This must be the season for parties, Maggie thought as her dad pulled the wagon into the Parkers' yard. She reasoned that the community probably needed some festivities to help get over the rough events of late. Houseguests were as good a reason for socializing as anything, though Evan Parker wasn't exactly a guest, since this was his home. In any case, Maggie was less concerned about him than she was about another houseguest who would be in attendance at Evan's "welcome home" party.
Tamara Brennan, the Stoddards' guest, would also be at the Parkers' tonight. Tamara was the same age as Ellie, and they, along with Sarah Stoddard, had been in the same class at Mrs. Dubois' finishing school in Portland. Maggie had wheedled all the information she could out of Ellie about Tamara. Ellie had tried to downplay her qualities.
"Oh, I guess she is pretty, in an ordinary sort of way. Yes, she has a graceful manner about her, but anybody can learn that."
Maggie read between the lines and knew Tamara was beautiful, graceful, sophisticated, and accomplished. All the things Maggie wasn't.
Well, now she was about to see for herself. She was as prepared as she could be. She had worn her best dress, a rose-colored lawn with matching lace yoke and sleeves, and a dark purple satin ribbon tied around her waist. She felt far more "got up" than she had at the quilting party. Ellie had fixed her hair, taming her wild curls into ringlets, some falling around her shoulders, some tied at the back of her head. She felt on display in the most brazen, horrible way. Ellie tried to reassure her that everyone would be dressed up and had worn her best dress to prove it. Mrs. Parker had told everyone it would be a formal evening. Perhaps, then, everyone would be as uncomfortable as she was. After all, they were farm folk, not city socialites. Dad, in his Sunday suit, was running a finger around his stiff collar. Even Mama looked a bit out of sorts in a navy linen dress that Maggie had seen her wear only twice before, years ago. It was better than even Sunday best. Georgie was complaining about having to wear his Sunday duds on a Friday.
Before Dad had knocked on her door, Maggie had prepared herself for a boring evening. A far cry it would be, she was certain, from the relaxed barn dance held at her house last week.
They were not the first to arrive. More than a dozen folks were already standing around the Parkers' large parlor. Maggie noted the furniture had been rearranged so that chairs now lined the wall, but there didn't appear to be enough room for dancing, which was too bad. She had hoped for another chance to dance with Colby. She craned her neck but did not see him. She supposed this would be one of those boring parties where everyone just stood around and talked and ate.
"Welcome!" Mrs. Parker said, scurrying up to them as they handed their wraps to Mr. Parker, who apparently was in charge of opening the door and taking care of coats. Affluent as they were, they did not have servants.
Mrs. Parker was smiling and flushed, obviously excited about the festivities. She took Mama's hand warmly, as if there were no animosity between them.
"We have been looking forward to the evening," Mama said, also in a congenial way.
"Come, let me introduce you to my Evan," Mrs. Parker said.
"But we already—" Maggie began to state that of course they already knew him, even if it had been years since he'd been home for any length of time.
"Evan, dear, come see who is here!" Mrs. Parker called.
Maggie saw Evan standing by the refreshment table, and just as his mother called, he popped a big piece of cake into his mouth. When he turned upon hearing his name, Maggie had to restrain a chuckle. He looked like a chipmunk hoarding his winter meal. He hurriedly tried to swallow, his Adam's apple bobbing in an even more amusing manner.
Evan was four years older than Maggie, so her memories of him were vague. Yet she recalled that he had always been an odd sort. The other boys his age tended to make fun of him. Even Boyd, who was the same age, had done so. They called him four-eyes because he wore glasses, and teacher's pet because he always made good marks. Maggie remembered Mama scolding Boyd for it, telling him that the boys were just jealous of Evan because he was so smart. He'd won every prize in school and most of the county prizes, as well. Only the educational ones though, not the athletic prizes. They usually went to Colby or Boyd or a couple of the other more popular boys.
Evan now came over to greet the Newcombs. He politely shook Dad's and Georgie's hands—Boyd was absent, still working at the lumber camp. Then he gave a small bow to the women. When he smiled, Maggie noted there was a bit of chocolate cake stuck to his front tooth. Other than that, she did think he had a nice smile, even if it did twitch nervously a little. He was about as tall as Dad, not quite as husky, but certainly not slender. His complexion was ruddy, his hair a carpet of tight blond curls cut short, probably to prevent a wild mass like Maggie's long curls. His eyes were brown, and he wore wire-rimmed spectacles, no doubt because he'd ruined his eyes with all his studying.
"My goodness, what fine manners they taught you back there in Boston," said Mama.
