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Past Secrets, Present Love
By Lois Richer
Steeple HillCopyright © 2005 Lois Richer
All right reserved.
You or Ben Cavanaugh may be the adult child of Sandra Lange.
The words echoed through Kelly Young's brain with the rhythm of a marching band on Independence Day. No matter how furiously she worked at cleaning out the old utility closet, she couldn't silence them.
"Aren't you leaving to get ready for Ben and Leah's wedding?"
She glanced up, saw Florence Villi scowling at her and nodded. Scour was a word that suited the cleaning lady at Tiny Blessings Adoption Agency to a T.
"I'm leaving soon," Kelly assured her. "Just a few things to tie up first."
"You're getting to be a workaholic." Florence's brown eyes hardened as she noticed what Kelly was doing. "I'm not responsible for any messes you make, and I've already cleaned this hall."
"I'll clean it up — don't worry, Florence."
"You looking for something special?"
"Just a little more space." Kelly lifted out yet another broom, held it up. "Do you ever use this stuff?"
"Not my job to clean out all the closets in this building," Florence grumbled. "I keep my stuff in the basement. I'm not responsible for this."
"I wasn't implying you were, I was just wondering —" Kelly felt the anger emanating from the other woman and decided retreat was wise. "Never mind. Are you working late tonight?"
"Same as any other night, isn't it?" Florence eyes narrowed. "Nobody ever had a complaint about that. I do my job and I do it right."
She did, Kelly agreed. Usually not with a happy face, but Florence kept the place clean and minded her own business. Except for the time she'd leaked information to the Richmond Gazette about some botched birth records. As she watched the over-painted lips on that grim mouth turn down, Kelly decided not to remind her of that faux pas. Florence already didn't like her, why make it worse?
"I suppose everyone else is gone," she murmured, trying to ease some of the articles back inside the closet.
"They left long ago. Could be that they all have people at home waiting for them."
Having uttered her unspoken little dig, Florence pushed her mop down the hallway, nose in the air as she studiously avoided the mess Kelly had made.
"Be ye kind, one to another. Tenderhearted, forgiving —" " Kelly recited her mother's favorite verse until some of her frustration drained away. Carol Young had loved life, refused to let someone else's unpleasantness drain her joy. She'd set a good example for her daughter.
Thank goodness her mom had never known about Sandra Lange and this search she was conducting for her long-lost child. Of course Kelly wasn't Sandra's child. It must be Ben.
Kelly checked her watch, gasped. How had it grown so late? Ben and Leah's wedding was important to her, there was no way she wanted to miss it. Fortunately her house was only minutes away. She could make it if she hurried.
"You are not watching me do this, Mom," she muttered as she shoved the jumble of brooms back into the closet willy-nilly. Of course they wouldn't go in as easily as they'd fallen out. Kelly wiggled and pushed, determined to get them inside, but something solid seemed in the way.
"What on earth is back here anyway?" she grumbled, standing on a gallon paint can to peer over the mess. "A filing cabinet? What's that doing here? It can't have anything in it."
Kelly scoffed at the very idea. There was no way Tiny Blessings Adoption Agency kept its outdated files in a utility closet, not with her as director. Although stranger things had happened under the previous director's orders. She stretched an arm over a pile of old rags and yanked on the handle to open it, but the drawer of the cabinet wouldn't open.
"Figures." Her watch bleeped the time. One hour and counting. "Rats!" She abandoned that effort and stuffed everything else inside. By using her body to hold the door closed, she managed to finally lock it.
"Later," she promised the steel gray door. No doubt there'd been some reason to put a lock on a utility closet. To keep people away from the mops, maybe? Mocking her own foolishness, Kelly got her coat.
It took five minutes to get home and fifteen minutes to shower, fix her hair and change. A record by any standard. The ringing phone delayed her a few minutes more, but when no one answered, Kelly quickly hung up. Then she was out the door and on the road.
At least for ten minutes.
That's when the ability to steer suddenly left her car. Without warning she found herself careening all over the road. Something was definitely wrong!
Kelly prayed for help as she tried to maneuver around a parked car with a combination of braking and intermittent steering ability. She touched the brakes just a little too hard and found herself sliding across an ice-slicked street toward a child with a sack of newspapers who was doing his best to skate his sneakers across the road in front of her.
Kelly held her breath, tapping gently on the brake pedal as she dragged at the stiff, unyielding wheel, afraid to honk lest she frighten him into turning into her path. As it was, he slid a little too close. She jerked the wheel hard right, begging it to obey.
At the last moment the car turned and skidded over the sidewalk. Kelly came to a shuddering halt smacked against a massive oak tree, right beside the busiest intersection in town. The little boy glared at her, then walked away, mouth pursed in an angry line.
Kelly switched off the key before resting her forehead against the steering wheel.
"That was close, Lord," she whispered, her entire body weak with thoughts of what could have happened. What on earth was wrong with the steering? She'd checked with the dealer a few weeks ago, made sure she was prepared for whatever nature tossed out. Obviously her steering wasn't okay. Maybe she'd bought a lemon.
Once she'd regained her equanimity, Kelly dragged her coat lapels over her best red silk dress and climbed out of the car to inspect the damage. Her silk-clad ankles stung at contact with the wet snow.
