~ In All the Empty Places ~
by Janneen Brownell
Disclaimers: This story and characters are all mine and any resemblance to anyone living, dead or on television is in the mind of the reader. Readers who are disturbed by references to physical abuse should read this story with caution. As this is my first story posted to the net, I was conservative with sexual scenes. I hope you enjoy my little tale.
Comments, good or bad, can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
Jillian Young lived at Windchase, a Spanish villa sitting on the edge of the Pacific. As I drove from my West Hollywood condo to Windchase, I wondered why she never left Los Angeles. The city that made her a household name was also the city that took away every thing she ever loved. I barely remember that Christmas morning almost twenty-five years ago when her husband, director Brian Brent, and their five-year-old daughter were murdered. For reasons only she knew, her retreat from the world did not include the city she ignored or the house in which they died.
I have many questions I would dearly love to ask Jillian Young. If I was coming to her house as a columnist for The Los Angeles Times, I would have a book of questions ready for her to answer. However, it is not in my official role that I was invited to join her for lunch. I don't even know if she knows I work for The Times. This lunch with her today was for me to meet my step-mother-to-be. My father only told me a few days ago that he asked Jillian to marry him. When she called yesterday and asked to come today, I was stunned. I was expecting the call and my expectations included a secretary calling me, not her personally.
The scenic drive along the coastal highway gave me precious time to calm my anxiety. I was going to meet Jillian Young. The Jillian Young, beautiful I Belle from Time Lost. The movie that made her a star and earned her an Oscar nomination was also the last movie she ever made. My father was marrying Jillian Young. Regardless of how many times I said it, I still found it incredible that I was meeting her.
I slowed on the highway to turn into the gated drive. A red Mercedes roared down the drive, barely missing me as both the driver and I swerved. I caught a glimpse of blonde hair as the Mercedes skidded onto the highway. I watched in the rearview mirror as the driver swung around the curve on the wrong side of the road.
The young male guard hurried to where I came to a slamming halt. "Are you all right?"
I nodded and took a deep, cleansing breath. "Yes. Who was that?"
He did not answer me. Instead, he straightened and stepped away from my Cherokee. "This is a private residence. Are you expected?"
"I'm Victoria Senett, Rainer's daughter. I'm having lunch with . . . Miss Young."
Without another word, he walked back to the guard house. The gates swung open silently. Windchase is surrounded by lush, rolling lawns and blooming bushes of brilliant pink hibiscus. I parked my Cherokee on the curved drive in front of the house.
When buzzing the doorbell and knocking for five minutes got me nowhere, I followed a red tile path to the back of the house. I was here at the right time. Where was everyone else? Maybe I should have stopped by my condo before coming and checked my answering machine. Jillian might have changed her mind about meeting me. Maybe she really did not want to meet a columnist for The Times even if I am Rainer's daughter.
I stopped when I saw her sitting on the patio. I am not an authority on living legends, but I am sure they do not routinely meet someone for the first time in colorful silk kimonos. I watched her sit on her patio and wondered about the etiquette for this situation. I approached her slowly, hesitantly because she is Jillian Young and I am no one.
"Miss Young?" Startled, tear filled eyes flew to me. Her face was free of make?up and pale and twisted in heart breaking anguish. She did not know me, could not comprehend why I was standing on her secluded patio as a witness to her private pain. As I watched numbly, she struggled to pull herself together. I never imagined meeting her in this condition.
"I'm Victoria Senett. Rainer's daughter," I prompted, when she stared at me with a blank expression. Neither name seemed to mean anything to her.
"Did you see her?" she whispered. The famous voice was cracked, the famous green eyes shattered.
The only person I saw was the homicidal blonde in the red Mercedes. "Who?"
My jaw dropped as she whispered her name. No wonder she looked as if her sanity was a fleeting memory. If she was seeing her daughter, she was going insane. And you, Victoria Senett, are the lucky winner chosen to witness the occasion.
Carefully, so as not to alarm her, I sat across from her. Green eyes met mine and shaky fingers wiped away her tears. She leaned forward earnestly. "Patrick promised she would forget. He promised!"
I nodded. I was prepared to agree with whatever wild statement she wanted to make. Where was her staff? Why didn't someone, anyone, come out to see if we wanted drinks? God, was I alone with her? I glanced over her shoulder at the dark apparently deserted house. If I could get her inside, I could call my father. If all else failed, there was the guard at the gate.
"Miss Young, would you like to lie down?"
This was not how I imagined meeting Jillian Young. She was not supposed to be having visions of her dead daughter. The woman my father described was not this barely sane, barely coherent woman. She stared at me and, impossibly, smiled. She shook her head, shoulder length hair swayed in the breeze. She shut her eyes and took a deep, calming breath. "You must think I'm crazy."
"No, I don't," I hastened to assure, lying through my teeth. Crazy? I would never tell a crazy woman she was crazy to her face. God only knew who she would see next. Maybe Brian. I wanted to get her inside, get her help, and get the hell away.
She sat back in her chair. Intelligence burned bright in the eyes that met mine. The tears were gone, the red-rimmed eyes their only legacy. "Yes, you do. What else could I be if I think I'm seeing Kellen."
I remained silent. Please, please just let me get out of this gracefully. I promise to never tell another soul that Jillian Young was unbalanced by the death of her husband and child. I would keep the secret that had been so successfully kept from the rest of the world.
"Victoria, I am going to tell you something that, until now, has been a family secret. Come with me."
She stood up and walked into the house. She never looked back to see if I was following. I did not want to go with her. I did not want to know what she wanted to tell me. I followed her cautiously because I knew my father would be furious if I simply left. She was my father's bride?to?be and for his sake I had to believe she was sane. I stepped through the sliding glass door.
I waited while she went upstairs to dress. My eyes slowly adjusted to the dimness. When I could see, I walked away from the protection of the patio and into her living room. The first thing I noticed was the painting hanging on the wall. Why should I be surprised Jillian Young owned a Chasen Original? Alec was very popular, especially with those who collect status symbols. I was probably one of the few people who could afford a Chasen and did not own one.
"She's very talented, isn't she?" Jillian asked from my shoulder. I jumped and my one hope is that when I stepped away from her, it was with some modicum of grace and style.
She had changed into white slacks and sleeveless white shirt. She was in total control, as if the insane woman she was on the patio was only a role she was practicing. She stared up at the Chasen before sitting next to me on the couch.
"Um, yes she is," I said when it became obvious she was waiting for a reply. Alec could accuse me of many things, some of them even true, but she could not say I ever said she was less than brilliantly talented.
She smiled happily and glanced at the Chasen again. She became serious and settled into the couch, legs tucked under her. She faced me with one arm draped along the back of the couch. Her face was free of whatever trauma had caused her to break down on the patio. If I met her now, I would never suspect that just minutes earlier she was in tears.
"Thee public scrutiny on my life since Brian's death has been brutal. I am an adult and have been able to handle it, certainly better than my daughter would have been able to. Kellen was a small child then, barely more than a baby. My husband's family decided it was better for her not to grow up as Kellen Brent. She would have been constantly reminded of her father's death."
I listened to her carefully phrased speech in mounting confusion. Better not to grow up as Kellen Brent? Kellen Brent had not grown up, not as herself or anyone else. She was buried next to Brian at Forest Lawn. She was five years old when she died. She was Jillian's only child. I was horrified she believed her daughter was alive. She seemed so sane. There was no trace of the hysteria I stumbled up on earlier. How could she look so normal and yet to be so clearly insane?
"Victoria, Kellen is alive. She grew up in England with my mother. I know it's hard to believe, but please try. My daughter did not die that night. She is living in Aubres, in the northern part of the state. I want her to come to the wedding. Will you ask her for me?"
I left Windchase two hours later. My mind reeled from her stunning, impossible revelations. The blonde leaving earlier was, Jillian claimed, Kellen Brent. She was visiting her mother and both became upset. Jillian did not explain and I did not ask. I was still trying to comprehend that Kellen Brent was alive. My memories of that Christmas morning are vague snapshots of police cars parked all over Windchase.
I found myself agreeing to drive up to Aubres, California. I was not even sure I believed her then. Kellen Brent could be alive and in living in Aubres. She could be dead and buried at Forest Lawn beside Brian. I think I believed both and neither. It could be true or it could be the delusional ravings of a woman who desperately wanted her child at this important event in her life.
As I sat on her couch and listened to her fantastic tale, I wanted it to be true. My father was madly in love with her. If Kellen Brent was dead, Jillian was living in an elaborately detailed fantasy. I did not want to have to tell my father that Jillian Young sent me up to Aubres, California to invite a ghost to their wedding. It seemed like the worst of bad omens.
Two books have been written about The Brent Murders. The first to be published, The Perfect Crime, was authorized by the Brent family. It did not address the many doubts that persist about that night and for that it was blasted as mostly fiction. It was number one for twenty-six weeks. Fairy Tale Beginnings was Jillian's autobiography. I stopped by Walden books on my way home from Windchase. I've seen news reports about the murders and I've watched a few of the television programs that come out around Christmas time. After hearing Jillian's tale, I wanted to read the books. I wanted to know about the night before meeting Kellen.
I turned off my phone and settled down on my bed with the books and a box of sweet and sour chicken. I chose to read Jillian's first. Her dedication read "To Kellen Alecia Brent, forever loved and forever missed." I stared at the dedication for long seconds, chilled by the calculation of it. I was troubled that she felt the need to do this if her daughter was really alive. Did she do it because, as the mother of a murdered five year old, she felt it was expected? If I felt weird reading the lines, I wondered how Kellen Brent felt the first time she read them.
I was halfway through the book before I realized that Brian and Kellen were barely mentioned. Brian was one of the hottest directors in Hollywood at the time of his death and he was often away on location. His appearance in the story usually coincided with one of the many parties he and Jillian threw pool side. Jillian devoted a chapter to her daughter's birth, but Kellen was not mentioned in detail until the Christmas Eve party.
The Perfect Crime opens with the Christmas Eve Party. This was supposed to be the last of their parties for a while. Production on their new movies was set to begin when the holidays were over. The guest list was an eclectic mix of Hollywood's A crowd and California's political elite. Brian's father was US Senator Patrick Brent. Patrick wanted his supporters to mingle with his son's movie star friends.
Jillian reluctantly allowed Kellen to attend. Patrick hired professional photographers. He had a strong family image and he wanted to use his blonde angelic granddaughter in his never-ending re-election campaign. He chose the gowns for his wife Celeste, Jillian, and Kellen. Celeste's gown was hunter green to contrast her auburn hair. He chose crimson for Jillian and Kellen.
Kellen Brent, except for gray eyes inherited from her father, was a baby version of her mother. Patrick capitalized on their resemblance by having Kellen dressed identically to Jillian. Their blonde hair was braided before being wrapped into an elegant chignon on their heads. Brian presented them with early gifts of diamond stud earrings. In the photos of that night, there is a surreal quality to the ones with Jillian and Kellen.
The party was in full swing by nine. Furniture from Windchase's spacious ground floor was either upstairs or placed in storage. A buffet table was set up on the patio. Speakers were scattered discreetly through out the house, allowing guests to dance in every room. There was an open bar inside the house and outside by the pool.
