The moment she walked in, Daphne knew she was doomed. The store was pretty much deserted ... even on a rainy Monday night in April with a lackluster basketball season dribbling to a close and most of the hit TV shows in presweeps rerun. She gazed out on row upon row of bookshelvespale oak that gleamed under fluorescent lighting designed to resemble the kind of opaque hanging fixtures seen in old-fashioned public libraries and apothecaries. There were only a handful of browsers, most of them huddled over steaming mugs in the café section with their faces submerged in books.
Oh Lord, not again. Daphne took a deep breath, holding herself tightly clenched to keep from darting an apologetic glance at her husband. Roger would need no reminding that he'd sacrificed his monthly poker game with the other doctors in his practice to ferry her all the way out here for this.
Stepping away from the puddle that had gathered on the corrugated black rubber mat just inside the door, she felt the mean pinch of a long-forgotten memory: the ancient public library in her hometown of Miramonte, where as a child she'd had to balance on tippy-toes to reach the top shelf, and the loudest noise was the smack of Miss Kabachnik's forcefully applied rubber stamp. Back then, Daphne would sooner have drunk out of the drinking fountain after Skeet Walker had spit into it than dare keep a book past its return date, and thus invoke Herr Kabachnik's wrath ... and that's just how she felt now, coming in out of the rain, her heart rising in her throat like water nearing its floodmark: asif she were about to be publicly humiliated.
Proof of what lay ahead stood at the far end of the store, in the open carpeted area between the children's and cookbook sections: five rows of gray metal folding chairs, six to a row, each one as empty as a faithless lover's heart.
The assistant manager looked as if he, too, would rather be anywhere but here in Port Chester, Long Island, hosting yet another poorly attended event for yet another obscure author. Clearly, a show of enthusiasm wasn't part of the deal.
Daphne felt a stone of panic lodge in her throat. The young man offered her a handshake as limp and clammy as the coat she was struggling out of. That company-manual smile of his, she thought, might have been coming at her from behind the cash register at a McDonald's. Scarlet clusters of acne stood out on his cheeks, and his glasses, retro Buddy Holly, were smudged at the corners where he was fiddling with them.
But even as he was giving her the lowdownsomething about Mrs. Temple, the manager, being home with the flu and sending her apologies for not being able to make ithis eyes kept straying toward Roger, at the moment engaged in thoroughly shaking out their umbrella. He thumped it hard against the doormat, twice, then once more for good measure, before carefully fastening the Velcro tab and dropping it into the bucket by the security gate.
Daphne was used to people deferring to Roger. Her husband's size and authoritative presence commanded attention like a drumroll. She half expected the assistant manager to salute. "Anyway, you're right on time," the boy said, flicking his gaze back to her. "We're all set up for you in back."
"Yes, I can see that. But I'm afraid there's been some sort of misunderstanding." She was careful to strike a friendly, relaxed tone. "My publicist was supposed to have called. I asked that no chairs be set out until we had more of a ... a feel for the turnout."
The boy absently probed a zit on his chin. "I don't know about that," he said. "All I know is Mrs. Temple told me to put out the chairs. You are giving a reading, right? Anyway, that's what it says in the bulletin."
Roger leaned over to give the boy's shoulder a fatherly pat. "Hour and some in the pouring rain on the expressway, I don't imagine a few empty chairs are going to scare us off." He chuckled, a bit too heartily. "You've read it, of course? Her novel?"
He flashed the kid his patented pediatrician's smile. It was the same manner Daphne had once watched her husband use to coax a giggle from a traumatized six-year-old with a broken arm. It worked like a charm on mothers, too. Roger seemed to know instinctively when to listen and soothe ... and when to firmly seize the upper hand with a hysterical mom who was only making things worse. He even looked reassuring: as big and solidly built as a brick church, with thick graying hair that swooped back dramatically from his imposing forehead. Now, leaning forward slightly, he added in a voice low with meaning, "In case you missed it, Walking After Midnight got a starred review in Publishers Weekly."
