The sounds of the organ music drifted up to the Wedgwood blue sky. Birds sang in the trees, and in the distance, a child called out to a friend on a lazy summer morning. The voices inside the church rose in powerful unison, as they sang the familiar hymns that Grace had sung with her family since childhood. But this morning, she couldn’t sing anything. She could barely move, as she stood, staring straight ahead at her mother’s casket.
Everyone knew Ellen Adams had been a good mother, a good wife, a respected citizen until she died. She had taught school before Grace was born, and she would have liked to have had more children, but it just hadn’t happened. Her health had always been frail, and at thirty-eight she had gotten cancer. The cancer started in her uterus, and after a hysterectomy, she’d had both chemotherapy and radiation. But the cancer spread to her lungs anyway, and her lymph nodes, and eventually her bones. It had been a four-and-a-half-year battle. And now, at forty-two, she was gone.
She had died at home, and Grace had taken care of her single-handedly until the last two months when her father had finally had to hire two nurses to help her. But Grace still sat next to her bedside for hours when she came home from school.
And at night, it was Grace who went to her when she called out in pain, helped her turn, carried her to the bathroom, or gave her medication. The nurses only worked in the daytime. Her father didn’t want them there at night, and everyone realized he had a hard time accepting just how sick his wife was. And now he stood in the pew next to Grace and cried like a baby.
John Adams was a handsome man. He was forty-six, and one of the best attorneys in Watseka, and surely the most loved. He had studied at the University of Illinois after serving in the Second World War, and then came home to Watseka, a hundred miles south of Chicago. It was a small, immaculately kept town, filled with profoundly decent people. And he handled all their legal needs, and listened to all their problems. He went through their divorces with them, or battles over property, bringing peace to warring members of families. He was always fair, and everyone liked him for it. He handled personal injury, and claims against the State, he wrote wills, and helped with adoptions. Other than the town’s most popular medical practitioner, who was a friend of his too, John Adams was one of the most loved and respected men in Watseka.
John Adams had been the town’s football star as a young man, and he had gone on to play in college. Even as a boy, people had been crazy about him. His parents had died in a car accident when he was sixteen, and his grandparents had all died years before that, and families literally argued over who was going to invite him to live with them until he finished high school. He was always such a nice guy and so helpful. In the end, he had stayed with two different families, and both of them loved him dearly.
He knew practically everyone in town by name, and there were more than a few divorcees and young widows who had had an eye on him ever since Ellen had been so sick in the last few years. But he never gave them the time of day, except to be friendly, or ask about their kids. He had never had a roving eye, which was another nice thing people always said about him.
“And Lord knows he has a right to,” one of the older men who knew him well always said, “with Ellen so sick and all, you’d think he would start to look around…but not John…he’s a right decent husband.” He was decent and kind, and fair, and successful. The cases he handled were small, but he had an amazing number of clients. And even his law partner, Frank Wills, teased him occasionally, wanting to know why everyone asked for John, before they’d ask for Frank. He was everyone’s favorite.
“What do you do, offer them free groceries for a year behind my back?” Frank always teased. He wasn’t the lawyer John was, but he was a good researcher, and good with contracts, with minute attention to detail. It was Frank who went over all the contracts with a fine-tooth comb. But it was always John who got all the glory, whom they asked for when they called, whom clients had heard about from miles away in other towns. Frank was an unimpressive little man, without John’s charm or good looks, but they worked well together and had known each other since college. Frank stood several rows back in the church now, feeling sorry for John, and his daughter.
