Nine hours before the police arrived, Anthony Winter stood, barefooted and wild, on the narrow front porch of the house he shared with his mother. The painted wooden planks were damp and cool beneath his feet, but he hardly noticed. In his right hand he held a fallen maple leaf up to a sun that was just breaking the horizon. In his left he held his phone. He squinted at the leaf, marveling at its deep blood-orange color, amazed and happy that nature could make such a thing from what had, only a few weeks earlier, been emerald green, and before that, deep lime, and before that, a tight, tiny bundle of a bud on a spindly limb, waving in a North Carolina spring breeze. He’d always been an observant person; he hadn’t always been so romantic. Amelia brought it out in him. She brought it out in everybody.
When she answered his call, Amelia’s voice was lazy with sleep. It was a Monday, her day to sleep a little later than she could the rest of the week. Tuesday through Friday, she rose at five thirty to get homework done before her three-mile run, which came before the 8:50 start of their Ravenswood Academy school day. At three o’clock was dance—ballet, modern, jazz—then voice lessons twice a week at five; often there was some play’s rehearsal after that, and then, if her eyelids weren’t drooping like the dingy shades in her voice teacher’s living room, she might start on her homework. But more often she would sneak out of her astonishing house to spend a stolen hour with him. With Anthony. The man (she loved to call him that, now that he’d turned eighteen) with whom she intended to spend all of her future life, and then, if God was good to them, eternity to follow.
Seeing Amelia and Anthony together, you would never have guessed they were destined for anything other than a charmed future, and possibly greatness. Perhaps Amelia had, as her father was fond of saying, emerged from the womb coated in stardust. And maybe it was also true what Anthony’s mother claimed: that her son had been first prize in the cosmic lottery, and she’d won. They were, separately, well tended and adored. Together, they were a small but powerful force of nature. Love makes that of people, sometimes.
That morning, nine hours and perhaps five minutes before his arrest, Anthony stood on the narrow front porch with a leaf and a phone in his chilly hands. Amelia was saying, “I dreamt of us,” in a suggestive voice that stirred him, inside and out. He heard his mother coming downstairs, so he pulled the front door closed. Unlike the rest of his school’s faculty, she knew about Amelia and him; in her way, she approved. Still, he preferred to keep his conversations private. There were certain things even an approving mother wouldn’t want to hear. Certain things he absolutely did not want her to know.
At 8:35 that morning, Amelia parked her car in the student lot and sat with the engine running, keeping warm until Anthony arrived as well. She was still smiling with her recollection of his words, spoken softly as she’d swum up out of sleep and into the day. He’d quoted her Shakespeare:
No sooner met, but they looked;
No sooner looked but they loved;
No sooner loved but they sighed;
No sooner sighed but they asked one another the reason;
No sooner knew the reason but they sought the remedy.
She knew the lines by heart. She had been Rosalind, he Orlando, in last year’s school production of As You Like It. And while the lines were Rosalind’s, about her cousin’s love for Orlando’s brother, this was, after all, their story, in verse.
No sooner looked but they loved.
Love at first sight. Amelia, sixteen when it struck, a focused high school junior whose romantic experience with boys was tenuous and limited, hadn’t believed it could happen to someone like her. But as with anything that a person dismisses and then experiences in full force—a hurricane, the Lord, a visit from a ghost—she was converted instantaneously. With her heart pierced as surely as Shakespeare’s lovers’ had been, she became Immediate Love’s happy evangelist—quietly, though. Selectively, so that her father would not find out and ruin everything.
Whenever her most trusted girlfriends heard her talk about seeing Anthony across the stage at auditions, of falling for him before he’d even spoken a single word, the girls gravitated toward her like she was fire and they were chilled travelers of a hopeless, barren snowscape. Oh, to be loved. To have love, true love, not the pistol-in-my-pocket variety they were offered all too often. Or worse: the lurid, online-porn-fed ambitions of the most heinous of their rich-boy classmates, whose ideal woman was an oversexed Lady Gaga in fishnet and pasties. No. To be Amelia, who had Anthony, that was the dream these girls nurtured. Anthony was passionate. A nonconformist. Perhaps best of all, Anthony was a secret.
