Take Me Home
Saturday, August 29, 1981
Unalterable and unforgiving as a gaping hole in a cemetery, the event would forever after stand out in memory. There was nothing out of the ordinary to signal its coming. The pans sat on the immaculate stove as they always did each afternoon in preparation for dinner, their empty interiors open, ready, beckoning. Sounds from the television floated in from the adjoining family room. Somewhere outside a dog barked, and a horn honked as a car passed the house.
Clarissa Winn set out the vegetables. Steamed broccoli florets with sliced carrots would go nicely with the meatballs and spaghetti. She picked up a knife.
The shrill of the kitchen phone broke through the sounds of the television. Clarissa looked up from the broccoli and reluctantly reached for the phone, hoping it wasn’t someone from the PTA asking her to take on another project, or the pastor needing a pianist for services the next day.
“Hello?” she asked, tucking the phone between her ear and neck. If it was one of her friends, she’d get a start on cutting the vegetables while they talked.
“Is this Mrs. Clarissa Winn?” a man asked, his rich, melodic voice boasting a distinct British accent that made her think of exotic places to which she had never traveled.
“Yes, I’m Clarissa Winn.”
“My name is Dr. Mehul Raji. I am calling from Calcutta, India, from Charity Medical Hospital. It is about your sister.”
“My sister?” Clarissa’s grip tightened on the knife in her hand. Sister. She hadn’t heard the word in relation to herself for far too long. “You mean Karyn?”
“Yes, Karyn Olsen Schrader.”
“Has something happened?” The words hurt Clarissa’s throat.
“Indeed. It is with great regret that I must inform you of the death of your sister and that of her husband, Dr. Guenter Schrader. They were killed in a plane accident last Saturday as they traveled to give medical care to the inhabitants of several remote villages here in India.” The words were measured and exact, but now the doctor’s British English was heavily accented with whatever language he called his own. “Please accept my heartfelt condolences. Both Karyn and Guenter were valuable members of our staff and will be deeply missed.”
Clarissa’s eyes filled with tears. My sister is dead.
The hand with the knife shook. Her reflection in the shiny surface of her four-quart saucepan was distorted—as distorted as her soul.
The television blared. Outside came the happy ringing of the ice-cream truck. Life as usual.
“I would have called you sooner,” Dr. Raji continued, “but only today did we find your number in a box of Karyn’s belongings. I am happy to be able to reach you.”
Clarissa barely heard his voice. Karyn is dead. The words came with a furious pounding of her heart. She still gripped the knife, poised over the broccoli, her hand turning white.
“I wish to know what instructions you have for me regarding their four-year-old daughter, as you appear to be her only living relative.”
Suddenly Clarissa was listening again. So Karyn had given birth to the daughter she’d longed for. “Is she okay?”
“She is unhurt, but there is concern. She has not spoken to anyone since the accident. At the moment, she is in the care of a woman in whose house Dr. and Mrs. Schrader were living, but we expect that you will want her sent to America. Is this not correct?”
Sobs pierced Clarissa’s awareness—bitter cries that hurt her to hear. She tried to answer the doctor, but words refused to come.
Karyn is dead.
Her husband’s arms came from behind, wrapping around her body. “What’s wrong, honey?”
Only then did she realize that the bitter crying was coming from her own throat. She swallowed her sobs with an agony that threatened suffocation. The knife moved in her hand.
Travis reached for it, rubbing the flesh and loosening her grip before taking the knife. “Give me the phone,” he said softly.
Clarissa watched as he talked with the doctor from India, her own disbelief and shock mirrored in his dark eyes. Finding a pen in the drawer, he wrote down a number. Then he set the phone on the cradle.
“It’s my fault,” Clarissa moaned. And it was—as surely as if she had forced Karyn onto the plane that would eventually crash.
“No, it’s not. It’s not anyone’s fault.”
He sighed. “If it’s yours, then it’s mine, too.”
She shook her head. “No, no. Mine. I’m her sister.” Was, her mind corrected. She was my sister.
Travis put his arms around her. She gazed up at his familiar, dearly loved features, stared into the eyes she would never have known had it not been for Karyn, the sister she had betrayed. Oh, dear God—how did I let this happen? There was no chance for making amends now.
