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By Brenda Joyce, Kathleen Kane, Judith O'Brien, Delia Parr
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Brenda Joyce Dreams Unlimited, Inc.
All rights reserved.
EAST TEXAS, THE SUMMER OF 1999
Once, Blair had sworn that she would never return home. It had been far more than a simple vow, for the pledge had been filled with guilt, despair and anger.
Blair felt all of eighteen again. Eighteen and lonely and vulnerable and afraid. And no matter how she reminded herself that she was a grown woman—and a successful one at that—those unwelcome feelings would not fade. She gripped the steering wheel of the rental car, hardly hearing her daughter, who was chattering away beside her. The sun beat down on the windshield of the Honda, making it hard to see the highway ahead, in spite of the dark glasses she wore, in spite of the fact that she should know this road by heart. But maybe the glare wasn't why she couldn't really see; maybe it was the tears that kept threatening to flood her eyes. Oh, God. Harmony, Texas, was just around the bend. But it wouldn't be the same. Charlotte's house had been sold five years ago when she passed on, Faith and Jake were married now, and Rick was dead.
Rick was dead. Her father, a king among mere men, the man she had always worshiped and admired more than anyone, was dead. Blair still didn't believe it. She couldn't believe it. Her father had been immortal, hadn't he? Bigger than life itself. When he had entered a room, he'd always dwarfed everyone present, and he hadn't even been particularly tall. When he spoke, not only had everyone listened, there had always been absolute silence in the wake of his words. There had been no one more in control of his destiny than Rick Hewitt. Or so she had always believed.
But Rick was dead.
If only Charlotte were alive to hold her and comfort her now.
"Mom, there's a town ahead. This is where you grew up? This place is way cool!" Lyndsay cried from the front seat beside Blair.
Blair realized that not only did she have a death grip on the steering wheel, she was sweating buckets—not just because of the midsummer humidity but her own sudden claustrophobia and the ceaseless fear. Rick was dead. Somehow, fate had caught up with him after all, but the concept remained incomprehensible. Blair knew she was in shock—and shock could only be her enemy now. Blair was afraid that fate was about to catch up to her and her daughter, as well.
"Mom! Is this Harmony?" Lyndsay demanded.
"Yes, this is where I grew up with your Grandma Charlotte," Blair said, forcing a lightness into her tone that belied the panic and heaviness inside her. Impulsively, she reached out to squeeze her daughter's hand. The one thing Lyndsay had always received in abundance from Blair was warmth, attention, and love.
"This place looks like a western movie," Lyndsay cried excitedly. "Can we drive by the house where you and Grandma grew up?"
Blair glanced at her daughter as they drove down Main Street. There was nothing and no one Blair loved more than her daughter, and even now, with tears trying to blur her vision, she smiled at the sight of Lyndsay in her trendy black flared pants, her chunky-heeled sandals, and her tiny T-shirt with the faces of the Spice Girls imprinted on its front and back. Lyndsay's short, blunt fingernails were painted a metallic blue, and they sparkled in the Texas sunlight. Lyndsay looked every bit the way hip, too cool, and too grown-up New York kid that she was.
"Honey, let's get up to the house. We can go by Grandma's tomorrow." A little voice inside of Blair's head reminded her that tomorrow was the funeral. But Blair knew she could not handle seeing her old home now.
A siren sounded briefly somewhere behind them. Vaguely Blair heard it, but did not pay attention.
"How big is this place, anyway, Mom?" Lyndsay asked, beaming, her short hair swinging around her face. "I mean, look at this little town. It's probably smaller than Central Park!"
The siren shrieked again. Two loud, brief noises.
Blair froze, glanced in her rearview mirror, and saw the black-and-white car behind her. She could not believe her eyes.
"Are we getting a speeding ticket?" Lyndsay asked just as Blair glanced down at her speedometer and saw she had been doing forty in a twenty-five-mile-an-hour zone.
