The caretaker’s cottage is the only home fifteen-year-old Abigail Armstrong has ever known. She and her mother, Rosalie, work for the well-to-do Meriwhethers. Lila Meriwhether is Abigail’s best friend, and Abigail has fallen in love with Lila’s twin brother, Vaughn. But one day the unthinkable happens: The employers who’d always treated them like family accuse Rosalie of stealing a diamond necklace and banish her and Abigail. A quarter of a century will pass before Abigail sees Lila or Vaughn again.
Twenty-five years later, Lila is leading a charmed life as the Park Avenue wife of a powerful businessman. But a scandal leaves her and her son nearly bankrupt. Abigail, the owner of a celebrated homemaking empire, is meanwhile coping with the fallout from a fire in her Mexico factory. In a capricious twist of fate, Lila is forced to take a job as Abigail’s housekeeper. But it is Vaughn, now a documentary filmmaker, who will shake up Abigail’s world and force her to confront the girl she used to be.
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About the Author
She has published fifteen novels in all, including the three-book saga of Carson Springs, Thorns of Truth—a sequel to Gardens of Lies—and 2012’s The Replacement Wife. She lives and works in New York City.
Eileen Goudge (b. 1950) is one of the nation’s most successful authors of women’s fiction. She began as a young adult writer, helping to launch the phenomenally successful Sweet Valley High series, and in 1986 she published her first adult novel, the New York Times bestseller Garden of Lies. She has since published twelve more novels, including the three-book saga of Carson Springs, and Thorns of Truth, a sequel to Gardens of Lies. She lives and works in New York City.
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Woman in Black
By Eileen Goudge
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2008 Eileen Goudge
All rights reserved.
NEW YORK CITY, PRESENT DAY
Lila had saved the storage bin for last. It was all the way down in the basement of their Park Avenue apartment building, along a concrete corridor lined with identical steel-mesh cages, seemingly a world away from the walnut-paneled lobby with its antiques and tasteful floral arrangements, just one floor up, and quite frankly, it gave her the creeps. There was all that stuff to weed through, too: skis and snow gear to remind her of their family vacations in Aspen and Telluride; beach blankets, coolers, and a well-used picnic basket; the antique regulator clock out of their cabin at Lake Mahopac, which she'd brought home years ago, meaning to have it repaired, and which had been languishing down there ever since; stacks of photo albums; Neal's baby clothes and old toys, plus twelve years of her son's school report cards and various certificates and awards; and, last but not least, the scrapbook of press clippings documenting her husband's meteoric rise to the top, which seemed richly ironic to her in light of their present circumstances. Heading down in the elevator, she felt a familiar clutch in her stomach at the thought.
The first thing that greeted her when she unlocked the door and switched on the overhead fluorescents was the set of Mark Cross luggage, monogrammed with her initials: LMD — Lila Meriwhether DeVries — a wedding gift from her late mother. Shrouded in plastic, it sat wedged against the steel-mesh divider separating their unit from the adjoining one: a three-piece matched set in burgundy leather that looked back at her like a reproach. It must have cost a small fortune, money her mother could ill afford at the time, but Lila had used it just the one time, on her honeymoon in the south of France. It had made her feel conspicuous, not to mention it was highly impractical for anyone who didn't travel with a valet. Now it seemed a liability as well, those initials stuck to her like something nasty she'd stepped in and couldn't scrape off.
She tried not to think about all that as she threw herself into the task at hand, separating everything into piles: one for all the stuff that was to be given away or thrown out, another for those items that were to be placed in storage along with the rest of their things, packed in readiness upstairs for tomorrow's move. It was mid-September, and the city was experiencing a heat wave that had turned the storage unit, where the ducts that kept the rest of the building temperature-controlled year-round were noticeably absent, into an oven. Before long she was sticky with sweat, her eyes and throat itchy from the dust.
Lila didn't mind. The busier she kept, the dirtier and more physically demanding the job, the easier it was to cope with what was going on in the rest of her life. For whole minutes at a time, she didn't have to think about the reason for all this upheaval. She didn't have to dwell on the fact that her darling, brilliant, handsome husband was currently upstairs in their thirty-second-floor penthouse with a monitoring device strapped to his ankle and that tomorrow he was being transported to the Fishkill Correctional Facility to begin his ten-year sentence. As she pried open box lids and tossed things into trash bags, the nightmare of the past eighteen months — the grand jury indictment, Gordon's perp walk on national TV, the endless rounds of meetings with his lawyers, culminating in the lengthy and very public ordeal of the trial — was like the wail of a siren off in the distance, registering only peripherally on her consciousness.
