Girls of Summer: Chapter 1
The last time Ellen O'Brien Markowitz woke up in a man's bed it was three weeks before her wedding and the man on the next pillow was her fiancé.
A very temporary situation, as it turned out. She could still see Bryan propped up against the headboard, Palm Pilot in hand, as he patiently read her the list of reasons why it would be better for both of them if they called off the wedding. She was dressed and out the door by the time he reached number eight, his cry of "But there's more!" ringing in her ears.
It wasn't like she hadn't seen it coming because she had. In fact, she often wondered if she hadn't chosen him for those very qualities that doomed the marriage before they ever took the vows.
That was over four years ago. One thousand six hundred and eighty-five mornings of waking up alone. Not that she was counting, mind you, but numbers like those were hard for a woman to ignore. Would one more solitary morning have tipped the heavenly balance and brought civilization crashing down around her shoulders? Would worlds collide if the Goddess of the Morning After rewound the tape back to last night, to the second before Ellen made her fatal mistake?
There had been a moment there in Hall Talbot's shadowy bedroom when it could have gone either way. He was a gentleman through and through. Despite the bubbly haze of champagne, he would have stopped if she had shown the slightest reluctance but she hadn't. Instead she had opened her arms to him and tried very hard to close her heart to hope.
She was very good at closing her heart to hope. She had learned early that nothing was quite the way it seemed, not family and certainly not love. The drawbridge was up and the door bolted, but last night, in an unguarded moment, hope slipped in through the window just the same.
She opened one eye and peered across the wide expanse of bed. "Oh, God," she whispered. The sight of him, so warm and so close, made her lightheaded with remembered pleasure and more than a hint of remorse.
She hadn't imagined him, hadn't conjured him up from a lethal combination of too much champagne and three years' worth of dreams. Hall Talbot, Shelter Rock Cove's most beloved ob-gyn, her good friend and colleague, her boss, was snoring softly not two feet away from her.
Even in post-coital repose he managed to look like your average middle-aged Adonis. His silvery-blond hair shimmered against the pale blue sheets. His muscular torso loomed gorgeous in the gathering light. She remembered how he had looked last night when she slid his fine white shirt off his fine tanned shoulders and -
Stifling a groan, she buried her face in her pillow.
In the grand scheme of things, it really wasn't such a terrible mistake. People slept with the wrong people every day of the week and somehow the world managed to keep on turning. She and Hall had been good friends before last night and there was no reason to think their friendship couldn't survive a night of passion.
Even if he had called her by another woman's name at a very inopportune moment.
And this came as a big surprise, Markowitz? The first two things she had learned when she moved to Maine were her new phone number and the fact that Annie Galloway Butler was the love of his life.
Hall blamed it on the champagne and he had tried to make it up to her in some amazing ways but the damage had been done. There were three of them in that bed and Ellen already had too much experience being second-best. Everyone in Shelter Rock Cove knew that Hall Talbot had carried a torch for the former widow Galloway for more years - and through more of his own failed marriages - than even the most blunt Yankee would acknowledge. Not even Annie's marriage to Sam Butler had seemed to dim Hall's devotion. It had taken the birth of the Butlers' second perfect baby girl to force him to acknowledge the fact that he had lost Annie before she ever had a chance to find him.
Hall and Ellen had attended Kerry Amanda Butler's christening yesterday as honorary members of the family and the sight of that beautiful baby, that miracle of love and fate, had turned Ellen's heart inside out. She could only imagine what it had done to Hall. The Galloway and Butler clans descended on Shelter Rock en masse, filling Sam and Annie's little house with food and music and laughter and enough love to make you believe happy families not only existed but flourished. They were a big, handsome, fertile lot and Ellen would have sold her soul to be one of them but, as always, she was on the outside looking in.
The only time Ellen had ever felt more like an outsider was at one of her father Cy's infrequent family gatherings where she needed a name tag in order to be recognized as part of the clan. Family always did that to her, like a private club, the kind that didn't want her as a member. When Hall suggested they split early, she had been almost pathetically grateful.
"Hungry?" he asked as they walked down the Butlers' driveway toward her car.
