Authors: Susan McBride
To my husband, Ed,
A woman without a little black dress has no future.
never meant to resurrect the dress. I had intended for it to remain out of reach so there would be no more meddling. But I awoke before dawn with tears in my eyes after another strange dream about Anna, and I knew that I had to find it.
A bruised-looking sky bled between half-drawn curtains as I dragged myself from bed and padded down the hallway in my nightgown and bare feet. I switched on the attic light and grabbed the banister to climb, my knees creaking as sharply as the wood beneath my heels. At the top of the stairs, I paused to catch my breath and loudly sneezed.
I'd forgotten how dusty it was up there and how full of things forgotten: discarded furniture, a steamer trunk stuffed with my parents' belongings, and more boxes than I could count. It could take me days to dig through all the detritus. I wished I had listened to Bridget about getting my life sorted out months ago so there would be far less clutter. The house was full of it now. Like so much of the past, I found it harder to face than to ignore.
Mr. Ashton's been dead two years, Miss Evie,
she'd said yesterday, as if I needed reminding. Sometimes it still felt like my teeth had all been freshly pulled, the ache was so raw.
You can't keep avoiding the world. It hasn't stopped spinning just because you hoped it would. He isn't coming back any more than Toni will, not if you don't give her something to come back to.
The remark had stung deeply, and I resented Bridget for saying it. My husband might be dead, but Antonia was not. She might want nothing to do with me now that she was all grown up, but I was still here for her, and her roots were entrenched in the dirt of Blue Hills, no matter that she fancied herself a city girl.
Oh, dearest Antonia!
The thought of her gone nearly made me weep. I had wanted so desperately to keep her close, but she'd flown away as soon as she was able, just like Anna. And it exhausted me knowing that, no matter how hard I'd tried to do what was right, I couldn't seem to hold on to what I loved most in the world. I had lived seventy-one years and everyone closest to meâMother, Daddy, Jon, Anna, even Toniâhad left me one way or another. Was it any wonder I'd hidden away the dress and all the confusion it had wrought?
Until the damned dream that wouldn't let me be. I had to know the truth. I had to see what was coming, and putting on the dress was the only way.
Amidst the smell of dust and disuse, I inhaled a well-remembered scent. Lily of the valley tickled my nose, drawing me forward. Picking my way carefully through the mess, I edged toward the corner of the attic, and my gaze fell upon a faded floral hatbox, tucked squarely under the eaves. Grunting, I pushed aside a wicker chair and half a dozen cartons to make a path.
By the time I reached it, I was panting, my breaths ragged. I rubbed damp palms on flannelled thighs before I lifted the lid. Photographs fluttered to the floorboards as I drew the black shift from within and held it up to the light.
The fabric came alive before my eyes. Silk that had seemed dull and faded on first glance sparkled beneath the glow of the bare bulb. My hands shook as I set the dress down long enough to drop my nightgown 'round my feet. I heard the crackle of static as I pulled it over my head and tugged it past my hips, smoothing it over my thighs with a sigh of relief. It fit as well as it had when I'd worn it to Jon's funeral; but, of course, I'd known that it would.
Even stowed away these past two years, the dress had not suffered for lack of wear. I felt its energy flow through my skin, much stronger than I remembered; perhaps because I had become so much weaker since the last time I'd donned it
“Ah!” I gasped as blood surged to my head, making me dizzy. I sank to my knees on the planked boards, oblivious to the discomfort, and I pressed hands to my eyes as the vision flitted through my mind like a moving picture, sharper even than memories.
The sweetness of lily of the valley became pervasive, enveloping me as I glimpsed Anna, clear as day, older than the last time I'd seen her, much older. Toni stood at her side, their faces alike, pale with pain. How sad they were as they gazed upon a solitary figure, shrouded in black, lying perfectly still on a flat bed. “Oh, Evie,” I heard Anna say through her tears. “Don't leave us. Please, don't go. It's not supposed to end like this.” I saw myself then, lying beneath the sheet, eyes shut, perfectly still.
Dear God. Am I to die?
I rocked back on my heels, my cheeks damp and chin trembling, and I thought of my dream of Anna, of my sister returning, and Toni, too. Was it my death that would bring them together? I shook my throbbing head.
