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Susan Mallery, NY Times bestselling authorSusan Mallery, NY Times bestselling author

Fool's Gold Series
July 2010

Chapter One

Almost Perfect, a romance novel by Susan Mallery

Liz Sutton had always known the past was going to come back and bite her in the butt—she just hadn't known it was going to happen today.

Her morning had started normally enough, with getting her son off to school, then going down the hall to her office, where she managed to write five fairly decent pages before having to stop for some serious pacing, followed by deleting three of the five pages. She was trying to figure out who she was planning to murder in the first chapter of her new book, not to mention how they would be murdered. Was decapitation just too predictable? Luckily her assistant knocked on her door, sparing her from making a decision.

"Sorry to interrupt," Peggy said, frowning slightly as she held out a piece of paper. "But I thought you'd want to read this."

Liz took the single sheet. It was an e-mail, sent to her website. There was a link there for fans to get in touch with her. Peggy handled most of the e-mails, but every now and then she found something she didn't know what to do with.

"A crazed stalker type?" Liz asked, pathetically grateful for the interruption. When the writing was going slowly, even a death threat was more thrilling than the current work in progress.

"Not exactly. She says she's your niece."

Niece?

Liz scanned the sheet.

Dear Aunt Liz,

My name is Melissa Sutton. My dad is your brother Roy. I'm fourteen years old and my sister Abby is eleven. A few months ago, our dad went to prison. His new wife, our stepmom, said she would take care of us, but she changed her mind and left. I thought Abby and me would be fine. I'm really mature for my age. My teachers say that all the time.

She's been gone a while now and I'm really scared. I haven't told Abby because she's still a kid, but I don't know if we can make it. I don't want to tell Dad what happened because he really liked Bettina and he'll be sad she didn't wait for him.

So I thought maybe you could help. I know we haven't met before, but I've read all your books and I really like them.

Hope to hear from you soon. Your niece, Melissa.

P.S. I'm using the computer at the library, so you can't e-mail me back. But here's our phone number. Even though the lights are off, the phone still works at home.

P.P.S. We're living in your old house in Fool's Gold.

Liz read the e-mail a second time, trying to get the words to make sense. Roy was back in Fool's Gold. Or at least he had been, before heading off to prison.

She hadn't seen her brother in nearly eighteen years. He was a lot older and had left the summer she'd turned twelve. She'd never heard from him again. Apparently he'd married a couple of times and had kids. Daughters. Girls who were living alone in a house that had been rundown and disgusting twelve years ago. She doubted there had been many improvements since.

Questions tumbled through her brain. Questions about her brother and why he'd returned to Fool's Gold after being gone so long. Why he was in prison and what on earth was she supposed to do with two nieces she'd never met?

She glanced at her watch. It was barely eleven. As it was Tyler's last day before summer vacation, he was getting out at twelve-thirty. If she got the car packed in time, they could leave directly from his school and be in Fool's Gold in about four hours.

"I need to deal with this," Liz told her assistant, as she wrote an address on a piece of paper. "Call the electric company in Fool's Gold and get the power turned back on. They should take a credit card for payment. Do the same with the other utilities. I'll call the girls and let them know I'm coming."

"Are they really your nieces?" Peggy asked.

"I guess. I haven't seen my brother since I was their age, but I can't let them stay there alone." She shook her head, trying to figure out what else had to be done. Her next book wouldn't be published until the fall, she so didn't have to worry about publicity and book tours. She could work on her new story anywhere she had her laptop. At least that was the theory.

"I don't know how long we'll be gone," she continued. "I'm guessing it will take a couple of weeks to get everything straightened out."

Peggy stared at her. "Just like that?"

"What do you mean?"

"Aren't you going to think about it? Most people would hesitate. You don't even know these girls."

True, Liz thought. But what choice did she have? "They're kids, by themselves and family. I have to do something."

"Which is just like you," Peggy said. "You leap in and do what you think is right."

"Someone has to." Besides, she'd grown up having to take care of things. Her mother hadn't bothered. "With luck, I won't be gone too long."

"Don't worry either way. I can handle things here."

Liz forced a smile. "I know you can. I'm going to pack and then go get Tyler. We'll drive to Fool's Gold today."

"Maybe it will be nice to go home."

Liz did her best to look normal. "Sure. Okay, I'll call the girls."

She waited until Peggy had left before picking up the phone. She dialed the familiar number, then let it ring eight times before hanging up. No answer. Of course, it was a weekday. The girls were probably still in school. She would try again later, from her cell.

She had to pack for herself and her son, phone a few of friends and let them know she would be gone for a couple of weeks, e-mail her editor and agent to tell them the same. Logistics, she thought as she collected the notes she'd made on her current novel. She was good at logistics. The ability to plan and deal with problems was part of the reason she enjoyed writing her detective mystery series. She'd always been good at the work. It was the rest of life that caused her to stumble time after time.

