Om Namah Shivaya.
“Let me photograph the treatment,” he’d begged.
Om Namah Shivaya.
“We’ll make art, raise money,” he’d promised.
Om Namah Shivaya.
Peyton opened one eye and stared across the undulating surface of Long Island Sound, which glittered all the way to the horizon. Six hundred thirty-two attempts at meditation in as many days and she still couldn’t master her own mind.
Dwelling for months in a decaying body had forced an existential dread that produced few answers, but she’d never been a quitter. In her darkest moments, she’d habitually forced herself to look for silver linings. By thirty-one, she’d mastered that ritual. Last year, she’d even found two for chemo, like the way she could blame it for all kinds of personal failings. Its other plus? A handy excuse for opting out of her mother’s endless list of social and philanthropic invitations. Of course, those benefits didn’t outweigh the weight gain, skin discoloration, nausea, mouth ulcers, and hair loss she’d experienced while undergoing breast cancer treatment.
Peyton curled a jaw-length strand of newly wavy hair around her finger. Still short, but progress nonetheless.
She uncrossed her legs while taking a deep breath of briny air and then stretched them out, digging her toes into the warm sand. Growing up, she and her brother, Logan, and their friends had played tag here, built sandcastles, lit bonfires while camping out. They’d drifted on rafts and sailed around the Sound, carefree and certain of a future that would always be easy and full of adventure. Now her gaze fixed on the line where earth met sky. These past few months, she’d often stared at that distant place, contemplating her life and purpose and other things she’d never before given much thought to.
Those lazy hours, bookended by the rush of midday and the lonesome stretches of night, had become her favorite part of each day. Stolen moments of peace and presence were probably the closest she’d ever get to nirvana or zen or wherever one is supposed to arrive through meditation.
“Peyton!” Logan called from the flagstone patio. When she glanced over her shoulder, he waved her toward their family’s historic shingle-style mansion. Sunlight and water reflected in its dozens of windows, making them look as if they were winking. “They’re here. Come see!”
A day or so after her initial diagnosis nearly two years ago, Logan had cornered her with his camera and his big idea. He’d always been able to talk her into anything, and until now, she’d relished his schemes. If she didn’t love him so much, she’d seriously consider lining his shower with shaving cream later.
Logan turned and disappeared through the French doors without waiting for her. She hugged her legs to her chest, pressing her forehead to her knees. Why bother with meditation? She had no time for serenity. Not with her brother and Mitchell Mathis—PR pain in the butt—always coming at her with to-do lists.
Peyton pushed herself up and brushed the sand from her bottom, slipped on her sandals, and strolled up the lawn of the rambling estate. Only recently had she come to understand why her great-grandfather had built Arcadia House, and why he’d hidden here—away from most of the world—to write. She barely remembered Duck, as Logan had nicknamed him, but his legendary literature and name lived on—not just here, but all around the world.
She hadn’t even closed the doors before Logan bellowed from the vicinity of their father’s office, “Back here.”
She found him standing at Duck’s antique walnut writing desk, surrounded by overstuffed bookshelves that emitted the faintest hint of tobacco, with his hands gripping a sizable cardboard box. When Peyton was a child, this room had been off-limits and, consequently, a place she’d snuck into time and again, tempting fate. Funny how, back then, she’d perceived fate and consequence as a game. Checkmate.
“Aren’t you blown away?” His smile, warmer and more promising than a summer sunrise on the Sound, settled her. Then he lifted a copy of A Journey through Shadows from the open carton.
Her gaze skittered away from the cover image and landed on her metallic-toned Birkenstocks. Before cancer, she wouldn’t have been caught dead in such footwear or without a pedicure. Lots had changed since her Joie-sandal days. Some for the better and—she wiggled her unpainted toes—some for the worse.
“Yes,” came her dry reply. Blown away, all right, just not the way he meant it.
But like any little sister who ever worshipped her older brother would, she’d agreed to his plan. After all, she’d had little to lose when she thought she was dying.
The result? The memoir in his hands. A combination of his work—including the austere black-and-white midchemo cover photo she now avoided—alongside her most personal fears and naked emotions. The sight of it reminded her that, in a matter of days, people around the world would have access to every nook and cranny of her soul.
And to think, just before her diagnosis, few had believed she still had one.
“Come on.” He waved the book in front of her. “Have a look.”
She reluctantly accepted the hardcover tome and then sat in a well-worn leather chair opposite the desk. Duck’s framed Pulitzer hung on the paneled wall beside her, in its antique walnut frame with blackened edges and ripple moldings, mocking the hubris of his great-grandkids’ latest undertaking.
In contrast to her desire to hide from the spotlight, soft light filtered through the large open windows behind Logan, setting him aglow. He removed another copy from the box while shaking his head in amazement.
