Mar 30 2012 4:30pm
Jill Farrow is a typical suburban mom who has finally gotten her and her daughter’s lives back on track after a divorce. She is about to remarry, her job as a pediatrician fulfills her—though it is stressful—and her daughter, Megan, is a happily over-scheduled thirteen-year-old juggling homework and the swim team.
But Jill’s life is turned upside down when her ex-stepdaughter, Abby, shows up on her doorstep late one night and delivers shocking news: Jill’s ex-husband is dead. Abby insists that he was murdered and pleads with Jill to help find his killer. Jill reluctantly agrees to make a few inquiries and discovers that things don’t add up. As she digs deeper, her actions threaten to rip apart her new family, destroy their hard-earned happiness, and even endanger her own life. Yet Jill can’t turn her back on a child she loves and once called her own.
Get a sneak peek of Come Home by Lisa Scottoline (available April 10, 2012) with an excerpt of Chapters 1-3.
Jill stopped on the stairway, listening. She thought she heard a voice calling her from outside, but she’d been wrong before. It was probably the rushing of the rain, or the lash of the wind through the trees. Still, she listened, hoping.
“Babe?” Sam paused on the stair, resting his hand on the banister. He looked back at her, his eyes a puzzled blue behind his glasses. “Did you forget your phone?”
“No, I thought I heard something.” Jill didn’t elaborate. She was in her forties, old enough to have a past and wise enough to keep her thoughts about it to herself.
“What?” Sam asked, patiently. It was almost midnight, and they’d been on their way to bed. The house was dark except for the glass fixture above the stairwell, and the silvery strands in Sam’s thick, dark hair glinted in the low light. Their chubby golden retriever, Beef, was already upstairs, looking down at them from the landing, his buttery ears falling forward.
“It’s nothing, I guess.” Jill started back up the stairs, but Beef swung his head toward the front of the house and gave an excited bark. His tail started to wag, and Jill turned, too, listening again.
“It’s Abby!” Jill heard it for sure, this time. The cry resonated in her chest, speaking directly to her heart. She turned around and hurried for the entrance hall, and Beef scampered downstairs after her, his heavy butt getting ahead of him, like a runaway tractor-trailer.
“Abby who?” Sam called after her. “Your ex’s kid?”
“Yes.” Jill reached the front door, twisted the deadbolt, flicked on the porch light, and threw open the door. Abby wasn’t there, and Jill didn’t see her because it was so dark. There were no streetlights at this end of the block, and the rain obliterated the outlines of the houses and cars, graying out the suburban scene.
Suddenly, a black SUV with only one headlight drove past, spotlighting a silhouette that Jill would know anywhere. It was Abby, but she was staggering down the sidewalk as if she’d been injured.
“Sam, call 911!” Jill bolted out of the house and into the storm, diagnosing Abby on the fly. It could have been a hit-and-run, or an aneurysm. Not a stroke, Abby was too young. Not a gunshot or stab wound, in this neighborhood.
Jill tore through the rain. Beef bounded ahead, barking in alarm. The neighbor’s motion-detector went on, casting a halo of light on their front lawn. Abby stumbled off the sidewalk. Her purse slipped from her shoulder and dropped to the ground. Abby took a few more faltering steps, then collapsed, crumpling to the grass.
“Abby!” Jill screamed, sprinting to Abby’s side, kneeling down.
Abby was conscious, but crying. Jill reached for her pulse and scanned her head and body for signs of injury, and there were none. Rainwater covered Abby’s face, streaking her mascara and blackening her tears. Her hair stuck to her neck, and rain plastered her thin sundress to her body. Her pulse felt strong and steady, bewildering Jill. “Abby, Abby, what is it?”
“You have to . . . hold me.” Abby raised her arms. “Please.”
Jill gathered Abby close, shielding her from the rain. She’d held
Abby so many times before, and all the times rushed back at her, as if her very body had stored the memories, until that very moment.
Jill flashed on the time Abby had fallen off her Rollerblades, breaking an ankle. Then the time Abby had gotten a C on her trig final. The time she didn’t get picked for the travel soccer team.
Abby had always been a sensitive little girl, but she wasn’t a little girl anymore, and Jill had never seen her cry so hard.
“Abby, honey, please, tell me, and I can help.”
“I can’t say it . . . it’s so awful.” Abby sobbed, and Jill caught a distinct whiff of alcohol on her breath and came up to speed. Abby wasn’t injured, she’d been drinking. Jill hadn’t seen her in three years, and Abby had grown up; she’d be nineteen now.
Abby sobbed harder. “Jill, Dad’s dead . . . he’s dead.”
