Murder with Peacocks (Meg Langslow Series #1)by Donna Andrews
When Meg Langslow is roped into being a bridesmaid for the nuptials of her mother, her brother's fiancee, and her own best friend, she is apprehensive. Getting the brides to choose their outfits and those of their bridesmaids (and not change their minds three days later), trying to capture the principals long enough to work out details, and even finding peacocks to… See more details below
When Meg Langslow is roped into being a bridesmaid for the nuptials of her mother, her brother's fiancee, and her own best friend, she is apprehensive. Getting the brides to choose their outfits and those of their bridesmaids (and not change their minds three days later), trying to capture the principals long enough to work out details, and even finding peacocks to strut around the garden during the ceremony - these are things Meg can handle. She can brush off the unfortunate oaf who is smitten with her, and take philosophically her disappointment when she learns that the only eligible man in her small Virginia town (and a delightful hunk he is) is of questionable sexual preference. But even Meg is taken aback when the unpleasant former sister-in-law of Meg's soon-to-be stepfather disappears and is later found dead.
"Andrews's debut provides plenty of laughs...hilarity and comic panache." --Publishers Weekly
"Loquacious dialogue, persistent humor and interrupted romance..A fun, breezy read."
Read an Excerpt
Tuesday, May 24
I HAD BECOME SO USED TO HYSTERICAL DAWN PHONE CALLS THAT I only muttered one half hearted oath before answering.
"Peacocks," a voice said.
"I beg your pardon, you must have the wrong number," I mumbled. I opened one eye to peer at the clock: it was 6:00 A.M.
"Oh, don't be silly, Meg," the voice continued. Ah, I recognized it now. Samantha, my brother, Rob's, fiancee. "I just called to tell you that we need some peacocks."
"For the wedding, of course." Of course. As far as Samantha was concerned, the entire universe revolved around her upcoming wedding, and as maid of honor, I was expected to share her obsession.
"I see," I said, although actually I didn't. I suppressed a shudder at the thought of peacocks, roasted with the feathers still on, gracing the buffet table. Surely that wasn't what she had in mind, was it? "What are we going to do with them at the wedding?"
"We're not going to do anything with them" Samantha said, impatiently. "They'll just be there, adding grace and elegance to the occasion. Don't you remember the weekend before last when we all had dinner with your father? And he was saying what a pity it was that nothing much would be blooming in the yard in August, so there wouldn't be much color? Well, I just saw a photo in a magazine that had peacocks in it, and they were just about the most darling things you ever saw ..."
I let her rattle on while I fumbled over the contents of my bedside table, found my notebook-that-tells-me-when-to-breathe, flipped to the appropriate page, and wrote "Peacocks" in the clear, firm printing I use when I am not in a very good mood.
"Were you thinking of buying or renting them?" I asked, interrupting Samantha's oration on the charms of peacocks.
"Well--rent if we can. I'm sure Father would be perfectly happy to buy them if necessary, but I'm not sure what we would do with them in the long run." I noted "Rent/buy if necessary" after "Peacocks."
"Right. Peacocks. I'll see what I can turn up."
"Wonderful. Oh, Meg, you're just so wonderful at all this!"
I let her gush for a few more minutes. I wondered, not for the first time, if I should feel sorry for Rob or if he was actually looking forward to listening to her for the rest of his life. And did Rob, who shared my penchant for late hours, realize how much of a morning person Samantha was? Eventually, I managed to cut short her monologue and sign off. I was awake; I might as well get to work.
Muttering "Peacocks!" under my breath, I stumbled through a quick shower, grabbed some coffee, and went into my studio. I flung open all the windows and gazed fondly at my unlit forge and my ironworking tools. My spirits rose.
For about ten seconds. Then the phone rang again.
"What do you think of blue, dear?" my mother asked.
"Good morning, Mother. What do you mean, blue?"
"The color blue, dear."
"The color blue," I repeated, unenlightened. I am not at my best before noon.
"Yes, dear," Mother said, with a touch of impatience.
"What do I think of it?" I asked, baffled. "I think it's a lovely color. The majority of Americans name blue when asked their favorite color. In Asian cultures--"
"For the living room, dear."
"Oh. You're getting something blue for the living room?"
"I'm redoing it, dear. For the wedding, remember? In blue. Or green. But I was really leaning to blue. I was wondering what you thought."
