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Authors: Brenda Novak

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BOOK: The Secret Sister
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When her brother walked out onto the porch and leaned on the railing, Maisey glanced at Rafe. “I really won't be any trouble,” she murmured.

“I'm sure you won't,” he said, but she couldn't tell if he was being facetious.

“As soon as you tell me you need to be in here, I'll get out.”

“Right. If we're careful, we can avoid each other indefinitely.”

She wanted to tell him that wouldn't be necessary. She saw no reason they couldn't continue to be civil if they happened to bump into each other. But she was afraid to start another conversation along those lines with Keith in such close proximity. “I'll grab my bags from the car. I might as well leave them here while we go over to the house.”

Keith watched from his spot on the porch as she wrestled her heaviest suitcase out of the trunk and dragged it over to the porch steps. He wasn't happy she was staying, so he didn't offer to help. Instead, Rafe came down and insisted on carrying her luggage into the cottage. She kept trying to tell him she could manage. It didn't seem polite to let him do her a favor on the heels of her refusal to go out with him. But he acted as if he didn't hear her.

“That's it, then,” she said to Keith when her things were stowed in the otherwise empty bedroom. “We might as well head over to see Mom.” She couldn't put it off any longer.

“Fun,” he muttered, and started for the car.

She stood on the porch, watching her brother's retreating back as Rafe locked up.

“Should I bring over a mattress and a few other necessities, like a fridge, and have them here for when you get back?” he asked.

“No, I'll do that myself.” She had no idea how she'd move something as heavy as a fridge. But she hoped that, between Keith and her, they'd manage. She didn't want to be a nuisance to Rafe Romero, didn't want him complaining to her mother. Having to take that into consideration at all bothered her. It was part of the reason she resented the fact that he was living here. She didn't feel she should have to answer to anyone—not at Smuggler's Cove.

“It could be dark when you get back to this side of the island,” he said.

She checked her phone—nearly two. “The sun won't set for another five hours.” She certainly hoped she wouldn't have to stay at Coldiron House
that
long.

“I was under the impression you've been gone from Fairham for quite a long time.”

“I'm afraid it hasn't been long enough.”

His expression was inscrutable as he removed a key from his ring and handed it to her. “This will get you in here. Stop by later, and I'll take you over to Unit 9.”

“Why don't you give me that key, too? I can put it under your mat when I'm done, if it's too late to disturb you.”

“Sorry, I'll need it this afternoon. I've stored a lot of my construction materials there.”

“I see.”

“But I'll slip the key under
your
mat when I finish up if you'd rather not come to my place.”

“That'll be ideal. Then I won't have to interrupt your evening.”

“You wouldn't want to
need
anyone,” he said, and went down the stairs before she could respond.

Maisey followed more slowly and joined her brother in the Mercedes.

“What was
that
all about?” Keith had the air on—thank goodness, because the humidity was even more oppressive than usual for this time of year.

“What?” she replied, preoccupied with Rafe's last comment. She
didn't
want to need anyone. Everyone she'd known had let her down. Her mother had never been someone she could lean on, not emotionally. Her brother didn't have the strength to keep
himself
on a productive path, never mind anyone else. Her father had died. And her husband had abandoned her when she needed him most.

“Oh, God, that's Rafe,”
Keith said, mimicking her words from before.

As Rafe's truck disappeared around the bend, she said, “I've met Mom's contractor before. At a party a long time ago. I didn't recognize his name because we called him Rafe and not Raphael.”

“Did he remember you?”

“Once I reminded him, yeah.”

“That's it? You met him at a party years ago and you were
that
distressed to see him again?”

“I wasn't
distressed
,” she lied. “I was surprised.”

Keith looked at her more closely. “Were you two friends?”

“Not at all. He's four years older. I barely knew him.”

“Did he go to Fairham High?”

“He did. If you hadn't been away at boarding school, you would've been a freshman when he was a junior and probably would've known him a lot better than I ever did. He seems nice enough now, though. Is he a good contractor?”

Their tires crunched over the pebbles in the road. “Mom checked him out pretty thoroughly. He comes highly recommended.” He turned onto the paved street. “Speaking of Mom, are you nervous about seeing her?”

She shrugged, pretending she wasn't, but her heart began to pound faster and faster with each passing mile.

