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"Does this make my ass look big?"
Carlotta Wren stood in the dressing room of Neiman Marcus in the Lenox Mall inAtlanta, Georgia, her arms full of designer bathing suits that Angela Ashford, one of her least favorite customers, wanted to try on. They weren't even halfway through the selections and already Carlotta wanted to murder the woman.
She dutifully glanced at Angela's surgically sculpted glutes falling out of a tiny patch of metallic-blue fabric. "No, your, um, ass looks…great."
Angela tossed her blond hair over her shoulder and pouted at her rear reflection in the three-way mirror. "You think?"
Carlotta's mouth watered to say, "Way better than it looked in high school," but bit her tongue. It was part of the game, after all—Angela played the role of poor little rich girl with a confidence problem, and Carlotta played the stroking, sympathetic friend. Both of them deserved an Oscar.
Angela turned around and carefully rearranged her newly acquired breasts in the bikini top that barely covered her nipples. Then she slipped her narrow feet into the silver high-heeled sandals sitting nearby and performed a three-quarter turn to peruse her long, slender figure from all angles. Carlotta tried not to compare her own ample curves to the woman's lean lines. Or her own gap-toothed grin to Angela's perfect, Clorox smile.
She was not jealous of Angela Ashford. "This suit is a definite maybe," Angela announced. Carlotta managed not to roll her eyes—the sixth "definite maybe" so far. "I have to warn you that the trim on that suit won't hold up to chlorine."
Angela made a face. "Good grief, I don't actually swim in our new pool—I don't even know how to swim. I just want to look amazing."
Carlotta bit down on the inside of her cheek. "Do you want to choose from the ones you've set aside so far, or do you want to try on the rest of these?"
Angela looked irritated. "I'll try on the rest." Then she smiled meanly. "And I'll be needing several new spring outfits. With shoes, of course. Peter told me to treat myself to anything I wanted since he just got a huge bonus and our wedding anniversary is coming up. He's so generous."
Carlotta busied herself removing the next bathing suit from its hanger, trying not to react. Peter, as in Carlotta's former fiancé. Just like every time Angela came in for a shopping binge, Carlotta reminded herself that her relationship with Peter Ashford had ended over a decade ago. To be precise, one week after her father had skipped bail on his indictment for investment fraud and he and her mother had gone on the run. The local media had had a field day.
RANDOLPH WREN FLIES THE COOP
RANDOLPH WREN, FUGITIVE JAILBIRD RANDOLPH WREN AND WIFE VALERIE ABANDON CHILDREN
Just a few weeks shy of eighteen, Carlotta hadn't been a child, but she'd led a rather charmed and sheltered life up to that point. Suddenly faced with raising her nineyear-old brother, Wesley, and with no extended family to rely upon, she had clung to her boyfriend, Peter. Too tightly, apparently, because after the headlines had exploded, he had explained over the telephone that their lives had grown too far apart—he was in college at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, and she still had to finish her last semester of high school in Atlanta. Translation: Your name is tainted and I don't want to be associated with your family scandal.
With maturity and hindsight, she had come to understand why Peter had bowed out, but at the time, the rejection of the man she had loved for most of her teenage years, the man who had taken her virginity, had been akin to having her heart surgically removed.
"I hope it doesn't make you uncomfortable when I talk about Peter," Angela said as she yanked the tie to the bikini top, baring her rigid boobs. She kicked the two-hundred-dollar scrap of Lycra across the floor of the dressing room.
"N-no," Carlotta said, scrambling to rescue her merchandise. She straightened, then handed Angela a onepiece suit and gave a little laugh. "Why should it?"
Angela stepped out of the minuscule bikini bottoms and stood nude before Carlotta for a few seconds before stretching the next swimsuit over her tight bod.
"Because, well, you know, the whole pretend engagement you two had when we were in high school," Angela said, preening in the mirror.
The Cartier engagement ring was proof that it had been more than a "pretend" engagement, but Carlotta wet her lips and forced a casual note into her voice. "That was a lifetime ago. We were…kids."
"That's what he says," Angela offered cheerfully. "And that if the two of you had actually married—" she laughed at the improbability "—that it never would have lasted."
Carlotta's heart twisted, but she managed a smile. "Then everything worked out for the best, didn't it?"
In the mirror, Angela leveled her feline gaze on Carlotta. "I suppose so."
Carlotta steered the conversation back to clothes and, thankfully, Angela was distracted by the appearance of the "perfect" bikini (two of them) and the armfuls of designer dresses and pantsuits that Carlotta pulled from every couture department. A phone call to the shoe department on the lower floor brought Michael Lane to the women's clothing department. He headed toward Carlotta, pushing a hand truck laden with colorful boxes of Pucci and Gucci, Don Ciccillo and Donald J. Pliner. "Here's everything we have in size seven narrow."
"Thanks—you're a dear."
He gave Carlotta a wry smile. "How are you holding up?" Carlotta scowled toward the closed door of the dressing room. "I'm ready to strangle her."
"Down, girl. Double-A is one of your best customers." Carlotta smirked at Michael's use of her nickname for Angela. "I got an eyeful of her latest upgrade—let's just say she's no longer a double-A in the bra department."
He clucked. "Hey, what do you expect? The competition is tough in Angela Ashford's social stratum."
In Angela Ashford's social stratum. Michael didn't realize that he was talking about an arena that Carlotta herself had been destined for prior to having her life jerked out from under her. Michael wasn't a native ofAtlanta, and she didn't go out of her way to tell friends and co-workers her entire sordid family history. In fact, she usually lied. She'd gotten quite good at lying and pretending. "I suppose you're right," Carlotta conceded. "But, Christ, she always makes me feel like such a peon. And she's in rare form today."
