Authors: Lindsey Forrest
All Who Are Lost
Ashmore’s Folly Trilogy: Book One
St. John Publishing Group, Inc.
Act One: If All Else Perished
If all else perished,
and he remained,
I should still continue to be;
and if all else remained,
and he were annihilated,
the universe would turn to a mighty stranger:
I should not seem a part of it.
(Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte)
Chapter 1: Ghost of a Girl
I KNOW YOU’RE OUT there somewhere….
She stared out across a crowded London square, unknowing, unseeing, the serenity of her face captured in the flat surface of the theatrical poster. The light noon rain ran down in small diagonal rivers across her, crinkling the smooth plain of her forehead and the gentle cut of her jaw. She wept, large, abandoned tears that warred with the lovely turn of her mouth.
The Great Cat, they called her.
Many of those who had come to Leicester Square, hunting for half-price theater tickets, gravitated to her, beckoned by her eyes, lured on by the legend of mist and mystery that surrounded her. A few balked at the price of “An Intimate Evening with Cat Courtney.” Others realized to their sorrow that they had conflicting tickets, meals planned with in-laws, flights to catch. Three nights only, announced the poster, and this, unfortunately, was the last night.
She smiled out at them all, oblivious to their concerns, uncaring of the rain wetting her face.
The American tourist who came walking into the square, his daughter by his side, did not notice her at first. The rain had stopped for a few minutes, and other matters engaged him: folding up a handy umbrella, glancing at his watch, reading a guide book over his daughter’s shoulder. For one minute longer, he remained merely a tourist on a much-needed vacation. For one minute longer, the Great Cat never crossed his mind.
But the Great Cat could wait, and for this man she would wait forever.
She had left him a decade before, both of them reeling from the blood of their folly, in a deserted cottage on a desolate shore on the other side of the world. Had she eyes to see, she would know him instantly.
Eventually, respite ended. Eventually, Richard Ashmore lifted his head, his eyes scanning across the theatrical posters, in search of an evening’s entertainment suitable for a young girl. The titles made little impression –
Les Miserables, The Graduate, Noises Off
– until he saw her and everything around her blurred into oblivion.
He knew her too, instantly.
His worst mistake.
“Dad?” Julie touched her hand to his. “Do you think we can get tickets?”
“We can try.” Richard closed his fingers around hers, a talisman to ward memory off. “Don’t get your hopes up, Julie. Her concerts usually sell out.”
“Let’s ask over there,” suggested his daughter, pointing across the square to the ticket kiosk. “Maybe someone bought tickets and can’t go. Maybe someone dropped their tickets, and someone turned them in. Maybe—”
“Maybe, maybe, maybe,” he teased, but already he was allowing her to drag him across the stones towards the waiting queue.
They took their places in line. Julie was glowing with excitement, the happiest Richard had seen her since the morning before her grandparents had died. He was less optimistic. Others ahead of them had requested tickets, and the possibility of stray tickets lessened as they moved up the line. He sought to cushion her against disappointment by letting her plan the afternoon. They were only a couple of blocks from the National Gallery, or would she prefer to hop the tube for Harrods?
“Harrods,” said Julie immediately. “And tea, Dad.” She leaned in against him to look at his guidebook. “I have my birthday money from Lucy. I want to get something to wear to the concert.”
“Keep your money, kitten.” He wished that they had never seen the poster. Selfish, yes, but if meeting her eyes in a poster disturbed him, how would he feel to see her again, even in the black anonymity of an audience? Better not to know, better to go back to an occasional evening of listening to her songs in the dark and trying to make some sense of what had happened.
And Julie had endured enough recently.
They were second in line now, behind a couple attempting to get tickets to the latest Andrew Lloyd Webber.
, thought Richard, who had tried for three months. They bought him a few minutes of reprieve while they settled for a sex comedy instead.
“Two for Cat Courtney,” he said, and if the gods had been with him, just this once, he would have been told in that inimitable British way
, Sorry, sir, but that show has just sold out….
“Yes, a few tickets have been turned in,” and his fate was sealed. He and Julie looked at the seating chart. She sparkled as she so seldom did, and as he paid for the tickets he thought that he would bear any pain, any guilt, to see that look on her face.
“Those are good seats,” said the man behind him, another American from the sound of him. “I’ve seen her before, and she’s worth twice the price.”
Julie forgot her usual shyness with strangers. “I can’t wait! I’ve wanted to see her for so long—”
A woman with a Southern accent said kindly, “You know, darlin’, you’re just the picture of her.”
“Thank you,” said Julie. “I’m glad I am. She’s my aunt.”
And Richard Ashmore looked at the tickets and realized, with a shock, that it was June 9, and he had been married for seventeen years.
In his life, Richard Ashmore had made three mistakes with women. Not that three was so unusual; no man reached his thirties without suffering the particular pain that women could inflict and without inflicting it in return. He was luckier than most men, perhaps, for he had erred early and grievously, and caution had been driven into him like a bullet. He carried with him permanent reminders of his follies: a marriage gone disastrously wrong, the painful conscience that he had not always been the upright man his daughter loved, a shoulder that ached in cold weather.