In that moment, Daphne nearly turned around and walked back out into the pouring rain. She wasn't sure she could bear it, not tonight, his blustering attempt at leavening what was so clearly a hopeless situation.
"Good heavens, who has time to read all these books?" She smiled too warmly at the clueless assistant manager, glancing at the badge pinned to his lapel. LEONARD. "I'd consider it a personal favor, though, Leonard," she went on in her most reasonable voice, the voice she used when coaxing Jennie into her car seat or convincing Kyle that letting his sister hog the VCR with her beloved Aristocats would be a better bet for him in the end than if he bullied her into the Power Rangers, "... if you'd take down some of those chairs. It's obvious we won't be needing so many."
The reading had been set for eight. It was already five past, and on her way in, slogging across a parking lot that had become a marsh, Daphne hadn't noticed any velvet ropes holding back the fans that any minute would come spilling through the door.
Leonard shrugged, consulting his black Swatch. Something in the impatient flick of his wrist just then made her think of her husband. Not just Roger, but every man who'd ever made her feel this way: as if her every request, however small, had to be served up on a bed of apologies and feminine wiles. Where had she learned to behave this way? From Daddy, she supposed. In the gingerbread house by the sea, where she and her sisters had kowtowed to their father like the servant girls in the fairy tales he'd read aloud to them when they were little. Not the watered-down Hans Christian Andersen versions, but the original tales from an earlier, more bloodthirsty century, in which the heads of Bluebeard's wives were revealed in gruesome detail, and Cinderella's ugly stepsisters hacked off their toes to squeeze into the glass slipper.
Her mind's eye formed a picture of her father seated in the brocade wing chair by the fireplace with his head bent over the heavy leather-bound volume in his lap. The light from the fringed silk lamp shade played over his long surgeon's hand as he slid it lengthwise between the gilt-edged pages with the careful slicing motion he'd taught them, counseling, A dog-eared book is the sign of a lazy, undisciplined person. His hair, the pale amber of the single scotch and water he allowed himself each night before supper, was thinning on top and every so often he stroked it carefully as if to make sure it hadn't deserted him altogether. One long gabardine-clad leg crossed languorously over the other as the words rolled off his tonguerich, fulsome, shiver-inducing.
The day after tomorrow she and Roger and the kids were flying out to California for her parents' fortieth wedding anniversary. Her sisters would be there, along with members of their extended family from across the country. Daphne suddenly couldn't wait. It felt as if everything she treasured most was tied up in the big gabled house on Agua Fria Point, where little had changed in the years since she'd left for college. Like the stories contained in the volumes lining the mahogany bookcase in her father's study, their yellowing pages rustling like autumn leaves in the twilight of a seemingly endless golden summer, a summer of sandy bathing suits slung over the porch railing and peeling sunburns and homemade lemonade by the gallon.
As if from a distance, she heard the assistant manager say, "There's usually a few who show up late, though, like, you know, the regulars ... the ones you can pretty much count on."
Daphne nodded. The same loyal handful who showed up at every one of her readings: pensioners eager to be entertained as long as it didn't cost a dime, the ponytailed grad student who considered it his moral duty to support a member of the literary underclass, the would-be novelists desperate for any thread of hope she might have to offer, however slender. And like a fleck of gold amid the silt, the occasional voice piping, "Miss Seagrave, I've read all your books. It's such an honor to meet you."
There were never more than a dozen or so. She simply wasn't that kind of author. Though generally reviewed well, her novels had never been on any best-seller list. Her tales of family unrest, and the quiet desperation that can lie at the heart of a seemingly fulfilled life, sold only enough copies to provide her publisher with a legitimate excuse to offer her a contract for the next book.
At this particular moment, though, Daphne would have traded half her modest advance for a single warm body. A lonely widower looking to kill an hour. A starry-eyed hopeful with a drawerful of rejection slips at home. A tired shopper stopping to rest his or her feet. Anyone. Anyone at all.
Her husband even.