What I thought? Truthfully? I thought my mother's idea of redoing the living room for the wedding had been a temporary aberration arising from too much sherry after dinner at an uncle's house. And incidentally, the wedding in question was not Rob's and Samantha's but her own. After the world's most amiable divorce and five years of so-called single life during which my father happily continued to do all her yard work and run errands for her, my mother had decided to marry a recently widowed neighbor. And I had also agreed to be Mother's maid of honor. Which, knowing my mother, meant I had more or less agreed to do every lick of work associated with the occasion. Under her exacting supervision, of course.
"What sort of blue?" I asked, buying time. The living room was done entirely in earth tones. Redoing it in blue would involve new drapes, new upholstery, new carpet, new everything. Oh, well, Dad could afford it, I suppose. Only Dad wouldn't be paying, I reminded myself. What's-his-name would. Mother's fiance. Jake. I had no idea how well or badly off Jake was. Well, presumably Mother did.
"I hadn't decided, dear. I thought you might have some ideas."
"Oh. I tell you what," I said, improvising. "I'll ask Eileen. She's the one with the real eye for color. I'll ask her, and we'll get some color swatches and we'll talk about it when I come down."
"That will be splendid, Meg dear. Well, I'll let you get back to your work now. See you in a few days."
I added "Blue" to my list of things to do. I actually managed to put down my coffee and pick up my hammer before the phone rang a third time.
"Oh, Meg, he's impossible. This is just not going to work."
The voice belonged to my best friend and business partner, Eileen. She with the eye for colors. The he in question was Steven, since New Year's Eve her fiance, at least during the intervals between premarital spats. At the risk of repeating myself, I should add that I was, of course, also Eileen's maid of honor.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"He doesn't want to include the Native American herbal purification ceremony in the wedding."
"Well," I said, after a pause, "perhaps he feels a little self-conscious about it. Since neither of you is actually Native American."
"That's silly. It's a lovely tradition and makes such an important statement about our commitment to the environment."
"I'll talk to him," I said. "Just one thing ... Eileen, what kind of herbs are we talking about here? I mean, we're not talking anything illegal, are we?"
"Oh, Meg." Eileen laughed. "Really! I have to go, my clay's ready." She hung up, still laughing merrily. I added "Call Steven re herbs" to my list.
I looked around the studio. My tools were there, ready and waiting for me to dive into the ironwork that is both my passion and my livelihood. I knew I really ought to get some work done today. In a few days, I would be back in my hometown for what I was sure would be a summer from hell. But I was already having a hard time concentrating on work. Maybe it was time to throw in the towel and head down to Yorktown.
The phone rang again. I glared at it, willing it to shut up. It ignored me and kept on ringing. I sighed, and picked it up.
"Oh, Meg, before you go down to Yorktown, could you--"
"I won't have time to do anything else before I go down to Yorktown; I'm going down there tomorrow."
"Wonderful! Why don't you stop by on your way? We have some things to tell you."
On my way. Yorktown, where my parents and Eileen's father lived and where all the weddings were taking place, was three hours south of Washington, on the coast. Steven's farm, where Eileen was now living, was three hours west, in the mountains. I was opening my mouth to ask if she had any idea how inconvenient stopping by was when I suddenly realized: if I went to Steven and Eileen's, I could force them to make decisions, extract lists and signatures. I would have them in my clutches. This could be useful.
"I'll be there for supper tomorrow."
I spent the day putting my life on hold and turning over my studio to the struggling sculptor who'd sublet it for the summer. I went to bed feeling virtuous. I intended to spend the next several days really getting things done for the weddings.
Wednesday, May 25
I WAS HOPING TO GET OUT OF TOWN BY NOON, BUT BY THE TIME I packed everything, fielded another half-dozen phone calls from each of the brides, and ran all the resulting last-minute errands, it was well into the evening rush hour. Needless to say I was late arriving at Steven and Eileen's. Eileen, bless her heart, didn't seem to mind. In fact she didn't even seem to notice.
"Guess who's here," Eileen said as she met me at the door wearing a dress of purple tie-dyed velvet, splattered here and there with flour. "Barry!"
"Really," I said, with considerably less enthusiasm. Ever since December, when I'd broken up with my boyfriend, Jeffrey, various friends and relatives had been trying to set me up with their idea of eligible men. Steven and Eileen's candidate was Steven's younger brother, Barry. Barry had taken to the idea immediately. I had not.
"The minute we told him you were coming, he came right up," Eileen burbled. "Isn't that sweet?"
"I really wish you hadn't done that."
"Why, Meg?" Eileen said, wide-eyed.
"Eileen, we've been over this half a dozen times already. You and Steven may think Barry and I are made for each other. I don't."
"He's crazy about you."
"So what? I don't happen to like him."
