In the driving rain of a November day, the cab from London to Heathrow took forever. It was so dark it looked like late afternoon, and Charlie Waterston could barely see out the windows as familiar landmarks slid past him. It was only ten o’clock in the morning. And as he leaned his head back against the seat and closed his eyes, he felt as bleak as the weather all around him.
It was hard to believe it had all come to an end. Ten years in London gone, finished, closed, and suddenly behind him. Even now, it was difficult to believe any of it had happened. It had all been so perfect when it began. It had been the start of a life, a career, a decade of excitement and happiness for him in London. And now suddenly, at forty-two, he felt as though all the good times were over. He had begun the long, slow trip down the other side of the mountain. For the past year, he had felt as though his life was slowly and steadily unraveling. The reality of it still amazed him.
And as the cab stopped at the airport finally, the driver turned and looked at him with a raised eyebrow. “Goin’ back to the States, are you, sir?” Charlie hesitated for a fraction of a second and then nodded. Yes, he was. Going back to the States. After ten years in London. Nine of them with Carole. Gone now. All of it. In a matter of moments.
“Yes, I am,” he said, not sounding like himself, but the driver couldn’t know that. All he could see was a well-dressed man in a well-cut English suit and a Burberry raincoat. He had an expensive umbrella with him, a well-worn briefcase that he carried contracts and documents in. But even with all his well-chosen accessories, he didn’t look English. He looked like what he was, a handsome American who’d lived in Europe for years. He was completely at home here. And it terrified him more than a little that he was leaving. He couldn’t even imagine living in New York again. But he’d been forced into it, and the timing had been perfect. There was no point staying here now anyway, without Carole.
He felt a rock crush his heart, as he thought of her, as he stepped out of the cab and tipped the porter to take his luggage. He was only carrying two small bags. The rest was being held for him in storage.
He checked in at the desk, and then went to sit in the first-class lounge, but he was relieved to see that there was no one he knew there. It was a long wait to board the plane, but he had brought plenty of work with him, and he kept busy until they called the flight. He waited as he always did, and he was the last passenger to board the aircraft. And as the flight attendants showed him to his seat and took his coat for him, his dark brown hair and warm brown eyes did not go unnoticed. He was tall, had long, athletic limbs, and he was undeniably attractive. Besides which, he wore no wedding band, and the woman across the aisle and the flight attendant taking his coat couldn’t help but notice. But he was oblivious to all of them, as he slipped into the seat next to the window, and sat staring out at the rain on the runway. It was impossible not to think of what had happened, impossible not to run his mind over it again and again, as though looking for the seam from where the leak began, the place where the lifeblood of their relationship had begun to seep away without their even knowing. It still seemed incredible to him. How could he have been so blind? How could he have not known? How could he have believed they were so perfectly happy, while she was slipping away from him? Had it changed suddenly, or had it never been the very thing he’d been so sure of? He had been absolutely convinced that they were completely happy, and he still thought they had been . . . until the end . . . until the last year . . . until she told him . . . until Simon. It made Charlie feel so stupid. He’d been such a fool, flying from Tokyo to Milan, designing office buildings, while Carole represented clients for her law firm all over Europe. They were busy, that was all. They had lives of their own. They were planets in separate orbits. But there had been no doubt in anyone’s mind how perfect it all was, how it was exactly what they wanted, whenever they were together. Even Carole seemed surprised by what she’d done, but the worst thing about it was that she wasn’t willing to undo it. She had tried, but in the end she knew she couldn’t.
One of the flight attendants offered him a drink before they took off, and he declined. She handed him the menu then, a set of headphones, and the list of movies. None of it appealed to him. All he wanted to do was think, to try and sort it all out again, as though it would come out differently if he thought about it long enough, and this time, came up with the right answers. It made him want to shout sometimes, to pound his fist into a wall, to shake someone. Why was she doing this to him? Why had that asshole come along and destroyed everything he and Carole had wanted? And yet, even Charlie knew that it wasn’t Simon’s fault, which left no one to blame except himself and Carole. It made him wonder at times why it was so important to assign the blame. It had to be someone’s fault, and lately he had taken to blaming himself. He must have done something to make her turn to someone else. She said that it had happened more than a year before, while they were working on a case together in Paris.
Simon St. James was the senior partner of her law firm. She liked working with him, she laughed about him sometimes, talked about how smart he was, and how outrageous he was with women. He had already had three wives, and he had several children. He was debonair, dashing, good-looking, and extremely charming. He was also sixty-one, and Carole was thirty-nine. She was only three years younger than Charlie, twenty-two years younger than Simon. There was no point reminding her that he was old enough to be her father. She knew all that, she was a smart girl, she knew what a crazy thing it was, and what it had done to Charlie. That was the worst part. She hadn’t wanted to hurt anyone. It had just happened.
Carole had been twenty-nine, beautiful, extremely bright, and had a great job with a law firm on Wall Street. They’d been dating for a year before Charlie got transferred, to run the London office of his architectural firm, Whittaker and Jones, but it was never serious between them. He was transferred from New York, where he’d worked for them for two years, and he was delighted.
