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THE HOUSE WAS DARK, DESERTED LOOKING, EXCEPT for a small square of light in an upstairs window. Her mothers bedroom.

So sheís taken to her bed. Pulling out all the stops tonight, isnít she? Emily Warwick unlocked the door, then clicked on the lights in the foyer. Her mother kept the house so dark, it was a wonder she didnít fall and break a hip.

"Emily, is that you?" Lillian called from upstairs.

"Yes, Mother. Who else would it be?" Emily climbed the stairs to the second floor and headed for the master bedroom.

"No reason to be snide," Lillian scolded.

"Sorry, I didnít mean to be." Emily entered the room, then paused at the foot of her motherís bed.

The scene was just as sheíd pictured it: her mother propped up on pillows, wearing her satin-trimmed bed jacket and a dismal expression. Despite her height and large frame, Lillian looked small and frail. The mahogany four-poster was actually too large for the room, as was most of her motherís furniture. The pieces, taken from Lilac Hall when their family was forced to leave, were better suited to grander surroundings.

As was her mother, Emily reflected.

"Did you bring the pills?"

"Right here." Emily showed her the white bag from the pharmacy. "But the doctor said to take them only if you definitely had a migraine. The medication is very strong."

Lillian shifted against the pillows. "Of course itís a migraine. I ought to; know after all these years."

Emily studied her. Maybe this wasnít an act after all, a convenient emergency designed to make Emily miss her sisterís engagement party. Maybe the, strain of opposing Jessicaís choice in a husband was finally getting to her.

"Youíre all dressed up tonight. Am I keeping you from something?" Lillian said.

"You know where Iím going." Emily glanced at her watch as she sat on the edge of the bed. "And Iím nearly an hour late already. Jessica must be wondering what happened to me."

"Oh, yes. The happy couple is celebrating their engagement." Lillian drew out the last word on a sour note. "Iíd almost forgotten."

"Yes, Iím sure you did." Emily cast her a doubtful look.

"Your sister is throwing her life away, you know. All sheís achieved so far, all she could achieve. She could marry anyone. But no, she picks out some muscle-bound, empty-headed laboreró"

"Thatís enough," Emily cut in. "You donít even know Sam Morgan. Heís a good man."

"Good for someone elseís daughter. Not mine! Not after what I went through to raise both of you. To give you every opportunity to rise above the rest of the worldís mediocrity."

Lillianís voice trembled on a sharp, high note, and her cheeks grew flushed.

"Calm down, Mother. I already know how you feel about itó"

"Donít you tell me to calm down. I know you played a part in this love match, Emily. I know you encouraged your sister to marry him, so donít deny it."

Yes, she had encouraged Jessica, sometimes feeling as if she were in a mortal battle for her sisterís soulóor for Jessicaís future happiness, at the very least. Bitter experience had taught Emily the cost of giving in to their motherís imperious will. She knew she couldnít change the past, but she hoped and prayed that Jessica wouldnít make the same mistake she had, giving up the one thing that mattered to her most in the world.

"Why would I deny it?" Emily replied, unfazed. "Jessica and Sam love each other and belong together."

"Please, spare me. You sound like the back cover of a novel." Lillian looked disgusted.

Emily bit back a retort. What was the point of arguing? There was no winning this round. Besides, she reminded herself, the Lord asks us to have patience, even when it isnít easy. Especially when it isnĎt.

"Letís just drop it, Mother. This conversation isnít going anywhere."

"You know Iím right. You just wonít admit it," Lillian challenged her, unwilling to back down. "Do you think it was easy for me after your father died? Salvaging what I could? Making a new life for you and your sister? And finally, old and sick and looking to my daughters for some comfort, this is the thanks I get. Mrs. Sam Morgan," she concluded bitterly. "I could almost laugh if I didnít feel like crying."

An idle threat, Emily thought. She couldnít recall the last time sheíd seen her mother cry. But clearly her mother was overwrought; her blood pressure was probably shooting up to a dangerous height.

"Iíll get you some water for these pills," Emily said, getting to her feet. She returned a few moments later with a glass of water.

