Brass Jackson, bluesman and member of Jordan's band, settled into an empty chair at Robert's table. "Evening, Robert."
"Evening, Brass." Robert tried not to chuckle at the musician's almost stereotypical appearance. "Did you dress like one of the Blues Brothers before you worked at Julliard?"
Brass tipped his fedora back on his head. "Where else can an old black man dare to look so funky?" Robert chuckled. Brass studied the other man. "You've made the girl happy, Robert. My thanks to you."
"Don't mean it just like that. After Randy, the fire went out. I thought she'd come back to the music, and get her healing there, but…" He shook his head. "Course, Randy and the music wasn't a good mix anyway. A nice enough boy, but he didn't like seeing his woman up on a stage with the whole world watching."
"He tried to stop her playing?"
"He never said the words, but we knew. The spark was going out of here before that marriage ended." Brass grinned at Robert. "But even at her best then, she never played the way she does with you."
"I thought happy people didn't play the blues well."
"Stupid happy people, no. Happy people who been down the road and seen the shadows, now, they play well." Brass glanced out over the crowd. "Annie says that boy of yours plays. He any good?"
"As far as I know, he doesn't play the blues."
"Sooner or later, everyone plays the blues."
"I'll introduce you, you can ask him yourself."
They were interrupted by Jordan and Malcolm "B.B." King, Jordan's band's bassist, who appeared at the table. "Hey, Brass, should we do it now?" Malcolm asked.
Brass pulled himself together. "Oh, yeah, this." Robert looked puzzled. "You'll like this, just wait."
Jerry Lee and Johnny Onatori, keyboardist and drummer respectively, led Ann out of the crowd to the table.
"Miss Manners frowns on making people open presents at parties, guys," she protested.
Malcolm put his hand to his forehead. "Oh, the horror. Deal with it, at least we're not making a big production of it."
Jordan cleared his throat. "Ann and Robert, the Music School Refugees would like to present an addition to your musical collection." He handed Ann a shrink-wrapped CD.
She laughed. "Gosh, you broke the bank on this one, didn't you?"
"It wasn't cheap," Jerry said. "We had to get the tapes cleaned up, figure out which were the best ones…"
"Find someone to make them sound decent," Malcolm added, "get a decent picture for the cover…"
Robert took the CD and looked at the cover. "Darling, this is you."
"What?" She snatched the CD out of his hand. "What the hell!" Her five-year-younger self, locked in combat with a piano, surrounded by the band, singing her heart out.
"It's not just your stuff," Jordan said. "I mean, we don't sound like dog shit ourselves."
Brass patted the flabbergasted Ann on the shoulder. "Stuff from some of our better shows when you were with us most of the time. You were good, girl. Musicians need copies of their stuff."
"I'm a computer geek, not a musician."
"You used to be both."
She looked at the old bluesman, stricken.
Robert took the CD back casually. "I'll be glad to listen to this, thank you, gentlemen. You should get back in practice, sweetheart, play out more." He smiled at the picture on the cover. "You look like you were enjoying yourself immensely."
Ann stared at him, memories obviously at war in her mind. "You wouldn't mind?"
"Why on earth would I?"
She looked away, fighting tears. Behind her, Brass gave Robert an approving nod.
Scott perched on the last bit of furniture in his father's apartment and watched him go through a couple of boxes of papers and some stuff from a safe in the floor. Last night had been a revelation. Scott hadn't expected to have fun. And the conversation he'd had with his mother this morning had relieved a lot of fears he'd been having.
Kay was delighted that Robert had found someone to be happy with. While she hadn't been able to stay married to him, she still cared very deeply about him and had been concerned about what his life was turning into. After the long talk she and Ann had had sometime with no one else around, Kay was content to let her first husband go to a younger woman. Scott grinned to himself. Kay had been downright amused to think of Robert falling like an adolescent. Far from being jealous, Kay had been grateful that he was going to get a chance at the kind of happiness she had with her new husband. A cool woman, Kay.
Scott was also impressed at how willing everyone was to treat him like a grown-up with a vested interest in the proceedings. It made him glad he hadn't come in screaming about the horror of it all.
But he still had a few questions for his father. Nothing earth shaking, just some concerns. "Dad, can you talk and sort?"
