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Ashley O'Ballivan dropped the last string of Christmas lights into a plastic storage container, resisting an uncharacteristic urge to kick the thing into the corner of the attic instead of stacking it with the others. For her, the holidays had been anything but merry and bright; in fact, the whole year had basically sucked. But for her brother, Brad, and sister Olivia, it qualified as a personal best—both of them were happily married. Even her workaholic twin, Melissa, had had a date for New Year's Eve.
Ashley, on the other hand, had spent the night alone, sipping nonalcoholic wine in front of the portable TV set in her study, waiting for the ball to drop in Times Square.
How lame was that?
It was worse than lame—it was pathetic.
She wasn't even thirty yet, and she was well on her way to old age.
With a sigh, Ashley turned from the dusty hodgepodge surrounding her—she went all out, at the Mountain View Bed and Breakfast, for every red-letter day on the calendar—and headed for the attic stairs. As she reached the bottom, stepping into the corridor just off the kitchen, a familiar car horn sounded from the driveway in front of the detached garage. It could only be Olivia's ancient Suburban.
Ashley had mixed feelings as she hoisted the ladder-steep steps back up into the ceiling. She loved her older sister dearly and was delighted that Olivia had found true love with Tanner Quinn, but since their mother's funeral a few months before, there had been a strain between them.
Neither Brad nor Olivia nor Melissa had shed a single tear for Delia O'Ballivan—not during the church service or the graveside ceremony or the wake. Okay, so there wasn't a greeting card category for the kind of mother Delia had been—she'd deserted the family long ago, and gradually destroyed herself through a long series of tragically bad choices. For all that, she'd still been the woman who had given birth to them all.
Didn't that count for something?
A rap sounded at the back door, as distinctive as the car horn, and Olivia's glowing, pregnancy-rounded face filled one of the frost-trimmed panes in the window.
Oddly self-conscious in her jeans and T-shirt and an ancient flannel shirt from the back of her closet, Ashley mouthed, "It's not locked."
Beaming, Olivia opened the door and waddled across the threshold. She was due to deliver her and Tanner's first child in a matter of days, if not hours, and from the looks of her, Ashley surmised she was carrying either quadruplets or a Sumo wrestler.
"You know you don't have to knock," Ashley said, keeping her distance.
Olivia smiled, a bit wistfully it seemed to Ashley, and opened their grandfather Big John's old barn coat to reveal a small white cat with one blue eye and one green one.
"Oh, no you don't," Ashley bristled.
Olivia, a veterinarian as well as Stone Creek, Arizona's one and only real-deal animal communicator, bent awkwardly to set the kitten on Ashley's immaculate kitchen floor, where it meowed pitifully and turned in a little circle, pursuing its fluffy tail. Every stray dog, cat or bird in the county seemed to find its way to Olivia eventually, like immigrants gravitating toward the Statue of Liberty.
Two years ago, at Christmas, she'd even been approached by a reindeer named Rodney.
"Meet Mrs. Wiggins," Olivia chimed, undaunted. Her china-blue eyes danced beneath the dark, sleek fringe of her bangs, but there was a wary look in them that bothered Ashley…even shamed her a little. The two of them had always been close. Did Olivia think Ashley was jealous of her new life with Tanner and his precocious fourteen-year-old daughter, Sophie?
"I suppose she's already told you her life story," Ashley said, nodding toward the cat, scrubbing her hands down the thighs of her jeans once and then heading for the sink to wash up before filling the electric kettle. At least that hadn't changed—they always had tea together, whenever Olivia dropped by—which was less and less often these days.
After all, unlike Ashley, Olivia had a life.
Olivia crooked up a corner of her mouth and began struggling out of the old plaid woolen coat, flecked, as always, with bits of straw. Some things never changed— even with Tanner's money, Olivia still dressed like what she was, a country veterinarian.
"Not much to tell," Livie answered with a slight lift of one shoulder, as nonchalantly as if telepathic exchanges with all manner of finned, feathered and furred creatures were commonplace. "She's only fourteen weeks old, so she hasn't had time to build up much of an autobiography."
"I do not want a cat," Ashley informed her sister.
Olivia hauled back a chair at the table and collapsed into it. She was wearing gum boots, as usual, and they looked none too clean. "You only think you don't want Mrs. Wiggins," she said. "She needs you and, whether you know it or not, you need her."
Ashley turned back to the kettle, trying to ignore the ball of cuteness chasing its tail in the middle of the kitchen floor. She was irritated, but worried, too. She looked back at Olivia over one stiff shoulder. "Should you be out and about, as pregnant as you are?"
