There’s something to be said for being married to the meanest man in town, as long as he’s the richest.
Elizabeth Whittington stood in the elegant foyer of her elegant house and reminded herself that she’d gotten what she’d wanted when she’d landed handsome Howe Whittington, the crown prince of the prosperous town his family had owned for generations: respectability, for herself and their children. She’d escaped the shame and squalor of her roots. For that much, she was deeply grateful.
She told herself to be content and tried to count her blessings. In some ways Howe treated her well, despite the fact that, over the years, he’d gradually withdrawn till their lives were merely tangential, politely lived in separate rooms. She’d long since known about his fancy women down in Atlanta, but fear had kept her silent—fear of losing what was left.
At least he was discreet.
He’d given her security, too. She and the children had all the material things they could ever need, though their son and daughter took it all for granted.
She had a magnificent home that she had come to love, even though her domineering mother-in-law had refused to let her change a thing “out of respect for the Whittington ancestors.” And Howe, prophetically, had refused to take up for Elizabeth with his mother.
Elizabeth told herself she should be grateful, but instead, she was lonely. Had been, for far too long. If it wasn’t for her old friend P.J.’s recent attentions, she didn’t know what she would have done. But as appealing as P.J. was, she would never risk her precious respectability with an affair, so their relationship had remained platonic—on her side, anyway.
Still, deep inside, some stubborn remnant of her girlhood hunger for a “happily ever after” ending still smoldered, heating the anger and loneliness she’d buried for so long. Naïve though it was, she still wished her husband would love her the way he once had. That he would want only her, so they could be happy together, the way they’d been at first.
But life was real, not fairy tales. So she’d stand by him for yet another of their annual Christmas extravaganzas and pretend she was happy, at least.
Elizabeth sighed, then pressed the electrical remote and watched with satisfaction as the tastefully opulent Christmas decorations in the tastefully opulent mansion blazed to life. And in that moment, her house, if not her marriage, glittered with warmth and beauty.
Then she frowned. She still had to speak with Howe before the party, and time was running out. For three days, she’d hoped to find just the right situation to ask him to help her friends the Harrises, but he’d been too busy, almost as if he sensed she wanted something from him. And now, here it was, only thirty minutes before everybody who was anybody in Whittington would be arriving, and Elizabeth still hadn’t found the perfect moment.
Talking about work was against Howe’s unwritten laws. When they’d first moved back to Howe’s hometown so he could take over the bank when his father died, Howe had talked to her about the bank every day. But when he’d discovered his father’s double-dealings, he’d gradually shut her out of that part of his life. At first, she’d excused it as stress. Gradually, though, he’d become more and more distant, until they were polite strangers, their lives tangential only through their children and their place in Whittington society.
She knew he wouldn’t like what she was going to ask of him, but Elizabeth had to draw the line when it came to the girls in her “Sewing Circle” (which had nothing to do with sewing and everything to do with wine and whine). The bank was about to foreclose on Elizabeth’s closest friend Faith Harris and her husband Robert. She had to do something. For God’s sake, it was Christmas! She couldn’t just sit there and let Howe take away their home.
Robert Harris was the best builder in town. It wasn’t his fault that the bottom had fallen out of the housing market and left him holding the bag on three huge spec houses Howe’s bank had financed. Surely Howe would give Robert a break if Elizabeth asked him to.
She’d never interfered in his business before, or asked for anything this important.
Speak of the devil, Howe descended the stairway with his shirtsleeves rolled up and the jacket of his custom-made suit in one hand. Even at fifty-nine, Howell Whittington was still a gorgeous man, lean and tanned and agile from playing cutthroat tennis twice a week, without a single thread of gray in his dark, close-trimmed hair.
He scanned the foyer and the rooms around it. “Everything looks perfect,” he said. Perfect was the only standard he tolerated, one he’d learned from his snidely superior mother. “I’ll start the fires.”
“In a minute,” Elizabeth deferred, doing her best to look and sound winsome. “There’s something I’d like to ask you first. A favor.”
Howe’s placid expression tensed. “I hope it won’t take long. I want everything done before the first guest arrives.” God forbid anybody should catch him in his shirtsleeves. “The old ladies are always so damned early.”
