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Julia London is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Dangers of Deceiving a Viscount, The Perils of Pursuing a Prince, The Hazards of Hunting a Duke, Highlander Unbound (a finalist for the Romance Writers of America’s RITA Award for Best Historical Romance), Highlander in Disguise, and Highlander in Love (also a finalist for the RITA Award)―all published by Pocket Books and Pocket Star Books. She is also the author of Guiding Light: Jonathan’s Story, the New York Times bestselling novel based on the Emmy Award–winning daytime drama Guiding Light. Don’t miss her short story “The Merchant’s Gift” in the anthology The School for Heiresses and watch for her new short story in the holiday anthology Snowy Night with a Stranger, coming soon from Pocket Books. A native Texan, Julia lives in Austin, Texas. You can write to her at P.O. Box 228, Georgetown, TX 78627, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When the final bell rang at Bruce Elementary School on a warm May afternoon, Jane Aaron’s best friend, Nicole—a teacher, like Jane—helped her carry her things to the car. “Wow,” Nicole said, as she wedged a box into Jane’s trunk. “This is kind of like the end of an era, isn’t it?”
“Not at all,” Jane said unconvincingly. She shut the trunk. “It’s just a break, Nic. I’ll be back next fall.” She wrapped her arms around Nicole and gave her a hug. “Okay. Here I go, off to tell them.”
Nicole smiled and tucked a curl behind Jane’s ear. “Hang in there.”
Hang in there, as if Jane had been dangling from the end of a rope, twisting in the wind. Which, when she thought about it, wasn’t too far off the mark. “I’ll call you later and tell you how it went.”
“You better!” Nicole warned her. She looked at her car, parked next to Jane’s. “Don’t you dare leave without talking to me, Janey,” she added, and glanced sidelong at her friend.
“Nic, it’s just one summer,” Jane assured her. “I’ll be talking to you a million times. I’ll call you in a little while, okay?”
Nicole smiled again. She had a great smile, a Colgate smile, and with her dark hair pulled into a ponytail, and her little Bruce Elementary Rocks badge on her shirt, she looked like the poster child for wholesome second-grade teachers everywhere. “Okay. Good luck with the fam,” she said, and with a cheery little wave, she walked to her car.
Jane got in her car, too, and made it halfway down the street before she pulled over, put the car in park, and covered her face with her hands. “What am I doing?” she whispered. “Seriously—what am I doing?”
Finding yourself, she answered silently and groaned. That sounded so clichéd, such new age crap. But in her case, it was true. She was literally, truly, finding herself—or rather, the woman who’d given her away.
When Jane pulled into the back parking area outside The Garden restaurant that her family had owned and operated for years, she couldn’t make herself get out of the car.
They were in there, her family, getting ready for the evening rush. Just imagining them working together, laughing, and playing that stupid game with the creamers gave Jane butterflies of anticipation and dread. She was going to walk into that happy little scene and tell them that after much thought, she’d decided to go and search for her birth family.
She’d actually practiced her speech last night in front of the bathroom mirror. “My decision did not come lightly,” she’d said gravely to her mirror, as if she’d been some politician removing herself from office. But it was true: the decision had not been easy to make. Naturally, Jane had wondered who she really was for a long time, but she hadn’t realized just how much she’d wondered, how deeply that question had sunk into her marrow, until Jonathan, her boyfriend, had asked her to marry him.
Jonathan’s proposal had not been unexpected. It had been the natural progression of their relationship. Jane had figured it was coming, and she’d figured she’d say yes. But the moment Jonathan had asked her, Jane had been stunned to discover that she hadn’t been ready to say yes. She hadn’t known why her epiphany had occurred at that inopportune moment; she’d just known that something had felt wrong and even a little raw and she’d not been able to commit fully to Jonathan. Not yet.
Jane would be the first to admit that she could be a little obtuse about her feelings. She wasn’t very good at self-examination and preferred to go through life happy and cheerful and looking forward, always forward. But her reluctance to say yes to Jonathan had dredged up a whole lot of emotions she’d realized she’d been feeling for a while. Such as . . . was he really the one? And how could she know who was really the one when she didn’t really know who she was?
