When your childhood is cut short by murder and treachery, it's not easy to live a normal life. At the tender age of nine, Harriet witnessed her father beat her mother to death, and she holds herself partially responsible. Still haunted by half-memories, guilt, and disturbing dreams, she has constructed a solitary and joyless existence, with little room for men or romance. Facing her thirtieth birthday, she knows she must do something to change her life. Like an omen, she meets Agnes, a rich elderly widow looking for a companion at her summer home in Maine, and the two forge a business deal. Thinking this will be like a vacation and a time to plan a better future, Harriet is shocked to discover challenges and obstacles she hadn't anticipated. Agnes' nephew and sole heir resents Harriet and wants her gone. And then there's Eli, the local artisan who makes her reconsider her decision to avoid men. Can he possibly return her feelings? Soon, the nephew's schemes, along with a heartbreaking betrayal, culminate in an event that changes her life forever. Will she fail Agnes as she failed her own mother years ago? Will she lose the man she loves? Or will she find her own strength and realize happiness at last?
Author_Bio: The author, after an early retirement, is thrilled to return to her childhood love, writing stories. In addition to writing, she enjoys reading, watching old movies, rummaging in thrift stores, and walking in the woods . . . if there aren't too many bugs. Maura Beth lives in a small New Jersey town with her long-suffering husband and two bossy but adorable Cavalier Spaniels.
Keywords: Psychological Drama Suspense, Amnesia Women's Fiction, Love Friendship Loyalty, Contemporary Woman Finding Love, Small Town Romance, Mystery Thriller Female Protagonist, Tortured Dreams, Self-Discovery Novel Women's, Romantic Suspense, Woman Overcoming The Past
|First Edition Design Publishing
|5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.59(d)
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The Office, Five Months Earlier
The sequence of events that changed her life slipped into alignment on a Thursday afternoon in April.
Harriet had arrived at the office early that morning after a restless night. She stopped in the ladies' room on the way to her desk and stared at her reflection in the mirror.
"You have got to do something to change your life," she commanded the image scowling back at her. Why did she even bother to look in the mirror? Out of habit, she smoothed her drum-tight ponytail and noticed that she needed a dye job. Ugly black roots frowned from her scalp. The bleached-blonde hair was her only concession to anything approaching concern with her looks. It made her feel better somehow. Her mother had been a blonde; at least she could remember that much. There was no makeup to touch up, as she never wore any. She sighed and made her way to her desk.
"Hey, Harriet, how's it going?" the cheerful receptionist at the entrance to the office trilled as Harriet walked past, head down, lost in her thoughts.
"Great, Kathy. Wow, you sound disgustingly perky today." Harriet cocked her head and raised her eyebrows. "Same as yesterday. And the day before that. It's a bit monotonous if you want to know." She put her hand to her chest in mock concern. "How do you even manage it? It must be exhausting."
"Oh, come on, Harriet." Kathy giggled and shook her head. "You're not nearly as grumpy as you let on. You and that sarcastic sense of humor."
"Well, don't let the word get out. It could wreck my reputation," said Harriet as she continued to her desk, leaving Kathy hooting and calling after her.
"Hah. Not much chance of that."
Conversation was not Harriet's forte, nor her favorite pastime. At the office, except for Kathy, she spoke just enough so as not to appear rude. She realized her social skills could use some improvement. The last few weeks, she'd been thinking she would work on that.
Most of the people in the office were cordial, and this temporary job wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for one of the senior partners, Jon Ingram, who was, in Harriet's opinion, a total jerk. She was working at a law firm where one of the secretaries — Mr. Ingram's secretary, to be precise — was out on maternity leave. The firm was big enough that she didn't feel too strange not socializing and small enough that she could find her way around and learn the procedures she needed to know. She wasn't a legal secretary, but she'd done enough temp work at law firms that she could hold her own pretty well. For a while now, she had enjoyed the freedom and flexibility of having a succession of temporary jobs, although the pay wasn't great. But over the last few weeks, a nagging discontent kept surfacing, and she wondered if it might be time to make a change.
