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To Catch a Fox

 

“—but the cruelty that condemned an unfortunate man to a living death. To catch a fox and put him in a box and never let him go.” – Agatha Christie, The ABC Murders

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dedication

 

To Vivienne Mary Carty Arnold

 

 

Acknowledgments

 

Thank you to Judith Pittman and BWL Publishing Inc. for bringing To Catch a Fox into the world. To editors Maya Berger, Susan Davis, and Rachel Small, for understanding my story and making it better. And to Catherine Bush and Lawrence Hill, my perceptive and encouraging mentors at the Sage Hill Writing Experience.

Thanks to my manuscript readers Will Arnold, Jean Humphreys, Stephen Humphreys, Shaun Hunter, Marilyn Letts, Pearl Luke, and Bernice Pyke, for helpful and appropriately challenging comments; Ruth Daly, Leslie Gavel, Lianne DesBrisay, and Pamela McDowell, friends on this writing journey.

And always, for your love and support, Will, Dan, Matt, Anne, and Vivi.

Chapter One

 

The code opened the gate, but Stuart hesitated before entering the yard. No matter how cool he played it, his father turned him into the kid. What harm will it do to ask? Her voice urged him onto the tile walkway. You haven’t spoken in three years. It can’t make things worse.

Fake gaslights illuminated the deck. The old man reclined on a lounge chair by the pool, alone, as Stuart had expected. They were creatures of ritual, his father with his evening swim followed by a glass of brandy, the trophy wife on her spa getaway the first weekend of the month. Except tonight, the old man holding the glass wore shorts and a shirt instead of a terry robe.

His father sat upright. “Stuart. This is a surprise. How did you get in?”

You haven’t changed the codes on me yet.” Stuart stopped a few feet away. “No swim tonight?”

“I’ve come down with a cold.” He sniffed, as though to make the point. “It’s worn me out. What brings you here? Something other than money, I hope.”

Stuart glanced at the pool shimmering in the faint light, and then at the dark windows in the house. The staff would be gone for the day. He’s sitting on all that money. Her voice. Why not put it to use while you’re still healthy and young?

For your information, I bought the property you wouldn’t pay for.” Stuart straightened his stance. “Actually, with the delay we got it for a better price, thanks to the housing bubble crash.”

“You’re still with that woman?” His father sipped from the brandy glass. “How did you two come up with the down payment?”

“Work.”

What kind of work?”

Stuart looked at the pool. Fuck. Who cared? The old man would see through whatever he said. “Now we need to develop the property.”

“With your foolish idea of a fantasy resort?”

“You might consider it an investment.”

Do you have a business plan?”

“Of course.” A plan in their heads. But they could draft something on paper.

“Take it to a bank.” His father coughed. “If it’s viable, you’ll get a loan.”

They had tried. “Banks don’t dole out money to people with no business experience.”

Exactly.” His father set the glass on the side table and rose. He was almost Stuart’s height. “Prove to me you can get this idea off the ground.”

“How?”

“What work have you done the past few years?”

Surfing. Teaching people to surf. Hanging out on the beach. Scamming an even older man with too much money and inattentive relatives.

I thought so,” his father said. “Stuart, I’m glad you’re here. I wanted to talk to you.” He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose. “I’ve worked hard for my money, and I don’t want you blowing it on some pipe dream—her dream, I suspect.”

“Mine too.”

“Or, for all I know, blowing it up the pipes.”

“I’ve given up drugs.”

“They all say that.”

“You don’t know fuck all.”

His father stuffed the handkerchief into his pocket. “I’ve given this a lot of thought and have decided.” He cleared his throat. “I’m changing my will so that everything I built when I was with your mother will continue to the future, to our family. Your sister and her children—”

“They’re getting my share?”

“Your sister will get her half after my death. Yours will go to any progeny you might have when I die, or on their twenty-fifth birthdays, whichever comes later.”

Stuart rubbed his jaw, trying to absorb this. No money for him. Ever. Even when the old man expired. “You’re disowning me.”

“I see it as providing for your children.”

“Fuck you. This is her idea.”

His father coughed again and stroked his throat. “If you turn your life around—”

You’re doing this to manipulate me. That bitch talked you into it. She’s always hated me.”

“Don’t talk about your stepmother like that.”

“Or was it my bitch sister? So she and her snotty kids can rob me of my share?”

If your line doesn’t continue it will go to them, but that isn’t the point. I don’t want to contribute to a wasted life and schemes that are certain to fail.”

Heat fanned out from Stuart’s chest to his fingers. His father coughed once more, and his Adam’s apple bobbed, exposed. So weak. Was that her voice? So easy to get rid of him, make everything easy for us.

Stuart raised his hands up to the grizzled neck.

No one will know.

He grabbed the bobble and pressed, pressed.

The old man coughed. Choked.

Teach him a lesson. Wasted life?

Surfing, fighting the waves, wasn’t “wasting life.” It made you strong—strong enough to kill a man withered by weakness.

The old man gasped, his eyes wide. Stuart’s hands let go, released the body. It collapsed to the tiles.

Stuart jerked backwards, blinked at the shape twisted on the deck, unmoving. He squatted and felt the wrist for a pulse. No beats. No sounds of breathing. He leapt up, stood astride the torso, formed his hands into position for chest compressions.

If the old man lived, he would cut him out of his will. If he died? His existing will would give Stuart more than he’d hoped for when he entered the gate, would give him the cash they needed now.

Stuart’s gaze shot to the house windows, still barren and dark. When the wife or staff person found him, could the old man’s death be taken as a heart attack or natural choking? Probably not. Fifty-eight wasn’t technically old, and to Stuart’s knowledge, his father had no heart or lung problems. There would probably be an autopsy, which might point to strangling. Trying to cover that up rarely worked on cop shows. Stuart scanned the deck. Fingerprints. What had he touched since he arrived? Had anyone seen their car in the lane, where she was waiting? She probably thought it was a good sign, his taking this long. It would be good if he could set it up right.

Stage a robbery.

His father would have left the house unlocked when he went out to the pool, and if he hadn’t, Stuart knew the codes and where to find the valuables a thief would snatch. Jewellery, cash, expensive trinkets. With all the security, the cops might suspect an inside job. Stuart would be questioned, though only if they could find him—he had no phone, email, or fixed address. Service workers would be targets, someone his father might willingly let in. But cops always looked to the spouse first. The younger wife, who stood to inherit more than the children from his first marriage. They’d speculate she hired a hitman while away at the spa. Knowing his father, there were bound to be rifts in the marriage. Unlikely the old man had abandoned his habit of cheating.