"I don't see why not," Eileen said. "He's so sensitive. And such a deep thinker, too."
"I'll have to take your word for it. I've never heard him put two consecutive sentences together."
"And so attractive," Eileen went on, while attempting, in vain, to tidy her flyaway mane and succeeding only in covering it with flour marks.
"Attractive? He's an overgrown ox," I said. I could see Eileen bristle. Oops. Not surprisingly, Barry bore a strong fraternal resemblance to Steven. "All right, he's not as attractive as Steven, but he's okay if you like his type." The hulking Neanderthal type. "But he just doesn't appeal to me."
"But he's so sensitive ... and such a wonderful craftsman," Eileen protested. "Why, whenever he and Steven have any really delicate carving work to do on a piece of furniture, Barry's always the one who does it. Steven says he has such wonderfully clever hands."
"I don't care how clever those oversized paws are with wood," I said. "I don't want them anywhere near me."
"Oh, Meg, you'll change your mind when you get to know him better."
"What gives you the right to assume I want to get to know him better?" I said, hotly. To empty air. Eileen was skipping down the hall to the kitchen.
"Meg's here? she trilled. I followed her, fuming inwardly. Calm down, I told myself. She means well, she's your best friend, you love her dearly, and as soon as this damned wedding is over you'll probably even like her again.
Steven and Barry were sitting around the kitchen table talking. At least Steven was. Barry was sitting with his chin in his hand, nodding at whatever Steven was saying. Situation normal. Steven came over and hugged me. Barry, fortunately, didn't try, but his face lit up in a way that made me feel both guilty and depressed.
"Sit down, dinner's almost ready," Steven said. "Meg's come to stay for a few days," he added, as if Barry didn't already know.
"Only tonight, I'm afraid," I said. "Mother's having some sort of party this weekend and I promised I'd come down in time to help her get ready."
A chorus of protests from Steven and Eileen met this announcement, and Barry looked heartbroken.
"Oh, you can't possibly!" Eileen said.
"But we have such a wonderful time planned for you," Steven protested. "You've got to stay."
Even Barry nodded with what in him passed for enthusiasm.
I drained my glass and took another close look at him. No, not even Eileen and Steven's foul-tasting and incredibly potent cider could begin to make Barry look appealing. I didn't share Eileen's besotted view of Steven's charms. Steven was tall, handsome in a rather beefy way, and had a mellow, laid-back personality that perfectly complemented Eileen's ditzy one. But while Steven was definitely not my type, I had to admit that in making him, his parents had done the best they could with the material at hand. And then, flushed with overconfidence, they'd gone and produced Barry. Why couldn't they have left poor Steven an only child? Barry came close to having the same rough-hewn features that made Steven ruggedly handsome (according to Eileen), but everything was just a little coarser and rather haphazardly assembled. And besides, the human head is supposed to be connected to the human body with at least a rudimentary neck.
The rest of the evening, like every other stage of Eileen and Steven's campaign to set me up with Barry, resembled a French farce. I was outnumbered, since the three of them conspired to find ways of throwing me and Barry alone together. But I'd learned that I could neutralize Barry as long as I kept talking. By nine-thirty, I was more than a little hoarse, and found myself explaining to an unnaturally appreciative Barry the reason for the price difference between real engraved invitations and invitations with thermal raised printing.
So much for my quiet interlude in the country.
I did find a few minutes alone with Steven to talk about Eileen's latest addition to the wedding agenda.
"About this Native American herbal purification ceremony," I began.
"I hate to say this, because normally Eileen has such wonderfully creative ideas," Steven said, "but I just think it's a little too much."
"So do I," I said. "Completely ridiculous. You'd be laughing stocks. Guests would be rolling in the aisles. You'd probably make `News of the Weird'."
"Exactly. So you'll talk her out of it?"
"No, I think you should tell her you agree."
"Just tell her it's cool with you. I'll tell her I'm researching it. She'll change her mind long before the wedding."
"Do you really think so?"
"Trust me," I said. "I've known Eileen all her life. I guarantee you, by mid-June the Native American herbal purification ceremony will be history." At least I had every intention of ensuring it was.
Steven seemed satisfied. Eileen was overjoyed to hear he'd come around. And I would keep my fingers crossed that whatever new idea she came up with by mid-June was a little less off the wall. Please, I thought, let her become militantly traditional, just for a few months.
