Finally, landed flickered over on the arrivals board for United flight 839 from LAX. Madeleine let out a little squeal. She looked up at Henry’s impassive face, her eyes shining.
‘Well, aren’t you excited?’ she said.
‘Of course,’ he said calmly.
‘You’d never know it. If I were you I’d be jumping out of my skin.’
‘I am, just on the inside.’
She grinned. ‘You can’t jump out of your skin on the inside. That’s not possible.’
He leant closer. ‘Just between you and me, it’s not possible to jump out of your skin at all.’
Madeleine screwed up her nose at him. ‘Anything’s possible in a metaphor.’
It didn’t matter, she was excited enough for the both of them. She was finally going to meet Henry’s lifelong best friend, Aiden Carmichael. Well, not entirely lifelong – they had been roommates in college back in the States, so it was more like half a lifetime. But Madeleine had never met anyone from Henry’s past. And from all accounts Aiden was going to be a lot more forthcoming than Henry, which wouldn’t be hard, given that Henry was one of the most unforthcoming people Madeleine had ever known. No, that wasn’t fair, that made him sound cold or aloof, and he was neither. He was always calm and supremely patient, while she was generally excitable and terribly impatient, which often provoked the observation ‘You two are so different!’, to which Madeleine wanted to retort, ‘Haven’t you heard that opposites attract?’ But she generally held her tongue these days; she didn’t need to have a comeback for everything, better to let some things just slide. Being with Henry had taught her that. He was the yin to her yang, or the yang to her yin, whichever way it went. All she knew was that Henry centred her, providing much-needed balance in her life, and now she couldn’t imagine a life without him. And that’s why she was going to marry him, in just a few short weeks.
Her phone suddenly started to ring inside her handbag. She used to have the old-fashioned telephone ring, to differentiate it from all the pop tunes everyone else had. But then everyone must have had the same idea, and Madeleine was forever diving into her bag until she realised it wasn’t her phone ringing. So she’d changed her ringtone to a rumba, or a tango, or the Macarena, something like that. And now she felt mortified every time it rang.
‘It’s not work, is it?’ Henry sighed and returned his gaze to the arrivals board as Madeleine rooted around for her phone. Henry hated the thing, and she could hardly blame him; it did go off an awful lot, and the rumba-tango did get pretty annoying. Henry’s phone rarely went off, seeing as she was about the only person who had his number.
She finally plucked it out of her bag and checked the screen. ‘Nope, not work – Mum.’ She flashed Henry a quick, appeasing smile before answering the phone, covering her other ear to block out the surrounding hubbub. ‘Hi, Mum?’
‘Yes, it’s me. How did you know?’
Madeleine had to go over this every second time her mother rang. She really should just answer with her stock greeting, ‘Madeleine Pepper’s phone’, but that usually elicited the response, ‘No need to be so formal, it’s only your mum.’
‘Your name comes up on my phone, remember?’ Madeleine explained now.
‘Oh, that’s clever,’ Margaret said. ‘How does it know?’
This was going to turn into one of those conversations if Madeleine didn’t rein it in now. ‘Listen, Mum, I can’t hear you very well, so I better not stay on long. What were you ringing about?’
‘Why can’t you hear me? Are you in the shower?’
‘No, Mum, you can’t take a phone into the shower.’ Madeleine thought it prudent to mention that little safety tip. ‘We’re at the airport, to pick up Henry’s best man, remember?’
‘Yes, I think I remember him. Pleasant-looking fellow, with the wavy brown hair?’
She was describing Henry. ‘No, Mum, you haven’t met Aiden.’
‘Henry’s best man. His plane just landed. I haven’t even met him yet.’ ‘Well, you’d better get off the phone and go and say hello or else it will look rude.’
‘It’s okay, he’s not through Customs yet.’
‘What was that?’
Madeleine had to put an end to this. ‘You’re right, Mum, I better go say hello. What were you calling about?’ ‘I wasn’t calling you, I was calling your sister.’ ‘Oh, did you ring my number by mistake?’ ‘No, when Genevieve didn’t answer I tried you instead.
I thought you might know where she is.’
Madeleine glanced at her watch. It was just before nine. ‘At this time of the morning she’ll be in a mad panic trying to get the kids out the door for school. I think she’d likely ignore the phone.’
‘But doesn’t she have one of those phones like yours, that tells her who’s calling?’ Of course she did, which explained why she didn’t pick up. ‘Was it important, Mum?’
‘Oh, no, not important . . . I didn’t mean to bother anyone . . .’
‘You’re not bothering anyone,’ Madeleine tried to reassure her. ‘It’s just that Gen’s usually pretty frantic before school. She probably thought she’d let it go to voicemail and then ring back later.’
‘But I didn’t leave a message. How will she know it was me?’
‘The phone will know it was you.’
‘Goodness, it’s a little creepy, isn’t it?’
‘Oh, I just realised . . . Is that why they call them smart-phones?’
‘It’s probably one of the reasons,’ said Madeleine. ‘Anyway, if that’s everything, Mum, I better go.’
‘Say goodbye to Henry’s friend for me,’ Margaret said. ‘We’ll see him next time.’
Madeleine decided it wasn’t worth trying to clarify things over again, so she said goodbye and hung up, turning off her phone this time before slipping it back into her bag.
