“C’mon, it’s only five dollars.” In the sunny quad, a blond student with dreadlocks held out a twisted piece of blue and white blown glass. She sat next to a neon poster board sign advertising a club: Wishes. Odd name, at that. “You can make any wish you want.”
“No, thanks.” Meg pushed away from the flimsy pole-tented table, determined to catch her professor before the day’s exam. In her first month of university life, she’d learned to shove or be shoved. No one listened to please or thank you, and she had to insist on being heard.
“You know you want one. This is my last one, and after today you won’t be able to get any.” The student thrust the translucent item toward Meg, who jerked away.
Something repelled her about the girl’s manner. She was too insistent, too confident, and too knowing. It was like encountering a door-to-door salesperson, only in the open grass of the campus quad.
“I’m late! Get out of my way.” Her phone rang, and the caller ID flashed Mom. Meg didn’t want to be the loser freshman fielding mom calls, but she had to answer or risk increasingly frantic inquiries whether she was sick, dying, kidnapped, or all three. Brandon University had a strict weapons policy and multi-pronged security team designed to handle catastrophes such as a gunman on campus or terrorist attack. However, the elder Margaret Wilson, known to family and friends as Peggy, believed every scare story around. No security was good enough for her baby. Meg rolled her eyes and tapped the button to answer her call.
“Meg, don’t forget your dentist appointment this afternoon. You also have to sign your dormitory paperwork.” Peggy’s voice carried across the telecommunication line. She called at least five times a day. Most of the time she had various reminders for her daughter, as if Meg couldn’t remember anything on her own.
“I know, Mom!” Actually, Meg didn’t. She figured she’d do all of that later on. She was more concerned about her awful anatomy and physiology test later that day. Not that she would tell her mom about it. Peggy would grow frantic, demanding to know how much she had studied and how much the test counted toward Meg’s final grade.
“All right, two dollars. But that’s my last offer.” Meg blinked, distracted from her phone call. The dreadlocks bounced as the student waved the useless bauble in front of Meg’s nose. “You’ll regret it otherwise.” Somehow, the words came across as a threat.
“You need your hepatitis A shot updated, too. Remember, we’re visiting the cousins for Christmas.” Peggy’s doggedness had gotten her daughter through secondary school and into a respected university when Meg would have preferred modeling or fashion, but she wasn’t finished with Project Perfect Daughter.
Meg groaned. Instead of visiting glamorous Paris or sun-drenched Athens, she had to spend Christmas holidays poking around the family historical sites an hour outside of London. Not London that could have meant shopping and glamorous nights out, but a town so small it didn’t have its own train station. Forget airports. “Maybe I could travel on my own,” she suggested. Anything to get out of the inevitable lecture on their proud family history. Or, even worse, a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to sit through Shakespeare’s interminable plays. Why couldn’t her family have been Greek? Or French?
“You know how much it means to your father to visit his great-grandmother’s grave. You’re named after her, you know.”
Meg did know. Lady Margaret Victoria Bowen, the duchess or countess or some such who married someone fancy and spawned a line of descendants who emigrated to America just in time to enjoy the riches of the new world. Every eldest son named his eldest daughter Margaret after her. Meg’s dad just had to have the luck of falling in love with a Margaret. It was a sign, he said.
As for Meg, she would have preferred a name like Shakira or Nevaeh, something that stood out in a crowd and didn’t scream of powdered, smelly nursing home residents. She pretended her real name was Megan, at least after others forgot the teachers calling roll on the first day of class. Megara. Maybe she’d try that this year.
“Listen, I have to go.”
Startled, Meg looked up at the student in front of her. The turquoise table tent canopy fluttered, and the girl held out the glass one more time. This time, the shake of glass was more urgent.
“I’ll give it to you.”
Meg stared at her suspiciously. No one gave something for nothing, not even weirdos on campus. On the phone, her mother had switched topics and was exhorting Meg to schedule her annual well-woman exam. Pap smears, yuck! Meg cringed at the thought and propped one hand on her hip. “What do you want?”
