GRIPPING THE STEERING wheel tightly, Serenity Alston navigated the winding freeway heading east toward Donner Summit. Dark, ominous clouds hung low on the horizon. Although she was driving a BMW X5, which had 4-wheel drive, if it started to snow, the highway patrol could close the road before she could get over the pass. This was California, where even a little bad weather was cause for panic.
The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey,” a song that had been popular when she’d first married Sean eight years ago, came over the sound system, bringing to mind the way he’d been back then—handsome, charming and so earnest and true.
Or so it had seemed…
She told Siri to delete it, but the next song—Jason Mraz’s “I Won’t Give Up”—brought painful memories of how committed she’d been to him, and what it had cost her.
Unwilling to go through her entire playlist right now, for fear she’d be tempted to delete most of her collection—and lose too much of her focus—she turned off the music. Snow didn’t often come to the Sierra Nevada Mountains after April. But here it was nearing the end of May and those dark clouds loomed ahead. She needed to beat the storm, just in case. The two women she was meeting at the cabin were relative strangers; only she had a key. If she got caught on the road, how would they get in?
She eased off the gas pedal. Maybe it would be better if she didn’t make it through. She’d been experiencing some regret since she first set this up. Sean’s trial was over. She could finally close that chapter of her life, put it behind her and move on. Why ask for a whole new problem? One that could easily create more wreckage in her life? Right now her family was strong, functional, happy. They could stay that way if she ignored what she’d found, just let it go.
Part of her was tempted to do that. She could head back right now. But another part—her natural compulsion to reach the truth at any cost—won out. She’d never been able to turn a blind eye to anything, which was why, she supposed, she’d become a true-crime writer.
At any rate, she couldn’t ask two people to come clear across the country to meet her and then stand them up.
Her phone rang and Bluetooth announced that it was her mother.
After taking a deep breath to steady her nerves, she told it to answer. For the sake of everyone involved, she had to continue to act as though nothing had changed. “Hello?”
“Hi, honey!” her mother chirped, as breezy as ever.
Serenity winced at the sound of her voice. Hiding anything from Charlotte was difficult. But if she hadn’t answered, her mother would’ve just called back. And if she didn’t behave normally, Charlotte might begin to suspect something was wrong, which would only make the next days and weeks, maybe months, while she was trying to figure this thing out, that much harder to navigate. “Hi, Mom.”
“What are you up to?” she asked.
Serenity adjusted the heat, increasing the warmth inside the car. “I’m heading to the cabin.” She spoke casually, as though this trip was just like every other, even though it wasn’t remotely the same.
“Sure, why not?” Serenity couldn’t see why her mother would mind, not if she didn’t know what Serenity had planned. Ever since her parents had moved away from Berkeley, where she lived, to San Diego, the place sat empty. With the rest of the family nowhere near Tahoe, it wasn’t as if anyone else could drive to the cabin for just a couple of days. Serenity had a brother and two sisters, but her brother, the youngest at twenty-four, was getting his master’s at UCLA, and her twin sisters, who were twenty-eight, both lived in San Antonio. One had married a man who was from there, and the other had married a man who was flexible enough to move to Texas so the twins wouldn’t have to live too far apart.
“It’s just… I don’t know,” her mother said. “You’ve been going to Tahoe almost every weekend.”
“I love Tahoe.” The cabin had become a refuge for her. As soon as Sean had been sentenced, and she no longer had to worry about his smarmy lawyers getting him released on probation with time served, she’d started trading the rat race of the Bay Area for the peace and tranquility of the mountains whenever she could. Heading up the hill gave her something to do, somewhere to go when she’d normally be with the man she’d married.
It also gave her a break from researching the gruesome facts behind the Maynard murders that were the subject of her latest book—about Frank “Coop” Maynard, a pharmacist who killed his whole family, fled the state, married again and started anew. She used to be able to maintain a sort of clinical separation from the crimes she wrote about, but she seemed to be losing that. Ever since she found those files on Sean’s computer, the fact that a person could be a monster down deep troubled her more and more. And that made her fear, at some point, she wouldn’t be able to continue writing.
What would she do then?
“We all love it up there,” Charlotte was saying. “But do you have to go every weekend? You’re still so young.”
Although she was only thirty-five, Serenity felt older. Having to testify against her own husband seemed to have aged her by a decade or more. “What does my age have to do with anything?” she asked.
“You should be out meeting people. It’s not as though you socialize during the week. You write at home and never get out.”
She had to work. She had deadlines. And now that she was no longer planning to take a break to have a baby while Sean supported them—thank God she’d found those files before they’d gotten that far—she had to be extra careful to maintain her career, or she could wind up without an income. That was one of the reasons she went to Tahoe so often; the beauty and isolation helped clear her mind. “Are you talking about another man? Another relationship?”
Irritation made Serenity tense up even more—until she felt as though she’d shatter at the slightest touch. “I’m not interested in another man, Mom.”
“You need to move on at some point, Serenity. You’re only getting older.”
“You just said I was too young to closet myself away at the cabin every weekend. Now you’re saying I’m too old?”
“I’m saying if you want to have a family, you can’t wait forever.”
“I’d like a family one day. But if it isn’t meant to be, it isn’t meant to be.”
“You can’t take such a passive approach—or it won’t be. Not all men are like Sean. Look at your father.”
Her mother was using her father as an example of integrity? When he might be in on the lie they’d been living? Serenity was no longer sure she was even related to him or to the rest of the family. The Facebook message she’d received six months ago, after taking a DNA test mostly on a lark—just to see how it all worked for the sake of her writing—had upended everything she’d ever believed she could rely on. “I’m not ready to start dating,” she reiterated.
“What about Sawyer?” her mother asked. “I suspect he’s always been attracted to you.”
Where had that come from? Sawyer had never shown any romantic interest in her. “Sean’s brother?”
“Oh, stop! You don’t look at him like a brother. He was in the military most of the time you were married. You barely ever saw him.”
She pictured Sawyer. At six foot four, he was taller than most men, had a sturdy warrior’s build, thick sandy-blond hair and stormy green eyes that had probably seen too much. “He was raised with Sean.”
