The last few snowflakes drifted to the ground. The nor’eastah, as they called it in New England, had passed; its brutal wake of snow and ice transformed the landscape into a winter wonderland. Downy blankets covered the tree branches, and silver moonlight reflected off the ice-hardened snow. The earth bowed its head in quiet prayer, and the stars awakened from under dark clouds. The wind died to a thick silence that Victoria Rose felt she could almost touch.
She walked along Nagog’s paved road in black high-heeled boots. Cold seeped through the thin soles as salt pellets rolled and crunched under her feet. She’d left Nagog in her late teens, and except for two winters, her visits had been restricted to a few weeks here and there or the summer months. For the past fifty-five years, she’d lived mostly in Southern California’s warmth. There, boots were only an accessory, and there was no need for heavy sweaters underneath a thick, cumbersome jacket. At the moment, a hideous bright blue parka, a loaner from her childhood friend Molly Jacobs, covered her upper body and made her feel like the Michelin Man.
When Victoria had landed at Boston’s Logan Airport earlier that afternoon, the heavy winds whipped the snow into furious spirals, and she realized she was unprepared to face the cold of her childhood home. When Molly met her at the baggage claim, her friend’s pillow-like body had encased her in a hug and her white hair pressed against Victoria’s chest. “You’re home,” she said, as fellow passengers bumped past them. Molly lifted her head and her blue eyes brimmed with tears. Molly was brown sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla. She was homemade bread cooling on the kitchen windowsill. Warm, doughy hands smooshed Victoria’s angular cheekbones, and Victoria could hear Molly’s thoughts—this day had been too long in coming.
“You’re holding up traffic,” Molly’s husband, Bill, barked as he moved the women away from the escalator.
In the five years since Victoria had seen Bill, his girth had ballooned and the rock-hard fat, so detrimental to an older man’s health, pressed against his pant seams.
“Traffic was awful,” he said. “Billions of taxpayers’ dollars for new tunnels, and the ceiling collapses. They closed the roads and we got stuck in gridlock. I tell ya, no one knows how to build things anymore.”
Victoria slid her arm around his belly, kissed his cheek, and tousled his thin, salt-and-pepper hair. The crinkles around his eyes turned up and reminded her of the little boy who liked to drop spiders in girls’ laps.
Three rose-embroidered suitcases fell onto the conveyor belt, and Bill motioned for the porter. As they walked toward the parking garage, Molly pulled the blue parka from a shopping bag and took Victoria’s red cashmere coat.
“Fashion might work on fifty-degree nights in Malibu, but not here.” She held out the sleeve as if Victoria were one of Molly’s five great-grandchildren. She zipped the front and pulled the hood over Victoria’s head, tying the strings tight. The shiny fabric crushed her short blond waves. Molly stripped the silk scarf from the red coat and wrapped it around Victoria’s neck and mouth.
“Now you’re ready for winter,” she announced.
Victoria continued to walk as she looked at the snow-covered neighborhood illuminated by the moonlight and the metal lanterns that dotted the street. It was a scene straight from a Thomas Kinkade painting.
The community had been built in the early 1920s by Victoria’s parents and their friends—factory owners and businessmen from the Boston area. Nagog Drive was a quarter-of-a-mile half loop with nine Craftsman bungalows surrounded by thick, knotted oaks, pines, and maples. The five homes across the street from the beach shared a large circular backyard. The other four homes were tucked into the woods along the lake—two on either side of the beach. Every house had a view of the water.
Nagog had been meant as a summer residence, but in 1930, four months after Black Tuesday, the community settled in permanently. The families banded together, determined to keep their factories open as the American economy fell apart; what one neighbor had, everyone shared. It allowed them a lifestyle of private schooling for their children and protection from the outside world’s strife.
Victoria’s boot slipped on a patch of black ice, and she tightened her stiff muscles to stop the fall. With small steps she skated until her feet found traction against the snow on the side of the road. A broken hip wouldn’t be a good homecoming, she thought.
Throughout the small lakeside community, most of the houses were dark.
The cold tickled her back, and a shiver pulsed up her spine. She pushed her gloved hands deep into her pockets and looked toward Molly and Bill’s place nestled on the side of the beach, behind bare hundred-year-old maples. Smoke plumes rose from the brick chimney and the light was still on in the kitchen. The brown clapboards and snow-covered pitched roof reminded her of the gingerbread houses she’d created with her granddaughter, Annabelle.
