When Aaron’s Volvo pulled up to the curb of the Barnaby house, Bella felt just a bit giddy.
She’d met Aaron Waterhouse in December, right after she’d returned home to Dragonfly Lake to help her mother, and the connection had been instantaneous and electric.
Aaron was handsome, sweet, sexy, and smart. He was the first man she’d ever wanted to marry. While Bella was growing up, her own family had been happy—noisy and messy, but happy—and Bella wanted one like that for herself. Lots of children, toys on the floor, flour on the kitchen counter while she taught her son or daughter to make popovers (so much fun for children), a husband who would come home from work with a smile on his face to toss his children into the air—and who could make her melt at the sight of him, the way she was melting now.
She could have all that with Aaron. He had just gotten his master’s in architecture. He was putting out feelers for jobs and was sure to get a good one. He was so bright, so reliable. He wanted children. He was in love with her. She was in love with him, and the vision of their life together was enticing.
But there was one enormous problem: Aaron had been invited to interview for a job in San Francisco.
San Francisco excited Aaron. Bella didn’t want to leave Massachusetts.
She’d left already, plenty of times. She’d seen foreign places.
She’d traveled to Paris, to Italy, to Amsterdam. She’d lived in Utah and in Texas.
Now she wanted to get started with her own real life. She wanted to live here, near Dragonfly Lake, a world she knew and cherished. It wasn’t just the landscape and the closeness of her family. It was more than that—it was as if she were falling in love with a new vision of herself, as if at twenty-seven a mist were evaporating from a mirror, allowing her true image to show clear.
It was early June. Bella and Aaron had been together for five months, growing closer every day. She was pretty sure Aaron was about to propose to her. And she didn’t know what her answer would be.
“Bell!” Her older brother, Ben, stuck his head into the living room. “I’m driving down to the Hortons’ with our beach chairs and the food.”
“Okay,” Bella answered. “Aaron and I will walk down.”
Ben went out the door and headed to his Jeep Cherokee, with its four-wheel drive, good for the snowy months, and its back hatch, good for carrying lots of stuff. Ben was practical, scientific, and methodical. He had a PhD and a tenured position at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His life revolved in a precise circle like planets orbiting the sun.
Bella’s life felt more like a Slinky flopping down the stairs.
She grinned at her own joke. At least she still had her sense of humor. You couldn’t live in a family of four Barnaby children, all with a first name that began with the letter B, without developing a sense of humor. And she was happy, and an optimist, glad to be home, full of hope for the future. Her life wasn’t tragic. Just a puzzle.
Bella had spent the last two and a half years teaching third grade in Austin, Texas, until last Christmas, when her mother, while trying to put the angel on top of the tree, fell off the ladder and broke her leg. Bella’s father taught high school English five days a week. Bella’s older sister, Beatrice, was busy in her house an hour away with her three little children. Ben, of course, had his own apartment in Amherst, his students, and lab. Seventeen-year-old Brady was still in high school. So Bella abbreviated her contract, left Austin after the first semester, and flew home to take over her mother’s shop and help around the house.
She was surprised to discover she didn’t miss teaching. She was exhilarated to be back home, which for her was not just the comfortable house she’d grown up in on a lake surrounded by woodland, but the entire region where forests and farmlands stretched like a vast Eden on either side of the wide Connecticut River. This area boasted five of the best colleges in the world, drawing students and faculty from all over the planet.
As a child, she’d hiked with her family up Mount Hadley and Mount Tom, and canoed on the Connecticut River. She’d visited Emily Dickinson’s house several times, and heard Billy Collins speak when he was the country’s poet laureate. She’d contemplated modern sculpture at the art museums, and she’d witnessed a four-point stag, branched with heavy antlers, step over their lawn and down to the lake to drink in the early-morning light.
She loved this area, her family, their house . . . and that was part of the problem. Perhaps she loved them too much.
Now, as she watched, Aaron stepped out of his Volvo. He waved at Ben as Ben backed the Cherokee out of the drive. Aaron had incredibly muscled arms and thighs, an aftereffect of wrestling in high school and college. She loved the heft of them, the safety she felt in his arms. He had dark, curly hair and wore glasses over his hazel eyes. He was her Superman, looking academic, restraining so much strength and sexuality.
He approached the house, tapped on the front door, and let himself in, as everyone did who knew the Barnabys well.
“Hi, Aaron.” “Hey, Bella.”
Just the sight of him made her short of breath. He pulled her to him and kissed her thoroughly.
