READ EXCERPT - Wedding Bell Blues
WEDDING BELL BLUES by Linda Windsor
Wedding Bell Blues
Piper Cove Chronicles Book One
by: Linda Windsor
We dubbed ourselves The Bosom Buddies after performing in Mame for our senior class play back in 1989. I, Alexandra Butler, played lead and co-directed the production about the free-spirited New York aristocrat, who was struck down, but not out by the stock market crash of 1929. With me as Mame, it was only natural that my best friend, Sue Ann Quillen, play Vera, Mame’s flamboyant and sometimes promiscuous sidekick.
It was perfect casting. I fancied that I had Mame’s rebellious and resilient spirit, while Suzie Q was truly a 1990’s version of Vera Charles. Neither of us gave a hoot what anyone thought of us back then. Suzie Q doesn’t to this day. And neither of us expected to meet two more soulmates between scenes.
Brainy, but clueless to fashion or anything apart from plants, dirt and engines, tomboy Ellen Brittingham was perfect for the role of the frumpy, whining stenographer, Agnes Gooch. The snort when Agnes laughed came naturally to the local landscaper’s daughter. But unlike the Agnes in the musical, Ellen turned out to be fun and witty, with a Brooklyn accent and Yiddish expressions from her Jewish mother’s side of the family that never failed to crack us up.
The Cinderella-like role of Pegeen, the secretary who married the rich guy to live happily ever after went to Janet Kudrow, a die-hard believer in fairytales. With her petite build and short blonde hair, she’d even been called Tinkerbell by her classmates. Maybe if I’d been born into her dysfunctional family, I’d prefer to live in an alternate reality, too. Jan, like Ellen, didn’t exactly fit into Suzie Q’s and my circle of friends, but, like a shy, gullible kitten, she worked her way into our hearts and aroused our protective natures.
If we’d have admitted it back then, we weren’t so different from Jan. We all longed for the man of our dreams and successful careers far away from sleepy, boring Piper Cove. But, to paraphrase the Scottish poet Robert Burns, “the best laid plans of mice” and bosom buddies went astray.
Yet, neither time, nor broken hearts, nor the call of dreams can destroy a friendship where it’s a sworn duty for a bosom buddy to sit down and tell another the truth. Especially where a man is involved.
A sundae meeting was called for. Even though it was Wednesday, Alexandra Butler had put out the call to her friends. With a nostalgic smile at the celebration tradition that, like their friendship, had survived since high school, she pulled her Mercedes coupe into the parking space in front of the Piper Cove Country Club.
As of this morning, she had only one final payment to make on the loan that had subsidized her decorating business, one payment between her and financial freedom from her banker father’s tight rein. To celebrate, hot chocolate and whipped cream were waiting inside along with her bosom buddies.
Thank you, Lord, she prayed, grateful for the freedom, and her friends.
She needed her friends for more than a celebration. Her sister Lynn, whom their father called his little surprise when she was born twelve years after Alex, called from from a weekend trip to New York to announce her engagement to John Astor Whitlowe Jr., a financial wunderkind just out of grad school. The couple was so excited, they’d even picked out Lynn’s dress at a Fifth Avenue boutique. Alex’s father, while overjoyed about the match, was determined to impress Lynn’s future in-laws. They were not only from old money, but John’s father was President of Mercantile One out of Bethesda, a large banking corporation that was taking Piper Cove Mercantile into its network. In other words, John’s father was soon to be BJ Butler’s boss.
“I want us to nip in the bud that old notion that Eastern Shore men across the Chesapeake Bay are web-footed hicks,” Benjamin James Butler—known as BJ by the locals—had told Alex earlier that morning. “Which is why we are gonna plan the finest shindig my money can buy. You’ve got a knack for making a pig’s ear look like a silk purse, and Lynn’s so aflutter with love and finals that she won’t be much help to your mama, so I’m depending on you Alex.”
I’m depending on you, Alex. It was probably the first time Alex had ever heard those words from her father and satisfaction hardly described the emotion overwhelming her. Usually BJ Butler assigned duties like a commander, expecting them to be carried out because he said so, not because he needed anyone.
As Alex swung open her car door, a male voice interrupted her thoughts. “Alexandra, allow me.”
Alex lowered her sunglasses, peering over them. “Thank you, Will. Taking the day off, or are you headed to a business luncheon?”
Will Warren graduated two years ahead of Alex’s high school class and now worked for her dad’s bank as finance manager. He made no secret of his ambition to replace BJ and Alex knew full well that Will’s flirtation was nothing more than a potential rung on his ladder to success. It was futile of course. Her father would give up his position only when they patted him in the face with a spade.
