Terry Painter enjoys her quiet life in tranquil Delray, Florida, where the single, forty-year-old nurse lives alone in the house she inherited from her mother. When young, vibrant Alison Simms rents the cottage on her property, the two women strike up a fast friendship and Terry is swept into a fantastic new life: dinners out, shopping, makeovers, even flirting with the handsome son of one of her elderly patients. But nothing about her newfound companion is as it appears, as Terry discovers when Alison's closely guarded past comes to light. Now Terry is locked into a race to reclaim her own life before she opens the door any further to the stranger she thought she knew...
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About the Author
Joy Fielding is the New York Times bestselling author of Now You See Her, The Wild Zone, Still Life, Charley’s Web, Heartstopper, Mad River Road, Puppet, Lost, Whispers and Lies, Grand Avenue, The First Time, See Jane Run, and other acclaimed novels. She divides her time between Toronto and Palm Beach, Florida. Visit her website at JoyFielding.com.
Read an Excerpt
She said her name was Alison Simms.
The name tumbled slowly, almost languorously, from her lips, the way honey slides from the blade of a knife. Her voice was soft, tentative, slightly girlish, although her handshake was firm and she looked me straight in the eye. I liked that. I liked her, I decided, almost on the spot, although I'm the first to admit that I'm not always the best judge of character. Still, my first impression of the amazingly tall young woman with the shoulder-length, strawberry-blond curls who stood tightly clasping my hand in the living room of my small two-bedroom home was positive. And first impressions are lasting impressions, as my mother used to say.
"This is a real pretty house," Alison said, her head nodding up and down, as if agreeing with her own assessment, her eyes darting appreciatively between the overstuffed sofa and the two delicate Queen Anne chairs, the cushioned valances framing the windows and the sculpted area rug lying across the light hardwood floor. "I love pink and mauve together. It's my favorite color combination." Then she smiled, this enormous, wide, slightly goofy smile that made me want to smile right back. "I always wanted a pink and mauve wedding."
I had to laugh. It seemed such a wonderfully strange thing to say to someone you'd just met. She laughed with me, and I motioned toward the sofa for her to sit down. She immediately sank into the deep, down-filled cushions, her blue sundress all but disappearing inside the swirl of pink and mauve fabric flowers, and crossed one long, skinny leg over the other, the rest of her body folding itself artfully around her knees as she leaned toward me. I perched on the edge of the striped Queen Anne chair directly across from her, thinking that she reminded me of a pretty pink flamingo, a real one, not one of those awful plastic things you see stabbed into people's front lawns. "You're very tall," I commented lamely, thinking she'd probably heard that remark all her life.
"Five feet ten inches," she acknowledged graciously. "I look taller."
"Yes, you do," I agreed, although at barely five feet four inches, everyone looks tall to me. "Do you mind my asking how old you are?"
"Twenty-eight." A slight blush suddenly scraped her cheeks. "I look younger."
"Yes, you do," I said again. "You're lucky. I've always looked my age."
"How old are you? That is, if you don't mind..."
"Take a guess."
The sudden intensity of her gaze caught me off-guard. She scrutinized me as if I were an exotic specimen in a lab, trapped between two tiny pieces of glass, under an invisible microscope. Her clear green eyes burrowed into my tired brown ones, then moved across my face, examining each telltale line, weighing the evidence of my years. I have few illusions. I saw myself exactly the way I knew she must: a reasonably attractive woman with good cheekbones, large breasts, and a bad haircut.
"I don't know," she said. "Forty?"
"Exactly." I laughed. "Told you."
We fell silent, frozen in the warmth of the afternoon sun that surrounded us like a spotlight, highlighting small flecks of dust that danced in the air between us, like hundreds of tiny insects. She smiled, folded her hands together in her lap, the fingers of one hand playing carelessly with the fingers of the other. She wore no rings of any kind, and no polish, although her nails were long and cared-for. I could tell she was nervous. She wanted me to like her.
"Did you have any trouble finding the house?" I asked.