Stuart looked down at the body crumpled on the deck, foam coating its lips. Strange the old man had held such power over him while alive. Dead, he was a mass of flesh and bones. Insects would be crawling all over the corpse by the time his wife found him. Stuart wouldn’t mind if the bitch took the fall. Better her than him.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

Julie Fox formed the clay into a miniature barn roof. Smooth and perfect. Her psychiatrist called this self-directed art therapy. Creating the farm was supposed to keep her mind on concrete tasks and her goal of pleasing her daughter; away from self-indulgent thoughts. To Julie’s amazement, it worked.

Someone knocked on the apartment door. A neighbour? Or had she been too absorbed to hear the downstairs buzzer? She hurried through the dining room and galley kitchen.

Through the peephole, a distorted face came into focus. Close-set eyes, thin nose, five o’clock shadow. The man turned to leave.

Julie opened the door. “Dad.”

A woman on her way out let me in,” her father said. “What’s the point of a locked entrance lobby if people do that?” He unwrapped the scarf from his neck and removed his boots. Under his parka he wore a flannel shirt and jeans.

“Why aren’t you at work?” Julie asked.

“Doctor’s appointment.”

“Are you sick?”

“My cholesterol’s still too high. He’s talking about medication.”

You want a coffee or tea?”

“Anything warm,” he said. “I only put an hour in the parking meter.”

In the kitchen, he selected a packet of Irish breakfast tea. While the bag steeped in the teapot, they chatted about Calgary’s arctic weather and the previous night’s heavy snowfall.

Julie told him that she’d almost fallen on the slippery sidewalks during her morning jog that day.

Her shrink liked that she followed a regular routine. Jog, breakfast, art therapy, lunch, errands and cleaning, jog, dinner, and then reading or TV. Tuesday evenings she watched NCIS with her neighbour down the hall. Thursday was pub night with friends from university. She couldn’t wait to return to work on Monday after two months away.

They carried their teacups to the living room. Her father took his usual chair by the patio doors so he could look out at the office towers downtown. She sat across from him on the sofa. Her grandmother had left her the Queen Anne–style furniture. It had suited the old house Julie had shared with Eric, her estranged husband, better than this high-rise. Her father blew on his tea. The cup and saucer shook in his hands.

He wouldn’t normally drop by for an impromptu visit, especially knowing she’d be at his house tomorrow. “Is it more than cholesterol, Dad? The doctor—”

He says I’m otherwise in A1 shape for a man over sixty.”

She leaned forward. Was there a problem with her daughter? “Is it Peyton?”

“Peyton’s fine. She’s sleeping over tomorrow night. Eric has some kind of poetry event.”

So, is this about your work?” There had been talk of another round of downsizing at the oil company where her father worked.

“Looks like I’ll hang on a few years more until retirement.”

So?” What else could have brought him here? A rift in his marriage? Was he cheating on Rosemary, or leaving her? Impossible. Although, this past year he had lost an inch off his waist and grown the shadow-beard to look cool, or perhaps to compensate for his thinning hair. Was he going through a midlife crisis? For sure, Rosemary wasn’t leaving him. She’d never do that unless he provoked her.

Her father clunked his saucer and cup on the side table. “I wanted to talk to you, alone, without Peyton around.” He cleared his throat. “Last month, I hired a private investigator to look for your mother. Your natural mother.”

Julie carefully set her tea on the coffee table so she wouldn’t spill it. She exhaled slowly. “Why?”

First, I did my own search on the internet. Delilah tried too. She’s good with the computer.”

Julie stumbled to her feet and moved to the wall for support. Her father also stood. He didn’t quite match the height she’d inherited from her mother. Julie had scoured the internet, too, years ago, and more recently while off work. Every link resulting from “Marion Fox” or “Marion Dejong,” her mother’s maiden name, had resulted in a dead end.

“The PI was Rosemary’s idea.”

“Rosemary.”

“She thinks you need closure. And that I do, too.”

Julie’s ears roared. She hated buzzwords. “But last month? Why didn’t you tell me?” He’d involved her stepsister, Delilah, before her.

“We didn’t want you fussing before we got the result, one way or another.”

What did you find?” Julie’s voice cracked.

“We knew Marion had been in LA, so Delilah found a Los Angeles PI online.”

Through the fog in her ears, Julie heard her father explain that some twenty-five years ago—when she was about thirteen—a man had phoned their home and asked for Marion. Her father was at work, Julie at school. Rosemary took the call. The man said he was Marion’s former surfing friend, but when Rosemary questioned him, he hung up. They didn’t have call display, and the man didn’t phone again.

“We got our number unlisted after that,” her father said. “To avoid other cranks.”

Julie felt dizzy. “What makes you think he was a crank?”

“Oh, he might have known Marion, I suppose.”

Her back was sticky with sweat, the rest of her chilled. “So. You unlisted our number so her friends couldn’t reach us. So she couldn’t call us, if she wanted. And you kept this from me?”

That PI was a mistake,” her father continued, ignoring her question. “A sleazeball. Talks like some kind of Sam Spade. Do you know what private investigators charge these days?”

“What else did he learn?”

“Not much.”

But something. She rubbed her freezing arms, afraid to hear what would come next.

“He located another man, who worked with Marion at a bicycle shop in the late eighties.”

Her mother had left them in 1985. “She was into bikes?”

She might have taken up biking after she split. I’m sure she took up a lot of things.” He edged closer to Julie and stopped a few feet away.

Frost coated the balcony’s sliding door frames and sealed them to the wall. Outside, the steel and glass towers acted as a fence that blocked any view of Nose Hill Park and the sky beyond.

The man from the bike shop was high on drugs,” her father said. “The PI couldn’t get any more details out of him. Now, he wants another deposit to try the stoner again.”

Julie turned to him. “He might not be stoned the next time.”

I suspect the PI is stringing me along.”

But the man had found a lead. “It’s worth a try.”

Her father scratched his chin, as though irritated by the stubble. “He thinks I’m too far away in Canada to do anything except send money for his so-called sense that the stoner’s holding back something.”

“What makes him sense that?” Julie held his gaze, her stomach tight.

He kept scratching. “It’s a scam, in my opinion. I have doubts this stoner exists. Delilah couldn’t find him in any phone directories.”

You aren’t listed in them either. Do you actually want to find my mother?”

“That’s why I hired the guy.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Her turning up would throw a wrench in your marriage.”

