Monday, October 20, 2014


          "Stace?" Bekka Sanderson's voice came as a welcome relief and distraction when Stacy approached the massive arched sandstone entrance of the administration building at quitting time that evening.
Mr. Ashcroft chatted with several men at the landing midway between the first and second floors. His voice was distinctive, especially that rumbling, infectious laughter that hadn't been heard nearly enough since he fell ill last fall. Despite him being busy, Stacy just knew he would see her as she passed by the base of the stairs on her way to the door. There was no other way out of her part of the administration building. The last thing she wanted was for him to call her name -- she would have to stop and wait for him, and then he would link his arm through hers and make her walk out to the car and get in and come home with him, assuming that she was free and planning on coming to a nice, cozy family dinner.
The sad thing was, she was definitely free, but nothing in the world could be more painful than to walk in the door of the Ashcroft house as if nothing had changed. As if she hadn't been ignored by Dinah for the last two years, since she moved to Virginia and Retchin' Gretchen latched onto her to become best buddies. Finally. As if she hadn't lost sight of Drake. As if she hadn't been forgotten like worn out linens since her grandmother died. It was easy to see she had only been included in the Ashcroft family because of her grandmother, and not because they actually wanted her and loved her as if she were one of their own.
"Hey, you okay?" Bekka said, catching hold of Stacy's arm. She glanced up the stairs, where the four men were still chatting, their voices echoing up the massive vaulted entryway to the fourth floor and back down.
           "Huh? Oh -- sorry. Spaced out." Stacy tried to laugh. "Too much time staring at my monitor, I guess. You spend too long untangling coding, you start thinking and seeing codes. What's up?" She stepped out into the entryway, putting Bekka between her and the stairs.

Saturday, October 18, 2014


"What's wrong?" his mother said, coming in with the third and last tray, full of coffee and punch cups. She tipped her head at the bowl of stroganoff, still steaming from a visit to the microwave. By this time, Drake had settled down at the counter on a stool with his food. But he wasn't eating. "You didn't catch something on that drive home, did you?" She immediately stepped up to him and pressed her cool, smooth hand against his forehead.
"I'm fine, Mom." Drake caught hold of her hand when she would have withdrawn it. "Just a lot of memories. I keep wishing Mrs. B was here."
"Oh, so do I. She'd be so delighted with Dinah and Troy. I miss not being able to share the whole celebration with her." His mother settled down on the other stool. "But it's more than missing her funeral, isn't it?"
"There was a present on the back step when I came in. From Stacy."
"Stacy? Now why would she leave it by the back door? And why didn't she come in with it? As far as I know, she still has a key to the house." His mother's frown deepened and she sat back, withdrawing her hand.
"How come Stacy wasn't here, in the middle of things with Dinah?"
"I don't -- I don't know." She shook her head. "It's been such a whirlwind since Dinah got home, I guess I didn't even think about it. I guess I just assumed that she had to work today. And your sister didn't say anything."
"What, Mom?" Drake didn't like that deeper wrinkle in between his mother's eyebrows, that frown and flicker of sadness, maybe even hurt in her crystalline gray eyes, which he had inherited.
"She didn't RSVP for Friday. I expected her to stop by and tell us, but she hasn't called or returned the card from the invitation."
Muffled giggles startled Drake, and he looked up to see Gretchen and another girl who was vaguely familiar, standing in the swinging door from the kitchen.
"You know how that Belmont girl always used to be, when we were kids. So disorganized. She probably lost the invitation or she threw away the RSVP. She probably doesn't even know what RSVP means," Gretchen said. She punctuated that with a toss of her platinum curls as she stepped into the kitchen.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


