He didn’t want to be there. No, he hated being trapped in the elegant old house, prodded and pinched by restless ghosts. It was no longer enough to shroud the furniture in dustcovers, lock the doors and walk away. He had to empty it and, by emptying it, purge himself of some of the nightmares.
Jed tensed at the title. As of last week he was no longer captain. He’d resigned from the force, turned in his shield, but he was already weary of explaining it. He shifted aside as two of the movers carried a rosewood armoire down the staircase, through the grand foyer and out into the chilly morning.
“You might want to check upstairs, make sure we got everything you wanted put in storage. Otherwise, looks like we’re all done here.”
But he didn’t want to go up those stairs, walk through those rooms. Even empty they would hold too much. Responsibility, he mused as he reluctantly started up. His life had been too crowded with responsibility to ignore one now.
Something nudged him along the hallway toward his old room. The room where he had grown up, the room he had continued to inhabit long after he’d lived here alone. But he stopped in the doorway just short of crossing the threshold. Hands jammed into tight fists in his pockets, he waited for memories to assault him like sniper fire.
He’d cried in that room—in secret and in shame, of course. No Skimmerhorn male ever revealed a weakness in public. Then, when tears had dried, he’d plotted in that room. Small, useless childish revenges that had always boomeranged back on him.
He’d learned to hate in that room.
Yet it was only a room. It was only a house. He’d convinced himself of that years before when he had come back to live there as a man. And hadn’t he been content? he asked himself now. Hadn’t it been simple?
He flinched. He’d nearly brought his right hand out of his pocket to touch a weapon that was no longer there before he caught himself. The gesture, and the fact that he’d been so lost in his own morbid thoughts that someone could have come up behind him, reminded him why the weapon no longer hung at his side.
He relaxed and glanced back at his grandmother. Honoria Skimmerhorn Rodgers was neatly wrapped in mink, discreet daytime diamonds winking at her ears, her snowy hair beautifully coiffed. She looked like a successful matron on her way out for lunch at her favorite club. But her eyes, as vivid a blue as his own, were filled with concern.
“I’d hoped I’d convinced you to wait,” she said quietly, and reached out to lay a hand on his arm.
He flinched automatically. The Skimmerhorns simply weren’t touchers. “There was no reason to wait.”
“But there’s a reason for this?” She gestured toward the empty room. “There’s a reason to empty out your home, to put aside all of your belongings?”
“Nothing in this house belongs to me.”
“That’s absurd.” The faint whisper of her native Boston crept into her tone.
“By default?” He turned his back on the room to face her. “Because I happen to still be alive? No, thanks.”
If she hadn’t been so worried about him, the curt answer would have earned him a ringing reprimand. “My dear, there’s no question of default. Or any kind of fault.” She watched him close in, shut off, and would have shaken him if it would have helped. Instead, she touched his cheek. “You only need some time.”
The gesture left his muscles taut. It took all of his willpower not to jerk away from the gentle fingers. “And this is my way of taking it.”
“By moving out of the family home?”
“Family?” He laughed at that, and the sound of it echoed nastily down the hall. “We were never a family here, or anywhere.”
Her eyes, previously soft with sympathy, hardened. “Pretending the past doesn’t exist is as bad as living in it. What are you doing here? Tossing away everything you’ve earned, everything you’ve made of yourself? Perhaps I was less than enthusiastic about your choice of profession, but it was your choice and you succeeded. It appears to me that you made more of the Skimmerhorn name when you were promoted to captain than all your ancestors did with their money and social power.”
“I didn’t become a cop to promote my damn name.”
“No,” she said quietly. “You did it for yourself against tremendous family pressure—including my own.” She moved away from him to walk down the hall. She had lived here once, years before as a bride. An unhappy one. “I saw you turn your life around, and it awed me. Because I knew you did it for no one but yourself. I often wondered how you were strong enough to do that.”
Turning back, she studied him, this son of her son. He had inherited the bold good looks of the Skimmerhorns. Bronzed hair, tousled by the wind, swept around a lean, rawboned face that was taut with stress. She worried, woman-like, because he had lost weight, though the fining down of his features only heightened their power. There was strength in the tall, broad-shouldered build that both accented and defied the romantic masculine beauty of pale gold skin and sensitive mouth. The eyes, a deep striking blue, had come from her. They were as haunted and defiant now as they had been in the young, troubled boy she remembered so well.
But he was no longer a boy, and she was afraid there was little she could do to help the man.
“I don’t want to see you turn your life around again, for the wrong reasons.” She shook her head, walking back toward him before he could speak. “And I might have had reservations when you moved back in here alone after your parents died, but that, too, was your choice. And for some time, it seemed you’d made the right one again. But this time your solution to a tragedy is to sell your home, throw away your career?”
He waited a beat. “Yes.”
“You disappoint me, Jedidiah.”
