’Twas the week before Christmas
“Jean Eloise Foley!”
Marian Foley tugged hard at the fabric of the ivory lace dress. “How am I going to fix this dress if you can’t stand still for five minutes?”
I squirmed and looked over my shoulder and down at my mama, who was glaring up at me. I was standing on a none-too-sturdy wooden kitchen stool, and in high heels yet.
The volume on the red plastic radio that had stood on my parents’ green Formica countertop for as long as I can remember was turned down, but I could still hear strains of Brenda Lee singing “Jingle Bell Rock” and the telltale ching-ching of the cell phone on the counter next to the radio.
“Mama,” I pleaded. “That has to be Daniel, texting me. Can’t we just stop for a minute so I can grab my phone?”
“Don’t you move,” Mama managed to say, despite the fact that her lips were clamped tight around a clutch of dressmaker’s pins. “Not an inch. We have to get this dress fitted and pinned today. No more excuses. We’re already weeks behind schedule, and if I don’t get started cutting this dress down this afternoon, you’ll be getting married in your slip.”
“Wouldn’t Daniel just love that.” I looked longingly at my phone, which sat only a few feet away. “I’m dying to hear how it went at Cucina Carlotta last night. There were rumors the food critic from the New York Times might sneak in.”
“I don’t care if the pope himself ate there,” Mama said. “Daniel Stipanek can just wait his turn. Anyway, didn’t he call you last night?”
“No,” I admitted. “He’s been so crazy busy with work, he hasn’t had a minute to talk. So we’ve been texting.”
“Ridiculous,” Mama said with a sniff. “I don’t know why you all can’t just pick up a phone and communicate like normal people. I still don’t understand all this texting foolishness.”
“He’s been up there for three weeks, and he’s still working nearly eighteen-hour days. He warned me it would be like this. New York isn’t like Savannah. He says the pace is twice as fast as it is here, and the kitchen is twice as big as his kitchen here at Guale. Cucina seats eighty people—that’s a lot! He’s spending most of his waking hours in the middle of a kitchen surrounded by the staff. He doesn’t want people listening in on our private conversation. Anyway, it’s only for one more week. Then he’ll be home, the wedding is Christmas Eve, and then life is back to normal, until we can get around to the honeymoon in Paris.”
“What makes you think he won’t want to stay up there in New York after the wedding? Savannah is going to seem like Hicksville to him now,” Mama warned. “The next thing I know, you’ll be telling me you’re moving up there for good.”
“Daniel doesn’t want to work for somebody else—even if Carlotta Donatello does own the hottest, hippest restaurant in New York right now. I keep telling you, he’s only a guest chef. It’s some sort of gimmick. Mrs. Donatello has invited six different chefs from all over the country to come in, design menus from their own region, and run the kitchen for a month at a time. It’s a huge honor that she asked Daniel to be the only Southern chef. And it’s great publicity for Guale.”
“If you say so,” Mama said, but her face showed she was clearly dubious of any enterprise that threatened to send her only child off to the wilds of what she considered the frozen wastelands of the North.
“I do. Now, if you’d just hand me my phone,” I coaxed, “I can find out how it went last night.”
Instead, Mama cinched in another two inches of lace on the right side seam of the dress.
“Owww!” I howled. “That was my hip you just pinned.”
Jethro, my black Lab mix who was lounging nearby under the dinette table, raised his muzzle, and gave a short, sharp warning bark.
“Hush,” Mama said, giving Jethro a withering stare. “You too, Weezie. Quit squirming and stalling, and quit being such a baby.”
She gave a long, martyred sigh. “Honestly, I don’t know why you can’t just go out to the mall and buy a nice new dress like every other girl in the country. This old thing is way too big and way too long on you. You’re swimming in it. There’s no easy way to shorten this skirt with all this scalloped lace at the hem. I’m going to have to completely remove the skirt from the waist and cut it off there. Same thing with the sleeves. They were three-quarters on me, but look, on you, they hang down almost to your wrists.”