She avoided Cappy's where they were bound to run into someone who would ask them about the christening, and, at Hall's suggestion, drove over to the Spruce Goose, a small inn on one of the back roads between Shelter Rock Cove and Bar Harbor. Good food, better lighting, the kind of place where you could pretend to be someone you're not and maybe get away with it for a little while.
She should have known it was dangerous. Scratched wooden tables and paper place mats were more her speed. Linen table cloths and soup spoons meant trouble. Colleagues grabbed a lobster roll at Cappy's or a pizza at Frankie's near the Yankee Shopper. Friends didn't dine by candlelight with soft music wafting past them and the scent of possibility in the air. Not if they wanted to stay colleagues and friends.
But loneliness had a way of playing tricks on even the smartest women. Hall had needed someone last night and she had needed to be needed by him. It was that simple.
And it should have been enough. God knew, it was more than she had ever expected. She had enjoyed nurturing a low-grade lust for him. It had been delightful to enjoy the way his shoulders filled out his lab coat or how he somehow managed to look GQ in scrubs. If you had told her last week that she would wake up this morning in Hall Talbot's bed, with Hall Talbot's pricey sheets wrapped around her naked body, she would have laughed out loud and suggested therapy.
And then she would have made an appointment for a pedicure and a bikini wax.
As it turned out, she went to him smelling of soap, with fingernails filed short and smooth, and a hair style that could best be described by the more charitable observer as casual. He had invited her in for a glass of champagne to celebrate Kerry Amanda's christening and one glass led to another and he said she couldn't drive home after that much champagne and she said she would sleep on his sofa and suddenly they were in each other's arms and for the first time in her life it seemed that reality was going to win out over fantasy, hands down.
He made her feel beautiful. Nobody had ever made her feel beautiful before, not even in her dreams. When he traced the curve of her bare hip with his long, elegant fingers she knew, at least for an instant, how it felt to be adored.
Of course then he had to go and ruin everything by calling her "Annie" at the moment when she wanted desperately to believe she was the only one on his mind, if not in his heart. She had tried to push past the embarrassment and sink deeper into the fantasy, but the ragged sound of his voice as he said Annie's name was in her head and it wouldn't go away.
Maybe she should thank him for the mistake because only something that hideous could have brought her back to earth before she made an even bigger fool of herself.
At least she hadn't said anything ridiculous. Nothing that would come back to haunt her for the rest of her life and somehow end up on the front page of the Shelter Rock Cove Gazette. She had somehow managed to gather up all of her unruly emotions and hold them tightly to her. Lust was easy to explain away; emotion was almost impossible. The world looked very different when you were naked and horizontal with your body throbbing pleasantly in some unfamiliar places.
Like your heart?
Now there was a thought to push as far away as possible. She inched the covers down and slid toward the edge of the bed, wincing at the sound of her naked limbs moving across his crisp cotton sheets. Even her heartbeat sounded too loud. How he could sleep through the racket she was making was beyond her but his breathing remained regular and his eyes didn't flicker open and she was old enough to know her luck wouldn't hold forever. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood up. He didn't move a muscle. Moving quickly she gathered her clothes from the floor and the wing chair in the corner of the room, fished her heels from under the armoire, then darted for the bathroom.
Hall Talbot opened his eyes as soon as he heard the bathroom door swing shut. The room was dim, bathed in shadow. The nest of robins outside his window was silent. He peered at the clock on his nightstand. 4:52, it read, in screaming green flashes of light that made his eyeballs ache. You were in bad shape when your clock made you feel like you were strapped to the nosecone of an Atlas rocket that was about to lift off inside your skull.
He hadn't felt like this since he was an intern pulling seventy-two hour shifts. What the hell was going on? It wasn't flu season. He hadn't sustained a head injury. There was no reason for feeling like road kill.
Or was there?