No, no, no.
I wasn't ready to go, not before I'd set things right with them both, until we'd all told the truth.
Maybe the dress is wrong,
I thought, even though I didn't believe it. It had never been wrong before, only misconstrued. Could that be what was happening? But what else could it be showing me?
Blood rushed to my ears in loud, crashing waves, and a horrible pain shot through my skull. I buried my face in my hands, pressing hard at my temples, willing it to stop. Then it was gone, and I felt nothing, heard nothing, and the world went completely and utterly black.
he hum of voices and clink of silverware on china swelled like familiar music in Toni Ashton's ears. The Dimplemans' twenty-fifth anniversary party had segued smoothly from cocktails to salads, with the entrÃ©e soon to appear. Normally, she would have stuck around till the end of the party. But tonight she had somewhere else to be.
She glanced at her watch and her pulse did a cha-cha. “I have to go,” she whispered to Vivien Reed, her assistant, loud enough to be heard above the chatter and the harpist fingering Mozart from the corner of the Vault Room in the City Museum. The caterers were top-notch, and the swing band was set to play in the adjoining space once dessert had been served. Vivien could easily handle things from here. “I was supposed to meet Greg five minutes ago.”
“Then scoot!” Vivien gave her a gentle push.
With a nod, Toni made a discreet beeline around the marble bar to where she'd stashed her coat and purse.
Her assistant followed close behind her. “Do you think he's gonna pop the question?” the younger woman asked and leaned against a pillar. Her coffee-brown skin glowed and her eyes widened expectantly as Toni buttoned her faux Burberry and the pair of black-clad bartenders pretended not to listen.
Toni yanked on her gloves with a sigh. “God, I hope so.”
She was beyond ready.
Being single at forty-six didn't exactly play into the “perfect life” scenario she'd envisioned for herself since leaving Blue Hills over two decades ago. Neither did the fifteen pounds she couldn't seem to shed, no matter what diet she tried or how many stairs she climbed. And to round out that lovely Trifecta of Disappointments, there was also her less than warm and fuzzy relationship with her mother, which needed considerable mending. She might figure out how to do it, too, one of these days, if she ever found the time.
Still, if all went well after tonight, she could finally cross “Plan My Own Wedding” off her to-do list. Greg had texted this morning to suggest a late dinner at one of the most romantic restaurants in St. Louis.
I have something important 2 ask U,
he'd typed. Knowing how close to the vest her CPA boyfriend held his emotions, she figured whatever it was, it was
. They'd been together for two solid years, since they'd met just after her dad had passed away, and things had gotten serious enough that he'd usurped a dresser drawer at her place (and enough space to hang several starched button-downs in her closet). If anything screamed PROPOSAL, this was it.
“Good luck, boss.” Vivien squeezed Toni's gloved hand. “After all the weddings you've thrown for spoiled debutantes, it's your turn to play bridezilla.”
“And, baby, you know that I will.” She grinned and mouthed, “Be good,” as she slipped out from behind the bar and through the back door to the parking garage.
As her boot heels clicked on the concrete, her brain played a quick game of “loves me, loves me not.” Greg would propose, wouldn't he? She wasn't getting any younger (and neither were her ovaries). Whatever happened, she'd be okay, right?
Toni exhaled slowly, vacillating between smug and insecure as she drove down the ramp and out of the museum's lot, finally deciding that Vivien was right, damn it. She deserved her own frothy white gown and ridiculously expensive cake. She'd worked hard these past twenty-five years since she'd graduated with a liberal arts degree from the University of Missouri. Despite her mother's nay-saying, Toni had built a life for herself in St. Louis, and she felt independent in a way she never could have in Blue Hills, where everyone expected her to be someone she wasn't.
She'd started out as a secretary for a society tabloid (yes, she'd fetched coffee but at least she'd never leaned out a window to ask, “Do you want fries with that?”). Within a year, her efficiency and penchant for dressing well (she knew every upscale resale store in town) soon had her attending soirees when the regular gossip columnist was overbooked. Before long, Toni found herself regularly penning superfluous features about an exclusive dinner party at Dr. and Mrs. La-di-das', the debut of a corn-fed Paris Hilton, or an elaborate wedding reception at Windows on Washington. Then a desperate mother of the bride had come to her when the caterer quit mid-wedding, and Toni had stepped in and used her connections to make things right. It was then that she'd stumbled upon her true calling.
