Conscience Point

Conscience Point

by Erica Abeel

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Madeleine Shaye has a successful dual career as a concert pianist and TV arts correspondent, a great relationship with her grown daughter, and a love affair that is the envy of friends. She believes she has all the luck. But her blissful life suddenly unravels in this genre-bending novel about a mysterious love with two faces, a shocking betrayal, and the passion to


Madeleine Shaye has a successful dual career as a concert pianist and TV arts correspondent, a great relationship with her grown daughter, and a love affair that is the envy of friends. She believes she has all the luck. But her blissful life suddenly unravels in this genre-bending novel about a mysterious love with two faces, a shocking betrayal, and the passion to reclaim old dreams.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

New York concert pianist Madeleine Shaye has it all: a thriving career as a television correspondent, a beautiful adopted daughter in college and a longtime love, wealthy Nick Ashcroft. Violet Ashcroft, Nick's sister, first brought Maddy to their crumbling Hamptons mansion during their 1960s college days, when the girls were trying to avoid marriage and follow their artistic passions to Paris. More than three decades later, Violet has long since disappeared in a void of scandal, but Maddy hopes to resuscitate their dream of establishing an artists' colony. Unfortunately, Nick has been acting distant and dropping hints about wanting a child, even though Maddy is pushing middle age. Before long, daughter Laila announces she's leaving Brown to work in a Guatemalan village, a new producer shoves Maddy aside in favor of a younger competitor, and Nick leaves her for another woman. Maddy soon discovers that these upheavals camouflage a crueler betrayal, one that launches her into a winding journey of revenge and renewal. Abeel's middling fifth novel recasts familiar characters and situations on a new stage, but with the exception of vibrant (but underused) Violet offers little that's fresh. (Oct.)

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Library Journal

Abeel's fifth novel (after Women Like Us) is an engaging read with plot twists and complex characters. Madeleine Shaye, a pianist and TV arts correspondent, seems to have it all: a solid relationship, a rewarding career or two, a daughter in college. Then, things start to unravel as she begins to suspect that both her lover, Nick, and her employers are casting about for a younger model. With good humor and just a few fantasies of murder and mayhem, she goes about finding a way to remain relevant. Some chapters have the feel of a mystery as Maddy puts two and two together about Nick's past and present missteps and the dark secret that has poisoned his family. Echoing Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, Maddy's involvement with Nick's privileged, old-money family began long ago in college, when his sister, Violet, invited her to visit Conscience Point, the now crumbling setting for much of the novel. Yet this is ultimately a story about retaking the road not taken and reclaiming one's purpose in life. Recommended for public and academic libraries collecting literary fiction.
—Gwen Vredevoogd

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Conscience Point

By Erica Abeel
Unbridled Books
Copyright © 2008

Erica Abeel
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-932961-53-9

Chapter One The Vertical Ray

It Began in France on a May morning of their lovely stolen holiday. They sat, she and Nick, on the terrace of an inn shoehorned into George Sand's country estate, reveling in the morning sun, the silvery warble of merles. Air that felt Breathed for the first time. When Nick nosed their Avis Renault into the driveway the evening Before, they might have crossed into an earlier century....

"Do you get many visitors here off-season?" he asked the innkeeper. Scoping out the terrain. He'd just signed up a book on Sand's Beloved Berry region, a quilt of dreaming farm fields and dark hedgerows, in 1997 still little known to tourists.

"Not as many as now," said the innkeeper, a woman with '40s-style marcelled hair. "Though we did have a writer here all winter, working on a screenplay about George Sand and Chopin-and Sand's daughter. There's a girl knew how to make trouble."

Nick frowned, Maddy uncertain why. The innkeeper continued to hover. Not the first time Maddy noticed how she and Nick acted as attractants; they must give off a musk. She watched the woman's gaze linger on Nick: the wolf-grey eyes, longish space between nose and lips, tawny weave of hair. The tastiness of him. Humbly, she demishrugged at the innkeeper. Never flaunt happiness. Hide.

"Just think, it's this time of year we first met," she said when they were finally alone.

He circled an arm around her chair. "Have I told you you're nicer now? Back then you were kind of ... thistle-y."

"Damn right. You were ogling me naked on the beach."

