Introducing Mrs Elliot Winston IV
Marla clutched a lace monstrosity of a bridal gown her mother had picked out for her against her chest. Her fingers rhythmically opened and closed on the scratchy material, a screech fighting to claw its way out of her throat. She knew if she opened her mouth, she’d scream the whole store down. Within minutes, half the town would know that she, Marla McBride, had had a semi-public meltdown. Within an hour or two, the other half of the town would also know, but by then the story would probably include drunkenness, public indecency and matricide.
The way she felt right this minute, drunkenness and matricide both looked good. Instead, she squeezed the material once more and sighed deeply.
“Aren’t you at least going to try it on?” her mother demanded, misunderstanding Marla’s sigh the same way she had misunderstood everything about her daughter pretty much from the time she brought her home from the hospital. “You’ve said no to all the other ones I’ve brought you. Though I don’t know what was wrong with them. A little lace might make you look feminine for once, not all buttoned up and boring the way you usually look. Lord knows what Elliot sees in you, but he must see something since he’s marrying you.”
Her mother leaned in and whispered, just loud enough for the saleswoman hear. “I hope you and he aren’t, you know, doing the nasty. Remember, a man doesn’t buy the cow if he can get the milk for free.”
Content she had done her duty, her mother pulled her suit jacket down over her doublewide hips and reapplied the deep orange lipstick that matched her bad dye job.
Marla closed her eyes for a minute and wondered how many years in jail she’d get if she actually killed her mother. If there was just one woman on the jury under 30, she was sure she’d at least get a hung jury. She smiled at the thought. The smile vanished as she considered the dress, her mother and Elliot. Poor sweet dependable Elliot. Poor sweet dependable Elliot who loved her. Poor sweet dependable Elliot who was the third richest man in town.
She shrugged. She could do a lot worse than marrying him and, catching sight of herself in the mirror, decided he could also do a lot worse. She wasn’t a lush like Ella Sue, a nymphomaniac like Jessica, or a downright vicious bitch like Debbie – all of whom were his social equals, all of whom Elliot had dated in the past and barely escaped from alive. If his mother hadn’t intervened, he might have married any one of them.
Which brought her to her next thought. Why hadn’t Mrs. Elliot Winston III intervened when her only son and heir announced he was marrying her? It wasn’t like she had grown up on the right side of town. Her family barely made it into the respectable category. Her father had been the accountant for the town’s discount department store and, showing a true lack of imagination, had married his secretary and then died early. At least he’d had the foresight to buy a house and a paid-up life insurance policy that doled out just enough money for his wife and daughter to live decently, provided they were willing to work. Her mother went back to being a secretary but couldn’t nab another husband.
Marla had worked any job that paid and wasn’t illegal and, with the help of a partial scholarship, had earned enough to pay for a law degree at a second-rate school.
Reviewing what she knew of her other relatives, Marla was pretty sure none of them were in jail, certifiably insane, or had congenital diseases to pass down to their children. Dullness and a general lack of ambition, she reminded herself, were not diseases, even though they ran through most of her family.
A voice broke through her reverie. “Marla,” her mother repeated, “aren’t you going to try on that dress?”
Marla looked down at the dress as if seeing it for the first time. “No,” she said, “I am not going to try on this abomination. I’m going to …” she looked around at the racks, “I’m going to find something that won’t make me look like a clown.” She hung up the dress and began flicking through the other dresses on the rack. Too ugly. Too big. Too … she didn’t think there was a word to describe how horrible that dress was. Why is it, she asked herself, that the uglier the dress, the more it cost? No way in hell was she throwing away $5000 on a dress she’d only wear once.
Then, squeezed inbetween two frothy ball gown monstrosities, she found a simple off-white, one-shoulder sheath. She looked at the price tag and smiled. $1000. Reduced from $3000. After the wedding, she could cut it down, dye it and wear it again. She might be marrying money, but old frugal habits die hard. Besides, having money and wasting it didn’t go together for long.
She slipped the dress off the rack and carried it to the dressing room before her mother could get a good look at it. She came out a few minutes later and studied her reflection in the mirror. The dress skimmed her body, accentuating the few curves she had while looking elegant and sophisticated. She’d found her dress.
“But honey, that’s so plain. Where’s the lace? The ruffles? The … the embellishments?”
Marla stared at her mother, once again wondering if there had been a slip-up in the hospital and some other woman was wondering why her daughter was into frills when she was so down-to-earth. But with her mother’s nose and mouth, but thank God not her hips, Marla knew there had been no mistake. “You should know by now that I’m not the lace and ruffle type.”
“But it’s your wedding,” her mother said, her voice turning into a whine. “Don’t you want to look special?”
“No, this is what I want to look like. Not a cake topper.” She motioned for the saleswoman and asked about alternations. Within five minutes, the dress was pinned for a better fit. Marla returned to the dressing room and emerged a few minutes later back in her own suit. She paid for the dress, made an appointment for a final fitting two weeks before the wedding and left the store, her mother following forlornly in her wake, gazing back at a mannequin wearing a dress with enough lace and frills to get her heart fluttering.
A week later, Marla was having lunch with her future mother-in-law on the patio overlooking an Olympic-sized pool set amid a luscious lawn and beds filled with flowers ranging from palest pink to deepest purple. Not quite sure why she’d been issued the solo invitation, since their previous relations had been cordial but distant, Marla had dressed conservatively in her usual suit and button-up blouse. Her only concession to the heat had been to remove her jacket which she draped over her chair.
