Nerves somersaulting down her spine, Miranda knocked on the door of Barbara’s apartment. She heard scuffling then the door opened.
“Please come in, Ms. Steele.” The occupant opened the door wide. “May I take your coat?”
“Sure.” Miranda stepped inside the cheery living room, half-expecting to see a dark-haired, thirteen-year-old girl standing in the middle of it. But that was her mind playing tricks on her.
She pulled off her scarf and leather jacket, and handed them to the small, trim woman. Probably in her fifties, Barbara had graying brown hair cut in a short, demure style, and brown, inquisitive eyes. She was dressed in a peach-colored wool business suit that had a sterile look to it.
Her place was clean and well kept, with plants, needlepoint pillows, and pretty curtains on a window where the afternoon sunshine spilled in. It had a sort of grandmotherly feel. As did its occupant, who was trotting across the floor, straightening things that didn’t need straightening, as if Miranda were the Queen of Sheba.
“Thanks for seeing me. Don’t go to any trouble.” She was feeling a little guilty for forcing herself on the woman.
“Oh, it’s no trouble, Ms. Steele. Won’t you have a seat?” Barbara indicated a flowery couch with a small coffee table in front of it.
“Thanks.” Miranda sat down. After carefully placing her coat on the back of a dinette chair, the woman settled next to her.
No sign of other life. Barbara must live alone. Miranda hoped her reason for solitude wasn’t like her own. She wouldn’t wish that on her worst enemy, let alone someone who might know something about Amy.
The woman reached for a stack of files on the coffee table and began to sift through them. “I apologize for being a little disorganized. As I said on the phone, my manager wanted me to talk to you, Ms.—may I call you Miranda? Oh, would you like some tea?”
“Yes, you can call me Miranda. And no, I don’t want any tea.” This lady could use a self-confidence course. Or maybe a shift with the wrecking crew.
Barbara nodded and kept sorting folders, her expression solemn.
Miranda watched her a moment. She wasn’t going to wait until the whole stack was alphabetized. “What is it you have to tell me, Barbara?”
She stopped shuffling and gave Miranda a pained look, her brown eyes darting back and forth, as if she were looking for some lost secret. “I’m sorry, Miranda. I’m new at the agency and your file has just come to me. I have to perform some, uh, formalities.”
Miranda shifted her weight. “O-kay.”
Barbara selected one of the folders, took a paper from it and picked up a pen from the coffee table. “Let’s see. You’ve registered with us a number of times.” Her voice took on the singsong quality of an interviewer.
“Yes, every time I moved.” Maybe that wasn’t the best thing to say.
Barbara read from her sheet. “You’re originally from Oak Park, Illinois.”
She turned a page. “But you’ve worked in several states. And several jobs.”
Yeah. So what? Since she’d left Leon, she’d welded girders on a skyscraper in New York, harvested crab on a fishing boat in Maine, done odd jobs on an oil rig in Texas.
She rubbed her hands against her jeans and laughed it off with a shrug. “Some people think I’m obsessive about physical jobs. Not only does it give you muscles, it thickens your skin.” A therapist once told her she was sublimating repressed feelings about her affectionate ex-husband and should talk about them. What did shrinks know?
Barbara seemed interested. “Oh, is that important to you?”
Was she being screened? Was Barbara trying to determine if she was fit to meet her daughter? “You know how it is, Barbara. A woman can never make herself too tough or too strong.” She laughed awkwardly and waved a hand at the file in her hostess’s lap. “Most construction work is seasonal. We all job hop.”
But that didn’t explain the restless urge that had made her pick up and go, aimlessly roaming the country taking jobs here and there, making casual acquaintances, leaving them behind. Always moving. She didn’t want to admit Leon’s specter still haunted her after all these years. She’d told herself Amy could be anywhere, so why not go to a new place? None of that made her…unfit.
Barbara smiled sweetly. “And now you’re here in Pittsburgh, working for Norris Wrecking Company.”
