Read an Excerpt
“The only time a woman is truly helpless,” said my sister Libby as she sailed into the musty lobby of the old theater, “is when her nail polish is wet. Even then, she should be able to pull a trigger. I read that somewhere.”
I had asked her for help regarding my new boss.
“I can’t shoot my editor,” I said as we skulked past the closed refreshment stand and into the back of the dark and empty auditorium. “As satisfying as that might feel, the long-range consequences would interfere with my social schedule. Which is still my job, and I need to keep it.”
Libby arranged herself in a back-row seat like a contented hen settling on a nest of warm eggs, an impression heightened when she pulled off a scarf to reveal a T-shirt under her velour tracksuit. In sequins, the shirt said, HAUTE CHIC. She tossed her scarf over the adjacent empty seat. “Why are you asking me, Nora? I’d suffocate in a humdrum work environment! My inner goddess needs freedom to flourish. I get hives just thinking about punching a time clock. Darn it, I wish I’d thought to bring some popcorn.”
Our sister Emma plunked herself down next to me and immediately propped her muddy riding boots on the seat back in front of her. “The sign in the lobby said stage mothers are supposed to stay out of the theater.”
“I am not a stage mother,” Libby snapped. “I am a powerful life force guiding my children to a brighter destiny. I pull them into the turbulent current of life with my own indomitable momentum.”
Emma said, “Just a guess, but have you added to your collection of nutball self-help books lately?”
Libby blithely ignored that shot. She had dragged her fourteen-year-old twins, Harcourt and Hilton, to an audition for something I still wasn’t clear about. Then, instead of lunch, she had insisted the three of us sneak into the back row to watch. Onstage, a couple of shady characters muttered beside the velvet curtains, which had been pulled open to reveal an empty space with a battered piano on one side. The piano player appeared to noodle one-handed on the keyboard while dozing off from boredom with his chin propped in his other hand. From some distant place, we could also hear the high-pitched buzz of a preteen mob that had been corralled like a herd of wildebeests eager to break into a stampede.
Libby dug into her handbag in search of a restorative snack. “Those stage mother rules don’t apply to me. I made it clear my sons should be first to audition this afternoon, so we’ll be in and out as soon as the director gets started. Meanwhile, we can solve Nora’s workplace issue.”
If Libby could solve a workplace issue, it certainly wouldn’t be because she had ever held down a formal job in her entire life. Like me, she had grown up on the Old Money accumulated by our entrepreneurial Blackbird relatives who came to America early and amassed an enviable fortune by investing in railroads and safety pins. There were no parcel-tying shopkeepers in our ancestry, Mama often said. Blackbirds had always allowed their money to do the work, and she made darn sure her daughters had none of the skills that might threaten that dubious family record. We had enjoyed all the luxuries money could buy until our parents went broke and ran off with the meager remains of our trust funds. They now applied themselves to perfecting their samba skills in South American dance halls while my sisters and I learned to navigate the real world.
My younger sister, Emma, had actually worked for a living since she was old enough to put a boot into a stirrup, so I turned to her and said, “How do I handle an obnoxious boss?”
“I suppose you’ve ruled out sexual favors,” Emma said.
“That’s not funny. I need a solution from this century, please.”
“I was only kidding.” Emma slumped down in her seat as if sliding farther into the funk she’d been fighting for months. “Why the hell are we here? I could use some food.”
I had arranged a reconciliation lunch for my squabbling sisters, and it had taken all of my powers of peacemaking persuasion to get Emma to show up at all. At Libby’s last-minute request, we had changed plans and met in front of a venerable Bucks County theater mostly used for amateur productions of Neil Simon plays and the occasional high school talent show.
Emma had appeared wearing an expression of sisterly resentment. Tall and lean and more perfectly proportioned than Miss Alabama, she might have been mistaken for a beauty queen except for her dirty boots, breeches and the mud-spattered shirt that said she’d been exercising someone’s expensive horses somewhere nearby. Her short hair was mashed on the sides as if by a helmet and still managed to look chic. But the scowl on her otherwise flawless forehead told me that she and Libby hadn’t forgiven each other for harsh words snapped a few months ago when Emma gave birth and handed over her illegitimate baby to the child’s very married father.
Both of my sisters were still pretending the other was invisible.
Therefore, sitting between them, I was the recipient of their undivided attention.
To me, Emma said, “What’s so wrong about your boss?”
“Maybe the problem isn’t your boss at all,” Libby said as if Emma had not spoken. She focused intently on thumbing a stick of gum out of its packet. “Maybe it’s you.”
“I know it’s me,” I said, unable to hide my exasperation. “Look, I was hired to be a society columnist—to attend parties and report about charitable giving. That’s where my skills are—parties! And I’m good at it.”
“So what’s the big deal?” Emma picked a hunk of mud off the side of one boot.
“Newspapers are failing all over the country, and half the staff of the Intelligencer has been laid off. We’re putting out every edition on a shoestring. Because my salary is so low, I’ll be the last to get a pink slip. Meanwhile, the new editor seems to think I’m a real reporter who should be capable of writing real news.”
“That’s a good sign.” Libby handed me one of her two sticks of gum and kept the other for herself. “He must like your work.”
“He likes that I’m cheap,” I clarified, passing my share of the gum to Emma, who took it.
Emma said, “Is this Crocodile Dundee, the Australian guy?”
Libby sat up eagerly. “That man with the cute accent? Oh, I saw him on television, talking about the future of journalism. He’s very handsome, Nora. The ex-surfer whose father is that bossy media mogul in Australia?”
“That’s him. Thing is, I’m not suited to surfing with the crocodiles. He’s asking me to be something I’m not.”
“You’re a reporter,” Emma said. “So, report. Except instead of noticing flower arrangements, you gotta decide which gangbanger robbed the liquor store. Not much different.”
“I’m not covering any gangs, thank heavens, but I’m floundering. I don’t have the right skills.”
My cell phone gave a jingle to tell me I was getting another text message. The phone had already gone off half a dozen times since I left my house. I glanced at the screen and held it up as Exhibit A. “See? He’s texting me right now. Probably to ask when I’ll be sending my column. Trouble is, I haven’t had time to write the damn thing because he’s also got me working on celebrity profiles!”
“That’s what he considers real reporting?” Emma said. “Celebrity profiles? What, he hasn’t heard of any flying saucer stories he could send you on?”
“Oh!” Libby cried. “Nora, I meant to tell you how much I loved your series on the Real Housewives of the Main Line. That one who owns five hundred pairs of shoes and keeps them organized by color? What an inspiration she is. How do I meet her?”
“Within five minutes of meeting her, Libby, you’d want to stab yourself in the eye with a stiletto.”