The girl snapped the table covering into neat folds and pressed the blue and white piece into Meg’s hand. Before Meg could reply, the girl ducked into the crowds streaming across the lawn. The big campus bell tolled ten o’clock.
Meg put the glass into her pocket, absentmindedly patting the denim. She gave her mother a nonsensical answer, turned around, and gaped. Where the tent and table had stood, there was nothing. Not even indentations on the grass to show where the table and chair had rested. In fact, the space seemed to exist in a silent vacuum. The second Meg stepped outside the area, a rush of noise hit her ears. Students laughed, chatted, and shouted all around her, where before she could only hear the voice of the glass-selling girl. The hairs on the back of Meg’s neck prickled.
She shook her head, giving her mother a hasty goodbye and clicking off the phone. Getting used to college had been more difficult than she’d anticipated. She hadn’t prepared for her test, and she’d stayed up too late getting to know her classmates. She must be tired. Maybe she had imagined the entire thing. Still, she felt through the top of her jeans pocket.
A hard lump of the glass pressed into her flesh. What had the girl said to her?
Any wish you want.
Could it be true?
Cartwell House, 1898
The Marquess of Heathgrove stared in consternation at his butler, nearly failing to maintain his composure. Only the unnatural rise to his voice gave him away. “Gone, you say?”
“Yes, my lord,” the servant answered, stepping backward. Cyril’s reputation for even-temperedness must have paled in light of the terrible news. “Mrs. Sedgwick reports there are no signs of Lady Heathgrove inside Cartwell. The footmen are, of course, searching the grounds but there is no sign of exit or entry. Lady Heathgrove has disappeared without a trace.”
Cyril turned away from his butler under pretense of straightening his waistcoat. Jakes was an impeccable servant under all circumstances, and he would be shocked at seeing his master lose control. At the tender age of twenty-six, Cyril had anticipated a leisurely few decades as Earl of Cosgrove before assuming the leadership of the Heathgrove estate. The untimely death of his father had changed everything, including this hasty marriage. No one would rest easy until the only son of the Marquess of Heathgrove produced an heir to the family estate. Who had thought taking a wife would cause such a disturbance? Plenty of mothers had thrust their marriageable daughters at him for the past few years. Why couldn’t he have chosen one who didn’t cause scandal in their first few days together?
Jakes straightened his back, announcing the entrance of the dowager marchioness. Cyril stared at her, unable to comprehend this turn of events.
“Gone?” he repeated, swallowing hard. It was hard enough to assume the duties of marquess before his thirtieth birthday, let alone manage a disappearing wife. And he had thought the difficult part would be giving up his solitude. The wedding, complete with all the pomp and ceremony befitting his station, had been conducted beautifully. If the new Lady Heathgrove had been rather subdued, he assumed it was due to nerves and typical maidenly shyness.
Another mother might have comforted him or offered him platitudes that all would be well. Instead, she folded her lips in a thin line and rapped her fingertips across Cyril’s teakwood desk. “A quiet annulment may be best,” his mother announced. “She can be declared insane and housed in a sanatorium for her health.”
“Mother, you can’t be serious.” Cyril pushed his chair back and stood at the window, staring past the heavy velvet drapes. Outside on the lawn, servants carried small oil lamps as they scurried across the vast estate. “There must be an explanation,” he said at last. “She is hurt, or lost, or…”
His mother, in an unaccustomed show of affection, touched his arm with the same hand that tapped his end of term reports, admonishing him to try harder each year at public school. “Remember when Lord Hart’s wife left him at the altar? He was declared unfit to inherit, and he lost the estate. You may be the only son of Heathgrove, but there are plenty of would-be heirs. We must not have a scandal,” she reminded him. “It’s better to face facts than to wish for what cannot be.”
He turned toward her, shrugging in a mixture of helplessness and fatigue. “I didn’t want to be marquess. I didn’t want to marry. I can’t handle everything that Father did, not in the same way.” He wanted to do his duty, but it wasn’t easy.
