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The Ashford Affair


New York, 1999

Clemmie hurried beneath the awning of her grandmother’s building, panting a quick hello in response to the doorman’s greeting.

He started to say something, but she kept on going, heels click-click-clacking on the marble floor. She tossed a “hello” over her shoulder, flapping her hand in a wave.

It was Granny Addie’s ninety-ninth birthday party and Clemmie was late.

She steamed through the foyer, loosening her coat and scarf as she went. Despite the November cold, she felt sweaty straight through, clammy with perspiration beneath the layers of bra, blouse, suit jacket, and coat. She’d meant to change into a dress, but there hadn’t been time, so here she was, disheveled and blistered, hair any which way and lipstick a distant memory. Her mother would be appalled, but she wouldn’t say anything. She would just telegraph her distress with tightened lips and raised brows. She was good at that. Clemmie’s mother’s brows were better than sign language, complicated concepts conveyed with a minimum of movement.

Clemmie jabbed at the elevator button and made the mistake of glancing at her watch. Eight fifteen. Cocktails had started forty-five minutes ago. They might, in fact, already be sitting down to dinner. No wonder the doorman had looked at her like that. Her mother had probably been calling down every ten minutes to ask if she had been spotted yet. She was past the realm of acceptably late and well into the kingdom of unpardonably tardy.

Shifting her large Longchamp bag from one shoulder to the other, she mentally mustered her arsenal of excuses, none entirely a lie, but none entirely true either: a meeting at the last minute, the BlackBerry in her bag that wouldn’t stop buzzing, that damn deposition in Dallas that needed to be prepped before she flew off on Thursday. Then there were all the standard-issue disclaimers: no cabs, delayed subways, the impossibility of getting directly from her office, all the way west on 49th and 8th, to Granny Addie’s, safe in the fastness of the Upper East Side, on 85th and 5th. That, at least, was pure, unvarnished truth. Clemmie had wound up walking most of the way, half-speedwalking, half-running, slipping and sliding in her high-heeled pumps as she scanned for cabs, all of which seemed to be full, their occupants smug silhouettes in the backseats, inside while she was out.

Clemmie shifted feet, discreetly easing her left foot out of her black pump. Matte black leather, now slightly scuffed, with a three-inch heel. These shoes looked very nice under a conference table, but they had not been made for walking.

Her stocking clung stickily to her heel. Lovely. Not just a blister, but a burst blister. It was going to hurt like hell tomorrow when she limped into work.

The elevator pinged, the doors opening.

Clemmie jammed her foot back into her shoe and hobbled inside. The elevator was lined in rosewood, the buttons set in polished brass. It hadn’t changed much over the past thirty years. She hit the 8, her finger finding the number by rote, and the elevator began its ascent. As she always did, she glanced at the shield-shaped security mirror in the corner. As a child, she used to entertain herself by moving her head this way, then that, watching as her features moved in and out of focus, like a Barbie head when you took the rubbery features between your fingers and squeezed.

Now she checked for obvious signs of wear and tear, applying a hasty coat of lip gloss from the blunted stick in her bag. Mascara? There was still more over her eyes than under them. Good enough. The wind had taken the part of blush, pounding her pale cheeks into color. Unfortunately, it had also encouraged her hair to make a desperate bid for liberation, standing up any which way.

She hadn’t had this problem when it was long; then she could just bundle it back, clipping it up with a slide or holding it back with a headband.

It was such a cliché, wasn’t it? End a relationship, cut your hair.

She had had it chopped off last week, ostensibly so it wouldn’t keep getting caught under the strap of her bag, defiantly taking a whole hour away from the office in the middle of the day. Screw it, she had told herself. She had spent the better part of six years in the office, eating meals at her desk, taking personal calls on her office phone, watching the seasons change from behind the thick glass windows. If she wanted to take an hour to go to Fekkai, she had damn well earned it. One hour away wouldn’t cost her the place in the partnership for which she had so desperately worked, the partnership she was so close to achieving; while the stylist clipped away Clemmie had kept her BlackBerry in her lap, typing away with two fingers on the miniature keyboard.

Her hair was supposed to be easier to manage like this, the hairdresser had said, but the short, fine strands seemed to have a mind of their own, sticking up any which way and flying into her eyes. She missed being able to pull it back, the comforting nonsense task of bundling it up and letting it down again. She found herself constantly reaching for hair that wasn’t there anymore.

