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An Accidental Woman
by Barbara Delinsky
Simon and Schuster, 2002

Excerpt from An Accidental Woman

Chapter One

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Within seconds of coming awake, Micah Smith felt a chill at the back of his neck that had nothing to do with the cold air seeping in through the window cracked open by his side of the bed. It was barely dawn. He didn't have to glance past Heather's body toward the nightstand clock to know that, but could see it in the purpling that preceded daylight when February snows covered the forest floor.

The purpling seemed deeper this morning, but that wasn't what caused his alarm. Nor was it any sound from the girls' room that caused him to hold his breath. They would sleep for another hour, he knew, and if not sleep, then stay in bed until they heard Heather or him up and about.

No. What held him totally still, eyes on that inch of open window, was the sound that came from beyond. Even in winter, the woods were filled with live things, but what he heard now was neither deer, nor owl, nor snowshoe rabbit. It was a car, moving very slowly down the snow-crusted drive toward the small house that Micah had built for his family.

Get out of bed, cried a silent voice, but he remained inert. Barely breathing, he listened. Not one car. Two. They inched their way closer, then stopped. Their engines went still.

Do something, cried that silent voice, more urgent now, and he thought of the rifle that was mounted high above the front door, out of reach of the girls. But he couldn't move -- couldn't move -- other than to turn his head toward Heather. She continued to sleep, oblivious to what he heard, unaware of the thoughts that held him there against her warmth.

As he watched the swirl of her long dark hair touched by a generous dusting of silver, he heard the stealthy click of car doors -- one, then a second. He imagined that there might be even more doors opening silently, carefully guided by hands trained in covert operations.

A patch of Heather's pale shoulder showed through the tangle of her hair. He would have touched it if he hadn't feared waking her, but he didn't want that. Once she was awake, once she heard what he heard, once this moment ended, their lives would be changed. He didn't know how he knew that, but he did. A part of him had been waiting for this moment, fearing it for four years -- and it wasn't just a superstition, the idea that because one woman had left him, this one would, too. Heather wasn't like anyone else; she was unique.

The footsteps coming toward the house were careful, making only the occasional crunch on the snow, but a lifetime of living in the New Hampshire woods had trained Micah's ear well. The house was being surrounded. He figured that his rifle wouldn't do much good against the five or six people that he guessed were outside. Nor did he figure gunpower was called for. The people out there weren't intent on violence. And what was happening was inevitable.

A soft knock came at the front door, a sound he might have missed if he'd been asleep. It had begun. He quickly slipped from under the thick down with a grace that belied his height and firm build. Silently he pulled on jeans and left the bedroom. In seconds, he was down the hall and through the living room. Not bothering with a light, he pulled the door open before another knock came, though Pete Duffy's hand was already raised.

Pete was second in command to Lake Henry's police chief William Jacobs, and was a friend of Micah's, which was certainly why he'd been chosen to come. The authorities would want things kept calm. Having Pete there, a man Micah trusted, would help on that score, though the look of regret on the man's face did nothing to ease Micah's sense of dread as his eyes moved past his friend to a second man who stood just behind him on the front porch. Micah didn't know this man, or the two women who were with him. All three wore jeans and identical blue jackets that Micah knew must have law enforcement initials on the back.

"We need Heather," Pete said in an apologetic whisper, with only the smallest jut of his chin toward the threesome with him. "They have a warrant."

Micah swallowed. A warrant was serious. "For what?"

The man with Pete extended both hands. One held paperwork, the other his ID. "Jim Mooney. FBI. I have a warrant for the arrest of Heather Malone on charges of flight to avoid prosecution."

Micah considered the man's words. There were serious charges and not-so-serious charges. He had always known that Heather hid her past. During those times when he had wondered what might have caused her secretiveness, involvement with the law had been worst-case scenario. Now he could only pray that the charges against her were of the not-so-serious kind, though he feared those wouldn't have brought the FBI to his doorstep at dawn.

"Prosecution for what?" he asked the agent.


A sharp breath escaped Micah -- oddly, he felt relief. If murder was the charge, then there surely was a mistake. "That's impossible. Heather's incapable of murder."

"Maybe as Heather Malone. But we have evidence that her real name is Lisa Matlock, and that fifteen years ago she killed a man in California."

"Heather's never been in California."

"Lisa has," the agent informed him. "She grew up there. She was there until fifteen years ago, when she deliberately ran a man down with her car. She disappeared right afterward. Your Heather arrived in Lake Henry fourteen years ago and worked as a short-order cook, just like Lisa did in California in the two years before she left. Heather's face is identical to Lisa's, right down to the gray eyes and the scar at the corner of the mouth."

"There are millions of women with gray eyes," Micah said, suddenly aware of cold air on his bare chest, "and that scar came from a car accident." The words were barely out when he realized what he'd said. But the agent absolved him.

"Not this one. She escaped this accident unscathed, but the man she ran down died -- a man she tried to extort minutes before she ran him down."

"Extort." Micah snorted, more convinced than ever that a mistake had been made. "Not Heather. I don't care what name she uses. She's gentle. She's kind. She'd die herself before she'd kill someone."

The agent was unfazed. "If that's true, it'll come out in a trial. For now, I need her to come out here. Either you bring her to us, or we go in."

"You can't do that," Micah said, straightening his six-foot-four frame. "This is my house."

"We have it surrounded, so if she's trying to slip out the back, she'll be caught."

Pete scowled at the agent. "I told you, Mooney. There won't be any trouble." The look he turned on Micah was pleading. "The law's on their side. We've got no choice."

Still Micah argued. "Eyes and a scar. What kind of proof's that?"

"We have prints," said the agent.

Micah studied the man. "Fingerprints?"


Micah read enough to know a little about the law. "That's not conclusive."

"I'd say you're biased."

"Same the fuck with you."

Pete stepped between the two men. Slowly and deliberately he told Micah, "They have a warrant. That gives them the right to take her. Don't rile them, Micah."

A low light suddenly came on behind him, a lamp near the spot where the living room met the hall. Heather stood there. She had slipped on a robe and held the lapels shut with one hand while with the other she steadied herself against the wall. As she looked at the people beyond the door, her eyes grew wider. Micah turned to look at her. Those eyes weren't just any gray; they were irridescent. From the start, way back, they had made Micah's insides jingle, and they did it again now, holding his in a silent plea.

Responding, he held up a hand to stop the two female agents who started forward, and, instead, went to Heather himself. Slipping his fingers into the hair at her nape, shaping his hand to hold her head, he searched her eyes for a sign of knowledge or guilt. All he saw was fear.

"They say you're someone else," he whispered. "They must be wrong, but they need you to go with them."

"Where?" she asked with barely a sound.

That wasn't the first question Micah would have asked if he had been in her shoes. He'd have wanted to know who they thought he was and why he needed to go with them. If Heather was truly in the dark as to why they were there, she would have wanted to know that.

