Having recently lost both her parents in a tragic car accident, Alex Woods is shocked to discover through the family lawyer that her beloved mother was keeping a secret – a baby she gave up for adoption when she had just left high school. But when Alex decides to search for her long lost sister – and finds her – she is in for a terrible surprise . . .
|Publisher:||Severn House Publishers|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Patricia MacDonald is an internationally-bestselling author of thrilling domestic suspense. She lives in New Jersey, USA.
Read an Excerpt
By Patricia MacDonald
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2013 Patricia Bourgeau
All rights reserved.
The car pulled up and parked at the curb in front of the red-brick Queen Anne-style house which Alex Woods had always called home. She gazed out of the passenger-side window at the bare branches of the trees surrounding the house, the shutters that framed the darkened windows. All the other houses on the block were festooned with strings of lights or had Christmas candles in the windows. Her house sat like a black hole in the middle of the twinkling, cheery block. It was late afternoon and the December sky was a pewter-gray. Mounds of gray-edged, crusty snow speckled the yard. Alex sighed.
'You know, Alex, you don't have to stay here,' said the driver of the car, her Uncle Brian. 'You can stay with us. Aunt Jean and I would love to have you. So would your cousins.'
'I know,' said Alex. She had stayed at her aunt and uncle's house when her parents died in the car accident late in spring. Frightened by the very thought of losing both parents in one terrible moment, Alex's two young cousins had treated her with cautious respect. Now, six months later, she imagined that her loss was ancient history to the two younger boys. They were busy thinking about what Santa might bring. Alex was just another relative, a grown-up whom they hardly knew. 'That's really nice of you. And I know you mean it sincerely. But I can't put this off. I have to face it.'
'At least let me come in with you,' said Brian. 'This is going to be tough.'
Alex shook her head. 'No, I'm OK. I'll be OK.'
Brian Reilly frowned. 'Your mother would want me to look after you.'
Brian was younger than Alex's late mother by six years, but he had the same ginger hair, pale eyelashes and shy smile. Alex had heard countless stories of what a wild young man Uncle Brian had been but now, his hair thinning, his wedding ring settled into a permanent groove on his finger, it was hard to imagine. She could still remember Brian, handsome and nervous in his tuxedo, when she was a flower girl at his wedding to Jean. These days he coached Little League and went to church on Sundays. 'You have looked after me, Uncle Brian,' she said. 'I couldn't have managed these last months without you and Aunt Jean. All that paperwork for the estate. I couldn't have coped with it, long distance. I really appreciate everything you've done. I mean it. And it's not as if you won't see me. I'll be at your house for Christmas.'
Brian frowned. 'I can't help but worry. I know you're not a little kid anymore, but when I look at you I still remember the day you were born. Your mom and dad were so happy that day.'
Avoiding his tender gaze, Alex squeezed his hand briefly. 'I had wonderful parents,' she said, and her voice quavered.
Brian gazed at the house, tears welling in his gray eyes. 'I think about them all the time, you know,' he said quietly. 'I miss them so much. Your mom and dad. Of course I loved my big sister, but I loved Doug too. He was a great guy. They were both ...'
Alex nodded, but didn't try to speak.
'They'd be so proud of you. How strong you've been. It must have been almost impossible for you to concentrate after the accident,' he said.
'It was,' said Alex. 'I thought I might quit.'
'I don't know how you did it. Finishing your studies after something like that.'
Alex had been completing the coursework for her masters degree in arts administration, out in Seattle, when the accident occurred. After a lot of internal debate, she decided to stay at school that summer so she could finish up in December. She was afraid if she came back east before she was done with her studies, she might fall into a depression and never get back to them. 'That's what kept me going,' she said. 'I knew they would want me to finish.'
'You did good,' he said.
'Thanks,' said Alex. Then she sighed. 'Well, I guess I better ...'
'Yeah, right,' said Brian.
Alex took a deep breath and opened the car door. 'Thanks for picking me up at the airport, Uncle Brian.'
'When is your stuff arriving?' he asked.
Alex frowned. 'About a week,' she said. 'That's what the shipping company told me. I didn't have that much stuff anyway. I left a lot of it in the apartment for my roommates. Students. None of us had any money.'
Brian nodded. 'Well, the house is all cleaned up. And the car works fine. I turned it over the other day, just to be sure. Aunt Jean got you a few supplies at the supermarket. All the utilities are still on so you won't freeze in there, or be sitting in the dark.'
'That's good,' Alex said, trying to smile.
Brian glanced at the bleak house that had once been his older sister's home. 'I wish you wouldn't stay here, Alex. It's too hard. I know you have to clean it out if you want to put it on the market, but you could come over and work on it during the day, and stay with us at night. We're only forty minutes away.'
Alex shook her head. 'That's so nice of you. But I'm going to be looking for a job in the city. It just makes more sense to live here where it's only twenty minutes away. Besides, I grew up in this house,' she said, forcing herself to sound brave. 'It's filled with happy memories for me.'