“What are you talking about?” His hand left his face. Blood dotted his chin.

Julie rubbed her damp hands on her pants. “You have to give the PI the deposit. You can’t just let it drop. If you don’t want to spend the money, I’ll pay.”

Rosemary came up with another plan.” He stepped behind the sofa, so it stood between them. “We’re sending Delilah to Santa Monica, where this stoner lives.”

“Why her?”

He rested his hands on the sofa back. “Apparently, the stoner mumbled something about Marion’s family not caring enough to look for her personally.”

Delilah isn’t her family.” Julie raised her arms, wanting to knock sense into him.

“She’s your sister.”

“Stepsister.” She focused on the blood, which was crusting, not dripping from his chin. Sending Delilah was wrong. But why was it?

She’ll talk to the guy, find out what, if anything, he knows, and pursue any leads he gives. Same as the PI, without charging me by the hour.”

“The PI has the skills. He’s a professional.”

“Delilah has time. She’s not working.”

Julie leaned forward, over the sofa cushions. “Neither am I.

You start back next week.” He gripped the sofa back, holding his ground.

“Otherwise you’d send me.”

He gulped. “We—

“You wouldn’t send me because you think I’m not competent.”

“Julie, of course you are.”

You think I’m fragile.” Her voice trembled. Dammit.

Like I said, it’s probably a wasted effort.”

She stepped back. Her calves hit the coffee table. Don’t retreat, don’t show weakness. “That’s why you waited to tell me, because now I’m due to start work and can’t go.”

His hands eased up on the sofa. “Eric agrees.”

You told Eric about this?” Her damn voice was turning shrill. “Before me?”

“Delilah told him. I know you and he are separated, but—”

“All of you—Eric, Delilah, Rosemary—you’re all in on this. It’s my business.” Her legs struck the table so hard, they would be forming bruises.

“Mine, too. Marion left me, not you. Julie, you need to understand it was never your fault.”

Bullshit. She marched away from the sofa. “Stop talking like my shrink. He’d agree I’m the one who should make the trip.”

“Not if he considers your best interest. Your recovery has gone so well. Why risk all you’ve accomplished?”

She glared from her spot by the window. “What have I accomplished except building a stupid barn?”

He squinted. “Huh?”

She paced to the sofa, the window, back to the sofa. Her father believed she would crack at the probable outcome. They’d discover her mother was dead. Why else wouldn’t she have contacted them in thirty-four years? Even if Marion had flown to Africa, she’d have access to the internet, and Julie’s name popped up on Google searches thanks to social media. Also, thanks to the local success of Eric’s poetry book and Julie’s personal website, which they had set up in case her mother was looking. Now Eric and the others thought she should be here when they got the news, so they could cushion the blow. She stopped to face her father across the sofa. “I can easily extend my leave of absence.” She crossed her arms. “It’s not like I have other responsibilities.” She oozed sarcasm into her voice. “Child care, for instance.”

He rubbed the congealed blood on his chin. Good. She’d made him feel guilty for that part of them putting her down.

“Work is what you need now,” he said. “There’s nothing like engineering to avoid the personal, as Rosemary always says about me.” His forced chuckle twisted his face into a grimace. “And Peyton looks forward to seeing you every Saturday.”

One day a week. Big deal.”

“At that age, they forget.”

Julie had no mental image of her mother, aside from what she’d seen in photographs, most of them distant shots or fuzzy. She wasn’t sure she had one genuine memory of her. They had no contact with her mother’s relatives in Montreal and Boston. Her father said Marion had moved to Calgary to escape her family. He’d never met any of them.

“Weren’t you curious?” Julie had asked once, when she was teenager. “Didn’t you want to know where she came from?”

She didn’t make them sound too appealing.”

Her father’s relatives said Julie was the spitting image of his mother, as though the Marion side of Julie didn’t exist. But Grandma Fox’s hair had been spindly, not thick like Julie’s and Marion’s. And Grandma had been five foot five tops, nowhere near Julie’s six feet and Marion’s five foot eleven.”

She hated that they were all treating her like a child. Couldn’t they see it would drive her crazier to wait at home for the verdict? If, in the end, they told her the search had been a bust, how would she know they hadn’t swept the gruesome news out the window to protect her?

Her father picked up his cup and saucer from the side table and skulked to the kitchen.

Julie followed him. “When is Delilah leaving?”

We booked her flight for next Tuesday.” He didn’t look at her.

“Why tell me now instead of waiting until after she returned? You could have hidden the whole thing from me if her trip flopped.”

He rinsed the cup under the tap, his face in profile, his gaze on the water. “Eric thought you’d be annoyed to learn we’d kept it from you.”

“I am annoyed.” She leaned into the counter for support.

“Perhaps we should have included you from the start.”

“Well, it’s too late for that.”

Delilah’s eager to go.” He set the cup on the counter. “It’s the first oomph she’s shown since she lost her job.”

So, the search for my mother becomes Delilah’s therapy.”

“Julie, that’s not fair. Or true.” He moved toward the far end of the galley kitchen.

She stared, daring him to escape from the narrow room. “Delilah’s trip will cost you more than a PI. She has no investigative skills.”

“She’s great on the computer.”

“So you keep saying. The stoner wants Marion’s relative to come. That isn’t Delilah.”

He shuffled from side to side. “The PI isn’t certain he heard him right. I’m not dealing with that scoundrel anymore.”

“There must be hundreds of private investigators in LA. We’ll hire another one.” She stepped closer.

“And put down another huge deposit?”

“It beats Delilah screwing this up.”

He was out of the kitchen, into the front hall. “Let’s sleep on it. We’ll talk more tomorrow during Peyton’s nap.” He yanked his parka and scarf from the closet. “Eric’s dropping her off around ten. If you come early, Rosemary can explain better than I did.”

Weasel. “Don’t you see, Delilah doesn’t care about my mother. She won’t push the guy like I would.”

He wrapped the scarf around his neck. “If Delilah fails, you can go later, maybe this summer or spring.” He reached for her arm. “You’d enjoy a holiday then.

“Holiday? That’s all it means for her?” She shrugged his touch off. “What if she wrecks this so badly the stoner refuses to deal with us further?”

“I don’t hold out much hope that he’ll come through anyway.”

It’s the one hope we’ve had in thirty-four years.”

“Why not discuss this with your psychiatrist?”

“I intend to.”

He gave her a stiff hug. “Why don’t you stay over at our place tomorrow night, to have more time with Peyton?”