It seemed like only seconds later that they were winding their way to the highest point on the island.

“Pippa's still there, isn't she?” Maisey asked.

“I doubt Mom'll ever let Pippa go,” Keith replied. “She needs her too badly, and they get along quite well. But we have a new groundskeeper.”

“Since when?”

“Since Jorge retired and moved to San Diego three years ago. The new guy's name is Tyrone.”

She hadn't kept up. Three years ago, she'd been too busy, if not too happy, to stay in touch. And once she'd lost her family and her ability to write and illustrate, she'd been too miserable.

They stopped outside the decorative iron gates surrounding Coldiron House. Then Keith pushed the button that made those gates grind open, and she saw the mansion where she'd grown up—with its columns and double-story verandas, hanging flowerpots and carpet-like lawn—for the first time in ten years.

Nostalgia warred with anxiety.

So much for her great escape, she thought. She'd just made a perfect circle.

4

H
er mother, dressed in a highly tailored burnt-orange skirt and jacket with matching pumps, was expertly made up and coifed. She was even wearing lip-liner with her lipstick. But just because she appeared to be on her way to Love's in Bloom, or somewhere even fancier, didn't mean she'd be leaving the house. Josephine always looked as if she belonged in the pages of a fashion magazine, and she never seemed to age. She did everything she could to prevent it.

As a child, Maisey had been proud of her. When Josephine walked into a room, people noticed, especially men. And the way she carried herself, so regally, helped her win over anyone her beauty might not have captivated.

It wasn't until Maisey grew older that she began to perceive her mother's vanity—and the many hours she spent getting Botox and other treatments—as more desperate and self-indulgent than admirable. But she didn't
want
to see through that carefully prepared veneer. She wished she could still be under Josephine's spell, like almost everyone else.

“Hello, Mother.” She nodded respectfully as she stood at the threshold of the drawing room where her mother waited to receive them. She wished she was one of those daughters who could fall into her mother's arms and sob out her pain, but she knew Josephine wouldn't truly welcome her.

“You've arrived.” Although her mother put down the small dog she'd been holding in her lap and got to her feet, her smile was cool. “Come in. You must be hungry and tired. I've ordered tea.”

Maisey was grateful when her brother preceded her. She needed another moment to compose herself, another moment to prepare that aching, empty spot inside her for a fresh jolt of life as a Lazarow.

Here we go
, she thought.

Focusing on the dog, which looked like a Yorkie, she gathered her courage, marched toward her mother and gave her the requisite air kiss on each cheek. She knew she'd be criticized if she didn't perform this family ritual, although it meant nothing.

When she breathed in the scent of her mother's perfume, the memories of her childhood began to assault her. “You look lovely, as always.”

“If only I could lose a few pounds,” her mother responded with an air of lamentation.

Josephine murmured something similar whenever she received a compliment. Not because she truly believed she needed to lose weight; she considered it gauche not to avoid the appearance of conceit.

Annoyed by the pretense, Maisey nearly grimaced. She felt as if she was playing the magic mirror in
Snow White
.

Magic mirror, in my hand, who's the fairest in the land?

My queen, you are the fairest in the land.

“What a beautiful outfit,” her mother said.

Maisey was tempted to indulge in the same game her mother did by saying, “What, this old thing?” But knowing Josephine would easily figure out that she was the brunt of that joke, Maisey overrode the impulse. “I'm glad you like it.”

“Keith's been so excited about your arrival. How was the trip?”

They hadn't seen each other for ten
years
, and yet it was
Keith
who was excited? Keith had visited her several times in New York. He'd last seen her at Ellie's funeral. Fortunately, he'd also come earlier, when she was born, or no one in Maisey's family would ever have met her baby.

But Josephine could never admit to needing or missing anyone who'd dared to question or criticize her. Or maybe she really hadn't missed Maisey... “Not too bad. Still, I'm glad it's over.”

Josephine scooped up her little dog. “This is Athena.”

“She's darling.”

Cuddling her dog, Josephine stepped to one side and peered into the entry. “Where's your luggage?”

Maisey hadn't wanted to break the news that she'd be staying elsewhere so soon. But now that the question had been posed, she had no choice except to answer it. “I, um, stowed it over at Smuggler's Cove.”

