“MOM? Mom? Are you all right?” Melissa looked at her mother with concern. She’d brought in the mail and put it on the hall table, then went to get herself something to eat. She was five months pregnant, and she could eat the legs off a table. Her mother had come in from work and picked up the mail, opening a letter from what looked to be a law firm. Melissa hoped it was nothing bad. “Mom?” Her words were muffled by the peanut butter sandwich in her mouth. She’d been tempted to add grape jelly but was afraid her husband would smell the jelly on her breath. Stuart was adamant that she didn’t gain too much weight during pregnancy, so at dinner Melissa ate steamed vegetables and broiled meat. It was just during the day, while he was at work at the prestigious accounting firm, that she indulged in chocolate and shrimp—together.
“Mom!” Melissa said loudly. “What in the world is wrong with you?”
Eden sat down on the little sofa by the hall table. The sofa had been a rickety piece of junk when she’d seen it in a small, out-of-the-way shop in a district that Melissa’s husband didn’t want them to visit. Eden had known right away it was Hepplewhite. She and Melissa had tied the sofa onto the roof of the station wagon and taken it home. It had taken Eden six weekends to repair, refinish, and upholster it. “Aren’t you clever?” Stuart had said in his haughty way, as though Eden were of a lower class than he was. She’d had to grit her teeth, as she always did when she dealt with her son-in-law. Melissa loved him, but Eden had never been able to figure out why.
“Mrs. Farrington left me her house.”
“Mrs. Farrington?” Melissa asked, looking at the clock. She had seventeen and a half minutes before Stuart came home. Was that enough time to make herself another sandwich?
“Go on,” Eden said, knowing her daughter’s mind. “I’ll cover for you.”
“I shouldn’t. Really, I shouldn’t. Dinner will be soon and—”
“It’s grilled chicken breasts, steamed broccoli, roast potatoes, and sugarless Jell-O for dessert. Very good for you. Not a calorie in any of it.”
Melissa opened her mouth, then scurried off to the kitchen, her mother behind her. She was slathering peanut butter on bread when Eden walked into the room, the letter open before her. “Who’s Mrs. Farrington?”
“You remember her, don’t you, dear? We lived with her until you were five.”
“Oh, yeah. I do remember her. Sort of. Very old. And a long time ago you mentioned a man. Was he her son?”
Eden didn’t bother to suppress the shiver that ran over her body. “Yes, her son. Dreadful man. It seems that he died some time ago. Before Mrs. Farrington did.”
“You didn’t keep in touch with her?” Melissa was pouring chocolate syrup into her milk. It was a good thing that Stuart never opened the refrigerator or he’d see the forbidden things that Eden bought for her daughter. No, Stuart was the type who believed food should be eaten at a table and served to him by someone else, preferably his wife. He didn’t go rummaging in the refrigerator looking for something to eat.
“No,” Eden said tightly. “After we left I had nothing to do with her. Not that she…” She broke off. What happened was not something she wanted to have to explain to her daughter. I didn’t want that pedophile of a son of hers to know where I was, she could have said, but didn’t. “No, we didn’t keep in touch.”
Many times over the years she’d wondered what had happened to dear Mrs. Farrington, and Eden often felt a wave of guilt run through her when she thought about that sweet woman being left alone with her evil son. But then Eden would look at her daughter and know that she’d done the right thing in running away and never looking back. She glanced at the clock. “You now have approximately two and three-quarter minutes before the master returns, so you’d better drink that and clean out your glass.”
“Mother,” Melissa said primly, “Stuart isn’t like that. He’s a kind and loving man and I love him…ery uch.” The last words were muffled, as her mouth was full.
“Yes, he’s wonderful,” Eden said, then cut herself off when she heard the sarcasm in her voice. It was tough to think how she’d tried to raise her daughter to be an independent woman, only to see her marry a control freak like Stuart. To Eden’s mind, Stuart was all show. For all his talk of having a great future before him, he’d willingly moved into Eden’s apartment “for a few weeks,” as he’d said just before the wedding. “Until I get a place for us. A little farther uptown.” Stuart had made Eden’s generous offer seem as though it were worth nothing, and she’d had to resist the urge to defend herself. But that was two years ago, and now nothing Stuart said bothered her. He and Melissa were still in Eden’s small apartment, still letting her cook for them and letting her take care of most of the household chores. Months ago, Eden had decided she’d had enough and was going to evict them. She’d built up her courage to the point where she didn’t care if they had to live on the street for a while. It might do them some good. Teach them some lessons. But then Melissa had announced she was pregnant and that was that. Eden could still remember the smirk on Stuart’s face when Melissa made the announcement. It was as though he’d known what Eden had been thinking and he’d calculated the pregnancy just so Eden couldn’t throw them out. “You don’t mind, do you, Mom?” Melissa had said. “It was an accident. We meant to have children, but we wanted to wait until we had a place of our own. But with Stuart on the verge of a promotion, it doesn’t make sense to buy something small and dreary when in just a few weeks we’ll be able to afford something grand and glorious.”
