If you had asked Susan Holbrook if she was a sore loser, she would've denied it vehemently, but that was only, of course, because she did not contemplate losing as an option altogether.
Since she was born eighteen years before, life had bestowed every blessing upon her. The only daughter of Russ Holbrook, heir to the famed railway dynasty which settled in the United States a century before, she acquired money from her father, beauty from her mother, and her intelligence from both.
Since she was an infant, she had been spoiled and pampered, not only by her parents, but also from nannies, servants, and family acquaintances who never failed to stop by the Holbrooks bearing gifts for the littlest one. Her life had been an easy one for most part, as anything she wanted was at her disposal, be it a toy or a pet, or a new shiny pair of shoes handcrafted in Paris. That was, until a fateful spring day on her fifteenth year of life, where she fell upon the only thing her parents couldn't buy her – love.
She'd first met Joseph about two years prior at her father's annual company picnic. As the boss' daughter, she was required to attend, but in all frankness, she didn't care much for the event. Everyone in attendance was either too young or too old to keep her company, as most of her peers had been sent to boarding school abroad by their parents once they became of age. Those who had once been her childhood friends were now across the ocean, while she had been left behind to be home schooled, her parents far too sentimental to send the only daughter a continent away.
That year's picnic hadn't seemed remarkable in any way. The weather had been considerably favorable, and the park adjacent to Susan's family's country estate provided the perfect scenery for relaxing and playing around.
Conversation with her parents had been pleasurable, as much as it can be for any sixteen year-old girl, that is, and she indulged their friends in small chit-chat whenever they stopped by their table. Food and drinks had been good and plenty, and by the time two p.m. rolled round, she was ready to settle on a blanket with a book and doze off in the sun for a couple of hours.
It was during a particularly enthralling passage of Wuthering Heights, that a handsome stranger approaching her father caught her attention by standing in her light. When she put her book down and turned around he was already gone, immersed in chatter with her father a few feet away from her. From where she was standing she could only see his back, but she admired his tall, slender figure and his broad shoulders. She noted that his left finger was bare, not to mention he had a whole head full of hair, which was not something to underestimate in her limited opinion. How many times had she met perfectly handsome men who from the front sported luxurious locks, only to find out when she turned around that God had not been as generous in the back!
The man appeared beside her, after ending his conversation with Mr. Holbrook. "Do you mind If I sit here?"
"Not at all." she replied, scooting aside to make room for him.
"I don't think we've met. I'm Joseph Westley." he extended his hand, "I just started working for your father a month ago."
"I'm Susan." she shook his hand in turn, "But you probably already knew that."
"Firm grip." he observed.
"Father says it's the mark of a great man."
"But you're not a man."
"Who says a woman can't be as great as any man?"
"True. Say, how old are you? Fifteen?"
"I'll be sixteen next month."
"Hm." Joseph picked a grape from a nearby container and popped it into his mouth. "You got moxy for your age. I like that. I bet you could convince someone you were a tree if you talked to them long enough."
"Perhaps. I've never tried. How old are you?"
"Thirty last month." He replied, looking far away pensively. "You know, it's nice to talk to someone young for a change. Everyone here's either five or fifty."
"Tell me about. I had to go to these things since I was a baby. You know, you should bring someone to keep you company at this sort of boring engagements ... " Susan said coyly, trying to suss things out. "a girlfriend, or a wife."
"I don't have any. Maybe someday. What about you? No one to keep you company?"
"Oh, no. I'm just there to play good little daughter and be the belle of the ball."
"Doesn't that bother you?"
"Why should it? I'm not one in a position to complain. Besides, once I'm eighteeen, everything's gonna change. I'll do what I want."
"Now, you sound exactly your age." Joseph laughed.
As they continued talking, Susan's fascination with Joseph only grew stronger. It was so different from any other male she'd met. He actually listened to her when she talked, never breaking eye contact and keeping her engaged with questions born out of genuine curiosity rather than mere duty. He treated her like a peer instead of fragile china doll, or a puppy that you pat on the head condescendingly after giving them a little treat.