She came to London on a lark, to see him, and she had no intention of staying. But she fell in love with London, and then with him. It was different here, everything was more romantic. She started flying over whenever she could, to see him on weekends. It was the perfect life for them. They skied in Davos and Gstaad and St. Moritz. She had gone to school in Switzerland when her father worked in France, and she had friends all over Europe. She was completely at home here. She spoke German and French with ease, she fit right into the London social scene, and Charlie adored her. After six months of commuting, she found a job in the London office of an American law firm. They bought an old carriage house in Chelsea and she moved in with him, and they were like two crazy, wild, happy people. They spent almost every night dancing at Annabel’s at first, and discovering all the wonderful little out-of-the-way places, restaurants and antiques shops and nightclubs in London. It was heaven.
The carriage house they had bought was in total disrepair when they acquired it, and it took them nearly a year to restore it. And when it was finished, it was spectacular, it was a labor of love for both of them, and they filled it with beautiful things, and all the treasures they collected. They drove through the countryside finding old doors, and remarkable antiques, and when they got tired of traveling around England, they began spending weekends in Paris. They led a charmed life, and between their various business trips they managed to get married, and spend a honeymoon in Morocco, in a palace Charlie had rented for them. Everything they had done had been stylish and fun and exciting. They were the kind of people everyone wanted to know, or be with. They gave great parties, did fun things, and knew all the most interesting people. Everywhere they went, people loved being around them. And Charlie loved being with her more than anything. He was crazy about her. She was long, and lean, and blond, with perfect limbs and a body that looked as though it had been sculpted from white marble. She had a laugh that sounded like bells, a voice that still made him tingle whenever he heard it. She had a deep, sexy voice, and just hearing her say his name made his insides shiver ten years later.
It was the golden life of two careers, two powerful, intelligent, interesting, successful people. The only thing they didn’t have, or want, or need, were children. They’d talked about it repeatedly, but it never seemed the right time to them. Carole had too many important, and extremely demanding, clients. To Carole, they were her children. And Charlie didn’t really mind. He loved the idea of having a little girl who looked like her, but in truth, he was too crazy about her to want to share her. They had never actually decided not to have kids, they just hadn’t done it. And in the last five years, they had talked about it less and less often. The only thing that did bother him was now that his parents were gone, other than Carole, Charlie had no other family. No cousins, no grandparents, no aunts and uncles, no siblings. All he had was Carole, and the life they shared. She was everything to him, and now he realized, too much so. There was nothing about his life with her that he would have changed during those years. As far as he was concerned, the life they’d built together was perfection. He was never bored with her, never tired of her, they rarely argued. Neither of them seemed to mind the fact that the other traveled extensively. If anything, it made it more exciting to come back to London. He loved coming back from a trip, and finding her, lying on the couch in their living room, reading a book, or better yet, lying in front of the fire, dozing. More often than not, she was still at work when he returned from Brussels or Milan or Tokyo, or wherever he’d been. But when she was home, she was entirely his. She was good at that. She never made him feel that he came after her work. If he did occasionally, when she had an important case or a difficult client, she was careful not to let him know it. She made him feel as though the world revolved around him . . . and it did . . . for nine exquisite years, and then suddenly . . . it didn’t, and he felt as though his life were over.
As Charlie flew inexorably toward New York, he couldn’t help counting backward again. The affair had begun exactly fifteen months before, in August. She had told him that, when she told him everything, finally. She had always been honest with him. Honest, truthful, loyal. Other than the fact that she seemed to have fallen out of love with him, he had had nothing to reproach her. She and Simon had been working in Paris together for six weeks. It was an important case, it had been fraught with tension, and Charlie had been at a delicate stage of a major negotiation with huge new clients in Hong Kong. He had been there almost weekly for nearly three months, and the aggravations associated with it had almost driven him insane. He had hardly had a minute to spend with her, which was rare for him, and certainly no excuse for what she’d done, she agreed. But it wasn’t his absence that had done them in, she explained . . . it was just time . . . and fate . . . and Simon. He was remarkable, and she was in love with him. He had swept her off her feet, and she knew it was wrong, but she insisted she couldn’t help it. She had tried to resist everything she felt for him at first, but eventually she found she just couldn’t. She had admired him for too long, liked him far too much, and somehow they found they just had too much in common. It was the way it had been with Charlie a long time since, when everything was still exciting and fun, way back in the beginning. But when did it change? Charlie had asked plaintively while they talked about it on a rainy afternoon as they walked through Soho. It was still fun, he insisted to her helplessly. It was still exactly the way it had once been. He tried to convince her, but Carole only looked at him and shook her head imperceptibly as she listened. It wasn’t fun anymore, she said through tears, it was different. They had separate lives, separate needs, they spent too much time with other people. And in some ways, she thought they had never grown up, but Charlie didn’t understand that. But unlike being away from Charlie constantly, as they had been for years, because of their travels, she loved being with Simon day after day, and she said he took care of her in ways that Charlie didn’t. How, he had begged her to explain, and she tried to, but she found she couldn’t. It was more than just what Simon did, it was the complicated world of dreams, and needs and feelings. It was all the small, inexplicable, tiny little subtleties that make you love someone, even when you wish you didn’t. She and Charlie had both cried when she said it.
