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By MARY BURTON
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2009 Mary Burton
All rights reserved.
Tuesday, September 26, 7:15 a.m.
Adrianna Barrington ran down the center hallway of her house, keys clenched in one hand and a coffee mug in the other, as she wedged her feet in black leather flats and slid on a jean jacket. Fatigue-strained eyes had refused contacts, so she'd settled for tortoiseshell glasses. Breakfast was a banana muffin shoved in her purse. Make-up was simply mascara and lipstick.
Last night she'd planned to go to bed early. She wanted to be rested and ready to face this day. But an eleven p.m. call from the hospital emergency room derailed those plans. Her mother had arrived by ambulance and feared she was having a heart attack. Adrianna had dressed quickly and rushed to the hospital.
Over the last few years, Adrianna had seen the inside of too many hospitals. She'd grown to hate antiseptic smells, beeping monitors, and panicked visitors who endured endless waits for test results. She'd found Margaret Barrington in a back cubicle arguing with a nurse.
Margaret Barrington's anger dissolved into tears. Adrianna glanced at the nurse, who'd made a quick retreat.
"It's okay, Mom. Don't worry."
And so they'd spent the night, Adrianna sitting next to her mother's bed on a round hard stool while her mother slept. And the unanswered question that they had argued about just two days ago remained wedged between them as it had these last nine months.
Why didn't you tell me I was adopted?
I don't know. I'm sorry.
At five a.m. the doctors had pronounced Margaret healthy and fit to go home. She'd simply had a panic attack.
Adrianna had taken her mother home where the waiting home nurse had put her to bed. By the time Adrianna arrived home and showered the grime and smells of the hospital from her skin and hair, it was nearly seven.
And now she was late.
She scooped up her oversized Coach bag from the entryway table and yanked her black lacquered front door open. Temperatures for this Indian summer morning already nudged seventy degrees, and humidity left the air thick and sticky. Browns and golds were slowly replacing summer's green leaves on the one-hundred-year old oak in her yard.
Adrianna closed the door with unintentional force that made the brass lion-head knocker clank. She dropped her keys into her free hand and dashed down the front steps to her Land Rover, sloshing coffee. She had a little over forty-five minutes to make a fifty-minute drive in rush-hour traffic.
Always late. Always overscheduled. Always looking for the next project to keep the bills paid.
Adrianna rushed past the FOR SALE sign in her front yard to her car parked by the curb. She opened the door, tossed in her purse, and slid behind the wheel. As she raised her cup to her lips for a quick sip, she noticed the card under her windshield.
Groaning, Adrianna set her cup in the holder, got out, and plucked the rich linen envelope free. Her name was written in a bold, thick handwriting. Adrianna Thornton. Her married name, a name she'd not used in two years. She ripped open the back flap and pulled out the card.
Happy Third Anniversary. Adrianna, you are mine forever.
The unexpected endearment sent a bolt of fear and pain through her body. Her heart pounded.
You are mine forever. Craig.
Time stopped. Remorse broadsided Adrianna as she traced a thumb over the embossed CRT at the top of the card. The initials stood for Craig Robert Thornton.
Good God, she'd forgotten today was her third anniversary. How could she forget?
This was the kind of note Craig would have written her. Simple. Endearing. Heartfelt. He'd always been writing her notes. Love you, babe. You're the best. Always yours.
But her husband couldn't have written this endearment.
Craig Thornton was dead.
Tears burned in her eyes as she stared at the bold script. Her hand slid to her stomach, hollow and empty.
Who could have left her this?
She glanced around at the University Drive neighborhood's neat brick one-level homes and well-manicured lawns half-expecting — even hoping — to catch someone staring. In this moment, she'd dearly have loved to channel her pain into a fight.
A Prada-clad neighbor dragging a green recycling bin to the curb; an older man juggling a coffee cup and briefcase as he lowered into his Lexus; and a thirtysomething mom hustling elementary age kids into a van for the morning trip to private school. It was business as usual. Painfully predictable. Nothing out of place.
There could be only one explanation for the card. It was a coward's attempt to frighten her and throw her off balance because she was selling the Thornton land and estate she'd inherited from her husband. The Thornton estate, called the Colonies, was a brick antebellum home in eastern Henrico County that sat on twenty acres of prime riverfront property. It predated the Civil War and was revered by historians. Selling the Colonies would drag this forgotten pocket of land into the twenty-first century. And there were some who didn't like the changes on the horizon.
Today not only was it her wedding anniversary, it was the day contractors were scheduled to move the eleven Thornton family graves from the estate. The land had been sold, and all that was left was to move the graves. By day's end her ties to the Thorntons would be forever severed.
When she'd filed permits with the state to remove the graves, she'd expected and braced for angry words, protests, and even lawsuits. But she'd expected nothing like this.