That stung. It was a phrase she rarely used, and had more bite than a dozen of his father’s raging insults. “I’d rather disappoint you than be responsible for the life of a single cop. I’m in no shape to command.” He looked down at his hands, flexed them. “I may never be. And as for the house, it should have been sold years ago. After the accident. It would have been sold if Elaine had agreed to it.” Something backed up in his throat. Guilt was as bitter as bile. “Now she’s gone too, and it’s my decision.”
“Yes, it’s yours,” she agreed. “But it’s the wrong one.”
Rage sizzled in his blood. He wanted to hit something, someone, pound his fists into flesh. It was a feeling that came over him all too often. And because of it, he was no longer Captain J. T. Skimmerhorn of the Philadelphia Police Department, but a civilian.
“Can’t you understand? I can’t live here. I can’t sleep here. I need to get the hell out. I’m smothering here.”
“Then come home with me. For the holidays. At least until after the first of the year. Give yourself a little more time before you do something irreversible.” Her voice was gentle again as she took his rigid hands in hers. “Jedidiah, it’s been months since Elaine—since Elaine was killed.”
“I know how long it’s been.” Yes, he knew the exact moment of his sister’s death. After all, he’d killed her. “I appreciate the invitation, but I’ve got plans. I’m looking at an apartment later today. Over on South Street.”
“An apartment.” Honoria’s sigh was ripe with annoyance. “Really, Jedidiah, there’s no need for that kind of nonsense. Buy yourself another house if you must, take a long vacation, but don’t bury yourself in some miserable room.”
He was surprised he could smile. “The ad said it was quiet, attractive and well located. That doesn’t sound miserable. Grandmother”—he squeezed her hands before she could argue—“let it be.
She sighed again, tasting defeat. “I only want what’s best for you.”
“You always did.” He suppressed a shudder, feeling the walls closing in on him. “Let’s get out of here.”
A theater without an audience has its own peculiar magic. The magic of possibilities. The echoing voices of actors running lines, the light cues, the costumes, the nervous energy and vaulting egos that bound from center stage to the empty back row.
Isadora Conroy absorbed the theater’s magic as she stood in the wings of the Liberty Theater, watching a dress rehearsal for A Christmas Carol. As always, she enjoyed the drama, not only Dickens, but also the drama of edgy nerves, of creative lighting, of the well-delivered line. After all, the theater was in her blood.
There was a vibrancy that pulsed from her even in repose. Her large brown eyes glinted with excitement and seemed to dominate the face framed by a swing of golden-brown hair. That excitement brought a flush to ivory skin, a smile to her wide mouth. It was a face of subtle angles and smooth curves, caught between wholesome and lovely. The energy inside her small, compact body shimmered out.
She was a woman interested in everything around her, who believed in illusions. Watching her father rattling Marley’s chains and intoning dire predictions to the fear-struck Scrooge, she believed in ghosts. And because she believed, he was no longer her father, but the doomed miser wrapped for eternity in the heavy chains of his own greed.
Then Marley became Quentin Conroy again, veteran actor, director and theater buff, calling for a minute change in the blocking.
“Dora.” Hurrying up from behind, Dora’s sister, Ophelia, said, “We’re already twenty minutes behind schedule.”
“We don’t have a schedule,” Dora murmured, nodding because the blocking change was perfect. “I never have a schedule on a buying trip. Isn’t he wonderful, Lea?”
Though her sense of organization was hampered, Lea glanced out onstage and studied their father. “Yes. Though God knows how he can stand to put on this same production year after year.”
“Tradition.” Dora beamed. “The theater’s rooted in it.” Leaving the stage hadn’t diminished her love of it, or her admiration for the man who had taught her how to milk a line. She’d watched him become hundreds of men onstage. Macbeth, Willie Loman, Nathan Detroit. She’d seen him triumph and seen him bomb. But he always entertained.
“Remember Mom and Dad as Titania and Oberon?”
Lea rolled her eyes, but she was smiling. “Who could forget? Mom stayed in character for weeks. It wasn’t easy living with the queen of the fairies. And if we don’t get out of here soon, the queen’s going to come out and run through her list of what might happen to two women traveling alone to Virginia.”
Sensing her sister’s nerves and impatience, Dora swung an arm around Lea’s shoulders. “Relax, honey, I’ve got her covered, and he’s going to take five in a minute.”
Which he did, on cue. When the actors scattered, Dora stepped out to center stage. “Dad.” She took a long look, skimming down from the top of his head to his feet. “You were great.”
“Thank you, my sweet.” He lifted an arm so that his tattered shroud floated. “I think the makeup is an improvement over last year.”
“Absolutely.” In fact, the greasepaint and charcoal were alarmingly realistic; his handsome face appeared just short of decay. “Absolutely gruesome.” She kissed him lightly on the lips, careful not to smudge. “Sorry we’ll miss opening night.”
“Can’t be helped.” Though he did pout just a little. Although he had a son to carry on the Conroy tradition, he’d lost his two daughters, one to marriage, one to free enterprise. Then again, he did occasionally shanghai them into a minor role. “So, my two little girls are off on their adventure.”
“It’s a buying trip, Dad, not a trip to the Amazon.”
“Just the same.” He winked and kissed Lea in turn. “Watch out for snakes.”
“Oh, Lea!” Trixie Conroy, resplendent in her costume complete with bustle and feathered hat, rushed out onstage. The Liberty’s excellent acoustics carried her throaty voice to the rear balcony. “John’s on the phone, dear. He couldn’t remember if Missy had a scout meeting tonight at five, or a piano lesson at six.”
“I left a list,” Lea muttered. “How’s he going to manage the kids for three days if he can’t read a list?”
“Such a sweet man,” Trixie commented when Lea dashed off. “The perfect son-in-law. Now, Dora, you will drive carefully?”
“Of course you will. You’re always careful. You won’t pick up any hitchhikers?”
“Not even if they beg.”
“And you’ll stop every two hours to rest your eyes?”
An inveterate worrier, Trixie gnawed on her bottom lip. “Still, it’s an awfully long way to Virginia. And it might snow.”
“I have snow tires.” To forestall more speculation, Dora gave her mother another kiss. “There’s a phone in the van, Mom. I’ll check in every time we cross a state line.”
“Won’t that be fun?” The idea cheered Trixie enormously. “Oh, and Quentin, darling, I’ve just come from the box office.” She gave her husband a deep curtsy. “We’re sold out for the week.”
“Naturally.” Quentin lifted his wife to her feet and twirled her in a graceful spin that ended in a deep dip. “A Conroy expects nothing less than standing room only.”
“Break a leg.” Dora kissed her mother one last time. “You too,” she said to Quentin. “And Dad, don’t forget you’re showing the apartment later today.”
“I never forget an engagement. Places!” he called out, then winked at his daughter. “Bon voyage, my sweet.”
Dora could hear his chains clanging when she hit the wings. She couldn’t imagine a better send-off.
To Dora’s way of thinking, an auction house was very like a theater. You had the stage, the props, the characters. As she had explained to her baffled parents years before, she wasn’t really retiring from the stage. She was merely exploring another medium. She certainly put her actor’s blood to good use whenever it was time to buy or sell.
She’d already taken the time to study the arena for today’s performance. The building where Sherman Porter held his auctions and ran a daily flea market had originally been a slaughterhouse and was still as drafty as a barn. Merchandise was displayed on an icy concrete floor where cows and pigs had once mooed and squealed on their way to becoming pot roasts and pork chops. Now humans, huddled in coats and mufflers, wandered through, poking at glassware, grunting over paintings and debating over china cabinets and carved headboards.
The ambience was a bit thin, but she’d played in less auspicious surroundings. And, of course, there was the bottom line.
Isadora Conroy loved a bargain. The words “On Sale” sent a silvery tingle through her blood. She’d always loved to buy, finding the basic transaction of money for objects deeply satisfying. So satisfying that she had all too often exchanged money for objects she had no use for. But it was that love of a bargain that had guided Dora into opening her own shop, and the subsequent discovery that selling was as pleasurable as buying.
“Lea, look at this.” Dora turned to her sister, offering a gilded cream dispenser shaped like a woman’s evening shoe. “Isn’t it fabulous?”
Ophelia Conroy Bradshaw took one look, lifted a single honey-brown eyebrow. Despite the dreamy name, this was a woman rooted in reality. “I think you mean frivolous, right?”
“Come on, look beyond the obvious aesthetics.” Beaming, Dora ran a fingertip over the arch of the shoe. “There’s a place for ridiculous in the world.”
“I know. Your shop.”
Dora chuckled, unoffended. Though she replaced the creamer, she’d already decided to bid on that lot. She took out a notebook and a pen that boasted a guitar-wielding Elvis to note down the number. “I’m really glad you cam
e along with me on this trip, Lea. You keep me centered.”
“Somebody has to.” Lea’s attention was caught by a colorful display of Depression glass. There were two or three pieces in amber that would add nicely to her own collection. “Still, I feel guilty being away from home this close to Christmas. Leaving John with the kids that way.”
“You were dying to get away from the kids,” Dora reminded her as she inspected a lady’s cherrywood vanity.
“I know. That’s why I’m guilty.”
“Guilt’s a good thing.” Tossing one end of her red muffler over her shoulder, Dora crouched down to check the work on the vanity’s brass handles. “Honey, it’s only been three days. We’re practically on our way back. You’ll get home tonight and smother the kids with attention, seduce John, and everybody’ll be happy.”
Lea rolled her eyes and smiled weakly at the couple standing beside her. “Trust you to take everything down to the lowest common denominator.”