The Guests on South Battery (31 page)

BOOK: The Guests on South Battery
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Thomas handed the keys to a valet and then we entered through one of three green doors that faced the street and into the light-filled restaurant. The delicious scents of food and flowers wafted over to us and I felt my stomach grumble—something I was growing used to now that my entire family seemed intent on starving me. I glanced at Jayne, unaware of all the attention she was causing and the heads turning in her direction. She was more focused on the ambience, and Thomas, and looked about as excited as a five-year-old at her first princess birthday party. I found myself smiling at her, despite my earlier thoughts, remembering Jack's words and his hand holding mine in the backseat of the car.

One full side wall of the restaurant contained the facade of a home that had once stood on the site, but it had been emptied of all its history—the front door of the old house was now actually the entrance to the restrooms—so, thankfully, no spirits seemed to be hanging around. Restored wooden tables filled the space, all set for dinner, but we were led to the courtyard out back, passing under a mezzanine. I looked up and then quickly glanced away when I recognized the reporter Suzy Dorf, whom I'd been successfully avoiding for over a month. Rebecca had once worked for the paper, so I shouldn't have been surprised to see her there. But that was the thing about surprises—they always appeared when you least expected them. Or wanted them.

I'd been hoping for rain, or for at least an evening thick with the heavy humidity Charleston was famous for to ruin the party. Instead it was the perfect evening—cool, humidity free, and dry. Even the stars seemed to want to celebrate, each one shining brightly in the sky above us. Dueling reflecting ponds and fountains spraying small arcs of water vied for attention with the vertical garden hanging on the wall. Bright round bulbs were strung across the courtyard, as if the stars above had descended to see what the party was all about.

A large event space built inside an eighteen hundreds warehouse that had once stood on the site dominated the rear of the courtyard. The support beams and, I suspected, most of the brick columns, were original, judging by the number of spirits I saw hovering in the background, surprised as I was to be seen. A string quartet quietly played by the fountain, hardly loud enough to be heard over the well-heeled crowd of what looked to be around 150 people.

“Cousin Melanie and Jack!” Rebecca's grating voice came from behind, giving me time to plaster a smile on my face as Jack and I turned.

She was, as expected, wearing head-to-toe pink, this time in pink shantung, which would have been lovely if she hadn't paired it with a rhinestone tiara and elbow-length pink gloves. Her hand was tucked possessively in Marc's elbow, her pink a contrast to his black tuxedo and dark good looks that I now couldn't look at without thinking he appeared more greasy than sleek.

“And, Jayne, how lovely you look,” Rebecca exclaimed, giving air kisses everywhere as the men shook hands and Thomas was introduced. “Who would have thought a nanny could clean up so nicely—am I right, Jack?”

“So glad you all could make it.” Marc's expression was what I pictured a palmetto bug's must look like upon the discovery of an uncovered sugar bowl.

“Matt, so good to see you,” Jack said, deliberately confusing Marc's name. He'd been doing it ever since they first met, and enjoyed it too much to stop now.

Marc's eyes narrowed, but his smile never dimmed. “Please help yourselves to the open bar and to the food being passed around. The chef has prepared a special menu just for tonight, so enjoy. The champagne toast is at eight, so make sure you grab a flute so you can join us in a toast after our grand announcement.”

I felt Jack's muscles tighten under my hand and I gave him a reassuring squeeze. He sent an undecipherable look at Marc that almost looked like a warning. “Wouldn't miss it,” Jack said. “Since we're
practically family,” he added. I wondered if anybody else could detect the poison beneath the dripping sarcasm.

Marc indicated a large table by the fountain piled high with books. “Buxton Books has graciously agreed to sell books tonight, so don't forget to pick up a copy—these are first editions, so grab one now because I know they're already on the third reprint with all the orders coming in. I'll even autograph it for free.” He laughed at his own joke while Thomas and Jayne smiled politely and Jack and I just stared back at him.

