If the gray clouds in the sky had not suddenly split apart and released an explosion of rain, Jewel Fairchild would have chosen to walk back to the train station on the shady road between two walls of green shrubs and trees. It was really amazing that such peace and quiet could exist not many miles from the crowded streets where she lived and worked. But had this entire day not been amazing?
Cassandra Wright, the owner and CEO of Wright Glassworks, had been riding her horse and, having come too close to a fence post, had hurt her leg. She would have to stay at home for a few days—an unheard-of occurrence at the Glassworks, where her dawn-to-dusk work ethic was legendary. Her efficient secretary had spent most of the day on the phone, as Mrs. Wright was directing the business from her home. (Even though Cassandra had been married twice, she insisted on being called Mrs. Wright because Wright was the name of her ancestors and her business, and the politically correct Ms. was way too trendy for her taste.) When it was discovered late in the afternoon that an important paper required the CEO’s signature, Jewel, who was a receptionist at the Glassworks, had been summoned by her supervisor and told to hand-deliver the document to Mrs. Wright’s home. Although to call the place a “home” was to understate so totally the grandeur, the dreamlike otherworldliness of it, it was almost funny.
Of course Jewel had known that Mrs. Wright and her family wouldn’t live in a hut, but she’d never seen anything like what she’d seen today. Now, as she leaned her head back on the seat of the car in which the Wright family gardener was driving her back to town, she went back over every moment of the last few hours, trying to fix them in her memory forever.
First there had been the train trip out of Wrightstown, the busy city that was named for the glassworks that gave it its reason for being. Cassandra Wright didn’t live near her business—of course not. She lived out in the country where the air was pure and the nights were quiet. There was a special spur off the main train track with a station at the end that serviced the area. Jewel had walked from the train station—it hadn’t started raining yet—and after about fifteen minutes, she’d approached a big white house gleaming in the gray gloom of the day.
Inside the house everything gleamed too. A woman who identified herself as the housekeeper had answered the door and led Jewel into the foyer, where she had a quick impression of glossy furniture, silk, crystal, and photographs in silver frames. Light sparkled from a chandelier above her; on a wall opposite a sweeping staircase there was a huge painting by some artist with a French name. The housekeeper had said the name, but Jewel had been too busy taking in all the splendor to register it.
The housekeeper led her through a series of hallways and rooms—more rooms than anybody would think one family could use. In the main hall a clock chimed like music. A rare treasure this clock was, according to the housekeeper. But by then Jewel was beginning to realize that the word “treasure” described everything in this place.
At first she was too overwhelmed to do more than stare. But slowly, a need started to grow inside her to touch what she was seeing. As the housekeeper hurried her along, she dug a foot into the carpet to feel the depth of the silky nap; she allowed a finger to trace the back of a richly brocaded chair. If she could have, Jewel would have inhaled all of it; she would have done anything, anything to take all this gleaming beauty inside herself, to own it, just for one second.
* * *
There was only one object in the place that did not seem to gleam. Actually, she wasn’t an object, she was a young girl, and she was sitting on a sofa reading a book. She, her book, and the sofa were all in the library, which was where the housekeeper had brought Jewel.
“You can wait in here and I’ll get Mrs. Wright . . . ,” she’d started to say to Jewel, but the girl had looked up and the housekeeper had realized that they were not alone. “Oh, I’m sorry to disturb you, Miss Gwen, I didn’t see you there,” she said. The girl didn’t seem surprised that she’d been overlooked. “This is a person from the glassworks come to give your mother a paper to sign,” the housekeeper went on. “I’ll put her in the sitting room.”
“It’s all right,” the girl said. “Let her stay.” Her voice was light and soft and there was a trace of something in it that Jewel wanted to say was snooty. She looked at the girl; this was Gwendolyn Wright, Cassandra Wright’s daughter—her adopted daughter. In Wrightstown, the fact that Queen Cassandra had adopted this girl made her something of a celebrity, or at the very least, an object of curiosity.
