Julia loathed retirement parties. Watching the guest of honor make the obligatory final curtain call evoked a predictable yet uncomfortable melancholy, but worse yet was the sense of the other guests' eyes upon her. She imagined their whispers: Isn't it about time we threw one of these parties for her, the dowager queen of the television drama? Doesn't she realize her time has passed?
As she raised her champagne flute to join the others in a toast to Maury, the man who had been her agent throughout her career, Julia forced herself to smile. Despite the critics' lukewarm appreciation of her talent, she knew she was a fine actress. No one would detect her dismay at realizing that she was one of the oldest people present, that she could no longer count on being the most beautiful woman in the room, that maybe it was best that she retire with some dignity instead of lingering on long past her prime.
No doubt the stars and would-be stars assembled there expected her own announcement soon, especially since Family Tree had just ended its lengthy run. She had hoped for at least another two years, but as the three endearing cherubs who played her grandchildren grew into sulky adolescents with various addictions and attitude problems, the program's once-spectacular ratings had begun a gradual but unmistakably downward slide. The final blow had come the previous winter, when the actor who played her son-in-law developed a particularly nasty infection in one of his pectoral implants. When his hospitalization forced them to shut down production for a month and show reruns during sweeps week, the studio heads decided not to renew any of their contracts. Most of the cast moved on to other projects, but for the first time in over two decades, Julia found herself facing a summer hiatus that threatened to extend indefinitely.
If she were planning to leave the business, this would seem to be the time to do it. Money wouldn't be a problem; she had invested her earnings so wisely that she wouldn't need to earn a paycheck to maintain her lifestyle -- even with the ungodly amount of alimony she had to pay her third husband. But to retire now, before she had starred in a hit movie, something meaningful and important and true -- that would be unbearable.
A handsome young waiter smiled as he offered her another glass of champagne. Drowning her sorrows didn't seem like such a bad idea, given that her series was over and Maury was abandoning her, so she placed her empty glass on the waiter's tray and took another. As she raised it to her lips, Maury caught her eye and inclined his head in the direction of his study. She took a hasty sip and nodded to indicate she would join him there. If he intended to scold her for drinking too much, she'd scold him right back. What was he thinking, retiring when she needed him so desperately?
"You look lovely," he greeted her, kissing her on the cheek as she entered the study. He closed the heavy door behind them, shutting out the noise of the party.
"Thank you, Maury. You look rather lovely yourself."
He grinned and tugged at the sleeves of his elegant tuxedo. "Evelyn insisted," he said. "I didn't want such an ostentatious send-off. I would have preferred eighteen holes and a quiet lunch at the club with a few friends."
"And disappoint everyone who wanted to bid you a proper good-bye?" Julia tried keep her voice light, but she couldn't prevent some bitterness from slipping in. "It's not like you to put your golf game ahead of your friends."
"Now, Julia, don't be like that." He placed a hand at the small of her back and guided her to a soft tapestry-covered sofa in front of the fireplace. "You're going to be well looked after. Your new agent will be able to do more for you than I have these past few years."
The apology in his voice touched her. "I've had no complaints," Julia said, resting her hand on his arm. "There's no one in this world I trust more than you."
"Thank you, Julia." Maury cleared his throat and drew out his handkerchief. "That means a lot to me." Abruptly he strode over to his desk, and when his back was turned, Julia watched him fondly as he composed himself. Maury was a good man, one of Hollywood's last true gentlemen. He had been her first husband's oldest and dearest friend. He and his wife, Evelyn, had seen her through Charles's death, and the two foolish marriages and bitter divorces that followed. He had insisted that the producers of Family Tree audition her for the role of Grandma Wilson despite their complaints that she wasn't the right type. He had unraveled hundreds of management snarls and eased countless disappointments throughout the years. Maury was a true friend in a city that knew little of friendship and everything about opportunism and greed.
He tucked his handkerchief away and picked up a thin stack of papers bound by three gold brads. "What's this?" she asked as he placed the papers in her hands.
"A little farewell present. You didn't think I'd leave you without one last great project, did you?"
That was precisely what she had thought, but she wouldn't tell him that. She glanced at the top sheet of the script for the writer's name. "Who's Ellen Henderson? What else has she done?"
"You won't have heard of her. This is her first major motion picture."
"Oh, Maury." Julia frowned and tossed the script onto the coffee table.
He took up the papers and sat down beside her. "Don't 'Oh, Maury' me before you read it. This is the project we've been searching for. It has heart, it has warmth, and it has a fantastic part for you." He placed the script in her lap and closed her hands around it. "Trust me."
The alcohol helped flame her temper. "This is your big plan for getting me my breakthrough role? I've won four Emmys and a Golden Globe, and you give me a script written by a nobody. How dare you, after all I've sacrificed?" The last words came out almost as a sob, which she tried to disguise with another sip of champagne.
Gently Maury took the glass. "Don't hold her inexperience against her. Two years ago her student film won an honorable mention at Sundance. Plus, William Bernier is producing."
Julia raised her eyebrows at him, her anger forgotten. "I thought he had a three-picture deal with -- "
"He does. This will be one of those projects. We'll have all the perks and publicity a major studio can provide."
"That's not bad," Julia admitted, picking up the script. Even if the production fell through, Bernier would remember that she had been willing to take a chance on a neophyte director for his sake. Not every actress of her caliber would take such a risk, and it certainly wouldn't hurt to have a man like Bernier in her debt.
"I'll leave you alone to read it." Maury patted her knee and rose. "If you don't love it, I promise I'll go out there in front of all those people and tell them I'm canceling my retirement until I can find you the project of your dreams."
"Don't tempt me," Julia teased as he left the room, though she knew such an announcement would embarrass her more than it would him.
Alone in the restful silence of the study, she settled back on the sofa and decided to skim through the first few scenes. If nothing else, Maury's script would provide an escape from an evening of phony smiles and niceties and too much rich food. She read the cover page aloud to test the sound of the title. "A Patchwork Life," she said, and winced. She wanted Masterpiece Theatre, and Maury had given her something so hokey it could have been plucked minutes before from a Midwestern cornfield. If Bernier was half the savvy producer his reputation claimed, he would change that title before releasing a single dollar. Shaking her head and expecting the worst, she turned to the first page and began to read.