Olivia smiled, serene as a Botticelli Madonna. "Pregnancy isn't a matter of degrees, Ash," she said. "One either is or isn't."
"You're pale," Ashley fretted. She'd lost so many loved ones—both parents, her beloved granddad, Big John. If anything happened to any of her siblings, whatever their differences, she wouldn't be able to bear it.
"Just brew the tea," Olivia said quietly. "I'm perfectly all right."
While Ashley didn't have her sister's gift for talking to animals, she was intuitive, and her nerves felt all twitchy, a clear sign that something unexpected was about to happen. She plugged in the kettle and joined Olivia at the table. "Is anything wrong?"
"Funny you should ask," Olivia answered, and though the soft smile still rested on her lips, her eyes were solemn. "I came here to ask you the same question. Even though I already know the answer."
As much as she hated the uneasiness that had sprung up between herself and her sisters and brother, Ashley tended to bounce away from any mention of the subject like a pinball in a lively game. She sprang right up out of her chair and crossed to the antique breakfront to fetch two delicate china cups from behind the glass doors, full of strange urgency.
"Ash," Olivia said patiently.
Ashley kept her back to her sister and lowered her head. "I've just been a little blue lately, Liv," she admitted softly. "That's all."
She would never get to know her mother.
The holidays had been a downer.
Not a single guest had checked into her Victorian bed-and-breakfast since before Thanksgiving, which meant she was two payments behind on the private mortgage Brad had given her to buy the place several years before. It wasn't that her brother had been pressing her for the money—he'd offered her the deed, free and clear, the day the deal was closed, but she'd insisted on repaying him every cent.
On top of all that, she hadn't heard a word from Jack McCall since his last visit, six months ago. He'd suddenly packed his bags and left one sultry summer night, while she was sleeping off their most recent bout of lovemaking, without so much as a good-bye.
Would it have killed him to wake her up and explain? Or just leave a damn note? Maybe pick up a phone?
"It's because of Mom," Olivia said. "You're grieving for the woman she never was, and that's okay, Ashley. But it might help if you talked to one of us about how you feel."
Weary rage surged through Ashley. She spun around to face Olivia, causing her sneakers to make a squeaking sound against the freshly waxed floor, remembered that her sister was about to have a baby, and sucked all her frustration and fury back in on one ragged breath.
"Let's not go there, Livie," she said.
The kitten scrabbled at one leg of Ashley's jeans and, without thinking, she bent to scoop the tiny creature up into her arms. Minute, silky ears twitched under her chin, and Mrs. Wiggins purred as though powered by batteries, snuggling against her neck.
Olivia smiled again, still wistful. "You're pretty angry with us, aren't you?" she asked gently. "Brad and Melissa and me, I mean."
"No," Ashley lied, wanting to put the kitten down but unable to do so. Somehow, nearly weightless as that cat was, it made her feel anchored instead of set adrift.
"Come on," Olivia challenged quietly. "If I weren't nine and a half months along, you'd be in my face right now."
Ashley bit down hard on her lower lip and said nothing.
"Things can't change if we don't talk," Olivia persisted.
Ashley swallowed painfully. Anything she said would probably come out sounding like self-pity, and Ashley was too proud to feel sorry for herself, but she also knew her sister. Olivia wasn't about to let her off the hook, squirm though she might. "It's just that nothing seems to be working," she confessed, blinking back tears. "The business. Jack. That damn computer you insisted I needed."
The kettle boiled, emitting a shrill whistle and clouds of steam.
Still cradling the kitten under her chin, Ashley unplugged the cord with a wrenching motion of her free hand.
"Sit down," Olivia said, rising laboriously from her chair. "I'll make the tea."
"No, you won't!"
"I'm pregnant, Ashley," Olivia replied, "not incapacitated."
Ashley skulked back to the table, sat down, the tea forgotten. The kitten inched down her flannel work shirt to her lap and made a graceful leap to the floor.
"Talk to me," Olivia prodded, trundling toward the counter.
Ashley's vision seemed to narrow to a pinpoint, and when it widened again, she swayed in her chair, suddenly dizzy. If her blond hair hadn't been pulled back into its customary French braid, she'd have shoved her hands through it. "It must be an awful thing," she murmured, "to die the way Mom did."
Cups rattled against saucers at the periphery of Ashley's awareness. Olivia returned to the table but stood beside Ashley instead of sitting down again. Rested a hand on her shoulder. "Delia wasn't in her right mind, Ashley. She didn't suffer."
"No one cared," Ashley reflected, in a miserable whisper. "She died and no one even cared."