The last picture of Brian and Kellen Brent was of them dancing together. Her sleepy blonde head is resting against his shoulder. At eleven, minutes after the photo was snapped, Brian demanded that Jillian take the child to bed. Guests told police he was furious with Jillian for allowing Kellen to remain at the party when she was obviously falling asleep.
Brian never calmed down. Patrick took his son off to the side and whatever was said had the effect of ending the party. Brian, drunk by all accounts, stormed off the patio and told everyone to leave. He threatened to call the police and have them arrested for trespassing when they stared at him in astonishment. Patrick confiscated the rolls of film before the photographers were allowed to leave.
No one really knows what happened next. Patrick and Celeste left at midnight. A call from Windchase woke them at four Christmas morning. Police were summoned to the house and hour and a half later. The tragedy was all over the news by seven in the morning. Guests at the party were stunned to learn Brian and Kellen were dead. The official version is that someone entered the house during that night, murdered Brian and Kellen and savagely beat Jillian. When the story broke, Jillian was on a charted jet to her mother's home in England.
People who witnessed Patrick taking the film were sickened by the photo accompanying the broadcasts: Kellen's sleepy head on Brian's tuxedo clad shoulder.
Both books claim that Brian and Kellen were murdered in their second floor bedrooms. Brian's funeral was a public event; Kellen's was strictly guarded with only family in attendance. If not for the mystery that surrounds their deaths, neither book would have been a bestseller. The many unanswered questions are left unanswered and no new evidence is introduced. The Brent Murders is a tragedy that fascinates the public. The books were written solely for that fascination.
As I packed for the trip to Aubres, I thought about Kellen Brent. She was five years old when her mother declared her dead. How does someone grow up knowing that? I could not even imagine what her life must be like.
Aubres is nestled in the rugged coastline of California. I would have missed the turn?off if Jillian's instructions were less than precise. I followed a road that was little more than a paved path canopied by tall redwoods. I liked nature as much as the next woman, but I prefer to have whatever I want within a three mile radius of my condo. I can appreciate nature without wanting to live in it.
The road crested on a gentle hill, startling me with the dazzling beauty of the tiny village flanked by jagged mountains and wide expanse of Pacific blue. Places like these don't really exist outside movie theaters, do they? Rambling white wood house dotted wide tree line streets. Now I knew why the road to Aubres is not well marked. This is not a tourist town and the locals are not taking any chances of it becoming one.
I drove down what I presume to be Main Street Aubres. Small shops promised everything from homemade breads and pastas to handmade crafts and clothes. A few people strolled along the sidewalk, but otherwise the sloping street was deserted. Most of the townsfolk would be inside preparing to wait out another lashing storm that had been hitting the northwestern coast this week. Los Angeles could use some of this rain. I could not remember the last time we got anything resembling a downpour.
At the end of Main, I hung a left and drove towards the ocean. It was the last place I wanted to be as lightning streaked across the gray sky. Unfortunately, Kellen lived "as close to the water as possible without actually living in it." Jillian's amused, exasperated descriptions of her daughter added to my mounting resentment of Kellen. I would not be here if it was not for her.
Kellen Brent, in keeping with her admittedly necessary reclusive image, lived on an isolate strip of sand at the end of the public beach. I passed a PRIVATE KEEP OUT sign posted on an open gate and parked my Cherokee behind a dark blue Jag, bought no doubt with Brian's money.
I have never seen an actual hermit's house and was appropriately impressed by hers. The weathered gray beach house faced the ocean and was enormous, especially if Kellen lived alone. The roof was slanted towards the ocean and a deck ran the length of the house. A small pier stretched over a few yards of wind tossed blue gray water.
A woman was standing on the pier. I squeaked across the damp sand to a small flight of stairs that led to the deck. She turned as I crossed the deck and I stopped in mid?stride. We stared at each other in shocked recognition.
Alec was dressed in a white T-shirt and shorts. A navy windbreaker was her only protection against the storm. The wind whipped short blonde hair around her face. Dark, dark gray eyes stared at me bleakly. The ever present glass was clutched tightly with white, slender fingers. She lifted the drink to her lips, seeking strength from the bottom of a glass as usual. Alec. Nothing except her hair had changed in the last two years.
"Victoria. What are you doing here?"
I was speechless to find Alec Chasen, celebrated painter and ex?lover, standing in the spot I expected to find Kellen Brent. Either I had the incredible dumb luck to wander into Alec Chasen's retreat from the world or she was Kellen's lover. My luck was not that good. God, I really wanted to be in Los Angeles. Anywhere, but here, doing this and facing the only woman who ever hated me.
I closed the gap between us. "Hello Alec. I knew you lived up here. I didn't know where."
I wanted to make this pleasant for us. There was no reason for it to be added to our list of bad memories. Except this was Alec Chasen. She doesn't forgive, even if she's not entirely blameless.
Dark inscrutable eyes stared at me. "Why are you here?"
The old familiar edge in her voice scraped along my old familiar nerves. Surely no two people ever brought out the worst in each other like we did. Guinness should have put us in the book for the Longest Relationship That Never Had A Chance. How did we ever stay together for three years?
"I'm looking for Kellen Brent," I said without preamble. If she wanted to make this unpleasant, I could play that game and do it better.
Her stare was blank. "I'm sorry, who?"
"Kellen Brent. Your lover," I added.
Alec tossed her drink over the railing of the pier and scanned the sky with lifeless eyes the color of the black, stormy clouds. A light rain began to fall on us. "We had better go inside before this gets worse."
I followed her across the pier. Bare feet scarcely touched the slick planks as she hurried across the deck. As soon as she opened the sliding glass door, soft light flooded the lower floor of the house. Alec took off her windbreaker and shook it onto the deck before tossing it in nearest corner of the kitchen floor.
The inside of the house was no less impressive than the outside. The roof was skylights that tapered down to the wall of sliding glass doors that faced the deck. A compact kitchen was on the other side of a breakfast bar. The doorway to the kitchen and another room, probably Alec's studio, were under a wide, rail less staircase. A loft overlooked the downstairs. The right side of the house was a living room formed by three navy leather couches grouped around a low glass table. A Chasen Original hung over a fireplace made of seashells. Large chunks of the wall had been removed and black glass panes were embedded to form shelves filled with brass figurines. The floor was highly polished blonde hardwood. Thin, cream cloth rugs protected the floor from the furniture.
I walked over to the fireplace. I knew the painting, of course. I can spot a Chasen Original at fifty yards. I stared up, impressed as always by Alec's talent. My breath caught as I looked at the rare oil. Bright sunlight danced across calm pale blue water. Gentle waves lapped at pure white sand. I knew it was a Chasen by the distinctive photographic style Alec employed. Otherwise, this was not the typical Chasen that sold for thousands at Elane's gallery. This Chasen, Kellen Brent's Chasen, was unique.
"You painted this for her, didn't you?" I heard the angry pain in my voice, but could not hide the jealousy I felt. Alec painted dark, depressing paintings with me. Why did Kellen deserve a happy painting? How did she break through Alec's unyielding wall of emptiness and unhappiness? What did she have that I didn't is what I really wanted to know.
Alec walked up behind me. "For who?"
I glared at her, tired of her silly games. I was not in the mood and if I had been, she was the last person I would have chosen for a playmate. "Kellen Brent."
Alec looked at me before she stared up at the only painting visible. Her eyes were reflective as she considered the question. She sighed and walked to sit on one of the couches. She tucked her feet under her and curled up in the corner feline-like. "I never thought of it that way, but I guess you're right. I did paint it for Kellen."
I sat across from her. "Did you know Jillian has several Chasens?"
Alec continued to stare at me, but her face was again blank. A tiny narrowing of her eyes told me I had unknowingly scored a direct hit. "What game are you playing Victoria?"
"You're playing the games Alec, as usual."
"Why are you here?" she demanded.
I was tired of the charade. "Were is Kellen Brent? Her mother is marrying my father. She wants Kellen to come to the wedding."
As I spoke, Alec froze and her eyes turned to a glacier gray. She stared past me to the wind and rain beating against the glass doors. She spoke softly, "Jill sent you here."
Abruptly, she pinned me to the couch. Her eyes were bright with sudden knowledge. "Jill gave you directions here. She told you to talk to Kellen. She forgot to tell you everything else didn't she?"
She laughed darkly while I shook my head in bewilderment. What else was there to tell?
"Did Jill tell you Kellen is dead?" she asked with black humor.
I sighed impatiently, annoyed with her theatrics. I knew that. "Only legally."
The laughter died on Alec's face. "As far as Jill Young is concerned, Kellen Brent died twenty?five years ago. She's not coming to the wedding. Jill knew that before you left Los Angeles."
My brain seized upon the "before you left Los Angeles" feverishly. I drove all the way up here, put up with this crap and Jillian already knew Kellen wasn't coming? Why was I here? All this accomplished was to bring me back into contact with this annoying woman. "She knew before I left? Did she call or something?"
Alec shook her head. "She didn't have to."
She stood up and walked over to the painting. What was going on here? I could feel undercurrents of emotion that I didn't understand. Alec was angry and hurt and I was not sure why. "I can't believe she just let you come up here without a clue as to what you were blundering into. Tell me, Daniel, how does it feel to be in the lion's den?"
I stayed silent. She turned and looked down on me, something akin to pity in her eyes. The ringing of the phone forestalled any further conversation. Alec's soft lilt instructing the caller to leave a message filled the house.
"Alec, please call me back."
The old reserve was back in place as she walked past me. The husky voiced woman must be important if Alec Chasen was returning her call so quickly. Almost as an after thought, she turned from the door of her studio. "You might as well spend the night. This storm's not going to let up tonight."
She shut the door firmly.
The trip to my car took longer than I anticipated. The rain was coming down in slanted sheets propelled by an icy wind. It was hard to believe it was the middle of summer. It felt as if it had dropped twenty degrees in the short time I was in the house. Luckily, I travel light and was able to bring everything in one trip. I would have been tempted to leave anything else in the car overnight.
Alec was still in her studio when I came back, dripping and shivering. I paused midway up the stairs. What if Kellen had only one bedroom? Oh, well. I would find out soon enough and it really didn't matter. I was going to take a shower whether she had one bedroom or two.
Overlooking the living room, I found a loft bedroom and a closed door. Their bedroom. I wanted to think I was immune to Alec. She threw me out of her home two years ago. The last year of our relationship was less than idyllic so it came as no surprise. Actually, she beat me to the punch because I was getting ready to move out. So, two years later, I should feel nothing for her. Did it matter that I was completely in love with her ethereal beauty and Brit accent? Did it matter that Alec was still the lover I compared all others to?
I dropped my suitcase on the bed in the loft bedroom and opened the door to Kellen's bedroom, the one she shared with Alec I reminded myself. One wall was glass and, of course, had an ocean view. A king?sized bed was the only furniture in the room. An entertainment unit was built into the wall and housed a television and stereo. The bathroom was to the right of the door and a walk?in closet was next to the entertainment unit.
