From the author of The Other Side of Heartache comes a powerful and engaging novel that delves fearlessly into the private lives of three unforgettable women from different generations thrown together through marriage, each trying to find her place in complex stepfamily dynamics where love, trust, and loyalties are tested.
Annabelle is stunned to learn her father changed his will shortly before he died, leaving a valued family treasure to her stepmother’s son. Betrayed by her father and suspecting his widow’s cunning influence, she fights to regain what is rightfully hers. Meanwhile, her adult stepdaughter, Brooke, rejects her through hurtful and conniving behavior to undermine her crumbling marriage.
Brooke is engaged to be married and plans a big white wedding, but her life takes a devastating turn one night on an Oregon beach, threatening to destroy her dreams. Testing her father’s loyalty and her stepmother’s patience, she’ll do whatever it takes to ensure no one learns of her dark secrets.
Vivian harbors grief from a shattering loss in the past. Revealing the secret pact she made with her late husband, Annabelle’s father, and through one incredible act of courage, nothing prepares her for the far-reaching repercussions her actions have on Annabelle, Brooke, and herself, changing their relationships forever.
Told through the alternating voices of Annabelle, Brooke, and Vivian, and set against the backdrop of the economic crisis during the summer of 2009, Entangled Loyalties is a compelling tale of secrets, lies, and mysteries that profoundly affect each woman’s life, setting them on powerful journeys of self-discovery and redemption that have irreversible consequences. This is a love story about what can blossom, and what must be left to fade, when family loyalties are challenged.
Targeted Age Group:: Baby Boomer Women, Women in Second Marriages
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I couldn't find a novel where a protagonist is both a stepmother and a stepdaughter on a confusing search to find her place, caught in a position where dual roles become contradictory, creating conflict in her life … and so I wrote Entangled Loyalties. My story exposes the private lives of three generations of women thrown together through marriage, where one woman's struggle to find a balance is anything but easy, and leaves her wondering how she can persevere when forces from both stepfamilies work against her.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Before writing one word of Entangled Loyalties, I did months of extensive research on step families, reading self-help books aimed at stepmothers, telling them how to get step children to love them, and from countless blogs from stepmothers and stepdaughters across the nation who share their often painful, and sometimes joyful, stories of being part of a blended family. Through this process emerged three distinct voices who needed to be heard … and so my characters were born: Annabelle (a stepmother and a stepdaughter), Brooke (the adult stepdaughter), and Vivian (Annabelle's father's wife).
Joyful noise from eager beachgoers drifted through an open window and Annie longed to gather her son and join them. Mothers throughout Neptune’s Cove were hurrying over scrubby easements with children in tow to reach long stretches of unbroken coastline, determined to capture sultry sea breezes while they lasted. Armed with pails and plastic shovels or hefting loaded picnic baskets, they spread blankets and hoisted umbrellas along the shore, keeping a keen eye on their offspring who sprinted across hard-packed sand and whooped with glee as they ran straight into the ocean.
No one should waste this exceptionally clear-bright day on Oregon’s coast by staying indoors. Tomorrow clouds would creep over the land once again blotting out precious sunshine to bring more rain. Yet Annie couldn’t quit now. She’d been here almost two days and still there was much to do.
Annabelle Parnell Bridges, or Annie, the nickname that stuck when she showed up for kindergarten with a full head of blond-red curls and freckles sprinkled across her nose, ran fingers through hair richened to deep auburn and checked off “wax kitchen floor” on her to-do list. She tried not to let the rhythm of distant waves pounding the shore tempt her away from tasks at hand.
For the past decade, opening their beach house each summer was her job and although she relished the tradition, this time the chore was more personal. On this visit she’d noticed at once how shabby everything was: threadbare rugs, worn furniture, a green refrigerator that leaked. How had the moaning pipes escaped her attention before now, or lights that flickered off and on whenever they felt like it? She wondered if a beach house could fall into disrepair without warning, caused by salty air or an inability to endure Mother Nature's coastal tempests. Or had her father let it go over time, not minding to details of a place he seldom used since her mom died and he married Vivian, who wasn’t a beach person.
