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By Lyn Cote
Warner FaithCopyright © 2006 Lyn Cote
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGreenwich Village, May 1990
Can we talk about something, Aunty?" Carly Sinclair said, her dry throat making her sound hoarse. In worn, acid-washed blue jeans, she knelt on her aunt Kitty's kitchen floor and started scrubbing close to the baseboard. She'd tied her long black hair in a low ponytail so it wouldn't get into the bucket or drag on the floor. Her heart throbbed as she scrubbed. She glanced over her shoulder at her aunt.
In blue sweats, Kitty, who was really her great-great-aunt, shuffled slowly over to the table and eased down across from Carly, stifling a groan.
"Is your arthritis bothering you today?" Carly asked, pausing. Petite, silver-haired Kitty had always been a special person in her life. Carly had planned to use this conversation to prepare for the inevitable confrontation with her mother. But maybe this wasn't such a good idea. Kitty was really old-nearly ninety-three. What if my plan really upsets her? What if she has a stroke or something?
"Is that what you wanted to talk about? My arthritis?" Kitty grinned, her eyes crinkling up as they always did. "And can't I persuade you not to scrub my floor on your hands and knees?"
Carly shook her head. "You know you don't like the way Sylvia just swishes the mop around. Everything gets stuck in the corners." Twoyears before, Carly had been shocked to find Kitty on her knees trying to clean the corners herself. Carly had helped Kitty up and then taken over the job.
"Sylvia does her best," Kitty repeated for the thousandth time. "This getting old is for the birds. Just look at these hideous orthopedic shoes I'm forced to wear."
Carly half-smiled at her aunt's touch of humor. "Well, I've got young knees." Carly concentrated on swirling the scrub brush, ignoring the tension in her breast. "I'm sorry it's been so long-"
"What's on your mind?" Kitty cut in.
Carly took a deep breath and kept her head down. Now or never. "You know how Mom's been after me to decide what college I want to go to."
That's what Carly had always liked about her aunty. Kitty really listened. Unlike Carly's mother, Kitty didn't listen just long enough to start lecturing Carly. Nor did she just ignore what Carly said and go on as if she hadn't spoken a word.
Carly dropped the scrub brush in the bucket of warm wash water. She drew in a breath and began cautiously, "I don't want to go to college."
Kitty didn't answer right away. Then she said, "So, you know what you don't want to do. What do you want to do?"
Carly steeled herself for whatever reaction she might get. She sat back on her heels and looked up, meeting her aunt's eyes. "I've enlisted in the army."
Outside, just below the open rear kitchen window, Leigh Sinclair Gallagher, just arriving home from work, wondered if she'd heard her daughter right. It can't be. She wouldn't do anything that stupid.
"You've enlisted in the army?" Kitty's surprised voice floated out to Leigh.
"Yes, I got the idea last year at career day at school. They had recruiters from the navy, the army, the air force, and the Marines. I thought the army looked like the service that got things done."
Leigh felt as if the ground were moving under her like the earth tremors she'd felt almost twenty years before when she'd lived in San Francisco with Kitty. The army got things done? Life magazine images of the Vietnam War shot through Leigh's mind. She gripped the railing of the back steps.
"But why not go into service after you have your college degree?" Kitty asked. "Then you'd go in as an officer."
Leigh couldn't believe how calm her aunt sounded. Why wasn't she telling Carly how stupid this was? How ridiculous?
"I don't want to go to college-yet. I mean, I don't know what I want to do."
Leigh heard the clank of metal and the slosh of water and fumed. What was Carly doing? Was she scrubbing Kitty's floor again? Why didn't Kitty let Sylvia retire and get someone younger who could scrub the floor the way she wanted it? Leigh started up the steps, ready to interrupt.
"But how do you know you want to join the army, then?" Kitty asked.
"It's just the only thing that's appealed-"
"Hey, Mommy!" Little Michael ran up behind Leigh.
"Hey, you're home early! Look what I did in kindergarten today!" Her auburn-haired son waved a watercolor at her. "Look! We painted today!"
Leigh put on a bright smile and examined the mostly yellow painting while the two of them walked up the back steps, inside past Kitty's door, and up to the second-floor flat where Leigh, Nate, Michael, and Carly lived.
Leigh thought Michael's appearance had stopped her, fortunately, from barging in on her daughter and her great-aunt. Carly was a difficult child and she could be amazingly stubborn at times. Leigh needed time to think about what to do, and she didn't trust herself to go into Kitty's first-floor flat. She knew she wasn't a good enough actress to fool Kitty that she hadn't heard exactly what Carly and she had been talking about.
Michael chattered as she fixed him an after-school snack. Then she decided she needed to enlist her husband's support. Carly loved Nate, and Leigh didn't doubt that Nate could persuade Carly to drop this insane plan. Please come home, Nate. I need to talk to you. I need you tonight.