Since her daughter had married, Eden often wondered if Melissa had become a marionette. “Small and dreary” and “grand and glorious” were Stuart’s words, not Melissa’s.
Eden took a seat on a bar stool at the kitchen island and read the letter again. “Mrs. Farrington had no other heirs, so she left me everything.”
“How nice for you,” Melissa said. “Any money?”
Eden kept her head down, but she felt the blood rush up the back of her neck. Anger did that to a person. There was fear in Melissa’s voice, and Eden well knew what caused it: Stuart. For all that Melissa told Eden at least three times a day how much she loved her husband, the truth was that after two years of marriage she’d come to know him well. If he found out that Eden had inherited a lot of money, there would be problems.
“No money,” Eden said cheerfully and tried not to hear her daughter’s sigh of relief. “Just a falling-down old house. You remember it, don’t you?”
“A Victorian monstrosity, wasn’t it?”
Eden started to correct her daughter and say that the house had been built before George Washington’s Mount Vernon, but she didn’t want Melissa to tell Stuart that. He might see money in a house that old. Melissa hadn’t yet learned that she didn’t have to tell her husband everything that went through her mind. “More or less,” Eden said, still looking at the letter. She was to go to a lawyer’s office in North Carolina as soon as possible to sign the papers and take possession of the house. They’re probably worried that the roof’s about to cave in, she thought, but said nothing as she folded the letter and put it back in the envelope.
“What will you do with an old house like that?” Melissa asked, her eyes wide.
Eden knew that her daughter was afraid for her mother to leave. They’d rarely been apart since Melissa’s birth twenty-seven years ago. “Sell it,” Eden said quickly. “And use the money to buy my grandson a house in the country. With a copper beech tree in the backyard.”
Smiling, Melissa relaxed, then hurriedly drank the rest of her chocolate milk when she heard the front door start to open. She washed the glass in seconds, so she was ready to turn and greet her husband when he walked into the kitchen. Stuart was tall, thin, and handsome. Melissa’s eyes lit up when she saw him.
Eden gave her son-in-law a nod, then slipped out of the kitchen to go to her bedroom and close the door. For a moment she leaned against the door, closed her eyes, and remembered back to that summer when she’d been pregnant with Melissa. Eden had been just seventeen years old, just out of high school, when she’d been walking home from church choir practice one night. She’d been leaped on by a man, thrown down, and…She’d never been able to remember much of what happened after that. When it was over, she dragged herself up, pulled her skirt down, and staggered home. She’d wanted to call the police, but her parents had refused. They didn’t want their family to be the object of gossip; they didn’t want people to know what Eden had done. “But I didn’t do anything,” she’d cried. A few weeks later, when she’d started throwing up from morning sickness, her parents told her to get out of their house. Nothing Eden said could sway them. She’d packed one suitcase, taken the $300 her parents had grudgingly given her, and got on a bus going east. She ended up in North Carolina, a state she’d never been in, but it was beautiful and she loved the old houses and the flat fields.
She’d tried to get a job, but there wasn’t much work to be had, and no work for a girl who was by then obviously pregnant. When she’d applied at the newspaper office in Arundel, a man had taken pity on her. He was looking at the job application she’d filled out. “You didn’t misspell one word,” he said, teasing her. Eden was hot, tired, hungry, and wishing she’d never been born. All she could do was look at him. Was he going to grade her application?
He looked her up and down for a moment, then said, “Let me guess about you. It’s something I’m good at. Decent family, church every Sunday, good grades in school, wrestled with the high school football quarterback on the backseat of a car, and now the two of you’ve run away together. Or did he leave you somewhere along the way?”
Eden was too tired to play games. He’d probably eaten more for lunch than she’d had in the last two days. “Religious fanatic parents who spent my childhood telling me I was a sinner. Top of the top grades in school, but then if I went below an A plus I got the belt, buckle first. No quarterback, just a rapist on a dark night. When I came up pregnant, my parents threw me out. I now have fifteen dollars to my name, no place to live, nothing to live on. I’ve been looking hard at the local train tracks.”