"What? Oh, certainly." Robert reoriented himself to face Scott. "What's on your mind, son?" A knot of tension in his stomach fought with his pleasure at being able to spend time with his son.
"Relax, nothing big. First off, Ann seems a cool lady. You did good." It was strange to be reassuring a parent.
"Thank you, Scott. You approve, then?"
"Yeah." They smiled at each other, a greater harmony between them than ever before. There was no need to drag up the past, that was all very old news. "One thing I am wondering about, though, is should I expect any half-siblings?"
Robert sat back on his heels. "Yes, I suppose you are wondering. It never occurred to me."
"She's only thirty." He wondered if he'd trespassed into sensitive medical territory for his father.
Robert didn't notice. "Well, for one thing I am too old to deal with infants again. I'm getting two nieces and a nephew if I want to play with children. It's quite delightful to be able to hand a crying baby to someone else to be taken care of."
"So you're getting called Uncle Robert, huh?" he grinned.
"My niece-to-be Elizabeth has decided I exist only to pay attention to her. She's four. She insisted on showing me around at Christmas."
Scott laughed, picturing his father captive to a little girl. "Did you mind?"
"Not really." A wistful note entered Robert's voice. No, he hadn't minded at all. He'd missed seeing his children at that age.
"What's Ann say about kids?"
"Very little." Robert looked at Scott seriously. "Don't ask. She had a miscarriage during her first marriage and now she can't have any."
Scott made a sympathetic noise. "Thanks for the warning. She's had an unpleasant time of it, hasn't she." He was surprised by the grim look on his father's face. "What's wrong?"
"There is some concern about her ex-husband's reaction if he hears about the wedding."
"That much of a jerk, huh? Is he likely to crash the proceedings?"
"No, he's still safely locked up, I checked."
"Locked up? Where? Why?"
Robert hadn't planned on going into all this, but better he knew now. "He's in a hospital for the criminally insane."
"What? Shit, what did he do?" Scott saw the grim look transform into something dangerous.
"Among other things, hurt Ann very badly," Robert said quietly.
Scott swallowed. "I take it you don't mean mentally."
"A good thing she got rid of him, then."
"Now if only he believed it."
"He doesn't know he's divorced."
"He has to, doesn't he? He signed the papers."
"Actually, no. Special circumstances were declared--or bought, knowing Ann's family--and the marriage was declared void without Randy's involvement."
"Well, no wonder if he's pissed about her remarrying, then. Maybe he wanted a chance to make it up to her."
With a jolt, Robert suddenly understood a little of what Taylor may have gone through. He'd only thought of Ann's ex-husband as a possible danger, not as a young man who obviously had been having serious troubles but was clinging to the memory of what happiness he'd had.
"So they locked him up for hurting her," Scott mused.
"Well, there were a few other things that say he shouldn't be allowed loose. I hope some one's actually trying to help him," he said, surprising himself. "It would be very good if Ann could finally resolve all that."
He turned back to his papers while Scott sat thoughtfully. There was a knock at the door and Scott jumped off the couch to get it, making Robert envy him his youthful spring.
"Hey, Mickey," Scott said, closing the door behind him.
"Kay said you were over here. You ready to go tuxedo shopping?"
"Do I have a choice?"
"No. At least they're not making us wear peach or something."
"Tuxedos are black," Robert said, getting off the floor. "Any other color is gauche."
"Yes, Miss Manners." Mickey looked at Scott. "He making you buy one or can you get away with renting it?"
"I think I'd better rent it. I can't go schlepping one back to France in my carry-on luggage."
"I don't see why not," Robert said. "Tuxedos come in very handy. And I'm willing to provide capital to make sure my son is well-dressed."
"It could be worse," Mickey offered as they left. "Dictator-for-Life Anastasia could be supervising."
"That is no way to talk about my future grandmother-in-law," Robert chided.
"But it's true."
"I didn't say it wasn't. I just said it was no way to talk about her."
The tailors were not pleased at the short notice, but a discreet bribe soothed the ruffled brow of art. Robert firmly vetoed Mickey's suggestion of plaid cummerbunds. Scott was pleasantly surprised to discover that with proper fitting a tuxedo was no more uncomfortable than any other suit. He caught himself preening a little in the mirror and muttering "Bond, James Bond" under his breath. His father watched him critically and discussed lapel width with the tailor, debating current fashion over classicism. His father a clothes horse? It was a new idea to Scott.
