As Maddie Aims maneuvered her sleek red Porsche through the center of Felton, Georgia, the question ran through her head like a broken record. Why? She scrutinized her surroundings, taking in the details, the sights, the sounds, the smells of the place—as if the answer were written here in the streets of her hometown.
At first she noticed only those things that had remained the same—Felton Square, the hodgepodge of stores and offices clustered along Main Street, the Baptist church, perched on a slope of land that marked the rise of the mountains behind the town, and the park, with the daffodils swaying in the gentle March breeze and the trees eager to burst into an array of soft greens.
Memories—good and bad—crowded her thoughts, vying for her attention. She’d spent her first seventeen years in this town. A lifetime ago.
She pulled her car into one of the angled parking spaces facing the park and switched off the ignition.
Then she sat a moment, a bit overwhelmed. The gazebo, surrounded by bright yellow tulips, caught her eye. Her thoughts drifted back to the night she and Nick had hidden from the sheriff underneath its freshly painted floorboards. She smiled at the memory and was tempted to go see whether a certain section of latticework was still loose.
Then her mood darkened, and she restarted the car. She didn’t want to think about Nick Ryan. She had enough to deal with right now, without dwelling on the past.
As she drove away from the park, she put Nick out of her mind and began to notice the changes in the town. Small, subtle things. There was a new video store between Dell’s Bakery and Collier’s Grocery, and the Felton Theater had six screens, instead of one. Randles Hardware had become Randles and Son, while the motel at the edge of town had been converted into an upscale bar and grill.
Evidently, time had not forgotten Felton. Even in this small town, lost in the north Georgia mountains, things could change. The thought reassured Maddie as she turned into Felton’s tree-lined residential area. Maybe things would be different with her mother, as well.
But when she pulled into the driveway of her mother’s house on Peachtree Lane, her confidence slipped away. For here, the march of time had stopped. She shut off the engine but made no move to get out of her car. The large house loomed before her with its clean white paint and perfectly manicured yard, looking exactly as it had the last time she’d seen it.
Sixteen years ago.
Opening the car door, she stepped out into the bright March sunlight. The air was cool and crisp and filled with the pungent smell of evergreen. She took a deep breath. This was one of the few things she’d missed about home—the clear, clean mountain air.
She leaned into the car and grabbed her purse. When she’d arrived in Felton last night, she’d phoned to tell her mother that she was in town and planned on stopping over this morning. Not surprisingly, Adelia hadn’t sounded particularly pleased at the prospect of a visit from her long-lost daughter. It had been months since they’d spoken, and years since they’d seen each other.
Still, Adelia was her mother, and because Maddie was in Felton, she knew she’d have to see Adelia at least once. Besides, there were things her mother had a right to know.
Adjusting her purse strap, Maddie made it up the walkway and onto the front porch before her courage deserted her. She considered opening the door and walking in, but quickly dismissed the idea. Taking a deep breath, she knocked.
After a few moments, a small dark woman opened the door. “Yes?” she said. “May I help you?”
“Hello.” Maddie forced a smile. “I’m Maddie Aims. Is my mother at home?”
The woman’s surprise was obvious. It made Maddie wonder if Adelia had bothered to inform her maid about her daughter’s imminent arrival.
“Who is it, Frances?” came an all-too-familiar voice from the direction of the sitting room.
That voice, cold as a late-winter frost, sent a chill down Maddie’s spine. She almost told Frances “never mind.” She didn’t need to talk to her mother in person. The phone would do, as it had in the past. She could get through the next few months without any help from the Ice Queen.
But Maddie was here, so she might as well go through with it. Pulling herself together, she brushed past the maid and headed toward her mother’s sitting room. “It’s me, Mother. Maddie.” She stopped on the threshold of the room and waited as Adelia rose from her chair.
It jarred Maddie to see how little her mother had changed. She was still the tall stately widow. A little grayer and thinner, perhaps, but time had been kind to her. She still looked like the Adelia Aims Maddie remembered. “Hello, Mother.”
Adelia said nothing, but stood ramrod straight, one hand braced against the back of a nearby chair, the expression in her pale blue eyes unreadable.
“May I come in?” Maddie asked. This was Adelia’s room, and for as long as Maddie could remember, it had been off-limits to her except at her mother’s invitation.
Adelia gave a start, as if the sound of Maddie’s voice had surprised her. “Of course.” She edged away from the chair, but didn’t release her hold on it. “This is your home, too.”