"Apparently so." Blair pulled over, trying not to lose the little composure she had left, but this felt like the very last straw—she was about to burst into tears. The town's small public library, a two-story brick building located next to the sheriff's and mayor's offices with their western-style, false-front façades, was in front of them. Most of Main Street consisted of small shops with friendly signs hanging out front. Anyone who wanted to do some serious shopping would drive out Highway 82 to the mall.
"Oh, my God, he looks so mean," Lyndsay breathed.
Blair twisted to watch an officer from the sheriff's department slamming closed the door to his vehicle, a tall, broad-shouldered figure in his tan uniform, wearing a shoulder holster in plain sight. He strode over to them as Blair rolled down her window, a blast of hundred-degree heat hitting her in the face. He was wearing reflective sunglasses and Blair felt as if she were in a really lousy seventies movie. His expression was impossible to read.
"Officer, I'm sorry," she said before he could speak, removing her own sunglasses. She dug frantically into her purse for her driver's license.
"Ma'am, this is a twenty-five-mile-an-hour zone."
Blair couldn't find her license and she dumped her purse out on the seat between her and Lyndsay. "I know," she said breathlessly. "I'm sorry. I'm so distracted—"
Blair looked up at the officer as he removed his sunglasses, revealing very blue, very keen eyes. Then she looked at his face. He was sun-tanned, with high cheekbones, a Roman nose, and slashing black eyebrows. His jaw was square. He was tall, broad-shouldered, muscular. Did she know him? Then she met his gaze, and something tried to click somewhere in the depths of her mind.
He smiled. "Blair, I guess I shouldn't expect you to recognize me, it's been some time. Matt Ramsey."
Blair's eyes widened, as she tried to make the connection between this broad-shouldered, solidly built man and the gangling boy who had once tried to torture her as best he could. "Not the Matt Ramsey who slipped a live toad down my dress in church on Easter Sunday?"
He laughed. "Sorry, but that was me." His smile faded as he looked carefully at her.
Blair tensed. The look was frank. Like herself, he was trying to connect the past with the present, she knew. But she didn't want that connection made. She hadn't come home by choice.
Blair stepped out of the car. "I'm sorry about the speeding," she said, meaning it. He seemed taller than he'd been the last time she had seen him—the summer after her senior year in high school, when he'd been home for a visit and to attend to the wedding.
He was staring at her knee-length beige jersey skirt. Or at her kitten-heeled slingbacks. It was hard to say. "You've changed," he remarked, taking in her white stretch tee, the muted coral lipstick. "The kid I knew wouldn't be caught dead out of jeans or overalls."
Blair folded her arms across her breasts. "I've been living in New York these past years. A city will do that to you."
His gaze met hers. "I heard. And I've seen you. You're a television reporter." It wasn't a question. But his gaze had now slid to Lyndsay.
"Eyewitness News." The panic returned and escalated.
"You've done well for yourself, and I'm not surprised," Matt said. He looked at Lyndsay again.
Blair felt sick. "This is my daughter, Lyndsay. Lynn, I grew up with Matt. We went to school together."
"Hi," Lyndsay said, smiling. "I hope you're not going to give my mom a ticket. She didn't mean to speed. She's really upset."
Matt just stared. Blair could feel his mind racing. She knew, damn it, that he was doing some real fast math. So Blair said, "I thought you went off to Yale, Matt, for a law degree."
He smiled at Blair. "I did. Believe it or not, I was practicing in the Big Apple for about four years. Last year I took down all those fancy plaques, packed my books and bags, and came home. Got elected town sheriff last fall."
The irony of the situation was not lost on Blair.
"New York's a big town," he said, as if reading her thoughts.
"It certainly is," Blair said.
"I'm sorry about your father."
"Real sorry, Blair. He was a good man, well liked, well respected. The whole town's feeling his loss."
Blair nodded. She couldn't speak. She was going to cry, and she didn't want to, not in front of anyone, but especially not in front of her daughter. Lyndsay had to be protected at all costs.
"Are they expecting you?" Matt's baritone interrupted her thoughts.
