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Julia turned off her shower and heard the phone ring-
ing. She grabbed a towel. "Oh, great." With just thirty minutes to dress, hail a cab and travel ten blocks to an off-Broadway theater for a Friday opening matinee, she didn't have time for conversation. Nevertheless, she raced to her nightstand and picked up the portable.
Caller ID displayed her mother's name. Julia considered not answering, but she couldn't do that. It wouldn't necessarily be bad news. Her mom didn't have a problem every time she called. Although since Julia's dad died a year ago, it seemed as if she did.
spread and punched the Connect button. "Hi, Mama. What's up? I'm kind of in a hurry "
There was a moment's pause, then a trembling sob from Cora.
"Mama, what's wrong?"
"W Wayne's here," she said. The stutter alerted Julia that her mother was either nervous or upset. This could be a long call. Tucking the phone into the crook of her neck, she walked to her dresser and took out some underwear. "What's he doing there?"
"Hehe brought K-Katie."
Oh. Well, that was okay. Julia slipped on her panties and reached for a bra. "That's wonderful," she said. "You must be excited to have Katie for a visit."
"It's not a visit," Cora said, her words coming slowly. Alarm raised goose bumps on Julia's arms. "Mama, where's Tina? Is she there?"
"No." A quaking sob stopped Cora's speech.
Julia gripped the phone more tightly and spoke deliberately. "Tell me, Mama. Where's Tina?"
There was no answer, only a rustling sound. The next voice Julia heard was Wayne's. "Hey, Julia, it's me." Julia had never gotten along with her sister's live-in boyfriend, a man she considered a Neanderthal.
"What's going on, Wayne?"
"I don't know how else to tell you, but Tina's dead. She killed herself."
"What?" The towel fell to the floor. Julia sat heavily on the mattress, feeling as though a vicious clamp were squeezing her chest.
"It was pretty awful," Wayne said. "When she wasn't in the house yesterday morning, I went outside nightgown on."
Pretty awful. How could he summarize this horrendous news with such an idiotic description? Her sister was dead. She meant something to people, maybe not to Wayne but to Julia. And Cora. And certainly Katie. Katie. Julia tried to draw a deep breath but only managed to push out two words. "She drowned?"
"Yeah. She left a note like suicide victims do. The police found footprints leading to the lake. She must have just walked into the water." He paused a moment before adding, "I don't know, Julia. Tina hadn't been feeling too good lately."
Julia blinked hard, releasing hot tears onto her cheeks. "Wayne?"
"Is Katie therecan she hear you?"
"Well, hell, Julia, she knows. There wasn't any way to keep it from her. The cops were everywhere. And the ambulance "
"Where's Katie now?"
"We're at your mom's store. She's sitting at the snack bar coloring. She's okay."
You idiot. "Put Mama on." Julia had to strain to understand her mother through the incessant buzzing in her own mind. Nothing made sense. Tina was often emotional, but this it was unthinkable. "Y-you've got to come h-home," Cora said.
"Of course, Mama."
"I can't take any more."
"We've got to raise K-Katie. It's what Tina wanted. It's why W-Wayne brought her here."
"We will, Mama. We'll take care of her." Julia had run out of air, out of strength. She clamped her hand over her mouth to stifle a cry.
"When will you get here?"
Julia bit her bottom lip. "I'll leave for the airport as soon as I pack a few things. I'll get the first stand-by seat to Charlotte."
"I will, Mama. I'll see you soon."
"W-Wayne's going back to Tennessee, but he doesn't know how long he'll stay in the c-cabin. He's giving me his c-cell phone number."
Big of him. Julia choked back an accusation that Wayne had never been much of a father to Katie. She kept quiet because this time he'd done the right thing. He'd brought Katie to Cora, where she'd be safe and loved. Julia knew that, and, with her last breath, so had Tina.
She put down the phone, pulled her suitcase from the closet shelf and tossed clothes inside. As she was zipping it up, she remembered to grab the prescription her doctor had given her a few months ago. The pills were intended to be a quick, temporary fix. She needed them now more than ever.
A LITTLE AFTER 10:30 p.m. Julia called her mother from the car-rental agency at the Charlotte, North Carolina, airport. When she heard her daughter's voice, Cora broke into tears again. "Where are you, Julia? Are you almost here?"
"Yes, Mama. I'm at the airport. I'll be home in a few hours."
"I'll wait up for you."
