It had started out as an ordinary morning for Fen Dexter. She had gotten up late—nineish, something like that. It was Hector who woke her, putting his big paw on the bed, giving her a nudge and drooling on her arm. Labradors always drooled, and they always had to be let out first thing before they burst. Nine was late for Hector too. She opened the door for him, then, when he’d finished, let him in again and went back to bed, feeling lazy, just lying there listening to the boom of the waves hitting the rocks at the base of the cliffs.
Cliff Cottage, Fen’s small California house, stood in what Fen had always termed “isolated splendor,” on a bluff between Big Sur and the village of Carmel. The “isolated splendor” was meant as a joke since the road was a mere hundred yards away and the “cottage” was far from “splendid.” It wasn’t even “grand” and it was pale blue stucco.
It had been her home for twelve years, bought on an impulse after her husband died suddenly and to her, inexplicably because he was such a fit man, always exercising, running, he even played a three-hour game of tennis the day before. Then, after a morning cup of tea, he looked at her, surprised, she thought, and quite simply crumpled to the ground. And life as Fen knew it ended.
Greg, the “all-American boy” as she always called him teasingly, was in fact her third husband. The first had been the Frenchman, when she was twenty and making a somewhat precarious living in Paris as a dancer, on stage in stilettos and a minimal amount of sequins and wearing the short Sassoon bob wigs all the girls wore. It wasn’t what she’d hoped for after all those years of ballet and training but not everyone could be a star, and she met so many people. Including the husband she only ever referred to now as “the Frenchman,” the hand-holder, the gentle kisser, the leaver of romantic messages, the donator of generous bouquets of white roses. They were not her favorite flower but soon became so. He was older, thirty-five to her twenty, divorced and with baggage but he wanted to marry her and who was she to say no to a life of romance and kisses. It lasted a year. And then he was on to someone new. That’s just the way he was.
The second husband was Italian-Jewish. Who knew there was such a combo? Certainly not Fen, but without any family of her own, she had fallen in love with his big gregarious in-your-face family that took over their lives and before she knew it she was trying to decide between a Catholic Italian ceremony or a Jewish wedding with all the trimmings. In the end they sneaked off and got married in a civil ceremony and that was that. And finally when, to their great disappointment, the expected children did not appear, the family decided it was all her fault. Fen knew from their silent looks across the table, the sudden diminishing of jolly family meals, that was what they thought, and when she finally was worried enough to get checked out, to her horror, she found they were right.
Since it was a civil marriage divorce was easy but it left Fen brokenhearted and lonely. She was alone in the world. Again.
On an impulse she flew to California, went to stay with an old friend at her small vineyard in Sonoma County. Her name was Millie, and Millie produced a Chardonnay that was just coming into fashion in the way certain wines did. Fen invested her small savings plus the money she had been awarded in her two divorces (in both of which she was the innocent party) and ultimately financially it was the saving of her. It was also where later, she met her third husband. The American.
Greg was thirty-eight, Fen was twenty-seven. She was living in San Francisco in a small pastel-color Victorian in the Mission District that was only just starting to come into its own and still had rough edges. Too rough, Fen worried sometimes, for a woman living alone. But then she didn’t live alone for long. She had a part-time job at the university teaching her specialty, the evolution of dance to its modern form, while also donating her services free to an animal rescue charity, when she got the call from a Mr. Herman Wright, attorney-at-law, asking her to please come to see him. It was very important, he told her and no he could not discuss it on the phone.
Oh shit, she remembered thinking as she dressed in her most respectable outfit, black slim pants (she had good long legs) a soft white linen shirt and an Hermès orange cable cashmere sweater, a long-ago expensive gift from husband number one, when he was still courting her, that is. She powdered her nose, a daring slash of fire-engine red over her full lips, a quick flick of the brush through her golden blond hair. She took a final look in the mirror, wondering if she looked respectable enough for Mr. Herman Wright attorney-at-law and his secret message. She grinned as she waved herself goodbye. Fuck Mr. Attorney at Law. Nobody was suing her. Maybe she had come into a fabulous inheritance from some long-lost relative. Yeah. Right. A kiss for the ginger cat named Maurice who hated to be left, and she was on her way.
She took a taxi to the lawyer’s, not wanting to get all mussed up on public transportation, even though she could really not afford it. Mr. Wright’s offices were imposing, three floors in a good building downtown. Mr. Wright himself was not so imposing, small, square and ginger as the cat. But what he had to tell her was. It shocked her to her very core, more than anything else in her entire life.
That’s what she said to him, then. “But I’m too young!”
Mr. Wright shrugged a shoulder, smoothed his floral silk tie, looked kindly at her over the breadth of his oak desk. “Many women have several children by your age, Miss Dexter.” Fen had reverted to her own name after the last divorce. “Surely it can be no hardship for a healthy young woman like you to bring up two girls.”
“But they are not my girls,” she cried, shocked. “I don’t have a husband! How could they do this to me!”
