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By Darlene Quinn
Greenleaf Book Group Press Copyright © 2013Darlene Quinn
All rights reserved.
Halting midstride, Marnie whirled around, defiance flashing in her deep brown eyes as well as the biting set of her jaw.
Caught in her daughter's cold glare, Ashleigh Taylor found herself temporarily speechless. When did this precious child become so hostile? she thought. It's all my fault. She had hundreds of questions that needed to be answered, but every one of them stuck in her throat.
"I don't belong here. I never have." Marnie's words split the silence of the room. But in the next instant, her gaze dropped to the kitchen floor, and her voice fell to a level barely above a whisper. "I want to live with my mother."
I am your mother! Ashleigh wanted to scream, but she never would. The last thing she wanted to do was to put her angry young daughter on the defensive. Unbidden, the name she dared not speak aloud thundered through her head and hammered in her heart: Cassie. Oh, my Cassie.
Taking a restorative breath, Ashleigh willed herself not to slip back in time. If she allowed what-ifs or should haves to cloud her mind, she'd be immobilized. She had no power to rewrite the past. What had been done could not be undone.
Nearly sixteen years earlier, on the day Ashleigh had given birth to perfect twin daughters, Cassie had been abducted from the cradle beside Ashleigh's bed. That heinous crime had trapped two utterly different families in a heartbreaking tangle of secrets and lies for eight long years.
For those critical years, Erica Christonelli, the wife of Cassie's abductor, was the only mother her Cassie had known. How much easier it might have been if Ashleigh could have despised the woman. But Erica was no less a victim than she and her husband had been. Unaware that the baby she was raising as her own was Callie's kidnapped twin sister, Erica had named her child Marnie.
Ashleigh had never deluded herself with thoughts that the road to making her family whole again would be an easy one. There was bound to be a multitude of treacherous bumps along the path she'd chosen. Yet she never dreamed how difficult it would be to stay that course. Unwilling to deny her daughter time with the "mother" she had known since birth, Ashleigh had turned a blind eye to the obstacles and instead looked into her heart, drawing upon the old African proverb, It takes a village to raise a child. In time she had worn down Conrad's resistance. He'd come to terms with what was best for their daughter. They had agreed to make Erica a member of their extended family. But their "family village" was filled with so many pitfalls, so many side roads, so many voices. Far too many voices.
Ashleigh looked past the hard set of her daughter's jaw to her pain- filled eyes and quickly closed the distance between them. "Marnie. I love you with all my heart," she said softly. "If you don't belong here, then neither do I." She reached out to brush the loose hairs from Marnie's cheek.
Marnie stepped back. "That's a lie. I hate it when you say things you don't mean. I know you wish I'd never been born." Dissolving into tears, she averted her eyes, jammed her arms into the sleeves of her parka, and bolted for the kitchen door.
From the pantry, Elizabeth heard every word of the exchange between Ashleigh and her rebellious daughter. Momentarily frozen in place, her mind quickly raced through the options. Ashleigh doesn't deserve this. She's a wonderful mother. She tries so hard to be fair and do what's right, not only for the twins and Juliana but for everyone.
Over the years, Elizabeth had become more like a member of the family than part of their household staff. She had grown to love and care for the entire Taylor family as she had for Ashleigh's beloved grandfather. Right or wrong, she could no longer remain silent. "Marnie," she called out, moving swiftly toward the door.
Ashleigh, just a few steps behind Elizabeth, reached it first and placed her hand over Marnie's on the doorknob. "Don't open that door," she warned. Her words came out sharper than she'd intended. Well, maybe not. After all, she could not keep tiptoeing around. Marnie was in need of a firm hand.
"What is this?" Marnie spun around, her gaze shifting from Elizabeth to Ashleigh. "Am I under house arrest?"
In the thundering silence, Elizabeth glanced from Ashleigh's troubled expression to Marnie's stormy defiance. If only she could shake some sense into the young rebel. If only she could find a way to help Marnie drink in all the love that surrounded her.
"Marnie," Ashleigh began, "it's sixteen degrees outdoors. Even if we didn't have a lot to discuss, you aren't entirely dressed for this weather." She looked down at Marnie's bootless feet.
"Whatever," Marnie sighed. "I'm sorry." Not meeting Ashleigh's eyes, she added, "I should just totally keep my mouth shut."
Before Ashleigh could respond, the kitchen door burst open. Juliana called out, "We finished our choreography and we're ready—"
As she slid to a stop in her soft-soled jazz shoes, her eyes flashed from her mother to Elizabeth before resting on Marnie. "Oops," said Juliana. "Guess this isn't such a good time."
Torn between her unusually perceptive eleven-year-old's excitement and Marnie's pain, Ashleigh glanced up at the wall clock. Quarter to ten. "How about we come upstairs to see your duet at ten thirty? That will give—"
"Can't we go up to the studio now?" Marnie pleaded, her face suddenly brightening. "I want to see how much of my part had to be changed."
