Through the wall of bedroom windows, Quinn looked down on the polished sports cars, oversized SUVs, and black sedans that, once again, lined the circular pea stone drive. Just like after Harris’s funeral thirteen months ago, wisps of cigarette smoke from the waiting chauffeurs wafted up and in through the screen. Beyond the narrow private road at the end of the drive, dunes held fast to their beach grasses, cleaved by the rickety boardwalk that led to the sea. Twilight infused the peach and lavender sky with a streak of red where it met the Atlantic.
She should join the guests downstairs, at least for a while, although all she wanted was for this evening to be over. But she had consented a few weeks ago, and she did not want to disappoint Leigh.
The disaster now occupying the main floor of her home had all been her agent’s idea. Leigh, who had become a close friend in the fifteen years she represented Quinn, originally proposed some kind of “life celebration.”
In a few months, or years, perhaps, but not now. Instead, she agreed to a small, informal get-together for wine and cheese. “All you’ll have to do is put on something that’s not those yoga pants and come downstairs,” Leigh had said.
How that translated to a catered, strolling affair for forty and a jazz ensemble, Quinn was not sure. One thing was clear: Leigh was on a mission to drag her out of the deep, tarry funk of grief that mired her and, among so many other things, kept her from finishing her next book.
She descended the back stairs to the kitchen, nodding at the caterers arranging tapas on rustic olive wood trays. If she emerged from the kitchen rather than from the direction of the winding main stairway, the guests would assume she had been among them the whole time.
Before leaving the kitchen, she took a small plate from the stack on the counter and put two crackers on it. Then she picked up a bottle of Chardonnay—better, Merlot—and poured a glass. With her hands full, with red wine no less, no one would try to hug her. She had grown weary of so many awkward attempts at comfort and affection.
As she headed from the safety of the kitchen to the living room, trying to keep her gaze downcast, a waving hand shot up from a circle of guests. There was no mistaking that wide band of bangles on the wrist. Leigh.
Although Quinn couldn’t hear the bracelets’ jangle over the Coltrane or the din of conversation, she moved toward it.
“Quinn, you remember . . .” Leigh reintroduced her to their more distant circle of acquaintances. She imagined Leigh rounding them up, calling in favors for this pointless show of support, although all she wanted was to be left alone. Yes, yes, of course I remember. Nods and forced smiles. How nice of you to come.
One by one they moved closer to embrace her—loosely; the wine glass worked like a charm—and pat-pat her back.
It had become familiar, this widow Morse code. Poor thing. Now, time for you to move on. Pat. Because we don’t know what to say to you and it’s getting uncomfortable. Pat.
Women always gave two pats. There, there. Like she was an inconsolable child. Some men would add a third—pat-pat, pat. Two shorts and a long—if you ever get lonely—that would linger awkwardly until she pulled away.
The last person Leigh turned to, the man who had been hanging back coolly, respectfully, Quinn already knew. Jonathan Jaines, Explore Network’s Spice of Life foodie travel show host.
The director of the screen adaptation of Quinn’s last novel had brought him in to consult when they shot the movie three years ago. Tonight, bleeding dye from the cocktail napkin around his sweating beer bottle left the swirl of his thumb blue, as if he’d been fingerprinted.
On the inside of his wrist, she spied a simple tattoo: Dare. Four spare characters in handwritten lettering, no decoration, like he had jotted a quick reminder: Pick up milk, eggs, bread.
He didn’t have it when they worked together, she was sure. It was an intense couple of weeks; she would have noticed.
She wondered, what was it he wanted to do—the man traveled the world; he seemed to have a great life—and what was holding him back?
Without a word or a step toward her, he smiled, the skin at the corners of his warm brown eyes wrinkling—eyes that held empathy, not pity. After more than a year, she could discern the two.
His hair had grayed at the temples. His teeth were still bleached for TV and, up close, slightly, boyishly, crooked.
