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The house on Mona Lisa Lane had always been home to her. And, paradoxically, it had not been home. Not exactly.
She had spent so many years on the moveto New York, to London, Milan, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Tokyo. In her swimsuit glory days, she'd been photographed on beaches around the world; she loved beaches.
But she tried not to think about the Caribbean.
There were many things she tried not to think about.
Still, although Penny had spent much of her life away, she felt that this Dallas house was far more than a dwelling, it was her emotional base. It was where she had been young, innocent and doted on by her parents. She had spent most of her childhood here with her three younger brothers, the lighthearted twins, Will and Bart, and Sawyer, the youngest, who was the family's loner.
She'd been married in the living room of this stone mansion at Christmas, two years ago. Her mother, Maeve, had made everything sumptuous, classically beautiful, and Penny had felt like a princess bride in a fairy tale. It had been the happiest day of her life.
She'd deeply loved Craig, her husband. She supposed that she still loved him. But the marriage was over. She'd asked him to move out. Some days, she thought it was her fault; other days, she convinced herself that he was to blame.
She pulled into the long, sweeping driveway of the house. But for once, she wasn't comfortable coming here. She was certain that her mother would try to talk her into going back to Craig.
She parked her car rather crookedly. If the twins were home, they'd hoot with laughter at her driving. They were both NASCAR drivers and never let anyone forget it.
But the twins were in Daytona today, andSawyer was studying in North Carolina. Her father had left for Switzerland Saturday evening, saying there was an emergency meeting about the Euro and he didn't know how long he might need to stay.
So Maeve and Penny would be aloneand Maeve wanted to have "a heart-to-heart" chat. Maeve loved happy endings and was deeply saddened that Penny had split with Craig. But Penny couldn't tell her why. She couldn't tell anyone why.
She got out of her car, a sleek little basic black BMW. The twins always teased her that she didn't deserve such a car, that it was wasted on her. She supposed it was wasted, but it was a present from her father, who took pride in his family having fine things.
She walked to the front door, a plain cloth purse over her shoulder. She'd retired from modeling five months ago, at the beginning of September. She still had the long-legged, confident stride of a model, but she no longer dressed like one. She wore blue jeans, a light blue T-shirt and a short denim-blue suede jacket.
Her face was free of makeup except for pink lip gloss and a touch of eyebrow pencil. She'd brushed her long, platinum hair into a simple ponytail. Her father complained because she went about so unglamorously, but it made her feel freeliberated at last from her old life.
She made her way up the porch stairs, which were flanked by beds of spring flowers blooming bright in the February sun: white and yellow daffodils and multicolored pansies.
She didn't have to ring the bell because Maeve was already opening the door.
"Darling," Maeve said with real affection and hugged her daughter. Most people thought of her as a polished and reserved duchess of Dallas high society, but most people didn't know the real Maeve. Her grace and seeming confidence were like a magic cloak that hid a woman with a streak of shyness, even insecurity.
Penny kissed her mother's soft cheek. Maeve smelled of French perfume and vanilla. Penny's father, Hilton, insisted that they have a cook and maid, but Maeve was happy on Monday, Gerty's day off.
"You smell divine, Mama," Penny said. "Are you baking?"
"Your favorite," Maeve answered with a smile. "Grandma's cookies with butter frosting. Come have some with me on the sunporch. I've got a pot of fresh tea steeping."
"Oh, Mama," Penny said, "you've got powdered sugar all over your blouse." She tried to brush the white smudges off Maeve's navy-blue silk blouse. Only Maeve would dive into a baking job wearing a dark pantsuit and no apron.
"When I cook, I like to get into it," Maeve stated, beaming up at her tall daughter. "What's the fun of baking without a few flour flurries? When I shake sugar, I by gosh shake sugar."
Penny had to smile. Maeve was a happy dervish in the kitchen, and she left chaos in her wake. "I'll help you clean up," she said.
"Oh, pooh," said Maeve. "I get to indulge myself. Cleaning up is part of the fun. What's the good of having a state-of-theart kitchen when I hardly ever get to use it?"
"Then let me clean up you," Penny replied, shaking her head in amusement. "You've got frosting on your pearls."
She drew her handkerchief from her bag and scrubbed the sugary crust from Maeve's necklace. She glanced down at her mother's hands. "Mom," she said, "You've also got cookie dough in your diamonds."
Maeve stared at her ringed hand in amazement. "Oh, I should have been more careful. Your father always says I'm a klutz."
"You're not a klutz," said Penny. "But you should have just taken off your rings."
"My wedding rings? Never!" Maeve seemed shocked at the thought. "You know better than that. I'll wash at the kitchen sink."
Penny followed her into the kitchen. It looked if there'd been a flour explosion on the marble-topped counter. Soaking bowls and cookie sheets filled the sink. Pink-frosted cookies completely covered a large tray on the table of the breakfast nook.