His skin smelled faintly of carnations and woman. He had dreamed about a woman last night, about long legs and soft skin, about losing himself in her warmth and wanting to stay lost. Was it possible he hadn't been dreaming? His sheets were rumpled and the other side of the bed was warm beneath the flat of his hand. Bits and pieces from the night before began to swim to the surface: Kerry Amanda Butler's christening; single-malt Scotch at the Spruce Goose; a bottle of champagne on his back porch; Ellen's long elegant legs wrapped around his waist; the sweet taste of her mouth; the way he called out Annie Butler's name when -
Shit. He'd been hoping that part was nothing but one of those caught-naked-walking-down-Main-Street dreams but the echo rang loud and clear. The funny thing was - if anything about the situation was funny - that he hadn't been thinking about Annie at all. For the first time in years, he had been completely there with a woman, completely into the moment, and wouldn't you know his damn champagne-fueled subconscious had to rear its head and hit Ellen right between the eyes.
What the hell had he been thinking when he asked her in for a drink? He was old enough to know where those things usually led. He could take the easy way out and blame the single-malt but Scotch usually made him more circumspect. She deserved better. There was no doubt about that. He had been on the wrong side of a triangle for most of his adult life and he wouldn't wish it on anyone. But something had been different yesterday, from the moment she swung by the hospital to pick him up for the christening. Maybe it was the way she looked, like a summer flower, in her party dress or maybe it was the soft sound of her laughter as she held Kerry Amanda in her arms.
He had seen her face minutes after Kerry came into the world. He had seen the look of wonder, of joy, the kind of look you saw in Renaissance paintings but not in the post-Modern, post-everything world.
The rest of the crowd in Annie Butler's garden faded away and he saw only Ellen, heard only her voice.
He didn't know what impulse on her part had brought her into his bed but he had been deeply grateful for it, grateful for her warmth, and her kindness, and the way she moved beneath him. Grateful for everything that made her who she was.
He never mixed work and pleasure, never lost sight of the importance of his vocation, or of what he owed the women who entrusted their lives and the lives of their unborn babies into his care. That was what had prompted his decision three years ago to find a partner. Young couples had been moving into Shelter Rock Cove faster than new housing could keep pace, and with them came a rapid rise in the birth rate that had tripled his work load before he knew what hit him. If he wanted to continue to give his patients the care and attention they deserved, he realized he would have to bring in a partner.
He had interviewed candidates from every part of the state and while they all came with impeccable qualifications, none seemed the right fit. He had seriously considered a woman from Boston but her reluctance to commit to life in a small shore town forced him to rule her out. Just when he was about to put aside the search for a few months, Ellen showed up and his problems were solved. Nobody was more surprised than Hall when the perfect partner turned out to be a tall, reed-slim New Yorker with curly red hair and the uncanny ability to charm even his most straight-laced Yankee patients with her dry humor and gentle hands. He had worried about the old guard's reaction but for the most part even the dowagers of Shelter Rock had accepted Ellen. Maybe not as one of their own but definitely as a welcome addition. Even Claudia Galloway finally broke down and stopped canceling appointments if it meant seeing his partner rather than him.
Progress came slowly to small New England towns but when it came in the guise of someone like Ellen it couldn't be denied, not even by those who could trace their lineage back three hundred years just by walking past the cemetery behind the church.
She was part of the community. Part of the clubs and fundraisers, welcome at church barbecues even though she didn't attend the church in question, a familiar face at parties and parades, christenings and funerals. She had earned their friendship, their trust, and their respect. No small thing in a town like Shelter Rock Cove.
And now, with one act of supreme selfishness, he had put all of that into jeopardy.
He had to do something or say something but the question was what? As well as he knew her, there was much about Ellen that remained a mystery. This wasn't your standard morning-after where you shared Dee Dee's donuts and French roast on the back porch while the day unfolded itself before you. The moment he had uttered Annie's name he had seen to that.
Would she be casual about it, as if they had shared nothing more than dinner and conversation? He doubted it. They knew each other too well to play games. Maybe they should go for a walk on the beach and he could somehow find a way to apologize to her. Apologies of that sort were tricky beasts. He'd seen too many heartfelt apologies back fire, heaping embarrassment upon the one who least deserved it. Or he could lie there pretending to be asleep while she let herself out of his house and delay the moment of accountability but that was the coward's way out and she deserved better.
She had deserved better last night but it was too late for him to undo the damage. The only thing he could do now was to follow her lead and hope for the best.
