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Public Secrets

Nora Roberts

  For my first hero, my father


  Los Angeles, 1990

  SHE SLAMMED ON the brakes, ramming hard into the curb. The radio continued to blare. She pressed both hands against her mouth to hold back hysterical laughter. A blast from the past, the disk jockey had called it. A blast from her past. Devastation was still rocking.

  Somehow her brain functioned to take care of little matters: turn off the ignition, take out the key, pull open the door. She was shaking in the late evening heat. An earlier rain and rising temperatures caused mist to spiral up from the pavement. She ran through it, looking frantically right, left, back over her shoulder.

  The dark. She’d nearly forgotten there were things that hid in the dark.

  The noise level rose as she pushed open the doors. The fluorescent lights dazzled her eyes. She continued to run, knowing only that she was terrified and someone, anyone, had to listen.

  She raced along the hallway, her heart beating a hard tattoo. A dozen or more phones were ringing; voices merged and mixed in complaints, shouts, questions. Someone cursed in a low, continual stream. She saw the doors marked Homicide and bit back a sob.

  He was kicked back at his desk, one foot resting on a torn blotter, a phone tucked between his shoulder and ear. A Styrofoam cup of coffee was halfway to his lips.

  “Please help me,” she said, collapsing into the chair facing him. “Someone’s trying to kill me.”

  Chapter One

  London, 1967

  THE FIRST TIME Emma met her father, she was nearly three years old. She knew what he looked like because her mother kept pictures of him, meticulously cut from newspapers and glossy magazines, on every surface in their cramped three-room flat. Jane Palmer had a habit of carrying her daughter, Emma, from picture to picture hanging on the water-stained walls and sitting on the dusty scarred furniture and telling her of the glorious love affair that had bloomed between herself and Brian McAvoy, lead singer for the hot rock group, Devastation. The more Jane drank, the greater that love became.

  Emma understood only parts of what she was told. She knew that the man in the pictures was important, that he and his band had played for the queen. She had learned to recognize his voice when his songs came on the radio, or when her mother put one of the 45s she collected on the record player.

  Emma liked his voice, and what she would learn later was called its faint Irish lilt.

  Some of the neighbors tut-tutted about the poor little girl upstairs with a mother who had a fondness for the gin bottle and a vicious temper. There were times they heard Jane’s shrill curses and Emma’s sobbing wails. Their lips would firm and knowing looks would pass between the ladies as they shook out their rugs or hung up the weekly wash.

  In the early days of the summer of 1967, the summer of love, they shook their heads when they heard the little girl’s cries through the open window of the Palmer flat. Most agreed that young Jane Palmer didn’t deserve such a sweet-faced child, but they murmured only among themselves. No one in that part of London would dream of reporting such a matter to the authorities.

  Of course, Emma didn’t understand terms like alcoholism or emotional illness, but even though she was only three she was an expert on gauging her mother’s moods. She knew the days her mother would laugh and cuddle, the days she would scold and slap. When the atmosphere in the flat was particularly heavy, Emma would take her stuffed black dog, Charlie, crawl under the cabinet beneath the kitchen sink, and in the dark and damp, wait out her mother’s temper.

  On some days, she wasn’t quick enough.

  “Hold still, do, Emma.” Jane dragged the brush through Emma’s pale blond hair. With her teeth gritted, she resisted the urge to whack the back of it across her daughter’s rump. She wasn’t going to lose her temper today, not today. “I’m going to make you pretty. You want to be especially pretty today, don’t you?”

  Emma didn’t care very much about looking pretty, not when her mother’s brush strokes were hurting her scalp and the new pink dress was scratchy with starch. She continued to wriggle on the stool as Jane tried to tie her flyaway curls back with a ribbon.

  “I said hold still.” Emma squealed when Jane dug hard fingers into the nape of her neck. “Nobody loves a dirty, nasty girl.” After two long breaths, Jane relaxed her grip. She didn’t want to put bruises on the child. She loved her, really. And bruises would look bad, very bad, to Brian if he noticed them.

  After dragging her from the stool, Jane kept a firm hand on Emma’s shoulder. “Take that sulky look off your face, my girl.” But she was pleased with the results. Emma, with her wispy blond curls and big blue eyes, looked like a pampered little princess. “Look here.” Jane’s hands were gentle again as she turned Emma to the mirror. “Don’t you look nice?”

  Emma’s mouth moved stubbornly into a pout as she studied herself in the spotted glass. Her voice mirrored her mother’s cockney and had a trace of a childish lisp. “Itchy.”

  “A lady has to be uncomfortable if she wants a man to think she’s beautiful.” Jane’s own slimming black corset was biting into her flesh.


  “Because that’s part of a woman’s job.” She turned, examining first one side, then the other in the mirror. The dark blue dress was flattering to her full curves, making the most of her generous breasts. Brian had always liked her breasts, she thought, and felt a quick, sexual pull.

