What am I doing here?
The question rolled around in Vanessa’s mind as she drove down Main Street. The sleepy town of Hyattown had changed very little in twelve years. It was still tucked in the foothills of Maryland’s Blue Ridge Mountains, surrounded by rolling farmland and thick woods. Apple orchards and dairy cows encroached as close as the town limits, and here, inside those limits, there were no stoplights, no office buildings, no hum of traffic.
Here there were sturdy old houses and unfenced yards, children playing and laundry flapping on lines. It was, Vanessa thought with both relief and surprise, exactly as she had left it. The sidewalks were still bumpy and cracked, the concrete undermined by the roots of towering oaks that were just beginning to green. Forsythia were spilling their yellow blooms, and azaleas held just the hint of the riotous color to come. Crocuses, those vanguards of spring, had been overshadowed by spears of daffodils and early tulips. People continued, as they had in her childhood, to fuss with their lawns and gardens on a Saturday afternoon.
Some glanced up, perhaps surprised and vaguely interested to see an unfamiliar car drive by. Occasionally someone waved—out of habit, not because they recognized her. Then they bent to their planting or mowing again. Through her open window Vanessa caught the scent of freshly cut grass, of hyacinths and earth newly turned. She could hear the buzzing of power mowers, the barking of a dog, the shouts and laughter of children at play.
Two old men in fielders’ caps, checked shirts and work pants stood in front of the town bank gossiping. A pack of young boys puffed up the slope of the road on their bikes. Probably on their way to Lester’s Store for cold drinks or candy. She’d strained up that same hill to that same destination countless times. A hundred years ago, she thought, and felt the all-too-familiar clutching in her stomach.
What am I doing here? she thought again, reaching for the roll of antacids in her purse. Unlike the town, she had changed. Sometimes she hardly recognized herself.
She wanted to believe she was doing the right thing. Coming back. Not home, she mused. She had no idea if this was home. Or even if she wanted it to be.
She’d been barely sixteen when she’d left—when her father had taken her from these quiet streets on an odyssey of cities, practice sessions and performances. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and London, Paris, Bonn, Madrid. It had been exciting, a roller coaster of sights and sounds. And, most of all, music.
By the age of twenty, through her father’s drive and her talent, she had become one of the youngest and most successful concert pianists in the country. She had won the prestigious Van Cliburn Competition at the tender age of eighteen, over competitors ten years her senior. She had played for royalty and dined with presidents. She had, in her single-minded pursuit of her career, earned a reputation as a brilliant and temperamental artist. The coolly sexy, passionately driven Vanessa Sexton.
Now, at twenty-eight, she was coming back to the home of her childhood, and to the mother she hadn’t seen in twelve years.
The burning in her stomach as she pulled up to the curb was so familiar she barely noticed it. Like the town that surrounded it, the home of her youth was much the same as when she’d left it. The sturdy brick had weathered well, and the shutters were freshly painted a deep, warm blue. Along the stone wall that rose above the sidewalk were bushy peonies that would wait another month or more to bloom. Azaleas, in bud, were grouped around the foundation.
Vanessa sat, hands clutching the wheel, fighting off a desperate need to drive on. Drive away. She had already done too much on impulse. She’d bought the Mercedes convertible, driven up from her last booking in D.C., refused dozens of offers for engagements. All on impulse. Throughout her adult life, her time had been meticulously scheduled, her actions carefully executed, and only after all consequences had been considered. Though impulsive by nature, she had learned the importance of an ordered life. Coming here, awakening old hurts and old memories, wasn’t part of that order.
Yet if she turned away now, ran away now, she would never have the answers to her questions, questions even she didn’t understand.
Deliberately not giving herself any more time to think, she got out of the car and went to the trunk for her suitcases. She didn’t have to stay if she was uncomfortable, she reminded herself. She was free to go anywhere. She was an adult, a well-traveled one who was financially secure. Her home, if she chose to make one, could be anywhere in the world. Since her father’s death six months before, she’d had no ties.