Maggie thought the little bows were a bit old-fashioned, even silly, but she kept that to herself.
"We are so very proud of our boy," gushed Mrs. Parker. "He graduated law school at the top of his class!"
The other day he'd been fifth in his class, but Maggie wasn't about to quibble with a proud mother.
"So you are a practicing lawyer now?" Dad asked.
"I am licensed to practice law," Evan replied. There seemed a peculiar edge to his response, as if there were more behind his words than he was saying.
"Maybe you can give Earl Cranston some competition," Maggie said. "We can sure use a lawyer around here that isn't in the saloons half the time."
Dad arched a brow. "What do you know of Mr. Cranston?"
Just then the door was opened again by Mr. Parker, and new guests arrived—the Stoddards. Excusing herself, Mrs. Parker flitted over to them, calling for Evan to join her. The Newcombs made their way into the parlor, but Maggie lingered in the foyer for a moment. She was delighted to see Colby among the new arrivals. Unlike all the other men in the crowd, he actually looked marvelous in his Sunday suit, but then she always thought he looked wonderful. Colby was simply at ease in any situation, as a gentleman, a farmer, a lumberjack, or whatever guise he chose.
Next to him was obviously Tamara Brennan, a dark-haired beauty if ever there was one. Just as Colby outshone every man in the room, Tamara made every female appear pale and dowdy in comparison to her. And to see her and Colby standing side by side as though they belonged together made Maggie's stomach queasy.
Even in her dismay, however, she noted something else. Evan Parker had turned red as a beet. Had he just realized his teeth were covered in cake? It couldn't be the presence of Sarah Stoddard, who was all but hiding behind her brother. No, that wasn't it. Evan was looking right at Tamara and looking a lot like Maggie did when she looked at Colby. Was he merely flustered by her beauty? Then Maggie recalled Mrs. Parker mentioning that Evan and Tamara's brother had been classmates at Harvard. He must already know Tamara, and by the look of it, he must have a crush on her.
Everyone was now moving into the parlor, and Maggie joined them. She said hello to Colby and was a little perturbed that he barely acknowledged her. Still, she lingered in the little circle that formed with Tamara, Colby, Evan, and herself as they continued to exchange pleasantries.
"Well, Evan, how are you adjusting to our little backwater burg after the big city?" Colby asked.
"I am happy to be home," Evan replied.
"I loved Boston when I was there this spring for the graduation," Tamara said. "The tall old buildings, the traffic on the streets, the shopping—we have nothing like that here."
"But you live in Portland," put in Maggie, to keep in the conversation.
"Portland may seem grand if that's all you know, but once you see a really big city, you realize what you are missing."
"They are the ones missing something," Evan said. "I mean—uh—if you ask me."
He added this because he'd obviously realized his contradiction might offend Tamara.
"I guess Boston had many good points, too," he added a bit lamely.
"Like what?" Maggie asked. She probably shouldn't have put him on the spot like that, but it irked her that he had clearly changed his opinion in order to support Tamara.
"Well, uh . . . history . . . yes, history. So much there."
"That's what I was saying," Tamara said.
"I never could take too much history," said Colby.
"Neither could I," Maggie chimed in quickly. And though her statement was true, she realized she was doing just what Evan had done, lining herself up with Colby by supporting his statement.
"You'd think differently if you could stand and look upon the very harbor where they had the Boston Tea Party," Tamara said, her eyes alight with enthusiasm. "It is not the same as reading history in books."
"That would be interesting," Colby said. "The Boston Tea Party was one of the few exciting stories I recall from school. I was always amused to think of our forefathers dressing up like Indians and sneaking onto British ships. They were quite the rebels of their day."
Maggie laughed. "Put that way, it is funny!"
No one else laughed quite as heartily as Maggie, and there followed an awkward pause in the conversation.
Finally Colby broke the silence. "I am parched. Can I get anyone punch?" When both Tamara and Maggie said yes, he responded, "I'll make two trips."
"I'll lend a hand," offered Evan.
The two men went to the refreshment table. Maggie searched her mind for something to say to Tamara, mostly because the silence was uncomfortable, but also because she wanted to know more about her . . . rival?
"I hear you were in the same finishing school class as my sister, Ellie," Maggie finally said.
"Oh yes. What a dear girl. I hear she is to marry."
Glancing to where Ellie was standing across the room, Maggie noted Zack was beside her. He must have already been there when they arrived. "That's him next to her," Maggie pointed out.
"He's very handsome." Tamara paused, seeming hesitant, then asked, "Is it true, what Mrs. Stoddard was saying . . . ?"