"Should have said something," Stacy muttered as she checked the coding for the new page in the alumni section of the BWU web site. "Why should I suffer just because Dinah finally gave in and let Retchin' Gretchen brainwash her?"
She smiled at her faint reflection in the monitor, remembering how she and Dinah and Drake had laughed at that nickname. They must have been about twelve, which meant Drake was seventeen. Gretchen had decided that summer that boys weren't disgusting, and when she grew up, her destiny was to marry Drake. She had also decided that she was fat, so she had to start losing weight. Somehow, she got hold of syrup of ipecac and took a dose every time she ate something. The ice cream truck had been a twice-daily fixture on the street that summer, and there were always snacks at summer school and Vacation Bible School and the old youth center, so Gretchen seemed to be always eating. And always puking a short time later. At least, those were Stacy's memories of that summer.
She flinched at the sound of that smooth baritone voice. The Ashcrofts, especially Drake, had been on her mind too much lately -- ever since she heard Mr. Ashcroft tell the chancellor that Drake was coming home for Dinah's wedding reception.
"Stacy, what are you doing here?" Devon Ashcroft stepped around to the side of her desk.
"Hi, Mr. A." Stacy hoped her face only felt hot and didn't look neon red.
"Sweetheart, I thought you'd be over at the house, helping with Dinah's mess." He leaned against her desk, giving her that adorable, slightly fuzzy, warm grin she had loved since she first stepped into the Ashcrofts' home with her grandmother.
"Nope. Gotta work. The Dean wants the new alumni offerings functional by the end of the month." She gestured at her monitor.
"You know, I haven't seen you at all since Dinah got home. Used to be, you girls were thicker than thieves. Drake is due home today -- you'll be there for the family dinner, right? Catch up with Drake and Dinah, and finally meet Troy."
           Stacy thought up a silent, desperate prayer for help. There was no way she wanted to admit to dear, slightly befuddled Mr. Ashcroft that she hadn't talked to Dinah, hadn't seen her except from a distance, hadn't even gotten a text message or voicemail, since his daughter returned to town a week ago.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


 Stacy Belmont's feet were damp and cold for the first two hours of work. Part of that could be blamed on the age of the administration building at BWU -- well past a century, and still relying on steam heat. Those marble floors were gloriously cool in the summer and fought the humidity, but in the winter they made for slippery walking and chilly rooms. Part of her discomfort could be blamed on the fact that she cut through the Ashcrofts' backyard after dropping off her present for Dinah.
It was ridiculous, she knew, to have put the present down and fled. Mrs. Ashcroft would have welcomed her, and she missed seeing the woman, who had been like a mother to her. With Mr. Ashcroft ill over the holidays and Dinah living and working in Norfolk, there had been few holiday celebrations, and she hadn't felt like celebrating or seeing much of anyone, this being the first Christmas without her grandmother. Stacy knew Mrs. Ashcroft would have pulled her into the house and insisted on feeding her.
But she would have either apologized for Dinah not including her in the wedding party, or she would have insisted that Stacy take the day off work and join the crew anyway. Stacy couldn't stand that. She had gone to too many parties in her childhood where she learned after arriving that she had either been invited at the last minute, or had been included on the list as a pity invitation -- the token motherless child, or whichever other detail in her life was uppermost in the mind of the high society matron throwing the party. By the time she was ten, she had learned to discern which birthday girl or slumber party hostess really wanted her there, and which one only invited her because her mother made her do it -- or didn't even know Stacy was on the list. By that time, she had come home with enough headaches and upset stomachs that her grandmother let her refuse the invitations and stay home. Dinah's parties had been the only ones Stacy always went to, because she knew without a doubt Dinah wanted her there.
           But Dinah didn't want her there now.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


 Logic said that if Stacy left the box on the back step, then she wasn't in the group laughing and talking and working in the living room. But that didn't make any sense. Stacy and Dinah were like sisters. They had promised each other since childhood they would be each other's maid of honor.
After thinking a few more moments, Drake tucked the box under his arm, gathered up his briefcase and suitcase, and sidled out of the swinging door from the kitchen. His mother stood in the arched doorway between the dining room and living room -- if he knew her, she did it intentionally, to let him escape sight unseen. He walked slowly, quietly, heading for the wide staircase in the center of the house, and crept upstairs. He stopped on the second floor and left the present in his mother's office, which, as he had suspected, overflowed with wrapped wedding presents. Then he continued up to his domain on the fourth floor. He dropped his briefcase in his office, where bookcases were crammed with volumes and mementoes of childhood triumphs and adventures -- pictures, models, trophies. Then he carried his suitcase into the old-fashioned bathroom with the long soaking tub, and peeled out of his clothes before he thought to close the bathroom door. Usually he wouldn't worry about someone coming up into his domain uninvited. After all, Dinah and his mother were busy hosting the festivities downstairs, and Stacy was the only other person who had free access to anywhere in the house. Despite that, she would still knock before entering. She was just that kind of person.
But Stacy wasn't here, and Gretchen was.