“So? He’s not really related to him. He didn’t even live with him for very long.”
He was still connected to Sean. “Sawyer should be glad he’s not actually related to him,” she grumbled.
“Except that now Sawyer has no family.”
Serenity felt bad for him. He hadn’t had an easy childhood. When his mother died shortly after she married Sean’s father, Sean’s father was kind enough to finish raising him. So when Sean went to trial and the whole Alston clan rallied behind him, they considered Sawyer an ungrateful traitor when he wouldn’t join forces with them. “The way they treated him once the trial started wasn’t fair. He was just trying to stand up for what’s right. But as far as the two of us ever getting together, there’s no way. We’ve always butted heads on everything. No matter what the issue is, we’re on opposite sides.”
“You were on the same side when it came to Sean,” her mother pointed out.
“Because Sawyer was able to put his head above his heart, something the rest of the family couldn’t do—or refused to do.” The way Sawyer had handled the situation showed emotional maturity. Serenity had been impressed but not all that surprised. He was incredibly smart, which was why it bugged her so much whenever he disagreed with her. Not only did he think faster than anyone she’d ever met, he was the only person she couldn’t beat, regardless of the game they played—even games of complete chance.
When the entire family got together for a reunion two years ago, they challenged each other at everything they could think of—horseshoes, volleyball, chess, backgammon, trivia. She’d won at backgammon once or twice but lost at all the rest. She’d never forget the enraging smile that had tugged at his lips when she insisted he give her another chance.
“Sean put up a pretty convincing front. He had me fooled for a long time. You, too,” her mother added.
Serenity didn’t need to be reminded of that. She’d fallen hard, planned her whole life around him. “He was a good liar,” she admitted. “And his lawyers were even better.” So good, in fact, there were moments Serenity had wondered if she was crazy for trusting her instincts above what she heard from his counsel in court—moments when she’d asked herself if she was not only being a bad wife, but ruining an innocent man’s life.
If she hadn’t been the one to find the proof and confront Sean before he had time to concoct the slick lies he and his lawyers presented afterward, they might’ve swayed her. Maybe she shouldn’t be so shocked that his family went the other way and only Sawyer could figure out the truth.
“He almost got off,” her mother said. “He would have, if not for your testimony. You were great on the stand. So poised. And Sawyer was right there to support you through it all. I love the way he stood by you. That had to have taken a great deal of courage when the rest of his family was glaring daggers at him, day in and day out.”
Large drops of rain began to splatter on her windshield. Serenity scowled as she glanced up at the foreboding sky. “He only did that because he believed Sean was guilty.” She switched on her wipers. “Anyway, I’m sure he was glad when the trial ended and he could go on with his life and forget all about me.”
Although, oddly enough, she’d heard from Sawyer recently. He’d called her, out of the blue, just to check in—not that she was going to tell her mother. Her conversation with him had been awkward, and he didn’t say much before hurrying off the phone.
“You should reach out to him, see how he’s doing,” Charlotte said.
Serenity wished she’d been friendlier during their brief conversation. But she hadn’t expected to ever hear from him again. And she was still so disillusioned after what’d happened with Sean she was off men in general—and anyone who was associated with Sean in particular. She didn’t need the memories Sawyer evoked. She preferred to forget the past eighteen months, start over.
“If I get the chance,” she said, and before her mother could press the issue any further, she asked how her brother was doing in school. He’d been struggling with his grades lately, which was unusual for him.
Her mother said she thought he was improving, at which point Serenity said the weather was getting bad and she needed to go.
Within ten minutes of hanging up, the rain turned to heavy snow, making the road slick and the traffic slow until she was sitting in place, staring at a sea of red taillights.
“Come on, come on,” she muttered impatiently. She’d been hoping to arrive at the cabin before Lorelei and Reagan. To get settled in, walk around and acclimate. To become anchored in the familiar before having to meet the two strangers who were her half sisters.
But at this rate, they’d beat her there.
LORELEI CIPRIANO READ the latest text from her husband: Are you kidding me? You left for an entire week right in the middle of everything we’re going through? I thought you’d agreed to try to work things out!
She hadn’t agreed to anything. Her husband had been trying to convince her, had been pleading with her to forgive him ever since the ugly truth came out. And she’d been walking around in a shocked daze, going through the motions of life for the past three weeks like some sort of automaton.
But she’d made no commitments, and wasn’t even sure she was capable of letting this one go…
She was itching to reply to his text and tell him that. He was acting as though she was doing something wrong. But she’d already met up with Reagan at the Reno, Nevada, airport, where they’d rented a car to drive to Serenity’s cabin, and she didn’t want to get caught up fighting with Mark, didn’t want Reagan, who was driving, asking questions. She was so humiliated by what Mark had done she wished no one had to find out.
But, sadly, there’d be no hiding, at least not from her friends and family back home. As the weeks wore on and the proof became more apparent, she’d become an object of everyone’s pity, whether she liked it or not.
“Mommy, I want to get out,” her daughter said, a whine in her voice.
Poor Lucy. At only four, she’d found it difficult to sit on a plane for most of the day. Buckling her into the back seat of a car for another hour and a half as soon as they landed was almost more than the child could bear. And the weather was making the drive take forever. “Soon,” she promised.
Had she made a mistake coming here in the middle of everything that was going on at home? Lorelei wondered as she gazed out at the onslaught of white flakes pummeling the windshield and sticking to the road.
That was possible. But she’d needed an escape, some time to think about what she was going to do. And the hope that she might have support from family—something she’d never been able to count on before—had been too tempting to resist. Even if she ultimately chose not to share her situation with Serenity and Reagan, it was nice to have a neutral place to go while she figured things out. A safe haven where no one really knew her and she wouldn’t have to field all the questions she’d face at home as soon as word began to spread.
It was possible she’d never go back. To Mark, anyway.
Stifling a sigh, she shoved her phone in her purse. “Look at this traffic,” she murmured as though she wasn’t under so much pressure she felt she might start sweating diamonds.
Lines of concentration creased Reagan’s forehead. “It’s ugly, all right.”