Mickey bitched and muttered dourly at the thought of buying his tuxedo. "Where the hell would I wear it? I don't expect I'll be doing a lot of wedding duties."
Robert glanced around. "You would be surprised at the number of occasions being well dressed can help you in your line of work."
Mickey blinked and remembered a few escapades Robert had pulled off with wing collar undisturbed. "But the jacket's cut too close to be useful."
"Ask for Italian cut, it's loose enough."
"I don't recall being told this in training," Mickey grinned.
"Experience. Be glad you're not a Secret Service man."
Scott kept his mouth shut and his ears open.
When they finally left the tux shop, Robert hesitated at the car, staring at nothing, an abstracted look on his face.
"What's wrong, Dad?" Scott asked.
"In twenty-six hours I'm getting married."
"Oh, Blessed Mother," Mickey muttered. "I thought you were going to skip this part."
Scott looked at him. "What part?"
"Technically known as cold feet."
"I am not having cold feet," Robert snapped. "I'm having reality separation. What could have possessed Ann to say yes?"
"Love?" Mickey offered. "But I've wondered the same thing myself. I don't know what she sees in you either. You're nasty tempered and set in your ways. And you need a drink and a couple of ears. Give me the keys, my turn to find a place."
Mickey's idea of a quiet place was not, as Scott half-expected, a stripper club, but a brick- walled establishment in a basement in Queens with pictures of old college football teams on the walls. Gentrification had passed Witold's by.
The bartender did a double-take. "Kostmayer?"
"Hey, Kronenberg. How's the knee?"
"How should it be, you lousy Pollock geek?"
"Shouldn't have tried to tackle me, you clumsy Kraut."
Robert's eyebrows went up. "You know each other?"
Mickey and the bartender laughed and didn't answer. "Three beers," Mickey finally said. "I've got a nervous bridegroom on my hands." He nodded at Robert.
No high-brow imports here, just Milwaukee's finest. "And if you don't like it," Mickey said, "give it to me. Ask for Harp in here and they'll tell you they don't like singing."
He directed them to a corner away from the TV showing car racing on ESPN. They sat in silence for the first half of their bottles. Robert drank his without really thinking about it. Finally he glanced at his son. "You haven't been telling me you approve just out of politeness, have you?"
"Dad, I'm not that polite, nor that good an actor."
Robert nodded, still looking perplexed.
"Look," Mickey said, "if you're this spooked, tell Ann you want a delay."
"I wouldn't do that to her. Besides, it's not for myself that I'm concerned, it's for her. She shouldn't have to settle for a-"
"Settle!" Mickey burst out. "OK, obviously you don't know about a long talk she and I had a couple of weeks ago." He leaned towards his friend and fixed him with a serious look. "Robert, she loves you. I asked her some very pointed questions about her willingness to stick this marriage out for the long haul. Statistics are against the two of you, you know."
Robert nodded grimly.
"Hey, listen to me. She got mad the question even came up. I spent the next ten minutes listening to her wax poetic on the subject of you and the twenty after that reassuring her that I wasn't the advance scout for a cancellation of the wedding. You remember my mother, don't you?"
"Yes," Robert said, surprised. "A lovely, wise woman."
Mickey held two fingers up, tight together. "She and Pa were like that, one unit. They spoiled me for any kind of marriage except like what they had. When Annie was talking about you, she looked the way Ma used to when she talked about Pa. She is not 'settling' for anything."
Suddenly realizing what he'd been drinking, Robert handed Mickey his bottle of beer, then leaned back in his chair. "I've been too used to catastrophe mucking up the good things in my life. I suppose I'm trying to distract fate from how important this is to me."
"Like the custom of not complimenting children in case the devil takes notice," Scott interjected.
"Yes, precisely." Robert looked sheepish. "I suppose you think I'm being foolish."
"No. You're making sure. Foolish would be to call it off just because you're nervous."
Mickey polished off his and Robert's bottles, then looked thoughtful. "My system used to take longer," he commented as he got up and headed across the room.
"Cheap beer does that," Robert offered.
