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Secrets

Prologue

With a sigh she pulled the sheet of stationery from the typewriter. After scanning it she signed with an initial at the bottom, then folded the page into the envelope. A stamp, then it went on top of the pile of other letters.

She replaced the cover on the Selectric, switched off the light and got up. Carrying the half dozen or so envelopes, she went down the stairs and out through the front door to walk the length of the driveway to the mailbox. She placed the letters in the box, raised the red flag to signal the mailman there was post to be collected, then walked back up the driveway to the house.

She went to the kitchen, put the light on, then had to stop, staring at Calla. The little dog's head had lifted alertly the instant the overhead light had gone on. Emma smiled, then looked around, trying to think why she'd come downstairs.

"I must want tea," she told the dog. "Isn't it absurd, Calla? I've come down, but I can't for the life of me think why. Do I want a cup of tea?"

The dog cocked her head to one side, eyes on Emma.

"Now that I'm here," Emma said, bending to stroke the Jack Russell's pleasingly shaped head, "I'll put the kettle on. Then," she said, straightening, "perhaps I'll remember what I was after down here. It's chilly in here," she said, rubbing her bare arms under the robe before reaching for the kettle. Her feet were cold too. If she hadn't known better, she'd have sworn she'd been out-of-doors.

Chapter One

After the telephone call from Richard Redmond, she went out the back way, letting Calla run free. Watching the little dog go bouncing through the tall grass as if on springs, Emma tried to focus her attention. It was very difficult. In the seven months since Will's death she'd found herself unable to concentrate for long on anything. She began each day determined to take control—of her life, of her work, of the household—but within minutes she'd be sliding away to a hushed interior place where time was of no consequence. Hours seemed to get lost in the corners, like dust collecting into small furry clots. She lost not only time but ideas and impulses. It was distressing to return to the present to find her brain as vacant as a suburban railway station at three a.m.

Calla arrived at the water's edge and stood with her head cocked, as if wondering why Emma was taking so long. Such a remarkable little dog, Emma thought, quickening her pace. Almost human in her intelligence and sensitivity, Calla kept her linked, however tenuously, to the world; her minimal needs prevented Emma from taking up permanent residence in that silent place that beckoned so enticingly during her waking hours.

She stroked Calla's smooth, well-shaped head then seated herself on the pebbly shore as the dog gamboled off to investigate a chunk of driftwood twenty-odd yards away. The telephone call, Emma reminded herself. Richard Redmond, sounding strained and slightly peculiar, as if a fish bone were caught in his throat.

"Emma, there's a matter I'd like to discuss with you. I'd prefer not to go into it over the telephone. I thought if it's convenient I'd stop by this evening after office hours."

She'd been intending to reply to his most recent letter regarding the estate, but, like so many other chores she'd neglected since Will's death, she hadn't yet got around to it. Everything seemed like too much of an effort. Her only significant accomplishment in recent months had been to answer all the condolence letters. She'd spent a week at that, quite soon after the funeral. This onerous chore completed, she'd felt at liberty to sit—in the house, or here on the beach—for periods of unknown duration, contemplating the previous seventeen years of her life and searching for some incentive to go forward.

She felt old. This was due partly to her having lived for so long with a man twenty-six years her senior, and partly because, with his death, she'd lost all momentum. She'd been left not only a widow but somehow an orphan, too. It was admittedly absurd to think of herself in these waiflike terms, but, inescapably, it was how she felt.

Calla was digging energetically in the damp sand to one side of the driftwood, her compact brown and white body quivering slightly. The air was warm enough for mid-September, but thick with dampness. Emma wrapped her arms around her knees and looked out at the water. A sailboat quite far out was braving the chop. For some minutes she tracked its spasmodic progress across the horizon. Then the air and shore sounds thinned and she was viewing the perfectly preserved London scenes once more. It seemed she was obliged always to start at the beginning in order to remember details she might previously have missed. It was time-consuming and enormously frustrating. She'd have preferred to be able to leap forward and enter, say, in the middle. She longed to get to the end, convinced that when she'd completed this review she'd be able to pick up the primary threads and continue weaving whatever future she might have. But her mind invariably turned right back to the very beginning, as if to the first page of a lengthy novel whose plot kept changing.

