She got home in late afternoon. The front door was open and Roman was sitting outside on a chair with a bottle of beer. As she approached, she heard loud music coming from inside the house.
She walked up to Roman. “Why aren’t you doing your job?”
Roman’s eyes grew wide. “Mrs. Hove said it was okay, Lily. Told me to chill out, have a beer. They’re partying in the library, Mrs. Hove and the other Mrs. Hove, you know, the cousin, whatever.”
She took the beer from his hand. “Get back inside, secure the door, and do your job. You’re security here. If you ever let down your guard again, I’ll fire you.”
Roman jumped to his feet, confused. She entered, he followed, shut the door, assumed his usual place in the alcove.
As Lily walked toward the music, Mrs. Steele appeared in the hallway. “I had to open the wine cellar, Lily. Mrs. Hove’s guest, she threatened my job if I kept it locked. I didn’t know what else to do. Please don’t fire me.”
Lily touched her hand. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Steele. Try to keep Mrs. Hove and her guest happy. We’ll ride out the storm.”
“Thank you, Lily. Tell me when it stops raining.”
In the west end library and former bar, the two Mrs. Hoves were sitting together on a couch with Old Fashioned glasses. An open bottle of gin and bucket of ice were on a table.
Lily went to the stereo and switched it off.
Daphne shot her a look of hatred; Vergie smiled, head lolling, wobbly, eyes vague.
“What’s going on?” Lily said.
Daphne said, “We’re having a party, Miss Lily. We always do when I arrive.”
“Vergie’s in recovery, Daphne. She’s forbidden to drink alcohol. I can see she’s drunk, and you’re the cause. You’re interfering with her recovery.”
Vergie said, “One drink won’t hurt me, love.” Slow speech, slurred words.
Daphne said, “A few drinks are fine. I know, I read an article on the subject. So-called alcoholics can drink in moderation if they choose. When it gets out of control, they go to rehab. That’s why rehabs exist.”
“Have you two had anything to eat today?”
“Do olives count?”
“Vergie, I want you to stop this right now. I’ll have Mrs. Steele make you something to eat and then I want you to go to bed.”
Vergie waved her hand. “I’ll eat at the club, love. Come along with us if you like. We’ll meet all my friends, gossip, listen to the music, maybe dance, have a good time. I haven’t had a good time in ages, only shit and misery.”
Daphne laughed. “Shit and misery’s right.” She glared at Lily. “Leave it alone, Missy. Don’t be such a crotchety old control freak. Join the party or go do your knitting in the kitchen with the help.”
Vergie handed Daphne her glass. Daphne dropped in ice cubes, filled it to the top with gin, handed it back. The two Mrs. Hoves clinked their glasses in toast, then raised them to Lily.
“Come along to the club, love,” Vergie said.
“I’m sorry, Vergie. I have work to do. Roman will chauffeur you to the club, wait for you, and bring you safely home.”
Next morning, 10 a.m., Lily found Vergie in the kitchenette eating a light breakfast. Puffy face and bags under the eyes, she radiated hangover.
“Good morning,” Lily said. She sat and poured herself a mug of coffee.
Vergie glanced at her, poked at a slice of honeydew. “I apologize for the way I acted yesterday.” She slowly raised a bit of green melon to her mouth, lowered it, then tried a second time. “Say something, Lily.”
“Daphne’s not good for you, dearheart.”
Vergie took a sip of coffee, grimaced. “This tastes spectacularly bad. You said the cook was an artist.”
“The coffee’s fine, Vergie. Your taste is simply off.” She paused. “So, how was the party?”
“What party? Did I go to a party? Why don’t I remember?”
“It’s that old blackout magic.”
“Someone should write a song.”
“Where is she?”
“She borrowed the Mercedes, went somewhere, I’m not clear on where, I think to visit an old boyfriend, won’t be back till late tonight. Sorry about the car. I know you’ve been using it.”
“I can use my own if I need to go somewhere. Does she have many boyfriends?”
“Must be thousands, all over the world, possibly even in Antarctica and Greenland by the stories she tells.”
“Well, of course. She is such a delightful and charming person, beneath the rude behavior and superficial appearance, I mean.”