The elevator doors opened onto the eighth floor, a small landing decorated with burgundy silk flowered paper and a spindly gilded table beneath an equally spindly and gilded mirror. A bronze bucket provided a home for stray umbrellas. Grandpa Frederick’s walking stick still stuck out in pride of place in the middle. Clemmie touched it lightly with her fingers. The head was shaped like a terrier. Grandpa Frederick used to make it yip and bark for her as Clemmie would shy back, alarmed and delighted.

Grandpa Frederick had died when Clemmie was six, but she remembered him, just vaguely, a seamed face and white hair and a lopsided grin and a lifelong smoker’s hacking cough. It was odd to think that he had died that long ago; even gone, he had been a presence throughout Clemmie’s childhood, like Victoria’s Albert, always there in memory. Granny Addie’s apartment was still full of him, even thirty years on. There were pictures of him in grainy black and white, wearing the comical clothes of the 1920s, pictures of him bending over the plants on their coffee plantation in Kenya, and then, later, shiny color photos of a much older Grandpa Frederick, with Granny Addie, with children, with grandchildren, clothes changing to suit the era.

They were, Clemmie had always thought, rather an inspiration. They had met when Granny Addie was still, as they quaintly put it, in the schoolroom, and married when she was in her twenties. Together, they had taken a little farm in Kenya and turned it into a thriving coffee company. The business had been sold back in the seventies, swallowed up by Maxwell House, but the back hallways of Granny Addie’s apartment were hung with old posters, now framed, advertising KENYAN COFFEE—FOR THE DISCRIMINATING PALATE. Some even featured a younger-looking Granny Addie, poised and impossibly aristocratic, a coffeepot in one hand, a cup and saucer in the other.

They had been together so long, Granny Addie and Grandpa Frederick.

Even if Clemmie met someone tomorrow, even if by some miracle she stumbled upon her dream man in an elevator or on the subway, she would still never be with anyone as long as Granny Addie had been with Grandpa Frederick. It was an incredibly depressing thought. The idea of starting over, having to go on the same awkward first dates, recite the same tired personal stories, made her want to curl into a little ball and whimper.

Why was it so easy for some people and not for others?

Birthday, she reminded herself. She was meant to be celebratory. She couldn’t go in and mope all over Granny Addie. Not with all the cousins watching, at any rate. Clemmie’s mother was a big believer in Keeping Their End Up, which generally seemed to boil down to smiling whether you wanted to or not and never ever telling Aunt Anna how you really felt about anything.

Mother had a thing about Aunt Anna. Clemmie had never been able to discover any malevolent tendencies on her aunt’s part—yes, she was kind of ditzy and a little phony, but evil?—but Clemmie’s mother remained convinced that Aunt Anna lived to exploit the chinks in her armor. Clemmie tended to think that Aunt Anna lived for Aunt Anna, which was a very different thing.

Clemmie hung her coat on the rack in the hall, shoving it in between a fur-trimmed cashmere cape that could only belong to Aunt Anna and someone else’s well-used Burberry. Someone had left the door to the apartment slightly ajar. Through it, Clemmie could hear the unmistakable noises that denoted a cocktail party: the staccato rhythm of voices, the click of heels against hardwood, the soft-soled shuffle of the waiters bearing crab cakes or smoked salmon squares.

“There you are!” Her mother must have been lying in wait; she pounced as soon as Clemmie opened the door. “You’re the last one here.”

“I had a meeting,” Clemmie began, but her mother was frowning at her left hand.

“You didn’t wear your ring.”

“It’s not mine anymore.” She viewed its continued presence in her apartment as a bailment rather than ownership. It was going back to Dan the next time she saw him, along with his Star Wars video, his Penn sweatshirt, and his spare sneakers. The toothbrush she had already thrown out. She had thought of keeping it for cleaning grout, but that seemed just a little too vindictive, a little too voodoo doll–esque. She didn’t want to be vindictive. They had parted friends, at least theoretically.

Could one part friends in such a situation? There had been things said.… She had given as good as she got, but some of Dan’s observations about her character still stung. Like he should talk about being emotionally unavailable. Pots and kettles, Dan, pots and kettles.

