Mistaken Identity Crisis
“The first time we met, I knew you’d cause me to gray prematurely,” April griped while clawing at clumps of her brassy blonde hair and squeezing her golden badge until a star-shaped imprint marked her left palm. “But I honestly thought I’d have a better chance at predicting the Pennsylvania state lottery numbers before guessing you’d paint a bullseye on your own forehead for the Castigliano mob family. Seriously, Kellan, you’ve made a royal mess of this situation. Are they gonna take potshots at me next?”
We bantered steadfastly in her downtown office at the Wharton County administrative building with the door glued shut. Very few people knew what’d happened to my supposedly dead wife, Francesca. I shrugged and offered my best apology face, which unintentionally resembled a confused puppy in search of a warm place to sleep, rather than a truly sorrowful man who’d never intended to wreak such havoc. “We’ve covered this several times in the last three weeks. I should’ve immediately informed you that Francesca’s family faked her death. I didn’t know what to do until that last note from Cristiano Vargas confirmed they’d kidnapped her as a revenge tactic to punish the Castiglianos.” I rested both hands and my chin on the heavily papered desk, grinned widely as if my jaw were about to unhinge, and blinked twice through stylish glasses to endear myself to the sheriff.
At least she’d stopped calling me Little Ayrwick. Of all the nicknames I’d heard during my thirty-two years, that was the most insulting. There was nothing little about me anymore. Upon graduating from Braxton a decade ago, I’d transformed from an awkward middle child in a complex, overachieving family into what many women eagerly deemed a devilishly handsome and well-built guy blessed with clever wit and a charming personality. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an egomaniac. I’ve merely settled into myself and accepted the positive and the negative. Lately, there were tons more negative than I cared to tolerate. At least Nana D still called me brilliant one, which melted my heart every time.
“That’s your apology?” April vigorously shook her head and slammed a Tweety Bird coffee mug on the desk’s smooth metal surface. Drops of cold, muddy brown liquid splashed across it and landed on my upper lip. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that,” she whined repentantly while handing me a napkin from a squeaky drawer. “Oh, and in case you forgot, that’s how you ask for forgiveness.”
Had it not been for the tiniest of curls at the sides of her sarcastic mouth, I wouldn’t have known April was teasing me. We’d spent an inordinate amount of time joined at the hip, organizing everything that’d happened in the last two-and-a-half years since the accident. Okay, backstory time—Francesca and I had arrived separately at a Thanksgiving party because I’d been working out of town earlier in the week. Our daughter, Emma, begged to ride home with me—a monumental blessing in disguise—rather than her mother. Little did I know at the time, Francesca’s parents, Vincenzo and Cecilia Castigliano, had orchestrated the entire façade. When I received the call that my wife had been struck and killed by a drunk driver, I did my best to rally with the help of Nana D, my five-foot-tall spitfire grandmother. Meanwhile, Francesca lived covertly in the Castigliano mansion until her parents could divine a way to resolve the turf war with Las Vargas, the rival mafia family controlling much of the West Coast. Two years had zipped by without a viable solution or anyone learning their secret.
A few months ago, Emma and I moved back home to Braxton, the small town in north-central Pennsylvania where I’d been raised and now worked as an assistant professor specializing in communications and film studies. Francesca chose that moment to materialize from hiding, jealous and angry about the sudden inability to watch her daughter grow up in LA. After I refused to hibernate in captivity, she took off, letting her parents and me think she was visiting all the places we’d once vacationed in—a blissful trip down memory lane. At some point, Cristiano Vargas had discovered Francesca was alive, captured my not-so-dead wife, and forced her to mail postcards from every location to dangle us in a state of confusion. Now, we pondered their next move.
“I’m sorry, April. I know you intended to leave this spectacle of intense drama when you relocated from Buffalo, but I’m confident we’ll find a solution.” I wiped the coffee from my lip and internally chuckled over her persnickety comments. “I should teach you to brew a better cup of joe. I guess it’s true that cops will drink any sludge someone—”
“Don’t continue with that stereotypical, inflammatory insult unless you want me to handcuff you to my desk and head out for the day!” April released a long pent-up sigh and shuffled through stained papers in a worn manila folder. “Let’s focus on our next steps. The Castiglianos will soon arrive in Braxton, and they better have answers. I agreed not to formally include the FBI until we received an official ransom request. We also need proof Francesca is alive before they’ll get further involved.”
