Read an Excerpt
Desi wished she had a flashlight as she crept around the side of the ancient house in the dark. A thorn from an equally old and gnarly bush snagged her T-shirt, puncturing her skin.
"Ouch!" She immediately regretted her outburst since it was almost midnight. Where did Gerda say that painted rock is?
Her grandmother, a woman Desi had met only a few times in her twenty-eight years, had earlier instructed over the phone where the extra house key was hidden. Determined not to wake up Grandma Gerda, she tramped through the overgrown grass and shrubbery along the side of the house, searching for the mark.
Success! A brightly patterned rock nestled against the wooden gate stood out under the moonlight like fluorescent paint under black light. As she'd been told, she searched along the bottom for the small stick-on box holding the house key, hoping there weren't any nighttime creepy crawlers around. Just as she retrieved the box and opened it, the assaulting aroma of night-blooming jasmine tickled her nose. Sneezing with gusto, she dropped the key and got on her hands and knees to search for it, grateful there was a full moon.
A few seconds later, with key in hand, she emerged out of the thick overgrowth between two houses, heading for the huge wraparound porch belonging to her maternal grandmother. But not before tripping on a brick along the walkway. She lurched forward, swatting at the night for nonexistent support and letting fly a few choice words.
A bright light blinded her just as she stopped teetering and regained her balance.
"Who's there?" A distinctly deep and masculine voice came from the vicinity of the light.
She shielded her eyes with her forearms. "I'm Mrs. Rask's granddaughter. Who're you?"
The light lowered, allowing Desi to see a huge shadow, making her wish she'd kept up those kickboxing classes
just in case.
"I'm Kent, Gerda's next-door neighbor." The man stepped closer, studying her, as though he didn't believe her story. "I've never heard about a granddaughter."
Why would she expect otherwise? Wasn't she supposed to be the secret granddaughter? Especially since a Scandinavian stronghold like Heartlandia along the Columbia River in Oregon probably wasn't used to people like her.
"Are you saying you're Ester's daughter?" His voice, a moment ago deep and intriguing, had jumped an octave higher. He must have known who her mother was
or had been.
"Yes. Could you please turn off that light and not talk so loud? I don't want to wake my grandmother. I had no idea how long the drive from Portland to Heart-landia would be." On a whim, and for future reference, she'd taken a detour through the big city just to see it, suspecting her father might still live there. Determined not to spend extra money for a motel, she'd made a decision to drive straight through tonight. "Took me two and a half hours. And what's Oregon got against streetlights, anyway?" she said in a raspy whisper. "Thought I'd driven into a black hole on Highway 30 for a while there." She fussed with the leaves that had stuck to her shirt and her hair, and brushed off the dirt from her hands, then reached out. "I'm Desi Rask, by the way."
Stepping closer, with her eyes having adjusted to the dark again, she realized how tall the man was. At five foot nine it was hard to find many men to look up to. He had to be at least six foot three. And blond. As in Nordic-god blond. "Kent Larson." He accepted her hand and shook it; hers felt incredibly petite inside his grasp. "Your mother used to babysit me before"
He stopped without completing the sentence. Before she ran away from home. Yeah, Desi knew the story. Her mother, the piano-bar queen of the Midwest, had finally cleared up most of the missing pieces before she'd passed.
"Desdemona? Is that you?" a reedy voice called out.
Succeeding at doing what she'd hoped to avoidwaking up her grandmotherDesi turned toward the porch to face her for the first time since her mother's last days in the hospital.
"It's me. Your greeting committee from next door decided to interrogate me before I could let myself in."
"That's not it," Kent the Viking said. "With Mrs. Rask being the mayor, I look out for her is all."
She'd seen the doubt on his face and the hesitation to swallow her story when she'd told him who she was. But being half-black, why should she expect otherwise when she didn't look anything like the Norseman or her equally pale grandmother, the mayor of Heartlandia?
Kent worked quickly to put two and two together. Ester Rask had been a teenager when she'd run away from home. Being only eight at the time, the same age as his son Steven now, he'd never heard the whole story. He remembered the town searching high and low for Ester without success. He also remembered that Ester had never been declared dead, just missing, and eventually, his parents had quit talking about her disappearance altogether and he'd had a new babysitter. That had to be twenty-eight years ago. Hard to believe.
