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They are the Season sisters, bound by blood, driven apart by a tragedy. Now they are about to embark on a bittersweet journey into the unknown—an odyssey of promise and forgiveness, of loss and rediscovery.
Jillian, Beatrice and Rose have gathered for the funeral of their younger sister, Meredith. Her death, and the legacy she leaves them, will trigger a cross-country journey in search of a stranger with the power to mend their shattered lives. As the emotions of the past reverberate into the present, Jillian, Beatrice and Rose search for the girls they once were, in hopes of finding what they really lost: the women they were meant to be.
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Mary Alice Monroe is a New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of thirteen novels. Her books have received numerous awards, including the RT Lifetime Achievement Award, Florida Distinguished Author Award, SC Book Festival Award, and the International Fiction Award for Green Fiction. An active conservationist, she lives in the lowcountry of South Carolina where she is at work on her next novel. Visit her at maryalicemonroe.com and on Facebook.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Rose Season stood at the threshold of her sister's bedroom and silently watched the shadows of an oncoming storm stretch like plum-colored talons across the empty bed. A great gust of icy wind from Lake Michigan howled at the windows.
"Merry," she whispered with longing. Rose resisted the urge to open the window and call out to her in the vast darkness. Merry's presence was palpable tonight. Rose had read somewhere that the spirit lingered for three days after death. Merry had been dead for four. Did she tarry to be sure her last request was honored?
Her last request. Why had she agreed to it? Rose asked herself, wringing her hands. The request was crazy, intrusive, maybe even hurtful. No one would ever go along with it. What would her sisters do when they read Merry's letter? Especially Jilly She'd never spoken of that time, not once in over twenty-five years. It was as though it had never happened. She'll be furious, Rose worried. But secrets in families always had a way of coming out in the end, didn't they?
The hall clock chimed the hour. Rose tilted her head, thinking to herself that she should be calling Merry for dinner now, telling her to wash up. A pang of loneliness howled through her like the wind outside. She wandered into Merry's lavender room, idly running her fingers along the girlish white dresser, the dainty vanity table and the silver-plated brush, comb and mirror set. Strawberry-blond hairs still clung to the bristles. Across the room, she bent to pick up the ratty red-haired baby doll lying in the center of the pristine four-poster bed. How Merry had loved the baby doll. Spring, she'd called it, and never once in twenty-six years slept without it. Rose brought the doll to her cheek, catching Merry's scent still lingering in the fabric. Then, with a loving pat, she placed the doll back on the bed, careful to prop it against the pillow. Rose's hands felt uncomfortably idle. She smoothed the wrinkles from the comforter with agitated strokes, then moved to the bedside stand to straighten the lace doily, adjust the pleated lampshade and line up the many small bottles of prescription drugs that she was so familiar with. She couldn't part with anything of Merry's yet, not even these medicines.
Without Merry to take care of, she felt so useless and detached in the old house, like the shell of a cicada clinging worthlessly to the bark. She needed work to keep her going, some focus to draw her attention from her mourning. With a discipline that was the backbone of her nature, Rose walked swiftly from the gloomy bedroom to the wide, curving staircase of the old Victorian that had been her home since she was born.
The walls along the stairs were covered with dozens of photographs of the Season sisters at various moments of glory and achievement in their lives. For comfort, she glanced at the familiar photographs, treasuring the faces captured in them: Jilly, Birdie, Rose and Merry. The Four Seasons, their father had called them. The largest numbers of photographs were of Jilly and Birdie, the eldest two. There were fewer pictures of Rose, and hardly any of Merry, the baby. She longed for her sisters; it had been nearly ten years since they had all been together. How sad that it took a funeral to bring them together again.
Who would arrive home first? she wondered. Birdie was extremely busy with her medical practice in Wisconsin, but Jilly had the farthest to come—all the way from France.
Rose paused at a framed 1978 Paris Vogue magazine cover that showcased a young Jillian at twenty-one years of age, looking sex-kittenish in a fabulous pink gown that clashed in a chic way with her vibrant red hair. It was her first cover. Rose studied her eldest sister's full red lips pursed in an innocent pout, her deep-set eyes of emerald-green and the come-hither pose exposing one long, shimmering leg that seemed to go on forever. She couldn't imagine herself ever standing in front of so many people, in the glare of the lights, while men snapped her photograph. For that matter, Rose couldn't imagine ever looking so seductive or desirable.
