Joyce H. Ackley
The minute Erin caught a whiff of hot apple pie wafting from Aunt Shelby’s kitchen, she resolved to forget about calories during this vacation with her aunt and her cousin, Nicki. Three years had passed since she’d eaten Aunt Shelby’s legendary Southern cooking, and she’d savor every bite. Every morsel.
“Oohhh, heavenly!” Erin said, lifting her chin to sniff the tantalizing aroma of cinnamon that pervaded the family room where the girls sat.
“One little piece, and I’d put on five pounds.” Nicki grinned. “We’re gonna party tonight! Aren’t you excited?”
“Sounds like fun. I’m looking forward to meeting your friends.”
“Just wait ‘til you see the Taylor’s home! And they’ll go all out for tonight.” Nicki cocked her head. ”You won’t find that kind of party in Muncie, I bet.”
Erin shrugged. “I’m not really a party person. But it seems a bit odd, having a big shindig on a Sunday night.”
“It’s a belated birthday celebration for their son, Rob. His thirtieth. He just got in last night, and he’s going back to Chicago Friday.” Nicki toyed with her gold signet ring. “I wouldn’t miss this party,” she said. “Rob is hot! It doesn’t hurt that his family is loaded, either. He’s a little stand-offish, though. Not like the rest of the Taylor’s.”
“Is he stuck-up?”
“Oh, no. He’s a professor. Kind of the quiet type.” She chortled. “But he better watch out!” She curved her hands into claws, long nails like red talons. Tossing her mane of freshly-highlighted blonde hair, she let out a throaty growl. “Here comes Nicki!”
Erin laughed. “He doesn’t stand a chance!” Her cousin’s carefree attitude amused her. Six years ago she’d been Nicki’s age, twenty-two. Just starting her nursing career, she had lived in a dreary little basement apartment that smelled of damp concrete. Whopping student loans dictated meals of sandwiches and ramen noodles. Lost in thought, she realized Nicki had said something she didn’t catch. She focused on her cousin.
“Don’t you? Get what you want? I do.” Nicki said. She took a sip of her diet cola.
“Not always. You win some, you lose some.” Joel’s betrayal and the painful, shattering break-up still stirred up bad memories. She longed for a relationship with a man of good old-fashioned values. Love had dealt her a cruel hand, and she hoped her luck would change.
Erin rose. “You’ve already showered. I’d better start getting ready, too.”
“Wait’ll you see my dress!” Nicki placed a hand on the top of her thigh. “It’s this short, red, and sexy. Yup, Rob better look out!”
He’s a goner, Erin thought. He won’t know what hit him.
Erin showered and towel-dried her damp hair. Auburn curls fell to her shoulders. The summer humidity required heavy-duty styling products, and she’d packed plenty.
When she tore open the dry-cleaners bag containing her turquoise silk sheath, Erin let out a yelp. An ugly, scorched area marred the front of the dress. Clearly, the damage was beyond repair. “Oh, no! No!” Her cry brought Aunt Shelby and Nicki hurrying into the room.
Erin held up the garment. “I don’t have anything else to wear. I should have checked the dress.” She slumped onto the bed. “I guess I won’t be going.”
“Oh, honey.” Her aunt placed a plump arm around Erin. “Let’s don’t give up yet. They’re expecting you. Nicki, do you have a dress Erin can wear?”
Nicki looked Erin up and down. “What size are you? Ten?”
“Sorry. I’m a two. I have a couple of size fours, but nothing that big.”
“The only store open around here is Deb Discount,” Aunt Shelby said. “I don’t know if they’d have anything suitable.” She nibbled at her lip. “Maybe a black skirt and a fancy top?”
“Who would wear something from Deb’s to a party at the Taylor’s?” Nicki blurted.
“Wait a minute!” her aunt said, eyes wide. “Cindy left some clothes here when she moved out. She’s about your size. Let’s check her closet.”
“Good luck,” Nicki muttered. “I’m gonna get dressed.”
The closet held winter coats, a suede vest, and two Christmas sweaters. Cindy had also left a long-sleeved gown in burgundy velvet, and a floor-length lavender number that screamed “bridesmaid.” One garment remained -- a long plaid jacket. Erin’s heart sank. She had almost shut the closet door when she noticed the sheen of a dark skirt falling below the jacket hem.
Her breath caught in her throat. The dress was a sleeveless, scoop neck taffeta, simple in style.
“Erin!” Aunt Shelby said. “A beautiful little black dress!”
