Jannifer Hoffman

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Secrets of the Heart Sample Chapter

Below is Chapter One of Secrets of the Heart. Hope you enjoy it!

 

 

Chapter One

NEW YORK CITY

Forced to a crawling pace due to the  rubbernecking in front of him, Hunter took special pains to avoid looking at the crash site. Keeping his eyes fixed on the Ford mini-van ahead of him, however, didn’t block out the stench of burnt oil, the hiss of steaming radiators and sobbing victims, or the oppressive memories that sent his heart rate slamming into overdrive.

The accident must have happened in the last few minutes because, though sirens screamed in the distance, neither ambulance nor police were on the scene.

Hunter’s memories carried him to another time. He was nine years old, and Diana was screaming for help. They—the people who seemed to know these things—said she couldn’t have screamed; she died instantly as did her aunt and uncle in the front seat on either side of her. But he still woke up in a sweat hearing her screams. Not so often anymore, but always when he least expected it.

Diana was a petite five-year old with flaming red hair, a cute button nose, and ear-to-ear freckles. In two weeks, on June first, she would have turned thirty. Because of him, Diana never reached her sixth birthday.

How many years had to pass before the guilt gave you peace?

An hour later, home in his upscale Manhattan apartment, Hunter picked up his mail, downed a glass of orange juice, and headed to his spare bedroom to give himself a vigorous workout.

Ten minutes into his routine the phone rang. Stifling his irritation, he dropped his weights, grabbed a towel, and headed for the nearest phone. He answered it with a curt, “Yeah, Hunter here.”

“Hunter…Douglas?” The woman’s hesitant question when she said his last name prepared him for a telemarketer.

 

Secrets of the Heart by Jannifer Hoffman

“Yeah, and I’m not buying anything.”

“Sorry if I disturbed you,” she said. “This is Karen Wilda from the 249th Precinct in Manhattan.”

Hunter swiped the towel over his sweating brow. “What can I do for you Ms. Wilda?”

“Well, unfortunately I have some sad news for you. A friend of yours, Brenda Casey, died this afternoon.”

Friend? She’d found his business number in the phone book and hired him to locate her biological father. Afterwards, they’d had a brief affair, then parted on good terms by mutual agreement. He wasn’t happy to hear she had died, but he had no idea how the police connected her to him.

“I haven’t seen or heard from Brenda in over seven years,” he said. “Why are you calling me?”

“She left a note with your name and phone number.”

Hunter sank down in a chair, not liking where this was going. “A note? What was the cause of her death?”

Karen sighed. “There will be an autopsy, but it appears to be suicide. She left several notes actually, one of them concerning her two children.”

Hunter’s heart kicked up a notch. “Two children?”

“Brenda left papers asking you to be the person to notify her sister in Minnesota. The sister, Nicole Anderson, signed a document agreeing to take custody of the children should anything happen to Brenda. An attached memo states that you’d know exactly how to locate Ms. Anderson and could deliver the children to her. Since Chief Connors here knows you personally he vouched for your credibility.”

 

Secrets of the Heart by Jannifer Hoffman

Hunter would have to remember to thank his good friend Ralph Connors.

Karen went on to explain that the department was willing to pay for his services, plus expenses, and could he please pick the children up within the hour.

#####

Staring at the six-year-old child asleep on his sofa, Hunter experienced a tightening in his chest. Her frayed jeans had suffered too many washings, her stained jacket not enough. Dirty toes peeked through faded pink tennis shoes long since outgrown. Her thin arms clutched protectively around her equally tattered four-year-old brother.

The sleeping girl with her unkempt, matted red hair looked like somebody’s throwaway Raggedy Ann doll. She bore no resemblance to him whatsoever, but the rich red hue of her curls, the freckles, the button nose…identical to Diana.

He pulled a faded photograph from his wallet; the last one taken of his pixie faced little sister. The likeness was uncanny. It left no doubt in his mind. The child was his.

Pain welled inside him. Gut-wrenching pain. Damn her! Why couldn’t Brenda have told him he had a daughter? He would have helped. But then, from what he remembered of Brenda Casey, she probably didn’t know whose baby she carried.

It suddenly struck him that after passing that crash on the highway earlier he’d been recapping his life and found it seriously lacking; he just didn’t know what it lacked until this very minute. He came from good family stock, a loving mother and father. Maybe raising this mistreated child, giving her a happy home, could somehow make up for the little girl who never had a chance to grow up because of him.