Looking at Elliot’s mother, Marla noted the understated elegance of her peach linen dress which whispered designer label. Not an embellishment in sight. Once again, Marla was pleased she had chosen an equally understated wedding dress.
After some chit chat, followed by grilled chicken over a bed of mixed greens, her future mother-in-law sat back in her chair, a glass of ice tea in her hand. She sipped some, looking at Marla over the rim of the glass. She nodded, as if satisfied with what she saw. Then she put down the glass and learned forward in her seat and spoke. “I know you don’t love my son.”
Marla sat up straight, opened her mouth to disagree and then stopped. Mrs Elliot Winston III hadn’t asked her, she’d told her. But there was something in her tone–not accusing, almost amused.
As Marla thought about it, Mrs Winston continued. “Thank you for not lying to me. My son, while a perfectly nice young man and a competent lawyer who tries to do his best, is generally more loved for his money than his personality. Unfortunately, he takes after his father in that respect. While you,” she said, a faint smile on her lips, “take after me.”
“I’m going take that as a compliment.”
“Good, because that’s how it was meant. I assume you wondered why I didn’t object to Elliot marrying someone er, adequate shall we say, rather than someone from his own social circle.” At Marla’s nod, she continued. “Like many old-money families, blood tends to run thin after a couple of generations. Too many sons marrying women for looks rather than brains and ending up with children who have even fewer brain cells and a sense of entitlement replacing ambition and a strong work ethic. While my son is smarter than his father, something I take personal pride in, I don’t want stupid grandchildren. That’s where you come in. Your mother may be an idiot. But you’re not.”
Marla wasn’t a lawyer for nothing, she could smell a deal coming a mile away. She reached for her own glass of iced tea, sipped slowly as her mind worked through various possibilities. “You have my attention. Where are you going with this?”
Her future mother-in-law reached into her pocket and pulled out a dollar. “Here,” she said, handing it to Marla.
Marla took it, a puzzled expression on her face. A moment later she nodded and tucked the bill into her skirt pocket. “Client attorney privilege. Smart move. Since you’ve just hired me as your attorney, I can’t repeat any of this conversation, even to Elliot, without risking being disbarred.”
“I knew I was right about you. Now let’s get down to business. You want Elliot’s name and money. I want smart grandchildren. Let’s say three, in case one or two come up a bit short in the brains department. Genetics is chancy at best and I’ve always believed in hedging my bets.” She paused for a moment to let her comments sink in. “And if one of those children didn’t happen to resemble Elliot as closely as the others, I’m sure I wouldn’t notice. If I don’t notice, neither will anyone else. Though it would help if he or she looked a little like Elliot.”
Marla drew herself up in her chair. “I’ve already admitted I’m not in love with Elliot, but I’m not marrying him with the intent of cheating on him.”
Her future mother-in-law smiled. “Maybe not now, but ten years into the marriage you might change your mind. If my husband had lived longer, I’m pretty sure any children I had after Elliot would have flunked their paternity test. Unfortunately, my husband suffered his fatal accident before that happened.” She paused and looking into the distance. “A poorly constructed balcony rail gave way at the wrong time.”
“Or possibly the right time?” Marla said, eyes narrowing as she surveyed the woman sitting across from her.
A soft laugh greeted the statement. “Let’s just say the timing was fortuitous. My husband, along with being an overbearing bully, was also an unrepentant philanderer who was thinking of trading me in for a newer and younger model. I had no desire to be the ex-Mrs Elliot Winston III. Too many of my friends have ended up that way, spending their days drinking and their nights looking for younger men to make them feel better about themselves. One of them actually found her latest boy toy while she was singing karaoke, off-key I have no doubt, at some disgusting club.” She shuddered.
“Why are you telling me all this now?” Marla asked, fingering the bill in her pocket. “Client attorney privilege notwithstanding, no one’s interested in dragging up a cold case from 20 years ago.”
“I’m telling you because I recognize a younger version of me in you. I want to make sure we understand each other perfectly. While Elliot, thank god, doesn’t take after his father in many ways, he’s still a man. Men stray. I would hate for Elliot to die – accidently, of course – before his time. Keep my son alive and relatively happy, and I’ll be your greatest supporter. Elliot wouldn’t be the first lawyer to step into the governor’s mansion. It wouldn’t hurt that his wife was also a lawyer, good-looking and quite ambitious.” Her eyes narrowed and her tone sharpened. “But mess with my son and I’ll be your worst enemy.”
Marla sat up, replaying the conversation and nodded. For the first time, she truly understood her future mother-in-law. The fact that she was marrying into a family with at least one murderer didn’t bother her. She’d been a lawyer for five years. Little surprised her. In fact, the only thing that surprised her was how much she liked Elliot’s mother. Marrying Elliot might prove to be much more entertaining than she had thought.
With her brains and Elliot’s family money and connections, she could see herself in the governor’s house. One day, one of her children could reach even higher. Mrs Elliot Winston IV, with the support of Mrs Elliot Winston III, could look forward to a very nice life. And if things didn’t work out, well, Mrs Elliot Winston III wouldn’t be around forever, would she? If not a wobbly balcony rail, maybe a slip in the tub or a fall down the stairs. Don’t most accidents happen in the home?
Marla raised her glass and saluted her new best friend.
© 2015 Harriet Cooper