The others around the room noticed her, and they came toward her in the same slow-motion haze she could not shake these last months. As if her body were present but her mind observed from a distance, like she was listening to some audiobook, volume low, one earbud dangling rather than in her ear.
It wouldn’t matter if an earthquake rumbled right beneath her feet—it would probably feel like it was unfolding a million miles away.
And now the guests, their voices distant, asked her questions that were impossible to answer: How are you? What have you been up to? How’s the writing?
Writing. If one day she remembered how to laugh again, she would laugh at this. As if she had written a single sentence since that afternoon.
Already she needed to get away. “Excuse me,” she said to the group but looked at him, the understanding face in the crowd, the one that didn’t feel so far away.
She turned and hurried back to the kitchen, playing a proper hostess rushing to fetch something for a waiting guest. This way, no one would waylay her with more impossible questions.
The door swung closed behind her and she slowed, nodded at the catering staff again, and climbed the back stairs.
In the isolation of her study, she sat back in the armchair, put her feet on the ottoman, and drew the quiet around her like a blanket.
Soon they would all leave; the house would be empty again. In the near darkness, she traced the two hearts of the pendant at her neck with her fingertips. It would be thuddingly empty.
After a while, voices down the hall murmured. The sounds came closer, and she stood and darted into the dark alcove by the closet, just in case. The hum of the voices separated into words, then sentences.
“And this is her office.”
Are you kidding? Leigh was giving a tour? She tried to quiet her breathing. Why hadn’t she closed the door behind her? She could edge her way into the closet, but they would hear the door slide. It had been binding forever—how many times had she meant to ask Harris to oil the rails?
“How can she stand staying here?” a woman’s voice she didn’t recognize asked.
“Just tragic,” echoed another, familiar but unrecognizable.
Mm. Tsk. Cluck. Utterances of sympathy and fear. But mostly, of relief at their own good fortune—it had been someone else’s husband, not theirs.
The sounds stopped mid-conversation. “Quinn?” Leigh’s surprised voice asked.
Quinn sighed, louder than she intended.
“Oh, my. What are you doing up here? You were just in the living room a minute ago . . . We got to talking about your writing and the movie—I wanted to show off your Hollinger.”
With a fake flourish, Quinn pointed toward the award on her shelf, a copper sculpture of a spiral stack of books.
There it is. Are you done here now?
The procession of hugs, pat-pats, and apologies from the sheepish group started immediately. Leigh was the last.
“Come downstairs. Please,” she said, holding Quinn’s arms at the elbows. More widow code: I’m trying hard to help you, but you’re not cooperating.
“In a minute. I need to freshen up.”
Freshen up, who said that anymore?
Someone who wished she would go downstairs and find that everyone in her house had magically vanished, that’s who.
In the bathroom, she splashed a few handfuls of cold water on her cheeks, careful not to wet her mascara, the first makeup she had put on in over a year. It wasn’t her idea. When Leigh arrived earlier, she suggested Quinn apply some—“at least lipstick and mascara—you’ll feel so much better.”
Right. As if a swish of lip color and thicker lashes would fill the hollowness. But she did it, to show Leigh she was trying. Trying for what, though, she wasn’t sure.
This time when she descended the back stairway, his voice stopped her as she reached the breakfast nook off the kitchen. She stood still to listen.
He was talking to the caterers. Of course he was—on his show, he was the guy who tagged along with chefs and home cooks to the local market, wherever local was in that episode—and later joined them in their kitchen to chop and cook and talk about the food.
When she was adapting Market Day into the screenplay, Leigh had suggested bringing him on board to get the details of the market scenes just right. The team thought it was a great idea, and since he and Leigh were longtime friends, he had eagerly agreed to help.
The talking stopped, and he came to stand beside her at the dark octagonal windows by the table for two she no longer used. Another reminder, another empty place.
The amber beer bottle and wet blue napkin were still in his hand. Before, she would have offered him a fresh drink and a new napkin that didn’t stain his fingers. Now? Who cared about being polite.
