25th Anniversary Edition
Copyright © 2014 Diane Chamberlain
Originally published by Berkley Books, 1989
Reissued by HarperCollins, 1996
Private Relations was my first novel. I was working as a hospital social worker as I wrote the story, and back then I approached my writing as a hobby. Gradually, that hobby became an obsession and after a few years, I had a complete manuscript–way too long and quite a mess! My agent and a few editors all had the same suggestions: focus on the romance between Kit and Cole, remove extraneous characters and subplots, and tighten, tighten, tighten. I took their advice and Private Relations sold to the first editor who saw the revised edition. It went on to win the RITA award for Best Single Title Contemporary Romance of 1989–an incredible thrill for a newbie writer.
I’ve made some very minor changes to the novel, mostly related to structure. I haven’t updated the story, though in a few instances I’ve changed a character’s behavior or speech to be more in keeping with my present day thoughts and feelings. I’ve also added an epilogue to satisfy my longing to know what happened to these people I cared so much about. For the most part, though, I’ve left the story and its characters alone. I hope you’ll enjoy this tale of love and friendship, and I look forward to your thoughts.
Diane Chamberlain, 2014
She only ran at night when she needed to escape. The Atlantic churned next to her, bottomless and black, and she played a game with it, matching four of her breaths to each crackling roll of its waves. It was her first after-dark run in Mantoloking, her first since she’d left Seattle where nearly every night she’d slammed the door on Bill and pounded the streets lined with identical houses until her head was free of him.
The Chapel House came back into view, silvery in the moonlight and beckoning, as always. It was the first time she’d seen it from this angle at night. It rose out of the sand and the beach heather, a huge gray whale of a house, two stories high and rock solid. No storm could touch it. No wonder she felt so safe inside. The bay window of her bedroom reflected the moonlight in its wavy glass, and she knew that her whole room would be bathed in a pale yellow glow by now.
She slowed her pace and climbed the hill to the house, spraying powdery sand behind her. The lights were still on in the living room, but maybe the others would be through talking about Cole by now. She was tired of listening to it, the glorification of him, the plans for his homecoming. She’d heard it all week at the hospital where nurses she’d respected were suddenly giggly with anticipation. And now she had to listen to it in the house as well. Odd how a man she’d never met was beginning to seem like her nemesis.
They were just as she had left them, Janni cross-legged on the floor in front of the fireplace, Jay stretched out on the blue camelback sofa, and Maris flung sideways across an overstuffed chair, the tiny gold sphere in her right nostril catching the glow from the fire.
“Kit!” Janni jumped up. “We were getting worried about you. It’s not such a great idea for you to run on the beach at night.” She was six inches shorter than Kit, but she put an arm around her shoulders and led her toward the fire. “Sit with me,” she said.
It was too hot to sit by the fire, but Kit let herself be pulled onto the pale Persian carpet without protest. When Janni gave an order you were expected to obey. Not that she minded. She knew in the darkest part of her heart that it was Janni’s attention she would miss most when Cole returned.
She imagined Janni would want a fire every evening all summer long, just as she had during the spring. That was all right. Kit loved the big slate fireplace, and the blaze gave a cozy feeling to the enormous living room and its eclectic clutter of furniture.
She remembered Janni’s response when she asked if she could move into the house for a while. “Only if you bring something for my living room,” Janni had said. Janni’d hardly needed any more furniture for the living room, but it was not aesthetics she’d had on her mind. Kit understood as soon as she set her wing chairs in the corner of the room and stood back to see them blend in with Maris’s sleek white couch, Jay’s camelback sofa, Cole’s antique French tables, and the patchwork of furniture Janni had inherited along with the house. The room was a melting pot. It tied them all together, made it hard to think about leaving.
“How about a little after-run refreshment, Kit?” Jay held a bottle of Chardonnay in the air. Of the three of them he presented the most hedonistic image, lying on the camelback sofa, a wine glass in one hand, the bottle in the other. His rumpled plaid shirt was only half buttoned and completely free of his jeans, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He looked as if his speech would be thickened by alcohol, but she was certain that he’d actually had very little to drink. At any moment the hospital might call about one of his patients, and he’d be instantly alert. In her six months in the Chapel House she’d seen it happen a dozen times. He would tuck in his shirt, make an attempt at smoothing his wild black hair with his hands, give Janni a quick kiss, and walk out the door without the slightest complaint over the hour or the intrusion on his privacy.
“Just a sip, Jay,” she said. “I need to do a little work tonight.”
“You work too hard, sweets,” Janni said, licking the rim of her wineglass.
Kit stared at the flames, thinking that Janni had no idea what it was like to change careers at thirty-one, the effort it took. Janni Pitney had been the social worker on the Adolescent Unit at Blair Medical Center for the past eight years. Nothing was new to her. Nothing surprised her. But for Kit, every day held some fresh terror.
