Excerpt: Rags to Bitches

 

Chapter One

 

She’s not coming.

Gabe Moreau scanned the packed ballroom for the hundredth time since he’d arrived ten minutes earlier, while attempting to feign interest in Rhonda Peterson’s incessant blathering.

Rhonda nodded toward a tall, balding man Gabe didn’t recognize, and whom he probably hadn’t exchanged two words with back in high school. “And Howard Tibbs has his own plumbing supply store here in Briarfield. Well, it was his father’s business, but his dad retired to Boca. Speaking of going into Daddy’s business, did I hear you were made a partner?”

Rhonda grinned, displaying a mouthful of big capped teeth lined up like marble tombstones. Gabe carefully avoided staring at the speck of spinach lodged between her incisors.

He nodded. “That’s right.”

“And Andrea, too.” Her eyes glittered with curiosity as she glanced across the room at the lady in question, now sharing a laugh with Mike Ames, if Gabe wasn’t mistaken. He’d heard Mike had done well for himself in commercial real estate. Obviously Andrea had heard the same thing.

That was all Gabe needed, Rhonda the class busybody spreading more rumors about himself and Andrea Pittman. Despite the passage of fifteen years, he suspected Rhonda Peterson was the same compulsive gossipmonger she’d been back in high school.

He watched Andrea for a moment, doing what she always did at social functions, diligently working the room, now ferreting out former classmates who’d done well for themselves and might be in the market for legal services. The woman had a bloodhound’s nose for money and the bullheaded determination required to steer that money into the firm. Every day, in every way, she made her daddy, and his, so very proud.

“We both made partner at the same time,” he said.

“The two of you really lucked out, with both your dads being founding partners of such a prestigious law firm.”

Gabe stopped scrutinizing the crowd and gave Rhonda his full attention. “I prefer to think luck didn’t have much to do with it.”

“Well… I just meant… I didn’t mean to imply you didn’t deserve to—”

“Of course not. I’m sure you realize that Moreau Pittman didn’t get to be one of the top firms on Wall Street by practicing blind nepotism. Andrea is one hell of a lawyer.” Hardworking, ruthless, and driven, she would have excelled in any firm. But like him, she’d chosen to direct her efforts toward the family business. It was what they’d both wanted since they were children.

That wasn’t all Andrea had wanted, and observing the speculative gleam in Rhonda’s eye, Gabe suspected he’d never live down his past.

Which was probably no more than he deserved. Suddenly he wished he hadn’t come here tonight, to the Briarfield Country Club of all places, a venue he avoided whenever possible, along with the shameful memories associated with it.

There was only one reason he’d broken down and accepted the invitation to his fifteen-year high school reunion, and she was a no-show. He’d deliberately arrived late, well into the cocktail hour that preceded dinner, in the hope that she’d already be there when he made his entrance. But apparently she’d had more sense than he and had blown off the reunion.

A paunchy man with curly black hair, a trim beard, and a barroom tan joined them. He slapped Gabe on the shoulder, and only quick footwork saved Gabe’s snowy white tuxedo shirt from the dark Beaujolais that sloshed out of his wineglass.

“Gabe Moreau! I’d recognize you anywhere!” the man crowed, before lowering his voice. “This place must bring back some hot memories for you, huh?”

Rhonda bit her lip to stifle a smirk. Gabe glanced at the man’s name badge. Frank Runkey, Jr. He couldn’t believe it. This puffy, jowly loudmouth was the guy all the girls had mooned over? Clearly the years had not been kind to “Hunky” Runkey.

Gabe extended his hand and Frank pumped it. “How have you been, Frank?”

“Not as good as you. Hear you’re a partner now. And not just you.” His lascivious gaze flicked to Andrea. “How’s your golf score lately? Huh?”

Gabe pretended not to hear the special emphasis. “I play tennis now.”

Frank laughed. “Tennis! I’ve never done it on a clay court myself. Might give it a try if I could be on the bottom.”

“Frank!” Rhonda giggled, elbowing him. “You’re so bad.”

“If you’ll excuse me,” Gabe muttered, turning his back on them. He deposited his wineglass on a table as he made his way toward the exit.

“Headed out to the fairways, Gabe?” Dave Messina snickered as he passed. “Nice night for a hole in one.”

Gabe didn’t acknowledge the comment, nor did he so much as blink when someone else added, “How’s that driver of yours holding up?”