Her stepmother had a knack for pushing Annie out of her dad’s life, as if she wanted to keep him to herself, causing Annie to resent her and question his loyalties. Refusing to vacation in Neptune’s Cove except on special occasions became one way for Vivian to rigidly control the amount of time father and daughter spent together. The woman was afraid of the ocean, she didn’t like sand between her toes, and too much sun made her break out in hives, or so she said, but Annie thought Vivian’s reluctance to come here had more to do with staying in a house filled with Mom and Grandma’s old furnishings than from an aversion to the sea.
When Vivian married Emmett and moved into Annie’s childhood home in Portland, things started to disappear. Her new stepmother emptied out picture frames and disposed of photos with Annie’s mom in them. She sorted through every box of mementos and family treasures, dismissed them as junk, and gave them away. If she were uncomfortable having reminders of Mom around, Annie thought at the time, then why hadn’t she given them to me?
Vivian purged the house of the “other woman,” as if she had to compete with the ghost of Emmett’s deceased wife. She sold most of Jenna’s traditional furniture, replacing tables, chairs, and sofas with a contemporary style that Annie thought robbed the home of its warmth. She remodeled the kitchen and bathrooms and set up Annie’s old bedroom as a guest room for her two precious granddaughters.
When Annie first met Vivian she started out liking her, but soon there was a strain to their visits and a disconcerting awkwardness grew between them. She wasn’t looking for her approval, nor did she feel the need to give hers. All she expected was a pleasant relationship. As long as they engaged in equitable behavior, that would be enough. Vivian judged everything she did and said, reporting back to her father with a tainted version of what really happened. Then Emmett called Annie or took her to lunch and let her know how important Vivian was to him and he expected her to treat her well. When Annie tried to assure him she held no ill will toward the woman, he cut her off. “She’s not your mother,” he said, “but she’s my wife, and if you love me, you’ll be good to her.”
Vivian’s spiteful conduct left Annie feeling like an abandoned stepdaughter in a fairy tale, and there were times she was surprised the woman didn’t have “wicked” stamped across her forehead. She couldn’t pinpoint what caused the shift in Vivian’s demeanor, but her attitude annoyed her. At the same time, she noticed how the woman praised her own son, Ross, who could do no wrong in his mother’s eyes, talking about him with gentle affection and showing great solicitude for his well-being.
Although Annie’s mom had added decorative touches to make the beach house cozy over the years, her parents never got around to updating the hodgepodge furnishings. They bought this summer place, set on a sea cliff not far from the beach, with gifted money from her maternal grandmother, Glory, when Annie was nine. After her mom’s death, it remained in the Parnell Family estate. Now that her parents were gone the house would belong to her. She planned to invest some of her inheritance to fix it upinstall new storm shutters, re-stain faded gray shingles, upgrade the plumbing, and replace salt-crusted windowswhatever the old house neededstarting with the leaky roof.
Annie glanced at the gas range’s clock. If she whipped through her chores, she’d arrive in Portland late this afternoon, leaving plenty of time to pick up her husband’s birthday cake she’d special ordered and to prepare his requested dinner, rosemary and garlic roasted lamb.
The top half of the kitchen’s Dutch door stood open letting treasured sunlight stream across the clean linoleum, bringing with it a briny smell of the sea. Riley’s freckled face appeared there. He was six, feisty and smart, and he loved dogs and hated baths and sitting still. He’d been running around the backyard’s patchy grass with Ladypug and his skin was sweaty and flushed.
“Can we go to the beach?” His eyes widened with a Please say yes look. “Kids are down there! I can see them through the fence.” The fawn colored pug Todd had rescued through his veterinarian clinic gave an excited yap as if to second the motion, although she was a vociferous animal and barked often for reasons apparent only to herself.