I went back to "my room" and grabbed a pair of jeans and shirt. I was shivering, but thought once I took a hot shower I would be warm in the short sleeve polo shirt. I did not pack anything heavier than a silk dress shirt for this excursion.
The hot water felt wonderful. Kellen's shower was a huge, glass enclosed cubicle tucked in a corner. I doggedly blocked out images of Alec and Kellen in this shower together. I do not know what Kellen Brent looks like, but her childhood pictures are of a blonde imp. When I stepped from the shower, Alec was holding a navy bath towel. Her eyes were modestly downcast.
"Are you hungry?"
I was famished. I do not like to eat on long trips and only brought a cooler of soft drinks with me. I took the towel and quickly dried myself. I watched Alec ignore me from the corner of my eye. It was nice to know she wasn't immune either.
"Starved. Is there a place to eat in town?"
Alec laughed and walked out of the bathroom. "Not in this storm or this late. Aubres does not cater to the tourist set. I, however, do cater to guests."
I wrapped myself in the towel and followed her into the bedroom. "Give me a few minutes to dress then I'll be down to help."
Dinner was a simple meal of grilled chicken breasts, steamed vegetables and toasted French bread. For the first time I could ever remember, Alec did not spike her drink with vodka. Of course, just because I did not see her pour vodka in her glass did not mean it was not there. Alec was an alcoholic who thoroughly enjoyed being an alcoholic. She could be surly and venomous and too drunk to give a damn that I was hurt or angry.
Perhaps to aid in digestion, our conversation was centered on superficial subjects like mutual friends and current events. We did not talk about Kellen Brent, the wedding or us.
Alec said she was tired after we cleaned up the kitchen. She made sure I had blankets and whatever else I wanted before going to bed. She leaned over the railing, "By the way, Jill called while you were taking a shower. You should probably call her back."
I stared at the closed door. She did that on purpose. She did not want to deal with this anymore tonight and so she tells me a mere second before she shuts her door for the night. Some of my warm feelings turned to icy resentment.
The only phone I could find was in Alec's studio. I sat at her desk and dialed Windchase. I waited impatiently through four rings before Jillian answered the phone. She sounded sleepy.
"I'm sorry to call back so late. I just got your message."
I heard shuffling in the background and guessed that Jillian was in bed. "It's all right Victoria. Is she coming?"
I felt sorry for her. She desperately wanted Kellen at the wedding. How did I tell her that not only was Kellen not coming to the wedding, but that I did not get the refusal from Kellen herself? "No, Jillian, she's not. She's not even here."
Jillian was silent on her end of the phone. She asked, puzzled, "How did you know I called? I left the message on Kellen's answering machine."
"I'm at Kellen's house. Her roommate is here and letting me stay the night."
"Her roommate? Is her roommate Alec Chasen?" Her voice had taken on an edge of anger.
Her tone surprised me. If Jillian did not like Alec, why did she own several Chasens? "Yes, she is."
"Is Alec there? May I speak to her?" Jillian's tone was definitely cold. She sounded furious with Alec. Why Alec? Kellen was the one not home. Kellen was the one not coming to the wedding.
I stared up at the ceiling. "She's in bed."
Jillian took a deep breath. When she spoke, she said the blasphemous words calmly. "Alec Chasen is not Kellen's roommate. Alec Chasen is Kellen."
I loved Alec Chasen. I met her soon after she moved from some cold coastal English town to warm, sunny Los Angeles. Her slight Brit accent led me to believe she was English and she never corrected the assumption. Alec never corrected any assumptions. I have a personality column in The Los Angeles Times. My best friend is Elane Rasche, Alec's agent. Elane owns the gallery where Alec's paintings are shown. Alec and I were going to meet, it was only a matter of when.
Elane asked me for a favor. Alec was new to Los Angeles, but a very talented painter. Elane asked me to interview Alec for my column, give her what Elane called "much needed" exposure. I did not know that Alec Chasen was already well?known in London. Alec was not one of Elane's discoveries.
The young woman I met for lunch was not what I expected. Alec showed up wearing a silk navy tailored suit with lacy dove gray handkerchief in the breast pocket. Her pale blonde hair caressed her shoulders in silver waves, much like Jillian's does today. Dark gray eyes skimmed over me and I was dismissed instantly. I was not someone Alec wanted to know better. The interview was brief and to the point. Alec answered the basic questions, brushed the rest away as irrelevant, and left before the meal was served.
Elane explained later that Alec had just come from a distressing appointment and would I please reconsider trashing her in my column? Alec invited me to dinner that night. The woman who picked me up for dinner was not the same woman I met that afternoon. This time she wore a simple black strapless dress. She was charming and funny. She still did not want to talk about her life in England or her family. All she would say is that she lived with her grandmother. She spent the night in my bed. I was living in her Benedict Canyon home within six months.
I never learned any more about Alec than I did that first night. She tolerated my questions in the beginning, mostly with amusement. Gradually, she came to resent my asking almost as much as I resented her secrecy. The more I demanded answers to my questions, the more Alec withdrew. We were barely speaking in the end.
If I had taken a step back, I would have seen Alec was on edge. She was painting madly, as if her sanity depended on painting this seascape this minute. She would paint for days on end with nothing more than 7?Up and vodka for nourishment. The paintings she created during that time, the last six months we were together, are her best. She has not equaled that haunted brilliance since.
The final straw for Alec were my questions about the soft spoken woman whose calls sent Alec into bursts of anger. I wanted to know who she was, why she upset Alec so, and she refused to listen to my questions. She would walk away, lock the door, stare over my shoulder if I cornered her, do anything not to have to hear me.
"Who is she Alec? She left another message on the answering machine. She calls you darling. Who is she?" I demanded one afternoon after listening to another message on the answering machine. Alec was painting in her studio.
Alec calmly laid her paintbrush on the easel, turned to face me, and casually brushed long strands of blonde hair away from her icy, narrowed eyes. "Do not ever ask me that question again. Do not ever ask me any questions in that tone again. Do you understand?"
Recklessly, I pushed on. "I am going to keep asking until I get answers."
Alec picked up a rag and wiped the oil from her fingers. She turned her back on me and stared up at the hills surrounding her home. "I will no longer be interrogated incessantly, Victoria. I want it to stop." She turned and nailed me with her eyes. "It will stop."
"No, it won't stop. Not until you answer me." Did I really think I had that much value in the relationship?
She walked to my side and faced me with that mask that hid her emotions so well. If it hurt to do what she was about to do it didn't show in her eyes. "I'll be back at seven. I want you to take what is yours and leave my home."
It was over just like that. She walked away and left me speechless. I waited until eleven o'clock, but she never came back home. She sold her home less than two months later and was gone. Yesterday was the first time I have seen her since that afternoon.
Everything I ever wanted to know about Alec, all the questions that ripped us apart, was now mine to know.
After Jillian dropped her bomb, I wanted to go to Alec's bedroom and dump her out of the bed. I wanted to call her Kellen and watch her stoic poise crumble like a sand castle under a tidal wave. I wanted her to know that with one small sentence from her mother, I knew everything.
By the time the black sky was a dull wet gray, I wanted her to confess all to me. After all I went through during our years together, she owed it me to tell me the truth without it being dragged out of her.
Rain and salt water swept across the deck and splashed against the sliding glass doors. Although Alec's paintings are of days like this, she only paints on perfect sunny days. She preferred to read and cook on soggy days. Or she did once.
The sound of running water alerted me that Alec was up and moving. The moment of truth had arrived. Should I stay in the living room or go upstairs and pretend I slept through the night? Did I want Alec to know I knew who she was or I did want her to play out her charade? I ran upstairs and sat on the edge of the bed. I wanted to see how far she would take it. I scrambled out of my clothes and onto the bed just as the water shut off in her bathroom. At the last minute, I remembered to mess up the pillows and sheets. I had my own charade to carry out. I jumped as she silently appeared in the doorway. Her tan stood out starkly against her white baggy cotton pants and tank top. She briskly dried her spiked hair.
"Good morning, Victoria. I'm done in the bathroom if you wish to use it. Are you hungry?"
How could she look so guileless while being so deceitful? She was the daughter of an Oscar nominated actress. Acting must be an inherited trait. Silver eyes waited patiently for an answer.
"No, I'm not. I would like to use the shower." A long night spent ruminating is tiring on the body. The drive from Los Angeles did not help. Another hot shower would definitely work out the kinks I could feel forming.
She nodded and went downstairs. I stood over the railing and watched her move gracefully through the dark lower floor. She touched light pads as she walked through and brought bright light in the gloomy gray. As she gathered several items on the counter, her eyes strayed to the wind and rain battering her house. Her face was blank as she watched her paintings come to life. Feeling like the voyeur I was, I walked into her bedroom and shut the door. The time was 5:38. Alec was sleeping late these days.
The difference a day makes is amazing. Yesterday I stood in the shower and tried not to imagine Alec and Kellen showering together. Today I stood there and knew that Alec was Kellen. I shut off the water and was somewhat surprised to find myself alone in the bathroom. I stared at my reflection in the mirror as I brushed my teeth. I saw a thirty?six year old woman with short black hair and large blue eyes. She was average in height, average in weight, average in looks. My best feature is an easy smile that shows a dimple in my right cheek.
I was the same woman Alec threw from her life two years ago. Except this woman knew her secrets.
I walked out of her bedroom and stopped at the delicious aroma of bacon and hot coffee that filled the rooms. My stomach loudly protested my earlier rejection of breakfast. Alec was standing in front of the glass doors. She was sipping from a steamy mug. With only a few minor changes, this is how I found her on the pier yesterday.
"Good morning," I greeted, coming to her side.
She peered over the rim of the mug for a second. "Are you hungry now? I remembered you don't like to eat when you first wake up."
She was beautiful in the soft gray light of the storm. Her eyes were silver and her hair ash blonde. Some time in the last two years, her face had lost the last vestiges of baby fat. She broke eye contact first and walked into the kitchen. I stood at the doors a second longer to regain my composure. I knew I was still attracted to her, but I was surprised my attraction did not die with Jillian's revelation.
Alec Chasen was Kellen Brent. I turned and watched her. She poured a yellow liquid into a pan and sprinkled bacon pieces, shredded cheese, and sliced mushrooms over the omelet. She was Kellen Brent. If I asked her, would she deny it? I lived with Alec and I loved her, but I believed Jillian. Everything about Alec Chasen made perfect sense once you knew she was Kellen Brent.
"Victoria?" She stared at me with a questioning expression on her face. "Are you all right?"
I went to the breakfast bar and sat across from her. "I'm fine."
Breakfast was the omelet and toast and we drank fresh brewed coffee. It was storming again and the crash of thunder could be heard every few minutes. Alec was the first to break the silence.
"I do not expect you to leave today. You can stay as long as you like." She turned on her barstool, her face serious. "However, stay out of my face. Start badgering me and I'll throw you out."
She would, too. She did it once and claimed to love me at the time. Besides, her face is not what I intended to get in. I met her gaze with a smile. "Fair enough."
We cleaned up the kitchen and it was nice to move around in a companionable silence. I forgot that when I was not demanding and Alec was not running, we were good together.
