Read an Excerpt
By Linda Francis Lee
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 Linda Francis Lee
All rights reserved.
DENIAL \DE-NI-AL\ N (1528): one small word crammed with three tiny syllables that quite frankly causes great big problems in a whole lot of lives; a word, like most, with multiple meanings. 1: refusal to recognize and/or critically test the truth, 2: repudiation of fact, and 3 (my personal favorite): the reason I got tangled up in what I now refer to as the Debutante Mess.
Granted, I had been around etiquette, manners, and the waltz since birth. And true, I had made my own bow to society eleven years earlier in one of Texas high society's premier social events. So on the surface there was no reason I shouldn't have gotten involved. But I had left Texas to get away from all of that.
Actually, I left Texas to get away from my mother's, let us say, larger-than-life personality and her renowned beauty she never let anyone forget; my sister Savannah's obsession with babies and her inability to have one; and all the complaining I had to endure over my sister-in-law Janice's lack of obsession with babies and her apparent inability to stop having them.
But as Michael Corleone in Godfather III said, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."
My name is Carlisle Wainwright Cushing, of the Texas Wainwright family. More specifically, I am a Wainwright of Willow Creek. My mother is Ridgely Wainwright ... Cushing-Jameson-Lackley-Harper-Ogden. I kid you not.
Given my mother's predilection for divorce, not to mention her claim that growing up I had been the most disarmingly independent child she knew, is it any surprise that as an adult I had become a divorce lawyer?
It had seemed a natural choice given that as the only truly practical person in my family, I had been dealing with the dissolutions of my mother's marriages in one way or another since I was in ruffled ankle socks and patent leather Mary Janes — and not the Manolo kind.
To be specific, it was my mother's pending dissolution of her most recent marriage that initially dragged me back to my hometown from Boston where I had moved three years earlier. Then, once back in Texas, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, I slid along the slippery slope from divorce court to the debutante court, all because I couldn't say no to responsibility. Or so I told myself.
See? Denial. Whitewashing the truth, a sleight of hand with reality until even I believed the convoluted excuse for why I had gone home.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
"Carlisle is here," announced the woman who swore it was her face that had launched a thousand ships, "to deal with my pesky divorce situation."
My mother sat at the head of the formally set dining table, perfect in her cashmere and heirloom pearls.
"She is?" my sister asked.
"You are?" my brother demanded.
Even Lupe, our longtime family maid, who was serving her famous veal cordon bleu, froze for half a second in surprise.
"Have you lost your mind?" I stated in a way that was far more direct than any self-respecting Southern belle would ever be.
Ridgely Wainwright-Cushing-Jameson-Lackley-Harper-Ogden shot me, her youngest child, a glare. But I wasn't the same eager-to-please girl who'd left three years earlier. I returned my wine glass to the table and smiled tightly.
"Mother, could you join me in the kitchen? Please?"
"Not now, Carlisle. We are in the middle of dinner. Lupe, the veal looks divine."
She wore the cream cashmere sweater set with cream wool flannel pants, bone low-heeled shoes, her shoulder-length blond hair elegant and swept back with a cream velvet headband. She held her own wine glass in her perfectly manicured hand as she studied me over the length of fine linen, sterling silver, wafer-thin crystal, and tasteful fresh flower arrangements made of white roses, light pink peonies, and lavender hydrangeas. After a second, she nodded. My mother was more perceptive than her porcelain china-doll exterior would lead the average onlooker to believe. She understood without having to be told that Miss Never Make a Scene Carlisle Cushing was feeling a whole lot like making a scene. She probably followed me from the dining room more out of surprise than anything else.
As soon as we stepped into the service galley of stately Wainwright House, the dining room door swinging shut behind us, I stopped abruptly just outside the kitchen and turned back, bringing me face-to-face with my mother.
"Oh!" she squeaked.
"I really am not in a position to stay here and help you with your divorce. I have a job, remember? In Boston."
She only peered at me. "Dear, have you put on weight?"
I might have pressed my eyes closed and counted to ten. I definitely wondered how I had ever allowed her to trick me into coming back to Texas.
"And your skin, it looks dry. I don't like to brag, but you know I'm famous for my youthful appearance. But I look this good because I take care of myself, Carlisle. Don't the Pilgrims sell moisturizer?"
On principle, my mother is not fond of anyone who lives north of the Mason-Dixon line. In her personal dictionary, she refers to New Englanders \new en-gland-ers\ n (1620) as 1: The Pilgrim People (or assorted variations) 2: Yankeefied 3: Pantywaist Thurston Howell the Thirds.
I ignored her criticism and maintained focus, not easy to do when she was looking me over like a judge at a beauty pageant. "The only reason I am here is because you called me saying you were having an emergency."
Tension settled around her eyes. "This divorce mess is an emergency. And if you don't clear it up then I swear to goodness it is going to be the end of me." She pressed her delicate hand to her chest. "Darling, really, I need you."
