The last honest woman, p.1
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       The Last Honest Woman, p.1

         Part #1 of The O'Hurleys series by Nora Roberts
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  Prologue

  "You can yell all you want, Mrs. O'Hurley."

  Her breath came in gasps. Sweat rolled down her temples as she dug her fingers into the side of the gurney and braced herself. "Molly O'Hurley doesn't yell her babies into the world."

  She wasn't a big woman, but her voice, even at a normal tone, reached all corners of the room. It had a lilting, musical sound, though she had to dig for the strength to use it. She'd been rushed into the hospital by her husband only minutes before in the last stages of labor.

  There'd been no time to prep her, no time for comforting words or hand-holding. The obstetrician on call had taken one look and had her rolled into the delivery room fully dressed.

  Most women would have been afraid, surrounded by strangers in a strange town, depending on them for her life and for the life of the baby that was fighting its way into the world. She was. But she'd be damned if she'd admit it.

  "A tough one, are you?" The doctor signaled for a nurse to wipe his brow. The heating in the delivery room was working overtime.

  "All the O'Hurleys are tough." She managed to say, but she wanted to yell. God, she wanted to as the pain screamed through her. The baby was coining early. She could only pray it wasn't too early. The contractions piled one on top of another, giving her no time to recharge for the next.

  "We can be grateful your train wasn't five minutes later, or you'd be having this baby in the club car." She was fully dilated, and the baby was crowning. "Don't bear down yet, pant."

  She cursed him with all the expertise she'd developed in seven years of living with her Francis and seven more of playing the clubs in every grimy town from L.A. to the Catskills. He only clucked his tongue at her as she breathed like a steam engine and glared.

  "That's fine, that's fine now. And here we go. Push, Mrs. O'Hurley. Let's bring this baby out with a bang."

  "I'll give you a bang," she promised, and pushed through the last dizzying pain. The baby came out with a wail that echoed off the walls of the delivery room. Molly watched, tears streaming as the doctor turned the small head, the shoulders, then the torso. "It's a girl." Laughing, she fell back. A girl. She'd done it. And wouldn't Francis be proud? Exhausted, Molly listened to her daughter's first cries of life.

  "Didn't have to give this one a slap on the bottom," the doctor commented. Small, he thought, maybe five pounds tops. "She's no heavyweight, Mrs. O'Hurley, but she looks good as gold."

  "Of course she is. Listen to those lungs. She'll knock them out of the back row. A few weeks ahead of schedule, but- Oh, sweet God."

  As the new contraction hit, Molly pushed herself up.

  "Hold her." The doctor passed the baby to a nurse and nodded to another to brace Molly's shoulders. "Looks like your daughter had company."

  "Another?" Between pain and delirium, Molly started to laugh. There was nothing hysterical about it, but something robust and daring. "Damn you, Frank. You always manage to surprise me."

  The man in the waiting room paced, but there was a spring to his step, even as he checked his watch for the fifth time in three minutes. He was a man who spent as much time dancing as walking. He was slim and spry, with a perpetual optimism gleaming in his eyes. Now and again he'd pass by the little boy half dozing in a chair and rub his hand over the top of his nodding head.

  "A baby brother or sister for you, Trace. They'll be coming out any minute to tell us."

  "I'm tired, Pop."

  "Tired?" With a great, carrying laugh, the man whisked the boy out his chair and into his arms. "This is no time for sleeping, boy. It's a great moment. Another O'Hurley's about to be born. It's opening night."

  Trace settled his head on his father's shoulder. "We didn't make it to the theater."

  "There's other nights for that." He suffered only a moment's pang over the canceled show. But there were clubs even in Duluth. He'd find a booking or two before they caught the next train.

  He'd been born to entertain, to sing, to dance his way through life, and he thanked his lucky stars that his Molly was the same. God knew they didn't make much of a living following the circuit and playing in second-class clubs and smoky lounges, but there was time yet. The big break was always just one show away. "Before you know it, we'll bill ourselves as the Four O'Hurleys. There'll be no stopping us."

  "No stopping us," the boy murmured, having heard it all before.

  "Mr. O'Hurley?"

  Frank stopped. His hands tightened on his son as he turned to the doctor. He was only a man, and terrifyingly ignorant of what went on in childbirth. "I'm O'Hurley." His throat was dry. There wasn't even any spit to swallow. "Molly. Is Molly all right?"

  Grinning, the doctor lifted a hand to rub his chin. "Your wife's quite a woman."

  Relief came in a wave. Overcome by it, Frank kissed his son hard. "Hear that, boy? Your mom's quite a woman. And the baby. I know it was early, but the baby's all right?"

  "Strong and beautiful," the doctor began. "Every one of them."