She could ignore his questions too. Julie closed the door behind him, retrieved her cup and saucer from the coffee table, dumped the tepid tea into the sink, and strode to Peyton’s bedroom. Julie used the space now for her art therapy. Peyton hadn’t been to the apartment in over two months, since that horrible afternoon in November.

Julie sank into the desk chair and ran her palm over the barn roof. The clay collapsed inward. Her father had ruined her focus. She stalked down the hall toward her bedroom but paused at the closed bathroom door.

She nudged it open, visualizing what Eric would have seen when he’d barged into the apartment to collect Peyton that weekend. Thank God he’d had a key.

Julie blinked, her eyes watery.

She’d been kneeling at the bathtub. Her daughter’s body—weightless in the water but too heavy to lift. She dragged her arms out from under the slippery skin. “Peyton, float.”

Peyton’s belly rose up and down. Her cheeks were blotchy with redness. The bath was too hot. Julie couldn’t do any of it right, not the simplest thing. Almost four, Peyton was too big for the soaker tub, and too young to see Julie was no mother inside.

“Mommy, I’m swimming.” Peyton fluttered her hands and feet. Her head struck the porcelain. Julie’s baby, perfect the day she was born. Still unspoiled. Julie could save her.

Mommy, look.” Peyton’s face sunk into the water. Her pink lips resurfaced. Her hands and feet fought to keep her buoyant as the water bore down on her.

“Swim, Peyton. Float free.”

“Mommy, I’m tired.”

So was Julie. Already her exhaustion seeped into her baby.

I can’t swim anymore, Mommy.” Peyton’s stomach and lips were submerged, her body suspended in a casket of glass.

Julie slammed the bathroom door shut. Never again. Never.

 

* * *

 

Delilah Trottier clicked the mouse. She scrolled through images of beaches, palm trees, and a glorious sunset behind the Santa Monica Pier. Who knew the prospect of a trip to a warm climate would boost her mood this much? She already felt eager to start a new round of job hunting after she returned.

The computer clock showed 2:07 p.m. She’d been lost in California for two hours. Without a snack. Weight loss might be an added bonus of the trip. She hoped she wouldn’t let them all down and would get useful information from the man who had known Marion. With luck, not all his contacts would be druggies or creeps.

The doorbell rang. Delilah glanced at the frosted window. Who would be out in these subzero temperatures? She shuffled through the kitchen and dining room, cinching her bathrobe sash on her way to the front door. She opened it to see a tall figure in a white coat on the porch, the face half-hidden by a fur-trimmed hood. Narrow-set eyes stared down at her.

Julie?” Delilah stepped back to escape the cold. She glanced at the street. “How did you get here?” Her stepsister had given up driving.

Julie closed the door behind her, lowered her hood, and pulled off her leather gloves. Her hands were red. “CTrain.” She slipped the coat over her shoulders. “It took longer than I thought. I had the idea you lived close to the station.” She shook her auburn hair over her sweater and removed her boots, which looked both stylish and comfortable. They must have cost hundreds of dollars.

Delilah crammed the coat into her closet, conscious of her pyjamas under the natty robe. She smoothed her curls as best she could.

“What a cute house.” Julie surveyed the living room.

The house was small, old, and all Delilah could afford that wasn’t way out in the sticks. Over the past two years, she’d invited Julie to birthday parties and other family gatherings, but her stepsister always claimed she had to work, or made a similar excuse. Delilah collected the empty chip bags and chocolate bar wrappers from the coffee table and studied her living room as if through Julie’s eyes. Garage-sale paintings; their parents’ castoff furniture; an old-fashioned afghan, knitted by her mother, draped over the sofa; a comforter bunched on the rocking chair. Rosemary raved about Julie’s tasteful antiques.

“I was going to make coffee,” Delilah said.

Julie opted for chamomile tea. The rosiness in her face had faded to her usual peach complexion. She wore no makeup and didn’t need it with her dark eyelashes and clear skin. Delilah realized that only one thing would prompt Julie to trek across this frozen city. She wanted to grill her about the search for Marion. Julie had always been protective about her mother.

She set her coffee and the teapot on the dining room table.

I’m going to California,” Julie said.

Delilah tore open a box of cookies and put them on a plate. Misery swept through her like a wave. Without California, she’d be hurled back down to the pit of darkness she’d been in before Christmas.

It’s my business, not yours.” Julie glared, as though defying Delilah to contradict her.

Delilah took two more plates from the wall unit. She passed one to Julie and grabbed a handful of chocolate chip cookies for herself. “You can’t go,” she said. “You’re starting work.”

Julie carried her tea to the living room and sat on the sofa. “I’ll extend my leave of absence.”

“Brad’s already bought my plane ticket. It’s nonrefundable. I can’t transfer it to you, or cancel.” Delilah dumped the comforter on the floor and dropped to the rocking chair.

You can go on holiday in LA. I don’t care about that. This means more to me than a free trip.”

The crumbly cookie left Delilah’s mouth parched. Her doctor insisted her dry mouth wasn’t a side effect of her antidepressant and that it was probably stress. Stress from not working and having no life. She slurped her coffee. Julie rubbed her hands up and down her clingy jeans.

Julie had always pretended to be cool about her mother abandoning her. Delilah played the cool game, too. Her father lived in Vancouver, a cheap phone call or plane ride away, yet he limited his contact with her to sporadic calls and jokey electronic cards on her birthday and at Christmas. Delilah couldn’t count the number of unreturned messages she’d left him as a kid. She’d finally given up letting it hurt her a few years ago and agreed with her mother—he was a charmer with no interest in parenting.

Julie’s chin quivered, reminding Delilah of Peyton, caught in the muck of her parents’ separation. In conversations with her mother, Delilah pretended to agree that Julie wasn’t entirely at fault for the breakup, that Eric deserved some blame for being obtuse and unsympathetic. But it wasn’t Eric’s fault he’d been sucked in by Julie’s on-top-of-it-all persona. They’d all thought she’d gotten over her postpartum depression.

“The apartment I rented on Airbnb’s paid in full,” Delilah said. “And it doesn’t look too classy from the pictures. It’s not a place you’d want to stay in.”

“It’s good enough for you.”

What I meant was it’s cluttered with the owner’s belongings. She rents it out now and then to make money. I think she moves in with her boyfriend. But it’s cheaper than a hotel and will save me money on food.”

