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FEELING SHELL-SHOCKED, Chloe sat at the head table in the reception hall.
"Are you all right, dear?"
She looked up to see her aunt Mildred, whose wrinkled face was the picture of concern.
"I..." Chloe struggled for words. "Yes. I'm doing all right," she said. It wasn't exactly a lie. She wasn't feeling badly--wasn't feeling anything but numb, so she assumed that meant she was functional. As long as she could function, she was all right.
"Have you gotten a hold of the groom yet?"
Chloe shook her head.
Chloe winced. "His mother told me he's unavailable for discussion," she said, unconsciously mimicking the woman's crisp, overly enunciated way of speaking.
Mildred made a snorting sound. "Convenient. He stands you up on your wedding day, with a note, and now he's 'unavailable for discussion'! That's rich!"
Although she felt the same way, Chloe had had this conversation already with at least a dozen members of her family. All her family, in fact, had stayed to try to eat some of the reception food, since it was paid for. Gerald--Chloe's vanished fiancé and groom--had not bothered to let anybody other than his immediate family know about his plan, so everyone from his guest list had shown up to the church and then beaten a hasty retreat once Chloe made the announcement that the wedding wasn't proceeding.
"Didn't you buy a house with this man not too long ago?"
"Yes," Chloe admitted, suppressing a sigh. "I did."
"You were supposed to move in after the honeymoon, weren't you? What's going to happen now?"
"I don't know,Aunt Mildred," Chloe replied, feeling weary.
"That's not the sort of detail you want to leave hanging," Mildred said with a disapproving cluck.
"Now, now," Chloe's mother Beverly interrupted, to Chloe's intense relief. "My daughter has a lot of details that she's going to have to address in light of...this unpleasantness. We're not going to handle all this in one afternoon."
"Of course, of course," Aunt Mildred responded, sounding contrite. "You call me if you need anything, Chloe, dear."
Chloe nodded and waved weakly as her aunt headed for the dessert table. "Thanks, Mom," she breathed. "If I have to answer any more questions about Gerald--"
"I know, I know. It's terrible," her mother said, and there was a vicious edge to her voice that Chloe rarely heard. Her mother was usually optimistic to the point of unflappability.
"Your father has been raving like a lunatic. I finally got your Uncle Carl to calm him down."
"Dad?" The thought of her sedate father raving over anything but new tax tables was something of a shock.
"Yes," her mother answered. "He's been spouting off about buying a shotgun and going by Gerald's house. He's not serious, though the thought of doing physical harm to that..." Her mother let the sentence peter out with a menacing overtone. "Mom," Chloe said, now truly shocked.
"He left you a note, Chloe. He didn't even have the courage to face you," she countered. "And, after making all these plans, telling you that he's involved with someone else? That is unforgivable."
Chloe felt her throat constrict and hastily looked away. Every time she thought of that particular sentence--Chloe, I think I found someone more compatible and I've gotten more involved than I intended--she felt a cold stab of dis-belief. It had taken her months to get intimate with Gerald once they'd started dating. They had a mutual, supportive relationship--or at least that's what she'd thought. For pity's sake, they'd split everything, including the house and the wedding bills, right down the middle even though Gerald made much more money as an architect than Chloe did as a personal assistant. How much more "compatible" could this new woman be?
"And don't even get me started on that devil woman," her mother added.
Chloe sighed. "That devil woman" not being the "compatible" object of Gerald's infidelity but, rather, his domineering mother. "Well, at least she's not here," Chloe said, teary.
"After insisting on all this froufrou," her mother hissed, pointing to the bunting, the flowers, the ice sculptures of King Arthur and Guinevere at the main buffet table. "Now her son has the nerve..."
"Mom, I love you for being so angry for me," Chloe said, and she meant every word. "But it's not helping. Not right now."
Her mother took a deep, cleansing breath, then nodded. "Certainly. Just like your father always says--focus on the elements you can control, because there's no sense focusing on the things you can't. So..."
Chloe watched as her mother pulled a pen and a small organizer from her purse.
"What do you need to take care of?" Her mother looked like a court reporter, expectant, at the ready to take down notes.
"Do I need to write up the list now?" Chloe said, feeling pained.
"Well, your aunt Mildred was right," her mother said mildly.
"There are an awful lot of details. I don't think you need to solve them immediately, but you'll feel better when you have an action list in place. I'm sure it all seems overwhelming, so think of how relieved you'll be when you can visualize the extent of your problems in black-and-white. So to speak."
Chloe looked away--looked at the ice sculpture that was slowly melting into the flower arrangements. She loved her family and knew that her mother was doing what she thought would be most helpful in this grave situation. It was a family characteristic, like the wavy brown hair they almost all shared or the slight almond-shaped tilt to their eyes. Being organized and efficient was downright genetic. But for once Chloe wished that she didn't have to be quite such a swift problem-solver.
I wish I could get away from all of this.
Her mother was still waiting, so Chloe straightened in her chair. "Well, there's the house," Chloe began.
"Got it," her mother said, jotting that down. "What else?" Chloe closed her eyes, trying to will the scorching pain away. "I will need to speak with Gerald."
"That goes without saying."
"I need to figure out where to live."
Her mother clucked, sounding like Mildred. "You can live with us for as long as you need to, sweetie."
Chloe thought about the night she'd spent, last night, in her old childhood room replete with four-poster bed and ruffled lace canopy. She shuddered. "Um, I will need to find a job," Chloe continued, shifting her thoughts quickly.
