Chapter 17: Toni
Nassau, Bahamas - June, 1994
Toni Hannah pressed the doorbell of the Glamour Gals Boutique on West Bay Street and pushed the door open when she heard the buzz and click of the lock release. A cool breeze of air-conditioning blew across her face, and she stopped to let it flow over her. She’d powdered pretty robustly this morning, but there was still a chance she’d developed a sheen of sweat. Not even her bestie, Donna, deserved to see her in that state.
“Mrs. Hannah! How lovely to see you! Mrs. Irving is already here, and I was just bringing her a little refreshment. Veuve Clicquot?”
“Thank you, Charlotte. How kind. Yes, I’ll take some sparkly, please.”
If she was honest with herself, but let’s be honest, who in the world wanted to be honest with themselves? The drinks were the reason she favored this particular boutique. Other shops, Taylor and maybe Footprints, had lovely clothes but didn’t offer bubbly. Toni had hinted several times, but unfortunately, they hadn’t produced. Their loss. She rarely shopped in Nassau anyway, preferring Miami, but Donna had insisted on shopping today. She clearly had something important to tell Toni but was keeping her lips tight for now. No worries, a little Veuve Clicquot would loosen them.
Donna sat on a plush burgundy chaise lounge in the dressing rooms. Toni’s Nassau best friend was suitably plain. Toni had long ago learned not to befriend or marry people more attractive than herself. There is no need to sabotage your game by keeping company with those who would outshine you. Donna's husband, David, had worked for the Hanna family, like his father before him. He’d fetched coffee for Ulysses and then worked beside her husband, Harold, when Harold had made it to the office, that was, which wasn’t very often. Now David was the last one left. Her son Bradley had taken the helm, and Toni’s husband Harold pretended to work but only drank.
“Darling!” Donna jumped from the lounge and kissed Toni on both cheeks. Jasmine and roses and the scent of baby powder wafted around her. Donna was carefully put together, as usual. Donna had piled her shellacked blond hair over her long face and fifty-year-old neck, which was impossibly smoothed with Botox and fillers. Not that Toni was knocking Botox and fillers. Donna may be a few years older, but Toni had deeper pockets, and she hadn’t skimped on efforts to keep her looks. The Bahamian sun was brutal on the women, so they had a lot more work to do than most.
“Hi, Donna.” Toni collapsed onto the chaise lounge and purposefully pulled her knees onto it so Donna would have to move to the armchair. “What a week it’s been! Uly hasn’t been feeling very well. I’ve been running around after his housekeeper, who is supposed to run the household but is doing a miserable job. I had to go out West twice this week to make sure she’d remembered his medication and to keep him away from the office.”
Truth be told, Ulysses would prefer she never came to his house at all. Even after nearly thirty years, Toni was still the gold-digging New Yorker who’d waltzed into his hotel and stolen his home and his son. He’d gifted Highwater to them as a wedding present but still accused her of stealing it. Uly also blamed her for turning Harold into a drunken womanizer because she couldn’t keep her husband happy at home. Toni knew that in his heart of hearts, Uly knew Harold didn’t need an excuse to be a drunken womanizer. He just was. And if the rumors were to be believed, it was in his genes. Most people couldn’t imagine 98-year-old Ulysses Hannah as any Lothario. But even when she’d first met Harold, Uly had set a poor example for his son. After losing his wife, Harold’s mother, he’d apparently, according to Harold, tried to fill his gaping hole of a heart with other women. Lots of them. It had wrecked Harold. Harold was who he was because of Uly, not because of Toni. She hated Uly for that. She may be a gold-digger, but against her better judgment, she had loved, still loved, her roving, complicated husband. Harold was a snake charmer, and once he turned his flute on you, he had you dancing like a cobra. Her son Christopher was a chip off the old block. Perhaps that was why he was her favorite.
“Honestly, Toni.” Donna interrupted her spiraling. “I don’t know what that old man would do without you. Who else would look after him in his later years like you do? You are a kind and selfless soul.”
