Andie Miller sat in the reception room of her ex-husband’s law office, holding on to ten years of uncashed alimony checks and a lot of unresolved rage. This is why I never came back here, she thought. Nothing wrong with repressed anger as long as it stays repressed.
Andie jerked her head up and a lock of her hair fell out of her chignon. She stuffed it back into the clip on the back of her head as North’s neat, efficient secretary smiled at her, surrounded by the propriety of his Victorian architecture. If that secretary had a chignon, nothing would escape from it. North was probably crazy about her.
“Mr. Archer will see you now,” the secretary said.
“Well, good for him.” Andie stood up, yanked on the hem of the only suit jacket she owned, and then wondered if she’d sounded hostile.
“He’s really very nice,” the secretary said.
“No, he isn’t.” Andie strode across the ancient rug to the door of North’s office, opened it before the secretary could get in ahead of her, and then stopped, taken aback in spite of herself.
North sat behind his walnut desk, his cropped blond hair almost white in the sunlight from the window behind him. His wire-rimmed glasses had slid too far down his nose again, and his shirt sleeves were rolled up over his forearms, and his shoulders were as straight as ever as he studied the papers spread out across the polished top of the desk. He looked exactly the way he had ten years ago when she’d bumped her suitcase on the door frame on her way out of town—
“Miss Miller is here,” his secretary said from behind her, and he looked up at her over his glasses, and the years fell away, and she was right back where she’d begun, staring into those blue-gray eyes, her heart pounding.
After what seemed like forever, he stood up. “Andromeda. Thank you for coming.”
She crossed the office, smiled tightly at him over the massive desk, decided that shaking his hand would be weird, and sat down. “I called you, remember? Thank you for seeing me.”
North sat down, saying, “Thank you, Kristin,” to his secretary, who left.
“So the reason I called—” Andie began, just as he said, “How is your mother?”
Oh, we’re going to be polite. “Still crazy. How’s yours?”
“Lydia is fine, thank you.” He straightened the papers on his desk into one stack.
A lot of really big trees had died to make that desk. His mother had probably gnawed them down, used her nails to saw the boards, and finished the decorative cutwork with her tongue.
“I’ll tell her you asked after her.”
“She’ll be thrilled. Say hi to Southie for me, too.” Andie opened her purse, took out the stack of alimony checks, and put them on the desk. “I came to give these back to you.”
North looked at the checks for a moment, the strong, sharp planes of his face shadowed by the back light from the window.
Say something, she thought, and when he didn’t, she said, “They’re all there, one hundred and nineteen of them. November nineteen eighty-two to last month.”
His face was as expressionless as ever. “Why?”
“Because they’re a link between us. We haven’t talked in ten years but every month you send me a check even though you know I don’t want alimony. Which means every month I get an envelope in the mail that says I used to be married to you. And every month I don’t cash them, and it’s like we’re nodding in the street or something. We’re still communicating.”
“Not very well.” North looked at the stack. “Why now?”
“I’m getting married.”
She watched him go still, the pause stretching out until she said, “North?”
“Congratulations. Who’s the lucky man?”
“Will Spenser,” Andie said, pretty sure North wouldn’t know him.
“He’s a great guy.” She thought about Will, tall, blond, and genial. The anti-North: He never forgot she existed. “I’m ready to settle down, so I’m drawing a line under my old life.” She nodded at the checks. “That’s why I came to give you those back. Don’t send any more. Please.”
After a moment, he nodded. “Of course. Congratulations. The family will want to send a gift.” He pulled his legal pad toward him. “Are you registered?”
“No, I’m not registered,” Andie said, exasperated. “Technically, I’m not even engaged yet. He asked me, but I needed to give you the checks back before I said yes.” She didn’t know why she’d expected him to have a reaction to the news. It wasn’t as if he still cared. She wasn’t sure he’d cared when she’d left.
“I see. Thank you for returning the checks.”
North straightened the papers on his desk again, and then looked down at the top paper for a long moment, as if he were reading it. He’d probably forgotten she was there again because his work was—
He looked up. “Perhaps, since you haven’t said yes yet, you could postpone your new life.”
“I have a problem you could help with. It would only take you a few months, maybe less—”
“North, did you even hear what I said?”
“—and we’d pay you ten thousand dollars a month, plus expenses, room, and board.”
She started to protest and then thought, Ten thousand dollars a month?
He straightened the folder on his desk again. “Theodore Archer, a distant cousin, died two years ago and made me the guardian of his two orphaned children.”
Ten thousand a month. There had to be a catch. Then the rest of what he’d said hit her. “Children?”