"Introspection later," she murmured aloud. "Action now."

She powered off her laptop, then disconnected it from the docking station. After collecting her notes, a few pens, pads of paper and her address book, she went down the hall to her bedroom.

An hour and a half later, she'd packed what she hoped was enough, loaded the car and gone over everything with Peggy. Her assistant would take care of the house and make sure the bills were paid.

"Are you all right?" Peggy asked.

"Sure. Great. Why?"

Peggy, a forty-something former executive assistant, frowned. "Just checking. This is a lot to take in." She hesitated. "You know if there's no one else to take care of the girls..."

Liz might suddenly be responsible for two nieces she'd never met. "I know. I'll deal with that when I have more information."

"Mac and I went to Fool's Gold on our honeymoon. Back when I thought marriage was a good thing. I didn't know you were from there."

No one did, Liz thought grimly. She found life easier when she didn't talk about her past. "I left right after high school. Moved here. San Francisco is my home now."

Peggy smiled at her. "If you need anything, call me."

"I will."

Liz went downstairs to the single car garage and got into her Lexus RX350. She'd packed four suitcases, a couple of boxes with Tyler's favorite movies, his Xbox, and a handful of books. She went over the inventory because that was easier than thinking about what she was doing. Going back to the one place she never wanted to be. The town where she'd grown up.

For a second she wondered if she really had to do this. Go rescue a couple of kids she'd never met. Then she shook off the thought. Right now there wasn't anyone else. She couldn't leave the two girls on their own. She would deal with the problem, get it resolve and return to her life. Staying was not an option.

Midday traffic was relatively light and she made it to Tyler's school in about twenty minutes. He was talking to his friends, probably making plans for hanging out. When he saw her small SUV, he waved and hurried over.

"Jason says his family's for sure going to Disneyland in August and they're gonna call and talk to you about me going with them," he said as he climbed into the passenger seat.

"Hello to you, too," she said with a smile.

He grinned. "Hi, Mom. How was your day?"

"Interesting."

"Great. Now can we talk about Disneyland?"

Her son was the brightest and best part of her life, she thought as she stared into his dark brown eyes. He had her smile, but everything else came from his father. As if her DNA hadn't been strong enough to overpower his.

Tyler was smart, funny, warm and caring. He had dozens of friends, an easy-going disposition and plans to be an architect when he grew up. She knew that everyone said the early teen years were the worst with boys. That by thirteen or fourteen, he would be making her life hell. But that was a problem for another time. Today, Tyler was her world.

A world that had just been shifted off its axis and was tumbling freely through space.

"Disneyland sounds like fun," she said. "I'll talk to Jason's mom. If they want to take you and you want to go, then we'll arrange it."

His grinned widened. Then he glanced toward the back of the vehicle.

"Whoa, are we going somewhere? Road trip?"

She pulled into traffic, heading toward I-80. She would take it east, until she turned off to drive into Fool's Gold.

"Sort of," she said and tightened her grip on the steering wheel.

Over the years, she'd done her best not to lie to her son. Not about her past or his father. For the most part, she'd simply told him there were questions she wouldn't answer. At four or five, he'd been easily distracted. At eight, he'd been determined to find out the truth. Now he asked less, probably because he knew he couldn't wear her down. But she knew he wondered.

"I got an e-mail today," she told him. "You remember I told you I have a brother?

"Uh huh. Roy. We don't ever see him."

"I know. He's a lot older and he took off when I was twelve. I woke up one morning and he was gone. I never saw him again."

She still remembered her mother's sobs, made thicker and louder by the alcohol lingering in her system. From that moment on, her mother spent her life waiting for Roy to return. Nothing else had mattered, certainly not Liz.

Liz had left town shortly after graduating high school. She'd phoned home once, a few weeks later, saying she thought she should check in and tell her mother where she was.

"Don't bother calling again," had been the woman's only response before hanging up the phone.

"So Uncle Roy e-mailed you?"

"Not exactly." Liz didn't know how much to reveal. Telling the truth was one thing, but sharing details was another. "He's, um, in some trouble and I have to go help. He has two girls. Your cousins. Melissa is fourteen and Abby is your age."

"I have cousins? You didn't tell me about cousins."

"I didn't know about them until today."

"But they're family."

True enough, she thought. And the word "family" implied caring and connection. Maybe in most places, but not in the Sutton household. At least not until Liz had had Tyler. She'd done everything she could think of to break the cycle of neglect. She'd been determined to be a warm, loving mother, to offer her child a safe haven.