“But it was a great article! All the girls down at the Pink Windowbox were talking about it.” Libby set her handbag on the sticky floor, thought better of it, then put it on the seat beside her. “Here’s my suggestion, Nora. Make a list of all your best accomplishments. Write them on slips of colored paper, and keep them in an old jewelry box—you know, the kind with the pop-up ballerina and the mirror inside? And every time you start feeling blue or inadequate, open your box and read one. You’ll feel better, trust me.”
“I’m not sure I want to be reminded that my best accomplishment is a story about a woman with five hundred pairs of shoes.”
“It was better than you think,” Libby insisted. “It made me want to buy shoes while also feeling morally superior. That’s an accomplishment.”
“People smarter than you are out of work right now,” Emma pointed out, dropping her gum wrapper on the floor.
I picked up her wrapper and crumpled it in my hand. “Yes, I should be happy I have a job in the first place. It’s just—I don’t know how much longer I can keep making it up as I go along.”
Libby said, “What other celebrities are you profiling?”
“The big one is Swain Starr, the fashion designer who retired. I started pestering him a few weeks ago, and he finally agreed to give me some interviews.”
Libby lit up. “I love his clothes! And he makes plus sizes, thank heavens, and in colors other than black. Do all designers think fat girls are in mourning for their thin selves?”
“Who she’s writing about is not the point,” Emma snapped. “The point is Nora’s overwhelmed.”
“I’m not dense,” Libby said without turning her head to acknowledge Emma’s presence. “I’m completely sympathetic to your problem, Nora. You’re in crisis. We should all learn to give and accept support in a crisis.”
“I’m plenty supportive.” Emma popped the gum into her mouth and started to chomp with enough force to break a molar. “But it doesn’t do any good for her to wallow in self-pity.”
“I need to be proactive,” I agreed. “So tell me what to do, Em.”
“Well, you can’t resign. If you give up your salary, you’ll lose your house for sure. After that last ice storm in January, Blackbird Farm looks more dilapidated than ever.”
“Some of the gutters were damaged. I have to save up for the repairs.”
“Go into business for yourself,” Libby said. “Like me.”
We turned to her, surprised to hear her news. I said, “You’re in business?”
Emma snorted. “Are you selling sex toys again?”
“For your information,” Libby said to me, “I am representing my children now. Specifically, the twins.”
In recent years, Libby’s teenage twin sons had developed unspeakable hobbies—I had the enormous jars of dead snakes and rodents in my cellar to prove it—and last I heard, they were lobbying to take a summer science course that required the purchase of a human cadaver. They had spent the winter eagerly shoveling sidewalks to earn enough money to buy one. They still spoke in their secret language of twins, and their conversations often sounded like a couple of bloodthirsty assassins planning mayhem in code.
So I assumed the worst and said, “You mean you’re representing them in court? Shouldn’t you hire a real lawyer, Libby?”
“They’re not in trouble, silly. They’ve expressed an interest in the entertainment industry. And you know I leap at indulging their creative process.”
“What kind of entertainment?” Emma asked. “Jumping motorcycles across canyons? Shooting apples off each other’s heads? I presume whatever it is, there are deadly weapons involved?”
“I’ll have you know,” Libby said severely, “that all my children have excellent karma of the soul. Their creativity responds to positive stimulation, that’s all, not mean-spirited influences.”
I intervened before Emma could throw a wad of chewing gum. “What kind of entertaining do the twins want to do?”
“I think they should start with modeling. Then acting, of course. But I want to keep them open to musical ventures, too. That Justin Bieber is so adorable. I could just eat him with a spoon.”
Muttering a rude word, Emma sank down in her seat.
“The twins might especially thrive in the rock-and-roll scene,” Libby said. “Most famous music stars can’t carry a tune in a bucket, you know. There are machines that tweak your voice now. And instruments practically play themselves. Anybody can be a star. It just takes relentless representation to get ahead in the business. That’s where I come in. What better, more determined business partner can a child have than a loving parent? And nobody can outshine me when it comes to determination.”
Emma and I exchanged a look while Libby continued to rhapsodize.
“I was back doing some restoration work for the museums, but painting isn’t very satisfying for me anymore. I’m too spontaneous to spend hours in a hermetically sealed laboratory. I need energy pulsing around me! If my own life has reached the period when things have slowed down a bit—well, it’s a mother’s job to turn her attention to making her children’s lives as fulfilling as possible, right? Why work myself into a tizzy of disappointment and frustration when I can usefully turn my energies to something positive?”
I said, “Things fell through on your date last week?”
She heaved a wavering sigh. “We had a nice dinner, and I invited him back to my house for cappuccino, but when we got there, I had a zillion carpenter ants swarming all over my living room. Nothing like a huge black swarm of hideous bugs to suck the magic out of a romantic evening. It was horrible. A nightmare. But,” she said, perking up, “I remembered that I have better things on my horizon. A few weeks ago, I went to a free seminar at the Holiday Inn. I didn’t figure out I was in the wrong room until I was thoroughly entranced by the workshop. It was a tutorial for mothers of talented offspring. Immediately, I was inspired! Why should somebody else’s pimply kid get all the attention when mine are perfectly capable?”
“Capable of what?” Emma asked under her breath. “Homicide?”
“The twins have oodles of potential,” Libby said to me. “We just have to tease out the most marketable skills. Porter says every TV producer in the world is on the lookout for twins these days. Twins are very hot in sitcoms.”
“Porter?” I asked cautiously.
“Sitcoms,” Emma repeated. “Don’t you think they’re better suited to the horror genre?”
Steadily ignoring Emma, Libby said, “I’ve turned an important corner, Nora. By facilitating my children’s reaching for the stars, I’ll attain my own fulfillment, see? If the twins make it to Hollywood, I will have done my best as a mother, and that’s reward enough in life.”
“The young man who runs the seminars. He’s accepted the twins into his exclusive program.”
“He’s some kind of a talent scout?”
“Well, first he scouts, then he nurtures. He represented that little girl who played a baby vampire on a cable show, and then she was hired for that movie with Meryl Streep. He’s very successful. Of course, he’s far too young for me,” she added in a rush.
“Libby,” I said, putting my arm around her plump shoulders, “there are plenty of nice men in the world, and someday you’re going to meet the right one. A man who’s put off by a few insects isn’t worth your—”
“It wasn’t just a few bugs,” she said, her voice catching on a sniffle. Her eyes pooled with tremulous tears. “It was about two million. That’s what Perry the bug man said this morning when he made an emergency trip to my house. Fortunately, he d-didn’t charge me the weekend rate, which is d-double the astronomical fee I actually paid. He says I’m such a good repeat customer that I d-deserve a d-discount.”
I handed her my handkerchief in the nick of time. Libby burst into tears and sobbed her heart out. Nobody wept like Libby—gushing tears, heaving bosom and howling sobs that turned heads up onstage.
The man with the clipboard came to the apron and raised one hand to his forehead to squint out into the dark theater. “Ladies? You’re not supposed to be here.”
