Linden slid a glance over at me and the gift bag I held in my lap. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“Yes, I did.”
“Ash and I already gave Magnolia a baby gift,” he said. As if that settled it.
“I’m sure you did.”
“A walker. Or…a buggy? Is that the word? The thing you put the kid in and push. What’s that called?”
He nodded, his gaze still trained on the highway. “Right. Stroller. We gave her one of those. Something complicated—and expensive. I didn’t believe Ash when he told me how much it cost but he showed me the website.”
I didn’t know the going rate for strollers but I had to imagine anything designed for twins came at a premium. “I’m sure Rob and Magnolia loved that.”
“They did,” he agreed as he changed lanes. “Rob said it folds itself up with a push of a button. I guess that’s helpful.” He glanced at the gift bag in my lap again. “You didn’t have to get anything. I know you are—I mean, things right now are—or—I’m just saying, you didn’t have to do that. I’ve got you covered.”
Linden was kind enough to refrain from saying out loud that I was unemployed and pinching my pennies hard enough to attempt the repairs at Midge’s house on my own. He was also kind enough to extend his gift-giving umbrella to include me. Another kindness.
Alas, I couldn’t show up emptyhanded. The small collection of picture books and bibs I’d selected from a local baby store weren’t much but gifts didn’t have to be extravagant to be meaningful. My only hope was that Magnolia hadn’t already received these books. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find that baby store again. I’d only ended up there after getting turned around on a wholly pointless roundabout between Hingham and Scituate and then…then I was in Marshfield, half an hour from home and nowhere near the big-box store I’d intended to visit.
Much like everything in my life at this moment, it wasn’t where I wanted to go but somehow it turned out to be better.
“Do you know how many people will be coming to this brunch?” I asked.
I was curious for a whole mess of reasons. Based off the conversation at Linden’s family supper a few weekends ago, I knew this event was a hot topic. Aside from all that, Linden fully intended to join me—not just drop me off because I couldn’t make heads or tails of Boston—and I got the impression this brunch wouldn’t be limited to women as such things often were.
Linden snorted out a laugh. “I have no fucking clue what’s about to happen. If I had to guess, the back room at Capo could seat sixty, maybe seventy people? I don’t know what my mother has planned but I’d expect a decent sized group and a ton of food. After the last baby shower, she sent me home with two huge trays of little cheesecake bites.”
“And how long did those last?”
He was good enough to look offended by the question in a gruff, playful way. “Like I said, I have no idea what to expect. Can you hang with that?”
“Can I hang with that?” It was my turn to be offended though in fairness, we didn’t have much experience with social interactions beyond his mother’s dining room table. “Yeah, I can hang. I just like to know whether I’m hanging in a large crowd or in an intimate gathering.”
“My sister’s friends will probably be there,” he added. “She’s got some wild friends but you’ll probably like them.”
“What does that mean?”
He reached over, pried my hand from the gift bag and laced our fingers together. “It means they’re all serious business ladies who don’t put up with anyone’s shit.”
I glanced down at our joined hands. “And that’s what makes them wild? Or why I’ll probably like them?”
“You’ll see, Jas. You’ll see.”
Linden was right about two things.
There was a ton of food and I did like his sister’s wild friends. I was lucky to have a knack for names because I met about ten women in two minutes while everyone was talking at once. It wasn’t simply a matter of many concurrent conversations but everyone was literally talking at once. Most of them were yelling and a few were swearing like it was the hallmark of their vocabulary.
It reminded me of campaign buses and late nights at the Capitol when it was time to put up or shut up to get a budget passed.
I was right at home.
Diana and someone who introduced herself as “You can call me Judy, hon” were busy flitting around the private event room at the back of this restaurant, straightening floral arrangements and reorganizing the gift table. They were aggressive in shooing the men toward the bar which did make me question why Diana would throw a co-ed event but that wasn’t the kind of trouble I wanted to make here today. All in all, I didn’t mind glancing over to find a long string of good-looking men seated around the bar.
One in particular stared at me from the far end, his expression hard with his chin resting on his palm. If he was listening to Ash on his left or Rob on his right, it didn’t show.
Zelda was on the other side of the room with a short redhead named Erin where they were discussing something very intense. They were gesturing with the mini cannolis they’d grabbed off the dessert buffet and leaving a small shower of powdered sugar at their feet. I continued watching because I was convinced they’d forgotten they were holding the cannolis and would inadvertently send one flying across the room at any moment.
Alex and Stella were a few steps away from Zelda and Erin, a plate of cheese between them while both held mobile phones to their ears. One of them was a surgeon, one was a sports publicist. I couldn’t remember which woman was which.
Lauren and Tiel were having the kind of conversation where they raised their voices but the source of their frustration wasn’t each other, it was someone or something else. They were united in their anger and working it out by hollering and flailing a bit. Every so often, one of them shouted, “And what would you like me to do about it? Really. Really. What am I supposed to do about that?” and then the other replied, “I know. I know. It’s ridiculous and there’s no sense to it at all. Not at all.”
Gathered in a circle around me was Magnolia, Andy, and Shannon. Andy and Magnolia were hashing out something relating to a home renovation project they were working on together while Shannon peppered in whip-sharp comments that didn’t make any sense to me.
“Enough of the work stuff,” Magnolia said with a decisive shake of her head. “Jasper doesn’t need to hear our boring stories about subcontractors and historical preservation society guidelines.”
“I don’t need to hear it either,” Shannon replied. “Strictly speaking.”
“And yet here you are,” Andy replied. “Giving us your opinion regardless.”
Shannon beamed a psychotically serene grin at her. “Here I will always be.”
