Read an Excerpt
By Marilyn Kaye
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2007 Penelope Productions, LLC.
All rights reserved.
Jake always knew where to find me.
He'd been with our family since, well, forever, and he knew our routines. He also knew our habits, our tastes, our foibles and our problems — in fact, he probably knew the Wilherns better than we knew ourselves. Actually, that wasn't so remarkable given that there were only three Wilherns in the house — my mother, my father, and me — and none of us were all that complicated.
In any case, he was familiar with my weekday schedule (which didn't vary that much from my weekend schedule). Breakfast at 8:30. From 9:00 to 10:00, I listened to French tapes and practiced conjugating verbs. That pluperfect subjunctive was a killer.
From 10:00 to 10:45, I was on the stationary bike or the treadmill or some other kind of aerobic instrument of endurance/torture. I wasn't really a sporty type, but I believed that exercise was very important, particularly for people who didn't get out much.
After my workout, I showered and changed, and at 11:00 I watched my favorite TV soap opera, where the characters led lives much more interesting than mine. And at noon I read the newspaper, which was filled with stories about people whose lives were much worse than mine (not that I enjoyed knowing that their lives were sad, but it kept any hint of self-pity at bay). Lunch was at 12:45. By 2:30 every day, I was in the solarium-slash-greenhouse, and that was where Jake came to collect me.
When he arrived, I was in the middle of a delicate procedure, dividing my bird-of-paradise in preparation for transplanting. This required concentration — I had to separate the roots and try very hard not to break them — so I wasn't too pleased when Jake appeared in the doorway and made his announcement.
"Miss Penelope, your three o'clock is here."
"Already?" I cried in dismay.
"Well, it is three o'clock," the butler pointed out. He gazed around the solarium. "Your plants look lovely, Miss Penelope."
"Thank you, Jake."
"How unfortunate that others don't have the pleasure of seeing them."
"Mm." Reluctantly, I put the bird-of-paradise aside and pulled off my plastic gloves. I was really in no mood for what was about to happen, but I also knew there was no point in trying to put it off.
"Oh, and your mother would like to see you before the meeting," Jake added.
This was nothing new. Mother always wanted to see me before the meetings to give me an update on the candidate and a little pep talk.
My mother, Jessica Wilhern, was in her usual place at the dining table, which was littered with folders, photos, and resumes. With her was Wanda, who'd been hired seven years ago as a live-in consultant to work with her on this important project.
"Darling," my mother trilled in the slightly breathless voice she used to encourage an upbeat and positive attitude. "I think we have an interesting prospect here. Wanda, tell her."
Wanda nodded. With her usual efficiency, she had all the facts on hand. "Very interesting. Palmer Metcalf, aged twenty-five. Your age, Penelope."
I spoke through my teeth. "Yes, Wanda, I know how old I am."
Wanda ignored my feeble attempt at sarcasm. "He has excellent credentials. Livingstone Prep, Dartmouth. Junior partner, Mitchell and Swinson, Securities. Member, Clearwater Town and Country Club. Country house in Woodbridge. And by the way, these are the Providence Metcalfs, not the Boston ones. The Boston ones didn't arrive until way after the Mayflower, at least ten years. And rumor has it they sailed tourist."
I made a small effort to appear mildly impressed. "Dartmouth. That's in New Hampshire, right?"
"His father's on the board of trustees!" my mother added excitedly. "He has connections. Your children can go to Ivy League schools!"
"Palmer spent a year studying at the Sorbonne in Paris," Wanda continued.
My mother was now over the moon. "He lived in France, Penelope! France! You could speak French together!"
"Penelope Metcalf," Wanda said experimentally. "It has a nice ring."
Feigning enthusiasm was getting harder and harder. I was so sick of all this. And I really wanted to get back to those bird-of-paradise roots. "Okay, okay, he's perfect. He's in the music room?"
"Of course, darling, where else? Look!"
I glanced at the other end of the dining room, where a loveseat and small coffee table were waiting for me by a one-way window. Through this window I could see into the music room, but anyone in the music room would see a mirror. I walked right past the furniture to the door leading directly into the music room.
Wanda gasped and my mother shrieked, "Penelope, what are you doing?"
I ignored them both and opened the door. A nice-looking young man, very preppy in a tweed jacket, and presumably Palmer Metcalf, immediately rose from the sofa and turned to face me.
"Bonjour," I said.
His mouth opened but no words came out. His face said it all for him.
It didn't surprise me, since I'd seen the look before, with slight variations. It could range from disbelief to total shock, from distaste to disgust. Sometimes I saw fear, or even downright horror.
"Je m 'appelle Penelope."