Blair met his gaze. "I think so." She knew he was referring to her half sister and Jake. "Rick's lawyer called last night. Matt, I don't understand. I can't get over this. I mean, how could this happen? Rick was born on a horse."
Matt's hand slipped to her arm, the gesture simple and comforting. Instantly, Blair pulled away. He seemed to flush. "I'm doing an autopsy," he said.
For one long moment, Blair stared back at him, trying very hard to understand. "An autopsy? The lawyer, he said something about a bobcat and Rick falling off his horse, hitting his head. It was an accident."
"Like you said, Rick was born on a horse."
Blair looked at him, and finally said, "What are you saying?"
"Not much. Not now. Only that I'd like to do an autopsy." His glance held hers.
It was too much for Blair to digest. She slid back into the car; Matt closed her door. "Slow down, okay?"
He leaned on it before she could drive away. "It's good to have you back, Blair. I just wish it were under different circumstances."
Blair bit her lip. What could she say? She hated being back, and the circumstances were tragic, unfair, horrendous. "People change," she finally said, forcing a smile. "Sometimes there's no coming back, no coming home."
Matt stepped back from the car, unsmiling. And he looked at Lyndsay again, the question right there in his eyes.
Blair drove away.
* * *
The driveway had been paved. As Blair turned onto it, she wondered what else had changed.
"This is like Dallas," Lyndsay whispered, as the stone ranch house appeared at the top of the hill, a vast and sprawling structure surrounded by whitewashed stables and corrals and green lawns.
Blair knew she was referring to the television show that had been a hit in the late seventies and early eighties. Charlotte had adored it. "You were too young to watch Dallas," Blair managed, very dry now, her heart racing in her chest. She dreaded the next few minutes, hours, days. She was afraid, more so now than ever. Soon, very soon, she must face Faith ... and Jake.
There was a mantra inside her mind, one she kept repeating ... No one would know, no one would guess. Not Faith, not Jake. Her secret was safe.
But now Matt Ramsey was on her mind, too, a man she hadn't thought about in years. He didn't know, he couldn't know, could he? But she kept recalling the way he had looked first at her and then at Lyndsay. She kept remembering how damn smart Matt had always been—smart enough to get into Yale on an "early decision" basis—and now she thought she remembered someone remarking that he'd gone to Georgetown Law, as well. Rick or Charlotte, it didn't matter who. Matt might guess—if he put his mind to it.
Blair was going to have to distract him, somehow.
"Rick was really rich," Lyndsay commented as Blair halted her car right in front of the house, beside a red convertible Mercedes. She assumed the flashy sports car belonged to Faith, but then, Jake had favored motorcycles as a boy, so who knew? She did not move, sat there staring at the front door of the house, willing herself to be calm, cool, composed—the new Blair, the New York professional, the Blair in the chic yet casual outfit, the Blair she hoped no one would recognize at first. Now was not the time to regress to being insecure, confused, a kid again.
"I can't believe I even have an aunt," Lyndsay said, wrinkling up her tiny nose. "I mean, don't you think you might have mentioned this to me before last night?"
"It didn't seem to matter." Blair tried to breathe normally. She tried to recall the lines she had rehearsed. "Hello, Faith, this is so terrible, I'm so sorry." And "Hello, Jake. It's good to see you again." Just like that, casual, indifferent, polite, as if they were mere acquaintances.
"But Mom, she's your sister," Lyndsay was saying. "Are we going inside?"
Blair couldn't find a response. The moment of reckoning was at hand. Lyndsay was already pushing open her door and jumping out. Blair followed slowly, her mouth terribly dry, her pulse sky high.
"Mom, you're as white as a ghost. Are you okay?" Lyndsay asked as they climbed the three front steps of the porch.
Blair inhaled. "This is so hard for me, Lyndsay." That much was the truth, and Blair just couldn't say any more.
"Mom, I loved him, too," Lyndsay said, assuming Blair was focused solely on Rick's death. "I'm so glad he came to see us in New York the way that he did. I just wish you'd let me visit him here, the way he always asked."
