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Thanksgiving Dinner at the Darenbrooks'
Before dinner Cassy asked everyone to please hold hands during grace.
"Who's Grace?" someone said.
"Wait, wait!"pleaded a young second cousin of her husband's. "Look, look," she cried, jumping up to show everyone around the table the most recent issue of City Style. While Cassy exchanged looks with her husband, the fifteen guests politely admired the sight of the Darenbrooks splashed across the cover like movie stars. "Marriage of the Media," it said above their smiling faces. "Cassy Cochran and Jackson Darenbrook," it said below.
Their photograph might as well have been shot through linoleum for all the reality quotient it possessed. Instead of fifty-three and fifty-eight years old, the Darenbrooks looked on the far side of thirty. (There's nothing worse, in publishers' minds, than a life of grace, ease and luxury wasted on people readers could not imagine sleeping with.) The article was flattering, too. Cassy was billed as the stunningly good-looking woman of humble Iowa beginnings who dodged a career in front of the camera to become the founding president of the DBS Television network. Jackson was described as the brilliant Georgia heir who turned his father's newspapers into the massive empire Darenbrook Communications was today.
The Darenbrooks, according to City Style, had the world at their feet.
The article breezed over Cassy's divorce from producer Michael Cochran (and altogether skipped his alcoholism and how, the minute he got sober, he had dumped her), and mentioned the tragic accidental death of Jackson's first wife, Barbara (and graciously omitted how Jackson dumped his children on his sister so he could become an international playboy).
"Perhaps we can look at it after dinner," Cassy suggested.
The second cousin reluctantly took the hint (she did not get out much in East Binsley, Georgia), and leaned over to drop the magazine under her chair.
"Oh, Lord," Jackson began, his drawl pulling farther South than usual, "we thank you for this food we are about to receive and we thank you for allowing us to spend this special day of Thanksgiving together." Cassy's husband had wonderful cornflower-blue eyes and a ready smile. He was a tall, very well built man with an enviously thick head of hair that was real. "We ask that you bless and watch over our loved ones who cannot be with us today, both in heaven and on earth."
Jackson's voice trailed off and everybody waited.
"Merciful God," he continued, "please help the United States to be healed as a nation, and teach us to bring light and love to places of darkness and hate. Thank you, Lord, for your love and countless blessings for which we are so grateful. Amen."
"Amen," Cassy murmured, opening her eyes. "Very nice, Jack." She pressed the button under the carpet with her foot to signal the caterers in the kitchen. The twenty-six-pound turkey came out first and was set down in front of Jackson accompanied with several ooo's and ahhh's. He started to carve while a detail of three out-of-work actors began the rounds with serving dishes.
Henry Cochran, Cassy's only biological child, was seated to her immediate left. He had arrived two days earlier with his wife and young son. They were staying in the old Cochran apartment Henry had grown up in and which Cassy kept separate from the penthouse Jackson had created with the rest of the floor. Once there had been five other apartments on the top floor of 162 Riverside Drive, but one by one Jackson had acquired and added them to his new urban family manse.
At twenty-eight years old, Henry Cochran was still a good deal like his mother. He was tall, slender, blue-eyed and fair-haired (the latter, however, rapidly thinning, she noticed), but fortunately Henry had also inherited his father's deep voice and broad shoulders so that he had not (as he had feared while growing up) turned out to be a ninety-eight-pound weakling. He was ecstatic to be a family man and doing extremely well as an architect. The only problem was the younger Cochrans were moving from Chicago to San Francisco to be near Maria's parents, and Henry had been offered a new position that had made the move possible. Cassy felt she could not say anything because Maria was expecting another child and wanted more family around her, and living next door to the Darenbrooks in New York was not what Maria had in mind.
Cassy almost winced at the pain she felt in her heart at that moment. Having Henry living in Chicago had been hard enough; San Francisco seemed like the end of the earth.
"Good food, Mom," Henry said.
"I'm sorry, Henry," Cassy said, snapping out of her thoughts, "what did you say?"
"I said, 'Great food, Mom.'"
