Chapter 21: Cat
Nassau, The Bahamas - 1994
Cat’s knees had a life of their own. They were jumping so hard under her silky dress the slit kept slipping to the side and exposing her creamy white thigh. She would need to get out on that patio at Water’s Edge and get some sun if she didn’t want to give herself away as an island interloper. Parisia’s makeover had been a bit of a shocker for her. Parisia had kept her away from the mirror until her fussing was complete. When Cat finally got a look, she didn’t recognize herself. Her eyes, which she would have described as hazy hazel, seemed to have transformed into a deep emerald green to match the color of her dress. Was it the eyeliner? The shadow? Her cheekbones were sharp and spectacular. Her lips, which had rarely seen a smudge of lipstick being, as Cat considered, way too fat already, were plump, juicy red cherries. Paris had performed magic. Cat was determined to get her to teach her how to do it. Makeup had always been a luxury in Cat’s life and really, the only time she’d ever worn it was when Sarah insisted she borrow hers before a rare night out. Cat glanced at herself in the reflection of the car window with a surge of satisfaction. In this dress, with this makeup, she looked… Dare she say it? She looked rich.
“Here we are, Miss.” The driver spoke from the front seat as they turned into a long driveway. At the end of the driveway was the most magnificent house Cat had ever seen. She’d seen some pretty impressive villas on the drive out to Water’s Edge from the airport, but this one was off the scale. It had what looked like three wings. The middle section of the house that faced the driveway seemed older than the two expansive wings stretching out to either side. All three sections had columns that stretched along the front of deep porches. The middle section, though, had plain, square wooden columns. The side wings had taller round columns with fancy stuff on the tops and bottoms. There were two floors in the center house, but three floors on either side, which gave the odd impression that the house was leaning toward you. It was like a butterfly about to take off, or a gaping, monstrous mouth trying to swallow you up.
“Welcome to Highwater.” The driver said.
As the car slowly swung around the driveway, Cat saw the rear garden briefly. Highwater sat at the top of a small hill. Behind was a long lawn that sloped gently down to the sea, with a dock and a boat… or was it a yacht? She glimpsed the two bridges that led back and forth to the main island and a cruise ship docked in the port beyond. Her knees continued to shake and the tips of her fingers were numb. Had she ever been so terrified?
As the car slowed to a stop, the door of Highwater opened and Christoper rushed out. Unlike in the Waldrove and at the blackjack game where he’d dressed in chinos and patterned shirts, today he was in full black tie. Black tie? For a family dinner? She wasn’t complaining. The curls of his raven black hair rested gently on his white collar, and she could dive in and have a swim in those blue eyes. The blooming sunset behind him made him even more of a vision as he broke into a huge, warm smile when he spotted her in the back seat. She’d been transported into a James Bond movie. If only she could pass for a Bond girl.
The driver rushed around to her side of the car and opened the door. She stepped out carefully in her satin strappy sandals. She forgot to catch the edge of her skirt, and the dress slipped to the side, the long slit exposing slightly more leg than she was comfortable showing. Christopher stopped in his tracks.
“What?” She panicked.
“Just… wow!” He said. “You look amazing. Extraordinary! I’ve never seen you out of your uniform and with…” he cupped his hand and circled it in front of his own face. “… you know.”
“Okay.” Cat urged herself to come up with some witty retort, but there was Christopher standing right in front of her, calling her extraordinary, and she couldn’t think of a thing. “Thanks.” She was so lame.
Christopher took a last long look and then grabbed her elbow and stepped closer. “I need to go over the plan.”
Okay. So straight down to business. Just in case that long look made her forget herself and why she was here. She had to remember that he didn’t bring her here for him. He brought her for the cards.
“Okay.” She said again. Wishing she could find more vocabulary in his presence.
“So. My entire family is here. They don’t know you’re coming.”
“Oh, God.” She groaned.
“No.” Christopher squatted slightly so he could look her directly in the eye. “That’s the plan.”
“Okay.” Shit. Did she know no other words?
“I need to make it as realistic as possible that you’re here for a reason other than the real reason you’re here. My family can’t know about my personal business dealings. Okay?”
“This is what we’ll say. We met at the Waldrove. Not a lie. You swept me off my feet. Okay, a lie, but thankfully the way you’re looking tonight, that could be believable.”
Cat nodded dumbly at the back-handed compliment. Trash. The word echoed through her head.
“They’re going to ask about your family. I’ve been wrestling with this and I think we should say that you have none. Say you are from Italy or something, and your parents died, and they shipped you off to be educated in America. Do you know some fancy schools?”
“Fancy schools?” She said. The panic rose to her chest and threatened tears. “No. I don’t know any fancy schools. This won’t work, Christopher. I don’t think I’ll be good at this kind of thing. Just make stuff up?” She was gripping his arm hard, and he shook it off in irritation.