They’d met two years ago at a conference in Seattle where Janni had presented a workshop on teen pregnancy. Kit had been fascinated by this diminutive woman dressed in a silk blouse and jeans—probably the only pair of jeans at the conference—strutting around in front of a group of overdressed, overly serious high school counselors. Janni was animated and confident, maybe just a tad too cocky. She looked like a teenager herself, although she was nearly thirty. Her fine, glossy dark hair swung when she moved; her long bangs touched the top of her glasses.
Kit made a point of meeting her after the workshop, and for the next three days they were inseparable. She hadn’t felt that kind of emotional bond with a woman since college. She talked Janni into staying at her house instead of the hotel. Bill was rarely around, anyway. “He’s at a meeting,” she told Janni the first night. The second night she told her the truth: she didn’t know where he was, and to be honest she didn’t care. She said it without anger because she felt none. She was at the point in her marriage where she felt trapped and numb. She’d grown dependent on a man who no longer meant anything to her.
She moved to Mantoloking when she and Bill split up. It was the perfect choice for a fresh start—as far from Seattle as she could get. Janni persuaded her to apply for the Public Relations opening at Blair. Kit was interested but not optimistic. Why would they hire a high school counselor to do PR? But they did, and she always wondered if Janni—or maybe Jay—had had something to do with it. That worried her. She’d spent the last six months trying to prove she was worthy of the job.
She loved the work. It was a relief taking care of an institution instead of the people inside it for a change, and her confidence was growing. But today the old insecurities had surfaced again.
“I got a new assignment this morning,” she said, her eyes on her housemates. “I have total responsibility for the PR on the Fetal Surgery Program.” Just saying it out loud made her jittery. She didn’t know why the director had handed this to her. It felt like a test to see if she’d sink or swim under pressure, but why would they take that risk with something so important? Her coworkers, all of whom had been there longer than she had, seemed as confused as she was by her selection. A little miffed as well. They’d been talking for months about the Fetal Surgery Program and the PR challenge it presented. Competition for funding the program was stiff. Five medical centers on the east coast were battling for the funds already. So why had this honor been bestowed on the only person in the department who wanted nothing to do with it?
“That’s fantastic, Kit.” Janni grinned at her. “That’s one of the biggest things Blair’s ever gone after.”
Jay sat up. “Cole’s got four years of his life tied up in planning that program. I’m impressed they’d give it to you.” His tone was complimentary, but the words felt like a warning.
“I don’t want to be responsible for four years of someone’s life,” Kit said. “I want to say, no, sorry, I can’t do it, but I’m still playing the game . . . you know, pretending I’m competent, and I’m afraid that if I turn it down they’ll know I’m a fraud.”
The three of them smiled at her. Even Maris’s usual melancholy expression had lifted.
“You’re good, Kit,” said Janni. “If you’re pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes it’s only your own.”
“You’re going to love working with Cole,” said Maris.
Kit wasn’t so sure. She’d heard Cole could be demanding and temperamental. He’d spent the last nine months researching fetal surgery techniques in Paris, and he’d come back ready to put the program in gear. He’d have high expectations of the person assigned to the PR.
“I guess it’s about time I got to meet this guy,” she said, trying to sound convincing. “I’ve heard enough about him. The women at Blair are constantly pumping me for information on him.”
Jay laughed. “The Chapel House has fueled the hospital grapevine for many years.”
His accent made her smile. Unmistakably Brooklyn. How could anyone well-educated sound like that? She’d been shocked when she first met him. He sounded like a high-school dropout, and looked like the kind of guy most people would cross the street to avoid—big and brawny with a mop of unruly dark hair. She tried to imagine how his surgery patients felt the first time they met him, when they pictured this thug taking a knife to them in the operating room.
But close up he had the face of a man at ease with himself, calm and unflappable. His placid style was the perfect foil for Janni’s theatrics. They’d been balancing each other for a decade.
“The nurses used to ask me if I actually lived with both Jay DeSantis and Cole Perelle,” Janni said now. “And I’d tell them, ‘yes, and with another woman, Maris Lavender, too.’ You could see the wheels turning as they tried to imagine what decadent things went on inside these four walls.”
The four of them laughed, sharing a kinship Kit was pleased to be part of. How would she fit in when Cole returned? She was the newcomer. Cole’s inferior substitute. After all, he’d been with the others for years. His room was directly across the wide upstairs hall from hers, and even though he’d been away, Janni still had the housekeeper dust his antique French furniture and keep the shimmer on the hardwood floors.
Maris had been in the Chapel House just a year and a half longer than Kit, but she had a connection to it that couldn’t be taken from her. She was an architect and Janni and Jay had hired her a few years earlier to help with remodeling. Her touch was everywhere, her innovations always dramatic, like the huge half-circle windows in the living room and the intricate tile design of tropical fish that circled the kitchen on the backsplash above the counters.
Sometime near the end of the remodeling, Maris’s husband was killed. Kit wondered what project she’d been working on when she learned of his death. Was there some patch of hardwood floor, perhaps, that she couldn’t look at now without remembering what she’d lost? She’d moved into the house just a few days after his death. A smart move, Kit thought. This was the place to be when you needed to piece your life back together.