Thomas recognized someone and excused himself and Jayne. Marc and Jack seemed to be involved in a staring match, each daring the other one to look away first.

Rebecca took my elbow and drew me aside. “I can't believe you let Jayne wear that dress.”

“She's my nanny, not my slave. She's free to do what she wants. Besides, my mother helped her pick out the dress and I thought she did a great job.” The words stuck in my throat like chalk, but I couldn't let Rebecca know. “And don't forget that she wouldn't be here if you hadn't invited her.”

“Well, you're a better woman than I am. If I ever have a nanny, I'll make sure she looks more like Shrek than Cinderella.”

I wasn't sure what was more alarming—the idea of Marc and Rebecca having children, or a nanny who looked like a large green troll. A server with a tray of wineglasses appeared and I eagerly grabbed one. I saw Jack eyeing it wistfully and I knew how badly he must be needing a drink right now. I stopped the waiter. “Can you please bring me a glass of seltzer water with lime?”

When I turned back to Rebecca, she was watching me carefully. “I've been having more dreams. Remember the one I told your mother that I was having about the girl in the white nightgown, knocking on the inside of a wall and calling your name?”

I tried to keep my expression neutral. “Vaguely.”

“I'm seeing her again, but now she's pointing toward the bottom of a set of wooden steps, as if there's something there she wants me to see.”
She looked at me closely. “Sounds like a good story, doesn't it? I sure hope you figure out what it's all about before I do and tell Marc. From what Marc's told me, Jack really needs a great book idea. The early buzz from Marc's agent on the book Jack just turned in says it's not bestseller material. You know how incestuous the whole publishing world is—there aren't many secrets. Marc says the inside scoop is predicting a print run about half that of his last book.”

I drained my wineglass, then smiled softly, pretending none of this was news to me. “Yes, well, we're both proud of it and know his fans won't be disappointed.”

She took a sip of her own wine, and it was all I could do not to hit the bottom of it and make it spill down the front of her pink dress.

“I never realized how much this ‘gift' of ours could help our husbands in their writing careers.” She lifted her glass in a mock toast. “May the best man win.”

I didn't raise my empty glass, and didn't care if she noticed.

“Well, not to worry,” she said. “After tonight's announcement, Marc's book and movie are going to put us all on the map.”

I recalled the conversation I'd had with Jack over the newspaper article about the film deal Marc had made, and how it was speculated that the movie would be filmed in Charleston using our house as the setting. The conversation hadn't continued because we hadn't been officially approached, and I'd simply assumed that Jack and I were on the same side of the fence. Which was a very good thing, since it would have to be a very cold day in hell before I would ever agree to it.

I turned toward Jack, needing confirmation, and discovered he was no longer standing nearby. The waitress appeared with his seltzer water and lime and I took it, replacing it with my empty wineglass, thanking her while looking over her shoulder to find out where Jack had gone. I spotted Thomas, talking with a group of people, but Jayne wasn't with him.

The quartet stopped playing and Marc stepped up to a microphone and I noticed all the servers were now passing out flutes of champagne. “Excuse me, please—now's the big moment,” Rebecca said as she
walked past me to where Marc was standing. Camera flashes popped all around them like paparazzi, and I was left wondering if they were plants paid for by Marc and Rebecca. I certainly wouldn't put it past them.

Someone touched my elbow and I turned to see Suzy Dorf, as diminutive as I remembered, holding a champagne flute. “You're a hard person to reach,” she said, taking a sip from her glass.

“I'm very busy,” I said, remembering the reams of pink message slips Jolly Thompson had dutifully filled out despite the fact that she knew I threw them all away.

“Well, if you'd bother to return my calls, then you'd already know what the big announcement is.”

“I already know about the film—it was in the paper. But it's not being filmed at our house—we haven't agreed to that, nor would we ever.”

Her round brown eyes—looking remarkably like buttons—widened. “Really? Because your husband has. Surely you know that.”