“Not today, honey bear.” Annie smoothed back a damp curl from his forehead. “We need to finish up and hurry home to celebrate Daddy’s birthday. And please don’t give me that look. You’ll have countless summers here.” She warmed at the thought of her son growing up with this old beach house, as she had. She swiped a blob of strawberry jam from his cheek with her finger and licked it. “Yummy. I hope you didn’t share your sandwich with Ladypug. Peanut butter is bad for her.”
“I know,” Riley said. “Please can we go to the beach, Mommy? I’m hot!” He hopped from one foot to the other and her yearning to join the fun on the sand resurfaced. After all, how many blue skies would they see this month? She pulled a pitcher of Kool-Aid from the refrigerator and filled a plastic tumbler.
“If there’s time, maybe we can walk down and see the waves before we go.” She set the drink on the door’s ledge.
“I don’t want to see the waves. I want to swim in them,” he said, as if this explanation would resolve any misunderstanding.
“You can’t go to the beach alone and I have to work here.”
Riley frowned. “Mommy,” he said, crossing his little arms. “I love you but we seem to have our differences.”
Annie had to press her lips together to stifle a laugh. Hadn’t Todd said those same words to her a few days ago? Riley was beginning to copy his father’s every move. She cupped his chin in her hand. “Okay, little man, you win. If you’ll fill Ladypug’s water bowl and play with her, I’ll hurry to finish my work so we can hit the beach before we have to leave. Deal?”
“Deal!” He gulped his drink and called the dog. Annie took the empty cup and turned away, touching puffy skin below her eyes.
Three weeks had passed since her father’s memorial service and the grief she carried flared up without warning. Cardiac arrest had caused Emmett Parnell’s unexpected death. Vivian had come home from a morning walk to find him slumped in his recliner with the Portland Tribute spread across his lap.
From the main room, Annie looked around with a critical eye, focusing on the cold fireplace. She must remind Todd to order half a cord of wood. Although summer days on the coast were warm, after sunset there was often a nip to the air.
She pictured her father at the traditional April family beach house’s gathering, only a few days before he died, wearing his tattered seafaring sweater and tending the evening fire. At once the room grew heavy with difficult memories and she blinked away stinging tears. She’d give anything for a chance to take back the way she’d rushed away after their argument that Sunday night, hurt and angry.
The contentious quarrel started when she suggested the beach house needed a new roof before the summer season. He shot a cutting retort, telling her to mind her own affairs. If it was about money, she responded, Todd and she would split the cost with him. He told her he’d take care of the roof when he was ready and not before. She snapped back to say if her mom were still alive she would maintain the place instead of letting it fall into disrepair as he was doingher last words to her father.
Over the past weeks, Annie had become personally acquainted with the emotion of regret, and turbulent feelings churning inside her could find no release. She thought she’d had the luxury of time. She planned to make amends after they both cooled off, but then it was too late. If only she had one more chance to talk to him, to apologize for her irate behavior and learn why he refused to preserve a house that would be hers one day.
She ran a hand along the back of an overstuffed chair. The fabric was sun-faded but soft. Remembering how she’d curled up in this spot reading countless books during endless summer days gave her a sense of comfort. Staying at the beach house was a balm for her soul. She told herself not to let that final altercation with her dad ruin her memories of the good times spent here with him.
She flipped through a row of CDs bookended by giant seashells. Her parents were teenagers in the swinging ‘60s and, although that was half a century ago, their passion for rock and roll music became hers, too. She slipped a Creedence Clearwater Revival disc into the player.
Her mom and dad would dance at the least provocation, all it took was John or Jagger or the Temptations singing My Girl on the radio and they were in each others arms, the room fragrant with a blend of Jenna’s Shalimar perfume and salty breezes drifting through an open window, along with a touch of romance. As a child, sometimes they pulled her into their inner circle and the three of them twisted the night away with Chubby Checker.
