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The View From Prince Street (Alexandria Series Book 2) Kindle Edition
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Praise for Mary Ellen Taylor
Berkley titles by Mary Ellen Taylor
November 5, 1751
November 6, 1751
November 10, 1751
November 16, 1751
November 19, 1751
January 2, 1752
July 6, 1753
August 1, 1753
September 1, 1753
October 4, 1753
January 12, 1754
April 6, 1754
May 10, 1754
December 17, 1758
June 17, 1759
March 17, 1769
March 30, 1769
July 12, 1769
December 13, 1769
March 2, 1770
July 3, 1782
March 2, 1783
April 1, 1783
April 15, 1783
July 14, 1800
November 5, 1751
The witch’s voice rode in on a frigid wind, heavy with the promise of snow, and tugged me from a restless sleep. Fresh on the heels of her witchcraft trial, I feared the beautiful widowed sorceress had arrived to curse me. I glanced to Mr. McDonald only to find rumpled sheets and a fading crease in his pillow.
Moonlight streamed through the unlatched front door and drew me from my bed and across the one-room cottage, past the glowing embers of the hearth. My aching heart momentarily forgotten, I peered into the night and saw the witch standing in the yard. Her wild red hair unbound and her gaunt, pale face illuminated by the heavens. She spoke in hard, desperate tones to Mr. McDonald, who wore work pants and boots pulled on hurriedly under his nightshirt. When I heard a babe’s squawk, I knew she had also brought her infant twin sons, who lay swaddled and tucked in a small cart she must have pulled over five miles of rutted paths from the Alexandria settlement.
As I leaned against the doorjamb, I watched her drop to her knees in front of my husband and beseech him to give her and the babes shelter. “I will do anything to save them,” she said.
They spoke in whispers and for a long moment she did not move before she slowly nodded and rose. When I saw him lean into her and raise his hand as if he wanted to touch her, I shouted, “Witch! The good wives have banished you, Faith, from the settlement!”
Faith didn’t dare look in my direction, but I saw her fingers curl into fists. My husband didn’t meet my gaze as he spoke in a low voice. She nodded again, never looking up. I realized a deal had been struck, and I was too late. The witch had spun her magic. My husband would allow her to stay.
She has cursed him, us, our lost children. Of that, I am sure. And I fear what evil Faith Shire will do now that she lives under our roof.
MONDAY, AUGUST 15, 9:00 A.M.
The headline glared on the page. Rae McDonald: Matchmaker with a Heart of Stone?
When the reporter first reached out to me and explained she was doing a profile on successful businesswomen, I assumed her focus would center on my doctorate in psychology and my private family practice. The interview began well enough. I discussed my undergraduate work at Georgetown, graduate studies at the University of Virginia, and my thriving family practice. The reporter scribbled notes and appeared interested. Then she mentioned a friend of a friend who was a client of mine. “Not a family practice client,” she said, leaning forward with a grin. “One of your matchmaking clients.”
I am not a matchmaker. There are times when I make suggestions to couples, I explained, but I was not a matchmaker. Then, she detailed my high success rate and shared several glowing quotes from couples that had found happiness because of my marital advice. I supplied more statistics about my family practice, and she listened. Took notes. Nodded. And when she left my home, I assumed the matchmaking was a forgotten diversion.
Rae McDonald: A Matchmaker with a Heart of Stone?
People read the weekly Lifestyle edition of the paper, but also the online version, which had the potential to reach far beyond the limits of Old Town Alexandria to every corner of the world that had access to a computer. Dr. McDonald, who sometimes appears to have a heart of stone, cuts through the emotional chaos of finding love to help her clients discover lasting happiness.
It felt like a tabloid exposé.
Heart of stone.
It didn’t sit well. I wasn’t the Tin Man looking for a heart. A robot. Mr. Spock. In fact, sadness nearly destroyed me when I was sixteen. My older sister had died, and I subsequently made reckless choices that resulted in a pregnancy. I carried a healthy baby boy to term, gave birth, and when he was hours old, laid him in another mother’s arms forever. The loss and pain were crushing. Devastating. And on that day, I realized my very survival depended on suppressing all my feelings.
Heart of stone. Anyone with a heart of stone would never be forced to live with such a choice, because they lacked the capacity to feel. Such are the traits of sociopaths. And my pain had been very real until I exorcised it.
My detachment had served me well. I survived abandonment guilt, and I also thrived academically and professionally. My ability to keep feelings at bay is the reason I can navigate my clients’ emotional maelstroms. Because I remain detached from all their turmoil, my perspective is unencumbered and clear. I can see the forest for the trees.
As I stare out the window at the square, muddy patch of dirt in my backyard, raindrops roll lazily down hand-blown glass. The panes were original to the home, which was built over two hundred fifty years ago. I thought about the couple sitting behind me on the couch. They were here because of the article. They wanted a matchmaker to politely analyze and approve their union. They didn’t need counseling. They wanted a rubber stamp on their rock-solid relationship.
Each had a clipboard, paper, pencil, and the charge to perform a simple exercise. Write your deepest, darkest secret. Fold the paper in half and wait for my instruction.
These two individuals, like many of my clients, were successful in their own right. They were well on their way to enviable careers and shared high IQs, elite educations, drive, and ambition. But as valued as all those traits were on the corporate ladder, they didn’t necessarily translate into thriving marriages.