Emma called back, “We came to see our nephews.”
“This is a closed audition. And anyway, we don’t start for an hour. You have to leave.”
Libby emerged from my handkerchief looking as radiant as a saint fresh out of Lourdes. “An hour?” She checked her watch. “That gives me enough time for a manicure. I think I saw a nail salon on the corner.”
When we were out in the lobby again, Libby handed over my sodden handkerchief. “A manicure or maybe an herbal body wrap. I want to look my best for the high school graduation in a few weeks. There’s a chance Rawlins will be honored with an award or two, and since I may be asked to pose for posterity with him, I want to look wonderful. I’ve been dieting, too, but it doesn’t seem to be working.”
I asked, “Libby, what happened to your theory that dieting is a weapon of oppression against women?”
“Theories come and go, but photographs are forever,” she replied.
She went off to her body wrap, and Emma and I went out to her truck. While she drove me to the event I had to attend, I checked my phone messages.
“Well?” Emma asked. “Is your boss putting on more pressure?”
“Yes.” I tucked my phone back into my bag without responding to the demanding texts. “He wants everything done yesterday.”
“Fake it till you make it, Nora.”
“I’m trying,” I said. “But maybe I should research some night classes. I don’t want to fail. I want to do a great job. I want to knock my editor’s socks off.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” Emma said. “First it’s his socks; then it’s his pants.”
I turned to look at my sister. Behind the wheel of her truck, she looked as composed as ever. Good humored, even. And sober, which was the important thing. I hoped she hadn’t started drinking again.
But her good humor was deceiving. Just two months earlier, on Christmas Day, Emma had given birth to an eight-pound baby boy who was immediately whisked off by his new parents—Emma’s married lover and his new wife. The newlyweds were enjoying their infant son, we heard, while Emma tried hard to pretend she had no memory of delivering a love child. Her body showed no signs of having experienced childbirth except—if it were possible—even more perk to her already faultless breasts. The condition of her mind, though, might be another story.
Having suffered two still-painful miscarriages myself, I had some unexplored feelings on the subject, too, but I said, “Have you had your postpartum checkup?”
“Don’t start,” she warned.
“I just want to be sure you’re taking care of yourself.”
“I’m fine,” Emma snapped. “And as far as I know, the baby’s fine, too. We’re both fine, peachy keen, in the pink, perfectly healthy. You can lay off the sisterly concern. I’m back to normal.”
“Of course you’re fine,” I said. “Libby popped out all five of her babies like Life Savers. But the estrogen aftermath was another story. If your hormones are anything like hers, any second you could be making an emergency landing at the Crazytown airport.”
“I’m fine,” Emma insisted. “I’m strength training at a gym. And I’m back to work.”
“Oh, really? At Paddy’s barn? Does he have some promising jumpers this spring?”
“He’s not using me full-time, so I picked up some hours as an exercise rider to take up the slack. And to build some muscle.”
At once I knew she was disappointed not to be on the big Grand Prix jumpers. Emma needed to prove herself all over again, I guessed, before the owners of valuable animals boosted her into their saddles. “You’re working as an exercise rider? You mean racehorses?”
“Just morning breezes on the less valuable livestock. I know a trainer at the track. He’s the one who gave me the job.”
“How do you know him?”
“Around. Look, I’m supposed to get him a Filly Vanilli for his kid. How do I find one of those?”
Aware that she was changing the subject, I relented and asked, “What’s a Filly Vanilli?”
“A toy. Or a music box. A music box that’s in a toy. It’s a horse thingie you hang on the side of a crib, and the horse sings songs in this goofy voice and puts the kid to sleep.”
“Yeah, except you can’t find them anywhere. They’re, like, impossible to buy.”
“And you need to find one for this trainer who gave you a job?”
“Right. Where can I get one?”
“I have no idea. This trainer. Are you dating him?”
“Hell, no. He’s old and cranky from lack of sleep with this new kid at home.”
“Are you dating anyone right now?”
“If you must know,” she said, exasperated, “I’m seeing Jay, the kid who washes dishes at the Rusty Sabre.”
There was something in her tone that made me suspect she was telling more lies than Pinocchio. Since the death of her husband in a car accident, Emma seemed hell-bent on sleeping with every man who struck her fancy. And her fancy had gotten quite a workout before she landed in a maternity ward. Men who could ride fast, party hard and climb into bed without any fear of commitment were the ones she preferred. Since her pregnancy, though, I hadn’t heard about any new exploits.
I said, “Em—”
“Don’t worry about me, Sis. The biggest problem I have is finding a damn Filly Vanilli.”
But I did worry. On the chance Emma’s hormones were not as stable as she wanted me to believe, however, I decided not to risk further discussion about her personal life.
The three of us—Libby and Emma and I—had all survived the loss of our husbands. We had each coped with widowhood differently. I had to trust that Emma was on a path that would get her somewhere good in the end.
The sun glinted on the Delaware River to our right as we swooped around the curves and over the hills of the two-lane road that led north from New Hope. We passed my home, Blackbird Farm, and kept going.
I said, “Why don’t you come for dinner tonight?”
“Can’t. I’ve got a date.” Before I could decide if I should ask why she recently had plenty of excuses not to visit us, Emma switched subjects again. “How’s Mick?”
I barely held back a sigh of dismay at the mention of Michael Abruzzo, tickler of my fancy, man of my dreams, the love of my life, who had dodged his prison sentence for racketeering when facility overcrowding had gotten him reassigned to house arrest. For the last few months, he had been trapped at home with an electronic monitor. Which I was happy about. Really.
“He’s frustrated,” I replied. “Most of the time, he paces like a caged animal.”
Emma glanced my way. “How bad is it?”
“The conditions of his parole are that he can’t really run his business the way he wants to. He can’t deal with things in person. So he’s on the phone. A lot.”
“He’s more the hands-on type than the phone-it-in type.”
“Yes,” I said. “He’s definitely hands-on.”
She heard my change of tone and laughed. “Oh, I get it. His hands are on you, huh? He jumps you every chance he gets? Plenty of funny business going on in your bedroom?”
“Not just the bedroom. We’ve always had a very satisfying—well, lately it’s been rather more than I can . . .”
“Don’t sugarcoat for my benefit.” Emma was amused. “He’s bored, so he wants a lot of nooky? Anytime, day or night? And you’re—what? Exhausted? Or out of creative ideas?”
“He’s always had big appetites,” I admitted. “Sometimes I have a little trouble . . . keeping up.”
“Take your vitamins, Sis.” Emma was laughing at me again. “How’s the baby-making going?”
“No results yet.” I tried to keep my tone upbeat.
She glanced my way. “Time to see a specialist?”
“Not yet.” The subject was a touchy one, and for fear I’d bust into blubbers, I said, “I’ll tell Michael you said hello.”
