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Behind Closed Doors
By B. A. Paris
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 B. A. Paris
All rights reserved.
The champagne bottle knocks against the marble kitchen counter, making me jump. I glance at Jack, hoping he won't have noticed how nervous I am. He catches me looking and smiles.
'Perfect,' he says softly.
Taking my hand, he leads me to where our guests are waiting. As we go through the hall, I see the flowering lily Diane and Adam brought us for our garden. It's such a beautiful pink that I hope Jack will plant it where I'll be able to see it from the bedroom window. Just thinking of the garden makes tears well up from deep inside me and I swallow them down quickly. With so much at stake tonight, I need to concentrate on the here and now.
In the sitting room, a fire burns steadily in the antique grate. We're well into March but there's still a nip in the air and Jack likes our guests to be as comfortable as possible.
'Your house is really something, Jack,' Rufus says admiringly. 'Don't you think so, Esther?'
I don't know Rufus or Esther. They are new to the area and tonight is the first time we've met, which makes me feel more nervous than I already am. But I can't afford to let Jack down, so I fix a smile on my face, praying that they'll like me. Esther doesn't smile back, so I guess she's reserving judgement. But I can't blame her. Since joining our circle of friends a month ago, I'm sure she's been told over and over again that Grace Angel, wife of brilliant lawyer Jack Angel, is a perfect example of a woman who has it all — the perfect house, the perfect husband, the perfect life. If I were Esther, I'd be wary of me too.
My eyes fall on the box of expensive chocolates she has just taken out of her bag and I feel a flicker of excitement. Not wanting her to give them to Jack, I move smoothly towards her and she instinctively holds them out to me.
'Thank you, they look wonderful,' I say gratefully, placing them on the coffee table so that I can open them later, when we serve coffee.
Esther intrigues me. She's the complete opposite of Diane — tall, blonde, slim, reserved — and I can't help respecting her for being the first person to step into our house and not go on about how beautiful it is. Jack insisted on choosing the house himself, telling me it was to be my wedding present, so I saw it for the first time when we came back from our honeymoon. Even though he'd told me it was perfect for us I didn't fully realise what he meant until I saw it. Set in large grounds at the far end of the village, it gives Jack the privacy he craves, as well as the privilege of owning the most beautiful house in Spring Eaton. And the most secure. There is a complicated alarm system, with steel shutters to protect the windows on the ground floor. It must seem strange that these are often kept shut during the day, but as Jack tells anyone who asks, with a job like his, good security is one of his priorities.
We have a lot of paintings on the walls of our sitting room but people are usually drawn towards the large red canvas that hangs above the fireplace. Diane and Adam, who have already seen it, can't help going over to have another look, and Rufus joins them, while Esther sits down on one of the cream leather sofas.
'It's amazing,' Rufus says, looking in fascination at the hundreds of tiny markings that make up most of the painting.
'It's called Fireflies,' Jack offers, untwisting the wire from the bottle of champagne.
'I've never seen anything quite like it.'
'Grace painted it,' Diane tells him. 'Can you believe it?'
'You should see Grace's other paintings.' Jack eases the cork from the bottle with only the slightest of sounds. 'They really are quite something.'
Rufus looks around the room with interest. 'Are they here?'
'No, I'm afraid they're hanging elsewhere in the house.'
'For Jack's eyes only,' Adam jokes.
'And Grace's. Isn't that right, darling?' Jack says, smiling over at me. 'For our eyes only.'
'Yes, they are,' I agree, turning my head away.
We join Esther on the sofa and Diane exclaims in pleasure as Jack pours the champagne into tall glasses. She looks across at me.
'Are you feeling better now?' she asks. 'Grace couldn't make lunch with me yesterday because she was ill,' she explains, turning to Esther.
'It was only a migraine,' I protest.
'Unfortunately, Grace is prone to them.' Jack looks over at me sympathetically. 'But they never last long, thank goodness.'