Her mother shot a furtive glance over her shoulder, checking to make sure there were no relatives in earshot. “I don’t see why you couldn’t have kept it on just for tonight.”

God forbid the cousins realize that her engagement had imploded, that she was single again at thirty-four, Marjorie’s unwanted spinster daughter. It was like something out of Jane Austen. Weren’t they meant to be past this as a society? It stung even more coming from her mother, the woman who had always given her a hard line on putting career first. Until she hit thirty and the tune suddenly changed.

Clemmie gave her mother a long, hard look. “It’s not like you liked Dan.”

Her mother bristled. Mother did a good line in bristle. “I never said that.”

“How else would you define ‘perhaps it’s time to reconsider your options’?”

“I never meant— Never mind. We’ll discuss this later.”

Mother’s response to everything: deny, deny, deny. If we pretend it’s all okay, it is!

“Fine,” said Clemmie, moving past her mother into the foyer. “Sure. Whatever.”

That was the problem with being a menopause baby; the usual generation gap was multiplied by two. Her mother had been a young woman during the Blitz and the mentality had stuck. Clemmie had been born when her mother was forty-four, the last gasp of a failing marriage. It had been hugely embarrassing for her mother, who had thought her childbearing years were long since over.

It had been even more embarrassing when Clemmie’s father had left, three years later, having had enough of diapering and burping with the first round—that being practically a verbatim quote. He had left her mother for a journalist named Jennifer, twenty years younger, Californian, and blond.

Clemmie didn’t blame him for leaving, but she did blame him for being a cliché.

“Now you’re upset with me,” said her mother with gloomy certainty. Even after fifty years in the States, Clemmie’s mother still clung to her veddy veddy British accent, relic of a childhood spent between Kenya and London. It gave even her most mundane pronouncements a certain ring of authority.

“I’m not upset with you,” Clemmie lied. “Let’s just leave it, okay? It’s Granny Addie’s birthday! Woo-hoo!”

“Hmm,” said Mother. Her face suddenly changed. She stood straighter, almost moving up to her toes in her flat, sensible shoes. “Anna!” she said brightly. “Look who I found.”

Rescued by the cavalry. “Hi, Aunt Anna,” said Clemmie, keeping her left hand behind her. “Long time, no see.”

“Clemmie, sweetie!” Aunt Anna still wore her hair long. It was fair, like Clemmie’s, cunningly cut so that it curved forward in a way that made her seem to be leaning forward in perpetual anticipation. She had to have been seventy, at least, but the good people at Frederic Fekkai had spun silver back into gold, keeping her hair the same pale blond it had been in the wedding photos on Granny Addie’s piano. There were many wedding photos. Aunt Anna had been married no fewer than eight times. Her hair brushed against Clemmie’s cheek as Aunt Anna enveloped her in a Chanel-scented hug. “We were afraid you’d been eaten by wolves!”

“Nope, just my desk,” said Clemmie, disengaging herself.

“Your mother was getting worried about you,” said Aunt Anna.

“Nonsense,” said Clemmie’s mother stiffy. No Fekkai magic for Clemmie’s mother. She wore her hair cut short, in an uncompromising gray. “Clementine works very hard.”

“How is everyone?” Clemmie asked hastily. It was the conversational gambit of least resistance. “Do you still have Shoo-Shoo?”

“Oh, goodness, you are behind!” said Aunt Anna.

Clemmie’s mother looked pained. She generally did when Aunt Anna talked. After years on the transatlantic scene, Aunt Anna’s accent wasn’t quite anything anymore, not quite English and not quite American. Affected, Clemmie’s mother called it, which was rather rich coming from someone who sounded like the upstairs of Upstairs Downstairs.

“—darling little Pekinese,” Aunt Anna was saying. “Jonathan got the Columbia job, so he’s apartment-hunting. Won’t it be nice to have him back in the city? Millie was staying with me for a bit, but she’s moved in with her boyfriend now.”

“Isn’t she, like, ten?” Millie was one of Aunt Anna’s stepchildren, one of the younger batch, relic of her third husband—or was it her fourth? It was so easy to lose track. Clemmie could see her mother pursing her lips. It drove Clemmie’s mother crazy that Aunt Anna dragged her stepchildren to family events when they weren’t, in Clemmie’s mother’s view, family at all.

