Release Date: July 28, 2015
2016 RITA Finalist
2016 Daphne du Maurier Finalist
2016 Award of Excellence Finalist
Did she once have a sister? Has her mother lied all these years? Why?
After a painful divorce, Maisey Lazarow returns to Fairham, the small island off the South Carolina coast where she grew up. She goes there to heal—and to help her brother, Keith, a deeply troubled man who’s asked her to come home. But she refuses to stay in the family house because the last person she wants to see is the wealthy, controlling mother she escaped years ago.Instead, she finds herself living next door to someone else she’d prefer to avoid—Rafe Romero, the wild, reckless boy to whom she lost her virginity at sixteen. He’s back on the island, and to her surprise, he’s raising a young daughter alone. Maisey’s still attracted to him, but her heart’s too broken to risk…
Then something even more disturbing happens. She discovers a box of photographs that evoke distant memories of a little girl, a child Keith remembers, too. Maisey believes the girl must’ve been their sister, but their mother claims there was no sister.
She’s convinced that child existed. So where is she now?
Check out THE SECRET SISTER’s special cover for my UK readers!
Re-release in mass market: September 1, 2016
“This emotional novel showcases Novak’s exceptional talent at creating genuine characters and real-life situations we sometimes try to dodge. The power of family is strong, and the element of mystery is stable throughout this romance. Fairham Island is painted as a picturesque seaside town, but the debut to this series could have readers believing there are a lot of buried secrets and stories to be told surrounding the residents’ wishes for peace and quiet. Completely engrossing with a twist at the end you wouldn’t dare dream of!”
~Jamie A. Geraldi, 4.5 Star Top Pick RT Book Reviews
“The Secret Sister is a sweet story that touches on the trials of life and illustrates how death, loss, abuse, despair, and unexpected trials can make us stronger, but also points out that it is perfectly acceptable to find someone to lean on when you really need the help. This is a great book that romance readers and fans of general fiction are bound to enjoy.”
~Portland Book Review
“Skillful plotting, well- developed characters (a blind little girl is adorable), a delightful romance, toxic family dynamics, and a puzzling mystery make this story a rewarding read that will appeal to both romance and women’s fiction fans.”
“In her latest, Novak (This Heart of Mine, 2015) neatly entwines contemporary romance and women’s fiction by delivering the emotionally compelling romance readers expect while at the same time thoughtfully exploring the other relationships every woman has in her life. Add a gothic-tinged plot, and you have a book with wide reader appeal.”
~ John Charles, Booklist
“The Secret Sister by Brenda Novak is indeed the best romantic thriller I have read… Brenda Novak has a raw talent for bringing her novels to life. Realistic, suspenseful, and an edge of your seat romance that will have readers coming back for more.”
~The San Francisco Book Review
MAISEY LAZAROW’S BROTHER met her at the ferry—alone. Part of her, a big part, was grateful her mother wasn’t with him. Even after ten years, Maisey wasn’t ready to confront the autocratic and all-powerful “queen” of Fairham, South Carolina. The fact that Josephine hadn’t deigned to come with Keith made it clear Maisey would not be easily forgiven. Only after her mother had punished her sufficiently would she be welcomed back into Josephine’s good graces.
Although Maisey had expected as much, coming up against that reality nearly made her balk. What was she doing here? She’d sworn she’d never return to the small island where she’d been raised, that she’d never again subject herself to Josephine’s manipulation and control.
But that was before, when she’d set off to build her shiny new life. And this was now, when that shiny new life had imploded on her. She was coming back to Fairham because her brother needed her but, truth be told, she needed Keith, too.
At least her mother wasn’t currently married. The men Josephine chose were almost as bad as she was, just in different ways.
What Maisey needed most was her father, she realized as she stood at the railing, peering through the passengers crowding the gangway. Breathing in the island air, smelling the salty ocean and wet wood of the wharf, it all reminded her of him. But Malcolm had died in a boating accident when she was ten. That was when her mother had grown even more overbearing. Without Malcolm, there was no one to soften Josephine’s sharper edges, no one to hold her in check. Not that the buffer he’d provided was the only reason, or even the primary reason, she missed him…
“There you are!” Keith called across the distance, waving to make sure he had her attention.
