Chapter 22: Toni
Toni Hanna was in her element tonight. She swept the room with an imperious glance and noted the number of smiling high-status attendees with a drink in their hands milling around her living room. Highwater was her palace, and she was its queen. She’d been passionately in love with this house from the moment she saw it when Harold took her home to meet his doting mother and scary father. When Toni’s mother’s cousin invited her to work for the family accounting firm in Nassau, Toni’s mother jumped at the offer. Toni was not yet seventeen, but her mother convinced her to drop out of high school to take advantage of this opportunity to escape Queens. She told all her friends that she was reluctantly parting with her daughter to give her the opportunity of a lifetime. Toni knew it was only so that her mother would have more money to spend on her drug habit and more space in their one-bedroom apartment for her rotating “boyfriends.” When Toni arrived in Nassau, she quickly realized that her mother’s relatives hadn’t wanted to give her an opportunity. They’d only wanted a low-paid servant who looked good greeting guests at reception and fetching them coffee. At least, that’s what she did during the day. After closing every night, she cleaned the offices, returning to the cramped room above the garage on her family’s property after dark every night. The tiny studio apartment was nicer than any apartment she’d ever lived in, but she was lonely. She even missed her mother.
The day Howard Hanna walked into the accountancy firm, Toni’s life changed. Before he’d arrived, they had briefed her in urgent hushed tones. A Hanna was coming. One of the Hannas. They’d had some trouble with their accounting firm and were looking for another. A contract with the Hannas would set the firm up for life. She knew from the moment he laid eyes on her she could have him if she wanted. And she did. She wanted out of this mean little office and her mean little apartment. Harold wooed her as though she were a Kennedy. Flowers, champagne, sunset dinners on catamarans. It was a life that Toni never knew existed, and even if she’d detested Howard, which she didn’t, she would have done anything to keep it. And Howard didn’t care about her seedy past. He didn’t care that she hadn’t graduated from high school. He loved her for exactly who she was, and although she’d begun the relationship as a business arrangement, she’d fallen in love with him, too.
That first visit to Highwater seemed like a million years ago. Ulysses had been sitting exactly where he was now, lord and master of this house that he’d spent over two decades expanding from a modestly impressive colonial into the jewel of Paradise Island. But as Howard explained, it wasn’t Ulysses who transferred Highwater into the most important house on the island. It was his mother, Pearl. Pearl Hanna had poured all her love and passion into only two things: Howard and this beautiful house. And when Toni came along, Pearl loved her too, like a daughter. Pearl was the only reason Toni was still around. If Ulysses had his way, he’d have chucked Toni from the house on that first day. She was not good enough for his son. Not classy enough to be a Hanna. But Pearl had seen the love between her son and Toni and, with her mystical powers over the dominating presence that was Ulysses, Pearl had kept her around.
Then Pearl died, and everything fell apart. Ulysses turned nastier and meaner, punching Howard down every chance he got. He growled at his grandchildren, screamed at the help, and gave Toni the silent treatment. Howard had spent his life trying to please his father. Only Pearl had kept him from slipping under the weight of expectations Ulysses had piled on Howard’s shoulders. Howard was smart and capable, but nothing was good enough for Ulysses. Howard, always a drinker, lost his way in a haze of numbing alcohol. Nothing Toni said or did could replace the soothing presence of Pearl. But Toni had lost Pearl too. And then she lost Howard. She had needed him, and he had left her alone to endure the blame from Ulysses. According to Uly, it was Toni’s fault Pearl had died, that Howard was a drunk, and that he’d agreed to Pearl’s deathbed wish that he gift Highwater to his first and only born son.
What was this? Christopher was walking toward her with a woman. No, a girl, really. Toni knew everyone on the island. She didn’t know this girl. She was the most beautiful girl in the room by a considerable margin. Toni did a quick inventory. Soft brown curly hair, hair she’d always dreamed of, electric green eyes to match an emerald Prada silk dress. Okay, the dress was two seasons ago, but it worked on her lithe, pale figure. But something was off. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but this girl gave a whiff of something. What was it?
“Mother,” Christopher said, with what only she knew as a calculated smile. “This is Catriona Wilson.”
The girl extended a delicate hand, which Toni ignored as she glanced nervously around the room. Where was Felicity Syms? Had she seen this woman? Toni couldn’t see Felicity, but she could see Jessica. Jessica was as pale as a sheet, and one of her friends had placed a comforting arm around her shoulders. What was Christopher thinking? And Catriona? What kind of name was that?
Catriona kept her dainty little hand raised expectantly. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Mrs. Hanna.”
Well, her accent was wrong for a start. Maybe Christopher didn’t hear it, but to Toni, it was instantly recognizable. This was a Jersey girl if she’d ever heard one. Toni glanced down at the hand without taking it. And there it was. Confirmation. This girl had never had a manicure in her life. Those cuticles crept halfway up her stubby, unshaped, and unpolished fingernails. You could take the girl out of Jersey, but you couldn’t take the poverty out of the girl.
“Catriona,” Toni said. “Interesting name.”