Lorelei had been so curious about her newly discovered half sisters. For the sake of comparison, they’d exchanged pictures and provided their heights and weights months ago. All three of them had dark hair and blue eyes, which was unusual, given how rare that combination was. Like Serenity, Lorelei wore her hair long. Reagan’s had been buzzed into a dramatic yet stylish cut that fit her more assertive and gregarious personality. They were all three close to the same height, at five foot nine to ten inches, and weighed within twenty pounds of each other—she being the heaviest, thanks to the baby weight she’d never quite lost, and Reagan being the skinniest. If they were to walk through a mall together, most people would guess they were sisters, because of their lanky builds. But Lorelei wondered if there were other, less obvious similarities. How would her new siblings behave? Would they have the same likes and dislikes? The same mannerisms?
As a child who’d never had any real family, who’d been alone and adrift for so long, Lorelei had been beyond excited to find Reagan and Serenity. The wondering and waiting, the painstaking research and the hope that had driven her through it all had paid off. Finally. Now she had not one but two other human beings, besides her daughter, who shared her DNA. She’d thought having these connections, being more like other people, might eventually fill that terrible void inside her.
But her thrill over finding Reagan and Serenity had dissolved the instant her husband had blindsided her with such a painful admission that she no longer cared about anything else. She’d lost the very foundation of her life, and she hadn’t seen it coming.
“Should we call Serenity?” Reagan asked. “Let her know we landed?”
“Good idea.” Lorelei pulled up her contacts and tried the number she’d been given but couldn’t get the call to go through. “I guess I don’t have enough service.”
Being careful not to take her eyes off the road for too long, Reagan fumbled around in her oversized bag situated between them, and eventually located her own cell. “Do I?” she asked as she handed it to Lorelei.
Lorelei checked the signal. Reagan had a different carrier, but her coverage didn’t seem to be any better. “No more than I do.”
“Damn.” She hunched forward to gaze up at the mountains towering on either side of them. “Maybe it’s because we’re in this narrow gorge. Let’s try again in a few minutes.”
“I might be able to get a text to go through,” Lorelei suggested, giving Reagan back her phone. “Sometimes that’ll work even when you can’t make a call.”
Lorelei sent Serenity a message to tell her they were caught in the storm and to see if she was having the same problem.
It seemed to deliver, so she dropped her phone in her lap and once again frowned at the weather. “Looks like it went through, but we’re going to need GPS, so I hope we get a stronger signal before too long. How else will we find the cabin?”
“For now, I’m following the signs to King’s Beach, which Serenity said will take us to Incline Village.”
“Okay.” Lorelei smiled as though she believed everything was under control. But it was hard to trust a total stranger to drive in these conditions, especially with Lucy in the car. Since Lorelei lived in Florida, she wasn’t used to snow. That was the logic Reagan had used for taking the wheel, but that wasn’t the reason Lorelei had agreed. Once again, she’d sacrificed her own best judgment because of her past. She’d been shuffled around to so many homes when she was a child, had grown up with the harsh knowledge that if she wasn’t always sweet and compliant her foster parents could decide at any moment that they no longer wanted her. And even though she was now an adult and didn’t have to worry about being returned to a group home to await the next foster placement, she couldn’t get past the deeply rooted fears that situation had created. So she spent her life trying to build what she’d been missing, which meant she’d probably compromised too often, and now she was riding in the passenger seat while Reagan, who worked as an ad executive and came from New York City, drove.
Reagan didn’t even own a car! How long had it been since she’d driven before today?
Lorelei’s phone buzzed, signaling a new message.
“Is that Serenity?” Reagan asked.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t. “No, it’s my husband.”
I wish I’d never given you that DNA kit, he’d written. But it was too late for regrets. He had given it to her—last summer—so she could possibly discover where she came from.
After she’d taken that test and received her results, there was no one on the list of matches they’d sent her who could be her mother or her father. But she’d never forget the email letting her know there was someone designated a “close match” at 1957cM named Reagan Sands. When she logged on to the company website, there was a link to Reagan and they’d been in touch ever since. That was last August.
Then, in November, she was surprised by another notice from the DNA company showing a small, circular picture of someone named Serenity Alston, who looked very much like her and Reagan, under that same “closely related” category. Serenity didn’t respond to the message feature—she’d since said that she never even opened the many emails the DNA company sent her—so Lorelei had checked Facebook and found her there. And right after that, she brought Serenity and Reagan together, and they began a group chat in Messenger.
What a year. Would she one day discover other siblings? That was the thing about sperm. It went pretty far when it was from a donor—and since she, Reagan and Serenity were all born within two years of each other but came from such different situations, Lorelei could only assume that was how they’d been conceived.
Reagan seemed completely engaged in navigating the storm, so this time Lorelei allowed herself to respond to Mark, who had ruined her wonderful, momentous year by dragging her into the depths of sorrow.
That DNA kit isn’t the problem, and you know it, she wrote back.
He messaged her again, but she didn’t bother to read it. He wouldn’t want to talk about what he did. He’d just go on about her leaving and how inopportune a time it was right now, given the situation at home. He didn’t see what she had to gain by meeting Reagan and Serenity. He’d already told her how foolish she was for opening herself up to whatever problems they might bring with them.
Relationships aren’t all fun and games, Lorelei. They come with responsibility, he’d said when she’d first broached the subject of meeting her new sisters in person.
She could only laugh about his comment now that everything had come out and she knew he’d let her down more than anyone else ever had. Chances were far better that he wasn’t excited about Reagan and Serenity because he didn’t want to share her and was worried about what having them in her life might change.
What if one or both of these women are like Osha and Mercedes? Don’t you have enough dysfunctional people in your life?
Mark had said that, too, and even if the comment was selfishly motivated, she couldn’t argue with the fact that she did have too many dysfunctional people in her life. She wouldn’t want another Osha. The youngest of the children Lorelei had known at her last foster home was so extremely narcissistic she couldn’t get along with anyone. After two impulsive marriages and two acrimonious divorces, she was working in the porn industry and was absolutely defiant if anyone questioned it. Because of the things she said and did, and the people she associated with, Lorelei couldn’t let Lucy be around her—not that Osha had ever shown any interest in Lucy in the first place.
