to her.
Her agent currently was negotiating the price. She was happy to let him deal with such things. What was a few million one way or the other? Just give her the chance to do it. She’d earn their money back. She was box-office gold.
The french doors to the deck opened behind her, and her personal assistant and old high-school chum, Brandy Lopez, came out. “You’re up early,” Brandy said, putting away her keys.
“You know I don’t sleep well alone.”
Brandy set her notebook on the table. “Can I get you another mocha?”
“I’m fine. But help yourself.”
She disappeared inside. Lane book-marked the page in the script and tried to turn her thoughts to the other to-dos of the day. Brandy liked to keep busy, and Lane was glad to oblige. She was in awe of people who actually liked to serve others. Lane much preferred being the serve-ee.
Brandy returned with her mocha and took a seat across the table. Lane waited for her to ready her notebook and pen as she did every weekday morning. But this time Brandy just sat there grinning.
“Uh-oh. What’s that smile for?” Lane asked.
“I have a present for you.”
“You’ve got to quit doing that, Brand. You’re constantly buying me—”
“Trinkets. Hey, who knows you better than me? Besides, they’re just little things. Nothing big. Nothing expensive. You know that.”
“I do like that raspberry tea you found.”
“See? I know what you like and I like to get it for you. It gives me pleasure, and if you don’t let me do it, I’ll pout. And you don’t want to see me pout, do you?”
Lane laughed. No indeed, she did not want to witness a Brandy-pout. Her friend, not attractive to begin with, turned positively menacing when her brows dipped and her lip popped into prominence. Brandy had perfected pouting since their high-school days. “So, what did you get me this time?”
With a flourish, Brandy pulled an envelope from the inside of her notebook. “For you.”
There was nothing on the envelope but Lane’s name written in Brandy’s cursive. It was not sealed. Inside she found a ticket. “What’s this?”
“It’s a lottery ticket. But not just any lottery. A Time Lottery ticket.”
The ticket had a printed number on it, the Time Travel Corporation—the TTC—logo, and a space where Brandy had written Lane’s name.
“See?” Brandy said, pointing at the ticket. “It’s yours and yours alone. You can’t give it to anyone else. I bought it for you.”
Lane set the ticket on the table between them. “But the Time Lottery is for people who want to go back into their lives and relive something, change a choice they made. I’m very content with my life here. There’s nothing I want to change.”
Brandy crossed her arms.
Brandy’s glare was second only to her pout in the negative effect it had on her looks.
Lane stood and moved to the railing that overlooked the Malibu beach. “You seem to forget that I’m living the American dream. I’m a movie star. I’ve kissed the hunks of my day: Johnny Depp, Mel Gibson, Brad Pitt. . .”
“You are the envy of hot-blooded women everywhere.”
“Unfortunately, your off-screen romances haven’t been so successful.”
“I got rid of Klaus.”
Brandy shuddered. “Yuck. Good riddance.”
Lane crossed her arms and looked toward the horizon. “It’s hard to find true love when you’re famous.”
“Au contraire, Laney-girl. Enter the Time Lottery.” Brandy joined her at the railing and ran a hand over the back of her shoulders. “I’m just looking after you. I know it’s ironic that plain ol’ Brandy found herself a wonderful husband and has four great kids, while Lane, the movie-star stunner has nada. I’ve asked God to explain, but He’s keeping mum.”
Actually, Lane had come to the conclusion that God was keeping score, and since she’d already received a myriad of blessings, He wasn’t about to give her more.
Brandy left her side to stick her finger in the soil of a potted geranium nearby. “Forget loser-Klaus; I thought you might like to explore what would have happened if you hadn’t dumped Joseph.”
Joseph Brannerman was two men ago. “I think you liked Joseph more than I did.”
Brandy moved on to check the ferns. “These need water. . . . I liked him only because he was perfect for you.”
“So you’ve said. Repeatedly.”
Brandy turned her attention away from the plants. “So I know as fact. You’re way too picky. Good men don’t grow on trees. Take my Randy.”
“I thought you wanted me to take Joseph.”
She joined Lane back at the railing, her voice low. “Promise you won’t tell?”
“I also bought a ticket for myself.”
Lane played the aghast emotion to perfection. “Have you been holding out on me all these years? Was there a Romeo in your past you want to explore more deeply?”
“Randy is Romeo enough for me. But I have always wondered what would have happened if I hadn’t followed you out to Hollywood—if I’d stayed in Minnesota.”
Lane put away her teasing. “You’d go back to Dawson?”
“Maybe I could have helped my mom more.”
Lane put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. Brandy’s mother had been an abusive alcoholic, and leaving her had been the hardest—yet best—thing her friend had ever done. They watched the tide a few minutes. Then Lane turned around and swept a hand to encompass her home. “Enough of this talk. I’d be stupid to go back. Look at what I have: this home, one in Montana, an apartment in New York. . .” She spotted the script on the table. “And what about my acting? That script will win me an Academy Award. I know it.”
Brandy shook her head.
“Don’t shake your head. It’s a good part. It will let me explore new sides to my—”
Brandy snickered. “That’s one way to put it. Your backside, front side. . .yes, sirree, the world will see all sides of Lane Holloway.”