Grabbing the handles of her two suitcases, which contained everything she hadn’t shipped to the island in boxes, she stepped into the flow of people so she could disembark. It was too late to change her mind about moving home. She’d given up her apartment in Manhattan and depleted most of her savings, thanks to the exorbitant fees of the divorce attorney she’d had to hire.
“You look great,” Keith told her as she moved closer.
Maisey conjured up her best approximation of a smile—she seemed unable to smile spontaneously these days—and embraced him. “Thanks.” She was wearing an expensive white tunic with Jimmy Choo shoes and Chanel jewelry, but she’d never looked worse and she knew it. She hadn’t been sleeping or eating well—not since that day two years ago, the worst day of her life. It didn’t help that her brother was also going through a difficult time. Once she’d learned about his suicide attempt, she’d been so manic about selling her furniture and what she could sacrifice of her other belongings so she could return to Fairham to be with him that she hadn’t bothered to do much shopping or cooking, which had caused her to lose even more weight. Her color wasn’t good, either.
But her brother didn’t look much better. Nearly six-foot-six with a set of broad shoulders that gave him a nice frame, he could stand to gain some weight, too. And he had dark circles under his eyes—the same blue-green eyes she possessed that always drew so much attention.
“You look good, too,” she lied, and suppressed a wry chuckle. She was home, all right. The pretense was already starting. Her ex-husband’s frank honesty was one of the things that had attracted her to him, which made his actions at the end of their marriage seem especially ironic.
“How was your trip?” Keith pulled her thoughts away from the past, where they resided far too frequently.
“Not bad,” she replied. No way did she want to regale him with stories of how difficult she found it just to walk out of her apartment building. She’d spent weeks at a time holed up in bed, but he didn’t need to know that only the urgency of his situation had been sufficient motivation to get her on her feet again. “How’s Mom?”
He shot her a look that acknowledged the tension any reference to Josephine created. “The same. She might not act like it, but she’s excited to have you home. She’s had a room in the east wing prepared for you.”
The guest wing? The significance of that didn’t escape Maisey. If there’d been any doubt that she was to be treated with cool disdain until she’d done her penance, this proved it.
The anger that flared up, making her stiffen, surprised Maisey. Apparently she wasn’t completely cowed and broken. The idea of walking into Coldiron House— named after Josephine’s father, Henry Coldiron, who’d owned most of the island before Josephine inherited it—brought back a hint of her old defiance. She couldn’t cope with living there, couldn’t submit, as she would have to submit, in order to regain her mother’s approval.
“I won’t be staying at Mom’s,” she said.
Keith had started to reach for her suitcases. At this, he straightened. “What do you mean?”
“I mean I have to find somewhere else.”
He measured her with his eyes, and she found them so hollow she grew frightened for him all over again. Was he doing as well as he claimed? He didn’t seem to be particularly robust—in body or spirit.
“I understand it’ll be a bit uncomfortable for you at first.” He glanced away as if he could tell she was trying to see behind the front he was putting on. “But trust me. Mom will come around. You’ll piss her off if you don’t stay at the house, and that’ll only make matters worse. After a few weeks…”
“No.” She broke in before he could get any further into his appeal. “I can’t do it.”
He stared at her. “You’re serious. You’ve barely arrived, and you’re going to make her angry? She has too much pride to put up with the rejection.”
“She rejected me first. And I don’t have a relationship with her, anyway,”
Maisey said. “We communicate through email or her housekeeper, for crying out loud. I’ve spoken to her only a handful of times over the past decade.” And when they had talked, there’d been more silence than anything. There’d even been silence when Maisey had desperately craved consolation.
“You need her,” he said. “We both do. And that means we’ll always be under her thumb.”
Although she was secretly frightened that might be true, Maisey scoffed at it. “No. I’ll help you, stand by you. I just need to…to get back on my feet, and she can only hurt my ability to do that.” The thought of walking through those heavy doors, dragging her belongings behind her, almost gave her a panic attack. At least, if she didn’t stay at Coldiron House, she’d retain some autonomy, some independence.
She had to protect the little peace of mind she had left. He rubbed his gaunt face. “So where will you stay?”