Mercedes, two years older, who’d also been in the same foster home just as Lorelei started high school, had gone in the opposite direction. She’d joined a cult and wouldn’t speak to anyone outside of it because she was so afraid she’d be led “astray.” The cult’s leader had warned his followers that Satan lurked around every corner, effectively inoculating them against anything an outsider might say. For a brief time, Mercedes had shown much more interest in Lucy, but Lorelei worried she might be even more dangerous than Osha.
“Osha and Mercedes are the reason I want to meet Reagan and Serenity,” she’d argued. “I don’t have any real family. You grew up with seven brothers and sisters, so you don’t know what that’s like.”
“Some of my siblings can be difficult,” had been his response. “Reagan and Serenity could make your life worse instead of better. That’s what I’m saying. Maybe they’re related genetically, but you have no idea how they were raised, what kind of people they might be.”
He’d presented such a convincing argument that she had, at first, tried to listen to him. She’d told Serenity she couldn’t come to the cabin and, for a brief time, she’d even backed away from having any contact with them.
But that was before Mark had mowed down all her previously held beliefs—as well as her sense of well-being, her trust in him and her hope for the future. After he sat her down and broke the news about what he’d done, she’d decided she didn’t want to shut out Serenity and Reagan. Maybe he was wrong about them. Maybe they would offer joy and friendship and support when she needed it most.
“Still nothing from Serenity?” Reagan asked.
Lorelei checked again. “Not yet.”
The car in front of them slid on the ice. Lorelei caught her breath until the driver managed to recover—only inches from slamming into the guardrail and possibly hurtling over the edge into a deep ravine.
Reagan’s knuckles turned white on the steering wheel, but she didn’t acknowledge the close call. Instead, she seemed intent on talking, probably to distract herself. “What’s your husband saying? He’s worried about you in this weather?”
In Lorelei’s mind, if Mark cared about her as much as he claimed, he wouldn’t have done what he did. But that wasn’t what she said. “I’m sure he is,” she replied, hoping the expected response would steer the conversation away from him that much sooner. “What about Drew? Did he have any problem with you flying across the country to spend a week with two sisters you’ve never met?”
Reagan didn’t respond.
“Reagan?” Lorelei prodded.
“I had the vacation time,” she said shortly.
“I wasn’t talking about leaving work,” Lorelei clarified. “I was wondering if he was afraid you were making a mistake by getting to know us, or wished he could come, too, or—”
“I didn’t discuss it with him,” she said. “He doesn’t really have any say over what I do.”
Lorelei blinked in surprise. “He’s your boyfriend, isn’t he?”
Again, no answer.
“I’m sorry if you two have hit a rough patch. When you mentioned him on Messenger I got the impression things were going great between you, that you were in love.”
“I am in love,” she said. “That’s the problem.”
“Why is that a problem?” Lorelei asked.
Reagan bit her lip as she glanced over. “Because he’s married.”
Lorelei felt her jaw drop. “You’re in a relationship with a married man?” Why? she wanted to scream. Reagan wasn’t just moderately pretty, she was beautiful. Successful, too. She could have almost any man she wanted. She didn’t need to steal anyone’s husband.
“Mom, are we there yet?” Lucy asked from the back seat.
Lorelei was so thrown by what she’d heard she didn’t answer until Lucy started crying.
“We’ll be there soon, honey,” she replied as her daughter’s distress finally cut into her thoughts. Problem was she’d been saying the same thing for the past three hours, so it had no effect.
When Lucy wouldn’t stop crying, Lorelei got a sucker out of her purse. She hated to ply her child with sugar, but it was about the only thing that would keep Lucy happy until they could reach the cabin, and with the storm and what she’d just learned about Reagan, the situation was stressful enough. “Here, I’ll give you this. Will that help?”
Her daughter sniffed but brightened as she accepted the bribe, and Lorelei managed what she hoped was a pleasant expression even though she felt close to tears herself. She’d been hoping her two sisters would be the kind of people she needed. That the time, effort, money—plus navigating this damn storm—would be worth it. But she had no desire to invest in someone no better than Francine. Her best friend had turned out to be an even bigger disappointment than Osha and Mercedes.
Reagan shot her a sheepish look. “I know what you’re thinking.”
Lorelei doubted she did, doubted she could possibly guess how repulsive she found this revelation. She said nothing, just turned to stare out the window.
“Lorelei, please don’t judge me so fast,” Reagan said. “As a stay-at-home mom, you probably don’t come into contact with temptation very often. But when you’re out in the workforce, like me, you spend a lot of time with your coworkers and…and sometimes you begin to have feelings you shouldn’t. It wasn’t as if I planned on this happening. It wasn’t as if I’ve ever done anything even remotely like it before. I’m telling you…it came out of nowhere.”
“I don’t care what your excuse is,” she said. “That’s a line you don’t cross.”
Reagan’s face turned bright red. Lorelei was overreacting, and she knew it. This wasn’t her husband they were talking about. But it hit so close to home, and she’d put so much hope into her sisters being people she could admire—and count on—that she was bitterly disappointed.
Reagan had already proven herself unreliable in one of the most important ways.
“Thanks for your understanding,” Reagan said tightly.
Lorelei rubbed her temples. “I’m sorry. What you do is none of my business. But so you know, I’m not unsophisticated. I have a degree in marketing. I was a digital marketing manager for a great company and made decent money. It’s just that…when Mark and I discussed having children, we felt it would be best for me to be at home instead of shuttling our kids to and from day care every day.”
“Why is it always the woman who makes that sacrifice?” Reagan grumbled. “Why couldn’t he have been the one to stay at home?”
“It’s not always the woman. More and more men are doing it and—”
“A small fraction.”
Lorelei ignored the interruption. “And by the time we paid for day care, I wouldn’t have earned enough to warrant being away from our child, let alone been able to support us if Mark had stayed home.” Letting go of her career had been difficult. But she’d felt it was the right thing to do, the practical thing.
Or had she, once again, compromised when she shouldn’t have? Given up her job to keep Mark happy?
Now that she was possibly staring down a divorce, she felt it might’ve been smarter to push back.
