The Book of Ivy, page 18part #1 of The Book of Ivy Series
t’s taken at least a dozen fittings, all with Erin Lattimer breathing down my neck, but my dress for the president’s birthday party is finally done. I’m nervous about the party for a whole host of reasons. The dress being only a small part of my anxiety. I know I’ll be on display as the president’s new daughter-in-law, everyone watching what I do, the way I interact with Bishop. And my father and Callie will be there, too. Everyone waiting for me to slip up. Although they haven’t approached me since the night I found out about my mother’s suicide, I know they want the gun safe combination. There are only a few weeks left before the deadline. And a bustling party in the president’s house is probably my best chance of finding it.
But beyond all those concerns, there is the simple desire to look pretty in my dress. To watch Bishop’s face when I walk into the room. It’s a waste of time, but I can’t stop picturing the moment. You’re being ridiculous, Ivy, I tell myself, before finding myself back in the same daydream five minutes later.
The day of the party dawns warm and rainy. I know the bulk of the party is supposed to take place on the back terrace and yard of the president’s house, but I don’t imagine the turn in the weather ruffles Erin. She’s the type of woman who expects things to happen as she wants them to, so I’m not surprised at all when the storm clouds move off and the sun shows up in the late afternoon. Her wish is the weather’s command, apparently.
Bishop disappears from the house after lunch and, almost immediately afterward, a woman I’ve never met before arrives, saying she is there to help me dress and do my hair. I would argue, but I know better. I have to pick my battles, and this one isn’t worth it. Besides, I want to look pretty, but I’d never say it out loud. To anyone.
The woman, whose name is Laura, won’t let me look at myself until she’s done. But she listens to me when I say I don’t want my hair all pulled up. Or, at least, she’s listened to what Erin told her beforehand. The dress is a work of art, and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to pull it off. But once I have it on, Laura claps her hands in front of her mouth and smiles. “Perfect,” she says.
She turns me with her hands on my shoulders and then steps back, out of my reflection. I was worried I wouldn’t recognize myself, but I still look like me. Just a more elegant version. The front of my hair is upswept, but the rest trails halfway down my back, its usual wild waves smooth and shiny. But it’s the dress that really captures my attention. It hugs my body more than I thought it would, but it’s not skintight, the skirt floating out from my hips to skim the floor. My right shoulder is bare, my left partially covered where the lilac material gathers. I’ve never had a dress that was made for my body and not my sister’s. This dress makes me glad to be tall, for once not ashamed of my height and curves or anxious to conceal them. Tonight I see a pretty girl in the mirror, one at home in her skin, and I hope Bishop sees her, too.
I don’t even notice Laura’s left the room until I hear her voice from the front of the house and Bishop’s deep voice in response. I turn from the mirror, unsure. Should I stay where I am? Walk out to meet him? I’m breathing too fast and my palms are damp. I imagine this is how a real bride is supposed to feel on her wedding day, which makes my anxiety even worse.
Bishop saves me from having to decide what to do when he appears in the bedroom doorway. He stops when he sees me, leans one shoulder casually against the doorjamb. His eyes travel down the length of my body before journeying back up. He’s wearing a black suit and a coveted white shirt, open at the throat. No tie. I remember the day we met—how I looked at him and catalogued his features so objectively. I understood he was handsome, the same way I knew a pretty sunset or lovely flower when I saw it. But his beauty didn’t touch me. Now, when I look at him, I just see Bishop.
And he takes my breath away.
He pushes off from the doorjamb and crosses to where I stand, my hands clasped in front of me. He takes them in his, smoothing out my curled fingers. “So, is this the dress my mother made you crazy over?”
I nod. He nods in return. “Remind me to thank her,” he says. He releases one of my hands and cups my cheek, lowers his head and kisses the curve of my neck right below my ear. “You’re beautiful,” he whispers, “but that’s nothing new.”
“You don’t look so bad yourself,” I say and feel his smile against my skin. I hook a finger into his open collar and pull lightly. “No tie?” I tease.
He pulls back to look at me, his arms looping around my waist. “Hate them,” he says with a grin.
“Your mother won’t be happy.”
“She’ll get over it.” He tightens his hold on me. “Or we could stay home and really piss her off.”
I laugh, shaking my head. “Absolutely not.”
He sighs and turns for the door, my hand clutched in his. “Can’t blame a guy for trying.”
rin instructed us to be early, but we end up being some of the last to arrive, walking up the drive with a few other stragglers. Bishop doesn’t seem concerned, but I don’t want to give Erin any additional ammunition against me.
Candles in tiny paper bags sparkle along the edges of the driveway and on the front steps of the house. As if in solidarity, fireflies flicker above the grass. When I was younger, there were summers you could scoop handfuls from the air without even trying, enough to fill a jar for a nighttime lantern or to make a glowing ring if you had the will to pluck the shimmering tails from their bodies. I never did, but Callie would do it for me. There is a lesson in there somewhere, if I care to think about it.