To be completely honest, to say that my mother was larger than life would be an understatement. She should have been a stage actress, probably would have if it had not been for the fact that as a direct descendant of Texas founding father Sam Houston himself, the great-granddaughter of the fifth Duke of Ridgely who arrived in Texas in the late 1880s, Debutante of the Year when she took her own bow more years ago than she was willing to admit, and with more money than even Ross Perot, she didn't do such base things as act on stage. Instead, she acted her way through life until I'm not sure anyone (including my mother) knew who she really was.
That said, I am a good daughter and love her, just as I love the rest of my family, though is it any surprise that I have found it easier to be a good daughter when I'm not living right in the middle of my mother's theatrics?
I was twenty-five when I came to this realization, at which point I did the only sensible thing a sensible girl could do. I opened the big atlas in the Wainwright House study to the map of North America, closed my eyes, and took a stab at the page. My finger landed in the Atlantic Ocean, but it was reasonably close to Nova Scotia, Maine, and Boston. Not wanting to be referred to as a Canuck, and having no clue what anyone actually did in Maine other than wear plaid flannel and fish for lobster, I packed my bags and headed for the baked bean capital of the world, landing in a city with a great many people who had more onerous ancestries than I.
Even better, not one person in Boston knew my name. Which meant, I realized, on a not-so-sensible intake of breath, that I could be anyone I wanted, namely a New Me \new me\ adj n (2005) 1: not Sam Houston's descendant 2: not the duke's great-great-granddaughter 3: not even Ridgely Wainwright-Cushing-Jameson-Lackley-Harper-Ogden's youngest child.
Moving to Boston had been quite a feeling. Freeing. And given my Texas accent, when people stereotypically assumed I was white trash, probably inbred, ignorant, and undoubtedly poor, well, I didn't do anything to set the record straight. I let them assume the worst.
I know, it sounds terrible, and if I could do it all over again, believe me, I would. Not that I minded being considered that Texas girl from the wrong side of the tracks. But something that seemed like an adventure at twenty-five had a way of coming back to bite me three years later.
Though that was the least of my concerns just then.
"There are plenty of attorneys who can deal with this, Mother."
"Yes, just like that one I had for my last divorce who bungled everything so badly. Do you think for a second I am going to trust anyone else but you?"
My mother's last attorney had done such a horrible job with the divorce that one Mr. Lionel Harper (husband number four) had become a line item on the family accounting ledgers. Not to mention that the lawyer had been a publicity hound and our family had been in the news more in the ten months the negotiations raged on than in the previous ninety-nine years Wainwrights had been in Texas.
"We can't have our family name disparaged, dragged through the mud. Yet again. You are a Wainwright, even if you choose to live elsewhere."
"I can't stay in Texas. Whether you believe it or not, I really do have a job. A good job." And I did. I had a great position at Marcus, Flint, and Worthson, one of the largest and most prestigious law firms in Boston.
"Pshaw. You have a job using the law to make a bunch of those Kennedy types mind their p's and q's. I say tell them to start pronouncing their r's and find a new attorney. Besides, you went to all that trouble to get your licenses so you could practice in both Massachusetts and Texas. Seems like this is as good a time as any to put that Texas certification to use, to make that sniveling Vincent Ogden rue the day he ever decided he didn't want to be married to me."
Tension settled around my eyes this time, not that there wasn't truth in what she was saying. If anyone could make anyone rue anything, it was me. I had gotten more than one of my clients out of sticky marital predicaments.
But, again, I lived in Boston.
I loved it there, loved the surprise of four true seasons, the lush green Boston Common in spring, picnics at the Hatch Shell listening to the Boston Pops in summer, the stunning orange, yellow, and red of autumn, and skating on the iced-over Frog Pond in winter.
Also, it just so happened that I was engaged. Not that my mother knew this, and not that I was about to tell her right there in the service galley amid the dessert china and coffee cups ready for the next course. But I was engaged to the extremely amazing Phillip Granger, a lawyer at my firm who had a warm smile, laughing blue eyes, and a kind soul that I wrapped around myself like a cashmere throw in winter.
There was just one problem. He wanted me to set a date for the wedding, and, well, even I couldn't set a date until I told my mother that I was getting married. But the minute I told her (after she recovered from the stupefying shock that I was marrying a Yankee; that is, if she did recover) she would dive headlong into the sort of traditional wedding plans she would expect. I had no interest in showers and teas and all the prewedding niceties my mother wouldn't see as negotiable. I planned to have a sensible, low-key civil affair, which would definitely kill my mother, bringing me full circle as to why I had yet to set a date for the wedding.
But there had to be a way to convince her that what I wanted to do was the best thing for everyone involved. Which was the only reason I didn't simply walk out of Wainwright House, get back on a plane, and return to Massachusetts. Instead if, say, I stayed, just for a little while, not dealing with the divorce so much as helping my mother find a decent lawyer, it would give me a little breathing room from a certain unset date, and time to figure out how to tell my mother I was getting married and not have to succumb to all that a large Texas wedding would entail.
