About the Author
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"That must be Jude," Alex said.
"Of course it's Jude," Martin replied. "She may live in that apartment above the tack room, but at least she has the good sense to come here for her meals. Your sister has never been accomplished in domestic arts."
Jude Foster O'Leary, wearing what was obviously a hastily put-together outfit consisting of a belted aqua T-shirt over a long madras skirt, bounded into the dining room just behind her adorable five-year-old son, Wesley. The child still wore what Dr. Foster called his "barn clothes"jeans, a button-down shirt and scuffed cowboy bootsbut his hands looked clean and his hair had been combed. Alex couldn't say the same for her sister. Humidity-frizzed strands of blond hair refused to be tamed like the rest of her mane in the long braid down her back.
"Hey, you two," Jude said, hugging her sister first. "It seems like an age since I was in Chicago for Teddy's " Realizing her niece might not be prepared to relive those memories, Jude glanced guiltily at Lizzie before kissing her cheek. "Yup, it's been too long, and I've missed you both. How are you doing, honey?"
"I'm okay, Auntie Jude," Lizzie said. She reached for her cousin and wrapped her arms around him. "You look like a real cowboy, Wes," she said. "A really hunky one."
The boy giggled. He had a little-boy crush on his cute big cousin.
"Glad you made it for dinner," Dr. Foster said.
"Are you kidding? I knew my sister was due today, so I wouldn't have missed it." She smiled at Alex. "Besides, I could smell Rosie's chicken enchiladas from the barn."
Jude was the first to admit that she was much more comfortable in jeans and a work shirt than a dress. But to her credit, she managed to fluff her long skirt gracefully over the seat of one of Martin's reproduction twentieth-century Chippendale chairs.
Jude had been Alex's rock during Teddy's funeral. Sadly, her sister understood all too well what the family was going through. She'd lost her own husband five years before when he was serving in Afghanistan. Now she managed the Paul O'Leary Foundation she'd established in his honor. Paul had possessed a heart as generous as his willingness to serve his country, and the money that came into the foundation was used for several philanthropic endeavors.
"Still not giving up your rooms over the barn to come back to the house, I see," Alex said.
Dr. Foster chuckled as he passed the platter of enchiladas and Spanish rice. "I've tried everything I can think of to get her to move in with her mother and me, but she insists on staying out there with the animals."
"I'm here when you need me," Jude said. "Besides, the barn is barely two-tenths of a mile from the house, Daddy. It's not like I'm living in a foreign country."
"But I still worry. You're remote out there "
"When don't you worry, Daddy?" Jude said with a hint of impatience. "Wes and I are perfectly safe. If anyone comes near the barn, Mutt barks like the world is coming to an end."
Alex smiled to herself. Mutt was hardly a mongrel as his name suggested. He was a purebred Bernese mountain dog that Jude had come across in her work with animal rescue. She'd bonded with the friendly black-and-white dog immediately and brought him into her living quarters as the family mutt. The name just stuck.
"How about you, Wesley?" Alex said. "Do you like living above the barn?"
The child shrugged. "Sure. It's okay."
Conversation strayed to matters of gossip and local news until Jude asked the customary question. "How's Mama doing tonight, Daddy?"
"She's resting comfortably," he said. "The nurse told me she didn't have one of her anxiety attacks today."
"I went up earlier," Alex said. "I think she might have recognized me. At least I hope so."
"I'll go up and see her later," Jude said.
Her offer was met with pretended enthusiasm. Everyone knew that Maggie Foster, suffering from late-stage Alzheimer's disease, wouldn't know if her daughter came into the room or not. A good day was when Maggie's eyes focused long enough to bring hope to one of her family. Unfortunately, any hint of recognition had been rare the past year.
Once dinner was finished and the dishes had been cleared, Lizzie took Wesley into the family room for a game of War with Grandpa's worn deck of cards.
"So how is my niece really doing?" Jude asked after a moment.
Alex tried to convince her that things were not so bad. "She's improving all the time. In the last weeks she's even gone out with her friends, but I think she's been looking forward to the end of her senior year and the opportunity to come here. An apartment, no matter how spacious, doesn't offer the same healing benefits as this farm."
"She looks thin," Jude said. "And I agree with you. After a few months here, she'll get some color back in her cheeks and be more like her old self."
"We'll have to keep her busy," Martin said.
"Maybe she can volunteer at the hospital a couple of days a week. We can always use more teens."
"I'm not sure a hospital environment is what she needs right now," Alex said.
Martin agreed. "Who's got another idea?"
"She can help out at the barn," Jude offered. "I can definitely use a hand with feeding and grooming."
Alex remained silent for a few moments as she considered these suggestions. "Maybe," she finally said. "But I'm hoping to find an activity that is more in line with Lizzie's interests. Remember, she joined the drama club at school and scored the lead in the senior class play. I thought perhaps I could contact Glen Spenser." She focused on her father. "Does he still head up the summer stock theater?"
"He sure does. That's a great idea. Spenser's group is supposed to be getting ready for several performances of The Music Man. If Lizzie could get a role, rehearsing, learning linesall of that will take up a lot of her time."
"If Lizzie gets a part, I'll have to make sure Glen understands her situation," Alex said.
"You don't really want her treated differently because she lost her father, do you?" Martin asked.
"No. But I need to be assured that she'll be in a healing, supportive environment."
When both Martin and Jude stared at her, she added, "I guess I've become an overpro-tective mother."
She felt her eyes well with tears, and her father got up, came around the table and sat beside her. "What about you, Alexis? How are you doing? Losing Teddy, worrying about Lizzie. I can see this is all taking its toll on you."