But she was a practical sort, far more so than he.

"I don't know," he murmured. "Maybe to Willie Jake's office." He glanced over his shoulder at Pete. "They just want to question her?"

Before Pete could answer, the two women approached. "We need to book her," one told him before turning to Heather. "If you want to dress, we'll go with you."

Heather's eyes flew from one woman's face to the other, then to Micah's. She put a hand on his chest, burying it in the hair there as she always did in moments of passion, anchoring her then against abandon, anchoring her now against the terror that had seized her.

"I'll take her to dress," he said, but one of the agents was already grasping her arm and reciting her Miranda rights, as Micah had heard done dozens of times on television dramas. The moment would have been terrifyingly real even without Heather's eyes clinging to his.

Frantic to help her, desperate to do something, but realistic enough to know he was hamstrung, Micah glanced back at Pete. "Someone's gonna answer for this. It's wrong."

Pete came forward as the two female agents ushered Heather down the hall. "I told them that. So'd Willie Jake. He spent most of last night trying to talk some sense into them, but they have the warrant, Micah. It's legal. There's nothing we can do."

Micah turned back to Heather, but she had disappeared into the bedroom. When he turned to go after her, Mooney caught his arm. "You have to stay here. She's under arrest."

"Daddy?" came a soft voice from even farther down the hall.

"Oh God," Micah murmured and turned in alarm. It was Melissa, his seven-year-old daughter. In a voice that was as normal as he could make it, what with a growing panic, he said, "Go back to bed, Missy. Too early to get up."

But Missy, by far the more curious and bold of his two girls, padded toward him in her long pink nightgown. Her hair was as dark as his -- and as thick and long as Heather's -- but wildly curly. "Why's Pete here?" she asked, slipping a hand into Micah's, but looking at Mooney. "Who's he?"

Micah shot a frantic glance at Pete. "Uh, he works with Pete sometimes. They have to ask Heather some questions."

"What questions?"

"Just some...things."


"In a little while."

She looked up at him. "When the sun comes up?" That would make sense to her. It was what Heather had taught the girls when they'd been toddlers and had awakened Micah and her at ungodly hours.


Her eyes grew mischievous. "I'll bet she's still asleep. Can I go tickle her?"

"No." He tightened his hold on her hand. "She's already awake. She's getting dressed. I want you to go back to bed. Make sure your sister sleeps a little longer."

"She's awake. She's just scared to come out."

Micah knew it wasn't as simple as Star being scared or shy. He had long since accepted that the five-year-old possessed an odd adult insight. Star would know that something was desperately wrong. Her fear would be real.

"Then go back in and play with her. That'll make her feel better."

Missy smiled and released his hand. In the few seconds it took for her to step back and flatten herself to the wall, her expression turned defiant.

"Missy," Micah warned, waving her back down the hall, but before she could refuse, Heather emerged from the bedroom with the two female agents. She was dressed in jeans and a heavy sweater, the sheer bulk of which made her look lost. Her expression mirrored that. When she caught sight of Missy, she stopped short. Her eyes met Micah's for a single, alarmed second before returning to the child.

Missy was looking at the two agents. "Who're they?"

Micah said, "More friends of Pete's. Go on back in with Star, Missy. I need you to help."

Missy stayed pressed against the wall.

Heather knelt by her side. "Daddy's right, sweetie," she said in a gentle voice. "Go in with Star. She needs you."

Defiance gone, replaced by worry, Missy slipped an arm around Heather's shoulder. "Where are you going?"

"Into town."

"When'll you be back?"

"A little later."

"Are you sure?"


"Do you promise?"

Waiting for the answer himself -- hanging his future on it much as the child was -- Micah saw Heather swallow. But that was the only beat she missed. In the same soft voice, she said, "I'll do my best to be here when you get home from school."

"Do you promise?" Missy repeated.

"Yes," Heather whispered. As she straightened, she pressed a kiss to the child's head. She closed her eyes, and a look of anguish crossed her face. Micah imagined that she held the kiss a beat longer than she might have. Sure enough, as she came toward him, her eyes were filled with tears. When she was as close as she could be, she whispered, "Call Cassie."

Cassie Byrnes was one of Heather's closest friends, and she was a lawyer.

Micah took her hands, only to find that the sleeves of the bulky sweater concealed handcuffs nearly as cold as her skin. Furious, he turned on Pete, who raised a brow in warning and nodded toward Missy.

"Call Cassie," Heather repeated -- which was certainly the right thing to say, certainly the practical thing to say, though not what Micah wanted to hear from her. He wanted her to profess utter confusion, to insist that a mistake had been made, to protest her innocence, even to cry and loudly declare that she had never in her life heard the name Lisa Matlock -- all of which might well be the case, Micah told himself. But yes, Heather was a practical woman, and yes, given the circumstances, especially with the legality of the arrest warrant as vouched for by Pete, cooperating was the only thing to do.

Still, the handcuffs offended him. A small person like Heather didn't have a chance in hell of overpowering these three agents, plus however many were outside, even with both hands free. Not that his Heather would think of fighting. In the four years that they'd been together, he had never seen her lash out in anger at anything.

When the two female agents ushered her toward the door, he followed closely. "Where are you taking her?"

Mooney stepped in his path as the agents whisked Heather outside. "Concord. She'll go before a magistrate there this morning. She needs an attorney."

Go before a magistrate. Micah's eyes flew to Pete, who said, "They have to return the fugitive flight warrant."

"Is she being charged with murder?"

"No. Not charged with anything yet. They return the warrant and ask for extradition. Heather can choose to waive an extradition hearing and go back with them, or she can fight it. They can't take her back -- can't charge her with murder or anything else -- until they make a solid enough case that the charges are legit."

Micah wanted to know the how, why, and where of everything Pete was talking about, but he had more immediate questions, and Mooney was leaving. Following the agent out the door, he trotted barefoot down the steps, oblivious to the crusted ice on the wood planks, the snow on the drive, and the subfreezing air on his near-naked body. "I'm coming with you," he announced -- a totally unpractical thing to say, since he couldn't take the girls with him and they couldn't possibly stay here alone, but his words were driven by emotion, not logic.

Mooney ignored him and kept on going.

Pete became the practical one. "Not wise to do that right now."

Eyes on Heather, Micah watched her vanish into the back of a dark van, the vehicle farthest from the house. At the same time, two other men materialized from the woods and slid into the van.

Micah began to run. "I want to go with her."

Pete ran alongside him. "They won't let you. You'd be better going down later with Cassie. Let these guys go without a fuss now. Get them out of here before the sun's up. There's less of a spectacle that way."

