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'Til Death Do Us Part
By Kate White
Warner Books Copyright © 2004 Kate White
All right reserved.
Chapter One THE FIRST TIME she said her name on the phone that January night, I couldn't place her-though there was something vaguely familiar about the voice. It had a snooty, trust fundy tone, as if she were announcing, "I own a Marc Jacobs bag and you don't."
"Ashley Hanes," she said once more, this time with exaggerated emphasis and irritation, the way American tourists sometimes speak to foreigners who don't understand them. "We met at Peyton Cross's wedding. I was a bridesmaid, remember?"
Ohh, right. We had been introduced late last April in Greenwich, Connecticut, during the infamous Cross-Slavin wedding weekend. Ashley had graduated from the same exclusive private high school as the bride and was now working, if my memory was correct, as an interior decorator in Greenwich-though working was apparently something she chose rather than had to do. An image of her began to loosen from my memory: long, chestnut-colored hair, slim as a French baguette, and haughty as hell, just like the voice. She was the kind of woman who would meet you at a party and look right through you, as if you were a potted palm.
"Oh, right, I'm so sorry," I said. "I'm in a little bit of a fog at the moment. How are you, anyway?"
I was pretty sure what was coming next. Since I'm a contributing writer forGloss magazine, I often get phone calls from people I've met asking for fashion- or publishing-related favors. But I write gritty, true crime and human-interest stories for the magazine, and I'm not connected to the glittery, glossy stuff. My name is Bailey Weggins, by the way, and just for the record, I am categorically unable to help someone become a Ford model, gain admittance to a Chanel sample sale, or publish a confessional article on how a liposuction procedure left ugly scars along her buttocks.
"I need your help," she said.
"Okay," I said. "Though if it's-"
"There's a very serious situation, and I have to talk to you about it."
"Serious" to someone like Ashley could mean her hair stylist was out of town for the week, but the alarm in her voice sounded real enough that I was concerned.
"Is it about Peyton?" I asked. Though I had spoken to Peyton on the phone once last summer, I had not laid eyes on her in nine months-not since she had dazzled a room of five hundred guests in a satin Vera Wang wedding dress with a low-cut, crumb-catcher bodice. From there she had headed off for a cruise of the Greek islands with her new, older husband, David, who'd made a fortune in the world of finance-whatever that means.
"No. Well, indirectly, yes. Look, it's not something I want to get into on the phone. Can you meet me to talk about this?"
"All right. Tell me when-and where. Are you still living up in Greenwich?"
"Yes, but I'm in New York tonight. At the Four Seasons Hotel. Could you come by here for a drink?"
"Tonight?" I exclaimed. It had started to snow a few hours earlier, and as I glanced across the room toward the terrace of my fourteenth-story apartment, I could see it was coming down harder now-in big, crazy swirls. I live at the very eastern end of Greenwich Village, on the corner of 9th Street and Broadway, and it would be a bitch getting a cab up to 57th Street in this weather-and an even bigger bitch getting one back.
"It's urgent," she said. "When you hear what I have to say, you'll understand why I need to see you immediately."
It didn't seem that I had much choice but to acquiesce. She sounded about as eager to hear me say no as she would be to travel by Greyhound, and besides, if the situation really did involve Peyton Cross, even indirectly, I was curious to know what it was. I explained to Ashley that it might take me forty-five minutes to get there. We agreed that I would ring her on the hotel house phone when I arrived and she'd come down to the bar in the lobby.
I'd been reading a book when she called, dressed in bagged-out sweatpants and drinking a cup of instant hot cocoa in honor of the snowstorm, and now I was going to have to head out into the mess. Several months ago I'd moved into a steady relationship with a guy named Jack Herlihy, but because he taught psychology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., we saw each other on weekends. Some nights I'd see a movie or have dinner out with friends, but more weeknights than not, I was holed up in my apartment, either alone or chatting with my seventy-year-old next-door neighbor, Landon. Though I looked forward to my weekends with Jack, the rest of my nights had become about as scintillating as C-SPAN. Landon had told me lately that he was worried that I might start adopting stray cats.
I changed into a pair of tight dark jeans, a black turtleneck sweater, silver hoop earrings (in an attempt to look a little dressier), and my snow boots, which I found after foraging through my closet for five minutes. It was actually the first time this winter that we'd had more than flurries in Manhattan.