Maddie knew better than to believe that. She’d stopped thinking of this as her home around the time she’d turned twelve, when she’d gone to live with her father. Even when she was forced to come back after his death, this house had remained Adelia’s.
“Come in,” Adelia repeated, though she still made no move toward her daughter.
Maddie braced herself and stepped into the room slowly, absorbing the details of her mother’s sanctuary. Like Adelia, the room remained unchanged. Adelia’s taste had always run toward delicate, expensive furniture covered in muted floral pastels. No doubt there had been some refurbishment, new wallpaper and draperies, possibly new upholstery, but basically, the room looked the same as it had sixteen years ago.
Maddie preferred her Miami condominium. She loved the clean straight lines, the uncluttered surfaces, and the white-on-white with just a splash of bold color. She knew her mother would hate it.
“Nothing’s changed,” Adelia said as if to reassure her daughter.
Maddie took a seat on the settee across from Adelia’s chair. “I can see that.” But it wasn’t the room that Maddie referred to. It was her mother, and the coolness of her response to the daughter she hadn’t seen in years.
Adelia remained standing, and Maddie noticed the way she unconsciously pulled at the seam on the top of her chair. It seemed an odd thing for her mother to do. Adelia never fidgeted.
“You look well, Madeleine,” Adelia said, abruptly changing the direction of Maddie’s thoughts.
“Yes.” Adelia lifted her free hand to rest against the collar of her ivory silk blouse, making Maddie suddenly aware of her own shoddy appearance.
Glancing down at her gray sweats and tennis shoes, she apologized before she could stop herself. “I’m sorry. I should have changed. But I . . .” She hated this compulsion she had to automatically offer an explanation. “I haven’t unpacked yet.”
Adelia nodded, her face an impassive mask, and Maddie knew her apology had fallen on deaf ears. The old resentment rose like bile in her throat, and she found herself remembering all the reasons she’d avoided her mother for the past sixteen years. All the arguments. All the tears. She had the strongest urge to get up and walk out. It would save them both a lot of anguish.
Then the sequence of events that had brought her home clambered to the surface of her thoughts, and she realized that nothing her mother might say could touch her. With the weight of Roger’s indecision still heavy on her heart, nothing else mattered. Except the joy. She slid her hand to the small swell of her stomach.
Finally Adelia moved around the chair to sit. “Why the sudden visit?”
“I’m not here for a visit.”
Adelia carefully folded her hands in her lap. “Oh?”
“No.” She met her mother’s cool blue gaze and kept her voice even. “I’m planning to stay in Felton for a while.”
“Really. How long?”
Maddie shifted uncomfortably, suddenly uncertain how to break her news. “I’m not sure.”
“Would you like some tea?” Adelia asked. “Or coffee, perhaps? Frances is a fine cook and she made some fresh pastries this morning.”
“Yes.” Maddie breathed a sigh of relief at the temporary reprieve. “Either would be fine.”
“Frances,” Adelia called as she stood and moved toward the hallway, where the maid appeared. “Bring us a tray, please. Coffee?” She glanced back at Maddie for confirmation. “And some of those wonderful croissants you made this morning.”
Frances headed for the kitchen, and Adelia stood in the doorway for a moment, before turning to reenter the room. She smiled at Maddie, the same stiff smile Maddie had seen a thousand times over the years—the smile Adelia used whenever she had to deal with any unpleasantness.
Maddie deserted the couch and moved to the window, keeping her back to her mother as they waited for the coffee. Again, she questioned her sudden decision to return to Felton. Oh, she understood why she’d left Miami. But why come here? Why come to Felton when she could have gone anywhere? And in particular, why had she decided to visit her mother when it would have been simpler to call?
They’d never been close. Even as a child, Maddie had always been her father’s daughter. When Adelia had kicked her husband out of her house, Maddie had screamed and fought until they let her live with him. After that, Maddie and Adelia’s relationship had only become worse.
Unconsciously, she let her hand again stray to her stomach.
Two weeks ago, she’d returned to Miami from a business trip overseas, feeling sicker than she could ever remember. Afraid that she’d picked up some exotic bug in her travels, she’d gone in to see her doctor. His diagnosis had been the last thing she’d expected. Then she and Roger had argued. Although it wasn’t an argument, really. Just a discussion that had left her dreams for their future shattered into a million pieces. That was when her blood pressure had soared through the roof, and her doctor told her to stop working and get some rest. In a matter of fourteen short days, days that seemed more like a lifetime, her world had come unraveled.