The man blinked at her a couple of times, then picked up his telephone and pushed a memory button. “Gracey? Henry here. I’m sending over a young woman. Feed her and let her have that bed in the back, will you? She needs food and rest, then I’m going to send her out to Alice’s.” He paused, listening. “Yeah, I know Alice is a pain in the neck, but, trust me on this, this girl can handle her. Compared to what she’s been through, Alice will seem like a dream.”
Somehow, Eden managed to get out of the chair and make it to the door without fainting. Rage at the injustice of what had happened to her had kept her going, but now that someone had shown her some kindness, she feared she might collapse. The man didn’t help her up or walk her to the door. Maybe he’d guessed that Eden’s pride would get her there on her own. It wasn’t easy to be proud when you hadn’t had a bath in over a week, but she managed it.
Eden was almost run over by a pickup as she made her way across the road to Gracey’s Restaurant. A tall, wiry woman, her gray hair in a bun at the back of her neck, came out to put her arm around Eden. “Honey, you’re worse than Henry told me you were.”
Three hours later, after Eden had eaten more than Gracey had ever seen a person eat at one sitting, Eden climbed into bed and didn’t get out until the next morning. It was Sunday when Gracey drove Eden out to meet Mrs. Alice Augusta Farrington, who lived in an old house across a bridge, just outside downtown.
Eden had always loved history, and she’d loved any movie that was set in a historical context. That was good, since her parents didn’t allow her to watch any movie that had been made after 1959. Their opinion was that the 1960s were the beginning of the end of Godliness in America. When Eden got out of Gracey’s car and looked up at the old house, she knew that she was looking at the genuine article. This wasn’t a house “built in the Colonial style.” This was a Colonial house. She’d never seen Colonial Williamsburg, but she thought this house would fit in there.
“Ghastly old place, isn’t it?” Gracey said. “I tell Alice that she ought to bulldoze it and build herself a nice brick ranch style.”
Eden looked at Gracey to see if she was kidding. The older woman’s eyes were twinkling. Eden smiled.
“Just checking,” Gracey said, smiling back. “We like old houses around here.”
Eden looked up at the house. Seven bays across the front, a full porch on the ground level. There were some truly big trees on each side of the house, and she wondered if they’d been planted when the house was built.
Alice Augusta Farrington was so small that she made Eden feel big—which wasn’t easy, since Eden was small herself. But Mrs. Farrington was about four-eleven and couldn’t have weighed more than ninety pounds. “What she lacks in size, she makes up for in spirit,” Gracey had said on the way out to the house, when she told Eden about the Farrington family. They’d built the house back in the early 1700s and had held on to it ever since. To Mrs. Farrington’s mind, that made her American royalty. “DAR ha!” she’d say. “Upstarts. Go through a couple of books, find out their ancestors stowed away on a ship, and think they’re worth something. Now, my ancestors…” Mrs. Farrington would then be off and running with stories about her ancestors having been aristocracy in England. “And they would be aristocracy in America if that idiot George Washington hadn’t turned down being crowned king. I’d be a duchess now. What was wrong with that man?!”
Gracey said that no one knew if Mrs. Farrington was kidding or not, but it didn’t matter, as she never expected an answer. “She likes to talk and just likes for others to listen.” Eden had spent a lot of her life listening to her father pontificate about what he thought God was thinking, so she was good at listening.
When the house came into sight, Gracey told her that the outside might go unpainted for twenty years at a time, but the roof was always kept in perfect repair, because otherwise, it might leak on her precious papers. It was a local legend that every piece of paper the Farrington family had ever owned was still in that house. Receipts, recipes, diaries, letters—lots of letters—all of them were still there.
But even after what Gracey had told her, Eden wasn’t prepared for her first sight of the interior. The huge, high-ceilinged center hallway was so full of furniture that a person could hardly walk. The walls were lined at least two pieces deep. A tall desk stood in front of a huge cabinet. A long table was pressed against a wall, covered in what looked to be stacks of old letters wrapped in faded pink ribbon, then smaller tables were set on top of the letters. Tables, cabinets, chairs, couches—every surface was covered with papers. Some were in boxes, some in trunks, many of them loose. Eden’s eyes widened when she saw a hatbox that resembled one she’d seen in a book on antiques. Eighteenth century?
“Alice,” Gracey said to the tiny Mrs. Farrington. “I found her for you.”
Mrs. Farrington looked Eden up and down and obviously found her wanting. “This little thing? Too weak. And is that a child in her stomach? Am I to start running a shelter for wayward girls now?”
