Bayside Cemetery Queens, New York
As far back as Sloane McBride could remember, she’d been told she was an ice-queen. Even the people closest to her, especiallythe people closest to her, complained about her reserve. Her height, her physical appearance and her vocation didn’t make her any more approachable, so what served her well professionally worked against her personally. She heard people mutter words like “stuck up,” “aloof” or “distant”—and knew they were referring to her. No one seemed to understand that she hadn’t chosento be standoffish. That was simply a byproduct of what she’d been through.
She never talked about what she’d been through, however. If she could help it, she tried not to even thinkabout her childhood.
But she’d always known she’d have to go back to the small Texas town where she’d been raised eventually. And now that Clyde was gone, she didn’t feel as though she could continue running from the past. When she lost him, she’d lost her emotional safe haven here in the Hamptons, her excuse for remaining in New York. “God, I’m going to miss you,” she whispered and squatted as gracefully as she could in her black dress and heels to rearrange some of the flowers decorating his grave. Everyone who’d known him had lost a friend, and his funeral, which had packed the church to overflowing, proved it. But no one would feel the loss of his presence more than she would. He’d taken her under his wing from almost the first moment they met, when she was barely eighteen, and he’d never tried to change her, never criticized her, either. He’d just accepted her for who she was. Whenever she withdrew from one of his many parties, he’d often come find her, but he wouldn’t drag her back to the crowd she’d left. He’d simply squeeze her hand and say, “What are you thinking about?”
Sometimes she’d tell him and sometimes she wouldn’t, but he never pressed her, regardless. That was one of the things she’d loved about him. He’d say, “Still waters run deep” or something else that gave her permission to be comfortable in her own skin, and then he’d return to his other friends, where he would continue to talk and laugh until late in the night—simply winking at her if she happened to come into the room again.
She wasn’t ready to leave the cemetery, to leave him. Forever was much too long a walk to take without him. But his five children and their spouses—those who had spouses, anyway—stood nearby, whispering amongst themselves under the pavilion, and she guessed from their expressions they were growing disgruntled by the fact that she was lingering so long. They’d never approved of her relationship with their father. At the funeral, she’d heard Camille, the youngest, murmur to a family friend, “They hadto have been sleeping together. He was sodevoted to her. I got the impression he loved her as much as me or any of the rest of us children.”
“Of course they were sleeping together,” the friend had agreed.
Sloane had been tempted to inform them otherwise. Instead, she’d slid her sunglasses up higher on the bridge of her nose and tried to ignore them along with all the other people who were, no doubt, speculating about the same thing. Chances were they wouldn’t believe her even if she told them, but she hadn’t been the younger woman trying to take advantage of the rich, older man. Yes, there hadbeen twenty years between her and Clyde and, yes, they’d been very close. But Sloane had never slept with him. He’d never even hinted at any romantic interest. He’d been her friend, her confidant, her mentor, her modeling agent and even her landlord. She’d been living in the small cottage behind his mansion ever since he’d talked her into walking out of that coffee shop in Portland where she’d been working when he’d come to town for his ex-wife’s funeral. But he’d never been Sloane’s lover.
The size of the lump in her throat threatened to choke her as she straightened. But she had a lot to do, couldn’t focus on the loss or the pain. She’d survived thus far in life by always looking forward, never back, and the next few days would be busy. She had to pack up her belongings and move. Clyde’s estate would go to his heirs, the same group of people who were waiting for her to leave. They’d given her notice months ago that they planned to put the place up for sale as soon as he died.
She gripped her purse a bit tighter with her left hand while turning so that she could wave with her right. Facing Clyde’s family even for that brief moment wasn’t easy. She could feel the gale-force wind of their disapproval pressing her back, threatening to blow her right out of the cemetery.
Only a couple of them bothered to acknowledge her in return. Even then, the responses were half-hearted.