Delilah’s stomach churned in disappointment. Julie’s determination always got her what she wanted. Top grades in school, a spot on their high school basketball team, job promotions. Brad believed Julie’s engineering work was the ticket to get her back on track, but Julie was a grown-up. Brad couldn’t forbid her to go. If he refused to pay, Julie had plenty of savings to travel to California at her own expense. She’d dig and dig and probably discover that Marion had died. Delilah suspected that Brad had gone along with the plan of sending Delilah so she could be the messenger with the dreaded truth. If Julie killed the messenger, figuratively, by cutting off their relationship, well, they weren’t real sisters in any sense.

“What bugs me the most is how you all kept this from me. I’m not a little kid.”

No chin quiver now. Julie had recaptured her cool. She would go to Los Angeles no matter what. The best Delilah could hope for was to salvage her own trip.

“The apartment has a sofa bed,” she said, her mouth still dry. “I don’t mind sleeping on that and helping you talk to the man the PI found.”

Julie bolted to her feet. She lurched to the fireplace and then crossed to the dining room table to refill her tea. Delilah’s coffee mug was empty, but if she went to the kitchen her tentative proposal might get lost in the air.

Julie stood by the table, teapot in her hand. “I’m sorry, I have to do this alone.”

“Have you talked to your dad about it?” Delilah’s voice was so weak, she could barely hear her own words.

“This isn’t about him. He always got angry or changed the subject whenever my mother was mentioned.”

“He’s like that when Mom brings it up, too.”

“He doesn’t share his feelings with Rosemary?”

“Brad?” Delilah’s mouth stayed open.

Julie’s lip twitched. Almost a smile. Her first since arriving. Delilah and Julie had never directly discussed Julie’s feelings about losing her mother. In that cramped apartment, engaged in the search, Julie might be glad for a confidant.

“You know, it took him ten years to take steps to divorce her,” Julie said. “After tons of pressure from my grandmother.”

And pressure from Delilah’s mother, who had cried about it more than once with Delilah. “Do you think he’s still in love with her?” her mother had asked.

“How would Rosemary feel if Marion turned up?” Julie said.

Dreadful. What was worse than second fiddle? Delilah should know, having played it since age eleven, when she and her mother moved in with the Foxes. Delilah had dropped to second, behind Brad, in her mother’s life and slid into the role of younger child, even though she was a month older than Julie. After Julie’s breakdown in November, Delilah’s mother had pushed Brad to search for Marion—mostly for Julie’s sake, but also for herself and Brad.

It’s hard living with a ghost,” Delilah said, quoting her mother. Hard for all of them except Delilah, whose relative indifference might make her the best suited to tackling this head-on. But any argument Delilah presented regarding her suitability would only tick Julie off. “How’s Eric doing?” Delilah asked, to change the subject. “Do you know if he’s writing these days?”

Julie started at the non sequitur. “He has a poetry reading tomorrow night.”

“Where?”

“Dad didn’t say.”

Delilah munched a cookie, while Julie poured her tea. Twelve years ago, after two dates with Eric, Delilah had invited Eric to a family dinner. How stupid and needy of her to rush their relationship after two dates. The sparks between Eric and Julie had been so instant that Delilah felt herself fading through the meal, and invisible by dessert. Three days later, Eric broke up with her. For years, Delilah had convinced herself she was over him—until Christmas Eve, when Eric had brought Peyton to her parents’ home and the depression that had choked her through the fall lifted. How could she not love a man who would give up Christmas Day with his daughter so Peyton could spend bonding time with Julie? Eric and Julie weren’t divorced, but they’d been living apart for ten months. By anyone’s reckoning, he was free. A Google search might turn up a post about his poetry reading.

I’m glad we settled this,” Julie said.

Was it settled? Delilah looked at her crumb-speckled plate. Her trip to California was lost. She’d get fatter and fatter until she couldn’t move from this chair. Julie would be the one sitting on the beach in the warm sun, cruising the freeway in a convertible, or rather, in the compact car Delilah had rented.

“How will you get around Los Angeles?” Delilah asked.

“There must be buses. Maybe trains.”

“In LA?”

Julie’s cheeks flushed pink.

Delilah’s grew hot. She’d been surprised to learn through her Google searches that the sprawling, vehicle-obsessed city had a decent public transit system.

“I can take taxis,” Julie said.

“They’ll cost a fortune.”

“Didn’t you pick Santa Monica because that’s where the stoner lives? I can walk to his place.”

Delilah swirled a finger in the crumbs. “If he’s too stoned to give you anything, you’ll want to talk to the PI. His office is in another suburb. You’ll have to drive there.” Her voice croaked out the words that might or might not be true. “Or the druggie will direct you to someone who could have moved anywhere in the greater LA area during the past thirty years, or farther. Californians are particularly transient.”

This wasn’t lying, exactly. Julie could get around LA on transit, but she’d find it a hell of a lot easier by car. Even in her deepest depression, Delilah could drive. The one thing, perhaps the only thing, she could do better than Julie. And Julie wasn’t protesting; she was thinking it through. What was Delilah getting herself into? Ten nights with Julie in an apartment with less space than this house.

Sunshine, sand, palm trees, the Santa Monica Pier.

So they’d spend the week quarrelling. It beat dreary home.

Julie left the dining table. Delilah met her in the middle of the living room and stared up at her, forcing her gaze steady.

“If you go, would you drive me to wherever I needed?” Julie asked.

“Absolutely.”

In five days, Delilah would be in Santa Monica. But cooped up in three little rooms with Julie, who would likely turn nasty if the search for her mother ran dry. And if they discovered the worst, Julie might break down, go psychotic again. Delilah would have to deal with it. Could she? Her mother and Brad would have doubts. She’d leave it to Julie to tell them.

 

 

Chapter Three

 

 

Twenty-two faces in the amphitheatre gazed down at Aurora on the stage. In the predawn light, she saw them as silhouetted sunflowers drinking in her words.

Every morning is an opportunity to renew yourself,” she said. The natural acoustics carried her voice to Sebastiano, sitting high in the top corner. He was staring at Cassandra, who stood by the front row. From the corner of her eye, Aurora saw Cassandra’s chin pointed toward her. That chin hadn’t wavered in five minutes. The girl had focus—Aurora would grant her that. But she doubted she was capable of more. Sebastiano disagreed.

“An opportunity to break free of a past that cages you in,” Aurora said.