Nicki popped in, wearing a short red halter dress and matching stilettos. “Did you find anything?”
“This.” Erin showed the dress.
Nicki wrinkled her nose. “Hmmmm. I’m almost ready to go, so Mom, she’ll need to take your car.” She swung out of the room before the women could reply.
The dress fit fabulously. The full skirt swirled elegantly around her legs. Erin’s bosom filled the bodice to perfection and revealed just the right amount of cleavage.
“It’s too plain. It needs some showy jewelry,” her aunt said. “I don’t have any, and Nicki is funny about loaning out her things.” She beamed. “You know what? I’ve still got Nana’s costume jewelry, and she had lots of big ol’ glitzy stuff. I’ll get it.”
Erin selected an oversized silver peacock brooch from Nana’s collection and pinned it at her waist. Royal blue and clear rhinestones formed the bird’s tail plumes. They found drop earrings to match. Black peep-toe pumps completed her outfit.
Music and mellow light spilled from the house when Aunt Shelby dropped Erin off at the Taylor’s. Erin had been reluctant to drive the unfamiliar, complicated route, and her aunt gladly obliged.
“Ride home with Nicki,” she said. “Have fun!”
Erin’s legs were stiff as wooden blocks when she rang the bell on the arched, antique door. She plucked at her borrowed dress and blew out a long breath. “What am I doing here?” she whispered.
The Taylor’s greeted her as if she were an old friend, and a group of guests stepped up to chat. The knots in Erin’s stomach relaxed a little.
“I love your jewelry,” Mrs. Taylor said. “In some cultures, the peacock means 'Good Fortune'.”
A smile lit Erin’s face. “Thank you.”
Nicki whooped with laughter. “Guess where Erin got her outfit? She did her shopping in my sister’s closet and my grandmother’s jewelry box! Seriously!” Giggling, she trotted off to join another group.
A tall, sandy-haired man stepped up to the cluster where Erin stood. “Wherever it came from, it’s very classy,” he said. “And so is the lady.” He smiled into her eyes, and Erin’s heart hammered a staccato rhythm.
“I’m Rob Taylor.” He nodded toward Nicki. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault. I’m Erin Mead. Lovely party, by the way.”
“Glad you’re enjoying it. Walk to the kitchen with me? I need to replenish the cheese tray.”
With the ease and camaraderie of a pair accustomed to working together, Rob and Erin assembled the platter. She arranged assorted crackers on one side; he fashioned arcs of cheese cubes on the other.
Nicki marched into the kitchen. Ignoring Erin, she sidled up to Rob. “There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you. Some of us are going to the club. You’re coming too, aren’t you?”
“I haven’t thought about it.” He glanced at Erin.
Nicki set her lips in a mock pout. “Of course you are! If you want to join us, Erin,” she said, “you can follow me.”
“Aunt Shelby dropped me off. I’ll pass on the club. I’ll call a cab.”
“Are you sure?” Nicki asked.
“You’re not calling a taxi. Absolutely not.” Rob said. “I’ll drive you home. My pleasure.”
Nicki’s back stiffened. “Goodnight, then.” She flounced past them, bracelets jangling.
“Thanks, Rob. It’s a long way for a cab ride. And it’s too late to call Aunt Shelby. She’s probably ready for bed.”
“No problem. I really should stick around for a little while,” he said. He grinned. “Will you keep me company?”
“I’d love to,” Erin said.
“Good. Let give you a little advice. Your aunt knows exactly what Nicki is like. It breaks her heart. So spend your time with Shelby. She adores you. Stay away from Nicki.”
At once Erin felt light, free. She marveled. Had she really just met this man? Hadn’t she known him all her life?
At last she said goodnight to Mr. and Mrs. Taylor. On the sidewalk Rob turned Erin to face him. “I’ve wanted to do this since the minute I first saw you.” He leaned down and dropped a soft kiss on her lips. His hands caressed her arms. “Do you mind?”
Erin shook her head. “No,” she whispered.
Rob squeezed her hand. “I’ll bring the car around. Be right back.”
“I’ll be waiting.” The stones of the peacock pin winked in the moonlight. Erin smiled.
About the Author: Joyce H. Ackley is a retired teacher who makes her home in Florida. Three spoiled, neurotic cats share her writing space. Joyce’s work has appeared in Long and Short Reviews, Good Old Times magazine, The Dollar Stretcher (online and in print), The Writer Within newsletter, and The Working Writer. She draws her characters and plots from everyday life. Sometimes dreams provide ideas for a story.