Las Piernas State University Dining Hall
Las Piernas, California
I was eating lunch by myself, thinking about whether I could talk my best friend and roommate Lydia Pastorini, still in her last class of the afternoon, to brave the crowds in the bookstore before I gave her a ride home. My thoughts were interrupted when Mark Kesterson asked, “Hi, Irene, can I join you?”
“Sure,” I said.
Mark and I had known each other for a long time. We’d gone to the same high school, and I had interviewed him while working on the school paper. His father, already starting to build the wealth that now allowed the family to live in a waterfront mansion in one of Las Piernas’s richest neighborhoods, had grown up in poverty, and he worked with Mark to start a program to ensure that young children in the city’s poorest neighborhoods received breakfast before school. I’d talked to Mark and his dad about it, who openly acknowledged modeling it on one started by the Black Panthers in Northern California. That caused Mark a little trouble at school from a few of our fellow students, but it didn’t discourage him from his work or from forming a friendship with me.
We had about ten minutes to talk about everything from Secretariat’s Triple Crown to “The Battle of the Sexes” match soon to be played between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, and were just starting to discuss Watergate, when Alicia Penderson “happened” by and joined us without asking if that was okay with anyone.
Lately Alicia had been ruthlessly if subtly campaigning to set Mark’s hormones afire. He had been crazy about her in high school, when she had ignored him for bigger prey. Now he wasn’t quite so ready to succumb to her charms, but he didn’t rebuff her, either. Those inclined to try to predict whether or not she would succeed were about evenly divided in number.
That is, until Donna Vynes walked into the dining hall that day.
Alicia was the first to notice her—probably because she was utterly unused to having a woman show up in clothing that was more stylish than her own.
Being the type that was all about jeans and loose-fitting T-shirts at that point in life, I couldn’t tell you now what Donna Vynes was wearing. I do remember the first two comments I heard about her.
Alicia said, “Who the hell is that?”
Mark breathed one sentence with reverence. “The most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life.”
What Alicia did next might have surprised those who hadn’t attended high school with her. She eyed Donna speculatively, then waved her over to our table. When she saw Alicia wave, Donna returned a speculative look of her own. She approached the table.
I looked around the dining hall as she made her way over and saw that Mark wasn’t the only male who looked stunned. Any guy in the room who went on to buy a Farrah Fawcett poster years later would tell you she was almost as pretty as Donna Vynes.
Donna was slender, but had curves where they could be appreciated. There was an elegance in her movements. She had hair the color of corn silk and big blue eyes, a cute little nose, and a generous mouth. She had a summer tan that was just dark enough to make her skin look golden. At a time when many of the women I went to school with spent most of the summer slathering on baby oil (some adding iodine) and baking themselves on the beach for six hours at a shot, this meant she was just shy of being pale.
There was something in her manner, a combination of self-confidence and fragility, that acted like a dog whistle on at least half the men in the room.
Although she masterfully hid it, I knew Alicia probably wished with all her heart that the newcomer would pick her nose, break wind, or fall flat on her ass before she reached the table, but none of these things happened. Alicia’s method was always to let the competition hang herself before she realized Alicia had put the noose in place.
Alicia was smiling as she called out a cheery “Hi!” and introduced herself. “You looked a little lost,” she said sweetly. “Why don’t you join us?”
Donna smiled, accepting the invitation. Mark, who had stood as she approached, offered her his chair. He brought another one over and pulled it up next to hers, so that Donna was seated between Alicia and Mark. Further introductions were exchanged. Alicia began asking questions.
You might have expected me, a reporter-in-training, to be doing the grilling, but often it pays to sit back, shut up, and observe. Besides, Alicia was doing my work for me.
Donna was newly returned to Las Piernas, she said. She’d been born here, but hadn’t lived here since she was an infant. Donna was only a few months old when her mother decided to leave Southern California beach life behind. She took Donna with her when she returned to the farm in Ohio where she had been raised.