“Oh, sweetie!” Aunt Anna laughed her tinkly laugh. “She’s twenty-three now! I know, I know, it’s too awful. But she seems very happy with her Sean. They have a place in Yorkville.”

“Isn’t she a bit young to be living with someone?” asked Clemmie’s mother.

“Better young than never,” replied Aunt Anna cheerfully.

Clemmie didn’t think it was meant to be a dig, but it stung all the same. Her left hand felt very, very bare after the weight of Dan’s ring.

Her mother sniffed. “Not everyone makes a career out of matrimony.”

Aunt Anna winked at Clemmie. “We can’t all be lawyers, can we? How’s tricks, kiddo?”

“Busy,” said Clemmie quickly. “Really busy. I’m in Dallas on Thursday for a deposition and then London the week after that. It’s been crazy. How’s Granny Addie holding up?”

“Come see for yourself,” Mother said before Aunt Anna could say anything. She put a hand on Clemmie’s arm and propelled her forward toward the living room, where the cocktail hour was in full swing.

Behind her, Aunt Anna shrugged and waved. Clemmie grinned back at her.

The living room was crowded with men in Brooks Brothers suits and women in black sheath dresses, colorful scarves at their necks. Most were friends of the family of various varieties, rather than relatives. Clemmie’s two older brothers had settled in California with their families. She recognized one of her nieces, now in her twenties, interning with some fashion designer. Clemmie’s second-oldest brother seemed to have sent his wife as emissary, but, for the most part, their side of the family was underrepresented. Uncle Teddy, Mother’s younger brother, had died relatively young, a victim of a heart attack in his forties, but his children and grandchildren had come out in force, doing their bit to honor Granny Addie.

There was only one thing missing from the scene. “Where’s Granny Addie?” Clemmie asked.

Her mother looked tired. “She’s resting a bit,” she said. She had moved in with Granny Addie a few months ago, ostensibly because her lease had run out, but Clemmie suspected it was because she was worried about her. Granny Addie had professional care, a team of nurses who came in shifts, but Clemmie’s mother was of the “if you want it done right, do it yourself” variety.

Mother nodded towards the bar. “Get yourself a drink and I’ll take you over to her.”

“How stiff a drink do I need?” asked Clemmie, but her mother had already turned away, exchanging an air-kiss with one of Uncle Teddy’s offspring.

Clemmie made for the bar.

It was set up like all of Granny Addie’s parties, going back as far as Clemmie could remember. She presumed that the bottles had been drunk out and replaced over time—and the bartenders tended to change party to party—but otherwise it all looked exactly the same. A folding table had been placed in a corner with a white cloth over it, crowded with bottles and glasses. It was always in the same corner, a little alcove between a window facing out onto 85th Street and the door to the den. On the far side of the room, a wall of windows showcased the apartment’s glory, a view out over Central Park.

One of the catering staff was behind the makeshift bar, briskly squeezing a wedge of lime into a tall glass filled with ice and clear liquid. Even from yards away, Clemmie smelled gin. The bartender must be mixing them strong. Good.

There was a man waiting for his drink, his back to Clemmie. He took his drink from the bartender, slipping a few dollar bills discreetly across the cloth.

If she hadn’t been sure who it was before, that would have clinched it. You weren’t supposed to tip at private parties, but Jon had always ignored that, wanting to make sure the waitstaff got a fair deal.

Clemmie resisted the childish urge to flee, wishing she still had Dan’s ring as armor. Not that she needed armor. They were adults now, past that sort of thing.

Clemmie waited until he turned, gave him a chance to see her. She nodded at him in greeting. “Hey, Jon.”

“Hey,” said Jonathan, raising his gin and tonic. “One for you?”


She waited while he relayed the request to the bartender. Unlike the other men in the room, Jon was dressed in khakis and a blazer, rather than a suit, although he had chosen a traditional blue blazer, rather than going all professorial with tweed and patches. She remembered him here in this same room, years ago, in pretty much the same uniform, an awkward adolescent in khakis and bow tie. She would have been in patent-leather shoes, sulking over being put in a little-girl dress at twelve, the two of them trying to sneak drinks from the bar while their respective parents weren’t watching. Of all Aunt Anna’s “offspring,” Jon had been around the most, at least until he went off to Stanford for his Ph.D.

