"So, are you still a lesbian or not?" Max asked, out of pure curiosity.
Abby almost spit her mouthful of scotch directly into her older brother's face. Instead, she swallowed loudly and asked, "What does that even mean?"
"You know what I mean. I'm not trying to pigeonhole you or be small-minded or anything-I'm just ill equipped to understand the parameters."
"Do you love your wife?"
"What kind of question is that? Of course I love my wife. I'm mad about her. What does that have to do with anything?"
"Everything. It has to do with everything." Abby tried not to get too fired up, but when Max acted like an ass, it was sort of her sisterly responsibility to set him straight. "Look. I loved Tully. I'll probably always love her. She was everything to me for almost ten years-I can't very well dismiss that as some sort of passing phase. But, to be perfectly honest, I never really thought of ours as a primarily gay relationship. I think it's difficult to explain."
"Try me." He lifted one eyebrow in challenge.
"Especially to one's older brother." She quirked her eyebrow up in a mirror image of his, then settled a little deeper into the comfortable deck chair. "Okay. And this is only for you, by the way. I'm not trying to be some bisexual standard-bearer in The Guardian weekend section, all right?"
Max smiled. "All right."
"I suppose I understand what you're asking and my answer is... there is no answer. Or maybe, I don't think your need to know should force me into some weird cultural-box answer. Lesbian, bisexual, pansexual. I mean, please. I'm not going to label myself to make you feel better."
Taking a deep breath, Max continued. "I only meant... do you think you're going to start dating? Do you like anyone?"
There was someone, but she wasn't about to admit that to Max when she could barely admit it to herself. "That's not what you were asking and you know it. But obviously you're going to badger me until I give you some sort of data on this. You're such a statistics nerd."
"True enough. Go on."
Abigail sighed. She didn't resent it as much as she ought. Max was kind of forcing her to pinpoint what had been rolling around in her brain for the past six months anyway. "Tully was the best. She was... look, you know her. She's glorious. She really was all that. Beautiful, caring, sexy. I loved Tully... the person." Abby's voice went a bit quieter. "But it wore out, somehow."
"I get it."
Abby straightened a bit and took a deep breath. "No time for being maudlin at the end of such a splendid weekend. Devon and Sarah's wedding was lovely, didn't you think?"
"It's not maudlin." He ignored her attempt to steer the conversation away from herself. "You don't always need to be the one who buoys everyone up, you know? I think it's amazing how much you loved Tully, but that you're strong enough to want to strive for something... more. You're brave, Abs. You're an adventurer."
She shrugged. She didn't have the heart to tell him she was starting to feel like a bit of a coward where a certain man was concerned.
"So." Max took a sip of his scotch. "If I were to set you up on a blind date, hypothetically, of course, would it be with a boy or a girl?"
"Max!" Abby laughed. "Enough! When I find out, I'll let you know, how about that?"
"Oh fine. I'm not trying to pry-"
"Of course you are! It's what big brothers do, remember?"
"All right. I admit it. I'm prying you open with a crowbar. You just seem out of sorts lately. You're usually so outgoing and involved in all your... things..."
"Oh, dear Max. You're adorable. I'm an activist. There's a word for all my things."
"I know, I know." He waved one hand as if activist was a word that didn't really count... a retrofitted word. "Abigail the Activist."
Lady Abigail Elizabeth Margaret Victoria Catherine Heyworth, fourth child of the eighteenth Duke of Northrop, sister to her filial inquisitor, the nineteenth Duke of Northrop, felt the weight of all those powerful, regal names pressing down on her. "I'm sick of monikers," she added with a touch of defeat.
"Well, if nothing else, that I understand entirely," Max added with bitter enthusiasm. "When Bronte really wants to set me off, she insists on calling me 'your grace' or refers to me in the third person as 'the duke' when it's only the two of us in the room, like, 'Is the duke in a bad mood?' or 'What does the duke want for dinner?' She knows it's the worst possible taunt. No one wants to be a moniker. Sorry, Abs."
"That's all right. I know what you were asking. Maybe I'm just trying to avoid having to really think about it. I feel like I've been Abigail-the-lesbian-younger-sister for so many years, especially in Mother's eyes, it might be easier to maintain the role."