Susan hadn't been the only person impressed with Joseph, though, as Susan's father himself had nothing but praise for the young man. His arrival to the company had improved business tremendously, and he found him to be a shrewd businessman, not to mention a trustworthy employee. He saw a great future for him in their company, and soon he was a staple in their household, coming to dinner twice a month, much to Susan's delight. In a matter of months, he had become not only a close associate, but a close friend of the family and everyone could only say that the day they had met Joseph Westley had been a blessed one.
Months flew by, and they soon became years. Susan's eighteenth birthday rolled around, and with that, her certainty that Joseph would finally reciprocate her love.
"Happy birthday to youuu, Happy birthday to youuu. Happy Birthday, dear Susan, Happy birthday to youuuuuuu."
The crowd surrounding Susan concluded their off-key rendition, clapping and cheering as the maid hauled a white sheet cake with an emblazoned gold eighteen on the table.
"Come on, darling, make a wish." Mrs. Holbrook urged her, patting her shoulder with her lacquered hand.
Susan leaned down on the table and rested her index on her chin, pretending to think it over. In truth, she knew all too well what she wanted, or rather who. In fact, she had been trying to get the object of her affection for years, to no avail. Her eyes glanced across the room where Joseph stood, his dark hair peeking over in the middle of the crowd, and before darting back on the cake she could've sworn she saw him winking in her direction. She smiled, then blew on the burning candles with all her might. She was gonna get her wish this year, she swore to herself, If that was the last thing she'd do.
Susan walked towards the balcony where Joseph leaned over the railing, smoking a cigarette.
"Here," she said, putting a slice of cake on the marble in front of him. "I saved you a corner piece. Those are the best ones."
"Thanks" he replied, putting out the cigarette on a nearby ashtray. "There was so many people trying to get a piece, I figured I'd never get close anyway."
"Consider this one the perks of being close friends with the birthday girl."
"So, how does eighteen feel?" He asked, digging with his fork into the white frosting.
"Don't you remember?"
"It's been a while," he chuckled, "You're gonna have to refresh my memory."
"Exactly the same, and completely different at the same time. There is so much I couldn't do yesterday that I could do now. For example, getting married ... I could just run off to Vegas with anyone and be done in a few hours. I'd be set for life, and no one could object." she said casually, hoping Joseph would catch the hint.
"Except voting, or drinking." he quipped.
"Oh, well. What's three years, anyway?"
"Three years is a lot of time at your age. Anything could change."
Susan waved her hand dismissively. "Why must you always be so practical?"
"Occupational hazard." he polished off the last bit of cake left on the plate, leaving a light smearing of frosting over his upper lip. "Listen, there's something I've been meaning to talk to you a-"
Susan giggled, unable to contain herself at the sight of Joseph's serious frown next to his sugary moustache.
"What's so funny?"
"You got a bit of -" she giggled some more, coming closer to reach for his face, then ran her thumb over his mouth.
"Susan." he said firmly, but not without a hint of fondness in his voice, retracting as gently as possible.
"All gone." She reclined back on the railing, and licked the frosting from her fingers. "You know, I think a moustache would suit you. Look at Clark Gable. Before he had one he was nobody, then boom, he won an academy award. You should think about it."
"Maybe. That's a big change in a man's life." he said, averting her gaze and picking up his empty plate. "I think we'd better go back inside, it's getting chilly out here. Everyone is probably wondering where you are."
If there wasn't one thing Susan couldn't resist, it was a good piece of gossip. Mind you, she was not one to engage directly in the activity, but in her opinion, there was no harm done in being a passive listener. If wasn't her fault if other people couldn't keep their tongues tied, after all, and if she happened to be in earshot, she certainly couldn't help what she ended up hearing.
So, of course, that wednesday, when she ran into some of her mother's friends sitting poolside at the Country club after her weekly tennis practice, and found them immersed in deep hushed chatter, she couldn't help but stopping by - not because she wanted to eavesdrop, of course. It would have just been quite impolite not to say hello, that was all. Etiquette and whatnot.
"Good morning, ladies."
The small group immediately stopped their chatter, turning their attention to Susan.
"Susan! Come, come sit, darling. You must be parched." Mrs. Vance, one of her mother's fellow member of the daughters of the American revolution said, before pouring her her a glass of iced tea.
Susan thanked her and sipped on her drink, as the woman kept talking.
