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It was a perfect balmy May evening, just days after spring had hit the East Coast with irresistible appeal. The weather was perfect, winter had vanished literally overnight, birds were singing, the sun was warm, and everything in the Armstrongs' Connecticut garden was in bloom. The entire week had been blessed with the kind of weather that made everyone slow down, even in New York. Couples strolled, lunch hours stretched. People smiled. And in Greenwich that night, Paris Armstrong decided to serve dinner outside on the flagstone patio they had just redone near the pool. She and Peter were giving a dinner party on a Friday night, which was rare for them. They did most of their entertaining on Saturday, so Peter didn't have to rush home from work in the city on Friday night. But the caterers had only been available on this particular Friday. They had weddings booked for every Saturday night through July. It was harder for Peter, but he'd been a good sport when she told him about the Friday night plan. Peter indulged her most of the time, he always had. He liked making life easy for her. It was one of the myriad things she loved about him.
They had just celebrated their twenty-fourth anniversary in March. It was hard to believe sometimes how the years had flown by and how full they had been. Megan, their eldest, had graduated from Vassar the year before, and at twenty-three, she had recently taken a job in L.A. She was interested in all aspects of film and had landed a job as a production assistant with a movie studio in Hollywood. She was barely more than a gofer, as she admitted openly, but she was thrilled with just being there, and wanted to be a producer one day. William, their son, had just turned eighteen, and was graduating in June. He was going to UC Berkeley in the fall. It was hard to believe that their kids were grown. It seemed only minutes before that she had been changing diapers and carpooling, taking Meg to ballet, and Wim to hockey games. And in three months he'd be gone. He was due in Berkeley the week before the Labor Day weekend.
Paris made sure that the table had been set properly. The caterers were reliable and had a good eye. They knew her kitchen well. She and Peter liked to entertain, and Paris used them frequently. They enjoyed their social life and over the years they had collected an eclectic assortment of interesting friends. She set the flowers that she had arranged herself on the table. She had cut a profusion of multicolored peonies, the tablecloth was immaculate, and the crystal and silver gleamed. Peter probably wouldn't notice, especially if he was tired when he got home, but what he sensed more than saw was the kind of home she provided him with. Paris was impeccable about details. She created an atmosphere of warmth and elegance that people flourished in. She did it not only for him and their friends but for herself as well.
Peter provided handsomely for her too. He'd been generous with her and the children. He had been very successful over the years. He was a partner in a lucrative law firm, specializing in corporate accounts, and at fifty-one, he was the managing partner. The house he'd bought for them ten years before was large and beautiful. It was a handsome stone house, in one of the more luxurious neighborhoods in Greenwich, Connecticut. They'd talked about hiring a decorator, but in the end she had decided to decorate it herself, and loved doing it. Peter was thrilled with the results. They also had one of the prettiest gardens in Greenwich. She'd done such a great job with the house that he had often teased her and told her she should become a decorator, and most people who saw the house agreed. But although artistic, her interests had always been similar to his.
She had a solid respect and understanding for the business world. They had married as soon as she graduated from college, and she had gone to business school and graduated with an MBA. She had wanted to start a small business of her own, but got pregnant in her second year of business school, and had decided to stay home with their children instead. And she'd never had any regrets. Peter supported her in her decision, there was no need for her to work. And for twenty-four years, she had felt competent and fulfilled, devoting herself full time to Peter and their children. She baked cookies, organized school fairs, ran the school auction every year, made costumes by hand at Halloween, spent countless hours at the orthodontist with them, and generally did what many other wives and mothers did. She didn't need an MBA for any of it, but her extensive understanding of the corporate world, and her lively interest in it made it a lot easier when talking to Peter late at night about the cases he was working on. If anything, it even made them closer. She was, and had been, the perfect wife for him, and he had profound respect for the way she had brought up their children. She had turned out to be everything he had expected her to beand Paris was equally pleased with him.
They still shared laughter on Sunday mornings, as they snuggled beneath the covers for an extra half-hour on cold wintry days. And she still got up with him at the crack of dawn every weekday, and drove him to the train, and then came back to take the kids to school, until they were old enough to drive themselves, which had come far too quickly for her. And the only dilemma she had now was trying to figure out what she was going to do with herself when Wim left for Berkeley in August. She could no longer imagine a life without teenagers splashing in the pool in summer, or turning the house upside down as they overflowed the downstairs playroom on the weekends. For twenty-three of the twenty-four years of her marriage, her life had entirely and unreservedly revolved around them. And it saddened her to know that those days were almost over for good.
She knew that once Wim left for college, life as she had known it for so long would be over. He would come home for the occasional weekend, and holidays, as Meg had while she was at Vassar, only less so because he would be so far away, on the West Coast. Once Meg had graduated, she had all but disappeared. She had gone to New York for six months, moved into an apartment with three friends, and then left for California as soon as she found the job she wanted in L.A. From now on, they would see her on Thanksgiving and Christmas, if they were lucky, and God only knew what would happen once she got married, not that she had any plans. Paris knew only too well that in August, when Wim left, her life would be forever changed.