"You're not going to be able to paint today, are you?" I asked. If it rained too often, Alec became irritable. I could live without that experience again.
Alec shrugged as if it mattered little whether she painted. "Want a book? I'm going to curl up on my bed with a nice book and a warm blanket."
I followed her into her studio. I did not notice too much about it last night. It was the smallest room in the house. A large desk fitted between the two side walls and was pushed against the back wall. A computer sat on the desk surrounded by papers. The rest of the wall space was floor to ceiling book shelves. Alec had a diverse book collection. Lesbian mysteries and erotica snuggled against mainstream fiction and sci?fi. She grabbed a Stoner MacTavish Mystery and smiled at me as she left the room.
I browsed through the books and felt like I was in a library. Alec had several books I wanted to read, but never found the time. Now all I had to do was decide which I wanted to read more. I finally decided on a book of short, erotic stories.
I left the studio and stopped before shutting the door. I stared around the little office, wondering what it was that bothered me so much about the room. It was an ordinary office. Computer, books, desk. The realization of what I was seeing shocked me. It was an ordinary office in a room that should have been full of paints and easels. This room, tucked under the stairs and without a view, was not supposed to be an office. It was supposed to be the studio where the beautiful Chasen's were created.
I dropped my book on the breakfast bar and made a cursory search through the ground floor. The only room not visible was a laundry room. Alec's windbreaker was thrown on the dryer. I came back to the kitchen. I did not even find a paint brush, much less the usual work?in?progress. Where was Alec painting?
Alec was curled in the middle of her bed, wrapped in a thick forest green Afghan. A mug of coffee rested precariously against her thigh. Cris Williamson was singing softly in the background. I think I looked as frantic as I felt. Alec's questioning smile turned to concern as she stared up at me.
"Where do you paint?"
A frown furrowed her forehead and she laid her book in her lap. "Pardon?"
I ignored the familiar irritation in her voice. If this was the kind of question I could not ask, I was prepared to be tossed out. "I was in your office when I realized it wasn't a studio. You are Alec Chasen. Where do you paint?"
She sighed and laid her head against the headboard to stare at me wearily. I knew this look very well. It meant she wanted to tell me the truth, but did not want to deal with the questions that truth would inspire in me. "No other questions? Do you promise not to ask any other questions?"
This was a new twist. Alec never asked that when we were together. Foolishly, I nodded. Would I ever learn there are no ordinary answers to my questions?
"I'm not painting anymore."
She said it so simply, so matter?of?fact. I sat on the bed, speechless. Not paint anymore? She was the premier painter of her generation. She was extraordinarily gifted and had painted as if her life depended on it. How could she be Alec Chasen and not paint?
"Elane must be ballistic," I replied, biting back the multitude of questions begging to be asked.
Alec stared at me carefully. She knew what I was struggling with, was probably wondering if I could keep my promise. "She's less than happy."
I stood up and walked to the door. She was so different from the woman I thought I knew. "I'm sorry."
Where was the drunken painter? Who was this woman who seemed so content with her life? I turned back and found her watching me. I was sorry, but I wasn't sure why. Because Alec Chasen did not paint anymore? I was never a Chasen fan. I felt as if I had lost something personal. She had taken something from me with that statement and I was inexplicable angry with her because of it.
So Alec Chasen did not paint anymore. Why did I care?
I must have fallen asleep thinking about Alec and Kellen and Jillian. When I woke several hours later, the loft was dimly lit and the tangy smell of beef stew lingered in the air. I sat up and stretched. I could hear rain pounding on the roof and knew that time was still suspended. I leaned over the railing and scanned the ground floor. The kitchen was well lit. I could see a pot simmering on the stove. I could not see Alec anywhere. Silently, I checked her bedroom and found only the Afghan folded neatly on her bed. Where was she? I went downstairs and crossed the living room to the glass doors. The wind threw waves over the pier and lightning raced across the black, cloudy sky.
I jumped and spun around at the soft voice that came from the dark living room. Alec, still clad in the baggy clothes, came from the shadows. As usual, she held a glass in her hand. Every time I saw her, she was holding a glass. The sarcastic words left me before I could catch them. "Still clinging to a glass I see."
Hurt crossed her face before she hid it behind a blank mask. I was surprised by the rare show of emotion. She was such a master at hiding how she felt it was easy to forget she had feelings. "It's only coke."
"Whatever," I said as she passed me to go to the kitchen. She placed the glass on the counter and stirred the bubbling stew.
"Taste it if you don't believe me," she invited with a tired sigh.
Gray eyes watched me pick up her glass and sip her drink. The coke was alcohol free. I stared at her, this woman I once knew so well and yet, never knew at all. The Alec I loved, the angry painter hiding behind her secrets and alcohol, was gone. Everything I ever knew with certainty about her was no longer a part of who she was now.
I wish I could blame what happened next on the long drive and lack of sleep. The emotional shocks had knocked off my equilibrium and I was being tossed around like a buoy in the storm. I wish I could say it was anything but the truth. I wanted to knock her off her feet like she kept knocking me off mine. I was hurt and I wanted to hurt her.
"You were never going to tell me that you're Kellen Brent, were you? You'd let me leave here believing she's your lover."
The shock I wanted to see flooded her eyes. She replaced the lid on the pot ever so carefully. Her eyes were black in her pale face. She walked to the glass doors. I was scared she would walk out onto the rain swept pier and vanish. She wrapped her arms around herself, as if suddenly cold in the warm house.
"Jill. She must have told you last night," she said so softly I barely heard the words.
"Why did you wait so long? It's what you always wanted." Her voice was stronger now, bitter and cold in accusation. She glanced at me over her shoulder, icy gray eyes damned me and my never ending questions. "What's wrong Victoria? Not going as planned? Aren't I reacting the way you wanted?"
She walked into the living room, viciously slapping light pads as she passed. She stood under the Chasen she painted for a little child named Kellen. She was tightly coiled, barely controlled anger.
"Come on. Finish this. You started it so long ago."
Did I? Was it so unusual for a lover to want to know everything about you? Was I so wrong to be curious about her life? Anyone would have been curious. She was so secretive, so desperately unhappy. I wanted to help her, but I never knew how. I cannot change what I do not understand. And I cannot understand what I do not know. She was beautiful and talented and living so close to insanity that there had to be a reason.
"I did not start this," I denied. She was not going to blame the past on me. "You did, with all your secrets."
She turned and met my gaze. "You were in my present and you could have shared my future, but I did not owe you my past. Of all the things you could have claimed, my past was never one of them."
Our gazes locked and I remained silent. "What else did Jill tell you?@
I shook my head. There was nothing left to tell. Jillian ended our conversation seconds after telling me that Alec was Kellen. Alec closed her eyes briefly and turned back to the painting. I moved to the couch and sat down. Minutes ticked by as she stared at the painting and I stared at her stiff back. When she turned to me again, her eyes were glacial. Her tone would have frozen the flames in hell.
"Remember this, Victoria, if you never remember anything else I ever say: it's not betrayal if you are betrayed first."
I sat dumbfounded as she went to her office and slammed the door. What did that mean?
She was in her office for hours. I ate some of the stew and stored the rest in the refrigerator. I sat in the living room and waited. I did not know what I was going to say to her or if she would let me say anything. Alec is particularly unforgiving. I had wondered why Jillian did not invite Kellen herself. Now I knew. Alec does not answer her phone. She lets her machine take all her calls and returns messages when and if she wants. Letters are sent back with OCCUPANT MOVED written across the top. Once Alec shuts someone out of her life, they cease to exist in her world.
I sat up when the door opened and Alec came out. We met across the bar. Our eyes met briefly and I was shocked to see the same shadows that darkened her eyes in Los Angeles. She moved around the kitchen and soon a small pan of stew was warming on the stove. She cut off a thick slice of bread and buttered it before popping it in the toaster oven.
"It's not like they said," she whispered hoarsely. If she had been crying, it did not show on her face.
I waited for her to explain. When she continued to stir the stew absently, I asked softly, "What's not like they said?"
I was afraid to speak in a normal voice for fear that whatever fragile thread held her here with me would break. She placed the toasted bread and a bowl on a tray. She poured the stew in the bowl and carefully took the tray to the living room. She seemed small in the corner of the couch, bruised and delicate. Her slender body was tensed under the baggy clothes. This lost wounded woman was the Alec I remembered so well. I saw before that she was not the same woman I knew before, why couldn't I see that she was free of the dark shadows?
She stared out at the dying storm, her eyes holding steady. It was not the storm she saw and it was not the horizon that continually drew her gaze. She was hearing the not so distant echoes of her past.
"Brian. It didn't happen the way Patrick wants everyone to believe."
I held my breath as she continued to stare at nothing. Did I really want to know more Brent family secrets? Did I want to know what horror was being replayed behind her shattered gray eyes? I watched with the kind of sick fascination usually reserved for wrecks on the freeway. I did not encourage her, but I did not stop her either.
"Nobody broke in. There were only three people in the house that night. Brian. Jill. Me."
I went numb from the confession. The shock of that night was on her face. Three people in the house; Brian was dead and Kellen was banished. Patrick declared his only grandchild dead on December 25, 1968.
I came to the only conclusion I could. "You killed Brian."
Alec shifted her gaze to me. Her eyes were black and empty. Without looking away, she put her tray of uneaten food on the table. She stood up and stared down on me as if she had never seen me before and did not care for what she saw now.
"That would the logical choice," she said tightly. She stalked to the window. I was numb and silent. I watched her stand stiffly at the glass doors and stare into the black nothingness. Oh God! I was at a lost as to what to do or say. I wanted to go to her and hold her. I stared at her blank reflection and knew that I would never ask her why she killed Brian. Whatever else, I would never ask that.
"Leave me alone. Just this once, Victoria, leave me alone," she cut me off sharply. Anger saturated her words.
And just this once, I left her alone.
I woke to an empty house the next morning. Cold coffee and a used plate were the only signs that Alec was around somewhere. But where? I waited for her to come to bed last night, but I waited in vain. I fell asleep watching her stand at the glass doors. I never heard her come upstairs.
The view beyond the glass was of a perfect blue sky and gently rolling waves. The familiar figure was not standing on the end of the pier holding a glass. I opened the door and walked onto the pier, glancing up and down the private beach.
A warm breeze was coming off the water. Alec really did have a beautiful, tranquil retreat from the world. The only reality that intruded here was the kind Alec invited or, like me, that pushed its way into her life. I was glad she had a place to relax her guard. Everyone needed somewhere like this. Although, most people could not afford the total isolation Alec Chasen could buy. Most did not need it like Kellen Brent.
Where did a non?working painter go so early on a Monday morning? It was not as if she had a job or anything so pressing. Her painting never had set hours or a rigid schedule. When she painted, it was by desire or need, but never because it was eight in the morning.
I wandered back in the house, looking for a note taped to or lying on something. Would she leave without telling me? This was her home, her sanctuary. A sanctuary Jillian and I defiled by bringing in her past. I made her confront a tragedy she tried so desperately hard to forget. Instead of wondering if she would leave, I should wonder why she would stay. I would have left. I would have run so far away Jillian would never have found me again.