Micah hadn't begun to think beyond the moment. Looking now, he saw that the sky had indeed begun to brighten. Pete had a point. But when the deputy pulled at Micah's arm and tried to steer him back to the cabin, Micah tugged free and ran on. He stopped at the closed door of the van, bent down, and flattened a hand on the window. His eyes met Heather's just as Mooney started the engine, and short of running alongside until the van gained enough speed to leave him behind, he had no choice but to stay. Straightening, he stared at the head that was turned and looking back at him. He held that gaze until the van rounded a bend and disappeared down the forest drive.

She was gone.

Suddenly, he felt cold inside and out. Turning fast, he started back toward the house. Of the two cars he'd heard earlier, only Pete's Lake Henry cruiser was left.

"Some friend you are," he muttered as he stormed past the deputy.

"Hell, Micah, what could we do?" Pete cried, following him. "They had the warrant for her arrest."

"You could have said it was wrong. You could've said they made a mistake."

"We did. But, Christ, they're FBI. It was already a federal issue. What could we do?"

"Call us. Warn us."

"How would that've helped? Would you have run off, like you were guilty of something? This was the only way, Micah."

Micah took the front steps in twos, energized by anger.

"Look at it this way," Pete said. "They have to prove she is who they say. You think anyone here's going to say she's someone else? No way. So they're going to have to dig up other people. That'll take some time, don't you think?"

What Micah thought was that any amount of time he was separated from Heather was bad. He wanted her with him, and not just for the girls' sake. He had come to depend on her gentleness, her sureness, and -- yes -- her practicality. He was a nuts-and-bolts guy who sometimes was so focused on the small details that he didn't see the larger picture. Heather did. She was his helpmate when it came to being human. She was also his partner when it came to maple sugaring, and the season was about to start.

But she wasn't here. And he did need to see the larger picture. In this instance, that meant calling Cassie.

Striding into the house, he shut the door before Pete could follow, then promptly forgot about Cassie. Missy stood in the middle of the living room looking crushed, and though there was no sign of Star, Micah was sure she was near. He looked around the living room, behind and under the sofa, the chairs, the large square coffee table that he had built at Heather's direction, but it wasn't until he looked behind him at the bookshelves flanking the front door that he spotted her. She was on the bottom shelf, tucked in beside a stack of National Geographic magazines that were a stark yellow against the pale green of her nightie. Her knees were drawn up and held close by her small arms. Her hair, dark like his but long, straight, and fine, lay over her shoulders like a shawl. Her eyes were woefully sad and knowing, and they were watching him.

His heart lurched. It wasn't that he had stronger feelings for Star, just that he worried more. She was a more serious child than Melissa. And introverted. Whereas Missy said what she thought, Star was quieter. She had been an infant when her mother had left -- "left" being the word he used in place of "skidded off the road, went down a ravine, and burned up in the cab of her truck." He knew that Star couldn't possibly remember Marcy, still he was convinced that she sensed the loss. Heather was wonderful with Star. Heather was wonderful with both of his girls. And now Heather had left, too.

Hunkering down, he caught up the child. Her arms and legs went around him as he straightened.

Not knowing where to begin, he simply said, "Everything's okay, baby," as he carried her down the hall to the room the girls shared. He set her on her bed. Like Missy's, it was a mess of gingham sheets, pillow, and down -- Missy's pink, Star's green -- all of which, again, was Heather's doing. "And everything's going to be okay. But you can help me out now, baby. I need you and your sister to get dressed while I make some calls. Then we'll have breakfast together."

"We won't wait for Momma," the child said in a sure little voice.

"No. She'll have breakfast in town."

"What'll she eat?"

He thought for a minute. "Eggs? Waffles? If we eat the same thing, it'll be like she's with us. What do you think?"


"Oatmeal," Missy announced from close by. "Oatmeal's her favorite. She'd be having that. But I can only eat it if it has lots of maple sugar on it."

"Well, we have lots of maple sugar, so we're golden. Help your sister dress?" Micah said and, with a return of the urgency he had felt when the FBI van disappeared with Heather inside, he headed for the kitchen. Halfway there, he did an about-face and went back down the hall, this time to the room opposite the girls'. He had added this room soon after Heather moved in, hoping it would be for a child they would have together, but they'd been too busy, it seemed, growing the girls, growing the business. The floor of the room was covered with the dollhouse village he'd made for the girls and which they had arranged during a recent spate of snowy days. He had to step over the town hall and the library to reach the closet, then had to push spare clothes aside to get to the shelves built in behind.

The knapsack was on a shelf out of reach of the girls and far to the right, well hidden by clothes and boxes of Christmas decorations that had only recently been taken down. A drab brown thing, the knapsack was small and worn. Micah didn't know whether it had belonged to Heather herself or to someone else. To his knowledge, it was the only relic she had of her pre-Lake Henry days.

He pulled the knapsack from the shelf and shifted the boxes on either side to fill the space. Tucking the sack under his arm -- and refusing to consider what was inside -- he went through the kitchen to the back hall. Jackets of various sizes hung from hooks at all heights, as did hats, lanterns, picks, and shovels, as well as a coil of plastic tubing that Micah was repairing. An assortment of footwear was lined against the wall, crowded in by the snowshoes that they'd been using each day when they trekked up the hill to the sugarbush to clear away winter litter and to check the mainline for damage in anticipation of sugaring time.

But he wasn't going to the sugarbush now. Stepping into the largest boots in the pile, he pulled on a jacket and stuffed the knapsack inside. For good measure, lest anyone be watching from the woods, he grabbed the plastic tubing and went out, down the back steps and over the well-packed snow on an oft-trodden path. The sugarhouse stood several hundred feet up the hill from the house. It was a long stone building with a large cupola atop, through which steam from the evaporator escaped when the sap was being boiled down.

Nothing escaped it now. There was no sweet scent, no air of anticipation. The sugarhouse and woods alike were cold and still.

Feeling only dread, Micah slipped inside and shut the door behind him. He went through the main room, past yards of stainless steel equipment, into the newly finished addition that still smelled of fresh lumber. This room was part kitchen, with a huge stove, rows of cabinets and shelves, and worktables for making candy from syrup, and part office, with Heather's computer on a desk and file cabinets nearby. Along an unoccupied wall of the kitchen half of the room, Micah set the tubing on a pile of other repaired coils.

Returning to the main room, he went to the far end where sugar wood was stacked high and deep. The wood here was a fraction of what he would use when the season began. The rest lay outside, beyond the large double doors that opened to allow an iron flatcar to bring wood in from outside along rails embedded in the floor. Back by those doors, at the rear end of the inside stack, he pulled off three logs at a time. When he found one with a significant curve, he tucked the tattered bag into the pile, put that log back, then the rest. Brushing his hands off on his jacket, he left the shed.

Back in the kitchen, he called Cassie Byrnes.