“What?” Jill gasped, shocked. Her ex-husband was in excellent health, still in his forties. “How?”
“Somebody . . . killed him.” Abby dissolved into tears, her body going limp, clinging to Jill. “Please, you have to . . . help me. I have to find out . . . who did it.”
Jill hugged her closer, feeling her grief and struggling to process what had happened. She couldn’t imagine William as a murder victim, or a victim of any kind, for that matter, but her first thought was of his daughters, Abby and Victoria, and her own daughter, Megan. The news would devastate all of them, Megan included. William was her stepfather, but the only father she’d ever known. Her real father had died before she was born.
“Babe, what are you doing? Let’s get her into the house!” Sam shouted, to be heard over the rain. He was kneeling on Abby’s other side, though Jill didn’t know when he’d gotten there.
“William’s been murdered,” Jill told him, sounding numb, even to herself.
“I heard. We’re not calling 911, she’s just drunk.” Sam squinted against the brightness of the motion-detector light. Raindrops soaked his hair and dappled his polo shirt. “Let me take her arm. Lift her on one, two, three,” he counted off, tugging Abby’s arm.
“Okay, go.” Jill took Abby’s other arm, and together they hoisted her, sobbing, to her feet, gathered her purse, and half walked and half carried her toward the house, sloshing through the grass, with Beef at their heels.
Jill tried to collect her thoughts, which were in turmoil. She’d always dreamed of seeing Abby again, but not in these circumstances, and she dreaded telling Megan about William. But as agonized as she felt for the girls, Jill wouldn’t shed a tear for her ex-husband. There was a reason she had divorced the man, and it was a whopper.
And evidently, not only the good died young.
“Come in and sit down, honey. Here, right here.” Jill helped Abby to the kitchen island, catching Sam’s eye. “Sam, I’ll take her from here; can you get us a glass of water and some towels?”
“Sure.” Sam eased Abby off his arm and hustled to the sink, while Beef danced a circle around them, wagging his tail, missing the point entirely.
“I can’t believe . . . Dad’s really gone.” Abby slumped heavily into the seat, covering her face with her hands, her body wracked with sobs. “It’s so . . . horrible . . . I don’t know what to do . . . I’m not ever . . . going to see him again.”
“I know, sweetie, I know.” Jill sat down next to Abby and held her while she wept, and all her love for the girl came flooding back, coursing through her system, flowing warm and sure as lifeblood.
“I’m so, so sorry.”
“I don’t know . . . who did this to him . . . or why . . . I still can’t even . . . believe it’s true.” Abby wept, bereft and broken. “I won’t talk to him . . . ever, ever again . . . that’s not possible, that’s not even . . . possible . . . and I don’t know what to do.”
“I know, I understand.” Jill hugged her closer, trying to warm her with her body, feeling every inch like her mother, all over again. Abby’s real mother had died when she was only four years old, and Jill had been her stepmother for eight years, raising Abby and her older sister Victoria for most of their childhood.
“I live at home and . . . even though Dad was, like, away a lot . . .I knew . . . I could call him . . . and ask him stuff.”
“You poor thing.” Jill looked up when Sam brought her the water glass and set it down on the island.
“Here we go,” he said quietly, meeting her eye with concern.
“You okay, babe?”
“Yes, thanks.” Jill nodded, but she was fighting her own tears.
It killed her to hear Abby’s hoarse, choking sobs, echoing in the quiet house.
“Okay, I’ll get the towels, be right back.” Sam patted Jill’s shoulder, then left for upstairs.
“And he took care . . . of the bills . . . and everything in the house . . . and I don’t know how . . . to do everything . . . all by myself . . . and now . . . I’m all alone . . . like, there’s no one.”
“There’s me, Abby. You have me,” Jill said, without a second thought, and the next few words arrived unbidden, as if they’d been waiting offstage for their cue. “I love you, honey, and I always will.”
“Oh, God, I love you, too.” Abby looked up in Jill’s embrace, her eyes brimming with tears. Mascara marred her cheeks, and the fair skin on her cheeks was mottled with emotion. “Jill, I love you, so much . . . you’re my mom . . . and you always will be and you always were.”
“It’s okay now, honey. I’m here.” Jill wiped tears and makeup from Abby’s cheeks, comforting her. “Don’t cry, it’s okay.”
“I don’t know why you still even . . . love me.” Abby shook her head, bewildered. Tears spilled from her eyes. “I don’t even deserve . . . to be here, with you.”
“Of course you do, honey.” Jill’s heart broke for her. “What a thing to say. Of course you do.”