“Yeah, well, we’ll see what you think of that decision when Lucy’s out of the house and on her own.”
“What did you say?” Lorelei asked.
Reagan sent her a scowl. “What will you have then?”
“Hopefully, I’ll have a happy, well-adjusted child. Mark was making more than I was, so…”
“So?” Reagan challenged when she let her words trail off.
“It made sense,” Lorelei insisted. She hated that she hadn’t finished her sentence to begin with, that Reagan had to call her out. It revealed that she was concerned she’d made a mistake—one that might cost her dearly in the long run.
But Reagan was so caught up in attempting to justify her own actions, she didn’t capitalize on Lorelei’s uncertainty. “I’ve been trying really hard to cut it off with Drew,” she said. “But it’s not as easy as you think. He’s one of the senior partners at the agency. I’ll lose him and my job, and I’ve worked my ass off for ten years to get where I am at Edison & Curry. It’s so competitive in advertising.”
“If he’s vindictive enough to fire you because you won’t sleep with him—especially when he’s already married—he’s an asshole, and you need to get away from him as soon as possible, no matter what it costs,” Lorelei blurted out.
Lucy gasped. “Mommy, did you say asshole?”
Lorelei squeezed her forehead. “No, I said… I said…”
“She said, ‘He’s on the last hole.’”
Small point for Reagan for jumping in to help, even though Lucy wouldn’t understand the golf reference. Lorelei was about to mouth a polite thank you but what Reagan said next quelled the impulse.
“Your saintly mother would never use such language.”
“What’s saintly?” Lucy asked.
Reagan had spoken in a sulky mumble, but that hadn’t stopped Lorelei’s bright daughter from picking up on every word.
When no one answered, Lucy seemed to catch on that it hadn’t been meant as a compliment. “Mommy, are you and Aunt Reagan having a fight?”
Lorelei held the strap of her seat belt away from her body so she could glance back to reassure her daughter. “No, honey. We’re just…tired. We all had a long flight today, right? Aren’t you tired?”
“No,” Lucy said immediately.
Drawing a deep breath, Lorelei faced forward. “Well, I am.”
“Now you regret coming,” Reagan said. “I can tell.”
“I don’t regret it,” Lorelei lied, but she was hoping Serenity wouldn’t be the terrible disappointment Reagan was turning out to be. She’d committed to staying for an entire week, and it wouldn’t be easy to leave sooner, not unless she was willing to spend a lot of extra money on two last-minute plane tickets.
Actually, that wasn’t even an option. There was hardly any money in the bank account she shared with Mark, and her credit card was maxed out from their recent kitchen remodel. He’d started paying the bills from a separate account, and she thought she could guess why. He was trying to protect his assets in the event that she left him.
If that happened, until the court divided their property and ordered him to pay child support, which could be months away, she’d be left with little or nothing.
Just in case the worst did happen, she’d have to be very careful when it came to expenses.
Which meant she and Lucy were stuck in Tahoe until her return flight.
REAGAN MENTALLY KICKED herself as she continued to fight through the storm and the traffic to reach the cabin. What had she been thinking? She’d known better than to announce she was the other woman in a romantic triangle. That was the quickest way to destroy her credibility as a decent person, the quickest way to be shunned. Poor Lorelei hadn’t even had a chance to get to know her first.
Good job making sure your half sister never has any respect for you, she told herself. But she was lugging around so much guilt even she didn’t feel she deserved respect. And holding back that information would make her feel dishonest on top of everything else. She wasn’t a liar, wasn’t one to pretend she had any claim on the man she was seeing if she didn’t, especially to people she was hoping to have a lifelong relationship with. What was the point of coming here to meet her sisters if she was only hiding who she really was?
Truth be told, she was probably also looking for someone who’d understand, who’d believe she hadn’t meant for anything like that to happen. She’d felt exactly as Lorelei did—a married man was simply off-limits. But somehow Drew had worked his way through her defenses. She still wasn’t sure how.
“What, you’ve never done anything you regret?” she asked Lorelei. She couldn’t keep the accusing tone from her voice, although she knew she was the one in the wrong, that Lorelei had every right to think the worst.
“Nothing like that,” Lorelei responded.
“Your situation is vastly different from mine. Your husband is probably the only man you see on a daily basis.” It was a weak defense, something she’d already pointed out, but it was the best she could muster.
“I wish you’d quit painting me as being so insulated and out of touch with the rest of the world. I have neighbors, male friends and associates. I could find someone to…to—” she checked her daughter to see if she was paying attention before finishing with a euphemistic “—be with if I wanted to.”
No doubt Lorelei assumed Reagan had been having sex with Drew on a regular basis. But they’d only been together—like that—once. A week ago they’d been working late when the feelings they had for each other had somehow boiled over.
Reagan had been devastated afterward. She’d worked from home the next few days, so she wouldn’t have to see him before leaving on this trip. Because she cared about Drew, because she wanted him more than anyone she’d ever known, she knew she had to stay away until she could overcome her emotions or it would only happen again.
“Except that you’re deeply in love with your husband. Why would you want to?” she asked Lorelei. “You’ve told me how wonderful Mark is. Not all of us are as lucky as you.”
“Yeah, I’m lucky, all right,” she snapped. “About as lucky as Drew’s wife.”
Reagan felt her eyebrows jerk together. “What are you talking about?”
She pinched the bridge of her nose before dropping her hand. “Nothing.”
“Tell me,” Reagan insisted.
Lorelei twisted around to look at her daughter again. “I can’t. Not right now.”
“What, Mommy?” Lucy said.
She faced front. “Nothing, honey.”
Reagan studied her new sister as much as driving through this terrible weather would allow. “Is something going on between the two of you?”
“Two weeks, six days and—” she screwed up her face as though struggling to get the timing correct “—three hours ago.”
“Don’t tell me he’s seeing someone else…”
Once more, she glanced back at her daughter, but she must’ve felt Lucy was no longer paying attention because Lorelei nodded.
“You’re kidding me!”
“I wish I was,” she said bitterly.
A sign listing the mileage to Incline Village came up on the right, but the numbers were partially covered with snow. Reagan hoped they were getting close. “Let me guess, it was someone at his work.”
