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Nancy Edith Carrington-Chambers was mistress of all she surveyed: specifically, the lively groundbreaking party on the expansive lot where her dream house would be built. Each time a guest called her name, she felt such elation that she thought it was a portent of something magical. Perhaps with every ?Nancy!? an angel got its wings.
These attractive and successful people wanted her attention because she?d done everything right.
Nancy had been born into the right family, studied at the right schools, befriended the right people, dressed in the right clothes. She?d read the right books (in hardback editions), seen the right movies, had subscriptions to the right arts programs, traveled to the right countries, and joined the right clubs.
Most people lived messy, disorganized lives, driven by foolish impulse, but Nancy tried not to feel disdainful. Foresight, like having perfect pitch, was a gift.
There was never any question that Nancy would marry the right man, especially since she had the qualities that successful men valued in a girl: a slim figure, naturally blond hair, a degree from a prestigious university, a happy disposition, and a talent for making others believe that she was listening to them. Successful men would have pursued her even if she didn?t have a substantial trust fund.
Nancy had been a freshman when she met Todd Booth Chambers. She?d been sitting on a bench under a palm tree at a midquarter kegger when she noticed the brawny, laughing junior. One of her friends saw her looking and said, ?Todd Chambers. Kind of cute if you like them hulky.?
Immediately after learning that Todd was captain of varsity crew and that his parents were Lewis and Claire Chambers of Lake Oswego, Nancy had known instinctively that he was the right man for her. She?d begun planning their future together even as he engaged in a beer-soaked pileup with his frat brothers. Nancy admired manliness in men.
But that was then. Dousing guests with German lager and wrestling with them on the lawn wouldn?t do here and now, especially since there was no lawn on the lot that had been scraped raw from a hillside. Ancient California live oaks had been ripped out (thanks to a wink and a nod from Todd?s friend on the city planning commission), leaving a pristine canvas for construction, if not for a party.
Nancy had had the contractor haul in a truckload of sand for a beachy effect. She?d rented banana trees and ordered huge urns filled with vibrant tropical flowers. White muslin screens hid the construction equipment from view and white umbrellas shaded seating areas.
Todd had suggested hiring a videographer, but she?d vetoed that idea on the grounds that people behaved unnaturally when they were being taped or filmed.
Nancy wished she had thought of a way to incorporate mirrors into the decor. She would have enjoyed watching herself going from friend to friend, laughing in the charming way that she?d practiced, and touching their shoulders with her graceful left hand, so that everyone could admire the trio of emerald-cut diamonds on her engagement ring and her platinum wedding band.
A mirror would have reflected Nancy?s honey-gold honeymoon tan, her golden honey loose curls, her blue eyes shining with health, and how lithe and carefree she looked in a simple aqua and white print frock.
It would have shown Todd, impressive in the blue pin-striped shirt she?d picked out for him. It was unfortunate that he?d fallen asleep on the private beach in Tahiti, where they?d honeymooned. The skin on his snub nose was raw from her attempt to exfoliate away his sunburn.
?Nancy, Nancy,? her friend and bridesmaid Lizette called. Lizette?s bleached blond hair was growing out, revealing a thick stripe of her natural dark brown hair color along her side part. ?This is so pretty. You look so pretty.?
?So do you,? Nancy said.
?I look like a badger,? Lizette said with a laugh. ?I can?t believe you convinced me to color my hair for your wedding.?
?You looked beautiful. All the bridesmaids were stunning.?
?Thanks to you. Your parties are always amazing.?
Nancy smiled, accepting the truthfulness of the compliment. She?d quit her job and spent a year organizing every aspect of the wedding and reception. ?I?m starting an event planning company, Froth, as soon as the house is finished.?
?Froth, what an excellent name. It will be perfect, like everything you do, like the house will be,? Lizette said with a roll of her eyes.
?I wanted Maya Lin to design the house, but she?s only doing public spaces. It took me a while to recover from that blow, but once I talked to Henrik about vernacular architecture, it was kismet.?
?He?s Danish. It?s part of my international plan. I yearn for a French chef, a Thai masseuse, and an English assistant, quietly homosexual, preferably. I?d like a Scottish housekeeper who?s terrifyingly grim, very Mrs. Danvers of Rebecca, and obsessed with me and my exquisite undergarments.?
