The book of ivy, p.16

The Book of Ivy, page 16

 part  #1 of  The Book of Ivy Series

 

The Book of Ivy
 


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  “I have a dressmaker I use. She agreed to meet with us today.” Mrs. Lattimer’s heels click loudly on the pavement.

  “Am I going to get any say in this?”

  “Of course.” Mrs. Lattimer looks me up and down. “As long as you have good taste.” Her expression tells me she finds that possibility highly unlikely.

  It turns out I’ve passed the storefront of the shop every day going to and from work but never really noticed it. There’s no sign out front, nothing hanging in the windows. And Mrs. Lattimer has to press a buzzer before we are admitted.

  “Very exclusive,” I say as we go inside.

  Mrs. Lattimer doesn’t respond, but the tips of her fingers press a little harder than necessary into my back as she pushes me forward into the cool dimness of the shop. There are bolts of fabric leaning against the walls and two comfy-looking chairs near the front window. The back wall is all mirrored glass, other than a curtain-covered doorway on the far right. The woman who emerges from the doorway is younger than I expected. Given Mrs. Lattimer and her somewhat severe and formal style of dress, I pictured a wizened old woman with knobby fingers and a witch’s cackle.

  But this woman is in her forties, I’d guess, with short black hair and a friendly smile. It’s only as she walks toward us that I notice the foot she drags behind her, giving her a rolling gait that makes me fear she’s going to fall with every step.

  “So this is your new daughter-in-law,” she says, holding out both arms and giving me a hug. I stand rigid in her arms, not sure how to respond. “I’m Susan,” the woman says, “it’s nice to meet you.”

  “Hi,” I say, trying to extricate myself as gingerly as I can.

  Susan moves from me to Mrs. Lattimer and gives her the same warm welcome. Although Mrs. Lattimer smiles, I suspect she is as excited with the hug as I am.

  “Like I told you, she’s tall,” Mrs. Lattimer says, and both women turn to look at me.

  “Very,” says Susan. She tilts her head and inspects me.

  “She can get away with something dramatic,” Mrs. Lattimer continues. “She has the body to carry it off. Maybe strapless?” She looks at Susan for confirmation.

  “Not strapless,” I interject. I would be pulling at the top all night, living in fear of it slipping down around my waist.

  Mrs. Lattimer raises her eyebrows at me. “Any other contributions, Ivy?”

  I figure staying silent won’t gain me anything. I’m not very good at it anyway. “I like purple.”

  Mrs. Lattimer nods, as though my color preference needs her approval. Granted, it probably does. “Maybe a lilac, Susan?”

  “Yes, I was thinking the same thing.” Susan motions for me to follow her and, as I do, Mrs. Lattimer pulls the shades closed on the front window. “Take everything off but your bra and panties,” Susan says matter-of-factly, “and stand right here.” She positions me in front of the huge mirrored wall.

  I’ve never considered myself a particularly shy person, but there’s something about stripping down to my underpants in front of Bishop’s mother that has me rattled. She must sense my hesitation because she snaps her fingers at me. “Oh, for heaven’s sake. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before.”

  I kick off my shoes without another word, unzip my pants and step out of them, and pull my T-shirt over my head. My black bra and underwear look very dark against my pale skin. I face the mirror with my chin high and fight the hot blush working its way up my neck into my cheeks.

  Susan holds up a finger, telling me to wait, and disappears behind the curtain to the back. I try not to fidget, but Mrs. Lattimer is watching me in the mirror and her gaze makes me nervous. I can’t help feeling like she’s sizing me up to see if I’m good enough for her son. Susan finally returns with a length of pale purple fabric in her arms. She holds it up against my chest and nods. Mrs. Lattimer moves closer, gathering my hair in her hands and pulling it back. “I think that color’s perfect for her,” she says.

  “I agree,” says Susan. “Maybe a full-length skirt and”—she shifts the fabric to drape over my shoulder—“one shoulder covered?”

  “Where did you get this material?” I ask. It’s richer and softer than the homespun material sold at the market.