"You're prettier now, too." Blind-Nick the hypercritical-to the faint seam imprinted by the pillow on her cheek and other stunts of her morning face. He shifted his chair closer and planted tickly kisses down her neck and she laughed giddily. "Mmm, wanna go back to the room?"

"Might kill us."


Last night Nick vexed at himself, at odds with his own body. Then, this morning, he'd surprised them both. Early farm sounds beyond their window, pails clanking; gamey barnyard smells. She imagined them wartime lovers hiding out in the countryside. Her face twisted away, throat arched ... wait, wait ... fingers at the hard ridge of muscle on either side of his spine. Their cries mingling with a rooster's below. They'd arrived at breakfast overflowing with the goodwill born of coming from the pads of your toes to the roots of your hair.

Their waiter, carrot-haired and fey, laid out breakfast with balletic flourishes: flesh orange juice and a basket of tartines, glazed earthenware crocks of apricot preserves and sweet butter, two white pitchers of steaming coffee and milk. They dug in.

"I been thinking, if they want, I dunno ... Video Kitten, to hell with Chronicle, Nick said, picking up an earlier debate. "I mean, you give concerts and do the show-you give good value." Grimacing at his own expression.

"Nicky, the suits don't dote on me quite like you."

"Well, who does?" He smiled and daubed a crusty tartine with chunky preserves. "Anyway, I been thinking, maybe you should pare down a little, do just the piano. Give us a little wiggle room. More of this." He nodded toward the terrace. "Though maybe you enjoy"-raising an eyebrow-"working like a galley slave?" Maybe; how well he knew her. "Multitasking, as a new editor in my office would say," Nick continued. "She also 'transitions,' when she isn't 'partying' ... or 'impacting.' ... Never met a noun that couldn't be a verb. The other day she flipped her hair in my face."

At some point they'd descend into old-fart-dom, Maddy thought contentedly. But not yet. A clock chimed the hour from an ochre Romanesque church across the square. They listened, transfixed, the metal clangor seeming to summons the faithful from down the years. Nick fished the Michelin guide from the flayed pocket of his chinos. "So. We'll check out Sand's château first, okay? Hmm, says here she scribbled her novels all night on a dropleaf shelf in a wall cupboard.... Then we'll drive to La Chatre for lunch. After that"-his finger traced a road-"Bourges! I've always wanted to show you the cathedral. The musician angels in the side chapel ... the archangel Michael ..." As guide to the world's treasures, Nick had no equal. She sat back, luxuriating in his voice, a baritone dashed with boarding-school drawl, and the newly minted air and warbling merles, rolling and rerolling notes as if telling a crystal rosary. What more could there be than this? Let nothing change. She wanted to stop here at the vertical ray of the sun.

"What luck, we've got the joint to ourselves!" They stood in the courtyard of Nohant, as the estate was called, surveying the manor house where Sand had hosted a running house party for geniuses.

"Place really makes you believe in spirits," Nick said, glancing around. In fact, something animate about the weathered rose facade and pale blue shutters, dreaming at attention. "Uh-oh, don't look now."

Two yellow buses came chuffing up the driveway, raising a cloud of chalky dust. They air-braked to a stop before the château and spit out a cargo of twittering adolescents in shorts and knee socks. Maddy wrinkled her nose. "And they're German."

"For godssake, during the war they weren't even born."

She and Nick cultivated friction, she suspected, to certify they were two separate people.

The kids pooled in the courtyard. A boy with a platinum crew cut abruptly flung himself on a dark, gangly girl and kissed her with puppyish abandon. The other kids aimed cameras at the château or thumbed guidebooks, ignoring the passion in their midst. It went on, the kiss, gnawing, slurpy, desperate. Both comic and arousing.

Maddy shifted her attention to Sand's château, the large atelier-style window projecting from the second story. "Nicky, look, that must be the studio Sand built for Delacroix." No response. She turned to see Nick staring at the junior lovers in horror, as if sighting a pair of revenants. "Darling, don't gawk." She elbowed his arm. "Imagine, Delacroix and Chopin used to walk around here talking Art capital A. 'Serenaded by nightingales,'" she read from the guidebook. "'In the azure of the transparent night, a sublime melody arises.'"

If Nick heard, he gave no sign.

Maddy slipped her arm through his and smiled at his clench-jawed profile. "Doesn't that child have a touch of Laila?" The same starved-cat allure.