  God, no one ever before or since had matched him in bed. There was a hunger in him, a wild hunger he hid so well under his cool and cocky exterior. She had known him since childhood, had been his on-again, off-again lover for more than ten years. No one knew better what Brian was capable of when fully aroused.

  She allowed herself to fantasize, just for a moment, what it would be like when he peeled the dress away, when his eyes roamed over her, when his slender, musician’s fingers unhooked the frilly corset.

  They’d been good together, she remembered as she felt herself go damp. They would be good together again.

  Bringing herself back, she picked up the brush and smoothed her hair. She had spent the last of the grocery money at the hairdresser’s getting her shoulder-length straight hair colored to match Emma’s. Turning her head, she watched it sway from side to side. After today, she wouldn’t have to worry about money ever again.

  Her lips were carefully painted a pale, pale pink—the same shade she had seen on supermodel Jane Asher’s recent Vogue cover. Nervous, she picked up her black liner and added more definition near the corner of each eye.

  Fascinated, Emma watched her mother. Today she smelled of Tigress cologne instead of gin. Tentatively, Emma reached out for the lipstick tube. Her hand was slapped away.

  “Keep your hands off my things.” She gave Emma’s finger an extra slap. “Haven’t I told you never to touch my things?”

  Emma nodded. Her eyes had already filmed over.

  “And don’t start that bawling. I don’t want him seeing you for the first time with your eyes all red and your face puffy. He should have been here already.” There was an edge to Jane’s voice now, one that had Emma moving cautiously out of range. “If he doesn’t come soon …” She trailed off, going over her options as she studied herself in the glass.

  She had always been a big girl, but had never run to fat. True, the dress was a little snug, but she strained against it in interesting places. Skinny might be in fashion, but she knew men preferred round, curvy women when the lights went out. She’d been making her living off her body long enough to be sure of it.

  Her confidence built as she looked herself over and she fancied she resembled the pale, sulky-faced models who were the rage in London. She wasn’t wise enough to note that the new color job was unflattering or that the arrow-straight hair made the angles o
f her face boxy and harsh. She wanted to be in tune. She always had.

  “He probably didn’t believe me. Didn’t want to. Men never want their children.” She shrugged. Her father had never wanted her—not until her breasts had begun to develop. “You remember that, Emma girl.” She cast a considering eye over Emma. “Men don’t want babies. They only want a woman for one thing, and you’ll find out what that is soon enough. When they’re done, they’re done, and you’re left with a big stomach and a broken heart.”

  She picked up a cigarette and began to smoke it in quick, jerky puffs as she paced. She wished it was grass, sweet, calming grass, but she’d spent her drug money on Emma’s new dress. The sacrifices a mother made.

  “Well, he may not want you, but after one look he won’t be able to deny you’re his.” Eyes narrowed against the smoke, she studied her daughter. There was another tug, almost maternal. The little tyke was certainly pretty as a picture when she was cleaned up. “You’re the goddamn image of him, Emma luv. The papers say he’s going to marry that Wilson slut—old money and fancy manners—but we’ll see, we’ll just see about that. He’ll come back to me. I always knew he’d come back.” She stubbed the cigarette in a chipped ashtray and left it smoldering. She needed a drink—just one taste of gin to calm her nerves. “You sit on the bed,” she ordered. “Sit right there and keep quiet. Mess with any of my stuff, and you’ll be sorry.”

  She had two drinks before she heard the knock on the door. Her heart began to pound. Like most drunks, she felt more attractive, more in control, once she’d had the liquor. She smoothed down her hair, fixed what she thought was a sultry smile on her face, and opened the door.

  He was beautiful. For a moment in the streaming summer sunlight, she saw only him, tall and slender, his wavy blond hair and full, serious mouth giving him the look of a poet or an apostle. As nearly as she was able, she loved.

  “Brian. So nice of you to drop by.” Her smile faded immediately when she saw the two men behind him. “Traveling in a pack these days, Bri?”

  He wasn’t in the mood. He was carrying around a simmering rage at being trapped into seeing Jane again and put the bulk of the blame on his manager and his fiancée. Now that he was here, he intended to get out again as quickly as possible.

  “You remember, Johnno.” Brian stepped inside. The smell, gin, sweat, and grease from yesterday’s dinner, reminded him uncomfortably of his own childhood.

  “Sure.” Jane nodded briefly to the tall, gangly bass player. He was wearing a diamond on his pinky and sported a dark, fluffy beard. “Come up in the world, haven’t we, Johnno?”

  He glanced around the dingy flat. “Some of us.”

  “This is Pete Page, our manager.”

  “Miss Palmer.” Smooth, thirtyish, Pete offered a white-toothed smile and a manicured hand.

