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Two years ago, I started “The Smile Project” because I became uncomfortable with “The Zombie Zone.” I realized that when I passed a person I did not know – in a parking lot, in a grocery store, at the gym, or while waiting in line to use the Ladies’ Room (because ladies, unlike gents, ALWAYS have to wait in line) – the two of us entered a Dead Zone where we were close enough to greet each other or at least acknowledge each other. But, of course, we didn’t do that because we were strangers. No, we passed with blank, dead looks on our faces. In other words, we became Zombies passing in the night. (Or in the day as the case might be.)

I didn’t like the Zombie Zone. I hated that split second when the approaching stranger was close enough to require turning my head to avoid eye contact. If I timed it wrong, and our eyes met, we became two strangers awkwardly wondering what to say to each other. If I timed it right and got my eyes out of there in time, we became two strangers awkwardly avoiding each other. None of this felt good to me.

I considered what to do. Throwing out a “Hi” seemed like a bad idea. The trouble with speaking was I’d be overheard, and I’d look and feel like a Real Idiot if I didn’t get a return greeting. And the odds were pretty high in California that random strangers were not going to greet me back.

So I decided to found “The Smile Project.” The rules were I had to smile at every stranger, young or old, male or female, who came within the Dead Zone. I’d wait until that moment when eye contact should be avoided, make contact, and smile. And then I would wait to see what happened. It was a no risk proposition because if my smile didn’t Undead the approaching Zombie stranger, no one but me would know.

I have enjoyed watching the reactions to “The Smile Project.” There are, of course, the Zombies who remain Undead and ignore me. (“Really, why is that strange woman smiling at me? Do you think she wants something? She’s kind of cute, but I don’t know her. Better get out of here fast where no one is smiling at me.”)

But most of the time, the reaction to my smile is a return smile. There is usually a startled moment in the beginning while my target tries to figure out why this strange woman is smiling at him or her, followed by a (1) a tentative return smile or (2) a big grin. Once in a while, my target will smile and say Hi, or Nice Day or even wave. A smile is the greatest icebreaker in the world.

The Smile Project is also very useful when Waiting in Line. Californians do not Wait in Line well. They whine, complain, and look for ways to cut. They do not simply settle in and accept the inevitable truth: there are other people on the planet and They are Ahead In Line. So here’s where The Smile Project comes in handy. I scope out my fellow Line Mates and smile at the one (or even two) who don’t break eye contact the minute they see me. I smile and say, “Nice earrings,” or “I love your boots,” or “Yeah, we love pepperoni pizza at our house, too.” Usually from my minimal effort, a conversation is born that makes me, at least, forget about having to wait. Other people love to tell their stories. And since I am a storyteller, I have two great passions: telling stories and listening to them. So passing the time listening to someone’s story is well worth the price of a smile.

The Smile Project is also like garlic to vampires when it comes to warding off angry stares. The grocery stores here have aisles wide enough for one and a half carts. That means if you stop your cart to select an item, you are automatically blocking traffic. And every turn from one aisle to the next is a blind turn because of the stuff they pile at the end of the aisles. Pulling your cart out in front of another person or asking someone to let you pass by can net you an angry glare because that person has just been forced to recognize There Are Other People In the World; and right now, in particular, Those Other People are in Their Own Personal grocery store. However, throwing out a random smile usually gets me a smile in return and often a pleasant verbal exchange about the need for smaller carts or wider aisles. You can see a glare melt under the shine from a smile. You really can.

The Smile Project is also a godsend in Costco where I am absolutely the Only Human Pushing a Shopping Cart and Watching Where I am Going. Haven’t you noticed that everyone in Costco is pushing his or her cart with his or her head sideways (think The Exorcist) looking for free food? Just smile when they run into you.

I invite you to try The Smile Project for yourself. It is totally no cost and very low risk. The worst that can happen is you will encounter a Zombie who likes being Undead. But not always. And something really magical happens when the Dead Zone vanishes because your smile has made a stranger’s eyes go from blank to warm. I didn’t expect much when I started The Smile Project, but it has been more than worth the effort.

Founder of the Smile Project

Founder of The Smile Project

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Happy New Year

Happy New Year

When I was a child, New Year’s was a sad holiday. It was the day the now shabby and wilting Christmas tree came down; the day we were forced to eat black-eye peas swimming in bacon grease for luck; and the day before the dreaded Return to School. Whereas December had been filled with class parties, cookies, gift exchanges, singing carols, and a Christmas play that the entire elementary school presented, January was a bleak, cold month in Tennessee filled with homework and early bed time. No magic allowed.

New Year seemed an even more hollow celebration as I grew older. Even though by high school the December lead up to Christmas no longer carried even the slightest celebratory trace of magic, still the idea of two whole weeks without six periods each day, homework to match, and avoiding the Popular People in the halls was anticipatory nirvana. But New Year’s once again marked the end of freedom and the return to drudgery. Nothing joyful about that.

After I graduated to career person, I used to hang out at various New Year’s parties, trying to feel festive and not sad. I never developed a circle of close friends, so I always shouted “Happy New Year!” among strangers. Despite being happy to be included, a holiday with people I didn’t know just reminded me I was pretty much rowing my little boat alone in the big wide ocean. No magic there.

