The doorbell chimed.
Sylvia wasn't in a very good mood, and company was way down on her list of 'Things I Want To Deal With Right Now,' somewhere between becoming a shark's dinner and being vaporized by an earth-killing meteor. Maybe she'd be lucky and it was a troop of Boy Scouts on a tin can drive or, even better, a couple of spiritual foragers on the hunt for lost souls. She felt so lonely, she might have to invite them in and force some herb tea down them.
At the front door she peered through the peep hole. Her high hopes for a tin can drive or any plot to force feed religion peddlers collapsed. It was her mother-in-law and somebody else she couldn't quite see. “Crap,” she gritted out. Oh, for a simple, quick death-by-meteor. “It's the Wicked Witch and one of her flying monkeys.”
“Sylvia?” Beatrice Hunter called in her high-pitched, hoarse voice. The doorbell chimed again, making her jump. “Sylvia, your garage door is open, dear. That's very dangerous. A robber could come right inside and murder you.”
At the moment, it sounded like an appealing alternative.
The doorbell chimed again.
“Syl, are you going to get that?” Greg shouted from upstairs.
“It's your mother!” she called, attempting to keep her tone jewel-like instead of the growl of protest menacing the back of her throat. The jig was up now. Bea couldn't have helped hearing. Reluctantly, she opened the door, attempting to appear as though these surprise inspections didn't chap her hide royally. “Why, Bea, what a...” she paused where the word 'pleasant' might have gone, had it had a chance in Hades of actually being pleasant. “...surprise.”
Bea Hunter's 'drop-by's' were similar in brutality to a 'drive-by' shooting, only the atrocity lasted longer. Bea's accomplice in crime moved into the porch light so Syl could cringe inwardly with recognition. Petite and precious, Helen DeCordova was one of Bea's best friends, and Greg's former fiancée. A double-whammy.
Helen and Greg had been juniors at the University of Tulsa at the time. Greg met Sylvia a month before the wedding. She'd been working in the shoe department at Sears. By the time she sold him a pair of shoes, they'd both known they'd found their soul mates. It had been a standing joke--”When I met my wife she was working in men's shoes.” It never got a big laugh, but she always loved hearing Greg tell it.
Helen, on the other hand, wouldn't have liked hearing it, had Greg been so unfeeling as to say it in front of her. He never did, of course. What he did, however, was break his engagement to Helen the next day. He and Syl were married two weeks later.
Beatrice never got over the fact that Helen was not going to be her daughter-in-law. So instead of 'in-laws,' the two became fast friends. Worse, they were also sorority sisters and attended the same church.
Helen married two years after her breakup with Greg, but got a divorce five years later. She never remarried. Sylvia had a feeling Beatrice expected to wrest Greg from Syl's unworthy clutches at any moment, bring him to his senses with extensive deprogramming, like families did with kids who'd been sucked into evil cults. Syl knew Bea's fondest fantasy was to eventually marry Greg off to Queen-Helen-The-Great-Homemaker-And-Gourmet-Cook.
“I hope you don't mind our dropping by.” Bea swept inside.
You can hope all you want, Syl said silently. Neither of the women were an inch over five feet tall, and at five-six, with thirty pounds on each of them, Syl could have easily wrestled them both out the door, but she resisted. “It's not terribly convenient. I'm cleaning up the kitchen.”
Syl didn't appreciate Bea's flabbergasted expression.
“By all means, clean, dear,” Bea said. “Ignore us. We want a brief word with Greg.”
Helen smiled at Syl. “Nice to see you.” She scanned Syl's attire. “You're looking very—bohemian.”
Translation. “I wouldn't be caught dead in that.” Syl was used to Helen's cultivated put-downs. The woman was simply eaten up with envy that Syl had the man she wanted, so she smiled sweetly and swept her hand through her long, gypsy skirt. “Thank you. Greg picked it out for me.” A lie, since Greg's idea of shopping for clothes was asking Syl to order his dress shirts, suits and even his shoes from catalogs. As for her clothes, he complimented her when she looked nice, but it wouldn't cross his mind to pick out her clothes for her.
“He has the most exquisite taste, don't you agree?” Syl had to fight feeling plainer, plumper and more wilted when faced with the tiny, exquisite Helen. Greg's ex-love might be a year older than Syl, but she hid her age where it never showed. If she did Botox, nobody could confirm it, and she had the figure of a twenty-year old on a diminutive, never-say-diet frame.
Her shoulder-length mahogany hair angled around an angelic face, with long, side swept, slanted bangs in tousled, pomaded perfection. Sometimes Syl wondered if there was a hidden portrait of Helen somewhere that got uglier and older, because Helen certainly didn't.
