Authors: Eileen Goudge
At that very moment Emerson Fitzgibbons was circling the block in search of a parking space, her head throbbing in time with the Coldplay tune pumping from the car stereo. Why, oh why, had she had so much to drink last night? Normally all she ever had was Perrier. Otherwise, with all the functions she had to attend, she’d be a lush. She had to stay on top of it at all times, not just for her clients’ sakes, but for Ainsley’s…and her mother’s.
The lines in her furrowed brow deepened. No, she wasn’t going to think about her mother today. She was taking a weekend off from anything related to Marjorie Kroft-Fitzgibbons.
A cat darted into the street in front of her, and Emerson slammed on the brakes, causing her Lexus to slew to one side and driving a spike of pain through her throbbing temples. God. What if it’d been a child and she hadn’t been able to stop in time? It was her worst nightmare, second only to that of something happening to her daughter. It was sheer luck, after all, that anyone made it to adulthood. Wasn’t life itself an accident waiting to happen?
It was all she could do to keep from warning Franny to be careful what she wished for. Emerson adored her daughter, but being a single mom was the hardest job she’d ever tackled. Harder than building her own PR firm from the ground up; harder than the clients she practically had to breast-feed and the TV producers, magazine editors, and reporters who made Saddam Hussein look like a pussycat by comparison. Not just in terms of the days she felt like sliced and diced sushi. It was the constant worrying. Was she doing it right? Or was she screwing up her daughter’s life the way her mother had screwed up hers?
But on this mild spring day, as she cruised the quiet residential streets bordering the campus, it seemed nothing bad was lurking around the bend. If it weren’t for this hangover, she might have gone so far as to say she was having fun. Fun being a relative term, of course—Emerson couldn’t remember the last time she’d completely cut loose. But the drive up yesterday with Franny, the two of them gabbing the whole way just like old times, had done more for her than a week at Canyon Ranch. For the past twenty-four hours she’d been free of concerns about her daughter, who was being well looked after by her father, Emerson’s ex-husband, Briggs, or her mother, who was no doubt tormenting the new night nurse the agency had sent over to replace the last one who’d quit, the third in less than six months.
And soon there would be Jay and Stevie as well. Emerson recalled the nights they used to hang out together in each other’s dorm rooms, drinking cheap wine and staying up until all hours, talking about everything under the sun. As disparate as four people could be, but with a common bond: They were all on scholarship. The only difference was, with her pedigree, no one would have guessed.
She was turning onto the next block, wishing she’d been smart and taken the shuttle like Franny, when she spied a space at last. It was a little tight, but she managed to squeeze into it with only a few inches of her rear bumper jutting into the adjacent driveway.
As she was climbing out of her car, a burly man in sweats came charging out of the house she was parked in front of, shouting, “Hey, lady! What the hell d’ya think yer doin’!”
“Excuse me?” Emerson drew herself up to her full five feet eleven inches, a blond Amazon who appeared even taller in her Christian Louboutin wedgies.
“Yer blockin’ my driveway!” He waved a hand at the four inches or so of gleaming silver Lexus protruding past the curb. But as she continued to stare down her nose at him, she saw a flicker of uncertainty in his eyes. Apparently he hadn’t encountered many blue bloods of the old school, who’d once ruled neighborhoods like this one with a velvet fist. In those days, all it would take was a scornful look, a well-aimed epithet hissed between locked jaws, to level someone of “lesser status.” She ought to know. She’d seen her mother do it any number of times. In fact, wasn’t it Marjorie she was channeling now, her knee-jerk reaction when backed into a corner? Not because she thought she was better than everyone else, but because it was the only defense at her disposal.
“Is that so?” she replied, eyeing the narrow passage through which he could back out with some maneuvering.
“Don’t make me call the cops.” A wheedling note crept into his voice, letting her know it was an empty threat.
Marjorie would have made a pointed remark aimed at his impertinence in even owning a house in this former bastion of WASP-dom. What was the world coming to, her tone would imply, when civilized people couldn’t walk out their front doors without being accosted by the bourgeoisie? But Emerson was more aghast at her own behavior than his. Why was she acting this way? The man had a perfect right to demand that she move.