  “Leftover from before the war,” Susan says. “Isn’t it beautiful? We have dozens of bolts of different fabrics in back. I hate to think of the day when it’s all gone. We barely have anything this nice anymore.”

  “It’s very pretty,” I say, because they are both looking at me. Once they go back to talking about the style of dress, I tune them out. Now that I know I’m safe from strapless, I don’t care what they come up with. So it takes me a second to realize Mrs. Lattimer is speaking to me.

  “You really are lovely,” she tells me, her eyes on the fabric in the mirror.

  I am? I’ve never bothered to think about it much. I mean, I know I’m not unattractive; enough boys have given me second looks for me to know that. But in my house, beauty was not prized. No one ever gave compliments about looks, other than Callie’s teasing about my height and curves. The lack of focus on physical appearance was a good thing, in a lot of ways. But there’s something sad about your own father never calling you pretty, about not even really knowing whether you are.

  “Thank you,” I say as Susan disappears back behind the curtain with the lilac fabric.

  Mrs. Lattimer looks up at my face in the mirror. She runs her thin fingers over my hair, jerking my head as she tears through a stubborn tangle to send a drift of pale strands floating to the floor. “You’ve got your mother’s hair. It looks just like hers. Color of fresh honey.” From the tone of her voice, it is hard to tell whether she’s bestowed me with a compliment or a curse.

  I am growing tired of the constant comparisons to my mother lately. They make me doubly thankful for Bishop, who, when he looks at me, sees only me, not the shadow of some long-dead memory.

  “You knew my mother, too?” I ask.

  Mrs. Lattimer smiles, but it’s mirthless. “A smart woman always knows her competition.”

  Well, that answers the question of exactly how much Mrs. Lattimer knew about the relationship between her husband and my mother. Did her heart sing the day they found my mother hanging from the tree because her rival was finally gone? Or did it break because she knew that from that day on, her husband would never, ever be truly free of my mother?

  “You hate that I’m the one he married, don’t you?” I ask.

  Mrs. Lattimer sighs. “I hate that every time I see you, I see her. But whatever you might think, I’m fair enough to know that’s not your fault.” She fingers the pearls at her throat, her eyes like chipped ice. “I want my son to be happy. And if you can do that for him, then we won’t have a problem.”

  I notice my happiness does not enter into the equation. And I know that if Mrs. Lattimer had even the slightest inkling of my plans for her son, she would not hesitate one second to destroy me. She, I think, is probably the most ruthless of us all.

  Susan returns with a box of beads, which she shows to Mrs. Lattimer. There is some discussion about making a chain with them to wind through my hair.

  “Pull it all up?” Susan says, eyeing my mane.

  “No, I don’t think all of it up,” Mrs. Lattimer says. “That’s too severe for her. Having some down around her face suits her.”

  I look at her in the mirror and think I see a little give in her eyes as she looks at me, a very minor softening. But when I try to give her a tiny smile in return, her face turns stern. “Hold still, Ivy,” she says. “We’re a long way from done.”

  A

  s mid-summer begins its long, slow descent into fall, my life takes on a newly familiar rhythm. I wake early and eat breakfast with Bishop before work. At night we reverse the routine, eating dinner together before Bishop begins tinkering with whatever needs fixing around the house. There’s always some project requiring his attention. Some nights I retire to the screened porch and read. Others, I sit and wa
tch him work; he’s efficient but not in a hurry. Bishop never rushes, never seems like he has anything to do other than what he’s doing at that moment. Just being near him calms my racing mind.

  We are easier with each other than we were in the beginning. We talk about safe things—my job, the coming winter, the plans for his father’s birthday celebration. We do not touch. The lack of contact does not feel like the relief that it should.

  I know my days with him are running short. My father has given me the time he promised. Time to come to terms with what he’s asking of me and what he expects. But he can’t afford to wait forever and I can’t keep dragging my feet. The three-month deadline is coming up fast. Whenever I picture Callie in my head, all I can see is her standing with her arms crossed, toe tapping impatiently. Get on with it, Ivy. Soon I will have to find a way into the gun safe, and then it will be too late to turn back.

