Authors: Pamela Burford
Tags: #witty, #blizzard, #photographer, #adult romance, #Stranded, #snowed in, #long island, #Romance, #secret, #new york, #sexy contemporary romance, #mansion, #arkansas, #sexy romance, #gold coast, #Contemporary Romance, #rita award
by Pamela Burford
Copyright 1992 Pamela Burford. All rights reserved. With the exception of quotes used in reviews, this book may not be reproduced or used in whole or in part by any means existing without written permission from the author.
This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This e-book may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or to places, events, or locales is purely coincidental.
Originally under contract to Meteor Publishing Corporation
Too Darn Hot
His Secret Side
A Hard-hearted Hero
Jacks Are Wild
(with Patricia Ryan)
In the Dark
A Class Act
Too Darn Hot
“The Wedding Ring” miniseries:
Love’s Funny That Way
I Do, But Here’s the Catch
One Eager Bride To Go
Fiancé for Hire
For the Good Twin, Patricia Ryan. Thanks for sparing me the learning curve.
Leah Harmony learned the truth the day she took Mama for her annual physical.
When her mother, Merlina, was settling her bill, Leah sneaked a peek at her medical folder lying there on the counter. Lord knew if any problems turned up, Mama would never willingly “burden” the family with the knowledge.
The folder opened to the medical history, which included hysterectomy due to complications of childbirth. This was no surprise to Leah, who’d been told that Mama had required the emergency surgery when Leah was born. What was surprising, though, was the date given for the surgery. It should have been Leah’s own birth date twenty-four years earlier. Instead she recognized the date her sister Annie was born fifteen years before that. Tragically, Annie had died of pneumonia the very day her baby sister Leah had come into the world.
It had to be a mistake, a clerical error. How could Mama have had a hysterectomy fifteen years before her second daughter was born? When Leah asked her about it on the drive back to their modest one-story house in Texarkana, Arkansas, Mama lapsed into poker-faced silence.
That evening Mama and Daddy solemnly asked Leah to join them in the kitchen. Her imagination immediately went into overdrive.
Leah fought a sick wave of apprehension as she sat at the old kitchen table, her apprehension turning to disbelief as Daddy slowly explained she was not their daughter, but their granddaughter.
Leah was Annie’s child.
She found herself on her feet, the kitchen chair overturned. “No. That’s...No. It’s impossible.”
How patient he was, how sad. “Just me and your mama know about it. It wasn’t my idea to keep this from you, honey. But Merl wouldn’t have you know, and she’s a stubborn woman. Guess that’s not news to you.” He glanced at his wife, sitting still and mute by his side, and gave her hand a fond pat. “Don’t be mad at your mama, honey. She did what she thought was best.”
If this was hard for Leah, she knew it had to be agony for her parents
no, not her parents, her grandparents, she realized with a start. She tried to make sense of what they were telling her. “Annie...Annie was only fifteen when she died, Daddy.”
Leah had never seen her normally affable father look so bitter. “I know. She was a child. Starting to grow up. But still a child.”
“Tell me what happened.”
He reminded her about the mansion in Long Island, New York, where Merlina Harmony
Merlina Moody then
had taken a position as a maid after a failed first marriage. She and her young daughter, Annie, had lived in the servants’ quarters on the third floor. Douglas Harmony had been a gardener on the estate, which had quite a few servants in those days, overseen by the Scottish housekeeper, Mary. In time Merl and Douglas fell in love.
Leah remembered the stories she’d heard as a little girl growing up in a lower-middle-class family in Arkansas. It was the stuff of fairy tales, and she’d memorized every detail. Mama and Daddy had created a vivid picture of the crystal chandeliers and the ballroom and the servants
but always clammed up when she asked about the people who lived there, the famous photographer and his family.
Daddy said, “That last winter and on into the spring, Annie was different. Not as carefree as she’d been. Kind of skittish, if you know what I mean. By the time your mama realized the girl had missed a few, uh, monthlies, she was three months along.”
Leah felt the blood drain from her face, listening to the sorry tale of her own conception.
“Annie...” He paused, and she realized with a shock that he was close to tears. She’d never seen Douglas Harmony cry. He cleared his throat. “She wouldn’t tell her mama at first. Merl went through hell trying to get the girl to tell her who did this thing to her. Then it came out. It was Mr. Bradburn, the man we worked for. He’d threatened that little girl. That bastard raped her and said he’d kill her mama and me if she told anyone. It went on for months.”
Leah was weeping now, sitting there at the kitchen table weeping for Annie.
“I knew the man was a cold one. Hard to work for and real rough on his wife and boys,” Douglas said. “But what kind of man could...” He paused a moment, his craggy face hardening against the memory.
“Me and your mama, we went to talk to Mr. Bradburn. I’ll never forget that. He was in this fancy office he had there, wearing a black tuxedo with a little white tie, smoking one of his expensive cigars. That yellow hair of his all slicked back. Him and his wife were going to some kind of swanky dinner that night. Your mama, she was out of control, fit to be tied. Well, you know Merl. The bastard didn’t deny it. Only said we weren’t gonna get a penny out of him, and if we even thought about going to the police
or to his wife
he’d say he never touched the girl and that we stole him blind. Then he’d sic his high-priced lawyers on us. For starters.”
Leah leaned on the table, her head in her hands, all her tears spent.
“You can’t imagine what that does to a man...seeing something like that happen to the woman he loves, to the child he loves like his own flesh and blood, and not a damn thing he can do about it.” His voice was low, shaken. “Makes you feel like less than a man. Anyway, Bradburn says you got five minutes to get your stuff and get off my property.”
