A Perfect Stranger: Excerpt

A Perfect Stranger
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Chapter One

The garage door opened eerily, its mouth yawning expectantly, a large dark toad about to gobble an unsuspecting fly. From across the street a little boy watched it, fascinated. He loved watching the door open like that, knowing that the beautiful sports car would be around the corner in an instant. He waited, counting… five…six…seven…. Unknown to the man who had pressed the remote control device on his dashboard, the little boy watched him come home every night. It was a favorite ritual and the boy was disappointed when the man in the black Porsche came home late or not at all. The boy stood there, in the shadows, counting… eleven…twelve…and then he saw it, a sleek black shadow speeding around the bend, and then in a smooth maneuver sliding into the garage. The unseen child stared hungrily at the beautiful black car for one more moment and then slowly went home, with visions of the black Porsche still dancing in his eyes.

Inside the garage Alexander Hale turned off the motor, and then sat there for a moment staring into the familiar darkness of his garage. For the hundredth time that day his mind drifted once again to Rachel. For the hundredth time he pushed the thought of her away from his mind. He sighed softly, picked up his briefcase, and got out of the car. A moment later the electronic device would automatically close the garage door. He let himself into the house through a back door in his garden and he stood in the downstairs hall of the pretty little Victorian town house, staring into the emptiness of the once cozy kitchen. There were copper pots hanging from a wrought- iron rack near the stove, but the cleaning lady hadn’t shined them in ages, and there was no one else to give a damn. The plants, which hung thickly in front of the windows, were looking dry and lifeless, and he noticed, as he switched on the lights in the kitchen, that some of them had already died. He turned away then, glancing only briefly into the small wood- paneled dining room across the hall, and then walked slowly upstairs.

Now when he came home, he always used the garden entrance. It was less depressing than coming in through the main hall. Whenever he came through the front door in the evening, he somehow still expected her to be there. He expected to see her with the luscious pile of thick blond hair knotted on top of her head and the deceptively prim suits she wore to court. Rachel…dazzling lawyer…noble friend…intriguing female…until she hurt him…until she left…until their divorce, exactly two years before, to the day.

He had wondered on his way home from the office if he would always remember the day so exactly. Would some part of him call out in remembered pain on a given morning in October, for the rest of time? Would he always be reminded? It was strange really how both of their anniversaries had fallen on the same day. The anniversary of their marriage, and that of their divorce. Coincidence, Rachel had called it matter- of- factly. Ironic, he had said. How awful his mother had said when she called him the night the papers came and found him blind drunk and laughing because he didn’t want to cry.

Rachel. The thought of her still disturbed him. He knew it shouldn’t after two years, but it did…. The golden hair and the eyes the color of the Atlantic Ocean just before a storm, dark gray, tinged with blue and green. The first time he had seen her had been as the attorney for the opposition in a case that had settled out of court. It had been a mighty battle though, and Joan of Arc couldn’t have pleaded the case with more enthusiasm and flair. Alexander had watched her throughout the proceedings, fascinated and amused, and more attracted to her than he had been to any woman in his life. He had invited her to dinner that night, and she had insisted on paying her half of the check. She didn’t “corrupt professional relationships,” she had told him with an arch little smile that half made him want to slap her, and half made him want to tear off her clothes. She had been so goddamn beautiful and so goddamn smart.

The memory of her made him knit his brows as he walked past the empty living room. She had taken all the living room furniture with her to New York. She had left the rest of their furniture to Alex, but the big double parlor on the main floor of the pretty little Victorian house they had bought together had been stripped bare. Sometimes he wondered if he hadn’t bought new furniture just so he could remember, so he could resent her, each time he walked past the empty living room to the front door. But now, as he walked upstairs, he didn’t see the emptiness around him. His mind was a million miles away, thinking back to the days before she left him, thinking about what they had and had not shared. They had shared hope and wit and laughter and their professions, their bed, this house, and very little else.