“Don’t bother,” she replied, pulling to the gates of Starr’s Landing.
An impressive pair of ornamental brick pillars was flanked by white split rail fences on either side and centered with a set of elaborate gates whose wrought-iron curlicues formed the letter S entwined in the middle. The owners of a Transylvania castle could barricade themselves against peasants attacking with pitchforks and blazing firebrands with less of a barrier.
I dug out my invitation and gave Emma the access code. When the security gate opened, Emma pulled through. Her old truck didn’t quite match the expensive automobiles parked along the curved lane, but Emma didn’t notice.
She whistled as she got her first look at the state-of-the-art farm. “Hey, this place looks like Disneyland.”
“I’ve seen every pristine acre, even behind the scenes,” I said. “The owners showed me the hydroponic tanks and the perfect baby chicks. The whole farm is everything you’d expect from a fashion designer who gets the urge to go back to the land. It’s a work of art.”
Today I had been invited back to Starr’s Landing for the great unveiling. Swain Starr eventually wanted the world to see what he had accomplished, but first he had invited a few important friends and the eager press. Swain had promised he’d donate to a local farmers’ co-op if other guests pledged, too. It was a nice gesture, but not exactly world-class philanthropy. His primary reason for throwing the party was to show off. I had to find a way to make it seem otherwise in the newspaper.
“Want to join the party?” I asked my sister.
“For champagne punch and petits fours?” Emma extended her pinky finger and waggled it contemptuously. “You know that’s not my kind of scene.”
No, it certainly wasn’t. Beer and pizza were more her style. So I waved good-bye to Emma and walked into the party.
Our diminutive host greeted his guests in front of the barn, looking like an absurdly handsome miniature cowboy in perfectly faded jeans and a tailored chambray shirt. By his bronzed face, his signature gray hair, his crinkly blue eyes, anyone who had opened a fashion magazine in several decades would have instantly recognized him and known he was a billionaire fashion baron, not a humble Pennsylvania farmer. In person, though, Swain Starr stood about half as tall as people imagined. Even wearing his red cowboy boots with heels, he barely came up to my chin. He was less hardy than people imagined from his photos, too. He had the tentative walk of a more elderly man not quite confident in his balance.
He gave me three air kisses—producing runway shows in Paris had left its mark, even though he was retired—and pulled me by the hand through the paddock gate.
“Nora, you look beautiful.”
“Why, thank you.” I performed a pirouette to show off my dress. “Recognize it?”
“It’s from your collection. Of course, it’s from twenty years ago. No wonder you forget. How many dresses have you designed over the years?”
“Thousands.” He smiled, pleased by my gesture of homage. “Surely this wasn’t something you wore as a child?”
I had pulled out of my closet a seductively simple Swain Starr party dress made of cotton damask printed with pink cabbage roses and tulips. Ladylike, even demure. Sleeveless, piped with pink satin and with a light cashmere sweater in a matching pink—it suited my fair coloring and dark auburn hair as well as the occasion. And I had already noticed that the farm had been decorated with huge tubs of pink tulips exactly like those on my dress. Of course, we were smack in the middle of tulip season, so I had made an educated guess.
When I started working for the newspaper and needed the right clothes to attend the many black-tie and formal events on the charity circuit, I had climbed the attic stairs and dug into the trunks my grandmother Blackbird left behind. Her extensive collection of haute couture—gathered over many years and dozens of trips to the ateliers of world-class designers—suited me very well, and I embraced the vintage couture as my “look.”
I didn’t want to make Swain feel old by mentioning my grandmother had been his client, so I said, “It’s a family piece. Do you still like it?”
“It’s a classic,” he said proudly. “And it looks positively new on you.”
I thanked him, and together we turned to gaze across the landscape spread before us.
“What do you think, Nora?” Swain asked. “Have I created one more masterpiece?”
He had certainly taken a few dozen acres of Bucks County farmland and turned them into a bucolic paradise complete with a weathervane on top of the red barn and a picturesque flock of white ducks paddling across a perfect little pond dappled with lily pads. Half a dozen black-and-white cows grazed in a lush pasture alongside a woolly little burro that would have made the perfect character in a children’s picture book.
Hoping to muscle his way to the forefront of the Farm-to-Table movement, Starr promised old-fashioned agrarian methods blended with the latest scientific advancements in breeding and cultivation, all while nurturing personal relationships with the local food community. By the look of things, he was certainly working hard at reaching his goal.
Not by making much personal sacrifice, however. I had seen a contingent of local laborers troop through the security gate every day to bring the animals, install the solar panels on the barn roof and get the first crops into the ground. Swain had watched them from the porch of his spectacular, newly built home, which stood on the hillside overlooking the rural paradise. The house was a meld of Shaker-style simplicity and ultramodern glass and steel construction with a view of pasture, barn and river out front and a steep cliffside panorama out back. It was a home befitting a king of fashion. I couldn’t guess how many millions it cost to build.
“It’s all marvelous,” I said.
He waved his hand to indicate the animals. “The vegetables are my wife’s specialty. I’m focusing on meat. In addition to the dairy cows, I plan on having at least a hundred producing sows by fall. All kept in sanitary conditions or roaming the pastures. My lovely wife will hold me to that promise.”
At the mention of her loveliness, Swain’s wife materialized beside us.
I recognized her breathy voice and turned. Zephyr Starr. Her wholesome American face was probably pasted on billboards from Japan to Paris and every continent in between, but once more it entranced me. Clear eyes, flawless skin. Straight blond hair braided to look as if the farmer’s daughter had stopped at a chic salon. Perhaps thirty years old now, the former supermodel could pass for a teenager in forgiving light. A physically perfect specimen for displaying every kind of clothing from bathing suits to haute couture, Zephyr must have been accustomed to taking the breath away from everyone she met. Today, dressed in simple, yet cunningly cut skinny pants with a close-fitting, iconic white T-shirt that showed off youthful breasts and a tiny waist, she looked anything but casual. Her own beauty was accessory enough to make her magnificent.
I attempted to be as friendly as she had been. “Hi, Zephyr. The farm looks wonderful.”
“Yes, it does. Thank you for coming.”
During my interviews with her husband, Zephyr had floated in and out of range, alighting on a chair only when Swain finally begged her to join us. He asked her to move to a different chair so the light from the windows illuminated her skin in a way he admired. Looking so gorgeous that I had trouble concentrating on her words, she had spoken very briefly about herself when I asked—only giving up the kind of superficial information I could read in any press release—but when she’d talked about the farm she and her husband envisioned, she had grown emotional. She wept over the conditions of chickens kept on commercial farms, and she spoke passionately about growing vegetables without pesticides. So she wasn’t just a shallow beauty. Her husband was very proud of her, I could see. They were the picture of marital happiness.