"As long as you also maintain that Mother is often cruel and senseless, then go right ahead. Otherwise, just be you. We all revel in your independence and free will, especially those of us who are more tethered to tradition through no fault of our own."
"Are you complaining about being a fucking duke again?" Bronte's cheerful, flat American accent cut through the hot Caribbean night air as she stepped out onto the misshapen deck that extended at a precarious angle overlooking the moonlit bay.
Abby looked up and smiled at her fabulous, if brash, sister-in-law, and watched as Bronte settled happily into Max's lap. Her long, straight chestnut hair hung over one shoulder (and Max gave her a quick kiss on the other) as she looped her hand around the back of his neck.
"Even worse," Max drawled, "I asked Abby if she was still a lesbian, and then I started complaining about being a duke."
"You didn't! Oh, Abby, he's so dim sometimes! I'm trying to be patient, but..." She gave him a kiss on the cheek and turned back to her sister-in-law. "He's not as smart as he is handsome."
"In any case," Abby said, looking pointedly at her brother, "and regardless of what Mother would euphemistically refer to as my choices-I need a plan for when we get back to England. It's been great of you two to weave me into the fabric of your happy little family at Dunlear for the past few months, but I have to start a life of my own at some point. I don't even know where I want to live, let alone what I'm going to do."
Bronte spoke with quick efficiency. "I'd offer you a job at the agency in a second-I think you could sell steak to a vegan, with all that enthusiasm and fire-but advertising would probably be tantamount to heresy as far as your moral compass is concerned. What do you want to do?"
"Damned if I know... something that does good?" Abby's voice sounded unsure, then she barked a laugh. "What a toff I sound like!"
"Well, aren't you?" Bronte asked.
"Ha!" Max laughed. "Yeah, Abs, aren't you a toff?"
"Very funny. You two are beastly. I'm not the one living in a castle."
"Really?" Max pushed. "Last time I checked, you were living with us in said castle."
"I'm not living with you! I'm staying... with you... for a while."
"Right." Max smiled and took another sip. "After six months, staying is also known as living."
"Enough!" But Abby laughed because he was right. "I'm going to be staying in London a lot more once we get back."
"At Mother's? In Mayfair?" Max asked with another taunting smile.
"That was low." Abby smiled and took a long swallow of scotch.
"Well? If it looks like a toff and quacks like a toff?"
Bronte burst out laughing. "That's so fucking true!"
Abby tried to keep a straight face. "I am not a toff... moving on. Do you two want to help me get on with my life or not?"
Bronte clapped her hands together, as if embarking on a new adventure. "Yes! What should Abigail be?"
Max watched as the two women discussed the various ideas for Abby's future, enjoying their easy camaraderie and the warmth of Bronte in his lap.
"I didn't love being removed from civilization," Abby mused.
"What do you mean?" Bronte asked.
"Well, all those times Tully and I were away-working on the organic farms in New Zealand or helping build the wells in Kenya or living in the caravan at Findhorn-I loved all the work, the physical labor and having something real to show for our efforts, but I kept thinking, not always, mind you, but often enough, that all I really wanted to do was walk out my front door at two in the morning and get a pint at some crowded pub off of Leicester Square and smoke a few cigs and laugh at some dirty jokes. But then I felt guilty that I wasn't satisfied with the simple life and all of the good we were doing. I see now that a lot of that was due to what was, well, disintegrating between Tully and me. I think I want to be in a city for a while and work with an organization that's really hands-on, with people. I still sound like a toff, don't I?"
Max smiled as Bronte launched in.
"No! I know exactly what you mean. You need to talk to my friend Cammie; she's the head of an organization in New York that funds one-woman projects. You would love her-"
"You are impossible," Max mumbled.
"What?" Bronte turned to her husband in mock innocence.
"Don't pay her any mind, Abby, she's the world's worst matchmaker."
"The last thing I want is to be set up on a date, Bron!"
"No! Nothing so transparent," Max said. "She would hardly try something as easy as meddling in your love life; she will orchestrate your whole life! Just wait, she'll have names and numbers and emails flying your way within a day."
Bronte conceded, "He's right, of course, but there's nothing wrong with that as far as I'm concerned. I just want the best for everyone." But she looked a tiny bit sheepish.