“Hey. I thought I saw you come down.” His voice was deep and resonant; she felt it as much as she heard it. He nodded toward the steps. “How are you holding up, considering you have people traipsing all over your house?” Maybe he had noticed the tour group earlier. “Do you even know everyone?” he asked.
“Most. The rest, no idea.”
His laugh came out as a huff. “I’m not sure what she was thinking.” He was quiet for a beat, then added, “I’m sorry.”
“You know Leigh.”
“I do. She tries, but sometimes she hits the wrong note.”
Now she was the one to make the huffing sound. “That’s a kind way to put it.”
Dishes and silverware clinked and clattered behind them in the kitchen, the sounds underlaid by faint notes of a saxophone, but the two of them were quiet.
She used to be good at making conversation, at finding questions to ask to learn about people, but that too had vanished. Instead, she tried to focus on the May breeze coming in through the screen, a mix of salty sea air and cigarette smoke from the drivers. The scent of mint and leather, though, that wasn’t coming from outside.
She closed her eyes and inhaled again. No, definitely not from outside.
His voice broke their silence. “When I said I was sorry . . . I meant not only about Leigh’s overenthusiasm; I meant all of it. What happened. I am, truly, sorry.”
She nodded. “I know. Me, too.”
“If Leigh heard me say this to you, she would tell me I was being rude, but . . . All those things people say? They’re bullshit. It didn’t happen for a reason. It wasn’t his time. And no matter how hard anyone tries, not a single one of us here tonight knows what you’re going through. People don’t know what to do with someone else’s grief. It’s such a personal, private thing.”
He didn’t so much as glance toward her while he spoke, respecting her isolation. And although not the most profound, his words were the most understanding ones anyone had spoken to her since that day.
The muscles around her jaw loosened, and the tension that had compressed her body from all directions relaxed the tiniest bit.
The surprising sense of ease muted the thank you she had been about to say. Instead, she turned toward him, looked up at his face, and followed his gaze. It led her beyond the driveway, past the dune grass, toward the swath of dark ocean. Like his kind eyes, the sea glittered in the distance, reflecting the nearly full moon.
They stood still, continuing to look out toward the beach, the water. The fresh air, the sea, the earthy-leathery mint—the scents mingled and soothed, and she inhaled deeply.
Soon, low voices coming from the driveway broke their quiet. Car doors closed in succession. An engine revved to life. Thank goodness; guests were leaving. “I should probably go say goodbye,” she told him.
As she turned to leave, her shoulder brushed his upper arm. Warmth radiated through the fabric of his blue button-down shirt. She hadn’t realized they were standing this close.
She paused for the briefest moment, startled by the contact and even more surprised by the unexpected and overpowering craving for more.
* * *
He watched her turn and walk through the enormous kitchen, past the busy catering staff. Some of the men glanced up from the leftovers they were wrapping to look at her. He had seen similar reactions when they were on set. Then, like now, she seemed oblivious to it.
Maybe that was one of the reasons it was so hard not to look at her. Loose waves of dark brown hair that, in the California sunlight, had taken on sheens of burgundy. Chocolate-brown eyes alive with interest and curiosity.
He hoped what he said just now wasn’t out of bounds. They really didn’t know each other well—they had spent a few long, chaotic days working together with the director and actors, and he had liked her at once.
Not liked-her, liked-her—at the time he was entangled in his own drama, and she was happily married to the judge.
Harris had flown to L.A. and come to the set, on a brief break from a big case but said he just needed to see her. It was a surprise; he arrived with a bouquet of flowers, and she broke into a smile Jonathan would never forget.
She ran to Harris and held the back of his neck when they kissed. Everyone made silly cooing sounds and, the next morning, teased her about why the two of them had not emerged from her hotel room for dinner.
Still, you couldn’t ignore her poise and contentment, how easily she laughed. She was so different from some of the arrogant personalities Jonathan knew, without a whiff of conceit or self-absorption. Even when the director would challenge everyone’s patience at the end of a fourteen-hour day, the volume and tone of her voice stayed even, calm.
