Start reading this book:
“Auntie Piper, will you read me a story?”
Piper Davis gave her sister a knowing nod and slid away from the dining room table, moving through to her niece’s bedroom.
She settled at the edge of Leila’s bed, looking at the stack of books on the floor. “Okay, which one will we go for this time?”
They’d played this game over and over. It didn’t matter what time of year it was, Leila always wanted the same book read to her.
Leila put her finger over her lips and looked upward, pretending she was thinking. “I think that because it’s December, a Christmas story might work,” she said.
Piper started laughing and sorted through the books at her feet. “Let’s see, this one? Snowmen at a party?”
Leila shook her head.
“Or this one? Santa getting stuck?”
Leila still shook her head, a wide smile appearing on her face. “I think I’d like The Mistletoe Crown.”
“Oh, you would?” Piper was faking surprise—the way she always did when her niece picked this story. She held the well-worn book to her chest. “Are you sure? This book is looking kind of shabby. Maybe we should pick something newer?”
Leila shook her head fiercely. “Oh no. It’s my favorite.”
Piper nodded to the corner of the room where a whole stack of the same book in newer versions was piled. “What about one with new pictures?”
Leila shook her head and spoke in a soft voice, one finger reaching out from under the bedclothes to stroke the cover of the book. “I want the one that you and Mamma used to read. The one that Grandma read to you.”
Piper breathed in. She and Alanna had loved this story as kids. Their mother had read it to them countless times and Piper credited her mother with her love of reading. She changed position, settling in at the head of the bed, and wrapping her arm around her niece, placed the book in front of them.
“Okay, then. Let’s get started. On a snowy winter’s day, there was a little girl called Amy, and a little boy called Joe…”
“Is she sleeping?”
Piper nodded as she collected her half-drunk glass of wine from the table and settled next to her sister on the sofa. “It only took three and a half Mistletoe Crowns.” She smiled as she took a sip of wine.
Alanna sighed. “Lucky you. Last night it was seven.”
“What about the new series with the winter badger—doesn’t she like those?”
Alanna rolled her eyes. “Oh, she likes them all and she’s read them all, but come bedtime, nothing else will do.” She sipped her wine, too. “We were a bit like that ourselves. Nothing else would do, so I can’t blame her.”
Piper smiled. “I know. We did love that story so much. I could recite it in my sleep.”
“Hey—any job news?”
Piper gave a nervous nod. “Yes, I’ve had a few enquiries with potential job opportunities, and the plant research I’m doing now has another four months to run.”
“But everything’s going good with that, isn’t it?”
“It is. But I still need to do some more testing. I think I’ve dealt with most of the plants’ vulnerabilities, but there can always be more.”
Her sister gave her a careful glance. “You seem jittery. You normally love your work. What’s wrong?”
Piper set down her wine glass and put her head in her hands. “I just feel as if I don’t have enough hours in the day.” She sighed heavily. “I’m just one person and I’m worried that I might miss something that will be vital for the research.”
Alanna raised her eyebrows. “Isn’t it about time you took on an assistant? You’re taking on bigger and bigger projects. You can’t possibly do it all yourself. Is there something you’re not telling me?”
Piper let her head fall back against the sofa. “It’s just the usual problem. My greenhouse isn’t big enough for the work I want to do. I need more space. And I just don’t have it. There are other projects, bigger research studies I could be doing, but I can’t bid for them, when I don’t have the facilities or the space. It feels like I’m caught in a loop.”
Alanna looked surprised. She put her hand on her sister’s. “Piper, you’re doing great work. The research you’ve done on making plants more robust and the organic fertilizers has been ground-breaking. That’s why these people hire you.”
Piper closed her eyes and ran her fingers through her red-blonde hair. It was usually immaculate, but today she just hadn’t had the energy and she knew it was a tangled mess. She sighed. “But I just feel like I could do more, I should do more. This world is changing all around us, and sometimes I think my research is just too slow. I feel as if I have so much more to give.” Her voice cracked a little. “But it seems like it’s never going to happen unless I go and work for some kind of big institution, and maybe I should, but I want to be in control of my own science and my own results. It’s like I’m missing out on jobs because I won’t compromise, and maybe it’s time to rethink things.”