Ashleigh glanced across the room to Elizabeth for a fraction of a second, but she did not hesitate in making up her mind. Looking straight into Marnie's damp eyes, which now seemed to sparkle in anticipation, she said, "Sure, we'll check out the new rendition of your duet. Then we need to talk."
Marnie nodded and took off toward the broad staircase in the foyer.
As they headed toward the dance studio, Ashleigh's mind reeled. Marnie's sudden mood swings were nothing new, and yet they never failed to astound her. Since Marnie's recent return from spending the last few days of Christmas vacation with Erica and her brother-in-law, Mike Christonelli, Ashleigh felt as if she were tiptoeing though a field of hand-blown glass baubles. As if the emotional turmoil that visit had stirred in the teenager weren't enough, Ashleigh realized that Marnie's being eliminated from the upcoming dance competition and forced to give up practice for the past few weeks—to give her twisted ankle time to repair—had taken their toll. And now that Marnie was walking without a limp, she resisted following through with the strengthening exercises she needed to avoid further injury to her ankle. Ashleigh knew the additional blow of handing over her role in the duet with Callie to her younger sister had to be far more devastating than Marnie was letting on.
"Okay, Midget," Marnie teased as she followed Juliana to the dance studio on the top floor of the family's suburban home. "Let's see how many of my pirouettes you had to take out."
"Only two," Callie called out from the top of the stairs. "She's taken on the challenge like a champ."
Once Juliana had assumed her place on the dance floor, Callie pressed play on the CD player and the two girls fell into their opening pose. For the duet competition, the twins had adapted choreography from Twyla Tharp's Sinatra: Dance with Me.
While Ashleigh joined Marnie as a spectator in the home studio, she wondered how much effort it took for her daughter to plant that smile on her face, when just moments before ... How much of who Marnie is today was preordained by DNA, and how much by her environment during those critical early years? Ashleigh was not alone in her inability to solve the age-old controversy of Nature versus Nurture. She only knew—based on the books she had devoured about the care and development of identical twins—that both genes and upbringing played a vital part.
Good, bad, or indifferent, Marnie had become the person she was through a combination of heredity and environment. To lay blame or attach a label was an exercise in futility. Undeniably it was heredity that accounted for Marnie and Callie having Ashleigh's brown eyes and Conrad's smile, but the genetic waters got a bit cloudier when it came to behavior, intelligence, and personality. When Marnie's moodiness first became apparent, Conrad had blamed her early years away from the family. Her personality, he pointed out, often mirrored that of Erica Christonelli, who confessed to having been diagnosed as bipolar, while Callie's even temper and optimistic outlook tended to be more like her parents'. Conrad glossed over the fact that Marnie seldom had to be reminded to wash her dishes and pick up after herself—while Callie typically needed to be told more than once. Ashleigh knew that even identical twins brought up in the same household since birth developed different traits and personalities. So why waste time analyzing? she scolded herself. We just have to deal with whatever comes our way.
The last strains of Sinatra's "Come Dance with Me" faded, and Callie and Juliana slipped into their ending pose.
"Awesome! Bravo! Bravo!" Marnie clapped her hands and then struggled to her feet from the floor, where she'd been sitting cross-legged. Thanks to her ankle injury, this was no longer a simple task, but she managed and, once standing, threw her arms around Juliana. "Didn't think you had it in you, Midget." Turning to Callie, she said, "I guess you really should open your own dance studio."
Throughout the duet Ashleigh's attention had been more focused on Marnie than on the dancers. Her heart lifted now as she observed Marnie's enthusiasm—apparently genuine—for her sisters' performance. "Great job, girls," she said. "That was fantastic. If I were one of the judges, I'd be awarding you the platinum."
"Riiiight," Juliana said, a grin spreading across her face. "You're our mom, so that doesn't really count."
"Just because I'm your mom doesn't mean I don't know a great performance when I see one."
"Yeah, but you're prejudiced."
"Guilty as charged," Ashleigh admitted, "but I'm no dummy in the world of dance. I've been observing since ..." Her voice trailed off as visions of four-year-old Callie, all decked out in her pink swan's leotard and tutu, appeared in her head. Although Erica and Mike had given Ashleigh scores of pictures of Marnie from the years before she turned eight, Ashleigh's brain had blocked those images of Marnie all alone, never knowing how much she was loved and missed.
Ashleigh felt Marnie's eyes on her now. "Since forever," she said, as if she hadn't drifted off. Although she knew it was irrational, she felt guilty that Marnie had not shared those early years and was not part of those first memories. Maybe that's why Ashleigh couldn't say no when she had been nominated for chairman of the dance team's parent group. It had drawn her even closer to the girls, as she'd hoped it would. But in the past few years Marnie had begun to drift away.
"Mom," Callie said, "is it okay if I have Sam spend the night?" Samantha and Callie had been fast friends from the first day the Taylors had moved into their Greenwich home seven years ago.