“Her daughter,” she said aloud. “What about that poor little girl?”
“She’ll come here, of course.”
She nodded. “We’ll raise her as our own.”
An unexpected—unwanted—surge of joy welled within Clarissa’s breast. Only fleetingly did she consider that someday they would have to tell Karyn’s daughter the truth.
Liana Winn’s fingers flew over her calculator, making long tallies of numbers that spewed onto a long curl of white paper. She hated working on this account for more reasons than one. Wealthy Jim Forrester, the obscenely young owner of a computer consulting firm, didn’t exactly cheat on his taxes, but there were many points she felt stretched the realm of belief: vacations in Hawaii, elaborate gifts for clients, deluxe hotel rooms with heart-shaped bathtubs.
After two years of doing Forrester’s taxes and avoiding his blatant advances, Liana had tried to refuse being assigned to his case. But he was Klassy Accounting’s most important client, and when he had requested her personally, her boss made it clear she had no choice but to accept.
“You about done with the Forrester case, Liana?”
Liana’s fingers stiffened over her calculator as she looked up into the small watery eyes of Larry Koplin, her boss. He was a tall, balding, barrel-chested man who wore tailored suits and who might have been commanding if not for his swollen cheeks, thin shoulders, and scrawny limbs.
“Nearly, Mr. Koplin,” she said, keeping her voice calm. “I’m just finishing a few numbers. Once I put them into the computer, I’ll be finished.”
Koplin’s pale face darkened with a brief frown, which Liana knew was because he had invited her time and time again to call him Larry instead of Mr. Koplin. Liana had tried, briefly, half-heartedly, but the time when he had inspired friendship was long past.
“Good.” He twisted his thin, too-long fingers, as though washing them. “I knew you’d be done soon. I told him to come over in an hour. He’d like to take you to lunch.”
Distaste rolled through Liana, but she was careful not to show it. “Thank you, Mr. Koplin, but I won’t be able to go. I need to finish at least two more accounts before I leave tonight.”
Koplin’s smile did not reach his leaking eyes. “Nonsense, a girl has to eat.”
Liana stifled a sharp retort that would have detailed her womanly capability of buying her own meal. She had learned to do at least that in her nearly thirty years of life, thank you very much. Instead, she said, “I think we promised Jones and Dean that their accounts would be finished by morning, didn’t we? Lunch with Forrester could take hours.”
She watched contrasting emotions battle in Larry Koplin’s puffy face as he pitted the money he would receive from those accounts against the points he would earn if he could coerce her to have lunch with Forrester. Liana remembered a time when she had believed in him—a time when his smile and a promise of a bright future had drawn her away from her previous job. It was an offer he still touted, but Liana had discovered that his “bright future” meant this minuscule office and nothing more.
Koplin’s greed for money won out. “I’ll tell Mr. Forrester you can’t possibly get away now. Just see that you finish those accounts.”
Liana felt the sudden urge to quit right that instant, to turn her back and walk out, just to see him scramble for a replacement. Maybe then he would recognize the four years of hard work that had earned her this pitiful closet she called an office—an office she now despised. But she had bills to pay, which her monthly paycheck barely covered, so she had no choice but to swallow her anger. “I will, Mr. Koplin.”
He nodded sharply, causing the loose skin under his chin to wobble, and turned on feet that seemed small for his towering height and protruding chest. As he walked down the aisle between the gray cubicles, he was followed by surreptitious stares from his employees. One of the nearest women, a new employee named Jocelyn, cast Liana a sympathetic glance through the door, and Liana smiled politely before returning to her work. The anger gradually faded as she put the incident aside. She would not allow anything to affect her work or her state of mind. She was in control. Anything else was unacceptable.
When the phone rang, she reached for it, eyes glued to her computer screen. “Liana Winn,” she said. Tilting her head to support the phone, she continued entering numbers. Earlier in the day, she’d hoped to finish work early, but that hope was fading fast.
“Hi, it’s me.”
She smiled despite her dark mood. Her brother’s voice was always a welcome sound. “Hi, Christian. What’s up?”
“Actually, I need a favor.”
“Ha, what else is new?” She rolled her eyes. He was forty, and she was still bailing him out of one thing or another.