‘Is everything all right?’ Henry asked.
She just gave him a shrug in reply.
Her mother had been like this ever since Madeleine’s dad died. Well, not immediately after; at first she was grief-stricken and wandered around the house in a daze. Madeleine had had to cook and clean, and basically pick up after her as though she was a child. Eventually the fog lifted, but after that she was easily confused, her thoughts scattered, her memory patchy. At Genevieve’s insistence, Madeleine finally took her for tests, but apparently there was nothing wrong with her, she didn’t have Alzheimer’s or dementia. The doctor had explained to Madeleine that as Margaret had always let her husband do the talking, make the decisions and generally deal with everything, she was probably just a little overwhelmed at having to do it for herself. Jonathan Pepper wasn’t authoritarian, not in the least; he was kind and articulate and wise, and they had all deferred to him to varying degrees. So really, Margaret just had to find her own voice. She would be her old self again in time, the doctor assured Madeleine. But nearly ten years had passed, and she was still not her old self. How could she be, when she’d lost her other half?
‘Any sign of him yet?’ Madeleine asked Henry, craning to see between the heads blocking her view.
‘The plane only landed five minutes ago,’ he reminded her. ‘He’ll be a while yet. Do you want to go get a coffee?’
‘No I do not,’ she said, horrified. ‘You can’t say for sure how long it’ll take. What if he was to come down the ramp, searching hopefully among the faces in the crowd, and we weren’t here? It’s unthinkable. We’re not budging from this spot!’
‘All right,’ Henry said, looking bemused. ‘Are you always this anxious waiting at airports?’
She glanced at him sideways. ‘You should see me when I’m waiting for you.’
He smiled, leaning closer to press his lips against her forehead. ‘We have had some significant moments in airports, haven’t we?’
‘Yes we have.’ Madeleine tucked her arm into his. ‘And this is going to be another. I’m just excited to finally meet someone from your side. It’s a big deal, like meeting family for the first time.’
‘But Aiden’s not family.’
She scanned his face for a hint of sadness, but as usual, Henry wasn’t giving anything away. It was only when they’d started to plan the wedding that Madeleine discovered there was no family on Henry’s side to invite. He’d never talked about his early life much. She knew that he was born in Columbus, Ohio, the only child of older parents who hadn’t been expecting a baby at that stage of their lives. Henry said they didn’t really know what to do with a kid. He was fed and clothed and schooled, but left to his own devices the rest of the time. So from a very young age he’d learnt to occupy himself, which was how his passion for drawing, and later painting, had developed. Madeleine liked to imagine a Robert Louis Stevenson–type scenario, a small, sensitive boy tucked away in his bedroom creating stories – or, in Henry’s case, pictures – and later becoming a renowned author and illustrator of children’s books. She wondered why some clever marketing executive hadn’t exploited that image ages ago, but Henry didn’t need it now, his books sold on his name alone.
Sadly, his parents were never to know of his success. His mother died of kidney failure in Henry’s first year away at college, and his father died some time after. Although Henry didn’t say much about it, Madeleine gathered that he and his father hadn’t had a great deal to do with each other in the intervening years. He’d had a grandmother, his mother’s mother, who’d sent him a birthday card every year, with a five-dollar note inside. And each summer he’d made the trek back out to the Midwest to visit her, until she’d died too. He had no other family that he was aware of.
‘Aiden’s the closest thing you’ve got to family,’ Madeleine pointed out. ‘You said he’s like a brother to you.’
‘Yes, but I also told you he’s nothing like me.’
‘Still, he knew you way back, longer than anyone else I’ve met.’
Henry looked at her. ‘Are you hoping to dig up some dirt on me?’
‘I won’t be holding my breath,’ she said drolly. She couldn’t imagine there being any dirt to dig up on Henry, though for some reason he did seem to have mixed feelings about Aiden coming to stay. Madeleine just put that down to the fact that Henry was an intensely private man, but she couldn’t help being curious to meet someone who had shared a little of his past.
‘Look,’ she said, ‘you know all my family, my friends, the people I work with. Don’t you think that gives you a greater understanding of me?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘You’re not much like your mother or Genevieve.’
‘Oh yes I am,’ she begged to differ.
‘All due respect,’ he said, dropping his voice, ‘but they’re both a little crazy.’
Madeleine smiled up at him. ‘Don’t you remember what I was like when we met?’
She often wondered now if she’d been on the verge of some kind of breakdown. Perhaps that was overstating it, but it would certainly not be an overstatement to say that her life had been spiralling out of control. And it had probably been heading that way ever since her dad died. It was a devastating loss for their family, really for anyone who knew Jon Pepper, and there were an awful lot of people who knew and loved him. He’d been a high school English teacher for nearly thirty years, and he should have had many more years ahead of him. The good really do die young – and it wasn’t a cliché if it was true. Madeleine was always being pulled up for her overuse of clichés and metaphors; it was one of the drawbacks of spending your working life surrounded by authors and editors . . .