“I went down to see them at the family home where their aunt was taking care of them. They’d been living there with their father, their grandmother, and their aunt since the little girl was born eight years ago, but the grandmother had died before Theodore.”
“Down? They’re not here in Ohio?”
“The house is in a remote area in the south of the state. The place is isolated, but the children seemed fine with their aunt, so we agreed it was best that they’d stay there with her in order to disrupt their lives as little as possible.”
And to disrupt yours as little as possible, Andie thought.
North waited, as if he expected her to say it out loud. When she didn’t, he went on. “Unfortunately, the aunt died in June. Since then I’ve hired three nannies, but none have stayed.”
“Lot of death in the family,” Andie said.
“The children’s mother died in childbirth with the little girl. The grandmother died in her seventies of a heart attack. Theodore was killed in a car accident. The aunt fell from a tower on the house—”
“Wait, the house has towers?”
“It’s a very old house,” North said, his tone making it clear that he didn’t want to discuss towers. “The battlements are crumbling, and she evidently leaned on the wrong stone and fell into the moat.”
“The moat,” Andie said. “Battlements. Is this a joke?”
“No. Theodore’s great-great-grandfather had the house brought over from England in the nineteenth century. I don’t know why he dug a moat. The point is, these children have nobody, and they’re alone down there in the middle of nowhere with only the housekeeper taking care of them. If you will go down there, I will pay you ten thousand a month to . . . fix them.”
“Fix them,” Andie said. Ten thousand a month was ridiculous, but it would pay off her credit card bills and her car. In one month. Ten thousand dollars would mean she could get married without debt. Not that Will cared, but it would be better to go to him free and clear. “What do you mean, fix them?”
“The children are . . . odd. We wanted to bring them here in June after their aunt’s death, but the little girl had a psychotic break when the nanny tried to take her away from the house. The boy was sent away to boarding school at the beginning of August, but he’s been expelled for setting fires. I need someone to go down there and stabilize the children, bring their education up to standard for their grade level so they can go to public school, and then move them up here with us.”
Andie shook her head and another chunk of hair slipped out of her chignon. “Psychotic breaks and setting fires,” she said, as she stuffed it back. “North, I teach high school English. I have no idea how to help kids like this. You need—”
“I need somebody who doesn’t care about the way things are supposed to be,” he said, his eyes sliding to her neck. “I think that’s where the nannies are going wrong. I need somebody who will do the unconventional thing without blinking. Somebody who will get things done.” He met her eyes. “Even if she doesn’t stay for the long haul.”
“Hey,” Andie said.
“I would take it as a personal favor. I’ve never asked you for anything—”
“You asked for a divorce.” As soon as she said it, she knew it was a mistake.
He looked at her over the tops of his glasses, exasperated. “I did not ask you for a divorce.”
“Yes you did,” Andie said, in too far to stop now. “You told me that I seemed unhappy, and if that was true, you would understand if I divorced you.”
“You were playing ‘Any Day Now’ every time I came up to the attic. As hints go, it was pretty broad.”
He looked annoyed, so that was something, but it didn’t do anything for her anger. “There are people who, if their spouses are unhappy, try to do something about it.”
“I did. I gave you a divorce. You had one foot out the door anyway. Do we need to review that again?”
“No. The divorce is a dead subject.” And the ghost of it is sitting right here with us. Although maybe only with her. North didn’t looked haunted at all.
“I realize you’re getting ready to start a new life,” he went on. “But if you haven’t made plans yet, there’s no reason you couldn’t wait a few months. You could use the money for the wedding.”
“I don’t want a wedding, I want to get married. Why are you offering me ten thousand dollars a month for babysitting? You didn’t pay the nannies that. It’s ridiculous. For ten thousand a month, you should not only get child care, you should get your house cleaned, your laundry done, your tires rotated, and if I were you, I’d insist on nightly blow jobs. Did you think I wouldn’t notice that you’re still trying to keep your thumb on me?” She shook her head, and the lock of hair fell out of her chignon again. Well, the hell with that, too.
He sat very still, and then he said, “Why do you have your hair yanked back like that?” sounding as annoyed as she was.
“Because it’s professional.”
“Not if it keeps falling down.”
“Thank you,” Andie said. “Now butt out. Ten thousand is too much money. You’re still trying to pay me off—”
“Andromeda, I’m asking for a favor, a big one, and I don’t think the money is out of line. We didn’t leave our marriage enemies, so I don’t see why you’re hostile now.”