They were sure Amelia’s father, Harlan Wilkes, would kill her, or maybe Anthony, or maybe both of them, if he found out Amelia was not just dating someone he disapproved of but was, in planning a future with Anthony Winter, deceiving her father in every possible way. The girls talked about Amelia’s risky love with dewy, faraway expressions, with smiles and sighs. They trailed Anthony like ladies of the court, always respectful of Amelia’s claim on him but, at the same time, always angling to be the one he might turn to should anything ever go wrong.
Sitting there in the parking lot, Amelia watched car after car—many of them luxury models bought from her father’s franchises—pull into the lot and park while the heater’s air warmed her skirt-bared legs. Save for the pleasure of seeing Anthony, she didn’t want to spend yet another day at Ravenswood. She’d been attending school there on the forested, esteemed campus since she was four years old. The buildings and grounds, the sports fields, the stadium, the teachers and staff, the classrooms, the gym—nothing seemed to have changed in all that time. There were new students every year, yes, but they were, for the most part, replicas of all the students who had come before them, and models for the ones who would come after. Amelia knew the word for her feelings: ennui. She knew the remedy, too: escape.
No sooner knew the reason but they sought the remedy. These days she lived that line, though it had given her trouble when they’d first been rehearsing the play. “The remedy,” Ms. Fitz, their director, had explained, “for the reason for their sighs. Oliver and Celia are desperate to sleep together, so their solution is to marry the next day and scratch that itch, so to speak.” What Amelia and Anthony plotted was a remedy for the pretty ribbon-wrapped life her father insisted should be her future—a future that didn’t include anyone remotely like Anthony. No intellectuals of any kind (“Too much thinking, not enough doing,” Harlan Wilkes was known to say). No tall, lean, black-haired young man with curls framing his heart-shaped face, a face that made one think, Italian, or possibly Jewish, or, depending on one’s familiarity with the wider world, Jordanian. Anthony could be any of these, could play all of them—that, Amelia thought, was part of his brilliance onstage.
Kim Winter, his pale-skinned, ginger-haired mother and one of Amelia’s favorite teachers, had lent only her hazel eyes; the rest of Anthony’s features owed to his father’s contribution, the only thing the man had contributed before running out on his wife and unborn son, claiming that he’d made a mistake with marriage and a bigger one with fatherhood. Fortunately, Anthony inherited his mother’s capacity to soldier on—which is not to say Kim and Anthony were unaffected. When Anthony got moody he sometimes talked about how he would show his absent father how well he could do without him, how his father’s rejection was no loss but rather a favor, as useful to him as the Andalusian heritage responsible for their looks.
His mother, native to upstate New York, where Anthony had lived until he was ten, was part Russian Jew, part Irish Catholic, part Canadian Quebecer, with a dose of Iroquois added in a few generations back. Heritage mattered, but it was not and should not be allowed to become everything. “On est tous dans le même bain,” she often told her French class students, Amelia included. We are all in the same boat. She also reminded them that “Borders are arbitrary, man-made things.” And then there was the one Amelia liked best: “Question authority.” That was the kind of adage Amelia needed, to help give her the courage to live her own life.
Anthony’s mother was popular with the Ravenswood students, who signed up for her art or French classes even if they weren’t especially talented in either subject. Amelia, en route to school for first-quarter parent-teacher-student conferences last year, had told her parents this. “It’s not that she gives easy A’s or doesn’t assign homework. She’s just . . . cool.” This was a few weeks before Amelia met Anthony, at a time when she’d only heard him spoken of, sometimes in unfavorable tones. He’d started there as a junior, when Ms. Winter got hired on, and so he was a mystery to those who, like Amelia, had been there forever. Her fellow students weren’t sure how to classify him; he didn’t fit into any of the cliques. Not a jock. Not a prep. Not a stoner. Not goth. He was said to be smart, but quiet—not nerdy, though. More like the kind of guy you’d see in an Apple ad. His eyelashes were so thick and dark that even an innocent glance could seem sultry. The students couldn’t peg him, so they disparaged him—the girls halfheartedly because, after all, he was hot; there was no other word for it. When Amelia finally did see him, love him, meet him, she categorized him simply as Anthony.