She told herself that the affair with Simon was just a fling when she finally gave in to him. It would be nothing more than a temporary indiscretion, she promised herself, and she meant that. It was the first and only time she’d had an affair, and she didn’t want to do anything that would permanently disrupt their marriage. She tried to break it off with Simon when they went home, he said he understood perfectly. He had had affairs before, and he had admitted to her that during his own marriages he had frequently been unfaithful. He regretted it, he explained, but he knew well the landscape of betrayal and indiscretion. He was single at the time, but he was entirely sympathetic to Carole’s feelings of guilt and obligation to her husband. But what neither of them had counted on was how much they would miss each other once they were back home, living far from each other in London. Neither of them could bear being apart now. They began to leave the office together in the afternoons, to go to his flat, just to talk sometimes, so she could air her feelings, and she found that what she loved most about him was how well he understood everything, how solicitous he was of her, how much he loved her. He was willing to do anything just to be near her, even if it meant just being friends and no longer lovers. She tried to stay away from him, but she found she just couldn’t. Charlie was out of town most of the time, she was alone, and Simon was there, pining for her, as she was for him. She had never realized before how alone she felt, how much Charlie was gone, and how much it meant to her to be with Simon. The physical aspect of the affair with Simon began again two months after they’d tried to end it. And her life was one long deception after that, of meeting him after work almost every night, and pretending to work together on weekends. He actually stayed in town much of the time, to be with her, and when Charlie was gone, they went down to his place in Berkshire for the weekend. She knew what she was doing was wrong, but it was like being possessed. She found she couldn’t stop it.
By Christmas that year things were noticeably strained between Carole and Charlie. Charlie was having a crisis with a building site in Milan, at the same time that a deal in Tokyo had gone sour, and he was simply never there. And when he was, he was either jetlagged, exhausted, or in rotten spirits. And although he didn’t mean to, more often than not, he took it out on Carole when he saw her, which wasn’t often. He was constantly flying somewhere to solve a problem. They were the kind of months that always made them both glad they didn’t have children. And it made Carole realize yet again how separate their worlds were. They never had time to talk anymore, or be together, or share their feelings. He had his work, and she had hers, and all they had in between were a few nights a month together in the same bed, and a series of parties and dinners they went to. She suddenly wondered what they’d built, what they’d done, what if anything they really shared. Or was it all just an empty illusion? She could no longer easily answer the question as to whether or not she loved him. And through it all, Charlie was so involved in his own work and woes that he had not the least inkling that anything unusual had happened. He had no idea Carole had been slipping steadily away from him since the previous summer. He spent New Year’s Eve alone in Hong Kong, and Carole spent it at Annabel’s with Simon. And Charlie was so involved in his business deals, he forgot to call her.
It all came to a head in February, when Charlie came home from Rome unexpectedly, and found her away for the weekend. She hadn’t said anything to him this time, hadn’t even claimed to be with friends, and something about the way she looked when she got home on Sunday night gave him a shiver of discomfort. She looked radiant and beautiful and relaxed, and the way she used to look when they stayed in bed and made love all weekend. But who had time for that anymore? They were both busy people. In fact, he said something casual about it to her that night, but he wasn’t actually worried. Something deep within him had come alert, but the rest of his mind was still sleeping.
It was Carole who made a clean breast of it, and told him everything eventually. She knew that, at a subconscious level, something had struck a nerve with him and she didn’t want to wait for something awful to happen, so she came home from work late one night and told him. He just sat and stared at her, with tears in his eyes, as he listened. She told him all of it, when it began, how long it had gone on, it had been five months by then, with a brief interruption after they got home from Paris, when she had tried to stop seeing Simon, and found she couldn’t.
“I don’t know what else to say, Charlie, except that I think you should know. We can’t go on like this forever,” she said softly, the huskiness of her voice making her sound sexier than ever.
“What are you planning to do about it?” he asked, trying to remind himself to be civilized, that things like this happened sometimes, but all he knew at that point in time was how hurt he was and how much he still loved her. He couldn’t believe how acute the pain of having just been told she was sleeping with another man was. The real question was, did she love Simon or was she just having fun? Charlie knew he had to ask her. “Are you in love with him?” he asked, feeling worlds collide in his head and heart and stomach. What in God’s name would he ever do, he asked himself, if she left him? He couldn’t even imagine it, and knowing that, he could forgive her anything, and planned to. The one thing he knew was that he didn’t want to lose her. But she hesitated for a long, long time before she answered. “I think so,” she said. She was always so goddam honest with him. She always had been. That was why she had told him. Even now, she didn’t want to lose that. “I don’t know. When I’m with him, I’m sure of it . . . but I love you too . . . I always will.” There had never been anyone else in her life like Charlie . . . nor like Simon. She loved them both in her own way. But she knew she’d have to choose now. They could have gone on like this for a long time, people did, she knew, but she was also well aware that she couldn’t. It had happened, now she had to deal with it. And so did Charlie. Simon had already said he wanted to marry her, but she knew she couldn’t even think about that until she resolved things with her husband. And Simon said he understood that too, and claimed he was willing to wait forever.
