Letter from a Stranger
By Barbara Taylor Bradford
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 Beaji Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The view from the second-floor terrace was panoramic, and breathtaking. Justine Nolan, who knew it well, was nevertheless startled when she saw it even after a short absence, and today was no exception.
She leaned against the white-painted wooden railings, gazing out at the sweeping line of the Litchfield Hills flowing toward the distant horizon. Their thickly wooded slopes rolled down to verdant meadows; beyond them Lake Waramaug, set deeply in the valley, shimmered in the sunlight like a great swathe of fabric cut from cloth of silver. As usual, Justine caught her breath, filled with intense pleasure that she was back at Indian Ridge, the house where she had grown up and spent much of her life.
It was a clear bright day, with a blue sky and bountiful clouds, but there was a snap in the wind, a hint of winter still, and it was cold for April.
Shivering, Justine wrapped her heavy-knit red jacket around her body as she continued to devour the view ... the white clapboard houses, so typical of Connecticut, dotted here and there on some of the meadows, and to her right, set against a stand of dark green trees, three silos and two red barns grouped together in a distant field. They had been there for as long as she could remember, and were a much-loved and familiar sight.
Unexpectedly, a flock of birds swept past her, unusually close to the railings, and she blinked, startled by them. They soared upward in a vee, a perfect formation and quite beautiful. She stared after them as they flew higher and higher into the haze of blue, and then she turned around and went back into the house.
Picking up her overnight bag, which she had dropped on the landing a few minutes earlier, Justine carried it into her bedroom and immediately unpacked, putting away sweaters, trousers, shoes, and her toilet bag. Ever since childhood she had been neat, very tidy in her habits, and it was her nature to be well organized. She hated clutter, which had to be avoided at all cost.
Glancing around the bedroom, smiling to herself, she experienced a sudden rush of happiness. She loved this room, and the entire house.... Some of her happiest times had been spent here at Indian Ridge, especially when her father was still alive. She and her twin had adored him.
She was glad her mother had kept the house, and that she and her brother Richard could continue to use it at weekends, as well as for long stretches in the summer. It was their mutual escape hatch, a safe haven, and a place where they could relax from their busy schedules in New York.
For the past month Justine had stayed in Manhattan, working on the last stage of her newest documentary about Jean-Marc Breton, the world's greatest living artist, supervising the cutting with the director and the film's editor. It had been arduous, long days and nights of work, hours and hours and hours filled with tension, stress, anxiety, good and bad surprises, friction at times, and some disappointments. But when they had viewed the final cut, and not without some trepidation, they had been jubilant. The film, which they had considered to be problematical right from the first day of shooting because of the temperament and dictatorial attitude of their subject, had turned out to be good. Very, very good in fact, much to their collective relief.
Now Justine prayed that the network would feel the same when she screened it for them next week. Miranda Evans, the head of documentaries for Cable News International, would view it with total detachment, which always pleased Justine and her team. Miranda brought no prejudices or preconceived ideas into the screening room, which was why Justine trusted her judgment. That impartiality was a rare quality. Miranda had believed in her right from the start, and had funded most of the blood diamonds documentary, another tough subject.
Suddenly, worry edged into her mind. She took a deep breath and pushed it away. The film was excellent, and it was the final cut.And that was that.
She shook her head, grimaced to herself, wished she could let go of a project the moment it was at an end. But she couldn't; it always took her time to move on. And then she automatically went into a different mode, was filled with deflation, anxiety, and a sense of loss.
She had mentioned this to Richard last night, and he had started to laugh, understanding exactly what she meant. Her twin and she were very much alike. He had pointed out that she was going up to the house to mentally and physically replenish herself, and fresh and exciting ideas would soon pop into her head when she was completely rested. And with that he had ended their phone call on a somewhat teasing note.
He's right, of course, she decided, as she went out of her bedroom and down the stairs. Nobody knows me like he does, just as I know him inside out. She felt a small trickle of sadness running through her when she thought of Richard's wife, Pamela, who had died two years ago of cancer.
To the outside world Richard was calm, strong and stoical, in control, but she knew how heartbroken he was inside. He kept up a good front, and plowed on doggedly, because of his five-year-old daughter, Daisy. Justine planned to look after them both this weekend, mothering one, and being a loving companion to the other.
* * *
At the bottom of the staircase Justine turned right, then walked toward the small sitting room overlooking the lawn, which she also used as an office, mostly to do the household accounts and bookkeeping.
She had settled Daisy in there when they had arrived from New York half an hour ago, and her niece was still sitting at the desk with her box of crayons and coloring book spread out before her.
Kim, the nanny, had the weekend off, and Tita, one of the housekeepers, was hovering over her, encouraging her to use as many crayons as she wanted. "All the colors of the rainbow," Tita was saying, her voice loving.