“I’m not hostile,” Andie said, and then added fairly, “Well, okay, I am hostile. You didn’t do anything to save our marriage ten years ago, but every month you send a check so I’ll think of you again. It’s passive aggressive. Or something. You know the strongest memory I have of you? Sitting right there, behind that desk. You’d think I’d remember you naked with all the mattress time we clocked in that year together, but no, it’s you, staring at me from behind all that walnut as if you weren’t quite sure who I was. You have no idea how many times I wanted to take an ax to that damn desk just to see if you’d notice me.”
North looked down at his desk, perplexed.
“You hide behind it,” Andie said, sitting back now that she wasn’t repressing anything any more. “You use it to keep from getting emotionally involved.”
“I use it to write on.”
“You know what I mean. It gives you distance.”
“It gives me storage. Have you lost your mind?”
Andie looked at him for a moment, sitting there rigid and polite and completely inaccessible. “Yes. It was a bad idea coming back here. I should go now.” She stood up.
“She said the house is haunted,” North said.
“The last nanny. She said there were ghosts in the house. I asked the local police to look into things to see if somebody was playing tricks, but they found nothing. I think it’s the kids, but if I send another nanny down there like the previous ones, she’s going to quit, too. I need somebody different, somebody who’s tough, somebody who can handle the unexpected. Somebody like you. And you’re the only person like you that I know.” Suddenly he was the old North again, warm and real with that light in his eyes as he looked at her. “They’re little kids, Andie. I can’t get them out of there, and I can’t leave them there, and with Mother in France, I can’t leave the practice long enough to find out what’s going on, and even if I could, I don’t know anything about kids. I need you.”
Ouch. “I don’t—”
“Everybody they’ve ever been close to has died,” North said quietly. “Everybody they’ve ever loved has left them.”
Bastard, Andie thought. “I can’t give you months. That’s ridiculous.”
North nodded, looking calm, but she’d been married to him for a year so she knew: He was going in for the kill. “Give them one month then. You can draw your line under us, we don’t need to talk, you can send reports to Kristin, hell, take your fiancé down there with you.”
“I’m the least maternal person I know,” Andie said, thinking, Ten thousand dollars. And more than that, two helpless kids who’d lost everyone they loved, going crazy in the middle of nowhere.
“I don’t think they need maternal,” he said. “I think they need you.”
“A psychotic little girl and a boy who’s growing up to be a serial killer. He didn’t push his aunt off that tower, did he?”
“They’re growing up alone, Andie,” North said, and Andie thought, Oh, hell.
The problem was, he sounded sincere. Well, he always did, he was good at that, but now that she really looked at him, he had changed. She could see the stress in his face, the lines that hadn’t been there ten years ago, the tightening of the skin over his bones, the age in the hollows under his eyes. His brother Southie probably still looked as smooth as a boiled egg, but North was still trapped behind that damn desk, taking care of everyone in the family. And now there were two more in the family, and he was handling it alone.
And two little kids were even more alone in a big house somewhere in the wilds of southern Ohio.
“Please,” North said, those gray-blue eyes fixed on her.
“Yes,” Andie said.
He drew a deep breath. “Thank you.” Then he put his glasses back on, professional again. “There’s a household account you can draw on for any expenses, and a credit card. The housekeeper will clean and cook for you. If you come by tomorrow, Kristin will give you a copy of this folder with everything you need in it and your first check, of course.”
Andie sat there for a moment, a little stunned that she’d said yes. She’d felt the same way after he’d proposed.
“I’d appreciate it if you could go down as soon as possible.”
“Right.” She shoved her hair back, picked up her purse, and stood up again. “I’ll drive down tomorrow and see what I can do. You have a good winter terrorizing the opposing counsel.”
She headed for the door, refusing to look back. This was good. She’d given back the checks and cut the connection, so she could spare a month to save two orphans. Will was in New York for the next two weeks anyway, and he’d come home to a fiancée with no debt, and then–
“Andie,” North said, and she turned back in the doorway.
“Thank you,” he said, standing now behind his desk, tall and lean and beautiful and looking at her the way he’d used to.
Get out of here. “You’re welcome.”
Then she turned and walked out before he could say or do anything else that made her forget she was done with him.
After Andie left, North sat for a moment considering the possibility that he’d lost his mind. He’d had the résumés of several excellent nannies on his desk, and he’d hired his ex-wife instead. Fuck, he thought, and deliberately put her out of his mind, which was difficult since she’d mentioned blow jobs. Which were irrelevant because he and Andie were over, had been for ten years. Blow jobs. No, she was right: Draw a line under it. He went back to work, making notes on his newest case as the shadows grew longer and Kristin left for the night, definitely not thinking about Andie, his black capital letters spaced evenly in straight rows, as firm and as clear as his thinking—
He stopped and frowned at the page. Instead of “Indiana” he’d written “Andiana.” He marked an I over the A but the word sat there on the page, misspelled and blotted, a dark spot on the clear pattern of his day.
