An icy wind stung her face as she stared at the phone in her hand. Six missed calls. She hit the message button and lifted the phone to her ear.
“Hi. It’s me.” There was a long, staticky pause. “I really need to talk to you. Please call me. Please.” There was another long silence before the call disconnected.
Hillary snapped the mobile close. She’d lost count of how many times she’d replayed the message.
She’d woken with throbbing ache behind her eyes on New Year’s day. She dragged herself into the shower, her eyes stinging with tears and smudged mascara while her stomach roiled with guilt and confusion. Bill was just waking up when she emerged from the dressing room.
“Morning,” he said sitting up.
“Morning,” Hillary murmured.
Bill rubbed his eyes. “Good god, I feel like I’ve been dragged by an eighteen-wheeler,” he yawned. “How are you upright right now?”
“Champagne will do that to you.” She dropped an overnight bag onto the bed and Bill watched with groggy fascination as she shoved a nightdress into it.
“Going somewhere?” he asked with a dopey smile.
Hillary grabbed her laptop and eyeglasses from her nightstand. “Cynthia’s house for a couple of days.”
She swung the bag onto her shoulder. “Yes. I have some ideas for my next book and she said I could use the beach house if I needed a quiet place to work. It’s just for a few days. I can be back in an hour if I’m needed.”
“Whoa, hold on!” He jumped out of bed. “Wait a second.” He spun her around just as she reached for the door handle. “What’s happening here?”
Hillary shrugged away from him.
“We need to talk about last night—”
“There’s nothing to talk about—”
“I think there is—”
“No, there isn’t. It happened—”
“It didn’t just happen. We made love, Hillary.”
“Yes, we did.”
“For the first time in ages and it was incredible and beautiful and right. It felt like we’re finally finding our way back to each other.”
Hillary’s heart leapt into her throat. It had been incredible. And it had felt right. But in the clear light of morning it also felt incredibly wrong. “We were drunk, Bill.”
“What does that...” He trailed off crestfallen and bewildered. “We were drunk so it doesn’t mean anything?”
Hillary struggled to meet his eyes. “I don’t know what it means.” She truly didn’t.
“Well then let’s talk about it—”
She opened the door and headed down the hallway.
“Don’t just walk away.” Bill threw his hands up in exasperation. “Hillary!”
Bennet took her bag from her as she rushed onto the elevator.
“I need a minute, Bill,” she said.
The last thing she saw was the dejection on Bill’s face before the doors closed between them.
The waves lapping at her ankles were frigid. Hillary snuggled into the thick wool throw wrapped around her shoulders and peered out at the roaring Chesapeake swells buffeting the store. She’d spent most of the morning wandering up and down the deserted beach after a long, restless night alone in the beach house.
What had happened between her and Bill was no drunken mishap. They’d been orbiting each other with ever diminishing proximity since their entente that spring. If she was completely honest, she’d known they were on a collision course. The alcohol had nothing to do with it, nor had it impaired her judgement in any way. If anything, it had tempered her nerves and untethered the desire that had been building inside her for weeks. She’d wanted Bill as much as he’d wanted her. She didn’t regret making love to him. What caught her off-guard was how wretched she’d felt when she woke and her first thought was Anand.
In a daring moment of impulsiveness, Hillary had asked him to spend part of the holiday season with her in Washington. She hadn’t thought through exactly how they would manage it but her yearning to share some part of the holidays with him had fleetingly prevailed over caution and reason. Anand, however, had been more than a little homesick and flew to India to spend Christmas at Jeevna Jyoti. After a long, frustrating recovery following his accident, re-acclimating to work and figuring out their unfolding relationship had kept him away from New Delhi for almost two years. He craved the smells and sounds and colours of his motherland, but more pertinently, he missed Sister Mary, whose health he fretted had begun to deteriorate after a protracted spell of the flu. He’d emailed the most adorable picture of himself with the septuagenarian nun: him dressed as Santa Claus and she gussied up in a puckish little elf costume, doling out presents to a gaggle of ecstatic orphans. The affection between them was palpable and Hillary could see clearly from whom Anand had inherited his mischievous bent. She’d never seen him happier and his joyful oblivion further exacerbated her shame.