  “I’ve heard all about you.” She laid her hand in his, back up, an invitation to lift it to his lips. He released it. “You made our boys stars.”

  “I opened a few doors.”

  “Performing for the queen, playing on the telly. Got a new album on the charts and a big American tour coming up.” She looked back at Brian. His hair fell nearly to his shoulders. His face was thin and pale and sensitive. Reproductions of it were gracing teenagers’ walls on both sides of the Atlantic as his second album, Complete Devastation, bulleted up the charts. “Got everything you wanted.”

  Damned if he’d let her make him feel guilty because he’d made something of himself. “That’s right.”

  “Some of us get more than they want.” She tossed her long hair back. The paint on the swingy gold balls she wore at her ears was chipped and peeling. She smiled again, posing a moment. At twenty-four she was a year older than Brian, and considered herself much more savvy. “I’d offer tea, but I wasn’t expecting a party.”

  “We didn’t come for tea.” Brian stuck his hands in the wide pockets of his low-riding jeans. The sulky look he’d worn throughout the drive over had hardened. True, he was young, but he’d grown up tough. He had no intention of letting this old, gin-soaked loner make trouble for him. “I didn’t call the law this time, Jane. That’s for old time’s sake. If you keep ringing, keep writing with all your threats and blackmail, believe me I will.”

  Her heavily lined eyes narrowed. “You want to put the bobbies on me, you go right ahead, my lad. We’ll see how all your little fans and their stick-in-the-mud parents like reading about how you got me pregnant. About how you deserted me and your poor little baby girl while you’re rolling in money and living high. How would that go over, Mr. Page? Think you could get Bri and the boys another royal command performance?”

  “Miss Palmer.” Pete’s voice was smooth and calm. He’d already spent hours considering the ins and outs of the situation. One glance told him he’d wasted his time. The answer here would be money. “I’m sure you don’t want to air your personal business in the press. Nor do I think you should imply desertion when there was none.”

  “Ooh. Is he your manager, Brian, or your blinking solicitor?”

  “You weren’t pregnant when I left you.”

  “Didn’t know I was pregnant!” she shouted and gripped Brian’s black leather vest. “It was two months later when I found out for sure. You were gone by then. I didn’t know where to find you. I could have gotten rid of it.” She clung harder when Brian started to pry her hands off. “I knew people who could have fixed it for me, but I was scared, more scared of that than of having it.”

  “So she had a kid.” Johnno sat on the arm of a chair and pulled out a Gauloise which he lit with a heavy gold lighter. In the past two years he’d gotten very comfortable with expensive habits. “That don’t mean it was yours, Bri.”

  “It’s his, you freaking fag.”

  “My, my.” Unperturbed, Johnno drew on the cigarette, then blew the smoke lightly but directly into her face. “Quite the lady, aren’t we?”

  “Back off, Johnno.” Pete’s voice remained low and calm. “Miss Palmer, we’re here to settle this whole matter quietly.”

  And that, she thought, was her ace in the hole. “I’ll just bet you’d like to keep it quiet. You know I wasn’t with anybody else back then, Brian.” She leaned into him, letting her breasts press and flatten against his chest. “You remember that Christmas, the last Christmas we were together. We got high and a little crazy. We never used anything. Emma, she’ll be three next September.”

  He remembered, though he wished he didn’t. He’d been nineteen and full of music and rage. Someone had brought cocaine and after he’d snorted for the first time he’d felt like a thoroughbred stud. Quivering to fuck.

  “So you had a baby and you think she’s mine. Why did you wait until now to tell me about her?”

  “I told you I couldn’t find you at first.” Jane moistened her lips and wished she’d had just one more drink. She didn’t think it would be wise to tell him she’d enjoyed playing the martyr for a while, the poor, unwed mother, all alone. And there’d been a man or two along the way to ease the road.

  “I went on this program, they have them for girls who get in trouble. I thought maybe I’d give her away, you know, for adoption. After I had her, I couldn’t, because she looked just like you. I thought if I gave her up, you’d find out about it and get mad at me. I was afraid you wouldn’t give me another chance.”

  She started to cry, big fat tears that smeared her heavy makeup. They were uglier, and more disturbing, because they were sincere. “I always knew you’d come back, Brian. I started hearing your songs on the radio, seeing posters of you in the record store. You were on your way. I always knew you’d make it, but, Jesus, I never knew you’d be so big. I started thinking—”

  “I’ll bet you did,” Johnno murmured.

  “I started thinking,” she said between her teeth. “That you’d want to know about the kid. I went back to your old place, but you’d moved and nobody would tell me where. But I thought about you every day. Look.”

  Taking his
arm she pointed to the pictures she’d crowded on the walls of the flat. “I cut out everything I could find about you and saved it.”

  He looked at himself reproduced a dozen times. His stomach turned. “Jesus.”