The muffled conversation halted and footsteps padded across the floor. Lincoln, his grandfather’s attorney opened the door. “Ah, Wes, my boy,” Lincoln extended his hand, “we were just talking about you.”
Wes blinked at the attorney and shook his pale, limp hand. The man never seemed to age. He’d been a senior citizen when Wes had first met him in high school when Wes’s dad had died and now nearly fifteen years later, he looked exactly the same: white hair, bushy eyebrows, red paisley bow-tie. Maybe he’d been born a senior citizen. According to his mom, people never change.
Or maybe Lincoln was a vampire.
In which case, Wes should leave.
But out of familial concern tinged with the promise of a billion-dollar inheritance, Wes followed the attorney into the room where he found his grandfather sitting in a wingback chair before a picture window overlooking the ocean. Boats bobbed on the horizon. And although Wes wished he could likewise sail away into the sunset, he took the chair across from his grandfather and folded his arms and legs.
His grandfather eyed him through the reading glasses perched on his sharp nose. Wes knew that he took after his mom’s side of the family, making Wes wonder if looking at his grandfather was like peering into a reverse mirror, giving him a glimpse of the man he’d one day become. A chill that had nothing to do with the air-conditioning passed over him.
Today, his grandfather wore a Japanese silk robe over a pair of black pajamas. Wes couldn’t remember ever seeing his grandfather in anything other than a suit. The casual apparel sent a warning tingle down Wes’s spine.
“You’re probably wondering why I asked you to come.” Even with leather slippers on his feet, his grandfather still managed to be formal and stuffy.
“Lincoln told me you weren’t feeling well. I’m sorry to—”
Grandfather cut him off and shot Lincoln an annoyed glance. “I’m fine!”
“Good. That’s good…” Wes refused to look at his watch, even though a part of him itched to time the encounter so he could mentally prepare himself for the next one. This was a trick his dad had taught him. “You can do anything for ten minutes,” Dad had said.
So not true…You can’t hold your breath for ten minutes, as his father had proved when his car plunged off that bridge on the Northern Coast. Strangely, both Wes’s mom and his grandfather blamed each other for Wes’s dad’s death even though neither of them had been anywhere near Big Sur.
Heart attack, Wes wanted to correct him, but he bit his lip as his grandfather continued.
“As given me pause.” The old man, clearly exhausted, leaned back in his chair and dangled one had over the side and rested his fingers on the head of Betty, a fat beagle who stuck so closely to Grandfather’s side she could have been another limb. “And made me reflect on the heavier matters of life.”
He studied Wes through his thick bifocals that reminded Wes of the all-seeing bespectacled eyes in The Great Gatsby belonging to Doctor T. J. Eckleburg that may or may not have been meant to represent God staring down upon and judging American society as a moral wasteland…just like his grandfather was judging him now.
“I have a favor to ask.” His grandfather’s voice cracked with pain.
Wes sat up. He’d never seen his grandfather emotional—even at his beloved son-in-law’s funeral. And his grandfather had most certainly never asked for a favor before—at least not from Wes.
“I want you to look after Betty.” He spoke as if the words caused him great pain.
“Excuse me?” Whatever he had expected from his grandfather, this was not it.
“He’s getting fat.”
Wes gazed at the dog snoring beside his grandfather’s chair. Betty flicked one ear as if she knew she was being discussed but couldn’t rouse herself to intercede. Wes wished she would. He was certain that the dog’s opinion carried much more weight than his own. And surely Betty wouldn’t/couldn’t think this…visit…please let it be short-term…a good idea.
“What do you know about beagles?” Grandfather steepled his fingers and gazed at Wes.
Wes’s thoughts scrambled. “They sniff out drugs at airports?”
“Yes. They have a powerful sense of smell.”
If that were true, Wes wondered how Betty, a fart factory, could stand being around herself.
“But there is so much more to them. Did you know beagles can be traced back to Ancient Greece? And it’s thought that in the 11th century, William the Conqueror brought the Talbot hound to Britain. The Talbot is the ancestor of the modern-day beagle which can run prey to ground. They’re hunting dogs, meant to roam free and wild.” Grandfather cocked his head. “Men are not meant to run free and wild. The animal-man is an enemy to God.”
