With a popular comic strip, card line, and children's cartoon to her name, Lucy Brighton should be in a happy place. But the ache of a cold, lonely childhood lingers on. Even though she still lives in the New Jersey house where she grew up, Lucy has had little contact with her parents since they moved to Florida five years ago.
Finding Joy In The Present
Then Lucy receives a call that her parents have been killed in a car crash. While settling their affairs in Florida, Lucy begins to realize how little she really knew about their lives. She has no way to explain the mysterious safe in their bedroom, with its cache of fake passports, cash, and weapons. What secrets were the Brightons keeping? Were they even who they claimed to be? The answers will shatter everything she once believed about her parentsand about herself.
Praise for Fern Michaels and her novels
"Tirelessly inventive and entertaining." Booklist on Up Close and Personal
"Fast-moving. . .entertaining. . .a roller-coaster ride of serendipitous fun." Publishers Weekly on Mr. and Miss Anonymous
"Heartbreaking, suspenseful, and tender." Booklist on Return to Sender
"A knockout story." Publishers Weekly on Dear Emily
About the Author
Hometown:Summerville, South Carolina
Place of Birth:Hastings, Pennsylvania
Read an Excerpt
FORGET ME NOT
By FERN MICHAELS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 MRK Productions
All rights reserved.
Lucy Brighton sat back in her chair and looked at the array of drawings hanging on a wire with colored clothespins. Izzy, the fat little Yorkshire terrier; Bizzy, the equally fat white Persian cat; and Lizzy, the colorful red and green parrot. She laughed at her own artwork. IBL, as she called the trio, was her creation, and that creation had led not only to a seasonal line of greeting cards for children, but also to calendars, a comic strip, three books on IBL's antics that children clamored for, a cartoon that aired every day at ten o'clock in the morning, and a merchandising franchise. As far as she was concerned, she had it made in the shade and in spades, and she was only thirty-two. Thirty-two, and an old maid. No men in her life. How could there be? She worked virtually around the clock, but that was by choice.
Her friends, the few that she'd allowed into her inner circle, had long since vanished, either getting married or moving away in search of the perfect job—except, of course, for Angie, her best and only really close friend. At that point in time she had no interest in marriage, and she already had the perfect job. She knew she could retire right now, right this minute, as long as she was frugal with her money.
Her financial advisor had told her four months ago she was in the best position a thirty-two-year-old could possibly be in. Then the economy had started to tank, and she hadn't heard from him since. Well, that wasn't quite true. She had, in point of fact, heard from him, but he was singing a different tune and told her to keep working so she could make up for her losses in the stock market. She'd shrugged and thought to herself, What goes down eventually goes back up.
And her lifestyle required very little. Her house and this studio, where she whiled away all day and sometimes all night, had no mortgage, thanks to her parents, who had retired to Florida five years earlier. New Jersey was just too cold for them, they said. For some reason she thought that there was a lot more to it than that, but she'd accepted it and moved out of her cozy apartment and back into the house in which she'd grown up. Parents tended to be strange, and hers were definitely stranger than most.
Lucy tore her thoughts away from her parents and the colorful drawings and got up to walk over to the big picture window in the cozy four-room studio. She sat down on the window seat, pulled her legs up to her chin, and watched the autumn leaves swirling in the wind. Another week, and the leaves would all be down, and she'd have to go out and rake them unless she could hire someone to do it for her. She loved autumn; it was her favorite time of year. The pumpkins, the haystacks, the colored leaves, the brisk air, the local football games, pure apple cider, and, of course, a blazing fire in the fireplace. What more could she possibly ask for? Perhaps someone to share it with? Then again, who would be foolish enough to put up with her weird hours, eating on the fly, playing wild music as she drew and sketched? Someday. Then again, maybe she was destined to go it alone and be a career woman. How bad could that be?
Lucy left her perch on the window seat, walked into the kitchenette, and made a pot of coffee. By the time she packed up her work and sent it off, the coffeepot would be empty, and it would be time to think about dinner. Not that there was anything to think about. She'd dumped some beans and vegetables into the Crock-Pot when she'd gotten up, so that was taken care of. She absolutely loved her Crock-Pot. She had three of them. One for the main meal, one for dessert, and one for soup. Because she'd read that beans were good for you, she made sure she ate at least a cupful every day in either the soup or her main meal. In some ways she was a health-food nut. Then she'd go and blow it by eating a pound of chocolate or a quart of ice cream while she watched television at night. As always, Lucy smiled as she slipped her one-of-a-kind drawings of the IBLs into individual plastic sleeves. Her agent was going to go over the moon with these. She dusted her hands dramatically. Six new greeting cards for Christmas. Check. Twelve drawings for next year's calendar. Check. Three months of the cartoon strip. Check. Book proposal. Check. A whole year's worth of work condensed into one FedEx package. She should celebrate. Like that was going to happen.