There was a knock on the door at the same time it opened.
“North!” his brother Sullivan said as he came in, his tie loosened and his face as genial as ever under his flop of brown hair.
Say hi to Southie for me, Andie had said. It had been ten years since anybody had called Sullivan “Southie.”
“You look like hell.” Sullivan lounged into the same chair Andie had taken and put his feet on the desk. “You can’t work round the clock. It’s not healthy.”
Your whole life isn’t the damn law firm, North, Andie had said a month before she’d left him. You have a life. And you have me although not for much longer if you don’t knock off this I-live-for-my-work crap.
“I like my work,” he said to his brother now. How’s Mother?”
“Now that’s health. That woman was built for distance.”
North pictured their elegant, platinum-haired mother running a marathon in her pearls, kicking any upstarts out of the way with the pointed end of her heels as she crossed the finish line. She’d been thrilled when Andie had left.
“It’s you I’m worried about,” Sullivan was saying. “You’re working too hard, too much on your plate, trying to run the whole practice with Mother gone—”
“My plate is fine. However, I am in the middle of—”
“No, no, it’s time I helped out.” Sullivan smiled at him. “I’ve been thinking about what I could do, but I figure you’d fall on your number two pencil before you’d let me help with the practice.”
North looked down at the black pen mark that made “Andiana” such a blot. A number two pencil would be a good idea if he was going to start making mistakes.
“So I was thinking of something a little more in my area and out of yours,” Sullivan said. “People. You’re not a people person, North. I am.”
“People.” North turned the top sheet on his legal pad over so he didn’t have to look at the blot. Andiana. What the hell?
“You remember those two kids that second cousin left you a while back?”
“Yes,” North said, fairly sure that had been a rhetorical question, although with Sullivan, you never knew.
“I thought I might drop in, check on things for you, see how they’re doing.”
North looked up at that. “You want to ‘drop in’ to the wilds of southern Ohio to visit two children you’ve never met.”
Sullivan grinned at him. “I want to see the house.”
“The house isn’t worth anything. It’s in the middle of nowhere.”
“Sullivan, there are no such things as ghosts,” North said, and for a moment he was twelve again and Sullivan was six, staring wide-eyed into the room where their father was laid out in his coffin. “He’s not going to sit up, Southie,” North had said then. “He’s dead. There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
“I know that,” Sullivan said now. “But I want to see a house that everybody thinks is haunted.”
“’Everybody’ being a nanny who got bored and wanted out.”
“Other people have thought so, lots of rumors. So I thought I’d go down there and talk to some of the people. See what’s going on.”
“And how did you find out about these rumors?”
“I did some research for a friend of mine. She’s interested in hauntings, and she looked me up at a party and talked to me about the house and, you know, it is interesting.”
“She,” North said, Sullivan’s motives becoming much clearer now. The combination of a shiny new hobby and a shiny new girlfriend must have been irresistible.
“Kelly O’Keefe. The ghost thing is fascinating. I’ve talked to—”
“Kelly O’Keefe?” North thought of the tiny, sharp-faced, sharp-tongued newscaster he’d avoided after one viewing. “The little blonde with the teeth on Channel Twelve?”
“They’re very good teeth,” Sullivan said, going for indignant and missing.
“They look like they were very expensive,” North said and remembered Andie the first time he’d seen her, her big eyes dancing, her curly hair wild, her wide smile flashing her overlapped front teeth. She’d never had her teeth fixed.
“Well, you need good teeth for TV.”
“True.” That had been the first thing his mother had said about her. “For God’s sake, North, get her teeth fixed.”
“The close-ups are murder,” Sullivan said.
And he’d said, “I like her teeth. I like everything about her. And now you do, too, Mother.”
Sullivan was looking at him oddly. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” North said.
“Okay. Well, then, I’d like to take Kelly down there and look into the ghosts. I can check on the kids for you while I’m there.”
“I’d prefer you didn’t,” North said bluntly. “I don’t see Kelly O’Keefe being a good experience for them.”
“No, no, she’s not interested in reporting on kids anymore, she’s on to ghosts now. She found out that the house was originally a haunted house in England and she’s very excited about it. Did you know they brought the house over here in pieces and rebuilt it? Kelly could be really grateful if I took her down there. Plus, I’d get to investigate a haunted house. I’ve talked to two highly regarded ghost experts and there’s something behind this stuff. I told the experts that there’s a haunted house in the family, and one of them would like to see it. Kelly would like to see it. I’d like to see it. We won’t talk to the kids.”
