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Authors: Emilie Richards

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Sister's Choice

BOOK: Sister's Choice
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Sister’s Choice
Also by Emilie Richards

TOUCHING STARS

LOVER’S KNOT

ENDLESS CHAIN

WEDDING RING

THE PARTING GLASS

PROSPECT STREET

FOX RIVER

WHISKEY ISLAND

BEAUTIFUL LIES

RISING TIDES

IRON LACE

EMILIE RICHARDS
Sister’s Choice

To all those quilt makers
who use their considerable needlework talents to help others,
particularly those who are working so hard to Quilt for a Cure.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT

When novels become alive for readers, new and interesting ideas can develop. One such idea was suggested to me by Pam Brown of Muscatine, Iowa, at a quilt-show book signing. So thanks to Pam, who wasn’t shy about talking to me, for sending my own imagination in a brand-new and fruitful direction. Thanks, too, to the Brainstormers, Jasmine, Karen, Connie and Diane, for their energy and creativity.

Two sisters answered the call for a Sister’s Choice quilt for this cover, one the quilt maker, one the recipient. Thanks to Kathy Rankin and Jeanne Prue for sharing their quilt. How appropriate that Jeanne’s quilt, made to celebrate Kathy’s brand-new master’s degree, would inspire the cover art on a novel about the love between sisters.

PROLOGUE

M
ost of the time Kendra Taylor found that spending time with her nieces helped fill an empty space inside her. When Alison or Hannah wrapped their chubby arms around her neck or planted a sloppy kiss on her cheek, her primary feeling was gratitude that she and their mother, her younger sister, had finally built a bridge across the abyss of their dysfunctional childhood.

But “most of the time” also meant there were moments, like this one, when Kendra found herself wishing for more than a day, or even a week, when she and her husband, Isaac, could enjoy the high-voltage electricity of children in their lives. Now, as she watched four-year-old Alison shove a red-and-white Santa Claus hat over her copper Orphan Annie curls, she felt a pang she knew too well.

“They’re something, aren’t they?”

She turned at her husband’s voice, and saw that Isaac had moved up beside her and was smiling at the little girls, who had woven their way into the crowd of onlookers enjoying the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse in Washington, D.C. In the background, the White House stood sentinel, as if to discourage snowflake intruders, but the air was chill and promising. Even the most powerful family in the nation might not be able to stop a light dusting later that evening.

“They are that,” Kendra said, over the warbling of a high-school ensemble faithfully recounting “The Night Before Christmas” for everybody’s enjoyment. “The girls know how to get what they want.”

Without shoving or asking for favors, the girls had wormed themselves into front-row positions. Hannah, nearly eight, was instructing her sister on how close she was allowed, but Jamie, their mother, stood two rows behind, near enough to make a lunge in case the ebullient Alison decided to ignore her. There were model trains to tempt any little girl, and fifty additional trees, one for every state. Jamie was taking no chances.

“It’s been a great visit,” Isaac said.

Kendra linked arms with him and for just a moment rested her head against his shoulder. Jamie’s arrival had been a surprise. They hadn’t seen her since Labor Day, when she and her daughters had flown in to present the plans Jamie had drawn up for a small guest cabin on the property Kendra and Isaac owned in the Shenandoah Valley. Then, on the past Friday, after Kendra had casually mentioned on the phone that she and Isaac had nothing going on that weekend, Jamie and the girls had flown in to surprise them. Since they were scheduled to return in two weeks—on Christmas Eve—this additional trip was puzzling.

To their left, two laughing young couples were shouting down the seconds until five o’clock, when 75,000 lights would glow among the branches. Kendra watched Alison clap her hands as the lights finally came on and the magnificent blue spruce was magically transformed.

“I hate to see them leave, even though they’ll be coming right back,” Kendra said.

“Jamie’s going to be looking for an internship as soon as she finishes her master’s. Has she said where she plans to settle? Could this visit have anything to do with job hunting?”

“She’s been surprisingly evasive.”

Isaac glanced down at her. “What do you think that means?”

“Maybe she knows I’ll disapprove?”

Isaac wasn’t classically handsome, but he was easy to look at, tall and broad shouldered, hair and eyes a warm golden-brown, and these days wearing an expression of contentment that softened his strong features. Now he sent her the ghost of a smile as he touched her chin with a gloved finger.

“You don’t think Jamie’s beyond needing your approval, K.C.?”

When Isaac looked at her sister, Kendra knew he saw the redesigned Jamie, the only one he’d ever known. Sometimes she envied him that view. Yes, the Jamie she saw was at least partly that responsible adult, the excellent mother and fabulous cook, the talented student architect, the forthright young woman who never made self-serving excuses for wandering aimlessly, dangerously, through her young adulthood. This mature Jamie freely admitted to her failures and counseled others to avoid the same traps that had snared her. She was wise, forgiving and hungry to make amends.

