In the coastal town of Haven Harbor, blood runs thicker than water—and just as freely . . .
Antique dealer Sarah Byrne has never unspooled the truth about her past to anyone—not even friend and fellow Mainely Needlepointer Angie Curtis. But the enigmatic Aussie finally has the one thing she’s searched for all her life—family. And now she and long-lost half-brother, Ted Lawrence, a wealthy old artist and gallery owner in town, are ready to reveal their secret connection . . .
Ted’s adult children are suspicious of their newfound aunt Sarah—especially after Ted, in declining health, announces plans to leave her his museum-worthy heirloom paintings. So when Ted is poisoned to death during a lobster bake, everyone assumes she’s guilty. If Sarah and Angie can’t track down the real murderer in time, Sarah’s bound to learn how delicate—and deadly—family dynamics can truly be . . .
Praise for the Mainely Needlepoint mysteries
“Offers a wonderful sense of place and characters right from the very beginning. Highly recommended.”—Suspense Magazine
“A cozy debut that hits all the sweet spots: small town, family ties, and a crew of intriguing personalities.”—Library Journal
“For a trip to Maine for the cost of a book, this is the author to read.”—Kings River Life Magazine
About the Author
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Tightening the Threads
By Lea Wait
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Lea Wait
All rights reserved.
"Jesus permit thy gracious name to stand. As the first efforts of an infant's hand And while her fingers o'er this canvas move Engage her tender heart to seek thy love."
— "Wrought" by Lucy Ann Babcock, age eleven, in 1831. Lucy lived in Augusta, Maine. Her sampler is now in the Maine State Museum.
Haven Harbor's streets and yards were littered with green leaves that had fallen too soon.
During the ten years I'd lived in the almost perpetually neutral shades of Arizona I'd missed seeing Maine hills glowing with gold and scarlet and orange in late September.
But the only bright color in Haven Harbor this late afternoon was a blood-red sumac bush near the patisserie. I paused, admiring its brilliance. Was it poison sumac? I should ask Dave Percy. He was the Mainely Needlepointer who knew poisons. Poison or not, the bush was gorgeous.
And right now Dave was busy, teaching at the high school during the day and resting his leg at home in the evening. Arrow wounds don't heal quickly.
Besides, I was looking forward to a "girls' night." Just Sarah Byrne and me and a little needlepointing. She was an expert. I wasn't, but I was learning.
I stepped around puddles and cracks in the uneven pavement. ("Step on a crack! Break your mother's back!") Memories of skipping rope and drawing patterns for hopscotch on these pavements took me back twenty years, to serious competitions between friends for neighborhood rope competition bragging rights. I'd practiced hours in my driveway, determined to be the best. In private, I hardly ever missed. In public, I'd been good — but never the best. Never the prettiest. Never the smartest.
After a while I'd given up trying.
I hadn't skipped rope since sixth grade. Now I was twenty-seven. All grown up. Or so I kept telling myself.
I had no desire to relive my childhood, although, like now, memories haunted me.
Sarah's apartment on Main Street above her antiques store wasn't far from my home. She'd promised homemade pizza and time to talk. My contribution was a cold six-pack of Sam Adams. We hadn't had a quiet evening together in weeks. Summers in Maine were busy.
Twilight shaded the harbor as I knocked on Sarah's door.
"Come on in!" she called.
I opened her door and caught my breath. "Where did that come from?" I blurted, as I handed Sarah the six-pack. I stared at her wall.
"It was a gift," she said quietly, putting four of the beer bottles in her refrigerator and handing me one.
The painting was immense — or seemed so in Sarah's small apartment. The canvas was four or five feet long and maybe four feet high. I don't know much about art, but this seascape of pounding surf below the lighthouse standing guard over our harbor was special. I moved closer, drawn to the scene. An unexpected spot of red, a lobsterman's buoy, was barely visible, caught in the waves.
"When? Who?" I asked. "It's amazing." I looked around. "And how did you get it up the stairs and into the apartment?"