The morning progressed without incident, but later, as she sat at her desk in a cramped corner, she braced herself. She had left a typed deposition for Mr. Ingram to review when he returned from lunch. She had no doubt he'd come charging out of his office after he looked it over, screaming about some typo or other mistake, whether it was due to his abominable penmanship or not. Why did the man insist on writing everything out in longhand? It was like he was stuck in the Middle Ages.
In another few weeks, maybe she'd ask the temp agency to find her something new, something other than a legal office. That was the beauty of temp work; if she didn't like it, she'd leave and go someplace else. She resolved to make a list when she wrote in her diary tonight, outlining her options and some types of work she might like to try. Then she could decide what direction to take. She wasn't getting any younger, she told herself, wincing at the trite expression. Her thirtieth birthday was coming up in May.
Just then, Mr. Ingram swept past her desk on his way back from his two-hour lunch, enhanced by liquor, she was sure. To amuse herself, she began a silent count and before she reached thirty, he came rushing out of his office like his hair was on fire, screaming about some petty mistake she had made trying to decipher his pathetic scribbling, and demanding she fix it.
"What an idiot," Harriet mumbled, almost hoping he would hear her.
As she took the paper he practically jammed in her face, she gave him her most polished artificial smile and said, with exaggerated politeness, "Certainly, Mr. Ingram."
She watched him lurch toward his office in a huff. Mr. Ingram was a short, thin man with colorless hair. His posture was poor, and since he was always rushing, he appeared to be permanently angled forward. Harriet smiled and added under her breath, "Yes, Igor." She pictured Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein, hunched forward, entreating, "Walk this way ..."
She had just begun correcting the page on the computer when she detected strange grunts and gurgling sounds coming from Mr. Ingram's office. She was accustomed to hearing grumbling from that office when he complained about some transgression on her part — a misplaced comma or spell-check error, for instance — but these sounds were especially bizarre. She became concerned when the gurgling morphed into strangled gasps. Harriet peeked around the doorway of Mr. Ingram's office and was horrified. She saw him lying on the plush burgundy carpeting, grasping at the air with one claw-like hand, his face a grimace of speechless rage. His face color almost matched the carpeting, and Harriet noticed that one side of his mouth was turned down and half of his face appeared frozen.
"This can't be good," Harriet mumbled as she rushed to Mr. Ingram's side and dialed 911 on her cell phone. When she got the operator, she asked if there was anything she could do and was instructed to stay by the man's side, note his symptoms, and speak in a calm voice to assure him that help was on the way. Harriet did as suggested, and because the poor man looked like he was choking, loosened his shirt and tie.
When the EMTs arrived, Harriet gave them as much information as she could. As they wheeled Mr. Ingram into the ambulance, one of the paramedics told Harriet that her calm action most likely prevented the man from suffering a more massive stroke. "We got him started on IV meds right away," the man told her. "That's crucial in a case like this. Good thing you found him when you did and acted so quickly."
Everybody standing around to watch the excitement gave Harriet a polite round of applause. She, who had worked at this office in relative anonymity for four months, became a bit of an office celebrity. All afternoon, coworkers who had previously ignored her stopped by to gossip and make conjectures as to Mr. Ingram's prognosis.
Kathy was especially impressed. "Wow, that was crazy, huh? You're, like, a heroine or something."
Harriet shrugged and barked out a laugh. "Yeah, that's me, a regular hero," she said, remembering another time when she should have acted to help someone, and didn't.
"Well, I guess you saved him from something much worse. What's that you call him? It always cracks me up."
"Yeah, poor old Igor."
"Right." Kathy laughed. "But, Harriet, what's going to happen now? Do you still have a job?"
"I don't think so. Mr. Baldwin came by to tell me they probably won't need me until Mr. Ingram comes back. But by then, Patricia will be back from maternity leave. So, I guess I'm out of a job, at least around here. Nice reward for a good deed, huh?"
