At seventeen, Rosalind "Lin" Townsend found herself pregnant and alone. Her deeply religious father threw her out of the house, and Nick Pemberton, her baby's father, refused to marry her. Yet even at the lowest point in her life, Lin vowed to succeed on her own terms, and to give her son, Will, all the love and happiness she'd been denied.
Nineteen years later, Lin has made good on her promises, and Will is about to start his freshman year at NYU. But when Lin visits New York with Will, she crosses paths with the one man she thought she'd never see again--Nick Pemberton, now a millionaire CEO, and the man who sent back all her letters unopened. Seeing him fills Lin with anger, and she resolves to right the wrong he did to Will. If she succeeds, like she has with everything else, the cost of revenge may be the loss of a bright new future. . .
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
"A page-turner and one of the author's best romantic suspense tales to date." --Fresh Fiction on Mr. and Miss Anonymous
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About the Author
Hometown:Summerville, South Carolina
Place of Birth:Hastings, Pennsylvania
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Return to Sender
By FERN MICHAELS
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 MRK Productions
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFriday, August 31, 2007 New York University
Will's deep brown eyes sparkled with excitement, his enthusiasm contagious, as he and Lin left University Hall, a crowded dormitory for freshmen located at Union Square. If all went as planned, Will would reside in New York City for the next four years before moving on to graduate school to study at North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, one of the most prestigious veterinary institutions in the country.
"I just hate that you're so far away from home. And in New York City, no less," Lin said for the umpteenth time. "With all the remodeling and holiday parties going on at the restaurant, I doubt I'll be able to make the trip north for Thanksgiving. I don't want you to spend your holiday alone."
"Mom, I said I'd come home if I could. And I will. I promise," Will said. "Besides, I'm a big boy now. I just might like spending some time alone in this big city full of hot chicks."
Laughing, Lin replied, "I'm sure you would." She watched her son as they rode the elevator downstairs. Over six feet tall, with thick, raven black hair, Will was the spitting image of his father, or at least her memory of him.
Lin recalled all those years ago when she'd first met his father. She'd fallen head over heels in love while he'd been visiting a friend in Georgia. Briefly, Lin wondered if Will would follow in her footsteps or his father's. She prayed it wasn't the latter, though she had to admit, she really didn't know how he'd turned out, but she didn't want her son to take after a man who denied his son's existence. Lin knew he was very wealthy, but that didn't mean he was a good man. Good men took care of their children, acknowledged them.
Three weeks after she'd brought Will home from the hospital, she'd sent his father a copy of their son's birth announcement, along with a copy of the birth certificate. She'd shamelessly added a picture of herself just in case he'd forgotten their brief affair. Throughout the years, she had continued to send items marking Will's accomplishments, the milestones reached as he grew up. Photos of the first day of school; first lost tooth; then, as he aged, driver's license; first date—anything she thought a father would have been proud of. Again, all had come back, unopened and marked RETURN TO SENDER. After so many years of this, she should have learned, should have known that Will's father had no desire to acknowledge him. To this very day she'd never told Will, for fear it would affect him in a way that she wouldn't be able to handle. Recalling the hurt, then the anger each time she and her son were rejected, Lin tucked away the memories of the man she'd given herself to so many years ago, the man she'd loved, the man who had so callously discarded all traces of their romance and, in so doing, failed to acknowledge their son's existence. When Will had turned twelve, she'd told him his father had died in an accident. It had seemed enough at the time.
But as Jack, her former employer and substitute father, always said, "The past is prologue, kiddo." And he was right. She'd put that part of her life behind her and moved forward.
The elevator doors swished open. The main floor was empty but for a few couples gathered in the corner, speaking in hushed tones. Most of the parents were either visiting other dorms or preparing for the evening banquet. Will hadn't wanted to attend, but Lin had insisted, telling him several of the university's alumni would be speaking. She'd teased him, saying he might be among them one day. He'd reluctantly agreed, but Lin knew that if he truly hadn't wanted to attend, he would have been more persistent.
She glanced at the exquisite diamond watch on her slender wrist, a gift from Jack and Irma the day she'd made her last payment on the diner she'd purchased from them eight years ago. "I'll meet you in the banquet hall at seven. Are you sure you don't want to come back to the hotel?"
Will cupped her elbow, guiding her toward the exit. "No. Actually, I think I might take a nap. Aaron doesn't arrive until tomorrow. It might be the last chance I have for some time alone. I want to take advantage of it."
Will and his dorm mate, Aaron Levy, had met through the Internet during the summer. Though they hadn't met in person, Will assured her they'd get along just fine. They were studying to become veterinarians, and both shared an avid love of baseball.
"Better set your alarm," Lin suggested. Will slept like the dead.
"Good idea." He gave her a hug, then stepped back, his gaze suddenly full of concern. "You'll be okay on your own for a while?"
Lin patted her son's arm. "Of course I will. This is my first trip to the city. There are dozens of things to do. I doubt I'll have a minute to spare. Though I don't think I'll do any sightseeing today, since I made an appointment to have my hair and nails done at the hotel spa."