Scott waited till Mickey was out of earshot. "Dad, can I ask an impertinent question?"
"I may not answer."
"That's OK." He started picking the label off the bottle. "Why is Ann different from Mom?"
Robert picked up the ashtray and turned it in his hands. "Why do I think I can make it work with her when I couldn't with Kay?"
"Your mother is a wonderful woman. It's not a question of Ann vs. Kay, it's a question of the man I was then vs. the man I am now. I was told then it was a mistake to get married and start a family. I thought it was because they didn't trust me not to tell my wife things I shouldn't. But it was because they knew someone would have to be cheated. Other men had tried. Very superior sorts had succeeded. I was not that sort. I could never marry Ann if I were still doing that job." He stared at the heavy glass, running a finger along the chips. "Do you resent her?"
"No," Scott said without hesitation. "I thought I'd resent Walter. He was the proof you two would never get back together." He gave his father a restrained smile. "I had my hopes."
"You couldn't help but."
"Were you upset when Mom got married?"
"No, I was thankful. I couldn't be the man she needed, I was glad she found one who could."
Scott fumbled a moment for the proper words. "Am I going to be a damper on you two tomorrow? I'm rather an obvious reminder of things that didn't work out, and I don't want you trying to spare my feelings."
"Spare your feelings?"
"Tacky comparisons." He took a deep breath. "I honestly don't know how I'm going to react to seeing you and Ann being goofy in love together. Mom said people would be whispering about first marriages and making tacky remarks. I don't want to complicate matters."
"How could you?"
"I've been picturing the wedding in my head." He started shredding the paper coasters. "I can't help feeling a little . . . jealous that I never saw this part of you. I know you couldn't show it and all that, but…"
Robert patted his son's arm. "I'm sorry, Scott. I never thought about how it must look to you-"
"No, Dad, that's just it. I don't want you to think about it. It's your wedding day tomorrow. Supposed to be the happiest day of your life. I don't want any part of being a blot. I'd rather stay away than have you second guessing yourself for my sake when you're supposed to be being happy with your new wife."
Robert was caught without words for several moments. "My god, I wish I could claim credit for raising you. Please be there. I want your blessing on this more than anything else."
"You have it, Dad." Once he would have been ashamed of having his father see the tears in his eyes. But there were tears as well in the pleased and proud eyes of the semi-mythic man whose unexplained absences had troubled his youth.
Kronenberg the bartender sipped at the beer Mickey had bought him. "The kid was antsy at his old man getting hitched again?"
"Not really," Mickey said, watching the two McCalls from his bar stool. "It's just they were never in the habit of telling each other how they feel."
A beautiful Saturday, the last weekend of April. Warm enough in the sunshine not to need a jacket, cool enough in the shade not to have to sweat. All told, a good day for a wedding.
Scott stared out the car window at the house they were approaching. It was big, gray, ugly and big, commanding an expensive view of Long Island Sound. All the cars parked in front were either over twelve feet or fifty thousand dollars or both. It looked like a European CEO convention. Robert smothered a yawn as he piloted his car up the broad driveway.
"Dad, do you find this kind of stuff dull?"
"No, no, I just didn't get to sleep till very late."
He smiled faintly. "Something like that. Who is that?" A young man was stationed under the porte-cochere.
"Parking valet?" Scott hazarded.
"Kin or hired, do you think?" Mickey said from the back.
"Today, hired," Robert said. He stopped the car, and the valet opened the door.
"Guest or family?" he inquired.
"Groom," Robert answered as he climbed out. "For the record, the bride and I will not be leaving in this car, so if at the end of the day there is anything attached to it that isn't there now, heads will roll."
The valet blinked and closed his mouth. "Yes, sir."
"Excellent. Let me get into the trunk, then you may park it." Robert opened the trunk and let Mickey pull out the three tuxedos, then handed the ignition key to the valet. "Follow me, gentlemen." He led the way up the steps to where a man in an impressive morning coat and striped trousers waited.
"Good afternoon, Mr. McCall," he said in a well-bred New England drawl. "May I extend my best wishes on the day?"
"Of course, thank you, White. Has Ann arrived yet? I didn't see her car."
"No, sir, she has not arrived, but she did call twenty minutes ago to say she was on her way."