Lorelei shot her a sullen glance. “No.”
“What could be worse than that?”
“My best friend would be worse.”
Reagan gaped at her.
“She’s my ex-best friend now, of course.”
No wonder Lorelei had reacted so badly when Reagan confessed her own situation. “I’m sorry.”
Lorelei said nothing.
“How did you find out?” Reagan asked.
“He told me.”
“Right when we were planning this trip?”
Reagan’s phone chimed, but she ignored it. She was pretty sure it would be Drew. He was dying to get hold of her, had called and messaged her many times since that night in his office. “I’m surprised you still came.”
“I had to come. I felt like I was suffocating in that house with him.”
Lowering her voice, Reagan tried to choose her words carefully. “Did you have any clue something like that might be going on?”
“I see.” She used the rearview mirror to check on Lucy. Lorelei’s daughter seemed completely preoccupied with her sucker, but Reagan turned up the music, just in case. “Are you going to stay with him?”
“I don’t know. He claims he’s sorry. Is begging me not to leave.”
Doubt concerning a man she’d never even met made Reagan hesitate. “Do you believe he’ll be true to you in the future?”
Lorelei raked her fingers through her long, dark hair. “I don’t know anymore. I don’t seem to have any confidence in a love I would’ve staked my life on less than a month ago. But I have a child to think about. And I’m not sure I want to step out of the way so my best friend can replace me. I’m not even sure I’d be able to make a living on my own. As you’ve already pointed out, I’ve been out of the job market for six years, ever since we moved to the house we’re living in now. Who’ll hire me?”
Reagan cringed. “Sounds like you need to get that so-called best friend out of your lives. Start there. Then maybe you’ll have a chance of repairing your relationship and…and putting it all behind you.”
“I wish we could get her out of our lives,” she said.
The wipers could barely keep up with the snow. The rhythmic swishing, the long day and being strapped into the car seat Lorelei had carried all the way from Florida seemed to be putting Lucy to sleep, which came as a relief to Reagan. The sucker had fallen against her shirt and would probably stick there, but at least she wouldn’t start crying again. “Why can’t you?” Reagan asked. “You don’t owe her anything.”
Lorelei caught her eye and mouthed, “She’s pregnant.”
Reagan felt her jaw drop. “Oh, my God.”
Lorelei said nothing.
“Is she going to have the child?” Reagan whispered.
“Says she is,” Lorelei replied.
“And she’s going to keep it?”
“Of course. Because then she’ll have exactly what she wanted—a claim on my husband.”
“He’ll be financially responsible for the care of the child, you mean.”
“Yes. We’ll be writing a check to Francine every month.”
That would be hell, Reagan decided. The three of them would be entangled in a tight little dance—one that was as awkward as it was painful.
Then she thought of something else. “What about visitation?”
“I’d have to allow that, too. It isn’t the child’s fault. He or she deserves to have a father.”
This was getting worse and worse. “That’s true, but…” Reagan let go of a long sigh. “Wow. If you forgive him, you’ll have to deal with this ‘best friend’ of yours, a person who betrayed you, indefinitely. And you’ll also have to associate with the kid?”
Lorelei lowered her voice even further. “Yes. But if I don’t forgive him, Francine will be the one who’ll have Mark living in her home, helping raise her child. And my child? She’ll be packing her bags each weekend to go stay with him and someone I no longer want her to have any contact with.”
“Me, Mommy? Are you talking about me?” Lucy suddenly piped up.
Reagan bit back a curse.
“No, honey,” Lorelei said. “I was just talking to Aunt Reagan about a friend.”
Lorelei paused briefly before confirming. “Yes.”
“Are you mad at her?”
“I am,” she admitted.
“Because she’s…made Mommy very sad.”
“She took something that belonged to me.”
“Without asking?” Lucy was struggling to understand, but Reagan could tell Lorelei was counting on her inability to do so.
“Yes, without asking.”
Lorelei’s phone began to ring and she snapped it up. “It’s Serenity,” she said. “We have signal at last.”
Reagan listened as Lorelei answered. “I think we’re getting close…No, we can finally use our GPS. Where are you?…Us, too. It’s a mess out…We will. Glad you’re safe…See you soon.”
“What’d she say?” Reagan asked when Lorelei ended the call.
“Apparently, the weather’s even worse coming from the opposite direction, but she just arrived. Wanted to check on us.”
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Lucy announced.
“Oh, no,” Lorelei muttered.
That explained why Lucy hadn’t finished drifting off to sleep. “What should I do?” Reagan asked. “There’s nowhere to stop.”
Lorelei checked behind her. “Can you hold it, honey? For a little while?”
“No!” Lucy insisted, growing instantly distraught. “I have to go!”
Lorelei cast Reagan a pained look. “Is there any way you could pull over? We’ll have to let her go on the side of the road.”
“We can’t do that,” Reagan said. “It’s too dangerous. We could get hit. Or get stuck in the snow.”
Lorelei spent the next fifteen minutes trying to cajole her daughter, which proved so difficult Reagan was relieved she didn’t plan on having any children of her own.
That effectively ended their conversation about Mark and Francine. But as they drew closer to the cabin, the story about Lorelei’s husband and best friend played over and over in Reagan’s mind, and she began to fear that her involvement with Drew might cost her far more than she’d even realized, including a meaningful relationship with her new sister.
SERENITY STOOD IN front of the wall of photographs at her family’s cabin. She’d seen these pictures so many times she scarcely looked at them anymore. There were several of the lake itself. Tahoe straddled the border between California and Nevada and was the largest alpine lake in North America. Behind only the Great Lakes by volume, and with mountains on every side, it was a popular subject for photographers and painters. She had several representations in her house in Berkeley, purchased mostly from the local vendors and galleries that capitalized on the unique beauty of the area. Emerald Bay was particularly gorgeous. A spectacular shot of it—showing Fannette, the lake’s only island, with touches of snow contrasting with the vivid blue of the water—hung right before her, in the center of everything.
