The first time Emma met her father, she was nearly three years old. She knew what he looked like because her mother kept pictures of him, meticulously cut from newspapers and glossy magazines, on every surface in their cramped three-room flat. Jane Palmer had a habit of carrying her daughter, Emma, from picture to picture hanging on the water-stained walls and sitting on the dusty scarred furniture and telling her of the glorious love affair that had bloomed between herself and Brian McAvoy, lead singer for the hot rock group, Devastation. The more Jane drank, the greater that love became.
Emma understood only parts of what she was told. She knew that the man in the pictures was important, that he and his band had played for the queen. She had learned to recognize his voice when his songs came on the radio, or when her mother put one of the 45s she collected on the record player.
Emma liked his voice, and what she would learn later was called its faint Irish lilt.
Some of the neighbors tut-tutted about the poor little girl upstairs with a mother who had a fondness for the gin bottle and a vicious temper. There were times they heard Jane's shrill curses and Emma's sobbing wails. Their lips would firm and knowing looks would pass between the ladies as they shook out their rugs or hung up the weekly wash.
In the early days of the summer of 1967, the summer of love, they shook their heads when they heard the little girl's cries through the open window of the Palmer flat. Most agreed that young Jane Palmer didn't deserve such a sweet-faced child, but they murmured only among themselves. No one in that part of London would dream of reporting such a matter to the authorities.
Of course, Emma didn't understand terms like alcoholism or emotional illness, but even though she was only three she was an expert on gauging her mother's moods. She knew the days her mother would laugh and cuddle, the days she would scold and slap. When the atmosphere in the flat was particularly heavy, Emma would take her stuffed black dog, Charlie, crawl under the cabinet beneath the kitchen sink, and in the dark and damp, wait out her mother's temper
On some days, she wasn't quick enough.
"Hold still, do, Emma." Jane dragged the brush through Emma's pale blond hair. With her teeth gritted, she resisted the urge to whack the back of it across her daughter's rump. She wasn't going to lose her temper today, not today. "I'm going to make you pretty. You want to be especially pretty today, don't you?"
Emma didn't care very much about looking pretty, not when her mother's brush strokes were hurting her scalp and the new pink dress was scratchy with starch. She continued to wriggle on the stool as Jane tried to tie her flyaway curls back with a ribbon.
"I said hold still." Emma squealed when Jane dug hard fingers into the nape of her neck. "Nobody loves a dirty, nasty girl." After two long breaths, Jane relaxed her grip. She didn't want to put bruises on the child. She loved her, really. And bruises would look bad, very bad, to Brian if he noticed them.
After dragging her from the stool, Jane kept a firm hand on Emma's shoulder. "Take that sulky look off your face, my girl." But she was pleased with the results. Emma, with her wispy blond curls and big blue eyes, looked like a pampered little princess. "Look here." Jane's hands were gentle again as she turned Emma to the mirror. "Don't you look nice?"
Emma's mouth moved stubbornly into a pout as she studied herself in the spotted glass. Her voice mirrored her mother's cockney and had a trace of a childish lisp. "Itchy."
"A lady has to be uncomfortable if she wants a man to think she's beautiful." Jane's own slimming black corset was biting into her flesh.
"Because that's part of a woman's job." She turned, examining first one side, then the other in the mirror. The dark blue dress was flattering to her full curves, making the most of her generous breasts. Brian had always liked her breasts, she thought, and felt a quick, sexual pull.
God, no one ever before or since had matched him in bed. There was a hunger in him, a wild hunger he hid so well under his cool and cocky exterior. She had known him since childhood, had been his on-again, off-again lover for more than ten years. No one knew better what Brian was capable of when fully aroused.
She allowed herself to fantasize, just for a moment, what it would be like when he peeled the dress away, when his eyes roamed over her, when his slender, musician's fingers unhooked the frilly corset.
They'd been good together, she remembered as she felt herself go damp. They would be good together again.
Bringing herself back, she picked up the brush and smoothed her hair. She had spent the last of the grocery money at the hairdresser's getting her shoulder-length straight hair colored to match Emma's. Turning her head, she watched it sway from side to side. After today, she wouldn't have to worry about money ever again.
Her lips were carefully painted a pale, pale pink--the same shade she had seen on supermodel Jane Asher's recent Vogue
cover. Nervous, she picked up her black liner and added more definition near the corner of each eye.
Fascinated, Emma watched her mother. Today she smelled of Tigress cologne instead of gin. Tentatively, Emma reached out for the lipstick tube. Her hand was slapped away.
"Keep your hands off my things." She gave Emma's finger an extra slap. "Haven't I told you never to touch my things?"
Emma nodded. Her eyes had already filmed over.
"And don't start that bawling. I don't want him seeing you for the first time with your eyes all red and your face puffy. He should have been here already." There was an edge to Jane's voice now, one that had Emma moving cautiously out of range. "If he doesn't come soon..." She trailed off, going over her options as she studied herself in the glass.
She had always been a big girl, but had never run to fat. True, the dress was a little snug, but she strained against it in interesting places. Skinny might be in fashion, but she knew men preferred round, curvy women when the lights went out. She'd been making her living off her body long enough to be sure of it.
Her confidence built as she looked herself over and she fancied she resembled the pale, sulky-faced models who were the rage in London. She wasn't wise enough to note that the new color job was unflattering or that the arrow-straight hair made the angles of her face boxy and harsh. She wanted to be in tune. She always had.
"He probably didn't believe me. Didn't want to. Men never want their children." She shrugged. Her father had never wanted her--not until her breasts had begun to develop. "You remember that, Emma girl." She cast a considering eye over Emma. "Men don't want babies. They only want a woman for one thing, and you'll find out what that is soon enough. When they're done, they're done, and you're left with a big stomach and a broken heart."
She picked up a cigarette and began to smoke it in quick, jerky puffs as she paced. She wished it was grass, sweet, calming grass, but she'd spent her drug money on Emma's new dress. The sacrifices a mother made.
"Well, he may not want you, but after one look he won't be able to deny you're his." Eyes narrowed against the smoke, she studied her daughter. There was another tug, almost maternal. The little tyke was certainly pretty as a picture when she was cleaned up. "You're the goddamn image of him, Emma luv. The papers say he's going to marry that Wilson slut--old money and fancy manners--but we'll see, we'll just see about that. He'll come back to me. I always knew he'd come back." She stubbed the cigarette in a chipped ashtray and left it smoldering. She needed a drink--just one taste of gin to calm her nerves. "You sit on the bed," she ordered. "Sit right there and keep quiet. Mess with any of my stuff, and you'll be sorry."
She had two drinks before she heard the knock on the door. Her heart began to pound. Like most drunks, she felt more attractive, more in control, once she'd had the liquor. She smoothed down her hair, fixed what she thought was a sultry smile on her face, and opened the door.
He was beautiful. For a moment in the streaming summer sunlight, she saw only him, tall and slender, his wavy blond hair and full, serious mouth giving him the look of a poet or an apostle. As nearly as she was able, she loved.From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Public Secrets by Nora Roberts. Copyright © 1990 by Nora Roberts. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.