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The Other Child
By JOANNE FLUKE
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 1983 Joanne Fluke
All rights reserved.
1972—Cold Spring, Minnesota
The interior of the truck was dusty and Mike opened the wing window all the way, shifting on the slick plastic-covered seat. Karen had wanted to take an afternoon drive through the country and here they were over fifty miles from Minneapolis, on a bumpy country road. It wasn't Mike's idea of a great way to spend a Sunday. He'd rather be home watching the Cubs and the Phillies from the couch in their air-conditioned Lake Street apartment.
Mike glanced uneasily at Karen as he thought about today's game. He had a bundle riding on this one and it was a damn good thing Karen didn't know about it. She'd been curious about his interest in baseball lately, but he'd told her he got a kick out of watching the teams knock themselves out for the pennant. The explanation seemed to satisfy her.
Karen was death on two of his pet vices, drinking and gambling, and he'd agreed to reform three years ago when they were married. Way back then he'd made all the required promises. Lay off the booze. No more Saturday-night poker games. No betting on the horses. No quick trips to Vegas. No office pools, even. The idea of a sportsbook hadn't occurred to her yet and he was hoping it wouldn't now. Naturally, Mike didn't make a habit of keeping secrets from his wife, but in this case he'd chosen the lesser of two evils. He knew Karen would hit the roof if he told her he hadn't gotten that hundred-dollar-a-month bonus after all, that the extra money came from his gambling winnings on the games. It was just lucky that he took care of all the finances. What Karen didn't know wouldn't hurt her.
"'Cold Spring, one mile.'" Leslie was reading the road signs again in her clear, high voice. "Oh, look, Mike! A church with a white steeple and all those trees. Can't we just drive past before we go home?"
Mike had been up most of the night developing prints for his spread in Homes magazine and he wasn't in the mood for extensive sightseeing. He was going to refuse, but then he caught sight of his stepdaughter's pleading face in the rearview mirror. Another little side trip wouldn't kill him. He'd been too busy lately to spend much time at home and these Sunday drives were a family tradition.
"Oh, let's, Mike." Karen's voice was wistful. Mike could tell by her tone that she'd been feeling a little neglected lately, too. Maybe it had been a mistake insisting she quit her job at the interior-decorating firm. Mike was old-fashioned sometimes, and he maintained that a mother's place was at home with her children. When he had discovered that Karen was pregnant, he'd put his foot down, insisting she stay home. Karen had agreed, but still she missed her job. He told himself that she'd be busy enough when the baby was born, but that didn't solve the problem right now.
Mike slowed the truck, looking for a turnoff. A little sightseeing might be fun. Karen and Leslie would certainly enjoy it and his being home to watch the game wouldn't change the outcome any.
"All right, you two win." Mike smiled at his wife and turned left at the arrowed sign. "Just a quick run through town and then we have to get back. I still have to finish the penthouse prints and start work on that feature."
Leslie gave Mike a quick kiss and settled down again in the backseat of their Land Rover. When she was sitting down on the seat, Mike could barely see the top of her blond head over the stacks of film boxes and camera cases. She was a small child for nine, fair-haired and delicate like the little porcelain shepherdesses his mother used to collect. She was an exquisite child, a classic Scandinavian beauty. Mike was accustomed to being approached by people who wanted to use Leslie as a model. Karen claimed she didn't want Leslie to become self-conscious, but Mike noticed how she enjoyed dressing Leslie in the height of fashion. Much of Karen's salary had gone into designer jeans, Gucci loafers, and Pierre Cardin sweaters for her daughter. Leslie always had the best in clothes and she wore them beautifully, taking meticulous care of her wardrobe. Even in play clothes she always looked every inch a lady.
Karen possessed a different kind of beauty. Hers was the active tennis-pro look. She had long, dark hair and a lithe, athletic body. People had trouble believing that she and Leslie were mother and daughter. They looked and acted completely different. Leslie preferred to curl up in a fluffy blanket and read, while Karen was relentlessly active. She was a fresh-air-and-exercise fanatic. For the last six years Karen had jogged around Lake Harriet every morning, dragging Leslie with her. That was how they'd met, the three of them.
Mike had been coming home from an all-night party, camera slung over his shoulder, when he spotted them. He was always on the lookout for a photogenic subject and he'd stopped to take a few pictures of the lovely black-haired runner and her towheaded child. It had seemed only natural to ask for Karen's address and a day later he was knocking at her door with some sample prints in one hand and a stuffed toy for Leslie in the other. The three of them had formed an instant bond.