'If you're sure,' he said doubtfully. 'Look, let me at least come in with you.'
'No, really. It's not necessary. I'm all right.'
'Well, I'll just wait here until you're inside,' he insisted.
Alex did not protest. She got out of the car without looking at her uncle, pulled her bag from the back seat and waved at the car window. He watched her as she picked her way through the patches of snow up to the doorway. She took out her old keys and unlocked the front door. It opened into the dark vestibule. It still smelled like home. She stepped inside.
Standing in that hallway, as she had so many times before, she waited. She waited for her dad, carrying a mug of tea, wearing his half-glasses and his LL Bean flannel shirt to look out from the kitchen door, smile and say gently, 'Hey, kiddo.' She listened for her mother's voice to float down the stairs calling out: 'Honey, is that you? Are you home?'
It was silent. For the rest of her life, it would always be silent. She would never hear those ordinary words, those voices again. It's me, Mom, she thought. I'm home.
Those first few hours were the most painful. Uncle Brian had been as good as his word. Every system worked. She was able to turn on every light to banish the feeling of overwhelming darkness. But she moved among the familiar rooms like a stranger, seeing each one of them through the lens of her loss. Each one was difficult to walk into. Whether it was putting her clothes away in the closet, or opening a cabinet to get a glass, every action felt like a painful first. It wasn't as if she had never been alone in the house before. Being an only child, she had often had the house to herself. As a kid, she had sometimes imagined painting the rooms a different color, changing the decor to suit her own teenaged tastes. Well, now it was hers to do with as she pleased. She owned this house now. She shared it with no one. She would live in it alone. Every move she made reminded her of that shattering fact. She wondered if it would have been easier to walk into these rooms with a brother or a sister by her side. Yes, she thought. Without a doubt, it would have been easier. Someone else who knew. Someone else who felt the same loss.
No point in thinking of that, she told herself. She hadn't minded being an only child. Her father, an only child himself, never saw any problem with it. Her mother fretted aloud sometimes, especially when she was having a hard time fitting in at school, wishing they had been able to give her a sibling. Alex never paid much attention to that fretting. She had her dogs and her cats, always, and friends, neighbors. It was fine. She never could understand what her mother was worrying about.
Now, she knew. Not that she would change it. That was like one of those exercises in trying to change the past. If you could change one thing in the past, it might change every subsequent thing. You might regret the differences. There was no point in thinking about it. She told herself all these things, eating alone at the kitchen table, locking the doors and going to bed alone in her old room. Maybe if she had a husband. Or children. But she had made other choices, focusing on school and planning a career. She had no way of knowing that her family would be wiped out in an instant. No one would ever imagine such a fate for themselves.
In the succeeding days, as she settled into the house, her phone buzzed constantly with messages of encouragement from friends back in Seattle.
The job of cleaning out the house seemed impossible and she briefly considered leaving everything in place and just walking away. Her parents' belongings seemed to confront her with fresh pain every time she opened a drawer or a door. She knew what her mother would tell her to do. Clean it out. Give their belongings to those who really needed them. Alex picked up empty boxes from the liquor store and began to pack up clothes and shoes for the Salvation Army. Each day she woke up and was startled and depressed anew. In her father's office she looked with a heavy heart at his shelves of books which lined the walls. Who would want them? People didn't collect books anymore, unless they were valuable. How was she to know which was which? She made a note to call her father's colleagues at the Revolutionary War Museum in Boston, where he had been curator, and ask. Meanwhile, she thought, they could just stay there. They weren't hurting anything.
Her first weekend at home she was invited to the annual neighborhood Christmas party. At first she said no, but her parents' old friends and neighbors pleaded with her to come. The night of the party she dawdled until it was almost too late, but finally ran across the street, coatless, avoiding the mounds of snow, and arrived, shivering, at the front door of this year's hostess.
'Alex!' cried Laney Thompson as she enveloped Alex in a tight, reassuring hug. 'I'm so glad you came. Oh, look who came to see you!'
Alex felt something brush against her legs. She looked down and saw her parents' calico cat, Castro, rubbing lightly against her.
Immediately her eyes filled with tears. She knew that Laney had taken the cat after their death. She had been grateful for Laney's offer, since she was living in Seattle at the time and her apartment building forbade pets. But seeing the cat again brought back sweet, painful memories.
Alex crouched down and rubbed Castro around the ruff of his neck. 'Hi, buddy,' she whispered. 'Remember me? How ya doin'?'
'He's doing fine,' said Laney. 'He's made himself right at home. But if you want him back ...'
'No, no,' said Alex. 'That's OK. He seems happy here.'
'Well, if you change your mind, you know you can just tell me,' said Laney. 'Now, stop fiddling with that cat and come say hello. There's a lot of people here who want to see you.'
Alex quickly wiped her eyes, stood up and took a deep breath. Laney squeezed her hand for courage, and then led Alex through the cheerful, crowded house which smelled of pine boughs and cinnamon. She placed a punch glass in Alex's hand, and stayed beside her as neighbors came to kiss her and make her welcome.