“No, I don’t . . . I don’t . . . you called and called . . . and I didn’t even call you back . . . I wanted to, I did, but Dad said not to . . . I was afraid to . . . he’d go ballistic if he found out . . . that’s why I didn’t.” Abby cried, her gaze on Jill, pleading. “I’m so sorry . . . I feel so guilty . . . and I’m so sorry . . . I had nowhere else to go . . . I feel like such a jerk.”
“It’s okay, honey.” Jill’s throat caught, and she hugged Abby again, cradling her. “You know if I had it my way, we would’ve talked all the time.” Jill had done everything in her power to stay in touch with the girls, but William had demanded she stop trying to contact them, even threatening her with a restraining order.
She’d hired a lawyer to see if she had any legal recourse, but she didn’t, and the lawyer had advised her that opposing a restraining order would mean that the girls had to testify, and she couldn’t bring herself to do that to them.
“I don’t know . . . how you could still love me . . . after so long, like three years.”
“Love doesn’t go away, not this kind of love.” Jill hadn’t seen the girls since that awful night, but the rupture still felt as fresh as yesterday.
“I know . . . I’m the one who did the bad thing . . . the way I treated you . . . you tried so hard to talk to us.”
“Don’t worry about it for a minute. Divorce is hard and weird, and it’s not your fault, at all.” Jill felt Abby’s body shudder with each sob. William would have done anything to get her back for the divorce, even if it meant hurting Abby and Victoria, but she didn’t want to think about him now, just Abby.
“How can you forgive me . . . I’m such a terrible person . . . and I knew if I came here, you’d be so nice.”
“Honey, of course I would, and I’m glad you did, even on this sad day. Especially on this sad day. You’ve come . . . to the right place.” Jill stopped just short of saying, you’ve come home.
“Thanks, so much.” Abby burrowed her head in Jill’s shoulder.
“I really do love you . . . and I really missed you . . . so much . . . and I’m sorry I didn’t call you back . . . I hoped you knew . . . I didn’t forget you.”
“I did know, and that’s why I stopped, too. You know that I thought of you and Victoria, all the time.”
“I never stopped loving you . . . Jill, or wishing . . . I could see you.”
“I know, sweetie. I always loved you, too. You know that.” Jill felt her chest tighten, her anger like a fist at the ready. She hoped
William was burning in hell right this minute. It felt strange to have such hate for him and such love for Abby, both at once. “Breathe, honey. Just breathe, and I have Kleenex here. Want some? That’ll help.”
“Okay . . . yes . . . good idea.” Abby released her, and Jill reached for the box of Kleenex, pulled out a few, and handed them to Abby.
“Here we go. Blow your nose, then have a sip of water.”
“Yuck, I’m so snotty . . . I always cry like such a . . . dumb baby.” Abby took the tissues, mopped her eyes and cheeks, then blew her nose noisily. “Gross.”
“Here, take some more.” Jill took the dirty tissues, handed Abby a bunch more, and Abby blew her nose again, then surrendered the soiled ones to Jill.
“Don’t worry about it.” Jill handed her another few tissues, and
Abby sniffled, wiping her eyes, her tears subsiding.
“I feel like such a . . . little kid.”
“Everybody feels like a little kid when they cry. Ready for some water?” Jill handed Abby the water glass, and Abby took it with two hands, her fingernails polished dark purple.
“Thanks.” Abby drank thirstily, and Jill appraised her with a maternal eye. Abby’s eyes were bloodshot and sunken, as if she hadn’t been getting enough sleep, and her dress was too thin for the weather, clinging wetly to a body that was shapely, if a little too skinny. Her dark blonde hair dripped with rainwater.
“Need more water?” Jill looked over as Sam returned with the towels.
“Here we go, babe.”
“Thanks.” Jill took the towels and set one on the island as Abby put the water down.
“No more water, thanks.”
“Take a towel.” Jill placed the towel around Abby’s shoulders, rubbing her upper arms to warm her. “Better, honey?”
“Yes, thanks.” Abby’s chest heaved once, then again, and she sniffled.
“No, thanks. Whew.” Abby seemed to be getting her bearings, straightening up in the seat, blinking to clear her eyes. She dried her face on the towel’s edge, leaving streaks of pinkish blusher and lip gloss. “Oops. Sorry.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Jill handed her the other towel, and Abby flopped it onto her head and twisted it into a turban.
“I just can’t believe Dad’s really gone.” Abby sighed deeply, her lower lip trembling.
“I know, I’m so sorry, honey.”
“Sorry I lost it like that.” Abby shook her head, her lovely eyes shining, brown as earth itself.
