In Flirting with Pete, bestselling author Barbara Delinsky weaves together two fascinating narratives that merge in a dramatic, highly emotional, and totally unexpected conclusion, as a daughter's struggle to win the approval of the father she never knew becomes a journey of self-discovery.
Psychologist Casey Ellis never met her father -- but that didn't stop her from following in his professional footsteps. Now he has died, and Casey is shocked to have inherited his elegant Boston town house, complete with a maid and a handsome, enigmatic gardener. When she finds a manuscript that could be a novel, a journal, or a case study of one of her father's patients in her new home, she becomes engrossed in the story of Jenny, a young woman trying to escape her troubled life. Convinced the story is true and that her father left it as a message for her, Casey digs deeper. As she pieces together the mysteries surrounding her father, Jenny, and the romantic new stranger in her life, she discovers startling links between past and present, and unexpected ties between what is real and what is imagined.
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Barbara Delinsky has written more than twenty New York Times bestselling novels, with over thirty million copies in print. Her books are highly emotional, character-driven studies of marriage, parenthood, sibling rivalry and friendship. She is also the author of a breast cancer handbook. A breast cancer survivor herself, Barbara donates her author proceeds from the book to fund a research fellowship at Massachusetts General Hostipal. Visit her at www.barbaradelinsky.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The memorial service was held in a dark stone church on Boston's Marlboro Street, not far from where Cornelius Unger had lived and worked. It took place on a sunny Wednesday in June, three weeks after the man's death, just as he had instructed. Whatever had occurred before then had been private and small. Casey Ellis had not been invited.
She sat four rows from the back of the church, and a more genteel audience she couldn't imagine. There was no sniffling, no whispering, no sighs or moans or wails. Sorrow was not a factor here. This was a professional gathering, a crowd of men and women wearing the neutral shades of those who would rather see than be seen. These were researchers and therapists, present today because Connie Unger had been an eminent leader in their field for more than forty years. The packed house attested as much to the man's longevity as to his brilliance.
Casey would have bet on the fact that of the several hundred gathered here, she was the only one with an emotional stake, and she included his wife in the count. It was well known that the renowned Dr. Unger kept his spouse in a lovely home on the North Shore, where she did her own thing, while he lived alone in Boston and visited her on the occasional weekend. Connie liked private time. He disliked social gatherings. He had colleagues, not friends, and if he had family in the form of sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, or cousins, no one knew of them. He had never had children with his wife.
Casey was his daughter by a woman he had never married, a woman to whom he had never said more than a dozen words after their single night together. Since no one here knew about that night or about Casey, to them she was just one more face in the crowd.
On the other hand, she knew quite a few people here, though not thanks to her father. He had never acknowledged her, had never reached out, offered help, opened a door. There had never been child support. Casey's mother hadn't asked for it, and by the time Casey learned the name of her father, she was so heavily into teenage defiance that she wouldn't have approached the man if her life had depended on it.
Elements of that defiance remained. Casey was pleased to sit near the back of the church, just one more colleague taking a long lunch hour. She was pleased to think that her presence here was more than the man deserved. She was pleased to think that she would leave the church and never look back.
Focusing on these things was easier than acknowledging the loss. She had never formally met Cornelius Unger, but as long as he was alive, so too was the hope that one day he would seek her out. With his death, that hope was gone.
Did you ever try to approach him yourself? her friend Brianna had asked. Did you ever try to confront him? Did you ever send him a letter, an e-mail, a gift?
The answer was no on all scores. Pride played a part, as did anger, as did loyalty to her mother. And then there was hero worship. Typical of love-hate relationships, in addition to being her nemesis, Cornelius Unger had been her role model for nearly as long as she had known his name. At sixteen she had been curious, but curiosity quickly turned to drive. He taught at Harvard; she had applied there and been rejected. Should she have approached him and told him she had failed on that score?
She subsequently got her degrees from Tufts and Boston College. The latter was a master's in social work -- not quite the Ph.D. Cornelius had, but she counseled clients as he did, and now she even had an offer to teach. She didn't know if she would take it, but that was another issue. She loved counseling. She imagined her father had, too, if his dedication meant anything. Over the years she had read virtually everything he had written, attended every open lecture he gave, clipped every review of his work. He saw therapy as a scavenger hunt, with clues hidden in the various "rooms" of one's life. He advocated talk therapy to ferret them out -- an irony, since by all reports the man couldn't carry on a social conversation for beans -- but he knew the right questions to ask.
That was what therapy was about, he lectured -- asking the right questions. Listening, then asking questions that pointed the patient in the right direction so that he could find the answer for himself.
