Hamptons socialite Christina Cardiff's stay in rehab is cut short with the tragic news that her husband has drowned in the swimming pool of their East Hampton estate. She rushes home to plan the funeral, only to find her newfound sobriety threatened by the cloud of suspicion hanging over her and the allure of her mysterious lover, Danny Cisco.
Margaret gives an overview of the book:
I came to on a moonlit beach. I was running, or trying to. My bare feet made furrows in the cold night sand. My right hand was wrapped around the slim neck of a near-empty bottle of Jamesport Vineyards Chardonnay. An onshore breeze played havoc with the sheer voile of my wrap dress. The bow at my waist had come undone, so most of the dress billowed at my side like a sail. It felt like I had an imaginary invisible twin.
This struck me as hilarious. I stopped so I could laugh as hard as I wanted. I felt I should tell all this to Dan, explain to him about my imaginary twin, and how we could finally have that threesome he kept bugging me about.
But the wind tore away my words before I could say them. I hiccupped.
I heard Dan’s deep, booming laugh behind me. He came up close and I felt his breath on my shoulder that was bare except for the silk strap of my bra. I got a whiff of the hot cloud that was Daniel Cunningham, a thick stew of Old Spice and cigarettes, and the fruity scent of the wine we’d been drinking since lunch at Lenny’s on the dock in Montauk.
His bare arms came up sharp around my waist, warm and muscled, marbled through with thick veins on smooth skin, pulling me back against him. I lost my balance and fell against his chest, melting into that cloud of his, slipping down and down and down . . .
Christina felt their eyes on her. The circle was quiet, waiting.
Dan, his face, his scent, the knowing way of his hands on her bare skin, filled her mind. He was always there for her, the lover who lived in her head. Like a drug she could always come back to and use again.
But not here. Not now.
The counselor’s name was Peter, and he leaned forward until he was in danger of slipping off the edge of his molded plastic chair. “Christina?” He said her name again, coming down heavy on the next to last syllable so it sounded like a question.
But it was not a question, not really, and Christina knew it. It was a command to spill her guts.
The group watched, like so many hyenas in the veldt waiting to pounce on a fresh kill.
Peter let a moment or two pass. He began to speak when Christina did not. “There came a day, finally, when I knew my number was up. I don’t know why that day was different, but it was. I had hit my bottom and I knew it.” Peter picked up the folded napkin from underneath his Styrofoam cup and used it to mop up the sheen along his upper lip.
Heat from outside seeped in around the edges of the heavy automatic doors and sealed windows of the rehab despite the A.C., which was kept in arctic blast mode to protect the patients from the merciless furnace that was Minnesota in July.
Beads of sweat poked through Peter’s Polo shirt, dotting his midsection like chicken pox. “The way I was drinking, I should have been dead ten times over.” He used the flip side of the napkin to blot at his forehead.
Nods and murmurs of assent moved around the circle like a wave through the stands inside a football stadium.
“But the day I finally got it, I was done. My number had come up. I had taken my last drink. And I knew it.” The counselor leaned back until the plastic chair creaked, his gaze never wavering from Christina’s face. “That’s what we call hitting bottom, Christina. Have you hit your bottom yet?”
She looked at him, taking stock of the pale blue eyes and thinning blonde hair, the face that was arranged into a permanent frown of understanding. He was a third-generation Norwegian-American whose drinking had taken him on a wild ride across the Midwest through two marriages, seven locked psych wards and even a brief stint in prison. Until he had seen the light and found his way here, where he could dedicate all his time and energy to shining the beacon of recovery into the dark hearts of drunks like Christina.
“You don’t need to hide any more, Christina. You’re in a safe place.” Peter’s blue eyes swam with compassion for her, so deep and so full, apparently, that he needed to press the napkin into service yet again to dab at them. He took a swig of coffee that went down with an audible gulp.
Signaling to Christina that it was okay, he had all the time in the world when it came to saving her soul.
God, she hated him.
She stared down at the carpet, a sculpted pattern in a drab mix of colors that was designed to handle high volume traffic. She risked a glance at some of the faces she had gotten to know over the last six days, since she had stopped shaking and come off the I.V., leaving the medical unit behind to join Peter and his motley crew. There was the bass player, HIV-positive, from the boy band Christina’s son had once idolized. The wattle-faced CEO of the largest chain of dry cleaning stores in the Midwest, who was facing indictment for tax evasion. A saw-voiced woman from Montecito who debated hourly whether she should sell her share in the family vineyard in order to stay sober. And Sylphan, Christina’s roommate, whose flowing goth attire could not hide her tortuous thinness. The name was a put-on like the black lipstick and spiky pink hair. The girl wept through the night even in her sleep. Yesterday in group she had hinted that her addiction had its roots in the bedtime routine at her stepfather’s place in Bucks County.
No doubt about it, Christina thought, the carpet in this place was designed to take a beating. She cleared her throat, calculating whether she could get away with saying she preferred to listen instead of talk, just for today.
‘Just for today’ was Peter’s mantra.
