READ EXCERPT - Hi Honey, I'm Home
HI HONEY, I'M HOME by Linda Windsor
Hi Honey, I'm Home
by: Linda Windsor
Multnomah Publishers Inc.
Friday night traffic on the beltway was typical, but nonetheless horrendous, particularly if one had a deadline. Kathryn Sinclair did. A glance at the clock on the dash told her she had exactly one hour to deliver her prodigal son to the neighbor's home. Then she had to make like the devil for her own, where her assistant manager was putting the final touches on their promotional brain child - an intimate open house to display the Emporium's latest imports. At seven, not only would her choice customers fill the spacious living room of her historical Georgian manor, but her employers would be among them.
One dilemma at a time, Kathryn decided with a sidelong glance at her small companion. Despite herself, she couldn't help drumming her manicured fingers on the steering wheel and inadvertently rocking forward, as if that would speed up the long line of red brake lights ahead of her moving at a snail's pace. Beside her, eight-year-old Jason Egan stared at the menagerie of cars, trucks, and multipurpose vehicles as though the red glow had lured him into some sort of trance.
Kathryn thought he was shaken by the parent-teacher conference, which was making his mother late for her business engagement. At least, she hoped he was! It was hard to tell. Jason was like his late father in that respect. He tacked off to more neutral ground, rather than dwell on a troublesome matter. Drawing him back to the subject at hand required vicegrips She shoved a thick lock of dark hair behind her ear, checked the side mirror, and pulled over to the right lane where traffic was coming to a stop.
"There will be no television this weekend. I expect you to make up all the homework you excused yourself from."
The computer-generated note, allegedly from her to his teacher, was a gem. He hadn't even used the spell check!
"You already said that, Mom." Jason also possessed his late father's uncanny knack for undermining her momentum, which was amazing, considering he'd spent a scant three years with the man. Most of the time Nick Egan had been a TV shot for thirty seconds here and there, hardly the real father a little boy needed and certainly not the husband she herself had hoped for when she'd fallen head over heels in love with him. She married Nick, but Nick married his job.
Kathryn mentally shook herself, refusing to be drawn back into the past when her future was about to become stalled on I-95. She resisted the urge to blow her horn as others were doing. It accomplished nothing, except to irritate those about her all the more. With her luck, some nut would break out a pistol and start taking pot shots at them.
She stepped up the speed of the automatic delayed wipers instead. The wet snow that splashed on the windshield was coming down faster now, as if it hadn't made up its mind whether to make a liar out of the forecasters or not. Scattered showers was the prediction, not snow and freezing rain. But the roads were clear so far, Kathryn noted, hoping the bad turn in the weather wouldn't cut down on attendance. Last year's first show had been such a success!
"I did know all the material, Mom. Even Mrs. Himes said that," Jason reminded her, taking a stab at his defense. No afternoon cartoon show was a serious penalty.
"Jason, you have to follow certain accepted rules." Kathryn held back the unlike your father which flashed through her mind and remained on the subject at hand. "Even if you know the work, you must do your homework!"
"Maybe if I had a reason to do it," the boy began, cutting cinnamon-hued eyes at her from beneath a forelock of sandy brown hair. It was the same color Nick's had been in his boyhood pictures, before it turned darker with maturity.
It was also shaggy again and needed cutting, Kathryn noticed, although when she'd find the time for a trip to the salon was another story. From Thanksgiving to Christmas was the store's busiest time of year. She reached over and brushed the boy's bangs back, only to have them stubbornly resume their comfortable sprawl. Jason was so like Nick, even down to the dark, distinguishingly long lashes that set off his eyes in a way a woman would die for. They had a lazy, pensive look at the moment, one Kathryn recognized as well from the past.
She felt a familiar anguish tear at her chest as she looked away from the mirror image of her late husband. Although their divorce was almost final when Nick was killed in a terrorist explosion in some third world city she couldn't pronounce, she hadn't been prepared for the grief that overtook her. After all, she'd been about to have him legally removed from her life.
At least, that's the way it appeared. Actually, she'd prayed that asking for a divorce would shake Nick up enough to make him realize how he was neglecting her and Jason. Good as her intention was, it backfired. When he agreed to it without a fight, she'd been so hurt and angered, that she let it coast on its own momentum, against heart and reason.
Then he was taken from her forever. Nick's sudden death only drove home that there was a part of her that would always love Nick. He was her first, her only love, and God took him or allowed him to die, maybe in punishment for her foolish attempt to get her husband's attention.