Today, He was Samuel Morris: mid-thirties, a lawyer on track to be a partner in a Washington, D.C., law firm. He had a passion for great food and intended to have at least three children. She was Dr. Debra Osborne, a surgical resident at Georgetown Hospital who loved hiking, visiting Paris, and skiing. Though she spoke briefly of children, she neglected to check the box regarding children on my questionnaire.
In the first minutes of our initial interview today, they said that as soon as I gave my blessing on their match, they would formally announce their engagement. But this office wasn’t a drive-up window, and I didn’t give out gold stars unless they were earned.
Pencils scribbled, stopped, and scribbled again as I continued to stare out the window at the freshly graded square patch of land in my backyard.
This spot had once been the location of the original McDonald homestead hearth, which had long ago fallen into a tumble of moss-covered rubble, entwined with weeds and strawberry vines. It had stood on the property like a sentry since the Native Americans walked this land.
As legend had it, the stones were collected from the rivers and streams of Scotland to serve as ballast on merchant ships bound for the Virginia Colony. They were then loaded into the hull and placed around cargo so that in the event of a storm, the goods wouldn’t shift, throwing the vessel off balance and sinking it. These stones arrived with the 1749 voyage of the ship Discovery, which also carried two newly married Scots, Patience and Michael McDonald. They’d fled Scotland and a cholera epidemic to start afresh and tame the wild Virginia woods into profitable farmland.
According to my mother, Discovery’s captain had been ready to dump the stones into the deep harbor at Hunting Creek and fill his hull with hogsheads of tobacco for the return voyage when my ancestor, never one to waste, offered to transport the stones ashore. The captain, anxious to anchor and see his wife, agreed. Michael McDonald and his wife offloaded the stones into a cart on shore and built the hearth that would be the centerpiece of their cottage. Those stones warmed two generations of McDonalds before lightning struck the hearth in 1783, sending loose cinders from it onto the cottage’s thatched roof. Fire broke out and within minutes chewed through the roof, the rafters, and the home’s contents.
The blackened stones were forgotten, and there they lay for over two centuries. Someone in each generation suggested that the stones be dismantled and hauled away, but there was always an elder at the ready to prevent their removal. The stones, the old ones said, warded off evil and protected the family. How many times had crops been spared from gale-force winds? When the Union troops marched through Virginia, why was the McDonald house left untouched? The stones protected the house and the land. But perhaps not its inhabitants.
I didn’t believe in talismans or curses, but if I did, I’d note that the stones’ power was bogus. The McDonald farm, which had been reported to cover a thousand acres at one time, had dwindled to a one-acre lot. Generations of McDonalds died young, including my sister. And my son was gone. Complete bunk.
After my mother’s passing two years ago, the stone sentry grew more and more unsightly and became an embarrassing reminder of superstition and outdated fears.
My contractor had finally cleared the land six weeks ago, but the angry patch of red clay still looked startlingly out of place each time I glimpsed at it. I still expected to see the stones. My gut was beginning to tell me I had made a grave mistake.
The near-monsoon rains prevented any new construction, and with each passing day, the bare soil looked more and more like a sunken grave. Whatever relief or sense of accomplishment I might have anticipated was sorely missing.
Turning from the window, I studied the couple. They each sat rigid, their hands gripping their papers. Body language spoke volumes. “Have you finished?”
Debra tugged her black skirt, sitting a little taller. She was petite, with dark brown hair and eyes that carried an intensity that was difficult to miss. She was the type who studied hard, made good grades, and played by the rules. “I’m not sure of the purpose of this exercise.”
Samuel raised a soft uncallused hand to his mouth and coughed. “Doesn’t really make sense. You’ve heard us talk for an hour today. Surely you must see we’re nearly perfect for each other.”
“Exchange papers,” I said, ignoring his comment.
“What?” Debra asked.
“You tell Samuel your darkest secret, and he’ll tell you his. If you love each other, then you should be able to know the worst and still find acceptance. Long-term relationships require that kind of trust.”
Neither moved, and a heavy silence settled between them as they exchanged nervous glances until Samuel asked, “What does the past have to do with now? Today is what matters.”
“The past isn’t separate. It’s part of us,” I said.
Debra glanced at Samuel, her grin uneasy. Neither budged. “I have to agree with Samuel. We accept each other for who we are now. The past is over and done. Neither one of us wants to dredge up or catalogue yesterday’s news.”
A grandfather clock in the hallway chimed ten times, indicating our session was over. “When you two can exchange papers, then call me for another session. Otherwise you’re wasting your time and mine.”
Samuel shoved his paper in his pocket. “We didn’t come here to create a problem where there is none. All we want is a confirmation that we’re a good couple.”
Arching a brow, I studied him, not with anger or frustration, but with mild interest. “If you’re looking for a yes or a no regarding your relationship, I would have to say, given the current conditions, that my answer would be no.”
“What?” Samuel asked. “That’s absurd.”
“I would wager you’ve done more due diligence on prospective corporate mergers than this marriage,” I replied.
“No?” Debra nearly shouted, glancing at Samuel. “We paid one hundred and fifty dollars for a no?”
Staring her down, I replied, “You paid for my opinion. I’ve given it.”