“This image was totally the right choice for the cover.” His green eyes twinkled, no longer burdened by the alarm they’d reflected when first learning of her illness. “Talk about arresting.”
He began leafing through the pages, pausing to stare at his own work. She couldn’t blame him. Every person she knew, including herself, became self-absorbed from time to time. But while he marveled at his work, she shivered at the memory of the morning he’d caught her crying in private and shot the cover image.
His palpable excitement about their work stopped her from explaining how much she dreaded revisiting the most terrifying, sickly moments of her life. Or describing how rereading the passages and seeing his photos of her double mastectomy and the patient friends who’d since died made her stomach cramp.
If she had her choice, she’d never again look at their book. She’d even give up her share of the proceeds if others would promote it and leave her free to focus on looking forward instead of backward.
It took two minutes for him to notice her utter stillness.
Logan placed his copy back in the box and then pressed his fingertips on the desk, bowing forward a bit—a pose he struck often, putting his lean build and casual elegance on full display. “What’s wrong? We should be celebrating, but you look like you want to kill somebody. Me, in fact.”
Peyton shifted beneath the weight of the book on her thighs. “Nothing you’d understand.”
He pushed away from the desk and came to sit in the chair beside her, running one hand through his hair. His burnished-gold locks would take another few months to grow back to the eight-inch length he’d sported before shearing it off last year in a show of moral support. She still had the gorgeous wig made from his hair in her closet.
“Is it the public response? Don’t worry. Early reviews have been stellar.” He offered a reassuring nod. “You’re a fantastic writer.”
Travel writer, she thought wryly. Not an author. Not like Duck.
She’d never aspired, nor could she ever hope, to live up to her great-grandfather’s legacy. Writing witty pieces about hotels, restaurants, and tourist spots around the world had never forced a comparison to his contemplative body of work. Venturing into true author territory would invite it, though. Especially after she let the publisher talk her into playing off her great-grandfather’s most famous book, A Shadow on Sand, with her memoir’s title. Not that that was her biggest concern.
“Thanks, but this isn’t fiction. It’s my life—my heart—on display for others to judge.” She pressed her hand to her stomach and drew a yoga breath. This sick pit in her gut was trepidation, not self-pity. Until her diagnosis, she’d relied on her beauty, money, and wit as weapons used to disarm and charm. To entertain and seduce. To explore. The mental, physical, and emotional mutations she’d undergone had upended everything she’d understood about herself and her place in the world. The book’s release would erase the last vestiges of her former self, which, while she was still figuring out how to be the “new” Peyton, felt like being tossed from a plane without a parachute.
Her brother shot her a wry look. “A quick scroll through your Insta posts proves you’ve never been shy.”
He didn’t get it. To him and others, she was better now. Time to move on and celebrate. No one had noticed how she’d yet to share the collective sigh of relief that allowed her family and friends to return to normal. Cancer cells could be sneaky bitches—traveling, hiding, and replicating like bunnies. Her once playful journal now catalogued every cough, ache, rash, and other symptom so she wouldn’t forget to report anything to the doctor. She had no idea if or when she would relax and celebrate, but it wouldn’t be today.
“I never flashed my boobs—or lack thereof—before.” Joking kept the onslaught of panic at bay, but Logan’s silence proved her attempt had fallen flat. No pun intended. Social media accounts gave the public an illusion of her life, but her memoir described personal things she’d never before shared—nor particularly wanted to.
When most people learn of another’s misfortune, they offer a quick thanks to God for their own safety and then ponder what they would do if handed a worst-case scenario. She had drawn the short straw and now knew exactly how she would respond—with motionlessness caused by the bitter combination of disbelief, panic, and prayer that had pushed through her veins like arctic slush.
Chances were good that the frigid sensation would remain her occasional companion until—if—she reached the five-year cancer-free milestone. As it stood, her next exam was less than a month away.
Peyton knew another truth about bad news. After getting one bit, she could no longer skirt the fray. No longer feel safe. She expected more bad news at every turn and shuddered anytime she projected ahead to that appointment. Knowing that she could be handed another round of bad news made her resent having to spend time doing anything she didn’t want to do, and she couldn’t think of anything she’d rather do less than chase after book sales.
This whole thing had snowballed too far, too fast. The process of writing and working with her brother had been cathartic, but publishing? She honestly could not recall what she’d been thinking when she agreed to sign that contract. Now she couldn’t let Logan down, or abandon the pledge they’d made to donate half the proceeds to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, or piss all over the big advance they’d received.
She was alive, so she shouldn’t complain. That’s what everyone said, anyhow. This presumption—the forfeiting of the right to voice common complaints—was a side effect of survival that no one talked about for fear of sounding ungrateful.