* * *

Cassie rarely slept late. Five hours a night was all she needed, which was a blessing. She would never be able to do what she did without those extra usable hours. Add on the fact that her husband and their three children were all excellent sleepers, and she could regularly count on the late night and early morning hours for work.

This particular morning, she was doing town business. With the annual election newly done, she had been renamed chairman of the Lake Henry Committee for the fifth year in a row -- which should have been shocking, since she was a woman and barely thirty-six, in both regards distinctly different from the older men who had traditionally run the town. But times had begun to change, and Cassie was a major doer. A lifelong resident who was articulate and effective, she was also on the correct side of the environmental issues that were the Committee's major concern. Most often, these had to do with the loons that arrived each April, nested, and raised their young well into November. They were gone for the winter now, flown east to fish blissfully in unfrozen seacoast waters, unaware that Cassie's current concern dealt not only with them, but with humans as well. There were many in town who, fearing for the integrity of the lake, wanted to add security in the form of three police officers, one cruiser, and the appropriate testing equipment to steadily monitor the condition of the lake. Unfortunately, these additions cost money. Cassie was currently trying to determine exactly how much, so that the strongest case could be made for increasing the real estate tax at Town Meeting in late March.

The telephone rang. Eyes flying to the clock, she caught up the receiver. It was six-thirty in the morning. This was no pleasure call.

"This is Cassie," she said quietly.

The voice on the other end was low and tight. "It's Micah. They arrested Heather. We need your help."

Cassie drew a blank. The words "Heather" and "arrest" were not compatible. "What are you talking about? Who arrested her?"

"The FBI. They say she has a whole other identity and that she killed someone before she moved here. Flight to avoid prosecution -- that's what they're charging her with. Then there's murder. And extortion. They handcuffed her, Cassie. Handcuffed her. And Pete was with them, saying the whole thing was legal."

Cassie remained numb for a minute. Heather Malone was her friend. They had been together the day before, barely twelve hours ago. Heather was the last person in town whom Cassie would have thought ever to be in trouble with the law. But Micah's distress couldn't be ignored, particularly if the local police were involved.

Setting aside her personal thoughts along with the work she'd been doing, she reached for her briefcase. "It may be legal, but that doesn't mean the allegations are true. I know Heather." She was on her feet, turning off the desk light. "Where have they taken her?"

"Concord, I think. They said there'd be a hearing this morning."

"Not until I'm there to represent her," Cassie declared with a certain indignation. "Let me find out for sure where she is, then you and I will take a ride. Pick me up in fifteen minutes?"


* * *

Fifteen minutes didn't give Micah much time to get his life in order. He and Heather had been a family long enough that he hadn't had to worry about who would take care of the girls before and after school. Thinking about his predicament now, he could conjure up only one name, one face for the job. Of all of the people whom he and Heather called friends, this was the one he trusted most.

Chapter Two

Poppy Blake had been awake for some time, lying on her side facing the wall of windows. Anyone looking in would have thought she was watching dawn creep over the lake, because it was surely a breathtaking sight. Snow lay pristine over ice eighteen inches thick. Tall hemlocks and pines formed a shadowed skyscape on the islands that dotted the lake and the east shore beyond. As day arrived, a swath of brightening light climbed behind their limbs, allowing for the weakest, most delicate shards of pale yellow light to filter through. During any other season, with maples, beeches, and birch in leaf, the light would have been blocked. In winter, though, when sun was most needed, it positively twinkled.

Poppy saw none of it. Her mind was miles away, in a dream place where one could erase mistakes of the past and start fresh. In that place, she wasn't lying in bed alone. Nor was her house on one level, or the room that might have held children filled instead with equipment necessary to keep her upper body strong and her lower from atrophy. Nor, in her dream place, was there a wheelchair by the bed.

Poppy's legs didn't work. They hadn't since a snowmobile accident twelve years before. In those twelve years, she had learned everything there was to know about life as a paraplegic -- the most important lesson being that she couldn't turn back the clock and undo things. Only by accepting them could she lead a satisfying life.

Still, there were times when she dreamed. This morning the fantasy involved a man she had seen only a handful of times. He was five foot ten, had red hair, blue eyes, and a sexy baritone that she had heard many more times than she'd seen the man in the flesh. He called her regularly -- or used to, until she put him off one time too many. But what choice did she have? She couldn't keep up with him from a wheelchair. Apparently he had come to agree. He hadn't called in a month.

The phone on her bed stand rang now -- a single line, far removed from the complex system in the other room that Poppy used for business. She ran a telephone answering service for Lake Henry and the neighboring towns, and sat for much of the day before a large bank of buttons, directing calls from one place to the next, taking messages for the townsfolk, chatting with callers, passing on information. The phone on the bed stand was her personal line, and while family and friends frequently used it, they never called this early. It was barely seven in the morning. That was cause for alarm.

In the seconds that it took to push pillows aside, turn herself over, and reach the receiver, she had horrid visions of her mother being ill. But the number illuminated on the handset wasn't from Florida, where Maida was spending January, February, and March. It was a local number. Heather's.

"Hey?" she said, half greeting, half asking, wondering why her friend would be calling so early when they'd been together just the night before. But Heather wasn't on the other end. The voice was urgent and deep.

"It's Micah. There's trouble." His next words blurred -- made no sense to her at all -- until he said, "I need someone to get the girls to school. Can you do it? I'm worried about Star."

Poppy pictured the little girl with long, silky hair framing pale skin and deep-set dark eyes. She loved both of Micah's girls, but Star had always been the one to tug at her heart. "Of course I can do it," she told him, confused, "but Heather isn't someone else. What are you talking about?"

"I'm not talking about anything. It's the FBI that's saying it."

"Killed someone? I don't think so. We've been friends since she first came to town. She went through my accident with me, and she couldn't have been more selfless or giving or understanding. Or comforting or helpful. Heather couldn't kill anyone if she tried."

"That's what I said, but I don't count. I'll be there in five minutes, okay?"

"I'll be at the door."

And she was. Poppy was a minimalist. She didn't bother with fancy clothes or makeup, rarely had, even before the accident. Rebels didn't primp and preen as their mothers might have them do. At the time, defying Maida in that way had given her great joy. Now, it wasn't rebellion that kept her from fussing, but pragmatism. A quick trip to the bathroom, where everything was perfectly situated for wheelchair access, and a cursory washing up was all she allowed herself this morning. What time she spent was in layering up her legs and pulling on sheepskin boots, so that her feet didn't chill without her knowing it.

On the porch, draped in a heavy parka, she combed her pixie-short hair with her fingers as she watched the headlights of Micah's truck approach. The road was narrow but paved, the latter being one of the concessions that Poppy had made when, soon after the accident, her parents had carved off a wedge of their own land to build her a house. She had put her foot down on having a direct link to their place, needing what small semblance of independence she could retain, and had opted instead for the longer road out to the street. Paving it meant less of a risk in foul weather. Indeed, the most recent snow, fallen three days before, had been plowed aside, leaving patches of bare pavement that had been neatly sanded. This morning even those patches wore a sheen of ice.