Faces began to emerge in the sunflowers. Light glinted off eyeglasses in the theatre rows. The rising sun behind Aurora would make her silver hair shimmer. The pace of her speech was right on, even though her delivery was off today. Only she and Sebastiano would notice. She picked out the people she’d come to know this week. Lakie, with the swan neck, looked rapt. Mona glowed; Sebastiano called her moon-face “bovine,” but Aurora felt Mona would make the best protégé of the ones they’d considered so far.

Aurora paused. What had she said? What came next? “Cast off the cage, let it tumble from the skies.” She relaxed. She knew these words so well the emotion flowed through them even when her mind wandered.

People squinted at the rising sun; some shaded their eyes. A few put on dark glasses. From their perspectives, Aurora would be dissolving in the fiery ball, while her view of her followers grew clearer. After seven days, she understood what had brought each one here to California, to the New Dawn Retreat. They were all ages and shapes, female and male, but the largest chunk consisted of women in their thirties disappointed with their slices of life. Her role was to guide them to their individual paths. Usually, she succeeded on some level.

Once you jettison the past, creativity flows.” She was in the homestretch. One stumble, the hint of a stutter, would break the spell. She hadn’t lost it once in ten years and was glad she wouldn’t be here next week to watch Cassandra botch the daily morning ceremony and all the rest. Sebastiano would send her reports, and Aurora would wade through them to decipher the truth. Much as he’d tried to cover up his infatuation with Cassandra, Aurora had known him long enough to recognize the signs.

“Go forward.” She raised her arms and voice. “Greet each dawn as a chance to dream. Live and love freely.”

She soaked in each radiant face; the awed silence nourished her. Birds trilled from the cypress trees flanking the amphitheatre. Cassandra shifted her weight to one foot. The moment ended.

People edged to the aisles. Some trotted down the stairs, in a hurry for breakfast. Others lingered, hoping for a few words with Aurora, perhaps a touch of her robe. She adjusted the bodice, felt her clavicle and the evil lump. If the cancer had spread, Cassandra would have to fill in during the treatment. If it hadn’t, Sebastiano’s lady was out. Aurora would choose her own protégé.

She stepped away from the podium. Guests swarmed her. Where was Cassandra? Sebastiano?

Skeletal fingers squeezed Aurora’s hand. “Thank you.” Lakie’s eyes were damp. “For teaching me to love myself.”

All I did was reflect what you already knew, Lakie.” Would Cassandra learn everyone’s name the first day, as Aurora did? Would she be able to subdue her bluntness? Most of Aurora’s advice concerned delicate internal matters.

You must be exhausted from all you’ve done for us,” Lakie said.

Aurora extricated herself from the fingers. Did her tiredness show? She picked up her step on her way to the main building. Was this fatigue a sign the mass was infiltrating her body?

No. She would not permit that to happen. She was in charge of her future.

Mona caught up to her at the entrance. “In case we don’t have a chance to talk later, I want you to know this was the best week of my life.” The morning sun cast shadows on her pale, round cheeks.

Aurora smiled. Mona had told her this at the end of her three previous visits. She was too cloying to be a leader, and too short, although her strong voice with its hint of a British accent was appealing. Her father, who ignored her, was a diplomat. Mona, as Aurora’s successor, might be able to propel the retreat’s message beyond California, and the United States.

“I’m going to save every penny I earn so I can come back next year,” Mona said. “If only it wasn’t so expensive to fly from Australia. You know I’m moving there next month.”

Aurora nodded.

Have you ever thought of establishing, you know, branches?”

“The retreat needs one strong core of energy,” Aurora said. “You could save money by taking advantage of our discount for the weeks I must be absent.”

“It wouldn’t be the same without you.”

The muscle above Aurora’s clavicle tensed. She had put her life into the retreat. All of it couldn’t end with her.

Mona prattled on about her departure arrangements. In addition to her other flaws, she was too chatty. Not a good trait in a leader. Her trembling lips kissed Aurora goodbye. Aurora sniffed Mona’s sweet scents, absorbed from the aromas of olive trees, flowering plants, and country air. The woman’s chameleon qualities had helped her absorb the retreat philosophy. Yet, leaders had to be unchangeable, firm. The retreat needed someone who combined these contradictory features—a blend of Cassandra’s strength and Mona’s vulnerability.

Aurora entered the main building. In her office, she sank to the chair. Most days she enjoyed the paperwork, adding figures for income and expenses to arrive at a net profit that was gradually creeping up. It had slipped back into the red the year they purchased the farm across the hill at recession prices, but had recovered. This Christmas, they’d burned the mortgage. The profits would soar from now on. Sebastiano wanted to risk them on a large-scale development on the new property. He was still young enough to be careless and greedy, full of plans. To believe himself invincible.

She tried to concentrate on the spreadsheet. A sunbeam called her to the window. Through the round frame, she studied the expansive lawn, the swing underneath the valley oak, the olive trees rising up the hillsides, the stone guest residence. The sound of the door closing made her whirl. Sebastiano stood in the room, now quiet as a vault.

Aurora edged into the sunbeam so he could see her less clearly. “You disappeared after the sunrise service.”

I took Cassandra aside to brief her on some tips I picked up from your speech. For example, I told her to keep her eyes on the crowd in a way that makes each person feel she’s speaking to her or him personally.”

Sebastiano hopped onto her desk and dangled his legs, which were clad in pants most people took for tights. He considered robes unmanly and opted for a tunic vest and shirt, although the medieval garb didn’t suit the retreat’s Roman theme. He argued they’d already mixed the metaphor by building in the Tuscan style. His plan for the new development was an ancient villa that Aurora would lead; he and, presumably, Cassandra would run this retreat.

“I also told her to breathe from the diaphragm.” His chest rose with his deep inhale. “She’ll get the hang of it, eventually.”

Sebastiano swung his legs back and forth as he elaborated on Cassandra’s breathing difficulties. He was forty-two years old and as attractive as he’d been the day Aurora met him, nineteen years ago. His ebony hair still curled down the nape of his neck. Caps on his teeth had improved his ready smile. The hikes he led twice a day had sculpted his body into something resembling a Michelangelo statue. Eyes like the Mediterranean Sea. The scar on his cheek from a youthful surfing accident added character.

Thank the gods she was immune to him. Her attraction had lasted long enough for them to establish the New Dawn Retreat. Two weeks into the project, she’d decided sex and business didn’t mix.

She interrupted his monologue. “By your own reckoning, Cassandra has a litany of faults.”

All of them easily fixed.” He leapt to the floor. “Now, about the website.”

“I know, a guest told you it needs to be ‘more interactive and dynamic.’”

“What do you think of posting daily bytes of wisdom? Inspiring morsels that incorporate the retreat’s values and ideals.”