“I mean, you’re all here because my mother pestered you into showing up on a Sunday morning for another baby bash,” Magnolia said under her breath.
“I feel like baby bash is the wrong term,” Andy said. “That one is a little tricky. I don’t want to give anyone the impression I’m bashing babies in any form.”
“Your mother likes to throw a party,” Shannon said, raising her glass. “Let her do it. If there’s anything I’ve learned from my mother-in-law, it’s that I should sit back and let it happen. She’s going to do what she wants.”
“Funny, same thing could be said for you,” Andy replied.
Shannon regarded the tall, curly haired woman. “You’re such a bitch. I love it.”
Andy lifted a shoulder as she tipped her head to the side. “I know.”
“I don’t want to get carried away or anything but I think we could be the four horsewomen of the apocalypse,” Magnolia said.
Shannon gave me a quick glance, saying, “Just so you know, Magnolia warned us that we were not to harass you with any questions or comments or—”
“Or fawning over your giant lady balls,” Andy added.
“That too.” Shannon nodded.
“My brother made it clear to me,” Magnolia started, gesturing to herself, “that I was not to allow any of my friends to bother you or make you uncomfortable today. He said he’d personally intervene if anything happened.”
Everyone turned a glance toward Linden. He stared back with a slow blink and the same scowly smirk he always wore.
“Gotta be honest here,” Shannon started, “don’t think I’d have a problem with him intervening.“
“Your husband would have a problem with it,” Andy muttered.
“But that’s half the fun,” Shannon said. With a shrug, she continued, “But we’ve promised not to harass or interrogate you at all. We won’t say anything about politics or dusty old men in positions of power or any of it. However, if you’re into pedicures or margaritas, we”—she circled a finger around—”have been known to enjoy such things as a group and discuss matters not otherwise fit for public consumption.”
Out of absolutely nowhere, Lauren popped in and caught my eye, saying, “Just so you know, this crew talks about lube all the time. All the damn time. And where they’re using that lube. You’ve been warned.”
Andy gave a sage nod. “She’s not wrong.”
“Okay then,” I said with a laugh. “Pedicures sound great. Margaritas sound great. Lube is also great. Essential, really.”
With another nod, Andy said, “Yes.“
Magnolia hooked her arm around my waist. “Like I said, four horsewomen of the apocalypse.”
“Wait a second,” Shannon said, wagging a finger. “Are there specific responsibilities? Roles? Or is this a matter of everyone on horses, clomping around and beheading assholes as necessary? Is that what we’re talking about? Because I already do that but I don’t know if you’re asking me to specialize.”
Magnolia stared at her for a second. “You’re not even drunk, are you?”
Shannon pointed to her glass. “This is sparkling water.” She rested a meaningful hand on the bodice of her deep plum dress. “Haven’t been drunk for about fourteen weeks.”
Magnolia let out a silent scream. “Does everyone know?”
“There’s been a ban on eggs of all form at our Monday morning meetings,” Andy said. “That crew has known—”
“They’ve known quietly,” Shannon interrupted.
“Riley must be wasting away,” Magnolia murmured. “He’s probably anemic.”
Diana started directing guests toward the brunch buffet, waving off her husband with a loud-whispered, “Not yet, Carlo. Ladies first!”
Judy joined in the effort, swirling around to the assorted groups and urging them toward the food. She stopped near us and ran a hand down Shannon’s glossy red hair. “Be sure to eat something, sweetheart,” she said. “You need to keep up your strength.”
“I’m as strong as a horsewoman of the apocalypse,” Shannon said in response. “Just one who vomits at the thought of the Park Street T Station.”
“Of course you are,” Judy replied. “Just let me know if you want me to ask them to make something different for you. Plain toast or anything at all. Okay?”
As Judy went to collect Erin and Zelda, Magnolia said, “God, she’s so good. Why can’t my mother be that chill?”
“Your mother is that chill,” I said with a laugh. “But she’s your mother so it feels like she’s a pest.”
Magnolia hit me with an amused glare. “Okay, that’s enough truth out of you for one day.” Shifting to face Andy and Shannon, she said, “So, your immediate family knows.”
“We’ve known since everyone came back in September from our two-week summer break,” Andy continued. “And yes, Riley is skin and bones. Won’t let us forget it either.”
Shannon shrugged. “I wanted to stay quiet for a bit. I’m getting superstitious in my old age. Plus, the past two months have been about you. I don’t need anyone asking about my due date or whether I have morning sickness. I’m on my third kid. It’s exciting but there’s less fanfare involved at this point, and I prefer it that way. I wanted this time to be about you.”
Magnolia’s eyes shone with tears as the two women embraced. Andy said to me, “They aren’t usually like this. I assume it has something to do with hormones. I wouldn’t know but someone is always pregnant around here. One of these years, we’ll have a perfect storm—literally a storm, probably a series of blizzards—and everyone will end up pregnant at that same time.”
“We can’t all be pregnant at the same time yet. Not before we get Jasper drunk and sloppy at a few pedicure nights,” Shannon said. “I want to hear all the insider secrets. Every last one of them.”
Linden was right. I liked these women a lot. They were my kind of wild.
“As soon as I can get into a pedicure chair again, I’m bringing Jasper along with me,” Magnolia promised.
“I was going to say not before we finish the Castavecchia’s Cape Cod house or not before Riley and I work through the last of the Charlestown properties we’re renovating or even before we find Riley and Alex a place to live but sure, we can move up the timeline. We always move up the timelines.”
I glanced back to the bar. Linden was still watching me, his chin still propped on his palm as Ash and Rob seemed to carry on a conversation around him. His brows pitched up as if to ask, Is everything okay?
I nodded. Yeah. This was all right.