Within a few minutes she forgot the party, the humiliating dearth of offers, the patronizing responses of the few movie producers who owed Maury too much to avoid returning his phone calls. A woman named Sadie Henderson and her life in pioneer-era Kansas drew her in until they became more real than the tapestry sofa beneath her, more vivid than the music of the orchestra and the celebration just beyond the study door. She could almost taste the dust in her mouth as the script transported her to the small prairie homestead Sadie struggled to build with her husband, Augustus. Her heart broke when Augustus died, leaving Sadie with two young sons. Alone, Sadie persisted despite grasshopper plagues and drought when other neighbors gave up and returned to homes back east. She shared Sadie's grief when she sold off cherished family quilts to raise money to improve the farm. Sadie then took in sewing from her more successful neighbors, running the farm by day and stitching her neighbors' quilts late into the night. Her quilting kept the family alive until at last, years later, the farm flourished.
Long after she finished the last page, Julia held the script to her chest, lost in the details of Sadie's hardship and triumph. In Sadie's place, Julia would have crumbled in a week. She longed to meet Sadie, understand the source of her strength, and somehow harness that power for herself.
The door opened, startling her out of her reverie. "Well?" Maury asked, sitting beside her.
"It was quite good," she said cautiously, testing him. "But who would pay to see a movie like this, old ladies and nuns? It's a little -- well, I don't know. A little too squeaky-clean." She thumbed through the script, shaking her head. "Maybe you should see if Sally Fields is available."
"How can you say that?" Maury protested. "You said you wanted something meaningful, something worthy of your talent. This story has all the pathos and character development you wanted -- or at least I thought you wanted."
"Relax, Maury. I didn't say I wouldn't consider it; I'm just not sure what this will do for me."
"It'll get you an Oscar nomination, that's what it'll do," he said, but his voice had lost some of its distress.
"It does have some great monologues," she admitted, but suddenly a horrible thought struck her. "Which part did you have in mind for me?"
"Sadie Henderson, of course. Not when she's in her twenties, but after that. Bernier will get his best makeup people. I'll insist on it."
She was too relieved to notice Maury's implicit admission that, without makeup miracles, she was far too old to play anyone younger than a matriarch. For a moment she had feared that Maury intended her to play the cruel elderly neighbor who tried to buy up the Henderson farm.
"So are you interested or not? Just say the word, and I'll send this along to Anne Bancroft, Judi Dench -- "
"I'm interested," she interrupted. She refused to entertain even for a moment the thought of Dame Judi collecting a golden statuette for a role Julia had declined.
"Then I have someone I'd like you to meet." Maury crossed the room, opened the study door, and ushered a young woman inside. She was slender and dressed in what was likely her best suit, but her unfashionable haircut and lack of makeup marked her as a breed apart from all the other young women at the party. "This is Ellen Henderson."
"Miss Merchaud, it is such an honor to meet you." The young woman approached and shook her hand. "I've admired your work since I was a little girl."
Julia twisted a wince into a smile. "That long, hmm?" The young woman's grip was strong and confident, and suddenly Julia realized something. "Your name is Henderson. Are you a descendant of Sadie Henderson?"
"She was my great-grandmother. My script is based on her diaries."
"I'm so delighted to hear that," Julia exclaimed, forgetting her reserve. She so wanted to believe that Sadie had been a real woman who had lived and breathed and walked the same world she walked.
"Your writing makes Sadie live again," Maury said.
Ellen blushed at the compliment. "It's the actor who brings the script to life. Miss Merchaud, there's no one in the world I'd rather have portray my great-grandmother than you."
Years in the business had taught Julia to suspect flattery. "And why is that?"
"You have this core of strength, this resilience. I've seen it in every part you've played, ever since Mrs. Dormouse in The Meadows of Middlebury."
"You saw Meadows?" That couldn't be. Mrs. Dormouse was her first major role, but Meadows was a children's film that had quickly slipped into obscurity despite strong critical acclaim. Besides, Ellen hadn't even been born when it came out. For that matter, her parents had probably been too young to see it.
"My public library ran it during its summer film festival when I was in the fourth grade." Ellen gave her a shy smile. "I loved the book, but when I saw how actors brought all those characters to life, I was transfixed -- and transformed. Especially when I saw how you made Mrs. Dormouse more real than she had been even in my imagination. That was the moment I knew I wanted to make movies when I grew up."
Ellen's genuine admiration hit home. "I'll take the part," Julia said, without thinking of contracts or box office or who might share top billing.
Ellen's face lit up. "Oh, Miss Merchaud, thank you." She seized Julia's hand and shook it again. "You won't regret this. I promise."
Julia laughed and eased her hand free. "I'm sure it will be a delightful experience." She raised her eyebrows at Maury, who recognized his cue.
"Miss Merchaud and I have some details to discuss," he said, showing Ellen to the door. "Why don't you go on out and enjoy the rest of the party?"
Ellen looked uncomfortable. "If you don't mind -- if you won't be needing me, I think I'd rather go home. It's getting late."
As Maury promised her they'd be in touch, Julia wondered how long the awkward little wren had been forced to mingle among that crowd of peacocks as she waited for Julia to read her script.
When they were alone, Maury said, "You've just won her loyalty for life. Bernier took on the project on the condition that she would obtain a major star for the lead role."
"Really?" Julia felt a rush of pleasure at being considered a major star by a man like Bernier, but the sensation was quickly followed by anger that she had not taken the compliment in stride. Dame Judi no doubt heard such praise twenty times a day. "I wonder why she didn't mention it."
"She wanted to be sure you took the part because you truly loved her story, not because you felt sorry for her."
"If she keeps that up, this town will eat her alive." Still, the young woman's sincerity was oddly refreshing. Julia wished she had not been in such a hurry to dismiss her.
"The sooner the better, for her sake," Julia said. "So, when do we get started? Will we be shooting on location?"
"We'll have to for some of the exterior shots," Maury said apologetically.
"That's fine." Then she added, almost to herself, "Some time away would be good for me."
"I'm glad you think so, because I was planning to send you on a little trip."
"A week at Aurora Borealis?" Wouldn't that be just like Maury, to pamper her at her favorite retreat in Ojai.