Yet it was here she had come. And it was here she needed to be—at least until her questions were answered.
She crossed the sidewalk and climbed the five concrete steps. Despite the trip-hammer beating of her heart, she held herself straight. Her father had never permitted slumped shoulders. The presentation of self was as important as the presentation of music. Chin up, shoulders straight, she started up the walk.
When the door opened, she stopped, as if her feet were rooted in the ground. She stood frozen as her mother stepped onto the porch.
Images, dozens of them, raced into her mind. Of herself on the first day of school, rushing up those steps full of pride, to see her mother standing at the door. Sniffling as she limped up the walk after falling off her bike, her mother there to clean up the scrapes and kiss away the hurt. All but dancing onto the porch after her first kiss. And her mother, a woman’s knowledge in her eyes, struggling not to ask any questions.
Then there had been the very last time she had stood here. But she had been walking away from the house, not toward it. And her mother hadn’t been on the porch waving goodbye.
Loretta Sexton stood twisting her hands. There was no gray in her dark chestnut hair. It was shorter than Vanessa remembered, and fluffed around a face that showed very few lines. A rounder face, softer, than Vanessa recalled. She seemed smaller somehow. Not shrunken, but more compact, fitter, younger. Vanessa had a flash of her father. Thin, too thin, pale, old.
Loretta wanted to run to her daughter, but she couldn’t. The woman standing on the walk wasn’t the girl she had lost and longed for. She looks like me, she thought, battling back tears. Stronger, more sure, but so much like me.
Bracing herself, as she had countless times before stepping onto a stage, Vanessa continued up the walk, up the creaking wooden steps, to stand in front of her mother. They were nearly the same height. That was something that jolted them both. Their eyes, the same misty shade of green, held steady.
They stood, only a foot apart. But there was no embrace.
“I appreciate you letting me come.” Vanessa hated the stiffness she heard in her own voice.
“You’re always welcome here.” Loretta cleared her throat, cleared it of the rush of emotional words. “I was sorry to hear about your father.”
“Thank you. I’m glad to see you’re looking well.”
“I…” What could she say? What could she possibly say that could make up for twelve lost years? “Did you…run into much traffic on the way up?”
“No. Not after I got out of Washington. It was a pleasant ride.”
“Still, you must be tired after the drive. Come in and sit down.”
She had remodeled, Vanessa thought foolishly as she followed her mother inside. The rooms were lighter, airier, than she remembered. The imposing home she remembered had become cozy. Dark, formal wallpaper had been replaced by warm pastels. Carpeting had been ripped up to reveal buffed pine floors that were accented by colorful area rugs. There were antiques, lovingly restored, and there was the scent of fresh flowers. It was the home of a woman, she realized. A woman of taste and means.
“You’d probably like to go upstairs first and unpack.” Loretta stopped at the stairs, clutchin
g the newel. “Unless you’re hungry.”
“No, I’m not hungry.”
With a nod, Loretta started up the stairs. “I thought you’d like your old room.” She pressed her lips together as she reached the landing. “I’ve redecorated a bit.”
“So I see.” Vanessa’s voice was carefully neutral.
“You still have a view of the backyard.”
“I’m sure it’s fine.”
Loretta opened a door, and Vanessa followed her inside.
There were no fussily dressed dolls or grinning stuffed animals. There were no posters tacked on the walls, no carefully framed awards and certificates. Gone was the narrow bed she had once dreamed in, and the desk where she had fretted over French verbs and geometry. It was no longer a room for a girl. It was a room for a guest.
The walls were ivory, trimmed in warm green. Pretty priscillas hung over the windows. There was a four-poster bed, draped with a watercolor quilt and plumped with pillows. A glass vase of freesias sat on an elegant Queen Anne desk. The scent of potpourri wafted from a bowl on the bureau.