  "Strong and beautiful." Beside himself with joy, Frank went into a quick two-step. "My Molly knows how to have babies. She might get her cues mixed up, but she always comes through like a trouper. Isn't that-" His words trailed off and he stared at the doctor who was continuing to smile at him. "Every one of them?"

  "This is your son?"

  "Yes, this is Trace. What do you mean every one of them?"

  "Mr. O'Hurley, your son has three sisters."

  "Three." With Trace still in his arms, Frank sank into the chair. His wiry dancer's legs had turned to water. "Three of them. All at once?"

  "A couple minutes apart, but three at last count."

  He sat a minute, stunned. Three. He hadn't yet figured out how they were going to feed one more. Three. All girls. As the shock wore off, he started to laugh.

  He'd been blessed with three daughters. Francis O'Hurley wasn't a man who cursed fate. He embraced it.

  "You hear that, boy? Your mom's gone and had herself triplets. Three for the price of one. And I'm a man who loves a bargain." Springing up, he grabbed the doctor's hand and pumped it. "Bless you. If there's a man luckier than Francis Xavier O'Hurley tonight, I'm damned if I know him."

  "Congratulations.''

  "You've got a wife?"

  "Yes, I do."

  "What's her name?"

  "It's Abigail."

  "Then Abigail it is for one of them. When can I see my family?"

  "In just a few minutes. I'll have one of the nurses come down and look after your son."

  "Oh, no." Frank caught Trace's hand in his. "He goes with me. It isn't every day a boy gets three sisters."

  The doctor started to explain the rules, then caught himself. "Are you as stubborn as your wife, Mr. O'Hurley?"

  He poked his slight chest out. "She took lessons from me."

  "Come this way."

  He saw them first through the glass walls of the nursery, three tiny forms lying in incubators. Two slept, while the other wailed in annoyance. "She's letting the world know she's here. Those are your sisters, Trace."

  Awake now, and critical, Trace studied them. "Pretty scrawny."

  "So were you, little baboon." The tears came. He was too Irish to be ashamed of them. "I'll do my best for you. For each and every one of you." He placed a hand on the glass and hoped it would be enough somehow.

  CHAPTER One

  It wasn't going to be an ordinary day. Now that the decision had been made, it would be a long time before things settled down to the merely ordinary again. She could only hope she was doing the right thing.

  In the quiet, animal scented air of the barn, Abby saddled her horse. Maybe it was wrong to steal this t
ime in the middle of the day when there was still so much to be done, but she needed it. An hour alone, away from the house, away from obligations, seemed like an enormous luxury.

  Abby hesitated, then shook her head and fastened the cinch. If you were going to steal, you might as well go for the luxurious. Because it was something her father might have said, she laughed to herself. Besides, if Mr. Jorgensen really wanted to buy the foal, he'd call back. The books needed balancing and the feed bill was overdue. She could deal with it later. Right now she wanted a fast ride to nowhere.

  Two of the barn cats circled, then settled back into the hay as she led the roan gelding outside. His breath puffed out in a cloud of mist as she double-checked his cinch. "Let's go, Judd." With the ease of long experience, she swung herself into the saddle and headed south.

  There would be no fast ride here, where the snow and mud had mixed itself into a slushy mire. The air was cold and heavy with damp, but she felt a sense of anticipation. Things were changing, and wasn't that all anyone could ask? They kept to a fast walk, with both of them straining for what always seemed just out of reach. Freedom.

  Perhaps agreeing to be interviewed for this book would bring some portion of it. She could only hope. But the doubts she'd lived with ever since the arrangements had been made still hovered. What was right, what was wrong, what were the consequences? She'd have to assume the responsibility, no matter what occurred.

  She rode over the land she loved yet never quite considered her own.

  The snow was melting in the pasture. In another month, she thought, the foals could play on the new grass. She'd plant hay and oats, and this year-maybe this year-her books would inch over into the black.

  Chuck would never have worried. He'd never thought about tomorrow, only about the next moment. The next car race. She knew why he'd bought the land in rural Virginia. Perhaps she'd always known. But at the time she'd been able to take his gesture of guilt as a gesture of hope. Her ability to find and hold on to thin threads of hope had gotten her through the last eight years.

  Chuck had bought the land, then had spent only a few scattered weeks on it. He'd been too restless to sit and watch the grass grow. Restless, careless and selfish, that was Chuck. She'd known that before she'd married him. Perhaps that was why she'd married him. She couldn't claim he'd ever pretended to be anything else. It was simply that she'd looked and seen what she'd wanted to see. He'd swept into her life like the comet he was and, blinded with fascination, she'd followed.

  The eighteen-year-old Abigail O'Hurley had been stunned and thrilled at being romanced by the dramatic Chuck Rockwell. His name had been front-page news as he'd raced his way through the Grand Prix circuit. His name had been in bold type on the scandal sheets as he'd raced his way through the hearts of women. The young Abigail hadn't read the tabloids.