She wound one of her graceful long arms through Swain’s and bestowed her world-famous smile upon him. “Darling, our best hope has come true. We have our first ripe tomato on the vine. Would you like to help me pick it to show everyone? Or can I pour you a lemonade first?”
He patted her slim hand and shot a smile at me. “She takes good care of me, see? Will you excuse us, Nora?”
“Of course. Enjoy your day.”
They moved away—the tall, stunning young woman and the proud-as-a-peacock man who was shorter and older than she. He leaned on her arm, as if needing her strength. I almost shook my head with puzzlement. There must have been a forty-year difference in their ages, yet they seemed devoted to each other.
I had known Swain’s first wife—a good mother, a smart conversationalist with plenty of brains and personality, plus a fair amount of sex appeal even in her midsixties—so it was hard to make peace with his having left the woman who had stood shoulder to shoulder with him as he built his career and family.
Zephyr was beautiful. No—beyond beautiful. And almost geisha-like in her attention to her older husband. Maybe that combination of wifely attributes was more important to a man of Swain’s years than loyalty and history.
Why had she bothered to marry him, though? Had their passion for growing organic food truly brought them together? Or was it some alchemy I didn’t quite grasp? Stranger unions had happened, I supposed.
I turned to admire my surroundings again—the true purpose of today’s event. A white party tent stood next to the modest strawberry patch, and beautifully dressed guests milled around with crystal champagne flutes in their hands. Tables had been dressed with enamel pitchers stuffed with more pink tulips.
I began to make my usual party rounds among the guests. It was the kind of thing I did several times a week—exchanging pleasantries with familiar faces and introducing myself to people I didn’t know. I had grown up among the Old Money set, and from my years in the Junior League before my husband died, I knew a wide circle of friends from the arts and medical communities, too. I also had contacts in the fashion crowd, so I was called over to chat with many small clutches of guests.
After saying a few hellos and promising lunches with friends, I bumped into my nephew, Libby’s oldest son, Rawlins.
“Rawlins, what on earth are you doing here?” I gave him an exuberant hug.
“Hey, Aunt Nora.”
I could have sworn Libby’s teenage son had grown since I’d seen him a week ago. During the past year, he’d gradually shed all the jewelry he had worn pierced through his ears and face, and along with the hardware, he’d also lost most of his hostile attitude—except where his mother was concerned, and I had to admit that if Libby had been my mother, I might have felt occasionally hostile, too.
Today Rawlins looked surprisingly relaxed and adult in khaki pants and his trusty navy sport coat over his usual T-shirt. He had brushed his dark hair, and his Blackbird blue eyes were clear and direct as he smiled at me. He gave me a kiss on the cheek.
“How on earth did you get invited to this event?” I asked.
“Someone I know invited me. I’m not sticking around long.” He was making a good show of sophistication, but I saw hints of teenage unease in his body language.
“Someone from the neighborhood?”
“Yeah,” he admitted, without sharing more details about his current love life.
“I could use a ride home. Look for me before you go? I’ll stow away in your trunk if you want to keep me out of sight.”
He grinned. “I’ll look for you.”
I couldn’t resist giving him a little elbow. “Are you on an official date? Or just girl watching? There are some very pretty young ladies here. Zephyr isn’t the only one worth a second look.”
He blushed so deeply even his ears turned red, a likely indication he was waiting for a girl to come back to him. But he said, “Uh.”
With a laugh, I said, “I won’t insist on an introduction to your latest. I have to get back to work. Come for dinner sometime soon? Michael would enjoy seeing you.”
Another flicker of shy pleasure showed on his face. “That’d be great. Thanks. Don’t work too hard, Aunt Nora. Have fun.”
But the next notable person I came upon wasn’t any fun at all. He was none other than my new editor.
Gus Hardwicke was leaning on a fence, studying the crowd with an air of being highly entertained by what he saw. He had a glass of champagne in one hand and a slight, perhaps condescending smile on his mouth. He wore dark sunglasses, so I couldn’t see his eyes.
“Nora Blackbird,” he said to me, his smirk broadening. “Do you always dress like you’re going to a garden party?”
I gathered my composure. “This is a garden party, Mr. Hardwicke. I try to be suitably dressed when I represent my employer.”
He remained leaning against the fence, but he took off his sunglasses and gave me a long perusal, brows raised over piercing green eyes. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking, except I got the fleeting impression that the new editor-in-chief of the Philadelphia Intelligencer had decided I was a tasty hors d’oeuvre fresh off the barbie.
I must have bristled.
“I’m not criticizing,” he said, continuing to examine me over the rim of his champagne flute. “Far from it. In fact, where I come from, we’d call you a smoke show.”
So far, every time I’d encountered him, Gus Hardwicke had managed to get me off balance and keep me there. He did it, I knew, because he recognized I was too polite to fight back. He took advantage of my good manners.
Tartly, I said, “Is that a compliment in Australia?”
“Smokin’ hot? Of course it’s a compliment.”
Hardwicke wore a sharp jacket—probably Ermenegildo Zegna, if I had to guess, very expensive, but worn casually over jeans and a button-down shirt. He was very much the hip Aussie.
He said, “I just looked in on an invention called an eco-toilet—earth-friendly, I’m told. There was a sign inside, ‘If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.’ Can you tell me what that means, precisely? I can’t imagine.”
I was fairly certain he was taunting me, and I wasn’t falling into the trap. “I haven’t the faintest notion. Some organic-living policy, perhaps?”
“Perhaps.” Still eyeing me with a calculating smile, he said, “You were very brave to choose those shoes, knowing you were going to be around cows.”
“The trick to cows is keeping your distance,” I said, and returned my attention to the party. At least, when I wasn’t looking at him, I could pretend he wasn’t ogling me. “Don’t you have cows in the land Down Under?”
“Sheep. We have sheep in Australia. Last I was there, anyway.” He stopped a passing waiter and scooped a glass of champagne off the silver tray. He handed the glass to me. “Drink up, luv. The bubbly’s a bloody good drop.”
In my short career as a journalist, I had never been called “luv” by a superior. But the Philadelphia Intelligencer had been in a state of flux since the death of its owner, a retired tycoon who had treated the newspaper like one of his many expensive hobbies—with lax management and only periodic supervision. Now the new owners were taking a firmer hand. They had hired a new editor—Gus, once a slacker surfer who became a brash, journalistic buccaneer who cut his teeth on less-reputable Australian newspapers owned by his family before escaping to Canada after a rumored scandal that his powerful father had hushed up. Finding immediate work in Canadian tabloids, he sold scads of papers by reporting on drunken television stars who misplaced their underwear and politicians with the instincts of rutting bonobos. I heard he paid vast sums of money for the unsavory photographic proof.
In short, he sold newspapers in an era when other editors couldn’t.
Under his cutthroat regime, the staff of the Intelligencer lived in fear for their jobs. He had laid off half the journalists during his first week. Some of the remaining reporters claimed concern for their professional ethics. So far, only one reporter had left with his head held high, but there was more rumbling in the lunchroom—rumbling and posturing, if the truth be told.