The starch went out of her spine and her expression softened into one of appeal. “Listen, you’d be doing me a huge favor if you’d let me park here. If you have a problem getting out, you could always call me on my cell.” She handed him her card. “Normally, I wouldn’t put you to the trouble, but I’m running late as it is.” She cast him a beseeching look.
He hesitated, torn between his manly pride and a desire to play the good guy. Finally, he relented, saying grudgingly, “Awright. But I don’t wanna be kept waiting.”
“Thanks. I really appreciate it.” She flashed him a grateful smile, dashing off before he could change his mind.
The man might have been surprised to learn that there had been a time in Emerson’s life when she’d felt like the biggest impostor on the planet. What the rest of the world had seen was a poised young woman with all the advantages—a Park Avenue address, a listing in the
enrollment at one of the city’s best private schools—but it was all a sham. Her mother was broke: She owed everyone, from the butcher to the lawyer who’d handled the estate, what little of it there was, after Emerson’s father died. If their apartment hadn’t been rent-controlled, they’d have been forced to move to one of the outer boroughs—Siberia as far as Marjorie was concerned. The only reason Emerson had gone to Chapin was because Marjorie had pawned jewels, sold paintings, and borrowed from everyone she knew to pay the tuition. Public school, in her view, would’ve been as unthinkable as living in Queens. The Fitzgibbons would have ceased to exist as far as the old-money crowd was concerned.
It wasn’t until Emerson was at Princeton and fell in with Jay, Franny, and Stevie, each of whom had their own hard-luck tale, that she’d been able to let down her guard at last. The night she’d opened up to them, after they’d polished off a fifth of tequila Stevie had smuggled into the dorm, it had been like Noah’s floodwaters. Emerson had wept into her pillow while Franny stroked her hair and Jay and Stevie murmured consoling words. Afterward, they’d all told embarrassing stories about their own parents.
Now she hastened her step, eager to join her friends. She hadn’t seen Stevie since Jay’s wedding. That was what—two years ago? Emerson had still been with Briggs at the time, but now Jay was the only one among them wearing a wedding ring. Her own marriage had crumbled like stale bread, Franny was still looking for love, and Stevie claimed she’d sooner have her eyeteeth pulled than tie the knot.
She was within a stone’s throw of the Hartleys’ residence when she caught sight of a taxi pulling up to the curb. Out stepped Stevie, in low-rider jeans and a clingy top that showed off her flat, tanned belly and pierced navel. From this distance she looked closer to sixteen than thirty-six, her cropped hair the color of rooster feathers, moussed into spikes, her slender wrists stacked with silver bangles that slid up and down her arms as she heaved her suitcase out of the trunk. She lingered at the curb after the cab had pulled away, her gaze sweeping over the assemblage on the lawn before finally lighting on Emerson.
“Em!” she cried, doing a little jig before racing toward her with a whoop of delight.
On the way to the reunion, Stevie had been in a less than joyful mood. Her flight out of LAX was delayed, and she’d landed at Newark only to find that Avis had no record of her reservation. Apparently there were no cars to be had anywhere, so she’d been forced to take a taxi. Her only bit of luck was the driver’s taking pity on her; he informed her as they were pulling away from the curb that he wouldn’t charge her the customary return fare for out-of-Manhattan trips.
“You look like nice girl,” he said, by way of explanation.
“Actually, I’m not so nice,” she replied.
Ask my boyfriend, he’ll tell you.
“But thanks anyway.”
“You have good trip?” he inquired, as they were easing their way onto the turnpike. She looked up into a pair of faded blue eyes framed in the rearview mirror.
“The plane didn’t crash—that’s something.” She was in no mood for chitchat, but it was already established that she was a nice person. Besides, it was going to be a long trip.
“You live in Jersey?”
“No, just visiting. I’m from L.A.”
He wanted to know if she had family in the area, and she told him her only family was her mom, who lived near her. Stevie saw no reason to mention that she had a father, as well. Grant Tobin probably didn’t even know of her existence, and judging by the brick wall she’d come up against in trying make contact with him, there was a good chance he never would.
