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Authors: Wendy Corsi Staub

She Loves Me Not

BOOK: She Loves Me Not
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She Loves

Me Not

WENDY CORSI STAUB

Dedication

For Stacey and Roman

on their second wedding anniversary

And for Brody and Mark, with love. . .

But most of all, for Morgan, who solved it.

Acknowledgments

T
he author gratefully acknowledges the professional contributions of Ginny Baumgartner and Gena Massarone; the spark of an idea from Samantha Silag Stearns; the career strategizing and emergency child care from Richard Siegel; and the research guidance from Kimberly Omundson. Heartfelt thanks as well to Leslie Fox, Colleen Genett, Caitlin and Maureen Murphy, Wyatt Cadley, and Amy Handler for babysitting in a pinch (one at a time, that is . . . my kids aren't such a handful that they require a childcare team . . .
yet!
). Finally, deepest appreciation to my agent, Laura Blake Peterson, and her assistant, Kelly Going; my editor, John Scognamiglio; and everyone at Kensington, particularly Walter and Steve Zacharius, Laurie Parkin, Doug Mendini, Joan Schulhafer, and Janice Rossi Schaus.

On a personal note, I'd like to thank my family for bearing with my deadline panic; my friends for understanding why I fell off the face of the earth this summer; Eve Marx and Beverly Beaver for understanding what only fellow writers “get”; and the AOL SAHMs for being there with laughs and support on a daily basis, especially Bethany, Tricia, and Big Grandma Honey, who provided celestial guidance!

Prologue

H
er return to consciousness is a prolonged, painstaking process.

Each time she attempts to open her eyes, a blinding pain slices through her skull. When, after a few tries, she finally succeeds in keeping her lids open, she can see only blackness.

Blackness . . .

Again.

Dear God. Was it all a dream?

She turns her head slightly, teeth clenched against the excruciating effort. Now, backlit in a faint glow from some source of light, outlines of furniture begin to emerge around her.

No, it wasn't a dream.

A table . . .

You can see.

A couch . . .

You aren't blind.

A window, covered by a shade, a thin shaft of light seeping in through the crack at the bottom.

But the configuration is all wrong. This isn't her new apartment in Port Richmond. She isn't lying in her bed. She's on a cold, hard floor, splintery-rough wood against her cheek.

Where am I?

What happened?

Her eyelids flutter closed again, the ache in her skull intense. She wants to drift back to that far-off place . . .

But you can't,
she tells herself with an urgency born of unadulterated instinct.

Something is wrong.

You have to think.

Images begin to flash back at her.

Leaving the office.

Walking across the parking lot through swirling snow.

Unlocking the car door.

Climbing nervously into the driver's seat, unaccustomed to driving on icy roads.

Suddenly sensing that she isn't alone.

A faint rustling in the back seat, then—

Explosive pain in her head.

And now . . .

This.

Where am I?

She forces her eyes open again. Agony. Throbbing. A wave of nausea washes over her. Swallowing acrid bile, she relinquishes control over her eyelids. But she can't allow herself to drift away. Not yet. First, she must make sense of what is happening.

Her other senses—senses upon which she instinctively relied for years, too many years—are stirring to attention.

The air smells musty—like the interior of a car with mildewed upholstery. Or the trunk in Aunt Lucinda's dining room, where she keeps the holiday table linens.

There are sounds. Hushed, rhythmic sounds. A clock ticking. Her own audible breathing. And a steady
thud, thud, thud,
punctuated by crackling, popping . . . a fire? Someone poking a burning log?

Steeling herself for renewed torture, she drags her eyelids open again; surveys her shadowy surroundings.

Couch . . .

Window . . .

Turn your head.

Oh, God, it hurts.

Farther.

The unmistakable orange flickering of firelight.

On a low table, in its glow, what looks like a snow-globe. The glass dome is swirling with white, as though somebody has just shaken it and set it back down.

Then she sees the silhouette of a human form, just beyond the table.

Panic grips her.

Somebody is sitting there, in front of the fire, only a few feet away.

Who is it?

What's happening?

