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Her nostrils twitching at the putrid mix of mildew, ancient grease and whatever it was that had died in her grandmother's Nixonera refrigerator, Melanie Duncan could only gawk in horrified amazement. Holy cannoliAmelia Rinehart had apparently kept every glass jar and plastic container she'd ever touched.
Along withshuddering, Mel thunked shut the grimy, mustard-yellow cabinet doordecades' worth of magazines, newspapers and junk mail stacked in teetering piles throughout the eight-freaking-bedroom house. And just think, she thought sourly, shoving up the nasty water faucet with her wrist and waiting for-ever for the hot water to meander up from the basement, it was all hers. Hers and April's and Blythe's, that is.
With that, her gaze also meandered, out the dirt-fogged window and beyond the weed-infested backyard sloping down to the inlet beyond, to the slate blue water glittering in the late September sunshine and she could almost see those three girls sunbathing on the pier, stretched out on Walmart-issue beach towels as Green Day blared from somebody's old boom box. Blythe's, most likely.
The water suddenly went blistering hot, making Mel yelp. Cursing, she adjusted the handle, thinking maybe she was still in shock. Not so much about her grandmother's passingshe had been nearly ninety, after all, even if Death probably had to hog-tie her and drag her away kicking and screaming. But, yeah, inheriting the Eastern Shore property, especially since her grandmother and she hadn't spoken in more than ten years? That was strange. Far more strange than that, however, was finding herself in the last place she'd ever expected to set foot again.
Or wanted to.
Anxiety prickling her chilled skinthe thermostat didn't appear to be workingMel scrubbed her hands with the dish soap still sitting on the back of the pock-marked sink and turned, only to grimace at the M. C. Escher-like towers of long-since-expired bottles of herbal supplements smothering the chipped Formica counters the jungle of dead plants at the base of the patio doors leading to the disintegrating back porch what appeared to be hundreds of paper bags, undoubtedly loaded with mouse droppings, wadded between the fridge and the cabinets. Disgusting, as her daughter would say. Thank God the washing machine was workinggo, Maytagbecause no way in hell was she letting her child sleep on any of the musty sheets she'd found all jumbled up in the linen closet.
Had her grandmother always been that much of a pack-rat? Or had the three of them turned blind eyes to the clutter during those long, lazy summers when the world as they all knew it simply didn't exist?
Shaking her head, Mel tromped to the dining room and yelled for her daughter, who, being made of sterner stuff than Mel, had gasped in utter delight the moment they'd set foot inside, then immediately taken off to explore.
"Quinn! Where are you?" she bellowed again, fighting images of the child fending off a posse of rats, breathing a sigh of relief at Quinn's faint, but strong, "Coming!" in reply.
She glowered at the behemoth of a buffet across the room, the blotchy mirror behind it nearly obliterated by more stuff. Doodads and knickknacks and tchotchkes galore. And in every corner, packages of all shapes and sizessome unopened, evenfrom every purveyor of useless crap on the planet.
So much for a quick in-and-out. What had clearly taken years to accumulate wasn't going to simply go poof in a couple of days. And then what? What the hell were the three of them supposed to do with the place? Yes, St. Mary's Cove was picturesque and all, but even divested of all the stuff, potential buyers would take one look and laugh their tushies off. And she sincerely doubted that either of her cousins had the funds, let alone the wherewithal, to fix it up. She sure as hell didn't, a thought that only shoved Mel back down into the Pit of Despair she'd been tryingwith scant successto climb out of for what felt like forever.
With a mighty sigh, she hiked through the House of Horrors and outside to her trusty little Honda to unload the backseat, the tangy, slightly fruity bay breeze catching her off guard. Oh, no. Not doing nostalgia, nope.
And just like that, there he was. In her head, of course, not in person, since there was no reason for him to know she was even hereand God willing, that's how this little episode would play outbut damn.
She hadn't allowed herself to think of him in years.
Had almost convinced herself it didn't matter anymore. He didn't matter anymore, that what they'd shared was as firmly and irrevocably in the past as those long ago summers
"Mom? Whatcha doing?"
