Liz Coppersmith and her friend Victoria raised their wineglasses to the brooding mansion on the other side of the chain-link fence.
"Not a bad neighborhood," said Victoria, the taller, more whimsically dressed of the two. She dropped into a plastic lawn chair, shook out her red, permed curls, and straightened the folds of her star-print sundress. "You'll do lots of business over there," she predicted, "or my nameıs not Victoria."
Liz had heard her say "or my name's not Victoria" a thousand times since they'd met five years ago in a grief-management group. And every time, Liz had to resist saying, "Your name isn't Victoria, dammit." Victoria's name was Judy Maroney, and if it weren't for her stubborn, persistent, rather amazing amnesia, Liz would be calling her Judy, not Tori, at that very moment.
"If I do get any work out of them, Tori, it'll be thanks to you. You found me a house in a perfect location."
"I did, didn't I?" said Victoria, pleased with herself. "Call it intuition, but I was sure you'd like it, despite that dull little ad in the paper. I mean--a four-room house? I have more bathrooms than that, and I live alone."
They both turned back to look at the sweet but plain two-story cottage that now belonged to Liz. It was exactly the kind of house that children invariably draw; all that was missing was a plume of Crayola smoke from the red-brick chimney.
"Itıs no castle," Liz conceded with a cheerful sigh. She jerked her thumb toward the intimidating mansion to the east. "But what the heck; itıs close enough," she quipped.
She went back to gazing through the chain-link fence. The grounds of the estate were magnificent, even for Newport. Ancient trees, presided over by a magnificent copper beech, threw shimmering pools of shade over an expanse of well-kept grass. In the sunny openings between the trees were huge, wonderful shrubs--viburnums and hydrangeas and lush, towering rhododendrons. There were no flowers to speak of; only a green, understated elegance. It was like having her own private deer park--except without the deer--right in the heart of Newport.
Too bad about the chain-link fence and barbed wire that separated her from it.
Liz reached up and plucked a strand of the rusty wire as if it were a harp string. "This has been here a long time," she said.
"If I were you," said Victoria, "Iıd think about getting a tetanus shot." She frowned in disapproval. "Barbed wire. Who do they think they are, anyway?"
"You mean, who do they think we are," Liz corrected. "Obviously they donıt trust my side of the neighborhood." She glanced again at her tiny cottage, the smallest house on a street of small houses. "And letıs face it; why should they? We donıt exactly radiate wealth and prosperity."
"Never mind," said Victoria with a airy wave of her coral-tipped hand. "That will come. Itıs your karma. I had a vision."
Liz laughed and said, "You and your crystal ball just might be right. After all, yesterday--the very day I moved in!--there I was, talking through this fence to their housekeeper. I suppose they sent her over here to make sure I wasnıt in some prison-release program; but I liked her, even if she was a spy. Her name is Netta something, and she was as chatty as could be. The place is called East Gate. Apparently her boss is some workaholic bachelor--"
"Uh-oh. No business there," said Victoria, sipping her wine.
"That's what I thought, too, at first." Liz raked her rich brown hair away from her face and cocked her head appraisingly at the Queen-Anne style mansion.
"But then I found out that his parents stay at the estate--East Gate, it's called--every summer. It's been in the family since it was built, a hundred years ago. Besides the parents, there are a couple of semi-permanent guests staying there as well. They must do some entertaining." Liz smiled and added, "Naturally I found a way to let it drop that I was an events-planner."
"Did the housekeeper even know what that was?" asked Victoria.
"I made sure of it. I told her I designed weddings, dinners, birthdays, dances, receptions, fundraisers, charity events, the works."
"In other words--"
"I lied." Lizıs deep brown eyes flashed with good humor. "Hey--if I told her I arranged kids' birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese, you think sheıd have been impressed?"
"You did what you had to do, Liz Coppersmith," agreed Victoria. "You planted the seed."
"Yeah. That was the easy part. The hard part will be to provide references whoıre old enough to read and write."
Victoria said, "If you need references, don't worry. Iıll come up with references."
And she would, too, because--unlike Liz--Victoria had money to buy anything she wanted.
It wasn't always that way. Less than six years earlier, Victoria--Judy Maroney then--had crossed the Rhode Island border with her husband, two children, and not much more than high hopes that her husband's new job at the Newport Tourist and Convention Center would give her family more stability than he had at his old job in the defense industry. The family was eastbound on Route 95, just a few miles ahead of their moving van, when they were sideswiped by a drunk driver and ended up broadside to two lanes of eastbound traffic.
