Molly Shields forced herself to pause on the sidewalk in front of the huge brick house, draw a deep breath and let it out slowly. If she hadn't, she would have vaulted over the gate and covered the flagstone walk at a dead run. Lucas.
Lucas was somewhere inside that enormous place.
But so was Psyche. And Psyche Ryan, at least in the eyes of the world, was legally Lucas's mother.
Everything within Molly rebelled against that single fact.
Purposefully Molly adjusted her perspective, along with the canvas backpack she'd carried from the gas station at the far end of Indian Rock, Arizona, after getting off the afternoon bus from Phoenix. Lucas wasn't her child; he was Psyche's.
The little boy was eighteen months old noweighteen months, two weeks and five days. He'd been a newborn, pink and squalling, when she'd last seen him, held him in her armsall too brieflybefore giving him up. Psyche had sent a few snapshots in the interimLucas was solid, handsome and blond, with bright green eyes. Molly's own coloring, though her hair had darkened over time, but despite that, he resembled his late father more than her.
Now, in a very few minutes, maybe even moments, Molly would see the baby she still thought of as her own, at least in weak moments.
Perhaps she'd be allowed to hold Lucas. She ached to do that. To breathe in the scent of his hair and skin
Careful, her practical side admonished.
It was miracle enough that Psyche, a virtual stranger and, it was to be remembered, a betrayed wife, had summoned Molly to this little town, with its shady streets, given all that had happened. She mustn't move too fast, or make a wrong movemiracles were rare and fragile things, to be handled with infinite care.
Molly worked the latch on the shiny black iron gate. The metal felt hot and smooth to the touch. A discreet little sign, fastened to the ornate fence, proclaimed the place a registered historic site.
Psyche had explained, in one of her emails, that the house on the corner of Maple and Red River drive, her childhood home, had stood empty for nearly a decade. But today the vast lawn looked manicured, lilacs and roses bloomed in freshly mulched beds and the many mullioned windows shone. The white wooden trim looked freshly painted, and the brick, though time worn, was still damp in places from a recent power wash.
Molly forced herself to walk slowly up the walk, toward the front porch, part of which was screened in. No doubt there were patio chairs there, a little table and maybe even a wooden swing.
Molly pictured herself sitting in that swing, rocking Lucas to sleep on a warm summer evening, and her heart beat a little faster.
Psyche's child, she repeated to herself in a silent mantra. Psyche's child.
She had no idea why Psyche had summoned her, or how long she'd be staying. The woman had graciously offered first-class airfare from LAX, with a car and driver to meet her in Phoenix. But Molly, perhaps as a form of penance, had chosen to take the bus instead.
She'd have been wiser not to come at all, of course, but she hadn't been able to resist the chance to see Lucas.
The heavy front door swung open just as Molly reached the bottom step, jolting her out of her travel-weary speculations, and a middle-aged black woman appeared, thin and tall, clad in a crisp white uniform and sensible, crepe-soled shoes.
"You her?" she asked bluntly.
Molly was "her," all right. Lucas's birth mother, the woman who had slept with Psyche's husband. It didn't matter that Molly truly hadn't known he was married until it was too late. That was always the excuse, wasn't it? She was intelligent, with a college education, her own business. Thayer had been a facile liar, but she should have seen the signs.
There were always signs.
Molly swallowed. Nodded in glum acknowledgment.
"Well, get yourself on in here," the woman said, fanning herself with one hand. "I can't stand on this porch all day with the door hanging open, you know. Air-conditioning costs money."
Molly hid a rueful smile. Psyche had mentioned her housekeeper several times over the past several weekssaid she was cantankerous, but kind, too. "You must be Florence," Molly said mildly, swallowing an urge to explain that she wasn't a home wrecker.
Florence frowned, spared an unfriendly nod. "Is that backpack all the luggage you brought?"
Molly shook her head. "I have some more stuff at the gas station," she replied. "It was too heavy to carry." Some of her private regrets were like that, too, but she slogged on, mostly because she didn't know what else to do.
Florence, practically bristling with disapproval, gave a sniff and adjusted her glasses. It was no great wonder that she hadn't put out a welcome mat, figurative or otherwise, given the things Psyche must have told her. Most of which, unfortunately, were probably true.
After issuing a harrumph, Florence stepped aside to let Molly pass. "We'll take the station wagon down there later, and fetch it all," Florence said. "Right now, Miss Psyche's upstairs resting, but I've got to keep an eye on her just the same." Behind her thick glasses Florence's chocolate-brown eyes glazed over for a moment, and she gave a sad huff of a sigh. "My poor baby," she added, addressing the shrubbery more than Molly. "It practically wore her out, getting this house opened and moving us in. If it was up to me, we'd have stayed right in Flagstaff, where we belonged, but there's no reasoning with that girl once she takes a notion."
Molly longed to ask about Lucas, but she had to tread carefully, especially around this longtime family retainer. Florence Washington had been Psyche's nanny until Psyche was old enough to go to school, then the family maid. When Psyche married Thayer Ryan, Mrs. Washington had stayed on to run the new household.