"Not exactly. This will be more of a working vacation." He was smiling, but he still looked tentative. "You need to learn some new skills for this part."
"I already know how to ride a horse."
"But you don't know how to quilt, unless you've been keeping secrets from me."
"You know I don't keep secrets from you." Then she paused. "Do I really need to know how to quilt?"
"Can't we use a stand-in?"
"You need to know how to quilt for this role. It's important, Julia."
He said it so gravely that at once she understood what he would not admit aloud: He had won the role for her by telling William Bernier she already knew how to quilt. "I see," she said briskly. "I'll just have to learn, then. I might even enjoy it. Are you planning to bring a quilt tutor to the set? Is there such a thing?"
"I had a better idea," Maury said. "I'm sending you to quilt camp."
Megan hadn't felt so frustrated and helpless since the afternoon Robby had come home from Cub Scouts with a black eye and a missing tooth. At first he wouldn't tell her what had happened, and when she phoned the scoutmaster, his only explanation was, "Some boys aren't cut out for the Cub Scouts. Why don't you try again next year, when he's thicker skinned?"
"This is the Cub Scouts, not the Marines," Megan had snapped.
"Tell that to your son. He threw the first punch."
Megan had been so flabbergasted by this obvious untruth that she could think of nothing to say, so she hung up. Her gentle, owlish son was among the smaller boys in his grade, and she simply could not picture him as an aggressor. He had few friends at school, but never before had he been beaten up by his classmates. More than anything she wanted Robby to be safe, healthy, and happy, but at that moment, she realized she couldn't protect him from everything. A bullying gang of seven-year-olds had bluntly defined the limits of her motherly powers.
As she tended Robby's wounds, the story came out, but only in defense against the scoutmaster's charges. Robby argued that maybe he had thrown the first punch, but the other boy had started it by teasing him. Robby had told some of the other scouts that his father never came to any scouting events because he was an astronaut working on top-secret research on the space station. When another boy loftily pointed out that Robby's explanation couldn't possibly be true since the space station was still being built, Robby told him that was just a cover story so other countries wouldn't know how far ahead of them the Americans were. "It's an international space station, you stupid liar," the other boy said, and in response, Robby slugged him.
Like all of Robby's stories, this one had a grain of truth in it, but only a grain. Although Keith was a corporate sales manager, Megan was an aerospace engineer, and one day the new technology she developed would be used aboard the space station. But although sometimes Megan wished her ex-husband had been shot into orbit, he and his new wife had made it only as far as Portland, Oregon.
That day Megan told Robby that hitting was wrong, and that if he became frustrated or angry, he should just walk away. Several times since, she had also explained -- after making certain her son did understand the difference between the reality and fiction -- how lies sometimes made people angry, because they didn't like to be deceived. "You don't need to exaggerate to get people's attention," she told him. "Just be yourself." Robby told her he had to tell stories because no one liked him just as himself. Megan patiently pointed to his bruises as evidence that they didn't seem to like him very much when he lied, either, and that in the future it might be better to err on the side of truth and caution. "If you like to make people laugh by telling a story, that's okay," she said, "as long as you tell them it is a story." Robby agreed, but it pained her to know that he thought no one would like him if he didn't put on an act. Maybe she was blinded by a mother's love, but couldn't everyone see what a sweet, sensitive, bright little boy he was? Couldn't the world appreciate him for that?
The Cub Scout incident had occurred two years ago, five years after Keith confessed to his affair and moved out. When she placed today's events in that context of misery, they seemed almost trivial. Why, then, was she so upset? This wasn't the first time she hadn't been invited to a party, although she never would have expected Zoe to exclude her. So few women engineers worked at their company that they all knew each other, and Megan had considered Zoe one of her closest friends at work. When she overheard Tina and Michelle discussing the Fourth-of-July barbecue at Zoe's house the previous Saturday, she first thought they were talking about a future event that she, too, would soon hear about from the hostess herself. But when Tina spotted her and both women abruptly stopped talking, Megan realized the truth.
Later, Zoe came to her office and tried, in her awkward way, to apologize. "There were only couples there," she explained. "I didn't think you'd have any fun, you know, being the only single person at a party full of couples."
Megan hid her disappointment behind a smile and assurances that she'd be delighted to join them next time, and if she needed an escort, she'd find one. Zoe looked relieved that she was taking it so well, never suspecting that after she left, Megan locked the door to her office and sat at her desk contemplating whether to burst into tears right there or climb out the window, flee for the sanctuary of home, and cry in private. She was a grown woman with a child, but she felt like she was back in high school. She regained her composure by reminding herself that she couldn't force people to include her, nor could she make them enjoy her company enough to excuse her involuntary single status. Nor could she resent Zoe when most of her other couple friends had also drifted away after Keith left. Maybe they feared divorce was contagious, or maybe they had always preferred Keith and tolerated her presence only because she was his wife. She would never know, because she wasn't the sort of person to confront others, even when they slighted her.
As she left work that afternoon, still unhappy, she decided that after Robby went to bed, she'd go online and vent her frustrations to her best friend, Donna. They had been E-mail pals for years, ever since they had met in an Internet quilting newsgroup. Whenever Megan needed to pour her heart out, Donna was there with patience and understanding, the same way Megan tried to be there for her. Often Megan wished that Donna lived nearby rather than in Minnesota, so that they could meet for lunch or go quilt-shop hopping like normal best friends. She wondered what that meant about her, that she was best friends with someone she had never actually met in person. Maybe Robby had inherited his social ineptitude from his mother.
As she pulled onto the long dirt driveway leading up to her parents' house, Megan checked the dashboard clock. She had arrived later than usual, but probably too early to say hello to her father, who at this hour would be closing up his hardware store in town. Her parents owned nearly ten acres sandwiched between two larger family farms, and although they still cultivated most of the property, the small farm had always been more of a hobby than a career. Megan treasured childhood memories of playing hide-and-seek with her father in the cornfield, the green stalks topped with golden silk towering above her head. Soon Robby would play there with his grandfather again.
She circled in front of the house and parked beside one of the outbuildings. Her father's two dogs bounded over to greet her as she climbed the stairs to the front porch. "Hey, Pete. Hey, Polly," she said, petting the golden retriever first and then the German shepherd. She heard laughter inside, and found Robby with his grandmother in the kitchen.
