"You sure you're going to be OK waiting here?" Natalie's mom asked for the 19th time. "There's food right there if you need it." She indicated the dilapidated subway across the street that functioned primarily as a public restroom.
They were at Rogers Field, a sprawling park on the east end of town. The park was mostly empty that day, excepting a handful of powerwalking moms and some kids from the day camp goofing around on the softball field.
"I'll be fine," Natalie assured her mother yet again. "Maya will take good care of me." A look of doubt crossed Elena's face as Maya wrapped her arm around her niece's back. "And anyway, I'm too starving to move," Natalie added. "A popover from Olio's sounds like the best possible medicine for me right now."
Elena's expression softened, just as Natalie had known it would. She'd barely touched food since coming home from the hospital, and Elena—who believed food cured all ills—had been a nervous wreck for the past four days as she'd pleaded with her daughter to eat something, anything.
"You really don't want to come with us?" Teddy asked his stepdaughter. "I can carry you."
Natalie looked down at her leg cast, then scrunched her nose. "I prefer to soak up the sun," she said. "Please just go, will you? If you don't hurry, I'll miss Jenna when she comes over for today's visit."
Dramaholic that she was, Jenna had been showing up at the Pollock-Pendleton house nearly every afternoon since Natalie's return, always with a different Get Well Soon present. Jenna had decided to let bygones be bygones—for the moment, at least. People must have really been feeling sorry for Natalie: Even Josh had sent an awkward-but-sweet "Feel Better Soon!" postcard from Treble Camp.
Natalie sighed at the thought of Josh, her no-question-about-it ex, and waved as Teddy and Elena finally headed over to the car. Her parents paused by the car doors for one last reluctant goodbye. "What are they so worried about?" Natalie muttered.
"Who knows," Maya said, "maybe they're confusing you for the girl who ran away and ended up in the ER with a dislocated shoulder and an ankle broken in three places? I mean, how delusional would that be?"
Natalie rewarded her aunt with a half-smile. "OK, but it's not like I can run anywhere now." Her eyes flicked to the lumpy white cast on her leg. She was wearing an old elastic-waist skirt and a single pink flip-flop—just about the only outfit she could put on easily these days.
"I wouldn't put a great escape past you," Maya said. "You are Izzy's daughter, after all."
Izzy's daughter. Natalie shuddered, thinking of Izzy's other daughter—was she really?—and everything she had said in that crazy, rundown house.
"Sorry." Maya gave her niece a comforting squeeze. "I wasn't trying to bring up a delicate subject."
"It's OK," Natalie said with a shrug. "I know that's why you came out here today, and I'm grateful for it." She and Maya hadn't been able to have a private conversation since the accident, not with Elena forever hovering on the perimeter, darting in at the most random moments to deliver unwanted sandwich trays.
"You're really ready to get into it?" Maya asked. "I know you're pretty fragile right now."
"No, I'm not. I'm just … confused." Natalie was feeling more depleted with every word. "In some ways it makes total sense, and in other ways it's completely insane."
"That sounds like a pretty good description of your father's life to me," Maya said lightly, but her expression was somber.
"So you're saying it's true, then?" Natalie asked. "James is really Izzy's … daughter?" She could barely say the word out loud.
Maya shook her head, pulled at the string of wooden beads she wore on her left wrist. "I don't know for certain, sweetheart, but I won't lie to you: I always had a strange feeling about that girl. I can't really explain it, and I certainly didn't explore it, or not until it was too late, anyway. But then maybe I wanted to stay in the dark, too. Even after the lights had been turned on."
Natalie looked at her aunt. "Do you mind translating that into English?"
"The dates fit perfectly," Maya said. "And I'd always thought something seemed—familiar about that girl, from the first time I saw her …"
Natalie looked out across the empty stretch of park in front of them. So there it was then.
"Natalie," Maya said, "there are things I should've told you about your father years ago—I knew Elena would never do it. But then part of me always wondered if it wouldn't just cause unnecessary hurt. The man was dead—why disrespect his memory?"
Natalie glanced nervously over both shoulders. Elena and Teddy would be back soon. She had her cast hoisted up on the side of the bench, so she had to rotate her torso all the way around to face her aunt. "You mean, like the stuff you started to tell me at the Met? About his benders and mood swings?"
"Mmh," Maya nodded tightly. "Among other mortal weaknesses."
"I leave to your discretion how much you want to tell your mother," Maya said. "I've been shielding the truth from her for decades now, but I certainly can't compel you to do the same."
"I understand," Natalie said, remembering all the times her mother referred to her aunt's "shadiness" or "unreliability." So this was why—Maya had been protecting Elena from the truth all along. She drew in a deep breath. "I'm ready. You can tell me. Please?"