From the corner of my eye, I can see the hulking shadow of the tree where my mother died. I don’t turn my head to look at it, but Bishop must sense my focus because he gives my hand a reassuring squeeze. We have somehow reached the point where we can read each other without words, and I’m not sure when it happened. One more thing about Bishop Lattimer that has snuck up on me.
Bishop’s parents greet us almost the second we step through the entryway. His father gives me a hug and a kiss on the cheek, tells me I look radiant. Erin is her usual standoffish self, but I catch a gleam of approval in her eyes as she takes me in. “Very nice,” she tells me. It’s the most I’m likely to get from her, and it’s enough.
“You’re late,” she says to Bishop with pursed lips.
“My fault,” I say before Bishop can take the blame. “Trouble with the dress.”
Erin graces me with a polite smile. “Better late than never, I suppose.”
Bishop leads me through the front hallway and out onto the back terrace. It’s the same twinkling wonderland as the front, ringed with candles and the lilting sound of laughter. On the far side of the terrace, there is a bar set up, and Bishop nods toward it. “Do you want a drink?”
“Sure,” I say. It would be nice to have something to do with my nervous hands. I can feel the stares of the other guests on us, everyone wanting to see the president’s son and the founder’s daughter. I like it better when we are alone, inside our tiny house, safe from prying eyes.
“I’ll be right back,” Bishop says. I watch him move away from me, taller than everyone else, his lean body cutting through the crowd. I work at not feeling self-conscious as people mill around me, a few offering kind smiles as they pass. If my father and sister are here, I haven’t seen any sign of them yet.
Bishop is waiting in the line for drinks, and he looks back over his shoulder, his eyes finding mine. He gives me a small, intimate smile that heats my skin. I don’t look away from him, even when someone sidles up next to me.
“Well, you two seem to have gotten cozier,” Callie’s voice says.
I tear my eyes away from Bishop’s and look down at my sister. She is wearing a yellow dress that makes her complexion sallow, but her face is still beautiful. “He can’t keep his eyes off you,” she says, running her own gaze down the length of my dress.
“I thought you’d think that was a good thing,” I say, annoyed.
I turn away from her. I want her focus off Bishop. “Where’s Dad?”
Callie points with her half-empty champagne flute to a far corner of the lawn. “Over there.”
I can just make out my father’s profile among a group of men clustered around a high table decorated with more candles. He is laughing, his head thrown back, like he doesn’t have a care in the world.
“He wants the combination to the gun safe,” Callie says, her voice lowered.
“He said he’d give me time,” I say, not looking at her.
“He already has.” She taps my forearm with her glass. “Time’s up.”
I glare at her and she cocks her head, like she’s studying a particularly intriguing, but ultimately smashable, bug. “I told him you wouldn’t come through. I must have said it a thousand times. That we’d end up having to do it all ourselves because you wouldn’t be able to handle it. You’re too soft, Ivy. You always have been.”
“Shut up, Callie,” I say, fists clenched. “I said I’d get the code and I’ll get it. So just shut up.” I whirl away from her before I do something I’ll regret, like scream in her face or slap the smirk off her mouth.
I push my way through the crowd and back into the house. I don’t even know where I’m headed, so long as it’s away from Callie.
“Hey, where are you going?”
I turn, and Bishop is standing there with drinks in his hands and a puzzled expression on his face. He guides me to an empty spot at the base of the stairwell. “I saw you talking to your sister. What happened?”
I force a smile onto my face, not sure how successful I am in the effort. “Sibling thing,” I say as lightly as I can. “Sometimes being an only child is a blessing.”
He’s watching me, his eyes probing mine. He hands me a champagne flute and grabs my free hand. “Come on.” He leads me up the staircase and down a shadowy hall lined with closed doors.
“Where are we going?”
“To my old room.” Bishop stops outside the last door, hand on the knob. “You look like you could use a break.”
“Your mother is going to have a fit if she figures out we’re hiding up here,” I tell him.
“Added bonus,” he says and opens the door.
His room is large and faces the front of the house. Through the sheer curtains, I can see the flickering candles along the driveway. He doesn’t turn on the overhead light, only a small lamp on his desk, leaving most of the room in darkness. Across from the desk is a double bed, made up with a patchwork quilt in shades of blue and gray. The far corner holds an armchair and a small bookcase. The room is spotless and impersonal. It doesn’t tell of Bishop’s love of the outdoors or his dreams of the ocean. In one glance, I know his mother decorated this space and that she doesn’t understand who her son is at all.
“Ah, much better,” he says, sinking to sit on the bed. I lean back against the edge of his desk, my fingers fiddling with the stem of my champagne flute.
“I always wanted a sibling,” Bishop says. “I imagined having someone around who always understood me. An automatic best friend.” He catches my eyes across the room. “But I’m guessing it’s not always like that.”
“Maybe for some people it is,” I say. “But not with Callie and me.” He stares at me without speaking, and I know he’s waiting for more. “We’re just…different. Our personalities. Life would be easier if I were more like her.” Tears spring to my eyes and I blink them back frantically.
“Hey,” Bishop says gently. “Easier on who? Her?” He stands and walks over to me. “That’s her problem. Maybe she’s the one who needs to be more like you. Or maybe she just needs to accept who you are.” He braces his hands on the desk on either side of my hips and leans into me. His lips are warm and firm and his mouth tastes like champagne.
