Cora Kelly had never met her birth mother.
The records had been sealed when she was adopted as a newborn twenty-eight years ago. Her adoptive mother didn’t even know her birth mother’s name, so it wasn’t as if Lilly Kelly had ever mentioned it. Cora had had very little to go on. Even with two different attorneys, a website designed to help families reconnect and a private investigator who’d taken her case for free since he was an adoptee himself and did what he could, in his spare time, to help others who’d been through the same thing, it’d taken six long years to glean the information she craved. But here she was, only moments away from coming face-to-face, for the first time since the day she was born, with the woman who’d brought her into this world.
Would she like her mother? Would they resemble each other more in person than in the one picture she’d seen? Would Aiyana Turner somehow recognize her for who she was?
Those questions churned in Cora’s mind, making her stomach churn, as well. But one question weighed heavier than the others: Was she making a mistake?
Wiping her palms on her slacks, she told herself to calm down. As far as Aiyana knew, they were only meeting to talk about Cora’s new job working as an art instructor at New Horizons Boys Ranch, a boarding school for troubled teens, ages fourteen to eighteen, ninety minutes outside LA. No way would Aiyana have any reason to suspect Cora’s true identity. And Cora didn’t plan to tell her who she was. Not today. Maybe not ever. That was why she’d sought this job—and accepted it. So she’d have the chance to see what she might be getting into before making that decision.
Hopefully, her mother would be someone she could admire, at least. From what she could tell, Aiyana had done a lot to help teenage boys who acted out, some who’d been orphaned as well as many who hadn’t. Her work as executive administrator of the school she’d founded twenty years ago seemed to be her one true love. She’d never been married, and she’d never had any more of her own children. According to a newspaper article honoring Aiyana on the anniversary of the date the boys ranch opened, something the private detective who finally solved the mystery of Aiyana’s identity had provided, Aiyana had adopted quite a few of the residents who’d come to the school through the years—eight of them, so far. The oldest, Elijah Turner, was now a man in his early thirties. He helped run New Horizons. Cora knew because he was the person who’d interviewed and then hired her. That was why she hadn’t yet met Aiyana. Aiyana had been out of town when Cora came two weeks ago.
“I’m sorry it’s taking a few moments. Ms. Turner is on an unexpected but important call.” The receptionist, a gray-haired woman who had to be in her sixties, smiled kindly as she imparted this apology. “I can’t imagine it’ll be much longer.”
Hauling in a deep breath, Cora smiled. “It’s fine. I don’t mind waiting.” She didn’t mind, except that she was beginning to fear she’d have a heart attack right there outside of Aiyana Turner’s office. Somehow, she had to stem her anxiety…
“Are you too warm, dear? I can turn down the air…”
She glanced up at the receptionist again—and realized she’d been fanning herself. “Um…no. I’m okay, thanks,” she said and dropped her hand.
“It’s been hot this summer.”
“Yes, it’s particularly warm today,” Cora said, but it was generally worse where she lived in Burbank. Along with Jill, her best friend, Cora rented a small condo just outside of Hollywood, where her adoptive parents still owned the lovely four-bedroom home where she’d been raised.
She felt a twinge of guilt when she thought of her parents, Brad and Lilly. They’d been good to her, treated her just like her brother, who was two years older and their biological child. They wouldn’t be pleased that she’d landed this job if they knew the driving force behind it.
Don’t think about that. What they don’t know can’t hurt them. It would be premature to drag them into this, anyway, since she had no idea where it might go. For all she knew, it wouldn’t go anywhere. And maybe that was for the best. Several years ago, when she’d first mentioned that she’d like to find her birth mother, Brad and Lilly had acted shocked and disappointed. They’d taken it personally, didn’t understand that they didn’t do anything to cause the emptiness inside her and weren’t the ones who could fix it. The hole was just there, and Cora felt it would be until she could figure out where she came from, who she was and where she belonged.
She hoped this would help. Her boyfriend—ex-boyfriend since she’d broken up with him last month—claimed it was her personal problems that’d destroyed their two-year relationship. He said she needed to let go of her past and move on, that she could be opening Pandora’s box.
He could be right. But it was too late to change her plans. She’d already made a yearlong commitment to New Horizons. Today’s meeting with Aiyana was merely a formality—an orientation, of sorts. Cora had given notice that she’d be vacating her condo at the end of the month, at which point her friend would get a new roommate and she’d move to Silver Springs, a town of only 5,000 people located slightly east of Santa Barbara.