Donna blushed when she reached that part of the story. I wondered why.
She hurried on. Her mother was apparently one of those folks who told people in California that there was no place like home, and people at home that there was no place like California.
Her mother had passed away a few months ago. Having heard about the place all her life, and wanting to get away from memories, Donna had decided to move to California. She had enrolled too late to get the courses she needed, she said, and had signed up for just enough units to keep her in school. She was hoping she’d be able to get on the waiting lists of the ones she really wanted to take. Then she startled all three of us by softly saying, “I promised my husband I would finish school.”
“Oh, you’re married!” Alicia said, delighted.
Mark’s face fell.
“Widowed,” Donna answered, just above a whisper.
“I’m so sorry,” Mark said, utterly sincere.
“What happened?” Alicia asked.
“He died in Vietnam four years ago,” Donna said.
“Four years ago!” Alicia said, then quickly added, “Forgive me, but you seem too young to have been a widow for four years.”
“I’m twenty,” Donna said. “I’ll be twenty-one in November.” She smiled, and added, “John and I had known each other almost all our lives, but we weren’t married long. He was two years older, lived on a neighboring farm. My mother gave consent for us to marry when I was sixteen because she was half-afraid I’d follow him over there when I turned seventeen.”
“He was drafted?” I asked.
She shook her head. “He volunteered to go. Couldn’t wait, in fact. We got married just after he finished boot camp, before he shipped out.”
“You’ve been through a lot,” I said, thinking of the loss of both her husband and her mother within a relatively short space of time. Would I have had the courage to leave a close-knit rural community to live on the other side of the country, in a city of half a million strangers?
She smiled at me and said, “Thank you. Others have been through worse, though.”
“Irene’s mom died when she was twelve,” Alicia put in.
I wondered what the hell she hoped to achieve by bringing that up—was she trying to signal to Mark that we all have our tragedies, so don’t feel too sorry for the motherless war widow? I frowned at Alicia, then said to Donna, “Grief’s not exactly comparative, is it? No one wants any form of it. Tell me, have you found a place to live, or are you just getting settled in town?”
“I’m renting a room from a couple until I find a place of my own,” she said, seeming glad of the change of subject. “Most of my things are still in storage in Cleveland.”
“I thought you lived on a farm,” Alicia said with a fake puzzled look.
“Most of my life, yes. But we were driving to the Cleveland Clinic so often when my mother became ill, we moved in with one of my great aunts who lives there. It’s a small place and Aunt Lou was used to being on her own, so I think she was hard-pressed not to cheer out loud when I decided to move out here.”
We were interrupted by the arrival of Eldon Naff, who made himself at home by telling me to move over and squeezing a chair between mine and Alicia’s as he introduced himself to Donna. Even though I didn’t care for Eldon’s company, I didn’t protest, because it was going to ensure a certain heightening of the drama at the table. Eldon had spent the last two months making a determined effort to pry Alicia’s attention away from any other man she happened to be with. I would be mostly ignored, which was fine with me.
For once, though, Alicia’s would-be suitor had his attention fixed on someone else.
Eldon’s chief way of trying to amuse others was to gossip. I know some people think women are the more gossipy of the two sexes, but I’m not sure I believe that. Eldon, in any case, loved to dish the dirt more than anyone I’ve ever met, before or since.
I’ll also give him credit for knowing how to be amusing at another’s expense. As he told the story of a professor whose shirt, if viewed after one o’clock in the afternoon, could tell you what was on the menu in the faculty cafeteria, Donna seemed relieved to no longer be the center of attention. Eldon claimed most of that, but I saw Mark and Donna exchanging shy smiles whenever Eldon focused on Alicia for a moment.
Eldon only got the one story in, though, before Donna glanced at her wristwatch and said, “Oh! I’m going to be late for my bus! Thank you all for being so nice to me today.” She stood and gathered up her handbag.