She gently pushed him away. “We should go.” “Right. I brought some wine. It’s in the car.”
Together they left the house, picked up the bottles of Pinot, and began walking along the narrow road winding around Dragonfly Lake. The lake was tucked in a hollow snuggled up against a gently rising mountain, or what was called a mountain in New England; in Colorado, it would be downsized to hill. It rose to a ridge running north and south, covered with evergreens, birches, and oaks, home to deer, porcupines, foxes, and numerous other creatures, including the clever raccoons that made human lives miserable if they didn’t use the proper tight-locking trash receptacles. Various styles of houses surrounded the lake: A-frames, modernized log cabins, seventies split-levels like the Barnabys’ house, and a few fabulous minimansions like the ones on either side of the Barnabys’.
All the homes looked out onto the lake, which curved in a capricious blue oval around the hill, its banks thick with grasses, forest, and wildflowers. Much of the shore was dotted with boathouses and docks, because the lake was big enough to sail on. Here and there, man-made beaches of golden sand sloped to the water. Everywhere there were trees, and over the lawns and road, the sweet green leaves of spring were casting the first delicate shadows. Tulips opened their petals to the light; pansies spilled from window boxes.
Aaron inhaled a deep breath of air. “Nice day for a cookout.” Bella nodded. “Mmm. Funny, it usually is. The Hortons have held the first neighborhood summer cookout for years.” “How many people will be there?”
“Not a real crowd. Lots of these houses are just vacation homes. Like the one to the right of us—”
“That place is just for vacations?” Aaron turned to look back at the house.
“I know. An interior designer from Boston, Eleanor Clark, owns it. She usually comes here in the summer. I heard she loaned it to her niece this year while Eleanor goes around the world with her new boyfriend. She’s an artist—Natalie, not Eleanor—about our age.”
“Have you met Natalie?”
“Not yet. I think she’ll be at the cookout. I hope so. I’d like to meet her.”
“I’d like to see the inside of that house,” Aaron said.
Bella knocked his shoulder with hers. “Ever the architect.”
• • •
Natalie noticed the man when he stepped out of the Jeep parked in front of the Hortons’ house. He was a hunk, with a stern countenance that gave him an air of intelligence. Judgment. Responsibility.
She thought: Now there is a face I would like to paint.
A wide brow—poets would call it “noble”—over romantically down-slanting pale blue eyes. A straight, slender nose, neat ears, a long face with a firm jaw. Wrinkles at the corners of the eyes and across the forehead, not, she figured, from laughing but from thinking. Here in the five-college area, lots of people thought for a living. The man was perhaps thirty. His hair was golden brown, like toast; she would have bet he’d been a towheaded child.
“That’s my son,” Louise Barnaby told Natalie. She was sitting next to Natalie, both of them in rockers on the front porch of the Hortons’ house. Louise still had to baby her leg, although she could walk on it without a cane, and Natalie had brought her a glass of chilled white wine.
Louise was Natalie’s first lake friend. She’d visited when Natalie moved into her aunt Eleanor’s house this week, presenting her with a casserole and a vase of fresh flowers. She’d insisted Natalie come to the cookout with Louise and her husband, Dennis, who was out on the front lawn, stabbing croquet wickets into the ground.
“He’s awfully cute,” Natalie said.
Louise smiled. “I know. The great thing is, he doesn’t realize it.” Natalie was grateful for Louise’s company. Louise was older, but still chic, her blond hair cut in a sexy shag, her trim body clad in chinos and a blue tee that brought out the azure of her eyes. Louise didn’t look like a fifty-five-year-old who’d given birth to four children. For that matter, Dennis was tall, slender, with lots of floppy gray hair. He still looked pretty fine as well.
It was shallow of Natalie to be so judgmental, she knew, but she’d been afraid when she made the decision to move out here from Manhattan she’d find everyone sporting Birkenstocks, feeding chickens, and discussing compost.
Was she a snob? Really, she could only claim to be, at most, a wannabe snob. She didn’t have the pedigree to be a real one.
Also, she was learning, there were different kinds of snobs. Here, near Amherst, Massachusetts, home of Amherst College, where the old money went, and Hampshire College, where the hip gifted went, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where Bill Cosby and Jack Welch had gone, near Smith College, where poor, brilliant Sylvia Plath had gone, and Mount Holyoke College, where Emily Dickinson and Wendy Wasserstein had gone, the snobbery would be intellectual.