“I get that this is hard, but you have courage. Focus on the money we’ll be donating to research. And the hope that your story might give other women in your shoes.” He reached for her hand and squeezed it, as if he could transfer his enthusiasm by mere touch. “You’re my hero, sis. I’ve never been prouder of you than while watching you go through treatment and work on this project.”
He’d stood by her always, even when she’d made terrible decisions, like when she hurt her childhood friend Claire over that idiot Todd, who’d made off like the Road Runner the minute she got sick. Logan had then moved Peyton into his home and taken months off work to be there, day and night, so that she wouldn’t be alone during chemo. And without him she would’ve been utterly alone.
Her parents had offered to hire all the best nurses and aides, but they hadn’t altered their work or philanthropic commitments to focus their attention on her. That had neither surprised nor troubled her. Life with unsentimental parents didn’t mean you weren’t loved; it merely meant you weren’t the center of anyone’s universe. That might explain why Todd’s initial pretense that she was the center of his world had captivated her. But in truth, her parents’ attitude had otherwise prepared her not to expect much genuine affection in the real world.
“Thank you.” She raised his hand to her cheek and held tight. For most of their lives, he’d been her hero. “But you need higher standards.”
Logan tugged at her earlobe. “Are you sure I can’t take you to JFK tomorrow?”
“No thanks.” She hugged the book to her stomach, which fluttered every time she thought of taking off on the weeks-long European promotional tour that seemed to have materialized out of nowhere. “Unlike you, an Uber driver gets paid for sitting in hours’ worth of traffic. Besides, I’ll need some downtime before I meet Mitchell and take off for Rome.”
She’d looked Mitchell up on LinkedIn and then banged her forehead on her desk a few times. Just her luck to be tethered to a guy who was not only great at his job but also good-looking. Like, wow-level handsome, with gobs of gorgeous hair, which was the first thing she noticed about other people ever since she’d lost all hers.
Her prechemo hair—the long, silky blonde curtain that she’d used to flirt or hide or distract—had gone the way of the dinosaurs. Baldness had been a special kind of hell and, in some ways, made her a stranger to herself. Vanity was another of her flaws; she knew this. But having been born with her father’s cheekbones and blue eyes and her mother’s lean figure, she’d been turning heads since puberty. These days, not so much.
A few unwanted pounds of postchemo bloat remained, and her still-too-short, wavy baby-fine hair didn’t fit her, somehow. It wasn’t terrible, just wrong. And there was no hiding . . . or flirting. But, hey, she was still breathing.
On the other hand, Mitchell’s hair fit him perfectly. A rich chestnut mane that had to have a natural wave or cowlick in order to achieve that kind of high flow in his bangs. And those deep-set, beautiful hazel eyes with their disconcerting alertness. They looked as if they could see right through her, and that was from a mere photograph. She couldn’t imagine how she’d avoid their scrutiny in person.
His brows were thick like his hair; his lips, full yet firm-looking. The serious expression in his profile photo matched her all-business impression of him, which she’d based on what little email communication they’d had to date.
Hallelujah for that, though. The absence of friendly banter was what made her willing to take this trip with him. At this point in her recovery, she couldn’t cope with, much less encourage, the tingly feelings of desire.
Chemo hair aside, even if she were ready to dip her toes back in the dating world, Mitchell Mathis would have far better options than someone with her particular scars and attic full of baggage. After reading her memoir—which showcased her erratic mental state and graphic images of her double mastectomy, ulcers, and more—he couldn’t possibly find her attractive.
“If I weren’t going to Peru next week for that National Geographic piece on Inti Raymi, I’d come with you.” Logan sighed.
“It’s fine.” She stroked the book jacket. “This is our collaboration, but it’s my story. Only I can answer reader questions about what I’ve written. I’ll be okay.”
“Still, I’m sorry I couldn’t get out of my other commitment, although maybe it’s best that I’ll be back here in time to help with the last-minute details of my engagement party.” He pulled his right foot up over his left knee.
The conflict did stink, but she couldn’t keep relying on him. He’d already rearranged his life for her and played a pivotal role in helping her begin to mend fences with Claire. She’d agreed to this crazy project, and these author copies sealed her fate, putting her desire to live more mindfully on hold while she pimped the dang book.
“At least I’ll be able to participate in the US tour dates,” he said.
“Yes, so enjoy this special time with Claire.” She pushed his foot. “Consider yourself fired from this babysitting job.”
He smiled again, a content smile particular to his feelings for Claire. Peyton wouldn’t have bet on that opposites-attract relationship, but her brother had fallen hard. Proof that dreams can come true, given Claire’s long-standing crush on him.
