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Grace was reaching behind herself to button her dress when she noticed the spot—just over her right breast, a tiny watermark shaped like a Rorschach blot.
She felt a flicker of annoyance. Silk. It ought to have been outlawed, she thought, along with asbestos and No. 2 red dye. When was the last time she'd worn silk without having to run straight to the dry cleaner? When was the last time she'd worn silk, period?
An image from long ago flitted across her mind—swirls of taffeta the color of raspberry sherbert, an orchid corsage on her wrist. Some awful country-club affair that Grandma had insisted she attend. By evening's end, she recalled, the orchid looked as if it had been trampled by Sherman's army, which, the way people in Blessing talked, you'd have thought had scorched its way through Georgia the week before.
Staring into her closet, Grace thought of the evening stretching before her like a battlefield. What does it matter what I'm wearing?
Hannah would probably be thrilled if she showed up at the door in her underwear. All the more reason to find fault with her father's girlfriend.
Girlfriend. The word stuck in her mind like something scrawled in her Robert E. Lee High yearbook, adolescent, transitory, inconsequential somehow. My God, she was thirty-seven years old, and someone's girlfriend.
It would be different if we were married.
But was that really what she wanted—to be a wife again, and play stepmother to Ben and Hannah? Didn't she have enough to handle just being the mother of a teenager? Besides, Jack hadn't even asked her to marry him. Whenever the subject came up, he adroitly managed to skirt it.
Grace felt a knot form in her stomach, and along with it came the sudden certainty that nothing about this evening was going to turn out okay. But she quickly filed that thought away, under "Pending" (on the mental shelf below "Maybe It'll Work Out on Its Own" and just above "You're Wasting Your Time"). Right. Just because this was their first dinner together, all five of them, was no reason to panic. There would be enough of that after Hannah arrived.
She peeled her dress over her head, inside out, experiencing the same relief she felt each time she shucked off a pair of pantyhose at the end of a day of talk shows and interviews and book signings. Tossing it onto the floor of her closet, she plucked a pair of Levi's from a hanger. Softened by many washings, they slid on over her legs and hips like lotion. Next, she pulled on the fifties men's pajama top she'd bought at Canal Jean—aubergine satin worn to the texture of chamois, with black piping and an unreadable monogram. Tucked in, with its sleeves rolled up four times, it fit her just fine. Now her Navajo conch belt threaded through the loops of her jeans. There.
Caught in the sepia glow of the late-afternoon sunshine angling down from the loft's bedroom skylight, she examined herself in the full-length closet mirror as if studying the photograph of someone she had not yet gotten to know. Hazel eyes in a heart-shaped face no longer girlish, but shot with tiny crinkles, like a delicate tissuey valentine that's been crushed then pressed nearly smooth again. Dark straight hair brushing the knobs of her too-thin shoulders—no gray yet, but maybe she wasn't looking hard enough.
Was this the face of a likable person? A woman you would welcome as a friend? A wife? A stepmother?
In the living area, down the hall, Grandma Clayborn's pendulum clock marked the hour in what Grace had always thought of as a somewhat ominous tone. She counted six chimes. God, Jack and his kids would be here in less than half an hour, and she hadn't cleaned up or even put the water on to boil for the rice.
Briefly, she considered phoning Jack and telling him she was sick, a sudden attack of the flu. No, that wouldn't work. He'd be over like a shot, toting a plastic tub of chicken soup with matzoh balls from Lou Siegel, like that time when she really was sick with the flu.
All the stress she'd been under? He'd buy that. He was her publisher after all, he knew how crazy her schedule had been lately with this book—all the shuttles to Washington, the interviews with ex-staff members, friends, legislators and former legislators, longtime bureaucrats, anyone who'd known Eugene Truscott. And as if writing a biography of her famous father wasn't enough of an undertaking, someone at Cadogan had stolen a look at her most recent draft and leaked the story of the senator's being involved in the shooting death of Ned Emory. It had appeared in yesterday's Times, and for the past two days the phone had been ringing practically nonstop—mostly reporters. Jack, though not denying the publicity value for the book, was as angry as she was. Plucked out of context, the story had come off as lurid, sensational, possibly even criminal.
But Jack, damnit, he'd be so nice if she were to duck out of this dinner, so sympathetic, that she'd be plagued with guilt for days afterwards.
Besides, Jack wasn't the problem. He wasn't why she had heartburn, and her stomach felt as if something she'd swallowed hadn't quite gone down.
It was Hannah.
Tonight's menu wasn't chicken cacciatore over rice, as she'd planned. No way, Jose. It was going to be Grace Truscott, skewered and roasted over hot coals.