"And you know what is best for everyone, I presume?" Max said as he gave her a little pinch on the behind.
She leapt from his lap and laughed. "Well! At least I don't fucking ask people if they're still lesbians!" She looked at Abby and continued, "You'll get years of payback on that one, Ab. Years! And"-she turned back to Max-"as for you in particular, yes, I do know what's best." She leaned over his chair and kissed him briefly on the lips. "I finally got Wolf to sleep and I'm about to nod off myself. So, stop pestering your poor sister and come fulfill your husbandly ducal duties."
Max looked over at his sister and gave her a guilty shrug. "You heard the lady, Abs. I have duties. Are you going to turn in? Do you want me to stay up with you? Sorry about all the gender-labeling nonsense before."
"No need to apologize, Max. I know you're only trying to fit me into your neat spreadsheet view of the world. The duke needs order in his life." She winked at her brother. "I'm going to turn in soon, you should go."
He crossed the deck and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and turned back to Bronte, putting his arm around his wife's waist as they headed back into the villa.
Abby stood up and looked out over the bay below. She had never been here before, but the island of Bequia had completely captured her imagination. Her other brother, Devon, had been married earlier that day on the small, crescent-shaped beach at the base of the steep hill below. The villas-if you could even call them something that sounded so posh-had been constructed about fifty years ago by a friend of the family of Devon's new wife, Sarah James. The entire complex was called Moonhole. The name suited. Especially as it neared midnight and the full moon shone down, the free-form curves and prehistoric feel of the buildings evoking a strange lunar landscape. Trees grew into and out of windows that had no screens or glass. Many of the homes had no doors, limited running water, and occasional electricity, yet they still managed to exude a feeling of quiet dignity. Abby was in heaven. It felt raw and beautiful.
She thought about her mother's favorite quotation from Coco Chanel: "Elegance is refusal." And, in that sense, Moonhole was pure elegance. It relied on nothing; it refused everything extraneous. Its existence was a study in simplicity. Abby took a deep breath, savoring the unfamiliar warmth of the scented night air.
And then she felt a slight shiver of recognition. When she opened her eyes, she saw Eliot Cranbrook on the narrow beach below, walking under the bright Caribbean moonlight.
She took the last slow sip of her watered-down scotch and stared. Her stomach churned in a slow roll of emotion that was an unfamiliar mix of fear, anticipation, hope, and lust. Somehow over the past few months, she and Eliot had become a very unlikely pair of fast friends. She was a hippie: rebellious, erratic, joyful. He was a capitalist: driven, successful, precise. They loved the same bottles of scotch, the same dirty jokes, the same stupid action films. He was like a really great older brother.
Abby frowned at the realization that she already had two of those, and she really didn't need another. Added to that, the mere sight of Eliot lately was making her feel all sorts of things that had nothing to do with brotherly love.
He must have felt her eyes upon him, even from this distance, because he turned swiftly to look up the steep slope. The quick smile that came to his face had the unexpected effect of warming Abby's skin from the roots of her unwieldy mane of black wavy hair to the tips of her unpolished toenails. He made a pantomime gesture, pointing to himself and then up to the villa. She shook her head no and pointed at herself and then the beach. He made a quick drinking motion. She smiled and raised her glass then pointed at him. He nodded enthusiastically then raised his clasped hands in an exaggerated display of victory.
She turned back into the villa and tiptoed across the bare stone floor toward the kitchen area. She took a plain jam-jar drinking glass off the open driftwood shelf, unscrewed the bottle and poured in a healthy few inches of Oban, then did the same into her glass. She was not one for overthinking much-in fact, her mother often accused her of shooting first and aiming later-but something about walking down those uneven, mismatched steps to the beach below was giving her pause.
Max's joking aside, the past few months living at Dunlear Castle had been a wonderfully restorative transition. After ten years of boarding school, university, and traveling the world with all of her possessions strapped to her back and her dearest Tully at her side, Abby had returned to her childhood home last summer.