To everyone's disappointment, I went to bed at ten o'clock so I could get an early start on the next day's drive. No, I couldn't stay longer; I didn't want Mother to make herself ill getting ready for Sunday's family picnic. No, Mother's health was fine, but she wasn't getting any younger, and she had a lot on her hands this summer. I overdid it a bit; Barry was so touched by my daughterly devotion that he tried to volunteer to come down and help us with the party preparations and was only discouraged with the greatest of difficulty.
It could have been my imagination--or the influence of one too many glasses of cider--but as I was wishing everyone goodnight, I thought I saw something like a snarl cross harry's usually placid face. Perhaps he was beginning to realize that pursuing me was futile, I thought. And resenting it. Ah, well; even a surly, resentful Barry would be more interesting than his customary bovine self.
Thursday, May 26
WHAT A RELIEF IT WAS THE NEXT MORNING TO GET UP WITH THE chickens (the few who had survived Steven and Eileen's care) and hit the road at 7:00 a.m. By the time I was actually wide awake, I'd put a good hundred miles of winding mountain roads between me and Barry.
Well before noon I found myself driving down the long, tree-shaded driveway to my parents' house. Well, Mother's house, anyway; Dad had moved out. Although I could see him up in a ladder pruning an ornamental cherry tree. I made a mental note to compliment him on the gardens, which were looking superb, and to hint that the house needed painting before all the relatives came for the weddings. On second thought, maybe I should just arrange to hire someone; painting three stories of rambling Victorian house with gingerbread trim was not something a sixty-six-year-old should be doing, though Dad would try if I mentioned it.
Mother was on the porch, her slender frame draped elegantly over the chaise lounge. She was dressed, as usual, as if expecting distinguished visitors, with not a single expensively natural-looking blond hair out of place. I suppressed the usual envious sigh. I'm the same height, and not at all bad-looking in my own fashion, but I'm not slender, I'm not a blonde, and nobody's ever mistaken me for elegant.
Mother wasn't even surprised to see me arrive several days early.
"Hello, dear," she said, giving me a quick peck on the cheek. "There's lemonade in the refrigerator. Why don't you help your sister with lunch? We'll all be able to eat that much sooner."
From the relief on Pam's face when I showed up in the kitchen to help, I suspected she was regretting her decision to pack off her husband Mal and the four oldest kids for a summer with Mal's parents in Australia. I could have warned her that the two youngest, Eric and Natalie, weren't much defense against Mother's tendency to enlist anyone within range as unpaid labor. But she'd known Mother eight years longer than I had; if she hadn't learned by now, there wasn't much I could do.
Dad was the only one who seemed surprised by my early arrival. He came in just as we were sitting down to lunch and took his usual place. Jake, the fiance, was not here. No one else seemed to find this odd, so I said nothing.
"Meg!" he cried, jumping up to give me a bear hug as soon as he noticed it was me taking the chair beside him. "I thought you weren't coming down till Saturday! You' re supposed to be resting at Steven and Eileen's farm! What happened?"
"It wasn't restful. Barry was there."
"Barry who?" my sister, Pam, asked.
"Steven's brother. The one they keep pushing at me."
"The dim one?" Dad asked.
"Is he nice?" Mother asked.
"Not particularly." I'd explained to her several times before, in excruciating detail, exactly how much I disliked Barry, but since she obviously paid no attention I'd given up trying.
"I can't see how any brother of Steven's wouldn't be nice," Mother said.
"Well, he'll be down for the wedding, so you can see for yourself. For that matter, he'll probably be down for Eileen's family's barbecue on Memorial Day."
"You could call and tell him to come down for our picnic," Mother suggested.
"Mother, I don't want him here for our picnic. I don't like him."
"I suppose it would be awkward, with Jeffrey here," Mother said.
"Jeffrey's not--oh, I give up," I muttered. I'd also failed to convince Mother, who liked my ex-boyfriend for his vapid good looks, that Jeffrey was out of the picture. Dad patted my shoulder.
"I know your mother really appreciates your coming down," he said. "There's such a lot to do."
"Yes, Meg," Mother said, her face lighting with the sudden realization that at least for the moment she had me solely in her clutches, free from the competing influences of Samantha and Eileen.
We spent the rest of lunch discussing wedding details, followed by an afternoon of debating redecorating plans and a supper split between these two equally fascinating topics. I ate both meals with my left hand while scribbling several pages of notes in the notebook-that-tells-me-when-to-breathe. Dad made intermittent attempts to talk them into giving me tomorrow off, and was ignored. After lengthy discussion, Mother, Pam, and I all agreed that a visit to the local dressmaker was the first order of business. I was about halfway through the job of nagging three brides, three flower girls, and fourteen bridesmaids into visiting the dressmaker and had even talked to her on the phone several times, but hadn't actually made it to the shop myself.