Afternoon sunshine was streaming into the room and Daisy's pale blond curls shimmered in the light. What a lovely child she is, Justine thought, adorable in a variety of different ways, and it's so hard not to spoil her.
Justine couldn't help smiling to herself as she watched Tita being so attentive to Daisy, helping her. Tita and her sister, Pearl, loved Daisy as if she were their own, and, in a sense, she was. The two women had lived and worked at Indian Ridge for years and were part of the family by now.
Justine and Richard had grown up with them, and they appreciated everything the two of them did to keep the house, the gallery, and their work studios in tiptop shape. They considered themselves blessed to have Tita and Pearl, whom Richard deemed to be the salt of the earth.
Stepping into the room, Justine said, "What are you coloring, Daisy?"
Daisy and Tita both turned around on hearing Justine's voice, and Daisy explained, "It's a vase of flowers, Auntie Juju."
"She takes after her father." Tita grinned. "She's got that talent he's had since he was a boy."
A small smile struck Justine's face, and then she laughed. "Unlike the two of us! We weren't very good painters, were we? Mine were a series of giant blotches."
Tita joined in her laughter. "And mine, too, and there was more paint on me than the canvas."
Daisy, staring intently at her aunt, said, "How much does it cost to go there?"
"To go where, darling?"
"To Heaven. I want to take my picture to Mommy. I'm doing it for her. I've got a lot of quarters in my piggy bank. Maybe ten dollars. It's a big pig."
Justine was unable to speak for a moment. Her throat was suddenly constricted. Swallowing several times, she finally managed to say, "It's a bit more than that, I think."
"Oh." Daisy nodded, pursed her lips. "I'll have to get some more quarters then. I'll keep the picture for Mommy, and take it to her later. When I've saved up."
"That's right." Justine's low voice sounded hoarse. To her relief Daisy turned back to her coloring book, her blond head bent over it once more in concentration.
The two women exchanged glances.
Tita was on the verge of tears, her dark eyes stricken. She was biting her bottom lip, struggling for control.
Clearing her throat, Justine said, "Come on, Tita, let's go and plan the picnic for tomorrow."
"A picnic!" The five-year-old swung her head, her bright blue eyes suddenly sparkling. "In the gazeboat?"
"Gazebo, darling," Justine corrected gently. "And yes, it will be there, weather permitting. And guess what, Auntie Jo is coming with Simon."
"Oh goody! Simon's my bestest friend."
"We'll be in the kitchen if you need us for anything, Daisy." Justine beckoned to Tita, who almost ran out of the room ahead of her; she followed in concern.
* * *
Tita was clutching the sink, hunched over into herself, still fighting the tears.
Crossing the kitchen quickly, understanding exactly how she felt, Justine put her arms around Tita and held her close. "I know, I know, it's hard. Some of the things she comes out with take my breath away, tear me apart, and Richard too. But suddenly she brightens up, and you know that, Tita. Especially if she's distracted. And she does forget."
"Yes ... but I suffer for her. I can't help it."
"We've got to keep her busy, Tita. Look how she reacted when I mentioned the picnic and Simon. And I've learned a lot from Kim, who packs her days with activities, keeps her very busy when she's not at school. We've got to do that this weekend, as we've been doing for the last two years, actually."
"I know, I know —" Tita cut herself off, blew out air, pulled herself together, and said, "I'll put the kettle on. Let's have a cup of tea."
"Good idea." Justine smiled at Tita, squeezed her arm. "She'll be all right."
Tita nodded and went to fill the kettle.
Justine walked over to the fire and stood in front of it, glancing around. The kitchen was a comforting room, warm, inviting, and one of her favorites in the house. Copper pots and pans hanging down from the pot rack affixed to the ceiling gleamed brightly. In between the pots were strings of onions and garlic, bunches of lavender and thyme, whole sausages and salamis, all of which added a French Provençal feeling.
It had always been the hub of the house where everyone congregated, because part of it was furnished as a living room. A sofa and wing chairs, a television set, and a Welsh dresser were all grouped near the fireplace, while a large wood table, which seated ten, was used to divide the room; beyond the table were countertops and the usual appliances. With its terra-cotta tiled floor, pale peach walls, and floral fabrics, the kitchen had a certain charm and a welcoming air about it.
The phone started ringing, and Justine stepped over to the small desk in a corner near the fireplace, and picked up the receiver. "Indian Ridge," she said, and immediately sat down in the chair when she heard her assistant's voice. "Hello, Ellen."
"Hi, Justine. I guess you made it up there in record time."
"I did. What's happening?"
"All's well. I just had a call from Miranda's PA and she wants to see the film on Tuesday afternoon at four o'clock, instead of Thursday morning. I told her I thought it would be fine, but that I'd better check with you. There's nothing in your book."
"I've a pretty empty week, I know that. So yes, we'll screen the film whenever Miranda wants."
"I'll confirm it with Angie. Everything's okay there, I suppose."
