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Manhattan was in a tailspin. Literally. The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show was in town, and if that didn't clog up midtown's grid of streets enough, it was also Fashion Week. There were bitches everywhere.
The sales floor at Pelham's, the venerable hundred-year-old jewelry store, was packed, and the grand revolving doors were glutted with browsing tourists. Lovers were making last-minute Valentine's Day purchases, and stylists were running in to borrow or return glittering gems for models on the various flashbulb-lined runways of Bryant Park.
A Pelham's trademark little sage-colored box was being nimbly tied with a chocolate brown signature satin ribbon, when the expert fingers were interrupted.
"Juliawe need you." Gisele Beauvoir, Pelham's director of public relations, had unexpectedly materialized, her tone laced with the pulse-pounding gravity of a Defcon One code red alert. "It's an emergency."
Julia's sassy associate (and roommate) Douglas took over the wrapping of an engagement ring for a nervous fiance-to-be. "I got this, honeydon't worry."
Julia shot him a look that was part thank you and part what do you think this could be about? In response, he smiled and shrugged.
"Girl, you look fierce in that skirt," he whispered as she smoothed her pleats to head up to Corporate. "Baby got back in that. And it works."
"Baby got backyard," she sighed, nervously.
"Please. You're the most stylish, knockout girl in this whole damn town."
"Thanks, dude. See you later." She straightened her blouse and went to the staff staircase. What the hell was this all about? Was she about to be fired? Was it because of that man who returned the necklace after she'd convinced him it was perfect for his wife? It wasn't her fault, the guy really liked it, or so he said. It was his wife who said it emphasized the elephant-sized lines on her neck. Or was it because she was unable to understand the Russian tourists? What had she done? She needed this job, dammit. Just as things were starting to come together. . . . Well, what could she do? Julia took a deep breath and continued up the stairs.
On the sixth floor, Julia pushed through the carved mahogany double doors leading into the PR conference room, where seven people were pacing in a state of sheer panic. Fourteen sharp Manolo Blahnik stiletto heels were grinding into the beige Stark carpet. The tension was palpable. Suddenly the room went quiet and the crowd parted to make way for Gisele, who was cradling a small velvet box in her perfectly manicured hands and walking toward Julia.
"Juliahere it is. Move over Queen Lizzie's crown jewelsthis is one of the largest gems in the Pelham's archives: an antique seventy-carat diamond and emerald necklace from our Van Braques salon," pronounced Gisele. "You must leave immediately. You'll be accompanied by four armed guards."
"To . . . where?"
"Hello? Lell Pelham's bridal suite! At the Waldorf."
"It's only the wedding of the millennium," chirped another PR lackey.
"Oh. Okay. Should I go now?"
"Yes! We have to rush it over this second!" snapped Gisele. "Vogue's photographer is already there setting up lighting, and Ms. Pelham's assistant just called to say she changed her mind and wants to wear this piece instead of the Schlumstein deco necklace. Naturally we had to have it cleaned to perfection, so we've been in an absolute tizzy. This is very late." Gisele looked Julia straight in the eye. It was clear to Julia that her future with Pelham'sif not morewas riding on her skills as a courier.
The next thing she knew, Julia was being handcuffed to a chrome briefcaseapparently the velvet box had been placed inside. A man who could have been a Mr. Smith clone from The Matrix, complete with black suit and dark sunglasses, escorted her out of the conference room. On their way out, Julia noticed that he had one of those curly ear wires straight out of a Secret Service detail. They exited through a back door on Fifty-eighth Street. A few passing pedestrians gawked and pointed as they entered a limousine, which quickly pulled away.
Julia could only marvel as the limo cruised through the most fashionable part of town. What a mission! She was certainly a long way from the vineyard in Napa Valley where she had grown up and worked since college. Had it really been almost a year since she'd traded the secure familiarity of home for the excitement and opportunities of the Big Apple? But where else could she advance a career in her dream occupation: jewelry design.