“You make it sound like you’re leaving me.” Charlie had cried just looking at her, and then he’d put his arms around her and they both cried. “How could this happen to us?” he asked her again and again. It seemed impossible, unthinkable, how could she do that? And yet she had, and something about the way she looked at him told him that she was not ready to let go of Simon. He tried to be reasonable about it, but he had to ask her to stop seeing him. He wanted to go to a marriage counselor with her. He wanted to do anything they had to do to fix it.
Carole tried everything she could to make it work with him. She agreed to go to counseling and even stopped seeing Simon. For all of two weeks. But at the end of it, she was crazed, and she knew she couldn’t give him up completely. Whatever had been wrong between Charlie and Carole seemed much worse suddenly, and they were both constantly angry at each other. The fights they’d never had before blossomed like trees in spring, and they fought every time they were together. Charlie was furious at what she’d done, he wanted to kill someone, preferably Simon. And she admitted to how unhappy she was to have been left alone so much, she felt as though they were nothing more than good friends and compatible roommates. Charlie didn’t take care of her the way Simon did. She said he was immature, and accused him of being selfish. She complained that when he came home from a trip, he was too tired to even think about her, or talk sometimes, until they went to bed and he wanted to make love to her. But that was his way of establishing contact, he explained, it said more about his feelings than words ever could. But it actually said more about the difference between men and women. Their complaints were suddenly deep and ingrained, and Carole stunned him by telling their marriage counselor that she thought their whole marriage was centered on Charlie, and Simon was the first man she’d ever known who cared about her feelings. Charlie couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
She was sleeping with Simon again by then, but she was lying to Charlie about it, and within weeks it all became an impossible tangle of deceit and fights and recriminations. In March, when Charlie flew to Berlin for three days, she packed her things and moved in with Simon. She told Charlie on the phone, and he sat in his hotel room and cried. But she told him she wasn’t willing to go on living this way. It was agony for all of them, and just too stressful.
“I don’t want us to turn into this,” she said when she called, crying at her end. “I hate what I’ve become with you. I hate everything I am and do and say. And I’m starting to hate you . . . Charlie . . . we have to give it up. I just can’t do it.” Not to mention the fact that she couldn’t practice law coherently while trying to juggle this insane situation.
“Why not?” he had blazed back at her. Honest rage was beginning to take hold of him, and even she knew he had a right to be as angry as he was now. “Other marriages survive when one partner has an affair, why can’t we?” It was a plea for mercy.
There was a long, long silence at her end. “Charlie, I don’t want to do this anymore,” she said finally, and he could hear that she meant it. And that was the end of them. For whatever reason, it was over for her. She had fallen in love with another man, and out of love with him. Maybe there was no reason after all, maybe there was no blame. They were only human after all, with unpredictable, erratic emotions. There was no saying why it had happened. It just had, and whether Charlie liked it or not, Carole had left him for Simon.
In the ensuing months, he ricocheted between despair and rage. He could hardly keep his mind on his work. He stopped seeing his friends. He sat alone in his house sometimes, just thinking of her. He sat in the dark, hungry, tired, still unable to believe what had happened. He kept hoping that the affair with Simon would end, that she would tire of him, that she would decide he was too old for her, too smooth, or maybe even that he was a pompous windbag. He prayed for all of it, but none of it ever happened. She and Simon seemed very happy. He saw photographs of them in newspapers and magazines from time to time, and he hated seeing them. At times he thought the agony of missing her would crush him. The loneliness he felt now was overwhelming. And when he couldn’t stand it anymore, he called her. The worst of it was that she always sounded the same. She always sounded so warm and so sensual and so sexy. Sometimes he pretended to himself that she was coming home to him, that she was on a trip, or away for a weekend. But she wasn’t. She was gone. Possibly forever.
The house looked uncared for now, and unloved. She had taken all her things. And nothing looked quite the same. Nothing was the same. He felt as though everything he’d ever wanted or been or dreamed had been broken. There was nothing left but shards at his feet, and he had nothing left to care about or believe in.
People in his office noticed it, he looked gray and tired and thin. He was irritable, and argued about everything. He no longer even called their friends, and he declined every invitation they sent him. He was sure that by now everyone was completely swept off their feet by Simon. And besides, he didn’t want to hear about them, didn’t want to know every little detail about what they did, or have to answer well-meaning questions. And yet, he could never stop himself from reading about them in the papers. The parties they attended and the weekends they spent in the country. Simon St. James was extremely social. Carole had always liked going to parties, but never as much as they did now. It was an important part of her life with Simon. Charlie tried not to think about it all the time, but it seemed impossible to think about much else.
The summer was torture for him. He knew Simon had a villa in the south of France, because they’d visited him there, between Beaulieu and St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. He kept a good-size yacht in the harbor, and Charlie kept thinking of her on it. He had nightmares about it sometimes, terrified that she would drown, and then feeling guilty because he wondered if the nightmares meant that he wished she would drown. He went back to the marriage counselor to talk about it. But there was nothing left to say. By September, Charlie Waterston looked sadly battered, and felt even worse.
