The author of The Union Street Bakery and At the Corner of King Street returns to Alexandria,Virginia with a heartfelt tale of reconnection.
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Rae McDonald was fifteen when a car accident took her sister’s life and threw her own into reckless turmoil. When she got pregnant a year later, she found a loving couple to adopt the child. Since then, she’s buried her grief and guilt under a heart of stone.
Lisa Smyth survived the fateful crash, but never told the truth about what happened. And when a family obligation draws her back to Alexandria, the weight of Lisa’s guilt grows heavier by the day.
As both women confront a past refusing to be forgotten, long-buried artifacts are discovered by the Shire Architectural Salvage Company that point to a shared history between families. Now, Rae and Lisa must finally ask themselves if denying the past is worth sacrificing the future.
Jennifer’s resting place was at the back of the McDonald section, tucked next to her parents’ graves. Bright yellow sunflowers rose out from a brass urn, their blossoms reaching toward the heavens like outstretched arms. Not a leaf or twig marred the neat grass of the three graves. I knelt. As Charlie stood beside me, I traced her name with my fingertips. Jennifer Patience McDonald. Patience. I was always puzzled by her middle name. Such an odd name for a girl who had so very little of it. My gaze fixated on the day of Jennifer’s birth—August seventeenth. And then to the day of her death—June fifteen. Just shy of eighteen years old. It should be me lying here. A life of laughter and potential was forever reduced to two sets of dates that spanned way too little time. The pale gray granite stone designed to memorialize her life forever seemed lacking. It didn’t mention she had auburn hair, her contagious laugh or her mastery of the guitar. No mention of her singing; her love of her cat, Sparky; her crush on Jerry Trice. None of that was memorialized. It pained me to know that whoever visited her would never know those details. The stone ignored all that. I rose and sat on a small gray bench set up in front of her marker and tried to tamp down my guilt. Charlie settled at my feet. “It’s been a while, Jennifer. I’m sorry for that. But I’ve kind of been on the run. Not from the law or anything. That might actually be a little romantic and fun. I’ve been running from you and this moment.” AA had honed my ability to be honest. “I could sit here and tell you that I meant to visit. I could say life kept getting in the way, but that would be crap and you’d know it. You deserve better.” A wind whispered through the trees and reminded me of her faint laughter. “Frankly, Jennifer, you and Rae are the last on my list of atonements. I’ve made peace with all the people I hurt in the early years of my drinking. I wasn’t able to talk to Mom before she passed, but I’m sure she was glad to miss it. Even if she’d been alive, the conversation would have been one way. It was always lopsided with Mom.” “I’d like to have seen that. You talking and your mother trying to change the subject to anything but the ugly truth.” Jennifer’s laughter rattled in my head as it did when she would toss me a sideways glare and raise a bottle of diet soda to her mouth. “Truth is Mommy Smyth’s kryptonite.” The corner of my mouth ticked up. “Yeah, I know she was glad she checked out of this world before my honesty atonement tour.” An unexpected chuckle bubbled in my throat. A cold breeze blew between the stones, and as I looked up, I imagined Jennifer. Her thick hair pulled into a ponytail, hands hitched on hips. I rose slowly. Rational thought dictated that I should be scared. Sane people don’t see dead people. Amelia said she saw Jennifer, but she was in a nursing home with dementia. But the sight of Jennifer was oddly welcoming. Charlie barked at nothing as he wagged his tail. “So, you said sorry to her and everyone else. Why did it take you so long to get to me? I’m your very best friend.” Jennifer lowered her hands from her hips, and she held my gaze. She did that when she was pissed. “Because they were easy.” I leaned forward. “You were always the tough one. Always the one I failed most.” I tugged off my sunglasses and caught my stricken expression in the lenses. “There was a time you could tell me anything. Why are you having so much trouble talking to me now? We were as close as sisters.” I lifted my eyes to the grave marker and dropped my voice to a faint whisper. “Because . . . I killed you.” Closing my eyes, I listened for her voice but found only a heavy silence. The rustle of feet on grass snapped my attention back. Charlie wagged his tail as I turned to see Rae McDonald standing, her arms loaded with a fresh display of yellow sunflowers. She wore a