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Authors: Claire McMillan

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Literary, #United States, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Contemporary Fiction, #American

Gilded Age (6 page)

BOOK: Gilded Age
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We all waited.

“And came back down twenty minutes later,” she said with an arched eyebrow.

“Old Cinco looked like he’d been ridden pretty hard,” Dan said, laughing. “Hair every which way.”

“Sex hair,” someone gasped.

Dan laughed, but I noticed that Ellie didn’t smile. I wondered that she hadn’t shared this bit of gossip with us earlier, or at least told me. She tried to engage P. G. back in their cozy exclusive chatting, but he was as fascinated by the story as any of us.

“They went upstairs in the middle of their own party and had sex?” Gus asked with ill-concealed admiration.

“Like high school?” Viola asked.

“Where did you go to high school, darlin’?” Jim asked, and everyone laughed.

“How can you be sure? Maybe they were fighting or something,” I said, embarrassed for Cinco. Jim looked at me with a smile, smug at his witty aside and thinking he’d made me blush. But I realized that the idea of my old friend Cinco Van Alstyne doing something so completely out of character had intrigued me, was maybe even a little exciting.

“I swear they did,” Diana said with a huge smile. “Didn’t you think so, Ellie?”

Ellie shrugged again. “They’re in love.”

I passed the plate of chocolates to her again with a smile. This time she took it and turned her attention to it, intent on choosing the right one.

P. G. blinked when she said this and looked away—shocked, I think. But in a moment, after he’d considered what she’d said, I saw him smile at her warmly.

Diana continued. “Ask Sara next time you see her. She thought the same.”

“Come on,” Dan said. “You can tell when someone’s been fooling around.”

“Ewwww,” Julia breathed, her voice between disgust and awe.

“What? Like it’s gross?” her husband asked.

“Not gross, just …,” Julia said.

“Ghetto.” Dan Dorset finished for her, and I winced at his choice of pejorative.

“She’s kind of an eight ball. Thought so when I first met her,” Dan continued. Of course the motivation for any questionable action always fell at the feet of the import.

I remembered Cinco’s wife from their wedding. She looked like she could be his sister, with reddish-blond hair and cream complexion. I’d had the feeling Cinco liked that about her, as if it confirmed they belonged together. I couldn’t picture her doing something so outré.

“Leave it to old-school Cinco Van Alstyne to basically marry himself,” Julia said, as if reading my thoughts, but perhaps she was referring to his appetites.

“I thought they might be trying to get pregnant.” We all looked at Ellie when she said it. She passed the plate of sweets over to Diana. “Doesn’t it require timing and stuff?”

“Not that precisely. They could have waited ’til the end of the party,” Diana said, chuckling as she took the plate and passed it on to her husband without a glance. “I mean it was a small party. It’s not like they slipped off and no one noticed.”

“It was the opposite, and I think that was on purpose,” Dan said, receiving the platter of sweets and settling back on the couch to make his choice. “He all but announced, ‘I’m going upstairs to screw my wife now.’”

“Don’t say ‘screw,’ ” Diana said.

“Well what word would you use in these circumstances?” he asked, then shoved a large chocolate in his mouth.

Diana pursed her lips.

“Jules, what do you say?” Gus said, nodding toward the stairs with a wink.

Everyone laughed then, dissolving any tension between the Dorsets. Julia rolled her eyes before getting up to come around with the coffee again.

• 5 •

The Foraging

T
he next morning, after having slept later than I felt was polite, and with Jim already up, I crept downstairs feeling rattled. The pregnancy had brought on the most explicit dreams, hormonal nocturnal liaisons starring everyone from Jim, to an old boss, to last night’s Cinco Van Alstyne. I hadn’t thought of him that way in years. Julia and the cook were in close conversation in the kitchen when I entered.

“What kind of man won’t even eat butter?” she complained to the cook. “Is it too much of a bother to make him something special tonight? Hippie gourmet, I guess?” The cook made a face. “You’re the best,” Julia said to the cook, and noticing me, she turned. “There you are, sleepyhead. They’ve all gone hiking again. They didn’t think you’d want to go.” When I started to protest she said, “Enjoy it while you can. They’ll be back for lunch. Come have some breakfast.”

She seated me at a table laden with crumb cakes and berries. The cook brought me herbal tea.

