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Ask Mariah

Ask Mariah

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"A warm and wonderful book about love, family and everything that's important in life. Irresistible! I loved it!" NYT Bestselling Author Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Joanna Wingate knows something is missing from her life, something she never dreamed she'd find in a handsome stranger's children—mischievous six-year-old twin sisters who look up at her adoringly...and call her "Mama."

Since his wife's accidental death, Michael Ashton has struggled with his many responsibilities as a single parent to twin daughters who, though they clearly love him, refuse to speak to him. Then he meets Rose and Lily's new teacher, and his emotions spin out of control. For Joanna Wingate is the mirror image of his late wife.

Bizarre coincidence, a strange destiny...or something altogether different has joined these four lives. The twins believe Mariah—a magical fortune-teller in a crystal ball—has the answers. But only Joanna and Michael's willingness to confront long-buried secrets can guide their families back to wholeness...and unite them in a love that seems meant to be.


"Barbara Freethy does it again! This highly talented author puts her own unforgettable twist on an emotional and complex drama." Romantic Times

"Compelling and well written, this multilayered romance promises appealing characters, a dash of humor, and a bit of unexplained magic to a story with a serious theme." Library Journal

"Ms. Freethy has woven together some of the most endearing characters around into a tightly crafted plot to give an excellent read." Rendezvous Magazine

"A rich, complex family saga, full of secrets and a touch of magic. Splendid!" Bell, Book and Candle Bookstore

Chapter One

Michael Ashton beat the fire engines to his house by thirty seconds. Smoke poured from the kitchen window of the old Victorian as he jumped out of his car and ran up the walkway. His daughter's favorite teddy bear lay abandoned on the top step. Cups from a tea party were scattered across the welcome-home mat as if the participants had left in a big hurry, as if they had smelled smoke and run inside to see what was wrong.

His heart raced as he reached for the doorknob. Locked! He fumbled with his keys, swearing, sweating each second of delay. His children were inside. He had to get to them. The keys slipped out of his grasp and fell to the ground. He stepped backward, crushing a tiny pink teacup.

To hell with the keys. Panicked, he slammed his body against the door, forcing it open.

All he could think of were Lily and Rose, his six-year-old identical twin daughters. If anything happened to them, he would never forgive himself. They were all he had left.

"Please, God, let them be all right," he whispered as he entered the house. Smoke drifted through the hall and dining room, darkening the white walls, covering the hardwood floors with dust. "Lily! Rose!" he shouted as he moved toward the thickest area of smoke. "Where are you?"

The girls burst through the kitchen door, two whirling, smoky figures in blue jeans. Michael swept them into his arms, pressing their heads against his chest for one thankful second. "You're all right. You're all right," he muttered. "Let's get out of here." He ran toward the front door. Two firemen passed him on the steps.

"Anyone else inside?" one of them asked.

"Mrs. Polking, our nanny." Michael didn't stop moving until he reached the sidewalk. Then he set the girls down on the pavement and tried to catch his breath. Lily and Rose stared back at him.

They didn't appear to be hurt. Nor did they seem overly concerned about the fire. In fact, on closer inspection there was a light of excitement in Lily's dark eyes, and Rose looked guilty, so guilty that her gaze seemed fixed on the untied laces of her tennis shoes. At that, his panic began to fade.

He squatted in front of them so he could look directly into their eyes. Their long brown hair was a mess. Lily's pigtails were almost completely out. Rose still had one rubber band clinging desperately to a couple of strands of hair, while the rest swung free past her shoulders. There were no bumps or bruises on their small faces, no scratches to mar their tender skin, no sign of blood. "Are you hurt?" He ran his hand down Rose's arms, then did the same to Lily.

Lily shook her head, then Rose. Neither one said a word. Not even now. Not even in the midst of a crisis would they speak to him. Michael sighed, feeling the tear in his heart grow bigger. Since their mother, Angela, had died almost a year ago, the girls had refused to speak to him. No one had been able to tell him why. Thousands of dollars of family therapy had not helped him get to the root of their problem.