One last thing to do before heading up to the big house, the ugly big house, the hateful big house. The house in which she had grown up and the house that she hated with a passion. That house. Lucy clicked on her computer, brought up the FedEx Web site, and arranged for a pickup the following morning. She had had a special box built outside her studio, by her mailbox, where she left her packages for pickup so she wouldn't be disturbed while she was working. She looked around. Good to go. All she had to do was shut down her computer, turn off the lights, unplug the coffeepot, and lock up. Tomorrow she could sleep in. She was technically now off work, so to speak, until the first of the year. Not that that meant she wouldn't work—she would. She'd just not be on a schedule. Besides, Thanksgiving and Christmas were coming, and she really needed to think about either going away for a week or so to some exotic island or, horror of horrors, making plans to visit her parents. Even if it was only for a day or so. Maybe she could talk Angie into going with her, but Angie had a nine-to-five job with an ogre for a boss. Scratch that idea.
Lucy slipped on her Windbreaker, gathered up her package, turned off the light, then locked the door. She walked down the path to the mailbox, which sat between two cedar trees that she always decorated for Christmas. She opened the lid of the box, raised the red flag she'd screwed in as a joke, then dropped her package inside. She gave the bell a swat just to hear the sound that Toby, the driver, always made when there was a package. Done! Lucy gathered her jacket close around her neck; the wind had really grown strong, and the leaves were swirling like mad. She wasn't sure, but she thought she heard the phone ring inside the studio. No point in going back; by the time she got there and got the door unlocked, the phone would have stopped ringing. Whoever it was would call back sooner or later. She trudged up the hill to the big house and let herself in. She smiled at the pleasant aromas that greeted her, and realized how hungry she was. This was the moment when she always wished she had a real live pet instead of pets on paper to greet her. This was also the moment when she realized what a lonely life she led.
She hung up her jacket, washed her hands, and set her place at the table. If nothing else, she adhered to her mother's formal ritual at the dinner hour. Lucy removed the lid from the Crock-Pot and looked at the mess in the pot. She should give it a name. She went through this every night. Tonight, though, for some reason, it seemed important to give the contents a name. She looked down into the pot. Three kinds of beans and vegetables. Okay, Mess Number One. When she cooked soup, it would be Mess Number Two, and when she made dessert, it would be Mess Number Three. Done.
Lucy ladled out a generous portion onto her plate, grabbed a dinner roll from a bag on the counter, and set it alongside Mess Number One on the plate. Apple cider or beer? Or milk? Such a choice. She opted for the beer and reached for a glass. Since it was so quiet in the kitchen, Lucy turned on the television that sat on the counter just for sound. The early evening news. She flipped the channel, not wanting to hear or see the doom and gloom that seemed to make up the news these days. Seinfeld. Well, that was as good as anything else, even though she'd seen just about every episode at least a dozen times.
Lucy finished her dinner, scooped out a large spoonful of peach cobbler from Crock-Pot Number Three, and devoured it. She made a mental note to go to one of the roadside stands to get some nice juicy apples to make an apple pie. She could do that tomorrow since she was now technically not working. She cleaned up everything, transferred the leftover food to snap-on bowls, and set them all in the fridge for tomorrow's dinner. She looked around the neat kitchen. It was a beautiful kitchen, if you were into kitchens, which, unfortunately, she wasn't. Nor was her mother. Like the rest of the house, it was all for show. She out and out hated it.
I should have changed things, Lucy thought. But it had seemed sacrilegious somehow, and her mother probably would have pitched a fit, so it was just simpler to leave things as they were. It wasn't like she spent much time there in the big house; she didn't. All she did was eat and sometimes sleep there. More often than not, she slept in the studio, on the couch, which was every bit as comfortable as her bed on the second floor.
She hated it when she let her thoughts take over like this. And why tonight? Maybe because she'd just finished up a long year's work and ... And what? Now that she didn't have anything on her agenda, she had to think about her parents and this house. Maybe she needed another beer or a cigarette. God forbid she smoked a cigarette in this house. Or had a drink, for that matter. Well, no one was around to see her, but she knew cigarette smoke lingered or settled into the carpets and furniture, and if her parents ever came to visit, they'd surely smell it. Even if it was years from now. She didn't smoke, but once in a while, out of pure defiance, she fired up a cigarette, then almost choked herself to death as she puffed away. She wished again that she had a dog so it could poop on that fine Persian rug in the living room. A stain. She really wished there was a stain somewhere in this damn house. If she had a cat, it would probably claw at the custom draperies and shred them over time. If she had a parrot like Lizzy, it would fly all over the place and drop its feathers during molting season. More blights on the big house.
Carrying her bottle of beer and a stale cigarette she found in one of the kitchen drawers, Lucy marched into the family room, which was so well appointed, a person needed sunglasses. She moved over to the fireplace, threw in some logs, then turned on the gas starter. Swoosh! Instant fire. While she was growing up there, in that hateful house, the fireplace had never been used. Because ... smoke escaped and settled on the furnishings, and one had to clean ashes out and carry wood in, and splinters fell all over, not to mention that sparks might escape.