It had taken Kit a while to realize that the gloom in Maris’s face was not the result of Kit’s moving in and that Maris was, in fact, pleased to have her there. She helped Kit settle into her room, planned dinner menus with her, took her out to lunch. Kit liked being with her. The company was low-key and comfortable. And she liked Maris’s dark, exotic looks—her warm spice-colored skin, the eyes a pale brown, nearly gold, with sharp black rings around the irises.
By contrast, Kit was fair. “Alabaster skin and angel hair,” Bill had said once, when he was still interested enough to notice. There was something ethereal about her hair with its soft, unruly curls. She never wore it longer than chin length—any longer and she’d have to spend most of the day sorting out the tangles. It framed her face with a blend of colors—dark honey, a little gold, a touch of red. A hairdresser once told her she was lucky her skin was so pale—any color in her face would have competed too much with her hair, he said. Her gray eyes were competition enough.
“I can’t believe Cole’s moving in with Estelle,” Maris said now.
“He’s not going to live here?” Kit tried to hide the relief in her voice.
“You weren’t here when I read his letter.” Janni fondled the thin blue envelope on the carpet in front of her. “He and Estelle are moving in together. I think she’s tired of sharing him with the rest of us.” There was no sympathy for Estelle in her voice.
“He’s moving into Estelle’s condominium.” Maris wrinkled her nose as though the elegant Point Pleasant condominium were the equivalent of a gym locker.
“He’s coming back a few weeks before she does—she’s still working on the translating—and going straight to the condo,” Janni said. “He says he doesn’t want to take a chance coming here first. He’s afraid he wouldn’t be able to leave.”
Kit understood. There was something about this house that drew you in, soothed you, then drugged you a little so you lacked the motivation to leave. She’d meant her stay in the house to be a mere stopover, a month, no more. But the evenings with her housemates were hard to give up. It was new to her, coming home to people who cared what had happened to her during the day, who squeezed her hand when she walked in the house with a frown.
She leaned away from the fireplace to look up at the picture above the mantel. It was a photograph of the house, huge, blown up many times from a snapshot that Cole had taken. The view was from the street side, on a day when the air was gray and threatening. The house blended into the sky, everything the color of pewter. Even the small patch of lawn in the center of the circular driveway had taken on a vaporous gray hue. You could tell it was Christmastime, though. Each of the thirty windows glowed with the faint silver light of an electric candle. It was a beautiful picture, misty and surreal. Obviously this house meant something to Cole. She wondered how he could leave.
Janni opened his letter and reread it to herself. “I can’t stand this part where he asks if he can use our beach this summer,” she said. “Our beach! It’s his beach, too, it always will be. We have to let him know that.”
“It’s not the end of the world, Jan,” Jay said softly.
“How can you take his moving out so calmly? After ten years?” Janni asked him.
“Eleven for me,” said Jay. He and Cole had been together since medical school. “I’ve always expected this to happen. He and Estelle can hardly settle down together living in two different places.”
Maris sniffed. “I thought it was a superb arrangement.”
“Superb for us maybe, but Estelle never got much of his time,” Jay said.
Janni had rested her head against his knees. Now she pulled it away as if punishing him for the thought. “How can you be so sympathetic toward her?” she asked.
“She’s not that bad.”
“Oh, Jay, she’s a bitch!” said Janni
“You’re sounding pretty bitchy yourself.” He cushioned his words by stroking her cheek with the back of his fingers.
“If Cole’s so terrific why would he want someone who’s not?” Kit asked.
Maris swiveled in her chair to face Kit, curling her long cinnamon-colored legs beneath her. “Cole has one monumental flaw,” she said. “He’s a sucker for beauty. When you meet Estelle you’ll understand.”
She already knew Estelle was beautiful. The women who worked at Blair had described every inch of her in elaborate detail. In voices edged with contempt—or was it envy?—they talked about how Estelle could transform a stiffly tailored suit into something soft and seductive merely by putting her body into it. And you could always see lace beneath her blouses. Nothing lurid, they were quick to admit, but still it couldn’t help but provoke the imagination, could it? Some of them said they remembered seeing her picture in magazines years ago when she modeled lingerie for Caprice and Company.
No one mentioned that Estelle could translate medical terminology into six languages and that she was indirectly responsible for Blair’s international status—the status those same women saw reflected in their paychecks. No one mentioned it at Blair, and no one was mentioning it now, here at the house.
Kit’s bedroom was one of ten in the Chapel House. The rooms were all off the meandering upstairs hallway, half of them facing the ocean, the other half the bay. Jay and Janni’s room was the only exception. It stretched the entire north side of the house with a view of both ocean and bay. One of the two upstairs fireplaces was also in their room. The other, with its Victorian mantel, was in the den.
All the rooms were large, and Kit had plenty of space for the walnut bedroom furniture she’d brought with her from Seattle. It looked beautiful against the soft buttery walls, and the carved molding around the ceiling looked as though it had been stained to match. She loved this room. It was warm and peaceful and usually settled her the moment she stepped inside.