“Stop it. This is why these companies hire you. Because you care so passionately about this work. You love growing plants; you love finding out about their flaws.” Alanna put her hand on her heart. “And you keep your integrity close to your heart. But you don’t have to give it up if you want to move on to bigger things. You might find a way. Wait and see what the universe has to offer.”
Piper gave her sister a grateful smile. It didn’t matter what happened, her sister always had her back. She nudged her elbow. “Love you, sis. You’re so lucky. You’ve got everything in life figured out. You’re happily married, got a great kid, and a job you love.” She held up her hands. “You’re even staying in our childhood home and have made it look a hundred times better than it did before.”
“You only look at the good stuff. Not the everyday real life. I stayed in a house that looked as though a tornado had swept around it for months while we renovated. All the time wondering if Mom and Dad would approve of the changes I was making to their home. And yes, Mitch is great, and so is Leila. But don’t you remember as a baby she screamed and screamed? I walked around with bags under my eyes for months and could barely string together a cohesive sentence. And work? Yes. I’ve got a job I love. But the hours for both Mitch and I are long. We don’t get to spend enough time together as a family. But life isn’t perfect, Piper. Maybe you need to stop looking for perfection?”
Piper swallowed and looked at her sister. She knew exactly where this conversation was going. “I just don’t think my Mr. Right is out there,” she conceded.
“Look at the guys you’ve dated.”
Piper groaned and stood up, reaching for her purse and jacket. “Let’s not do this again.”
“Brad was great.”
“He could only talk about football and baseball.”
“Fletcher was so intelligent.”
“I couldn’t even follow half the conversations he had with me. I know nothing about physics or dark matter.”
Alanna sighed and kept going, ignoring the fact that Piper had already slid one arm into her jacket.
“Rueben!” she said excitedly. “He was great.”
Piper pulled her jacket up over her shoulders. “Rueben has moved to Connecticut with his husband.”
Alanna held up her hand. “Okay, okay, what about—”
Piper put her hand on her sister’s arm. “Stop already.” She leaned over and kissed Alanna’s cheek. “I’ll see you both Friday night.”
Alanna started to follow her to the door. “Oh, wait, something came for you.” She reached for a bundle of mail sitting near the door and leafed through it, pulling out a thick official-looking envelope.
Piper frowned. “Something came for me here? I haven’t stayed here in ten years.”
Alanna shrugged. “I guess that doesn’t matter.”
Piper was still frowning as she took the envelope. It looked expensive—like the designer catalogs that dropped through her door on occasion. Curiosity made her fingers break the seal and pull out a single page letter. She glanced inside to make sure there was nothing else. Nope, just a cardboard backing to the envelope.
She scanned the letter and her stomach did an uncomfortable twist. “When did this come?”
“A few days ago. I knew you were coming tonight, so I didn’t bother to call. Why? Is it important?”
She turned the letter so her sister could read it. “I’ve got to go to an attorneys’ office tomorrow.”
Dear Ms. Davis,
McNally, Travers, and Sully, Attorneys would be obliged if you could visit our office on Thursday, the second of December, at two pm regarding the estate of Ms. Margaret Smith.
Alanna wrinkled her nose. “Okay, so who are McNally, Travers, and Sully, and who is Margaret Smith? Have we got secret relatives you haven’t told me about?”
They stared at each other in mystified silence. Piper shook her head. “Mom and Dad might not be here anymore, but they were upfront about everything.” She frowned. “The name though… Did Mom or Dad have any friends called Margaret Smith? Maybe she left them something in her will, and I’ve been contacted as one of their children?”
Alanna put her hand to her chest. “But I’m the oldest, surely anything like that would come to me? It must be something else. You’re right, that name though…”
“Well, if I want to find out anything, it looks like I’m going to have to go into the city center tomorrow. These attorneys aren’t in the suburbs.”
Alanna peered over at the address. “Shoot.” She glanced out the window. “Weather isn’t supposed to be good tomorrow. Maybe you should rearrange?”
But Piper was lost in her own thoughts, wracking her brain trying to think who the mysterious Margaret Smith might be. “Do you think it’s possible that either Mom or Dad had a long-lost relative that no one knew about?”