Carole had called to say she was filing for divorce by then, and Charlie hated himself when he asked if she was still living with Simon. Before he even asked the question, he knew the answer, and could too easily envision her face and the tilt of her head as she answered. “You know I am, Charlie,” she said sadly. She hated hurting him. She had never wanted to do this to him. It had just happened. That was all. She couldn’t help it. But she was happier with Simon than she had ever been. It was a life she had never aspired to, but that she found she loved. They had spent the month of August at his villa in France, and she was surprised to find that she liked all his friends. And Simon himself was doing absolutely everything he could to please her. He called her the love of his life, and the woman of his dreams, and there was suddenly a vulnerable quality about him, and a gentleness she had never seen. She was deeply in love with him, but she didn’t say any of that to Charlie. It only made her realize again how empty their relationship had been. They had been two self-centered people moving along side by side, barely touching, and never meeting. And neither of them had ever realized it. She did now, but she knew that Charlie still didn’t see it. All she wanted for him was a happy life, she hoped he would find someone, but it didn’t sound as though he was even trying.
“Are you going to marry him?” He always felt as though all the air had been squeezed out of him when he asked her these kinds of questions, and yet, much as he hated himself for doing it, he found he had to. “I don’t know, Charlie. We don’t talk about it.” It was a lie, Simon was desperate to marry her, but that was none of Charlie’s business for the moment. “It’s not important now. We need to sort things out between us first.” She had finally forced him to hire a lawyer, but he almost never called him. “We need to divide up our things, when you have time.” He actually felt nauseous when she said it.
“Why don’t you just give it another try?” he asked, hating himself for the weakness he heard in his own voice, but he loved her so much, the thought of losing her forever nearly killed him. And why did they have to “divide up their things”? What did he care about the china and the couch and the linens? He wanted her. He wanted everything they’d shared. He wanted their life back, just as it had been. He still hadn’t understood any of the things she was saying. “What if we had a baby?” Somehow he assumed that Simon was too old to even think of it. At sixty-one, having had three wives, and a number of children, he couldn’t possibly want to have a baby with her. It was the one thing Charlie could offer her that Simon couldn’t.
There was a long silence from her end again, and she closed her eyes as she tried to get up the courage to answer. She didn’t want a baby with him. She didn’t want a baby with anyone. She never really had. She had her career. And now she had Simon. A baby was the last thing on her mind. She just wanted a divorce so they could get on with their respective lives, and stop hurting each other. It didn’t seem like too much to ask of him.
“Charlie, it’s too late. Don’t talk about that now. Neither of us ever wanted a baby.”
“Maybe we were wrong. Maybe things would have been different now if we had. Maybe that was the cement between us we were lacking.”
“It would only complicate things. Kids don’t keep people together, they just make it harder.”
“Are you going to have a baby with him?” He sounded desperate again. Even he hated the way he sounded when he talked to her. He always wound up as the supplicant, the poor slob begging the beautiful princess to come back to him, and he loathed himself for it. But he didn’t know what else to say to her, and he would have done anything if she would just agree to give up Simon and come back.
But she sounded exasperated when she answered. “No, I am not having a baby with him. I’m trying to have a life, of my own, and with him. And I don’t want to screw up your life any more than I have to. Charlie, why don’t you just let go of it? Something happened to us. I’m not even sure I understand what. Things just work out that way sometimes. It’s like if someone dies. You can’t argue with it. You can’t change it. You can’t turn the clock back or bring them back to life. We died. Or at least I did. Now you have to go on living without me.”
“I can’t.” He nearly choked on the words and she knew just how much he meant it. She had run into him the week before, and he looked terrible. He looked tired and pale and exhausted, but oddly enough, she realized that she still thought he was incredibly attractive. He was a very handsome man, and even in misery, he was very appealing. “I can’t live without you, Carole.” The worst thing was that she knew he believed that.
“Yes, you can, Charlie, you have to.”
“Why?” He couldn’t think of a single reason these days to go on living. The woman he loved was gone. He was bored with his job. He wanted to be alone all the time. Even the house he had once loved seemed to have lost its spirit. But in spite of that, he didn’t want to sell it. He had too many memories with her there. There was too much Carole woven into every fiber of his life. He couldn’t imagine ever being free of her, or wanting to be. All he wanted was what he couldn’t have, what he had once had with her, all of which now belonged to Simon. The bastard.
“Charlie, you’re too young to act like this. You’re forty-two years old. You have a whole life ahead of you. You have a great career, an enormous talent. You’ll meet someone else, maybe you’ll have kids.” It was a strange conversation and she knew it, but she didn’t know how to let go of him, although she knew that her talking to Charlie like this seriously annoyed Simon. He thought they ought to divide up the spoils, get divorced, and get on with it, as he put it. They were both young enough to have jolly good lives with other people. He thought Charlie was being an incredibly bad sport and putting a lot of unnecessary pressure on Carole, and he was very outspoken about the fact that he didn’t like it.