But Serenity was more interested in the many family pictures surrounding it. There was one of her and her three siblings in front of the Christmas tree when they were children, shortly after her parents purchased the cabin. One was of her father holding her in front of him while they sledded down a hill, and there was one of her with her brother, two sisters and mother stretched out on the narrow strip of rocky sand that served as the closest beach, white-capped mountains in the background. The temperature in summer ranged from the low forties to the midseventies, and Serenity remembered that day as being too chilly to get in the water, but it had been warm by Tahoe standards, so there’d been a lot of sunbathers and swimmers who didn’t care.
Normally, Serenity would’ve smiled at the pleasant memories associated with these pictures. She and her family had spent so much time at the lake. The smell of tree sap that hit her the moment she opened the door made her feel as though she’d come home even though she’d grown up in the Bay Area, not far from where she lived now.
But after learning she had two half sisters, neither of whom had ever been mentioned, she couldn’t view these photos with the same blissful ignorance she once had. They looked almost fake to her, staged. And that brought so many questions to mind, as well as a profound sense of loss.
“Damn it,” she muttered, peering closer at a small picture of her parents laughing at a casino on the south side of the lake, from back in the eighties. They’d always been elegant and, thanks to the money they’d inherited from her father’s parents shortly after they married, they’d also been well-to-do—the quintessential, upwardly mobile California couple. Both were in their fifties now, but they hadn’t changed much. Her father was a successful real estate attorney who’d worked in San Francisco’s financial district until they moved to San Diego. Her mother was an organic gardener who sold her produce and flowers to local restaurants looking for “farm to fork” produce. Charlotte had also supported a lot of charities while Serenity was growing up, focused mostly on raising money for cancer research, since Beau had once battled leukemia. Serenity had always considered her parents to be young for their age, hip, open-minded and smart.
So what reason would people like that have to hide the details of her birth? Knowing her parents as well as she did—what they believed in, what they stood for—she felt they would’ve been up front with her if it was simply a matter of being unable to get pregnant. It had to be something else.
“What happened back then?” she asked their still images. “Why do I have two half sisters you’ve never mentioned or acknowledged? And why did I have to find out about them the way I did?”
She nibbled at her bottom lip as she tried to remember any telltale signs—whispering, the sense that her parents were holding back or hiding something important, any strangers in her life—from when she was a child. She’d been racking her brain ever since she’d learned about Reagan and Lorelei, but she couldn’t come up with a single thing that seemed odd or unusual.
Maybe her parents were superior actors. Or they’d simply forgotten anything they didn’t care to remember, put it behind them and moved on. After all, when she was born there’d been no internet, no smartphones, no DNA companies like 23andMe. Her parents probably never dreamed that technology would eventually reveal what they’d hidden, even if they both kept their mouths shut.
That was another thing. Were they both in on the secret? Had they made a pact between them? Or was it something only one knew and the other might not be pleased to find out?
There were so many possibilities. Maybe she wasn’t related to either one of them. But if she was adopted, where did she come from and how did she wind up in their family?
The sound of a car outside sent a prickle down Serenity’s spine. When the engine went off, she cast a final glance at the photos of her parents and the siblings she’d grown up with and squared her shoulders. This was the point of no return. By welcoming Reagan, Lorelei and Lucy into her life, she could wreck relationships that were dearer to her than any others, especially because she was doing it without consulting her parents.
But she didn’t feel she could consult them—not until she had a clearer understanding of what might have happened. She was afraid it might split them up or send one of her siblings into an emotional free fall. And yet, turning a blind eye to what she’d discovered wasn’t an option. Ignoring what she’d learned wasn’t sustainable, not for someone like her who had to face the truth head-on. She made a living uncovering dark secrets.
So, for better or for worse, she, Lorelei and Reagan were going to get to know each other and try to figure out how they were related. Maybe once they started to delve into the past they’d find a string they could tug on that would unravel the whole story.
Before she could reach the main entrance downstairs, she heard the distressed voice of someone trying to console a crying child.
The child had to be Lucy.
Bracing herself—as much to meet her new family members as against the cold—Serenity opened the door just as Lorelei and her daughter came hurrying up the steps, gripping the railing tightly so they wouldn’t fall while sheltering their faces from the wind and snow.
“Lucy has to go to the bathroom,” Lorelei announced without preamble.
Serenity drew a steadying breath. Based on the photographs she’d seen, she wasn’t surprised but Lorelei looked just like her. It was uncanny, unsettling. “Down the hall, on the right,” she said, quickly stepping to the side.
Reagan took longer to reach the porch because she’d grabbed some of the luggage, which was smart. It would only be harder to go out later, when it was colder and darker and the vehicle could be buried in snow.
“I’m glad you made it safely.” Feeling awkward at finally facing someone who was closely related to her—and yet a complete stranger—Serenity reached out to take one of the suitcases Reagan carried.
“That one’s Lucy’s,” Reagan told her. “Lorelei will have to go out and get her own. This was all I could carry.”
“No problem.” Serenity had known that coming face-to-face with these two people might be difficult, but she hadn’t anticipated that this moment would feel quite so surreal. Although she didn’t want to be obvious, she let her gaze sweep over Reagan several times. The visual proof made everything in the DNA report undeniable. “How was your flight?”
Reagan seemed reticent. Was she feeling the same emotions? The shock and betrayal, as well as the excitement engendered by such a strange situation? Serenity couldn’t have felt more odd if she’d come face to face with an alien from outer space.
“Better than the drive here,” she replied.
Serenity got the impression Lucy had significantly contributed to the difficulty, so she didn’t press any further. “Well, fortunately, that’s behind you, and I’ve got a fire going in the living room upstairs.” Hoping to cover nervousness with politeness, she waved Reagan in ahead of her and managed to wrestle the door shut despite the howling wind. “Whew! I can’t believe it’s storming like this in May.”
Small talk. When there’s so much more to say…
“Just my luck.” Reagan dropped her own luggage, which looked far more expensive than what Serenity had seen of Lorelei’s so far. “Wouldn’t you know it, the weather in New York was nearly eighty degrees when I took off from La Guardia.”
“Hopefully this will blow through. The weather this time of year is normally beautiful.” Serenity couldn’t stop watching her and noticed that Reagan couldn’t quit staring, either. “Are you hungry? Did you have a chance to eat after you landed?”