Lillian took the medication, then sank back into the pillows with a deep sigh.

"Can I get you anything else? Something to eat maybe?" Emily offered.

"Iím not hungry. In fact, my stomach is quite upset. I couldnít eat a thing. I thought you said this prescription was strong. I donít feel a thing."

"It should take effect soon." Emily sat on the edge of the bed again. Lillianís eyes slowly closed, and her breathing became slow and deep. Emily thought she had drifted off when her mother suddenly said, "How is your campaign coming along? I donít hear much about it."

"Itís only September. Things wonít really heat up for another month or so. Most people think Iíve done a pretty good job, and Charlie Bates doesnít have much to run on."

Emily had been elected mayor of Cape Light three years ago, which was still a source of great pride for her mother. If she didnít win again, Emily knew her mother would be very disappointed. Maybe even more than she would be.

"Well, donít rest on your laurels," Lillian advised. "Charlie Bates is despicable. But there are plenty of fools in this village who will vote for him, just to spite our family."

"I think Charlie appeals to a certain group of voters in town," Emily allowed. "But I donít think it has much to do with our family. Thatís ancient history, Mother. Nobody thinks about it anymore."

"Of course they do. You just donít want to see it, Emily. Youíve always been that way. You never want to think badly of people. Just like your father."

Unlike you, Mother. You never miss an opportunity. Emily let out a long breath, gathering her patience again.

"What about church tomorrow? Will you be up to it?" Emily asked.

"I donít know. Iíll have to see how I feel." Lillian sat up and adjusted the covers. "Sara Franklin said she might stop by. She picked up a book I had on reserve at the library."

"Very thoughtful of her."

"Sheís a thoughtful girl. Full of opinions, though, especially when it comes to books. Sheíll argue with me until the cows come home."

"Yes, Iíve noticed. Good for her," Emily said with a small smile.

She liked Sara very much and was grateful for the attention the young woman showed to her mother. It was an unexpected friendship, but somehow, it worked. Seemingly shy, Sara was not the least bit cowed by Lillianís formidable personality.

Emily stole a secret glance at her watch and nearly gasped when she noticed the time. Poor Jessica. Sheíll think Iíve forgotten her.

"Is there anything else you need?" she asked, standing up. "I really have to get over to the party. Itís getting late." When her mother didnít reply, Emily added, "I promised Jessica. Sheíll be very disappointed if I donít come."

"Yes, of course. We donít dare disappoint Jessica." Lillian glared at Emily, then turned her face away. "Donít worry about me. Iíll survive," she added in a tight voice.

Emily knew she was being manipulated but still felt a twinge of guilt at her motherís wounded expression. "Iíll stop by on my way home."

"Donít bother. Youíll only wake me, probably give me cardiac arrest from the shock. Iíll think a burglar is breaking in."

"Oh, Mother, really." Emily shook her head with a small smile. "I canít remember the last time anyone was robbed around here. You couldnít be safer."

"Of course youíd say that. Youíre the mayor," Lillian retorted. "Iím Just an old woman, an invalid practically, all alone in a big house. Which reminds me, I need you to take my pearl necklace back to the bank. You know I donít like to keep good jewelry at home. Itís in the bottom drawer of my dresser."

"Oh...all right." Emily stepped over to the dresser and found the jewelry case tucked under a pile of slips and nightgowns. The scent of lavender sachetóher motherís scentófloated up and surrounded her for a moment.

With the dark blue velvet box in hand, she turned to face her mother again. "Why donít you ask Jessica to take it back? Sheís at the bank every day."

"Because I asked you. If youíre too busy to do it, simply say so and Iíll ask someone else.

The necklace was among her motherís most treasured possessions, a family heirloom that had first belonged to her great-grandmother. Lillian had always promised her daughters that they would each wear the pearl necklace on their wedding day, and eventually one of them would inherit it to pass it down to her children.

Now the family tradition was taking an ironic twist, Emily realized. For, in fact, her mother had not worn the pearls on her wedding day, because she had married against her parentsí wishes. When the pearls had eventually come into her possession, Lillian had held them out to her daughters like the ultimate prize, the prize she had been denied.

