The small single-engine Cessna Caravan pitched and rolled alarmingly over the swamps west of Miami. The plane was just high enough for the landscape to have a postcard quality to it, but the wind rushing in through the open hatch distracted the young woman clutching the safety strap so that all she could see was the vast expanse of sky beneath them. The man standing behind her was telling her to jump.
"What if my parachute doesn't open?" she said, glancing over her shoulder at him with a look of terror. She was a tall, beautiful blonde with a gorgeous body and exquisite face. Her eyes were huge with fear.
"Trust me, Belinda, it will open," Blake Williams promised her with a look of total confidence. Skydiving had been one of his many passions for years. And it was always a joy for him to share the wonders of it with someone else.
Belinda had agreed to it the week before, over drinks in a very prestigious private nightclub in South Beach. The following day, Blake had paid for eight hours of instruction for her and a test jump with the instructors. Belinda was ready for him now. It was only their third date, and Blake had made skydiving sound so enticing that after her second cosmopolitan, she had laughingly said yes to the invitation to skydive with him. She didn't realize what she was getting into, and she still looked nervous now, and wondered how she had let him talk her into it. The first time she'd jumped, with the two instructors he'd arranged, had scared her to death, but it was exciting too. And jumping with Blake would be the ultimate experience. She could hardly wait. He was so charming, so handsome, so outrageous, and so much fun that even though she barely knew him, she was ready to follow him and try almost anything in his company, even stepping out of a plane. But now she was terrified again, as he turned her face toward him and kissed her. The sheer thrill of being in his presence made the jump easier for her. Just as she had been taught in her lesson, she stepped out of the plane.
Blake followed her within seconds. She squeezed her eyes shut and screamed as they free-fell for a minute, and then she opened her eyes and saw him as he gestured to her to pull the ripcord on her parachute, just as the instructors had taught her to do. Suddenly they were drifting slowly to earth as he smiled at her and gave her a proud thumbs-up. She couldn't believe she'd done it twice in one week, but he was that kind of charismatic person. Blake could make people do almost anything.
Belinda was twenty-two years old, a supermodel in Paris, London, and New York. She had met Blake while visiting friends in Miami. He had flown in from his house in St. Bart's to meet up with a pal of his own, and had arrived in his new 737. He had chartered the smaller plane and a pilot for their jump.
Blake Williams appeared to be an expert at everything he did. He was an Olympic Class skier and had been since college, had learned to fly his own jet, with a copilot in attendance, given its size and complexity. And he had been skydiving for years. He had an extraordinary knowledge of art, and one of the most famous collections of contemporary and pre-Columbian art in the world. He was knowledgeable in wines, architecture, sailing, and women. He loved the finest things in life, and enjoyed sharing them with the women he went out with. He had an MBA from Harvard, an undergraduate degree from Princeton; he was forty-six years old, had retired at thirty-five, and his entire life was devoted to self-indulgence and pleasure, and sharing them with those around him. He was generous beyond belief, as Belinda's friends had told her. He was the kind of man every woman wanted to be with-rich, smart, good looking, and devoted to having fun. And in spite of his enormous success before he retired, he didn't have a mean bone in his body. He was the catch of the century, and although most of his relationships in the last five years had been brief and superficial, they never ended badly. Even when their fleeting affairs with him were over, women loved him. And as they floated slowly down to a well-chosen strip of unpopulated beach, Belinda looked at him with eyes filled with admiration. She couldn't believe she had jumped out of a plane with him, but it had been the most exciting thing she'd ever done. She didn't think she'd do it again, but as they held hands in midair with the blue sky all around them, she knew she would remember Blake and this moment for the rest of her life.
"It's fun, isn't it?" he shouted, and she nodded. She was still too overwhelmed to speak. Her jump with Blake had been much more exciting than the one with the two instructors days before. And she couldn't wait to tell everyone she knew what she'd done, especially with whom.
Blake Williams was everything people said he was. He had enough charm to run a country, and the money with which to do it. Despite her initial terror, Belinda was actually smiling when her feet touched the ground a few minutes later, and two waiting instructors unhooked her parachute, just as Blake landed a few feet behind her. As soon as they were free of their parachutes, he had her in his arms and kissed her again. His kisses were as intoxicating as everything else about him.
"You were fantastic!" he said, sweeping her off the ground, as she grinned and laughed in his arms. He was the most exciting man she'd ever met.
"No, you are! I never thought I'd do something like that, it was the craziest thing ever." She'd only known him for a week.
Her friends had already told her not to plan on having a serious relationship with him. Blake Williams went out with beautiful women all over the world. Commitment was not for him, although it had been once upon a time. He had three kids, an ex-wife he said he was crazy about, a plane, a boat, half a dozen fabulous houses. He just wanted to have a good time, and made no pretense of wanting to settle down, since his divorce. For the time being anyway, all he wanted to do was play. His early killing in the high-tech dot-com world had been legendary, as had been the success of the companies he'd invested in since. Blake Williams had everything he wanted, all his dreams had already come true. And as they walked away from the beach where they'd landed, toward a waiting Jeep, Blake put an arm around Belinda, drew her closer to him, and gave her a long, searing kiss. It was a day and a moment that Belinda knew would be engraved in her mind forever. How many women could boast that they had jumped out of a plane with Blake Williams? Possibly more than she knew, although not every woman he went out with was as brave as Belinda.
