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Liam Tully? It couldn't be.
It was. A little older than the last time she'd seen him - six years older, to be exact - but definitely Liam. Thin face, too thin to be conventionally handsome. Deep-set eyes. Terrific smile.
The caption beneath the picture read: Liam Tully, lead singer for the Celtic folk group, The Wild Rovers. The group from County Galway will perform next Friday through Sunday at Fiddler's Green in Huntington Beach as part of a four-week California tour.
Hannah read and reread the announcement. Stared at Liam's picture as though it might reveal something the caption didn't. Stared at the picture and saw herself as she'd been the last time she'd seen Liam. Twenty-five, pregnant and scared to death. Of everything. God.
Carefully, as though it might detonate, she set the newspaper aside and smiled up at the dark-haired woman who had just walked into her classroom. Hannah stuck out her hand and searched through her brain, suddenly gone blank, for the woman's name. Becker.
"Hi, Mrs. Becker." She glanced at her watch.
"You're a little early, but if you give me a minute, I'll find Taylor's assessment results."
Four-year-old Taylor had flunked a mock prekindergarten screening test two days ago. The real test, in which he would be put through his paces - skipping, hopping, wielding scissors and filling in the blanks to questions like "A bed is for sleeping and a table is for ..." - was a few weeks away, but his mother had called to ask Hannah what could be done to improve her son's performance.
As she retrieved Taylor's folder, Hannah had an insane urge to propose to Mrs. Becker, a brittle-looking blonde in a black pantsuit, that Taylor be allowed to be himself. An easygoing child who delighted in running through the sprinklers on La Petite Ecole's manicured lawn and showed little enthusiasm for mastering the alphabet.
She resisted the urge. Parents who paid thousands of dollars a year to send their children to La Petite Ecole, who crammed their kids' schedules with extracurricular classes in early math and classical music appreciation, did so in order to crush the competition when it came time for kindergarten.
And, as Hannah continually had to remind herself, most parents - however misguided their motives might seem - really only wanted the best for their children.
She dragged her mind back to Taylor Becker's mother, who had just asked her a question and was waiting for an answer.
"Sorry." Hannah smiled at the woman.
"I was asking if there's anything else we can do." She hesitated, her face coloring slightly. "I bought him this darling T-shirt to wear for the test. I'm sure it sounds silly to you, but I started thinking that if he were dressed in a really hip shirt it might set him apart from the others." Another pause. "We don't want him to fail again."
Hannah looked at her for a moment. "If I can give you a piece of advice, Mrs. Becker, I would strongly suggest that you don't use the word fail. Especially to Taylor. And I'd also suggest that you try to relax. If he sees you're stressed, he'll get anxious and maybe not do so well. Children pick up on negative emotions."
* * *
It was crazy, but all afternoon - ever since she had read the article about Liam - she'd had the fantasy that when she got home, Liam would be waiting for her. At one point the feeling was so strong she'd actually picked up the phone to make an appointment at the beauty parlor - this was not one of her better hair days. And then, remembering that he was probably still a few hundred miles to the north, she'd put the phone down and revised the scenario. There would be a message to say he'd called. She could still recreate the sound of his voice. Even after six years, she could conjure it up. Let's get together, he'd say in her fantasy. Let's talk about what happened. I miss you, I still love you. But as she opened the front door, Hannah knew Liam wouldn't be waiting inside and, as she stood in the kitchen doorway watching her daughter, she knew, too, that there had been no call.
Faith, a week shy of her sixth birthday, sat at a large wooden table in the center of the room. Brow furrowed, she was squeezing pink icing onto a row of cookies. A California girl, all tanned limbs and sun-bleached hair, worn now in a tightly controlled ponytail that set off her clear skin and blue eyes.
Children pick up on negative emotions. Most parents only want what's best for their children. Liam wasn't most parents.
Hannah didn't need Liam in her life.
Faith didn't need Liam in her life.
Children pick up on negative emotions.
Hannah consciously slowed her breathing, stayed in the doorway, smiling now as she waited for either her daughter or her mother, who was on the phone, to look up and see her.
Her parents had moved into the large Spanish-style house a block from the ocean in Long Beach just after Hannah's first birthday and, of all the rooms in the house, the huge square kitchen figured most prominently in her childhood memories.
She'd learned to walk by pulling herself up to the cabinet edges, knocked out a tooth on a pantry shelf after roller-skating across the polished floor on a dare from her sister Debra. A large cast of dogs had eaten from various bowls that were always set out by the back door, and litters of kittens had taken their first breaths under the kitchen sink.
Nothing much had changed. After her father died, her mother had traded in the avocado-green appliances and ditched the old wallpaper with its repeating pattern of yellow kettles and orange teapots. The walls were peach now, or as Margaret insisted, apricot bisque; the refrigerator and stove stainless steel, but something was always in the oven or on the stove and, until last week when he'd gone to doggy heaven, Turpin, the family's elderly black Lab, had still been eating from the bowl by the door.
The henhouse, her mother called it these days. Hannah and Faith and Margaret lived there. Sporadically, Margaret's sister Rose and her own sister Debra came to stay. Helen, the youngest of Hannah's aunts, had her own coop, a guest cottage behind the rose garden, but always joined them for meals. Males were conspicuously absent.
"Who needs them anyway?" Margaret would say.
"We're just a bunch of hens cooing and clucking around our baby chick."
So while Margaret's friends were dealing with the empty-nest blues and converting extra bedrooms into sewing areas, Margaret kept busy as she had all her adult life - cooking, cleaning and caring for her brood. "My family is my life," she'd say when Hannah or Debra would urge her to expand her horizons with a part-time job or volunteering. "This is what makes me happy. My daughters and my granddaughter. Why would I want to do something else?"
If there were times when Margaret's fussing and clucking made Hannah question the living arrangement, Deb made no secret of the fact that Margaret drove her nuts. Deb's biggest fear was that she'd turn out like Margaret. "If you ever catch me acting like Mom," she'd say to Hannah, "just shoot me, okay?"
And Deb in turn drove Margaret nuts. Deb was the problematic chick in the nest; prickly and demanding, always flying away only to return a few months later, torn and tattered but still defiant. Margaret had been thirty-eight when she gave birth to Debra and had once, in Deb's hearing, referred to her youngest daughter as "an afterthought." Debra had never forgiven her.
Excerpted from Keeping Faith by Janice Macdonald Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
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Posted May 19, 2003