What did that even mean? Was he referring to the work of Zoologist Desmond Morris who argued man was not a fallen angel, but a risen ape?
Grandfather must have read his mind because he answered the unspoken question. “My greatest wish is to see you settle down and shoulder responsibility. Be a Godly man! Get a wife! Father children! Teach them to love and serve God.”
Huh. Wes guessed that his grandfather hadn’t read Morris’s The Naked Ape. Which was disappointing since he would have liked to talk about it with him.
“But since I can’t force you to marry,” Grandfather continued, “I’m giving you my dog.” He wagged his finger in front of Wes’s face. “You two need each other.”
“I’m sure Betty would disagree.”
“She doesn’t have a choice!” Grandfather barked. “And neither do you! I’m going to Hacienda Hot Springs. It’s a healing and recovery center. My doctors think it best. Betty can’t come. They don’t allow pets.” His tone of voice told Wes that his grandfather had tried to persuade the hospital otherwise. “This, of course, is a short-term arrangement.”
“I hope so,” Wes breathed out. “For Betty’s sake,” he tacked on. “I’m sure she’ll miss you.”
“Are you still living on that floating coffin?”
“The Seabird, yes.”
“You’ll move in here while I’m gone.”
Wes glanced around at the lush penthouse filled with his grandfather’s antiques and mementos. A giant stuffed swordfish hung above the dining room sideboard and a moose head sat over the fireplace mantle. All these dead trophies spoke of violence. Wes preferred living with books and live creatures…other than Betty of course.
“Not here.” Once again, Grandfather read his mind. “You can have your own suite.”
Wes let out a sigh of relief. He didn’t want to be surrounded by his grandfather’s things. Already, he felt his youth slipping away after only the five…or was it ten…? Minutes he had spent in his grandfather’s home.
“I don’t need to tell you that if anything should happen to Betty while she’s in your care, you will be immediately disinherited.”
“Huh, what?” Wes tensed.
Grandfather beckoned Lincoln who stepped forward and placed a briefcase on a side table, clicked it open, and withdrew a sizeable legal document. “You must learn to be a wise and capable steward.”
Wes knew that he should be offended that his grandfather didn’t think he was responsible enough to care for a dog, but since he shared his grandfather’s doubts, he couldn’t muster any outrage. “I don’t know what to say,” Wes said.
“Just say you’ll take care of my dog,” Grandfather said through clenched teeth.
“Of course!” Wes eyed Betty. The beagle was so fat she could hardly waddle. How much trouble could she be? And staying at the hotel would be okay. He could have room service deliver his meals. Maybe this would be good—give him more time to finish his screenplay about the Civil War.
“I’m not asking you to oversee the hotels.”
Relief whistled through Wes. After his grandfather’s return from his recovery center, Wes would take that research trip to Gettysburg.
“At least not yet.”
Images of the Pennsylvania countryside vanished. “What? Aren’t there managers?” He stumbled over his words and thoughts. “I mean, I don’t want to interfere…or jeopardize anyone’s job.”
“While I’m gone, you’re going to live here at the hotel and work at every position starting with bellboy.”
“But I did that for years before college!”
“And if I remember correctly, you weren’t very good at it.”
“Look, that thing with Mrs. Hendricks was not my fault. The judge threw out her case—”
“There should never have been a whiff of scandal!” A vein throbbed in Grandfather’s neck.
“You’re right,” Wes back-pedaled, eager to calm his grandfather. The last thing he wanted was for his grandfather to die and make Wes in charge of…anything. “I should have avoided her.”
“Wrong!” Grandfather struggled to stand.
Wes didn’t know what to say. He pleaded with his eyes for Lincoln to do something, but Lincoln stood like a stiff sentinel.
Grandfather collapsed back into his chair, defeated by his own weakness. “You’ll be a bellboy, a valet, a waiter, a member of the housecleaning staff, a security guard...”
“Wait, while I’m doing all of this, what’s going to happen to Betty?”
“What do you mean?” Grandfather growled.
“What’s she going to do?”
