To please her parents, Alexa agreed to have her wedding and all the related festivities back home, in Carsonville. That was her first mistake. And, she gave her mother, Claire, carte blance to make all the arrangements. That was her second mistake.
When Alexa and David entered the foyer of the Carsonville Country Club, where most significant events in her hometown were celebrated by those in her family’s circle, she could see the ballroom up ahead filled with people, hundreds of them. How many had her mother invited?
“The entire town is here,” she said, squeezing David’s hand. “Maybe all of Alabama.”
“God, you’re right.” He squeezed back.
“Don’t leave my side,” she said, just as two friends from high school, Pam and Connie, shrieked her name in unison and rushed toward them.
Alexa laughed softly. Maybe it wouldn’t be so awful. She’d missed a lot of her old friends since she left town and now she embraced Pam and Connie. As she introduced them to David, she caught the glances of her younger brother and sister, Christopher and Maddy. She nudged David toward them. Alexa opened her arms to her petite baby sister, but when she heard that boisterous laugh she hadn’t heard in four years, abruptly backed away.
“Alexa, what?” Maddy asked.
“Nothing, sorry.” Alexa leaned in to kiss Maddy’s cheek, then searched the room, desperate to confirm that she was wrong. She wasn’t.
Except for the wheelchair, Kat looked like herself again, a stunning redhead with sparkling green eyes and a devil-may-care smile, nothing like the angry shell of Kat that Alexa had lived with in her mind these last four years. Who had invited her?
Alexa excused herself, hurried to the closest bathroom and raced into the dressing area. In the mirror, her complexion was so pale that her freckles seemed to float over her cheekbones. She grabbed one of the brushes lying on the counter and with a trembling hand ran it through her hair, trying to compose herself.
She jumped as the swinging door into the dressing area burst open, but it wasn’t Kat. The mirror filled with Parker’s nine-month pregnant belly, and her oldest boy, Grant, his face smeared with something green and brown, in tow. Her older sister had become an Earth Mother, popping out babies every two years.
“We’re washing your face, Mister,” Parker said, holding tight to her son’s hand. Grant, a scrawny but strong four-year-old, tried to jerk free.
As Parker tested the water temperature with the back of her wrist, she surveyed her sister’s face in the mirror. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Sis.” She wet a hand towel and proceeded to wipe Grant’s face, as he whipped his head back and forth, trying to avoid the cloth.
Alexa shook her head. “I’m okay.”
“No, you’re not.”
“You’re right.” Alexa turned toward her. “I’m really shitty. Who the hell invited Kat?”
“Don’t cuss,” Parker mouthed, then out loud said, “Mama did. She wants you two to talk.”
“Why didn’t Mama ask me if it was ok?”
“Because she knew what you’d say – she’s determined to see y’all make up.” Parker opened a louvered door into a toilet stall and led Grant in. “Go,” she ordered.
Alexa followed her to the stall door. “Well, Mama’s crazy. That’s never going to happen. And why would she want it to? Kat sued them too. And caused Daddy’s heart attack. Even if Mama invited her, Kat shouldn’t have come!”
“All I know is Mama and Kat have talked a few times and Mama’s forgiven her and wants you to give her a chance. She said Kat e-mailed you.”
“And I put every one of her e-mails in the trash where they belong.”
“You weren’t always this way, Alexa.”
“What way is that?”
“Heartless. That accident really –“
“Shut up, would you? It wasn’t the accident. It was what happened after, what she did to me, to us.”
“You need to get over that too.”
“That’s easy to say. If you’d been betrayed the way –”
“Grant, let’s go. We’re going to let Aunt Alexa stew in her own juices.”
“Parker, I really don’t need lessons in – ” But before Alexa could figure out what kind of lessons she didn’t need, her sister and nephew were gone.
Alexa waited in the bathroom for a few more minutes then edged out the door, staying close enough that she could duck back in if Kat were anywhere nearby. She caught sight of her in a far corner with some of the medical staff from the hospital. Of course, Alexa was relieved her former best friend had finally returned to medical school, finally found some peace, but she’d never get past the misery Kat had caused her and her family.