Anyway, where was she? (She was also frequently accused of losing track of what she was saying. Her mind just went into overdrive sometimes. Okay, often.) After her beloved father died, they’d all had to somehow find a way to go on without him. But Margaret had struggled, so even though Madeleine was twenty-five years old with two degrees under her belt and really should have been off finding her own feet, instead she had to stay around and help her mother find hers. By then Genevieve was already living out of home, and as far as she was concerned, Margaret was primarily Madeleine’s responsibility. Especially with the wedding coming up. Genevieve had promptly become engaged to her boyfriend after their father’s death, in a rather impulsive attempt to re-create the family she felt she’d lost, at least that’s how Madeleine read it. What else could explain the sheer madness of organising a wedding when everyone was still in the throes of grief? Madeleine was appointed maid of honour, of course – a dubious honour which apparently gave Genevieve the right to treat her like an indentured servant, but indentured servant of honour didn’t have quite the same ring to it.
Needless to say, the first year was tough. But with Genevieve safely delivered into matrimony, and Margaret becoming a smidge more independent, Madeleine was finally able to start thinking about her own future. Jonathan had instilled a love of literature in both his daughters, and so Madeleine found herself with both a BA and a master’s in English literature and no idea what to do with either of them. After finishing her bachelor’s degree she had only intended to take honours, but then her father got sick and she was incapable of thinking of life beyond his next treatment, his next test result, his dwindling options. So Madeleine stayed at uni, where it was familiar and comfortable, and her honours thesis developed into a master’s. If her father had lived longer, she may well have ended up with a doctorate.
Jonathan had probably assumed she would follow the family tradition and become a teacher, just as Genevieve had, but the idea left Madeleine cold; the sheer patience required was beyond her. But what else was she going to do? The practical applications of her qualifications were limited, to say the least. Despite her obsession with books, she had no desire to write. Well, the truth was she couldn’t write. She could barely manage a page of so-so, derivative prose before she got bored. What she did love to do was read, and she read fast and prolifically, always impatient to get to the end of the story and start on the next on her to-be-read pile. She didn’t know of any jobs that paid you to do that.
But she had to do something. Eventually she registered with a temp agency so that she could gain some office skills, and after three excruciatingly dull and, frankly, mystifying placements in finance companies, she was sent to Amblin Press, a publishing house! Why hadn’t she thought of this before? Although at her level the work was tiresome and seemed to consist almost entirely of photocopying, she was surrounded by books and manuscripts – so many pages, so many words, so much to read! She was in heaven, and she was in an ideal position to figure out where she could possibly slot into such an establishment.
The role of publisher appealed, naturally – getting to read manuscripts and take authors to lunch, while delegating all the boring stuff. Plus they seemed to be the only ones who had offices with windows. But the other thing Madeleine soon learnt was that to be a publisher you had to work your way up the editorial ladder and earn that office with a window. She could think of nothing more tedious or thankless than combing the pages of manuscripts searching for typos and errors and making corrections and writing tiny little notes on tiny little post-its. Good for them, salt of the earth and all that, books wouldn’t be readable without editors . . . but it just wasn’t for Madeleine. She knew her limitations: she simply did not possess the patience gene, or the focus gene, or the attention-to-detail gene, for that matter. The more senior editors wielded a broader brush, but to get to that level you still had to do the tedious jobs first. There seemed to be no way to bypass that painstaking route.
Then one day, on another floor, Madeleine discovered the publicity department and had an epiphany. It was just like in the movies when they play that angel-chorus sound effect.
That’s what Madeleine heard when she stepped into the big open-plan office, buzzing with activity. The women–and they were all women – were glamorous and confident and totally out there, and Madeleine was immediately in awe of them. She was seconded a few times to help out in the section, and although the work was boring there too – she was only temping, so it was mostly clipping reviews, answering phones, running errands – Madeleine was entranced just watching the publicists do their thing. It was like being in one of those old Hollywood screwball comedies with smart, sassy, fast-talking women in tight suits and high heels. If they weren’t on the phone, they were rushing off to lunches or launches, or meeting planes and ferrying authors around to ‘it’ restaurants and being on a first-name basis with everyone in the media. And to top it all off, they got to read books – they had to read books, it was part of the job! Madeleine had found her calling, now she just had to find a way in.
She began by dressing the part, transforming her look from ‘student on work experience’ to proper, fully fledged working adult. Considering she had been an adult for some time, that transformation was long overdue. From then on, she put up her hand to work in publicity at every opportunity. If she was working in another section, she would drop by after she was finished to see if they needed a hand with anything, like one of those goody two-shoes, schoolgirl teacher’s pets. Liv, the head publicist, started to notice her, and a kind of informal mentor-ship evolved. They often got to talking, late in the afternoon when no one else was around. Liv was going through a hard time since her marriage had broken down, leaving her holding not one but two babies – twins. They were school age by then and Liv was trying to juggle a demanding full-time job, which she loved, with raising her young sons, whom she loved much more. She constantly worried that she was a bad mother, and then she worried that she wasn’t giving her all to her job. She adored her boys, but she wondered when she would ever get her life back, and then she worried that she was being selfish even having that thought.
Madeleine was horrified that someone as accomplished and amazing and awesome as Liv should be second guessing herself that way. So she told Liv she wasn’t a bad mother at all, that her own sister was a married, stay-at-home mum and yet she, too, was constantly plagued with guilt that she wasn’t a good mother. That it seemed to Madeleine that guilt was the default position for all mothers, and she pondered the now rapidly becoming age-old question of why men didn’t have any guilt about juggling children and work. The two of them became fast friends, and the next time a position came up in the department Liv decided to give Madeleine the opportunity.
