When she reaches the shadows at the top of the stairs, Caitlin Chaisson is stilled by the sound of a woman’s drunken laughter. It comes from the guest bathroom a few paces away, where the half-open door reveals two pairs of entwined legs and a woman’s hands, capped with bloodred nails, tugging a man’s trousers down over his ass. She recognizes the man’s pants, as well as his slurred, breathy voice, and all at once the banister on which Caitlin is attempting to rest her hand feels as vicious and hungry as a lava flow.
The last of her guests are still draining out of the foyer below, but she feels utterly alone, as if the short distance down the gentle half spiral of the perfectly restored wooden staircase is a dizzying slope, and she is perched precariously at the summit. She wants to shatter this illusion by turning and running down the stairs, by mingling once more among her guests as they retrieve their coats from the indulgent valets. After all, they are her friends, her many cousins, and employees of her late father’s foundation, and they gathered that evening at Spring House to celebrate her birthday. And she’s sure if she joins once more in their gin- and vodka-slurred conversations about which member of which couple is sober enough to make the long drive back to New Orleans—a serpentine crawl along winding river roads, past shadowed levees—she will be freed from the terrible implications of what she’s just seen. But while the chatter coming up from the foyer below sounds bright and seductive, it is powerless to move her, as cloying and impotent as the condolence cards that poured in after the plane crash that killed her parents. So she remains frozen at the top of the stairs as her final birthday gift unfolds a few paces away.
It is the precision of what she sees next that cuts her most deeply, as if the scene had been staged for her arrival. But she knows this can’t be true. The second floor of Spring House is a warren of shadows, and there are still guests sprinkled all over the long front drive, most of them following her gardener and handyman, Willie, as he leads them back to their parked cars with an antique gas lantern raised in one arm. The upstairs bathroom is the quickest escape for two people gripped by drunken lust. Worse, there is nothing calculated about the way her husband’s mouth gapes against the young woman’s exposed neck; rather, a blind passion animates his movements, and despite the deep, agonizing twist in her gut, Caitlin sees it for what it is: adolescent lust. But the childishness of Troy’s pawing—he’s almost got the woman’s right breast free from her cocktail dress—does nothing to diminish its impact. It is wild and liberated in ways it has never been inside the bedroom they’ve shared for five years. It gives the display a terrible, crushing purity.
And the woman. Who is she? Caitlin noticed her earlier, circulating among the other guests, some yat friend of one of her cousins, she’d thought. She’d looked wide-eyed and cowed by the masterfully restored plantation house and its sprawling, manicured grounds. And yet, had she been biding her time, waiting to strike? Or worse, had this little betrayal been planned in advance? Is this not the first time her husband has twisted this delicate blonde’s right nipple in between his thumb and forefinger while gnawing gently on her earlobe?
Caitlin is amazed they can’t hear her sharp intakes of breath. She is amazed that the door is open just the right number of inches for her to see the full arc the woman’s body makes when Troy lifts her up onto the edge of the sink and forces her thighs apart as much as they can go inside the confines of the dress. Caitlin is amazed by the poses, by the props, by the cruel timing of the scene before her. But its content and its meaning both carry the crushing weight of the inevitable. And as five years’ worth of suspicions are confirmed, Caitlin Chaisson learns that she is not the plucky, courageous woman she has seen in movies. Because though it pains her beyond measure, she can’t even bring herself to move, much less throw the bathroom door open and drag her husband out into the hallway by his hair. Indeed, her right foot is still hovering in the air just behind her; she’s yet to complete the final step that brought her here.
And so Caitlin Chaisson begins backing down the stairs, and by the time she turns around, she finds the foyer empty—the last of the party’s attendees are but shadows outside as they follow the flickering ghostly halo of Willie’s lantern down the oak-lined gravel path that leads to the guest parking lot by the levee.
Through the double parlor she runs past the giant painting of the grand Greek Revival house as it looked before its destruction in 1850, past the caterers who are cleaning up in the kitchen; they do their job to perfection, never noticing the woman of the house as she sprints past them, her breaths turning to shallow coughs.
It is on the railing of the back porch that she sees it: half-empty, lipstick-smudged. After any other party it would have been an irritant when she passed it the next morning, but tonight it is the instrument of her salvation. She picks up the champagne flute, smashes it against the porch rail, and continues to run.