?Why wouldn?t she be? How was Tahiti??
?So stunning that I was beside myself, like a doppelganger. We had a bungalow over the water and could see the fish through a window in the floor. The water was crystalline and something? Blue is inadequate to describe the color. It was the color of happiness. Bluepiness,? Nancy said. ?I?m going to have our pool painted the exact shade. It will be a beach-entry pool, so every time we wade into the graduated slope, we?ll remember our honeymoon.?
?That?s what I mean. You always know the right details.? Lizette waved her hand to indicate the waiters, in white wife-beaters, sarongs, and sandals, carrying platters of Tahitian-inspired food and flutes of the same Taittinger that had been served at Nancy and Todd?s wedding. ?I can figure out a five-year sales projection for our zinfandel, but I can?t organize anything more elaborate than burgers and the family?s secret potato salad. The secret is bacon drippings and sweet pickles.?
?Sales projections and parties both require precision,? Nancy said, although her own experience as a financial analyst almost made her give up the will to live. ?Why don?t you have a weekend soiree at the winery? I?ll help you.? Nancy immediately began imagining romantic strings of lights on the pergola, a singer crooning Italian love ballads, and a Sunday brunch.
?You would, really? I would be eternally grateful. I?ll even forgive you for destroying my hair.?
?Then it?s a deal!?
?Nanny!? called a familiar but completely unexpected voice.
On the off chance that Nancy had been having an aural hallucination, she ignored the voice, but it trilled ?Nanny!? again, like a canary in a coal mine. That is, if the canary was personally responsible for sucking the oxygen out of the mine.
Nancy reluctantly abandoned the hope that she was experiencing mental problems and turned to see her beautiful cousin Roberta gliding toward her, because Roberta was one of those women who moved so smoothly you glanced down to make sure she wasn?t levitating.
Roberta, known as Birdie, was arm in arm with one of her grimy male companions. She swung a small glossy shopping bag in her free hand. Birdie had a child, but you wouldn?t know it from her delicate shape, encased in a boatneck jacquard sheath dress.
Smiling at Lizette, Nancy said, ?Let?s talk tomorrow about your party,? and went to meet her cousin.
?Birdie,? Nancy said, and was going to give her cousin a kiss, but Birdie turned to intercept a drink from the smiling waiter who?d suddenly appeared.
Birdie?s black hair was cut short so that it accentuated the clear, green eyes that photographers loved because of the way they caught the light. Her appearance of fragility, which men mistook for actual fragility, always made Nancy feel like a clumsy twelve-year-old with a self-inflicted haircut and nails bitten to the quick.
?Thank you,? Birdie said throatily to the waiter. Birdie wasn?t a snob about men, as was evident by her current escort. Turning to him, she said, ?Leo, go entertain yourself.?
The hollow-eyed skeleton trembled even though he was wearing a peacoat. He muttered an assent before heading for the nearest tray of canap?s.
Birdie handed Nancy the shopping bag and said, ?I picked it up at La Maison Guerlain because it reminded me of you. Not the way you are now, but the way you should be, Nanny Girl, when you grow up.?
Nancy glanced in the bag and saw an elegantly wrapped box. ?Thank you, but as a grown-up and a married woman, I wish you wouldn?t use that nickname.?
Birdie laughed, a seductive ripple of sound. ?You?ve only been married a month, Nanny. I wanted to lay bets on how long it will last. Mother said that was rude, but really, Nanny, you?ll be gnawing your arm off to get out of this trap. Todd Chambers, he?s as dull, lumbering, and braying as a walrus.?
?Birdie, I know how much you enjoy getting a reaction, but I?m afraid I?m too busy to accommodate your special needs today. Everyone adores Todd.? Nancy saw Birdie?s friend stuffing coconut prawns and mango skewers into his coat pockets. ?Where did you dig Leo up? Literally, since he has a formaldehyde-in-the-veins aspic.?
?Suspended in gelatin?? Birdie said with a smile. ?You?re so funny, Nanny. Leo?s very special. He?s a musical genius. His father?s a fire-and-brimstone type from the Central Valley, so the boy?s irrevocably damaged.? Birdie said it as if it was an accomplishment. Then she looked around at the crowd. ?Are these your friends??
?You would have met them had you come to the wedding.?
