BRIANNE,” VALERIE CALLED FROM the foot of the stairs, “how are you doing up there?”
“Brianne,” she called a second time. “It’s almost eleven o’clock. Your father will be here any minute.”
Still no answer. Not that Val was surprised. Her daughter rarely answered until at least her third try.
“Brianne,” she dutifully obliged, “how are you coming along with the packing?”
The sound of a door opening, agitated footsteps in the upstairs hallway, a blur of shoulder-length brown hair and long, lean legs, the shock of a lacy black thong and matching push-up bra alternating with layers of bare skin, the sight of a pair of balled fists resting with familiar impatience on slender hips. “I’d be coming along fine if you’d stop interrupting me.” Brianne’s voice tumbled down the green-carpeted steps, almost knocking Valerie over with the force of their casual disdain.
“You’re not even dressed,” Valerie sputtered. “Your father . . .”
“. . . will be late,” her daughter said with the kind of rude certainty that only sixteen-year-old girls seemed to possess. “He’s always late.”
“It’s a long drive,” Valerie argued. “He said he wanted to get there before dinner.”
But Brianne had already disappeared from the top of the stairs. Seconds later, Valerie heard her daughter’s bedroom door slam shut. “She’s not even dressed,” she whispered to the eggshell-colored walls. Which meant she probably hadn’t started packing, either. “Great. That’s great.” Which meant she’d have to entertain her soon-to-be ex-husband and his new fiancée until their daughter was ready. Which just might work to her advantage, she thought, since lately Evan had been hinting that things weren’t going all that well with darling Jennifer, and that he might have made the biggest mistake of his life in letting Valerie go.
It wouldn’t be the first time he’d made that particular mistake, Val thought, walking to the front door of her modern glass and brick Park Slope home and opening it, looking up and down the fashionable Brooklyn street for signs of Evan’s approaching car. He’d left her once before, running off with one of her bridesmaids just days before their wedding. Six weeks later he was back, full of abject apologies, and begging her to give him another chance. The girl meant nothing to him, he’d sworn up and down. It was just a case of raw nerves and cold feet. “I’ll never be that stupid again,” he’d said.
Except, of course, he was.
“You’re all the woman I’ll ever need,” he’d told her.
Except, of course, she wasn’t.
In their eighteen years together, Val suspected at least a dozen affairs. She’d turned a blind eye to all of them, somehow managing to convince herself that he was telling the truth whenever he called to say he’d be working late, or that an urgent meeting had forced him to cancel their scheduled lunch. She’d even insisted it was no big deal to concerned friends when they told her they’d seen Evan at a popular Manhattan restaurant, nuzzling the neck of a young brunette. You know Evan, she’d say with a confident laugh. He’s just a big flirt. It doesn’t mean anything.
She’d said it so many times, she’d almost come to believe it.
And then she’d come home one afternoon, tired and depressed after a day of dealing with her mother, who stubbornly continued to resist dealing with her drinking problem, to find Evan in bed with the young woman he’d recently hired to design a new ad campaign for his string of trendy boutique hotels, the girl’s toned and shapely legs lifted high into the air above his broad shoulders, both of them totally oblivious to everything but their own impressive gymnastics, and her blind eye was forced wide open once and for all.
Even then, it had been his choice to leave.
I should hate him, Val thought.
And yet, the awful, unforgivable truth was that she didn’t hate him. The awful, even more unforgivable truth was that she still loved him, that she was still praying he’d come to his senses, as he had after running off only days before their wedding, and come back to her.
What’s wrong with me?
It’s my own damn fault, she’d chastised herself now. I knew what he was like when I married him. I knew from the first minute I laid eyes on him in the lobby of that small chalet in Switzerland, tanned and fit and holding court in front of a roaring fire, surrounded by adoring ski bunnies, that he was trouble. Exactly the kind of man she’d spent her entire twenty-one years up to that point trying to avoid, a man of grand gestures and small cruelties, as charming as he was unsubtle. She knew the type well, having been raised by just such a man.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” she’d told her friends, the same words her mother had said to her.
Well, maybe it didn’t mean anything to men like her father, men like Evan, Val understood, but it meant the world to the women who loved them.
And, ultimately, where did all that fortitude and forbearance leave them?
It left them nowhere.
They got dumped anyway.
