A loving mother and wife, Annie O'Neill was the heart of the small community of Kiss River. But her generous nature hid a darker side that remained secret for years after her tragic death.
When Lacey O'Neill finally learns the shattering truth about the mother she's spent a decade emulating, the foundation of her life begins to crumble. Then her close childhood friend dies, leaving her teenage daughter, Mackenzie, in Lacey's care, and Lacey unwillingly finds herself in the role of mother.
Uprooted by her mother's death, Mackenzie resents her new home of Kiss River. She wants nothing to do with the father who never knew she existedand especially not her mother's oldest friend. But the person who could understand her best might be the one she resents most: Lacey.
About the Author
Diane Chamberlain is the bestselling author of twenty novels, including The Midwife's Confession and The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes. Diane lives in North Carolina and is currently at work on her next novel. Visit her Web site at www.dianechamberlain.com and her blog at www.dianechamberlain.com/blog and her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/Diane.Chamberlain.Readers.Page.
Read an Excerpt
The chain at the end of the gravel lane hung loose from the post, and Lacey was grateful that Clay had remembered she'd gone out for dinner with Tom and had left the entrance open for them.
"Will you put the chain up after you drop me off?" she asked Tom.
"No problem." He drove between the posts and onto the forest-flanked lane, driving too quickly over the bumps and ruts.
Lacey pressed her palm against the dashboard for balance. Although it was only dusk, it was already dark along the tree-shrouded gravel lane leading to the Kiss River light station. "You'd better slow down," she said. "I nearly ran over an opossum on this road last night."
Obediently, Tom lifted his foot from the gas pedal. "I'm glad you don't live out here alone," he said in the paternal tone he occasionally used with her since learning he was her biological father a decade ago. "I'd be worried about you all the time."
"Well," Lacey sighed. "I won't be living out here too much longer." The Coast Guard had finally decided to turn the nearly restored keeper's house into a museum, a decision she had hoped would never come.
"You're upset about it, huh?"
"Oh, a bit." She was frankly scared, although of what, she couldn't say. The isolation the keeper's house had offered her had been more than welcome, it had been necessary, especially this last difficult year. "They've restored every inch of it except the living room and the sunroom." She shared a studio in Kill Devil Hills with Tom, but she'd turned the sunroom of the keeper's house into a small studio, as well, so she could work on her stained glass when she was at home. "They'll restore the sunroom after I leave, and the living room will be turned into a little shop and information area."
"When do they want you out?" he asked. They were nearing the end of the road. A bit of dusky daylight broke through the trees and she could clearly see the gray in Tom's wiry blond ponytail and the glint of light from the small gold hoop in his ear.
"Some time after the first of the year," she said.
"Where will you holy shit." Tom had driven from the gravel road into the parking lot, and the keeper's house came into view in the evening light. The upper portions of nearly every window were aglow with her stained glass creations.
She followed his gaze to the house. "In the year and a half I've lived here, you haven't seen the keeper's house at night?" she asked.
Tom stopped the car in the middle of the lot and a smile came slowly to his lips. Shaking his head, he leaned over to pull Lacey toward him, wrapping her in the scent of tobacco as he kissed the top of her head. She had gotten him to stop drinking, but had failed at getting him to give up cigarettes.
"You're your mother, Lace," he said. "This is just the sort of thing she would do. Turn her home into a I don't know. Someplace magical."
She felt defeated. She wanted to tell him that she was not her mother any longer, that she had worked hard this last year to rid herself of her mother's persona. Apparently she had not succeeded. It was hard to succeed when you had no identity of your own to take the place of the one you were trying to discard.
She was surprised to see her father's van parked in the lot next to Clay's Jeep. "Dad is here," she said. "Weird."
"He doesn't come to visit you much?" Tom asked, and she heard the competitive edge in his voice. Tom often displayed a quiet envy of Alec O'Neill for having had the honor of raising her.
"He's smitten with Rani," she said, not really answering the question. "He likes having a grandbaby."
Tom laughed. "You have one hell of a complicated family, you know that?"