There was no way she was going to let Liv down, so Madeleine had literally thrown herself into the job – okay, not literally, she wouldn’t hear the end of it if she dared to utter that in front of an editor. One could not literally throw oneself into a job, that wasn’t physically possible, she got it. Anyway . . . the job, it consumed her life. It was more than nine to five, more than five days a week. She was on call nights, weekends, for days at a time at festivals, or weeks at a time on author tours, flying around the country, living in hotel rooms. There was one memorable stretch when she didn’t sleep a single night in her own bed for eight weeks. But it was exhilarating and Madeleine thrived on it. She didn’t have time any more to miss her dad, or feel guilty that she wasn’t spending enough time with her mum, or listen to Genevieve telling her that she ought to feel guilty that she wasn’t spending enough time with their mum . . . truth was she didn’t have time to stop and think about much of anything. Certainly not what all of this was doing to her health and general wellbeing. After a few years in the job she was drinking way too much, way too often, but it was difficult to avoid. It was a rare author who didn’t like a drink, and if you were accompanying them to events you had to be sociable. She even took up smoking for a while there; again, a fair proportion of authors liked a smoke, and with all the regulations they could only smoke outside, and Madeleine couldn’t let them stand out there by themselves. She had to go with them, and it was easier just to join them – it made them feel more comfortable, and that was her job, after all.
‘To get lung cancer?’ Margaret cried, the first time she smelt it on Madeleine’s clothes. Her mother was constantly worried about her. But her mother was constantly worried about everything: global warming, boat people, the Greens, bacteria on kitchen benchtops, you name it. She no longer had her husband’s voice of reason to calm her fears, and so they proliferated unchecked, a little like bacteria on kitchen benchtops. Ever since she’d taken to listening to talkback radio – she said it kept her company – Margaret Pepper was frightened of everything.
Madeleine’s lifestyle also provided her sister with endless opportunities to tell her what she was doing wrong with her life. Genevieve had the typical married-with-children mindset: everyone was supposed to settle down, because that’s what adults did, even if it made them miserable. Madeleine had no business at her age to be out partying and travelling and generally having a good time.
‘How are you ever going to settle down?’ Genevieve would commonly ask.
‘Who said I want to settle down?’ Madeleine would commonly answer.
To which Genevieve would commonly take offence.
Madeleine could never understand why people reacted that way. If you lived your life differently to them it didn’t mean you were casting aspersions on their choices. The logical conclusion of that line of thought would have everyone making the same choices, living the same lives. What a boring place the world would be then.
‘You can’t keep living like this, Mad,’ Genevieve would declare loudly down the phone, so that she could be heard over the cacophony produced by three little boys running amok.
‘It’s my job,’ Madeleine would reply.
‘It’s a young person’s job,’ Genevieve would counter. ‘You’re over thirty now, Mad, you’re going to burn out at this rate. You have to start thinking about slowing down, getting into some other line of work.’
Though Madeleine would never have admitted it to Genevieve, she’d started to suspect she might be heading for burnout. She felt as though she was suffering from a perpetual hangover, she had to buy concealer in bulk to hide the dark shadows under her eyes, and she was becoming forgetful and sloppy. She had arrived late for a number of early meetings, wearing clothes she had fished out of a pile on the floor. Liv had started to make the odd pointed comment, and she was a seasoned party girl herself. However, there was an unwritten code in publicity: party as hard as you like, but you must never let it affect your work the next day. Despite having twins to organise, Liv was never late for morning meetings, Madeleine had never noticed dark circles under her eyes, and she would never have been caught dead in the same clothes two days running. Liv had told Madeleine that she had to start looking after herself or she wouldn’t be any use to anyone. Then, with the Sydney Writers’ Festival fast approaching, she was assigned just one, solitary children’s author. Madeleine was dismayed; usually she handled three or four authors, depending on how big they were, if they had come from overseas, and how many sessions they were booked for. But Liv was adamant. Henry Darrow was very important, she explained; he made more money for them than most of the other authors at the festival put together. It was an absolute coup that he was coming at all – he was known to be a bit of a recluse, rarely attending festivals, and yet he was travelling all the way from the States for this.
Yay. A reclusive children’s book author. This’ll be fun, Madeleine had thought wryly.
‘I still remember the expression on your face when you were waiting for me at the airport that first time, holding the placard with my name,’ Henry said now. ‘You didn’t look very excited.’
‘I was just having a pout because I was going to miss the festival opening-night party, and I’d never missed a festival opening-night party,’ said Madeleine.
‘Just because I didn’t want to go didn’t mean you couldn’t.’
‘Yes it did. See, it wasn’t just the party, there was the after-party as well, and they go all night, and I had to pick you up at, like, eight in the morning.’
‘I’m sorry I ruined your fun.’
Madeleine grinned up at him. ‘I know, the sacrifices I’ve made.’