John would be all right, Frank knew, he’d land on his feet, just like he always did, and although he insisted now that he wasn’t interested, Frank was betting that his partner would be remarried in a year. But it was Grace who looked absolutely distraught, and shattered, as she stared straight ahead at the banks of flowers at the altar. She was a pretty girl, or she would have been, if she’d allowed herself to be. At seventeen, she was lean and tall, with graceful shoulders and long thin arms, beautiful long legs, and a tiny waist and full bust. But she always hid her figure in baggy clothes, and long loose sweaters she bought at the Salvation Army. John Adams was by no means a rich man, but he could have bought her better than that, if she’d wanted. But unlike other girls her age, Grace had no interest in clothes, or boys, and if anything, she seemed to diminish her looks, rather than enhance them. She wore no makeup at all, and she wore her long coppery auburn hair straight down her back, with long bangs that hid her big cornflower-blue eyes. She never seemed to look straight at anyone, or be inclined to engage them in conversation. Most people were surprised by how pretty she was, if they really looked at her, but if you didn’t look twice, you never noticed her at all. Even today, she was wearing an old dreary black dress of her mother’s. It hung like a sack on her, and she looked thirty years old, with her hair tied back in a tight bun, and her face deathly pale as she stood beside her father.
“Poor kid,” Frank’s secretary whispered, as Grace walked slowly back down the aisle, next to her father, behind her mother’s casket. Poor John…poor Ellen…poor people. They’d been through so much.
People commented from time to time on how shy Grace was, and how uncommunicative. There had been a rumor a few years back that she might even be retarded, but anyone who had ever gone to school with her knew that that was a lie. She was brighter than most of them, she just didn’t say much. She was a solitary soul, and it was only once in a while that someone in school would see her talking to someone, or laughing in a corridor, but then she would hurry away again, as though she was frightened to come out and be among them. She wasn’t crazy, her classmates knew, but she wasn’t friendly either. It was odd too, considering how sociable her parents were. But Grace never had been. Even as a small child, she had always been solitary, and somewhat lonely. And more than once as a child, she had had to go home from school with a bad attack of asthma.
John and Grace stood out in the noon sun for a little while, shaking hands with friends, thanking them for being there, embracing them, and more than ever, Grace looked wooden and removed as she greeted them. It was as though her body was there, but her mind and soul were elsewhere. And in her dreary too-big dress, she looked more pathetic than ever.
Her father commented on the way she looked on the way to the cemetery. Even her shoes looked worn. She had taken a pair of her mother’s black high heels, but they were out of style, and they looked as though her mother had gotten plenty of use from them before she got sick. It was almost as though Grace wanted to be closer to her now, by wearing her mother’s clothes, it was like camouflage, or protective coloring, but it wasn’t flattering on a girl her age, and her father said so. She looked a lot like her mother, actually, people always commented on it, except that her mother had been more robust before she’d been taken ill, and her dress was at least three sizes too big for Grace’s lithe figure.
“Couldn’t you have worn something decent for a change?” her father asked with a look of irritation as they drove to St. Mary’s Cemetery on the outskirts of town, with three-dozen cars behind them. He was a respected man, and he had a reputation to uphold. It looked strange for a man like him to have an only child who dressed like an orphan.
“Mama never let me wear black. And I thought…I thought I should…” She looked at him defenselessly, sitting miserably in the corner of the old limousine the funeral home had provided for the occasion. It was a Cedilla, and some of the kids had rented it for the senior prom two months before, but Grace hadn’t wanted to go, and no one had asked her. With her mother so sick, she had barely even wanted to go to graduation. But she had, of course, and she had shown her mother the diploma as soon as she got home. She had been accepted at the University of Illinois, but had deferred it for a year, so she could continue taking care of her mother. Her father wanted it that way too, he felt that Ellen preferred Grace’s loving touch to that of her nurses, and he had pretty much told Grace that he expected her to stay, and not leave for school in September. She hadn’t argued with him. She knew there was no point. There was never any point arguing with him. He always got what he wanted. He was used to it. He had been too good-looking and too successful for too long, it had always worked for him, and he expected things to stay that way. Always. Particularly with his own family. Grace understood that. And so had Ellen.
“Is everything ready at the house?” he asked, glancing at her, and she nodded. For all her shyness and reticence, she ran a home beautifully, and had since she was thirteen. In the past four years, she had done everything for her mother.
