Prologue

Aeron read through the text on her computer screen yet again. This novel was the closest she’d come to expressing what was in her soul. The fear, the determination to carry on despite profound loneliness, and—now this. Grief and ultimately losing the chance to find out the truth about herself. Her latest character embodied her emotions.

If she didn’t use a pen name, A.D. Solo, which in itself was rather ironic, people would learn far too much about her, both from the metaphors and her protagonist’s feelings.

Unable to reread what she had written even once more, she decided to send the excerpt to her publisher as it was.

 

Two guardsmen stood in her path. Knowing her duty, she gripped her poison-laced dagger and raised it to her neck. “Let me pass or I will forfeit my life.”

“A woman. No wonder we’ve been so unsuccessful.” The man to the right laughed scornfully. “Devious little creatures. I say we let her do the deed for us.”

“Are you insane?” The other man roared. “Don’t you know only her breath can break the seal on the scroll? Her living breath, I might add.”

“Damn. I guess we capture her then.”

“I will use the dagger. It will kill me in less time than it takes you to dismount.” Oddly this part of her duties didn’t scare Dajala. She was born into a family of all men, as her mother died while giving birth to her. Her father and brothers thought nothing of her, and the loneliness had made her think of ending her life several times. Now she pressed the dagger against her skin and readied herself for the excruciating pain.

“Not so fast,” an alto female voice said in her ear and twisted the dagger away from her neck. “I have a better idea.” She tore the dagger from Dajala’s hand and tossed it toward the man who had just belittled women. It cut his cheek and he fell off his horse instantly. The other man growled and dug his heels into his horse’s sides. Before the horse gained momentum, the woman behind Dajala fired a small arrow from her miniature crossbow.

“See?” she said, chuckling mirthlessly. “You should never be so quick to volunteer to die, Dajala of Helogius. Life has too much to offer.”

 

Excerpt from Beyond the Sorceress’s Grave, by A.D. Solo.


Chapter One

Manhattan—Present Day

 

The dark-purple clouds that hovered over most of Manhattan were especially dark over the Trinity Cemetery. Sylvie Thorn had prepared herself emotionally during the entire car ride on the way here; she refused to show how much she loathed funerals. In a black skirt suit, she shivered as the wet wind rushed along her stocking-clad legs. She prayed the priest would take pity on the crowd and be brief, as she began walking toward the covered seating area on either side of the coffin.

“Sylvie. It’s good to see you. I’m sorry it’s under such tragic circumstances.” Her friend and mentor Helena Forsythe kissed Sylvie on the cheek. “Noelle and I just got here and saw your car pull up.”

Sylvie gripped her umbrella harder. “Yes, it’s a sad day. Maeve was only forty-five.” Sylvie pressed her black clutch closer to her body. The summer rain was colder than she’d expected, making her shiver. Glancing around her, she nodded politely at the passing people. Also dressed in black, the movers and shakers of New York old money exited their cars. Most arrived in chauffeured vehicles and were met by men and women in uniform handing them large, black umbrellas. Sylvie had one, and Helena and Noelle shared one.

“I’m glad you’re here. My staff arranged the funeral, but Maeve’s, um, friends, or perhaps the right word is entourage, took care of the reception at her house.” Sylvie began walking toward the part of the cemetery where Maeve DeForest would be laid to rest after the ceremony.

“Did you find out why she wanted you to arrange the funeral?” Helena murmured discreetly in Sylvie’s ear. “I knew she was your silent partner, but I didn’t realize you were that close.”

“I got to know her well these last few years. As my silent partner, she enabled me to conduct my affairs regarding Classic Swedish Inc. with complete autonomy.” Sylvie’s throat constricted. “I suppose I initially judged her by what I read in the gossip columns, like most people do. We hardly moved in the same social circles, as I’m a relative newcomer in Manhattan. Not that I’d be inclined to barhop the way she loved to. That said, there was more to Maeve than people realized, which I’m sure you know.”

“There was. I’m just worried one of those younger people she used to hang with has had too much to say about the reception.” Noelle crinkled her nose. “I shudder at the idea of them having turned it into one of her infamous theme events.”

“Let’s hope not,” Helena said darkly.

They reached the seats around the blindingly white casket boasting a large arrangement of white roses on the lid. The turnout was impressive, especially when you considered the weather. Sylvie scanned the crowd and recognized business people, politicians, socialites, celebrities, and some she couldn’t pinpoint.

Just as everyone began to sit down, she spotted someone making her way through the people on the other side of the casket. Umbrellas swayed as the person murmured something inaudible, perhaps excusing herself for nudging people aside. Eventually a woman stood across from Sylvie. Her soaking-wet hair of undeterminable color hung just past her shoulders. A young man asked her to join him beneath his umbrella, but she merely shook her head.

“Who’s that?” Noelle murmured.

“No idea. Although…no, it can’t be.” Helena’s eyes narrowed as she studied the young woman. “There were rumors, but surely that was just the tabloids?”

Sylvie couldn’t take her eyes off the pale, slightly freckled face of the woman before her. Rain had soaked her charcoal trench coat. Then she raised her gaze and met Sylvie’s eyes. Dark green, they scanned her slowly, as if the woman considered it her right to pass judgment on Sylvie’s reasons for being there.

Once again, Sylvie asked herself why she’d agreed to arrange Maeve’s funeral. Not only that, but she had been summoned to participate in the reading of Maeve’s will the next day. Yes, she had a vested interest in how Maeve’s wealth was distributed, as Maeve’s estate owned unquoted shares in Sylvie’s chain of spas located throughout the US. Their joined business endeavor was her ticket to freedom once she managed to buy out the heirs of Maeve’s estate.

Yet another cold fist gripped her stomach and twisted it painfully. So much could go wrong. As if all this wasn’t enough. Maeve’s accident. The uncertain financial state of their mutual affairs…Sylvie’s grip on the umbrella slipped and she squeezed the handle harder.

Damn. She truly hated funerals.