Maybe that was the reason she’d returned to Felton. She’d come back to the familiar. And that included Adelia.
When Frances delivered the tray, Maddie returned to her seat. Adelia poured and handed the first cup to Maddie, whose stomach churned at the strong aroma. She should have asked for tea. Setting the cup aside, she decided she’d postponed the inevitable long enough.
“I’ll be here six or seven months. Eight at the most.”
“I see.” Adelia returned the silver pot to its tray and picked up the plate of pastries, offering them to Maddie.
“Thank you.” Maddie took one, hoping to still the queasiness in her stomach.
Adelia picked up her cup and took a sip of coffee. Then she said, “I suppose you’ll be staying at the house Davis left you.” She refused to refer to her deceased husband any other way than by his first name. He was never “my husband” or “your father.” He was just “Davis.”
Maddie hated that.
“Yes, I’ll be staying at Father’s house.”
“What kind of trouble are you in?” Putting down her cup, Adelia leaned back and folded her hands in her lap. “Have you lost your job? Do you need money?”
Maddie returned the untouched pastry to the table. “What makes you think I’m in trouble?”
“Why else would you have come back?”
Maddie had always made excuses for not returning home to the cold atmosphere of her mother’s house. She knew it, and so did Adelia.
“I haven’t lost my job. I’ve taken an extended leave of absence. And I have enough money to carry me through.” She didn’t know why she didn’t just blurt it out. She’d always prided herself on her directness. But not with her mother. Never with her mother.
Adelia retrieved her coffee cup. “Of course, it will be nice to have you in town for a while.”
Silence filled the room, and Maddie knew her time had run out. She couldn’t put off telling her mother any longer. “Mother.” This time she met Adelia’s ice blue gaze and forced her voice to remain steady. “I’m going to have a baby.”
Adelia froze, cup in hand. Then, after what seemed an eternity, she set down her coffee and almost missed the edge of the table, catching the fragile china just in time. “A baby?”
Maddie nodded, her voice suddenly caught somewhere between her lungs and her lips.
“Well, I . . .” Adelia clenched her hands in her lap, but not before Maddie saw them tremble. “A baby,” she repeated, pressing her lips together, while letting her gaze drift around the room. For a few moments, Maddie thought she saw a faint shimmer of moisture in her mother’s eyes. Then Adelia focused on her daughter, and Maddie realized her mistake.
“Of all things.” Adelia’s words were no more than a whisper, but they were rife with disapproval. “How could you?”
The question stunned Maddie. “How could I?” Then anger replaced her surprise. “How could I what, Mother? Become pregnant? Or embarrass you?”
Maddie propelled herself off the couch and returned to the window, hugging herself tightly. She’d been wrong. Her mother’s criticism still stung. And she suddenly realized with blinding clarity why she’d come home.
“That’s not what I meant,” her mother said.
Maddie forced back her tears. Somewhere deep inside, she’d hoped her mother would help her deal with the sorrow and the joy this unborn child had brought her. She should have known better. Adelia had never thought of anyone but herself. Maddie turned to glare at her mother. “Then what did you mean?”
“You’re not a child. How could you have allowed such a thing to happen?” Adelia lifted her chin as if to emphasize her words. “There’s no excuse for it today.”
“You’re assuming, Mother, that it was an accident.”
The statement stopped Adelia cold, as if she couldn’t imagine planning such a thing. But it had been an accident. A crazy accident that Maddie couldn’t be sorry about. Even though it scared her. Even though it had made Roger turn away from her.
“What about the father?” Adelia asked.
What about Roger?
A fresh wave of nausea churned Maddie’s stomach, and she grabbed the back of the couch to steady herself. He didn’t know if he wanted her anymore. He wasn’t sure he could deal with being a husband and father.
“What about the father?” Adelia asked again, more insistently this time.
Burying her fear, Maddie kept her voice steady. “We’re not together right now.”
“Not together. What does that mean?”
“What do you think it means?” Maddie snapped.
Silence. Again. Maddie felt locked in the hard glare of her mother’s eyes.
“Have you thought this through, Madeleine?” Adelia asked. “Have you considered the consequences?”
Maddie lifted her chin, refusing to flinch under Adelia’s iron scrutiny. “I’m thirty-three years old, Mother.”