It was too dark to see the tree house in the big oak behind their home. An architect had designed it with two rooms and a wraparound porch. When she was little, Victoria and her girlfriends would play tea party while the boys played cowboys and Indians. On hot summer nights, the porch became their stage as Victoria directed her friends in shows performed for their parents.
Victoria shivered, breathing in air that froze her lungs and reminded her of a snowflake’s taste. As children, she and her friends would lie in the snow with wings outlined around their shoulders as they closed their eyes, opened their mouths, and waited for that one special crystal to touch the tip of their warm tongues. Those were the days when it felt like fairies sprinkled golden dust on Victoria’s path so that her feet never had to touch ordinary ground. Days when the sun broke through the clouds, as if an angel’s light reached out from heaven, a sign that everything that sparkled and shined was meant for her.
Time had passed too quickly, Victoria thought. Three generations of Nagog children had played in that tree fort since those days. At seventy-four, how much time did she have—another fifteen or twenty years?
The year of her daughter, Melissa’s, birth, Victoria woke one morning and saw a crease next to her eye. For years, she’d checked daily to ensure that its appearance hadn’t deepened. Thick moisturizing creams were lathered and hundreds of dollars paid to Hollywood salons that promised everlasting youth.
There came a point, after she became a grandmother, when she saw a stranger in the mirror who didn’t match the woman inside. Now her cheeks were smooth, but her eyebrows drooped. Her neck had a thin wattle, and she couldn’t find that first line in the wrinkled fan around her eyes.
Still, she looked better than most women her age. Years of exercise and good nutrition kept her willowy figure firm, and she was proud to say that her abdominals were rock hard. There were teenagers who couldn’t boast the same.
But at this stage of life, what was left? In society’s eyes, living was for the young.
Victoria’s heel broke through the icy snow and her calf sunk into the white drift as she made her way across the beach. With each step she fell deeper, the snow covering her boots as she walked to the picnic table next to the lake. She used her sleeve to hack and push at the white mound until she cleared the seat. The cold stung her backside. Plumes of steam encircled her gloves as she blew to warm her numb fingers.
The full moon reached its highest point, illuminating the expanse of shimmering snow that covered the lake. In her mind, she could see the blue-gray water and the gritty sand the color of maple sugar crystals hidden under the snow.
She’d learned to ice-skate on this lake. Each winter the fathers of the neighborhood would shovel off a large square, and the girls would put on white skates and glide across the ice. Victoria and her friend Sarah would hold hands and spin in circles, laughing as they went faster and faster. The boys chased pucks with hockey sticks while the fathers went farther out on the lake and cut holes in the ice to fish.
Victoria looked to the edge of the beach where the sand met the woods. The raft that had been pulled in from the water for the winter months was covered with snow. Victoria smiled as her memory wandered back to the hours she’d spent on that raft with her childhood friends.
Five bubbles of pink gum grew as the circle of teenage girls in bathing suits lay on their stomachs and blew as hard as they could. Nagog Lake’s waves danced and slapped against the rusted steel drums that held up the wooden platform they floated upon. Muffling giggles, they blew harder, their faces turning red in the bright sunlight. The gum smelled like cotton candy and its aroma filled the air. The sticky material stretched thin and they leaned their heads closer to one another, their eyes wide and smiling as the sides of their bubbles touched. A horsefly buzzed around their heads, and they tried to shake it away without breaking the delicate pink circles.
Victoria closed her lips. From deep within her throat she vibrated the count of three. On three, the girls pressed their faces closer together, trying to pop the bubbles. When the bubbles finally burst against the girls’ cheeks and chins, laughter erupted, and they peeled the candy from their skin.
Victoria pulled a sticky piece from her long, wavy, golden hair. “Bubblegum is one of the world’s best inventions.” When her father had brought her to the World’s Fair last fall, he’d bought her the biggest jar of bubblegum she’d ever seen. She rationed the candy throughout the year, sharing it with her inner circle of friends.
The five girls rolled onto their backs, their heads in a circle, and watched the fluffy clouds sail across the blue sky. Victoria snapped and popped her gum, knowing that her mother couldn’t hear her being unladylike this far out on the lake. She adjusted the strap of her red bathing suit. Unlike the other girls, whose suits covered their stomachs, Victoria had four inches of bare skin above her waist. Though her mother hated the suit, her father had allowed it.
Molly pointed her finger toward the sky. “I see a heart.”
The hot breath of summer air flowed over Victoria’s skin. The day felt like late August instead of the end of May. “You always see hearts,” Victoria said. “It’s because you’re in love with Bill.” Victoria poked Molly’s side and her friend batted Victoria’s hand away.