“I could rent a room from someone in town.” She had enough money for that, didn’t she? Her reserves would last six months or so…
“Here on Fairham?” Her brother shook his head, adamant. “That would provoke an all-out war.”
He was right. To maintain some semblance of peace, she couldn’t cross certain lines. She couldn’t embarrass her mother by revealing that there was any strain inside the family. Appearances were everything to Josephine. They were
Coldirons, even though their surname was technically Lazarow, and they needed to comport themselves as such.
How many times had she heard that lecture?
“What if I got an apartment in Charleston?” she asked, but decided against it almost as soon as the words passed her lips. Charleston would cost too much and, left on her own, she wouldn’t recover. Being sequestered in a cheap, unfamiliar apartment would be worse than living alone in New York with the furniture Jack hadn’t taken.
“I don’t see…” he started, but she cut him off again.
“Wait.” The solution had occurred to her, and it was so obvious she couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought of it before. “Why couldn’t I stay in one of the bungalows?”
“The vacation rentals? They’re on the far side of the island!”
“So?” Going back and forth to Coldiron House wouldn’t require a ferry, like it would from Charleston. And it was September, when the small influx of vacationers who visited Fairham each summer returned to their regular lives. One of the nine units should be available. “We’re talking ten miles if I take the bike path. I’ll buy a bike and ride over whenever you want me to. Or you can come hang out at my place.”
Maisey felt that would be even better. Not only would living in Smuggler’s Cove enable her to avoid their mother, it would provide Keith a place to go occasionally, a place where he wouldn’t have to deal with Josephine—meaning he wouldn’t have to resort to drugs as his escape.
“Most of them haven’t been refurbished since Hurricane Lorna last fall,” he said.
“I could’ve sworn you told me months ago that Mom was hiring a contractor.” That was well before Keith’s last big blowup with Josephine, when he’d stormed off to “live his own life.” He’d disappeared for several months before ending up on another drug binge, which had culminated in the black moment that had brought him home again—the same black moment that had ultimately brought her home, too.
“She has hired a contractor,” he said, “but she didn’t get around to it until I got back a couple of weeks ago. Construction’s just begun.”
Her mother had waited a year to rebuild? “Why’d she wait so long?”
He took her suitcase, and walked toward the sleek gray Mercedes he’d parked in the lot. It was their mother’s car. He no longer owned anything to speak of.
Although he’d turned thirty-six in February, an age by which most people had managed to accumulate a vehicle and some furniture or other personal property, he’d sold everything for drug money. What he hadn’t sold, he’d given away while he was high or destroyed out of anger and frustration.
“She was in another relationship with some off-islander, so she couldn’t be bothered,” he said in response to her question. “But I’m sure she’ll tell you the delay was all my fault. As you know, I haven’t made things easy on her—or anyone else.”
Including himself… Keith had caused nothing but heartache. But it disturbed Maisey that her mother always had to assign blame. “The future doesn’t have to be a reflection of the past.” She touched his arm for encouragement. “We’ll get through the coming months together. It’ll be okay now that we have each other.”
When he didn’t respond, Maisey wished she hadn’t questioned him about the delay in construction, hadn’t made him accept responsibility for it. He needed to look ahead—not behind. “I’m sure the bungalows will be ready by next summer, which means we only missed one tourist season.”
He was putting her suitcases in the trunk, so she couldn’t read his expression. “That’s the goal,” he said.
“Have you been out to see them recently?” she asked as they slid into the sun- warmed interior of the Mercedes and buckled their seat belts.
“Mom’s sent me over once or twice, yeah.” “How bad are they?”
She cringed. “Structurally?”
“Units 1 to 4 need structural repairs.”
“What about 5 to 9?” They were set back off the beach, in the trees. Maisey assumed the wind hadn’t hit them as hard.
“They’re sound, but they still need a lot of work.”