“You could’ve gone to the police anyway,” she said.
“You don’t understand, honey. Nowadays you hear all about child abuse and rape. People come right out in the open with it, and everyone believes that what they say happened to them really did. But things were different back then. Bradburn told us we utter one little peep and he gets some of his fellas that work around the house to say our Annie was, you know, friendly with them. A few bucks’d be all it took. And that bastard’s got more than a few. I couldn’t let that happen.”
“So you left.”
“We left. Mrs. Bradburn, she was coming down the stairs, all dolled up for the evening. I know Mr. Bradburn was counting on us being gone before his wife came down. That’s how come we had to hustle out so quick, I reckon. But anyway, there she was, coming down those stairs looking like the most elegant thing on this earth. And she didn’t know what was what, of course, but she knew her husband. And she knew it had to be bad. You could see it in her eyes. He was calling for his wife right then, and he was about on us. And poor little Annie just shaking like a leaf. Anyway, quick as a flash Mrs. Bradburn takes off this fancy necklace she’s wearing
pearls and diamonds, a real pretty thing
and she gives it to Merl, just presses it into her hands.”
“She gave Mama jewelry?”
“It was all she had time for. Said sell this if you need money.”
“Did you sell it?” she asked.
“No. Oh, we needed the money sure enough, but your mama, she wouldn’t part with that necklace. Never wore it, just keeps it in the safe-deposit box at the bank.”
Mama spoke at last. “Mrs. Bradburn was a real fine person. A lady. That necklace belongs to her.”
Daddy smiled sadly. “Can’t argue with you about that, but there were times we sure coulda used the cash.”
“We always had food on the table,” Mama said. “A roof over our heads.”
“Anyway, Merl and me got married right away,” Daddy said, “right after we left that place, and I got by on odd jobs.”
“What happened to Annie?” But Leah knew.
“She died bringing you into the world, honey.”
She sobbed, and Daddy covered both her hands in his big, callused ones. So Annie hadn’t died of pneumonia after all.
He said, “Such a tiny little thing, she was.” He waited until Leah had gained control of herself before continuing. “Merl had it all worked out from the start what we were gonna do. Move down here to Texarkana where her brother lives and start fresh, the four of us. Act like the baby was ours and raise it as Annie’s sister, and no one the wiser. Your mama figured that way Annie could get her life back.”
But Annie never got her life back, Leah thought. Because of her.
“We didn’t change our plans when Annie passed. Your mama, she was so broke up
I figured a fresh start was the best thing all around.”
“But my birth certificate...”
He sighed. “At the hospital they asked Merl to fill out this piece of paper to get the birth certificate made up, and where it asks for the parents’ names, she puts down Douglas Harmony and Merlina Moody Harmony, just as bold as you please. Said if anyone asked about it, she’d say it was Annie’s full name. Only, no one did.” He shrugged. “That’s your mama.”
Leah wondered if she could ever stop thinking of Merlina and Douglas as Mama and Daddy, and decided she wouldn’t try. They’d raised her, after all. She’d always love them as her parents.
He squeezed her hands again. “Honey, you just gotta know...me and your mama never held any of this against you. To us you were always our little girl. You know that. Annie’s in a better place, and that bastard Bradburn will have to answer to the Lord when his time comes. All the money in the world won’t help him then.”
She made up her mind in that instant. The prospect of divine retribution might be enough for Merl and Douglas, but she wouldn’t rest until she stood face-to-face with the man who’d violated a young girl and ultimately caused her death. The fact that this bullying monster was her own biological father was something she was simply going to have to learn to live with.
“Everyone! Everyone!” Kara Greene’s nasal, New York–accented voice stifled all conversation in the ballroom as she clapped her hands for attention. “James is here. His car’s coming down the drive. ETA one minute.”
The hairs on Leah Harmony’s nape sprang to attention. She clutched her wineglass and took a sip of Chardonnay.
Mr. Bradburn, you don’t know me, but...
Mr. Bradburn, if you could spare a few moments...
Mr. Bradburn, I’m your worst nightmare.
She drained her wineglass, which was instantly lifted from her fingers and replaced with a full one.
Smooth move, Mike.
She could almost hear her date calculating how many more glasses it would take to get her drunk.
Mike Carleton’s meaty hand was wrapped around a martini glass. Leah had been counting
he was on drink number three, and they’d been there barely an hour. His free hand wormed its way under the collar of her khaki shirtdress. She repressed a shiver of revulsion as he began to massage the back of her neck with damp, sausagelike fingers.
Don’t blow it now,
she warned herself as she put a little distance between herself and her date for the evening.
You’ve made it this far. Don’t lose sight of your goal.
Mike wore a smug grin. “This place must seem like a palace to a corn-fed chick like
huh? There’s a see-ment pond out yonder. You know, ‘swimming pools...movie stars.’ Looks like I’ve got my own little Beverly Hillbilly here.” He smacked Leah on the rump. Some wine sloshed out of her glass.
Mike took a healthy swallow of his drink. “They call this part of Long Island the Gold Coast. Back in the Gatsby days, all the zillionaires had to have a mansion up here on the North Shore
you know, the Vanderbilts, the Woolworths, all those stinking rich horsey types. A few of the families still live in ‘em, the ones with the big bucks like Bradburn. But most of these estates have been wiped out, subdivided, given to the county. It’s a shame, but I mean, let’s face it, the taxes alone’ll kill you. Not to mention the cost of heating oil
there’s forty rooms in this place.” He patted her cheek. “You sure aren’t in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.”