Her mother's eyes flashed with an emotion she quickly suppressed, and she put her dog down again. “Why would you leave it there?”

“I've decided to move into one of the bungalows. I like the idea of being so close to the beach.” She mustered a smile as if she couldn't feel the torrent of her mother's displeasure. “It reminds me of Dad.”

The mention of her father didn't distract Josephine for a second. “But the bungalows aren't ready for occupancy.”

“Unit 6 isn't so bad,” Keith said, obviously trying to smooth the way.

“And I can manage until your contractor gets around to the rehab,” Maisey added.

There was a protracted silence. As a child, Maisey would've caved in and said something to relieve the tension, something like, “But I'll stay here, if you'd rather.” She'd always been a pleaser. Even as an adult, it required determination not to succumb to her mother's powerful will.

“You'd rather move into a damaged shack than return to Coldiron House?” her mother asked.

“I'd hardly call the bungalows
shacks
, Mother,” she said, choosing to skirt the real issue. “They're structurally sound and will be quite cozy once they're restored. In all honesty, I'd like to assist with the restoration if I can. I enjoy do-it-yourself projects.”

“Since
when
?” Josephine demanded.

“Since I married Jack,” she replied coolly.

There was a slight pause. “Yes, Jack brought out a lot of things in you I didn't know existed.”

Maisey almost reacted to her sarcasm by saying, “You mean like a backbone?” But her mother was still talking. And, determined to maintain the peace, Maisey stifled that rejoinder.

“You're no contractor,” Josephine was saying. “And I'm already paying Raphael Romero. Why would
you
get involved?”

“Because I think I'd find it...therapeutic.”

Her mother waved her words away. “Therapeutic how?”

Was she serious? “It'll give me something to concentrate on to get my mind off...the recent changes in my life.”

“Surely you have better things to do,” her mother said. “Why impinge on your writing time?”

Now wasn't the ideal moment—if there could ever be an ideal moment—to tell Josephine that she hadn't been able to produce more than a few words, which she'd edited right off the page. She hadn't been able to draw, either. Not for months. “I'm sure I can fit everything in.” These days she had nothing
but
time.

“At least you get paid for writing. You'll get nothing in exchange for working on the bungalows.”

“I'm not expecting anything.”

Josephine's chin went up as she sank back into her seat. “Except free rent.”

She just
had
to make Maisey acknowledge the financial help she'd be receiving. Her mother had inherited a fortune from her father, who'd inherited it from
his
father. Yet she acted as though she'd earned every penny. “I'm willing to pay rent,” Maisey said. “How much would you like to charge me?”

Josephine grimaced. “Stop.”

“You're the one who mentioned it.”

“It doesn't make any sense to go there when you could stay here for free. That's all.”

“How could my moving into the damaged bungalows cost you any more than having me move here? They're empty, aren't they?” Maisey regarded her mother expectantly. Putting Josephine in a position where she'd have to
state
her objection in order to get her way was the only effective tool Maisey possessed.

“If that's what you want, it's of no consequence to me,” she said, right on cue.

After a quick glance at Keith, who was standing by the hearth, Maisey sat down and pretended to take Josephine's words at face value. But she was more convinced than ever that staying at Smuggler's Cove, even with Rafe Romero living next door, might just save her sanity.

There was a slight clatter in the doorway, and a girl in her late teens carried in a tray of small sandwiches, deviled eggs, cookies and tea.

“Thank you, Clarissa.” Josephine slid forward to pour.

Maisey waited until Clarissa had left to question the girl's identity. “I see you have someone new on staff.”

“Clarissa is Pippa's niece. She's helping out until Pippa's well enough to resume her duties.”

Maisey shot Keith another look. If Pippa was sick, why hadn't he told her in the car? Pippa, her mother's most recent housekeeper, had started the year Maisey left, so they didn't know each other well. They had, however, communicated now and then over the past decade—usually when Pippa sent out invitations to Josephine's annual Christmas party and Maisey replied with a note expressing her “regret” at being unable to attend. Pippa would invariably follow up with a Christmas card and an interesting summary of all that'd happened on Fairham that year. Although Pippa never revealed anything Josephine wouldn't want her to, Maisey had always considered that update a kind gesture. Pippa had even sent a gift when Ellie was born. “She's ill?”