But Roger was already wandering off in the direction of the biography section. She watched his back, the tectonic shift of its broad flat planes under his tweed blazer, the way he pitched from side to side as big men doas if merely assuming that whoever stood in his path must either step aside or fall in behind him. Don't you dare, she called to him in silent outrage. Don't you dare leave me stranded.
She caught up with him by a freestanding aisle displaying every kind of computer title imaginableall of which appeared to be geared toward a fifth-grade mentality. When Roger turned to offer a smilemore patronizing than encouraging, it seemed to herDaphne's cheeks burned.
"Don't worry. You'll do just fine," he reassured her.
"How can you say that?" she hissed under her breath. "You're not the one swinging in the wind here. Roger, I can't do this alone."
He gently shook his large shaggy head. Daphne distinctly recalled when they'd first met, back in college. Fittingly enough, Roger had been her TA in Logic I. Only a few years older, he'd nonetheless struck a professorial stance even back then. All he'd needed were a pipe and leather elbow patches to complete the picture. Once, when she'd asked his help on a take-home exam, he'd been as exasperated with her inability to grasp what, to him, was so abundantly clear as she had with the questions themselves. "Don't you see? Without A and B there is no C," he'd cried in frustration at one point.
What had attracted her to him? Ironically, the very solid predictability she now found so irritating. After Johnny, there had been only the pain, each day blending into the next like waves overlapping one another in a vast, uncharted sea. Roger had provided an anchor. Something to hold her in place whenever the sharp tugs of memory threatened to set her adrift.
The clear image she'd carried for so long had faded, like a wallet photo creased and worn from handling; in its place was a mosaic of fleeting impressions and sense memories. The faint acrid scent of the Winstons he smoked. The self-conscious way he smiled, more like a sneer, to hide his crooked front teeth. The low cynical laugh that came from a place inhabited by someone far older than seventeen, someone who wore his jeans tight when everyone else at Muir High was into baggy, and didn't give a rat's ass if he got heatas if anyone would dareabout his motorcycle boots and the army jacket that was more his uniform than that of the older brother who'd gotten his guts blown out in Nam.
Daphne took a deep breath to ward off the memories, and turned her attention to Roger. He wasn't unkind, she told herself. He wasn't abandoning her. Hadn't he forgone his poker game to drive her all the way out to Port Chester in the pouring rain?
"Last time, six people showed up, and every one went away satisfied," he recalled, annoyingly accurate as always. "Anyway, I'm not going anywhere. Just give a shout if you need me."
Daphne cast a panicked glance at the empty chairs, which Leonard was in the process of folding and stacking against the wall. He seemed in no particular hurry, and was making more noise than a brass band clanging its way up Fifth Avenue.
She clutched Roger's arm in desperation. "Sit with me," she pleaded under her breath. "Just for a few minutes. Until at least one other person shows up. That's all I ask."
He patted her hand in a gesture of fond indulgence. "I'll stay right Where you can see me. I promise. I won't even duck into the men's room."
"It's not you I'm worried about," she whispered, squeezing his arm harder than she'd intended, hard enough to make him wince. "I'm the one who's going to look like a fool."
"You could never look like a fool."
"Easy for you to say."
A faint look of annoyance creased his broad face. "Really, Daphne," he admonished gently. "You're a serious author, not some fly-by-night pulp sensation. No one whose opinion matters expects you to hold court for a cheering crowd."
"Roger, I am not talking about a crowd. Just one friendly face." Daphne hated the way she sounded, as if she were begging, like when three-year-old Jennie pleaded with Daphne to walk her, not just to the door of her nursery school, but all the way inside.
Roger stood with his head bent as if in contemplation, lightly stroking the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "It's the principle of the thing," he explained with elaborate patience. "You don't need anyone to hold your hand. What you need is to have more confidence in yourself."