Gracey ignored the last question. “Henry Walters—you know, old Lester’s youngest son—researched her, and she’s from a good family. She’s twenty-three years old and her young husband was killed in a horrible accident while defending his family. She was so overcome with grief that she ran away from home. Her family is searching for her, but she begged Henry to let her find her own place in the world, so she can make it on her own. She wants the job, and she can do it. She has a degree in American history from Vassar. When her baby is born, she will, of course, return to her loving family. You won’t be bothered with anything as burdensome as a child.”
Eden’s mouth was hanging open as she stared at Gracey. What incredible lies! She turned back to look at Mrs. Farrington. Should she tell her the truth and risk losing the job—whatever it was? Eden hoped she wasn’t being offered the job of trying to clean this house. The dust on that furniture could be carbon-dated.
Mrs. Farrington was looking at Eden in speculation. “Family throw you out when you got pregnant?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Eden said, her eyes looking into the old woman’s. They were small black eyes, glistening with life and vitality. Old body; young spirit.
“How old are you really?” Mrs. Farrington asked.
Behind the older woman, Gracey was vigorously shaking her head at Eden not to tell the truth.
“Seventeen,” Eden answered.
Mrs. Farrington turned so quickly that she caught Gracey shaking her head, disgusted that Eden hadn’t lied. “Your whole family are liars,” Mrs. Farrington said, without animosity in her voice, then she left the room, leaving Gracey and Eden alone.
Gracey wasn’t offended by Mrs. Farrington’s remarks. In fact, she was smiling broadly. She pushed Eden to follow Mrs. Farrington. “Go on.”
“But she didn’t say I was hired,” Eden said. “Maybe—”
“Believe me, if you weren’t hired, Alice Farrington would have told you. She likes you.”
“She didn’t say one hateful thing to you. It may be a first. Now go on, I have to go bake the pies for tomorrow.”
Gracey made it all the way to her car outside before Eden recovered enough to hurry after her. “But what is the job?” Eden called from the porch. Her suitcase was on the ground. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Oh,” Gracey said with a wave of her hand as she got into her car. “Make a list of all those papers.”
“A list?” Eden asked, not understanding what she meant.
“Like in the library.” Gracey shut her car door and started the engine.
Eden watched her until the trees hid her from view. “Like the library?” she whispered. Then her head came up. “Cataloging? She wants me to catalog that mess in there?” In high school she’d worked in the library, so she had an idea of what was involved in such an undertaking. Were the other rooms of the house as full as the central hall? If so, making even an inventory would take a very long time. Years, even.
Eden looked out at the lawn in front of her. The house sat in a little oasis of greenery, surrounded on three sides by acre upon acre of farmers’ fields. On the fourth side was a wide, deep creek, probably where the original owners moored their ships. On the right side of the house was what looked to be a vegetable garden, with flowers mixed in with the peas. To the back was what could be an orchard. It was all as messy as the interior. Taking a breath, Eden smelled the air. Fresh air, shade trees, fresh fruits and vegetables. In an instant, she made a decision. She was going to do the best job of cataloging that anyone had ever done, so that Mrs. Farrington would let her stay for the next several years. And Eden was going to raise her child here in this idyllic spot.
Smiling, she went back into the house.
“Can you cook?” Mrs. Farrington’s voice came from somewhere in the back of the house.
“Not at all,” Eden called back, feeling quite happy.
“That’s something else you’ll have to learn,” came the voice.
Smiling, Eden went in search of the kitchen. She was willing to bet there were cookbooks somewhere in the house. “Probably Martha Washington’s original cookbook,” she said as she made her way through the stacks of furniture to find the kitchen. Turning the corner, she gasped. The kitchen was a huge room with lots and lots of cabinets—and every one of them was so full of papers that the doors wouldn’t close. On one countertop was a foot square that held a few dishes, a skillet, and a pot. Eden had an idea that was all the cookware that Mrs. Farrington used.
Now, leaning against her bedroom door, Eden smiled in memory. Yes, that was all the cookware that Mrs. Farrington had used, but later Eden found whole sets of dishes hidden away inside the cabinets. Her daughter’s first years were spent in that wonderful old house. Her baby dishes had been from the 1920s, and her silverware had been real, with English hallmarks.
It was the silverware that sparked the “clearing of the wealth” as Mrs. Farrington called it. Casually, Eden had remarked that the silver must be worth a fortune. “Then we have to hide it!” Mrs. Farrington had said quickly, her voice almost panicky. At first Eden had stiffened with pride. Did Mrs. Farrington think she was a thief? She calmed when she realized that if Mrs. Farrington had thought she was a thief she wouldn’t be telling her, Eden, to do the hiding. It wasn’t until Henry from the newspaper office came to visit that Eden understood.