“Let me give you a ride home,” Eldon said quickly.
She smiled. “That’s kind of you, but I’m not going straight home. I—I have an errand.”
“My wheels are at your command,” he said gallantly.
“I’d be happy to take you anywhere you need to go,” Mark said.
“But Mark,” Alicia said, making one of her rare tactical errors, “we have our sociology class this afternoon.”
He looked miffed, but Donna said, “Of course you shouldn’t miss class. Perhaps I’ll see the rest of you another time?”
“I’d like that,” I said, and scribbled my phone number on a piece of paper. She returned the favor. “Great!”
“I’m parked in a good spot,” Eldon said before anyone else could exchange numbers with her, “but we’d better start walking out to Lot Four if you aren’t going to be late.”
She gave the rest of us a slightly helpless look and allowed Eldon to usher her outside.
Lydia arrived about then, and correctly interpreting a signal from me, engaged Alicia in an intense conversation. It allowed me to slip a piece of paper with Donna’s number on it to Mark.
“You’re a doll,” he whispered, and smiled.
“What secrets are you two whispering about?” Alicia demanded.
“If I told you, would it be a secret?”
“Irene,” Lydia said in exasperation. She was right—my teasing Alicia was only going to allow her to cotton on to our ploy to distract her from Mark.
“Oh, all right. I just bet Mark a dollar that Donna ditches Eldon before he can find out where she lives.”
“I think she’s more than happy to be with him,” Mark said. “So I’m betting it’s the start of true love.”
The idea delighted Alicia, so she was in a good mood when they left for their sociology class.
I stared after them.
“Okay,” Lydia said. “What was that all about? Other than someone Alicia called a phony scheming bitch?”
I was still staring.
“Sorry. I just never realized before now that Mark could lie so smoothly.”
• • •
I told Lydia the whole story.
“Poor kid,” Lydia said. “Married, widowed, and—orphaned? All at the age of twenty?”
“I don’t know about the orphaned, part,” I said, frowning. “Come to think of it, she never mentioned her father.”
“Probably divorced when she was little,” Lydia said.
“Probably,” I agreed.
• • •
Later, at home, I called Donna’s phone number, but she wasn’t there. The woman who answered the phone was apparently her landlady, who took a message. “She came home for a little while, but I think she may be out until sometime this evening. How late can she call?”
I was a night owl, but Lydia had an early class, so I said anytime before nine would be okay. I didn’t hear from Donna that evening.
• • •
The next morning, I was studying in the library, when Eldon came up to me and took a seat next to me, big with news.
“Holy shit! Wait until I tell you about little old Miss Vynes!”
We received looks of annoyance from others who were reading, so I folded up my books and we went outside and sat under a tree on the quad.
“Okay, what?” I said.
“Yesterday, you remember she said she had an errand to run?”
“Well! She gives me an address, and asks me if I know where it is. It’s down on Shoreline Avenue. ‘It’s a residential area,’ I told her, thinking she must have something mixed up.”
“No, it’s the address she wants all right. Do you know whose home it was?”
“Eldon, I don’t even know which address it was. You aren’t telling this story in your usual manner.”
“Sorry, I’m just so rattled. I’ll tell you, but you can’t tell a soul.”
“Then never mind.”
I was just torturing him, of course. Whatever or whoever was at the heart of this was burning him alive with the desire to talk about it.
“All right, all right, I’ll tell you.” He drew a deep breath, then said, “That mansion belongs to Homer Langworthy.”
“Okay? That’s all you can say?”
“As far as I know, Homer Langworthy paid for the place, so there’s no reason it shouldn’t belong to him.”
“Paid for that and—with Auburn Sheffield—gave enough money to build the new city library. And then on this campus—”
“Everyone in Las Piernas knows that Homer Langworthy is as rich as Croesus, a confirmed bachelor, and all his money will probably go into a charitable trust.”