“Don’t be. It’s an impossible thing to go through.”
“Well, I’m not buzzed anymore, that’s for sure.”
Jill patted her arm. “Let me get you some coffee, okay? Warm you up?”
“Still take it black?” Jill got up from the island and went around to the coffeemaker.
“Yes, like you.” Abby brightened, adjusting the towel on her head. She had matured into a natural beauty, but looked more like her younger self without the makeup; she still had her large, round eyes, a small, straight nose, fair skin, and lips shaped like a Cupid’s bow.
“Okay, hang in.” Jill plucked a coffee pod from the bowl and popped it into the machine, then took a mug from the cabinet, slid it under the spout, and hit BREW. “How about something to eat?”
“I’d love that, if it’s not too much trouble.”
“Great.” Jill felt better at the prospect. If she couldn’t cure something, she’d cook something. “Why don’t I make you some French toast?”
“My favorite.” Abby managed a shaky smile, her eyes glistening.
“Of course.” Jill smiled, then went to the refrigerator and retrieved a carton of eggs, bread, and a plastic bottle of two percent.
“But the days of white bread are over. I have only whole wheat.”
“That’s okay. Jeez, I miss your cooking.”
Jill felt her heart ease, seeing Abby recover her composure. She brought the food to the counter, and the coffee brewed behind her, filling the air with a delicious aroma. “Sam, you want some coffee or French toast, too?”
“No, thanks,” Sam answered. He was leaning against the sink, his arms crossed over his chest, with Beef sitting at his side. The rain was beginning to dry on his polo shirt. They both were still dressed from their run, in polo shirts, gym shorts, and sneakers.
Abby sighed, heavily. “Dad died four days ago, on Tuesday. The cops said it was a heart attack, caused by alcohol and prescription meds.”
Jill blinked. “I thought you said he was murdered.”
“I think he was.”
“You do, but the police don’t?”
“Right.” Abby straightened up, her tone newly firm. “I think they’re wrong. Rather, I know they’re wrong. You’re a doctor, and you know Dad. He didn’t take any prescription meds. He was murdered, no matter what the police say.”
Jill cracked some eggs into a bowl, hiding her confusion. She’d never known William to take prescription meds, but she’d never known the real William Skyler. He was the ultimate con man, fooling her, Megan, and even his own daughters. “So the police say it wasn’t murder. What do they think it was?”
“They say it was an accidental overdose. The cocktail, what ever that means.”
“It means that certain drugs can kill you, in combination with alcohol.” The coffee was ready, and Jill set the full mug in front of Abby. “What drugs did he take?”
“He didn’t take them.” Abby picked up the coffee and held it in two hands, warming her fingers. “The report came back today and said he had the drugs in his body, but I know he didn’t put them there. He never would have, and I went on the Internet and it doesn’t say those are lethal drugs, anyway.” Abby sipped some coffee, then set it down, sniffling. “The cops found pill bottles in his bedroom, but I never saw them before, and they didn’t dust for fingerprints like on TV, to see how they got there.”
“What pills did they find?” Jill retrieved a fork and beat the eggs.
“Three bottles. Xanax, Vicodin, and one other, T-something.”
“Yes. I knew you’d know.” Abby brightened a little.
“They’re common drugs for anxiety and pain, honey.” Jill drizzled a dash of vanilla into the egg mixture, veining the light with the dark, then beat it again.
“Not common for Dad.” Abby shifted forward, and water dripped from a curling tendril that had escaped from the towel turban. “Plus, there was a bottle of whisky in his office, but no glass. When did you ever know Dad to drink out of a bottle? Never, and the drugs had to be planted there, by whoever killed him.”
“What does Victoria say?” Jill picked up a pan that had been drying on the counter, cut in a pat of butter, and set it on the stove, firing up the gas.
“She says I just don’t want to accept that Dad’s dead.”
Jill could have guessed as much. Victoria was always the sensible one to Abby’s free spirit. “Couldn’t she be right? It’s a hard thing to deal with—”
“She’s wrong, they all are. I know it, and we’ll prove it.” Abby looked down as Beef trotted over, wagging his tail, sending droplets flying. She rested her hand on his coppery head, where his wet fur spiked at the crown, like a doggie punk rocker. “I missed Beef, too. Remember the day we got him?”
“Sure.” Jill did. It had been a cold, sunny afternoon at a golden retriever rescue in Delaware County. The three girls cooed over a passel of fluffy golden puppies, and Abby scooped up the fattest one, naming him on the spot. This one is Beef on the hoof!
“Where’s Megan?” Abby asked, adjusting the towel.
