Do, for love, what you would not do.
What she was doing was wrong. But then, everything was wrong,
She was sneaking out to see Carson, even though in thirteen hours
she’d be another man’s wife. Brian’s
wife. Brian’s wife. No matter how she phrased the
words, they hardly made sense to her, even now. They belonged to
someone else’s reality. It was as if she, Meg Powell, would
cease to exist at the end of the wedding ceremony, becoming some
unfamiliar woman called Mrs. Brian Hamilton. But maybe it was
better that way.
She left her house in the dark and traced the familiar path through
the pastures, toward the lake and the groves and Carson’s
house. The sun would rise before much longer, and her sisters would
wake, excited — Meg’s wedding day! Her parents
would find her note saying she’d gone for a walk and
wouldn’t be concerned. They’d know she’d be back
in plenty of time; she was nothing if not reliable and responsible.
A model daughter. Their deliverance.
And she was glad to be those things. If only she could shut down
the Meg who still longed for the future she’d sacrificed.
This visit to Carson was meant to do that, to shut it down.
This part of her mission was appropriate, at least; this
was the part she would explain to him. If she knew Carson —
and after sixteen years of best-friendship, she knew only herself
better — he would accept the partial truth without suspecting
there was anything more to it.
She wanted so much to tell him the truth about the rest, to explain
why she was marrying Brian. But besides jeopardizing everything, it
would make him want to try to fix things. If that had been
possible, there would not now be a breathtaking
four-thousand-dollar wedding gown waiting in her bedroom like a
fairy tale in progress. The thought of it hanging from her closet
door, specter-like, made her shudder; she’d read enough fairy
tales to know they didn’t always end happily.
Carson lived in a converted shed on his parents’ Florida
citrus farm. The McKay farm adjoined her family’s horse farm,
sharing an east-west line of wood posts and barbed wire. The fence
kept the horses out of the groves but had never been a serious
obstacle for Meg or her three younger sisters or Carson. When she
was seven or eight years old, they’d found a wooden ladder
and sawed it in half, then propped the halves on opposite sides of
a post to make their passage easy. Meg wasn’t surprised, now,
to see the ladder gone. Climbing the barbed wire, she took care not
to get a cut she’d be hard pressed to explain tonight.
Fifteen minutes later she emerged from the shadows of the orange
grove and stopped. In the light of the setting moon she could see
the shed, its white clapboard siding and dark windows, a hundred
yards to the left of the main house. She and Carson had spent most
of his senior year working with his father to renovate it, creating
two downstairs rooms and an upstairs bedroom loft. They’d
called the shed their love nest, not only because they first made
love there but also because they meant for it to become their home.
Not for always, just for starters. The plan had been to eventually
build a new house on the far side of his farm. On the wooded
hillside where, as children, they’d hung a tire swing for
themselves and her sisters. Where, years later, they had spread an
old horse blanket and gone as far as they dared without
This morning, she was purposely — some might say selfishly
— no better prepared.
Though the day would grow hot later, the moist air and light breeze
chilled her by the time she reached his door. Her feet were wet
inside white canvas sneakers, her thighs hardly covered by cut-off
denim shorts. She was braless beneath Carson’s John Deere
T-shirt, could feel her nipples pulled in tight and small. Her gold
chain, his gift to her on her nineteenth birthday two years
earlier, lay cool against her damp skin.
She hesitated before putting her hand on his doorknob, imagining
what Brian would do if he knew she had come here, imagining her
parents’ disappointment and distress if she spoiled the plan,
imagining that she might hate herself even more, later — and
then she turned the knob.
The door was unlocked, as she’d known it would be. No need to
lock your doors out here; everything of value was kept outside the
house. In the implement shed was a new pair of mortgaged tractors
that had cost upward of $80,000 apiece. In the barn was a treasured
Thoroughbred bay — Carolyn McKay’s “hobby”
that helped make up for being unable to have more children after
Carson. Meg knew the details of the McKays’ lives intimately.