Jonathan had read all of her books long before Leigh had asked him to consult—he knew she was creative and smart. When she shared her ideas, you gave her your full attention.
But now . . . now she looked like a ghost, a shell, so different from that vivacious woman. Leigh shocked him when she called a year or so ago to tell him what happened.
He wouldn’t wish a tragedy like that on his worst enemy.
He leaned back against the windowsill and took a swig of beer from the bottle he’d been nursing all evening. The smell of cigarette smoke from outside drifted into his nostrils and set him jonesing. He quit years ago at Delphine’s request, but with no wife around to stop him now, he would bum one from Gil when he got to the car.
One by one, the catering staff filed out and in, still bringing plates and glasses and chafing dishes in from the living room, the party—or whatever it was—now winding down.
He wondered how Leigh had convinced Quinn to go for this. She had tried to escape more than once tonight; she could not have been comfortable with it. He thought back. The invitation had come from Leigh, a voice mail. Small dinner; nothing fancy; it will be good for Quinn.
And that was why he had come, to help in some way, however small. She was a good person and he didn’t know what else he could possibly do.
He said goodnight to the kitchen crew as he went into the living room. The crowd had thinned. The guests who remained were air-kissing and making plans they probably wouldn’t keep. He walked among the disbanding groups looking for her to say goodbye, but it was like she had disappeared again.
On his third round, he spotted her coming from the kitchen. She stopped and leaned against the archway to the living room to adjust her shoe and whisk a strand of hair off her face.
Maybe she had gone outside for air. Maybe she too was jonesing for a smoke. Not that he remembered her smoking when they were in L.A.
Before he reached her, a couple he didn’t recognize approached, the woman’s arms out to hug her. Leigh and a few others gathered near him to wait.
“Well, that was a success.” Leigh’s short silver hair bounced in satisfaction as she turned from watching Quinn with her piercing blue eyes to face him.
“You outdid yourself. But she looks tired; I think she might need some space.”
“She’s had nothing but space for the last year—this was good for her. She needs to get back to some semblance of normal.”
He was glad Leigh was whispering and that Quinn was busy with the couple so she couldn’t hear this.
But before he could answer, the couple walked away, and Leigh stepped forward, hugged Quinn, and pulled back. “See? That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Quinn forced a smile. Nothing above the tip of her nose budged.
She opened her mouth, presumably to respond, but Leigh’s question must have been rhetorical because she kept right on going. “Do you have a few minutes to talk after everyone leaves? We should get that proposal to Nely this week.”
Nely. Nely Mayano, head of an imprint at Devon, Quinn’s publisher. Man, Leigh, give her a break.
“I know.” Quinn rolled her lips in on themselves like she was holding back. “Let’s talk about it tomorrow. It’s late. You’ve already done a lot. Come on, I’ll walk you out.”
“That’s okay, finish saying goodnight.” Leigh gestured to the queue that had formed. “You forget—I know this place like the back of my hand.”
He doubted Quinn forgot after how Leigh had led that little house tour for the rubberneckers.
When the last pair left, he went to her. “I’m going to take off, too. Look, um . . .”
He planned to tell her if she needed anything to please call him, but how many men had said that to her with different intentions since it happened?
How many men had said that to her tonight?
“I hope what I said earlier didn’t upset you.”
She shook her head efficiently, once to each side.
“Okay, good.” He stuck his hands in his pockets and felt his shoulders shrug. What could he offer that wasn’t one more inadequate cliché?
As he stumbled to speak, she drew close and tipped up on her toes as if she wanted to tell him a secret. She took hold of his elbows for balance, each thumb molding perfectly into the crook, the pressure of her fingers warm on the back of his arms.
His ear tingled as she whispered, “I sent your driver away.”
* * *
Silently launches the Transformation Series. The books should be read in order.
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