Sour Grapes (The Blue Plate Series)

BOOK: Sour Grapes (The Blue Plate Series)
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For Amanda Alvarez, who believed in Marge from the beginning and who has never steered me in the wrong direction

1

B
itterness is as classic as Chanel.

Tonight I’m wearing it as armor under my black flowing silk chiffon gown. At any moment guests will start arriving for Baylor Medical’s annual gala—the hospital’s biggest fundraiser and the most ambitious PR/event planning project I’ve ever tackled. After ten months of intense preparation, I’m ready.

Nick should be celebrating the success of the evening with me, but I’m here alone after he tossed me aside for his first love like last year’s Christmas present. Tonight is my chance to prove to everyone that a failed relationship won’t keep me down.

It’s be hurt or be hardened, and I pick the latter.

I adjust my headset and glance around. The modern concrete building of the Dallas Museum of Art is bathed in jewel tones, complemented by the mosaic wall opposite the entrance. The Moroccan music playing in the sculpture garden drifts on the wind, carrying the scent of incense and fruit from the hookah lounge. Photographers flank the red carpet leading into the main atrium, and valets surround the rectangular drive in preparation.

As if on cue, a train of limos and luxury vehicles pulls up. A fluttering sensation ignites in my stomach. Gathering my bearings, I inhale a deep breath and say, “All right, everyone. Look sharp.”

My assistant’s voice crackles in my ear. “Margaret, the attendees are here.”

“No shit,” I mutter. I polish off a glass of Dom Pérignon, the taste light and crisp with a dry finish. Life should never be wasted on unremarkable champagne. Hiding the flute in a manicured bush, I click on the headset and ask, “Is everything finalized for the live auction and dinner?”

“Yes, Captain,” my assistant says, as though we’re some ridiculous crew at sea. “Can I take a breather now? My feet are
killing
me.” She’s a psychology major straight out of college with no experience or work ethic—she’s chronically late, frequently leaves early, and spends most of the day fighting with the coffee machine. Last week she barged into my office complaining about the workload and begging for an assistant, not even comprehending that she
is
the assistant. I only hired her because our mothers are tennis partners at the club and my mother demanded I do her a favor. Never again.

“Only if you’d rather be unemployed,” I say as a valet opens the first car door. To my shock, Dr. Greg Preston, Nick’s father, steps out.

I knew Dr. Preston would make an appearance this evening—he’s the head of cardiology at Baylor Medical—but I thought I could avoid him in the throng of the three hundred people attending the gala. Panic builds in my chest, my heart thumping an erratic rhythm. Cameras flash as he walks the red carpet, talking and shaking hands with the other benefit goers all dressed in their finest formal attire. His resemblance to Nick makes my stomach tighten—the tousled hair, the eyes so blue I could dive into them, the movie-star features.

Nick was supposed to be mine
, I think, as resentment latches on to me, strengthening my suit of armor. When everyone else abandoned him—his family, his friends, his
fiancée
—during the darkest point in his life, it was
me
who picked him up off the floor and helped him rediscover his passion for songwriting.
I
saved
him.
I’m
the one who deserved his trust, loyalty, devotion. Yet Nick chose Lillie, the girl who destroyed him when she ran off, only to return five years later to steal the man I had rightfully earned.

Dr. Preston turns in my direction, but I duck out of sight before he can see me. I sneak behind the receiving line of belly dancers greeting guests to the festivities and move past the check-in area overflowing with the event programs and promotional materials I’d spent months creating.

The atmosphere in the main atrium feels as warm and exotic as the spices in Marrakech. Luxurious silk fabrics in vivid shades of teal and purple are draped across the ceiling, the walls lit up to match. A Moorish tile pattern is projected onto the floor, while pierced iron lanterns adorn tallboy tables covered in linens the colors of precious gemstones. Servers in traditional dress, from fez-capped heads to feet in heelless leather slippers, offer mint tea mojitos and caramel-fig martinis to attendees when they enter the cocktail reception. Several people gasp as they scan the room, and I hear a woman comment that it feels as though she’s been whisked away on a flying carpet.