At first she didn't think a sales position at Pelham's would be much of a career stepping-stone, but she needed an income and she got the job after one interview. (She was told that she looked the part"a spitting image of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy," said her human resources interviewer.) And until she found something better, swiping platinum cards and tying up those little sage boxes at least paid the rent on the tiny two-bedroom she shared with Douglas in the East Village.
And now she was on her way to meet the princess of New York high societyPelham's creative-director-to-be, the head of every junior committee, the party-picture darling who was a celebutante even Julia's pals back home knew about. It was a little weird that her boss's boss's boss's boss was about her age, maybe a couple years olderbut Julia knew how the family business game was played. She figured she'd be dining out on the tale of her critical wedding day delivery for weeks to come.
It was only after she stepped out of the limo that she wondered, Why me? There were several other more senior girls who could have been chosen to bring Lell her jewels. And heck, Julia wasn't even in the PR department. Why had they chosen a salesgirl from the engagement ring section for such an important task?
Gene Pelham studied his stunning daughter as the makeup artist caressed the final dollop of blush onto her cherry cheeks. He was as emotional as he'd ever been. Which was not very.
"The bottom line is this, sweetie. 'To whom much has been given, much will be expected.' That's what Rose Kennedy used to say to her kids all the time, and let me tell you, it's good to remember. Teddy used to tell me constantly. God, Teddy and I had some fun times back in the dayyou'll see him tonight. The Schlossbergs can't make it, but they want to take you to dinner as soon as you're back from your honeymoon. They were really apologetic. Did I tell you about the time Teddy, Frank Sinatra, and I are were all on the boat in the Riviera? That Angie Dickinson! Yeah, well, I probably shouldn't tell you that, seeing as you're my daughter. And don't believe what you hear about me and Teddy on the Vineyard"
"Father," Lell said, rolling her eyes, "I've heard these stories a million times. Could you give them a rest? It is my wedding day."
"You're right, you're right, sweetie. Of course. Anyway, what I wanted to say is that now that you're getting married you have a responsibility to properly represent the Pelham family. You're a crucial part of the business, and that's why I made you creative director. Let's face it, the future of the company's going to be up to you, kiddo. Your brothers are useless."
Lell's brother Augustus, twenty-three, was completing his fifth year at the University of Colorado at Boulder, with a major in Women's Studies, aka studying women (up close). His minor was Botany. (Translation: pot smoking.) Twenty-year-old Duke, a sophomore who was keg-standing his way through Lake Forest, had expressed little interest in the family biz. Lell's father had been the same way at their age. Once quite dashing and known as a wild playboy who threw famous parties with celebrities and beautiful people at exotic locales, he had only ever planned on living off of the fruits of the business that his Russian great-grandfather, Eugene Pelham (nee Evgeny Perhelman), had built up from a small counter in the diamond district to a world-famous New York institution. Until fate intervened. His older brother Martin, the heir apparent with a head for business, who was in fact all business, was killed in a plane crash on his way to the opening of a Pelham's in Dubai. Gene had no choice but to settle down and take the reins at Pelham's.
Twenty-eight-year-old Eleanor (Lell) Pelham was the oldest child of Gene and his wife, Emily Wainguard Pelham, a Philadelphia Main Line WASP who was dropped from the Social Register when she married jet-setting Gene. Though her parents nearly had coronaries when their daughter become engaged, she didn't care; Emily was drawn to Gene's blush-inducing, loud, animated stories and his suave confidence. But that was then, in her youth.
Now she had regressed toward a temperament more approaching her mother's icy reserve. While Gene loved the limelight and the glitzy aspects that his job as CEO of Pelham's allowed him, Emily had become his polar opposite. Taciturn, uptight, and disapproving, she refused almost all social engagements, and spent most of her time gardening at their mansion in Washington, Connecticut. The result was that Lell possessed a combination of her mother's aloofness and reserve as well as her father's insatiable appetite for mixing with glamorous folk. It made for an interesting dichotomy.
"Gene, Lell has to get ready," said Emily, entering the dressing room of Lell's suite and shooting Gene an annoyed look.
