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BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR, THAT'S WHAT THEY SAY. And whoever they are, they were certainly right this time. When I wished for heat, serious heat, I got what I wished for and then some.
It all started in the middle of a Sunday morning in the middle of June, as I stood in my houseboat sulking up a storm. A rainstorm, to be precise. This was Seattle, after all.
Huddled in sweatshirt and jeans, I leaned my forehead against the sliding-glass porch door and glared outside. Beyond my narrow wooden deck, the surface of Lake Union was the color of pewter. Dull, wet, rain-speckled pewter.
In addition to sulking, I was sipping hot strong coffee and yearning for hot strong sunshine. I wanted clear skies and high temperatures, the higher the better. You call this June?
Even in Seattle, June should bring at least a hint of summer. An arched eyebrow, a mischievous wink, a suggestive nod in the direction of halter tops and sun screened shoulders and watermelon leaking pink through paper plates. Was that so much to ask?
This June we had sunscreen, all right: a coffin lid of cloud that screened the sun like an SPF 30 lotion. For weeks now, the temperature had been just high enough for cotton clothing, just low enough to skip the gin and tonics after all. Day after day after day of Mostly Cloudy, Some Chance of Showers, and I was Pissed Off, No Chance of Smiles.
The phone jangled--the business line. On a Sunday? Business wasn't all that good, so I set down my mug and answered briskly.
"Made in Heaven Wedding Design."
"Relax, it's me. Jeez, Muffy, you sound a hundred and three years old."
Please understand, my name is not now, nor has it ever been, Muffy. It's Carnegie Kincaid, and I'm about seventy years shy of a hundred and three. But this wasn't a wrong number. The familiar voice, as raucous as a magpie and as subtle as an elbow in the ribs, was Brenda Jervis, better known as B.J.
B.J. was my high-school buddy from Boise, Idaho, where I grew up and where my mother still taught school. She and I and a third girl, Tracy Kane, had called each other "Muffy" throughout the long, hilarious, hot-blooded college summer that we spent working at the Sun Valley Lodge. Tracy was younger, a tagalong friend, but B.J. and I were bonded for life.
The resort village of Sun Valley is a two-hour drive from Boise, but just ten minutes up the road from the mountain town of Ketchum. Tracy's mother, Cecilia--"Call me Cissy"--lived in Ketchum, and Cissy Kane wanted to give her teenage daughter a little freedom after her graduation from high school. So she kept a tolerant eye on the three of us--blonde Tracy, brunette B.J., and redheaded me--as we shared a cheap apartment and waited tables at the venerable old Sun Valley Lodge.
The Muffy thing was a private joke that summer, to lightly mock the tanned and pampered ladies who played tennis and rode horses and had pedicures at the resort, while the three of us humped platters and flirted with the line cooks and drank too much beer. B.J. and I still used the silly name in our occasional phone calls and e-mails, but I hadn't heard from Tracy, the junior Muffy, in years.
Not until Tracy's wedding invitation arrived, in the soggy April preceding this soggy June. And it was as stiffly impersonal as an invitation could be. On vellum thick as cream, in the curliest of curly engraving, the honor of my presence was requested on Midsummer's Day--this coming Saturday--at the union of Tracy Marie Kane and John Holland Packard III. Someone even dug up my top-secret middle name, Bernice, to address the envelope. But there was no personal note for Muffy.
I had declined the invitation, and that's why B.J. was on the phone. She lived in Ketchum herself now, and she was in cahoots with the mother of the bride.
"Cissy told me you're not coming! What's the matter, Muffy, no date? Did that short guy dump you?"
"He's not short, B.J., he's just shorter than me." Which isn't hard; I'm a six-footer in heels. "Nobody's dumping anybody."
"Not yet, huh?"
"Oh, B.J." How many times had I said her name in precisely that tone of affectionate exasperation?
"Well, you used to rave about this guy and now he's the Invisible Man. You never mention him. Matt and I want to look him over and ask him embarrassing questions."
"I thought Matt was still in Germany."
"He'll be back just in time for Tracy's wedding. Which you will be attending, with Shorty or without him, if I have to come over there and drag you."
