Dear Aunt Trisha,
I'm so happy you will be able to attend my Sweet Sixteen party. Mommy told me you would try, but I didn't think you would be able to break away from rehearsals, especially rehearsals for a new Broadway show!
Although Mommy always tells me she is not envious, I know she is, for I have often found her sighing and gazing longingly at a program from one of your Broadway productions. Daddy knows she's envious too, and he feels sorry for her. Singing at the hotel from time to time is not enough, especially for someone with Mommy's talent. I think it hurts more when someone comes up to her afterward and says, "You were wonderful; you should be on Broadway."
We have this wonderful hotel, which has grown more and more successful, and Mommy is highly respected as a business woman, but I think to Mommy the hotel is like a ball and chain. I have already told both Mommy and Daddy that I don't want to become a hotel executive. My brother Jefferson can be the one who steps into their shoes, not me. I want to be a pianist and attend the Bernhardt school in New York just like you and Mommy did.
I know I should be very happy. Mommy and Daddy are making my Sweet Sixteen the grandest party ever at the hotel. Everyone is coming, even Granddaddy Longchamp and Gavin. I'm so looking forward to seeing Gavin; it's been months and months since we've seen each other although we write to each other practically every week.
I bet Mommy wishes that Aunt Fern couldn't leave college and come, although she wouldn't tell Daddy that. Last time Aunt Fern was home, Mommy and she had a terrible row over her grades and a behavior report the dean sent.
Bronson will bring Grandmother Laura, but I doubt she will know where she is or whose party she's at. Sometimes when I see her, she calls me Clara. Yesterday, she called me Dawn. Mommy says I should just smile and pretend to be whoever she thinks I am.
In a few days, I will be sixteen and get mountains of wonderful presents. In so many ways, I really am a very lucky girl. My classmates tease me and call me Princess because I live high on the hill in a beautiful house and my family owns one of the most luxurious resorts on the East Coast. My mother is a beautiful and talented woman, and Daddy is more wonderful to me than my mysterious real father could ever have been, and, even though he's a brat, Jefferson is a cute little nine-year-old brother. Don't tell him I said so.
But, sometimes I can't drive away those sad feelings that sneak into my heart. It's as if there is always a dark cloud hovering, even though the rest of the sky is blue. I wish I could be more like you and always see the cheerful side of things. Mommy says you have bubbles in your blood.
Maybe I'm just being silly. Daddy says it's nonsense to believe in curses, but I can't help wondering if one wasn't put on our family. Look at the terrible thing Grandfather Cutler did to Grandmother Laura, and look at what Grandmother Cutler did to Mommy when she was just born. No wonder Aunt Clara Sue was so wild and died so young. I feel sorry for Grandmother Laura because she lives in a world of confusion as a result of all this.
People say all great families have tragedies and there's no reason to believe ours has been chosen for anything special. Yet, I can't help feeling there's something terrible waiting for me, too, a dark shadow just waiting to cast itself over me. Not all the music, all the lights, all the laughter and smiles can drive it away. It waits there, watching like some ugly, hunchbacked monster hatched in a nightmare.
I'm about to be sixteen and I still sleep with a small light on. I know I'm being ridiculous, but I can't help it. Only Gavin never laughs. He seems to know exactly what I mean. I see it in his dark eyes.
And you don't laugh at me, although you're always bawling me out for not smiling enough.
I promise, I'll try. I can't wait to see you. I can't wait to see everyone. It's going to be the greatest weekend of my life!
See, I bounce from one mood to another. No wonder Daddy calls me a ping-pong ball.
Aunt Trish, if you have a program from your new show, please bring it along. I'm so proud of you and I hope and pray that some day you will be just as proud of me.
Chapter 1: Sweet Sixteen
The thick layers of clouds that had blown in from the ocean overnight still hung in the sky when I woke early in the morning. I couldn't sleep late, not today, not the most special day of my life. I threw off my pink and white down comforter and practically leaped out of my pink polkadotted canopy bed to rush to the window and gaze out over the grounds between our house and the hotel. Most of the grounds staff were already out there trimming hedges, cutting grass and washing down walkways. Here and there, I saw a guest taking an early morning walk. Many of our guests had been coming to Cutler's Cove for years and years and were elderly.
Off to my right, the ocean looked as silver as coins and the seagulls could be seen hungrily swooping down to the beaches in search of breakfast. In the distance an ocean liner was nearly lost against the gray background. I had so wanted to wake up to a morning filled with sunshine. I wanted the sea to sparkle as it had never sparkled before, and I wanted the sunlight to stream through the petals of the roses, the daffodils, the tulips and turn the leaves of the trees into a rich spring green.