Alexa thought she’d made it clear to her mother that she didn’t want anything to do with Kat, ever again, and so she entered the crowd, searching for her mother, ready to have it out with her.
“Alexa!” Dr. Frank O’Conner, boomed her name as he opened his arms to hug her. “Congratulations. I saw the magazine article – quite a catch.”
“Thanks, Dr. Frank.” Alexa forced a smile at her pediatrician. Alexa and David had recently been featured on the cover of the Atlanta Magazine as part of the article, Designers to Die For. The magazine dubbed David “the Pierce Bronson of jewelry design” and Alexa “his five-foot-ten, blue-eyed blonde, Mariel Hemingway-esque” fiancé.
Jean Ann Langley, Alexa’s diminutive CCD teacher, popped out from behind Dr. Frank. “There she is, you lucky girl, you. I always thought you looked like Mariel Hemingway!”
Had her mother included the magazine article in the invitations to the party?
As she hugged Jean Ann, Alexa saw Nick across the room. She had told her mother not to invite him either but she wasn’t angry to see him. He was still as handsome as when he’d become her lover, and then her fiancé. Striking wide-set gray eyes and broad shoulders, sandy blonde hair was an inch or so shorter than it had been, just over the top of his collar, and a few extra crinkles around the corners of his eyes; otherwise he hadn’t changed since they’d broken off their engagement.
“Great to see you both,” Alexa said to Jean Ann and Dr. Frank. “Let’s get together soon. Excuse me.” Nick and Alexa walked toward each other, eyes locked. Just as they were about to meet face-to-face, Barbie Butner stepped between them. “Look at us, Alexa!” she squealed, blinking her doe eyes and holding her left hand out for Alexa’s inspection. “Who would imagine we’d both get engaged at the same time?” An engagement ring! Alexa had heard Nick and Barbie were dating, but engaged – When did that happen?
“Let me see your ring.” Barbie took Alexa’s left hand and examined the ring so closely she appeared to be about to devour it. “A David Lattimer original! Where is that handsome man of yours?”
Instead of looking around for David, Alexa was overcome with the oddest urge. She wanted to say, “Right here.” She wanted to interlace her fingers with Nick’s and leave the party. With Nick, not David.
That night, at the Carsonville Inn with David, she had trouble sleeping. And the night after that. And almost all the nights that followed for two months. Now there were just three months until the wedding. Alexa had trouble falling asleep and even more trouble sleeping through the night, through the bizarre loop of dreams that usually began with the accident – the beautiful day and Kat’s insistence on riding the new thoroughbred – and ended in Nick’s arms.
Neither Kat nor Nick smoked, but when Alexa dreamed about either of them, she woke up longing for a cigarette, a habit she’d indulged while she lived in Key West after, which was how she divided life now, before and after the accident. She rose up on one elbow, ready to sneak across the room to the pack she’d hidden in her chest of drawers, but David stirred. She lay stick-still, willing him to stay asleep, and after a minute, he was motionless.
She scooted across her bed and sat sideways on the edge, ready to make a move, but David reached for her arm, mumbled, “Alexa, come back,” and pulled her toward him. He pushed her short summer nightgown’s spaghetti straps down, kissed her shoulder, her breast, then fondled her butt, and for the second time that week, Alexa faked it, not quite as enthusiastically as Meg Ryan in When Harry Meets Sally but enough to convince a sleeping man. When she’d watched the movie with her mother ten years earlier at eighteen, when she was always honestly, truly orgasmic, she couldn’t believe she’d ever have to do this. Now, she understood.
David fell back asleep immediately, leaving Alexa wide awake.
Gabby, Alexa’s cat, began to meow next to the bed. She reached down and stroked his head and back while the cat paced. A fifteen-pound tortoise-shell Tomcat with two black back paws, two white front paws, and thick black, white, and orange fur, Gabby was the only memento of the year Alexa had lived in the Keys. Gabby, one ear torn and one toe missing, had appeared in the alley behind Pepe’s, the restaurant where Alexa waitressed. After two weeks, she’d adopted him.
Gabby meowed again. He knew he wasn’t allowed on the bed when David slept over. David sneezed once, then twice, as if to prove he was truly allergic and couldn’t share his condo with a cat.
