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Of Words & Music is the story of Lilah Kimball, a sixty-year-old widow who has pretty much given up on life. Bethany Freemont is Lilah’s twelve-year-old granddaughter with most of her life ahead of her. The two have never met. Then a tragic accident orphans Bethany, and Lilah is forced to take the child into her home, at least temporarily.
Lilah and Bethany are at odds from day one, incapable of exchanging two words without conflict. Lilah thinks the child is impertinent; Bethany thinks her grandmother is cold and mean. Lilah’s son, a middle-aged accountant, is horrified that his mother would entertain the idea of raising this child of a sister he hated, but Lilah’s long-time friend and housekeeper thinks Bethany may be Lilah’s last chance at life.
While her son tries to undermine any effort at reconciliation between the two, the housekeeper fights to bring Lilah and Bethany together.
As the weeks pass, Lilah begins to see herself—and her life— through Bethany’s eyes, and she doesn't like what she sees. Bethany begins to suspect her grandmother may not be the witch she once thought her. Then startling information comes to light that threatens to destroy all they’re trying to build.
Set in Atlanta, Georgia, Of Words & Music is the story of two women divided by more than their ages, but by a lifetime of misunderstanding. It is a story of family love and loss—and renewal.
The only sound in the room was the monotonous ticking of the huge grandfather clock in the corner. There were no traffic noises, no honking horns or screeching brakes this far back off Riverside Drive. Usually, Lilah Kimball found the silence comforting. With social worker Felicity Greenlea sitting in a nearby chair, the quiet hung in the air like a toxic red mist.
Lilah relaxed her tightly clasped hands. “The girl means nothing to me. Surely you can understand that.”
The young social worker flushed under Lilah’s regard and swallowed hard. “I understand that you don’t really know Bethany, but—”
“I’ve never laid eyes on the girl.” Nor heard of her, Lilah thought. Another oversight, Felicity Greenlea had called it, like not being informed of her daughter’s death until three months after the fact. Still, if they thought they could compound their behavior by attempting to foist a strange girl off on her, they could think again.
“You are her grandmother, Mrs. Kimball.”
“By blood only.”
“By blood and legality,” the girl said with more force, “and that is relevant, since both of Bethany’s parents are deceased and you are her closest living relative. You and your son.”
The silence hummed as Lilah waited for the woman’s next sally. Finally, she could bear it no longer. “Didn’t her father have any people?”
“None that we’re aware of and none that Bethany knows about. He was an only child, and his parents died years ago. There may be a distant cousin somewhere. We’re still investigating. Bethany knew about you, of course.”
“Why do you say of course?” Lilah asked, her voice sharp.
“Were you never in your daughter’s home?” When Lilah shook her head, Felicity Greenlea said, “There were several framed pictures of you there. Bethany knew who you were and where you lived.”
“It’s been almost three months since the accident. Where was the girl until now?”
“She’s been staying with a neighbor who only recently told us about you.”
Lilah raised an eyebrow.
Felicity looked away, then back. “Until last week, we saw no paperwork on Bethany. We had no idea of your existence—or hers.” She shifted in her chair. “Once we were aware of the situation, we immediately took steps to contact you.”
“I still don’t understand why it took so long.”
The young woman flushed. “The neighbor Bethany was staying with is one of our case workers in Athens. Apparently she and Bethany had some kind of arrangement. Barbara, the case worker, put the paperwork on hold.”
“Was that so bad?”
“Yes,” Felicity blurted. Then she seemed to compose herself. “What Barbara did was certainly unethical and possibly illegal. Whatever her motivation, we do have rules in our profession and also a moral obligation to the people we work with. There will be an investigation, and she will probably be reprimanded or even suspended.”
Lilah waved her hand in dismissal. “This girl—she was their only child?”
“Was there nothing in Elizabeth’s will about godparents or anything of that sort?”
“There was no will.”
A deep sigh escaped before Lilah could contain it. She turned and stared across the room.