"His name is Aaron, all right? And we're still seeing each other." I flopped onto the couch and pulled an afghan over my bare feet. "I'm just too busy to make it. I put a note in with my RSVP, but Tracy didn't answer, so that's that. I can't change my mind less than a week before the wedding, it would be rude."
"Tracy never answers anything. And Cissy says there's plenty of room. Half the guests are bringing guests. It's going to be the party to end all parties. You've got to come! Listen to this menu . . ."
As B.J. regaled me with the lamb chops in phyllo and the roasted pears with pecorino cheese, my thoughts drifted. Too busy to make it was a blatant falsehood, and seeing each other was hardly an adequate term for my current relationship with Aaron Gold.
Driving each other crazy was more like it. Good crazy--that was the sex. And bad crazy--that was just about everything else.
You see, back on New Year's Eve, at an intimate bistro under a Miami moon, Aaron had gazed into my eyes and presented me with a box. A little velvet box. The kind that might, just might, contain a diamond ring.
Actually, the box was just a thought too large for a ring, but at the time I wasn't thinking any thoughts. I was revved up on romance, and the diamond ring idea zoomed straight from my imagination to my mouth without pausing for a pit stop in my brain.
Major mistake. Because the box contained, of all things, a banged-up steel cigarette lighter. Aaron's chain-smoking had been a problem for me from the day we met, and giving me the lighter was a dramatic way to announce that he meant to quit.
Well, fine. Wonderful. Only by the time I realized that, I was already in mid-blurt.
"Oh! I . . . thought it was a ring."
Major, major mistake. Aaron went instantly to Red Alert, I got mad to cover my embarrassment, and we had one of those ghastly exchanges that make you cringe at the memory.
"A ring! Are you nuts? I just got divorced."
"I know you're divorced, Aaron. You told me right after you casually mentioned that you were married."
"Are we back to this? OK, so I didn't tell you about Barbara right away. I was wrong. How much longer are you going to throw it in my face?"
"I'm not throwing anything. But if you think you'd be nuts to marry me--"
"I didn't say that. I just didn't know you were so eager to plan your own wedding."
"I'm not! Don't be ridiculous. I'm not ready to get married, to you or anyone else. I was joking."
"Oh. OK. You want another pina colada?"
So we went on with our dinner, and then on with our vacation. The sun and sand and exotic birds made an effective distraction, but from that moment forward, everything changed. The ominous M-word had been spoken, and a faint but persistent self-consciousness lingered in the air between us like the acrid smoke of a snuffed candle. Except in bed, and you can't stay in bed forever, can you? Though Aaron certainly gave it a shot.
After the vacation, back home in Seattle, we got busy with jobs and friends and the dailiness of life, but we had to work a little too hard at being casual. We spent most of our time together, but remained deliberately vague about the future. Passionate in what we did, but cautious in what we said.
What bothered me most is that Aaron somehow stopped saying "I love you." And I was damned if I'd say it--or bring up the subject of marriage--until he did. But he didn't, and maybe never would. I had to admit it: we were having Commitment Issues. It was trite and tedious and absurd--and I couldn't stop thinking about it.
On top of that there was the smoking, or absence thereof. Aaron was naturally a high-voltage guy, with an electrical wit and energy to burn. But with no tobacco to burn, he was by turns preoccupied, touchy, and just plain glum. Once in a while he'd fall off the wagon, and though I disliked the smell of cigarettes, I secretly enjoyed what they did for his disposition.
"So?" B.J.'s voice tugged me back to the present. "Have I talked you into coming?"
"Um, not sure. Who's going to be there? Mostly Tracy's TV crowd?"
"Yes, indeed." B.J.'s voice dropped a tone. "I'm hoping for that hunky guy who played the veterinarian in the pilot episode. He's still a Maybe, but lots of other actors are coming for sure. Eye candy, yum, yum."
Tracy, you see, had hit the big time. After the Muffy summer, only two of us finished college. I went on to a public-relations job for a Seattle bank, while B.J., whose thumbs were both green, became assistant manager of a garden center in Ketchum. But Tracy dropped out in her freshman year and went back to waiting tables.
Those tables, however, were in Los Angeles, and between shifts she haunted auditions. Her wide, up tilted blue eyes and sultry purr won her a few TV commercials, then bit parts in the soaps. And then, triumph of triumphs, she landed the lead role in a prime-time comedy about a single, sexy, zany dog walker.