Suddenly, it was her father's voice she was hearing. Stand up straight, shoulders back, you'll never get anyone to notice you walking all hunched over like that. She could see Daddy as if he were standing before her nowlean, handsome, impatient in the way of someone who knows there is only one correct way of doing something: his way. She saw the bony ridge of his nose and the muscles belting his wiry forearms, his carbon-blue eyes as sharp as the instruments he used on cadavers no more equipped to resist his iron will than his family had been. She supposed her father, like Roger, had had only her best interests at heart, but at fourteen, painfully conscious of her flat chest and mouthful of metal, the last thing on earth she'd wanted was to be noticed. Even now, more than twenty years later, she could feel herself stiffening in resistance, as if Daddy's thumbs were pressing into her shoulder blades, attempting to pry her upright.
Roger was right, she told herself. What was there to be ashamed of? She was an accomplished author as well as wife and mother. A woman who, at thirty-nine, could still catch the eye of men half her age. And that, she thought with a hastily scraped-up measure of pride, was without dieting or coloring her haira naturally wavy chestnut that tended to frizz with the damp. She reached up now to rake her fingers through it and could almost feel the kinks springing up under her touch. But who would notice? Best to simply grit her teeth and get through this with as much dignity as she could muster.
Watching her husband stroll off, his large capable hands stuffed idly in the front pockets of his wide-wale corduroy trousers, she nevertheless felt a wild urge to seize the nearest book Windows 98 for Dummiesand hurl it at him.
The ensuing ordeal turned out to be every bit as excruciating as she'd imaginedlike being skewered on a spit in one of those glass-front supermarket rotisseries, endlessly turning. In lieu of the podium she'd declined, she sat at a small table stacked with copies of Walking After Midnight, on which some thoughtful employee had placed a coffee mug stuffed with half a dozen pens. Just in case, she observed drily, there wasn't enough ink in a single Bic Soft Feel for all the books her legions of hungry fans would be lining up to have her autograph.
A few browsers glanced at her, then just as quickly looked away, as if from a car wreck. It was like the eighth-grade dances she recalled in agonizing detail, the hour upon hour of sitting motionless against the wall, the muscles in her face aching from her monumental effort to keep on smiling as if she were having a good time.
Daphne would have welcomed even the company of the pimply assistant manager, who seemed to think it was enough just to breeze past every ten minutes or so to see if she had everything she needed. She wanted to shriek at him, What could I possibly need other than a two-by-four to hit you and my husband over the head with?
Roger, engrossed in a book at the far end of the store, seemed equally oblivious to her torment.
Daddy would never have left Mother stranded this way, she thought. As strict as he'd been with his daughters, he was always tender and solicitous with their mother. Courtly, even. Mother and Daddy had always been the envy of their friends. Well, they must be doing something right. Forty years, she thought. Daphne tried to imagine celebrating her fortieth anniversary with Roger, but in her present state, she wasn't at all certain her marriage would last beyond tonight.
Her gaze strayed once more to Roger, who now was chatting with someone he appeared to knowa woman with short blond hair, not especially pretty, but attractive in the way of suburban wives who jogged five miles before breakfast and drove into Manhattan every other month to have their hair professionally styled. She was smiling at some comment Roger had made, her head slightly cocked, wearing an expression that brought to mind a word Daphne associated with romance novels: coquettish.
Watching them, Daphne felt herself grow even more tense. Roger seemed in no hurry to get back to the book tucked leisurely under one arm. Nor did he so much as glance Daphne's way. If this woman was such a friend, why didn't he bring her over and introduce her to his wife? Roger didn't have a moment to spare for her, but seemed to have all the time in the world for someone he barely knew.
Fuming inside, she watched him lean into the bookcase, draping his arm over the uppermost row of books the way she imagined he might have, at age fifteen, slung it over the back of his date's seat in a movie theater as a preliminary to working his way down to her shoulders.
Five minutes slipped into ten before the woman glanced regretfully at her watch. She said something to Roger and was turning to go when he slipped her his business card. Surreptitiously, it seemed to Daphne. Or was she just imagining the furtiveness with which it flickered between them before being swallowed up by the woman's navy Chanel bag?
Daphne felt as if a car she was riding in had hit a pothole, jarring her so hard she could feel it in her tightly clenched jawbone. Was Roger working up to some sort of
Her mind refused to form the words, but the wave of panic spreading through her said it all. Even so ... an affair? Roger? It didn't seem likely.