And now the family history was about to repeat itself.

"Youíre not going to let Jessica wear the necklace at her wedding, are you?" Emily asked her mother.

"No, I will not. If she doesnít need my approval or my blessing to be married, so be it. I wonít be attending the event, and I see no reason why she should wear the pearls."

Of course, it was a punishment, Emily realized. She was punishing Jessica the same way she had been punished by her parents.

"But she does want your approval and your blessings, Mother," Emily assured her. "You know she does."

"She has an odd way of showing it, then. Very odd, if you ask me." Her mother met Emilyís gaze with a hard, determined stare, then turned back to her book again. "If youíre going, Emily, just go Youíve badgered me enough for one evening."

Emily felt so frustrated, she could hardly speak. Only Lillian Warwick could be so completely impossible and yet manage to cast herself as the injured party.

"All right, good night, then," Emily said, keeping her voice level. She put the jewelry case in her purse and slipped the strap over her shoulder. "If you need me, call the cell phone number. Iíll have it in my purse."

"How up-to-date of you," her mother remarked in a dry tone. She did not say good night.

* * * * *

EMILY DROVE DOWN PROVIDENCE STREET, THEN THROUGH THE BACK streets of the village until she emerged on the Beach Road. As she headed toward Sam Morganís house, her motherís harsh vow echoed in her thoughts. Would she really ignore Jessicaís wedding? That would be extreme, even for Lillian; and it would hurt Jessica terribly. Although Jessica had never said it outright, Emily knew her sister was counting on her to help wear down Lillianís objectionsóat the very least, to persuade their mother to attend the ceremony.

I didnít do so well tonight, did I? Iíll have to have more patience the next time. Jessica and Sam haven't even set the date yet. Mother will come around in time, I hopeÖ

Emily took a quick, sharp turn onto the narrow dirt road that led to Samís houseóthat "rundown shack in the woods" her mother had once called it. It was actually a lovely old house on a beautiful piece of land, near a pond. It was abandoned when Sam bought it from the bank at auction a few years ago. Most people would have knocked it down and built something new on the property. But Sam saw its potential and had the know how and skill to restore it.

Now she felt her spirits lift at the sight of the charming old house. Every window was glowing with light, the large downstairs rooms filled with movement and life. The doors were open to the cool autumn night, and the sounds of happy voices, laughter, and music floated out to embrace her like a warm, familiar hug.

Emily stepped inside and found that the rooms to either side of the small entrance were crowded with guests, most of them familiar faces. Carolyn Lewis, the Reverend Benís wife, was standing nearby, talking with Grace Hegman, owner of the Bramble Shop, an antique store in town.

Emily was about to join them when she spotted her sister across the room, talking with the Reverend Ben. Jessicaís fiancé, Sam, stood close by, his arm loosely draped around Jessicaís shoulders. When Jessica spoke, Sam turned and glanced down at her, his dark eyes shining, as if Jessica was the most precious and amazing treasure in the world. There was clearly so much love between them, it made Emilyís heart ache.

Her sister looked beautiful tonight in a sapphire blue satin top and loose black pants. Her long curly hair hung loose past her shoulders, one side pushed back by a glittering clip. Although Jessica was fairly tall, she looked almost petite standing beside Sam, whose dark good looks seemed a perfect contrast to Jessicaís reddish-brown hair and fair complexion. They, looked so happy, so right together. How could anyone object to that match? Emily wondered.

Jessica suddenly turned and caught sight of Emily. She smiled, her blue eyes wide with relief, and quickly moved through the crowd toward her.

"Sorry Iím so late. I got hung up at Motherís," Emily explained as she greeted Jessica with a hug.

"I thought it was something like that. Is she all right?" Jessica asked, taking Emilyís coat.

"Just a headache. I brought her some pills. She seemed fine when I left."

"Oh...well, thatís good." Jessica met Emilyís gaze, then looked away. Emily knew Jessica had hoped that their mother would change her mind at the last minute and come to the party.

Emily handed her the two gift boxes she was carrying. "Some presents. This one is for you and Sam, for your engagement, and this is for your new house."