A quick search of Alec's bedroom revealed nothing apparently missing. The clothes were all evenly spaced in the closet, no gaps between the shoes. Nothing hinted of a mad dash to pack and put as much distance as she could between herself and this house.
I jumped and spun at the unexpected, perplexed voice. Alec was standing in the doorway. She wore paint splattered blue jeans and pristine white T-shirt. She walked into the room and tossed a rainbow dotted white smock to the bed.
"What are you doing in here?"
I swallowed nervously, elated she did not run this time. "I was looking for you."
She smiled and shook her head. "I guess that means you didn't find the note I left by your bed."
My room was the one place I forgot to look for a note and it was the most obvious place she would have left one. I shook my head and laughed because she was not on a plane with a new name. "Where were you?"
Alec stood up and striped off her jeans and T-shirt. I had a sudden interest in the view from her bedroom. "I teach art in the mornings at the local school. It's a summer program."
I turned, surprised by the preposterous answer. I caught Alec stepping into the shower. Alec was an art teacher. That was the most incredible statement I ever heard. I walked into the bathroom and sat on the tub. Steam was rising from the shower cubicle. Alec Chasen was no longer painting the seascapes that made her successful, but she was teaching children how to paint. She never said or did anything like I remotely expected. Which brought up the question, why did I keep having expectations of her? If I ever sat back and just went along for the ride, I could have the ride of my life.
When she stepped from the shower, I had a towel waiting for her. My eyes were not modestly downcast. "I thought you said you don't paint anymore."
She laughed and I followed her into the bedroom. She patted droplets of water clinging to her body as she walked. "I don't, not professionally. What I paint there will never be considered a Chasen Original. No one would pay money for that."
I sat on the bed. "I thought that about some of your other stuff, but I was wrong. At some point, they start buying the name."
She stood in the closet and selected a pair of khaki shorts and maroon knit shirt. She was incredibly beautiful. Pale blonde hair, silver shadow free eyes, lithe body.
"I know that better than you do. Yes, I'm talented. It's not conceit to recognize that. I also now no one is talented enough to make the kind of money I did and still be alive."
She came back into the bedroom dressed. She picked up her dirty clothes and threw them in the bathroom hamper. "Patrick asked me when I first came back if I realized the money I could make if my paintings bore the Kellen Brent name. I knew that, too. I never did it for the money. Whatever else it was about, it was never for the money."
She acknowledged her past without faltering, her eyes candid as they mine in a direct stare. How did it get that easy? After our history, how did it get that easy to say? How did she pull herself together so that it no longer mattered that I knew she was Kellen Brent?
"It's easy to not care about money when you have a lot of it," I replied absently. She was Brian Brent's only child, his heir to the Brent family fortune.
She stared at me silently for a few seconds. "Not that I care, but what exactly did I do to you to make you think the absolute worst of me? You never give me the benefit of the doubt. You give me every evil trait and bad motive you can every chance you get. Just what did I do to you that was so bad?"
The question caught me off guard. "I don't think the worst of you."
"Yes you do. Just for the record, I never got any of Brian's money. I suppose Jill sent some to my grandmother when I was younger, but we've never discussed it. What I have now, I earned. The dead do not inherit. And Kellen Brent is dead."
She left me sitting on the bed. The look in her eyes was one I was beginning to recognize. Alec did not like what she saw when she looked at me. On some unknown level, I had failed her. It was not a test that I had failed exactly, but I had gone down in her eyes. I did not like the feeling very much.
Was I surprised to find her on the pier? No. It was the first place I looked for her. She might not paint anymore, but she still found solace in the kiss of the sun on her face and the crash of the waves. I stood in the at the door and watched her. She was leaning against the railing on her elbows. A soft breeze played with her hair. I walked out when she turned and dark eyes flashed. She hated to be watched.
"I'm sorry, I just assumed," I apologized. Was I really apologizing to her every other hour or did it just seem like it?
Without looking at me, she said, "You think you know me, Victoria. All you know is name and a past you think you understand. You do not know me just because you know that once, a very long time ago, my name was Kellen Brent."
A new barrier was between us and I did not know how to make it go away. I liked this Alec. I wanted to get to know her better.
"When are you leaving?"
I could leave any time now that the rain was gone. It would be easy to pack my bags, say goodbye, and leave Alec Chasen forever. Her chapter in my life would have an ending. I could move on and meet new women who would not have to live up to an image that was never real. And if I believed any of that, I would already be packed.
I leaned against the railing and waited until Alec faced me. Heart wrenching honesty has never been a favorite of mine. Lies are so much easier to smile away. "If you want me to leave, I will. No questions and no recriminations. But I want to stay."
Alec sighed. "Why Tory?"
Tory. I have not heard that name in two years. Some people call me Vickie or Vic, but only Alec ever called me Tory. I never thought I would hear it again. I did not realize until now how I longed to hear her say it in that soft Brit voice.
In answer, I leaned forward and touched my lips to hers.
When Alec came from teaching the next day, I was dozing on the deck. I was alone again this morning, but I was not concerned. I knew where Alec was and knew that she would be back before lunch. I took the book I was reading onto the deck. She woke me by trailing light kisses over my shoulders and back.
"You're turning a nice golden tan. How long have you been out here?" she asked, running her fingers across my thighs. She was wearing an outfit similar to yesterday's.
I turned over and sat up. I glanced at her wrist watch. "About an hour. How was your class?"
Her smile was sweet and excited. "Great. I don't remember the last time I enjoyed painting this much."
She gave me a quick kiss on the lips before standing up. She seemed very happy. The briny breeze tugged playfully at her hair, giving her a carefree air. She walked down the pier with her hands in the air and her face raised to the sun. Happy was never a word I thought I would use to describe Alec Chasen.
"What do you want to do today? We can do whatever you want."
I laughed and allowed myself to be caught up in her reckless abandon. "How private is this beach?"
She turned and watched with intense eyes as I stripped. Finally, when I was naked before her, she grinned. "What makes you think this is a private beach?"
For one, brief horrible second, I flushed in embarrassment. Then I remembered that whoever else this carefree waif was, she was still Alec Chasen, Hermit Extraordinaire. This was a very private beach.
"Because I know you."
It took less time to strip her then it took to strip myself. I was reminded of yesterday. At her first touch, I stopped thinking and went totally on instinct. It was better than any fantasy I had about Alec. There was all the anticipation and heady excitement of the first time plus the knowledge that I wanted this woman, knew her caress. She was the most beautiful woman I ever knew. I live in Los Angeles. I know a million beautiful women.
"Tory," she whispered, standing so close to me our bodies were touching, "What do you want?"
Her words barely registered. I saw her face coming close, saw her eyes staring into mine, felt her lips brush against mine. What was she saying?
One hand slid around my waist and pulled me tight against her, the other hand caressed the back of my neck. I was drowning in the sensations her touches were causing. In the next second, I was drowning in the Pacific. I stood up sputtering, breast deep in cold, almost icy water.
Alec smirked from the pier. "You needed to cool off."
I watched, stunned, as she turned and disappeared. Her turn would come and everyone knew payback was hell. I trudged through the water to the ladder and climbed back onto the pier. Alec was sitting in a steamy hot tub tucked into the corner of the deck and house.
She grinned as I slipped into the bubbly water, her eyes almost a physical touch as she watched me settle myself across from her. It was hard to leave you this morning. I was afraid to open my eyes because it was probably just another dream. I've missed you."
The hot water felt wonderful after my cool dip. "Why didn't you call me?"
Alec stared down into the water. Sunlight glittered across the water on her shoulders, off the silver cap of hair. "I didn't know how to make you stop. I guess secrets kept too long become impossible to explain and forgive."
I stared at the bent blonde head in amazement. It was small, but Alec Chasen was apologizing to me. I moved to kneel between her legs. I put my hands on her hips. "There's nothing to forgive. You are right. You didn't owe me your past. I'm sorry I made you feel like you did."
I chose my next words carefully. I was treading on forbidden ground, but I had to know. "Alec, what was going on back then? The people who kept calling all the time, was it Patrick and Jillian?"
She sighed. I could see the blackness settle around her shoulders. She nodded and looked at me with a bitter expression on her face.
"They wanted to claim Alec Chasen. You see, I wasn't supposed to grow up to be a somebody. I was supposed to stay five years old and at Moregrove House forever. I wasn't supposed to grow up and I damned sure wasn't supposed to become Alec Chasen. The only reason I never slit my wrists was the satisfaction I knew the Senator would get from burying me for real."
"They wanted you back?" I asked, trying to understand what it was that almost drove her over the edge two years ago. Did Alec not want to be a part of her family? It seemed that way.
"No, not me. Patrick wants the publicity he will get if Alec Chasen is his granddaughter. I have two problems with that. I don't want to be Kellen Brent and his terms were unacceptable."
I asked, confused, "Terms?"
Alec looked away. "I would have to agree to the public version of that night. I am not willing to do that."
I swallowed the rest of my questions. If I pressed, I knew she could explain why she would want the truth of that night to come out. I simply wasn't ready to hear it. I did not want to know what Alec thought she would gain if the world knew she killed Brian. Or what she thought she would lose.
That afternoon set the tone for the next three days. Alec would come home and we would walk on the beach or sit in the hot tub. We sat on the pier and I listened as Alec talked about what it meant to be Kellen Brent.
Life in England was not unpleasant. Moregrove House was an isolated country estate bought to protect Kellen. She lived there with Jillian's mother, Cordelia Chasen. Her name was changed to Alecia Chasen and she was taught by a live?in tutor. She drew pictures before coming to Moregrove House and it was Cordelia who encouraged her with paints. Holidays were spent roaming around the globe. She spoke of Cordelia with a deep love, but never mentioned Jillian. Her mother's visits were either painful to remember or not very memorable at all.
By twenty, Alec Chasen was firmly established in the London art world. She came back to Los Angeles because Cordelia told her it was time to go home.
"Everything I am today is because of Cordelia. I am not grateful for very many things, but I am grateful to Jill for sending me to live with Cordelia."
I did not want the easy rapport that was between us to end. Alec was more open that I ever thought she could be with another person. As I listened to her lonely story, I ached for the hurt child she had been. I would like to think I understand why the oil hanging over her fireplace is the last Chasen Original and why she painted it for a child named Kellen. I would like to think it was because she was coming to terms with her past. The problem with thinking I understand Alec is that I almost never do.
My life could not be put on indefinite hold. I did not want to leave Alec, but I had to go back to my life in Los Angeles. By Thursday I was searching for ways to bring up the subject of Alec coming back to Los Angeles with me. The answer was so simple I almost overlooked it.
"I am not coming to the wedding," she said annoyance creeping into her voice. We were on the deck enjoying the setting sun. Alec was scrunched down in her chair, feet propped on the railing.
"But, I thought?" What did I think? Alec never said she was coming to the wedding. She said, quite clearly, that she was not coming. "Why not?"
She looked over at me and the expression on her face told me I should know the answer. She sat up and anger was forming in her eyes. "Because I don't want to. I don't have to do things I don't want to do anymore. That's what being an adult is, doing what you want."
