The letter that would change Bea’s life arrived while she was in the kitchen at Boston’s Crazy Burger, working on four orders of Mt Vesuvius specials – three patties stacked a foot tall and layered with caramelized onions, bacon, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, sour pickles and hot sauce. One of her new roommates, subletting for the summer in the dumpy three-bedroom apartment that Bea now shared with two strangers, poked her head in, said she’d signed for a certified envelope for Bea, and since she was coming to Crazy Burger for lunch, she’d brought it over.
‘Certified? Who’s it from?’ Bea asked, taking a fast glance at the parcel as she scooped up the caramelized onions from the pan. Mmm. She’d been frying onions for three hours and still, the smell never got old.
Nina glanced at the upper left-hand corner of the envelope.
‘Return address says Baker Klein, Twelve State Street, Boston.’
Bea shrugged. ‘Will you open it up and read the first few lines to me? I need both hands to finish this burger.’ Her manager, Barbara, would go nuts if she caught anyone but employees in the kitchen, but Bea was curious to know what the package was about, and Crazy Barbara, as the staff called her behind her back, was in her office, going over inventory. ‘Sure,’ Nina said. She slit open the envelope, pulled out a letter and read, ‘My darling Bea.’
Bea froze, her hand paused on lettuce leaves. ‘What?’ That was how her mother had always addressed the letters she’d written to Bea at college. ‘Turn it over – who’s it from?’
‘It says Mama.’
Bea raised an eyebrow. ‘Well, since my mother died over a year ago, it’s definitely not from her.’
‘It’s handwritten,’ Nina said, ‘but it definitely says Mama.’ That made no sense. But Bea’s mother always signed her letters Mama. ‘You can drop it on that chair, Nina. I’ll just finish this last burger and read it on my break. Thanks for bringing it over.’
Bea was due for that much-needed fifteen-minute break: she’d been on shift at Crazy Burger since eleven and it was now close to two. She loved working at the popular burger joint in Boston’s Back Bay, even if it was supposed to be temporary since she’d graduated from college a year ago and still hadn’t found a teaching job, but her boss was driving her crazy. If Bea took sixteen minutes for her break, Barbara would dock her pay. The woman lived to dock pay. Last week, one of her Mt Vesuvius burgers was randomly measured and discovered to be only eleven inches high; Bea’s paycheck was cut short five bucks.
In between each layer of burger – three of them – Bea piled on the toppings, added an extra helping of hot sauce, put on the top bun, then measured it. Just shy of a foot, which meant she had to add more lettuce. Finally, she set it on a plate next to the three other Mt Vesuvius burgers, plunked down a basket of onion rings and a basket of cheese fries, then rang the bell to alert the waitress to pick up. She called Manny, the other cook, in from his break, then took the manila envelope and went outside into the back alley. She lifted her face to the June sunshine. The breezy, warm day felt wonderful on her skin, in her hair, after being cooped up in the small kitchen half the afternoon.
She pulled out the contents of the envelope and her body went completely still. The letter was from her mother; there was no mistaking Cora Crane’s handwriting. It was dated just over a year ago and attached to what looked like forms.
My darling Bea
If you’re reading this, I’m gone now. A year gone. I’ve kept something from you all your life, something I should have told you the moment you were placed in my arms when you were just a day old. I didn’t give birth to you, Bea. Your father and I adopted you.
I’m not entirely sure why, but I was ashamed that I couldn’t bear a child, something I wanted so desperately, something your father wanted so desperately. When the adoption agent placed you in my arms, you were mine. It was as though I had given birth to you, and I suppose I wanted to believe it myself. So your father – God rest his soul – and I made it so. We never breathed a word to you, never told you. And you grew up believing that you were born to us.
Now that I feel myself going, I can’t bear to take this with me. But I can’t bear to tell you with my final breaths, either – I can’t do that to you. So I’ll wait on this, for both of us. But you should know the truth because it is the truth.
How I wish I’d been brave enough to be honest from that first minute. To tell you how grateful I was, how you were mine before I even met you, from the second the adoption agent called with the news.
I hope you will forgive me, my darling girl. You are my daughter, and I love you with all my heart.
Bea pulled the letter from its heavy paperclip and looked at the forms behind. Adoption papers, dated twenty-two years ago from the Helping Hands Adoption Agency in Brunswick, Maine.
Her hand shaking, Bea stuffed the letter and papers back inside the envelope, and paced around the alley, then stopped, pulled out the letter and read it again. The words, in black ink, started blending together. Should have told you. Adoption agent. Sorry. The truth is the truth. If it weren’t for her mother’s handwriting and the good stationery she’d used for all correspondence, Bea might have thought someone was playing a trick on her.
