flash caught her as she was stepping inside the house and exploded
into tiny fragments of blinding light. Alexandra Prescott flinched.
Instinctively, she lowered her head and started to raise her
arm to shield her face, but there was no barrage of flashes,
just a glee-filled, high-pitched chorus of "Happy Birthday,
Circles of light still floated across her gray-green eyes. Alex
pulled her lips into a smile and met the faces standing behind
the crayoned banner taped to the ecru wall above the archway
to the living room.
is…wonderful," she said, wondering whether her voice betrayed
her emotion. "Just wonderful."
knew, but I didn't tell!" yelled Nicholas, her five-year-old
stepson. "I knew the whole time, Mommy! Right I knew, Lisa?"
he asked his sister, who was holding a Polaroid.
Alex's husband Warren came up to her. Pulling her close, he
bent his head down and kissed her on the mouth. "You really
are surprised, aren't you? I can feel your heart thumping."
His green deepened the faint lines around his eyes and mouth
and softened the serious, almost square lines of his face.
She was instantly warmed by the pleasure and love she read in
his deep amber eyes. They were kind eyes, caring eyes; it was
the first thing she had noticed about him. Lifting her hand
to his forehead, she smoothed into place several strands of
dark brown hair that needed no smoothing. Touching him anchored
didn't suspect a thing," she whispered. "I must look a mess."
She was dressed in stone-washed jeans, a red cotton knit sweater
warm enough for the mild January day, and Adidas running shoes;
wearing anything nonwashable to the Venice, California, preschool
she ran was impractical and expensive. In the morning, she'd
pulled her thick, wavy black hair into a ponytail. She lifted
her hand now to brush back the tendrils she knew had escaped.
Warren took her hand. "You look great. Except for the purple
finger paint on you nose." Smiling, he rubbed the paint off
Her vision was clear now, and she scanned the room, nothing
the friends and relatives who had come to wish her well. A human
dowry, Alex thought—they had all been part of Warren's life
long before they had become part of hers: the Lipmans and Greens.
The Bennets and the Blairs. The McAllisters. The Judds.
Denise, Warren's former sister-in-law, stood with her boyfriend,
Ron; she was smiling warmly at Alex. Lisa, Warren's fourteen-year-old
daughter, was next to Denise, and Alex was struck again by the
striking resemblance between aunt and niece. Same straight,
shoulder-length, honey-blond hair; same high cheekbones; straight,
short noses; porcelain skin; expressive, almond-shaped brown
eyes. Lisa, tall for age, was already five feet five inches,
only two inches shorter than her aunt, and would clearly have
the same slender build.
Paula Lewis was here, of course. She was part of the dowry,
too—she had been the Prescott housekeeper form the time Lisa
was an infant. Next to Paula were Mona and Stuart Hutchins—Denise's
parents, Lisa and Nick's maternal grandparents. Mona flashed
Alex a manufactured smile. Alex wondered fleetingly why she
and Stuart had come.
Alex spotted Patty, an aide at the preschool, and Evelyn, her
assistant and close friend (not part of the dowry; Alex had
cultivated this relationship on her own). Patty and Evelyn both
knew Denise, and Warren and the kids, of course—they had known
them, in fact, before Alex had—but they were standing apart,
to the side. Alex was reminded at how she'd felt at her first
high school dance—awkward, nervous, silently willing one of
the pimply, gangly boys to transform her from a wallflower into
someone who belonged. She walked over to them.
birthday, Alex," Patty said shyly.
you, Patty." Alex hugged her lightly. "I'm glad you came." She
turned to Evelyn and, taking her hands, shook her head in mock
accusation. "So that's why you asked me to take the afternoon
Alex usually left the school at three so that she could pick
Nicholas up from kindergarten; Evelyn and Patty stayed and supervised
the children whose parents needed day care until six.
Evelyn's smile lit up her angular face. "Guilty as charged.
I guess you'll never trust me anymore."
guess not." Alex grinned, then turned to the others. "Thank
you," she said to the roomful of people. "All of you. I don't
know what to say."
‘cheese,' Mommy!" squealed Nicholas. "Lisa, take another picture
‘money,'" someone called.
‘sex!' Ron called, and Denise said, "Shhh!" but she was smiling
and everyone laughed.
Prepared this time, Alex smiled into the camera. "Cheese."