Judy's husband Paul and their four-year old son were killed instantly. Their daughter Jessica, who would've been two in a week, had lived another forty-eight hours. Judy Maroney, behind the wheel, was saved--just barely--by the driver's side airbag.
And she could not forgive herself, both for being at the wheel and for surviving. That, at least, became Liz's theory. How else explain the post-trauma amnesia that had no medical basis?
Judy's mother-in-law, to whom Liz once spoke, had a different theory. She believed that Judy, rejecting the unspeakable horror of her loss, had invented a new identity to get around having to face that abyss.
Whatever the reason, Judy Maroney had for all practical purposes died in that crash. And the woman who replaced her--Victoria--had never once, to Liz or to anyone else, alluded to the accident. Tori was pleasant, she was friendly--by far the most cheerful member in the grief group--and she was totally amnesiac.
The accident had resulted in a huge settlement for her. Money hadnıt given Judy back her memory--it certainly hadn't given her back her family--but it had given the woman named Victoria lots of people willing to call themselves friends. Or references. Or whatever she wanted.
"Hey, you," said Victoria behind her. "Have you heard a word I said?"
Victoria had an almost spooky knack for knowing when Liz was focussing on her amnesia. Liz was forced to back up mentally, searching her brain for the last of her friend's lighthearted babble. "Of course I heard. You think I should give my house a name."
"I really do. Houses sound more important when they have names. How about 'West Gate'? Or 'Harborview'? Or--I'm quoting you, now--'Bigenuf'?"
"I was talking about the mortgage, not the house," Liz said, laughing.
She set her wineglass on a nearby stepstone and turned her attention back to the imposing mansion to the east. Since yesterday, it had held her in its thrall.
Privilege. Tradition. Wealth. Elegance. Lineage. It was all there, on the other side of the barbed wire. Everything about it was opposite from her own life. Liz had been born and raised in Newport's Fifth Ward, a working-class neighborhood of ethnic families that--until the yuppies began moving in recently--had changed little over the past century. Privilege in the Fifth Ward meant getting a parking place in front of your own house; tradition meant meeting with the same people every Friday night for a game of Pinochle.
"Do you think Iım being too ambitious?" she suddenly asked Victoria. "Do you think I should work my way up through the Point and the Hill before I go after East Gate and the rest of the Bellevue Avenue crowd?"
"Heck, no," Victoria said cheerfully. "This is Newport! The town has a long tradition of society-crashing. Where would the Vanderbilts be if theyıd taken some slow-but-sure route?"
Liz turned to her friend with a wry look. "Iım not trying to break into society, Tori; I just want to be able to make a little money off it once in a while."
Victoria came up to Liz and put her arm around her. "And you will. You'll make tons of money. And you and your little girl will live happily ever after in a big house of your own. If that's what you want."
Together they gazed at the shingled and stuccoed Queen-Anne style mansion, sunwashed and golden in the evening light. After a moment Victoria said, "Where is Susy, by the way? With your folks?"
Liz nodded. "Sheıs been feeling ignored, what with the flurry of moving and all. My parents have her overnight."
"Lucky for you they live in town."
"Isnıt it, though?"
Liz was very aware that her friend's own parents were dead. Even if theyıd still been alive, Victoria wouldnıt know them. The amnesia was so bizarre, so sad, so complete. When Liz met Victoria in the grief-group, she herself was on the ropes emotionally. For a while she believed that as she pulled out of her numb state, Victoria would, too. Then she realized that being left by a husband--even learning there'd be no more children--didn't come close to losing one's whole family in a car crash.
"You're doing it again," said Victoria. "Drifting."
"Sorry. Did I tell you that someone in the mansion has two kids?" asked Liz. "I saw them playing outside. Thereıs a little blonde girl whoıs my Susyıs age; I think her name is Caroline. And thereıs a two-year old boy that the housekeeper has to chase after every minute."
"Youıre thinking theyıll be playmates for Susy?"
Lizıs laugh was the dry laugh of a working-class townie with no illusions. "Not unless I attack this fence with cable-cutters." She turned and began walking back to her new little home, a cozy twenty feet away from where they stood.
She added, "I just meant, with kids around youıre always celebrating something or other--baptisms, Bar Mitzvahs, birthdays, graduations, weddings. The kids could end up being my ticket to Bellevue Avenue. Besides," Liz said with a musing smile, "itıd be fun to do something for those two. They looked so sweet."