“The children own the house, so it’s not in our immediate family,” North said, picking up his pencil again. “And you’re not going to disrupt their lives because you think you might like to be a Ghostbuster.”
“No, no, I told you, we won’t bother the kids. My plan is that I take Kelly and Dennis, the expert, down there, we talk to people—not the kids, adults only—I see what’s going on and report back to you, you get to know the kids are safe, Dennis gets more research, Kelly gets her video whatsis . . .” Sullivan shrugged. “We all win. Plus, I get away from Columbus before Mother gets back from Paris. She doesn’t like Kelly. Says she’s all teeth and hair.”
North looked at his little brother with an exasperation he hadn’t felt in years. Southie’s permanently thirteen, Andie had said. Thirty-four hobbies and a hard-on. But she’d been laughing when she’d said it . . . “Southie, when are you going to stand up to Mother?”
“Southie?” Sullivan said.
“You called me ‘Southie.’ You haven’t called me that in years.”
“Well, grow up and I’ll never call you that again. You’re running down there because you don’t want to face Mother with your latest career plan or girlfriend. It’s not much of a rebellion if you keep running away.”
“I’m not rebelling. I don’t have anything to rebel against. I have a great life. And to keep my life great, I’d like to avoid unpleasantness while learning about something that interests me and makes my girlfriend happy. Plus the last nanny quit last week so the kids are there alone. That’s not—”
“The children are not alone.”
“You hired another nanny?” Sullivan shook his head. “She won’t last. Better I should go–”
“This one will last.” North hesitated and then said, “I sent Andromeda.”
“Andie?” Sullivan whistled and then grinned. “Ghosts versus Andie. The supernatural is going to get its ass kicked. I didn’t even know she was back in town. When did you talk to her?”
“Today. She’s going down there tomorrow.”
Sullivan smiled. “Called me ‘Southie,’ did she?”
“That’s why you called me Southie. Andie did it first.”
“Yes,” North said, realizing it was true. Half an hour with Andie and ten years were yesterday. “She sent her regards.”
“She changed much?”
“Her hair’s . . . different,” North said, remembering her sitting in that chair, bundled up in an awful suit jacket, all those crazy curls yanked back, her face scowling as she argued with him. And then that one lock of hair, sliding down her neck—
“Her hair’s different?” Southie said. “You see your ex-wife for the first time in ten years and that’s all you got?”
“She looked . . .” Serious. Tense. Her old smile gone. “. . . quiet. She looked tired.” He shook that thought out of his head. “She was only here for twenty minutes. I didn’t pay that much attention.”
“Twenty minutes in the old days, and she’d have had you on your knees.”
“Southie,” North said repressively.
“I remember the first time I saw her,” Southie went on, ignoring him. “I was supposed to talk you into an annulment, and her old clunker of a car pulled up, and you said, ‘There she is,’ and she got out and came walking toward us, and I knew there wasn’t going to be an annulment. I told you she looked like there was music playing in her head, and you said, ‘Yeah, it’s—’”
“‘Layla,’” North said, seeing her again, moving across the lawn that bright summer day, the bounce in her step translating to the bounce in her hips, everything about her electric and alive and smiling at him . . .
“So does she still move to ‘Layla’?”
“Yes,” North said, remembering her walking across the carpet to him. “Except now it’s the acoustic version.”
Southie grinned. “I can’t wait to see her again. So we’ll go down this weekend–”
North thought of Andie opening the door and finding Southie and his toothy, microphone-wielding girlfriend on the step with some charlatan ghost expert. “No.”
“Maybe she could use your help,” Southie said. “The two of you used to—”
“She’s getting married again. Now if we’re finished here . . .” North looked back to his notes as a hint, but when Southie didn’t say anything, he looked up.
“I’m sorry,” Southie said, his face kind. “I really am.”
The twinge North had felt when she’d told him stabbed at him again and he put a lid on it again. “Why? We’ve been divorced for ten years. It’s not as if I thought she was coming back.”
“Yeah, but it’s still a shock. At least it is to me. Maybe I thought she was coming back.”
“Well, she’s not,” North said, more sharply than he’d intended.
“So, who’s the guy? What do we know about him?”
Southie looked serious now, which was always a bad sign.
“Will Spenser. The writer.”
“The true crime guy?” Southie said, raising his eyebrows.
“I think he writes mystery fiction, too.”
“Probably not much difference. What did the McKennas find out about him?”
North gathered his patience. “I did not put a private detective on my ex-wife’s fiancé.”