“He’s out,” Henry had said. Mrs. Farrington turned pale and sat down. Seeing her sit made Eden worry, because Mrs. Farrington never sat down.
“I knew it was close, but I thought I’d have more time,” Mrs. Farrington whispered.
After Henry left, Eden didn’t ask any questions, but Mrs. Farrington told her. She had one child, “a son so worthless he shouldn’t be allowed to live” is how she stated it. Eden didn’t ask questions, but she assumed that “out” meant out of jail. For the next three weeks, the two women hid things. Anything that was valuable, they hid. They pried up floorboards and shoved in silver teapots. They cut a hole behind the lath and plaster and dropped spoons down into the walls. They buried plastic boxes of things in the garden. Young Melissa, a year old by then, loved the game, and they caught her just as she was shoving Mrs. Farrington’s reading glasses into a mouse hole in the baseboard.
But Alester Farrington didn’t show up then. He didn’t show up until Melissa was five—and that’s when Eden found out why he’d been locked up. He was a pedophile. But she didn’t know it that first night.
The night her son returned home, Mrs. Farrington woke Eden, whispering in a way that made her sound like a crazy person. “They told me he’d changed. They said there was no more danger.” Puzzled, Eden had allowed Mrs. Farrington to pull her into the next room, Melissa’s room. In the dark, silhouetted by the night-light, Alester Farrington was standing over the child’s bed. Just standing there and watching Melissa sleep. In an instant, Eden understood everything. Mrs. Farrington told her son to get out of the room, and for a moment Eden thought he was going to strike his mother, but he didn’t. He smiled at Eden in a way that made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. Quietly, he left the room.
Eden didn’t need to be told what she had to do. She looked at Mrs. Farrington, and there were tears in the old woman’s eyes, but she nodded, then shoved Eden toward her bedroom. Eden jammed clothes into a suitcase, grabbed some boxes, and left with her daughter in the middle of the night. She’d had no contact with either of the Farringtons since that night twenty-two years ago.
Now, Eden walked to the bedroom window and looked out at the wet street lined with overflowing garbage cans. She could hear the loud music from the bar across the street; a man was peeing into the gutter. She closed the curtain. Sometimes she wondered how she had ended up in New York City. She who loved trees and bird-song. She used to read gardening books as though they were novels. She used to memorize principles of eighteenth-century gardening. Eden knew that the happiest time in her life had been those years with Mrs. Farrington. The people in town had thought Mrs. Farrington was an eccentric old woman, but all Eden had really known were her parents, whose great delight in life was meting out punishment. Compared to them, Mrs. Farrington was the sweetest, kindest—
Turning, Eden looked at her tiny room. She’d given the master bedroom in the apartment to her daughter and her new husband, thinking that they were going to be there only a few weeks. But the months had turned into years, and she’d had to put up with the man her daughter had chosen to love, a pompous man who coped with his inability to get ahead in the world by putting other people down. And his favorite punching bag seemed to be his mother-in-law. Stuart compensated for his failings by assuming an air of superiority, as if he were of a better class than Eden. He never said the words out loud, but still they hung in the air. Melissa made excuses for him, saying that he was on the verge of being promoted to partner, that they were going to live in a penthouse on Park Avenue. Melissa seemed to believe that when Stuart got the promotion that he’d been up for for four years he’d have an overnight personality change. He’d stop looking down his arrogant nose at people and would become the sweet, loving man she knew he really was.
Eden didn’t want to disillusion her daughter, so she was determined to keep her nose out of it. There had been times when she’d tried to talk to her, but Melissa had a talent for hearing only what she wanted to hear. It was difficult for Eden to do, but she was going to have to let her child find out about life on her own. Was that like letting a child ride a motorcycle without a helmet, so he’d learn that he could get hurt?
Sighing, Eden went into her bathroom and stood there, looking at herself in the mirror. She had been told many times that she looked good “for her age,” but she was still forty-five years old, and for a moment, a wave of self-pity ran through her. Since that night so long ago when she’d seen Mrs. Farrington’s son looking down at Melissa asleep in her bed, Eden wondered if she’d had a moment to call her own. She’d had to raise her daughter alone. Most of the time she’d been too busy to think about herself, but there had been quiet evenings when she’d wondered how her life would have been different if she hadn’t had a child so young. She’d had a couple of serious relationships, but in the end had chickened out on getting married. She’d always been too afraid of turning her life, and that of her daughter, over to a man.
When Melissa entered college on a partial scholarship, so had Eden. No scholarship, but she’d enrolled anyway. Eden had graduated with a degree in American history, with a minor in English lit. Melissa, giggling, had said that her degree in child development was actually an M.R.S. degree. As Eden got to know Stuart, she thought that a real diploma would have been much better.