I’d made decent progress on the berries when Julia finally sat down next to me, having finished dispensing instructions to the cook.

“Things are going along with Ellie and P. G.,” I said.

“Don’t they look well together? He seems smitten, though I’m not sure she’s in for such an easy time of it.” Julia reached out and began rearranging the pitcher of field phlox and asters in the center of the table.

I nodded over my cup.

Julia continued. “She’s led this glamorous life in New York, her photograph in
W
magazine every month at parties, bloggers following what she wears. That’s so not his scene.”

“Which might be good for her,” I said.

“It might. And of course there’s all that money. Ellie always did like that.” I raised an eyebrow at this coming from Gus Trenor’s wife. “I mean, who doesn’t like money?” she said quickly. “But I just wonder how long she can last. No parties, no drinking, no smoking, no butter for God’s sake.”

“Perhaps it’s a new leaf.”

“Mmmmm,” Julia said. “I’ve known Ellie as long as you have and we both know how she is.”

“People should be allowed to change, Jules,” I said. I don’t know why, but I felt the need to stick up for Ellie. Maybe I also recognized the radical change her character would have to undergo to be with Gryce—becoming a vegan, a teetotaler, and adopting his ways of understatement and discretion. Not that Ellie wasn’t proper, but I knew sometimes her enthusiasms could verge on the vulgar. She always had the refreshing air about her of not giving a shit—that would have to go or be toned down if she was with Gryce. Maybe I thought she deserved some credit for that. “None of us are who we were in high school, or even college. People should be allowed to evolve past high school views of them.”

“Of course you’re absolutely right,” Julia said. “I’m just saying that it’s not often that the leopard changes its spots. Now, have another piece of this cake, would you? You’re the only one who can.”

I agreed, which brought out the cook’s nodding approval. I spent a cozy morning with Julia and her many home decorating magazines in her chintz-covered sunroom asking her advice about decorating the baby’s nursery.

At noon, Ellie and P. G. weren’t with the group that returned for lunch.

“They’re foraging,” Gus announced, disgusted.

“You’re kidding.” It was out before I could stop it.

Diana laughed. “They’re searching for berries and there’s some sort of mushroom that’s in season right now,” Diana said, brushing her hands together. “God help her, I hope they’re hallucinogenic.”

We all laughed. I followed Jim up to our room, where he was changing out of his sweaty clothes before lunch.

“She’s eating berries and grubs in the forest?” I asked.

“Not grubs. She was so enthusiastic about it.” He smiled, shaking his head. “I’ve never seen her in action. I’ve only heard about it from you, but it was impressive. She’s memorized all these facts about the Native Americans up here. She even mentioned some nut they used to eat, and she and Gryce are looking for it. She certainly did her homework.” He shook his head. “One more day of this and I swear Gryce is going to propose.”

“Already! Up here?”

“He’s the type. The outdoor extremism and the dietary convictions, he’s a big-R Romantic and a real headfirster. I can just hear the story he’ll tell his children about meeting their mother and knowing she was the one so he didn’t wait even a week before proposing.”

“Forever skewing their expectations of a proper romance.”

“That’s hardly romance,” Jim said with a grin. “That’s more like filling a job opening with the best candidate.”

I smiled at him, wondering at his arch tone. Though he was never sentimental, this was particularly sharp.

He went on. “It seems a waste.” I wasn’t sure if he was referring to Ellie or to Gryce or what. “He’s actually a pretty nice guy. His interest in the plants and everything—it rubs off on you. I can see why Gus likes him. It’s like hiking with your own personal naturalist.”

“Do you think she’d marry him?” I asked.

He shrugged. “She could do worse than Gryce—rich, outdoorsy, a little dull and puritanical, but she might loosen him up. She’d be good
for him.” I can forget how clearly my husband sees things sometimes. “How she’ll do married to him …” He trailed off.

I later learned from Ellie how the foraging went. P. G. suggested it to the group and when Ellie volunteered, everyone else begged off, again in silent solidarity with Ellie. So she’d spent the afternoon following Gryce through the damp forest. It wasn’t actually that bad, she’d thought. Gryce was handsome, and he kept up an interesting patter about the plants and their origin. He was certainly passionate about it all. Here might be a new wholesome way of life, Ellie thought—organic essential oils, starting a lavender farm somewhere, an organic skin care line. So chic. She could see her future with him as she followed his trail in the forest, his way of life, his beliefs and prejudices, all with access to the Gryce millions.