She marched around the side of the house, opened the lid to a trash can, dumped the note in the bin, and slammed the metal lid down. The clang reverberated up her arm.
Adrianna turned her back on the trash and moved forward. "I am not going to be scared off by a bunch of cowards."
Stillness sank into her bones and she felt sudden hot tears burn her eyes. She tipped her head back, willing the sadness to vanish. "It means nothing. Someone is just messing with you."
And yet the simple words scraped open old wounds she'd prayed had healed.
Adrianna's still damp hair brushed her face and clung to her skin like a spiderweb. Suddenly she didn't have the patience for the thick mane. She combed her fingers through her hair until it was off her face and tied it back with a rubber band.
A measure of control returning, she got into her car, locked the doors, and clicked on the radio. She cranked a Sheryl Crow tune. The singer's words and melody rolled over her and coaxed away her fears. She wouldn't think about the damn card. Her only priority today was getting the graves moved.
Adrianna fired up the engine, backed out of her driveway, and soon was skimming east down I-64. She elbowed aside thoughts of the note and used the drive time to call clients on her cell.
She owned Barrington Designs, an interior design business that specialized in home décor. A business that required not only an eye for design and color, but a talent for managing thousands of details that fit together like the pieces of a puzzle. Fabric colors. Shades of tile. Hardware. Furniture selection. All had to be considered, chosen, and monitored. It took endless follow-up calls to keep her projects on time and budget.
By the time Adrianna exited the interstate and wound down the old country roads to the estate, she'd contacted two painters, a wallpaper hanger, and a furniture company in North Carolina. She concluded her last call as she reached the estate's white brick pillars.
The grass by the entrance was overgrown. The paint on the estate's columns was chipped and several of the top bricks were missing thanks to age and a hurricane that had hit the county in late August.
A savvy seller in this slowing real estate market would have worried about curb appeal, but the estate had sold within hours of being listed. The buyer, William Mazur, was a powerfully built, fortysomething man with buzzed hair and sun-weathered skin. He had explained that he had always loved the property and had dreamed of owning it since he'd first moved to the area. He'd paid her asking price and his only stipulation was that she remove the family graveyard from the estate. Having graves on the property was too unsettling for his new wife. She'd agreed immediately.
Now as she drove through the pillars toward the house, she fended off jabs of guilt. The Thorntons had treasured the Colonies. So much family history. So much tradition. And she was selling out.
Her mind drifted to the last time she and Craig had visited. Just a week before their late September wedding, her mother-in-law-to-be Frances Thornton had asked the couple to travel to the estate and place flowers on the graves of the departed Thorntons. Frances and Adrianna's own mother Margaret Barrington had been friends since college and Adrianna had grown up loving Aunt Frances and would have done anything for the woman who by then was weeks away from losing her battle with cancer.
"Craig, you really need to take this seriously," Adrianna had said as she'd knelt in front of the grave.
Craig's thick blond hair hung restlessly over crystal blue eyes and he reminded her more of a boy than a man. He wore khakis, a white polo, and Italian loafers with no socks. "I am taking this seriously, babe." He checked his Rolex watch. "How long do you think this is going to take?"
"I don't know. We're supposed to put flowers on each grave and have a moment of silence."
"What's with the moment of silence?"
"I don't know. This is your family tradition, not mine."
Adrianna laid the lilies on the grave and rose, brushing the leaves from her designer jeans. "Now take my hand and let's bow our heads."
His smile was loving, indulgent. "You worry about the details so much, Adrianna."
And he never worried. "Traditions hold families together."
"They suffocate me."
"Craig." The warning note in her voice reminded him that she'd broken their engagement last summer. She'd grown tired of the parties and the glib jokes. She had needed a man, not a boy. Only a great deal of pressure from her mother and his mother had brought her back to him at summer's end. This was their second chance.
Craig straightened his shoulders and his expression became somber. "Okay, I'll be more serious. I promise." He wrapped long fingers around her smooth, soft hand.
Placated, she smiled. "Just stand here for a minute in silence."
They stood in front of Craig's father's grave: Robert Thornton, devoted husband to Frances and loving father to Craig. She bowed her head and said a silent prayer for the Thorntons and for the marriage she was about to enter.
Within seconds Craig started to squirm and tap his foot. She opened one eye and peeked at him. "Didn't your dad ever talk about this ceremony?"
Craig tossed her a rueful grin. "You knew Dad. He wasn't the talkative type."
Robert Thornton, unlike his only son, had been a serious, stern man. "He had to have said something."
"Dad wasn't as much into the family legacy thing as much as Mom was. You know how obsessed she is with the family. Especially now."
Adrianna desperately wanted Craig to take charge of this moment and be a man worthy of her sacrifices. "And?"