After twenty-four years out of the job market, she couldn't exactly head for New York and go to work. She'd been baking cookies and driving carpools for too long. The only thing she had thought of doing so far was volunteer work in Stamford, working with abused kids, or on a literacy program a friend of hers had started in the public schools for underprivileged high school students who had managed to get most of the way through high school and could barely read. Beyond that, she had no idea what she was going to do with herself. Peter had told her years before that once the kids left, it would be a great opportunity for them to travel together, and to do things they had never been able to do before. But his work hours had stretched so noticeably in the last year, she thought it unlikely he would be able to get away. He rarely even made it home for dinner anymore. From what Paris could see, for the moment at least, both of her children and her husband had busy, productive lives, and she didn't. And she knew she had to do something about it soon. The prospect of the vast amount of free time she was about to have on her hands was beginning to frighten her. She had talked to Peter about it on several occasions, and he had no useful suggestions to make. He told her she'd figure it out sooner or later, and she knew she would. At forty-six, she was young enough to start a career if she wanted to, the problem was that she didn't know what she wanted to do. She liked things the way they were, taking care of her children and husband, and attending to their every need on the weekendsparticularly Peter's. Unlike some of her friends, whose marriages had shown signs of strain over the years, or even ruptured entirely, Paris was still in love with him. He was kinder, gentler, more considerate, in fact he was more sophisticated and seasoned, and even better looking than he had been when they got married. And he always said the same about her.
Paris was slim and lithe and athletic. Once the children were older and she had more free time, she played tennis almost every day, and was in terrific shape. She wore her straight blond hair long, and most of the time wore it pulled back in a braid. She had classic Grace Kelly good looks, and green eyes. Her figure was noteworthy, her laughter easy, and her sense of humor quick to ignite, much to the delight of her friends. She used to love playing practical jokes, which never failed to amuse her children. Peter was far quieter by nature, and always had been. By the time he came home at night after a long day and the commute on the train, more often than not, he was too tired to do much more than listen to her, and make the occasional comment. He came to life more on the weekends, but even then he was quiet and somewhat reserved. And in the last year he had been consumed with work. This was, in fact, the first dinner party they had given in three months. He had worked late every Friday night, and gone back into town some Saturdays, to clear things off his desk, or meet with clients. But Paris was always patient about it. She made few demands on him, and had a profound respect for his diligence about his work. It was what made him so good at what he did, and so highly admired in business and legal circles. She couldn't fault him for being conscientious, although she missed spending more time with him. Particularly now, with Meg gone for the past six months, and Wim busy with his own life and friends in the final weeks of his senior year. Peter's heavy workload in recent months reminded her yet again that she was going to have to find something to occupy her time in September. She had even thought of starting a catering business, or investing in a nursery, since she enjoyed her garden so much. But the catering business, she knew, would interfere with her time with Peter on the weekends, and she wanted to be available to him whenever he was home, which was seldom enough these days.
She took a shower and dressed after checking the table and cruising through the kitchen to check on the caterers, and everything seemed in good order. They were having five couples for dinner, all of them good friends. She was looking forward to it, and hoped Peter would get home in time to unwind before the guests arrived. She was thinking of him, when Wim stuck his head in her bedroom door while she was getting dressed. He wanted to tell her his plans, a house rule she rigidly enforced even at his age. She wanted to know where her children were at all times, and with whom. Paris was the consummate responsible mother and devoted wife. Everything in her life was in perfect order, and relatively good control.
"I'm going over to the Johnsons' with Matt," Wim said, glancing at her, as she pulled up the side zipper of a white lace skirt. She was already wearing a strapless tube top to match, and high-heeled silver sandals.
"Are you staying there, or going somewhere else afterward?" She smiled at him. He was a handsome boy, and looked like his father. Wim had been six feet three by the time he reached fifteen, and had grown another inch since. He had his father's dark brown hair and piercing blue eyes, and he smiled as he looked at his mother. Wim thought she always looked pretty, when she got dressed up, and he watched as she wound her long blond hair into a bun as they talked. He always thought his mother had a simple elegance about her, and he was as proud of her as she was of him. He was not only a good student, but had been a star athlete all through high school. "Are you going to a party tonight?" Paris asked wisely. For the past month at least, if not two, the seniors had been kicking up their heels, and Wim was always in the thick of things. Girls were crazy about him, and drawn to him like a magnet, although he had been going out with the same girl since Christmas, and Paris liked her. She was a nice girl from a wholesome family in Greenwich. Her mother was a teacher, and her father a doctor.
"Yeah, we might go to a party later. "He looked momentarily sheepish. She knew him too well. He had been thinking of not telling her about it. She always asked so many questions. He and his sister both complained about it, but in another sense, they liked it. There was never any question about how much she loved them.
"Whose house?" she asked, as she finished her hair and put on just a dash of blush and lipstick.
"The Steins'," Wim said with a grin. She always asked. Always. And he knew before she said it what the next question would be.
"Will the parents be there?" Even at eighteen, she didn't want him at unsupervised parties. It was an invitation to trouble, and when they were younger, she had called to verify it herself. In the past year, she had finally relented, and was willing to take Wim's word. But there were still incidents now and then when he tried to pull the wool over her eyes. As she said, it was his job to try and put one over on her, and hers to figure it out when he did. She was pretty good about sussing things out, and most of the time he was honest, and she was comfortable about where he went.