After spending her whole life in the big city, Cora wasn’t sure she’d like living in such a rural area, but if she had to pick a small town, this one wasn’t bad. Known for its robust arts community, the renovation of its downtown, its clean water, green energy, recreation and quaint small businesses, there was a lot to recommend it. Life was just slower. Those who didn’t grow up here came to retire, raise a family in a “safe place” or enjoy the beauty of the surrounding mountains—
Cora’s heart jumped into her throat. The drone of the voice she’d heard coming from the inner office had fallen silent. This was it! The receptionist was about to tell her she could go in…
“Ms. Turner will see you now.”
For a moment, Cora’s determination faltered. But when she didn’t move, the receptionist—Betty May, according to the placard on her desk—stood expectantly. “It’s right through here,” she said with a puzzled expression.
Swallowing to ease her dry throat, Cora nodded. “Right. I was just…” About to run the other way… Letting her words fall off, since she couldn’t readily lay her mind upon a good excuse, she threw back her shoulders and crossed the room to step inside an expansive office with several rows of pictures on the wall—every graduating class of New Horizons.
Those pictures melted into the background as soon as Cora’s eyes landed on the diminutive woman with long black hair that fell in a braid down her back. This was where she’d gotten the golden color of her skin, Cora thought as she stared. That detail hadn’t been quite so apparent in the grainy picture she’d seen with that newspaper article, but her mother appeared to be part Mexican, South American or maybe Native American.
Wasn’t that something she should’ve had a right to know without having to go to all the trouble and expense she did?
Cora had always been conscious of the difference in her skin tone compared to the Kellys. Lilly had blond hair and blue eyes and, like many of her friends, had indulged in a fair amount of Botox and cosmetic surgery. Aiyana, on the other hand, didn’t look as though she’d ever altered anything.
“Ms. Kelly, I’m so sorry for making you wait. That call was about another candidate for the school. Considering the mischief he’s been in, I figured I should handle it as soon as possible. His poor grandmother, who’s raising him, is beside herself.”
Cora blinked rapidly, battling a sudden upwelling of emotion. She’d longed for this day. And here it was. She was looking at her mother.
But she couldn’t act strange or she might give herself away. What had Aiyana just said? Something about the wait and the reason for it… “Of course,” she managed to respond, dragging what she’d heard out of short-term memory before it could disappear into the ether. “I understand that the welfare of the boys has to come first.”
Aiyana’s smile as she gestured toward the chair on the other side of her desk suggested she appreciated Cora’s response. “Please, take a seat.”
Cora could hardly pull her gaze away long enough to sit without missing the chair.
“Eli tells me—”
“Eli?” Cora echoed.
“Elijah,” she clarified. “My son.”
“Oh right.” Aiyana was talking about the incredibly handsome but imposing man who’d interviewed Cora two weeks ago. If only Cora could think clearly, she would’ve made that connection as instantly as she should have. He’d certainly left an impression.
“He told me you graduated from the University of San Diego with a BA in art education six years ago.”
“Yes. I love art, and I love teaching, so…putting the two together seemed like a natural for me.”
“You’ve been working as a substitute since then?”
“That’s right. When I first graduated, I was grateful for the flexibility subbing gave me, because I was doing a bit of traveling with my parents. Since then it’s been difficult to find a full-time position, given that so many schools are cutting back on their art, music and sports programs.”
“I understand. So that’s why you answered our ad?”
One of the reasons—though not the most important. Ironically enough, she’d been offered a full-time position for the coming year at the school for which she’d substituted most often, so she’d no longer needed the opportunity. The art teacher at Woodbridge High was retiring and had put in a good word for her. But, to her parents’ consternation, Cora had turned it down. Aiyana was here. That meant New Horizons offered something no other school could. “Yes.”
Aiyana peered at her more closely. “Is something wrong?”
Tears were getting the best of her despite all her efforts to suppress them. “Allergies,” Cora explained. “It’s that time of year. Fortunately, they don’t last long.”
“Would you like me to get you a tissue?”
Cora used her finger to remove the tear that was about to roll down her cheek. “No, I’m fine. My eyes are just…a little itchy, that’s all.”
“Let me know if you change your mind,” she said. “I’ll get you something if you need it. Meanwhile, I’d like to talk to you about the importance we place on art here at the ranch. Most other schools focus on core subjects, and as an accredited high school, we certainly make that a priority here, too. But it’s my feeling that our students cannot excel in those classes—in anything—if they’re too broken to care or try. I believe in healing those who will be healed by showing them the beauty of life and giving them a healthy form of expression. I guess it would be safe to say that, around here, you aren’t merely an extra, the first teacher to go when the budget gets tight. You are our most important teacher, which is why I asked to meet with you before you started in a couple of weeks.”
