Cast into Doubtby Patricia MacDonald
A gripping novel of domestic suspense - Shelby Sloan, a successful Philadelphia businesswoman in her early forties, has one child, a daughter whom she raised on her own. She gives her daughter, Chloe, and son-in-law, Rob, a Caribbean cruise as a gift, while she takes the opportunity to mind her four-year-old grandson. But life becomes a nightmare when Rob calls to tell her that Chloe has disappeared overboard. The police decide it was an accident, but Shelby refuses to accept the official verdict . . .
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Cast Into Doubt
By Patricia MacDonald
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2010 Patricia Bourgeau
All rights reserved.
The sound of a noontime television anchor chirping about her upcoming guests drifted into the bathroom as Shelby Sloan leaned across the wide, marble-topped sink toward the mirror, applying her mascara. She had slept late, run some errands, and taken a spinning class at the gym. Now, she was showered and just about ready to depart. Shelby stared at her expertly made-up face critically. At forty-two, Shelby's skin was radiant and unlined. Her thick, shiny blonde hair curved smoothly to her shoulders and remained one of her best features. In her twenties, when she was a single, working mother, barely able to buy groceries and pay the rent, she had always assumed that she would look like an old hag by the age of forty, but, despite years of work, night school, child-rearing and too little sleep, the passage of time had been kind to her appearance.
A knock at the front door of her condo startled her. She wasn't expecting anyone.
Probably Jen, she thought, with a last minute question or two. Her best friend, an interior decorator named Jennifer Brandon, worked at home and lived on the same floor of the building as Shelby. She was going to water Shelby's plants and take in the mail while Shelby was at Chloe's. Both single, they spent a lot of time in one another's company, by design or default, for an evening of wine and dinner. Shelby smoothed down her cashmere sweater over her pants. 'Coming,' she called out. She glanced at her watch. Chloe was a stickler for punctuality. She needed to get going.
Shelby opened the door to find Talia Winter, her older sister, standing there. Talia never bothered with pleasantries. 'I'm on my lunch hour. I called Markson's,' she announced, naming the Philadelphia department store where Shelby was the chief women's wear buyer. 'They said you were on vacation.'
'Yes, I am,' said Shelby. 'Today is the first day.'
'You didn't answer your phone.'
Shelby sighed and stepped aside. It was true that she often did not answer when she saw her sister's name on the caller ID. Talia only called about one subject – their mother, Estelle. Talia still lived in the run-down family house in Northeast Philadelphia with their alcoholic mother, who had, six months ago, been diagnosed with end stage liver disease. She was not eligible for a transplant because she still refused to give up drinking. With no family or home of her own, Talia had spent her adult life catering to the needs of Estelle Winter – a woman who had been either disruptive or absent in their lives for as long as Shelby could remember.
Talia stalked past Shelby, went down the hall and stopped in the living room of Shelby's spacious high rise apartment. She looked around critically and her gaze fell on an overnight bag that was packed and sitting on a gray suede chair.
'Where are you going for your vacation?' Talia demanded. She was fifty years old and looked sixty. Her short, sensible haircut was salt-and-pepper. She was dressed in her work clothes, a shapeless polyester pantsuit and plain blue shirt, probably purchased at Wal-Mart. Her unsophisticated appearance was deceiving. Talia ran the computer lab at Franklin University in Center City. She had a PhD and was considered to be an expert on artificial intelligence. Talia had always had a brilliant mind and an abysmal lack of social skills.
Shelby tried to keep her tone reasonable. 'I told you. Chloe and Rob are going on a cruise. I am taking care of Jeremy while they're gone.'
'You need to come and see Mother,' Talia said. 'She's getting worse by the day. She spends most of the time in bed now. Yesterday she didn't recognize me.'
'I'm sorry, Talia, but I can't,' said Shelby. 'I told you about this months ago. I gave my daughter and her husband this cruise as a Christmas gift. They've been planning it for months. And I've been looking forward to spending this time with my grandson.'
'I wouldn't mind a vacation myself,' said Talia pointedly.
'So take one,' said Shelby. 'It would do you good.'
'With mother this sick?'
Shelby sighed, and did not reply.
'Besides, I could never just go off and leave her with strangers,' said Talia.
'They're not strangers. She knows those caregivers as well as she knows anyone else. They come every day.' Even as Shelby pointed this out, she knew that it was futile to try to reason with Talia.