Vergie smiled. “You two don’t . . . you don’t exactly . . .”
“Oil and water? Cyanide and human life? Good versus evil?”
“She’s my cousin, Lily, my only one, and my only living relative, unless, God forbid, I adopt the Roach family of trailer trash bumpkins.”
“What else?”
“She says . . . she says you’ve taken control of my life, you’re a fortune hunter, you lack sophistication and education, you’re the wrong class, not our kind of people. I think she said other things, but I don’t remember what they were, they’ll come to me eventually.”
Lily laughed. “Don’t bother to tell me if they do. I get the gist. Most is probably true, but not the fortune hunter part.”
“Don’t worry, love. But having her—an outsider—view our relationship made me ask myself, what are you doing here? You already have a career, so why complicate your life with me?”
“Because you’re my friend, and I want to help you, and . . . I love you.”
Vergie took her hand, their eyes met. “Yes, m’love.” She looked away. “I mentioned changing the will. She doesn’t think it necessary, you’re only after my money.”
“Nonsense. All I want is for you to set up a foundation to enhance the Hove family reputation. She can cancel it if she inherits. All this talking, what your cousin thinks or suspects or whatever makes me uncomfortable. She’s a difficult person, insecure and suspicious by nature. When I met her yesterday, she immediately treated me as a rival, not a friend who was looking out for you. I don’t think I’m being overprotective. If you do, perhaps I should get out of your life altogether. If you want me to leave, I’ll forget all the verbal commitments you’ve made and the employment contract. It’s up to you. Do you want me to leave?”
“No, of course no. Stay. Let’s work things out.”
“Stay, and watch you kill yourself as she looks on and tells you to ignore my advice?”
“Step in if you think I’m losing it. Please don’t leave me, Lily. She won’t be here forever. If it gets bad, move to the carriage house and stay until she goes back to Italy or wherever.”
“I’ll stay as long as you’ll have me, dearheart.”
“Excellent. I feel better now, getting all this off my chest. We had a good talk, Lily, and I’m absolutely positive things will improve. No more drinks for this girl. I’ll finish up here, take a hot bath, and then let’s go the health club and work the evil out of me. Tonight we’ll watch an old movie on TV, stay sober, and tomorrow morning the three of us will breakfast together and you and Daphne will work out your differences and become great friends.” She raised her eyebrows. “Think positive, what I always say.”
Next morning, she met with Vergie and Daphne at 8 a.m. on the veranda behind the house. Their breakfast table overlooked the oak forest, swimming pool, and pool house. It was set with fine china, silver, and glassware, and stocked with enough fruits, juices, champagne, croissants, and varied egg concoctions with bacon and meat side dishes to serve a dozen guests.
Daphne poured champagne all around, then sat back, watching Lily and Vergie make their food and drink choices. They made friendly smalltalk for a while, the atmosphere among them less tense than before.
Lily said, “I won’t be able to go with you to the health club this morning, Vergie. I have a business appointment in town and it may keep me busy after lunch.”
“What appointment?” Vergie said.
“Business, dearheart. Never mind the boring details.”
“I need my car.”
“Take the Mercedes. I’ll drive my own car. Why don’t you and Daphne both go to the health club?”
“I hate exercise,” Daphne said. “All that jumping up and down and running around, getting worked up, hyperventilating, stressing the heart and body. People die exerting themselves.” She took out a cigarette and lit it with a gold lighter.
Lily stared at the lighter, identical to the one she had taken from Tony the night she watched him drown. “My, Daphne, I didn’t know you smoked those things.”
“They’re mentholated and filter-tipped, perfectly harmless. I get them from a man in London. Doctors prescribe them.”
Lily laughed. “I doubt it.”
Daphne smiled. “Try one, you’ll like it.”
“She’s too young to smoke,” Vergie said. “Don’t get her started on your foul habits.”
“Foul habits are great fun, Vee. I believe in live fast, die young.”
“It’s getting late, don’t you think?”
Lily said, “Vergie, you must go to the health club. Ignore Daphne’s bad behavior and think of your health and welfare. You’ve got over the booze and pills, I hope, and now it’s time to get into shape.”
Daphne stared at her. “You’re in wonderful shape, Lily. You must have good genes.”
