Excerpt: Secrets


Cassie had heard that drowning was the easiest form of death. She had no idea how anyone could know that, since whoever said it had lived, but as she drifted down in the deep end of the pool, she decided they were right. She could feel her long hair floating upward, and all weight left her twelve-year-old body. She wasn’t trying to kill herself. No, she was just waiting for him to rescue her. But dying was interesting to think about. What if this really were the end? Smiling, she let her body relax into her thoughts. Never again would she have to hear her mother declare how easy Cassie’s life had been while her mother’s had been so difficult. “We stopped a war!” her mother, Margaret Madden, loved to say, referring to Vietnam. “No one else in history has ever done that!” Until she was ten, Cassie believed that her mother had single-handedly made the president of the United States remove the troops from the war that was never declared to be a war.

But when Cassie was ten, an old college friend of her mother had visited them, and when she’d heard Margaret bawling out her daughter, the friend start­ed laughing. “Maggie,” she said, and Cassie looked up in wonder because no one ever dared to call her mother “Maggie.” “You never left your classes and you told us all that we were idiots to sit around on the grass smoking pot and protesting.”

Needless to say, that was the end of that friend­ship, but it had been an enlightening experience for Cassie. That was when she found out that not every word that came out of her mother’s mouth was the truth. She learned that just because some­one delivered a statement with force and volume, didn’t make it a fact. From that time on, she began to see her mother for what she was: a bully and a tyrant who believed that there was only one way to do anything, and that was the way she had done everything. To her mind, if her daughter wanted to grow up to be a successful person, then she had to conduct herself exactly as Margaret Madden had. That meant going to a top school, getting the best grades, then working her way up to the head of some mega corporation.

One time Cassie asked, “What about a hus­band and children?”

“Don’t get me started,” Margaret said, then said nothing else. But she had piqued Cassie’s curiosi­ty, so she began to secretly listen in on her moth­er’s conversations. Most of the discussions revealed nothing of interest, but one day Cassie had the horror of hearing her mother say that her daugh­ter had been conceived from a one-night stand with a man she hardly knew while she was on a business trip to Hong Kong. “Defective condom,” Margaret had said without a hint of sentimentali­ty. She was so disciplined that she hadn’t realized she was pregnant until she was nearly five months along and it was too late for an abortion. Margaret said she’d done her best to ignore the pregnancy, and that she’d meant to turn the baby over to a childless colleague, but then her boss—the person she most admired—had said he was glad Margaret was going to be raising a child. It made her seem more human. When he gave her a sterling silver rattle from Tiffany, she decided to keep the kid.

As she did with all things, Margaret planned it carefully. She bought a house in upstate New York, hired a live-in housekeeper and a nanny, then turned the child over to them while she stayed in the city and clawed her way to the top.

Cassie saw her mother only on alternate weekends, and had spent most of her life terrified of her.

It was when her mother had been invited to a weeklong seminar at Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Virginia, that Cassie’s life changed. She knew about her mother’s career because Margaret Madden thought it was her duty to inform her daughter how to get ahead in the world. Margaret loved to tell how she had been raised in a middle-class household full of “morons” but that she had “risen above” them. She’d put herself through college, studying busi­ness administration, then got a job as a junior manager with a big office supply chain. In her sixth year there, the company was bought by a fledgling computer business, and Margaret was one of only three upper-employees kept. Within four years she was at the top of that company.

By the time she’d been out of college for fifteen years, she’d been in five corporations and had moved near the head of each one. She was creative and dedicated, and every waking second of her life was given to the company where she worked.

The trip to Williamsburg was to be pivotal. The company where she was second in command was about to be bought by an enormous conglomerate, and at the end of the week she was either going to be jobless or made executive vice president.

The only problem had been that Cassie’s latest nanny had broken her ankle and the housekeeper was on vacation, so there was no one to take care of the child. Margaret had used the inconvenience to her advantage when she’d called her boss and said she so rarely got to see her beloved daughter, could she please take the child with her? The man had been pleasantly impressed and agreed readily.

Cassie and her mother were given one of the many pretty, two-bedroom guest condos, and Cassie had been left on her own. Her mother was busy “making contacts” as she called it, never friends, never anything just for pleasure, so she was unaware of where her daughter was.

It was the first time Cassie had really seen her mother’s colleagues, and for a whole day she’d been fascinated. There were over three hundred people at the conference and within hours they had assembled themselves into little groups where they put their heads together and whispered. When Cassie got near them, she heard “Madden,” then they broke apart. It was as if they thought the girl had been brought there to spy for her mother.

Cassie spent her time wandering about the beautiful resort and watching and listening, some­thing she was good at.

By the second day, she saw that there was one person who seemed to be different from the oth­ers. He was a tall young man with blue eyes, black hair, and a tiny cleft in his chin. She didn’t know who he was or what he did, but he seemed to run the place. The CEOs of the two merging corpora­tions both talked to him. He’d listen, then go away, and later he’d nod toward someone that something had been done.

Cassie thought he was the quiet in the eye of the storm. Tempers were high that week. There were big negotiations of who was going to stay and in what position, and who was leaving. Little cliques of men and women were everywhere, plot­ting and planning.

In the midst of it all was this young man, who was very calm. She watched him step into the middle of angry people, and within seconds, whatever he said to them made them quit shouting. Maybe it was a reaction to her hyper mother, who was always living in the future, constantly schem­ing about the next product that would sell mil­lions, the next takeover, the next position up the ladder, but Cassie really liked this quiet man who could settle others down.