  He'd spun her into his life in Miami, charmed and dazzled her. He'd offered excitement. Excitement and a freedom from responsibilities. She'd been married before she'd been able to catch her breath.

  Though a light drizzle was falling now, Abby stopped her horse. She didn't mind the rain that dampened her face and jacket. It added another quality she'd needed that morning. Isolation. A coward's way, she knew, but she'd never thought herself brave. What she had done-what she would continue to do-was survive.

  The land curved gently, patched with snow, misted with a fog that hovered over it. When Judd pawed the ground impatiently, she patted his neck until he was quiet again. It was so beautiful. She'd been to Monte Carlo, to London and Paris and Bonn, but after nearly five years of day-to-day living and dawn-to-dusk working, she still thought this was the most beautiful sight in the world.

  The rain splattered down, promising to make the dirt roads that crisscrossed her land all but unmanageable. If the temperatures dropped that night, the rain would freeze and leave a slick and dangerous sheen of ice over the snow. But it was beautiful. She owed Chuck for this. And for so much more.

  He'd been her husband. Now she was his widow. Before he'd burned himself out he'd singed her badly, but he'd left her two of the most important things in her life: her sons.

  It was for them she'd finally agreed to let the writer come. She'd dodged offers from publishers for more than four years. That hadn't stopped an unauthorized biography of Chuck Rockwell or the stories that still appealed from time to time in the papers. After months of soul-searching, Abby had finally come to the conclusion that if she worked with a writer, a good writer, she would have some control over the final product. When it was done, her sons would have something of their father.

  Dylan Crosby was a very good writer. Abby knew that was as much a disadvantage as an advantage. He'd poke into areas she was determined to keep off-limits. She wanted him to. When he did, she'd answer in her way, and she'd finally dose that chapter of her life.

  She would have to be clever. With a shake of her head she ducked to her horse and sent him moving again. The trouble was, she'd never been the clever one. Chantel had been that. Her older sister-older by two and a half minutes-had always been able to plan and manipulate and make things happen.

  Then there was Maddy, her other sister, younger by two minutes and ten seconds. Maddy was the outgoing one, the one who could usually make her own way through sheer drive and will.

  But she was Abby, the middle triplet The quiet one. The responsible one. The dependable one. Those titles still made her wince.

  Her problem now wasn't a label that had been pinned on her before she could walk. Her problem now was

  Dylan Crosby, former investigative reporter turned biographer. In his twenties he'd unearthed a Mafia connection that had eventually crumbled one of the largest mob families on the East Coast. Before he'd turned thirty he'd unhinged the career of a senator with an unreported Swiss bank account and aspirations to higher office. Now she had to handle him.

  And she would. After all, he would be on her turf, under her roof. She would feed him information. The secrets she wanted kept secret were locked in her own head and her own heart. She alone had the key.

  If she'd learned nothing else as the middle daughter of a pair of road-roving entertainers, she'd learned how to act. To get what she wanted, all she had to do was give Dylan Crosby one hell of a show.

  Never tell the whole truth, girl. Nobody wants to hear it. That's what her father would have said. And that, Abby told herself with a smile, was what she'd keep reminding herself of over the next few months.

  A bit reluctant to leave the open road and the ram, Abby turned her horse and headed back. It was almost time to begin.

  Dylan cursed the rain and reached out the window again to wipe at the windshield with an already-drenched rag. The wiper on his side was working only in spurts. The one on the other side had quit altogether. Icy rain soaked through his coat sleeve as he held the wheel with one hand and cleared his vision with the other. He'd been mad to buy a twenty-five-year-old car, classic or not. The '62 Vette looked like a dream and ran like a nightmare.

  It probably hadn't been too smart to drive down from New York in February either, but he'd wanted the freedom of having his own car-such as it was. At least the snow he'd run into in Delaware had turned to rain as he'd driven south. But he cursed the rain again as it pelted through the open window and down his collar.

  It could be worse, he told himself. He couldn't think of precisely how; but it probably could. After all, he was finally going to sink his teeth into a project he'd been trying to make gel for three years. Apparently Abigail O'Hurley Rockwell had decided she'd squeezed the publisher for all she could get.

  A pretty sharp lady, he figured. She'd snagged one of the hottest and wealthiest race car drivers on the circuit. And she'd hardly been more than a kid. Before she'd reached nineteen she'd been wearing mink and diamonds and rolling dice in places like Monte Carlo. It was never much strain to spend someone else's money. His ex-wife had shown him that in a mercifully brief eighteen-month union.

  Women were, after all, bo
rn with guile. They were fashioned to masquerade as helpless, vulnerable creatures. Until they had their hooks in you. To shake free, you had to bleed a little. Then if you were smart, you took a hard look at the scars from time to time to remind yourself how life really worked.