The doctors said the children, for whatever reason, didn't trust him. They were supposed to trust him. He was their father, their protector. He would die for them, but he couldn't seem to convince them of that fact.

"This is not my fault," a woman said from behind him.

Michael straightened as their nanny, Eleanor Polking, came down the steps, assisted by one of the firemen. Eleanor was a short, robust woman in her late fifties who carried an extra forty pounds.

"What the hell happened?" he asked.

"The girls set the kitchen on fire. That's what happened," Eleanor said in obvious distress.

She tried to push her hair away from her eyes, but the sweat from her forehead glued it in place. There was a wild light in her eyes. She looked as if she wanted to run as far away from them as possible, if she could just figure out an escape route. Michael had seen that expression before, on the faces of the four nannies who had previously served time in his home.

He glanced at Lily, then at Rose. They wouldn't look him in the eye. Damn.

"We were just making pasta, Mrs. Polking," Lily said defiantly, directing her explanation to the nanny. "Like Mama used to make."

"For our tea party. We didn't mean to cause a fire." Rose darted a quick look at her father, then turned back to Mrs. Polking. "We didn't know you had to put water in the pot. When the pot got all red and smelled funny, we threw it in the trash."

Michael groaned. "Let me see your hands. Did you burn them?"

Lily and Rose held out their hands. Their pudgy little fingers were covered with streaks of red and green paint, but thankfully there were no burns.

"We used a hot pad, Mrs. Polking," Lily said, "just like you told us."

"Why were the girls alone in the kitchen?" he asked the nanny. "Don't I pay you to watch them?"

"I was in the bathroom, cleaning the paint off my dress." Eleanor turned around, revealing a circle of green paint on her ample bottom. "Do you want to know how this happened?" she demanded, her anger matching his.

Michael sighed. "Not really, no."

"The girls painted the chair in my bedroom green."

He scowled at Lily and Rose. "You've had a busy day, haven't you?"

"Too busy for me," Eleanor declared. "This is the last straw. I'm leaving just as soon as I get my suitcase packed."

"Yay—" Lily's spontaneous cheer ended with Michael's glare. "I mean, that's too bad, Mrs. Polking. Come on, Rose, let's look at the fire engine."

"You can't just leave, Mrs. Polking." He ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "You agreed to stay the summer. I know the girls are difficult, but they just need a little extra attention."

"That's not all they need."

He ignored that comment. "I'm in the middle of a bid for a very big job. At least give me a week or two to make other arrangements."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Ashton," Eleanor said, not sounding a bit sorry. "The girls have made it clear that they want you."

"I can't work full-time and take care of the girls. I'm only one person."

Mrs. Polking softened just a bit. "I understand. That's why I took the liberty of making you a list of summer school programs. You'll find it on the credenza in the dining room."

"When did you decide to do that?"

"This morning, after the girls glued my shoes to the floor. Perhaps they'll do better in a more structured environment." Eleanor checked her watch. "It's not yet five. If you hurry you may be able to find one for Monday. Good luck," she said, turning away.

Good luck? Since when had he ever had good luck? His wife was dead. His children wouldn't speak to him. The demands of his job as an architect, combined with the responsibilities of being a single father, made him feel as if he were running around in circles, chasing after his tail like a foolish dog.

He had never imagined that his life would end up like this. As he stared at the house, he was thankful it hadn't burned down. The house had belonged to his in-laws, the De Lucas, for almost a hundred years, since they first emigrated from Italy in the late 1800s. More than a house, it was a symbol of tradition, of family, of responsibility, of loyalty, of everything that a man should be.

His father-in-law had told Michael he was worthy of this house, that he knew Michael would take care of his daughter, Angela. He had felt the burden of that generous gift every day of their marriage. The burden had doubled in weight after the birth of the twins, and tripled in weight upon Angela's death at the age of twenty-six.

He hadn't taken care of Angela as he had promised. But he still had the girls to raise. He still had a chance to give the De Lucas back some of the love and respect they had given him.

The sound of voices brought him back to reality. He looked up as the firemen left his house.