1. Evelyn said, "How about taking a picture of your folks, Lisa?"
Something flickered in the girl's dark brown eyes.
ahead, honey," Denise said and touched Lisa's arm.
Lisa said. "Alex, move closer to Dad, okay?"
It was still "Alex," even though she and Warren had been married
for almost two years. Maybe it would always be "Alex." Never
"Mom." But that was understandable, she told herself, not for
the first time. Lisa had been nine when her mother had died
of complications less than two months after giving birth to
Nicholas, twelve when her father had remarried; and unlike Nicholas,
who had welcomed Alex happily and unconditionally, Lisa had
been guarded, unapproachable, often bristling with an unnamed
anger that Warren liked to label "the teenage thing" but Alex
knew was something else.
Within the past few months, though, Alex had sensed a thawing
of that reserve, an ebbing of the anger, and if Lisa wasn't
yet affectionate toward her stepmother (God, how Alex hated
the word!), at least she seemed to have accepted Alex as Warren's
wife and a member of the family.
Alex posed. Another flash from the camera. Nicholas ran up to
her. She lifted him high, and he planted a wet kiss on her cheek.
She hugged him tightly, ruffled his tawny hair, then lowered
him to the tiled floor.
you like the sign, Mommy? Lisa drawed it, but I colored it in."
Pride gleamed in his deep amber yes. Warren's eyes.
love the sign, Nick." I love you, Nick. "Thank you, Lisa." She
smiled at her stepdaughter.
Lisa shrugged, and whisked her blond hair behind her ear, but
Alex could see from the sudden color in her cheeks that she
Nick wedged himself between Alex and Warren. "Take one more
with me in it, Lisa," he ordered.
Denise stepped forward. "Why don't I take one of all of you?
Go ahead, Lisa."
Lisa hesitated, then handed the camera to her aunt. Warren moved
away from Nick to make room for his daughter, but she walked
around Warren and positioned herself on his right.
Which was only understandable, Alex told herself. And it didn't
mean anything. But she couldn't help noticing the look of mincing
approval in Mona Hutchins's eyes.
It was almost midnight when Warren and Alex finished clearing
things away and went upstairs to their bedroom.
should have left the rest for tomorrow," he said as he unbuttoned
his shirt. "In fact, you shouldn't have had to clear anything.
It was your party. And Paula told you to leave it for her till
know, but dried guacamole is not a pretty picture." She grimaced.
And though Paula had offered, Alex suspected that in the morning,
the housekeeper would have greeted a less-than-spotless kitchen
In many ways. Alex still felt as if she were on probation with
the woman, constantly being tested by criteria she was supposed
to intuit, more often than not failing. Tonight she'd thanked
Paula for helping with the party preparations—Paula was easily
slighted, Alex knew—but throughout the evening she had noticed
a grim line around the housekeeper's mouth. Maybe Alex hadn't
thanked her enough.
she continued, "you and Lisa did most of it. And if people had
left at a decent hour…" She unlaced her Adidas, slipped them
off, and unzipped her jeans.
‘people' you mean Mona and Stuart, right?" Warren shook his
head and smiled. "They never know when to leave." He walked
into the adjoining bathroom and tossed his shirt and T-shirt
into the built-in hamper.
Or when not to come at all, Alex thought. In a casual voice,
she said, "Actually, I was surprised to see them." Which wasn't
exactly true. They came to the house constantly, often without
warning. Of course, they were attached to their grandchildren,
and to Warren, gut still…
they are Denise's parents," Warren said, returning to the bedroom.
"And Denise helped Lisa plan the party. Mona and Stuart would've
been hurt if they hadn't been invited And they like you, Alex."
No, they don't, Alex thought as she walked to the closet to
hang up her jeans. They regard me as the woman who took over
their dead daughter's husband and family And house. And just
about everything it in, including the English Provincial furniture,
the blue-and-white-patterned dishes, the Waterford stemware.
Aloud, she said, "Did you see Mona on her hands and knees trying
to get the stain out of the carpet with the club soda?" Her
daughter's carpet. "She looked ridiculous."
A heavier, wider, more flamboyant version of Denise, Mona had
worn a tent-shaped, bright orange dress that, together with
her newly hennaed, short-cropped hair and an orange-lipsticked
mouth, had made her look like a jack-o'-lantern. Alex smiled
at the image.
Warren laughed. "She wasn't on her hands and knees. Anyway,
Mona means well. It was a fun party, wasn't it?
was a great party," Alex said warmly, meaning it. "And it was
so sweet of your parents to phone."