When I was very little, I used to dream that the hotel, the grounds, the beaches and ocean were my own private Wonderland into which I had fallen like Alice. I gave everything silly names and even pretended people I knew were animals dressed like people. Nussbaum the chef was an old lion and his nephew Leon, his assistant with the long neck, was a giraffe. The bellhops that scurried about were rabbits, and Mr. Dorfman who prowled about the hotel at all hours with his eyes wide looking for mistakes and inefficiency was a snooty owl. I would look up at the painting of Grandmother Cutler in the lobby and think of her as the wicked witch. Even Uncle Philip and Aunt Bet's twins, Richard and Melanie, who really did look alike, were afraid of Grandmother Cutler's picture and would try to scare each other, or me and Jefferson, by saying, "Grandmother Cutler will get you!"
Although Mommy had really never told me all the gruesome details, I knew she was treated horribly when she was brought back to Cutler's Cove. It seems impossible to me that anyone could have despised my beautiful, loving Mother. When I was little sometimes I would stare up at Grandmother Cutlet's portrait, trying to see in that lean, hard face the clues to her cruelty. When I walked past that portrait, her cold gray eyes always followed me and I had many a nightmare with her in it.
The picture of her husband, Grandfather Cutler, was different. He wore a sly smile, but one that made me look away just as quickly and make sure all my buttons were closed. I knew vaguely that he had done a very bad thing to Grandmother Laura Sue and as a result, Mommy had been born; but again, what exactly had happened had not yet been told to me. It was all part of the mysterious past, the somber and unhappy history of the Cutlers. So much of my heritage was kept under lock and key, buried in old documents stuffed away in iron boxes or sealed in photograph albums kept in dusty cartons somewhere in the attic of the hotel.
And there were fewer and fewer people working here who remembered Grandmother and Grandfather Cutler. Those who did remember never wanted to answer my questions and always said, "You should ask your mother, Christie. That's family business," as if family business were the code words for top secret. Our housekeeper Mrs. Boston had a stock reply whenever I asked her any questions. She had been Grandmother Cutler's housekeeper, but she always replied with, "It's better you don't know."
Why was it better? How bad could it have been? When was I going to be old enough to know? Daddy said it was too painful for Mommy to talk about any of it in great detail and would only bring back bad memories and make her cry.
"You don't want her to cry, do you?" he would ask me and I would shake my head and try to forget.
But it was impossible to forget a past that still lingered about in shadows and in between sentences, a past that suddenly could turn smiles into looks of sadness or fear, a past that called to me from the old paintings or from the tombstones on Randolph's and Aunt Clara Sue's graves in the old cemetery. Sometimes, it made me feel as if I were only half a person, as if I had yet to meet the other half of myself which would emerge someday from those dark shadows to introduce herself as the real Christie Longchamp.
Nothing made me feel this way more than knowing only scant details about my real father. I knew his name, Michael Sutton, and I knew from looking him up in the reference books in the school library that he was once a popular opera star who also sang in London and Broadway theater. His career had taken a very bad turn and he had disappeared from sight. Mommy wouldn't talk about him. She wouldn't tell me how they had fallen in love enough to have had me or why I never saw him. Whenever I asked, she would say, "Someday, I'll tell you all of it, Christie, when you're old enough to understand."
Oh, how I have always hated it when people said that to me. When would I ever be old enough to understand why grown-ups fell in and out of love, why they hated and hurt each other, why someone like Grandmother Laura Sue who was once young and beautiful, was now twisted and crippled and shrunken up inside? I knew early on that it wasn't my age that was the problem, it was that Mommy found the past too painful to talk about. I felt sorry for her but I had grown to feel sorry for myself, too. I had a right to know...to know who I was.
As I gazed out my window, I shivered and buttoned the top button of my pajama top because the June morning was as grey and chilly as my thoughts. Even the sparrows that usually pranced and paraded on the telephone wires outside my room seemed strangely quiet today. It was as if they knew it was my sixteenth birthday and wanted to see just how I would react to the dark skies. They fluttered their wings nervously, but remained squatting down, staring.
I frowned at them and folded my arms under my breasts, slouching my shoulders just the way Mommy hated. I couldn't help the way I felt. Daddy called me a weather vane.
"One look at your face," he said, "and I can tell whether it will be a nice day or not."
He was right. I was like a window pane, so easy to see through and read what was written inside. The weather always affected my moods. When it rained and rained, I wouldn't even look out the window. I would pretend it was nice outside and just ignore the pitter-patter of drops on the roof. But when the sunshine came pouring through my lace curtains and kissed my face, my eyes would pop open and I would spring out of bed as if sleep had been a prison and daylight was the key opening the heavy, iron door.