 

Secrets of the Heart by Jannifer Hoffman

But what were the chances that Nicole Anderson would turn her niece and nephew over to him? With a paternity test he might be able to gain custody of the girl, but he didn’t have a fireman’s chance in hell of getting the boy. Only God knew who had fathered him. After what those two had been through it would be cruel and unconscionable to separate them. He had to convince Ms. Anderson they’d be better off with him.

He picked up the phone and dialed the Minnesota number.

#####

Nicole was putting the finishing touches on a complicated sketch of a Renaissance costume when the phone rang. She glanced irritably at the clock. Who would be calling her at midnight? Without taking her eyes from her sketch, she reached past the sample books spread out in front of her for the receiver.

“Hello.”

After a moment of silence a man’s husky voice came over the line. “Hello. Nicole Anderson?”

Nicole laid her drawing pencil down. “Yes.”

“Ms. Anderson, this is Hunter Douglas. You don’t know me, but unfortunately it was left up to me to make this call. I’m afraid I have some bad news for you.”

Nicole charged to her feet. “My god, is it Billy? Has something happened to Billy?”

“No. It’s not your brother. It’s your sister, Brenda. I really hate doing this over the phone but with you living so far away I had no choice. Your sister is…your sister died this afternoon.”

Red-hot anger sliced through Nicole. “Who are you and what kind of a sick joke is this?”

 

Secrets of the Heart by Jannifer Hoffman

“This is Nicole Anderson, isn’t it? Your father was Robert C. Anderson of Anderson Design? You have a brother William? You live in your grandfather’s house on Sunset Lake in northern Minnesota.”

Nicole slumped back into her chair, her breathing laborious. “Yes, but — ”

“Are you all right? Do you have anyone there with you?”

“Yes, I’m fine and no, I have no one here with me. Just exactly who are you and who put you up to this nonsense?”

“I told you, my name is Hunter Douglas. I’m — I did some work for Brenda a few years ago and she left my name as the person to contact in case of an emergency. Why are you snapping at me?”

“Listen Bozo. I don’t have a sister!” Nicole pressed the receiver into its cradle. Prank phone calls were an invasion of her privacy. She despised them. Clasping her shaking hands together, she glanced about her homey little studio trying to calm the adrenaline rush the call had given her. Her skin felt hot and clammy at the same time. How did he know her father’s name and that she had a brother?

Rubbing her neck, she swiveled her head trying to knead out the knot of tension that came from leaning over a sketchbook all day. Maybe she’d give Billy a call just to make sure he was okay.

Just as she reached for the phone, it started to ring again. She snatched her hand back as though it had been bitten. It was probably that obnoxious Hunter Douglas again. But maybe it was Billy. Cautiously, slowly, she lifted the handset and put it to her ear.

“Nicole?”

It was Hunter Douglas.

“Nicole! Don’t hang up again. Please.”

 

Secrets of the Heart by Jannifer Hoffman

Nicole gritted her teeth. “All right, you have thirty seconds to explain why you’ve chosen me to be on the receiving end of your little joke.”

“Look, I don’t know what your relationship was with your sister, but that’s not the point here — ”

“Will you get it through your thick skull. I don’t have a sister — period.”

“Lady, if it wasn’t for the kids I’d gladly hang up on you —”

“What kids?”

“Brenda’s kids!”

Nicole made a frustrated growling sound. “Mister, you are testing my patience. But I’ll admit you’ve piqued my curiosity.”

“Well, thank God for small favors.”

“Sarcasm will only get this phone slammed in your ear. Now kindly tell me who Brenda is and why you think she…was my sister. And what do you have to do with all this?”

An exasperated sigh came through the line. “About seven years ago Brenda hired an investigator to find her father. All she had was a name and a city. In truth, I suspect she just wanted to know why the checks stopped coming.”

“What checks?”

“The checks your father sent to Brenda’s mother every month.”

Nicole took a deep breath. Then another one. “My father sent checks to Brenda’s mother? Why?” The last word came out in a suspicious squeak.

“I think you already know the answer to that.”

 

Secrets of the Heart by Jannifer Hoffman

“Keep talking.”

“Apparently your father had an affair with a woman named Yvonne Casey. Brenda must have been the result of that affair. Look, I’m sorry. I thought you knew. She knew all about you and Billy. So I just assumed — ”

“How did she know all about us?”

“As I said, she hired an investigator when the checks stopped coming.”

“Let me guess — you were the private investigator?”

“Actually, I’m more of a genealogy investigator but — yes, I did the research for her.”

“Then you know my father died seven years ago.”

“Yes.”

“Just exactly how old was Brenda when she died?”

“Around twenty-nine, I think.”