"Mom," Penny said in disbelief. "How many of these things did you make, for heaven's sake? There must be over three dozen!"
"Five dozen," Maeve said, running the water over her hands and scrubbing at her rings with a vegetable brush. "I work at the animal shelter tomorrow. I wanted to make cookies for the staff and for anyone who comes in looking for a pet. I could have had Gerty bake something, but that seems hypocritical, having the cook do it."
Penny looked at her mother in admiration. Maeve was on the board of half a dozen charity organizations, but she most loved working at the animal shelter. Hilton thought it beneath her dignity, so she didn't tell him and worked under her maiden name. It was her only secret from her husband. This tiny, secret act of rebellion always made Penny smile.
From the kitchen island, Maeve picked up a china plate with a neat arrangement of pink cookies. "Let's go to the sunporch." She led the way.
The sunporch windows overlooked the rose garden, its bushes just starting to bud. The white wicker table was covered with a pale green cloth. A white vase of yellow daffodils stood in the center. Maeve had already set the table with matching white china, including a teapot and sugar bowl. Pale green napkins decorated with daffodils lay folded by each dessert plate.
"You always make everything perfect," Penny said. "I don't know how you do it."
"It's the way your father wants things done," Maeve said. "I do it the best I can. There are compromises, adjustments, in every marriage. You try to please each other."
So, it was starting, the dreaded heart-to-heart. Penny wanted to roll her eyes or groan, but instead, she nimbly changed the subject. "Have you heard from the twins? Are they ready for Daytona?"
"They're there," Maeve said, suddenly looking worried. "You know how they work up to the last minute on those cars. I enjoy the races, but I still get scared."
"The safety standards have really tightened since 2001," Penny said. "Bart and Will both say it's hard to even get hurt very badly, the cars are so much better designed now."
"They keep telling me that, too," Maeve said, filling Penny's cup. "But I saw that accident in 2001, and "
Her sentence trailed off, so Penny finished it for her. "And a mother worries. How's Sawyer?" Penny had a hard time understanding Sawyer, who often seemed irresponsible to her.
"He's changed his field of study again," Maeve said, with a sigh. "Now he's in some weird kind of math. And I'm afraid he's gambling too much. He's almost twenty-eight, and he still doesn't know what he wants to do. I keep hoping he'll find himself. But "
"But a mother worries," Penny repeated.
"Yes," Maeve admitted, then squared her jaw. "And I worry about you, too. Craig still loves you. I know he does. But you won't say what this spat's about, and neither will he."
"You're still talking to him?" Penny demanded, appalled.
"Mom, I wish you wouldn't."
"How can I not talk to him? He's one of your father's vice presidents. And technically, he's still part of our family, Penny. And I like the man, I truly do. So this spat"
"It's not a spat," Penny shot back, lifting her chin. "I'm filing for divorce. The marriage is finishedso I wish you wouldn't talk to him. Or even about him. It's painful."
"Penny," Maeve said almost pleadingly, "if I just could understand what went wrong. You seemed like the perfect match made in heaven. Then you quit modeling, and four months later, Craig moves out of your condo. Everyone's shocked, and nobody knows what to say ."
"Nobody needs to say anything about it. It's between Craig and me. I refuse to discuss it. So, please, Mom, don't ask me anymore."
Maeve looked hurt, and Penny was sorry for wounding her. More gently she said, "Let's talk about something else. Do you and Daddy have your tickets for the Daytona race?"
"Yes, we're going. Sawyer doesn't want to. I wish you'd come with us. We could get another ticket, I'm certain. Daddy is a sponsor."
"Daddy's a sponsor twice over," Penny added. Both twins were sponsored by one of Hilton's financial companies. Secretly, Penny thought it a rather grandiose gesture, but her father loved the showiness of it. He loved being connected to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and the national exposure it gave his conglomerate.
But she didn't want to go to Daytona. At last year's race, she'd sat cuddled close to Craig, seizing his hand when the race scared her, kissing his cheek joyously when one of the twins sped closer to the lead.
That night, she and he had made love in a beautiful hotel room with an ocean view. It had the largest bed Penny had ever seen, and they must have used every inch of it. They kept the sliding door to the balcony slightly open, the sound of the sea encouraging them to move to rhythms just as primal.
She wasn't willing to revisit that scene and those memories. Not yet. Not for a long time. So again she switched subjects. "When's Daddy coming back from Switzerland?"
Maeve's expression remained pensive. "Late Thursday, he hopes. He phoned me Saturday when he got there. And yesterday morning. He said the talks would run long and were going to be intense. I haven't heard from him since. I called the hotel this morning, but he didn't answer."
Penny frowned. "Did you try his cell phone?"
Maeve picked up a cookie. "Eat," she said. "Please eat. Yes, I tried his cell. He didn't answer that, either. Maybe something's wrong with it. He'll call soon, I'm sure. Still "
She paused again and Penny said, "You worry about him.