Jilly was born at 12:01 a.m. on November 1, 1955. All Souls' Day. Mother always told of how she'd squeezed herself shut because she didn't want a child of hers born on Halloween. Who knew what nickname father would have chosen then? Their father, William, claimed it was a family tradition to play with their unusual last name. After all, he was nicknamed Bill Season. But their mother, Ann, a petite beauty with a will of iron, swore no child of hers was going to be tagged for life with a name people laughed at. As a compromise, Ann Season gave her daughters strong, sensible names, allowing their father full rein with the nicknames. Thus for his first daughter, Jillian, born in a Chicago autumn, he thought himself clever to name her "Jilly Season."
Moving down the stairs, Rose perused the large collection of photographs of Beatrice. Jilly liked to be first, but in most things Birdie came through for the prize. "The early bird catches the worm," their father used to say with a wink of pride at his second daughter. Birdie was his favorite, everyone knew that. Jilly would tease her and say Birdie was the son he never had. She was a tall, broad-shouldered girl with a powerful intellect and an even more powerful, competitive spirit. Even the name "Birdie" seemed to mock her tomboyish body.
Bill Season had chosen the nickname because she was born in early summer and was insatiable, howling for more food like a hungry bird in the nest. And she'd certainly caught the worms, Rose thought as her gaze wandered over the photographs. The first was Birdie at sixteen, beaming into the camera, dripping wet and clutching an enormous silver trophy for the state championship swimming team. She'd been the captain, of course. And there were more photographs, of Birdie as class valedictorian, of Birdie winning trophies for swimming, lacrosse and the science fair. Birdie receiving a diploma from medical school. Birdie dazzling in white lace and tulle smiling at her handsome groom, Dennis, the biggest trophy of all.
There were fewer pictures of herself, the third child. This section of wall seemed almost barren when compared to Birdie's. Rose felt the usual flush of embarrassment that the scarcity of photographs was an accurate—if pitiful—statement about her life. It was all very well that Jilly was a famous model, on magazine covers all over Europe, and that Birdie was a successful doctor, wife and mother. But what about her own life? There was neither a photograph of her graduating from college, nor a picture of a radiant Rose on her wedding day. Her mile-marker was a high school graduation photograph that showed a thin, shy girl looking much like she did today.
Rose's hair was a paler, washed-out version of the Season red that her father playfully called "pumpkin" and her mother optimistically called "strawberry blond." She still wore it in the same long, straight style of high school and her body was every bit as lean and shapeless as it been then. "Sticks," the other children had called her. In all the pictures, her eyes were the dominant feature. Enormous hazel eyes with brows and lashes so pale they were seemingly not there. They peered out from her pale face, large and wary, like a cat's when poised to leap away.
Rose was born in the dog days of August when her mother's roses were blooming. Thus she was called Rose, the only one of the four Season girls without a nickname. Rose was a fine, plain name, her father had always said. And it suited her, she thought with a sigh of resignation.
As with most families, the baby had the fewest photographs. Which was too bad, she thought, since Merry was arguably the most beautiful of all the Season girls. Their parents had been older when they married and had had children late. Thus, their father liked to say that Merry was his last hurrah. The fourth Season. Meredith was born in December, a season ripe with nickname potential, but Bill had settled on "Merry" because she was such a cheerful baby. Rose traced a finger across a picture of a precocious, impish Merry at two years of age. The pictures stopped then.
Rose turned her head away from the photographs, closing her mind from the memory, and wandered from room to room, feeling that edginess that comes when one is aimlessly looking for something to do. Each of the twelve rooms of the Victorian was immaculate, a savory dinner was waiting in the oven and flowers were beautifully arranged in the bedrooms. She turned on the television, then as quickly flicked it off again. She picked up a book and settled into a comfortable chair, but no sooner had she read a paragraph than her mind wandered again. She closed the book in defeat and laid her head back against the chair. With a heavy sigh, she reached into her apron pocket and pulled out a pale blue envelope.
She'd carried this letter in her pocket all day wondering whether to burn it or send it to the family lawyer. The moment of decision had come; the funeral was tomorrow. Rose closed her eyes and recalled how Merry's pink tongue had worked her lip as she'd struggled with the letter, wanting it to be her best. Merry couldn't have comprehended how those brief sentences, written in her childlike script, would send thundering repercussions in her sisters' minds and hearts—as it had hers when she read them.