But when she left here later this morning, she would do everything
possible to forget them.
She stepped inside and eased the door closed, wanting
Carson’s first awareness of her to be when she slid beneath
his covers. She stood and let her eyes adjust to the darkness. The
place still smelled slightly of cut pine and stained wood and
curry, one of Carson’s favorite flavors.
When she could see, she crossed the wide front room to the stairs
that divided it from the kitchen. Grabbing the railing, she pushed
off her sneakers and began climbing the stairs. A tread creaked
underfoot and she paused, waiting, her heart loud in her ears, then
went on. By the eighth step she could see into the dark loft. She
stopped and listened for the sound of Carson’s even
breathing. Though they’d spent only a few nights together as
adults, they had slept over at each other’s homes innumerable
times as children. She knew the sound of his sleeping self almost
as well as she did her sister Kara’s. Before Brian and his
unexpected proposal eighteen months earlier, Carson had been the
son her parents never had, and she had been Carolyn and Jim’s
Straining to hear Carson, the only sound she could make out was the
low hum of his refrigerator, and then the
chirpee-chirpee-chirpee of a cardinal in a nearby tree,
announcing the sun’s progress. She climbed the remaining
steps, cringing at another creak, then stopped, trying to make out
his form on the bed at the far side of the room.
“Does this mean you changed your mind?”
Meg jumped as if stung. There was Carson, sitting in the love seat
they’d once hauled away from a bankrupt orange grower’s
estate sale. She couldn’t quite see his expression, but she
could hear in his voice that he was wide awake.
With all her heart, she wished she could say yes, her presence
meant exactly what he guessed. But softly she said,
“Then why are you — ?”
“Shh,” she said, going to him and reaching for his
hand. “Come here.”
He stood, and before he could speak again, she kissed him hard,
kissed him until she felt dizzy and brave and determined not to
chicken out. She put his hands on the hem of her shirt and, with
her hands on his, helped him draw it over her head. In another
moment, they were undressed and lying on top of his sheets, the
pale light painting them moonlit blue.
One last time. She would savor every touch, every
sensation, the fullness of his lips, his squared jaw, the dark
stubble as it rubbed her neck and grazed her breasts. She would not
forget one moment of this, would always look back and remember how
making love with him transported her. She would keep the
memory like a priceless, irreplaceable jewel. She would remember
how he pressed into her as if his life, their lives,
depended on it, as if he could secure eternity.
Afterward, Carson lay on his side watching her, twisting a strand
of her coppery hair. “What other proof do you need?” he
asked. His eyes shone with determination and hope, and she had to
look away. Her first loyalty was to her family; how could it be
otherwise? She had to marry Brian for their sake, was resigned to
it, would do it and would try to never second-guess herself
afterward; this she had already vowed.
“I know how it seems,” she said, “but
that’s exactly why it can never work. We’re too
intense. That’s what this proves.” The lie,
same as she’d told him a year and a half before, tasted
bitter. Love that had grown from childhood friendship and
adolescent curiosity, that had now withstood so many long months of
complete separation, could never be a damaging, undesirable thing
— and yet that was the story she was selling.
He sat up and looked away. “I should’ve made you leave
as soon as I heard you open the door.”
“No,” she said, touching his back. “We needed to
do this, so we can put our past to rest.” This much at least
was true, she thought.
He looked over his shoulder at her, eyes narrowed. “You think
this, one last quick fuck, is going to do it?” he spat,
making her flinch. “You thought you could come here and offer
something you knew I couldn’t resist, and then marry
Hamilton with a clear conscience? You are unbelievable.” He
lunged out of bed and pulled on his jeans, keeping his back to
The matter of her guilty conscience — and God knew it
was guilty — was balanced by the good she was doing
her sisters, her parents. What he said was exactly what
she’d thought, and what she would do. She stood up and pulled
on her shirt, absorbing his anger, deserving it. Then she reached
up and unhooked her gold chain from her neck.
