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book cover for Heart's Desires Heart's Desires

An Interlude

At random moments, often when she was happiest, she'd have a sudden viewing of that scene. Like a full-color slide from someone else's collection slipped mistakenly into the midst of her own, it would click into focus and she'd gaze at the carnage, breath held, eyes gone wide. She'd study the image then force it away, shaking her head to clear it of that reminder of those lives, that long-gone horror.

It happened this evening just as she tilted her head to one side to fasten on her diamond earrings. There she sat at the dressing table in the bay window of the bedroom, dressed but not zipped, her hair done, her reluctant concession to makeup (a bit of blush, lip gloss and mascara) completed, fairly well ready for a festive evening. It was rumored that certain members of the royal family would be in attendance to celebrate the tenth year, the four thousandth performance of the show. One of the longest-running productions in British history—discounting that old creaker The Mousetrap. Ten years, four thousand performances. Everything Jeremy had ever dreamed of, complete with royals and celebrities queuing up to congratulate him, two best-selling singles and a cast album with record-setting sales. Quite the coup really. Female leads had come and gone, more than a dozen of them, but Jeremy had never relinquished his grip on the role, had never for a moment broken any of the routines he'd established at the outset. Eight times a week he arrived at the theater two and a half hours early, to look through the day's delivery of fan letters (some of which were explicitly sexual in nature), requests, accolades, and solicitations while sipping tea with honey and performing his vocal warm-ups. Then an hour for makeup and a further half-hour for deep breathing and even deeper concentrating before his first cue. And after the show he held court in his dressing room, thanking each and every one of the people who came to offer praise, murmuring a heartfelt "God bless,"as they left. He reveled in it.

Aly smiled, saw herself in the mirror, and had to look closely at the face in the glass, chagrined as always at the discrepancy between the brain that never aged but merely collected experiences and seemed gradually to grow larger and the face which changed no matter how young one felt. How could you still have the emotions and enthusiasms you'd had at ten and seventeen but look like a woman who'd lived a full forty-seven years? A great joke of fate, that: allowing the mind to remain fully fertile while the housing slowly lost its elasticity, its flexibility, its strength. Not that she was in such dreadful condition. It was more a matter of that shocking gap between what used to be and what was now. And she wouldn't even have been thinking such gloomy thoughts if that nightmarish slide hadn't projected itself onto her mental screen. But she knew all too well how certain events could inform a life, could alter and reshape it. After all, she had for many years now been counseling men and women who, thirty, forty and, fifty years after the fact, were still attempting to come to terms with having been abused once or a hundred times—often by strangers but more often by people they'd been taught to trust.

All right, she told herself. She'd looked at the image. She'd shuddered as always, as if violence lurked just beyond the bedroom door. It was time to put it aside. Time to get on with her preparations for the evening. Jeremy's gala evening.

Forgetting the earrings, she looked past the mirror at the street outside, watching a couple go past arm in arm, their faces animated. Young. So odd, to feel young one moment, then old and world-weary the next, then young again. It all depended on those interior views, those slides of a lifetime. Pictures of the people who'd come and gone through your life, some who'd stayed.

Voices. The housekeeper, her child, her husband. People waiting. Again she looked in the mirror, lifting her left hand to smooth the side of her hair. Then she looked at the diamonds on the surface of the dressing table and watched the way the light shattered on the facets. The image was receding quickly now, taking with it the bursting anxiety that forever accompanied that slide but leaving behind a tender residue, like a mental bruising. A little dent on the brain, a bit achey. Just something to remind you of Rheta, to probe that secret place where she resides in perpetuity.

"Any time this week would be good. Unless you'd prefer to spend the evening watching the foot traffic."

She laughed and turned from the mirror. "Caught me daydreaming," she said, looking over at the now open door.

"Is the Queen going to be there?" Teddy asked

"Maybe," Aly answered. "More likely it'll be Charles, or Princess Margaret."

"I wish I was going with you and not to Emma Clayton's birthday party," Teddy said unhappily. "Emma Clayton's fat and horrid."

Emma Clayton," Aly said, "is merely chubby and really quite sweet. And I've told you it's very cruel to judge people by the way they look."

"Then why," Teddy said with an air that signified he'd just made an earth-shatteringly clever deduction, "does everyone dress up so?"

"Because it's fun!" Aly said, and pulled him over to nuzzle the side of his neck, which made him giggle. "Now let me finish or I'll be late and your father will be cross with both of us. Won't you, Teddy's father?"

"Positively."