"After you clean your room," Ashleigh replied. She hadn't missed the roll of Marnie's eyes when Callie asked about Sam spending the night. The dynamics between the twins and their friends were a constant source of both amusement and concern. When the sisters first came together, they had disassembled their separate bedrooms, creating one sleeping area for the two of them to share and turning the other into a separate computer and study room. But by the time they were in middle school, they had wanted their own rooms, their own space and privacy.
When Marnie turned to follow Callie and the others out of the studio, Ashleigh called out to her. "Marnie, wait. We need to talk. Let's get some hot chocolate and go into the living room."
"I don't want any hot chocolate."
"Okay. Well, do you want anything before we—"
"I don't want anything. And I don't want to talk." Biting down on her lip, she quickly added, "I said I was sorry. Can't we just forget it?"
"No, Marnie, we can't just forget it. I'm not angry, but I need to know why you are so unhappy."
Heaving a heavy sigh, Marnie said, "Please, Mom. School starts tomorrow, and I need to do some stuff on the computer."
She hasn't called me Mom since coming back from her trip to Chicago to visit the Christonellis. "Sorry," Ashleigh said, heading to the studio doorway. "First we need to clear the air about a few things."
"Whatever," Marnie grumbled, reluctantly following a few steps behind. On the coffee table in the family room, Elizabeth had placed a tray with two mugs, a pot of steaming hot chocolate, and a plate filled with Marnie's favorite sugar cookies. It looked pretty darn good.
Marnie watched as Ashleigh filled one mug. She was sorry now that she'd said she didn't want any.... But without even asking, Ashleigh handed her the mug.
"Thanks," she mumbled, reluctantly taking the cup.
"Marnie, I love you with all my heart," said Ashleigh again. "You do belong here with all of us. What can we do to make you feel that you belong?"
"But I don't. You and Dad tell me you love me because you're my parents and you think you have to. 'I love you with all my heart,'" she parroted. "Isn't that called a platitude? Something you just say but don't really mean?"
Ashleigh's face fell. She looked as if Marnie had actually slapped her. Obviously she doesn't know what to say. Maybe she's tired of pretending she loves me. Building up steam, Marnie said aloud, "Let's face it. I was born second. I am number two." Following a dramatic pause, she continued, "And number two spells loser." She'd read that somewhere and practiced it. It felt really good to say it out loud.
"Marnie," Ashleigh said, "tell me everything you feel. I'll just listen until you're finished. I promise not to interrupt, but then I want you to listen to me." She looked deep into Marnie's eyes. "Deal?"
Marnie stared back at her. After a few awkward moments she said, "There isn't that much to say that we haven't said a hundred times before. But now I know for sure that I want to live in Chicago with my mom and Uncle Mike and Bill."
Ashleigh leaned forward; she looked as if she were ready to say something, but instead she sank back in the chair, not uttering a single syllable.
This was great. Marnie was feeling in control—something she had not felt for a very long time. But suddenly her stomach felt as though it were a meat grinder churning away. She knew how hard Ashleigh tried to make her feel loved. It's really not her fault that she can't love me. It's my fault. I look like Callie, but inside I'm not at all like her. Callie is perfect. She's a better dancer, she has more friends, she gets better grades ... She likes everyone, and everyone likes her. "Let's face it, Mom. I'm an outsider in this family. I'm even on the outside with Callie's friends and the dance team ..."
Holding her tongue was getting more difficult by the moment, but Ashleigh knew she must not interrupt. She had promised. Besides, if she wasn't willing to listen to her daughter, how could she expect to be heard? It took all her willpower not to contradict what Marnie was saying, even though she was one hundred percent wrong.
Finally, Marnie slumped into the cushions of the couch. "Okay, now you can tell me how wrong I am."
"Darling, feelings are neither right nor wrong. They are what you feel deep inside, but sometimes they come about through wrong assumptions." Shifting away from the psychological and back to what Marnie had actually said, Ashleigh repeated her daughter's words. "You're telling me that you feel less important to us and less loved than your sisters."
Marnie nodded, but she looked skeptical.
"Marnie. I know words don't mean a thing when it comes to expressing feelings. I'll most likely repeat a lot of what you've heard before. But I listened to you without butting in, and I hope you can do the same for me. You have been a part of me since before you were born. Number one, two, or three. There are no losers. You are my daughter, and I love you with all my heart. No, you are not like Callie. You are not like Juliana. You are exactly like you. I might not always like the choices you make, but there is nothing you could ever do to make me stop loving you.
"When you tell me you feel like an outsider, is it because we sometimes talk about things that happened before you were returned to us?"
"I don't know if you remember or not, but we talked about this while you were still in elementary school."
Excerpted from UNPREDICTABLE WEBS by Darlene Quinn. Copyright © 2013 by Darlene Quinn. Excerpted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group Press.
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