Mel glanced up, smiling for the slightly frowning ten-year-oldher life, her love, her reason for livingstanding on the porch, all turn-of-the-century charm fallen on hard times, and her heart turned over in her chest. Heaven knows she'd made a boatload of mistakes in her lifeoh, let her count the waysbut the skinny fifth-grader with the wild red hair currently standing with her hands planted on her skinny, not-atall-like-Mama's, hips wasn't one of them.
Although the circumstances of her conception? In a class by itself.
"Unpacking. And good news! You can come play pack mule." Because there was no way she was leaving that half-finished cheesecake to rot back in Baltimore while they were here. Or the pumpkin souffle. Or the
Okay, she liked her own cooking. So sue her.
They carted the various Tupperwared goodies into the kitchen, at which point Quinn gasped, bug-eyed, then shook her head."Looks like you and me have got some serious cleaning to do."
"You might say," Mel said as she cautiously opened the doors under the sink to findbooyah!six half-empty containers of Comet and as many boxes of garbage bags, a bucketload of desiccated sponges and enough Lysol to disinfect a cruise ship. And, praise be, two unopened packages of rubber gloves. The good Lord will provide, she heard her mother say, and tears threatened. Not going there, either, Mel thought, standing and handing her daughter a pair of gloves, a sponge and one of the Comets.
"Start with the sink." Gloves donned, Mel yanked out a garbage bag and faced the fridge. "This puppy is mine!"
"Got it." Quinn dragged over a step stool to better reach inside the sink, wriggled into her own gloves and got to it, determination oozing from every pore in her little body as she started to sing, loudly and very badly, a song from Wicked.
What a little weirdo, Mel thought, chuckling. A little weirdo, she thought on a sharp intake of breath, she'd protect with everything she had in her.
Especially from people who wanted to pretend she didn't exist.
Looking up from Jenny O'Hearn's chart, Ryder Caldwell stared at his father's white-coated back, the words barely registering.
"What did you say?"
David Caldwell slid his pen back into his top pocket, then directed a steady, but concerned, gaze at Ryder before removing the coat and snagging it onto a hook on the back of his office door. "That Amelia left the house to the girls."
Not that this was any surprise, Ryder thought over the pinching inside his chest as he watched his dad shrug into the same tan corduroy sport coat he wore to work every day, rain or shinemuch to Ryder's mother's annoyancethen yank down the cuffs of his blue Oxford shirt. Made perfect sense, in fact, Amelia Rinehart's bequeathing the house to the three cousins who'd spent, what? Nine or ten summers there? At least?
What was a surprise, was his reaction to the news. That after all this time the prospect of seeing Mel again should provoke any kind of reaction at all. After all, stuff happened. People grew up, moved on
Ryder glanced up at his father. Although David's lanky form stooped more than it used to, and silver riddled his thick, dark hair, it often startled Ryder that it was like seeing an age progression image of what Ryder himself would look like in thirty years. Unlike his younger brother Jeremy, who'd inherited their mother's fair skin and red hair. Among other things.
"Of course, why wouldn't I be?" he said, flipping closed Jenny's file, then striding down the short hall to the empty waiting room to leave it on Evelyn's desk to tend to the next morning. Outside, a light rain had begun to speckle the oversize windows of the small family practice clinic on Main Street his father had started nearly thirty years ago, where Ryder had joined himagain, much to his mother's annoyanceafter completing his residency five years ago. The clinic, his practice, had been the only constants in a life clearly determined to knock him flat on his butt with irritating regularity. Good thing that butt was made of rubber, was all he had to say. "But how did you"
"Golf. Phil," his father said behind him, rattling his keys. "Far as he knows they'll be here today or tomorrow. To decide what to do with the place." He paused. "Just thought you should know."
"Because of Mel?"
A slight smile curved his father's lips. "That little girl worshipped the ground you walked on. Never saw a pair of kids as close as you two were."
Slipping into a tan windbreaker nearly as old as his father's jacket, Ryder turned to the older man, now standing by the front door. "That was years ago, Dad," he said over the twist of guilt, an almost welcome change from the pain he still lugged around after nearly a year. "We haven't even spoken since that summer." Another twist. "After her father died"
"There's a child, Ry."