 

 

Gothenburg, Sweden—1983

 

“Daniel. She’s too young, don’t you think? And so sensitive.” Mommy stood over by the half-open window, blowing cigarette smoke away from the room. Daddy hated that Mommy smoked. He called it a filthy habit with that hard voice that meant Mommy was in trouble. But Mommy wasn’t afraid of Daddy. Not the way Sylvie was. When Daddy looked at Sylvie with his blue eyes all shiny and cold, like her marbles, she felt the need to rush to the bathroom. On several occasions, she had almost peed in her pants, which would have been terrible. She was a big girl now, eight years old, and big girls didn’t have accidents.

Daddy often reminded her she was a Thorn. This meant being important and better than other people. Sylvie knew from her school this wasn’t true. The other kids didn’t think she was better. They didn’t think she was good at anything. Everyone could already read and write some, and Sylvie couldn’t even spell her own name. She and Mommy had practiced so many times, but the letters only looked funny and backward when Sylvie tried. Once, Daddy had come home while they sat in the kitchen with her crayons. When he saw her wobbly letters, he snorted and shook his head.

“Sometimes, Camilla, I think you must’ve made this kid all on your own. I could read and write when I was four.”

“Oh, good for you,” Mommy said and looked angrily at Daddy. “All kids are different. Some learn later and some are early like you. It’s nothing to boast or be ashamed about.”

“Don’t even try. If she could’ve written at four, you’d be the first to brag.” Daddy had stomped off, and Mommy put the crayons away and said it was time to eat. They hadn’t practiced very much since then.

“Nonsense, Camilla,” Daddy said now and placed his hands on Sylvie’s shoulders. Big and heavy, they sat there like anchors pulling her down. He wanted Sylvie to come along to the funeral with him and Mommy. That’s what it was called when they buried dead people. “She’s eight years old. At that age children know about life and death. That church group you have her attend makes sure of that, don’t they?”

When they left the house, Mommy and Daddy both wore black, and Pernilla, Sylvie’s nanny, had dressed her in the new dark-blue and white sailor dress. White knee socks and Sylvie’s much-coveted black, shiny buckle shoes completed her outfit. Mommy tried to tell Daddy one more time she thought Sylvie was too young for funerals, but as usual, when Daddy used that stern, impatient voice, even Mommy obeyed Daddy. Everyone in their house did, and everyone at Daddy’s office too. Mommy said Daddy was the boss.

Mommy took Sylvie by the hand and they walked out to the car. Mr. Carlsson held the backseat door open for them, and Sylvie hurried to scoot over to the right side of the seat. She didn’t want to sit next to Daddy, as he was in such a bad mood. Mommy said it was because his Uncle Stefan had just died. “You must forgive Daddy,” Mommy had said the previous evening as she tucked Sylvie in. “Uncle Stefan was like a father to him. Remember I told you your grandfather died in Hungary during World War II? Daddy was only three years old then. Your grandmother was so upset and sad. She let Uncle Stefan take care of Daddy until she felt better. Now when Uncle Stefan is dead, it’s the same for Daddy as if he lost his father.”

“Again.” Sylvie had sort of understood. It was strange how someone could lose a father twice, but even if Daddy often scared her, she knew she would be sad if he died. Of this she was certain. When Daddy was in his best mood, he was so funny and took her into his library, where they looked at maps. He could tell her long stories about travels to foreign countries, and Sylvie knew she was a little bit like Daddy after all since she wanted to fly around the world or go by boat. Or train.

Sylvie glanced at Daddy. He wasn’t happy right now. In fact, his face was so dark that it looked like he could never, ever be happy again. What if their pretend travels with the maps in the library were over? What if Daddy would be sad and angry forever? Mommy had told her Daddy would feel better soon, but the way her father spoke and looked at her, Sylvie wasn’t so sure. Placing her hands beneath her legs, she willed them to stop shaking by sitting on them.

Afterward she barely remembered the long, wordy ceremony in the church, but she would never forget the sight of the casket being lowered into the ground. Daddy stood very close to the big hole, holding Sylvie’s hand so hard it hurt. For a moment, she thought he might throw her in after the big, wooden box where Uncle Stefan was resting. How could he be dead if he was resting? Was he alive in there? Had they checked to make sure?

“Stop fidgeting,” Daddy hissed. “What’s the matter with you, child?”

“Sorry, Daddy,” Sylvie whispered and looked behind them for her mother. She couldn’t see her. “Where’s Mommy?” she asked, desperate enough to overcome some of the shyness.

“Hush. And didn’t I tell you to stand still?” Daddy squeezed her hand even harder.

Now Sylvie wanted to get as far away from the hole with the big box as possible. She tugged at Daddy’s hand and he hissed at her again. This time he yanked her toward him so hard, she came dangerously close to the hole in the ground.

And this time, she proved to her father she wasn’t a big girl after all as hot pee ran down her legs, ruining her socks and her beloved black, shiny shoes.

 

 

Manhattan—Present Day

 

Aeron DeForest sighed inwardly.

How strange. Such sad, tragic circumstances and she couldn’t feel a thing. A cold, wet blanket lay between her and the emotions she should be experiencing. She should cry, for sure, or at least feel cold with shock. Instead she was numb, and as the priest spoke about the stranger that had been her mother, she let her gaze fall upon the people across from her on the other side of her mother’s casket.

Aeron recognized some of the people from when she was little. Mainly some of the staff at the condominium where she had lived with her mother most of her first eight years, and from the house in the Hamptons. Then she saw some of Maeve’s old friends, women who had aged, some gracefully, but most combatting time with nose jobs, facelifts, and collagen.

Her eyes fell upon a woman most of the world would recognize. Noelle Laurent, soul-pop princess turned singer-song writer and married to the woman next to her, Helena Forsythe, business tycoon. Out and proud, the two women had been a hot commodity for the press, paparazzi, and bloggers for a couple of years.