She bunched the fabric on the opposite side of the dress and pinned, and that time, I swear, she drew blood.
“Sorry,” Mama muttered. “I told you to stand still.”
“I am standing still. I know it’s a lot of work, but I’ve always dreamed of getting married in Meemaw’s dress. I could spend ten thousand dollars and not find a dress as perfect as this one. Or one that means as much to me.”
“Then why didn’t you wear it the first time?” Mama shot back.
I winced. Mama has never recovered from the demise of what was supposed to be my fairy-tale marriage to Talmadge Evans III, the scion of an old, socially prominent Savannah family. That marriage had an unhappy ending after Tal cheated with Caroline DeSantos, a dark-haired vixen who’d worked at his architecture firm. Caroline had ended badly too, murdered by a romantic rival.
“I was only twenty and dumb as dirt back then,” I said. “Tal’s mother brainwashed me with all that crap about how every Evans bride for five generations had worn that stupid gown of theirs. Their gown, their church, their friends. This time around, the wedding is all Daniel and me.”
Marian took a step back and considered her handiwork. “I still don’t think it’s right, you wearing a white dress for a second wedding.”
I fluffed the billowy tulle skirt. “It’s not white anymore. It’s closer to buttercream. Anyway, if Daniel had his way, we’d get married in flip-flops and shorts on the beach out at Tybee. He’s being a good sport to put up with even the tiny little ceremony we’re having at my house on Charlton. But he knows how much it means to me to wear the dress you and Meemaw wore.”
“Hmpph,” Marian said. “Now you’re just being silly and sentimental.”
Marian Foley didn’t do sentimental. She lived in the here and now. She liked her furniture and clothing new and store-bought, her coffee strong and black, and a nice, orderly life. But I’ve always been the exact opposite, a dreamer and a schemer who made my living selling antiques, which she thought of as peddling other people’s castoffs.
I smoothed my hands over the gown’s creamy lace-over-satin bodice. As I was growing up, my grandmother had often told me stories about taking the train up to Atlanta from Savannah, to buy the fabric and lace for her wedding dress at Rich’s Department Store. The gown was a confection straight out of the 1950s, with an off-the-shoulder bateau neckline and a tight-fitted ruched waist that billowed out at the hips into a ballet-length skirt consisting of reembroidered lace over layers of tulle.
“Go ahead and hop down and take it off,” Mama directed. “I want to get started on it this afternoon.”
She was helping me unfasten the row of tiny satin-covered buttons when the kitchen door opened and my daddy, balding and still in his pajama bottoms and house slippers, walked slowly into the kitchen, sniffing the air expectantly.
He planted a kiss on the top of my head.
“Marian, when’s lunch?” he asked plaintively. “I’m getting pretty hungry.”
“Joe, honey, you know you just had lunch an hour ago,” Mama said, rolling her eyes. “Remember? You had a grilled cheese sandwich and some tomato soup and some Christmas cookies Weezie brought you.”
Daddy rubbed the graying stubble on his chin. “I already ate?”
“Sure did,” I said. “You even ate the other half of my sandwich.”
“Oh, well, all right then,” he said. He looked me up and down and beamed his usual loving smile. “Shug, you look real pretty in that dress. Are you going to a party?”
Mama’s face paled and two bright pink circles bloomed on her cheeks. “You know Weezie’s getting married in a week. This was my wedding dress. Weezie’s going to wear it when she marries Daniel on Christmas Eve. Remember? We’ve been talking about it for months now.”
Daddy bristled. “I know that, Marian. Think I don’t know my own daughter is getting married? She’s marrying that boy at the restaurant. Some name that starts with a D. You don’t have to treat me like a child, Marian.”
“I’m sorry,” Mama said.
“His name is Daniel,” I reminded him. “Daniel Stipanek.”