Her friends had breathed a collective sigh of relief at Evan’s departure. “He’s a moron,” her closest friend, Melissa, had pronounced. “He doesn’t deserve you,” their mutual friend, James, had agreed. “Believe me, you’re better off.”
Her mother had been too drunk to say anything.
Val could still picture the stricken look on her mother’s face after her father had announced he was leaving her for one of his much younger conquests. “It doesn’t mean anything. He’ll be back,” her mother had assured Valerie and her younger sister, Allison. But he never did come back, eventually marrying again and fathering two more children, both girls, daughters to replace the ones he’d so easily abandoned. Meanwhile Val’s mother had gradually morphed from a bright, engaging woman into a joyless and bitter old crone whose main source of comfort was a bottle. Is that what Val wanted for Brianne?
“Brianne, do you need some help?” Val called out now, shutting the front door on the oppressive July heat and returning to the foot of the stairs.
Evan was giving her pretty much everything she asked for in the divorce—the house, the white Lexus SUV, substantial alimony, more than generous child support. Within days of moving out of their large home in Brooklyn, he’d settled into Jennifer’s small condo in Manhattan, seemingly none the worse for wear.
I should hate him, Val thought again.
Except that you don’t stop loving someone you’ve loved almost half your life just because they treat you badly, she’d discovered, regardless of whether or not you should. Still, it wasn’t fair that a woman celebrating her fortieth birthday would be pining over a man who’d openly betrayed her, as if she were a lovesick teenager crying for the one who got away.
Although he wasn’t just any man. He was her husband of almost two decades, her husband for another month at least, until their divorce was final, despite the fact he was already engaged to somebody else. He was the love of her life, a man she’d traversed the globe with repeatedly, helicopter skiing with him in the Swiss Alps, white-water rafting with him in Colorado, trekking with him to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. “The only woman who can keep up with me,” he’d said . . . how many times?
“The only woman I’ve ever really loved.”
It had been while they were hiking in the Adirondacks that she had suddenly dropped to her knees and surprised them both by proposing. “What the hell,” he’d proclaimed with a laugh. “It’ll be an adventure.”
An adventure it had certainly been, Val thought now, trying—and failing—not to succumb to nostalgia. Those first few years before Brianne was born had been such a heady rush that it had been relatively easy to overlook Evan’s wandering eye, to tell herself that she was imagining things, and when that proved impossible, to hold herself at least partly responsible for his actions, to urge herself to try harder, be more desirable, more available, more . . . all the things she obviously wasn’t, all the while reminding herself that nothing mattered except that she was the one he really loved, and that no matter how far or how often he strayed, he would always come back to her.
Evan wasn’t her father.
She wasn’t her mother.
Yet Val had been devastated to realize that she’d fallen into the same trap as her mother after all, which made her all the more determined to react differently, to not give up, and to fight for her man with every ounce of her being. She hadn’t even allowed her pregnancy to slow her down, indulging Evan’s combined love of travel and danger by continuing to chase him down the steepest slopes and up the highest peaks. She’d missed her daughter’s first birthday so that she could accompany him to the Himalayas, justifying the trip by rationalizing that her husband came first, that a year-old child couldn’t differentiate one day from the next, and that they’d celebrate Brianne’s birthday when they got home. She even wrote an article about their trip that was subsequently published in the travel section of the New York Times.
It was the beginning of an unexpected, and unexpectedly successful, career, a career that came to an abrupt and equally unexpected halt the day Val returned home early from a trying day of dealing with her mother to find Evan in bed dealing with the comely Jennifer.
It’s my fault, Val told herself at the time. I got careless, complacent. As the years had progressed and Brianne had grown from infant to toddler to little girl who needed her mother, Val had become more and more loath to leave her. The threat of danger no longer held the same appeal it once had. She was a mother now. She had responsibilities. She even had a career. It wasn’t just about her anymore.
Except it had never really been about her. It had been about Evan.
Always about Evan. Even now.
How did that happen?
Val wasn’t some stupid little girl. She wasn’t a complainer or a crybaby. She was very much in control of every aspect of her life, except one—Evan. And maybe her mother. Okay, so, two aspects of her life. Make that three, she decided now, thinking of Brianne. “Brianne,” she shouted up the stairs in a renewed effort to silence the voices in her head, “get a move on.”
The phone rang.
Hopefully my mother calling to wish me a happy birthday, Valerie thought, cutting across the front foyer to the stainless-steel kitchen at the back of the house. Was it possible she’d actually remembered? Val shook her head. More likely, she was calling to ask whether Val could drop off a few bottles of Merlot on her way into Manhattan.