Dreams made life brim with excited possibility—or, at least, that’s what she remembered. Given her recent travails, she’d forgotten how to dream of anything other than survival. Then again, while dreams generated a delicious buzz, they could also make a person too focused on some goal, which detracted from being “present.” These days, Peyton was all about being present, because tomorrow was no longer a given.
“And you’ll be back for the party, right?” he asked.
“I wouldn’t miss it.” Not that long ago, she worried she’d miss so many celebrations with the people she loved. Now she didn’t even mind her mom’s tedious parties. Much.
He winked. “I’m relieved things between you and Claire are improved.”
Peyton nodded, although recollecting her behavior felt a bit like waking up with a massive hangover. “It’s still a work in progress.”
“At least I’m no longer caught in the middle of two women I love.” Logan then craned his neck in the direction of their father’s Michter’s twenty-year-old single-barrel bourbon. Its unbroken silver wax seal stared back at them. “Shall we break into Dad’s stash and toast to our success?”
She welcomed a change of subject. “Sure.”
“No reason to wait for him and Mom.” He pushed himself out of the chair and poured the amber liquid two-fingers deep into the tumblers before handing one to her.
“What? You don’t want to hear the umpteenth lecture about our airing ‘dirty laundry’ to the world?” She snickered. Never mind the philanthropic mission or the excruciating hours of work invested in the project. She doubted her mom had even bothered to read the advance copy. On the other hand, her mom had made one good point: promoting this book would force Peyton to relive everything over again, and further delay her return to “a normal life.”
Logan stared at Duck’s Pulitzer and then looked back at her while raising his glass. “To keeping the Prescott lit rep alive. Cheers.”
She sniffed the bourbon’s toffee scent before the liquid burned its way down her throat.
She hadn’t drunk alcohol for so long its effect instantly grabbed hold of her, loosening her muscles one by one until her limbs felt soft and heavy and her mood pleasantly fuzzy. Then her phone pinged. She glanced at the text. Mitchell.
Checking in. Any last-minute questions or problems?
“My taskmaster.” She chuckled, flashing the screen at her brother. She didn’t know much about Mitchell, but he didn’t seem the type to encourage her to go on a lark while in Europe. His tome-length list of goals began and ended with hitting all the bestseller lists, so side trips to browse the street art in the Quadraro area of Rome or peruse the antiques along Nieuwe Spiegelstraat in Amsterdam hadn’t made the agenda.
Thinking of those places made her smile. She’d loved her former career as a travel writer but doubted she’d regain the stamina to return to that lifestyle. Not anytime soon, anyway. This book and her recovery had consumed her thoughts this past year, leaving her little time to plan for life beyond the book release. What fit was there for a former psych major with a bunch of old passports and a semipopular blog?
Logan patted her shoulder. “I’ll let you deal with that. Need to get back to Claire for dinner.” He finished his drink and stood. “Can I take a few copies?”
“Of course. They’re half yours.” She didn’t need twenty-four copies of that bleak image staring at her, nor was she in a hurry to distribute them to anyone she knew.
It wasn’t a lack of pride that stopped her. She’d worked her ass off on the book. Bled onto those pages. It was her best work and she knew it. But the thought of friends, neighbors, and strangers picking over her thoughts and feelings made her want to vomit. This venture had better raise a ton of money to make up for what she’d exposed.
Logan smiled and snagged five books. “If you want to grab lunch tomorrow before you head down to the airport, shoot me a text.” Before breezing out of the office, he kissed her head. “Love you. Good luck.”
“Bye.” She waited until he left and then set her book on the desk and sighed. Looking at the screen of her phone, she pictured Mitchell’s intense gaze and imagined him tapping his foot while awaiting her response. That made her smile.
Chemo might’ve killed a lot of stuff, but the part of her that had always enjoyed keeping a man on the edge of his seat had survived. After counting to ten “just because,” she replied.
All set here. Not to brag, but I’ve been known to be a pretty good traveler. No need for hand-holding. 😉
Not that, in another lifetime, she wouldn’t enjoy holding his hand.
She caught her lower lip between her teeth while waiting for the little dots to start dancing on the screen. They lit up almost immediately—confirmation of his workaholic status. She grinned, assuming he got the reference to her former career. Might he respond with something clever this time?
Thanks for the reminder. Always enjoy working with a pro. See you tomorrow.
She frowned, doubting he intended any kind of double entendre with that “pro” remark. Just as well. She really could not abide falling in lust with her publicist.
That said, there was no reason not to dig into her old wardrobe and ditch the Birkenstocks for a couple of weeks. She had less than twenty-four hours to convince herself that this trip across Europe—a return to her natural habitat—might be exactly what she needed to start to feel like her old self again.