The ramp from the porch was built with the most shallow of declines, and even then, it had heat coils underneath that enabled Poppy to glide down without fear of skidding. Doing that now, she was at the side of the pickup when it stopped.

Micah was out in an instant. He was tall and solid, hatless as he often was, though his dark hair was thick and worn longer than even the country norm, so Poppy figured it kept his head warm. He wore faded jeans, work boots, and a plaid wool jacket that flapped open exposing a thermal shirt as he loped around to the passenger's side and lifted both girls out. Each wore brightly colored parkas and carried small backpacks.

"There's lunch in the packs," he told Poppy. "Heather made sandwiches last night. She always does it the night before...always...prepared." His voice trailed off and he looked suddenly stricken, as though what had once been innocent, even praiseworthy, was no longer so.

The implication, of course, was that Heather had been expecting something like this to happen -- which Poppy couldn't believe was true. So she urged Micah on with the hitch of her chin toward the road. "You go on. Get this straightened out." She took the backpack that Missy was already passing to her as the older child moved behind the wheelchair to push. Then she held out an arm to Star, who stood braced against Micah looking forlorn. Poppy had to pat her lap before the child came forward.

"I appreciate this," Micah murmured. For a moment, he looked at the girls in a startled way that said he was only then beginning to think about consequences.

"They're okay," Poppy assured him. He looked at them a second longer, before returning to the truck. Poppy had Star on her lap by the time the truck was gone, at which point she declared, "Well, we passed that baton smoothly enough."

"What's a baton?" Missy asked.

"It's a thing that kinda looks like a rolled-up magazine. They use them in relay races, where one person runs his part of the race and hands the baton to another person, who then runs the next part. Push me up, Missy." She worked the wheel with one hand and held Star with the other, leaning around to peer at the smaller child. "Did you guys have breakfast?"

"We were gonna, then we didn't have time," Missy answered from behind.

"Daddy forgot," Star said.

"Daddy has lots on his mind," Poppy said, "but I have only you, and besides, you love my kitchen." She tightened her arm around Star as they rode up the ramp, entered the house, and headed straight for that kitchen. Everything in it was lower and more accessible than in a standard kitchen, from counters and cabinets, to sink and stove, to lazy Susans everywhere. For Poppy, these things were a necessity. The girls saw them as play.

Poppy was dying to know more about Heather, because the situation was bizarre. But she couldn't ask the children. Nonchalance was the way to go here.

So she acted as if nothing were unusual as she popped waffles into the toaster, and as she buttered them and doused them with syrup from the maple crop Micah had produced the spring before, she chatted with the girls about school, about snow, about upcoming Ice Days. Missy chatted back. Star remained quiet, close by Poppy's side.

"Doin' okay?" Poppy softly asked the little one from time to time, always getting a nod in return, albeit a solemn one. It didn't take a genius to know that the child was worried about Heather.

She'll be fine, Poppy wanted to say. She'll be back. This is all a mistake. Your dad will take care of everything.

But she didn't say a thing, because she didn't know a thing. And that irked her. She prided herself on being the pulse of Lake Henry, but she hadn't seen this one coming. She wondered if anyone had.

The more she wondered, the more annoyed she grew, because her thoughts moved beyond the simple fact of an arrest. She was adamant in believing that Heather was innocent of what they said. But someone had fingered her. With virtually anyone else, Poppy might have wondered if one ornery Lake Henryite had resented her easy acceptance by the others, but this was Heather. Everyone liked Heather. Even more, they liked Micah, who, though marginally reclusive, was a native, one of their own from the get-go. Heather would have been protected if for no other reason than that she was part of Micah's life.

Poppy particularly doubted that the betrayal had been internal, because there had been so many opportunities for others. Three months ago, Lake Henry had been the center of a news event that had focused on Poppy's own sister, and the media had been all over town. Poppy would put money on the fact that someone from that faction was responsible for this sudden upheaval.

But she couldn't say that to the girls, either. So, calmly, she washed syrup off their hands and mouths, helped them back into their parkas and pulled on her own. Back outside again, she let them ride the lift with her up into the brand-new Blazer that her mother had insisted on buying her before the onset of winter. It was poppy red and had been adapted for her needs; once the three of them were inside, she patiently pointed to buttons and let the girls retract the equipment. Focusing solely on them, she made sure they were belted in, drove them to school, and gave them big hugs before sending them off.

The instant they disappeared inside, she was on her cell phone calling John Kipling. Though born and raised in Lake Henry, John had spent most of his adulthood in exile. Given that he had left town at the age of fifteen -- and that he was ten years older than Poppy -- she had been too young to know him then. They had become friends only in the three years since his return. As of nearly six weeks ago, they were even related. On New Year's Day, John had married Poppy's sister Lily.

But Poppy wasn't calling him either as a friend or a brother-in-law. She was calling because he was the editor of the local newspaper, and she had an ax to grind.

Since it was barely eight-thirty in the morning, she tried him at the little lakeside cottage that Lily had inherited from their grandmother, Celia St. Marie. The cottage was smaller than John's a bit farther down the shore, but it had a history. So John had moved in, and they would be putting on a sizable addition once sugaring season was done. Micah was slated to do the work, which gave John an even greater incentive to help figure out what had happened to Micah's significant other.

No one answered the phone. Poppy guessed that John was either having breakfast at Charlie's Café or already at work.

She passed Charlie's first. It was a cheery sight with snow capping the red clapboards of both the general store and adjacent café. The wide brick chimney exhaled a curl of smoke, and a smell tinged with bacon and birch wafted into the Blazer.

She exchanged waves with the three men chatting out front, their breath puffing white against their dark wool jackets as they huddled into upturned collars, but she saw no sign of John's Tahoe. Less than a minute later, she spotted it down past the post office, at the yellow Victorian that stood near the edge of the pristine expanse of snow on the lake. That yellow Victorian housed the newspaper office.

Had it been summer -- or spring or fall -- she might have pulled in and talked with John face-to-face near the willows. But this was winter, and winter made maneuvering in and out of the Blazer over icy paths, much less unshoveled ground, harder to do. Besides, she wanted to get home to her phone lines. So she simply punched in the Lake News number as she drove past.

"Kipling, here," John answered in the distracted voice that said he was buried in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, or Washington Post.

"It's Poppy," she said and jumped right in. "Do you know what's going on?"

"Hey, sweetie." His voice lightened instantly. "No. What's going on?"

"You haven't heard any news?"

"Uh, we slept late," he said a mite sheepishly. "Just got in, actually."

Poppy felt a twinge of envy imagining the why of Lily and him sleeping late. It didn't help her mood any. "And you haven't had any calls?" she asked tartly.