The letter and papers had been sent by a law firm Bea had never heard of; her mother had been long-widowed and not well off, and when she died last year there was only the sparsely furnished year-round rental cottage far from the beach on Cape Cod to settle up. Bea had gone through the drawers and closets looking for every last precious memento of her mother, and if this letter had been in that house, she would have found it. Her mother had clearly arranged for Bea to hear the news well after she was gone, after the grief had subsided some.
She tried to imagine her mother, the sweetest person Bea had ever known, propped up in her hospice bed, writing that letter, in anguish, most likely. But another image kept coming: her mother, her father, twenty-two years ago, meeting Bea as a day-old newborn. ‘Here’s your daughter,’ the adoption agent must have said. Or something like that.
Who the hell am I? Bea wondered. She thought of the framed photograph on her bedside table. It was her favourite family picture, taken when she was four, and Bea loved looking at it every night before she fell asleep and every morning when she woke up. Bea, sitting on her father’s shoulders, her mother standing beside them, looking up at Bea and laughing, a tree ablaze with orange and red leaves behind them. Bea had been wearing the Batman cape she had insisted on every day for months, and the red hat that her mother had made for her. Cora had saved those old favourites and now Bea kept them in a keepsake box in her closet. Another picture came to mind, one she kept on her desk in her room, of herself and her mother at her college graduation last May, just over a year ago, and just a few weeks before her mother had gotten very sick and been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, as though she was holding on to watch Bea graduate. Two months later, her mother was gone.
Cora Crane, piano teacher with the patience of a saint, with the dark curls, bright blue eyes and a smile for everyone, was her mother. Keith Crane, handsome construction worker who sang her an Irish song before bed every single night of her childhood until he died when she was nine, was her father. The Cranes had been wonderful, doting parents who’d made Bea feel loved every day of her life. If someone else had given birth to Bea, that didn’t change anything.
But someone else had given birth to her. Who?
A hollow pressure started building in Bea’s chest.
‘Bea!’ Crazy Barbara came charging outside, glaring. ‘What the hell are you doing? It’s still lunch rush! Manny said you went out at least twenty minutes ago.’
‘I just got some very strange news,’ Bea said, her head spinning. ‘I need a few minutes.’ Her hand went to the tiny gold heart locket around her neck; her mother had given her the necklace for her sixteenth birthday and she never took it off. ‘Well unless someone died, you need to head back to work– now.’ Barbara started muttering under her breath. ‘Taking an extended break in the middle of lunch rush! Who does she think she is?’
‘Actually,’ Bea said, barely able to think straight. There was no way she’d be able to get through the craze of orders. ‘I need to go home, Barbara. I just learned some weird news, and—’
‘You either get back to work or you’re fired. I’m sick to death of all these excuses – all day long, someone has a headache, someone’s grandmother’s sick. Oh no,’ she singsonged, ‘you got strange news. Boo hoo, Bea. Do your job or I’ll find someone who actually earns their paycheck.’
Bea had been working at Crazy Burger for three years, fulltime since last summer, and was the best cook in the kitchen, and the fastest. But nothing ever was good enough for Crazy Barbara. ‘You know what, Barbara? I quit.’ She took off her apron, handed it to a for once speechless Barbara, and went back inside to collect her bag from her locker.
She shoved the letter in her bag and walked the half-mile home in a daze, tripping over someone’s backpack the minute she walked through the front door of her apartment in the four-storey brick building. God, she hated living here this summer with strangers. She headed down the narrow hall, stepping on a pair of boxer briefs, then unlocked her door and locked it behind her. She dropped her bag on the floor of her room and sat down on her bed, hugging her mother’s old cross-stitched pillow to her chest. She didn’t move for hours.
‘Wow, Bea, your entire life has been a lie.’
Slice of pizza en route to her mouth, Bea stared at Tommy Wonkowksi, star forward for the famed Beardsley College football team. A half-hour ago she’d been lying on her bed, staring at the ceiling, grappling with yesterday’s bombshell, when her phone had rung: Tommy, at Poe’s Pizzeria, asking if he’d gotten the time wrong for their date. She’d forced herself up and out the door and along the two blocks to the restaurant; she hadn’t eaten since she’d received her mother’s letter, hadn’t left her room. But now, as she sat across from Tommy, she wished she’d cancelled. With her universe tilted, she needed comforting and familiar, and Tommy Wonkowski was anything but. She wasn’t even sure why she’d said yes to this first date, but it wasn’t every day a hot jock asked Bea out. When they’d met last week at the university’s Writing Centre, where she had a part-time tutoring job (Bea had been helping him write a final paper for the freshman English class he was now bothering to take as a senior in summer session), she had been charmed by his good looks, how different the two of them were in every way, and the fact that he towered over her. Bea was five foot ten, and Tommy made her feel kind of dainty for once.