A high, whiny voice that could only be Bruce Lakeland all grown up put in, “Oh, I bet it’s got a few good strokes left. Huh, Gabe? A few good strokes?”

He was nearly at the exit when someone called out, “Fore!” prompting a burst of laughter. He glanced at Andrea and saw those near her watching for her reaction, whispering behind their hands. A brick-red blush crawled upward from the low, square neckline of her elegant custom designer gown, a beaded sheath in seafoam-green silk that complemented her petite figure. She pinned Gabe with the flat, hard stare she’d perfected in the courtroom.

As if the smarmy innuendos were his fault! Hate to break it to you, babe, he wanted to tell her, but you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.

Distracted, he strode blindly through the open double doorway and barreled into someone just entering. Murmuring apologies, he caught the woman by her bare upper arms as her stiletto heels flew out from under her. He hauled her up, steadying her.

In the next instant he was struck dumb. His heart slammed into his ribs like a wrecking ball. Because he knew. Before she’d even straightened to her impressive height, before she’d tossed her chin-length silver-blond curls off her face, before she’d looked him in the eye. He knew.

“Well. I was hoping to make a memorable entrance,” Dena Devlin said, with that distinctive lopsided smile he hadn’t seen in fifteen years. “Thanks, Gabe.”

She shook out her hair and casually straightened her flamboyant multicolored dress. It was tied at one shoulder and wrapped fluidly around her body, with enough tucks and folds to conform to a figure that was even more full and womanly than he remembered.

At the moment Dena matched his six-foot-two-inch height, though he knew her to be five eleven in her stocking feet. There weren’t many women her size with the confidence to wear three-inch heels, but then, the Dena Devlin he’d known had never been one to run with the herd.

Her knee-length dress, he now saw, appeared to be tissue-thin linen boldly printed with some Eastern-looking design in rainbow hues. The bow on one shoulder holding the whole thing on looked like it would spring open with her next deep breath. A dozen bangle bracelets in tortoiseshell and hammered silver jangled on her wrists. Matching earrings brushed her suntanned shoulders.

Before Gabe could gather his wits and formulate some artfully offhand comment, Dena sailed past with a breezy “Where’s the food? I’m famished!”

Just like that. As if they’d been nothing more than casual acquaintances all those years ago.

He turned and watched her set a direct course for the nearest hors d’oeuvre – toting waiter, greeting former classmates along the way. Her scent lingered in his nostrils, the unique essence of her skin and hair overlaid with a subtle and exotically voluptuous perfume she’d probably concocted herself.

Those towering heels and that body-hugging outfit did incredible things to her fanny, which swayed provocatively with every step she took away from him. Gabe was reminded of Jack Lemmon’s apt description of a luscious rear view of Marilyn Monroe in the movie Some Like It Hot: “Like Jell-O on springs.”

She hadn’t blown off the reunion after all.

*

After that spectacular entrance, Dena studiously avoided looking at Gabe. She didn’t need vision to track his movements. Her female radar had gone into overdrive the instant she’d recognized him. She sensed him off to the side now, sensed his eyes on her as he hobnobbed with some of their old pals.

Many times she’d imagined what he must look like in his thirties, but her imagination had fallen short. His face had matured—the angles sharper, the furrows deeper, the whiskey-colored eyes more intense. His thick, light brown hair was neatly trimmed and combed off his face.

Gabe’s once rangy basketball player’s body had filled out. His shoulders were wider than she remembered, his chest deeper. Even his neck was thicker. After that initial body slam on her way in here, Dena knew it was all hard, unyielding muscle under that elegant black tux, which had obviously been custom-tailored to his frame. He’d easily supported her weight as she’d struggled to get her feet under her, and Lord knew she was no dainty little thing.

Dena perused her surroundings. So this was the Briarfield Country Club, the place she hadn’t been good enough to set foot in fifteen years ago. She took in the high, carved ceiling with its ornamental coving and glittering chandeliers; the two massive wooden fireplaces, filled now in mid-July with flower arrangements that matched the centerpieces on the linen-draped tables; the open French doors leading to the flagstone piazza strung with tiny white lights, and the terraced gardens beyond; the elegant string quartet in one corner, providing a mellow musical backdrop for the hum of conversation, the muted tinkle of silver and china.

The sights, the sounds, the smell of money, most of it old.

This was where it had happened. Not here precisely, but somewhere out there on that manicured golf course.

The bastard.