She wasn’t, and Donna knew it, but Toni gave her a “gee whiz” wave anyway. They were good at this game, the two of them. They’d been friends for a long time.
“Dave says that Bradley is doing splendidly at the company.” Donna turned to the clothes rack to her left, stuffed full of ball gowns and beach prints, and started idly poking through the garments. “Everyone there seems to really respect him, and the employees are happier than ever since he took the reins.”
It was a dig at Harold. All Uly had ever wanted was for Harold to run Hannah Properties and build a legacy for future generations. Harold hadn’t taken to it. It wasn’t his thing. Ulysses had sidelined Harold for their eldest son three years ago. Bradley had been just out of Grad school. A baby. But Uly thought him more capable than Harold. She’d wanted her husband to be furious, but he was thrilled. More time for golf trips and bourbon. She, on the other hand, was not thrilled at all. With Harold at the helm, there had always been free-flowing cash and plenty of it. But Bradley had tightened the belt and put the entire family on allowances, excluding Uly, who had his own money. She still couldn’t believe it. She had an allowance, like a twelve-year-old child, from her own son.
“Yes, Bradley is a superstar. Everyone loves him. Uly loves him, and Harold loves him. His sister kisses the ground he walks on.” Charlotte came into the room holding two glasses and passed one to each woman before rushing out again. Strange behavior from Charlotte. She should be more attentive. There was a Hannah in the shop, after all. “He’s not so kind to Christopher, though. He could be a bit more generous, I think. Christopher’s only young and just finding his way. Bradley can be a tad… judgmental.”
Donna stopped rummaging on the rack and turned to Toni with pursed lips. “Speaking of Christopher…” Toni recognized those pursed lips. Here it came. Here was the thing Donna had brought her here to hear. Spit it out, Donna. “I didn’t know if you knew, but Clark confided in me… sometimes I wish he wouldn’t tell me everything, but when you are as close as we are, well, you know.”
Toni knew. It was all Donna talked about. Her darling baby boy, Clark, was so close to her. He loved her so much. He would never move away from her, blah, blah, blah. Donna had been telling Toni how close she was to her children since the day they’d been born. The Hannah and Irving children were similar ages, and Toni and Donna raised them together. But Donna knew Toni wasn’t a natural mother, and she milked it because it was the only thing she had over Toni.
“Where is Charlotte?” Toni snapped, changing the subject. Whatever Clark had told his mother was sure to reflect badly on Christopher. Donna lived to reflect badly on Christopher. Christopher could never compete with her darling, Clark. Toni looked over Donna’s shoulder toward the main floor of the boutique. Where was Charlotte? This was criminal neglect. The sound of voices floated through the curtain. Shockingly, Charlotte had bumped them for another customer. Toni would have to have words with her about this.
Donna didn’t take the hint. “Did you know they’ve been at the casinos?”
Toni waved away Donna’s comment. “So what? Everyone does.” The Bahamas did not permit residents to gamble in the casinos, but everyone ignored the law, and few casinos called them on it as long as the gamblers were spending and losing their money. Which Christopher inevitably was. If this was Donna’s gossip, it was lame.
“But Clark says they were at The Carnival casino last week before they left for New York. Guess who they saw with a woman they didn’t recognize at the high-rollers table?”
Okay, so a little more interesting. Clearly, Donna had something titillating to share.
Toni started. “Rubbish, Darling. That man is class. No way he would be out in a casino with another woman. He’s not stupid. People would see him.”
“Well, Clark said; the woman wasn’t actually sitting near him, but they could tell they were together. He said they were ‘exchanging glances.’”
“I don’t believe it, Donna. I don’t. You know Clark has an over-active imagination. I’m sure there was nothing there.”