"The fire was limited to the stove and the trash can," one of the men said. "You have damage to the ceiling and walls from the smoke. The floor around the trash can is pretty beat up, but that's about it. Otherwise you're okay." He paused. "I hope you'll have a long talk with your kids about fire safety in the kitchen and elsewhere."

"Oh, don't worry. I intend to have a very long talk with them—about a lot of things."

The fireman grinned. "They sure are cute kids. One of them called 911. Sounded calm as could be. Well, we're off."

"Thanks," Michael said.

"No problem. That's what we're here for."

As the fire engine left, Mrs. Polking returned to the house and Lily and Rose wandered back to Michael, obviously uneasy now that they were alone with him. Lily dug her hands into the pockets of her jeans and tried to look confident. Rose chewed on a piece of her hair, the way she always did when she was nervous. For a few moments Michael let them suffer in silence.

The more he looked at them, the more they reminded him of Angela. They were their mother's daughters with the same dark brown hair, same big brown eyes, same stubborn chin, same impetuous, spoiled nature.

Oh, they were cute all right, and dangerous, especially Lily. The older twin by two minutes, Lily was the leader. She was rambunctious, loud, and often clumsy, but she would defend her little sister to the death.

Rose was his sensitive, emotional child, quiet and introspective. She tried to do what was right more often than Lily, but loyalty to her sister always came before anything else.

Looking at them now, Michael wondered which one of them would crack first—which one would finally break down and talk to him.

Sometimes he thought Lily would be the one, because once in a while she impulsively started to say something, then stopped. Other times he thought Rose might provide the breakthrough, with her guilty, apologetic smiles. Neither one spoke to him now.

"We have to talk about Mrs. Polking." Of course, he'd be talking and they'd be listening, but he couldn't let their behavior go unnoticed. "You know you're not supposed to touch the stove."

No answer. No explanation.

"Maybe if you tell me why you did it, I could understand." Michael tried to be patient.

Lily made some motions with her hand, mimicking eating.

"If you were hungry you should have asked Mrs. Polking to fix you something."

Lily shrugged. Rose smiled apologetically. They were getting nowhere fast.

"What you did was dangerous. This isn't like gluing Mrs. Polking's shoes to the floor, although I'm not happy about that either. You could have been hurt. Mrs. Polking could have been hurt. I know you wouldn't have wanted that."

Rose sniffed as she shook her head.

Lily put her arm around her sister to give her courage.

"Can you tell me why you're giving the baby-sitters such a hard time?"

No answer.

Lily whispered in Rose's ear, loud enough so Michael could hear her. "I have to go to the bathroom. Do you want to come with me?"


"Wait a second; we're not done."

Lily pointed to her pants. Rose too.

"Fine, go to the bathroom, but this isn't over."

With that the girls disappeared into the house.

He knew the bathroom plea was an excuse to get away from him. Maybe it was for the best. He needed time to think. He needed a cold beer. Hell, he needed a new life.

* * *

"I think Daddy's mad," Rose said, opening the bedroom door so she could peer into the hallway. She listened for angry footsteps, but heard only silence.

"Is he coming?" Lily asked.


"Good." Her sister let out a sigh of relief.

Rose closed the door and sat down on one of the twin beds. She pulled her legs underneath her and rested her chin in her hands. "Maybe we shouldn't have tried to cook the pasta."

"We didn't know it was going to catch on fire."

"And we shouldn't have painted the chair," she added, knowing they'd been really bad.

"We had to, or else Mrs. Polking wouldn't have left."

"He's just going to get someone else to watch us."

"Not if Mama comes back."

"I don't think she is coming back," she said with a sigh. "It's been so long."

"Yes, she is. She promised. Maybe we should look for her."

"We don't know where to look."

"We could go down by the boats, where Mama took us that day. Maybe she's there."

Rose shook her head, feeling her stomach turn over at the thought. She hadn't liked their trip to see the boats. She didn't even want to think about it. "We can't cross the street by ourselves, and we don't even know where the boats are."

"I bet I could find them," Lily said confidently.