“At a sleepover.” Jill opened the bread and dunked a slice into the eggs.
“Aw, I wanted to see her. I miss her, too.”
“You’ll see her in the morning. Stay over with us. Right, Sam?”
Jill realized with embarrassment that she hadn’t introduced them, at all. She abandoned the slice of bread. “Yikes, I’m sorry. Abby, this is my fiancé, Sam Becker. Sam, Abby Skyler.”
“Hello, Abby.” Sam smiled at her, with sympathy. “I’m sorry about your loss, and of course you can stay here to night.”
Abby seemed to be leaning away from Sam, almost recoiling, though she said, “Nice to meet you, Sam.”
“Yes, thanks, Sam,” Jill chimed in, trying to smooth over her own awkwardness. It struck her as odd that Abby and Sam had never met, as if her life had been hacked into pieces, not only the Before and After of two marriages, but the Before and Before and After, of three. She had been a widow when she’d met William, and Sam would be her third husband.
Abby kept an eye on Sam. “Not gonna lie, Sam, I feel like you’re mad at me or something. Are you? Don’t be mad at me, okay?”
Jill tensed, and she could smell the butter starting to burn in the pan. She hated burned butter. She turned off the gas for a moment.
“I’m not angry at you, Abby, I’m concerned,” Sam answered, gently. “You drove here, drunk. That concerns me, for your sake and for the sake of others.”
Jill turned to Abby, puzzled. “You drove? I thought that SUV dropped you off.”
“What SUV? I parked around the corner. I looked up your address online but couldn’t find the street.” Abby looked down as Beef nudged her with his muzzle, his bid to keep getting petted. “I’m sorry, I won’t do it again.”
“I know you won’t, sweetie.” Jill didn’t have the heart to lecture Abby, not tonight. “What did you have to drink?”
“Just some vodka and orange juice.”
“Hard liquor?” Jill hid her dismay. Abby used to be so wholesome and healthy, a competitive swimmer. All the girls swam, Jill had taught them.
“I’m sorry, I know, I was upset, because of Dad.” Abby stroked Beef, who rested his big head on her lap. “It’s so good to see Beef again. I was worried he died.”
“He’s not that old, is he?”
“Sure he is.” Abby patted the dog, and her wet dress gapped at the neckline, revealing a flowery tattoo above one breast. “He’ll turn ten, this Valentine’s Day.”
“Really?” Jill tried not to stare at the tattoo, lost in time, for a moment. When did Abby start drinking, or get old enough for a tattoo? When did Beef get so old? Where did all the time go? Abby had arrived out of nowhere, and it was as if Jill’s past had crashed her present like a house party, leaving her disoriented.
“You said you remembered, Jill. We picked him out on Valentine’s Day. It was Dad’s present, for you.”
“Oh right.” Jill had forgotten that part. She let the moment pass, eyeing Sam’s back as he turned around, tore off a paper towel, and wiped his face and glasses.
“This is such a pretty room.” Abby was looking around the kitchen. “It’s so you, Jill.”
“Thanks.” Jill glanced around, too, proudly. The house was still a work in progress, but the kitchen was warm and homey, ringed by white cabinets and countertops of ivory granite veined with butterscotch. The walls glowed a golden hue, which set off a cherry dining table and kitchen island, where they all ate, used the laptop, or did their homework, like the sun to their family solar system.
“I’m really sorry about the drinking, Jill.”
“I understand.” Jill was curious where she got the liquor, but didn’t want to torture her, not now. “I saw on Facebook that Victoria’s in law school, at Seton Hall. How’s she doing?”
Sam looked over, but he didn’t say anything, and Jill read his mind. He was surprised that she followed the girls on Facebook. She had never told him that.
“Victoria loves law school, which isn’t surprising. She was doing great, until Dad.” Abby paused. “You know how she is. She’ll be fine.”
“You both will, in time, but don’t rush it. Grief takes all the time it needs, no matter what you do.” Jill knew that Victoria would internalize her grief, much like Megan would.
“She lives with some roommates, near school. I was living with Dad in town, but now I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“Why aren’t you in college, honey? You’re so smart.” Jill kept her tone non-judgmental, but Abby still avoided her eye.
“I’m waitressing. I guess you saw, I started at art school but I broke up with Santos and that kind of messed me up. I’ll go back someday, I know it’s a good thing.” Abby seemed to deflate again, her shoulders sloping and her turban sliding to the side.
“Anyway, Dad’s memorial service is tomorrow. They already cremated him. Victoria arranged it, I couldn’t deal.” Abby sighed.
“Can you come to the service, Jill? And can Megan?”