By the time Caitlin reaches the gazebo, she has tried several times to begin the incision, and the results are a series of claw marks on her left arm that are oozing a thin layer of blood. The floorboards give her footfalls greater resonance than the muddy paths she traveled through manicured gardens to get here, and this sharp, staccato reminder that she is still among the living forces her to reconsider her decision. Now she finds herself spinning in place, the shattered rim of the champagne flute dripping blood onto the gazebo’s floor.
The overhead light inside the gazebo is off. The great house is a vision of antebellum perfection beyond what was once the plantation’s sprawling cane field, but is now a maze of brick planters, flagstone walkways, and small fountains—the latter of which make an insistent, nagging gurgle in the absence of laughter and party chatter.
This moment of quiet is all she needs for years’ worth of warnings and admonishments to fill the silence, a riot in her head that shoves out all reasonable and adult voices, that has her spinning in place, her grip on the broken champagne flute growing tighter even as she tries to relax her hand.
No shadows have pursued her. No guilty husband is striding toward her across the watery lawns.
Why should he? No wound in her soul could ever be deep enough to draw his mouth from that whore’s pale, young flesh. Perhaps if she had screamed . . . But she is alone now with the terrible knowledge that, in her husband’s eyes, she really is just freckled Caitlin with the down-turned mouth that gives her a constant frown and the pinprick eyes that too closely crowd the bridge of her nose, the girl with the sloping shoulders and the skinny neck that’s always been too long for her frame, the awkward one, the one everyone looks over in an attempt to get a better view of the real prizes that carry the Chaisson family name: the mansion on St. Charles Avenue, the postcard-perfect plantation, and the libraries and museums named for her grandfather.
Back in high school, Caitlin overheard a teacher—not some bitchy fellow student, but an actual teacher—say of her, “The Chaissons may be loaded, but all the money in the world isn’t going to drag that girl over from the ugly side of plain.” And now it’s clear her husband is no different from that vile, hateful woman, despite the fact that he gave all the right answers during the neurotic, late-night interrogations she’s subjected him to over the years.
And yet there were warnings. Years of them, mostly subtle. When her mother was still alive, for example, the struggle not to speak up had practically torn the woman apart, and somehow, witnessing that restrained torment out of the corner of her eye had been worse for Caitlin than some outright confrontation over whether or not her handsome, charming husband really loved her.
And then there was Blake, her closest friend in the world . . . until he’d actually come to her with evidence. He had friends who worked at the casinos in Biloxi, and they’d seen Troy there with other women, even after Troy had promised never to gamble away another dime of their money (her money, her money, her money!) again. It was almost enough to dismiss the fact that he’d done so while in the company of various sluts (and even now she couldn’t help wonder if one of them had been the whore getting fingeredfuckedsuckedlicked by her husband right now . . . ).
And what had she done?
First she accused Blake of being ungrateful. After everything Troy did for you when he was a cop! Then, when that tactic didn’t shame Blake into silence, she accused Blake of having romantic feelings for Troy, of getting all tangled up in their long, complex history. After all, years before he married Caitlin, Troy was Blake’s savior, the man who had brought him swift and lasting justice. Perhaps, since then, Blake had decided he wanted Troy to be his knight in shining armor in every possible way! Hell, maybe he’d been nursing feelings for Troy ever since they’d all first met. It had been bullshit, of course. Utter and complete bullshit, but she’d hurled it right at his face rather than accept the horrible truth Blake had delivered with a bowed head and averted eyes.
In the six months since they last spoke, it has been impossible not to see the stunned and wounded look on Blake Henderson’s face every time she closes her eyes and tries to sleep.
The rock walls in her mind that keep a life’s worth of painful memories from meeting in a single river of fiery self-hate have collapsed entirely. Her present humiliation flows right through the doors of that long-ago hospital room where Blake made a confession far more devastating than the one he’d made six months ago about Troy’s gambling. He’d been recovering from a brutal assault at the time, medicated out of his head for the pain. And it was her fault, really. She was the one who’d made the mistake of going back in, of asking him later if the tale he’d told her about her father was something more than a morphine-fueled delusion. Drug-fueled perhaps, Blake had admitted, but not a delusion.