She is twenty-one, gorgeous, and well mannered. She speaks English, she loves children, and children love her. Harriet Major is the perfect babysitter—almost too good to be true. Georgia Coffey has been searching for someone like Harriet ever since becoming pregnant with her second child. But in the sprawling suburbs of New York City, where the many bankers’ wives need a nanny for every baby, good help is hard to find. With her husband hard at work on Wall Street and a new child only two months away, Georgia is desperate to find someone to watch little Justin—and Harriet knows how to take advantage of a desperate mother.
When the babysitter disappears with Justin, Georgia feels her world coming apart at the seams. As the search for her child becomes frantic, she discovers that the kidnapping has its roots on the same big-name street where her husband has made his fortune.
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A Perfect Wife and Mother
By Peter Israel
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Alexandra Frye
All rights reserved.
Georgia Levy Coffey
I can't resist calling Larry at work.
"Guess what, darling? I've found her! I mean, I've actually found her!"
"The baby-sitter! She just walked out the door. I felt like chaining her to the pillars. She's starting eight-thirty, Monday morning."
"Great," says Lawrence Elgin Coffey, with all the affect of a leftover noodle.
Okay, he's always hated me calling him at the office, and once upon a time, I could even understand it, sort of—when he was still a salesman, elbow to elbow, the way he described it, in the "Aquarium" on the fortieth floor, with everybody on the horn and the computers crunching numbers. But now?
"Her name's Harriet," I go on. "Harriet Major. She's almost twenty-two, from the Midwest—Minnesota—a dropout from the university. Apparently there was some kind of love affair that went wrong. But now she wants to go back to school, and she has to earn the money."
"If she's from Minnesota, what's she doing in New Jersey?"
"Her stepfather. Her stepfather lives in East Springdale."
"Oh? Who's her stepfather?"
"How should I know? I've got the name written down, but what difference does that make?"
"Did Justie meet her?"
"Well, you know our son. He was his usual timid self, hardly said a word. But he'll be fine. The minute she left, he started nagging me about when she was coming back to play with him."
"How much you paying her?"
I've been waiting for him to ask this. What else do married couples have to argue about?
"Ten," I say without hesitation.
"Ten dollars an hour?"
At last, affect. He whistles into the phone, and I don't have to be there to see him twiddling his hair with his fingers.
"Christ Almighty, Georgie!" he bitches. "That's over four hundred a week, over twenty grand a year! Hey, is the job still open?"
"Get off my case, Coffey," I retort. "I've been dying on the vine out here, you know that. And I'm almost seven months pregnant, what do you want from me?" I force myself to soften my voice. "Oh God," I say, "you don't know what a weight's been taken off. No pun intended, darling. But I feel as though I can breathe for the first time in months."
Call it manipulation, but it also happens to be true. It's been the summer of the Great Dearth, when the baby-sitter became an endangered species. I advertised in the St. George Times for sixteen consecutive weeks, and all I got were Creole-speaking grandmas from the Islands, whose idea of child care, I know from watching, is to kaffeeklatsch on park benches while our children strangle each other in the sandbox.
Not for me. I've heard too many horror stories. Instead, faute de mieux, and stuck, and in my second trimester of pregnancy, I became, at thirty-two, a full-time suburban mommy.
It's been a long, an excruciating summer.
"Are you telling me we can't afford it?" I ask Larry over the phone.
"Of course we can afford it! That's not the point."
"Then indulge me. You know what I've been going through. Or, if you can't indulge me, at least indulge your son."
"Oh shit, Georgie," he groans, but that's the sum and total of it, for now.
Besides, he hasn't met Harriet Major. I have.
In fact, I all but hired her over the phone. I think I knew it the minute I heard her voice. For God's sake, she can speak the English language! She is also direct, self-assured. We chatted on the phone—that is, I chatted, chattered—nerves, I guess—and then, that same magical morning, she was standing on the threshold to my living room, poised, her mouth half-open.
"I think it's the most beautiful room I've ever seen," she said. "It's ... perfect."
And it is, or almost.
And so is Harriet Major.
We talked. She sat on my curlicued Victorian couch, a total stranger, hands in her lap, her straight blond hair dappled by sunlight, the strong features of her face in shadow. We even talked about restoring wood, of all things. (She asked.) The couch on which she sat was my first serious piece. I'd bought it for ninety dollars, a relic at a St. George estate sale, figuring that if I wrecked it, it was only ninety dollars. I learned to strip with a toothbrush, with a Q-tip where the toothbrush won't fit, with a matchstick for the tiniest crevices. When I was finished, the reupholstery, in striped silk, cost me eight hundred dollars—Larry thought I was nuts—but I've since been offered four thousand for the piece. Then I started on the room itself that, when we moved in, had been stained a dark and morbid mahogany like the rest of the house. I wanted the original natural oak. I got it too, removing the decorative molding around the fireplace rosette by rosette, gluing them back when I was done staining and oiling, and I'd just begun on the central staircase when I discovered I was pregnant with Justin.