You sound like a marketing representative.”

“My old man would have been pleased.”

“The message needs my breath, my voice. It will come off flat on a screen.”

“A good ghostwriter will breathe life into your digital words.”

No outsider could interpret me.” She sniffed his musky aftershave. He had, somehow, manoeuvred her out of the sun into the even light.

He leaned against the desk, his knee angled in a way that showed off the bulges in his crotch. “Pluck a scribe from the guests. God knows half of them spend hours scribbling in journals.”

The website. A necessity, but the retreat’s essence was to eschew the modern. “On the subject of Cassandra.” Aurora wove through the slice of window light. “The minute I return, she’s gone.”

You know we need an understudy. She’s the best of the bunch. You agreed.”

“I did not.”

“You’ve objected to every woman I’ve suggested. ‘This one’s too chunky,’” he said, his pitch rising to imitate her voice. ‘That one has a lisp barely detectable by the human ear. This other one’s feet are too big.’”

I never said that.” She folded her arms.

He left the desk and eased toward her. “Darling, you have got to let go a little. Think of the future.”

“I will, when the right person arrives.”

“We need to send the message out to the world.”

“Through cyberspace?”

His eyebrow rose, presumably in mock surprise at her knowledge of the term. “We’ll need to figure out how to make money on the website.”

“It’s not about the money.”

They stood so close her nose almost grazed his chin. He placed his hands on her hips, mussing her robe. Through his cologne, she smelled the peanut butter he must have nipped in the kitchen, unable to wait for breakfast. “Why are you against money?” he said. “It can’t be all about power and adulation.”

The bastard. She stared into the blinding sun. Her sole concern was the guests. Over the years, so many had sent her letters and emails gushing about how she’d changed their lives. Some included drawings they’d done of her. A few had composed songs and poems, some of which had been published in magazines. If she were an egoist, she would have posted them on the website.

“Give Cassandra a chance next week,” he said.

“I will.”

“She has the stuff we need.”

She turned from the glare to his peanut-butter breath. “The stuff you need.”

You too,” he said. “You could be out of commission for weeks, maybe months if you need radiation or chemotherapy.”

“You’d like that.”

He touched her sleeve. She drew back and bumped the filing cabinet.

Supposing the worst happens and no one’s been trained to step in for you,” he said. “Do you want everything you’ve built dismantled and sold?”

“You would do that?”

“I can’t run the retreat by myself.”

He reached out to her shoulders. She let him caress her bones, too tired to shake him off. His strong fingers travelled to her clavicle and pressed the lump. Pain shuddered through her. She jerked away from him, back into the sunbeam.

“Must be time for breakfast,” he said.

It would be her last meal here for a week. Or more. Not more. She would make it a week of opportunities. One: jettison the evil lump. Two: jettison that scheming Cassandra. Three: plan the retreat’s future on her own terms. Sebastiano would come around. He always did.

 

* * *

 

“I thought she would never leave,” Cassandra said.

Sebastiano glued his gaze to Aurora’s Jetta. Dust spewed from its wheels as it rumbled down the road. The car disappeared around the curve.

Cassandra toyed with the ribbon on her robe’s bodice. “She seemed odd today.”

“What do you mean?” He looked at her.

“Oh, Aurora was riveting, as usual, at the sunrise service, but after that, I got the sense she was, I don’t know, edgy.”

Sebastiano clamped his mouth shut to avoid gaping. Even he hadn’t noticed anything off about Aurora today, and he’d been watching for signs. Cassandra had sharp intuition, a vital trait in a leader.

The retreat is Aurora’s life,” he said. With luck, Cassandra had missed his momentary lapse. “She gets tense when she has to leave it in the care of us lesser beings.”

Why is she leaving?” Cassandra scuffed her sandal in the parking lot’s gravel. She unearthed a rock and kicked at it.

He’d have to train her to be less fidgety. Aurora was the master of otherworldly reserve. Who would have guessed from the way she efficiently and lovingly bid farewell to the guests that morning that she’d be under the knife in two days?

“Everyone needs a vacation,” he said. “Even a goddess.” He flashed a smile.

Cassandra’s jaw tightened. “You shouldn’t ridicule her.”

“Isn’t that my role around here? Levity? Even Aurora sees the need for balance with the sacred.” This was true, although Aurora rarely admitted it. These past ten years they’d been a perfect team. Too bad change had to happen.

You told me Aurora plans her breaks months ahead.” Cassandra looked up from her kicking. “I heard talk of her vacation only yesterday. It wasn’t advertised on the website.”

“We’re giving the incoming guests the discount.”

So they won’t revolt when they learn they’re stuck with me?”

Beneath Cassandra’s self-deprecating smile, Sebastiano glimpsed determination. Another essential leadership trait. Her striking looks also wouldn’t hurt. Taken individually, Cassandra’s features were all wrong. Horse-shaped face, long nose curling into a bulbous tip, mouth too large for her pointed jaw. Together, they worked. At five foot ten, she was almost as tall as Aurora. Both had slim figures that looked splendid in robes. This ivory stola, in particular, enhanced Cassandra’s dark skin. Aurora wanted an impressive successor, one who measured up to her standards, but she was jealous of those with the potential to become her equal and resented their youthfulness and glowing health. The paradox had made selecting a protégé impossible.

They moved into the sun. Sebastiano peered at the gardener riding the mower over the lawn, one of a hundred tasks happening during the few hours between retreats. Cooks were preparing the welcome dinner; trucks delivered fresh supplies of food. In the guest building, washers and dryers hummed, cleaning staff scrubbed and dusted rooms, all to make everything pristine and ready for Cassandra’s trial week, which would start in two hours.

“I don’t think she likes me.” Cassandra paused on the stone walkway.

Since this discussion could take a few minutes, Sebastiano put on his sunglasses, which would also shield his eyes from her. “You mean Aurora?” He affected a mouth sputter to show the absurdity. “When has she ever indicated that?”

On the surface, she’s all sweetness, but underneath…I can’t explain…”

Cassandra’s intuition was too sharp.

“We’ve been scouting potential protégés for years,” he said. “You don’t know how many Aurora’s dismissed. She lit on you instantly.”

“Really?” Cassandra’s face shone.

Don’t worry about feeling insecure. Aurora’s a hard act to follow.”

“I’m not insecure.”

Yes she was, or she wouldn’t have forked out the big bucks for this retreat in the first place. “We all feel inadequate at times.”