But after I became the mother of three, I began, at last, to see New Year’s differently. It all changed about the time my oldest hit preschool, and I encountered the hurdles that face a Mom with Kids in School between October and January 1. First came Halloween, and sewing costumes. Three children, three costumes, a night of trick or treating, and then scraping my exhausted little ones off the bed and back to school on November 1. Then came Thanksgiving and preparing a feast alone while making sure three children under the age of five did not vaporize themselves while I shopped, chopped, baked, served, and counted the silver forks when it was over to make sure I hadn’t thrown one out. Next came Christmas. More sewing: matching mother, daughter, and sons outfits to wear to church on Christmas Eve. Decorating the house, including hauling a tree home on top of the car. And last, but not least, doing Santa’s work for him – and realizing that Santa Claus was just another way to keep women from earning credit for their own hard work. (On Christmas morning the kids never knew not only had I bought the toys, I had spent the night assembling them!)

When New Year’s rolled around that first year of being a Mom with Kids in School, I took a big breath (after the Christmas tree was down) and realized that no more holidays were in sight until Easter. Yipee! Suddenly New Year’s was not the drab little elf sitting on my shoulder after all the glittering Christmas fairies and angels had departed for warmer climates. No, New Year’s was the well-deserved break I had earned! Thankfully, Valentine’s and Easter were fairly minor holidays in the yearly pantheon, leaving me time to rest up before the onset of serious Birthday Season in our family: May, July, August, and September. Followed, of course again, by Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and – at last – the well earned rest New Year’s!

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I stink at goodbye. I freely admit I have avoided the ceremony of parting as much as possible throughout my life. As I was driving away from dropping my youngest child at the airport curb this morning because he is headed back to college in the east, I wondered if my aversion to “saying goodbye” is a virtue or a vice.

It was labeled a vice once by the kids’ dad when he was trying to win custody of the children years ago. Like a prosecutor accusing a defendant of first degree murder, his attorney shouted in open court, “And Your Honor, do you know that she DOESN’T EVEN SAY GOODBYE?” (His attorney always made “she” sound like some really nasty, dirty word that no nice person should ever be called.)

This flaw was supposed to be some evidence of my bad character – I think. I’m not quite sure because the attorney never got any farther than that. She didn’t accuse me of neglecting my children, or of being a drunk or a drug addict, attributes that I’m pretty sure would have won him custody of the kids. No, the worst she could come up with was I don’t say goodbye, which (fortunately for me) did not turn out to be grounds for declaring me an unfit mother.

But at least once in my life, in a public place, someone labeled my aversion to goodbye as a vice. Is that right?

The word “goodbye” is a short for “God be with ye.” Now, I have no trouble with “God be with ye.” I could toss that off in a heartbeat. It sounds so much friendlier than “good bye.” And, as a good Episcopalian I have heard the priest intone a thousand times, “The Lord be with you” and responded, “And also with you.” I actually think I would rather use this ritual in parting because to me “goodbye” sounds so dead end – so final, so “Get out of my life and stay out” or “Yes! You are leaving and never coming back!” On the other hand, wishing blessings to someone and wishing blessings back seems to express so much more love and caring than just an abrupt “Goodbye!” (Which also makes me think of “Begone!”)

Of course that brings the religious problem into play. For those who don’t believe in traditional religion or even God, using the Anglican liturgy at parting would definitely not be an option. But what if we said, “Blessings to you” and the answer was “And also to you”? As a committee of one, I like that better.

Still, I think my aversion to saying “goodbye” is not really based entirely on the word we intone during the “ceremony of parting,” as one dictionary defined it. Where the people I love are concerned, the separation never feels real. In my mind and heart, we are still together even if we aren’t physically in the same place. “Having to Say Goodbye” feels so drastic to me. And even when I do say “goodbye” I inevitably add, “See you soon.”

As I drove away from the curb this morning, the post-holiday sadness began to settle on my shoulders because Thanksgiving 2012 was now officially a wrap. For a brief second I longed for the old way of airport parting, where we parked the car and headed inside and even sat at the gate with our traveler until the call for boarding. Of course we can’t do it that way anymore. So all airport partings are now a quick hug curbside like mine was this morning.

But then, as I swung my beloved red Mini Cooper into the “Exit to Downtown” lane, I realized that the brief hug at the curb is better for me because we aren’t really apart, no matter the miles in between. And, as with every parting from a loved one, I remind myself not to think about the separation, but to look forward to the next visit. Which, in this case, will be in just three short weeks!!!!!

Ok, I admit it. I stink at goodbyes. But I’m not sure that matters much.

Good Bye

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Thanksgiving is almost here. The turkey is defrosting in the refrigerator. The sweet potatoes are looking at the bags of marshmallows across the kitchen. Tomorrow I will bake pumpkin pie and chop veggies to put into the stuffing on Thursday. I will bake cornbread and tear up white bread, also for the stuffing. I will chill sparkling cider and champagne. I will count the sliver place settings, dust off the Waterford, and decide which dishes to use this year. (I’m a dish lover. Only cabinet space limits my yen to bring more home like lost puppies and kittens.)

On Thursday morning, I will be up with the sun to get my hands messy mixing stuffing, putting it in into the bird, and getting into the oven. I will baste the bird and check its internal temperature at intervals, mindful that the difference between a perfectly roasted turkey and an overcooked one can be just minutes. When I was a child, I watched the women in the family do these things. Now it is my responsibility.

This cooking ritual, year afer year, is as satisfying to me as the liturgy of the Anglican mass (back in the days when I shepherded the kids to church, Sunday after Sunday). On the rare holidays when we have chosen a restaurant for our feast, I have missed my personal culinary rites of thankfulness.