When Suzie Q streamed through the speakers, Annie turned the volume up.
For the next hour she kept a tireless pace. She put into motion the common advice that staying busy was a remedy to hold grief at bay. With Forgerty’s vocals as inspiration, she changed sheets on the guest beds, threw a stack of musty smelling beach towels into the washer, sanitized bathrooms, polished furniture, and dusted window blinds. She paused often, caught up reminiscing over family and friends who’d lounged on the house’s sofas, played board games at the big table, slept in the beds. She gave hallway rugs a good shake and damp-mopped the entryway’s tile floor. But it was no use. No amount of work could distract her from the sadness of losing her dad. She thought how true it is that death ends a life, but the essence of the person lost remains in those who loved him.
She wiped beads of sweat from her brow with the bottom of her T-shirt and grabbed a bottle of furniture cream, going to work on the long farm table planted between the kitchen and main room. The familiar scent of lemon oil relaxed her and the ache she carried rescinded as pleasant recollections stirred her. The longer she rubbed polish into the knotty pinewood, worn down with years of use, the lighter her heart became. She felt an intrinsic connection to this table with its rustic chairs and a bench, the tabletop pitted and scratched from countless gatherings involving platters of food and long afternoons of arts and crafts.
Her maternal grandfather had carved the furniture from trees cut in Central Oregon and she loved the wood. He custom-made it for a lake house nestled in the Cascade Mountains once owned by Grandma Glory before Annie was born. The wood grain’s fine, even texture beneath her soft cloth became an ideal background for remembering.
As a young girl, she would crouch under the table’s wooden planks and play jacks, or unscrew an Oreo cookie and scrap off white frosting with her front teeth before eating the chocolate circles, or simply sit and draw sea creatures in her sketchpad. She felt secure listening to her mom and grandma’s gentle banter above her as they pieced together one of their jigsaw puzzles and drank sweet tea.
A picture of Glory’s old lakeside cottage hung over the fireplace. Her grandma had used lush paints to bring the scene alive and the colors seemed as vivid and fresh as the day she finished it. Birds with indigo feathers perched on low-hanging branches appeared so true-to-life Annie wouldn’t be surprised if they swooped right out of the picture and flew around the room. A sapphire blue dragonfly hovered near the water, the iridescence of its wings reminding Annie of colors not found in everyday life, bringing thoughts of a time when magic reigned. Glory had regaled her with stories of the little house, smoke curling from its river-rock fireplace, dwarfed amid giant pine trees and surrounded by colorful hydrangea mingled with a tangle of orange trumpet vines that hosted shimmering green hummingbirds.
As a child, Annie pretended she could jump inside the picture and walk atop steppingstones leading from a pine forest down to the water’s edge, or play hide-and-seek with fairies her grandma suspected lived among morning glories that climbed the arbor. She could almost feel fresh mountain air on her face and hear the chirp of birdsong as she imagined how peaceful it must have been for her grandparents to live in the idyllic cottage beside a sun-kissed lake.
The dream faded.
She was alone in a room once filled with those she loved. When her father died, it hit Annie that her side of the family was goneher grandparents, her mother, taken before Riley was born. She’d been close to her mom and she missed her with waves of longing that diminished only slightly over the seven years since her death. And now her dad struck down without warning, truly making her an orphan as the nickname implied. She mustn’t dwell on this sad reality. She had Todd and Riley and they meant everything. They were her family now. They were all she needed.
Her cell phone chimed and she reached for it.
“Hey,” a familiar voice said. “It’s me, Brooke.”
“Oh. Hi.” This was a surprise. Her stepdaughter never called her. She called Todd. “I’m at the beach house and your father’s at the clinic,” Annie said. “Are you trying to reach him?” She probably wanted to wish him a happy birthday.
“I already did,” Brooke said. “I filled in for a sick flight attendant and have an overnight in Portland. I’m at the airport now. Could my timing be any better?” She laughed. “Listen. I’ve asked Dad to dinner this evening at Morton’s Steakhouse for his birthday. That’s his special restaurant, right?” She didn’t wait for an answer.