The more she came to understand that knowing the who and why of herself had been questions in her for a long time, the emptier and more uncertain she began to feel. About everything. About marriage, and kids, and family. About her thesis, the one thing she needed to finish in order to get her graduate degree. She couldn’t move on with her life, not without answering a very basic and fundamental question about herself: Who was she?
Of course Jonathan didn’t understand her sudden change of heart, but he was at least trying to. Neither did the people inside this restaurant—they loved Jonathan, and they didn’t get Jane’s sudden reluctance to make it permanent. It really wasn’t like her. She had a great family, a loving family, and she’d never felt anything but completely and totally loved.
Yet she’d never felt like she was one hundred percent one of them, either.
The need to know who she was had, in the last couple of years, begun to gnaw on her, eating away from the inside out, especially after she’d signed up for the national registry and no one had come looking for her. Why hadn’t her biological parents kept her? She felt alone, like she was straddling two realities. She felt a little unlovable.
After much thought, I have decided to move to Cedar Springs.
Cedar Springs was a small town west of Austin. She’d been born there, and that was all she knew about her beginnings. And now Jane was going to go into The Garden’s kitchen and tell the family who loved her beyond measure that she was moving to Cedar Springs to look for the family who didn’t love her quite as much.
Wish me luck!
She’d tried that in her mirror, too, a cheerful and carefree end to her little speech, but it hadn’t worked. Jane didn’t expect her family to like her decision, but she did expect them to accept it.
God, she was nervous! Why was she so nervous? She checked her reflection in the mirror of the visor, running a hand over the top of her head. “At least one thing is going right,” she muttered. Her dark, unruly hair was still in the braid she’d managed this morning. Jane took a breath, closed the visor, and opened the car door.
There was a faux brass monkey and coconut-shaped basket attached to the wall in the kitchen of The Garden, hanging right next to the time clock, where it collected receipts and bills of lading. It reminded Jane of home . . . perhaps because there was an identical monkey and coconut in the kitchen there, as well. When her mom found a bargain, she took advantage.
The rest of the Aarons agreed with Jane: those baskets were hideous.
“I refuse to touch that,” Jane’s cousin Vicki had vowed when Jane’s mother, Terri, had hammered it securely to the wall right next to the time card machine.
Terri, swishing by in her rectangular glasses and colorful apron dotted with artichokes, gave Vicki a friendly little pat on her derriere. “That’s a little dramatic, isn’t it, sweetie?”
While it was true that Vicki could be dramatic and a little too pointed in her comments at times, she’d had a point. But the Aarons had managed to adapt to the monstrosity by making it the centerpiece of a popular family game. Before the lunch and dinner rushes, before the staff started to trickle in, they liked to toss creamers at the thing from established two-point and three-point lines. Uncle Barry held the record for the most points ever earned in a single game, an astounding eighteen points.
Terri always issued her standard warning when a game began: “If you break that, you better pack your bags for China, because that’s where you’re going to have to go to replace it!”
Yes, the kitchen at The Garden was just like being at home. As several of the Aarons earned their living there, and one of them was always working, they tended to gather there more than they did anywhere else. This kitchen was a professional one, what with its large ovens, walk-in coolers and freezers, and spotless, stainless prep areas. But it also had the touches of family. The walls were livened up with pictures of the Aarons and some loyal staff through the years. There was a string of Christmas lights scattered through the overhead dome heating lights, which someone had hung one year and never removed.
There was a small desk in the prep area that was stacked with bills and food orders and travel brochures addressed to Uncle Barry and Aunt Mona, both chefs at The Garden. They seemed always to be planning a trip they could never quite seem to make. Taped to the door of the walk-in freezer were the required Health Department certificates and a pair of crayon drawings that were really pretty good. Barry and Mona’s daughter, Vicki, had made them years ago, when the kids had had to troop to the restaurant after school and sit at the bar and do their homework under Uncle Greg’s watchful eye.
Uncle Greg had since moved to Dallas, and Vicki was a sous-chef now, having left her art behind for the security of a job that actually paid the rent, but the crayon drawings reminded Jane of pleasant afternoons spent in front of the liquor bottles.