Before Kathy could reply, the phone rang. By the second ring, someone screamed over the partitions, "Where's the temp? Doesn't she have to answer that?" Harriet waved to Kathy and picked up the receiver. She didn't mind answering the phone; it broke the monotony. She often entertained herself by trying out different voices and accents. Her British one was especially good, but she was partial to the Australian. This time, since Kathy was still within earshot, she answered as herself.
"Good afternoon. Mercer, Baldwin, and Ingram."
"Oh, good afternoon, dear. Is this Patricia?" The voice on the other end of the line had a compelling quality to it — exaggerated vowels, crisp consonants, oozing confidence.
"No, ma'am. This is Harriet. I'm sitting in for Patricia for a few months. May I help you with something?"
"Oh. Well, then, let me speak to Mr. Ingram, would you, dear? This is Agnes Bertrand."
Harriet wasn't so sure she loved being called dear, but she explained to the woman what had happened to Mr. Ingram and offered to help if she could, or refer her to someone else. After the appropriate expressions of shock and sadness at the situation, the woman explained that she had been in yesterday to have her will completed and witnessed but had neglected to take it with her. "I wonder if I could come over and pick it up?" she asked.
Harriet remembered this woman — a wealthy, elderly widow. She had typed the will and knew the details. Mrs. Bertrand had left her considerable fortune, except for some charitable bequests, to her one living relative, a nephew. Harriet remembered thinking that was one lucky nephew.
"I saw that you left the will here yesterday, so I put it in an envelope in the mailroom. The mail hasn't been picked up yet, though. Would you like me to drop it off to you on my way home? Save you the trouble?" Harriet knew that the firm would want to coddle this client, one of the their most valuable, or so she had heard.
"Oh, my dear, that would be so kind of you. I'll be waiting for you."
Harriet decided to give herself the rest of the day off and take the will right over there. After tomorrow, she wouldn't be working here anyway. And she'd love to see this woman's house, in an exclusive section of Moorestown, one of the prettiest towns near Cherry Hill, where the office was located. It was April, and the flowering trees had just started to bloom. It would be a lovely drive. She grabbed the envelope from the mailroom and, humming to herself, ran out to her car.
After a few false turns, Harriet found Mrs. Bertrand's home on a picturesque street lined with Victorian mansions. This street was like something in a magazine or a movie, where everything took place in the 1800s. No wonder Mrs. Bertrand was nervous about the will. She must have a ton of money to be concerned about. Harriet didn't have much money, but figured why bother wanting it when there was little chance she would ever have it.
The driveway was lined on both sides with handsome, tall pear trees, bursting with white blossoms. Enormous azaleas and rhododendrons hugged the shady porch, just waiting to be fully in bloom. On the sunny lawn was an expansive planted area crowded with tulips and lots of bushy plants Harriet didn't recognize. She rolled down the window — with difficulty; her car had a lot of quirks, a stubborn driver-side window being one of them — and breathed in the gorgeous scents of spring. The sunlight warmed her face, and she closed her eyes and let herself savor the moment. There weren't a lot of flowers or natural beauty where she lived.
When she opened her eyes, she could see Mrs. Bertrand standing on the porch, leaning on her carved wooden cane. She shouted out something to Harriet, waved, and went back into the house. Harriet picked up the envelope with the will inside and sprinted onto the porch. Mrs. Bertrand let her in with a welcoming smile.
"Hello, Mrs. Bertrand, I'm Harriet. But I guess you figured that out."
"My goodness, what a day you've had at your office. That was a terrible thing that happened to poor Mr. Ingram. Although, I must say it doesn't surprise me. The temperament of that man, I just knew he was going to make himself sick. Well, I do hope he recovers quickly and with no ill effects."
Standing next to her in the entryway, Harriet realized Mrs. Bertrand was close to her own height of 5'9". She noted that the older woman's patrician diction was matched by regal posture; she stood ramrod straight, despite leaning slightly on a cane to walk. Although she was eighty-three according to her file at the office, Mrs. Bertrand was the type of woman who would stand out anywhere. She had snow-white hair, which she wore piled on top of her head in a sort of elaborate, twisted braid. Her eyes, though framed by creases and wrinkles, were jolts of brilliant blue, and she fixed them on Harriet as she spoke to her. Harriet looked away, unnerved as she often was by someone's direct gaze. The old woman's skin was beautiful, too — lined with age but creamy pale, her rosy cheeks radiating health and fitness. Harriet thought with some sadness that she must have been quite a beauty. The sadness was not for Mrs. Bertrand, but for herself. Would anyone ever say that about her?