“I never took this off,” she told him as she draped it
around his, hooked it, then smoothed his wavy brown hair, filing
away yet another last sense of him.
“Not even when he — ”
“Not even then.”
Carson turned and looked down at her. “Does he know I gave it
“Then he’s as stupid as I am,” he said, moving
away from her to the window, to a view of endless rows of orange
trees lit emerald by the early sun.
She loved that view, the way the Earth always looked newborn there
in the rising mist. But by this evening, the view would be as lost
to her as if she’d left the planet. Brian’s apartment
windows did not look out on this, the kind of life she was born to.
She would be a businessman’s wife. The man she would see on
all her future mornings would not be this rangy one, whose long
fingers were equally capable of picking fruit or strumming a guitar
— or holding her hand or feeding her pizza or braiding her
hair. Once she left here, she would never touch Carson again.
Never. Oh dear God, how, how could she have let this
Her longing to take back her bargain with the Hamiltons surged, so
strong it threatened to undo her. She could take it all back,
reclaim her life as her own. . . . If Carson would push her just a
little, if he tried to persuade her, if he assured her
that everything he didn’t even know was wrong would somehow
turn out all right, she would come back to him.
But he stayed at the window, his heart already closing to her, and
the moment passed.
She finished dressing, engulfed by regret but still daring to hope
she would take a part of him with her, if God or fate allowed. Then
she went to him and touched his arm.
He jerked away. “You better go,” he said, turning. His
face was closed now, too. This shouldn’t upset her —
she had it coming, all his anger, all his venom, the chill of such
a blank look — and yet she was cut through by it.
“Okay.” She would not let herself cry.
“But here — let me give you this.” He put his
hand on her cheek and leaned in, kissed her with slow deliberation,
kissed her with such passion and grace that she could no longer
hold back her tears. Then he pushed her away and said, “Guess
I’ll see you in hell.”
Reminders. Meg didn’t need more of them, but that’s
what she got
when her father let her into his new apartment at the Horizon
Seniors Wednesday evening. He held out a plastic grocery bag.
“What’s in there?”
“Notebooks, from your mother’s desk,” he said.
“Take ’em now, before I forget.”
He did more and more of that lately, forgetting. Idiopathic
short-term memory loss was his doctor’s name for his
condition, which right now was more an irritation than an issue.
Idiopathic, meaning there was no particular explanation.
Idiopathic was an apt term for Spencer Powell, a man who
lived entirely according to his whims.
Meg took the bag and set it on the dining table along with her
purse. This would be a short visit, coming at the end of her
twelve-hour day. Hospital rounds at seven am, two morning
deliveries, a candy-bar lunch, and then four hours of back-to-back
patients at her practice — women stressing about
episiotomies, C-section pain, stretch marks, unending fetal
hiccups, heavy periods, lack of sex drive, fear of labor. And still
four hours to go before she was likely to hit the sheets for five.
An exhausting grind at times, but she loved her work. The ideal of
it, at least.
“So how was today?” she asked, taking the clip out of
her shoulder-length hair and shaking it loose. “Are you
finding your way around all right?”
“Colorful place,” he said, leading her to the living
room. He sat in his recliner — why did old men seem always to
have one, fraying and squeaky, with which they wouldn’t part?
“Pair o’ guys over in wing C got a great system for
winning on the dogs.”
The greyhounds, he meant. “Is that right?” she asked,
looking him over. He looked spry as ever, and his eyes had regained
the smile she’d never seen dimmed before last fall. His hair,
once the brightest copper, had gone full silver, making him seem
more distinguished somehow, silver being more valuable.