“Mrs. Kimball, I’m only asking you to consider taking Bethany temporarily. As a trial. If the two of you find the situation intolerable, we’ll make other arrangements. We will continue to investigate her father’s family. There may be relatives somewhere. On your side, of course, there’s your son. We could approach him if you wish. He and his wife might be more receptive.”
“Don’t bother,” Lilah said. “I can tell you right now that his answer will be a resounding no. He and his sister were never close.”
“Perhaps I could understand that kind of reaction if his sister was asking him for a loan,” Felicity said, frustration clear in her voice, “but she’s dead.”
Lilah’s breath caught in her throat, but she kept her face impassive.
“We’re talking about a human being here, Mrs. Kimball. A child.”
“A twelve-year-old young woman.”
“Who is still very much a child and very much alone. Can you imagine the emotional upheaval she’s been through in the last several years? According to our records, her father died of adult leukemia after battling the disease for years. Then for Bethany to lose her mother this suddenly? She’s been through more than anyone her age should have to experience.”
Lilah rose and walked to the fireplace, swept clean now in June. She had learned more about her daughter’s life in the last hour than in the previous fourteen years. She hadn’t realized Elizabeth lived in Athens, Georgia, with her professor husband. So close? Elizabeth and the child—was her name Bethany? —had stayed on in the house after his death, but the social worker had made it plain that they had struggled to make ends meet. Lilah couldn’t imagine what Elizabeth’s life had been like, but it couldn’t have been pleasant. Bitterness surged through her as she looked around the room. It needn’t have been that way. Elizabeth had been born into wealth and privilege, but had chosen to turn her back on both it and her family.
The room was silent except for the rhythmic tick-tick-tick of the grandfather clock. No sounds from the outside grounds penetrated the room, no movement sounded in the other parts of the house. The air seemed to quiver, then go still.
Lilah started. She turned to Felicity. “Aren’t there other arrangements you can make?”
“As I said, we’ll continue to try and locate other relatives, although I’m afraid it may be a long shot.” She hesitated, her face going through several contortions. Then she said, “We can also look for a permanent arrangement for Bethany if that’s what you want.”
“You mean adoption?”
The social worker winced. “Adoption is certainly an option, although that might take some time.”
“Is there nowhere she can stay in the meantime?”
A flush spread up Felicity’s neck and across her face. “Like a foster home?”
“If the issue is money, I could have my attorney make arrangements.”
Felicity jumped to her feet, startling Lilah. The flush on her cheeks had gone fuchsia. “I’ll be glad to look into the foster home option and keep you informed,” she said stiffly. “I had hoped that Bethany could be placed with a family member. At least temporarily. The girl has been through hell. She is alone in the world and feels it acutely, and I am afraid that getting shifted around like unclaimed baggage will do her irreparable harm. But never mind.” She hoisted her handbag to her shoulder and started for the door. “I’m sorry I bothered you, Mrs. Kimball. As I said, I’ll let you know. As Bethany’s grandmother, you’re legally entitled to that information.”
Felicity stopped at the door and turned. “Yes?”
“May I have another moment of your time?” Lilah gestured at the sofa. “Please. Sit down.”
Felicity looked wary, but she walked back and sat on the edge of the cushion, keeping her purse clutched in her lap.
Lilah sat at the other end of the sofa, crossing her ankles and folding her hands in her lap. “Miss Greenlea—” Lilah paused and then went on. “My daughter and I were estranged. She has not been a part of my life, nor I hers, for over fourteen years. I don’t feel any emotional attachment to her child. I’m a widow, as I told you. My husband died just over two years ago. Elizabeth, my daughter, didn’t even see fit to attend his funeral.”
“Did she know about—”
A look from Lilah silenced her.
“So you see, there is—or was—very little family feeling between us. Elizabeth made her own life, as did we. It was perhaps not the best situation, but it was one we all lived with for quite a long time. And now this.” She looked away. “I never expected to be put in this position. It’s quite a shock to me, as I’m certain you can imagine. I want to do what is right, of course—for all concerned,” she added with a glance in the social worker’s direction, “but I’m not at all certain what that is. I will have to think it through and discuss it with my son. May I call you later in the week with my decision?”
