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"My point is, these days girls are supposed to get a wild and crazy send-off the night before their wedding, like guys do." With a drama-queen toss of her curls as she entered the house, my sister Natashya flounced through the foyer into the living room and plopped herself onto a sofa.
"Yet here we are, home before midnight like a bunch of nuns or something, while Dean's stag is probably just getting to the smoking cigars and watching X-rated DVDs stage. If I were you, I'd be totally pissed, Megan."
My other sister Katherine didn't pause in the entrance hall, either. "The brat's right for once, sweetie. As bachelorette parties go, yours blew big-time," she drawled over her shoulder as she headed toward the kitchen, leaving me to punch in the Crosse mansion's security code. I don't know if it's because I'm technically the eldest of the three of us, beating Kat in the getting-born race by ten minutes and Tash by half an hour, but that task always falls to me.
"Somehow I don't think breaking out the Monte Cristos and popping Dick Does Dallas into the DVD player is Mandy Broyhill's idea of appropriate entertainment." I turned from the security keypad and shrugged at Tash. "Or Lance and Todd's idea of entertainment, to be honest. It's more likely that they took my darling hubby-to-be to a strip club."
"They wouldn't. The only one around is the Hot Box, that sleazy dive on the outskirts of town, and Toddie knows I'd kill him if he ever set foot in there," Tash said dismissively. She frowned. "Besides, there's been some weird stories going 'round about that place lately. I know a girl who says after a couple of her brother's friends went there they ended up calling in sick to work the next few days and the next thing you know, they quit their jobs and just dropped out of sight. I wouldn't be surprised if the police raid that dump and find some major drug-dealing going on. But my point is that even if you don't care if your last night as a free woman is a blast or not, I do. When it's my turn in a couple of months, I want those totally babalicious cowboy dancers who entertained at Brittany's stagette party."
"The ones who stripped down to their six-guns?" Silver-blond hair swinging like satin around perfectly tanned shoulders, Kat returned from the kitchen carrying a pitcher full of something frosty-looking in her right hand, with stemmed glasses wedged adroitly between the fingers of her left. She set the glasses and pitcher on the spindly Sheraton table in front of Tash. "Appletinis, anyone?"
She didn't wait for a reply, but started pouring. I sank onto the sofa beside Tash and eased off my shoes with a sigh of relief. My middle sister, as languidly elegant as her nickname, can power-shop all day in a pair of Manolo stilettos and dance till dawn in strappy Jimmy Choos, while Tash's idea of casual footwear is a pair of Chanel heels, but I occasionally feel the need to reconnect with my baby toes.
"Right, and when you tucked a bill into their holsters, they said, "Much obliged, little lady." What I don't want is a dreary little get-together at Mandy Broyhill's without a square inch of naked male flesh in sight," Tash insisted. She was indulging in one of her favorite irritating habits— running the silver cross she wore back and forth along its delicate chain. It was irritating because it always made me want to do the same to the identical one around my neck and I couldn't, because then she'd know she'd irritated me. "Anyhow, I'll bet tonight had something to do with Grammie being voted president of the Maplesburg Reading Club instead of Mandy's mother. I mean, Mandy's the social leader of our set, so she couldn't very well not throw a party for you, Meg, but maybe she accidentally-on-purpose forgot to arrange any entertainment, as a kind of payback for her mom."
My irritation turned to annoyance. Dottie Crosse had indulged us, petted us and spoiled us rotten from babyhood after her only child, our father, died. And when three eligible bachelors had popped the question in the same week to her three granddaughters, she hadn't batted an eyelash at the prospect of arranging June, July and August weddings, so I certainly wasn't going to let Tash take out her sulks on Grammie when she and Popsie arrived home tomorrow. He'd insisted on a weekend in New York after she'd exhausted herself planning my big day. I opened my mouth to say so but Kat beat me to it.
"Mandy didn't arrange for half-naked cowboys to show up at the bachelorette because she had her eye on Dean before he started dating Megan, and being the social leader of our set, she's also a prime bitch. But if you think tonight was dreary, just wait until your party, sweetie. According to the grapevine, most of your so-called bosom buddies don't intend to show up to give you a send-off—and don't even dream of trying to blame Grammie for that, because it won't have anything to do with her." She drained her glass. "Remember Bev Simmons? The mousy little brunette your darling Toddie was about to propose to before you decided you wanted to be a cosmetic surgeon's wife?"
I glanced at Kat. Was it my imagination, or was her drawl just a tad slurred? "Kat's right. You stole a boyfriend and most of our friends are on Bev's side. You better hope that being Mrs. Doctor Whitmore, wife of a rising young liposuctionist, is enough to buy you a committee seat on the Maplesburg Hospital charity drive next spring, because right now, little Tashie isn't exactly the most popular girl in town."
"Not get on the charity committee next spring? But that would be social suicide." Tash looked appalled and then annoyed. "You're kidding, right?"
"Not at all," I informed her with sisterly callousness.
"Read the rule book."
"Under Boyfriends, other girls', penalties for filching," Kat corroborated obligingly.
Tashya exploded. "If you two knew this would happen, why didn't you tell me? I never would have bothered with Todd if I'd thought it would make problems for me! Why would I?"
"Uh, because you love him?" I ventured. "Just a crazy possibility, seeing as how you're going to go through the till-death-us-do-part thing with the guy."
"Tha's right. Till death us do part," Kat echoed with a hiccup. "You know, I just realized what a creepy phrase that is. Puts visions of twin burial plots in your mind, doesn't it? Hot damn, girls, I can hardly wait till Lance and I tie the noose, I mean, knot, next month."