'It's the second time you've stood me up,' Diane points out.
'I'm sorry,' I apologise.
'Well, at least you didn't just forget this time,' she teases. 'Why don't we meet up next Friday to make up for it? Would you be free, Grace? No dental appointments for you to suddenly remember at the last minute?'
'No, and no migraines either, I hope.'
Diane turns to Esther. 'Would you like to join us? It would have to be at a restaurant in town because I work.'
'Thank you, I'd like that.' She glances over at me, maybe to check that I don't mind her coming along and, as I smile back at her, I feel horribly guilty, because I already know I won't be going.
Calling everyone to attention, Jack offers a toast to Esther and Rufus, welcoming them to the area. I raise my glass and take a sip of champagne. The bubbles dance in my mouth and I feel a sudden flash of happiness, which I try to hang on to. But it disappears as quickly as it came.
I look over to where Jack is talking animatedly to Rufus. He and Adam met Rufus at the golf club a couple of weeks ago and invited him to join them in a game. On finding Rufus to be an excellent golfer, but not quite excellent enough to beat him, Jack invited him and Esther around for dinner. Watching them together, it's obvious that Jack is out to impress Rufus, which means it's important I win Esther round. But it won't be easy; whereas Diane is simply admiring, Esther seems more complicated.
Excusing myself, I go through to the kitchen to fetch the canapés I made earlier, and to put the last touches to the dinner. Etiquette — Jack is pedantic about it — means I can't be gone for long, so I quickly whisk the egg whites that are waiting in a bowl into peaks, and add them to the soufflé base I made earlier.
As I spoon the mixture into individual dishes, I glance nervously at the clock, then put the dishes into a bain-marie and place it in the oven, noting the exact time. I feel a momentary wave of panic that I might not be able to pull everything off, but reminding myself that fear is my enemy I try to remain calm and return to the sitting room with the tray of canapés. I pass them around, accepting everybody's compliments gratefully, because Jack will have heard them too. Sure enough, with a kiss to the top of my head, he agrees with Diane that I am indeed a superb cook, and I breathe a silent sigh of relief.
Determined to make some headway with Esther, I sit down next to her. Seeing this, Jack relieves me of the canapés.
'You deserve a rest, darling, after all the hard work you've done today,' he says, balancing the tray on his long elegant fingers.
'It wasn't hard work at all,' I protest, which is a lie, and Jack knows it, because he chose the menu.
I begin to ask Esther all the right questions: if she has settled into the area, if she was sorry to leave Kent behind, if her two children have settled into their new school. For some reason, the fact that I am well informed seems to irk her, so I make a point of asking the names of her son and daughter, even though I know they are called Sebastian and Aisling. I even know their ages, seven and five, but I pretend that I don't. Aware of Jack listening to my every word, I know he'll wonder what I'm playing at.
'You don't have children, do you,' Esther says, making it a statement rather than a question.
'No, not yet. We thought we'd enjoy a couple of years on our own first.'
'Why, how long have you been married?' Her voice registers surprise.
'A year,' I admit.
'It was their anniversary last week,' Diane chips in.
'And I'm still not ready to share my beautiful wife with anyone else,' Jack says, refilling her glass.
I watch, momentarily distracted, as a tiny splash of champagne misses the glass and lands on the knee of his pristine chinos.
'I hope you don't mind me asking,' Esther begins, her curiosity getting the better of her, 'but were either of you married before?'
She sounds as if she wants the answer to be yes, as if to find a disgruntled ex-husband or wife lurking in the background would be proof that we're less than perfect.
'No, neither of us were,' I say.
She glances at Jack and I know she's wondering how someone so good-looking managed to stay unattached for so long. Sensing her eyes on him, Jack smiles good-naturedly.
'I must admit that at forty years old, I'd begun to despair of ever finding the perfect woman. But as soon as I saw Grace, I knew she was the one I'd been waiting for.'