Maybe somewhere in the world there were women who waltzed into affairs armed with a change of clothes, toothbrush, and blow-dryer, but Ellen wasn't one of them. Standing there in Hall's bathroom, wrapped in a dark green towel that barely covered the essentials, she found herself looking at the reflection of a woman in trouble.
She looked too needy. The expression in her eyes was too open, too vulnerable, too everything. She looked the way she had looked the summer she was fourteen when her entire world turned upside down.
There wasn't a soul in town who wouldn't know what she had been up to when they saw her driving down Harbor Road toward home wearing the same clothes she had worn to the Butlers' christening party. And, to make matters worse, her car had spent the night in Hall's driveway. She might as well have hung a flag from his bedroom window with the words "Dr. Markowitz Slept Here" embroidered across it in big scarlet letters.
Back home this wouldn't have registered on the radar screen. A private life was possible in Manhattan, something she hadn't given much thought to before moving up to Maine. You could order in Chinese every night for a month or send a lover home each dawn and the only one who could tell the tale was your doorman and if you tipped him well enough each Christmas, he would take your secret to the grave. Her friends loved the anonymity that provided them but Ellen had always yearned for something more. She wanted to feel like she was part of a community, a neighborhood. What she lacked in family ties, she longed to make up for in friendship. When one of the doctors she worked with in the big impersonal clinic they euphemistically called The Family Care Center told her about a position that was opening up in Maine, she was ready. Jack and his family summered each year at Shelter Rock Cove and he had spent some time fishing with Hall and had come to both like and respect the older doctor.
"It's pretty rural," he had warned Ellen the day she left for her interview. "Big change for a city girl."
But that city girl had been ready for the change and when she first saw Hall Talbot, her fate had been sealed. He was tall and golden, one of those lucky few who were blessed with good looks and a good heart to match. They talked through the afternoon on topics ranging from prenatal care to geriatric gynecology and they found themselves to be in perfect harmony. Later, as the sun began to set over the harbor, the talk veered toward the personal and she found herself telling him about the life she had planned with Bryan and how it had all fallen away without warning.
He listened the way a woman wanted a man to listen to her. His eyes, so warm and so blue, never left hers. He leaned across the glass-topped table as if every word she uttered was of vital importance. And yet there was nothing false about it, nothing calculated. He listened because he cared about what she was saying and that caring had been a revelation to her.
The last of her doubts vanished as the moon rose high above the harbor.
They must have sat out on Cappy's patio and talked until ten or eleven o'clock. He ordered a bowl of chowder for each of them and some lobster rolls and she found herself devouring the simple food with a lumberjack's appetite. He told her that he had a checkered past when it came to love and marriage. "You might as well hear it from me," he had said as he signaled for another iced tea, "because you'll certainly hear it from someone else before long." After all, there were no secrets in small towns.
Four daughters. Three failed marriages. She tried not to show her shock but he must have seen something in her face because he'd smiled and leaned back in his chair. "It's okay," he said. "I can't believe it either." He never told her about Annie Galloway Butler but then he wouldn't. He wasn't that kind of man. By the time she had been a resident of Shelter Rock Cove for six months, she had heard at least twelve different variations on the story. The details might have differed but the plot was always the same: Hall loved Annie and Annie loved someone else.
A smarter woman might have learned something from that revelation. She would have ignored the way her heart leaped into overdrive every time he walked into the room. She would have learned to stop noticing the way his skin always smelled faintly of lime and sunshine, even in the dead of a New England winter. And a smarter woman would definitely have stayed out of his bed, no matter how much champagne had passed her lips.
But Ellen had never claimed to be a genius when it came to romance and the fact that it was Monday morning and she was standing almost naked in Hall Talbot's bathroom wondering how she would get home without alerting the whole town to the fact that she'd spent the night with the town's most eligible -- and most married -- bachelor was proof of that fact.
Hall tugged on a pair of faded jeans and his favorite cotton sweater and went down to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. He had a few jelly donuts in a bag on the counter. They were probably pretty stale by now but maybe he could freshen them up in the microwave. He could always go out to Dee Dee's for a fresh batch but that would be like waving a red flag in the face of the town bull. The news would be all over town before he walked back through his front door.