“I have wife in Czechoslovakia.” The driver spoke wistfully.
“You must miss her.”
He nodded. “A man without wife is no good.”
She felt a pang, thinking of Ryan. “I’ve never been married, so I wouldn’t know. But I’ll take your word for it.”
The faded eyes in the rearview mirror regarded her curiously. “You have boyfriend?”
She stared out the window at the gray industrial landscape oozing past. “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
The memory surfaced once more. Thursday she and Ryan had been enjoying a quiet evening out at the Buffalo Club in Santa Monica. When dessert arrived at the table she’d been stunned to see, in place of the crème brûlée that she’d ordered, a lemon tart with the words “Will You Marry Me?” drizzled in chocolate over the top. So stunned that, stupidly, the first thing out of her mouth was, “Wow. How did they squeeze in all those letters?”
Ryan’s smile wavered a bit. “It’s not brain surgery.”
“Still, it must take a steady hand.”
“Stevie…” His smile gave way to a faintly exasperated look. “Is there something you want to tell me?”
He regarded her with a mixture of hope and wariness. She knew what he wanted to hear—
yes, I’ll marry you
—but the words were like a piece of meat stuck in her windpipe, cutting off the flow of air. Was there a Heimlich maneuver for terminal fear of commitment?
She looked down at the table, saying softly, “I love you, Ryan. You know I do. But…it’s such a huge step.”
“We’re practically living together as it is,” he reminded her.
“Practically” being the operative word here, she thought. “And it’s been great!” she said, looking up into the rapidly cooling warmth of Ryan’s eyes. “See, that’s my point. What we have is so good, why mess it up?”
“I didn’t know the M word stood for mess.” His voice was cold. His normally expressive face, with its full mouth and wide-set gray eyes as true as the camera lens with which he captured people’s lives, set into hard lines.
“I still love you. Nothing’s changed,” she said.
In the warmth of the restaurant, the chocolate on the tart had begun to weep, tiny tears running down to pool between the letters, causing them to blur. Stevie had wanted to weep herself seeing the crushed look on Ryan’s face. How could she not have seen this coming? He’d certainly dropped enough hints.
“So your answer is no.” Ryan spoke softly.
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t have to.”
“I’m sorry.” She reached for his hand, but he moved it out of reach, and she ended up only grazing his knuckles.
He paid the check while Stevie ducked into the ladies’ room. They didn’t speak again until they were on their way home. When she pointed out that he’d taken the wrong exit off the freeway, he explained curtly that he was dropping her off at her place. She’d planned on staying over with him—most of her clothes were at his apartment, and besides, it was closer to the airport—but from the look on his face, she thought it best not to object.
“Have a good trip,” he said woodenly as she was getting out of the car, in front of her condo.
“I’ll call you when I get back,” she said.
There was a beat before he replied, “You know something? Don’t.” He sounded more tired than angry. In the glare of the headlights backfiring off her garage door, his face, framed by its tumble of dark hair, was a black-and-white image caught in freeze-frame.
Her breath caught in her throat. “Are you saying…?”
He didn’t let her finish. “I think we need some time apart.”
Stevie’s throat tightened, the crisp, authoritative voice she used to her advantage at press conferences and red-carpet events coming out small, almost childlike. “Ryan, I meant what I said before. I
love you. There’s no one else I’d rather be with. If you’d just be patient a little longer…”
He turned to her. “It’s been two years. How much longer do I have to wait?”
“I wish I could tell you. It’s just…there’s a lot going on right now. My father…” She let out a breath, spreading her hands in a helpless gesture.
“I know.” His tone softened, and he placed a hand over hers.
She felt a flicker of hope. So he
understand what she was going through—if only a little. She laced her fingers through his, squeezing tightly. “If it’s any comfort, I see us together down the line. It’s just that right now I can’t handle one more thing.”
His fingers disengaged from hers, sliding away like cool water. “That’s the difference between us,” he said, shaking his head slowly. “You look at it as something to ‘handle,’ while I see it as something to celebrate. The trouble with us, Stevie, is that we don’t see eye to eye.”
“That doesn’t mean I won’t eventually come around to your point of view.”
“When will that be?”