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By Suzanne Forster
MiraCopyright © 2007 Suzanne Forster
All right reserved.
New York, Six Months Later
Alison Fairmont Villard opened her eyes reluctantly. She was in her own bedroom, but the first moments of consciousness still brought bewilderment. Andrew had insisted she recuperate at his home on Oyster Bay in Long Island, but it wasn't being on the east coast that confused her. Each day since the accident had started with a realization that felt almost physical, as if she had to grasp her mind and wrench it to this new time and place, to a world she actually knew very little about. And yet more about than she wanted to.
Her amnesia wasn't as total as the doctors had thought. She remembered nothing about being battered against the reefs and nearly drowning, nothing about the plunge into the raging ocean, but she could remember just enough of what had happened before that to be terrified by it.
Those flashes of memory acted like a spotlight that could blind you to everything except its beam. What she recalled now were the harrowing moments. Everything else was hidden in the surrounding ring of darkness.
Maybe it was the pills. She took them to sleep and to keep the dreams at bay. Whether night or day, when she swallowed a tiny blue pill, she was transported to a cool, safe place, a shaded tropical lagoon, her mind free of clutter and turmoil. She slept in innocence, like Eve before theapple.
Her fingers clasped the small battered loop of copper attached to her charm bracelet. It was an ugly stepsister compared to the other delicate gold charms, but she was relieved to find it still there. She'd reached for it so often it had become a reflex. An embarrassing tic. But the brush with death had made her superstitious, and the old copper penny ring had literally saved her life when it snagged on a piece of driftwood. Its protective powers had been tested.
She rolled to her side and sat up, not bothering to cover her nakedness. There was no one to see her, anyway. She and Andrew didn't share this beautiful suite where she slept her life away, and as far as she knew they never had. Before the "accident," which was how they now referred to it, they'd lived in his Manhattan apartment. Here, in his much larger estate on Oyster Bay, their rooms were in different wings. Different rooms. Different lives.
She had almost no interaction with her husband these days, except occasionally to discuss a social or business event that he wanted her to attend with him, and there had been very few of those. In the first weeks after the accident, he'd spent hours with her, filling in the blanks of her life with him, as well as her life before him. He'd shared as much as he knew of her past, but it was what he'd told her about their relationship that made her realize they'd been on the brink of a divorce before the accidentand Andrew didn't seem to have any desire to reconcile now.
He didn't even seem to like her, which made her feel strangely empty and resentful, even though she wasn't entirely sure how she'd felt about him before. He'd refused to go into the intimate details of their relationship, which had left her both curious and suspicious, but mostly, lost. How was she supposed to pick up pieces she didn't have?
They were together now only because of the agreement they'd madeand that was strictly business. Once she'd recovered enough to lead her own life, such as it was, he'd left her to it. That was how he wanted it. What she wanted didn't seem to enter into anything, though to be fair, he had asked her about that once.
What do you want to do with your second chance? Her answer had surprised him. She told him she didn't remember asking for one.
She rose and stretched, using her arms and feeling the ripple come from the base of her spine. Her listlessness was replaced by a vague sense of guilt as she considered the state of her bedroom and what she could see of her sitting room through the connecting arch. Clothing had been dropped here and there; books and magazines lay about.
Had she always been this sloppy? Maybe she was rebelling against his need for order and organization. He'd called home once when he was away on a trip, and had her search for some papers in his study, which was next to his bedroom. She'd been amazed at the precision of his life.
She didn't feel precise. She felt messy. "What you are is a zombie," she murmured, startled at the husky tone of her own voice. Part of that was from the surgery and the rest was the way she'd always sounded, apparently. "Do something," she said. "Anything other than sleep."
She started for the bathroom, thinking she might shower and dress, perhaps go to the kitchen and find something to eat. It was late morning, and she probably should have been hungry, but she rarely had much of an appetite, especially for the organic food that Andrew preferred.
He had someone come in twice a week to clean and do the grocery shopping, but other than that they had no staff. He'd let everyone go shortly after he brought her home from the hospital. He'd had concerns about prying eyes and the tabloid press, but they would have been interested in her only because of him.
He'd made a name for himself in the music business, not just for the high-profile events he organized, but for the talent he'd discovered. And it didn't hurt that he was the personification of tall, dark and dashing. Years ago he'd been engaged to one of his own finds, a pop princess named Regine, when she'd drowned, apparently rather mysteriously, in their swimming pool.
Another accident. The women in Andrew's life were prone to them.