Jessicaís smile brightened again as she took both boxes in her arms.

"Emily, you didnít have to get us anything."

"Of course I did, silly. I bought both at the Bramble, so you can exchange them if they arenít right."

"Iím sure theyíll be perfect," Jessica said. "Let me put these down, and Iíll get you something to drink."

"Oh, I can help myself. You must have things to do. Iíll find you later," Emily promised.

"The drinks and hors díoeuvres are over there." Jessica nodded toward a long table against the windows. She turned and headed in the opposite direction. "If you see Sam around, tell him he needs to come help."

"Iíll tell him," Emily answered, thinking with amusement that Jessica already sounded very married.

"There you are, Em. I knew youíd make it sooner or later." Emily turned to see her good friend, Betty Bowman. "Let me guess," Betty said. "Your mother called with a last-minute emergency?"

"Of course. What else?" Emily replied with a grin. "Lillian is nothing if not reliable."

"At least you got here. I think Jessica was starting to worry," Betty confided. She smiled at Emily with an appraising glance. "That color looks great on you. New dress?"

"Yes, it is. Thanks."

The plum-colored wrap dress wasnít Emilyís usual style, but the saleswoman had pressed her to try it. The simple lines suited her slim figure, and the rich color brought out her blue eyes and short, reddish-brown hair.

"I found a great sale up in Newburyport," Emily told her. "At that boutique at the end of Lowell Street."

ĎTheyíve got great stuff," Betty agreed. "And you probably need things for the campaign now, with all the appearances and socializing, I mean. Howís it going so far?"

"Itís a bit early to tell. As well as can be expected, I guess."

"I know youíll win it, Emily, but Iím thinking of joining your reelection committee. Iíd like to help if I can."

Emily was touched by the offer. "Thanks, Betty. Are you sure you spare the time?"

"I always manage. Besides, you know how I feel about Charlie Bates," she added quietly. "So I consider it a good investment of time."

Every inch a businesswoman, that was Betty, Emily realized. Time was a valuable commodity to be invested carefully for a good return.

"Weíll be lucky to have you. Warren Oakes is the chairperson this year. Iíll let him know youíre joining up."

"Have him call me at the office, and Iíll get up to speed. Oh...thereís Dan." Bettyís gaze suddenly shifted across the room and settled on Dan Forbes. "I need to speak with him about something. Iíll catch you later, Em."

As Betty crossed the room, Emily noticed that her friend looked terrific in a slim-fitting red wool suit and black heels, her blond hair barely brushing her shoulders in a smart blunt cut. Betty was a hometown girl, who had left New England for many years before recently returning with her teenage son. But sheíd never lost the aura of the most popular girl in high schoolóhead cheerleader, even class president their senior year.

Was Betty dating Dan? Emily wondered. Betty hadnít mentioned it, but as she watched them now, talking intently, she wondered. Tall, with dark blond hair gone partly gray, Dan was attractive, Emily had to admit. Jogging and sailing kept him lean and fit. His work as owner and editor in chief of the Messenger, the townís local newspaper, kept his wit sharp, his conversation lively and challenging. Emily could see why Betty would like him, why most single women her age would, herself included.

But Iím not included, Emily chided herself. If there was one thing she was sure of, it was that relationships just didnít work out for her. Long ago sheíd given up even trying. She had too much baggage, too much unfinished business, too many regrets that quickly smothered the spark of anything new.

Deliberately turning away from Betty and Dan, Emily went over to the table of appetizers and began making a careful selection.

"No stuffed mushrooms, dear?" Sophie Potter asked, appearing at Emilyís side. "I made them myself."

"In that case, Iíll take two." Emily added the mushrooms to her plate, then smiled at Sophie as she took a bite. "Delicious, as usual."

"Thank you, dear. I added a little something different this time. Not that I can tell you what, mind you," she warned.

"Of course not. I wouldnít dream of asking," Emily replied around a mouthful.