  But for tonight, I just long for something good to eat, some quiet conversation, to watch Bishop’s eyes light up as he smiles. There are no dinner smells drifting from the kitchen when I come in the front door, though. No lamps are on in the house and the rooms have a shadowed twilight glow.

  “I’m out here,” Bishop’s voice calls from the screened porch.

  I step through from the kitchen and he’s sitting on the floor, next to the squat table between the wicker couches. The table is covered in an old tablecloth that puddles onto the floor. On the table is an assortment of meats and cheeses, fresh fruit, cut vegetables, slices of bread. A cluster of unlit candles sits at one end, next to a pitcher of water.

  “What’s all this?” I ask.

  “Ice didn’t get delivered,” Bishop says. “Figured we might as well stuff ourselves before the food goes bad.” He looks around the ivy-shrouded porch. “Semi-indoor picnic.”

  I smile, slip off my shoes, and join him. I sit across from him, the food-laden table between us.

  “Dig in,” he says with a grin. We don’t bother with plates, creating little sandwiches, piles of meat and cheese, right on the tablecloth. Bishop pushes the entire carton of strawberries toward me and although I give a halfhearted protest, I end up eating them all. By the time we’re done, most of the food is gone and what’s left I couldn’t fit in my stomach anyway.

  “Oh, I’m stuffed,” I say, leaning back against the couch behind me.

  “That was the idea,” Bishop says.

  “What are the candles for?” I ask, nodding at the table.

  “I figured we could light them and pretend we’re at summer camp.”

  I can’t tell from his face whether he’s teasing me or not. “I never went to summer camp.”

  “Never?”

  I shake my head. My father didn’t like Callie and me being away from him for that long. A less generous person might say he didn’t like it when we were out from under his influence. Either way, I was never allowed to attend the summer camp in the woods for kids aged ten to fourteen, not even for a single night.

  “Well, now we have to light them,” Bishop says. He kneels next to the table and lights the candles, three short, fat pillars and two tall, slender tapers. Once they’re lit, he scoots back against the opposite sofa, his long legs breaching the space between us, so they lie almost against mine, his toes at my hip.

  “What did you do at camp?” My voice sounds slightly breathless and I’m not sure why. I don’t want to think about why.

  “Stupid stuff, mostly. You know…” Bishop pauses, gives me a lopsided grin. “Well, I guess you don’t.”

  I roll my eyes at him.

  “At night we sat around the campfire and told ghost stories. Sometimes we’d try to get away with spin the bottle, but the counselors didn’t like that. They weren’t fans of all those pesky attachments.” It’s the first time I’ve heard Bishop speak of the lengths the adults go to in order to keep children from forming any kind of romantic bond with each other prior to the marriage ceremony. It makes arranged marriages a lot smoother if the participants aren’t all in love with other people already. Bishop’s father and my mother being prime examples of the chaos that can ensue.

  I don’t look at him as I ask, “Did you have an attachment to someone?”

  “No,” Bishop says. “I played the occasional game of spin the bottle. But there was never a particular girl I hoped the bottle would land on.” The last of the sunlight is fading from the sky and the candles chase away only the edges of the gloom on the porch, putting half his face in shadow. We stare at each other and I know I should be asking another question or saying something, anything, to break the silence, but all my words are dead on my tongue, my heart galloping against my ribs.

  “My favorite game was truth or dare, though,” Bishop says finally.

  “What’s that?” I ask. I take a sip of water from my glass on the table to clear my throat.

  “You’ve never played truth or dare?” Bishop’s eyebrows are in danger of disappearing into his hair.

  “I’ve never played a lot of things,” I inform him. “My family wasn’t big on games.”

  “It’s easy,” Bishop says. “If it’s your turn, you say whether you want truth or a dare. If you pick dare, then I give you a dare and you have to do it or you lose. If you pick truth, I ask you a question and you have to answer truthfully or you lose.” He grins at me, his eyes dancing. “Want to play?”

  Oh, this is such a bad idea on so many levels, but when I open my mouth, “Yes,” comes out instead of “no.” “But you go first.”