"Well, that's settled," Mother said, as Pam and I began clearing the dishes. "Tomorrow morning you'll go down to Mrs. Waterston's shop and make sure everything is going well."
"Yes, that sounds like a wonderful idea!" Dad said, with great enthusiasm. "You'll like that!"
I stared at him, amazed at this sudden about-face. Such enthusiasm from Dad meant that he was up to something, but I couldn't imagine what. He was wearing what he probably thought of as a Machiavellian expression, but since Dad is short, bald, and pudgy, he looked more like a mischievous elf. Ah, well. Perhaps he had decided getting me a day off was a lost cause and was putting a cheerful face on the inevitable. Or perhaps Dad approved of Mrs. Waterston. Perhaps she shared one of his obsessions--bird-watching, or gardening, or reading too many mysteries. Since she'd only come to town the previous September, Mrs. Waterston was one of the few people in the county I hadn't known all my life. That alone made me look forward to meeting her. Yes, a visit to the dress shop was definitely in order.
Friday, May 27
SO, BRIGHT AND EARLY THE NEXT MORNING, I DROVE INTO YORKTOWN proper to visit the dressmaker.
Mother told me the dress shop was two doors down from the house where her uncle Stanley Hollingworth lived. I've never yet known her to give anyone a set of directions without at least one reference to a landmark that hasn't existed for years. It wasn't until the third time I'd examined every building in the block that I realized she must have meant not the house where he currently lived but the one he'd grown up in, three quarters of a century ago.
Sure enough, two doors down from the old Hollingworth house was a small cottage painted in Easter egg pastels, including a tasteful pink and baby blue colonial-style sign in front reading Be-Stitched--Dressmakers. I walked down a cobblestone path between a low border of immaculately pruned shrubs, opened a glossy sky blue door, and walked in to the tinkling of a small, old-fashioned bell. The whole thing was almost too cute for words. And since I positively loathe cute, I walked in prepared to dislike the proprietor intensely.
And found myself face-to-face with one of the most gorgeous men I'd ever seen in my life. He looked up from the book he was reading, brushed an unruly lock of dark hair out of his deep blue eyes, and smiled.
"Yes?" he said. I stood there looking at him for a couple of embarrassing seconds before pulling myself together. More or less.
"I'm here about a wedding. Where's Mrs. Waterston?" I asked, and then realized how rude that sounded.
"In traction," he said. "Down in Florida. I'm her son, Michael; I'm filling in while her broken bones mend."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I hope she's better soon."
"Not nearly as much as I hope it," he said gloomily. He had a wonderful, resonant voice. Perhaps he was a musician. I'm a sucker for musicians.
"How can I help you?" he asked.
"I'm Meg Langslow. I'm supposed to come here to be measured for a bridesmaid's dress."
"A bridesmaid's dress," he said, suddenly looking very cheerful. "Wonderful! For whose wedding?" He stood up and turned round to pull out the top drawer of a file cabinet on the back wall, giving me a chance to discreetly eye his wonderfully, long, lean form. I decided I was looking forward to bringing Eileen in here so I could point out to her that this, not the beefy Barry, was my idea of what a hunk should look like. And I peeked at the book he was reading--Shakespeare. Not only gorgeous, but literate, too.
"Samantha Brewster, Eileen Donleavy, or Margaret Hollingworth Langslow. Take your pick."
His hand froze over the files and he looked up warily.
"You're not sure which? Are you, perhaps, comparison shopping to see who has the least objectionable gowns before committing yourself?."
"No, I'm stuck with all three of them. Langslow is my mother, Brewster is marrying my brother, and Donleavy is my best friend. I know it sounds odd, but this is a very small town."
"Actually, after two weeks here, very little strikes me as odd," he said. "And you're right; this is a very small town. I'm surprised I haven't run into you before."
"I don't live here anymore. I've come home for the summer, though, to help with all the weddings. I assume one set of measurements will do for all three; the first and last ones are only two weeks apart."
"Should do," he said. "What a summer you're in for. Here we are. Brewster ... Langslow ... and I'll start a file for Donleavy."
"Start a file? She's the first one up; you mean she hasn't even been here yet?"
"Not since I took over, and if your friend had been in before Mom left for Florida I'm sure she would have started a file."
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and began counting silently. I had gotten to three when he asked, "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," I said. "Eileen always advises me to count to ten when I lose my temper. I generally still feel like throttling her when I'm finished, though."
I opened my eyes.