“I work hard at it, Daphne. It’s nurture not nature. I come from poor, old country stock.”
Daphne said, “Vee, I do believe your friend is mocking us.”
Lily said, “Vergie, are you going to the health club or not?”
Vergie lifted a champagne flute, slowly sipped, savoring it. “I’m thinking.”
Daphne said, “Don’t push her, Lily. She’s an adult, free to make her own choices.” She refilled Vergie’s flute.
Vergie said, “Thank you, Cousin Daphne. I’ll go. Lily knows what’s good for me. I think you should come with me. God knows, we both need it.”
“Oh, my,” Daphne said. “What are you two, born again Christians? I need proper, dissolute company, not temperance crusaders.”
Vergie touched Lily’s hand, leaned close, “I believe we’re finally getting to her, Lily. Next week, we’ll take her to the revival.”
Daphne lit another cigarette. “Speaking of dissolute company, whatever happened to the idiot you were married to, Tony whatsisname?”
“Roach, Dee,” Vergie said, “not whatsisname.”
“Good name for the fellow. He was a hunk, I’ll admit, but he was shifty. I know the type. I’m absolutely sure he stole my Dunhill. I found him in my bedroom one day, going through my drawers.”
Lily laughed, “It must’ve been valuable, if you kept it in your drawers.”
“Tony wouldn’t steal from you,” Vergie said. “I gave him everything he needed. You probably lost it somewhere yourself. You think money all the time, but you’re careless with things, always misplacing them, and men, always divorcing them.”
“I was only divorced twice. The other was an annulment. The annulment was cheaper. If I ever marry again, it’ll be to another Papist.”
Lily said, “Did you convert when you married?”
“I tried, couldn’t master all the mumbo jumbo. They do have impressive cathedrals, lovely music, and the vestments are colorful but, you know, they’re all sissies and pedophiles. Speaking of religion, did you hold a funeral for whatsisname?”
“Do you like funerals, Daphne?”
“They’re good for my asthma, give the tear ducts and plumbing a workout.”
Vergie said, “We’re too busy, no funeral.”
“Where’s the body then? I hope not in an ice chest downstairs.”
“Lily had him cremated.”
Lily said, “It was Vergie’s idea.”
Vergie looked at her, puzzled. “Where’s the ashes, love?”
Daphne laughed. “You don’t know where your husband’s ashes are? Oh, my, and you chide me for losing husbands.”
“Well,” Vergie said, “I can’t be expected to keep track of everything around here. It’s a big household with many distractions and guests who come and go and . . .”
Lily laughed. “That’s what you hired me for, dearheart. As to the disposition of the late Mr. Roach, he’s in an urn, out in the garage. I thought it was appropriate, considering how he loved his expensive sports cars.”
Vergie said, “I approve, at least for the time being. I only wish he could have loved me as much as an Alfa Romeo.”
Daphne perked up. “What kind of Alfa?”
“I don’t know,” Vergie said. “It’s an old one, a red convertible.”
Lily said, “It’s a 1964 Giulietta Spider.”
Daphne said, “Let me have it, Vee. I had one when I was living in Italy.”
“Of course, Dee. No one’s using it. It’s sitting out there in the garage gathering dust.”
Lily fumed. Vergie had already forgotten offering the Alfa to her. The thought of Daphne driving her pristine little car almost made her sick.
“It hasn’t been driven in ages,” Lily said. “You should have someone qualified check it out before driving it.”
Daphne said, “Don’t worry, sweetie. I know Alfas. I drove all over Europe in one. I’ll try it out this afternoon.” She called the maid over and handed her a silver flask. “Fill this up with Booth’s and bring it back to me.”
Vergie said, “Don’t drink and drive, Dee.”
“Why, because it’s unsafe?”
“No, because of what happens if you get caught. I did one time, so embarrassing, my name in the paper, all the snide gossip and looks people gave me. It took forever to live down.”
“Life’s short, Vee. I say, live and let live.”
They all laughed.
Lily thought the peacemaking breakfast had been fun. She had seen another side of Daphne, almost liked her. She was clever, often funny, even self-effacing. Knowing her better, it would be painful to lose her, but not for long.