  “Okay, then.” Bishop looks up at the ceiling as if he’s considering his options. “Truth.”

  Truth. I can ask him anything and, in theory, he’s supposed to tell me the truth. There are a million things I want to know about him and a million ways those answers can hurt me. I should make an excuse and go inside, but I’ve tamped down my curiosity about him for too long. My longing to know him is trumping everything, even my good sense. I should, at least, stick with meaningless questions.

  “How many girls did you kiss when you played spin the bottle?” I ask. I laugh like it’s a joke, but the sound is forced.

  “Not very many.” He sounds amused. “Are we talking a real kiss? Or a peck?”

  “A real kiss.” I don’t tell him that, for me, they are the same thing, considering I’ve never kissed anything other than my father’s and Callie’s cheeks.

  His face is serious, his eyes locked on mine like he’s trying to figure out what’s behind the question. “I’ve kissed three girls in my life. One when I was thirteen, a spin-the-bottle encounter. Another at camp when I was fourteen, which involved the overzealous use of tongue.”

  I laugh, and this time it’s genuine. “Yours or hers?”

  Bishop holds up both hands in mock surrender. “I plead the Fifth.”

  Now I’m laughing hard, and Bishop has the strangest look on his face. Like he’s heard the best news in the world, a huge smile spreading across his face like sunshine.

  “What?” I ask between fading giggles.

  He’s still smiling. “Nothing.”

  “You didn’t say anything about the third kiss,” I remind him.

  “That was two years ago. Right before I was supposed to marry your sister. It was a girl from school. And it was more than one kiss.”

  “Did those involve too much tongue?”

  “No. Those were much better.”

  His words slice at me, although I know they shouldn’t. He didn’t even know me then and even if he had, it shouldn’t matter to me what he felt for some other girl. “Did you like her?” I ask and immediately want to kick myself.

  Bishop hesitates for only a moment before he says, “Not the way that I like you,” his voice deep and even, gaze steady. Not embarrassed. Not nervous. Sure and simple. And there it is. The thing I’ve wanted him to say for weeks now and the one thing I absolutely cannot bear to hear.

  “Bishop…”

  “You’re only supposed to get one question and you’ve asked me about a hund
red,” he says, cutting me off. “It’s your turn on the hot seat. Truth or dare?”

  “Truth,” I say, when I know I should say dare. The reckless side of me pulling out a chair and taking a seat at this party.

  I brace myself for a question I will not be able to answer truthfully. Something about my father or how my family really feels about his. But instead he grins and asks me how many boys I’ve kissed.

  It’s an easy question, given the alternatives, but it’s surprisingly difficult to make myself answer. I consider lying, but with all the other lies and omissions swirling between us, it seems only right I should be honest when it’s possible. “None,” I say. I keep my head up, but my cheeks wear a pink stain I’m hoping the candlelight hides.

  Bishop doesn’t laugh or tease me. He just nods. “Was it lack of opportunity or lack of desire?”

  “Both, I guess.” There’s no way I can tell him the only boy I’ve ever been remotely interested in kissing is sitting right across from me.

  Bishop opens his mouth to say something else, but I get there before him. “You said one question, remember?” I remind him. “Truth or dare?”

  “I would say dare, but I’m scared you’ll make me strip naked and run around squawking like a chicken or something.”

  I’m in the middle of taking a drink, and water threatens to burst out of my mouth. “Those are the kinds of dares you got at camp?”

  Bishop shrugs. “Pretty much. We were thirteen, after all.”

  “So another truth?”

  “It’s probably safer.”

  Hah. Safer. I take a second to think about what I want to know. There are so many things. From the important—what he really thinks about the arranged marriages, how he feels about me, what he dreams of doing with his life—to the mundane—his favorite color, favorite food, how he gets his hair so soft. Stupid, pointless questions. “What was it like growing up in your house?” I ask finally because no matter how hard I try, I can’t imagine Bishop roaming those dark hallways. Maybe being raised in that house is why he loves the outdoors so much, forever chasing sunlight through the trees.

 
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