I spot my parents near the stage set up in front of the windows framed by beautiful Chihuly glass. My father looks regal in a tuxedo and my mother sparkles in a beaded couture gown, exuding confidence and feminine sophistication with impeccable posture. Her red hair, identical in color to mine, is styled in an elegant French twist, and diamonds are dripping off her neck. When my mother notices me, her megawatt smile disappears into a thin line and her eyes narrow, displeasure evident in her features. It’s an expression I’m all too familiar with given that I’m always on the receiving end of it, though she’s typically more conscientious than to show it in public for fear someone may see past her perfectly constructed persona. Knowing it’ll only make her more upset if I delay, I pull my shoulders back and go greet them. My mother embraces me in a hug, her nails digging into my shoulders.

“Margaret, sweetheart, you decided on a black dress. How lovely,” she says. To a bystander, her tone sounds smooth and inflectionless, as though she’s doling out a compliment rather than thinly veiled criticism.

My mother thinks black is too harsh for redheads and our fair skin. She prefers midnight blue or emerald green.
To accent the gray in your eyes
, she reminds me often. But tonight? Tonight is
my
time to shine, so I’ll wear whatever I want, even if I’ll be admonished for it later when we’re behind closed doors.

“Thank you,” I say with a grin so believable it could pass as an authentic Birkin handbag in Chinatown.

She tucks a loose strand of hair into my updo. “That’s better. I wouldn’t want you mistaken for a slob.” She raises an eyebrow, daring me to respond. When I don’t, she laughs, but there’s an edge to it. “Your father and I were just talking with the Westways. You remember their daughter Harper? I think she was three years behind you in school. She got engaged last night. Yale educated, investment banker, comes from a long line of politicians. The wedding will be next summer at his family’s estate in East Hampton.”

It’s her subtle way of reminding me that I’ve embarrassed her, marred her pristine reputation, for wasting years of my life on an inappropriate man who, despite his sterling upbringing and pedigree, abandoned his family legacy of medicine to pursue such a tasteless ambition as songwriting. No amount of success—monetary, awards, or otherwise—could change my mother’s impression of Nick. To her, he’d always be an indiscretion. That he then chose a
waitress
over me, thus subjecting our family to a fresh round of gossip and scrutiny, has only fueled her anger.

If only my mother could understand that I never expected Nick to be a lesson I had to learn, or that I would be the one left standing on the sidelines.

“Do let me know if they need an event coordinator,” I say, refusing to let her elicit a reaction from me, then turn toward my father and peck him on the cheek, careful not to leave a lipstick mark. “Daddy.”

“Hello, honey.” He brushes a kiss against my forehead in return. “The food so far has been delightful. Particularly these tasty little things,” he says, snatching a bacon-wrapped date off a passing tray.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Roger,” my mother chides.

He pops the date into his mouth, blithely ignoring her—something he excels at. There’s a reason he’s one of the best family law and divorce attorneys in Dallas—he spends the majority of his time at the office and away from home in order to avoid my mother. I’ve often wondered why they’re still married, or how they ever got engaged in the first place. If their current relationship is any indication, I imagine the whole thing was more of a business transaction my mother probably suggested—“It’s the next logical step in our courting,” she’d have said—than an over-the-top romantic gesture. Perhaps the reason my father stays with her is because he’s witnessed firsthand how vindictive and cruel people can be when it comes to dividing assets.

“I’ll have a box of dates delivered to your office,” I whisper to him with a conspiratorial wink. “I’ll even include some fig and pear pastilla for dessert.” He smiles and pats my shoulder.

“Margaret, your father and I were discussing tonight’s theme—Arabian Nights. Interesting choice,” my mother says. Her voice is breezy, but the underlying reprimand is obvious.

“Moroccan,” I correct.

“What’s that, sweetheart?”

“The theme is centered around Morocco,” I say, the fragrant aroma of turmeric and cinnamon heavy in the air.