"I'm sure it is." Maggie laughed. "Yes, he pretended to be our minister so he could hide from a gangster who was after him. He was actually a very good minister."
"How positively . . . well . . . interesting."
"So, Tamara, you live in Portland?" Maggie asked.
"Yes. My father is a doctor there."
"You must be engaged yourself, to be married, that is?" Maggie asked hopefully. It seemed possible that a beautiful girl like Tamara would be taken.
"No, I'm not. My mother says I best make a choice soon, or I will be considered an old maid."
She smiled pleasantly, the kind of smile that made Maggie certain Tamara Brennan wasn't a bad sort. In fact, she was rather friendly, and maybe Maggie could become friends with her. But first she had to know if Tamara had designs on Colby.
"It's too bad you had to interrupt your husband search to come here," Maggie said. "You must have many suitors in Portland and Boston."
"I broke off an engagement two months ago. He—well, it didn't work out. My mother thought a change of scene would do me good."
Colby returned holding two glasses of punch. Maggie reached out her hand, but Colby didn't see it and gave one of his glasses to Tamara. He might have handed the other to Maggie, but just then Evan arrived. He was still a couple steps away when the toe of his shoe caught on the edge of the carpet. He leaped forward, right in Maggie's direction, and the contents of the two glasses of punch he was holding flew into the air. The red punch made a perfect arc. Everyone else nearby scurried out of the way, but Maggie was a step too late. The punch splashed upon her, right in the middle of her bodice and down the front of her skirt.
"Oh my!" exclaimed Evan as he caught his balance. "Look what I have done!" Juggling the two now empty cups in one hand, he plucked his handkerchief from his pocket with the other and tried to blot up the mess on Maggie's dress. Realizing how unseemly that was, he turned as red as the punch and became more flustered than a fox caught red-handed in the chicken coop.
"It's okay," Maggie tried to assure him, taking the hankie from him to finish the blotting.
"I've ruined your dress," Evan lamented.
"Not at all. Look, it is practically the same color as the punch!"
Mabel Parker came up to them. "Come with me, Maggie, and I will help you clean up." She put an arm around Maggie and led her from the parlor.
Maggie didn't think she needed any help, but Mabel probably thought it her duty, since this was her home and it was her brother who had caused the mishap.
They went upstairs to Mabel's room, and Mabel produced a bottle of clear liquid she said was a good stain remover. She dabbed it on the worst of the spill, then used clear water to clean up the rest. Though there probably wouldn't be a stain, Maggie would have a big wet spot down her front during the rest of the evening.
"It'll dry quicker than you think," Mabel said, being unusually considerate.
For a country girl Mabel had always been rather snobbish, Maggie thought. She was sophisticated and charming in her store-bought clothes, but she had always made Maggie feel like a silly child. Maggie wondered how she had turned out as she did because her parents, though rich, came from farming roots, and though her mother did at times "put on airs," she was, in dress and manner, just like everyone else in the community. And now Maggie saw that even her brother, for all his years in the city, was just as unrefined as his parents.
"There's nothing more to be done, but thanks for your help, Mabel."
"You're welcome." Mabel's brow knit.
"Is something wrong?"
She seemed hesitant to respond, then said, "I'm worried about my brother."
"He's probably just nervous about being the guest of honor," Maggie suggested.
"If only that were it, but you wouldn't understand, dear."
This was the kind of statement that always irked Maggie. Mabel could be so condescending.
"Are you worried he'll have his heart broken by Tamara Brennan?" Maggie asked, just to prove she might understand more than she was given credit for.
Mabel blinked in surprise. Maggie had hit it exactly right.
"What do you know of that?" Mabel asked.
"Well, it's obvious. He turns red every time he looks at her, or worse, trips all over himself when she is near. That's probably why I got punch spilled all over me."
"And he hasn't got a chance with her because she is here to snag Colby."
"What!" That was what Maggie feared most.
"You are so perceptive, I am surprised you didn't guess that, as well."
"I guessed," Maggie admitted, her stomach sinking. "Has . . . has Colby spoken for her?"
"Both the mothers are manipulating matters, though I am sure Tamara and Colby know the real purpose of the visit."
"That can't happen!" gasped Maggie. Just the other day at Ellie's quilting party it seemed as if Mrs. Stoddard was trying to push Colby and Ellie back together. That hadn't bothered Maggie too much because she knew Ellie's love for Zack was solid. What was Mrs. Stoddard's game? Hedging her bets all around?
"What do you mean? Oh, of course. You have a little crush on Colby, don't you?"
"It wasn't hard to guess. Every girl in town has been after Colby at one time or other."
