News traveled fast in Martha's Vineyard, and as soon as Mrs. Holbrook's fellow daughters of the American revolution caught rumor about Susan's misadventure, they didn't waste any time.
Mrs. Vance, as the self-proclaimed leader of the little clan, took it upon herself to telephone Mrs. Holbrook and inquire not-so-discretely about the happenings of the previous day. Under pressure, Susan's mother, who was positively itching to share the news of her daughter's upcoming nuptials, had to summon all her strength not to spill the beans right there and then. Eventually, after a lengthy conversation in which Mrs. Holbrook promised to explain everything in due time, Mrs. Vance finally let her off the hook with the promise of taking the whole clan to the Yacht club that very afternoon for some fun between friends and dinner afterwards.
Of course, barbecue was not the only type of grilling the woman had in mind.
"My, my, look at you Susan! You're glowing!" Mrs. Vance grasped the girl's arm as soon as she stepped onto the yacht, digging her lacquered nails nto her skin. "Phyllis and Martha are already here. Come, come, everyone!"
She led the Holbrook party onto the main deck, where Mrs Hoover and Mrs. Hanson lounged on a wicker sofa, drinking and chatting, their heads perched under wide sunhats. Two elder men sat opposite them, presumably their husbands, smoking fat cigars and commenting the latest news on the paper.
"Well, well, look who's here!" Mrs. Hanson exclaimed, looking Susan up and down. "Come sit next to us, dear, and bring the boy."
Mr. Holbrook patted Connor on the arm, looking over at the gawking ladies with an amused smile. "I'm sorry, son, you're on your own for this one. Consider it a rite of passage."
"You seem to forget I was born well-off. I think can handle my own with a couple of old ladies."
"Sure, you do." Mr. Holbrook replied with little confidence, before he and Joseph shared a chuckle and left Connor to his own devices, joining the two men on the opposite side of the deck.
"Well, Susan, aren't you going to introduce us to your gentleman friend?" Mrs. Hoover said excitedly, as soon as everybody was seated on the couch.
Connor wasted no time, greeting the ladies one by one and shaking their hands politely.
"Say, where are you from?" Mrs. Hanson intervened.
"Hmmm," Mrs. Vance squinted her eyes and pursed her lips, deep in thought. "There's a lot of Murphy's in that area. Are you by any chance related to a Florence Murphy, married to judge Holloway?"
"That would be my aunt."
"Martha, Phyllis, did you hear that? Florence's nephew! What are the odds!" Mrs. Vance gushed. "Oh, what a lovely woman! We went to Brown around the same time. We took French literature together one semester. I haven't seen her in ages, how is she?"
"I'm afraid you know more than I do." Connor replied tersely.
"I remember your father quite well, too." Mrs. Vance continued, immersed in the sound of her own voice. "A handsome devil, he was. A couple years ahead of us. All us girls were trying to get a date out of him, but he only budged for your mother. She always had an extra gear, that one. You know, you look just like him at your age."
"I'm afraid that's where the similarities end."
"Oh, don't be modest." Mrs. Hoover jumped in. "It doesn't go well with that face."
"We should all have dinner together one one of these days, for old times' sake." Mrs. Vance said, "You, Susan, your folks, your aunt and the judge. What do you say? Of course I don't have their number, but if you give me a second to get a pad and paper -"
Mrs. Vance rabidly fished into her purse, piling item after item on her lap.
"Oh, darn," Susan took charge of the conversation, sensing Connor's distress at the mention of his family. "I don't have my address book with me! … perhaps another time?"
"Oh, well, sure." Mrs. Hanson stopped her search and regained composure, straightening out in her seat. "There's no rush."
"No rush at all. It's not like he's going anywhere. Right. Alice?" Mrs. Hoover smiled knowingly at Susan's mother.
"Of course he's not going anywhere." the woman replied, dead serious. "We're sailing out to sea."
"Speaking of sailing," Mrs. Hoover addressed Mrs. Vance, "We've been sitting here for ten minutes, Hilda. When are we setting off?"
"Patience, Martha. There's still a couple of guests that have to arrive."