Now, having run into Desdemona in the dark of night, he understood why Ester had run awayshe must have been pregnant.
Gerda flipped on the porch light, and Kent got his first good look at the dark and enchanting one named Desdemona. Or Desi, as she'd introduced herself. Tall, sturdy in build, coffee-with-cream-colored skin with an extra dollop of milk, wide-set rich brown eyes, a smoothed out variation on the pointy Rask family nose, full lips and straight teeth. It had been a long time since he'd seen such an exotically beautiful woman in person and it threw him off-balance.
She wore a bright yellow top that hung off one shoulder, with the straps of a black tank top playing peekaboo from beneath. The midnight-blue jeans fit like second skin, and black flats countered her height. Wow, her outfit didn't leave a whole lot to the imagination, and right now his was running wild. Loads of thick dark hair danced around her shoulders, long and full-bodied like how he'd remembered Ester's, except Ester's hair had been blond, nearly white-blond. Kent's hands grew suddenly restless, his fingers itching and his mind wondering what it would be like to dig into those gorgeous waves and curls.
Even at eight he'd had a crush on his babysitter, and tonight a fresh rush of infatuation was springing up for another brand of Rask woman.
She'd introduced herself as Desi Rask, so Ester had probably never married. For some reason, maybe his general mood about marriage lately, that knowledge landed like a sad clunk in his chest.
"Are you going to come inside?" Mayor Rask asked, drawing him out of his rambling thoughts.
"Oh, no. Steven's sleeping. I should be getting back."
Desi didn't hug her grandmother when she approached the porch. Instead they stood with a good three feet between them, offering polite smiles, seeming more like mere acquaintances than relatives. It didn't feel right by a long shot, but who was he to figure out the way life should go?
"Let me get my stuff first," Desi said, rushing back down the six porch steps toward the Ford Taurus station wagon from at least two decades back. That car had definitely seen better days.
"I'll help you," he said on impulse, waiting for her to open the back liftgate. There were two suitcases, a few boxes and assorted household items, including a potted plant or two. Was she moving in?
"All I need is my overnight case for now."
Maybe she was just passing through.
"I can get whatever else I need in the morning," she said, her alto voice already beginning to grow on him. Would she still be there by the time he got off work tomorrow?
"May as well bring this one inside, too." Ignoring her wish, he grabbed both suitcases and carried them up the porch and inside his neighbor's house. This one gave the impression of being flighty, and he wanted to make sure for Gerda's sake that her long-lost granddaughter stuck around for more than one stinking night. Surreptitiously catching Gerda's gaze on his way inside the dimly lit house, he inquired with a raised brow, "Everything okay?"
She nodded in her usual stiff-upper-lip way, clutching the thick blue bathrobe to her throat. "She'll have Ester's old room, upstairs and down the hall." Gerda's robe was the exact shade of blue as Desi's painted-on jeans, and he wondered if either woman noticed their similar taste in color.
Kent carried the bags around the grand piano in the center of the living roomthe piano he'd once taken lessons on and now Steven also took lessons onand headed up the stairs. The third door on the left was the room where Ester had taught him how to play Go Fish. He knew this house like it was his own, having lived next door nearly his entire thirty-six years. Being so deeply rooted in Heartlandia when his parents moved to a retirement village in Bend, he'd bought their house.
As a doctor and part owner of the Heartlandia Urgent Care, he had an early shift tomorrow, so he excused himself. "Welcome to Heartlandia, Desdemona, but I've got to go."
Desi sent a hesitant but thoughtful glance his way just before he headed for the door, her eyes filled with questions and suspicion. He nodded good-night, recognizing the mistrustful look, since he saw the same expression each morning when he shaved. When had he lost his natural trust in women? Oh, right, when his wife walked out.
"Gerda, I'll check in tomorrow."
"Tell Steven to be sure and practice," Gerda said, reminding Kent that his son could come up with a hundred excuses when it came time to take his piano lesson.