She’d had to remain on her best behaviour for the entire festival, which wasn’t too difficult – children’s authors were not exactly party animals, and Henry’s sessions were all scheduled in the morning. Madeleine offered to take him to lunch the first day, but he politely declined, saying he preferred to go for a walk, explore the city a little. The expression on her face must have given her away, because he quickly added, ‘It’s okay, you don’t have to come with me.’
‘But I do,’ she explained. ‘It’s my job.’
‘You’re not really dressed for walking,’ he said with a glance at her pencil-thin skirt and matching pencil-thin heels. ‘Seriously, Ms Pepper, I don’t need a minder. And I can make my way back to the hotel myself, there’s no need for you to wait around.’
Madeleine was perplexed. Liv would not be happy about this – she should be doing far more to promote him. ‘What if I set up drinks later, after you’ve come back from your walk?’ she suggested.
‘I’m not much of a drinker, I’m afraid.’
‘But there are lots of influential people here, I can arrange for you to meet some of them.’
‘Well, so you can network, make contacts.’
He took his time to answer, and he seemed self-conscious when he finally did. ‘I don’t know if you’re aware, Ms Pepper, but I’m doing all right. I don’t really need to make “contacts”.’
Madeleine cringed inside. Of course he didn’t. He would be the star attraction at any meet and greet she could throw together, and she could totally understand why he didn’t want to be put through that, considering his shyness.
Though Madeleine wasn’t so sure she would call him shy. He was reserved, or maybe contained was a better word, but he seemed comfortable enough in his own skin. He led his sessions confidently, in a quiet but commanding voice that had his young audiences leaning forward in their seats to catch his every word. Even Madeleine had found herself mesmerised, and she was clearly not the only grown-up who was. The mothers lining up at the signings afterwards behaved like schoolgirls, giggling and flirting; one woman even leant right over the signing table to flash her cleavage at him, and she had a four year old with her! Madeleine had felt quite affronted, and then protective, and then outright possessive. Back off, ladies, she felt like saying, he’s mine. Um, as in, he’s my charge . . . my responsibility . . . Oh, just back off!
And it wasn’t like he was all smooth and flirty back at them; on the contrary, he often looked abashed, and a little overwhelmed by it all. There was something in that diffidence, in the slight, tentative smiles, that Madeleine found endearing. Or maybe it was his eyes, soft brown eyes you could get quite lost in. Or his dark hair that looked like it was overdue for a cut, and was always a little tousled, which made you want to run your fingers through it to straighten it up, or at least Madeleine did.
Whatever it was, by week’s end she’d decided she could not leave Henry Darrow to wander the streets again all day on his own. It was impolite, if nothing else, and he had shown himself to be polite to a fault. She felt he deserved the same consideration in return – indeed, it was her duty as his publicist.
So when she picked him up on the morning of his final session she was dressed in jeans and walking shoes. She noticed a faint flicker of surprise pass across his eyes.
‘I figured you must have walked the entire length and breadth of the city by now and you might want to go further afield,’ she explained, oddly nervous. ‘So after your session this morning, I’ll be at your disposal for the rest of the day. I’ll take you wherever you want to go.’
She was rewarded with a smile for that. Score. ‘That’s very thoughtful of you,’ he said. ‘I appreciate it.’
Of course, not knowing the country, he couldn’t really say where he wanted to go, just that he wanted to go somewhere, anywhere, away from the city, and Madeleine knew just the place. Her father had been a keen bushwalker, and one of his favourite haunts was the Sydney Harbour National Park at North Head. It was just out of Manly, so it wouldn’t take them too long to get there. But it was surprisingly secluded and unspoilt, even rugged in patches, and as a bonus it had fabulous views to the city across the water. Henry was suitably impressed, and he seemed to be more at ease out there in the open.
Madeleine would later tell people that this was the day she started to fall in love with Henry Darrow, even though nothing particularly remarkable happened. Mostly they’d just walked and talked. She learnt that he lived in New York, but that he also had a place in the Hamptons – he needed to get out of the city to be able to get inside his head to work. He craved open spaces, which was partly what had prompted him to accept the invitation to Australia, but he was a little disappointed to find that the outback was a long way out back and that Sydney was as bustling and busy as any international city.
As they walked, Madeleine found herself telling him about her life, her family, and especially her dad, something she wasn’t in the habit of doing. Publicists were not particularly prone to talking about themselves, their job was to talk up other people, yet here she was, pouring out her life story to a stranger. But Henry didn’t feel like a stranger. She didn’t know exactly why; maybe it was because he reminded her a little of her dad, especially in that setting.
Perhaps the most surprising part for Madeleine was that they also walked for long stretches and didn’t talk at all, which was a whole new experience for her. But it was okay, she didn’t feel the need to fill up the silence with mindless chatter. And the silence, the stillness, was a revelation, clearing her head, giving her a sense of peace she hadn’t felt in a long time.
That night Madeleine had poured herself a glass of wine and opened the box of Henry’s books she’d brought home from the office. They had won awards in almost every language they had been translated into, but it wasn’t really about the words – the pictures were universal. His books were bought by new parents to be the first books they read to their babies, and they were cherished by those same babies as they grew up. You were unlikely to find Henry Darrow books in secondhand stores – they were kept, destined to become heirlooms.