Doesn’t matter, she told herself. Clyde had loved them, which meant she’d always treat them kindly. She’d also abide by their wishes regarding the house. Even though she’d earned plenty of money since coming to New York and had tried to talk him out of it, Clyde had left herpart of his vast fortune. Not nearly as much as each of his kids but some. That was probably the reason they seemed to hate her even more since he died, but she was going to accept his gift just as he’d wanted her to. He’d said he was grateful for the hours of thoughtful conversation she’d provided over the years, the scuba diving trips they’d taken together to Hawaii, the atolls of the Maldives and Australia, the late-night laughter and all the hard things she’d had to do in order to care for him over the past fourteen months, while he battled bladder cancer. None of his children had been able to help for longer than a couple of hours here and there. They were too busy with their own lives. They’d suggested hiring a nurse, but Sloane had refused to leave his care to a stranger in case he’d feel as if, now that he was no longer able-bodied, he was to be cast aside while the rest of the world moved on. To avoid that, she’d given up her career. She’d hated knowing that his days were numbered, had wanted to spend as much time with him as possible. She probably wouldn’t have worked for much longer, anyway. Modeling wasn’t any fun without him. He was so good at shepherding her from one pinnacle in the high-fashion world to the next, she couldn’t imagine continuing with someone else, couldn’t bring herself to replace him. It was his intervention that had pulled her out of her desperate circumstances in the very beginning and had given her some semblance of a life—a life, as it turned out, that many people now envied. Representing brands like Prada, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana certainly sparkled on the outside. Sloane was grateful for what she’d achieved, but in this moment, it felt as though that chapter of her life—the New York chapter—had come to a close with Clyde’s death.
So she’d decided, finally, to close the chapter she never had—the Millcreek chapter. The one that she’d run away from so many years ago. She owed it to her mother.
And who could say? Maybe Sloane’s instincts had been wrong all along. Maybe she owed it to her father and brother to find the truth, too, and dispel all suspicion.
Her phone rang as she climbed into her Jaguar. Caller ID revealed a Texas area code.
She frowned as she stared down at it.
It had to be her new landlord. Other than Paige Patterson—Paige Evans now—her closest friend from high school who’d reconnected with her last year on social media, her landlord was the only person who knew she was returning to town.
Her finger hovered over the answer button. Just thinking about going back to Millcreek twisted her stomach into knots. Was she ready to return?
No, but she wasn’t sure she’d ever feel ready, and she doubted there would be a better time to do battle with her father. She’d come to a natural break in her career. She had the financial wherewithal to be able to live without an income. And, thanks to the strength she’d received from Clyde’s unwavering support, she now had the determination to finallyachieve the answers she sought—no matter what it meant.
At least she hoped she had the determination. Her father had trained her and her older brother to believe that loyalty mattered above all else—even truth. Would she be able to cross him?
After drawing a deep breath, she answered. “Hello?”
“Yes?” In the distance, she could see Clyde’s family gathering around his grave as though they’d been waiting for her to leave so they could approach.
“This is Guy Prinley.”
Her new landlord, as she’d assumed. Sloane willed herself to calm down. She’d have to cope much better if she planned to hold her own in Millcreek. “What can I do for you, Mr. Prinley? Don’t tell me you haven’t received my first and last month’s rent and security deposit. I sent it through PayPal yesterday morning.”
Two weeks ago, she’d gone online hoping to find a place to live in Millcreek when she returned. Clyde had been so weak. She’d known he was down to days, maybe hours, and that she’d have to move soon. But there hadn’t been much available in her hometown and nothing set off by itself, space she would need if she planned to retain both her resolve and her sanity. She’d thought she might have to buy a house—or build one—which would take so long and be such a hassle. But then she’d spoken to Paige, who’d mentioned that Hazel Woods, Sloane’s former piano teacher, a woman now in her eighties, was going into assisted living, and her son-in-law—this Guy Prinley—was planning to rent her secluded Spanish pueblo-style two-bedroom, two-bath home, which also had a large music studio. Sloane was sold the minute she heard the place also had a newly designed kitchen and wide patios that were heavily shaded by the same vines and trees that all but hid the house.
“I have,” he said. “I’m just calling to let you know that I’ve sent it back.”
“Sent it back?” she echoed.
“Yeah, I…I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that my wife already had someone else who was interested.”
Sloane stiffened in her leather seat. Being interested didn’t necessarily mean the house had been taken in advance, so why would he back out on her? “Excuse me? I signed the lease you emailed to me before I sent the money. You got that, too, right?”
He cleared his throat, seemed uncomfortable. “I got it, but…look, I don’t know what to say. I can’t rent the house to you, okay?”
“You already have!”