Julia knew it wouldn't do any good to advise her mother to go to bed, to remind her that she wouldn't arrive until nearly 2:00 a.m. Cora didn't sleep well under the best of circumstances and surely her anxiety level was at the breaking point now. "If you want," she said.
"Is Wayne still there?"
"Oh, no. He left. He said he'd t-try to send something for Katie's support when he found a decent job."
Gee, thanks, Wayne. "How is Katie?"
Cora sniffled, muffling her answer with the tissue Julia could picture in her hands. "She's hardly said a word, the p-poor thing. But she's sleeping now in Tina's old room."
Julia ached for all of them but especially for eightyear-old Katie. Past resentments that no longer seemed to matter had kept the sisters apart, so Julia had seen her niece only on rare occasions when they all gathered at Cora's house. She'd always found the girl quiet and respectful. Julia had attributed her demeanor to a creative, intelligent mind. Like a lot of kids, Katie preferred reading and drawing to playing outside. Only now did Julia think that introspective behavior might have signalled a deep emotional problem. Julia would have to watch her carefully.
"Did you tell her I was coming?" she asked Cora.
"Yes, I told her."
Julia concentrated on how she could help Katie get through this tragedy. In the time she had, she would certainly try, but she wondered how much could really be accomplished in the one month leave of absence she'd arranged from her job at Night Lights Magazine. "I'll see you soon, Mama."
"Drive carefully." Cora sobbed. "You and Katie are all I have now. I couldn't b-bear it if anything happened to you."
Cora had managed to turn a simple motherly word of caution into a dire warning. But it was an easy threehour drive into the mountains with little traffic. "I'll be careful," she said.
Two hours after she left Charlotte, Julia watched the landscape change from the flat, straight panorama of central North Carolina to the gently rolling swells of the Blue Ridge foothills. The highway was bordered by trees that in the daylight would show the first splendor of autumn, though now, in the middle of the night, the colors were all blended shades of deep charcoal. Fall had always been Julia's favorite time of year. She felt sad now thinking that it might never be again.
An hour later, she turned off the main four-lane highway onto the narrow road that wound through the picturesque small town of Glen Springs. Julia's lights flashed on the wooden placard that announced its name and its population of a rarely fluctuating 3,312 people. The town was quiet, its residents nestled into their flowerdecked cottages and charming bed-and-breakfast inns.
She drove down the main street and turned onto Whisper Mountain Road, where Cora's General Store was located directly across from Whisper Mountain Falls, one of the area's most popular tourist destinations. After a two-mile winding climb, she turned into Cora's gravel lot and pulled behind the store to the split log cabin where she'd grown up. Before Julia had even turned off the car, Cora stepped through the screen door onto the wraparound porch and opened her arms.
A FEW HOURS LATER, Cora and Julia sat at the pine table in the kitchen, each with her hands wrapped around a steaming mug of coffee. Cora seemed remarkably calm, as if the sleep she'd managed to get had renewed her ability to cope. "Should we check on her again?" Cora asked when she'd taken a sip of coffee.
Relieved by her mother's improved emotional state, Julia allowed herself to believe she might not have to stay in Glen Springs for as long as she'd thought. "I looked in on her a few minutes ago," she said. "She's sleeping. That's probably the best medicine for her right now."
"We'll have to see about school, I suppose," Cora said.
"Of course. It's hard to imagine Katie in the same classrooms where Tina and I " She stopped when the biting pain returned. "Anyway, I'll bet some of our teachers are still there."
Cora sighed. "Prob'ly so. Nothing much changes around here." She looked out the window. "Except the leaves. You can always count on the leaves changing."
Julia glanced outside. The first twinges of gold and red colored the trees. One good cold snap and riotous color would descend in all its autumn glory. As would the tourists. Right now, Julia didn't think she could face an onslaught of customers, but life had to go on. Cora still had to survive on the store's income. And now, thanks to that worthless Wayne, so did Katie.
"We'll give Katie a few days," Julia said, returning to the topic of her niece's schooling. "Let her get used to being here with you. See how she handles Tina's " Again, she couldn't talk about her sister. Was Cora actually coping better than she was?
Cora shook her head. "Look at us. Tiptoeing around Tina's name as if just saying it will shatter us."
"I know. We've got to stop that. Katie will need to talk about her mother and we'll have to let her." She sipped her coffee. "Did you get any more information from Wayne?"