?I promise to come to your next wedding.?
?One is enough for me, thank you, because it was an utter dream. It?s so happy-making to see you again. I had no idea you were around.?
?I tried to visit my parents, but you know how that goes,? Birdie said. Her parents had a beautiful place in Santa Barbara, and Nancy loved to visit them. ?The lifelong parent-child relationship is unnatural in the animal world. I don?t know how you put up with yours.?
?I adore my parents, Birdie. They are delightful people.?
Birdie raised her neatly arched eyebrows. ?Anyway, my mother mentioned that you were having a get-together with the ?lively young people,? her words, and I brought Leo because I thought it might be amusing.?
Birdie gazed upon the flat lot and the new development of enormous houses on low hills, which would soon turn brown and dry with summer heat. ?Such a dismal landscape.?
?It takes a little vision to see what it will be,? Nancy said, trusting that Todd had been right when he said the area would be the Marin of the South Bay Area. ?Villagio Toscana is an extr?mement desirable community.? Nancy hoped that Birdie wouldn?t answer in French, since Nancy had missed her year abroad to stay close to Todd.
?Sweetie, there?s nothing Tuscan about this place. You know I don?t care about these things, but is it the right time to build? Your father was going on about how he told you to buy in an established neighborhood.?
Nancy had asked Todd the same question. ?Location is more important than the market, Birdie; the timing is right to buy this choice lot and hire the contractor we want. We?re going to be very happy here.?
?Oh, that naive American dream that a house can bring happiness and fulfillment.?
Nancy smiled pleasantly. ?Birdie, I know you don?t mean it, so I try not to take your little jabs personally.?
?Always exhibiting such self-control, Nanny, always the good little girl.?
?Speaking of which?? Nancy was about to ask where Birdie?s daughter was when Birdie tilted her neat head on her elegant neck, as if she?d heard a distant martini shaker.
?Well, I?ve got to dash. Leo?s got a gig in Santa Cruz. Why don?t you come with us? It?s never too late to begin to live an authentic life.?
Nancy laughed and said, ?Run from bliss to chaos? Thank you, but no.?
?Consider it an open offer. Ciao, Nanny.?
?Bye, bye, Birdie.? Nancy watched to make sure that Birdie actually took Leo with her and saw them get into a dusty new burgundy Cadillac sedan that was missing license plates.
Nancy could relax now that Birdie had left. She turned to look at her laughing, happy friends and caught Todd?s eye across the lot. He smiled and raised his glass to her. She blew a kiss to him.
Everyone was having fun, except for one gangly young man half hidden behind the vermillion and emerald fronds of a potted banana tree. Nancy took two flutes of champagne from a passing waiter and went to the man.
Her pal, GP, which stood for Geek Prince, gave her a grateful smile. His long face, Eurasian features, and bleached hair would have worked on someone with confidence. He twitched his shoulders in his beautiful sooty black suit.
?GP, how are you?? Nancy asked, and handed him the drink.
?Hey, Nancy,? he said as he stepped in to give her a kiss, and then changed his mind and patted her back awkwardly. ?Thanks for inviting me.?
?I?m ecstatic that you came,? she said, happy that Todd had let her invite the classmate who?d lived down the hall from Nancy frosh year. She?d been charmed by his awkward sincerity and his attention to her invaluable observations about life.
She slipped her arm through his and said, ?Who dressed you??
?I have a personal shopper. Is it wrong? It?s Armani. I heard you mention Armani once.?
?You always listen so well. The suit is exquisite, but it?s not who you are. We should always live an authentic life,? she said, paraphrasing Birdie, even though Nancy believed most people should run screaming from their authentic selves.
?It?s not comfortable,? he admitted with another twitch.
?It?s not comfortable because you keep fidgeting. I know it seems counterintuitive, but I really think you should embrace your inner nerd to be chic,? she said. ?I?ll go shopping with you and give you a reverse makeover. It?ll be noodles of fun, a lasagna of laughs. How?s business school??
?Even worse than summer camp. I hate it.?
?Everyone does. Except Todd, because he?s so competitive. Why don?t you drop out and get a PhD, so I can call you Doc??
?In what? All I ever liked was history, but I don?t want to be a prof. I want to do something that makes a positive contribution, something that improves lives. Like the way you?ve hired all these people to work on this party.?