With a sigh she surrendered, her mind speeding in reverse. And she was eighteen again, living in that room on the fifth floor of the house in South Kensington, with the bath and toilet one floor below. It was a cozy, elongated room, with an oversized wardrobe occupying the entire wall to the left of the door as one entered and the narrow bed filling in the space below the window on the opposite wall. There was a hot plate and a basin, a chair, a desk with her typewriter, and her books in a row on the mantel over the bricked-up fireplace.

A pay telephone was situated in the entryway on the ground floor, with extensions on every landing. The calls she got were primarily from the agency for which she'd been doing temporary secretarial work since leaving school five months earlier, or from her mother. She'd met several young men in the course of her newly won freedom but, without exception, after a few dates she began to begrudge them the time they took away from the writing she did on evenings and at weekends. Quite quickly they'd stop calling. She wasn't bothered.

Since the age of eight she'd dreamed of being a writer. Her father and many of her teachers had encouraged her to believe she had the talent and the determination necessary to succeed. Her mother, though, had always considered it a frivolous aspiration. By the time she was fourteen Emma had learned to withhold her enthusiasm—about most things—because to confide in her mother was to become embroiled in a lengthy argument. Her mother was the self-appointed arbiter of what was or was not suitable for her two daughters.

Since Vivian, her older sister by three years, had proved herself to be completely intractable in every area, Mrs. Dalton chose to direct her critical attention to the more placid, generally less difficult Emma. When Vivian left home at the age of seventeen after a screaming row lasting several days, her mother became even more critical and insidiously demanding. Emma endured the almost daily incursions into her privacy until she completed her schooling. Then she too escaped from the house in Richmond.

Being on her own was wonderful. She tolerated her mother's frequent telephone calls, and every few weeks made a Sunday-afternoon duty visit home, primarily to see her father, who grew animated at the sight of her. While he managed to make it clear that he loved her and missed her, he was never willing to disagree openly with his wife's strongly stated opinions regarding most things but especially with respect to their daughters. Vivian was impossible, beyond redemption. And Emma was, despite her visible self-reliance, on the road to ruin.

The visits and the carping inquisitional one-sided telephone conversations were a small price to pay for being at liberty to come and go as she chose, to provide for herself via the secretarial jobs, and to write as late into the night as she wished. She had several short stories going the rounds of the magazines, and a novel better than halfway finished. She'd already received a number of printed rejection slips, but a few encouraging notes from editors too. She didn't at all mind the rejection slips. They constituted proof that she was finally working at what mattered most to her. She felt productive and positive and knew if she persevered and kept working, one of her stories would be accepted for publication. Then she'd be truly on her way as a published author.

When Brenda from the agency rang her just before Christmas regarding a three-day assignment, Emma was quick to accept even though Brenda sounded somewhat hesitant.

"It's all perfectly legitimate," she'd assured Emma, "but it is at a hotel, and I'd understand if you preferred to turn this one down."

"Why?"

"Well, you are very young," Brenda had said. "And some of our girls get a bit nervy about executives in hotel suites. Not," she'd added quickly, "that we've ever had any problems. It's just that we usually send along our older girls. You understand. But what with Christmas being so close, we're rather short-staffed."

"I don't mind," Emma had told her. "I could use the extra money."

"In that case," said an audibly relieved Brenda, "let me give you the details."

The next morning Emma had gone to the Savoy, arriving early as she did for every appointment, to do three days' secretarial work for an American named Willard Bellamy. She'd stopped at the desk and asked them to ring up to announce her, then accepted directions from the clerk before heading for the elevator.

Calla was barking. Drawn abruptly back into the present, Emma looked over to see the feisty little bitch angrily confronting an intrepid seagull in a minor territorial dispute. Calla put an end to it with a springing leap that sent the startled bird aloft with an indignant squawk. Calla's head lifted to follow the bird's flight, then, apparently satisfied with the outcome, she gave herself a shake, executed a smart turn and trotted back to nudge Emma's knee with the side of her head.

