Fallling for the Prodigal Son (7 page)

BOOK: Fallling for the Prodigal Son
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"Considering how much you're charging me for your advice, I'll take it under consideration."

"I'm not being flip here, Sterling. I've asked around. She's single, not dating anyone. It could be the most expedient means to the end."

I've already slept with her and fat lot of good that seems to be doing me.
Not that he could ever say that to Elle. He scanned the lawn, looking at who else his mother had invited. Apparently, Lucy was the only staffer his mother had invited. Good. He didn't see the camp director mingling amongst the tables or hanging out in the bartender's tent. He and Lucy had seemed awfully cozy the other day. Not that he cared. Nope. None of his business.

A bell tinkled. That was his mother's elegant signal for her guests to be seated. Brunch was about to served. Instantaneously, a small army of uniformed serving staff appeared on the lawn, their silver trays shining in the sun. They glided gracefully between the tables, dipping and turning like dancers, soundlessly positioning a plate in front of each guest, shaking out a heavy cloth napkin for everyone. They were followed by girls with pitchers of water, tea, mimosa.

Sterling felt his chest tightening. He looked at the dainty flutes of mimosas that had sprouted on the table.
I need something stronger than that.

"Are you okay?" Elle asked.

He nodded. "I'm fine ... just thinking about all the work I need to get to today." He took a deep breath. That helped. A little. He despised his parents' lifestyle. Oh, he loved them. They were good people, and they did a lot of good for the town of St. Caroline. But he hated this lifestyle of the rich and famous. So gracious ... so pretentious. It was meaningless to him. He had no intention of carrying on this way of living. He'd rather spend his money on experiences, on doing things. Not on staging precious brunches for far-flung relatives. He looked over at the table where Lucy was seated. She was deep in conversation with an elderly lady Sterling didn't recognize. She was probably some great- aunt or distant cousin. He would no doubt have to chat with her at some point today and pretend to remember her from his childhood.

Elle kicked his shin under the table, then turned her head toward him. "See? She's cute," she whispered conspiratorially.

Sterling grimaced before he realized who Elle was referring to.
Oh right, not my great-aunt. Lucy.
Well, yeah. Lucy was cute. No, more than cute. She was fairly stunning today, in fact. Had he ever noticed how great a smile she had? As a teenager, her only expressions had been world-weariness and a scowl. But she seemed to be charming his elderly relatives at the moment. Even the family attorney looked smitten.
Good move, Sterling boy.
James would probably end up telling her things about the business he probably shouldn't. Or revealing the terms of Sterling's "summer job" here. Just what he needed—the whole world knowing that his mother was blackmailing him.

Lucy was perfectly dressed for one of his mother's brunches. The yellow and blue floral print of her dress looked very French. And the big pale yellow hat? Very British. Her table mates were laughing over something she just said, and it occurred to him that, in fact, this probably wasn't the first of his mother's brunches that Lucy had been invited to.
She probably knows half the guests here better than I do.

Where did she learn to dress like that, he wondered. Anyone who had seen her as a teenager, as a camper, would not have predicted that she would ever have any sense of fashion or style. Lucy Lou had been slated to drop out of high school, get pregnant by the time she was eighteen, divorced by twenty and on welfare and food stamps by twenty-one. But instead, she was working at an upscale resort and, right now, charming an entire table of wealthy people. How did you get from there to here?

Even Elle had choked on her latte when he told her that Lucy had been a camper back in the day. Sterling had not, of course, told her about his and Lucy's liaison. There was a good chance Elle wouldn't believe it anyway, but no point in taking that risk. The last thing he needed was that story getting around.

"So when are you two getting hitched?" His cousin Daniel's question snapped Sterling back to his own table. Someone at the table was getting married? "I imagine your mother's champing at the bit to start the planning."

Elle let forth with her delicate, lilting laugh. "Oh, you'd have to tie me up and drug me to get me to marry Sterling."

Everyone at the table laughed, at his expense, Sterling realized belatedly. "Elle is a consultant at the Inn this summer," he said.

"And an old chum from boarding school and college," Elle added.

"That too," he admitted. He turned to Elle. "So when
you getting married?"

Elle shrugged. She and her boyfriend, Edward, had been dating since junior year of college. Edward and his sister ran a family bed and breakfast north of San Francisco. Despite her love for Edward, Elle had
confessed to Sterling her doubts about spending her life as an innkeeper. She preferred her consultant's life, jetting in as a hired gun to fix a finite set of problems, and then moving on to the next job. Sterling could empathize. Being in one place for long made him claustrophobic. His parents had spent their entire adult lives in St. Caroline, running one business, living one life. Granted, the world needed people like that to keep things going, to maintain traditions and so forth, but Sterling could not imagine it ever being him.

Chapter 10



"Is that Sterling's girlfriend?" Great-aunt Elizabeth pointed her fork in the direction of the table where Sterling and Elle were seated.

"I believe so," Lucy replied. Elle was leaning her head into Sterling's. They looked very cozy today.

What a beautiful day for this brunch, Lucy considered. Sarah always put on lovely social events. The weather had turned out perfectly today, as well. The crisp, starched tablecloths fluttered in the light breeze. Origami flowers in the shape of lilies—John's favorite flower—swung prettily from the branches of trees. No matter what Sarah did, it always came off without a hitch.

Unlike Lucy's own mother, who had stumbled and careened through life like a bull in a china shop. No matter where she went, she found herself on Trouble Boulevard.