Oh really? I thought being an adult meant doing the things you did not want to do with grace and style. Children are the ones who balked at doing the things life required. And life required that a daughter attend her mother's wedding. "Do you really believe that Alec?"
"Why would you even think I would go knowing all that you do now? How can you even ask me to go?"
We were standing face to face and not even the darkness could hide the fire burning in her eyes.
"Because she's your mother, Alec. Because she's reaching out to you. She's forgiven you."
Alec laughed bitterly at that. "Jill's forgiven me? For what?"
"She doesn't blame you for what happened. If you want your life back, you can have it." It was so simple to me. Why didn't she see it?
"I am not coming to the wedding, Victoria. Do not ask me again."
This was the Alec from Los Angeles. The one who demanded not to be questioned, the one who threw me from her life without a backwards glance. The reason she was not going to the wedding was obvious now. She could hurt Jillian by refusing. It was not enough that she never saw Jillian. It was not enough that she would not even talk to her on the phone. She had closed her mother completely from her life and that was still not enough.
"Why are you punishing her?"
The answer came from her immediately, without a pause. "Because I can."
That said it all. She did it because she could. I asked the unbelievable. "You hate her don't you?"
The truth was on her face, but she shook her head in denial. "No, I do not hate her. I just do not love her."
"She's your mother, Alec," I said, as if that made any difference.
She turned her back on me. I did not need to see her face to know it would be empty of all emotion. I knew that whatever she was feeling would be well hidden behind a mask of casual indifference. "She is not my mother. She is Kellen Brent's mother. Kellen Brent is dead."
My world was not all black and white, but neither was it filled with the shades of gray that colored Alec's life. Everything about her, to even her name, was a shadow of doubt. Was she Alec Chasen? Could she be Kellen Brent if the state of California said Kellen Brent was dead? She could deny anything about her life because it was neither the full truth nor a complete lie.
The one thing she could not deny was that Jillian Young gave birth to her, whatever her name. "She is your mother Alec. You owe it to her to at least acknowledge that."
"You think it's that easy? Yes, once, in another lifetime, I was Kellen Brent. Who that child might have grown up to be does not exist. I am not who I would have been if that night never happened. I am not Kellen Brent. I do not owe Jillian Young anything. She gets from me exactly what she deserves. It's too damn late for her to want anything more."
She picked up her glass and walked into her home.
I spent my last night sleeping in the loft bedroom. Alec was gone by the time I woke from a fitful sleep. A note by the bed wished me a safe trip home and offered a six pack of cokes to take with me. I guess I was leaving. I left a note of thanks on the breakfast bar.
I wanted to be like Alec and leave without looking back, but I watched the house disappear in my rearview mirror.
The first thing that impressed me about Jillian is how normal she seems. Her face is not a mirror for the tragedies that have shattered her private life. She does not talk easily about Brian or Kellen. She never mentioned, until I was in Aubres, that Alec Chasen was her daughter. Jillian has borne her fame like heavy cross since their deaths. She is, and will forever be, Brian Brent's widow, the mother of Kellen, the only survivor from that night.
Windchase is heavily guarded today and I was waved through the front gate easily. Why was I here? I could have called and given Jillian the news impersonally. I guess a part of me felt that I had to tell Jillian to her face that Alec was not coming. She already knew Kellen was not coming.
She was sitting on the patio. Several bridal magazines were spread over the table. She smiled when she saw me and I saw what had been before me all the time. Alec is a young Jillian. The only difference is that Jillian's bright green eyes will never be as bleak as Alec's gray. The wind tugged on her shoulder length blonde hair.
"Victoria. Are you back already?" She sounded pleased to see me. I felt sad for her.
Did she think I would have good news for her? I sat across from her. "I got back last night."
The drive back seemed twice as long as the drive up. I replayed all the conversations Alec and I shared and was surprised by the picture that emerged. The woman living in Aubres had moved beyond a tragic past to find a fragile peace.
Jillian stare at me expectantly. "Well? Is she coming?"
What was the best, least painful way to tell her Alec was not coming to the wedding for any price? There was not one and I was surprised she harbored even a tiny hopelette that Alec might come. If someone refuses to talk to you on the phone, you are being painfully naive to expect something like this.
"I'm sorry," I said and meant it.
Alec' mother shrugged as if it did not matter, but her trembling smile betrayed that it mattered very much. She played with the corner of her magazine for a few minutes. We sat in silence, the surf in the background. I let the silence linger and enjoyed the beautiful tranquility of Windchase. I would give her all the time she needed to regain her composure.
"Victoria? Why didn't Alec tell you she was Kellen? Why did she tell you that she was Alec?"
I was suddenly very tired of the deceit. Jillian was asking why Alec didn't tell me and it never occurred to her to tell me herself. We were playing games of half?truths and lies by omission. And I was a mere amateur trying to play with the masters. I told Jillian the truth and let the pieces land where they would.
"Alec and I were lovers two years ago. I knew she was Alec Chasen. She just didn't tell me she was Kellen, too."
Jillian did not bat an eye over my revelation. She either knew or did not care that Alec is a lesbian. "What did she say when you told her you knew?"
"She wasn't happy that you told me. She wanted to keep the charade of Alec Chasen."
"Why?" she asked, sounding truly puzzled.
If I did not know it before, I knew it now. Jillian did not know Alec. They might be mother and daughter, but either by desire or need, neither had reached out to the other. If they had, they might have gotten through this nightmare better.
"Denying Kellen Brent is a very big part of Alec. She's spent most of her life sidestepping questions about her past. I guess that after all these years, it was a habit she could not break."
She was quiet again, absorbing the news that maybe Alec's life was not the kind Jillian would have wished for her. What did she think having to do deny who she was would do to a child? Alec rarely made friends and when she did, walls flew up at the first innocent question. Lying or making up answers simply never occurred to her.
"Is she very unhappy?" Jillian asked the question softly. She did not want to know the truth. She wanted to hear that Alec was as happy as she was successful. The two should go together.
I always thought of Alec as very unhappy. I was not sure anymore if that really described her. The woman I saw in Aubres, even when she was letting me believe she was Kellen's lover, was not the woman I loved in Los Angeles. She had a calmness I never would have thought Alec could possess. She was content. Maybe that was better than happy.
I met Jillian's fearful eyes. She was afraid of what I might say. "No, she isn't very unhappy. I have never seen her more happy."
I would never say Alec was happy, but in Aubres, in those few days, she was the happiest I have ever known her to be. I could Jillian that even if I could not spare her from knowing that her daughter was not a happy person.
"Thank you for trying," she whispered.
Jillian showed me her plans for the wedding. I listened and showed what I hope was enthusiasm. My eyes constantly strayed past her to the sparkling pool and wide emerald lawns. I could see a very young Alec playing happily in this fairyland. Did she get close to the cliff, maybe crawl to the edge and look down the sheer drop to the ocean? I wanted Kellen to be happy here because it was too sad to think what her life was after she left here.
Jillian married Rainer on September 25, 1990. The ceremony was beautiful and planned to the exchange of vows before the burst of golden colors in the sunset. The day would have been perfect for Jillian if Alec had been there to witness it. She did not mention Alec and I was angry that she was beginning this new life without Alec by her side. It could have been a new life and new family for both of them.
It was a small affair. The guests were family and close friends. Patrick and Celeste Brent sent a gift, but declined to attend. I was surprised Jillian invited them. When I asked Jillian which of her movie star friends were coming, she stared at me blankly and said she did not have any movie star friends.
As I stood on the patio sipping champagne and watching my father dance with Jillian, the strangest thought occurred to me. This was the first party held at Windchase since that fateful Christmas Eve party. I glanced at the second floor. I knew I was not supposed to go up there, knew the second floor was off limits to everyone. Maybe even Rainer was not allowed on the sacred second floor.
I was able to slip away from the party easily. I was the last person on their happy little minds. This party, unlike the Christmas Eve party, was confined to the balmy patio. The downstairs was dimly lit by the flood lights. I edged around furniture and stood, breathless at the bottom of the staircase. The staircase. The staircase that led to the scene of the crime.
Laughter and music drifted from the party. I put one foot on the bottom stair, but paused. Did I really want to do this? What could I possibly hope to learn?
I almost ran up the stairs I was so afraid of being caught. I wanted to do this and I did not want Jillian to stop me. I did not want to guess at her reaction if she ever found out I was up here. This step relationship could get off to a very bad start.
The staircase circled up around the fountain. Wide balconies overlooked the foyer from both sides of the staircase. I counted five doors, two to my left, two in front of me and one to my right. The sunken double doors of the room on my right indicated this was the master bedroom. I peeked into the rooms in front of me and was surprised they were bedrooms. Why have guest rooms if you never have guests?
We should never be allowed to have preconceived notions. I knew from Jillian's book that she was never able to pack up Kellen's nursery. I romanticized how the room would look. I thought everything would be all bright and sunny, still waiting for the five year old who left so abruptly. I imagined a room filled with plush stuffed animals and dolls with houses. I saw a canopy bed with yellow comforter. The room I envisioned belonged to the pampered, adored child of Brian Brent and Jillian Young.
The handle turned easily in my hand. I slipped into the room and shut the door before flipping on the light. I did not want to alert anyone to my activities. I was too close to seeing Kellen's nursery.
I was not prepared for the room. There was a canopy bed, but the comforter was white. The doll house was a replica of Windchase. A Raggedy Ann doll the size of small child was sitting in the bay window. A tea party was in progress at a small patio table. Except for a few details, it was how Kellen Brent must have left it twenty?five years ago.
The few details were why Kellen would never came back. The covers of the bed were twisted and dragged onto the floor. Two feet away from the bed was a tape outline of an adult's body. A dark rust stain covered the area where the head would have been. The white walls and white carpet around the bed and the white comforter and white sheets were sprayed with rust dots and streaked with rust colored stains.
Brian Brent died in Kellen's bedroom.
I walked around the outline, staring in disbelief at the blood splattered walls and bed. I read the books and I knew Brian died on the second floor of Windchase. While neither book made a claim as to where Brian died other than on the second floor, it was never written that he died in Kellen's nursery. Was this why Jillian could not bear to pack the room away?
I tore my eyes away from the bloody scene and walked around the room. Several nursery books were stacked on a chair and covered by twenty?five year old dust. A picture frame was face down on the bookshelf. I picked it up. It was a color photo of the small Brent family. A somber Brian stood behind a smiling Jillian, who held a laughing Kellen on her lap. Brian had movie star good looks, his mother's auburn hair, and his father's gray eyes. I knew those lifeless gray eyes. They were his legacy to his daughter. I laid the frame back on the bookshelf, face down.
The words Brian died in Kellen's bedroom echoed in my head and my eyes constantly went back to the bed and wall. I was confused. Why would he be in her bedroom? Kellen was sent to bed a half hour before the party broke up. She was sleepy on Brian's shoulder. Why would he go to her bedroom?
The obvious reason hit me so hard I reached for the wall, shaken. I never questioned Alec on why she killed her father. I did not want to know why or how a five year old killed her father. I wanted to get her and me as far away from that subject as possible. I did not want to know then and I wish I did not know now. I wanted to go back to the party, look up at the second floor and not care what secrets were hidden on the forbidden second floor. I always went too far and was never prepared for what I found.