"This is what I'll do," I said.
In copious detail I mapped out exactly how I would facilitate the process. I would help her find a lawyer. But there would be no other involvement.
"Well, that's fine, dear. Though before you do all that ... organizing, Vincent has asked me to meet him at a lawyer's office. No surprise it's that disreputable Howard Grout's firm."
"I thought you liked Howard Grout."
"Of course I do. It's hard not to like the man. But that doesn't mean I approve of him."
Have I mentioned my mother has very distinct ideas on who it is appropriate to socialize with? Howard Grout, with his mountain of questionable money and lack of good breeding, did not make her list.
"Anyway," she continued, "the meeting is tomorrow morning. Come with me, talk to your stepfather. Vincent always liked you. Maybe you can talk some sense into him. If not, turn on all that unladylike killer charm you are famous for and scare him a little."
I wasn't sure if I was flattered or insulted.
"If there has to be a divorce," she added, "then convince him it should be done quickly, quietly, and without a lot of fuss. Then depending on how the meeting goes, we'll think about getting another lawyer."
SURE ENOUGH, first thing the next morning, my mother's driver Ernesto drove us through the craggy live oaks, rolling green hills, and the perfectly kept streets of town, past the main square, alongside Willow Creek High, then the university, to the offices of Howard Grout, Attorneys at Law, LLP.
In court, I had heard he was supposed to be meaner than a junkyard dog and he only hired lawyers who were cut from the same cloth. Not that this worried me, but it was good to know these things going in.
The offices were nice in that new nice way meant to announce in bold letters that they had made it without the help of old money. After working out of his home the previous year, Howard had opened up shop in one of the best buildings in town. While the exterior was traditional limestone blocks, inside everything was made of glass, steel, and jutting granite sculpture. There wasn't an inch of dark walnut wood paneling, mahogany desks, or oil paintings to be found at Howard Grout, LLP.
Dressed in an Armani power suit that, thankfully, I had brought along, I had pulled my (unfortunately blond) shoulder-length hair back into a sleek ponytail. Never one to go far without my baby-soft black calfskin briefcase, I held it at my side, my low-heeled black Chanel pumps the only minor indulgence I allowed myself.
My mother followed in my wake (a rare occurrence in itself) looking stunning, her hair professionally done, her makeup perfectly applied, her nails a demure shade of barely pink that matched her lip color. She also wore her usual strand of Wainwright pearls around her neck.
We walked down the long wide hallways of marble flooring, the walls lined with modern art. At the end of the hall a Schnabel filled the space.
"Who is that?" I asked the receptionist.
"The woman in the portrait." I gestured toward the broken crockery forming a mosaic portrait, a signature Schnabel piece.
"Oh, that. It's Mrs. Grout."
"Yes. Mr. Grout had it done as a surprise." The girl shook her head. "He said it was like a mast on a ship; you know, their good-luck charm. I don't know about you, but I've never seen a picture painted on a bunch of broken teacups and saucers."
Howard Grout appeared out of an office. "Did I hear someone talking about my Nikki?" he said grandly.
"Mr. Grout. I'm Carlisle Cushing."
"Of course you are. And this is your mother. Prettiest lady in town, next to my Nikki, mind you."
My mother smiled like a coy schoolgirl. "Now, Mr. Grout. Aren't you just the sweetest man."
Mere lack of approval had never stopped my mother from flirting.
He chuckled and slapped his big round belly that lay beneath the three-thousand-dollar Italian suit. "We both know that's a bald-faced lie. I'm a lot of things, Miz Wainwright, but sweet ain't one of them."
He bid us goodbye, then barked out orders to some unfortunate soul in another office.
There wasn't anyone in Willow Creek my mother didn't know, and as we continued on, she spoke to most everyone we passed.
"Isn't that a lovely blouse you're wearing, Lisabeth. Though you might consider blue next time. Pink really isn't your color."
Lisabeth stared, pretended the comment didn't bother her, then ran for the bathroom mirror just as soon as my mother was out of sight.
"My word, look at you, Burton Meyer. Looking younger and younger every time I see you. Is that hair dye you're using? Or have you given in and gotten Botox?" She kissed his cheek. "Whichever, you look just as handsome as any man your age can look, sugar."
Burton Meyer stammered.
"Morton Henderson, your sweet Mabel must be quite the cook for all the weight you've gained." She patted his round belly, which no other soul in all of Willow Creek dared do, given his reputation as bloodthirsty litigator. "Don't you worry though, I won't breathe a word of this to your mother. I know how she and Mabel don't get along."
Excerpted from The Ex-Debutante by Linda Francis Lee. Copyright © 2008 Linda Francis Lee. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.