But what about the other Jamie, the sister who had disappeared for years, who had given no thought to the pain she caused, who had brought two daughters into the world without allowing Kendra access to them? Unfortunately,
that
Jamie still lurked at the periphery of Kendra’s vision. In Kendra’s worst nightmares,
that
Jamie returned, and in an instant their newly established rapport vanished, her nieces were snatched from her life and she and Isaac were left alone again. Without Jamie, without the girls, without hope that children would ever be part of their days.

“I’m not sure she needs my approval,” Kendra said. “But I do think she loves to avoid a hassle.”

“A pretty common trait. I don’t like hassles either, do you?”

She heard the gently veiled reminder to ease up. In the year and a half since Jamie had returned to Kendra’s life, she had been difficult to fault. She was a spontaneous, freewheeling mother, with few stated rules and a tendency to overlook precise bedtimes. But under the thin veneer of “anything goes,” the girls were learning a solid respect for others, a deep belief in their own abilities and the importance of making good decisions. Jamie seemed to be doing an excellent job.

“Worrying is deeply ingrained in me.” Kendra squeezed his arm, then let her own fall free so she could wind her scarf tighter around her neck. “And right now I’m worried about Alison. She looks beat.”

To her credit, apparently Jamie noticed that, too. As Kendra watched, Jamie stretched out her hand and rested it on Alison’s drooping shoulder. Whatever she said did the trick, because Alison wiggled her way to her mother’s side, and in a moment, dark-haired Hannah followed suit.

“Maybe she’ll take a nap while we put dinner together,” Isaac said.

Kendra doubted that, but she had squirreled away a couple of simple jigsaw puzzles and picture books for a quiet hour. In a moment, Jamie and the girls joined them. Kendra put her arm around Hannah’s shoulder, and Isaac bundled Alison into his arms and out of the flow of the crowd.

“You two ready to go home?” Kendra asked.

Hannah leaned against her aunt’s hip. She was blithely unaware that she shared her mother’s fine-boned beauty, and today she had garbed herself in a faded denim skirt, an adult-size sweatshirt that displayed Harry Potter’s Gryffindor crest, and olive-and-maroon-striped knee socks. For warmth the ensemble was covered by Kendra’s faux fur jacket, which fell past her knees. Her shoulder-length hair was tied on top of her head with an elastic shoestring. No amount of coaxing on Kendra’s part had convinced her that a barrette would be a better choice, or that a wool cap would be a welcome addition.

“Alison is ready. I would choose to stay, but there will be no living with her,” Hannah said.

Quelling a smile, Kendra squeezed her niece’s shoulder in commiseration. Hannah was an overly mature eight-year-old with a rich imagination, precise speech and a strong herding instinct. She kept Alison in line; sometimes Kendra suspected she kept Jamie in line, as well.

“This way we can beat the crowds to the Metro,” Kendra said. “And I’ve got hummus and pita chips to snack on while Uncle Isaac and I make dinner.”

With an expression of forbearance, Hannah ran ahead to catch up with Isaac and Alison, who were forging a path through the crowd. Kendra was left to pick her way with Jamie. They didn’t speak until the crowd had thinned and they were walking side by side toward the nearest Metrorail stop at McPherson Square for the ride under the Potomac into Arlington.

Jamie glanced at a man who was giving her a visual once-over. She tossed her dark hair over one shoulder and gave him a small smile, just enough to let him know she’d noticed his attention, but not enough to encourage him to approach. Then she turned back to Kendra, who, despite herself, was impressed with her sister’s easy confidence with men.

“I’m so glad we could make the trip,” Jamie said. “It was such a luxury to just hop a plane. All kinds of opportunities have opened up for me, now that I have access to my trust fund.”

Kendra had wondered how Jamie would deal with the unseemly amount of money she had recently inherited from their father’s estate. When Kendra’s share had been turned over to her eight years ago, she had left it where it was. She only used a fraction of the available interest for large purchases; most of the time she and Isaac lived within their means. Of course, knowing that they had no reason to save for a rainy day, no mortgage or car payments, meant that they could do almost anything they had the time to.

Until last year, when she had turned twenty-eight and her share had been turned over to her, Jamie had chosen to live on her own, without help or supervision from the estate. She had spent a lot of years counting pennies. The change had to be huge.