The media had tagged it the Villard Curse, but Andrew wouldn't discuss it, except for a few paltry details that Alison could have read in a newspaper. His mother had been a rising star with the New York Opera when she'd suffered a freak accident during a rehearsal. She and Andrew, who was a teenager at the time, had been living with her mentor, the opera's artistic director, and Andrew had stayed on with the director after she died, rather than disrupt Andrew's schooling. His parents had divorced when he was a baby, and his mother had desperately wanted him to have culture in his life. No one had objected, least of all Andrew's father, who'd moved to the wilds of Wyoming and had a family of his own.
When Alison had pressed for details about Regine, Andrew had startled her by lashing out. Apparently the loss was still too painful, but it had been five years. He'd told her not to ask about Regine again, but he'd alluded to a love triangle, of which she, Alison, had been one of the points. Alison had no recollection of that at all. It was her mother, Julia, who'd come between her relationship with Andrew when Alison was eighteen. As far as Alison knew, Andrew's association with Regine had been strictly business up to that point, although it did turn romantic after Alison and Andrew parted. Things quickly became serious between he and Regine, but she was dead before they could marry.
A year after that Andrew had secretly married Alison!and now this.
Her spine rippled again, a shiver this time. She lived with a vague sense of dread that never left her, except when she forced it away. Were there men who found it easier to dispose of women than to leave them? They would have to be patholotical in the extreme, and she didn't want to think about her husband in that way. She was still rattled and disoriented. Right now there was nothing to anchor her, no touchstones, but that would change.
The large sage-green-and-white bathroom soothed her as she stepped barefoot onto its cool limestone tile. The mostly glass-and-steel house had several levels, domed skylights and was built on low, rolling sand dunes. It was one of the few modern structures in Oyster Bay Cove, and Andrew had kept the decor inside as light and natural as the shores and the sea outside.
As she entered the shower stall, the charm bracelet jingled on her wrist. She never removed it these days, even to bathe. Doing so made her feel too vulnerable. A chunk of her life was gone and the details of her past were confused and fuzzy, but she had a sense of herself as an adventurous person before the accident. Some might even say reckless. Now she was in constant search of ways to protect herself. She kept a marble paperweight on the nightstand next to her bed and a kitchen carving knife in the nightstand drawer, just in case.
She turned one of the knobs on a sleek stainless steel panel, and warm water began to mist from above. Possibly her favorite part of the bathroom was the rain forest showerhead. Standing under it, she really did feel as if she'd been caught in a tropical cloudburst.
When she came out of the shower moments later, wrapped in a bath sheet, she sensed that something was different. But as she walked through the room, still dripping, she didn't notice anything out of place.
As she entered the sitting room, she saw that an envelope and a handwritten note had been left on her writing desk. The embossed envelope was made of pale blue linen as soft and slippery as silk. It was addressed to her, but it had been opened and the contents read. She knew because of the note from Andrew lying next to the envelope. He'd written just two sentences and signed his name with the usual slashing capital A.
Alison, there's no way out this time. We have to go. Andrew.
Alison pulled the matching blue stationery from the envelope and read the entire page in one gulp, as if it were a single sentence. Nerves, she thought. The kind that made you eat too fast and caused the food to ball up in your stomach.
My darling daughter,
Your silence is breaking my heart. You will be twenty-eight soon, and though no invitation is needed because this is and always will be your home, I'm extending one so that you can understand how desperate I am to see you again.
Please come to Sea Clouds and celebrate the occasion of your birthday with your brother and me. Of course, Andrew is invited, too.
I long to see you.
All my love,
Alison's breath had gone dry in her throat. Invitation? It was a summons from her mother to appear. She'd known this was coming, but that didn't make it any less a disaster. Andrew had been holding her mother off since the accident. He'd said he was doing it to protect Alison, to give her time to heal and prepare, but Julia Fairmont had extended an olive branch. She wanted to see her one and only daughter, and no one could protect Alison now.
She had visions of putting the pricey stationery through a shredder and grinding it into a pile of slivers. But she didn't have the nerve, even for a symbolic act of defiance. It felt as if she'd lost control of even the smallest details of her life. She was a chess piece being moved around by master players, one of whom was her husband.
The letter was just one example. It was addressed to her, but Andrew had opened it, read it and told her how they were going to respond, even though the decision had to do with her life, her familyand should have been her choice. He believed it was time to repair her relationship with her mother, and even though it was part of the arrangement Alison had made with him, she hated the thought of going back to Mirage Bay under these circumstances.
She had only agreed because of personal reasons that were deeply important to her. Those reasons were also why she stayed in this house and put up with Andrew's interference. Unfortunately, she'd had to take him into her confidence, because she would need his help when they got to Mirage Bay. But this wasn't the right time for her to go.
Excerpted from The Arrangement by Suzanne Forster Copyright © 2007 by Suzanne Forster. Excerpted by permission.
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