"I didn't know where Roy was," she said. "He never got in touch with me after he left." For six years, she'd waited, hoping he would come get her and take her away. Until he'd walked out, he'd always taken care of her. Been a buffer between her and her mother. Protected her from the worst of it.

By the time she'd been old enough to go looking, she told herself she no longer cared.

"Do they know we're coming?" Tyler asked. "Do they know about me?"

"Not yet, but they will. We're going to stay with them for a couple of weeks." She didn't mention the fact that Roy was in prison. Time enough for that later. Nor did she go into the possibility of the girls having to live with them permanently. Maybe there was other family who could take care of them.

"I grew up in a small town called Fool's Gold," she said. "It's in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains."

"Do they get snow?" he asked eagerly. Because at eleven, seeing snow was about the best it could be.

She laughed. "Probably not in June, but yes, they get snow. There's lots to do there. Hiking, swimming. There's a river and a lake."

"We could go camping."

She made a noncommittal noise in her throat, mostly because the thought of camping ranked right up there with being awake during open-heart surgery. Not even thinking about it was pleasant. But then she wasn't an eleven year-old boy. She hadn't been fascinated by worms and dirt and play cars and plastic guns, either.

More traits she knew he got from his father. Which was another problem. Not the traits, the man himself. Odds were Ethan was still in Fool's Gold. The one place he'd asked her not to be. He'd made it clear he didn't want her or his kid around.

Well, he was just going to have to get over it, she told herself. This was an emergency. She wouldn't make a big deal about Tyler being in town and she certainly wouldn't tell her son about his father. Not when Ethan had rejected them both so completely.

She would deal with the girls and get out as quickly as possible. If she happened to run into Ethan, she would be pleasant and distant. Nothing more. Because after all this time and all the ways he'd managed to hurt her, there was no way she was ever going to be vulnerable to him again. She'd learned her lesson. Fool me once and all that.

She gripped the steering wheel more tightly and glanced at her nav system screen. It showed the way to her destination and she was counting on the little device to be able to guide her back home when she was done.

#

Ethan Hendrix stood by the barricades between the crowd and the cyclists. The sun was hot, the spectators loud. The noise of a race was specific and not something he would ever forget. There'd been a time when he'd planned on seeing the world on the racing circuit. A long time ago, he thought, remembering the feel of the wind, the sensation of muscles burning as he dug for the will to win.

Winning had come easily. Maybe too easily. He'd gotten careless during a race. At fifty miles an hour, balanced on skinny wheels and a light-weight frame, mistakes could be deadly. In his case, he'd been left with a few broken bones and a permanent limp. For anyone else, it would have been considered lucky. For him, the injury had kept him from ever racing again.

Now, ten years later, he watched the cyclists speed past. He spotted his friend Josh, still making up time from his late start, and wondered what if. But he didn't have a whole lot of energy for the subject. Everything was different now and he was good with that.

He turned away from the race, ready to go back to his office, when he spotted a woman in the crowd. For a second he thought he'd imagined her, that he was putting beautiful features he would never forget onto the face of someone else. There was no way Liz Sutton was back in Fool's Gold.

Instinctively he moved closer, but the road with the barricades was between them. The redhead looked up again, this time facing him. She removed her sunglasses and he saw her wide green eyes, the full mouth. From this distance he couldn't see the freckles on her nose, but he knew they were there. He even knew how many.

He swore softly. Liz was back. Except on the back cover of her books, he hadn't seen her in over a decade. As of five seconds ago, he would have told anyone who asked that he'd forgotten her, had gotten over her. She was his past.

She looked away then, as if searching for someone. Obviously not him, he thought, then grinned. Liz back in Fool's Gold. Who would have thought?

He eased his way through the crowd. He might not be able to find her now, but he had a feeling he knew where she would be later. He would meet her there and welcome her home. It was the least he could do.

#

Liz kept a tight hold on Tyler's hand. The crowd around the bike race was big and seemed to be growing. She'd been foolish to think she could find two girls she'd never met in the throng of tourists. It wasn't as if she even knew what they looked like.

She pointed toward a vendor selling shaved iced and bought Tyler his favorite flavor. Blueberry.

All around them, groups of people laughed and talked about the race. She heard something about a new bike racing school and a new hospital being built. Changes, she thought. Fool's Gold had changed in the past ten years.

But not enough for her to forget. Despite having to detour around blocked roads, she easily found her way down side streets, and back toward the house where she'd grown up.

"You lived here before you went to San Francisco?" Tyler asked.

"Uh huh. I grew up here."

"With my grandma Sutton?"

"Yes."

"She's dead now."

He spoke the words as information, because that's all they were to him. He'd never met Liz's mother.

When Liz had first left town at eighteen, running away with a broken heart, she'd found her way to the city by the bay, had struggled to find work and a place to stay in a glorified shelter. Then she'd found out she was pregnant.