Madeleine had flicked through them before, of course, but they were picture books, with barely more than a line of text to a page. They could be read in a couple of minutes, so she’d never taken the time to examine them closely. Now she saw that the pictures were exquisite, simple and sophisticated at the same time. Clean, elegant lines and smudges of colour – dappled pink for a child’s cheek, a blot of blue, and there was a baby with wonder in her eyes, so real that Madeleine could almost feel her breathing. On another page was a menacing sky in shades of grey and, unexpectedly, a splash of yellow. Again the colours were smudged on the page, with only a line and a couple of strokes to suggest the land below, or tufts of grass on the horizon. The colours darkened over the page, a storm was brewing, and Madeleine felt cold.
An hour passed, maybe two, and she hadn’t touched her wine. She usually rushed through books, gobbling up the words greedily, but here the words were sparse, every syllable intentional. Madeleine slowed down, savouring the images. They held stories too; she just had to be still and give them time to sink in.
On second thoughts, maybe that was when she fell in love with Henry Darrow.
The following day, Madeleine took Henry to the airport for his flight home. He tried to insist that she drop him off at Departures, but Madeleine wouldn’t hear of it. ‘They make you check in so early for overseas flights, I don’t want you to have to wait on your own all that time.’
‘It’s really okay.’
Madeleine didn’t want to push it. Actually, yes she did. ‘The thing is, I was going to ask you to sign some of your books for me.’
He glanced at the pile on the back seat, then gave her a faint smile. ‘Of course.’
So after he’d checked in, they went to get coffee, and Henry signed the books, and Madeleine waited with him right up until his flight was called. They talked, or they didn’t, either way was fine – she had never felt so comfortable just sitting in silence with another person. Finally, when they stood facing each other at the departure gate, she was overwhelmed by an urge to grab him and hold him close to her, to keep a part of him with her. There was something he had that she wanted to hold on to. Although she had met him only a few days ago, she knew she was going to feel bereft without him. But she had no idea what to do about it; nothing remotely like this had ever happened to her before.
Henry was first to speak. ‘It was good to meet you.’
He smiled. That smile. ‘Yes,’ he assured her, ‘it was very good to meet you, Madeleine.’
She loved the way he said her name in his soft Midwestern accent. Who knew Americans could be so soft-spoken?
‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘Because I don’t know if I come across all that well.’
‘Why would you say that about yourself?’ he asked kindly.
‘What I mean is,’ Madeleine quickly tried to explain, ‘I talk too much, like I’m going to talk too much now. I’m sure someone like me must grate on someone like you. I mean, you choose your words carefully, and you don’t need to yabber on all the time, whereas I don’t seem to know when to stop – you might have noticed. But I hope I didn’t grate on you, not too much anyway. Because I think . . . I think you’re nice, you’re very nice, and I’ve really enjoyed being your publicist, and getting to know you . . . and I really hope I see you again . . . sometime.’
As soon as she managed to get the words out, tears welled up in her eyes. She could not believe this was happening! He was going to think she was no better than a moony adolescent, and she would have to agree. But instead, to her surprise, he took both her hands in his, and Madeleine didn’t feel the jolt of electricity you read about in romance novels, but rather a sense of calm, travelling right up her arms and through her whole body, engulfing her. It was like being wrapped in a warm blanket.
‘I hope I see you again too,’ he said.
Madeleine decided she had to do something to make sure of that. She had no idea what, but she couldn’t let go of the first real connection she had felt to another person since her father had died.
The best she could come up with for now was to send an email, straightaway, so that it would be waiting for him when he arrived home. But when she sat down to write it, she had no idea what to say. They’d only just parted, she had no news to share, and there were only so many ways to ask him if he’d had a good flight home. After discarding too many attempts to count, Madeleine finally decided to be upfront.
When I said I hope to see you again, I wasn’t just being polite. I realise we live on opposite sides of the world, and I don’t even know how it would be possible, but I really do want to see you again.
There, I said it. If you think I’m nuts, just don’t respond to this email.
But he did respond. Anything’s possible, he assured her, if you want it badly enough.
The email conversation continued, and they became virtual best friends over cyberspace. Madeleine babbled about anything and everything; when she had a prickly author to deal with, or a stressful meeting coming up, Henry would always remember to ask her about it afterwards. He wrote to her when he hadn’t talked to anyone else in days. She knew when he’d had a good day working, or a bad day, what the weather was like in the Hamptons, how beautiful the beach was in front of his cottage. She said she would love to see it. He said she should come over.
Madeleine said yes without hesitation; she was prepared to go halfway across the world to be with him even though they had never so much as kissed. It felt romantic and exciting . . . and bloody terrifying. What if she was reading more into it than Henry intended? What if he was only inviting her as a friend? She had gone on and on about New York and the Hamptons, how much she’d always wanted to go – perhaps he’d felt harangued into asking her?
‘Are you kidding me?’ Liv had said in response to Madeleine’s litany of hypotheticals. ‘He didn’t ask you to come to New York – and stay with him – because he wants to give you a cheap holiday and show you the sights. Wake up and smell the bagels, girl.’
She had a point. ‘Okay, but what if it all goes horribly wrong?’ said Madeleine. ‘We haven’t even kissed. What if he’s a terrible kisser? What if I am? You know, at least to him. What I mean is, what if there’s just no chemistry?’
