She’d thought they’d be more anonymous here, but though this was a city, the communities within it were small. During the winter months and mornings and evenings, when the sun was less fierce, her neighbours spent a lot of time outdoors. You met them, tending their gardens; you saw them fishing or taking a stroll, in the shops downtown or at the Venetian Pool.
She poured a cup of coffee and took the cards to the kitchen table. She always looked at the envelopes first, searching for a familiar handwriting. She sent her parents a card every year. This year’s had a robin on it. She never quite knew what to write inside – they wouldn’t want to hear news, nor answer questions – so she only ever wrote Happy Christmas. I love you.
They never replied. But she kept on sending the cards, in case.
Robbie sent a card to William every year as well – and also on his birthday. He sent them to Marie’s parents’ house in Wisconsin and sometimes they came back marked, in thick black pen, RETURN TO SENDER. And sometimes nothing came back at all.
The last envelope wasn’t a card, it was a letter. The handwriting was unfamiliar, and the postmark was Miami. She opened it, drinking the last of her coffee, wondering whether to make another pot or whether that would stop her from taking a nap in the afternoon if she didn’t get called in.
It was a single piece of paper, folded. On the top of the paper was an address of an attorney’s office in Louisiana. Underneath it, in neat handwriting:
You seem like you would make good parents. Try this, if you are still looking.
PS It’s a girl, 7 lbs 4 oz. Named Jeannie.
New Orleans, Louisiana
It was the third week of 1976 when they drove the twelve hours up the length of Florida and along the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans. Elliot Honeywell’s office was in a gracious old brick building, the type that had shutters on the windows to be closed against the midday sun, a white wrought-iron balcony running the length of the first floor. Robbie parked the Plymouth in front and the car ticked, cooling, as he took her hand and they went up the stone steps together.
The receptionist wore what looked like a Chanel suit, and as they took a seat in the leather armchairs of the waiting room Emily noticed Robbie smoothing his tie. It was one of three that he owned, all of which Emily had bought him: for weddings, funerals, special dinners, and now for appointments with social workers or attorneys. He wore one of his two suits. She could feel Robbie’s slight discomfort which had nothing to do with their reason for coming here and more to do with the expensive, understated furniture, the pot of orchids on the receptionist’s desk, the sedate fan whirring from the ceiling, the framed certificates on the wall.
When she’d first met him he’d been utterly unintimidated by class differences. He had spoken of the rich people he worked for, servicing their yachts, without reverence – in fact, with a certain degree of disdain. But the years, and everything that had happened, had changed him. She supposed she was changed, too.
And now, of course, both of them were waiting to be judged and found wanting.
She took his hand. She wondered how many hopeful couples had sat in these same seats, shifting and pretending to read the magazines laid out carefully on the low table.
‘Dr Brandon? Mr Brandon? Mr Honeywell will see you now.’ The Chanel-suited receptionist stood next to them. She led them out of the reception room, up a grand polished, curving wooden staircase, to a door with a brass plaque on it. She knocked discreetly and, at the reply, opened the door and stood aside so that Emily and Robbie could enter.
Eliott Honeywell was slim and sharp, with white wings of hair and a three-piece suit in a rather gorgeous muted tartan, complete with watch chain, red silk tie and pocket handkerchief. He stood up when they entered and came round his vast mahogany desk to shake both of their hands. ‘Dr Brandon, Mr Brandon, what a pleasure.’
His hands were manicured and, in addition to his wedding ring, he wore a gold signet ring on the pinkie of his right hand. His handshake was dry and firm; he gestured to the leather armchairs facing his desk and spoke to his receptionist: ‘Sissy, some tea I think. Is tea all right for you folks?’
‘That would be lovely,’ said Emily, perching on one of the armchairs. It was big enough that she felt dwarfed, and set far enough away from Robbie’s chair that she couldn’t reach his hand without stretching the full length of her arm. Eliott Honeywell wore cologne, something strong and expensive-smelling, and the scent permeated the room with its striped wallpaper, bookcases lined with leather-bound books, and more certificates on the walls.
Honeywell returned to his own vast leather chair behind his desk and steepled his fingers. ‘Is that an English accent I detect, Dr Brandon?’ His own accent was Southern, pure honey.
‘Yes, I grew up in Norfolk.’
‘I’ve been there. It’s a beautiful country. We visited the Broads on our way up to Scotland to do some golfing – eight, nine years back. You earned your medical degree there?’
‘I see. Very nice, and impressive too. And Mr Brandon, are you a sailor or a motorboat enthusiast?’
‘I work on both, but I’d rather sail.’
‘Now, there I’m in complete agreement with you. We took ours to the Caribbean two summers ago. I took two months off and it wasn’t nearly enough time, but then, of course, one has to earn a living. The sunsets! My wife enjoyed the beaches. I think St Lucia was our favourite. Have you been?’
‘Years ago, before I met Emily, I crewed a yacht from Annapolis to St Kitts. It was a good trip. The fishing was incredible. I’ve never eaten so well.’
‘So you know what I’m talking about. Our boat isn’t quite as nimble as I’d like it to be, but at our age my wife and I like the comforts. Ah, here’s Sissy with the tea. Thank you, dear.’
It was a tall, frosted glass jug of iced tea on a tray with three stemmed glasses. Sissy poured them each a glass and slipped out of the room, her high heels noiseless on the thick carpet. The tea was sweet. Even after years in this country, Emily wasn’t used to drinking cold sweet tea.
‘So,’ said Honeywell, taking a sip of his own tea and putting the glass carefully down on a silver coaster, ‘Donna Hernandez sent you to me. She’s a very pleasant woman, very good at her job. I’ve been able to help her with several cases in the past. Arranging matters privately means that I’m able to be considerably more discreet than the state allows.’
Emily exchanged glances with Robbie. ‘We . . . were hoping for discretion, yes.’
‘When I meet couples, they’re often at the end of their tether. They want a child to make a happy family, but they’ve hit roadblock after roadblock. It’s my greatest satisfaction in removing those roadblocks and helping them to the baby that they want so badly. I hope I can help you, too. I’m sure that I can, in fact.’
‘That’s quick,’ said Robbie, putting down his glass of sweet tea.
‘I’m a very good judge of people,’ said Honeywell. ‘I like you two already: a doctor, a sailor. And I can see that you’ve had a very sad story.’
He spread his hands. ‘Childlessness leaves its mark on people. It’s the American dream, isn’t it? A good education, a good job, the pitter-patter of little feet. No matter how happy an upbringing we’ve had, we always want to give our own children a better one. Isn’t that so, Mr Brandon? May I call you Robert?’