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After my newly widowed sister Libby gave birth to her fifth child, she decided to become a goddess.
''It takes effort,'' she advised me when I went into her bedroom to shake her awake one cold November morning. &'grave;But it's just what you need, Nora.''
&'grave;I'm too busy taking care of your family,'' I said, passing her the squirming body of her newborn son. ''When you finish transforming yourself, could you make some peanut butter sandwiches for the kids?''
&'grave;I can't,'' she said, taking the child. &'grave;I've given up peanut butter as a sacrifice to Placida.''
''My goddess within.'' Libby began unlacing the ties on one of her exquisitely embroidered nightgowns in preparation of feeding her frantic son his overdue breakfast. ''Placida is the deity of tranquility, sexual adventure and weight loss.''
I sighed. &'grave;Libby, you had a baby just five weeks ago. And you can't expect to lose weight without getting out of bed once in a while. Giving up peanut butter is a good start, but if you quit watching all those episodes of Trading Spaces and get some exercise''
&'grave;You don't understand the goddess process, Nora.'' Libby plumped the lacy pillows around her voluptuous figure and sat back with a beatific smile as the baby clamped on to her breast like a starving Yorkshire piglet. &'grave;You must open yourself to the possibilities so the goddess may flow from within you. It's a mental path to all kinds of fulfillment. Why, just last night I had an erotic dream about Dr. Phil.''
As she nursed her perfect baby I looked at my demented sister, with her beautiful skin glowing and her hair in a vixenish sort of tangle and her body all soft and glamorously flaunted, as if ready to be ravaged at Versailles by a Bourbon king. The Blackbird white complexion and auburn hairwhich had been passed down through the generations, along with a very peculiar family crest and a seventeenth-century Blackbird blunderbusslooked demure on me but distinctly more erotic on Libby. After childbirth, women weren't supposed to look as if they'd been airbrushed by Playboy's most gifted photographer, but here was Libby looking divine while I felt as if I'd been beaten with a shovel.
I said, ''If I strangled you with your own nursing bra right now, it would be justifiable homicide.''
&'grave;I'm re-centering my life!'' she cried. &'grave;Don't rush me! I must gather my cosmic resources, prioritize my most primal joys and learn to validate my sacred inner magic so I can evolve into the goddess of my mysterious potential. Such a powerful psychological makeover takes time.''
&'grave;Well, the kitchen floor needs a makeover, too. How about using a mop while I'm out?''
She sat up and widened her eyes in pretty dismay. &'grave;Where are you going? Good heavens, you're not having clandestine morning sex with That Man, are you?''
Although clandestine sex might tempt me I knew I shouldn't leave Libby's children alone in her custody for any reason whatsoever. Sixteen-year-old Rawlins had taken to suspiciously disappearing late at night with a group of friends who collectively had enough body piercings to start a surgical supply store. The thirteen-year-old twins Harcourt and Hilton were closeted in the basement, making a Santa Claus movie that involved bloodcurdling screams every three minutes, and five-year-old Lucy had invented an imaginary friend who graffitied the living room walls with grape jelly when I wasn't vigilant. The baby, who still had not been bestowed with a name by his goddess mother, couldn't bear to be anywhere but in my arms, except when he was trying to deplete his mother's milk supply.
To top everything off, Libby was lactating with more volume than a dairy cow, so one of my jobs was bottling and freezing the overflow to contribute to a breast milk bank at a Philadelphia foster child agency. Which meant there were even more children who depended on me while Libby lolled in postpartum splendor, dreaming of talk-show hosts and cockamamie deities.
I had no time for anything, including clandestine sex.
''That Man,'' I said, ''is fishing in Scotland.''
She settled back against her pillows and muttered, ''Yeah, sure.''
I turned in the doorway. &'grave;What's that supposed to mean?''
Libby smoothed the fair hair on her baby's head. &'grave;Honestly, Nora, if you believe your mob-boss boyfriend has gone fishing, I'm marching straight out to find a bridge to sell you.''
''Oh, not that again.''