simple white blouse, a black pencil skirt, and very sensible black heels. Her auburn hair was secured back in a round bun at the base of her neck and showcased round pearl earrings dotting her earlobes and the strand of June Cleaver pearls encircling her neck. I was aware that I’d come here not only empty handed but dressed far too casually for such an emotional meeting. Couldn’t I have dug out a damn skirt? “Rae?” Rae stood as still as a statue, her chest barely rising and falling with each breath. “Lisa. It’s been a long time.” Her expression softened a little as she studied the dog. “Charlie. I heard you had him. He looks good.” Her cool voice transported me back to the days Jennifer and I would sit in the McDonalds’ kitchen and her mother talked to us about college and the future. “Wow,” I said. “You look so much like your mother. For a second I thought I was staring at her.” Rae didn’t smile, nor did she reach out to welcome me with a hug. Time and life had changed her. Two years younger, Rae was an impetuous kid sister who had always wanted to tag along. That last time Jennifer and I went out, Rae begged to tag along, but Jennifer said no. We left a crying Rae, yelling that she would tell her mom where we’d gone. She never told, but I now wished to hell she had. “I didn’t realize you were still in Alexandria,” Rae said. “I thought you’d be gone by now. You don’t stay anywhere long.” Her honest directness sounded harsh. “No. I’ve not been good about establishing roots.” “Has your aunt Amelia taken a bad turn?” “She’s in and out of it,” I said. “Some days better than others. She did say Diane McDonald came to see her last week. I thought she must have been out of it, but that was you, wasn’t it?” “I check in on her from time to time. She often confuses me with Mother.” “That’s nice of you to visit.” “She and Mother were friends.” “Still, that’s nice of you.” Rae cleared her throat and, shifting the sunflowers in her arms, moved toward the urn. Carefully, she removed the old flowers, holding the stems over the ground until the old water dripped free before gently laying them on the grass. With tender care, she unwrapped the new flowers and meticulously arranged each in the vase. My emotions burned hot in my chest, like a boiler in an old steam engine. When would I reach critical mass and blow up? I shifted from foot to foot, suddenly cold and restless. However, Rae was steady, taking an extra moment to adjust a blossom before she slowly rose. She looked as cool as a mountain lake in the morning. Annoyed by her composure, I said, “The old flowers don’t look that old,” I said. “Seems a waste to get rid of them.” “I’m not fond of wilted flowers.” “They aren’t wilted.” “They will be soon.” She gathered up the old blossoms. She touched the browned tips of a petal. So perfect . . . like her mother. “I read about you in the paper.” “And?” “And nothing. I keep forgetting that you’re Dr. McDonald now. PhD is a big deal.” She tugged a plastic bag from her purse and prepared to dump in the old flowers. “Are you throwing them away?” I asked. “Yes.” “They have a day or two left.” I stepped toward her. “If you don’t mind, I’ll take them. They’re pretty.” Already, I knew I would carry them back to the Prince Street kitchen, arrange them in one of Amelia’s pots, and photograph them. Fresh-cut flowers were a symbol of life. And like us, their life spans were so fleeting. A photograph would extend their life for decades, if not forever. Rae handed the flowers to me in a neat bundle. “They’re all yours.” The stems were slick and damp. “Thanks.” She brushed her palms against each other, knocking free what little dirt clung to her pale skin. “I never expected to see you here today.” “I owed Jennifer a visit.” “Have you been here since the first anniversary?”
We both showed up at the grave that day, too surprised and hurting to really speak to each other. “No. I’ve been traveling.” A neatly plucked arched brow said more than words. “Ah, traveling. How nice.” Polite and controlled words didn’t hide the underlying accusation. She was calling me a coward. Which, of course, I was, each time I avoided Jennifer’s death or thought about escaping to the land of drunk and numb. But it was far easier to hold tight to long-festering guilt than to actually deal with the pain we shared. Suddenly annoyed, I wanted to shatter the ice and jab at her heart to see if it really had turned to stone. “Are all the McDonalds buried in this plot?” “All?” She understood immediately what I was deflecting. “I’m not sure all are here, but there are twenty-three McDonalds in this plot.” “I saw a stone for Jeffrey McDonald. Your grandmother’s first husband?” Genuine curiosity darkened Rae’s blue eyes. “Yes. Why do you ask about him?” I turned back toward the stones. “He was married.”
