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Authors: Emilie Richards

Fox River

BOOK: Fox River
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PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF
E
MILIE
R
ICHARDS

“[A] heartfelt paean to love and loyalty…”


Publishers Weekly
on
The Parting Glass

“An engrossing novel…Richards’s writing is unpretentious and effective…and her characters burst with vitality and authenticity.”


Publishers Weekly
on
Prospect Street

“Well-written, intricately plotted novel…”


Library Journal
on
Whiskey Island

“Emilie Richards presents us with a powerfully told story that will linger in the heart long after the final page.”


BookPage
on
The Parting Glass

“A romance in the best sense, appealing to the reader’s craving for exotic landscapes, treacherous villains and family secrets.”


Cleveland Plain Dealer
on
Beautiful Lies

“A multi-layered plot, vivid descriptions and a keen sense of place and time.”


Library Journal
on
Rising Tides

“A fascinating tale of the tangled race relations and complex history of Louisiana…this is a page-turner.”


New Orleans Times-Picayune
on
Iron Lace

Also by EMILIE RICHARDS

WEDDING RING

THE PARTING GLASS

PROSPECT STREET

WHISKEY ISLAND

BEAUTIFUL LIES

RISING TIDES

IRON LACE

And watch for the second book in
Emilie’s Shenandoah Album series

ENDLESS CHAIN

E
MILIE
R
ICHARDS
FOX
R
IVER

 

Dear Reader,

I’ve been fortunate to live in wonderful places I can share in my novels. I started my writing career in New Orleans, the setting for
Iron Lace
and
Rising Tides.
I made two extended trips to Australia, the setting for
Beautiful Lies,
and I spent many years in bustling Cleveland, the home of
Whiskey Island.

When it came time to move again, I was as interested in a unique and colorful setting for my next novel as I was in school systems and health care facilities. When northern Virginia appeared on my family’s horizon, I knew I’d found another home rich in history, culture and natural beauty.

From my front door I can easily drive to mountains and beaches. Or I can take a shorter drive to some of the most beautiful rural scenery imaginable: Virginia horse country, where farms and million-dollar estates rise from rolling hills and Thoroughbreds graze inside miles of winding stone fences.

It took only one visit to Loudoun County to know I’d found the setting for my next book.

So this time come with me to the world of foxhunting and steeplechasing, and a society that values the way a man sits a horse as much as it values his family name. I hope you’ll find it as fascinating as I have.

I always enjoy hearing from my readers. Please write me at P.O. Box 7052, Arlington, Virginia 22207.

From the unpublished novel
Fox River
, by Maisy Fletcher

T
oday, when I think of Fox River and all that happened here so many years ago, I am unwillingly wrapped in shades of green. The fresh, sweet green of pasture deepening toward the horizon, the evergreen of forest shading inevitably to the blue-green of Virginia hills until, at last, mountains merge with a misty sky.

It is the same sky, more or less, that others see. The sky that stretches over California and China and the farthest regions of Antarctica. It is the sky under which I was born, under which I lived the events told in this story. The same sky that sends sun and rain to make the grassy hills of Fox River as verdant, as lush, as any in the world.

But I, Louisa Sebastian, am the only person who sees the proud man silhouetted against this Fox River sky, the man erect on a stallion that no one else will mount, a man so wedded to the horse beneath him that I am reminded of the mythical centaur, and my breath, despite everything I know of him, catches in my chest.

Today, when I am forced to think of the events that happened at Fox River, I am swallowed by shades of green and by the blood that so long ago stained blades of grass a bright and terrible red. In the many years since, the grass has grown and the rain has washed away visible traces of blood, but I know the earth beneath has yet to recover, that if I were to dig in that very place, the dirt beneath my fingernails would be rusty and tainted still.

Had I only known what awaited me as I rode to Fox River that first afternoon, I would have galloped back to my cousin’s estate to seclude myself. I would have pleaded illness or injury and asked that my trunks be packed immediately for my return to New York.

