Zoe McCourt was sixteen when she met the boy who would change her life. She'd grown up in the mountains ofWest Virginia , the oldest of four. By the time she was twelve, her father had already run off with the wife of another man.
Even then, Zoe hadn't considered it any great loss. Her daddy was a short-tempered, moody man who preferred drinking beer with the boys or banging his neighbor's wife rather than seeing to his own.
Still, it was hard, since most weeks he had at least brought home a paycheck.
Her mother was a thin, nervous woman who smoked too much and compensated for her husband's desertion by replacing him, with some regularity, with boyfriends cut from the same cloth as Bobby Lee McCourt. They made her happy in the short term, angry and sad in the long, but she'd never been able to do without a man for more than a month straight in any case.
Crystal McCourt had raised her brood in a double-wide, slotted into a lot in theHillsideTrailer Park . After her husband ran off,Crystal got shit-faced drunk and, leaving Zoe in charge, hopped in her third hand Camaro to head out in pursuit of, in her words, "the cheating son of a bitch and his godforsaken whore."
She'd been gone for three days. She hadn't found Bobby, but she came back sober. The chase had cost her some of her self-respect, and her job at Debbie's House of Beauty.
Debbie's House might have been more of a hut, but it cut deep to lose the regular pay.
The experience toughenedCrystal considerably. She sat her children down and told them things were going to be rocky and things were going to be hard, but they'd find a way.
She nailed up her beautician's license in the trailer's kitchen and opened her own house of beauty.
She undercut Debbie's prices, and she had a talent with hair.
So they'd gotten by. The trailer had smelled of peroxide and permanents and smoke, but they'd gotten by.
Zoe shampooed heads, swept up shorn hair, and minded her three siblings. When she showed an aptitude, she was given comb-outs or allowed to trim.
And she dreamed of better, of more, of the world outside that trailer park.
She did well in school, especially in math. Her skill with numbers put her in charge of her mother's books, the taxes, the bills.
She was an adult before her fourteenth birthday, with the child inside yearning for something more.
It was no surprise that she was dazzled by James Marshall.
He was so different from the boys she knew. Not just because he was a little older—nineteen to her sixteen—but because he'd been places and seen things. And God, he was so handsome. Like Prince Charming out of the storybook.
His great-grandfather might have worked the mines in those hills, but there was no coal dust on James. The generations between had scrubbed it all away, and added a sheen of polish and gloss.
His family had money, the kind of money that bought class, and education, and trips toEurope . They had the biggest house in town, as white and showy as a bridal gown, and James and his younger sister were both sent to private schools.
TheMarshalls liked to give parties, big, splashy ones with live music and fancy catered food. Mrs. Marshall would always haveCrystal come right to the house to do her hair for a party, and Zoe often went along to do Mrs. Marshall's nails.
She would dream about that house, so clean and full of flowers and pretty things. It was so wonderful to know people lived that way. Not everyone was crowded into a trailer that smelled of chemicals and stale smoke.
She promised herself that one day she would live in a house. It didn't have to be big and grand like theMarshalls ', but it would be a real house, and it would have a little yard.
And one day, she would travel to the places Mrs. Marshall spoke of—New York City,Paris ,Rome .
She saved her pennies for it from her tip money, and the pay she earned from the odd jobs she took. Well, the pay that didn't go to helping Mama keep the wolf from the door.
She was good with money. At sixteen she had four hundred and fourteen dollars tucked away in a secret savings account.
In April, when she turned sixteen, she made some extra money helping to serve at one of theMarshalls ' parties. She was presentable enough, and eager for the work.
She wore her hair long back then, a straight stream of black down her back. She'd always been slim, but she'd blossomed in a way that had the boys sniffing around her. She had no time for boys—or not very much.
She had long-lidded eyes of golden brown that were always looking, watching, wondering, and a wide, full mouth that was slow to smile. Her features were sharp and angular, adding a touch of the exotic that was a contrast to her innate shyness.
She did what she was told and did it well—and kept, as much as it was possible, to herself.
Maybe it was the shyness, or the dreamy eyes, or the quiet competence that attracted James. But he flirted with her on that early-spring evening, flustered her, and ultimately flattered her. And he asked to see her again.
They met in secret, which added to the thrill. The sheer romance of having the attention of someone like James was overpowering. He listened to her, so her shyness dropped away and she told him her dreams and hopes.
He was sweet to her, and whenever she could slip away they went for long drives or simply sat and looked at the stars and talked.
Of course, before long, they did more than talk.
He said he loved her. He said he needed her.
On a soft night in June, on a red blanket spread out on the floor of the summer woods, she lost her innocence to him with the eager optimism that belongs to the young.
He was still sweet, still attentive, and promised they'd always be together. She imagined he'd believed it. She certainly had.
But there was a price to pay for being young and foolish. She had paid it. And, she thought, so had he. Maybe he'd paid much, much more than she had.
Because while she had lost her innocence, James had lost a more precious treasure.
She glanced over at that treasure now. Her son.
If James had changed her life, Simon had righted it again. In a new way, a new place. James had given Zoe her first taste of what it was to be a woman. The child had made her one.