"I do, indeed." Lacey unfastened her seat belt. The tight little nuclear family she'd grown up in had added and subtracted so many people that it sometimes seemed difficult to keep track of them all. To complicate her life even further, she worked with both her fathers, spending her mornings in the animal hospital run by the father who had raised her and her afternoons in the art studio with the father who had given her life.
"Is that a kennel?" Tom pointed toward the large fenced area near the edge of the woods. "Is Clay training dogs again?"
"Uh-huh," she said. "He's been back at it a few months now." With Gina and Rani in his life, her brother had undergone a metamorphosis. He was a devoted husband, and practically overnight, he'd developed parenting skills she had never expected to see in him. But it was the day she'd watched him roll chunks of wood and concrete into the forestobstacles for the dogs he trained in search-and-rescue workthat she knew he was once again a man at peace with his world.
She realized that Tom had not moved his car from the center of the lot.
"Park your car and come in for a while," she said.
He shook his head. "No, I'll just head on home."
"You know you're welcome," she said.
"I know that, sugar. But I just never feel comfortable around Alec. Your dad."
Lacey smiled. "I'm nearly twenty-six years old, Tom," she said. "What happened between you and my mother is ancient history and you know my father got over it a long time ago."
"Some other time," Tom said.
"Okay." She opened the car door and stepped out. "I'll see you tomorrow."
She waved as he turned the car around and drove back onto the gravel lane. Slipping off her sandals, she dangled them over her fingertips and started walking across the sand toward the house. The air was thick with salt, and the rhythmic pounding of the waves against the shore was nearly drowned out by the buzz of cicadas.
She often wondered if she should tell Tom the truth about her mother. It was clear that he thought he had been her only affair, as if he alone had been so irresistible that he could cause a woman as saintly as Annie O'Neill to stray. As far as Lacey knew, he did not date anyone, still so haunted by Annie's ghost that he thought it impossible to find a woman who could take her place. Yet Lacey couldn't bring herself to hurt him with the truth.
Inside the house, Clay's black lab, Sasha, ran into the kitchen to greet her, and she dropped her sandals on the floor and bent down to scratch the dog behind his ears. The room smelled of Gina's cookingcardamom and turmeric, coconut and ginger. She could hear voices coming from the living room.
"Who's here, Sash?" she said, as if she didn't know. "Let's go see."
Sasha led the way through the kitchen to the living room, tail wagging, and Lacey stopped in the doorway of the room, not wanting to interrupt the scene in front of her. Gina was stretched out on the sofa, grinning, her arms folded behind her head as she watched Clay and Alec playing on the floor with Rani and her dolls. Clay was making the Indian Barbie, which was bedecked in a pink sari, walk across the rug toward the plastic dollhouse.
"Let's go to Rani's house!" he said in a high-pitched voice.
Alec was walking a brown-skinned baby dolla big blob of a doll compared to the slender, shapely Barbiearound on the carpet. "No," he said. "I want to go fishing!"
Rani looked alarmed, reaching for the baby doll. "No, no, no!" she said, her enormous black eyes wide in her caramel-colored face. "Everyone comes to my house."
Lacey laughed. At nearly two and a half, Rani tried hard to control her world. She'd had so little opportunity to control it during her first two years that she was making up for lost time. The little girl looked up at the sound of Lacey's laughter, then jumped up from the floor.
"Lacey!" she said, running toward her. "I love you!"
Lacey bent down to pick her up. She was a little peanut of a child. So tiny. So full ofjoy. And so, so wanted.
"Hi, baby," Lacey said. "I love you, too."