Blair felt the sweat dripping down her temples, pooling between her breasts. It was not a good idea to perspire in nylon and jersey. She could not form any reasonable reply, because Lyndsay didn't know the truth—and never would. But there had been no way in hell that Blair would ever let her daughter spend a summer vacation up at the Triple H. Never.
"I can't believe we're going to stay here," Lyndsay said, glancing around excitedly. "Maybe I'll even learn to ride."
Rick had been killed riding a horse. Blair shook herself free of Matt's odd statement about his wanting an autopsy. "We may have to stay at the hotel in town," she reminded her daughter. She hadn't spoken to Faith or Jake, and Faith's mother, Elizabeth, was out of the picture because she had Alzheimer's. She barely remembered the conversation she'd had with the lawyer, but undoubtedly he had conveyed to Faith that Blair was on her way. Yesterday remained a big blur.
A housemaid in a pale blue dress and white apron let them into the spacious, stone-floored foyer. Although the house had originally been decorated in a rustic and western style, as befitted a man who played at ranching as Rick had done—the family's wealth came from oil, and Rick had augmented it with another fortune based on computer chips—someone had redone it. Gone were the wood beams and Navajo rugs. Copper pillars held up the high ceilings in the foyer and living room, and modern furniture in textured fabrics and slick leathers had replaced the more mundane furnishings Blair recalled seeing when she was a child. As Blair glanced into the living room from the foyer where she stood, she suspected Faith had been the one who had redecorated. Once, the house had been warm and cozy. Now it was a dramatic showcase.
"Mom, this place is so cool," Lyndsay said in a hushed tone, walking over to a bronze sculpture of a nude woman that was twice her size.
The living room was to their right, stairs were to the left. A sound from the staircase made Blair turn, but not before her heart dropped like a rock.
Faith stood poised there, one hand on the iron banister, her eyes wide and shocked.
Blair began to breathe again, because, for one horrid moment, she had expected to see Jake.
"Blair?" Faith's wide blue gaze went from Blair to Lyndsay and back to Blair again.
Then the relief vanished. She had to stare, just as Faith was doing. Faith looked even better than she had the day of her wedding. She was tall and curved, a perfect size six, with her blond hair perhaps a shade lighter than it had once been. In a knee-length designer suit that matched her blue eyes exactly and a pair of high-heeled pumps, a huge diamond ring on her left hand, she was beautiful, elegant, stunning. She had not become fat and matronly at all.
"Hello, Faith," Blair said, as Lyndsay came back over to her. Blair resisted the urge to pull her daughter tightly to herself.
"Blair?" Faith came downstairs. Her expression changed, becoming stiff and set. "I almost didn't recognize you. You cut your hair."
Blair's hair was short, layered, with long pieces she tucked behind her ears. The cut had cost her a hundred dollars and was worth every penny. Her appearance was a part of her job. Millions of viewers in New York saw her every night on the five and six o'clock local news. "It's been a while," Blair said, thinking of Faith not as she now was, but as she'd been on her wedding day, radiant in a long, slim Caroline Herrera wedding dress, Jake never leaving her side, not once that entire day. The memory was still overpowering; it still made her ill.
"I didn't know you were coming," Faith said abruptly.
Blair blinked. "A lawyer called me last night. Williams, I think. We came as soon as we could."
Faith stared. "Tad Williams, Daddy's lawyer. I hadn't realized that he'd called you."
Blair's eyes widened. Did Faith mean that she'd had no intention of telling Blair that Rick was dead? That had to be impossible.
"We weren't expecting you," Faith said firmly, making it clear that Blair wasn't welcome.
Blair knew she must not allow the tears to come now. "I would never miss his funeral," she said.
Excerpted from Perfect Secrets by Brenda Joyce, Kathleen Kane, Judith O'Brien, Delia Parr. Copyright © 1999 Brenda Joyce Dreams Unlimited, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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