"Mom," Robby cried out. "Did you know when Grandma was little she had her own cow? It would come when she called it and everything, just like a dog." His grandmother caught Megan's eye and shook her head. Robby saw the exchange and quickly added, "It's just a story."
Megan's mother laughed affectionately and ruffled Robby's hair. "You're my little storyteller, all right." She hugged Megan in welcome, but then her smile faded. "What's wrong, honey?"
"Nothing. Just some stuff at work." It wasn't anything she wanted to discuss in front of Robby, and she wasn't even sure if she ought to confide in her mother. Her parents had raised her to be strong and independent, and she was ashamed to show them how meek and accepting she had become since Keith had left her. As hard as it had been for her staunchly Catholic parents to accept the breakup, it would be even more difficult for them to understand how deeply his betrayal still affected her.
But when they heard her father's truck pull up outside and Robby ran out to meet him, Megan found herself telling her mother what had happened. Her mother continued shelling peas, nodding thoughtfully as Megan perched on a stool and rested her elbows on the counter as she spoke. It was a scene that had played out many times in that kitchen since Megan was a child, first learning the painful truth that the whole world wouldn't cherish her the way her parents did.
"What did you do last Saturday?" her mother asked when she had finished.
"We took Robby to the county fair," Megan said. "You were there, Mom. Don't you remember?"
"Of course I remember, but I wasn't sure if you did. We had a great time, didn't we? Wasn't the weather perfect? Didn't Robby love the rides and the animals?"
Megan nodded, not sure where her mother her mother's reminiscence was taking them.
"Well, then, seems to me this Zoe character did you a favor." Her mother finished the last of the peas and dusted off her hands as if brushing off both the chore and Megan's co-worker. "If you had gone to the party, you would have missed the fair. And for what? A party with too many rules to be much fun, or at least that's how it sounds to me."
"It's not missing the party that bothers me," Megan said. "It's being excluded."
Her mother's face softened. "I know, dear." She cupped Megan's chin in her hand for a moment, then patted her cheek. "My quilt guild is meeting at Dorothy Pearson's house tonight. Why don't you join me? Your father can watch Robby."
Megan squirmed. Her mother's invitation sounded too much like her father's offer to escort her to the homecoming dance sophomore year of high school, when none of the boys had been willing to ask her and she had been too shy to ask any of them. Her mother's friends were sweet women, but they had known Megan since she was in diapers and had never stopped thinking of her as a little girl. "Thanks, Mom, but I have some papers to read before bed tonight. I have a grant proposal due next week."
"At least stay for dinner."
Megan tried to picture the contents of her pantry, wondering if she had enough energy for something as simple as pasta from a box and sauce from a jar. Then she thought of her mother's homemade bread and baked chicken, and vegetables fresh from her parents' garden. "We'd love to."
When Megan and Robby returned home early in the evening, Megan knew before she leafed through the mail that Keith's child support check would not be there. The day had gone too badly to end on such a high note.
That's why she assumed the envelope from Contemporary Quilting magazine was a subscription renewal notice and didn't bother opening it until two days later, when she paid her other bills. She would have opened it immediately if she had known that the renewal notice was in fact a letter informing her that her watercolor charm quilt had taken first prize in the magazine's annual contest, and that she had won a week's vacation at the famous quilting retreat, Elm Creek Manor.
"Way to go, Megan," Donna shouted as she finished reading the E-mail note. It was about time her best quilting buddy had some good luck come her way. They'd been friends for years, ever since they met on an Internet quilting newsgroup when Megan posted a frantic request for a certain piece of fabric. Everyone at her son's school had gone crazy over a Saturday morning cartoon called Baby Dinosaurs, and Megan's son was infatuated with a character named Little Trice, a pastel triceratops who somehow managed to look adorable clad in a bib and diaper. Megan had secretly begun working on a Little Trice quilt for Robby's birthday, but she had found only one yard of Baby Dinosaurs print fabric at her local quilt shop. She thought it would be enough, but she ran out when the quilt top was only half finished, and when she checked at the store, they told her the print had been discontinued. "All I need is a half yard more," Megan wrote to the other quilters in the newsgroup. "I'll swap anything for it, just name your price. Can anyone help me?"
Donna sympathized, for despite her compulsive fabric-shopping habit, she had often found herself in similar situations. She phoned all the quilt shops in her area code and finally found one that had two yards left on a remnant bolt. She drove an hour to St. Paul to buy it, then E-mailed Megan with the good news. A week after Donna mailed her the material, Megan sent her a box of beautiful Civil War-era reproduction fabric and a heartfelt thank-you note. Donna immediately sent her an E-mail message to tell her how pleased she was with the surprise, and Megan wrote back to let her know how the Little Trice quilt was progressing. Their correspondence continued over the Internet and through the mail, and before long, they had become confidantes. Donna knew everything about Megan's divorce and troubles at work, and Megan knew everything about Donna's eternal struggle with her weight and her two daughters' nerve-wracking journey through the teen years. Although they had never actually met in person, they were so close that Donna was as happy for Megan as if she had won the Contemporary Quilting contest herself.
After replying with a note of congratulations, Donna shut down the computer and returned to her sewing machine. The fourth bedroom had been the girls' playroom, but when they reached the age when they preferred to shut themselves away in their separate bedrooms, Donna had adopted it as her quilt studio. Even with the door open so she could monitor all the comings and goings in the house, she still had a sense of peaceful solitude, the perfect antidote to a hectic day.
"Mom?" Lindsay appeared in the doorway, slender and lovely in her denim shorts and pink top, her long blond hair pulled back into a ponytail. "Can I talk to you for a minute?"
Donna put down her quilt block and swiveled her chair around to face her eldest daughter. "Sure, honey. What is it?"
Lindsay crossed the room and took her hands. "Not here. Downstairs." Lindsay led her out of the room. "Dad's already waiting, and Becca's about to go to work. I want to tell you all at the same time."
Laughing, Donna allowed herself to be guided downstairs to the family room. Paul was sitting on the sofa; Becca sat on the floor beside him, glancing at her watch and looking bored. Exchanging a quick glance of puzzlement with her husband, Donna seated herself on the opposite end of the sofa so that Becca was between them.