Me, I simply hoped I could continue to receive my meager paycheck. Standing beside our merciless new editor, I felt my palms begin to sweat.
So I sipped champagne to summon my courage and said, “May I ask why you’re here, Mr. Hardwicke? Is it to supervise me? Is my work not up to snuff?”
He gave me another unsettling look with eyebrows raised. “Do I give the impression I’m snuffling your work, Nora?”
“I realize this is the first important profile I’ve been asked to write, but it’s going well. After he finally agreed to be interviewed, Swain met with me twice this week. He’s been very forthcoming—”
“Relax, luv. I’m not checking up on you. I was invited to this—what do you call it, a hoedown?—by Starr himself. Even in Australia we know a fashion designer or two, so how could I refuse? He throws a good bash, doesn’t he? Do you know anything about farms?”
“As a matter of fact, I grew up on a farm. I still live there. It’s just down the road a few miles.”
Hardwicke turned and blinked at me. “Well, bugger me. I hardly pictured you spending your off-hours tending lambs with a crook in your hand.”
“I don’t tend anything. It was a working farm back during the Revolution, and my grandfather raised Hereford cattle—more as a hobby than anything else. Now that the farm is mine, though, we struggle to keep the grass mowed. But I love it.” Without understanding why I wanted to say it, I added, “I feel rooted there.”
For two hundred years, Blackbird Farm had stood alongside the Delaware River, not far from where George Washington climbed into a small boat and crossed those icy waters. I had been raised on the property, spent my childhood climbing the trees and looking for pollywogs in the feeder creek. I read Nancy Drew and Wuthering Heights in the loft of the barn. Even when my husband’s drug addiction had been at its worst, I had come to the old place to walk in the woods to clear my head. I still loved it even though these days the farm was looking a little worse for lack of maintenance.
“To tell the truth,” I went on cautiously, “Swain came calling and offered to buy Blackbird Farm for this project. That’s how I met him in the first place. Maybe I should have taken him up on it.”
“Why didn’t you?”
How much does one tell the boss? After a moment, I said, “My family doesn’t have much left these days, unless you count names in history books. Except for Blackbird Farm. So I’d like to hang on to it as long as possible. Maybe someday bring it back to its old glory.” Although that day was looking more and more distant. “So I turned down Swain’s offer. Frankly, he wasn’t as excited to buy the place after he took a closer look. It was more cost effective for him to build new. Looks as if he made the right choice.”
“I hear he built this farm for his wife.”
“Second wife,” I said. “Zephyr. She was a model.”
He grinned. “Yes, Zephyr, the supermodel discovered in something you Americans call a . . . hillbilly holler? I have seen her photos. Lovely girl, no offense to present company.”
“No offense taken. She’s gorgeous. Like the rest of the world, I’m surprised she stopped modeling. She must have years left in her career.”
“True love,” Hardwicke said. “It makes people do stupid things. She’s the one who’s the nut for organic farming, I hear. And she made her husband retire to pursue it.”
“I don’t think she had to twist his arm much,” I said.
“You can lead a horse to water? Well, maybe.” He signaled a passing waiter, who instantly offered him another glass of champagne, which he accepted without a thank-you. “What have you learned about Zephyr?”
“The focus of my profile has been her husband.”
“Nora, Nora,” Hardwicke chided. “Eye on the ball, please. Readers want to know the dirtiest dirt about Swain, and that means Zephyr. Why did he dump his wife? Did he retire from a billion-dollar career for Zephyr? What’s her magic? Youth? Sex? That’s a cliché. Check the bottles in the refrigerator and medicine chest. See what they keep in the night table, too. Heroin? Rope so the beautiful supermodel can tie up her old hubby and give him enemas while watching donkey porn? That’s the kind of thing I want to know.”
“I—I don’t think I can do that.”
I must have turned pale, because he peered closer. “You’re a sensitive little sheila, aren’t you? I’m trying to boost your skills, luv. Make you a tall poppy, the head of the class. So your job is this: Find Starr’s soft underbelly and slash it open.”
I had a feeling he was taunting me with the sheila bit. But pushing me to invade someone’s privacy truly felt like a bridge too far. I said, “I’m not really the slashing type.”
“But you want to keep your byline,” he said with an unpleasant smile. “So start drilling down. See what you can really learn about Zephyr and Starr. How does a twentysomething stunner fall for a short, old bloke like Starr?”
“He might be short and old, but he’s charismatic.”
Hardwicke laughed. “Trust me, charisma is not what that relationship is about. That’s the kind of info I want you digging up. That, and more.”
How much more could there possibly be? I wondered.
He speared me with a sharp, sideways glance. “While you’re at it, find out why Starr left fashion. He didn’t retire from a billion-dollar trade because his new wife asked nicely. There’s more to the story.”
“He’s not going to tell me,” I said.
“You know his family, right? His ex? His children?”
“Ye-es,” I said slowly.
“You’re the expert in the rich and powerful. Supposedly the girl who knows all about Philadelphia high society? Make use of your contacts. Didn’t I recently hear you were the one who introduced the future mayor to his first financial backers? I’m just the boy from Melbourne who swept the floors of the print shop to earn my lunch, so I must rely on you.” He gave me a grin to show he was joking about the lunch part. He’d grown up in the lap of Australian luxury. Even I knew his father’s yacht could almost be mistaken for a destroyer. He said, “Why don’t you introduce me around? Show me what you’ve got. Maybe I’ll have some ideas of what wounds to poke.”
The story had gotten around that I had introduced an up-and-coming politician to some moneyed friends. There was a soupçon of truth to that, but it had been blown out of proportion. As far as I had seen, there were no million-dollar checks written on the spot, despite rumors to the contrary. “Mr. Hardwicke—”
“Call me Gus,” he commanded, grabbing my hand and placing it in the crook of his arm. “At least, while we’re off the sheep station.”
I don’t know why I hesitated to use his given name. Gus Hardwicke was only a few years older than me. It should have been natural. But he was my boss. Not to mention a reasonably attractive man—with thick reddish hair and a ruddy outdoorsy complexion and freckles. Appealing freckles. And he had a tendency to use his sparkling green eyes to bore intimately into whomever he was speaking to. He had a tall, confident body that he maintained—so I heard around the office—by daily trips to the gym where he soundly defeated all comers in ruthless racquetball. His arm was a powerful knot of muscle.
He trapped my hand in that strong arm and pulled me to the receiving line. “Come on, Nora. Introduce me to the blue bloods. I need to add some names to my little black book.”
Although I didn’t like being put in the position of demonstrating my familiarity with the many influential guests, I did know the Starr family quite well, and I made introductions. Gus released me to shake their hands.