He was already edging toward the door.
He'd recovered sufficiently to stutter, "I, uh ... I can't ... I have to be somewhere."
"Au revoir," I said.
He'd made it to the hallway, where Jake was waiting with papers for him to sign. I went back into the dining room to face the wrath of Jessica Wilhern and company. Wanda was shaking her head in dismay while my mother expressed her displeasure more audibly.
"Penelope, what is the matter with you?" she shrieked. "Why did you do that? You know better, you can't just go out there! You can't just spring yourself on a man like that! You can't blame him for being shocked!"
"This is completely unacceptable, Jessica," Wanda fumed. "How do you expect me to do my job when Penelope won't cooperate?"
Another voice was heard. "Oh, don't be so hard on her, ladies."
I hadn't even realized my father was in the room. Franklin Wilhern could do that — appear and disappear without anyone noticing. I appreciated his sweet, worried expression though, and I smiled at him. Jessica and Wanda ignored his comment and continued their tirade.
"Penelope, you have to let a young man know you before you show yourself," my mother pleaded. "Do you think I let your father see my mole before we were married? No, of course not, he had to love me first, then he could accept the fact that I wasn't flawless. Isn't that right, Franklin?"
He nodded. "You're not flawless, Jessica."
Jessica went on. "You have to reveal what's inside, your true self, your beautiful self. A man has to realize that you're a delightful, charming, intelligent young woman before he sees that ... before he knows that ..."
She was having trouble saying it so I helped her out and finished the sentence for her.
"That I have the face of a pig?"
"Oh, Penelope!" she wailed.
"Sorry, folks, I've got a bird-of-paradise waiting for me," I said. "Gotta go."
As I walked out of the dining room, I could hear them continuing without me. Wanda, threatening to quit her job as professional matchmaker. My mother, accusing me of ruining my own life (and hers in the process). And beneath the voices of the two women came the faint words of my poor, dear father, pleading with them, as usual.
"It's not her fault. Don't blame Penelope. It's my fault, it's all my fault."CHAPTER 2
You'd think I'd be used to it by now. I wasn't, and I doubted that I ever would be. It was always painful and demoralizing.
Normally, at a moment like this, I would go back to the peace and quiet of the solarium. Plants were my passion in life, and they comforted me when I was tense or depressed or angry. But at that moment, I was tense and depressed and angry, and even my beloved plants couldn't alleviate all that. In fact, I was more afraid my wretched mood would cause irreparable damage to the innocent plants.
So I went to my room, which wasn't a bad place to hide out and console myself. It had everything one could wish for in a bedroom. Lavish furniture, including a canopy bed fit for a princess. Fresh flowers everywhere, magnificent art on the walls. Walk-in closets filled with clothes I'd found in catalogs and on Internet shopping sites. Shelves of handbags and shoes. Drawers packed with jewelry. I liked fashion — I'd developed my own style, and every season my closets went through a complete overhaul. I never had to worry about being seen in last season's styles. Mainly because I was never seen.
And I was surrounded by all the entertainment possibilities. Wide-screen flat TV, the finest stereo system in the world, thousands of CDs and DVDs, video game systems.
Not to mention my exercise alcove, which included a treadmill, bike, a rowing machine, and a climbing wall. The climbing wall was my favorite. I had to put on special equipment, organize the ropes, then stretch and strain to get from one foothold to the next, and it took a long time to get to the top where I reached — nothing. All I could do then was come back down. It seemed to me like a metaphor for my life — I kept moving but I went no where.
The only thing a stranger might think was missing from the room was a mirror. But my mother had always felt it would be way too depressing for me to encounter my reflection on a daily basis.
I did have a mirror she didn't know about. It was in a powder compact that I'd stolen from her handbag years ago. It was very small, but I didn't require a full-length mirror to remind me why I didn't have a normal life. Not that I ever needed a reminder at all. When you had the face of a pig, you never forgot it.
It didn't matter if I changed the angle of the mirror, or tilted my head, or looked at myself in profile. Even if I lowered my eyelids to blur the image, there was no possible way to miss the feature that had kept me a prisoner all my life, the feature that drove away Palmer Metcalf (among many others): the huge, fleshy, prominent snout that had marked me since birth.
Of course, there were other parts to my face — the snout wasn't my only feature, though it certainly commanded the most attention. I had eyes, and I had to admit, they weren't half bad. They were big, chocolate-brown, and adorned with unusually long lashes.
Mouthwise, I was in pretty good shape, too. The lips had a nice shape, not too full, not too thin, and when parted they revealed perfectly straight white teeth. I'd lucked out with my complexion, too. It was fair without being pale, despite the fact that I was always indoors, and I didn't even have to resort to fake tanning lotions. I'd never had acne, and my cheeks were imbued with a pretty rosy blush.