Emma reached into her cardigan pocket for one of the biscuits she always carried for Calla and held it out on the palm of her hand. Calla looked at the bone-shaped biscuit, then at Emma, awaiting permission. "Good girl," Emma said. "Eat, Calla." The dog ducked her head to Emma's palm, took the biscuit between her teeth, then settled on the sand to eat it. Absently smoothing Calla's back, Emma looked again at the horizon. The sailboat had gone out of sight. She wondered what Richard Redmond had to say that couldn't be discussed over the telephone. She was under the impression that the estate could at last be settled, now that two of Will's four children had given up threatening to contest the will. It had been an unpleasant although fairly predictable skirmish, with a frantic flurry of telephone calls and visits. Susan and Edgar had each come several times to the house to assure Emma of their full support, and to berate their sister and brother for attempting to deny their stepmother what was, by all rights, hers. While she very much appreciated these displays of loyalty, Emma had been unable to do more than sit and listen while she gazed at their faces, mutely marveling over being, at thirty five, stepmother to a quartet of adults ranging in age from thirty-three to thirty-seven. It heightened her sense of having aged a year for each of the twenty-five months of Will's illness.

Seventeen years of turmoil. Emma rhythmically caressed Calla's solid, warm body. Nothing had turned out the way she thought it would. Will had warned her. She had to admit that. But she'd been far too young to take anyone's advice seriously. She'd been in love and unable to imagine that everything wouldn't work out perfectly.

She thought with sad fondness of her youthful conceit, of her notion that people would respond positively once they came to know her and they understood that the considerable age difference was irrelevant in the face of hers and Will's emotional commitment to one another.

"It shouldn't matter," he'd said often over the years. "But somehow it does. They see a middle-aged man with someone young enough to be his daughter and they react every time with a knowing smirk. People are never going to understand. It'll never be easy."

Well, a few people had understood, or at least they'd accepted the situation. Willard had been forty-four, the divorced father of four, and on that morning when she knocked at the door to his suite at the Savoy she was expecting nothing more than three days of dictation and transcribing work before heading home to Richmond to celebrate Christmas with her family. She was hoping there'd be no scenes, that they'd be able to get through the three days peacefully.

*

Will. He'd opened the door and, looking amused, asked, "You're Miss Dalton?"

"Yes, I am," she'd confirmed.

"I'm sorry," he'd said, stepping back from the door to allow her to enter. "I was expecting someone—older."

"Why?" she'd asked with a smile, watching him close the door. An attractive man, tall, with fair, graying hair and lively bright blue eyes. She'd found him immediately intriguing. Americans fascinated her, not only their accents but also their enviable self-assurance. They seemed so much freer, so much less inhibited about so many things than the British.

"I don't know," he'd said. "You're supposed to be forty-five, with gray hair, glasses, and a brisk businesslike manner. Care for some coffee?"

"Yes, please. I am brisk and businesslike," she'd said, following him across the room to a table where there was a tray with cups and a large carafe of coffee.

As he poured, he said, "Take off your coat, have a seat. D'you take dictation?"

"Yes, I do."

"Well, good. I've got a couple of meetings. I'll want you to take notes."

"All right." She'd stood holding her coat and bag, waiting for instructions.

"At the risk of appearing rude," he'd said, carrying two cups across to the sofa, "might I ask how old you are? Come sit down. Leave your coat anywhere."

"I'm eighteen," she'd answered, draping her coat over the back of a chair before seating herself at the far end of the sofa.

"Still in school?" He lit a cigarette, then thought to offer her one.

"No, thank you. I don't smoke. I left school five months ago."

"That'd be about right, wouldn't it?" he'd said. "I have twins your age who graduated high school in June. Susan and Shawn are in college now. Are you planning to continue your education?"

She took a sip of the coffee before answering. "Actually, no. I believe life itself offers one all the education one might need. What sort of business are you in?"

"Publishing."

"Oh! What sort of publishing?"

"General. Does that interest you?"

"Yes, very much. I'm a writer. I mean to say, I'm trying to be a writer."

Again he'd looked amused, asking, "And what have you written, Miss Dalton?"