Mr. Wittleman, my piano teacher, said the same things about me. He deliberately chose a heavy piece, a Brahms; or Beethoven, to practice on dark, cloudy days, and something light or sweet, a Tchaikovsky or Liszt, on sunny days. He said my fingers must weigh ten pounds more whenever it rains.
"You should have been born a flower," he said, his heavy, dark brown eyebrows tilting inward. They were as thick as caterpillars. "The way you blossom and frown."
I knew he was teasing me, even though he didn't smile. He was a firm but tolerant man who tutored a number of young people in Cutler's Cove. He let me know in little ways that I was his most promising pupil. He told me he would tell Mommy that I should definitely audition for Juilliard in New York City.
I turned away from the window when I heard my little brother Jefferson come out of his room and down the corridor to mine. I watched expectantly for my door handle to turn slowly. He loved sneaking in while I was still asleep and then screaming and jumping on my bed, no matter how many times I bawled him out for it. I told Mommy that the cartoonist who made Dennis the Menace must have known Jefferson first.
This morning, since I was already up, I would surprise him. I saw the handle turn and the door opening little by little until Jefferson could tiptoe in. The moment his foot came through I grabbed the door and thrust it open.
"JEFFERSON!" I cried and he screamed and then laughed and charged to my bed, burying himself in my comforter. He was still in his pajamas, too. I slapped him firmly on the rump. "I told you to stop doing that. You have to learn to knock."
He poked his head out from under the comforter. Jefferson was so different from me. He was never depressed, never upset about the weather unless it prevented him from doing something he had planned to do. He could just as well play outside in a warm, light rain as he could play in sunshine. Once he was enveloped in his world of makebelieve, nothing mattered. It took Mrs. Boston four or five times to get him to hear her calling, and when he was interrupted, he would narrow those sapphire eyes of his into dark slits and scowl angrily. He had Daddy's temper and Daddy's eyes and build, but Mommy's mouth and nose. His hair was dark brown most of the year, but in the summer, maybe because he spent all his waking hours in the sun, his hair would lighten until it was almost the color of almonds.
"Today's your birthday," he declared, ignoring my complaints. "I'm supposed to give you sixteen pats on your backside and one for good luck."
"You are not. Who told you that?"
"Well you just tell him to slap himself sixteen times. Get out of my bed and go back to your room so I can get dressed," I ordered. He sat up, folding the blanket over his lap, and peered at me with those dark, inquisitive eyes.
"What kind of presents do you think you will get? You will get hundreds and hundreds of presents. So many people are coming to your party," he added, his hands out, palms up.
"Jefferson, it's not polite to think about your presents. It's nice enough that all these people are coming, some from very far away. Now get out of here before I call Daddy," I said, pointing toward the door.
"Will you get a lot of toys?" he asked anxiously, his eyes filled with expectation.
"I hardly think so. I'm sixteen, Jefferson, not six."
He smirked. He always hated it when he got gifts of clothing on his birthdays instead of toys. He would tear open the boxes, gaze at the garments for an instant, and then go on to the next hopefully.
"Why is sixteen so important?" he demanded.
I brushed back my hair so it fell over my shoulders and sat at the foot of the bed.
"Because when a girl gets to be sixteen, people are supposed to treat her differently," I explained.
"How?" Jefferson was always full of questions, driving everyone crazy with his "Whys" and "Hows" and "Whats."
"They just do. They treat you more like an adult and not a child, or a baby like you."
"I'm not a baby," he protested. "I'm nine."
"You act like one, sneaking in on me every morning and screaming. Now go on, get dressed for breakfast," I said and stood up. "I've got to take a shower and pick out something to wear."
"When's Aunt Trisha coming?" he asked, instead of leaving. He would ask a thousand questions first.
"This afternoon, early."
"About three or four o'clock. All right, Jefferson? Can I get dressed now?"
"Get dressed," he said shrugging.
"I don't get dressed in front of boys," I said. He twisted his mouth from one side to the other as if he were chewing on this thought.
"Why not?" he finally asked.
"Jefferson! You should know enough by now not to ask such a question."
"I get dressed in front of Mommy and Mrs. Boston," he said.
"That's because you're still a child. Now out!" I said pointing to the door again. Slowly, he slipped off the bed, but he paused, still considering what I had said.
"Richard and Melanie get dressed and undressed in front of each other," he said. "And they're twelve."