Next to the celebrities, a woman with chocolate-brown hair kept back in a twist stood regarding her with interest and—confusion? Who was that? Aeron hadn’t seen her before, not as a child and not before leaving Manhattan years ago. She would have remembered the piercing dark-blue eyes and the way this woman seemed to take in the world with her chin defiantly raised. Was she really one of Maeve’s friends? She didn’t seem the party-socialite type. In fact, she regarded the people on either side of Aeron with disdain.

Having been back to New York for only a few days, Aeron wasn’t staying at Maeve’s condo, but at an unassuming hotel in Midtown. She’d heard from Maeve’s attorney, who would also serve as executor when it came to her mother’s will, that the house was never empty. Friends came and went, as Maeve had been generous with handing out keys and alarm codes. It was amazing someone hadn’t murdered her in her bed.

Instead Maeve had died from driving into a tourist bus under the influence of cocaine and some designer drug. Nobody else was injured, but Maeve had suffered trauma to the chest and head, as she had not worn her seat belt. Apparently she had been alone in the car.

The priest nodded to Aeron, who dutifully placed her white rose on the casket. She didn’t wait around. The rain had soaked straight through her clothes and was running along her spine in chilly rivulets. Making her way along the casket, she didn’t speak to anyone but left the large crowd to grieve—for real or to fake it, she didn’t care. When she reached the chauffeured town car she’d arrived in, the driver wasn’t there. No doubt he surmised she would stay for the duration of the ceremony. Not a chance. Aeron began to walk and pulled her cell phone from her coat pocket. She texted the driver that he could take off and consider himself done. She would simply walk to the closest subway entrance and return to her hotel that way.

Tomorrow Mr. Hayes of Shaw, Hayes, & Walters would go through the will, and then Aeron would bid her childhood, such as it had been, farewell forever and go back to being A.D. Solo and writing her horror novels in her cabin in the Adirondacks.

Shuddering, she folded her arms around her. Aeron hadn’t known her mother very well, as she had kept her distance ever since Maeve sent her to a private girls’ boarding school in Vermont and, later, upstate New York when she was eight. She spent all of the semesters there and Christmas and New Year’s mostly with Maeve’s household staff. Paulina, the cook and housekeeper, had been a buoy in the stormy sea that was life around Maeve.

Something warmed Aeron’s cheeks despite the chilly rain. It took her a while to realize it was her tears. Huh. Imagine that. Tears for Maeve after all.


Chapter Two

Manhattan—1996

 

“Is the child shy or is something, you know, wrong with her? She’s been standing there for a while now.” The short woman sitting next to Maeve on the couch wrinkled her nose and motioned toward Aeron.

“What do you mean?” Maeve turned and frowned with impatience, but her glossy red lips still smiled. “Aeron? Why aren’t you in the kitchen with Paulina?”

“Paulina says lunch is ready,” Aeron said and curtsied as Paulina had taught her. She was wearing one of her favorite dresses with pink roses on the skirt.

“Oh, please, what was that? Do you think this is some old movie?” Maeve shooed at Aeron to leave before turning to her guests. “Come on. Last year I finally found a decent cook who also doesn’t mind babysitting Aeron.”

Maeve and the short woman strode past Aeron, who now had her back pressed to the wall. She wasn’t sure if Maeve wanted her to go back to Paulina before they left the room or after.

A dark-haired woman suddenly appeared at the patio door and said, “Well, I, for one, thought you did a good job.”

Aeron jumped and began moving along the wall toward the kitchen. The dark-haired woman stepped closer, and now Aeron saw she was wearing a blue dress. Aeron had never met her before. The woman knelt before Aeron and extended her hand. “My name’s Hannah. I’m a friend of your mother. Why don’t you show me where we’re having lunch?”

“In the dining room,” Aeron whispered and pointed.

“Excellent. How old are you?”

“Eight.” Her voice grew a little stronger now, as she had seen Hannah’s kind eyes and began to relax at how gently she held Aeron’s hand. Not strong and jerky like Maeve when she pulled Aeron along behind her. Maeve was always late and in a hurry. When Aeron couldn’t keep up, Maeve tugged really hard at her.

“Eight? You’re getting to be a big girl. Let’s go have some lunch.” Hannah simply began walking in that direction, still holding Aeron’s hand. “Are you in second grade?”

“Yes. After the summer I’ll be in third.” Aeron’s stomach ached at the thought.

Hannah squeezed her hand. “You don’t look too happy about that.”

“I like the school I go to now.”

“Then what’s the problem?” Hannah looked like she really wanted to know. Like she cared.

“I’m going to another school far away. In Vermont.”

“Vermont? But—yes, that is far.” Hannah’s eyes darkened and she squeezed Aeron’s hand. “I see.”

They entered the dining room, and Maeve looked up from where she sat at the head of the large, rectangular table. “Oh, please, Hannah. She’s not eating with us.”

“Of course she is,” Hannah said and pulled out two chairs. “Here you go, honey.” She simply lifted Aeron up on the chair and nodded at Paulina, who came into the room carrying a tray. “We’ll need a plate for Aeron too, please.”

Looking uncertain at Hannah’s request, Paulina paled and glanced at Maeve. “Madam?”

Maeve shrugged. “Oh, why not? Hannah clearly has her heart set on playing the nanny.”

“I’m sure Aeron is so well behaved she doesn’t need any nanny.” Hannah placed a napkin on Aeron’s lap and then ruffled her hair. “I’m right, aren’t I?”

Aeron nodded and tried on a smile. In her heart she knew she would have to pay a price for Hannah’s kindness, as Maeve was the boss of the house. She told Aeron this often. She hardly ever referred to herself as Aeron’s mommy, but instead always claimed she was in charge. The boss. Right now, she allowed Aeron to sit at the table as if she mattered, and perhaps, if Aeron was lucky, Maeve’s mood wouldn’t fall once the short woman and Hannah had gone home. Perhaps she would forget about it and not send Aeron to bed without her dinner.

