Read an Excerpt
"How did he hurt you?" Melanie Pierce asked.
An award-winning documentary video director, Melanie stood next to the camera, forgetting its presence and that of her camera operator and the small group of onlookers at the mouth of the alley. She focused on a young woman who'd been raped at knifepoint on the very spot where she now stood. Melanie cared about this story. She cared about them all. Perhaps that was why she had a talent for drawing out the truth from the most reluctant of subjects.
"...pinned me down with a knee in my back... then he did it..."
Melanie was producing The Weaker Sex, a documentary about women who'd gone beyond victimization and had made something positive of their lives. The Weaker Sex referred not to the women, but to the men who needed to use brute force to feel good about themselves.
"And then he left me there, bleeding.... I — I heard him laugh as he walked away...."
A moment of silence and the victim's expression hardened to that of a survivor, and Melanie knew the interview was over.
"Thank you for being so candid," Melanie said softly, stopping the recording. "You're very brave for being part of this project."
Anger flashed through the young woman's expression. "I would've killed the bastard if I could've."
Melanie nodded but didn't comment.
It was only after her subject left and the equipment was packed up that Melanie realized that while the crowd had dispersed, an older man remained. Judging from his tailored suit, he wasn't from this neighborhood in Chicago. He was coming straight at her as if he had a mission.
"Can I help you?"
"You're Melanie Pierce," he said in a gravelly voice, his rheumy gaze traveling to her red hair, which she'd pulled back from her face and had dramatized with a few streaks of magenta and magenta-lacquered chopsticks.
A fan of her work or a naysayer? she wondered suspiciously. She too often had to deal with people who took issue with her documentaries, so she was understandably wary when someone approached her uninvited.
"I know who I am," she said evenly. "What about you?"
"John Grey, private investigator."
That jolted her spine straight. "You're investigating what? Me? Why?"
"Let's get a cuppa coffee and talk."
Melanie laughed. "You're kidding, right? I'm a big-city girl, Mr. Grey. What makes you think I would go anywhere with a stranger?"
"I had coffee with your mother, Olivia, yesterday."
The mention of her mother quickly sobered her. "What does Mom have to do with this?" Suddenly the man appeared to be a threat. "Who hired you?"
Grey eyed her camera operator. "It's...um...private."
The back of her neck prickled.
Waving away her colleague, who hauled off the equipment to his car, Melanie faced the P.I. "Say what you have to say."
He shrugged. "So be it. I was hired to find you —"
"I got that part."
"By your grandfather, Frederick Slater. Your mother's father."
"My mother's father died when she was a teenager. And his name was Matt Pierce." She took a deep breath in an effort to calm herself. "I'm afraid you've got the wrong girl."
"I'm afraid not. When she was only eighteen, Olivia Slater ran away from home."
The back of her neck prickled some more. He went on. "Olivia got a job in Chicago and went to school at night. She became quite successful in real estate and bought a big home for the two of you."
"That part is right, but —"
"It's all right. Your mother's been lying to you your whole life. I knew her in her old one. Trust me, Olivia Slater and Olivia Pierce are the same woman. You got a family, Ms. Pierce. Not only do you have a maternal grandfather, but there's your uncle Martin and his wife, Eleanor, and their son, Vincent, and your late uncle Nicholas's wife, Helen. They all live at Slater House."
Her stomach clenched but Melanie shook her head in denial. "Mom wouldn't lie to me. If what you're saying is true, you would be at her to go back, not me."
"Your mother don't want to be found —"
"One way to find out. Come to North Carolina and give your grandfather a chance to welcome you into the family."
A family she hadn't known she had.
If it was true. "Look, I don't know what your game is..." Melanie backed away toward the street and knocked into one of the black resin garbage cans, whose lid chattered in protest before slamming shut again. "But go look for another playmate."
"Your grandfather is quite ill. He was hoping that while he still could..." Grey cleared his throat and changed tactics. "Frederick Slater is as close to American royalty as it gets. Your mother walked out on the Slater fortune. You don't gotta."
"Lies." Heart thumping, Melanie continued putting distance between them. "All lies."
"I'm staying at the Drake until tomorrow. Call me."
Without answering, she rushed away and got into her car. It couldn't be true. None of it.