They’d bickered incessantly as teenagers, each trying to one-up the other. Jon was three years older, an advantage he had employed mercilessly. But Clemmie was the actual daughter—well, granddaughter—of the house; she belonged to Granny Addie, Jon was there by accident. It had evened the scales.

They hadn’t stayed in particularly good touch, but there had been vacations and odd overlaps, including that embarrassing weekend in Rome, when she had puked all over his shoes. She didn’t particularly care to remember either the state of Jon’s shoes or the random—and entirely unprecedented—events that had followed.

They had made a deal never to talk about Rome.

She had always thought Jon looked a bit like Val Kilmer. Val Kilmer or Harrison Ford in his early Indiana Jones days. Jon had the sun-streaked brown hair, the wiry build, the spectacles. Not her type, of course; she was more of a Kevin Costner girl, but she could see how it made Jon popular with his students, especially the female ones. The Val Kilmer resemblance was still there, but Jon looked tired. Tired and older. There was gray in his light brown hair that hadn’t been there before.

Clemmie murmured her thanks as he passed her a glass, resisting the urge to toss back the contents.

She lifted her glass, trying for cool. “Aunt Anna said you got a job at Columbia. Congrats. I know how few and far between those are.”

“Thanks.” Jon’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “How’s Dan?”

Clemmie silently held up her left hand. “If you say ‘I told you so,’ I’ll punch you.”

After a beat, Jonathan smiled a crooked smile. “If I get to say ‘I told you so,’ then so do you.”

“Caitlin?” Caitlin was Jon’s wife of three years. They’d been grad students together at Stanford, Caitlin doing something to do with intellectual history, Jon focusing on modern Britain. By a miracle, they’d gotten jobs together at one of the UNCs. Not Chapel Hill, but one of the other ones. “Is she—I mean, are you…?”

Jon clinked his glass against hers. “Got it in one.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, and meant it. Well, sort of. She had never been a Caitlin fan. “Pretentious” didn’t even begin to cut it.

“Yeah, so am I. She’s keeping the house.”

“What do you get?”

“Shame and rage?”

“Oooh, fun.” For a moment, they grinned at each other, united in the land of the love lost. Clemmie dropped her gaze first. Playing with the condensation patterns on her G&T, she said, “Hey, Jon, if you want to talk about it…”

He looked pointedly at her left hand. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Fair point. They’d never had that kind of relationship. It was probably too late to start now. “So what do you think about those Jets?” she said heartily.

Jon gave her a look. “You know who the Jets are.”

They had been like this as teenagers, engaged in a constant game of one-upsmanship. “There’s no need to sound so skeptical. They’re a sports team,” said Clemmie briskly. “Duh.”

A gleam lit in Jon’s eyes. “Which sport?”

Oh, crap. This was what she got for not going on any of the firm’s sports outings. Clemmie took a stab. “Basketball?”

The lines around Jon’s eyes crinkled. For the first time since she’d seen him, his shoulders relaxed. He braced a hand against the bar and looked down at her, which was pretty impressive, given that, thanks to her heels, they were roughly the same height. But, then, he must have had a lot of practice intimidating undergrads.

“They play football,” he said, enunciating the word very clearly. “Foot. Ball. Which, in case you didn’t know, is not actually played with much ball to the foot. It’s the sport where the men in the big shoulder pads hurl an oblong object at each other. Just in case that helps.”

“Oh, ha, ha. I knew it had to be something involving a projectile,” she said. “Cut me a little slack here.”

Jon raised an eyebrow. “A projectile?”

Clemmie lifted her nose in the air. “If I have to define the word for you, you shouldn’t be teaching at Columbia.”

“Thanks, Clem,” he said. “I mean, really. Thanks. You’ve just made my life suck a little bit less.”

High praise indeed. But she knew what he meant. “Hey, that’s what family’s for.” She could see her mother trying to catch her eye from across the room. “I should go say happy birthday to Granny Addie.”

Clemmie had thought he would say something snarky, but he didn’t. “Yeah,” Jon agreed. “She’s a pretty special lady.”

As accolades went, it might not have been the most poetic, but it was the more meaningful for clearly being meant.

Clemmie got a firm grip on the slippery sides of her glass. “See you around?”

Jon looked at her for a long, thoughtful moment before saying, “Take care of yourself, Clem.”