"Just that it happened after he came in for the night. He said everything seemed fine when he got home. Tina was in bed. She must have gotten up after he fell asleep. He didn't know anything was wrong until he couldn't find her in the morning and then saw a note telling him to bring Katie to us."
Julia frowned. She'd always doubted anything that came out of Wayne's mouth. "Did he mention any signs that Tina was troubled?"
Cora's shoulders slumped. "You know Tina. She had more highs and lows in her life than these mountains have hills and valleys. I loved her with all my heart, but I couldn't make her happy. I doubt anyone could've. Not even Katie." She reached across the table and patted Julia's hand. "She wasn't my easy girl to raise, Julia. You were. You've always been the strong one, the one I could depend on."
If you only knew. Julia anticipated what her mother was about to say next. Whenever Julia returned home, Cora always strongly suggested that Julia remain on Whisper Mountain for good. But that wasn't why Julia had gone to college and gotten her journalism degree. She'd studied hard and worked long hours at the store so she could get away from here, from the isolation and the cold and snow.
And to get away from Tina and the bitterness between them that had started one autumn when Julia was a sophomore in college. That resentment had continued to the present day, or at least until the day Tina died. This morning, Julia felt only overwhelming pity for her older sister and, God help her, guilt over the tragic, lonely way her life had ended.
And she hadn't thought much about Cameron Birch for years. The handsome, charismatic assistant professor who'd taught American Literature during her sophomore year in college had eventually faded from her mind. Cameron, the man who'd opened her eyes to the beauty of the written word. The man she'd adored. The man Tina had set her sights on the moment she discovered her sister idolized him.
Cora stood and carried her mug to the coffee machine. "You want a refill?" Cora's voice reminded Julia that her mother hadn't yet begged her to stay. "No. I'm fine."
Cora filled her own cup. "What were you thinking about just now? You seemed far away."
"It's funny, but I was thinking about Cameron Birch. You remember him?"
"Your college professor?"
"Sure. A nice-looking young man. His grandfather lived up the road at the top of Whisper Mountain. Cameron used to visit as a teenager. They'd come into the store for supplies." She smiled sadly. "Old Josiah's gone now. Died a while back. I'll bet you don't remember your Professor Birch from those days."
That was almost true. Julia had been a little girl when Josiah Birch used to come into Cora's with his grandson. Julia had barely noticed the gangly, grinning boy trailing behind the old man from the top of the mountain.
After those childhood encounters, she never gave Cameron Birch a thought until she walked into that classroom at Riverton College years later and there he stood, all grown up, wearing jeans and a blue denim shirt, his acorn-brown hair slightly mussed and falling over his forehead. He absolutely stole the air from her lungs that day and it was a full term before she took another normal breath.
Cora returned to the table. "It's the oddest thing, you mentioning Cameron. This is the second time his name has come up this week."
Julia stared at her. "Really?" "This must be old home week on the mountain. Rosalie said that Cameron had inherited Josiah's place and was coming back to stay for a while." "Where did Rosalie hear that?" Julia asked.
"At the coal supplier's. She overheard the manager talking about an order Cameron had placed for the winter."
Julia faked nonchalance with a shrug of her shoulder. She'd never admitted that she'd been completely infatuated with Josiah's grandson, or that part of her heart had broken when she learned from a former classmate that the gorgeous Professor Birch had married. "I haven't seen him in years," she said. "The last I heard he was married and teaching at North Carolina State."
Cora nodded. "He wasn't from around here. His family lived in Raleigh." She tapped her finger on the tabletop. "I know what brought him to your mind today," she said.
Julia flinched, sitting back in her chair. "What?" "Tina had a few dates with him at one time, years ago. It's strange how a tragedy can make the mind conjure up all sorts of details from the past. I'd always hoped those two would get together."
Julia swirled the contents of her coffee mug. "I'm sure that's it. Why else would I think of Cameron?"
A soft shuffling caused both women to shift their attention to the door. Katie stood in the entrance, one hand fisted around the folds of her white nightie, the other curled and rubbing her eye. Tousled blond curls fell over her shoulders like spun silk in the morning sun. She looked like an angel, a sad, heart-weary angel.
Julia went to her and got down on one knee. "Hello, Katie."
The child's voice was barely a whisper. "Hi, Aunt Julia. Grandma said you'd be here today."
Julia gently finger-combed hair from Katie's cheeks. "Of course, sweetheart. We Sommerville women have to stick together, don't we?"