End of project. I called in the professionals for the rest of the house.
"God, what a marvelous talent," Harriet said. "Bringing things back to life like that."
"It's not a talent," I corrected. "Just hard work and time. Mountains of time."
"Would you ever be willing to teach me?"
"I'd be glad to one day, but not while I'm pregnant."
"No, of course not. But I'd have thought—"
"It's the fumes," I explained. "Zip Strip, absolutely lethal stuff. Even normally you have to do it with the windows wide open and fans blowing. God knows what it would do to a tummy baby."
The words came out without my thinking, and I burst out laughing. I explained. Justin, at three and a half, and with my bulge finally visible, has discovered tummy babies, also egg babies, and that he himself was a tummy baby. He can't get over it, not only that he was my tummy baby, but that I was once his grandma's, that his grandma had been his greatgrandma's, and ...
"It blows his mind," I said, thinking: What am I babbling about, to this stunning young creature who, to judge, is a long way away from the grandeur and misery of motherhood? "Probably the first thing he'll ask you," I said to her, "is if you were one too."
"Well, I was," she answered gravely, "except that my mother is dead now."
"Oh God, I'm sorry. I—"
"No, no, it's nothing," smoothing her hair away from her eyes. "I was just wondering what he knows, or doesn't know, about death. People dying. Some parents have very particular ideas."
I don't, but I appreciated her sensitivity. Strangely, though, my passing praise—or what I meant as praise—seemed to disconcert her. She tossed her head briefly, as though in denial, and quickly changed the subject.
It was hard not to gape. She is simply ravishing. She's about my height, but something— perhaps it was the strong sculptured features, the erect posture—gave the impression of stature. Gray-blue eyes, prominent cheekbones, upturned lips, strong chin, the whole framed in straight and glinting blond, shoulder-length. (Time was—at Dalton, Barnard—I'd have killed for hair like that!) Long fingers, well-tended nails. No makeup that I could detect. Watching her move that morning, I could only think, with a groan, of the trainer I'm going to have to have in again, once the baby comes.
At her age, maybe her face still lacks a certain character. That's what my mother would say. But then there are the eyes, the look. That steady, long-lashed, gray-blue gaze.
She seemed totally oblivious to it.
Women like that—beautiful women who pretend not to notice it—have often irritated me.
"I think you'd better tell me," I said finally. "What's a lovely and well-spoken young woman of twenty-one doing applying for a baby-sitting job?"
It seemed to unnerve her a little. She simply stared at me for a moment, until I realized that she wasn't focusing on me but on something behind me. Then she averted her eyes, gazed down at her hands.
"I've been through a pretty rough time recently," she said, looking back at me. "I guess I'm not used to talking about it."
"Well," I said, "you don't have to. I didn't mean—"
"No. I don't mind. You've every right to know."
It turned out that the first real love of her life—some campus romance, I gathered—had ended last spring when the young man in question took up with someone else. Johnny was his name—Johnny One-Note, she said with a wry smile, explaining that he was a buff of old pop tunes. Apparently she'd taken the loss hard.
"I guess I pretty much went under, Mrs. Coffey," she said. "I didn't take my exams. I couldn't talk to people, much less bring myself to go outside. Most of my time I spent calling him in my mind, but I never once picked up the phone. I don't remember even eating anything other than candy bars. And all the time, I hated myself—I knew I had to get out of there and regroup—but I could hardly get out of bed. Feeling too sorry for myself, I guess. And ashamed! Can you imagine that, Mrs. Coffey? He was the one who left me, but I was the one who felt ashamed?"
I nodded, smiling in sympathy. It had been a long time—a very long time, it seemed—since I'd felt that kind of oh-so-emotional hopelessness. I burbled something to the effect that her Johnny One-Note would scarcely be the last man in her life. "I think, though," I added, "that if we're going to end up working together, you ought to start calling me Georgia."
She thanked me for that. She seemed vastly relieved, now that she'd gotten the story out.
"Anyway, it's over," she said. "It really is. I got myself out here, to my stepfather's, and now, finally," with a half, sort of sly, smile, "I'm regrouping. I mean, in addition to needing the money, I want to get back into the world, do something, be useful to somebody."
"How far did you get in school?" I asked.
"Oh, I would have—was supposed to have—finished my junior year."
"With just one year to go?"
"Well, it'd be nice to help you get back there, wouldn't it?"
"I'd like that very much."
"And are you okay here? With your stepfather, I mean?"
"Oh yes, that's fine. I can stay as long as I want. Most of the time, I'm free to come and go. Luckily I have my own car."
"What does your stepfather do?"