“We have reservations for 7:30, the best I could do on short notice.”
“Oh, Brooke, “Annie said, placing a palm to her chest. “I’m sorry you went to all that trouble. Yes, Morton’s is one of our restaurants, but we have plans. I’m making Todd’s favorite dinner and there’s plenty. A shoulder of lamb is marinating in the refrigerator, and if you don’t want meat there’s a medley of veggies I know you’ll enjoy. And birthday cake. Of course we’ll have cake. Why don’t you come to the house around 6:00?”
“Uh, no, actually, Dad and I changed the plans.” She rushed on. “We just talked and he’d rather go to dinner with me. Really, Annie, he’s doing you a favor. Now you won’t have to hurry home and cook. I’m sorry, but they had only a table for two,” she said, her voice laced with implication. “I know Riley can’t stay up late but this restaurant isn’t for kids anyway. I’m giving you a courtesy call, as I told Dad I would. Look, I have to go. Sorry we can’t get together this time.”
Brooke didn’t sound sorry at all.
Before Annie could respond, her phone screen turned dark. She blinked at it. She hung up on me! Would Todd celebrate his birthday without me? What about our plans?
She couldn’t figure out what it was she’d done to turn Brooke against her. Being Riley’s mother came as naturally as breathing, but Brooke had an innate ability to make her feel like the world’s worst stepmother. The harder she tried to befriend her, the further she pushed her away.
Brooke had estranged herself from Todd when Riley was born, but she sailed into his life again last fall with one phone call. As far as Annie could tell, two life-altering events occurred driving her back to her father. Her mom and stepdad were divorcing after twenty-one years of marriage and she became engaged to Charlie … with big wedding plans. Todd thought Brooke seemed angry over her mother and stepfather’s divorce and anxious over her upcoming wedding. She’d looked for a port in the storm, Annie reasoned, someone reliable she could count on, and believed that person was Todd.
They’d invited Brooke and Charlie to the traditional April family beach house party so everyone expected them, but she arrived alone. Annie took great efforts to welcome her stepdaughter, but after the beach house weekend Brooke commanded Todd’s attention as never before, acting as if Annie didn’t exist. Since then she did whatever it took to have a private relationship with her fathersending him cards and gifts, calling his cell phone when she knew he’d be away from home, assuring Annie wouldn’t be included in their private conversations, meanwhile treating her like an interloper when they were together.
Caught in the aftermath of her father’s death, Annie tried to dismiss Brooke’s poor behavior as the self-absorption of a twenty-three year-old with a lot on her mind, but this latest stunt was too much. She couldn’t figure out what the girl was after, but women’s intuition served her well and she knew something was up.
She called Todd’s veterinarian clinic and the office manager said he was in surgery. Was there a message? Of course there was. The two of them celebrated their birthdays together. There must be a misunderstanding, at least on his part.
She needed to talk to him.
When it came to Brooke, Annie felt powerless to stand up for herself because Todd refused to support her where his daughter was concerned. He was thrilled to have her back in his life and tolerated no criticism of her. When Annie tried to defend herself against Brooke’s nasty barbs, he told her she probably misinterpreted what Brooke said, implying she was reacting like the stereotypical ugly stepmother. This might be true, she reasoned, because his lame excuses for Brooke’s cunning disrespect often had her biting a lip to keep from blurting out some sarcastic retort.
The day after her father’s memorial service, Todd took his daughter hiking near the Columbia River Gorge for two days without inviting Annie. Although she didn’t begrudge them spending time alone, in that particular case he had left her at a time when she needed him more than Brooke did.