Again, the words weren't making sense. Howwhydid his father know this? And what on earth did it have to do with Ryder? "So she has a kid"
And that would be the sound of pieces slamming into place. "And you think she's mine? Excuse me, Dad, but that's not possible"
"I know she's not yours, Ry," his father said wearily. Bleakly. "She's your brother's."
His head still spinning, Ryder sat across the street from the massive quasi-Victorian, set well back on its equally massive, and woefully neglected, lot. He'd been there a while, parked in the dark, dead space between the street lamps and not giving a rat's ass that the damp from the now full-out rain had seeped into his bones. He had no idea, of course, if the little white Honda with the Maryland plates was Mel's or not, if the lights glowing from the kitchen window meant she was in there.
With her daughter.
You know, you tell yourself what's past is past. That time inevitably fades reality. If not warps it into something else altogether. Then something, anythinga word, a thought, a scentand it all comes rushing back.
His father hadn't said much, muttering something about how his tail was going to be in a sling as it was. Meaning, Ryder surmised, that his mother had been behind whatever had gone down. No shocker there, given her obsessive protectiveness of his younger brother. Who, according to Ryder's father, had known about the baby
Holy hell. After an hour, the shock hadn't even begun to wear off. He pushed out a short, soundless laughhe'd finally gotten to the point, if barely, where he no longer felt as though he had a rusty pitchfork lodged in his chest, and now this.
Even if he had no idea yet what "this" was. If anything.
Frankly, if the child had been hisif that had even been a possibility, of coursehe doubted he could have been more stunned. Or furious. Hell, Ryder couldn't decide which was eating him alive morethat Jeremy had knocked Mel up or that everybody had kept it a secret all these years. That Mel hadn't told him
You feel betrayed? Really?
The front door opened. Ryder slouched behind the wheel like some creepy stalker, even as he silently lowered his window to get a better look, rain be damned. So, yeah, the car was Mel'seven over the deluge he could hear her still-infectious laughter before he saw her, and the memories flooded his thoughts like soldiers charging into battle. Somehow, he steeled himself against them as the kid emerged first, her tall, thin frame swallowed up in a lime-green down vest, the feeble porch light glancing off a headful of blazing curls before she yanked her sweatshirt hood up over them. She tramped to the edge of the wide porch to glare over the railing. At the weather, he guessed.
Crap. She looked exactly like Jeremy.
Ryder's heart thumped when Mel backed through the door, her translucent, bright pink plastic rain poncho making her look as though she'd been swallowed alive by a jellyfish. He couldn't tell much, other than she'd traded in those godawful Birkenstocks for even more godawful Crocs. In a bilious pink to coordinate with the poncho, no less.
Ryder felt his mouth twitch: fashion never had been her strong suit.
The door locked, Mel joined her daughter to give her a one-armed hug, laying her cheek atop her curls, and his lungs seized. Of course, between the downpour and the sketchy light from the streetlamp, he couldn't really see her face, although there was no reason why she wouldn't be as pretty as ever, her thick dark hairstill long, he sawa breath-stealing contrast to her light, gray green eyes. Something he hadn't dared tell her then, despite how badly he knew she'd needed to hear it. Her posture, however, as she held her little girl close, her obvious sigh as her gaze drifted over what must have seemed like a bad dream, positively screamed Just kill me now.
It occurred to him he didn't know if she was in a relationship. Or even married. If she'd gone to college, or what she'd majored in if she had.
If she was happy, or heartbroken, or bored with her life
No. Mel would never be bored.
He had no intention of ambushing her. Not yet, anyway. As it was, he was pressing an unfair advantage simply by being here, especially since he doubted she had any idea he knew she'd returned, let alone about Quinn. And he certainly wasn't about to confront hernot the right word, but the only one he could think of at the momentbefore the million and one thoughts staggering around inside his brain shook off their drunken stupor and started talking sense. Or before he shook loose the full story from his motherthe next item on his to-do list, in fact. But for reasons as yet undefined he'd simply wanted to see her.
The poncho glimmered in the sketchy light as Mel said something to the girl. He couldn't hear their exchange, but damned if Quinn's dramatic gestures didn't remind him exactly of her mother at that age, and it suddenly seemed incomprehensible, that he'd known absolutely nothing about the last ten years of her life when he'd been privy to pretty much all of it up to that point.