The driver put the taxi in gear and began to turn it around in the driveway.
The woman took hold of the suitcases and clumsily pulled them behind her, one of them nearly flipping over as she headed down the sidewalk. She glanced around uncertainly at the farmhouse, looking a little peeved, as though thinking that someone should have come outside to greet her by now.
When she approached the front door, Nick flipped the console switch to the hidden camera mounted above it, which caught a much better view of the woman’s face.
“Well?” Nick said to Elaine.
“Still not sure it’s her. She has to take off those damn sunglasses so I can see her face.” Now Elaine wished she’d gone upstairs and retrieved her own gun as well. She didn’t like this—she didn’t like this one bit!
Nick looked like he was tiring of the whole business, as if he thought it was silly to be intimidated by some middle-aged woman with a couple of suitcases.
He flipped open each lock on the front door, then cracked the door a couple of inches and glanced outside, keeping the gun out of sight.
Elaine stayed just behind Nick, peering around his shoulder.
The mysterious woman they found standing before them on the doorstep was beautiful and even more elegantly dressed than the black and white images on the screen had depicted. Underneath her jacket, she wore a pair of soft grey trousers and black loafers, with a silk blouse in muted pink. She seemed to be in her late thirties, or maybe early forties, but of course with the sunglasses, it was hard to tell. She had fair hair that was pulled into a graceful, soft bun in back, with wavy strands neatly framing her face.
“Um, sorry to have to ask you to do this,” Nick said, “but can you take off your sunglasses, please? We have to be kind of careful living out here in the country...”
The woman nodded, then reached up and pulled off the glasses.
Her pale blue eyes stood out in her longish, angular face. She wore a lot of makeup. From her slightly shiny and waxy skin, it was clear that she’d had quite a bit of cosmetic surgery. She also sported a deep tan that looked natural.
But it was a familiar face...
When Elaine realized who the woman was, her knees buckled.
“Well?” Nick muttered, glancing over his shoulder at his wife. When he saw her expression, he did a double-take. “Honey, what’s the matter?”
Elaine’s throat had gone so dry she could barely whisper the words.
“It’s—it’s m-my mother!”
* * *
“Hi, please come in,” Nick said, trying to act polite and casual. He had tentatively opened the door and was smiling, but he moved like a robot.
Kathy Brogan took only one step forward before coming to a stop, staring at Elaine, only now noticing that her daughter was hiding behind the man who’d opened the door.
Elaine had backed up to the stairway, one hand grasping the banister for support.
Kathy looked almost as stunned as Elaine was. “I...I’m so sorry I told you that I was Sarah...but I was afraid you wouldn’t even see me if I...”
She didn’t finish—a tear ran down her face. “Oh my god, you’re so beautiful in the flesh, honey! All grown up!”
Elaine found this language revolting—this middle-aged woman was almost a stranger to her. A thousand memories rushed through her mind all at once, with such intensity they were only shattered bits and pieces, all swirling together. Kathy leaning over her bed with the thermometer when she had the measles...holding her hand the first time she had seen the beach, in Galveston...her mother’s surprised face when she had run into the living room with a tooth in her hand and saying, “Mom, it came out, it came out!”
All the memories were from her early childhood, of course, because Kathy had walked out of her life when she was only ten years old.
But then one painful memory of her father flashed through her mind, his warm, reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Your mom loves you, Lainie, and she’ll come back, don’t you worry.”
Of course Kathy never came back.
And Elaine stopped believing that her mother loved her.
Elaine foggily realized she was just standing there at the bottom of the steps, holding on to the bannister for dear life, wide-eyed, with a look of utter shock on her face. Over the years, she had gradually convinced herself that her mother was most likely dead, and that she would never see the woman again.
Tony entered the foyer, Ryan skipping along on his heels, blissfully unaware of the tense situation.
The five-year old stopped short when he saw Kathy.
“Who’s that?” he said bluntly.
Nick opened his mouth to respond, but shut it again, looking at Elaine. He clearly had no idea what to say or do, and was leaving it up to her. The term “awkward” did not begin to describe the atmosphere in the foyer.
Tony came to the rescue, smiling warmly at Kathy. “Signora, I’m-a Tony,” he said, and he reached out and shook her hand. “Maybe I get you a cappuccino or a latte? Or a glass of red-a wine? You must-a be thirsty...”