The problem of being a stepdaughter to Vivian and a stepmother to Brooke was that Annie couldn’t find a playbook for equating the two roles; she knew of no other woman in her position. The Internet was full of articles guiding new brides marrying men with children on how to achieve Saint Stepmom status and plenty of blogs from stepmothers on what horrid little monsters their stepchildren could be. Yet she could find no words of wisdom from women in the same precarious position as both a stepdaughter and a stepmother. Cast in dual roles gave her double vision; she couldn’t seem to focus on two divergent parts because she saw both of them, muddling her perspective and leaving her disoriented. She had no script for a play Brooke and Vivian seemed to have memorized, line by line, each giving solid performances worthy of a Tony Award.
As a daughter, Annie wanted an honest relationship with her father and resented Vivian’s jealous coldness toward her. As a wife, she assumed her husband would stick up for her against Brooke’s manipulations. When her dad had stood firmly by Vivian’s side and Todd defended Brooke against her, she found herself mired in anger and humiliation when neither man in her life protected her.
She gulped a glass of water at the kitchen sink and stuck her head out the Dutch door. Lifting her hair, she let crisp offshore breezes cool her damp neck. Riley raced Matchbox classics over makeshift roads he’d dug in a rain-soaked sand pile, lost in his pretend world. He gets his imagination from me, she thought, smiling at her boy. The pug, acting as a sentry, sat regally by Riley’s side, tilting her head each time he made throaty car sounds.
Annie snatched a broom from the laundry room and went to the front porch. She would sweep windblown sand away from the door and then take Riley to the beach. If what Brooke said were true, there was no reason to rush home. She stood with broom in hand and was about to tap Todd’s number again when an engine noise made her look up. A black BMW convertible swung into the driveway crunching crushed seashells beneath new tires.
She pocketed the phone.
Annie hadn’t seen her stepbrother since the April weekend here last month and then a week later at her father’s funeral, but there was no mistaking Ross Bullock with his smooth olive skin and careless good looks. Although the two were close in age, they had little in common. They’d spent almost no time together since they met shortly before her dad married his mother. At family gatherings, she could never seem to relax around him. She didn’t trust the guy. He held an air of smug complacency and his puffed-up bravado turned her off. Besides, she didn’t like the way he treated his wife.
He stepped from the car and leaned against the driver’s door. He adjusted a pair of aviator sunglasses, his lenses reflecting the house’s sagging roof, and crossed his arms. She noticed his dark curls hadn’t suffered during the wind-blown ride. It must be the glossy hair product he used. His polo shirt accentuated sculptured biceps and the designer jeans he wore fit snug on his lean body. She felt grubby by comparison and self-consciously aware of the moist T-shirt clinging to her skin. She pulled the cloth away from her chest, fanning herself and scowling.
“Hey, Annabelle.” His lips turned up in a humorless smile.
“Ross.” One surprise after another. “What are you doing here?”
He walked closer and removed the glasses to reveal green eyes that held an unsettling frankness. “I came to check out my beach house.”
“Your beach house?” Annie laughed, but her grip on the broom handle tensed as she watched his jaw grow taut with determination.
He squinted in the sun’s glare at the weathered side shingles, the cracked walkway, and the porch swing hanging from frayed ropes. “The structure isn’t much to look at, but it’s all about location,” he said, jutting his chin. “Even in this market, houses near the ocean are worth a lot of money.”
She stepped back, away from him. “True. But how does this house concern you?”
Ross cocked his head, regarding her, clearly enjoying the moment. “Haven’t you read your father’s will?
“Uh, no,” she stammered. “I know what’s in it but I haven’t had a chance to …” she gestured with the broom toward the house. “I’ve been busy, but Dad said …”
“Emmett left the beach house to me.” His lips thinned into a tight grin and his eyes held all the warmth of a serpent.
Annie froze. Her surroundings went pin-drop quiet.
Ross rocked back on his heels.
“No.” Her voice cracked. “Not possible. I don’t believe you.”
But his self-satisfied smirk told her it was true. The broom fell from her hand with a clatter and roaring in her ears drowned out sounds of distance waves crashing on the shore.
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