Natalie felt awkward in her black jeans and black silk shirt. This was about as cookoutish as her New York wardrobe got. She’d just moved to Aunt Eleanor’s house. She hadn’t had time to buy different clothes yet.
Just for a moment, Natalie put her hand to her own head. At least her hair was growing out. Two years ago, when she had moved to Manhattan, she’d gone to a hairdresser and had it all chopped off into a severe, chic, scalp-clinging crop. It had been a part of her statement. She could still remember leaving the salon, head high and suddenly weightless, feeling the fresh air on her bare neck, knowing that now her real life was about to begin. She’d been twenty-eight. She’d struggled to get there. At times in her life, she’d despaired of getting there. For years she’d had to drop her studies to work, often two jobs, to pay for more studies, because her parents could never help her financially. If it hadn’t been for her aunt Eleanor, she would never have made it to Manhattan.
She dropped her hand. As soon as she’d decided to leave Manhattan, she’d begun to grow her hair out. Already dark curls clustered over her ears.
“We’re ready!” Morgan called. “Shall I fasten Petey in his stroller?” Her husband was in his study, tapping frantically at the com-
puter. A sunny Saturday afternoon, and he was working. “Josh?” She tried not to sound waspish. “The cookout.” “Coming.”
Morgan took a deep breath. During the past year, she’d learned to achieve feats of patience she never before dreamed possible. First of all, her adorable boy, just a year old, had taught her a whole new range of deep breathing. Then Josh had taken this job with Bio-Green Industries—and she had wanted him to take it, she had encouraged him to take it—and suddenly her husband was too busy to haul out the trash, give her a hug, or notice their child.
Although they did have their house. Their amazing, slightly overwhelming, new house.
The O’Keefes’ home was on the shores of Dragonfly Lake. It rose in its concrete-and-glass glory, modern, boxy, space-age. They were able to afford it because the couple who built it had to move to Spain and needed a quick sale. And, of course, because Josh’s new job paid so well. They didn’t love the house, but the location was sublime. A beachfront with sand for Petey to play on. A wilderness to hike in. Morgan and Josh enjoyed kayaking, canoeing, swimming, and dreamed of teaching their children all that and more in the clear, pure waters of this lake. Before the move, they’d been living in a condo on the outskirts of Boston, commuting to jobs on crowded expressways, not getting home until late, too tired to enjoy life, and completely uninspired by the views of malls, highways, and office buildings out their condo windows. This place had seemed like a little corner of heaven to them.
Sometimes, though, to Morgan, it was just a bit like the top circle of hell.
Morgan was a scientist, a hazardous materials expert. Until recently she’d worked in the biosafety department at Weathersfield College outside Boston. She was really good at her work. It challenged her, used all her mental and interpersonal skills; it gave her a sense of accomplishment, of keeping things safe in a turbulent world.
Since Josh had joined Bio-Green, Morgan’s life required a whole new set of skills.
First of all, since Ronald Ruoff, CEO of BGI, Bio-Green Industries, was Josh’s new boss, paying Josh a salary he’d never even dreamed of before, it was incumbent upon Morgan to make nice to Josh’s boss and his wife, Eva.
Morgan had made nice. She and Josh had gone out to dinner last week with Ronald and Eva, and Morgan had been as charming as she could be, which frankly was a big fat private pain for Morgan. She didn’t like to do charming, and she really didn’t like to pretend interest in vapid Eva’s frivolous enthusiasms: massages, pedicures, shopping, and whether Kate Middleton was truly suitable for Prince William; Eva’s personal and lengthy opinion was that Kate was beneath him, and she didn’t even get how her statement was funny. Morgan didn’t understand how a woman perhaps only a decade older—Morgan was thirty, Eva somewhere in her forties, already Botoxed and face-lifted—could be so insipid. Especially with a husband like Ronald, who might not be the most debonair dog in the kennel but at least was interested in saving the world. Or, more realistically, in making money while saving the world.
Morgan had hoped—she had fiercely hoped—that she would like Eva, that they would have interests in common, that they would make plans to get together, because even though her toddler, Petey, was the beating center of her heart, Morgan was quietly and sweetly going out of her mind being a stay-at-home mommy. But if she had to spend more time with Eva Ruoff, she’d hang herself. Okay, that was a bit dramatic, she’d never want to leave Petey, or Josh either, even though these days Josh annoyed her no end. Was she going nuts?
Josh came into the living room, where Petey was babbling to himself as he swept his books off the coffee table and Morgan stood lost in her thoughts.
“Thinking about how to decorate?” he asked.