            Drake mused over that while he filled the tub with hot water and some of those herbal bath salts that Dinah had given him for Christmas -- which he had accidentally left behind -- guaranteed to ease bruises and stiff muscles and sinus problems. The green, tangy scent couldn't ease the growing sense that something was very wrong.

Friday, October 10, 2014


He let his mother chatter about the girls in the party on the other side of the wall while she filled other serving platters and piled food on his plate. He just grinned and nodded when she scolded him to eat up and get upstairs and take a long, hot shower after his long drive. At least she had learned not to scold him for taking the drive from South Dakota to Ohio in one trip, rather than stopping at a hotel halfway through.
Drake settled down at the kitchen table, where he had seen Dinah and Stacy do their homework under Mrs. Belmont's watchful care, and ate his late breakfast as he let the female chatter wash over him. It was good to be home. When he got his shower, if he wasn't able to fall asleep right away, maybe he would walk over to the campus and check on his father in the administration building. Maybe take him out to lunch. It was a given the girls would be working on wedding things through lunch, if not through the entire afternoon.
He saw the wedding present when he went to the sink to rinse his plate and put it in the dishwasher. His brain seemed to work a little clearer now, with two cups of coffee in him. He tugged off the drycleaner bag and flipped over the tag.
The box was from Stacy Belmont.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


"Drake!" Galen Ashcroft stopped short in the kitchen doorway, her long, aristocratic face lighting in delight. She quickly put down the empty, crumb-strewn platter she had evidently come in to refill, and hurried to wrap her arms around him. "How in the world did you sneak in so quietly?" She laughed as she stepped back, keeping a hold on his upper arms and looking him over, as she always did after a long absence, as if she thought he had changed drastically.
"Wasn't hard, Mom." Drake finally put down his coffee cup, though he regretted missing out on the last two mouthfuls. Although now that he had stopped inhaling it, he noticed it was one of those flavored coffees his mother loved and his father endured. Something nutty and spicy. Not too bad, but Drake preferred plain coffee, heavy on the sugar, if anything.
"What do you mean, not too hard?" She brushed a kiss on his cheek and turned to pick up the platter.
"You didn't hear the doorbell ring, through all that chatter in there." He tipped his head in the direction of the living room, where laughter rose up as if in response to his words, almost loud enough to make the kitchen chandelier vibrate.
"Don't tell me you rang the doorbell at your own home?"
"No, but the delivery guy from Macy's did. He left a pile on the front step. Di's making out like a bandit. She and Troy are gonna need to rent a second house on base, with all the junk they're getting."
"You can blame darling Gretchen for that," his mother said as she slid pieces of cheese-and-fruit pastry squares onto the platter. She tipped her head toward the cabinet with the dishes and Drake hurried to get a dinner plate. She slid the last four squares onto the plate for him and he thanked her with a kiss.
"Blame her for what, exactly?"
"She decided Dinah was cheating herself by asking for sensible things and money, so she went out and registered her at all the department stores in town. I know the girl means well, but Dinah is too busy as a Navy nurse, working to become a surgeon, and now a newlywed with a military husband to worry about entertaining. They certainly don't need lead crystal goblets and Lenox china ornaments. Especially when we have enough dishes and silver and linens in this house to outfit you and Dinah and a dozen distant relations without even noticing the lack. The girl's a darling, but sometimes I think she doesn't have a lick of sense."
          Drake bit his tongue against commenting that it wasn't a lack of common sense in Gretchen, but her refusal to let anybody contradict her. If she thought Dinah needed to be outfitted like a princess, then she would make sure of it, no matter what all the Ashcrofts said to the contrary. Drake wondered how she and Stacy were getting along. Gretchen had gone through a number of phases when they were in elementary and middle school, either being best buddies with Stacy or fighting to "put her in her place," as if the old, stuffy social rules meant anything and the housekeeper's granddaughter was supposed to be seen and not heard. In high school, she had been stuck in the "Stacy is social trash" phase, and had spent all her time trying to get Dinah to snub her and run with the "best crowd." Drake had been just as surprised as Dinah when she ran into Gretchen a few years ago and found her so changed -- warm, generous, and with a good sense of humor, according to his sister.