Refreshed and completely meditated out, Esther roared back into Stillwater like a gathering hurricane, ready to whisk up everything in her path and spit it out transformed into a complete Stillwater Fellowship Ball. The scheduling of the Ball was left to Esther, and for a number of years she had chosen to hold it in late August — a miserable time of the year to dress up in voluminous layers of antebellum costume in Louisiana, but also a time when few other big society events competed for attention.
Her big concern this year was vacant role of Queen of the Fellowship Ball. The eldest Spencer daughter at home usually filled the post, and for a number of years Sophia had reigned uncontested. Now that she was married, Olivia should have acceded to the throne, and indeed, Olivia had long dreamed of the day when she would supplant Sophia in the spotlight and descend the curved staircase in a rustling gown to greet her subjects gathered in the grand rooms below.
Now that the great occasion was at hand, however, Olivia was strangely recalcitrant. She’d signed up to be an exchange student in Brazil this semester. She wasn’t going to fly home just for the Stillwater Ball. She had better things to do than worry about who would be Queen of the Fellowship Ball — Esther could do it for all she cared. This was exactly what Esther wanted to hear. Technically the naming of the Queen fell to Richard Spencer, but he had always paid little attention to the finer details of the Ball, preferring to let Esther manage the whole thing as long as she didn’t bother Cheryl to make any decisions, which suited them both admirably. It was certain that Cheryl had no desire to be the Queen — she could barely stay up for the entire length of the Ball. There was only one obvious contender, and that was Esther herself. Her seamstress friend in Plaquemine was making her a lavish dress, and she had secretly commissioned Alys to design a new tiara for this year’s Queen, “whoever that may be”.
As Alys had been invited to this year’s Ball, she had, in turn, given Melly a commission to alter one of the old dresses for her. Together they climbed up the tightly spiraling attic stairs, nestled against a tall window in a back service corridor, and emerged into a hot, dusty, cavernous space. Even in the middle of the day, the low windows barely illuminated all the way to the high rafters. Melly pulled the chain of the light fixture near the neat racks of garment bags, but the naked bulb made little impact on the dimness.
“I can think of a few that might fit you fairly well,” she said, sorting through the bags and holding the tags to the light to read the labels. “My mother made these for Sophia when she was younger, so maybe they’ll fit you now.”
“Because I have a figure like a little girl?”
“No!” Melly protested. “I didn’t mean that… It’s just that Sophia is taller than you, and has more… It’s just that she’s bigger,” she finished lamely.
“I know I’m not busty,” Alys laughed. “You won’t hurt my feelings by saying so. You pick the one you think will be best for me.”
Melly considered for a moment. There was no question that Alys would be attractive in anything short of a burlap sack, but it was hard to have to pick the dress in which she would captivate Malcolm at the Ball. Yet she knew exactly which dress would suit Alys perfectly, and with a small sigh, she lifted it carefully from its bag and held it up for her to inspect. It was an off-the-shoulder gown of ice blue taffeta, trimmed with pointed lace along the low neckline and the waist of the bodice. A ruched overskirt of a slightly deeper blue fitted trimly over the hips, and the full underskirt had three tiers of gathered pleats at the hem. The whole effect of the dress was one of alluring innocence. Alys was delighted.
“Oh, this is so authentic!” she gushed, holding the dress to herself and admiring the effect.
“Well, not exactly,” said Melly. “These aren’t exact reproductions, and this dress is a melange of different styles. This overskirt is a look from the 1870s, but it’s not as snug as dresses then would have been. Ladies used to wear pretty tight corsets — even though you’re supposed to wear a corset under this dress, the modern ones won’t squeeze you nearly as much as an authentic corset would. But if you want something truly historical, there are some much older dresses in the way back.”
“I’m not even going to look at another one,” Alys declared. “I wonder what shoes I should wear?”
“The next question is actually what you should wear under it,” said Melly, pawing through the racks in search of the right bustles, corsets, and hoopskirts. “Let’s find that, and then we’re done up here.”