The basics of the meal haven’t changed much from the first Thanksgiving I cooked in November of 1985. In that year, I had been in California for all of two weeks. I went to the now defunct K-Mart to buy a hand mixer to cream the sweet potatoes. I had no children then, but I wished for them. That November afternoon, I saw a car with a Fulton County Georgia plate in the K-Mart parking lot. I cried because I was homesick. I started to leave a note on the windshield asking the driver if he or she felt as marooned in a foreign land as I did. But I lost my nerve, and so I will never know the answer to my question. Now all these years later, the foreign land has become home. The K-Mart is shuttered and empty.

We rarely traveled at Thanksgiving, but our few trips were memorable. In 1999, we flew to Tennessee to be with my family for the holiday. It was the only year my children ever experienced more than the four of us for the feast. They raked leaves for the first time in their lives and jumped into the piles with their cousin. They discovered southerners put giblets in their turkey gravy. Ugh! They learned that pecan pie with chocolate chips in the bottom is so rich, a tiny bite will do, even for the most avid sweet-lover.

On another holiday away from home, my daughter and I walked through a cold Chicago rain to a delightful restaurant, formal enough to have a coat check room and bottles of Pellegrino sparkling water on the table. The chef accompanied his perfect roasted turkey with butternut squash ravioli in brown butter sauce. We missed the boys, who were with their father that year. But it was a special time for the two of us, alone is a wold class city.

Now the years of being divided at holidays are over. The ritual food preparation has expanded to included a ritual housecleaning before my adult children come to stay for the holiday. Although I miss the days when we all lived under one roof, it is exceptionally exciting to have my grown ones coming back to share their adventures in far places. Like many things in life, when one thing goes away, another even more wonderful something comes along to take its place.

Although the holidays for those of us who create them for our families are a lot of work, I personally love the run-up to Christmas. From now until January 2, I will be planning food and gifts and decorations to create a festive world for me and the ones I love. I thank the Universe every year for giving me so much love and joy and for giving me wonderful souls to share it with. We are entering the Magic Season! Let the Magic Begin. Happy Thanksgiving!

The Four of Us

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Yesterday I encountered two Christmas trees at the mall. Now, I realize Christmas trees before T-day is fraught with controversy. There have been a number of posts on Facebook this week denouncing the presence of Christmas trees before turkeys. I certainly respect those sentiments. I used to feel that way – until I realized I was in love with Christmas trees because they are works of magic in my small, solid earthbound world. For me, if someone wants to turn on the lights and hang the tiny glass balls and stars early, I’m the girl who’s ready to sign on for the fantasy! I want as much magic as I can get for as long as I can get it. And Christmas trees are magic!

My fascination covers the ornaments too. I like to walk through the displays and admire the miniature sleighs and Santas, the adorable Rudolphs, the fairy princesses, and the baby pandas and polar bears. I particularly love the glass ornaments: the silver and gold stars, the moons, and the icy snowflakes. One of my favorite haunts is Anthropologie where I scope out the tiny dolls and woodland creatures I intend to scoop up at the after-Christmas sales. (Since everything at Anthro goes ON SALE eventually, it is against my sacred pocket book principles to pay full price. Especially Anthro’s full
price.) Over the years, I have acquired some gems this way. For example, I have the knitting-doll ornament. (I knit.) I have the “shop local” doll ornament. (I shop, locally and otherwise.) I have the wooly lion. (Ok, I’m a person not a lion, but I’m a Leo person.)

So yesterday, as I bopped along on a mundane errand, on an otherwise mundane Monday, I came , unexpectedly, to this:

Christmas Tree!!

The Christmas Tree!

This gigantic tree soared into the California deep blue November sky, shining with copper, gold, and silver ornaments. The sheer size of it took my breath away. Dwarfed by its grandeur, I stopped to bask in its Christmasy magic – silently apologizing to the turkeys and pilgrims who are waiting to assume the spotlight next Thursday. But I just couldn’t resist flying into the blue sky on that trail of glorious Christmas.

Inspired, I went in search of more fantasy and found these ornaments waiting at Anthro. I will definitely be back when they are ON SALE.

The Ornaments at Anthro

The Ornaments at Antrho

Anthro Cool Bunny

Antrho Cool Bunny

The Other Anthro Cool Bunny

The Other Antrho Cool Bunny

But then, as I hurried along, I came to this little tiny little frosted tree, trapped in a glass jar at Sears. Oh, it wants OUT, I realized at once. It wants out, so its magic can let it grow to be as big as the magic of the tree outside.

Help, let me out!

Help, let me out!

As I stood looking at the little tree, I imagined screwing off the jar’s lid and setting it down in the center of the Sears’s store. What if freeing it and all its Christmas magic would let it grow and grow until it broke through the roof and became as big as its counterpart outside? It reminded me of those tiny little sponge capsules you can drop into the bath. In the warm water, they slowly break through their plastic prisons to become sponge dinosaurs and circus animals and racing cars. What if my little tree had magic inside that would let it reach its full potential as soon as someone freed it from its glass? What if it could emerge, fantastic, shiny, and free, to soar above the mundane? In short, what if I let it’s magic out?

My errand done, and work waiting, I headed off to my beloved chili-red Mini Cooper with black bonnet stripes and the world’s greatest vanity plate. (Another blog to be). But as I went, I realized, we are that little tree. We are all trying to break free of the glass jar and to grow into our magical selves so we can shine our unique magic into the world.

Merry Early Christmas! And Here’s to the Escape of Everyone’s Magical Self!

The Magic!

The Magic!

