When Ruth McBain becomes a widow in her mid-forties, she decides to make a drastic change in her life. Her twenty-five year marriage to Tom McBain, a prominent lawyer in Avalon, Maryland, a small town on the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay, had eased their empty-nest syndrome when their son and daughter left for college and later for marriages in distant states. While Tom was alive, Ruth's world had orbited smoothly in familiar paths. His sudden death from a heart attack leaves a vacuum which friends and customary activities fail to fill. She brushes aside well-meaning friends' advice to sell the house which she and Tom ha spent their entire married life, a home which stands a half-mile down a quiet country road with only one house next door to keep it company. She dismisses suggestions that she move into one of the new suburbs which are popping up like rabbit warrens on land once sacred to soybeans and corn. Ruth McBain is conventional person with conventional views. Houses, like friendships, must pass the test of time to be accepted.
Ruth's unconventional decision to become a foster mother to a little girl about whom she knew nothing other than that the child had been in and out of several foster homes during the six years she had lived, disturbs her friends, who remind her of the problems and perils that even two-parent families find difficult to handle in the "anything goes" decade of the 1990's. She sooths her friends apprehensions by assuring them that Miss Winters, the social worker assigned to Lark's case, will instantly be on call if needed. She rarely is. None of the dire predictions made by Ruth's friends materialize. The lies Lark tells are small and promptly admitted; her tendency to pocket a bit of loose change lessens. Lark was not a thief in the harsh sense of the word. She was an indiscriminate little rat pack, a female Artful Dodger who immediately pled guilty to petty thefts and cheerfully returned the purloined articles without apology, denial, or excuses.
The child was not into grand larceny; she pilfered articles which Ruth would gladly have given her had she asked for them; inexpensive clip-on earrings which Ruth hadn't worn since he got her ears pierced in honor of the diamond earrings Tom had given her on their tenth anniversary. A fake garnet bracelet with a broken clasp; an amber candy dish; last summer's sequinned sunglasses, and every once in a while an all-out emptying of the small change kept in a small piggy bank on the shelf above the sink. At first it had been hard for Ruth to keep Miss Winter's advice and "stay cool" when Lark helped herself to the small change in the piggy bank, but as the weeks passed, Ruth slowly adjusted to Miss Winter's explanation that to Lark, coins were just trinkets on par with earrings and sunglasses, and always returned in full to the piggy bank. The only problem which Ruth finds hard to accept is the child's determination to keep Ruth at arm's length; she resists Ruth's attempts to hug her, moves aside if Ruth reaches out for her.
Ruth tells herself that if Lark was consistent in her withdrawal from everyone, her reaction could be a holdover from something which happened in the child's troubled past. But the withdrawal of physical and emotional contact is not consistent; it does not extend to Mary Burdock, the woman who lives in the only other house on the lane. In Ruth's opinion, Mark Burdock is pleasant enough, but definitely not a spell-binder. A woman who is a bit too plump, a bit too average, a bit too reserved to merit the attention, let alone the adoration, of an unusual child like Lark. It just didn't make sense that Lark fluttered across the two yards, drawn to Mary Burdock like a gnat to a lightbulb. What did a woman who appeared to be getting perilously close to the thirty year mark have in common with a child who had just recently blown out six candles on a birthday cake? Ruth's attempt to understand the strange relationship between the child and the woman are fruitless. Her inquiries to Lark about what she and Mark Burdock talk about are always answered by "just things."
Miss Winters makes light of the situation, and rationalizes that it is not unusual for young girls to attach themselves to an older woman who is not their "head honcho." "Trust me," Miss Winters says, "Be patient. It's not at all unusual for young girls to be infatuated with a woman neighbor or school teacher or any woman who for one reason or another caught their attention. Infatuation is a lot like pregnancy, a definitely temporary condition. Trust me. I've seen it happen a lot, and not just with foster kids. One of these days Lark will drop the woman like a hot potato and replace her with another older woman. Maybe even you." Lark's devotion to Mary Burdock does not extend to her husband. Frank Burdock spends weekdays traveling in a three-state area representing a large cosmetic firm. Lark is forbidden by Mary to visit her on weekends, based on his desire to be alone with his wife. Lark compensates for being denied Mary Burdock's company by peeking through the windows of the house next door, and peering through her own bedroom window which provides a night-time view of what is taking place with the Burdocks.
As the months pass, Lark continues her weekday visits with Mary, and observes that Miss Mary's eyes are often swollen on Mondays, as if she has been crying during the weekends her husband is home. When Lark tries to tell Ruth McBain that Frank Burdock is mean to his wife, Ruth gives no credence to the child's story, deciding it is based on Lark's resentment at being banned from the house next door while Frank is home. Lark learns not to discuss the Burdock's private affairs when she eavesdrops on a conversation between Ruth and Miss Winters and hears the social worker suggest that it might be in Lark's best interest to move her to a different foster home if she continues her avid interest in the Burdock's private affairs. Lark likes living with Ruth McBain; she doesn't want to be moved from the best home she has ever known. Although she continues her daily visits with Miss Mary, she no longer discusses Frank Burdock, and successfully pretends that her affection for Miss Mary is lessening.
When Miss Mary tells Lark that she and Frank are going to Florida for the winter, Lark is devastated until Miss Mary comforts her by telling her a secret which only she and Lark will share until the Burdocks return to Avalon. The secret makes Lark very happy; when she appears not to care that the house next door will be deserted for a few months, Miss Winters smugly reminds Ruth McBain that just as she had predicted, the temporary infatuation with the woman next door was over. Lark treasures the postcards she receives rom Miss Mary during the long winter while she watches for the lights to come on in the dark empty house next door. But when they do, the child is faced with adult forces too strong for her to overcome. Lark is at the mercy of a handsome, socially charming, professionally respectable, and utterly ruthless, man who preys on women to further his long-awaited exodus from mediocrity to superiority. Only one small body stands between him and his carefully crafted scheme to become rich and powerful, to complete his search for his pot of gold.
To Frank Burdock, his only adversary is a scrawny little brat with more brass than brains; with arms like splinters and a neck that could be snapped like a twig. A nuisance with a mouth that chirped too much, and eyes as sharp as the bird that shared her name. Nothing to worry about, he assures himself; after all, the crazy little creature was female, and all females, even pint-sized ones, are easily manipulated by properly chosen words in soft, persuasive tones. And if words didn't work, actions would speak louder.
Author Liz Hamlin has written many books, including Where's Miss Mary?; two mainstream novels, The Women on Country Club Drive, The Women in No Man's Land; and two contemporary historical novels, I Remember Valentine, and Dorie and Me. Both I Remember Valentine and The Women on Country Club Drive were published in the United States, Germany and France in hard cover and paperback. I Remember Valentine was selected by the American Library Association as one of the best Young Adult novels of 1987. Liz's literary goal is to make each novel representative of the era in which the story takes place, spanning the decades from the 1930's to the present. Liz holds a Masters degree in Alternative Methods of Education from Goddard college in Vermont. Her teaching background provides ample and realistic material for the manuscript to which she is currently giving birth, Little Mothers, which revolves around a group of middle school girls who have nothing in common other than being very young and very pregnant. She has also written a play, Faculty Room, and helped edit and write a non-fiction book, The Intangible Terror, which relates th life story of a victim of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Liz has served as Vice President and President of the Eastern Shore Writers Association, headquartered in Easton, MD. She is a member of the International Women's Writing Guild.