His grandfather clearly hadn’t thought of this. “She can stay in your room, but you’ll need to make sure she’s well taken care of in your absence.”
“And I don’t need to remind you that there are security cameras throughout the hotel. I’ll be watching.”
“Right,” Wes said, even though he secretly thought the entire situation was completely wrong.
Letty wanted to be happy for her sister, but as she helped her mom transport the wedding cake from the kitchen to the idling Subaru, her anger burned just below the surface.
“Your dad feels terrible about missing this.” Mom eased the cake into the gaping hatch-back, stood, and sent Letty a watery smile.
Letty gave her mom a one-armed sideways squeeze.
“He’s so proud of you girls.” Mom briefly sagged against Letty, exposing her fatigue for a moment. “You need to visit him.”
“I know.” Letty sorted through her standard excuses, but in the end, decided against sharing one. They were all beginning to sound thin and weak—two adjectives that could also be used to describe her mom. Mom had always been thin, but since Letty’s father’s incarceration, her mom had dropped at least two dress sizes and now the mother of the bride dress that had fit her two months ago hung on her like a deflated balloon. Letty brushed her lips against her mom’s pale cheek and inhaled her Chanel 5 perfume. “Come on. We can’t be late or Donald will kill us.”
“He’s a fussy little man.” Mom slammed closed the Subaru hatchback and climbed in the driver’s seat.
Letty followed and clicked into her seatbelt, careful not to smush her fluffy crinoline bridesmaid dress. “After today, he’ll no longer be a part of our lives.”
Mom rolled out of the driveway, past the for-sale sign on the front lawn, and through the gates of Cathedral Glen. Minutes later, they were zooming down the Pacific Coast Highway, headed for the Montlake Hotel.
“It’s silly to have a beachfront hotel named after a lake,” Letty said.
“You know there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Montlake hotels.” Mom tightened her grip on the steering wheel. “Besides, it’s not named after a lake, it’s a family name. I’m thinking of applying there.”
Letty sat up. “To do what?”
“I don’t know. I have to do something and it seems like a beautiful place to spend my days. Maybe I could work in the kitchen? I really like helping out in Florence’s café.”
“Is it any crazier than moving in with Marmmy and Aunt Glenda in Mesa?”
Thinking about Mesa’s heat made Letty shiver. Which just didn’t make sense. “You can move in with me. I need a roommate now that Harper is moving out.”
“We’ve been over this,” Mom said, her voice tight.
“I know, but we haven’t come to an agreement.”
“We don’t have to make any decisions until the house sells.” Which meant that Mom didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
Letty blew out a frustrated breath as they crawled along the crowded PCH. Minutes later, they pulled onto the Mountlake property and followed a flagstone drive over a bridge spanning the Aliso Creek, through the manicured lawns, past the castle-like hotel to the curb where they could unload the cake.
Donald and his team of black-clothed caterers rounded the hill. Backlit by the late afternoon sun, they reminded Letty of a small band of warriors set to conquer the natives. She and her mom were defenseless against their powers. With as few words as possible, they handed over the cake. Letty made to follow them, but after a quick glance at her mom battling tears, she slipped back into the car.
“It’ll all be over soon.” Letty squeezed her mom’s knee. “We’re halfway done. The wedding ceremony was lovely and there isn’t any reason that the reception won’t be more of the same.”
“Thanks to Chet’s parents and his generous trust fund.”
“It’s true we had to scale back, but—”
“I hope we didn’t embarrass Chet’s parents.” The words any further hung unspoken at the end of Mom’s sentence.
Secretly, Letty hoped that like Donald, Chet’s parents would ease out of her life after today. She imagined only needing to see them at the christening and maybe the marriages of Harper and Chet’s unborn children.
“I’m sorry.” Mom dropped her chin. “This is supposed to be a happy occasion.”
“And it is, for Harper.”
“But I have to face all those people...”
“Your friends,” Letty reminded her mom.
“That your father stole from.”
“Well, there is that.” Anger flashed through Letty.
“It’s so embarrassing.”
“Mom, you did nothing wrong.”
“They don’t know that. I worked for him. How could I not know he was embezzling?”