“Right, she was just here, you haven’t had time. Want me to call Gabe for you?”
Southie shook his head. “You know, she used to be family. As far as I’m concerned she still is. We need to look out for her. This guy could have anything in his past. He’s a writer, for Christ’s sake.”
“No,” North said.
“And I should go down and check on her in that house,” Southie went on as if he hadn’t spoken. “I can’t believe you sent her down there without backup. God knows what’s down there.”
“Two kids and a housekeeper. You’re not going.”
Southie sighed. “Kelly’s not going to be happy.”
“Such is life.”
Southie hesitated and the silence stretched out. “All right then,” he said, standing up. “You going to see Andie again?”
“No. You have a good evening.” North flipped the page back to where it had been as a signal for Southie to leave and saw the “Andiana” in the middle of the page again. “Damn.”
“What’s wrong?” Southie said.
“I made a mistake.” North flipped the pad shut, annoyed with himself.
“Sending Andie down there?”
“What?” he said, looking up.
“You think you made a mistake sending Andie down there?”
“No,” North said and then thought about Andie, down in the wilds of southern Ohio. She might like it. She’d been wandering around ever since they’d divorced, moving someplace new every year, teaching in some really godforsaken places. Maybe that had been his mistake, keeping her in the city. Trying to keep her at all. He shook his head. “No, it wasn’t a mistake. She’ll handle things.”
“Yeah, she will,” Southie said, his voice odd, and when North looked up, he saw Southie regarding him sympathetically. “Maybe you should go down there. Get out of the office, check to make sure she’s all right. Spend a night in the place so you know what it’s like.”
Southie waited a moment and then said quietly, “You could have gone after her, you know.”
North looked at him blankly. “Why would I go after her? She’ll be fine down there.”
“Not now. Then. When she left. You could have gone—”
“You ever think maybe that divorce was a mistake?”
“No,” North said, putting as much you-should-leave-now in his voice as possible.
“Because I always thought it was,” Southie said. “If you’d gone after her, you could have gotten her back. That’s all she wanted, she was just lonely—”
“Was there anything else?” North said coldly. “Because unlike you, I have work to do.”
“Right. Well, you have a good time with your work,” Southie said, and left, shaking his head.
Damn it. The divorce hadn’t been a mistake. She’d been miserable. He’d been miserable because she was miserable. Going after her wouldn’t have changed that. They were both happier now. He had work to do.
She’d looked so good, warm and round; sounded so good, the old huskiness of her voice brushing down his spine; moved so good, her step still in that old rocking rhythm—
And now she was getting married again. Good for her. Moving on . . .
He pulled his notebook back in front of him and then thought, Maybe good for her. Because Southie was right, he didn’t know anything about this yahoo she was getting engaged to. She probably didn’t, either. She’d married him after twelve hours of phenomenal sex, she could be lunging into another mistake. And she hadn’t smiled. She’d smiled all the time when they were married. In the beginning.
He picked up the phone and called the detective agency the firm used and ordered a background check on Will Spenser.
Then he flipped open the notebook to go back to work and saw the “Andiana” blot.
No, he thought, and ripped out the page and copied the whole thing over again. With no mistakes.
By late afternoon the next day, Andie had finished packing and tying off the loose ends of her life. There weren’t many loose ends since she’d been moving around the country for ten years, which tended to limit most ends, loose or otherwise, but she did call Will in New York to tell him the good news. “Ten thousand dollars, Will. It’ll pay off all my debts with some left over. I’m being practical and mature here.”
“I don’t care about your debts,” he said, sounding exasperated, and she pictured his handsome boyish face, scowling at her for the two seconds he could hold a scowl before he started to grin again. “I’ll pay your debts. What I’d really like to hear is that you’re going to marry me.”
Of course, Andie thought, and said, “Maybe.” She heard a thunking sound on the other end of the phone. “What’s that?”
“That’s me beating my head against the wall.”
Andie grinned. “That’s you beating the phone against your mouse pad.”
“Same difference. Do you take this long to answer all your marriage proposals?”
It took me five seconds to say yes to North. “Yes. I ponder them, and the guys get bored and wander off. Will, I want to do this, it really is important to me to be free and clear financially before I start a new life. I’ve been spinning my wheels for ten years. I want a new start with nothing left over from before.”
“Okay,” he said in that easygoing voice she loved. He was so Not-North. “Call me often. Tell me you love working with kids and want to have twenty.”
“Twenty?” Andie said, alarmed. “I don’t want any.”
“Well, maybe you’ll change your mind.” Will hesitated and then he said, “You won’t be seeing North, will you?”