‘I wouldn’t go that far,’ she said, wishing she’d never told him about the letter. But they’d run out of things to say to each other by the time the waitress had set down their large pizza, and she’d blurted out what was consuming her every waking thought as she’d shaken parmesan on a slice. Guess what I just found out yesterday? Turns out I was adopted.
But yes, it did sort of feel like her whole life had been a kind of lie. Friends, strangers – Bea herself – marvelling over the years at how utterly different she was from both Cora and Keith Crane. They were dark-haired; Bea was blonde. Her mother’s eyes were startling blue, and her father’s were hazel, yet Bea’s were driftwood brown. Her parents were average height; she was an Amazon. She wasn’t musical like her mother, or mathematical like her father. They were both quiet introverts and she could talk and talk and talk. More than once, Bea could remember strangers, friends, looking at her and saying, ‘Where on earth did you come from?’
And her father responding, ‘Oh, my father is quite tall, almost six-two,’ and pictures of the late grandfather she’d never met reflecting that. Or her mother casually tossing off, ‘My mother – God rest her soul – had Bea’s brown eyes, even though I have blue like my father’s.’ And that was true too. She’d seen pictures of her maternal grandmother, who died when she was very young. Brown eyes, like Bea’s.
It was as though I had given birth to you, and I suppose I wanted to believe it myself. So your father and I made it so.
‘Holy crap, you must hate your mother now,’ Tommy said around a mouthful of pizza. ‘I mean, she lied to you your whole life about something so . . . what’s the word?’
‘Fundamental,’ Bea said through gritted teeth. How dare you suggest I’d ever hate my mother, you oversized blockhead? she wanted to shout. But once again the image of Cora Crane, dying in that hospice bed, her hand holding Bea’s with the last of her strength, was all she could think of. Her sweet mother. ‘I don’t hate her at all. I never could, ever.’ Though if Bea let herself go there, as she couldn’t help doing the past twenty-four hours, she felt a strange anger that would build in her head and start her heart pounding, then give way to a confusion that made her head spin and her heart just plain hurt. A fundamental truth had been withheld. But she couldn’t be mad at her mother; she couldn’t bear that. Her mother was gone. ‘She explained herself in the letter. And if you knew my mother—’
She glared at him. ‘Actually, it’s adoptive. But no, she’s my mother. Just my mother. That she adopted me doesn’t change that, Tommy.’
He picked up a second slice and bit into it, gooey mozzarella cheese extending. ‘It kind of does, Bea. I mean, someone else gave birth to you.’
Bea sat back, defeated. Someone else had given birth to her. Someone she hadn’t known existed a day ago. Someone she couldn’t even conjure up. There was no face, no hair colour, no name. Last night, as her eyes were finally drifting closed at 3 a.m., she had imagined her birth mother to look exactly like herself, just . . . older. But how old? Had her birth mother been a teenager? Or a very poor older woman who couldn’t feed an additional mouth?
On 12 October, twenty-two years ago, someone had given birth to Bea and then had given her up for adoption. Why? What was her story? Who was she?
‘Yes, Tommy, someone else gave birth to me,’ she told him, her appetite gone again. ‘But that just makes that person my birth mother.’
‘Just? There’s no “just” about a birth mother.’ He chuckled and dug into his third slice of pizza, looking out the window at the busy Boston street as though Bea was proving to be the one who needed tutoring. He turned back to her. ‘Like, what if you’re married and have a kid, and that kid is dying of some kind of horrible disease, and your blood and your husband’s blood aren’t a match? Your birth mother could save your kid’s life. Man, that’s epic. I mean, think about it.’
But Bea didn’t want to. Her parents were Cora and Keith Crane, la, la, la, hands over her ears. Still, the more she sat there, listening to Tommy Wonkowski tell her how she should feel about all this, the more she realized he was actually right about a lot of it.
For a week, Bea walked around Boston with the strange truth knocking around in her head. A week ago, she’d been one thing: the daughter of Cora and Keith Crane. End of story. Now, she was something else. Adopted. She’d started as someone else’s story. Ended someone’s story, maybe. What was that story? She couldn’t stop thinking about her birth parents. Who they were. Where she came from. What they looked like. And yes, Tommy Wonkowski, what their medical histories were.
She sat at her desk, her favourite novels, books of essays, a memoir about a teacher’s first year and her laptop making her feel stronger, more like herself. She stared at the manila envelope, lying right next to a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, on which she’d written her senior thesis. She was supposed to be an English teacher by now, middle school or high school, teaching teenagers how to write strong essays, how to think critically about novels, why they should love the English language. But when her mother died last summer, Bea found herself floundering for months. She hadn’t gotten a single interview for a teaching job at any of the private schools she’d applied to, and the publics all wanted her to be enrolled in a master’s programme for teacher education, which would mean more loans. A year later, here she was, not teaching, and still living with students. The only thing different was that she wasn’t who she thought she was.