“My gentle son,” his mother said, in a tone that tried to sound disapproving but could not. “The time has come for you all too soon, I agree, but it is here and you must accept your lot. We will find you a new wife, one who won’t shame us. You are young and there is still time.”
Cyril’s heart sank. His mother was a quick, decisive woman who made sweeping changes without thinking first. He didn’t agree with her assessment, but what alternative action could he propose? He certainly didn’t have a wife on hand to challenge the idea of annulment. A wife. What had happened to his wife? He had barely spoken to Margaret in their first few days of marriage, and he caught a glimpse of her sobbing now and then. It would be hard to describe his feelings for her as more than dutiful protection, but years of noble upbringing left him at loss to cast out the woman who now legally belonged to him. “What if we find her? I can’t throw her out.”
“Sentimental, as always. Your father wouldn’t approve.” She gave a small smile. His mother had always wanted a strong son, but she loved the one she had. “Still, if you are to become a man you must do as you think best. If she is found, will you take back the woman who shamed you and your family? Think of the staff. Could anyone serve a mistress of the house who ran away from her duties and husband? What if one of your cousins found out? What if it were your cousin Daniel?”
Daniel, his elder cousin on his father’s side, had contested the will from the beginning. His father was younger than Cyril’s, but Daniel was older by half a year. In fact, Daniel’s challenges had spurred this hasty wedding in the first place. The sooner Cyril’s wife could produce an heir, the sooner the unmarried Daniel’s challenge would go away. Even if Margaret wasn’t the perfect wife, they had to get her back somehow.
“We don’t know,” Cyril protested. He knew, however, that circumstances were against the new lady of the house. Even if she had taken sick or had a dire emergency, what would excuse leaving the grounds without her husband’s permission? At that, a thought came to mind. “What if she was homesick?”
His mother stared at him as if he had gone mad. Perhaps he had. “And what if?”
“Jakes,” he said, motioning to the butler who moved swiftly forward. “Send word to Lady Heathgrove’s family that she has taken ill. Perhaps they have news of her.”
“Yes, my lord,” Jakes answered and withdrew from the room.
Cyril would have crossed his fingers if his devout mother had not been shocked at superstition. There had to be an explanation for his new wife’s sudden absence, but what could it be?
Brandon University, 2016
“But everyone’s going to Paris for spring break! You and Dad fly off to Europe every other week. It’s not that much to ask.” Meg winked hard to produce a single tear for the benefit of the webcam. She allowed her lip to tremble, and she hunched her shoulders forward in the picture of despair.
“Your dad and I agreed, honey. It’s your first year of college and we want you to succeed.” Her mother adjusted the volume level, and her arm blocked half the screen. She had never become comfortable with new technology, even though she had learned how to video call. Nothing could keep her from her baby.
“I didn’t want to come to college at all, but you insisted. If I have to be stuck here studying all the time, you could at least give me something to look forward to.” Meg was too old for pouting, but her lower lip trembled more. She hated everything about life away from home, right down to carrying quarters to feed washing machines. Shared washing machines, she thought with a shudder. She’d caught sight of a stinky freshman throwing in sneakers—sneakers!—streaked with mud and sand. Who knew what other filth and germs lurked in the tubs? She’d get an infection, or perhaps a life-threatening illness. What about that flesh-eating disease someone had gotten while at college? Had it started because of dirty washing machines?
“How’s the studying going? You’ve had your first tests, right?” Her mom’s forehead creased in concern. “I know the anatomy and physiology is tough, but if you’re going to be pre-med—”
“I’m not!” Frustration welled up inside of Meg until she no longer had to fake tears. Ever since she had been a little girl, both parents had expected the same thing. If they’d had a son, maybe they would have forced him to carry on the family tradition and left her alone. “Just because Dad’s a doctor, you think I should—”
“Honey,” her mother remonstrated. “We don’t think anything. But you won’t consider law or business, and you need a major that will train you for a good-paying job. Dad didn’t build up a successful practice by enjoying luxuries all the time. Do you want to be a housewife like me?”