The sun had temporarily managed to break through the heavy rain clouds that had been hovering over the area for the better part of the week and was shining through the two-story-high window that took up the kitchen’s entire west wall. Val hoped the rain had finally ended. The Adirondacks were undeniably beautiful, but camping wasn’t a whole lot of fun in the rain, and unlike Val, Brianne was a reluctant camper at best.
“Why do I have to go on this stupid camping trip anyway?” she’d been whining for weeks. “I’d much rather go into the city with you and your friends, go shopping, see some shows . . .”
“I’d like that, too, sweetheart,” Val had said truthfully. It was so rare that Brianne expressed an interest in doing anything with her these days. She was at the age where she considered her mother a necessary nuisance at best, an outright pain in the butt at worst, and it seemed they hardly spent any time together anymore. What time they did spend together was filled with pointless arguments that went nowhere and exhausting confrontations that left Val despairing over who this strange and willful creature was and what she’d done with her daughter. Brianne was growing up and away from her so fast that it would have been nice having her along this weekend to celebrate her birthday. They could have used the time to get reacquainted.
“I still don’t understand,” Brianne was complaining again now, “why I have to go on this dumb trip.”
“Because your father wants you to go camping with him and . . .”
“. . . the slut?” Brianne asked with a smile, watching for her mother’s reaction. “Don’t look so shocked. That’s what you call her.”
Val made a silent promise to stop referring to Jennifer in this way. At least when her daughter was within earshot. “Hello,” she said now, picking up the phone, on the alert for the telltale slur in her mother’s response.
“Hey, you,” Evan said instead, the same way he’d been greeting her voice on the phone for almost two decades. Casual, yet intimate. Intimate, yet casual.
Their marriage, in a nutshell.
“Hey,” Val echoed, afraid to say more. She pictured her soon-to-be ex-husband sitting behind the wheel of his new black Jaguar, his soft, dark hair falling into his light blue eyes, his full lips curled into an easy smile, one hand on the wheel, the other hand sliding under Jennifer’s skirt. “Is there a problem?” she asked, banishing the image.
He laughed. “Am I that transparent?”
It’s part of your charm, Val thought, but didn’t say. Instead she said, “You’re running late.”
“About half an hour.”
Val immediately doubled his estimate. Half an hour, Evan-time, meant at least an hour on anybody else’s clock. “Okay. I’ll tell Brianne.”
“Tell her a problem came up that . . .”
“. . . has to be dealt with,” Val finished for him, having learned the script by heart years ago.
“I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“I’ll tell her.”
“It’ll be strange,” he added, his voice trailing off to a whisper.
A sigh. Then, “Being there without you. Not celebrating your birthday together.”
Val said nothing. How could she speak when he’d knocked the wind right out of her?
“I’ll tell Brianne you’ll be here in half an hour.” Val hung up the phone before either of them could say another word. What was he trying to tell her?
“What are you doing?” Brianne asked suddenly.
Val spun around. Her daughter was standing in front of her, still wearing only her underwear.
“Is everything all right?” Brianne continued. “Did something happen to Grandma?”
“What? Why on earth would you think that?”
“Because something’s obviously wrong. You’ve been standing there for the last ten minutes with your hand on the phone, not moving.”
“I have not.”
“Yes, you have. I’ve been watching you.”
Val was about to argue when she glanced at her watch and realized her daughter was right. What did it mean? That Evan now had the power to make time stand still? “Your grandmother’s fine.”
Brianne shrugged. “So, who called?”
“Your father. He’s . . .”
“Not your problem anymore,” Brianne reminded her.
“He’s running late,” Val continued, ignoring her daughter’s interruption.
“Let me guess. A problem came up . . .”
“. . . that had to be dealt with,” mother and daughter said together, then laughed, something they did less and less these days. With each other anyway.
“He’ll be here in half an hour,” Val offered.
“You should get dressed, just in case.”
The doorbell rang. Val’s head shot toward the sound. Were James and Melissa actually here already? Could it possibly be Evan? She glanced at her reflection in the black glass of the oven. I should have washed my hair, she thought. I should have put on some makeup.
“You look fine,” Brianne said, as if reading her mother’s thoughts. “Besides, it’s only Sasha.”