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CHAPTER ONE
Mid-November, 2010, New York

Conference rooms are all the same. As are airports. On a cold, wet, mid-November afternoon, His Grace, the Eighteenth Duke of Burnham, decided that those who thought running the Burnham Trust was a glamorous job should go from London to Paris to Brussels to New York seeing only conference rooms and airports. He was now trapped in one of the beastly things on the twenty-eighth floor of the Manhattan offices of Craig, Lewis, and Weller, studying the deepening early twilight through the sheets of glass that formed the walls. His mood was as black as the coming night. This was the last leg of his autumn trip to ascertain the status of Trust assets in several countries. And two weeks of nonstop polished mahogany tables, crystal water decanters, dense financial statements delivered by earnest twenty-somethings, and masses of sandwiches on large silver trays had been a mind-numbing combination. He longed to go back to his suite at the Plaza, draw a hot bath, and order a bottle of Balvenie Cask 191.

But a quiet evening in was highly unlikely with Ami Hendria in town. Twenty-eight-year old blonde bombshell actresses were not fans of a low key evening by the fire. Still, he would be the first to admit that one reason he kept Ami around was to avoid having the world find out who Nicholas Carey truly was: a middle-aged homebody, longing for some solitude and a nightcap. On the other hand, the female segment of the populace would have refused to believe his real persona if he had posted it on a billboard in Times Square because, as a widowed duke, every woman he encountered believed he was swinging Prince Charming. And he was anything but that.

Oh, he was bored if his mind wandered to scotch and the possibility of eluding Ami’s grasp that evening. To bring himself back to the present, he looked down the nine-foot glossy mahogany conference table and counted the populace. Three lawyers from Beville, Platt, and Fisher on one side, all local counsel for the Burnham Trust. And two on the other side from Craig, Lewis, and Weller for Miss Reilly’s Female Finishing Academy. Why did it take five lawyers to sell a house to a girl’s school? And why weren’t any of them the one he wanted to see? His operative had named Taylor Collins, a partner in the Craig, Lewis real estate section, as was the one likely to know where Diana’s tape was. He’d told Hollis Craig he wouldn’t sell the Abbey to his daughter Tracy’s school unless Taylor was on the deal. Yet, he’d been trapped in this conference room for more than an hour, with no sign of her.

The tape was so sensitive, Nicholas knew he couldn’t approach Taylor Collins directly about it. But he was more than happy to offer Burnham Abbey, the ancestral home of the Careys, on the sacrificial altar of subterfuge. The place had long been an albatross around his neck that he was determined to remove. He smiled happily at his picture of his father, the Seventeenth Duke, turning in his grave in the chapel about now as the lawyers blathered on blissfully and incomprehensibly about the terms of the deal.

For as many of his forty-nine years as he could remember, he had detested lawyers of every ilk. The American big firm types were particularly irksome because they all looked, sounded, and dressed exactly alike. Dark suits, starched white shirts with monograms on the cuff, and subdued silk ties. And the women lawyers. Oh, he didn’t even want to think about their sexless, baggy black outfits. Was being neutered worth all that money they reportedly made? He knew Taylor was thirty-nine, but he bet she looked at least forty-five and was twenty pounds overweight. And probably chain smoked and had a face like a bulldog. He didn’t look forward to dealing with her.

Well, here was his chance to find out. The massive, dark mahogany door to the conference room opened, and another female suit stepped inside. Except this one was so, so different from the others. And not at all the woman he had expected to see.

“Sorry to be late. I had a call from the Cuniff trustee that I had to take.” She was speaking to Hollis Craig, but a pair of eyes the color of spring violets were fixed on him. Very like Diana’s eyes, but deeper.

“My partner, Taylor Collins, Your Grace. She’s going to be in charge of the file for Miss Reilly’s as we agreed.”

His heart was racing so fast, he had difficulty speaking, so he merely nodded in response. At thirty-nine, she looked ten years younger. He guessed the form-hugging black wool suit on her tiny five foot two frame was Chanel. She barely weighed a hundred pounds. Her jacket allowed a demure ruffle to spill over its dark edge, highlighting the single strand of perfect pearls circling her creamy throat. Her dark hair was pulled back into the usual professional woman’s knot, revealing more perfect pearl drops in her exquisite little ears. He wondered what she looked like when her hair was wild and free. Her face was impassively professional, yet he sensed much more lay beneath the surface. Physically he was drawn to her so strongly that he wondered what color La Perla’s she was wearing, but he longed for more than sex. He desperately craved the impossible: time alone and the chance to know who she was beneath the lawyer facade.

The conference room doors opened once more and another black-suited woman with hair also tightly wound roused Nicholas from his fantasies. She wasn’t as expensively dressed, and he recognized her immediately as the telephone receptionist who sat at the throne-like desk opposite the elevators. Her task was to greet everyone who arrived at the twenty-eighth floor.

“Your Grace?”

Why did all professional woman have to slick their hair into those ridiculous knots? Did it make them seem more serious? More competent?

“Your Grace, ” she repeated. She was young, early twenties. There was that look in her eyes that said, maybe I will be his Cinderella. Even a woman in a business suit longs to be a princess. Or at least a duchess. Although he doubted Taylor Collins would be interested.

“Yes, Miss –?”

” La Breaux. Marie La Breaux.”

“Well, yes, Miss La Breaux? What is it?”

“A call for you.”

” I’ll take it later. After we’ve wrapped up in here.”

“I’m afraid it’s the headmistress from your ward’s school.”

“Oh, God. Very well.” Nicholas got up and went into the adjoining conference room, this one dominated by a long glass table, sterile enough for surgery, surrounded by empty high-backed chairs. It looked like a board meeting of ghosts, and for a moment Nicholas saw the empty room as a metaphor for his own life. The people he had loved the most were all ghosts: his mother, Deborah, Diana, Annabel.