It was an age-old lecture, that girls of Meg’s generation needed to be independent, career-minded, and self-supporting. “You have a great life,” she pointed out. “Why can’t I marry a rich doctor and skip the schooling? I’ll never remember all the stupid names of bones and veins and arteries. Dr. Rasmussen gives the worst tests, and he doesn’t cover half the information in class. How was I supposed to know that the thoracic cavity expands when the diaphragm contracts?” Meg frowned. “Or relaxes. Whatever. The point is, I hate school! If you won’t let me come home, give me the trip to Paris. Or even Mexico, if you won’t do Paris. Cancun is supposed to be nice. Not that awful England for Christmas. Please?”
Her mother rubbed her hands in the agitated, worried way she always reacted to Meg’s pleas. “I’ll talk to your father,” she said at last. “But you have to give school a real try, you hear me? Straight A’s for midterm, or at least mostly A’s with only a few B’s. Otherwise, no deal.”
“Mom!” Meg was aghast. How could she fit in time with her friends, or the beach for that matter, if she had to study all the time? She’d become a social outcast. “C’mon, don’t be so unreasonable.” She cracked her right big toe against her left calf, a habit her mother had tried to break for years.
“Gotta go, sweetheart. The cable guy’s here to fix the satellite dish. Make me proud of my baby girl.”
The computer screen went black, and Meg pounded the keyboard in a vain attempt to summon her mother. When the calls went unanswered, she picked up her phone—a prized, sought-after recent model with an extra hundred gigabytes of storage—and dialed a number while searching for a jacket in her closet.
“Hello, you have reached the voicemail of Richard Wilson. If this is a patient with a medical emergency, please press zero to be connected with the hospital switchboard. Otherwise, leave a message and I’ll get back to you.”
Meg threw on her favorite leather jacket and stuffed a fist into the left pocket. She’d head out to the quad before making an appearance in class. Really, Dr. Rasmussen should be grateful anyone showed up when his classes were such an abominable muddle. She dialed another number, her father’s private cell phone.
“Daddy,” she broke in as soon as he answered. She should have given up the childish term years ago, but in moments of stress she couldn’t help herself. “Classes are so hard, and I can’t get anything no matter how much I try. You remember what med school was like, don’t you?”
“Sunshine,” he answered, sounding harassed. “I have to run. Chin up, there’s a good girl, and I’m sure everything will be fine. It’s only your first month of college.”
“But, Dad!” Meg wailed. “I’m trying my best. It’s not my fault I’m stupid.”
Just as she’d hoped, her father snapped to attention. He hated for his perfect princess to say anything self-defeating. “You’re not stupid, sunshine. You’re my bright girl who can do anything if you set your mind to it. Don’t cry.”
“I know something that would make me feel better.” She sniffled, better able to produce the appropriate sounds when he couldn’t see her dry eyes. Maybe she was manipulating him, but it felt so good for him to come to her rescue. Who wouldn’t want a daddy who loved his little girl?
“Anything for my sunshine.”
“Can I go to Paris for spring break? Please?” Inspired, she pulled out an idea. “Isn’t there medical stuff there? I’d make it an educational trip.” She could buy a book in France, maybe, and pretend to read it.
“Don’t you want me to be happy?” Of course he did. How could he deny her anything? She cheered up before he spoke. Daddy would make everything right. Wouldn’t he?’
“I’ll have to talk to Mom about it. Have a great class.”
Before she could protest, he clicked off. Stunned, Meg stared from her computer screen to phone. Before she could think, she hurled the phone at the wall. A split second after the phone left her hand, she curled her fingers in a futile attempt to take back her action, but the costly technology crashed to the cheap tile floor. The screen shattered, the battery cover popped off, and the brand-new case cracked down the middle.
Meg stretched out her left hand and picked up the phone, cradling it as if it were a small child. She loved her new phone. She never meant to break it, but she couldn’t control her temper. Tears dripped down her chin as she asked herself questions no one could answer.
What’s wrong with me?
Why is my life so awful?
Why can’t anything go right?