"You're a real prince."
He laughed and walked off. She heard the barred door slide open like a sword being pulled from its scabbard. "Guess who's waiting for you out there, Roy?"
Her father's voice now, pouring slow as honey: "My Margaret?"
" 'Fraid not. Margaret's been gone about five years now."
They turned the corner, Wes bearing the brunt of her father's weight. Roy Peabody was a charmer of a man, with hair as white and thick as the inner wing of a dove and blue eyes that always swam with a secret. "Addie!" he crowed, seeing her. "Happy birthday!"
He lunged for her, and Addie staggered. "Come on, Dad. We'll get you home."
Wes hooked his thumb on his belt. "You want a hand getting him out to your car?"
"No, thanks. We can manage." At that moment, her father felt slighter and more insubstantial than Chloe. They walked awkwardly, like contestants in a three-legged race.
Wes held open the door. "Well, shoot, Addie. I'm sorry I had to call you down for this on your birthday."
She did not break stride. "It's not my birthday," she said, and guided her father out.
At 6:30 that morning, Gillian Duncan had lit a match and waved a thermometer through it, spiking a temperature that made her father believe she truly was too sick to go to school. She spent the morning in her bedroom instead, listening to Alanis Morissette, braiding her long red hair, and painting her fingernails and toenails electric blue. In spite of the fact that she was seventeen years old and could fend for herself, her father had taken the day off from work to be with her. It raised her hackles and secretly pleased her all at once. As the owner of Duncan Pharmaceuticals, the biggest employer in Salem Falls, Amos Duncan was generally re-garded as one of its richest and busiest citizens. But then, he had always had time to take care of her; he'd been doing it since Gilly was eight and her mother had died.
She was going crazy in her room and was about to do something really drastic, like pick up a textbook, when the doorbell rang. Listening closely, Gilly heard the voices of her friends downstairs. "Hi, Mr. D," said Meg. "How's Gillian?"
Before he could respond, Whitney interrupted. "We brought her jellybeans. My mom says they soak up a fever, and if they don't, they taste so good you don't care."
"We brought her homework, too," Chelsea added. Painfully tall, self-conscious, and shy, she was one of Gilly's newest friends.
"Well, thank God you're all here," her father said. "I have a hard time recognizing Gilly unless she's glued to the three of you. Just let me see if she's awake."
Gilly dove beneath the covers, trying desperately to look sick. Her father cracked open the door and peered inside. "You up for company, Gilly?"
Rubbing her eyes, Gillian sat up. "Maybe for a little while."
He nodded, then called out to the girls. Meg led the charge up to Gillian's room, a hail of Skechers pounding up the stairs. "I think my whole home could fit in this room," Chelsea breathed, stepping inside.
"Oh, that's right..." Whitney said. "This is the first time you've been to the manor."
Gillian slanted a look at her father. It was a common joke in town that the reason the Duncan home sat to the east whereas all the other roads and developments sat to the west was because Amos had wanted a palace separate and apart for his kingdom.
"Yes," Amos said, with a straight face. "We're putting in a drawbridge this spring."
Chelsea's eyes widened. "For real?"
Whitney laughed. She liked Gillian's dad; they all did. He knew how to make a teenager feel perfectly welcome.
"If you guys tire her out," Amos said, "I'll make you dig the moat." He winked at Chelsea, then pulled the door closed behind him.
The girls wilted onto the carpet, lilies floating on a pond. "So?" Meg asked. "Did you watch Passions?"
Copyright © 2001 by Jodi Picoult. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Pocket Books.
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