The dinner, for all the consternation it provided to Esther, was perceived as a success by almost everyone. The shower had been long and tedious for all the Stillwater residents — Malcolm and Dick had been forbidden to trespass on the ladies’ rites, which meant that they were exiled from the entire ground floor; Olivia, home for the event, had to sit on the brocade sofa and endure the prodding and speculation of great-aunts she hadn’t seen in years, who demanded to know when it would be “her turn”; Cheryl had been required to appear active and engaged; Esther was busy cataloging the gifts; Melly had whisked away wrapping paper, wiped up spills, kept Pugsy off of the guests’ laps and out of their plates, and had been the designated surrogate whenever Sophia grew tired of listening to the congratulations and reminiscences of the women who’d purchased expensive items off her registry.
Hence, Sophia was in little mood to give a loving welcome to Chris Dalton when he turned up after the shower to take stock of the loot. She was bored and restless, nagged by a suspicion that her best days were behind her, that perhaps Chris’s beautiful home and muscular body and hefty bank account were too little compensations for having to live with the man himself. Why did he have to be such an idiot? She expressed herself to Olivia as they sat quietly for a minute in the kitchen, finishing off the tray of sandwiches.
“God,” she sighed, “men suck.”
This was a sentiment Olivia could not share. “At least you’ve got one.”
To enter Stillwater by the front door is an imposing experience. To stand at ground level, at the foot of the wide marble staircase, and let one’s gaze traverse more than sixty feet, from the sixteen broad steps to the portico, up the fluted columns to the massive capitals carved from solid cypress, is an experience that has been known to induce vertigo in the more susceptible. Alys and Ian had visited many a grand home in New York, but to be initiated into the glories of the Southern plantation house by way of Stillwater was akin to plunging a novice swimmer into the ocean and assuring them that the Titanic was only two miles below their feet.
It was natural that they should hesitate on the doorstep, but when the door opened, what gave the Winters real pause was not merely the grandeur of the front hall, but the state of chaos in the front rooms. The tall white shutters, so carefully folded back in all the big rooms that morning, had been knocked askew and louvered out of alignment as ladies had jostled to admire the view from different angles. The odd groupings of couches and chairs, and the plates and glasses on the tables and sideboards spoke to the size and appetite of the party. A young girl with dark hair picked her way across the carpet in the alcoved parlor on the left to right a fallen wastepaper basket, stepping gingerly through a quantity of wrapping paper that testified to a profitable bridal shower.
Sophia Spencer, who was thoroughly sick of all things matrimonial, seized the chance to step away from the aftermath and play hostess to the newcomers.
“I’m so sorry,” Alys said to Sophia, as she tried not to scope out the wreckage too obviously. “I had no idea that something had already been planned for today. I’m sure that all you want to do is relax — you must be exhausted. Would it be better if we rescheduled dinner?”
“Absolutely not. You and your brother are exactly what we need to help us recover.” Sophia had given Alys the professional once-over, and had settled in her favor. Alys had been considerate of Sophia, and although she was attractive, she had a fresh and clear beauty that in no way detracted from Sophia’s more sultry allurements. And there was something about her brother that held one’s attention. Ian was not the sort of man who would normally catch Sophia’s attention — like his sister, his face had a sort of youthful innocence that would normally repel Sophia. But there was something in the way he met her eye as he shook her hand, a flicker of an expression that indicated experience in sizing up women, that intrigued her. He was a nice contrast to Chris, anyway. She would make sure to sit by him at dinner. Sophia mentally arranged the seating as she escorted the Winters into the first door on the left and introduced them to the others in the parlor. Olivia would sit on Ian’s other side; she was always a useful foil for Sophia’s world-weary sensuality. Alys could sit down near the other men and keep Chris entertained. Esther would help with that. She actually liked Chris, or at least liked pretending that she did. That was everyone who mattered. It didn’t matter where Melly sat; she could be tucked down by Malcolm and they could moralize together. Melly was no competition.
Thus it was that the Winters found themselves heartily welcomed by all — or almost all; Cheryl Spencer was too fatigued to bear company, but she greeted them civilly as she rose to head up to her room.
“I’m so glad to finally meet you,” she said, pausing on her way to the elevator. “It’s so nice to have someone in that cottage again. Melly, make sure you make Pugsy shake hands with the Winters before you bring him up.”
Bringing Pugsy up to his mistress and getting the two of them settled caused Melly to be the last one to the table for dinner. Pushing the swinging door from the kitchen wing open a crack, she scanned the dining room, searching for her seat. Despite the sizable dimensions of the room, the long drapes over the deep windows to the gallery and the low chandelier gave the room a surprisingly intimate feel when the table was fully occupied. Across the room, Esther Davis was ensconced at the end of the long table nearest the hall. Dick sat at the head, with his back to the swinging door, and on his left were Olivia, Mr. Winter, Sophia, and Chris. Miss Winter sat on Dick’s other side, and next to her was Malcolm. He nodded at her and gestured to the chair on his right. Relieved, she skirted the table, passing close to the mantelpiece flanked by broad doors into the parlor, and settled next to him. She had no desire to sit anywhere near the strangers, charming though they may be. She didn’t like the way the gentleman and Sophia looked at each other.
