Solid in status, circled by wide lawns and lavish shrubbery, the house stood where the outer suburbs met the countryside and the road wound toward the Berkshire hills. The land rose in ripples. In the morning the rising sun washed the hilltops in hazy pink light; at day's end the afterglow, lingering above them, lay like a scarlet stripe between the dark land and a foaming gray sea of clouds.
On such an evening, Hyacinth put aside the sketches and charcoal on her desk to gaze with pleasure at the scene. Except for the faintest rustle of leaves in the warm September air, it was quite still. And at the open window, she too stood quite still, in awe of the evening.
A mood, one of those that in occasional self-mockery she called her "poetic moments," had overcome her. Yet the mood ought not to be mocked, especially now when she was so incredibly happy. So secure, contented, and loved -- so incredibly happy!
Abruptly then, she heard voices. Her parents, following their custom, were sitting on the open porch below. She had never eavesdropped and was certainly not about to do so now. But she had heard her name.
"Hy is twenty-one," Dad said. "She's not a child anymore."
"Hyacinth is twenty-one going on twelve."
"You amaze me, Francine. Here's a girl, an A student, only one year out of college, and already interning in one of the finest museums in the country. And," he went on, in the proud, earnest tone that a father assumes when he is boasting about an only daughter, "she's an artist! She'll make a name for herself. Wait and see."
"I'm not talking about academics. I'm talking about emotions. Haven't you noticed how she walks around with a smile all the time? I wouldn't be surprised if she was already planning a wedding. Oh, I'd like to ship that fellow to Australia, or Tierra del Fuego, or anyplace."
Hy pulled the desk chair to the window and sat there dumbfounded.
"What have you really got against him, Francine? All right, so you haven't been enthusiastic about him, and that's your privilege, but why so vehement? Why?"
"He'll break her heart, Jim, that's why. Gerald's a chaser. I see it. I feel it in my bones. Right now he's struggling to get ahead, but once there, he'll drop her. I don't trust him. He'll chase after women, and women will chase after him. He's too gorgeous. He ought to be in Hollywood. Hyacinth's no match for that kind of business."
"For God's sake, your imagination is running away with you. He's certainly faithful enough. Three times every week, plus every weekend."
"I don't say he can't be sincere at the moment. It's possible, after a fashion. She certainly has qualities that you don't find everywhere you look. Deep intelligence. Taste. Dignity. And she so obviously adores him. That flatters a man."
"I still say you're making a mountain out of a molehill."
"Jim! I'm talking about humiliation. I'm talking about heartbreak. He's not for her. He's not!"
Hyacinth's heart hammered in her ears. Not for me? What do you know about him, or about me, either? You know nothing about my life.
"She's so good, Jim. A genuinely good human being."
"Yes, yes, that she is."
As clearly as if she had been sitting down there on the porch with them, Hyacinth saw their faces: her father's pale eyes, so much like her own, reflective, looking off into the distance; her mother's darting eyes, bright and blue, with the two vertical lines between them that appeared whenever she was alert or emphatic.
"I don't see it at all, Francine. He's agreeable, well mannered, smart, medical school, medical honorary society. Pretty desirable, if you ask me. And the fact is, I rather like him."
"Yes, he's likable enough. But I tell you again, he's too shrewd for her. She's a total innocent. What does she know about the world? Or about people? The only men she's gone out with are college boys and maybe a couple of artists she's met at her job. And not even many of them. Gerald's taken up practically all of this year."
The best year of my life. The year that's changed my life.
"She's a typical artist, a student, a loner, and always has been."
"A lot of people are artists and students and loners. A lot of remarkable people."
"Yes, and they are often the ones who get hurt the most."
"Well, if you feel this way, why don't you talk to her about it?"
"Talk to her? For all her sweetness, she can still be stubborn as a mule when she wants to be, can't she? Do I have to tell you? How long have we been asking her to stop smoking? And has she stopped? It's odd, too. She doesn't look like the type to go around with a cigarette in her hand."
Should she run downstairs now and confront them with her outrage? But she sat there, unable to move, and waited for more.
Dad spoke quietly. "You're getting yourself all worked up."
"What shall I do? Sit calmly watching a man get what he can out of my child?"
"What do you mean by 'get what he can'? Sex?"
"Who knows? But there are other things besides sex."
Dad persisted. "Such as?"
"Look around. What's bad about this house? Pretty comfortable here, isn't it? He noticed things, too, the few times he was here. He kept looking around. I saw him."
"Well, why wouldn't he be curious? It's only natural. He's lived poor all his life, and he's up to his ears in debt to the university. It's not like you to be so critical. It's not like you to be cynical." There was a sigh in Dad's voice. He hated argument.
"Not cynical. Realistic."
"Let's go inside. The mosquitoes are out."
But Francine was not finished. "Don't be misled by Hy's brains or her energy or her ambition. At heart, she's a bookworm. Give her a book or a new CD, and she's happy. Her wants are simple. She's simple. And that fellow isn't. They don't even like the same things."
Dad laughed. "How much chemistry did you know or like when you married me?"
"That was different. You were Mr. Honorable, Mr. Salt-of-the-Earth. And you still are," Francine said softly. She gave a small, rueful laugh. "She's soft, like you. Not like me, Jim."
"Well, we've been a great combination anyway, haven't we? Come on in with me. This is a big, useless fuss about nothing. Believe me. And even if it were as serious as you say, there wouldn't be anything we could do about it."
Excerpted from After the Fire by Belva Plain. Copyright © 2000 by Belva Plain. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.