Nicole rubbed a shaking hand over her eyes wishing she could blot out this entire conversation. She was twenty-eight. Billy twenty-two. Dear God. Her parents had always seemed so loving toward each other. They rarely argued. But if he sent checks every month… “Are you still there?” he asked.

“Yes. I guess I’m kind of in shock here.”

“Under the circumstances, that’s understandable, I guess. But…like I said before, I wouldn’t be calling if it weren’t for the two kids, Shanna and Kyle. Brenda listed you as next of kin. She granted custody to you.”

 

Secrets of the Heart by Jannifer Hoffman

“What?”

“She granted — ”

“I heard you. I’m just having a little problem believing all this. You’re telling me I’m now responsible for two kids? Kids that belonged to a sister, a half-sister I didn’t even know I had.” Nicole had to pause a moment to remind herself to breathe — and think. This whole thing was preposterous. She couldn’t take on two kids. Lord, they could be toddlers. The haunting memory of a stillborn baby she had hoped would die had convinced her long ago she was unfit to be a mother.

Frustration and anger at being put on the spot goaded her.

“You may as well know, Mr. Douglas, I have zero maternal instincts. I have no desire to have kids of my own, much less someone else’s. I have a business to run. A career. Where is her husband? Why isn’t he responsible for them?”

“Brenda was never married.”

“Fine, they must still have a father?”

“Why don’t you calm down, Nicole?”

Nicole gritted her teeth. “Don’t tell me to calm down. I have a legitimate reason to be upset.”

“No you don’t. The kids have a good home to go to if you don’t want them. All you have to do is sign some papers and it will be taken care of. I’ll contact you in a couple of days. We can handle it over the phone and with faxes.”

Nicole tried to think. He was giving her an out. But why was he suddenly being so amiable? She was getting a real uneasy feeling in her gut. “Where will they go?” she asked.

“I was under the impression you didn’t care.”

 

Secrets of the Heart by Jannifer Hoffman

“Why are you being such a jerk? I’m not exactly heartless. You throw all this at me in a heartbeat, then, without even giving me a chance to think, calmly act as though it’s no big deal. If I don’t take them, who will?”

The long silence that followed her question increased Nicole’s uneasiness by the second.

Finally he said, “I will.”

A chill shot through Nicole that had nothing to do with room temperature. “Why? Is there possibly some insurance money involved?”

“You really are heartless, aren’t you? You didn’t even ask how old they are. Or how they’re handling the death of their mother. Or who’s caring for them now. Does it matter to you that their mother was likely a prostitute and they’ve been living in a two-room hell-hole where they were lucky if they got one meal a day?”

Nicole winced, suddenly finding it an effort to breathe. This nightmare-delivering messenger was twisting a knife in her chest. If Brenda truly was her sister, even half sister, these children were blood relatives. She had an obligation to make sure they went to a good home.

“I’d like to see them,” she whispered.

“Why? So you can decide if they’re worthy of your affections?”

“That’s an asinine thing to say. You don’t know me! You don’t know anything about me. I said I want to see them. For all I know you’re a…a money-grubbing two–bit investigator working out of a cluttered, smoke-infested, little office with a short-skirted secretary whose main goal in life is getting her nails buffed!”

“Miss Anderson, you’ve read a few too many dime store novels.”

 

Secrets of the Heart by Jannifer Hoffman

“I want to see those kids. Now, where are they?”

“Asleep on my sofa.”

“I mean, what city? Where are you calling from, Minneapolis?”

“New York.”

Groaning, Nicole swallowed hard at the lump in her throat, while trying to think. She had twenty-five Renaissance costumes to design and make for a play opening in six weeks. That would include a full day in Minneapolis taking measurements after the designs were approved. “I want to come and see them, but I need to check my schedule. Give me a number where you can be reached.”

He rattled off a phone number then said, “That’s my fax. Send me directions to your place. I’ll bring them to see you — along with the papers to sign.”

The next thing she heard was a click then a buzz. He had hung up. Nicole stared at the phone, swearing under her breath. The arrogant ass. He gave her no clue as to when he was coming. She had no way to contact him except by fax. How old were the children anyway? Boys? Girls? One of each? He had told her their names but she hadn’t been listening at the time. Damn him. Did she dare swear on a fax?

Thinking about the children brought to mind the mother—Brenda. Nicole didn’t recall Hunter Douglas mentioning a last name or how Brenda died. He had said she was a prostitute. What a traumatic life they must have had. If her father really had an affair, she’d had an older sister — half sister. That thought was more than a little disturbing.