It took Reagan a moment to respond. They were both transfixed. “Yeah, um, sorry. It’s just…well, you know. You look so much like me. So does Lorelei.”
“The situation is definitely…unique.”
“Right. We knew that coming into it. But you asked if we’ve eaten. Lorelei had a meal packed for Lucy, and she and I just grabbed something out of a vending machine.”
“Then you must be ready for something more. I brought groceries. I thought I’d make broccoli cheddar soup for dinner.”
The conversation once again fell by the wayside as they stood and gaped at each other.
“I can’t believe I’m related to you,” Reagan said, her voice barely a whisper. “But I have to admit—it’s like looking in a mirror.”
Serenity didn’t know whether to hug her or not. It hadn’t been a possibility when she’d walked through the door carrying so much luggage, but now they were both empty-handed. “Except that my hair’s a lot longer than yours.”
Another meaningless statement made because of nerves and self-consciousness…
“Are we doing the right thing?” Reagan asked with a degree of trepidation. “I mean…this is kind of a risk, isn’t it?”
That answered the hugging question. They were going to be open and honest with each other, not pretend to feel emotions they didn’t yet feel. “I have no idea,” Serenity replied. “But even if we aren’t, I have to know how this happened. Why it happened. And why no one ever told me. Don’t you?”
Reagan continued to study her closely—and ultimately nodded.
“I’m glad you came,” Serenity said. “That we’ll…that we’ll have a chance to get to know each other.”
“I should warn you that Lorelei and I haven’t started off on the best foot,” she said, but then the door to the bathroom opened.
As Lorelei led Lucy out, Reagan added a softly spoken, “Never mind.”
Serenity wasn’t sure what that meant. She hoped it was just the result of jangled nerves from having a four-year-old who was tired of being restrained in the car. “Lorelei,” she said, turning to greet her other half sister. “Thanks for coming.”
Lorelei didn’t seem happy, either. She certainly didn’t step up for an embrace. She seemed gun-shy, like an animal who stands back and watches warily, making sure it’s safe before venturing closer.
Considering what Serenity knew about her background, that made sense. She probably wasn’t someone who could trust easily.
“Thank you,” she said. “This is…this is really a nice place.”
Serenity quickly sized up both sisters, now that they were all standing close. They were both pretty. Lorelei had a softer, more full-figured look. Well-dressed Reagan seemed to be on the cutting edge of fashion, which made sense, since her mother was a designer. Her features were a bit more angular and she came off as decisive and in charge.
“It is. But you should see the other ‘cabins’ they have up here. Some are even called chalets,” she said with a laugh that she hoped would at least partially conceal her discomfort. “They’re owned by very wealthy people and go for millions of dollars.”
Lorelei’s eyes were wide as she looked around. “This one can’t be cheap.”
The comment reminded Serenity that they all came from such different backgrounds, and Lorelei had very little in the way of creature comforts growing up. “It didn’t cost a whole lot when my parents bought it, but that was thirty years ago. They’ve added on and improved it quite a bit since. And real estate values have gone up.”
Serenity gestured at the suitcase she’d taken from Reagan and left inside the doorway. “Reagan was nice enough to bring in Lucy’s bag, but that was all she could carry along with her own. Do you want to grab your luggage while I show Reagan to her room?”
“Sure.” She looked from Serenity to Reagan and back again, as though she, too, thought they might’ve fallen into an alternate universe. Obviously, Serenity wasn’t the only one struggling with this moment.
“I left it unlocked,” Reagan volunteered.
Finally, Lorelei turned to her daughter. “Sit right here, where it’s warm,” she told Lucy, gesturing to the soft leather couch. “Mommy will be right back.”
After Lorelei had buttoned her coat and headed back into the storm, Reagan lowered her voice. “This might be harder than we initially imagined,” she confided.
“Because of…” Serenity didn’t say Lucy’s name, but jerked her head in the child’s direction.
“No, that wouldn’t be a problem by itself. I’m referring to the fact that we were all raised by different families, have different backgrounds and experiences, and come with a different emotional makeup—maybe even a few scars. Will we be able to get along for an entire week?”
“Of course. All we have to do is remain open-minded and understanding.”
“A very California thing to say.”
“That isn’t how a New Yorker would handle it?”
“A New Yorker would be less euphemistic about the whole situation.”
Serenity glanced at Lucy, who was sitting dutifully in the small family room that formed the hub of the lowest level of the cabin, watching them with red, swollen eyes. This little person was her niece. Her first niece, since none of her siblings had any children, which only made the whole thing more bizarre. “What about a Floridian?” she asked.
Reagan shrugged as if to indicate it was anyone’s guess. “As I said—three different perspectives.”
Serenity went over to say hello to Lucy and introduce herself. She couldn’t get the little girl to respond—Lucy just kept ducking her head shyly—but Serenity couldn’t blame her. This was an unusual experience for her, too.
Straightening, she drew on the familiarity they’d gained interacting online to try and establish some normalcy. They’d all been rather guarded so far, but they did have some frame of reference. “It’s only a week, Reagan.”
Reagan didn’t seem convinced. “A week can feel like an eternity.”
“It should be enough to tell us if we ever want to do this again.” Serenity laughed, this time in an attempt to encourage Reagan to relax. She understood having second thoughts; she’d had a few of her own.
“If you say so.” Reagan stood back and gazed up the stairs. “How many bedrooms does this place have?”
Grateful that she’d no longer be standing there, feeling out of place despite the fact that this was her cabin, Serenity grabbed Reagan’s suitcase. “Five. Plus a library in the loft.” She didn’t bother to add that the fifth bedroom was off the loft, and that it was stuffed with boxes her parents hadn’t bothered to haul down to San Diego with them. It didn’t matter; they weren’t going to need that room, anyway.
“Wow. Five bedrooms and a library? You could have an army of siblings come stay with you—all at once.”
“Don’t say that,” she muttered ruefully.
“After what’s happened with us, you never know.”
This time they both laughed, and Serenity felt a wave of relief. Maybe a shared joke wasn’t a huge connection, but it was a start.