''Do I need flip charts to explain it? Michael Abruzzo is a dangerous man mixed up in so many shady businesses''
''That new chain of gas stations,'' Libby said promptly. &'grave;Gas 'n' Grub? They're popping up all over the place.''
&'grave;What's wrong with selling gasoline and sandwiches? Besides the indigestion?''
&'grave;They're cash businesses, Nora. Even you must know what that means.''
&'grave;He's making a living?'' I said, tartly, bringing up a sore subject, since my parents blew the last of the Blackbird fortune and sailed off to a tax-evader's paradise where they spent most of their time rehearsing for the weekly mambo contest.
Libby covered her baby's ears lest he learn about high crime at such a tender age. ''Michael Abruzzo is laundering money.''
''Oh, for crying out loud''
&'grave;The papers say he's under investigation.''
&'grave;He's always under investigation. Because of his family, not himself.''
&'grave;Well, this is a new one, and he's the star of the show. I heard it on the news last night. It's probably why he's fled the country.''
&'grave;He hasn't fled! He's taking a vacation.''
&'grave;Think about it, Nora. If you had ill-gotten gains, you'd want a place to pass the dirty money to an unsuspecting public in small batches. That's why he started Gas 'n' Grub. Vanity Fair had a big article about money laundering last month. Pizza shops: now, those are a gold mine for criminals.''
''Michael is not a criminal.''
Which I believed most of the time.
''He looks like a criminal,'' Libby declared. &'grave;A sexy criminal, I'll admit, with, okay, a sort of fallen-angel magnetism that some women find attractive, but''
&'grave;I'm leaving now,'' I said before she could go into her riff about consorting with the devil. Somehow I wouldn't mind so much if I actually enjoyed a little consorting, but lately I'd been stuck refereeing her children. &'grave;I'll be back in two hours.''
''Where are you going?''
&'grave;I told you. I'm covering the hunt breakfast for the newspaper. And Emma's riding, remember?''
Neither of us had quite gotten the hang of my employment yet. Before I was widowed, I'd spent my adult life being married to a doctor and devoting my time to good works and the Junior League, so when the family fortunes evaporated on tropical breezes, I didn't have a respectable resume for job hunting. But an old family friend who owned a Philadelphia newspaper had found me a position as an assistant to the society columnist. The job required me to attend parties and report on clothes, guest lists and the details of so-called high society entertaining. It was work for which I was singularly suited, having been brought up in a tax bracket where the oxygen was very thin and party planning was an art form. I wasn't going to earn a Pulitzer any time soon, but the job helped me pay down the heart-stopping tax debt on Blackbird Farm.
This morning's assignment was the hunt breakfast at an exclusive fox hunting club just off the Main Line. And I needed to be there shortly after sunrise.
Libby eyed me. ''Are you going to talk to Emma?''
&'grave;I'm going to try.''
''Maybe I should come along.''
&'grave;I think I can address Emma's situation in a calm and rational manner on my own.''
''Are you implying that childbirth has rendered me incapable of rationality?'' Libby asked. &'grave;I'll have you know there are actually studies that prove motherhood makes you smarter. So you have something to look forward to.''
My sister Libby had plans to make everyone's lives perfect. She decided that I only needed children to reach a state of serenity, and she rarely missed an opportunity to remind me of the maternal rewards that awaited me if I paid closer attention to the expiration date on my ovaries.
''After five weeks in the household from hell,'' I said, &'grave;I'm having second thoughts about having a family of my own.''
Libby appeared not to hear me. ''I think I will go along with you this morning.''
&'grave;You're kidding, right?''
&'grave;We should present a united front. Yes, I'll definitely come. I have an invitation around here somewhere.'' She disconnected her son from his food source and began to burp him while she imagined the party. ''It might be a nice reentry into the world for me, too. All those handsome men on horseback!'' The look in her eye reminded me of a pyromaniac lighting a match.
&'grave;Don't start, Libby.''
&'grave;Don't start what?''
&'grave;Chasing unsuspecting men as if they were helpless rabbits doomed for the stew pot. You're in a hormonal fever right now. You're a danger to society. I'm not taking you with me. Besides, my car will be here in five minutes, and you'll never be ready.''