“Well, a friend of mine has to get a bit of tax work done—pronto.”
“Sorry.” The phone pressed hard between her ear and shoulder, and already her neck was beginning to ache from the awkward position. “I’d like to help your friend, but I can’t. Maybe next month, after the fifteenth.”
Her brother wasn’t having any of it. His voice took on a pleading note, one she always found difficult to ignore. “Oh, Liana, come on. The company he works for is a client of mine. If I lose that account, my boss will kill me.”
Through the open door of her tiny office Liana could see a buzz of activity in the cubicles where she had worked until her promotion a few months earlier. Fingers typed at keyboards, creating an unlikely symphony that hummed evenly on the air. There were voices, too, but lower, almost covered by the incessant tapping. Ringing phones added shrillness to the din. March was one of the accounting firm’s busiest times of the year, surpassed only by the madness that consumed the first half of April.
She willed herself to be strong. “If this guy changes advertising firms because I can’t work him in, then he’s no friend of yours.”
“It’s his company I need to impress, not him, and that means if they need a favor, I deliver. This accounting thing isn’t even Austin’s department. He’s their sales manager, but he got stuck with filing the tax forms because he works with me, and I opened my big mouth.”
Not again! She stifled a sigh. “And how on earth did that happen?”
“Well, I was in this meeting yesterday, and they were discussing my new advertising design—which they seemed to like, by the way.”
“Christian,” she groaned.
“Okay, okay. So they started in about how their financial manager had run off on them and how the new one—the owner’s nephew or something—can’t start until he finishes college next month. Bottom line, they’re in a big bind and need help quick if they want to avoid paying more penalties. Next thing I know, my mouth opens all on its own, and I’m telling them I know someone.”
“Know someone? Who do you think you are—the Mafia?”
He gave a short laugh. “Come on, will you just meet with him? If it’s too much work maybe you could file another extension. Pleeeeease? His office is just outside Vegas, only a couple of miles away from yours. It’s a quarterly thing, I think, so it can’t be too big, can it?”
Liana sighed. Christian had no idea how difficult quarterly filings could be. He was a genius at dreaming up creative advertisements, but numbers escaped him completely. “Depends on the size of the company. Can’t your friend come in and meet with my boss? Maybe someone else could work him in here.”
“Can’t see that happening. Austin would never trust a company with a corny name like Klassy Accounting.” Christian’s voice rose in mimic of the commercials that were being run on the radio. “Klassy Accounting—no job too big or too small.” He snorted. “No offense, but it’s stupid. Please, Liana Banana? What do you say? Do it for me?”
The use of her childhood nickname made it more difficult to deny his request. “Let me think a moment,” she said, raking her hand through the long strands of her dark hair. If she skipped her twenty-minute lunch down at the corner deli—again—and didn’t take her afternoon break, she might be able to finish work by seven or so, and that would leave enough time to see Christian’s friend. Even as she thought this, the strong aroma of a TV dinner, coming from the small alcove that lamely served as an employee break room, wended its way into her office, making her stomach ache with emptiness.
“Okay, okay,” she agreed with resignation. “I’ll take a look. But you’ll have to pick me up and stop at some fast food place on the way so I can eat as you drive. I’m famished.”
“Deal. You won’t regret this, Banana. I love you.”
“Hmm.” She hung up the phone.
* * *
Daylight was already beginning to fade as Liana exited the front door of her building. Outside, she found Christian parked in a no-parking fire zone, lounging against his green BMW, a car he was still paying for and would be for at least another three years. He greeted her with a wave and a grin that always made people feel he shared their secrets. “I got you Chinese,” he said as he opened the passenger side door for her. “I know how you love it.”
“I enjoy it.” She slid into the car.
Christian rolled his eyes. “Oh yeah, I forgot. You don’t love anything . . . or anyone, right? Except for me.” Grinning, he placed his hands on his khaki dress pants and leaned down until his eyes were even with hers. “Come on, tell me you love me. Tell me I’m your favorite brother. Why don’t you ever say it?” They both knew he was teasing, and yet there was an undercurrent of sincerity to his plea. To him things like saying “I love you” made a difference, but Liana knew that saying so only set a person up for loss.