Maisey hated that the bungalows had been damaged. Since the eighties, when her father’d had them built, Smuggler’s Cove had been a magical place for her, a place where she could find him, or some essence of him, even after he was gone. She had so many fond memories of tagging along to the rentals that, when he died, she’d wanted to scatter his ashes there on the beach. But her mother retained control of his remains, like she did everything else. His ashes were kept in a decorative urn on the mantel of the formal living room at Coldiron House. Not for any sentimental reason. But because it allowed Josephine to pretend he was her one great love, since she hadn’t been able to get along with anyone else—not for long, anyway. Every other relationship had fallen apart within two or three years.
“I don’t mind helping with the cleanup and repairs, maybe doing some painting, that sort of thing.” There was a period when she and Jack, her ex- husband, had watched almost every do-it-yourself show on TV, and used much of what they’d learned to improve their small cabin in the Catskill Mountains. It had been sold, as stipulated by the divorce decree, but she’d always loved it there.
Keith backed out of the parking space. “I’m not sure the contractor’s going to like having you in the middle of everything.”
“I’ll stay out of his way.” She tucked her dark hair behind her ears. It was getting too long; she needed to have it trimmed. “Who’d Mom hire? Anyone from around here?”
“Raphael Something. Can’t remember his last name. I didn’t ask where he was from. I know he’s done other work on the island, though, because I’ve seen his sign—High Tide Construction.”
Maisey had never met anyone by that name or heard of the company. But then, plenty could’ve changed since she’d been gone. “Can we go to Smuggler’s Cove now, see if it’s even a possibility?”
He hit the brake, stopping before they could exit the lot. “You’re not thinking of moving in without asking Mom…”
Knowing that she had a viable alternative—if she did have one—would help her get through that daunting first encounter. “I can’t imagine she’d refuse to let me live in one of Dad’s bungalows. He’d turn over in his grave if she did.” They were something her father had created and paid for with the money he’d brought remember?”
“If she follows his wishes.”
Maisey had to acknowledge that the future of the cottages rested in her mother’s hands, since Josephine had inherited them first. “Well, you’ve heard the cliché—it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”
He pursed his lips. “Not with her.”
The complexity of Keith’s relationship with Josephine accounted for a lot of his problems. Maisey wished he could get out on his own so he wouldn’t need Josephine’s help. Then he could also reject her advice and any unwanted intrusions into his life. But, so far, that hadn’t happened; he and Josephine were mutually dependent on each other. She provided financial support, and since she couldn’t be satisfied with any of her romances, he gave her companionship—when he wasn’t acting out. They loved each other but hated each other, too. But because Maisey was coming home with almost nothing, she wasn’t exactly the perfect example of how to get away, so she hesitated to say too much.
“Come on, I’m on her shit list, anyway,” she said, pretending more indifference than she felt.
He released a sigh. “Fine. Then why not really piss her off, huh?”
Read a BONUS scene from THE SECRET SISTER that isn’t in the book!
The Secret Sister by Brenda Novak – Bonus Scene
Discover a map of Fairham Island!
Read an excerpt from deep in the book!
The Secret Sister by Brenda Novak – Sneak Preview Scene
Many people would say that parenting has changed a great deal during the past two or three generations. Do you agree? If so, what do you feel are some of the most significant changes? What positives result from these changes? Do you see any negatives?
Quite a few children seem to carry resentment because of the way they were raised, while others seem to escape the damage from poor parental behavior—and the resentment it causes. Why is there such a drastic difference, often within the same household?
How can people who hang on to resentment, especially against friends or family members, begin to let it go? What might happen if they don’t?
Do you feel that Keith will be able to change his life? Do you think it was his mother’s behavior that caused him to act out? Does his relationship with Maisey make a difference, give him a better chance at recovery?
Josephine has never been a nurturing parent, and yet she always made sure her children were safe and supervised, and that their physical needs were met. What do you think compels her to act as she does? Would you say she loves her children in spite of her sharp edges?
Do you blame Gretchen for doing what she did—even though, because of her actions, Roxanne/Annabelle lived a happier life?
If you were Roxanne/Annabelle, how would you feel toward the woman who raised you?
According to Robert Frost, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Would you say Fairham is a safe haven for Maisey? Or another challenge?
How does the love Rafe shows Laney affect Maisey?
What impact did Malcolm, Maisey’s father, have on her life? How did his death change her—and her family?
Do you feel that Maisey and Rafe are a well-matched couple? Why or why not?