A few minutes later, lying on his bed, hands behind his head on the pillow, Kent stared at the ceiling, wrenching his memory all the way back to when he'd been eight. Ester Rask had run away and had never come back. So much of the story had eluded him all these years. Now he understood it was because she was pregnant. He'd never known that part of the equation before. He'd heard she'd died last year, seen how distraught Gerda had been when she'd come home from her mysterious trip to California just before she'd been appointed mayor pro tem. Yet she'd barely spoken about it, just moped around for months. At least Gerda had been able to see her daughter one last timea sad consolation to a lost life together.
Now, like a prodigal granddaughter, the woman named Desdemona had shown up.
The downright sadness of all the lost family years hit him where it hurt mostin the gaping wound his wife had ripped open when she'd left him. As he clearly didn't need to be reminded, Gerda wasn't the only one moping around for months on end.
He shook off the negative memories, choosing to focus on the stars outside his window instead of the ache in his heart.
The strangest thing of all was, tonight he'd immediately reacted to Desi's exotic beauty when he saw her under the soft glow of the porch lamp. But that was such a shallow response. He should ignore it. Yet, in the still of the night, under the gentle beams of moonlight, he couldn't get her or those questioning, mistrustful brown eyes out of his mind.
Tall and well proportioned, with extra-fine hips, she was a woman who'd fit with his big, overgrown frame. He grimaced. Why torture himself and think about women? After seven years of marriage, he couldn't make his wife stick around. Not even for Steven's sake. Why fall for their beauty when their motives cut like blades? He ground his teeth and rolled over, willing the young mysterious woman out of his thoughts and demanding his mind go blank so he could finally fall asleep.
The next morning, Desi threw on an old sweatshirt and baggy jeans and made her way down the creaky staircase of the ancient house. Gerda was already up and reading the newspaper, and jumped up from the table the moment Desi set foot inside the kitchen. They tipped their heads to each other in a silent greeting. Like strangers.
"I don't drink coffee, but I've got some if you'd like," Gerda said, sounding eager to please.
"Thanks, but if you show me where you keep it, I'll be glad to make it myself. Sit down."
The thin and almost ghost-white woman pointed to the cupboards near the back door before sitting again. "Your mother always loved coffee, even when she was young. I used to worry it would stunt her growth, and she was only five foot three when she left." Silence dropped like a forgotten net. But Gerda quickly recovered. "I know it's silly, but I've always kept her favorite brand on hand, even now when I know she'll never come" The sentence broke in half as Gerda lost her voice.
Desi rushed to her grandmother and put her hands on those bony shoulders, her own throat thickening with loss and memories of a family she'd never gotten to know.
Gerda reached up and tentatively patted one of De-si's hands with icy-cold knobby fingers. "I'd asked your mother to come home so many times."
"I know you did. Mom finally told me." Mom had felt fragile like Gerda the last few months of her life. Desi could only imagine how hard it must have been for a mother to lose her daughter when they'd been estranged all those years. As for why her mother had never returned, well, that mystery wasn't likely to be resolved.
"Well, you don't have to worry about coffee stunting my growth," Desi said, deciding to change the subject. "I'm five foot nine."
Gerda offered a wan smile and Desi waited for her face to brighten, even if only a little, then she went back to making the coffee. Gerda sipped hot tea and ate a piece of toast with marmalade, putting the taste for toast and jam in her mind. Mom loved orange marmalade, too.
Since Gerda seemed engrossed in the morning paper, and Desi wasn't sure what to talk about anyway, she filled her coffee cup and wandered into the living room, to the gorgeous grand piano in the center of the room. She took a sip of coffee and carefully placed the cup on an adjacent TV tray containing a bowl of candy and a pile of colorful stickers.
Lifting the keyboard cover, she explored the keys, enjoying the feel of the cool ivory beneath her fingers. She'd had to sell her mom's piano when she'd sold the house in L.A. to pay for the medical costs. She'd put the remaining contents of that house of memories into storage, the piano and everything it represented in their lives being the biggest memory of all. Music, and her mother's talent, had been their bread and butter, keeping them afloat through all the tough times. And there had been many.