A fractured memory teased at the edges of her mindshe'd been what? Eight ... nine?of a dark room, perfumed fur tickling her cheek. There had been party sounds down the hall, and a couple silhouetted in the doorway ...
She wanted to cover her eyes now as she had then. Silly, she scolded herself. You're overreacting because you're upset with Roger.
"Excuse me. Miss Seagrave?"
Daphne looked up at the elderly woman who'd appeared before her, clutching a copy of her book. Small, gray, shopworn, she stood hunched over as if apologizing for taking up spacethe kind of person, Daphne suspected, who, when someone cut ahead of her in line, chose to remain silent rather than kick up a fuss. She glanced at the photo on the back, then back at Daphne, and sighed before reluctantly placing the book back on the pile.
"It is you," she exclaimed, one hand fluttering to a cheek rosy with unaccustomed excitement. "Oh, heavens, I don't know what to say. I'm so honored to meet you! I've read every single one of your books. In fact," she leaned forward as if about to share some highly confidential piece of information, "I'd have to say you're my favorite author. Next to Iris Murdoch, that is."
"Thank you." Daphne mustered a smile. "That's the nicest compliment I've gotten all evening."
The woman glanced about, and for a stricken moment Daphne wondered if she was going to make mention of the fact that she was the only one paying her any compliments, but the enraptured fan only murmured, "I was afraid I'd be too late. That you'd leave as soon as the reading was over. But here you are. I'm Doris, by the way. Doris Wingate."
"Nice to meet you," said Daphne, reaching across the table to shake a soft, shy hand. "Would you like me to autograph a book for you?"
The color in Doris's cheeks deepened to an alarming shade of red. "Oh. Well. I didn't mean ... but, of course, how stupid of me, you're here to sell books. I wish ... but, you see, I check everything out of the library."
Anxious to relieve the poor woman's misery, Daphne confided in a low voice, "I know just what you mean. I get away to the library whenever I can. I have two kids, three and seven, and it can get a bit hectic around my house at times." The two women shared a knowing smile, and Daphne saw Doris's hunched shoulders relax ever so slightly. On impulse, she reached into the shoulder bag at her feet. From her wallet, she extracted two bills, a twenty and a five, which she then slipped into the topmost copy of Walking After Midnight. Scrawling a few words on the title page, she handed it to Doris. "Here. This one's on me."
The old woman stared in disbelief before slowly extending a trembling hand to accept what might as well have been the holy grail. "Oh. My. I don't know what to say. This ... this is the nicest thing anyone's ever done for me." She looked as if she was about to cry.
Daphne felt a wave of uneasy sympathy. Would she one day be reduced to this: an old woman grateful for any crumb tossed her way? Any small sign that she was worthy of notice, of time and money spent on her behalf? Someone like ...
She quickly brushed away the thought. Her mother wasn't like this woman at all. And neither was she. I'll talk to Roger. Let him know exactly how I feel.
As soon as she was able to make her escape, and they were alone in the car, inching along the Long Island Expressway, Daphne confronted her husband.
"Who was that woman I saw you talking to?"
"What woman?" He flipped the turn signal, and eased into the next lane.
"You seemed awfully friendly with one another."
Roger flashed her a grin. "I don't believe it. You're jealous? Of Maryanne Patranka?"
"Now we're getting somewhere."
"She's the mother of a former patient. Haven't seen her in years." Roger drummed on the steering wheel, a nervous habit of his. He hadn't mentioned slipping Maryanne his card. If she was only a professional acquaintance, it wouldn't make sense, their staying in touch. Unless ...
"You might have introduced me," she remarked coolly. "It would have been nice just to have the company. It wasn't as if I had anything better to do."
"You sold one book, I noticed," he hedged. "That's something."
Daphne didn't tell him the book had been a gift. She suddenly couldn't bear the idea of his knowing. Of appearing foolishly sentimental in his eyes. Even desperate. If she gave up any more ground than she already had, she'd be treading air.
