Nora had known this day would be hard, but she didn’t think it would be this hard. She stepped out onto the patio, away from the noisy party, to watch the gulls wheel and cry over the harbor. Boats bobbed against the moorings. Her parents’ newly purchased yacht, The @ floated nearby.
This was supposed to be a happy occasion for them—her dad’s retirement. She couldn’t ruin it for them, could she? But she had to know. She couldn’t just let them sail away for six months while curiosity burned in her belly like cheap whiskey. Could she?
“What are you doing out here, sweetie?” Crystal Clare, her mom’s best friend stepped through the French doors that separated Nora from the party’s laughter and music. “Hiding?”
Yes, but probably not for the reason Crystal suspected. Nora gave Crystal a bleak smile.
Crystal wrapped her arm around Nora’s waist and pulled her into a sideways hug. The older woman felt smell and brittle like a collection of dry bones. Her lacquered hair smelled of chemicals and a hint of alcohol clung to her breath.
“It was hard for me to attend social gatherings after Clyde and I split up, but—” she sighed and brushed a loose curl off Nora’s forehead, “you’ll get used to it, I promise.”
Nora smiled. “I knew it would be hard.”
“Do you miss the dirty little rat fink?” Crystal asked, her smile softening her words.
Nora nodded. “I do. I’m trying to be understanding, but…”
“Where is he now?”
“San Francisco, with Teddy…that’s his lover’s name.”
“Sounds like a bear.”
“And he totally fits his name, too.” Nora still couldn’t believe it. It was impossible to believe that Blake had left her…and for a man who looked like he’d just lumbered out of the woods in search of a picnic basket. Nora sniffed, wiped her hand under her nose, and looked back out at the boats. “Crystal, you’ve been friends with my mom for a really long time.”
“Nearly thirty years.”
Ah, then she would know…
“And your father for even longer. We worked at the same firm back when I thought I was a hot shot in a power suit.”
Nora grinned. “You’re still a hot shot.”
“Yeah, but I’m no longer putting the bad guys behind bars.”
It still surprised her that loud, forceful Crystal and her quiet, reserved mom were acquaintances, let alone best friends. She wondered how that had happened. But at the moment, she was wondering how a lot of things had ever happened.
“It’s not Blake, is it?” Crystal studied Nora, giving Nora the uncomfortable feeling of being read like a laundry list.
“It’s Blake,” Nora lied.
“But there’s something else, isn’t there?”
Nora glanced at her parents through the window. The dying sun reflected off the glass making the party look shimmery but blurry. It seemed apt. Her parents had often seemed glittery but insubstantial. Not quite real.
Everyone’s been lying to me, Nora thought. Anger stiffened her spine. “Tell me about 1991.”
Crystal looked surprised. “What do you want to know? You were there, weren’t you? Big hair? Shoulder pads? A bunch of Madonna wanna-bes?”
“I was born in 1991.” The hardness in Nora’s voice surprised even herself.
She watched the comprehension dawn on Crystal’s face. The older woman took Nora’s arm in a gentle but firm grasp. “Maybe we should go for a walk.”
Neither of them wore walking shoes and Crystal was a good six inches shorter than Nora, but Crystal led the way down the steps of the Shore Cliff Country Club’s patio to the marina’s floating dock.
“What do you want to know about 1991?” Crystal asked when they were safely away from the party and any of its revelers.
“I want to know why there’re photographs of my mother looking—as always—rail thin, days before my birth.”
Crystal sniffed and rubbed her nose. “And where did you see those?”
“Tom Thacker brought an album.”
“And do your parents know?”
“Know what?” Nora practically exploded. The curiosity in her had turned into a raging animal that demanded satisfaction.
“For the record, I never agreed with your mother’s decision,” Crystal said.
“To do what?”
Crystal slid her glance. “To keep your birth mother a secret.”
“Birth mother?” Nora leaned against the rail as her knees gave. “My whole life is a lie,” she breathed. First her husband and now her parents? Unbelievable.
“Not everything, no,” Crystal said, worry etching the lines around her eyes. “Your parents adore you.”
“Well, sort of,” Crystal said.
“What does that mean? Either I’m adopted or I’m not.” Nora’s thoughts spun. Everyone told her she looked just like her dad, because she did. They were both tall, blond, with fair skin and pale blue eyes while her mother was small, dark, and impish. Her family consisted of just the three of them. No grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins. The three musketeers, her mom called them…and now Crystal didn’t even have them. Or did she?
“What happened?” Nora demanded.
“Sweetie, you know this is a conversation you should have with your parents.”
Nora pointed a trembling finger at the @BOAT. “You know as well as I do that in any moment the people I thought were my mom and dad are about to sail away! For six months!”
“Darling, don’t,” Crystal said in her courtroom voice. “You’re upsetting yourself, and you’d undoubtedly cause your parents an enormous amount of embarrassment and pain if anyone overheard you.”
“And my failed marriage has already embarrassed them,” Nora said bitterly.
“No one’s blaming you for Blake’s…change of heart.”
Nora swallowed and tried to tamp down her anger. “What happened?” she repeated.
Crystal pinched her lips together and met Nora’s glare.
Nora pointed her finger at Crystal’s bony chest. “If you don’t tell me right now, I’m going to go in there and confront my—”
“Just stop,” Crystal said, taking Nora’s hand and interlacing their fingers. “I’ll try to tell you everything I know. But keep in mind, I don’t know everything.”
And for Crystal to admit that she didn’t know everything so surprised Nora and that she fell silent. For a moment, the sound of the waves lapping the moorings and the cry of seagulls filled the air. Then Crystal told her a story she didn’t want to believe.
“So, do you know who my birth mother is?”
“No, but I have an idea,” Crystal said with a speculative glint in her eye. “Let me do some subtle investigating, and I’ll get back to you.” Her eyes narrowed. “You know, if I were you, I would be dying to confront your parents, but I really don’t think that’s a good idea.”
On a distant pier, the cheer of a small crowd rose as the @ boat pulled into the harbor.
Ignoring Crystal’s warning, Nora ran after her parents. After a few faltering steps in her high heels, she pulled off her shoes. “Mom! Dad! Don’t go!”
Her parents, too far away to hear, waved.
Nora cupped her hands and shouted, “Stop! Wait!”
Her dad lifted his hand to his forehead and gave her a solute.
Nora fumbled for her purse, but then remembered she had left it in the club. With tears streaming down her face she pounded down the boardwalk, skittering around the others on the dock. Inside the club, she scanned the tables looking for her purse. Where had she left it? How could she have been so careless? She’d been so shaken and confused when she’d seen the photographs…She spotted the offending albums on the table next to the partially eaten sheet cake, half-empty wine bottles, and goblets smudged with lipstick. Beside the album lay her purse.
Her relief whooshed out of her. She scooped up her bag and knew immediately something was wrong. It was too light. Even before opening it, she knew it would be empty. Her money, her credit cards, her phone…like her parents and Blake, they were all gone.