Nervous, Loretta walked through the room, twitching at the quilt, brushing imaginary dust from the dresser. “I hope you’re comfortable here. If there’s anything you need, you just have to ask.”
Vanessa felt as if she were checking into an elegant and exclusive hotel. “It’s a lovely room. I’ll be fine, thank you.”
“Good.” Loretta clasped her hands together again. How she longed to touch. To hold. “Would you like me to help you unpack?”
“No.” The refusal came too quickly. Vanessa struggled with a smile. “I can manage.”
“All right. The bath is just—”
Loretta stopped short, looked helplessly out the window. “Of course. I’ll be downstairs if you want anything.” Giving in to her need, she cupped Vanessa’s face in her hands. “Welcome home.” She left quickly, shutting the door behind her.
Alone, Vanessa sat on the bed. Her stomach muscles were like hot, knotted ropes. She pressed a hand against her midsection, studying this room that had once been hers. How could the town have seemed so unchanged, and this room, her room, be so different? Perhaps it was the same with people. They might look familiar on the outside, but inside they were strangers.
As she was.
How different was she from the girl who had once lived here? Would she recognize herself? Would she want to?
She rose to stand in front of the cheval glass in the corner. The face and form were familiar. She had examined herself carefully before each concert to be certain her appearance was perfect. That was expected. Her hair was to be groomed—swept up or back, never loose—her face made up for the stage, but never heavily, her costume subtle and elegant. That was the image of Vanessa Sexton.
Her hair was a bit windblown now, but there was no one to see or judge. It was the same deep chestnut as her mother’s. Longer, though, sweeping her shoulders from a side part, it could catch fire from the sun or gleam deep and rich in moonlight. There was some fatigue around her eyes, but there was nothing unusual in that. She’d been very careful with her makeup that morning, so there was subtle color along her high cheekbones, a hint of it over her full, serious mouth. She wore a suit in icy pink with a short, snug jacket and a full skirt. The waistband was a bit loose, but then, her appetite hadn’t been good.
And all this was still just image, she thought. The confident, poised and assured adult. She wished she could turn back the clock so that she could see herself as she’d been at sixteen. Full of hope, despite the strain that had clouded the household. Full of dreams and music.
With a sigh, she turned away to unpack.
When she was a child, it had seemed natural to use her room as a sanctuary. After rearranging her clothes for the third time, Vanessa reminded herself that she was no longer a child. Hadn’t she come to find the bond she had lost with her mother? She couldn’t find it if she sat alone in her room and brooded.
As she came downstairs, Vanessa heard the low sound of a radio coming from the back of the house. From the kitchen, she remembered. Her mother had always preferred popular music to the classics, and that had always irritated Vanessa’s father. It was an old Presley ballad now—rich and lonely. Moving toward the sound, she stopped in the doorway of what had always been the music room.
The old grand piano that had been crowded in there was gone. So was the huge, heavy cabinet that had held reams and reams of sheet music. Now there were small, fragile-looking chairs with needlepoint cushions. A beautiful old tea caddy sat in a corner. On it was a bowl filled with some thriving leafy green plant. There were watercolors in narrow frames on the walls, and there was a curvy Victorian sofa in front of the twin windows.
All had been arranged around a trim, exquisite rosewood spinet. Unable to resist, Vanessa crossed to it. Lightly, quietly, only for herself, she played the first few chords of a Chopin étude. The action was so stiff that she understood the piano was new. Had her mother bought it after she’d received the letter telling her that her daughter was coming back? Was this a gesture, an attempt to reach across the gap of twelve years?
It couldn’t be so simple, Vanessa thought, rubbing at the beginnings of a headache behind her eyes. They both had to know that.
She turned her back on the piano and walked to the kitchen.