“You signed only yesterday. It’s not as though you’ve even had time to pack. You can find something else. I’m not sure those electronic signature things are legally binding, anyway.”
“I don’t want to find something else. And those electronic signatures are definitely binding, Mr. Prinley. No one in real estate would be able to use them, otherwise. So please, tell me what’s really going on. This doesn’t make any sense.”
“I’ll have to call you back,” he said and disconnected before she could express her full outrage.
Sloane dropped her phone in her lap. She didn’t have the emotional fortitude to deal with something like this today. She’d just buried her best friend!
She pressed a hand to her forehead as she sat there, wondering what to do—until she noticed the way Clyde’s family kept glancing over at her. Apparently, they were bothered to see she hadn’t left.
“Oh, for God’s sake! I’m going, I’m going,” she grumbled, and used her Bluetooth to call Paige as she backed out of the parking space.
“Hey, are you in town already?” Paige asked.
Sloane adjusted her air-conditioning vent to hit her more directly. “No. I’m still in New York.”
“Then you’re coming this weekend?”
“Actually, I’m not sure anymore.”
“What do you mean? You rented a house here.”
“That’s the problem. It’s not clear whether I have the house. I just got a weird call from the guy who leased it to me.”
“Weird in what way?”
“He was basically telling me I don’thave it, that his wife already promised it to someone else.”
“Has the other person also signed a lease?”
“I have no idea.”
“Because if you’re the only one who’s signed, it’s yours. He can’t change his mind.”
“That’s what I told him!”
“What’d he say then?”
“Nothing. He got off the phone really fast.”
There was a slight pause. “So what are you going to do?”
Sloane rubbed her left temple as she drove. The tightness in her throat and chest, the pressure of unshed tears, was giving her a headache. “I don’t know.” She recalled the dirty looks she’d received from Clyde’s kids and couldn’t help feeling hurt. “I have to be out of the place where I’m living as soon as possible, but I’d rather not move twice in one month. Moving is hard enough as it is.”
“Why don’t you come here? Lay over at my house? You can deal with that stupid landlord—or finding another place, if it comes to that—after you get here. It’ll be much easier when you’re not trying to do it from so far away.”
The lump in Sloane’s throat swelled even bigger. She was tempted to jump at Paige’s kind offer, but she also felt guilty. Once she’d graduated from high school, she’d walked away from Paige the same as she’d walked away from everyone else—without a backward glance. She’d had to cut all ties to Millcreek, or she knew she’d never really escape. Her father would use those she cared about to manipulate her if he could.
But Paige and any others she’d hurt didn’t understand the terrible choice she’d had to make or why she’d made it. Paige could have someinkling, since they’d talked about Sloane’s mother on occasion, but she could hardly identify with the deep-seated suspicion that’d eaten at Sloane ever since she was five years old. “Are you positive you have room for me?”
“Sloane, I’m divorced. Micah left me the house. He gave me everything—far more than I asked for.”
Mention of Micah Evans made Sloane’s hands tighten on the steering wheel. She couldn’t help but feel his name right in her gut—even after all this time. He’d married Paige only months after Sloane left Millcreek. Her boyfriend and her best friend—such a cliché, and yet, she’d never seen it coming. She should have, she supposed. She’d known that Paige had a thing for Micah, could tell by the way she’d acted whenever he was around. But a lot of the girls at school had had a crush on him. Why wouldn’t they? He was the boy who had it all—looks, personality, intelligence and athletic ability in a state where football was everything. It was just that Sloane had never imagined he’d suddenly take an interest in Paige; he’d seemed so indifferent to her before.
What had gone wrong in their marriage? Sloane was curious, but she couldn’t ask. That was one subject she was fairly certain she and Paige would neverbe able to discuss. She’d left them both without a word and without ever contacting them again, so they’d moved on with their lives. Sloane couldn’t fault either one of them for getting married and even having a child together, no matter how much it hurt. But, considering their history, wouldn’t they all feel a little—or a lot—uncomfortable?
“I can get a hotel,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to invade your son’s space.”
“No way would I ever let you go to a hotel,” Paige said. “Trevor’s nine. He’ll see it as a grand adventure. And I would love the chance to spend some quality time with you. I’ve missed you,” she added, more softly.
