Excerpt: Sweet Liar

Prologue

Louisville, Kentucky
January 1991

“Why would my father do something like this to me? I thought he loved me,” Samantha Elliot said to the man who had been her father’s lawyer and friend for as long as she could remember. That this soft-spoken man had colluded with her father intensified the hurt and the sense of abandonment that she was feeling.

Not that she needed anything to intensify the pain she already felt. Three hours ago she had stood by the grave of her father and watched with hot, dry eyes as they lowered his coffin into the ground. She was only twenty-eight years old, yet she had already seen more death than most people experience in a lifetime. She was the only one left now. Her parents were gone; her grandparents were gone; and Richard, her husband, might as well be dead, for she’d received the final divorce papers on the day her father died.

“Samantha,” the attorney said, his voice soft and pleading. “Your father did love you. He loved you very, very much, and it’s because he loved you that he made this request of you.” He was watching her closely; his wife had said she was worried that Samantha had not shed a tear since her father had died. ” Good , ” the attorney had said. “She has her father’s strength.”

“But her father wasn’t strong, was he?” his wife had snapped in return. “It was always Samantha who had the strength. And now she’s stood by and watched her father shrivel and die before her eyes, yet she’s taken it all without a tear.”

“Dave always said Samantha was his rock.” The lawyer closed his briefcase and left the house before his wife could say anything more, for he was dreading what she was going to say when the contents of David Elliot’s will became public knowledge.

Now, watching Samantha as she stood in her father’s library, he could feel sweat trickling down his neck as he remembered trying to talk Dave Elliot out of this will, but he’d not been able to persuade him. By the time Dave had made this last will, he weighed ninety-two pounds and could barely speak. “I owe her a chance,” Dave had whispered. “I took her life away from her and now I’m going to give it back. I owe her.”

“Samantha is a young woman. A n adult woman who has to make her own decisions,” the lawyer had an­swered, but he might as well not have said anything for all the attention Dave paid him; his mind was set.

“It’s just for one year. That’s all I ask of her. One year. She’ll love New York.”

She’ll hate New York, the attorney thought but didn’t voice his opinion. He had known Samantha all her twenty-eight years. He’d given her piggyback rides when she was a child, and he’d seen her laugh and play like other children. He’d seen her run races and play tricks on her parents, and he’d seen her pleated with a good grade on a test and crying when she’d not done as well. He’d seen Samantha argue with her mother over the color of a dress or whether she could wear lipstick or not. Until she was twelve years old, she’d been a normal child in every way.

But looking at her now, just a few hours after Dave’s funeral, he could see what she had become: She was an old woman in a young woman’s body, hiding her beauty under a proper little dark suit that would have suited a woman three times her age. In fact, it seemed that she did everything she could to hide her femininity: She pulled her pretty hair back, she wore little to no cosmet­ics, her clothes were shapeless, too long, and non­descript. But worse than her outward appearance was the inner Samantha; for many years now Samantha had rarely smiled, and he couldn’t remember when he’d last seen her laugh.

When she did smile, he thought, she was very, very pretty. His mind slid backward, remembering a time a few years ago, before Samantha married, before she left Louisville, when she had come home after a visit to the gym. Dave was in the den on the telephone, and she hadn’t known anyone else was in the house. Standing by the sliding-glass patio doors, a glass of iced tea in his hands, the attorney had been about to say hello to Saman­tha when she removed her wrap and started doing stretches in the living room, her shapely leg with a slim thigh and curving calf propped on the back of the couch. The attorney forgot all about her being the daughter of a friend and had stared in open-mouthed admiration at a young woman that for years he’d thought of as rather plain. Her hair had come loose from its confining band and little coils clung to her face in soft, curling tendrils of spun gold; her skin was rosy from her workout, and her eyes were thick lashed and brilliant blue. He’d never noticed that her lips were so full that they looked almost pouty or that her nose had an impudent little tilt to it. Nor had he noticed that she had a body that should have been immortalized in a magazine spread with curves where they should be and all of her tightly toned.

“They do grow up, don’t they,” Dave had said from behind him, startling the lawyer, who turned red from being caught gaping at a girl young enough to be his daughter. Obviously, what he had been thinking showed on his face. Embarrassed, he turned away and went outside with Dave.

It was years later, while Dave was preparing his will, that he said that he’d taken all the “juice” out of Saman­tha. “I’ve done things to her that a father shouldn’t do to a child,” he’d said, and the lawyer, all too vividly remem­bering Samantha’s curvy little body in a red leotard, had quickly put away his papers and left the house. He remembered too well that afternoon when he’d felt stir­rings of forbidden lust that he should not have for a friend’s daughter. Even though Dave was on his death­bed, he didn’t want to hear confessions of the type that Dave seemed on the verge of making. He didn’t want to hear confessions of what should never happen but all too often did.

Now, the attorney wondered what Dave had done to Samantha—if he had done anything—but he was not going to ask, for he was not brave enough to step into a world he’d rather not hear about.

“I don’t want to do this,” Samantha said, looking down at her hands. “I have other plans.”

“It’s only for one year,” the lawyer answered, re­peating Dave’s words. “And you’ll receive a great deal of money at the end of the year.”