Sophie Potter was the finest cook for miles around, certainly in the village of Cape Light. Notoriously secretive about her recipes, she claimed she was writing a cookbook, though Emily had heard Sophie say that ever since she was a little girl. Emily had a soft spot for Sophie. She and her husband, Gus, had gone out of their way to show kindness and sympathy to the Warwicks during their trouble, Emily recalled, unlike many others in town who seemed almost pleased to see her father disgraced and their prominent family brought down. While her mother had never really acknowledged Sophieís generous spirit, Emily considered her a dear old friend.

"Iím glad your sister finally came to her senses and decided to marry Sam Morgan," Sophie confided. "If itís meant to be, itís meant to be. You canít fight love, no matter how you try. Like Gus and me," she added, nodding sagely.

"Where is Gus?" Emily asked, gazing around.

"Oh, didnít you hear? Gus is sick. Doctor says itís bronchitis now." Sophie shook her head.

"Thatís too bad. Iím so sorry. How is he feeling?"

"Not his best. But itís his spirits being low as much as anything. He feels his age finally catching up, I guess." Sophie sighed, her mouth set in a thin, tight line. "Iím just praying to get through the picking season and then the winter. When the spring comes, weíll have to see what weíre going to do, I guess."

Emily knew she meant that they might give up the orchard. It was such a sad prospect, it was hard to say outright. For Emily it was impossible to imagine the village without Potter Orchard. But it was doubtful that the Potters would find a buyer for the place who would keep it unchanged. Emily knew that Betty often got calls from developers who had their eye on the land.

"Well, a lot can happen between now and spring," Emily said encouragingly.

"Quite so, dear," Sophie agreed, her expression a bit brighter. "And none of us knows what the good Lord has in store for us, do we?"

"Thatís the one thing that seems certain," Emily agreed wryly. She could never have imagined the course her own life had taken, so different from her dreams and plans.

Just then Jessica came toward them, carrying a platter of poached salmon. "I guess this can fit here," she said to Samís sister, Molly Willoughby, who followed close behind carrying a platter of ham.

"Iíll put the ham here, then," Molly said.

"Iíll put the turkey on the end," Joe Morgan, Samís father, added as he brushed by with another huge platter.

His wife, Marie, a small dark-haired woman with Samís dark eyes, marched past with a large bowl of green salad and smiled a greeting at Emily.

"Can I help?" Emily asked.

"I think weíve got it covered," Jessica replied. She looked back at the table and seemed to be checking off a list in her mind. "Roasted potatoes . . . I must have left them in the oven."

"Donít worry, Iíll get them," Molly offered, turning back toward the kitchen with a rueful shake of her head. "Crisp-but-not-forgotten potatoes, I guess weíll call them," Emily heard her mutter under her breath.

Emily noticed Marie step up to her husband and pat his shoulder as he hovered over the platters. A professional chef, Joe couldnít resist arranging each tray just so. "Come on, Joe," Marie said. "Everything looks beautiful. Let the people have their dinner."

"All right. I give up." Joe turned to his wife and future daughter-in-law, his hands lifted in surrender. "Let them at it."

"Everything does look great," Jessica praised. "Thank you both so much," she added, turning to Joe and then Marie. "I could never have done this alone."

It was true, too, Emily knew. It was nice to see that Samís family had gotten so involved. Whatever reservations they might have had about the matchóand Emily knew even Samís warmhearted parents had harbored a fewóthe Morgans seemed to accept Jessica as part of the family simply because Sam loved her so much.

How different they were from her mother, Emily reflected unhappily.

"Everything looks perfect, Jessica," Emily assured her. "The food, the flowers, the candles all around. Too badó" Too bad Mother didnít come, she was about to say. Then caught herself. She didnít want to bring down Jessicaís buoyant mood.

"Too bad what?" Jessica stared at her, questioning.

Too bad I couldnít get here sooner, to help you. Why donít you show me the house?" Emily said, wanting to distract her. "I havenít been here for weeks, and you two have obviously done a lot of work since then."

"Sure, letís go upstairs first," Jessica said, leading the way through her guests.

Emily followed her up the L-shaped staircase. "This banister is gorgeous," Emily commented, running her hand along the smooth polished wood.