"We're not going. Mama said she'd come back. We just have to wait for her."

Lily's eyes sparkled with a new idea. "Maybe Mariah can help us." She took the crystal ball off the dresser and set it on the bed between them. They'd gotten it a week ago for their sixth birthday, a present from their grandmother, Sophia. Inside the glazed blue glass were the head and shoulders of a beautiful lady with long blonde hair, a glittery face, and a bright pink wizard's hat. Their grandmother said she had found the wizard in an antiques shop. She told them it had belonged to a little girl who swore it could make magic—but only for people who believed in it.

Lily rubbed her hand over the top of the ball.

A spark of light surprised her. "What was that?" she asked, her eyes widening with alarm. She felt butterflies in her stomach, the kind that came whenever a new nanny arrived.

"I don't know. It didn't do that when I touched it yesterday," Lily said.

"Well, ask the question."

Lily rubbed her hand over the ball again, drawing another flash of light. "Mariah, we want to find our mother. Do you know where she is? Do you know where we should go to look for her?"

The lady's mouth began to move. Lily looked over at Rose in awe. "Did you see that?" she whispered.

Rose swallowed hard. She felt scared, but she wanted to hear the answer.

Mariah's voice came across, sounding as lovely as a melody. "For children who believe in me, school is just the place to be."

"What?" Lily asked in confusion.

"Go to school?" Rose repeated in doubt. She didn't want to go to school. It was summer, and they'd already done kindergarten.

"I'm going to ask her again. I don't think she heard me right." No matter how many times Lily asked the question, the crystal ball remained dark and Mariah remained silent. "Maybe the batteries are dead," Lily said as she turned the ball upside down.

"Where do the batteries go?" she asked.

"I don't know. I can't find anything."

"Maybe we should ask Daddy."

Lily rolled her eyes. "I don't think so."

"I didn't mean out loud," she said, although it was getting more difficult not to talk to him, especially when he was being nice or when he kissed her goodnight. But they'd promised their mother they could keep a secret, that they wouldn't speak to their dad again until she came home. She couldn't give up now. If she did, Mama might never come back.

"We'll try Mariah later," Lily said. "Maybe she needs to rest."

* * *

Michael stared at his waterlogged, smoke-filled kitchen in disgust. The cookbooks on the counter had been doused with water. The edges of the yellow-trimmed curtains that his mother-in-law had hung for them just after they moved into the house were charred around the edges. There were puddles on the floor with ashes floating like little boats in a murky river. What a mess—just like his life.

He wished he had a magic wand that he could wave and everything would be all right again. He didn't know why he kept hoping for a miracle. He'd said enough unanswered prayers to know that magic and miracles did not exist.

He took off his suit coat and tossed it over the chair at the breakfast room table. Loosening the knot in his tie, he rolled up the sleeves to his elbows. Wading through a couple of inches of dirty water, he made his way to the refrigerator and opened the door. The inside was dark. Apparently the firemen had turned off the electricity, but the beers were still cold. Thank God!

He pulled out a can and opened it. One draught went a long way toward easing some of his frustration. As he took another sip he walked into the dining room, eager to get away from the kitchen disaster. That's when he saw the list of summer schools Mrs. Polking had left on the credenza. He reached for the paper, but his foot caught on the carpet and he stumbled, spilling beer all over everything.

"Damn." He shook the beer off the top of the paper, but the ink smeared and only one of the school names remained legible. "Happy Hollow School—summer school programs, kindergarten through second grade," he read aloud. The school was in North Beach, just a mile away. Maybe he could convince the twins' grandmother to take the girls after school until he could find another baby-sitter.

Of course, he didn't have much credit left with the family. The girls had terrorized their aunt, uncle, and grandparents long before they'd started in on the nannies. And he hated to ask Sophia to baby-sit. She usually spent her afternoons at De Luca's, helping her husband, Vincent, and her son, Frank, run the family restaurant.

School was the best answer, at least until he could find another nanny. With any luck the teachers at Happy Hollow would be tough enough to take anything his girls could dish out.