Only then did she notice that Lindsay was wringing her hands and compulsively shifting her weight from foot to foot. "Lindsay?" Donna said, suddenly anxious. "What is it, honey?"
"I have an announcement to make." Lindsay took a deep breath. "Brandon and I are getting married."
Donna couldn't breathe. She groped for Paul's hand and squeezed it.
Lindsay looked around at her silent family. "Well? Say something."
"You're out of your mind," Becca said flatly.
Lindsay frowned at her, then looked at her parents, hopeful. "Mom? Dad?"
Breathe, Donna ordered herself, then gasped, "I don't know what to say."
Lindsay smiled nervously. "'Congratulations' would be nice."
"Congratulations," Donna and Paul said in unison, in a monotone. Becca merely groaned and let her head fall back against the sofa.
"But you like Brandon," Lindsay protested.
Donna said, "Of course we like him -- "
"I don't," Becca said.
" -- But this is a little sudden," Paul finished. "Your mother and I weren't expecting to hear an announcement like this so soon."
"Brandon and I have been dating for two years."
"I've had library books longer than that," Becca said.
Donna patted Becca on the shoulder to quiet her. "Have you set a date?"
"Well, I've always wanted a June wedding, and Brandon will have some vacation time then -- "
"June of next year?" Donna shrilled.
"I know that only gives us eleven months to plan, but we don't want anything elaborate."
"What about school?" Paul asked.
"Brandon says I don't really need to finish. After medical school, he'll earn enough to support both of us."
"I don't believe I'm hearing this," Becca said.
Donna couldn't believe it either. "You're going to quit school a year before graduation?"
Lindsay hesitated. "Well, Brandon thinks maybe I shouldn't go back this year, either. He thinks maybe -- as long as it's okay with you -- we could take my tuition money and use that for the wedding instead."
"'Brandon thinks,'" Becca mimicked, then her jaw dropped. "You're pregnant, aren't you?"
"No, I am definitely not pregnant," Lindsay snapped. She looked close to tears. "Isn't anyone happy for me?"
Paul released Donna's hand and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "Sweetheart, don't you think you ought to finish college before you get married? You're only twenty."
"That's legal in this state, Dad."
"Finish college first," Donna pleaded. "There's nothing wrong with a long engagement. If it's meant to be, two years won't make a difference."
Donna saw something in Lindsay's eyes change then, as if she were closing some part of herself away from them, and a pang of uneasiness went through her.
"It makes a difference to Brandon," Lindsay said. "He wants us to get married now, I mean, right now. Elope. I talked him into waiting until June. That's the best I can do."
Donna didn't like the sound of that, but before she could say anything, Paul spoke. "I still don't understand why you have to give up school. If you have your heart set on getting married, we won't stand in your way, but can't you continue school, too? Think of everything you'll miss. Your classes, all your friends, all the fun you girls have -- "
"Yes, and the drama society," Donna broke in. "What about the plays you were going to direct this year? You were looking forward to them. And that internship next summer. Professor Collins said you had a good chance of winning it."
As Donna spoke, Lindsay's cheeks flushed. "I know," she said. "I know it's a sacrifice, but when you love someone the way Brandon and I love each other, you make sacrifices for him."
"What exactly is Brandon sacrificing for you?" Becca inquired.
Lindsay shot her a sharp look. "I'm leaving school because Brandon can't afford to pay for my last two years, and he doesn't feel right having my parents pay his wife's tuition." She took a deep, shaky breath and looked from Donna to Paul and back. "Please, I don't want to fight. Please tell me you're okay with this."
"Are you sure this is what you want?" Donna asked in a small voice.
"This is what I want."
"Then we'll make the best of it," Paul said.
"I don't want you to make the best of it," Lindsay said. "I want you to be happy for us."
She looked so miserable that Donna rose and embraced her. "We're happy if you're happy." As Lindsay clung to her, Donna caught Paul's eye and shook her head slightly. They could discuss this privately later and, she hoped, find some way to convince their daughter to reconsider.
"I still say you're nuts," Becca muttered.
Lindsay pulled away from her mother and turned to her sister. "I hope you'll be my maid of honor anyway."
"Maid of honor?" Becca considered. "Can I help pick out the dress?"
"Why? Are you afraid I'd stick you in something hideous?"
"That thought did cross my mind."
Lindsay laughed. "Yes, you can help pick out the style -- but I get to pick the color."
Lindsay turned back to her mother, tentative. "Will you help me choose a wedding gown?"
"You don't need to worry about that just yet," Donna said. "You have plenty of time."
"I know. It's just -- well, now that it's official, I want to get it over with. The work, I mean. It'll be a lot of work, and I want to get started." Her smile trembled, and Donna knew what an effort it took for her to keep it in place.
Paul sighed and rubbed at his jaw distractedly.
"I know this is a shock, but you'll feel better once you get used to the idea," Lindsay said. "Brandon says his parents were surprised, too, but once they had some time to adjust, they were happy for us."
Donna wondered how long ago Brandon had told his parents. How long Lindsay had been engaged without telling her and Paul?
"You'll meet Brandon's parents soon," Lindsay promised. "They're coming to Minneapolis next month to visit him. I thought we could drive down and meet them for supper. That's on a Sunday, the fifteenth. The families should meet each other before the wedding."
"I can't," Donna heard herself say.
Lindsay's face fell. "What?"
"I can't." She could support her daughter here, at home, but she could not -- she would not rush out and meet the other family and plunge into a frenzy of wedding plans as if she wanted this marriage to happen, when she didn't, at least not now.
"I can't." August fifteenth. Why did that date sound familiar? "I'm busy that day."
"Too busy to meet Brandon's parents?"
"That's the week I'm going out of town," Donna said. "I know you've heard me talk about it. My friend Megan and I are meeting at quilt camp. Don't you remember?"
Lindsay looked dubious. "I guess I forgot."
"Well, that's the week. I'm sorry, honey, but I'll have to meet Brandon's family another time." Brandon was a nice enough young man -- what she knew of him -- but they were both so young, and she couldn't bear to see Lindsay throw away all her dreams for the future. Lindsay had begged them to be happy for her, but how could Donna be happy when her every instinct screamed that Lindsay was not?