But tonight she was finding it hard to sleep. Her windows were open and she lay on her back, naked under the sheet, listening to the rhythmic roar and whisper of the ocean. The moon left a lacy pattern on her ceiling, and she watched it change shape as she mulled over the warning Jay had given her before she came up to bed. He’d told her about the beach on summer nights, how the city crowds would converge on the neighboring towns and she could never know who might be lurking over the next sand dune. Although, he added with a smile, he was certain she could outrun just about anyone.
It still surprised her to be thought of as an athlete. She’d told them the truth, but they shook their heads in disbelief, only able to picture her slender and healthy. For most of her life she’d been anything but.
Bill had badgered her daily to run with him, and she had balked every time. It had become a joke between them, “Join me for a run?” he’d ask, standing at the front door in his shorts and T-shirt, a white sweatband in stark contrast to his dark curls.
“Oh gee, honey, I don’t know,” she’d answer as though she were actually considering it. “I think I’ll pass today.” He’d leave, both of them smiling at the ritual.
When her two closest friends, teachers at the high school, began jogging after work, she felt left out. It was no different from all those times when she was a kid, watching her classmates play softball while she sat on the bench on doctor’s orders, morosely swinging the only legs on the playground that never wore Band-Aids. Her teachers had united together to demand that note from her pediatrician. None of them wanted the responsibility for her asthma. After all this kid could have attacks sitting calmly in class. Who knew what would happen if she joined the others on the playground?
She couldn’t trust her own body. The day she took her tennis shoes to the track to run with her friends she was terrified. She felt her heart pounding against her ribs just lacing up the shoes.
Her friends slowed their pace for her, and she walked and jogged, walked and jogged six times around the track, a mile and a half. Afterward, when she looked in the mirror of the teachers’ lounge, her cheeks were a lively pink. High quality color, not like the powder blush she angled across them each morning in a painstaking attempt to emphasize nonexistent hollows. The next day her legs ached with the sweetest pain in the world.
She couldn’t stop. Bill was amused. “Did you take your little jog today?” he’d ask. When she finally accepted his invitation to join him, his face fell. “Oh, well honey, I mean, I really do this for the exercise, and if I have to slow down for you it’d blow my routine.”
Within a few months he didn’t need to slow down for her, and that’s when the marriage started to crumble. Or perhaps, as she admitted to herself later, it had been falling apart bit by bit for many years.
From the air, the buildings of Newark looked like a charcoal drawing, and the sky between the city and the circling jet was dense with chemicals and ash. Yet there was no place Cole would rather be than suspended above that smoky city, spiraling toward the airport where his parents would be waiting for him and where the past nine months would be no more than a memory.
Those last few weeks in Paris, Estelle had acted as though his departure was a betrayal. Her eyes walled him in with suspicion. He’d been relieved when Elliot wired him to return to Blair ahead of schedule. He didn’t want to spend another month with Estelle while she finished her translating and his feeling of suffocation grew in the French summer heat.
The dark-haired flight attendant broke into his thoughts to hand him a warm, powder-scented hand towel.
“You’re almost home,” she said, lingering by his seat.
For what he hoped was the last time he gave her a restrained smile and returned his gaze to the city below. Once during this trip he had thought she was going to proposition him. She sat in the empty seat next to him and told him that she didn’t usually say things like this to a passenger, but “I can’t seem to stop myself from telling you that I really find you attractive.”
He felt her body next to him, all hopeful energy.
“Thanks,” he said. “But I’m already in a permanent relationship.”
“I . . . um . . . I wasn’t looking for permanence.”
He smiled patiently. “Sorry, but I am. And now I really need to get some reading done.” He rustled the papers in his lap, and with the color rising in her cheeks, the attendant excused herself. She gave up easily, he thought. More easily than most.
He wasn’t sure what the attraction was. He didn’t see himself as exceptionally good-looking. He liked the straight line of his nose well enough but his eyes were an alarming turquoise color that he himself described as unearthly, and his smile was more than a little lopsided.
He watched the flight attendant make her stop-and-smile way down the aisle. She was pretty all right but he hadn’t touched a woman other than Estelle in six years, and he wasn’t about to start now.
The jet, so graceful in the air, lumbered awkwardly to the terminal. Cole squinted through the window to make out his parents standing behind the tinted glass of the waiting area. He was surprised to see Corinne standing next to them, looking like a scared rabbit. At first he thought he was mistaken, and he stared hard until his eyes burned and he began to feel that gnawing blend of love and hate his sister always evoked in him. Wendy and Becky were with her, and he waved to them from the little window even though he was quite certain they couldn’t see him. They looked taller, stringier.
His father kissed his cheek when he reached the waiting area inside the terminal. The same gesture Cole had pulled away from as a teenager gave him a lump in his throat these days. Lately, when he looked in the mirror, it was his father’s face he saw reflected there. There was no gray in his dark brown hair yet, but the lines were deepening in the same places. He had the same subtle cleft in his chin, the same deep hollows in his cheeks that his mother generously referred to as dimples. He hoped he would never take on his father’s gaunt defeated look.
His mother looked, as always, as if she’d been taking very good care of herself. Her hair, which had once been Cole’s color, was now silver. Her skin was smooth and unlined despite the perpetual tan. She embraced him and nodded toward Corinne.
