Caroline closed her eyes for a moment. When she reopened them, she looked at Ruby with a kind of quiet desperation. Ruby recognized that look. Her sister was wondering why everything in life couldn’t be easier; why they all couldn’t simply love each other.
Silence fell between them, soft and cold as an early morning rain. In that quiet, Ruby heard the echo of a broken family; they were individual pieces, now separate, wanting a wholeness that had been shattered.
“So, how is Nora?” Ruby asked at last.
Caroline gave her a sharp look. “She still hates it when we call her Nora.”
“Really? I’d forgotten that.”
“I’ll bet you did. Anyway, she drove her car into a tree. Her leg is broken; her wrist is sprained. She’ll be in a wheelchair for a few days. That makes it pretty tough to do the ordinary bits and pieces of life. She’ll need help.”
“I pity the poor nurse who takes that job.”
Caroline looked at her. “Would you want to be cared for by a stranger?”
It took Ruby a minute to get her sister’s drift. When did, she burst out laughing. “You’re delusional.”
“This isn’t funny. You saw the reporters out front. They’re ready to tear Mom apart, and she’s always been fragile.”
“Yeah, in that pit-bull kind of way.”
“Ruby,” Caroline said in her we’re-a-team-and-you’re-not-playing-fair voice. “A stranger could sell her out to the tabloids. She needs someone she can trust.”
“Then you’d better do it. She can’t trust me.”
“I have kids. A husband.”
A life. The implication was clear; and the truth of it stung. “Doesn’t she have any friends?”
“It should be you, Ruby.” Caroline looked disgusted. “Jesus. You’re going to be thirty in a few years. Mom’s fifty. When are you going to get to know her?”
“Who says I’m ever going to?”
Caro moved closer. “Tell me you didn’t think about it last night.”
Ruby couldn’t swallow. Her sister was so close… she smelled of expensive perfume, gardenias, maybe. “About what?”
The words hit dangerously near their mark. Ruby stared down at the speckled linoleum floor. There was no doubt in her mind what she should do-go out those front doors and fly home. But it wasn’t quite so easy this time, especially with the Cache’ article out there to write. A little time with Nora Bridge would certainly make the piece better. A lot better.
She took a deep breath, then turned to face her sister. One week,“ she said evenly. ”I’ll stay with her for one week."
Caroline pulled Ruby into a fierce hug. “I knew you’d do the right thing.”
Ruby felt like a fraud. She couldn’t meet her sister’s gaze. Weakly, she said, “A week with Nora. You’d better start a defense fund.”
Caroline laughed. “Go tell her. She’s in six twelve west. I’ll wait for you here.”
“Coward.” Ruby flashed her a nervous smile, then headed for the elevators. On the sixth floor, she began a room-to-room search until she found 612.
The door was ajar.
She took another deep breath and stepped inside.
Her mother was asleep.
Ruby exhaled in relief. The tension in her shoulders eased a little, she unclenched her fists.
She stared down at her mother’s pale, beautiful face and felt an unexpected tug of longing. She had to forcibly remind herself that this lovely, red-haired woman who looked like Susan Sarandon wasn’t really her mother. Ruby’s mother–the woman who’d played Scrabble and made chocolate-chip pancakes every Sunday morning–had died eleven years ago. This was the woman who’d killed her.
Nora opened her eyes.
Ruby felt an almost overwhelming urge to run away.
Nora gasped and scooted up to a sit, self-consciously smoothing the tangled hair from her face. "You came, she said softly, a note of wonder in her voice.
Ruby forced her hands to stay bolted to her sides. It was an old stand-up rule. No fidgeting. The audience could smell a set of nerves. “How are you?”
Stupid question, but Ruby was off-balance, afraid of pitching headfirst.
“I’m fine.” Nora smiled, but it was an odd, uncertain smile.
Ruby crossed her arms-another anti-fidget technique. “So, I guess you’ve lost your good-driver discount.”
“That’s my Ruby. Quick with a joke.”
“I wouldn’t say ‘your” Ruby."
Nora’s smile faded. “I’m sure you wouldn’t.” She closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose, exhaling softly. “I see you still think you know everything … and you still don’t take any prisoners.”
Ruby could feel the shale of old habits sliding beneath her feet. A few more well-chosen words and there would be a full-scale war going on between them.
“I don’t know everything,” Ruby said evenly. “I don’t think I ever knew my mother.”
Nora laughed, a fluttery, tired sound. “That makes two of us.”
They stared at each other. Ruby felt a mounting urge to escape; she knew it was a survival instinct. Already she knew she couldn’t spend a week with this woman and feel nothing … the anger was so sharp right now it overwhelmed her.
But she had no choice.
“I thought … I’d stay with you for a while. Help you get settled.”
Nora’s surprise was almost comical. “Why?”