The “this” she was talking about and that had come at her like a bolt from the blue—not just any old bolt but a thunderbolt—was that a remote cousin Fen did not at first remember having, though they had met once when she was dancing in Paris (the cousin and the husband had come backstage and introduced themselves, had a glass of Champagne then smiled their goodbyes…), had perished in a plane crash, flying a small Cessna over a mountainous area where they’d been caught in a lethal downdraft. Their two children were still at their home in Manhattan.
“Of course with the children comes the wherewithal to keep them, there’s certainly enough to see them through childhood and college.”
“College?” What was he talking about? She had not been to college!
He said, “The two girls are ages six and four. Their names are Vivian and Jane Cecilia. Ms. Dixon, I cannot emphasize enough that they have no one else to turn to. Without you it will be foster homes. I’m afraid they are rather too old to be popular for adoption.”
He sat back looking at her stunned face. “I know, I know,” he said gently. “It is a great shock and a terrible responsibility, but your cousin mentioned you specifically in the will, said you were her only relative and therefore she would leave you her most treasured possessions in the hope that, should you be needed, you would know what to do.”
Fen said nothing.
Then, “Here are their pictures.” He slid a few photos across the desk.
Fen did not pick them up. She simply stared down at them, at the two young faces of her distant relatives, one dark haired, stony-eyed, kicking the grass with a sandaled toe, unwilling to smile for the camera; the other a blond blue-eyed angel beaming for all she was worth.
“That kid’s a natural,” she heard herself saying. And then quite suddenly she was crying, sitting there in the lawyer’s smart office looking at pictures of two little kids who had no one. They were so innocent. She had been alone herself from the age of eighteen. She thought what she was being asked to do was not a lot different from the work she did with abandoned and abused animals, it all came from the same love source.
“I could love these girls,” she said finally, collecting the photos and putting them in her bag. “When can I have them?”
And that was how she, Fen—short for Fenalla, a name she’d always hated because she thought it sounded like a stripper—became “aunt,” never “mom,” to “her girls.” Who now, after all the growing up—Fen as well as them—through all the schools and ballet classes, the childhood illnesses, the terrible teens, high school, college, boyfriends, lovers, had become a family.
Vivi the oldest was thirty, an emergency room doctor in San Francisco. JC at twenty-eight was out there somewhere, still trying to become a “star,” singing in small clubs and in Fen’s opinion, going exactly nowhere. Both girls had their own lives and Fen had decided to let them get on with it. She had probably interfered enough over the years.
* * *
Another hour passed before Fen finally got out of bed and walked downstairs. The kitchen’s dark planked floor felt cold under her bare feet. It was going to be a chilly one today. She put on the coffee—how she loved that morning coffee smell—then showered, and got herself generally together in jeans and a gray V-necked sweater, first brushing off the dog hairs. She checked the weather again—also gray and with a cold buffeting wind she didn’t like. Nor did the dog. Fen had considered naming him Hercules because he was strong, a survivor, but Hector had seemed to fit the bill better. And now here they were, twelve years on. Alone, together.
Then the phone rang. “Fen,” she heard Vivi say urgently, “I need to see you. Tonight. I have something I must tell you.”
Fen recognized the sound of trouble when she heard it but refrained from asking what was up on the phone; she would save the questions for later. Vivi was a third-year resident at a San Francisco hospital’s emergency department. She worked long hours and she and Fen didn’t get to see much of each other anymore. Now, though, Vivi said she would stay the night. Which meant Fen had better drive to Carmel and get in some supplies.
She put on her old dark blue peacoat, bundled Hector in the back of the Mini Cooper—no mean feat since the dog weighed in at a hundred pounds. The dog usually preferred to stick his head out the window and sniff the passing scenery but today was too cold.
Twelve years ago Fen had found Hector abandoned at the top of her driveway. When she first saw the brown paper bag she thought, irritated, somebody had littered her property. She got out of the car intending to pick the bag up and dispose of it properly. Instead, there was tiny Hector, gazing mournfully up at her with his big brown eyes. I mean, what could she do?
In Carmel she got lucky, a Range Rover slid out of a parking spot just as she arrived, giving her plenty of room. It was spitting rain and Fen wished she was not wearing her new suede boots. Suede and rain did not go together. She’d worn them because they were flats and she never could manage Carmel’s cobbled streets in heels. In fact there used to be a Carmel ordinance that only flat shoes could be worn in the village, since there were so many accidents.
She eased Hector out of the car and dashed to buy a newspaper, then thinking of Vivi’s supper, picked up a crusty loaf, some good aged Manchego and a silky goat cheese, as well as a chunk of Parmesan to be grated onto the salad. Two bottles of the Napa Pinot Noir she liked, plus of course she had a couple of cases of her friend Millie’s Sonoma Chardonnay. She was pleased when she also managed to find the nice rosemary-raisin crackers which went so well with the cheese.