When this happened, Paulina sometimes risked giving her something after Maeve left the house in the evening. On those rare occasions that Maeve stayed in, Paulina didn’t dare getting caught, and Aeron had to go to bed hungry. Perhaps she should sneak some bread rolls into her pockets just in case?

“She looks like such a scared little bird,” the short woman said and leaned with her elbows on the table. Her smile seemed strange to Aeron. It showed a lot of teeth and made her think of an animal.

Aeron didn’t dare look very long at the short woman. She had once overheard Maeve telling another friend she only kept this friend around because her sarcasm made her laugh. Aeron wasn’t sure what sarcasms were, but if they had anything to do with the short woman, she didn’t like them.

Sitting next to Hannah was very different. This friend of her mother’s was nice and warm. Aeron was almost always right when her feelings told her things about another person. Like that girl, Greta, at the playground. She was so popular and always had at least ten other kids around her. When Aeron joined them at the swings, Greta immediately started whispering with the others, and soon they all moved to the slide or the trampoline.

It didn’t take Aeron long to realize how much the other kids idolized and feared Greta. If someone objected to her ordering them around, she soon managed to turn the rest of her group of kids against them. They rarely talked back to her more than once. Aeron would never be accepted into Greta’s gang. She liked some of the kids hanging around with Greta, but for some reason, she was invisible to them when Greta was at the playground. And she wasn’t imagining all this. Aeron was used to being invisible.

“Are you really sending this child away to boarding school at the age of eight?” Hannah spoke lightly, but Maeve’s eyes narrowed and Aeron cringed.

“I can tell someone’s been telling tales.” She sent Aeron a sideways glance. “Actually, it’s a specialized school for children with Aeron’s needs. I’m rarely home and she needs more stimulation than poor Paulina has time for. This school, it’s in the countryside in Vermont, not far from Stowe. A charming family setting. They will help bring Aeron out of her shell. She can’t rule my empire one day if she doesn’t dare open her mouth.”

Aeron sank back against the chair and lowered her head. Now they all knew something was wrong with her. Maeve had a long list she let Paulina take to the doctor when it was time for Aeron’s checkups. This list grew longer with each visit, and yet, every time Dr. Burke shook his head and scribbled something on his notepad. This made Maeve so very angry, and she sometimes yelled at Paulina for not doing her job. Sometimes Paulina cried, and Aeron once heard her say she would quit if it wasn’t for Aeron. She thought Maeve would fire Paulina for that, but instead she gave her the rest of the day off.

“Still. She’s eight. She needs her mother.” Hannah put her arm around Aeron’s shoulders and squeezed lightly.

Maeve’s eyes darkened and her voice trembled. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Hannah didn’t continue but was very nice to Aeron the rest of the visit. Once they left, Maeve took Aeron and put her on her lap. “You do know I’m sending you to this school because it’s what’s best for you, pumpkin?” Maeve only called her pumpkin when she was in her best mood.

“Yes, Maeve.” Aeron dared to rest her head against Maeve’s chest.

“Hey, when we’re alone, you can call me Mommy. I’ve told you that.”

It was hard for Aeron to remember this, and for the most part, she used her mother’s first name. “Mommy,” she whispered now, and the slow-burning glow of longing in her chest expanded. “Mommy.”

“There you go.” Maeve held her close and actually hummed a song Aeron recognized from MTV. Her perfume, so familiar and what Maeve called her sig-na-ture scent, surrounded Aeron, and she closed her eyes and let her mother hold her. This didn’t happen a lot, and who knew when Maeve would feel like cuddling her again.


Chapter Three

Manhattan—Present Day

 

Aeron walked into her mother’s lawyer’s office. It held a somber ambiance: all mahogany, dark-red carpets, crystal, and a faint trace of expensive cigars. It spoke of a long history of representing wealthy, influential clients. As for the five people present, including her, she wasn’t certain what she had expected, but not the dark-haired woman she’d observed at the funeral. Dressed in a dove-gray skirt suit and with her dark hair in a loose twist, she looked the part of a Manhattan businesswoman. Next to her, a young man sat taking notes as she murmured something inaudible to him.

Behind them a woman in her sixties looked at Aeron with tears in her eyes. Aeron blinked. It had been too long. “Paulina?” She ignored everyone else and rounded the two in front of Maeve’s housekeeper and cook. “I’m so glad to see you.”

“Aeron.” Paulina rose and hugged her. “I’m so sorry for your loss, sweetheart. I saw you at the funeral, but you left before I had a chance to give you my condolences. I didn’t attend the reception.”

“Neither did I.” Aeron felt herself travel twenty-some years back in time. At one point, Paulina’s hugs and affection had been the one constant in her life. “Do you have time for coffee after this?”

“I do. We’ll talk more later.” Paulina patted her cheek and retook her seat.

As Aeron returned to her chair, she saw the dark-haired woman study her with guarded curiosity.

“As we’re all here,” Mr. Hayes said after clearing his throat, “let’s get started. Ms. DeForest’s last will and testament is as simple as it is unorthodox. She recorded her will in 2009 to be played in the office in the event of her death.”

Flinching, Aeron stared at the tall, lanky man as he raised his hand holding a remote. To her left, a large flat-screen TV flickered and a young-looking Maeve smiled broadly at them.

“Hello there! If you see this at dear Lucas’s office, it means I’ve somehow managed to get myself dead. I hope I was at least ninety-three, but if not, hmm, well, bummer.” Her voice, so chirpy and facetious, cut deep into Aeron’s chest.

“Oh, God,” Aeron said and inhaled deeply. “I’m not sure—”

“Especially my little Aeron, I hope you’re married to the man of your dreams with children and even grandchildren around your feet. I haven’t seen you in a few months. Or, it might actually been a year since you didn’t come home at Christmas, naughty girl.” Maeve shook her head, her blond, perfectly separated and styled curls bouncing around her stunning face. “I can’t imagine I’d leave this earth before you’re grown up and have a family of your own…that’s simply unseemly, if you ask me.” Her eyes seemed to darken, and she adjusted her gold statement necklace with unsteady fingers. She was clearly uncomfortable and struggled to remain her usual extravagant self.