Distinguished, but no less wild than before — a man whose
mind was always a step ahead of his sense. His diabetes was in
check, but since her mother had died suddenly seven months earlier,
Meg felt compelled to watch him closely. She was looking for signs
of failing health, diabetic danger signals: swollen ankles, extra
fluid in the face, unusual behaviors. All his behaviors
were unusual, though, so that part was difficult.
The other difficult thing was how he kept confronting her with
random pieces of her mother’s life. A pitted chrome teapot.
Stiff and faded blue doilies from their old dining hutch.
Rose-scented bath powder, in a round cardboard container with a
round puff inside. Last week, a paper bag of pinecones dipped in
glitter-thick wax. Trivia from a life forever altered by the sudden
seizure of Anna Powell’s heart, like a car’s engine
after driving too long without oil.
“Yeah, those boys said they win more’n they lose, so
what’s not to like about that? Hey — my left
kidney’s acting up again. Steady pain, kinda dull, mostly.
What d’ya s’pose that’s about?”
“Call Dr. Aimes,” she said, as she always did when he
brought up anything relating to his kidneys. “Tomorrow.
Don’t wait.” He looked all right — but then,
she’d thought her mother had too. What a good doctor
she was; she should’ve seen the signs of runaway
hypertension, should’ve known a massive heart attack was
pending. She never should have taken her mother’s word that
she was doing fine on the blood pressure medication, nothing to
worry about at all.
Her father frowned in annoyance, as he always did when she
wouldn’t diagnose him. “What good are you?”
“If you go into labor, I’ll be glad to help out.
Otherwise, tell Dr. Aimes.” She would remind him again when
she called tomorrow.
His apartment was modest — one bedroom, one bath, a combined
dining–living area, and a kitchen — but comfortable,
furnished mostly with new things. He’d sold the business,
Powell’s Breeding and Boarding, along with the house and all
the property, in order to move here. She didn’t know the
financial details because he’d insisted on handling that part
of things himself. But he assured her he could afford to
“modernize” a little, as he’d put it.
Meg looked around, glad to not see much of her mother here.
Memories were like spinning blades: dangerous at close range. Her
mother’s empty swivel rocker, placed alongside the recliner,
would take some getting used to. If her father would just stop
regurgitating things from the farm — or send them to her
sisters, all of whom wisely lived out of state — she might be
able to get comfortable with the new order. Was that his strategy,
too? Was he giving things away so that he didn’t have to be
reminded of his loss every time he opened a closet or a drawer? He
certainly wasn’t much for facing the past, himself. The past
was where all his failures lived.
Well, they had that in common.
He pulled the recliner’s lever and stretched out. “So
yeah, I’m doin’ fine. Why’nt you bring Savannah
over Sunday; we’ll have dinner in this establishment’s
fine dining room. They just put in one of them self-serve ice cream
machines, you know what I’m talking about? Toppings, too.
Y’oughta see the old farts elbowing each other to get there
first! If I’d known this place was so entertaining,
I’d’ve moved Mom here. This would be her kind of place,
don’t you think? Lots of biddies around to cackle
“Sure, she would’ve liked it a lot,” Meg said.
The farm had overwhelmed her mother perpetually, even after Brian
and his father — officially Hamilton Savings and Loan —
forgave her parents’ mortgage as promised. In the years
afterward, Meg liked to take her mother out to lunch for a break
and a treat; she offered her spending money (as she secretly did
her sisters too), but the reply was always, “Oh, heavens no,
Meggie. You’ve done so much as it is. Besides, you know your
She did. Though cursed with a black thumb for profits, he was too
proud to let her put cash in their hands. He hadn’t been too
proud, though, to let her — to encourage her —
to take Brian’s offer. That was different; no money changed
hands. Meg hadn’t had to give up anything — Carson
didn’t count. It was her choice anyway, that’s what he
“Hey — why’nt you bring our girl over here for
dinner Sunday?” He said this as if the idea had just occurred
She stood next to his chair, noting how his invitation didn’t
include Brian — intentionally? “I’ll do
that,” she said. “Right now I need to get
“Okay, fine, go on, Miss Hectic Schedule. I know, you got
things to do. Y’oughta enjoy the ride a little more, though.
