“Did you hear about Senator Wickam’s wife?”
I turn toward the voice to find a woman I don’t know who’s apparently talking to me. Though I have no clue who she is, I know something about her because she’s wearing a red tube dress at a charity gala. Which tells me she’s not especially charitable. She’s only here to show off her gym-toned body and the breasts her husband is probably still paying for.
She blinks and takes a half-step back. Her eyebrows would’ve shot up if there wasn’t so much filler in her forehead. “I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else,” she says.
It pains me to smile at that, but I do it anyway. I’m intrigued now. “No, please,” I insist. “I’d love to know what you heard.”
She hesitates and finally seems to decide it’s okay to gossip with a stranger. “Well.” She glances around to see who’s within earshot. If only she knew. “Nancy Gardner—do you know her? She’s Robert Baldwin’s stepdaughter. Anyway, Nancy just told me that she has herpes. Said she’s wearing a ton of makeup to cover up the…you know.” The woman waves vaguely at her own bee-sting-puffy lips. “The breakout.”
“Really. The senator’s wife?”
Red Dress Lady nods, wide-eyed. “Nancy says she must’ve given it to her husband. Her mother’s best friend’s niece saw the senator at one of those dreadfully dirty little clinics on the south side the other day.”
That reminds me of a line from Spaceballs, and I swig some of the champagne I’ve been absently holding to stop a giggle. Giggling simply isn’t done at these things, darling. “How awful,” I commiserate.
“Isn’t it? After all, men are supposed to be the pigs.” She laughs with a nervous edge, as if she’s just remembered she isn’t talking to whoever she mistook me for. She scans the politely mingling crowds. “Oh, there’s Marabeth,” she says, her gaze focused on no one in particular. “I’d better go speak to her about our luncheon this week. Have a lovely evening.”
She skitters off before I can wish her the same. Her red dress vanishes somewhere toward the stage where the droning keynote speaker has already come and gone. I’ve forgotten everything about him, as I’m sure most people here have.
Senator Wickam’s short, animated speech before the keynote was far more engaging. His impassioned plea to help tonight’s spotlighted charity had nearly all the women here whipping out their proverbial checkbooks on the spot, or demanding their husband’s. The fact that he looked like a cover model had only highlighted his power of persuasion.
Funnily enough, he didn’t mention his wife giving him herpes.
I decide to investigate this rumor further. Unfortunately, I don’t know very many of the people at this ultra-fancy shindig. I really should attend things like this more often. Rub elbows and all that. The problem is that I’m not invited to many “work functions.”
However, I’ve done my homework. Or at least as much as possible from the comfort of the internet. I know, for example, that it’s too risky for me to discuss this topic directly with Nancy Gardner, but her frenemy Lillian Vail is a safe bet.
I spot Lillian by the chocolate fountain, talking to an older couple. She’s wearing a seafoam-green dress with gold spangles and an asymmetrical skirt that balances the single long sleeve on top with the other shoulder bared. Not exactly classic fashion, but still far more tasteful than that other woman’s screaming red sausage casing.
Lillian lifts an eyebrow when she notices me approaching. I can see her struggling to place me as a polite but faint smile arranges itself on her glossy lips. I’ve only met her once before. At the time, I could tell it wasn’t particularly memorable for her.
Maybe she simply thinks I work for the charity, and she’s preparing to tell me that she gave at the office.
The couple she’s chatting with realizes her attention has been slightly diverted. They follow her gaze, and I squirm inwardly as I recognize the older woman. Her name is Hazel something-or-other, and she writes an entertainment column for the Tribune.
I really don’t want her attention tonight.
Fortunately, it turns out Lillian doesn’t either. As Hazel squints through her glasses at me, the green-garbed socialite takes a big step away from the journalist and the man I assume is her husband. Lillian flashes a patently false apologetic smile. “I’m sorry, but I really must talk to my friend here,” she tells the couple. “I’ve been waiting for her to arrive all night. Toodles!”
Such a bold lie. One she clearly doesn’t care whether she’s caught in.
“Hello, darling.” Lillian greets me with exuberance, slings her sleeved arm around my shoulders, and steers me away from the couple. After we’ve passed a few small groups and we’re out of earshot, she lowers her arm and huffs a short breath. “You can’t even properly call that woman paparazzi. Insidious old bat,” she mutters, then smiles at me. “How are you, Charlotte?”
I blink slowly, surprised she remembers my name. “Bored out of my mind,” I reply—an expected sentiment that gets an expected chuckle. “You know Nancy Gardner, don’t you?”
The flash of a feral expression before she smooths out her features tells me she’s the right person to ask about the rumor. She’ll give me the ugly truth.
Since I need no further confirmation, I go ahead with my opening conversational gambit. “Apparently, she’s telling people that the senator’s wife has herpes.”
Lillian stares at me. One corner of her mouth tilts up a fraction. “Is she, now?”
“That’s the rumor.”
A snort strangles itself in her throat. “Nancy Gardner wants to sleep her way to the White House.” Lillian directs her intense gaze across the room. I follow it to find not Nancy the White House Tramp but Senator Wickam himself.
The stunning blonde woman beside him wears a little black dress and too much makeup.
His hand rests with a proprietary firmness at the top of her ass.
A white-coated waiter stops before them with a tray of bacon-wrapped scallop bites on cocktail toothpicks with colorful pops of ribbon on the ends. The blonde snags one and playfully wiggles it. After a quick remark we can’t hear, he opens his mouth, and she feeds him the hors d’oeuvre.