  Dylan struggled with the map beside him, held it in front while steering with his elbows, then swore again. Yes, that had been his turn. He'd just missed it. With a quick glance up and down the stretch of rain-fogged road, he spun into a U-turn. The wipers might be pitiful, but the Vette knew how to move.

  He couldn't imagine the Chuck Rockwell he'd followed and admired choosing to settle in the backwoods of Virginia. Maybe the little woman had talked him into buying it as some sort of hideaway. She'd certainly been hibernating there for the past few years.

  Just what kind of woman was she? In order to write a thorough biography of the man, he had to understand the woman. She'd stuck with Rockwell like glue for nearly the first full year on the circuit, then she'd all but disappeared. Maybe the smell of gas and smoking tires had annoyed her. She hadn't been in the stands for her husband's victories or his defeats. Most importantly, she hadn't been there when he'd run his last race. The one that had killed him. From the information Dylan had, she'd finally shown up at the funeral three days later but had hardly spoken a word. She hadn't shed a tear.

  She'd married a gold mine and turned a blind eye to his infidelities. Money was the only answer. Now, as his widow, she was in the position of never having to lift a finger. Not bad for a former singer who'd never made it past hotel lounges and second-rate clubs.

  He had to slow the Vette to a crawl to make it down the slushy, rut-filled lane marked by a battered mailbox with Rockwell painted on the side.

  Obviously she didn't believe in spending much money on maintenance. Dylan wiped his window again and set his teeth against each jarring bump. When he heard his muffler scrape, he stopped cursing the rain and started cursing Abigail. The way he saw it, she had a closetful of silk and fur but wouldn't shell out for minimal road repair.

  When he saw the house, he perked up a bit. It wasn't the imposing, oppressive plantation house he'd been expecting. It was charming and homey, right down to the rocker on the front porch. The shutters on the windows were painted Colonial blue, providing a nice contrast to the white frame. A deck with a double railing skirted the second floor. Though he could see the house needed a new paint job, it didn't look run-down, just lived-in. There was smoke trailing up from the chimney and a bike with training wheels leaning on its kick-stand under the overhang of the roof. The sound of a dog's deep-throated barking completed the scene.

  He'd often thought of finding a place just like this for himself. A place away from crowds and noise where he could concentrate on writing. It reminded him of the home he'd had as a child, where security bad gone hand in hand with hard work.

  When his muffler scraped the road again, he was no longer charmed. Dylan pulled up behind a pickup truck and a compact station wagon and shut off his engine. Dropping his rag on the floor mat, he rolled up his window and had started to open the door when a mass of wet fur leaped on it.

  The dog was enormous. Maybe it had meant to give a friendly greeting, but in its current bedraggled state, the animal didn't look too pleasant. As Dylan gauged its size against that of a small hippo the dog scraped two muddy paws down his window and barked. "Sigmund!"

  Both Dylan and the dog looked toward the house, where a woman stood near the porch steps. So this was Abigail, he mused. He'd seen enough pictures of her over the years to recognize her instantly. The fresh-faced ingenue in the pits at Rockwell's races. The stunning socialite in London and Chicago. The cool, composed widow by her husband's grave. Yet she wasn't precisely what he'd expected.

  Her hair, a honey blond, fell across her forehead in wispy bangs and skimmed her shoulders. She looked very slender, and very comfortable in jeans and boots and a bulky sweater that bagged at her hips. Her face was pale and delicate through the rain. He couldn't see the color of her eyes, but he could see her mouth, full and unpainted as she called to the dog again.

  "Sigmund, get down now."

  The dog let out a last halfhearted bark and obeyed. Cautious, Dylan opened the door and stepped out. "Mrs. Rockwell?"

  "Yes. Sony about the dog. He doesn't bite. Very often."

  "There's good news," Dylan muttered, and popped his trunk.

  As he pulled out his bags, Abby stood where she was while her nerves tightened. He was a stranger, and she was letting him into her home, into her life. Maybe she should stop it now, right now before he'd taken another step.

  Then he turned, bags in hand, and looked at her. Rain streamed from his hair. It was dark, darker now wet and plastered around his face. Not a kind face, she thought immediately as she rubbed her palms on her thighs. There was too much living in it, too much knowledge, for kindness. A woman had to be crazy to let a man like that into her life. Then she saw that his clothes were drenched and his shoes already coated with mud.

  "Looks like you could use some coffee."

  "Yeah." He gave the dog a last look as it sniffed around his ankles. "Your lane's a mess."

  "I know." She gave him a small, apologetic smile as she noted that his car had fared no better than he. "It's been a hard winter."

  He didn't step forward. With the rain pelting between them, he stood watching her. Summing her up, Abby decided, and she thrust her nervous hands in her pockets. She'd committed herself, and she wouldn't get what she wanted if she allowed herself to be a coward now.

  "Come inside." She went to the door to wait for him.

 
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