She swallowed back the sudden rise of bitterness from the past. Somewhere she'd read that the human memory tended to erase the bad memories and highlight the good. While she'd contest the first part, the last she found to be true. Sometimes, when she was tired and off guard, a glance at Jason could wring the sweet ones from the past and leave her undone.
Tonight, she could not afford that regression. Nick always invaded her thoughts more at Christmas. She'd married him and said her final goodby to him three years later, both on Christmas Eve. With the same resolve with which she'd reassembled her life, born Nick the second son he never knew about, and established herself as one of the lead import buyers on the east coast, Kathryn willed the gnawing ache away. She never wanted her son to know the anguish he innocently brought her with his resemblance to his father.
"I can think of a reason to do all that work," Jason spoke up, bring Kathryn back to the conversation at hand. He didn't look at her. Instead he concentrated on brushing away the crumbs of a snack he'd devoured while Kathryn met with his teacher.
He was obviously up to something, but that sudden emotional blast from the past dulled her intuition. She remained cautiously silent, wishing she had a windshield wiper for her brain.
"Soccer," the boy informed her when she glanced at him expectantly.
"I should have known," Kathryn thought aloud in a cryptic tone. Jason also had Nick's tenacity, the ability to go after what he wanted if it took days, even weeks, until she either gave in from exasperation or forgot her initial objection. It had made his father one of the top network reporters. He always got his story.
"I'm a tough kid, Mom and soccer's not as rough as football. I won't get hurt like Grandma says."
"You're too little! And what if you break your fingers? How will you play the piano?"
Jason was a gifted musician, according to Madame Tremaine.
"I won't break my fingers! We're not allowed to touch the ball!" the child responded in grating condescension at her ignorance of the sport. "Dad was a football captain. He could have gone pro! I want to be like him, but I'll settle for soccer . . . too late for football anyway."
Double wham! If Jason were any more like his father, she'd not be able to bear it! He had a sturdy build for an eight-year-old and could hold his ground like a rock according to Jim Anderson, their neighbor and pony league coach. Then there were those dark brown eyes with volatile flecks of gold that could flash with anger or dance with mischief. They'd drive some girl crazy some day.
"Jason, you know I can't take you to and from soccer practice this time of year. My time is limited even more by business." If only she wasn't so worn out from getting ready for the show, she'd be quicker on her feet. As it was, Nick - no, Jason, she amended - had the advantage. "We'll discuss this later, okay?"
Kathryn would have closed her eyes in despair were the thinning cars ahead not approaching her turn.
"An' what am I going to do while the guys watch TV tonight?" Jason lamented, switching tactics smoothly. "I can't even go to my own room in my own house because of that dumb old party."
Why had she ever told the boys the house was really theirs, held in trust from their late father's estate? Dr. Spock never had a chapter on this situation.
"But I am in charge of the house until you and Jeremy are twenty-one. Then you can kick me out and do what you will with it!" Kathryn reminded him impatiently.
Her knuckles whitened from her grasp on the steering wheel as she turned onto a county road boasting several swanky developments. Since Jason had gone into the third grade, he'd become more and more disagreeable and difficult to handle. He was learning exactly where her strings were and which ones to pull.
"In the meantime . . . " She broke off upon feeling her son's small hand close about her arm.
"I'd never kick you out, Mom. You know that."
The stricken look on Jason's face tugged at her heart. She could feel it melting beneath the contrition of his gaze.
Kathryn wanted to let go the wheel and drawn him into her arms. Instead, she shot into the right lane and passed a service van loaded with workmen. They'd obviously started their weekend celebration early, judging from the way they swerved over the line.
Her destination was just ahead. The name Brighton Heath was outlined in colonial blue and gold against a wood-planked background and illuminated by soft spotlights. Small white Christmas lights adorned the impeccably manicured plantings in the median dividing the entrance and exit to one of the metro areas more elite subdivisions.
"I know, Jason," she answered softly, reaching out to squeeze the boy's hand, as she passed off-shooting streets marked with plaques bearing old English names of the same design as the entrance. "And you do have a point. A lot of the books you need to finish your homework are in your room."
"Does that mean I can play with the guys and watch TV?"
"Only if you give me your solemn promise to spend the rest of your weekend at home working on your catchup work," Kathryn conceded. "Can you do that?"
She drew her free hand back to the wheel to turn into Meadow Green. As she did so, she gently tested the brakes. The car didn't lose traction, which meant that, so far, the wet snow wasn't sticking or freezing.
"Cool!" the boy exclaimed in relief.
The Andersons' two story home, designed in a French motif, was aglow with Christmas candles in each window and beribboned swags of evergreen on the sills. As Kathryn maneuvered into the driveway, Karrie Anderson, clad in her typical battle of the bulge regalia - a sweat suit, sweat band, and running shoes - opened the wreathed front door and waved, a steaming cup in hand.