“It’s fine,” she said quietly. She had set everything out on the buffet before they left for church. And the rest was covered, on big platters in the refrigerator. People had been bringing them food for days. And Grace had cooked a turkey and a roast the night before. Mrs. Johnson had brought them a ham, and there were salads, and casseroles, some sausages, two plates of hors d’oeuvres, and lots of fresh vegetables, and every imaginable kind of cake and pastry. Their kitchen looked like a bake sale at the state fair, there was plenty for everyone. She was sure that they were going to be seeing well over a hundred people, maybe even twice that many, out of respect for John and what he meant to the people of Watseka.
People’s kindness had been staggering. The sheer number of floral arrangements alone had surpassed anything they’d ever seen at the funeral home. “It’s like royalty,” old Mr. Peabody had said when he handed the guest book full of signatures to her father.
“She was a rare woman,” John said quietly, and now, thinking of her, he glanced over at his daughter. She was such a beautiful girl, and so determined not to show it. That was just the way she was, he accepted it, and it was easier not to argue about it. She was good about other things, and she had been a godsend for him during all the years of her mother’s illness. It was going to be strange for both of them now, but in a way, he had to admit, it was going to be easier now too. Ellen had been so sick for so long, and in so much pain, it was inhuman.
He looked out the window as they drove along, and then back at his only daughter. “I was just thinking about how odd it’s going to be now without your mama…but maybe…” He wasn’t sure how to say it without upsetting her more than he meant to, “…maybe easier for both of us. She suffered so much, poor thing,” he sighed, and Grace said nothing. She knew her mother’s suffering better than anyone, better even than he did.
The ceremony at the cemetery was brief, their minister said a few words about Ellen and her family, and read from Proverbs and Psalms at the graveside, and then they all drove back to the Adamses’ home. A crowd of a hundred and fifty friends squeezed into the small neat house. It was painted white, with dark green shutters and a picket fence. There were daisy bushes in the front yard, and a small rose garden her mother had loved just outside her kitchen windows.
The babble of their friends sounded almost like a cocktail party, and Frank Wills held court in the living room, while John stood outside with friends in the hot July sunshine. Grace served lemonade and iced tea, and her father had brought out some wine, and even the huge crowd scarcely made a dent in all the food she served. It was four o’clock when the last guests finally left, and Grace walked around the house with a tray, picking up all their dishes.
“We’ve got good friends,” her father said with a warm smile. He was proud of the people who cared about them. He had done a lot for many of them over the years, and now they were there, in their hour of need, for him, and his daughter. He watched Grace moving quietly around the living room, and he realized how alone they were now. Ellen was gone, the nurses were gone, there was no one left except just the two of them. Yet he was not a man to dwell on his misfortunes.
“I’ll go outside and see if there are any glasses out there,” he said helpfully, and he came back half an hour later with a trefoil of plates and glasses, his jacket over his arm, and his tie loosened. If she’d been aware of such things, she would have seen that her father looked more handsome than ever. Others had noticed it. He had lost some weight in the last few weeks, understandably, and he looked as trim as a young man, and in the sunlight it was difficult to see if his hair was gray or sandy. In fact, it was both, and his eyes were the same bright blue as his daughter’s.
“You must be tired,” he said to her, and she shrugged as she loaded glasses and plates into the dishwasher. There was a lump in her throat and she was trying not to cry. It had been an awful day for her…an awful year…an awful four years…. Sometimes she wished she could disappear into a little puddle of water. But she knew she couldn’t. There was always another day, another year, another duty to perform. She wished that they had buried her that day, instead of her mother. And as she stared unhappily at the dirty plates she was loading mechanically into the racks, she felt her father standing beside her. “Want some help?”
“I’m okay,” she said softly. “Do you want dinner, Dad?”
“I don’t think I could eat another thing. Why don’t you just forget it. You’ve had a long day. Why don’t you just relax for a while?” She nodded, and went back to loading the dishes. He disappeared into the back of the house, to his bedroom, and it was an hour later when she had finally finished. All the food was put away, and the kitchen looked impeccable. The dishes were in the machine, and the living room looked tidy and spotless. She was well organized and she bustled through the house straightening furniture and pictures.
Excerpted from Malice by Danielle Steel. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.