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That's the ugliest wedding gown I've ever seen," Sarah said. She leaned back in her chair, her long black hair swaying with her movement, her dark eyes blinking with acerbity. "I can't wait to see what she's picked out for us."
Jo wanted to agree, but didn't dare. Elaine was only in the ladies' room and could return any moment. Sarah was right, however, the gown was horrible.
Lily shook her head, her short blond curls bouncing like little clouds of milkweed puffs against her pink cheeks. "We can't let her do it," she whispered in horror as she plucked the bridal magazine from the table at Le Fusion, the latest boutique restaurant in the small New England town that had once been quaint but was now tourist-choked. "She never had great taste in college. I guess that hasn't changed in all these years." She turned to Jo. "Josephine?" she asked as if awaiting confirmation.
Reaching for her wineglass, Jo glanced over at the picture of white satin bouffant with pink and blue organza roses set into excessive ruffles of tulle. The gown looked foolish, even on the angelic, eighteen-year-old model. On over-forty Elaine, it would look asinine.
Across the restaurant, Elaine emerged from the ladies' room. Her lavender polyester pants were too short, her eighties-style hair was dyed too brown and was too big. Yet Elaine marched along with happy steps, nodding and smiling as she passed the other luncheoning ladies who wore golf skorts and straw hats and had shopping bags from Ann Taylor and Lladr— and Ralph Lauren. When Elaine reached her former college roommates, the women she'd selected as her bridesmaids for her"second-time around," she dropped onto her chair with relief.
"Mercy," she said, fanning herself lightly. "I'm not used to drinking in the middle of the day." She smoothed the front of the pink-and-lavender-flowered big shirt, then adjusted her double-strand necklace of red and pink beads and the large dangle earrings that matched. Sort of.
Jo's eyes moved from flighty, elflike Lily to pensive, statuesque Sarah, extremes in looks and personalities, right and left wing, while Jo kept to the middle, with Elaine a few feet behind. Now Lily and Sarah expected Jo to break the news to Elaine. As the leader in the middle, it had always been Jo's role to be the obligatory mediator, the one with the most sense. Two decades apparently hadn't changed that, either. She sipped her wine. "Elaine, honey," she said gently, "have you thought about getting professional help?"
Sarah nearly spit her wine across the table.
Lily's pink lips peeled back in a grimace, revealing professionally whitened, perfectly straight teeth.
Jo smiled. "For the wedding," she continued. "Someone like a wedding planner."
She might have said that one of Elaine's three kids had been arrested on drug-trafficking charges, given the bewildered look Elaine wore on her face. Then Elaine's eyes fell to the magazine that Lily still clutched. A wide grin appeared. "It's the white, isn't it? You think I shouldn't wear white!" She laughed a jovial laugh, then drank more of the wine she wasn't used to drinking in the middle of the day. "Well, this might surprise you, but I read that white no longer is a symbol of virginity. It now stands for 'joy.' I guess they had to change it because there are no virgins left in the world."
She drank again. No one laughed.
Jo leaned forward. "It's not the white, Elaine. It's the flowers. And the ruffles. And the, well, the little girl look. I know it's not fair. But even though there are tons of second and even third weddings, it still seems that all the books and magazines--and most of the fashions--are geared to twenty-year-olds." She hoped she'd made her point without hurting Elaine's feelings.
Elaine's wine-pinkened cheeks slowly darkened to red. Even her Miss Clairol-ed hair seemed to deepen a shade. She snatched the magazine from Lily's hands. "I'm not entitled to the wedding of my dreams just because I'm over forty?" She didn't have to mention that she'd been cheated out of a wedding when she'd married Lloyd because they'd still been in college and Elaine had been pregnant, so they'd married in haste at the town hall. The redness abated and fat tears slid down her cheeks.
Lily produced a clean lace hankie from her Asprey purse.
Elaine waved it away, then reached into her crocheted tote bag and located a travel pack of Kleenex. She blew her nose loudly.
The waitress appeared bearing three oriental chicken salads with dressing on the side, and a veggie platter for Sarah.
"Maybe we can help," Jo suggested once the waitress had left. "After all, as your bridesmaids, we have a vested interest." She grinned and patted Elaine's hand. "It's a little more than three months until the wedding, right?"
