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WHILE WE WERE WATCHING DOWNTON ABBEY Excerpt

 
 

As a child Samantha Jackson Davis loved fairy tales as much as the next girl. She just hadn’t expected to end up in one.

Every morning when her eyes fluttered open and every night before she closed them to go to sleep, Samantha marveled at her good fortune. In a Disney version of the airline passenger held up in security just long enough to miss the plane that goes down, or the driver who runs back for a forgotten cell phone and barely avoids a deadly ten-car pileup, Samantha averted disaster in the once-upon-a-time way: she married the prince.

Over the past twenty-five years Samantha had sometimes wished she’d spent a little more time and energy considering alternatives. But when your world comes crashing down around you at the age of twenty-one, deep thinking and soul-searching are rarely your first response.

There was plenty of precedent for prince-marrying in the fairy-tale world. Sleeping Beauty had not ignored the prince’s kiss in favor of a few more years of shut-eye. Cinderella never considered refusing to try on the glass slipper. And Snow White didn’t bat an eyelash at moving in with those seven little men.

It wasn’t as if Samantha had gone out searching for a man to rescue her and her siblings when their world fell apart. She hadn’t feigned a poisoned apple—induced sleep or gotten herself locked in a tower with only her hair as a means of escape. She hadn’t attempted to hide how desperate her situation was. But the fact remained that when the handsome prince (in the form of an old family friend who had even older family money) rode up on his white horse (which had been cleverly disguised as a Mercedes convertible), she had not turned down the ride.

The fact that she hadn’t loved the prince at the time he carried her over the threshold of their starter castle was something she tried not to think about. She’d been trying not to think about it pretty much every day for the last twenty-five years.

Samantha smiled sleepily that early September morning when her husband’s lips brushed her forehead before he left for the office, but she didn’t get up. Instead she lay in bed watching beams of sunlight dance across the wooden floors of the master bedroom, breathing in the scent of freshly brewed coffee that wafted from the kitchen, and listening to the muted sound of traffic twelve floors below on Peachtree Street as she pushed aside all traces of regret and guilt and renewed her vow to make Jonathan Davis happy, his life smooth, and his confidence in his choice of her unshaken.

This, of course, required a great deal of organization and focus, many hours of volunteer work, and now that she was on the downhill slide toward fifty, ever greater amounts of “maintenance.” Today’s efforts would begin with an hour of targeted torture courtesy of her trainer Michael and would be followed by laser, nail, and hair appointments. Since it was Wednesday, her morning maintenance and afternoon committee meetings would be punctuated by a much-dreaded-but-never-complained-about weekly lunch with her mother-in-law. Which would last exactly one hour but would feel more like three.

Samantha padded into the kitchen of their current “castle,” which took up the entire top floor of the Alexander, a beautifully renovated Beaux Arts and Renaissance Revival—styled apartment building in the center of midtown Atlanta.

When it opened in 1913, the Alexander, with its hot and cold running water, steam heat, elevators, and electric lights, had been billed as one of the South’s most luxurious apartments. Like much of mid-and downtown Atlanta it had fallen on hard times but had been “saved” in the eighties when a bottom-fishing developer bought it, converted it to condos, and began the first of an ongoing round of renovations.

A little over ten years ago Samantha and her prince spent a year turning the high-ceilinged, light-filled and architecturally detailed twelfth-floor units into a four-bedroom, five-bath, amenity-filled home with three-hundred-sixty-degree views and north- and south-facing terraces.

For Samantha its most prized feature was its location in the midst of trendy shops, galleries, and restaurants as well as its comfortable, but not offensive, distance from Bellewood, Jonathan’s ancestral home in Buckhead, one of Atlanta’s toniest and oldest suburbs, where both of them had grown up and where his often-outspoken mother still reined.

The doorbell rang. As Samantha went to answer it she pushed thoughts of Cynthia Davis aside and gave herself a silent but spirited pep talk. She’d married into Atlanta royalty. Her prince was attractive and generous. A difficult mother-in-law and a life built around pleasing others was a small price to pay for the fairy-tale life she led. As Sheryl Crow so aptly put it, the secret wasn’t having what you wanted but wanting what you got. . . .

****

Claire Walker had barely placed one dyed-to-match silk pump on the church aisle when she realized she was making a big mistake. Unable to find the courage to call off the ceremony, she’d walked as slowly as she could down the aisle to Daniel Walker’s side. When she got there she smiled and said “I do” even though she didn’t.