I stepped around the outline and flipped off the light. The door shut softly behind me.
The party was winding down when I rejoined the celebration. Rainer and Jillian were wrapped in each other's arms as they thanked their friends for sharing their special day. All I could do was stare at Jillian and wonder why it was Kellen who shot Brian. She was laughing and hugging friends and I could still see that pristine white bedroom splattered with blood.
"Victoria, where have you been?"
Rainer's deep voice tore me out of my shocked state. I walked over to them and hoped I did not look as pale as I felt. "I've been here. You only see Jillian."
On cue, he smiled down at her upturned face. "You're right."
"Where are you going?" I asked. Jillian slipped from my father's arms and walked to the buffet table. The green glow of the pool cast her in an eerie radiance. Rainer slipped his arm around my shoulders and walked us over to where she stood. She was refilling her champagne glass.
"Jillian hasn't decided yet. I've even offered to take her to Aubres," he said much too casually, his eyes on his new wife in expectation.
I bit my lip to keep my mouth shut. I knew he wanted to meet Alec and was not very happy that she chose to stay away. He reluctantly agreed that it was her choice.
Jillian sighed, her green eyes reproachful. They had discussed this before, obviously. "You know why we can't do that. Alec doesn't want to see me. If I try to force her, she will only hate me more."
I could not have said it better myself. Actually, yes I could. If Jillian showed up in Aubres, Alec would leave and Jillian would never know where she was again.
"I thought you would say that," he told her. "I've booked us on a cruise to England. I've talked to Cordelia and we're going to spend a few days with her before sailing back."
Jillian lit up at the news. "Oh, that's perfect. I can have you all to myself."
What did she think the purpose of the honeymoon was if they were not going to be alone? We went into the house as the caterers came out to begin the clean up. I walked over to the Chasen hanging on Jillian's wall. Did she have the painting because her daughter was the artist? At the few Chasen showings Alec and I attended, I stood behind the guests and listened to them as they tried to explain the paintings. They loved to read deep, hidden meanings into Alec's work. What did Jillian see when she looked at this dark seascape? How could she hang this painting and know why the Chasen Originals were so dark and haunted?
I wanted out of the house. I glanced up at the closed door of the nursery. I had to leave before Jillian caught me staring at Kellen's door. I walked away from the Chasen and the view I had of the upstairs. The newlyweds were inspecting the large stack of gifts piled around the living room.
"When do you leave?" I asked. I was gathering my overcoat and purse. This was their first night of wedded bliss. Hopefully, it would seem rude if I stayed too much longer.
Rainer looked up from a silver wrapped package. "We have to be there at nine."
"Then I'll say bon voyage now. That's a little earlier for me."
I hugged them both goodbye and made my escape. Bright spotlights hidden discreetly in the shrubs lit Windchase. I walked to my car. I could hear the gentle splash of waves in the distant. Windchase is very beautiful, very tranquil. I shivered, sickened by the violence that had taken place behind those clean white walls.
My first inclination was to pack and drive all night to Aubres. I could say I was sorry to Alec, but that would not even begin to make amends for the all that I had done. It was just one more strike I had against me. She told me not to assume anything about her life. All you know is a name and a past you think you understand. Naively, stupidly, I really did think that knowing she was Kellen Brent told me everything about her. All I really knew was that Brian was dead and the Brent's made Kellen die with him.
The inclination was strong, but the spirit was weak. I am a coward. I did not want to face Alec with the memory of her bedroom so fresh in my mind. I went to bed and fell into an exhausted sleep a few short hours before my alarm went off.
In my office, I sat before a blank computer screen and pretended to live my life. I pretended to write my column. I pretended to listen to Elane at lunch. Pretended that I wasn't still shaken by what I saw. I begged off a dinner by pretending to be sick. I sat in my dark condo eating mint chocolate chip ice cream and let the answering machine take my calls.
All day long, during stray thoughts, came the image of that room, its violence imprinted forever on my memory.
Why was the room never cleaned? If Jillian wanted to keep her daughter's nursery, why did she never have the walls repainted, the comforter cleaned, or the carpet replaced? She had kept the room perfectly intact. It was a hideous shrine to what Brian Brent had done to his family. A normal woman would have erased every last shred of that night. Of course, a normal woman would have kept the child.
I knew, somehow, that Alec did not know about the room. Even if the ban on visitors did not include her, I could not see Alec wanting to see it. I would be surprised to know that Alec was ever on the second floor after she left it that Christmas day.
After seeing the bedroom, I stopped wondering why she allowed Kellen to be buried with Brian. Any woman who would keep that room so perfectly preserved would do anything. The price for protecting her husband's image was her child. It was obviously a price Jillian was willing to pay.
I had a life before I went to Aubres. A life where Alec was someone I used to love and Jillian Young was simply a legend my father wanted to marry. I wanted that life back. I tried to get back into my routine, but found my thoughts were frequently on Alec. Was it that I knew too much? Or was it that I didn't know enough? I wanted to get through just one short hour without sad gray eyes haunting me.
I tried to get back into my life as if my troubling detour into Alec's past never happened. But instead of spending my time researching and writing my column, I found myself down in the newspaper morgue scanning old papers. I began my search with the announcement of Brian Brent's engagement to Jillian Young. She was a nineteen year old starlet he found working in one his family's restaurants. He was the brilliant, twenty?three year old only son of a United States Senator.
The many articles written about Brian and Jillian were gossipy and glowing. Pictures accompanying the articles showed the dazzling young couple smiling in Paris, London, and New York. Kellen was born into their privileged lives two years later. She was shown in rare pictures with her parents, always in Jillian's arms, always with her mother's hand protectively covering her face. By all accounts, they were the perfect couple and the perfect parents. There was not even a hint to the dark side of the Brent?Young marriage.
The flawless picture changed after Brian's death. Stories leaked about his drunken display at the party were the first cracks in his perfect, All?American image. Soon, everyone who ever worked with Brian confirmed that the Christmas behavior was common for him. Out of control drinking and an insane jealousy over Jillian often led to similar outbursts with friends. Actors who worked on some of his movies admitted that Brian was easily angered and difficult to please.
Death has it's own rewards and for Brian Brent that reward was redemption. His public image was not marred very much by the private one that emerged after his death. He was forgiven for what he was and for what he did because he died a young, violent death.
I think Kellen had to die with him because not even a violent death could save Brian Brent if it became known he died in his five year old daughter's bedroom. America will forgive her dark heroes many sins, but some things are unforgivable. Alec Chasen and her paintings would not be had Brian died in any other room of Windchase that Christmas morning.
I always thought I wanted to know Alec's past. On the surface, it looked like Alec Chasen had it all. She was beautiful. She was gifted. She was young. And she was living like she was simply marking time because she had nothing to live for. I wanted to know why. There had to be a reason and I was so sure it could never be justified by whatever it was in her past she refused to talk about.
I always thought I wanted to know Alec's past. It was too damn late to realize I was wrong. Some questions are better left unanswered. Some mysteries are better left unknown. Some pasts are better left buried.
Alec was constantly in my thoughts, but I did not call her or seriously consider another trip to Aubres. I had my life and Alec had hers. I loved her, but if we were meant to be together, it would have been easier than this.
Of course the day I reached this contented stage, Alec called me. It was now over two months since my visit to Aubres and two days after the wedding. A long day, and stressful week, was just ending when the phone rang. My Wednesday column was due Monday and I still did not have an idea. I did not care either, which was really uncharacteristic of me.
"Victoria, are you busy?" she greeted.
Hers was the last voice I expected to hear. Hers was also the last voice I wanted to hear today. I was tired and did not have the patience I would need to deal with the many faces of Alec Chasen. "No, Alec I'm not. But this isn't a good day. Is this important?"
I listened impatiently to the silence. What could she possibly want?
"I'm here, in Los Angeles. May I come over? I want to see to you."
Alec was in Los Angeles. Two days after the wedding she comes to Los Angeles. Typical. "I'd rather you didn't. Like I said, this has been a bad day."
"I can bring dinner," she tantalized.
I gave up. She was too persistent and this was making an already long day longer. Besides, I was hungry. A dinner I did not have to prepare or go get or call for sounded wonderful. I could even struggle through an hour of Alec's company for that. "Fine Alec. Do you know where I live?"
I changed into cut?off jeans shorts and a UCLA sweatshirt. Alec said she would surprise me. I gathered plates, forks, knives, and glasses and brought them into the living room. I was flipping blindly through channels when the doorbell buzzed.
My condo is large, but not as large as her house. I bought the condo after Alec asked me to leave. In those two years, I have made the condo into a comfortable home. Before the wedding, I would have been excited to have Alec in my home. Now, I just wanted the food.
Alec stood on the doorstep in one of her silk tailored suits, this one a deep wine red. She held a grocery bag. I stared at the bag and felt cheated. I wanted food already prepared. I took the bag and my dismay turned to salivating delight as I smelled the aromas wafting from the bag. Chinese food. Lots of little white boxes of Chinese food. I opened boxes while Alec took off her jacket. She sat beside me.
"You have had a bad day," she said with amusement. "What happened?"
She did not bring any drinks. I went to the fridge for the pitcher of water I keep chilled. I poured both glasses full. By this time, Alec was forking shrimp fried rice next to sweet and sour chicken.
"Nothing in particular. Why are you here?" And why didn't you come two days earlier? I was too busy mixing the contents of my plate to lash out at her over Jillian.
Alec shrugged and sat back, cradling her plate in her lap. "I had some legal stuff to take care of."
I nodded absently, too intent on my food to be concerned about why she was in Los Angeles. We ate in silence. Alec finished her meal and took the plate to the kitchen. I spooned up seconds while she toured the condo. She came back several minutes later.
I took my plate to kitchen. I thought about her question and decided I did feel better. I was even, just a little, happy to see her. She was sitting on the couch, comfortably acting like she had nowhere else to be right now. I sat beside her.
"Yes. Thank you for the Chinese."
"Have you forgiven me?" she asked, surprising me. We were facing each other on the couch. She had kicked off her shoes.
"For what?" For which things? Us? The wedding?
She stared at me, her eyes soft and warm and open. "I love you."
Whatever I expected her to say, that was not it. I wasn't sure I trusted her either. It required a leap of faith I did not think I could make. Alec's love was an elusive quality. Too many times I've had it snatched away to simply hold out my hand and trust her yet again.
She slipped close to me and put her hand on my cheek. "Tory? Why doesn't it make you happy for me to say that?"
"I'm not sure I can trust you Alec. You've always been so mercurial. I don't want to get hurt again."
She smiled. Soft, warm lips brushed against mine. Certain hands pulled me close and caressed my arms, stroked my thighs My instant response would have surprised me except for Aubres. I knew I was still very attracted to Alec.
"Alec?" I protested, not very hard. Her kisses on my neck were always my undoing. She was unfairly using her experience against me.
"Let me stay the night," she whispered. Once her hands slipped under my sweatshirt, that decision was made for me. I forgot she was Kellen Brent. I forgot the blood stained bedroom. I forgot everything except that this woman in my arms was the one I never thought I would hold like this again.