"New tea!" she shouted. "Guaranteed to take off pounds! Not bad either!"
"As if you need it!" Kathryn teased through the open electric window of the car. Her neighbor was always on some diet or exercise kick, despite a slim figure.
With the Andersons' two boys of six and eight, she supposed it was too much to hope for the younger Jeremy Egan to poke his little face through the open door in greeting. Jason, however, did deign to give her a hasty peck on the cheek.
"Thanks, Mom! Hope you have a good party!" Bundled in a down-filled jacket, he practically rolled out the car door and dashed for the front door.
"Good luck tonight!" Karrie called out to her, backing against the glass storm to let Jason barrel past.
"Thanks!" Kathryn shouted back. "And thanks for keeping the boys. I'll pick them up as soon as the trucks take the goods back to the store!"
Karrie's cheerful "Take your time!" faded as she stepped inside and drew the door to behind her.
Grateful for good neighbors like the Andersons, Kathryn backed out of the drive and headed toward the far end of Brighton Heath's boundary where the original homestead, which belonged to the Egan family lay on the remaining four acres still in that name.
With the impending divorce, Nick bequeathed everything to his offspring, having changed his will just before leaving on his last news assignment. Since their separation had been one of mutual agreement and not bitter, at least on the surface, he appointed Kathryn as a trustee of the minors' estate along with their long time friend and attorney, Paul Radisson. As trustees, she and Radisson felt it was in the boys' best interest to develop the land, which more than quadrupled the value and resulted in a considerable fortune to invest for the minors' future.
It was hard to believe that five years ago all this was farmland and the house was a cold brick monster, isolated amidst overgrown shrub and woods. Nick's parents had bought the run down place and worked it, but with their passing, the fields were rented for a pittance and the house became an oversized, under-modernized bachelor pad until she and Nick were married.
Her mother was appalled at their living conditions, as Nick's career had not yet taken off and money to restore the house was not to be had.
Development had been a good decision, Kathryn thought as she turned into the large circle dubbed Egan Court. There the now stately family home stood in all its Christmas splendor, as it might have appeared nearly two hundred years earlier when it had originally been built.
Unlike its original state, however, it was insulated and boasted the latest indoor plumbing amenities as well as heating, and air-conditioning. As one appraiser had put it, it was a two hundred year old new home by the time Kathryn had finished restoring and remodeling it with some of the profits from the development.
Ordinarily she'd have taken time to appreciate the spacious yard, which was landscaped with its original ancient oak and walnut, as well as professionally restored beds and gardens.
Egan Court had been featured in more than one of the house and garden magazines and now stood on the historical register as well. The restoration was a dream she and Nick had once shared come true, even if Nick had not survived to see it. No doubt, if he'd lived, he'd have spent more time reading about it than actually living in it.
Ah, no matter what was written about only good memories surviving a loved one's loss, the bitter still rose with the sweet from time to time, Kathryn mused dourly. She pulled her mini-van into the garage, an addition built on in the form of a carriage house. It was connected to the main manor by a long mud/utility room. The last of the items they intended to show were packed in boxes in the back of the car, but her assistant David and housekeeper Ruth Ann would have to get them out. She had to shower and dress in less than forty-five minutes!
In the mad rush into the house, Kathryn didn't take time to seek out her partner in this unconventional show scheme. Knowing David was efficiently devoting his time to the great room, she told her housekeeper to advise him of her arrival and the items in the car. While she hated delegating authority, there were some times when it was unavoidable and, thanks to Jason, this was one of them.
The scent of the Cajun blackened prime rib and its accompanying dishes being prepared by the caterers followed her as she scrambled up the servant's stairwell to the master suite. It reminded Kathryn that she'd missed lunch. Lying across the bed, a la David, was one of the Parisian designs she'd purchased for Mrs. Whitehall's fashion department at the Emporium. It was still in its protective plastic. Coordinating shoes, purse, and gloves, as well as a short matching velvet cape were beside the dress, although Kathryn doubted she'd need the cape or purse inside the house. Maybe she'd display them on the coat rack in the hall, since, with the rush she'd been in, she was in an overheated lather as it was.
Fortunately, she wasn't one to linger in the tub or shower. Life did not allow her the luxury of using the porcelain pedestal tub with the slanted back in the light of the flickering electric sconces hanging on the walls. Instead, she showered in a tiled cove adorned with stylish curtains to match those hanging over the shuttered window, making quick work of lavishing scented bath gel on her smooth skin. Upon drying with the thick coordinated towels, she rushed through her after bath toilette and recklessly dried her shoulder-length auburn locks, since she was going to wear her hair up anyway.