“This is the twenty-first century, not 1950.” Maddie crossed her arms, refusing to give ground and let her mother see the turmoil within her. “I don’t care what people say about me.”
Adelia shook her head. “It’s not that. Raising a child alone is difficult. Ask me. I know.”
Maddie circled the couch and sat down on the edge. Despite her fear, she held on to her joy like a lifeline. And she wasn’t going to let anyone take it away. “Mother. I want this baby.”
Adelia sat without speaking for several moments, her hands still clenched in her lap. “Well,” she finally said, her words falling like chipped ice, “it looks like nothing’s changed.
You are still your father’s daughter, doing what you want no matter what the consequences.”
“You’re right, Mother. I haven’t changed.” Maddie stood, once again wrapping herself in an invisible cloak of indifference. “And neither have you.”
Later, alone in her father’s house, Maddie let the tears flow unchecked. Wrapped in an afghan, she sat curled in the rocker she’d carried upstairs from the living room. The windows stood open, and she welcomed the feel of the cool night air against her skin. It was nearly midnight, and it seemed as if the rest of the world slept.
What had she expected from Adelia?
It was an old question, an old disappointment. But it still had the power to hurt. She knew better than to expect anything from her mother. And yet, she’d come here thinking, hoping, things might be different between them.
It was obviously too much to ask.
“So what do you think, Baby?” Maddie whispered to the child growing inside her. “Should we stay in Felton?”
Maddie closed her eyes and pictured her baby as it must look now. It would be about the size of Maddie’s closed hand, with soft nails on its fingers and toes, and hair just beginning to appear on its head. A couple of weeks ago, Maddie had known nothing about pregnancy. Since then, she’d devoured several books on the subject, familiarizing herself with each phase of her baby’s development.
“I know it’s a little scary,” Maddie continued in a low voice. “Being alone right now.” Without your father.
Again, fear and loneliness washed over her. She’d wanted so much from Roger. Maybe too much. “I’ll manage,” she said aloud. She had this house and enough money put aside to last awhile. “No matter what Roger decides.”
She glanced at the phone by the bed. Maybe she should call, just to tell him she’d arrived safely. Then she shook her head and turned to gaze back out the bedroom window. No. He’d said he needed time. Time to decide whether he was ready to be a husband and father. Even though they’d lived together for the past three years, he’d said he wasn’t sure he could deal with commitment. And she’d had no choice but to give him the time he’d asked for.
She pressed her hands against her abdomen, trying to communicate her love to her unborn child. How long before she would feel movement? The books said another two months. It seemed an eternity. Maddie smiled, thinking how miraculous it would be to hold her baby in her arms. It would make all the problems she faced worth it. And how much more wonderful if Roger came to her, ready and willing to stand by her side? But if he didn’t, maybe this child would help her forget as she made a place for the two of them.
“Jon!” Nick Ryan called as he stored away the last of his tools. “Are you done?”
Nick closed his toolbox while listening for his son’s reply. When none came, he crossed the room and stepped outside. He glanced around the yard, but Jon was nowhere in sight. Stepping off the porch, Nick headed around to the side of the house where his teenage son was supposed to be working.
“Jonathan!” he called again, irritated when he saw the pile of lumber still lying in the yard. It looked untouched. “Damn it!” He’d had just about enough of the boy’s laziness.
Nick walked around back where the yard abruptly ended at the edge of evergreen woods. As he’d suspected, he found Jon sitting on a log, scribbling in that damn notebook of his. Nick would give a lot to see the contents of the thing; the boy carried it with him everywhere. For now, though, there was work left unfinished.
“I thought I told you to put that lumber in the shed,” Nick said.
At the sound of his father’s voice, Jon jumped to his feet and quickly closed his notebook. “I was going to do it,” he said defensively.
“When?” Nick glanced at his watch before dropping his hands to the waistband of his jeans. “I told you to do it three hours ago. And now I need to get back to the office.”
Jon rolled his notebook, shoved it in his back pocket, and boldly met Nick’s gaze. “Sorry,” he mumbled, and started to walk past his father toward the pile of lumber.
Nick snagged his arm as he went by, and Jon turned, his eyes sparking with more than teenage rebellion. Nick’s irritation melted into pain. The boy’s dark eyes were so like Diana’s, while the anger Nick saw in them was so like his own.
“Jon,” he said softly, wanting desperately to reach his son, this boy who’d become a stranger. “I know you’re hurting. We both are.”
