The sun beamed down on Melissa Henderson’s shining dark hair, pinned up on her head in a loose knot, as sweat ran down her face, and the muscles in her long, lithe arms were taut with effort as she worked. She was lost in concentration, sanding a door of the house in the Berkshire mountains in Massachusetts that had been her salvation. She had bought it four years before. It had been weather-beaten, shabby, and in serious need of repair when she found it. No one had lived there for over forty years, and the house creaked so badly when she walked through it, she thought the floorboards might give way. She’d only been in the house for twenty minutes when she turned to the realtor and the rep from the bank who were showing it to her, and said in a low, sure voice, “I’ll take it.” She knew she was home the minute she walked into the once beautiful, hundred-year-old Victorian home. It had ten acres around it, with orchards, enormous old trees, and a stream running through the property in the foothills of the Berkshires. The deal closed in sixty days, and she’d been hard at work ever since. It had almost become an obsession as she brought the house back to life, and came alive herself. It was her great love and the focus of every day.
She’d learned carpentry, and made plenty of mistakes in the beginning, taken a basic plumbing class, hired a local contractor to replace the roof, and used workmen and artisans when she had to. But whenever possible, Melissa did the work herself. Manual labor had saved her after the worst four years of her life.
As soon as the house was officially hers, she’d put her New York apartment on the market, which her ex-husband, Carson Henderson, said was foolish until she knew if she liked living in Massachusetts. But Melissa was hardheaded and determined. She never backed down on her decisions, and rarely admitted her mistakes. She knew this hadn’t been one. She had wanted to buy a house and give up New York for good, which was exactly what she did, and had never regretted it for a minute. Everything about her life there suited her, and was what she needed now. She loved this house with a passion, and since moving there, her whole life had changed dramatically.
The four years before she’d bought it were the darkest days of her life. Melissa sat on the porch and thought about it sometimes. It was hard to imagine now what she and Carson had been through when their eight-year-old son, Robbie, had been diagnosed with an inoperable malignant brain tumor, a glioblastoma. They had tried everything, and taken him to see specialists all over the country and one in England. The prognosis was always the same, one to two years. He lived for two years after the diagnosis, and they made them the best years they could for him. He died at ten in his mother’s arms. Melissa had been relentless trying to find a cure for him, and someone who would operate, but they were battling the inevitable from the beginning. Melissa had refused to accept Robbie’s death sentence until it happened. And then her whole world caved in. He was her only child, and suddenly she was no longer a mother.
The two years after his death were still a blur, she was half numb and half crazy. She had stopped writing a year after he got sick, and she never went back to work as a writer after that. Once a bestselling author, with five smash hits to her credit, she hadn’t written a word in seven years, and swore she never would again. Previously a driving force in her life, she had no desire to write now. All she cared about was her house and she wanted to make it the most beautiful Victorian home in the world. It had replaced everything else in her life, even people. It was the outlet for her to soothe all her sorrows, and vent the unbearable rage and grief she had felt. The agony was a little gentler now. Working on the house was the only way she could ease the pain she was in, using her hands, shifting heavy beams, rebuilding the fireplaces, helping the men to carry the equipment, and doing most of the carpentry herself.
The house gleamed now, and was exquisite. The grounds were lush and perfectly maintained, the historic home restored until it shone. It was something to be proud of, and a symbol of her survival. Everything about it was a tribute to Robbie, who would have been sixteen now, and had died six years before.
Her marriage to Carson died with her son. For two years they had fought to keep him alive, and lost. After Robbie died, she no longer cared about anyone except the little boy who was gone. It still took her breath away at times, but less often now. She had learned to live with it, like chronic pain or a weak heart. Carson had been paralyzed with grief as well. They were both drowning, too lost in their own miseries to help each other. The second year after Robbie died was worse than the first. As the numbness wore off, they were even more acutely aware of their pain. And then she discovered that Carson was involved with another woman, a client of the literary agency where he worked. She didn’t blame him for the affair. She wouldn’t have had the energy to spend on another man, but she readily acknowledged that she had shut Carson out for two years by then, and it was too late to reverse it. She made no attempt to win him back, or save the marriage. It was already dead, and she felt dead inside herself.
Carson had been her literary agent for her five successful books. She’d found him after she’d written the first one, and took the manuscript to him at the recommendation of a friend. She was thirty-one then. He was bowled over by her talent, and the purity and strength of her writing, and signed her on immediately as a client. She had worked for a magazine after college, and had been writing freelance articles for several years before she wrote her first book. She attributed her success to the brilliant first book deal Carson made for her. After several glasses of champagne, they wound up in bed to celebrate, and a year later they were married. Robbie was born ten months after their wedding, and life had been blissful until Robbie got sick. It was a respectable run, they’d had eleven happy years since they met.
Carson was a respected and powerful agent, but he modestly claimed no credit for Melissa’s dazzling success. He said she was the most talented writer he’d ever worked with. When she stopped writing to take care of Robbie, neither of them thought it would be the end of her career. Afterward, she said simply that she had no words left, and no desire to write. The profound visceral need to write that she’d had for all of her youth and adult life had simply left her. “Robbie took it with him,” was all she said. No amount of urging by Carson, or her publishers, convinced her to start again. She abandoned her marriage, her career, New York, and everyone she knew there. She wanted a clean slate. She spent her energy and passion on the house after that. There was no man in her life, and she didn’t want one. She was forty-three when Robbie died, forty-five when she and Carson finally separated, and forty-nine as she stood in the summer sunshine, sanding the door with all her strength, using old-fashioned fine-grained sandpaper.
The quiet affair that Carson had engaged in with a mystery writer in the final months of their marriage turned into a solid relationship after Melissa left. Jane was a few years older than Melissa and had two daughters whom Carson had become close to. They fulfilled some of his need for fatherhood after Robbie died. He and Jane married after his divorce. Melissa wanted no contact with him, but she wished him well and sent him an email every year on the anniversary of Robbie’s death. With their son gone, suddenly they had nothing in common anymore, and had too many heartbreaking memories of the hard battle they had fought for his life, and lost. It was a failure that tainted everything between them. To escape it, Melissa had isolated herself and preferred it that way. She had run away.
She had done the same with her younger sister, Harriet, Hattie, and hadn’t seen her in six years since Robbie’s funeral. She had nothing to say to her either, and no energy left for their battles. As far as Melissa was concerned, her sister had suddenly gone off the deep end eighteen years before, for no apparent reason. Despite a budding and promising career as an actress, Hattie had joined a religious order at twenty-five. Melissa insisted it was some kind of psychotic break. But if so, she had never recovered, and seemed content in the life she’d chosen, which Melissa could never accept. Melissa had a profound aversion to nuns, and considered Hattie’s decision not only an abandonment, but a personal betrayal, after everything they’d been through together growing up.
Copyright © 2021 by Danielle Steel. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.