“Business…unfortunately,” he added, his voice lowering in suggestion. “Believe me, I’d much rather spend an hour with you.”
If her father heard that comment, or rather, its innuendo, BJ would have shot Will on the spot. Alex kind of warmed to the idea, but she was forced by the restraint of the law to use verbal ammo on the would-be Romeo—
“Will Warren, if an hour’s all you have to offer,” a familiar voice interjected in a honeyed drawl, “a woman would as soon skip as bother,”
As for stinging shots, that one would do. Alex grinned. “Hi, Suzie Q.”
“Mrs. Wiltbank, good to see you,” Will answered stiffly, as Sue Ann Quillen Wiltbank, of the Ocean City engineering Wiltbanks by marriage and the Piper Cove Quillin Realtors by birth , sashayed toward them in a smart black pantsuit, cut to accent her voluptuous curves. Although her friend had gained a good twenty pounds since high school, it had all gone to the right places. “Tell daddy I said hi, Will,” Alex said, leaving the banker flushed from his white starched collar to his thinning brown hairline.
Suzie smothered her in a perfumed hug. “Alex!”
“You’re bad,” Alex chastised under her breath.
“That pig has had his nose stuck up my—“
“I know,” Alex interrupted her, steering her toward the lighthouse-styled apex of the L-shaped building.
As one of Piper Cove’s richest citizens, Sue Ann could say anything she wanted and not worry about reproach. Not that that had stopped her when she was merely an affluent realtor’s daughter. Hers was the mouth always in gear, whether her brain was or not.
“Tush. I was going to say tush.” Sue Ann’s mischievous blue eyes twinkled like the genuine gemstones clustered on one of her many rings.
“Of course you were.” Alex linked arms with her friend and ushered her through one of the double glass doors with a “Thanks” to the exiting customer who held it open for them.
“Why Bobby McMann, aren’t you the sweetest thing?” Sue Ann called over her shoulder to the man.
Alex could have reminded Sue Ann that Bobby was married and a practicing Catholic who’d perfected procreation by having six kids. But Sue Ann knew that. She simply couldn’t help herself. Men brought out the flirt in her, no matter their age or shape. If Bobby had been sixty and balding, instead of a rugged, thirty-something contractor, Sue Ann would have treated him just the same.
To the left of the entrance was the dining room, reflecting the formal elegance of Chesapeake Bay living. Alex steered her companion to the Coffee Café on the right. Its wildfowl theme and hunter green and beige color palette was in keeping with natural habitat that the area was known for. This room said smell the coffee, while the other suggested high tea served on the club’s custom designed china.
“There they are,” Sue Ann pointed to a corner booth where a brunette in a tank top and jeans jumped up and whistled.
“My gawd, Ellen,” Sue Ann exclaimed. “Summon the Piper Cove Fire Department, why don’t you?”
“Good to see you too, Sue Ann,” Ellen quipped, undaunted. She patted the bench next to her. “Take a load off those stilts you’re wearing before your arches fall.”
“Jan,” Alex said to Ellen’s quiet companion. “How’s the new job going?”
Jan Kudrow had been the only one of the bosom buddies who even came close to keeping their high school pledge to leave their sleepy bayside community and never return. Alex and Ellen had come back straight from college. Sue Ann, who went into her parents’ real estate business until she married into a family with even more money, never left at all.
Determined to be a star, the pixie-like Jan had worked her way through a New York performing arts school and actually played a supporting role in an off Broadway production. But in truth, her talent wasn’t star quality and, after a steady stream of rejections and some horrible relationships failures, Jan came home.
The upside of Jan’s New York experience was that she had learned to do something she really was good at while working her way through school—preparing sweet concoctions that were as artistic as they were delicious.
Jan’s pale green eyes lit up. “Great! The supermarket loves my work. My boss actually said that he was considering making me head of the pastry department.”
“He’s not putting the moves on you, is he, Tink?” Sue Ann inquired, referring to the petite Jan’s high school nickname Tinkerbell.
“Subtle, Suze, real subtle.” Ellen rolled her eyes as she tucked a long, limp strand of dark hair that had escaped a haphazard twist and clip behind her ear.
“He’s married and could practically be my father,” Jan told her with that clueless, wide-eyed look framed by the blonde fringe of her short haircut that made her a target of every lecherous jerk around. Sue Ann arched a perfectly plucked brow. “Your point being…?”
A teenage waitress clad in white shorts and a green tee shirt with Piper Cove Golf and Country Club emblazoned on it put four menus on the table. “While you ladies decide what you want, what can I get you to drink?”
Alex knew the drill. “Iced tea, lemon, no sugar, for me. Pepsi--leaded--for her” she added with a glance at Ellen, who ordered sodas like fuel for her Harley. “Water with lemon for my sidekick,” she said, pointing to Jan, who smiled sweetly.