Her first instinct had been to go home, but that initial phone call had made her wary. Over the next year, she'd phoned home twice. Both times her mother had made it clear her daughter was no longer a part of her life. The rejection had hurt but hadn't been much of a surprise. Her mother had also taken great delight in telling her that no, Ethan Hendrix never called or asked about her.

When the woman died four years ago, Liz hadn't returned for the funeral.

Now, as she crossed a quiet street, she found herself in her old neighborhood. The houses were modest, two and three bedroom homes with small porches and aging paint. A few gleamed like bright flowers in an abandoned garden, as if the neighborhood was on the verge of being desirable again.

The worst house on the street sat in the middle. An eyesore of peeling paint and missing roof shingles. The yard was more weeds than plants or lawn, the windows were filthy. Plywood filled the space where one was missing. Her car sat in the driveway—the new model looking out of place.

She used the key she'd found under the front mat to let them in. She'd already done a brief tour of the house, to see if the girls were there. Judging from the school books piled on the dirty kitchen table and the clothes on the girls' bedroom floors, she would guess summer break hadn't started yet.

Now she walked through to the kitchen. Half the cabinets were gone, as if someone had started remodeling then changed his mind. The refrigerator worked, but was empty. There was no food in the pantry in the corner. There were a few potato chip wrappers in the trash and one small apple on the counter.

She didn't know what to think. Based on her niece's letter, the girls had been on their own for a few weeks. Ever since their stepmom had taken off. With their father in jail and no other family around, shouldn't the state step in? Where were social services?

She had more questions, but figured she would deal with them later. It was after three. The girls should get home soon. Once they'd all met, she would see about getting food in the house and figuring out what was going on.

"Mom?" Tyler called from the living room. "Can I watch TV?"

"Until your cousins get here."

Peggy had already called to say she'd paid all the amounts due on the utility bills and that everything should be working. Liz could see there was electricity. She turned on the faucet and water gushed out, which was a plus. Seconds later, she heard the sound of cartoons, which meant there was cable. Modern life as she knew it had been restored.

She walked back to the front of the house and took the stairs to the second floor. She made her way straight to the master. It was the only room with family photos. A wedding picture of a much older Roy standing next to a chubby blonde had been placed on the battered dresser. There were a couple of school pictures of the girls. Liz moved closer and studied them, looking for features that would be familiar.

Melissa seemed to have Roy's smile. Abby had Liz's eyes and freckles. They were both redheads, Melissa blessed with a soft auburn color. Abby was all carrot-top, which looked totally adorable. Although Liz had a feeling the eleven year-old wouldn't appreciate her unique coloring for a long time.

She turned away from the photos to look at the room. The bed was unmade, the dresser drawers open and empty. In the surprisingly large closet, only men's clothes hung. A couple of boxes were filled with socks and underwear—most likely placed there by Roy's wife.

Memories crowded around, filling the space. As she moved back into the hallway, then into the bedroom that had been hers, they poked at her, making her remember things she'd tried so hard to forget.

She heard echoes of her mother yelling, inhaled the smell of alcohol. She remembered the low voices of the men who had come and gone. Most of her mother's "friends" had stayed out of Liz's way, but a few had watched her with an intensity that had made her uncomfortable.

She went into the room that had been hers. The wall color was different. The faded yellow had been replaced with a pale lavender. While the walls were fresh, the baseboards and trim had been sanded, but not finished. In the bathroom across the hall, the floor had been pulled up, exposing sheets of plywood below. She'd noticed a framed room off the back, sitting on a poured foundation. So many half-started projects that gave the already old and battered house the air of being wounded.

Easily changed, she told herself. A good contractor could have this place fixed in a few weeks. Or maybe the old house should simply be torn down and left for dead.

She shook off the morose thoughts. She'd been here all of an hour and already the place was getting to her. She had to remember she had a great life in San Francisco. Work she loved, a beautiful home, an amazing son. She'd left Fool's Gold over a decade ago. She was a different person today. Older. Stronger. Able to deal with a few memories. It wasn't as if she was settling here permanently. She would figure out what was going on, then either take the girls to wherever they were going to live, or pack them up and bring them back to her place. A couple of weeks, she told herself. Three at most.

She went downstairs and heard the sound of excited voices. There were racing footsteps on the porch, then the front door flew open.

Two girls stood there, the taller and older one looking both scared and relieved, while the younger hung back shyly.

"Aunt Liz?" Melissa, the fourteen year old, asked tentatively.

Liz smiled at them both and nodded. "Hi. I hope it's okay that I let myself in. The key was right where—"

The rest of what she was going to say got squeezed out of her as both girls raced to her and hugged her hard, holding on as if they would never let go.

 

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