That was nineteen years ago and to this day she could still remember the lightning bolt of revelation, the bitter taste of the words she couldn’t speak, and her fear that she might gag on them as she struggled to swallow them. For a crazed moment she’d imagined them bubbling up and spewing all over the minister, Daniel, and the two-thousand-dollar dress that her mother, who had eloped with Claire’s father and deeply regretted not having a church wedding, had insisted on buying her.

She still wasn’t sure how she made it through the ceremony and reception, but by the time the limo arrived to whisk them to the airport, she could hardly refuse to go on the island honeymoon that Daniel’s parents had given them. Nor could she maintain the fiction of a weeklong headache, which was how she’d come home from Belize pregnant with Hailey.

She’d tried to convince herself that love and respect weren’t absolute requirements for a successful marriage, but three years later, holding her two-year-old daughter in her arms, she’d done what she should have done that day at church; she apologized for the screw up and with equal parts fear, regret, and relief sundered what should have never been joined together.

Sixteen years of single parenthood on a shoestring had followed.

Today her life had changed again. Tonight she stood on the small balcony of the midtown Atlanta condo she’d spent the Labor Day weekend moving into, trying to come to terms with that change.

She took an exploratory breath of the night air. It was thick with humidity, redolent with the aroma of marinara from a nearby Italian restaurant, car exhaust, and possibility. Bits of music arrived on the warm breeze, carried from one of the bars over on Crescent Avenue. Below on Peachtree, horns sounded. A siren blared. Voices rose from the sidewalk where despite the late hour a steady stream of people walked alone, in pairs, in groups; all of them going somewhere to do something.

Here, dark and quiet were not synonymous.

“You are so not in suburbia anymore,” she whispered on another breath of night air. Here, people were living the kind of life that she’d barely allowed herself to imagine. A frisson of excitement ran through her and she leaned further out over the railing, not wanting to miss a thing. She’d have to be very careful not to accidentally click her heels together three times and end up back where she’d come from.

Her cell phone rang and she hurried inside. As she hunted for the instrument, a part of her brain reveled in the fresh paint smell of her new home, the sparkle of the tall windows that overlooked Peachtree, the gleam of the polished wood floor.

She stepped around the new gray flannel sofa and area rug from West Elm, scanned the Crate and Barrel dining room table that would double as her office, and checked the nightstand next to the brand-new never-before-slept-on-by-anyone queen bed, which she’d tucked into a corner behind a tri-fold screen.

Sidestepping half-opened boxes, she searched the stand on which her new flat-screen TV perched and the bookcases that bracketed the Murphy bed that would be her daughter Hailey’s, when she came home from college. College.

Claire exhaled heavily. Breathed in shakily. Out with the old life. In with the new.

She found the phone hidden behind a box on the kitchen counter—a lovely dappled granite that she’d fallen in love with the first time she’d entered the studio apartment—and managed to answer it before it went to voicemail.

“Hi, Mom.” Her daughter’s voice was achingly familiar and surprisingly grown up after only two weeks in Chicago at Northwestern University.

Claire reached for a framed photo that lay on the counter and was intended for the nightstand. It was from Hailey’s high school graduation and showed the two of them with their arms slung around one another’s shoulder staring happily into the camera. They were both of average height and had the same even features and wide smiles above pointed, some might say determined, chins. Their heads were bent together in a tangle of hair—Hailey’s long and smooth, the blond tinged with honey overtones, Claire’s a shade that resembled dishwater and which she kept cut in short, low-maintenance layers.

Claire listened to the hum of happiness that infused Hailey’s voice. It made her happy just to hear it. It also made her aware of just how alone she was.

No. Claire silently rejected the word and all its synonyms. She refused to be lonely. No new beginning was without its bumps. . . .

****

Edward Parker knew things about people that he sometimes wished he didn’t. Within the first week of landing the concierge contract at the Alexander, he knew that Mr. Lombard in 310 had a girlfriend and often didn’t actually leave town on business as he told his wife, but holed up instead in the Vinings condo where the younger, blonder woman had been installed.

Late one Saturday night he discovered that Mr. Morrisey, the prominent investment banker in 212, occasionally went out at night dressed in his wife’s clothing—and that when he did he looked much better in them than she did.

He’d had to hide his surprise one afternoon in his second month when he’d found out that the elderly Mimi Davenport, whose family had donated a wing to the children’s hospital and to Saint Joseph’s, had been caught fleeing from a store security guard, who informed him that Mrs. Davenport was on a store “watch list” because she liked to pinch things that she could have easily bought.