My mother waves me off, the diamond tennis bracelet on her wrist glinting in the light. “Same thing.”

“Arabia is in the Middle East. Morocco is in Africa. Different continents,” I say.

“Either way, we wondered if you’d considered its appropriateness for a hospital gala. Isn’t that right, Roger?” she says to my father. He’s staring at a group of people admiring their newly applied henna tattoos, not even pretending to listen.

I don’t bother to tell my mother that I selected the theme to separate the benefit from every other bland black-tie fundraising event so I could give people a night they’d remember. Once she’s cast judgment, any attempt at explaining is as futile as waiting for a Louis Vuitton sale.

“Roger,” my mother says again, touching his arm. “Explain to your daughter the importance of fulfilling client expectations.”

My father glances at her, then over at me, and shrugs. “In my experience, it is important to consider all sides of an issue before moving forward,” he says noncommittally, finishing off his scotch. After a lifetime of conversations with my mother, he’s built an entire arsenal of platitudes. It’s unfair how he gets stuck in the middle of us, how he often has to act as Switzerland in the battle between my mother and me. “When is dinner served? The small bites are great, but not nearly enough to hold me over.”

“Soon,” I say. “I hope you’re ready for an authentic feast.”

My mother opens her mouth with no doubt another jab, but I cut her off. “Speaking of which, I should go check on the meal. Please excuse me,” I say, striding away at a speed just shy of fleeing.
Where did I put that flute of champagne?
A server balancing a tray of mint tea mojitos brushes past me. I swipe a glass and take a few sips. The alcohol burns my throat, the hint of lime tart on my tongue.

While attendees mingle and nibble on lamb skewers and beef phyllo cigars, I ensure everything is still on schedule and running smoothly. So far no issues, apart from my mother’s condescending voice echoing in my head. The invite list is completely crossed off. It’s go time.

Not surprisingly, my assistant has vanished. I try reaching her through the headset, but all I get is silence. I find her in the sculpture garden smoking a hookah with a group of her friends from the country club whose parents paid for their tickets.
Could she be more worthless?
My expression must reflect my anger, because when she sees me, she stands so fast her knees bump the center table, nearly causing the hookah pipe to topple over.

“The last guests have arrived,” I say, sharp enough that the henna tattoo artist in the adjacent tent jumps in her seat. “Vacation’s over.”

She mumbles a
sorry
and quickly shoves her heels back on.

“I don’t want your apology. Just do your job. I need you with catering to make sure the food service is expedited properly. Can you handle that or are you as useless as your celebrity-prescribed diet?”

“Yes . . . I mean, no, I mean—I’ll take care of it.”

“Good.” As I turn away, I hear her mutter what sounds like
bitch
and
slave driver
. The rest of the group snickers.
Tomorrow you can fire her.

I paste a smile on my face before returning to the atrium and motion the mistress of ceremonies, the Medical Center Foundation director, to start. She nods, adjusts the microphone on the podium, and calls for attention.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pleasure that I welcome you to ‘A Faraway Land,’ Baylor Medical’s annual gala, benefiting programs and services for the hospital. I’d like to express my sincere appreciation for your support and generosity, which help ensure our patients and their families have access to outstanding care and facilities. Thank you for being a part of this special event. Please enjoy your evening of enchantment.”

The audience applauds as cameras flash. The woman from Christie’s leading the live auction steps behind the podium and begins introducing the first item. People sink into plush velvet banquettes, cocktails in their diamond-adorned hands, ready to bid. As the prizes—the VIP luxury suite season tickets for the Dallas Cowboys; a long weekend of golf at the exclusive Shadow Creek in Las Vegas; a ten-day yacht cruise in the Caribbean—go quickly and expensively, I breathe easier. The paddle-lifting concludes as the final item, a magical three-week getaway to Morocco, sells for the price of a Lamborghini. My heart swells with pride. Between the auction and the donations, the gala raised more than two million dollars—nearly double last year’s amount.

BOOK: Sour Grapes (The Blue Plate Series)
13.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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