Read Nine Perfect Strangers Online

Authors: Liane Moriarty

Nine Perfect Strangers (6 page)

“I think I recognized her,” said Jessica.

“Really?”

“I'm pretty sure she's Frances Welty, the writer. I used to be crazy about her books.”

“What sort of books?” asked Ben. He opened his car door.

She said something he didn't catch. “Sorry, what?”


Romance.
” Jessica slammed the passenger door so hard he winced.

6

 

Frances

That's more like it
, thought Frances when she got her first look at the Victorian mansion emerging majestically in the distance. The road was paved now, thankfully, and the bushland became progressively greener and softer. Tranquillum House was sandstone, three storys, with a red corrugated-iron roof and a princess tower. Frances had the delightful sensation of time-traveling to the late nineteenth century, although the sensation was somewhat spoiled by the yellow Lamborghini purring along behind her.

How could those kids afford that car? Drug dealers? Trust-fund kids? Drug dealing seemed more likely than trust fund; neither of them had that creamy entitled look of old money.

She glanced in the rearview mirror again. From here, with her hair blowing in the wind, Jessica looked like the pretty girl she was meant to be. You couldn't see all the procedures she'd had done to her young face. The thick layer of makeup was bad enough, but oh goodness me, the blinding white teeth, the enormous puffy lips, and the work, it was
such
bad
work. Frances was not opposed to cosmetic procedures—in fact she was very fond of them—but there was something so sad and garish about this sweet child's plumped-up, smoothed-out face.

Surely all that jewelry she was wearing couldn't be real, could it? Those massive sapphires in her ears would be worth … what? Frances had no idea. A lot. The car was obviously real, though, so maybe the jewelry was real too.

Up-and-coming mobsters? YouTube stars?

The boy, Jessica's “husband” (they seemed too young for such grown-up terms), was cute as a button. Frances would try not to flirt with him. The joke might wear thin after ten days. Possibly even bordering on … sleazy?
Possibly bordering on pedophilia, darling
, Alain would say. It was awful to think of lovely Ben shuddering over Frances the way Frances had once shuddered over the behavior of older male authors at publishing parties.

They used to be particularly hideous if they'd recently won a literary prize. Their dialogue was so powerful and impenetrable it didn't require punctuation! So naturally they didn't require permission to slip-slide their hairy hands over the body of a young writer of
genre
fiction. In their minds, Frances virtually owed them sex in return for her unseemly mass-market sales of “airport trash.”

Stop it. Don't think about the review, Frances
.

She'd marched in the Women's March! She was not “a blight on feminism” just because she described the color of her hero's eyes. How could you fall in love with someone if you didn't know the color of his eyes? And she was
obliged
to tie everything up at the end with a “giant bow.” Those were the rules. If Frances left her endings ambiguous, her readers would come after her with pitchforks.

Do not think about the review. Do not think about the review.

She dragged her mind back to Ben and Jessica. So, yes, she would remember to be age-appropriate with Ben. She would pretend they were related. She'd behave like his aunt. She certainly wouldn't
touch
him. My God, she hadn't touched him already, had she? The review
was making her doubt everything about herself. Her hands tightened around the steering wheel. She had a habit of touching people on the arm to make a point, or when they said something that made her laugh, or when she felt in any way fondly toward them.

At least talking with Ben and Jessica had calmed her down. She'd scared herself for a moment there. Loss of self, indeed. What a drama queen.

The road circled up toward the house. Ben politely kept his powerful car at a respectable distance behind Frances even though he probably longed to floor it on the curves.

She drove up a stately driveway lined with towering pine trees.

“Not too shabby,” she murmured.

She'd prepared herself for a seedier reality than the website pictures, but up close Tranquillum House was beautiful. The lacy white balconies glowed in the sunlight. The garden was lush and green in the summer heat, with a sign helpfully proclaiming
THIS PROPERTY USES RAINWATER
so no one could criticize the lushness.