Starr’s first two sons and one daughter from his first marriage stood along the fence. Taller than their father, they were all tanned and attractive. And successful. The older ones—Jacob and Eli and Suzette—worked for Starr Industries, and the two spouses were very glamorous, too. I shook their hands and gave Jacob a hug. He had gone to school with my sister Libby.
Suzette was the only family member to give me a halfhearted handshake. Despite our spending a semester abroad together in college, she had been one of my late husband’s friends, and she had never forgiven me, I think, for Todd’s death. She warmed up to Gus Hardwicke when he flirted with her, however.
He laid the Aussie routine on very thick, and I let him misbehave for a minute or two, then slipped my hand around his arm again. “Let’s meet Suzette’s younger brother, shall we?”
Gus hesitated. I knew he wanted to spend more time with Suzette. She was very pretty and beautifully dressed in her father’s latest designs, and she was probably a bazillionaire, if it was money that turned him on.
But I gave his arm a meaningful squeeze. Obediently, Gus said good-bye to Suzette, and we moved down along the fence.
“What was that for?” he muttered.
“Suzette is gay,” I said in a low voice that matched his. I released his arm. “And her brothers enjoy watching men make fools of themselves over her. So I’m sparing you from becoming a family anecdote.”
Gus laughed, unrepentant. “You really do know everyone, don’t you?”
“Not everyone,” I said, annoyed all over again at being cast in the role of his trusty native scout. “But I spent several months traveling around China with Suzette, so I know her better than most.”
“A school thing. I took Chinese in college. She ate nothing but oranges the whole time.”
“Crikey, I’m glad I came,” he said. “This afternoon is even more informative than I’d hoped.”
“Would you like to meet the youngest son?”
“Is he anybody important?”
“Actually, Porky—er, Porter Starr is the only one of Swain’s children who managed to strike off on his own and make a career outside the family. He became a child actor with a popular TV show.”
I felt myself turn pink. “That was a slip of the tongue.”
“I can hardly wait to meet him.”
We came upon the youngest Starr son leaning against a fence, under an oak tree. The short, rather chunky young man wore a small-brimmed fedora cocked over one eye with more suave panache than he could quite carry off. He held a kitten while talking with a young woman in a pretty dress with a very short skirt. Just as we approached, the young woman threw her drink in Porky’s face and snatched the kitten from his grasp.
He laughed, and she stalked away.
Gus handed over his handkerchief. “Looks like you’re a mite damp, mate. What did you say to her?”
Porky took the handkerchief with a cocky grin. “I asked her about pussies.”
Without removing his hat, he mopped his face while I made introductions.
I read Gus’s mind. Porky Starr didn’t look like his father except for his short stature. Instead, he was the spitting image of his mother’s family—the piggy little Rattigan face with a flat, upturned nose, wide cheeks and little porcine eyes. Porky’s looks had worked in his favor as a kid—he was almost cute back then—and he’d gone off to Hollywood and fame in the sitcom world. He had outgrown his cuteness, though, and I assumed he was still trying to live down the nickname that had probably started when he was still in the cradle.
It wasn’t until I was shaking his sweaty hand that I made the connection.
Porter. This was Libby’s mentor in the world of child entertainment.
“Right,” Porky said when I brought up my sister. He used one wrist to swipe his nose. “Her boys have a lot of potential. Hollander and Hyatt, right?”
“Harcourt and Hilton,” I said.
“Yeah, yeah. Twins are very hot right now, yo.”
The yo almost made me laugh. He was the wrong social class to be talking like a streetwise rapper.
Porky Starr had none of the Starr confidence his siblings naturally exuded. None of their innate friendliness, either. He had dressed for the occasion in stovepipe jeans and a too-tight T-shirt that advertised a long-forgotten rock concert I was willing to bet he hadn’t attended. His impatient manner said he couldn’t wait to be rid of me.
“So you’re managing talent?” Gus asked, ignoring Porky’s dismissive behavior. “You’re an agent?”
“Not an agent,” Porky corrected. “I put the right people together. You know, matching opportunities.”
“Is that lucrative?”
Porky wasn’t offended by the blunt question. “I conduct seminars—educational events for young people with big dreams.”
“Seminars. You mean classes? How to behave in front of a camera, that kind of thing? You charge for that?”
“I get finder’s fees when dreams come true.”
“People value something more if they pay for it.”
“Nothing in life is free, yo,” Gus agreed cheerfully.
“Right you are.” Porky looked past us again in hopes of spotting more entertaining guests to talk to.
Gus said, “Is your business regulated in any way?”
The question acted like an electric shock on Porky. He jumped, then frowned at Gus as if trying to remember who he was and why he should be tolerated. “Many reputable businesses function on a handshake and a promise.”
“It’s been a pleasure,” Gus said to Porky’s back as he stalked away.
I said, “Well, I guess we won’t be invited to stay for dinner.”
“Unless somebody mistakes him for a pork chop. No wonder you called him Porky!”
“Hush. He’ll hear you.”
“I’m sure that name won’t come as a surprise. What’s his story? I don’t think his television show made it to Australia.”
“It was a silly program, anyway. A family comedy that lasted only two seasons. He played the young son who cracked age-inappropriate sex jokes. He’s more memorable for crashing one Maserati into three more parked at a California car dealership—the most expensive car crash in history. The video was all over the Internet. Rumor has it, Porky lost everything he made in television in that crash. He still doesn’t drive much.”
“Did he go by Porky in Hollywood?”
“It’s probably impossible to dodge it, don’t you think?” Feeling embarrassed that I’d slipped with Porky’s name, I said, “Look, I should get back to work.”
“I’ll tag along,” Gus said, strolling with me as I pulled out my notebook.
I snapped a few photos for my column, inviting bystanders to pose for the pictures. Everyone was smiling, enjoying the lovely spring afternoon. We bumped into a well-known wine dealer, and I introduced Gus. The dealer’s wife engaged Gus in a laughing conversation while the dealer took me aside and thanked me for hooking him up with the chair of a hospital auxiliary. A mutually beneficial relationship had sprung up between them, and the upshot was that he had been chosen to supply a variety of fine—and expensive—wine for an upcoming tasting.
“You really do know everybody,” Gus said after we said good-byes and moved on. He sounded surprised. “What about the farm folk?”
I looked around and saw whom he meant. Many of the guests were dressed more simply than the fashionistas. Jeans and sweaters to ward off the spring chill. A preponderance of rubber barn boots and hiking sandals. They were clustered together near the paddock, seriously discussing the animals. I guessed most of them were the “locavores”—farmers, restaurant owners, chefs and eager foodies who advocated eating local foods, in season.
“Let’s go meet some of them,” I said to Gus.
I was right. We introduced ourselves to a portly, smiling man who turned out to be the manager of the local farmers’ market. His enthusiasm showed in his spirited pitch for the farmers’ cooperative in New Hope.
