"Yes. We moved to Chicago, and she built up an impressive reputation while I went to college, took care of the books, and pitched in whenever I could manage it around classes. When I was twenty-one, I started working with her full-time. We expanded and developed an elite list of clients. That's how I met Evan, at a party in Chicago we were catering. A very important party for very important people. I was twenty-four. He was ten years older, and everything I wasn't. Sophisticated, brilliant, cultured. "
Mia held up a finger. "Why do you say that? You're a traveled, educated woman with an enviable skill. "
"I didn't feel like any of those things when I was with him. " Nell sighed. "In any case, I didn't move in the same circles. I cooked for the rich, the high-powered, the glamorous. I didn't share the table with them. He made me feel. . . grateful that he would pay attention to me. As if it were some fabulous compliment. I just realized that. " She shook her head.
"He flirted with me, and it was exciting. He sent me two dozen roses the next day. It was always red roses. He asked me out, and took me to the theater, to parties, to fabulous restaurants. He stayed in Chicago for two weeks, made it clear he was stayin
g, reorganizing his schedule, putting off his clients, his work, his life, for me. I was meant for him," Nell whispered, rubbing arms that were suddenly chilled.
"We were meant for each other. Then, when he told me that, it was thrilling. Later, not so very much later, it was terrifying. He said things to me that seemed romantic then. We'd always be together. We'd never be apart. He would never let me go. He dazzled me, and when he asked me to marry him, I didn't think twice. My mother had reservations, asked me to give it some time, but I wouldn't listen. We eloped, and I went back to California with him. The press called it the romance of the decade. "
"Ah. Yes. " Mia nodded as Nell turned back. "It clicks. You looked different then. More like a pampered kitten. "
"I looked the way he told me to look, and behaved the way he told me to behave. At first that seemed fine. He was older, wiser, and I was new in his world. He made it seem reasonable, just as he made it seem. . . instructional when he would tell me I was slow or dull. He knew best, so if he ordered me to change my dress for another before I was permitted to go out, he was only looking out for my interests-and our image. It was very subtle at first, those digs, those demands. And whenever I pleased him, I was given a little treat. Like a puppy being trained. Here, you performed very well for company last night, have a diamond bracelet. God, it disgusts me how easily I was manipulated. "
"You were in love. "
"I did love him. The man I thought he was. And he was so clever, so relentless. The first time he hit me, it was a horrible shock, but it never occurred to me that I didn't deserve it. I'd been so well trained. It got worse after that, but slowly, bit by bit. My mother was killed, hardly a year after I left. Drunk driver," Nell said, her voice thickening.
"And you were alone then. I'm so sorry. "
"He was so kind, so supportive. He made all the arrangements, canceled his appointments for a week to take me to Chicago. He did everything a loving husband could do. And the day we got home, he went wild. He waited until we were home, back in that house, and he'd sent all the servants away. Then he knocked me down, he raved, and slapped. He never used his fists on me, always an open hand. I think it was somehow more degrading. He accused me of having an affair with one of the mourners. A man who'd been a good friend of my parents. A kind and decent man whom I thought of as an uncle.
"Well. " Surprised that her glass was empty, she walked back to the table, poured another. There were birds singing, a pretty chippering among the flowers.
"We don't need a blow-by-blow account. He abused me, I took it. "
She lifted her glass, drank, steadied herself again. "I went to the police once. He had a lot of friends on the force, a lot of influence. They didn't take me seriously. Oh, I had some bruises, but nothing life threatening. He found out, and he explained to me in ways I'd understand that if I ever humiliated him like that again, he'd kill me. I got away once, but he found me. He told me I belonged to him, and that he would never let me go. He told me that when his hands were around my throat. That if I ever tried to leave him, he'd find me, and he'd kill me. No one would ever know. And I believed him. "
"But you did leave him. "
"I planned it for six months, step by step, always careful not to upset him, not to give him cause to suspect. We entertained, we traveled, we slept together. We were the picture of the perfect affluent couple. He still hit me. There was always something I didn't do quite right, but I would always apologize. I pilfered cash whenever I could and hid it in a box of tampons. Pretty safe bet he wouldn't look there. I got a fake driver's license, and I hid that too. And then I was ready.