Elizabeth motioned to the festive living room. “It won’t take but a minute. Please.” She led the way to the silk camelback sofa that faced two English chintz chairs in front of the fireplace. “Let’s sit.”
His normally unreadable expression betrayed suspicion. It had been years since she’d tried to talk to him about anything that really mattered, and that clearly suited him just fine. “All right,” he said. “But please try to get to the point, Elizabeth. No Edith Bunker, if you don’t mind.”
Elizabeth bristled. Was that how he thought of her? Edith Bunker?
He waited till she subsided to the sofa to sit facing her. “Okay. What’s this favor?”
She licked her lower lip, her mouth suddenly dry. “It’s about Faith and Robert Harris.” She rushed forward with, “I know Robert’s behind on his construction loans, and he used their house as collateral, but Howe, please don’t foreclose on their home. Faith is my friend. You can afford to be merciful, just this once.”
Howe’s composure congealed. “Did Faith put you up to this?”
“Of course not,” she told him, encouraged by the polite tone of the question. “She’d be humiliated if she knew.”
He stood, signaling the conversation was over. “As well she should be.”
Elizabeth had no intention of giving up. She rose and caught Howe’s arm before he could escape. It was the first time they’d touched in months. “Howe, she’s my friend, and God knows, I have few enough real friends in this town. I’m asking you to do this for me, as your wife. Please. I never ask anything of you.”
“Except for your brothers’ legal fees. And the condo in Clearwater for your lush of a mother,” he reminded her quietly, prompting a flush of hot shame to her face.
“Besides that,” she said, wounded. Howe was a master at being cruel, yet unfailingly polite. The flame of anger burned brighter deep inside her.
P.J. would never throw something like that in her face. P.J. actually appreciated her, though she’d never risk her precious respectability with an affair. His friendship had been a godsend. At least someone thought she was wonderful.
Strengthened by that knowledge, she persevered. “Howe, this is important to me.”
Howe extracted his arm from her grasp, then smoothed the pinpoint oxford as he met her pleading gaze. “I can’t believe you’d even ask this of me. You know I never mix personal and business matters.”
“Make an exception,” she insisted, sending up an arrow prayer for divine intervention. “Just this once. Howe, we can afford it, and nobody has to know. Robert and Faith won’t say anything. I swear.”
No lightning bolt from heaven arrived to thaw her husband’s heart.
“I’m really only asking for a delay,” she argued. “You know Robert will pay you back as soon as things pick up.”
“God knows when that will be,” Howe said, unmoved. “Elizabeth, you are so naïve.”
He’d once found that attractive. P.J. still did. “Maybe,” she said, “but the man I married would at least have tried to find away to make this happen.”
They’d loved each other once. Surely some shred of that was still inside him somewhere.
Howe’s eyes went frosty. “The man you married was a spoiled kid who had no idea what it took to keep up the lifestyle he was accustomed to. A lifestyle, I might add, that you seem to have enjoyed over the years.”
Elizabeth would gladly have sacrificed every bit of it if she could bring back the husband who’d adored her in spite of his mother’s objections. But Elizabeth had long since forced herself to accept reality. “Howe, I’m begging. Please.” She hated to grovel, but she only had access to her house hold accounts. Generous though they were, they couldn’t handle this. And Howe’s mother had made it clear from the beginning that Elizabeth would never receive any more of the family fortune.
Howe wasn’t used to having anyone argue with him, least of all his long-suffering wife. “What do you think the bank is, a charity?” he asked as if she were a child. “We’re one of the few solvent entities in the state—in the country, for that matter—and it’s because I never let personal feelings affect my business decisions.”
As if he had any personal feelings in the first place.
Elizabeth did her best to keep her disappointment from showing. “I know, Howe, but I want this.” How could she convince him? “Consider it my Christmas gift.” She’d never cared about the expensive furs or cars or jewelry he always gave her, prompted, no doubt, by his guilt about the whores she pretended not to know about. “And my birthday gift. And next Christmas, too.”
“I’m sorry, but it’s impossible,” he dismissed as cheerfully as if it were good morning. Crouching at the hearth with his back to her, he struck a match to a stick of lighter wood and ignited the aged hickory their handyman Thomas had laid in. “This conversation is closed,” he said firmly but politely. “Permanently.”
The doorbell chimed “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” before Elizabeth could ask again.
