Denial \de-ni-al\ n (1528): one small word crammed with three tiny syllables that quite frankly causes great big problems in a whole lot of lives; a word, like most, with multiple meanings. 1: refusal to admit the truth 2: negation of logic, and 3: (my personal favorite) the reason I got tangled up in what I now refer to as The Debutante Mess.
Granted, I had been around etiquette, manners, and the waltz since birth. And true, I had made my own bow to society eleven years earlier in one of Texas High Societies’ premier social events. So on the surface there was no reason I shouldn’t have gotten involved. But I had left Texas to get away from all of that.
Actually, I left Texas to get away from my mother’s, let us say, larger than life personality and her renowned beauty she never let anyone forget; my sister Savannah’s obsession with babies and her inability to have one; and all the complaining I had to endure over my sister-in-law Georgia’s lack of obsession with babies and her apparent inability to stop having them.
But as Michael Corleone in Godfather III said, Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
My name is Carlisle Wainwright Cushing, of the Texas Wainwright family. More specifically, I am a Wainwright of Willow Creek. My mother is Ridgely Wainwright . . . Cushing-Jameson-Lackley-Harper-Ogden. I kid you not.
Given my mother’s predilection for divorce, is it any surprise that as an adult I had become a divorce lawyer?
It had seemed a natural choice given that as the only truly practical person in my family I had been dealing with the dissolution of my mother’s marriages in one way or another since I was in ruffled ankle socks and patent leather mary janes—and not the Manolo kind.
To be specific, it was my mother’s pending dissolution of her most recent marriage that initially dragged me back to my hometown from Boston where I had moved three years earlier. Then, once back in Texas, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, I slid along the slippery slope from divorce court to the debutante court, all because I couldn’t say no to responsibility. Or so I told myself.
See? Denial. Whitewashing the truth, a sleight of hands with reality until even I believed the convoluted excuse for why I had gone home.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
“Carlisle is here,” announced the woman who swore it was her face that had launched a thousand ships, “to deal with my pesky divorce situation.”
My mother sat at the head of the formally set dining table, perfect in her cashmere and heirloom pearls.
“She is?” my sister asked.
“You are?” my brother demanded.
Even Lupe our longtime family maid, who was serving her famous veal cordon bleu, froze for half a second in surprise.
“Have you lost your mind?” I stated in a way that was far more direct than any self-respecting southern belle would ever be.
Ridgely Wainwright-Cushing-Jameson-Lackley-Harper-Ogden shot me, her youngest child, a glare. But I wasn’t the same eager-to-please girl who left three years earlier. I returned my wine glass to the formally set dinner table and smiled tightly.
“Mother, could you join me in the kitchen? Please?”
“Not now, Carlisle. We are in the middle of dinner. Lupe, the veal looks divine.”
She wore the cream cashmere sweater set with cream, wool flannel pants, bone low-heeled shoes, her shoulder-length blond hair elegant and swept back with a cream velvet headband. She held her own wine glass in her perfectly manicured hand, as she studied me over the length of fine linen, sterling silver, wafer-thin crystal, and tasteful fresh flower arrangements made of white roses, light pink peonies, and lavender hydrangeas. After a second, she nodded. My mother was more perceptive than her porcelain china doll exterior would lead the average onlooker to believe. She understood without having to be told that Miss Never Make A Scene Carlisle Cushing was feeling a whole lot like making a scene. She probably followed me out of the dining room more out of surprise than anything else.
As soon as we stepped into the service galley of stately Wainwright House, the dining room door swinging shut behind us, I stopped abruptly just outside the kitchen and turned back, bringing me face to face with my mother.
“Oh!” she squeaked.
“I really am not in a position to stay here and help you with your divorce. I have a job, remember? In Boston.”
She only peered at me. “Dear, have you put on weight?”
I might have pressed my eyes closed and counted to ten. I definitely wondered how I had ever allowed her to trick me into coming back to Texas.
“And your skin, it looks dry, terribly dry. I don’t like to brag, but you know I’m famous for my youthful appearance. But I look this good because I take care of myself, Carlisle. Don’t the pilgrims sell moisturizer?”
On principle, my mother is not fond of anyone who lives north of the Mason-Dixon line. In her personal dictionary, she refers to New Englanders \new eng-land-ers\ n (1620) as 1: The Pilgrim People (or assorted variations) 2: Yankeefied 3: Panty waist Thurston Howell the Thirds.
I ignored her criticism and maintained focus, not easy to do when she was looking me over like a judge at a beauty pageant. “The only reason I am here is because you called me saying you were having an emergency.”
Tension settled around her eyes. “This divorce mess is an emergency. And if you don’t clear it up then I swear to goodness it is going to be the end of me.” She pressed her delicate hand to her chest. “Darling, really, I need you.”
But I wasn’t fooled. “There are plenty of attorneys who can deal with this, Mother.”
“Yes, just like that one I had for my last divorce who bungled everything so badly. Do you think for a second I am going to trust anyone else but you?
You are needed here, with your family, to make that sniveling Vincent Ogden rue the day he ever decided he didn’t want to be married to me.”
Tension settled around my eyes this time, not that there wasn’t truth in what she was saying. If anyone could make anyone rue anything, it was me. I had gotten more than one of my clients out of sticky marital predicaments.
But, again, I lived in Boston.
I loved it there, loved the surprise of four true seasons, the lush green Boston Common in spring, picnics at the Hatch Shell listening to the Boston Pops in summer, the stunning orange, yellow and red of autumn, and skating on the iced-over Frog Pond in winter.