Born two and a half weeks apart, she and Molly lived next door to one another and roomed together at Dana Hall, an exclusive all-girls’ school in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Molly sat up and watched the boys of the neighborhood playing volleyball on the beach. She pulled at the top of her bathing suit, trying to cover the new curves that had blossomed on her petite body during freshman year, and fluffed the short skirt of her blue suit over her thighs. Victoria watched Molly stare at Bill. The rosy color that naturally tinted her cheeks blushed brighter. When they’d returned from boarding school last week, Bill had noticed the change in Molly’s body, and instead of pulling her black hair the way he had since early childhood, he now stared at her royal-blue eyes and stumbled over his words when he spoke to her.
“Victoria, let me braid your hair,” Sarah said. She sat up in her plain green suit and nudged Victoria to move.
Victoria sat at the edge of the raft and dangled her feet and calves in the cold water. Sarah knelt behind her and gently combed through Victoria’s knotted hair with her piano-player fingers.
Sarah, Victoria’s other roommate, loved to play with Victoria’s hair, and many nights were spent with Sarah brushing Victoria’s long locks. The two were often mistaken for sisters—both tall and thin, with pale skin and blond hair. They shared the same classes and danced in the school ballet. It wasn’t uncommon for them to exchange makeup and clothing, and from a distance it was hard to tell them apart.
“I see a dog in that cloud,” Evelyn said. She rolled over onto her stomach and crossed her tiny feet behind her thighs. Her short blond hair had dried into fairy curls around her forehead.
Sarah finished the braids and leaned her chin onto Victoria’s shoulder as they watched the boys play volleyball. Victoria pulled Sarah’s arms around her and stared across the lake. Bill, Carl, Joseph, and James were as inseparable as the girls.
“Do you think Carl is cute?” Sarah asked.
“He’s annoying,” Victoria said. Carl was the shortest of the boys and she could already tell at sixteen that he would be as bald as his father.
“I think he’s funny,” Sarah said. She tugged on one of Victoria’s braids. “You just don’t like him because he called you Frog Face when we were little.”
“I socked him in the stomach more than once for calling me that name and he doubled over. Who would want a man who’d been beat up by a girl?” Victoria teased.
“I don’t think you could still beat him up,” Sarah said. “And who else am I going to choose? Molly’s in love with Bill, Evelyn with James, and we all know at some point you’ll stop pushing Joseph away. The two of you are meant to be together. Or are you going to let Maryland have Joseph?”
Maryland stared up at the clouds and didn’t respond to Sarah’s words. The boys had never paid her much attention. Considered a plain Jane, everything about her was average. She was shy and quiet, always following along with whatever anyone wanted to do. But she was also the first to give a hug if she saw that you were sad, the first to take a barrette from her hair to replace the one you’d lost.
When they were little, Joseph Anderson had followed Victoria around, saving her from the other boys’ pranks. His blue eyes had been too big for his thin face and he had a cowlick even the best hair oil couldn’t tame. He’d brought her flowers and chocolate candies and the other kids made kissing noises to tease her. He’d been annoying.
But over the last few years he’d grown into his features. As he jumped up to spike the ball, Victoria noticed the definition in his bare chest, sending butterflies to her stomach. “You know there are men outside of Nagog we could marry.”
“But then we might not be together,” Molly said as she moved closer to Sarah and Victoria. She leaned her head on Victoria’s shoulder and dangled her feet in the water.
Victoria squeezed her friends’ hands. “We’ll always be together. And no matter where life takes us, we’ll always come back and spend the summers here.”
“And when we’re old like our parents, we’ll live here with our children,” Molly said.
“Friends forever,” Sarah whispered.
The memory faded. Victoria looked across the lake into the empty night. As a child there’d been a silver dock built as a protective barrier from the deep end of the lake. The marker for adulthood had been the day you were allowed to run down the dock and dive into the water. When you could swim out to the raft you were no longer considered a baby. The dock had been removed years ago.
How did this world of childhood fond memories become the place where her worst nightmares had happened? There were nights when Victoria awoke from dreams with her breath caught in her rib cage and the dry, bitter taste of regret poisoning her mouth. She feared that she’d never find release from her sorrow. Guilt, which started as a small grain of sand in the gut, had grown to a boulder that shackled her movement. Worst of all was the feeling of loss—a black hole that sucked life’s vibrancy into its vacuum.
Tears froze on Victoria’s cheeks and she brushed away the new ones that fell. She should retire to bed, but in her family’s home, the place she’d known her entire life, the silence echoed with voices from the past like a child’s imaginary monster when the lights go out.