Morgan almost growled. They had to invite the Ruoffs over sometime, and the Ruoffs believed that their home should make a statement.
Josh sighed. “We agreed when I took this job. My part is work-
ing at the facility. Your part is networking, socializing, attracting investors.”
“I’m not saying I won’t do it.” Morgan adjusted a dove pillow on their smoke sofa. “I’m just saying I’m not sure I can do it. It’s not my field. Not my passion. Not even my interest. Plus, Petey is pretty much a full-time job.”
“You could put him in day care.”
“Josh, no. We talked about this. We agreed.” Morgan snorted with contempt. “How ridiculous would that be, to put a baby in day care so I can spend time making a statement with the house!”
“You don’t seem to take my job seriously,” Josh muttered. “What? How did we get to—” They were back on muddy ground,
the swampland of their marriage. She didn’t want an argument this evening. They were going to a cookout. They were going to meet people. Calming down, she said pacifically, “I know you’re working hard, Josh. I appreciate it. I do.”
She put her arms around Josh, her husband, her beloved. With his thick, naturally frenzied red hair, sparkling green eyes, and freckled skin, it was difficult for him to appear as brilliant as she knew he was. Thirty-five, yet he looked like a kid. A good-natured, athletic, dreamy boy who fantasized about playing for the Red Sox. “Maybe we’ll make some contacts at the cookout,” she told him.
Josh kissed the top of her head and swept his son up into his arms. “Come on, champ, we’re going to a party.”
Outside, they chose the smaller, easier stroller and strapped Petey in. They went down the driveway, past Morgan’s SUV and Josh’s black Cadillac Escalade, which looked, Morgan thought, like something the CIA would use.
Be good, Morgan warned herself. Look around! It was June, perhaps her favorite month, warm and fresh and full of the promise of summer.
Bella and Aaron strolled along the lake road until they came to the Hortons’ house. Ben was parked in front, unloading the Jeep. Bella’s father was on the lawn, setting up the croquet wickets. Her mother was sitting on the porch in a rocking chair. Beside her sat the new woman from next door, Natalie, very thin and sophisticated, all in black.
Aaron called, “Hang on, Ben, I’ll help you.” He handed his bottles of wine to Bella and joined Ben at the Jeep. Together the men hefted the folding beach chairs out of the back of the Jeep and carried them around the Hortons’ house to the lawn sloping down to the beach.
Bella cuddled the three bottles against her. She noticed the new woman studying Ben. Good luck to you, Bella thought.
Ben was good-looking, with the Barnabys’ blond hair and blue eyes. Half of her high school friends had had crushes on him, even while he’d been a totally clueless geek, his nose always in a book, staying late to work on projects for the science fair.
In college, he’d had a serious long-term girlfriend, another science nerd. Vickie could have been pretty if she’d cared to, but she was almost aggressively fashion-unconscious. Her nice figure had been hidden beneath baggy jeans and loose tee shirts. Usually, they had arcane quotes on them, like “Resistance is not futile. It’s voltage divided by current.” In the winter, she wore hoodie sweatshirts instead of sweaters and often forgot to wear a coat. Ben and Vickie broke up after graduation. He went on to Stanford. She went to Harvard. Now she was doing postdoctoral work in London. They remained science buddies who emailed now and then.
When Ben was working on his doctorate in California, he dated other women; Bella knew because she flew out a couple of times to visit him. These women were a new breed—ambitious, intensely intellectual, and not interested in long-term affairs. They were Bella’s introduction to the less starry-eyed side of sexuality, and while she placed no value judgment on what Ben had with them, it made her vaguely sad. But then Bella was a hopeless romantic.
When Ben returned three years ago as an assistant professor at U. Mass.–Amherst, he was a grown-up, a serious adult. He rented an apartment in Amherst but came home often for meals or to sail. It was only a fifteen-minute drive. Today he looked familiar, her normal brother, clad in khaki shorts and an old tee shirt.
Bella went up the steps to the front porch. “Hey, Mom.”
“Join us, honey.” Louise gestured toward the wicker sofa. “Natalie, this is my daughter Bella.”
“Hi, Natalie.” Bella smiled at the woman sitting next to her mother, even as she cringed just a little inside. Natalie looked so sophisticated with her cropped black curls and no jewelry. She looked like the smart girl in high school, the one who always rolled her eyes at Bella. Bella was smart, but she was petite, only five two, with blue eyes, blond hair, and what older people always praised as a “sweet” face.