As Dena heaped her little plate high with mini shrimp burritos and skewered chicken with Thai peanut sauce, Rhonda bustled up to welcome her and fill her in on Steve Brock’s latest boyfriend and the history of Nancy Lord’s breast implants. Dena supposed it was comforting to know some things never changed.

She said, “Rhonda, you’ve got a big piece of spinach stuck between your teeth.”

“Oh!” Rhonda covered her mouth and half turned away, then flashed those mammoth choppers at Dena, who gave her a thumbs-up. As a teenager, Rhonda had worn her wiry chestnut hair shoulder length. Now it was cut in a short, serviceable style that made her look downright matronly.

“You forgot to pick up your name badge on the way in,” Rhonda said, waving the thing in Dena’s face.

“I don’t think anyone will have trouble recognizing me.” Dena exchanged a wave with Mindy Schwartz over Rhonda’s shoulder. “Unless I’m wearing a badge that says ‘Geraldine Devlin.’” As this one did. No one had had the nerve to call her Geraldine since she’d bloodied Hunky Runkey’s nose for doing so in the second grade.

“But everyone’s wearing one. I did them up on my computer. See? I found clip art that looks just like our mascot, the Briarfield Bulldog.”

Dena swallowed a mouthful of burrito. “Oh, is that a bulldog? I thought it was Mr. Carpenter,” she said, referring to the man who was still Briarfield High’s principal.

Rhonda laughed.

“No, really,” Dena insisted. “Take a good look.”

Rhonda squinted at the small image adorning one corner of the badge. Her face sagged.

“Oh, there’s Ham!” Dena cried.

“Ham?” Rhonda looked up. “Oh, Mr. Conklin. Didn’t he retire the year we graduated?”

“I’ll talk to you later.” Dena pushed through the crowd and hurled herself at Ham Conklin in a one-armed embrace, while trying to keep the contents of her plate from sliding to the floor. He returned her bear hug with a strength that belied his eighty years.

“Still going for the preppy look, I see,” Ham said, grabbing hold of her free hand and looking her up and down.

“I have your restrained example to follow.”

Ham Conklin had always been one of a kind. Dena noted a deepening network of lines in his face, but those smiling hazel eyes remained as sharp as ever. The top and sides of his longish silver hair were pulled back and secured in a short ponytail, leaving the strands at his nape free. While all of the other men present wore tuxes or dark suits, Ham sported a colorful dashiki shirt over calf-length olive-green clamdigger pants. His long, bony feet were shoved into a pair of huaraches.

Dena didn’t connect him to the woman standing nearby until he put his arm around her. “Reba Singer, Dena Devlin.”

In looks, Reba Singer was the antithesis of Ham Conklin. Short and a bit zaftig, she wore a sequined royal-blue mother-of-the-bride dress, which matched her eyes and blue-tinted, stiffly coiffed hair. A blue satin clutch bag and dyed-to-match pumps completed the conservative ensemble. Dena guessed her to be no more than sixty, a full two decades younger than Ham. He must have hooked up with her since the last time Dena had seen him about a year earlier.

“I’m a former student,” Dena said, reaching out to shake the other woman’s hand.

Reba’s grip was firm. Her smile radiated a homey warmth. “I know. Ham has spoken of you.”

“Don’t believe a word of it,” Dena joked, glad that her beloved favorite teacher had found someone special after four decades as a widower. “How long have you two been, uh…” She peeked at Reba’s left ring finger and found it bare.

“Oh, we’re not married,” Reba said, “just living together.”

“I’ve been trying to get her to tie the knot for months,” Ham said, “but the shameless hussy prefers to live in sin.”

Reba gave a nonchalant wave. “What’s the rush?”

“You’re still planning to stay at my place this week, right?” Ham asked Dena.

“That invitation better still be open. I don’t have hotel reservations.”

The reunion committee, spearheaded by Rhonda Peterson, had planned a full week of activities out there on Long Island’s North Fork. Driving home to New Jersey every night would have been impractical, and Ham had generously offered Dena a room in his sprawling home, which he’d converted to a bed-and-breakfast inn when he retired from teaching.

Ham looked over Dena’s shoulder. “Here’s someone else I want you to meet, Reba.”

Dena’s internal radar sounded the alarm even before Gabe joined them. She kept her genial smile firmly in place as Ham introduced him to Reba.