Howe stood and looked out the front window to the well-worn Lincoln Continental parked at the curb, then glanced at his Tag Heuer watch. “Now look what’s happened. Miss Emily Mason is here twenty minutes early.”
“She always comes early,” Elizabeth said. Miss Emily was one of Howe’s mother’s cronies from Altar Guild, and she invariably came early, probably trying to catch Elizabeth unprepared, so she could tattle.
“Thanks to your nonsense,” Howe added in a rare glimpse of pique, “only one of the fires is lighted, and I don’t even have my coat on yet.” He rolled down his sleeves to button the starched cuffs. “Please don’t answer the door till I have my coat on.”
Furious and fighting back tears, Elizabeth headed for the foyer, accompanied by repeated choruses of the chimes as Miss Emily jabbed away at the bell.
She’d never change her husband’s mind. How was she going to face Faith and Robert at the party knowing Howe would take their home from them?
Elizabeth wished she could just walk out, leaving Howe to manage without her, and drive to Atlanta to see P.J. That would teach Howe a lesson. Let him explain to everybody why she wasn’t there.
Maybe P.J. could loan Robert the money. He had plenty—not as much as Howe, but plenty. He’d made it in software after losing his shirt in the S and L crisis, so he could surely sympathize with Robert’s plight.
At least P.J. wouldn’t ridicule her for asking. He always made her feel special, like a desirable woman. She dearly wished she could see him.
But she didn’t dare leave. It would embarrass the family if she wasn’t there for the party, and she’d sworn on her drunken father’s grave that she’d never embarrass her own children. So she opened the door and stayed and smiled for Charles’s and Patricia’s sakes, not for Howe’s. But the party was a disaster. She could barely face the Harrises, who responded to her avoidance with confused concern. And Howe deliberately circulated just out of Elizabeth’s reach.
Elizabeth managed to soldier on till late in the evening, when a drunken Katie Madsden—the wife of one of Howe’s business associates who was nowhere to be seen—draped herself seductively over Howe and started talking about when they’d slept together, in front of everybody who was anybody in Whittington, including Elizabeth.
Conversations halted abruptly as all eyes turned their way.
Howe laughed, trying to escape and pass it off as drunken nonsense, but Katie just got louder and lewder.
Elizabeth’s complexion flamed. Shocked and humiliated, she scanned the room for reactions and got a warning glance and shake of the head from Howe’s mother. God forbid, she should make a scene.
But what about Howe? The scene was his, in their home! And Elizabeth had every right to react.
Their guests went brittle with anticipation of what might come next.
“Tommy,” Howe called to Katie’s husband. “Come get your wife! She’s had so much to drink, she thinks I’m somebody else.”
“Oh, no I don’t,” Katie insisted, grabbing Howe’s crotch. “I remember you, mister, and this.”
An audible gasp escaped the watching guests.
Elizabeth froze. This was too much. Nameless, faceless whores were one thing, but this woman was local, and anything but discreet.
She could have killed Howe.
How could she look the other way when everyone in town had seen this?
Heart pounding, she grimly approached her husband and his lover, then heard herself say in a low voice that trembled with suppressed rage, “Katie, I’ve never asked a guest to leave my home before, but I’m asking you to, immediately. Get out. You have abused our hospitality and insulted both me and my husband, and you are no longer welcome here.”
Tommy appeared and grabbed his wife, pulling her toward the door. “Sorry, Howe. She gets crazy when she has too much. It doesn’t mean anything, I swear,” he said to Elizabeth, then repeated for the room, “It doesn’t mean anything, I swear.”
“Good-bye, Tommy,” Howe said smoothly. “I don’t want to see you or Katie again. Our business relationship is terminated.” Howe put his arm around Elizabeth’s waist. “You’ll hear from my attorneys tomorrow.”
A wave of sympathy for Elizabeth erupted from the room behind them. To keep from crying, she took a steadying breath and channeled Miss Melly, then turned to their remaining guests. “Some people shouldn’t drink at all,” she said, brows lifted. She motioned toward the buffet and the bar. “Please, everyone, let’s go back to the party and put this little unpleasantness behind us.”
Excerpted from Waking Up in Dixie by Haywood Smith.
Copyright © 2010 by Haywood Smith.
Published in September 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.