'Do you remember Seth?' Laney asked as a tall man wearing a tweed jacket over a black T-shirt approached them. He had wavy, uncombed dark brown hair and dark eyes behind black-rimmed glasses. 'He teaches out at the University of Chicago.'
Alex nodded, although it had been years since she had even spoken to Seth Paige or his older sister, Janet. They had both been out of high school by the time Alex got there. She had seen them at neighborhood parties over the years. Janet, now a mother of two, had come, with her father, to her parents' funeral. 'Sure, how are you, Seth?' Alex asked.
'I'm fine,' he said. 'I wanted to tell you how sorry I was about your parents. I couldn't make it back from Chicago for the funeral, but Janet and my dad told me about it.'
'Thank you,' said Alex, stiffening. She didn't want to talk about her parents' death. It was one of the reasons why she had tried to avoid the party. 'Home for Christmas?' she asked brightly.
'My dad had surgery and he needed someone to look after him. It was semester break and Janet has to spend Christmas with her in-laws in Virginia so ... I was elected.'
'Is he OK?' Alex asked. 'Your dad?'
'Getting better,' said Seth, nodding. 'So, are you back to stay?' he asked.
Alex shrugged. 'I'm going to look for a job in Boston. I just got my masters in arts administration.'
'You're looking for a museum job?'
'Museums, galleries ...'
'Like your dad, eh? You know, your dad helped me out a lot when I was working on my dissertation,' Seth said. 'He was a walking encyclopedia when it came to the American Revolution. And a great guy as well.'
Alex felt the tears welling up and nodded. 'Yes, well, thanks. It was nice to see you again.' She smiled blindly and turned away from him, pretending to look at the food table. When he began to talk to someone else, she set her punch glass down on the table and headed for the front door. On her way out, she thanked Laney, dismissing her protests that she should stay. She hurried back across the street and into the safety of the house. It's the holiday, she told herself, as she turned out the front porch lights. It makes everything harder.
She had been home for one week when the phone rang and the caller, a woman, asked to speak to Alex Woods. 'This is she,' said Alex.
'I'm calling from John Killebrew's office. Mr Killebrew was your parents' attorney.'
'Yes, I know,' said Alex. 'I met with him when I was home for their funeral.'
'Mr Killebrew would like you to come into the office. He has something to discuss with you.'
Alex felt vaguely guilty and wondered if there were legal matters which she had left unattended. It had been so difficult these last two semesters at school, summer and fall to try and focus on her work and make decisions about her parents' estate as well. She had not inherited a lot besides the house, but there were several bank accounts and insurance, as well as a few outstanding debts. As her parents' executor, Uncle Brian had handled most of it. But he had been scrupulous about asking her opinion in every matter. 'All right,' she said.
'Shall we say tomorrow at ten?' the secretary asked brightly.
Alex looked around at the piles of belongings still unsorted, the half-empty boxes on the dining room table. 'OK. Ten o'clock,' she said.
John Killebrew's office was in a Victorian house in the center of Chichester, the town where Alex grew up. She had often passed that house lugging her books on her way to the high school, never dreaming that in less than ten years she would be entering that office, orphaned, and trying to cope with the myriad financial and legal matters that attended the sudden loss of both her parents.
Thanks to Uncle Brian, much of it had been handled over the last six months. She had come to this office twice to sign a lot of legal documents when she was back here for the funeral, and Uncle Brian had taken care of the rest. There were probably only some details to discuss. She walked up to the bespectacled, middle-aged receptionist in the hushed office, which resembled an English gentlemen's club. 'I'm Alex Woods,' she said.
The receptionist smiled at her kindly. 'I know who you are,' she said. 'He told me to send you in when you arrived. Go right ahead. It's the door at the end of the hall.'
'I know where it is,' said Alex. 'Thanks.'
'I'll let him know you're here.'
The gray-haired attorney arose from his chair and came around to shake Alex's hand. 'Have a seat,' he said, indicating a maroon leather chair in front of his desk. Alex sat down.
'How's it going?'
Alex shrugged. 'I'm trying to clean out the house. It's a difficult process.'
'I'm sure it is,' said the attorney.
'I didn't know whether you might want my uncle to be here,' said Alex. 'With him being the executor of my parents' estate.'
'No, no,' said Killebrew, shaking his head somberly. 'There's no need for that. This isn't actually ... about the estate.'
Alex frowned at him. 'It isn't?'
'No, Alex.' He folded his arms over his chest and frowned. 'I have something to give you.' He reached across his desk, picked up an envelope and handed it to her.
Alex immediately recognized the neat, bookkeeper's handwriting. 'From ... my mother,' she said.
John Killebrew nodded.
Alex was flustered. 'Should I read it now?'
'I think it might be a good idea,' he said. 'You may have some questions.'
Alex tore open the envelope with trembling hands and pulled out the sheet of paper. She began to read.
Excerpted from Sisters by Patricia MacDonald. Copyright © 2013 Patricia Bourgeau. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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