“But what about you? Do you already have a dress?”
“Well…” The truth was that Melly had been avoiding the very thought of the Fellowship Ball. Ordinarily it was a joyful occasion for her, since it brought her beloved brother Reńe, the current Stillwater Fellow, back to her for a whole weekend. However, this year the prospect of Malcolm and Alys whirling gracefully around the floor, gazing soulfully into one another’s eyes (or sardonically, as the case might be) had been weighing heavily on her, and she’d considered just skipping the whole thing. Her hesitation was answer enough for Alys.
“Oh no, we are not leaving this attic until we find you a dress,” she said, taking charge. “And since I find it totally creepy up here, we’re going to do it pronto. Come on.”
Alys threw herself into the racks with purpose, gathering up whatever garment bags were in reach preparatory to examining each one.
“Stop! Stop!” cried Melly, unable to countenance the havoc being wrought on her carefully constructed organizational scheme. “You’re looking in the wrong area. Even Sophia’s old dresses are too big for me.”
“Then you show me where to look.”
Melly carefully hung up all the bags while Alys, on Melly’s advice, looked through a far rack, repository of an older selection of ball gowns made for a some more petite woman than the current crop of Spencer girls. Melly had always selected the most basic dresses for her costumes on the theory that the attention of the ball should be directed toward Sophia and Olivia, and away from herself, as much as possible. Alys had no such qualms. She emerged grinning and victorious, waving a half-zipped bag.
“Okay, I think this should be it. At least, it seemed ideal in the dark back there — let’s see it in the light.”
By the window, Alys displayed a gown of ivory silk woven with subtle stripes.
“I think you’re tiny enough to pull this off. I’m betting on you having pretty shoulders, though.”
Melly fingered the beautiful fabric. The wide neckline stretched to short tight sleeves of lace, and the tiny waist tapered down to a narrow point above the full skirt. Cascading bands of trim and silk dipped in a V across the bodice and swept close along the shoulders. Would Malcolm notice her shoulders? Would he think they were pretty?
“Oh, check it out!” Alys was examining the other side. “The back laces up. I call that sexy.”
“Do you know, I… I think this was someone’s wedding dress,” Melly murmured, blushing at her thoughts of Malcolm and putting him resolutely from her mind.
“Well, the bride is hardly going to ask for it back now, is she?” asked Alys reasonably. “Let’s grab our unmentionables and go try these things on.”
The Ball was fast approaching when Melly received an unwelcome surprise.
She and Malcolm had barely been driving together during the summer — the heat added an extra layer of discomfort to the whole awkward process for Melly, so Malcolm took Alys out instead. With her natural adaptability, Alys made the car her own when she drove, and her gleefully conspiratorial grins at Malcolm as she roared down River Road made that gentleman feel more reckless and liberated than his naturally serious nature had allowed before. Anything seemed possible when she was driving. They might tear up the miles to New Orleans and buy a suit of armor or an elephant’s foot in one of the venerable antique emporiums off Bourbon Street. They might head out at twilight across the endless bridge over the Atchafalaya Basin and find themselves in Mexico by sunrise. They might trace the Mississippi north and wind up in godforsaken Minnesota. None of these wild whims had indulged as yet, but with her, it seemed like excitement was just around the corner.
However, one afternoon a few weeks before the Fellowship Ball, Alys wasn’t in, and as Malcolm entered the basement door to head upstairs, he saw Melly in the family room, her head bent over Alys’s dress. She looked tired and pale, and he reflected guiltily that he had not even tried to get her out of the house in some time. She was always so quiet and patient and uncomplaining that he hadn’t kept as much of an eye on her health as he should have done. Surely it wasn’t good even for her to spend all day shut up in the house sewing.
“Hey, Melly,” he called. At the sound of his voice she immediately looked up, and her welcoming smile banished some of the wanness from her face.
“You’re always in here sewing,” he said, sitting on the arm of the couch.
“I have to finish this before the ball.”
“No, I mean you’re always in the family room. You have to carry everything downstairs to work on your projects. Do you like it better down here than in your room?”