“Okay, that’s what everyone thinks they know about him—but listen to this. Donna asks me to take her there, and once we’re parked and I open her door for her and help her out of the Mustang, she tries to get me to leave.”
“Which would have been the polite thing to do.”
“That’s a matter of opinion. Anyway, I tell her I’m going to see her home safely. She’s insistent that I wait in the car. She’s acting really edgy. So, we compromise and I stay in the car. Wasn’t bad—I was parked under a big tree and I just put the top down and listened to the radio.
“She goes up the walk, knocks on the door, and is let in. The butler or whoever he is closes the door behind her. She’s in there for about twenty minutes, then leaves, carrying an envelope.
“When I see her coming back down the walkway, I get out of the car and open the door to let her back in. She stumbles a little over one of the tree’s roots, and when she puts her hands out to catch herself, the envelope and her purse go flying to the floor of the car.
“Is she okay?”
“Yes, I caught hold of her and kept her from hitting too hard.”
“I’ll bet you did.”
“I was a perfect gentleman, and removed my hands as soon as I knew she had her balance again and wasn’t hurt,” he said, affronted. “But that’s not what’s important.”
I couldn’t help laughing.
“You know what I mean. Anyway, while a few things scattered out of her purse, when the envelope fell, it spilled out cash. A lot of cash.”
He had my attention. “Define, ‘a lot.’”
“Seven thousand dollars.”
Seven thousand dollars. Enough to buy a brand new car, pay for tuition and books, and still have enough left over for a down payment on a house.
If I had been able to work my minimum-wage job full-time instead of part-time, and taken home every cent of the dollar sixty-five I made each hour, it would have taken me more than two years to earn seven thousand dollars.
I caught myself going down the envy road and put the brakes on. I said something that really went against my natural state of being curious. “It’s none of our business.”
“That’s how I acted,” Eldon said. “She turned beet red and hurried to gather the money. I didn’t touch any of it, of course. I just helped her pick up her lipstick and compact and other little things that had fallen out of the purse.” He paused and a sly look came over his face. “That reminds me. What’s that colorful plastic tube you girls all carry, around yay long?” He held his hands a few inches apart.
“A double-barreled tampon holder, as well you know. You forgot you told me you have sisters, Eldon.”
He laughed. “Okay. But no joke, there were seven packets of one hundred dollar bills. I asked her if she was sure she had all of them while I raised the top on the car again. As flustered as she was, I was afraid if she had forgotten one of them, it would blow out of the car once we pulled out into traffic. That’s when she told me that all seven thousand was there.”
“Long story short, she tells me that Langworthy is her father.”
I didn’t bother to hide my shock.
“She’s illegitimate,” he said, enjoying my reaction.
“Eldon, you are such a little shit! I’ll bet she asked you to keep it confidential.”
“Of course she did! Can you blame me for wanting to talk to someone about it?”
“If someone asks you to keep a confidence, you keep it.”
He shrugged. “I’m human. Besides, I thought you might already know.”
“You were the one who introduced us.”
“That is such a lie. You saw a pretty girl and made a beeline for the table. For the record, yesterday at lunch was the first time I’d met her.” I paused. “I’ve never liked that phrase, ‘illegitimate child.’ Children aren’t to blame for what their parents do.”
Eldon considered this for a moment, then said, “Never thought of it that way. So—I guess he doesn’t openly acknowledge her, but he was happy she was moving back here. Tough for her really, even with the money. Like he’s ashamed of her.”
“He’s got to be seventy years old, right? That generation—his reputation in the community—he’s probably more ashamed of himself than of her. At least he’s helping her out.”
“Yeah. You suppose he’s going to leave all his bread to her?”
“Eldon, listen to me. You’ve broken her confidence by telling me. Fine, you’re human. Do not tell anyone else. Not anyone. It’s unkind to her and unkind to him. You’ll only embarrass her. Besides, do you want every creep who wants to marry money going after her?”
He stood. “No way I want to increase the competition.”