"I know, I know. We're just having a little father-daughter chat, before I give my baby away to that rascal."
"Dad," said Lell reprovingly.
"Just kidding, just kidding, hon. You know we love Willoughby."
"He's perfect for you," said her mother, then added, "and us." She gave Lell a sideways look as she straightened a small silk bow on the bottom of her daughter's custom-made Carolina Herrera gown.
"He is the best." Lell's feelings for her mother vacillated between hero worship and hatred, but she was consistently elated to have made a match with a suitor that her mother approved of so heartilyand vocally.
"He better be is what I'm saying, 'cause I just moved fifty million into his hedge fund," Gene teased.
"Must we discuss money now?" Emily's tone was full of irritation.
"Well, I want Lell to know about money and these things. Look, you're protected by the pre-nup. I had a serious talk with Willoughby last week and let him know there will be no nonsense. It's iron clad. The money is in your name, and it's a premarital asset. Of course he'll have access to it now. I figured you kids needed more money to get started."
"And I want you to close on an apartment as soon as you get back. Now that you'll be Mrs. Willoughby Banks, you need to live at a serious address. Park Avenue."
"You're preaching to the choir. It's totally claustro. But Dad, can we talk about this later? I need to get ready."
"Gene, why don't you go find Gus and Duke?" said Emily. "Make sure they're dressed and don't let them be late."
When Lell's father left, the bride stood up to take a look at herself in the mirror. She took a deep breath with a slow, paced exhale. So this was it. She was a striking young woman, five-foot-seven, with long dark hair and crystal blue eyes. Her skin was that creamy color that looks wonderful with a tan, and Lell and her four bridesmaids had just spent a week lying by the pool at her house in Jamaica in order to look perfectly bronzed for the big day. She would have been smashing walking down the aisle in just the ivory slip that she was wearing, or even a burlap sack for that matter. But she'd look spectacular in the gown that a dozen seamstresses had spent hours on. Carolina herself was scheduled to make the final adjustments before Lell sported it down the aisle.
"You will be a beautiful bride, Eleanor."
"Willoughby is a catch."
The women shared a contented smile before Emily went to check in with the event planners.
Part of Lell's attraction to Will had been her mother's early enthusiasm for the match. While she was more like her father in her status as a social butterfly, she always coveted her mother's approval, since it was so much harder to attain. All of Lell's previous suitors had been greeted with disdain, but her mother had brightened at the mere sight of Will when Lell had him come to a dinner with her parents at Elio's two years ago. At first she loved to rebel by parading her suitorsdisheveled artists in dire need of good haircuts or Brooklyn-based musicians with ear piercingsbefore her horrified mother. It had been great to see her squirm. She'd gone so far as to taunt her mother by mentioning marriage or out-of-wedlock babies and a life in the East Village. But deep down beneath the mother-daughter catfight, Lell wanted her mother to worship her choice. She wanted to choose the kind of man Emily would wish she had chosen instead of her scene-loving husband.
That was Will to a T. When Lell met him on a sunny day in August on a friend's yacht in the Vineyard, she was immediately impressed by the ease with which he carried himself and the way everyone in their crowd gravitated toward him. She had looked with disdain at her current squeeze, a greasy-haired bassist from Williamsburg, whose pasty butt she had dragged kicking and screaming out of the city, and decided that life didn't have to be so difficult. Why should she suffer through moody artistes who would only end up living off of her money? Will was a much better option.
The unanimous word used to describe Will was charming. He was also very socially comfortable; Lell could chuck him in any crowd and he'd swim. That was a relief compared to all the babysitting that so many of her previous beaux had required. And best of all, Will knew at once how to endear himself to Mrs. Pelham, and that was to be the slightest bit snobby and to treat Mr. Pelham with the smallest hint of patronization and derision. Mrs. Pelham thus felt that he was her brethren. The fact that the Banks family was very similar to the Wainguards was just the icing on the cake. Sometimes Lell felt that it was her mother who should be marrying Will. Too bad.