Years ago, Jane’s parents, Terri and Jim Aaron, now the majority owners in the restaurant, had knocked out a wall that had separated their small office from the kitchen and turned the area into a general gathering place. Terri, the head chef and bargain hunter, had found a pair of gold couches with big red oak leaves at a garage sale. Suffice it to say that Terri’s talent for cooking was vastly superior to her talent for shopping, but those couches, and the scarred, laminate coffee table between them, made a great place to gather before a shift, or to collapse with a glass of wine at the end of a long shift.
That area was always cluttered with the family’s things. Jane couldn’t count how many times she had tripped over her brother Eric’s guitar case, dropped just inside the door. Eric was a floor manager, which gave him the freedom and the cash he needed to pursue music, his true love.
The culinary academy books littering the coffee table belonged to Jane’s other brother, Matt. He was the heir apparent to Terri because of his own personal desires and the popular vote of the family. His talent was desserts, and the kitchen usually carried the scent of his latest creation. Apple tarts drenched in heavy cream, red velvet cakes with a rich cream cheese filling, and Jane’s personal favorite, Jane’s Chocolate Thunderdome, an enormous chocolate brownie from which warm chocolate oozed, developed especially for Jane’s sweet tooth.
Jane had no talent for cooking herself, but she’d turned out to be a pretty good hostess, and she’d supplemented her paltry public school teacher salary by hostessing on the weekends.
Over the years, the Aarons had made a habit of having an early dinner together every night before the dinner rush, which is where Jane intended to make her announcement today.
As she walked into the kitchen, a creamer narrowly missed her head and bounced off the door frame. That near miss was met with a masculine chorus of “Oooh,” as if they’d just missed a three-point basket in the last second of the NBA play-offs. Jane scooped up the creamer, slid her gym bag under the coffee table, and asked, “What smells so good?”
“Mom’s secret recipe eggplant parm,” Matt said. “Hey, we’re just starting a new round. Are you in?”
“What’s the pot?” Jane asked.
“A used Starbucks gift card with an unknown amount still on it.”
Jane grinned. “I’m in!”
“Yes! Fresh meat!” Eric exclaimed. He swept by her and tried to tousle Jane’s hair, but she was too quick for him, dodging out of the way of his beefy hand. Eric laughed and picked up the waitstaff roster to make the evening’s station assignments. Jane’s younger brothers were blonde, tall, and athletic. Nicole called them Norse Vikings and proclaimed them hot. There were many times in her life when Jane had wished she’d looked like them—or at least had had their hair. She was shorter than them, with dark, curly, unruly hair. Where Matt and Eric were pale and blue-eyed, her skin had a bit of an olive tint to it. Her eyes were brown, and she had a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose.
Eric missed his shot. “Come on, Janey,” he said, handing her two creamers. “Put a little English on it.”
“I have no idea what that means.” She closed one eye, took aim—and sank her first creamer into the basket. “Two points!” she cried, earning another boisterous chorus of ooohs from the guys. She was lining up to take another shot when her cousin Vicki walked in. Vicki took one disdainful look at them and shook her head.
Jane threw her creamer at Vicki, hitting her on the shoulder.
“I refuse to play,” Vicki said, as if nailing her with the creamer had been an invitation. Vicki had brassy blonde hair, the result of the highlight touch-ups she’d done herself. Today, her hair was knotted high on her head.
“Aw, come on, Vic,” Eric said, catching her in his arms and making her dance around a tight little circle with him.
“The game is pointless,” Vicki insisted. “And furthermore, no one ever pays up the promised pot.”
“Stick in the mud,” Eric said with a grin and let her go.
“Your stick in the mud is what other people call mature!” she called over her shoulder as she continued her trek to the office, where Terri and Jim, their heads together, were going over some paperwork.
Matt stood up next on the three-point line.
“He’s going for three! The crowd goes wild!” Eric cried, then made a noise like a crowd cheering.
Matt missed and handed his creamer to Uncle Barry. “I’d love to stay and kick butt, but I’ve got to get the soup going.” He bowed out as Terri wandered into their midst, pausing to look sternly at Barry.
“What?” Barry asked innocently. There was no mistaking them for brother and sister. They were both a little round, and they both had blue eyes that crinkled in the corners from a lifetime of smiling and laughing. “Watch this, Terri,” Barry challenged her, and whizzed a creamer into the basket from the three-point line. “Champion!” he shouted, throwing his arms in the air. “Again.”