“And a lemonade for me.” Sue Ann fanned herself with a napkin. “I—“
“Hate this heat,” Alex, Jan, and Ellen finished together.
Sue Ann did not like to sweat. Never had. It ruined her makeup and humidity was the worst enemy to her hair, which always looked like she’d just stepped out of a salon. She hadn’t, of course. She had a hairdresser on her house staff. Living this close to the ocean, especially in the summer, Sue Ann considered that a necessity.
“That’s going to go real well with a chocolate nut sundae,” Alex said when the waitress left.
A blank look grazed Sue Ann’s cover girl face. “What? Is this a sundae—“ she practically tasted the word, “—lunch?”
Sue Ann didn’t listen well either. All one had to do is mention one of the words shopping, lunch, or dinner—Suzie Q did not do breakfast—and she started coordinating what she was going to wear while letting the details go in one diamond-studded ear and out the other.
“Can you think of a better way to celebrate?” Alex challenged good-naturedly.
“Well what are we celebrating?” she asked, a little vexed.
“Who cares?” Ellen licked her lips, a wicked gleam in her hazel eyes. “I’m going bananas, as in banana split, three toppings, the woiks.”
“You’re killing me,” Sue Ann wailed. “I was going to be a good girl and order a salad.”
At Ellen’s loud snort, the others dissolved into laughter, all but Alex, whose glare quieted them…eventually. “Well, just in case any of you are interested in anything besides how many calories are in ice cream, I just landed a contract to decorate a new condo on the bayside, big enough to pay off my business loan a year ahead of time. It may not sound like much, but I feel as if a giant weight is already lifting from my chest.”
Jan squeezed Alex’s arm. “That is good news. I’m so proud of you.”
“Yeah, now you can tell your old man to butt out the next time he tries to butt in,” Ellen agreed.
“Come on guys, don’t you think he does it because he loves her?” Jan asked, a trace of longing in her voice for something she’d never had. The word dysfunctional could have been coined for her family.
“BJ Butler likes to run everything in this town and his daughter’s life is no different. I offered to pay that thing off a dozen times,” Sue Ann told them, giving Alex one of her exasperated looks, “but no, Alex had to do it herself.”
“It wasn’t the same, Suzie Q, and you know it,” Alex said in her defense. “I had to do it myself…on a loan and a prayer.”
“But there’s something else…” Alex paused until she was certain she had their complete attention. “I also need to call in the ranks. Daddy asked me to help Mama coordinate Lynn’s wedding. I’m heading over home tonight to discuss it. We have to pull this thing together before September.”
"Lynn’s getting married?” Jan squeaked—a shriek for her—fists clenched against her collarbone. “I’ve got to do the cake. Puh-leeze, let me do the cake.”
“What’s the rush? Is Lynn preggie?” Sue Ann asked.
“Oh get real, Suzie. This is my perfect little sister we’re talking about,” Alex chided. “Actually, the groom has great job offer starting September, so he wants to get the wedding and honeymoon over while he has time off.”
“I am so jealous,” Jan sighed.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Tinkerbell,” Alex said, denying the little green pang in her chest as much as Jan’s observation. “Moonstruck and gushy isn’t my style.” She’d outgrown that years ago—after her failed marriage.
“We don’t usually do flowers these days, but Ma and I would be thrilled to do them for Lynn,” Ellen offered, bringing the conversation back on track. “Ma always said Lynny would marry a rich doctor before she graduated from nursing school.” Ellen snorted in amusement. “I think she was dropping hints for me.”
Ellen was her father’s daughter, a mechanic and lover of the soil. If she wasn’t up to her knees in dirt and covered in sweat, she was covered in grease, working on the landscaping equipment, her houseboat, or the motor of her Harley.
“You know, I could make that happen for you,” Sue Ann said, studying Ellen’s face with its high cheekbones and valentine shape. “You’ve got one of those slight builds that photographers and, some men, love.”
“That’s Suzie’s way of saying I got no boobs.”
“That’s because Suzie got your share and mine, too,” Jan teased, looking down at her shortcomings.
Ignoring the banter, Sue Ann continued with her assessment. “I mean, it might not be a doctor, but with all the people buying those six-figure condos at full asking price before they’re even finished, there’s bound to be a man with money for you among them.”
Ellen leaned back as the waitress approached with their drinks. “Hey, just because you got one, doesn’t mean you have to punish the rest of us. Besides, I like working.”
“Here, here,” Alex agreed. “Not all of us have the fortitude to spend our days pampering our bodies to maintain our youth for a man.”