"No. Your directions were great: east on Atlantic, south on Seventh Avenue, past the white church, between Second and Third Street. No problem at all. Except for the traffic. I didn't realize that Delray was such a busy place."
"Well, it's November," I reminded her. "The snowbirds are starting to arrive."
"Tourists," I explained. "You're obviously new to Florida."
She looked toward her sandaled feet. "I like this rug. You're very brave to have a white carpet in the living room."
"Not really. I don't do much entertaining."
"I guess your job keeps you pretty busy. I always thought it would be so great to be a nurse," she offered. "It must be very rewarding."
I laughed. "Rewarding is not exactly the word I would use."
"What word would you use?"
She seemed genuinely curious, something I found both refreshing and endearing. It had been so long since anyone had expressed any real interest in me that I guess I was flattered. But there was also something so touchingly naive about the question that I wanted to cross over to where she sat and hug her, as a mother hugs her child, and tell her that it was all right, she didn't have to work so hard, that the tiny cottage behind my house was hers to occupy, that the decision had been made the minute she walked through my front door.
"What word would I use to describe the nursing profession?" I repeated, mulling over several possibilities. "Exhausting," I said finally. "Exacting. Infuriating."
I laughed again, as I seemed to have done often in the short amount of time she'd been in my home. It would be nice having someone around who made me laugh, I remember thinking. "What sort of work do you do?" I asked.
Alison stood up, walked to the window, and stared out at the wide street, lined with several varieties of shady palms. Bettye McCoy, third wife of Richard McCoy, and some thirty years his junior, not an unusual occurrence in South Florida, was being pulled along the sidewalk by her two small white dogs. She was dressed from head to toe in beige Armani, and in her free hand she carried a small white plastic bag full of dog poop, a fashion irony seemingly lost on the third Mrs. McCoy. "Oh, would you just look at that. Aren't they just the sweetest things? What are they, poodles?"
"Bichons," I said, coming up beside her, the top of my head in line with the bottom of her chin. "The bimbos of the canine world."
It was Alison's turn to laugh. The sound filled the room, danced between us, like the flecks of dust in the afternoon sun. "They sure are cute though. Don't you think?"
"Cute is not exactly the word I would use," I told her, consciously echoing my earlier remark.
She smiled conspiratorially. "What word would you use?"
"Let me see," I said, warming to the game. "Yappy. Pesky. Destructive."
"Destructive? How could anything that sweet be destructive?"
"One of her dogs got into my garden a few months back, dug up all my hibiscus. Trust me, it was neither sweet nor cute." I backed away from the window, catching sight, as I did so, of a man's silhouette among the many outside shadows on the opposite corner of the street. "Is someone waiting for you?"
"For me? No. Why?"
I edged forward to have a better look, but the man, if he'd existed at all, had taken his shadow and disappeared. I looked down the street, but there was no one there.
"I thought I saw someone standing under that tree over there." I pointed with my chin.
"I don't see anyone."
"Well, I'm sure it was nothing. Would you like some coffee?"
"I'd love some." She followed me through the small dining area that stood perpendicular to the living room, and into the predominantly white kitchen at the back of the house. "Oh, would you just look at these," she exclaimed with obvious delight, gliding toward the rows of shelves that lined the wall beside the small breakfast nook, her arms extended, fingers fluttering eagerly in the air. "What are these? Where did you get them?"
My eyes quickly scanned the sixty-five china heads that gazed at us from five rows of wooden shelves. "They're called 'ladies' head vases,'" I explained. "My mother used to collect them. They're from the fifties, mostly made in Japan. They have holes in the tops of their heads, for flowers, I guess, although they don't hold a lot. When they first came out, they were worth maybe a couple of dollars."
"Apparently they're quite valuable. Collectibles, I believe, is the word they use."
"And what word would you use?" She waited eagerly, a mischievous smile twisting her full lips this way and that.
I didn't have to think very hard. "Junk," I said concisely.
"I think they're great," she protested. "Just look at the eyelashes on this one. Oh, and the earrings on this one. And the tiny string of pearls. Oh, and look at this one. Don't you just love the expression on her face?" She lifted one of the heads gingerly into her hands. The china figurine was about six inches tall, with arched painted eyebrows and pursed red lips, her light brown curls peeking out from under a pink and white turban, a pink rose at her throat. "She's not as ornate as some of the others, but she has such a superior look about her, you know, like some snooty society matron, looking down her nose at the rest of us."
"Actually, she looks like my mother," I said.
The china head almost slipped through Alison's fingers. "Oh my God, I'm so sorry." She quickly returned the head vase to its original position on the shelf, between two doe-eyed girls with ribbons in their hair. "I didn't mean..."
I laughed. "It's interesting you picked that one. It was her favorite. What do you take in your coffee?"
"Cream, three sugars?" she asked, as if she weren't sure, her eyes still on the china heads.
I poured us each a mug of the coffee I'd been brewing since she'd phoned from the hospital, said she'd seen my notice posted to the bulletin board at one of the nurses' stations, and could she come over as soon as possible.
"Does your mother still collect?"
"She died five years ago."
"I'm so sorry."
"Me too. I miss her. It's why I haven't been able to sell off any of her friends. How about a piece of cranberry-and-pumpkin cake?" I asked, changing the subject for fear of getting maudlin. "I just made it this morning."
"You can bake? Now I'm really impressed. I'm absolutely hopeless in the kitchen."
"Your mother never taught you to cook?"
"We weren't on the best of terms." Alison smiled, although unlike her other smiles, this one seemed more forced than genuine. "Anyway, I'd love a piece of cake. Cranberries are one of my very favorite things in the whole world."
Again, I laughed. "I don't think I've ever met anyone who felt so passionately about cranberries. Could you hand me a knife?" I motioned toward a group of knives slid into the artfully arranged slots of a triangular chunk of wood that sat on the far end of the white tile countertop. Alison pulled out the top one, a foot-long monster with a tapered two-inch blade. "Whoa," I said. "Overkill, don't you think?"
She turned the knife over slowly in her hand, studying her reflection in the well-sharpened blade, gingerly running her finger along its side, temporarily lost in thought. Then she caught me looking at her and quickly replaced the knife with one of the smaller ones, watching intently as the knife sliced effortlessly through the large Bundt cake. Then it was my turn to watch as she wolfed it down, complimenting me all the while on its texture, its lightness, its taste. She finished it quickly, her entire focus on what she was doing, like a child.
Maybe I should have been more suspicious, or at the very least, more wary, especially after the experience with my last tenant. But likely it was precisely that experience that made me so susceptible to Alison's girlish charm. I wanted, really wanted, to believe she was exactly as she presented herself: a somewhat naive, lovely, sweet young woman.
Sweet, I think now.
Sweet is not exactly the word I would use.
How could anything that sweet be destructive? she'd asked.
Why wasn't I listening?
"You've obviously never had a problem with your weight," I observed as her fingers pressed down on several errant crumbs scattered across her plate before lifting them to her mouth.
"If anything, I have trouble keeping pounds on," she said. "I was always teased about it. Kids used to say things like, 'Skinny Minny, she grows like a weed.' And I was the last girl in my class to get boobs, such as they are, so I took a lot of flak for that. Now suddenly everybody wants to be thin, only I'm still catching flak. People accuse me of being anorexic. You should hear the things they say."
"People can be very insensitive," I agreed. "Where'd you go to school?"
"Nowhere special. I wasn't a very good student. I dropped out of college in my first year."
"To do what?"
"Let's see. I worked in a bank for a while, sold men's socks, was a hostess in a restaurant, a receptionist in a hair salon. Stuff like that. I never have any trouble finding a job. Do you think I could have some more coffee?"
I poured her a second cup, again adding cream and three heaping teaspoons of sugar. "Would you like to see the cottage?"
Instantly, she was on her feet, downing the coffee in one seamless gulp, wiping her lips with the back of her hand. "Can't wait. I just know it's going to be beautiful." She followed me to the back door, an eager puppy nipping at my heels. "Your notice said six hundred a month, right?"
"Will that be a problem? I require first and last month's rent up front."
"No problem. I intend to start looking for a job as soon as I get settled, and even if I don't find something right away, my grandmother left me some money when she died, so I'm actually in pretty good shape. Financially speaking," she added softly, strawberry-blond hair curling softly around the long oval of her face.
I had hair like that once, I thought, tucking several wayward waves of auburn hair behind one ear. "My last tenant was several months behind in her rent when she took off, that's why I have to ask..."
"Oh, I understand completely."
We crossed the small patch of lawn that separated the tiny cottage from the main house. I fished inside my jean pocket for the key to the front door, the heat of her gaze on my back rendering me unusually clumsy, so that the key fell from my hand and bounced on the grass. Alison immediately bent to pick it up, her fingers grazing mine as she returned it to the palm of my hand. I pushed open the cottage door and stood back to let her come inside.
A long sigh escaped her full lips. "It's even more beautiful than I thought it was going to be. It's like...magic." Alison danced around the tiny room in small, graceful circles, head arched back, arms outstretched, as if she could somehow capture the magic, draw it to her. She doesn't realize she is the magic, I thought, suddenly aware of how much I'd wanted her to like it, how much I wanted her to stay. "I'm so glad you kept the same colors as the main house," she was saying, briefly alighting, like a butterfly, on the small love seat, the large chair, the bentwood rocker in the corner. She admired the rug -- mauve and white flowers woven into a pale pink background -- and the framed prints on the wall -- a group of Degas dancers preening backstage before a recital, Monet's cathedral at sunset, Mary Cassatt's loving portrait of a mother and her child.
"The other rooms are back here." I opened the double set of French doors to reveal a tidy arrangement of galley kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom.
"It's perfect. It's absolutely perfect." She bounced up and down on the double bed, running eager palms across the antique white bedspread, before catching her reflection in the mirror above the white wicker dresser and instantly assuming a more ladylike demeanor. "I love everything. It's exactly the way I would have decorated it. Exactly."
"I used to live here," I told her, not sure why. I hadn't confided anything of the sort to my last tenant. "My mother lived in the main house. I lived back here."
A little half-smile played nervously with the corners of Alison's lips. "Does this mean we have a deal?"
"You can move in whenever you're ready."
She jumped to her feet. "I'm ready right now. All I have to do is go back to the motel and pack my suitcase. I can be back within the hour."
I nodded, only now becoming aware of the speed at which things had progressed. There was so much I didn't know about her. There were so many things we had yet to discuss. "We probably should talk about a few of the rules...," I sidestepped.
"No smoking, no loud parties, no roommates."
"No problem," she said eagerly. "I don't smoke, I don't party, I don't know anyone."
I dropped the key into her waiting palm, watched her fingers fold tightly over it.
"Thank you so much." Still clutching the key, she reached into her purse and counted out twelve crisp $100 bills, proudly handing them over. "Printed them fresh this morning," she said with a self-conscious smile.
I tried not to look shocked by the unexpected display of cash. "Would you like to come over for dinner after you get settled?" I heard myself ask, the invitation probably surprising me more than it did her.
"I'd like that very much."
After she was gone, I sat in the living room of the main house, marveling at my actions. I, Terry Painter, supposedly mature adult, who had spent my entire forty years being sensible and organized and anything but impulsive, had just rented out the small cottage behind my house to a virtual stranger, a young woman with no references beyond an ingratiating manner and a goofy smile, with no job and a purse full of cash. What, really, did I know about her? Nothing. Not where she came from. Not what had brought her to Delray. Not how long she was planning to stay. Not even what she'd been doing at the hospital when she saw my notice. Nothing really except her name.
She said her name was Alison Simms.
At the time, of course, I had no reason to doubt her.
Copyright © 2002 by Joy Fielding, Inc.
Reading Group Guide
A suspenseful tale of a woman who rents out the small cottage behind her house to a mysterious young stranger, Joy Fielding’s latest novel is about trusting and not trusting one’s instincts. A New York Times best-selling author, Fielding has a well-deserved reputation as a writer who knows how to get the reader hooked. From the first page, you can’t put it down.