It was in that house, nineteen years ago, that she’d said goodbye to Melissa and watched her daughter return to God. And it was here on this beach that she’d cradled her granddaughter, Annabelle, in her arms and screamed for help, knowing her angel had barely any breath left in her body.
On the other side of the beach, a light went on in Joseph’s home. Through the bare trees she could see his body move around the sunroom. Her frozen legs were hard to control as she crunched through the snow; more than once she almost fell before she reached the road. Joseph looked out the window and she waved. He returned the gesture and turned off the light.
Behind Joseph’s dark house was a path that led to a secluded beach where the two of them had once shared the most intimate of moments. Images from the past played like a movie in her mind, with big band music as the sound track.
Under the thin tablecloth, cool sand had formed curved beds for their half-naked teenage bodies. Beyond the trees she could see the party lights on the patio and hear the music. Had anyone noticed they’d slipped away?
“I love you, Victoria,” Joseph whispered in her ear.
Though he’d once driven her crazy as he followed her around, now her heart craved him when they were apart. The past year of school had been torture—months went by with only letters to fill the distance between them. She’d thought they’d marry as soon as she graduated, but now he was going to war, and it would be years before she could touch him again.
Joseph swirled his tongue in delicious patterns over her neck. Warm sensations flowed through her veins like powerful energy currents and pooled between her hips. Every cell in her body burst with happiness as his hands moved over her thighs. She tried not to jump when he touched the soft, warm mound, but lightning struck her body.
He pulled away.
No one had explained sex to Victoria. Her heart was split between fear and her desire to seal their relationship before he left for the war.
“Please, it’s okay.” She caressed the dimple in his cheek; her finger fit the indent like a puzzle piece. The little boy with the thin face had grown into a man with chiseled cheekbones and broad shoulders.
He gently covered her body with his as he kissed her—her heart skipped as her body begged with a need she didn’t understand. Pain stabbed through her lower abdomen. Her body tightened and she pulled back from his kiss, biting her bottom lip and focusing on the sensation in her mouth.
His hand swept her jaw and he nuzzled her neck. His warm breath tickled her ear, sending shivers across her arms. “Relax. I’ll wait.”
He drew hearts on her cheeks and placed kisses on her forehead. His fingers combed through her hair. Her muscles unwound. She felt the thickness of his body entwined with hers. The lake’s small waves lapped against the shore and he moved in slow circles to its rhythm. Joseph’s masculine fingers stroked her sides. Her eyes widened at the pleasurable sparks firing in her belly.
Giggles broke free. “I’m sorry I’m laughing. It feels wonderful,” she said.
“You’re beautiful,” he said.
His tongue teased her lips as she began to move with him. Deep hunger grabbed her. Her nails dug into his back. Her thighs tightened around his waist. Explosive, joyous waves shook every muscle. Sunlight blazed through her. Her body went limp, the world went dark, and she floated in peace.
Joseph moaned. “Victoria,” he called out through quick breaths.
She felt him move deeper within her. Their lips pressed, merging together. His orgasm flowed through her, pleasure not of her flesh but of his.
He rolled onto his back and she laid her head against his chest. The breeze tickled her skin. She touched her body, so different to her now: a pleasurable world to discover.
“Again,” she’d said, tracing his stomach. “Again.”
Victoria shivered as the wind picked up. She closed her eyes and placed her hands across her heart. Her toes felt like icicles and burned with pain. Part of her wanted to walk that path behind Joseph’s house and turn back time to when he belonged to her and not to his wife.
She stared at the quaint neighborhood with its gabled snow-covered roofs, bay windows, columned porches, and decks. The community didn’t seem real. Purity, innocence, and old-fashioned values were safe here, as if a protective bubble hovered over the circle of homes and kept them isolated from the outside world.
Most of her childhood friends had moved to Boston during their working years, but they visited Nagog on the weekends, stayed during the summer months, and celebrated every holiday together. When they retired, they returned, as promised, to live once again in the Nagog homes that had been passed down to them. Victoria had been the only one to walk away and live another life.
In the eyes of many in the community, she’d fallen from grace—and no one had pushed her. As Lucifer had done, she’d made choices that barred her from Heaven.
Had she come home to let her demons take her into death or had she returned to Nagog to find the whisper of wind that swirled between the trees and floated over the lake—the call of a little girl who once believed in magic? In this place where the past had been kept alive, she was afraid to pray for forgiveness. But the truth was that Nagog and her childhood friends were all she had left.
