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The Second Family
By Janice Carter
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd. All right reserved. ISBN: 0-373-71144-1
Chapter OneHe was dead.
The thick vellum paper Tess was holding shook and the scrawl of black, fine-tipped pen blurred. Her eyes, hooded in disbelief, flicked across the paper - top to bottom, left to right and back again. Her brain, sluggish with doubt, refused to register more than a fragment of writing at a time.
Regret to inform you ... fatal car crash ... March 28 ... as your father's lawyer ... please contact ...
Tess skimmed the letter once more and this time, the pieces slotted together in perfect, horrifying sequence. She crumpled the paper into a tight ball and tossed it into the wastebasket in the corner of her office. A slam dunk, though she couldn't have cared less. Powered by shock, Tess grabbed her briefcase, slung her handbag over her shoulder, plucked her trench coat from the hook behind the door and strode out the door of her new executive office.
"Tess! Are you leaving for the day?" Carrie called from her receptionist desk in the small antechamber.
But Tess didn't dare stop. Stopping would mean explaining, and Tess didn't trust herself to do that. Instead, she half turned and snapped, "Something's come up, Carrie. Cancel all appointments. Take messages. See you tomorrow." She didn't slow down until the elevator doors closed behind her. Alone, she sagged againstthe rear wall and took several deep breaths.
Her mind, fired by adrenaline, whizzed through its mental Rolodex of options, strategies and last resorts to come up with a name. Mavis McNaught - her guardian angel. Tess dug into her purse for her cell phone and punched in Mavis's number. The elevator reached the ground floor just as Mavis picked up on the other end.
Tess made herself take another slow breath before speaking. Mavis would never understand what Tess was saying if her voice came out as thin and wobbly. Besides, it wouldn't do for Balfour International's new Vice President of Marketing to be seen having a meltdown in the company lobby. She ducked into a corner behind a potted hibiscus tree.
"Mavis?" she said after the third hello. "It's me - Tess. No, no, something's wrong with the phone. Listen. I ... uh just got this strange letter from some lawyer in Colorado and I need to see you. Yes, yes. I know it's only three o'clock. You're not busy, are you? Good. I'm coming right over and I'll explain everything as soon as I get there." She closed her eyes. Inhaled again. The filmy landscape of the lobby cleared, but the ceramic tiled floor seemed, suddenly, to shift beneath her.
Tess clicked off her phone, patted her flyaway curly hair into place and headed out to the street. A sea of faces, some familiar and others simply curious, swam up to her on the way, their disembodied voices fading in and out of Tess's auditory range as she stood on the pavement, flailing her arms for a taxi. A yellow cab zigzagged from across the street. Tess yanked open the door and flung herself inside.
"25 Fairview. On the west side," she said as the cab pulled away from the curb.
Only then did Tess allow herself a moment to take it all in, slumping against the seat, briefcase sprawled beside her. The content of the letter spun through her mind over and over until she finally accepted its awful truth.
The father who'd walked out of her life twenty-five years before was dead.
* * *
"More?" asked Mavis, reaching for the teapot. Her ample frame bumped against the edge of the table as she sat down across from Tess. She brushed a wisp of gray hair off her cheek and poured herself another cup.
Tess shook her head. What she really wanted was a scotch and soda, neither of which was available at Mavis McNaught's.
"So where's this letter, then?" asked Mavis, her broad forehead wrinkling in a frown.
"I threw it in the trash can on my way out."
"You'll need that letter," Mavis pointed out.
"I got the gist of it anyway. Some lawyer in Boulder, Colorado, informing me that Richard Wheaton was killed in a car accident on March 28." She looked across the table at Mavis and added, "He also wrote he was surprised to learn that Richard had a daughter in Chicago and would I please call him right away."
"And that shouldn't surprise you, given the circumstances," Mavis said gently. "Now what?" she asked, fixing her serenely impassive gaze on Tess.
Tess shrugged, averting her face from Mavis's penetrating, pale-blue eyes. Her one-time guardian could read her like a book. "Nothing, I guess. What's there to do? He died a month ago. The funeral's long past." She paused. "Not that I'd have gone anyway."
"Perhaps you've inherited something and that's why this lawyer wants you to contact him."
Tess snorted. "What could my father possibly have left me? He never gave me a thing after he left Mom and me. He probably died a penniless drifter."
"Don't be speaking ill of the dead," Mavis clucked.
Tess rolled her eyes. "Then I'll have to shut up for I can't think of anything good to say about him."
"Have we gone back in time? Is this the eighties all over? Are you a teenager once more?"
A trace of a smile belied the reprimand in Mavis's voice, but Tess flushed anyway. No one else on earth could pull in the reins on Tess Wheaton quite like Mavis McNaught. The woman had been her foster parent since she was ten years old and knew her better than any person alive. She had been the only family Tess had known after her father's disappearance and her mother's death a few years later.
"If you've made no plans - at least, not for the immediate future - I'll pop a casserole out of the freezer for dinner." Mavis set her palms on the kitchen table to raise herself from the chair.
Tess saw her wince as she took a first step. "Did you take your pills today?"
"Of course, love. Twice a day every day. It's the damp."
But Tess noticed her smile was more strained now. "Go back to the doctor and tell him they're not working. If you like, I can get my own doctor to refer you to another specialist."
Mavis hobbled to the refrigerator and opened the freezer door. "The doctor's fine. There's just little else they can do. Osteoarthritis and old age go together." She pulled a foil-wrapped casserole dish out and set it on the counter next to the stove. "And losing forty pounds or so would help, if I can bring myself to stay away from the goodies."
Tess ducked her head so Mavis couldn't see her smile. They both knew her love of sweets wasn't going to change after all these years. "Why don't you come with me sometime to my club? For a swim?"
Mavis wagged an index finger at her. "Now don't you be teasing an old woman. Come and preheat the oven for me. My glasses are in the TV room and I can't make out the numbers."
Tess pushed her chair back and walked over to where Mavis was standing. "Why don't you use the microwave I gave you?"
"I do use it, love, but it doesn't get the topping all crusty brown, the way you and I like it."
Tess laughed. "True enough." She set the oven temperature, then turned to Mavis. "Still, you ought to be using it as something more than a bread box."
"It makes a dandy bread box. And once in a while, when I'm following my diet, I use it for microwave popcorn."
"I bet that's once or twice a year," cracked Tess. She caught Mavis's eye and laughed with her. Impulsively, she bent down and flung her arms around the older woman. Coming here had been the perfect move, Tess thought. Mavis McNaught's kitchen. Her refuge.
When they drew apart, Mavis said, "Why don't you go upstairs and have a wee lie down? If you like, you can stay the night. I know there's at least one of your nighties still in the drawer in your room."
(Continues ... )
Excerpted from The Second Family by Janice Carter
Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.