Grace jammed her bare feet into antique crocodile pumps—a pair that had belonged to her grandmother back in the days when size-six shoes were what most ladies wore, and everyone took it for granted that crocodiles had been placed on this earth to be worn—and dashed down the hall into the huge, airy space that encompassed the kitchen, living room, and office. If Mother were making this dinner party, she thought, there'd be ivory-colored place-cards inscribed in copperplate and Grandma Clayborn's good Havilland china, and an uncorked bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape breathing on the sideboard. For her mother, letting even a small thing like the rice go till the last minute would be a sacrilege.
In the kitchen, tiled in cloudy sky blue and open on three sides, Grace peeked in the oven at the chicken supposedly cacciatore bubbling inside. Her heart sank. The clotted mess—chicken legs and breasts dissolved into stringy clumps—looked more like last week's thrice-reheated leftovers than the glossy photo in her Better Homes & Gardens cookbook.
She realized that she'd forgotten to cover the dish for the last half-hour, as the recipe had called for. And that, actually, it had been more like forty-five minutes. She'd been so busy helping Chris with that essay of his on the Spanish Inquisition she'd lost track of time. God, what on earth was she going to do now?
After thirty years with a Martha Stewart clone. Jack would expect a woman who could at least get an ordinary dinner on the table without screwing it up.
Grace turned to find her thirteen-year-old son slouched in the doorway like a haphazardly parked bicycle—all shank and bone and jutting angles, head cocked so that his silky brown hair fell across his eyes. Love, helpless and yearning, swept over her on a tide of annoyance. Chris was at a stage where everything, however obvious, was stated in the form of a question. If she told him to put his jacket on as he was going out, he'd look at it and say, "What for?"
Right now, Grace didn't want a scene. "It was supposed to be chicken cacciatore," she said with a laugh. "But your guess is as good as mine."
Chris shrugged, locking his arms across his skinny chest. She had to search his face for the last traces of babyhood—the round chin she'd so often wiped clean, the pale freckles dusting his snub nose, his soft, almost unfocused-looking blue eyes. He was so vulnerable, standing at the crossroads of adulthood, not knowing where to turn, everything about him declaring his uncertainty, even the way his voice had begun to crack.
"I'm not hungry anyway. I'm going over to Scully's," he said. "We'll get some pizza later on."
"Hold on there, pardner." She hadn't realized she was holding a serving fork, until she looked down and saw that it was pointed straight at Chris. En garde, she thought. "Have you forgotten we're having company for dinner?"
"You mean Jack?" The way he said it sounded almost like a sneer.
Grace decided to play dumb.
"Yes, Jack. And Hannah. And Ben. You haven't met him. He's older than Hannah. Closer to my ... Well, anyway, he's a good guy. You'll like him." She lowered the fork, and felt her mouth form a rueful smile. "Look, don't jump up and down too much. I wouldn't want people to get the wrong idea and think I was going out of my way to make a good impression here,"
Chris cracked his own upside-down version of a smile as he cast his deadpan gaze on the casserole dish containing the earthly remains of the chicken cacciatore. "You could always call 911."
"Thanks, you're a real help."
"Hannah's nice, but ..." Chris shrugged.
He didn't have to say it—she knew what he was thinking. He'd rather contract Lyme disease than see her marry Jack. On that subject, her son's feelings were no more a secret than Hannah's.
She watched as he tossed his hair back with a sharp jerk of his head. His eyes made a brief appearance, naked and somehow too bright. They were the exact shade of Win's, grayish blue, the color of the ocean off Long Island Sound.
Poor Chris. In some ways the divorce had been hardest on him. Even though he saw Win nearly every weekend, she knew how much Chris missed having him around.
"Look, Mom, I promised Scully I'd check out this new Mario Brothers game of his." Chris spoke in a flat voice. "Don't worry, I'll be back in time for dinner."
"You'll be back before then. So you can change." She took in his torn jeans and the Metallica T-shirt that was sizes too big.
"What's wrong with what I'm wearing?"
"You look ..."
"Like you. I look like you, you mean." Chris shot her a scornful glance that said he wasn't fooled by what she'd thought an artful outfit—in his eyes, it was just jeans and an old pajama top. He snatched a handful of crackers from the assortment she'd carefully arranged on a tray alongside a wedge of Brie, and was gone.
I miss him, she thought.
Not that silent, skulking teenager, but her funny, bright little boy, with his silly elephant jokes and eager laugh, and the way he used to burrow under the covers when she came in to kiss him good night. Most of all, she missed holding him on her lap, his small body heavy with sleep, his head blindly butting her breast in search of a comfortable spot to roost.
When had he begun to change? Had it started even before the divorce? Should she put his sullen rebelliousness in the same category as the faint shadow that had recently begun to make an appearance on his upper lip, and the sheets she found hastily stuffed into the hamper some mornings?