Including you?” Her lips broke into a teasing smile. She shifted her robed hip toward him flirtatiously.

Fortunately, no one was around, aside from the gardener riding toward them. Sebastiano kept his relationship with the leader ambiguous, a topic of curiosity that left him available for the attractive women and occasional man who attended the retreats. The lawn mower turned from them and manoeuvred around the oak tree.

“I should go practice my speech for tonight,” Cassandra said.

“Would you like more help with it?”

That would make me nervous.”

Don’t over rehearse, or the speech will go flat. You want it coming across polished, with some phrases apparently spontaneous.” Another Aurora art.

“I’ll check my email first.”

“Your mother’s still writing every day?”

“‘Cassandra,’” she said, mimicking a stern voice. “‘When are you coming home?’”

She’d been here a month. After he’d selected her that first week as a prospective successor, they’d kept her on to study Aurora and handle office details. Cassandra had opted to take a leave of absence from her job rather than quit before she knew if her role of Aurora’s helpmate would work out. Sebastiano admired her common sense. So many others, inspired by the retreat, abandoned their former lives with no plans for the next step. Cassandra was smart, too. With only a high school degree, she had moved up from cashier to manager of a large supermarket.

Sebastiano opened the stone building’s massive door. Cassandra loped past the lounge to the office. Her gait could use some work. Aurora glided. He closed the soundproof office door. Cassandra plunked down on Aurora’s chair and rapped the mahogany desktop.

“Do you want me to leave while you e-chat with Mommy?” he said.

“If I phone her instead, I might set her mind at ease.”

Whatever they talked about, she’d tell him later. He liked Cassandra’s openness. Aurora thought she lacked mystery.

In the lounge, Sebastiano plumped cushions already plumped by household staff and adjusted chairs, all to keep moving. The retreat’s future was in flux until Monday, when they would learn the results of Aurora’s operation. She might be gone for months, undergoing chemo or radiation, or back in action next Saturday. No matter how well Cassandra performed, she wouldn’t be able to get a foothold in one week. Aurora would whittle her down until she flew back to Mommy and her supermarket career. From subsequent crops of guests, Sebastiano could choose another trainee, but the result would be the same.

He grabbed a fireplace poker. They had built this place. Aurora’s sickness was his chance to save it from dying with her. If her tests were clear, he’d need a plan B, one that would thwart her determination, intelligence, and intuition.

 

 

Chapter Four

 

 

“I booked a seat on Delilah’s flight,” Julie said.

Her father glanced at Rosemary. “I wished you’d waited to discuss this with us.”

So you could talk me out of it?” Julie inhaled the aroma of cookies in the oven. She didn’t need her father and stepmother’s approval for the trip, but she hated them thinking she would crumble at the first setback. “I need to be there because I’m more motivated than Delilah,” she said. And because the answer, if she found one, would probably be bad. She didn’t want to hear secondhand that her mother was dead. She had to know before Delilah, her father, her stepmother, Eric, and anyone else they had told. If that was being paranoid—

“Work would be better for you,” her father said. “Delilah has time for this wild goose chase.”

Rosemary opened the oven door to take out the tray of cookies. Had Marion baked? The phone rang from the family room.

“I’d go myself if I didn’t have this project deadline,” her father said.

The phone rang a few more times before dying. Her father and stepmother screened all their calls.

That might be Eric to tell us he’s running late,” Rosemary said. “He finds Peyton a chore to hustle out in the mornings. Weekdays are the worst, he says.”

That was Julie’s fault. She’d walked out on them. When she and Eric were together, a nanny had come in on days they both worked. Now, Eric cut costs by taking Peyton to a babysitter.

Julie’s father left to check the answering machine. Rosemary leaned over to put the mixing bowls in the dishwasher. Huge pockets on the seat of her jeans amplified her wide rump. She was pear-shaped, not slim like Julie’s mother in the old photographs. Marion might have put on weight with age, although Julie was approaching forty and her stomach and hips showed no signs of spread.

Her father reported that Eric was stuck in traffic. Not a problem, since this wasn’t his Saturday to work at the clinic.

“Thinking it over,” Rosemary said, “I see Julie’s point. California could do her good.”

“Work and routine are what she needs.” Her father sampled a soft cookie.

Julie crossed her arms. “I’m here in the room. You can talk to me.”

Routine will set her straight,” he continued, ignoring her. “You can’t beat the mental exercise of tangible, mechanical problems.”

“The other day,” Rosemary said, “I was watching Dr. Phil on TV—”

“Please,” he said. “Don’t bring that quack into this.”

Rosemary closed the dishwasher, seeming oblivious to his insult. Would Marion have stood up for her hero?

“Phil talked about the mental benefits of choosing the uncomfortable path,” Rosemary said. “It can lead to fresh solutions.”

“Hmph.”

Rosemary nodded conspiratorially at Julie. If her stepmother was climbing on board, Julie was almost there.

“It will be nice for you girls to spend time together,” Rosemary said.

“Delilah doesn’t have the private investigator’s contact information,” Julie said.

“That bloodsucker.” Her father sniffed.

“He’s the starting point.”

“The drug addict’s address and phone number are in one of the reports,” he said. “Delilah will contact him directly.”

The prospect of starting one step closer to any result was oddly exciting. “I’d like to read the PI’s reports.”

Rosemary plugged in the kettle. Julie’s father loaded cookies on a small plate.

“That’s enough, Brad.” Rosemary tapped his hand.

Julie couldn’t see Marion treating a husband that way, like a child. “We don’t know he’s an addict.”

“Oh, he’s addicted to butter and sugar.” Rosemary dropped three teabags into the pot. “His cholesterol would plummet to normal if he gave them up.”

“I mean the man who knew my mother,” Julie said.

“Claims he knew her.” Her father poured his tea. “I’m off to relax with the newspaper before Peyton arrives to keep us hopping.” He retreated to the family room.

Rosemary looked at Julie. “He’s nervous about all this.”

“I can handle the trip.”

Rosemary set a plate for Peyton’s morning snack on the kitchen table. Watching her, Julie was struck, as she often was, by how much Rosemary and Delilah resembled each other. Same-shaped faces, wide eyes, and high-arched eyebrows. Their voices and laughs even sounded alike, although Rosemary’s hair, dark like Delilah’s when she married Julie’s dad, was now tinted ash blond to soften her face. In the pictures, Marion’s hair was light brown. Now it might be dyed or grey, assuming she was alive.

“Brad’s worried about the effect on him too,” Rosemary said.

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