Bea stared at the photo of herself and her mother at her college graduation, willing herself to remember that she was still the same Bea Crane she was last week. Same memories, same mind, same heart, same soul, same dreams.
But she felt different. She felt different in her bones, in her cells, as though they were buzzing with the electricity of the truth. She had been adopted. Another woman, another man, had brought her into this world.
Why did that have to change anything? Why did it matter so much? Why couldn’t she just accept the truth and move on from it?
Because you’re here alone, for one. Her two good girlfriends had left Boston upon graduation for first jobs. Her best friends from high school were scattered across the country and in Europe; everyone was off on their summer plans, except for Bea, who had nowhere to go, no home.
She felt caged and absolutely free at the same time. So this week she’d stalked around Boston, thinking of her parents with one breath, and this nameless, faceless birth mother with the next. Then she’d come back to her room and stare at the manila envelope until she opened it and read the adoption papers again, which told her nothing.
Maybe if she did know something, just something. Something to make this tenuous grasp on the words ‘birth mother’ feel more . . . concrete.
‘Damn it,’ she said, grabbing the envelope and sliding out the papers. Before she could stop herself, she picked up her cell phone and punched in the telephone number on the first page.
‘Helping Hands Adoption Agency, may I help you?’
Bea sucked in a breath and explained the situation and that she just wanted to know if there were names. Most likely there would not be. Bea had done some reading and learned that most adoptions were closed, as hers had been according to the paperwork, but that sometimes birth mothers left their names and contact information in the adoption files. There were also registries that birth parents and adoptees could sign up for, to leave their information in case the other side wanted to track them down. Bea would not be signing up for anything. ‘Ah. Let me look in your file,’ the woman said. ‘Hold just a minute.’
Bea held her breath. Make this difficult, Bea thought. No names. She wasn’t ready for a name.
Why had she called? When the woman came back, Bea would tell her thank you for checking but she’d changed her mind, she wasn’t ready, wasn’t ready to know anything about her birth parents.
‘Bingo,’ the woman said. ‘Your birth mother called to update the file at her last address change, just over a year ago. Her name is Veronica Russo and she lives in Boothbay Harbor, Maine.’
Bea couldn’t breathe.
‘Do you need a minute?’ the woman was saying. ‘I’ll give you a minute, no worries.’ She did indeed wait a minute, and Bea’s head was close to bursting when the woman said, ‘Honey, do you have a pen?’
Bea said she did. She picked up the silver Waterman that her mother had given her as a graduation present. She mechanically wrote down the address and telephone number the woman gave her. Home and cell.
‘She even included her employment address and phone number,’ the woman continued. ‘The Best Little Diner in Boothbay.’
Veronica Russo. Her birth mother had a name. She was a real person, living and breathing, and she’d updated the file. She’d left every possible piece of contact information.
Her birth mother wanted to be found.
Bea thanked the woman and hung up. She shivered and grabbed her favourite sweater, her father’s old off-white fisherman’s sweater that her mother had bought him while they were on their honeymoon in Ireland. It was the one her father wore in her favourite picture, with Bea up on his shoulders. She put it on and hugged herself, wishing it smelled like her dad, like Ivory Soap and Old Spice and safety, but her dad had been gone since Bea was nine. A long time. For the next eleven years, it was just Bea and her mom, both sets of grandparents long gone, both Cranes only-children.
And then Bea lost her mother. She was alone.
She walked to the window seat and stared out at the rain sluicing down. I have a birth mother. Her name is Veronica Russo. She lives in a place called Boothbay Harbor, Maine.
She works in a diner called The Best Little Diner in Boothbay.
Which had a cute ring. A woman who worked in a diner like that couldn’t be so bad, right? She was probably a waitress, one of those friendly types who called her customers ‘hon’. Or maybe she’d fallen on hard times and was hardbitten, a shell of a woman who set down eggs over easy and fish and chips with a depressive thud.
Maybe she was a short-order cook. That might explain Bea’s ability to make an incredible hamburger, not that she could cook anything here in her kitchenless room. This past year, between her jobs at Crazy Burger and the Writing Centre, she had enough money to pay her rent. But now she’d come up short for July, and the Writing Centre was open only part-time for the summer sessions. Her last lousy paycheck, a half-week’s pay from Crazy Burger, wouldn’t help much either.
She had nowhere to be, nowhere to go. But she had this name, and an address.
Bea could take a drive up to Maine, make herself walk into The Best Little Diner, sit at the counter and order a cup of coffee and look at the name tags on the waitresses’ aprons. She would be able to check out her birth mother from a very close distance. She could do that.