Andie frowned at the phone. “Are you jealous? Because, trust me, he’d forgotten I’d existed until I showed up in his office. And no, I won’t be seeing him.”
“Nobody has ever forgotten you,” Will said with feeling. “Just remember who you’re potentially engaged to.”
“How could I forget?” Andie said, and moved on to the I-love-yous before North became a permanent part of their conversation.
Then she picked up the last of her three suitcases and her CD player and went out to deal with her mother, who was standing on the sidewalk in front of her little brick German Village cottage in her jeans and faded Iron Maiden T-shirt, looking worried as she stared at Andie’s ten-year-old bright yellow Mustang.
“I don’t like this,” Flo said, for the fortieth time, her long, curly, graying hair bobbing as she shook her head. “I dreamed about you last night. You fell into a well.”
“Thank you, Flo,” Andie said as she opened the hatchback. “That’s encouraging.”
“It means your subconscious is calling to you. You’ve been repressing something. That’s what the water means anyway. The falling part is probably about being out of control, or since it’s you, maybe it’s about running away. You know what a bolter you are.”
“I am not a bolter,” Andie said to her mother, not for the first time. “I go toward things, not away from them.”
“I think you got the bolting thing from your father,” Flo said. “You’re very like him.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Andie said coldly. “Except that I don’t desert children, so no, I’m not like him.”
“Don’t go,” Flo said.
“Because you had a dream? No.” Andie put the suitcase in the car next to the sewing machine she’d already stashed there.
“There was so much negative energy in your marriage,” Flo fretted.
That wasn’t negative energy, that was raging lust. “I’m not revisiting my marriage. I’m taking care of two orphaned kids for a month—”
“This is a terrible time astrologically,” Flo went on as if she hadn’t spoken. “Your Venus is in North’s Capricorn—”
Andie slammed the hatchback closed. “Mother, my Venus isn’t anywhere near North. If his Capricorn was in my Venus, I could see your point, but it’s staying here in Columbus while I go south.” She went around and opened the back door of the car and shoved over the boxes of school supplies that Kristin had given her to make room for her stereo while her mother obsessed about her life.
“North is a powerful man, and you’re still connected to him.” Flo frowned. “Probably sexual memory, those Capricorns are insatiable. Well, you know, Sea Goat. And of course, you’re a Fish. You’ll end up back in bed with him.”
Andie slammed the car door. “You know what I’d like for Christmas, Flo? Boundaries. You can gift me early if you’d like.”
“If you keep seeing North, he’s going to get you again, and you were so miserable with him—”
“I’m not seeing North. I’m going to have a stable, secure relationship with a good man who loves me and won’t desert me for his career. Which reminds me. I left that stupid suit jacket on the bed, so the next time you’re at Goodwill, drop it off, will you? I don’t know why I kept it. I’m never going to be near anybody who’ll want me to wear a suit again.”
Flo folded her arms. “Will’s a Gemini. Volatile. Well, he’s a writer. You’re not sexually compatible, you’re both so scattered. You must be all over the place in bed.”
“Boundaries, Flo,” Andie said, thinking, The sex is just fine. Not wall-banging, earth-shattering, oh-my-god sex, but fun and energetic and damn satisfying just the same. Wall-banging, earth-shattering, oh-my-god sex was probably for people in their twenties. At least that was the last time she’d had it. “Will and I are good. And I don’t believe in astrology. Or dreams.” She looked sternly at Flo.
“Of course you don’t, dear. Did you get the birth signs for the children?”
“The boy is a Taurus and the girl is a Scorpio. And yes, even if it turns out that means they’re going to kill me in my sleep, I’m still going.”
“Well, the boy will be all right. You can always count on a Taurus. Steady as they come. Strong. The Bull.” She looked thoughtful. “They like things, you know? Good food, comfort, they’re very materialistic. If you need to win him over, that could help.”
“I’d think good food and comfort would win anybody over,” Andie said and Flo looked at her curiously.
“Now why would you think that? The little girl’s going to be completely different. Intense. Secretive. You won’t buy her with comfort. And you won’t be able to bamboozle her, either. Scorpios. They’ll kill you as soon as look at you. They like sparkly things, though. You might get her with sequins.”
“Flo, she’s a little girl.”
“Although I’ve always liked Scorpios. They’re interesting. And they’re survivors. Taurus, too, those are both survivor signs. Tough kids. They’ll make it without you.” Flo bit her lip. “Andie, don’t go.”
“I’m going.” Andie opened the driver’s side door to escape before her mother started on rising signs. “I’ll be back in a month, and everything will be fine.”