Driving home from the school after conferring with Amelia’s teachers, Harlan Wilkes had said, “Nothing against you, Ladybug, but I don’t see what’s so special about that Ms. Winter.”
“She seemed very nice,” Amelia’s mother said. She turned to Amelia, who was riding in the backseat. “I noticed she doesn’t wear a wedding ring.”
“She says she’s keeping her options open.” Amelia admired Ms. Winter’s positive attitude about being single and hoped it would rub off on her. Yes, Amelia had been only sixteen at the time, and a long way from having to face spinsterhood (if they even called it that these days), but she was fairly convinced that no man would love her once her faults were known. She thought she’d do well to accept that fate. Some things just weren’t attainable by determination and hard work.
Her father said, “Keeping her options open? At her age?”
“She’s not that old. You’re older than she is,” Amelia said.
“And I’m married, and have been for twenty years.”
“Well, I think she’s great.” That night Kim Winter had been dressed in wide-legged aubergine trousers and a cream knit turtleneck, with a vibrant watered-silk scarf tied around her neck. Amelia admired everything about her, including her style.
Her father said, “Sure, she’s ‘great,’ if you think ‘great’ is being a single, middle-aged art teacher and making, what, thirty grand a year.” He glanced at Amelia over his shoulder. “And you wonder why I’m pushing you to go to school for business.”
She didn’t wonder. She knew he simply didn’t understand. His world, the business of selling import cars, was not about art or beauty or magic. He indulged her interests, true, but only because he viewed them as extracurriculars, no different than her running track, or joining Drama Guild and French Club. She would have to wait until she was on her own, independent, and then she’d live the life she wanted. She’d be privileged to end up like Ms. Winter if it meant she was doing the things she loved.
In the year that had passed since that evening, nothing had changed in her father’s way of thinking. Amelia’s thinking had changed, though, and once she turned eighteen in February, she would tell her parents in exactly which ways. She’d reveal her plan to move with Anthony to New York City, where they would both, if they got in, go to New York University for drama, and at the same time pursue Broadway careers. She longed to tell them now; it pained her to keep her feelings and her plans a secret. She knew, though, how they would react, and so the best strategy was to delay until it became a fait accompli, an unchangeable fact.
Amelia saw Anthony’s aging Mini Cooper trailing Brandt Wilson’s new Infiniti, and shut off her car’s engine. Cameron McGuiness, her most faithful friend since their first days of kindergarten, spotted her from across the lot and waved. Cameron knew not to stop to talk in the morning, knew the few minutes Amelia would have with Anthony before class were a precious commodity. Amelia leaned her head against the leather-covered headrest and sighed. Summer could not come soon enough.
Given his way, her father would see her married off on the Saturday following her college graduation (from any top Southern school, but preferably Duke) in a huge white wedding that included, of course, a ridiculously expensive white dress that would be complemented by an engagement diamond so heavy that she’d struggle to raise her left hand. A ring that would have been presented to her some tasteful number of months earlier (meaning, more than nine) by a twenty-first century version of Barbie’s Ken. Ken would wear a tux he owned, bought with his substantial income working in some first-rate white-collar field. There would be no Broadway career, only Broadway tickets—a torturous scenario to Amelia, who imagined the gut-wrenching envy she’d experience sitting in the audience watching other women live out the dream she’d been too softhearted and obedient to pursue. Her future could so easily have gone that way, if not for Anthony.
Amelia’s smile, which had faded with the negative thoughts, reappeared when she saw Anthony walking toward her car. He, with his luxurious hair, his full lips, his quick wit, his quiet assurance, was her savior. He’d made her believe not only that she should claim her future for herself when the time came, but that she truly would. Her father did not own her. No man did. Whatever she would do, wherever she would go, it would all be on her terms.
“Hello, beautiful,” Anthony said as Amelia opened her door and got out. She smiled. The thrill of him, of his love for her, her and not someone else, someone whose childhood had not been spent hiding a shameful flaw, delighted her.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Exposure by Therese Fowler. Copyright © 2011 by Therese Fowler. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, 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.