Gina had struggled to adopt Rani, and once Clay had fallen in love with Gina, he had joined that struggle with his whole heart. They'd spent from July to September in India the year before, fighting the system to get the court's permission to adopt Rani. The little girl had desperately needed heart surgery, but so many obstacles stood in the way of the adoption that Gina had feared the toddler might die before she could bring her home. Once permission had been received, the three of them were quickly ushered out of the country, escaping before the foreign adoption antagonists could become involved. By that time, Rani was so weak from her heart condition that she could barely hold her head up, and Gina and Clay feared it might be too late to save her. Gina had already made contact with a surgeon in Seattle, so she flew there with Rani. The surgery was successful and the two of them remained in Seattle as Rani healed. Clay had moped around the keeper's house, unable to think of anything other than the woman and baby he had fallen in love with. He and Gina talked for hours on the phonefor so long, in fact, that Lacey had insisted he get a separate phone line installed in the keeper's house. In February, Gina and Rani traveled across the country to the Outer Banks. Gina and Clay were married the following day, and Rani, who had arrived shy and quiet and skinny as a twig, quickly blossomed into an insatiable chatterbox who fully recognized her role as the center of the universe. She was spoiledif it was possible to spoil a child who had spent her first two years with little more than dirt and deprivationand no one cared.
Lacey carried Rani over to the sofa and sat down next to Gina's bare feet. She looked at her father, who still sat on the floor, holding the fat baby doll on his lap. "What are you doing here, Dad?" she asked.
Alec set the doll down on the rug and leaned back on his hands. "I wanted to talk to you and Clay," he said. His serious tone was worrisome. She looked from her father to Clay, who shrugged, apparently as much in the dark as she was. The two men looked so much alike. Long, lanky bodies, translucent blue eyes. The only difference between them were the lines on her father's face and the gray in his hair. Clay could look at Alec O'Neill and know exactly how he, himself, would look in another twenty years.
Gina sat up and reached for Rani. "I'll put her to bed," she said, as if knowing this conversation was meant for Alec and his children and not necessarily for her.
"Good night, sweetie." Lacey planted a kiss on Rani's cheek before handing her over to Gina.
Her father stood up as Gina left the room. "Let's go outside," he said.
She and Clay followed him through the kitchen, down the porch steps and onto the sand, which felt cool now beneath her feet. In another few weeks the sand would be warm, even at night, never losing the heat from the day. As if on automatic pilot, the three of them started walking side by side toward the remains of the lighthouse. Illuminated by the half-moon, the white lighthouse glowed, its broken rim a ragged line across the night sky. A breeze had kicked up in the short time she'd been inside the house, and Lacey's long, wild hair blew across her face. If she'd known about the change in weather, she would have tied her hair back before stepping outside. People thought her hair was impossibly beautiful. She thought it was merely impossible.
"What's up, Dad?" Clay asked, and Lacey wondered if he, too, was remembering the last time their father had asked to speak to both of them, the day he told them that their mother had been unfaithful to him throughout their marriage.
"I received a letter today," their father said. "I forgot to bring it with me for you two to read it, but essentially it stated that a parole hearing is scheduled in September for Zachary Pointer."
Clay stopped walking and turned to face his father. "Parole?" He sounded as astonished as she felt. "He's only been in prison what? twelve years?"
"Apparently that's long enough to get him out on parole."
Lacey caught her hair in her hands and began to braid it down her back, concentrating hard on the task. She didn't want to think about Zachary Pointer or relive that night, although the memory was always so near the surface that just the mention of his name would bring it back. Nothing could prevent her from remembering his face, the crazed look in his wild eyes. She could still hear his angry and ugly words toward his wife and see her mother's nobleand successfulattempt to protect the woman.
Lacey had refused to attend the trial back then; in those days she could focus on nothing other than trying to survive the pain of losing her mother. But once and only once, before she realized what she was looking at and could turn away, she saw Pointer on television. The big man was leaving the courthouse with his lawyer. She'd been riveted by the sight of him. He wept when he spoke to the reporters. She'd been struck by the humanness in his face, by the unmistakable remorse and sorrow and shame she saw there. Now she pictured him in prison all this time, alone with the pain of that remorse. He'd been sick. Mentally ill. There'd been no doubt in her mind, but the jury had adamantly ruled against an insanity plea. Maybe she and Clay and their father should listen to the arguments for allowing him out on parole. Twelve years was a long time.
Stop it, she thought to herself. She had her mother's genes, whether she wanted them or not; she was doomed to feel compassion for everyone.
"He should have been fried," she said, the words so alien coming from her mouth that her brother and father both turned to stare at her.
"Well, we're in agreement then," her father said after a moment. "We'll fight his parole. I'll hire an attorney to find out what our next step should be."