Molly felt a sick little flutter way down in the pit of her stomach.
Thayer was deadhe'd suffered a massive coronary a year before, at the age of thirty-sevenand while Molly wouldn't have wished him into an early grave, even after he'd all but ruined her life, she certainly hadn't mourned him, either.
She hadn't gone to the funeral.
She hadn't sent flowers, or even a card.
After all, how would she have signed it? "With sympathy, your late husband's mistress"?
Florence trudged off through an entryway with a grandfather clock and a curving staircase, and then down a long corridor, massive, drape-darkened rooms lining the passage on either side. Molly followed circumspectly, and they finally emerged into a sunlit kitchen with floor-to-ceiling windows forming the back wall and overlooking another enclosed porch. A flower-bright, sprawling yard lay beyond.
Molly finally shrugged out of her backpack and set it down on one of the chairs at the huge antique table in the center of the room.
"You might as well sit," Florence said.
Might as well, Molly thought. She was tiredshe'd ridden more than one bus since leaving L.A. two days beforebut her first inclination was still to ransack that mansion room by room, flinging open doors until she found Lucas.
She drew back one of the heavy oak chairs and sagged into it.
"coffee?" Florence asked. "Tea?"
"Water would be good," Molly said. "Fizzy stuff or regular?"
Florence brought her a glass of ice and a bottle. While Molly poured, Florence took up an obstinate pose over by the sink, leaning against the counter with her arms folded.
"What are you doing here?" Florence demanded, evidently having withheld the question as long as she could.
Molly, about to take a sip of water, set her glass down again. "I don't know," she answered truthfully. Psyche had contacted her by phone a week before and issued an urgent summons, with very little accompanying explanation.
"We have to talk about this in person," she'd said.
"Seems to me you've done enough damage," Florence told her, "without coming here. Especially now."
Molly swallowed. She was thirty years old, and she ran one of the biggest literary agencies in L.A., dealt with egotistical, high-powered authors, editors and movie people practically every day. Now, sitting in Psyche Ryan's kitchen, clad in the jeans, T-shirt and sneakers she'd been wearing for forty-eight hours straight, she felt diminished, as though she'd regressed to her college days, when she hadn't had the proverbial two nickels to rub together.
"Don't give her a hard time, Florence," a gentle voice interceded softly from somewhere behind Molly's chair. "I asked her to come, and Molly was kind enough to agree."
Both Molly and Florence turned, Molly rising so quickly that she nearly knocked over her chair.
Psyche stood framed in a doorway, a painfully thin woman clad in a peach silk robe and matching slippers. Two aspects of her appearance leaped out at Mollyone, Psyche was beautiful and, two, she was obviously bald beneath the little crocheted cap she wore.
"Will you look in on Lucas, please?" Psyche said to Florence. "He was still asleep a few minutes ago, but he's not used to the house yet, and I'd rather he didn't wake up alone."
Florence hesitated, gave a terse nod, glowered once at Molly and left the kitchen.
"Sit down," Psyche told Molly, gliding gracefully toward her.
Molly, who was used to giving orders, not taking them, immediately complied.
Psyche drew back the chair next to Molly's and sat down with a little sigh and a gingerly wince. "Thank you for coming," she said, offering a hand. "I'm Psyche Ryan."
Molly shook the hand, found it weightless as a wad of tracing paper. "Molly Shields," she replied. Her gaze drifted to Psyche's cap, back to the pair of enormous violet eyes beneath it.
Psyche smiled slightly. "Yes," she said. "I have cancer."
A chasm opened in the bottom of Molly's heart. "I'm sorry," she said. About so much more than the cancer. "Is it.?"
"Terminal," Psyche confirmed with a nod.
Tears of sympathy stung behind Molly's eyes, but she didn't allow herself to shed them. She didn't know Psyche well enough for that.
Inevitably her mind fastened on Lucas.
Dear God, if Psyche was dying, what would happen to him? Having lost her own mother when she was fifteen, Molly knew the emptiness and constant undercurrent of fruitless searching that could result.
Psyche seemed to be tracking Molly's unspoken thoughtsat least, some of them. She smiled again, reached across the tabletop to squeeze Molly's hand. "As you know," she said, "my husband is dead. Neither of us have any family. Since you're Lucas's biological mother, I hope
Molly's heart leaped over the logical next conclusion, but she reined it in, back over the jump, afraid to risk the shattering disappointment that would follow if she was wrong.
"I've hoped you'll care for him after I'm gone," Psyche said. "Be his mother, not just on some paper in some filebut for real."
Molly opened her mouth, closed it again, too shaken to trust her voice.
Psyche drew back a little, huddling in her exquisite peach robe, studying Molly with a worried expression. "Maybe I presumed too much, sending for you the way I did," she said, very softly. "If you'd wanted to raise Lucas, you wouldn't have given him up."
Desperation, sorrow and hope swelled within Molly, a tangle of emotions she'd probably never be able to separate. "Of course I want him," she blurted, lest Psyche reconsider and withdraw the offer.