It belatedly occurred to me, as he walked off whistling, that he was probably one of those creeps.
• • •
Competition or no competition, it didn’t take long to see that Eldon hadn’t been able to keep his big yap shut. Donna had shown a strong preference for Mark’s company, so maybe Eldon decided to blab by way of sour grapes.
Before the week was over, there was always a crowd of men around her, and any number of women ready to pick up the leftovers. It wasn’t just the guys who were broke who spent time with her. Families of the wealthy began to invite her to their parties, willing to overlook the sins of the father if the father was going to make her his heir.
As for the father in question, no one was too surprised to learn that the day after Donna’s visit to his home, Homer Langworthy left town, reputedly for a long voyage on a cruise ship. Or an African safari. Or a European tour. The stories varied, but the bottom line was the same: Homer was unavailable to confirm or deny rumors.
She ate at the best restaurants, sat in the best seats at any concert or play, and was offered extravagant gifts that she very properly refused, a fact which only substantiated, in some minds, that she was an heiress.
She received no fewer than three offers of marriage within her first three weeks on campus. She graciously declined. Until Mark Kesterson asked.
• • •
I was sitting in the offices of the campus newspaper after everyone else had gone home, chewing on a pencil, when an ex-pirate who was dear to me walked in.
The pirate tale was one of the many explanations Jack Corrigan, retired star reporter for the Las Piernas News Express, now journalism professor extraordinaire, offered to anyone bold or rude enough to ask him how he lost his eye. I never heard the same story twice whenever I was around to hear him respond to the inquisitive. I never asked him; I figured he’d tell me if he wanted me to know.
He cocked his head, sat down near me, and lit up a cigarette.
“Now, what has Ms. Kelly staying here late, I wonder?”
“Well, we both know you’re trying to sneak in extra cigarettes before you go home.”
“Not sneak, exactly. Just trying to be supportive of Helen. She quit ten years ago, but I don’t like to tempt her to go back to it. Nice evasion, by the way.”
His wife, Helen Corrigan, another veteran reporter, only slightly edged out her husband as my favorite professor. Neither one of them went easy on their students. I loved them for it.
But just then, I wasn’t sure I wanted to participate in the Donna Vynes rumor mill. Still . . .
He waited. I wasn’t the first person to break under that patient silence of his. I would have loved to learn how he managed to keep a question mark in the air over such long stretches of quiet.
“It’s like this,” I said, and told him the story of Donna Vynes.
He raised his brows a couple of times, but didn’t interrupt the telling. By the time I had finished, he was on his second cigarette.
“I’ve spent some time with Donna,” I said, “and she seems like a sweet person. None of it is really my business, and they seem to be in love, so I should probably adhere to Lydia’s Ax Murderer Rule.”
“Ax murderers have rules?”
“No, Lydia has some good rules. The Ax Murderer Rule is this: if your friend is in love with someone, and that someone is an ax murderer, and you have photographs to prove it, you can try to gently talk your friend out of staying in the relationship. But only if all three conditions are met.”
He laughed. “Smart Lydia.”
“It’s nice in theory, but Mark and I have been friends since high school, and I don’t want to see him hurt.”
“Why should this relationship hurt him?”
“Something about all of this—just doesn’t seem right. Eldon is a gossip and I wouldn’t trust him to keep a secret, but he’s not in the habit of making up whoppers. All the same, I think the whole ‘tripped as she got into the car’ business was a little hokey.”
“Married at sixteen, veteran’s widow? Farm girl whose mother died not long ago, and she dresses better than Alicia? I don’t know. But you can’t be suspicious of people based on their clothing.”
“Sure you can. You probably should not judge someone’s character by what they wear, but that’s not what I hear you saying. Your instincts are telling you something’s not right. So you think over things that don’t fit well with whatever message a person is trying to send to you and others—those things that seem incongruous can be clothing, the way a person carries himself, how they talk, and so on. That doesn’t mean whatever hypothesis you’ve dreamed up about him or her is right, or that they’ve done something wrong—just that you need to figure out what’s really going on.”