It only took Jewel a second to pass judgment on her. “Miss Gwen,” she decided, was dull. Her face wasn’t exactly homely, but it was just like the faces that you see on the street when you walk around a city or go to a mall, and would not recognize if you were to see them again. Her hair was red, but not a vibrant shade, it was rather washed-out. Her eyes were a nondescript brown. The only bright things about her were the gold bracelet glinting on one arm and the gold wristwatch on the other. She looked up at Jewel and nodded. “I’m sure Mother will be along any minute,” she said. She hesitated as if she was going to say something more, then changed her mind. Two pink spots flared in her cheeks and she looked down at her hands which were folded in her lap. And there her gaze stayed, while the silence in the room grew from being merely uncomfortable to downright insulting.She didn’t even offer me a glass of water! Jewel thought indignantly. I may not have been raised in a big house with clocks that are treasures and pictures that were painted by people whose names you can’t pronounce, but even I know that’s no way to treat a visitor in your home. Where are her manners?
As if she’d heard the unspoken rebuke the girl finally looked up. “Please sit down,” she said. She smiled awkwardly.She’s shy
, Jewel thought. So shy she’s tongue-tied
. The realization was a surprise. The girl was wearing hundreds, maybe even thousands, of dollars’ worth of jewelry, and she lived in a palace! How could you be shy with all of that? But the two pink spots had now turned crimson and were spreading across Gwen Wright’s plain face.I guess it’s up to me to help us out
. Jewel smiled her own wide, welcoming smile; she had a beautiful mouth and perfect teeth and she knew how to use them. A picture of the face she saw each day in the mirror flashed through her mind. Unlike Gwen Wright’s drab tresses, her own hair was a shimmering mass of ebony waves. Her wide blue eyes—really they were closer to violet—were fringed with thick lashes, her complexion was porcelain white, her nose was as beautiful as her mouth, and as for her figure . . . well, let’s just say she’d never had any trouble attracting boys. Her beauty was her talisman, which was why it always came to mind when she needed extra confidence. Not that she needed any at all to talk to this dull, tongue-tied girl who was glancing longingly at the book good manners had forced her to put aside.
“What are you reading?” Jewel asked, to break the ice.
“Le Petit Prince
by Saint-Exupéry.” She pronounced it with the same nasal accent the housekeeper had used when say-ing the name of the artist who had painted the picture in the foyer.
“That’s French, isn’t it?” Gwen nodded. “Do you speak it?” Another nod. Jewel was starting to get annoyed. She was willing to do her best to keep a conversation going, but a little help from Miss Gwen would have been nice. After all, she was the one who had had all the advantages—she even spoke French, for heaven’s sake! But it was as if it was Jewel’s job to smooth things over for her, and it was Gwen’s right to be taken care of. Jewel was willing to bet she got away with this kind of thing all the time.
Then miracle of miracles, the mute one spoke. “I’m going to Paris, you see, so I need to bone up on my French. Hence Exupéry.”
Her lack of enthusiasm made Jewel even more annoyed. I’ve never been anywhere, not even to Boston or New York; she’s going to Paris and she looks miserable about it.
“I know I should be excited.” Gwen seemed to read her mind again. “But the thing is, I’m going with Mother.”
And that did explain some of Gwen’s attitude. Jewel had a brief but vivid vision of the formidable Mrs. Wright, whose every instruction at the glassworks was carried out with every t
crossed and every i
dotted. The instructions were always graciously given, but they were obeyed in record time because no one could imagine what might happen if they weren’t. Mrs. Wright was a stickler for order at home too, as everyone in town knew from her servants’ gossip. Jewel tried to imagine what it would be like to take a trip with a woman who insisted that her mail must be sorted in a tray by the time she walked in the door from work, whose Christmas presents were wrapped and ready to be delivered by December first. Her decorations consisted of one wreath that was hung on her front door and one electric candle that was placed in the front window because, as she had famously decreed, more would be vulgar. No, Cassandra Wright would not be an easy traveling companion. On the other hand, she was taking her daughter on the trip of a lifetime! So what if she was a stickler for order and punctuality. Jewel would have put up with a lot more than that for a chance to see Paris!
“I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time,” Jewel said politely. “Paris should be very . . . interesting.”
“Oh, yes,” Gwen said. “The trip will definitely be interesting.” And for the first time Jewel thought she saw a spark of humor in the nondescript brown eyes. It vanished the next moment when Mrs. Wright entered the room.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Crossroads by Belva Plain. Copyright © 2008 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.