“Hello?”

“Helen Myrtin, Your Grace, from Miss Whitcomb’s School.” Her thin, nasal vowels sliced through the silence and reminded Nicholas that in person she appeared as intimidating as she sounded. Thirty-five. Always dressed in suits so crisp they looked like military uniforms. “I’m afraid there’s been a bit of difficulty with Lucy. Again.”

Nicholas had hoped she wouldn’t refer to the past, but in fairness, she had a right to sound exasperated. It had taken a hefty chunk of Trust cash, tastefully donated to the school’s general fund, to keep Lucy there the last time. “Tell me about the problem, Mrs. Myrtin.”

A very human sigh surprised him. “I’m so sorry, Your Grace. I hate giving bad news.”

“If she’s drinking again–”

“I wish that were the only problem. Unfortunately, Lucy has begun to experiment with drugs. She had too much to drink, threw up in the loo, and passed out. One of the other girls found her and called Matron who called Dr. Briggs. When he looked her over he found signs of cocaine use. And later we located some of the drug among her things.”

Nicholas gripped the phone and willed her to stop speaking. The alcohol had started last year. It had been tough to deal with a fifteen-year-old with a taste for scotch. Maybe he should have seen the other coming. But he had put his head in the sand. “Are you very sure that she was actually using the stuff–not just trying to sell it?” Both were bad, but using was worse. It would be much harder to stop that.

“Perfectly sure.” The headmistress’ voice tightened in response to his denial. Give me any window, any hole to escape this he prayed. Don’t make me deal with another failure where Lucy is concerned. I know it’s my fault. But it hurts too much. Far too much. Still, fate had already done its work. There was no going back. “Dr. Briggs says the drug caused bleeding around her nose. The girl who found her in the loo thought she was dying.”

“I see. And where is Lucy now?”

“In the infirmary. We have to send her down. At least until the New Year. You realize that, of course.”

“Of course.” But she wasn’t saying out for good. There was still hope. “But after Christmas?”

“You’ll have to show us that she was treated. And that she’s–uh, how do they say- clean. Perhaps one of those drug management programs in Harley Street. Although I will warn you the source is her boyfriend. He’ll find her if she’s in London. He’s very persistent.”

“Boyfriend?”

“Well, man-friend, actually. Didn’t you know about David Lowenby? She said you approved.”

“David Lowenby is Lord Gaynor’s heir and twenty-five years old. He’s almost ten years older than Lucy. She couldn’t have been seeing him.”

“I’m afraid she has. She told us she had your permission,” Ms. Myrtin repeated.

“And you believed that?” Nicholas didn’t even attempt to control his outrage.

“Well,” her tone of detached poise seemed to slip momentarily, “I did think of ringing you up. But she was so emphatic. Good family. All that.”

He sighed. “Well, the harm’s done. But if I put her in Harley Street, Lowenby will find her with more cocaine. You are right. I’ll have to think about what to do.”

“There are home programs, I think. Nurses you can hire. Maybe one of the Harley Street clinics can give you some information. But we do have to send her away today. And you appear to be out of the country.”

“New York is not the ends of the earth, Mrs. Myrtin. I can telephone my staff. I’ll send an estate car for her as soon as you ring off. I would imagine my driver can be there within the hour.”

“That would be greatly appreciated, Your Grace.”

After Nicholas hung up, he sat for a long minute watching the New York sky line; he felt empty and sad and defeated. She had promised no more drinking. She would study to get into Oxford. She would find some meaning and purpose for her life. Not just parties and shopping. But all her promises had meant nothing. He glanced at his watch: 4:30 here, so 9:30 in London. He could have Lucy at Burnham Square before midnight.

He picked up the phone once more, this time punching the intercom button.

“Marie La Breaux, here, Your Grace.” She sounded so eager. For what, he wondered.

“Please get my butler on the phone and tell him to send a car to fetch my ward from school. At once.”

“Yes, Your Grace. I’m sorry the news was bad.”

But he wasn’t inclined to tell her anything, so he ignored her condolences. First rule of survival in the tabloid fishbowl of aristocratic life. Never give anyone information about yourself. “And get my London solicitor on the line. Lord Thomas. My personal assistant will give you the numbers.”

“Yes, Your Grace.” She sounded more distant now. She had understood he was not going to let his guard down with her.

Kerry Thomas, his chief friend from Eaton, would know what to do. Restraining orders–whatever it took to keep the press out of Lucy’s screw-up. Maybe he could recommend a treatment program. A scholarship boy from a poor London family, Kerry was resourceful. And now rich.

As he sat waiting for Kerry’s call, he wondered if he should fly back to London that night or follow his original plan to return in the morning. His pilot was used to turning around on a dime if Nicholas demanded it, but sticking to his original itinerary looked very attractive. He didn’t feel ready to face Lucy and her problems any sooner than tomorrow night. If then. He could stay at the Ritz for a couple of days and avoid his townhouse at Burnham Square for at least forty-eight hours. Cowardly, but tempting.

Then, too, it was Ami’s last night in New York before she flew to Paris to begin a new movie. She expected him to take her to dinner at Per Se, with dancing afterwards at Provacateur. The thought of all that throbbing music punctuated by green strobes gave him a headache in advance. In addition to being very egocentric, American twenty-something actresses loved night life. And were completely convinced that dukes did, too, despite his sincere explanations to the contrary.