Sweet, but not surprising. Bea and Phil Prescott were warm and
affectionate and clearly approved of their new daughter-in-law.
They lived in Chicago. So did Warren's sister Nora and her husband,
Robert. They had all flown in for Alex and Warren's private
wedding ceremony in the minister's study at the church Warren
attended. Bea and Phil had returned to California several times
since then, and Alex had enjoyed each visit.
On the phone tonight they had voiced their familiar complaint,
that Alex and Warren and the children lived too far away. "We
should never have let Warren go to Stanford for law school,"
Bea had said, only half joking. As always, it had been hard
for Alex to hear the love and pride in her mother-in-law's voice
and not think about her own parents. Two years ago, she'd broken
a year-long silence to call and tell them she was getting married.
"I see," her father had said; Alex had pictured his stern, tight-lipped
mouth. Her mother had said, "I hope you'll be happy" in clipped,
grudging syllables of unforgiving disapproval that twenty-two
months and two thousand miles hadn't softened. Alex hadn't spoken
to them since.
Don't think about them, Alex told herself now. Don't let them
ruin your day. With forced cheer she said, "Warren, it was wonderful
of Lisa to plan the party. I'm really touched. I'll get her
a few CDs of her latest favorites." Alex was rewarded with his
smile. "And I'll call Denise." She took off her sweater, folded
it, and put it on the dresser.
idea. Denise will appreciate it." He sat on his side of their
king-size bed and picked up a law journal form his nightstand.
"I'm glad you two get along so well, Alex."
Alex was relieved more than glad. From everything she'd heard,
Denise and Andrea, Warren's late wife, had been extremely close,
even though Andrea had been nine years older than her "baby"
sister. And it had been clear to Alex that Denise had a special
relationship with her sister's children, especially Lisa. Alex
hadn't known what to expect—would Denise be hostile, or would
she ignore Alex and pretend she didn't exist? But aside from
an initial awkwardness, natural under the circumstances, Denise
had been wonderful—warm, friendly, eager to introduce Alex to
her own circle of friends. She'd offered to help Paula watch
Lisa and Nick while Alex and Warren honeymooned in Hawaii. And
she had tactfully and gracefully relinquished her role as surrogate
mother. For that, Alex had been especially grateful.
looks happy, doesn't she, Warren? I think she really likes Ron."
He looked up from his journal and smiled. "I hope so. She loves
decorating people's houses, but she's twenty-seven, and it's
about time she settled down. She's very pretty. She's bright.
She's got a great personality. I don't know why she hasn't married
yet." He shrugged.
I be jealous?" Alex said lightly. I'm so lucky, she though as
she looked at her husband.
A moment later he was behind her, his arms wrapped around her.
She leaned back against him, the top of her head tucked under
his chin. "Not too bad for a woman of thirty-two?"
bad at all." He slipped off her bra straps and kissed her shoulders.
"Happy birthday, Alex," he whispered. His breath was warm on
It never failed to surprise her, the way his touch made her
instantly tingle with desire. "You already wished me a happy
birthday downstairs," she said softly. She fingered the hammered
gold, heart-shaped locket that lay between her breasts. Then
she turned and put her arms around his neck.
was for public," he said. "This is for private."
Alex stifled a cry as she awoke. She lay still, bathed in sweat,
waiting for her heart to stop lurching in her chest. Warren
was asleep, lightly snoring next to her, his bare chest rising
almost imperceptibly with each trouble-free breath. She was
tempted to wake him, to have him wrap his strong arms around
her, to make love again and lose herself in the passion and
tenderness of his embrace. But he would want to know why she
was crying, and she couldn't tell him about the dream. She couldn't
The dream was always the same. Waking brought with it no relief,
since the dream was not about monsters or demons that daylight
or moonlight could banish. And it was not about any of a myriad
of very real, horrifying events that could take place tomorrow,
or the next day, or the next year, but probably wouldn't. The
dream was about what had been, and there was no escaping it.
Not even today. Not even lying here in this bed, with a husband
She clutched the locket Warren had given her as if it were an
amulet with protective powers, despaired because she knew that
it wasn't. She would have the dream again and again, and it
would be merciless in its accurateness, terrifying in its inexorable
sameness; and despite the sameness, the pain would always be
birthday, Alex," she whispered to herself.