Leslie had been fascinated by the man in her mother's life. She was five then, and fatherless. Karen always said Leslie was the image of her father—a handsome Swedish exchange student with whom Karen had enjoyed a brief affair before he'd gone back to his native country.
They made an unlikely trio, and Mike grinned a little at the thought. He had shaggy brown hair and a lined face. He needed a shave at least twice a day. Karen claimed he could walk out of Saks Fifth Avenue, dressed in the best from the skin out, and still look like an unemployed rock musician. The three of them made a striking contrast in their red Land Rover, with MIKE HOUSTON, PHOTOGRAPHER painted on both doors.
Mike was so busy thinking about the picture they made that he almost missed the house. Karen's voice, breathless in his ear, jogged him back to reality.
"Oh, Mike! Stop, please! Just look at that beautiful old house!"
The house was a classic, built before the turn of the century. It sprawled over half of the large, tree-shaded lot, yellow brick gleaming in the late afternoon sun. There was a veranda that ran the length of the front and around both sides, three stories high with a balcony on the second story. A cupola graced the slanted roof like the decoration on a fancy cake. It struck Mike right away: here was the perfect subject for a special old-fashioned feature in Homes magazine.
"That's it, isn't it, Mike?" Leslie's voice was hushed and expectant as if she sensed the creative magic of this moment. "You're going to use this house for a special feature, aren't you?"
It was more a statement than a question and Mike nodded. Leslie had a real eye for a good photograph. "You bet I am!" he responded enthusiastically. "Hand me the Luna-Pro, honey, and push the big black case with the Linhof to the back door. Grab your Leica if you want and let's go. The sun's just right if we hurry."
Karen grinned as her husband and daughter made a hasty exit from the truck, cameras in tow. She'd voiced her objections when Mike gave Leslie the Leica for her ninth birthday. "Such an expensive camera for a nine-year-old?" she'd asked. "She'll probably lose it, Mike. And it's much too complicated for a child her age to operate."
But Mike had been right this time around. Leslie loved her Leica. She slept with it close by the side of her bed, along with her fuzzy stuffed bear and her ballet slippers. And she'd learned how to use it, too, listening attentively when Mike gave her instructions, asking questions that even Karen admitted were advanced for her age. Leslie seemed destined to follow in her stepfather's footsteps. She showed real talent in framing scenes and instinctively knew what made up a good photograph.
Her long hair was heavy and hot on the back of her neck and Karen pulled it up and secured it with a rubber band. She felt a bit queasy, but she knew that was natural. It had been a long drive and she remembered getting carsick during the time she'd been carrying Leslie. Just a few more months and she would begin to show. Then she'd have to drag out all her old maternity clothes and see what could be salvaged.
Karen sighed, remembering. Ten years ago she was completely on her own, pregnant and unmarried, struggling to finish school. But once Leslie was born, it was better. It had been exhausting, attending decorating classes in the morning, working all afternoon at the firm, then coming home to care for the baby, but well worth any trouble. Looking back, she could honestly say that she was happy she hadn't listened to all the well-meaning advice from other women about adoption or abortion. They were a family now, she and Mike and Leslie. She hadn't planned on getting pregnant again so soon after she met Mike, but it would all work out. This time it was going to be different. She wasn't alone. This time she had Mike to help her.
Karen's eyes widened as she slid out of the truck and gazed up at the huge house. It was a decorator's paradise, exactly the sort of house she'd dreamed of tackling when she was a naive, first-year art student.
She found Leslie around the side of the house, snapping a picture of the exterior. As soon as Leslie spotted her mother, she pointed excitedly toward the old greenhouse.
"Oh, Mom! Look at this! You could grow your own flowers in here! Isn't it super?"
"It certainly is!" Karen gave her daughter a quick hug. Leslie's excitement was contagious and Karen's smile widened as she let her eyes wander to take it all in. There was plenty of space for a children's wing on the second floor and somewhere in that vast expanse of rooms was the perfect place for Mike's studio and darkroom. The sign outside said FOR SALE. The thought of owning this house kindled Karen's artistic imagination. They had mentioned looking for a house only this week and here it was. Of course it would take real backbreaking effort to fix it up, but she felt sure it could be done. It would be the project she'd been looking for, to keep her occupied the next six months. With a little time, patience, and help from Mike with the heavy stuff, she could turn the mansion into a showplace.