"How do you know they do?" I asked. What went on at Uncle Philip's and Aunt Bet's always interested me. They still lived in the old section of the hotel, Uncle Philip and Aunt Bet now sleeping where Grandmother Laura and Randolph once slept. The twins had their own rooms now, but up until this year they had shared a room. I didn't go up there much, but whenever I did, I would pause by the locked door to what had once been Grandmother Cutler's suite. I had never even had the opportunity to glance inside.
"I saw them," Jefferson said.
"You saw Melanie getting dressed?"
"Uh huh. I was in Richard's room and she came in to get a pair of his blue socks," he explained.
"They share socks?" I asked incredulously.
"Uh huh," Jefferson said, nodding. "And she was only in her underwear with nothing over here," he said, indicating his bosom. My mouth dropped open. Melanie had begun to develop breasts.
"That's terrible," I said. Jefferson shrugged.
"We were getting ready to play badminton."
"I don't care. A girl that age shouldn't be parading around half-naked in front of her brother and cousin."
Jefferson shrugged again and then had a new thought.
"If you get any toys, can I play with them tonight? Can I?"
"Jefferson, I told you. I don't expect to get toys."
"If you do," he insisted.
"Yes, you can. If you get out of here right now," I added.
"Great," he cried and charged to the door just as Mommy knocked and opened it. He nearly ran into her.
"What's going on?" she asked.
"Jefferson was just leaving so I could get dressed," I said, fixing my eyes on him furiously.
"Go on, Jefferson. Leave your sister alone. She has a lot to do today," Mommy advised.
"She said I could play with her toys tonight," he declared.
"He thinks I'm getting tons of toys for presents," I said.
"Oh." Mommy smiled. "Go on, Jefferson. Get dressed for breakfast."
"I'm a pirate," he announced, raising his arm as if he held a sword. "Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum," he cried and charged out. Mommy laughed and then turned to me and smiled.
"Happy birthday, honey," she said and came over to give me a kiss and a hug. "This is going to be a wonderful day." I could see the brightness and happiness in her eyes. The flood of color in her face made her look as beautiful as the models who stared out of the pages of fashion Magazines.
"Thank you, Mommy.
"Daddy's showering and getting dressed. He wants us to give you your first gift at breakfast. I think he's even more excited about your birthday than you are," she added, stroking my hair.
"I can't wait until everyone comes," I said. "Aunt Trisha's still coming, right?"
"Oh yes, she called last night. And she said she's bringing you play programs and a lot of other theatrical souvenirs."
"I can't wait." I went to the closet and picked out a light blue skirt and button-down collar blouse with short sleeves.
"You'd better wear a sweater this morning. It's still a bit nippy," Mommy said. She joined me at the closet to look at my party dress again. "You're going to look so beautiful in this," she said, holding it out.
It was a pink silk strapless dress with a sweetheart neckline and billowing skirt to be worn over layers of crinolines. I had had shoes dyed to match and would wear gloves, too. When I had first tried the dress on, I thought I looked foolish in it because of my small bosom, but Mommy surprised me by buying me an uplift bra. Even I was shocked by the eflect. It took my breath away to see my breasts swell up to create a cleavage. My face reddened along with my chest and neck. Could I wear this? Would I dare?
"You're going to look so grown up," Mommy said and sighed. She turned to me. "My little girl now a little lady. Sooner than we think, you will graduate from high school and be off to college," she added, but she sounded melancholy.
"I want to do what Mr. Wittleman says, Mommy. I want to audition for Juilliard or maybe Sarah Bernhardt," I said and her smile faded. For some reason Mommy was afraid of my going to New York and didn't encourage me about it very much.
"There are a number of good performing arts schools outside of New York -- several right here in Virginia, in fact."
"But Mommy, why shouldn't I want to go to New York?"
"New York is too big. You can get lost there."
"New York is where there is the most opportunity," I replied. "Mr. Wittleman says so, too."
She didn't argue. Instead, she took on this sad look, lowering her soft blue eyes and drooping her head. She was usually so bright and alive that whenever something made her mood grow dark, I felt a terrible foreboding and emptiness in my heart.
"Besides, Mommy," I reminded her, "that's where you went to performing arts school, and that's where Aunt Trish went, and look at where she is now!"
"I know," she said, reluctantly admitting what I said was true. "I just can't help being afraid for YOU."
"I won't be much younger than you were when you took over all this responsibility at the hotel," I reminded her.
"Yes, honey, that's true, but responsibility was thrust on me. It wasn't something I wanted. I had no choice," she complained.
"Will you tell me all of it, Mommy? Why you left the Sarah Bernhardt School? Will you?"