The figure changes position, leans toward her, speaks. “Oh, good, you're awake. It's about time, Angela. I wouldn't want you to miss this.”

The voice is chillingly familiar.

The name is not.

As the figure rises and walks across creaking floorboards toward her, her thoughts swirl as frantically as the artificial snow within the glass globe.

Angela . . .

The shadowy figure looms over her, brandishing a poker, its tip glowing red-hot.

One final coherent thought takes shape before giving way to sheer terror:

Who is Angela?

Chapter One

“M
ommy!”

Rose Larrabee braces herself as her three-year-old rushes toward her across the toy-strewn floor of the day-care center. The place is nearly deserted, as it always is at this hour, with only Leo and one remaining adult on the premises.

She smiles as her son bounds toward her, a miniature Olympic runner executing hurtles: Tinker Toy skyscrapers and precariously stacked wooden blocks.

“Hi, sweetie.” She winces as Leo throws himself into her arms with blunt force, slamming his wiry three-year-old body painfully against her rib cage. He greets her this way every afternoon when she arrives to pick him up from Toddler Tyme. The relief of having him safely in her arms again is well worth the impact against her fragile chest with its telltale scar.

Rose buries her face in Leo's light brown hair, inhaling the sweet smell of him—a hint of peanut butter mingling with the distinct scent of Play-Doh. She smiles when she strokes his head, her fingertips encountering a matted, straw-like clump. “Did you get grape jelly in your hair again at lunch time, Leo?”

“Nope.” He tilts his head away from her and shakes it vehemently.

“Are you sure?” She strokes the sticky patch.

“Yup.”

“He's sure that it wasn't
grape
jelly.” Gregg Silva grins, coming up beside them. “It was strawberry.”

Rose smiles at Toddler Tyme's newest employee. “He's quite the literal kid.” She leans forward to set Leo on his feet.

“Aren't they all,” Gregg chuckles. “We thought strawberry jam would be fitting since Valentine's Day is this week.”

Valentine's Day. Oh, Lord. Rose forgot all about it—and it's tomorrow. She already bought both kids their boxes of cards to hand out at school, thank goodness. She gets a fifteen-percent employee discount on everything at the bookstore, including stationery.

Of course, Jenna grumbled about the generic cards Rose picked out for her, but Leo was perfectly content with the construction vehicle theme on his valentines. Bulldozers, dump trucks, cement mixers . . . these days, he's into anything that digs and or has anything to do with dirt.

Watching Gregg reach down to deftly fasten the top button on Leo's miniature navy and teal striped rugby shirt, Rose is struck by renewed surprise that this grown man—single, thirtyish, childless—has such a way with kids.

Gregg has only been employed as a day-care provider for a few weeks. Toddler Tyme's overly chatty director, Candy Adamski, told Rose that he recently moved here to eastern Long Island. He has a degree in elementary education, and he's going to be working here while he attends graduate school at Stony Brook in the evenings to finish his master's degree.

“I thought it would be nice to have a male staff member,”
Candy said, and added, with a meaningful expression,
“especially for boys like Leo.”

Rose cringed, though she didn't resent the implication. Yes, boys like Leo—boys without daddies—need positive masculine role models. And women like Rose—young, widowed mothers— should be grateful for any opportunity to expose their sons to men like Gregg Silva.

But that doesn't mean she will ever get used to the fact that her children are no longer part of a “normal” family. A two-parent family, all living under one roof.

All
living.

Daddy, Mommy, Sis and Brother.

Perfect.

It was all so perfect.

How could she never have realized it then?

How could she have wasted so much time worrying about trivial things?

To think that she used to fret about paying five dollars extra each month for a premium cable channel, and the fact that Peking Panda refused to substitute hot and sour soup for won ton with the $4.95 luncheon special.

To think that she actually used to skip her usual workout at the gym whenever she had cramps from her period, or that she complained about the pain that lingered for weeks when she strained her back during kickboxing class.

To think that she yelled at Sam when he forgot to take off his muddy shoes at the back door, or ate Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby directly from the pint, or forgot to call and let her know if he was going to be late coming home.

Why didn't she thank God every single day that he
came
home?