Casey was quite good at that, judging from the growth of her practice. The people she knew here today were her own colleagues. She had studied with them, shared office space, attended workshops, and consulted with them. They respected her as a counselor, enough to make their referrals a significant source of her clientele. These colleagues were oblivious to any connection between her and the deceased.
The warmth of June remained outside on the steps of the church. Inside, the sun's rays were reduced to muted shards of color cast from the stained glass high atop the stone, and the air was comfortably cool, smelling of history as relics of the Revolutionary War did. Casey loved that smell. It gave her the sense of history that her life lacked.
She took comfort in that as one speaker after another filed to the front of the church, but they said nothing Casey didn't already know. Professionally, Connie Unger had been loved. His taciturnity was alternately viewed as shyness or pensiveness, his refusal to attend department parties as a sweet, social awkwardness. At some point in his career, people had taken to protecting him. Casey had often wondered whether his lack of a personal life helped that along. In the absence of friends, his colleagues felt responsible for him.
The service ended and people began to file out of the church; like Casey, they were headed back to work. She smiled at one friend, hitched her chin at another, paused briefly on the front steps to talk with the man who had been her thesis adviser, returned a hug when a passing colleague leaned in. Then she stopped again, this time at the behest of one of her partners.
There were five partners in the group. John Borella was the only psychiatrist. Of the other four, two were Ph.D. therapists. Casey and one other had their master's in social work.
"We have to meet later," the psychiatrist said.
Casey wasn't concerned by the urgency in his voice. John was a chronic alarmist. "My day is tight," she warned.
That gave her pause. Stuart Bell was one of the Ph.D. therapists. More important, he paid the office bills.
"What do you mean, 'gone'?" she asked cautiously.
"Gone," John repeated, speaking lower now. "His wife called me a little while ago. She came home from work last night to an empty house -- empty drawers, empty closets, empty bank book. I checked his office. Same thing."
Casey was startled. "His files?"
Her startled reaction grew to appalled. "Our bank account?"
"Aeyyyy." She felt a touch of panic. "Okay. We'll talk later."
"He has the rent money."
"Seven months' worth."
"Yes." Casey had given Stuart a check for her share on the first of each of those seven months. They had learned the week before that the rent hadn't been paid for any of those months. When confronted, Stuart had claimed it was a simple oversight, lost in the mounds of paperwork that had taken over so much of their time -- and they understood, because they all knew how that went. He had promised to pay it in full.
"It's due next week," John reminded Casey now.
They would have to come up with the money. The alternative was eviction. But Casey couldn't discuss eviction now. She couldn't even think about it with Cornelius Unger watching and listening. "This isn't the time or the place, John. Let's talk later."
"Excuse me?" said a slim, gray-haired gentleman in a navy suit who had come down the steps of the church as the crowd thinned. "Miss Ellis?"
As John moved on, Casey turned to the newcomer.
"I'm Paul Winnig," he said. "I was Dr. Unger's lawyer. I'm the executor of his estate. Could we talk for a minute?"
She would have asked what the executor of Dr. Unger's estate wanted with her, if the lawyer's eyes hadn't answered the question. Yes, he did know who she was.
Surprised by that awareness and quickly unsettled, she managed, "Uh, of course. Whenever."
"Now would be good."
"Now?" She glanced at her watch and felt a trace of annoyance. She didn't know whether her father kept clients waiting. She did not. "I have an appointment in thirty minutes."
"This will only take five," the lawyer said. With a light hand at her elbow, he gently guided her down the steps and onto a narrow stone path that led around the side of the church.
Casey's heart was beating hard. Before she could even begin to wonder what he had to say, or what she felt about his saying anything at all, the path opened into a small courtyard out of sight of the street. Releasing her elbow, the lawyer gestured her to a wrought-iron bench. When they were both seated, he said, "Dr. Unger left instructions that you should be contacted as soon as the memorial service was done."
"I don't know why," Casey remarked, having recovered a bit of composure. "He had no interest in me at all."
"I believe you're wrong," the lawyer chided. He pulled an envelope from the pocket of his suit jacket. It was a small manila thing the size of an index card, with a clasp at the top.
Casey stared at the envelope.
The lawyer held it up to show her the front. "It has your name on it."
So it did -- "Cassandra Ellis," written in the same shaky scrawl she had seen dozens of times in margin notes on the graphs and charts that Connie Unger projected onto screens during lectures.
Cassandra Ellis. Her name, written by her father. It was a first.
Her heart began to rap against her ribs. Her eyes returned to the lawyer's. Apprehensive, not quite knowing what she wanted to find in the envelope but fearing that whatever it was, it wouldn't be there, she gingerly reached out. The envelope was lumpy.