Yet when he’d pulled an orange mushroom out from the base of a tree, brushed it on his jeans, and with dirt still clinging to it, popped it in his mouth, the dream of the lavender farm faded just a little. He offered the next one to her and with an inward cringe she ate it, hoping he was correct that it was indeed a chanterelle and not poisonous. It tasted exactly like dirt with a fleshy, squeaky texture. She forced herself to swallow it. She ate one more and then suggested they take some back to the house for the others. They searched for berries but only found a bush with shriveled fruit that looked like birds had already eaten most of it. He ate these heartily. She ate few.

Gryce, on the other hand, had a wonderful time. He’d finally found the woman he’d been waiting for. Smart—she knew a lot about Native Americans from the area. Easygoing—she’d been willing to forage with him. Healthy—she was a nonsmoker, nondrinker, like himself. Attractive—certainly; in fact she was damn sexy. As they descended a hill he grabbed her hand, pulled her close, and kissed her.

She closed her eyes. He tasted like mud, and his beard tickled annoyingly rather than scratched satisfyingly. He started out hesitant but became confident, until she was wrangling with more tongue than she liked. Not a promising first kiss, but not a disqualifying one either.

He had an enormous erection almost immediately and walked quickly down the hill in front of her, talking loudly about invasive trees in the area.

The group who lunched at home went out for a drive in the afternoon to a nearby lake for a walk among the fall foliage. When we came back Viola was scrubbing Gryce’s mushrooms in the sink asking about their botany, afraid, I think, that he’d poison us all. The cook hovered with a skeptical look on her face. I was told Ellie was in her bath.

The cook put another cup of chamomile tea in my hand, and I walked into the living room to await the others for the start of cocktail hour. William Selden was leaning against the fireplace, looking splendid in frayed cords that hung off his hips, a faded gray T, and a tweed jacket. He had a gleam in his eye that typically signals a man means business.

I suppose it wasn’t all that unusual that Julia should invite him. Cleveland hostesses loved him—a handsome, single poetry professor. I’d spent a few enjoyable evenings seated next to him at dinner parties listening to him quote famous Irishmen.

He hugged me, and we settled in to await the others. Gus came in next and poured drinks for us with a heavy hand. He even brought me some complicated juice mixture in a martini glass.

Diana Dorset came down and sat proprietarily close to Selden. And Viola came and sat by my feet. Though Selden paid polite attention to Viola, it became clear to me that she was not the reason he’d been invited up.

I excused myself to head for the powder room. “Are you stirring the pot?” I whispered to Julia as I passed her, and nodded at Selden and Diana on the other side of the room.

She wrinkled her nose. “Actually he called me up and fished around for an invite.”

“I thought everything was over between him and Diana.”

“Over on his side, yes. Not hers. Look at her. It’s a wonder Dan stands it.”

Though looking across the room at Dan and Gus happily opening up a bottle of Gus’s Caol Ila, each with an unlit contraband Cohiba hanging out of the side of the mouth, it seemed like Dan stood things just fine.

Gryce had come in and was recounting the foraging, complete with the Latin names of the berries they’d eaten, when Ellie came down dressed in a wheat-colored floor-length cashmere sweater dress that clung just enough to reveal the perfection of her figure, but not enough to be vulgar. She wore no shoes and behind her ear she’d stuck a red maple leaf that matched her lacquered toes.

I watched Gryce’s mouth drop in wonder, but Ellie wasn’t watching her triumphant effect on him. She was staring quizzically at Selden. She flopped down next to him on the couch in my old place and playfully kissed his cheek.

“What are you doing here?” she asked conspiratorially.

I gave Julia a wondering look, and she shrugged.

He picked up her hand and quickly kissed the wrist where the white tattered ribbon was tied. Selden somehow made it seem a friendly throwaway, but I saw something fierce cross Ellie’s face. “Peeping leaves,” he said.

Everyone laughed but Diana.

That night at the table, Julia seated her guests with place cards. She put Selden and Diana together, while just this one night separating Gryce and Ellie. Such placement gave Ellie a view of Gryce at one end of the table and Selden at the other. And that, I believe, was the beginning of her undoing. I mean, how else do you explain what happened next?

BOOK: Gilded Age
13.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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