I was surprised when I stepped outside to see that about two inches of snow had already stuck to the ground, and you could tell by the swollen look of the sky that more was on the way. I opted for the subway, the number 6 train at Astor Place. It would be faster than hunting for a cab-and it would take me to within a few blocks of the hotel.
As the train hurtled through the tunnel, its floor sopping wet with melted snow, I had time to consider what trouble might be brewing for the captivating Peyton Cross. From all reports, her life couldn't have been going better. In her early thirties like me, she'd recently been dubbed the next Martha Stewart-or "Martha Stewart wannabe"-in the eyes of the people who envied her so much they couldn't stand it. She ran a combination cooking school, successful catering business, and gourmet kitchen and food shop out of an old farmhouse and barn-known as Ivy Hill Farm-on the outskirts of Greenwich. Her first cookbook was due out sometime this year, and she was a frequent guest on the Food Network. The last I'd heard, her new husband was funding the construction of a TV studio on her farm so she could produce her own show.
As they say, I knew her when-she was my roommate freshman year at Brown. She was extremely vivacious, pretty in that kind of scrubbed-face, not overly sophisticated preppy way, and, from what I could tell, afraid of absolutely nothing. Though some guys were totally intimidated by her, more than her share were mesmerized, and she generally had several in a lather at any given time. Her taste ran toward hunky, bad-boy types, the kind of men who often left women emotionally bruised, but for the most part Peyton outsmarted them.
Life as her roommate was entertaining but also exasperating. That's because she could be selfish and rude. She'd ask me to meet her at dinner and then make me wait for an hour in the cafeteria, or she'd borrow my best shirt and then leave it balled up with the dust bunnies under her bed. Over time I figured out how to avoid situations with her that could end in me cursing under my breath. The trick for surviving, I learned, was to keep my expectations low and enjoy the show.
We both got singles sophomore year, and though we were friendly and occasionally grabbed a beer together, we didn't see a huge amount of each other. I bonded with several women who, unlike Peyton, seemed to carry the good-girlfriend gene. After college Peyton and I stayed in touch by e-mail, though infrequently. After gigs as a reporter for the Albany Times Union and the Bergen County Record I headed for Manhattan, hoping to break into magazines. I called her for some insight. At the time she was working for Food & Wine, developing recipes. She promised to introduce me to a few people in the business, and to my surprise she actually came through. She also invited me to Greenwich several times for parties she was throwing as part of her burgeoning catering and event-planning business. That was the thing about Peyton-just when you were ready to strangle her, she could charm the pants off you.
Her wedding had been one of the more lavish I'd ever attended. It was held in a historic house on the outskirts of Greenwich, and Peyton arranged for her own company to do the catering. That was partly because she didn't trust anyone else to do the job with her degree of genius, but also for the PR value for her business. Friends of mine had sworn I'd bag some rich guest that day, but David Slavin was fifteen years older than Peyton, and his business associates and friends were paunchy and pathetically boorish. I'd spent a good chunk of the day flirting with one of the bartenders.
The snow was coming down even harder when I emerged from the underground at 59th and Lexington. I felt relieved when I finally stomped into the marble, two-story-high lobby of the Four Seasons. I rang Ashley's room to tell her I'd arrived and then headed over to the lobby bar, requesting the most private table they could manage. Like the lobby, the entire area-the marble walls, the Roman shades, and the furniture-was done in shimmering beige. A little too mausoleum like for my taste.
Though I hadn't recalled Ashley's name when she'd first said it on the phone, I had no trouble recognizing her as soon as she strode purposefully in my direction. Several heads turned to watch her. She had a rich girl's air of self-importance and entitlement, the kind that many A-list actresses try for years to acquire but never do.
As she got closer, I realized that the dark plum thing she was wearing was actually a fur coat. Either she was planning on going out afterward or she'd been reluctant to leave it in the room. It was, I suspected, sheared beaver or mink, lush and plush and worth at least twenty thousand dollars. I wondered if her car sported a bumper sticker that read I DON'T BRAKE FOR SMALL ANIMALS.
She slid into the chair to my left without bothering with a perfunctory air kiss or even a hello. I guess she figured we'd gotten our pleasantries out of the way on the house phone. She wore her chestnut hair pinned back tonight, accentuating the slenderness of her tanned face. Her cheekbones were so high and sharp, you'd risk a paper cut if you got too close to them.