Natalie grinned shyly. “Hi, Bella. I think you and I might have met once or twice when we were kids. When Slade and I came to the lake for a week in the summer.”
Bella nodded, although what she remembered most about next door was Eleanor Clark. She was glamorous, a wealthy interior designer from Boston’s most chichi area. During July and August, her driveway was lined with convertibles and sports cars and even a Jaguar, with license plates from as far away as California. When Bella was younger and Bella’s older sister, Beatrice, wasn’t married yet, they used to hide in the attic with their parents’ field glasses, spying on all the golden people languidly lounging on Eleanor’s back deck in their very abbreviated bathing suits. It was better than HBO.
Bella remembered also, vaguely, Natalie and her brother, Slade, from past summers when they visited their aunt Eleanor: two scrawny, pale kids who seemed uncomfortable outdoors. Their mother and father never came to the lake house. The kids would wade from their aunt’s beach into the lake, rushing right back out, clutching their arms, complaining that the water was too cold. The girl shrieked when she turned over a log and found bugs. The boy spent a lot of time in the forest, often carrying a book and studying tree trunks, which Bella had thought kind of weird and kind of intriguing.
If she remembered correctly, the brother had been pretty cute. Movie star cute. Black hair, like Natalie’s.
“I remember,” Bella told Natalie. She settled on the edge of the sofa, cradling the three bottles of wine in her arms. “Seems like a long time ago.”
“It was,” Natalie agreed. For a moment, she dropped her gaze, looking pensive.
Louise announced brightly, “Natalie’s an artist.” Bella said, “Yes, I heard that. What sort of art?”
Natalie cleared her throat. “I paint. I’ve studied art for several years now, most recently in New York. But I’ve always had to work full-time as a waitress or sales clerk to pay the rent and buy food, so I’ve never had a chance to concentrate on my work. When Aunt Eleanor asked me to watch her summer house for her, it was an answer to my prayers.” Talking about her work transformed her. She was prettier, more engaging. “What do you do, Bella?”
“I teach,” Bella began. “Well, I taught. Hey, I’ve got to get these bottles into a cooler. No one wants warm white wine. Want to walk around to the back with me?”
Natalie glanced at Louise.
“Go on, you two,” Louise said. “Grace asked me to sit out front and tell people where to put their stuff.” As she spoke, an older couple came up the lawn to speak to her.
Natalie rose, extending a hand. “Here,” she said to Bella. “I’ll carry one of the bottles.”
Bella and Natalie went down the steps and around the side of the house. Almost a dozen people were on the back lawn, setting up tables and chairs, firing up the grill, going in and out of the kitchen. Bella found a cooler full of ice for the wine.
“I don’t like to talk about it in front of my mother,” Bella confessed to Natalie, “but when you asked what I do—well, it’s a complicated question. I’ve taught third grade for a few years. Last Christmas my mother broke her leg, so I came back to help her and to run her shop for her.”
Natalie leaned against the deck railing. “Her shop?”
“Barnaby’s Barn.” Bella joined her against the railing, and they both gazed out at the water. “She sells children’s things, mostly. Handmade clothing. Handmade wooden cradles. She’s kind of an artist herself, but not like you. She makes these miniature collections called Lake Worlds.” Bella always felt protective of her mother when she spoke about her creations.
“Lake Worlds?” Natalie prompted.
“When we were children, Mom invented stories for us about the creatures who lived around Dragonfly Lake. Darling Deer and her family for Beat—that’s my older sister. Her name is really Beatrice.
Timid Toad and his warty family for Ben, and Busy Bunny for me. Barton Bear for Brady.”
Natalie’s eyes flicked toward the woods. “Are there bears around here?”
“There could be, but don’t worry, I’ve never seen one.” Natalie relaxed. “So go on.”
“Well, our friends were crazy for the dolls, so Mom made more animals for birthday and Christmas presents, complete with miniature nests and lairs. I’ll show you sometime. She began to get phone calls from parents, offering to pay her if she’d create a set of animals for their children. At the same time, a small barn just on the outskirts of Amherst came up for sale. So she got the idea for her shop. That was sixteen years ago.”
“Yeah, the money helped a bit, especially when we all started college, but Mom didn’t particularly care about the money. She enjoyed creating Lake Worlds and seeing children’s faces when they came into the shop. But while her leg healed over the past few months, I’ve run the shop for her.”
Natalie tilted her head, studying Bella. “Do you enjoy running it?”
Bella looked back at Natalie. She liked her frank question.