It felt like a dismissal.

It was stupid to feel rebuffed. But she did. Served her right for forgetting that Jon was still Jon. Served her right in general, for wandering around being all needy in public. Especially with Jon.

“You, too,” she said lightly, and plunged back into the throng, accidentally elbowing a third cousin.

She was just … off tonight. Off-balance, off-kilter, off. She felt strangely vulnerable, as though her protective coating had been peeled away, leaving only a mass of nerves and fears painfully visible to anyone who could see. Clemmie caught a glimpse of herself in the Venetian mirror over the mantelpiece and was surprised to see how normal she looked, how put together, her hair in a sleek, blond bob, the collar of her shirt folded neatly down over her suit collar, pearls at her throat and her ears. The pearls were real, as was the Cartier watch at her wrist. She looked like someone’s image of Lawyer Barbie: Professional. Expensive.

That was the good thing about dark suits; no one could see the coffee stain on the sleeve or the perspiration splotches beneath her arms. Like Mother’s English accent, suits conferred an automatic air of authority.

“There you are,” said her mother, and took her back under her wing, expertly muscling her way through the crowd to Granny Addie’s chair. Clemmie followed along behind like an unlikely duckling, taller than her mother in her heels, slender where her mother was solid. She had inherited Grandpa Frederick’s build, tall and slim.

In contrast, Granny Addie had always been diminutive, all of five foot two at best. But Clemmie had never thought of her as small. There was something about the way she held herself that had always belied her inches, an air of authority, of solid sense. Competence, that was it. Competence. Clemmie still remembered how Grandpa Frederick, taller and older, had deferred to Addie, taking her word as the final word.

It was, as always, a shock to see her as she was now. In Clemmie’s head, Granny Addie was frozen permanently at seventy-something, old, yes, but curiously ageless. Not like this, shrunken and frail. Her knit suit was too large for her wasted frame; Grandpa Frederick’s ring seemed to weigh down her hand.

There was a nurse standing behind Granny Addie’s chair. She did it very discreetly, managing to do a fairly good impression of a piece of furniture, but she was still there, watching. The chair itself was a hospital chair, on wheels, incongruous among chintz and rosewood that had been unchanged in Granny Addie’s living room for as long as Clemmie could imagine.

Clemmie felt a sudden surge of panic. It had always been Granny Addie to whom she had turned for security, Granny Addie who represented the constant and the permanent. The idea of a world without her … It wasn’t to be thought of.

But she was ninety-nine. Not many people made it as far as ninety-nine. Even fewer people made it past it.

“Is she okay?” Clemmie asked the nurse, trying not to sound as anxious as she felt.

The nurse nodded. “She’s just nodded off for a bit.” Her voice was the soothing singsong of nurses and nursery-school teachers. “It’s nothing to be alarmed about.”

If anyone could make it to a hundred and ten, it would be Granny Addie. She’d show death.

Clemmie knelt by her chair, feeling the close-woven wool of the carpet driving her stockings against her knees. “Granny?” she said softly, resting a hand on the arm of her grandmother’s chair. “Happy birthday, Granny.”

Granny Addie stirred, blinking. She wore spectacles, thick, unlovely things that seemed too big for her shrunken face. It took a moment for her eyes to focus on Clemmie’s face. Her eyes were filmed, vague, and distant.

A lump rose in Clemmie’s throat. She forced it down. “I’m sorry I’m late,” she said. “I would have been here sooner, but I stupidly wound up walking.”

Her grandmother frowned down at her, confusion and alarm chasing across her face. She looked, thought Clemmie, so lost. Lost and confused. So utterly unlike herself.

“I’m so sorry, Granny.” Clemmie took her grandmother’s veined hand in hers. “I’m sorry I haven’t been back sooner. Work has been nuts.”

As soon as she said it, she wished she hadn’t. It sounded so inadequate. Work. So petty and selfish. It didn’t matter about work. She ought to have made the time for Granny Addie. She just hadn’t realized how frail she had become, how much she had deteriorated in the past months.

Granny Addie’s throat worked. Her lips moved, producing the barest breath of sound.

Clemmie leaned forward. “Granny?”

She could feel her grandmother’s fingers flex, gripping hard at hers. “Bea,” she said.

The Ashford Affair
by by Lauren Willig