Netta Simmons was on her hands and knees picking up pieces of a broken soupbowl when a plate of steamed vegetables went flying over her head, smashed up against the eighteenth-century inlaid sideboard, and came dribbling down the polished wood not far from where she knelt.
Thatıs it, the housekeeper decided, tossing the soupbowl pieces into a plastic pan. I quit. After thirty-eight years, to have to put up with this?
Leaning on one knee for support, Netta got to her feet with a painful "oof" and turned to face her tormentor.
"Caroline Stonebridge--" Netta began, her lips trembling in her jowly cheeks.
"Caroline, sweetheart, that wasnıt called for," said Cornelius Eastman from the head of the table. "You could have hurt Netta. Now, come; be a good girl and say youıre sorry."
The five-year-old blonde with the Shirley Temple curls turned her steel-blue gaze on Netta and said, "Iım sorry." Under her nose she muttered, "That I missed."
Instinctively the housekeeper turned to Cornelius Eastmanıs son: handsome, dark-haired Jack, him that she practically raised from scratch, him that wouldıve cut off his hand before heıd ever raise it to her in anger--with or without a plate in it.
Jack Eastman stood up and threw his napkin on the table in disgust. "This is impossible, dad!" he said angrily. "Send the brat to bed without supper; God knows she has no use for it."
"Now, Jack--" his father began unhappily.
"I donıt like broccoli," said little blonde Caroline. "And Netta knows it."
Netta saw Jack clench his jaw, a good sign. She folded her arms across her chest and waited with a kind of grim hope: maybe the son would overrule the father and lock the little monster in the carriage house for a year or two.
But no. In a controlled voice Jack said to Caroline, "When and if we can bribe a new nanny to take care of you, you can go back to eating all the junk you want. Until then, you will eat whatever Netta prepares for the rest of us. If you ever throw one morsel of food again, you will eat in the kitchen, in a highchair, like your little brother. Now. Either finish your supper or go to your room."
Caroline stuck out her lower lip and said, "You wouldnıt talk to me like that if my mommy was here. When is she coming back? I want her here." The child began a wailing refrain of "I want my mom-mee ... mom-mee ... mom-mee ...," kicking her chair leg for emphasis.
Netta shook her head; the girl's lament was a routine event by now. Caroline's mommy was a thirty-year-old woman named Stacey Stonebridge who'd rocked the Eastman household when she showed up seven weeks earlier with a boy in her arms and a girl at her side. The girl, she'd announced blithely, belonged to the elder Eastman.
No one much doubted the truth of Stacey's story; that was the sad thing. It hardly paid to bother with blood tests and DNA analysis. Stacey was pretty, leggy, young, but most of all, blonde--which is how Cornelius Eastman liked them a few years ago. Now that he was in his seventies, he seemed to have gone back to raven-haired beauties. But a few years ago? Oh yes. Blondes couldn't miss.
Mrs. Eastman had taken one look at Stacey, packed up her bags, and removed herself to Capri for the remainder of the summer. This time, Netta knew, the hurt went deep. It was possible that tall, blonde Stacey was the last straw. Time would tell.
Caroline's wailing continued. Cornelius Eastman rubbed his silver temples with manicured fingers and said fretfully, "Now, Caroline, we've been through all that. Please don't pound. Your mother is at the clinic. You want her to get well, don't you?"
Stacey? Not a chance. She's much too fond of her pills and her bottle. She's not ready to get well. Netta knew it, Jack knew it, and so did the elder Eastman.
Caroline pushed her plate away with a morose look. She was getting ready for the next phase of her tantrum, self-pity.
Cornelius turned to his son and said, "Where's the damn breeder, anyway? Didn't you say he'd be here at six?"
Jack glanced at his watch. "That's what he said. Well, have fun. I can't wait any longer. I'm off to the shipyard--"
Caroline began to sniffle. "I just didnıt want broccoli, because itıs my birthday. I shouldnıt have to eat broccoli if Iım being five years old." Tears began rolling freely. "And I donıt even have a cake." She turned to the senior Eastman with big, glazed blue eyes. "Dada? Do I?"
Oooh, sheıs good, thought Netta. That dada-thing that sheıd come up with: it always made Mr. Eastman melt visibly.
He was doing it now. "Of course we have a cake for you, darling," the old man said, his face creasing into a hundred lines of happiness. "Would we forget you on your birthday?"
"She knows we have a cake," Netta snapped. "Sheıs already dug a trench through the frosting."
"Forget it, Netta," said Jack tiredly. "Itıs not worth it."