“If it weren’t for your significant other here,” Gabe told Reba, “I doubt I’d have graduated with my sanity intact. Ham was more than an English teacher and drama coach. He was an adviser, a confidant, not to mention a much-needed buffer between me and the running-dog imperialists who he claimed ran the school.”

“And still run it,” Ham grumbled. “Speaking of running dogs, I’d like to congratulate whoever drew this picture of Old Man Carpenter and added the bulldog ears.” He flicked his name badge. “That kind of satire should be applauded.”

“That would be Rhonda Peterson,” Dena said. “I’m sure she’ll appreciate that you noticed.”

Ham and Reba bade them adieu and went in search of Rhonda, leaving Dena and Gabe alone. Dena lifted a bamboo skewer from her plate and nibbled a chunk of grilled chicken. Gabe stood watching her, silently sipping his martini. No How’s life been treating you? No Gee, I’ve missed you. No Please forgive me, I was an idiot. He just stood there waiting for her to say something.

Fine. If that was the way he wanted it.

Dena glanced around the sumptuously appointed room. “So. At last I get to see the inside of this place.”

His fingers tightened on the stem of his glass, sending ripples through the clear liquid, and she knew her barb had found its target.

She added, “You must’ve been pleased they decided to hold this wingding here. Your old stomping grounds. So to speak.”

She was goading him and enjoying it. He stared at her a few moments, then casually glanced around as if to ensure their conversation was private. “I suppose I should feel honored. You’re actually talking to me.”

“Did you expect me to ignore you?”

One broad shoulder lifted negligently. “Why not? You managed to do it for a whole two months before graduation.”

A venomous reply sprang to her lips and it was all she could do to tamp it down. The impulse shocked her. She’d managed to swallow her anguish all those years ago when she was a timid, insecure adolescent from the wrong side of the tracks. She’d held it all in then, the pain, the humiliation.

And everyone had known. She’d wrapped her hurt up hard and tight inside, but everyone had known and she’d had to see that knowledge in their smirking faces every day for two months, hear it in their snickering whispers.

No. After what she’d endured back then, Dena wasn’t about to make a fool of herself over Gabe Moreau at this late date.

She asked, “How are your parents?”

He plucked a half-eaten mini burrito off her plate and popped it into his mouth. The act irked her, with its implied intimacy. He had no right to imply any such thing. She handed the half-full plate to a passing waiter.

“They’re the same as you remember,” he said. “If anything, a little more set in their ways.” He appeared bored by the subject.

“Tell them the janitor’s daughter says hi.”

His gaze snapped to her face. For an unguarded instant she saw the old Gabe, the Gabe she’d thought she’d known. “Dena—”

“You two getting reacquainted?” Dave Messina materialized at her side, along with a rotund man she didn’t recognize until she glanced at his name badge. She tried not to gape. Hunky Runkey? It couldn’t be!

She caught Gabe’s eye and they shared a silent exchange. Just like old times. His lips twitched, and she bit the inside of her cheek struggling to keep a straight face. Then Frank opened his mouth and any doubts she’d had evaporated.

“Hey, Gabe, I thought you were headed out to the golf course,” he said, swirling the ice in his highball glass. “Guess you changed your mind. I don’t see any grass stains on that nice tux.”

Gabe stiffened and glanced at Dena.

“Maybe he’s looking for the right partner,” Dave said, with a smarmy grin. “One who knows how to keep a tight grip on the shaft.”

Gabe’s eyes glittered dangerously. His gaze flicked from Dave and Frank to Dena, and she realized with a start that he was concerned for her sake. No doubt he recalled how easily intimidated she used to be and didn’t want her publicly embarrassed. The gallant impulse sent a little thrill through her—for about a nanosecond until she remembered that it was long overdue. If he’d had her welfare in mind all those years ago, these two blowhards wouldn’t have anything to joke about now.

Clearly Frank was just getting warmed up. When he opened his mouth to speak again, Gabe skewered him with a glacial look and growled, “I think we’ve heard en—”

“So you guys are into golf?” Dena asked, with wide-eyed innocence.

The three men stared at her, mute.

“Because I don’t know much about the game myself, but I’m interested in learning,” she said, staring down at Dave, half a head shorter than she. “Like for instance, I thought you were supposed to hold the club by the grip, not the shaft.”

Dave stood blinking for a few moments and finally mumbled, “Uh, yeah, that’s right.”

She turned to Frank. “My friend Margaret plays a lot of golf, but I don’t recall her ever coming back with grass stains. Maybe she’s not doing it right?”