“The devil with all of you, then. See if I care if you wind up dried-up old spinsters.” She shoved a straw in her drink and made a show of sipping it through fire-engine red lips.
“What can I get you ladies to eat?” the waitress asked, giving the giggling Alex, Ellen, and Jan one of those aloof will-you-people-act-your-age looks that teenagers seemed to specialize in. But smugness turned to outright shock when they placed orders for three hot fudge sundaes with wet nuts, and a banana split.
“Who is that little hip-swinging thing?” she asked, after the girl walked away talking to herself. “That is, if she had hips.”
One would think that Sue Ann had never eaten in the coffee shop. Although, usually, when they met for lunch or dinner, it was at one of the swankier places on the ocean side of the bay.
But in the middle of a work day Jan and Ellen weren’t dressed for it. Jan, who’d just gotten off from working since before sun-up in the supermarket bakery, couldn’t afford those. And Ellen had a truckload of plants coming in that afternoon and could only spare an hour or so from the landscaping architecture business she owned with her widowed mother.
“She’s Hattie Mae’s granddaughter…Candy, I think,” Ellen answered. “You remember Hattie Mae’s Diner.”
“Oh, I loved that place,” Jan said of the antique diner that had once stood on the main street of Piper Cove. “To tell the truth,” she continued, “I hardly knew Piper Cove when I came home. Who’d have ever thought this sleepy little boondock would become a flashy resort?” Now what buildings hadn’t been torn down, like the diner, were filled with specialty shops for the tourists, who flooded the condos built on canals and along the coast of Assawoman Bay. “Who would have thought sixteen years later we’d still be stuck here?” Alex mused aloud. “And you, the most timid of the bunch, were the only one who really followed her dream.”
“Hey, I never wanted to leave,” Ellen protested. “Small is good…comfy.”
“And I didn’t have to leave home to get my dream,” Sue Ann pointed out. “I married a local rich boy.”
“There’s a lotta people who’d like to be stuck with a successful business like yours, Alex,” Ellen added.
Alex nodded. She’d started the business as soon as she returned from earning her degree in interior design at the Philadelphia Art Institute. By that time, Sue Ann had become a real estate agent, so, between hers and Alex’s dad’s contacts, finding clients had not been a problem. Fortunately Alex had the talent to deliver.
She lifted her tea glass for a toast. “To my last payment and getting out from under my father’s thumb.”
Her friends clicked their glasses to hers with a round of “Here, here.”
“Not that your dad will stop his buttinski act,” Ellen commented. She sat back at the approach of a tray of sinful-looking ice cream delights carried by none other than Hattie Mae Taylor.
“I knew it! When Candy gave me your orders and described you four to me, I knew it was my girls.”
Aside from considerably more wrinkles, Hattie Mae looked the same as she had when she’d run the diner, still wearing a pink uniform slacks set and white apron. Most likely, Lady Clairol maintained the golden brown of her hair.
“I’d have thought you’d retired by now, Hattie Mae,” Sue Ann said.
The sparkle in the woman’s gaze dimmed for a moment. “Can’t retire till I finish raisin’ my granddaughter.”
Sue Ann put her hand to her mouth in dismay. “Oh, Hattie Mae, I’m so sorry. I’d forgotten about Ruth Ann’s cancer.”
Hattie drew in a bracing breath and her brightness returned. “She’s with the Lord now, bless her, and raisin’ Candy has been a joy. I’d best let you girls eat your ice cream before it melts. I hope you all will come in again real soon.”
“Count on it,” Ellen called after her.
Alex dug into the three-dip high pile of ice cream, hot fudge, and whipped cream and glanced at the others. “And now another toast,” she announced, holding up a heaping spoonful. “To the bosom buddies…”
“To old times,” Sue Ann chimed in, doing likewise.
“And new times,” Jan said.
Ellen scooped up a spoonful dripping with strawberry topping and whipped cream as her dark-lashed gaze shifted abruptly past Alex and Jan toward the entrance. “Uh-oh.”
Sue Ann’s eyes widened as if she’d seen a ghost. “Talk about a blast from the past.”
Alex exchanged a bewildered glance with Jan. “Think we dare look,” she teased.
“You’ll have to some time, honey,” Sue Ann told her as Alex popped a spoonful of frozen heaven into her mouth.
Jan turned and gasped so sharply that she nearly choked on the ice cream she’d licked off her spoon.
Unable to resist any longer, Alex looked over her shoulder and found herself nose to belt buckle with jean-clad masculine hips. She followed the row of buttons up a chambray shirt and past a tanned throat to where a golden shadow of stubble covered a dimple she’d never forget as long as she drew breath. Above it danced a pair of pale blue eyes that she’d prayed alternately to never see again and to bask in their light just one more time.
But this was not the time.