She'd gotten her house—her little house with its little yard—and she'd gotten it by herself. Maybe she'd never traveled to all those wonderful places as she'd once dreamed of doing, but she'd seen all the wonders of the world in her son's eyes.
And now, nearly ten years after she'd first held him, first promised him she would never let him down, she was moving forward again, with her son. She was seeing to it that Simon had more.
Zoe McCourt, the shy girl from theWest Virginia hills, was about to open her own business in the pretty town ofPleasant Valley,Pennsylvania , with two women who'd become as much sisters as friends in two short months.
Indulgence. She liked the name. That was what she wanted it to be for the clients and customers. It would be work, hard work, for her, for her friends. But even the work was a kind of indulgence, as it was labor they'd all dreamed of doing.
Malory Price's arts and crafts gallery would occupy one side of the main level of their sweet new house. Dana Steele's bookstore would stand on the other. And her own salon would spread over the top floor.
Just a few more weeks, she thought. A few more weeks of remodeling and freshening up, of setting up supplies, stock, equipment. Then they would open the doors.
It made her belly jump to think of it, but it wasn't only fear. Some of those jumps were pure excitement.
She knew exactly how it would look when it was done. Full of color and light in the main salon, then softer, relaxing tones in the treatment rooms. She would have candles set around for fragrance and atmosphere, and interesting pictures on the walls. Good lighting to flatter and to soothe.
Indulgence. For the mind, the body, the spirit. She intended to give her customers a bit of all three.
On this evening, she drove from the Valley where she made her home, and would make her business, into the mountains. Where she would face her fate. Simon brooded a little, staring out the window. He wasn't happy, she knew, that she'd made him wear his suit.
But when you were invited to dinner at a place like Warrior's Peak, you dressed for the occasion.
Absently, she tugged at the skirt of her dress. She'd gotten it at the outlet for a good price, and hoped the deep purple jersey was appropriate.
Probably should've gotten something black, she mused, to be more dignified and sober. But she so enjoyed color, and for this event she needed the punch of it for confidence. Tonight was one of the most momentous nights of her life, so she might as well go outfitted in something that made her feel good.
She pressed her lips together. Now that her thoughts had circled around to what she'd tried to avoid thinking about, she had to deal with it.
Just how, she wondered, was she going to explain to a nine-year-old boy what she'd been doing—and more, what she was about to do?
"I guess we'd better talk about why we're going up here to dinner tonight," she began.
"I bet nobody else is wearing a suit," he muttered.
"I bet you're wrong."
He turned his head, slanted her a look. "Dollar."
"Dollar," she agreed.
He looked so much like her, she thought. Sometimes it just struck her with a kind of fierce and possessive joy. Wasn't it funny that there was nothing of James stamped on that face? Those were her eyes, that was her mouth, her nose, her chin, her hair, all tipped just the slightest bit to make them Simon.
"Anyway." She cleared her throat. "You know how I got that invitation to go up there, a couple months ago? And that's where I met Malory and Dana."
"Sure, I remember, because the next day you bought me PlayStation 2, and it wasn't even my birthday."
"Unbirthday presents are the best." She'd been able to buy Simon his heart's desire with part of the twenty-five thousand dollars paid to her for agreeing to… the fantastic.
"You know Malory and Dana, and you know Flynn and Jordan and Bradley."
"Yeah, we hang with them a lot now. They're cool. For old people," he added, with a smirk he knew would make her laugh.
But she didn't laugh.
"Something wrong with them?" he asked quickly.
"No. No. Absolutely nothing's wrong." She chewed her bottom lip as she tried to find the right words. "Um, sometimes people are sort of connected, without even knowing it. I mean, Dana and Flynn are brother and sister—well, stepbrother and stepsister, then Dana gets to be friends with Malory, and Malory meets Flynn, and before you know it, Malory and Flynn fall in love."
"Is this going to be a sloppy love story? Because I might get sick."
"Be sure to lean out the window if you do. So, Flynn's oldest friends are Jordan and Bradley, and when they were younger, Jordan and Dana used to… date." It was the safest word a mother could think of. "Then Jordan and Bradley moved out of the Valley. Then they came back, partly because of this connection I'm getting to. And Jordan and Dana got back together and—"
"Now they're going to get married, and so's Flynn and Malory. It's like an epidemic." He was turned to her now, and his face mirrored preadolescent pain. "If we go to those weddings like we did Aunt Joleen's, you're probably going to make me wear a suit, aren't you?"
"Yes, it's one of my quiet pleasures, this torment of you. What I'm trying to show you is that each of us turned out to be connected, one way or another—to the others. And to something else. I haven't told you much about the people who live at Warrior's Peak."
"They're the magic people."
Zoe's hand jerked on the wheel. Slowing, she pulled off to the shoulder of the winding road. "What do you mean by 'magic people'?"
"Jeez, Mom, I hear you guys talk when you have those meetings and junk. So are they like witches or what? I don't get it."
"No. Yes. I don't know exactly." How did she explain ancient gods to a child? "Do you believe in magic, Simon? I don't mean the card trick kind, but the kind of thing you read about in stories, like Harry Potter or The Hobbit" "If it wasn't real sometimes, how come there are so many books and movies and junk about it?"