She’d been honest with Bill about Anand; explicit about her feelings and intentions well before she’d gone to bed with him. She’d given Bill time and space to metabolise the realignment of their relationship. And while she’d felt profound sadness about the disintegration of their marriage, she hadn’t felt guilty about her decision to move forward with Anand. But this was different. Sleeping with Bill blurred the boundaries with Anand. Boundaries she hadn’t fully anticipated or understood now existed. It felt like a violation, like a betrayal. It felt an awful lot like cheating.
Staring at her mobile, Hillary drew in a slow breath. It had already been three days since she last spoke to Anand and however much she wanted to, she knew couldn’t avoid him forever. She was about to dial his mobile when the phone began to ring, an unfamiliar number flashing across the small screen.
“I was just about to call you,” she said, hoping he wouldn’t pick up on her uneasiness.
“I’ve been trying to reach you.” He sounded tired and agitated.
“I know, it’s been a little crazy on my end.”
“I’m at the Hilton off Dupont Circle.”
Her stomach dropped. “You’re in Washington?”
“I know I shouldn’t have come, but— but you weren’t answering and I—I need to see you. Can you come?”
“What’s going on?” She started down the beach back toward the house in a panic.“Anand, what’s wrong?”
“Sister Mary,” he said thickly. “She’s— I’ve lost her.”
Hillary stopped dead in her tracks. “I’ll send Bennet for you.”
She wore a groove into the hard wood floors while she waited. Anand’s eyes were bloodshot and drawn when he walked though the door. She didn’t know how it was possible that he could look like he’d aged ten years and a lost little boy at the same time. No sooner had Bennet closed the door behind him and he was in her arms, his shoulders trembling, his tears seeping through her sweater to her skin.
“I’m sorry,” he sobbed. “I didn’t know where else to go.”
“It’s alright,” she said, rubbing soothing circles across his back.
“I just needed to see you.” He tightened his arms around her. “I need you.”
“I’m right here.”
Hillary made a pot of tea hoping the warm brew would comfort him and they settled in front of the fire place. Rain began to beat against the windows overlooking the bay.
“She was all I had when I was small,” Anand said, staring at the flickering flames. “She read to me, bathed me, took care of me when I was sick. When I was four, a couple from England came to adopt me. I was terrified. I didn’t want to leave her. I ran away and hid in the railway yard nearby for four days, hoping that eventually they’d go back to where they came from and leave us alone.”
The hint of amusement in his voice did little to quell the dread and overwhelming sadness she felt imagining him as a small boy wandering around a busy railway yard by himself with nowhere to go, no food to eat, and no one to protect him.
“Children used to runaway all the time. Nobody ever bothered to go looking for them. Amina came to find me and took me home.”
“I didn’t know her name was Amina.”
“No one did. I was only one who called her by her birth name.” He smiled sadly. “Her father named her after her mother who died giving birth to her. They were very poor, but he never remarried - which is very unusual for men in our culture. He was this larger than life character and raised Amina by himself. He told her they were like Laurel & Hardy, just the two of them against the world. And that as long as they had each other they could do anything. He was killed in a rickshaw accident when she was seven. That’s when she went to live with the nuns. But she worshipped her father and talked about him all the time, like he was still alive and would come bursting through the door at any moment. When Amina found me on the doorstep of Jeevna Jyoti, she named me after him.”
Her eyes brimmed with tears. “It’s a good name.”
“She couldn’t adopt me legally, but she made me her family by giving me her father’s name. She made sure I got a decent education and when it was time for university she used what meagre savings she had to pay for tutors and books and application fees. I don’t know how she managed to get me into the scholarship programme that took me to Cambridge but I am here today because she believed in me. Because she loved me.”
Hillary squeezed his hand. “I can only imagine how proud she was.”
A tear trickled down his face. “When she didn’t rouse when I went to wake her,” he sniffed, “I felt exactly like I did the day that couple came to take me from her all those years ago. Terrified. Alone. Like I was being torn open, ripped away from the person who was my only home, my only constant.”
Her heart ached for him and with love for him. “Losing a parent is hard no matter how old you are,” Hillary said, reminded of her father’s death and how fresh the loss still felt to her at times. “I’m happy you had these last few weeks with her.”
Anand dropped his head into her lap and curled his body around her. Hillary held him, struggling to hold back her own tears as he wept.
“Whose house is this?” he asked when his breathing evened out after a long while. He sat up and dried his eyes with the sleeve of his sweater.
“My friend Cynthia’s. She’s an old friend from my days at Wellesley.”