Nick unstuck his attention from the couple. "Oh, Laila's a lot prettier!"

Nick doted on her adopted daughter, endowing her with a beauty she didn't quite have. That they'd knitted into a family was among Maddy's greatest pleasures-though she winced when Laila playfully called him "Uncle Nick." "Reminds me, I want to get Laila a present in La Chatre. Maybe a Cacharel blouse-to wean her from the homeboy look." She sighed. "If only we could wean her from Jed Oliver."

"Classic mistake to interfere, just make him seem more desirable," Nick said in a prissy voice.

The lovers surfaced from their kiss. They looked around with the glutted eyes of beasts after a kill. The guide had arrived, dangling a giant metal key. Everyone traipsed after her into the vestibule, its stone walls exhaling a chill harvested over centuries.

They shuffled tourist-style into a dining room dominated by a Venetian chandelier of blue and pink glass. Nick, slightly behind, kept his hand at the small of Maddy's back. The room and air felt untouched by time, alive with presences, ghostly chatter, deaths and entrances. Chopin could have walked in, coughing.

The guide pointed out a sinister-looking drawing by Sand's son. "These peasant women are killing their illegitimate babies," she explained, first in French, then in German. Maddy pressed in for a closer look. The little murders of love, okay-but kill your child?

They moved toward the dining room table, a long oval set as if for this evening's dinner. Maddy circled it, reading place cards: Flaubert ... Turgenev ... Delacroix ... Franz Liszt. To think these titans had eaten and schmoozed around this table. An old dream floated up: Why not create their own version of Nohant at Conscience Point-even if titans, in 1997, were in short supply. They'd restore the main house, invite musicians, painters, writers.... Yeah, she was high on country coffee all right-and the spell of this place. Still, over the years they'd flirted, she and Nick, with the idea of an art colony on his estate. There might come a time when they'd be happy for such a refuge.

She leaned into him and he smiled without looking at her and slipped a hand beneath her linen jacket and then under the waistband of her pants. The press of his fingers at her hip dialed up a delicious moment from earlier. A bonus of sex with Nick was reliving it all day. A little afternoon siesta might be just the thing.... They all funneled into a narrow corridor leading to Sand's marionette theater. On some impulse, she looked around for Lolita. There she was, at the head of the line. Lolita turned and peered at her and Nick. By a trick of light over her brow and mustache, the girl resembled a jackal, and Maddy wondered how she could have seen in that face anything of Laila.

Before dinner they wandered the carriage roads around Nohant, she fitting her step to Nick's rolling sailor's gait. Cows observed them in silence from a darkening field like the evening's eyes. A chalky moon hung overhead and lightning bugs flashed green points in the air perfumed by turned earth and flowering hawthorn. The road circled back to Sand's family graveyard. A tall angel beamed down a blind smile; its wings, the leathers finely etched in stone, shone lavender in the lingering light. On me croit mort, je vis ici, read the legend. "I'm believed dead, but I live on here," Nick translated. With a shiver, Maddy saw herself gazing up at another stone angel on a May afternoon....

Since the morning in Sand's château, Nick's mood had darkened, like a sudden squall. He wore his out-to-lunch face, a cartoon character with cross-hatched eyes.

He'd busted out of the château just before the marionette theater, pleading suffocation; pale, upper lip misted with sweat. She'd feared a heart attack or stroke-though it had been awfully close in that narrow corridor. A panic attack, she'd decided. A real pity he'd missed Chopin's room upstairs ... In the afternoon they'd roamed La Chatre, looking in shop windows and enjoying being tourists. She bought Laila a flowered Cacharel blouse, and then a miniature squirrel couple with parasol for Laila's collection of figurines. They climbed to a main square that spilled down from a central axis, as if the earth had shrugged. They stopped at a café, and bellied up to the cool zinc of the bar, and sipped syrupy limonades. A street photographer took a snapshot. Caught Nick doomy and glamorous in the amber light, she with her broad cheeks and almond eyes he called her "Khirgiz eyes." Wearing her smile, the smile of a woman with all the luck. On the way to the car, they saw the German schoolkids troop across the square into a patisserie. Lolita, the champion kisser, was not among them.