"Soon," she promised.
"And will you finally tell me the truth about my real father? Will you?" I pursued. "I'm old enough to know it all now, Mommy."
She gazed at me as if she were seeing me for the first time. Then, that angelic smile came over her lips and she reached out to wipe some strands of my golden hair away from my forehead.
"Yes, Christie. Tonight, I will come to you in your room and tell you the truth," she promised.
"All of it?" I asked, nearly gasping. She took a deep breath and nodded.
"All of it," she said.
Daddy, as handsome as ever, was already at the table reading the newspaper when I came down to breakfast. Mommy had to go into Jefferson's room to help him hurry along. He would diddle-dawdle forever if he suddenly got interested in one of his toy trucks or trains while he brushed his teeth or combed his hair.
"Happy birthday, honey," Daddy said and leaned over to kiss me on the cheek when I sat down.
He still looked more like my older brother than my stepfather. Both my parents were so young-looking that all my friends were jealous, especially my best friend, Pauline Bradly, who was Mrs. Bradly's granddaughter. Mrs. Bradly was in charge of our front desk at the hotel.
"Your dad has such dreamy eyes," Pauline often said. In the summer his skin would turn a deep bronze color from so much outdoor work. Against his tan his dark eyes became as bright and shiny as polished onyx, and he had beautiful white teeth that gave him an ivory smile. He was muscular and tall, and lately he had let his hair grow longer and he brushed it up in a soft wave in front. I had no trouble understanding why Mommy had been in love with him ever since they were children.
"So how does it feel to be the ripe old age of sixteen?" he asked, his smile warming me.
"I don't know. I'm too excited to feel anything, I think," I said and he smiled even wider.
"From the way your mother's behaving, you would think it's her Sweet Sixteen," he quipped.
"What was that you said, James Gary Longchamp?" Mommy cried, coming through the door with Jefferson right behind her.
"Uh oh." Daddy snapped his paper and pretended to go back to his reading.
"Meanwhile," Mommy said, sitting down, "Your father here has been the one worrying about the food, the decorations, the music. He's the one driving everyone around the hotel crazy, insisting that every hedge be cut just right and every flower stem be perfectly straight. You would think we're giving a party for the Queen of England!"
Daddy shifted the paper so he could see me and he winked.
"Daddy, Daddy, can I ride on the rider mower with you today?" Jefferson begged. "Can I? Please."
"We'll see," Daddy said. "It depends on how well you eat your breakfast and how many people you drive crazy an hour."
Mommy and I laughed.
"Happy birthday, Christie," Mrs. Boston said, coming into the dining room with our platter of eggs and grits. After she put it down, she gave me a hug and a kiss.
"Thank you, Mrs. Boston."
"You're going to make one fine birthday girl."
"You're coming to the party, aren't you?" I asked her.
"Oh sure. I went and bought me a new dress, a modern one." She eyed Daddy quickly. "And don't you say nothing about it, Mr. Longchamp."
Daddy chuckled and folded his paper. Then he reached down beside his chair and came up with a small package.
"This is the only opportunity the family will have today to be alone and together, so your mother and I decided to give you this now," he declared. "We thought it might come in handy today, considering how important every minute is."
"Wow!" Jefferson said, impressed with the gift wrapping, which was silver with a deep blue ribbon around it.
Nervously, I started to unwrap it, taking care not to rip the pretty paper. I wanted to save every memento, every memory from this day. I opened the long box and looked down at a stunning gold watch.
"Oh, it's beautiful," I cried. "Thank you, Daddy." I hugged him. "Thank you, Mommy," I said and kissed her.
"Let me help you put it on," Daddy said and took the watch out.
"Does it have an alarm? Does something pop up? Is it waterproof?" Jefferson demanded.
"It's just a lady's watch," Daddy said, holding my arm gently as he fastened the watch. "Look at that," he added when I held my wrist out.
"It looks beautiful on you, Christie," Mommy said.
"Is it the right time?" Jefferson asked. "It's so small, how can you tell?"
"I can tell. Yes." I smiled at everyone, so happy that we were together, that we all cared so much about each other. For a few moments, I even forgot it was cloudy outside. There was so much warm sunshine inside. "It's the best time of all!" Mommy and Daddy laughed and we proceeded to eat our breakfasts, everyone chattering away.
On weekends, besides looking after Jefferson, I usually helped out in the hotel, relieving people at the front desk. Sometimes Pauline came over and worked with me. At various times she had crushes on different bellhops, as did I, and it was fun flirting with them in the lobby, as well as answering the phones and speaking to people who called from as far away as Los Angeles, California or Montreal, Canada.