She snorted in annoyance and pulled her door shut. Her brother barely had time to jump out of the way. “Hey!” He slapped the side of the car, but lightly so there was no chance of damaging the finish.
She watched him saunter around to the driver’s side. Handsome by any standard, Christian had dark, laughing eyes and longish brown hair combed back from his square face. He was fun-loving, adventuresome, generous—and completely irresponsible. Though Liana was more than ten years his junior, she often lent him money, patted his back when his relationships didn’t work out, and handled all his finances. He joked that he’d never marry until he found someone exactly like her. What he didn’t seem to realize was that someone like her was unable to maintain a stable romantic relationship.
“Be careful of the seats,” Christian warned, sliding behind the wheel. “Leather and Chinese don’t mix.”
“I know, I know.”
As Christian drove through Las Vegas, Liana ate her Chinese food with the plastic fork provided. He’d bought her favorite, curry chicken, but had ordered fried rice instead of regular white. She closed the rice carton with distaste and opened the chicken, careful not to spill it on her black suit or Christian’s precious leather seats. Her stomach rumbled in anticipation, even as the spicy flavors brought her mouth to life.
Weaving through the post rush-hour traffic, Christian babbled about his job, a girl at work that he was thinking about asking out, and how much it had cost to repair a scratch in the paint on his car. There was no pattern to his speech, and he punctuated his stories with unexpected exclamations. His voice was a welcome relief from the monotonous sounds at the office.
Sometimes the continuous tapping at work was more than Liana could endure, and she had to envision herself elsewhere to survive the day. When she’d first started in the cubicles, her daydream had been a quiet beach with nothing but the occasional cry of the seagulls to interrupt her peace. Then two summers earlier she had taken a vacation to Catalina Island in California, where the beaches had been filled with boisterous people and the constant roar of the waves hurling themselves up the beach. After a while, the rise and fall of the white-crested waves had been as bad for her as the tapping on the keyboards—too much rush and hurry. She’d gone home disappointed and had begun to dream of a remote cabin in the mountains.
Last summer she had stayed in her other brother Bret’s cozy new cabin in the mountains of Utah. She wanted to hike over the soft, fragrant layers of pine needles and escape Nevada’s penetrating heat. It had been wonderful—at first. Then at night the wind singing through the trees became a constant sound, somehow hauntingly familiar, as though someone had only muffled the tapping from the keyboards. After three sleepless nights, she went home early, resigning herself to never escaping the cacophony of the accounting office. From that time on, she’d hated her job.
“Here we are,” Christian said, all too soon.
Swallowing a bite of chicken, Liana gazed at the new three-story building liberally dotted with impressive windows. Large gold lettering on the front window next to the double glass doors spelled out Goodman Electronics. “What did you say the company does?”
“They sell televisions, DVD players, that sort of thing. Austin also runs a charity organization to help orphans in Ukraine. His grandmother started it. But that doesn’t have anything to do with his job here.”
“I hope they’re not too big.” The larger the company, the more work she would be in for.
Setting aside the remains of her chicken, Liana grabbed her black briefcase, climbed from the car, and walked with Christian to the doors. Almost immediately, a buzzer sounded and they were let inside.
Behind the wide, room-length reception desk sat a lean man dressed in a dark business suit. He was tilted back in the chair with his hands behind his head and his feet on the desk. His eyes were fixed on the monitor in front of him, as if nothing could tear him away. Black hair covered his head, the corners arching high in the front—a sign of intelligence, her father used to say—and the tanned, chiseled face already sported a five o’clock shadow.
He moved as they approached, languidly pulling down his arms and coming to his feet. He was tall—at least a head taller than Liana. His eyes stayed on the screen a few seconds longer, and Liana wished she could catch a glimpse of what so fascinated him. Then his face turned in their direction, his welcoming smile echoed by a friendly gleam in his black eyes.
Individually, his features weren’t anything to speak of—his nose was too large, his chin too wide, the forehead too high—but taken all together he was positively the most arresting man she had ever seen. Liana didn’t know if it was because his eyes were the color of midnight or if it was the way he looked at her. Certainly he wasn’t the most handsome man she’d met. Take Jim Forrester, for example. That man had the blond good looks of a surfing king, though his merits were decidedly spoiled by his certainty of his beauty—not to mention the existence of a Mrs. Forrester. Liana never allowed good looks to impress her.