He looked sympathetic. "Just remember that commission is the best revenge."
Carlotta laughed ruefully and waved goodbye as she wheeled the shoes toward the dressing room. Why did Angela insist on shopping with Carlotta at her beck and call? She could shop at any boutique in Atlanta or, as her own mother used to do, she could call the store and have a personal shopper select items and bring them to her home for her approval. Or she could simply seek the assistance of another clerk at Neiman's. But the woman seemed to take great pleasure in shopping under Carlotta's care, which, Carlotta realized, was a thinly veiled excuse for Angela to flaunt her successful life with Peter. It stung, but in truth, Carlotta needed the commission to pay the seemingly unlimited number of bills that she and Wesley, now nineteen years old, generated.
At the thought of her brother, a bittersweet pang struck her. Wesley had never fully recovered from their parents" abandonment and had suffered more than his share of emotional problems. When he was younger, those problems had manifested into behavioral issues in school, exacerbated by the fact that his IQ was higher than that of most of his instructors, especially in math. Despite his intellect, Wesley had barely graduated high school last year, and now as a directionless adult, his problems manifested into compulsive behavior—more specifically, gambling.
His affinity for poker had landed him in debt up to his neck—and hers. And he'd been foolish enough to borrow from some unsavory characters. A henchman for one of the loan sharks had come to see her at the department store a few months ago, threatening bodily harm to both of them if Wesley didn't make a payment. Inadvertently, her brother always seemed to drag her into his messes, but every time she'd considered telling him that he was of age and to hit the road, she couldn't. She couldn't abandon him as her parents had, yet the knot of worry in her chest never eased. She agonized over what trouble he might get into next, and how they might stay afloat.
Carlotta sighed. One of the worst things about living paycheck to paycheck was imagining Angela Ashford having a one-hundred-dollar lunch with her friends—many of them girls Carlotta had gone to school with and had once considered her friends—saying, "That poor Carlotta Wren, still single and working retail, can you imagine?" But if it was the price she had to pay for a hefty commission, so be it. If Angela spent true to form, the commission on this sale alone would be enough to pay this month's mortgage and electric bill.
Or at least last month's.
Carlotta opened the door to the dressing room to find Angela sitting on a bench, half-naked, drinking from a silver flask. She quickly swallowed and wiped her mouth. "Just getting a head start on my two-martini lunch."
Carlotta remained silent but knew that anyone who packed their own booze had a problem. Her mother had kept a similar flask in her purse for whenever the urge struck for a "drinkie-poo."
"I brought shoes," Carlotta said brightly, wheeling in the bounty.
Angela pushed to her feet shakily enough to tell Carlotta that she'd taken more than one "drinkie-poo" in Carlotta's absence, but apparently it had given the woman enough energy to embark upon another spending binge that included six outfits, eight pairs of shoes, including a pair of tall, exotic black boots that Carlotta coveted, plus a rather astonishing array of risqué underwear ("Peter likes me in black"). Angela even ventured into the men's department where she chose an exquisite cashmere jacket with a crest embroidered on the lapel—Peter's favorite brand, Carlotta recalled fondly. And the charcoal-gray would look great on Peter with his fair hair and dark skin. From the size, it appeared that he had filled out a little in the shoulders.
She hadn't seen him in ages, only once in the mall a couple of years ago. He hadn't known she was standing a mere ten feet from him while he ordered a double latte from a coffee shop. She had wanted to call out his name, to smile and say how nice it was to run into him, that she'd seen his and Angela's wedding announcement and photo in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Sunday Living section and, hey, congratulations. But in the end she hadn't wanted to force an awkward exchange, to see the pity in his gorgeous cobalt-blue eyes for the way her family and lifestyle had imploded, so she'd simply watched him tip the clerk
Brushing her hand over the fine fabric of the jacket, Carlotta ignored the vibrating cell phone in her pocket and listened while Angela told her about the lavish parties that she and Peter threw at their palatial home located in a gated subdivision within the exclusive neighborhood of Buckhead. And how with the recent addition of a pool, spa and alfresco kitchen, they were the envy of their neighbors. And how well Peter was doing in his job at Mashburn and Tully Investments—which had once been Mashburn, Tully and Wren. The irony of Peter working for the same firm where her father had once been a partner seemed comically cruel.
"Did I mention that Peter was given a huge bonus this quarter?" Angela slurred as Carlotta rang up the enormous sale.
"Yes, I believe you did mention it," Carlotta said smoothly. The encounter was nearly over—she could afford to be nice a little while longer, even if it killed her inside.
Angela smirked. "Of course, Peter makes all of his money legally."
Carlotta clenched her jaw but decided to allow the sly reference to her father's crime slide.
"Whatever happened to your parents?" Angela pressed, her eyes glinting with a gossipy light.
Carlotta wet her lips. "I really don't know." "You mean you've never heard from them all this time?"
Angela made a pitying noise in her throat. "What kind of parents could just run off and leave their kids like that?"
Carlotta had her opinion but decided not to respond. "I feel so sorry for you, Carlotta. I mean, it must have been hard for you to go from having everything you wanted to having nothing."
From the triumphant look in Angela's eyes, Carlotta could tell that by "everything," the woman meant Peter. Carlotta wanted to say that it hadn't been easy, especially since all of her so-called friends had seemingly vanished into thin air along with her parents. She and Angela hadn't been best buddies, but they had run in the same crowd—the crowd that had turned on her by high-school graduation. Angela had gone on to Vandy, which was where Carlotta assumed the woman had hooked up with Peter. Had "poor Carlotta" been a common topic of conversation?
"I managed just fine," she murmured.