Since she was stopped at a light, Sloane allowed herself to close her eyes for a brief moment in an effort to stem the tears that were finally trickling down her cheeks. She’d missed Paige, too. Terribly. Because she’d never been close to her father or her brother, and her mother had disappeared when she was so young, Paige had been almost like a sister. But Sloane couldn’t allow herself to feel that longing, to acknowledge the pain of their extended separation, because it could and would influence her ability to stand strong against her father.
Someone honked behind her. The light had turned green. With a quick glance in the rearview mirror, she gave the Jaguar some gas. “I wouldn’t want to put you out,” she said to Paige. She wouldn’t want to come to depend on her friend’s support, either. She needed to be able to leave again, when she was ready, couldn’t allow herself to fall into the kind of emotional quicksand that could so easily suck her in and make it that much harder. Leaving ten years ago had been the most difficult thing she’d ever done; she wasn’t interested in making that hurdle any more difficult to clear.
“Life is short,” Paige said. “What matters are the people we care about. Come stay with me. Let me help you get situated here.”
Sloane could almost feel Clyde nudging her to embrace the opportunity. He’d always been so much better with people, always ventured forward when she held back. She needed to gamble more often, perhaps, but it wasn’t wise for her to risk making tight connections, especially in Millcreek where her future was so uncertain.
Despite her reservations, she heard herself agree. After what Paige had just said, it would be rude to insist on getting a hotel, and she was glad for the chance to possibly rebuild their relationship, at least to the point that she no longer cringed when she remembered how difficult things had been between them their senior year.
Once the decision had been made, she felt an exciting yet frightening blend of anticipation buoy her spirits. “I can’t wait to meet Trevor,” she said, and that was true, even though she understood it would also be painful. Had she stayed in Millcreek, she might’ve married Micah and been the one to bear him a child…
“He’s such a sweet boy,” Paige said, her voice filled with the affection she felt for her son. “I predict you’ll love him.”
Did he look like his father?
She’d soon find out.
“It’ll take me a few days to get packed. I’ll rent a storage unit in Dallas for my stuff and will bring only a suitcase to your place. Then, when I figure out what’s going on with the house I supposedly rented, or I’m able to get a different one, I’ll have everything delivered.”
“What will you do with your car?”
“I’ll drive it.”
“All the way to Texas? That’ll take forever!”
“I don’t have to do it in one or even two days. I’ll stop and spend the night whenever I get tired.”
“If that’s what you want…”
Sloane could use all of those hours to prepare for what lay ahead. “I really appreciate you helping me out.”
“It’s no problem. You’re welcome here. You’ll alwaysbe welcome here.”
“I should arrive in a week or ten days. I’ll call with the exact date as it gets closer.”
Sloane was about to hang up when Paige stopped her.
“Does your father know you’re coming?”
Sloane almost said, “Not yet.” She hadn’t told him. But she had a sneaking suspicion that word might’ve traveled back to him. Her father was an important man in town—the most important. That she’d run away at eighteen and hadn’t been seen again, except in the pages of various fashion magazines, would be big news in such a small place. Her father had probably told everyone she was just like her mother—flighty, undependable, selfish, vain. He’d characterized Clara that way so many times; Sloane knew “being like her mother” wasn’t a positive thing.
Anyway, if someone in town had learned she was coming back, it was likely Ed would be informed. Guy Prinley might even have been the one to tell him. That could explain why Mr. Prinley was trying to back out of renting her the house. It would be like her father to do all he could to punish her for “turning against him” in the first place.
“I won’t mention it,” Paige said, interpreting Sloane’s silence as a no.
Sloane turned down the long drive that wound around Clyde’s sprawling French Tudor to her own Tudor-style bungalow. “There’s nothing he could do to you for letting me stay with you, is there?”
“Excuse me? Why would he do anything to me?”
Paige owned Little Bae Bae, a boutique downtown that sold toys, clothing and furniture for infants and toddlers. She wasn’t beholden to Ed for her job or anything else that Sloane was aware of.
“He wouldn’t. Never mind. Clyde’s funeral was today. I’m not myself. Let me call you later.”
“Okay,” she said and Sloane disconnected. She hated to think her father might’ve tried to stop her from getting the Woods house, but now that she’d acknowledged the possibility, she couldn’t quit mulling it over.
Especially because there’d always been something about Ed, some lack of feeling or conscience, that frightened her…