"I've got some short stories going the rounds. And I'm better than halfway through a novel."

He'd looked at her appraisingly for a long moment before gulping down some of his black coffee. "Think they're good?" he'd asked.

"Well, naturally I would, wouldn't I?" she'd answered without sarcasm. "One must believe in oneself."

"Oh, absolutely. Couldn't agree more. Coffee okay?"

"Yes, thank you."

He'd looked at his watch, then said, "Might as well get on with it. The hotel's organizing a typewriter. It should be here any minute. In the meantime, I've got a few letters that need to go out today. Then there's an eleven o'clock meeting where I'll want you to take notes, and another one at three. Sound okay?"

"Yes, fine."

"Would you like to show me some of your work?" he'd asked unexpectedly.

Thrown, she'd stumbled over her answer. "I'm not ... I mean ... I don't know."

"I'm always looking for new writers. You think about it," he'd said kindly. "Now, did you happen to bring a steno pad with you?"

"I did, actually."

"Good." He'd set down his cup, reached for an address book on the table and began flipping through it.

*

Like lint on the lens of her private projector, Richard's telephone call began to interfere with the mental film. Why was he stopping by the house? Visitors enervated her. They had such clearly defined expectations, wanting one to be attentive, to observe certain amenities. Beverages were to be offered, ashtrays and glasses and places to sit; attention was to be paid, polite queries as to the state of one's health and well-being. A tiresome gavotte of wordplay. She'd managed all these months to keep practically everyone at bay, dealing almost entirely by telephone. She didn't as a rule mind dealing with letters—from Richard, from old friends of Will's, from her publishers, from fans—but quite a stack of them sat unanswered beside the typewriter. She kept adding to the stack, promising herself she'd take a day to get caught up, but she hadn't yet got to it. She could control telephone conversations, keep them brief and to the point; she could control correspondence even more successfully—if she ever got round to tackling the ever-growing number—but she could scarcely control a visitor. She felt as if she'd lost whatever social skills she'd once possessed.

Before Will's illness she'd liked having people around. Most weekends at least one of the guest rooms had been occupied, and often all three. Now she and Bernice were alone in the house during the week, and Bernice left every Saturday at noon and didn't return until Monday morning. She went off to stay with her son and daughter-in-law and grandchildren in White Plains. Emma kept expecting her to announce she was leaving, that she'd accepted a position in a household where meals were served three times a day, and people came and went regularly; there were conversations and laughter, even arguments. Someplace with more to offer than an uncommunicative widow and her clever dog. She dreaded the idea of losing Bernice but could think of no enticement that might induce the woman to stay, should Bernice announce that it was her intention to go. Not that she'd be likely to respond to anything Emma might offer her. Bernice was very much her own person, and she'd do whatever she believed to be right. Still, Emma grieved at the thought of her going. Bernice was kind and sensible, a good friend.

A cold edge to the breeze now, Emma pulled the cardigan closed and let her chin rest on her knees as she looked up the beach. This hundred-odd-yard scoop of private terrain at the water's edge seemed at some times like her personal prison. At other times she felt inordinately privileged now to be its sole owner. Of course no one could actually own anything, especially not an actual piece of the earth. This land was on loan to her—or, more accurately, to whomever resided in the house—rather like an improbable overscale terrarium in which all manner of things flourished. The tide daily brought unlikely gifts, depositing them in a tangle of seaweed and fast-food wrappers: bits of driftwood, sea-glass, bivalve shells with purple interiors, floats that had come free from fishermen's nets, bottles and boxes and feathers.

If she could, just once, get from the beginning through to the end of this retrospective perhaps she'd be able to work again, to live again, to view for example this beach with a reasonable degree of equanimity, instead of staggering along under the need to put her mental stockroom in order. She wished Richard hadn't called, hadn't announced his intention to stop by. She'd been well along, but now she'd have to start again, back in that room on the fifth floor of the house in South Kensington.

Despair creating an ache in her chest, she let her eyes return to the horizon, the splash of the incoming waves dissolving to silence.

It was a cozy, elongated room, with an oversized wardrobe occupying the entire wall to the left of the door as one entered ...

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