Slowly but surely, she'd begun planning more events than she'd covered for the society rag, and she realized how much she loved being in the thick of things, part ringmaster and part magician. Her venture had blossomed enough that she'd hired Vivien, and she'd splurged on a pair of new Jimmy Choos after banking the plump deposit from the Dimplemans. Even better was the idea that, come tomorrow, she could retire her crown as “The Oldest Never-Married Single Woman in Missouri.” No more unwanted advice from Evie about moving back to the boondocks so she could meet “a decent hardworking boy” and no more ribbing from friends about dying alone or turning lesbian.
By the time she pulled into an empty spot on Wydown a mere block from I Fratellini, Toni had convinced herself that her engagement was moments away. She'd already decided on the Coronado Ballroom for her reception after a simple but elegant nondenominational ceremony at Graham Chapel on the campus of Washington University.
Now all she needed was for Greg to say those four magic words:
Will you marry me?
That wasn't asking for much, was it?
Nestled in the upscale suburb of Clayton, the tiny restaurant with its shabby chic dÃ©cor and fantastic chandeliersâalways dimmed for dinnerâwas one of the most romantic spots in town. Her stomach swarmed with butterflies as she opened the door and pushed into the narrow vestibule, letting in a gasp of cold winter air that ruffled a black drape within.
She brushed aside the curtain, shivering as warm air replaced frigid. Plucking off her velvet gloves, she shoved them in her coat pockets, walked toward a white-shirted host, and said, “I'm here to meet Greg McCallum,” even as her eyes skimmed the cozy room for him.
“Ah, yes, ma'am, this way,” the fellow said just as Toni spotted Greg, and he gave a little wave.
She caught her own reflection in the mirror on the wallâwindblown chestnut-brown hair falling into her eyes, plum lipstick dark against her pale skinâthen she leaned down to kiss his cheek before she slid onto the wooden bench opposite his chair.
“Hey, babe, what's up?” she asked, shrugging out of her coat. “I'm not used to you being mysterious.”
“You look nice, Antonia,” he said, not answering her question. His bespectacled eyes raked over her, and his stoic features softened for an instant. Then he frowned and tapped the face of his stainless-steel Omega. “You're almost twenty minutes late though.”
“I'm sorry,” she apologized, cutting him some slack because she realized this night was a huge deal for himâfor them bothâand he was understandably nervous. “But Mrs. Dimpleman would've had a seizure if I'd left Vivien in charge of the party before all one hundred guests were safely eating spinach salad.”
“It's all right.” He nudged the black-rimmed glasses higher up the bridge of his nose then took a swipe at the cowlick lying on his forehead. “Speaking of salad, I hope you don't mind, but I already ordered the duck for me and the arugula salad for you, seeing as how you're watching your weight.”
“Arugula salad? Oh.” She glanced down as she unfolded the napkin in her lap, trying hard not to seem disappointed when she'd been drooling over the idea of the restaurant's lasagna. “Um, thanks,” she made herself say with a forced smile and squashed the urge to reply,
What are you, the Diet Police?
But if she'd taken that tack, she knew it would've led to a familiar argument, one that proceeded with him telling her,
You eat because something's eating you,
as if he were her therapist. Greg was pencil-thin with the metabolism of a hyperactive monkey. He couldn't begin to comprehend that Toni could just think of a chocolate-chip cookie and instantly her thighs would spread an inch.
“So what's up?” she asked point-blank, deciding a change of subject would be better than a fight over entrÃ©es.
She was dying to hear why he'd wanted to meet her at I Fratellini in the first place. Usually on Friday nights they converged post-work at her apartment, kicking off shoes and ordering pizza from Imo's. So this was
rare. Normally, if she suggested eating at a chi-chi place, he remarked about “ridiculous prices” and needing a flashlight to read the menu.
“Is there something you want to talk about?”