After college, Melissa had taken a menial job in a law office in New York just to be near Stuart, telling her mother that if she “played her cards right” she was sure that Stuart would ask her to marry him. He did. After a year in the big city, Melissa had begged and pleaded with Eden to move to New York, get a job, and live near them. Since Eden had just broken up with a man and wanted to get away from him, she agreed. Within a week of arriving in New York, she got a job at a major publishing house. By what she called luck, and the publisher called “divine inspiration,” she found a book in the pile of unagented manuscripts that had been turned down by six houses. With her heart pounding, Eden recommended that it be published. It was, and it spent thirty-two weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. In gratitude, the author requested that Eden be his editor. By the end of her second year she’d been promoted to senior editor. By the third year she was handling some very big names in the publishing world. But by that time, Melissa and Stuart were married and living with her, and she’d learned not to tell anyone when good things happened with her job. She didn’t want to see the anger and jealousy on Stuart’s thin face.
As Eden looked in the mirror, she could see herself as she was when she first met Mrs. Farrington. So young, so inexperienced in the world. Eden had never been anywhere, done anything. Her parents…The less said about them, the better. Eden had tried to contact them three times after Melissa was born, but each time she’d been rebuffed. She went to her father’s funeral, but her mother had told her to get out.
But Mrs. Farrington saved me, Eden thought, smiling. It had been difficult after she left Mrs. Farrington’s house, but she and Melissa had had five whole years of warmth and love, so they made it. That house, which had taken her all those years to straighten up, was Eden’s “happy place.” When things got to be too much for her, from Melissa’s hateful third grade teacher, to Steve, a man Eden had almost married, to all the years of financial terror she’d lived through, Eden’s escape was to put herself back in that old house with Mrs. Farrington.
Closing her eyes for a moment, Eden could remember every inch of the place, every floorboard, every stick of furniture. What was the house like now? she wondered. Had it changed much? The letter said that she’d inherited house and contents. Was there any furniture left, or had Mrs. Farrington’s son taken whatever they hadn’t been able to hide?
Smiling, Eden remembered one day when they’d been burying a stack of plastic shoeboxes full of everything from old coins to children’s wooden toys—actually, she buried, and Mrs. Farrington directed. They feared that the items would rot before they could dig them up, but there wasn’t much choice. All the hiding space inside the house had been used. Mrs. Farrington leaned on her shovel handle and looked back at the house. “It ends with me.”
At first Eden didn’t know what she meant.
“Did you ever wonder how I kept the name Farrington? For centuries my family produced an eldest son, so the name stayed with us. But not my father. After being married for ten years he produced only one puny daughter, me. And don’t give me that women’s lib look. It was my father’s fault. My mother was a widow and had had three kids by her first husband. She was twenty-six years old and had already produced three healthy boys. But she married my father and didn’t conceive for ten years. When I was born I was so tiny they didn’t think I was going to live.”
Mrs. Farrington looked across the fence that enclosed her beloved flower garden. “Maybe I should have died,” she said. “Maybe…”
“So how did you keep the name?” Eden asked, not wanting her friend to dwell on sadness.
“Married my cousin. He was a distant cousin, but he had the Farrington name. My mother begged me not to do it. She said that the strain of our family was already fragile and a cousin would further weaken it. But I didn’t listen. If I had—if I hadn’t been so enraptured with the Farrington legacy and hadn’t felt as though I had to carry on the name—I would have married one of those great strapping Granville boys. My! But they were good-looking. Born ten months apart, strong as field hands, and smart. But I didn’t listen to anyone.”
“Haven’t changed much, have you?” Eden asked, straightening up. They had six more boxes to bury before sundown.
“No. I’ve always done what I wanted to, when I wanted to do it. Spoiled. Always was. So I married a man who I thought was good enough for me, meaning I married another Farrington.” She pointed at the next place Eden was to dig. “I was a fool. The man I married was a weak, foppish coward.” She took a deep breath. “My husband was what you call today a bisexual.”
Eden concentrated on the hole she was digging. Part of her wanted to tell Mrs. Farrington to stop remembering such dreadful things, but she knew that her friend had a point to make.
“My husband was an awful man, truly awful, and the only child we had together turned out to be worse than he was.” She looked up at the sky again, her hands making fists so hard the knuckles turned white. “So I’m the last one. The Farringtons end with me.”
“But your son could have children.”
“No, he can’t. The last time I got him out of jail, I only did so if he got fixed. Like a horse that’s no good. The world doesn’t want his seed spread around.”