No matter how weird the revelation, Edward never lost sight of the fact that one of a concierge’s most valuable assets was discretion; a trait his grandfather, who’d been “in service” at Montclaire Castle in Nottinghamshire just as his father before him had been, had begun to teach Edward somewhere around his tenth birthday.

Edward reached for his cup of tea; taken at four each afternoon and allowed to go slightly tepid just the way he liked it, and looked around his small office tucked away in a corner of the Alexander’s lobby. He’d hung his black blazer on a hanger on the back of his office door in much the same way that his grandfather had removed and hung his jacket when he went “below stairs” at Montclaire. But Edward had hung his own diploma from the Cornell School of Hotel Administration next to it.

He’d begun to fully understand—and practice discretion—when he landed at a Hilton property in Maui as an assistant manager—a glorious posting from which he’d sent two year’s worth of sun-filled postcards home to the Hungry Fox, the family pub in Newark-on-Trent, upon which Edward estimated some fifty to sixty inches of rain fell annually. It was in the Aloha state that he’d handled his first celebrity peccadillo and learned the art of misdirection and the value of resisting bribes. The lessons—and postcards—continued in big-city hotels in San Francisco, New York, and Miami Beach.

There’d been smaller postings, too; a fancy dude ranch in Montana where he’d fallen in love with the sweeping vistas of the American west and bought a pair of snakeskin cowboy boots that he owned to this day. A charming B and B in the historic heart of Charleston where he’d reveled in the beautifully restored buildings and come to terms with the pairing of shrimp and grits, and enjoyed the languid blend of heat, humidity, and manners.

The Hungry Fox would go to his older brother, Bertie, much as the title and country estates his forebears had served in had gone to oldest sons. But that was all right with Edward, who had pulled plenty of pints behind the Fox’s scarred wood bar but could never imagine staying there; not even to keep the woman he’d loved.

Bertie continued the tradition of mounting Edward’s postcards, which now papered an entire wall of the bar.

The last seven years’ worth had been sent from Atlanta, making the Fox’s patrons among the lucky few in England to know exactly what the Fox Theatre, a restored Egyptian-themed 1920s movie house, looked like. He’d sent postcards of other Atlanta landmarks—like what was left of the apartment Miss Mitchell had written Gone with the Wind in; Stone Mountain, Atlanta’s answer to Mount Rushmore with its three-acre mountaintop carving of three Confederate heroes of the Civil War; CNN Center; Turner Field; the World of Coca Cola.

Six months ago he’d sent not a postcard but a sales piece he’d had printed after his newly formed personal concierge company, Private Butler, had been selected by the Alexander’s condo board. It was a wide shot of the Alexander’s Beaux Arts façade, shot from across Peachtree. In one corner of the brochure was the Private Butler logo—the company name wrapped around a photo of Edward’s grandfather, William Parker, in the Montclaire livery he and his twin brother had worn so proudly.

Edward took a final sip of his tea, checked the time, and removed his jacket from its hook. He wanted to do a tour of the fitness room and clubroom/theater. Then he’d take another look at the adjacent pool deck to see what it would need in the way of winterizing.

He smoothed his collar, slipped his silenced cell phone into his jacket pocket, and added a stop at the security desk and an assessment of the valet’s uniform to his mental to-do list. He had always taken pride in a job well done, but it had taken the heavy-footed approach of his fiftieth birthday to make him look at building something for himself. Private Butler was a company that he could shape and build; one whose seeds had been sown in his forebears’ years “in service.”

Edward had every intention of making them proud. . . .

****

She spotted the chubby red-haired woman through the plate-glass wall as she rounded the corner. Biting back a groan, Samantha entered the glassed and mirrored space and moved toward the vacant elliptical machine next to the one the other woman occupied.

The big-screen TV on the wall in front of the machines wasn’t on. Samantha cut her eyes to the other woman whose head was bent over the control board. Samantha couldn’t tell if she was studying the digital readout or praying. Her feet were in the footpads, her legs frozen as if in mid step. Her workout clothes looked both new and expensive, but they stretched across her rear and back a little more tightly than they should. She’d seen her in the building before—the last time in the lobby with a dog and two little girls.

“Do you mind if I turn on the TV?” Samantha asked.

The woman shook her head, but she didn’t look up. “No.” Her voice caught on the word.