Of course, the reality of her new existence eventually reasserted itself, as it always did. Coming across the engraved brass plaque Gordon had received at the Vertex Leadership Association banquet in his honor three years ago, she paused to reflect on the precipitous drop in their fortunes since then. He'd been the golden boy of Vertex Communications, the architect of the merger that had sent stock prices soaring. Wall Street loved him, political bigwigs courted him, and he and Lila were much sought after on the social scene. Theirs had been among the famous faces at every blue-chip function, regularly featured on society pages, Lila always in glittering jewels and the latest couture, Gordon the handsome young Turk in his bespoke tuxedo. She recalled watching him move with ease among his fellow titans of the business world, as though he'd been born to it, and how proud she'd been, not so much of his outward achievements as of his greater accomplishment in having risen, Proteus-like, from the murky waters of his humble beginnings. He'd triumphed over adversities that would have hobbled or soured a lesser man, all without sacrificing his essential decency (or so she'd believed at the time). Others in his shoes might have had their heads turned by such early success, but not Gordon. Through it all he'd remained not only a devoted husband and father but a good man, one who seldom passed a homeless person on the street without opening his wallet.
Then, seemingly overnight, it had all come crashing down.
Even now, after the fact, Lila could scarcely fathom it. It was like some twisted practical joke. How could her smart, savvy, loving husband be headed for prison? How could they be nearly broke? Almost their entire net worth — bank accounts, stocks, limited partnerships, their Park Avenue apartment and the cabin in Mahopac — had vanished like so much smoke from a burning pyre. Everything that hadn't been seized had gone to the lawyers. The only thing the government and creditors hadn't been able to touch was Gordon's IRA. It wouldn't amount to much, given the penalty for cashing in early, but if she were very, very careful, it should be enough for her and Neal to squeak by. Their son wouldn't have to drop out of college, and Lila would have a little time to establish a career of some kind. What sort of career she had no idea. The only salaried job she'd ever held had been back in college. What would her résumé even look like, if she had one?
Company wife (1988–2008)
Twenty years' experience in planning parties and entertaining at a high level. Responsible for managing several homes, making travel arrangements, and, most recently, acting as legal adviser.
Served two years as president of the Buckley School Parents' Association and eight years as chairman of the school's Book Fair Committee. Organized fundraisers for the Knickerbocker Greys and Madison Avenue Presbyterian, where son attended kindergarten. Reasonably skilled at basic first aid, sewing costumes, baking large quantities of cupcakes, refereeing, and SAT tutoring.
Acted in the capacity of unofficial diplomatic liaison during parents' divorce. Saw mother through final (and protracted) illness and, prior to that, a nervous breakdown and several rehabs. Provided emotional (and occasionally financial) support to father through his second and third divorces, as well as the subsequent squandering of his fortune on said ex-wives, until his death in 2006.
Skilled at corresponding with peripatetic brother, who, when last heard from, was embarking on an expedition to the Galapagos Islands.
Thinking of Vaughn, Lila pulled from a box a batch of his old letters, tied together with string. They were from all over the globe, addressed to her in her brother's slapdash hand: Bombay, Marrakech, Abidjan, Lima, Mombasa, Ho Chi Minh City. The most recent one — they had stopped coming regularly once e-mail had become the preferred mode of communication — was from two years ago, postmarked Anchorage, Alaska, where her brother had been based while filming a documentary in the Aleutian Islands. Lila settled back on her heels as she riffled through them, indulging in a small, ironic smile.
Their parents had despaired of her twin brother's ever settling down and pursuing a "real" career, whereas in their view Lila had fulfilled her destiny (and their aspirations) by marrying Gordon and producing a grandchild. Until recently Lila had shared that view, but it seemed laughable now. Vaughn, on the other hand, had attained something far more worthwhile than any material success. He was doing what he loved; he was living a life that wasn't some castle in the sky. She envied him for that, and at the same time a small part of her was resentful over the fact that, while he'd been off traipsing around the world, she'd been the one cleaning up the family's messes. It had been left to her to deal with the fallout from their parents' ugly divorce and their father's equally ruinous second and third marriages. She'd had the job of caring for them when they'd become ill as well — first their mother, who'd died of cancer, then two years later their father, who'd succumbed to a heart attack. Any support Vaughn had provided had mainly been from afar.
Still, hadn't he been there for her when it had counted most? Following the virtual overnight collapse of Vertex, when Gordon and several other senior officers had been charged with falsely inflating stock prices, among a host of other crimes, her brother had flown in from Botswana to be at her side. She'd been on the verge of collapse herself, besieged by reporters and the flow of increasingly dire news. Her normally solicitous husband was too frantic with his own worries to soothe hers, and her teenaged son was asking questions she wasn't remotely equipped to answer. Her friends stopped returning her calls, and she couldn't walk from the front entrance of her building to her hired car without being swarmed by the press. It was Vaughn who acted as chief facilitator and bodyguard in those first crazed weeks, fielding the flood of phone calls, helping her dig through old records that might help Gordon's case, fending off the media, calming the worst of her fears.
"Why is this happening? Why?" she railed at one point, after a frightening incident in which she'd come close to being knocked over by a paparazzo as she was climbing out of her car (an action the man had occasion to regret when Vaughn caught up to him, pinning him against the side of the car and nearly wrenching his arm out of its socket). "I'm not a bad person, am I?"
