The sounds of the office Christmas party drifted into Kait Whittier’s office through the partially open door. She paid no attention to it as she sat bent over her computer, trying to finish the last of her work before the Christmas break. It was Friday afternoon, Christmas was on Monday, and the offices of Woman’s Life magazine would be closed until after New Year’s. She wanted to get her column in before she left, and she had lots to do before two of her children came home on Sunday morning to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with her.
But for now, her entire focus was on what she was writing. It was for the March issue of the magazine, but the time of year didn’t matter. She tried to keep her subjects of general interest to women, about the difficult issues they dealt with, at home, in their relationships and marriages, with their kids, or in the workplace. The column she wrote was called “Tell Kait,” and it was hard for her to believe she had been writing it for nineteen years. She responded to some letters directly, on particularly sensitive personal subjects, and included others in the column that were of broader scope.
She was often cited as an expert, and invited to be on panels about women’s issues, or to appear on TV shows on all the major networks. She had majored in journalism in college and went on to get a master’s in journalism at Columbia. And a few years after she started writing the column, in order to gain greater credibility and insight, she had gotten a master’s in psychology at NYU, and it had served her well. The column was at the front of the magazine now, and many people bought Woman’s Life primarily to read her. What had originally been referred to as her “agony column” in editorial meetings was now a huge success and treated with dignity and seriousness, as she was. And best of all, she loved what she did and found it rewarding.
In recent years, she had added a blog to her repertoire that included excerpts from her column. She had thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook, and had contemplated writing an advice book, but hadn’t done it so far. She was mindful of walking the fine line of not overtly giving delicate advice that would leave the magazine open to lawsuits or herself to being charged with practicing medicine without a license. Her responses were intelligent, carefully thought out, sensible, wise, and full of common sense, the kind of advice one would hope to get from a smart, concerned mother, which she was in her private life with her three children, now grown up. They had been very young when she began writing at Woman’s Life, as an entry path into the world of women’s magazines.
She had really wanted to work at Harper’s Bazaar or Vogue, and agreed to write the women’s advice column as a stopgap while she waited for a more glamorous position to open up elsewhere. Instead she had discovered her niche and her own strengths, and had fallen in love with what she was doing. It was perfect because she could do the work from home when she needed to and went into the office for editorial meetings and to deliver her finished columns. When her children were young, it was a schedule that allowed her a lot of leeway to spend time with. And now she was free to be in the office more, although she did much of her work by email. She had faced many of the problems herself that her readers wrote to her about. Her fans were legion and the magazine had been quick to realize that they had a gold mine on their hands. Kait could do whatever she wanted at Woman’s Life, and they trusted her gut instincts, which had been infallible so far.
Kaitlin Whittier came from an aristocratic Old Guard New York family, although she was discreet about it, and had never traded on that fact. And her upbringing had been unusual enough to give her an interesting perspective on life at an early age. She was no stranger to family problems, or the vicissitudes of human nature and the disappointments and dangers that even blue blood couldn’t protect you from. She was fifty-four years old, with striking good looks. She had red hair, green eyes, and she dressed simply but had a style of her own. She wasn’t afraid to voice her opinions, no matter how unpopular they were, and she was willing to fight for what she believed in. She was a combination of courageous and quiet, dedicated to her career yet devoted to her children, modest yet strong.
In nineteen years, she had survived the transitions of several regimes at the magazine. She kept her focus on her column and never played political games. Her attitude had won the respect of management. She was unique, and so was her column. Even her colleagues loved to read it, and were surprised to find many of their own challenges addressed there as well. There was a universal quality to what she wrote. She was fascinated by people and their relationships, and spoke about them eloquently, with a touch of humor now and then, without offending her readers.
“Still working?” Carmen Smith asked as she poked her head in the door. She was Hispanic, a native New Yorker, and had been a successful model a dozen years before. She was married to a British photographer she’d fallen in love with when she modeled for him, although their marriage was turbulent and they had separated several times. She was the magazine’s beauty editor. She was a few years younger than Kait, and they were good friends at the office, although they never got together outside work, their home lives were very different. Carmen ran with a racier, arty crowd. “Why am I not surprised? Figured I’d find you here when I didn’t see you falling into the eggnog or rum punch with everyone else.”