"It is. I'm here with Tita, and Daisy's busy with her coloring book. I haven't seen Pearl yet, she went to the market, and apparently Carlos and Ricardo are up on the ridge, working on Richard's current project."
"The guest house."
"Which we don't really need. On the other hand, he needs it, Ellen, because it gives him work to do up here. It takes his mind off things."
"There's still a lot of grief on him," Ellen murmured. "I wish I knew somebody nice to introduce him to."
"He wouldn't be interested, I'm afraid," Justine shot back. "Anyway, I'll now come back on Tuesday morning instead of Wednesday. Have a nice weekend, Ellen."
"And you too."
As she hung up the phone Justine had no way of knowing that her world, and Richard's, was about to change forever.
Later that afternoon, when Daisy was taking a nap, Justine went into the small sitting room and sat down at the desk. It did not take her long to open the mail which had accumulated during the month she and Richard had stayed in New York.
The bulk of it was junk, which she promptly threw away; she then checked the bills, clipped them together, and looked at half a dozen invitations for local events, put these to one side as well.
At the bottom of the pile there was a square white envelope made of paper that looked foreign to her. Definitely European, she thought, as she picked it up.
Justine saw at once that it was addressed to her mother, Deborah Nolan, and that it bore an Istanbul postmark. Who did her mother know in Istanbul, of all places? On the other hand, how would she know? Her mother had friends all over the world. Looking at the back of the envelope, she saw there was no name of sender nor a return address. She stared at it for a moment longer, thinking that it may well be an invitation, such was its shape and size. She frowned, wondered whether to open it or not. Eight years ago, when her mother had moved to California, she had given them the use of this house. Her instructions to them had been very few ... keep the house in good shape, pay the monthly bills, and forward any letters if they pertained to legal matters.
This arrangement had worked well since its inception. Their mother paid the annual state tax, they took care of the overall upkeep and the salaries of the Chilean family who continued to run Indian Ridge with them — Tita; her sister Pearl; Carlos, Pearl's husband; and his father, Ricardo.
Now, for the first time in eight years, here was a personal letter. Justine shrugged, picked up the paper knife, slit the envelope, and took out the letter.
She noted the name engraved at the top of the writing paper, someone she had never heard of, and began to read.
I have wanted to write to you for some time, unfortunately my courage constantly deserted me. Now this letter cannot be put off any longer. You do not know me. I did come to see you in London when you were a baby but you won't remember that. I am your mother's closest and longest friend and I write to you because I am extremely worried about her. For years she has been troubled and unhappy because of the estrangement between the two of you. Lately she has become even more morose and filled with a heartache I cannot bear to witness.
She longs to see you and Justine and Richard. She loves them dearly, just as she loves you. You are her only family.
I must ask you this, Deborah. Why are you keeping her away? I do not understand your behavior toward your mother. Surely nothing is so bad that it cannot be repaired. Whatever the reason for this estrangement you must end it immediately, before it is too late, before she dies. After all, she is almost eighty, as you well know. And so I beg you to reach out to your mother, get in touch with her, bring her back into your life and the lives of her grandchildren. It is in your power, and yours alone, to end her suffering and heartbreak.
With great sincerity, Anita Lowe
Justine was speechless. She sat staring at the words she had just read, feeling as if the earth's tectonic plates had just shifted under her feet. Her shock was enormous. She noticed that her hand shook as she continued to hold the letter, then realized she was shaking all over. She could hardly believe what she had just read. Her grandmother was still alive? How could that be? What was this all about?
Taking a deep breath, she put the letter down on the desk, and endeavored to control her swimming senses. After a few minutes she managed to calm herself, and leaned forward to reread the letter, wanting to absorb the words.... They revealed something so momentous it took her breath away.
Her grandmother was still alive.
Therefore their mother had told them a horrendous and wicked lie ten years ago. She had told them their grandmother, her mother, Gabriele Hardwicke, had died suddenly in a private plane crash.
Her mind began to race. Was the letter genuine? Or was it a hoax? How could it be? Unless someone wanted to cause trouble. If so, why? For what reason? The letter had been written to their mother and it had the ring of truth to it. It was genuine all right, there was no doubt in her mind about that.
Then unexpectedly it hit her. A wave of joy. Gran was alive. Blinking back the tears in her eyes, Justine noted the postmark. The letter was mailed at the beginning of April. Now it was almost the end of the month. The letter had been sitting here in this lacquered tray for three weeks. No one had responded to Anita Lowe. But then how could a response be made? There was no return address. And where was her grandmother actually? In London? Or was she in Istanbul? With Anita Lowe? She had frequently moved between both places in the past. And why had this woman not given more details of her grandmother's whereabouts? Because she believed that Deborah knew exactly where her mother was. Obviously, that was the answer. Which brought her back to the lie her mother had told them. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Letter from a Stranger by Barbara Taylor Bradford. Copyright © 2012 Beaji Enterprises, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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