"She was supposed to have come in with one of her other bridesmaids months ago to pick out dresses so your mother could order them in our sizes. I mean, that's what she told me she'd done. The measurements were just supposed to be for the fine-tuning, or whatever you call it. Which I thought would be happening this week. She lied to me!"
Calm down, Meg, I told myself. Do not lose your temper at Eileen, especially in front of this very nice and extremely gorgeous man. Who was not, I had already noticed, wearing a wedding ring. I made a mental note to interrogate Mother about him; no doubt she and the aunts on the Hollingworth side of the family already knew not only his entire life history but also several generations of his family tree.
"I'm sorry," I said. "It's just that I'm the one who's trying to pull this all together, and she's the one who's unintentionally sabotaging everything."
"We'll manage something," he said, with a smile. "I don't recognize the name--what does she look like?"
"She's about five-ten, frizzy blondish hair down to her waist, a little on the plump side. Kind of looks like she just got in from California, or maybe Woodstock. The original."
He chuckled and walked over to a curtained doorway in the back of the shop and called out something in a rapid, musical tongue. A little wizened Asian grandmother, well under five feet tall, popped out and they chattered at each other for a few moments.
"She was in and looked at all the books several months ago, but didn't decide on anything," he reported finally. "Took down several stock numbers but hasn't called back."
"I'll have her in here Monday. Oh--Monday's Memorial Day. Tuesday, then. She'll be in town by then. You are open Tuesday?"
He nodded. "That would be great. Why don't we have Mrs. Tranh measure you now for the other weddings."
"Fine," I said, my mind still focused on Eileen's iniquities. "And just what did Mother and Samantha decide on? At least I hope they've both decided on something. They told me they had, but perhaps I shouldn't have trusted them, either."
"Oh, yes, they did. Several months ago. Your mother said she wanted to surprise you and your sister, and we weren't on any account to show you what it was until she had the chance," he said, a little nervously.
"That's Mother for you. I won't ask you to betray a confidence; I won't even ask you if she picked something ghastly. As long as it's underway."
"Oh, definitely," he said. "And it's not ghastly at all, if you ask me."
"And Samantha?" I asked. "She's underway, too?"
"Yes. She hasn't told you anything about what she picked?"
"No, she and the blond bim--the other bridesmaids all got together and decided two months ago. I knew I should have come down for it. How bad is it? Should I be sitting down?"
He pulled a picture out of the file and held it up.
"You've got to be kidding," I said. He shook his head.
"No, and neither is she, apparently."
"Oh ... my ... God!"
The pictures looked like publicity stills from Gone with the Wind. Enormous hooped skirts. Plunging, off-the-shoulder necklines. Multiple layers of petticoats. Elaborate hairstyles involving many fussy-looking ringlets. And tiny, tiny waists.
"I'll let Mrs. Tranh take you back to the dressing room for measuring," he said. Damn him, he was fighting back a grin. "The corsets, particularly, require a lot of rather intimate details."
"Corsets? In July? Eileen's off the hook. I'm killing Samantha first," I said. Much to his amusement.
Mrs. Tranh, it turned out, was the tiny, gray-haired Asian woman. Vietnamese, I think. Neither she nor any of the other seamstresses would admit to speaking any English. However, she had no difficulty communicating with sign language and firm taps and tugs exactly how I should stand or turn so she and the flock could measure me. There were only five of them, I think, but the dressing room--formerly the kitchen of the tiny cottage--was so small, and they darted so rapidly about the room and up and down the stairs--to the sewing rooms, I supposed--that they seemed like dozens. They were all so short that I felt like a great, clumsy giantess. And knowing that they had previously measured Samantha and my sylphlike fellow bridesmaids, I had to sternly suppress my paranoia. I was sure their soft chattering conversation consisted mainly of unfavorable comments about my more normally female form.
I amused myself by letting my imagination run rampant about their boss, who was hovering attentively outside the curtain, occasionally exchanging rapid and unintelligible remarks with them. I would definitely have to interrogate Mother about him. But discreetly. If she and the rest of the family deduced that I was interested in him, half of them would probably disapprove and make clumsy and embarrassing attempts to interfere. The other half would rejoice and indulge in even clumsier and more embarrassing attempts to throw us together. Matchmaking was a competitive sport in Yorktown, and my family's enthusiasm for it was one of the reasons I had chosen to relocate several hours away.
