As Laine unravels the mystery of her grandparents’ marriage she is forced to face one more question of the heart—Can love live even after it has died?
Kristy Tate, author of Stealing Mercy, returns with another story laced with romance and intrigue.
The Chinook wind stirred the fallen leaves and tossed them around the deserted street. An eastern wind carries more than dust and ashes, Laine’s mother had told her; it uproots secrets. And everyone knows once one secret is told, no secret is safe.
Laine paused in front of the Queen Anne Hill Chapel doors. The sun, a faint pink glow over the eastern hills had yet to shine, but Laine hadn’t any doubt that it would rise to another scorching Indian summer day. She looked out over sleeping Seattle. The dark gray Puget Sound stretched away from her. On the horizon, distant ships bobbed and sent quivering beams of light over the water.
She turned her back on the ships, on any dream of sailing away, and inserted the key into the heavily carved wooden doors. They creaked open before Laine turned the key. Odd. The chapel, built in the 1930s, had a musty, empty smell. She stepped into the cool shade of the foyer and the door swung shut, closing with a click that echoed through the cavernous room. The morning sounds of birds, crickets and insects disappeared when the doors closed. Laine’s sneakers smacked across the terracotta tile, her footsteps loud.
She had thought she’d be alone, which is exactly why she’d chosen to come near dawn. Not that she’d been able to sleep. She hadn’t slept for weeks, which may explain why at first she’d thought the girl standing in the nave, facing the pulpit, her face lifted to the stained glass window, might be a ghost—or, given her surroundings, an angel.
Although Laine couldn’t see her face, the way the child’s head moved, it looked as if she was having a conversation with the Lord trapped in the glass, or one of the sheep milling about His feet, giving Laine the uncomfortable sense of interrupting. The meager morning sun lit the glass and multi-colored reflections fell on the girl, casting her in an iridescent glow. Slowly, she turned and Laine realized she wasn’t a child, but a young woman, around twenty, maybe half her own age, wearing the sort of thing her grandmother would have worn. Vintage clothing, Laine noted, incredibly well preserved.
“Good morning,” Laine said, smiling. “I’m sorry to intrude. I wasn’t expecting anyone…” She let her voice trail away. Laine had certainly never felt any peace through prayer, but that didn’t mean she wanted to interrupt on anyone seeking grace and Pastor Clark had given her the key, so naturally she’d assumed the chapel would have been locked and that she’d have this time to practice alone.
“Well, where is he, then?” the girl-woman demanded, placing her balled fists on her hips. She had yellow blonde hair, cut in a curly bob, and wore a pale blue sleeveless dress that fell straight to her knees. Laine considered the young woman. Given the scowl and hostile eyes, she didn’t look like a humble Christian follower, but she did seem oddly familiar.
“I’m sorry—who are you looking for?” Laine tucked her hands into her pockets, feeling inappropriately dressed. She’d thrown on Ian’s sweats, one of the few sets of clothes he’d left behind. Perhaps he didn’t exercise at the hotel, or, more likely, he’d just bought himself a new pair of running clothes. Now that her grandfather had died, making Ian The-Man-In-Charge, Ian could afford new running clothes, the hotel suite, and room services of all sorts. Which didn’t explain, really, why Laine wore his cast-offs. Just because he’d left them behind didn’t mean Laine should wear them. And yet, she did. Frequently.
“Sid!” the woman spat the name. Her gaze raked over Laine, making her uneasy.
Laine tugged at the drawstring holding up the sweat pants, wondering why this woman would be looking for her grandfather. “He’s still at the funeral home.” She swallowed. “They won’t bring the casket here until tomorrow morning. There’s the viewing tonight at the house…” She heard her own sadness in her voice.
“Then what are you doing here?” The woman’s eyes matched the color of her dress and as she drew closer, Laine saw she wore a necklace of the same steely blue. Laine’s hand instinctively crept to her own necklace, a gift from Sid, an emerald he’d said matched her eyes.
“I’ve come to practice the organ.” Laine shifted on her feet. A tingle of déjà vu ran up her spine. Looking at this woman was like watching a rerun of an almost forgotten and yet beloved television show. They must have met some other time at some long ago, forgotten place; Laine was sure they’d been friends. Although, at the moment, this woman was not a friendly person.
The woman looked at the massive organ and then back to Laine. “Why are you playing the organ? I’m sure Georgie could spit out the money for an organist. No need for freebie-family members to play.”