But today, my special day, I didn't have to do anything. As soon as breakfast was over, I wanted to go to the ballroom to see how the decorations were coming along. Naturally, Jefferson begged to go with me.
"You should leave your sister alone today," Mommy warned him.
"It's all right, Mommy, as long as he's good," I said, glaring at him sternly. I might as well have tried to melt ice with my look. No one but Daddy and Mrs. Boston could get Jefferson to behave if he didn't want to.
"I'll be good," he promised.
"If you are, you can come out and help me with the lawns this afternoon," Daddy said. That was enough to make him sit up straight, finish his breakfast and drink his milk. Afterward, he took my hand obediently, and we hurried out the door, down the steps and across the grounds, even beating Mommy to the hotel.
The grand ballroom was all lit up because the staff was putting up the decorations. Mommy had decided my party should have a musical theme, so there were huge pink and white styrofoam cutouts of tubas, trumpets, drums and trombones, as well as violins, oboes and cellos along the walls. On both ends there were enormous cut-outs of pianos. From the ceiling the staff had hung multicolored styrofoam notes and on both ends of the ballroom there were to be huge clumps of balloons, all with the words: Happy Birthday Christie, Sweet Sixteen on them. Mommy said that after everyone sang "Happy Birthday" to me, the balloons were to be released.
When we arrived, the dining room staff was already there setting up the tables, putting on pink and blue paper cloths that picked up the musical theme with notes and bars. Each table would have a basket of party favors that included combs and mirrors, the mirrors with my picture on the back.
At the front of the room was the dais at which Daddy, Mommy, Grandmother Laura and Bronson, Aunt Trisha, Aunt Fern, Granddaddy Longchamp, his wife Edwina, and Gavin would sit with me and some of my best friends from school. Jefferson was excited because he had his own table for his school friends, as well as Richard and Melanie.
Just for this party, the lighting on the dance floor had been changed to include colorful revolving balls and pulsating spotlights. We had the hotel band and Mommy promised to sing a song or two with them.
Everyone was saying that this would be the best party ever held at the hotel. All the members of the hotel staff were either invited or working at the party, and most were as excited about it as we were.
Jefferson and I just stood in the doorway drinking in everyone and everything. They were all so busy, no one noticed us. Suddenly though, we heard someone say, "This is going to be a very expensive party."
We turned around to face Richard and Melanie, who stood so closely to each other it was as if they were attached. As usual, they wore matching outfits: Melanie in a navy blue skirt with a white blouse with blue polka dots, and Richard wearing navy blue pants and an identical shirt. Aunt Bet spent a good deal of her time finding them identical clothes. She was so proud of having twins and never missed an opportunity to show them off. They both had similar thick-lensed glasses, both having the same eyesight problems.
Richard and Melanie had straw-blonde hair and Uncle Philip's clear blue eyes. They had identical pinched faces with Aunt Bet's sharp nose and thin mouth. Richard was slightly heavier and an inch or so taller, but Melanie had straighter teeth and smaller ears. Richard had more of a Cutler's shape -- wide shoulders and narrow waist, and held his head more arrogantly, speaking with Aunt Bet's nasality. Of the two, Melanie was more withdrawn, and, I thought, more intelligent, despite Richard's air of superiority.
"Hi!" I said. "It does look fabulous, doesn't it?"
"Fabulous," Richard mimicked dryly. He turned to Jefferson. "Father says, we're going to sit at your table, so please don't embarrass us and Christie by spitting food or throwing spitballs."
"Jefferson isn't going to do anything like that tonight, are you?" I asked pointedly.
"Nope," he said, driving his hands deeply into his pockets. "I'm going to cut grass with Daddy this afternoon."
"Great," Richard said out of the corner of his mouth. "There is nothing I would like to do more than bounce around on a machine belching gas in the hot sun."
"What are you going to do now?" Jefferson asked, unaffected by Richard's sarcasm. I always enjoyed Jefferson's indifference to Richard's nastiness. He acted like Richard had some strange illness and it was best not to bring any more attention to it than necessary.
"We were on our way to the game room," Melanie said. "We're going to play Parcheesi with some guest children."
"Can I watch?" Jefferson asked.
"I doubt that you can just watch," Richard said caustically. "But..."
"You can come along," Melanie finished. "Do you want to come, too, Christie?" she asked.
"No, I'm going to see Mr. Nussbaum. He told me to stop by this morning."
"The kitchen...ugh," Richard said.
"You shouldn't despise the hotel so much, Richard," I chastised. "You're a Cutler."