The dark green velvet of the dress fitted her tall supple figure like a royal sheath. By the time Kathryn drew on the matching long silk gloves, she looked quite the princess, especially after she fastened a jeweled velvet-clothed comb in her hair to hold her upswept locks in place.
With one last breathless look in the mirror, she dabbed on a touch of new perfume imported from Demonde of the Virgin Islands and hurried down the main staircase just as the walnut grandfather clock in the central hall struck six.
Six! But it should be seven! Kathryn stopped halfway in her descent and stared at the face of the elegantly carved Swiss time piece in confusion, until it dawned on her that she'd been running on the schedule of the clock in the dash of her car. It had not yet been set back for daylight-saving time. She was an hour ahead of schedule!
With a breath of mixed relief and exasperation over her unnecessary tizzy, she started downward again. Although thick oriental carpet on the grand staircase cushioned her footfall, her descent drew the attention of the two well-dressed men conversing in the doorway of the great room. Kathryn instantly recognized her assistant manager David Marsh and Paul Radisson, her attorney and fellow trustee of the children's estate. The preparations must be completed or David would still be flitting about like a flustered hummingbird.
"David, you're a lifesaver!"
She stopped at the bottom of the steps to reseat her foot in the sequin buckled high heels before she pulled a Cinderella act and left it in her wake. They were supposed to have been eights, not eight and a half, but it was too late to do anything about it. They were designed to complement the rest of her ensemble. Both men moved forward to steady her as she wrestled with the errant slipper, but David reached her first. "And you, Kathryn, are a work of art, not to mention an hour ahead of schedule! I take it you've solved the case of the prodigal son to the school's satisfaction?"
"For the time being, although this single working mother bit drives me batty at times.
I'm only an hour early because I was rushing by a clock I hadn't set back yet," Kathryn admitted candidly.
"I'm willing to come to your rescue anytime," Paul Radisson spoke up. "Especially if you wear that dress! I'll wager that if the women coming tonight think they can look like you in it, you can't possibly have ordered enough of them."
"Only one of each style, dear," Kathryn reminded her friend warmly. "It wouldn't do to have two ladies appear at the same function in the same dress." Aside from her, there would be models circulating among the guests for an additional peek at the new holiday apparel arrivals.
"As for coming to my rescue, you already have by agreeing to act as my co-host. David and I will be frantically involved with sales, if this works out the way we plan."
Radisson had been Nick's best man at their wedding and for a while, he and his wife and Kathryn and Nick had socialized together. If only time could have stood still then, when they were all newlyweds and, although struggling to make financial ends meet, so much in love.
However, when Nick took the job of foreign correspondent and Paul graduated from law school to join his father's firm, the two couples drifted apart.
Upon her husband's violent death, Kathryn discovered that Paul had divorced his wife, although it didn't come as a complete shock. Word drifted down along her mother's grapevine that Paul had become something of a silver-tongued devil with the women in the elite social circles about D.C. He'd tried his charm on Kathryn, but to no avail. . . yet.
Even if he had truly had enough of his freedom as he claimed, she was not ready for a relationship beyond the one they had as friends and as occasional escorts to thwart well-intentioned matchmakers like her mother and friends. Sometimes Kathryn wondered if she'd ever be receptive to another man.
She humored Paul with an absent smile as he made a gallant show of lifting her hand to his lips. While Nick had fallen short of her ideal of a husband, Paul was closer to it than any man she'd ever met. Maybe she was too picky, as her mother accused, but once burned, twice shy, as the saying goes. The most important requirement was that the man she chose be good father material for the boys, someone she and they could count on. They were the only men in her life that really mattered.
"Since I've a moment to catch my breath, I'd love a cup of the imported punch before the hoards arrive."
She withdrew her hand when he held it a noticeable moment longer than necessary. Paul would be perfect, but for his discomfort around children.
"The alchohol free English wassail," she requested with a wistful smile. "I'm saving the spiced ciders for dinner."
"At your service, madame." Radisson broke into a toothsome one and winked. He'd given away excellent tickets to attend the symphony with his senior partners without complaint to be at her side. Kathryn couldn't help but appreciate his attentiveness and dedication.
"You're a dear for putting up with me."
"Us," David injected at her side as Paul retreated to the bar set up in the front parlor. "I was in such a dither, I asked him to help unpack the Venetian glassware."
Kathryn grinned at the last resort implication in David's voice. Like her, he was very particular and preferred doing things himself. Still, she couldn't imagine having to put the show together without her employer's nephew.