“Right.” Miranda resisted the urge to tap her foot. “I’ve been with them about three months.”
Barbara’s eyes grew soft. “You say your daughter was placed thirteen years ago?”
Placed? Miranda nodded. She’d been purposely vague about the adoption. Most people didn’t believe what Leon had done. They thought she had simply changed her mind after signing the papers.
Barbara pursed her lips, shaking her head. “Such a sad story. So your daughter would be a minor, wouldn’t she?”
Annoyed by the comment, Miranda stiffened. “The legal age being eighteen, or twenty-one depending on the state, that would make her a minor, yes.”
“Oh, dear. I’m not doing this very well. I apologize.” Barbara set the folder down on top of the stack. “Let me get you some tea.”
“I don’t want any—” but the woman was already heading for the kitchen.
Her heart sinking, Miranda sat back and listened to her hostess bang around a few minutes and fought with the stupid tears that were suddenly stinging her eyes.
Leaning forward for a tissue on the coffee table, she spied the corner of an envelope sticking out of the folder Barbara had been reading from. She glanced toward the kitchen. The woman was still rattling away. Wouldn’t hurt to take a look. After all, it was her file.
She slipped a finger under a corner and nudged it out. It was a letter addressed to The Seekers headquarters here in Pittsburgh. The handwriting didn’t look like an adult’s. There was no return address. The postmark was from Buckhead, Georgia, wherever the hell that was.
Cautiously, she peeked inside and found a piece of notebook paper. Her fingers trembling, she slid it out, unfolded it. She stared down at the childish handwriting. Her whole body went rigid.
I’m thirteen years old. I was born in November in Oak Park, Illinois. Now I live in a big mansion in Buckhead, Georgia. My mom’s an executive and my dad’s always away. They are never home.
I think I’m adopted. Can you help me find my real parents?
Someone Else’s Daughter
Miranda gasped out loud.
“Oh dear.” Barbara was in the middle of the living room, looking as if she were about to drop her tea tray. Quickly, she dashed to the coffee table and set the china down, shaking her head. “You weren’t supposed to see that.”
Miranda glared up at her. “Why not?”
With a sigh, Barbara laid a hand against her graying brown hair. “Oh, Miranda. My manager wanted me to tell you in person there’s nothing we can do for you. We don’t handle situations like yours.”
Miranda blinked at her. “Really?” She held out the letter. “And what about her? Can you help her?”
Barbara shook her head sadly. “There’s nothing The Seekers can do to help that girl, either. She’s underage. We work with adult children. Adoptees who are of age and are looking for their birth parents.”
For a moment, Miranda couldn’t even speak. She knew adoption reunification agencies worked only with adult adoptees. What had she expected? Certainly not this. She waved the little girl’s letter. “What were you going to do with this?”
“Why, keep it in the file in case the girl ever contacted us again.” Barbara shuffled to the couch and sat down wearily. “We received it several months ago. When you registered with us, we matched it to your records. But there’s nothing we can do until she’s an adult. Even then, there’s not much information there.”
Miranda held out the page. “The girl who wrote this is thirteen. My Amy’s age. And she was born in November. In Oak Park. Like Amy.”
Barbara straightened her skirt. “Yes, but—” She lifted her hands. “It was only in your file because we didn’t know what else to do with it.”
Miranda released the breath she was holding and ran her hand through her wiry, dark hair that some people called curly. “What are you saying?”
Barbara exhaled slowly. “An adoptee wouldn’t necessarily know her true birthplace.”
“She might. Some parents are very forthcoming about such details.”
“True, but only a few of your facts match this letter. It could be a coincidence. We didn’t want to give you false hope. That’s why my manager insisted I not show you that letter. Oh, dear. She’s going to be very upset.”
False hope. Was there any other kind? But false hope was better than no hope at all. Miranda reached out and patted the woman’s hand. “Don’t worry, Barbara. I won’t tell your manager.”