As Samantha walked to the window, she put her hand on the brocade curtains. One of the last things she and her mother had done together was choose these curtains, and Samantha remembered looking at hundreds of sam­ples of fabric before deciding on exactly the right color and texture. In the backyard was a tree her grandfather and she had planted when Samantha was a toddler. When she was ten, Granddad Cal had carved a big C 4- S on the trunk, saying that, this way, they’d be together as long as the tree lived. Turning, she looked around the room, the room that had been her father’s, the place where she’d sat on her father’s knee, the place she and both her parents had played and laughed together. Richard had proposed to her in this room.

Solemnly, she went to her father’s big desk and picked up the rock he had used for a paperweight. On its smooth surface, painted in blue paint in a child’s crude lettering, were the words / love you, Daddy. She had made the paperweight for him when she was in the third grade.

Two weeks before her father died, while Samantha was nursing him, at a time when she thought they had become the closest they had ever been, he had secretly sold the house and most of its contents. She hadn’t thought much about herself in those weeks before her father died, but he had repeatedly asked her what she was going to do after his death. Reluctantly, Samantha had said she’d probably live in the house, take a few college courses, teach some computer classes on the side, and do what other people did who weren’t working six days a week as Samantha had been doing for the last two years. Her father hadn’t said a word in reply to her answer—but obviously he had not liked her answer

Samantha put the paperweight down and looked at the attorney. “He gave no reason for selling the house?”

“He said only that he wanted you to spend one year in New York and during that time you were to look for your grandmother. I don’t believe he thought she was still alive; I think he meant for you to see if you could find out where she went after she left her family. Your father had intended to search through records himself and see if he could find out what happened to her, but he . . .”

“H e didn’t have time to do many things he wanted to do,” Samantha said, causing the lawyer to frown, for she sounded bitter. “So now I am to search for her in his place?”

The lawyer cleared his throat nervously, wondering how soon he could politely leave. “I don’t think he literally meant search, I think he was afraid you’d stay here in this house alone and see no one. I think he thought that since your mother had no relatives and with Dave gone there would be no one left on his side of the family except his mother, if she’s still alive, that is, so . . .” He trailed off.

Samantha looked away from the man so he couldn’t see her face; she wanted to give away nothing of what she was feeling. Pain—betrayal—as deep as hers was not something she wanted anyone to see. Right now what she wanted most was to be alone. She wanted this man to leave her house, wanted him to close the front door behind him and never open it again. When the house was empty, she wanted to crawl into a warm, dark place and close her eyes and never open them again. How many terrible things could a person live through and still sur­vive?

Pulling a ring of keys from his pocket, the attorney put them on the desk. ‘These are the keys to your father’s apartment. Dave had everything arranged. He was going to take an early retirement and move to New York so that he could search for his mother. He rented an apartment, even furnished it. Everything was ready, but then he decided to go for a checkup and . . . and the cancer was found.”

When Samantha didn’t turn around, the attorney backed toward the door. “Samantha, again, I am sorry about Dave. I loved the man and I know you did too. And, however it may seem now, he loved you too. He loved you very much and he wanted the best for you, so I’m sure that whatever he did, he did for love of you.” He was talking too fast and he knew it. Maybe he ought to offer her something. If nothing else, he should give her a shoulder to cry on, but the truth was he didn’t want to hear about pain such as Samantha must be feeling. He felt sorry for the kid—so many deaths in such a short life, but he didn’t offer her a shoulder. He wanted to go home now, home to his healthy, smiling wife, and leave this house forever. Maybe Dave was right to have sold it, maybe there were so many bad memories here that only abandonment would clear them away.

“I’m leaving the papers for the apartment on the desk,” he said quickly, backing up. “The landlord will give you the keys to the outer door when you get there, and here, on the floor, I left the box of your grandmoth­er’s things.”

As he put his hand on the knob of the front door, he felt rather like a runner dying for the starting gun to sound so he could get away. “If you need anything else, please let me know. Samantha?”

She nodded, but she didn’t turn around when she heard him leave. Instead, she continued to look out at the leafless yard behind her father’s house. But not his house anymore. Nor was it hers. When she was growing up, she’d thought that someday she’d raise children in this house, but . . . Blinking a few times to clear her vision, she realized she now had ninety days in which to vacate her childhood home.

Turning, she looked at the packet of papers on her father’s desk—the desk that now belonged to someone else. She was tempted to walk away from the entire deal. She could support herself; when it came to that, she very well knew that she could support another person too, but if she didn’t do what her father wanted, she would lose all the money he’d left, money from the sale of the house and the money he had saved for years as well as the money he’d inherited from his father. She knew that if she were careful, the money she’d inherit would make her financially independent for the rest of her life, and she could live where she wanted, do what she wanted to do.

But for some reason, her father had decided that before she could have the money she had to spend a year in a big, dirty city looking through musty old files in the hope of finding some trace of a woman who had walked out on her family when Samantha, her granddaughter, was eight months old. The woman had left behind a husband who adored her, a son who loved her, a daugh­ter-in-law who missed her, and a granddaughter who would someday need her desperately.

Turning, Samantha picked up the rock paperweight and for a moment she considered throwing the rock through the window. But the impulse was short-lived, and carefully, slowly, she put the rock back on the desk. If her father wanted her to try to find his mother, then that is what Samantha would do. Hadn’t she been doing exactly what he wanted for years?

She started to leave the room, but pausing at the door, she turned back, picked up the old-fashioned hatbox her father had left her, the one he had said contained all his mother’s effects, and carried it upstairs with her. She felt no curiosity about the box, no desire to look inside it. In fact, Samantha was sure that, all in all, it was better not to think about anything, better not to remember. Better to do than to think, she thought, and right now she had a great deal of packing to do.