But I heard a familiar voice nearby and turned to recognize a popular Philadelphia restaurant owner, Tommy Rattigan. As usual, Tommy wore overalls—one buckle undone—over a thermal shirt and with acid green kitchen clogs. He seemed to be trying hard to establish his clothing choices as a kind of trademark look while he worked to make himself into a celebrity chef. He caught my eye and raised a glass to me.
I took that as a positive signal and excused myself to go to him. Gus followed.
“Tommy’s sister, Marybeth, was married to Swain Starr,” I explained to Gus while he shook Tommy’s thick hand. I decided not to go into Tommy’s wealthy upbringing, or ask why he felt compelled to attend today’s event, since his sister’s divorce from our host was still raw, by all accounts. Wearing his clogs and his overalls, Tommy obviously preferred to play down his moneyed roots—and probably his connection to Swain’s previous marriage. So I said merely, “Tommy’s new restaurant is getting a lot of attention.”
“We’re all about meat,” Tommy said, leaping to the opportunity to pitch his latest culinary venture. “Charcuterie in the winter, lamb in the spring—we’ll be doing seasonal features. Popularity-wise, it’s going to be big.”
“Wait.” Gus snapped his fingers. “I know about you. You come from the Howie’s Hotties family!”
Tommy’s expression hardened with resentment. “Uh, yes, Howard Rattigan, my grandfather, built his reputation making hot dogs.”
Tommy was underselling his family’s success. His family had, in fact, made millions of hot dogs before selling its name to a giant food consortium that paid the Rattigans a fortune for the right to use their name and the logo of Howie’s Hotties—a dancing sausage that ended his little hopping routine by flinging himself into the waiting arms of a voluptuous bun for a decidedly sensual snuggle.
“Yes!” said Gus with enthusiasm. “Howie even looked like a pig!”
Tommy flushed. The family resemblance was apparent in him, too—the snoutish nose, the deep-set eyes that disappeared into his fleshy pink face in little squiggles.
“It was great marketing,” Gus said to me. “Like the chicken bloke who looked like a chicken? Howie looked just like his product! And what a marvelous American success story. He started out as a pig farmer, then pushed a cart around Philadelphia and gradually made a mint selling hot dogs.”
“Hot dogs are a form of charcuterie,” Tommy said seriously. “I’ve been the beneficiary of my grandfather’s financial windfall, but also philosophy-wise. I’ve adopted his conviction that the best cuts of meat make the best meals. I’m establishing my own brand, separate from Howie’s Hotties. My restaurants will be much more high-end.”
Gus was grinning with delight. “What do they say about sausage? That nobody wants to watch how it’s made?”
To rescue Tommy from embarrassment, I said, “When he opened his new restaurant, Tommy was a huge hit with his winter-foraging menu.”
Gus looked politely mystified.
“To enhance our meats, I’m becoming an urban forager,” Tommy explained. “Just last week, I found wild fennel in a Burger King parking lot. I used it in a memorable pasta.”
Gus belatedly tried to subdue himself. “I’m sorry I missed it. Fennel’s one of my favorites.”
In case Gus was teasing, I said quickly, “Will the Starrs let you go foraging on this farm?”
“Maybe. But my interest here is pigs.”
“Pigs,” I said.
“Yes, Swain and I are spearheading a movement to breed a totally new variety of swine. Very lean, but tender. And fed on whatever grows naturally around here, so flavor-wise, the meat will be uniquely regional. We think the breed is going to revolutionize pork. It will put us on the food map.”
So that explained Tommy’s presence at the party. Despite his sister’s divorce, Tommy was a partner of Swain’s now. I felt a tug of sympathy for poor Tommy—trying so hard to become a celebrity chef when perhaps his talents and solemn personality weren’t up to the challenge. His food, it was reported, was perfectly nice. But “nice” wasn’t enough to revolutionize anything.
Gus looked a little pink from all the champagne as he lifted his glass. “Vive la révolution!”
That was all the encouragement Tommy needed. He launched into a discourse on pigs that might have baffled a genetic biologist. Gus endeavored to appear fascinated, but I wondered if he was experiencing one of those moments when foreign visitors marvel at the eccentricities of Americans whose interests reach almost fanatical heights.
When his lecture wound down, Tommy said seriously to Gus, “We’re becoming part of the artisanal butchery movement.”
“How on earth does one butcher an animal,” Gus inquired, “in an artisanal way?”
“The same as any other kind of art,” Tommy assured him. “Precision, respect paid to the living creature as well as presenting an excellent final product—that’s what it is. How do you feel about pork?”
“I can hardly face the morning without a bit of bacon.”
Tommy’s eyes took on the fevered gleam of a zealot. “Then you should consider attending our artisanal butchering for the Farm-to-Table gala on Friday. We’ll be demonstrating how to use every part of the pig. Snout to tail. Pig tails are the latest food trend, you know. They’re going to be bigger than chicken wings. We fry them, add a dash of sauce—which will change according to our daily foraging. Yes, we expect our pig tails will blow away gourmands.”
I could sense Gus’s growing amusement and decided to sidetrack the conversation to avert a social disaster. “Tommy, I didn’t realize you and Swain were in a partnership.”
“That’s what it is,” Tommy said sharply. “A partnership. Foundation-wise, the stock of the swine he’s raising here started with my grandfather’s work. You can see for yourself—the results are superior to anything else in the world.”
Tommy pointed toward the nearest fence where eight perfectly immaculate young piglets emerged from behind their large mother and made a mad dash for a trough. They looked adorable to me, but I couldn’t see any difference between Swain’s fancy breeding stock and your average pig at a county fair, except perhaps their unique coloring—brownish gray with leopardlike spots running down their backs. Seeing the piglets coming near, Tommy hustled over to give them an even closer inspection.
Just as a silver Mercedes zoomed up the driveway and rocked to a stop in front of me.
The party went deathly quiet.
When the driver’s-side door of the Mercedes opened, I understood why all the guests were stunned into silence. The petite person who stepped out of the vehicle was none other than Swain Starr’s first wife.
Marybeth Rattigan Starr launched herself toward the first friendly face she spotted—me. She took purposeful strides, shoulders square and a determined smile frozen in place. She had the Rattigan pinkness, too—along with the piggy nose she had learned to camouflage with makeup so that she looked more like a sexy cherub than a pig.
She headed straight for me. “Nora! I haven’t seen you in ages! Are you enjoying the party, dear?”
“Marybeth,” I managed to say. “What a surprise.”
“No kidding,” she said as she hugged me close and breathed whiskey fumes all over me. “You’re not the only one who’s surprised.”
In her hand, she carried a short-barreled antique musket.
Trying to remain calm, I said lightly, “If you’re here to frighten your ex-husband, let me get out of the way first, will you?”
She laughed in a hard voice. “Don’t worry. My marksmanship is pretty good.”