"He didn't say anything bad," Melanie snapped, coming to his defense quickly. It was as if I had said it to her.
"It's bad to look down on our staff and give them the impression you feel superior."
"We own the hotel," Richard reminded me.
"But it wouldn't be any good to us if staff members didn't want to work here and do a good job," I said pointedly. The two of them gaped at me through their thick lenses, which magnified their eyes so they looked more like frogs than kids. Richard finally shrugged.
"Let's go," he said to Melanie.
"Oh," Melanie said, turning. "Happy birthday, Christie."
"Yes," Richard cried like a parrot. "Happy birthday."
Jefferson followed them away and I headed for the kitchen. Mr. Nussbaum's face brightened the moment he set his eyes on me. Mommy said he had been with the hotel forever and probably lied about his age. She estimated him to be in his early eighties. During the last few years, he had agreed to take on an assistant, his nephew Leon, a tall, lanky, brown-haired man with sleepy chestnut eyes. Although he always looked half-awake, he was a wonderful chef and practically the only person Nussbaum would tolerate interfering in his kitchen.
"Ah, the birthday girl," Nussbaum said. "Come...see," he beckoned and I approached one of the counters on which he had trays and trays of hors d'oeuvres prepared. "There will be three different kinds of shrimp, each baked in a special dough, fried won-tons, fried zucchini and a cheese selection, some with ham and some with bacon. That one Leon made," he added and pointed. "Come," he said and took my hand to show me the fine cuts of prime rib.
"I have a chicken in wine sauce for those who don't want the beef. See what my baker has made," he added, showing me the small rolls and breads. The breads were shaped into musical notes.
"You can't see the cake yet. That's a big surprise," Mr. Nussbaum said.
"It all looks so wonderful."
"So, why shouldn't it be wonderful? It's for a wonderful young lady. Right, Leon?"
"Oh, yes, yes," he said, cracking a smile quickly.
"My nephew," Mr. Nussbaum said, shaking his head. "That's why I can never retire." He beamed his smile at me. "But you don't worry about anything. Just enjoy."
"Thank you, Mr. Nussbaum," I said. I left the kitchen and headed for the lobby, but when I rounded the corner, I met Uncle Philip, who was coming from the old section of the hotel.
"Christie," he cried. "How wonderful -- a chance to congratulate my favorite niece privately. Happy birthday." He embraced me and pulled me to him and then pressed his lips to my forehead, softly at first and then, surprising me by continuing his kiss down the side of my head to my cheek.
Uncle Philip was handsome, a debonair man who always dressed elegantly in tailored sports jackets and slacks with creases so sharp they looked like they could cut your fingers, gold and diamond cufflinks, gold rings, and gold watches. His hair was always well trimmed and brushed, not a strand out of place. I never saw him with shoes not polished into mirrors. His idea of being sloppy was wearing a jacket without a tie.
Aunt Bet was just as prim and prissy, not wearing anything that wasn't in style or created by some designer. She never came down unless her hair was perfect and her make-up was applied to bring out what she believed were her best features: her long eyelashes, thin mouth and small chin.
Uncle Philip did not release me after he lifted his lips from my cheek. He held me out at arms' length and looked down at me, nodding.
"You have become a very, very lovely young lady, even lovelier than your mother was at your age," he said softly, so softly it was practically a whisper.
"Oh no, I'm not, Uncle Philip. I'm not prettier than Mommy."
He laughed, but still kept me in his arms. I was beginning to feel uncomfortable. I knew that Uncle Philip loved me, but sometimes I felt I was too old for his affectionate hugs and caresses and they embarrassed me. I tried to shrug out of his arms without being rude, but his hold grew a little tighter.
"I like the way you're wearing your hair these days," he said. "Your bangs make you look very grown-up, very sophisticated." He ran his forefinger along my forehead gently.
"Thank you, Uncle Philip. I'd better get out front. Aunt Trisha is arriving any moment."
"Oh yes, Trisha," he said, smirking. "That woman drives me mad sometimes. She can't sit still. She's always spinning and turning and rushing here and there, and those hands...they're like two birds attached to her wrists always trying to break free."
"She's like that because she's a performer, Uncle Philip."
"Right. The theater," he said, his voice light but his look serious as he looked down, still holding me.
"I've got to go," I repeated.
"Me too. Happy birthday again," he said, kissing my cheek once more before he released me.
"Thank you," I said and hurried away, something wistful in his look making my heart skip a beat.