But, of course, the future is never ours to know. Only the past is ours to contemplate and mourn forever.

1

T
he citizens of Ridge’s Race, Virginia, claimed that Maisy Fletcher lived her life like a pack of foxhounds torn between two lines of scent. She had worn many disguises in her fifty years, each of them clearly revealing the flighty, distractible woman beneath. Jake Fletcher, her husband for twenty years, disagreed. Jake claimed that his wife had no trouble making up her mind.

Over and over and over again.

Today, those who knew Maisy would have been shocked to see the purpose in her stride and the lack of attention she paid to everything and everyone that stood between her and the front door of the Gandy Willson Clinic, just outside historic Leesburg. She ignored the horsehead mounting posts flanking the herringbone brick sidewalk, the magnolias flanking the portico. She paid little attention to the young couple sitting stiffly on a green bench under the magnolia to her left. More tellingly, she brushed right past the young security guard who asked for her identification.

“Ma’am, you can’t go in there without my seeing some ID,” the young man said, following close at her heels.

Maisy paused just long enough to survey him. He looked like an escapee from the Virginia Military Institute, hair shaved nearly to the scalp, acne scars still faintly visible. He had the same hostile stare she associated with new cadets, a product of exhaustion and harassment.

Normally she might have winked or stopped to question him about his upbringing, his opinion of the Washington Redskins’ chances this season, his take on the presidential election. Today she turned her back. “Don’t try to stop me, son. I’m as harmless as a butterfly in a hailstorm. Just go on about your business.”

“Ma’am, I have to—”

“My daughter’s a patient here.”

“I’m going to have to call—”

She reached for the door handle and let herself in.

She had never been inside the Gandy Willson Clinic. Through the years, acquaintances had disappeared into its confines for periods of “rest.” Some of them boasted of time spent here, adding “G.W.S.” after their names like an academic achievement. “G.W.S.” or Gandy Willson Survivor, was a local code, meaning “Don’t offer me a drink,” or “Give me the strongest drink in the house,” depending on the length of time out of treatment.

Maisy wasn’t surprised by what she saw. Gandy Willson catered to the wealthy elite. The chandelier gracing a cathedral ceiling was glittering crystal, the carpet stretching before her had probably robbed a dozen third world children of a normal adolescence.

The security guard hadn’t followed her inside, but another, older, man strode from his office to head her off as she stepped farther into the reception area. He was in his sixties, at least, bespectacled, perfectly tailored and attempting, without success, to smile like somebody’s grandfather.

“I don’t believe we’ve met.” He extended his hand. “I’m Harmon Jeffers, director of Gandy Willson.”

She debated taking it, but gave in when she saw the hand wavering with age. She grasped it to steady him. “I’m Maisy Fletcher, and my daughter Julia Warwick is a patient here.”

“Julia’s mother. Of course.” His unconvincing smile was firmly in place.

There was no “of course” about it. Maisy and Julia were as different from one another as a rose and a hibiscus. For all practical purposes they were members of the same general family, but the resemblance ended there. This month Maisy’s hair was red and sadly overpermed. Julia’s was always sleek and black. Maisy had gained two unwanted pounds for every year she’d lived. Julia survived on air. Maisy was average height. Petite Julia barely topped her shoulder.

And those were the ways in which they were most alike.

Maisy drew herself up to her full five foot four, as the small of her back creaked in protest. “I’m here to see my daughter.”

“Shall we go into my office? I’ll have tea sent, and we can chat.”

“That’s very old Virginia of you, Dr. Jeffers, but I don’t think I have the time. I’d appreciate your help finding Julia’s room. I hate barging in on strangers.”

“We can’t let you do that.”

“Good. Then you’ll tell me where she is?”

“Mrs. Fletcher, it’s imperative we talk. Your daughter’s recovery depends on it.”