They were interrupted by the ring of the doorbell. Caroline stopped sniffling at once. Cornelius Eastman grinned broadly. Jack shook his head with wary resignation. And in the adjacent new kitchen, installed expressly so that Netta wouldnıt have to fuss with the dumbwaiter and the old basement cook-area any more, Carolineıs little brother Bradley let out a welcoming shriek.
The puppy was here.
Cornelius Eastman himself went to get the door, with Caroline right behind him. Jack got up to leave.
"Jack Eastman, where do you think you're going?" said Netta.
The next sound they heard was a high and relentless ARF-ARF-ARF-ARF!
"Oh, lord," murmured Netta, "your father really has gone and done it."
A white ball of fluff came cannonballing through the dining room, hardly stopping long enough to pause and sniff Netta's skirt, then Jack's trousers, before racing to the nearest table leg, lifting its leg, and peeing.
Caroline, who was in hot pursuit, stopped short with a scandalized look. "Heıs a boy puppy! I thought I was getting a girl puppy!" She dropped to all fours and began crawling under the table after the dog.
ARF ARF ARF! ARF ARF ARF!
"Iım sorry, honey, thatıs all they had," said her amused and silver-haired father, lifting the damask tablecloth.
ARF ARF ARF!
Netta thought that Cornelius Eastman didnıt look sorry as much as glad to be done with the week-long hunt for a female Maltese. And nobody seemed sorry about the wet stain on the oriental rug.
"But I had a girlıs name all picked out," Caroline lamented as she lurched in vain after the bouncing white mop.
At that point Netta had to dash into the kitchen to fetch Bradley, whoıd cleared his own tray of food with one sweep of his arm and was screaming incoherently. It was his way of saying, "Iıve finished dinner, thank you so much, and now I think perhaps Iıd like to join the others."
ARF ARF ARF! ARF ARF ARF ARF!
The elder Eastman was chuckling at Carolineıs distress over the puppyıs gender. "What name did you have in mind, sweetheart?"
"Snowball," said Caroline in a pout.
Bradley, on the loose now, went charging after the puppy and succeeded in coming away with two clumps of long white hair which clung like angora mittens to his still-sticky hands.
ARF. ARF ARF. ARF ARF ARF ARF ARF ARF ARF!
Jack, a bachelor who had never in his life been surrounded by this kind of chaos, said in a loud voice, "Will somebody please get that animal under control?"
Netta wasnıt sure which animal he meant. She grabbed the one closest to her--Bradley--and began cleaning his hands with a wet washcloth as the brown-haired boy squirmed and screamed to be let down.
ARF. ARF ARF. ARF ARF ARF.
"You can still name him Snowball, honey," said Cornelius Eastman over the ongoing din. "Snowball is for either."
"Well, I guess ... but ... well, all right." Caroline sighed, then gave them all a sweeping look of wide-eyed innocence. "Can we have my party now, then?" she asked. "And my presents?"
There was a pause. Even Snowball paused. Finally Cornelius Eastman said, with a sheepish expression, "You said if you got a puppy that you didnıt want a party, honey."
Caroline managed to lasso Snowball with her arms and squish him onto her lap. "No I didnıt," she murmured, studying the dogıs moppy face intently. "I said a puppy and a party."
"You said a puppy or a party, dammit!" snapped Jack.
"Andı," said Caroline, still studying the dogıs face.
The two men--seventy and forty--exchanged looks. Netta watched them, mesmerized by the family resemblance. Eastman genes ran true to type: the hawkish nose, the fierce blue eyes, the thick brown hair. Oh, gravity had taken its toll on the father and softened the once square line of his jaw. But he was still a good-looking man. Paul Newman could take lessons.
Jack began to reason with the girl in a calm, carefully controlled voice. "You don't really know anyone here, Caroline. Who would we invite? Maybe when your mother gets out of the clinic and you all go back to Aspen; maybe then would be a good time for a birthday party."
Caroline looked up at the older of the two men. "Dada?" she whispered as a tear rolled down her cheek. "Can I?"
"Of course you can have a party," Cornelius said gruffly. "Youıre only five once. By all means; arrange one for Caroline, Jack."
"You must be kidding. You know I'm flat out at the shipyard--"
"Yes, I suppose you're right," Cornelius Eastman said, annoyed. He looked at his housekeeper. "Netta? Would--? No, no, you have more than enough to do already," he said quickly, withering beneath her baleful look.
He turned back to his son. "Well, Jack, I guess youıre the only one with the resources. Have Cynthia at the shipyard look into it and make the arrangements."