Alex had wanted children, to fill the bedrooms on the top floor with noise and laughter. Rachel had wanted to go into politics or get a job with an important law firm in New York. The politics she had mentioned vaguely when she met him. It would have been natural for her. Her father was a powerful man in Washington and had once been governor of their home state. It was something else she had in common with Alex, whose sister was a congresswoman in New York. Rachel always admired her greatly, and she and Alex’s sister, Kay, had rapidly become fast friends. But it wasn’t politics that took Rachel away from Alex. It was the other half of her dream, the law firm in New York. In the end it had taken her two years to pick up stakes and leave him. He ran the finger of his mind over the wound now. It no longer smarted as it once had. But at first it had hurt him more than anything in his life.

She was beautiful, brilliant, successful, dynamic, amusing… but there had always been something missing, something tender and gentle and kind. Those were not words one used to describe Rachel. And she had wanted more out of life than just loving Alexander, more than just being an attorney in San Francisco and someone’s wife. She had been exactly twenty-nine years old when they met, and she had never been married. She’d been too busy for that, she told him, too busy chasing her life’s goals. She had promised herself when she left law school that by the time she was thirty she would have made it “big.” What does that mean?, he had asked her. A hundred thousand a year was the answer, and she didn’t even blink. For an instant he had laughed at her. Until he saw the look in her eyes. She meant it. And she’d get it. Her whole life was geared to that kind of success. Success measured by that kind of yardstick, dollar bills and important cases, no matter who was destroyed in the process. Before she left for New York, Rachel had walked over half of San Francisco, and even Alex had finally let himself see what she was. She was cold and ruthless and ambitious and she stopped at nothing to reach her goals.

Four months after they were married, a spot opened up in one of the most prestigious law firms in town. At first Alex was impressed that she was even being considered. She was, after all, a fairly young woman, and a young attorney, but it didn’t take long to figure out that she was willing to use every ugly maneuver she could to get the job. And she did, and she got it. For two years Alex tried to forget what he’d seen her pull to get the job. He told himself that she only used tactics like that in business and then the final crunch came. She was made a full partner and offered a spot in the firm’s New York office. This time it was more than a hundred-thousand-dollar-a-year job. And Rachel Hale was only thirty-one. Alexander watched with horror and fascination as she wrestled with the choice. The choice was simple, and as far as Alex was concerned, it shouldn’t have been a choice at all New York or San Francisco. Alexander or not. In the end, she told him gently, it was just too good an opportunity to pass up. “But it didn’t have to change their relationship.” She could still fly home to San Francisco almost every weekend, or of course if Alex wanted to…he could give up his own law practice and come East with her.

“And do what? Prepare your briefs?” He had stared at her in hurt and fury “So where does that leave me, Rachel?” He had stared at her after she had announced her decision to take the job in New York. He had wanted it to be different, wanted her to tell him that she wouldn’t take it, that he mattered more. But that hadn’t been Rachel’s style, any more than it would have been Alex’s sister’s. Once he was willing to face it, he realized that he had known one other woman like Rachel before. His sister, Kay, had pushed her way to what she wanted, storming over obstacles and detouring or destroying those who inadvertently crossed her path. The only difference was that Kay did it in politics and Rachel in law.

It was easier to understand, and respect, a woman like his mother. Charlotte Brandon had somehow successfully managed both children and a career. For twenty-five years she had been one of the country’s best-selling authors, yet she had managed Alex and his sister, stayed close to them, loved them, and given them her all. When her husband had died when Alex was a baby, she took a part-time job doing research for a newspaper column, and eventually ghostwrote it completely, while, in whatever spare time she had, she sat up until the wee hours writing her first book. The nineteen books she had written had sold in the millions over the years. Her career had been an accident created by need. But whatever her reasons, she had always somehow managed to treat what had happened as a special gift, as something she could share and enjoy with her children, not as something she loved more than she loved them. Charlotte Brandon was truly a remarkable woman, but her daughter was different: angry, jealous, compulsive, she had none of her mother’s gentleness or warmth or ability to give. And in time Alex learned that neither did his wife.