“Oh,” Eden said, her head down, not knowing what to say. Vasectomy. As much as Mrs. Farrington cared about family, she had demanded that her only child be “fixed” so he could have no children.
“But the good news is that I found out that I’m bisexual too.”
Eden’s head came up as she looked at Mrs. Farrington in shock.
“I had affairs with both of those beautiful Granville boys.”
Eden laughed so hard she had to sit down on the ground and hold her stomach.
Now, even thinking about it, she chuckled. Two days after that, she’d been in town and had seen one of the Granville “boys.” He was ninety if he was a day, but he still stood up straight and still had a twinkle in his eye. When Eden stopped him to say hello, he asked after Mrs. Farrington, and Eden couldn’t keep a straight face. “Why don’t you visit her?” she asked, then a devil got into her. “Maybe you two could have lunch under the old willow tree down by the river.” That’s where Mrs. Farrington said that she’d made love with both boys, separately and together.
Mr. Granville laughed so hard that Eden began to fear for his heart. “Ah, Alice,” he said. “Alice, Alice, Alice. What beautiful days those were. Give her my love,” he said, then walked away, his shoulders back and his head up.
Yes, those days with Mrs. Farrington were good ones. The best days. The happiest of her life. And now Mrs. Farrington was gone and had left Eden that old house. She wondered if any of the boxes they’d buried were still there. Or had that son of hers taken them all? While it was true that Eden had had no direct contact with Mrs. Farrington after she left, she had kept in touch for a few years through Gracey. They’d exchanged a few letters, and Gracey had never asked why Eden left—in a small town everyone knew about everyone else, so they knew what the son was guilty of. Gracey had written Eden of the sale of pieces of furniture that had been in the Farrington family for centuries. One letter said Alester Farrington had gone to a Realtor and said the old house was for sale, but Mrs. Farrington went right down after him and said it wasn’t. She owned the house, of course, so it wasn’t put up for sale. For a while everyone in town feared for Mrs. Farrington’s life, but her lawyer spread the word around town that if “anything” happened to Mrs. Farrington, the house would go to charity.
Eden had felt bad when she’d read those letters, but there was nothing she could do. She had Melissa to take care of, and she couldn’t take her child back into that mess, not with Mrs. Farrington’s son there. Eden was so afraid of him that she wouldn’t even send a letter to Mrs. Farrington for fear her son would get her address.
Gracey died when Melissa was eleven, and after that Eden lost contact with the town. Over time she just assumed that dear Mrs. Farrington had died and that Alester had finally got his hands on the lovely old house. Yet, somehow, Mrs. Farrington had outlived him.
Eden looked down at the letter. It was short, stating only that Mrs. Farrington’s son had died “a number of years ago” and had left no issue, so Mrs. Farrington was willing the house and contents to Eden Palmer. When Eden saw that the letter was signed by Mr. Braddon Granville, esquire, she smiled. The grandson of one of the “beautiful Granville boys.”
Of course Eden couldn’t possibly keep the house. Too much to maintain. Maybe she’d will it to a historical society so they could lead tours through it. Yes, that was a good idea. In the 1700s there had been hundreds of plantations along the river, but the houses had been pulled down, burned down, and bulldozed over the centuries. Now there were few houses like Farrington Manor left. It was, for the most part, an untouched house. Yes, there were two bathrooms in the house, and electricity too—but the paneling remained untouched from the time the house was built in 1720.
Or was it? Eden thought. Was the house the same now as it was those many years ago? What had been done to that beautiful old house in the past twenty-two years? Maybe she’d ask for some time off from work and go to North Carolina to see the house. Just see it, then fly right back to New York so she’d be here when Melissa had her baby. Heaven knew that Stuart wouldn’t be any good in the delivery room. He’d leave Melissa by herself to sweat and cry and…
“If I weren’t there, maybe he would go into the delivery room,” Eden whispered aloud. Maybe if she wasn’t there, always between the two of them, maybe they’d make themselves into a family. Maybe if Stuart had to support his wife and child he’d get the courage to go to his boss and ask for that promotion.
Eden sat down hard on the chair by her bed. The problem with being a single mother to an only child was that your lives got entwined with each other’s in a very deep way. Right now, she couldn’t believe what was going through her head. Leave Melissa? They’d been separated only once, and that was when Melissa went to New York to be near Stuart. During that year there had been endless phone calls, and Eden had flown to the city three times. Every extra penny she’d earned had gone to the airlines. Eden’s attachment to Melissa was what had ultimately caused her breakup with Steve. “She’s a grown woman,” Steve had shouted. “Let her live her own life!” “She will always be my baby,” Eden had answered. She’d returned his ring the next week.