?GP, I shall give your career path some pondering. Now come and mingle. I know I?ve taught you how.?
He smiled. ?Like a hundred times. All I have to do is ask questions and people will think I?m fascinating.?
?You?re my best student,? she said, and pulled him over to Lizette?s husband, Bill.
?Bill, you remember GP, don?t you? He?s wild about vineyard history.? Then, addressing GP, she said, ?Bill?s doing all sorts of mad experiments in ebology at his family?s Paleolithic vineyard.?
?It?s enology and our vineyard only goes back to the 1870s,? Bill said, and to GP he added, ?Nancy always looks bored when I talk about grape genomics and flavor chemistry.?
?I categorically deny that! I?m passionately interested in the minutiae of your whatever. However, I must go check in with the caterer about canap?s.?
As Nancy walked away she heard GP say, ?Grape genomics? How?s that applicable to winemaking??
She smiled and thought of how much good she was doing just by being in the world. She spotted Todd, who was cornered by Junie Burns, and hurried to rescue him.
?Junie!? Nancy reached out to the tall woman with unruly russet hair. As they exchanged air kisses, Nancy noticed harsh aldehyde notes in Junie?s perfume and saw the unevenness of her thick liquid eyeliner on her melty chocolate brown eyes.
?How have you been?? Nancy said. Over Junie?s shoulder, Nancy saw Todd mouth a ?Thank God? and move off.
?Good! Well, you know,? Junie said in her whispery voice. The sleeveless blouse she wore now was too tight in the shoulders and the armholes gaped, showing a slice of beige bra. ?Busy with work and I just got named president of the Alumni Singles.?
?Maybe you?ll meet someone!?
Junie?s head shook as loosely as a bobblehead doll. Then she looked around and noticed that Todd was gone. ?The guys I meet always want feminine girls, and I?m, well??
?You?re fabulous, Junie! I?d kill to be as tall as you. I?d wear four-inch heels and stalk into rooms like an irate dominatrix. Let?s spend a day together soon, okay? We?ll go shopping and to the salon.? Nancy wanted others to see how attractive Junie could be.
?I?d love that,? Junie whispered.
Nancy heard shouted hellos and looked to see a tall, sandy-haired man walking into the party. ?Excuse me, Junie. I?ve got to say hello to someone.?
Junie followed Nancy?s glance and blushed, so Nancy said quietly, ?When we get together I?m going to give you some flirting tips, too. Won?t that be fun!?
She made her way over the sand to the good-looking man in the jeans, white shirt, and lightweight blazer. ?Why, Bailey, Todd said you couldn?t make it.?
Bailey Carson Whiteside III was well over six feet and he bent to give her a kiss on the cheek. ?I rescheduled a few things so I could see you. This is for you. It?s heavy.? He handed her a large silver gift bag with a red ribbon tying the handles together.
She took the bag and said, ?Bricks for the house??
?Books on Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto, and Jean Prouv?. I thought you might like reading them while you work on the house.?
?You?re always so thoughtful, Bailey!? His hazel eyes looked right at her in a way that made her feel shy. ?You shouldn?t have.?
?Less is more, except where books are concerned,? he said. ?I envy you building a house.?
?Why not buy one of the lots here?? Nancy said. ?Wouldn?t it be fun to be neighbors??
?It would be great, but I?m going to study the housing market a little longer before making any decisions. Where?s Todd? I want to tell him about a great opportunity with a sports medicine group.?
?He?s somewhere nearby.? Nancy looked around but didn?t see Todd. She dropped her voice. ?No doubt he?s hiding from Junie and her monologues about city zoning law.?
She wished they could have talked more, but she was pulled away by her other guests. After the party, Nancy and Todd drove back to San Francisco and the condo that he?d bought as a bachelor. On the ride up the elevator, Nancy noticed a chip on the baseboard, and as they walked down the corridor she saw the unevenness of the paint on the walls. Someone (Todd) had spilled coffee on the carpeting months before and a shadow of the stain remained.
So many little things, but they had the cumulative effect of making the world a tackier place.
The interior of their condo was taupe, black, and gray, the default masculine color scheme. Whenever Nancy suggested changing it, Todd countered that they were moving soon. It was true, too, that she could always escape to the charming apartment she still kept in a family-owned property.