“Please…” Aeron tried to find her voice to ask “dear Lucas” to stop the recording, but her vocal chords failed her.

“Paulina, if you’re here, my pillar of strength. You kept me fed and my homes in perfect condition for all these years. You were there for Aeron. I hope you still are. If I’m an old lady and you’ve passed on, your inheritance will go to your heirs.” Maeve paused and shifted and straightened her back. “Sylvie Thorn. I hope we’ve been business partners for many years when you see this. If our agreement has changed during the years, Lucas knows how to proceed. If we’re still on course with Classic Swedish Inc. and all our plans, then this part of the will still stands. So—here goes.” Maeve put on pink reading glasses and winked at the camera. “Aren’t these cute? I’m sure in the future, a long, long time from now, nobody wears these, but in 2009, reading glasses are still a must-have. So, all right, let’s get to it.

First, as it is the easiest part, Paulina Nieves. You will inherit my New York condo on the Upper East Side. You will also receive a pension consisting of twice your salary at my demise, and the same for your husband Arthur, for both your natural lives. The upkeep and fees associated with owning the condo will be paid for the same duration.” Maeve put down the first paper and began reading from the next. “Aeron, my beloved daughter.” Maeve looked up into the camera. Her eyes shone from tears refusing to dislodge. “Don’t freak out now. You inherit the rest. What doesn’t go to Paulina, or her heirs, should she no longer be with us, goes to you. I do have conditions. You have to keep my charities going. All twenty-eight of them, or more, if I’ve added some at the time of my death, which I hope I have. You must also keep any business agreement I made with Sylvie Thorn, unless she and I have already parted ways financially. I gave her my word I’d see this investment through. Before I go into the details of the part of my will that concerns both of you, I want to say something. Perhaps if I was an old bat before I kicked the bucket, I’ve already told you, at least I hope so.

I was a crappy mother, and I can only hope I’ve managed to rectify this as I planned. If not, please don’t give up on me. Examine my last will and testament, my girl. Carefully go through old documents. Don’t throw it all away unread because of old hurts. Please.”

Maeve smiled with trembling lips, and it was clear to Aeron her mother really was teary-eyed. “And now, Sylvie, and I hope you’re here. If you’re not, Lucas will stop the DVD now.” Maeve sat still, as if she actually expected Lucas Hayes to come and turn the DVD off.

“Sylvie, you are one of many who approached me over the years with the idea of becoming a silent partner and investor. In fact, I initially chose to partner with you because you were my very first Swedish acquaintance and I had this insane idea you might be able to introduce me to ABBA.” Maeve chuckled and wiped at her eyelashes. “Silly, I know. Then I got to know you, and even if you don’t need my input when it comes to business, you are always willing to hear me out. After all, I’m our best customer and know from that end how the business works.” Maeve looked intently at them and then cleared her throat again. “Sylvie, here’s the thing. I want you to work with Aeron like you did with me. Take her under your wing and mentor her. I keep telling her she has so much going for her, but she doesn’t listen to me, and who can blame her? Teach her about the cutthroat nature of business. Once you’ve done that and Aeron knows enough to make an informed decision, the investment I made in Classic Swedish Inc. will be turned into a gift from me to you. It’s not enough for everything you taught me, but at least you need not worry about not having absolute majority.

This way Aeron can learn enough to decide if she wants to manage the DeForest fortune or allow the board of directors and trustees to keep their power of attorney. If Aeron turns you down, I can only surmise my daughter has finally decided to reject me once and for all. Then, the entire estate—after Paulina has received her share—will go to the Belmont Foundation in Rhode Island. As you are the two most important people in my life, it’s my genuine hope that you find a way to work together. Most of all, though, I hope I died at the ripe old age of 103. See you later. Much later!” She blew the camera a lavish kiss.

Mr. Hayes turned off the DVD player and flat-screen. Aeron tried to gather her thoughts, turning her head in Sylvie’s direction. Sylvie’s assistant scribbled on his notepad as if his life hung in the balance, while her mother’s business partner calmly sat with her hands folded on her lap, her eyes locked on Aeron in what had to be a silent challenge.

Mr. Hayes cleared his voice. “That’s Maeve DeForest’s last will and testament in short. A more detailed print version exists, but she outlined it well on the video. Among Ms. Aeron DeForest, Ms. Sylvie Thorn, and Mrs. Paulina Nieves, you have inherited all of the DeForest estate at different levels, which boils down to roughly worth 25 billion dollars. Mrs. Nieves does not have to worry about any stipulations, but Ms. DeForest and Ms. Thorn and her company Classic Swedish Inc. do.”

Aeron couldn’t breathe. She was stuck in a weird nightmare and couldn’t move the air in and out of her lungs. She hadn’t had an anxiety attack in a while, but this was how it felt: throat-constricting and sweat-producing, like her hands and feet were immersed in ice. She had to get out of here. No matter what anyone else in the room said, she couldn’t stay. Standing up fast enough to knock over her chair, she hurried through the elegant office.

“Ms. DeForest!” Lucas Hayes called out. “I have a lot more information—”

“I don’t care. I don’t want any of it. Give it away. Give every cent to that foundation.”


Chapter Four

Tears streaming down her cheeks, Aeron darted along the corridor to the outer office. There, the elevator doors were about to close and she slipped inside, grateful the car was empty. She pressed her back against the wall after pushing the button for the lobby. Her heart boomed, and she had to make herself breathe deep and slow.

As she stepped outside, the sun shone brightly. New Yorkers hurried up and down the wide sidewalks, and cars crawled on the congested street. Nobody paid her any attention, which was a good thing. She began to walk, and after a few blocks, she saw one of the few old-fashioned coffee houses left in Manhattan and stepped inside. Only when she sat down with her latte did she remember she was supposed to have coffee with Paulina.