With an air of exuberance she didn't feel, she did a little runway-model spin. “Greg loves colorful clothes that move and flow.” Take that, Helen in your body-hugging white, silk sheath.
“You're so funny,” Helen said, her honeyed voice grating on Syl's last nerve.
Funny? Apparently Helen wasn't buying the lie. “Yeah, I'm a regular Cheech and Chong.”
“Syl, dear,” Bea said with a concerned grimace. “All joking aside, you look a little drawn. Are you on another of those fad diets?” She made a tisk-tisking sound. For a scrawny woman Bea had big, bold opinions, and stuck her banana nose where it didn't belong.
Tonight, as always, Bea's pewter colored hair was peeled back in a tight chignon. She wore a lime green suede Armani suit. No catalog or thrift store frocks for her. As far as Syl was concerned, her mother-in-law had one good feature—her eyes, a striking, beautiful blue—thankfully the only noticeable characteristic Greg inherited from her. Otherwise, she was a brittle, emaciated control-freak who indulged herself with frequent shopping sprees and pricey fashions. “You should take a page from Helen's book,” Bea charged on in her witchy croak. “Eat all things, but in moderation. That's your failing, dear, your lack of personal discipline.”
Syl resisted the itch to fist her hands. Nothing stood between Bea and death-by-bludgeoning except a strangle-hold on her maligned personal discipline. “Um...” She couldn't think of anything non-threatening to say, so she opted to change the subject. “What brings you by at...” She made a show of checking her wristwatch. “Nine-thirty?”
Ah, yes, Helen was giving a talk to a group of church women on how to get children to eat healthy foods. Tasty recipes that can compete with high-fat, fast foods.” She smiled at Helen, the smile a proud mother hen gives a favored chick. One she never directed Syl's way. “By the way, Sylvia, Helen will be teaching nutrition classes at the Women's Center this fall. You should enroll.”
Syl had just about enough. “And this drive-by—rather drop-in is to...” She wanted to add 'harass the hell out of me?' But let the sentence die.
“Why, to see Greg, dear. I told you that.” Bea looked around. “Is he in his office?”
“He doesn't want to be disturbed.” Syl knew Helen was Bea's idea of the ideal wife for Greg, not Greg's. Even so, pretty, polished Helen was too much to deal with right now. “Can I give him a message?”
Bea held up a negating hand. “Don't be silly. He'll want to see us. We'll just pop on up.”
“But—he might not be dressed,” Syl threw out, grasping at straws.
“I'll risk it.” Bea turned her back and headed toward the staircase.
Syl hurried past her mother-in-law, heading her off. “Let me tell him you're here.”
“We heard you yell at him, Sylvia.” Bea tromped up the stairs like an attacking general. “He knows we're here. Don't be such a watch dog. I'm his mother and Helen is a dear, dear old friend.”
Syl's patience took a flying leap and she didn't even attempt to catch it. “Well, I'm his dear, dear old wife, so I'll do any risking that's necessary.” Reaching the top of the staircase, she plastered herself in front of his office door. “He had a headache earlier.” She gave the intruders a thin smile, though her tone made it clear she was in charge. “He may not feel like company.”
“Wait here.” Syl cut Bea off, not in the mood to spar, and slipped into Greg's office. She closed the door and turned to find him looking at her.
She nodded, whispering, “How do you feel?”
“A little better. The food helped. Thanks.” He smiled, though the expression was weary. “What does she want?”
“I have no idea.” Syl aimed a thumb at the door. “She brought Helen, so I assume a marriage proposal would suffice.”
Greg chuckled, but the sound was less amused than sardonic. “Okay.” He motioned toward the door and stood up. “Let's get it over with.”
“What? The proposal?”
He made a pained face.
“Just checking.” This time her smile went all the way to her heart. At least they could still joke about his mother's obvious manipulations. She opened the door and faced Bea and Helen. “He's feeling a little better. Come in.”
“Darling!” Bea's demeanor completely changed from the critical crone she'd been downstairs. She beamed, arms spread in adoration. “Does my baby have a headache?” She hurried up to him, but rather than draw him into her embrace, she grasped the loosened knot of his tie and tightened it. “There's my handsome man.” She stretched up to pat his cheek. “Helen, dear, come to the rescue here. What foods alleviate a headache?”
Syl leaned against the office door, crossed her arms and rolled her eyes. Here we go! Saint Helen to the rescue. How much more obvious could she be? I'm surprised she doesn't drag in a divorce lawyer and her church pastor.
From the book SEX, LIES & CELLULITE, by Renee Roszel
Published by Harlequin books S.A. Copyright © 2007 by Renee Roszel
Publication Date (USA), January 2007, ISBN # 0-373-88126-6
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