She climbed the stairs and retreated to the sanctuary of her quilt studio, where she switched on the computer and sank heavily into the chair. As she waited for the system to boot up, she realized she'd have to confirm that date with Megan and ask her where exactly this quilt camp was, anyway.
Adam fumbled for the phone. "Hello?"
"Yeah?" he mumbled, trying to clear his throbbing head. Last night his two best friends had shown up with a case of beer and a stack of videos -- war movies, the kind where the hard-edged, tough hero died at the end by throwing himself on a hand grenade or by carrying a bomb into an enemy bunker to save his equally hard-edged, tough buddies. Natalie despised the genre, and if she had been present, they would have watched something else entirely. And that, his friends' message seemed to be, was precisely the point; watching movies with an abundance of pyrotechnics and high body counts was celebration of the male independence he had narrowly escaped losing. As if that was what he wanted, as if it were his choice.
"Good morning, honey. It's Nana."
Of course. Who else would phone so early on a Sunday morning? "Hi, Nana."
"Did I wake you, dear?"
"Yeah, but that's okay."
"You should be getting ready for church by now anyway."
He squinted at the clock. "Church isn't for another four hours." He sat up on the edge of the bed and yawned. "What's going on?"
"I need you to drive me somewhere next month."
He smothered a laugh. "It's a good thing you called me so early," he said with mock solemnity. "If you'd waited until dawn, I might have been all booked up."
"Listen to how you talk to your grandmother," she scolded him. "I have no idea why you're still my favorite grandson."
"Each of us is the favorite, according to you."
"I can have more than one favorite. Now, about this ride. Are you free on August fifteenth or am I going to have to walk? That's a Sunday."
He felt a pang, picturing how that Sunday in August should have been spent -- a leisurely breakfast on the patio with Natalie, an afternoon trip out to Amish country to look at the furniture she so adored, maybe a romantic candlelit dinner. But now..."I won't be busy."
"Are you sure?"
"Very sure. Where do you need to go?"
"It's time for my quilt camp again, remember? I always go during my birthday week. I need you to drive me there on August fifteenth and pick me up the twenty-first. That's a Saturday."
"Is this the camp in Pennsylvania?"
"Yes. Your sister took me last year, and she said to tell you it's your turn."
Now he remembered his sister complaining about the long drive to the middle of nowhere. "Why don't you fly this time?"
"You know I don't like airplanes," she said primly. "I would take the train, but the nearest station is a long drive from Elm Creek Manor. What do you suggest I do, take a taxi? I suppose I'll have to, if it's so much trouble -- "
"It's no trouble," he assured her before she could get too excited. "I have a teachers' in-service at school the next day, but Sunday's no problem. I'll take you."
"And pick me up?"
"And pick you up." Why not? Anything was better than
moping around the empty house. Maybe he should get a dog.
"Thank you. You're a good boy." She paused. "Do you want to come to supper tonight? I could make a nice pork roast."
"Thanks, Nana, but -- "
"Dayton's only an hour north of you. Less than that, the way you drive."
"Maybe next week." He didn't feel up to seeing anyone that day. Or maybe for the rest of the summer.
Nana's voice softened. "Adam, I didn't forget what day yesterday was."
The reminder pained him. "You mean, what yesterday was supposed to have been."
"You're much better off without her."
"So I'm told."
"If she's that fickle, it's better you find out now rather than three or four years into it."
"Please don't criticize her."
"Why not, after what she did to you? I never liked her, you know."
"Yeah, I know." So did Natalie. So did the entire family and, if he knew his grandmother, all the ladies in her quilting circle and every other senior in her apartment complex. Nana had never been one to keep her opinions to herself, even when her words were sharp enough to cut. Yes, Natalie had her faults; he could admit that. She had a temper, and he never knew whether he would please her or set off a tantrum. But even now, when any sensible person would be too angry to remember any of her good qualities, just thinking about her made him ache with loss. He couldn't honestly say he still loved her the way he had before she broke off their engagement -- his trust had been too badly damaged for that -- but he still cared about her, and he missed her.
"My friends have granddaughters -- "
"No, you're not setting me up," he interrupted. "I'm not ready. I mean it, Nana."
"I heard you," she said innocently. "But if I meet a lovely young woman and happen to mention my favorite grandson, and if she happens to be available..."
He was too tired to argue. After promising to come to dinner the next Sunday, Adam hung up the phone and slumped back into bed with a groan. This was supposed to have been his first full day as a married man. He should be sleeping peacefully in the bridal suite of the Radisson Hotel Cincinnati right now, his beautiful, dark-haired wife in his arms. He should be dreaming of their future, which had always seemed so full of promise. He should have risen just in time for a shower and breakfast before they left on their honeymoon. Instead Natalie and her sister were going to use their nonrefundable tickets to the Bahamas, and a call from his grandmother instead of a kiss from his bride had awakened him.
Adam closed his eyes and tried to go back to sleep. It wasn't even six o'clock in the morning, but already he knew he was in for a rough day. Maybe he should get a dog. Natalie hated dogs. Now that he was allowed to have one, he ought to get one, if only to convince his well-meaning but overanxious family and friends that he was getting on with his life.
Grace nodded as Sondra chatted about the two men she was dating, though she was only partially listening. For the most part her thoughts were on the television interview scheduled for later that morning, but in the back of her mind she fretted about the sewing machine and fabric stash left idle too long in her studio. She also worried about how tired she was, and how if the smell of relaxants and perming solution weren't so sharp in her nostrils, she might fall asleep. She tired so easily lately.
"Justine driving you to the station?" Sondra suddenly asked, speaking in a voice far too casual to be casual.
"Yes." Grace tried to catch her eye in the mirror. "Why do you ask?" Was it that obvious she rarely drove these days? She had walked to the salon, but her loft was only a few blocks away; surely that had not roused Sondra's suspicions.
"No reason." Sondra kept her attention on Grace's hair. "I was just wondering how she's doing."
"She's fine. Busy with school and Joshua, and volunteering at the women's shelter." Grace admired her daughter's commitment to social justice, but she hoped when Justine completed her degree and passed the bar, not all of her work would be pro bono.