Why didn't she appreciate every blessed day that she could get out of bed with pain that was merely a minor inconvenience and not a threat to her life?

Why didn't she revel in simple indulgences— take-out food, and movies on cable, and countless other everyday treats she could no longer afford?

“Mrs. Larrabee?” Gregg's voice intrudes, in the tone of one who has been trying to get her attention.

“Yes?” She hauls her thoughts back to the present.

Gregg's blue-gray eyes bear an expectant expression.

Rose can't help but notice how good-looking he is: tall, lean, and broad-shouldered beneath a corn-colored crew neck sweater. A shock of sun-streaked hair swoops above his handsome features, giving him a golden surfer-boy aura even now, in the dead of winter. He even looks as though he has a tan— perhaps from weekends spent on the ski slopes north or west of New York City. Sam used to have that ruddy appearance after a weekend spent playing outside with the kids right here on Long Island.

Oh, Sam. You were such a great daddy . . .

“The cupcakes?” Gregg is saying, as Leo tugs on her leg impatiently.

“Cupcakes?” she echoes, utterly blank, shoving the image of Sam's face from her mind.

“For tomorrow—the Valentine's Day party? At curriculum night in October, you signed up to bring cupcakes. I just wanted to remind you.”

“Oh, that's right. Of course. The cupcakes. How many do I need to bring, again?”

“Thirty.”

“That's right. Thirty.” She flashes Gregg Silva a tight smile, wondering what the hell she was thinking back in October, signing up to bring thirty cupcakes tomorrow.

No—she
knows
what she was thinking. She was thinking that she wanted to be the kind of mommy who thinks nothing of bringing cupcakes for holiday parties. Homemade cupcakes, thirty of them, preferably with pink frosting and heart-shaped candy sprinkles . . .

“Mommy! My coat.”

She absently grabs Leo's bright red parka from a nearby hook and helps him put it on. It's a hand-me-down from Jenna. Back when Rose's daughter was an only child, everything she wore was pink, or floral print. But once Leo came along, Rose quickly figured out that little girls could be just as cute in red, or hunter green, or even navy.

Luckily, Jenna hasn't turned out to be much of a girly-girl. So far, she's been content to wear jeans and sweaters that can easily be passed along to her little brother. But Rose figures the time is coming when her daughter will insist on picking out her own clothes, and when that happens, she'll be in trouble. There's no room in the household budget for fashion.

After all, here she is wearing a camel-colored dresscoat that's a decade old, and beneath it, an unstructured maroon corduroy jumper that doubled as a maternity outfit for the first six months of her first pregnancy.

As she helps Leo with his hat, scarf, and mittens, her thoughts march back to more pressing matters.

She didn't also promise to bring cupcakes to Jenna's school, did she? Though riddled with uncertainty, she does, at least, recall that Jenna's teacher, Mrs. Diamond, sent home a note at the beginning of the year stating that only wrapped, store-bought treats labeled with ingredients would be accepted. There was something about one of Jenna's classmates having some kind of food allergy . . .

Well, if Rose volunteered to bring a Valentine treat to the elementary school as well, Jenna will be sure to remind her. It'll be easy enough to pick up a bag of red lollipops at the A&P later. In fact, she can probably buy cupcakes at the supermarket's bakery, as well.

If
they have any left.

And
if
she can scrape together enough pocket change to afford the nearly three dozen she'll need.

Money.

Always back to money.

Hard to believe there was a time when she had enough in the bank to put a down payment on the house, with enough leftover to have put both kids through college someday.

But she'd have traded that inheritance for another twenty years with her mother, who died far too young.

And anyway, the money is long gone, swallowed up by her vast medical expenses—and the last of it on Sam's funeral.

With a sigh, she zips Leo's jacket up to his chin, then remembers to check his pocket. He went through a kleptomaniac stage a few months ago, stealing not just small toys from school, but also candy from the supermarket and change from Rose's dresser top.

Both Candy Adamski and the pediatrician assured her that it's a normal phase for children Leo's age, but Jenna never went through it.

Then again, Jenna didn't lose her father until much later. Rose can't help but think that if Sam were still alive, Leo wouldn't be stealing.