"I'm getting to it, sweetie," Maya said. "And I mean no offense to your mother when I say this, but I never understood why Izzy got married in the first place. Monogamy just wasn't in my sweet big brother's genetic code. But Izzy did get married—and this is very important for you to remember, sweet Natalie—because he loved your mother beyond anything, and he tried his damnedest to keep himself in check. But it never really worked out that way, and the truth is, well, your father had a lot of affairs."
"So?" Natalie snapped. "I mean, didn't everybody back then?"
"I'm sorry to say," Maya went on impassively, "that one particular affair was different, more … consuming than the rest. And after this final affair ended badly, Izzy became even more determined to make things work with Elena. That's why they moved to New Jersey, you know—so they could start a family, give their marriage a fighting chance."
"So what about this woman—this … final affair?" Natalie asked. "Who was she?" She needed the facts all laid out before her. Not for her mother or her father's memory. Just for herself.
"She was very beautiful, very eccentric," Maya said. "Wild black hair, the whitest skin you've ever seen, rail-thin. She was one of those eternal-student types—pushing thirty but still attending endless seminars, always complaining about some paper she had to write. I'm the one who introduced her to Izzy, actually—we met at a dinner party at some loft. She'd just come back from a trip to Egypt, and we hit it off. Obviously, if I'd known what would happen, I would've kept her and Izzy on opposite sides of the city."
"Who was she?" Natalie asked.
"Her name was Sabrina," Maya said. "Sabrina—God, I haven't thought of her in almost two decades—Sabrina Ray, that's it."
What? The earth spun out from under Natalie. Sabrina Ray … James Kay … No. It couldn't be. Natalie doubled over, sure she was going to puke. Was it possible?
"Did you say … Sabrina—Sabrina Ray? Are you absolutely positively sure?"
Maya looked surprised. "Why—does the name mean something to you?"
Natalie couldn't answer; she could barely breathe.
Any fan with the most glancing knowledge of Fiona St. Claire's life and work knew that the great author had, over the years, written under a series of pseudonyms. Early in her career, she'd gone by Loretta St. Marks. Then, even though the Circle of Seven series had sold decently, Loretta St. Marks had rebranded herself as Fiona St. Claire, and the rest was paranormal history.
But before Loretta, before Fiona, there had been a graduate student at Columbia University by the name of Sabrina Ray. Fiona's most rabid followers were always surreptitiously scanning Sabrina Ray's academic work from the Columbia library and then posting it on fan sites, but Natalie had never been able to get through more than a few pages into "Pan's Flute: Music and Bestiality in Ancient Greece."
Natalie gasped as she remembered James' unveiling of the Aristotle quote: "Let's just say I have access." Was that the kind of access she meant?
"You OK?" Maya starting massaging Natalie's shoulders, but Natalie shook her off. This wasn't the end of a yoga class; this was real life, and it was terrible. "What's wrong, honey? I know it must be a shock to learn that your dad isn't the person you thought he was—"
"No, no, that's not it." Natalie's voice was hoarse, scarcely human.
"What's the matter then? You're scaring me. You can tell me anything, sweetie; you know that."
But Natalie couldn't. Her mind was spiraling too fast, processing too much. Could Izzy really have slept with Fiona St. Claire, made a child with her? And could that child have grown up to be James? Was that why she'd felt so drawn to James, and responded so intensely to Fiona's works—had she detected the ghost of her father lingering inside Terra and Nicolai?
"W-what happened to Fi—to Sabrina, do you know?" Natalie asked. "When did things end?"
"That was the weirdest part of all," Maya said. "None of us ever knew. One day she and Izzy had a big fight about his leaving Elena, and the next day Sabrina just disappeared. Izzy never heard from her again, and I'm sure he would've helped if he'd known about ..." Maya shook the thought away and went on, "He didn't have much money, but he would never have let his own child go just like that. He never heard a word from Sabrina again—at least as far as I know."
"B-but—I don't—it isn't—" Natalie was still struggling to speak when the bench vibrated suddenly, and she jumped back.
"What was that?" Maya said, still looking at her niece with alarm.
"Sorry … my phone." Natalie reached for it and saw there was a text from a number she didn't recognize.
LOOKS LIKE I SENT A GIRL TO DO A WOMAN'S WORK. I HOPE YOU ENJOYED THE LAST BOOK. THE SEQUEL'S GONNA BE EVEN BETTER, BECAUSE IT'S ALL ABOUT YOU.
Natalie threw the phone away from her as if it'd just burst into flames in her hand.
"Everything OK?" Maya's face was etched with concern. "Who was it?"
Natalie looked out across the field. "No one."
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