“These things happen to all of us at some point in time, or most of us anyway. My first two wives left me. I didn’t lie on the floor having tantrums for a year, I can tell you that. He’s quite spoilt, if you ask me,” he said irritably. She tried not to talk to Simon at all about Charlie. She had her own guilt and conflicts to contend with. She didn’t want to go back to him, but she didn’t want to leave him bleeding by the side of the road either. She knew she had run over him. But she had no idea how to fix it for him, how to make it better than it was, or release him gently. She had tried, and she wanted to make it easier for him, but Charlie absolutely refused to let go of her, and every time she talked to him, she had the feeling he was drowning, and if she let him, in his desperate thrashing he would drown her. She needed to get away from him somehow, just for the sake of her own survival.
At the end of September, they finally divided up their things. Simon had family business to attend to in the north of England, and Carole spent an agonizing weekend going through their old house with Charlie. He wanted to discuss each and every item, not because he was trying to keep anything from her, but because he used every moment with her as an opportunity to try and talk her into leaving Simon. It was a nightmare for both of them, and Carole hated hearing it as much as Charlie hated himself for what he was saying. He almost couldn’t believe it. But he just refused to let her slip away from him without making piteous screams and hideous noises in the hope that she would change her mind. But she was far from that. On Sunday night he apologized to her before she left. He smiled ruefully at her, as he stood in the doorway. He looked just awful. And Carole looked almost as bad as he did.
“I’m sorry I’ve been such a horse’s ass all weekend. I don’t know what happens to me. Every time I see you, or talk to you, I go crazy.” It was the most normal he’d seemed since they’d started inventorying everything on Saturday morning.
“It’s okay, Charlie. . . . I know this isn’t easy for you.” But it wasn’t easy for her either. She wasn’t sure if he understood that. And he didn’t. As far as he was concerned, she had left him. It had been her choice. And she had Simon. She had walked into another man’s arms, and she was never alone for a moment, never without company and comfort. Charlie had nothing. He had lost everything he had ever wanted.
“It’s a rotten deal,” he said, looking into her eyes again. “For everyone. I just hope you don’t regret what you’re doing.”
“So do I,” she said, and then she kissed him on the cheek and told him to take care, and a moment later she drove off in Simon’s Jaguar. Charlie stood staring after her, trying to make himself believe that it was all over, that she was never coming back again. And as he walked back into the house and saw the piles of her things everywhere, and their china stacked high on the dining room table, there was no escaping what had happened. He closed the door and just stood there and stared, and then he sat down in a chair and cried. He couldn’t believe how much he missed her. Even spending the weekend with her, dividing up their things, seemed better than nothing at all.
And when he stopped crying finally, it was dark outside, and in an odd way, he felt better. There was no denying it anymore. No running away from it. She was gone. And he was letting her take almost everything with her. It was all he had left to give her.
But by the first of October, for Charlie, everything was worse instead of better. The man in charge of the New York office of his architectural firm had a heart attack, the partner who could have taken his place announced that he was leaving to open a new firm of his own in Los Angeles, and the two senior partners of the firm, Bill Jones and Arthur Whittaker, flew to London to ask Charlie to come back to New York and take over. It was everything Charlie had never wanted. From the moment he had moved to London ten years before, he had known he never wanted to work in New York again, and he had spent a decade thrilled to be working in Europe. Charlie thought design was far more exciting abroad, particularly in Italy and France, he enjoyed his Asian forays as well, and he had every intention of remaining in Europe.
“I can’t,” he said with an intractable look when they proposed the idea to him. But both of his senior partners were prepared to be tenacious. They needed him in New York to run the office.
“Why not?” they asked with candor. He didn’t want to tell them he just didn’t want to, but he didn’t. “Even if you want to come back here eventually, there’s no reason why you can’t come to New York for a year or two. There are a lot of interesting developments in the States right now. You might find that you actually prefer it.” He didn’t want to explain to them that there was no chance of it, nor did they want to point out to him that, now that his wife had left, he had no reason not to take the job. Unlike the other men they’d thought of, he wasn’t tied to anyone, and was free to go anywhere. He had no wife and no children, no family ties anywhere. There was no reason whatsoever why he couldn’t rent his house for a year or two, and go to the New York office to keep it on an even keel, or at least until they could find someone else to run it for them. But Charlie was in no way intrigued by the idea, or inclined to do what they asked him.
“It’s very, very important to us. Charlie, there’s no one else to turn to.” He knew that that was true. They were in an awkward spot. The man in the Chicago office couldn’t move, his wife had been very sick for the past year. She had breast cancer and was undergoing chemo, and this was no time to ask them to relocate. And no one else in the hierarchy of the New York office was really capable of taking over. Charlie was the obvious choice, and he knew that it would probably alter his professional situation permanently if he categorically refused to go. “We’d really like you to think it over,” they insisted, and Charlie was appalled at the realities it entailed. He felt as though an express train were heading for him and were about to hit him. He couldn’t believe what was happening, and he just didn’t know what to say. He wished he could call Carole to discuss it with her, but he knew that was out of the question.
It was incredible to him that in a matter of months, he had lost his wife, and now he was being forced to give up the life he loved in Europe. Everything around him seemed to be changing, and it was an agonizing two weeks while he mulled over the decision. The senior partners went back to New York after two days, and he told them he’d give them an answer as soon as he’d thought it over. But no matter how much he thought, he couldn’t figure out a way to avoid giving them what they wanted.