&'grave;I'll follow you later,'' she said. ''Run along.''
''What about the baby?'' The idea of my lactating sister descending on an early morning party made me fear for the safety of my fellow guests. ''And the rest of the kids?''
She waved me off. &'grave;There's plenty of my milk in the fridge, so he'll survive. I'll call a neighbor girl to keep an eye on the mayhem. I want to see you in action. You're always stumbling into excitement, and Placida thrives on exciting events. See you there!''
My driver, Reed Shakespeare, was waiting in the driveway in the predawn darkness when I went tearing outside. He worked for the limousine service Michael ownedone of his many businessesthat had been hired by my newspaper to deliver me to assignments. A part-time college student and barely out of his teens, Reed took his job very seriously. Now experienced with my various moods, especially when I was escaping one of my sisters, he calmly handed me a paper cup of teaskim milk, no sugar, just the way I liked italong with the morning newspaper for me to read in the backseat. He opened the rear door for me. He hadn't decided to allow me to sit up front yet, and I was determined to prove myself worthy. But it obviously wasn't going to happen this morning.
&'grave;Good morning, Reed. Look, I'm sorry, but we're going to have to take the puppy along.''
Reed looked pained.
A small pointed nose poked out of my handbag, and an unholy growl rumbled from the depths of the leather Balenciaga.
Reed said, &'grave;You used to say you didn't want a dog. You were really firm about that.''
&'grave;I couldn't refuse your mother, could I? When you think about it, Reed, you're the reason I have Spike in the first place. You have nobody but yourself to blame.''
''You could have refused.''
''Refuse your mother? Reed, get real.''
Rozalia Shakespeare, a woman of awesome inner strength and a voice perfectly suited to belting spiritual hymns to the highest church balconies, had pushed the puppy into my arms not long after Reed was released from a hospital stay. The bullet that had put him there had been my fault, although his mother felt otherwise. I couldn't refuse her gift.
For months people had been telling me I needed a dog, but I assumed they meant something large, drooling and protective. Instead of a territorial Doberman, however, I was now using my best handbag to carry around a puppy no bigger than a teapot who thought he was a weapon of mass destruction. Spike had a predatory glitter in his slightly cockeyed gaze and a quick and bloodthirsty bite, not to mention other personal habits that made him unpopular with most human beings. After only a month in my possession, he'd sunk a perfect imprint of canine teeth into the left hand of a man I despised and peed on his foot at the same time. Which was the moment I decided to keep him, despite his flaws. Spike, that is, not my old enemy Jamie Scaithe.
But Reed wisely didn't trust the puppy, no doubt because Spike was the offspring of Mrs. Shakespeare's beloved rat terrier-poodle-rattlesnake mix and a legendary neighborhood mongrel that had been featured on Animal Control's Most Wanted list for two years.
Spike popped his head out of my handbag and told Reed in no uncertain terms to back off.
Reed retreated hastily. ''That dog is dangerous.''
I patted Spike's bristly head and tried to wedge him back into the bag. &'grave;He's very sweet when you get to know him.''
&'grave;I can't ever figure out what you're going to take a shine to,'' Reed said.
''Can we take him along this morning or not?''
''Do I have a choice?''
''Of course. But any minute my sister will come out here demanding to go with us, so hurry up and decide.''
That information galvanized Reed into action, and he opened the car door. &'grave;Let's go. Just keep that monster away from me.''
I got into the backseat, and Spike climbed out of my bag. He gave me a smiling puppy yawn before nestling in my lap for an angelic snooze.
Reed pulled out of Libby's driveway as if being chased by a rifle-wielding maniac, then drove me out of Bucks County across the back country roads.
Reed had been driving me around for nearly six months, and so far we seemed suited for each other. I wished I could drive myself, but I was still struggling with an annoying tendency to faint at critical moments. I couldn't be trusted behind the wheel, so Reed had a part-time job between taking classes at a community college.
In about half an hour, the sun began to lighten the horizon and we reached the Tri-County Horse Club.