"You'd know that better than me."


"No. No calls yet." He was cautious now. "Tell me what I missed."

"Heather," Poppy announced, letting loose with her disgust at the situation in general and the need to place blame in particular. "You missed Heather." She gave him the basics, then said, "I'm wondering how something like that could happen in a free society, because Heather is the last person I would ever accuse of anything, much less false identity and murder. But someone did. So I'm driving along here," now on the road that circled the lake, with no other cars in sight, just tons of snow, scads of naked trees, and plenty of questions, "and I'm thinking about who the canary could be. No one in town would snitch on Heather, because everyone here loves her, and even if they didn't, they love Micah, and even if they didn't, they wouldn't betray one of us for fear of reprisal from the rest. So I'm thinking it has to be one of the bozos who was in town last fall during the whole mess that gave Lily her unwanted fifteen minutes of fame, and those guys are your friends -- "

"They are not," John broke in, "but hold on, back up. What happened to Heather?"

Slowing when a deer darted across the road ahead, Poppy watched its white tail twitch as it leapt gracefully over a snowbank and loped off through the trees. "She was arrested by the FBI. I don't know much more. Micah dropped the girls here in a rush and went to get Cassie. They were going off after the Feds. I don't know where -- "

"To Concord. The Feds go to federal court, and the nearest one is in Concord."

Poppy drove on at full speed again, both hands tight on the wheel, though the road was beautifully plowed. "Federal court." She tried out the words. "Heather in federal court. Doesn't work for me."

"That's because you assume she's innocent."

"Well, don't you? Think back to every single interaction you've ever had with her. Did she ever sound like she was concealing a dark past?"

"No, but that's because I don't take her for a pathological liar. If she were one, though, chances are she could fool people. You'd be amazed at how convincing a pathological liar can be."

Poppy bristled. "Heather is totally honest. People trust her. Ask Charlie. He knows how to spot the good ones. It took him less than a year to get Heather out of the kitchen and into managing the restaurant. Hell, Kip, she's the one he leaves in charge when he and Annette go away with the kids -- and, technically, she isn't even working for him anymore! Would he do that if she was dishonest?" She edged the Blazer to the right when an old station wagon approached. It was the postmaster, Nathaniel Roy, on his way to work. Nat was a bespectacled seventy-five, but he was sharp enough to know Poppy's Blazer and would have been agile enough to flick his headlights if he wanted her to stop. The fact that he simply waved and drove on told her that he hadn't heard about Heather, either.

"Poppy, you're preaching to the choir," John said. "I agree with you. But it's not like we've known her all her life."

"We haven't known you, either," Poppy pointed out. "Or Lily. Both of you spent years away."

"But we were both born here."

"And you'd condemn Heather because she wasn't?"

"Poppy, Poppy," John pleaded, "I'm not condemning her. I'm just making the same point that other people are going to make."

Poppy wanted to argue, but she knew he was right. "Fine then, let's move on. Can you make some calls? Find out where she is? Try to keep a lid on things? I don't want history repeating itself. Lily was hit with false charges, and the result was two lost jobs, an abandoned apartment in Boston, and a media circus."

"The result of which," John noted, "was that she fell in love with me."

"But Heather already loves Micah," Poppy reminded him sweetly. "She already loves the girls. She doesn't need a crisis to bring her to her senses. Honestly, why would someone do this to her? I cannot imagine she has a single enemy in town -- and while you're asking questions, I want to know who thought he recognized her. In the process of clearing Lily's name last October, you humiliated several rather powerful media guys. Think there's a chance that one of them is seeking revenge?"

"They wouldn't dare."

Poppy gave a shallow laugh. "All three of them are still working."

"Yeah, but in lesser jobs and under closer watch, and there's still me. They know I'd have no qualms about pointing the finger at them if they tried to point it at someone here without cause."

"Well, someone did point a finger. While you're in Concord, see if you can find out who. You're an investigative reporter. Being nosy is what you do best."

"Yeah, well, in this situation, it could backfire. You want to keep this contained? Restraint is the way to go. Ask too many questions, and people start thinking you have something to hide. So let's concentrate on whatever's happening in Concord today. Let me make some calls. I'll get back to you when I hear something."

Poppy ended the call. Seconds later, she passed the stone wall that marked the entrance to Blake Orchards, her mother's pride and joy. The stones of the wall were waist-high lumps of snow, and the sign was draped with more of the fluffy white stuff. If she turned in and drove a half mile along the gravel road, between stubby apple trees that looked smaller than ever without leaves, she would reach her mother's house and a bit farther on, the cider house. Both were closed up for the winter.

Instead, she stayed on the main road as it climbed a hill and wound away from the lake for a bit, then back. Turning onto her own road, she followed it down to the lake. At the house, she quickly maneuvered her chair out of the Blazer and rolled inside to the console that held dozens of buttons. She was anxious for news. John wouldn't have called back so soon, but what she really wanted was a message from Micah.

* * *

Even slouched against the wall, Micah was taller than almost everyone else in the courthouse lobby, and a motley crew it was. Lawyers stood out from the rest in their suits, some of which had seen neater days. The people with them ranged in age from a pregnant young girl to a grizzled old man, and varied in dress from high school sloppy to rural casual, from Manchester stylish to Sanbornton woodsy to Claremont salt-of-the-earth. What all these people had in common was an air of unhappiness.

It was an emotion Micah shared with them. This was not where he wanted to be. He was supposed to be in the sugarbush with Heather, checking the mainline for last-minute damage. Yeah, he could do it alone, but he liked having Heather with him.

He had no choice, though. Cassie had told him to wait here, so he waited, his fists deep in the pockets of his flannel jacket, one booted foot flat to the wall, his eyes hooded, and his jaw clenched. He wanted to get Heather and get home. That was all. Get Heather, and get home.

After what seemed like an eternity standing there in that lobby, surrounded by the rumble of low conversation, Cassie strode down the hall from a room at the end. Long-legged, she was a standout in wool slacks and a blazer, a silk blouse and scarf, and a head full of curly blond hair, but the pickup of Micah's pulse had nothing to do with her good looks. He respected Cassie, but he wasn't drawn to her for anything but her legal expertise.

With Heather on his mind, he straightened.

Cassie didn't say anything when she reached him, simply indicated that he should follow her. Down another hall, they turned a corner. She knocked quietly on a door, the upper half of which was a milky glass, then turned the knob.

Micah expected to find Heather inside, but instead there were only an old, empty desk and a pair of battered metal chairs.

"Where is she?" he asked.

"Apparently still on her way," Cassie replied, putting her briefcase on the desk. "Here's the thing. There'll be a hearing in a little while. It isn't an indictment, per se, just a hearing in front of a magistrate during which the Feds return the warrant -- the warrant in question being the one involving flight to avoid prosecution. Heather won't have to say anything."