Just as I entered the lobby, I saw Mommy greeting Aunt Trisha. They hugged as I ran across the lobby. Aunt Trisha was wearing a dark red dress with a long skirt that came nearly down to her ankles. When she spun around, the skirt flew about like the skirt of a flamenco dancer. She had sandals with straps up her calves and wore a white shawl loosely around her shoulders. Her dark brown hair was drawn back from her face and pinned up in a chignon that I thought looked very glamorous. Long earrings made of sea shells dangled from her lobes.
"Darling Christie!" she cried and held out her arms for me. "Look at you," she said, holding me out at the shoulders. "You grow more beautiful every time I visit. This one's headed for the stage, Dawn," she said, nodding.
"Perhaps," Mommy said, gazing at me proudly. "Are you hungry, Trish?"
"Ravenously. Oh, I can't wait for your party," she said to me.
"I'll tell Julius to bring your things to the house," Mommy said. "You'll be staying there...in Fern's room," she added.
"Isn't she coming home from college for this?" Aunt Trisha asked, her eyes wide with surprise.
"Yes, but she agreed to stay at the hotel," Mommy said. The look between Aunt Trisha and Mommy explained it all -- how glad Mommy was that Aunt Fern was staying at the hotel instead of the house, how there had been new problems, problems my parents tried to discuss privately. But the walls have ears and both Jefferson and I knew Aunt Fern had gotten into some serious trouble at college again recently.
"Come," Mommy said. "I'll take you to the kitchen for something special. You know how Nussbaum likes to fuss over you. And we'll catch up."
"Okay. Christie, I have the show programs in my suitcase."
"Oh thank you, Aunt Trisha." I kissed her again and she and Mommy went off to the kitchen, the two of them talking a mile a minute, neither waiting for the other to finish a sentence.
The rest of the day moved far too slowly for me. Of course, I was anticipating Gavin's arrival and hovered about the front of the hotel as much as I could. Finally, late in the afternoon, a taxicab from the airport arrived. I rushed out and down the steps hoping it was Granddaddy Longchamp, Edwina and Gavin, but Aunt Fern stepped out instead.
She wore a pair of old jeans and a faded sweatshirt. Since I had seen her last, she had chopped her hair off, her beautiful, long silky black hair that Daddy said reminded him so much of his mother's hair. My heart sank, knowing how disappointed he was going to be.
Aunt Fern was tall, almost as tall as Daddy, and had a model's figure -- long legs and slim torso. Despite the terrible things she did to herself: smoking everything from cigarettes to tiny cigars, drinking and carousing into the early morning hours, she had a remarkably clear and soft complexion. She had Daddy's dark eyes, only hers were smaller, narrower, and at times, downright sneaky. I hated the way she pulled her upper lip up in the corner when something annoyed her.
"Take the bag inside," she commanded the driver when he lifted it from the trunk. Then she saw me.
"Well, if it isn't the princess herself. Happy sweet sixteen," she said and took a pack of cigarettes from her back pocket. Her pants were so tight fitting, I couldn't imagine any room for anything in the pockets. She stuck a cigarette in her mouth quickly and lit it as she looked at the hotel. "Every time I come back here, my body tightens into knots," she muttered.
"Hi Aunt Fern," I finally said. She flashed a quick smile.
"Where the hell's everybody? In their offices?" she added sarcastically.
"Mommy's with Aunt Trisha at the house and Daddy's in the back working on the grounds."
"Aunt Trisha," she said disdainfully. "Has she taken a breath yet?"
"I like Aunt Trisha very much," I said.
"First off, she's not really your aunt so I don't know why you insist on calling her that, and second, good for you." She paused, took a puff, blew the smoke straight up, and then gazed at me. "Guess what I got for you for your birthday," she said, smiling coyly.
"I can't imagine," I said.
"I'll give it to you later, but you can't show it to your mother or tell her I gave it to you. Promise?"
"What is it?" I asked, intrigued.
"A copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover. It's about time you found out what it's all about," she added. "Well, here I go. Home again," she said and marched up the stairs and into the hotel.
A ripple of apprehension shot down my spine. I hadn't spoken to her for more than a few minutes, but already my heart was pounding in anticipation of what was yet to come. Aunt Fern was like unexpected lightning and thunder shaking the very foundations of any happiness. I looked out toward the ocean. The clouds were still thick, still rolling in with fervor, determined to hold back the sunshine. I bowed my head and started up the stairs when I heard the sound of a horn and turned to see another taxi approaching.
A hand was waving from the rear window, and then I saw a face.
It was Gavin, his wonderful smile driving the emptiness out of the pit of my stomach and bringing the hope of sunshine back as quickly as it had been driven away.
Copyright © 1992 by Virginia C. Andrews Trust