“Damned right,” Daddy muttered. He turned and shuffled out of the kitchen, his worn leather shoes sliding on the checkered linoleum.
I waited until he was completely out of earshot. “Mama, how long has Daddy been like this?”
“Like what?” Marian frowned down at the gown. “I believe I’m just going to hand-baste these side seams and then fit it on you again before I do any cutting.”
“Like that,” I said, gesturing toward the door where my father had just exited. “Mama, you can’t pretend you don’t notice. Daddy didn’t remember he’d eaten lunch. He didn’t know why I was wearing your wedding dress, or even Daniel’s name.”
“He’s fine. Just a little forgetful, that’s all. You’ll forget things too, when you’re nearly eighty.”
She lifted the dress over my head and laid it across the back of a kitchen chair.
“I think it’s more than that,” I said gently. “He hasn’t shaved today. That’s not like him. Used to be, sometimes he’d shave twice in one day, especially if company was coming over. And he’s still wearing his pajama bottoms and slippers.”
“Would you please just drop it?” Mama’s voice was shrill. “It’s Saturday. He likes to sleep in. Forty years with the post office and now that he’s retired, he can do as he pleases. Do you have to make a federal case about it?”
“No,” I said, knowing the subject was closed. “You’re right, he’s probably fine.” I picked up my phone and read the text message.
“Is it from Daniel?” Mama asked. “Does he say how it went last night?”
“It’s from Julio, one of Daniel’s chefs at the restaurant. Just reminding me that I’m doing a tasting of the food for the reception this afternoon.” I was trying not to let her see how disappointed I was that the text wasn’t from Daniel himself. “Guess I better get over there.”
“Go on then,” Mama said. She picked up the dress and began threading a needle.
“Look,” I said, sitting down on the chair beside hers. “You’re right. It’s not fair to put this much work on you. I’ll hire somebody to alter the dress.”
“No!” Mama cried. Her eyes were suddenly red-rimmed. She clutched the gown with both hands. “I want to do this. For you. I don’t want a stranger cutting up your grandmother’s dress.”
“All right.” I gave a short whistle and Jethro crawled out from beneath the table and trotted over toward the kitchen door. I gave my mother a quick hug. “I’ll talk to you later. Tell Daddy bye for me.”
“Don’t forget to tell those folks at the restaurant to save a place on the buffet for my fruitcake,” Mama called after me. “You know how everybody always anticipates it this time of year.”
Anticipates it? Dreaded it, was more like it. Mama’s fruitcake was notorious in Savannah. Heavier than a concrete block, drier than sawdust, and studded with weird candied fruits in colors not found in nature, it showed up on the doorsteps of family and friends every year at Christmas, wrapped in tinfoil and tied up with one of the recycled bows Mama had been saving my whole life. I could have repaved my patio with the blocks of fruitcake she’s presented me with over the years. Instead, every year, I politely thanked her for the fruitcake and then promptly pitched it in the trash, unopened. Even Jethro knew better than to try that fruitcake.
* * *
The Saturday lunch rush at Guale had subsided. Julio stood by the table nearest to the kitchen door, in his spotless white chef’s smock, a pale blue linen kerchief knotted smartly around his neck. He gestured proudly at the dishes arrayed around the tabletop. “I hope you’re hungry.”
My eyes widened. There were at least a dozen platters and bowls. “Good heavens. I thought Daniel said we were just doing appetizers for the reception.”
Julio shrugged. “We are the best restaurant in Savannah. In the Southeast. Your guests expect a lot more than some bowl of boiled shrimp and some cheese cubes. Daniel’s instructions were clear. ‘Dazzle ’em,’ he told me.”
“All right. I guess I see your point.” I picked up a fork. “Tell me what I’m tasting.”
“Start with the hot things,” Julio said. “We just took the mini crab cakes out of the oven. And that’s a new remoulade I came up with.”