"There's a key inside," Paul Winnig explained. "Dr. Unger left you his townhouse."
Casey frowned, pulled in her chin, regarded the lawyer with doubt. When he nodded, she dropped her eyes to the envelope. Carefully, she unfolded the clasp, raised the small flap, and looked inside. She tipped out a key, then pulled out a piece of paper that had been folded over many times to fit. In the seconds it took to unfold it -- several seconds longer than it might have taken had her hands been steadier -- her fantasy flared. In those seconds, she imagined a warm little note. It didn't have to be long. It could be as simple as, You are my daughter, Casey. I've watched you all these years. You've made me proud.
There was in fact writing on the paper, but the message was succinct. She saw the address of the townhouse. She saw an alarm code. She saw a short list of names beside words like "plumber," "painter," and "electrician." The names of the gardener and the maid had asterisks beside them.
"Dr. Unger would like the gardener and maid retained," the lawyer explained. "In the end it's your choice, but he felt that both were good and that they loved the house as much as he did."
Casey was stunned. There was absolutely nothing of a personal nature on the paper. "He loved the house?" she echoed, hurt, and met the lawyer's gaze. "A house is a thing. Did he ever love people?"
Paul Winnig smiled sadly. "In his way."
"What way was that?"
"Absently?" Casey charged, torn in that instant, of half a mind to ball up the paper and toss it away. She was angry that her father hadn't said something to her in life, angry that the note contained nothing she longed to read. "What if I don't want his townhouse?"
"If you don't want it, sell it. It's worth three million. That's your legacy, Ms. Ellis."
Casey didn't doubt the value of the house. It sat in a coveted spot in Leeds Court, itself a coveted spot on Beacon Hill. She had been past it many times. In not one of those passes, though, had the idea that she might one day own it ever crossed her mind.
"Have you ever been inside?" the lawyer asked.
"It's a beautiful place."
"I already have a place."
"You could sell that one."
"And take on a larger mortgage?"
"There's no mortgage here. Dr. Unger owned the townhouse outright."
And he was giving it to Casey? A three-million-dollar home that was all paid for? There had to be a catch. "Upkeep, then -- heat, air-conditioning. And taxes -- property taxes alone are probably twice my yearly mortgage payments."
"There's a trust fund for taxes. And for the household help. There's also parking, two spaces in back with private access, two on the Court itself, all paid for. As for heat and the rest, he had the confidence that you could handle those yourself."
She certainly could -- or could have, if Stuart Bell hadn't absconded with seven months' rent. "Why?"
"Why is he doing this? Why such a lavish gift after nothing all these years?"
"I don't know the answer to that."
"Does his wife know that he's given me this?"
"And she doesn't object?"
"No. She was never part of the townhouse. She made out very well in his will without it."
"How long has she known about me?"
Casey felt a stab of bitterness. "And she couldn't call me herself to tell me about his death? I had to read it in the paper. That didn't feel good."
"Did he order her not to contact me?"
The lawyer sighed, seeming to weary a bit. "I don't know that. Your father was a complicated man. I don't think any of us knew who he was inside. Ruth -- his wife -- came as close as anyone did, but you know how they lived."
Casey did. She didn't know whether she felt worse for her own mother, who had lost Connie Unger before she ever had him, or for Connie's wife, who once had had him but lost him.
"Seems to me," Casey declared, "that the man was no bargain."
"Maybe not," the lawyer replied and rose. "In any event, the house is yours. Everything's been transferred to your name. I'll have a courier deliver the papers to you tomorrow. I'd suggest you put them in a vault."
Casey remained seated. "I don't have a vault."
"I do. Would you like me to hold them for you?"
Winnig pulled a business card from his pocket. "Here's where I am."
Casey took the card. "What about his...things? Are they all there?"
"Personal things, yes. He arranged for Emmett Walsh to take over his practice, so the computer, client files, and Rolodex have all gone to him."
A distant little bubble burst. From time to time, it had held a dream. As the dream went, one day Connie would come to respect her as a professional, enough to refer clients to her. Even make her his protégée. Even invite her to share his practice, making it a father-daughter group.
The disappointment was brief. The dream, after all, had never received an ounce of encouragement. "Ah," she managed. Still, she didn't rise.
"You look pale," the lawyer said. "Are you all right?"
She nodded. "Just a little startled."
He smiled. "Run over and take a look inside the place. It has a certain charm."
Casey couldn't go that day. She saw clients straight through until eight, at which time she pushed the issue of the townhouse farther back in her mind and joined her partners in the conference room. Co...
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