Debra rose, straightening to her full five feet five inches. “We get a lousy no, because we don’t want to open the past? Our future does not earn a no!”
“I won’t give you a patronizing yes. Past, present, and future are links in a chain. For a chain to hold, all the links must be strong. You can’t simply pick and choose.” I traced the face of the simple wristwatch nestled next to the pearls. “There’s also the fact that Debra didn’t check the box for children on the questionnaire.”
She turned a bit red-faced. “I missed it. Give me the form and I’ll check it now.”
“Not until you exchange pages.” I looked at my watch. “Now you must excuse me. I have another appointment.”
Samuel stood, wrapping a protective arm around Debra. “This was a waste of time. A waste of money.”
“I disagree,” I said. “I have saved you the cost of an expensive wedding and a more expensive divorce. The one hundred and fifty dollars was well worth it to you.”
“But we love each other,” Debra said. “That must count.”
“You’ve been dating three months,” I pointed out. “Yes, you have an affection, but what both of you are feeling is sexual attraction. It’ll fade in less than a year. And then you’ll be left with each other. If the foundation is not solid and the goals are not in alignment, the marriage won’t survive.”
“This is ridiculous,” she said.
The front doorbell chimed. “That’s my next appointment.”
Samuel shook his head. “I’m telling everyone who’ll listen that you’re a fraud.”
Slowly, I turned back toward him. As a family practice psychologist, I was accustomed to dealing with raw nerves, tears, and anger. This couple’s determined need for my approval was the first red flag. Debra’s worried expression and Samuel’s ire were the next. My approval was an excuse for a deeper reason. “Show Debra the paper in your pocket.”
His eyes narrowed. He was now opposing counsel, and in his mind’s eye, we were facing each other across the negotiating table. “Fine. I will.” He dug the crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to Debra. “Go ahead, read it.”
She lifted a chin. “I don’t need to read it. I trust him.”
Whereas he took her words as an act of faith, I saw it for what it was: a diversion. The front doorbell rang again. “Return when you both agree to exchange papers in front of me.”
The couple looked at each other, but Debra did not look at his paper or share her secret. Samuel’s face lost some of its ire. Instead, he took Debra by the arm and exited through the pocket doors.
As they marched down the center hallway toward the wide front door, I followed.
My house was a two-story built in the Federal style and fashioned of red Virginia clay brick. The first floor had four large rooms divided by a wide center hallway that stretched from the front door all the way to the back into a thirty-year-old addition that housed a recently updated kitchen. My office and a dining room occupied the east side, and on the west there was a parlor and a small room where I sometimes watched television or read. Upstairs were four bedrooms and two bathrooms. I used the smallest bedroom, the one that had been mine as a child, because it caught the morning sunlight. After my mother died, I had her room and bathroom updated but had never gotten around to moving into the larger space.
“You aren’t being fair,” Debra argued. “Not everyone comes into relationships with crippling secrets.”
“I agree. But for those who do, those secrets, like the tiny seeds of a cancer, grow freely until one day they destroy your life.”
“That sounds more like personal experience,” Samuel jabbed.
“That’s not relevant.”
“So, this is about you?” he countered.
“No. It’s about you and Debra.”
As Samuel reached for the front door he turned, his mouth in a grim line. “I suppose you’ve written your darkest secret and shared it with your partner?”
“I have no partner,” I said.
His lips curled into a snide snarl. “Because you won’t practice what you preach?”
I was engaged six years ago and we were given this same exercise. He was happy to discuss what he considered the worst of his past. I, however, sat for a long moment, pencil gripped in my hand, unable to write the first sentence.
In the end, I couldn’t do it. Recording my past mistake made the boy’s existence far too tangible, and far too threatening. The weight of it grew as we sat in the minister’s office.
I’d carried this secret for so long, but the additional weight of that single sheet of paper was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I couldn’t share my past with my fiancé for fear that the sharing would resurrect the pain. Within a couple of months, my fiancé and I broke up.
If there were ever proof positive of the past’s power, that moment was it.
The doorbell rang again. “I must meet my next appointment.”
“‘Heart of stone’ sums it up,” Samuel said.
My well-practiced smile was polite and restrained as I opened the door. “Thank you for visiting today.”
Hands clasped tightly, the couple stormed out of the front door over the damp slate walkway toward a late-model black Volvo sedan parked in the driveway.
Without another look in their direction, I shifted my attention to my ten o’clock appointment. Addie Morgan and Margaret McCrae, owners of Shire Architectural Salvage Company, were the contractors who removed my stones six weeks ago. Addie was petite with brown curly hair that graced slim shoulders, and she favored collared short-sleeved shirts and crisp navy shorts that skimmed the top of her knees. Addie’s notable trait wasn’t her professional demeanor but the infant pack strapped to the front of her chest. Tucked inside was her niece, Carrie, now eight weeks old.
Beside her was Margaret McCrae, a vibrant redhead who barreled through life with no trepidation. She wore her hair in a loose topknot, along with a green T-shirt that read Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History, faded jeans, and worn leather sandals.
After Addie and Margaret hauled away the stones, I followed their company’s news and learned they were making a name for themselves in the salvage business. From what I gleaned, Addie was saving her family’s business from the brink of ruin.