Two white-uniformed staff members, with the floaty, straight-backed postures of the spiritually advanced, emerged unhurriedly from the house onto the wide veranda to greet them. Perhaps they'd been off meditating while she was stuck outside the gate trying to ring them. Frances had barely come to a complete stop when her car door was opened by the man. He was young, of course, like everyone, Asian, with a hipster beard and a man bun, bright-eyed and smooth-skinned. A delightful man-kid.

“Namaste.” The man-kid pressed his palms together and bowed. “A very warm welcome to Tranquillum House.”

He spoke with a tiny … measured … pause between each word.

“I'm Yao,” he said. “Your personal wellness consultant.”

“Hello, Yao. I'm Frances Welty. Your new victim.”

She undid her seatbelt and smiled up at him. She told herself she would not laugh, or attempt to imitate his yogic voice, or let it drive her mad.

“We'll take care of everything from here,” said Yao. “How many bags do you have?”

“Just the one,” said Frances. She indicated the back seat. “I can carry it. It's quite light.” She didn't want to let the bag out of her sight because she'd packed a few banned items, like coffee, tea, chocolate (dark chocolate—antioxidants!), and just
one
bottle of a good red (also antioxidants!).

“Leave your bag right there, Frances, and your keys in the ignition,” said Yao firmly.

Damn it. Oh well. Her slight embarrassment over her contraband, even though there was no way he could tell just by looking at the bag (she was normally such a good girl when it came to rules), caused her to hop out of the car awkwardly and too fast, forgetting her new fragility.

“Ooof,” she said. She straightened slowly and met Yao's eyes. “Back pain.”

“I'm sorry to hear that,” said Yao. “I'm going to arrange an urgent massage at the spa for you.” He took a small notepad and pencil out of his pocket and made a note.

“I also have a paper cut,” said Frances solemnly. She held up her thumb.

Yao took hold of her thumb and peered at it. “Nasty,” he said. “We'll need to get some aloe vera on that.”

Oh God, he was gorgeous with his little notebook, taking her paper cut so seriously. She caught herself studying his shoulders and looked away fast.
For God's sake, Frances.
Nobody had warned her that this would happen during middle age: these sudden, wildly inappropriate waves of desire for young men, with no biological imperative whatsoever. Maybe this was what men felt like all their lives? No wonder the poor things had to pay out all that money in lawsuits.

“And you're here for the ten-day cleanse,” said Yao.

“That's right,” said Frances.

“Awesome,” said Yao, causing Frances to fortunately lose all desire in an instant. She could never sleep with someone who said “awesome.”

“So … may I go inside?” asked Frances snappily. Now she felt quite ill at the thought of sex with the man-kid, or sex with anyone for that matter; she was far too hot.

She saw that Yao was distracted by the sight of Ben and Jessica's car, or possibly by Jessica, who was standing with one hip cocked, slowly curling a long strand of hair around her finger while Ben talked to another white-uniformed wellness consultant, a young woman with skin so beautiful it looked like it was lit from within.

“That's a Lamborghini,” said Frances.

“I know it is,” said Yao, forgetting to put the tiny pauses between his words. He gestured toward the house, stepping aside to let Frances cross the threshold first.

She walked into a large entrance hall and waited for her eyes to adjust to the dim light. The soft hush unique to old houses washed over her like cool water. There were beautiful details wherever she looked: honey-colored parquetry floors, antique chandeliers, ornately carved ceiling cornices, and leadlight windows.

“This is so beautiful,” she said. “Oh—and look at that. It's like the staircase from the
Titanic
!”

She walked over to touch the lustrous mahogany wood. Flecks of light streamed from a stained-glass window on the landing.

“As you may know, Tranquillum House was built in 1840 and this is the original red-cedar and rosewood staircase,” said Yao. “Other people have commented on the resemblance to the
Titanic'
s staircase. So far we've had much better luck than the
Titanic
. We won't sink, Frances!”

He'd clearly made this joke many times before. Frances gave him a more generous laugh than it deserved.

“The house was built of locally quarried sandstone by a wealthy solicitor from England.” Yao continued to recite facts like a nerdy museum guide. “He wanted a house that would be ‘the best in the colony.'”

