Kassandra von Gotthard sat peacefully at the edge of the lake in the Charlottenburger park, watching the water ripple slowly away from the pebble she had just thrown. The long, graceful fingers held another small smooth stone, poised for a moment, and then threw it aimlessly into the water once again. It was a hot, sunny day at the end of the summer and her golden strawberry hair fell in one long, smooth wave to her shoulders, pushed away from her face on one side with a single ivory comb. The line of the comb in the smooth golden hair was as perfect and graceful as everything else about her face. Her eyes were enormous and almond shaped, of the same rich blue as the bank of flowers behind her in the park. They were eyes that promised laughter, and yet they whispered something tender at the same time; eyes that would caress and tease, and then grow pensive, as though lost in some distant dream as far removed from the present as the Charlottenburger Schloss just across the lake was distant from the bustling city. The old castle sat timelessly, watching her, as though she belonged to its era rather than her own.
Lying on the grass at the edge of the lake, Kassandra looked like a woman in a painting or a dream, her delicate hands sifting gently through the grass, looking for another small pebble to throw. Nearby, the ducks were waddling into the water as two small children clapped their hands with glee. Kassandra watched them, seeming to search their faces for a long moment, as they laughed and ran away.
“What were you thinking just then?” The voice at her side pulled her from her reverie, and she turned toward it with a slow smile.
“Nothing.” Her smile broadened and she held out a hand toward him, her intricate, diamond- encrusted signet ring gleaming in the sun. But he didn’t notice it. The jewels she wore mattered nothing to him. It was Kassandra who intrigued him, who seemed to hold the mystery of life and beauty for him. She was a question to which he would never know an answer, a gift he would never quite possess.
They had met the previous winter, at a party to celebrate his second book, Der Kuss. In his outspoken fashion, he had shocked all of Germany for a time, but the book had nonetheless won him still more acclaim than his first. The story had been deeply sensitive and erotic and his seat at the pinnacle of Germany’s contemporary literary movement seemed assured. He was controversial, he was modern, he was at times outrageous, and he was also very, very talented. At thirty-three, Dolff Sterne had made it to the top. And then he had met his dream.
Her beauty had left him breathless the night they met. He had heard of her; everyone in Berlin knew who she was. She seemed untouchable, unreachable, and she looked frighteningly fragile. Dolff had felt something akin to a shaft of pain when he first saw her, wearing a silky, clinging dress of woven gold, her shimmering hair barely covered by a tiny golden cap, a sable coat draped over one arm. But it wasn’t the gold or the sable that had stunned him, it was her presence, her separateness and silence in the clamor of the room, and finally her eyes. When she turned and smiled at him, for an instant he felt as though he might die.
“On what?” He had stared at her for an instant, struck almost dumb, feeling his thirty- three years shrink to ten, until he noticed she was nervous, too. She wasn’t at all what he had expected. She was elegant, but not aloof. He suspected that she was frightened of the staring eyes, the milling crowd. She had left early, disappearing like Cinderella as he greeted still more guests. He had wanted to run after her, to find her, to see her again, if only for an instant, to look again into the lavender eyes.
Two weeks later they had met again. In the park, here at Charlottenburg. He had watched her looking up at the castle, and then smiling at the ducks.
“Do you come here often?” They had stood side by side for a quiet moment, his tall, dark good looks in striking contrast to her delicate beauty. His hair was the color of her sable, his eyes brilliant onyx looking into hers. She nodded and then looked up at him with that mysteriously childlike smile.
“I used to come here when I was a little girl.”
“You’re from Berlin?” It had seemed a stupid question, but he hadn’t been sure what to say.
She laughed at him, but not unkindly. “Yes. And you?”
“Munchen.” She nodded again, and they stood in silence for a long time. He wondered how old she was. Twenty-two? Twenty-four? It was difficult to tell. And then suddenly he heard a peal of crystal laughter as she watched three children, cavorting with their dog, elude their nurse and wind up knee deep in the water, the recalcitrant bulldog refusing to join them on the shore again.