She looked down at the envelope in her hand and was moved to tears by the sight of the address painstakingly written in Merry's handwriting, encircled by a big heart: ToJilly, Birdie and Rose.
She would give the letter to the lawyer, Rose decided. It was the right thing to do. Merry needed her—trusted her—to deliver it. This time she would not fail her.
Beatrice Season Connor looked up into the April sky and cursed.
"Look, it's snowing!" Hannah called, stepping out from the car. Her fifteen-year-old daughter's face turned upward, and with a delighted grin, she darted her tongue out to catch the soft, moist flakes as they tumbled gracefully from the sky.
"That's just what we need. A snowstorm on top of everything else."
"It's just a few flakes." Hannah's voice was full of reproach.
"From the looks of it, we're going to get a dump. Damn snow," Birdie muttered, grabbing the bags full of last-minute shopping items from the car and hoisting them into her strong arms. "I'm sick of snow. Hasn't Milwaukee had enough for one year? It's April, for crying out loud. Well, that's it," she said with the quick decision typical of her. Slamming the door, she headed toward the house. "We're going to have to hustle and leave for Evanston earlier than we'd planned if we expect to get everything done by the funeral." She stopped at the door and turned to face her daughter. "I'm counting on you, Hannah. I'm going to need your help."
"I don't see why we have to do everything." Hannah crossed her arms over her chest.
"We do if we want it done right." Birdie privately groaned at the prospect. The notion of pushing forward her departure when her schedule was already jammed full thrummed in her temples. She was squeaking out of town as it was. Sometimes she felt like a circus performer twirling countless plates: she had had to arrange coverage for her medical practice, calm her patients, take the dog to the kennel, cancel the housecleaning service, pack... The list went on and on. On top of all that, the funeral was tomorrow and it was up to her to make certain everything ran smoothly.
"When you need something done, ask a busy woman," she murmured with a heavy sigh, though secretly she felt a superior conceit. To her mind, all it took to succeed was discipline, setting goals and lots of hard work. And she worked harder than most. She could list her achievements readily: she was a pediatrician with a thriving practice, a wife for nineteen years, the mother of a healthy daughter and the mistress of a large, well-managed home. If there was such a thing as a supermom, Birdie thought with pride, then she was it.
But today was a test of her abilities. She lifted her wrist to check her watch and her lips tightened with annoyance. God, look at the time. Where was Dennis? And Hannah? Peering outside, she saw Hannah still leaning against the rear fender, gazing at the twirling flakes of snow. Frustration brought the pounding in her head to a painful pace.
"Didn't you hear me say we were leaving early?" she called from the back door.
Hannah's smile fell but she remained motionless, resolutely staring out.
"Don't pull that passive-aggressive act on me, young lady," she called, raising her voice as she walked nearer the car. She could feel her anger growing with each step. "I've asked you to get your packing done for twenty-four hours and so far you haven't done a thing. I'm not going to do it for you."
"Who's asking you to?" Hannah swung her head around. "You'd just pack the wrong things, anyway."
"This isn't a prom we're talking about. It's my sister's funeral. My baby sister! It's hard enough for me to deal with the fact that she's gone without having to argue about meaningless things like your dress."
"At least you have a sister."
Birdie felt the weight of that reply start to drag her under. How many years had she had this thrown in her face like a broken promise? "Hannah, please. We don't have time to argue. Just go upstairs and pack a black dress," she ground out with finality.
"You never ask me to do something, you order me. Yes, you do! I hate you!" she shouted when Birdie opened her mouth to object. Hannah fled into the house, slamming the door behind her.
Birdie knew that those words were spoken in the white-hot fire of teenage anger and flung at her to burn—and burn they did. A mother never hears the words "I hate you" without cringing and feeling like a hopeless failure.
She followed Hannah back into the house with a heavy tread. Closed doors were a way of life between them now. Why did push always come to shove between them? And when had she started to feel the need to win these senseless battles? Not so long ago, she'd let trivial arguments slide by because all the parenting articles she'd read had a unified rallying cry: choose your battles! With teenagers, however, everything was a battle.
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