Something that felt like a hot flame erupted from my core and shot up my throat to my head. I was pretty sure that was what being hit by a meteor would be like. “I'm sorry?”

Marc was tapping the mic, and Suzy indicated him with her chin. “Stick around—you'll hear him make the announcement now.”

I thrust the glass of seltzer water at the reporter. “I've got to find Jack—there's been some mistake. Excuse me, please.”

She grabbed onto my arm. “I saw him just a few minutes ago, heading back toward the kitchen.” She paused, as if debating whether she should say more, then decided not to.

I didn't stop to pry out whatever it was she thought I should know, because whatever it was had to be the least of my worries. If Jack had actually signed that agreement, a blizzard was about to start in hell.

CHAPTER 29

I
'd read accounts of soldiers shell-shocked after an explosion, suddenly deaf and blinded, stumbling forward with no idea of how they got where they were or where they were headed. I felt a little like that now, propelling myself with sheer instinct, looking for the door where the waiters were moving in and out and following them into the kitchen as if I were supposed to be there.

The food smells were stronger there, the noise louder and punctuated with orders being barked from one end of the white-tiled room to the other, the sharp clack of knives against cutting boards, the metallic clanking of silverware, and the ping of china plates being stacked. I was only vaguely aware of all this, a sound track to my own personal nightmare as I scoured the space for Jack. A female waiter—I recognized her as the one who'd brought the seltzer—stopped and stared at me for a long moment. Then, with lifted eyebrows and a jerk with her chin toward a door behind me, she allowed her empty tray to be filled with champagne flutes and exited the kitchen.

My first instinct was to follow her, even if it meant listening to Marc make his announcement. It would make a good excuse anyway as to why I hadn't followed Jack into what appeared to be a large storage
room. With a closed door. Behind which I could clearly hear a female voice. But I remembered what my mother had said about becoming the new and mature Mellie. The one who faces the truth instead of hiding from it, and asks questions no matter how unpleasant the answers might be. And believes jumping to conclusions shouldn't be on my list of exercises. And I remembered what Jack had said about trust, and how our marriage was based on it. They were both right, of course. I was a forty-one-year-old married mother of three, and it was time to pull up my big-girl panties.

I could hear the faraway amplified voice of Marc Longo. “Jack Trenholm, related by marriage, has generously agreed to allow most of the filming for the movie to be made in his home on Tradd Street, which is where the story takes place.” I felt sick and betrayed, but still clung to a shred of hope that I had misunderstood, or that Jack had an explanation that would make it all better. That what my mother had told me about the importance of finding out the truth was true.

With my shoulders pulled back, I hesitated only a moment in front of the closed door and then, without knocking, turned the doorknob and yanked it open. I had a brief recall of my earlier thoughts regarding shell-shocked soldiers, and wondered if it was possible to survive two episodes in quick succession. My first impression was that it was cold, and that I might actually be in a refrigerated storage room. I blinked twice, but not because I couldn't see. The fluorescent lights were on, illuminating everything in an unflattering blue-white light. I blinked again as if somehow the view in front of me might disappear. But it didn't.

I was sure the pantry was lined with metal shelves and they might even have been full of bins of fresh produce and large condiment containers, but I didn't see them. Because all I could see was the beautiful pale blue chiffon of Jayne's gown, half hiding my view of Jack in his black tuxedo, his left hand—the one with the gold wedding band that I'd placed there a little more than a year ago—cradling her head against his chest. His head must have been tilted toward hers until the sound of the door being thrown open made him jerk it back. I was pretty sure they weren't practicing their chip shots.

For a moment we stared at each other as if none of the bustle and noise in the kitchen registered, as if the girl in blue standing between us, her tear-streaked face pale with shock, didn't even exist. And then all the sounds came back with the intensity of a gunshot, and I felt the percussion through my body, the slow movement of a lead slug traveling cleanly through to my heart.