Sarah laughed. The streaks of blue and pink in her white hair glinted in the overhead spotlight focused on the painting.
"Practical Angie! You're right. Getting it in here wasn't easy. Jeremy Quill and Patrick West helped me. Jeremy installed the spot, too. Said no painting should be hung without proper lighting." She grinned, and added lines from an Emily Dickinson poem. "'Edifice of Ocean Thy tumultuous Rooms Suit me at a venture Better than the Tombs.'" Sarah might be Australian, but she was also a big Emily fan.
Poetry wasn't my thing. "Who's Jeremy Quill?" I asked. I knew Patrick West, the artist son of actress Skye West. The guy I was — sort of — dating. "And how did Patrick get involved?"
"Jeremy works for Ted Lawrence, over at the gallery. Has for years. Patrick's working there now, too."
Why hadn't Patrick told me he'd taken a job? Sarah saw my expression. "Patrick's only been at the gallery since Labor Day. Ted suggested it would be good for him to get out of his house a couple of days a week and work with art, since his burned hands aren't ready to paint yet. He's helping out Fridays and Saturdays, when they're busiest."
I'd met Ted Lawrence. Tall, elegant, owner of a high-end art gallery down the street here in Haven Harbor, and another at his home outside of town. I'd heard about the prices of his art and been too intimidated to venture into the gallery. Sarah had become friends with him over the past months. He was more than twice her age, and she'd sworn it wasn't a romantic relationship, but she'd been spending a lot of time with him, at the gallery and at his home. I figured sometime she'd explain. So far she hadn't.
"It's spectacular," I said, turning to face the painting. "Mesmerizing. I can almost smell the sea and feel the winds. Did Ted paint it?"
Sarah hesitated. "No. His father did. Robert Lawrence."
That stopped me. Even I'd heard about Robert Lawrence. The Robert Lawrence. One of the finest painters of the twentieth century. People came to Haven Harbor just to see where he'd lived. His work was in collections and museums all over the United States. Maybe the world.
"I love it," Sarah continued, looking at the painting. "It's too big for my apartment, but maybe someday I'll have a better space for it. In the meantime I'll admire it up close."
"But a Robert Lawrence — it must be worth thousands!" I looked from Sarah to the painting and back again.
"Hundreds of thousands," she said softly. "Or maybe millions. His work has been going high in auctions recently."
I sank into Sarah's flowered couch. Her apartment was furnished comfortably with secondhand furniture she'd bought at Maine auctions while she was looking for antiques for her shop, From Here and There. The Lawrence painting was from a totally different world.
"It was a gift?" I asked again, incredulously.
"From Ted. He gave it to me a couple of weeks ago. I've been dying to show it to you, but we've both been busy."
"He gave you a painting that might be worth a million dollars?" Ted Lawrence was an artist himself. I could have understood his giving one of his own paintings to a friend. But this one? "Why?"
"Because I liked it," said Sarah.
"Just because you liked it?" I said incredulously.
"And because Robert Lawrence was my grandfather."CHAPTER 2
"Honor blest the Maid whom circling years improve] Her God the object of her warmest love Whose useful hours successive as they glide The book, the needle and the pen divide."
— Worked in 1805 by Ruth Sewall, age eight, in York, Maine, in silk thread over linen. Ruth was the youngest of six sisters. Her mother died the year she completed this work. When Ruth was nineteen she married Captain Brown Thornton of Saco, Maine, who was forty-seven. After he died she married Dr. Jeremiah Putnam of York; they had two children.
"Robert Lawrence was your grandfather? Haven Harbor's Robert Lawrence?" I couldn't get my head around my Australian friend now claiming Maine roots.
She nodded, flushing.
"But ... how?" And then I realized. "Then Ted Lawrence is your — uncle?"
I started laughing. "If you knew how many people in town wondered about your relationship, about why you two've been spending so much time together. Everyone's assumed you two were ... an item."