"I didn't want to wait," she said apologetically.
"Three months is acceptable," Lily interjected. "Only first-time brides need a year or more to plan."
Lily, of course, would know.
"Then we will do it in three months," Jo said. "Lainey, let us be your wedding planners."
Elaine blinked. "My 'wedding planners'? But you live in Boston."
Jo cleared her throat. "Actually, I've been thinking I might come back for a while. My mother's getting older . . . I want to be sure she can still live on her own." She tried to sound casual and hoped the others didn't notice the tremor that had sneaked into her voice.
"You might come back to West Hope?" Elaine asked. "But what about your business? What about your career?"
Despite a degree in elementary education, Elaine had only taught fourth grade between her second and third kids, then gave up on working altogether. For the past several years she volunteered part-time at the library and served on countless town boards, but as far as Jo knew, Elaine had no interest in business or careers, certainly not Jo's.
Folding her hands, Jo forced her best smile. "I've been thinking about branching out. The Berkshires could use a strong public relations firm. Attractions have grown. Tourism has escalated. We'll soon outpace any New England venue except the Cape and islands." All of which had little to do with Jo's recent debate with herself about moving back. The truth was, her life was no longer the same, and "home" was what now seemed safe. The others, however, did not need to know that. "But I haven't decided. In the meantime," she added quickly, "planning your wedding would be fun." She turned to Sarah. "You're so creative, Sarah. If I organize the wedding, maybe you can make it magical. Elaine's dream come true."
"I design jewelry," Sarah protested. "Not wedding dresses and reception halls."
Elaine lowered her eyes.
Sarah shifted on her chair. "Well," she added, "I suppose I could try."
Lily clapped her hands. "And I'll pay!" she exclaimed.
All eyes turned to Lily. Elaine broke the stunned silence. "But you live in New York."
"Don't be silly," Lily said, dismissing Elaine's comment. "It's a three-hour train ride from Manhattan. It isn't Timbuktu. Besides, it would be such a hoot to be together again! And how better to squander a chunk of Reginald's money if not with my friends?" Lily had recently become a widow when her much older, wickedly wealthy husband had sadly succumbed, leaving his beloved wife, Lily, (and his "beastly old sister, Antonia") a portfolio that probably bulged with more stocks and bonds than Lily could count. She laughed and said, "Think of it as a loan you won't have to repay. Think of it as your second chance." She raised her glass in toast to poor, dead Reginald.
Elaine gasped. "You mean it."
Sarah nodded. "She means it."
Jo held up her glass. "To second chances," she said, and they clinked all around. Jo had little idea what had just happened. But for the first time in months, her spirits had lifted and she thought that maybe her life wasn't over after all.
She had been named "Most Likely to Succeed" by her high-school class. Josephine "Jo" Lyons had also been the captain of the debating team, the president of the student council, and the editor of the yearbook. She had been those things once. Now she was just a middle-aged woman sitting on the edge of the bed in her childhood home, wondering how it had happened that life had come full circle, with Elaine getting married while Jo was not, nor was Lily (perhaps to her chagrin), nor was Sarah, who no doubt preferred it that way.
They had always been different, the Winston College roommates. Lily said they were friends because of that, because they never were attracted to the same types of men, so there was no competition.
Jo had been the studious townie who had saved her money from waitressing during tourist season so she could live on campus and feel she'd left town, as if at last her life could begin. Jo had been attracted only to one man, Brian Forbes, who was tall and handsome, gregarious and a bit of a bad boy. He had been like her father, she supposed.
Elaine had been the domestic diva wanna-be (despite her dubious taste) long before such a label had been coined by a questionable marketing guru who might have had close ties to Martha Stewart or Pottery Barn. Though Elaine had come from Upstate New York, she and Lloyd had settled in West Hope because his family was there and she'd been embarrassed by the "premature" baby and all. Although Lloyd had gone to law school, Jo had thought of him as rough around the West Hope edges, a small-town boy without the polish, destined for a mediocre life.
Lily had been the orphan raised by a wildly eccentric, rich aunt. A fun-loving, cheerful city girl, Lily knew all the latest fads--like shawls and boots and the resurgence of miniskirts--long before West Hope got wind of them. Lily had been attracted to lots of men, mostly older, mostly wealthy, mostly those who doted on her with great sincerity.