They seem far too in love for Nancy Gardner to come between them. With or without herpes.
Lillian rolls her eyes. “Anyway,” she says. “Apparently, Rosalia Shaw told Robert Baldwin that she saw…” She pauses to steal another glance at the couple across the room. “The senator’s wife banging their groundskeeper in the greenhouse. And since Nancy has the IQ of a raw steak, she translated ‘potential affair’ into ‘venereal disease.’”
The look she’s giving me is both apologetic and curious. She’s well-bred enough to know how tactless this conversation is, but at the same time, she’s wondering if I have anything to add to the rumor mill. Especially considering she’s aware that I must know the Shaws.
What she’s told me is interesting and potentially useful. I feel that I have a social obligation to offer something in return, but I need to be careful. Nancy Gardner is not the only one who has plans for the senator.
Finally, I offer a sweet smile and tell her, “I happen to know that the Wickams don’t even have a groundskeeper.”
She roars with laughter, and I manage to join in. After she calms down, she places a slender hand on my arm. Her skin is ice-cold. “Can I get you a top-up?” she asks, nodding to the barely-touched champagne glass I’m still holding.
I frown at the fizzing liquid. “Thank you, no,” I tell her as I scan the crowds for someone in particular. There’s one more step in this rumor chain I want to hunt down before I make my move. “Speaking of Rosaria, have you seen…ah, there. Will you excuse me, Lillian?”
She nods. “Of course. Lovely to see you, Charlotte.”
I return the sentiment and head for the open bar, which is the first place I should have looked for the Shaw in question. Who doesn’t even notice me when I’m standing right beside him.
He lifts his head slowly and gives me a bleary blink. There is no sign of Rosalia, which is not unusual. At any given event, she prefers to deposit him near the alcohol and seek the company of absolutely anyone who’s not him.
“Charl?” His smile is sloppy but genuine. I have to ignore the ache at seeing him in such a state. He knows he’s an alcoholic, and he wants help to break the addiction, but Rosalia won’t let him join AA or speak to a therapist. She insists that it would be embarrassing if people knew her husband needed that kind of ‘girly help.’
I’d hoped he wouldn’t be this trashed yet. He may not be able to fill in the missing rumor chain link, after all. But I’ll ask him anyway.
And I need to ask him quickly, because the senator has just spotted me talking to his neighbor and best friend, and he’s headed this way to intercept.
* * *
Long after the gala ends, I let myself into my darkened, silent home. I’m still thinking about the sandwich-board chalk sign I passed on the way out, thanking the biggest donors to the Consortium Against Domestic Abuse. How the charming, handsome Senator Wickham’s name topped the list.
I needed to see that happen. To hear him speak with such ardor and conviction on the topic, to watch him throw so much money into the cause. It cemented my plans. Now I know I can do something about my…situation.
My feet ache, and my clutch purse is heavier than usual. I want nothing more than to fall into bed and sleep for as long as possible, but there’s something I need to do first. Because I did manage to track down the source of the rumor—Gregory Shaw told me everything about Rosalia and the ‘groundskeeper’ thing.
So instead of plodding upstairs to the bedroom, I head for the living room.
I see it right away. The shape in the wingback chair beside the fireplace. The long, trailing shadow propped next to it.
In spite of my churning stomach, a smile appears on my face.
“Jack,” I call meekly.
He doesn’t stand. Not at first. Instead, he speaks without moving. “I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what time it is. Are you going to bother making up an excuse?”
I don’t reply. I’m busy mentally going over everything I still have to do.
After what I heard at the gala, what I saw, I feel…empowered. That’s why I don’t even flinch when he shoots from the chair, the long object clutched in his right hand. He’s promising pain with his words, with his movements, with that. But I am not concerned.
I’m thinking of makeup and how thickly it must be applied to the face to cover bruises.
I’m thinking of a dreadfully dirty little clinic on the south side where the underpaid doctors will accept money in exchange for not reporting evidence of violence to the authorities.
I’m thinking of a man who isn’t a groundskeeper, who made the mistake of trying to comfort a woman in pain within sight of his scandal-panicked spouse.
I’m thinking of a knock-out blonde in a little black dress…who is not the senator’s wife.
“Did you hear me, Charlotte?”
I snap to attention, nearly giddy with the realization that Jack Wickam has screamed at me for the last time.
And he will never hit me again.
“Of course, darling,” I tell him, one hand already inside my heavy clutch purse. “I heard…a rumor. That someone in this house was going to learn a lesson tonight.”
There’s a savage gleam in his eyes as he taps the end of his weapon in a palm. Softly, softly.
“Wouldn’t you know it?” I continue when he says nothing. “For once, the rumor is true. And it’s a very important lesson, isn’t it, Jack?”
“Oh, yes,” he says in a dangerous purr. As if he’s enjoying my apparent acceptance of my fate.
“Too bad you won’t be able to put it into practice after you’ve learned it, Senator. The learning itself precludes it.” My mad grin eclipses his rage as a sliver of confusion eases into his eyes. I bring forth the heavy object in my purse. The ‘excuse’ that made me so late returning from the gala.
“Tonight’s lesson is that you should never bring a baseball bat to a gunfight.”
The explosive sound of the senator’s wife reclaiming herself rings out through the house, and I hope it wakes Rosalia Shaw next door.
She’ll get so much gossip out of this.