Even as she denied the man's story, Melanie remembered the weird vibes that had come off her mother the day before, as if something had been eating at her. And when she'd questioned Mom about it, her mother had laughed and somehow closed off those disturbing emotions.
Could Grey be telling the truth?
Melanie gripped the steering wheel so hard her knuckles whitened. Mom had always taught her that honesty was the best policy. If Grey's claims were true, it seemed that policy applied to everyone but her mother.
Needing reassurance, Melanie wasted no time in driving to the Ravenswood neighborhood where she'd grown up. The pale mauve frame house with the big white porch wrapping around two sides was still home even though she had her own apartment. She used her key to get in and called out, "Mom?"
"In here, Mel."
Entering the living room, classically decorated in mauve and cream, Melanie saw her mother put down her magazine and felt, as always, as if she were looking into a mirror. Her mother's face was heart-shaped, her round eyes a vivid blue, her lips full enough to be fashionable...and curved in a wide smile as if nothing were wrong.
Her pulse spiked as she said, "A funny thing happened on my way here, Mom."
"Funny weird or funny ha-ha?"
"Not sure. You tell me." She stopped several feet in front of her mother. "Does the name Slater make you laugh?"
Her mother's horrified expression said it all. The prickling practically made the small hairs at the back of her neck dance.
"Mom, is it true? Is your father alive? And did you have brothers you never told me about?"
"That bastard! I should have known better. He always was a weasel. He wasn't supposed to find you. He was supposed to drop the investigation right here! He was supposed to tell my father I died in a car accident winter before last!"
Melanie's world suddenly spun off its axis and her knees turned to jelly. She gripped the back of a club chair so she wouldn't fall. It was true then, everything Grey had told her. The one person in the world she thought she could trust had been lying to her all her life.
"I — I don't understand." Her mother wanted people to believe she was dead...just as she'd made Melanie believe they were dead. Why? "Talk to me, Mom. Tell me what's going on."
"I — I can't."
The catch in her mother's voice tightened Melanie's throat.
A sense of dread whispered through her. Her mother's dread. She could feel the fear as if it were her own. It had always been this way, ever since she could remember. She could read her mother...sense her emotions...but it was only a one-way street. Her mother couldn't read Melanie in return. "Whatever happened," Melanie choked out, "that was more than twenty-five years ago."
"Twenty-five years is nothing. I buried the past. Let it stay buried. Mel, you have to promise me you'll keep away from those people and that place."
Those people? That place? Her mom's family. Her mom's childhood home. What was so horrible that she didn't even want to talk about it?
Her mother rose from her chair and moved toward Melanie. "Sweetheart, you have everything you need here. Please leave well enough alone."
Her pulse jagged and Melanie felt the back of her throat grow thick. Waves of something dark and terrible coming from her mother enveloped her, threatening to smother her.
Was her mother in danger?
Despite the wavering smile that trembled on her mother's lips, she certainly was terrified. Never having felt anything like this from her mother before, Melanie was, too.
"Hey, Mom, don't worry about it." She tried to put on a good face so her mother would calm down.
"You're right. The past can stay buried. I have everything I need right here."
The darkness eased a bit. "Then you won't call John Grey?"
"I won't call him."
And eased some more. "Good. Good."
But it wasn't good, whatever it was that had driven her mother from her home and family. And now John Grey had caught up to her mother, and she had paid him off to say she was dead.
Wanting to put her mother's mind at peace, Melanie said, "Hey, my new documentary is taking up all my time, anyway. I probably won't be home much for the next few days. If you need me, call me on my cell, okay?"
"Sure..." Her mother reached out and smoothed a stray lock of hair from Melanie's face. Her fingers trembled. "Mel, you won't call Grey, right? You promise?"
"I said I wouldn't." Swallowing hard so that she wouldn't cry, Melanie hugged her mother, murmuring, "Love you, Mom."
The dark thing was safely caged inside her mother again. Somehow she'd seemed to compartmentalize her emotions...something she'd probably been doing for twenty-five years. Melanie could no longer read her.
"I love you, Mel."
Her mother sounded relieved but Melanie felt anything but as she left the house and drove to her Logan Square neighborhood. She tried to keep her rising anxiety in check, to segue to thinking about her documentary, but she simply couldn't.