She stared out the window. The rain was still coming down hard. Watching it crawl in dark creeks across the windshield, she found herself thinking, perversely, not of tonight's betrayal, or the affair Roger might or might not be entering into, but of her satin dress and Roger's tux at the dry cleaner's waiting to be picked up. Before packing for their trip to California on Friday, she'd have Kyle, seven years old and growing like a weed, try on his trousers to see if they needed to be let down another inch. Oh yes, and check with her travel agent to make sure the rental car reserved for them in San Francisco was the four-door sedan she'd requested. She'd call Kitty, too, and ask if her sister would baby-sit the kids the afternoon of their parents' party, so she'd be free to help with any last-minute arrangements.
This is your life, she thought. All the little routines and mundane plans piled like bricks, one atop the other, mortared together with caution to form a house even the big bad wolf couldn't blow down. A house strong enough to keep her from thinking about the life she could have had. With Johnny ...
Was that the reason she mistrusted Roger? Because she herself had so often felt guilty of being unfaithful, in mind if not in body? Did the real reason she was so angry at him for deserting her tonight boil down to the simple fact that all those years ago he wasn't the one she'd chosen? Rather, fate had chosen him for her.
Let it go, Daphne. Her mother's voice, soothing as a cool hand against a hot forehead. Had Mother ever felt this way? God knew she'd put up with plenty. Daddy wasn't the easiest, not by a long shot. But they loved one another, truly and passionately; she was convinced of it. Forty years ...
Whatever Daphne might have witnessed that long-ago night, crouched in the closet of her parents' bedroom, had to have been her imagination ... or an innocent embrace she'd somehow misinterpreted. And if not, Mother and Daddy had long since resolved any differences they might have had. While visiting last summer, Daphne had been amused, and yes, a little embarrassed even, by the way her parents carried on after all these years. Her mother lighting up like a teenager when Daddy, who at sixty-seven continued to reign as chief pathologist of Miramonte General, arrived home at the end of each day.
"Traffic is really easing up," Roger remarked. "We should be hitting the tunnel in a few minutes. I'll have us home in no time at all."
Home. That was exactly where she wanted to be right now. But not their Park Avenue apartment. She yearned for her room upstairs in the house on Cypress Lane, lying on her bed gazing out the tall, salt-silvered window at the sun setting fire to the high grass along Agua Fria Point.
Daphne saw herself walking up the front path trailed by her husband and children. Mother emerging from the shadows onto the porch steps with one hand cupped over her eyes to shade them from the bright sun, the other pressed to her heart as if half expecting bad news of some kind. And Daddy, accustomed to the kind that usually ended with a body on a stainless-steel table in the hospital morgue, would be there to give her a quick, hard embrace before holding her at arm's length to exclaim gruffly, "You made it. Good."
Tonight, riding up in the elevator alongside Roger to their penthouse on the twenty-fourth floor, Daphne was flooded with relief, an irrational sense of having narrowly averted some unseen disaster. She felt foolish all of a sudden, imagining that a few minutes of embarrassment in a bookstore was the end of the world. That Roger slipping some woman his card spelled an affair. She ought to be grateful, grateful, for the life she had. Her husband, and two beautiful children. Her parents, neither of whom showed any sign of succumbing to old age. Her sister, Kitty. And yes, even Alex.
Yet the moment she walked in to find their baby-sitter on the phone wearing a troubled look, some deep instinct told Daphne that she hadn't averted a disaster after all, that whatever it was, she was about to receive some very bad news. She felt it in her gut ... even before Susie held out the receiver to her as if it were a small, vicious animal that might bite, offering in a queer, hollow voice, "It's your sister. She sounds really upset."
Kitty. And she wasn't merely upset. She was hysterical, gasping for breath between sobs, barely able to speak. And even when Daphne began to grasp what Kitty was saying, it made no sense. No sense at all. Her sister's words were like the rain dribbling down the darkened window she faced with the receiver pressed hotly to her ear.
"Daddy. It's Daddy." Kitty cried from three thousand miles away. "Mother sh-sh-shot him. The police. Took her away. Come now, Daphne. We need you."