I would have been tempted to hang about and talk to Michael the Gorgeous, but I knew I should be getting back to keep up with my schedule for addressing the envelopes for Eileen's invitations. Besides, another neighbor had arrived with the twin six-year-old nieces who were going to be flowergirls in her daughter's wedding, and she obviously expected Michael's full attention. I consoled myself with the thought that I would have plenty of future opportunities to see him. As maid of honor, my presence at all future fittings of any member of the three wedding parties could be taken for granted. It would be very considerate to find out when their least busy times were, so I could schedule fittings that wouldn't be interrupted by other customers. Why, choosing Eileen's gown alone would probably occupy several mornings or afternoons next week. I magnanimously forgave Eileen for having lied to me.
I was in very good spirits when I arrived back at the house. I found Mother lounging elegantly on the living room sofa with a box of chocolates and the latest issue of Bride magazine.
I hate it when they read the bridal magazines. Every issue is good for at least a dozen new items on my to-do list.
"Well, I went down to the dress shop today, had my measurements taken, and found out that Eileen has not decided on her dresses yet," I announced, throwing myself into a nearby armchair.
"You really ought not to have let her wait this long, dear," Mother said. "She could have a very hard time getting anything on such short notice."
"I didn't let her wait this long, Mother. I nagged her to go in and order something; I sent her down here to do it under the threat that I'd pick something myself if she didn't, and two days later she came back and told me she'd ordered something. She lied to me!"
"She's under a great deal of strain, dear. Be tactful with her. Mrs. Waterston will manage somehow." Bingo! My opening to pry without seeming to.
"By the way, Mother, you told me to ask for Mrs. Waterston, but apparently she's in Florida, recuperating from a broken leg."
"Oh, yes, dear, didn't I mention that?" Mother said. "Her son has come down to run the shop while she's gone."
"Yes, I met him."
"Such a nice boy. I understand he teaches theater at a college somewhere up your way," Mother said, as she poked through the chocolates to see if perhaps there were any left that she liked. "Such a pity, really."
"What's a pity?"
"That he's ... well, you know. Like that."
"Like what, Mother?" I asked, but had a sinking feeling I already knew the answer. Mother, mistress of pregnant pauses and vague euphemisms, had come just about as close as she ever would to telling me that drop-dead-gorgeous Michael was gay.
"I feel so sorry for his mother sometimes," Mother went on, inspecting a chocolate critically. "She's told several people that she's in no hurry for Michael to settle down because she was a child bride and doesn't want to be a young grandmother. She puts on a brave front. But of course since he came down everyone knows exactly how unlikely it is that she'll ever be a grandmother, especially since he's an only child." She nibbled a corner of the chocolate and made a delicate face. "Here, darling, you finish this one; I don't like coconut."
"Neither do I, Mother."
"Oh? Then we'll save it for Eric," she said, putting the candy carefully back in one corner of the box.
"Feed the grandkids the spitbacks?" I snapped. "That's efficient, Mother."
She looked at me in surprise.
"Are you all right, dear? Perhaps you should go upstairs and lie down for a bit; you've been so busy and perhaps the heat is making you just a little out of sorts. So hard to believe it's still May."
Feeling guilty for taking my disappointment out on her, I pleaded a small headache and fled up to my room. Actually I was depressed and wanted to mope by myself. Like Cinderella's golden carriage turning back into a pumpkin, all those impending trips to Be-Stitched to be fitted now turned from golden opportunities back into drab chores. I was already on the verge of tears when the sight of the huge stack of Eileen's envelopes on my dresser sent me over the edge. How symbolic of my summer. Me doing an endless series of chores while other people found happiness.
Obviously I was overreacting to the situation, but damn! My antennae were usually better than this. How could I be so mistaken? Perhaps it was wishful thinking. In the five months since breaking up with Jeffrey, I hadn't really met anyone else interesting. Not that I had much time for meeting people, between wedding arrangements and the extra time I'd been spending at the forge to build up enough inventory so I could take the summer off. The few dates I'd had were with men pushed at me by matchmaking friends, and most of them had been awful. I had pretty much resigned myself to putting my own social life on hold until this summer's weddings were out of the way. Obviously my hormones were objecting to this idea by reacting violently to the first attractive male in sight, without stopping to consider whether he was a suitable target. Or was it possible that Mother could, for once, be wrong?
That hope was dashed rather thoroughly when the Brewsters joined our family for a welcome-home-Meg dinner.
"Imagine," I heard Mother say to Mrs. Brewster, "when Meg went in today to be measured, she found Eileen had not ordered her dresses after all. And she told Meg she had done it months ago."
"I should have demanded an affidavit." I shrugged. "Well, we're behind the eight ball, but I'm going to drag her down to Be-Stitched the minute she gets here and force her to make a decision."