The Lake House
The last thirty hours hung heavily on Heather Bregman’s shoulders. The knot of pain at the base of her neck radiated to her forehead as the airport noise vibrated behind her eyes. Two days of flying in coach had left her exhausted. Yesterday, the man next to her had snored his way from Johannesburg to London with his large thigh pressed against her hip and his elbow dug into her waist. Whoever had decided that a human could be stuffed into a box with only a ten-degree recline should spend the rest of eternity folded in half, she thought.
The herd of passengers made its way to the baggage claim. Logan International Airport had the ambiance of a prison: dingy gray walls met grimy floors; fluorescent lights hung next to exposed heating ducts, bundled wires, and falling insulation. The airport had been under renovation since the late nineties, with no marked improvement.
A fur coat bumped against Heather’s arm. The owner flashed an apology as she ran past. Her thick, red hair flowed in long waves and her pearly skin radiated like a bright spring day. She threw herself into the waiting arms of a beau. The man kissed her lips, her eyes, and her cheeks.
It must be nice, Heather thought, while she waited for her luggage. Maybe on the other side of the automatic doors she’d find her fiancé, Charlie, waiting with a warm car. She didn’t need to feel precious or missed; at this point, a ride home would be romantic.
She thought of the hours she’d spent trying to decide on an outfit to wear before finally picking a red velvet jacket and designer jeans. The strappy shoes she’d bought in London sparkled around her fresh pedicure. For the last month she’d worn beige zip-off pants, tanks, and hiking boots on her African safari. Most days she’d felt like a dusty, sweaty mess. When she’d tried on the clothing she felt like a girl again, but for all her primping, she should’ve worn sweats. Charlie wasn’t coming and she knew it.
She twisted her engagement ring. The decision she’d made over the last month felt like a dumbbell pressed against her chest. She pulled the ring off and looked at her hand without the sparkling diamond against her tan skin. A white line marked the place. Great, she thought. I wonder how long it will take to fade.
Her black suitcase fell onto the conveyor belt. She placed the ring back on her hand and pushed through the crowd. She tried to balance in the tight space on her three-inch heels, and almost fell over when she lifted the sixty-pound bag.
As she waited for her duffel, the clock seemed to tick at half speed. For the twelfth time, the security announcement came over the loudspeaker. We get it already. Don’t leave our bags unattended.
An elderly couple stood beside her, their eyes puffy with fatigue. They leaned on each other, the woman tucked under the man’s arm. An ancient leather suitcase drifted along the conveyor belt. The man wasn’t quick enough to grab it, and Heather rushed forward. The awkward bag bumped against her leg as she hauled it to the couple.
“Thank you, dear.” The old woman placed her hand on Heather’s arm. The skin on the lady’s fingers looked like rice paper, blue veins showing through.
What was it like to be old? Heather wondered. Everything over. Mistakes known. Accomplishments checked off. No need to work. To have a home that showed years of wear and tear but exuded love from a lifetime of family memories. When you were old, no one cared how you looked. Sags and wrinkles were expected.
If Heather didn’t need to keep her frame in a size 6, she would eat chocolate and ice cream without guilt, and instead of exercising every day, she’d settle onto her couch and read. If career—and relationship—didn’t seem to hinge precariously on her looks, she wouldn’t have to spend hours curling or straightening her long, brown, highlighted hair just to pay hundreds of dollars to fix the heat damage, and she’d wear glasses instead of the contacts that irritated her brown eyes.
Settled. Comfortable. It seemed an eternity away.
At twenty-eight, she was struggling to build her career. Newspaper syndicates around the country had dropped her column, “Solo Female Traveler.” She needed that book deal, the cable show, and the sought-after television interviews.
The conveyor belt stopped. Empty. She dropped her head in disgust and trudged to the customer service counter. Just her luck: the bag with her coat, boots, and gloves hadn’t arrived. The click of her heels echoed in the near-empty airport. It took fifteen minutes to file a lost luggage claim, then she made her way to the taxi stand. Cold air cut through her thin jacket, and she hugged herself for warmth.
The traffic lanes usually congested with taxis, shuttles, and cars were now empty. Heather stood alone, surrounded by concrete, silence seeping in with the cold. She longed to lean her head against a warm body.
A security officer sat on his stool, his chin curled into his navy winter coat.
“Where are the cabs?” she asked.
“They headed out. There aren’t any more flights tonight. The hotel shuttle’s across the street. Last one’ll be by in a few minutes or you can catch the last T.”