In the same way, Terry Painter is hooked from the very first meeting with her prospective new tenant. Forty and single, Terry has a quiet and ordered life in picturesque Delray, Florida. A nurse at Mission Care private hospital for the elderly and disabled, loved by her patients for her kindness and thoughtfulness, she lives alone in the comfortable house she inherited from her mother five years ago, and rents out the cottage behind it. Alison Simms spots the rental notice posted in the hospital, and blows into Terry’s life like a tropical storm. In her twenties, tall and slim, full of open charm and infectiously enthusiastic, Alison is impossible not to like. “It would be nice having someone around who made me laugh,” thinks Terry.
Alison loves the cottage, right down to the colour combination, and moves in immediately. Terry, usually responsible and pragmatic, surprises herself for failing even to ask for references, but she is drawn instinctively to Alison, and realises she wants her to stay. Alison fills a gap in her life, bringing friendship and warmth. With her sweet tooth and ravenous appetite, the young woman gratefully devours Terry’s home cooking and buys her generous gifts. She even gives her a makeover and a flattering new haircut, helping Terrycharm the handsome son of one of her dear, ailing patients. Alison, full of life, brightens the days that are usually spent caring for the old and the sick. Despite the difference in their ages, the two women are comfortable together; it feels like they’ve been friends forever.
Yet almost simultaneously, Terry begins to have suspicions about Alison. How much does she know about her, really? Alison has some strange habits and stranger friends. She has a limitless supply of cash in her purse, and knows the house so well it’s as if she’s been in it before. Her reasons for coming to Delray don’t quite add up, and she won’t talk about her parents: “We weren’t on the best of terms.” Moreover, Terry notices a shadowy figure lurking around her house, and starts to receive disturbing phone calls. Snippets of overheard conversation, surreptitious glances in Alison’s diary, and her mother’s nagging voice in her head make Terry paranoid that her tenant may want to do her harm.
Should Terry have been more suspicious, or at least wary, especially after the experience with her last tenant? And yet, as Alison says of the neighbour’s pet dogs, “How could anything that sweet be destructive?” And who is hiding more, Alison -- or Terry?
Diving deeply into the psyches of her most captivating characters to date, Joy Fielding has created a riveting tale that challenges our most basic assumptions regarding love, friendship, and obsession. It leaves the reader guessing at where the truth really lies until the final shocking twist that Publishers Weekly has called “an ending worthy of Hitchcock”. Fielding delivers an intelligent, tight plot full of psychological complexity, without sacrificing the simple prose and page-turning suspense she is known for around the world.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Terry says she became a nurse after watching her father and aunt die of cancer; her mother couldn’t afford to send her to medical school, so she became the next best thing. How much of Terry’s character is formed by feeling herself to be “the next best thing”?
2. How much of Alison’s mysterious behaviour can be explained by what we learn at the end of the novel?
3. Although most of her dedicated readers are female, and her work has been called the ‘heart and soul’ of American women, Fielding also recommends her books to men, saying our problems are often the same. Is Whispers and Lies a book for women?
4. Fielding first had the idea for this book twenty-five years ago, and says it would have been a very different book if she’d written it then. In what ways do you think it might have been different?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I read this in one day. I was actually getting annoyed with Terry throughout the first half of the book. I couldn't believe how naive she was acting. But wow, what an ending! I didn't see it coming. I love a book with a good twist.
I had given up on Joy after I read 'Lost'. I figured out what was going on early in the book, and it was a great disappointment. I decided to give her another chance when I read 'Mad River Road', which I found very weird and enjoyable. 'Whispers and Lies' was at my local library and I figured it might be worse than 'Lost, but took it home nevertheless. It was great! Glides you easily into a lonely middle age woman's world, and what can happen when life simply becomes too terrible to comprehend. I am usually pretty good at figuring these things out, but this ending was unexpected and terrifying. Loved it!