The rain pelted against the windows of Maxine Williams's office on East 79th Street in New York. It was the highest recorded rainfall in New York in November for more than fifty years, and cold, windy, and bleak outside, but cozy in the office where Maxine spent ten or twelve hours a day. The walls were painted a pale buttery yellow, and she had quiet abstract paintings on the walls in muted tones. The room was cheerful and pleasant, and the big overstuffed easy chairs where she sat talking to her patients were comfortable and inviting, and upholstered in a neutral beige. The desk was modern, stark, and functional, and so impeccably organized it looked as though you could perform surgery on it. Everything about Maxine's office was tidy and meticulous, and she herself was perfectly groomed without a hair out of place. Maxine had her entire world in full control. And her equally efficient, reliable secretary, Felicia, had worked for her for almost nine years. Maxine hated mess, disorder of any kind, and change. Everything about her, and her life, was smooth, orderly, and seamless.
The diploma framed on her wall said that she had gone to Harvard Medical School and graduated magna cum laude. She was a psychiatrist, and one of the foremost experts in trauma in both children and adolescents. She had extensive experience with schizophrenic and bipolar adolescents, and one of her subspecialties was suicidal teenagers. She worked with them and their families, often with excellent results. She had written two highly respected books for laymen, about the effect of trauma on young children. She was frequently invited to other cities and countries to consult after natural disasters, or man-made tragedies. She had been part of the consulting team for the children in Columbine after the school shooting, had written several papers on the effects of 9/11, and had advised the New York public schools. At forty-two, she was an expert in her field, and appropriately admired and acknowledged by her peers. She turned down more speaking engagements than she accepted. Between her patients, the consulting she did with local, national, and international agencies, and her own family, her days and calendar were filled.
She was always incredibly diligent about spending time with her own children-Daphne was thirteen, Jack twelve, and Sam had just turned six. As a single mother, she faced the same dilemma as every working mother, trying to balance her family responsibilities and her work. And she got almost no help from her ex, who usually appeared like a rainbow, unannounced and breathtaking, only to disappear again. All the responsibilities relating to her children fell to her, and her alone.
She sat staring out the window, thinking about them, waiting for her next patient to arrive, when the intercom buzzed on her desk. Maxine expected Felicia to tell her that her patient, a fifteen-year-old boy, was coming through the door. Instead she said that Maxine's husband was on the phone. Maxine frowned at the word.
"My ex-husband," she reminded her. Maxine and the kids had been on their own for five years, and as far as she was concerned, they were doing fine.
"Sorry, he always says he's your husband . . . I forget . . ." He was so likable and charming, and always asked about her boyfriend and her dog. He was one of those people you couldn't help but like.
"Don't worry, he forgets too," Maxine commented drily, and smiled as she picked up the phone. She wondered where he was now. You never knew with Blake. It had been four months since he'd seen the kids. He had taken them to visit friends in Greece in July, and he always loaned Maxine and the children his boat every summer. The children loved their father, but they also knew that they could count on their mom, and that their dad came and went like the wind. Maxine was well aware that they seemed to have an unlimited capacity for forgiving him his quirks. And so had she, for ten years. But eventually his total self-indulgence and lack of responsibility had worn thin despite his charm. "Hi, Blake," she said into the phone, and relaxed in her chair. The professional distance and demeanor she kept always vanished when she talked to him. In spite of the divorce, they were good friends, and had stayed very close. "Where are you now?"
"Washington, D.C. I just came up from Miami today. I was in St. Bart's for a couple of weeks." A vision of their house there came instantly into her head. She hadn't seen it in five years. It was one of the many properties she had willingly relinquished to him in the divorce.
"Are you coming to New York to see the kids?" She didn't want to tell him that he should. He knew it as well as she did, but he always seemed to have something else to do. Most of the time anyway. Much as he loved them, and always had, they got short shrift, and they knew it too. And yet they all loved him, and in her own way, she did too. There seemed to be no one on the planet who didn't love him, or at least like him. Blake had no enemies, only friends.
"I wish I could come to see them," he said apologetically. "I'm leaving for London tonight. I've got a meeting with an architect there tomorrow. I'm redoing the house." And then he added, sounding like a mischievous child himself, "I just bought a fantastic place in Marrakech. I'm flying there next week. It's an absolutely gorgeous, crumbling palace."
"Just what you need," she said, shaking her head. He was impossible. He bought houses everywhere he went. He remodeled them with famous architects and designers, turned them into showplaces, and then bought something else. Blake loved the project even more than the end result.
He had a house in London, one in St. Bart's, another in Aspen, the top half of a palazzo in Venice, a penthouse in New York, and now apparently a house in Marrakech. Maxine couldn't help wondering what he was going to do with that. But whatever he did, she knew it would be as amazing as everything else he touched. He had incredible taste, and bold ideas about design. All his homes were exquisite, and he owned one of the largest sailboats in the world, although he only used it a few weeks a year, and lent it to friends whenever he could. The rest of the time he was flying around the world, on safari in Africa, or making art forays in Asia. He'd been to Antarctica twice and came back with stunning photographs of icebergs and penguins. His world had long since outgrown hers. She was content with her predictable, well-regulated life in New York, between her office and the comfortable apartment where she lived with their three children, on Park Avenue and East 84th Street. She walked home from her office every night, even on a day like this. The short walk revived her after the hard things she listened to all day, and the troubled kids she treated. Other psychiatrists often referred their potential suicides to her. Dealing with difficult cases was her way of giving to the world, and she loved her work.
"So Max, how's by you? How are the kids?" Blake asked, sounding relaxed.
"They're fine. Jack's playing soccer again this year, he's gotten pretty good," she said with pride. It was like telling Blake about someone else's children. He was more like their favorite uncle than their father. The trouble was, he had been that way as a husband too. Irresistible in every way, and never there when there was something hard to do.