Part One

Matthew Wheeler rubbed his eyes wearily and looked down at the cards in front of him, trying unsuccessfully to concentrate on his third bridge game this week.  The after-dinner cigars and brandy his host had provided had left him with a raging headache, and all he wanted to do was go home and sleep for about three days straight. 

Because of his business and position in society, Matt had many social obligations that he would rather forgo, but he had gotten used to the endless evenings of malicious gossip and meaningless amusements in the company of people with whom he’d prefer not to spend even five minutes.  In fact, most of the time he could even act as though he were enjoying himself immensely.  Tonight, though, he felt tired and edgy, and the dinner party he was attending was a particularly tiresome one.  Harold Munson, his host, was older than most of his business associates and insisted on keeping up all the archaic traditions, such having the men retire to his study after dinner, while the women chatted in the drawing room.  Matt hated smoking, particularly cigars, and brandy definitely wasn’t his libation of choice, but his host made it difficult to decline.  Even if he hadn’t indulged, though, the small, closed room was so heavy with the smoke from the others’ cigars, he knew he’d still be feeling ill just from the requisite forty-five minutes or so he’d have to spend in the study.  Besides, Hal was a very important cog in Matt’s corporate wheel, and suffering through cigars and brandy every few months seemed a small price to pay for his business, so he tried to grin and bear it.

The dinner party was for eight, and two card tables had been set up to accommodate all of the guests for after-dinner bridge.  As usual, Matt and Maddie played against their host and hostess.  Matt glanced across at his wife.  Was it his imagination, or did she look tired, too?  She usually enjoyed social engagements, but lately their frenetic schedule seemed to be taking its toll on them both.  He leaned back, playing his cards automatically and indulging in one of his favorite fantasies.

He was galloping through the woods in the early morning on Jupiter, his big black gelding.  He kept Jupiter and Maddie’s horse, Lady, boarded at a stable up in Westchester County, but lately they almost never found time to ride.  In his fantasy, the country air was fresh and invigorating, and it took all of his energy and concentration to keep Jupe in line.  All the stress seemed to leave him as he rode the big horse through the forest.  After his ride, he quickly showered and then joined his beautiful wife for a big country breakfast.

He came out of the fantasy for a minute and smiled across at his wife.  She caught his eye and gave him a pained look.  Mrs. Munson never seemed to stop chatting, and Maddie was bearing the brunt of her conversation, as their hostess jumped from one subject to another at a breakneck speed.  Matt played his next card and went back to his fantasy.

Maybe after breakfast Maddie would play the piano, and he would just read his paper in peace in a comfortable, overstuffed chair, or maybe they’d take Honey skating, or take a stroll, or maybe even retire to their room for a little while, just the two of them …

Most of Matt’s mind was still miles away, thinking about his wife’s body in a certain ivory silk negligee she owned, but he was able to play his cards in turn with no problem. The little snatches of conversation going on around him barely invaded his consciousness.

“Can you believe it? She was only seventeen!  And the boy was not suitable at all, if you know what I mean.”

“They say he kept her there for weeks. And it was in the paper that he had a knife and threatened…”

“And she wore that green silk to the opera and she had just worn it to the Tudor’s dinner party the week before. And I’ve heard talk that his business isn’t doing well.”

“I hear she lost the baby and almost died herself from hemorrhaging.  Did her parents even know she was pregnant?”

“And he’s having an affair with a college student, of all things!  He’s old enough to be her father – almost her grandfather.  I never did trust that man.”  

“Your turn, Wheeler.”  His host’s voice invaded his daydream, and Matt started, quickly playing his card.  Repressing a sigh, he watched his hostess dither maddeningly about what to play before she finally bid.  She had no understanding of the game of bridge.  Not at all like Maddie, who was quite good at it.  She not only had a quick mind, but she had a sweet and innocent expression that sometimes fooled people into thinking she had no clue as to what she was doing. In fact, she was a much better player than he was, as he tended to bid too high and play overconfidently.  

Watching Maddie play her card, he raised his eyebrows.  What could she be thinking?  He quickly looked up at this wife, and noticed a frightened, faraway look in her hazel eyes.  Her face was pale, and although she stared straight at him, he doubted that she was even seeing him.  Matt felt the old, familiar knot of worry deep inside him as he studied her face.  He had seen the look before.  The last time he’d seen it had been a long time ago, though, and he had held out hope that he would never have to see it again.  Now it was back, right in front of him and as clear as day.   Would the whole thing start up all over again?  The thought sent a chill through his body.

He closed his eyes briefly and tried to fight the urge to get up and pull Maddie out of this stuffy townhouse and into a limo bound for their penthouse apartment, far away from these people and their petty grievances and vicious gossip. It took all his strength not to move.  He wasn’t sure if Maddie would be able to continue the game, but he knew she’d be upset at him later if he tried to make their excuses and leave early.  She wouldn’t want any attention drawn to her.  With an iron will, he remained seated and held his tongue, trying unsuccessfully to concentrate on the card game.