“Nudity doesn’t have the stigma it once had. All the big actresses are doing it.”
“Well, alrighty then.”
Lane had discussed it with her agent, and they’d decided the nudity was a necessary risk. Besides, she was in good shape for nearly thirty-five. She had nothing to hide. And much to gain.
“Have you gotten around to reading that book I want you to make into a movie?” Brandy asked.
“I started it.” She hadn’t.
“Baloney. It’s probably still sitting on your bedside table.” She took a step toward the french doors leading inside.
“No,” Lane said, stopping her. “I haven’t. But I will.”
Brandy pointed at her. “Making a movie out of that book may not win you an Oscar, but it would be a good vehicle for you. Great parts all around. A gripping, life-changing story. The young mother Merry loses her son and husband in a plane crash and comes to realize that her selfish discontent caused them to be on the plane in the first—”
Lane raised a hand, stopping her. “I’ll read it. I promise.”
“Yes, yes, so you say.” Brandy returned to her seat at the table and opened her notebook, readying for the daily errands. “As far as winning the Time Lottery? Never fear, Laney-girl. The chances of either one of us winning are slim. After the success of last year’s drawing, I’m sure they’ll sell a ton of tickets. So don’t worry about it. I just thought it would be fun to think about.”
Lane acquiesced and gave her a hug from behind. “And I thank you for your continued thoughtfulness.” And it would make her think.
If only. . .
Alexander MacMillan opened his front door, only to have Cheryl Nickolby burst past him, slam the door shut, and press herself against it like a woman on the run. “Phew! I made it!”
He crossed his arms and rolled his eyes. “What are you doing?”
She relaxed her stance, smoothed her brown pants and sweater, then yanked him close with such force that he expelled a puff of air. After a hello kiss that left him even more breathless, she stepped back and answered his question. “I’m only following your directions. You’ve stressed the need for discretion and emphasized the necessity to never, ever, ever let anyone from the media know that you, the Time Lottery Czar, are dating me, Mistress of the first lottery and doctor extraordinaire.” She clapped her hands to her chest dramatically. “Heaven forbid the world know we have the hots for each other.”
Mac looked behind him, checking for six-year-old ears. “We care about each other.”
“Same thing.” She breezed past him. “Now, where’s the real man in my life? Andrew? Olly olly oxen free!”
Andrew came running from upstairs, jumped from the third step, and barreled into her, wrapping his arms around her waist.
“Whoa, bud! Nice to see you, too.”
He let her loose. “I made the garlic bread, but I spilled spaghetti sauce on my shirt, so I had to change.”
“If you were making the bread, how did you spill sauce—?”
Mac rumpled his son’s hair. “Long story. Let’s eat.”
During dinner, Mac found himself watching Cheryl as she teased Andrew and told them about her new job at a local hospital. For her to leave Boulder, Colorado, and move to Kansas City to be near the two of them still left him stunned. Actually, everything about Cheryl left him stunned. She was a stunning woman. For Mac to have found two women in his lifetime, first Holly, and now Cheryl. . .
The women were two ends of a spectrum. Where dear Holly had been ten years younger than he, petite, dark-haired, sweet, and domestic, Cheryl was ten years older—nearly forty-eight—tall, blond, vivacious, and a brilliant surgeon. It didn’t make sense that such diverse women would fit into his life. Fit with him. And yet they did. Each in their time.
Ha. Time. The unrelenting taskmaster.
And yet. . .the whole Time Lottery phenomenon still astounded him. For the winners to be able to go back in time, into their own lives and change something, explore their Alternate Reality—their Alternity—was miracle enough. But to be offered the option to stay there and live out that new choice or come back to this one was mind-boggling. Mac was beyond glad that Cheryl had chosen to come back to the present. To be here. In his life.
Actually, as incentive to take the job as the public relations liaison for the TTC, Mac had been offered a chance to go back into his life, to the time before Holly was murdered by an intruder, to change her death to life. In spite of the temptation, he’d refused. To go back and live a life with Holly in his Alternity would be to leave their son here, alone. It was something he could not do.
“Can I be excused?” Andrew asked.
“May I. And yes, you may.”
Mac and Cheryl sat in silence until voices from the family-room TV drifted into the kitchen. Then Cheryl put a hand on Mac’s. “I saw you deep in thought. About what?”
He smiled and kissed her hand.
She got out of her chair, and he gladly made room on his lap. “I’m finding this secrecy very hard, you know. I’m not a secretive person. What you see is what you get.”
“I’ve already heard the buzz about me moving to Kansas City. A reporter asked me about it.”
“What did you say?”
“That I’d fallen in love with the town when I’d come here to participate in the Time Lottery. And after my experience in the past, I felt the need for a fresh start. Plus, I said I’d befriended the most amazing, sexy man who has the ability to make my epidermis tingle in a most delightful way.”
He leaned his head against her neck. “You saved me, you know. My decision not to go back—”
“Shh.” She began to rock, and he joined in the rhythm.
“I want to tell the world about us, Cheryl. I do.”
“We just need to get through the next lottery. Then the attention will be on the new winners, and we can be free to be you and me.”
“Free to be us.”
He closed his eyes and was comforted by the beat of her heart.
If only. . .