By the third day, Cassie began to study the young man. As much as possible, wherever he went, whatever he did, she was there. When he spoke, she put herself close enough to listen. Several times he turned quickly and winked at her, but he never once addressed her directly, and she was glad. She had no idea what she’d say if he did speak to her. What she liked the most was that he seemed to be at peace with himself and the world. She never once heard him talk about a “five-year plan.”

By the fourth day, she knew she was in love with him, and as a result, her watching of him became more secretive. She hid in bushes as he played tennis and laughed with the other guests. On Saturday when he went sailing, she was near­by when he left and watching when he returned. She saw that every morning he went swimming before it was quite daylight, so early on Sunday, the last day, she waited for him by the pool. The fact that she couldn’t swim very well was, to her mind, an asset. If she did begin to sink, he could save her.

Six came and went but he didn’t show up. Cassie was in the deep end and she was getting tired. She hadn’t had much sleep in the last few days because she’d been keeping vigil over him.

By six thirty, she knew she should get out of the pool. She’d decided he wasn’t going to come, but then she heard voices from the direction of the house and she relaxed. He’d be there soon. She smiled in anticipation as she let her muscles go limp and sunk toward the bottom.

It was never her intention to actually drown, but as she waited for him to come, as she thought about her mother, she forgot about time and place.

The next thing she knew, she opened her eyes and she was being kissed by… him. His lips, his eyes, his chin, his body were all near hers and he was kissing her. Or giving her mouth-to-mouth, which was very nearly the same thing.

“She’s alive!” Cassie heard a woman say, but she couldn’t concentrate because she began coughing up a lot of water.

“Are you all right?” he asked, his hands on her shoulders, holding her as she choked and spit.

Cassie managed to nod that she was fine. As long as he was near her, she was sure that she’d always be all right.

Someone put a towel around her, and she looked up to see a pretty woman kneeling beside her. “You shouldn’t go swimming alone,” she said softly, tenderness in her eyes.

The man looked across Cassie to the woman. It didn’t take much to figure out that they were together, a couple. If Cassie hadn’t still been chok­ing she would have burst into tears. She wanted to shout at the woman that he was hers! Hadn’t she nearly died to prove that?

But Cassie said nothing of what she really thought. Life with her mother had taught her to keep her true feelings and emotions to herself. If people didn’t agree with her mother, there were punishments.

“Don’t tell my mother,” Cassie managed to say at last, looking at him and avoiding the eyes of the woman.

Puzzled, the woman glanced at him.

“Margaret Madden,” he said.

The woman let out her breath in a sympathetic sigh. “I didn’t know ol’ Maggie could have—” She cut off her sentence. “We won’t tell,” she reassured Cassie. “But maybe we should have a doctor look at you.”

“No!” Cassie said, then jumped up to show them that she was all right. But she got dizzy and would have fallen if he hadn’t caught her. For a moment she had the divine pleasure of feeling his arms around her. She was glad she hadn’t died in the pool because if she had, she wouldn’t have felt his lips on hers and his hands on her body.

The woman cleared her throat and he released Cassie.

She backed away, looking at them. They were a beautiful couple, the woman tall like he was, with her dark hair cut short and close to her head. She had on a swimsuit that showed off her long, lean, athletic body. She also probably played tennis and swam. She would never drown, Cassie thought, backing away from them. She was embarrassed now and afraid they’d ask why she was in the pool alone if she couldn’t swim very well.

“I, uh… I have to go,” she mumbled, then turned and ran toward the house. Behind her, she heard the man’s baritone voice say something. The woman said, “Hush! She obviously has a crush on you and she deserves respect.” Cassie heard the man say, “She’s just a kid. She can’t—”

Cassie heard no more. She wanted to die from the humiliation and embarrassment. She couldn’t will herself to die, but she could stay in her room for the rest of the day.

She and her mother left the resort that evening, but while her mother said her farewells, Cassie had skulked in the corners, fearful of running into him again, afraid he and his girlfriend would laugh at her. She didn’t see them. But as soon as she and her mother got into the company car, her mother launched into a lecture about how she’d been embarrassed by Cassie’s rudeness. “You’ll never achieve anything if you don’t put yourself forward,” Margaret said. “Lurking about in the shadows will achieve nothing. It’s possible, even probable, that someday you’ll be asking one of those people for a job. You should see that they remember you.”

Cassie kept her head turned away. Her heart nearly stopped when she saw them strolling across the lawn, hand in hand. She was sure they’d already forgotten the child who had nearly drowned just that morning.

“Him!” Margaret said, looking at the handsome young couple. “He’s part of the security hired for this meeting and he stuck his nose in where it didn’t belong!” she said, a look of disgust on her face. “He told a senior VP that if he didn’t contain his anger, he’d have to leave. I don’t know who he thinks he is, but—“

“Shut up,” Cassie said, her voice calm and quiet, but fierce. It was the first time in her life that she’d stood up to her overbearing mother. Cassie had survived because she’d figured out the meaning of “passive-aggressive” when she was three. But now she couldn’t bear for her mother to say something against him.

As they drove by, he raised his hand to her and smiled. Cassie smiled back and lifted her hand in return. Then the car turned a curve in the road and they were out of sight.

Margaret started with, “How dare you—” but when she caught the look on Cassie’s young face, she stopped talking and picked up her briefcase from the floor.

When Cassie glanced up, the driver was look­ing at her in the rearview mirror and smiling. He was proud of her for telling Margaret Madden to back off.

Cassie turned to look out the window, and she smiled too. She wasn’t sure what had happened but she knew that the week had changed her life.