“Because he’s smart and he hid it really well…for a very long time. Remember, it’s a good a thing he got caught. Now, he can get the help he needs for his gambling. That’s what you taught me.”
Mom lifted her chin. “You’re right.”
“No, you’re right. I’m just parroting your words.”
“I do want him to get better.”
“Of course, you do. We all do.”
“Then he can come home and we can live like normal people.”
Letty wasn’t so sure about that. Her dad wasn’t like normal people. He never had been and most likely, never would be.
During the reception, Letty kept an eye on her mom and wondered if anyone else could read the tension running just below her mom’s courteous and lovely façade. In the guests, Letty thought she caught the pitying stares, the curious fascination, and the whispered undertones. When a few people came right out and asked about her father, Letty tried not to bristle. She wanted to mimic her mom’s breezy grace, but she felt wooden or mechanical, as if she was a mannequin or a wind-up toy programmed to act a certain way and rehearse a memorized script.
After Wes and Harper left to change into their traveling clothes and Letty thought she couldn’t take one more minute of feigning sweetness and light, she slipped away.
The reception had been held on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Now that the sun was fading into a pink puddle on the horizon and strings of outdoor lights were flickering on, Letty hoped to find a place where she could slip out of her awful shoes and enjoy the gathering dark.
She wandered down the path until she spotted a bench overlooking the ocean. The sky and sea had turned to the same steely-gray color, making it impossible to tell where one ended and the other began.
Glooming, her grandmother’s word for twilight—that brief between time when the sun had set but the moon had yet to rise. Her grandmother had a song about it. Something about two lovers “lovely roamin' in the gloamin.”
“You okay?” Claris’s voice surprised her and made Letty start.
She jumped to her feet and turned to her best friend for a hug. “Kind of mad…still.”
“I get it.” Claris pulled away and swept a searching glance over Letty.
Letty sank back onto the bench and pulled Claris down beside her. They were similar in size but different in almost every other way. Letty had her dad’s dark hair and eyes while Claris was a classic beach Barbie. In high school, they used to call themselves the Oreo team.
“I really hate these shoes.” Letty lifted her feet to show Claris the pink satin strappy heels Harper had made her wear.
“They’re not as bad as my dress.” Claris plucked at her skirt.
“No one made you wear it.”
“I know, but what with UCS’s tuition hike, I couldn’t ask my parents for one more penny, and this dress was free.”
“Anything left in Courtney’s closet is free game. Her rules, not mine.”
“Do we need to get back? I don’t want to miss the send-off.”
“I think we still have a minute.”
“Good.” Letty wiggled her toes and followed Claris’s glance over her shoulder at the Montlake monstrosity. The hotel’s lights shimmered in the fading dusk. Music from the reception floated over the rise. Out on the water, a few boats bobbed along the horizon.
“For most people, this is the stuff of fairytales,” Claris said.
“And I feel like my mom and I are being booted out of paradise and the only home I’ve ever known.”
“Because of your dad?”
Letty nodded. “Mom’s talking of going to Arizona to live with Marmmy. Harper and Wes are moving to New York. Leaving just me in my tiny Irvine apartment.”
“You love your tiny place. It’s darling.”
“And I love nursing, but the pay barely covers my rent. Now that Harper’s moving out, I’ll have to pick up another shift if I want to buy food.” She clenched her jaw to keep the tears at bay and struggled to regain her anger to keep from dissolving into tears. But the sound of screaming roused her from her funk.
“What’s that about?” Claris stammered.
Standing, Letty tried to ignore her aching feet. When she realized the screaming and mayhem seemed to be coming from the wedding reception, she took off running as best she could in her high-heeled satin shoes. Claris jogged beside her down the path, and over the bluff.
A beagle stood on the table wolfing down the wedding cake while the guests tried to fight their giggles and Donald and his team flapped their arms and shouted expletives.
A man in dripping wet swimming trunks and not much else dashed through the party, knocking over chairs and bumping off guests as he scrambled toward the dog. “Sorry! Sorry! Excuse me!” He lunged for the table and pulled the beagle to the ground. A floral garland caught around the dog’s paws and soon the man and beagle were tangled in the string of flowers. With his naked chest and garland, the man looked like he could pose for a statue of a Greek god.