"Excellent. Where has Mrs. Marshall decided to put us?"
As they followed White into the house, Scott sidled close to Mickey. "Mickey," he whispered, "is that a butler?"
"Yeah, it is," Mickey whispered back. "Stay close and don't touch anything."
Scott couldn't help staring as they headed towards the main staircase. He'd been in auditoriums smaller than this foyer. A really huge Persian carpet lay on the marble floor, and another carpet in dark blue ran up the big staircase, held down with bars at the back of the treads. Two suits of armor stood at the landing in front of a tapestry that Scott had thought was in The Cloisters museum. And his father strolled up this movie set like it was a stairway in an apartment house, chatting casually with the butler about wedding arrangements. Mickey grabbed Scott's arm before he could bang on the breastplate of one of the suits of armor.
"Robert, you're here," an elegantly middle-aged woman called from the top of the steps.
"Which is more than can be said for your daughter," he replied, kissing her on the cheek. "You look wonderful, by the way."
"Oh, thank you, but who looks at the mother of the bride? She is on her way, at least. I talked to her earlier, and she sounded exhausted. She shouldn't have tried to help with the arrangements while working so hard to make sure her people could function while she was gone."
"Ah, but who can tell Ann anything?"
"You, I hope." She smiled brightly at Mickey and Scott. "Hello."
"Sylvia, I believe you've met Mickey Kostmayer, my best man, and this is my son, Scott. He was able to make it from France at the last minute. Scott, this is Sylvia Marshall, Ann's mother."
Sylvia gave Scott her hand. "Bon jour, m'sieur," she smiled.
"Enchante, madame," Scott answered, bowing over her hand. It worked on his mother.
She gave a delicate, delighted laugh. "He has your charm, Robert. By the way, has Anastasia spoken to you yet?"
"We've just arrived and were going to get changed."
"As a bit of personal advice, try to avoid her. She and Mother thought that since so many of the family were in one place it would be a wonderful idea to have a soiree tomorrow night. Anastasia doesn't think it would be at all an imposition to ask you and Ann to postpone leaving until Monday so you could attend."
"Thank you, I will avoid her. Besides, we must get changed. I don't think my son has ever worn a tuxedo before," he said with a faint smile.
"Have, too," Scott protested. "Le Comtesse d'Montalia said I looked quite presentable." He kept his smirk to a minimum at his father's eyebrow.
"Oh, Sylvia!" caroled an operatic voice from down a far hall. Robert flinched slightly.
"I'll go distract her," Sylvia said with a smile, and left.
"This way, sir," White said.
"Who was that?" Scott asked.
"Jessica, Sylvia's mother," Robert answered quellingly.
"Tell you later," Mickey whispered.
It was just as well that Suzy had offered to drive, since Ann fell asleep on the Brooklyn Bridge. "Wake up," Suzy said, poking her in the arm as they approached Covenridge.
Ann blinked, startled. "Already?"
"Hey, I didn't tell you to buy a twelve-cylinder car that cruises at Warp 7, even if it does match Robert's. Come on, wake up, you're getting married in three hours. Don't make me have to cover bloodshot eyes. You shouldn't have been on the phone with Robert till all hours last night."
"I'm glad I was," Ann said with a yawn and a stretch. "Stuff needed saying."
"You're not still hung up on the last time, are you?" Chao Tsu said from the backseat.
"I don't think so. And even if I am, it's not going to stop me. I dreamed about Randy last night, but it wasn't too bad." She smiled at her friends. "See, I can say his name." Suzy reached over and squeezed her hand.
As they drove through the gate, Ann scanned the parked cars. "Oh, gosh, he got here first."
"Who?" Suzy asked.
"Robert, silly. There's his car."
"Know what that means, don't you," Chao Tsu said.
"He's impatient," Suzy grinned.
"Sister, he is not the only one. Shit."
"I'm scared to death."
"Yeah, well, think how he feels."
Robert sat in a chair and stared at the man in the mirror. Fool or wise man, to be marrying a woman young enough to be his daughter? Ann thought he'd resolved that issue, but it never really went away. To be honest, it wasn't for his own sake that he was worried. He was overwhelmingly flattered that a brilliant creature like Ann loved him enough to marry him. But he kept hearing whispers that wondered what Ann was doing with a man his age, and none of them were flattering. Somehow they couldn't believe that she was with him of her own free will. They preferred more scandalous explanations. If he heard the phrase "sugar daddy" one more time he was going to hurt someone.