The snow that had delayed her flight had turned to gray slush on the road. She cringed as she looked from the sloppy mess to her strappy heels, which she’d never intended to wear in the snow.
The suitcase wheels stuck in the slushy muck. She tried to hop to the driest spots, but ice and sand squished between her toes. At the bus stop, ten minutes passed. Her feet and hands turned to red and then yellow ice cubes as she sat on the plastic bench.
Spent. That’s how she felt. Exhausted to her marrow, as if she couldn’t take another step.
The blue-and-yellow shuttle pulled to the curb. The driver stepped down and grabbed her luggage. “Where ya headed?”
“I’ve got four stops before ya. It might take a while,” he said as he pulled her bag onto the van.
The T would’ve been quicker, but it was after midnight and she’d missed her chance. She climbed onto the van, found a seat, and leaned her aching head against the icy window.
A rainbow of lights flashed around her as the bus made its way along the slippery streets: the blue-and-orange clock face in the Custom House Tower; the glow of street lanterns made to resemble colonial candles flickering in glass.
Forty minutes passed and the van pulled in front of a row of brick townhomes. She dragged her suitcase up the stone steps that had been smoothed by hundreds of years of use and were now slippery with ice. The large mahogany door was heavy as she maneuvered her suitcase into the foyer and then through another door into the lobby.
Her heels clicking against the marble-tiled floor, she walked to the elevator, only to find that it was out of service. She sighed, picked up her suitcase with both hands, braced it against her thigh, and hauled it up the thirty-five stairs to the third floor, the bag banging against her leg.
A dark kitchen greeted Heather when she opened the door to the apartment. She turned on the overhead light and sat at the square metal table to peel off her shoes. The black-and-white ceramic floor tiles were cold and she pulled her toes under her thighs to warm them. The shoes dangled from her fingers, and she glared at the fiery red straps. “For how much I spent, these should make my legs look great and be comfortable.”
Exhaustion weighing heavily on her eyelids, Heather longed for a hot bath with bubbles up to her neck. She wanted to slide into a soft bed with down comforters fluffed over her and curl into warm, protective arms.
With paper towels, she wiped the slush track her suitcase had left on the tile, then she crammed the bag into a small closet.
Snorts of contented sleep greeted her when she creaked open the bedroom door. Charlie lay in the center of the bed splayed in all four directions. He turned onto his back, his six-pack exposed above his underwear. With his thick black hair and dark Italian eyes, he could grace the cover of a magazine.
Three short snores vibrated his throat. She looked at the stray piece of hair that fell over his eye. In their first years together, she’d tuck the strand into place and kiss his cheek. It had been a long time since she’d played with his hair. What had happened to them? There’d been a time when Charlie’s love had made her feel safe, secure, and happy.
Heather had spent the last six years on planes, in hotels, and exploring the world while Charlie worked as her agent, building her career. When Charlie looked at her, she felt he saw a columnist—another client in the string of people he’d made into products.
A burp of morning breath escaped Charlie’s lips when she leaned over him.
“Charlie, I’m home,” she whispered.
With his eyes closed, he reached for her waist and pulled her onto his body. His free hand moved under her jacket. “Good trip?”
Stubble chafed her upper lip, and she tried to keep her mouth closed to avoid his sour taste. He pulled at the jacket’s buttons.
“Charlie, I’m tired.”
“What’s new?” He rolled her away and turned his back to her.
A silk chemise hung on the bedpost. She removed her clothes and slipped into the cold garment. Goose bumps dotted her skin. She curled into the fetal position, the thin blanket pulled to her chin. Hot-blooded Charlie couldn’t sleep with a comforter.
The first night she’d spent in this apartment, Charlie had leaned against the headboard, her back against his chest and his legs wrapped around her waist, as they ate Thai food. He’d kissed her hair, nuzzled her neck, and told her she was beautiful. Now he couldn’t bother to meet her at the airport.
She turned toward Charlie and looked at his back. Heather had been away for a month, yet as she lay in bed next to her fiancé, her heart still cried with the need for home.
“Rise and shine!” Charlie threw open the green curtains behind their bed. The sun illuminated the darkened room with blinding brightness. Heather tried to cover her eyes with the pillow, but he grabbed it away, so she buried her face in the blanket. Charlie jumped on the bed, bouncing the mattress with his large frame.
“Why do you insist on doing this?” she snapped. They’d always kept different hours. He insisted on opening the curtains while he dressed for work. Sunlight put him in the right mood for the day. It made Heather pray for rainy mornings. She reached for the eye mask on the end table. The smooth material slipped between her fingers and fell to the floor. Charlie grabbed her wrist and rolled her to him, entwining their bodies. The sunshine pierced her retinas.