I woke the next morning surprised by the blonde head nestled next to mine and long legs thrown over me. I never woke before Alec. When she lived here, she was always painting and sleep was forced on her by exhaustion. She was always gone to school by the time I woke in Aubres.
My surprise quickly turned to enjoyment. I pulled the relaxed body closer. I could smell the faint scents of the ocean. Salt, sun, a cool breeze. I doubt if I could really smell any of those things, they were just a natural part of Alec. Like picking up a seashell in the store and hearing the faint roar of the surf.
She was sweet in sleep, like a small child. Dark lashes hid those sad gray eyes from prying stares. Gone from her face were the expressions of hurt and betrayal, anger and defiance.
Unbidden into this cozy scene came the image of that bloody bedroom. For what was probably the first time, I realized what it meant to know that this beautiful woman was Kellen Brent. She was more than a painter of haunting seascapes. Two nights ago, I stood in a child's bedroom desecrated by unspeakable violence. I stood over a canopy bed splattered with blood. I stepped over a chalk outline of a body to see dust covered nursery books. The child Brian Brent committed unthinkable acts against was the beautiful woman in my arms. Those hidden gray eyes watched him die. The slender fingers curled on my stomach pulled the trigger.
Is this why I could not go to Alec after the wedding? Because I could not forget what happened to her in those black, hellish hours before dawn? She is not that child, my mind protested. This woman is no longer that helpless child. She is grown. She is not the child Brian Brent violated.
I jumped and my eyes flew open. Alec was stretching and did not see the horror on my face. I think if she had been looking at me she would have seen that room reflected in my eyes.
"Hi," I said softly. I was trying to reconcile the defenseless five year old with the strong, capable woman I was coming to know. It was a hard transition to make.
She laid back in my arms. Her head rested on my shoulder. "How long have you been awake?"
I could not stay in bed. I slipped away from her and walked to the bathroom. "Not very. Are you hungry?"
When she did not answer, I looked into the bedroom. She was sitting up in the bed, the sheet bunched around her waist. "What's wrong?"
She is not that child, I repeated to myself. I walked back and sat beside her. "So much has changed between us. Last night was wonderful, but so were those nights at your house. I think I'm waiting for it to end, like it did there."
She sat up on her knees and wrapped her arms around me. Serious dark eyes stared into mine. "I love you Tory. Let that be enough for now. Okay? For right now, for this time, can't that be enough?"
Without a word, I nodded. For right now, for this time, it was enough.
Monday dawned bright and hot. Alec left the night before to go back to Aubres. I wanted her to stay the night, but she said she had to get back to school. The part?time volunteer position she held over the summer was now a full?time volunteer position. I watched her leave reluctantly. The Alec I knew before and the one I met in Aubres paled in comparison to the woman here for the weekend. I fell in love with her again.
My column was due at three. I went to my office and turned on the computer. I wrote a witty article about my weekend. I never mentioned Alec or the things we did. I wrote about rediscovering something I thought I knew and finding out that I did not know everything I thought I did. My editor would love it. I left it on her desk at one?thirty. I could have a late lunch with my best friend.
Elane's "new" studio was a big glass affair that overlooked Beverly Hills. I parked next to her red Mercedes. It was not all that along ago that she was in that cramped two room studio and driving a banged up VW. Cool, welcoming air greeted me as I opened the door. The main gallery, a sunken circle a few steps down from the entrance, was being set up for a showing. Several empty brass easels were grouped together. A balcony overlooked the main gallery and led to the smaller exhibition rooms.
I went to the large office at the rear of the building. Elane's laughter rang down the corridor. She was sitting with her feet propped on the window sill of the window behind her desk. I sat unnoticed in the chair in front of her desk. She was talking to a client; one of the people whose work was in the upcoming show. She turned in her chair to write in her calendar and stared at my smiling face in surprise.
"Hi," I whispered.
She ended the conversation a few minutes later. "Victoria Senett. Where have you been?"
"Working," I lied. Since coming back from Aubres, I dropped out of my social circle. So much had been happening in my life that I needed time to regroup for the next onslaught.
Elane was happy to see me and let the lie go unchallenged. She knew me too well to really believe I was too busy to see friends and return calls. "Alec came in Friday. Do you want to see the new Chasen?"
My happy mood evaporated. "Alec brought in a new painting?"
She nodded and jumped to her feet. "You've got to see this painting. I can't put it out yet. And you'll see why."
I followed her numbly to the main gallery and up the stairs. I knew the painting I would see hanging on the wall. The last time I saw it, it adorned Alec's fireplace.
"She said you two were trying to get back together. I would love to hear the story behind that," she said, bubbling with excitement.
So would I since I learned about it over the weekend. Alec and I discussed our relationship; what each wanted from the other and what each was willing to give in return. This conversation took place over Saturday brunch.
Elane had a sheet hanging over the new Chasen and a sign warned those who touched it to be prepared to die. She whipped the sheet off with a flourish. I flinched before I realized the painting was not the one she painted for Kellen. However, it was painted from the same palette. Bright, cheerful. If Alec's earlier work reflected her inner torment, these new paintings denoted an inner peace. If I needed another sign that Alec had changed, these paintings were it.
"You look stunned. I was too when I first saw it."
I stared at the painting. Stunned was not the word I would chose to describe how I felt. She never once mentioned bringing the painting over the weekend. "I thought she wasn't painting anymore."
Elane shrugged, glad that it was not true. "So did I. I guess she meant she wasn't painting her old paintings."
Her old paintings. So that's what the Chasens would be called, her old paintings. She could have periods like Picasso. This is from her pain period; that is from her happy period. I could barely wait for the next phase to begin.
"Is this it?" Alec usually brought several paintings for a show. She was a prolific artist.
"If it's not, this is all she brought. I can't wait for Friday."
I would have smiled at the irony only I did not feel very appreciative of Alec's sense of humor. She was coming back Thursday night, by plane. Stupid me. I thought she was coming back to see me.
Elane was blissfully unaware of my bitterness. This was nothing new. In every argument we had, Elane was always on Alec's side. Friendship was one thing, she explained, but a client like Alec Chasen was everything. I could be replaced.
"Why are you here?" she asked, realizing that I did not come to see the Chasen.
I stared at the beautiful painting and wished I had gone home for lunch. I would not know about Alec's deception and I would have eaten. Now, I did not want to eat at all. "I was on my way home and I thought I would drop by and see what you were up to."
Elane led me around the gallery and showed me some of the new paintings. I tried to listen to her, which would be hard on a good day because I do not like most of her clients work. I probably actually hated the Chasens while I was with Alec. Once we hit the empty main gallery, I lied about work and slipped away. Elane did not believe me, but I got to leave and that's all that counted.
Once in my car, I drove around. I was incredibly angry with Alec. I felt betrayed. If Alec was painting again, why didn't she tell me? I was stunned when she told me she was not painting anymore. And I believed she was coming back to see me. What a fool. I should have pushed her away from me and dropped kicked her out of my apartment Friday. I knew she would do something like this. My only surprise was that I did not expect it.
Well, let's see how surprised she was when she expected me to pick her up Thursday.
Alec called several times over the week and I, taking a page from her book, ducked her calls. I did not trust myself. If I demanded answers on the phone, I knew she would not come Friday. Showing or not. I wanted her here in person talking to me instead of listening to dead silence from her end of the phone.
Her last call was Friday morning. The brief message listed her flight number and arrival time. I listened in her voice for sounds that my absence was arousing some emotion, but Alec apparently saw nothing wrong. I guess someone who doesn't answer her own phone probably would never question someone else not answering theirs.
I was sitting in my apartment eating pizza when her plane landed. I was taking a shower when she would have been waiting at the luggage carousel if she had checked any baggage. I was in my robe watching TV when she would have begin to wonder what was keeping me. I flipped through channels and watched the clock, wondering how long it would take her to realize I wasn't coming.
I let her ring the doorbell a few times before I slipped from the couch to open the door. She knew I was home. My car was parked at my front door. The living room lights were on.
Alec was furious. Dark eyes flashed sparks as she brushed past me two hours after her plane landed. She dropped her luggage in the middle of my living room and turned ever so slowly to face me. "Where the hell have you been? I landed two hours ago."
I was not impressed. Her anger was a pale imitation of the kind I felt all week. The first questions I asked was not the one I had been preparing for the last two hours. "Why didn't you tell me you were painting again?"
"Why would ?" she shot back. "You never liked my paintings. Why would you care whether or not I was painting again?" Her voice took on a sharper edge, as if her anger had been kept in check until she learned I was not laying comatose in a hospital bed. Now that she saw I was perfectly healthy and could have picked her up as planned, she was losing control.
"I felt close to you Alec. Painting meant everything to you. But you didn't care enough to tell me you had started painting again."
She sighed and turned away. Looking for a glass perhaps? She paced around the living room, slender fingers raking tousled hair. "Dammit Tory, this is never going to work if you play these games. Why didn't you call me? If it meant this much to you, why the hell didn't you call me? You left me cooling my heels over this?"
"What about the showing tomorrow night?" I threw down my ace. Why should I have called her? Why couldn't she ever just tell me anything? Why did every little thing have to be dragged out of her like it was some national secret?
She sat in the couch, suddenly looking very much like the weary traveler. The anger was gone from her face and slim body. She was deflated. "You thought I came back for the showing."
It was a statement of fact. "Yes. Didn't you?"
She shook her head. "No, Tory. I came back to be with you."
"You're not going to the showing?"
"I do not attend showings. You know that. And it was only one painting." She stood up and walked over to me. She stopped a few feet away, her face sad. "Will you ever trust me?"
I reached out to her, but she stepped away. She kicked off her shoes and shrugged out of her jacket. She wore blue jeans and a T?shirt. She went to the kitchen for a glass of water. I sat on the couch, feeling as deflated as she looked. I had to ask myself a question and be serious when I answered. Could I have a serious relationship with this woman? Give her the total trust that any relationship needed to survive? I wanted to be with her, but wanting it was only a beginning. A life with Alec would never be easy.
She came back and sat next to me. "I'm sorry that I didn't tell you. I really didn't think you would care."
Was I making a big deal out of nothing? Looking for lies and deceit? So what if Alec Chasen was painting again. My life would not change if she never put another stroke of cobalt blue oil on canvas. I was conditioned to expect her to be secretive, to look beyond her every word and action for the tell tale sign that she was hiding something. "I'm sorry, too. I was just surprised when Elane showed it to me."
She smiled. "I hope Elane isn't expecting me tomorrow night. I plan to be in bed by the time the showing starts."
I laughed and was soon buried under welcoming hugs and kisses. I could get used to this Alec.
She leaned over me. "Next time, call me. I refuse to let this be like last time. I want honesty and trust. Okay?"
Those dark eyes were intense and serious as they stared into mine. I wanted to believe in the promise I thought I read in the soft gray depths. I wanted to believe that this time would be like my fantasies. Most of all I wanted to believe that Alec had truly shed the dark shadows Brian Brent's death had thrown over her life.
Continued in Part 2
The Athenaeum's Scroll Archive