He starts to pull back and I thread my hand through his hair and hold him still, rest my forehead against his. Our breath mingles on the exhale, our lips a heartbeat apart.
“You’re my best friend,” I whisper. I don’t realize those words are waiting to be said until they are out of my mouth. They reveal too much, and yet they are the very least of what I want to say to him.
“Ivy,” he whispers back. “Open your eyes.”
I do and find him staring at me, his gaze serious and dark. I’m terrified of what he might say, words that can never be taken back or forgotten. Words that will kill me to hear. So I press forward and stop his voice with my mouth. He makes a frustrated sound in the back of his throat, but his hands lift from the desk to my waist, pulling me tighter against him.
The knock and the opening of the door occur at the same moment, so there’s no time to spring apart, to pretend we’ve been doing anything other than what we’ve been doing. For his part, Bishop doesn’t even try. He keeps his arms wrapped around me, his lips at my temple, even as his mother fills the open doorway.
She radiates icy disapproval as she stares at us. “People are asking for you,” she says. “This is a party to honor your father. Not to hide away up here…doing God knows what. I expect you both downstairs in five minutes.” She turns and her high heels click away down the hall. I realize it is the sound I most associate with her.
“Busted,” Bishop says under his breath, and a laugh spills out of me as I bury my face in his shoulder.
We heed Erin’s not-so-veiled threat and make our way downstairs within the five-minute time limit. I don’t doubt she’d come back up and drag us down by our earlobes if we disobeyed. The foyer has cleared out, almost everyone in the backyard where food has been laid out on long tables.
“Hungry?” Bishop asks.
I am, starving actually, but there’s something I need to do first. Find the codes. I can still hear Callie’s voice in my head, accusing me of not having the will to carry out my mission, so sure I’m not strong enough. “Why don’t you get us some food,” I tell him. “I’m going to use the bathroom. I’ll be right out.”
I wait until he’s gone before walking quickly toward the front of the house. I bypass the bathroom, though, and without thinking too much about it, press the code into the keypad outside President Lattimer’s office. I’m still not sure it’s the same one as on the front door, but with the general lack of security, I have a feeling it is.
As I suspected, the lock releases with a quiet click. I open the door and slip inside, closing the door softly behind me. My heart is beating in my throat, threatening to choke me, and I tell myself to calm down. Breathe.
The room is dark, and I know I’m taking a risk by turning on a light, but I have to be able to see what I’m doing. Luckily the heavy drapes are closed and the windows face the side of the house. I’ll just have to hope no one outside notices the light.
I try not to think about what I’m doing and what it means. I tell myself I’m helping my family. I’m helping the girls who will come after me. But Bishop’s face is all I can see. What are you doing, Ivy?
I crouch down behind President Lattimer’s desk and pull out one deep drawer. It’s filled with files, all neatly labeled, thank God. I skim through the tabs with my fingers, but nothing about the gun safe, weapons, or defense. I have to hurry. Bishop is going to come looking for me any second. And I have absolutely no good reason to be in this room, let alone hunched behind the desk like a thief. Maybe you want to get caught. Maybe that would make it all easier. But I push that thought away and move to the next drawer.
Bingo. The files in this drawer are what I’m looking for. My trembling fingers fly through the tabs until they land on Weapons. I pull the file out and open it on the floor. Page after page of inventory sheets, it looks like. Every type of gun and model the government owns. My father would love to have these, but it’s too risky to take the file and there’s no way I can memorize the information. I keep flipping through the pages, my eyes on the file but my ears on the door. Hurry up. Hurry up. If it’s not here, then I’m going to have to give up for now a
I’m about to forget it and shove the file back in the drawer when I reach the page with the code to the gun safe neatly typed out. It’s a memo to President Lattimer from Ray. 21-13-6-18-57. Same code for both the outer door and the safe. Sloppy, but better for my purposes. And these words at the bottom of the memo: “The final digit increases by an increment of three every month until the New Year, when the entire series will be replaced.” Memo dated January 1 of this year. It’s early August now. So 78. 21-13-6-18-78. I close my eyes and the numbers scroll across my eyelids.
I’m sick to my stomach suddenly, hit with the almost irresistible urge to vomit. I rest my forehead against the desk, cover my mouth with one hand. Is this who I am? A girl who will do anything for her family? A girl who will sacrifice an innocent boy to prove she’s not soft? I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore.
There’s a noise in the hall, the sound of footsteps. I shove the file back into the drawer, hoping it’s in approximately the same spot it was before, and slide the drawer shut. I turn off the lamp and cross to the door in darkness, lean my head against the cool wood. I don’t hear anything other than the distant sound of voices. There’s no way for me to know exactly what waits on the other side, but there’s no advantage to staying in here any longer.
I take a deep breath, open the door, and walk out. And run smack into a man’s chest.
I look up into my father’s face, relief coursing through me. He reaches behind me and shuts the door, then puts his hands on my upper arms.
“I got it, Dad,” I whisper. “The last digit goes up by three every month.”