After their marriage, Max and Bronte had settled into the comparatively small family wing at the western end of the castle. Over a year later, they still spent the better part of the workweek in town, but Bronte had set up a small satellite office of her advertising agency at Dunlear for the ever more frequent stays that stretched into the week. Abigail spent most of her days riding, working on the grounds of the estate, and adoring her new nephew, Wolf.
Almost since the first moment she'd met him, she felt that the two of them had been born under the same mischievous star. She had never connected with a baby before-she'd always thought they were wailing, complaining bundles that offered little in return for their constant demands-but this particular monster held her in his thrall. Max constantly joked that, between Bronte and Abby's endless attentions, his son's nanny was the highest paid person on the planet in terms of actual hours spent doing her job: to wit, zero hours.
Abigail and Wolf bonded immediately the weekend of his christening last May. Abby had arrived at Dunlear late (as usual) in the midst of a blustery spring storm, her wild appearance the perfect reflection of the internal tumult from her recent breakup with her long-term girlfriend, Tulliver St. John, better known to all as the lovely Tully.
Come to think of it, she met both of the new men in her life that night, there in the warm drawing room: the baby, Lord Heyworth, heir to the dukedom, better known as Wolf, and the impossibly tall, sandy-haired, broad-shouldered American businessman, Eliot Cranbrook.
At the time, Wolf had given her a long, glassy, drooly look, as if to say: Yes, I am the new best thing around here. Take it or leave it.
Eliot had given Abby a long approving look, as if to say: I'll take it.
She had loved them both instantly.
Abby tended to love things with an all-encompassing immediacy and a complete absence of ambiguity. Her mother claimed she lacked discernment. Abby preferred to think that she lived her life completely open to all of its possibilities. She didn't waste her time worrying about imaginary consequences to things that might never happen. She didn't allow the (usually cruel) thoughts of others to cloud her own optimism or dictate her behavior.
She loved baby Wolf's honest egomania: he was the new best thing, after all.
She loved Eliot's open humor, how he exuded confidence without a hint of arrogance. He was just as likely to laugh at himself as he was to poke fun at others. Abby had come to think of him as solid.
As a teenager, it had never occurred to Abby to categorically dismiss the idea of being with a man. Far from it: she was nothing if not open-minded. She just had never wanted a man the way she had wanted Tully. Then, after all their years together, Abby had simply stopped looking at men that way and foolishly assumed that was the end of that. Some part of her mind rationalized: Abby loves only Tully, ergo Abby loves only women.
Such a pity when we discover our core belief is as solid as spun sugar.
When the possibility of a physical attachment to Eliot started crossing her mind, Abby kept dismissing it as postbreakup nerves or shallow curiosity of "the other" or something equally dismissible.
Lately, the possibility seemed to be crossing her mind like the running commentary at the bottom of the BBC News. Unavoidable. "This just in: Eliot Cranbrook has entered the drawing room wearing perfectly faded blue jeans, a long-sleeved black T-shirt, and a pair of mirrored sunglasses that make him look like Daniel Craig on a very good day... Breaking now: Riding bareback behind Eliot Cranbrook on horseback now illegal in four counties... Alert the media: Eliot Cranbrook smells like saddle soap and fresh-baked bread and autumn."
Worse than the physical pull-which, let's not mince words, was quite lovely-Abby's feelings for Eliot were becoming rather menacing, and that was just not on. She was a lover of life, pure and simple. She didn't go in for menace. She loved riding out onto the grounds of Dunlear at five in the morning in late winter, watching the hoarfrost disappear as the low mist began to burn off and the horse's steady breathing played an earthy symphony. She planted trees with the gardeners on the estate. She dug ditches. She did not fret.
When she'd fallen in love with Tully, it had been a whirl of mutual desire and joy. Tender, sweet, passionate for many, many years. Abby was not a second-guesser by nature. Forward momentum, water over the gills, and all that.
Odd then, that she was standing in the middle of a rusticated stone building in the middle of the Caribbean at midnight with a glass of scotch in each hand, suddenly paralyzed by a whispering fear. Abigail was just beginning to realize that for someone who had always seen herself as a wild thing, she had been, up until now, rather tame in the emotional risk department. She was unaccustomed to the dips and spikes of adrenaline that accompanied nearly all of her thoughts about Eliot. For a decade, Abby had been in a loving, ardent relationship and had never once had a single moment of this creeping feeling of terror.