“Thank you.” The girl smiled.
“I wasn’t giving you a compliment,” Toni said. Christopher rolled his eyes, and Catriona dropped her hand hastily.
“Oh… I’m… I mean, sorry. I thought…”
“You’re from New Jersey?”
The girl glanced up at Christopher with evident panic in her eyes.
“New York,” Christopher said.
“Really?” Toni lifted her martini to her lips and took a sip. Felicity Syms had entered the room and walked toward them at pace. What in the Hell was Christopher thinking bringing home some Jersey junk and parading her around Highwater as though she belonged with him? In front of the Syms. She tried to stare Christopher down, but his smug, self-satisfied smile remained. So he wanted a battle, huh? She’d had an idea that he wasn’t happy about her pushing him so hard toward Jessica Syms, but he’d always been her baby. He’d always been the child to do exactly what she wanted because he knew he was her favorite and wanted to keep it that to lord over his brother and sister. What had changed? Where had this disrespect come from? He’d known Jessica and the Syms would be here and brought this girl, anyway? Toni needed to get this girl, whoever she was, and Christopher out of here.
“I think I see Ulysses calling you, Christopher. Why don’t you introduce your new friend to your grandfather?” She turned away quickly to deal with Felicity. Ulysses had a better nose for poverty than even she. That girl wouldn’t last a minute in Ulysses’ presence. She’d be weeping and running for the door in no time. Toni glanced over at poor, shocked Jessica and gave her a wink. Christopher would need a far better weapon than a Jersey tramp to win a war with his battle-trained mother.
“Felicity, so lovely to see you.” Toni caught Felicity by the arm and guided her toward the long buffet table loaded with canapes. “Have you tasted the salmon? Howard’s friend in Scotland flew it in just this morning.” Howard had won the salmon yesterday from Bruce Haley at a private poker table in Lyford Cay, but she wasn’t about to admit that to Felicity. Even so, she still enjoyed that Nancy Haley was missing an item on her own buffet table this evening. Bruce Haley must be in the naughty corner.
“Who’s the girl?” Felicity said.
“The girl?” Toni faced the room and did a sweep with her eyes as if she had no clue who Felicity might be talking about.
“The girl with Christopher. That girl.”
“Oh, that girl. Um, I think Christopher mentioned it was the little sister of a fraternity brother. He told him he would look out for her on her visit to Nassau, you know? Make sure she didn’t fall into the wrong hands.”
Felicity sniffed, lifting a salmon canape from the tray and nodding toward the corner. “By the look on Jessica’s face, I would venture to say that’s already happened, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Christopher and her? Oh no, Felicity, not a thing to worry about.” Toni lowered her voice. “To be honest, I think Christopher realizes he’s over-committed. I don’t think she’s quite his type for a friendship. You know Christopher prefers a more… polished girl. You should see the poor thing’s nails.”
“Yes, well, she looks pretty shiny to me.”
Toni risked a glance at Felicity to judge her mood. She wasn’t angry, thank God, but she was undoubtedly judging Christopher. Everyone would judge Christopher right now. He’d brought a girl no one knew and was parading her before his girlfriend. And if Christopher was being judged, she was being judged. Oh God, she hoped no one believed she had anything to do with it. She took an extra-large swallow of her martini as she watched Christopher and the girl, who was pulling at her curls in a very unladylike manner, walk toward Ulysses. The heat rushing down her throat was punishing, but she resisted the urge to cough. Felicity had followed the direction of Toni’s gaze and was also watching the scene play out before them. Ulysses, never the quiet one, was loud enough to hear clearly across the room.
“Well, who’s this lovely-looking girl, Christopher? She has the look of your grandmother Pearl about her.”
And she did, Toni thought. Pearl’s hair was straight and blonde, but the girl Catriona had Pearl’s eyes and her pouty bedroom lips. Pearl’s beauty had never faded, but it hadn’t stopped Ulysses from sampling the other goodies on display. Once his son had become a drunkard, he’d followed in his father's footsteps. Even Toni had been no Pearl, and she felt a rush of jealousy follow the burn of the vodka down her throat. If she were honest with herself, she was no Catriona either.
She heard only the mumble of Christopher’s reply before Ulysses gave a body-shaking chuckle and then did something so unexpected. Toni had to lean back against the buffet to keep standing. He stood, brought the girl’s hand to his lips, and kissed it gently. “My Pearl was an angel, my dear. And you look like an angel too. You’re welcome at Highwater anytime.”
Welcome at Highwater! What...? This was her house, not his. It had been her house for years. He had no right to…. Could he not see? It had been so clear to him when Harold had picked her. Was he happy for his grandson to repeat his son’s error? No, not an error. What was she saying? She was the right choice for Harold, but this girl was wrong for Christopher. All wrong. How could Ulysses not see?
Felicity interrupted Toni’s inner raging. “Well, Toni. You know what they say about shiny new things. Christopher needs to be careful not to get too distracted, wouldn’t you say?”
Toni risked a glance toward Jessica. She was storming for the exit hand in hand with her bestie. Felicity put down her canape and followed.