Sarah smiled self-consciously and looked down. "We are, I guess. Just not the sort of item people imagined."
"Why haven't you told anyone? Why didn't you tell me?"
"I'm telling you now," she said, looking straight at me. "I'll tell you everything. But you have to keep it a secret. Don't even tell Charlotte."
Not tell my own grandmother? "Why is it a secret?"
"Because Ted hasn't told his children yet. They should know first."
My mind was still confused. "How can Ted Lawrence be your uncle?"
"It's a long story."
"Then put that pizza in the oven, and start talking, Sarah."
She grinned. "Will do."
I followed her to the small kitchen connected to her living room, glancing every few minutes at the painting that dominated the space. "I've always wondered how you happened to end up here in Maine."
Sarah sprinkled her dough with several cheeses and seasonings and added artichoke hearts, black olives, sliced scallions, and crumbled bacon. "These toppings okay?" she asked.
"Better than fine," I said, peeking over her shoulder at the pizza-in-progress. "Of course, we're going to die because of that bacon."
"Then we'll die happy," she pronounced. "I have enough dough for another pie if we finish this one. The second will be cheeses and wild mushrooms." She slid the pizza into her oven. "About fifteen minutes, I'd say. Let's sit."
I'd seen spectacular sunsets from Sarah's windows on other evenings. But today's gray day had turned to night. The only bright colors I could see were in the Robert Lawrence painting. "So, talk."
She settled into the blue-cushioned armchair across from me and sipped her beer. "You knew your mother. You have your grandmother. Your Haven Harbor roots are deep. Roots that can hold you strong when storms hit. That's what I've longed for all my life. Roots."
I let her talk.
"I've heard you, and others here in Maine, talk about your families in terms of generations. I grew up knowing almost nothing about anyone related to me, at least on my father's side."
"You didn't ask him?"
"He didn't know anything about his family. The not knowing haunted him." Sarah took another sip.
"He must have at least known who his parents were," I pointed out. Although, I immediately thought, I didn't know who my father was. I didn't even know if my mother had known who he was. Without thinking, I reached up and touched the gold angel I wore on a chain around my neck. The angel Mama had bought me for my first communion. The last gift she'd given me.
Sarah got up to check the oven. "I told you, it's a long story." She sliced the pizza and put it on a platter on the low table between us.
For a few minutes we ate in silence. Then I took the needlepoint canvas of a great cormorant I'd been working on out of my bag. Might as well stitch as I listened.
She began again. "My father was born in the UK. He thought probably he was from England, not Scotland or Ireland or Wales, because older people teased him and the others about their accents."
"When he was about seven — he didn't know his exact age — he and dozens of other children were put on a ship and sent to Australia."
"'Sent'? By whom?"
Sarah put up her hand. "Just listen. My father didn't live long enough to tell me his story. But he told my mother's mum, and she told me, when I was old enough to understand. All the children were told they were orphans. That there was no place for them in the UK, so they were being sent to a place where they'd be welcome, where it would be warm, where they'd go to school and have loving new families." Sarah paused to put down her beer. "It was a lie from the start. No adults paid attention to them, even on the ship. They took care of themselves. When they arrived in Australia they were divided into groups. My dad went with several other boys to a place in West Australia run by an order of monks. Grandmum said whenever he told that part of the story his voice hardened. There was no school there, and no love. The boys, those who came before him, and his group, and others later, were forced to build a monastery, stone by stone. They were flogged and abused in despicable ways, and never had enough to eat." She paused, staring at the painting. "Some died."
"That's horrible! No one did anything about it?"
Sarah shook her head. "If anyone knew, they didn't interfere. Dad left that place when he was seventeen. But he never really escaped. He did marry my mother, and for a while, I was told, he was happy. But she died — breast cancer, it was — when I was still in nappies. Dad got very depressed, and drank too much — I guess he'd always done that. When I was two he hung himself." Sarah's voice was steady, but her hands were shaking.