Donna looked a little miffed either at her Clark comment or that Toni was refusing the juicy gossip she had laid at her feet. Donna was trying to sour Toni on the Syms, which would be difficult. Everyone in Nassau admired and adored them. Donna was jealous. Felicity Sims and Toni were beginning a friendship, and it threatened Donna. The days since Ulysses Hannah had ruled the Nassau social scene were long gone. And although Toni’s family still carried the scent of Uly’s power and status, that scent was fading. Oh, the Hannas had money, plenty of it. Their generous allowances were proof. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was Toni wanted respect and admiration. She wanted to be the Homecoming Queen, but couldn’t even seem to get on the queen’s court. Social invitations were drying up, and her projects were withering. And lately, all she could think about was that damn prenup Ulysses had made her sign twenty-eight years ago. Felicity Syms was the reigning queen of Nassau, and the woman could become her path to the crown. If only she could get Harold under control.
“Ladies,” Charlotte swept into the room carrying another glass of champagne; she was pink and slightly breathless. “We have a first-time customer here today, and I thought you wouldn’t mind if she joined our showing. Much of what I’ve pulled for the two of you would look fabulous on her.” She giggled and turned to Felicity Syms, who pushed through the curtain behind her. “I mean, everything would look fabulous on you, Mrs. Syms.”
Donna glowered as Toni jumped to her feet. “Felicity! So wonderful to see you! We’d love it if you joined us. Here, have the chaise.”
“Oh, you two know each other?” Said Charlotte. “How wonderful!”
Charlotte knew that everyone in Nassau knew who Felicity Syms was. It had been only six years since the Syms returned to the island, but her family went so far back she might as well have been here for a lifetime.
Felicity perched on the edge of the chaise, and Toni noted her stance. Hands placed carefully in her lap, back straight, alert, and smiling. So much more sophisticated than either her or Donna’s prior sprawl. In fact, Toni thought she might have made that dirt mark with her espadrilles on the chaise next to Felicity’s right hip. Hopefully, Charlotte wouldn’t notice.
“So lovely to see you, Toni! And Donna? Are you both well?” Felicity sang.
Donna mumbled in the affirmative, and Toni said, “Well? We couldn’t be better, could we, Donna?” She didn’t wait for Donna’s reply. “And Jessica? How is the lovely child? I spoke to Christopher yesterday morning, right before my girls' shopping trip to Miami. He tells me he misses her.”
“Really?” Felicity frowned and smoothed the top of her linen skirt. Toni saw actual frown lines. She was so amazing. Imagine being so above needing the approval of others that you skipped Botox. “Felicity has seemed out of sorts the past few days. She hasn’t mentioned anything, but I suppose I assumed they were having a lover’s tiff.”
“A tiff? Surely not. I mean, Christopher adores her. What could he possibly have to tiff with her about?”
“This trip, I believe? I heard them arguing on the phone before he left.”
Arguing? Damn it, Christopher! You don’t argue with Jessica Syms. You just worship Jessica Syms.
“Arguing? I…” Toni stuttered and looked at Donna for help, but Donna was rifling through the racks again. “Arguing about New York?”
“Yes, I believe so. I think that Jessica really would have preferred he not go. I assume they already had plans.”
“Oh, but he had to go, didn’t he, Donna?”
Donna turned from the clothes toward the conversation but didn’t look as interested as Toni believed she should be. “Sorry? Who had to go?”
“Christopher had to go to New York,” Toni said. “Remember, Bradley sent him on a work errand?” She turned back to Felicity. “Clark only joined him to keep him company. Clark hasn’t found a job yet. Right, Donna?”
“Yes,” Donna said. She always came through for Toni. “A client meeting, wasn’t it?”
“Potential client.” Toni smiled. “So you see, it was very important.” She took the last swallow of her bubbly and held her glass out to Charlotte for more. She didn’t want her around for this conversation.