Well, even if blonde American actresses had dukes pegged correctly, and they all liked to boogie until dawn, he didn’t. Maybe it was because he had never felt much like a duke to begin with. Maybe it was because he hadn’t been intended to be one, either. Arthur had been real duke material. He could picture his older half-brother at Provacateur until the wee hours. He didn’t deserve a lifetime subbing for Arthur.

Hours under strobe lights, sandwiched between gyrating, sweating bodies was just the sort of thing Deborah would have loved and would have insisted that he do with her. But even the most boring things had been worth doing – just to be close to her. All at once, he could see another pair of blue eyes. Not deep violet like Taylor’s, but pale as spring rain, cool, and appraising. Deborah’s eyes. Deborah’s voice. “I can’t live locked away in that decaying old house in Kent. Don’t be ridiculous. There’s everything to do in London and nothing at the Abbey except watching it crumble to bits stone by stone. You can’t seriously be thinking of living there.” He could hear her voice as clearly as if more than a decade had not gone by since the last time she had spoken. And he could picture her graceful body and the way she would shake her golden, shoulder-length hair to make a point.

The memory was too sharp and too clear, and it hurt too much. He brought himself back to the dilemma of Lucy. He would leave New York in the morning as planned. But he’d lie to Ami and cancel the evening. She’d be furious, but she’d get over it. And if she didn’t, there were a zillion more just like her waiting to attach themselves to him. He badly wanted his evening alone at the Plaza with his bottle of scotch. No, that wasn’t what he wanted at all. He wanted to take Taylor Collins to dinner at Per Se, drown in her violet eyes, and learn everything about her, including which places on her tiny exquisite body she liked to be touched. But that was out of the question. He hadn’t expected her to be beautiful and sexy, but he had to force himself to stay on track. He had made a promise to Deborah and to Diana. He couldn’t be so distracted that he gave up his quest for the truth.

He would telephone Steve Riddely now and arrange for him to come round early in the morning to look at Lucy and advise him about treatment programs when he returned. Steve’s father had been his own father’s doctor, and he knew he could trust him not to tell anyone why Lucy had been sent down.
As for himself, he was a coward. Tomorrow or even the next day would be time enough to deal with Lucy.

* * *

The next morning, his Lear Jet was scheduled to depart at 8:30 a.m. As he sat on the tarmac, waiting in the queue of airplanes for clearance to taxi and takeoff, Nicholas Carey reflected upon his success the prior evening. Ami had been easily put off with a promise to fly her to London the following week. Apparently she was willing to risk the ire of her director to be with him. Not a good development. But the bottle of Balvenie Cask 191 had been superb. He had almost obliterated the shock of meeting Taylor Collins with its joys.

But he was sober now, and she was very much on his mind. He had to find a way to see her again. Not only to find Diana’s tape, but to learn more about her. How to do it without being obvious? Ah, the sale of the house. She was the lead lawyer on the file for the buyer. This would be easy. Way too easy. He picked up his cell and dialed his personal assistant.

“Myles?”

“Your Grace.”

“I want you to call Suzanne Kelly, the woman at Miss Reilly’s who is overseeing their purchase of the Abbey. Tell her there may be a problem with conveying a clear title to the school; and their attorney, Taylor Collins, must come to England and personally examine the documents to determine whether the Trust can actually sell the house.”

“Will do, Your Grace.”

“And another thing. The land conveyance records are at the Abbey library in the family papers section. Keep them in the library but hide them where they’ll be very difficult to find.”

“Yes, Your Grace. Anything else?”

“Only one. Book a suite for me at the Ritz for the next three days. I need some time and space away from Lucy while I think about what to do with her.”

“Done, Your Grace.”

The jet gathered speed for take off. Nicholas watched New York begin to drop away behind him. If Taylor knew about Diana’s tape, her life was in danger.

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The “it girls” all arrived as princesses this Halloween. They made the trick or treat scene at our front door in ankle-length pastel blue and pink satin skirts, frothed with sheer tulle ruffles at the waist and hem. Bodices sported sequins and glitter. I doubt there was a Versace, Chanel, or Marc Jacobs in the lot, but each one was thrilled with her red carpet look for the evening. (It was Halloween. I should say orange carpet.)

Observing them as I handed out Halloween candy reminded me that I had had a secret desire to be a princess when I was their age. Just as small boys announced their intent to be firemen or policemen, small girls are prone to favor the princess line of work. The only trouble was, I couldn’t quite figure out what princesses did. Sitting on a throne all day waiting for a prince to show up sounded like the height of boredom. So did swirling around a ballroom at all hours in an evening dress and diamonds. And I wasn’t particularly thrilled about eating a poisoned apple or pricking my finger and sleeping for a hundred years. Just regular sleeping overnight was pretty boring, in my view. So even though I was taken with the princess uniform – evening dress, glass slipper, and tiara – the job that went with it didn’t sound as attractive as I’d first thought.

Then I went to school and began to read history. The princess gig began to look less and less attractive. For example, Henry VIII had no trouble dispatching unwanted princesses to nunneries and scaffolds. A little later, in France, the guillotine did the job of eliminating the surplus princess population. Moving into modern times, a Russian firing squad did away with a whole family of princesses in Ekaterinburg in July 1918, along with an Emperor, an Empress, and a Tsarevich. And then, to prove it still isn’t safe to be a princess, Diana, Princess of Wales was smashed up in a car “accident” in 1997.

Conclusion: “pretend princessing” has its upside: a swirly satin skirt for the evening and all the chocolate you can stuff into a plastic pumpkin on Halloween. But the real thing isn’t safe. You don’t want to wind up as another princess statistic. Just say NO to Prince Charming when he hacks through the hedge after a hundred years.