Yes. She would drive up, check out Veronica Russo and, if it seemed right, she would introduce herself. Not that she had any idea how to go about that. Maybe she’d leave a note in her mailbox, or just call. Then they’d meet somewhere, for a walk or coffee. Bea would find out what she needed to know so she could stop wondering, speculating, driving herself crazy. Then she’d say thank you to Veronica Russo for the information and drive back home to Boston and start looking for a new place to live. And a new job. Maybe she had to let go of her dream of being a teacher. She’d come home once her past had been settled, and she’d figure out what the hell she was supposed to be doing with her future.
Home. As if there were one. This room was nothing more than a big closet. And her mother’s rental cottage in Cape Cod, where she and her mom had moved after her father died, had long ago been sold by the owner. But that little white cottage had been the one place left on earth that had felt like home at Thanksgiving, Christmas, summer breaks, at times when Bea was stressed or heartbroken or just needed her mama.
Now there were just memories, and this old fisherman’s sweater. And a stranger named Veronica Russo, up in Maine. Waiting a long time to be found by Bea.
Only an idiot would attempt to make a pie – a specialordered chocolate-caramel cream Amore Pie – while watching Pride and Prejudice. Had she put in the vanilla? What about the salt? Damn Colin Firth and his pond-soaked white shirt. Veronica set down her measuring spoons on the flourdusted counter and gave her full attention to the small TV next to the coffee maker. God, she loved Colin Firth. Not just because he was so handsome, either. This TV mini-series was at least fifteen years old, and Colin Firth had to be fifty now. He was still gorgeous. But it was more than that. Colin Firth was six feet two inches of hope. To Veronica, he represented what she’d been looking for her entire life and had never found and probably never would, at this point. Veronica was thirty-eight years old. Still not married.
‘If you wanted love, really wanted love, you’d have it,’ friends, even boyfriends, had said many times over the years. ‘There’s something wrong with you,’ her last beau had said before he’d stormed out on her for not agreeing to marry him. ‘Something wrong with the way your heart works.’
Maybe there was. No, Veronica knew it was true. And she knew why too. But now, at thirty-eight, friends were worrying about her ending up all alone, so she’d started saying what felt light-hearted but true at the same time: that she was holding out for a man who felt like Colin Firth to her. Her friend Shelley from the diner had known exactly what she meant. ‘I realize he’s an actor playing roles, but I get it,’ Shelley had said. ‘Honest. Full of integrity. Conviction. Brimming with intelligence. Loyal. You just believe everything he says with that British accent of his – and can trust it.’
All that and yes, he was so damned handsome that Veronica had lost track of her own Amore Pie, a pie she could make in her sleep. Her special elixir pies were in high demand ever since she’d been back in Boothbay Harbor – just over a year now. She’d grown up in Boothbay, but had bought a house far from the one she’d lived in with her parents. It had been love at first sight for the lemon-yellow bungalow on Sea Road, and the day she’d moved in, while hanging the wooden blinds on the sliding glass door to her deck, she’d heard someone crying. She’d peered her head out the door to see her neighbour sitting on her back porch, wearing only a black négligé and black leather stilettos. Veronica had gone over and asked if she could help, and the woman blurted out that her marriage
was over. Veronica had sat down, and within moments her neighbour, whose name was Frieda, had shared the whole story, how she’d tried to entice her husband, who barely looked at her these days, home for lunch with exactly what she was going to do to him. But he’d said he’d brought last night’s leftovers and would just have that.
‘He’d rather have a cold meat-loaf sandwich than me?’ Frieda had cried to Veronica. ‘For months I’ve been trying to entice him back to me, and nothing works.’ She broke down in a fresh round of tears.
Veronica had told Frieda that she was a baker and would make her up a special pie to serve her husband for dessert that night. When she gave him his slice, she was to think about how much she loved him, wanted him. And just for good measure, she could run her hands up the back of his neck.
Well, that night, Frederick Mulverson had said he didn’t know what came over him, but he was back. Frieda had Veronica’s Amore Pie on standing order every Friday. One word to her friends and relatives, and Veronica’s phone had started ringing with orders, just as it had in New Mexico. Amore Pies were her most requested.
She made upwards of twenty special pies a week. Plus two a day for The Best Little Diner in Boothbay, where she worked as a waitress. And nine a week for three local inns. But those – for the diner and the inns – were just her ‘happiness’ pies, pies that tasted like summer vacation. She saved her special elixir pies for her clients around town, everything from Feel-Better Pie – which came in all kinds of dieteticfriendly varieties, such as gluten-free, dairy-free and even sugarfree – to Confidence Pie, which involved Key limes.