Talia looked at Shelby as if she had not heard a word. 'You can bring the boy with you if that's what you want. It's her grandchild, after all.'
Shelby wanted to shout out, never. I would never subject my grandson to her. But Shelby knew better than to get into this with her sister. She would never completely escape the web of guilt and duty that kept Talia prisoner in that gloomy house with their incoherent mother. But Shelby did her best to resist it. Since Estelle's diagnosis she helped pay for caregivers, and she made the occasional perfunctory visit, but that was all. Talia was apparently intent on sacrificing her life for their mother. Shelby refused to feel obliged by her sister's choice. If that's what she wanted to do, that was her business.
'I'm certainly not going to bring a four-year-old around someone who is that ill,' said Shelby. Not to mention drunk, she thought.
'Never mind what would be good for mother,' said Talia.
Shelby raised her hands. 'I'm not discussing this. I have to get to Chloe's. Why don't you get in touch with Glen? Maybe he'll come see her.'
'Oh, Glen. Right.' Talia snorted, put her hands on her hips and glanced around the apartment. 'It crossed my mind that he might be here with you.'
Shelby looked at Talia in disbelief. 'Why would he be here? You think he's hiding from you? You know that Glen does what he pleases. I haven't seen him in months,' said Shelby. Their younger brother, Glen, though highly intelligent, was jobless, aimless, and had no permanent address. In his late thirties, he still had many friends who let him crash on their couches or housesit their homes. He showed up periodically and always persuaded Talia that he was worried about their mother, and undyingly grateful for Talia's stewardship. Shelby perceived little sincerity in his show of concern. He did it to keep the peace. 'Look Talia, I have to be going.'
Talia peered at Shelby. 'Why doesn't the kid come here?'
As she often did, Talia had stumbled upon, and prodded, a sensitive subject. Shelby would have preferred to have her grandson at her own, comfortable apartment. But her daughter, Chloe, had gravely insisted that she didn't want any upheaval in Jeremy's life, so Shelby had agreed to stay at their row house in Philadelphia's Manayunk neighborhood. Shelby was not about to argue the point. She was simply glad to have a whole week with her grandson. 'He goes to school near their house,' Shelby said, hating the defensiveness she heard in her own voice. 'It's just easier this way.'
'Sounds to me like she doesn't trust you with her kid,' said Talia.
'Well, you're wrong,' said Shelby. 'Now, if you don't mind.'
'I have to get back to work anyway. I don't know why I wasted my lunch hour coming here,' said Talia. 'I should have known better.'
I don't know why you came here either, Shelby thought. She picked up her bag from the grey suede chair. 'I'll walk you out,' she said.
Chloe was standing outside her tidy, gray stucco-front row house when Shelby arrived. She made a point of looking at her watch. Chloe had asked Shelby to be there promptly, so that she could accompany Chloe to pick up Jeremy at his preschool. That way, Shelby would know how to get there in the week that Chloe and Rob were away on their cruise. Shelby glanced at the dashboard clock. The unexpected visit from Talia had thrown her off a little bit. And the city traffic had been heavy from her apartment in Society Hill to the gentrifying blue-collar neighborhood across the river where Chloe and Rob lived. She had cut it close, but she was not late.
Shelby felt the usual pangs of love and anxiety as she gazed at her daughter's serious expression. Chloe had long hair that waved around her oval, freckled face. She was lean from years of religiously eating healthy foods and daily jogging. She was dressed in her nurse's scrubs, which she wore for her part-time job in an ob-gyn's office. At twenty-four, Chloe was the image of her father, Steve, a customer Shelby met at a South Street coffee house when she worked as a barista her last year of high school. Shelby and Steve were married on Valentine's Day at City Hall, along with about thirty other couples who wanted a Valentine's wedding. Steve left soon thereafter, despite the fact that Shelby was pregnant.