"Did you order yet?" she asked briskly, shaking off her coat to reveal a sleeveless lavender wool dress and thin buff arms. She glanced at my turtleneck and jeans with a soupcon of disapproval, as if I were wearing one of those plastic lobster bibs that says I'M A PIGGY.
"No, I was waiting for you," I told her.
She jerked her head around toward the center of the room and signaled for the waitress. She appeared on edge, and I assumed it had to do with the news she was about to divulge. There didn't seem to be any reason to spend five minutes on small talk, so as soon as she had ordered a dirty martini and I'd asked for a glass of Cabernet, I jumped in.
"So tell me, what's going on?" I asked.
"When was the last time you spoke to Peyton?"
"It's been a while. Last summer, I guess."
"Do you remember the bridesmaid with the short black hair? Jamie Howe?"
Jamie. She was the bridesmaid I'd spent the most time talking to, mainly because she was also in the magazine business. She'd met Peyton during her tenure at Food & Wine and had since become an editor at another food magazine. I hadn't particularly liked her. She was sullen and, I suspected, jealous of Peyton's success. She kept talking about how lucky Peyton was to have David to foot the bill for all of her ventures.
"Sure. She lives here in New York, right?"
"Lived," she said almost defiantly. "She's dead now."
"You're kidding," I exclaimed. The news took me totally by surprise. "How?"
"She was electrocuted in her apartment-down on the Lower East Side. It happened in September."
I sat there momentarily speechless while Ashley took a fortifying sip of her martini. As she swallowed, she laid her French-manicured hand flat against the front of her dress, as if it helped the vodka to go down more easily. When she set the glass on the table again, I caught the cloying scent of olives.
"Gosh, I vaguely remember hearing that someone in the business died like that," I said finally. "But I had no idea it was her. What happened, exactly?"
"She was taking a bath and a CD player slipped into the tub," Ashley said.
"I know. And hard to believe someone wouldn't know better than to set it so close to the tub."
She had an odd way of punctuating her comments with a sniff. "What do you mean?" I asked. "Are you thinking-"
"Until last week I didn't think much about it at all," she said, suddenly sounding frantic. "I'd never even met Jamie before the wedding. But-you're not going to believe this. Two weeks ago another of the bridesmaids died. My roommate-Robin Lolly."
I let out a gasp so loud that a media mogul type at the next table turned his head in our direction. She was right. I could barely believe what I was hearing.
"How?" I asked.
"She was taking antidepressants, and she had some kind of fatal reaction. It was from mixing them with the wrong kind of food." Her eyes filled with tears as she spoke, but they seemed to come as much from nervous tension as from sadness.
"Robin?" I said. "She's the one who managed the shop at Peyton's farm?"
"Yes, yes," Ashley said impatiently. "She was the pretty one-with the long blond hair. She may have still been using her married name when you met her-Atkins."
"That's terrible," I said. "Were you two very close?"
"We weren't what you'd call best friends," she said, shaking her head quickly, "but we'd known each other since high school. Robin, Peyton, Prudence-she was the maid of honor, remember?-and I all went to Greenwich Academy together. Robin and I started sharing a town house last March. My roommate had moved out, and Robin needed a place to live after her divorce."
"Was she at home when she died?"
"No, she was up in Vermont-all alone-at a ski house her parents left her. She'd driven up on Friday, and the coroner said she must have died shortly after she arrived-though her body wasn't discovered until a cleaning person came in Monday morning." Her voice choked as she spoke the last sentence.
"I'm so sorry," I said. "This must be awful for you-and for Peyton, too."
"Look," she said, suddenly, grasping my arm so hard that it would have taken the Jaws of Life to remove it. "Don't you find it odd that two perfectly healthy young women who were in a wedding together would die within a few months of each other in such bizarre circumstances?"
"Are you saying you think someone killed the two of them?" I asked. "Because they were bridesmaids?"
"All I know is that something's not right about it-and I'm going out of my mind. Robin and Jamie hadn't even met until the wedding. But they became friends after that. And now suddenly they're both dead-as a result of these strange accidents. I'm terrified something could happen to me."
Excerpted from 'Til Death Do Us Part by Kate White Copyright © 2004 by Kate White . Excerpted by permission.
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