"You can just drop me off, you know. I'm not a baby." Eleven-year-old Caden flipped her mom a look, then stared out the passenger window.
"I like watching you." Sam pulled the Ciera into the parking lot of the Boston Academy of Gymnastics and was about to expound on the thought, but Caden interrupted.
"The other moms don't stay."
It wasn't true, but Sam had a feeling this objection had less to do with Caden's assertion of independence and more to do with her.
"Did Bridget tell everyone about me?" Sam asked.
Caden crossed her arms, her warm-up suit rustling.
"If I didn't clean the gym, we wouldn't be able to afford lessons, Caden."
Though her daughter frowned, her jaw and shoulders rigid, Sam knew the stubborn front concealed a wounded little girl. Knew it because Caden was so much like her.
"They all know now. Bridget has such a big mouth. She thinks she's so hot just because her mom owns the gym."
Sam turned off the ignition and withdrew the keys, then glanced at Caden, who made no move to leave. The clock on the dashboard read 7:02. "Honey, let's finish this later. You're late for class."
"So you're staying?"
Sam's parental pride shrank two more sizes. "By the time I got home, I'd just have to turn around and come back. I promise to sit in the back and keep my hood up to conceal my identity." Sam regretted the sarcasm instantly.
Caden discharged her seat belt, and it sprang upward, clanging against the door frame. "Whatever," she said, then exited the car, not quite slamming the door.
Sam grabbed the day's mail from the dashboard and tucked it in her purse. As she entered the gym, the familiar odor of sweaty little gymnasts assaulted her nostrils. She walked past the office and up the stairs to the balcony, where she found a seat in the back row. She smiled at a woman seated there, the mom of one of Caden's classmates. From her pantsuit and trendy heels, Sam guessed she didn't scrub bathrooms for a living or work a side job to afford her daughter's lessons.
On the floor below, a maze of mats and apparatus were spread across the blue carpet. Caden's class stretched, their legs straddled, leaning forward until their bellies touched the ground. Her daughter lay there, head resting against the carpet. The girl next to Caden whispered something to another girl and they laughed. Sam assumed the worst, and she wanted to give the girl's ear a swift tug.
Instead, she settled back into the chair and pulled the mail from her bag. Electric bill. Bank statement. Credit card bill. She'd open that one last. No sense ruining a perfectly good day. The last piece was addressed to her with a black pen. In the upper left-hand corner was a sticker with Miss Biddle's name and address.
Strange. Beyond the annual Christmas card, she rarely heard from Miss Biddle. And even when she did, she almost didn't want to open the envelope--as if doing so would open a door from her past she'd rather leave closed.
Curious, she turned the letter over and slid her finger under the flap. She withdrew a piece of notebook paper neatly creased in thirds. She unfolded the note.
I hope this letter finds you well. I would have preferred to call, but the number you're listed as having is disconnected. I'm afraid I have some bad news.
Just yesterday your stepfather had a heart attack at work. They tried to take him to the hospital, but he passed away in the ambulance and they were unable to resuscitate him. I know there was no love lost between the two of you, but still I hated to tell you this way.
A strange feeling swept over Sam like an unexpected wind on a still night. There was no sadness or grief, but rather an unexplained dread.
I contacted Judge Winslow (from the probate court), who will be handling Emmett's estate, and I learned Emmett had no will. Since you are his adopted child, and the only living relative, his cottage and belongings will pass to you. You might contact Judge Winslow down at the Town and County building. I'm sure they'll send you notification soon, but I thought it might be better to hear the news from me.
Sam stared at the letter, but the words blurred as her thoughts scrambled. Excitement overtook the dread. The cottage sat on the valuable Nantucket shore and was worth a fortune. It was small and old, but even the smallest shanty on the island neared a million dollars.
The thought of what she and Caden could do with that kind of money stirred something she hadn't felt in a long time.
She finished the letter, skimming over the funeral information.
A million dollars. She could pay off her credit cards, get out of their crummy apartment, buy Caden some decent clothes, pay for gymnastic lessons. Heck, she could send Caden to a private school if she wanted. And college. Caden could become anything she wanted to be.
Even Sam could go to college. It was a thought she hadn't allowed since she got pregnant with Caden. Even now, she tamped down the thought, too afraid to hope in case this was all a dream.
But the flimsy white paper in her hands was real enough. Emmett's name scrawled in black sobered her. Memories raced through her mind at the speed of light, none of them good. The feeling of being trapped, overpowered, and abandoned all at the same time made her squirm in her chair as if to make sure she wasn't restrained.
The realization that she would have to go back there stole her breath and jarred her mind to a sudden halt. The house would have to be cleaned out. Furniture and personal belongings would have to be sorted through. The cottage would need to be readied for sale. The flower beds, if they still existed, would need tending.
How long would it take, and would Patty let her off work that long? Sam hadn't had a vacation or sick day in--well, she couldn't even remember. They'd just lost an office building to Murphy's Maids the week before, so the schedule was lighter, and Gina had been asking for extra hours.
Still, the thought of going back to the island made Sam's soul shrivel like a sun-scorched bloom. There was a reason she hadn't gone back. A reason she'd left in the first place, and nothing had changed.
Except that going back was now worth a million dollars.
Sam lifted her eyes from the letter and found Caden's class across the gym at the foam pit. Caden sprang forward into a round-off and two back handsprings, then finished with a backflip into the foam squares. The spotter never touched her. It was her first unassisted backflip. When she came out of the pit, she looked toward the balcony to see if Sam had caught the moment. Before she could give her daughter a thumbs-up, Caden looked away. When she walked by Bridget and her new cronies, they turned, an obvious snub.
Sam wanted to thump them all. They were doing it because of her, and the guilt that descended on her was as heavy as a lead blanket.
Could a million dollars buy her and Caden a new life? Sam was suddenly sure it could. And she was equally sure she could face any demon from her past for the chance to make it happen.