Now that you can. Don’t you think? I’m fine here,
everything’s settled. I don’t know why you don’t
just get on with your life.”
Now that she could? What was he talking about?
He continued, “You’re not happy. I’ve known that
for a long time. Move forward, Meggie, while you’re still
She looked at him quizzically — he didn’t always make
sense, but he hated having it pointed out — and kissed him
without pursuing it. “I’m fine, Dad,” she said.
“It’s just been a long day.”
“The northeast side’s where the best waves are,”
yelled Valerie Haas, over the sputtering whine of the motorbikes
she and Carson McKay had rented for their excursion on St. Martin.
The West Indies isle, known for its split Dutch and French
identity, was one of three islands they were considering for their
wedding location, as well as the site of a vacation home.
“And the nude beaches are there, too!”
“Where’s a good bar?” Carson yelled back, ready
to be done with the noise and the hot wind and the vibration in his
crotch, nude beaches or not.
He preferred riding horses to motorcycles by far, and was riding
this souped-up scooter only in deference to Val. She would’ve
had him on something much more powerful if it had been available to
them — something worthy of a motocross track — and had
been disappointed to have to settle for only 100 cc’s. She
wouldn’t even consider the little Suzuki SUVs, insisting that
the best views were accessible only with the bikes. He had to admit
she was right; the roads up the low mountains deteriorated as they
got farther from the small coastal towns, and a few times
they’d taken mere trails to different points of interest. Val
had wanted to locate a home rumored to have belonged to Brad Pitt
and Jennifer Aniston several years back. Though they were told the
house wasn’t officially on the market, she thought it might
be fun to buy it if possible — a surefire conversation
starter, she’d called it, as if their lives weren’t
already full of those. They found the house this morning, tucked
into the hills of the island’s French side, but he
wasn’t wild about its rocky landscape and lack of large shade
trees. Val, raised in Malibu, would have gone for it anyway. Carson
thought of the lushness of central Florida, the oaks and cedars and
palms and twining, flowering vines, and declared that notoriety
wasn’t enough to persuade him.
Now he pointed to the side of the gravel road, indicating that he
was pulling over.
“You’re not done already?” Val said when she came
to a stop next to him.
The sun pressed heavy on his forehead, forcing sweat down the sides
of his neck. He wiped it away. “’Fraid so,” he
“We aren’t even close to finishing the
He snorted. They’d been out since seven-thirty, and it was
closing in on two o’clock. Lunch had been fried plantains and
some fizzy fruit soda at a roadside stand. “Feel free to go
on, but I’m heading back to the villas.” There was a
terrific bar there, and, should he happen to consume a drink or two
more than made it safe to ride, he’d already be
Val pushed her sunglasses up onto her shaggy white-blond hair and
squinted at him. “Okay, I’ll go back with you —
if you make it worth my while,” she said, grinning
that same provocative grin she’d used on him the night
they’d met, in L.A. at the launch party for his latest CD.
He’d seen thousands of come-hither smiles over the years, but
hers was different. Confident — but not threatening, the way
some women’s were. Some women were so aggressive they scared
him. Val, who at twenty-two was already world famous in her own
right, had enticed him with a smile that made him feel like he
could reciprocate without remorse. He’d had his share of
remorse over the years, and a few extra portions for good
He shook his head, admiring her brilliant hair, the long, lean
muscles in her thighs and arms that were products of uncountable
hours of surfing and training. She’d won her first junior
championship at fifteen, had her first endorsement contract a year
later. “You’re awfully easy on me, you
“I know,” she agreed.
“It’s a real character flaw.”
“I never said I was perfect.” She pushed her sunglasses
down and turned her motorbike back toward their resort, a
collection of luxury villas on Nettle Bay. “Catch me if you