They were peeking in through the glass windows of the greenhouse when they heard voices. Mike was talking to someone in the front yard. They heard his laugh and another, deeper voice. Karen grabbed Leslie's hand and they hurried around the side of the house in time to see Mike talking to a gray-haired man in a sportjacket. There was a white Lincoln, with a magnetic sign reading COMSTOCK REALTY, parked in the driveway.
Rob Comstock had been driving by on his way home from the office when he saw the Land Rover parked outside the old Appleton Mansion. He noticed the painted signs on the vehicle's door and began to scheme. Out-of-towners, by the look of it. Making a sharp turn at the corner, he drove around to pull up behind the truck, shutting off the motor of his new Continental. He'd just sit here and let them get a nice, long look.
This might be it, he thought as he drew a Camel from the crumpled pack in his shirt pocket. He'd wanted to be rid of this white elephant for years. It had been on the books since his grandfather bought it eighty years ago. Rob leased it out whenever he could, but that wasn't often enough to make a profit. Tenants never stayed for more than a couple of months. It was too large, they said, or it was too far from the Cities. Even though the rent was reasonable, they still made their excuses and left. He'd been trying to sell it for the past ten years with no success. Houses like this one had gone out of style in his grandfather's day. It was huge and inconvenient, and keeping it up was a financial disaster. It seemed nobody wanted to be stuck with an eight-bedroom house ... especially a house with a reputation like this one.
Rob finished his cigarette and opened the car door. Maybe, just maybe, today would be his lucky day. He put on his sincerest, most helpful smile and cut across the lawn to greet the owner of the Land Rover. He was ready for a real challenge.
Leslie and Karen came around the corner of the house in time to catch the tail end of the sales pitch. Mike was nodding as the older man spoke.
"It's been vacant for five years now, but we check it every week to make sure there's no damage. It's a real buy, Mr. Houston. They don't build them like this anymore. Of course it would take a real professional to fix it up and decorate it, but the price is right. Only twenty-five even, for the right buyer. It's going on the block next week and that'll drive the price up higher, sure as you're standing here. These old estate auctions bring people in from all over. You'd be smart to put in a bid right now. Get it before someone buys the land and decides to tear it down and put in a trailer court."
"That'd be a real shame." Mike was shaking his head and Karen instantly recognized the thoughtful expression on his face. She'd seen it enough times when he was in the market for a new camera. He really was interested. Of course she was, too, she thought, giving the house another look. They'd already decided to get out of the Twin Cities and Mike could work anywhere as long as he had a studio and darkroom. The price was fantastically low and there was the new baby on the way. They couldn't stay in their two-bedroom apartment much longer. Out here she could raise flowers and enjoy working on the house. They might even be able to swing a tennis court in a couple of years and Leslie would have lots of room to play.
"I'd really have to think about it for a while," Mike said, shrugging his shoulders. "And I'd have to see the inside, of course. If it needs a lot of work, the price would have to come down."
"No problem, Mr. Houston." The real estate agent turned to smile at Karen and Leslie. "Glad to meet you, ladies. I'm Rob Comstock from Comstock Realty and I've got the keys with me, if you folks would like to take a look. We've got at least an hour of daylight left."
Karen had a sense of inevitability as she followed Leslie and Mike inside. She'd been dying to see the interior and here she was. One look at the huge high-ceilinged living room made her gasp. This room alone was bigger than their whole apartment! Stained-glass panes graced the upper sections of the floor-length windows and the hardwood floors were virtually unblemished.
"Oh ... lovely," Karen murmured softly. Her voice was hushed as if she were in a museum. She began to smile as she followed Rob Comstock up the circular staircase and viewed the second floor. Huge, airy bedrooms, with polished oak moldings; a separate dressing room in the master suite, with an ancient claw-footed dresser dominating the space—the interior was just as she had imagined. If only they could afford it.
"The furniture on the third floor is included." He was speaking to her now and Karen smiled. Rob Comstock could see she was interested. There was no denying Karen's excitement as she stepped up on the third-floor landing and saw what must have been the original ballroom, filled with old furniture covered by drop cloths. What she wouldn't give to poke under the shrouded shapes and see the intriguing pieces that were stored and forgotten in this enormous, shadowed space.
A small staircase, with a door at the top, led to the cupola and Leslie was scrambling up before Karen could caution her to be careful. The steps were safe enough. The whole house seemed untouched by time, waiting for some new owners to love and nourish it, to bring it back to life again. Karen could imagine it was almost the same as it had been when the original occupants left, with only a bit of dust and cobwebs covering its intrinsic beauty.
Excerpted from The Other Child by JOANNE FLUKE. Copyright © 1983 Joanne Fluke. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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