Alanna’s hand went to her mouth as a wave of recognition crossed her face. “Margaret Smith,” she murmured, before turning and disappearing into Leila’s room. She came out seconds later carrying a pile of books—all editions of The Mistletoe Crown. She lifted one at a time. “Margaret Smith, Margaret Smith, Margaret Smith.”
An uncomfortable feeling spooled in Piper’s stomach as the variations of the covers of the children’s book flashed before her eyes.
“No way,” was all that came out.
“Why not?” asked Alanna, the idea clearly starting to take root. “She’s Chicago’s most famous author. She stayed in our suburb for a few years. You interviewed her as a child—the only interview she has ever given.”
Piper threw up her hands. “I was nine. And that was before the book became crazy popular—before that movie star started to rave about it. Margaret Smith hasn’t stayed in our area for years. Didn’t she move to Lincoln Park?”
They both stared at the letter again. It couldn’t be that Margaret Smith, surely?
Alanna was clearly building up to something. “She became a recluse when her book was so popular. Her book has been reprinted every single year since then—does that happen to every author?” She thumbed through the pile of books in front of her, stopping at the oldest, and most well-worn. “And, yes, they might update the illustrations and cover every year, but none are as good as the original.”
Piper reached over and touched the original book—the one that had belonged to her and Alanna as children. “Did she do them herself? Or was it her late husband that did the original illustrations?”
Alanna’s voice quieted. “It was her husband. I’m sure he died before the book was finished.” She squeezed Piper’s arm. “You are still the only person she ever gave an interview to.”
Piper groaned. “I was nine. And it was a ridiculous interview. I only asked a few questions and couldn’t write down her answers quickly enough. It was for the school newsletter.” She gave a little shudder. “And the house, it had vines growing on it. Kind of creepy.”
“Or magical. Depending on your point of view.” Alanna was teasing her.
“The gardens though, the colors were magnificent, even in winter time,” said Piper, “And the greenhouses. They were something else. She never showed me inside. I always wondered what she grew in them.” Her mind started to drift back to her visit.
“Wasn’t there another kid supposed to be interviewing too?”
Piper rolled her eyes. “Yes, the boy from St. Phineas Elementary. He was late. Or I was early. Whatever it was, I was finished by the time he got there, and Margaret Smith wouldn’t answer any more questions. He was mad.” She gave a half-smile. “It would be crazy if this was from the Margaret Smith. But I can’t imagine a single reason why it would be. Who am I to her? A nine-year-old that asked some questions nearly twenty-five years ago?”
Alanna’s face fell. “You’re right. It could be a mistake. But I don’t imagine there are many Piper Davises in the world. Maybe we should stick with the hidden and unknown relatives theory?”
Piper smiled. “Agreed. Let’s just hope I’m not about to be presented with a huge set of unpaid bills for the same relative. If I don’t get the new contract for next year, I’ll be in trouble.”
Alanna leaned over and put a hand on her heart. “Tragedy, you might have to sell that gorgeous little house of yours and move back in with me.” She waved her hand. “I’ll get you bunk beds with Leila.”
Piper squeezed her sister’s hand. “As long as I get the top bunk, that’s fine. Thanks, sis. I’ll call you tomorrow when I find out what’s happening.” She paused and looked around her sister’s home. “And you must know that Mom and Dad would have loved what you’ve done to this place. It’s gorgeous.”
They looked at each other for a second. Losing their parents had been hard. When Alanna had decided to buy Piper’s half of the family home and live there herself, Piper had been fully supportive—of everything except the money. She’d sorted keepsakes, stripped walls, helped with tiling, all while refusing to touch her half of the money. It was still sitting in the bank.
She gave a wave of her hand. “Speak to you tomorrow.”
Piper stepped out into the snowy night, pulling her scarf closer around her neck and shivered. The whole street was lit up with Christmas trees glowing at each window. It reminded her she hadn’t even started to pull out her own decorations. There were a few that she’d brought from her parents’ home, and every year they sparked a whole host of memories all over again.
She let out a sigh and started walking, her head instantly going back to her latest work. Tomorrow was another day, and she had absolutely no idea what it might bring.
End of Excerpt