She had already made a daube, her French-style beef stew (she used filet steak and about a gallon of good red wine and let it brew down for long slow hours, adding tiny pearl onions and fresh carrots when the original ones turned to mush) a few weeks ago with Beethoven’s Fifth blasting from the stereo, completely drowning out the boom of the waves on the rocks below. She made so much she had to freeze it in separate batches, which meant that tonight she could unfreeze some and serve up a spontaneous meal without any effort.
By the time she finished her shopping the rain was coming down hard. The wind pushed at her back as she shoved Hector into the car, along with the groceries, and when she turned off the road and into the gravel drive to the cottage, it was bending the Monterey pines sideways. Below the house the gray Pacific roared over the rocks even louder than the wind. Still, she was home now. Safe and sound.
* * *
By seven o’clock, the fire was lit, the beef daube was simmering on a low light, the kitchen table was set with the knives and forks with the aquamarine plastic handles that Fen had bought in Leclerc, an inexpensive French maxi-market, and which were still a favorite. She’d put out the plates with the pictures of parrots on them and the decent wineglasses. The crusty loaf sat on a wooden board, cheeses warming to room temperature next to it while the rain hurled itself with gale-force ferocity at her big windows, which opened onto the small ocean-view terrace.
In fact the weather had turned so bad Fen began to worry. She tried calling Vivi on her mobile to advise her to turn back but could not get through. She went and looked out of the window; all she could see was her own reflection against the black of the night. She put another log on the fire, shifting Hector with her toe and making him grumble. Hector liked his warm spot. Actually, so did she; she was glad not to be out there herself on a night like this.
Restless, she paced back into her bedroom and checked her appearance in the long mirror on the closet door: jeans; the new suede boots that pinched her toes; the gray V-neck that almost matched her silvery hair, cut in a shortish bob to her chin.
For fifty-eight she wasn’t half bad, though not nearly as good as she would have liked. Were those new lines, there, above her nose? Wasn’t that what Botox was for? She must ask Dr. Vivi about that when she got here. If Vivi ever got here was more like it, which Fen doubted, the way the wind was howling now. Gale force was increasing to hurricane, here on her little spit of a cliff, with the waves boiling on the rocks below and rain that had turned into a deluge.
She went to the pantry cupboard and found the hurricane lamp, just in case, trimmed the wick, checked the oil, carried it into the sitting room and put it on the glass coffee table. She turned up the stereo to combat the growl of the wind and sat there, sipping her wine and listening to Beethoven turned up loud, belting out over the rattle of the rain against her windows. She never closed her curtains because the view of the Pacific in all its moods, with its passing gray whales and sporting dolphins, was what had brought her to this place anyway. Seeking solitude, she had found it. And then she had found Hector. And together, they had found “aloneness.”
Tonight though, there was something unnerving in the power of the storm. The sheer ferocity of it rocked around her little house. Windows rattled, beams creaked, doors shuddered on their hinges. Even Hector seemed worried, lifting his head and looking inquiringly at her, as though she should stop it or something.
“I wish I could, Hector,” she said, interpreting his look. She and Hector always knew what the other was thinking.
She picked up the phone to call Vivi but her line was dead. Of course it was; the phone was always the first thing to go in bad weather. She tried her mobile but there was no reception. Now there was no way to contact anyone.
Frowning, she sat back against the sofa cushions, hoping against hope that Vivi had had the sense to turn back. Surely, whatever it was she needed so urgently to talk about could wait till tomorrow.
She’d finished her wine and had just gotten up to pour a little more when the lights went out. Everything went out: the stereo, the refrigerator, the TV.
Fen froze, glass still in hand. There was a thickness to the darkness, a texture to the sudden silence. Even the usual almost imperceptible hum of household gadgets was gone.
She felt Hector standing next to her. She said quickly, reassuring herself as well as him, “It’s okay, Hector,” pulled herself together, clicked on the lighter and lit the hurricane lamp, relieved she had thought of it earlier because she surely would not have been able to find it now in that cupboard in the dark. She lit the stubby green candles on the kitchen table where dinner was set, then went round lighting up the votives she kept around, mostly as decoration, but now happy to have their small light also.
There was nothing else to be done. She went and sat with the dog in front of the fire, welcoming its flickering glow and thanking heaven it wasn’t electric. The wind seemed even louder. Or was it because she was so aware of the house’s overwhelming silence? She walked over to the window again. Rain sluiced down the glass in sheets.
She went back and sat near the fire. The dog put his head on her knee, drooled on her jeans. A log slipped in the grate. Fen could even hear herself sipping the wine from the glass.
The sudden knock at the door sent her leaping up, heart jumping in her throat. Her wine slopped all over Hector. Hackles raised, ears pricked, the dog stared toward the kitchen door. There it was again. Someone knocking. Of course, it must be Vivi. She had made it after all.
“I’m coming,” Fen yelled, shoving Hector out of the way, battling the wind to get the door open. A gust snatched it out of her hand, slammed it back against the wall. Beside her, Hector’s lip rose in a snarl.
A man stood on her porch. His wet dark hair was plastered to his skull. Blood trickled down his forehead. And in his hand he held a knife.