Laine opened her mouth to ask how this woman knew her father or her relationship to Sid, but then remembered her family had never lived a quiet life. Well, except for her. Her own life had been, until now, ungossip-worthy. Her breath caught in her throat and then she let it out slowly, bracing herself for the difficult weekend. She’d weather the rumors and the chit-chat. She could be strong.
Even if she’d never been before.
“I wanted to play,” Laine told the woman, lacing her voice with resolve she didn’t feel. “As a gift to my grandfather.”
Why are you here? How did you get in? How do I know you? Laine wanted to ask, but years of social training held back her questions.
The woman snorted. “Not much of a gift, that.”
“Yeah, well, it’s something I want to do.” Laine let a little of her social training slip and she brushed past the woman. She marched up the aisle toward the organ, lifted the massive cover, turned on the switch and adjusted the bench.
“A gift to your grandfather, or an excuse not to sit by your husband?” The woman appeared beside her.
Laine squared her shoulders and bit back a rude retort. She’d have to get used to the questions. Even if they weren’t asked so bluntly, they’d still be asked. Maybe not to her face, maybe behind her back, but the questions would be there, either in people’s eyes or on their lips. Laine would not provide answers.
The woman stood at her elbow. “If you’ve come to practice, where’s your music?”
Laine gave her a tight smile as she settled onto the bench. “I memorize.”
“If it’s already memorized, why are you practicing?”
For the first time Laine caught a hint of the woman’s French accent. “Who did you say you are again?”
“I didn’t say and you didn’t answer my question.”
Laine began adjusting the stops. “Every instrument is different. A pedal may be broken, the bench could wobble… I’ve learned from sad experience that it’s best to give every instrument a test run. I mean, an organ’s not like a violin. You can’t just bring your own.”
The woman cocked her head. “What would you know of sad experiences?”
Most people would say her life was charmed, but if she lived such a fairytale, why was she so sad? Because the prince she’d been kissing for most of her life had turned into a toad?
“Do I know you?” Laine asked, her fingers pausing above the keys.
The woman leaned against the organ. “I don’t know, do you?”
All of Laine’s politeness drained away. “I’m sorry. I don’t know you. And because I don’t know you, I don’t feel I need to share.” Laine hit the keys, a D minor chord, and music reverberated through the deserted chapel.
“Good for you.” The woman chuckled and hitched herself up on top of the organ. She had reed thin legs, pale as porcelain and covered with silky hose. She swung them back and forth, like a child pumping a swing, her heels rap-tapping the organ.
Laine lifted her fingers, horrified. The sudden cessation of music filled the room. “You can’t sit on this organ.” Her words echoed.
The woman cut her a sideways smile. She wore bright red shoes with ribbon ties on the ankles and the red heels continued bumping rhythmically against the organ. “No?”
“No. It’s a 1930’s Wurlitzer, solid walnut. It’s extremely valuable, and you’re kicking it.”
“You’re very rich.” The woman smiled, but didn’t budge or stop swinging her legs. “You could replace it.”
Laine hated being reminded of her money. It made her feel guilty and dirty. She supposed that’s why she worked so hard at the foundation. She pounded out the first line of Pie Jesu and said, through gritted teeth, “Get off!”
And to her surprise, the woman did. Laine almost stopped playing, but after watching the woman wander down the aisle, her hands trailing along the pews, Laine turned her full attention to the music swirling through the chapel and, for a moment, she felt better than she had in weeks.
Walking down Lily Street past the turn-of-the-last-century mansions, Laine pulled her blazer close, as if by buttoning it she could hold in all her broken pieces. The suit hung on her. She’d had to pin the back of the skirt to keep it from sliding off. At least wool breathes, she told herself, refusing to consider that wool, heat, nerves and sweat could, and most assuredly, would, cause a smelly combination.
When had she lost so much weight? How had that happened? Had she discovered the miracle weight-loss program? Could she market it? The Lose Your Guy, Lose Your Gut diet?
Because she’d walked, she’d worn her flats, but stopping at the gate, watching her relatives, friends, and business associates climb from their cars in their suits, dresses, and heels, she considered going home and changing into something less worn. It’d seemed ridiculous to drive such a short distance, ridiculous to walk the three hilly blocks in heels, and it would be equally ridiculous to walk back and forth just to change her shoes. Of course, she could walk home and then drive for the return trip. But—then where would she park?
I’m stalling, she thought. Her eyes flicked over the cars lining the tiny street. This was supposed to be a private viewing, family and close friends only, and yet, somehow, her stepmother had managed to turn it into a celebrity photo opportunity. She told herself she wasn’t looking for Ian’s Mercedes, but she stopped checking the cars when he pulled up.