Jon remained defiantly silent.
Nick nodded toward the house. “I thought we’d agreed that finishing the house together would help us both.”
“I never agreed to anything.” Jon yanked his arm from his father’s grasp. “You decided for both of us.”
Nick shook his head. “It’s what your mother would have wanted.”
“My mother’s dead.”
“You’re not the only one who misses her.” Nick reined in his churning emotions. “She was my wife, remember? That’s why I thought this house—”
“Mom hated this house!”
“That’s not true,” Nick said.
“It is true. And she hated this town. She only stayed so you could feel like a big shot.”
“That’s enough.” Nick’s anger rose, replacing the helplessness he felt when dealing with Jon. “I’m your father, and I won’t have you talking to me that way.”
The boy was beyond caring. “It’s your fault!”
Nick’s anger collapsed, deflated by the agony in Jon’s eyes and the fear that maybe he was right.
“If you hadn’t dragged us to this hick town, she wouldn’t have started drinking.” Jon’s agitation grew to near hysteria, and his voice cracked ominously. “You killed her.”
The accusation fell like a dark impenetrable wall between them. Diana’s death had brought them to this impasse. And Nick didn’t know if there was anything he could do about it.
No! He shook his head. He wouldn’t give up. On either of them.
“Jon.” He reached out to touch his son, but Jon took a step out of reach, tears brimming in his eyes.
“I hate you!” he screamed, and tore off in the direction of the road.
“Jon, wait!” But the boy kept running. Nick suppressed the impulse to go after him, to try reasoning with him once again. What could he say that he hadn’t already said a dozen times? How could he defend himself against an accusation that had buried itself in his soul with the sharp sting of truth? How could he help the boy when he wasn’t even sure he could help himself?
Nick walked over to the pile of lumber, his thoughts on his wife. Diana had missed Atlanta. He’d known that. But there hadn’t been anything he could do about it. They’d come to Felton when her father had suffered a heart attack. Ted Eagen had needed someone to care for his medical practice while he recovered. Who better than the son-in-law to whom he’d been a mentor and put through medical school?
But even after Ted had been back on his feet for months, getting stronger every day, he wasn’t ready for his daughter’s family to leave. They were all he had. Nick understood.
Although in truth, Nick admitted to himself now, he hadn’t been ready to leave, either. He’d come back to the place of his childhood and found his home.
So he’d stalled Diana, telling her they’d return to Atlanta soon. He hadn’t known how serious the situation had become—the drinking or her hatred of Felton. He’d been blind, and she’d paid the price. And he couldn’t get past the fact that he could have prevented it.
If only he’d been paying attention.
But it wasn’t too late for Jon.
Maybe the time had come to leave Felton. He could pack up and take Jon back to Atlanta. Ted wouldn’t be happy about it. But what good would it do any of them to stay if Ted and Nick lost the boy in the process?
Fifteen minutes later, Nick climbed into his truck and picked up his cell phone. He called his office, and Bette answered on the third ring. “Doctors’ office. May I help you?”
“Bette,” Nick said to his nurse, “I’m running about a half hour late. Can you ask Ted to cover for me?”
“Sure thing, Doctor.”
“Thanks.” Nick braced his head with his hand, rubbing at the headache building behind his eyes. “Where would I be without you?”
“Probably in some sewer somewhere.”
It was an old joke, and Nick laughed shortly, although there was no humor in it. “See you in a while.” He disconnected, started his truck, and headed down the dirt road, watching for Jon. When he saw him, Nick breathed a sigh of relief, grateful for once at his son’s predictability. Jon was walking along the road, heading for the highway. He’d probably convinced himself he was going to walk the three miles back to Felton.
Nick stopped the truck alongside the boy and leaned over to open the passenger door. “Get in, son.”
Jon glared at him, and Nick noticed the smears on his face where he’d wiped away his tears. The sight brought a fresh ache to Nick’s soul. He hadn’t a clue what this boy needed. What either of them needed.
“Come on,” he added, suddenly exhausted. “I took care of the lumber.”
Jon hesitated a moment longer before climbing into the truck and slamming the door behind him. Nick bit back the automatic admonishment that sprang to his lips. Complaining about slamming doors wouldn’t get him anywhere. So Nick took a deep breath and put the truck into gear.
Damn it, Diana, he silently cursed. Your son needs you. I need you.