“Fuck,” Aeron muttered under her breath. She didn’t have Paulina’s phone number. She hoped Paulina would think to ask Mr. Hayes for it and call her. Now Aeron felt utterly foolish for running, but after seeing Maeve, looking so alive and, in the strangest way, so familiar yet alien, she’d freaked out. She’d had to run or have a full-blown panic attack right there in front of everybody. Even if she knew how to cope with her anxiety better these days, at times the panic would wash over her and make her feel as if she were actually drowning.

 

Vermont—1997

 

“This will be your room, Aeron. You’ll share with another girl your age. Her name is Melissa, and she’s at the library right now with her group.” The tall, thin woman, Mrs. Marie Crenshaw, motioned toward the bed to the left. “I understand Aeron’s belongings are sitting in the lobby still. We’ll help you carry them up later and get settled, pumpkin.”

Pumpkin? Aeron blinked. That was what Maeve called her when she was in an extra-good mood. What an odd thing for a teacher to call a student. Her teacher in Manhattan had called them strictly by their first name, no nicknames whatsoever. She had even complained about Aeron’s unusual name once and asked if she had another first name that sounded more normal. As Aeron was called only that, she had to disappoint that teacher.

“We look forward to having you as our special guest for dinner, Mrs. DeForest—”

“Oh, I’m not staying.” Maeve was all smiles and big hand gestures. “I have an appointment back in New York later this evening, and I should get going right away.”

“But parents are encouraged to participate in installing their child, especially when they’re this young. Several days in some cases, actually. It helps the children to transition and reassures them.” Still sounding kind and not mad at Maeve at all, Mrs. Crenshaw tilted her head.

“Aeron, you will find, is a very easy child to be around. She rarely cries and carries on, and she’s very good at playing by herself.”

A small voice inside Aeron’s head wanted to object. She did cry. Just not when anyone saw her. She did play by herself, but only because she had no friends.

“I’m fine, Mae—Mom.” Aeron knew she sounded like a polite robot. “You should go to your meeting. I look forward to meeting Melissa and the others and to starting school here.” In fact, Aeron dreaded it. She would hate it if the other children were far ahead in their studies. And the opposite was just as bad. Enough kids had called her a four-eyed nerd at her last school for doing her homework. And having glasses.

“Are you sure, pumpkin?” Mrs. Crenshaw put a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“I’m sure.” Did the lie look convincing?

“Very well.” Clearly not pleased with Maeve taking off, Mrs. Crenshaw stayed with them while they said good-bye.

Maeve kept smiling broadly, and every now and then she bit her lower lip, only to break out in another dazzling smile as she let go. “Have fun with all your new friends here. I’m sure you’ll do me proud and learn tons of new stuff. I’ll see you around…eh…Halloween.”

It was early August and Halloween was almost three months away. It felt like forever. Without being able to stop herself, Aeron’s chin started trembling as Maeve rose.

“M-Mom? You’re coming back, right?” This was usually a surefire way to annoy her mother, but the words popped out on their own.

“But of course!” Maeve threw herself on her knees and pulled Aeron in for a long hug. Too stunned to reciprocate, Aeron’s heart pounded hard at the unexpected embrace, but mostly at how her mother trembled against her. “I have to do what’s best for you, and trust me, Aeron, that’s not me right now. You’ll have a real home here during the semesters, and you can tell me all about it during the holidays.” She stood, and now her smile wasn’t as dazzling, but more tense and her eyes shiny. Turning around quickly, Maeve nodded at Mrs. Crenshaw and walked out the door of Maeve’s new room.

“Maeve…” Forgetting she was supposed to say “Mom,” Aeron stood alone in the center of the cozy room. Built-in bookshelves of dark wood, a bed with lots of pillows, a mauve rug stretching from her part of the room over to Melissa’s, two desks, and two walk-in closets.

“Listen, pumpkin,” Mrs. Crenshaw said, and cupped Aeron’s chin. “I think your mom left because she was too upset about not having you with her and she didn’t want you to know.”

“Why?” Feeling instinctively that questions were not only allowed here, but encouraged, Aeron leaned in to the kind touch.

“I don’t know. When your mom said you rarely cry, I think she thought of herself. Neither of you shows your tears to anyone, I reckon. But you know what? If you need to have a good cry for any reason, you come to me or any of the teachers that you feel comfortable with. We can always sort things out, you know.”

Aeron gazed up into Mrs. Crenshaw’s friendly eyes. She wasn’t used to having someone’s full attention directed at her for very long at a time. Paulina was always at Maeve’s service, and Maeve kept reminding Paulina and Aeron who paid her salary. Maeve’s needs always came first.

“What do you say, pumpkin? Should we try to find Mr. Crenshaw and have him help us bring your luggage up?” Mrs. Crenshaw grinned. “His first name is Horatio, but I call him Horsey. Don’t tell him I told you, all right?”

Aeron had to giggle, and the secret joke took a tiny bit of the sadness and anger away. She held on to Mrs. Crenshaw’s hand as they walked down the staircase. This house did look like a real home. Much more than Maeve’s condo that was full of things she wasn’t allowed to touch. Here, it appeared you could sit on the couch with your feet up, like in the movies, and perhaps even drink hot cocoa by the television. It was strange that despite so many things being right with this place, she still missed Maeve so much it hurt.

 

 

Manhattan—Present Time

 

Aeron’s cell phone rang, and she transported back from the past and saw it was the lawyer’s office.

She answered, hoping it was Paulina. “Hello?”

“Aeron, sweetheart. Are you all right?” Paulina’s voice was so concerned and warm that Aeron had to blink against her tears. “Aeron?”

“I’m here. Yes. I’m okay. I’m sorry for leaving you behind like that. I just…I just couldn’t…”

“I know. You don’t have to apologize. Are you close by? Do you still want to have coffee?”

Aeron told Paulina where she was and that she’d wait for her. “They have pies and sandwiches too. We can have lunch if you want.”

“Sounds terrific, Aeron. I’ll be there in a little while. Here’s Ms. Thorn for you.”