Margaret now worked full time with the salvage company but still maintained close ties to the archaeology center. From what I gathered, she had a Ph.D. in history and was a well-qualified expert in local Alexandria history.
Whereas I sensed a calm, steady energy around Addie, the opposite was true of Margaret. Energy sparked when she entered a room. She was oblivious to it.
“Ms. Morgan and Ms. McCrae.”
“Please call us Addie and Margaret,” Ms. Morgan said. “Safe to say you can tell by looking at us that we’re informal.”
“Please come inside.” Despite Addie’s offer to use first names, I rarely did. The formal address maintained a comfortable distance.
“Thanks for seeing us,” Margaret said.
Both women wiped their feet on the doormat and entered.
To my great relief, the baby made a small sucking sound but otherwise was content to sleep. The idea of hearing a baby wailing today was not ideal.
“I read about you in the paper,” Margaret said. “I knew you were a psychologist but didn’t know you were a matchmaker. I didn’t think matchmakers, other than on cable television, were real.”
“I’m not a matchmaker. I’m a trained clinical psychologist.”
“Right. I get it. How did the reporter find you?” she pressed.
“She had a friend of a friend whom I assisted with several sessions.”
“The article said this client and several others found love thanks to you.”
“Not thanks to me. To themselves.”
“That ‘heart of stone’ headline was below the belt,” Margaret said. “What was the deal with the writer? Did she have an ax to grind?”
Addie cleared her throat. “We didn’t come here to talk about the article, Margaret. What was it you wanted to ask Dr. McDonald?”
“Oh, right. Sorry about that, Rae. We have a bigger purpose.”
Addie absently patted the baby’s back. “Dr. McDonald, Margaret did some reading on your house after we dismantled the stone hearth. You remember the bottle we found.”
“Dirty, brown bottle from what I recall.”
“A witch bottle,” Margaret reiterated.
“Ah, yes, of course. Please come into my office.”
Once the women were settled on a Queen Anne sofa, I took a seat on a Chippendale chair across from them. Addie leaned back in her seat, gently rubbing the baby’s back while Margaret sat forward, her body a coiled spring. Bracelets rattled as she tucked a stray curl behind an ear festooned with three hoop earrings. “This witch bottle is an incredible find.”
Though politeness dictated that I offer them coffee, I wasn’t in the mood to extend the visit. “Again, what exactly is a witch bottle?”
“Protection spells,” Margaret said without hesitation. She scooted closer to the edge of her seat, as if nerves, electrified with excitement, would not allow her to relax. “They were created hundreds of years ago by people who feared black magic. They were designed to ward off a witch’s spells and evil curses. They were typically made of wine bottles, filled with all kinds of sharp objects.”
“To cut or slice into the magic.”
“Of course.” How had I found myself here listening to such an inane explanation?
A sly smile tugged at the corner of Margaret’s lips. She had read each of my thoughts. “I try not to judge the past by today’s standards. I report the facts, Rae.”
“Rae. No one has called me Rae in years. Always Dr. McDonald.”
“Right,” Margaret said. “Basically, the bottles were buried by the home’s front door or by the hearth, both considered open portals through which evil could enter. One of the bottles we found belonged to Addie’s family. Sarah Shire Goodwin buried that one. Patience McDonald buried the one we found on your property, and Imogen Smyth made the one we found on the Prince Street property. All three women lived in Alexandria around 1750.”
Margaret wore her love of history on her like a Girl Scout merit badge. “Judging by the tone of your voice, you consider this a remarkable find,” I said.
“You have no idea how amazing it is to find three intact bottles,” Margaret said. “Before I found the Alexandria bottles, only one has been found in such remarkable condition. That one is in a museum in Maryland.”
“And now you have three.”
“Two remain intact.” She nodded toward Addie, her brow raised.
Addie absorbed Margaret’s excitement and maintained a steady demeanor, regardless of the storms around her. “The Goodwin bottle fell and broke. My bad.” She held up a hand. “We’ve had this discussion a million times. Baby Carrie was weeks old and I wasn’t sleeping much. My nerves were frayed. End of story.”
“It’s a shame the bottle broke,” Margaret said. “But it gave me a chance to study the contents. Four nails, a lock of hair, a penny, and what must have been herbs.”
The grandfather clock ticked in the hallway. “Why are you here, ladies? I appreciate your passion for these bottles, but what do they have to do with me? As I remember, I gave my bottle to you.”
Margaret looked at her associate and drew in a breath, wrangling her excitement. “You’re one of the families who could be considered original settlers of Alexandria. And one of a handful who has continuous ownership of the same land, although a much smaller plot now.”
“That’s correct,” I said. “For good or bad, we’ve been rooted to this land.”
Margaret looked beyond the window to the barren patch of earth. “When we were removing the hearth, you mentioned you have lots of family papers.”
“I’ve a collection of boxes that hold many papers and letters kept over the generations, but I haven’t paid much attention to the family’s past other than what my mother told me as a child.” My association of pain and the past created a general dislike of it. Unearth one part of it and you get the whole lot.
“I remembered you saying you had letters dating back to the eighteenth century.”
“And I believe I shared information from the family Bible that helped you with some puzzle you were deciphering.”