Liv groaned. ‘So far there’s been nothing but chemistry between you two. I don’t think you have to worry about that. You should be more worried you might both spontaneously self-combust on contact, there’s so much bloody chemistry.’
She was probably right, but still there was more turbulence going on inside Madeleine’s head than on the flight over. But she knew what she had to do. She couldn’t stand the uncertainty for a moment longer, and she had to leave no room for misinterpretation. So she marched through the barrier at JFK and right up to Henry, threw her arms around him and kissed him soundly. Although he couldn’t have been expecting it, it took him only seconds to catch up, and as he brought his arms around her and held her close, Madeleine had the most overwhelming sensation that she was home – not in America, but with Henry.
They made love as soon as they got back to his apartment, but not urgently or frantically; Madeleine could never imagine Henry doing anything urgently. And she soon discovered to her delight that there was something to be said for non-urgent lovemaking. In fact, a lot to be said.
There followed almost a year of going back and forth between New York and Sydney – Madeleine only the once, she didn’t have the leave or the funds to repeat it, but Henry came out four times. Madeleine had never felt so grounded, and calm, and just happy. Except whenever he had to leave.
The morning of his last flight home, she was lying on the bed watching him pack, already missing him. ‘I wish you didn’t have to go.’
She jumped up onto her knees. ‘Then don’t.’
‘I’ll marry you,’ she said. ‘Then you won’t have to go.’
He looked taken aback for a moment, and then he gave her an indulgent smile. ‘That’s not how it works, Madeleine.’
‘Yes it is, you’ll become a citizen automatically.’
‘No, I won’t.’
She looked blankly at him. ‘You won’t?’
‘Citizenship isn’t automatically granted on marriage,’ he said. ‘You still have to go through the whole process of proving your relationship.’
‘Oh. Well, we can do that, can’t we?’
‘It hasn’t been long enough.’
Madeleine’s stomach lurched. She’d put him on the spot. She shouldn’t have said anything about marrying him. What was she thinking? Worse, what was he?
‘So you think it’s too soon?’ she said in a small voice.
‘Not me, the Department of Immigration,’ he said.
‘Oh.’ How should she take that? And how did he know all this? ‘How do you know all this?’ she asked out loud.
‘I’ve looked into it.’
She blinked. ‘You have?’
‘I have.’ Henry closed his suitcase, zipped it all the way around, then lifted it off the bed and set it down on the floor.
‘And?’ Madeleine said impatiently.
‘What did you find out?’
He took a breath. ‘As I’m self-supporting and wouldn’t be expecting to draw any kind of government benefits, and would certainly not be taking anyone else’s job, I can apply for a long-stay visa and simply wait it out a couple of years. Then, on fulfilling a few other conditions, like a health check, I will most likely be granted permanent residency. So we can get married any time we like.’
Madeleine’s eyes widened. ‘Oh …So, um, have you …have you thought about what you might want to do?’
‘I’ve already applied for the visa.’
‘Henry!’ She lunged at him from the bed, throwing her arms around his neck. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I was going to surprise you,’ he said. ‘But now you’ve stolen all my thunder.’
‘It’s okay.’ He gave her a quick kiss on the lips. ‘But I’ll have to cancel the skywriter.’
She drew back to look at him. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘It’s just part of the whole big proposal thing I had planned.’
‘There’s no need to tease,’ she said. ‘I was only trying to find a way that you could stay.’
‘So you don’t want me to propose?’
Now she was confused. ‘I didn’t say that . . . I just wasn’t trying to force your hand.’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘it’s ruined now anyway. Shame really, it was going to be pretty amazing.’
Madeleine caught the glint in his eye. She dropped back onto the bed, propping herself on her elbows and looking up at him. ‘Well, a skywriter’s okay, I guess. Is that all you got?’
‘No,’ he said, sitting down beside her. ‘I’ll have to call it off with the zoo as well.’
‘The zoo?’ She raised an eyebrow.
Henry nodded. ‘They’ve been training a seal to balance the ring on his nose and present it to you during the seal show. It would have brought the house down.’
‘You think I’m making this up?’
‘I think this is what I get for falling in love with a children’s author,’ said Madeleine. ‘Fantastical stories about seals delivering rings.’
‘It’s not all “fantastical”, and I’m not even sure that’s a word.’
‘It is so a word. It perfectly describes ridiculous stories made up by boyfriends to tease their girlfriends.’
‘I’m not teasing you.’
‘About the seal?’
‘No, about the ring.’
‘You don’t believe me?’
‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’
‘It’s locked in a safety deposit box back home,’ said Henry. ‘I’ll bring it with me next time.’
Madeleine’s heart was racing, but she still didn’t want to fall for it. Though she couldn’t recall Henry ever being such a tease before. She sat up straight, facing him. ‘When did you get it?’
‘Six months ago.’
‘I’ve known longer than that, but I bought it six months ago.’
Her eyes teared up. ‘You did? You really did? You’re not teasing?’
Henry smiled. ‘I wouldn’t tease you about this.’
‘So what have you been waiting for?’
‘These things take a lot of planning, the seal had to be trained . . .’