“Yeah, how difficult can it be? Okay, so you went to Spence Boarding School, and you graduated from Columbia University. You can decide on your degree. Make stuff up, and I’ll stay at your elbow tonight and remember what you say so we can keep on the same page.”
Christopher, seemingly utterly confident with this plan as only a man like him could be, slipped her arm through his and pulled her toward the house.
“Christopher, no… I won’t be good at this.”
But it turns out she was. She was so good at it that the evening she had dreaded was turning out to be a heap load of fun. As they walked into the house, Christopher had told her they would start at the edges with the people who didn’t matter. That way, if they screwed up something, it wouldn’t make a difference. His family would be in the center of the room, so by the time they got to them, they would have their story straight. Finally, they would approach Ulysses, his grandfather.
“He’s the only scary one.” He said. “Unless you count my mother, which I don’t. I’m pissed at her just now anyway, so I want to piss her off as much as possible.”
She’d decided she would still be Catriona Wilson. Catriona now, though, not just Cat. Catriona had not been born in Italy. There was no way she could pull that off, but she knew New York like the back of her hand, so New York it was. She told everyone Catriona had been born in New York. Her mother had died in childbirth, not too far from the truth. And her father died shortly thereafter from a broken heart. Her only relative, Auntie Livvy, the actual truth, couldn’t raise her, so she had sent Catriona to a small, nearly unknown catholic boarding school in New York. She’d been in New York ever since. It was surprisingly easy to stick to this story because, as Cat was discovering, these people were completely uninterested in talking about anything other than themselves. After the first few cursory and obligatory questions about her background, they’d moved on, discussing their latest meal at Cafe Matisse or their last shopping trip to Miami. Cat was excellent at asking questions, so that’s what she did. She just kept them talking. Christopher was true to his word and stayed at her elbow. Every time she looked up at him, he was either scoping out the room for their next victim or smiling down proudly at her. His blue eyes shone as though it truly was love in them. She knew better. Christopher looked at her and saw dollar signs.
“Okay, here’s the first scarier one,” Christopher said. “But this one’s easy. My brother doesn’t care who you are. He’s already called you a floozy. Let’s just let him think you are one of my flings, and he won’t dig any deeper.” Christopher put his hand on the small of her back, giving her an involuntary shiver, and guided her toward a very tall man facing away from them, also dressed in black tie.
A floozy. Nice. She’d been enjoying this, too. Christopher’s brother thought she was a floozy. Her confidence dived just as Christopher tapped the man’s shoulder, and he turned around. She flashed back to the moment on the Water’s Edge patio when she’d thought Fred the Fisherman looked like someone. She’d thought maybe a famous person. Now she knew who he looked like. He looked like Christopher. Indignation roared into her throat.
“Fred the fisherman.” She said without thinking. Her usual reticence fired up by his stupid joke.
Christopher gave her a funny look before removing his hand from her back and draping it around her shoulders. “Brad, I’d like you to meet Catriona Wilson.” He said. “I think you’ve heard about her. She’s staying at Water’s Edge.”
“Catriona.” Brad said, having the courtesy to blush slightly at her annoyed frown. “That’s a beautiful name.” Now he smiled a wolf-like grin. “But I think I prefer Cat. May I call you Cat?”
Bradley Hanna looked like his brother Christopher at first glance, but it was easy to see that first glance was where it ended. Where Christopher had bone-sharp cheekbones and creamy coffee skin, Brad had a strong masculine jaw covered with the perfect amount of scruff. Christopher had long curly eyelashes and thin eyebrows over his powerful blue eyes. Brad had thick eyebrows and green eyes that were also prominent because of his short, perfectly arranged brown curls. No surfer dude style for big brother. They were both handsome, but Bradley had an intimidating gravitas.
“Can I call you Fred?” She said. Christopher shot her another confused look and squeezed her shoulder as if to say, get it together.
Brad burst out laughing, “Do I look like a Fred?”
“No. Not just now. Just now, you look exactly like a Bradley.” She said.
“It’s lovely to meet you, Cat.” Brad smiled at her, and unlike Christopher, his smile went to his eyes. She could hear the laughter in his voice. He was laughing at her. Why wouldn’t he? She considered how she’d looked during her arrival at Water’s Edge. Dumpy, badly dressed, hot, and sweaty. But he’d said she was a floozy? Judgemental prick.
For a minute, she considered saying, “I wish I could say the same.” But before she could open her mouth, Christopher was guiding her away.
Christopher leaned down to her ear, which was probably bright red from the annoyance that continued to surge through her.
“What was all that about?” He said. “Don’t lose it now. You’ve been doing such a great job. It’s only going to get harder from here.”