When she learned of Shelby's pregnancy, Shelby's mother, Estelle, counseled abortion. When Shelby refused, Estelle washed her hands of her middle child, and her grandchild. Shelby threw herself into night school and hard work to provide for her daughter. Eventually, she gained degrees, promotions, and a handsome salary. Once, Shelby overheard Chloe's best friend, Franny, whose parents rented them the rooms over their South Philly pizzeria and often minded Chloe after school, ask why they could never play at Chloe's apartment. Chloe explained to Franny that her mother was never home because she would rather go to work. Even now, the memory of those words was painful. 'That's not true! That's not fair!' Shelby had wanted to cry out. But what was the use of protesting? The only thing that mattered was that her child saw her life that way. As the years passed, and Shelby managed to save enough money to move them out of that rough neighborhood, Chloe began to understand why her mother worked so hard. But the pain of that childish assessment lingered in Shelby's heart.
Shelby found a parking space down the block, got out and stretched. She walked back to her daughter and held out her arms. Chloe gave her a quick, fierce hug. Then she pulled away. 'We have to go,' Chloe said.
'I hope I'm not late,' said Shelby. 'Talia stopped by.'
Chloe rolled her eyes. Talia had gone about her life as if her niece did not exist. Her indifference bordered on cruelty. 'What did she want?' Chloe asked.
'She wanted to guilt-trip me about my mother,' said Shelby. 'What else?'
'Did she have any luck?' Chloe asked.
'What do you think?' Shelby asked. 'Hey, honey, I need to run inside and powder my nose.'
'What about Jeremy?'
'It will only take one minute,' said Shelby.
'He'll think I forgot about him,' said Chloe.
Shelby recognized the anxiety in Chloe's eyes. Chloe tried to be a perfect mother. She had cooked and pureed Jeremy's baby food from organic vegetables, rushed him to the doctor if he so much as turned pale, and was a housekeeper whose neatness bordered on obsession. She only worked part time at the medical practice so that Jeremy wouldn't have to spend his time in day care. 'No honey, we'll be there in plenty of time. He'll be OK. Can you let me in?' she said.
Chloe gave a small sigh and led the way back to the front door. It was a narrow, low-ceilinged house which, along with its neighbors, had been built on the hillside that rose above the Main Street of Manayunk. This part of the city, along the banks of the Schuylkill River, had once been a neighborhood of factory workers. In recent years it had become a popular neighborhood for young people with more energy than money. Rob, a social worker, had bought this house with Lianna, his first wife. When their daughter, Molly, was eight years old, Lianna, who suffered from headaches, sought treatment from a highly recommended neurologist named Harris Janssen. At the time, Chloe was a receptionist in Dr Janssen's practice. She watched the affair unfold, and ended up giving advice and comfort to Lianna's miserable husband. Lianna divorced Rob and married the neurologist who was treating her. Now, Lianna, Molly, and Harris lived in a sprawling stone colonial in the upscale suburb of Gladwyne.
Not long after, Chloe and Rob were married in a quiet ceremony and Chloe moved into the Manayunk house. She removed every trace of Rob's former life except for Molly's room which Rob had insisted be kept exactly the same for his daughter's visits. It was in Molly's room that Shelby would be staying while she cared for Jeremy. To Chloe's annoyance, Rob had insisted on asking his daughter's permission, but Shelby was not offended. On the contrary, she thought it showed a healthy respect for Molly and her space.
Chloe's house was, as always, immaculate, the walls hung with the quilts she had made herself, and a ceramic pitcher of perfectly fresh flowers on the dining room table. You'd never know a child lived here, Shelby thought. Their apartments had always been chaotic and strewn with toys throughout Chloe's childhood. She could never understand how Chloe managed to keep her own house perfectly tidy. Shelby made a quick trip to the tiny downstairs powder room beneath the staircase while Chloe waited, and then they went back outside. Chloe got into the front seat of her own car, which was parked in front of the house, on the passenger side. Shelby walked around and opened the driver's side door.
'Do you want to take my car, honey?' she asked.
Chloe looked at her in disbelief. 'Your car does not have a car seat, mom. A child cannot ride in a car without a car seat,' she explained, as if Shelby had suggested decapitation as a method of curing a headache.
'Oh right, of course,' said Shelby. 'OK.'
Shelby pushed some food wrappers aside and got into the driver's seat of Chloe's car. She was struck, as she had often been in the past, by the fact that the inside of the car was a mess. It seemed to be the one place where Chloe's compulsive neatness was not in control. The front and back seats both were littered with empty water bottles, juice boxes, food wrappers, catalogs, and papers. There was change scattered over the floor mats as if someone had opened the door and hurled in a handful. Shelby glanced over at her daughter. 'Don't you want to drive?' she asked. 'You know the way.'