“And I do appreciate those,” Margaret said, “I do. It was a huge help.” Her foot tapped before she stilled it. “But I would love to have all the papers and build a full picture of the three women who made these bottles hundreds of years ago. I think any documentation you have may shed a great deal of light on the lives of these women.”
“Why do you care about these women and their past?”
Margaret’s eyes widened, and then blinked. Her mind did not compute such a question. “Why wouldn’t I care?”
For Margaret, the past was a curiosity to be studied and admired. From my prospective, it was a billowy, dark place filled with demons lurking in the shadows. To tug at one brick threatened the structural integrity of the entire firewall I had built around my heart. “Why does this matter? These women are long gone.”
“History matters, Rae. You’ve heard the old saying that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.”
Though I never looked back, I would also never repeat my mistakes. I would never lay one of my children in another woman’s arms again if the price were a life of solitude. “What kind of mistakes are we talking about? These women feared witches and curses. I don’t think you or I are in danger of repeating that kind of mistake.”
“I have read every document I could find about the Goodwins, McDonalds, and Smyths, and though I have enough historical facts and figures that give me a general look at their lives, I have no information that tells me who they were as people. That’s what I’m hoping the papers will reveal.”
“Again, why does it matter?”
Margaret looked at Addie, searching for a better way to put forth her argument. “What am I missing here?”
Addie laid her hand on Margaret’s arm. “Since I’m now raising Carrie, I’m far more aware of the past and how it affects us both. Our history is intertwined. I know you don’t have children, Dr. McDonald, but one day you might, and perhaps then you may find Margaret’s research has a great deal of value.”
I did have a child—or at least I had for the hours I held him. Suddenly the wall dividing past from present shifted as the ground beneath it shuddered. I didn’t care about the past. It could wither in the darkness for all I cared. But the boy could have a very different view of his biological heritage. He might care.
“What would you do with any information you discover? I have no wish to dig up dirt on your family history.”
Margaret leaned forward, trying to close the deal. She’d captured the scent of a fox she chased and the kill was close. “Of course I would give you the final approval on what is released to the public.”
Tugging at a speck of lint on my skirt, I wondered if the boy ever thought about his biological past. “So if you find a fascinating bit of information that I do not want publicly discussed, you would honor my request?”
That might be acceptable. Thanks to my mother arranging all the documents into protective boxes when I was a child, they were preserved. My aversion aside, it made logical sense to inventory the boxes. Especially for the boy. “All right, Margaret. I’ll give you access to the papers, but you’ll have to study them here, on my property. I’m not comfortable lending them out.”
Margaret clasped her ringed hands together. “That would be amazing. And I won’t get in your way. Put me in a corner or an attic or a dungeon, and I’ll be happy as a clam.”
“I think I can do better than a dungeon. I have a large farmhouse table in the kitchen. When would you like to start?”
Margaret nudged Addie. “Now would be awesome. But I’m assuming you might need a day or two.”
“I do have appointments today. How does tomorrow look?”
She pumped her fisted hands in the air before quickly folding them in her lap as, no doubt, Addie had counseled her to do. “That would work.”
“We have a salvage job in Prince William County in the morning,” Addie said.
“Right, the old church. How does afternoon sound?” Margaret asked me.
“That would be acceptable.” I imagined all the meticulously stored boxes that had belonged to generations of McDonalds. Even if we didn’t care about the past, we were careful scribes of the present. “Four o’clock?”
“Done,” Margaret said.
The doorbell rang and I was relieved to end the conversation. “That’s my contractor. We need to go over the plans for the garage.”
Addie rose, cradling the baby’s bottom with her hand. “You’re using Zeb Talbot?”
“I haven’t seen him in a couple of weeks,” Addie said. “I know he’s been busy with his son, and work.”
From what little Zeb had said, I knew that Addie and Zeb were once related by marriage through Addie’s sister, Janet. Janet was Carrie’s mother but also the mother of Zeb’s seven-year-old son, Eric. Mental illness prevented Janet from parenting her children, but she was trying to maintain her fragile hold on sanity and be in their lives as best she could.
Zeb put on his best face when he spoke of Janet, and I sensed he and Addie were a united front in their love for the children. In fact, they made sense as a couple.
Margaret stood and I could see she was already counting the minutes until she could examine the documents. Though her enthusiasm could be annoying, I admired her passion. “See you tomorrow. Four o’clock sharp.”
We walked to the front door, past an oil landscape that depicted Alexandria after the War of 1812. Margaret paused to study the painting, almost unaware of the present around her. “This is an amazing painting,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it before.”
“It’s been in the family for centuries,” I said. How many times had I passed the painting and not even tossed it a glimpse?
For the first time in a very long while, I studied the soft brush strokes of the English painter commissioned by a McDonald to capture the city that this clan now proudly claimed as home.
Gone were the sweeping concrete skylines that trailed along Duke and King Streets, the eight lanes of the Beltway that wrapped around the city, and the roar of planes landing at Reagan National Airport. Instead, the painter had captured tall ships anchored in a harbor transformed by settlers who sheered off the cliffs and created a gentle slope to the waterline and a larger commercial waterfront. At the water’s edge, a collection of warehouses and brick townhomes clustered close to the north shore. In the middle ground, sprawling brick and wooden homes were surrounded by wide swaths of land, enclosed by split rail fence. In the distance, Shuter’s Hill had not yet become home to the tall stone spire of the Masonic Temple that was built in the 1920s. In the painting, Shuter’s Hill sported a single plantation, known today as the Mills/Lee/Dulaney house. This elegant Italian mansion was built in the late eighteenth century and owned by three prominent Alexandria businessmen over a fifty-year span, until fire destroyed it.