“I did that once. My nurse wouldn’t let me come back here for a month.” He smiled at her. He could have imagined the scene. She seemed young enough still to hike into the water, yet the sable and the diamonds she wore made it seem unlikely that she had ever been unfettered enough to chase into the water after a dog. He could almost see it though, with a governess in starched uniform and cap berating her from the shore. And when would that have been? 1920? 1915? It seemed light-years away from his own pursuits at that time. In those years he had been struggling to manage school and work at the same time, helping his parents at the bakery every morning before school and for long hours every afternoon. How far removed that had seemed from this golden woman.
He had haunted the park at Charlottenburg after that, telling himself that he needed air and exercise after he wrote all day, but secretly he knew better. He was looking for that face, those eyes, the golden hair…and at last he found her, again at the lake. She had seemed happy to see him when they met again. And then it became a kind of silent understanding. He would take walks when he finished writing, and if he timed it right, she would be there.
They became spiritual guardians of the castle, surrogate parents of the children playing near the lake. They took a kind of possessive joy in their surroundings, telling each other stories of their childhood, and each listening to the other tell about his dreams. She had wanted to be in the theater, much to her father’s horror, but it had always been her private dream. She understood perfectly that it would never happen, but now and then she dreamed that in her later years she would write a play. She was always fascinated when he spoke of his writing, how he had started, what it felt like when his first book became a success. The fame still didn’t seem quite real to him, and perhaps it never would. It had been five years since his first successful novel, seven years since he had left Munich and come to Berlin, three years since he’d bought the Bugatti, two since the beautiful old house in Charlottenburg had become his…and still none of it was quite real. Not quite believing it all kept him youthful, and kept the look of delight and astonishment in his eyes. Dolff Sterne was not blasÈ yet, not about life, or writing, and least of all about her.
She was enchanted as she listened. Listening to him talk about his books, she felt the stories come alive, the characters become real; and being with him, she felt herself come alive again, too. And week after week as they met, he saw the fear in her eyes grow dimmer. There was something different about her now when he met her at the lake. Something funny and young and delicious.
“Do you have any idea how much I like you, Kassandra?” He had said it to her playfully as they walked slowly around the lake one day, enjoying the balmy spring breeze.
“Are you going to write a book about me, then?”
But she lowered the lavender eyes for a moment and then, looking back up at him, shook her head. “Hardly. There wouldn’t be anything to say. No victories, no successes, no accomplishments. Nothing at all.”
His eyes held hers for a long moment, the lavender and the black saying words that could not yet be said. “Is that what you think?”
“It’s what is true. I was born into my life and I will die out of my life. And in between I will wear a great many lovely dresses, go to a thousand proper dinners, listen to countless well-sung operas…and that, my friend, is all.” At twenty-nine, she already sounded as though she had lost hope…hope of life ever being any different.
“And your play?”
She shrugged. They both knew the answer. She was a prisoner in a diamond cage. And then, smiling up at him, she laughed again. “So, my only hope for fame and glory is for you to make something up for me, put me in a novel, and turn me into some exotic character in your head.” That much he had already done, but he didn’t quite dare tell her. Not yet. Instead he played the game with her, tucking her hand into his arm.
“All right. In that case, let’s at least do it to your liking. What would you like to be? What seems to you suitably exotic? A spy? A woman surgeon? The mistress of a very famous man?”
She made a face and laughed at him. “How dreadful. Really, Dolff, how dull. No, let’s see…” They had stopped to sit on the grass as she flung off her wide- brimmed straw hat and shook loose the golden hair. “An actress, I think…. You could make me a star of the London stage…and then…” She tilted her head to one side, winding her hair around the long, graceful fingers as her rings shone in the sun. “Then…I could go to America and be a star there.”
“America, eh? Where?”
“Have you ever been?”
She nodded. “With my father when I turned eighteen. It was fabulous. We were–” And then she stopped. She had been about to tell him that they’d been the guests of the Astors in New York and then of the President in Washington, D.C., but somehow it didn’t seem quite right. She didn’t want to impress him. She wanted to be his friend. She liked him too much to play those games with him. And it didn’t matter how successful he had become, the truth was that he would never be part of that world. They both knew it. It was something they never discussed.
“You were what?” He had been watching her, his lean, handsome face close to hers.