Maisy lifted the first of several chins. The others followed sluggishly. “My daughter shouldn’t be here.”

“You disagree that your daughter needs treatment?”

“My daughter should be at home with the people who love her.”

The young couple who’d been sitting on the bench entered and shuffled lethargically across the carpet. He put his hand on Maisy’s shoulder to steer her away from the door. “Mrs. Warwick’s husband feels differently. He feels she needs to be here, where she can rest and receive therapy every day.”

Maisy cut straight to the point, as unusual for her as the anger simmering inside her. “Just exactly how many cases of hysterical blindness have you treated?”

“This is a psychiatric clinic. We—”

“Mostly treat substance abusers,” she finished for him. “Drug addicts. Alcoholics. My daughter is neither. But she might be by the time she gets out of here. You’ll drive her crazy.”

“There are people who will say your daughter is already well on her way.” He lifted a bushy white brow in punctuation. “There is
nothing
wrong with her eyes, yet she doesn’t see. For all practical purposes she’s totally blind. Surely you’re not trying to tell me this is a normal event?”

She drew a deep breath and spaced her words carefully, as much for order as for emphasis. “My son-in-law brought her here directly from the hospital because he didn’t want Julia to embarrass him. She
came
because he threatened her. She’s not here because she believes you can help her.”

“She’s not receiving phone calls just yet. How do you know this?”

“Because I know my daughter.”

“Do you, Mrs. Fletcher?”

That stopped her, as he probably knew it would. She supposed that with all the good doctor’s training, finding an Achilles’ heel was as elementary as prescribing the trendiest psychotropic drug.

She took a moment to regroup, to focus her considerable energy on what she had to do. “I will see my daughter.” She surprised herself and said it without blinking, without breaking eye contact. “Either you can help me, or you can help me make a scene.”

“We’ll sit and talk a few minutes. If you’re still inclined to see her, I’ll send a message. But if she doesn’t want you here, you’ll have to leave.”

She threw up her ring-cluttered hands.

He led her down the hallway to the door he’d come through. His office was much as she’d expected. Leather furniture, dark paneled walls covered with multiple framed diplomas, a desk as massive as a psychiatrist’s ego. She always wondered if professional men measured the size of their desks the way adolescent boys measured their penises.

“Make yourself comfortable.”

She had two choices—to perch on the couch’s edge like a child in the principal’s office or settle back and appear completely defenseless. She was sure the stage had been set that way. She settled.

Dr. Jeffers sat forward, cupping his hands over his blotter, and nodded sagely. “So you don’t believe this is the right place for Mrs. Warwick?”

Maisy glanced at her watch. It was an insubstantial rhinestone-and-pearl encrusted bauble, and she wore it with everything. Now she wished the hands would move faster.

“This is my daughter we’re talking about. No one knows her better than I do, which is not the same as saying I know everything about her. But I do understand this. She’s a private person. Her strength comes from within. She will not want to share those strengths or any weaknesses with a stranger. You are a stranger.”

“And she’ll want to share them with you?”

“I do wish you’d stop putting words in my mouth.”

“Correct me, then, but I’m under the impression you think you can help her and I can’t.”

“Being with people who love her will help her. I know she’s desperate to see Callie—”

“You can’t possibly know these things, Mrs. Fletcher. Perhaps you’re projecting? Your daughter’s spoken to no one except her husband since she arrived.”

“I know she’s desperate to see Callie,” Maisy repeated a bit louder. “Are you listening or aren’t you? She’ll be frantic to see her little girl. If you think a frantic woman is a good candidate for therapy, then you need to go back to medical school.”

“There is only one frantic woman in this clinic, and she’s sitting across from me,” he said with his pseudo-grandfatherly smile.

With some difficulty Maisy hoisted herself to her feet, but before she could say anything the telephone on his desk rang. As he picked up the receiver, he held up a hand to stop her from leaving. When he’d finished, he glanced up and shrugged.