"I'm so sorry I couldn't come to your birthday party last week. It's my Benjamin. The flu, you see. He's always been sensitive to temperatures, but now I'm afraid age is catching up with him. He's all bones ... and his skin - all wrinkles."
"Poor thing." Susan said, sympathetically. "Send him my regards, and tell him I wish him a quick recovery."
Mrs. Vance furrowed her brows, uncertain what to say. "I will, If he can understand what I'm saying."
Susan put a hand on her heart. "Oh, gosh, I didn't know his health was that bad."
Mrs. Hoover, a little octogenarian with fiery red hair sitting on Susan's right side, leaned into her. "Benjamin is her sphinx cat." she whispered.
"Anyway," Mrs. Vance continued, "We'll have occasion to see each other soon. Your family is coming to Martha's Vineyard this fourth of July, right?"
"Oh, yeah, we wouldn't miss it for anything in the world."
Every year during the days leading to the fourth of July, Susan and her parents flew to their Martha's Vineyard property, alongside some of their close friends who also happened to have properties in the same area. It was a full on extravaganza filled with music, food, and games, leading up to the big party the night of the fourth, which the families took turns in hosting.
"You better not." Mrs. Vance replied, "I heard this year it's gonna be quite the event."
Her dark eyes closed into slits, her mouth thinning into an enigmatic smile, giving her the appearance of an elder Mona Lisa.
"Really?" Susan asked, perking up.
"Yes, but I shan't say more." the woman mimed zipping her mouth.
Mrs. Hanson, a plump blonde woman around her mother's age, jumped in from her seat across the table. "An engagement is gonna be announced on the fourth, or so they say."
"Oh, how fascinating!" Susan sighed, dreamily. "Whose?"
"Phyllis, I said no talking!" Mrs. Vance objected.
"No, dear, you said you would say nothing. I'll talk as much as I please!" Mrs. Hanson replied, before turning back to Susan.
"So, I was at the hairdresser yesterday, and who I run into if not Louella."
Louise Carson, neè Wilson, was known to her family members by her birth name. But to everyone else who mattered she was known as "Louella", due to her more than average-sized mouth.
"Her sister-in law lives right next door to the brother of the widow of the younger Wilson. You know, the short one, not the tall one."
"And?" Susan pressed on.
"She says the daughter of the other Wilson brother is announcing her engagement at the party."
"Which Wilson? the short one?"
"The middle one."
"Age or height?"
"Both." Mrs. Hanson replied, before turning to Mrs. Hoover. "Martha, what's his daughter's name?"
"Helen." her friend supplied.
"Yes!" Mrs. Hanson exclaimed. "She's the one getting engaged. Do you know her, Susan?"
"Not really. We only met a few times. Wasn't she studying in London?"
"She graduated a couple of months ago and came back home."
"You left out the most important part, Phyllis!" Mrs. Hoover urged her friend. "The boy!"
"Oh, right. Who is she marrying?"
Mrs. Hoover smiled wickedly through her wrinkles, eager to share such a juicy piece of information.
"You know him. It's that nice young fellow who works for your father," she thought it over for a second, "Joseph."
All color drained out of Susan's face as the grip around the cold glass in her hand tightened, her heart beating a hundred miles an hour under her white tennis outfit. She didn't dare move a muscle, or reply for that matter, fearing her feelings could have transpired in her reaction. If her shock was evident, she couldn't tell either way, since the ladies around her seemed much more concerned with the sound of their own voices than anyone else's, buzzing like bees.
"Now, you have to promise to keep this hush-hush. It's supposed to be a surprise." Mrs. Vance said.
"Hmm-hmm." Susan agreed, nodding, before gulping down the remaining of her tea, her mind barely registering what was happening around her.
The ladies continued talking, engaging Susan in polite chatter, but the whole ordeal had clearly lost all of its appeal to her. What was the fun of gossiping when you were at the offending end, albeit indirectly?
So, she got up on unsteady feet and excused herself, leaving Mrs. Vance with the promise of coming over soon with her mother to visit Benjamin and share a cup of tea.
She checked her wristwatch on the way to the wooden building housing the changing rooms. It was only eleven in the morning, but she already couldn't wait for the day to be over.