“This is amazing,” Margaret breathed as Addie tugged her arm, pulling her closer to the door.
“You can look at the painting later, Margaret. I need to feed Carrie.” Addie looked at me with a rueful grin. “Carrie is not a happy camper if she doesn’t eat on time.”
“We wouldn’t want that.” The sound of a baby’s cry always triggered visions of an awkward teen mother trying to soothe a child who sensed her lack of will to fight for him.
I opened the door to find that the heavy rain had yielded to a fine mist. A very tall man with wide shoulders and closely cropped black hair peppered with strands of white at the temples filled the doorway. My contractor, Zeb Talbot, wore a red T-shirt with Talbot Construction printed over the breast pocket, jeans, and well-worn work boots recently brushed clean of dirt. Long, weathered hands wrapped around the rolled-up plans for my new garage.
“Mr. Talbot,” I said, feeling an odd sense of relief. “I believe you know Addie Morgan and Margaret McCrae.”
He looked past me and nodded to the women behind me. “Addie and Margaret, what brings you out here?”
“Historical riches,” Margaret said.
“The McDonald papers,” I amended. “Ms. McCrae is doing research on the witch bottles she found when the hearth was removed.”
“Ah, the witch bottles.” He grinned at Addie. “Casting more spells these days?”
Addie’s laugh was easy and relaxed. “Every chance I get.”
“Do not mock our kinfolk,” Margaret said. “These bottles are a time capsule into the lives of women who dared to cross the Atlantic and make the wilderness their home.”
Addie tugged Margaret’s arm. “Save the lectures, professor. We need to prep for tomorrow’s demo and I have to feed the kid before she blows.”
“We’re dismantling windows in an old church in Prince William,” Margaret added. “The church was built in 1922. I can already tell you more about it than you’d ever want to know.”
Addie pushed Margaret past Zeb and me. “We can’t wait to hear all about it.”
Margaret, sensing she was pressing her luck, went to the door. “Another fascinating tale but I’ll save that for our ride south tomorrow.”
Carrie squawked and I tensed.
“Addie, the baby has been sleeping the whole time, which means she’ll blow in less than twenty minutes,” Margaret said.
“You two make her sound like a bomb,” I said.
Addie rubbed the baby’s back with a mother’s affection. “She can be vocal when she’s hungry, and it’s nice not to be stuck in traffic when she wakes up. Dr. McDonald, thank you for your time.”
As the two women hurried past Zeb, Addie nudged him affectionately and he tossed her a grin that I couldn’t judge as either romantic or brotherly. I watched as Margaret leaned close to Addie and said in a voice that carried a bit more than she realized, “‘Heart of stone’ fits.”
Addie replied with a frown and shoved Margaret closer to the privacy of the beat-up Shire Architectural Salvage truck.
Zeb’s expression hardened, a clear indication he’d heard as well. “Sorry about that. Margaret can be a whirlwind.”
I had mastered the art of not hearing from my mother. We McDonald women did an excellent job of ignoring what didn’t suit our immediate purposes. “I missed it altogether. Please come inside.”
Tapping the roll of plans on his leg, he paused at the front door, wiped off his boots, and entered the hallway. “Once this rain lets up and the ground dries, we can get started on the garage. It’s been one of the wettest seasons on record, and I’ve shifted all my men to indoor jobs. It has to let up soon.”
The rain had fallen at a steady beat for six weeks. The soil was waterlogged, the river high and fast, and the skies forever dreary and gray. “The last clear day I can remember was the day Addie and Margaret removed the stones from the land.”
“I wonder if Margaret has made the connection,” Zeb said. “She’s sure to link it to the bottles.”
“It’s an odd coincidence but a coincidence nonetheless. The removal of the stones certainly could not be associated with the weather.”
“You might be interested to know that those stones were sold to a family in Loudoun County. They built an exterior hearth with it.”
“Hopefully they built it a safe distance from their main house.” I shared the somewhat irrational inside thought before I realized it.
“Why do you say that?” he asked. My comment had piqued his attention, as if this were his first glimpse into personal quirks that simmered below the surface.
“The cinders from the original hearth burned the first McDonald home. Family lore states it was struck by lightning on a clear day.”
“Fire was a constant threat in those days and for the next century,” Zeb said. “Homes were built of highly combustible material due to cost. To add insult to injury, the fire department would let your house burn down if you didn’t show proof of having bought fire insurance.”
“Fires still happen.”
He cocked his head, sensing that a small door had opened and trying to peer inside. “Are you afraid of fires, Dr. McDonald?”
I found holding eye contact with his clear gaze a challenge. “I have a healthy respect for them.”
“I’ve noticed you’ve installed double the usual number of smoke detectors in this house. And the fireplace in your office hasn’t been used in years.”
“Those are odd details to notice.”
“I’m a contractor, Dr. McDonald.”
“It’s an old home and it’s also my place of business. The extra smoke detectors defray some of the cost of insurance. And I’ve no need to burn a fire. It’s inefficient and messy.”