It clearly wasn’t what the social worker wanted to hear. Lilah watched the young woman battle her emotions. “All right, Mrs. Kimball. Please let me know as soon as you come to a decision. I’d like to have arrangements made for Bethany by the end of the week. She is still staying with the neighbor at this point. Despite what happened, it seemed that it would create the least disruption in Bethany’s life, and that is my top priority at the moment. But we need to get her settled as soon as possible.”
“Does the girl know you’ve come to see me?”
“No, she doesn’t,” Felicity said, rising. “I didn’t want to tell her until I had spoken with you. Bethany is very confused right now. I didn’t want to make things any worse for her.”
Lilah nodded. “That was probably best under the circumstances.” Standing, she took the business card Felicity held out without glancing at it. “I’ll be in touch before the end of the week.”
Felicity made her own way out of the room. Lilah heard voices in the hallway, and a moment later, the front door opened and closed. Lilah watched from the window until long after the social worker had driven away in her ancient Honda. Why did these people always drive such shabby cars? Was their pay really that bad?
She didn’t turn when her housekeeper entered the room, or when she put the tray down on the coffee table. “You’d best get over here before I drink it all,” Marabet said.
Lilah looked over her shoulder and shook her head.
Marabet was Lilah’s housekeeper, but they had been friends since childhood. After high school, they’d lost touch and didn’t meet again until they were both married, Lilah to Gerome Kimball, and Marabet to some loser who robbed her blind and abandoned her. Lilah had finally convinced Marabet to come live with her, but Marabet had insisted it be as a maid. She had said—rightfully—that Gerome Kimball would never tolerate her living there as a friend or border. While Gerome was alive,
Lilah had kept their earlier friendship under wraps. Gerome made Marabet feel badly enough. God forbid what he might have done and said if he had known her history. Marabet had managed to get her little digs in as the years passed, but for the most part she stayed out of Gerome Kimball’s way.
Lilah walked over to the sofa and picked up the coffee Marabet had poured for her. “I suppose you listened,” she said, sitting down beside her.
“To every word.” Marabet lounged against the sofa back, stirring her coffee. Her loose silver curls formed a deceptive halo around her face, and her blue-bird eyes sparkled with humor. She put her feet up on the coffee table and balanced cup and saucer on her ample stomach.
“And what’s your long-winded opinion, which I know I’m going to hear eventually, whether I like it or not?”
Marabet sipped her coffee. “Not this time, Lilah. I know you’d like someone else to make the decision so you could blame them if it doesn’t work out, but I’m not the fool who’s going to do it. Ask Charles. He’s a big enough fool to get in the middle.”
“I wish you wouldn’t talk about my son that way.”
“If he weren’t such an arrogant ass, I wouldn’t talk that way.”
“Oh, all right. He’s your arrogant ass, so I’ll hold my tongue. You were right about one thing, though. He wouldn’t consider taking the child. No one’s ever accused him of too much Christian charity.”
“Marabet, please.” Lilah stood and moved across the room. “I can’t imagine what these people are thinking, suggesting that I take the girl.”
“They’re probably thinking you’re her grandmother.” Marabet put down her cup and walked over to Lilah. “No matter how much you want it to, this situation isn’t going to go away. You lost your daughter, and now it looks like you may have a chance to know her child.”
Lilah looked at her with raised eyebrows. “You think I should take the girl?”
“Don’t put this on me,” Marabet said, holding up her hands. “This doesn’t affect me at all, except that it will double or triple my workload. But don’t give that a thought.”
Lilah rested her elbows on the mantel, dropping her forehead in her hands. “I just don’t know what to do.”
“You’ll figure it out, and I’m sure you’ll do the right thing.” Marabet gave her shoulder an affectionate pat. “Since you told the lady you’d be talking to your son, I imagine you’ll be inviting him to dinner?” When Lilah nodded, she picked up the tray of coffee things. “What do you want me to serve?”
“I kind of had a yen for stuffed chicken breasts.”
“Then let’s have chicken breasts, by all means,” Lilah said, frowning at the woman’s back, but the twitch at the corner of her mouth ruined the effect.