“Austin, this is my sister, Liana Winn,” Christian said. “Liana, this is Austin Walker.”
He walked around the desk, offering his hand. She looked up into his face and murmured something, schooling herself to show nothing of her momentary admiration.
Austin’s eyes didn’t leave hers. “Are you the wonder woman who’s going to free me from this accounting mess?” His voice was low and rich, with a hint of familiarity that made her uncomfortable.
“That depends.” She averted her eyes from his stare. “Where are the papers so I can get started?”
The smile on Austin’s face faltered but steadied quickly. “Right this way.” He took an ID card hanging from his waist on a thin retractable elastic cord and swiped it through a metal reader near the door next to the reception desk. “Through here.” He held the door open for them.
As Liana passed, she caught a whiff of Austin’s cologne, or perhaps it was only fabric softener someone had used on his white button-down shirt. The scent reminded her of hiking outside Bret’s cabin—a slight fragrance of pine mixed with the freshness of a mountain breeze. The scent was gone almost before she could identify it. She slipped past, felt his gaze boring into her back, and wondered why he so disturbed her.
It’s not just him, came an unbidden thought. She remembered Jim Forrester and Mr. Koplin. They were only a few in a long line of men that made her feel uncomfortable. Truth be told, the only men who didn’t make her nervous were her brothers, Christian and Bret. Liana forced the thoughts away and continued down the hall. Men were irrelevant. She didn’t need anyone. No, not even Christian, who had called her Liana from her first day in America—instead of Lara, the legal name she detested. Not even Christian, who had held her shaking body while she sobbed for her mother during those first weeks and months after the plane accident, and who had eased her hunger with ice cream stolen from the freezer in the middle of the night when she had been too upset to eat her dinner. Not even Christian, who had promised never to leave her—a promise she couldn’t bear to elicit from his parents, the aunt and uncle who had adopted her. If she kept telling herself she didn’t need him—or any of them—it might become true.
“It’s that one over there.” Austin slipped around them and opened another door with a swipe of his card.
The accountant’s office was dim, lit only by the darkening light coming through the wide, unshuttered windows. Austin flipped on the overhead lights, and the room sprang from the shadows. To one side sat a nice oak desk, and beyond the desk, tall oak filing cabinets lined one wall. A high oak bookcase bordered the opposite wall, and a narrow table held a vase of flowers. But the most obvious piece of furniture was a small round plastic table in the middle of the room, standing awkwardly alone, unattached to any chair and of notably different quality from the rest of the furniture.
“Everything should be here on the table,” Austin said. “I had a secretary make hard copies of everything and do the best she could to organize it.”
Liana grimaced at the mounds of papers and files lying on the small table. Though neatly organized, the stacks were thick and numerous. Generally, she preferred to leave everything on the computer until the final go-through. Everything except her tallies of numbers. Those she liked to have on tangible paper—either created on her adding machine or, in the old-fashioned way, with pencil and pad.
“I know it looks like a lot,” Austin said. “But I can help. I’m good with numbers. I’m just not sure what to file or when.”
Carefully, Liana set her briefcase on top of one of the stacks. She looked around the room and spotted a chair behind the desk. Thankfully, it was padded.
“There’s a chair.” Austin started for it at the same time she did.
“I can do it.”
Their hands touched on the back of the chair, and Liana pulled away hard. The chair shot from the horseshoe desk toward the table, banging into it. “Wheels. What a nice invention,” she said, not meeting Austin’s gaze. She felt like an idiot.
Ignoring the men’s polite chuckling, she sat down to work. After a while Christian and Austin started whispering, breaking her concentration. “Isn’t there somewhere you two can go for about forty minutes?” she asked.
“Uh, yeah.” Austin motioned Christian to the door. “We have an employee lounge where we can catch a little TV. And I should check my email. Are you sure you’ll be okay?”
“Don’t worry about me. I’m only stealing your company secrets.” Her eyes returned to the papers.
Austin hesitated, but Christian pulled him away. “She’s joking.”
“Of course she is.”
Liana didn’t look up until they left. Though she was alone in the room, she still felt Austin’s midnight eyes upon her.