“Sasha,” Brianne repeated, walking out of the kitchen toward the front door, her round bottom a perfect circle sliced into two wondrously high halves.
Just shoot me now, Val thought, following after her. “Who’s Sasha?”
“My friend who works at Lululemon. You met her a few weeks ago. Honestly, Mom. You never remember any of my friends.”
Val was about to protest when she realized Brianne was right. She couldn’t keep track of her daughter’s friends, who seemed to change as often as her moods. One day Kelly was her best friend; the next day it was Tanya, then Paulette, then Stacey. And now this Sasha person who worked at Lululemon. Val vaguely remembered a pretty girl with waist-length blond hair waiting on them a few weeks ago when they went shopping in Manhattan for exercise clothes. What was she doing here now? “What’s she doing here now?” Val heard herself ask.
“Returning my BlackBerry.”
“What’s she doing with your BlackBerry?”
“I left it at the store the other day.”
“What were you doing in Manhattan?”
“Just trying on some stuff.”
“And you left your BlackBerry? Do you know how expensive those things are? You can’t be so careless.”
“What’s the big deal? I left it; Sasha found it. And she very nicely volunteered to bring it over on her way to work.” Brianne pulled open the front door, effectively silencing further discussion.
The first thing Val thought when she saw Sasha was that the girl was both prettier and older than she remembered. She was wearing a lime-green T-shirt and a pair of black workout pants that emphasized her considerable curves. At least eighteen, maybe even closer to twenty, Val estimated. Why would she want to be friends with someone who’d just turned sixteen?
“Come on in,” Brianne said, ushering her inside. “Wow. Is that your car?” She motioned toward the bright orange 1964 Mustang that was parked so far from the curb it looked as if it had been abandoned in the middle of the road.
“Isn’t it great?”
“It’s totally great. I love the color.”
“Maybe you should park it a little closer to the curb,” Val suggested.
“It’s fine where it is,” Brianne said. Then, with an exaggerated sigh, “You remember my mother.”
“Hi, Valerie,” Sasha said with a toss of her long blond hair.
Val had to bite down on her lower lip to keep from saying, “I prefer to be called Mrs. Rowe, thank you.” She reminded herself that she wouldn’t be Mrs. Rowe for much longer, followed by an even more disconcerting thought: Who would she be? “Hello, Sasha. Nice to see you again.”
“How are you enjoying those outfits you bought? Aren’t they the greatest?”
“Yes, they’re . . .”
But Sasha had already returned her full attention to Brianne. “Would you just get a load of you,” she was saying. “What a great little body you have.”
“No,” Brianne demurred. “I have to lose five pounds.”
“What?” Val said.
“Not to mention I’m getting my nose done.”
“You’re not doing anything to that nose,” Val said with more vehemence than she’d intended. How many times had Melissa cautioned it was best to let such pronouncements slide?
“It’s too long. It doesn’t go with my face.” Brianne motioned to Sasha to follow her up the stairs.
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with your nose!” Val shouted after them.
“It’s too long and too wide. I’m getting it fixed,” Brianne insisted without turning around.
Val stood motionless at the bottom of the stairs, listening to Brianne’s bedroom door close and fighting the urge to burst into tears. Who was putting these stupid ideas in her daughter’s head?
Probably the same woman with whom her daughter was going to be spending the next three days, camping in the Adirondacks.
Well, not camping exactly. The Lodge at Shadow Creek was hardly anybody’s idea of roughing it. Val sighed, remembering the times she and Evan had stayed there, the morning she’d unexpectedly dropped to her knees and asked for happily ever after.
“It’ll be strange,” Evan had said earlier, “being there without you. Not celebrating your birthday together.”
What was he really saying? That he wished he could go back and undo the things he’d done? That all Val had to do was say the word and he’d tell sweet, slutty Jennifer he was sorry but her time was up? That he loved his wife after all? That she was the only woman he’d ever really loved? That he couldn’t imagine going to Shadow Creek without her? That he didn’t want to go anywhere without her ever again? That all he wanted was to come back home?
“Yeah, right,” Val said, borrowing her daughter’s favorite phrase. Then, “God, you’re pitiful.” Still, she decided as she headed up the stairs, it wouldn’t hurt to put on a little makeup and comb her hair before Evan arrived.
Excerpted from Shadow Creek: A Novel
by Joy Fielding
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are
provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or
distributed without the written permission of the publisher.