Loretta was there, putting the finishing touches on a salad she’d arranged in a pale green bowl. Her mother had always liked pretty things, Vanessa remembered. Delicate, fragile things. Those leanings showed now in the lacy place mats on the table, the pale rose sugar bowl, the collection of Depression glass on an open shelf. She had opened the window, and a fragrant spring breeze ruffled the sheer curtains over the sink.
When she turned, Vanessa saw that her eyes were red, but she smiled, and her voice was clear. “I know you said you weren’t hungry, but I thought you might like a little salad and some iced tea.”
Vanessa managed an answering smile. “Thank you. The house looks lovely. It seems bigger somehow. I’d always heard that things shrunk as you got older.”
Loretta turned off the radio. Vanessa regretted the gesture, as it meant they were left with only themselves to fill the silence. “There were too many dark colors before,” Loretta told her. “And too much heavy furniture. At times I used to feel as though the furniture was lurking over me, waiting to push me out of a room.” She caught herself, uneasy and embarrassed. “I saved some of the pieces, a few that were your grandmother’s. They’re stored in the attic. I thought someday you might want them.”
“Maybe someday,” Vanessa said, because it was easier. She sat down as her mother served the colorful salad. “What did you do with the piano?”
“I sold it.” Loretta reached for the pitcher of tea. “Years ago. It seemed foolish to keep it when there was no one to play it. And I’d always hated it.” She caught herself again, set the pitcher down. “I’m sorry.”
“No need. I understand.”
“No, I don’t think you do.” Loretta gave her a long, searching look. “I don’t think you can.”
Vanessa wasn’t ready to dig too deep. She picked up her fork and said nothing.
“I hope the spinet is all right. I don’t know very much about instruments.”
“It’s a beautiful instrument.”
“The man who sold it to me told me it was top-of-the-line. I know you need to practice, so I thought… In any case, if it doesn’t suit, you’ve only to—”
“It’s fine.” They ate in silence until Vanessa fell back on manners. “The town looks very much the same,” she began, in a light, polite voice. “Does Mrs. Gaynor still live on the corner?”
“Oh yes.” Relieved, Loretta began to chatter. “She’s nearly eighty now, and still walks every day, rain or shine, to the post office to get her mail. The Breckenridges moved away, oh, about five years ago. Went south. A nice family bought their house. Three children. The youngest just started school thi
s year. He’s a pistol. And the Hawbaker boy, Rick, you remember? You used to baby-sit for him.”
“I remember being paid a dollar an hour to be driven crazy by a little monster with buckteeth and a slingshot.”
“That’s the one.” Loretta laughed. It was a sound, Vanessa realized, that she’d remembered all through the years. “He’s in college now, on a scholarship.”
“Hard to believe.”
“He came to see me when he was home last Christmas. Asked about you.” She fumbled again, cleared her throat. “Joanie’s still here.”
“It’s Joanie Knight now,” Loretta told her. “She married young Jack Knight three years ago. They have a beautiful baby.”
“Joanie,” Vanessa murmured. Joanie Tucker, who had been her best friend since her earliest memory, her confidante, wailing wall and partner in crime. “She has a child.”
“A little girl. Lara. They have a farm outside of town. I know she’d want to see you.”
“Yes.” For the first time all day, Vanessa felt something click. “Yes, I want to see her. Her parents, are they well?”
“Emily died almost eight years ago.”
“Oh.” Vanessa reached out instinctively to touch her mother’s hand. As Joanie had been her closest friend, so had Emily Tucker been her mother’s. “I’m so sorry.”
Loretta looked down at their joined hands, and her eyes filled. “I still miss her.”
“She was the kindest woman I’ve ever known. I wish I had—” But it was too late for regrets. “Dr. Tucker, is he all right?”
“Ham is fine.” Loretta blinked back tears, and tried not to be hurt when Vanessa removed her hand. “He grieved hard, but his family and his work got him through. He’ll be so pleased to see you, Van.”
No one had called Vanessa by her nickname in more years than she could count. Hearing it now touched her.
“Does he still have his office in his house?”