I thanked Reed and left him to study his textbooks in the car. With Spike tucked securely into my handbag, I threaded my way through the expensive cars that had brought their owners out from the Main Line to the bucolic countryside.
I rounded a boxwood hedge and came upon Hadley Pinkham.
He was leaning photogenically on the nearest fence, with the faded autumn hues behind him making the most of his tanned coloring in the early morning light. He wore a rumpled tuxedo that advertised the fact that he hadn't been home yet after a night carousing on the town. He had removed his tie, however, and wrapped his fringed silk scarf rakishly around his neck to keep off the morning chill. His absurdly handsome face was sharply cut with a long, narrow nose, a flexibly cynical mouth and a dash of fair hair that spilled with false boyishness over what he euphemistically called a high forehead. He carried a glass of something amber in his right hand and a slender cigar in the fingertips of the other. With his sleeve pulled back just so, he showed off a wristwatch that cost more than some oceangoing yachts.
Hadley looked me up and down and said, &'grave;My God, Nora, you're the only decently dressed woman here. Everyone else makes it look like Ralph Lauren's warehouse just blew up. You look stunning, kitten. Is that a Claude Montana?''
''Yes, thanks, Hadley, you glamour-puss.'' I'd put on a twelve-year-old jacket bought in Paris during one particularly lush winter of my marriage, along with my faithful black Calvin Klein skirt and a pair of spike-heeled, fawn lace-covered boots that Grandmama Blackbird purchased in 1965 and were, thank heavens, making another miraculous fashion comeback. Underneath it all were my threadbare long johns and a turtleneck sweater from Old Navy. The final look was more Hepburn than horsey, I knew, the kind of fashion juxtaposition Hadley could appreciate. &'grave;That's high praise, coming from you.''
&'grave;Fashion is blood sport, kitten. And you are positively mopping the floors with everyone else. Now say something nice about me, and we're even.''
I laughed and kissed his Bijan-scented cheek. &'grave;Hadley, you're the most beautiful man here.''
&'grave;I'm simply oozing sex appeal, aren't I? All right, I'll go into this party if you'll promise not to abandon me to any woman with jewelry that pictures dogs or horses. My God, who is this?''
''Spike. Be careful, he bites.''
Hadley sipped from his glass and listened respectfully to Spike's tenor snarl. &'grave;If I looked like that, I'd be bad-tempered, too. What kind of dog is it?''
&'grave;Today I'm calling him a Romanian weasel hound.''
&'grave;Well, keep him chained, kitten. He looks hungry. Tell me about you, now. Are you sleeping with anybody these days? It's too boring if you're not.''
&'grave;I'm not, so you'll have to lie in wait for someone else.''
He took my hand and tucked it into the crook of his arm. &'grave;You're fibbing. I heard you're dating a menace to society who makes everybody under forty go weak in the knees.''
''What about the over-forties?''
&'grave;The old folks are all horrified. Now dish, kitten, or I'll be forced to torture you with that god-awful sausage that's always on the buffet at these morning things. Just because the club's board has arteries clogged beyond hope doesn't mean the rest of us have a death wish, right?''
I'd first become aware of Hadley Pinkham in our childhood days at the croquet club where his father and my father crossed mallets and swizzle sticks every season. Even then, Hadley had charmed his way into my cousin Brophy's birthday party because my aunt had secured a real elephant for everyone to ride. To the delight of adults and children, Hadley wrapped a waiter's apron around his head and waved from the howdah like a maharajah, and thereafter Hadley had been a mainstay of my social scene. Now a gay blade about town, he was considered the best dance partner, the most urbane dinner companion and the man at the bar most likely to draw a laugh. Of course, his own swizzle stick didn't perk up for women, but Hadley had something better than sex.
He was fun, dammit.
He could talk clothes better than your best girlfriend, sports better than your college boyfriend and art better than your bluestocking grandmother. You could call him up on a Saturday afternoon for a blitz of shoe shopping and tea, but he never wanted to share your dessert. He knew the best people, played the cleverest hand of bridge and frequented the most chichi shops, spas and nightclubs.
And he always, always got through the velvet rope.