"I'm glad you're enjoying it," she said automatically with a smile, but looked down at her own plate with dismay. The food her in-laws had requestedincluding sweet-potato pie with marshmallow topping and mushy string beans cooked with fatback porkwas severely at odds with the regime Cassy's mother had pounded into her head as a child: six glasses of water a day and as much vegetables, fruit, fish and lean meat as she wanted. (Cassy's mother, in her glory days, had been a beauty queen representing the great state of Iowa. That is until, as Mrs. Littlefield was always careful to phrase it,"my horribly cruel and unfortunate marriage.")
Cassy had been blessed with beauty and a healthy body and, at fifty-three, was extremely grateful for both. She worked out with a trainer three days a week and thus far had only made some minor concessions to plastic surgery involving her face and eyes. It wasn't that she wanted to look younger, really; she just wanted to continue resembling herself. Her face always caught her by surprise when she had a moment to study it in the mirror. When had that happened, and that and that?
She had worn her long blond hair (now with occasional silver) up on the back of her head forever. Whenever she considered cutting it everyone around her freaked out, some declaring it was who she was while others maintained it best highlighted her features. Others said it was the promise of what that hair might holdwhen and if it ever came down that still kept eyes on Cassy when younger beauty was around.
Henry leaned over to say, "I love you, Mom," in the same way he used to as a child when he thought his mother might be upset. But Cassy wasn't upset, just tired. And sad, already missing her son.
She reached to give Henry's hand a squeeze. "I love you, too."
Suddenly mashed potatoes and peas splattered over the side of Henry's face and there was a screech of delight.
Ah, William. Cassy's grandson. If ever someone resembled her first husband, Michael, it was he. William had the blackest hair, was built like a tank and was shy about nothing. His current vocabulary consisted of No, Mine and Rrraaarrrr (Henry and Maria had two dogs), and his favorite pastime was throwing things at people. If they didn't sit on the child soon Cassy knew they would regret it. And as much as she loved Maria, she couldn't help but wish she had a little more steel in her mothering. Hopefully Maria's mother would help with that.
Cassy heard the deep laughter of her husband from the other end of the dining room table. Jackson had seen what William had done.
Sitting to Jackson's right was his alternately anorexic and bulimic daughter, Lydia, who, like Henry, was twenty-eight. Sitting on Jackson's left was his son, Kevin, who at twenty-six was six-foot-three and at least three hundred pounds.
After early go-rounds with Jack's children when they were first married, Cassy had pleaded with Jackson to go into therapy with them. He never had. On the other hand, Jackson had always taken Henry's word over that of his own children, never doubting that it was true, for example, that Kevin was stashing cocaine in Henry's room or that Lydia tried to have sex with Henry.
While Henry and Maria tried to cope with their screeching, food-throwing son, Henry's water glass was upended on the table. All of the out-of-work actors rushed into the kitchen and then rushed back out again with dish towels to blot up the water. William, at this point, was crying crocodile tears because his plate of ammo had been taken away.
"I would spank him," Cordelia Darenbrook Payne,Jackson's half sister, loudly advised from across the table.
"Right, Aunt Cordie Lou," Lydia cried, pushing her chair back to stand up. "We all know how much good your spankings did me! Excuse me," she added in exaggerated politeness to her father.
"Lydia," Jackson started to say, but she ignored him and walked out of the dining room.
Then Kevin excused himself and left the dining room, as well.
William was now screaming and Maria, blushing heavily, pulled William up out of his high chair. "I'll take him into the bedroom."
"Why don't you give him to me?" Cassy suggested, pushing her chair back slightly and holding out her arms. Maria seemed happy to hand him off. (At this stage of her pregnancy Cassy didn't blame her.)
"William," Cassy said sharply as she plopped him down in her lap. Her grandson stopped screaming to look up at her in a kind of awe. She handed him a dinner roll and picked up her fork, managing to take a few bites before she caught Maria's bewildered expression. "At this age they're better with anyone but their parents."
"He gets mad because he can't bounce on Maria's lap anymore," Henry explained.
If you think he's mad now, wait until the new baby comes, Cassy thought. She used her napkin to catch drool dripping from William's mouth as he gnawed on the roll, which killed her appetite.
Lydia reappeared and made her way to her seat smiling defiantly down the table at Cassy as Kevin came back in, as well. They were both high on something. Probably cocaine.