Will laughed. "That's a first. You never do that kind of stuff. What gives?"
"It's not every day a mother sends her son off to college." She gently pushed him away. "Now, go on with you, or there'll be no time to relax. I'll see you at seven."
Will waved. "Seven, then."
Lin gave him a thumbs-up sign, her signal to him that all was a go. She pushed the glass door open and stepped outside. The late-afternoon sun shone brightly through the oak trees, casting all sorts of irregular shapes and shadows on the sidewalk. The autumn air was cool and crisp. Lin walked down the sidewalk and breathed deeply, suddenly deliriously happy with the life she'd made for herself. She stopped for a moment, remembering all the struggles, the ups and downs, and how hard she'd worked to get to where she was. Abundant, fulfilled, completely comfortable with her life, she picked up her pace, feeling somewhat foolish and silly for her thoughts. She laughed, the sound seemingly odd since she was walking alone, no one to hear her. That was okay, too. Life was good. She was happy, Will's future appeared bright and exciting. The only dark spot in her life was her father. Her mother had died shortly after Lin had moved into Mrs. Turner's garage apartment. She'd had to read about it in the obituaries. Lin had called her father, asking how her mother had died. He told her she'd fallen down the basement steps. She suspected otherwise but knew it would be useless, possibly even dangerous to her and her unborn child, if she were to pry into the circumstances surrounding her mother's death. She'd tried to establish a relationship with her father on more than one occasion through the years, and each time he'd rebuffed her, telling her she was the devil's spawn. Her father now resided in Atlanta, in a very upscale nursing home, at her expense. Lin was sure his pure meanness had launched him into early-onset Alzheimer's.
Lin thought it was time for her to proceed at her own leisurely pace, kick back, and totally relax for the first time in a very, very long time.
Lin continued to ponder her life as she walked down the sidewalk, toward a line of waiting taxis. After ten years of working at Jack's Diner, when she'd learned that Jack and Irma were considering closing the place, she'd come up with a plan. Though she'd skimped and saved most of her life, for once, she was about to splurge and do something so out of character, Jack thought she'd taken temporary leave of her senses. She'd offered him a fifty-thousand-dollar down payment, a cut of the profits, and a promissory note on the balance if they would sell her the diner. It took all of two minutes for Jack and Irma to accept her offer. Since they had never had children, didn't think they'd have a chance in hell of selling the diner, given the local economy, closing the doors had seemed their only option.
She'd worked her tail off day and night and most weekends to attract a new clientele, a younger crowd with money to burn. She'd applied for a liquor license and changed the menu to healthier fare while still remaining true to some of the comfort foods Jack's was known for, such as his famous meat loaf and mashed potatoes. Within a year Jack's was booked every night of the week, and weekends, months in advance. From there, she'd started catering private parties. With so much success, she'd decided it was time to add on to the diner. In addition to two large private banquet rooms that would accommodate five hundred guests when combined, she'd added three moderately sized private rooms for smaller groups. The remodeling was in its final stages when she left for New York the day before. She'd left Sally, her dearest friend and manager, in charge of last-minute details.
Lin quickened her pace as she saw that the line of taxis at the end of the block had dwindled down to three. She waved her hand in the air to alert the cabbie. Yanking the yellow-orange door open, she slid inside, where the smell of stale smoke and fried onions filled her nostrils. She wrinkled her nose in disgust. "The Helmsley Park Lane." She'd always wanted to say that to a New York cabdriver. Though it wasn't the most elite or expensive hotel in the city, it was one that had captured her imagination over the years. Its infamous owner, known far and wide by the well-deserved epithet the Queen of Mean, had been quite visible in the news media when Lin was younger, especially when she'd been tried and convicted for tax evasion, extortion, and mail fraud, and had died less than two weeks ago.
Through blasts of horns, shouts from sidewalk vendors hawking their wares, the occasional bicyclist weaving in and out of the traffic, Lin enjoyed the scenery during the quick cab ride back to the hotel. New York was unlike any city in the world. Of course, she hadn't traveled outside the state of Georgia, so where this sudden knowledge came from, she hadn't a clue, but still she knew there was no other place like New York. It had its own unique everything, right down to the smell of the city.
The taxi stopped in front of the Helmsley. Lin handed the driver a twenty, telling him to keep the change. Hurrying, Lin practically floated through the turnstile doors as though she were on air. She felt like Cinderella, and the banquet would be her very own ball, with Will acting as her handsome prince. He would croak if he knew her thoughts. Nonetheless, she was excited about the evening ahead.
She dashed to the elevator doors with only seconds to spare. She'd lost track of time, and her salon appointment was in five minutes. They'd asked her to wear a blouse that buttoned in the front so she wouldn't mess up her new do before the banquet. She punched the button to the forty-sixth floor, from which she had an unbelievable view of the city and Central Park. Lin cringed when she thought of the cost, but remembered this was just a one-time treat, and she was doing it in style.