Teddy went to sit next to his father on the side of the bed and Aly looked at them in the mirror, and smiled. The slide had dwindled down now to the size of a pinhead—something so small it couldn't possibly upset or harm her.

Chapter One

There were three things Rheta Maxwell did each time another man went out of her life. First, she moved herself and the children into a new apartment. The idea was to start fresh in a place that had no associations with any previous man. Second, she hung the framed bull's-eye that she said had come from the bow window of the Cotswold cottage of her great-grandmother in a westerly-facing window of their new home. And third, she set about creating yet again her favorite tableau: the contented family happily ensconced in Rheta's bed, either eating a Sunday breakfast together, or listening to some radio program, or occupied with the reading matter of his or her choice. Rheta was pathologically dedicated to her construction of tableaux, utterly single-minded in the framing of these living portraits, but unaware on a conscious level of the repetitive nature of her behavior.

It seemed as if she couldn't believe in the actuality of any man's presence inside her life unless she had a physical image she could latch on to and describe to her mother and to her friends. And the image for her that best symbolized the perfect family was that warmly intimate bedroom portrait of herself, Cliff and Aly all snuggled up in bed with Rheta's latest beau. It was the ultimate cozy depiction of family life, and Rheta invariably glowed when describing it.

By the time Cliff was twelve and Aly was ten, their grandmother—Rheta's mother, the redoubtable Elizabeth Conover, known to the children as Auntie Lilbet—felt compelled to point out to her daughter that Rheta's repeated efforts to create the quintessential family unit were becoming somewhat alarming.

"For an intelligent woman, you're an absolute fool when it comes to men!" Elizabeth told her daughter. "And it may be your god-given right to be a fool about men, but it is not your right to keep on and on inflicting this nonsense on the children. You've moved them so many times I'm amazed they know where to go when they leave school every day. Has it ever occurred to you," she asked, lowering her voice and narrowing her eyes slightly, "that you're setting a truly lamentable example for your children?"

"I don't know what you're talking about!" Rheta exclaimed. "I'm their mother and I'd be the first one to know if there was a problem."

Elizabeth paused in lighting a Camel to emit a gentle snort of disdainful laughter. "You're their mother, it's true. But you wouldn't recognize a problem if it fell on your head from a great height. You are so completely absorbed in your quest for the ideal man, I honestly don't think you know what's going on!"

"That's just crap!" Rheta replied hotly. "I'm aware of every last thing that's going on, and you know it. I'll remind you I hold down a very demanding job, and I'm still home to make dinner for those children every night of the week. And I take them out on weekends."

Elizabeth got her cigarette lit, sat back, recrossed her legs, and took a minute or two to study her daughter. It was always a bit of a jolt to absorb the physical details of her extraordinarily peculiar child. Rheta didn't look eccentric; there was nothing on the surface to indicate this woman's propensity for living on two entirely disparate planes. She did indeed hold down a very good job—she was the sales director for a large manufacturer of household paper products and had been steadily working her way up in the company since she'd been hired eight years earlier, just after her divorce from Hal Jackson, the children's father. But she seemed incapable of keeping any kind of a hold on her private life. Since her divorce from Jackson, to whom she was married for somewhat less than four years, she'd gone through a second, very short-lived, marriage and had been involved with a further six or seven men. Lilbet had long since lost track of the exact number of Rheta's paramours, which really was of no consequence, all things considered. What did matter, though, was the short-term and very intense nature of Rheta's relationships with these men; her refusal in the past several years to hire help, insisting that the children should do their fair share in the running of the household; and the possibly damaging effects of all this on Cliff and Aly.

Rheta seemed to have a natural predisposition toward unhappily married men who were torn between their obligations to their wives and children and their lust for her. Invariably, lust lost out and the men returned to their homes. Rheta could never understand why these men chose to go back to their drab, unintelligent, sexless wives instead of making a commitment to her. After all, she was attractive, overtly intelligent, and sexually aware. Why these men elected every time to return to their wives was incomprehensible to her.

"You scare the living hell out of them!" her mother told her often. "Men don't want a woman like you, Rheta. They want a female who'll allow them to be in charge, who'll let them make the decisions. They want women who make them feel big. You'd like to think you're the type any rational red-blooded man would want, and at the outset they always do. You're their every fantasy come true. But you're always engineering things, Rheta. And nobody likes that, nobody at all. I think you believe you can force things to happen simply because you want them to."

"That's not true!" Rheta said impatiently. "Why is it that everyone always thinks they know how to live my life better than I do?"