What she couldn’t seem to do was make a Colin Firth Pie for herself. She’d made Amore Pies for hundreds of clients that seemed to attract love to them. Sure, maybe it was mostly the power of thought, but so what since it worked? ‘You get what you believe’ was what Veronica’s grandmother used to say. At the thought of dear Renata Russo, who’d died just months before all the trouble had started when Veronica was sixteen, she closed her eyes. She let herself remember what it was like when she’d had a family, when Veronica, her parents and her grandmother would sit around the table in the house she grew up in – just several miles away from here – and have big Italian dinners. Meatballs and so much linguini in her grandmother’s home-made tomato sauce that it seemed to come from bottomless pots.
She missed those days, days that had ended on an April morning when Veronica was sixteen and blurted out over a pancake breakfast that she was pregnant. She’d finally taken a pregnancy test after her period was two weeks late. Please be negative, please be negative, she’d silently prayed as she’d waited the two minutes. But when she opened her eyes and looked at the little window on the stick, the pink plus sign had been unmistakable. Positive. Her hand had been trembling so badly she’d barely been able to hold the stick steady.
She’d been so scared that she’d kept the news to herself for almost two weeks. After that, everything had changed. One minute she’d had a family – minus her beloved grandmother. The next, Veronica had been sent away.
Why are you upsetting yourself by thinking about all that? she asked herself as she turned her attention back to the TV and the Bennet sisters, Elizabeth and Jane, conspiring in their lovely white dresses about their love lives. But since she’d moved back to Boothbay Harbor, her past was all she could think about. It was why she’d come home, for heaven’s sake. To face it. To stop . . . running.
She thought if she came home, if she faced her past, maybe her heart would start working the way it was supposed to. And maybe, maybe, maybe, the daughter she’d given up for adoption would contact her. Veronica had been living in New Mexico when that baby girl had turned eighteen, and Veronica had called the Helping Hands Adoption Agency and left her contact information, then done the same with the registry in Maine. She’d waited by the phone that day. And the next. But there was no call from a young woman asking if she was Veronica Russo, if she’d given birth to a baby girl on 12 October 1991 in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. For weeks afterwards Veronica had kept her cell phone close, expecting a call any time. She wasn’t sure why she’d believed her daughter would contact her on her eighteenth birthday, but she had believed it.
She’d started baking then, four years ago in New Mexico, pies that felt like hope. She’d never been much of a baker before, but she’d been watching a cooking show, a special on holiday pies, and had gone out and bought ingredients to make a pie from scratch. She loved the feel of flour in her fingers, the pale yellow sticks of cold butter, the texture of shortening, the whiteness of sugar and salt, the purity of water. Such simple ingredients for a pie crust, not that there was anything simple about making pie crust from scratch. But Veronica had persisted until she’d perfected her crusts – all kinds, depending on the pie. Just like that, she’d found what comforted her, what replaced lonely nights. She loved baking pies. And her pies felt so special to her that when she made them for friends, she’d name them for the reason she was sharing them in the first place. For a heartbroken friend, Healing Pie. For a sick friend, Feel-Better Pie. For a downin-the-dumps friend, a Happiness Pie. For the lovelorn, Amore Pie. For the worried, Confidence Pie. Her Hope Pies were popular too. One friend had wished that her boyfriend, on his second tour of combat duty, would come home from Afghanistan in one piece, and Veronica had baked her a saltedcaramel cheesecake pie that she put all her hope into and then told her friend to do the same while cutting the first slice. The boyfriend had returned with only a broken leg. Her pies had worked their sweet magic on so many people that Veronica had developed quite a clientele. How did it work, they wanted to know. Either Veronica had a little bit of magic in her or it was all about prayer. Or luck. Maybe some of each.
But Veronica had never bothered with a Colin Firth Pie in the hopes of bringing a man into her life whom she could finally love. All the magical pies in the world couldn’t fix her messed-up heart. She wasn’t capable of loving someone; kind as she was to others, she knew that. She’d loved once, so fiercely, and had been irreparably hurt. By her grandmother’s death. By a sixteen-year-old boy. By her parents washing their hands of her. She’d tried to love; she’d tried damned hard. She’d had her share of boyfriends over the years. Some for a couple of years, some for just a few months – all kinds of men. From the cute short-order cook at the first diner that had hired her as a sixteen-year-old waitress in Florida, where she’d moved after giving birth, to the proud Marine in New Mexico who’d announced he was tired of waiting for her to say yes, he was driving them to Las Vegas to get married that day whether she liked it or not. She’d tried to explain again, said they could have a wonderful, romantic weekend in Vegas without a wedding, without talk of marriage, but he’d figured she’d cave once they got to the wedding chapel. She hadn’t. Furious and shouting that he’d had it with her and her inability to commit to him, he’d left her there by the chapel and driven away, and she never saw him again. By the time she’d returned to New Mexico the next day, his few belongings were gone from the house he practically shared with her. Her heart had just never opened fully to him. It never had for anyone except Timothy Macintosh, a boy she’d spent the past twenty-two years trying not to think about.