* * *
That evening, Nate walked into the apartment in the nick of time to help Leigh get their little son in bed and say good night. Then he headed straight for Carly's door to wish her a good night, too. But Leigh whispered to him not to and to follow her. Her expression was stormy, and he began to expect the start of another one of the endless circular arguments between his wife and himself. But he wasn't participating tonight. He was too beat.
"Okay." Nate leaned against the kitchen doorjamb, looking around for leftovers. His stomach growled. "What's put you in a foul mood?"
"Maybe if you'd come home earlier, you'd know." Leigh opened the refrigerator and then slipped a covered dish into the microwave above the stove.
Nate just stared at her. How could she make that accusation with a straight face? "You know when I'm working a case, I don't keep regular hours. When you have to work late, I don't nag you about it."
Leigh gave him her look that said, "Oh, really?" He hated that look. When had they started acting out this endless domestic drama, comprised of sharp words and unpleasant glares?
Then Leigh surprised him by holding her index finger to her closed lips and motioning him to join her at the table at the far side of the blue-and-white kitchen, farthest from the children's bedrooms. "Let's talk quietly. I don't want Carly to overhear us."
Concerned, Nate moved forward. He picked up a box of wheat crackers on the counter and then sat down at the table.
"What's wrong?" he asked in a subdued tone. "Did something happen to her at school?"
Leigh flicked away a few grains of salt from the oak tabletop. "You won't believe this, but this afternoon I overheard her tell Kitty that she wants to go into the army."
"You're kidding, right?" As he munched a salty cracker, he leaned back and let his tired legs stretch out under the table.
"I wish I were. What are we going to do?"
Listening to the whir of the microwave made him even hungrier. "She must have a reason-"
"I know what the reason is," Leigh snapped. "Some army recruiter who wanted to meet his quota got hold of her at career day last year and filled her full of-"
"But Carly isn't the kind of kid who's swayed by salesmanship," Nate interrupted, not liking Leigh's spin. "Carly's got a good head on her shoulders."
Leigh gave him her superior expression-raised eyebrows and pursed lips-that always grated on his nerves.
"Don't give me that look," Nate snapped. "Our daughter isn't stupid. There must be more to this than we know-"
"Why do you always take her part?"
"Because you never do," Carly declared from the kitchen doorway.
Hearing the hurt in his stepdaughter's voice, Nate rose and opened his arms.
In an old T-shirt, cotton pajama pants, and barefoot, Carly hurried to him and hugged him hard. "I heard you come in, and when I finished the chapter I was reading, I came out to hug you hello."
Nate rubbed her slender back. "Thanks, sweetheart. I always count on your hello-hugs." Because I never get them from your mother anymore.
"I wanted to discuss this with your stepfather first," Leigh announced, "but we might as well get this out in the open."
Carly stepped out of his embrace and faced her mother. "We might as well. I don't know how you found out, but yes, I want to enlist in the army."
"You're a minor and I won't sign for you to enlist," Leigh said, folding her arms.
"I expected that." Carly raised her chin. "I'll just work a grunt job until my birthday next year and then enlist."
"Why are you doing this?" Leigh asked. "What can you be thinking?"
The microwave bell rang. Carly lifted out the warm plate of chicken and wild rice and set it on the table in front of Nate. "Here, Dad."
"That can wait." Nate pushed the dish aside. The conflict had tied his stomach into double knots. "Come on, Carly." Scraping the wood floor, Nate pulled out the chair between his and Leigh's and motioned her to be seated and then he sat down again. "We three can talk this over rationally and figure out how to work this out."
"'Work this out'?" Leigh echoed. "She's not going to enlist. I forbid it."
Nate held up a hand to stop Carly from replying. "Leigh, Carly is a young woman now. Your days of forbidding her are over. Deal with it."
"She's only seventeen."
"You were only sixteen," Nate countered, "when you defied your mother and went to Dr. King's march in Washington."
"That isn't anything like this." Leigh's glance promised him open warfare. "That was just one day. This decision could change her life forever."
"From what you've told me, that day changed your life forever." He wouldn't let Leigh stonewall Carly. He'd seen her do it one time too many. "And any decision Carly makes about how to start out as an adult will impact her life, whatever that decision is."
"Don't you care about her?" Suddenly Leigh looked ready to cry.
"Nate loves me," Carly said, folding her arms in front of her.
"And I suppose that means I don't," Leigh snapped, blinking away tears.
"Leigh-" Nate began.
"Sometimes I don't love you." Carly leaned forward, her chin jutting forward, challenging. "You're always trying to keep everything under your thumb. I always have to be your idea of the perfect daughter to prove that you were the perfect single mother. I'm-"
"That's not true," Leigh objected. "I've never demanded that you get straight As or any of that kind of thing!"
"I don't think that's what Carly is talking about." Nate braced himself for heavy going. Why didn't Leigh use her good sense when it came to Carly, when it came to him?
Leigh glared at him. "What could you possibly be talking about?"
"I'm talking about the truth." Nate reached for Leigh's hand but she withheld it. "I thought that after we married and you told Carly about her father-"
"She didn't tell me anything about my father," Carly huffed.