"Dad, thatıs absurd," Jack said sharply. "She has her hands full, especially this week. Weıre revamping our billing system--"
Netta leaned closer to Jackıs ear and said, "If I could have a word with you, sir. I think I can help you out." She picked up her basket of broken crockery and led the thoroughly irritated son into the relative quiet of the kitchen.
It distressed Netta to see the household in such chaos. It used to be such a quiet, well-ordered place. Too quiet, perhaps; but at least Jack could bring his work home every night as he struggled to keep the family shipyard afloat. Now, he hardly ever bothered coming home before they were all asleep.
Could anyone blame him? His own mother had fled from East Gate, even though she and Cornelius had lived there every summer of their long marriage. Could anyone blame her? To have her husband's illegitimate daughter under her own roof, over her own objections. Well. It was all scandalous, it really was.
Not that Netta hadnıt longed for the sound of children under the old slate roof. But they were supposed to be Jackıs children, happy children, nice children, and Mrs. Eastman was supposed to cherish them, the way a proper grandmother should. But she wasnıt the proper grandmother! And in any case, she was in Capri. It was all such a mess.
Netta closed the door on the barks and shouts and turned to her adored Jack. He did look bad: tired, and worn, and used up with worry over the failing shipyard and his motherıs hurt. As for Cornelius Eastman, well, he was obviously slipping into dotage, insisting that Caroline and Bradley stay at East Gate.
But that wasnıt todayıs problem.
"What is it, Netta?" Jack said irritatedly. "Have you found the perfect nanny for our little Caroline?"
Netta snorted. "That machine hasnıt been invented yet. No, but I do know someone who can take this birthday party off your hands. You know the little cottage to the west? Itıs been sold to a nice young lady named Liz Coppersmith. She designs--I think thatıs how she described it--events for people."
"This is a birthday party, darlinı," Jack said, helping himself to a mug of coffee. "Not a wedding. Iım not inclined to waste money on frivolity just now."
"You never are, Jack," said his housekeeper with a dry look. "Not if you can pour it into the shipyard instead. But you heard your father. He wants a party for his dau ... for Caroline."
"Yeah, well, he also wants the yard to stay solvent," Jack said with a black look.
"Heıs on the fence about that and you know it," Netta said flatly. "You want to keep it. But your father, heıs tired of the struggle, and heıd maybe like to sell. So donıt go using that as an excuse, my boy."
Netta had no need to mince words with Jack. It was one of the perks of having basically raised him. His own mother, though she loved her son, would not have felt so free to scold.
Jack took a sip of the just-brewed coffee, burned his tongue, swore, slammed down the mug, and said, "Fine. Weıll have the damn party!"
"Itıs only a little thing," Netta said, wrapping her ample arm around Jackıs waist and giving him two quick squeezes. "It wonıt make the difference between bankruptcy or not."
Jack laughed softly and swung his own arm around his portly housekeeperıs shoulder. He turned to her with a brooding, troubled look in his deep blue eyes and said, "You understand, Nettie, that the birthday party will in effect be a coming-out party. We canıt keep this charade about my cousinı Caroline going much longer. Especially now that everyoneıs up from Palm Beach for the season."
Netta gave him a sympathetic smile. "Well, if the governor of Rhode Island can come clean about his past," Netta said softly, "I guess your father can, too. I only wish your mother wasnıt taking it so hard."
Jackıs look turned bitter. "Yeah. After all, she knew she was marrying an Eastman. She was bound to have to share him with another woman sooner or later."
"Donıt be fresh!" Netta said sharply. "Thatıs your father youıre talking about."
"My father; my grandfather; his father before that," said Jack in an even tone. "As we know, the tradition goes way back."
Which is why youıve never married, my dear, thought Netta. Youıre looking for the perfect wife, mother and mistress all rolled up into one. You want to be the first in your family. Ah, you dreamer, you.
She shook her head and sighed.
Jack mistook her sigh and said with his old, roguish smile, "Iım too old to stick in a corner, Nettie. So now what?"
She spun him around and faced him toward the door. "Iım going to send you back to the table and stuff you with birthday cake, thatıs what. Maybe sugar will help."
The swing-door opened just then, and Jackıs father poked his head through it. "Netta, Netta," he said in a harried voice, "I need you out here. The kids are--the dog is--help me, Netta," he begged.
Netta shooed both men out ahead of her and thought wearily, They're hopeless. Where are the women? Whoıs going to organize this foundering kingdom?