Little Black Dress by Susan McBride


Chapter 20

Greg’s Volvo sat smack-dab in front of the Victorian when Toni arrived home from the hospital and pulled in behind it. The sun had shone all afternoon, melting the snow that had topped the shrubbery for days, the remaining patches of white looking a lot like Old Man Winter’s bad toupee.

Between the pristine blue sky and the brightness that warmed her through the windshield, Toni was almost fooled into thinking spring might be making an early appearance. Until she got out of her car and the wind rushed around her, rubbing her cheeks raw with its frigid breath.

Nope, it was still January.

Clutching her knapsack, she raced up the porch steps to the door and jammed her key in the lock, turning it hard till it clicked. With a happy sigh, she pushed inside, stepping into the warmth of the foyer, where she promptly ran into Greg pacing and talking loudly into his PDA.

“So I’ll see you at the meeting?” he was saying and held up a finger when she shut the door and walked toward him. “Yeah, eight o’clock sharp. You bring the doughnuts, and I’ll bring the Pepto. Ha ha. You’ve updated the PowerPoint with the files I e-mailed, right? You’re the man. Ha ha.”

He had on his tailored wool coat, snugly buttoned to his chin. His overnight bag sat on the bottom step, zipped and ready to go. She hadn’t known that he’d planned to depart before supper; but instead of feeling insulted, Toni was relieved he didn’t mean to stick around. Something was happening to her, and she needed to be here in this house without him. It wasn’t anything that would’ve made sense to a logical man like Greg, so she was glad she didn’t have to stumble through an explanation.

“All right then, I’ll see you in the morning,” Greg said and finally stopped giving her the finger (index, not middle) as he ended his call.

Toni plastered on a pleasant smile and said, “Hey,” turning her cheek to him for a kiss while she tugged off her coat. “Did you miss me?”

“Your timing is perfect,” he replied and pulled on his gloves as she yanked hers off. “I need to hit the road, but I didn’t want to leave until you got here.”

“I had no clue you’d be going so soon,” she remarked earnestly, wondering if her grumpy attitude last night had anything to do with it, or maybe it was the weird vibes between her and Hunter Cummings. “Was that Steve?”

Steven Berman was Greg’s partner in his CPA firm and his oldest friend.

“Yep, that was Stevie, getting all our ducks in a row for the big staff meeting tomorrow,” he explained as he stuffed his cell into one pocket then pulled his keys from the other. “I know everyone’s still got their holiday hangover, but tax season’s already ramping up. We’ve got to get our battle plans drawn.”

“So we’ll do the two ships that pass in the night thing, huh? Except more like two ships that pass before dinner,” she joked but Greg merely squinted at her. “Sure you can’t stay and eat leftover meat loaf?”

“Wish I could, but duty calls.” He rubbed gloved hands together. “I’ve got some loose ends to tie up before morning. Besides, if you’re going to spend hours at the hospital so you can hang out with your mom, it seems stupid for me to stick around doing busy work.”

Ah, so that’s it, she realized. He’d driven all the way down so he’d expected her full attention every minute he was with her. He hadn’t imagined she’d ignore him, leaving him alone for hours on end while she visited with Evie in the ICU.

“My mother’s doing fine, thanks,” she told him, a tad stiffly; but she’d given about all that she could give of herself. If he wanted more, she was tapped out.

“Yes, of course I hope she’s okay, or as okay as someone in a drug-induced coma can be.” His clean-shaven cheeks flushed before he turned away to snatch up his carryall. “Is there any change?”

“Not really,” she told him without elaborating, because there was nothing to elaborate on. Evie’s condition was no different from when Toni had arrived in Blue Hills two days ago.

“Will they take her off the ventilator soon?” He pushed at the cowlick on his forehead, and she spotted flakes of dandruff in his hair.

“As soon as she’s ready,” Toni replied, not sure what that meant exactly. “But I’ll stay until they do. I won’t leave.”