April and I hadn’t been friends previously, especially because I’d unexpectedly solved four murders sooner than she had—not a helpful icebreaker for our relationship. She mostly viewed me as a prickly thorn that irritated every nerve in her body. We’d brokered a tepid alliance in the last three weeks, and I convinced myself that the intense display of awe-inducing fireworks in her office, when our fingers had accidentally brushed against one another, was only a freakish blip on the radar. Then, a visceral flash of lightning surged inside my body and a sensual, steamy dream left me quite flushed and bewildered. I was technically still married and shouldn’t have welcomed those types of thoughts about other women, right?
Once the war ended between the two families, Francesca could reveal herself to the rest of the world, and we’d deal with the repercussions. I only cared about the impact on our seven-year-old daughter. Emma didn’t deserve this level of pain and confusion. Neither did I, but in the few encounters I’d already had with Francesca upon her triumphant reincarnation, it’d grown clear we were both different people. As a good Catholic—my family attended church on Sundays—divorce was a tricky solution. I knew I loved Francesca, but I was no longer in love with her. After all the lies and deception, how could I forgive her? Yes, her life had been in danger from Las Vargas, but she could’ve told me the truth years ago. I’d only discovered the reality of her shady family business by accident after she ‘died.’
“Cristiano’s latest update said he’d contact me soon with next steps. Maybe he’ll offer easily attainable ransom terms for the Castiglianos. Then, this whole mess will blow over.” All remaining confidence drained from my body with each reticent word. “Ugh! Why am I in the middle of this quandary? Las Vargas should work directly with Francesca’s parents for her safe release.”
“Excellent point. Perhaps your uniquely innate charm just begs for more attention? Regardless, I’m collecting evidence on the Castigliano drug-trafficking exploits to put them away for good. Someone will go to prison over this entire ordeal. I won’t be able to protect her, you know,” April said convincingly with a pointed stare. “I get she’s your wife, but the mafia princess committed several crimes. I’m glad you never collected any insurance payments upon her death.”
“I was a fool not to ask more questions about her background when we’d met.” Although my immediate family members were a fantastic crew, the Ayrwicks also liked to pry into each other’s business much too often. When I’d moved to Los Angeles to escape their clutches, an all-encompassing, powerful first love had blinded me from recognizing the truth. Francesca and I married way too quickly, and before long, I’d obtained my PhD, gotten a job as an assistant director at a Hollywood television show, and become a father upon Emma’s arrival in this world. We lived a good life, but I’d always known something important was missing between Francesca and me.
“We’ll sort it out, Kellan. You’re going through a lot, but you can’t tell anyone else until we dismantle Las Vargas. Anyway, I have to follow up on another jewelry heist that happened last week.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask Nana D about those pesky robberies. Anything you can share?”
April swallowed heavily. “Jewelry was stolen. Victims are unhappy. Is that what you need to know, oh holy meddlesome one? Don’t even think about inserting yourself into another one of my—”
“Blah, blah, blah. I read the papers and have some clue, April. I’ll just ask Nana D. She tends to dig up the latest facts. I vaguely recall something about an unusual calling card being left behind, right?”
“I’d rather not discuss it. The ineptitude of the former sheriff still infuriates me. My predecessor had a penchant for burying facts from his townspeople.” April grunted and shook her head.
“Nana D claims he took bribes to hide petty crimes,” I said, hoping to keep her talking about it. “Maybe you and I should compare notes about the case. I have been helpful in the past.”
“And we’re officially done here,” April muttered as she advanced toward me with alarming concentration in her eyes. “Let’s talk tomorrow about your wife’s kidnapping.” Moist, hot breath from her lips passed over mine, and her skin smelled like black peppercorns and coriander—spicy yet fresh.
Although tempting comfort swayed between us like a pendulum jam-packed with uncertainty over its destination, I retreated before April and I approached a line we weren’t prepared to cross. Too many intimate moments had encircled us lately, and I couldn’t fathom how to properly interpret them. “Sure, I’ll update you as soon as I hear from Cristiano.”
Leaving her office, I noticed my reflection in the shiny glass pane of the door. Several days of dirty-blond stubble peppered my cheeks and chin, and dark circles occupied the sunken spaces below my disconcerted blue eyes. At least I’d managed to comb my frequently untamable hair, so I didn’t look horribly disheveled. Nana D would slap my bottom silly—her words, not mine—for drawing shame to her, especially now that she’d won the election to become the new mayor of Wharton County.