She broke off when the door opened again.

Micah's insides lurched. Heather was there with a guard, who gestured her forward. She looked ghostly pale and even more terrified than she had been back at the house. Her silver eyes found his and held them, as though clinging for support.

At first he didn't move. There was a split second when he thought of the part of Heather's past he didn't know, the knapsack he had stashed away and the words that the federal agent had said. We have evidence that her real name is Lisa Matlock, and that fifteen years ago she committed murder in California. If Heather was hiding something like that from him, it would explain the fear in her eyes.

Then again, if she was innocent of the charges and feeling overwhelmed by something that was out of her grasp, her fear was justified.

He focused on that thought. She had no sooner stepped into the room when he crossed the floor, pulled her into his arms, and pressed her face to his chest. He didn't want to see those fear-filled eyes. But he could feel her trembling, which was nearly as upsetting. His Heather had always been calm and even-tempered. She had always been brave, as sure of herself as anyone could be who was a newcomer to a town as insular as Lake Henry.

He remembered thinking that about her the first time they'd met. It had been fall. With the syrup season long done, he was in carpenter mode. Charlie had hired him to install a wall of windows in the café to open it up to the birches. During the course of the job, he was in and out of the kitchen a dozen times a day. Heather was working there, first as a dishwasher, then helping prepare the food for cooking. She hadn't said much. To this day she wasn't a big talker -- but neither was he. He remembered her being quiet, even shy, but self-assured. She had seemed comfortable with what she was doing, at peace, certainly not like a woman who was on the lam and had something to hide.

The guard stepped out into the hall and closed the door, leaving them alone with Cassie.

Micah said the first thing that came to mind, murmured against her hair. "Did you have breakfast?"

Heather shook her head against him and whispered, "They offered. I couldn't eat."

He held her tightly for another minute, then lowered his mouth to her ear. "Where'd this come from?"

She lifted a shoulder in a muted shrug.

"Did you tick off someone in town?"

Another headshake.

"Have you ever heard of that other woman?"

Heather started to cry. Micah didn't know if that meant she had or she hadn't, but he looked at Cassie in desperation. "She isn't that person. What do we do?"

Cassie had stayed on the far side of the small room, giving them these few seconds together. Now she came closer. She touched Heather's shoulder, the gesture of a friend, but didn't say anything. After a minute, she exerted the smallest pressure to make Heather look up.

"I need to ask this, honey," she said, "because I wouldn't be doing my job as a lawyer if I didn't. Are you Lisa Matlock?"

Heather's eyes were wet. "I'm Heather Malone."

"There," Micah said, annoyed. "You have it. What now?"

Cassie continued to study Heather's face. After what felt to Micah like an unnecessarily long time, which riled him all the more, she exhaled and looked at him. "Now we fight."

He set his annoyance aside. "How?"

"We go into that hearing in a little while and contest the proceedings. That's basically saying that Heather is innocent of the charges and that we will not waive extradition."

Heather made a frightened sound. Micah verbalized the source of her fear. "Extradition?"

"If we were to waive it," Cassie explained, "she would be immediately taken to California to answer the charges they've lodged."

"Would that be admitting she is Lisa Matlock?"

"No. It would be saying that we'll let the courts there prove that along with the other charges."

"Since she isn't Lisa Matlock, the charges don't apply."

"Right, but what I think and what you think and what she says is one thing. What the people in California think is apparently something else."

"Well, they're wrong. I want the charges dropped."

Cassie smiled sadly. "If it were as easy as that, I wouldn't have much work. Our system of criminal justice functions in roundabout ways."

"Innocent until proven guilty," Micah reminded her.

Cassie hesitated several seconds too long. "Not always," she said, shaking her head.

With those words, Micah had the awful fear that the trouble was just beginning.

* * *

Poppy had no calls to take for a while, which was typical of a Lake Henry morning in winter. During other seasons, when fine weather beckoned, people were out and about doing whatever tickled their fancy. Rainy days, snowy days, cold days tended to keep them at home. They were answering their own phones. They were reading the paper, cleaning up breakfast, stacking wood, hacking ice from the eaves, and if not that, they were starting to think about getting geared up to settle down to work in the easygoing way that Lake Henryites had.

She built the fire in the stone hearth to a blaze, made a pot of coffee, and sat back with a steaming mug of it to look at the lake, all the while wondering where Heather was, and what she was doing -- and it wasn't just a nominal interest. Poppy had other friends she'd known longer than Heather, but Heather was the one she liked best. She felt closest to Heather, had from the first time they met. Poppy had been a sophomore at the state university, and Heather, who spent her work week inside at Charlie's, loved the great outdoors. Each weekend, a group of them went mountain climbing, and though Poppy had more in common with the college students in the bunch, Heather was the one she talked with the most.

Thinking back, Poppy realized that she had done most of the talking. Heather was a good listener, and Poppy, who felt constrained by the town in general, and her family in particular, had needed to vent. Then Poppy's accident happened, and, through the nightmare of recovery, Heather had been there for her. She seemed to know what to do without being told. She didn't dole out pity or offer patronizing words of solace. Her underlying attitude was to accept what had happened and move on. That quiet approach had been a relief.

Poppy was thinking about that quietness -- about listening rather than talking, and whether there had been a reason for it that went beyond Heather's basic nature -- when a light blinked on the phone bank before her. Pushing that unsettling thought from her mind, she put on her headset, pressed the appropriate button, and said, "Lake Henry Library."

"Leila Higgins, please," said an unfamiliar woman.

"I'm sorry. The library doesn't open until noon on Wednesdays. Who's calling?"

"This is Aileen Miller. I'm with the Washington Post. I understand that Heather Malone worked at the library. I was looking for a comment from Ms. Higgins."

Poppy was dismayed, but not unprepared. When it came to handling the media, she had gone through trial by fire the fall before. Now she said, "Tell you what. If you give me your number, I'll pass it on to Ms. Higgins when the library opens."

"Who is this?"

"The answering service."

"Do you have a home number for Ms. Higgins?"

"Tell you what," Poppy offered sweetly. "Give me your home number, and I'll pass that on to Ms. Higgins."

There was a pause, then a magnanimous, "Oh, I don't want her having to pay. I'd be happy to call her."

"I'm sure you would," Poppy replied.

After another pause, Aileen Miller responded with resignation. "She can call me at work."

Poppy wrote down the woman's name and number, then disconnected the call and made one of her own.

"Police office," came a grumble on the other end.

"Willie Jake, it's me. What do you know about Heather?"

There was a pause, then a testy, "What do you know?"

"Only that she was arrested. How could you let that happen?"

"I didn't 'let' it happen," came the indignant reply. "I'm local. I can't control the Feds."

"Do they have evidence that Heather was someone else?"

"You know I can't tell you that. But would I have let them arrest her if they didn't?"