“It seems you’re not the only frantic woman in this clinic, after all. Your daughter knows you’re here.”

Maisy waited.

He rose. “She’s demanding to see you. Her room is upstairs. Follow the corridor to the end, turn left, and you’ll see the staircase. At the top, make your first left, then a right. Her room is at the end of the hall. But just so you know, it’s my responsibility to notify Mr. Warwick that you’ve visited Mrs. Warwick against medical advice.”

“Dr. Jeffers, are you a psychiatrist or a spy?”

“Dear lady, you have some mental health issues you need work on yourself.”

It was a testament to her mental health that she left without responding.

 

Julia knew her mother had come. Maisy and Jake’s pickup had a bone-jarring rattle as audibly distinct as the belching of its exhaust system. For years Bard had tried to convince Jake to buy a new truck, but Julia’s stepfather always refused. He was a man who would do without comfort rather than spend money foolishly, not a stingy man, simply one who believed in taking care of what he owned.

At the sound of the truck in the parking lot, Julia had found her way to the window to confirm her suspicion. She wasn’t sure what she expected, a sudden lifting of darkness, a sneak peek at a world she hadn’t seen in weeks. She felt the cool glass under her fingertips, traced the smooth-textured sill, the decorative grids. But she wasn’t allowed even the pleasure of an afternoon breeze. The window was locked tight.

She had realized then that she had to ask for help. Practical help, not the kind she had supposedly checked herself in to receive. After the first day she had realized that the Gandy Willson Clinic was the wrong place for her and that her sessions with Dr. Jeffers would be nothing more than a battle of wits. She would hide her feelings, and he would subtly berate her for her lack of cooperation.

Luckily there was at least one staff member who seemed genuinely interested in her. Karen, the nurse on duty, agreed to call Dr. Jeffers and relay Julia’s demand. If Maisy Fletcher had come to see her daughter, he was not to send her away. If he did, Julia would be the next to leave.

When Maisy turned into the hallway, Julia knew her mother was coming by the bustling of her footsteps. Maisy was always in a hurry, as if she had somewhere important to go, although, in truth, destination was never a priority.

“Julia?”

“In here, Maisy.”

The door swung open, a welcome whoosh of fresh air followed by a gentle bang.

“Sweetheart.”

Julia heard and smelled her mother’s approach, and in a moment felt Maisy’s soft hands against her cheeks. Then she was wrapped in the overpowering fragrance of violets and the soft give of her mother’s arms around her.

Julia slipped her arms around her mother’s waist as Maisy joined her on the bed.

“How did you know I was here?” Maisy said.

“I heard the pickup. I guess it’s a good thing Jake hasn’t gotten a new one.”

“That’s not what I was thinking on the way over. I almost left it by the side of the road. Darn thing has never liked me.”

“That’s because you push it too hard.” It was the story of Maisy’s life.

“How are you?”

Julia straightened and folded her hands in her lap. For once Maisy seemed to take the hint and moved away a little to give her daughter breathing room. “No better, no worse,” Julia said.

“Dr. Jeffers is an officious little bastard who probably couldn’t cure a hangnail.”

“Don’t be so easy on him.”

Usually at this point Julia would have gotten up to roam the room. Only now, that particular escape was fraught with danger. She had carefully memorized the layout, but she wasn’t sure she could navigate it with her mother watching. For a moment her heart beat faster and her breath seemed to come in short gasps. The world was a black hole sucking at her, threatening to pull her into its void forever.

“What are you doing here, sweetheart?” Maisy asked.

Julia willed herself to be calm. “One place is exactly like another when you can’t see.”

“That simply isn’t true. You need to be with people who love you, in a place you know well. Not with strangers.”

“Look around. It’s almost like home. I have my own fireplace, a room full of antiques—so I’m told. The view is undoubtedly priceless.”

BOOK: Fox River
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