Ian Winter was the sort of man who could make almost any woman feel like she was a sparkling conversationalist, and the Spencer ladies, sitting on either side of him, made no attempts to be the exception. Sophia in particular was on her game at dinner, diamond ring flashing as she gestured and laughed.
“I hear congratulations are in order,” said Ian. “Tell me all about the lucky man. He must be quite a catch.”
“He has his good points,” said Sophia, with a knowing smile directed at her solitaire.
“His good points! You’re very generous. The engaged women I’ve known spend most of their time complaining about their fiance’s bad points.”
“Oh, I firmly believe that love is blind.”
“Everyone says that, but I’ve always noticed that people who talk most about being in love also try the hardest to change the other person.”
He tossed a smile to Olivia as she said this, and she felt the bond between then to be cemented. She and Ian had already discussed photography — it was really such a relief to have someone intelligent to talk to in this house — and she had promised to show him her portfolio and take him around the house some afternoon to see how beautifully the antique plaster diffused the light.
Chris leaned in, late as usual to pick up the thread of the last conversation. “Sophia and I wouldn’t change anything about each other,” he claimed, and Sophia rolled her eyes ever so slightly for Ian’s benefit. “If I could change anything, it would be Hazelwood.”
“His house,” said Sophia. “It’s his obsession.”
“Well, of course,” said Esther. “It would be hard not to be obsessed with Hazelwood. It’s one of the most gorgeous houses in the area, bar Stillwater. But I don’t know what you’d want to improve, Chris.”
“It’s not just the house,” Chris explained earnestly. “It’s the whole plantation. I’ve been selling down the land parcel by parcel. I’ve done a lot of work with these builders, and they know this market inside and out. These guys are the only company I would even talk to about subdividing Hazelwood. Right now we’ve got some serious negotiations going on to develop a couple of master planned communities, golf courses, town squares, everything.”
“When Chris says master planned communities, he means rows of McMansions.”
“The high-end housing market is where it’s at,” Chris said. “Hazelwood Estates — it’s going to be the hot address. Baby, McMansions are what’s going to support your lifestyle from here on out.”
“You should save the advertising for the buyers,” said Sophia. “Mr. Winter can’t possibly be interested in hearing about planned communities.”
“On the contrary,” said Ian. “I’m fascinated. I have friends who are big proponents of the new urbanism, and a lot of their work is being carried into the latest thinking on planned communities. They’re big advocates of the town square concept. But you sound like you’re already up on the latest trends, Mr. Dalton."
Chris acknowledged his mastery of the latest trends. “But now of course I’m going to have to completely re-landscape around Hazelwood so we don’t have to see the frickin’ houses every time we look out a window. The owners will be getting Hazelwood’s name, but I’m not giving out views of the house for free.”
“We’ll have to talk some more about it when you’re free,” Ian said. “I’ve consulted on some landscaping for friends in New York.”
Olivia was impressed. “Wow, you do landscaping?”
“There’s nothing Ian loves more than taking up a new project,” said Alys, gently teasing her brother. “He’s the sort who can’t stay still for long. He always has to be doing something — a movie, a project, anything that gives him that thrill of action. You don’t know how unusual it is for him to be down here with nothing to do. It can’t last.”
“I know exactly how you feel,” Dick commiserated. “I hate sitting around. We should get a project going while you’re down here. Stillwater would be perfect for a horror flick — how about the ghosts in the attic rising up to take revenge on the family in the middle of the night?”
“Are there ghosts in the attic?” asked Ian with some interest.
“No,” Dick admitted. “But there are tons of crazy ball gowns. Of course, they’re not good for much, right, Melly?”
“They’re good for wearing at balls,” said Melly.
Malcolm had been quiet through dinner, listening to the different threads of conversation, but to spare Melly from being subjected to Dick’s enlightened views on her handiwork, he turned politely to Alys. “I believe your uncle is Carson Winter? I was just reading an article…”
“Oh lord, what’s his controversy of the week?” Alys’s reply was somewhere between a laugh and a groan. “I can’t get away from him anywhere! Yes, we’re related, much as it pains me to admit it.”
Malcolm was a bit taken aback. “I was only going to say that I had been reading a review of his latest book.”
“I saw that Oprah show a few years ago where Dr. Winters was talking about cannibalism, ”asked Esther, cocking her head at angle meant to suggest intellectual engagement. “Does he have a new book out now? What’s it called?”
“Unprincipled: The Failure of Absolute Ethics.”
“Oh,” said Esther. “I don’t think I’ve read that one yet.”