Greg shifted on his loafers, his long face fraught with concern. “Just how long can Engagements by Antonia survive without you? I know you trust Vivien, but you’re the captain of that ship, no matter how good your first mate is.”

She shrugged, walking him to the door. “I doubt it’ll run aground in a few days or even a week. I’ve been keeping up on my BlackBerry and the laptop. So we’re in good shape,” she told him, even though she’d been worrying about the same thing. Her business was the only child she’d birthed and raised, and she’d put it first for so long she’d almost forgotten it wasn’t a real baby.

His bespectacled eyes studied her. “Are you sure about this? You don’t have to stick around out of guilt. The doctor can call you in St. Louis when they’re ready to make any changes.”

“Don’t worry about me, okay? I’m fine,” she said and jerked on the brass handle to crack open the door. “So have a safe drive and call me when you get in.”

“Will do.” He paused beside her and smiled, revealing a bit of celery from Bridget’s chicken salad stuck in his teeth. “Just think, when you come back, it’ll be to move in with me. Won’t it be great to live in one place instead of running back and forth all the time?”

Toni had been waiting for him to bring that up since he’d arrived last night. The only surprise was that it had taken him so long to say it.

She made a small “umm” noise and quickly changed the subject. “You sure you didn’t forget anything?”

“No, I mean, yes, I’m sure that I didn’t. But, um, I think you did.” He stuck a hand inside his coat and pulled something out. “This was in the pocket of my blue button-down. I assume it’s yours.”

It was the photograph of Evie and Anna that she’d found in the attic.

“Oh, God!” Her heart skidded as she caught her breath. “Yes, thanks.” She took it from him and pressed it to her chest before sticking it in the back pocket of her jeans. She would have cried if she’d lost it.

“So it’s important?”

“It is.” More important than he knew.

“Then I guess it’s good-bye until I see you again, whenever that’ll be.” He bent in for a kiss, and Toni didn’t even close her eyes as their lips locked. She wanted so badly to feel something more than she did, but it just wasn’t there.

“Good-bye.” She touched his face before he moved apart and headed out the door, a rush of cold air whipping in around him. “Have fun with Diane,” she called out and waved him down the front steps.

As soon as he’d thrown his bag into the trunk and shut himself into the car, she closed and locked the door and stood alone in the foyer, her arms wrapped around herself.

The grandfather clock loudly ticked off the seconds, as if she needed reminding that time waited for no man, and certainly not for a previously committed woman suddenly unsure about the fellow she’d once assumed she’d be sharing her life with.

Could coming back to Blue Hills have changed her that much? Or had she been more in love with love itself than she’d ever been with Greg?

“Clearly it’s an occupational hazard,” she muttered, figuring someone so deeply involved in the wedding business should know the difference between commitment and complacence; but maybe part of the problem was watching so many couples promise “to love and to cherish” that she inevitably coveted that for herself.

What if the strange “vision” of Hunter Cummings last night was merely her mind and heart coming together to convince her that Greg wasn’t her soul mate? What if she didn’t move in with him when she returned to St. Louis? Would he understand if she took a step away instead of toward him? Would he give her the time and space to figure out what she really desired? Or, more likely, would he consider a put-off the kiss of death and move on to someone else who could better appreciate him?

Even if they broke up, it didn’t guarantee she’d ever find a man like Jon Ashton. She could very well turn into one of those women so used to their independence that they could never compromise or settle. The kind they called “spinsters”—whether they were truly spinsters or not—who took cruises solo and adopted fifty cats while watching their married friends celebrate anniversaries and attend their children’s graduations and weddings.

What’s so terrifying about being by yourself?

Toni realized the idea of flying solo again at forty-six would have freaked her out more before this trip back to Blue Hills; before she’d become aware of how much she didn’t know about her own past. How could she make any serious decisions about her future if she didn’t even fully understand the family that had spawned her?

She had to find her past before she could release it, and she happened to be in the perfect place—the only place—to do both. And she would start right this minute, she decided, thinking of the flowered hatbox in the attic.