Mom, you need to join ten or twelve more organizations so you don't have so much time to worry."
Maeve smiled weakly, and Penny bit into her cookie, thinking peace was restored. She shifted gears and asked what Maeve was going to do with the gardens this year.
Her mother nibbled at the frosting on her cookie. She seemed to put her emotions under lock and key, to become the capable woman she usually seemed. She talked about experimenting with a prairie garden: butterfly weed, black-eyed Susans, heath asters
The kitchen phone rang shrilly. "Daddy," Maeve said, smiling happily. She stood up so fast that she knocked her cup from the table. Tea spattered her slacks and hands, and the cup crashed to the tiled floor, breaking. Maeve mopped madly at her slacks with her napkin.
"Oh, honey, can you answer that? If it's Daddy, tell him I've just been a klutz again. That should make him laugh. I'll be there in a minute."
Penny, amused, rushed to the phone on the kitchen counter. The receiver, too, had frosting on it. Still damp, it oozed between her fingers.
"Branch residence," she said, grimacing at her sticky hand.
"Penny, don't hang up. This is Craig. I've got to talk to you. It's important. Is your mother there?"
Penny's heart wrenched as if it was tearing itself out of her chest. The sound of his voice made her muscles stiffen and her nerves bristle in defense.
"Craig," she said, trying to keep her voice from shaking, "I don't like your calling here. I don't like you trying to butter up my mother. So stop it. Just stop."
"Penny," he said. "In the name of all that's holy, listen to me. I'm glad you're there. Maeve needs somebody with her. I'm sorry, Penny, but something's happened. It it involves your father."
"What?" she echoed, suddenly frightened. "Is he is he all right? Is he sick? Hurt?"
For an agonizing moment Craig was silent. "Penny, he's disappeared. Nobody knows where he is."
Was this his idea of a joke? "My father's in Switzerland," she said icily. "He's at the banking conference."
"No, he's not. He told that to his secretary, too. There is no banking conference there. He stayed in Switzerland just long enough to clean out some accounts there. He also took everything he could from here, from Branch Mutual and its subsidiaries. In Switzerland, he bought a ticket to London. He took the flight, but nobody knows why. Or where he is. We do know that he's got a large sum of Branch Mutual Trust's money with him. A very large sum."
"What?" she said again. She didn't understand, didn't want to understand.
Craig's voice sounded tight, almost anguished. "Friday morning I started going through some records. These things had been locked in a separate storage room. Merwin, the new accountant, discovered them. We found some suspicious stuff. Very suspicious."
He paused, and her heartbeat skipped.
He said, "I took our findings to your dad. He said he wanted to look at the data over the weekend. Just before the bank closed on Saturday, your father cleaned out a bunch of accounts, everything he could. Nobody knew until this morning."
"What are you saying?" she demanded. Hot tears welled up, burning. "Are you accusing my father of" she couldn't say the words fraud or embezzling. She could not say them if a gun was pointed at her head.
"Somebody's been skimming money from BMT for years, Penny. When he realized we knew the books were cooked, he disappeared. I think he's on the run."
She was speechless, her mouth dry. She felt light-headed and leaned one hand on the counter because her knees shook with weakness.
Craig said, "The twins are in Daytona, right?"
"Y-yes," she stammered, not realizing what the twins had to do with it. "It's Speedweeks."
"I'm going to call them, tell them to get here as fast as possible, by this evening. It's a genuine emergency, Penn. Sawyer should be here, too. You need to have a very serious family discussion. This affects you all."
"But but " Penny seemed to have lost the power of speech.
"Are you all right?" Craig asked with concern. "Penny? Are you all right?"
Of course, she wasn't all right. But at that instant, her mother walked into the room, an expectant smile on her face.
"Penny?" Craig asked.
"Mom just came in," she managed to say.
"Penny? Do you want me to tell her? Or can you do it? Penny?" Penny shook her head, confused and demoralized. "You tell her," she said, trying to keep her voice from breaking.
She handed the phone to Maeve, who gave Penny a puzzled look. "It's not Daddy?" Maeve asked.
"It's Craig," Penny said weakly.
"But you just said you didn't want me talking to him," Maeve whispered.
"No, please," Penny said. "It's important." Maeve took the phone, wrinkling her nose at the feel of frosting hardening on the receiver. "Craig?" Maeve said hesitantly.
As she listened, Penny watched her mother's face. At first Maeve seemed puzzled, bewildered and disbelieving, and then her expression turned to sheer, undisguised pain.
I'm watching my mother's heart break, Penny thought, torn and helpless. I'm watching her die inside.
Maeve's voice quavered. "No," she kept saying as if it were a prayer. "No no no."
She hung up the phone. She looked at Penny and started sobbing uncontrollably. Penny grabbed her in a tight embrace. The two women clung to each other.
Penny knew that her mother's life had suddenly and violently changed forever. The whole family's had.
But she could not begin to imagine how deep and painful that change would be.