David joined the firm upon graduating from a European art school three years ago and seemed to soak up the knowledge she had to offer like a sponge. There was no doubt in her mind that the Whitehalls would leave the business to their only nephew, having no children of their own.
Then her assistant would become her boss, a prospect that didn't bother Kathryn in the least. The two of them operated on the same wave length and with the same devotion to their trade. Too often they teased each other about being married to imports and not having time to seek personal relationships. David would no doubt make some young woman a delightful husband someday, if he ever left the store and import warehouses to find her.
Even then, the girl would likely need a four hundred year old necklace displayed on her chest to catch his attention, just as a man would need some similar trappings to capture hers.
They were a pot and kettle, if there ever was such a pair.
"Kathryn, you must see the table!" the young man went on in an enthusiastic burst. "The Canton is exquisite! Imagine finding it packed in a barrel of straw, untouched for two hundred years! I'll wager Jacob Witherby will purchase it before the night's out at top price!"
"No way!" Kathryn laughed, taking the crystal cup of waissail Paul Radisson handed her upon rejoining them. "I know better than to risk good money against your instincts."
David's eyes twinkled with mischief and delight. "Why, Kathryn, I believe I'm flattered, considering my aunt thinks you the mistress extraordinaire of profitable intuition."
She stirred the steamy concoction with the cinnamon stick garnish, checking to be certain the mandatory apple slice was there in the bottom. Both came with the ready mix, which tasted as heavenly as if it were simmered on some ancient stone hearth.
Knowing her clientele, it was a certain sell to the Sharmas, whose parties were well known in the capital's diplomatic social circles. Kathryn sipped it slowly, while visually inspecting in the tastefully displayed items from all parts of the world. A showroom couldn't possibly display them to their best advantage, not like a real home.
Each piece looked as if it had been purchased for its particular space in the scheme of decor. From the authentic Queen Anne banquet tables, now set elaborately for twenty of the Emporium's most prestigious buyers on hand-embroidered Irish linen, to the carved rosewood occasional tables flanking richly upholstered furniture of Eastern design, there was an atmosphere of intimate elegance.
"David, it's perfect!" Kathryn declared, beaming at her proud assistant. Before she could follow her comment through with an appreciative hug, the front bell rang.
Adrenalin pumped. "You start the music, I'll get the door," she ordered, her face flushing with anticipation.
Ruth Ann was too busy with the caterers in the kitchen to worry with admitting guests tonight, another reason Paul had been asked to co-host.
"It's probably the Whitehalls," she called over her shoulder as she walked into the marbled hall, her heels clicking crisply on the polished surface not covered by Turkish area rugs.
"After this, you can take over," she added, realizing she'd promptly assumed her co-host's assigned task.
Paul touched his heels together in mock salute. "Yes, mein madame! It's now my one goal in life to be your man."
Kathryn let the innuendo slide. It was hard to tell when Paul was serious or teasing, although David told her the man only fell back on the teasing angle to avoid her rejection and save his ego.
"Crazy!" she accused playfully, allowing Paul that out. Could she ever bring herself to take him seriously?
Brandishing a brilliant smile to wash away her doubt, she opened the front door. The wind had picked up and the icy air rushed in to assault her back and shoulders, bared by the halter design of her gown. Instead of her employers, however, she found herself face to face with only one individual. He stood, shoulders hunched in a beige topcoat. His brown hair whipped about his face, while his breath fogged the air before a mouth frozen in a thin white line.
Somehow an incredulous "Nick!" escaped her tightening throat as Kathryn stared at the mature version of her son Jason. Were it not for the fact that her heart had stopped the blood flowing through her veins cold, the expectant whiskey-colored gaze fixed upon her would have negated the icy air rushing in and warmed her from head to toe as it always had.
But it couldn't be, Kathryn reasoned. Her strength drained as quickly as the blood from her face, leaving a pinpricked trail of disbelief. Nick was dead! They sent home a few of his charred belongings, his body having been destroyed in the explosion beyond retrieval, much less identification. She buried them in his place. Pregnant with his second son, the one she hadn't told him about during the divorce negotiations, she wept at the small gravesite with guilt and grief until she could cry no more.
The memory re-emerged with a terrible blow. Staggering a step backward, Kathryn blinked as if to erase this bizarre visitation of the ghost of Christmas past from her sight, but he remained there, studying her with an enigmatic gaze.
Suddenly, he spoke, his voice as real as he appeared to be, the solemn line of his lips breaking in a poor attempt at humor. "Hi, honey, I'm home."