Alexa slid out of bed with her pillow, lay down on the rug, and pulled Gabby close, until his back rested against her chest and stomach, and she could hear and feel his strong purr vibrating against her. As she started to drift into sleep, the warmth of his body permeated hers and she slid her hand inside her bikini underwear and began to stroke herself with her middle finger. Gabby purred, she stroked, and, as she came, a small quiver passed through her and she clutched Gabby a little too tightly. Like a slap in the face – a reminder that he could live without her, thank you very much – he wiggled loose from her grip and ran into the hallway. Tears filled Alexa’s eyes, then rolled off her face, dissolving before they reached the rug. David and she agreed they didn’t want children. He already had two (teenagers living in West Virginia with their mother) and she didn’t have the time or the patience. But how would she live without Gabby?
She must have fallen asleep on the floor, because that’s where she was when the phone rang. Balancing on one palm, she reached up with the other hand for the phone, knocking over her glass of water in the process. The phone escaped her grip, clattered across the bedside table, and landed on the bed, where David miraculously continued to snore. When Alexa jumped up and lunged for it, a veil of blackness closed around her and she smacked her forehead on the corner of the side table. Quickly coming to, she gasped in pain as quietly as she could and brought the phone to her ear.
“What on earth is going on?” Parker asked. “Sounds like a war zone. Are you all right?”
Alexa’s dry throat emitted an indecipherable croaking sound. “What time is it?” Still on all fours, she had the phone wedged between her shoulder and ear.
“Six-ten,” Parker said.
Six-ten Alabama time was seven-ten Atlanta time which meant Alexa had turned off the alarm at some point during the night. Thanks to Parker’s call, though, she’d over-slept by only ten minutes. “Why are you calling so early?” Alexa asked. She could ask, why are you calling at all? They rarely chatted anymore.
“I’m worried about Daddy,” Parker said. “Roger’s worried too.”
“Why? What happened?” Alexa steadied herself, moved from her hands and knees to a sitting position, and leaned against the mustard-colored wall. She pulled down the hem of her cotton nightgown, which had been bunched around her waist, so her thighs weren’t rubbing against the itchy carpet, then pulled her knees tight into her chest.
“Roger said Daddy seemed off yesterday,” Parker said.
“Maybe Roger’s slowly poisoning him, part of his coup d’état plan to take over the company.”
“Screw you, Alexa.”
“A little sensitive, Parker? So, what do you mean, he thought he was ‘off’? Everybody’s off, especially those of us who work.”
“I work hard – I just work in the home – taking care of Roger and the children,” Parker huffed.
If Alexa could have imitated a plaintive violin passage, she would have. Instead she said, “But you could have been anything you wanted, Parker.” She’d scored a perfect 2400 on her SATs, was a National Merit Scholar, and a junior Phi Beta Kappa at Vanderbilt. And now? She took care of three boys, four if you counted Roger.
“Alexa, you aren’t exactly saving the world as an investment banker.”
Touché. What could she say? Parker was right. Alexa had always planned to join her dad’s construction firm and make a difference building affordable green housing. She’d saved her inheritance from her grandpa for that very reason. Back then, she’d thought that big bank life, where you slaved away for huge corporate concerns, was beneath her. Why would you work for multinational corporations when you could be part of a family firm that has its eye on the community, not the shareholders? And why would you wear a suit and heels when you could wear boots and a hard hat?
“Parker, did you call about Daddy or to argue with me?”
“It’s Daddy. I’m worried.”
“He seemed great when I saw him at the party.” Alexa didn’t want to think that he might be ill again. One heart attack that might as well have been her fault had been bad enough.
“You don’t see him regularly so you wouldn’t notice. Sunday night at dinner he was sweating and his back hurt.”
A picture formed in Alexa’s mind of her mother and father and her siblings, Maddy, Christopher and Parker, at the Steak House. She used to go there every Sunday too, often accompanied by Nick or Kat before she left town for good. No one could believe it. That of all kids in her senior class, Alexa was the one who didn’t live in Carsonville anymore. She was the one who was going to take over the family business. She was the one who’d brought both her lover and her best friend to Carsonville and introduced them to the town and the University.