“Not seriously,” Josephine replied. “She has a bronchial infection, so, for the past week, Clarissa's been filling in.” She put down the teapot. “I might keep the girl on. There are times Pippa could use the extra help.”

“I'm sure Clarissa would be grateful for the work.” Because there was so much that stood between them, and Maisey had lost faith that they'd ever be able to breach the gap, she felt it was better to discuss the daily running of the estate than anything personal.

“She should be. She has no other prospects,” Josephine said.

Maisey twisted around to make sure Clarissa wasn't in the hall, but her mother didn't seem to care whether she heard or not. In the rare moments when Josephine chose to be honest, she could be brutally so.

“Tea?” Her mother gestured at the tray.

As Maisey picked up her cup and saucer, Keith walked over and popped two cucumber sandwiches into his mouth, one right after the other.

“At least put your food on a plate!” Josephine snapped at him, her voice harsh enough to send Athena skittering backward. “Or did you do that just to upset me?”

“I did it because I'm hungry,” he replied, sounding equally irritated. “And who else is here to see me? I'm supposed to impress you and Maisey?
She
doesn't care.”

Maisey opened her mouth to agree. She didn't want something as minor as eating cucumber sandwiches the wrong way to make this tea more uncomfortable than it already was. It didn't take much to set off either her mother or her brother. But Josephine didn't give her the opportunity to react.


I
care!” she cried. “Have some respect.” Josephine turned back to Maisey, but now there were pink stains on her cheeks. “Since you're here, I take it you and Jack haven't reconciled,” she said.

Those words proved that Josephine was no longer on her best behavior. Had she thought about it for even a second, she would've known that Maisey didn't want to talk about Jack. But whether or not the recipient would be pleased by the topic she chose had never stopped Josephine before.

“No.”

“You don't think you will?”

Maisey clenched her jaw but forced it to relax so she could answer politely. “He's with someone else.”

“Already?”

Josephine knew this. She
had
to know it. Maisey had kept in touch with Keith and, more loosely, Pippa, even if she hadn't maintained direct contact with her mother. No doubt they'd shared the basic facts of her life—and more information had probably come from Keith than Pippa. As close as Maisey felt to Keith, as loyal as he tried to be, he'd never been particularly adept at keeping his mouth shut. The fact that Josephine claimed
not
to know about Jack strained the bounds of credulity, but allowed her to act innocent while Maisey writhed.

“Jack was involved with another woman before he moved out,” Maisey explained. Was that what she wanted to hear? Did Josephine enjoy making her say it?

“I see.” Her mother had warned her that Jack, who'd been working as a lifeguard at the public beach in Keys Crossing when she met him, would be unlikely to support her “in the lifestyle to which she was accustomed.” He came from decent, middle-class folk and had a business degree but no connections to help him get a start in the world of finance, which was his goal. Ironically, once they'd moved to New York, he'd managed to land a good job at Merrill Lynch simply by interviewing and had turned out to be quite talented with money.

Josephine must've been aware of that, too. It was something she would've questioned Keith about whenever he came back from New York.
Where do they live? What kind of rent do they pay? Is their apartment big?
Yet those two words—
I see
—sounded suspiciously like,
So I was right. And you dared question me...

“Then your marriage is really over,” Josephine added, driving the knife deeper still.

“Yes.” Maisey wanted to point out that Jack had failed in a completely different area than the one Josephine had predicted. But, once again, she bit her tongue. What did it matter? Jack was out of her life.

Josephine's cup clinked as she returned it to her saucer. “What's on the horizon for you now?”

Maisey didn't have any official plans. She just wanted to help support Keith's recovery.
Someone
had to step in. He couldn't continue the downward spiral that had led him to attempt suicide. And why not come here? She hadn't been doing anyone any good in Manhattan—including herself. “Maybe I'll change things up, get a job.”

She had to create
some
income unless she wanted to fall into the same vulnerable position as Keith and be dependent on Josephine for everything. It wasn't as if she was getting any alimony. She'd been making as much as Jack when they split. Granted, there were still some royalties coming in, but that wouldn't happen for another few months—and wouldn't amount to all that much.

BOOK: The Secret Sister
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