“Look who’s here,” she said proudly. “In an airport.”
“The twins wanted to welcome you home so I forced myself to come too, but I’m absolutely dying to get out of this place.” Corinne laughed nervously as Cole knelt down to hug the girls. They were as towheaded as he had been as a child.
He took his sister’s hand. Her palm was damp and her fingers trembled in his own. He kissed her pale cheek.
“Would you like to wait outside while I get my luggage?” he asked her, surprised at his own gentleness.
Relief softened her features as she nodded and turned to find the exit.
The ride from Newark to Watchung was cramped and noisy with everyone competing for his attention. The girls sang preschool songs for him, trying to outdo each other in volume. They clung to him in the backseat of the sedan, smelling sweetly of baby shampoo. Wendy sat on his lap, toying with the buttons on his shirt.
Cole furrowed his brow at his nieces. Their father had walked out on them a year ago, saying he’d had it with Corinne and her phobias. Since then the girls attached themselves too easily to other men.
“You don’t need to worry about those two,” Estelle told him. “They’re survivors.” But Cole saw only two little girls made of glass that could shatter in the slightest breeze.
He took Wendy’s hand away from his shirt and squeezed it, wishing he could turn back time and shield them from everything worldly.
Corinne left with the girls shortly before dinner, as the fireflies were beginning to light the yard with their maize-colored glow. He and Estelle would have to come over when Estelle got back, Corinne said as she hugged him goodbye. He nodded, knowing Estelle would ask him to invent a reason to turn down the invitation.
His parents exchanged looks of surprise across the dinner table when he told them he’d be moving out of the Chapel House.
“What does that mean, Cole?” Phillip asked, setting his fork down. “Will you and Estelle be getting married?” The beautiful smoothness of his father’s French-Canadian accent struck him as if he were hearing it for the first time. Phillip Perelle had grown up in Montreal. He’d met Virginia Cole there when she was on spring break from Smith, and they were married six months later. They saw to it that their children spoke French as easily as they did English. Still Cole’s French had never met Estelle’s standards. She’d lived the first ten years of her life in Paris, as well as a few years during high school and college. His French couldn’t compare.
Cole returned his father’s quizzical look. “I’m not sure what it means.” He pushed his plate away, annoyed at the knot in his stomach. He wanted to marry Estelle. He had for several years, but the conflict over where to live always got in the way. That was a small obstacle, though, compared to Estelle’s fear of marriage itself. It wasn’t the commitment that frightened her— he knew there was no one else in her life. It was putting her faith in an institution she saw as doomed. Her mother had been divorced three times, her father twice. She was afraid that the moment they married Cole would begin to grow tired of her. But he was patient. He figured that in time he could convince her otherwise.
Virginia was eyeing him closely from across the table. “I’ve always thought Janni’s grandfather had something of the sorcerer in him to build a house with such a pull on the people inside,” she said. “It must be difficult to get out from under that spell, not to mention leaving Jay and Janni after all these years.”
What is very difficult, he thought, is having a psychologist for a mother.
“It won’t be easy.” He tried to avoid his mother’s perceptive gaze. He’d always suspected her of eavesdropping on his thoughts—how else could she know what he was thinking and feeling with such accuracy? His childhood friends could get away with lying about why their homework wasn’t done or where they’d been the night before. When he tried it, his mother invariably knew the truth, as if she’d left a little part of herself attached to him at his birth to serve as an informer.
Now she leaned across the table toward him, trying to grip his blue-green eyes with her own. “This is Estelle’s idea, isn’t it?” she asked.
Phillip looked at his wife. “What if it is?” he said. “She’s a smart girl. It’s about time, if you ask me.”
“It’s a mutual decision, Mom,” he said, keeping his voice even. He wished he could say that the last nine months had drawn them closer together, but his mother would know in an instant he was lying.
They had made few friends in Paris. Had it been the long work hours or had Estelle reeled him in each time he stepped away from her? He didn’t know. They worked together in the daytime and slept together at night. They spoke only French with each other. They tried to master the current patois, making and incorporating the same mistakes in usage until the language they spoke was very much their own and their symbiosis was complete.
She clung to him with a bewildering fierceness. Her possessiveness grew as if she could be certain her heart would beat only in his presence. She began asking him to account for the few hours he spent apart from her, then she’d tearfully apologize for doubting him.
He blamed Paris, not Estelle, and he was certain she would be her old self again when they were back in New Jersey. She convinced him that her Point Pleasant condominium was big enough for both of them and that the time was right to move in together, away from the Chapel House. She was hard to refuse. At times he felt weakened by some Circean quality in her that made him give in to her with no thought to the consequences.
He couldn’t very well describe that power to his mother when he didn’t understand it himself.
He arrived in Point Pleasant on Sunday night and opened up the condominium. He expected a musty, stale smell to greet him, but it was Estelle’s scent—that unique blend of soap and roses and earth—that enveloped him, as if she’d just walked past him into the hallway. Amazing that the sterile white and chrome condominium would hold her scent for all these months. Right now, as he stood in her living room, she was sleeping three thousand miles away from him. He could picture her, the splash of mahogany-colored hair across the pillow, one arm reaching out for him in her sleep. A sudden longing ran through him to the tips of his fingers.