“We’ll see. I have to ask her. I know she’ll be so sad about your Dad.”
“Afterwards I can take you over to the house, and you can see what I mean. Dad was murdered, I know it.”
Jill felt torn. “I can’t do that, honey, especially not with Megan.”
“But I’ll prove it to you, I’ll show you Dad’s medical papers. You’ll see he didn’t take those drugs, there’s no record of it. You know Dad used to save all his medical stuff in one place, because of his cholesterol.”
Jill returned to making the French toast, while Abby talked.
William had always taken excellent care of himself. It was everybody else he disregarded, even his daughters.
“He never would have taken those pills on purpose. So he had to have been murdered, and you can help me figure it out.”
“No, I can’t. I’m a pediatrician, not a detective.”
“You’re a doctor, and Sherlock Holmes was a doctor. You told me that, remember, for that English paper? I got a B plus, because of you.”
Jill felt touched. “What I said was that the author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was a successful doctor, and Dr. Watson was as important as Sherlock.”
“But you said that the way they solved a murder case was the same way you diagnose a disease.” Abby leaned over, urgent. “Please, will you help me? We can do it together.”
Sam cleared his throat. “Ladies, I’ll let you two spend some time alone.” He came over and kissed Jill lightly on the cheek.
“Love you. Call me if you need anything.” He turned to Abby, straightening. “Goodnight, Abby.”
“Goodnight.” Abby gave him a little wave, and Sam left the kitchen. When he was barely out of earshot, she leaned over and said, “He’s kind of old for you, don’t you think?”
“No. Hush.” Jill saw Sam turn around, but she knew it was the liquor talking. “Now, drink your coffee.”
“I think a shower might be a good idea for you, before bed, don’t you?” Jill climbed the stairs with Abby, who was still in her turban and towel.
“Yes. Clean me up and tuck me in, huh?”
“That’s the idea.” Jill put an arm around her, and Abby looked over, her expression sad and soft.
“Dad never got serious with anyone after you, Jill, you know. We met a few of his dates, but he didn’t have a girlfriend.”
“That’s too bad.” Jill kept her thoughts to herself. They took a left at the landing, past a lineup of candid photographs of her and Megan. “Come this way. We have a guest room you can sleep in, with its own bathroom.”
Abby stopped on the stair, at the photographs. “These pictures are so nice. Did you guys go to a photographer or something?”
“No, Sam took them. It’s a hobby of his.”
“This is the best one of you alone.” Abby lingered at one photograph, a candid taken at the Jersey shore, and Jill was laughing, her hair curling in the salty air. Sam had been trying to get her to relax, pretending that he’d dropped his camera in the sand, and Jill loved the photograph because she loved the photographer.
“Ah, I was younger then.”
“You’re still young, and your hair is so sexy, that way. You should wear it down all the time.”
“Please. I don’t have time, and it’s not doctor hair.”
“Remember when I was little, we looked so much alike, people thought I was your daughter? I mean, your real daughter?” Abby gestured at the photo, waving her dark fingernail up and down.
“See, your nose is little and straight, like mine. Our eyes are the same shape and almost the same brown, only yours are lighter. Our hair is more different, I don’t have the reddish brown like you, but we have the same exact smile. I think our smile is our best feature.”
Jill managed a smile, but couldn’t ignore the wistfulness in Abby’s tone, and put an arm around her. “You know, I kept track of you, on Facebook. Your Dad asked me not to write you there or post on your wall, but I read your feed, all the time.”
“I bet you were, I knew it.” Abby smiled at her.
“I know about your cat, Pickles, and your ancient car, and how sad you were over your breakup with your boyfriend.” Jill didn’t add that the boyfriend looked a little rough around the edges.
“I love my cat.” Abby smiled, more easily, and Jill warmed at the sight, happy to lighten her heart, if only for a moment.
“I can see why. He’s the cutest cat ever.”
“Did you see that photo of him in the laundry basket?”
“Yes, of course, and orange tabbies are my favorite.”
“I know. Dad told us to unfriend you, and Victoria did, but I didn’t. I just made my settings private, so he didn’t know.” Abby’s smile faded. “I feel bad saying that about him, now.”
Jill gave her a final hug. “Let’s get you showered up, girl.”
“Okay.” Abby hugged her back, and they went to the guest room, where Jill switched on the overhead light. It flickered off, and the room went dark.
“Damn. I’ll get a new bulb and some clean sheets. The last time this room was used was when Sam’s son Steven visited. He’s an architect, in Austin.”
“So Sam lives here, with you and Megan?”
“Yes. I bought this house after the divorce, and he sold his condo in Philly and moved in.”
