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Jessica Bates Randall glanced up the chintz-covered wall to the clock over her sewing machine.
Damn, she thought. It was nearly six and she'd promised to drop off these draperies at Mrs. Boynton's in time to be hung for a seven-thirty dinner party. The Boyntons lived across townin the elitest of the elite side of this southern Connecticut townwhere Jess had once lived when she'd thought that it mattered.
It would take twenty minutes to get there. Longer, if the late February sky decided to storm, decided to actually do what the TV meteorologist had predicted.
Stomping on the pedal, she returned to her work, guiding the final hem of raw silk through the whirring machine, trying to remember whenbefore her divorcethis had been her hobby and it had been fun.
But now it was her businessDesigns by Jessica, read the peach-scripted name on the window glass of the front door. It was her business and her responsibility.
She would not have been late if Maura hadn't called. But her daughter was plagued with yet another crisisone in a never-ending, knotty string since going off to Skidmore two years ago. This time, it was about spring break.
"Mother!" Maura had shrieked. Maura seemed to have taken up shrieking since she'd been in college, as if it were a rite of passage, like keg parties and living off campus. "Liz thinks Costa Rica is cool, but Heather thinks we should go to Lauderdale, that there's something deeply spiritual about its tradition. But Liz says no way, and I don't know what to do. They're leaving it all up to me. . . ."
A muscle tightened, then tugged, at the base of Jess's neck. "What makes you so certain I'm going to allow you to go anywhere?" It was asked half in jest, half in earnesta wounded reflection of a lingering fantasy that Jess could somehow hold on to the maternal control that weakened with each passing year as her children insisted on growing into adults.
"Mother! You can't be serious!"
"You're twenty years old, Maura," Jess replied, feeling more tired than guilty for challenging her daughter in the ongoing battle for her independence. "But I still pay the bills."
Silence smoldered over the line. Jess could almost see the pout on Maura's small facethe much-practiced pout that made the delicate, twenty-year-old face look no more than thirteen.
Then Maura spoke. "Daddy said he'd pay for it."
The lump that swelled in Jess's chest felt like a fur ball, a fur ball named Charles, that familiar, annoying fur ball that, no matter how hard she tried, simply wouldn't come out, apparently destined to remain forever lodged in her gullet.
She wanted to say, "It would be nice if he'd been so generous about child support," but Jess curbed her words, reminding herself to be grateful for her trust fund, for the fact that she'd not needed money from Charles to raise their three children in comfort, that it was only the principle that angered her. The principle, and her pride.
"Then why don't you pick somewhere different?" Jess asked. "If Heather wants spirituality and Liz wants to be cool, why don't you go to Sedona? You can bring back all kinds of stories to enlighten your friends." Years ago, when New Age was still new, Jess had gone to Sedona with Charles. While she'd marveled at the majesty of the red-rock, sculpted, Arizona mountains and soaked in the peace of the candlelit chapel vista, Charles had busied himself buying trinkets and T-shirts and souvenirs to prove to the country club set that he'd been there, to create the illusion there was a depth in his soul.
"Sedona!" Maura exclaimed with another shriek. "Très cool, Mom!"
So Jess had hung up, her daughter appeased for the moment, leaving Jess with an odd taste of lint still lining her throat and the feeling that she'd lost another round, that it was her own fault for spoiling the kids way-past-rotten in the years since the divorce.
She'd made a cup of tea, drank that, made anotherall the while trying to focus on how lucky she was, lucky that Chuck had made it through Princeton, though he now worked alongside his father in the Wall Street firm; lucky that Maura had overcome her past traumas and was funneling them toward a degree in clinical psychology; lucky that Travis, her eighteen-year-old joy, had decided to go to Yale next year, so he would be closer to home. So he would be closer to her.
Distracted, was what she had been. Distracted from her work, distracted from her responsibilities, oblivious to the ticking clock that now said her assistants had left for the day and she was late with Mrs. Boynton's antique-rose-colored, ten-thousand-dollars-worth of overpriced drapes.
Flicking off the machine, she examined the stitches: amazingly, they were fine. She smoothed the lush fabric and moved to the steam table, pressing the edges.
Finally, she finished. She slid the drapes onto hangers and sleeved them with plastic. Then she grabbed her coat with a quick prayer that the traffic would have thinned and it wouldn't start snowing.
As she pulled the blinds to lock up for the night, Jess spotted the stack of mail on her deskfour days' worth of bills, checks, and God-only-knew-what that she'd not had time to open. She buttoned her coat, slung the draperies over her arm, and gathered up the mail with a sigh. It would never get read if she did not bring it home.
Walking over to the alarm by the back door, she juggled the draperies to peek at the envelopes. A long blue envelope caught Jess's eye. Her name and address had been carefully hand-printed; in the lower left corner neat block letters underlined in red spelled out: PERSONAL. No return address appeared on the front or the back. But the postmark was clear: "Vineyard Haven, MA."
Vineyard Haven? She had no idea where that was. Was it on Martha's Vineyard, the island off Cape Cod? Jess knew no one there, knew little about it, aside from the fact that the president favored it for summer vacations and that Barbra Streisand, it was rumored, had once wanted to be married there.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw the red flashing light of the alarm.
Celia Boynton, she quickly remembered. Damn.
She finished setting the alarm and hurried out of the shop.
The note was from neither Clinton nor Streisand, or, at least, neither one was admitting to it.
Driven by curiosity, Jess had opened the envelope at the first red light on Route 1. It had been a mistake.
Now she sat frozen, staring at the sharply written words meant for her personal attention, meant, surely, to make her palms sweat, her pulse race, and her thoughts whir out of control.
Jessica Bates Randall, it read at the top of a sheet of blue paper that matched the envelope postmarked from the place called Vineyard Haven. The words that followed were few, but their impact was powerful.
I am your babythe one you gave up. Isn't it time we met?
No name, no signature, nothing else. And no reference to the fact that Jess already knew that her baby was dead.
Behind her a horn blasted. Jess pulled her eyes from the letter: the traffic light was green. She shoved the paper in her purse. Then she stepped on the gas, and her car moved forward, steered by this woman who could no longer breathe or see past the pain in her heart and the mist in her eyes.