So now, ten years or so later, the Muffies were making their mark. I owned Made in Heaven, B.J. owned High Country Gardens, and Tracy Kane owned the hearts and minds of the Wednesday night audience for Tails of the City.
"The guest list is huge," B.J. was saying. "Cissy has been clucking around town like a smug little hen, playing mother of the bride. It's hysterical."
Sam and Cissy Kane, the wily old real-estate developer and his shopaholic wife, were longtime fixtures in Ketchum. Like so many residents of the Wood River area, they lived in California and came to Idaho when they pleased, in winter for the skiing and in summer for the golf. But unlike many, they were born Idahoans. Sam had even run for governor once, or so I'd heard. Even now the Kanes kept a hand in local affairs, chamber of commerce and town planning on Sam's side, arts events and charities on Cissy's.
The arts included opera, an interest that she shared with my mother. Mom called Cissy Kane the silliest woman she'd ever met, but she was fond of her, nevertheless. And everybody who met Sam liked him. Tall and rawboned, Sam ambled along like an animated scarecrow and rarely removed his cowboy hat except for sweeping salutes to the ladies, including his plump little wife. If not the king and queen of Sun Valley, Sam and Cissy were certainly the duke and duchess.
And they were certainly putting on a royal affair. Tracy's vellum envelope had bulged with engraved cards, maps, and RSVP slips for various festivities throughout the wedding weekend, from ice skating to spa treatments to a bachelor baseball game. A destination wedding, as we say in the business, with no expenses spared.
Most of the preliminary events, and the guest accommodations, were at the Sun Valley Lodge, but the ceremony and reception would take place somewhere I'd never heard of, the White Pine Inn. When I asked B.J. about that part, she was scornful.
"You really are out of touch, aren't you?" To B.J., Seattle was just some distant, mildewed city of exile for those who couldn't find honest work in Idaho. "White Pine is Sam's new project up in the mountains. It's not finished yet, but it's going to be a luxury resort."
"Have you seen it?"
"No, but I'm dying to. I hear it's spectacular. You go up a long private road through a canyon, then it's a big complex along the top of a ridge, with incredible views and a hot spring and everything. I can't believe you're missing this just to work! What kind of wedding are you doing? Is it Saturday or Sunday?"
"Well . . ." Old habits die hard. B.J. had always bullied me a little, and I had never been able to lie to her with any success. "It's more that I'm working on weddings that are scheduled for later on."
"And you have to do that on a weekend? Come on, Carnegie, 'fess up. Couldn't you come if you really wanted to?"
"Well . . ."
"Don't you remember our vow? That the Muffies would dance at each other's weddings? You came to mine."
"But Tracy didn't."
"Hey, she was in Belize with that cute producer. I couldn't blame her. Come on, Carnegie. It's not just actors, some old friends of ours will be there. I bet you haven't seen your cousin in ages."
"Hel-lo, your cousin Brian? He just moved to Ketchum to start smoke jumping."
"Second cousin," I reminded her. "Or maybe it's once removed, I can't remember. Anyway, I never see him, which is fine with me. What does Matt think about your old boyfriend showing up?"
I meant that sarcastically. Matt was B.J.'s husband, a mining engineer and a hunk in his own right, who traveled a lot for his job but treated her like a goddess when he was home. They'd been inseparable during the Muffy summer, except for a brief interlude when Brian Thiel came through town with a fire-fighting crew. Brian was tall, dark, and devastating, his own biggest fan. A few dates with him and his ego had sent B.J. back to Matt.
"Oh, please," she retorted. "That's ancient history. I just thought you'd like to know you have a smoke jumper in the family now."
Here in misty Seattle we don't think about it much, but across the intermountain West, summertime is the time of fire. Generations of men--and now women--had enlisted in the standing army of wildland firefighters, making full-time careers or just part-time cash working for the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management or the National Parks. They're strong and skilled and dedicated, and they seemed very glamorous to a couple of young waitresses.
Actually, they still seemed kind of glamorous, especially the ones who reach their fires from the sky. But it would take more than that to polish Brian Thiel's image in my eyes. I just didn't like the man.