Anita smiled as she opened the door. “Madison, so good to see you.” She ushered her in. The shop smelled like hair spray and nail polish. Anita had remodeled two years before, and the beauty parlor of Madison’s childhood had vanished. No more pink vinyl chairs or black-and-white-checkered floors. Now it was “soothing and modern,” with its clean lines of quartz counters, succulents, and whitewashed shiplap on the walls.
But the smell was the same. The scent of promises and expectations from beauty products.
Anita was in her sixties and impossibly thin. She always wore black from head to toe, and her hairstyle hadn’t changed in several decades, but she was perpetually chic. She’d mastered the secret of appearing timeless through classic styles. Her platinum hair was bobbed at her jawline but had a perfect lift at the roots and a subtle curl at one temple.
She’d abandoned cigarettes years ago but still had a faint smoker’s rasp. Everyone passed through her shop—even the teenagers who pursued the latest cuts, because Anita was on top of current trends. But she would still do a wash and set for her older clients. With a flick of a wrist, she gestured for Madison to sit in one of the stylists’ chairs as Anita settled into another and spun to face her, gentle curiosity in her eyes.
How does she know I need to sit for this conversation?
“What’s going on with you, child?”
Everyone was “child” or “darling” to Anita. Even the men.
When Madison had decided to visit the shop, her questions had been clear in her mind. Now they were a jumbled mess of ridiculous elements. Doubt tied her tongue.
Anita picked up on her hesitation. “Let me get you a cappuccino.” Anita hopped out of the chair and fussed at the huge professional espresso machine. She’d served her clients espresso and cappuccino before anyone had ever heard of Starbucks.
“Anita . . . what do people in this town think of my family?” The question was vague, but it was a start.
The shop owner didn’t look up from her task. “The Bartons or the Millses?”
Madison frowned. People distinguish between the two? “Bartons.”
The milk frother made conversation impossible for a long moment. “The Bartons are the foundation and backbone of Bartonville,” she finally answered.
“That sounds like a statement from the chamber of commerce.” Hollow and rehearsed.
“I’m sure it’s in a pamphlet somewhere.” Anita added the milk to the espresso and brought the cup to Madison. “These days when people say the Barton name, they’re referring to your great-aunts or your great-great-grandfather. Your uncle Rod has moved far away enough that people generally forget he’s of George Barton’s direct line.”
“Emily and I haven’t.”
“As it should be. You two are ‘the Mills girls.’ And Tara too, of course.”
“What do they say about Tara?”
Anita tilted her head as she held Madison’s gaze and handed her the cup. “Do you mean now or back when she left? And why are you asking?”
“Both time periods.” Madison didn’t know how to answer the second question. “I heard some things.”
“Mmm.” Anita returned to her chair and swung one leg over the other, all her attention on Madison. “I’m sure it was all bull, but many people thought she left because she was pregnant.”
“I’ve heard that one.”
“Others said your aunts drove her away. They were rather autocratic back then. All three of them.”
“They’ve mellowed, but Aunt Vina will still go head-to-head with anyone.”
Taking a sip of her cappuccino, Madison doubted the wisdom of her decision to ask questions. The old rumors hurt. “Dory made some odd statements this morning.”
“She kept implying that my mother was miserable and that people felt sorry for her.”
“How old were you when she died? Nine?”
“Ten. I knew she would get tired and stay in bed sometimes. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned she was manic-depressive.”
“A child’s view is much different from an adult’s. And your mother was so doting and affectionate, I know she showered a lot of love on you girls. We all saw it.”
“What else did you see?”
“A sad, confused wife.”
Mild shock ran through Madison’s fingers, making her cup quiver. As Dory implied. Anita had spoken carefully, her expression calm, her eyes sharp, watching for Madison’s reaction. There was a ring of truth in her words.
“So they had marriage problems. Everyone does.”
“No marriage is perfect, and your father deeply loved you girls. It was unmistakable.”
“Did people say Dad married Mom for her money?”
“But the Bartons weren’t rich. Vina says the logging business tanked, and some bad investments wiped out nearly everything in the eighties.”
“That is what I understand too, but people believe what they want. They see your home and the restaurant and make assumptions.” She paused. “If you still want to hear old rumors, there was one that said your father’s death was a message to the Bartons for leaving working families in the lurch when the mill closed.”
“That makes no sense at all.”
“I agree. I don’t think people put much stock in that one. A lot still think you’re hiding money, though.”
“That’s ridiculous. The mansion is crippling us with its upkeep, and the restaurant does okay, but it’s not making us rich. It’s how we get by.”
Anita shrugged. “That’s what I tell people. But you know how rumors are.”
“Dad was a gold digger. What else was said about him?” Madison’s muscles tensed as she braced for the answer. I know he loved my mother; I saw it many times.
The shop owner sighed and looked out the window. “He was a good ol’ boy. Thought he was funny and had no qualms about telling ugly jokes. He was a racist.”
The room went very still, the phrase from the watch ringing in Madison’s brain, and the female driver’s scared face flashed again. “Because of how he was raised.”
It wasn’t a question, but Anita nodded.
“He didn’t teach us to be like that.”
“I doubt your mother would have put up with it.”
“But he had similar-thinking friends?” She recalled Dory’s words about awful people—but she’d said they were gone now.
“People always seek out others like themselves.”
Madison wasn’t satisfied with that answer. “He hung around with other racists is what you’re saying.”
Anita gave a half smile with no warmth. “Bingo.”
The word sliced Madison’s heart wide open. She blinked rapidly.
Regret colored Anita’s expression, and she leaned forward to set a hand on Madison’s knee. “He loved you, and you have every right to love him back. There is good in everyone, and he showed you girls everything that was positive about himself. It was the outsiders—and some family—who saw the rest. With most people, what you see is what you get.” She focused hard on Madison’s eyes. “But others present themselves in ways that don’t reflect their true selves. It’s like protection for their tender souls.”
She sees me.
Her defenses leaped into place, her hands tight on her cup, and disappointment shone in Anita’s eyes.
“What did people say after he was murdered?”
Anita looked away, her mouth clamped tight. “No one wanted him murdered. They just wanted him to take his racism and white supremacist views elsewhere.”
“Who killed him?” she whispered.
Anita started. “Why, Chet Carlson, of course.” Her brows came together as she studied Madison. “That’s an odd question.”
“Chet Carlson didn’t even know him.” Madison’s brain spun in a million directions. “He wasn’t from around here. He knew nothing about how the town felt about my father. And he went through all the trouble to hang him?”
“Your father’s bloody jacket was found in his hotel room. He was convicted on the evidence.”
“Of course he was.” Madison closed her eyes, seeing her mother running in the woods and Emily standing in the backyard of their home, staring into the distance as smoke crept into the home.
What did Emily see that night? Why didn’t she tell anyone she’d gone outside?
“Now, Madison,” came the lecturing tone, “you’re letting this new information affect everything you’ve ever known about your father. It doesn’t matter. Nothing about your time with him has changed.”
Who would thirteen-year-old Emily want to protect?
Madison opened her eyes, her gaze heavy with the weight of her new knowledge. “Everything has changed. He was horrible.”
“That doesn’t change that he was your father and he cherished you girls. You are still the same person who walked in my door five minutes ago. So is he.”
Madison wasn’t listening. Emily must have a reason to carry a secret for this long.
She’d probably done it for the same reason Madison had told no one she’d seen Emily outside that night or her mother in the woods.