“Oh, a cappuccino would be wonderful,” Kathy gushed. She looked relieved to have something ordinary to talk about. “Maybe a double? I’m so jet-lagged I can hardly stand on my feet!”
“Let me take-a your coat,” Tony said. She thanked him and took off the expensive-looking garment. As she did this, Elaine noticed that not only her face but her hands and arms were also deeply tanned.
“But who is—?” Ryan began
Tony grabbed Ryan’s hand. “You come help-a Tony make coffee, okay?” He quickly led the boy back into the kitchen.
After another brief moment of uncomfortable silence, Nick muttered, “Um, let me get those bags,” and dashed out the door. This left Elaine and Kathy standing there alone, but thankfully, only for a couple of seconds.
Nick came back inside and set both of the suitcases next to the stairway, but off to one side. Then, looking a little sheepish and brushing his long hair out of his face, he thrust out his hand. “I’m Nick. Nick LaGrange.”
Kathy smiled pleasantly, revealing a set of teeth that were as white as Giorgio Cattoretti’s. “Hello, Nick. It’s a real pleasure to finally meet you.”
* * *
The three of them moved into the kitchen. Elaine felt dazed, as if this scene couldn’t be happening, as if she were watching herself act on some television soap opera.
“Oh, what a charmin’ home you have!” Kathy said in her light Texas twang, entering the huge kitchen. She glanced around at the rustic dining table and other antique furnishings. “So full of character.” In the far corner, by the picture window, was a makeshift playpen that Nick had constructed, where Amelia was now.
As soon as Kathy saw the little girl, she rushed over and began cooing over Amelia, who was already standing, clutching a teddy bear. The toddler glanced up in awe at the tall woman.
Elaine’s first impulse was to rush over and protect her baby daughter from the stranger who had burst into their home, but after taking only one step forward, she stopped herself.
Kathy turned to Ryan, who was just standing there, watching. “And you’re just as handsome as a movie star, Ryan!” She stepped over and gave him an unwelcome hug. The boy frowned, looking at Elaine with that Who is she? question still on his face, and damn tired of not having it answered.
“And I have presents for both of you darlin’s!” Kathy opened her leather bag, which was still over her shoulder, and produced two colorfully-wrapped packages.
“That was nice of you,” Nick said. Ryan tore the wrapping paper off his present and Nick helped Amelia unwrap hers, which turned out to be a magnetic dress-up doll set. Ryan’s was a build-your-own-dinosaur kit.
“What do you say, son?” Nick said.
“Thank you,” Ryan said happily, and Kathy bent down and gave him another hug. He looked as if he liked her touch this time, or at least pretended to like it.
Elaine stood there for a second, then said, “Tony, why don’t you take the children upstairs?” The words came out more crossly than she intended.
As soon as Tony had picked up Amelia and the three had left the room, Nick pulled out a chair for Kathy. “Please have a seat.”
Elaine glared at him, but she pulled out a chair for herself on the other end of the large table, as far from her mother as possible.
* * *
As soon as they were seated, after a long, nervous-seeming pause, Kathy looked at Elaine and said, “I’m sorry I just showed up like this, out of the blue, but I’m such a coward. I’ve been wanting to reconnect with you for...well, forever, but I just couldn’t ever work up the nerve. Every time I started to write you a letter or call you on the phone, I always chickened out. But then I saw that article about you a few months ago in that British newspaper, when I was in Paris...”
So that’s how she found me, Elaine thought. A few days after the fiasco at the Charles de Gaulle Airport when Raj was arrested, an unauthorized article had come out in a sleazy British tabloid. Apparently some sneaky reporter had bribed one of the French cops, or perhaps the medics or ambulance drivers, and had gotten Elaine’s and Luna’s names, though Elaine’s was misspelled and there were lots of incorrect “facts” in the piece. It included a photo of Elaine, on the stretcher, being loaded into the ambulance. The caption said: FBI Agent Elaine Brogen was critically shot by French diamond smuggling suspect in car park of Paris CDG Airport. Miraculously, the Secret Service had managed to keep the incident out of the American media, who chose not to cover it due to a lack of accurate information.
“I was so worried,” Kathy said. “Sarah had told me that you were some kind of law enforcement agent and now worked overseas. I was so upset when I saw that article that I went to the hospital in Paris and made sure you were okay.”
Kathy waited for Elaine to respond, but Elaine didn’t know what to say.
“Honey, if you want me to get up and leave right now, I’ll go without another word, and you’ll never hear from me again.”
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