"That's not true." Leigh slapped her palm on the tabletop. "I did tell you."
"You told me that you dated my dad but that you broke up with him. Big deal," Carly said with a sarcastic twist. "What did that tell me?"
Leigh clamped her mouth shut and her eyes blazed at Nate.
He tried another tack. "I thought after we married, and you told Carly about her father, that you would begin to loosen up. To be happy with me. To get closer to your daughter. But after a brief honeymoon period, you went right back to the grindstone. You're working your life and Michael's childhood away."
"Don't bring that up now." Leigh leaned toward him. "Carly isn't going to tell me that my successful career is what has caused her to entertain this ridiculous idea."
Nate wouldn't be deflected. "I urged you to tell Carly everything about her father and your relationship with him."
"You know why I didn't." Leigh wouldn't meet either Carly's or Nate's eyes.
"Why?" Carly gripped the edge of the table.
"I didn't want to hurt you," Leigh said in a haunting, forlorn tone.
Carly couldn't believe her mother could say those words with a straight face. "Not hurt me?" Carly felt her throat closing up. "What is he? An axe murderer? Don't you realize that not knowing ...?" Carly looked away, hiding the onrush of tears. "Who is my father? Why can't I know about him?" She couldn't go on.
"Nate is your father. He's the father who's raised you," Leigh insisted, sounding crushed yet defensive.
"He's not really my father," Carly blurted out. "You wouldn't let him adopt me." Admitting this shook her, but it felt good to let those long-suppressed words out.
"What do you mean?" Leigh swung around to face her. "I had a stepfather. He never adopted me, but I never felt he needed to."
"That's you. It's not me." Then Carly wouldn't look at either of them, fearing she'd gone too far. She hadn't meant to put Nate on the spot. Maybe he hadn't really wanted to adopt her. He might have just been being polite.
Nate gently took her hand. "Sweetheart, you are my daughter. And if you'd just let me know that it bothered you that I didn't adopt you, I would have. You know that, right?"
Carly blinked away tears. How could she tell him that when she was ten and had overheard them discussing this, she couldn't make herself say it? The yearning to belong to a father had been too deep, too crucial to be put into naked words.
As he had many times in her childhood, Nate tugged her and she slid willingly onto his lap. "You're my daughter, Carly. I still want to adopt you." He kissed her hair. "I love you. Never doubt that."
As always, Nate sensed just what she needed. Grateful for his arms around her, Carly buried her face in the crook between his neck and shoulder, frightened by the force of her reaction to this long-awaited declaration. Her feelings at the moment were too intense to face alone. As he stroked her hair, she grappled with them, with her lack of control. The lid had been yanked off her deep well of concealed emotions. Pain, loss, uncertainty, rejection whirled inside her, dark and thorny, tearing at her confidence, her peace.
She still couldn't speak, so in reply to his offer of adoption, she finally nodded against him.
"I'm sorry," her mother said quietly, touching Carly's back. "I didn't know it mattered that much to you. Why didn't you say anything?"
Carly lifted her head and faced her mother. "How could I tell you what was in my heart when you would never tell me the truth about myself? Who is my father? What is his name? Why did you break up with him? And-" Carly made herself ask the bedrock, most dangerous question. "Didn't he ever want to see me, talk to me?"
"I didn't want him to talk to you." Her mother stiffened. "Evidently you've made up some romantic image of him in your mind. By not letting him near you, I was protecting you."
"What was wrong with my father?" Carly held out both palms, pleading.
Leigh turned her head and looked away out the small window. She shook her head. Instant, blazing anger consumed Carly. "What's so wrong with my father? What did he do that was so bad that I couldn't even meet him, know his name?" The molten lava of bitterness against her mother for keeping the truth from her overflowed its channel, spilling out into searing words. "How bad could he be? You liked him well enough to sleep with him."
Leigh slapped Carly's face. And then she stalked from the room.
Too shocked, too incensed for words, Carly clung to Nate, who rubbed her back and murmured soothingly to her.
Ivy Manor, May 1990
Tall oaks and maples shaded the summerhouse behind Carly's great-grandmother's ancestral home in the early evening. Being there gave her confidence. At Ivy Manor she was completely loved. Chloe didn't dole out acceptance based on performance the way Leigh did.
In her pale blue graduation dress, Carly sat in the white wicker rocker with the wide curved arms and pushed a bare toe against the floor. She closed her eyes and listened to the chatter of voices around her. The three older generations-the eldest, her frail, silver-haired great-grandmother Chloe and great-great-aunt Kitty, next her grandmother Bette, and then her mother Leigh sat in a casual circle on venerable lawn furniture. Only Aunt Dory, her mother's younger sister, was missing. And Carly-the fourth generation-was getting ready to explode the quiet tranquility.
Excerpted from Carly by Lyn Cote Copyright © 2006 by Lyn Cote. Excerpted by permission.
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