Authors: Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Women
mma traveler had never seen Francesca Beaudine so distraught. Four days had passed since Lucy Jorik had disappeared, and they were sitting under the pergola in the shady courtyard behind the Beaudine home. A silver gazing ball nestled among the roses made Francesca seem even tinier than she was. In all the years they’d known each other, Emma had never seen her friend cry, but Francesca had a telling mascara smear under one of her emerald eyes, her chestnut hair was disheveled, and weary lines etched her heart-shaped face.
Although Francesca was fifty-four, nearly fifteen years older than Emma and far more beautiful, their deep friendship had its roots in common bonds. They were both British, both married to famous professional golfers, and both far more interested in reading a good book than venturing near a putting green. Most important, they both loved Ted Beaudine—Francesca, with a fierce maternal love, and Emma, with a steadfast loyalty that had begun the day they’d met.
“That bloody Meg Koranda did something horrible to Lucy. I know it.” Francesca stared blindly at a swallowtail butterfly flitting through the lilies. “I had doubts about her even before I met her, despite all Lucy’s glowing reports. If Meg was such a close friend, why didn’t we meet her until the day before the wedding? What kind of friend couldn’t spare the time to attend even one of Lucy’s bridal showers?”
Emma had wondered the same thing. Thanks to the power of Google, unfavorable gossip about Meg Koranda’s aimless lifestyle had begun to swirl as soon as the list of bridesmaids was announced. Still, Emma didn’t believe in judging people without sufficient evidence, and she’d refused to take part in rumormongering. Unfortunately, this time the gossips seemed to have been right.
Emma’s husband, Kenny, who was Ted’s best friend, couldn’t comprehend why people were so much more hostile toward Meg than to the runaway bride, but Emma understood. The locals liked Lucy, at least as much as they could like an outsider who’d landed their Ted, and they’d been prepared to accept her right up to the night of the rehearsal dinner when she’d changed before their eyes. She’d spent more time huddled with Meg Koranda than with her own fiancé. She’d been short with the guests, distracted, and she’d barely smiled during even the funniest of the toasts.
Francesca pulled a wadded tissue from the pocket of the wrinkled white cotton capris she wore with an old T-shirt, Italian sandals, and her ever-present diamonds. “I’ve been around too many spoiled Hollywood brats not to recognize another one. Girls like Meg Koranda have never had to work a day in their lives, and they think their famous last names give them license to do whatever they want. That’s precisely why Dallie and I made sure Ted always knew he’d have to work for a living.” She dabbed at her nose. “I’ll tell you what I think. I think she took one look at my Teddy and wanted him for herself.”
Although it was true that women lost their good sense after meeting Ted Beaudine, Emma didn’t believe even Meg Koranda could regard breaking up Ted’s wedding as the best strategy toward snagging him for herself. Hers, however, was a minority opinion. Emma subscribed to the less widely held theory that Meg had spoiled Lucy’s happiness because she was jealous that her friend was making a success of her life. But what Emma couldn’t understand was how Meg had been able to work so quickly.
“Lucy was already like a daughter to me.” Francesca twisted her fingers in her lap. “I’d lost hope that he’d ever meet anyone special enough for him. But she was perfect. Everybody who saw them together knew that.”
A warm breeze ruffled the leaves that shaded the pergola. “If only he’d go after Lucy, but he won’t,” Francesca went on. “I understand pride. God knows, his father and I have more than enough of it. But I wish he could set that aside.” Fresh tears leaked from her eyes. “You should have seen Teddy when he was little. So quiet and serious. So dear. He was an amazing child. The most amazing child ever.”
Emma considered her own three children the most amazing ever, but she didn’t challenge Francesca, who gave a rueful laugh. “He was completely uncoordinated. He could hardly walk across a room without tripping. Trust me when I tell you his athletic talent came late in his childhood. And thank God he outgrew his allergies.” She blew her nose. “He was homely, too. It took him years to grow into his looks. And he was so smart, smarter than everybody around him—certainly smarter than me—but he never condescended to people.” Her watery smile broke Emma’s heart. “He’s always believed everybody has something to teach him.”
