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Breakfast for Holly, shower, dress…don’t forget the papers you took out of your briefcase last night… Maureen Shannon ran through her mental checklist as she scanned the morning news items on her phone. One headline stopped her cold.
Flathead County Approves Development Plans for Thunder Valley. Clutching the lapels of her fuzzy, warm housecoat, she scanned the article. It seemed Whitefish’s former mayor Max Strongman was going to get his golf course and recreational property development after all. Only, instead of building it on the ranch owned by his ex-wife and her son Dylan McLean, he had scooped up properties to the south and east of the ranch.
Dylan and his new wife, Maureen’s sister Cathleen, would not be happy about this.
Especially since it seemed Max was getting off scot-free after masterminding the murder of Joe Beckett and the subsequent shooting of Max’s ex-wife. Max’s son James Strongman, awaiting trial for both of these crimes, was loyally insisting he’d acted alone—but no one in Maureen’s family believed that.
Maureen stopped reading to sniff. That smell… Oh, no, Holly’s breakfast! She dropped her phone onto the counter and ran to the toaster. Too late. Both slices of bread were edged in black. Knowing her daughter wouldn’t eat toast this way, not even if Maureen scraped off the burned parts, she threw the pieces out and slipped two fresh slices into the slots.
She finished her coffee, then eyed the time display on her microwave. If she didn’t leave in fifteen minutes, she’d be late for the office. And she wasn’t even dressed. She’d have to finish reading the article later.
Ignoring the sick feeling in her stomach, she hurried along the hall to the single bathroom. When Holly was a baby, the nine-hundred-square-foot floor plan of their home in historic Missoula hadn’t bothered Maureen. She loved the inner-city location and the charm of their old neighborhood. Now that Holly was almost a teenager, however, sharing a bathroom was becoming a real strain.
“Holly? Are you finished in there?” Rod had always planned to renovate one day, build a bedroom and bathroom for Holly in the basement. He’d never gotten past the looking-at-glossy-brochures stage.
No answer from the bathroom, only the sound of water streaming into the sink. Well, she’d have to skip her shower this morning. Back in her bedroom, Maureen grabbed the first suit and blouse that came to hand, then yanked matching shoes from the shelf above them.
Catching her reflection in the mirror on her dresser, she frowned. The only way to deal with her cowlick was to put up her hair—another five minutes lost there…
Hair fixed, she tore back down the short hall. The bathroom door was still locked, and she could smell—
Damn it to heck!
Maureen raced to the kitchen where she tossed the second batch of ruined toast into the garbage. She checked the clock again. Five minutes.
Back down the hall.
“Holly, I can’t go to work without brushing my teeth and washing my face. And you need to eat. The toaster isn’t working so you’ll have to have cereal.”
Her twelve-year-old didn’t answer.
Maureen rested her head against the paneled door. From inside, she heard some suspicious sniffing. Was Holly crying? In the months following her father’s death, this had been a daily ritual. A familiar, helpless pain sapped the energy from Maureen’s limbs.
“Are you okay?”
The water came on again, blocking out the quiet sobbing.
“Please let me in. Holly?”
Still no answer. From past experience, Maureen knew there probably wouldn’t be. In her grief Holly had withdrawn from her mother, refusing to take the comfort Maureen ached to provide.
Silence descended as the water was turned off. Maureen made quick use of the opportunity to be heard. “Holly? Please tell me what’s wrong.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
Maureen flinched. When had her daughter perfected that icy, cutting tone?
Something slammed. The toilet seat? The medicine cabinet? A second later the door opened, and Holly glared at her. Eyes red, cheeks flushed, lips swollen. Maureen longed to hold out her arms, but she knew—oh, how she knew—that her daughter would just back away.
“What is it, sweetie?” Maybe she’d heard one of her dad’s favorite songs on the station she liked to listen to in the morning. Or had a sad dream.
“You are so insensitive. I can’t believe it.”
Maureen stepped to the side so Holly could leave the bathroom. Oh how she longed for the simplicity of a two-year-old’s temper tantrum.
“It’s a year today,” Holly burst out. “You didn’t even remember!”
Instantly Maureen understood. “I’m sorry, Holly.”
But her daughter had already taken off down the hall. A second later, the front door slammed.
Maureen swallowed an urge to scream, then went to the living room window. She caught a glimpse of Holly from the back as she ran across the street toward school. Poor sad, confused child.
She missed her father so much. Maureen wished her own grief could be so uncomplicated.
Two minutes after she was in her BMW, Maureen was on the cell phone, using the Bluetooth function. At a red light, she speed-dialed her assistant.
“Looks like I’m going to be a little late for the partners’ meeting. Could you pull the files I was working on last week? And order me a latte, please?”
Next she dialed her youngest sister who lived about two hours north of Missoula in Whitefish. Kelly was a patrol officer and could be counted on for levelheaded advice. Last time Maureen had seen her in person had been at Kelly and Mick’s wedding, two months ago, but they spoke on the phone often.
“Hey, Kel, are you at work?”
“I’m off for the next few days. Just dropped Billy off at kindergarten. What’s up?”
Maureen marveled at her calm tone. Kelly and Mick were raising Mick’s young nephew Billy and niece Amanda, quite a lot to take on for a woman who’d been single six months ago. Yet Kelly never seemed flustered by her new roles.
Which only made Maureen feel more incompetent as a mother.
“Holly was crying in the bathroom again this morning. As usual, nothing I said helped. Should I try a different grief counselor?”
Holly hadn’t seemed to benefit from sessions with two previous psychologists and Maureen had given up. But maybe she needed to try therapy one more time…
“It’s the year anniversary today, isn’t it?” Kelly said.
“Yeah.” Jeez, even her sister had remembered. Maybe she was the heartless monster her daughter thought she was.