Anand blinked at her curiously. “I thought you’d be in Washington?”
Everything that had happened since New Year’s Eve came flooding back. “It’s been a hectic few weeks.” She stood and threw a few logs onto the fire. “I needed some time to catch my breath and think.” It was only half a lie but she felt no less shitty for it.
“I’m intruding.” Anand said, reading her mercurial shift. “I can go back to—”
“No. I’m happy you’re here.” She picked up their mugs and Anand followed her to the kitchen. “Why don’t you go upstairs and take a shower. I’ll make dinner.”
“I can help,” he said, trailing closely behind her as she riffled through cabinets, depositing ingredients on the kitchen island as she went.
“No!” Hillary said, wincing inwardly at her sudden irritation. She stopped in front of Anand and rested her hand over his heart. “For once, let me take care of you. Please, Anand.”
Anand exhaled heavily, his forehead against hers. “I love you.”
“I know,” she said, allowing the steady cadence of his breath to soothe some of her frayed nerves. She leaned up and kissed him gently. “There are fresh towels in the bathroom. Take your time.”
He grabbed his bag but stopped half way up the stairs. “Are you alright?”
Her chest constricted. “Yes. Fine.” But her smiled felt forced and hollow. “How about pasta?”
Anand nodded even though he didn’t believe her. “I’m starving. Pasta would be lovely.”
He continued up the stairs trusting that she would talk to him when, and only when, she was ready to.
They shared a bottle of wine over dinner and Hillary listened as Anand talked more about his mother. He was particularly interested in her relationship with Dorothy, too. They rarely spoke about her family but Hillary felt little reason to hold back now. She told him everything she knew about the mother’s difficult childhood and shared more about her own. There was laughter and tears and Anand was exhausted by the time he crawled into her bed, falling asleep as soon as she turned out the light.
Hillary lay quietly beside him. She couldn’t tell him that she’d made love to Bill. Not now. Not when he was so raw, his heart broken and bleeding. She would have to wait. Just until his grief had abated. But as her sleepless hours wore on she wondered whether there was any merit in her need for honesty. What purpose would hurting him deliberately to assuage her own guilt serve? And what did that say about her? Watching his chest rise and fall in the soft glow of the moon she knew she had never loved Anand more intensely. She could, and would, lie to protect him - even from herself. The irony of her situation left a bilious aftertaste on her tongue.
She wanted to walk him to his gate when she dropped him off at the airport on her way home but doing so would only have drawn needless attention. The two days they’d spent together at the beach house had been replenishing for both of them, and despite his grief, Anand had regained some equilibrium by the time he kissed her goodbye and headed for his plane to London.
She got back to the White House a little before midnight and found Bill in his sweats, a tumbler of scotch dangling from his hand over the Truman balcony.
“Hi,” she said, sidling up to him at the railing.
He greeted her with a weary smile. “Hi.”
“Work,” he sighed, his shoulders bunched up. He took a sip of his scotch. “How was the bay?”
He swirled the rich amber liquor in his hand. “They say there’s a storm coming.”
“Anand was with me for a few days,” Hillary said softly. “His mother died. He’s suffering.” She hadn’t been sure what to expect but Bill looked genuinely taken aback. “It wasn’t planned, Bill.”
“I know,” he said and handed her his tumbler. “He’s lucky to have you.”
Hillary took a deep drink, enjoying the burn of the rich liquor as it slid down the back of her throat.
“Thank you for telling me,” Bill said.
Hillary nodded and they fell into an easy silence. It was an unseasonably warm and clear evening for January but she could smell snow in the air.
“I’m not going to apologise,” Bill said after a while. There was heart-rending vulnerability beneath his brusque restraint and it tugged at her heart.
Hillary turned to him and cupped his face with her hand. “I don’t expect you to.”
Bill’s eyes fell shut. “Not for loving you.” He covered her hand with his and pressed a tender kiss to the inside of her wrist. “And I can’t promise that it won’t happen again.”
A shudder ran up Hillary’s spine. Nor could she. Making love to Bill again had stoked the embers of the irrepressible force that had bound them to each from the very start. It was more than the attraction of opposites, more than sex. It had always been more than sex.
“I’m going in,” she said quietly. “Don’t stay out here too long, there’s a storm coming.”
Bill smiled, releasing her hand as she turned for the door.