Emma was glad Francesca and Dallie were leaving for New York soon. Francesca thrived on hard work, and taping her next series of interviews would be a good distraction. Once they’d settled into their Manhattan town house, they could immerse themselves in the diversion of big-city life, much healthier than staying in Wynette.
Francesca rose from the bench and rubbed her cheek. “Lucy was the answer to my prayers for Teddy. I thought he’d finally met a woman who was worthy of him. Someone intelligent and decent, someone who understood what it was like to be raised with privilege but hadn’t been spoiled by her upbringing. I thought she had character.” Her expression hardened. “I was wrong there, now wasn’t I?”
“We all were.”
The tissue shredded in her fingers, and she spoke so softly Emma could barely hear her. “I so desperately want grandchildren, Emma. I—I dream about them—holding them, smelling their soft little heads. Teddy’s babies . . .”
Emma knew enough about Francesca and Dallie’s history to understand Francesca was expressing more than a fifty-four-year-old woman’s simple yearning for a grandchild. Dallie and Francesca had been estranged for the first nine years of Ted’s life, right up until the time Dallie learned that he had a son. A grandchild would help fill that empty hole in their lives.
As if reading her thoughts, Francesca said, “Dallie and I never got to watch first steps together, to hear first words.” Her voice grew bitter. “Meg Koranda stole Ted’s babies from us. She stole Lucy, and she stole our grandchildren.”
Emma couldn’t bear her sadness. She rose from the bench and hugged her. “You’ll still have those grandchildren, love. There’ll be another woman for Ted. A woman far better than Lucy Jorik.”
Francesca didn’t believe her. Emma could see that. And she decided right then not to tell Francesca the worst of it. That Meg Koranda was still in town.
“Do you have another credit card, Ms. Koranda?” the beautiful blond desk clerk asked. “This one seems to have been rejected.”
“Rejected?” Meg acted as though she didn’t understand the word, but she understood it all right. With a soft
her last remaining credit card disappeared into the middle drawer of the front desk at the Wynette Country Inn.
The desk clerk didn’t try to hide her satisfaction. Meg had become public enemy number one in Wynette, as a twisted version of her role in the wedding debacle that had subjected the town’s sainted mayor to international humiliation had spread like an airborne virus through the small town where a few members of the press still lingered. A grossly exaggerated account of Meg’s confrontation with Birdie Kittle the night of the rehearsal dinner had also become public fodder. If only Meg had been able to leave Wynette right away, she could have avoided this, but that had proven to be impossible.
Lucy’s family had left Wynette on Sunday, twenty-four hours after Lucy had run off. Meg suspected they’d still be here, hoping Lucy would return, but the president had committed to attending the World Health Organization’s global conference in Barcelona along with Lucy’s father, who was hosting a gathering of international medical journalists. Meg was the only one who’d spoken to Lucy since she’d run away.
She’d gotten the phone call late Saturday night, around the time the bride and groom should have been leaving the wedding reception for their honeymoon. The signal was weak, and she barely recognized Lucy’s voice, which sounded thin and unsteady.
“Meg, it’s me.”
“Luce? Are you all right?”
Lucy gave a choked, semihysterical laugh. “Matter of opinion. You know that wild side of me you’re always talking about? I guess I found it.”
“Oh, honey . . .”
“I’m—I’m a coward, Meg. I can’t face my family.”
“Luce, they love you. They’ll understand.”
“Tell them I’m sorry.” Her voice broke. “Tell them I love them, and I know I’ve made a horrible mess of everything, and that I’ll come back and clean it up, but . . . Not yet. I can’t do it yet.”
“All right. I’ll tell them. But—”
She disconnected before Meg could say anything else.
Meg steeled herself and told Lucy’s parents about the call. “She’s doing this of her own free will,” the president had said, perhaps remembering her own long-ago rebellious escape. “For now, we have to give her the space she needs.” She made Meg promise to remain in Wynette for a few more days in case Lucy reappeared. “It’s the least you can do after causing this mess.” Meg was too weighed down with guilt to refuse. Unfortunately, neither the president nor her husband had thought to cover the cost of Meg’s extended stay at the inn.