Samantha put on the TV and skimmed through the channels finally settling on the Today show. Telling herself she didn’t know this woman and shouldn’t pry, she got on the elliptical and began to answer the questions that flashed on the digital screen. She committed to forty minutes, plus the automatic five-minute cooldown. But then came the annoying weight query. Did the machine really need to know how much she weighed? Irritated she punched in her weight—or at least a close approximation. Then it asked for her age.

“Good grief!” She spent a long moment picturing the skinny little geek who’d come up with the mathematical equations that required such personal information. If she could have figured out how, she would have told the machine to go screw itself, but there didn’t seem to be a place to input that.

Would it make a significant difference if she put in forty-six, which she’d only recently said good-bye to? She’d just decided that a year couldn’t possibly make a significant difference in the number of calories burned, when she heard what sounded like a sob from the next machine.

Samantha got her legs moving in that odd walking/climbing motion then turned toward the red-haired woman. “Are you all right?”

“I can’t figure out how to make it start.” The woman’s voice was heavy with choked-back tears.

“Are you sure you want to?” Samantha asked gently.

The woman looked up and met Samantha’s eyes. Her whole face looked tight from the effort of holding in the tears that shimmered in her eyes. “No. But as you can see I clearly need to.”

Samantha kept her legs moving. “Whether you work out is definitely not my business,” Samantha said carefully. “I mean, I’m not the Jehovah’s Witness of exercise or anything. I’m not even sure I want to be here.”

“Sorry.” The woman averted her eyes. “It’s probably better if I go so that you can exercise in peace.” She aimed her gaze somewhere over Samantha’s left shoulder as she spoke. “I just thought it might make me feel better. You know, if I could dredge up a few endorphins or something.” There was another half sob. A look of horror spread over the woman’s broad freckled face. “Oh, God. I’m sorry. I can’t believe I’m crying in front of someone like you.”

Samantha blinked.

“Oh, shit. That’s not what I meant to say.”

Samantha braced, hoping the woman wasn’t going to keep at it until she said whatever other insulting thing she’d actually meant. She hadn’t even done five minutes yet and she didn’t see how she could just leave the woman here alone when she was so upset. She’d never read of a suicide by elliptical, but that didn’t mean there’d never been one.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said as casually as she could, turning her gaze to the television. Pedaling, she tried to focus on the screen, but the feminine hygiene commercials were no match for the crying woman still standing immobile on the next machine.

“People like you are one of the main reasons people like me don’t exercise,” the woman said.

“I beg your pardon?” Samantha said.

“Oh, God. I didn’t mean to say that, either.”

Samantha had no idea how to respond so she just kept moving. She completed five minutes before she snuck another look at the woman who was focused on the control panel. Mercifully, she had stopped crying. She was short, probably no more than five-four, and looked to be somewhere in her mid thirties. Her face wasn’t bad. Or it wouldn’t have been if she’d done something to camouflage the freckles. An eyebrow shaping and the right makeup would have been a good start. Briefly Samantha considered offering her the name of her favorite aesthetician, but it seemed clear that the last thing this woman needed today was anything that resembled criticism.

The other woman blew a heavy red curl off her damp forehead. She seemed to be sweating kind of heavily given her lack of movement.

“I’m . . .” the woman began. “I’m really sorry.” She looked up and met Samantha’s eyes. “But the thing is. I’m not having a good day.”

No shit, Samantha thought.

“But I’ve made it this far.” The woman hesitated. “If you could, um, just tell me how to start this thing, I’ll do what I came here to do and I . . . I promise I’ll leave you alone.”

“Sure.” Samantha couldn’t tear her eyes from the redhead’s face. Even her freckles looked sad and anxious. “Hit ‘reset’ and start moving your feet.”

The woman did as she was instructed. Carefully, Samantha talked her through each step, the woman only balking when it came time to put in her weight.

“I know,” Samantha said. “Sadistic, isn’t it?”

“I guess lying would defeat the whole purpose?”

Samantha nodded. “But at least the age thing won't be a negative for you. Not all of us can say the same.”

What might have been a smile flickered over the woman’s lips. “So I gather I’m supposed to put in my real age and not how old I feel right now?”

At Samantha’s nod, the redhead said, “It’s just as well. The numbers probably don’t go up to a hundred anyway.”

Surprised and glad that the woman had managed to make something approximating a joke, she said, “My name’s Samantha Davis, by the way.”

The redhead began to puff from exertion. “Brooke Mackenzie,” she said. Beads of perspiration already dotted her forehead.

“Nice to meet you.” Samantha nodded and turned her attention to the television.