“Speaking of clients,” Felicity said as Charlotte disappeared through the velvet curtains. “Benjamin was entertaining his niece on a visit here last week. What a lovely young girl. She’s interested in financial consulting for the Spa business, so he introduced her to some partners and clients. She’d never been to a casino. Can you believe it? Twenty-five years old and never stepped inside one. Benjamin took her over to The Carnival for some fun.”
Toni glanced at Donna. So not an affair after all. A niece.
“He saw Christopher there.” Toni’s stomach sank. Felicity moved to the racks and fingered a sequin mini-dress. Toni would have to quit drinking for a week to get into that dress, but she could picture it on Felicity, and it looked amazing, of course. “Does he go there often? Benjamin said the staff seemed very familiar with him?”
“Oh no. Not often.”
Donna jumped in. God Bless her. “They have a few friends Who are croupiers there. You know… friends from school?”
They were saved from Felicity’s response by Charlotte’s forceful reappearance. She really wanted to get on to the selling, and after she handed Toni a glass of champagne which Toni nearly dropped, she went straight to the racks and pulled out the exact dress Felicity had been caressing.
“Well, ladies. I actually pulled this for Donna for the Red Cross Ball, but I think it would look marvelous on you, Felicity. Who wants to try it first?”
“Can I say something, Toni?” They walked over to Starbucks, having packed all their purchases into their matching Mercedes. Donna had been silent until now.
“Of course, Darling. You can say anything to me. You know that?”
“You won’t get mad?” Oh, God. Here we go. What had Christopher done now that her “oh so close” son had confided in her about? Honestly, Toni would have no idea what was happening with her son were it not for Donna and her carefully placed informants.
“Of course not. I’m never mad at you!” Not true. But they would pretend it was.
“You don’t need to impress Felicity, you know. She’s not that important. I don’t know. You seem to have put her on a pedestal or something. She’s no better than the rest of us.”
Toni stepped up her pace. It was only fifty yards to the Starbucks, but the sun was beating on her head, and she was craving an iced macchiato. “Yes, Donna. She is. She’s certainly better than you and definitely catching up on me. I mean, her family has been on the island practicing law for probably two-hundred years. She’s a Bethel originally. Did you know that?”
“Of course. I know she’s Charles Bethel’s daughter. But Charles Bethel was best friends with Ulysses. That makes you two equals. You’re the daughter of Ulysses.” She had chosen to ignore the dig about her own family because she was nicer than Toni. Toni wished just once she’d react. Call her a bitch or something.
“No. I’m not the daughter of Ulysses. I’m the daughter-in-law of Ulysses. Big difference. Plus, she was the only one left in that line. Charles must have left her millions and millions, and yet she still built a successful global spa brand and bought an island. What have I done? Held a few charity balls?”
“So what does that matter? Why does that make her a better person?”
“It doesn’t make her a better person, Donna. It makes her a richer person. It makes her a person who will never, ever have to worry about keeping up the lifestyle they currently live.”
They made it to the Starbucks line, and Donna lowered her voice. Everyone came to Starbucks.
“You need to stop worrying about that damn prenup.” Donna whispered. “Your children will take care of you. You will be fine.”
“I’ll be fine if, no, when, Christopher marries Jessica Syms.” Toni hissed back.
Toni had told Donna she was worried about the prenup, but Donna didn’t know all of it. According to her prenup Toni would be entitled to nothing of what she could only assume was Ulysses's vast fortune. Not one penny. She’d been an idiot when she’d signed it, but she’d been young and in love. All she thought then was that Harold was the only child and Harold would look after her. That was then. This was now. Would Harold look after her? Plus, there was the strong possibility that Uly would skip Harold completely and leave it all to the kids. Why not? What had Harold ever done to deserve it?
Bradley would look after her, but he was so stingy. Elizabeth would not. Christopher, her baby, was her best shot. But Christopher was a big spender with a huge appetite for luxury as large as hers. He would need significant income to be able to support the two of them. Jessica Syms would be a wife with an inexhaustible supply of lovely money. Christopher had to marry Felicity Syms.