He settled for nuking the donuts he had and pulling some bagels from the freezer. He was pretty sure he'd seen a tub of cream cheese hiding behind a quart of milk. The thing was to keep it simple. Don't ratchet things up to the point where they were both any more uncomfortable than they had to be.
He paced the kitchen while the sound of running water filtered down from the second floor bathroom. How could one woman take so long to get ready? It wasn't like she was trying to decide what to wear. He was beginning to wonder if she'd slipped out the bathroom window and headed for home but her car was still in the driveway.
He drank some juice, popped a handful of vitamins, poured himself a cup of coffee. The sun was rising over the ocean, bathing his yard in the pastel lemons and pinks of early morning, burning away the wispy fog that carpeted the grass. He considered going back upstairs and knocking on the bathroom door but that seemed poor form. She couldn't stay up there forever, no matter how much she wanted to. She was closing on her first house that afternoon and had a walk-through scheduled for eleven.
Of course that meant, if the mood struck her, she could stay holed up in his bathroom until after he had left for the hospital and still have plenty of time to make her appointment.
Was that her plan? To outwait him and avoid confrontation? He had to admit he could see the appeal but there was nothing to be gained by postponing the inevitable. They needed to see each other face to face. They needed to talk. And they needed to do both of those things without any prying eyes or ears.
That did it. He would pour her a glass of juice and take it upstairs to her. Maybe she needed some more towels or soap or a hair dryer and was quietly trying to make do without bothering him. Whatever was going on, they had to talk and they needed to do it before any more time passed.
He was reaching for a glass when he heard footsteps on the stairs and then the sound of his front door opening.
"Ellen." He put the glass down on the counter and made for the hall. "Wait!"
She was halfway out the door, looking fresh-scrubbed and extremely uncomfortable in yesterday's clothes and sky-high heels.
She stopped on the top step and turned around and he saw in her face all the things he had prayed wouldn't be there. Hurt. Confusion. Embarrassment. And something else, something he hadn't expected: a yearning so sweet and clear it almost brought him to his knees.
"I didn't mean to wake you," she said, her voice little more than a whisper. They both knew how easily sound carried on the early morning breeze.
"I made coffee," he said, gesturing toward the kitchen. "At least let me give you some caffeine before you go."
"I shouldn't. I have to get home and -" She glanced down at her clothes. "I don't think Claudia Galloway would appreciate seeing me in this outfit again, do you?"
He didn't respond. They both knew Annie's former mother-in-law would figure it out in a nanosecond.
"You have time for coffee."
"I'll pick some up at the drive-through."
"They're not open yet."
"You're making this harder than it needs to be, Hall."
"That's not my intention."
"You should be getting ready," she said. "You have McIntyre at eight, don't you?"
"You're changing the subject."
She met his eyes. "There is no subject. I'm going home. That's all."
"Let it go," she said, fumbling in her bag for her car keys. Her damp curls danced around her face and tumbled over her shoulders. He wondered if she still smelled of carnations, that sweetly spicy scent that suited her so well.
"I want you to know -"
"Don't." There was no mistaking her tone of voice. "If you really want to make things better, you won't say another word about it."
"If that's what you want."
"It's very much what I want."
She turned again and he stopped her. "Your dress," he said. "You didn't finish buttoning the back."
Her huge blue eyes suddenly filled with tears and it took all the restraint he possessed to keep from pulling her into his arms and holding her close while she cried. She would hate it if he did that and, even worse, she would hate him for seeing her in a weak moment. You didn't work with a woman every day for over three years and not learn a little something about what made her tick.
She reached back and fumbled around, too distracted to be able to handle the simple task. It was clear she couldn't wait to be out of there.
"Let me," he said.
He stepped behind her and, lifting her heavy, damp hair off her neck with one hand, he quickly fastened the buttons with the other.
"You're good at that," she said. He tried not to read anything into her tone.
"Practice," he said. "I have daughters."
She made to leave but he placed his hand on her bare shoulder. "Believe it or not, you were the only woman in that bed last night, Ellen."
"Nice try," she said and left without a backward glance.