Olivia didn't sigh, but she might as well have. "You were little when Delia left," she said, after a long time. "You don't remember how it was."
"I remember praying every night that she'd come home," Ashley said.
Olivia bent—not easy to do with her huge belly—
and rested her forehead on Ashley's crown, tightened her grip on her shoulder. "We all wanted her to come home, at least at first," she recalled softly. "But the reality is, she didn't—not even when Dad got killed in that lightning storm. After a while, we stopped needing her."
"Maybe you did," Ashley sniffled. "Now she's gone forever. I'm never going to know what she was really like."
Olivia straightened, very slowly. "She was—"
"Don't say it," Ashley warned.
"She drank," Olivia insisted, stepping back. The invisible barrier dropped between them again, a nearly audible shift in the atmosphere. "She took drugs. Her brain was pickled. If you want to remember her differently, that's your prerogative. But don't expect me to rewrite history."
Ashley's cheeks were wet, and she swiped at them with the back of one hand, probably leaving streaks in the coating of attic dust prickling on her skin. "Fair enough," she said stiffly.
Olivia crossed the room again, jangled things around at the counter for a few moments, and returned with a pot of steeping tea and two cups and saucers.
"This is getting to me," she told Ashley. "It's as if the earth has cracked open and we're standing on opposite sides of a deep chasm. It's bothering Brad and Melissa, too. We're family, Ashley. Can't we just agree to disagree as far as Mom is concerned and go on from there?"
"I'll try," Ashley said, though she had to win an inner skirmish first. A long one.
Olivia reached across the table, closed her hand around Ashley's. "Why didn't you tell me you were having trouble getting the computer up and running?"
she asked. Ashley was profoundly grateful for the change of subject, even if it did nettle her a little at the same time. She hated the stupid contraption, hated anything electronic. She'd followed the instructions to the letter, and the thing still wouldn't work.
When she didn't say anything, Olivia went on. "Sophie and Carly are cyberwhizzes—they'd be glad to build you a Web site for the B&B and show you how to zip around the Internet like a pro."
Brad and his wife, the former Meg McKettrick, had adopted Carly, Meg's half sister, soon after their marriage. The teenager doted on their son, three-year-old Mac, and had befriended Sophie from the beginning.
"That would be… nice," Ashley said doubtfully. The truth was, she was an old-fashioned type, as Victorian, in some ways, as her house. She didn't carry a cell phone, and her landline had a rotary dial. "But you know me and technology."
"I also know you're not stupid," Olivia responded, pouring tea for Ashley, then for herself. Their spoons made a cheerful tinkling sound, like fairy bells, as they stirred in organic sugar from the chunky ceramic bowl in the center of the table.
The kitten jumped back into Ashley's lap then, startling her, making her laugh. How long had it been since she'd laughed?
Too long, judging by the expression on Olivia's face.
"You're really all right?" Ashley asked, watching her sister closely.
"I'm better than 'all right,'" Olivia assured her. "I'm married to the man of my dreams. I have Sophie, a barn full of horses out at Starcross Ranch, and a thriving veterinary practice." A slight frown creased her forehead. "Speaking of men…?"
"Let's not," Ashley said.
"You still haven't heard from Jack?"
"No. And that's fine with me."
"I don't think it is fine with you, Ashley. He's Tanner's friend. I could ask him to call Jack and—"
Olivia sighed. "Yeah," she said. "You're right. That would be interfering, and Tanner probably wouldn't go along with it anyhow."
Ashley stroked the kitten even as she tried not to bond with it. She was zero-for-zero on that score. "Jack and I had a fling," she said. "It's obviously over. End of story."
Olivia arched one perfect eyebrow. "Maybe you need a vacation," she mused aloud. "A new man in your life. You could go on one of those singles' cruises—"
Ashley gave a scoffing chuckle—it felt good to engage in girl talk with her sister again. "Sure," she retorted. "I'd meet guys twice my age, with gold chains around their necks and bad toupees. Or worse."
"What could be worse?" Olivia joked, grinning over the gold rim of her teacup.
"Spray-on hair," Ashley said decisively.
"Besides," Ashley went on, "I don't want to be out of town when you have the baby."
Olivia nodded, turned thoughtful again. "You should get out more, though."
"And do what?" Ashley challenged. "Play bingo in the church basement on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays? Join the Powder Puff bowling league? In case it's escaped your notice, O pregnant one, Stone Creek isn't exactly a social whirlwind."
Olivia sighed again, in temporary defeat, and glanced at her watch. "I'm supposed to meet Tanner at the clinic