“It’s pretty normal for her to be upset on a day like today. Honestly, I’m more worried about you. You’re so busy worrying about Holly, you never take time for yourself. I know it’s hard to lose a father—didn’t we all grow up without one? But you lost your husband, your life partner.”
Maureen resisted the urge to groan. Yes, Rod’s death had been a tragedy. But their marriage had been far from the rosy union her sisters seemed to imagine.
“At least we had sisters,” Kelly continued. “Holly’s an only child. And she and Rod were so close.”
“They sure were.” It had been painful for Maureen sometimes how obvious Holly’s preference for Rod was over her. She couldn’t pinpoint the moment her doting toddler had begun running to Daddy when she had a problem, instead of Mommy. Probably shortly after Maureen had started back at work full-time and Rod had become the stay-at-home caregiver.
It was around that time that Rod had started to pull away emotionally from her too. He would make cutting remarks about Maureen in front of Holly. And undermine her authority whenever she tried to discipline their daughter. Whenever Maureen tried to address the problems in their marriage Rod would always blame everything on the fact that she worked too hard.
Their arguments had become tiresomely predictable and Maureen had learned to just hold her unhappiness and resentment inside.
“Of course I understand how hard this is for Holly. But you have to consider yourself, as well. You’re a single mom now, working in a demanding legal profession. That’s a lot.”
It was a lot. And Maureen was tired. “Lately I’ve been fantasizing about quitting my job. Crazy huh?”
“Not so crazy. Rod had insurance, right?”
“Yes.” And lots of it, as did she. But only because she’d filled out the forms for both of them and paid the premiums every year. She’d discovered early in their marriage that she couldn’t count on Rod for mundane, practical matters.
A lesson Holly had never learned. No way could she admit that her darling father had died as a result of his carelessness. No. In her mind, his death had become her mother’s fault. As if Maureen had wanted him to climb that bloody mountain in the first place!
“It can’t hurt to consider your options,” Kelly said. “You could use the break, and having you around more might help Holly. And of course, if you quit your job, you and Holly could move back here.”
Maureen’s sisters were always trying to convince her to move to Whitefish, the mountain town where they’d all grown up and where her two sisters and their husbands now lived.
In a way the idea had appeal. She could start her own legal practice there. It would be much smaller and less stressful than her work for a big firm here in Missoula. Equating to more time spent at home with Holly.
But Holly didn’t want to spend time with her mother. She’d probably hate the idea of moving. And surely an upheaval, just when she was beginning to adjust to junior high, would be a mistake.
Maureen ended the call with her sister as she approached her usual parking lot. Soon she would be in her office. Any problem that came up there, she would know how to handle.
The lousy start to the day had been portentous, however. At the partners’ meeting, Maureen was urged to take on a new child custody case that would have her spending significant time in Condon, almost one and a half hours northeast of Missoula. She used her lunch break on the phone with Rod’s mom, who called from Seattle to commiserate on the sad anniversary.
Maureen listened, feeling for the woman’s pain, never letting on that their marriage had been on the verge of splintering, that Rod had been other than the ideal father and husband, or that the accident had been anything but bad luck.
Her husband had been addicted to extreme sports. Eighteen months ago, he’d decided he had to tackle Mount Everest. In preparation, he’d signed on with a team to climb Mount Aconcagua, a less-demanding peak in the Andes.
At more than twenty-two thousand feet, Aconcagua was the highest mountain in the world, except for those in the Himalayas. Though the ascent didn’t require technical expertise, it would give him an opportunity to see how his body reacted to the drop in oxygen at high elevations.
Unfortunately, altitude sickness had stricken him early on in the climb. Instead of moderating his ascent, Rod had tried to speed up. When his companions noted his growing disorientation, they’d urged him to slow down. But he’d refused until it was too late.
Death, Maureen was told later, can come quickly to those who ignore the early warning signs.
If Rod had gambled with only his life, Maureen could have forgiven him. But his loss had devastated their daughter, and that was hard to absolve.
During dinner that evening, Holly was silent. After dessert, when Maureen suggested they watch some home videos of her father, she relented enough to settle in front of the entertainment unit.
Maureen stretched her feet out on the sofa as her daughter selected from the dozens of home videos stored on the cloud. Seeing Rod’s face suddenly appear on the TV screen made Maureen feel instantly tense. Across the room on the love seat Holly pressed a tissue under her eyes.
They came to some footage Maureen had shot from the back deck a couple of autumns ago as Rod and Holly were horsing around in the abundant piles of raked leaves that Maureen hadn’t yet bagged for composting. On the screen father and daughter tumbled and wrestled and shrieked with laughter. But in the tidy family room Maureen and Holly watched in silence.
Maureen was aware of Holly’s quiet weeping. She, however, didn’t shed a tear. Not until the camera caught Rod smiling at his daughter, reaching out to touch a strand of her almost-white hair. The expression on his face was absolutely doting.
The dull pain in Maureen’s chest tightened. The video confirmed how much Rod had loved Holly. When he’d been around, he’d treated their daughter like a princess. No wonder poor Holly was so devastated without him.
Maureen pulled a tissue from the pocket of her jeans and blew her nose. She wanted to go and hug Holly, but when she stood up from her corner of the room, Holly muttered good night and scurried to her room.
Maureen tidied the family room, stacked a few glasses in the dishwasher, then brewed herself a little coffee, which she mixed with half a cup of hot milk and a teaspoon of sugar.
She picked up a book, but after ten minutes, set it down again. Rubbing her eyes, Maureen sighed. Just the prospect of preparing for bed exhausted her.
Physically, Maureen still had Holly by her side.
But emotionally, they’d lost contact years ago. And Maureen had no idea how to go about regaining it.
End of Excerpt