“High five,” Eric said, lifting his hand to his uncle. “And lucky you, it’s your Starbucks card.”
“When’s dinner?” Barry asked.
“As soon as Mona gets here,” Terri said. “Janey, I love your hair!” she added, reaching her daughter. She caught Jane by the arms and leaned back, studying her hair with a critical eye. Jane’s hair was unmanageable. She could remember the agony of her mother trying to run a brush through it to tame it. She’d tried a new look today, braiding it loosely, but she could now feel a bit of it trying to work its way free of the braid. “Cute,” her mom said, nodding her approval. “You always look so cute.”
“Okay, I won’t gush. Hey, did Jonathan like the shirt I got him?” she asked eagerly.
She’d found western shirts on sale and bought them for all the guys. Alas, Jonathan was not a western-shirt kind of guy. “Am I really supposed to wear this?” he’d asked, bewildered, when Jane had delivered it to him.
“He loved it,” Jane assured her mother. “I think he might have worn it to his gig in Galveston tonight.” Jonathan was a computer programmer by day and a musician by night. Eric had introduced Jane and Jonathan to each other about four years ago, when he and Jonathan had been playing in the same band. They’d begun dating seriously a couple of years ago, and they were still together, in spite of Jane’s clumsy response to his marriage proposal.
“That’s so nice,” her mother said with delight. “Such a great deal, those shirts—”
“Terri? Terri!” Jane’s dad was suddenly standing beside them, papers in hand, reading glasses perched on the end of his nose, and wearing his western shirt. Where Jane’s mother was soft and a little rounded with age, her father was tall and thin, with graying blonde hair. He peered at Jane over the rims of his glasses. “Hi, pumpkin,” he said, leaning over to kiss her cheek. “Did you do something to your hair?”
“Terri, I cannot read this,” he said sternly to her mother. “Where did you learn to write?”
“Overholser Elementary, same as you,” Terri said, snatching the papers out of his hand and squinting at them. “Ten pounds, Jim. It says ten pounds.”
“That’s not the only thing I can’t read. I need you to go over this with me, please.”
Jane’s father was, hands down, the best dad in all of Houston. He would do anything for anyone, and he especially loved working on the Habitat for Humanity projects. But when it came to running the restaurant, he was completely dependent on his wife. It wasn’t that he wasn’t capable; he was. But Jane had the sense that they’d been together for so long—high school sweethearts—that their thoughts were almost intertwined. Dad needed Mom to think straight.
“Honey, I’ve told you a dozen times that you need new reading glasses,” Terri said. “Just go down to Walgreens and pick them out. It might cost you all of fifteen dollars.”
“Okay, okay, but I have to finish the ordering now, so please come and help me.”
“All right,” Terri said, and rolled her eyes at Jane. But she was smiling. “Oh, honey,” she said, putting her hand on Jane’s arm. “We’re having egg parm tonight. Would you mind getting a salad together and putting it in the dining room? I’ll be in to help in a bit.”
It was a running joke in the family that Jane was only allowed to prepare salads. And they came preprepared. She grabbed the salad mix from the chiller and dumped it in a serving bowl. She’d finished adding tomatoes when Aunt Mona arrived, burdened with several Target bags.
“Mona!” the guys called in unison.
Mona, a redhead, was always a little late, and they loved to greet her like a returning warrior. “You won’t believe all the great stuff I found!” she trilled, dumping the bags on one of the couches. “Vicki, I found that face cream you like, and it was twenty-five percent off!”
With a smile, Jane picked up the salad and a pair of tongs, sidestepped Uncle Barry, and made her way to the private dining room.
Originally, the restaurant had been a house, and it had been renovated to fit eight tables. Over the years, the family had added to and rebuilt sections of the restaurant, so that now it was a sprawling thing that could seat two hundred people at once. It was in the old part of town and considered by many to be quintessentially Houston.
The private dining room, where the family dined every night, was the original dining room. There was a fireplace they used in the winter and a large picture window that overlooked their kitchen and herb garden. The walls in the dining room were adorned with pictures of the restaurant taken over the years. In one picture, taken in the late thirties, Jane’s grandparents stood proudly outside. In another Uncle Greg stood behind the bar he’d tended. In another one, taken when they were kids, Vicki, Jane, Matt, Eric, and Vicki’s brother, Danny, who was in the army now, were sitting on the front porch. And a big picture from the seventies, of Terri, Jim, Barry, and Mona at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the addition of a new dining room.