She looked away, but not before I saw the flicker of desperation in her eyes. For a moment I was speechless, but then I found my voice. "Are you saying you feel the same as Tash? Because if you are, I've got news for both of you— there's no way I'm going to let Grammie get humiliated by—"
"I won't be a no-show at my wedding in August, if that's what you're worried about," Tash snapped. "I wouldn't do that to Grammie and Popsie. And Todd's all right, I guess, even if he is stuck on himself a lot of the time. I just want—"
"You just want the kind of life Grammie has." Kat nodded solemnly. "Same here. When Lance popped the question I had every intention of turning him down. You know me—so many men, so little time..." Her voice trailed off. "Except I found myself saying yes, even though I knew he proposed to me to get in good with Popsie's old golfing buddy Thaddeus Bayer, of Bayer, Schwartz and Dunhill. But I can't complain about being his fast-lane ticket to making partner, not when becoming Mrs. Lance Zellweger's going to get me what I want."
"A life like Grammie's." I didn't make it a question.
"Membership in the Maplesburg Country Club, a show-place home, the benefits of living in a pretty upstate town while still being able to make a day of it in the Big Apple for shopping and a show. That's what the two of you want badly enough to marry men you aren't in love with?"
"You should talk, Megan," Tashya shot back. "Or are you going to pretend that just thinking of becoming Mrs. Dean Hudson the Third makes you feel like jumping into your hottest Victoria's Secret baby-dolls and waiting between satin sheets, instead of stifling a big ol' yawn? You've got even less excuse than me and Kat. You're smart enough to get into Harvard, but you don't want anything more exciting than Grammie's life, either."
"That's not—" I stopped in mid-denial, the breath going out of me. "Omigod, you're right," I said unevenly. "Dean's an investment banker who's already starting to lose his hair, and I don't even think I like him, much less love him. But I'm going to marry him, for the same reason you're going to marry Todd and Kat's going to marry Lance...because marrying them is the surest way we know to have the dullest lives we can. What's that about?"
"I'm surprised you haven't figured it out." Kat squinted at the pitcher. "Enough for one last round," she said. I started to shake my head but she ignored me. "Uh-uh, you're going to want this, big sister. Remember when Grammie was worried about me becoming anorexic and she sent me to Dr. Hawes?"
"Hawes the shrink?" Tash shuddered. "Gawd, everyone at school was whispering that you were going to be shipped off to the nuthouse. That's why Tommy Baldwin backed out of taking you to the Christmas dance that year, wasn't it?"
"And took you instead," Kat agreed. "I always wondered if you had something to do with my appointments with Hawes losing their confidential status, Tash. But I got my revenge."
Slow comprehension filled Tashya's gaze. "You were the one who stuck toilet paper to the back of my dress the night of the dance? It took months for me to live that down!"
"Cool it, both of you!" I barked the command sharply enough to get their attention. "In seventeen—" I glanced at my watch and saw it was nearly eleven thirty "—no, sixteen and a half hours, I'm going to walk down the aisle. In the next couple of months, the two of you intend to do the same thing, even though all three of us have just confessed that we're not real crazy about our prospective grooms. You seem to know why, Kat, so dish!"
She sat back. "Okay, Meg. When I went to see Dr. Hawes I found myself telling him about the nightmares we all had when we were little. I told him I always woke up convinced that you and I and Tashya had been in terrible danger."
"Well, duh," Tash broke in. "We were being hunted down in them. Whoever was after us had killed Mom and Dad and wanted to kill us. That might be the danger part, no?"
"You remember that much?" Kat turned her attention my way. "What about you, Megan?"
I guess I should explain something here. It doesn't happen so much now, but when we were kids our dreams were practically always identical, even though we weren't. So Kat's question made perfect sense to me, I just didn't have a good answer to it.
"When they stopped coming, I let the memory of them fade. All I remember was they left me terrified."
"They were a bunch of dumb nightmares, for heaven's sake." Tash shrugged. "I never tried to suppress them, especially after Popsie told me they came from eating cheese before bedtime."
"He told us that, too," Kat informed her. "I guess you were the only one either dumb or logical enough to believe him."
"Maybe both," I added. "Sometimes you scare me, Tash." Unexpectedly, she grinned. "Sometimes I scare myself." Once in a while Tash comes out with a flash of humor that makes me wonder what's really behind those china-blue eyes and under that cloud of red-gold curls. I also wonder if it isn't my fault and Kat's that she usually doesn't reveal that side of herself.
My nanosecond of soul-searching ended with her next words.
"So the reason we're all getting married is because of some stupid dreams that made you and Kat wee-wee the bed when we were kids and that made Kat go on an airand-water diet when she was fifteen. That's the big theory?"
For a moment I thought Kat was going to give one of those bouncy curls a sharp tug, but she got herself under control. "What I learned was that some girls who slip into anorexia are trying to exert control in the one area of their lives they think they can—their body image. And they do it because sometime in their past they've experienced a traumatic event. When Hawes told me that, it all clicked into place for me."
"What clicked into place?" Tash sounded bored. "And what does your eating disorder six years ago have to do with us now?"
"Because this time we're all trying to impose control over our lives," I said slowly. "We're choosing situations where we can pretty much predict what the next fifty years will be like. We're almost certain those fifty years will be screamingly boring, and we'll be spending them with a philandering cosmetic surgeon, a lawyer who'd sell his own mother and an investment banker who probably wears three-piece Brooks Brothers suits to bed, but that's better than—" I stopped.