They pedaled in silence for a while. Samantha kept her eyes on the television, but she couldn’t quite tune out the woman beside her.

A movement through the plate-glass window caught Samantha’s eye and she spotted Edward Parker in the hall. She watched him post something on the elegant notice board he’d installed outside the clubroom. He looked up, saw them, and waved.

Brooke Mackenzie gave a little moan of distress when the concierge pulled open the fitness room door, but her legs kept moving.

“Ladies.” The concierge stopped between them and flashed a smile that dimpled his right cheek. “You both look remarkably industrious. It’s nice to see the facilities in use.”

Brooke smiled but didn’t speak. A glob of sweat ran down the side of her face and dropped near his well-shod feet.

Not at all bothered, the concierge set down the cards he was carrying, retrieved two fresh towels from a cupboard and bottled waters from the small refrigerator. “We keep towels and water stocked twenty-four-seven. If there’s anything else you’d like to see in here, please let me know.”

“Thank you.” Brooke swiped at her face and hung the towel around her shoulders.

“Yes, thanks.” Samantha twisted the cap off her water and took a long drink. “What have you got there?” Samantha nodded to the cream-colored cards in Edward Parker’s hand.

“It’s an invitation to a screening,” he replied. “Email blasts seem terribly . . . impersonal, so I’m posting invitations in all the common areas and putting them in resident mailboxes.”

“Oh?” Samantha asked as Brooke Mackenzie continued to pedal beside her.

“We’re going to be watching the first two seasons of Downton Abbey as a buildup to the start of season three in January.”

“Ah,” Samantha said. She’d overheard people talking about the British television series but had never seen it. “Isn’t that set in an English castle or something?”

“Yes. Highclere Castle in the countryside west of London serves as the fictional Downton Abbey.” He gave them one of his dazzling smiles. “I thought it would be fun to have a weekly get-together for anyone interested. We’re going to watch the very first episode on the big screen in the clubroom this Sunday evening at eight.

“Interesting.” Samantha definitely didn’t see herself heading to the clubroom every Sunday night to watch a stuffy British drama with strangers, but there was no need to come out and say so.

“Have you seen it, Mrs. Mackenzie?” The concierge asked, drawing the other woman into the conversation.

“I’ve seen a few episodes,” she said, and Samantha could tell she was trying her hardest not to huff or puff. Not sweating was no longer an option. “But not in order.” She fell silent for a moment. “It was beautifully done, though.”

He considered them both. “I’d like to create more of a sense of community in the building. The series is a huge hit all over the U.S. and the rest of the world, really, which would make us very . . . current.” His voice turned conspiratorial. “And, frankly, I’m up for a bit of home.”

He set an invitation on the small shelf of each of their elliptical control panels. “I hope you’ll come give it a go if you’re around this Sunday evening.” He turned and pinned an invitation up on the fitness room bulletin board. “There’ll be popcorn and wine to start. And maybe some English-themed nibbles and drinks.”

Samantha smiled noncommittally. She was glad to see Parker taking the initiative and relieved that Brooke Mackenzie seemed at least a little less ready to throw herself under a bus. It was amazing what a good-looking man with a devastatingly sincere smile and a gorgeous accent could accomplish.

“Thanks,” Brooke said, actually raising her chin and meeting the concierge’s eyes. “It sounds like . . . fun.” The word came out sounding odd, as if it were unfamiliar on her lips. “I’ll have to see what the girls have scheduled.”

“Wonderful,” the concierge said with a final smile. “I’ll cross my fingers and hope to see both of you on Sunday.”

Samantha and Brooke watched him go without comment. With a final huff the younger woman stopped pedaling and levered herself off the machine. Brooke’s skin shimmered with perspiration, her red hair hung limp around her freckled face, but there was a look in her eyes that Samantha recognized as satisfaction. “Can I get you another water or anything?”

“No, thanks. I’m good,” Samantha replied.

Brooke wiped down the elliptical, then took a long drink of water. “Well, I appreciate you getting me started.”

“No problem,” Samantha replied. “I was glad to help.”

The redhead looked at her for a few moments, then nodded. Finally she turned and walked toward the door.

“I hope your day gets better,” Samantha called after her.

“Thanks,” the younger woman said, reaching for the doorknob. “I only fudged a little bit and the machine says I burned three hundred calories, so things are already looking up.” She smiled a lopsided smile. “But then I guess they couldn’t have gotten much worse.”


©Wendy Wax

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