But he knew better than to try to make Ann's decision for her. She blithely ignored such remarks or smiled in serene contempt. She told the tale of once in the ladies room at a restaurant when a lady of crusading spirit had tried to convince her that she shouldn't demean herself as a rich man's hired escort. "Oh, good lord, you have it wrong," she'd said. "I hired him." As long as she could accept such remarks with unconcern, he could do no less. For the gift of her smile in the morning, he was willing to brave much worse.
He shook himself and turned to check on Scott and Mickey's progress. To his surprise they were dressed and ready, but they kept looking in the mirror nervously.
"Dad, why do I have to wear this?" Scott complained, tugging on his sleeves.
"Because the invitation reads black tie, that's why, though technically it is too early in the day for it," Robert answered, straightening his son's tie and checking the fit of the cummerbund.
"How do you know this stuff?"
"Self-defense. If it's any comfort, you look fine. Mickey, stand up straight, for heaven's sake."
Mickey obeyed, but he looked distracted. He started feeling his pockets. "Where's the ring?"
"Oh, my god," Robert said, aghast. "Damn it, Mickey, that is not funny."
"I'm not joking."
"All right," Scott said, "let's not panic. Where did you last have it?"
"Kay's, when we picked you up."
"Did you leave it there?"
Robert held his breath as Mickey thought. What was the number of that helicopter courier service Ann had fixed the computers for? Kay had a big backyard, there was room for a chopper to land --
"No," Mickey finally said. "I had it in my pocket. I checked to make sure."
"The glove compartment," Robert said in relief. "I watched you put it in there."
"Right. Let's go get it."
"Are we allowed to wander around?" Scott asked as he followed them out of the room.
"Too bad if we're not," Mickey said.
More people were wandering the house, but the trio kept moving and avoided conversations. Out in the driveway, they passed a knot of chauffeurs sharing cigarettes.
"Looks like a Mafia funeral," Mickey muttered.
"No, it doesn't. There's no one writing down license plate numbers," Robert said. "Ah, Ann's car," he commented as they passed her gunmetal gray Jaguar. The way it was blocked in, he hoped Suzy and Chao Tsu wouldn't be in a hurry to leave.
"Right next to yours, how romantic," Mickey grinned.
"Is that where little cars come from?" Scott asked, and he laughed at Robert's pained expression.
"Just get the ring," Robert said patiently.
As Mickey poked in the car, a priest came up. "You're not planning a getaway, are you, Robert?"
"Father Nick, hello. No, your brother left the bride's ring in my car."
"You have to tie valuable things to him. Hello, Mickey!" he called through the car window.
"Hello, Nick," Mickey called back. "There, got the damned thing." He climbed out of the car and re-locked the door, then opened the box. "Does Suzy have the other one?"
"I hope so."
Mickey closed the box. "Did you know Annie's engagement ring is in here?"
"It had better be," Robert said. "I put it there this morning."
"May I see?" Father Nicholas asked. Mickey handed him the box, and Scott peered over the priest's shoulder. The engagement ring had a three-quarter carat emerald and several small diamonds in an old-fashioned setting, but the wedding ring was a simple gold band. "Lovely," Father Nick said, handing the box back to Mickey. "By the way, gentlemen, forty-five minutes to the ceremony. Please don't make us send out bloodhounds. Excuse me."
"We'd best mingle," Robert said reluctantly as they followed Father Nicholas around the house to the garden in back. He absently cracked a knuckle.
"Stop that!" Mickey snapped. "You haven't cracked your knuckles in ten years. There's no reason to start now."
"This is going to be a very long forty-five minutes," Robert said tensely.
"You've been through longer. No one's shooting at you."
"True. Did you confirm the car?"
"Yes, I did. I called them before we left, you watched me do it. Calm down."
Scott hung back and choked back chuckles. Robert McCall, Mr. Savoir Faire, fidgeting. But at least all the other men were wearing tuxedos too, and a lot of them were fiddling with their collars, the way Scott did. But not, he noticed, his father. For all Robert's nervousness, he wore the whole ensemble with a panache that made Scott jealous and that he hoped was genetic. The Secret Agent's School of Debonair. Mickey must have flunked out.