“That’s why I’m in here chewing on pencils.”
He took a drag, exhaled slowly. “I have an assignment for you.”
I sat up straighter. “A story?”
“Not exactly. A research assignment.”
He laughed. “Spare me these transports!”
“Sorry. I actually do like research. I’m just in a funk.”
“This assignment will help with that. It may or may not help you decide what to do, but it will wear off some of that energy more productively, and at the very least spare the newsroom the destruction of all its pencils.”
• • •
The assignment was to go to the library and find a copy of The History and Story of the Doings of the Famous Mrs. Cassie L. Chadwick. Then I was to look through the New York Times microfilm collection for stories about her. He gave me a hint and said that early March 1905 would be a good place to start.
“You’ve assigned this before?”
“Oh yes. I’ll tell you why later. But you should find them especially interesting, I think. Unfortunately, my requests to buy copies of microfilm for The Cleveland Plain Dealer for those years have gone unheeded.”
He smiled and put out his cigarette, then said, “Happy hunting,” and left.
• • •
I made sure we were alone. That was actually the hardest part. After realizing that no restaurant in the city would be free of people who might know Donna, I ended up inviting her over for dinner on a night when I knew Lydia had an evening class. Until two months earlier, Lydia and I had shared the place with another roommate, but she had married over the summer. We had been putting off finding another renter, but tonight I was glad for the lack of a potential eavesdropper, enjoying the emptiness and quiet that usually had me thinking that I was going to have to move back home again.
Donna and I made small talk until after I cleared the dishes. She seemed a little down. All the same, she was an easy person to talk to. I was fighting some very cynical thinking about that as I pulled out some photocopies I had made.
I had thought of going all Perry Mason on her ass, cross-examining her until she wept and admitted her crimes. I couldn’t do it. The truth is, I liked her.
“I had a special assignment given to me this week,” I said. “Do you know who Jack Corrigan is?”
She shook her head. My tone must have hardened, or my look, or—somehow I tipped her off that the nature of our little dinner party was about to change.
“Well, I suppose that doesn’t matter. I have a feeling that you do know who Cassie Chadwick was.”
She, who blushed so easily, turned pale. She looked at me with such desperation that, for a full minute, I wasn’t sure if she was going to cry, run away, or punch me. But she just nodded yes and looked down at her hands.
“If she hadn’t harmed so many people,” I said, “I could almost admire her cunning, not to mention her nerve. After running a number of other scams, she marries a naive doctor from Cleveland, just happens to convince him that they should visit New York at the same time a man from home is there—a man who is a high-society gossip in Cleveland. She asks that man to give her a carriage ride, and has him wait for her outside the home of Andrew Carnegie, a wealthy, confirmed bachelor. She goes into the house, comes out thirty minutes later, and—this part really interested me—trips as she’s getting into the carriage. Drops a promissory note for two million dollars—a note that appears to be signed by Andrew Carnegie, whom she blushingly claims is her father.”
She stayed silent.
“Too bad promissory notes aren’t what they used to be. Planning to borrow millions based on phony documents, and cause a bank or two to fail?”
“I didn’t think so.” I let the silence stretch for a time, then said, “Who told you about Cassie Chadwick?”
“Aunt Lou, my great aunt. She grew up hearing stories about her. Aunt Lou claimed to ‘admire her brass’ as she put it. Aunt Lou doesn’t think women ever get a fair shake in this world.”
“Is Donna Vynes your real name?”
“My married name, yes.” She was tracing patterns on the tablecloth with one of her perfect fingers, still not making eye contact.
“So you’re really a war widow?”
The finger stopped moving. She looked up at me. “Oh yes. And my mother is dead. John, my husband, sent home all of his pay—a little over a hundred and fifty dollars a month at first. It was up to about four hundred when he was killed. Just about everything he saved for us got spent on my mother’s medical needs. But John also bought some life insurance through the service. So I had ten thousand from that.”