He set his luggage down by the front door, balancing a bag of hamburgers on top of his suitcase, and walked across the living room to the balcony that overlooked the inlet. He wanted to see the water before he did anything else. The inlet was never calm, and this evening was no exception. Its waves inflated and died over and over again with no true rhythm. A few fishermen were scattered on the flat rocks of the jetty, colored pink by the setting sun.
He opened the refrigerator. It gaped discouragingly at him with its white and silver emptiness, like the room behind him. He filled a glass with tap water and carried it to the kitchen table. He ate two of the hamburgers, chewing and swallowing without tasting. The third he threw in the garbage.
He wouldn’t call the Chapel House until at least nine, when it would be too late for him to drive there. He couldn’t take the chance of being asked to stay the night or feeling the walls of the house close around him like a lullaby. His dreams in Paris had been full of the house. Even when the dream itself made no sense, the setting held it together. He dreamt often of his bedroom or of the kitchen with one of Janni’s fires burning in the fireplace. How would he survive in this condo?
The waves of the inlet disappeared in the dusk, and the lights clicked on one by one in the handful of boats foolish enough to attempt the inlet at night. The fishermen packed up their gear, calling to each other in muffled words he couldn’t decipher, but which he imagined signified resignation and defeat.
Nine o’clock came and went without a call to the house. Still too early. Mantoloking’s only ten minutes away, he thought. He pictured driving down the barrier island, the ocean on his left, the bay on his right, the thick salty air filling his car. He could drive to the house, visit for an hour, and drive back. He had a sudden mental image of an alcoholic at a party claiming he could take just one drink, and he laughed out loud at the comparison.
At nine-thirty he made the call. The voice that answered was unfamiliar.
“Maris?” he asked, wondering if he’d tangled the digits of the number in his memory.
“No, this is Kit Sheridan.”
He felt a sharp twinge of loss; the Chapel House was not the same house he had left. There was a stranger living there, answering the phone as if she belonged.
“Is Jay there?” he said. “This is Cole.”
“Oh, Cole,” said Kit. “I’ll get Janni.” The stranger was gone so quickly she left ice on the line.
“Cole! Are you in Point Pleasant? Can you come over tonight?” Janni’s voice was quick and eager and brought a smile to his lips.
“It’s too late, Jance,” he said, as if the hour of his call had been dictated by some force outside himself.
“God, we’ve missed you. You should have come here for the night. Aren’t you going to be lonely there all by yourself?”
“No, it’s fine,” he lied.
She told him that Jay was out of town until Tuesday, but she’d meet him for lunch the next day. It felt strange, having to make arrangements to see her. He was used to simply knocking on her bedroom door when he wanted to talk.
Estelle’s big bed looked inviting, but the bedroom was too full of her. He remembered so many mornings lying beneath the sheets of that bed, watching her brush her thick, wavy hair at the dressing table. She’d wear slips of lace and satin, and she’d use the names of fruit to describe their colors.
“This one’s apricot,” she would say, or “this one’s raspberry with a hint of watermelon” She used mango when she could think of no fruit the color of her slip, because she said mangoes turned a different color nearly every day as they ripened.
He loved watching her. Sometimes when she would catch his smile or his look of contentment, she’d say, “Isn’t this better than spending the night in the Chapel House?” And he would have to agree because he liked to see her so relaxed, so comfortable in her own home. The lure of the house was, it seemed, selective.
She’d certainly been relaxed this past weekend, his last in Paris. They’d driven through the Loire Valley in the leased Renault. He hadn’t wanted to go, but it would be his last look at the chateaux country for a while. He’d expected Estelle to spend the time questioning him again about his plans for the next three weeks, when he’d be in New Jersey without her. But the interrogation never came, and as the enchantment of the valley surrounded him, he began to unwind.
They’d spent the morning exploring Chenonceaux, his favorite of the chateaux. It wasn’t the architecture or the manicured gardens that captivated him. It was the water. The Cher River flowed under and around the castle—he could see water from every window.
Afterward, they shared a lunch of salmon in sorrel sauce and cold asparagus.
“I wish you could stay just two weeks longer,” she said, sipping her wine, her deep blue eyes watching him. “The chateaux concerts would begin then.”
It was as close as she came to the dangerous topic, and she let him ignore the comment without reprimand.
After lunch they sought out a road that Estelle remembered from a dozen years earlier, when she had been a student in Paris. She sat forward in the car, brow furrowed, map in her hand.
“Turn here,” she said.
He turned onto a narrow road, forested on one side, a rolling vineyard on the other.
“Now here.” She pointed to a barely noticeable opening in the woods. He turned onto the road, and she sat back. “This is it.” She smiled. They were in a leafy green tunnel, shut off from the rest of the world.
They drove for a while in silence. He felt pleasantly disoriented by mile after mile of overhanging greenery. They rounded a bend in the road and, suddenly, laid out in front of them was a sea of vermilion poppies. Acres upon acres of them, the breeze blowing across them like a wave on the ocean.