She looked back at her work. “It’s warm up there sometimes.”
Somehow he didn’t like to see her shrinking back to her sewing. “Come on,” he said, taking the dress and putting it aside, “you need to get out. It’s not good for your eyes to spend so long staring at tiny stitches. Let’s go driving. It’s time to get you on bigger roads. We’re going to go up the highway instead of River Road.”
“Just let me get my hat and sunglasses.” Ordinarily she might have protested this new route, but now she was galvanized by the thought that perhaps it was because she was so resistant to stepping out of her comfort zone that he now turned to Alys for companionship. And she was tired of sitting alone in the house without him, and today his concern for her health, fraternal though it might be, was enough to make the dread prospect of driving less onerous.
Her technical driving skills in the big Morgan had improved, and she was able to start the car without stalling now. But she still did not enjoy being behind the wheel. There was no affection between her and the Morgan, nor even the respect one has for a worthy adversary. She still feared that the car had yet another trick hidden away, and she felt deeply its treachery in purring like a kitten for Alys while balking under her command.
“There’s nothing wrong with your driving, Melly, except that you’re not confident behind the wheel,” said Malcolm, confidently. “You know what you have to do, but you’re tentative.”
“Yes,” said Melly tightly. “I’m tentative because I’m steering a huge pile of metal down a road toward other huge piles of metal, and if we collide, there will be one super-huge metal pile and no more me and you.”
“At the speed you’re going, the only metal we’d damage in a collision is our fender, maybe.” He regarded her from the front seat. “You could go faster, Melly. You know how to drive now. You could probably even get your license if you wanted to.”
“I don’t want to.”
“But you could. Think of all the things you could do if you could drive yourself.”
“If someone would lend me a car, you mean.”
“You could get your own car.”
“My own car?” Melly took her eyes off the road for a moment to see if he was teasing, but his face wasn’t twisted in amusement. “How would I get a car?”
“Buy it. How many dresses have you sewn or altered over the years? People pay good money for that. Start charging for the work you do — you deserve it. Then save up for a used car.” This time he did smile. “An automatic if you’re tired of dealing with the clutch.”
The possibility of making money from sewing had never seriously occurred to Melly. She thought of her mother and the years she’d spent at various bridal shops. Of course she must have been paid, but it had always seemed like the family had barely scraped by on that money. Come to that, her mother had been paid for sewing at Stillwater — five years’ worth of Stillwater Fellowship Ball gowns in the attic were testaments to her skill. Had Esther been in charge of paying her? Yet Esther had never offered Melly any money for any of the gowns she’d sewn or altered for the Fellowship Ball. And Sophia’s wedding dress had cost her hours upon hours of wearisome work, yet neither Sophia nor Esther had seemed to think her time was worth very much. But perhaps she had owed them that work; perhaps that was the price of staying at Stillwater.
“At least Alys is paying me,” she murmured.
“Is she?” Malcolm’s eyes glowed, and Melly realized that she’d spoken aloud. “I’m not surprised. She has a lot of respect for your talents, Melly — she’s told me so several times. And she really believes that talent should be recognized and developed. Goodness knows she’s told me that often enough when we talk about the school.” He settled confidentially, and Melly tried to look as encouraging as two-way traffic would allow. “I can’t always understand her, though. I’m really starting to believe that she likes me. She practically told me the other day that the reason she took a second six-month lease was because she liked being near me.”
“She seriously said that?”
“Well, as seriously as she says anything. And that’s the issue. She’s so…” Malcolm surveyed the humid landscape, searching the levee, the cane fields, and the wisps of cloud drifting in the blue sky for words to describe Alys’s ineffable qualities. Melly waited patiently for inspiration to strike.
“We’re so… different, almost completely opposite. She’s so funny and bright and she sees everything so sharply. When I’m with her I feel free, and all my worries and obligations come off my shoulders for a while. But that’s the thing — it’s so easy to laugh at everything when I’m with her that I don’t know how seriously she takes our relationship, or if she even thinks we have a relationship. I feel like I weigh things down enough as it is — the last thing I want to do is ruin everything like always because I just can’t lighten up.”