He couldn’t even tell them his wife didn’t want him to go. As they knew very well, the decision was all on his own shoulders. And halfway through the month, he knew he had no choice. He had to go. They would never forgive him if he didn’t. He tried to negotiate for six months, and they told him they’d try to find someone else to run the New York office by then, but they pointed out that it could easily take them a year, or even more. Important architects following exactly the right path in their design careers were certainly not easy to come by. They were going to replace Charlie in London with his second in command. Dick Barnes was a good man, and Charlie was sure he would do the job. In fact, that was even a matter of concern to Charlie, because Dick Barnes had been lusting after his job for a long time, and this might well prove to be an unexpected opportunity for him to get it. He was equally talented and almost as experienced, and Charlie was afraid that after Barnes had run the London office successfull
y for a year they might not be willing to let Charlie come back and take over. And the one thing he didn’t want was to get stuck in New York. In the end, they signed a contract with him to go to New York for a year. And before he knew it, Charlie felt as though his life had come to an end and he was preparing to move to New York. They had insisted he be there well before Thanksgiving. Carole called him eventually when she heard the news from a mutual friend whose husband worked for Charlie. She congratulated him on the new appointment, although she was surprised to hear that he’d been willing to leave London.
“I don’t exactly consider it a step up in the world,” he said, still sounding gloomy, but glad that she had called him. It had been a bad year for him, and he could hardly remember the carefree days of happiness and good humor. Ever since she’d left, something terrible seemed to happen every day. “The last thing I wanted to do was go back to work in New York,” he said with a sigh. He really hated to leave London, and she knew it. She knew full well how much his life there meant to him, and how happy he had been in London, which was why she had called him. In spite of everything, she wanted to cheer him up, although she knew that Simon would have disapproved of her calling. He spoke to at least two of his ex-wives fairly regularly, but they had been married several times since leaving him, and they weren’t clinging to him as Charlie was to Carole.
“Maybe the change will do you good for a while,” she said gently. “A year isn’t forever, Charlie.”
“It sure feels like it,” he said, staring out his office window, seeing her far too clearly in his mind’s eye. She was so damn beautiful, and still so desirable to him, although he was beginning to wish she weren’t. It was going to be so odd being so far away from her. He wouldn’t be able to think about running into her anymore. Now there was always the chance he might run into her in a restaurant or a shop, or coming out of Harrods. But not when he left London. “I don’t know how I got myself into this mess,” he said, thinking about New York.
“It doesn’t sound like you had much choice,” she said practically.
“I didn’t.” He had no choice about anything anymore, not about her, or moving to New York. None of it was what he wanted.
And then she asked him what he was going to do about the house. Legally, she still owned half of it, but she didn’t mind his living there. She didn’t need the cash, and she certainly didn’t plan to live in it with Simon. There was no reason why they couldn’t just hold on to it for the moment.
“I thought I’d rent it,” he said, and she agreed with him. But then she called him back two days later. She had thought about it, and discussed it with Simon at some length, although she didn’t say that to Charlie. And it was one thing, as far as she was concerned, if Charlie was living in the house, but she didn’t want tenants destroying it, or devaluating the property by causing damage to it. Under the circumstances, she preferred to sell it, and she asked Charlie to put it on the market before he left London.
He felt as though he had lost yet another dear friend when she said that to him. He had loved their house, they both had. But he didn’t have the energy to argue with her this time, and he was beginning to understand that there was no point hanging on to any of it. The past was gone, and he might as well let their house go too. He thought about it for a few days, and then put it on the market. And much to their joint surprise, it sold within ten days for a good price, but that was small consolation to him.
By the time he got on the plane, the deal was closed, the house was gone, and everything he owned had been put in storage. Carole had come around the week before to see it for the last time, and to say good-bye to him, and, predictably, it was a painful reunion, filled with grief from his end, guilt from hers, and silent recriminations that seemed to fill the room like people.
It was hard to know what to say to him, as she walked from room to room, remembering little things and funny moments, and finally she just stood in their bedroom, with tears rolling down her cheeks, staring out the window. The garden was bare, the trees were bereft of leaves, and she didn’t even hear him walk into the room behind her. He just stood there, looking at her, lost in his own memories, and when she turned to leave, she was surprised to see him.
“I’m going to miss this place,” she said, wiping away tears, and he nodded. For once, he wasn’t crying. He had been through too much pain, he had lost too much now. He felt almost numb, as she walked slowly toward him.
“I’m going to miss you,” he whispered. It was the understatement of a lifetime.
“Me too,” she said softly, and then put her arms around him. For a long time, he just stood there and held her, wishing that none of it had happened. As far as Charlie was concerned, if it weren’t for Simon, they could still be living there, busy, and distracted, and going their own ways much of the time, but still happy to come home to each other. And if they’d still been together, he could have refused to go to New York for the firm. Her job in Europe was far too important to ask for a transfer. “I’m sorry, Charlie,” was all she said, as he stood there wondering how ten years of his life had vanished into thin air. He had lost it all, his wife, his house, and even his residency in Europe. It was as though the clock had been turned back, and he had to start over at the beginning. The real-life game of “Chutes and Ladders.” He had climbed the ladder nearly to the top, and with one false step he had slid all the way to the bottom. There was something agonizingly surrealistic about it.