She slid the keycard into the slot on the door and pushed the door inward. Overcome by the sheer luxuriousness, she simply stared at her surroundings, taking them in. Lavender walls with white wainscoting, cream-colored antique tables at either end of the lavender floral sofa. The bedroom color scheme matched, though the coverlet on her bed was a deep, royal purple. She raced over to the large walk-in closet, grabbed a white button-up blouse, and headed to the bathroom. This, too, was beyond opulent. The marble, a deep Jacuzzi tub, a shower that could hold at least eight people, thick, soft lavender bath towels, bars of lilac soap, and bath beads placed in crystal containers gave Lin such a feeling of luxury, and it was such a novel feeling, she considered staying in the room her entire trip. She laughed, then spoke out loud. "Sally would really think I've lost my marbles." She'd discussed her New York trip with Sally, and they'd made a list of all the must-see places. If she returned empty-handed, Sally would wring her neck. She'd bring her back something special.
They'd practically raised the kids together, and Sally felt like the older sister she'd never had. And she'd bring Elizabeth, Sally's daughter, something smart and sexy. She'd opted to attend Emory University in Atlanta instead of leaving the state, as Will had. Sally had told Lin she was glad. Not only did she not have to pay out-of-state tuition, but Lizzie was able to come home on the weekends. She would graduate next year. Where had the time gone?
She hurried downstairs to the spa for her afternoon of pampering.
Three hours later Lin returned to her room to dress for the banquet. The hairstylist had talked her into a pedicure and a facial. After an afternoon of being catered to, she felt like royalty. Of course, it all came at a price, one so high she didn't dare give it another thought, or she'd have such a case of the guilts that she'd ruin the evening for herself and Will. No, she reminded herself again, this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip. As she had explained to Will, it wasn't every day that he went away to college. Besides, she wanted to look her best at the banquet, knowing there would be many well-to-do parents attending with their children. No way did she want to cause Will any embarrassment just because she was a small-town hick who ran a diner. Her accomplishments might mean something in Dalton, but here in New York City she would just be seen as a country bumpkin trying to keep up with the big-city folk, even though her net worth these days could probably match that of many of New York's movers and shakers.
Discarding her self-doubts, Lin took her dress out of its garment bag. She'd ordered it from a Macy's catalog four months ago. She slid the black, long-sleeved silk over her head, allowing the dress to swathe her slender body. Lin looked at her reflection in the full-length mirror. With all the skipped meals and extra work at the diner, she'd lost weight since purchasing the dress. Still, the curve-hugging dress emphasized her tiny waist. She twirled around in front of the mirror. Not bad for an old woman, she thought.
"Shoot, I'm not that old." She cast another look in the mirror, slipped her feet into her ruby red slingbacks, which she'd been dying to wear since she'd purchased them two years ago. Lin remembered buying them on a trip to Atlanta as a prize to celebrate her first million. On paper, of course, but still it was monumental to her since she'd clawed her way to the top. It hadn't been all rainbows and lollipops, either.
Clipping on the garnet earrings Sally and Irma had given her for her thirtieth birthday, she returned to the mirror for one last look before heading downstairs.
Five foot three, maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet, Lin scrutinized her image. The stylist had flat-ironed her long blond hair, assuring her that it was the current style, and, no, she was not too old to wear her hair down. Her face had a rosy glow courtesy of Lancôme and a facial. The manicurist had given her a French manicure, telling her that it, too, was "in vogue." After leaving the spa, she'd returned to her room with a few makeup tricks under her belt, plus her hairstylist had sashayed back and forth, showing her the fashionable way to strut her stuff so that she'd be noticed when making an entrance. While that was the last thing on her mind, she'd had a blast with the women, more than she cared to admit. Lin had confessed that she hadn't had time for such things as a girl, but she hadn't explained why.
She glanced at her watch. Six fifteen. It was time for Cinderella to hail her carriage. "Get off it!" If she continued thinking along those lines, she would have to commit herself.
Lin visualized her mental checklist. Purse, lipstick, wallet, cell phone, and keycard. All of a sudden her hands began to shake, and her stomach twisted in knots. It wasn't like she would be the only parent there. Unsure why she was so jittery, she shrugged her feelings aside, telling herself she simply wanted to make a good impression on Will's professors and classmates. Plus, she wasn't on her own turf, and that in and of itself had the power to turn her insides to mush.
Instead of exiting through the turnstile doors, Lin allowed the doorman to open the door for her. Discreetly, she placed a twenty in his hand and hoped it was enough. Sally had told her you had to tip everyone for everything in the city. Lin calculated she'd be broke in less than a year if she remained in New York.
"Thank you, ma'am," the elderly man said as he escorted her to a waiting taxi.
Okay, that was worth the twenty bucks. She would've hated to chase down a taxi in the red heels.
The inside of the taxi was warm. Lin offered up a silent prayer of thanks that there were no strange odors permeating the closed-in space. She would hate to arrive at the banquet smelling like cigarettes and onions.
More blaring horns, shouts, and tires squealing could be heard. Lin enjoyed watching the throngs of people on the streets as the driver managed to weave through the traffic. Lord, she loved the hubbub, but she didn't think she could tolerate it on a daily basis.
Excerpted from Return to Sender by FERN MICHAELS Copyright © 2010 by MRK Productions. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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