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Somewhere in London
Kingsley Edge was playing God tonight. He hoped the real God, if He did exist, wouldn't mind.
He'd told his driver to let him out a few blocks before his destination. Warm air, a late-April rain and a little English magic had sent a soft white fog twisting and flicking its tail down winding streets, and Kingsley wanted to enjoy it. He wore a long coat and carried a leather weekender bag over his shoulder. It was late, and although the city was still awake, it kept its voice down. The only sounds around him came from the soles of his shoes echoing against the wet and shining pavement and the distant murmur of city traffic.
When he arrived at the door he knocked without hesitation.
After a pause, it opened.
They stared at each other a full five seconds before one of them spoke. Kingsley took it upon himself to break the silence.
"I'm the last person you were expecting to see again, om?" Kingsley asked.
He expected the shock and he expected the silence, but he didn't expect what happened next.
He didn't expect Grace Easton to step onto the porch in her soft gray robe and bare feet and wrap him in her arms.
"If I'd known this is how the Welsh say 'hello,' I would have visited sooner," Kingsley said. Grace pulled back from the embrace and smiled at him, her bright turquoise eyes gleaming.
"You're always welcome here." Grace's words were tender, her accent light and musical. She took his arm and ushered him into the house. "Always."
a lovely word. He never used to believe in words like always, like forever, like everything. Now at forty-eight he'd lived long enough he could see both ends of his life. Always. There might be something to it after all.
"Zachary's asleep," Grace said in a whisper as she took his coat, hung it up, and guided him into a cozy living room. "He gets up at five every morning, so he goes to bed at a reasonable hour. I prefer the unreasonable hours myself."
"You're the night owl?"
"It works for us," she said with a smile. "I can get work done after Zachary and Fionn fall asleep. Would you like tea? I can put the kettle on. Or something stronger?"
"I brought my own something stronger," he said.
He unzipped his weekender bag and offered her a bottle of wine. She examined the label.
"Rosanella Syrah," she said. "Never had it before."
"It's from my son's winery. Best Syrah I've ever tasted."
"Not that you're biased or anything," she said with a wink. She went to fetch wineglasses and a corkscrew from the kitchen, and Kingsley looked around. Zachary and Grace Easton lived in a small two-story brick house that made up one of many in a row of neat but narrow accommodations. It was an older neighborhood, a bit shabby but safe and clean from what he could see. Inside the house was the picture of quiet domesticity. Intelligent educated people lived here. And one very special baby.
"Am I interrupting anything?" Kingsley asked when Grace returned with the wineglasses. He took the corkscrew from her and opened the bottle. Grace had a low fire glowing in the fireplace and a table lamp on. Gentle light. Kingsley felt instantly at ease here.
"Nothing that can't wait," she said, and Kingsley saw stacks of papers on the pale green sofa. He took a seat in the armchair opposite her and crossed one leg over his knee. She curled up into a ball, her knees to her chest, her bare feet sticking out from the bottom of the robe. Her long red hair was knotted at the nape of her neck in a loose and elegant bun. In the soft light of the room she radiated a delicate beauty. A vision, freckles and all. How had he not noticed before how lovely she was? Of course, the one and only occasion they'd been in each other's company, he'd been preoccupied, to say the least.
"You're grading papers?" Kingsley asked.
"No, I'm still on maternity leave," she said. Next to her on the table sat a baby monitor. "These are proofs of my book. Nothing exciting. Only poetry." She held up a printed title page that read Rooftop Novenas.
"You're writing again?" Kingsley asked. He remembered from her file she'd had a few poems published in her early twenties.
"I am," she said, smiling shyly. "I don't know what it is
As soon as I was pregnant with Fionn I had so much creative energy. Couldn't stop writing. Zachary'd thought I'd lost my mind. He's an editor, though, not a writer. He thinks all writers are a bit mad."
"I might have to agree with him," Kingsley said. "You have my congratulations on the book."
She shuffled her pages, capped her pen. "Thank you, Kingsley. But I don't believe you crossed an ocean simply to talk about my poetry."
"Even if it was inspired by a mutual friend of ours?" Kings-ley said.
"Even so," she admitted without shame. Good. Kingsley might have despised her if she'd had any regrets, any shame for what had happened. Instead, she'd come with an open heart to their world, an open mind, and had returned home carrying a blessing inside her. "It's back to school in a few months, and I'm trying not to think about having to leave Fionn."
"He taught at our high school after he graduated. Did you know that?"
She held her glass steady on the coffee table between them as Kingsley poured the wine.
"He told me he used to teach. Said he liked it. I didn't expect that from him."
Kingsley picked up a framed photograph that sat on the coffee table between thema black-and-white picture of a newborn infant boy sleeping on a white pillow.
"That's one thing you can say for him," Kingsley said, turning the photograph toward Grace. "He's full of surprises."
She blushed beautifully and laughed quietly, and Kingsley couldn't help but join in her laugh.
"Is he why you're here? Are you checking on Fionn for him?"
"No," Kingsley said. "Although he'll never forgive me if I don't look in on him while I'm here." Kingsley ached to see the boy, but he had learned the hard way to never disturb a sleeping baby.
"I'm only asking why you're here out of curiosity. You never need a reason to visit us. I assume everyone is well?" Grace asked. "Juliette? Your daughter? Nora?"