There was a stack of plates at one end of the table—Jane’s mother insisted on sit-down dinners, served family style, as opposed to having waitstaff serve them. “They aren’t here to wait on us,” she’d say if anyone whined.
Jane set the salad down and picked up the plates. She had them laid out when her mother swept in with a cheery smile, her hair in a net, and that goofy artichoke apron. Terri Aaron always had a smile on her face; she was the most upbeat, positive person Jane had ever known.
“I was just talking to Mona,” her mother said as she gathered silver and began to set the table. “Kohl’s is having a big sale this weekend. Mona and Vicki and I are going to go. Wanna go with? I’ll buy you some sheets.”
“Ah . . .” Jane wasn’t quite ready to broach her big news. Her mother wouldn’t be surprised by it, exactly, but Jane didn’t think she’d particularly like it, either.
Her hesitation caused Terri to look at her. “What’s up? Do you and Jonathan already have plans?”
“Ah, no . . . well, sort of.” Jane drew a breath. “I was planning on moving to Cedar Springs on Saturday.”
Her mother stilled.
“I’m going to do it, Mom,” Jane said earnestly, moving closer. “I am going to Cedar Springs.” There, she’d said it.
Terri slowly put down the silver she was holding. “Cedar Springs?”
“I’ve been thinking about it a long time.”
“You’ve been thinking about what? Moving there?” she asked, her voice a little incredulous.
Her mother’s gaze flicked to the carpet a moment. “Janey, I know you want answers, but . . . to move there? Are you sure this is what you want?”
“I’m sure, Mom. It’s really been on my mind, and you know I’ve been considering it.”
“Considering it, yes, but I didn’t know you were going to . . . to do it.”
“I’m going to tell everyone today,” Jane said. “You know, so all of Vicki’s questions will be answered.” She smiled a little ruefully at her joke.
Terri’s smile was a little sad. “Okay,” she said, nodding. She crossed her arms over her chest like she was suddenly cold. “Okay.”
“Mom . . . are you okay with it?”
“Yes!” Terri said, a bit too emphatically. “But it doesn’t matter if I or anyone else is okay with it, Jane. You have to be okay with it. This is your life and your quest. I just don’t want you to get hurt,” she said. “That’s the only thing, Janey. I want you to be happy, but I can’t stand to see you hurt.”
Jane walked to where her mother stood and wrapped her arms around her. “They can’t hurt me,” she said reassuringly. At least, they couldn’t hurt her any more than they already had.
Her mother slipped her arms around Jane and held her tightly for a long moment. Jane knew she had reservations. They’d talked about this before, and while her mom had encouraged her, there was always that hint of reluctance, a glimmer of unease in her eyes.
“Well,” her mother said, pulling away. “I better get the egg parm before it burns.”
During the meal, her mother was unusually quiet. Not that anyone would have noticed, what with the running debate of Matt’s love life being waged across the dinner table. Eric thought Matt’s current girlfriend, Holly, wasn’t his type. “You know who I liked? I liked Jaime. Now that girl was great.”
“She was,” Matt agreed. “But she didn’t think I was so great, remember?”
“Then she must have been an idiot,” Mona said firmly.
“You guys have this all wrong,” Vicki announced. “Matt’s at that age where he likes anything that moves.”
“Stop right there, Vicki,” Matt said with a playful groan.
“I just don’t think we should all guilt him into anything he’s not ready for.”
“You guys have no clue,” Matt said, chuckling. “But if it’s okay with the jury here, I like Holly. She’s nice. You think so, don’t you, Jane?”
“What?” Jane asked, looking up from her plate.
“Holly,” Matt said, sketching a female shape in the air with his hands. “Blonde? Hot? Bank teller?”
“Oh. Yeah. She’s nice.” Jane tried to remember Holly. She’d only met her once, and Matt was a bit of a serial dater.
“What’s the matter, pumpkin?” her father asked. “You’ve hardly said a word tonight.”