It had been there, in front of the Little White Wedding Chapel, that Veronica had realized she had to go back to Boothbay Harbor. If she ever wanted to fix herself, she’d have to go back. Back to her home town, where she’d been shunned and sent away, where she had given birth to a baby girl she’d held for two minutes and then had to hand over. She believed if she came back, faced all those memories, her Hope Pie might work on herself and her heart would suddenly open and that baby girl would make contact.
Veronica just wanted to know that the daughter she’d given up was all right. That was all. Sometimes Veronica thought if she could just know that, she could move on. Her jagged heart would piece together, and her life would change. Could change, anyway.
So she’d come home, uncomfortable as it had been. Come home and tried to face her demons right away. Before she’d even started looking for a house to buy in town, she’d driven by the house she’d grown up in, a white saltbox that the new owners had painted blue. She’d pulled over and felt sick to her stomach and got away from there fast. But she’d driven by several times, and each time she’d had less of a reaction. Same for the place the Macintosh family had lived in, the brick cape house where she and Timothy had spent so much time. She’d even walked in the woods where she and he had set up her old Girl Scouts tent, where they’d talk for hours about their dreams, about leaving Maine right after high school and taking a Greyhound bus to Florida, where it was always warm and never snowed. That old tent was where a child had been conceived.
She’d tried to face her past, but she was obviously doing something wrong – not facing the right things, maybe – because she felt as unsettled in Boothbay Harbor as she had the day she’d moved back a year ago. She didn’t even know why. No one cared about what had happened twenty-two years ago, except several folks who did remember her as the girl who’d gotten pregnant as a junior in high school, whose parents were so embarrassed they’d sent her away, sold their house and left town, left the state, leaving her behind to fend for herself. Two of those people who did remember had unfortunately signed up for Veronica’s pie-making class tomorrow night – Penelope Von Blun and CeCe Allwood, who’d gone to school with her and now led perfect lives and fake-smiled at Veronica in town before whispering behind her back. Veronica’s pie classes were popular; she’d taught four so far, but she limited the class to five students so that she could give individual attention to each baker. Ironic, since she’d spent most of the past year trying not to pay any attention to Penelope and CeCe.
Fitzwilliam Darcy’s face filled the TV screen. ‘My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever,’ he was saying to Elizabeth, and Veronica felt something move in her chest the way she always did at this scene. God, he was intense. Intense with fierce love.
The doorbell rang, and Veronica pulled herself away from the kiss she’d been waiting the entire episode for. She wiped her flour-dusted hands on her apron, took one last glance at the TV, and went to the front door.
Officer Nick DeMarco and his daughter, whom Veronica would guess to be about nine, maybe ten. Veronica always thought of him as Officer DeMarco, even though they’d gone to school together their whole lives. Well, until junior year, anyway. He’d been friendly with Timothy. So Veronica had kept her distance from Nick, who seemed to keep something of a distance from her, as well. He was out of his police blues, wearing jeans and a Boston Red Sox T-shirt. His daughter looked just like him. Same dark hair burnished with lighter brown, and dark brown eyes with long, long lashes. She had an elfin chin, though, and there was nothing elfin about Nick DeMarco.
‘We’re not late, are we?’ Nick asked, peering in behind her. His daughter looked up at her expectantly.
‘Late for what?’ Veronica asked. ‘The pie class,’ he said.
Pie class? Nick DeMarco had definitely not registered for her class. If he had, even staring at Colin Firth for two hours the past four nights would not let her forget it. ‘Well, actually, you’re early. My pie class starts Monday night. Right time, wrong day. But I don’t have you on my registration list, do I?’
He winced. ‘I had your flyer in my back pocket for a week and kept meaning to call, and then I figured we’d just show up.’
The girl looked like she was about to cry. ‘We can still take your class, right?’ she asked Veronica.
Oh hell. The class was full. She had six people already and really did prefer to limit each four-week session to five students. Otherwise, there wasn’t enough of Veronica to go around and the class got too unwieldy. Too many elbows at the counters and table.
Officer DeMarco was staring at her, pleading with her to say, ‘Yes, of course you can take my class, sweet girl.’
‘I happen to have a few slots open, so not a problem at all,’ she said to his daughter.
She watched the girl relax and wondered why learning to make pie – and perhaps one of Veronica’s special pies – was so important to her.
‘What’s your name, honey?’ Veronica asked. ‘Leigh. Leigh DeMarco. I’m ten.’
‘Well, Leigh, you just turn up with your dad on Monday at six o’clock sharp, and don’t forget to bring an apron.’ One look from Nick told her that he didn’t have an apron. ‘But if you don’t have one or forget, I just so happen to have extras.’