If Sam were still alive . . .

Her own personal mantra.

Satisfied that Leo's pockets are empty, she reaches for his mitten-clad hand. “Come on, sweetie, let's get going home. Jenna's on her way.”

“Jenna's Leo's big sister, right?” Gregg hands Rose several sheets of paper, some manila, some colored construction: Leo's latest artwork.

“Yes. She's six.” Rose rolls the papers and tucks them under her arm.

“Does she go to Laurel Bay Elementary?”

“Yes, she's in first grade there. She has Brownies after school on Thursdays, and she should be getting out right about now,” Rose informs him, checking her watch.

Gregg raises his eyebrows. “Does she walk home afterward by herself?”

“Of course not!” Rose's maternal defenses rise immediately. She reminds herself that he's just being friendly, just making casual conversation the way he does every day when she picks up Leo. He isn't implying that she's an unfit mother.

No,
you're
the only one who thinks that,
Rose scolds herself.

She softens her tone, explaining, “Her friend's mom gives her a ride back to our house, and she'll be there any second, so we'd better run. See you tomorrow. Say good-bye to Mr. Silva, Leo.”

“It's Mist-o Gwegg,” Leo protests.

“Mr. Gregg, then.”

“Good-bye, Mist-o Gwegg.”

“See you tomorrow, kiddo,” Gregg Silva calls after them.

“See you tomorrow.” Rose wrestles her son out the door and into the snow-dusted twilight.

H
e finds himself gazing once again out the window at the wintry dusk, unaccustomed to the thick white coating on tree branches and rooftop. It's been a frustratingly mild January and February on eastern Long Island this year, but last night's storm dumped several inches on Laurel Bay.

According to the weather forecast, it's going to melt before the week is out.

Damn. What a waste.

He shakes his head at the irony: a rare snowfall on the very eve of Rose receiving his first gift.

A calculated presentation of the gifts is a necessary element to his plan. And so, of course, is snow.

But he has time. More than a month of winter lies ahead. There will be other storms.

In the meantime, he'll continue to keep busy working at the mundane job that has allowed him to blend into the small community. And making Rose gradually aware that he's watching her. And working on the scrapbook.

He bought it the day after Christmas, marked down a mere ten percent at a pricey little stationery shop in East Hampton. The angular blond saleswoman assured him it was an excellent choice; that the acid-free pages would keep his mementos safe through the years.

He smiled and thanked her.

“Is it a gift, sir?”

“No. It's for me,”
he told her.

Watching her carefully wrap his purchase in layers of pale blue tissue paper, he amused himself by imagining the look of terror that would cross her bland face if he told her his plans.

“You know, most of my customers are women,”
she said, handing him the package.
“It's nice to see a man who cares so much about preserving memories.”

Yes, he thinks now, with a self-satisfied grin. He cares very much about preserving certain memories.

A
s they walk down the steps of the day-care center, Rose counts each one aloud with Leo, reminding him to hold the railing. It's freezing out here, unusually cold for Long Island. A few inches of snow fell yesterday, much to the children's delight. If it sticks, she'll take them sledding over the weekend.

Leo pokes along. It would be faster to carry him, but those days are long gone.

Together, they trudge along the freshly shoveled path leading away from the low brick building, past the snow-covered playground toward the Chevy Blazer. The only other car in the parking lot is a dark green Nissan that must belong to Gregg Silva.

“Come on, Leo, climb in,” Rose says, opening the door and helping him into his car seat.

“I'll do the stwaps,” he protests as she pulls the harness around his shoulders.

“No, Leo, that takes too long. I'll do it.”

“No! I can do it!”

Rose sighs and stands by, shivering in the chill as her son struggles with the straps of his seat. She's tempted to push his fumbling little hands aside and do it quickly herself, but Toddler Tyme's philosophy is to teach children autonomy. Most parents think that's a terrific thing. Rose does, too, ordinarily.

Tonight, she's too tired to stand here indefinitely while Leo figures out how to insert the metal buckles into the slots. She's about to do it for him when she hears a click and he looks up triumphantly.

BOOK: She Loves Me Not
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