"We have central heat, my dear, and Santa comes in the front door because he doesn't want to get all the white fur on his suit dirty." Even when she was a kid, she knew it was a crock. The phone rang just as Lucy was about to turn on the huge-screen TV above the fireplace. It was probably her artistic director, Henry, wanting to know if she had finished on time and if he could expect the results of her yearlong work the day after tomorrow. Good old Henry. She clicked on the phone, a smile on her face. Even before she could say hello, she heard a man's deep voice asking her if she was Lucy Brighton. She said, yes, she was, and listened.
"This is Detective Aaron Barkley of the Palm Royal Police Department. I'm sorry to tell you that I have some bad news. Are you alone, Miss Brighton? Would you prefer to call someone to stay with you, and I'll call you back?"
"No. I already know something is wrong, since you said you had bad news, so you might as well go ahead and tell me. I'll be all right. Please, just tell me whatever it is you're calling to tell me." Lucy sucked in her breath and waited.
"Your parents were killed two hours ago in a head-on collision. They died on impact. It's taken us this long to find you, or I would have called you sooner. A kind neighbor helped us."
Lucy's first wild, crazy thought was, Now I can get rid of this house. "How did it happen? You said they were killed. Who killed them?"
"A sixteen-year-old boy drunk out of his mind. He died in the accident, too. Your parents have been taken to the county morgue to await your arrival. Are you all right, Miss Brighton? I never like to deliver news like this over the phone, but you are out of state. I had no other choice, and I'm sorry, ma'am, for your loss."
"I'm okay, Detective. I understand about the phone and all. Thank you for calling me. I'll make arrangements to leave on the first available flight I can get for tomorrow."
The connection broken, Lucy stared into the flames as she fumbled around for the cigarette she'd forgotten to light up. She held the lighter to the tip of the cigarette with a rock-steady hand. She coughed; she sputtered; she swigged some beer, then took another puff and repeated the process until she felt like she had coughed out her lungs. How do people smoke these things?
Her parents were dead. D-e-a-d! She wondered if she was supposed to cry. Probably. She squeezed her eyes shut, but no tears nipped at her eyelids. Maybe it hadn't sunk in yet. Maybe she needed to think about her parents; then she would cry. She should feel sad. She didn't. She didn't feel anything. Just sort of numb. Now, if she had a dog, a cat, or a parrot, this would be the time to hug them, and they'd understand what she was going through. She didn't believe it for one damn minute. Animals, and probably birds, too, reacted only to their owners' emotions. And at that moment in time she didn't have any emotions.
Would the world miss Dr. Fritz Brighton, renowned heart surgeon, who, before his retirement, had traveled the world, operating on people who had money blowing out their ears? Would the world miss Dr. Helene Brighton, shrink to those same wealthy people, who couldn't wait to fatten up her bank account so that they could hear her words of wisdom that would make them mentally whole again?
The answer was, who cared? All she was interested in was why she didn't care. Why she didn't feel anything. Lucy finished her beer and trotted off to the kitchen for another one. She flopped down on a chair and watched the fire in front of her. What did the only remaining relative do when called in a situation like this? It wasn't that she was stupid. She had just never had death enter her life. She had no grandparents, no aunts, no uncles, no cousins. That meant she was all alone in the world. With her parents gone, so was the last and only buffer between her and her own mortality. That might be a good thing, she decided, to have all that open space around her, so she could spread her wings now that the buffer was gone.
The first thing she needed to do was plan a funeral. She wondered if her parents had a will. Didn't people who had wills state what they wanted done with their remains? Hadn't she read that somewhere?
She needed a black dress. A veil? On television the mourners always wore black veils. Black shoes and black gloves. Like that was going to happen. Not. People in Florida didn't wear black; they wore yellow, lime green, and white. At least that was what her mother had told her once. Scratch black. There was no one to call to announce the demise of her parents. Whoever had passed as their friends here in New Jersey were gone. At least she assumed they were gone, since no one had ever called or dropped by once her parents had relocated to Florida. Maybe she just thought there were friends, because for the life of her, she couldn't recall a single one.
A lawyer? Did her parents have a lawyer in New Jersey or in Florida? She realized that she had not a clue. There must be a lawyer in the background somewhere. How else had her parents deeded the house and studio over to her? A lawyer would have handled that. In order to find that out, she'd have to go to the bank and look in her safe-deposit box, where she kept the deed and the legal papers that came with it. Truth be told, she'd never even looked at those papers. The day she'd gotten her MBA, her parents had given her the news that they were moving and the house was hers. One week later, they were gone, and she was rattling around in a six-thousand-square-foot house that looked like no one had ever lived in it.
She hadn't cried that day, either, when she waved good-bye at the front door. When her parents didn't even look back, she had slammed the door and screamed, "Good riddance!" at the top of her lungs. Then she'd gone nuts and bellowed out the F word again and again as she banged on the door.
Excerpted from FORGET ME NOT by FERN MICHAELS. Copyright © 2013 MRK Productions. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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