"What kind of evidence?"

There was a sigh. "I can't tell you that, lest I bias the case. But I'll tell you this -- it was all circumstantial. A bunch of old photos of someone who might'a looked like Heather, reports of a scar, handwriting comparisons -- all real iffy. But I say it again, these were Feds. I tried my best to change their minds, but in the end they did what they wanted to do. There's no messing with these guys when they set their minds to something, and when they have the paper to back it up..." He sputtered a drawn-out, "Whelllll..."

Poppy's private line blinked and John's number appeared. "Okay, Willie Jake. I get your point. Gotta run now." She ended the call and punched in the blinking button. "Any luck?"

"She's at the federal courthouse in Concord. A hearing's going on right now."

"What kind of hearing?"

"On the warrant. I don't know anything more. I got this from my buddy who covers the courthouse for the Monitor. He couldn't talk. He wanted to get into the hearing."

"Did you ask him to keep it quiet?"

"Oh yeah," John said, sounding dryly resigned. "He shot that idea down fast."

"Why? Heather's a nobody!"

"Well, the guy Lisa Matlock allegedly killed is a somebody. Was a somebody. His father was a United States senator from California at the time, earmarked for his party's vice presidential nomination, which he got three weeks after his son's death, in part thanks to the sympathy vote. The ticket lost, and DiCenza didn't run for the Senate again, but he's still a force in the state, and he keeps the torch alive."

Poppy thought fast. "And you picture our Heather as the type who would mingle with political movers? I don't. She's too private, too shy, too down to earth. Sorry, John, but something doesn't jibe."

"Hey, I'm just telling you what my buddy told me. This was a high-profile case at the time. My guess is it'll get lots of attention now. I'm driving down there myself. Armand will want a story in the paper, and the best way to get it right is to see what's happening firsthand."

"Find out why it's happening," Poppy pleaded, "why it's happening to Heather."

"I'll try. I'll call you when I get back."

Poppy didn't want to hold him up. If anyone would give Heather a fair shake, it was John. So she simply added, "Please," and disconnected the call.

Slipping off the headset, she took up her coffee and looked out at the lake. She tried to imagine what Heather was feeling -- wondered if it was confusion or numbness or fear, or something else entirely. She tried to imagine Heather sitting in a cell in Concord, but couldn't give the image a face that fit. Heather always looked too...gentle. The scar did that. It was small, not more than half an inch long and curved gently upward from the corner of her mouth, the eternal optimist's smile.

Scars like that gave a person distinction. Many people had them.

Another button lit on the console, Poppy's private line again. This time, the number was that of Marianne Hersey's bookstore. Putting one end of the headset to her ear, she pressed the button. "Hey."

"What is going on?" Marianne asked. She was one of five women who had dinner at Poppy's every Tuesday. Formally, they were the Lake Henry Hospitality Committee. Informally, they were good friends sharing news, laughter, and gripes. Heather had been with them the evening before, as she was every week. "I just got to work and was sitting down with my coffee and doughnut, thinking that maybe I'd catch an author on the morning talk shows, and suddenly there's breaking news from Concord. Do you know what they're saying about Heather?"

"On television? Oh God. What are they saying?"

"That she deliberately ran down former Senator DiCenza's son, then fled from the scene of the accident and wasn't spotted again until a member of the cold case squad got a lead from someone who was here last fall. What do you know?"

"Not as much as you do. I'm going to go watch. I'll call you back." Poppy swiveled her chair, aimed the remote at the television, and turned on the set. No more than a second or two into channel surfing, she spotted a "Breaking News" banner. Since the story was just beginning, she suspected she had hit a different channel from the one Marianne had seen. This was not a good sign.

The reporter had barely begun to talk when Poppy's private line lit again.

"It's Sigrid," came the voice on the other end. "Are you watching this?" Sigrid Dunn was another of the Tuesday-night group. By day, she did large-loom weaving. The television was often on while she worked.

"Just tuned in," Poppy said.

"What are they talking about?"

"Let me listen." She raised the volume.

"...a major break in the investigation of the murder of Robert DiCenza fifteen years ago in Sacramento. DiCenza, who was twenty-five at the time, was run down as he was leaving a political fundraiser for his father, then a United States senator from that state. The car that hit him was driven by an eighteen-year-old named Lisa Matlock, whom, sources say, had threatened him earlier that evening. The FBI alleges that Lisa Matlock has been living in New Hampshire for the last fourteen years under the name Heather Malone. She was apprehended early this morning at her home in Lake Henry. She surrendered quietly and was transported to federal court here in Concord. A hearing has just concluded, during which Ms. Malone's lawyer formally contested the proceedings. That means that she will be fighting extradition. Since extradition is a state issue, the federal proceedings were dropped, and she has been turned over to the Office of the Attorney General of New Hampshire. She will be transported to the superior court in West Eames for a hearing there later today. This is Brian Anderson for Channel Nine, with breaking news in Concord."

"Do you remember hearing about this murder?" Poppy asked Sigrid.

"No, but fifteen years ago I was in the Peace Corps in Africa, so I wouldn't have seen the news. Is this our Heather they're talking about?" she asked in disbelief.

Poppy was just as befuddled. "Well, it's our Heather who's in custody, but it can't be our Heather who did that." She paused, thinking of the rapport she and Heather had, the sense that they felt things other people didn't. "Can it?"

"No. Absolutely not. We know Heather. I mean, we don't spend Tuesday nights talking about the weather. We talk about private things. We talk about intimate things. She couldn't hide something like that from us."

Poppy was trying to remember stories Heather had told about her childhood, but she could think of none. Heather was always more of a listener on Tuesday nights. She listened and asked questions -- insightful questions that always got the others to talk more.

"We don't really know all that much about her," Poppy said quietly. "It's just that Heather's not a violent sort."

"It's just," Sigrid echoed archly, "that someone's up to no good. Someone in the press must have been pissed at us last fall. This is tit for tat."

"John says no."

"The news said that someone who was here last fall tipped off the cold case squad. Okay, so maybe John's right. Maybe it isn't revenge. But someone was looking at things he wasn't supposed to be looking at."

"Come on, Sigrid. They look at the crowd. Heather was in the crowd."

"Actually, not," Sigrid pointed out. "She wasn't milling around when the cameras were here. Missy had chicken pox. Remember?"

Now that she mentioned it, Poppy did remember. Heather hadn't ventured any farther from home that week than the pediatrician's office and the general store. Poppy herself had given Heather a blow-by-blow of all that she'd missed.

Except someone hadn't missed as much as Heather had. Someone had seen a face, imagined a similarity, and thrown a wonderful woman's life in limbo. Poppy wanted to know who that person was.

Excerpted from An Accidental Woman by Barbara Delinsky. Copyright © 2002 by Barbara Delinsky. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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