She stepped behind a mammoth rhododendron, and through the petals and branches, she watched him climb from his car. Despite the suit and graying hair at his temples, from a distance he looked nearly the same as he had in high school. Which just wasn’t right. She’d aged, why hadn’t he grown old beside her? The sprinklers had recently shut off and Laine’s flats sunk into a patch of mud. Her feet slipped slightly in the muck and she felt off balance and shaky.
A voice spoke in her ear. “Why are you hiding in that bush?”
Laine jumped and put her hand on her heart to slow its beating. She turned and scowled at the tiny woman at her elbow. “You!”
“You’ve got mud on your shoes and plant rubbish on your jacket.”
Laine looked down at her shoes and brushed twigs and petals off her blazer.
“I thought your outfit this morning was perhaps the ugliest thing I’d ever seen, but now,” her gaze swept over Laine, “I can see I was wrong.”
Laine cast Ian another look to make sure he hadn’t noticed her standing behind the bush and then whispered, “What’s wrong with my suit?”
“You mean besides the fact it’s ugly and must be incredibly itchy and hot? Well, for one thing, it doesn’t fit you. Where did you find it?”
“In my closet.”
“That explains a lot.” The woman fingered the pleats on her own blue silk dress. She’d changed her shoes. The red heels had been replaced with a pair of black pumps that would have been sedate if not for the faux diamonds on the toes. “You obviously need a new closet.”
“This is a viewing, not a fashion show.” Laine folded her arms, studied the woman and used the voice she only trotted out when donors tried to renege on their pledges. “Who are you? Did you work for my grandfather?”
The woman looked sly. “Sometimes.” So, that’s who she was—one of her grandfather’s girls. Laine didn’t deserve abuse from one of her grandfather’s ladies. She looked too young for even Sid. And she thought that it had been years since Sid’s Romeo days, but with her grandfather—it was hard to know who was who in his revolving love life.
Sid hadn’t been a paragon of virtue, but Laine had tried to live her life by a strict code. Insulting grieving granddaughters at funerals breached that code.
“Oh hello!” Ian called.
Laine’s head snapped up. Even from a distance, the timber in Ian’s voice made her quiver. She’d thought he’d seen her, thought he was speaking to her, but now she saw him cross the grounds, his arms open, his eyes kind, warm and generous—he could afford all those emotions now—as he approached a girl in a white sheath dress. Mary or Marie somebody from the reception desk. So much for family and close friends. But then Laine remembered, vaguely, something about Mary or Marie being related to Denis Openheimer, of the Openheimer Weiner fame. Of course, her stepmother would invite an Openheimer.
“Who wears white to a funeral?” the woman asked, before bringing her gaze back to Laine. “Although, it’s better than your frumpy suit.”
Laine turned away from Ian, not wanting to watch him embrace Mary or Marie, and looked at the woman just in time to see a fistful of mud flying.
“Hey!” Laine called out as the mud splattered across her chest. Clods of dirt stuck to her blouse as she pulled it out of her waistband, trying to prevent the mud from running down her skirt.
“I think the proper response would be ‘thank you’.”
“You’re welcome.” The woman brushed off her hands, spun on her heel, and headed toward the back entrance of Sid’s house. “Now, follow me.”
Laine looked down at the disaster of her shirt. “I will not follow you.”
The woman stopped in the driveway by the white catering van. “What, you’re going to walk three blocks to change into something equally dowdy? You’re going to risk being late or possibly even not showing your face at your grandfather’s viewing? Think of the gossip, the rumors. Everyone will know for sure that Ian’s left you. He will think you weren’t brave enough—”
“Stop it!” The words and emotions flew out of Laine’s iron-clad control.
A teenager holding a large pink pastry box stepped from around the corner of the van. “Ma’am?” He had freckles dotting his nose and he looked hurt and surprised by her outburst.
“Not you,” Laine said, her voice sounding weak. “I wasn’t talking to you. I was talking to—”
She looked around, but the tiny woman had disappeared.
The kid edged toward her, as if she were a wounded Doberman in need of help and yet still capable of doing serious injury. “Can I help you? Get you some water or something?”
Laine sighed and put her fingertips on either side of her temples. “Look, I hired your company.”
The kid began to back away from her. His hands, clutching the pastry boxes, turned white around the knuckles.
“I just…” Laine swallowed, following him. “There’s a short, blonde woman hanging around here. She’s about this high.” Laine held up her hand so it was even with her chin. “If you see her, I want you to come and get me immediately.” She’s going to pay, Laine thought, for at least my dry cleaning.