"He has his own business, in New York. You can call him if you want to. I put him on the list—Robert A. Smith?—not as a reference really, but just to have someone local. The rest, I'm afraid, are all in Minnesota."
I glanced down at the list she'd given me, handwritten in a neat and girlish script. Names, phone numbers, dates of employment.
We passed easily to the details of the job. I told her about Group, the little toddlers' school Justin goes to two mornings a week. Then I said, "You really should tell me, Harriet. How much do you need to earn?"
"I think you should pay me whatever you think is fair," she replied.
Two things, in fact, crossed my mind. One was that I'd found the answer to my troubles and that there was no way I was going to let anyone else steal her, least of all because of a few dollars. The going rate, in St. George, is six dollars an hour, seven tops. And the second thing—this is what I said, aloud—was that the person to whom I entrusted my most valued possession, it seemed to me, ought to make at least as much as the person who cleans my house.
"That means ten dollars an hour," I said. "That's what I suggest. Does that sound fair?"
"I think it's generous," she answered, smiling. "Too generous, actually."
"Well, then that's that. Unless you've something else, I think all that's left is for you to meet the 'valued possession' in question."
"Yes," she said, laughing with me. "I'd like that very much."
Justin knew what I was doing, whom I was talking to and why, but when I called him down and introduced him to Harriet, he ducked away, clutching some toy he wouldn't reveal. And stayed there, wordless, listening without seeming to.
We talked around him for a few moments. I told him Harriet was going to come play with him, starting Monday morning, would he like that?
"A little R-E-G-R-E-S-S-I-O-N this morning," I apologized. "He isn't usually like this."
And a small Pinocchio nose for Georgia, I thought—you should hear his father on the subject—but Harriet smiled back at me, at Justin next to me.
"It's okay," she said. "Sometimes boys are a little like puppies. They need to sniff you out first."
Normally an idea like that would have tickled Justin, but he didn't react. Wouldn't. I took this as a signal to end the conversation. Not that it mattered because I'd already made up my mind and he could scream his head off, but I stood, smiling, saying, "Well, it seems as though we've made a deal, Harriet. I'm awfully glad, and I hope you'll be very happy here."
"I know I will be," she said.
I extended my hand, but then she did the most extraordinary thing.
Instead of responding to me, she slipped forward onto her knees, on the carpet, and, her arms outstretched gently toward Justin, she said very calmly, "I think you heard my name before. I'm Harriet. Harriet Major. I think I'd like to be friends with you. What did you say your name was?"
Surprised, I almost answered for him, but in the same breath I felt him straighten next to me and move hesitantly toward her. His right hand came forward too, taking hers, and then I heard his small voice:
"'ustin. 'ustin Cawpey."
It's Saturday night. We're at the Penzils', their end-of-summer party. I almost didn't come. When Larry came home from his sacred tennis this afternoon—he and Joe Penzil against Mark Spain and somebody else—he started working me over about how much I'm paying Harriet. At first I thought it was because they'd lost, but he wouldn't let it go, even while we were dressing. How could I piss money away like that? If I really wanted to piss money away, there are homeless people lying all over the streets of New York; I'd do better handing out dollar bills on the corner.
I took a little of it, defending myself. Then I said, "What are you really worried about? Are you afraid I'm going to tell people tonight? And that they'll make you the laughingstock?"
"Well," he said, "what you're doing certainly is inflationary."
"Inflationary? What's not inflationary? Isn't your salary inflationary?"
"What do you mean by that?"
I didn't know exactly what I meant.
"Never mind," I said. "If you want to be perfectly safe, then I won't go. I don't feel like it anyway. I've got a splitting headache."
"Aw, Georgie, for Christ's sake. You pull this every year. We've got to go. Jesus Christ, they're our friends! And you look beautiful! Look, honey, I'm sorry. You're right. It doesn't matter. Pay her whatever you damn want to."
Maybe I do pull it every year, or threaten to. It's at times like this that I most miss our friends in the city—my friends really, as the people at the Penzils' are Larry's. The networth set, Wall Street mostly, the women mostly housewives and mothers. And whatever he says, I look like shit—a tub no matter what I do, in the billowing black chiffon and my tear-drop, baroque-pearl earrings—and then there are the insufferable compliments of the women:
"Why, Georgia, you look positively blooming!"
But it isn't that either—the people, or what I look like. And I do have a headache.
It's Harriet. Harriet and my paranoia.
Earlier, I tried the first number on her references list: 612 area code. A snooty, upper-register voice answered: "You have reached the Colwell residence. Neither Dr. Colwell nor I is available to talk to you. If you wish, you may leave a message after the tone."
Excerpted from A Perfect Wife and Mother by Peter Israel. Copyright © 1993 Alexandra Frye. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Godd suspense novel. Hard to follow at times.