"There you are, Robert," called a man Scott recognized.
"You made it," Robert commented. "Ann was wondering if you'd show."
"She was hoping I wouldn't, you mean," Control said with a knowing smile. "Hello, Scott."
"Hello, Cont-um…" Scott broke off, uncertain of forms of address.
"What name are we introducing you by?" Robert asked.
"Jonathan Wilkes is the nom de jour," Control answered. "So you're really going to go through with this?"
"Most definitely. Has anyone wondered who you are yet?"
"The butler inquired if I was a friend of the bride or groom, but that was the extent of it besides confirming I had an invitation. Your side is going to be rather outnumbered, isn't it?"
"Anastasia has thought of that, and guests are to fill in as directed. Far be it from me to get in Anastasia's way."
Mickey had been looking around the garden suspiciously. "Did you come alone?" he asked Control accusingly.
"No, I brought Young," Control said patiently. "She seemed the least obvious."
"And where is she?"
"Admiring the cake, I believe. Relax, Mickey, you have other things to worry about. By the way, Robert, a wedding gift for you was delivered to me."
Robert blinked. "To you? From whom?"
"Mikhail Davidovich Alexikov."
"I beg your pardon?"
Control nodded. "That was my reaction when the courier arrived from the consulate. But it's been x-rayed and tested every way we could think of, and it seems quite legitimate." He reached into a pocket. "This is the note that came with it."
"Who's-" Scott started.
"None of your business," Mickey said.
"I thought he got sent home," Robert commented as he pulled out his glasses.
"So did we," Control said.
Robert stared a moment at the official consulate letterhead, then read the note. Of course Alexikov had used Cyrillic letters, his idea of being clever. Robert's Russian was rusty enough as it was.
"A thousand good wishes on your wedding, my dear rival. It speaks well of you that such a splendid lady is willing to be your bride. Accept this gift in the spirit in which it is offered, and don't feel compelled to answer this note. Honor is so rare in this world that it is necessary to cherish it, even in our enemies. Salud, Mikhail Davidovich."
"Well," Robert said, folding the note and placing it in an inside pocket. "So where is this gift?"
"I'll have it delivered to the house," Control said. "Antique lacquerware according to the lab. A lovely piece, I saw it."
"Before or after the lab got done with it?" Mickey asked.
"After. We re-wrapped it."
Up on the second floor, Ann watched her fiancé‚ from behind a lace bedroom curtain. He always looked so wonderful in a tuxedo, but she could tell he was fidgeting. Second thoughts or just stage fright? It had been a lot longer for him since he'd done this than it had for her. She pursed her lips unhappily at Control's presence, but it hadn't been worth a fight to keep him away.
The men moved off towards the garden, where guests were mingling. Ann did hope her family would behave themselves. One aunt had already had to be spoken to sternly when she had said how sad it was that apparently all the good men Ann's age were either married or gay. And Ann remembered a young man in the Whale snidely questioning, when he thought she was out of earshot, whether Robert was the best she could get. She'd been just about to go throw him out when his girlfriend had said, "Oh, you mean a perfect gentleman with exquisite taste who obviously adores her? My god, what could she be thinking?" Ann had told George at the bar to make sure all her drinks were free.
Robert never said if anyone had challenged him on the matter, though he had mentioned that a few ladies of his own generation had expressed their jealousy in a very genteel manner. Oddly enough, most people saw it as an endorsement of his virility or something. Chao Tsu had expressed great approval at the match, saying it was a perfect expression of yin and yang. Considering her wedding present had been a facsimile of a detailed and profusely illustrated antique Chinese sex manual with translation, one could say she approved. Robert had put it on his shelf beside the three Shogun-era pillow books he kept saying he had bought for their artistic value.
Ann smiled smugly. One of her friends from college, upon being told of the wedding, had given her a great condescending lecture on how sad it was that she wouldn't enjoy the same joys of the nuptial bed as she and darling Rupert did, since it was well known that men's libidos started declining as they got older. For once in her life, Ann had had the perfect reply ready. "My god," she'd laughed, "if his libido's in decline, heaven help the women he knew when he was twenty." The fact that it was true only helped.