When Rachel left for New York, she had insisted that she didn’t want to divorce. For a while she had even tried to commute, but with their separate work loads at opposite ends of the country, their weekends together became less and less frequent. It was hopeless, as she eventually admitted to Alex, and for two endless weeks he had actually considered closing his own lucrative practice and moving to New York. Hell, what did it mean to him? Maybe it wasn’t worth hanging on to, if it meant losing his wife. At four o’clock one morning he made the decision: He would close his practice and go. Exhausted, but feeling hopeful, he reached for the phone to call her. It was seven in the morning in New York. But it wasn’t Rachel who answered. It was a man with a deep honey-smooth voice. “Mrs. Hale?” He sounded blank for a moment. “Oh, Miss Patterson.” Rachel Patterson. Alex hadn’t realized that she had begun her new life in New York under her old name. But he hadn’t realized either that along with the new job she had begun a whole new way of life. There was very little she could say to him that morning, and he listened to her voice at the other end with tears in his eyes. She called him back later from her office.

“What can I say, Alex? I’m sorry…” Sorry? For leaving? For having an affair? What was she sorry for? Or was she just sorry for him, poor pathetic bastard that he was, sitting alone out in San Francisco.

“Is there any point trying to work it out?” He had been willing to try, but at least this time she was honest.

“No, Alex, I’m afraid not.” They had talked for a few more minutes, then finally hung up the phone. There was nothing left to say, except to their own attorneys. The following week Alex filed for divorce. It all went smoothly. “Perfectly civilized,” as Rachel had said. There had been no problems at all, yet it had shaken Alex to the very roots of his being.

And for an entire year he had felt as thought someone near and dear to him and died.

Possibly it was himself he mourned. He felt as though part of him had been put away in crates and boxes, like the living room furniture that had been shipped to New York. He functioned perfectly normally: he ate; he slept; he went on dates; he swam; he played tennis, racquetball, squash; he went to parties; he traveled; and his law practice booked. But some essential part of him was missing. And he knew it, even if no one else did. He had had nothing, except his body, to give to a woman in more than two years.

As he walked upstairs to his study the silence in the house became suddenly unbearable and all he wanted was to run. Lately it was something that happened to him often, that overpowering urge to get out, to get away from the emptiness and the silence. It was only now after two years without her that the numbness was wearing off. It was as though the bandages were slowly peeling away, and what was left beneath was lonely and raw.

Alex changed into jeans, sneakers, and an old parka, and thumped rapidly back downstairs, one long, powerful hand lightly touching the banister, his dark hair slightly rumpled, his blue eyes intense as he slammed the door behind him and turned right until he reached Divisadero, where he began running slowly up the steep hill to Broadway, where at last he stopped and turned to look at the breathtaking view. Beneath him the bay shone like satin in the twilight, the hills were veiled in mist, and the lights of Marin sparkled like diamonds and rubies and emeralds just across the bay.

When he reached the stately mansions on Broadway, he turned right and began to walk toward the Presidio, glancing alternately at the huge impressive houses and the tranquil beauty of the bay. The houses themselves were among the finest in San Francisco. These were the two or three most impressive residential blocks in the city, boasting brick palaces and Tudor mansions, remarkable gardens, breathtaking views, and towering trees. One saw not a soul walking and heard not a sound from the neat row of houses, though one could easily imagine the tinkle of crystal, the ring of fine silver, the liveried servants, and gentlemen and ladies in dinner jackets and dresses of satin or silk. Alex always smiled to himself at the images he painted. Somehow they made him less lonely than what he imagined as he drifted past the smaller houses on the less impressive streets he frequently walked. There he always envisioned men with their arms around their women, with smiling children and puppies playing in the kitchen, or stretched out in front of warm, crackling fires. In the big house, there was nothing that he wanted. That was a world he did not aspire to, though he had often been in houses like those. What Alex wanted for himself was something very different, something that he and Rachel had never had.

It was difficult to imagine being in love anymore, caring deeply about someone, difficult to imagine looking into someone’s eyes and wanting to explode with joy. There had been

Excerpted from A Perfect Stranger by Danielle Steel Copyright © 1983 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.