“Mellie,” Jack said, stepping toward me as Jayne pulled away.

But I'd already begun to back up, tripping on my dress and feeling the tug of fabric before the sound of it ripping beneath the heel of my shoe set me free.

“Mellie,” he said again as he began running toward me. “Please come back. It's not what it looks like—I promise. Please stop. Let me explain.”

But desperation and anger and hurt gave me the energy to move faster than I'd ever run. Somewhere between the kitchen and front doors of the restaurant, I'd lost a shoe, the second one coming off in the middle of Spring Street. I'd only run a block before I realized that Jack wasn't following me, the absence of the sound of running footsteps making me stop. I sat on the curb to catch my breath, wondering what was worse—the image of him and Jayne in an intimate embrace, or the fact that he didn't care enough to pursue me.

I wasn't sure how long I sat there, unaware of any passersby or the weather or any critters crawling along the sidewalk, much less the passage of time. I remembered trying to cry but found I couldn't. Like after all those long, sleepless nights with the babies when I'd tried to finally go to sleep and found that I was too tired. It was like that now. My grief and sadness had gone beyond tears.

I'd somehow managed to hang on to my evening purse, the small strap still dangling from my arm. I fished my phone out of my purse, seeing that Jack had left me fifteen text messages and tried to call ten times. I deleted the texts and voice mails and then blocked his number, the new Mellie voice growing fainter and fainter until I couldn't hear it anymore. Then I dialed my mother, and the sound of her voice almost broke the dam of tears that were blocked in my throat.

I wasn't sure what I said, but she promised me that my dad would leave right away and could be here within fifteen minutes. I don't know how fast he drove, or how many red lights and stop signs he must have blown through, but he was there in less than ten. He took one look at me, barefoot and with my dress torn, and he immediately jumped out of his car and practically carried me back to it as if I were a small child.

I know he talked, and asked me questions, but I couldn't speak. Couldn't listen. All I could do was relive those horrifying few moments in the restaurant kitchen. It had to have been less than a minute, but the memory of it made it last for an eternity.

My mother was waiting at the front door of her house on Legare Street, and gathered me in her arms before steering me up the stairs and into the bathroom, where she'd filled the tub with hot, scented water. She unzipped my dress and then gave me privacy while I stepped in the tub, then sat on the closed toilet lid while I soaked in stunned silence as the steam wafted over me. She didn't talk, which made me think she was there as less of a companion and more to make sure I didn't deliberately slip under the bubbles.

Eventually, the water must have grown cold, because she pulled the stopper on the tub, then placed a large fluffy towel and thick robe on the vanity before stepping out of the bathroom. Afterward, she led me to the large four-poster bed in the room where Nola had once stayed before I married Jack, and pulled back the thick duvet.

“Take these,” she said, offering me two white pills and a glass of water. “They'll help you sleep. You'll feel better in the morning, and we can talk.”

I didn't question her but took the pills and swallowed them before lying down on the pillow and letting my mother cover me. I kept my eyes open, not wanting to be tortured with the image of Jack and Jayne, and waited for the pills to take me to oblivion.

Two days later I sat on the floor of my mother's drawing room with JJ and Sarah, the sun creating a kaleidoscope of colors through the stained
glass window, bathing us in a multihued blanket of light. My mother laughed as the children tried to catch the colors in their chubby fists, but I could only find the energy to smile.

“Mellie, I wish you would talk to him. You can't stay here forever, with so much unresolved between you.”

I stared blankly at her, realizing that I had, actually, imagined staying there in my parents' house forever without ever leaving it or having to see anybody ever again.

“Jack's been here about a dozen times.”

“Did you tell him I didn't want to talk to him?”

“I didn't have to.” She paused. “He just said that he needed to talk to me.”

I sat up straighter. “To you? About what?”

“I have no idea, but he said it was important that he speak with me before you and he had a discussion.”

“Please tell me you shut the door in his face.”