"Maybe," her mother said slowly, "because in this case they do. You don't want to see it, but one look at those two children and anyone could see they're not happy with the life they're leading."

"How can you say that?" Rheta cried, offended. "My children are perfectly happy! You're purposely trying to upset me!"

"Now why would I do that?" Lilbet said quietly. "Use your head! Think about this! I'm your mother. For all your foolishness, I love you, and I love Cliff and Aly. Why on earth would I say things with the idea in mind of intentionally upsetting you?"

Rheta had no answer. She sat back, her expression sullen, and lit one of her mother's cigarettes. She loved her mother, but she hated these conversations. It wasn't easy being Lilbet Conover's daughter, having for a mother a woman who believed no female should ever touch her face with her own two hands because it was a known cause of premature wrinkles; a woman who believed women should play-act with men in order to keep them happy; a woman whose early life in the South had obviously given her a warped view of northern reality. Lilbet Conover was a fifty-five-year-old Alabama belle who'd serve mint juleps to dinner guests and laughingly tell of the difficulty of finding fresh mint in Manhattan. Granted, she didn't try to dress the part, and her accent had toned down considerably after thirty-odd years in the North. But she was still as rigidly fixed in her ideas and attitudes as she'd ever been.

Her mother smiled, and Rheta relented, smiling back. It really wasn't possible to stay angry with Lilbet. She was too good-hearted and too good-looking. Rheta often thought that if she were as beautiful as her mother, she too might have had a thirty-year marriage to someone as wonderful as John Conover. But she'd inherited traits from both her parents, and not necessarily the ones she'd have preferred. She did have her mother's large eyes, but they were gray instead of Lilbet's deep blue; and she had her mother's fine complexion, for which she was grateful. But instead of Lilbet's delicately narrow, uptilted little nose, Rheta had her father's long, strong, prominent one that would have been a serious flaw had it not been balanced by the reproduction of his squarish jawline and rounded, jutting chin.

Being objective, she could see her attractiveness, and she knew men were drawn to her because of it. She just wasn't beautiful enough to hold them. Ironically, Aly had inherited Lilbet's looks. In fact, she looked more like Lilbet's child than Rheta did, while Cliff took after his father. He was already taller than most of his friends, and appeared older than twelve. He had Hal's slow, studied manner both in speech and action, as well as his father's judicious, even plodding, attitude. Imagine Lilbet saying she was setting a bad example for her children! Her kids were happy and very well-adjusted. She couldn't begin to imagine why her mother would say a thing like that. Of course she'd only said it to get a rise out of Rheta. It was so obviously not the truth there could be no other reason.

They had this funny piece of glass that their mom always hung up first thing whenever they moved into a new place. It had a round thick lumpy middle that Cliffie once said looked like a squashed nipple. Even though Aly had been shocked and wildly amused by the description she had to admit it was very accurate. From the center outward the glass got thinner and less crumpled until, at the edges, it was normal. It would be hung where the sun was sure to shine through it, and after the furniture was carried in and they'd made their beds, Aly would go to check the windows to see where Mom had put the bull's-eye, and then, if it was still daylight, she'd get up close and look through it. Right away everything got bent and curvy; looking through the bull's-eye, everything got changed. Sometimes Aly would stay for ages, first with one eye closed, then the other, trying to make everything look right, the way it did when she looked out the ordinary windows. But no matter what she did, squinting, or opening her eyes as wide as they'd go, or looking with only one eye open, nothing was ever the way it was supposed to be. She couldn't stay away from the bull's-eye. Sometimes it would be like a reward she'd give herself for getting her homework done or for eating food she hated, like cod cakes. All the furniture might be the same, and everything would get arranged in the same way each time they moved, but somehow the only thing that really was the same, no matter what, was that funny piece of glass their mom said was very old and had come all the way from their great-great-grandmother's cottage in England.