Ah, Diana, unattainable once attained, a monumental mistake made in all the first flush of adolescent desire and pride. Too young to marry, too blindly in love to recognize the ice behind her eyes, he had turned a deaf ear to his father’s warning that his princess was hollow at her core.
Francie, silver-quick smile and hungry eyes, and his own need for the warmth of a woman’s arms. The dangerous combination of a magnum of champagne on New Year’s Eve and three years of exile from his marriage bed had erupted into a springtime of madness. The gods had demanded their due: a marriage wrecked beyond salvage, a family foundered, two young women cast adrift.
And the third…. Oh, but even now, all these years later, he stood before her picture, and he still did not understand. She watched him from the poster, more animated in flat gray and white than he had ever known her. But he knew those eyes. He knew how they adored him, how they burned in fever and desire, how they haunted odd moments of the day and dark pockets of the night.
Diana. Francie. Laura the Cat.
He supposed he had a special weakness for shuttered eyes that invited a man in with promises implied and unkept, for wild autumn hair spread gloriously across a pillow, for tall, elegant figures and clear, sweet voices and beguiling, destructive ways. They all three had this and more in common, and why not? They were sisters, after all.
Julie tried hard to contain her enthusiasm all afternoon, first at Harrods, then at the V&A. She tagged along quietly while Richard sketched the woodwork, and he explored the bookstore while she toured the Worth collection. Later, they walked through the Pleasure Gardens in Battersea, where, so long ago, a young Air Force pilot attending the Festival of Britain had met a lively Irish nurse and fallen in love forever.
“Grandma knows we’re here,” whispered Julie, and was not old enough yet to hide the trembling of her lips.
He cradled his daughter against his chest and let her weep. Fifty years, he thought, a love affair that had spread across decades and formed the bedrock of his childhood. Even the horror of their deaths six weeks before, at the hands of a bourbon-soaked driver, lessened in the soul-felt knowledge that they would have preferred to die together than ever live one without the other.
He and Diana, married thirty-three years later, had scarcely lasted one summer.
Julie lifted her tear-streaked face from his jacket. “Dad?”
He stroked her hair. “Yes?”
“Grandma always loved Laura—” Julie drew a quivering breath. “Do you think she knows?”
In the days of grief, in the knowledge that he now stood alone, the last of his blood, he had never thought to wonder if Laura Abbott had learned of his parents’ deaths. He considered the possibility and rejected it swiftly. Surely, surely, if she knew, she would have broken her years of silence.
“No,” he said. “No, she doesn’t know.”
For, if she knew, her silence might be the one thing that he could not forgive her.
“Come on, kitten.” He kissed his daughter’s forehead. “Time for tea. Mom told me about a place she and Dad found when they were here last year.”
Grief could not be buried, but they could put it aside for an hour, stepping out of time in a Knightsbridge tea shop, accepting scones and fresh cream from a Victorian maid. Peace and healing lay in sharing the tea Philip and Peggy Ashmore had described so enthusiastically. He could enjoy the quiet, the lack of hurry, the sight of Julie’s lovely face across the table.
A perfect afternoon.
If only the gods had not decreed that his path would cross the trail of Cat Courtney….
“Do you think we can talk to her?” asked Julie.
“No.” Richard reached for the strawberry jam. “She’ll have security backstage.”
At least, he hoped she did. He had good reason to believe that Cat Courtney was more insulated backstage than most performers. Three years before, her sisters had tried to call her during a live guest appearance on television
and found it impossible to penetrate the wall around her.
“She might talk to me,” Julie said hopefully. “She can’t be mad at me, can she, Dad? I was only two when she ran away.”
“Julie,” he sighed, and put his hand over hers. “Don’t count on it.”
Why won’t she talk to any of us?”
What could he say? He had kept her safe from the bitterness and guilt running like a cleft through the family. She might wonder occasionally why he refused to live with her mother, why he so carefully kept her away from his father-in-law, but she never asked and he never volunteered. Not that any of that mattered here and now. Nothing explained why Laura Abbott, at seventeen, had left her father’s house one summer day and walked away forever.
“She was very unhappy at home.”
“But you didn’t make her unhappy,” Julie pointed out logically. “Grandma said Laura liked you. She might like to see you again, don’t you think?”
No, I don’t think, Julie. I think Laura would go to the ends of the earth not to see me again. I think I hurt her worse than anyone else ever did, including Dominic. You see, she thought she loved me. Then one day, and dear God, I do not know when or how, I taught her to hate me….
He took refuge in fatherhood. “Ready? I want to call Lucy before she goes to lunch.”
“Okay,” Julie said meekly, and bit into her scone.
She made one detour on the way back. They passed a florist, and Julie asked if they could send her aunt flowers. He endured one momentary vision of Laura throwing the flowers against her dressing room wall, but he looked at that young, beseeching face and wondered if this, after all, might be the best solution to Julie’s need to reach out to her own flesh and blood. So they went in and ordered white roses sent to Miss Cat Courtney at the Eldin Theatre, and Julie signed the card:
Love to Laura, from Julie and Richard Ashmore