“I love being able to just get a ticket on the spur of the moment,” Jamie said, as if she were reading her sister’s thoughts. “But I still went to a broker for the cheapest deal. It’s ingrained in me. I go to the consignment shop to look for clothes for the girls. I clip coupons.” She gave a low, musical laugh. “I got three cans of creamed corn last week because the third one was free. I was halfway up the aisle before it hit me that none of us like creamed corn, and we don’t have to eat it ever again.”

“I tried to ignore the impact when the money came to me, but it’s pretty hard. I wondered how you felt.”

“I’m keeping most of the investments right where they are. Say what you will about Jimmy Dunkirk, but he knew the right people to watch over his money, and I don’t see any reason to change that now.”

Jimmy Dunkirk, their father, had died spectacularly—the way he’d lived—in a skydiving accident. Although he had been a careless, absentee father, he had managed to nurture the multiple millions left to him and turn it over to them on his death. Kendra would have preferred love and affection, but she was fairly certain money was the best Jimmy had been capable of.

Now she saw an opening and took it. “If nothing else, the money’ll help you get established after you graduate. I know you still have more than a year of graduate school. But have you made plans for what comes next?”

They had almost caught up to Isaac and the girls before Jamie answered. “Well, to some extent that depends.”

“What depends on what?” Isaac asked, as if he had been part of the conversation all along.

“I was quizzing Jamie about her future,” Kendra said.

They were interrupted by Alison, who pointed toward a shop across the sidewalk. A few minutes later the girls had to be prodded not to stand forever in front of the Santa display in the window. The moment to find out more about Jamie’s plans was lost.

They reached the Metro stop at last, and Jamie took Hannah’s hand for the escalator ride. Once they arrived at the proper platform, the girls took seats on a bench, and Isaac chatted with them. Kendra followed Jamie to the edge overlooking the rails. Somewhere, echoing in the distance, she could hear a lone violinist playing “Silent Night” for tips.

“Okay, I’ve been waiting for you to notice, and you haven’t,” Jamie said.

“Notice what?”

“What’s different about me.”

Kendra chewed her lip in concentration. “Since Labor Day?”

“Uh-huh.”

Kendra gazed at her sister. Jamie’s hair—one shade from black—was still halfway down her back, falling in waves from a deep widow’s peak. The body under a bright pink ski jacket wasn’t visible, but Kendra hadn’t noticed that Jamie had gained or lost weight. She still wore her jeans tight enough to showcase a small waist and narrow hips. She still attracted attention just by the way she carried herself and met the eyes of any man who cared to look her way.

Isaac joined them, turned slightly so he could still see the girls. “I haven’t seen you smoke.”

Kendra realized he was right. “Did you quit?” she asked Jamie. “You’ve always been so careful about smoking outside that I just didn’t pay attention.”

“I quit.” Jamie nodded to Isaac. “Right after I got back to Michigan after Labor Day.”

“Good for you.” Kendra gently punched her sister’s arm.

“Yeah, way to go,” Isaac said.

Kendra heard the rumbling of a train heading their way. “What made you do it?”

“I never smoke when I’m pregnant.”

For a moment Kendra thought she’d heard her sister wrong. Then, when she realized she hadn’t, she searched for an explanation other than the obvious. Jamie was simply pointing out that she could stop and had already proved it twice. Now she was announcing that it was time to make that permanent.

But even as she ran through those possibilities in her mind, Kendra knew that wasn’t what her sister had meant at all. In her own way, Jamie had been answering Kendra’s question about her future. This was not a change of subject but an explanation. As that realization hit her, the void deep inside—the empty place that would never be filled with a child because she could never risk carrying one—throbbed in protest.

Jamie had already proven that she could get pregnant without making an effort. Double proof was sitting on the bench behind them. Hannah and Alison were the product of two casual relationships, and their arrival in the world had been unplanned.

“You’re pregnant?” she asked, as the train, not yet in sight, grew louder.

Jamie rested her hand on Kendra’s arm. “Not yet.”

Kendra tried to make sense of this. They were standing on the edge of a subway platform; people streamed by on their way from holiday events downtown. Isaac was beside her, and they were going home for a quiet family evening before Jamie and the girls disappeared again. But there was something here she didn’t understand, something large enough that Jamie had chosen this moment to play it down. She had needed the crowd, the rush, the noise, to make her announcement.

“I don’t get it,” Kendra said, and she heard the edge to her words. “You’ve decided to have another baby? While you’re in grad school? Is there a man in the picture? Somebody you’re in love with?”

“No, somebody else is in love with this man.” Jamie searched her sister’s face. Her smile was tentative. “You were asking about my plans for the future. Well, in the immediate future, I want to have another baby.
Your
baby, Ken. Yours and Isaac’s.”

BOOK: Sister's Choice
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