What? Aeron grew rigid and clutched the phone.

“Ms. DeForest? Sylvie Thorn here.” Her voice was stern, and she spoke fast, with a faint accent Aeron couldn’t place. “As I’m sure you understand after hearing your mother’s will, we need to meet up and talk.”

“I don’t see why.” Cringing at how rude she sounded, Aeron covered her eyes with her free hand. “The Belmont Foundation can have Maeve’s money. I don’t want it.”

“I think that’s your grief talking.” Sylvie Thorn’s voice was low but not without compassion. “I didn’t know Maeve had a daughter, but other sides of her I knew quite well. Please give me a chance to explain why you need to not make this type of decision while in this frame of mind.”

“And how could you possibly know which frame of mind I’m in?” Aeron spat. “You don’t know me.” She huffed to herself at Sylvie Thorn’s obvious attempt to get the money Maeve had promised her if she fulfilled the terms of the will.

“No, but I would imagine losing your mother, no matter what your relationship was like, is difficult. All I ask is that you meet with me and hear me out. If you still are completely against your mother’s wishes, I…I won’t bother you again.”

“I’ve already made my decision. Forget it.” The words actually pained her as she let them escape. Aeron wasn’t sure why she suddenly was so guilt-ridden, but she was.

The silence at the other end stretched out. “I’m truly sorry you feel this way. I knew Maeve in a different light from how most people perceived her. It would’ve been nice to get to know the daughter she kept such a secret. But, as you’ve made your decision, all I can do is wish you well for the future. Good-bye.”

After a brief silence and then some noise, Paulina spoke again. ”Aeron. I’ll be with you in just a little while. Ms. Thorn is dropping me off at the coffee shop.”

“I’ll be here.” Aeron tucked her cell phone into her pocket. Something in Sylvie Thorn’s voice had disturbed her, but she wasn’t sure how. Had she meant she wasn’t one of Maeve’s party-till-you-drop entourage? Aeron didn’t think that was even possible. When had her mother had time for any friends of substance? She’d lived her life at rocket speed, enjoying one new club after another. She regarded drugs as her prerogative and used them as if no laws applied to her.

It had taken Aeron until she was in her late teens before she realized how deeply addicted her mother was to cocaine, different designer drugs, and alcohol, mainly champagne. She had no idea if Maeve ever did any heavier drugs. When she finally found out about them, she was eighteen at the time, she understood the mysterious mood swings that had plagued Maeve and affected her. She had then withdrawn and given up her futile struggle to have Maeve validate her. What a blow to realize Maeve would never become the mother she needed and dreamed about. Moreover, Aeron would never know why Maeve lived her life this way.

Aeron had finished her second latte when Paulina came into the coffee house. She strode up to Aeron’s corner table and pulled her up from the chair and hugged her. “My poor girl. This was a hard day for you. I’m so sorry.”

“She’s really gone.” Aeron’s words echoed, empty. “I’ll never know her now. I’ll never know what I did wrong or why she did drugs or…Paulina…” She slumped down in the chair again. “I just want to go back home to the Adirondacks. I don’t want any more lawyer meetings or to deal with Maeve’s estate. I truly don’t.”

“I know, but to some degree you have to. You have to sign a plethora of documents and decide which things of your mothers you want to keep. She kept your room intact, so there’s the matter of your own belongings as well.”

Aeron’s jaw sagged. “What?”

Paulina tilted her head as she held on to Aeron’s hand. “You didn’t know.”

“No. I was pretty sure she might have put everything in storage and turned my room into a gym or bar or whatever.” The idea of her room being as she left it made her dizzy. Aeron sobbed and clasped her free hand over her mouth. “Do you mean I have to go back there?”

“It’s been way too long, my girl. Five years since you saw her. Eight years since you left the condo for good.”

“Feels a lot longer.” It did. Going away to college had meant almost severing her contact with Maeve, unless she counted a couple of Christmases and Thanksgivings when she’d more or less vanished in the massive crowd in the condo when Maeve had decided to “have a few friends over.”

“How about we go over some things together tomorrow?” Paulina patted her hand.

“Do you want the furniture? I mean, if it’s similar to what I remember, it’s nice.”

“But it’s yours, sweetheart.” Paulina blushed. “Most of it is as you remember. She had a few rooms redesigned, but the living areas are as they’ve always been.”

“So, if you like any of it, please keep it.” Aeron couldn’t imagine any of the luxurious couches, tables, or lamps in her rustic cabin.

“All right. Let me know if you change your mind. It’s all right if you do.”

“I won’t.” Aeron sighed. “God, where are my manners. What can I get you? Coffee? A slice of pie?”

“Stay here. I’ll go up to the counter and order us some salads.” Paulina rose, and Aeron gazed dimly after the woman who’d been more of a mother to her than Maeve had ever managed. Paulina had taught her the basics in early childhood: how to tie her shoes, brush her hair, eat at the table properly, and so on. Maeve had probably implied that these menial tasks were beneath her—or that she simply didn’t have time. Paulina, who was actually only the cook/housekeeper, had stepped up to the plate, and Aeron had no idea what her life would have been like if Paulina hadn’t loved her like one of her own daughters.

“Here we go.” Paulina broke through Aeron’s reminiscing as she sat back down with two large glasses of iced tea. “Now, why don’t you want to talk to Ms. Thorn? She seems to have her head screwed on right, if you don’t mind me saying so. Not like some other people your mother attracted. Some of them used her, and others just loved to party and found her a kindred spirit.”

“And you’re saying Sylvie Thorn was never at her parties?” Aeron found that hard to believe.

“Maybe once or twice when Maeve hosted regular dinner parties. I remember Ms. Thorn leaving early at one point when some of Maeve’s party friends crashed the dinner and everything became really loud. I brought her coat and she asked me who those people were. I, of course, couldn’t be disloyal to Maeve, so I just said, ‘Ms. DeForest’s friends.’ She shook her head and said ‘some friends.’ She was right, of course.”