Well, maybe she’d wait until after she’d eaten something. Her stomach growled like an angry dog.

With the Victorian all to herself, she took her time making a meat-loaf sandwich and a cup of Earl Grey. Then she carried her meal into the den, wanting to check on the homework she’d given Greg.

Since he hadn’t mentioned a thing about going through her mom’s bank statements, she figured he’d spent his time pouting instead; but, lo and behold, she found a neat stack of monthly summaries from the Cummings Savings & Loan sitting on her father’s oak desk, pinned down by a ruby glass paperweight. A yellow note with Greg’s perfectly legible script stuck to the topmost edge:

Couldn’t locate June from last year, but otherwise nothing too out of the ordinary except irregular deposits and weekly cash withdrawals for $400 (for the housekeeper? Is she paying taxes on this???). Looks like she’s borrowing from her money market (which isn’t even earning 1% interest! Horrors!). It’s impossible to get the big picture without seeing ALL of her financial docs. Does she have any other investment accounts? IRAs? What about P&L statements from the winery? Tax returns? Can you box everything up and haul it back with you? (The sooner, the better!)

Love, G

If anything, Toni felt more confused than ever. Frustrated, she wadded up Greg’s note and tossed it toward the recycle box. It hit the rim and bounced off, rolling to a stop between two stacks of magazines and catalogs.

Okay, the good news appeared to be that Evie wasn’t broke. She had enough in the bank to pay Bridget cash every week. And she had funds in her money market account, which Greg implied she was slowly draining.

What if the problem wasn’t with the clutter or even a few missed bills? Maybe Bridget’s histrionics weren’t about money at all but something else. Toni had a gut sense that Bridget knew way more than she was telling, or else why wouldn’t the black dress healing itself have surprised the hell out of her? She’d seemed to take it in stride, and that wasn’t normal. Toni had begun to feel like she was being steered in a certain direction by a human GPS that wasn’t as specific as Greg’s “Diane,” who instead wanted her to stumble around in the dark until she found her own answers.

“For Pete’s sake,” she murmured. Couldn’t anyone ever cut her some slack?

Because, if that was the case, why didn’t Bridget just fess up and tell her the truth about everything? The housekeeper was being even stealthier than Hunter Cummings with his “secret project” and the crazy-ass winter “harvest” he’d briefly mentioned on his way out.

Tell Miss Evie when you see her that I won’t quit on her, even if her daughter doesn’t like me much.

Was Bridget’s concern about Evie’s deal with Hunter? Because, in spite of how horrid it made Toni feel knowing her mom had turned to him instead of to her when she’d needed help at the vineyard, she had a hard time believing he would truly take advantage of the situation. He might be stubborn, yes, and a little too self-assured, but he didn’t seem callous. He didn’t seem like the type who could screw over a comatose woman and still sleep at night.

Or was she missing the point? Should she be pondering instead why a golden boy like Hunter would suddenly give the time of day to a seventy-one-year-old woman who was, for all intents and purposes, his father’s enemy? He was either as close to a saint as anyone came these days or he was getting something more out of it than a chance to dig his fingers in the last twenty acres of Morgan family dirt.

Stop twiddling your thumbs and go find out for yourself, she heard Evie declaring in her no-nonsense voice. You’re a Show-Me State girl, born and bred. Either you’ll see it with your own eyes, or you’ll know it’s not there.

Okay, okay, she would do it.

The winery was just over the hill. Though it was cold enough to freeze the hairs in her nose, the roads weren’t slick. She’d head over in a bit, once she took care of another item on her “what the hell is going on” list. She’d been dying to get back up in the attic all day long, and finally there was no one around to keep her from doing it.

Toni finished off her sandwich and tea, brushed the crumbs from her sweater, and deposited her plate in the sink. She unzipped her knapsack, plucked out the indestructible black dress, marched upstairs, dumped it across her bedroom chair, then continued straight up the hallway. She opened the door to the attic, hit the light switch, and climbed.