Also, it just so happened that I was engaged. Not that my mother knew this, and not that I was about to tell her right there in the service galley amidst the dessert china and coffee cups ready for the next course. But I was engaged to the extremely amazing Phillip Granger, a lawyer at my firm who had a warm smile, laughing blue eyes, and a kind soul that I wrapped around myself like a cashmere throw in winter.
There was just one problem. He wanted me to set a date for the wedding, and, well, even I couldn’t set a date until I told my mother that I was getting married, but the minute I told her (after she had recovered from the stupefying shock that I was marrying a Yankee, that is if she did recover) she would dive headlong into the sort of traditional wedding plans she would expect. I had no interest in showers and teas and all the pre-wedding niceties my mother wouldn’t see as negotiable. I planned to have a sensible, low-key civil affair, which would definitely kill my mother, bringing me full circle as to why I had yet to set a date for the wedding.
But there had to be a way to convince her that what I wanted to do was the best thing for everyone involved. Which was the only reason I didn’t simply walk out of Wainwright House, get back on a plane, and return to Massachusetts. Instead if, say, I stayed, just for a little while, not dealing with the divorce so much as helping my mother find a decent lawyer, it would give me a little breathing room from a certain unset date, and time to figure out how to tell my mother I was getting married and not have to succumb to all that a large Texas wedding would entail.
“This is what I’ll do,” I said.
In copious detail I mapped out exactly how I would facilitate the process. I would help her find a lawyer. But there would be no other involvement.
“Well, that’s fine, dear. Though before you do all that . . . organizing, I have to meet Vincent at his lawyer’s office first thing in the morning. Come with me, talk to your stepfather. Vincent always liked you. Maybe you can talk some sense into him. If not, turn on all that unladylike killer charm you are famous for and scare him a little.”
I wasn’t sure if I was flattered or insulted.
“If there has to be a divorce,” she added, “then convince him it should be done quickly, quietly, and without a lot of fuss. Then depending on how the meeting goes, we’ll think about getting another lawyer.”
Sure enough, first thing the next morning, my mother’s driver Ernesto drove us through the craggy live oaks, rolling green hills, and the perfectly kept streets of town, past the main square, alongside Willow Creek High then the University, to the offices of Howard Grout, Attorneys at Law, LLP.
Dressed in an Armani power suit which thankfully I had brought along, I had pulled my shoulder length light brown hair back into a sleek ponytail. Never one to go far without my baby-soft black calfskin briefcase, I held it at my side, my black Chanel, low-heeled pumps the only minor indulgence I allowed myself.
My mother followed in my wake (a rare occurrence in itself) looking stunning, her blond hair perfectly done, her makeup easily camera ready, her nails a demur shade of barely pink that matched her lip color. She also wore her usual strand of Wainwright pearls around her neck.
We walked down the long wide hallways of marble flooring bisected by plush oriental runners, the walls lined with modern art, my mother speaking to most everyone we passed.
“Isn’t that a lovely blouse you’re wearing, Lisabeth. Though you might consider blue next time. Pink really isn’t your color.”
Lisabeth stared, pretended the comment didn’t bother her, then ran for the bathroom mirror just as soon as my mother was out of sight.
“My word, look at you Burton Meyer. Looking younger and younger every time I see you. Is that hair dye you’re using? Or have you given in and gotten Botox?” She kissed his cheek. “Whichever, you look just as handsome as any man your age can look, sugar.”
Burton Meyer stammered.
“Morton Henderson, your sweet Mabel must be quite the cook for all the weight you’ve gained.” She patted his round belly, which no other sole in all of Willow Creek dared do given his reputation as blood thirsty litigator. “Don’t you worry though, I won’t breathe a word of this to your mother. I know how she and Mabel don’t get along.”
Ridgely left her usual trail of destruction in her wake, like a hurricane racing through town. Anyone with half a brain got out of her way.
When I led my mother into the designated conference room, my stepfather was waiting.
Vincent Ogden was a fit man with reddish brown hair tamed within an inch of its life on top of his head, and a well-trimmed beard and mustache. He wore a tweed jacket and cuffed slacks, a white dress shirt but no tie. He looked as if he just stepped out of the faculty lounge at Willow Creek University.
“Carlisle,” he acknowledged, though he was eyeing my mother as if a viper had just slid into the room. With little more than a glare, he turned away and started to sit down at the conference table.
“Typical,” my mother said. “Sits before a lady does.”
“Lady? In your dreams! A lady knows how to treat a man!”
I nearly groaned, and no doubt would have if the conference room door hadn’t open just then. Thankful for a diversion, I turned around with my best professional smile. But this time I stiffened and sucked in my breath like a neophyte actor in Drama 101.
“Hello, Carlisle. I heard you were back in town.”
His voice was deep and smooth, with hints of fond amusement. Okay, “fond” might have been overly optimistic. Either way, I was so stunned at the sight of him that my muscles wouldn’t move.
It had been three years since I saw Jack Blair last, though he didn’t look any different, unless even more dangerously handsome counted as different. He wore a blue sports coat and a tie, barely done, and gray slacks. A far cry from the traditional suits back in Boston, but also a far cry in the opposite direction from the black leather bomber jacket and 501 jeans he had sported before.
He still had those same broad shoulders and narrow hips, still had the same dark brown hair and brown eyes, not to mention the crooked smile that made him look like the angel he wasn’t, and never had been.
I knew right then and there I was headed for the worst kind of trouble.