“Truthfully? I do, but . . . have you ever had a great idea at the back of your mind and it won’t come quite clear?”
Natalie threw back her head and laughed. “All the time!” Aaron approached them, glasses of Pinot Grigio in his hands.
“Ladies?” he offered, with a pretentious bow. “I’d love some.” Natalie took a glass.
“Natalie, this is my boyfriend, Aaron,” Bella said. She stumbled over the introduction. What should she call him? He was certainly more man than boy. They weren’t engaged yet, but they were definitely not merely friends.
Aaron turned toward Natalie, and Bella thought how proud she was to be his girlfriend—or whatever she was. Aaron wasn’t provocative like an underwear ad, but he gave off an air of steadiness, rock-solid capability, competence. If he’d been a surgeon, Bella would have let him operate on her. If he’d been a pilot, she’d have boarded any plane he flew.
But he was an architect, and he was aimed toward California. Natalie was asking Aaron, “What kind of architecture do you prefer? Or perhaps the question should be, who are your favorite architects?”
More guests were arriving at the party, all carrying an offering: a bottle of wine or a casserole or a tray of deviled eggs. Bella saw her mother and father stroll down to the water’s edge, leaning toward each other as they talked. Something had happened since Louise broke her leg, Bella thought. Her parents had always been a team, but now they seemed even closer. She’d talk it over sometime with Ben, if she could drag his attention away from his work for a second or two.
As if summoned by her thoughts, Ben came up the steps to the deck and joined their group.
Natalie sensed an eager click in her chest when Ben approached. She believed she’d developed a certain sort of judgment from all her years of painting, like an organic and obstinate lock growing right below her diaphragm. She would arrange objects for a still life—a vase, a silver platter, a bunch of grapes—and the lock stayed stubbornly shut. She’d remove the grapes, lay a sheaf of daffodils across the platter, and click!—the reluctant lock snapped open. So she knew when a painting was right for her.
That same click! startled her when she saw Ben face-to-face. Something inside her opened to him. She thought she gasped; she hoped no one noticed.
Next to her, Bella stirred. “Natalie, this is my brother Ben. Ben, this is Eleanor Clark’s niece, Natalie . . .?”
Natalie supplied her last name. “Reynolds.”
Bella nodded. “Right. She’s living here this summer.” Ben gave Natalie a preoccupied hello.
Natalie returned a lukewarm “Hi”; she didn’t want to appear eager.
“Great day,” Aaron said. “Have you been swimming yet?”
Ben answered, “Not yet. The water’s still cold. But I got the canoe out last weekend.”
Bella slid her arm through Aaron’s. “Could you help me set out the salads? I think they’re getting ready to eat.” She deftly pulled Aaron away.
Ben stood near Natalie, saying nothing.
“So,” Natalie asked, “you live on the lake, too, right?”
Without looking at her, Ben answered, “Not really. I mean, I grew up here, but, technically, my parents’ house is no longer my home. I’m thirty-two now. I moved out years ago. I live in Amherst.”
“I see. What do you do?”
“I teach at U. Mass.–Amherst,” he said as he cast a sideways glance at her and blushed deeply.
Well, ha! she thought, he was as attracted to her as she was to him. She angled her body toward him, lifting her face toward his. “What do you teach?”
“Chemical engineering.” He stuck his hands in the pockets of his shorts, as if afraid of what they’d do left out on their own.
She confessed, “I’m not sure I know what chemical engineering is.”
“Most people don’t.”
She persisted. “Give me a try.”
He hesitated, then shot her another quick glance. He blushed again. “I heard you say you’re an artist.”
She smiled wryly. “True. But that doesn’t make me an idiot.” Ben checked her face, as if to be sure she wasn’t ridiculing him, then told her, “Chemical engineering is more or less the combination of chemistry and physics with biosciences to create and construct new materials or techniques. Like nanotechnology or new fuels.”
“Oh, well, if you put it that way, then it’s perfectly clear,” Natalie teased.
Ben had pale blue eyes streaked with white, like shards of icebergs, as if a shield of cold protected the deep and complicated depths. He had long, thick lashes, too, and shaggy blond hair. But he wasn’t surfer-boy tempting, he was grown-up tempting. He looked reflective, resolute.
And clueless. He didn’t seem to get the fun in her voice. He seemed, in fact, insulted. She hurried to appease him, because she really didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
“Maybe I could understand it a bit better if you gave me more details.”
“I’m working on hierarchical porous materials.” “Okay . . .”