'So romantic,' sighs Diane, who already knows the story of how Jack and I met. 'I've lost count of the number of women I tried to set Jack up with but no one would do until he met Grace.'
'What about you, Grace?' Esther asks. 'Was it love at first sight for you too?'
'Yes,' I say, remembering. 'It was.'
Overwhelmed by the memory, I stand up a little too quickly and Jack's head swivels towards me. 'The soufflés,' I explain calmly. 'They should be done now. Are you all ready to sit down?'
Spurred on by Diane, who tells them that soufflés wait for no one, they drain their glasses and make for the table. Esther, however, stops on the way for a closer look at Fireflies and, when Jack joins her rather than urge her to sit down, I breathe a sigh of relief that the soufflés are no way near ready. If they were, I would be near to tears with stress at the delay, especially when he starts explaining some of the different techniques I used to create the painting.
When they eventually sit down five minutes later, the soufflés are cooked to perfection. As Diane expresses her amazement, Jack smiles at me from the other end of the table and tells everyone that I am very clever indeed.
It's during evenings like this that I'm reminded of why I fell in love with Jack. Charming, amusing and intelligent, he knows exactly what to say and how to say it. Because Esther and Rufus are newcomers, he makes sure that the conversation as we eat our soufflés is for their benefit. He prompts Diane and Adam into revealing information about themselves that will help our new friends, such as where they shop and the sports they play. Although Esther listens politely to their list of leisure activities, the names of their gardeners and babysitters, the best place to buy fish, I know that I am the one who interests her, and I know she's going to return to the fact that Jack and I have come relatively late to marriage, hoping to find something — anything — to tell her it is not as perfect as it seems. Unfortunately for her, she's going to be disappointed.
She waits until Jack has carved the beef Wellington and served it with a gratin of potatoes, and carrots lightly glazed with honey. There are also tiny sugar peas, which I plunged into boiling water just before taking the beef from the oven. Diane marvels that I've managed to get everything ready at the same time, and admits she always chooses a main course like curry, which can be prepared earlier and heated through at the last minute. I'd like to tell her that I'd much rather do as she does, that painstaking calculations and sleepless nights are the currency I pay to serve such a perfect dinner. But the alternative — serving anything that is less than perfect — isn't an option.
Esther looks at me from across the table. 'So where did you and Jack meet?'
'In Regent's Park,' I say. 'One Sunday afternoon.'
'Tell her what happened,' urges Diane, her pale skin flushed from the champagne.
I hesitate a moment, because it's a story I have told before. But it's one that Jack loves to hear me tell, so it's in my interest to repeat it. Luckily, Esther comes to my rescue. Mistaking my pause for reticence, she pounces.
'Please do,' she urges.
'Well, at the risk of boring those who have already heard it before,' I begin, with an apologetic smile, 'I was in the park with my sister Millie. We often go there on a Sunday afternoon and that Sunday there happened to be a band playing. Millie loves music and she was enjoying herself so much that she got up from her seat and began to dance in front of the bandstand. She had recently learnt to waltz and, as she danced, she stretched her arms out in front of her, as if she was dancing with someone.' I find myself smiling at the memory and wish desperately that life was still as simple, still as innocent. 'Although people were generally indulgent, happy to see Millie enjoying herself,' I go on, 'I could see that one or two were uncomfortable and I knew I should do something, call her back to her seat perhaps. But there was a part of me that was loath to because —'
'How old is your sister?' Esther interrupts.
'Seventeen.' I pause a moment, unwilling to face reality. 'Nearly eighteen.'
Esther raises her eyebrows. 'She's something of an attention seeker, then.'
'No, she's not, it's just that ...'
'Well, she must be. I mean, people don't usually get up and dance in a park, do they?' She looks around the table triumphantly and when everyone avoids her eye I can't help feeling sorry for her.