Melly seethed at the unjustness of this self-assessment. “You don’t ruin anything by being sincere and responsible, Malcolm. That’s called being mature. You shouldn’t ever let anyone make you feel ashamed of it.”
He gave her shoulder a grateful squeeze. “You’re such a good friend, Melly. I’m so glad I have you to talk to. You always say the kindest things, and you’re always right.”
Melly was torn between exhilaration at his words and despondency at his intentions, and her conflicting emotions might have brought tears to her eyes if at that moment the car behind them had not honked with lengthy insistence. She jumped and looked at the speedometer — sure enough, she had let her foot slip while listening to Malcolm, and was tooling along at a leisurely 40 miles an hour. Her pulse began to race as she took her eyes from the road long enough to glimpse at the rearview mirror and saw that the car behind her was right up on her back bumper. Clutching the wheel, she jabbed at the accelerator. The Morgan, glad of this chance to roar, leapt ahead with a speed that alarmed her. Again the horn blared, still immediately behind her. Panic twisted her stomach. Should she go faster? She was driving the speed limit now.
“Why won’t they pass me?” she hissed.
Malcolm squeezed her shoulder again, and his voice was oddly light. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it. They’re just teasing you.”
The car had pulled up alongside the Morgan, and the driver leaned on the horn. Melly risked a sidewise glance and saw Alys waving at her from the passenger seat of her own car. The driver gave her a comic salute, and much to her dismay, she recognized Ian. She glared at him for a moment before remembering that between the sunglasses and hat, he was hardly likely to discern the nuances of her disapproval. Staring straight ahead, she held the Morgan exactly at the speed limit. Ian charged ahead and maneuvered in front of her, and settled down to exactly the limit as well. With a sigh, she realized that she was going to have to follow him all the way home.
“So she was picking up Ian at the airport today!” Malcolm said. “I didn’t know he was coming in. That’s like her to want to surprise us all. Now we will have some fun.”
Melly’s reaction to this development was so exactly opposite his that she felt it hardly worthwhile to say anything. Was there no way to rid themselves of Winters for good?
Ian, in his turn, glanced in the mirror at the sedate Morgan and its primly upright driver. “How on earth does Malcolm Spencer end up in a classic roadster driven by Audrey Hepburn? I didn’t know he had it in him.”
Alys rolled her eyes. “You know it’s his own car, and of course that’s Melly, idiot.”
“Melly?” Ian scrutinized the face in the mirror more intensely. There was indeed a resemblance to the quiet little girl who had always seemed to be underfoot whenever he’d tried to sneak off with Sophia, but now he noticed her finely modeled face and the pretty mouth pursed with irritated concentration. “When did she grow up?”
“She looks the same as she always did, only now you notice it because you didn’t expect to see any good-looking girls this time around,” scoffed Alys.
“But how can she be old enough to drive?”
“I think she’s almost twenty, dumbass.”
“Sweet nineteen and never been kissed.”
Alys looked at him sharply. “You leave her alone. I like her. She’s a good kid.”
“But she doesn’t like me. And I want her to like me. I want everyone to like me.”
“You’re so vain,” said Alys indulgently. “You have to be loved by everyone. I guess she could use a little something to bring her out of herself, but don’t you dare break her heart, or I’ll be mad at you. She’s not Sophia, you know. She’s a nice girl, not that you’d know the type.”
“I wouldn’t break her heart,” he protested, grinning. “I just want to soften it up a little. Make her smile at me, see her light up when I come into the room, have her cry a little when I go away again. That sort of thing.”
“Oh, that’s all, is it? You must be developing some restraint in your old age.”
“See? I’m already working hard on my nice guy cred.”
Alys shrugged. “I wash my hands of you. With this big ball coming up, you’ll probably have a chance or two to make a good impression if you behave yourself.”
Ian’s boyish face could hardly have been more compliant. “That’s all I ask.”