"Juliette and Celeste are perfect as usual," he said. "But Nora, she lost her mother recently. A month ago, I believe."
"I had no idea. Zachary never said a word about it."
"She didn't tell anyone until afterward. She disappeared on us for two weeks."
"Nora." Grace sighed and shook her head. "Well, if she behaved like a normal person, she wouldn't be Nora, would she?"
"No. No, she wouldn't be." Kingsley laughed to himself. "But she and her mother
they had a difficult relationship."
"Because of him?"
"Her mother hated him. I don't use the word hate lightly," Kingsley said. "I think it was a peace offering to her mother for Nora to go alone. And she couldn't tell him. Nora ran away to her mother's once before, and he hunted her down like the hound of hell."
"I didn't know that. But I can imagine he's
persistent where she's concerned?"
"That is one way to put it." Kingsley took a sip of his wine. "She and her mother, they had unfinished business."
"That's the worst-case scenario then, isn't it? If you're close to your parents, you have no regrets when they pass away. If you have no relationship, you have no grief. If you want to be close, but you can't be."
"She took it very hard," Kingsley said, knowing Nora well enough to say that in good faith.
"I'll call her tomorrow," Grace said. "Maybe she should come stay with us a few days. She loves being around Fionn. And she and Zachary fight so much, she'll forget all her sorrows, I promise."
Kingsley wanted to laugh. Only Grace Easton would call the woman who had sleptmore than oncewith her husband, offer her condolences on the loss of her mother and then invite her to stay in her home with Grace, her husband and their infant son who was fathered by Nora's lover.
Did Grace have any idea what an extraordinarily odd woman she was?
Then again, what room did Kingsley have to talk?
"Apart from that, we're all well. He's well," Kingsley said, saving Grace the embarrassment of asking about him.
"Good," Grace said with a smile. "I never know
He's the easiest man in the world to talk to
and the most difficult man to read. Rather amazes me that Nora's been with him over twenty years and is as sane as she is. Zachary was my professor when we fell in love, and I thought I'd go insane trying to keep that secret from my friends, my family, the school. To be with a priest for twenty years."
"No one is more amazed than I that they've lasted. The sanity part is up for debate, but you can't question the love. Not anymore. And he hasn't made it easy for her, and she. Well, I don't have to tell you anything about Nora, do I?"
Grace grinned broadly.
"No," she said. "No, you don't." She took a drink of the Syrah, and her eyes widened in delight.
"Your son is quite the vintner. This is marvelous."
"I told you so," Kingsley said, taking a sip of his own wine. The Syrah was good, an excellent vintage, strong and potent. As much as Kingsley loved the taste, he found it hard to drink sometimes. The knot of pride in his throat made it difficult to swallow.
"Zachary was very impressed with Nico when they met. He's what? Twenty-five and he owns and runs his own vineyard?"
"I think about how I was at twenty-five, what I was doing with my life, and I can't believe he came from me."
"I can believe it," Grace said, giving him a luminescent smile.
"I won't keep you up all night showing you pictures of my children," Kingsley said. He had pictures of both Nico and Céleste with him, and he was seconds away from pulling them out. "I'm only here for a few hours before I catch my next flight. But I did come for a reason."
"Should I be concerned?" Grace asked.
"Non, pas du tout," Kingsley said with a wave of his hand. "Forgive me. French wine brings out my French."
"I speak some," she said. "You haven't lost me yet."
"Bon," he said and paused for another drink. "I have something to tell you. A story. And I can't tell you why I'm telling you the story until after the story."
" she said, although Kingsley knew she didn't. "May I ask what the story concerns?"
Kingsley reached into the inner breast pocket of his jacket. From it he pulled a crisp white envelope thick with documents sealed with wax. The wax was imprinted with what appeared to be a number eight inside a circle. Kingsley placed it on the table between his glass of wine and Grace's.
"The story is about that," Kingsley said, nodding toward the envelope. "And I can tell you the long version which is the true version or I can tell you a shorter, sweeter version. I'm happy to tell you either. But you decide."
"The long version, of course," she said. "Tell me everything I should know even if you don't think I want to hear it."
dangerous word." Kingsley sat back in the chair, and Grace leaned forward. She looked at him with a child's eagerness. "But if you insist. The more you know about us, the better it will be if
He didn't finish the sentence, didn't have to, because he saw the understanding in Grace's eyes. She knew the end of the sentence he hadn't spoken, and her nod saved him the pain of saying the words that no one yet had dared to utter aloud. If Fionn takes after his father
"The story starts twenty years ago," Kingsley said, conjuring the memories he had tried to bury. But he'd buried them alive and alive they remained. "And it takes place in Manhattan. And although you don't know yet why I'm telling you this, Grace, I promise you, you won't regret hearing me out."
"I don't regret anything," she said.
Kingsley straightened the photograph of her infant son. No, none of them regretted anything. Not even Kingsley.
"It was raining," Kingsley began. "And it was March. I had everything thenmoney, power and all the women and men in my bed anyone could possibly want. And to say I was in a bad mood would be the understatement of the century. I was twenty-eight years old and didn't expect to see thirty. In fact, I hoped I wouldn't see thirty."
Kingsley took a breath, took a drink and took a moment to pull his words to together. A pity Nora wasn't here. Storytelling was her gift, not his. But only he could tell this story and thus he began.