“When are you guys getting married?”
“This summer, in July.” Jill felt suddenly uncomfortable, telling her the details, and Abby smiled, shakily.
“So Steven’s going to be your new stepson? Does that make this the steproom?”
Jill smiled, then the bedroom brightened from a flash of lightning, with a loud thunderclap. Abby made a nervous face. “Do you think I could sleep in Megan’s room to night? Since she’s not here?”
“Sure.” Jill didn’t think Megan would mind, in the circumstances. “Follow me.”
“Thanks.” Abby walked down the hall with Jill, and Beef stayed between them, panting and trembling, because of the storm. “He still hates thunder, I see.”
“You have such a good memory, honey.” Jill stopped at Megan’s door and flicked on the light. “Here we are.”
“Sweet room.” Abby stood in the threshold, taking in the large room, with its white-canopied bed and a pink-patterned comforter.
The far wall had a panel of windows with a padded windowseat, next to full bookshelves and a matching oak desk. A bulletin board hung above the desk filled with swimming awards, team photos, and stills from the school play, as well as glossy pictures of Michael Phelps, the Phillies, and the Twilight crew, which Megan had cut out of magazines.
“Bathroom’s to the right.” Jill gestured, but Abby was already walking there with Beef.
“She was always so neat.”
“She still is.” Jill went to the threshold of the bathroom, and Beef settled down on the bathmat. She pointed at the shower stall, where overpriced shampoos and conditioners were lined up. “Put the caps back on, you.”
“You remember the orange juice?” Abby smiled, sheepishly.
“How could I forget? It was funny.” Jill smiled back. She’d taken a jug of fresh-squeezed out of the refrigerator and shaken it, but Abby hadn’t put the cap back on and the walls were orange for a week. “You take a nice, warm shower, and I’ll bring you some clean towels, okay?”
“Okay, thanks.” Abby leaned over and kissed her suddenly on the cheek, and Jill felt a rush of emotion. It felt right to be taking care of Abby again, and at the same time, it felt strange to be taking care of Abby again. She left the bathroom, went to the linen closet, got the towels, then stopped to see Sam.
“Still up?” Jill asked, entering his home office, which was small, lined with bookshelves filled with medical textbooks and teaching awards. Sam taught at Penn’s medical school and was also a researcher in diabetes.
“Just waiting on you.” Sam looked up at Jill, with a worried smile. He was sitting at his old wooden desk against the window, raking his floppy hair with his fingers as he read a book online.
“How’s the kid?”
“Okay.” Jill looked at him anew, after what Abby had said. His tortoiseshell glasses reflected two white pages with tiny footnotes, and behind them were sharp blue eyes, full of intelligence and humor. Sam was only eight years her senior, and his deep crow’s feet and laugh lines only made him more handsome to her, in a lived-in sort of way. The gray in his hair reminded her of the weathered cedar of a comfy rocker, and Jill felt lucky to have him.
“Thanks for being so nice to her.”
“No need for thanks.”
“She’s upset tonight, obviously. She’s really a sweet girl.”
“I’m sure.” Sam slid off his glasses and set them on his desk, which was clean except for his laptop and iPhone. He touched her arm. “I’m sorry about your ex’s death. How are you feeling, really?”
“Honestly, it’s upsetting, mainly because of the girls.” Jill set down the towels and looked behind her, to make sure Abby wasn’t within earshot. “Megan will take it hard, because she was so conflicted. She loved him, but after the divorce, he didn’t answer any of her calls or texts. That killed her, and now she’ll never get the chance to ask him why, or understand.”
“I’ll be there for her. We’ll get through it.” Sam buckled his lower lip, pained. “I was supposed to meet Lee tomorrow, he’s coming in from Cleveland. But I can see him after the memorial service, if you want to go.”
Jill felt touched. “But Lee’s flying in just to meet with you, isn’t he?”
“Yes, but I can delay meeting him. It’s a death in the family, more or less.”
“No, don’t. Thanks for the offer, but you don’t have to come. If Megan wants to go, I’ll take her.”
Sam frowned. “You sure?”
“Okay, thanks. But please, promise me you won’t get sucked into this murder business. It’s absurd. We both know the Internet is full of idiocy about which drugs can kill you.”
“I won’t get involved. The cops are experts, I’m not.” Jill picked up the towels and gave him a kiss. “Gotta go back now.”
“Come to bed, soon. It’s late.”
“I know.” Jill smiled, straightening up, then left the office and went back to Megan’s bedroom. The bathroom door was closed, and she knocked. “I have fresh towels, honey.”