“If you don’t want weeks of jet lag, you have to get back on East Coast time.” He bounded from bed. “Want to join me in the shower?”
“You haven’t even showered?” He didn’t answer. She looked at the red LED lights on his nightstand—7:35.
Charlie’s baritone voice drifted over the water’s sound as he sang in Italian. She shuffled to the kitchen, pulled out the industrial-strength coffee she’d bought in Costa Rica, and leaned against the counter, waiting for the miraculous liquid to be ready.
The overhead track lighting blinked on, and Charlie walked into the room. The coffee began to drip into the pot, and she bent over the coffeemaker to take in the aroma. Covered by only a white towel, Charlie’s erection pressed into her backside. He wrapped his arms around her waist and leaned until her ribs pressed painfully into the granite counter.
“Want to go back to bed?” He nuzzled her neck.
“I’ve missed you,” he said as he nipped her ear.
“I’m tired.” She shifted her weight away from the counter and ducked out from under him.
“I’ve heard that one before.” He grabbed the pot and emptied it into the cup she’d taken from the cupboard for herself.
“Do you mind leaving some for the person who barely slept last night?” Heather fumed.
“You mean the one who just spent a month lounging around in safari camps? The one who doesn’t have to go into the office today? God, you’re grumpy this morning.” Charlie slurped from the cup and walked away.
Four aromatic ounces had collected in the pot. Heather poured them into Charlie’s Harvard Law mug and walked the short distance through the living room and into their bedroom.
The large closet housed Charlie’s elaborate collection of suits. He pulled a navy blue ensemble from the dry-cleaner bag and laid it on the bed. Then he inspected a pressed shirt. Always the same routine: lay out the suit, check for rogue stains or wrinkles, get dressed, fluff his hair in the mirror. His shoes were kept in the front closet. When he came home at night, he buffed them, inserted shoe trees, then stored them in cotton bags inside their original boxes.
Heather placed her mug on top of the bureau, knowing it would drive him crazy as he thought about water marks on the wood.
Like clockwork he looked at the cup and then glared at her. “I’m not in the mood for one of your tantrums. If you’re trying to pick a fight, I don’t have time.”
“I’ve heard that one before,” she said, mimicking his earlier comment.
He belted his pants and sat on the bed to put on his socks.
She tapped her foot, trying to control what was about to blow, knowing she should stop. She needed to have a conversation that was gentle and kind, but anger took over. “Maybe if someone had bothered to pick me up from the airport, I wouldn’t be so tired and grumpy this morning.”
“That’s what you’re pissed about?” He buttoned his jacket and looked in the mirror. “You got in close to midnight. I have an important meeting this morning—about your career. Did you want me to stay up all night waiting for you at Logan?”
“You were plenty awake for sex.”
“Excuse me for wanting to be with my fiancé after she’d been away for a month.” He returned to the bathroom and she could see him putting gel in his hair. He came out and grabbed a tie from the closet. “You know, sometimes you seriously act like a spoiled princess.”
“Oh, I’m a princess?”
“You get to travel the world because of me. Yet you come home and bitch because I don’t allow you to sleep all day. If the shoe fits.”
“And I have nothing to do with my success.” Her anger festered. He wasn’t listening to her. She tried to calm down, but the uncontrollable fury from feeling invisible forced the words out, “You know what, Charlie, I can’t do this anymore.” She took a shaky breath. “I think we need to take some time apart.”
The muscles in his jaw cranked with tension as he tucked a blue silk tie under the collar. He walked toward her and leaned his face within inches of hers. “You might want to be careful with what you say, or your life could change drastically. I’m going to work. We have an important networking event at the end of the week. Get over your damn tantrum and get it together.” He walked to the kitchen and she could hear him putting on his shoes. The chair scraped against the tile and then the door slammed.
A stifled scream rumbled in her lungs. She climbed onto the stiff mattress and tugged at the window covers. Damn curtains that shut out the light when he wants to sleep and brighten his day when he goes to work. Doesn’t matter that I fell asleep at 3 a.m. With the curtains closed and the room dark, Heather grabbed her coffee and slumped onto the bed. She created a cocoon around her body with the blanket as she cradled her mug.
“You don’t even pay attention when I try to break up with you,” she mumbled.
Heather curled the blankets closer and sipped the coffee. She longed for the coffee she drank in Africa. She let her thoughts wander back to her trip as she tried to calm her nerves.