“Built with the help of convicts, I understand,” said Frances, who had read the website.

“That's right,” said Yao. “The solicitor was granted five hundred acres of good farming land and assigned ten convicts. He got lucky because they included two former stonemason brothers from York.”

“We have a convict in our family tree,” said Frances. “She was transported from Dublin for stealing a silk gown. We're tremendously proud of her.”

Yao gestured away from the staircase to make it clear she wasn't to go up there just yet. “I know you'll want to rest after that long drive, but first I'd like to give you a quick tour of your new home for the next ten days.”

“Unless I don't last the distance,” said Frances. Ten days suddenly seemed like a very long time. “I might go home early.”

“No one goes home early,” said Yao serenely.

“Well, yes, but they
can
,” said Frances. “If they
choose
.”

“No one goes home early,” repeated Yao. “It just doesn't happen. No one
wants
to go home at all! You're about to embark on a truly transformative experience, Frances.”

He led her to a large room at the side of the house with bay windows overlooking the valley and one long monastery-like table. “This is the dining room where you'll come for your meals. All the guests eat together, of course.”

“Of course,” said Frances hoarsely. She cleared her throat. “Great.”

“Breakfast is served at seven
A.M.
, lunch at noon, and dinner at six
P.M.

“Breakfast at
seven
A.M.
?” Frances blanched. She could manage the communal meals for lunch and dinner, but she couldn't eat and talk with strangers in the morning. “I'm a night owl,” she told Yao. “I'm normally comatose at seven
A.M.

“Ah, but that's the old Frances—the new Frances will have already done a sunrise tai chi class and guided meditation by seven,” said Yao.

“I seriously doubt that,” said Frances.

Yao smiled, as if he knew better.

“There will be a five-minute warning bell before meals are served—or smoothies, during the fast periods. We do ask that you come promptly to the dining room as soon as you hear the warning bell.”

“Certainly,” said Frances, with a rising sense of horror. She'd quite forgotten about the “fast periods.” “Is there … ah, room service?”

“I'm afraid not, although your morning and late-evening smoothies will be brought to your room,” said Yao.

“But no club sandwiches at midnight, hey?”

Yao shuddered. “God no.”

He led her past the dining room to a cozy living room lined with bookshelves. A number of couches surrounded a marble fireplace.

“The Lavender Room,” said Yao. “You're welcome to come here any time to relax, read, or enjoy an herbal tea.”

He said “herbal” the American way:
erbal
.

“Lovely,” said Frances, mollified by the sight of the books. They walked by a closed door with the word
PRIVATE
stenciled on it in gold letters which Frances, being Frances, felt strongly compelled to open. She couldn't abide member-only lounges to which she didn't have membership.

“This leads to our director's office at the top of the house.” Yao touched the door gently. “We do ask that you only open this door if you have an appointment.”

“By all means,” said Frances resentfully.

“You will meet the director later today,” said Yao, as if this were a special treat she'd been long anticipating. “At your first guided meditation.”

“Awesome,” said Frances through her teeth.

“Now you'll want to see the gym,” said Yao.

“Oh, not especially,” said Frances, but he was already leading her back across the reception area to the opposite side of the house.

“This was originally the drawing room,” said Yao. “It's been refurbished as a state-of-the-art gym.”

“Well
that
is a
tragedy
,” Frances proclaimed when Yao opened a glass door to reveal a light-filled room crowded with what appeared to be elaborate torture devices.

Yao's smile faltered. “We kept all the original plasterwork.” He pointed at the ceiling.

Frances gave a disdainful sniff.
Marvelous. You can lie back and admire the ceiling rose while you're being drawn and quartered.

Yao looked at her face and hurriedly closed the gym door. “Let me show you the yoga and meditation studio.” He continued past the gym to a door at the far corner of the house. “Watch your head.”

She ducked unnecessarily beneath the doorjamb and followed Yao down a flight of narrow stone stairs.

“I smell wine,” she said.

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