Leigh smiled and her whole face lit up.
‘Is there a particular kind of pie you’re interested in making?’ Veronica asked Leigh. ‘I’m planning on teaching apple pie for the first class, but I’ll have recipes for my special elixir pies available if anyone wants to work on one of those too.’
The girl glanced sideways at her father, then at the ground. ‘Apple pie is fine. I had a slice at the diner last week. It was really good.’ It was obvious the girl had her mind set on a particular special pie but didn’t want to say in front of her father.
‘Ah, yes, my apple crumb Happiness Pie,’ Veronica said. ‘I did feel happy when I was eating it,’ Leigh said, but her shoulders slumped.
Nick ruffled Leigh’s hair. ‘Well, we won’t take up more of your time, Veronica. Sorry about the mix-up. We’ll see you Monday at six, then.’
He looked so uncomfortable that Veronica felt sorry for him. She was pretty good at reading people; it was how she had earned her reputation with her pies. But Nick DeMarco was impenetrable beyond the obvious desire to leave. A cop requirement, most likely.
Just as Veronica turned the lock, the doorbell rang again. This time, only Leigh DeMarco stood on the porch. Her father stood on the sidewalk. He held up a hand and Veronica nodded at him.
‘Hi, hon,’ she said to Leigh.
‘I remembered what kind of special pie I want to learn to make,’ Leigh whispered. ‘But I want to keep it secret, if that’s okay.’
Leigh bit her lip and turned around, as if to make sure her father was out of hearing distance. ‘I want to make the kind of pie you made for Mrs Buckman. She’s my neighbour. She invited me in for a snack after school last week and gave me a slice of the pie. She told me you made it for her special. She said it would make me feel better too.’
Veronica’s heart squeezed. The pie she’d made for Annabeth Buckman was a Spirit Pie, a shoo-fly pie, the only kind that seemed to work for Veronica when she wanted to feel close to her grandmother. Shoo-fly pie was nothing special, just molasses and a crumbly brown-sugar topping, and rarely seen these days, but Veronica loved it. Her grandmother had grown up making shoo-fly pie during her family’s poorest times, and Renata Russo had said she’d be happy never to make a shoofly pie again as long as she lived and had access to fruit and good chocolate and other delectable ingredients. But one day, in those early weeks when Veronica had moved back to Boothbay Harbor and was so lonesome for her grandmother, she’d made a shoo-fly pie for the first time, and at the smell of the thick molasses and the crumb topping with its brown sugar, it was like her grandmother was in the room. She felt her so close, felt her love, felt everything she’d say to Veronica now. God, how different life would have been had her grandmother been alive when Veronica had gotten pregnant. She would have kept the baby, most likely, instead of having to give her up for adoption. Her grandmother would have taken her in.
Focus on Leigh, she told herself, sucking in a quick breath. ‘I know just the pie you mean, Leigh. It’s my Spirit Pie – a shoo-fly pie. When you make it or eat it, you think about the person you want to feel close to. That’s how it works. Shoo-fly pie got its name long ago because it was so sweet that it attracted flies while it cooled. So the bakers would say, “Shoo, fly!” And it stuck.’
‘Shoo-fly pie,’ Leigh repeated. Then she nodded and turned to leave, then turned back again, and said, ‘Thank you.’
Her mother, Veronica realized. Leigh must want to feel her mother’s presence. Veronica had heard that Nick DeMarco’s wife had died in a boating accident almost two years ago.
Oh, Leigh, Veronica thought, watching her slip her hand into her father’s as they started up Sea Road.
It would be no trouble at all to add the sweet girl to her class. Her father probably wouldn’t last past the first session. They were likely ‘doing something together’, and then he’d drop off Leigh at the next class and she wouldn’t have to be at such close quarters, like her kitchen, with Nick DeMarco, who clearly remembered her from school and knew she’d gotten pregnant and then mysteriously disappeared. Back then everyone had known she’d been sent to Hope Home, a residence for pregnant teenagers on the outskirts of town. The few friends she’d had had told her that everyone was talking about it and how Timothy Macintosh was telling people he wasn’t the father, that Veronica had slept around on him.
How did that still have the power to sting in the centre of her chest? she wondered as she turned up the volume on the TV. Forget everything but Pride and Prejudice and Colin Firth’s face, she told herself. After all, she had an Amore Pie to make, and she had to be in a certain frame of mind to make that pie. She’d finish watching Pride and Prejudice, ogle Colin Firth, and then she’d get to work.
Excerpted from Finding Colin Firth by Mia March. Copyright © 2014 by Mia March.
First published in the United States by Gallery Books, 2013. This edition published 2013 by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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