Every morning at five o’clock, Manal, her guide in Botswana, would sing out her name. Hot coffee prepared with sugar, a splash of brandy, and heavy cream awaited her on the table outside her tent. Porridge, covered in more cream and brown sugar, greeted her when she took her place around the morning campfire. As the Okavango Delta’s cool dark waters gave birth to the blood-orange sun and monkeys tried to steal her silverware, she savored breakfast. Mid-morning, Manal would set up a table and camp chairs next to the open Land Rover and Heather feasted on scones and biscuits dipped in hot chocolate and watched giraffes nibble on the sausage tree’s long fruits. At night, while the kitchen staff sang, their cadences joined by hippo grunts and deep-throated lion calls, she and the other guests would stare at the stars and sip Amarula, the sweet, creamy liqueur of the marula tree.
Charlie was right. She’d spent a month living her dream of traveling and writing, and he’d helped her to achieve it. But that couldn’t mean that for the rest of her life she had to feel indebted to him . . . and invisible in their relationship.
A car horn honked. The rush-hour traffic on Storrow Drive motored past her apartment. Someone slammed a door and three car alarms screeched. As the city awoke outside her window, Heather longed for quiet.
From her overstuffed drawers, she grabbed a baggy sweatshirt and pink M&M’s flannel pajamas—which Charlie never saw—and threw on her glasses. In the kitchen she raised the thermostat from 60 to 75 and filled her coffee cup.
The refrigerator door hit against the table as she grabbed ingredients for a protein shake. She dug in the cabinets for the blender, but realized the glass pitcher was dirty in the dishwasher. Frustrated, she returned to the bedroom to get dressed and head out for breakfast. She opened the door to her tiny closet jammed with clothing and then closed it.
There wasn’t room for her in this apartment. Charlie used three-quarters of the storage space, citing the fact that she traveled most of the year and only needed access to her things on the rare occasion she was home.
Charlie’s black leather couch felt stiff and uncomfortable as she sat with her laptop. A website with lakeside houses for sale appeared on her screen. On nights when insomnia left her awake, she spent hours on the Internet taking virtual tours of the homes on the site. From her Favorites folder she clicked on a picture of a blue Craftsman bungalow. The bungalow had come on the market almost two months ago. To lull herself to sleep she fantasized about owning it and having cookouts with friends, parties with dancing, sunny days on the beach.
As a young child, Heather had lived in a rented lake house with her grandmother and mother. Heather tried to remember her grandmother’s face, but it was like catching a dream. She had glimpses of memories: the gold chain that hung from her glasses, gray and black hair that tickled Heather’s neck when they hugged, and sticking out blue tongues at each other when they sat in the blueberry bushes eating berries. Heather remembered sun-warmed towels after a dip in the lake.
Their five-room house had shelves filled with knickknacks of blown glass animals and porcelain figurines. Pink crocheted cozies covered tissue boxes on end tables. In the living room her grandmother or mother would rock her to sleep to the sounds of a crackling fire and the women’s soft voices.
What Heather remembered best were the sweet smells of homemade bread and ginger cookies. Her grandmother loved to bake. The scent of molasses permeated the brown paneled walls and green carpets. Almost every afternoon, her grandmother would take down the yellow Bisquick box and measure out the water and flour mix. She’d roll it out on the table with Heather sitting in a chair next to her. Then, with a juice glass, Heather cut out perfect circles for biscuits. She’d sneak little corners of the dough and she still recalled the slight metallic taste of baking soda and salt.
When Heather was five, her grandmother passed away, and Heather’s mother tried to pay the rent on the lake house, but after two years she’d put herself so far into debt, they were forced to move.
Heather closed the laptop and placed it on the coffee table. Charlie had paid for the apartment and their living expenses for the last six years; he opened her Visa and American Express statements before she saw them, and he allowed her a budget for luxury clothing as a business investment. She didn’t see her own paychecks; they were deposited directly into their joint account. He said all this was necessary because she spent so much time on the road and he felt she couldn’t be trusted with her own finances.
She looked around the ten-by-ten living room. The brick wall held a sixty-inch flatscreen TV that overpowered her senses when it was on. Sports Illustrated magazines had been neatly piled on the glass coffee table. The leather couch squeaked as she stood. Nothing about this place felt like home to her.
Charlie had threatened her career if she left. In everyone else’s eyes she had the perfect life, but . . .
Before she could change her mind, she picked up her cell phone and dialed Information. “Littleton, Massachusetts,” she said. “RE/MAX Realty.” Whether or not she could buy the house, it was time to make a change.