He studied me, and I sensed that if we’d met as two people in a social setting, he would have pressed the issue. But he was too professional to dig deeper. “Understood.”
I held out my hand, indicating a round table nestled under the large window that overlooked the raw patch of yard. Hard now to remember what it looked like dry.
We both sat and he carefully removed the rubber band from the roll of plans and unfurled them. “I’ve made the changes you requested and expanded the attic for extra storage space. You also asked for an estimate to convert the top space into storage space.”
Carefully, I traced the lines depicting the new storage space. “Now that I think about it, I’m not sure I’ll have a need for more storage.”
“What about an apartment? You mentioned that once.”
“Not a bad idea . . .”
He rolled his head slightly to the side, unwinding tension. “If you ever have family that visits, an apartment would be ideal.”
“I’m the last of the McDonalds.”
The subtle scent of his soap mingled with the smell of rain. “You’re the last McDonald?”
Ten generations of McDonalds had lived in Alexandria, and each generation saw the survival of only one or two McDonalds. With my sister’s passing sixteen years ago, I became the last in the clan.
The last female.
There was the boy, of course, but I had surrendered all claims to him when he was just hours old. Yes, I was thirty-two and capable of having more children, but I wouldn’t. I’d squandered my chance at motherhood when given the chance. I could have fought for him, but I hadn’t.
“I’m the last McDonald and have no real need for an apartment. But I’m considering turning the space into an office. It would be nice to have some separation from this house—too much time is spent here.”
He scratched the side of his head. “An office?”
“If you’ve a mind to do that, then it makes sense to rough in Internet and more electrical outlets.”
“That’s a good idea.”
“It will be some added cost.”
“I understand. Perhaps you could also draw up a plan that breaks the space into two areas—one designed for reception and the other for my office.”
“There will be another delay while I draw up the design.”
“What’s a few days with more rain moving our direction?” I reasoned.
“I don’t mind making the changes, but this will be your third set. You sure you even want a garage out back?”
He was intuitive. Lately, I wasn’t as certain about the addition. I wasn’t sure why I was unsettled about the plans that had been so clear only about a month ago. “Better to make the changes now than later when it will be far more expensive.”
The sun-etched lines feathering from the corners of his eyes deepened as he squinted. “Okay. I’ll get back to you.”
I traced the edge of the plans. “Thank you. I appreciate your good work.”
As I walked him out to the front door, he paused, the plans held tightly in his hands. “That was a nice piece they wrote on you in the paper. Never occurred to me you were a matchmaker. I figured you were some kind of family counselor.”
“I’m not a matchmaker.” I readied for a joke about my heart of stone. “But I’ve seen too many couples make tragic mistakes, so I offer sound advice.”
He had the ability to look at me with an unwavering—and somewhat unsettling—intensity. “The article says you’ve matched up dozens of couples.”
“Not really matched.”
“How many?” he pressed.
“The newspaper article said that you have a ninety-two percent success rate. What happened to the other eight percent?”
“One divorced. They were not entirely truthful during their sessions with me. The other is in counseling.”
“Impressive statistic,” he said as he opened the front door. “Can’t argue with it. I could have used your advice before I married, but then if I hadn’t married Janet, I wouldn’t have Eric. Sometimes mistakes carry blessings with them, I suppose.”
If I could take back my mistakes and wish away the boy, would I?
Would I wish away the boy?
The answer came loud and clear. “I suppose you’re right.”
He jabbed his thumb toward his truck. “Which reminds me, I have something for you. It’s in the truck.”
Zeb jogged to the truck, his long legs crossing the drenched walkway easily, opened the passenger side, and tossed in his plans as he reached across his seat. A quick jog back and he held out a rock to me.
I took the smooth stone from his callused palm. “What’s that?”
“It’s from your hearth. One of your rocks. The mason had a handful of rocks that didn’t quite work and were tossed aside. I loaded up what he didn’t want and thought of you when I saw this one.”
The stone was lighter than I expected and had an irregular surface, with a vein of gray running through the center. But it wasn’t the texture that caught my attention as I turned it over, rather its shape. There was no doubt about its shape. A heart.
“Ah.” Margaret’s earlier parting comment barely registered with me, but this cold rock jabbed sharply in my stomach. “A stone heart.”
“I had read the article just a couple of days before I visited the job site in Loudoun County.”
I traced a small center crack with my thumb. “And you thought of me.”
“You have to admit, for a rock it’s an odd shape.”
“What are the chances?”
“You don’t like it.” He shifted his stance. “I didn’t mean it that way. I thought you would find it amusing.”
“It is amusing.” Was he making fun of me or giving me a memento of a family relic? I tightened my grip on the rock. “I’m sure I’ll be getting a lot of mementos like this in the future. Perhaps I should incorporate the image into my logo.”
He studied the stone and then my expression, which I purposefully kept neutral. “They have it wrong.”
“Your heart isn’t stone.”
“I come from a long line of women like me. We might begin our lives as emotional creatures but we always end up the same.” I held up the rock. “With one of these.”
“Why is that?”
How many times had I asked the question of my mother? “I’m sure there’s some genetic anomaly.”
“Have you ever tried to break the cycle?”