Sarah had been the exotic roommate, having traveled from the West, a Native American with a mysterious ancestry that she'd turned her back on. She'd remained in the Berkshires, in a town even smaller than West Hope, deep in the woods. She never shared much about the men she dated in college, or about the now-famous musician with whom she'd shared her life for many years. He, too, kept their private life private.
Jo's mother used to say she could tell the difference between the roommates by the way they walked. Marion said that even with her eyes closed, she knew that Lily had the light steps of a ballerina; Sarah, the long strides of a slow yet deliberate woman; and Elaine, the short, clipped gait of a majorette. Marion knew Jo's steps, of course, because she was her daughter. She often described them to the others as steady and sincere, if not always heading in the right direction.
Throughout the years, it had been Elaine who had kept the friends together. It had been her idea to meet in New York City each year in the fall for a weekend of girl stuff. New York, after all, was the best place to shop and to eat and to go to the theater. And to laugh. Despite all their differences, they always loved to laugh.
"Third weekend in September," Elaine announced every year, first by mail, then by phone calls, now by e-mail, though Jo suspected none of them needed a reminder.
Other than that, their meetings had been few. Lily's weddings. The birth of Sarah's son. The death of Elaine's mother. An occasional lunch or a quick "Hello" when Jo was in West Hope visiting her mother.
And now, another wedding, a second for Elaine, while Jo had not yet had a first. She'd been too busy being mature, responsible, dependable. Never a carefree kid.
Jo lay back on her bed now and stared up at the ceiling.
"Josephine!" she could almost hear her mother call. "Get a move on. Time's a-wastin'."
Time was always "a-wastin' " according to Marion Lyons, whether it was a school day or a Saturday or time for church.
"As pretty as your mother," Ted, the butcher, said on Thursdays when Jo stopped by to pick up hamburg and flank steak and pounded veal chops for the week while her mother was at work as the clerk at the town hall.
"Such a smart girl," Mrs. Kingsley at the bookstore always commented with a knowing nod when Jo bought one of many books.
"A wonderful sermon," the congregation said, one after another, each month when Jo delivered the "children's" message from the purple-draped pulpit.
How Jo had hated West Hope.
She turned onto her side now and picked at the chenille dots that covered the twin bedspread, the same bedspread that had been there since the sixties and seventies, yet, unlike her, did not seem to have aged. How many nights had she picked at these same dots, dreaming of the day she'd escape the claustrophobic town and its smothering people for a real life of her own?
She had escaped, of course. The "Most Likely to Succeed" had succeeded for a time, in the big city, Boston, where she had a fancy condominium and a to-die-for wardrobe and men, so many men, who loved her, but Jo Lyons was too busy succeeding to bother to love them back.
She had succeeded, and then she lost everything, though she hadn't yet admitted that to her mother, to her friends, or, most of all, to West Hope.
And now Jo had a choice.
The closing on her fancy condo was next week; her movers awaited word as to where her worldly possessions should be shipped; the brass nameplate had been removed from the Back Bay office door: Josephine Lyons and Associates, Public Relations Specialists. The "associates" were gone, the office was, too.
She could stay in the city, in a crowded apartment like the one where she'd started out, in a dark office building with no windows and no clients, and now with a reputation to repair and a bruised heart to mend.
Or she could go home. She could move back to West Hope, open a new office, and capitalize on the Berkshires' tourism as she had suggested. She could help plan Elaine's wedding; she could stay a year, maybe two, until her pain had subsided, until her strength had returned.
"Josephine!" her mother called up the narrow, steep stairs. This time the voice was not a memory. It belonged to the robust woman who was just past seventy and who hardly needed Jo's help to get through her busy days and her bingo-playing nights.
It's a two-bedroom apartment on Shannon Drive," Jo said aloud as she read the Sunday classifieds. She acted as if she'd made the decision to return to West Hope, which she had not. She was merely trying it out to see how it felt.
"There's plenty of room for you right here," Marion Lyons said. They were seated at the kitchen table with hot tea and fresh strawberry muffins made with berries picked yesterday at the Peases' old farm. "Your room is exactly as you left it."
From the Paperback edition.