Regulation Princess Gear

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PROLOGUE

Mid-April 2010, Paris

In the gray spring rain, he stood in the Place d’Alma staring down at the tunnel where she had vanished from his life on the last night of August 1997. He came here whenever he was in Paris. He counted the pillars until he reached number thirteen, the one that had taken her life. Tears formed behind his eyes, as they always did in this place. But he refused to let them overflow. Instead, he took a long breath of fresh rain mixed with the exhaust of cars speeding through the tunnel.

When the big black Mercedes had entered its skid that horrible night, his last living link to Deborah had been taken from him. Diana and Deborah, West Heath girls, friends forever. Deborah had been dead since 1994, but he had lost her long before she had become his wife just two years after Diana had married the Prince of Wales in 1981. How many nights had he spent talking to Diana about his marriage, about her marriage, about his guilt over Deborah, and about the impossibility of being in love? Too many to count. He ached to tell her now how empty his life had become without either of them.

He stared down the long, gray tunnel, wondering as always, what she had felt as she had slipped away from everyone who loved her. Had she struggled against it, as Deborah had? Or had her torn and broken heart quietly accepted its fate? No, he doubted that. She’d have fought to stay with her boys. Diana hadn’t gone into death quietly. That January, she’d had a warning of what was coming. She’d recorded a video tape naming her assassins and had given it to someone in America for safekeeping. But she would never tell him who it was. Too dangerous, she always insisted. If you had it, they’d come after you, too. Leave it alone, Nicholas. The tape is safer out of England.

His phone abruptly interrupted with a text message from his assistant. He was late for a meeting of the Burnham Trust at the Trust’s Paris headquarters, and everyone was waiting. Well, they could wait. All day and all night if he wanted. He was the Eighteenth Duke of Burnham and the second richest man in England after the Duke of Westminster, and he’d be late if he decided to be. He hadn’t wanted to be a duke, but having been forced into the job, he was going to enjoy every possible perk.

As soon as the news of Diana’s death had reached him, he’d vowed to find her tape and make it public. No luck for the last thirteen years, but his latest operative had just come up with a stellar lead at last. It was so stellar that not only was he pretty sure he was going to find the tape, he was also going to have the opportunity to unload the decaying family seat in Kent and exact his well-deserved revenge upon his father, the Seventeenth Duke.

Hever Castle as the Model for fictional Burnham Abbey

Tunnel, Place d”Alma, Paris

Diana’s Funeral

West Heath School for Girls

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Life as a stay-at-home mother of three children, five and under, was an endlessly demanding job. I had always been a hard worker and an over achiever, but child/care 24/7 was the most exhausting challenge yet. There were days when, as much as I loved my three little ones, I wasn’t sure how I was going to get up at sun rise and keep going. I had never been so tired in my life. And I had a sinus infection that lasted for three and a half years. One unhelpful and terrifying male doc said I needed to be tested for HIV. The woman doc whom I went to for testing and whose children were the same ages as mine couldn’t stop laughing when I told her why I was there. Honestly, it wasn’t very funny.

I became fascinated with Princess Diana in that period. I’m not sure why. There were probably a lot of reasons for my fixation. First, I loved her clothes. Whether in her early Laura Ashley mode or in her shoulder-padded Power Suit mode in the 1980’s, she was gorgeous. She was the IT Girl of Style.

Second, she delighted in mothering just the way that I did. In the pictures of her with William and Harry, who were only a few years older than my children, her love shines off the page. Granted when she played games with them in their nursery, she’d had a full night’s sleep because her nanny was on call, but even my sleep-deprived brain could connect with another mother who loved her children the way I loved mine.

Third, she and I had entered into similar marriages. My husband’s job was to our marriage what Camilla Parker Bowles was to Diana’s. The third party to my marriage was a corporation whereas for Diana it was the Other Woman; but the result was the same. And Diana had married a man who wanted a wife and children from Central Casting to be available only for photo ops. And so had I.

Fourth, Diana went through a very public divorce with a man determined to wound and humiliate. One of my few consolations on those terrifying days when I left the Family Law Courthouse threatened with the loss of my children and so emotionally upset that I was afraid to drive, was that at least the venom that had just been spit in my face wasn’t going to be heard around the world. For Diana, it was a very different story.

I didn’t lose my children. I would have if I hadn’t been a lawyer. Oddly enough, the role that sat most uncomfortably on my heart was the one that saved the people I loved most from being lost to me. But that victory came at a heavy price. During that marriage, I had done the thing I had wanted to do all my life: I had written a novel. After a lot of tries, I even got an agent in New York. In those early dark days of my divorce, my little book traveled from editor to editor at major publishing houses. Some did not like it. Some liked it but would not buy it. It was called Summers’ Child, a title that another writer would use for her own very successful novel some years later. (I had copyrighted my manuscript, and I knew she hadn’t done her homework before using my title.)

But when my husband found out that I had written a novel that was not succeeding with New York publishers, he dragged me down to the Family Law Courthouse and accused me in public of being a no-account deadbeat who was trying to live off child and temporary spousal support. He argued that I was trained as a lawyer, and so I had to go back to work as a lawyer. Even though I hadn’t done any work as a lawyer for eight years and hadn’t the foggiest idea, anymore, how to even sigh on to a legal research service.

Family Law Court, at least in those days, was a terrifying hell of illegality. I had graduated second in my class from law school, and I knew how unconstitutional the various rulings from that court were. The family law court operated at that time as if the Right to Privacy did not exist. At one point, I actually thought they were going to send me to involuntary psycho therapy to force me to withdraw my accurate and true statements that my husband had abused me and the children. I felt as if I’d wound up in a Russian Gulag as a political prisoner for not Speaking the Party Line.