"No, you're not a bad person," Vaughn soothed, putting his arms around her. They were in her apartment, behind closed doors, safeguarded from prying eyes and intrusive reporters, yet her brother seemed the only thing standing between her and the world. "It was just a shit-load of bad luck, that's all. But you'll get through this. I promise." He drew back to look at her, his blue-eyed gaze like a fixed point on a compass in the rugged landscape of his deeply suntanned face. "We're made of strong stuff, you and me. I've survived everything from armed rebels to snakebite, and you'll survive this."
Since then he'd kept in daily contact, the only one besides her son whom she could rely on for total, unquestioning support. The rest of the family was of little help. She'd kept in only sporadic touch through the years with the various aunts, uncles, and cousins, and Gordon's brothers were a dissolute pair who'd shown more interest in Gordon when he'd been in a position to lend them money. As for her and Gordon's friends, all but a few had abandoned them. They hadn't needed a judge or jury to tell them Gordon was guilty; as far as they were concerned, the facts had spoken for themselves. No doubt they questioned, too, how Lila could've been so blind to her husband's misdoings.
Lila didn't know which was worse: being judged a fool or an accessory to a crime. The latter would have put her in jail along with Gordon, but at least she wouldn't have appeared a clueless nincompoop. (Lady Macbeth, whatever else you could say about her, had been nobody's fool.) In fact, her only crime had been in remaining loyal to her husband. Whatever anyone might think, Lila had been as roundly duped as the rest of the shareholders. Even now, a small part of her — the part that, as a child, had stubbornly clung to the myth of the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus long after she'd been old enough to know better — still believed in Gordon's claim, in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary, that he was the innocent fall guy. The same man who was presently upstairs putting his affairs in order. Gordon couldn't even venture as far as the basement, to help pack up the storage bin, without the device on his ankle emitting a silent alarm that would bring the cops running.
Lila experienced a surge of anger. How could he have done this to her? To Neal? Not to mention all those poor, trusting shareholders, many of whom had lost their life's savings. And to what end? So she and Gordon could dine in expensive restaurants three nights a week and vacation at four-star resorts? Fill their closets with designer labels and buy a new luxury car every other year? All of which had ended up costing them more than a fortune: It had cost Gordon his freedom and the respect of his peers, the future he should've had with her and Neal.
Had he truly believed that money would buy them happiness? That she'd have loved him any less had he been earning a modest salary working nine to five? Was she somehow to blame? No, she thought. Her husband was driven in a way that went beyond a mere desire to provide his family with all the things he hadn't had growing up. Their lifestyle had been a validation of sorts: proof that he was Someone. The irony was that he hadn't needed to play fast and loose; he'd have made it on his own merits. But Gordon had been impatient. Why wait when he could have it all now, simply by bending a few rules?
She thought back to when they'd first met, in their junior year at Duke. Her first day of a class in Shakespearean literature, she was scribbling notes when she happened to glance up and see a dark-haired boy gazing at her unabashedly. She was used to being stared at by boys; what made this one different was that he didn't look away when she caught him at it. His lips curved up in a faint smile instead, as if he and Lila were in on a private joke. Lila was intrigued. For the remainder of the hour, she found herself sneaking glances at him. He was different in other ways as well, more mature-seeming. Also refreshingly clean-cut, in a reverse-cool sort of way, in his snug-fitting jeans and polo shirt, his dark hair cut short but not too short, compared to the boys around him — the sons of the privileged who went out of their way to look as derelict as possible.
In the days that followed, she found herself noticing other things about him as well. Like the fact that he seldom took notes, yet whenever he was called on in class, he made the most intelligent, incisive remarks. It was obvious that he hadn't just studied the material; he'd given it a great deal of thought. Lila found herself shying from raising her own hand after Gordon had delivered one of his brilliant insights, fearing that she'd sound stupid in comparison. Thus, she was taken off guard when he approached her after class one day to comment, "I liked what you said about Julius Caesar. About its being no less of a betrayal because Brutus felt conflicted."
"I'm not so sure Professor Johns agreed with me," she said as she gathered up her books and notepad. "I just happen to have my own views on the subject." She had a Ph.D. in the subject of betrayal, after all. Hadn't she betrayed her best friend and the woman who'd practically raised her? Even all these years later, Lila was haunted by the memory: Abigail mutely beseeching her as Lila had stood rooted in place, unable or perhaps unwilling to speak up in Rosie's defense. And even when she could have made amends, had she lifted a finger to do so, written a single letter? No. That she would have to live with for the rest of her life.
"'O pardon me thou bleeding piece of earth!'" Gordon intoned in a stagy British accent before adding in a normal voice, "Do you think he was appealing to God or Caesar, or both?"
"Maybe he was asking forgiveness from himself."
Excerpted from Woman in Black by Eileen Goudge. Copyright © 2008 Eileen Goudge. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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