“Who is that?” Claris breathed.
Letty bit back cursing. “I don’t know, but he and that creature just ruined my sister’s wedding.”
“You’re right,” Claris whispered, “we should be outraged, but holy crow, he’s beautiful.”
“And I bet he knows it.” Letty marched over to the man, planted herself in front of him, and let out all the anger she’d been shoring up for the past two months. “Get that creature out of here!” she said.
“I’m trying.” He juggled the dog who made another leap for the table. “That must be some amazing cake.”
“Yeah. My mom stayed up all night making it and now look at it! It’s dog chow.”
“No, it’s gorgeous. At least that part is.” He waved at the untouched by dog-lips side of the cake.
Tears gathered in Letty’s eyes as she remembered all her mom’s hard work. But then she heard laughter. Stunned, she turned to watch her mom melt into tears and giggles and fall onto a nearby chair. Mom hiccoughed, spread her legs, grabbed her belly, and laughed some more.
Was she drunk? Oh please, don’t let her be drunk. Letty didn’t think she could handle one more ounce of humiliation.
Many of the guests followed Mom’s example. Sniggers, guffaws, and laughter floated around Letty. Even the man grinned, but his smile only fueled Letty’s rising anger. She stepped in so that the tips of her satin shoes were perfectly aligned with his bare toes and peered into his eyes and pushed his chest.
Obviously stunned, he dropped the dog, stumbled back as if she’d zapped him, and stared at Letty. The same electrical current that had passed between their brief physical contact continued to sizzle. Did he feel it, too?
“Oh no you don’t!” Claris sprang for the dog and caught him by the collar.
“Claris! Your dress!” Letty called out.
Claris sank to the grass, her legs splayed out in front of her, the dog with his frosting smeared fur wriggled in her lap. “It’s okay. It’s only a Vera Wang.”
The man unwrapped himself from the garland and grinned at Claris. “Here, give him to me.” He glanced around. “I wonder what happened to his leash?”
A college friend of Harpers came running up, holding the leash in her extended hand like a banner. “I found it!”
A distinguished looking older gentleman carrying a briefcase and wearing a bowtie appeared. “He must have slipped out of it.”
The man took the proffered leash and clipped it onto the dog’s collar. “Hey, it’s a chocolate cake. Do you think it will make him sick?”
As if to answer the question, the dog hunched over and vomited all over Letty’s feet. A moist dampness seeped through the thin satin shoes. Frozen in horror, Letty could only stare at the mess.
“Oh look, here comes Harper and Chet!” Mom pointed a wavering finger at the couple emerging from the side of the hotel. “Nobody say anything to them about the cake! Grab the sparklers!”
Claris jumped to her feet to help Mom distribute the sparklers and matches while Letty shook herself from her stupor, slipped off her shoes, and stepped out of the vomit. She wrinkled her nose as she picked up the dripping shoes and carried them to a trash can. She dropped them in and tried to collect her thoughts. She wrapped her anger around her like a protective cloak. It had momentarily slipped when she’d laid her hands on that man’s naked chest, but she could and would muster it back.
The man and dog trailed after her. “Again, I’m really sorry.”
“Yeah, well, so am I.” She glanced over her shoulder at the line forming for her sister’s send off. “This was supposed to be the happiest day of my sister’s life and your dog just made it…disgusting.”
“Can I make it up to you?”
“How?” She waved her arm at the destroyed the table where half of the cake had been turned into a mountain of mush. The bulk of the flowers had been cast to the ground, but shredded and torn petals and leaves scattered the once pristine white tablecloth like dying corpses on a battlefield.
“I don’t know…” he stammered. “Can I pay for a new cake?”
“Oh yeah, good idea.” She sniffed and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “Because we’ll need a new wedding cake tomorrow.”
“You don’t need to be bitchy.”
She planted her fists on her hips even though she longed to touch him again. As an experiment. Just to see if that sizzle would return. “And you don’t need to be here.”
He bit his lip. “Right. I don’t.” And he stalked away while the dog limped after him.