I sat, listening in horror. Should I hug Sarah, or scream? "That's awful," I said, knowing words were totally inadequate. "What happened to you?"
"I was lucky," she said. "My mum's mother, my grandmum, took me in and raised me. She's the one taught me needlepoint." She pointed at a framed needlepoint map of Australia hung over her television. "She gave that to me on my eighteenth birthday. Told me I should be proud to be an Aussie. Taught me about her side of my family. They'd left Ireland during the potato famine in the 1840s, and opened a small used clothing and furniture store in Australia. More than a hundred years later, Grandmum was still running the family business, but it had changed over the years. She was an antiques dealer. I grew up learning how to value what our ancestors had treasured in the past, doing my sums in back of the counter, and learning how to be polite to customers."
No wonder Sarah now ran a small antiques business here in Haven Harbor.
"When I was six, in 1987, the whole story broke. Dad had died before then, of course. I grew up knowing at least a little about the scandal."
"Between 1938 and 1970 social welfare people in the UK sent about ten thousand children abroad. The foster system in the UK was overburdened, and the children were sent to former British colonies like Canada and Rhodesia and New Zealand — and Australia. The idea was that those countries could use cheap labor and, some said, wanted to increase their white populations. Some of the children — they called them the child migrants — had been abandoned in Britain. Some had been born out of wedlock. Many had one or even two parents who couldn't care for them temporarily. Some were as young as three; most, like my dad, were between the ages of seven and ten. Still young enough not to remember a lot, or to question that they were orphans. But most of them had living relatives."
"Didn't those relatives ask questions?"
"That's one of the saddest parts. They were told their children had died in foster care."
I put my needlepoint down and took a sip of beer. "That's awful! And no one knew?"
"Not until several child migrants who'd been sent to Australia went back to Britain as adults to try to find out who they were. In 1987 Margaret Humphreys, a social worker in Nottinghamshire, met with them and started putting the pieces together. Her search ended up as an international investigation."
"She was able to prove what happened?"
"She was. I was still a child when it all broke, but Grandmum, bless her, knew it was important. She registered me as the child of one of the migrants. The idea was to try to connect the children, now grown, of course, or their children, with family members who might still be alive in the UK. A trust was set up to help make that happen. A few years ago the British government finally apologized for the program."
"A little late for that," I pointed out. "So what did you do?"
"When I was growing up I knew my dad had been one of the child migrants, but I didn't think much about it, and I didn't want Grandmum to think I didn't appreciate her bringing me up. I was happy, helping her with the store. Then when I was twenty-five Grandmum died."
I shuddered. What would my life be like without Gram? I didn't want to think about it.
"I decided I wanted to know about my father's background. Find out whether I had family in the UK. So I applied to the Family Restoration Fund." She paused. "It took two years before they were able to help me."
"And did they find your family?"
Sarah nodded. "They found Dad's mother. Of course, she was an old woman by that time. Grandmum had left me a little money, and I sold her store and its contents, so I could afford to do whatever I needed to do. The Fund helped me get to England to see my other grandmother."
We'd stopped drinking or eating. I focused on Sarah.
What if I'd been separated from Gram? She'd raised me after Mama disappeared, the way Sarah's grandmum had raised her. But what if there'd been another woman I'd been related to? A woman in another country? Would I have traveled around the world to find her?
Sarah's voice was taut. "Meeting my English grandmother wasn't easy. She was almost ninety, and she'd had a hard life. Her sight and hearing were going. She was living in a home for the destitute elderly. At first she didn't understand who I was. After all, she'd been told her son had died years and years before." Sarah picked up her beer and took several swallows. "She had a picture of him, though. He was with her at a park, on a swing. Dad would have treasured that. He didn't have any pictures of his mother, or of himself as a child." Sarah got up. "Would you like to see it?"
"I'd love to."
Excerpted from Tightening the Threads by Lea Wait. Copyright © 2017 Lea Wait. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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