“No it won’t.” Flo took a deep breath. “It’s not just the dreams and the stars. I read your cards last night. The Emperor was crossing you. That’s power and passion, so it has to be North. It was a bad, bad reading. You’re going down a path that’s all conflict and struggle. There’s no peace there. Will can’t help you, he’s not strong enough for you. North’s too strong.”
“Leave both of them,” Flo said, serious as death. “I’m scared for you, Andie.”
“Well, stop it,” Andie said and got in the car. Then she got out again and hugged Flo who hugged her back, hard. “Sorry, Mom. I love you much. Don’t worry. In a month, I’ll be back and living here in town and you can run the cards for me every day if you like.”
“You don’t understand,” Flo said. “You’re not a mother. When you have a child, you can’t let her go into danger, you have to be there for her—”
“Flo, I’m thirty-four. The child part is over.”
“It’s never over,” Flo said, and Andie shook her head at her obtuseness and got back in her car.
“I’ll call you while I’m there,” she said, and put the Mustang in gear, and then waved at her mother in her rearview mirror as she drove away.
Sea goat, she thought.
A little Flo went a long way.
Andie headed south on I-71and then turned off onto a winding two-lane highway and then from there onto another narrower road that moved into a heavily wooded area, making the drive dark in the middle of the day. The general air of desolation was not helped by the fact that she saw only two other cars once she passed the last sign of civilization—a shopping center—before she hit New Essex, the depressed little town that marked the turn-off to the long dead-end road the house was supposed to be on. By then the sun was going down, so fifteen miles later, when she saw the battered sign that said ARCHER HOUSE in the middle of some weeds, she pulled off to the side of the road in the deepening twilight and got out to investigate.
There had been a drive next to the sign, but it seemed to have collapsed. What was left was a steep slope, not anything she’d want to drive down if she had a choice.
She got back in the car and drove slowly over the edge.
The road dipped down sharply, scraping the Mustang’s front fender which made her shudder, and then slid into the pothole-laced lane that wound through the trees for about a quarter of a mile and came out into meadow gone to seed with a large greenish pond in the middle of it. Beyond that an ancient three-story dark stone house rose up, flaunting two rose windows, a crumbling tower, and a moat, all its windows dark in the twilight. “The House of Archer,” Andie said to herself as she slowed to take it all in. Well, it was a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year.
She followed the drive around to the side where she found a little bridge that crossed the moat onto an untended stretch of pavement that split, the right going to the front of the house and its weathered, stone-arched entrance and the left to the back and a large, weedy flagstoned yard beside a row of garages that had probably once been stables.
She pulled the Mustang up in front of the garages and got out, looking around the deserted yard as she slammed the door, the sound echoing in the gloom. The place wasn’t just neglected, it was slovenly: weeds everywhere, the flagstone broken, the steps to the back door crumbling. The house was plainer in back, with just a single column of porch topped by bay windows, one to each floor, the window frames peeling and the gutters rusting, and everything oppressed by the bleak gray stone.
And all of it was really wrong. North wouldn’t leave property looking like this. Not for two years. And he’d have made sure there was somebody there to greet her when she pulled up.
She shook her head and got one of her suitcases and headed for the house, now really wary of what she was going to find. She pushed the back door open, banging the case on the frame, and then went through a small mudroom and into a big, cold, gloomy, empty sitting room filled with heavily carved Victorian furniture including an ornate couch covered in green-striped silk, green-striped bolsters against each arm, and several side chairs covered in threadbare needlepoint.
She opened a side door into another cold, empty room, this one with a long, heavy dining table surrounded by equally heavy, ornate chairs.
There was another door in the opposite wall, and she opened that one, feeling more and more like Alice through the Looking Glass, but this time, light and heat hit her as she walked in. It was a huge, white kitchen, but a less welcoming heart-of-the-house would be hard to imagine, nothing like the kitchen full of color North had given her in Columbus. Every surface was scrubbed and empty except for the long wood farmhouse table in the center.
A boy sat at the end, all shoulder blades and elbows, hunched over a bowl of something orange, his brown hair falling into his eyes as he looked up at her from under his thick lashes, his mouth set in a tight, hard line. Sitting close to him was a thin little girl cupping her hands around her own bowl of orange, her pale gray-blue eyes narrowed under her long, tangled white-blond hair, her T-shirt almost covered by all the stuff she had strung around her neck: an old strand of discolored purplish plastic pearls, an ancient locket on a pink ribbon, a string of tiny blue shells, a blue Walkman on a black cord, and a glittery bat on a black chain.
Wonderful, Andie thought, and said, “Hi.”