'Millie has Down's syndrome.' Jack's voice breaks the awkward silence that has descended on the table. 'It means she's often wonderfully spontaneous.'
Confusion floods Esther's face and I feel annoyed that the people who told her everything else about me didn't mention Millie.
'Anyway, before I could decide what to do,' I say, coming to her rescue, 'this perfect gentleman got up from his seat, went over to where Millie was dancing, bowed and held out his hand to her. Well, Millie was delighted and, as they began to waltz, everybody started applauding and then other couples got up from their seats and started to dance too. It was a very, very special moment. And, of course, I fell immediately in love with Jack for having made it happen.'
'What Grace didn't know at the time was that I had seen her and Millie in the park the week before and had immediately fallen in love with her. She was so attentive to Millie, so utterly selfless. I had never seen that sort of devotion in anybody before and I was determined to get to know her.'
'And what Jack didn't know at the time,' I say in turn, 'was that I had noticed him the week before but never thought he would be interested in someone like me.'
It amuses me when everybody nods their head in agreement. Even though I am attractive, Jack's film-star good looks mean that people think I'm lucky he wanted to marry me. But that isn't what I meant.
'Grace doesn't have any other brothers and sisters so she thought the fact that Millie will one day be her sole responsibility would discourage me,' Jack explains.
'As it had others,' I point out.
Jack shakes his head. 'On the contrary, it was the knowledge that Grace would do anything for Millie that made me realise she was the woman I'd been looking for all my life. In my line of work, it's easy to become demoralised with the human race.'
'I saw from the paper yesterday that congratulations are in order again,' Rufus says, raising his glass in Jack's direction.
'Yes, well done.' Adam, who is a lawyer in the same firm as Jack, joins in. 'Another conviction under your belt.'
'It was a fairly cut-and-dried case,' Jack says modestly. 'Although proving that my client hadn't inflicted the wounds herself, given that she had a penchant for self-harm, made it a little more difficult.'
'But, generally speaking, aren't cases of abuse usually easy to prove?' Rufus asks, while Diane tells Esther, in case she doesn't already know, that Jack champions the underdog — more specifically, battered wives. 'I don't want to detract from the wonderful work you do, but there is often physical evidence, or witnesses, are there not?'
'Jack's forte is getting the victims to trust him enough to tell him what has been going on,' Diane, who I suspect of being a little in love with Jack, explains. 'Many women don't have anybody to turn to and are scared they won't be believed.'
'He also makes sure that the perpetrators go down for a very long time,' adds Adam.
'I have nothing but contempt for men who are found to be violent towards their wives,' Jack says firmly. 'They deserve everything they get.'
'I'll drink to that.' Rufus raises his glass again.
'He's never lost a case yet, have you, Jack?' says Diane.
'No, and I don't intend to.'
'An unbroken track record — that's quite something,' muses Rufus, impressed.
Esther looks over at me. 'Your sister — Millie — is quite a bit younger than you,' she remarks, bringing the conversation back to where we left off.
'Yes, there are seventeen years between us. Millie didn't come along until my mother was forty-six. It didn't occur to her she was pregnant at first so it was a bit of a shock to find she was going to be a mother again.'
'Does Millie live with your parents?'
'No, she boards at a wonderful school in North London. But she'll be eighteen in April, so she'll have to leave it this summer, which is a shame because she loves it there.'
'So where will she go? To your parents'?'
'No.' I pause for a moment, because I know that what I am about to say will shock her. 'They live in New Zealand.'
Esther does a double take. 'New Zealand?'
'Yes. They retired there last year, just after our wedding.'
'I see,' she says. But I know she doesn't.
'Millie will be moving in with us,' Jack explains. He smiles over at me. 'I knew it would be a condition to Grace accepting to marry me and it was one that I was more than happy to comply with.'
'That's very generous of you,' Esther says.
Excerpted from Behind Closed Doors by B. A. Paris. Copyright © 2016 B. A. Paris. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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