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Christine Sunderland

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by Christine Sunderland   

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Books by Christine Sunderland
· The Magdalene Mystery
· Hana-lani
· Offerings
· Pilgrimage
                >> View all


Literary Fiction

Publisher:  OakTara


Copyright:  September 2009 ISBN-13:  9781602902190

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Christine Sunderland

She risked everything to save a life…
But who would save hers?

Vietnamese-American Victoria Nguyen, seventeen, flees to England with a powerful secret…and a determined senator on her trail.
    Madeleine Seymour, a history professor, and her husband, Jack, a retired wine broker, travel from San Francisco to London to purchase property for a children’s home—and find much more than land at stake.
    Brother Cristoforo, a black Franciscan from the Seymours’ Quattro Coronati orphanage in Rome, wrestles with demons of his past and present.
    Woven through the mists of Lent to new life on Easter Day, Inheritance draws the lives of these four characters together to a stunning, unforgettable conclusion.
    A poignant story about choices made along the way…and the miracles of the heart.
    Set in the breathtaking beauty of England.

Her great aunt had asked to be buried on a Sunday afternoon, “on resurrection day amidst the grapes,” and now, in the July heat, Victoria Elizabeth Nguyen watched six pallbearers lower the silver-lined casket into the rich soil of the Napa Valley. The burnished mahogany lid gleamed, and Victoria thought how she too was in that coffin, at least part of her. Brushing a long strand of hair from her face, she squinted in the bright light, and her lip quivered. She had loved her Aunt Elizabeth, and her aunt had loved her. Why wasn’t she here, now, when Victoria needed her most? Her body still ached.
Victoria touched the birthmark running over her nose, mourning the death of her aunt who had loved her the way she was. Elizabeth often proclaimed that her niece’s almond eyes and burgundy-black hair were like an ancient image of the Virgin Mary. “There’s no two ways about it,” she would say, holding Victoria’s face in her parched palms. “And as for the birthmark,” she would add with a dry but joyous laugh, “that’s the mark of God, so don’t you complain to me about it, young lady. And I want to see that pretty smile of yours.”
Now, before the grave, Victoria couldn’t smile. Her father, Andrew, looked sad as well, a dark cloud settling over his face as he stood beside her in his Vietnamese calm, eyes closed as though praying, brows pinched. He held her hand firmly, with assurance, but her mother Candice, a tense presence on her other side, her platinum hair expertly coifed and her Scandinavian skin protected by a wide-brimmed hat, sent waves of anxiety through her.
“Unto Almighty God,” the young priest read from his missal, “we commend the soul of our sister departed, and we commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust...”
Victoria followed her father to the open grave and released a handful of earth onto the coffin. She glanced back at her mother, who looked toward a TV news van coming up the drive, and returned to her place between her parents. The priest continued his smooth soothing words as others filed past the grave, dropping their soil onto the lid. The earth fell, tapping the wood, keeping time, but her aunt was beyond time ii
now. Where was her Aunt Elizabeth? Was she anywhere at all? Although Victoria had not shared her aunt’s beliefs, she refused to think that her aunt was really gone. How could she possibly think such a thing?
A warm breeze fluttered the parchment pages of the missal resting in the priest’s palm, as he read, “In sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose coming in glorious majesty...”
Candice muttered under her breath, and Victoria hoped her mother wouldn’t make a scene. She inched closer to her father, whose stocky form and placid face, even his double chin, gave her comfort. At seventeen, she wanted to be more self-confident, more grown-up, but in her mother’s presence she felt like a child. She couldn’t control it. Candice was so beautiful and so assured. Victoria slipped her arm through her father’s.
“ judge the world, the earth and the sea shall give up their dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed...”
Candice shook her head, as though amazed anyone could say those words in this year, 2001, and walked toward the news van. She never missed a chance, Victoria thought, and the press always liked interviewing Senator Crawford-Nguyen.
Victoria glanced at her father for a cue. He bowed his head, ignoring her mother. Victoria did the same.
“...and made like unto his own glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself...”
The large funeral gathering slowly dispersed. Car doors clapped the silence, and a light chatter fractured the hot air. A reporter, having concluded his interview with the senator, approached the priest, who waved him away. The elderly Elizabeth Crawford made news in death as she had in life. Victoria had seen her great aunt on TV only last month, the oldest praying protester in front of the Berkeley Free Clinic. A magazine show had interviewed her, thinking her eccentric, and she had launched into a fervent speech about “angel babies.”
Victoria’s father squeezed her hand and led her toward their Mercedes, where her mother waited. She slipped into the back seat, anticipating the inevitable fight.