“I can’t afford to drink,” Kait said, grinning without looking up as she checked the punctuation of the response she had just written to a woman in Iowa who was being emotionally abused by her husband. Kait had sent her an individual response as well, not wanting her to wait three months to see her concerns addressed in the column. She had advised the woman to consult an attorney and her physician, and be honest with her adult children about what her husband was doing to her. Abuse was always a hot topic to Kait, which she never failed to take seriously, and this time was no different. “Ever since that electric facial you tried out on me, I think I’ve been losing brain cells,” she said to Carmen. “I’ve had to give up drinking to compensate for it.” Carmen laughed and glanced at her apologetically.
“Yeah, I know, it gave me a headache, and they took it off the market last month. But it was worth a try.” The two women had made a pact ten years before, when Carmen turned forty, never to have plastic surgery, and had stuck to it so far, although Kait accused Carmen of cheating because she got Botox shots. “Besides, you don’t need it,” Carmen continued. “I would hate you for it if we weren’t friends. I’m the one who’s not supposed to need any help, with olive skin. Instead, I’m starting to look like my grandfather, who is currently ninety-seven, and you’re the only redhead I know with fair skin and no wrinkles, and you don’t own a moisturizer. You’re a disgusting person. Why don’t you come and join the rest of the office getting smashed around the punch bowl? You can finish the column later.”
“I just did,” Kait said as she hit the send button to email the piece to the editor in chief. She swiveled in her chair to face her friend. “I have to buy a Christmas tree tonight. I didn’t have time last weekend. I’ve got to put it up and decorate it. The kids are arriving Sunday. I only have tonight and tomorrow to get the decorations up and wrap the presents, so I can’t hang around the punch bowl.”
“Tom and Steph,” Kait responded.
Carmen didn’t have children, and had never wanted them. She said her husband acted like a child, and one was enough, whereas Kait’s children had always been vitally important to her and were the center of her world when they were younger.
Kait’s oldest, Tom, was more traditional than his two sisters, and his goal had been a career in business from his earliest years. He had met his wife, Maribeth, at business school at Wharton, and they had married young. She was the daughter of a fast food king in Texas, a financial genius who had made literally billions, and owned the largest chain of fast food restaurants in the South and Southwest. He had one daughter and had always longed for a son, and had welcomed Tommy with open arms and taken him under his wing. He brought him into the business when Tom and Maribeth got married after grad school. She was smart as a whip, worked in marketing in her father’s empire, and they had two daughters, who were four and six and looked like little angels. The youngest had her father and grandmother’s red hair and was the liveliest of the two. The older one looked like her mother, a pretty blonde. And Kait hardly ever saw them.
Tom and his wife were so active and involved in Maribeth’s father’s life that Tom only saw his mother in New York for lunch or dinner when he was in town on business trips, and for major holidays. He was part of his wife’s world now, more than Kait’s. But he was obviously happy and had made a fortune of his own, thanks to the opportunities his father-in-law had shared with him. It was hard to compete with that, or even find room in his life for her now. Kait accepted it with grace and was happy for him, although she missed him. She’d gone to see them in Dallas several times, but she always felt like an intruder in their busy life. Aside from work in his father-in-law’s fast food empire, Tom and Maribeth were engaged with philanthropic activities, their two daughters, and their community, and he traveled constantly for business. He loved his mother but had little time to see her. He was on his way to a success of his own, and she was proud of him.
Candace, her second child, was twenty-nine, and had chosen a different path, as the middle child. Possibly to get attention, she had always been drawn to high-risk pursuits, and danger in various forms. She had spent her junior year in college in London, and never came back. She had gotten a job at the BBC and worked her way up to producing documentaries for them. She shared her mother’s passion for defending women struggling from abuse in their cultures. She had worked on several stories in the Middle East and underdeveloped countries in Africa, and had caught various diseases in the process, but thought the hazards of her job well worth it. She was frequently in war-torn countries, but she felt it crucial to put a spotlight on the situations women were in, and was willing to risk her own life on their behalf. She had survived a hotel bombing and a crash of a small plane in Africa, and always went back for more. She said she would have been bored working at a desk or living in New York full-time. She wanted to become an independent documentary filmmaker herself one day. In the meantime, her work was meaningful and important, and Kait was proud of her as well.
Of all her children, Kait was the closest to Candace and had the most in common with her, but she rarely saw her. And as usual, Candace wasn’t coming home for Christmas, she was finishing an assignment in Africa. She hadn’t made it back for the holidays in years and was always severely missed. There was no important man in her life. She said she didn’t have time, which seemed to be true. Kait hoped that one of these days, Candace would find The One. She was young and there was no rush. Kait didn’t worry about that for her, only about the places she traveled to, which were dangerous and very rough. Nothing frightened Candace.
Copyright © 2018 by Danielle Steel. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.