Terry, single nurse in her forties, rents out her cottage to a twenty something young gal, Allison. Allison introduces Terry to a whole new world of friends, dinners out, make overs and Terry cannot help but think Allison with her hidden past is up to something. This book is full of nervous paranoia and will have you wanting to put the book down thinking this is pretty typical storyline and you have it all fiqured out-read the last few chapters of the book-you cannot begin to guess what happens!!! Read thru the whole book-worth the time!
I've read almost all of Joy Fielding's books, and like The Deep End, this one made me gasp aloud when I got to the end. That's the measure of a great read for me, and Fielding doesn't disappoint. I admit to being all smug, thinking I'd figured it all out. But she got me again. Looking forward to her next one.
this book was a real heart stopper. Once i started i couldnt put it down! This book had one of the best endings I have ever read. I highly recommend this book to all mystery, phsycological thriller lovers.
Unbelievable twist and turn of events. Lots of suspense. You think you know where it's heading, but you're in for a surprise!
In desperation for something to read, I picked up this "chick mystery" from my lady's shelf. Wasn't too bad, actually. (SPOILER) Some well worn cliches aside, I found it really interesting how the protagonist and antagonist very gradually shifted roles...the sane voice of reason melding into the insane ravings of a crackpot, while the young woman, at first a little "off" and cloying, becomes the victim.
A single RN leves alone and rents out the cottage behind her house when a young,single woman rens the cottage and things change. Enjoyable plot, characters were unusual.
I did not like her style of writing. I also became annoyed with the character - Terry. Yes it did have a very shocking ending but it was a disappointing one. I was not happy with this book. However, I am interested in reading her other books just to see if this is her usual style of writing.
i felt the movement of this story was: interesting to slow, slow to slow, slow to picking up, picking up to getting creepy, creepy to WHAT!??!?! just for that part of the story picking up towards the end, this may be worth your time to read if you have nothing else to do.
This is the first book I've ever read by this author, and I read it in 2 days because I just couldn't put it down. An easy read and full of suspense and interesting characters that could be seen in my ''mind's eye''.
The book was great right up until the end. I was waiting for a shocking surprise and boy did I get one. Definitely not one that I liked. Disappointed with the turn of the book.
THIS IS MY FIRST JOY FIELDING BOOK. IT WAS A LITTLE TOO LONG IN REACHING THE SURPRISES AT THE END. THIS IS A CHILLING MYSTERY BUT COULD BE TOO DARK FOR SOME READERS.
'First Time' was my first book by Joy Fielding. So i was really looking forward to this book. But to say the least, it was a big let down. It seems too drawn out, too stretched. It just doesn't grab you. If you want suspense, i'd much rather read something by Dean Koontz, maybe.
The book was clever, but weird, drawn out and the end was morbid.
I am a big fan of Joy Fielding and she is a fantastic writer, but with all due respect, I didn't particularly care for this one. It took too long to get to where it was going, and, ultimately, I didn't like where it went. I realize there were many red herrings I just didn't catch, and I found the ending a little too dark and disturbing.
The story started out so great, that i had a hard time putting the book down, then halfway thru the book I thought to myself, this story is getting annoying,' I am so disappointed.
I thought this book was terrible. I was so excited to read it because I had read her other books The First Time & Grand Avenue and I LOVED them!! Not what I expected. The ending was weird.
I loved this book. I definitely didn't see it coming. About time someone wrote some thing that really keeps you guessing. Enough of the ho-hum, yup he or she did it by Chapter 2 novels.
I love all Joy's books. This one really had me fooled. I loved it!!!
This really was a great read ! I did not see this coming either...I really enjoyed this book..!! You'll enjoy it too !
What a disappointment this book was. I have to admit when I first started to read it, I couldn't wait to see exactly who this Allison girl was and what she wanted with Terry. But towards the end, the twist that the story takes is just so shocking and it just left me wondering 'WHY?' I truly don't understand why the author decided to go the way she did story-wise. If you're a fan of the author then you may want to read it but I think it's a complete waste of time and I was angry that I even bothered reading it.
joy fielding really delivers in this book and has such a shocking ending your jaw will drop you should definitley read this one