"What about you?" Maggie asked.
"Even me." Mabel shrugged. "I gave it up when I saw how serious he was for your sister."
"Now that he's free . . . ?"
"No . . ." She got a dreamy look on her face. "Stanley Driscoll is paying court to me. You probably don't know him, but his father owns the Driscoll Steamship line. I met him last summer when we were in Astoria."
That was indeed a perfect match for Mabel—a rich city fellow. But Maggie was surprised she hadn't heard anything but vague rumors about this. The gossip from the Sewing Circle always managed to drift down to the daughters eventually.
"I hadn't heard, Mabel," Maggie said, then added politely, "Congratulations."
"It's not official yet, and Mother wants to keep it quiet until . . . well, just for a bit." Then Mabel went on, returning to the earlier direction of the conversation. "You won't have much of a chance for Colby with Tamara around."
Maggie nodded dismally.
"And my brother won't have a chance at Tamara with Colby around."
Feeling suddenly reckless and honest, Maggie said, "I'd be happy to remove Colby from the field."
"You could, you know." Mabel gave Maggie a careful look. "All dressed up like you are, you could give Tamara some competition."
"Ah . . . no . . ."
"Honestly, you could." Mabel rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "You and Evan should join forces. Of course you would have to do the lion's share of manipulation. Men can be so dull regarding romantic matters."
"I don't like the sound of that," Maggie said. "I'm no good at it, for one thing. I tried when Zack was the minister, and I failed miserably. I'm glad I failed because he and my sister belong together, but still, I know I'm not good at scheming."
"I wouldn't call it scheming. But if opportunities were encouraged for Evan and Tamara to be together and likewise for you and Colby, what is wrong with that? It's just like giving nature a little push."
"How well does your brother know Tamara?" Maggie asked, growing uncomfortable with Mabel's suggestions, though intrigued at the same time.
"Her family went to Boston last spring, as did we, for the Harvard graduation. Apparently the Brennans had visited their son in Boston on a few other occasions. Evan had opportunity at these times to socialize with Tamara, because he and Tamara's brother, being from the same state and all, had become friends. Poor Evan was besotted with her but too shy to do more than bask in her presence."
"Did she give him any encouragement?"
"They were friendly to each other, but she was being courted by a man at home. My brother must not have made a strong enough case for himself, for she became engaged to this other man upon returning to Portland. It didn't last. I haven't been able to ferret out the reason, but the engagement was broken off. When Evan found this out, he gave up all his Boston prospects and hurried home."
"Does he realize the mothers are trying to match Colby and Tamara?"
"I'm sure he does, but if you haven't noticed, Evan isn't what I would call an aggressive sort. Nor has he the kind of charms that would woo a girl from the likes of Colby."
Maggie thought about the clumsy, average-looking fellow who had dumped punch on her dress and had to agree. "I suppose he could use some help."
"Do give it some thought, Maggie. You could benefit, as well."
Maggie wondered what was in it for Mabel to see these matches succeed but could only discern that she truly wanted to see her brother happy with the woman of his dreams.
"We best get back to the party," Maggie added. She wasn't ready to make a commitment.
Back in the Parker parlor Maggie kept thinking about her conversation with Mabel and grew more and more intrigued. As they were leaving for the evening, she thought of a way to get to know Evan better and perhaps search him out about these matters.
"Evan, may I speak with you sometime about a friend of mine who is having some legal problems?" she asked.
His momentary hesitancy concerned her, but then he replied, "Yes, of course. I could come by your house sometime, if that would be convenient."
"Thank you. How about tomorrow?"
"I have some family obligations, visiting some relatives and such who couldn't make it tonight. I will be gone several days to Scappoose and Columbia City. Would sometime next week work?"
"That would be fine." Maggie tried to hide her impatience with waiting, but she couldn't very well badger the man. She also remembered that her family had received a letter from Mama's mother that morning. She would be arriving on Monday, and Maggie shouldn't make other plans until Grandma had been here at least a day or two. "How about after lunch on Wednesday, then?"
Giving his spectacles a push up the bridge of his nose, he said, "I will look forward to it."
Maggie wondered what she was getting herself into. Could she really maneuver, or as Mabel put it, "give nature a little push," in this situation? Tamara was obviously not interested in Evan, since she had spent very little time with him all evening. And Evan appeared helpless to rectify the matter. Could Maggie help him? It seemed she had no other choice. Though Tamara hadn't been with Evan, she had all but monopolized Colby.
Sister's Choice (Patchwork Circle #2) by Judith Pella
Copyright © 2008; ISBN 9780764201349
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.