“That’s right. He died young. In World War II.” “Whatever happened to his wife?” “I have no idea. Why are we having this conversation?” “I saw Amelia yesterday and she was having a good day. Her mind was clear and sharp.” Rae moistened her lips. “Glad to hear it.” The lack of inflection telegraphed indifference, but I knew where to jab and make her hurt.“She told me a very interesting story about herself. Did you know she was adopted?” Her eyes widened a fraction. “I did not. But I’m not very familiar with your family.” “Don’t do this. She really doesn’t need this today.” Ignoring the warnings, I pressed. “She gave me a baby book that her birth mother and father created for her. Her birth mother and father were married and they raised her for the first year of her life.” Rae remained silent while watching me closely. Spurred on by the sense I’d struck a nerve, I kept pushing. “According to Amelia, her birth father died in World War II and then her birth mother struggled to care for her. After about a year of trying, she signed over full custody to the Smyths.” A shade of pink faded from her cheeks. “Amelia gets very confused. She always calls me by my mother’s name.” “She has moments of pure clarity. Yesterday was one of them.” “I can’t help you with this.” “No one in your family ever mentioned that Jeffrey had a child?” “No. Never. Why are you bringing it up?” “It bothers Amelia that her birth mother remarried, had another child, and never sent for her first daughter. I’ve never seen Amelia look so hurt.” Rae’s chin raised a small fraction. “I’m sure her birth mother had her reasons.” “Are there any reasons that justify a mother turning her own child away? I mean, I get giving up a child to protect it, but never to acknowledge it in the future? Seems cruel.” Rae fingered the pearls. Swallowed. “I can’t help you, Lisa. I came to pay my respects to Jennifer and now I must go. I have a client meeting me at my office in thirty minutes.” She turned to leave. Sadness and guilt collided, sending shards cutting into every corner of my body.“How can you turn off all those emotions?” I asked. “What do you do that makes you so impervious to pain and suffering?” Rae stopped walking. Tears welled in my eyes and spilled. “Pain slides off you, Rae.” She did not face me. I shook my head. “How do you do it? How do you not feel anything?” She turned, cocking her head slightly as if she considered a complicated problem. “What would that accomplish? It won’t bring Jennifer back. It won’t undo what Amelia’s birth mother or I did.” I didn’t need a translator. She referred to the baby she’d given up a little over a year after Jennifer’s death. Smart Rae with the bright future rebelled after Jennifer died. She drank, snuck out of her mother’s house, and found a boy more than happy to oblige her. Few knew about the baby. She’d kept her secret well. I found out right here in this very spot, because we had both returned to the grave on the first anniversary of the accident. She was sitting on the little stone bench, her very full belly pear-shaped, crying, confessing to her older sister about the baby she feared no one would want. When I approached, she fell into my arms and sobbed. She told me she’d snuck back into town to visit Jennifer. I asked her about her plans and she told me her mother chose adoptive parents to raise her baby. She didn’t want to give up the child but her mother refused to help. She left me that day, still sobbing. I never heard another word from her until this very moment. Tears welled in my throat as I remembered that teenage girl, who must still be inside this cold and aloof woman. “You’re such a bitch, Lisa. Why’d you dig into Rae about the baby?” I wiped a tear away from my cheek. “Rae, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have churned all this up.” A cool, wet breeze blew between us. “It was a fair line of questioning and I would do anything for Amelia, but I can’t tell you about her mother. Amelia never uttered a word to me about this.” “You sound so calm.” “I am calm.” Shaking my head, I raked my fingers through my hair. “I wish I could be more like you. I wish I could shut off the emotion and not feel.” Rae was silent for a long moment. “Be careful what you wish for, Lisa. Be very careful. Because you might discover being like me is a harder road to travel.” Rae turned and slowly walked away, her heels clicking on the concrete, leaving me to watch her move to a sleek, black BMW. “Lisa Smyth . . . super bitch.” “No argument from me.”
© 2015 Mary Burton
“Taylor’s complex tale spans three families over two centuries and includes a dose of ancient magic, but the story remains grounded in fascinating history and emotional turmoil that is intense yet subtle. An intelligent, heartwarming exploration of the powers of forgiveness, compassion, and new beginnings.” Kirkus Reviews
“Southern historical fiction at its finest . . . each page is so detailed that I feel like I am back, walking the streets and visiting my favorite landmarks of this wonderful historic city by the Potomac River . . . Ms. Taylor amazed me in the accuracy of her settings and historical knowledge . . . she delivers a bold life lesson, which has the emotional blanket of forgiveness, moving on, with second chances, love and hope. If you like southern historical fiction, you should definitely check this out.”
The Free Lance-Star
“The second book in Taylor’s Alexandria series completes the story started in the first novel, and everything wraps up beautifully. Continuing characters from The Union Street Bakery series provide richer depth to the narrative. Themes of family, letting go of the past and owning up to mistakes breathe life and emotion into the tale.”
RT Book Reviews
“A great story about family and how it is important to deal with those hard things that may be holding you back!”
A Bookish Affair
“Thrilling . . . A very different, mysterious new story from this talented writer . . . a great read!” Crystal Book Reviews and The Best Reviews
“A complex multi-generational mystery . . . rich in history and charmwith three families crossing two centuries . . . Ultimately, an emotional heartwarming novel . . . As always you can count on Mary Ellen Taylor to deliver a bold life lesson, a strong takeaway message, and some savory recipes . . . An excellent choice for book clubs.”
JDC Must Read Books
“There is a wonderful mystery that is linked with the past which absolutely delighted me, and I loved the history that was shared along the way. It was a true treat.”
Chick Lit Plus
“Mary Ellen Taylor successfully incorporates that history and nostalgia into these books . . . very genuine characters with flaws and quirks that make them very believable . . . There’s a lot of substance to these stories . . . [Taylor] writes about these sensitive subjects with the perfect amount of finesse . . . I look forward to finding out what direction she will go in with the next book and I will definitely keep reading.”
Southern Girl Reads
“Maybe the best so far! . . . This series just keeps getting better and better. I love how it stays in the Old Town Alexandria neighborhood . . .I also love that the characters from the past books don’t disappear, but are still nicely embedded in the story . . . absolutely loved it and want a sequel.” Kritter’s Rambling