“Don’t need them.” Abby opened the door. Steam clouded the air, and she was wearing one of Megan’s nightgowns, a red-striped Lanz, of worn flannel. “Is it okay I’m wearing this nightgown? Remember, it used to be mine?”
“How could I forget? It was so nice of you.”
“It’s even better than it used to be, it’s so soft. Megan kept it, huh?”
“She wears it all the time.” Jill smiled, remembering when Abby had given Megan the nightgown. Megan had coveted it for so long, and they’d tried to find one like it in Nordstrom’s, but they couldn’t. So Abby had folded her own, put it in a box, and gift-wrapped it for Christmas, and Megan had been delighted.
“God, I’m so tired.” Abby padded past her and climbed into Megan’s bed, and Beef bounded up behind her. The dog settled down, stretching out his tufted front paws while Abby ducked beneath the comforter. “It’s so cozy here.”
“Good.” Jill went over to the bed and tucked Abby in, on mom autopilot. “I remember when you and Megan would get into the same bed, even though you barely fit.”
“I know.” Abby smiled, her breath minty from the toothpaste.
“It was fun, and we would whisper so you and Dad couldn’t hear. Beef used to get in bed with us, too, especially when it rained.”
She stroked the wavy fur on the dog’s back. “I bet Megan misses those days.”
“I’m sure she does.” Jill sat down and moved Abby’s wet hair away from her forehead, noticing a stray streak of electric blue.
“You want a towel for your head?”
“No, thanks.” Abby paused. “Can I ask, what happened with you and Dad? I know what Dad said, but I want your side of the story. Why did you guys get divorced?”
“Let’s not talk about that tonight, honey.” Jill felt her chest tighten. If she told Abby the truth, it would make William look terrible, and she knew from her practice that kids who felt terrible about their parents somehow ended up feeling terrible about themselves.
“Maybe someday, but not tonight.” Jill brushed Abby’s hair back again. “Blue, huh?”
“Yeah.” Abby smiled softly. “Do you like it?”
“Yes, but the tattoo is another story.” Jill mock-frowned. “No more tats, please. I don’t have my mom powers anymore, so it’s just a request.”
“You’ll always have your mom powers, to me.” Abby raised her arms for a hug, and Jill embraced her.
“I’m sorry about your Dad. You shouldn’t have to go through this.”
“It’s just that he looked so horrible, lying there. I found him.”
“Oh no.” Jill hadn’t realized.
“I came home, and the house was so quiet and the cat was meowing, which she never does. I went upstairs and he was lying in bed, with the TV on. His face was all, like, slack.”
Jill imagined how traumatic that would be, at Abby’s age. Jill had dissected cadavers in medical school and she never got used to it. It took her months to shake the images, and some never left her.
“His mouth was open, but just hanging there.” Abby emitted a new sob, her body hiccupping. “His eyes were open . . . stiff, like they were cold . . . but they weren’t looking anywhere.”
Jill held her close. She knew the unfixed gaze of the dead, but it was one thing when it was clinical, and another when it was eyes you had loved, in life. She had been there, too. One minute she’d been in anatomy class, locating the trigeminal nerve in the cheek, and the next minute, she’d come home to find another body, dead. This one, of someone she had loved, with a cheek she had kissed.
“I was . . . calling him . . . I put myself right up to his face . . . trying to get him to see me . . . but he couldn’t see anything.”
Jill was the one who’d found Gray, her first husband, lying dead on the kitchen floor. She’d tried CPR and heart massage, but he was gone, from a brain aneurysm. A week later, she would learn that she was pregnant with their child, Megan.
“I grabbed him and held him . . . and his mouth was, like, hanging open . . . and his head hung back like his neck was rubber . . . like he didn’t even have a . . . neck bone.”
Jill felt tears come to her eyes, her thoughts immersed in the past, reliving every emotion of finding Gray, the agony and the shock and the surreality. She felt terrible, mourning her first husband while Abby was mourning her second, but she couldn’t help herself.
“Please, Jill . . . help me figure out who killed him . . . I can’t do it alone.”
“Let’s not talk about it now, honey.”
“Please . . . just think about it? Please?”
“I’ll think about it, but just breathe for now, just breathe.” Jill held Abby until she stopped crying and finally dozed off. Then Jill eased out of bed, covered Abby with the comforter, and turned out the light.
Plunging herself into darkness.
Copyright © 2012 by Lisa Scottoline
Lisa Scottoline For anyone who has ever read one of Lisa Scottoline’s funny, sexy, and addictively readable thrillers, it should come as no surprise that she seems to be having as much fun writing her provocative tales of intrigue as her fans have reading them.