Carefully, I shook my head. “I can see you’re a good man, Zeb. You care about people and you want to fix their lives as easily as you restore an old building or build a new structure. But sometimes a person has to go it alone to find their own way.” He looked as though he’d say more. “Thank you.” I turned to my house and slowly closed the front door.
Long seconds passed before I heard the engine turn over and the sound of Zeb slowly driving away. Letting my head fall back against the door, I pressed the stone to my chest and allowed the cold weight to seep through my silk blouse to my skin, remembering back to the last bittersweet moment I felt pure love and pain: the moment I laid the boy in another mother’s arms.
November 6, 1751
The morning sun peeked above the horizon as I watched Faith swaddle the freshly fed babes in thick wool blankets and lay them carefully on the blankets near the fire. As much as I feared her, I must confess that I was drawn to the babes. My breasts still heavy with milk, I ached to hold my lost children in my arms again. When she caught me staring, she said, “I prayed never to leave the loving embrace of my intended, Mr. Talbot, but the fates stole him and my happiness. Here I am again braving not the vast seas but the thick wilderness.” Her barely whispered words gave me the courage to ask why she chose to return to our farm. “It is all I know. And if not for the babes, I would not be here.” Mr. McDonald came in the room at that moment and saw us staring at each other. Uneasy, he looked me in the eyes and said, “She needs us.” When I rose off my bed to argue he said, “You’re unwell. You need her. I need her. Like it or not, we are all bound.”
MONDAY, AUGUST 15, 2:00 P.M.
Years of living on the open road had dulled my memories of Northern Virginia rush-hour traffic. One look at my watch and I remembered that the rush of cars and drivers clogging the Beltway that encircled Washington, D.C., started as early as two thirty in the afternoon. With so much humanity crammed into a small space, it was a wonder anyone accomplished much. As I inched along the southern side of the Beltway, I regretted my late start. Rookie mistake.
But the noon AA meeting had lasted longer than expected and I’d lingered. I, Lisa Smyth, needed an extra dose of support. I quickly hurried by the Prince Street house and collected my aunt’s dog, Charlie, a seven-year-old chocolate Lab. We took a quick spin around the block before I put him in the car and we made the trip to the nursing home.
The Braddock Road exit directed me away from the traffic snarl and through a collection of stoplights past endless strip malls and housing developments. Finally, I was able to turn off a primary road onto a tree-lined side street that fed into the arched half-circle driveway of the assisted-living home.
I parked my aunt Amelia’s 1989 Buick LeSabre. The car had been sitting in the garage for at least six months and I realized that if someone didn’t start driving it soon, the old gas would ruin the engine. So instead of driving my truck, I was driving Blue Betty, as Amelia called the car.
I leashed Charlie and we both moved toward the plain brick building while I tried to be upbeat for Charlie and Amelia’s sake. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” I repeated the AA mantra, realizing right now it was easier said than done.
Accept what you cannot change, I thought, as I moved toward the front entrance. Charlie regarded me with so much trust that I pulled back my shoulders and dug deep for a smile. The daily visits didn’t last long, and though some might argue they were unnecessary, I refused to miss one, given the debt I owed the woman inside.
Through the front doors, antiseptic smells mingled with a sickening sweet minty aroma that never failed to steal my appetite and challenge my resolve. They called it assisted living. This wasn’t a place of life, but of pending death. The people who lived here were too old or ill to live on their own. Some no longer dreamed of a bright future, but counted the days until the end.
I paused at the nurses’ station and smiled at a middle-aged woman with thinning black hair and large glasses. Her name tag read Delores and I knew from past visits that she liked to bake chocolate chip cookies on Fridays, loved the romantic comedy Love, Actually, and had a wicked crush on the grandson of one of the center’s patients. She liked to share details of her life and might well have told me far more if I encouraged her. Conversations were meant to be a back-and-forth kind of event, much like a tennis match, but whenever she lobbed a ball of information my way, it never crossed back over the net. It was all I could do to talk at the weekly AA meetings, with little inclination to chat further.
Tug on one thread of information and then, suddenly, the entire tapestry unraveled.
I signed L. Smyth and dug my driver’s license out of my wallet. After a cursory check, Dolores smiled up at me. “Ms. Amelia is having a good day today. She’s sitting up in bed and more clearheaded than normal.”
“Hey, Charlie,” the nurse said, grinning.
The dog’s ears perked up. Since I’d arrived, we were both trying to get the hang of this new routine.
My aunt Amelia’s more lucid moments were a blessing and a curse. I enjoyed visiting when she remembered me and we could talk about her younger days living in Alexandria. She was born in 1942 and had been a babe in the city during World War II. She enjoyed talking about the city in the 1960s, when her parents moved the family to the Prince Street house. After a stint in New York trying to make it as a singer, she moved back to Alexandria and became a music teacher. She was twenty-six when she met Robert Murphy, the man she would marry. Two weeks ago she talked about her first dance with him, and tears glistened in her pale gray eyes. Her parents never knew how Amelia and Robert met, but they were thrilled that they made such a good match. Her eyes glistened with mischief as she said, “You know, Robert and I had sex on our second date. We were alive for each other.”
“I never knew.” I tried to sound a little scandalized.
“We Smyth women are good at keeping secrets, aren’t we, Lisa?”
No truer words were spoken. We Smyth women were lip locked when it came to secrets.--This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.
About the Author
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