Now her mother frowned. "Honestly, I still don't understand why you quit. It wasn't as if marriage was going to affect your work."
"Well, no, but there was enough gossiping when Gerald was simply dating me, his personal assistant," Chloe said.
"When planning the wedding got crazy, he said he'd take care of my bills if I focused on this...."
She felt tears again and quickly swiped at her eyes before they could fall.
"Oh..." her mother said, instantly comforting.
"Anyway, even if I had kept the job, there's no way I could keep working with Gerald, knowing...what I know now, what he's done," Chloe explained sniffling, then berating herself for it. "So I need to find a new job."
Her mother dutifully added that to the list. "Anything else?" Chloe blinked at her. Isn't that enough? "Just three things. Take care of the house, find a new place to live, find a job...oh, and talk to Gerald, which I'm putting in the first category of house issues. There, that's not so bad, is it?"
Chloe didn't respond. The list was short, but it was ghastly. Her mother glanced around. "So we'll put you up at our house tonight. And there's the rest of this wedding monstrosity to take care of."
Chloe's father approached them, looking like a stocky, balding James Bond in his tux. His eyes were still slightly wild, she noticed, and she instantly felt comforted.
"How's my little girl?" he said gruffly.
She stood up and hugged him. "I'm hanging in there," she said, rubbing her cheek against his shoulder. "Well, of course you are. You're a Winton," he said stolidly.
"What are you two doing?"
"Just did a quick list of what she's going to need to take care of," her mother said smoothly.
"That's my girl," he said, patting her shoulder. "Just because the world's going to hell in a handbasket doesn't mean you need to give in to the chaos, I've always said."
He sounded so sure of the statement that Chloe smiled even though she felt like a collapsed building inside. "Right, Dad," she said instead, trying for her bravest smile.
"You might not be able to choose your circumstances, but you can always choose your response to it."
"Yup," Chloe agreed.
"The trick to handling any problem is dealing with the worst aspect first. Then it's all downhill from there."
All downhill from there. Truer words were never spoken. "When life gives you lemons--"
"Dad," Chloe interrupted. "I get it."
"Hmm? Oh." Her father reddened a bit. "Well, I'm just trying to help you feel better."
"I know. And I love you guys for it." Chloe sat down, looking at her mother's list. Decide what to do about the house...get a job...find a new place to live.
Talk to Gerald.
She knew she ought to. Some part of her wondered if maybe she shouldn't storm over to the new house they'd bought and bang on the door until he showed his cowardly face. She certainly wanted to--she was that angry. But what if he were with his new lover? The thought was like acid on an open wound. What would she do? What could she do? Was she even ready to face him? Or worse, face them?
Maybe it was cowardly of her, but the thought of facing Gerald, knowing that he'd cheated on her and walked out on her, made her physically nauseous.
Instead, Chloe picked up her mother's pen and took the list in hand. "All right," she said, breathing deep and pushing all thoughts of Gerald out of her mind. "I'll deal with the wedding first. There's no way everybody can eat all the food we've ordered--we only have half as many guests as planned. So I'll see if the caterer can arrange to take leftovers to a homeless shelter or food bank." She jotted the note: caterer--food donation. "The flowers, too. They can go to a hospital, probably. I'm going to need to pay everyone...." She wrote a list of people who would be expecting checks at the end of the night--caterer, hotel, DJ. "And the gifts. We're going to need to return the gifts and send out an explanatory note." Another item added to the list.
By the time she was finished, she had a neatly printed column of details to handle and she had to admit her mother was right--she did feel a bit better. Organizing was calming for Wintons, she knew.
Dodging the Gerald issue is calming, as well, she privately admitted.
"Let us know when you want to go home," her father said, giving her another pat on the shoulder.
"We can type these lists up," her mother added helpfully.
"Oh, and your cousins wanted to stop by, to see if there was anything they could do to help," her father said.
"Which reminds me--you'll probably be getting a lot of phone calls." Her mother shrugged. "Everyone feels so badly and they all want to see if you need anything."
Chloe thought about it. She could handle this. Sure, she was staying in a twin-size bed that was hard as granite with age, surrounded by posters of bands and movie stars she'd liked in high school. Sure, her parents got up at five o'clock in the morning, and would no doubt continue to "help" her with the full focus of their relatively open schedule as retirees. And sure, she'd be deluged with offers of assistance from her well-meaning and equally organized family members....
She quickly grabbed the list again. "The honeymoon," she said.
Her father blinked at her. "Sorry?"
"I'm supposed to be going on a cruise," she said, adding one more item to the list. "The boat will be expecting us. I need to call them and cancel. I should do that right now."
Right now I should do anything but think about what I'm going to be faced with in the next week.
"All right, dear," her father said. "You do that and then we'll go."
Chloe headed to a quiet hallway to make the call on her cell phone. She appreciated the distraction. She knew she couldn't avoid her troubles forever. Then again, she also knew that, one way or another, everything would be all right.
She just wasn't sure how.
"I AM ALREADY HAVING a bad day, Kenneth," Captain Jack McCullough said ominously into his cell phone. "Please tell me you're running late or something simple like that."
There was a pause on the line, and Jack knew immediately that Kenneth was not running late and the "or something" was going to be bad. Call it sailor's instincts, call it gut reaction, even call it Murphy's law, but this was apparently one of those days when absolutely nothing was as it should be.
"I'm not working this cruise, Jack." Kenneth swallowed audibly. "In fact, I'm not going to be able to work for you anymore."