“The problem with my uncle isn’t his principles, or lack thereof,” said Alys. “It’s his hypocrisy. He couldn’t care less about whether cannibalism should be taboo, but he does care about the publicity value of saying that it shouldn’t be.” She shrugged and laughed. “I doubt whether he’s ever written a sincere word in his life, but maybe that’s just an issue with philosophers in general. In my experience, they’re all more than willing to argue both sides of any question, depending on which makes them look more clever, or will grind their rivals to pulp, or on which side of the coin came up heads.”
“Rene would never do that!” Melly burst out, then blushed as Alys turned to her, surprised as much by her speaking as by her objection.
“Oh, Miss Winter, you’re treading on dangerous ground,” said Malcolm, amused to see Melly vehement about anything. “You’ve maligned someone that Melly loves.”
Alys was apologetic. “I’m so sorry. I’m sure that any philosopher Melly knows must be of a superior breed to the New York variety.”
“I don’t know if he is superior,” said Melly, almost inaudibly, “but I think that he may love truth more.”
Dick, Ian, and Chris had all been engaged in some extensive plans, and now the result was laid before the table.
“I want you all to come down to Hazelwood next Saturday,” Chris announced, taking in the whole assembly. “Everybody! I think the house is big enough to hold all of you.” He snickered at his little joke. Sophia maintained a carefully neutral face. “I want to show you what I’m thinking of and get some honest feedback. Especially from you, Melly!” Melly froze over her dessert, horrified. “I mean, you’re the most opinionated one of the bunch, right?”
Chris and Dick, who were pretty merry by this point in the evening, were in an uproar over Melly’s shock. Olivia snorted, and Sophia took the opportunity of general mirth to share a private laugh with Ian. Malcolm was tired of everyone, and looked it, though he said nothing. Alys gave Melly an encouraging smile.
“I hope you’ll at least tell me your opinions on Hazelwood, Melly,” she said. “I think you must be the only one here this evening with any sense.”
“I agree completely,” said Malcolm. He and Alys shook their heads at the folly all but Melly.
Various members of the party rose from the table, still discussing the trip, and Melly took advantage of the occasion to make her escape to her room, away from the crowd. She had not enjoyed the evening. She was unsettled by the Winters. Ian she would avoid as best she could; his flirting with Sophia had made Melly extremely uncomfortable. Alys was a more complex case. Very few people were kind to Melly, in general, and the rare compliments and attentions that she received inspired great loyalty in her. Alys had been very nice, but… Melly found it hard to put into words what had bothered her. She sat on her bed and recounted the evening’s events to herself. Tomorrow she would talk it over with Malcolm, how Alys had been so willing to toss her uncle into the conversational ring for the amusement of the company. Suddenly, the memory of Dick’s voice repeating Alys’s anecdote about her uncle rose unbidden into her head: “It was a dude.” She barely managed to suppress a laugh. Then, as she meditated on the crass behavior of the uncle, the likely humiliation of the TA, and the willingness of the niece to expose them both for the sake of being thought “fun” by strangers, her face grew serious and her eyes bright with tears.
Among the Spencers, the Winters made a universal conquest. The two were walked to the cottage by the four, and from her window Melly could hear laughs and shouts echoing from the porch until late. Dick was the loudest, of course, but every now and then she could hear Malcolm’s deeper voice weaving in and out of shrill chatter of his sisters. The low, musical murmur of the Winters underscored the sextet, ushering in changes of pace and tempo and finally, drawing the movement to a close. Melly lay in bed, willing her weary mind to settle down and remember that Malcolm had said that she was the only one with any sense, and to forget that he had been agreeing with Alys Winter.
“I don’t know how you work it, Alys,” said her brother as they sat in the rocking chairs on the cottage porch in the cool night air, . “Everywhere you go, people love you. It’s a gift. See, you’ve known Dick Spencer for half an week, and suddenly Stillwater is yours for the asking. I hope you’ll have me up to the big house when you rise in the world.”
“Oh, Dick.” Alys gave a humorous twist of both mouth and hands. “Give yourself a little credit, Ian. You’re loved everywhere you go too, though you rarely stick around long enough to enjoy any more than the first fruits of your labors.”
“The first bite of the apple tastes best, to quote the philosopher Ramona.”
“I think it’s inspiring how years of the most expensive education money can buy has given you such an appreciation for the classics.”
“In my most difficult moments, I turn to Ramona for guidance, and she’s never failed me.”
“Sophia and Olivia seem like nice enough girls. I’m sure that they have a stronger sense of self-preservation than to take advice from young girls with behavioral issues, but with your luck, they’ll probably take your children’s literature fixation as a sign that you’ll make a good father.”
“Oh, come on. Everyone enjoys a little fun.”
“It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt,” said Alys, and the brother and sister rocked and regarded the numerous windows at the back of Stillwater: the lit gallery along the dining room, the kitchen wing on the right, and, on the left wing, a little first-floor window tucked asymmetrically next to the chimney that showed a glimmer of lamp light, then went dark.