“It’s August in Alabama, Parker, people sweat. And his back – well, he’s in construction.”
“It was different from a summer sweat. I could tell. And he doesn’t have a bad back; you know that.”
“I don’t feel that great either. I feel pretty damn shitty in fact. There’s probably some summer virus going around. What’s Mama say about it?”
“She’s in another world. Why do you think I called you?”
“Yes – mother-of-the-bride-world. It’s just a wedding, for Christ’s sake! All she can talk about are menus, flowers, font styles, and colors. The wedding planner, Sissy Forman, is like a permanent fixture at the house. You’d think you were the first person in the world to have a wedding.”
“If you hadn’t eloped, she wouldn’t be so crazed about my wedding.” Parker had dropped out of Vanderbilt her junior year after eloping with Roger Appleton, a University of Tennessee grad she’d met during her semester abroad in Florence. Within a few months, when Roger couldn’t find a job in Birmingham (where Parker had quickly landed a position), they’d moved back to Carsonville and he’d joined his father-in-law’s construction firm. He had the job Alexa had thought she’d have one day – VP Cunningham Construction, working side by side with her dad. That it was he and not she fed at least some of her animosity toward Roger. Roger’s wheedling personality fed the rest.
“Why do you have to bring that up?” Parker snapped. “As for Daddy, what I’m most worried about is that I think he’s been sneaking cigarettes.”
“He wouldn’t!” Alexa insisted. Her father had had a heart attack three and a half years ago, during Kat’s lawyer’s deposition. As much as Alexa blamed Kat for the lawsuit and the stress that had led to her dad’s heart attack, she also blamed herself. Not because she’d forced Kat to ride a dangerous stallion – she didn’t, even though Kat’s lawsuit claimed she did – but because Alexa had insisted her father fight the lawsuit rather than settle.
“You mean he shouldn’t. Roger smelled it on him at the office.”
“Jesus. I don’t believe it.” Genetics were not on his side. Pops, his father, a heavy smoker, died of heart disease following routine bypass surgery when he was fifty-eight, the same age as her dad, Keith, now.
“I told Mama, but she doesn’t want to see what’s right in front of her.”
“But what can I do about it?”
“You can call Daddy today. He talks to you. You’re his….” Alexa could tell she was about to say, ‘You’re his favorite.’
“Ask him if he feels okay, try to get to the truth about the smoking. Talk some sense into him.”
Alexa searched for any reason not to believe her sister. “If you’ve been so worried, why didn’t you say something when I was home for the party?”
“First, you were too upset over Kat being there. And, second, you were in and out of town so fast, I didn’t have time to talk to you. As usual.”
Right again. She and David had arrived two hours before the party and left early the next morning. Alexa kept her visits as brief as possible, relying on e-mails and phone calls with her parents to fill her in on town and family events.
A baby wailed on Parker’s end of the phone.
“Hold on,” Parker said. “I need to run upstairs to get Cody.” Alexa could hear Parker’s heavy breathing as she hurried up the stairs towards her infant son. Then she heard, “Shhhhh, shhhh.” But the crying only became more frantic. “I need to go.”
“Mommy!” shrieked another child’s voice. “I pooped.”
“Jesus!” Parker said. “Cody woke up Andy.”
“Mommy, Andy’s yelling,” another voice joined the fray. “My nose is runny!” That was Grant.
“Promise me you’ll call Daddy, please.” Alexa could barely hear her sister over the din.
“As soon as I get to work.”
As Parker hung up, Alexa eyed her bedroom door. She wanted to crawl back there, climb into bed, and disappear under the comforter. But she felt a lump rising on her forehead that needed ice, and she had to get to the bank and finish the advisory book from hell.
At least the afternoon offered some relief. Last week she’d finally made an appointment with David’s friend Carter Emerson, a psychiatrist who saw four patients an hour and dispensed meds. Alexa had heard that all you had to do was tell him your symptoms and he’d give you a pill. No delving into the past, no probing discussions about traumatic events. Just symptoms, medication and then, she hoped, sleep.