“That’s odd,” Meg said to the desk clerk. In addition to her natural beauty, the clerk’s highlighted hair, perfect makeup, blindingly white teeth, and assortment of bracelets and rings tagged her as someone who spent a lot more time and money on her appearance than Meg did. “Unfortunately, I don’t have another card with me. I’ll write a check.” Impossible, since she’d emptied out her checking account three months ago, and she’d been living on her precious last credit card ever since. She shuffled through her purse. “Oh, no. I forgot my checkbook.”
“No problem. There’s an ATM right around the corner.”
“Excellent.” Meg grabbed her suitcase. “I’ll drop this in my car on the way.”
The clerk shot around the counter and wrenched the suitcase away. “We’ll have it waiting for you when you get back.”
Meg gave the woman her most withering look and spoke words she’d never imagined would ever come out of her mouth. “Do you know who I am?”
I’m a nobody. An absolute nobody.
does. But we have our policies.”
“Fine.” She hoisted her purse, a hand-me-down Prada hobo from her mother, and swept from the lobby. By the time she reached the parking lot, she’d broken out in a cold sweat.
Her gas-guzzling fifteen-year-old Buick Century sat like a rusty wart between a shiny new Lexus and a Cadillac CTS. Despite repeated vacuuming, the Rustmobile still smelled of cigarettes, sweat, fast food, and peat moss. She lowered the windows to let in some air. A sheen of perspiration had formed beneath the gauzy top she wore with jeans, a pair of hammered silver earrings she’d made from some buckles she’d found in Laos, and a vintage maroon felt cloche hat that her favorite L.A. resale shop advertised as having come from the estate of Ginger Rogers.
She rested her forehead against the steering wheel, but no matter how hard she thought, she couldn’t see a way out. She pulled her cell from her purse and did what she’d promised never to do. She called her brother Dylan.
Even though he was three years younger, he was already a hugely successful financial whiz. Her mind tended to wander when he talked about what he did, but she knew he did it extremely well. Since he refused to give her his work number, she called his cell. “Hey, Dyl, call me right away. It’s an emergency. I mean it. You have to call me back right now.”
It was useless to call Clay, who was Dylan’s twin. Clay was still a starving actor, barely making the rent, although that wouldn’t last much longer, since he had a degree from Yale drama school, a growing list of off-Broadway credits, and the talent to back up the last name of Koranda. Unlike herself, neither of her brothers had taken anything from their parents since they’d graduated from college.
She snatched up her phone as it rang.
“The only reason I’m calling you back,” Dylan said, “is curiosity. Why did Lucy bail on her wedding? My secretary told me an online gossip site is saying you’re the one who talked her out of getting married. What’s going on down there?”
“Nothing good. Dyl, I need a loan.”
“Mom said this would happen. The answer’s no.”
“Dyl, I’m not kidding. I’m in a jam. They took my credit card, and—”
“Grow up, Meg. You’re thirty years old. It’s sink-or-swim time.”
“I know. And I’m going to make some changes. But—”
“Whatever you’ve gotten yourself into, you can get yourself out of. You’re a lot smarter than you think. I have faith in you, even if you don’t.”
“I appreciate that, but I need help now. Really. You have to help me.”
“Jesus, Meg. Don’t you have any pride?”
“That’s a shitty thing to say.”
“Then don’t make me say it. You’re capable of handling your own life. Get a job. You know what that is, right?”
“You’re my sister, and I love you, and because I love you, I’m hanging up now.”
She stared at the dead phone, angry but not surprised at this evidence of a family conspiracy. Her parents were in China, and they’d made it blazingly clear they wouldn’t rescue her again. Her creepy grandmother Belinda didn’t give out freebies. She’d force Meg to enroll in acting classes or something equally insidious. As for her uncle Michel . . . The last time they’d visited, he’d delivered a biting lecture on personal responsibility. With Lucy on the run, that left Meg’s three other close friends, all of whom were rich and any one of whom would lend her money.