Madison Allen lived in an old brick firehouse in the West Village in downtown New York, a few blocks east of the Hudson River. The firehouse was a hundred years old. It had been a departure for Maddie, after living on the Upper East Side most of her life. She had raised her three children in a comfortable although not luxurious apartment, in a serious-looking prewar building. Buying the firehouse downtown had been an act of independence for her, and it had become a labor of love. She had bought it fifteen years before, when her youngest child, Milagra, had left for college. Her older two, Deanna and Ben, were twenty and twenty-one when she bought it, and still came home for school holidays. Two years later, they had moved into their own apartments, and never came home to live again after they had graduated.
Deanna moved in an apartment in Chelsea and got a job as an assistant designer for a successful contemporary fashion brand that was popular with young women. She had gone to Parsons School of Design and had real talent. She was fiercely competitive with other designers and single-minded with her love of fashion, always focused on her own success. She was less intellectual than her brother and sister. Ben, her younger brother, had a keen instinct for business and had done well. Milagra, the youngest, had been writing since she was fifteen, and her first novel was published by the time she was nineteen. All three of Maddie’s children were very different from each other, with their interests in design, business, and literature. Unlike her younger siblings, Deanna had a killer instinct.
After graduating from Berkeley, Ben had decided to stay in San Francisco, in the world of start-ups. He swore he’d never come back to New York to live, and he hadn’t. He loved the outdoors, California life, and the high-tech world. He was a kind and loving person, a good husband and father, and caring son, although Maddie seldom saw him, and rarely contacted any of them. She didn’t want to intrude on them now that they were adults, and most of the time waited to hear from them. Sometimes it was a long wait, so she called them. But she held out as long as she could.
Milagra had gone to UCLA, taken postgraduate writing classes at Stanford, and moved to Mendocino in northern California. She needed isolation to write her books, and silence. So Maddie heard from her the least often.
Maddie would have rattled around her old apartment alone, like a marble in a shoebox, if she’d stayed there. When she moved downtown, her children had been shocked, and objected strenuously. They felt awkward in their mother’s new and somewhat unusual home. But she was firm about it and knew it was right for her at the time and they would adjust to it eventually. And as she knew they would, they grew up and left.
The firehouse still had its original brass pole that the firemen had used to slide down. She had someone come in to polish it every few months, and had tried sliding down it once herself. It was scary and exciting and fun, though she had come down faster than she’d expected. Buying the firehouse had been a happy event for her, and a new adventure. She’d loved it then and still did.
And the statement she made with the move was not as harsh as her children had claimed or feared. There were four floors, with two good-sized rooms and a smaller one that shared a bathroom on the top floor and were set up as bedrooms for Ben, Deanna, and Milagra whenever they wanted to come home. They had hardly ever used them, and now, fifteen years later, never stayed there at all.
With a successful start-up to his credit in his life as a young entrepreneur, Ben had no time to come home. After he sold the business and started a second one, he was even busier. He had a knack for discovering a need that no one else had thought of, and capitalizing on it. Married now, at thirty-five, with three children of his own, Willie, Charlie, and Olive, six, five, and three, he rarely came to New York, and stayed at a hotel when he did. His wife, Laura, was from Grosse Pointe, a suburb of Detroit, and had friends and relatives in Chicago, but she came no farther east than that.
They had full and busy lives in San Francisco, and a beautiful house with a spectacular view of the city in Belvedere, a tiny island of high-priced real estate in Marin County, twenty minutes from San Francisco. They were so heavily scheduled between Ben’s work, the social schedule Laura arranged for them, and all the activities for the children that it was never a good time for Maddie to come out, even for a brief visit. The few times she had she’d felt like an intruder. Her grandchildren scarcely knew her. She saw them once or twice a year for a few days, and could barely keep up with their after-school activities, computer lessons, karate, soccer, swimming classes, and ballet for Olive, along with their constant playdates and the other activities their mother organized for them. Laura kept everyone busy, and successfully kept Maddie at bay, although Maddie never complained. Her son was happy, which was good enough for her. She would have liked to see more of him, and to live in the same city, but it hadn’t worked out that way. Maddie was generous about it. She always tried to be tolerant of their differences from her, and had encouraged them to follow their dreams, and be independent.
She had sensed on the day of the wedding that she had lost Ben to his new in-laws. Ben and Laura spent Christmas in Grosse Pointe with Laura’s parents, and her siblings and their children. Her parents’ home on the Big Island in Hawaii was an easy vacation spot for all of them. Ben and his family went there for most school holidays, or to Mexico, or Aspen. Nothing Maddie had to offer could compete. She had no country home, and a busy work life herself. They could have stayed at the firehouse with her in New York, but she recognized that, as Ben’s family grew rapidly, it would have been too cramped, even dangerous for such young children, with the narrow circular metal staircase and the fire pole. She was hoping to get them to New York on their own when they were older, but that wouldn’t be for a long time. And Laura’s goal in the meantime was to be important in the San Francisco social scene and show off her husband’s success. There was no time or room for Maddie in all that.
Milagra lived in an entirely different universe from Ben, in windswept, foggy, rugged Mendocino. She had bought a small crumbling Victorian house after she sold her second book, and she restored the house herself. She never drove the three or four hours to San Francisco. She wrote eerie, haunting gothic novels, which weren’t bestsellers but enjoyed a steady, moderate success, enough for her to live comfortably. She had a solid following of faithful readers who loved her books. Her work was dark and strange, and her isolated life in Mendocino suited her. She had started writing at fifteen and had nearly been a recluse ever since. Milagra didn’t need people around her to be happy. In fact, she preferred her solitude so she could write. Even a friendly phone call felt like an intrusion to her, so she didn’t give anyone her number, and called no one. Most of her contact with her mother was by email, when her internet was working. She had internet access where she lived, most of the time, but poor cellphone reception, which suited her perfectly. She was always working on a book, and at thirty-three she lived alone, with three large dogs and two stray cats. She hardly ever saw her brother, but emailed him from time to time. She never wrote to Deanna. They were just too different. She hadn’t been to New York in six years, since she’d bought her house. Maddie visited her whenever Milagra was between books and allowed her to.
Milagra had gotten her name when Maddie had almost lost her several times before she was born. They named her “Miracle” in Spanish. She was a solitary person whose life was her work. She had nothing in common with Ben and his wife, Laura, and Milagra always told her mother that they had nothing to say to each other when they met. She had even less in common with her older sister, Deanna, who was hardworking, hard-driving, and fully engaged in the fast-paced world of fashion in New York. Milagra had always thought her sister aggressive, and said she scared her. Deanna had bullied her as a child and ordered her around, always convinced that she knew best. Deanna had always called Milagra “the weird one.”
Deanna was married to David Harper, the executive editor of a highly respected publishing house. As a designer, Deanna made more money than he did, and she added glamour to his life. She had always had a sharp edge, even as a child, and an equally sharp tongue. But she and David were a good match. She ran their life together and her career with an iron hand. They had two daughters, Lily, seven, and Kendra, nine, and Deanna was as ambitious for them as she was for herself. They went to one of the best private schools in New York, and were just as busy as Ben’s children with after-school activities. Kendra was serious about ballet, and Lily took hip-hop lessons. They both took violin and piano. Deanna had their lives carefully mapped out.
Copyright © 2019 by Danielle Steel. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.