The hatbox remained where she’d left it, and she went directly to it. Instead of opening it there, she hauled it down with her, to her old room, setting it at the foot of her double bed.

Avoiding the chair with the black dress draped over its arm, Toni turned on the nearest lamps. Before she plunked down on the mattress, she pulled the photograph of Evie and Anna from her back pocket and set it beside the box.

If she’d been Catholic instead of a lapsed Presbyterian, she might have said a prayer or at least a Hail Mary, sure as she was that important pieces of her mother’s soul rested within. All she could think to do was whisper, “Forgive me, Evie, if I’m intruding, but maybe it’s high time that I did.”

Biting down on her lip, she removed the hatbox lid to reveal a mess of photographs, color mixed with black-and-white. Most were loose but others had been rubber-banded or stuffed into plain white envelopes with various years scribbled on the front, primarily between 1950 and 1965.

Toni withdrew them all and made neat stacks around her, in the process unearthing a carved glove box with a painted blue bird that contained several postcards: one of the Gateway Arch dated 1965, the year of its birth and her own, and another of a redbrick building with a green dome labeled “City Sanitarium.” While the Arch postcard was blank on the back, the one from the sanitarium was addressed to Mrs. E. Ashton and had a canceled four-cent stamp and a childish scrawl stating, I AM HERE.

There was also a folded sheet of stationery, worn thin as though it had been perused a thousand times. As she carefully opened it, Toni got a whiff of lily of the valley—the very scent she’d detected on the black dress—and her pulse leaped when she saw the monogrammed “A” and realized the note was to her mother from Anna:

I had to do it, Evie. I wasn’t meant to marry Davis. The dress showed me everything so clearly. How could I ignore my destiny?

The dress again!

Toni’s gaze darted across the room to where it lay across the chair. Then she read the note again and once more after that, her breaths coming faster as she realized the dress had given her aunt a vision, too, one that obviously kept her from marrying Hunter’s father.

Had the dress affected Evie as well? Were all the women in her family susceptible to it or just plain nuts?

“Good God, Mother, what else is there that you never told me?” she wondered aloud, placing the letter and the postcards back in the glove box before turning her attention to the hatbox again.

All that remained at the bottom was a tortoiseshell comb, along with a sterling silver hairbrush and mirror, each monogrammed with a curlicued “A.”

More evidence that Anna had truly existed.

So why had Evie hidden it?

If her mother hadn’t stroked out, if Toni hadn’t come back to Blue Hills, if Bridget hadn’t nagged her about cleaning up the clutter, she never would have run across these precious bits of Evie’s history. Her history.

Impatiently, she peeled rubber bands from the photos until she’d made a thick pile. Would she even know who was in them?

She quickly thumbed through the lot of them, finding a number of them labeled on the back.

Anna’s 7th birthday

Me and A at Christmas

Me and A picking grapes

Smoothing the quilt beneath her, Toni spread them out like a deck of cards, eager to take them all in at once rather than little by little.

Whether in color or black-and-white, as a child or a young woman, Evie’s countenance was unmistakable: her longish face often solemn, her eyes focused, her blond hair hanging straight or primly tucked behind her ears. Only in the photo marked Me and Jon, Wedding Day did she wear the most exuberant smile. It crinkled her eyes and stretched from ear to ear. She sparkled like a woman in love, and it both moved and pained Toni to see, knowing what her mother had lost when Jon Ashton had died; more certain than ever that what she felt for Greg couldn’t begin to compare.

There was a rather large photo of her maternal grandparents—Evie’s mother and father, Beatrice and Franklin Evans—but many more smaller ones of the sisters, often with a notation on the back referring to a holiday. One labeled Christmas, 1950 was faded to sepia and showed two girls standing in front of an evergreen decorated with way too much tinsel. Both had bows in their hair and long sleeves beneath embroidered pinafores. The tall and lanky Evie appeared uneasy, her arms stiff at her sides, a bored stare on her face. Tiny, dark-haired Anna beamed and held out the sides of her skirt, one foot set behind the other as if about to curtsy.

