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He 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 against the 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 Mc-Naught—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 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.
"Twenty-five 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.
"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 stop talking—I can't think of anything good to say about him."
"Have we gone back in time? 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."
And because Mavis had been watching out for her since she was ten years old and always knew best, Tess headed upstairs to her old bedroom. It was just the way she'd left it after graduating from university and its familiarity was as comforting as Mavis's embrace. On this day of all days she craved the mindless solace of routine, so Tess kicked off her heels and lay down on the worn patchwork quilt covering the narrow bed. She shifted, adjusting from habit to the mattress lumps, and closed her eyes. But sleep didn't come.
What came instead was a flood of memory. Her first night in this room. She was ten and her mother, Hannah, had been taken to a hospital psychiatric ward after being picked up wandering Chicago streets in her nightgown. The incident had been the first breakdown, but not the last. When child care workers and police asked Tess if there was anyone she could stay with, the person who'd come immediately to mind had been Mavis McNaught.
Mavis's parents had been neighbors of Tess's family and Mavis had befriended Hannah and Tess over the course of her weekly visits. After Richard Wheaton left home, Mavis had kept in touch, in spite of living in another part of the city. She was the only person, other than her mother, whom Tess had really known as family after her father walked out. The middle-aged spinster hadn't blinked an eye at the officer's request. She marched out to the police cruiser, wrapped her arms around Tess and led her into the home where she stayed for the next eleven years.
Hannah came to live in Mavis's house in the beginning, too. But her erratic use of medication and frequent breakdowns took their toll on the makeshift family. In the end, Tess figured, her mother didn't so much die from pneumonia as from depression. Tess was fourteen when Mavis became her legal guardian, providing the first stable home she'd known in years.
Replaying the past, Tess came to the conclusion she always reached. Her mother's downward spiral began little more than a year after Richard Wheaton left. That day was still etched in her memory.
They'd been arguing again. Nothing unusual about that, but this time felt different to eight-year-old Tess. She crouched behind her father's favorite chair and watched her mother pace back and forth. The argument was over money.
Today Tess didn't have to cover her ears. There wasn't any shouting. Instead, their occasionally raised voices fell into low mumbles. They even sat, her mother perched on the couch. Her father, hunched forward in his chair, as if about to spring from it. Tess could have reached out to touch him if she'd dared.
After a silence Tess thought would never end, she heard her mother say the words that would haunt her in the years ahead, "Then leave."
And when Richard rose from the chair, his answer booming around the small living room, "I will," Tess had run out from behind his chair. Flinging her arms around his legs, she 'd cried, "Don't go, Daddy. Don't leave."
Hands—she didn't know whose—pulled her away. She threw herself on the carpet, sobbing. Her mother slipped upstairs. It seemed like hours later when Tess heard footsteps in the hall. She sat up and saw her father standing hesitantly at the front door. As if he didn't know what to do next, she thought.
A canvas duffel bag hung from his shoulder. He was holding his wooden box of paints in one hand and a large paper-wrapped frame in the other. One of his paintings. "Daddy—?"
He stared at her a long time before saying in a husky voice, "Don't forget me, Tess. I won't forget you." He opened the door and walked out.
Tess jumped up and ran to the open door. Her father was climbing into a taxi.
"Daddy!" she called again.
He turned around and paused, a look of indecision in his face.
Tess's heart raced. He was changing his mind. He was coming back.
But then he stiffened, waved a last goodbye and got into the taxi. Behind Tess, Hannah Wheaton snarled, "Let him go, Tess. He doesn't want us anymore and we don't want him."
She closed the door as the taxi pulled away from the curb.
Over the next few years Tess often wondered what might have happened if her mother hadn't suddenly appeared behind her that day. Would her father have come back inside and tried to patch things up, as he'd done so many times before? Or would he have swept Tess up into his arms and taken her with him?