“I was more polite about it than that, but in essence, yes. I told him that he needed to speak with you first. But, Mellie, one of us will have to talk to him sooner or later. And the sooner the better. It's not a good idea to make assumptions without knowing—”

I cut her off. “He had his arms around her! And they were
not
talking about the weather. And I heard Marc's announcement myself, so I know Jack's been going behind my back in more ways than one.” I glared at her. “This is all your fault. You were the one who told me I should be a grown-up and find out the truth no matter how uncomfortable it made me. So I did, and look what happened!”

She frowned but didn't defend herself. “He wants to see the babies. You can't keep them away from him. He's their father.”

“Their lying, cheating father who's sold out to Marc Longo of all people. And is sleeping with their nanny. It's like an episode of
Jerry Springer
and I just can't believe this is my life.” I wiped away the angry tears that spilled down my cheeks.

My mother sat on an ottoman in front of me and handed me a tissue. “Please, Mellie. Let me talk with him, get to the bottom of this. I'm
sure once you know the facts, you'll feel differently. I just can't imagine there's not more to this story, despite what you think you saw. That's not like Jack. Or Jayne. And this whole issue of him agreeing to use the house as a film set without discussing it with you.” She closed her eyes and gave her head a small shake. “No. I'm not buying it. I'm on your side, Mellie, but this thing can't be left to fester. Let me call him.”

I shook my head, feeling like JJ when I tried to feed him strained peas. “No,” I said, feeling just as unreasonable. “Just stop answering the door and his phone calls and he'll forget about us.”

“Seriously, Mellie? You think this will all just go away and he'll forget about you and his children?”

The doorbell rang, and I turned to her in panic, realizing it was already late afternoon and I was still in my pajamas. I ran my tongue over my teeth and remembered that I hadn't brushed them yet, either. Even if I didn't want to see him, I didn't want him to be glad he couldn't see me.

My mother stood to go to the door. “Don't open it!”

She gave an exasperated sigh. “Let me see who it is first before we make any rash decisions, all right?”

She disappeared into the foyer and I listened to her footsteps cross the floor, then pause, and then came the sound of the doorknob turning and I flinched.

“Nola! It's so good to see you, sweetheart. Come in. I know Mellie will want to see you, too.”

She was right—I did want to see Nola. I'd missed her, but even in my darkest moments it never occurred to me to contact her, because it would be like making her pick sides. Despite her unfortunate choice of fathers, I loved her too much to do that to her.

Nola walked tentatively into the drawing room, wearing her school uniform and carrying her backpack and her overnight bag. The children squealed and she immediately dropped the bag, then sat on the floor to hug JJ and Sarah.

“I missed you guys,” she said, rumpling their hair.

“They missed you, too,” I said. “So did I.”

“Yeah, it's been not so great at home. My dad's a mess.”

Good,
I wanted to say, but couldn't in front of Nola.

“He really misses you, and Sarah and JJ. We all want you to come back home.”

“Is that what he sent you to say?” I asked.

She reached behind her and dragged over the overnight bag. “He doesn't know I'm here. I asked Mrs. Ravenel to drop me off here instead of home. I figured you needed some of your stuff.” She looked at me closely and frowned. “Like your hairbrush and some clothes and makeup. But not too much—because you need to come home.”

“I want to, but I can't. Your dad . . .” I stopped, not sure how much he'd told her.

As if understanding my hesitation, she said, “My dad wouldn't tell me anything, so I asked Jayne what happened. She told me that she couldn't say anything until you and my dad had a talk. She's moved over to the Pinckney house.”

I looked at her in surprise, wondering what sort of self-punishment that must be. Sophie had told me that the doll had been verified as a rare Edison doll and returned to the house. I hoped it was busy reacquainting itself with Jayne.

“Was that her choice?” I asked.

Nola shrugged. “It's her house, and it was a little awkward with her staying with us without the babies.”

BOOK: The Guests on South Battery
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