I dutifully nibbled and nodded my approval. He went on ticking off the various dishes. “Beef tenderloin on brioche with horseradish cream. Chicken satay. Salmon tartar in cornmeal cups, baby lamb chops with cherry-balsamic reduction, pork tenderloin with cranberry-fig compote…”
Julio handed me a plate and began to heap it with more morsels. “Sweet potato puffs. Deviled eggs with caviar, Boursin-stuffed snow pea pods, mini grits and greens tarts…”
“No more,” I groaned after only a few bites. “Seriously, Julio. It all looks and tastes divine, but I can’t eat one more crumb.”
His cheerful face fell. “But you haven’t even tried the desserts yet. My chess-pie tartlets, the Maker’s Mark bread pudding…”
“Don’t forget Marian Foley’s fruitcake,” I added, grimacing.
“Never mind. If we’re done here, I’m just going to check Daniel’s office to see if there’s any mail that needs immediate attention, and then I’ve got another appointment.”
He followed me through the swinging doors to the kitchen, and I was about to walk into Daniel’s converted broom closet of an office when something on the staff bulletin board caught my eye.
I stopped. It was a computer printout of a newspaper clipping, blown-up larger for easy reading, and tacked to the board amid photographs of the staff, recent restaurant reviews, and thank-you cards from happy patrons.
The clipping was from the New York Post’s Page Six gossip column. And the thing that caught my eye was a photograph of a willowy dark-haired beauty in a spangly cocktail dress with a plunging neckline. Said beauty had her arms wrapped across the chest of a certain hunky chef, resplendent in a black tuxedo. The beauty was staring at the chef with what I interpreted as naked lust. Like she’d just found a gift under the Christmas tree that she was dying to unwrap. The chef? To his credit, Daniel Stipanek just looked startled. Or tired.
But he didn’t look nearly as startled as I probably did at that moment.
The photo had been circled with a thick red marker, and somebody had scrawled on the clipping “The Boss Out on the Town.” I stood closer so I could read the photo caption.
Cucina Carlotta owner Carlotta Donatello’s latest dish isn’t Italian—he’s Daniel Stipanek, the Savannah-born guest chef at Donatello’s hot new Downtown eatery, for whom the heiress-about-town threw a celebrity-studded bash this week.
I stood and stared at the photograph. This was Daniel’s new boss? When he’d announced the guest-chef gig, I’d been elated for him, picturing Carlotta Donatello in my mind as a short, dumpy Italian nonna type, with a white bun, faint mustache, thick-lensed eyeglasses, and sensible black lace-up shoes. I’d pictured a senior citizen in a flour-dusted apron, wielding a wooden spoon.
The actual Carlotta Donatello was nobody’s nonna. She was probably in her mid-thirties, with a long lustrous mane of hair and huge, long-lashed doe eyes which, in the photograph, were fixed longingly on my fiancé. Also? She had a generous helping of cleavage pressed right against Daniel’s chest.
I felt my face begin to burn.
Julio noticed me noticing, of course. He reached out and ripped the clipping from the bulletin board, wadding it up in his hand. “Pay no attention,” he said. “Ella put this up. She’s from New York and she’s always reading those newspapers online.”
“Umm-hmm,” I said. “Interesting.”
He made clumsy small talk while I sorted through the mail, but I wasn’t paying attention. I couldn’t get that image of Carlotta Donatello out of my mind—the sexy cocktail dress, the pose—with her arms wrapped around Daniel. Daniel! In a tuxedo. As far as I knew, he’d never owned a tuxedo in his life. And a party? He’d never said a word to me about a party. In fact, I hadn’t actually talked to Daniel in two days. And now I knew why. He’d been a busy chef-about-town.
My stomach roiled. Maybe it was all that rich food I’d just sampled. Or maybe it was the indigestible idea of my future husband locked in the sinewy embrace of a rich, glamorous “heiress-about-town.”
Copyright © 2013 by Whodunnit, Inc.