It suddenly dawned on her that she was looking for objections. Some weird section of her psyche kept digging up every possible protest, throwing it on the table and saying, "Well, what about that?" Just as well, she supposed. She was ready when someone came up to her and expressed well-meaning disapproval. But she realized, with a growing warm joy in her soul, that the objections were all intellectual exercises. Nothing had really connected with her feelings, despite all the worrying she'd been doing. When she looked at him, all she thought of was having him in her home and life and knowing he belonged there.
A knock on the door heralded Suzy's return with Chao Tsu and Sylvia. "Dear, where are your shoes?" her mother asked worriedly.
"Why aren't they on your feet?"
"Because I'm relaxing as much as I can before going out that door. I'm surprised Grandma didn't come with you."
"She's too busy bullying the caterers," Suzy said, fetching the shoes. "Sit, girl."
"Woof," Ann said as she obeyed. "Or should it be whinny?" Suzy had grabbed a foot to put the shoe on. "Damn it, I can put my own shoes on."
"Well, then, do it."
"You're more nervous than I am. Chao Tsu, my hair is fine, stop fussing."
Sylvia was silent as she watched her eldest daughter prepare to be a bride for the second time. What had gone wrong the first time and why hadn't anyone seen it in time? Sylvia hadn't had the slightest clue that the son of old family friends was so, well, unstable. She knew Ann held it against her that her primary concern at the time of Randy's breakdown – after Ann's well-being, of course – had been damage control. But what earthly good would it have done to make a huge fuss over it? She still believed the marriage could have been saved if Ann hadn't been so anxious to stay away from Randy. True, he'd hit her, but no one had ever tracked him down for his side of the story. It might have been a unique aberration. Sylvia had been raised with the idea that a marriage was not a car to be junked when it developed pings. You fixed the thing and made it roadworthy again.
And now Ann was going to do the altar again, with a man who had also had a failed marriage behind him. What kind of odds were those? Once more Sylvia bit back her protests. She still believed Robert was too old for Ann, and his job was far too large a stumbling block in her opinion. She'd been hard put not to forbid the wedding outright when Ann and Robert had finally told her about his intriguing little habit of risking life and limb for perfect strangers. And she knew she hadn't been told everything. She saw the secrets in their eyes. But Ann was thirty years old, and Sylvia had sworn to herself that her children were on their own at that age. She was available for solicited advice, but their decisions were their own. No matter how hard it was to bite her tongue and be gracious.
And Ann had been turning into such a respectable, genteel person. Now she was riding that motorcycle again and playing in the club. And Robert just smiled.
"Something old," Suzy said, beginning the litany.
"The lace," Ann responded. It had taken three weeks of searching the biggest city on the planet, but she'd finally found the gown of her dreams, a modified cream silk brocade Victorian dress with a rational fit, mid-calf in length and dripping antique lace.
"Something new," Chao Tsu said.
"Uh, the earrings."
Ann grinned. "Taken care of, though you can't see it."
"Where's the necklace you were going to wear?" Suzy asked.
"What?" Ann slapped her bare neck then went to search the dresser. The box was sitting right on top.
Suzy took it from Ann's hands. "Give it. Your fingers are shaking." She pulled out the necklace of twisted freshwater pearl strands with small interspersed diamonds and let it drape across her fingers for a moment. "Gosh, this is pretty. Lift your hair. Is this the one he gave you at Christmas?"
"Yeah. He keeps buying me things like that and saying he enjoys spoiling me."
"And you're complaining?" Suzy checked the necklace's lay and patted Ann on the shoulder when she was done.
Ann shrugged and turned to her quiet mother. "So how do I look, Mom?"
"You look lovely," Sylvia said sincerely. After a certain point, it was a mother's job to keep her mouth shut and be supportive. "I wish your father could see you."
"So do I," Ann replied, fighting back tears. "But I'm so glad you're here." She went to get a hug.
"I believe it's time," Sylvia said after a moment.
Ann hid her shiver of delightful anticipation and grinned. "I do hope so. I saw Robert out the window, and he looked dreadfully nervous."
"Then let's get you moving," Suzy grinned in return.