“You don’t understand. It’s against policy.”
Ignoring her, Miranda read the letter again.
My mom’s an executive and my dad’s always away. They are never home.
Had Amy written those words? Was she being neglected? Miranda had always told herself her daughter was in a loving, caring home. She’d go insane if she let herself think otherwise.
“I’m so sorry, Miranda,” the woman moaned softly. “We don’t have any legal authority here. We can’t do anything to help you find your daughter.”
Slowly, Miranda put the letter back in the envelope. “Maybe you can’t, Barbara. But I can.” She pointed to the postmark. “Buckhead, Georgia. Where’s that?”
“An area near Atlanta.”
“Atlanta.” Could her daughter really be living in a mansion in some place called Buckhead? Must be some hick town near the city. How many mansions could there be in a place called Buckhead? She even had the zip code.
She got to her feet.
Barbara’s eyes bulged. “What are you going to do? You can’t be thinking—”
“Don’t worry about me, Barbara. I wouldn’t want your manager to get upset. By the way, she sounds like a bitch.” If she had time, she’d go down to the office and tell her so.
“But, Miranda, you’ve just come to Pittsburgh. Don’t you want to settle down here?”
She scoffed. “Settle down?” What was that?
“Perhaps you could meet a nice young man. You could fall in love and have—” she stopped herself.
“Children of my own?” It wasn’t the first time Miranda had heard that. “Amy is my child, Barbara.” And as far as falling in love, it would be a cold day in Hades before she let herself be so vulnerable again.
The woman began to stammer. “But there’s no return address on that letter. Nothing more than what’s on that paper. Almost nothing. We have no idea who this girl is, who her adopted parents are.”
“Like I said, Barbara. Don’t worry about it.”
“You don’t understand.”
“I think I do.” She crossed to the dinette where her coat was waiting.
Barbara shot up and followed her. “Miranda, think. That letter could be a crank. Some lonely child angry with her parents, who decided to get their attention by pretending to be adopted.”
Miranda turned to the woman, that familiar numbness of disappointment stealing around her heart.
“Children do that, especially with their access to the Internet these days.” Barbara’s voice was gentle, motherly now, but her words stung like razors.
She had a point. Any kid could google adoption reunion agencies, find The Seekers’ web site and write to them. She thought a moment. “Do you get a lot of letters like this one?”
“No. But that doesn’t mean you should get your hopes up. I fear you’ll end up very disappointed.”
Miranda smirked. Disappointed? Her hopes had been dashed plenty of times over the past thirteen years. She was used to it. Besides there was a chance the letter could be real. This could be Amy. She had to try.
She reached for her jacket and scarf. “Thank you, Barbara.” She held up the letter. “Can I keep it?”
The woman waved a hand as if giving up. “Oh, I suppose so. I have a copy.”
Tenderly Miranda put the letter into her pocket and moved to the door. She had a couple hundred in her bank account. That ought to get her to Buckhead and put her up until she could get another job. She’d pack today, say sayonara to Sherlock and the wrecking crew and be off.
“Thank you, Barbara.” She extended a hand toward the woman.
As if she were taking the hand of a priest to ask for atonement, Barbara shook it. “I don’t know what for. I couldn’t do anything for you.”
“You’ve done more than anyone else has up to now.” Miranda resisted the urge to hug her.
The woman half-smiled. “Call me if you want to talk.”
“Sure.” Miranda turned and went out the door.
She glanced at her watch. Almost two. She’d swing by the demo site, then head for her place. If the landlord didn’t give her grief about her deposit, she could be on the road before rush hour. Hugging the letter in her pocket close, she sprinted down the hall to the stairs.
Was the tide finally turning? After years of frustration and disappointment and dead ends, could this piece of notebook paper lead her to her baby? The little girl Leon had stolen from her? The child he said she had no right to keep?
The stubborn hope that had risen from the ashes of her heart so many times before began to rise again. Suddenly, she felt more alive than she had in months.