They walked out of the house hand in hand, and a few minutes later, she drove off. It was Saturday, and she had promised Simon she’d drive to Berkshire to meet him. Charlie hadn’t even bothered to ask her this time if she was happy. It was obvious that her life was completely intertwined with Simon’s. It had only taken him nine months to understand that. And every moment of it had been torture for both of them.
The rest of Charlie’s things had gone into storage shortly after that, and he moved into Claridge’s for the last few days of his stay in London, at the expense of the firm. There was a very nice dinner for him at the Savoy to celebrate his departure. Everyone from the office came, and a number of important clients. Other friends tried to invite him for dinner before he left, but he said he was too busy tying up loose ends at the office. He had hardly seen any of them since Carole left him. The required explanations were far too painful. It was easier for him not to go out, and leave London in silence.
And when he left the office for the last time, Dick Barnes made a polite little speech about looking forward to seeing him again, but Charlie knew he wasn’t. It was obvious and natural that he was hoping Charlie would stay in New York, and leave Barnes running the London office. And Charlie didn’t blame him. He didn’t blame anyone, not even Carole. He called her to say good-bye the night before he left, but she was out, and he decided it was just as well. There was nothing left to say now except how sorry they both were, and all he ever wanted from her was an explanation of how it had happened. He still didn’t understand it. She was far more philosophical than he was. But then again, she had Simon. Charlie had no one in his life to console him. It was pouring rain when he woke up on the day he left, and he lay in bed at the hotel for a long time, thinking of what was happening, where he was going, and why he was leaving. He felt as though he had a boulder on his chest, and for a minute, he thought about cance
ling everything, quitting the firm, trying to buy his house back, and refusing to leave London. It was a crazy idea, even to him, and he knew he’d never do it. But for an instant the idea was very appealing, as he lay there, listening to the sound of the rain, trying to make himself get up and get into the shower. He had to be at the airport at eleven o’clock, for a one o’clock flight. The morning ahead of him seemed endless. And as he lay in bed, thinking about it, he had to force himself not to call Carole. He took a long, hot shower, put on a dark suit, a white shirt, and an Hermes tie, and promptly at ten o’clock Charlie was outside the hotel, waiting for a cab, sniffing the London air for the last time, listening to the sounds of traffic moving by, looking up at the familiar buildings. It almost felt like leaving home for the first time. He still couldn’t believe he was going, and he kept hoping that someone would stop him before it was too late. He kept wanting her to come running down the street and th
row her arms around him, and tell him it had all been a bad dream, and it was over.
But the cab came finally, and the doorman looked at him expectantly, waiting for Charlie to get in. There was nothing left to do but get in the cab and go to the airport. She wasn’t coming. She never would again. She wouldn’t be coming back to him, he knew that now. She was Simon’s.
He had a heavy heart as they drove through town, watching people come and go, to perform their daily tasks or do errands, and as they drove, it poured. It was a freezing November rain. It was typical English winter weather. And in less than an hour, they were at Heathrow. There was no turning back now. “Would you like something to drink now, Mr. Waterston? Some champagne? A glass of wine?” the flight attendant asked pleasantly as he turned from his reverie at the window. They had been in the air for an hour, and it had finally stopped raining.
“No, thanks, I’m fine,” he said, looking a little less grim than when he boarded. They had all noticed that he looked desperately unhappy. He declined cocktails, and left his headset unused on the seat beside him. He turned his face toward the window again, and when they came by with dinner, he was asleep.
“I wonder what happened to him,” one of the flight attendants whispered to a co-worker in the kitchen. “He looks beat.”
“Maybe he’s been out every night cheating on his wife,” one of the women offered with a grin.
“What makes you think he’s married?” The flight attendant who had offered him champagne looked disappointed.
“He’s got a mark on his third finger, left hand, and he’s not wearing a ring. It’s a sure sign he’s been cheating.”
“Maybe he’s a widower,” one of them said cheerfully, and her two cohorts groaned at the idea.
“Just another tired businessman fooling around on his wife. Trust me.” The oldest flight attendant grinned, and headed down the aisle into first class with fruit and cheese and ice cream sundaes. She stopped to look at Charlie again, he was sound asleep and never stirred, and she rolled slowly past him.
Her colleague wasn’t entirely wrong. Charlie had finally taken his wedding ring off the night before he left London. He had taken it off and held it in his hand for a long time, just staring at it, and remembering the day she’d put it on him. It had been a long time . . . ten years in London, nine of them with Carole. And now, as they flew toward New York, even Charlie knew it was over. But he still had his wedding ring in his pocket. And as he slept on the flight, he dreamed that he was with her. She was laughing and talking to him, but when he tried to kiss her, she turned away from him. He couldn’t understand it, but he kept reaching out to her. And in the distance he saw a man watching them . . . she was turning toward him . . . and when Charlie looked up, he saw the man beckoning to her, and she went to him. She slipped right through Charlie’s hands, as he watched her go to him . . . it was Simon, and he was laughing.
Excerpted from The Ghost by Danielle Steel Copyright © 1997 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.