Aly thought maybe the glass was magic. It was possible. All kinds of things were possible. It said so in books she got from the library, and Auntie Lilbet sort of said things like that too. Maybe not about magic, but about the way things could turn out. Like when Aly asked about her father, about why they only got to visit him twice a month and if maybe someday she and Cliffie could stay for longer, Auntie Lilbet always said, "Of course it's possible, honey. Perhaps when you're a little older." The way she talked, the sweetness of her voice and the music of her accent were as convincing as the things she actually said. Just listening to her grandmother made Aly feel better about things. Oh, she knew there were rules and that she and Cliffie had to pay attention to them or Auntie Lilbet might get upset, but she never minded remembering to wipe her feet carefully on the doormat before walking on the carpets, to wash her hands before having anything to eat or drink, to make sure her hair was brushed and her clothes were tidy before letting Auntie Lilbet see her, because her Auntie Lilbet really was magic. Just because they never talked about it didn't mean it wasn't true. She knew Cliffie didn't think so because sometimes he got mad having to wipe his feet and wash his hands all the time, and said swears under his breath. Aly shushed him every time because she knew he didn't really mean it, but Auntie Lilbet might not know that and maybe she'd say they couldn't come back anymore, which would be the worst thing that could happen.

Cliffie said, "Don't worry about it, kiddo. She might throw me out on my ear, but she'd never throw you out. You're her pet."

The way he said it made it sound like a bad thing, but she didn't care. She liked being Lilbet's pet, even if there were lots of things she'd have liked to tell her grandmother but couldn't, for fear of making Lilbet angry. It was hard to know what would make people mad, because it was different with everyone. As far as she could tell, there were things you could say that could make anybody mad because there was always something people didn't like. So if you thought about it, there were rules for absolutely everybody, not just grandmothers, and you had to be careful all the time if you didn't want to go around making everyone mad at you.

The most of what she could say to anybody Aly said to Cliffie because he didn't care the way grownups did. And she knew that even though he told her to get lost sometimes he was really on her side and would stick up for her, like the way he'd beat up those boys in the schoolyard that time in first grade when they made a circle around her and wouldn't let her get past. Cliffie had come shouting, throwing down his books and holding his fists up. The boys had turned to look at him and shrugged saying, "Aw, come on, guys," and gone away because Cliffie had scared them. He was her brother and she knew he'd always look out for her, so there was lots she talked about with Cliffie. But there was other stuff she couldn't talk about with anybody, not even her best friend Sharon Ackerman.

Sometimes she imagined herself sitting with Auntie Lilbet and telling her the icky way it made her feel when her mom would call her and Cliffie to come get into the bed with her and John, or Martin, or Adam, or Jerry or one of her "sweeties"—that's what she called them, "her sweeties"—acting like it was a big treat to sit in bed with them and pretend to be having fun just because Mom had a new "sweetie" and she wanted Aly and Cliff to play family. Cliff would bring a book and sit there and read, not saying a word, and Aly would watch her mom and the man, doubting other people did stuff like this. Aly would look at John or Martin or Adam or Jerry or the others whose names she couldn't remember anymore and decide they didn't look too happy. They'd smile at her mom as if they had to because they knew it would make her happy but not because it made them happy. Their smiling was kind of the same thing as her making sure to wipe her feet on the mat before she walked on Auntie Lilbet's carpets.

"What're you talking about, happy?" Cliffie said when Aly tried to explain this observation to him. "If it made them happy, don't you think one of them would stick around for a while?"

"Is it our fault they never want to stay?" Aly asked seriously.

"Why the holy heck would it be our fault?" Cliff said. "What's with you, Al?"

"I don't know," Aly replied, hoping Cliff would elaborate, but he didn't. Still, she couldn't help feeling a little guilty that none of the sweeties ever stayed for very long. Maybe if she acted more like she was really having fun when Mom got her and Cliffie to come into the bed, then maybe one of the sweeties would stick around and marry their mom. Then they'd have a family just like her friends' families, with a regular mother who didn't work and a regular father who did. There had to be something she could be doing to help make everything come out right. But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't think what it could be.

There were times when she'd look across the dinner table at her mother, still in one of the suits she wore to her office, and think how pretty she was, almost like a fairy princess in a story, the magic child of magical Lilbet. Feeling somewhat dizzy, she'd gaze at her mother, amazed that this angelic-seeming creature was the same person who'd be in a rage for weeks when one of her sweeties went away; the same person who'd come hurrying in one evening to announce she'd met the man she'd always dreamed of, the person who, sooner or later, would let the new sweetie sleep over and in the morning would call for Aly and Cliff to come pile into the bed, urging them to give Martin or Adam or Jerry a great big hug, and be very mad with him later on if Cliffie didn't want to do it. She'd listen to her mother and Cliffie talk, not so much hearing their words but kind of riding on the rise and fall of their voices. She'd look at her brother who always looked exactly like himself, and at her mother who seemed to be a whole bunch of different people, and she'd get the same feeling she got when she looked through the bull's-eye: that regardless of what she said or did, she'd never be able to see things clearly or make sense of what she saw.

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