On Mystic Lake Page 1

Author: Kristin Hannah

Genres: Romance

Part One

The true voyage of self-discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.—MARCEL PROUST

Chapter 1

Rain fell like tiny silver teardrops from the tired sky. Somewhere behind a bank of clouds lay the sun, too weak to cast a shadow on the ground below.

It was March, the doldrums of the year, still and quiet and gray, but the wind had already begun to warm, bringing with it the promise of spring. Trees that only last week had been naked and brittle seemed to have grown six inches over the span of a single, moonless night, and sometimes, if the sunlight hit a limb just so, you could see the red bud of new life stirring at the tips of the crackly brown bark. Any day, the hills behind Malibu would blossom, and for a few short weeks this would be the prettiest place on Earth.

Like the plants and animals, the children of Southern California sensed the coming of the sun. They had begun to dream of ice cream and Popsicles and last year’s cutoffs. Even determined city dwellers, who lived in glass and concrete high-rises in places with pretentious names like Century City, found themselves veering into the nursery aisles of their local supermarkets. Small, potted geraniums began appearing in the metal shopping carts, alongside the sun-dried tomatoes and the bottles of Evian water.

For nineteen years, Annie Colwater had awaited spring with the breathless anticipation of a young girl at her first dance. She ordered bulbs from distant lands and shopped for hand-painted ceramic pots to hold her favorite annuals.

But now, all she felt was dread, and a vague, formless panic. After today, nothing in her well-ordered life would remain the same, and she was not a woman who liked the sharp, jagged edges of change. She preferred things to run smoothly, down the middle of the road. That was where she felt safest—in the center of the ordinary, with her family gathered close around her.



These were the roles that defined her, that gave her life meaning. It was what she’d always been, and now, as she warily approached her fortieth birthday, it was all she could remember ever wanting to be. She had gotten married right after college and been pregnant within that same year. Her husband and daughter were her anchors; without Blake and Natalie, she had often thought that she might float out to sea, a ship without captain or destination.

But what did a mother do when her only child left home?

She shifted uneasily in the front seat of the Cadillac. The clothes she’d chosen with such care this morning, navy wool pants and a pale rose silk blouse, felt wrong. Usually she could take refuge in fashionable camouflage, by pretending to be a woman she wasn’t. Designer clothes and carefully applied makeup could make her look like the high-powered corporate wife she was supposed to be. But not today. Today, the waist-length brown hair she’d drawn back from her face in a chignon—the way her husband liked it, the way she always wore it—was giving her a headache.

She drummed her manicured fingernails on the armrest and glanced at Blake, who was settled comfortably in the driver’s seat. He looked completely relaxed, as if this were a normal afternoon instead of the day their seventeen-year-old daughter was leaving for London.

It was childish to be so scared, she knew that, but knowing didn’t ease the pain. When Natalie had first told them that she wanted to graduate early and spend her last quarter in London, Annie had been proud of her daughter’s independence. It was the sort of thing that seniors at the expensive prep school often did, and precisely the sophisticated sort of adventure Annie had wanted for her daughter.

Annie herself would never have had the courage for so bold a move—not at seventeen, not even now at thirty-nine. Travel had always intimidated her. Although she loved seeing new places and meeting new people, she always felt an underlying discomfort when she left home.

She knew this weakness was a remnant of her youth, a normal by-product of the tragedy that had tainted her childhood, but understanding her fear didn’t alleviate it. On every family vacation, Annie had suffered from nightmares—dark, twisted visions in which she was alone in a foreign land without money or direction. Lost, she wandered through unfamiliar streets, searching for the family that was her safety net, until, finally, sobbing in her sleep, she awoke. Then, she would curl into her husband’s sleeping body and, at last, relax.

She had been proud of her daughter’s independence and courage in choosing to go all the way to England by herself, but she hadn’t realized how hard it would be to watch Natalie leave. They’d been like best friends, she and her daughter, ever since Natalie had emerged from the angry, sullen rubble of the early teen years. They’d had hard times, sure, and fights and hurt feelings, and they’d each said things that shouldn’t have been said, but all that had only made their bond stronger. They were a unit, the “girls” in a household where the only man worked eighty hours a week and sometimes went whole days without remembering to smile.

She stared out the car window. The concrete-encrusted canyons of downtown Los Angeles were a blur of high-rise buildings, graffiti, and neon lights that left streaking reflections in the misty rain. They were getting closer and closer to the airport.

She reached for her husband, touched the pale blue cashmere of his sleeve. “Let’s fly to London with Nana and get her settled with her host family. I know—”

“Mom,” Natalie said sharply from the backseat. “Get real. It would be, like, so humiliating for you to show up.”

Annie drew her hand back and plucked a tiny lint ball from her expensive wool pants. “It was just an idea,” she said softly. “Your dad has been trying to get me to England for ages. I thought . . . maybe we could go now.”