Great-aunt Elizabeth was still appraising Elle Scott-Thomas. "Well, she's a looker," Elizabeth said loudly. "A redhead though. She's a handful, I'll bet."

"Elizabeth!" Marianna chided.

Lucy and Elizabeth were well-acquainted from these Matthew family get-togethers. Lucy knew almost everyone here. At this table alone were Sterling's uncle Frederick; his twin cousins, Julianna and Arianna; their mother (and Sarah's sister) Marianna; and John's nephews, Michael and Timothy.

"Well, it's about time he settles down. Sarah wants grandchildren, you know."

"All in due time," Frederick chimed in.

"Time is now," Elizabeth replied. "Look at John over there—" She tilted her head toward John, wrapped in a shawl in his wheelchair. "He's in worse shape than Sarah has let on. Even if that redhead is knocked up right now, John isn't going to be around to see any grandchildren." She placed a papery hand on Lucy's forearm. "Do you know if she's pregnant?"

Lucy shook her head, almost appalled at the turn the conversation had taken. "I've only met her twice."

She kept her eyes on John Matthew. She had spoken to him earlier, right after she arrived. He looked even more tired than he had last weekend. He looked as though he had simply given up, given in to time and his body's weaknesses.

"Shameful," Elizabeth went on, emboldened by a few too many mimosas. "He broke Sarah's heart when he refused to come home from Europe earlier."

"No, no, that's not true," Marianna said. "John wanted him to find himself."

"Well, has he found himself?" Elizabeth asked. "Was he doing anything constructive in Switzerland?"

"He's found himself a lovely girlfriend. That's a start." Frederick said. Everyone laughed, except Elizabeth who harrumphed and stabbed her fork into her salad.

Lucy turned her attention to her own salad. This was supposed to be a brunch for John Matthew but the extended Matthew family was far more interested in the return of Sterling. The prodigal son. John and Sarah had always made Lucy feel as though she was the daughter they never had. She and Sarah talked for hours on the phone, went shopping together. John had provided her with invaluable financial advice over the years. James here, to her right, had done Lucy's divorce. She spent Thanksgiving at the Matthew house. They were the normal, close family she'd never had. John was like the father she'd never known, the father she'd always imagined having when she was a child, in some better, nicer life.

But Sterling's return was making her realize that, much as she wanted to be a part of the Matthew family, she really wasn't. With each passing day, she was feeling less and less like John and Sarah's daughter. Maybe it had been foolish to ever feel that way in the first place. Why hadn't Sarah confided in her about the Inn's financial problems? She was the marketing director. She could have helped with that. She would do anything for John and Sarah. Didn't they understand that?

Next to her, Elizabeth clicked her tongue. Lucy followed her gaze. A nurse was unlocking John Matthew's wheelchair and slowly spinning it 'round. John looked white as a sheet and barely awake. Sterling jumped up from his chair and rushed over to take the wheelchair. Lucy—and everyone—watched as he pushed his father up the lawn
toward the grand Matthew house.

Maybe it was simpler than Lucy had thought. John and Sarah's real child was home now. They no longer needed a surrogate.

Lucy was amazed at Sarah's stoicism. It occurred to her that this brunch was all about putting on the right face, and showing that John Matthew's illness was not going to change the Inn or St. Caroline. Everyone knew that wasn't true, of course. The Inn would never be the same without John. Oh, it might be just as good but it would be a different sort of good.

And it would be a change that wouldn't come easily to the town or the Matthew family, Lucy suspected. There were residents in town who still attended church in buildings that had been constructed in the 18th century. This was not a place that embraced change. Lucy liked that about it. St. Caroline—and the Matthew family—had a sense of timeless stability that had been utterly lacking from her own life. Lucy didn't even know where her father was, let alone know where her ancestors had gone to church. In fact, Lucy didn't even know what her father might look like now; the last time she'd seen him was when she was eight. He could bump right into her on a street and she wouldn't recognize him. Maybe he already had.

Lucy spent the next hour listening quietly to the Matthew family conversations and debates swirling around her. She had little to add to it. Frederick was having his garden redone. Timothy was sailing to Maine to check on the new Hinckley yacht he was having built. Julianna and Arianna were spending the rest of the summer at an equestrian camp out west, before going back to their New England boarding school in the fall for junior year. Lucy contemplated the feasibility of having Julianna and Arianna teach a weekend Cotillion seminar for pre-teens. Parents of means would gladly pay for etiquette training, she thought, and using teenagers as the seminar leaders would appeal to kids slightly younger.

If Sterling didn't love the idea, she knew Elle would. Elle would talk him into it.
Why wait?
Lucy decided to text the idea to Elle right then and there. She pulled her phone out of her tiny woven luncheon lady purse and thumb-typed away.

"They're not making you work today, are they dear?" Great-aunt Elizabeth leaned over.

"No, not really. Well, no more than people normally work on weekends these days."

"It's shameful, the way people are expected to slave away these days."

Lucy allowed herself a tiny smile. She liked Elizabeth but sincerely doubted the woman had ever worked, let alone slaved, a day in her life.

Elizabeth wasn't done, however. She leaned in further. "I hear that Sarah had to threaten Sterling in order to get him to come home," she said sotto voce. "If he didn't get his derriere on a plane pronto, she was going to cut hi
m off. Now and in the future." Elizabeth gave Lucy a meaningful look. "It seems to have worked, wouldn't you say?"

Frederick hissed at Elizabeth from across the table. "Liz! You don't know that for certain."

BOOK: Fallling for the Prodigal Son
6.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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