Jackson simply did not want to see it. Cassy supposed he was not unlike other fathers, figuring that by their late twenties it was none of his business what his kids did.
William fell asleep in Cassy's arms, the remains of the roll clutched in his fist. When she kissed the top of his head and stood up, everyone took it as a signal that Thanksgiving was officially over and they were excused. Lydia was out the door first. Henry, Maria and William were next to leave in a car for JFK, Cassy fighting back tears. Then she hurried to help her Southern relatives organize their bags. Everyone except Cassy would board a limousine bus to take them to the Darenbrook Communications plane in Newark. They would drop Jackson and her stepson off in Savannah and then conclude their flight in their home city of Atlanta.
"I don't know how you do it, darlin',"Jack said under his breath to Cassy as he gave her a hug and kiss, "but we almost resembled a family today."
Kevin kissed Cassy on the cheek. "Thanks, Cass, it was great."
She smiled, taking Kevin's arm and pulling him back a step. She leaned close to his ear. "If you ever bring drugs into this house again, I promise you, Kevin, you will never cross the threshold again. Have I made myself clear?"
Startled, Kevin stepped back.
"Oh, Cassy," Cordelia Darenbrook Payne said, swooping in, "it was vtmderbar, vtmderbar as always. And the black-eyed peas were so good we're taking them to eat on the airplane during the ride home."
"Okay, guys, we gotta move,"Jack called to the group, tapping his watch.
"Mrs. Darenbrook?" The caterer appeared from the doorway. "We're almost finished in the kitchen. I want to make sure everything is the way you want it before we leave."
"Bye, darlin'!"Jack shouted over the crowd, waving to her.
"Safe journey, everyone!" Cassy called before closing the front door.
The kitchen looked better than it had when the caterer arrived and Cassy told him so. She gave everybody a small envelope (containing tips), and thanked them for such a lovely dinner.
"You made almost all of the food, Mrs. Darenbrook," the caterer pointed out.
"I hope you young people are taking the leftovers home," she said, addressing the group.
The workers held up bags of disposable food containers and thanked her.
Cassy saw the crew out the service entrance and walked down the long back hall toward the master suite, peering in at the state of the guest bedrooms, but not worrying about them since housekeeping would be back in full force in the morning. There was no trick to running any of the Darenbrook households, really. All it took was money.
The burden of Thanksgiving had been lifted and she felt her energy and spirits rising already. She vigorously brushed out her hair and then put it back up. She went into the bathroom to wash up a little and brush her teeth, then came back out to sit at the vanity to put on a little fresh makeup. She also exchanged the pearl earrings she had been wearing for two large diamond ones and took off her wedding rings. She threw a couple of things into a shoulder bag and hastily ran a lint brush over her dress. She went out to the front hall closet to retrieve a coat and suitcase and took the elevator down to the subterranean garage.
"I could have brought those down for you, Mrs. Darenbrook," the attendant said, rushing over to take the shoulder bag and suitcase.
"No worry," she said. She watched him put the suitcase in the trunk of her silver Jaguar. "I'm sorry you have to work today."
"I'm not. I get double time." He closed the trunk and hurried around to open the driver's-side door for her. "I'm through here at eight and then we'll have our big family dinner."
"Oh, I'm glad." She slipped down behind the wheel.
"So your house is finally quiet again, huh? That was a lot of people staying with you and Mr. Darenbrook."
"Indeed," she said, smiling.
"Mr. Darenbrook said he's racing his boat in the Caribbean this weekend."
"Yes, he is. With his son."
"Think he'll win? Oh, why do I even ask? Even when Mr. Darenbrook loses he still always seems to win somehow. Do you know what I mean?"
Cassy nodded, starting the engine. "Oh, yes, I know what you mean," she assured him.
What Happened to the Darenbrook Marriage
After the humiliating defeat of her first marriage, falling in love with Jackson Darenbrook had seemed close to a miracle. Cassy remembered the day Jack realized he was in love with her very well. They'd been arguing (they had always been arguing in the early days of the fledgling network), and suddenly Jackson stopped talking and stared at Cassy with a sense of dawning revelation. Cassy knew then how he felt about her. And in that moment she knew that she had been falling for him, as well.