The mud seeped through her blouse and felt cold and oozy. What to do? Totter home, change into something, anything, clean? Go into town and buy something? She didn’t have her purse. She glanced at Sid’s house. It had rooms and rooms and closets full of stuff.
She looked out over the lawn. Ian stood on the front porch, pumping hands with Uncle Harry. Ian had on a dark, well cut, custom-made suit. Even as a teenager he’d been fashion conscious. Other girls had shopped with their boyfriends, selecting their clothes, dressing them as if they were the Ken to their Barbie. Laine had always been too busy studying, working on the student council, organizing the next fundraiser. Even then, she’d been raising money for somebody, or something else.
Laine stomped into her grandfather’s kitchen and the catering staff, who had been bustling around the counters and mammoth oak table turned to stare at her, their conversations and chatter coming to sudden and stunned stop.
“There’s a crazy short lady here,” Laine said. “If any of you see her, I want you to tell me immediately.”
Most of the staff gave her blank stares, but a few turned away, smirking. Short, crazy lady, Laine thought as she kicked off her muddy shoes. Yeah, right. Short and crazy are both subjective adjectives and could just as easily be applied to me.
Laine ran up the back stairs and turned into what was once her aunt Claire’s room. The room still smelled of violets, her aunt’s smell, and Laine’s heart clenched with the sudden memory. Softly, she closed the door behind her and went to sit on the bed. The room hadn’t been redecorated since the eighties. Tiny yellow and blue flowers covered everything—the walls, the bedspread, the host of pillows, the dress of the Cabbage Patch doll resting against the brass headboard.
What would happen now to Sid’s house, to Claire’s things? Why hadn’t she thought about this? Had anyone? Perhaps her stepmother and her dad had plans. Although, thinking and planning had never been their fortes.
Ian would now officially run the company. He’d been Sid’s puppet for years, until slowly, almost imperceptibly, he’d begun pulling the strings as Sid had aged. No one had expected Sid to live to ninety-seven, especially not his string of ex-wives. He’d outlived all his spouses and two of his children.
Thinking about spouses, exes and current, Laine unfolded from the bed and went to the closet. She had known her aunt Claire as a fussy old lady and didn’t expect to find anything other than flowery muumuus, Claire’s favorite daywear. A muumuu or a dirt crusted suit? Laine had to find something without mud clinging to it and she didn’t need a whole outfit. Her suit was fine, thank you very much. She just needed a blouse.
She glanced out the window and saw Ian talking to a circle of her employees from the foundation. Marie laughed and placed her hand on Ian’s sleeve. White heat flared through Laine and she closed her eyes against the pain and anger.
When she opened her eyes she saw a dress hanging in the closet. Long sleeves, high neck, black lace over a strapless taffeta under-bodice, a pleated band at the waist. The sort of thing she’d never buy.
She looked back out the window. Marie had on an impossibly short skirt, something no one over the age of thirty should ever wear. Allison, a mother of four children, had on a blouse that lifted when she moved her arms and exposed a bright strip of white belly. In a world of inappropriateness, Laine, the good daughter, the philanthropist, could wear a black lace dress.
She took off her suit, kicked it into the closet’s corner, and stepped into the dress. To her surprise, it didn’t smell of violets or mildew, but of Chanel Number 5. The lining felt luxurious against her skin and the lace clung slightly as she moved.
Considering her reflection in the mirror, she decided she couldn’t wear the muddy flats. Tearing into the shoe boxes on the closet shelf, she discovered black lace shoes with pearl buttons and three-inch heels. She couldn’t. She wouldn’t be able to walk. With the shoe box tucked under her arm, she went to the bed, sat down and slipped on the heels. They fit perfectly. Odd.
Looking at her herself in the mirror, she wondered when and where her aunt had bought the dress and matching shoes. She tried to imagine the woman she’d known, the wearer of shapeless muumuus and of the collector of Cabbage Patch dolls, wearing such a dress, wearing Chanel Number 5 perfume. There are so many things we don’t know about the people around us, even the people we love, she thought, and we pass so quickly through our lives, briefly colliding before sailing away.
On an impulse, she reached up and took the pins from her hair. Her curls spilled down her back. Remembering the handkerchief in her suit pocket, she drew it out and promised herself that she wouldn’t use it. No one would see her cry, but if they did, they would think she cried for Sid. Not Ian. Perhaps Ian would cry and she could magnanimously lend him her handkerchief and give him a condescending smile, accompanied by a conciliatory pat on the shoulder. She smiled at her reflection, braced her shoulders, and left the room.