If his hosts noticed that anything was different, they didn’t show any sign of it. The gossip continued in full force.  Gossip!  He tried to remember the snippets of gossip that had been circulating earlier, wondering if Maddie had heard something that had upset her.  He wished now that he’d paid more attention to the conversations going on around him, but all he could recall was something about the opera and a green dress.  There didn’t seem to be anything there to worry about.  He shook his head and played his next card.

The next hour was one of the slowest of his life.  It was torture to watch the stark panic on Maddie’s face and not be able to go to her. After what seemed like an eternity, the card game finally ended.  By the time they were in the car, zooming by the lights of Broadway, Maddie seemed to have recovered a little.  Matt kept an arm firmly around her shoulders, trying to transfer strength from his body to hers.

“Are you all right?”  he asked worriedly.

“I’m fine… now,” she answered, laying her head tiredly on his shoulder. 

Matt was quiet for a minute, trying to work up the nerve to say what he’d wanted to say for days.  He nuzzled Maddie’s hair for a few minutes, taking comfort in its softness and sweet scent. 

“Maddie, I’ve been thinking about something,” he finally ventured.  “The social whirl here is getting to be too much for us.  We’re both exhausted.”

“I know,” Maddie agreed with a sigh.  “It seems we’re out almost every night lately, and the parties start to blend into one another other after a while.  But what choice do we have?” she asked wearily.  “This is the life we’ve chosen, and we both know it’s important for your business.”

“It’s not as important as we are,” Matt argued.  “Look at us.  I have ulcers and you…”

“I’m fine, just a little tired tonight,” Maddie interrupted quickly.

“I’ve been thinking about something for a long time,” Matt said, taking a deep breath in an effort to gather courage, “but I wasn’t sure how to bring it up.”

“What is it, Matthew?”  Maddie’s voice sounded worried. 

“Nothing terrible,” he was quick to reassure her.  “It’s just that I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to moving out of the city.   I know it would be an adjustment, but we wouldn’t have to keep up this crazy social schedule.  We’d have time to ride and walk and be a family, just you and me and Honey.”

Maddie was quiet for a minute, thinking it over.  “It would be a big change,” she said carefully.  “You’d have to take the train into the city or get a driver and a limo. We couldn’t use this car service if we lived outside the city.”

“I could do that, and I wouldn’t even have to commute every day,” Matt put in. “I could do some work from home and delegate more.” 

Maddie made a little noise in response to this, and he could almost see her rolling her eyes in the dark.  They both knew he had a hard time with delegating, preferring to oversee things himself whenever possible.

“And the train ride isn’t that long,” he continued quickly before she could object.  “A lot of people commute into the city from that area.”

“Area?”  Maddie asked in surprise.  “You have a specific area in mind?”

“Yes,” Matt admitted, a little embarrassed that he had kept this from her.  “Whit told me about a place up in Westchester County, not too far from where we board the horses.  It’s a big place with a lake, stables, even a game preserve!  Just think, Maddie,” he said, his voice growing excited at the prospect of the big country house, “we could still entertain, even have house parties, but we wouldn’t have to keep up the same frantic social pace we do here in the city.  We could have our horses right there and ride any time we want to.  Maybe we could even get Regan, who takes care of them now, to sign on as our groom.  He does a great job with the horses.  And the house is plenty big enough for us, Honey, Miss Trask, and all the servants.  You have to admit, the apartment here has gotten a bit cramped lately.”

“Yes, it has,” Maddie agreed thoughtfully.  “And it would be nice to start to become a family again, now that Honey’s staying with us and not going back to boarding school.” Her voice had taken on a hopeful tone.   After a minute, she turned to her husband teasingly.  “And just think, I’d have a whole house full of new rooms to decorate.”

Matt groaned.  “I might have known you’d think of that,” he told his wife with a chuckle.  His voice became serious, though, as he turned to her and took both her hands in his. 

“So what do you think?”  he asked.  “Is this something you’re willing to try?”

“I think,” Maddie said slowly, “that it sounds like just what we need.  Let’s take a drive up and look at it this weekend.”   She smiled up at Matt, and he returned her smile.  He felt they were taking a big step in the right direction toward becoming a family again.  The image of the country estate in his mind was stronger than ever, and it was a relief that his wife seemed to feel the same way he did about it.  For the first time in a while, he felt in a peaceful state of mind. As the big car approached their apartment building, he turned to his wife, bending down and sealing their agreement with a gentle kiss.



Thanks to  Susansuth and Kris for their superb editing skills, and to Carol for coming up with the title for this story!

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