He took hold of her hands. ‘I’ve been waiting,’ he said, ‘to have the long-stay visa approved, and to come back here and tell you that I love you, and that I want to be with you every day, all the days of my life, for as long as we both shall live. And that’s when I was going to give you the ring.’
Which was exactly what he did, two months later, in the arrivals hall, not far from where they were standing now. He didn’t get down on one knee or anything – Henry wouldn’t want to attract attention – but Madeleine liked it that way anyway. This momentous thing was happening in the middle of all the hubbub, and no one even knew.
‘We have had a lot of significant moments in airports,’ she sighed happily, leaning her head on Henry’s shoulder.
‘Ah, there he is,’ Henry said calmly. ‘Oh, sorry, what did you say?’
Madeleine jerked her head up. ‘No, what did you say?’
‘Aiden,’ he said. ‘He’s walking down the ramp.’
She gasped. ‘Where?’
Henry leant in close to her and raised his arm to point through the mass of people congregating at the base of the ramp. Madeleine’s eyes followed, and the face she had previously seen only in photographs suddenly came into focus. She wondered how she could have missed him; tall and bronzed, with golden-blond hair, he looked like a movie star in the midst of all the rumpled travellers.
‘I don’t think he can see us,’ said Henry.
Madeleine sprang into action. ‘Aiden!’ she cried, waving furiously, before launching herself headlong into the throng. Henry had to grab hold of the back of her jacket to keep up with her. Soon they all arrived at the clearing at the end of the ramp, and there was a moment’s hesitation as they stood smiling expectantly at one another. Someone had to say something.
‘Man, you’ve gotten old, Darrow.’
Henry’s face broke into a wider-than-usual-for-Henry smile. ‘And you haven’t changed at all, Aid.’
Aiden laughed loudly as he shoved his luggage trolley aside and threw his arms around Henry with such exuberance that Madeleine thought Henry’s feet might have left the ground. Aiden eventually released him, turning his sights on her.
‘Madeleine, I presume?’ he said, before sweeping her up in an equally enthusiastic hug; and, because she was shorter and lighter than Henry, her feet actually did leave the ground before he set her down again.
‘You didn’t tell me your wife-to-be was such a knockout,’ he declared.
‘He didn’t?’ said Madeleine. ‘You didn’t?’ She turned to Henry with mock indignation.
Of course Henry didn’t, that wasn’t his way. Aiden was clearly a charmer. Madeleine scrubbed up all right, but she knew she was nothing out of the ordinary. She had never been too hung up on her looks – her dad had always made both her and Genevieve feel like they were the most beautiful girls in the world. But he also used to say that looks were a gift you were given, character was a gift you gave to others. Her eyes were her best feature, mostly because they were an unusual shade of green. She had her dad’s eyes, so she was happy to accept compliments for them.
‘I had a feeling you two were going to gang up on me,’ Henry was saying. ‘I just didn’t expect it to start two minutes after you arrived, Aid.’
‘Have you forgotten what a fast worker I am?’ Aiden joked, offering Madeleine his arm. ‘Grab the trolley, would you, Darrow?’
Henry trailed behind them out of the airport as Aiden and Madeleine got acquainted, exchanging all the usual pleasantries: How was his flight? Did he manage to get any sleep? How were the wedding preparations coming along? Did she know it wasn’t too late to ditch Henry and run away with him?
‘You know I can hear you, right?’ Henry said from the rear.
It occurred to Madeleine that Henry had also failed to mention quite how breathtakingly good-looking his friend was. But she supposed that was something guys didn’t do. She had seen pictures of Aiden in their college yearbook, but that was a long time ago, when they were both still very boyish-looking – handsome, but with decidedly bad haircuts, and yet to fully grow into their features. Henry didn’t have any other albums, or boxes of old photos; she supposed that was something guys didn’t do either. So Madeleine had had no choice but to Google Aiden. That always made her feel a bit like a stalker, but Liv told her that was nonsense, as she grabbed the keyboard from Madeleine and typed in his name. Unsurprisingly, given his résumé, there was no shortage of images. Aiden set up relief programs across the third world on behalf of a major multinational, so there were pictures of him standing among groups of shiny black children in Africa, outside humpies with toothless old men in Vietnam, surveying the slums of Mexico and India. In the photos he always had a smile on his face, his eyes bright with hope despite the apparent hopelessness of his surroundings. But the energy of the man in the flesh was a whole other thing.
‘Well,gentlemen,’ Madeleine said as they exited the terminal, ‘this is where I must love you and leave you.’
Aiden’s face dropped. ‘What are you talking about? I just got here.’
‘I’m afraid some of us have to work.’
‘I’m crushed!’ he said, holding a hand to his heart. ‘I thought your lives would revolve around me from the moment I deigned to grace you with my presence.’
Madeleine grinned up at him. ‘That’s what you get for arriving on a weekday.’
Aiden turned to Henry. ‘Looks like it’s just you and me, bud,’ he said as he slapped Henry on the back.
‘I’ll be home for dinner, we’ll catch up properly then,’ Madeleine promised. She reached up to give him a hug. ‘I’m so glad you’re here, Aiden.’
‘And I’m glad to be here.’
Excerpted from The Best Man by Dianne Blacklock. Copyright © 2013 by Dianne Blacklock.
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