“We were in love with New York. At least I was.” She sighed and looked wistfully at their lake.
“Is it anything like Berlin?”
She shook her head, squinting, as though to make the Charlottenburger Schloss disappear. “No, it’s wonderful. It’s new and modern, and busy and exciting.”
“And of course Berlin is so dull.” Sometimes he couldn’t help laughing at her. To him, Berlin was still all of those things she had said about New York.
“You’re teasing me.” There was reproach in her voice, but not in her eyes. She enjoyed being with him. She loved the ritual of their afternoon walks. More and more now, she escaped the fetters and restrictions of her daily obligations and came to meet him in the park.
His eyes were kind when he answered her. “I am teasing you, Kassandra. Do you mind very much?”
She shook her head slowly. “No, I don’t.” And then, after a pause, “I feel as though I’ve come to know you better than anyone else I know.” It was disturbing, but he felt the same way. Yet she was still his dream, his illusion, and she eluded him constantly, except here in the park. “Do you know what I mean?” He nodded, not sure what to say. He still didn’t want to frighten her. He didn’t want her to stop meeting him for their walks.
“Yes, I understand.” Far more than she knew. And then, seized by a moment of madness, he took her hand, long and frail, in his own, yet encumbered by the large rings she wore. “Would you like to come to my place for tea?”
“Now?” Her heart had fluttered strangely at the question. She wanted to, but she wasn’t sure…she didn’t think…
“Yes, now. Do you have something else you should do?”
She shook her head slowly. “No, I don’t.” She could have told him that she was busy, that she had an appointment, that she was expected somewhere for tea. But she didn’t. She looked up at him with those huge lavender eyes. “I’d like that.”
They walked side by side, laughing and talking, secretly nervous, leaving the protection of Eden for the first time. He told her funny stories, and she laughed as she hurried beside him, swinging her hat. There was a sudden urgency to their mission. As though this was what they had been building up to with their months of walks in the park.
The heavily carved door swung open slowly and they stepped into a large marble hall. There was a huge, handsome painting hanging over a Biedermeier desk. Their footsteps echoed emptily as she followed him inside.
“So this is where the famous author lives.”
He smiled at her nervously as he dropped his hat on the desk. “The house is a good deal more famous than I. It belonged to some seventeenth- century baron and has been in far more illustrious hands than mine ever since.” He looked around him proudly and then beamed at her as she stared up at the carved rococo ceiling and then back at him.
“It’s beautiful, Dolff.” She seemed very quiet, and he held out a hand.
“Come, I’ll show you the rest.”
The rest of the house fulfilled the promise of the entrance, with tall, beautifully carved ceilings, wonderfully inlaid floors, small crystal chandeliers, and long, elegant windows looking out on a garden filled with bright flowers. On the main floor were a large living room and a smaller one that he used as a den. On the next floor were the kitchen and dining room and a small maid’s room where he kept a bicycle and three pairs of skis. And above that were two huge, beautiful bedrooms, with views of the schloss and their park. There were handsome balconies perched outside each bedroom, and in the larger of the two bedrooms was a narrow winding staircase tucked into a corner of the room.
“What’s up there?” She had been intrigued. The house really was a beauty. Dolff had good reason to be proud.
He smiled at her. He enjoyed the admiration and approval he could see in her eyes. “My ivory tower. That’s where I work.”
“I thought you worked downstairs in the den.”
“No, that’s just to entertain friends in. The living room still intimidates me a little bit. But this”–he pointed skyward from the foot of the narrow stairs–”is it.”
“May I see?”
“Of course, if you can wade through the papers around my desk.”
But there were no papers around the well-ordered desk. It was a small, beautifully proportioned room with a three-hundred-sixty-degree view. There was a cozy fireplace, and in every imaginable corner there were books. It was a room one could virtually live in, and Kassandra settled happily into a large red leather chair with a sigh.
“What a wonderful, wonderful place.” She was looking dreamily out at their schloss.
“I think this is why I bought the house. My ivory tower, and the view.”
“I don’t blame you, even though the rest is lovely, too.” She had curled
Excerpted from The Ring 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.