While Todd showered, Nancy sat cross-legged on the bed with her new design books, but mostly she was reveling in the success of the party.
When Todd came out with a towel wrapped around his waist, he saw the books and said, ?Don?t get any more expensive ideas. Every change to the plans jacks up the cost.?
The skin on his broad shoulders was peeling and Nancy chided herself for not rubbing sunscreen on him when they?d been on their honeymoon. But every time she?d tried, he?d misinterpreted it as foreplay.
She put the books on her bedside table and said, ?It shouldn?t be an issue of money, honey bunny. It?s about quality. I want our house to be beautiful next year and ten years from now and a century from now.?
He lay on the bed next to her. His eyes were an unfortunate shade of acid-wash denim blue, with lashes as pale as straw.
?Old classics get rebuilt and improved over the years,? he said. ?We can always take our equity and move up.?
?I thought we agreed that we were going to stay there.? She wished they lived in a time when she could give her house a name. Peregrine House, the Meadowlands, Carrington House.
?All I?m saying is we have a budget, and we?ve got to stick to it. I?m not going to shortchange my business for a house.? He and some biz school buddies had started a venture capital firm and were still seeking investors and exploring start-ups. ?You said you were thrillified with the plans.?
?But I could be more thrillified. I just want it to be right.? Nancy was thinking about a guest bath now, and how perfect it would be to have a Japanese soaking tub with views across the hills. She knew that she couldn?t compromise, shouldn?t compromise, and said, ?If I think we need improvements to the original plans, I?m willing to cover the additional costs, because excellence cannot be reduced to a parakeet.?
She saw his confused look and said, ?A parakeet is also called a budgerigar, or a budgie, thus budget.?
?I?m not verbal enough to keep up with your word associations,? Todd said as he put his arm around her waist. ?I?m more physical. You live with me, which proves you can live with imperfection. Your father is not going to let you sink any more into construction.?
She laughed. ?Everyone knows I can?t live with imperfection. I?ll sell off the stock I got as a wedding present, and that way he can?t stop me.? She wove her fingers through Todd?s dry hair and made a mental note to buy a different conditioner for him.
?Overimproving a property is never advisable.?
?Either you believe the development?s property values will increase, or you don?t. Tell me now.?
?Yes, yes, it?s prime, but that isn?t the issue. Your ideas about what?s necessary are way beyond what anyone else cares about or notices. What you spent on the wedding??
?The wedding was incredible. Everyone said so,? she said. ?It?s my money. I want to do it for us and the family we?ll have.?
Todd stared at her and finally said, ?I?d argue, but I know how you are when you?ve set your mind. But make all your decisions prior to construction. Remember that many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations lead to defeat.?
?Is that from The Art of War again? You can?t apply Sun Tzu?s rules about military strategy to modern life, Todd.?
?Yeah, you can,? he said. ?For example, I should have taken evasive maneuvers to avoid Junie Rug-Burns Butt.?
?I wish you wouldn?t call her that dreadful nickname.?
?I?m not the one who came up with it,? Todd said blandly. ?GP?s another loser, but he?s setting up a meeting for me with his family?s people.?
?GP is adorable and bursting with potential. I?m his career counselor and I?m giving him a reverse makeover.?
?Whatever that is. You just like him because he takes every crazy thing you say seriously,? Todd said. ?You know how his family got their money??
?Everyone knows. High tech.?
?That?s the story they tell. But his mom?s family had a crappy little deli in Cupertino,? Todd said with a smirk. ?She traded sandwiches for stock with start-ups, and turned a few hundred bucks? worth of greasy cold cuts into a fortune.?
?Smart woman. Todd, he may be new money, but in a century his family will be oldish money. It doesn?t hurt to build a relationship now. Speaking of old money, I was thrillified that Bailey came. You should convince him to buy a Villagio Toscana lot. All our friends should buy lots and then we could have incredible block parties.?
?You and parties,? he said, tumbling her back on the bed. ?I love you, Mrs. Todd Carrington-Chambers.?
?I love you, too, and I?m going to love our house.? As Todd?s big red hands grabbed the thin straps of her silk charmeuse cami, Nancy tried to imagine what their children would be like, but her imagination couldn?t extend that far. She hoped they would be exactly like her; she had been a delightful child.
? 2010 Grace Coopersmith