“I admire your philosophy.” Cora agreed with it, too. But hearing that she was the most important teacher at the ranch was intimidating, since this was her first full-time position.
“I want my boys to be educated,” Aiyana continued, “but even more than that, I want them to be whole, to find peace.”
“Makes sense to me.”
“Good. I should warn you that most have never been introduced to drawing, painting or pottery. They think school has to be boring and hard, which is what makes it so rewarding to introduce them to the fun side of learning. Creative endeavors are one of the best tools we have to ease the pain and anger that’s inside so many of them.”
“Does that mean all of the students here come from a difficult background?” she asked.
“Quite a few. Some have been abandoned. Some have been abused. Some have behavioral issues that can’t be blamed on any of those things.”
“You mean like autism.”
“We have a few autistic students but only those who are highly functioning. More often it’s something else—a chemical imbalance, genetic factors. No one can say for sure. Some brains are just wired differently than others.”
“Those boys must be the toughest to reach.”
“Sometimes we don’t reach them at all. But, that said, we’re going to reach all we can.”
Cora could easily imagine the rich parents of a boy who had behavioral problems being willing to pay a large sum to enroll him at the ranch. But how could orphans afford such a school? “What about the costs associated with coming here—for those who don’t have parents, I mean? Does another member of the family pay for it? Or maybe the state?”
“We get some state assistance, we have private benefactors and we do two big fund-raisers a year. As much as thirty percent of our students come here without paying a dime. This year, that equates to eighty students. But as long as we can meet our monthly expenses, I’m satisfied. If we have extra, I’d much rather use it to try to save another boy.”
Cora almost felt guilty that she’d be taking a salary. She nearly spoke up to say she could make do with less, but she knew that wasn’t the case. In LA, she’d been able to augment her income by waiting tables on the weekends. Chances were, in such a small community, she wouldn’t have the opportunity to get a second job. “That’s very noble of you.”
Aiyana gestured as if she wasn’t interested in praise. “I only mention it so that you’ll understand what’s important to me. It isn’t turning a profit—it’s making a difference. And I’m looking to work with people who are as invested in the progress of these boys as I am.”
“I understand. I’ll do my best,” Cora said. “But…why have you focused exclusively on helping boys? Why not girls? Or girls and boys? Do you have a strong gender preference or—”
“No. Not at all. I didn’t want the added responsibility of mixing the two genders, knew it wouldn’t be easy to keep them apart,” she said with a chuckle. “The boys who come here have enough to worry about without adding that kind of temptation. This is a time for them to focus on getting their lives in order. Hopefully, as a result, they’ll make better husbands and fathers later.”
“You’re saying it was purely a practical decision.”
“Absolutely. Someday, on the opposite side of town, I’d like to open a school exclusively for girls, and do essentially the same thing. Now that I have Elijah handling so much around here, that’s more of a possibility than ever before. I just haven’t geared up for the push it will require.”
“I’m sure you’ll do equally well with girls.” At least now she knew that her mother hadn’t given her up because she didn’t like girls. Perhaps that’d been a silly thought to begin with, but Cora couldn’t help searching for The Reason. Maybe that was all she really needed to know in order to be satisfied…
“We’ll see. Now, I’ve been told you’ll be moving into the housing on campus. But have you seen where you’ll be living?”
“Not yet. Mr. Turner showed me the school and some other parts of the property, but he didn’t offer me the position until after I got home, so we didn’t go inside the faculty housing.”
“Well, the cottages aren’t big, by any stretch of the imagination, but I like being able to include them in the package we offer our teachers. I figure discounted rent might tempt them into staying for a while.” She grinned. “Longer than a year.”
This comment revealed that Aiyana was well aware of her arrangement with Elijah. “It’s a nice benefit.”
“You’ll find we’re more like a family here than what you’ve most likely experienced in the past,” she said with a wink.
A family… Those two words nearly caused Cora to burst into tears. Aiyana had no idea how literal their connection was.
As Cora followed Aiyana out of the building, she couldn’t help thinking back, over all the different ways she’d imagined her mother while growing up. As a drug addict who didn’t care about anything except her next hit. As a prostitute eager to rid herself of the child from an unwanted pregnancy. As “the other woman,” abandoned by her lover after telling him she was going to have his child. As a businesswoman who refused to allow motherhood to get in the way of her ambition. There were more, but each scenario provided a ready excuse for adoption. She’d never pictured Aiyana like she was—soft-spoken, seemingly wise, well educated, accomplished, stable, kind, loving and devoted to a cause.
Cora had expected that just by meeting her mother so many of her questions would be answered. But she was more baffled than ever. What happened twenty-eight years ago? Why would someone like Aiyana Turner put her only child up for adoption?