“Yes, in fact, there is.” He took a sip of water, Adam's apple bobbing above his loosened collar. Then he cleared his throat and reached across the table, his sleeve narrowly missing the dish of herb butter as he caught her hand in his. “You're a great girl, Antonia, and I think we have something good together, don't you?” he asked, his dark eyes earnest. His lips slipped in and out of an anxious smile.
“Of course I do,” Toni replied and sat up straighter. Her heart beat so loudly it sounded like a bass drum in her ears.
It's happening, it's really happening,
she told herself, fighting to stay calm and not squeal with anticipation.
“So I've been thinking it just makes sense to take a step forwardâ”
“I couldn't agree more,” she interrupted, hoping he'd quit with the verbal hors d'oeuvres and get to the meat and potatoes before she died of emotional starvation.
“Well then, without further ado.” Greg released her hand to fumble with something deep in his jacket pocket.
let it be in a box that's Tiffany blue or, hell, even a practical black one with a lid stamped ZALES.
At the moment, she didn't care which.
Suddenly, his forearm emerged and rested on the table, his fingers curled in a fist. “I hope you'll accept this as a token of my affection for you and my investment in the future of our relationship.”
Okay, that was hardly the most poetic of proposals, but he
an accountant. She couldn't expect the sensible guy who'd bought her a year's worth of passes to Mr. Car Wash for Christmas and who'd dubbed Valentine's Day “a crock” to get down on bended knee in a room filled with roses and strolling violinists, could she? Not everything in life was all sparkle and magic.
“Go on,” Toni prodded, hardly able to breathe as he pressed his “token of affection” into her palm. Right away, she knew she could forget the robin's-egg blue box, because there was no box at all. It didn't even feel like a ring: flat and pointed with sharp little ridges. She frowned, dared to look down, and nearly cried with disillusionment.
“It's a key,” she said.
key.” Greg blushed from the neck up. “Antonia Ashton, I would be honored if you'd move in with me so we can have a trial run and see if we're ready to be partners forever in the game of life.”
He beamed at her as though the obviously practiced words meant something more than her translation: that he wasn't yet ready to proceed on the path to legally becoming her partner in “the game of life.” Nope. What he wanted was to get the cow for free
move it into his own barn.
Shit on a stick!
Talk about bursting the bubble on her personal fairy tale.
Toni fingered the key and tried to swallow down the bitter taste in her mouth; but it jammed in her throat like a big ole jawbreaker.
“Sweetie, is something wrong?” Greg cocked his head, looking at her like she was demented. “I thought this was what you wanted, that you'd be happy.”
“It's just that Iâ” she started to explain how badly he'd misread her if he thought this was what she wanted, only nothing more emerged but a sigh.
She nearly wept with relief when her BlackBerry picked that instant to ring, playing “Ode to Joy,” completely mocking her current state of joylessness. Toni stuffed the key into her purse as she reached for her cell.
“You're not going to take that now?” Greg protested, but she ignored him, a sense of unease gripping her as she realized the call was from an area code she knew well.
“Engagements by Antonia,” she answered by rote, her voice a practiced calm. “This is Antonia Ashton.”
“Oh, Miss Ashton, thank goodness we tracked you down! I'm a nurse at Blue Hills Hospital, and I'm sorry to have to call and give you bad news but something's happened to your mother,” the voice on the other end prattled, and it only went downhill from there. As Toni listened, the world went silent around her and everything elseâGreg and the proposal that never happenedâseemed suddenly meaningless. “I'll be there as soon as I can,” she said before ending the call with a trembling finger.
“Babe, what's going on?” Greg asked. “You're freaking me out.”
Toni fished around for her coat and pulled it on, grabbed for her bag as she slid away from the table and stood.
“It's Evie,” she said and leaned forward to peck his cheek, nearly bumping into the waiter who appeared from the kitchen to deliver their plates. “I have to go.”
“But your salad .Â .Â . ,” Greg was saying as she left him and hurried from the restaurant. She didn't even put on her gloves before she dashed out into the cold.
Toni went straight to her apartment and tossed a few things into an overnight bag. She didn't bother to change from her suit and high heels, merely switched off the lights and left. She got into her car, driving off in gently falling snow toward the tiny Missouri river town she hadn't seen since her father's death. She didn't turn on the radio. She wouldn't have heard the music if she had, not over the words that kept rolling 'round and 'round her skull: