complexion, a snap to lake-gray eyes.
WHEN SHE PULLED THE LETTER FROM HER MAILBOX, KELSEY HAD NO warning it was from a dead woman. The creamy stationery, the neatly handwritten name and address, and the Virginia postmark seemed ordinary enough. So ordinary she had simply stacked it with her other mail on the old Belker table under her living-room window while she slipped out of her shoes.
She went into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of wine. She would sip it slowly, she told herself, before she opened her mail. She didn’t need the drink to face the slim letter, or the junk mail, the bills, the cheery postcard from a friend enjoying a quick trip to the Caribbean.
It was the packet from her attorney that had shaken her. The packet she knew contained her divorce decree. The legal paper that would change her from Kelsey Monroe back to Kelsey Byden, from married woman to single, from half of a couple to a divorcée.
It was foolish to think that way, and she knew it. She hadn’t been married to Wade in anything but the most technical, legal sense for two years, almost as long as they’d been husband and wife.
But the paper made it all so final, so much more so than the arguments and tears, the separation, the lawyers’ fees and legal maneuvers.
Till death do us part, she thought grimly, and sipped some wine. What a crock. If that were true she’d be dead at twenty-six. And she was alive—alive and well and back in the murky dating pool of singles.
She shuddered at the thought.
She supposed Wade would be out celebrating with his bright and spiffy-looking associate in the advertising agency. The associate he had had an affair with, the liaison that he told his stunned and furious wife had nothing to do with her or with their marriage.
Funny, Kelsey hadn’t thought of it that way. Maybe she didn’t feel she’d had to die, or kill Wade, in order to part, but she’d taken the rest of her marriage vows seriously. And forsaking all others had been at the top of the list.
No, she felt the perky and petite Lari with the aerobically sculpted body and cheerleader smile had had everything to do with her.
No second chances had been given. His slip, as Wade had termed it, was never to be repeated. She had moved out of their lovely town house in Georgetown on the spot, leaving behind everything they had accumulated during the marriage.
It had been humiliating to run home to her father and stepmother, but there were degrees of pride. Just as there were degrees of love. And her love had snapped off like a light the instant she’d found Wade cozied up in the Atlanta hotel suite with Lari.
Surprise, she thought with a sneer. Well, there’d been three very surprised people when she’d walked into that suite with a garment bag and the foolishly romantic intention of spending the weekend leg of Wade’s business trip with him.
Perhaps she was rigid, unforgiving, hard-hearted, all the things Wade had accused her of being when she’d refused to budge on her demand for a divorce. But, Kelsey assured herself, she was also right.
She topped off her wine and walked back into the living room of the immaculate Bethesda apartment. There was not a single chair or candlestick in the sun-washed room that had stood in Georgetown. Clean break. That’s what she had wanted, that’s what she’d gotten. The cool colors and museum prints that surrounded her now were hers exclusively.
Stalling, she switched on the stereo, engaged the CD changer, and filled the room with Beethoven’s Pathétique. Her taste for the classics had been passed down from her father. It was one of the many things they shared. Indeed, they shared a love of knowledge, and Kelsey knew she’d been in danger of becoming a professional student before she’d taken her first serious job with Monroe Associates.
Even then she’d been compelled to take classes, in subjects ranging from anthropology to zoology. Wade had laughed at her, apparently intrigued and amused by her restless shuffling from course to course and job to job.
She’d resigned from Monroe when she married him. Between her trust fund and Wade’s income, she hadn’t needed a job. She’d wanted to devote herself to the remodeling and redecorating of the town house they’d bought. She’d loved every hour of stripping paint, sanding floors, hunting in dusty antique shops for just the right piece for just the right spot. Laboring in the tiny courtyard, scrubbing brick, digging weeds, and designing the formal English garden had been pure pleasure. Within a year, the town house had been a showplace, a testament to her taste and her effort and her patience.
Now it was simply an asset that had been assessed and split between them.
She’d gone back to school, that academic haven where the real world could be pushed aside for a few hours every day. Now she worked part-time at the National Gallery, thanks to her art history courses.
She didn’t have to work, not for money. The trust fund from her paternal grandfather could keep her comfortable enough so that she could drift from interest to interest as she chose.
So, she was an independent woman. Young, she thought, and, glancing over at the stack of mail, single. Qualified to do a little of everything and a lot of nothing. The one thing she’d thought she’d excelled at, marriage, had been a dismal failure.
She blew out a breath and approached the Belker table. She tapped her fingers against the legal packet, long narrow fingers that had received piano lessons, art lessons, fingers that had learned to type, to cook gourmet meals, to program a computer. A very competent hand that had once worn a wedding ring.
Kelsey passed over the thick envelope, ignoring the little voice that hissed the word coward inside her head. Instead she picked up another, one with handwriting oddly like her own. It had the same bold, looping style, neat but a little flashy. Only mildly curious, she tore it open.
Dear Kelsey: I realize you might be surprised to hear from me.
She read on, the vague interest in her eyes turning to shock, the shock to disbelief. Then the disbelief turned into something almost like fear.
It was an invitation from a dead woman. A dead woman who happened to be her mother.
In times of crisis, Kelsey had always, for as long as she could remember, turned to one person. Her love for and trust in her father had been the one constant in her restless nature. He was always there for her, not so much a port in a storm, but a hand to hold until the storm was over.
Her earliest memories were of him, his handsome, serious face, his gentle hands, his quiet, infinitely patient voice. She remembered him tying bows in her long straight hair, brushing the pale blond tresses while Bach or Mozart sang from the stereo. It was he who had kissed her childhood hurts better, who had taught her to read, to ride a bike, who had dried her tears.
She adored him, was almost violently proud of his accomplishments as the chairman of the English department at Georgetown University.
She hadn’t been jealous when he’d married again. At eighteen she’d been delighted that he’d finally found someone to love and share his life with. Kelsey had made room in her heart and home for Candace, and had been secretly proud of her maturity and altruism in accepting a stepmother and teenage stepbrother.
Perhaps it had been easy because she knew deep in her heart that nothing and no one could alter the bond between herself and her father.
Nothing and no one, she thought now, but the mother she’d thought was dead.
The shock of betrayal was warring with a cold, stony rage as she fought her way through rush-hour traffic toward the lush, palatial estates in Potomac, Maryland. She’d rushed out of her apartment without her coat, and had neglected to switch on the heater in her Spitfire, but she didn’t feel the chill of the February evening. Temper had whipped color into her face, adding a becoming rosy glow to the porcelain
She drummed her fingers against the steering wheel as she waited for a light to change, as she willed it to change so she could hurry, hurry. Her mouth was clamped in a thin line that masked its lush generosity as she fought to keep her mind a blank.
It wouldn’t do to think now. No, it wouldn’t do to think that her mother was alive, alive and living hardly an hour away in Virginia. It wouldn’t do to think about that or Kelsey might have started to scream.
But her hands were beginning to tremble as she cruised down the majestically tree-lined street where she’d spent her childhood, as she pulled into the drive of the three-story brick colonial where she’d grown up.
It looked as peaceful and tidy as a church, its windows gleaming, its white trim pure as an unblemished soul. Puffs of smoke from the evening fire curled from the chimney, and the first shy crocuses poked their delicate leaves up around the old elm in the front yard.
The perfect house in the perfect neighborhood, she’d always thought. Safe, secure, tasteful, only a short drive to the excitement and culture of D.C. and with the well-polished hue of quiet, respectable wealth.
She slammed out of the car, raced to the front door, and shoved it open. She’d never had to knock at this house. Even as she started down the Berber runner in the white-tiled foyer, Candace came out of the sitting room to the right.
She was, as usual, immaculately dressed. The perfect academic wife in conservative blue wool, her mink-colored hair swept back from her lovely, youthful face to reveal simple pearl earrings.
“Kelsey, what a nice surprise. I hope you can stay for dinner. We’re entertaining some of the faculty and I can always use—”
“Where is he?” Kelsey interrupted.
Candace blinked, surprised by the tone. She could see now that Kelsey was in one of her snits. The last thing she needed an hour before her house filled up with people was one of her stepdaughter’s explosions. Automatically she shifted her stance.
“Is something wrong?”
“You’re upset. Is it Wade again?” Candace dismissed the problem with a wave of her hand. “Kelsey, divorce isn’t pleasant, but it isn’t the end of the world, either. Come in and sit down.”
“I don’t want to sit, Candace. I want to talk to my father.” Her hands clenched at her sides. “Now, are you going to tell me where he is, or do I have to look for him?”
“Hey, sis.” Channing strode down the stairs. He had his mother’s strong good looks and a thirst for adventure that had, according to his mother, come from nowhere. Though he’d been fourteen when Candace married Philip Byden, Channing’s innate good humor had made the transition seamless. “What’s up?”
Kelsey deliberately took a deep breath to keep from shouting. “Where’s Dad, Channing?”
“The Prof’s in his study, buried in that paper he’s been writing.”
Channing’s brows lifted. He, too, recognized the signs of a rage in the making—the spark in the eye, the flush on the cheeks. There were times he would put himself out to bank that fire. And times he would indulge himself and fan it.
“Hey, Kels, you’re not going to hang around with these bookworms tonight, are you? Why don’t you and I skip out, hit a few clubs?”
She shook her head and tore down the hall toward her father’s study.
“Kelsey.” Candace’s voice, sharp, annoyed, trailed after her. “Must you be so volatile?”
Yes, Kelsey thought as she yanked open the door of her father’s favorite sanctuary. Yes.
She slammed the door at her back, saying nothing for a moment as the words were boiling up much too hot and much too fast in her throat. Philip sat at his beloved oak desk, nearly hidden behind a stack of books and files. He held a pen in his bony hand. He’d always maintained that the best writing came from the intimacy of writing, and stubbornly refused to compose his papers on a word processor.
His eyes behind the silver-framed glasses had the owlish look they took on when he amputated himself from the reality of what was around him. They cleared slowly, and he smiled at his daughter. The desk light gleamed on his close-cropped pewter hair.
“There’s my girl. Just in time to read over this draft of my thesis on Yeats. I’m afraid I might have gotten long-winded again.”
He looked so normal, was all she could think. So perfectly normal sitting there in his tweed jacket and carefully knotted tie. Handsome, untroubled, surrounded by his books of poetry and genius.
And her world, of which he was the core, had just shattered.
“She’s alive,” Kelsey blurted out. “She’s alive and you’ve lied to me all my life.”
He went very pale, and his eyes shifted from hers. Only for an instant, barely a heartbeat, but she’d seen the fear and the shock in them.
“What are you talking about, Kelsey?” But he knew, he knew and had to use all of his self-control to keep the plea out of his voice.
“Don’t lie to me now.” She sprang toward his desk. “Don’t lie to me! She’s alive. My mother’s alive, and you knew it. You knew it every time you told me she was dead.”
Panic sliced through Philip, keen as a scalpel. “Where did you get an idea like that?”
“From her.” She plunged her hand into her purse and dragged out the letter. “From my mother. Are you going to tell me the truth now?”
“May I see it?”
Kelsey tilted her head, stared down at him. It was a look that could pick clean down to the bone. “Is my mother dead?”
He wavered, holding the lie as close to his heart as he held his daughter. But he knew, as much as he wished it could be otherwise, if he kept one, he would lose the other.
“No. May I see the letter?”
“Just like that.” The tears she’d been fighting swam dangerously close to the surface. “Just a no? After all this time, all the lies?”
Only one lie, he thought, and not nearly enough time. “I’ll do my best to explain it all to you, Kelsey. But I’d like to see the letter.”
Without a word she handed it to him. Then, because she couldn’t bear to watch him, she turned away to face the tall, narrow window where she could see evening closing in on the last bloom of twilight.
The paper shook so in Philip’s hand that he was forced to set the sheet on the desk in front of him. The handwriting was unmistakable. Dreaded. He read it carefully, word by word.
I realize you might be surprised to hear from me. It seemed unwise, or at least unfair, to contact you before. Though a phone call might have been more personal, I felt you would need time. And a letter gives you more of a choice on your options.
They will have told you I died when you were very young. In some ways, it was true, and I agreed with the decision to spare you. Over twenty years have passed, and you’re no longer a child. You have, I believe, the right to know that your mother is alive. You will, perhaps, not welcome the news. However, I made the decision to contact you, and won’t regret it.
If you want to see me, or simply have questions that demand answers, you’d be welcome. My home is Three Willows Farm, outside of Bluemont, Virginia. The invitation is an open one. If you decide to accept it, I would be pleased to have you stay as long as it suited you. If you don’t contact me, I’ll understand that you don’t wish to pursue the relationship. I hope the curiosity that pushed you as a child will tempt you to at least speak with me.
Naomi. Philip closed his eyes. Good God, Naomi.
Nearly twenty-three years had passed since he’d seen her, but he remembered everything about her with utter clarity. The scent she’d worn that reminded him of dark, mossy glades, the quick infectious laugh that never failed to turn heads, the silvery blond hair that flowed like rain down her back, the sooty eyes and willowy body.
So clear were his memories that when Philip opened his eyes again he thought he saw her. His he
art took one hard, violent leap into his throat that was part fear, part long-suppressed desire.
But it was Kelsey, her back stiff, facing away from him.
How could he have ever forgotten Naomi, he asked himself, when he had only to look at their daughter to see her?
Philip rose and poured a scotch from a crystal decanter. It was kept there for visitors. He rarely touched anything stronger than a short snifter of blackberry brandy. But he needed something with bite now, something to still the trembling of his hands.
“What do you plan to do?” he asked Kelsey.
“I haven’t decided.” She kept her back to him. “A great deal of