Grace felt suddenly tiny and inadequate, a dust mote adrift in this enormous, soaring space. A row of tall windows made it seem even bigger, providing a truncated view of the skyline, above which she could just see the tip of the Empire State's spire—lit orange and yellow for Halloween next week. Below the windows stood the pine harvest table she'd set with such care. Her colorful Quimper plates and Mexican embroidered cloth napkins, the mismatched silver she'd collected over the years at flea markets and rummage sales.
Chris's therapist, Dr. Shapiro, said he would need time to get over the divorce. But how much longer would it take? And what was she supposed to do about it in the meantime?
The intercom buzzed, startling her into nearly knocking over the wineglass, set amid a drift of cucumber peels, that she'd been about to pick up. She hurried to answer it.
It was only Jack, thank heavens. He'd promised to get here early, before Ben and Hannah, and he had. A show of solidarity? United we stand, divided we fall. A minute later, she watched him sail through the doorway in his rumpled Burberry raincoat—a tall, heavyset man with an open smile and dark curly hair shot with gray—and she could feel all her unraveling ends strangely—magically, even—becoming whole.
Now Jack was scooping her against him, smothering her with his hugeness, his happiness at seeing her. His embrace released some charge in her, making her limbs tingle, her belly loosen and grow heavy, expectant. She felt as if she could never get enough of him—his tweedy smell, or his thickly muscled arms holding her tight. She imagined that inside Jack his blood ran faster, surer, redder than any other man's, a vein of rich ore that if tapped would yield up incalculable treasures. Her own blood raced at the thought of what lay ahead, the bed in which he would take her, later, when the kids were safely home or asleep....
"Do I smell something burning?" Jack ruffled her hair lightly.
"Uh-oh. Anything I can do to help?" He pulled back, smiling, his deepset navy eyes crinkling.
"A priest would be nice. I think last rites may be in order. Do rabbis do that kind of thing, too?" She was reminded of the old joke—guilt: the Jews invented it, and the Catholics perfected it. Does Jack feel guilty about marrying a Catholic? Is that what's holding him back?
Jack crossed the vestibule in several long strides. To his left was the grouping of furniture that defined her living room—a deep sofa upholstered in Sea Island cotton, an old Morris recliner she'd re-covered in dark-green corduroy, scattered armchairs, a glass coffee table with wrought-iron legs twining up like vines. Jack shrugged off his raincoat and tossed it in a long free throw over the back of the sofa, heading toward the kitchen. A moment later, he was examining the chicken and rolling his eyes.
The great thing about Jack was, he never lied to her. When he told her something she'd written was good, or that she looked terrific, she knew it was the truth. Because he'd just as easily tell her that what she'd written was awful, or that she looked like ten nights of missed sleep.
"I have a confession to make," she said. "I don't come with a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval."
"I didn't fall in love with you for your cooking," he said, dropping the lid back on the casserole dish with the finality of someone nailing down a coffin lid.
"Flattery will get you nowhere," she warned. "I want to feel miserable for at least five more minutes."
"Can I kiss your neck while you're at it?" He bent and began to nibble her ear. His lips were shockingly warm, especially considering how overcooked she herself felt.
"Jack." She glanced up at her Felix the Cat clock flicking its tail above the sink full of pots and pans she hadn't gotten around to washing. "It's almost six-thirty. Your kids will be here any minute." She tried to sound like no more than a normally frazzled hostess, but inside her panic was mounting.
He straightened, his blue eyes serious now. "I'll tell you what," he said. "You finish up whatever's left to do, and I'll take care of the main course."
"What are you talking about? There isn't time!"
"Look." He took hold of her, turning her gently so she was facing him. "I'd gladly eat stewed cardboard if it'd make you happy, and I wouldn't mind a bit. But I know how much you've been looking forward to making this a nice evening for Hannah and Ben. Not," he added sternly, "that they'll like you any less if it doesn't work out exactly the way you planned."
No, she wanted to say, Hannah will only hate me more.
Before she could speak, he held up one hand—large and long-fingered, the hand of a carpenter, not an executive. "Just give me five minutes, okay? Trust me. I'll be back before you know it." He jogged over to the living-room sofa and grabbed his coat.
Ten minutes later, he was back, gingerly carrying a large, grease-stained paper sack as if it were the Holy Grail. He set the bag down on the kitchen counter and opened it, letting loose a heady garlic aroma. "Lasagne," he said. "Cesare makes the best there is."
"I get pizza at Cesare's all the time," Grace said, mystified. "I didn't know he made anything else."
Jack winked. "The best-kept secret in Chelsea—he keeps a limited supply in back. You just have to know to ask."
Grace stared at him. How was it that Jack—from Park, way up on the East Side, who published first-rate books out of a landmark building on Fifth Avenue—knew more about the back rooms of greasy Eighth Avenue pizza parlors than she did?
Excerpted from Blessing in Disguise by Eileen Goudge. Copyright © 1994 Eileen Goudge. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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