"Thanks, but itís only halfway done, see?" Jessica pointed out the spot where the finished wood ended. "There are still so many bigger things to work on, I get distracted."

"It may take years before youíre really finished renovating this house," Emily remarked as they reached the top of the staircase.

"Please. Donít remind me," Jessica said with a laugh. "Sometimes I worry that Sam and I will be married, and weíll still be living in our own apartments because this place will still be a complete mess."

Emily met her sisterís eye and smiled. She knew how organized and particular her sister could be, her efficient personality well suited to working in a bank. Moving into this work-in-progress was a stretch for her. But thatís part of getting married, Emily .reflected, being willing to stretch your boundaries for the sake of the one you love.

"Sounds like I should have gotten you a framed copy of The Serenity Prayer," Emily teased as she followed Jessica to the center hall at the top of; the stairs.

"Believe me, I already know it by heart." Jessica opened a nearby door and turned on the light, a bare bulb that hung by some wires from the ceiling.

"We havenít done much with this spare room. Just built a big closet on that wall. It could be a guest room, we thought... or a nursery," she added, glancing quickly at her sister.

The image of her own child rose in Emilyís mind, the baby sheíd been forced to give up for adoption more than twenty years ago. The memory brought a stab of pain, and she forced it away.

"Our bedroom is just about done," Jessica said, leading the way toward. a larger room at the front of the house. "All we have to do to it is paint it if we can ever agree on the color."

"This is great." Emily gazed around, admiring the large room. The woodwork and floors were beautifully refinished, and a set of large French doors in the center of one wall lent an elegant, graceful touch.

"Sam finally fixed the balcony," Jessica added, opening the doors and stepping outside. "Here, take a look."

Emily gazed out at the surrounding woods, then up at the starry sky, and took a deep breath. The September night air was pleasantly cool and smelled like fallen leaves and wood smoke. "Oh, this is fantastic. I bet youíll love sitting out here, just looking at the stars."

"We already do," Jessica confided with a small smile.

Emily could just imagine it. She felt happy for her sister. Truly happy. But she felt a pang of sadness for herself as well.

She was alone and would always be, it seemed. Taking care of her mother, carrying on in her job, going to churchóthose duties filled her life. There was no husband or children in her future. The role of adoring aunt is the best I can hope for now, Emily told herself as she followed Jessica back inside.

"What about those other rooms across the hall?" Emily asked, shrugging off her dark thoughts.

"Oh, thereís not much to see yet. Iím going to turn one into an office for myself, I think. But thatís last on our list right now. We just want to get the main rooms ready in time. Oh, for goodnessí sake. I never told you." Jessica pressed her hand to her cheek, her eyes wide. "We finally settled on our date. Itís November nineteenth," she announced excitedly. "We found a really nice inn in Southport. Itís right on the water, and even Samís father approves of the food."

"But thatís just ten weeks away," Emily said, a little startled.

"I know. Thatís the only date they had free for the next six months, so we grabbed it. Luckily Reverend Ben had the date open, too. Maybe you can go over there with me next week and take a look, help me figure things out? They have so many questionsÖI was pretty overwhelmed," Jessica confessed. "And Sam doesnít have much interest in the small details."

"Of course I can go. Iíd love to help plan the party," Emily gave Jessica's hand a squeeze.

Jessica had already asked her to be the maid of honor, and while Emilyí wanted to do anything she could to help her sister, they both knew that planning the reception was something Jessica should be doing with their mother.

"We donít have much time to pick out bridesmaid dresses, either," Jessica added. "But I think I found one on the Net."

Internet bridesmaid dresses? It sounded dreadful, but Emily wanted to be supportive. You have great taste, she assured Jessica. I'm sure you'll find something nice."

"Thereís just so much to do. And the house, too," Jessica said. "Sometimes I donít know how Iíll ever get it all done."

"Oh, you will," Emily assured her. "One way or another." Jessica sounded worried, but happily so. These were good problems. The kind you want.

Excerpted from:
Home Song by Thomas Kinkade and Katherine Spencer, copyright 2002. Used by permission. All rights reserved.