Nick's moods were an old story (and pain in the ass), part of the package; maybe a mild form of the taint that he claimed marked his family, the whole tribe an argument against inbreeding. I'm a moody bastard, he'd say afterward and apologize extravagantly. Experience had taught her to lay back. The funk would work its way out of him like a splinter.

She could absorb a patch of funk, they had much to celebrate, she and Nick. Friends were getting downsized and put out to pasture, losing mates to a rogue cell or a ski instructor, getting plucked too early from the party. She and Nick were both at the top of their game; Nick's imprint a holdout against the dumbing-down of publishing, she with her dual act of pianist and arts reporter. And darling Laila: spooky wise, her angelic nature the envy of friends whose children were mall rats or slackers. She'd even skipped the storms of adolescence-except for a deep sulk when Nick came on board. Maddy had loved him in some fashion since her twenties, and found him again years later through a blessed alignment of stars in the shimmering isles off Virgin Gorda. If something happened with her and Nick, she would not be all right.

Saturday night had brought an influx of guests to the terrace. An elderly woman with a dachshund; a foursome of English tourists, nattering away in the patois of upper-class Brits. In a corner under the eaves, a young French couple fed each other bits of cheese in slow motion.

The carrot-haired waiter arrived to take their order. He recommended the poulet en barbouille, a regional specialty.

The evening glow lingered and beat at them and they sipped the local Pouilly Fumé in a luxury of silence. Only with Laila did she feel so easy. She pondered the best way to bring up the art colony. Nick's sister co-owned the estate, but lived abroad and showed zero interest in it. Any mention of his sister, though, and Nick went medieval. Violet was a topic they tacitly agreed never to touch. They each had their reasons. Transparency, she'd decided, was much overrated.

"I'm thinking, it's a sad thing I never had a child," Nick said abruptly.

She held her wine glass aloft, unsure she had heard what she had heard; tried for a composed expression above the ice in her heart.

"A baby? At our age?" Her mind raced. What madness, impossible. Not for Nick, it wasn't. "Is that your creative thought for the evening? Darling, I just don't see you pushing a stroller around Washington Square. Like the altecockers strong-armed by their trophy wives into having a kid. Did I tell you? Sophie's ex was featured in an article in New York Magazine on second-time dads. He seems to have forgotten his first-time daughter is living in the jungle with guerillas."

"It's not Lester's fault she's run amok."

She tilted back her Pouilly Fumé. The alcohol felt dangerous, combustible in her blood. Babies? What was he talking about.

The orange-haired waiter sashayed over with their poulet en barbouille. "Is this sauce special to the region?" Nick asked. His manners impeccable, polished by years of putting the help at ease.

"Oui, Monsieur. The chicken is cooked in its own blood."

Maddy looked at the chicken smothered in a rich chestnut sauce. Why was there so much violence? The waiter's teeth, she noticed, were sawed-off greyish stumps. She watched Nick wield fork and knife, boarding-school graceful.

"Mmm, delicious, the waiter was right," Nick said between mouthfuls.

She moved the tortured bird around the plate with her fork, like an insect palpating air with its antennae. From the next table the woman with the dachshund, its leash tangled in her chair, shot them a look of naked envy. The French couple had progressed to nibbling each other's fingers.

Don't get sucked in, "take a chill," Laila would say. She would humor him, a fussy child with a fever. Above all, don't dignify the thing with serious discussion. Because if she did, a small voice might cry, But what about me? and that she wouldn't permit.

Nick set down his fork across the plate. "You're not eating. Christ, look what I've done, I'm sorry. I'm so terribly confused. I needed to tell you what I'd been thinking."

"Oh, Nicky, I'm glad you did. I mean, you've always gone on about not wanting children." Discussing it. He'd cited his own family as the best deterrent. Though what could have kept her from Laila?

"At times I feel you can't live purely for your own pleasure," he said, sheepish.

"You sound like a character in a Russian novel." She always made him laugh. He didn't laugh. "And what about Laila?"

"What about her," Nick said testily.

"Well, you have been a sort of surrogate dad for eight years." And where the fuck do I fit in? Did he plan on knocking up a surrogate mother? No, don't touch that.


Excerpted from Conscience Point by Erica Abeel Copyright © 2008 by Erica Abeel. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Erica Abeel is the author of four books, including the acclaimed novel Women Like Us and The Last Romance.

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