He gave her a good-natured smile. "I honor the Thornton family and the privileges they've bestowed. And into the family welcome my new bride. We will be forever and always together."
She lifted a brow. "That's what you're supposed to say?" He leaned forward. "Close enough. And we're supposed to kiss."
"Really." He winked as he kissed her warmly on the lips. "Now, I have a lovely bottle of Chardonnay and a picnic lunch in the trunk of my car. Let's enjoy this day and leave the dead in peace."
She let him wrap his arms around her and she sank into the warm embrace, savoring the scent of his cologne. "Do you take anything seriously?"
"I take you seriously." Genuine emotion punctuated the words. "I love you. I never want to lose you again, Adrianna."
The rapid beat of his heart drummed against her ear. Craig did love her. And she cared deeply for him. She just hoped it was enough and that marriage would help him settle down and mature.
He hauled her back and stared into her eyes. "What?"
She nibbled her bottom lip, now afraid that he wouldn't want the child. In so many ways he was a child. "Four weeks."
Craig's mouth rose into a genuine smile. He hugged her close. "Babe, this is great!"
"You're okay with this? I know it wasn't planned."
He chuckled warmly. "It's the best news I've ever heard! Life is going to just get better and better."
Two months later a drunk driver had broadsided their car. She'd miscarried and Craig had suffered irreparable brain damage. He'd languished in a coma for two years before he'd died last December.
A twin pair of cardinals flapped across the drive, startling her and closing her mind to the memories that only made her miserable.
A deep breath loosened the tightness in her chest as she drove the half mile down the gravel driveway, which flowed into the circular loop by the old house's front door. Out of the car, she glanced at her watch. With minutes to spare before the scheduled meeting with the grave excavation team at the cemetery, she had time to check on the progress in the house.
The place had been a showpiece just fifteen years ago, and had hosted some of the state's most powerful and rich. She'd attended parties here as a teenager. Frances had even hosted her sixteenth birthday party in this house.
But over the last few years, she'd not visited the property. Her neglect showed in the rot that had eaten away at the rounded columns, the mold that had dulled the whitewashed clapboard, and the missing shingles damaged in the August storm.
Adrianna climbed the front steps and moved into the central foyer that led to a wide staircase and a long hallway that cut through the first floor. Open doors leaked light in from the side rooms to the hallway.
"Mrs. Wells," Adrianna shouted.
Mrs. Wells peered out the front parlor. The housekeeper was a sixtysomething woman with short curly red-gray hair and a plump frame that filled out her blue sweatshirt and faded jeans. She and her husband, Dwayne, lived just miles from here and had looked after the estate for forty years. The woman dabbed red-rimmed eyes. "Yes, ma'am."
Concern gave Adrianna pause. "Is everything all right, Mrs. Wells?"
Mrs. Wells sniffed. "Yes, yes, I'm fine. It's just so emotional closing up the old place. So many memories. Thank you for asking, Mrs. Thornton."
Adrianna tensed. "Please, just call me Adrianna."
Mrs. Wells offered a lopsided smile. "It just doesn't feel right calling you by your given name."
The housekeeper was over thirty years Adrianna's senior. "This isn't the nineteenth century, Mrs. Wells."
A hint of humor sparked in pale green eyes. "Now that depends on who you ask. Some folks around here would strongly argue that point. Fact, I suspect some are still thinking the Confederacy will again rise."
"I suppose you are right." Adrianna smiled, following her into the parlor.
White sheets covered the furniture and carpets had been rolled. The furnishings would go with the house but the twenty-three paintings, which now were crated and tilting against the walls, belonged to Adrianna. They awaited transport to the auction house where they'd be sold in a week. Auction proceeds would be donated to the new Thornton Neonatal Unit at Mercy Hospital.
"It looks like you've made headway downstairs."
"All the furniture has been polished and covered in the front two rooms. I've still to do the rest of upstairs furnishings."
"Are Dwayne and Ben coming today to move the furniture to the warehouse?" Mrs. Wells's husband and son, Dwayne and Ben Wells owned a successful moving company that specialized in antique furniture and artwork. Adrianna had used them on several Barrington Designs jobs.
"Ben said to tell you it would be first thing tomorrow. They had another small job today. I think antiques to a dealer." She smiled. "The paintings will go to the auction house tomorrow as well."
"You'll have each piece cleaned by then?"
"Great. The new buyer, Mr. Mazur, had insisted the home's interior be pristine."
"Excuse me for asking, but isn't Mr. Mazur bringing in contractors to renovate the wiring and plumbing?"
"He is. And you're right, the contractors are going to tear the place up when they modernize. Why Mr. Mazur wants the house cleaned before a renovation is beyond me. But he is the buyer."
Excerpted from Dying Scream by MARY BURTON. Copyright © 2009 Mary Burton. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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