“That’s where the seven thousand comes from?”
“Yes.” She sighed. “There was this neighbor of Aunt Lou’s in Cleveland. Her daughter was about my age. Despite all my other faults, I’m not like Eldon, so I won’t name her, if you don’t mind. Anyway, at the end of last semester, she dropped out of school here. Looking back on it now, I think she was just really homesick.
“But what she told me was . . . well, once we got to know each other, she said the reason she left was because Eldon Naff slept with her and then told the world about it. She said she had been working as an assistant for Mr. Langworthy, or rather to someone on his staff. She said it was Mr. Langworthy who fired her, mostly based on Eldon’s gossip. I don’t know if that’s true, but I learned a lot about Mr. Langworthy from her. Including the fact that in early September, he was going on a Mediterranean cruise.
“And I couldn’t help thinking about Mr. Carnegie and Mrs. Chadwick. Especially because I never knew my dad. My mother always said my father died while she was pregnant with me, but I think she was lying. Aunt Lou all but confirmed that my parents weren’t married. So I am illegitimate, just not the child of a rich man.”
After a long silence, she said, “God, I don’t know how you did it, but I’m glad you figured it out. It’s a relief.”
“I’m sure it is. So you were thinking about Andrew Carnegie and Cassie Chadwick—”
“Yes. And I took a gamble. Bought some clothes and a bus ticket and went west. I just couldn’t be happy in Cleveland, living with Aunt Lou, hearing about this beautiful place from a neighbor girl who had no sense at all. There are some nice men in Cleveland, but I had too many bad memories associated with it, and going back to our small town—well, let’s just say that wasn’t an option. I couldn’t stand being under the microscope as John Vynes’s widow, with his mama harping on how it was my fault he’d been killed—which is just nonsense and the meanest lie, because I did not want him to go off to war! How we argued—” She halted, tears welling up in her eyes. She quickly brushed them away.
“So I applied to the college and got accepted,” she went on, forcing a smile. “You know the rest.”
“Not exactly. What the hell did you expect would happen when Langworthy returned?”
“I hoped for two things. I hoped that by then I’d have met some nice college guy who would marry me. The other was I’d get a chance to pay Eldon back a little. He’s the only person to whom I ever told that story about Mr. Langworthy. No one else has asked me directly if I am his daughter. If they had, I was going to deny it, and swear to high heaven that I didn’t have any seven thousand dollars, and that he made it all up.”
I shook my head. “He’s a jerk, and he gossips, but he’s not known for outright lying about his stories. People would probably be more likely to believe him than you.”
“Yes, I figured that out. I also figured a few other things out, but . . .” She swallowed hard, took a halting breath and said, “Anyway, I was hoping Mr. Langworthy’s staff would back me up.”
“What actually went on inside the Langworthy residence that day?”
“Oh, nothing, really. I asked to speak to the person my neighbor reported to, and told her that she thought the world of the Langworthy staff and had asked me to stop by and wish them well. Naturally, they asked about her and how she was doing, and even said that Mr. Langworthy regretted firing her. Guess it has cost him some sleepless nights. They asked me to contact her to see if she’d come back, and I did, but she said she’s happier where she is.”
“You know what, I don’t give a damn about any of that. I don’t even give a shit about all those stupid male gold diggers who were trying to get into your panties over the last few weeks. There are only two people I’m really concerned about here. God knows how Mr. Langworthy is going to react when he learns what’s happened to his reputation. So that’s one. But—”
“Mark,” she said, looking forlorn. “I know you have no reason to believe a word I say, but it’s breaking my heart twice. I can’t stand hurting him, but I’ve realized for some time now that I made a bigger trap for myself than the one I built for Eldon. I hated hurting Mark.” This time, the tears flowed unchecked.
