Chapter 1 – Sunday, January 25

The mallet paused above Cara’s head and then swiftly crashed onto the wedge, driving the pointed vee into her skull. Why am I not dead? Death would be a relief. The mallet arced again, readying for another strike as Cara thrashed against the restraints. It delivered another cranium-crushing blow, and Cara’s eyes flew open. Where am I? The phone rang again, inducing another skull-splitting shock of pain. Her heart racing and head throbbing, she disentangled herself from the twisted bed linens and reached for the phone to silence its painful trill. As she brought the receiver to her ear, she glanced down at herself and froze. Why am I naked?

“Hello,” she said, trying to recover her wits, but her mind was spinning in an endless loop of questions and yielding no answers.

“Where the hell have you been, Cara?”

It took a moment, but she finally placed the voice. It was Wesley. Where the hell have I been? Every light in the hotel suite was blazing, and her clothes were strewn all over. What happened? Why do I feel so strange? What did I do?

“Right here,” she said, buying time to clear her mind of the fog obscuring her memory.

“I’ve been calling you all morning, and you never answered. I left messages on your cell phone. It’s nearly noon. I was about to call the front desk to have them check on you. Why weren’t you answering?”

I don’t know. I don’t know anything. She tried to think back, but her mind felt as if someone had poured thick oatmeal into it. Her hair had worked itself loose and hung in disheveled strands about her face. Bobby pins littered the white cotton sheets like black ants. A roiling tide of panic rose in her as she looked over her body. She appeared to be unharmed, yet why did she feel as if she’d been beaten?

Cara spied her blue silk gown lying in a heap on the gray plush carpeting. I wore it to the awards banquet. I was honored last night. With the Mother Teresa medallion. The medal? Where was it? Her eyes searched the room for the medal until she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror above the dresser and realized that the ribbon was still around her neck. The gold medal, however, was dangling between her shoulder blades. She righted the medal and then pulled a blanket around herself. Goose flesh rose on her skin but not because she was cold, but because thinking about the possibilities of what had happened in this room froze her blood.

Why would I be so careless with such an expensive dress? What did I do last night after the banquet?

“Cara! Are you listening to me? What the hell is with you?”

I got sick. Yes, I remember that. At least, that was something, a bread crumb she hoped that would lead her down the road to fully remembering how she had gotten in this state.

"I'm sorry, Wesley," Cara said, feeling a bit calmer now that she had, at least, some excuse to offer her husband. "I must have gotten food poisoning or some super virus. I remember feeling sick last night after I talked to you, and I must have passed out."

“Passed out? Who blacks out from the flu?”

“I don’t know. All I remember is feeling terribly ill and coming back to the room. Maybe I was dehydrated.”

“How much did you have to drink?”

She pulled the blankets more tightly around her and checked her hand to make sure that her engagement and wedding rings were still there. Thankfully, they were. She touched her earlobes and found that her grandmother’s aquamarine and diamond earrings were still dangling from her lobes. At least, I wasn’t robbed.

“Cara, are you still there? How much did you drink last night?”

“I don’t know. I’m not your child, Wesley. I didn’t think I had to keep a tally and report in.”

“I’ve been going out of my mind. I thought something terrible happened to you.”

“Nothing’s happened to me. I’m fine.” Am I? Why can’t I remember anything past feeling sick? Did I strip off my clothes? Did I have a fever? She touched her cheek with the back of her hand. It felt cool. Had she done something bad like that other time? She closed her eyes, near tears. Why can’t I remember?

“Are you sure you don’t have someone with you?”

Her eyes flew open. “What? Are you accusing me of hooking up with someone?”

“Come on, Cara. I’m not stupid. You’re there all by yourself in a hotel room, and when I called you last night, you were in a bar.”

That’s right. I was in a bar. Another crumb.

“Then I tried calling all morning and no one answers. It doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots.”

She stood, pulling the blankets off the bed. “How can you say such a thing? I booked this room for us. So we could be together. You were the one who stood me up. Maybe you’re feeling guilty.” Her head began to spin, and she sank back onto the bed, clutching her temple.

“Guilty? For what?” his voice boomed out of the phone making her head pound like a jack hammer. “Working? Trying to make a nice life together? You forget, I don’t have the connections and name recognition you do. Some of us have to work hard.”

She stifled a scream. She worked hard too and being so well known was no picnic, but she felt too feeble to argue. Cara sighed. “Look, Wesley, I’m sorry. I love you. I’d never cheat on you. You know that. I got sick last night—the sickest I think I’ve ever been. I came back to the room and fell asleep. That’s all. Seriously, you don’t think I’d ever want someone else, do you?”

He didn’t answer.

“Do you?”

“I’m sorry, Cara. It’s just that sometimes I get so crazy when I think of all the other guys you could have married.”

Exasperated, she closed her eyes. “Wesley, don’t.”

“It’s true. You could have married any number of other men. How did your grandmother phrase it? ‘Someone more suitable.’”

“But I didn’t want them,” Cara said softly. “I wanted you.”

The silence hung there. They’d been over this so many times, it was maddening.

“I’m just glad you’re OK. I was calling to tell you that my plane will be boarding soon,” he said. “I’ll be home before dinner.”

“Good.”

“Love you,” he said and then hung up.

She put the receiver in its cradle, and her stomach rumbled with hunger. I don’t think I threw up last night. My stomach doesn’t have that kicked-in-the-gut feeling. Perhaps I was drunk. She tallied the drinks she'd had during the evening but concluded that too much alcohol wasn't it. She'd certainly had more to drink on other occasions without feeling this hung over.  

Maybe I’m pregnant. She held her head in her hands. You’d have to have had sex for that, she thought. With Wesley so involved in the Nelson fraud case, she couldn’t remember the last time they’d made love. That was why she had booked the suite for them in the first place.

Sighing, Cara picked up the phone again and dialed room service. She ordered dry toast and tea, and after pulling on her nightgown and straightening the bed linens, she crawled back under the covers, rolling onto her side, clutching a pillow. As she closed her eyes, she heard her grandmother’s voice in her lilting Irish brogue coming through clearly in her cloudy head, “A wee bit of tea and toast is just the thing to cure what ails you.”

Cara smiled wryly, thinking she’d need more than a cup of tea and slice of toast to fix this mess. As she tried, once again, to reconstruct the previous evening, a thought reached out and clutched her, sending a ripple of panic through her: What if this is like the last time?

One other time while she was still a child, she'd had a memory lapse, and many times over the years, she had trod down that well-worn path in her mind hoping to discover what her subconscious kept from her, but each time her foray into the past had led her into forests of confusion and dead ends of frustration. No matter how she tried, she couldn't remember. Her pulse quickened and her heart beat into her ears as fear seized her. I couldn’t remember then, and if I can’t remember now, will the same thing happen? The metallic taste of terror was on her tongue as she pondered the next question, the one that provoked the most turmoil in her heart: Will I be abandoned again?

When Pittsburgh heiress and philanthropist Cara Hawthorne Wells is framed with a heinous crime, her reputation, marriage, and life are jeopardized. Her battle to prove her innocence leads her to shocking revelations about the city she serves, the people she loves, and her beautiful reckless sister, Sophia, the celebrity diva.  Set during Pittsburgh's first time as host of the Super Bowl, Most Highly Favored Daughter, scores big with those who like their suspense seasoned with love.

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Janice Lane Palko


Most Highly Favored Daughter

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