Alex leaned her head against her father's shoulder. Along with Teddy, her mother and father were the only people in the world who knew the truth about Lizzie's birth, everything but the biological father's name. As far as everyone else was awareher sisters, and Lizzie herselfTeddy Pope was her dad. Through the years Jude had asked leading questions. But Alex had dodged all of them and believed that no one, not even Lizzie's biological father, whom Alex hadn't seen in almost eighteen years, could have been a better parent than Teddy.
"Tomorrow will be a better day, baby,"
Martin said. "Rest up the remainder of the weekend and see Glen on Monday. I have a hunch that the bright lights of Fox Creek's summer theater will be exactly what the doctor ordered for our Lizzie."
Alex sighed. If only she could count on that.
Monday, using the pretense of going to the rural farmers' market, Alex drove with her daughter past the Red Barn Theater. "Oh, look, it's still in business," she said, glancing at Lizzie to gauge her interest.
Lizzie leaned forward in her seat. "I wonder what production they'll put on this summer." She pointed to a sign near the road. "It's The Music Man. And they're announcing auditions. I love that musical."
Alex slowed the car. "Me, too. Why don't we turn around and go inside to check out what parts haven't been filled."
Lizzie shrugged, showing less enthusiasm than Alex had hoped for. "Mom, I didn't know you were interested in theater," she said.
Alex raised her eyebrows in an incredulous stare. "I was thinking about you, honey. You're the actress in this family."
The use of the word family seemed to leave a pall hanging over the car. As Alex pulled next to the renovated barn, Lizzie just said,
Once they were inside the theater, Lizzie's demeanor changed. Her gaze darted around the interior, seeming to take in everything at oncethe red velvet chairs, the rough-hewn rafters, the elevated stage with lights above and below. The stage lights weren't illuminated now, but one could just imagine And Lizzie obviously was.
A man a couple of decades older than Alex called from the stage. "Can I help you?"
Glen Spenser was eighteen years older than the last time Alex had seen him at the Birch Shore Resort on Lake Erie. He had been their guru back then, both for the actors, like talented Daniel Chandler, and for the set builders and extras, like Alexis Foster.
Glen shielded his eyes from the glare of the overhead lights and came slowly down the steps at the side of the platform. "We're having tryouts today," he said. "If you'd like to audition "
He stopped midway down the aisle. "Oh, my gosh, Alexis Foster!" He quickened his pace and took Alex's hand. "You haven't changed a bit. Still that gorgeous strawberry blond hair and a dazzling height of What are you, five foot nine?" He chuckled. "I can still remember needing a prop from the top shelf and calling for you to come get it for me."
Alex smiled. "Hi, Glen. You haven't changed, either."
"Oh, honey," Glen said. "It's been almost twenty years, hasn't it?" He smoothed his hand over the sparse hair at his crown and smiled. "I think I'm even shorter now. Old age does that to a guy."
"How have you been?" Alex asked.
"Busy. Doing some graphic art work for local businesses and still puttering around theaters. Can't seem to get it out of my blood."
"Nor should you," Alex said. She took Lizzie's arm. "This is my daughter, Lizzie. We're going to be here for the summer."
"Wonderful. Staying out at the farm, are you?"
Alex nodded. Everyone in the area knew about Dancing Falls. Most everyone had been to barbecues there or knew the medical skills of Martin Foster.
Glen cupped his hand under his chin and appraised Lizzie. "You're as pretty as your mother," he said. "But your dark hair suits your olive complexion. You didn't get that from the Foster girls."
Lizzie smiled. "I guess not, but my dad was fair, too. So who knows? Genetics is a mystery to me."
Alex quickly jumped into the conversation. "I thought Lizzie might want to audition. Do you have any parts left?"
"You bet. One very important part. Zaneeta Shinn, the mayor's daughter. It's not a big role, but it's vital to the production." Glen took Lizzie's hand and began walking her to the stage. "Read for me now, honey. I know it's a cold reading, but you can take a script home and practice and come back tomorrow for a retry if you want."
Lizzie shot her mother a perplexed look as she was more or less propelled toward the stage. But she was smiling. Just like Alex was almost always smiling during that summer eighteen years ago.
Just like she was smiling nowuntil she heard the door open behind her and turned to see who'd come into the theater.
Later, when she had time to think about it, she would have to admit that recognizing Daniel after eighteen years from thirty yards away down a long aisle was as natural as breathing. Only she wasn't breathing now. She felt light-headed and dizzy, fighting an urge to flee and a struggle to draw air into her lungs.
Alex was aware of noise around her though she felt as if she were in a vacuum. Someone on stage, working on the set, pounded a hammer. Overhead a fluorescent light buzzed and pulsed. And Glen hollered, "Hey, Danny. You're just in time, buddy. We've got a new audition for Zaneeta, and Larry needs a hand building the bridge."
"I came as soon as I could," Daniel responded, walking down the aisle toward Alex. His voice was as familiar as the sound of the waves on shore that summer, or the soft beat of rock and roll coming from a window in the summer staff's dormitory. Alex trembled, almost as if his words had been whispered into her ear.
Of course he was nowhere near enough to whisper anything into her ear. But she could see he hadn't changed. The years had been good to Greenfield's native son, the young man who'd risen from humble roots to succeed in college and become the youngest state senator ever sent to Columbus from their district.
He slowed his pace when he got to Alex, gave her a brief smile as he walked past, and said, "Morning."
Then he refocused his attention on the stage. A hint of silver threaded the dark, wavy hair at his temples. Hair the same color as Lizzie's. He moved with the purposeful gait of a politician, each step determined and powerful. There had been nothing subtle about Daniel back then. There wasn't now.
And all the self-esteem and confidence Alex had acquired during her marriage to Teddy vanished in that one awful moment. Daniel Chandler didn't have the faintest idea who she was.