“Who, me?” Jane looked around at their expectant faces. These were the faces of the people she loved. These were the faces that she could depend on to be with her from beginning to end. Why was it so necessary to find the other faces, the faces that looked like her? She only knew that if she didn’t at least try, she’d be stuck in this holding pattern until something broke. “Actually, I have an announcement to make.”
“What is it, honey?” her father asked, pushing his reading glasses to the top of his head.
“Okay.” Jane put down her fork and braced her hands against the table’s edge. “You guys know that I’ve been trying to find out more about who gave me up for adoption.”
“Right,” Eric said, nodding.
“Well, it’s not . . . it’s not working out. I keep running into brick walls. I’ve looked as far as I can, and I put my name on the national adoption registry, and nothing has come of it. I mean, they obviously aren’t looking for me, so I’ve decided . . .” She paused, took a breath. After much consideration . . . “I am moving to Cedar Springs,” she blurted.
“Huh?” Eric asked, confused.
“Just for the summer—at least I think it wouldn’t be longer than a summer. I’m going to move to Cedar Springs to just . . . just look around and see what I come up with.” She shrugged nervously.
Her announcement was met with silence for a moment. Her family all looked around at one another, then at her again.
“Well, well, well,” her uncle Barry said. “Well, well.”
“Isn’t anyone going to say anything besides . . . ‘well’?” Jane asked hopefully.
“Move?” her dad said, as if he couldn’t quite grasp the concept.
“I think it’s great,” Eric said. “You’ve been looking for a long time. Go for it, Janey. I hope you find them.”
“But find who?” Vicki asked. “What if she finds her birth family and they are a bunch of nutjobs?” Vicki could always be counted on to say what everyone else was thinking but was too polite to say. “They could be certifiable, you never know.”
“Have you met my sister?” Matt asked. “I think there is no question there is some nuttiness in them.” He winked at Jane. “I’m with Eric. Godspeed and good luck and hurry up and get back here as soon as you can.”
“No, seriously—what if they are lunatics or crooks or politicians?” Vicki persisted with a slight shudder. “You could be in for a very rude awakening, Janey.” She forked a healthy portion of eggplant into her mouth and pointed her fork at Jane. “I’m only going to say this because I love you, but people always think they want to know. And reality is never really what they imagined.”
“Honestly, I don’t care if they are lunatics,” Jane said. “I just want to know a few things, and then I’m done. I’m not looking for a family or friends, obviously, nothing even close to that. But I would like to have some information about my ancestry, and medical history, and . . . and talents. I want to know what my talents are. I’m only trying to understand.” Only trying to fill this hole in me.
“What’s to understand?” Vicki said. “They gave you up. You’re ours now. And even if you find them, they can’t tell you what your talents are.”
“Try and be more supportive, Vicki,” Mona said. “This is obviously very important to Jane.”
“It’s not that I’m not supportive,” Vicki protested. “But here’s the thing, Janey. You’ll go out there and find your birth family, or maybe you won’t, in which case you have wasted time you could have used to finish your master’s thesis. Or, you find them and they either surprise you or disappoint you, or even worse, they reject you again, ’cuz let’s call a dog a dog—they basically rejected you once, right? All I am saying is why put yourself through that? We care about you. We’re your family.”
“Vicki, eat some more pasta,” Barry suggested more firmly to his daughter.
“I know you are my family,” Jane said. “Nothing will ever change that. But there are things you guys know about yourselves that I don’t know about me, and I think I deserve the chance to know.”
“If this is what you need to do, Jane, then I think you need to just do it,” her mother said firmly. “And when you have found them, know that your real family will be waiting for you to come home where you belong.”
“Dad?” Jane asked.
“Janey, whatever your mother said. But do you have to move?”
“I think so,” she said quietly.
Vicki sighed. “I’m not trying to piss anyone off, I swear I’m not. You know what they say—be careful what you wish for. But hey, if you’re going, I support you one thousand percent.”
“Thanks, Vic,” Jane said with a smile.
“So when are you going?” Mona asked.
As Jane answered their questions as best she could—when would she go, and for how long, and what about Jonathan—Vicki’s warning kept banging around in Jane’s head.
Be careful what you wish for.
© 2010 Dinah Dinwiddie --This text refers to the Paperback edition.