“We’re looking for a way to convert wood-based biomass into oil.”
“Got it. Sounds important.”
“It could be. I hope it will be.” He continued talking, enthusiastic now, explaining his lab, his grad students, the papers he’d had published in scientific journals she’d never heard of. As he talked, it was as if a light had gone on inside him. Natalie understood; she had her own light.
“There you are!” Louise Barnaby came onto the deck, carrying a toddler in her arms, followed by the appealing young couple Natalie had seen two houses down from Aunt Eleanor’s. “Natalie, I want you to meet Morgan and Josh O’Keefe. Oh, and I mustn’t forget Petey, their son.”
Petey clung to Louise with wide eyes.
“Say ‘Hi,’ Petey,” Morgan urged. The boy blinked. “It will take him a while. With the move, all the new people, so much change . . . He’s really a pretty gregarious little guy.”
Louise asked, “Morgan, didn’t you say Felicity Horton has babysat for Petey once or twice?”
“She has. Petey adores her.” Morgan added, “I do, too. She’s fifteen and still more Anne of Green Gables than Beyoncé.”
“Well, then, Petey, let’s go find Felicity!” Louise carried the baby away.
“Hi. I’m Josh.” Robust and red-haired, he sported a Rolex on his wrist.
Morgan held out her hand to Natalie. “I’m Morgan. You must be the artist, right?” She wore her long brown hair loose to her shoulders. She was tall, thin, and lanky, athletic-looking.
The O’Keefes introduced themselves to Ben, and for a while the four chatted amiably about the lake, the party, the long-awaited arrival of summer.
Morgan turned to face the lake. “This is our favorite time of day. I love to sit on the deck with a drink and see the light show.”
“It’s your favorite time of day,” Josh corrected mildly. “I’m usually driving home from work, if I’m lucky enough to leave that early.”
“Where do you work?” Natalie asked. “At Bio-Green Industries.”
“In that new facility on the outskirts of Amherst?”
“Right. We’re working on plant technology, trying to find a way to propagate plants without the use of chemical enhancements.”
“I’ll drink to that!” Ben lifted his glass. He informed the others, “I’m a chemical engineer at the university. Working on biofuels.”
In a wry voice, Morgan said, “Oh, Ben. Just the kind of person who makes my life miserable.”
Puzzled, Natalie glanced at the two of them. Ben asked Morgan mildly, “What do you do?”
“I was a biological and chemical safety officer at Weathersfield College outside Boston. I specialize in hazardous waste management.” Noticing Natalie’s perplexed expression, Morgan explained, “Chemical engineers and biosafety officers are natural enemies. Chemical engineers are more cavalier with the rules than chemists; they assume that because they’re working with small amounts of chemicals, they don’t have to be as careful and they can skirt the rules—”
“And biosafety officers take up all our precious time insisting we fill out piles of forms and nitpicking our every move when we’re trying to, oh, save the world!” Ben shot back. “We do not dump any chemicals down the drain. My lab is spotless.”
“Gosh, I’d love to see it someday,” Morgan replied wistfully.
Josh chuckled. “That’s my wife. Hand her safety goggles and gloves and she’s blissed-out.”
“I’ll take you through anytime,” Ben told her. “Did you hear about the terrible accident at UNH?”
“No. What happened?” Morgan leaned forward, fixated.
All around them, families and couples gathered in clusters on the deck and in the yard, sipping beer and wine, yelling orders at their kids, telling jokes, laughing. A teenage girl played on the beach with Petey. A yellow Lab wagged through the crowd, looking hopefully for dropped crumbs. Delicious aromas drifted through the air.
Bella approached. “Hamburgers and hot dogs, hot and juicy, get them on the grill now! Fix your plates, you guys, then join me and Aaron down at the table on the grass. We’re saving places for you.” Morgan scanned the backyard. “I’ll get Petey. . . .” She went off toward the small beach.
Their group separated, some toward the drinks table, some toward the grill.
Bella took Natalie’s arm. “Having fun meeting your neighbors?” Was it the wine, or the fresh air, or simply how easy it was to talk with Bella? In a whisper Natalie confessed, “I am having fun. Your brother’s intriguing.”
“Oh, please, don’t you start,” Bella moaned. “Ben’s got the personality of a turtle.”
“Bella.” Her father passed her, a glass of wine in each hand. “Be nice.”