Candice turned the key in the ignition and shook her head in apparent relief. “She’s finally gone, and at ninety-six. Simply because she was a Crawford from old San Francisco society, she thought she could do as she pleased. She was such an embarrassment.”
Her father glanced at her mother. “Candice, please show some iii
“Respect? Where was her respect?” She gunned the car onto the road. “Giving the estate to Victoria’s firstborn, even bypassing my parents. What kind of a will is that? She was clearly senile. Our attorneys will have a field day.”
“It was the abortion,” her father said through his teeth. “She was really upset about Vicky’s abortion.”
Victoria swallowed hard, her throat dry.
Candice grunted. “As though a fourteen-year-old should have a child. A baby having a baby. The father was a child too—fifteen, I believe. At least he never found out. Elizabeth was out of her mind. She’s always been one of those reactionary Christians. They have little compassion for the poor who can’t afford children.” She spoke as though Victoria wasn’t there.
“She believed that life is sacred,” her father whispered, “and we’re not poor.”
Her mother gripped the wheel. “Why do you always take the other side?”
Victoria stared out the window, thinking of Danny and his Ford Mustang and the overlook and his groping hands and her immense desire to please him. Then her mother and her fury and the hospital steel and the wrenching regret, the loss, the tears. What had she done? The act still weighed upon her, thrusting her deep into the earth.
And now, what would she do?
As they followed the highway through the dry hills, she gazed with a needy hope at her father’s profile and wished the tense air could swallow them both. Still trembling from the last few days, she tried to quell the fear she could almost taste, the confusion, the unanswered question. That evening by the lake, nearly two weeks ago, replayed in her mind, over and over.
Victoria had run the lakeshore trail, her shoes tap-tapping the familiar path, as the late evening sun dropped toward the horizon. A Red-tailed Hawk soared above gnarled oaks and crickets chirped in the manzanita. Only another mile or so...plenty of time before dark.
The warm peace of the summer’s evening soothed her, and the iv
rhythmic motion of her legs’ muscle memory lifted and carried her, making her a creature of power and drive. Her mother’s critical glances, the laughter beneath her words, and in the end, the sure conclusion that she, Victoria, was a grave disappointment—these parameters of her life—receded as she bounded along the trail.
She had tried to be like her mother, so beautiful, blond, competent. But she would never be beautiful, not with her birthmark and her slanted eyes peering out like an owl’s in mottled plumage. She had even tried to be blond, but the dye job when she was twelve gave her a hard look, and she returned to her natural black soon enough. Hoping to absorb her mother’s competence, Victoria stood by her side at party fundraisers. She distributed flyers for Candice’s run for the Senate. She copied Candice’s clothes and smile, her firm handshake and way of taking charge. But Victoria sensed she only appeared ludicrous, like a dark mouse peeping out of its hole and finding a room full of cats.
Her father consoled her when he was sober and when he wasn’t watching his own back. Victoria hated what her mother did to him, twisting his words into insults so that he became the cause of the argument, and once again Candice became the victim.
The trail looped back toward the lake, the home stretch. As she ran, her thoughts turned to her great aunt Elizabeth who, in spite of her age, had been her real mother, opening her heart and her home to her niece. Soon Victoria would once again visit the ranch in the vineyards, with its cherry-paneled library and dusty volumes of Dickens, Austen, and Eliot. There, in Augusts past, sitting in the window seat, turning the pages of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, she followed Lucy through the wardrobe of furs and into Narnia, a world of witches and talking animals, a frozen land of eternal winter without Christmas. In the window alcove, with the sun slanting through the shutters, the fountain raining a dance on her ears and the deer lapping from the pond, she had fallen into Tolkien’s Hobbit and traveled with Gandalf and Bilbo through an ordered universe, where good was good, evil was evil, and, in the end, good won. Victoria’s summers in her great aunt’s rambling old house had shaped her into a creature so different from her mother. She wondered if, someday, she could find her true self in that house, could learn who she really was.
As she ran the lakeside trail, she dreamed. Suddenly she heard a rustle in the bushes and sensed a large man behind her. She had no time to scream as he covered her mouth with a strong-smelling cloth and pulled her down. Her leg scraped the pavement, and she struggled for the whistle in her pocket. The last thing she remembered was a powerful blow to the side of her head and her right ear ringing into darkness.
Victoria gazed out the window as the sedan took her farther and farther from her aunt’s grave. She would know this week if a child had been conceived on that lakeside trail. She would face that then. “No use borrowing trouble,” her aunt would have said. Victoria had not told her mother, who was in Washington. As usual, her father had mothered her through the days of pain and shock, filling out the sheriff’s report and seeing to her doctor.
Her father would know what to do. When the time came, he would know.

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