Cole stopped the car in the middle of the road. “Look at that,” he said.
“They’re still here,” said Estelle. “Les coquelicots. Aren’t they beautiful! Let’s get out.”
Her spontaneity surprised him. She’d often stop the car in the middle of the city when a boutique caught her eye or she needed a closer look at a painting in a gallery window, but rarely had he known her to ask for a closer look at nature.
He pulled the car onto the barely existent shoulder of the road and got out. He followed Estelle into the field at a distance. He wanted to watch her. She was wearing the dress she liked to travel in—yards of pale green fabric that wrapped around her in so many turns he could never figure out how to unwrap it without her help. Her hair was shades darker than the poppies but in perfect harmony with them. She turned around and waved.
He hadn’t known this childlike part of Estelle still existed. He caught up to her and took her hand, feeling dizzy from the flow and sway of the flowers.
They walked toward a cluster of trees that would shelter them from the road, and she didn’t complain when he sat in the midst of the poppies and drew her down next to him.
“Let’s make love,” she said, as if she hadn’t known that was his plan.
“Your dress will get dirty.” He laid her back into the poppies. “And your hair.”
“I don’t care,” she said, in that dusky voice that scared him sometimes. He never knew what was hidden beneath it, sometimes tears, sometimes anger. Whatever it was this time, he knew there would be a desperate edge to this lovemaking. She was breaking all her own rules. She wanted this to be the memory of her he took back with him to the States.
He slept now under a single sheet on the couch in the living room so he could hear the water slapping against the rocks of the jetty. The cooling breeze that streamed steadily through the window smelled of salt and seaweed and he slept more deeply than he had in months.
It took him only five minutes to drive to Blair the next morning. Quite an improvement over the fifteen it used to take from the Chapel House. He told himself that living in the condo might not be so bad after all, especially when he got those middle-of-the-night emergency calls.
The hospital looked good to him. The building was a striking arrangement of concrete and black-tinted glass that jutted out over the water of the Manasquan River. It was a good-looking building at any time, but particularly at night when it lit up the water with its lights.
Blair was gaining national attention for its transplant programs and eye surgeries. The addition of a fetal surgery program would put it on the map in obstetrics as well. That’s why Blair had been willing to pay him—and pay him well—for spending nine months in France, studying the latest techniques in fetal surgery. They’d even spared Estelle from the Research Department to go with him to help with the translation. The critical thing now was to get funding. He couldn’t tolerate the thought of all his effort in these past few years going to waste.
The carpet of the Maternity Unit was new, and the walls now had murals painted on them. Trees and grass and rainbows. He had the feeling he was in a dream, walking through some alien hospital on springy green carpet. He couldn’t remember the color of the previous carpet, or if this hall had been carpeted at all.
Elliot Lehman, the director of the Maternity Unit, was waiting for him in the reception area of the offices they shared. He shook Cole’s hand, a wide smile on his bronzed face, and handed him a piece of coffee cake and a pint carton of milk. “We have a lot to talk about,” he said. “Let’s go in my office.”
Cole settled into one of the maroon-colored chairs in front of Elliot’s desk. He loved the leathery smell of this office, an office that was just a bit bigger, a bit more comfortable than his own. He sipped at his milk, thinking that Elliot looked grayer. His eyebrows were nearly white. And there was something strange about his smile, something held back.
“The work you sent me looked excellent,” Elliot said.
“I feel completely confident with the open-uterus technique.” Cole sat forward, wishing he could read Elliot’s face. “Do you know what that means? Spina bifida … bone transplants … the fetus will be literally at our fingertips.”
“At your fingertips.”
Cole frowned. What was that supposed to mean? There’d never been any rivalry between them, on this or any other topic “Well,” he said, “even if I’m heading the team I still think you should be a part—”
Elliot held up a hand to stop him. “I’m not going to be here,” he said.
“What do you mean you’re not going to be here?”
Elliot leaned his forearms on his desk. He seemed to be enjoying Cole’s confusion. “I’ve been offered the position of director of Perinatal Research at Stewart. And I’ve accepted.”
Cole’s mind raced with uncertainty. No Chapel House. No Elliot. His life was precariously out of balance. “Well, congratulations,” he said halfheartedly. “That’s quite an offer. But it’s hard to imagine Blair without you. The prestige of this unit is owing to you more than to anyone.”
“Thanks,” said Elliot. He was grinning. “That was only part of what I need to tell you.” He leaned across the massive desk, his meaty hands spread flat on the leather top, his fingers pointing in Cole’s direction.
Cole shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He couldn’t handle another piece of news like that.
“You’ve been selected to be my replacement. We’d like you to be the new director of Maternal and Fetal Medicine here at Blair.”
He stared at Elliot in disbelief. He had imagined that, years from now, when Elliot retired, he might take over. Or perhaps in four or five years he would take on the directorship of a smaller medical center. But he had never imagined that at the age of thirty-four he would be handed an opportunity like this.
