Once in a Lifetime: Excerpt

Once in a Lifetime
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Chapter One

When it snows on Christmas Eve in New York, there is a kind of raucous silence, like bright colors mixed with snow. Looking at Central Park from a window, you can see the snow fall steadily, shrouding all in white. Everything looks so still, so quiet…but down below, in the streets, there are the inevitable sounds of New York. Horns bleating, people shouting, the clatter of feet and traffic and excitement, only muffled, somewhat dimmed. And in the last-minute furor of Christmas Eve, there is something more, a kind of wonderful tension waiting to explode in laughter and gifts…people hurrying home, with packages stacked high in their arms, carolers singing, the innumerable Santa Clauses, tipsy and red-faced, celebrating their last night in the deadly cold, women holding tight to children’s hands, admonishing them to be careful not to fall, and then smiling, laughing. Everyone in a rush, in high spirits, in unison for this one night of the year…Merry Christmas!…doormen waving, happy with their Christmas tips. In a day, a week, the excitement will be forgotten, the gifts unwrapped, the liquor drunk, the money spent, but on Christmas Eve nothing is yet over, it has only just begun. For the children it is a culmination of months of waiting, for the adults the end of frenzied weeks, of parties shopping, people, gifts…bright hopes as fresh as falling snow, and nostalgic smiles, remembering distant childhoods and long-forgotten loves. A time of memories, and hope, and love.

As the snow fell steadily the traffic began to thin at last. It was bitter cold, and only a few hardy souls were walking in the snow as it crunched beneath their feet. What had turned to slush earlier that day had now turned to ice, which slid wickedly beneath the six inches of fresh snow. It was treacherous walking, and by eleven o’clock traffic had all but ground to a halt. For New York it was unusually silent. Only an occasional horn sounded in the distance, a random voice calling out for a cab.

The sound of a dozen people leaving the party at 12 East Sixty-ninth Street rang out like bells in the night. They were laughing, singing, they had had a wonderful time. The champagne had been abundant, and there had been hot buttered rum and mulled wine, a huge Christmas tree and bowls of popcorn. Everyone had been given small gifts as they left, bottles of perfume, boxes of chocolates, a pretty scarf, a book. The host was a former book reviewer of The New York Times, his wife a celebrated author, their friends an interesting crew, from budding writers to concert pianists of repute, great beauties and great minds, all crushed into the huge living room in their town house, with a butler and two maids passing hors d’oeuvres and serving drinks. It had been planned as their annual Christmas cocktail party, and as always it would go on until three or four. The group that left just before midnight was small, and among them was a tiny blond woman wearing a large mink hat and a long dark mink coat. Her whole body was enveloped in the rich chocolate fur, her face barely peeking above her collar in the wind as she waved for a last time at her friends and began to walk home. She didn’t want to share a taxi with them. She had seen enough people for one evening, she wanted to be alone. For her, Christmas Eve was always a difficult evening. For years she had stayed at home. But not tonight. Not this year. This time she had wanted to see friends, at least for a while. Everyone had been surprised and pleased to see her there.

“Nice to see you, Daphne. You’re back. Working on a book?”

“Just starting one.” The big blue eyes were gentle and the delicate sweetness of her face belied her age.

“What does that mean? You’ll finish it next week?” She was notoriously prolific, but had been working on a movie for the past year.

She smiled again, this time with more mirth. She was used to their teasing. A touch of envy…curiosity…respect. She was a woman who inspired all three. Daphne Fields was intensely private, hardworking, ambitious, determined, visible in literary circles, and yet even when she was present, she wasn’t always really there. She always seemed as though she was just one step back, just out of reach, and yet when she looked at you, you could feel her touch your very soul. She seemed to see everything, and yet at the same time, she didn’t seem to wish to be seen. She was different than she had been ten years before. At twenty-three she had been gregarious, funny, outrageous…protected, safe, happy. She was quieter now, the laughter of the past only showed now in glimpses in her eyes, its echo buried somewhere in her soul.

“Daphne?” She turned around quickly at the corner of Madison Avenue as she heard footsteps behind her, muffled by the snow.

“Yes, Jack?” It was Jack Hawkins, the editorial director of her current publishing house, Harbor and Jones, his face red from the cold, his eyes a brilliant blue and watering in the wind.

“Don’t you want a ride?”

She shook her head and smiled, and it struck him again how tiny she was, buried in the huge mink coat, her black suede gloved hands holding the collar close. “No, but thanks. I really want to walk. I live just down the street.”

“It’s late.” As always, when he saw her, he found himself wanting to take her in his arms. Not that he ever did. But he would have liked to. So would a lot of other men. At thirty-three she still looked twenty-five, and sometimes twelve…vulnerable, fresh, delicate…but there was something more. There was a loneliness in the woman’s eyes, which tore at your very soul, no matter how spectacular her smile, how warm her eyes. She was a woman alone. And she shouldn’t have been. If life were fair, she wouldn’t have been. But she was. “It’s midnight, Daff…” He hesitated before rejoining the others walking slowly west.

“It’s Christmas Eve, Jack. And it’s cold as hell.” She grinned, her sense of humor leaping to her eyes. “I don’t think I’ll get raped tonight.”

He smiled. “No, but you could slip and fall on the ice.”

“Aha! And break my arm and not be able to write for months, is that it? Don’t worry. I don’t have another deadline till April.”

“For chrissake, come on. You can come home with us for a drink.”

She stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek as she patted his shoulder with one hand. “Go on. I’m fine. But thanks.” She waved him off then, and turned and walked quickly along the street, burying her chin in her coat, looking neither right nor left, not glancing at the shop windows, or the faces of the few people who walked past her. The wind felt wonderful on her face, and as she made her way home she felt better than she had all night. It had been an exhausting evening, it always was at parties like that, no matter how pleasant they were, how many people she knew, they were always the same. But she had wanted to be there tonight. She didn’t want to be alone in her apartment, she didn’t want to hold on to the memories this year…didn’t want to…couldn’t stand it anymore…. Even now, as her face tingled in the snow, the same memories came back to her, and she walked faster as though to outrun them, as though she ever could.

Almost instinctively she ran to the corner, glanced to see if there was any traffic, saw none, and assumed that the light was green…as though if she ran fast enough, if she crossed the street, she could leave the memories behind. But she always took them everywhere with her…especially on Christmas Eve.

Running faster across Madison Avenue, she almost lost her footing as she slipped and then regained her balance as her arms flailed wide. The corner met, she turned rapidly left, to cross the street, and this time she didn’t look up in ti
me to see the car, a long red station wagon filled with people, hurrying through the last of their green light, her red. There was a shriek from the woman sitting beside the driver, a thump, another scream from within the car, and a strange sliding noise as the car ground across the ice and stopped at last. For an interminable instant, everything was silence. And then all the car doors opened at once, and half a dozen people rushed outside. There were no voices, no words, no more screams as the driver hurried toward her and then stopped, staring down at the woman lying like a small broken rag doll, cast face-down into the snow.

“Oh, my God…oh, my God…” He stood there helplessly for a moment, and then turned frantically toward the woman standing beside him, a look of terror mixed with fury, as though someone had to be blamed for this, anyone but him. “For chrissake, call the cops.” He knelt beside her then, afraid to touch her, to move her, yet even more afraid that she was dead.

“Is she…alive? Another man knelt in the snow beside the driver, bourbon still heavy on his breath.

“I don’t know.” There were no plumes of icy vapor from her breathing, no movement, no sound, no life. And then suddenly the man who touched her began to cry softly. “I killed her, Harry…. I killed her…” He reached out toward his friend and the two men hugged in silent agony as they knelt there, as two cabs and an empty bus stopped and the drivers ran out.

“What happened?” Suddenly all was action, talking, explanations…she ran out in front of the car…never looked up…didn’t see her…icy…couldn’t stop…

“Where the hell are the police when you need them?” The driver cursed as the snow fell around him…thinking, for no reason he could understand, of the carol they had sung only an hour earlier…”Silent night, holy night”…and now this woman lay in the snow in front of him, dead or dying, and there were no damn cops.

“Lady?…Lady, can you hear me?” The bus driver was kneeling beside her, his face next to hers, trying to feel her breath on his face. “She’s alive.” He looked up at the others. “You got a blanket?” No one moved. And then, almost angrily, “Give me your coat.” For a moment the driver of the station wagon looked shocked. “For chrissake, man, the woman may be dying. Take your coat off.” He hurriedly complied then, as did two others, and they buried Daphne beneath a multitude of coats. “Don’t try to move her.” The old black bus driver looked as though he knew what he was doing as he tucked the heavy coats around her and gently cradled her face, to keep it from freezing in the snow. A moment later the flashing red light appeared. It was a city ambulance and they’d had a busy night so far. They always did on Christmas Eve. A police car was just behind them, its eerie whooping siren screeching hideously as it arrived.

The ambulance attendants hurried at once to Daphne, the police moved more slowly as they took in the scene, and the driver of the station wagon hurried toward them, calmer now, but trembling horribly from the cold, as his coat lay on the street. The bus driver watched as the ambulance attendants gently rolled Daphne onto the gurney. There was no sound from her, no consciousness of pain. He saw now that her face was skinned and cut in several places, but there had been no bleeding as she lay face-down in the icy snow.

The police took a report from the driver, and explained that he would have to take a sobriety test before he could be released. All the others clamored that he was sober, that he had drunk less than anyone that evening, and that Daphne had run out in front of the car without even looking, and against the light.

“Sorry, it’s routine.” The policeman showed no particular sympathy for the driver, nor did he show any emotion as he glanced at Daphne’s face. Another woman, another victim, another case. He saw worse than that almost every evening. Muggings, beatings, murders, rapes. “She alive?”

“Yeah.” The ambulance driver nodded tersely. “Just.” They had just slid an oxygen mask into place, and pulled open the mink coat to check her heartbeat. “But we’re going to lose her if we don’t hurry.”

“Where’s she going?” The policeman was scribbling on his report, “white female of undetermined age…probably mid-thirties.”

The ambulance driver called over his shoulder as they closed the door on Daphne. “We’re going to take her to Lenox Hill, it’s the closest. I don’t think she’d make it farther than that.”

“Is she a Jane Doe?” That would be another headache. They’d already sent off two unidentified murder victims to the morgue that night.

“No. She had a purse.”

“Okay, we’ll follow you. I can copy it down there.” There was a terse nod as the driver disappeared to get his charge to Lenox Hill, and the police officer turned back to the shivering driver as he struggled back into his coat. “Are you going to arrest me?” He looked terrified now. His Christmas had turned instantly into a nightmare as he remembered the vision of Daphne lying face-down in the street.

“Not unless you’re drunk. We can give you the sobriety test at the hospital. Have one of your friends drive and follow us there.” The man nodded and slipped back into his car, nodding at one of his friends, who slipped rapidly behind the wheel. There was no talking now, no gaiety, no laughter. There was only silence as they followed the double wail of sirens toward Lenox Hill.

Excerpted from Once in a Lifetime 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.