"He had a sister in Big Sur. She was having a lavish tea party. Very female. I was expected to go. That morning, I complained of a headache, which, of course, annoyed him. I was just making excuses, he said. A number of his clients would be there, and I just wanted to embarrass him by not showing up. So I said I'd go. Naturally I'd go. I would just take some aspirin and be fine. But I knew my reluctance would ensure him letting me out of the house. "
She'd gotten clever, too, Nell thought now. At deceit, at pretense.
"I wasn't even frightened then. He went off to play golf, and I put what I needed in the trunk of the car. I stopped on the way and put on a black wig. I picked up the secondhand bike I'd bought the week before, and put it in the trunk. I stopped again before I got to the party, hid the bike at a spot I'd picked out. I drove down Highway 1, and I went to tea. "
Nell sat down, spoke calmly while Mia sat in silence. "I made sure that a number of people noted I wasn't feeling very well. Barbara, his sister, even suggested I lie down for a bit. I waited until most of the guests had left, then I thanked her for a lovely time. She was worried about me. I looked pale. I brushed her off, and I got back in the car. "
Her voice was calm, almost flat. She was just a woman telling a mildly distasteful story. One that had happened to someone else.
That's what she told herself.
"It was dark now. I needed it to be. I called Evan on my cell phone to tell him I was on my way. He always insisted on that. I got to the stretch of the road where I'd hidden the bike, and there were no other cars. I knew it could be done. Had to be. I took off my seat belt. I didn't think. I'd practiced it in my head a thousand times, so I didn't let myself think. I opened the door, still driving, swerving, going faster. I aimed for the edge. If I didn't make it, well, I was no worse off. I jumped. It was like flying. The car soared over the edge, just soared like a bird, then it crashed on the rocks, horrible sound, and it tumbled and rolled and fell into the water. I ran, back to where I had the bike and the bag. I pulled off my beautiful suit and put on old jeans and a sweatshirt, the wig. I still wasn't afraid. "
No, she hadn't been afraid, not then. But now, as she relived it, her voice began to hitch. It hadn't happened to someone else after all.
"I rode down the hills, and up and down. When I got to Carmel, I went into the bus station and I paid cash for a one-way ticket to Las Vegas. When I was on the bus, and it started to move out of the station, I was afraid. Afraid he would come and stop the bus. And I would lose. But he didn't. In Vegas I got on a bus for Albuquerque, and in Albuquerque I bought a paper and read about the tragic death of Helen Remington. "
"Nell. " Mia reached out, closed a hand over Nell's. She doubted that Nell was aware she'd been crying for the last ten minutes. "I've never met anyone like you, either. "
Nell lifted her glass and, as tears spilled down her cheeks, toasted. "Thanks. "
At Mia's insistence, she spent the night. It seemed sensible after several glasses of champagne and an emotional purge to let herself be led to a big four-poster. Without protest, she slipped on a borrowed silk nightshirt, climbed between soft linen sheets, and fell instantly asleep.
And woke in the moonlit dark.
It took her a moment to orient herself, to remember where she was and what had awakened her. Mia's guest room, she thought groggily. And people were singing.
No, not singing. Chanting. It was a lovely, melodious sound, just on the edges of her hearing. Drawn to it, she rose and, still logy with sleep, moved directly to the terrace doors.
She pushed them open to a warm, whipping wind and stepped out into the pearl-white light of a three-quarter moon. The scent of flowers seemed to rise up and surround her until her head spun with it as it had with wind.
The heartbeat of the sea was fast, almost a rage, and her own raced to keep pace.
Then she saw Mia, dressed in a robe that gleamed silver in the moonlight, step out of the woods where trees swayed like dancers.
She walked to the cliffs, the silver of her gown, the flame of her hair, whirling. There, high on the rocks, she faced the sea and lifted her arms to star and moon.
The air filled with voices, and the voices seemed filled with joy. With her eyes dazzled with wonder, stinging with tears she didn't understand, Nell watched as light, shimmering beams of it, slid down from the sky t
o brush the tips of Mia's fingers, the ends of her flying hair.
For a moment it seemed she was like a candle, straight, slim, incandescent, lighting the edge of the world.
Then there was only the sound of the surf, the pearl-white light of the waning moon, and a woman standing alone on a cliff.
Mia turned, walked back toward the house. Her head lifted, and her eyes met Nell's. Held. Held.
She smiled quietly, moved into the shadow of the house. And was gone.