Ellen Wharton was pensive as she studied the clothes she had hung on a rolling rack, and the folded items she had laid out on the bed for her trip to New York. Organized, impeccable, meticulous, she was a woman who planned everything and left nothing to chance—her business, her menus, her wardrobe, her social life. She was consummately careful and precise about everything she did. It made for a smooth, orderly life, with few surprises, but also very little opportunity for things to go awry. She had been planning this trip to New York since June, as she did every year, to see her mother. She also went on Thanksgiving every other year, and she usually went once in spring. She intended to do some shopping for two of her clients, and she had an additional purpose to her trip this time.
Ellen ran a successful interior design business, with three assistants, a color specialist, and clients in several cities in Europe who loved her work. She created beautiful environments for them, which they couldn’t have put together themselves, with the best fabrics, handsome furniture that suited their lifestyles and needs, and unusual and inviting color schemes. She wasn’t shy about her fees, but she didn’t need to be—she was well known in the business, had won several awards for her work, and had been published in the most important decorating magazines. She had learned at the feet of the master, she liked to say. Her mother was a greatly respected architect in New York, who had studied at Yale, begun her career working for I. M. Pei, and gone out on her own years before, designing houses mostly in New York, Connecticut, Palm Beach, Houston, Dallas, and anywhere her clients wanted to build a remarkable home.
At thirty-eight, Ellen still loved spending time with her mother and gave her credit for most of what she knew about interior design. She learned something from her mother every time she saw her, and occasionally her mother sent her a client—in Europe or, like the current one whose home Ellen was working on, in Palm Beach. She had decorated the client’s yacht the year before. Her jobs always came in right on budget and on time, which was remarkable in her field and had helped to make her as successful as she was. She had a good solid business and had done well.
Ellen and her mother were very different but respected each other, and Ellen liked working on jobs with her. She loved her mother’s open, airy, clean lines and style of architecture. It was a pleasure doing the interiors of a house her mother had designed, and she often sought her advice about other clients too. They had solved more than one knotty problem together, and at seventy-four, her mother was still full of great and innovative ideas. Grace Madison frequently said that the right answer was always the simplest one. She didn’t like complicated things or cluttering up the houses she designed with gimmicky tricks, a concept Ellen espoused too.
Ellen tried to foresee potential problems and ran a tight ship. Her mother was more spontaneous and open to new ideas, to the point of being thought eccentric at times, but Ellen loved that about her too. Grace was a talented, strong woman, who had survived breast cancer ten years before and hardly missed a day of work while undergoing chemo and radiation. She had been cancer-free ever since, but Ellen worried about her anyway. Her mother didn’t look or act her age, but nonetheless she was gathering years, despite her seemingly limitless energy and youthful looks. Ellen was sorry they didn’t live in the same city, but she had lived in London for nearly eleven years, ten of them since she had married George Wharton, a barrister, and British to his core in every possible way. He had gone to Oxford, and Eton before that. His family was in Burke’s Peerage and typically British in all their history, habits, and traditions. She had made every effort to fit into his life, and learn his very English ways, although she was American, and originally had her own ideas about how to do things. But she respected his, although it wasn’t easy at first.
Ellen ran their home precisely the way George liked it and expected her to. She had enjoyed learning about British customs from him and had adopted many of them herself. But she missed the ease of New York at times, and the familiar ways she had grown up with. She had given up her world for his, and had been young enough to want to do so to please him when they married. And in the ten years since, his preferences had become comfortable for her too.
Her parents had seemed to get along but startled her by getting divorced as soon as she left for college, which her mother said they had been planning quietly for several years. They didn’t hate each other, they just had nothing in common anymore. Her mother described it by saying they had “run out of gas.” Her father had worked for a Wall Street investment banking firm and had been ten years older than her mother and died shortly after Ellen married George. Neither of her parents had ever remarried, and they had stayed close and on good terms, but they both seemed satisfied with the divorce, said they had no regrets, and seemed happier on their own. Ellen was grateful that, whatever their differences, they had remained married while she was growing up. They were the kind of people who did things nicely, never spoke ill of each other, and kept their disagreements to themselves, which was what had made the divorce such a surprise. But the fallout from it for Ellen had been minimal, and they had both been happy for her when she married George, although her mother had asked Ellen pointedly before the wedding if she found him a little rigid and set in his ways. He was so emphatically English, but Ellen said she found it charming, and in some ways he reminded her of her father. George was a quiet, competent, responsible man, all virtues she felt sure would make him a good husband even if not an exciting one. George was the kind of man you could count on. He was solid, which Ellen found reassuring. She wanted a well-ordered life without surprises.