I ignored them—her use of the past tense was another matter. “What the hell have you done now?”
She looked surprised at my anger. “Didn’t he tell you? I thought you’d be the first person he called. I gave his ring back to him. I couldn’t live with myself if we married, knowing I’d tricked him into it.”
“So what’s the plan now, Mrs. Chadwick?”
“Don’t call me that!”
“What’s the plan? Do you go back to Ohio with your tail between your legs? Join a nunnery? Marry someone you don’t love in some act of martyrdom?”
She looked stunned. “I thought—I thought you’d understand.”
“Here’s an alternative you may not have considered: tell Mark the truth.”
“I have thought of that. Of course I have. But how could he ever trust me again?”
“If you ask me, whatever time and effort you spend earning that trust is bound to be a better penance than hurting him for the sake of your fear and guilt.”
She looked down at the tablecloth again. Her hands were shaking, but she said, “I’ll do it.”
“Good. The whole truth, right?”
I brought her a box of Kleenex and called Mark.
“Hi, Irene,” he said. He sounded awful. “I was just thinking of calling you.”
“Tell you what, why don’t you come over instead?”
“I don’t think I’d be good company. Donna gave me my ring back.” Utterly crushed. The boy had it bad.
“Bring the ring over. Maybe you can put it back on her. But my unsolicited advice is that the two of you should take things a little slower.”
“She’s there?” he said, with about a thousand volts more energy than I had heard in his voice a moment before.
“Yes. Come over; I’ll see to it that you aren’t disturbed. But you have to be out of here by noon.”
“Irene . . . I . . . I don’t know what you said to her, but—”
“Just get over here.”
“On my way.”
Next I called Lydia’s mom.
• • •
I met Lydia on the front steps with an overnight bag already packed for her. “Come on, we’re spending the night at your mom’s place.”
“An old-fashioned slumber party.”
“What are you talking about? I’m exhausted.”
“I’ll tell you all about it on the way over to your mom’s. I’d take you to Kellyville, but—”
She shuddered. “Barbara.”
“Exactly. My sister will drive us nuts.”
• • •
I found Jack Corrigan in his office late the next day.
“Thanks for the assignment,” I said. “Reading the style of those turn-of-the-century reporters was fun. How did you know about the story?”
“My mother’s eldest brother—who was so much older than her, he was more a father figure than a sibling—lost all his savings when the Oberlin bank failed, thanks to Cassie Chadwick. Or at least, that was the way the story was told by my mother. Uncle Eamon pointed out that crooked though Cassie was, the bankers played a large part in elevating her from a minor con artist to a major swindler.”
“Were you close to him?”
“Oh yes. He came to live with us at one point, and eventually repaired his fortunes, which was a good lesson to me—that ruin need not be a permanent condition for anyone still breathing.” He paused. “May I ask how your friend Mark is doing?”
“Great. As your uncle might say, Donna is still breathing. They’re going to wait a year to marry. In the meantime, she’s moving in with Lydia and me.”
“Excellent work, Kelly.”
• • •
Mr. Langworthy had been informed of the rumors while on vacation with the love of his own life, who happened to be male. His lover encouraged an impish side to Mr. Langworthy that no one had seen in decades. Donna, expecting to be told that she must pay for an announcement to be printed in the paper denying any claim on him, was instead begged never to do so. “I would be delighted, my dear—provided you’re not interested in making any claim on my estate?—to watch all of the people who’ve been eager to have a slice of the pie try to behave themselves when it looks as if the kitchen is closed.”
She assured him—as did Mark—that she had no need for his money.
So Lydia and I were bridesmaids at a wedding that was held at the Langworthy mansion. Many people in attendance thought they knew something they didn’t, always a dangerous condition, but terribly amusing to Mr. Langworthy all the same.
Oh, and somehow Eldon Naff ended up falling into a koi pond, and had to go home early as a result. I am not at liberty to say how this came about, but perhaps some things are best left unacknowledged.