“It’s okay, Christina,” he said in a soft voice. “We’re here for you, and we’re not going anywhere.”
That much was obvious. Most of her fellow recovering addicts had no choice but to stick it out, here by court order or the result of a workplace intervention. But Christina did not have a workplace, nor did she have any sheet from a judge. She doubted anyone from her life would even notice she was gone. Except Dan. He knew where she was. But he didn’t count. He was not, strictly speaking, part of her world.
Christina’s son Tyler was vacationing in Aix-en-Provence with her in-laws until the middle of August, when Christina and Jason would drive him down to The Hill School for opening weekend. And Jason? Her husband could be in the city, or in East Hampton, or who knows where. He hadn’t offered to fly out here with her. She’d come on her own. The rehab would have provided an escort if she had wanted to pay for one, but that wasn’t the point.
“Jesus Christ,” Jason had said, wrinkling his nose at the sight of Christina lying on rumpled sheets in the guest bedroom.
She told him then what she was planning to do, her voice weak, her skull so heavy she was not able to lift it more than an inch, just enough to sip water from the glass she’d thought to leave out next to the bed the night before. A drunk’s trick.
“Jesus Christ,” he said again, shaking his head. He sneered. And then, of all things, he laughed.
Even with the blinds drawn tight against the glare from the beach and her eyes swollen almost shut, Christina saw a white flash of teeth against Jason’s tanned skin. It had been a long, long time since she had heard him laugh. She noticed this despite her skull, which was throbbing like it was two sizes too tight. She couldn’t sit up. She fell back against the pillows.
This, it turned out, would be the last time Christina saw her husband alive.
She would remember him this way, standing in the guest room doorway of their beach house on a summer afternoon (or possibly morning or early evening, Christina didn’t know which), throwing his head back to laugh at her plan.
Truth be told, and the truth was not something either Christina or Jason was in the habit of telling, it was an outrageous plan. But she had run out of options.
Jason laughed hard with a sound that rolled up from deep inside. He took his time until he was good and finished. He looked at her, for probably the first time in ages.
Christina did not like the look in his eyes.
He shook his head, planting one hand high on the doorframe. “Whatever.” He turned to go.
Christina would always remember the squeaking sound his fingers made as he dragged them down the wall.
As though he was being tugged away by an unseen hand.
“Take a car service to JFK,” he said over his shoulder. “Leave the Mercedes here.”
Christina couldn’t imagine how she was going to transport herself to Minnesota, a state she couldn’t pinpoint on a map, when she wasn’t able to sit up in bed without vomiting. But she had to. She had run out of ideas and couldn’t think of anything else to do. Maybe commit suicide. But as the sun shone brightly down on the Cardiff’s oceanfront estate on Jonah’s Path that day, Christina was too worn out even to kill herself.
So she had landed here just over a week ago, in a place more foreign to her than any of the capitals in Western Europe, to do the unthinkable.
The problem was, once the shaking stopped and she was transferred into the residential treatment program that had cured legendary sports figures, politicians, rock bands, a First Lady and, it was rumored, a certain individual who was less than tenth in line to the British throne, Christina Cardiff was caught off guard by something she never saw coming.
A wave of terror so big and so deep she nearly drowned in it.
If she stopped drinking, then what?
Christina’s life stretched out before her like a vast uncharted wilderness, for which she had no map.
The fear was followed by a second wave of emotion, no less powerful than the first. Self-pity. It rose up and swamped her, flooding her, washing away her resolve.
Hot tears pulsed at the back of her eyes. When had her life turned into this, drinking shitty coffee from a vat while perfect strangers took turns spilling their guts?
She tried to swallow around the lump that formed in her throat. To her horror a small sound escaped, one that was shapeless and feral. Like the sound made by the possum they’d caught in the attic last fall. The trap was supposed to be humane because the animal was simply cornered, not killed.
So much for Hav-A-Heart traps, Christina through, clamping her teeth down tight to avoid making that sound again. She was pretty sure she knew just how that possum had felt.
“It’s okay, Christina.” Peter leaned forward, pressing his napkin into her hand.
Soggy as it was, she wiped her eyes, wet now with tears.
“This is a safe place,” Peter said.
It was a weird place, Christina wanted to tell him, straight out of an old skit from Saturday Night Live.
Instead she hunched forward in her chair, pressing the limp napkin tightly to her face. In that moment she got a sense of herself floating high in an imaginary perch up near the acoustical ceiling tiles, looking down at the Christina below. And she glimpsed herself not as the person she had become, pouring her life out in the liquid measures of goblets and pints and liters required to get her through each days, but as she really was.
In the parlance of Alcoholics Anonymous, Christina Cardiff was a garden variety drunk.
In that moment of mental clarity came an opening. Maybe, just maybe, she could do it.
I am an internationally published author of four novels. My debut thriller, A Dark Love (Avon/HarperCollins) was named one of the Top 100 Books of 2009 by Publishers Weekly, and was nominated for a prestigious Rita award by Romance Writers of America. I have...