Sondra trimmed a stray curl with the electric razor. "She seeing anyone?"
"Not that I know of."
"Well..." Grace thought about it, and shrugged. "Of course. She would have told me."
"Is that so."
Something in her expression made Grace suspicious. "What do you mean?"
"I wasn't going to say anything -- "
Though Sondra had raised the seat until Grace could barely reach the ground with an outstretched foot, she managed to spin the chair around so she could face her friend. "Tell me."
"If you're going to force it out of me, two nights ago I saw her and Joshua out at a restaurant." Sondra raised her eyebrows. "They weren't alone."
"You mean, a man was with them?"
"What else would I mean?" Sondra shook her head. "For someone who's not seeing anyone, Justine sure looked interested."
Grace's hopes rose. Since Joshua had accompanied them, maybe this mysterious man was his father -- and maybe that meant Justine had decided to patch things up with him. Grace had always liked Marc and had been heartbroken when Justine told her in no uncertain terms that they wouldn't be getting married. Two-year-old Joshua was an angel, but the older he grew, the more he would need a father figure in his life. Maybe Justine had finally realized that. "Did you get a good look at him?"
"Mmm-hmm." Sondra spun Grace's chair around to face the mirror and tended her close-cropped hair with a comb. "Tall, nice eyes, good-looking. If Justine gets tired of him, she can send him to me. He's more my type, anyway."
Grace hid a smile. Sondra thought every handsome man was her type. "How so, exactly?"
Sondra gave her a pointed look in the mirror. "He's old enough to be her father, that's how."
"Are you sure?" Grace's heart sank. So the man wasn't Joshua's father but someone else -- someone her age. "Justine's never had a thing for older men."
"You didn't see this particular older man."
Grace didn't need to see him. She mistrusted him already. What was Justine thinking? She was supposed to find a father figure for Joshua, not for herself. "Maybe he was a professor. Maybe they were discussing a school project."
"At a restaurant on a Saturday night? And why would she bring Joshua along instead of leaving him with his grandma?"
"I don't know." Distressed, Grace searched her memory for any hint Justine might have let fall about this strange new man. "I can't remember what she told me she was doing that night. I know she didn't say she had a date." Grace definitely would have remembered that. "How was he with Joshua?"
Sondra's eyes widened in injured innocence. "Do you think I spent my evening spying on your daughter?"
"Yes, I do. And I would have done the same for you."
"Joshua seemed to love him." Sondra brushed a few bits of hair from the back of Grace's neck. "Think of it this way: He's old, but at least he likes kids."
"And that makes it fine that he has one foot in the grave."
Sondra laughed. "I said old enough to be her father, not great-grandpa."
"That's old enough."
"A good man is a good man," Sondra protested. "What does age matter?"
"You know it matters, or you wouldn't have mentioned it."
"Well, maybe it does matter, but it shouldn't." Sondra removed the plastic drape and gave Grace a hand mirror so she could examine the back of her head. "All that counts is that Justine is happy, right?"
Grace frowned, knowing Sondra was right but not feeling any better about it. Her daughter was an intelligent young woman, but even intelligent people didn't always make sensible decisions where matters of the heart were concerned. Grace knew that as well as anyone.
What was worse was that Justine hadn't told her about her new friend. If their relationship had advanced so far that Justine would bring Joshua along on their dates, why hadn't she mentioned him to her own mother?
"Good luck," Sondra told her as Grace left the salon, but Grace wasn't sure if she was referring to the interview or to Justine's mysterious dinner companion.
She met her daughter and grandson in the park across the street from the salon. Justine was pushing Joshua in a swing, her dozens of long, glossy braids gathered in a silk scarf at the nape of her neck. She had the strong cheekbones and rich brown skin her mother and grandmother had also been blessed with, but her stubborn, independent streak had come from her mother alone, and her passion from the father she barely remembered. Joshua resembled Justine physically, but his studious, thoughtful temperament reminded Grace of his own father. Marc and Justine had been good together. She wished with all her heart that he had been the man Sondra had seen with Justine.
When Justine spotted her, she smiled and lifted Joshua out of the swing. Grace laughed with delight as he ran to meet her, and, forgetting herself, she bent over to swoop him up in her arms. "Oooph," she grunted, shifting him so his weight rested on her hip. "You're getting bigger every day, aren't you, honey?"
"Bigger and smarter and more mischievous," Justine said with a smile as she joined them, but Grace saw the concern in her eyes.
"I'm fine," Grace told her.
"I know." Still, Justine took Joshua from her arms, and Grace was more than willing to let her.
As Justine drove them downtown to the television station, Grace decided not to mention the little she knew of Justine's secret. Her daughter would have a fit if she knew her mother's friends were keeping an eye on her. Grace contented herself with asking, "If you were seeing someone new, you would tell me, wouldn't you?"
"Sure." Justine paused, keeping her eyes on the road. "Probably. It depends."
"On whether I thought you'd hate him on sight, on how serious I was about him. I wouldn't want to get your hopes up by introducing you to someone who wouldn't be around long." She glanced in the rearview mirror and lowered her voice. "That's why I don't introduce anyone to Joshua right away, either. I wouldn't want to hurt him by letting him get too attached to just anyone."
"That seems wise."
"It also gives me time to make sure the boyfriend understands that Joshua will always come first in my life -- before myself, before my work, and definitely before him." She sighed. "That's probably why I don't date much. Not that I mind. My life is full already, and I'm not one of these sisters who thinks she has to have a man to be complete. I learned that from you."
"I think I taught you too well," Grace said glumly, thinking of Marc, but Justine merely laughed.
When they reached the studio, Justine left Grace in front of the building and went to park the car. Grace went inside, up the elevator to the second floor. She waited there for the producer, a thin, dark-haired white woman with a harried expression, who bustled in ten minutes late, full of apologies.
"I wasn't waiting very long," Grace said, but the woman continued on as if she hadn't heard, leading her through a maze of corridors so rapidly that Grace stumbled and nearly fell.
"You'll be on in five, right after local news and right before the weather. Your assistant sent over the photos, so we're all set." The producer paused for breath as she stopped outside a large, solid door. "You'll need to keep quiet until your segment. Try not to knock anything over."
"I'll do my best," Grace said dryly as the producer opened the door and led her inside.