I also had a very good figure. With all the time I had available for exercise, it was easy to maintain. And my hair was particularly nice. The rich deep brown was my very own color, and there were delicate waves that culminated in curls that bounced around my shoulders.
There was a small problem with my ears, which had some pig-like elements. Fortunately, however, my hair kept them concealed. But nothing could conceal the snout, and no matter how many lovely physical qualities I had, they were all reduced to negligible by this protuberance.
And as much as I tried not to feel sorry for myself, at moments like this I felt like I was entitled to wallow in a little self-pity. Whenever this mood hit, I indulged myself in a certain routine.
From my bookcase, I extracted the Wilhern Family Scrapbook, settled myself in a comfortable rocking chair, and opened it.
I turned to a particular page and gazed at an old sepia print, a family portrait. Stern-faced Wilherns posed stiffly in dark serious clothes, Victorian style. This particular photo was probably taken around 1860. There were five young men in the photo, but my attention was focused on one: my great-great-great-grandfather, Ralph Wilhern.
I blamed him.CHAPTER 3
Ralph was not the oldest nor the youngest Wilhern brother — he was right in the middle, with two older brothers and two younger brothers. Of the five young men, he was not the smartest. He wasn't the best-looking Wilhern, either. Nor was he the most athletic, or the most creative, or the most ambitious. No one would ever have called him driven — he tended to indolence, he was somewhat shy, and he was easily intimidated and influenced by his parents and his brothers, even the two younger ones. As far as personality and charm went, he didn't stand out.
He was aware of his flaws, because his parents and brothers were always reminding him. Nowadays, a shrink would say he had something of an inferiority complex. But neuroses hadn't been invented yet — at least, the idea of them hadn't reached the world of the Wilherns — so Ralph had to deal with his inadequacies the only way he knew how. He became a romantic.
He read romantic poetry and romantic novels and he engaged in a lot of romantic fantasy. Real romance didn't play a big part in his world. He knew what was expected of him: to finish school, to go into the family business (which had something to do with using money to make more money), to refrain from actions that might in some way injure the respectable reputation of the family, to marry a good woman from a good family, and to perpetuate the Wilhern name. He could manage most of these responsibilities, but there was one that gave Ralph some trouble: finding a wife.
He didn't have any problem meeting eligible women. From the age of eighteen, he had attended coming-out balls and other special occasions designed for the sole purpose of introducing the young men and women of a certain class. The women were of different shapes and sizes and appearance, but they were all moral and upright, well groomed and well mannered. Ralph's problem was that they didn't appeal to his romantic nature. He thought they were dull.
If he'd been a little more ambitious, or had the tiniest spark of imagination, he might have left home, traveled, gone beyond the small circle of local aristocracy. But Ralph never even considered the possibility that there were other options in life. He could only fantasize and wish for romance to come knocking at his door.
By the time his older and even his younger brothers had married or become betrothed, the Wilhern patriarch and matriarch were becoming concerned, and so more effort was put into Ralph's social schedule. He found himself escorting Sibyl, Caroline, Elizabeth, and every other woman who met the basic criteria of family and class. Dutifully, he obliged, but none of the women could fulfill his fantasy of romance. And then, he met Clara.
As a large and wealthy family, the Wilherns employed a substantial number of servants. Most of them lived in sparse rooms in the mansion's attic, though a few came daily from local farms. Like his brothers, Ralph wasn't terribly aware of them, and he never thought about them. When he put on a clean, pressed, white shirt every morning, he might have experienced a brief moment of satisfaction at the sense of well-being it provided, but it never occurred to him that some actual human being had washed and ironed it. He might exclaim about the tastiness of the Sunday roast chicken and not give a thought to the fact that someone had cooked it.
Like most people of his class, he lived a comfortable life without thinking about why or how it had come to be so comfortable. And he couldn't tell the difference between Mary who did the washing or Sally who swept the floors or Martha who made the beds. Or Clara, who chopped the vegetables for the meals that Cook produced.
But one Sunday afternoon, Clara turned Ralph's comfortable world upside down.
The family had just finished their extensive Sunday lunch. While the food had been excellent and plentiful, Ralph was feeling somewhat empty. At church that morning, he'd sat with Sibyl Harrington. His parents then spent the entire meal extolling Sibyl's virtues, and urging Ralph to ask Sibyl's father for her hand in marriage.
Excerpted from Penelope by Marilyn Kaye. Copyright © 2007 Penelope Productions, LLC.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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