But now Melissa was married and going to have her own child. And Melissa was caught between her love for her mother and for her husband.
Suddenly Eden could see her own part in what must be great stress to Melissa. Stuart tried to get his wife to eat healthy food while she was pregnant; Eden filled the refrigerator with pastries and chocolate. Did Stuart not look in the refrigerator because he knew what was in there?
Eden disliked Stuart because he made no effort to get them their own place to live, but now Eden remembered one night of hearing soft sobs from Melissa. Eden had been about to knock on their bedroom door when she heard Melissa say, “But she’d be so lonely if we left her. You don’t understand that I’m all she has. I’m her whole life. And I owe everything to her.”
At the time, Eden had smiled at what she’d heard and gone back to her own room. But now she didn’t like the memory. Had it been Melissa who’d kept them from moving into their own apartment?
Epiphany. It was one of those blinding moments when people truly see themselves as they really are—and Eden didn’t like what she saw. Yes, Melissa was her whole life. All of it. But now there was Stuart. Had Eden treated him as a usurper?
“The book!” Eden said aloud, the memory startling her. When she’d moved to New York, out of the back of a closet she’d pulled an old file box that she hadn’t looked inside in years. In her frantic haste in leaving Mrs. Farrington’s house on that night, she’d accidentally picked up the box she’d labeled PERTINENT INFORMATION. In her five and a half years of cataloging and listening to Mrs. Farrington, Eden had filled many notebooks with interesting facts about the family. There had been some beautiful letters written by a bride to her new husband who was serving in the Confederate Army. She wrote him one last letter after she found out he’d been killed, put it with their letters, and tied them up with ribbons. Even though she’d only been a teenager, Eden had realized that what she was reading could be made into a biography of the family, and she intended to write it, once the cataloging was done. She’d put all her notes and hundreds of photocopies into one box, which she’d accidentally taken when she’d left. But she never opened the box until many years later, when she got to New York. Eden had at last opened the box and started reading the notes she’d made, as well as looking over the huge pile of photocopies. Before she knew what she was doing, she was putting all the material in chronological order and writing introductions to each section. She spent several Saturdays in the New York Public Library, looking up facts so she could tell what was going on in the world at the time of the events in the lives of the Farringtons.
One day in her second year at the publishing house, Eden had stopped by the office of one of the nonfiction editors and asked her to have a look at what she’d written. Three days later the editor said she’d like to publish the book but couldn’t because they’d all be sued. “You can’t say those things about living people,” she’d told Eden. “Wait until they’re dead, then you can say anything.”
Disappointed, Eden had taken the manuscript home with the intention of taking out all the things that could get her into trouble, such as Mrs. Farrington’s love affairs. After hours of dulling the book down, she’d put her laptop aside and turned on the TV. The book was ruined, lifeless, and she knew it. But after Jay Leno’s opening monologue, she had an idea. What about turning it into fiction? A novel? She picked up her laptop again and began a ‘search and replace’ for the names and other identifying information. The sun came up, and she was still writing.
Six weeks later, she handed the manuscript to a fiction editor who had agreed to read it as a favor to Eden. Next morning the editor had burst into Eden’s office to tell her she wanted to publish the book. Eden had acted cool, keeping her composure, but now she knew how people felt when she called them and asked to publish their books: screaming, crying, general hysterics.
The bad part was that Eden had no one to share the wonderful news with. She wanted to tell Melissa, but her daughter would tell Stuart, and his jealousy would ruin what should have been a wonderful event. And he would put Melissa between them.
The book was now due to come out in three months. Advance reader copies had already been printed and sent out to critics and libraries all over the United States. So far, the comments had been favorable. Actually, they were great. She told herself that the book would never hit the best-seller lists, but she hoped that it would do well. The few people in her publishing house who’d read the book had certainly liked it. If someone came into her office laughing, you could bet that he’d read it. “Bisexual lover” became a catchphrase around the publishing house.
It wouldn’t be long before Eden would have to tell Melissa and Stuart about the book, and until this moment she had thought of her book as yet another triumph over Stuart’s arrogance. But right now, Eden wasn’t seeing it as a triumph. Right now she was seeing her success as another page in her daughter’s divorce decree.
Standing up, Eden knew what she had to do. Mrs. Farrington had saved the life of Eden and her unborn child, and now it just might be possible that Mrs. Farrington had saved a marriage and preserved a good mother-daughter relationship.
Eden took a deep breath and put on a brave face. She had to prepare herself for the coming storm. When she told them she was leaving, there’d be tears from her daughter and triumph from Stuart. Eden had to be strong.