“What was their relationship?” Curious against her will, Aeron sipped her iced tea.

“You heard her on the tape. They were business partners. I don’t know the details, but Ms. Thorn asked Maeve to invest in her company that runs a chain of spas in several cities all over the US. I can’t remember the name of it, but you’ve probably heard of it. Tons of celebrities have found their way there, some of them through Maeve.”

“Ah. So she needed an investor as well as a name to drop. A gold digger?” Aeron wrinkled her nose, and Paulina gave her a disapproving glance.

“No. Ms. Thorn’s from a prominent family in Sweden that apparently has a lot of old money. She runs the US branch of Thorn Industries here. From what Maeve said, the spas are Ms. Thorn’s own company, not involved with the family business.”

“I see.” Well, that was a lie. Aeron couldn’t figure out why her mother had suddenly shown an interest in business. Had she always done that and never told Aeron about it? Aeron had always assumed Maeve was a social butterfly who never worked but let the board of directors in charge of the DeForest fortune run it as they saw fit, as long as she had the money to do as she pleased. Was that a major misconception?

“How much did Maeve invest in this spa chain?” Reluctantly curious, Aeron plucked at her straw. A waitress showed up with their salads, and they ate some before Paulina answered.

“You’re going to have to ask her yourself. I don’t know. Judging from how she looked at the lawyer’s office, I’d guess enough to cause problems if the two of you can’t see eye-to-eye.”

This was unexpected. “But didn’t you just say this woman is super wealthy?” Aeron chewed on some baby spinach dipped in Italian vinaigrette.

“Yes, but as I also said, the best way to find out the details is to actually meet with her.” Paulina gave her a long glance. “That way you might be able to find out how she saw your mother, as I’m sure her concept differs from how I saw her and how her friends perceived her as well. Not to mention, the image you have of her. What do you have to lose?”

“My sanity for being in Manhattan longer than absolutely necessary.” Grimacing, Aeron put her fork down and wiped her mouth, her appetite waning. “Maeve is gone, and no information, old or new, can change that. I gave up on the dream of having a loving, doting mother a long time ago. She had all the chances in the world to get to know me and show she cared. Twenty-six years, to be exact.” Blinking at treacherous tears, Aeron folded her arms over her chest.

Paulina took a long sip through her straw. “Are you sure about that, sweetheart? You kept away from her once you left for college. You used money from the trust fund set up for you by Maeve and bought your little cabin, and how many times did you visit here after that? Three times? Four?”

Aghast at Paulina criticizing her, Paulina who was always on her side, Aeron drew a trembling breath. “She never came to the cabin.”

“Because you told her to never set foot there. You made it clear that was your space, and I think she was trying to respect that wish in her own way.” Paulina spoke in a sorrowful tone, which made the hair at the nape of Aeron’s neck stand up.

“I needed space. And time.” Offended now, Aeron gazed around for the waitress. She wanted to pay for the food and simply get out of the coffee shop.

“Listen, Aeron. I’m not blaming you for being alienated by your mother. You’re right. Maeve missed a lot of chances when it came to your childhood and adolescence. When she realized it looked like it might be too late to rectify her past actions, it nearly broke her. At times I thought she was trying to commit a slow suicide via alcohol and drugs. When Ms. Thorn showed up asking for partnership regarding the spas, I’d say she was in the nick of time.”

Slowly unfolding her arms, Aeron gaped. “Are you telling me Sylvie Thorn saved Maeve from self-destructing?”

“It’s as good a theory as any. Maeve found a purpose, and I know when she came home from having ‘talked nothing but business,’ as she put it, she looked determined and serious in a way I’ve never seen before. She even talked about moving permanently to her house in the Hamptons.”

Aeron had visited that house only a few times while on break from college. Her mother had renovated the beautiful two-story, 6000-square-feet house she inherited from her parents, and Aeron liked it, as it had a private beach and an Olympic-size pool.

Maeve had even offered her the run of the pool house, which was just as luxurious as the main building. Despite knowing better, Aeron had begun to lower her guard, and she and Maeve had enjoyed a more relaxed time than ever together the first week. Then the weekend came around and so did the main part of Maeve’s entourage. Aeron stayed as far away from the crowd as she could and spent her last days there at the beach, where few of her mother’s guests ventured. God forbid any of those women got a grain of sand in their perfectly coiffed beach-wavy hairdos.

“Why would she move to the Hamptons permanently?” Aeron shook her head. “The place is pretty dead in the winter.”

“She’d made other friends out there. Some of them are also friends with Ms. Thorn, who I think had a good influence on your mother.”

Her head spinning, Aeron knew she’d never felt this confused before now. She’d gone through many emotions regarding her relationship with her mother, but this feeling of having a hole open up under the very chair she sat on…She just didn’t get it. Who was this Maeve that Paulina described? Where had these characteristics of sincerity come from? Why had her mother never approached Aeron this way if this was actually true? Aeron reeled her rampaging mind in. Paulina would never lie to her. She was a constant in the many variables in this mystery. Sylvie Thorn was a dark horse of whom Aeron knew practically nothing.

“I’m going to have to bite the bullet, aren’t I?” Aeron said, moaning at the mere thought of being pulled into her mother’s web even after her death.

“If by that you mean approaching Ms. Thorn and apologizing for speaking too soon, then yes. I believe so.” Paulina wiped her mouth and put her napkin on the table. Her formerly black hair, now with a becoming white highlight at the hairline above her left eyebrow, danced against her shoulders as she shook her head. “I have a feeling you won’t regret getting to know other parts of your mother’s life. As children we think we know everything about our parents, but that’s never the case. Talk to Ms. Thorn. Perhaps you’ll enjoy getting to know her as well.”

This last part made Aeron flinch. “Nah. I don’t see us having anything to talk about.” What would a horror novelist using the pen name A.D. Solo from the Adirondacks have in common with a Swedish business tycoon in Manhattan?

Paulina grinned broadly now. “Oh, you just never know.”