Harriet pulled her attention back to Mrs. Bertrand's comments and said, "Me, too. Hope he's okay, I mean. I'm only a temp, but he was the one I was working for. I guess I'm out of a job now, though." She handed Mrs. Bertrand the envelope.
"Thank you so much for bringing this over to me. I want to take it to my bank early tomorrow and put it in my safety deposit box. Now I don't have to worry about waiting for the mail."
Mrs. Bertrand headed into the house from the entryway and, for some reason, Harriet followed her right into the spacious living room. She stood there, embarrassed, but Mrs. Bertrand's graciousness put her at ease.
"Why don't you come in and sit for a while? Would you have a cup of tea or lemonade? I'd love some company, really. Sit over there by the bay window in the sun. If you don't mind sharing the space with my dog, Shannon."
At the sound of her name, an ancient Irish setter with a gray snout and huge, droopy brown eyes looked up from her bed by the window and managed a desultory wag of her tail.
"Oh, you have a dog!" Harriet smiled her approval. "I love animals. They're better than people, usually." Seeing the dog, she overcame her nervousness at staying to talk to the older woman and sat down on a delicate-looking Victorian chair with carved arms. She hoped it was strong enough to support her.
"That is often so, my dear." As she said this, Mrs. Bertrand rang a bell, and a middle-aged woman entered the room.
"Yes, Miss Agnes?"
"Can we have some tea, please, Evelyn? And then you go on home. It's getting late."
Leaning toward Harriet, Mrs. Bertrand said in that sort of stage whisper older people use sometimes, "Evelyn is the only one I have left now. My companion has left me; or, well, I left her. I caught her striking Shannon this morning. I told her to get out. I won't have that in my house, no matter how lonely I get."
"Companion?" The idea was so foreign to Harriet that she almost laughed. Why would anyone want a companion? She, herself, was glad to be alone most of the time; when she was around people for too long, she usually wished she could leave.
"Oh, I call her my companion, but she was here to help me, really. This house is way too big for an old woman all alone, but I can't bear to give it up. I don't like to drive anymore, and I don't like being in this house by myself. Evelyn comes in five days a week to cook and do light cleaning. And I have heavy cleaning done by an agency once a month. But Janice — that was her name — lived here in the house and took me out and went places with me. I thought it would be enjoyable, but she was often unpleasant. I was rather glad to have a reason to let her go."
As Mrs. Bertrand was talking, Evelyn came in and placed a gorgeous, expensive-looking tray on a carved wooden table. On it was a delicate teapot, which even Harriet's untrained eye recognized to be an antique, with lovely little matching teacups and saucers. Harriet smiled and shook her head. She'd be lucky to get more than a sip out of one of those tiny things.
"What is so amusing, may I ask?" Mrs. Bertrand had a somewhat haughty look on her face. Her head was arched back, and she was peering downward at Harriet. Harriet wondered if that was what the saying "looking down her nose" meant.
"Oh, I was just thinking that with this house and all these beautiful things, I feel like I'm in one of those old movies. You know, where everyone is so polite and genteel. I didn't mean to offend you. I love those old movies. Sometimes I watch them and pretend I'm living in that time. Well, if you could see where I live, you'd know what I mean."
"And why is that? Anyone can make her residence beautiful if she wants to."
"Residence? Oh, please! You're kidding, right? I don't have a residence, Mrs. Bertrand. I live in a dingy little apartment, so I can have an old used car and manage to put a little bit of money away for emergencies."
Harriet's face flushed and she looked away. Who did this woman think she was? How many people lived like this lady?
Excerpted from "The Edge of Memory"
Copyright © 2017 Maura Beth Brennan.
Excerpted by permission of First Edition Design Publishing, Inc..
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