The studio was cool and dark except for the end of the room where the set was located. The two news anchors sat behind the desk taking turns reading from the TelePrompTer. Grace had hoped to see the same woman who had interviewed her last time, but her usual chair was occupied by the blond woman from the morning show. Soon after, when the news went to commercial and the producer led Grace to a chair on the set, she realized with some dismay that the blond woman was her interviewer.
"Good afternoon. I'm Andrea Jarthur," the blond woman said, smiling and extending a perfectly manicured hand.
Grace shook it. "Grace Daniels." From behind, someone clipped a microphone to her jacket. "Thanks for having me on."
"It's my pleasure. I love your work."
"Thank you," Grace said, nervousness stirring. "You do know I'm not here to talk about my work, right?"
"Of course," Andrea said, smiling. "But if we have time, I might get to that, okay?"
"I'd prefer it if you didn't."
Andrea's eyebrows rose. "I've never met an artist who didn't like to promote her work. Surely you don't mean it?"
Before Grace had a chance to reply, the stage manager called out, "In five, four..." He held up three fingers, then two, and then one.
Andrea turned to one of the cameras. "Welcome back. With us now is Grace Daniels, the celebrated quilt artist from right here in the Bay area. Welcome, Grace."
"I understand that you're the curator of a new exhibit of antique quilts at the deYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park."
"That's right. The exhibit is titled 'Stitched into the Soul: A Celebration of African-American Quiltmakers in -- '"
"Is any of your own work included?"
"No," Grace said, somewhat sharply. "These are antique quilts."
"Of course. Tell us, what makes these quilts so special?"
"They're important not only as works of art, but as historical artifacts. These quilts were pieced by slaves for their own use, and therefore they help document what life was like for them." Mindful of the limited time, Grace briefly explained what could be learned from the materials used, the patterns chosen, and the condition of the quilts.
"That's fascinating," Andrea interrupted just as Grace was warming to her subject. "Especially since the domestic arts are undergoing a renaissance of sorts these days, aren't they? Hobbies like quilting are becoming so popular lately, but you were really out there on the cutting edge -- pardon the pun -- years ago, weren't you?"
"Actually..." Hobbies? Grace thought. Domestic arts? "What this exhibit shows us is that -- "
"I think what your fans really want to know is, when will you next treat us to an exhibit of your own work?" Andrea smiled innocently. "I understand it's been over three years since you've had a show."
"Can you give us a little hint as to your current projects? And maybe tell us how soon we can expect to see your latest work?"
Grace forced herself to smile through clenched teeth. "I don't like to discuss my projects before they're finished."
Andrea's bright smile never faltered. "The San Francisco art community will just have to wait in suspense, is that what you're saying?"
"I...I suppose so. But in the meantime, the deYoung Museum exhibit is a fascinating look at an important part of American art and cultural history." Quickly Grace ran through the particulars. Her voice sounded clear and serene in her ears, but inside she was fuming -- at Andrea, of course, for her questions, but also at herself, for allowing herself to be so easily shaken.
After the interview ended, Grace abruptly rose and left the set without returning Andrea's farewell. Justine met her in the lobby, Joshua by her side. "How did it go?" she asked as Grace approached.
"I don't want to talk about it." Grace continued past her daughter and out the front door so quickly that Justine had to scoop up her son and hurry after her. Grace's heart was racing. Current projects -- what current projects? How could she talk about her latest quilt when her latest quilt had been completed more than a year before? How could she admit that her well of creative inspiration -- which she had once thought too deep to ever run dry -- was as barren as her own future?
"I have to get away from here," she said, thinking aloud.
"The car's only a block away," Justine replied, baffled. But Grace hardly heard her. She had to get away from her loft, from her studio, from the museum where she faced questions like Andrea Jarthur's nearly every day, from everything familiar.
Suddenly a memory tickled the back of her mind, and she thought of her friend Sylvia Compson. Sylvia was running a quilt retreat somewhere in Pennsylvania. Perhaps Sylvia could provide the sanctuary Grace needed so her art might return to her while she could still hold a needle.
Copyright © 2001 by Jennifer Chiaverini
An Elm Creek Quilts Novel
The Cross-Country Quilters
An Elm Creek Quilts Novel
These five women arrive at Elm Creek Manor hoping to find in their quilt lessons an escape from the problems they left at home. Julia, an aging starlet, has pinned her hopes to a plum role in a historical epic whose director is under the mistaken impression that Julia already knows how to quilt. Megan is a successful engineer who has won prizes for her miniature quilt designs. The one challenge she has yet to master is single motherhood. Donna, a mother of two, must hasten to teach her daughter independence and self-esteem—lessons she, too, must take to heart. Grace is a renowned curator of antique quilts, whose creative flair is waning for reasons she is unwilling to reveal—even to her closest friends. Vinnie, the senior member of the group, is a sunny soul with a tragic past. Her overwhelming desire is to bring happiness into the lives of those she loves.
Although the Cross-Country Quilters share a common creative goal, as the year goes by their bonds are tested by the demands of daily life. But despite differences in age, race, and background, the friends' love for quilting and affection for one another unite them in a patchwork of caring and acceptance. The quilt they make reminds them of an everlasting truth—friends may be separated by great distance, yet the strength of their bond can transcend any obstacle.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
- Why is the quilt called a challenge quilt? What is a challenge quilt? How are the five women’s lived affected by the quilt?
- Do the five friends accomplish the goals they set for themselves? How are their dissimilar lives eventually symbolized by the challenge quilt?
- Jennifer Chiaverini alternates points of view to convey her story, a technique she also used in her second novel, Round Robin. Do you think this was an effective storytelling technique? In what ways do you think it was or was not?
- How did you feel about the introduction of a brand new set of characters three books into the series? Were you able to connect with them? Did you find yourself drawn to any character in particular? Were you sympathetic to their problems?
- Why do you think Vinnie starts her mornings by talking with God? Do you think she is a religious or spiritual woman? She also values the time spent with her children and grandchildren, despite missing her Sam. Is family the driving force in Vinnie’s life? How do her actions reveal this? How do they affect the others?
- Are all the women in the novel equally courageous? Do you think Grace, with her strength and resolve to overcome her health issues, is the bravest?