I knew how to challenge these outrageous family law court rulings in higher courts. But the problem was I had to play the Family Law Court game or lose those dearest to me. It would do me no good to take my case to the United States Supreme Court only to be reunited with my children by my victory there when they were adults. So even though the Thirteenth Amendment abolished involuntary servitude, the state of California said I had to go back to work as a lawyer. And I did. In my living room, where I wrote appellate briefs and remained close to my children. But who I really was born to be was quietly dying, day by day.

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In the end, I drifted up the road from Richmond to another, smaller firm in Washington, D.C. where my creative bent found a home. Not long after I arrived at New Firm, the Most Important Partner came into my office one day to congratulate me on a memo I had written for him that the Florida Legislature had then adopted at a statute for the benefit of one of the firm’s clients. He was a very happy Most Important Partner. The client was a Very Happy Important Big Bucks Client. And the firm sure could bill for that one! Redeemed at last.

But finding a home as a lawyer wasn’t as fulfilling as I had thought it would be. It was all still paper and stale conference rooms and working trips on air planes. And business suits, starched shirts, and floppy bows. So I struck out for California (on an airplane, not in a covered wagon) and motherhood.

By 1991, I had three children, ages five, three, and newborn. I had hired a college girl as afternoon help three days a week because I just could not keep up with the demands of the mother job, which was a 24-hour a day, 7-day a week affair. I had no family to give me a break. Babysitters didn’t want three kids or a newborn. And the kids’ dad had parked us in a ritzy part of town where moms had Hispanic nannies. (And went back to Work. To avoid the tough job of Mother, I was convinced.) So no one needed a Mothers’ Day Out Program. (Except me, apparently.)

Mothering, I soon discovered, was an endlessly creative job. My artistic self smocked tiny dresses for my daughter, rompers for the boys. I marched clowns and balloons, cupcakes, and teddy bears across their tummies. I looped ribbon into “frou frous” and sewed them onto my daughter’s dresses and hats. I made tiny linen and velvet suits and vests for the boys. I made doll wardrobes and Halloween costumes. (Think my daughter as Pooh and my first son as Piglet when I was pregnant with Number Three.) I made matching velveteen mother-daughter-son outfits for Christmas. And I used a gallon milk jug and fake fur to create a dead wringer for a Coldstream Guards hat. (For my daughter, not the two boys.)

Of course, this activity was not a California Mother Thing at all. California Mothers (the ones without nannies) wore yoga pants and stuffed their children into knit rompers from Mervyns and Gymboree. My activities were so unusual that I had to smuggle a “pleater,” the device consisting of rows of tiny needles that prepares fabric for smocking, back from Tennessee in my suitcase. I ordered smocking patterns and laces and tiny French hand sewing needles from Georgia and Florida and Virginia and Texas.

And naturally I didn’t send my California children to school in these artworks that only a Southern Mother could love. No, as soon as my daughter could pull the OshKoshs off the hangers and put them on, one leg at a time, the dresses hung in the closet quietly waiting for Sunday, like the Good Girls they were.

But, of course, Sunday came. And again, I behaved as a Southern Mother would. CHURCH. Being Episcopalian, we had no duty (Thank, God) to proselytize the California Mothers and their offspring. I could quietly dress my little ones in their smocked and French handsewn best and shuffle us all off to Sunday School (which, true to Southern Mother Form I taught) and CHURCH. (Where I provided stickers and crayons and paper and tiny coloring books to keep the small troops quiet through the boring (to them and sometimes to me, true confessions) service. One interesting Sunday, my small daughter pointed out we were almost the only people there under fifty. Everyone else was at BRUNCH in their yoga pants and knit rompers, California Style.

But I was a Southern Mother. I didn’t know any better.

Being creative as a mother wasn’t just about their clothes. No, it was far deeper and more fun and more substantive than that. Southerners love stories and are born storytellers. I told stories about the South and about their grandfather the FBI agent and their great-great-grandfather the Civil War solider (for the Union!). I read and read and read and read. We loved Thomas the Tank Engine (we called him “Thomas Tanken”), Madeline, Good Night Moon, the Runaway Bunny, Winnie the Pooh, any alphabet book ever written, and all forms of Nursery Rhymes. We watched Sesame Street, talked about “Bee Bo,” “Oscar the Grouch,” “Cookie Monster” and “Count One Count.” (My daughter’s name for him which I thought much better than the original.)

We went to Disney moves, although my daughter wisely decided she did not want to be a Disney princess like her California counterparts, who would ditch their knit rompers for princess gowns, tiaras, and scepters to wear to the park. My daughter, on the other hand, put on her Coldstream Guards costume for outings and marched beside her little brothers’ stroller.

We ate fish sticks and tater tots for supper with plenty of ketchup. We had pillow fights and said prayers at bedtime. (Always the Lord’s Prayer because Now I Lay Me had terrified me as a child because it talked about dying.) We waded in the Pacific on days that never seemed to end because of the stifling heat. (The kids’ dad, who worked in air conditioned comfort, said we didn’t need to be cool.) And we promised every time that we wouldn’t go in the water in our clothes. But we always did. In short, the four of us laughed and created and played and had fun, Southern Mother style, in the foreign country of California. We made few friends, although we tried. But we had each other.

Somewhat skimpy ribbon frou frou on dress

Bee Bo!

Thomas Tanken!

A Smocked dress

Her costume looked like this!

 

A pleater.

 

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