The front bumper was a mess, the tire on the passenger side was half-flat and the undercarriage was lodged against the cement curb, making it perfectly clear that she was going nowhere fast.
"Out joyriding, Miss Young?"
Kelly wheeled around, met the dark blue gaze of Ross Van Zandt. As usual, one hank of dark hair flopped over his left eye. More than a hint of dark stubble accented the rigid line of his jaw. He had the kind of jaw people sculpted — rock solid, determined.
He cleared his throat. Kelly realized she'd been staring at him. Her face flushed a hot embarrassing red.
"I'm sorry, what did you say?" It would have to be him, wouldn't it? The one man in town she did not want to see.
"I just wondered if you'd begun living on the wilder side of life." His voice held that hint of amusement that always made her bristle. One black eyebrow lifted as he took in her predicament. "Party dress, fast car — you know."
"Oh, of course," she muttered, gritting her teeth against the icy chill that her silk dress did nothing to block. "Party animal that I am, there's nothing I like more than parking my car against a tree when I've just put on my best heels and a silk dress."
"You're on your way to the wedding." It wasn't a question. He leaned over and unlatched the passenger side door, thrust it open. "Get in. I'll give you a ride. You don't have much time."
"But my car —" Kelly hugged into the warmth of her white cashmere coat while he pulled out a cell phone, dialed, then began speaking.
"Vinnie? Ross. Got a little problem."
In less than fifty words he'd conveyed the problem and formed a solution. That was Ross. Succinct didn't begin to describe his use of language.
The wind was bitter, filled with piercing bits of ice that stung when they hit the skin. Kelly shivered again, wondered if she'd be doing something illegal if she left. But then Ross was a private detective. He'd know all about this stuff, wouldn't he?
"I'll drop you off, then come back and watch while Vinnie loads your car and tows it. Now will you get in?"
"Oh. Okay. Thanks. Just let me get my bag." Kelly stepped daintily through the soggy mess underfoot, dragged out her black beaded bag and her car keys, then locked the door. By the time she made it into Ross's car her feet felt like icicles.
He watched, one inquisitive eyebrow raised, as she slipped her toes out of the delicate shoes, burying them in the carpet.
"Very pretty, Ms. Young, but not exactly weather-appropriate footwear," he mumbled, then quickly flicked the heater on high.
"They're very appropriate. It's a wedding, not a trap-per's festival," she snapped, then wished she hadn't.
"Sorry," she murmured when his eyebrows rose.
Kelly hated snarky people and had long ago decided not to become one of them. But something about Ross Van Zandt and his piercing scrutiny always made her tense. Maybe it was because he made a living probing into people's secrets. More likely it was because he was the one Sandra Lange had hired to find her child. That would be reason enough, especially since it was Ross who only days ago had informed her and Ben Cavanaugh that one of them might be the long lost child Sandra had been looking for. He had no idea how wrong he was.
Of course, Kelly felt sorry for Sandra. As director of Tiny Blessings Adoption Agency, Kelly spent every day dealing with people who were giving up their children for adoption. It was often a difficult and heartrending event. Sandra must have suffered terribly when she was forced to give up her own child.
But Kelly did not want to be her daughter.
Of course she knew she'd been adopted, had known it for years. In fact, she'd been the first child whose adoption Tiny Blessings had handled back when Barnaby Harcourt had been in charge. But being adopted had never been an issue with Kelly. Marcus and Carol Young were the best parents a girl could have. Living with them, being part of their family — that's all she'd ever known. They'd showered her with so much love she never wanted anything to spoil it, especially not now when they were both gone, especially not with Sandra Lange's problems.
"How'd you do it?"
Kelly twisted in her seat, stared at Ross. "Excuse me?"
"Your car, pasted against that tree. How'd it happen?"
"I'm not sure." She tried to recreate the sequence of events in her head. "The steering seemed wonky," she mused.
"Wonky?" Ross put on his left signal and waited for a car to pass before he turned toward the church. "What does that mean?"
"Soft, spongy. Unresponsive." What part didn't he understand?
"Has it happened before?" He frowned when she shook her head. "It's a new model, isn't it?"
Kelly nodded. "I just got it in the fall."
"Then it shouldn't be a maintenance problem. Maybe some manufacturing defect is to blame."
Remembering, she shuddered. "I'm just glad I wasn't on a freeway when it happened. As it was I missed a little boy by inches." She chided herself for forgetting her manners. "I'm glad that you were driving past. Thank you."
She studied his thick jacket and jeans. "You're not going to Ben and Leah's wedding?"
"Nah. I'm not all that big on church stuff." He pulled up near the door, glanced around. "Looks like you beat the bridal party to the church."
"That's a blessing. Thank you very much for coming to my rescue and for handling the tow for me, Ross." She handed over her keys, then rested her hand on the door handle, wondering if she should say it. "You know they'd love you to come. Why don't you at least attend the reception?"
"I'm waiting for a call from the lab," he told her. "About the DNA tests."
Kelly froze. She knew exactly what he was talking about. Both she and Ben had given samples for testing last week.
Don't let me be her daughter! "I didn't realize you'd find out so soon," Kelly whispered, staring at her feet. They were bare. She used her toes to grope for her shoes.
"You mean you were hoping." His voice held a hint of condemnation.
Excerpted from Past Secrets, Present Love by Lois Richer Copyright © 2005 by Lois Richer. Excerpted by permission.
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