Her feelings for Eliot felt dangerous.
The irony wasn't lost on her. Abby's ostensibly wild life with Tully suddenly felt like a misty morning, while a fling with the ostensibly conservative, buttoned-up Eliot Cranbrook felt like a monsoon.
Was Eliot going to kiss her? Did she want to make the first move? Did she want him to? Maybe just out of curiosity?
She hated herself a little when she thought of it like that, reducing Eliot to a curiosity. Then she swept away the small guilt with the probably more insulting thought that he wouldn't much mind how she reduced him if it involved even half of what she had in mind after the kissing.
The sound of a single, soft, muffled laugh coming from Max and Bronte's room finally shook Abby from her thoughts and she made her way through the overgrown bougainvillea hedge and carefully down the mismatched stairs. Her rubber flip-flops made a little slap against the heel of each foot as she proceeded, turning this way to avoid a large palm frond, and then ducking under a riotous pink hibiscus that was dropping its nightly blooms. She stepped out onto the sand and saw the outline of Eliot's strong shoulders and the soft waves of the moonlit sea beyond his silhouette. She kicked off her flip-flops and felt the powdery sand beneath her feet; the faint scent of night jasmine came from somewhere off to her left.
Her stomach did that slow-motion flip-and-roll again, and her mind embarked on a string of obsessive if-then scenarios: If he turns to look at me over his right shoulder, then he will be a terrible kisser; if he turns toward me over his left shoulder, then he will kiss better than, well, than anything I could imagine; if he puts his hands in his pockets, then...
It's just stupid Eliot, she tried to convince herself, but her nerve endings seemed to have a very different opinion. Just look at him! her libido screamed. He's everything delicious! Abby had to confess that over the past few months, she had fallen into the very sexist and enjoyable habit of Objectifying Eliot-the-Man. It was wrong... but he was so easy to objectify, she rationalized. Those dark, dark blue eyes: sparkling, humorous, dreamy. That leonine hair: caramel brown for the most part, with those golden threads in the sunshine, thick and grab-able, like riding bareback and using the horse's mane to hold on. Those damned shoulders: like a Bavarian lumberjack from a bloody fairy tale. Everything about him exuded strength. Whatever needed taking care of, Eliot would take care of it.
She wanted to get her hands on him. She wanted to mess him up a little.
Who knows how long she stood there staring at (yearning for) his muscled back, thinking giddily that this was going to be the first time she kissed a man. She felt simultaneously-incongruously-way too old to be thinking such a silly thought, and way too young to actually do it... with someone like him. Eliot was a proper grown-up. Abigail didn't know what that made her.
He had turned around during that reverie and had walked up to where she stood at the base of the stairs. She never did notice if he turned to his left or right or if his hands were in his pockets or out when he came toward her up the beach. Eliot took the glass of scotch out of her left hand and brought it to his lips. His eyes stayed on hers, closing slightly when the liquid slid down his throat. She stared at his neck.
"Mmmm." Then with a slight raising-glass gesture said, "Thanks for that." He gave her a pat-pat on the upper arm, a typical big-brotherly move that she had recently come to despise, and, without thinking-or deciding to be done with thinking-Abby grabbed his wrist as he started to pull it away.
She was barely an inch over five feet tall-a sweet little thing, as her father used to say-though she was well accustomed to physical labor and her grip was strong. Eliot was several inches over six feet, ten years older than she was, and she felt the pulse in his wrist quicken beneath her hold. He could have crushed her, but she felt like she was the one crushing him. The night was clear, silent, thick. Their breathing filled her ears: his was becoming shredded, dry; hers was burning her nostrils.
"What is it, Abigail?" His voice was sure and powerful, but somehow deferential and kind.
He always called her by her full name, never Abby, or Abs, or Ab, like the rest of her family. She always thought of herself as Abby. It was almost like he was talking to someone else when he spoke to her. At first she thought it was because he was older and patronizing and domineering and formal and traditional and every other chauvinist epithet she could think of, but lately she had taken to actually looking at his mouth and eyes when he said her full name, and she saw how he took his time rolling the syllables over his lips, as if he wanted to prolong his own pleasure. Or maybe hers.