Bella sighed theatrically. “This is what I get for living at home.” “It’s a remarkable place to live,” Natalie told her, and she meant it. It was idyllic, not just the scenery but the sense of neighborhood. By the side of the house, several teenagers played volleyball, jumping, yelling, snorting with laughter. At the other tables, families gathered with other families, and Grace and John Horton strolled among the guests, saying hello and asking if they had everything they needed. Grace would never be anyone Natalie would choose as a close friend. She was at least ten years older, and in her ironed
white shorts and shirt and gold earrings shaped like anchors, there was something a bit prissy about her. Natalie was certain Grace would find Natalie’s artistic dreams too bohemian. But this seemed to be Grace’s talent—to hold large, casual gatherings where neighbors got together to enjoy life.
At Natalie’s table, the group broke off into separate islands of conversation. It amused Natalie to see how animated Ben was as he argued with Morgan about the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt to bring all universities and colleges into compliance with the current hazardous waste management laws. Odd how Morgan, who’d seemed rather stiff, even aloof, when she first arrived, was vivacious now. Who knew what a few sweet words about waste management could do for a girl?
At her left sat Josh O’Keefe, leaning forward rather aggressively in his chair, pounding the side of one hand into the palm of the other like some revolutionary Russian, clearly trying to convince Aaron of something about Bio-Green. Natalie tuned in; was Josh actually trying to get Aaron to invest in Bio-Green? It sounded like it. Not the most charming way to converse at a cookout.
“Josh?” Bella asked sweetly, rising. “Would you help me clear the table?”
Josh said, “Of course,” and stood up to help. Instantly he reverted to the man Natalie had met on the deck: low-key, goodhumored, easygoing.
Natalie leaned back in her chair for a moment, letting the talk all around her fade into the background while she lost herself in pleasure at the sight of the water shining as if glazed with gold by the setting sun. She wouldn’t allow herself to gawk constantly at Ben, but she was aware of him all during the evening, as if he were a song drifting through the air, or light from the rising moon.
When the party ended, Josh carried Petey home, the child’s head lolling on his shoulder, rather than risk waking the boy by placing him in the stroller. Back at their house, he carefully laid his son in his crib.
“I’ll take off his clothes and tuck him in,” Morgan whispered. Josh nodded and left the room. As Morgan undid the snaps of his OshKosh overalls and slid them off his chubby body, Petey shifted in his sleep but didn’t wake. She checked his diaper—still dry; she’d just changed it at the Hortons’ house. He’d be comfortable enough in his tiny white tee shirt, even if a few grains of sand were sifting off his clothes. Her child lay flat on his back, arms and legs spread, as if he were effortlessly falling through his sleep. His lips opened slightly as he puffed his sweet breath into the air. The sight of his innocent face made Morgan feel peaceful in every vein and bone. She etched his face on her brain for the inevitable days to come when he would turn into Hyperactive Tantrum-Throwing Monster Boy.
In their bedroom, she pushed the button (how swank was that!) and the blinds buzzed shut across the wall of windows facing the lake. She undressed, hung up her clothes, pulled on one of Josh’s long-sleeved tee shirts she’d appropriated for her own use as a nightshirt.
She was tired. These days it seemed she was always tired, which was weird, because Petey at twelve months slept through most nights. She got comfortable in bed, plumped up her pillows, and waited for Josh to come back upstairs. Now was the sweet time, chatting lazily with him about the evening and the people they’d met. As tired as she was, she wouldn’t mind making love tonight. It had been a while.
Josh didn’t come up. She went out into the hall and leaned over the railing. “Josh?”
“I’m going to stay down here. I’ve got some work to catch up on.”
Morgan bit back a bitter retort. He was always working, always in his study, even tonight. Since their move here, Josh had spent almost every night on the computer. Sometimes just an hour, often three or four. She didn’t nag him about it. She’d known when he accepted the position that he’d have enormous, time-consuming responsibilities. Still.
Sometimes, when she’d had a bad day, missed her job and her friends, and allowed herself to morph into her Mad Morgan self, she wondered if work was all he was doing on his computer. Perhaps he was emailing some gorgeous, sexy secretary from the office—but that was just ridiculous! She’d never had anxieties about Josh’s fidelity before; she knew he loved her and adored Petey.
She stomped back to bed, shoved her glasses on, grabbed up the Transfederal Task Force on Optimizing Biosafety and Biocontainment Oversight report, and settled in. She would read until Josh came up to bed, and then she’d surprise him with an attack of sweet sex like she used to before they were married.
After an hour, she fell asleep, with the bedside lamp still on and her glasses sliding down her nose.