Blake gave her a quick look, one she couldn’t quite read. “I haven’t mentioned England in years.” Then he muttered something about the traffic and slammed his hand on the horn.

“I guess you won’t miss the California traffic,” Annie said into the awkward silence that followed.

In the backseat, Natalie laughed. “No way. Sally Pritchart—you remember her, Mom, she went to London last year—anyway, Sally said it was way cool. Not like California, where you need a car to go anywhere. In London, all you do is get on the Underground.” She poked her blond head into the opening between the two front seats. “Did you take the Underground when you were in London last year, Dad?”

Blake slammed on the horn again. With an irritated sigh, he flicked on his turn signal and jerked the car into the fast lane. “Huh? What was that?”

Natalie sighed. “Nothing.”

Annie squeezed Blake’s shoulder in a gentle reminder. These were precious moments—the last they’d see their daughter for months—and, as usual, he was missing them. She started to say something to fill the silence, something to keep from thinking about the loneliness of a house without Natalie, but then she saw the sign, LAX, and she couldn’t say anything at all.

Blake pulled onto the exit ramp and drove into the dark silence of the underground parking lot, killing the engine. For a long moment, they all sat there. Annie waited for him to say something fatherly and important, something to mark the occasion. He was so good with words, but he merely opened his door.

As always, Annie followed his lead. She got out of the car and stood beside her door, twirling her sunglasses in her cold, cold fingers. She looked down at Natalie’s luggage— a single gray duffle bag and a green canvas Eddie Bauer backpack.

She worried that it wasn’t enough, that it was too unwieldy . . . she worried about everything. Her daughter looked so young suddenly, her tall, thin body swamped by a baggy denim dress that stopped an inch above her scuffed black combat boots. Two metal clips held her long, silver-blond hair away from her pale face. Three silver earrings formed a curved ladder up her left ear.

Annie wanted to manufacture a conversation—toss out bits of advice about money and passports and the importance of always being in a group of kids—but she couldn’t do it.

Blake walked on ahead, carrying the two lonely pieces of luggage, as Natalie and Annie followed silently in his wake. She wished he’d slow down and walk with them, but she didn’t say anything—just in case Natalie hadn’t noticed that her dad seemed to be in a rush. At the ticket counter, he handled everything, and then the three of them headed for the international terminal.

At the gate, Annie clung to her navy handbag as if it were a shield. Alone, she walked to the huge, dirty window. For a split second, she saw herself reflected in the glass, a thin, flawlessly dressed housewife standing by herself.

“Don’t be so quiet, Mom. I can’t take it.” The words contained a tiny wobble of anxiety that only a mother would hear.

Annie forced a laugh. “Usually you guys are begging me to keep quiet. And it’s not like I can’t think of a million things to say right now. Why, just yesterday I was looking at your baby picture, and I thought—”

“I love you, too, Mom,” Natalie whispered.

Annie grabbed her daughter’s hand and held on. She didn’t dare turn toward Natalie, afraid that her heartache would show. It was definitely not the image she wanted her child to carry like a bit of too-heavy baggage onto the plane.

Blake came up beside them. “I wish you had let us get you first-class tickets. It’s such a long flight, and the food in coach is horrible. Christ, you’ll probably have to assemble your own beef pot pie.”

Natalie laughed. “Like you would know about the food in coach, Dad.”

Blake grinned. “Well, it’s certainly more comfortable.”

“This isn’t about comfort,” Natalie answered. “It’s about adventure.”

“Ah, adventure,” Annie said, finding her voice at last. She wondered how it felt to have such big dreams, and once again she was envious of her daughter’s independence. Natalie was always so sure of who she was and what she wanted.

A voice boomed over the loudspeaker. “We will now begin boarding flight three-five-seven, with service to London.”

“I’m going to miss you guys,” Natalie said softly. She glanced at the plane, chewing nervously on her thumbnail.

Annie placed a hand on Natalie’s soft cheek, trying to memorize everything about this moment, the tiny mole beside her daughter’s left earlobe, the exact hue of her straight blond hair and blue eyes, the cinnamon sprinkling of freckles across her nose.

Annie wanted to implant it all into her memory so she could pull it out like a treasured photograph over the next three months. “Remember, we’ll call every Monday— seven o’clock your time. You’re going to have a great time, Nana.”

Blake opened his arms. “Give your old dad a hug.”

Natalie hurled herself into her father’s arms.

Too soon, the voice came over the loudspeaker, announcing the boarding of Natalie’s row.

Annie gave Natalie one last long, desperate hug—not nearly long enough—then, slowly, she drew back. Blinking away tears, she watched Natalie give her ticket to the woman at the doorway, and then, with a last, hurried wave, her daughter disappeared into the jetway.