“Did you adore her or want to kill her?” Toni asked, even though her mother wasn’t there to answer.

As an only child, she’d only dreamed of having a sibling. In reality, she knew from her friends with brothers and sisters that it wasn’t always fun and games, not unless being put into strangleholds, tickled mercilessly, or being called names like “fart face” were considered sports.

“Maybe a little of each,” she decided, nodding to herself.

Then she began to painstakingly arrange the pictures in chronological order, or as close as she could get. She used the ones with dates as touchstones, guessing on others, until she could sit back and view the chapters of her mother’s life, strung together like pages of a storybook. They started with Evie as a baby and went through childhood to her high school graduation and teacher’s college commencement in cap and gown, all the way to her marriage to Jonathan Ashton.

“There,” she said with a sigh when she was done, feeling like she’d accomplished something monumental.

It was the closest Toni had ever come to understanding Evie and who she was before she’d become a mother; when she was just a girl, the elder of two sisters, coming of age in a small river town.

Evie had so rarely spoken of her growing-up years, although she had recounted plenty of stories about Herman Morgan’s founding of the winery and Joseph Morgan’s sale of eighty acres to Archibald Cummings during the years of Prohibition and the Great Depression. But that had been more like a history lesson than learning about people who really existed.

“You even hated having your picture taken when you were a baby, didn’t you?” Toni said as she fingered an old-fashioned portrait of Bea Evans with a swaddled infant in her arms that surely was Evie. The child’s face looked pinched and grumpy. Beatrice had dark hair crimped in the style of 1940s movie stars, and wore a dress with padded shoulders. She propped the baby up with both arms, proudly turning her toward the camera.

“She did her best,” Evie would remark of her own mother, though it hadn’t exactly sounded like a compliment, “and she left us too soon, God knows. If she’d only had more feisty McGillis in her veins, she might’ve had the strength to hold on and see her only granddaughter.”

Toni wasn’t sure how much McGillis or Morgan she had flowing through her own blood. She had been separated from her roots too long to know.

“I wish I’d had the chance to meet you,” Toni whispered to Beatrice and put the picture away.

She moved on to another photograph, this one color, of a child’s birthday celebration. There was dark-haired Annabelle with her dimpled smile posed behind a cake. Half a dozen children gathered around her, Evie so far to the right that only half of her was visible. One of the little girls closest to Anna had a gap-toothed grin and curly hair as bright as copper. Toni turned the photo over but found no date. Just the words Anna’s 7th birthday.

Toni spotted that same orange-red hair on a woman in a photograph a row above that one. Beside a grown-up Evie, who posed before the stone grill that sat in the backyard of the Victorian, stood a young woman with a head of wild copper hair. The redhead mugged for the camera, a pitcher of lemonade in her hands. Me and B, July 4 BBQ, Evie’s spidery handwriting had penned on the back.

Toni moved the two pictures until they were side by side: Anna’s seventh birthday and the barbecue on the Fourth of July.

It didn’t take much effort to figure out that the carrot-topped child and the grown woman pouring lemonade were one and the same.

“B is for Bridget,” Toni said aloud.

A knot formed in the pit of her stomach as she thought of the woman who’d been a permanent fixture in their lives since Grandpa Franklin had died.

Did you know my aunt Annabelle? she had pointedly asked Bridget only to get the most generic answer: Everyone in Blue Hills knew Miss Annabelle. I figure she’s the only girl in town who’d ever said no to a Cummings. That’s something worth remembering.

Toni figured that lying by omission was the same thing as lying.

So Bridget had lied to her.

The housekeeper had known the family going back at least as far as Anna’s seventh birthday—long before Anna ran out on her wedding to Davis Cummings—and, for some reason, neither she nor Evie had felt it was a fact worth mentioning.

It made Toni wonder what else they hadn’t told her.


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