'I'll give you directions,' said Chloe. 'You'll need to drive my car this week, because you cannot take Jeremy in your car. Not without a car seat.'
'I won't. I promise,' said Shelby.
'So, you need to get used to this car,' said Chloe.
'I think I'll get the hang of it pretty easily,' said Shelby.
Chloe frowned. 'Every car is different.'
'Sweetie, it's not like I'm trying to fly a plane here. It's a car.'
'I'd feel better,' Chloe insisted, 'knowing you had already tried it.'
'OK, sure,' said Shelby, turning on the engine.
'Take the first right and then you're going to go three-quarters of a mile,' said Chloe, 'until you see our church. You've been there before.'
Shelby nodded and began to drive. She knew that Jeremy's preschool was located in the church basement. It always sounded strange to her ears to hear Chloe talk about her church. Shelby had not raised Chloe in any religion, but when Chloe married Rob, she adopted his faith. His parents were missionaries in Southeast Asia, and Rob's background had been extremely religious. Shelby made it a point to be respectful of their choice, even though it seemed foreign to her. She glanced over at her daughter, and was shocked to see tears standing in her eyes. 'Chloe, what's the matter?'
'I just hate leaving Jeremy. It's going to be so hard on him to be without us for a week.'
Shelby felt vaguely insulted at the image of Jeremy, miserable in her care, but she knew it was just Chloe, dreading the separation. Mother and son had spent very little time apart. 'I'll keep him busy. Don't worry,' said Shelby. 'He'll be fine.'
'I hope so,' said Chloe.
'Aren't you excited about the cruise?' Shelby asked.
'It will be good to get away for a while,' Chloe admitted.
'No going to work or making beds or meals for a week,' said Shelby.
'I could use a break,' Chloe admitted with a sigh. 'Not from Jeremy but ... We never have time alone. Rob and I. I think we need that.'
'You should call me more often. You know I'm happy to watch Jeremy.'
'I know how demanding your job is,' Chloe said, sounding vaguely rueful.
'Didn't you tell me that Molly was old enough to babysit these days?'
Chloe shrugged. 'She's only thirteen. I have to go pick her up, and take her home to their big mansion and make small talk with Lianna. Not exactly pleasant.'
'I suppose not,' said Shelby.
'And now Lianna is pregnant. And, of course, she has to go to Dr Cliburn,' Chloe said, referring to the ob-gyn for whom she worked. 'So I have to see her there too. I just hope she doesn't decide to run off with him now'.'
'Come on now,' Shelby chided her with a smile.
'Well, I wouldn't put it past her,' said Chloe. 'Men never see through her. They all think she's so ... perfect. Even after what she did to Rob – leaving him for Dr Janssen – he won't allow any criticism of her.'
'Well, she is Molly's mother. And Rob respects that. He's a very concerned father,' Shelby reproved her gently. 'To both of his children. You're lucky. A lot of men wouldn't care.'
Chloe's voice sounded small and bitter. 'Like my father.'
Shelby always felt guilty for the effect that loss had had on Chloe's life. 'I'm just saying that you married a good man. You made a wise choice.'
Excerpted from Cast Into Doubt by Patricia MacDonald. Copyright © 2010 Patricia Bourgeau. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Patricia Macdonald's darkly hypnotic tales have captivated readers across America, as well as in France, where she is a #1 bestselling author. Her previous novels include "Suspicious Origin, Stranger in the House, Not Guilty, " and the Edgar Award-nominated "The Unforgiven." She lives with her husband and daughter in New Jersey, where she is working on her next novel.
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I read this novel in two evenings and couldn't wait to find out how it ended. Her novels take many twists & turns & engage the reader's mind with many questions. Riveting and mind-boggling from start to finish.
I finished this book in one day...couldn't put it down! Have always loved Patricia Mac Donald's books. Will go browsing for another right now.
This is by far my favorite of her books! I have read all Patricia MacDonald books and always get them as they first come out. I could not put this one down. From the first page I was hooked and wondered through the entire book how it would all tie together. I passed this book around to several friends and they loved it too. Do not pass this book up!
Totally absorbing, psychological thriller. I couldn't put it down. This author has never disappointed me. Her women-in-peril suspense novels can be quite dark. If you like Joy Fielding, you will love Patricia MacDonald.