Frank sent an imploring glance to the other men. Dave backed up a step. Gabe, wearing a silky little smile, took a lingering sip of his martini.

“Oh, I know!” she said, with guileless enthusiasm. “Maybe you get those grass stains when you kneel down to line up your putts.”

Gabe’s drink seemed to go down the wrong way. He sputtered, his eyes watering. A lifelong New Yorker, he didn’t need to be told that putz was melting-pot vernacular for the male organ.

And neither did Frank, who flinched as she sidled closer to him. He was probably wondering whether she realized what she’d said, and dreading the next words out of her mouth.

She smoothed a wrinkle in the collar of Frank’s jacket, stretched to the bursting point over his rotund gut. “I adore men in evening dress. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tux in this color.”

“I got to the rental place early for the best selection. Oh say, isn’t that the Forsyth twins? I’ve gotta go say hi.”

Dave quickly jumped in with, “Me, too.”

“Well, don’t stay away too long,” Dena told their retreating backs. “I have more questions about golf.”

She watched them hightail it across the room before turning back to Gabe, who raised his glass in a silent salute. The gesture sparked a giddy warmth in her chest even as she chided herself for caring.

Someone behind Dena began clapping. She spun around and found herself face-to-face with a man she couldn’t place, though the features were vaguely familiar. He was around her age but prematurely gray, with an athlete’s build and smiling eyes as dark and mellow as molasses. Yum.

“Brava,” he said. “Though I was kind of looking forward to watching Gabe lay into those two.”

She glanced at the man’s name badge, but his quick reflexes won out. He slapped his hand over it and gave her a challenging grin.

“No fair,” Dena said. Who was this mystery man? And how could she have trouble remembering a guy this attractive and personable?

“Gabe knows,” the man said. “Don’t you?”

Dena turned to see Gabe regarding the newcomer with something akin to awe. “Scott Cafferty?”

As soon as he said it, Dena saw it, too. Her mouth dropped open. Scott uncovered his badge and she checked it just to make sure. As startling as Hunky Runkey’s transformation was, Scott had him beat. Last time she’d seen him, he’d been an awkward, pimply jock with squinty eyes, thick horn-rimmed glasses, and a black buzz cut. His skin had cleared, he’d switched to contacts, and the hair…

Gabe said, “I wouldn’t have recognized you on the street. You’ve got kind of a George Clooney thing going there.”

Scott dragged his fingers through his thick salt-and-pepper hair. “The way I figure it, Clooney’s got a Scott Cafferty thing going.”

Dena sobered. “I heard about Annie. I’m really sorry.”

Gabe echoed the sentiment. Scott had married his high school sweetheart, Annie Goode, shortly after graduation. Less than two years later she’d died of a brain tumor after a tough battle. Dena wondered if that had been when Scott’s hair started turning gray. She noticed he didn’t wear a wedding ring, so apparently he hadn’t remarried.

“It was a long time ago,” Scott said. “Thirteen years. I’ve been through a lot of changes since then. Are you going to be around this week?” he asked, looking directly at Dena.

“Yep. I’m staying with Ham Conklin.”

Scott’s smile radiated genuine delight. “Me too! It’ll be great getting caught up.”

Roberta Schuler beckoned to Scott from a nearby knot of people. “Rev, there’s someone I want you to meet.”

Dena laughed. “‘Rev’?”

“That’s one of the changes,” Scott tossed over his shoulder as he left to greet Roberta. “I’m a Presbyterian minister.”

Dena was struck speechless, but Gabe managed, “Wait a minute. Last I heard, he was playing ball for a triple-A team.”

“A minister!” she said. “I can’t believe it.”

“Why? Because he looks like George Clooney?”

Did she detect a note of petulance? How intriguing. “Well. He doesn’t look like any pastor I’ve ever met.”

“And he’s staying at Ham’s, too,” Gabe said. “You’ll have all week to get caught up.”

“Yes, I’m looking forward to it.”

“Or should I say, we’ll all have a week to get caught up.”

Dena stared at him, certain she must have misheard.

No. Ham wouldn’t do that to her. He knew what she’d gone through at the end of senior year, knew what Gabe had done, how devastated she’d been. True, Gabe had been as close to Ham as she had, but surely he wouldn’t have invited them both to share his house this week?

Slowly she said, “Tell me I heard you wrong.”

Gabe just smiled and drained his martini glass.


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