Later that Saturday afternoon, I drove to Wellington Park in Millner Place to celebrate Nana D’s seventy-fifth birthday in style with the party of the century. Millner Place and Braxton made up two of the four towns in Wharton County—the others, Woodland in the northwest and Lakeview in the northeast. Ninety miles south of Buffalo, New York, our county was one of the earliest settlements in Pennsylvania and had been founded by my ancestors.
“Is today the double wedding, Daddy?” Emma asked as I steered the SUV into a narrow spot.
Aunt Deirdre, a famous novelist and one of my mother’s siblings, had returned from England and coordinated Nana D’s party while simultaneously planning her own upcoming nuptials to Timothy Paddington, an international business mogul.
“Nope, that’s in two weeks on Independence Day,” I reminded my precocious daughter. Timothy’s sister was also engaged, prompting their family to suggest a double wedding to make it easy on all the guests. Both couples had only recently met one another, and it made more sense as a way to reunite the Paddington family who’d experienced several traumatic events earlier in the year. “Do you know what Independence Day is about, honey?”
When Emma nodded with enthusiasm, mahogany-brown pigtails bounced feverishly against her slightly chubby, olive-tinted cheeks. My mother had located a picture of seven-year-old Nana D and designed a matching outfit for my daughter since Emma looked so much like her at that age. “We talked about it on the last day of school. It’s when we shoot firecrackers into the sky!”
“Yes, that’s part of it, but it’s also when we became our own country. Aunt Deirdre thought it would be amusing to shed her independence on the same day America officially separated from England two-and-a-half centuries ago,” I explained. Having lived there for half her life, Aunt Deirdre deemed herself British for all intents and purposes. She also lived inside her head where she dreamed up Victorian romances all day. Ply my aunt with more than two glasses of wine and her American roots were more obvious than the henna rinse in Nana D’s wild, three-foot-long braids.
“That sounds like an adult joke. I don’t get it.” Emma gave a thumbs-down symbol. “When will Nonna and Nonno be here?” My daughter referred to Francesca’s parents by the Italian words for a grandparent. Her hazelnut-brown eyes were darkening this summer, highlighting how much she also resembled her mother before my wife had adopted various disguises. Emma was being kept far away from any conversation about her not-so-dead mother, something even the Castiglianos had easily agreed to with everything exploding around us.
“Monday evening.” I grabbed her hand and rambled toward Wellington Park. Nana D had chosen the cherished location across the Finnulia River, touting it as a critical place to rebuild. She’d also promised free ice cream every weekend in her campaign speeches during the mayoral election. “Look, here’s Uncle Gabriel,” I added when my brother caught up with us at the tree-lined entranceway.
At a complicated and sentimental family dinner earlier in the month, Gabriel had announced his unexpected homecoming and the not-so-earth-shattering news that he was gay. Not surprisingly, the Ayrwicks openly welcomed him back into their fold with minimal concern. My mother cried the entire time at her youngest son returning to the roost. Our older siblings couldn’t visit for that dinner or for Nana D’s birthday party, but I hadn’t expected them to travel. When both had mentioned they would come back for the birthday party or the double wedding, Nana D vehemently insisted on the wedding.
“Emma? It can’t be! She’s grown two feet in the last few days,” Gabriel teased while picking up my best girl and swinging her from side to side. In observance of the warm late June weather, Gabriel donned a pair of dressy long shorts and a collared, black polo shirt. One of his many tattoos peeked out from the shirt’s sleeve as his taut, muscular arms carried Emma in near-perfect circles.
“It’s too fuzzy! Does it hurt?” Emma giggled as she touched his lip piercing and trim, dark-blond beard. He was four glorious years younger than me, as he always reminded me, but our semblance remained uncannily similar. Although he projected a mysterious and rugged appearance, I erred toward the clean-cut side—except for days like today when I hadn’t shaved. I secretly clung to the worthy excuse of dealing with a back-from-the-dead wife. Also, Gabriel had been accepted by the family and was currently the favored, treasured sibling whom our parents and Nana D couldn’t stop fawning over. Even our father, the resolute Wesley Ayrwick, seemed overjoyed at his prodigal son’s return.