A smile broke free from his face. “I don’t know what to say.”
“You have a few days to decide.” Elliot sat back in his chair. “You’re the right person for this. Cole. I hope you plan to accept.”
If he had been deaf and blind, he still would have known he was following Janni in the cafeteria line. She was as frenetic as always. At times she made little jumping movements while she waited, shiny dark hair bouncing, and she walked backward so she could talk to him without pausing.
She was wearing a denim jumper over a blouse with a tiny Mickey Mouse print running through it. Something new, he thought. He’d never seen this particular outfit on her, but it was typical of her clothes. He wondered what other adult woman would buy a Mickey Mouse blouse.
He watched her affectionately as she loaded her tray with nearly every raw and cooked vegetable on the counter. She frowned when he put a cheeseburger next to the milk on his tray.
“The latest study I read found a definite relationship between eating meat and having pungent perspiration,” she said.
“And vegetarians sweat Chanel Number Five, I suppose?”
“Something like that.”
He had decided not to tell her about Elliot’s offer. He needed time to think, and he wanted to be the one to tell Jay. How could he tell his best friend that he’d taken a quantum leap ahead of him? It would be a decade before Jay could receive such an offer, the hierarchy in general surgery was so intricate.
The cafeteria was buzzing as usual, and he felt a little nostalgic. He’d actually missed this place, mediocre food and all. They found a table in the corner, out of the mainstream of people anxious to welcome him back.
“So how’s the new Chapel House resident working out?” he asked, remembering the voice that had chilled him on the phone the night before. He tried to picture the stranger in the house. He saw a faceless woman eating with the others at the old oak table in the kitchen, laughing with them in an intimate way.
“She’s great. Jay and Maris liked her right away, but I knew they would. She’d planned to stay at the house for a month or so while she was looking for a place to buy. She found a great house on a lagoon in Point Pleasant, but when it came time for her to move into it . . . well, I bet you can guess what happened.”
“She couldn’t leave the Chapel House.”
“Did she rent out the Point Pleasant house?”
He laughed. He had acted out the same scenario years earlier.
“Wait ’til you see the changes she’s made in the Communicator. You won’t recognize it. She’s a runner, too. But she eats meat, can you believe it? You’d think she’d care what she puts in her body. Plus she’s doing the PR on your Fetal Surgery Program.”
“What?” He put down the cheeseburger. “I don’t even know her. How can they expect her to get the funding when she doesn’t know the first thing about me or the program?” He knew as he spoke that it wasn’t the PR that made him uncomfortable. This woman was moving into his territory much too quickly.
“Don’t worry. She’s good. And you’ll know her tomorrow. She has an appointment with you in the morning.”
He shook his head. “I’m seeing patients in the morning.”
“She’s coming to see you as a patient. She’s had a raging infection for weeks, but I talked her into waiting until you got back.”
“Janni, you savage. She’s probably got PID by now.”
Janni didn’t flinch. She took off her glasses and leaned toward him, her silky dark bangs grazing her eyelashes. “I want her to go to you.”
He shook his head, smiling at her. “You haven’t changed a bit,” he said with some relief. “You always have your own plans for your friends, don’t you?”
“Uh-huh.” She sounded as though he had complimented her on an outstanding personality trait. “And my plan right now is to talk you into staying at the Chapel House.”
“Jance, don’t do that to me, please. It’s going to be hard enough as it is. I gave Estelle my solemn promise that this is it. I’m going to start boxing things up when I come over for dinner tomorrow night.”
“Well that should make for an uplifting evening.” She put her glasses back on.
He asked about Maris. She was dating finally, Janni said, no longer moping around the Chapel House gym. He and Jay had installed a barre in the gym for Maris’s thirty-second birthday, and it and Tchaikovsky had become her escape.
“I hope I can still use the gym,” he said.
“That’s out of the question. You want to use the torture chamber, you have to be a resident.”
He stiffened. “Janni, I’m serious. I don’t want to be badgered about moving back in.” He let his eyes burn into hers to make his point.
She looked down at her plate, and he noticed her eyes glistening behind her glasses. She looked like a little girl who’d just been scolded.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “But I don’t want to feel as if I have to choose between Estelle and my friends.”
Janni nodded. “I know. It’s just the hysterectomy.”
“What do you mean, the hysterectomy?” He always felt guilty when she brought that up, as if he were responsible for the fibroid tumors just because he was the one to discover them. “That was two whole years ago.”
“Yeah, well most of the time it doesn’t bother me, but every once in a while I think to myself, Janni, you’ll never, ever have a family of your own. And then I think, well I’ve got Cole and Maris. They’re like a family. But now you’re leaving . . . ” She shrugged, a wounded look on her face. “I couldn’t believe it when you wrote you’d be moving out.” She poked at the corn and spinach on her plate with her fork, the little Mickey Mouse figures smiling insipidly at him from her sleeves.
“Did you think I’d be living with you and Jay forever?” he asked.
“I guess I did.”
“Well, I’ll be around so much you won’t realize I’ve gone.”
Janni nodded, her expression as hollow as the sound of his words.
* * *