"So, you've been down to Be-Stitched already," Samantha said. "What did you think of Michael What-a-Waste?"
"Samantha, really," her mother said, but by her tone I could tell she was rather proud of her daughter's wit.
"What-a-Waste?" Mr. Brewster said, as if he had no idea what she was implying.
"Or the last of the Waterstons, if you like," Samantha said. "I mean, you did notice that he's not exactly much of an addition to the town's list of eligible bachelors."
"He seems very nice," I said, noncommittally. I didn't want to get into an argument with Samantha, but didn't see how I could avoid it if she kept on this way. I glanced at Mother. Surely this violated her ironclad rule against discussing sex, politics, or religion at the table? Surely these days one should add genteel bigotry to the list of forbidden topics?
"I do so like what you've done with your hair," Mother remarked to Mrs. Brewster.
"Oh, he's positively charming," Samantha said, relentlessly, "at least if you happen to be a fag hag."
"That's a perfectly hateful thing to say," I began, and then jumped as Mother kicked me under the table.
"Now, Meg," Mother said. As if I were the one at fault.
"He's a very charming conversationalist," Mrs. Brewster said. "Very chivalrous."
"Well, that's a dead giveaway, isn't it," Samantha said. "I mean, how many straight men do you know who have decent manners and can talk about anything other than football and beer?"
Your fiance and your future father-in-law, for starters, I felt like saying, but Mother was glaring daggers at me, so I counted to three and then said, as calmly as I could, "You all seem to know rather a lot about the private life of someone who's only been here, what, a couple of weeks?"
"Well, it's a proven fact. I mean, several of the bridesmaids who were in being measured have tried to get him interested. I mean, honestly, if they're running around half-naked and practically flinging themselves in his lap and the guy doesn't show a spark of interest, what do you think that means?"
"He has excessively good taste?" I suggested. "Or--" Mother tapped me again with her foot. Samantha gave me a withering look.
"Oh, sure," she said. "He flat-out told them not to bother 'cause he wasn't interested. Besides, he hangs out with those two old aunties who run the antique store and the decorating shop."
"Now, now, Samantha. That's enough. Little pitchers have big ears," Mother chided, indicating eight-year-old Eric. Eric was too busy stuffing his pockets with tidbits to feed his pet duck to pay any attention to our boring grown-up conversation. "I think it's very sweet of them to make Michael feel more at home."
"And so convenient that they've convinced Michael and his mother to do curtains and slipcovers and such," Mrs. Brewster said. "They've had an awful time finding local help who meet their standards."
"Yes," Mother 'said. "I'm not sure I'd have dared to go ahead with redecorating the living room without Michael's help. Not the deviled eggs, Eric."
"But Duck likes deviled eggs!" Eric protested.
"You may take a deviled egg to Duck, then," Mother conceded. "But don't put it in your pocket."
Eric took this as permission to leave the table and trotted out to the backyard with the deviled egg.
"Then you're going ahead with redecorating, too?" Mrs. Brewster said.
"Yes, the living room, and possibly the dining room," Mother said. "Michael will be out tomorrow to take measurements."
"The dining room, too?" Jake said, plaintively. No one seemed to hear him.
"We're having the living room and the library done," Mrs. Brewster said. Mr. Brewster sighed gently. "I haven't decided about the dining room yet, although I suppose I should very soon. Perhaps I should have Michael take measurements tomorrow, too."
"If he has time," Mother said. "He will be doing quite a lot of measuring here."
"I'll call to make sure he has time," Mrs. Brewster said. "And no snide remarks when he comes young lady," she said, turning to Samantha.
"Of course; not a word," Samantha said. "What kind of an idiot do you think I am? I mean, you know how vindictive and temperamental they can be; I'm not about to do anything to make him mess up my gown."
Mother kicked me before I could open my mouth. My shins would be black and blue by morning.
What a narrow-minded, prejudiced--no, don't say the word, I told myself. The whole conversation left a bad taste in my mouth. I felt guilty about not having stepped in to defend Michael. On the other hand, if Mother hadn't shushed me, I'd probably have lost my temper and said something that I'd need to apologize for. I had a bad feeling that Samantha and I would end up having a knock-down-drag-out argument about narrow-mindedness before the end of the summer; I'd just try to avoid doing it in front of Mother. Or Rob. I had no idea what he saw in Samantha, but he was madly in love with her, so I'd have to learn to live with her.
In the meantime I vowed to be extremely friendly and hospitable to Michael. To make up for the various indignities and embarrassments he had probably already suffered at the hands of my small-minded relatives and neighbors.
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