Ruby shrugged. There were so many answers to that question. “You could have died. Maybe I thought of what it would be like to lose you.” She smiled woodenly. “Or maybe this is your darkest hour; the loss of everything you left your family for; and I don’t want to miss a minute of your misery. Or maybe I got a contract to write a magazine article about you and I need to be close to get the inside scoop. Or maybe I-”
“I get it. Who cares why. I need help and you obviously have nothing better to do.”
“How do you do it-slam me in the middle of a thank-you? Jesus, it’s a gift.”
“I didn’t mean to slam you.”
“No, you just thought you’d point out that I have no life. It wouldn’t occur to you that I’ve rearranged my life to spend some time with you, would it?”
“Let’s not start, okay?”
“You started it.”
Nora’s hand moved to the bed rail, her fingers slid close to touch Ruby. She looked up. “You know I’m going to the summer house, right?”
Ruby couldn’t have heard right. “What?”
“Reporters are camped outside my condo. I can’t face them.” Nora’s gaze lowered, and Ruby saw how hard it was for her mother to face her, too. The past was between them again, a sticky web that caught old hurts and held them. “Your sister offered me use of the summer house. If you want to change your mind, I’ll understand.”
Ruby went to the window and stared out at the gray, rainy streets of Capitol Hill.
It had seemed doable a few moments ago; go to this woman’s house–Nora’s house, not really her mother at all-sit with her for a few days, make a few meals. look through a few old photo albums, ask a few questions. Get enough information to write the “where Nora Bridge came from” section of the article.
But … at the summer house.
It was where so many of the memories were buried, both good and bad. She would rather see Nora in some glass-walled high-rise that success had purchased. Not in the clapboard farmhouse where Ruby would remember gardening and painting and the sound of laughter that had long since faded.
Fifty thousand dollars.
That’s what she had to think about. She could handle a week at the summer house.
"I guess it doesn’t matter where we are …
“You mean it?” There was a disturbing wistfulness in her mother’s voice.
Finally, Ruby turned. She meant to close the distance between them, but her feet wouldn’t move.
“Sure. Why not?”
Nora was looking at her thoughtfully. She said, “You’ll need to rent me a wheelchair-just until my wrist is strong enough for crutches. And I’ll need a few things from my apartment.”
“I can do that.”
“I’ll talk to my doctor and get checked out of here. We’ll have to leave quietly, through the back way, maybe. We don’t want to be followed.”
“I’ll rent a car and pick you up in–what-three hours?”
“Okay. My purse is in the closet. Get my credit cards. Use the platinum Visa for anything you need. I’ll draw you a map to my apartment and call Ken–he’s the doorman. He’ll let you in. And Ruby … get a nice car; okay?”
Ruby tried to smile. This was going to be bad. Her mother was already making demands–and judgments. “Only the best for you, Nora.” She went to the closet, saw the expensive black hand bag, and grabbed it. The wide strap settled comfortably on her shoulder. Without a backward glance, she headed out.
Her mother’s voice stopped her. “Ruby? Thank you.”
Ruby shut the door behind her.
Ruby walked into her mother’s penthouse condominium and closed the door behind her. The place was eerily silent and smelled faintly of flowers.
She dropped her jacket onto the gleaming marble floor; beside an ornate wrought-iron and stone that held a huge urn full of roses.
She turned the corner and literally had to catch her breath. It was the most incredible room she’d ever seen.
A wall of floor-to-ceiling windows wrapped around the whole apartment, showcasing a panoramic view of Elliot Bay.
The floors were polished marble, a color somewhere between white and gold, with twisting black and green threads running through each square.
Brocade-covered furniture, perched on gilded legs, sat in a cluster in the living room around a beautiful gold and glass coffee table. In one corner stood an ebony Steinway, its lacquered top cluttered with photographs in gilt-edged frames.
A dimly lit hallway led past several more rooms-formal dining room, gourmet kitchen, home office–and ended at the master bedroom. Here, the windows were dressed in steel-gray silk curtains that matched the woven cashmere bedspread. There were two huge walk-in closets. She opened the first one, and a light came on automatically, revealing two rows of clothes, organized by color.
Ruby’s fingers drifted through the clothing. Silks, cashmeres, expensive woolens. She saw the labels: St. John, Armani, Donna Karan, Escada.
She released her breath in an envious sigh. The thought This is what she left us for winged through her mind, hurting more than she would have expected. She pulled the list out of her pocket.
They were ordinary items, but nothing in this closet cost less than three hundred dollars.
She backed out, closing the door behind her. At the rosewood, gilt-trimmed bombe’ chest, she opened the top drawer. Little piles of perfectly folded lingerie lay there. She picked out a few pieces, then gathered up some shorts and cap-sleeved tops from the second drawer. She set the pile on the bed and moved to the second closet.
Again, the light came on automatically, but the clothing in this closet looked as if it belonged to another woman. Worn gray sweatpants; baggy, stained sweatshirts; jeans so old they were out of date. A few brightly colored sundresses.
Her mother had expensive designer clothes, and lie-around-the-house clothes, but nothing in between. No clothes for going out to lunch with a friend or stopping by to catch a matinee.