"You'll see. Oh, There they are!" Mrs. Vance pointed her lacquered finger behind Susan's shoulders, over to the dock.
Susan turned around, and at the corner of her eye she saw three familiar figures, two female and a male, approaching the yacht. She didn't even have time to registered their presence, that Mrs. Vance was already by the boarding ladder, ready to greet them just as she had done with her a few minutes before.
There was a lot of the usual squealing and high-pitched chattering, before she reappeared back on the deck with none other than Helen Wilson by her arm, and Mr. and Mrs. Wilson following suit.
Susan had to admit, in spite of herself, that Helen's looks had improved considerably compared to the last time she saw her. Her frizzy blonde hair had been tamed into slick waves, and though the roundness of her body remained, now it had settled on certain areas more than others, giving her figure a proportionate and healthy appearance. She could see why Joseph could fall for her charms, and didn't particularly enjoy the feeling.
Mrs. Vance was quick to make introductions, and pleasantries were exchanged between the guests, with the men joining in the party.
"Mr. Westley," Mrs. Vance asked Joseph, feigning innocence. "have you already met Miss Wilson?"
"Yes, I believe our paths have crossed." he replied, showing no signs of apprehension, before shaking Helen's hand. "How do you do?"
"How do you do?" she repeated back, glancing briefly at him with a hint of amusement in her blue eyes, before timidly folding her arms behind her back.
Connor leaned close to Susan. "Is that -"
"Yes." she replied, her eyes glued on the couple.
"Very nice looking girl." he observed.
Susan turned around to give him a pointed look.
"But not as nice as you, darling." he joked.
Susan stuck out her tongue in his direction, and he laughed, as Mr. Holbrook watched the whole scene, quite disturbed.
"Susan!" he admonished her. "Please, behave! We got company,"
"We were just having fun." she protested.
"You'd think you had enough of that in the past twenty-four hours." the man grumbled.
Susan's expression turned sour at her father's remark, and she stood up abruptly.
"I think I'm gonna go for a swim, if you don't mind." she excused herself to the crowd.
"Oh, what a marvelous idea!" Helen exclaimed. "You won't mind if I tag along, I hope?"
"I'm sure she won't." Mrs. Wilson told her daughter. "Actually, why don't you boys go too? I don't think it's safe for two girls to be alone at sea. Two pair of strong arms always come in handy."
"Besides, we don't wanna bore you with our old folks talk." Mrs. Hoover, the oldest of the group, chipped in.
"Very well, then." Joseph said, before leading the way for the ladies, Connor following them close by.
As they walked, Susan couldn't help but notice how Joseph ushered Helen first, guiding her with his hand on her lower back and holding it there just a little longer than expected. It was a matter of milliseconds, but to a trained eye like Susan's, the gesture was undeniable and spoke of a shared intimacy. Just like Helen's reciprocation of his warm smile when her warned her about an incoming step, saving her from tripping. Susan's stomach lurched at the sight, and she attached herself on Connor's arm a little too strongly, making sure to be seen by the two lovebirds. When Joseph's gaze fell on them, Susan found the same grave expression she had seen a few hours before at lunch on his face.
She was certain now, his love for Helen was no more real than hers and Connor's was, and she would prove it.
The water was surprisingly cold despite the hot summer temperature, and Joseph shivered as he resurfaced after diving from the side deck on the back of the yacht.
"How's the water?" Helen asked Joseph, who was already immersed and floating a few feet away from her.
She was standing by the metal ladder while Susan and Connor waited behind her, leaning on the boat railing.
"Cold." he replied.
"Just jump, it's for the best." Susan added, quite impatient.
"I'd rather not to."
Helen began slowly lowering herself on the ladder, her back to the boat, when Susan raised her foot and pushed her on the shoulder, sending her splashing into the water with a yelp.
After the first shock, Helen reemerged on surface, breathing heavily as she pulled back her hair.
"Are you alright?" Joseph asked.
"Yes." she panted.
"Hey I saw -" Connor began telling Susan, but he didn't have time to blink that she vanished from his eyesight, diving head first into the ocean.
"I felt something tapping me on the shoulder and I lost my balance." Helen was explaining, when Connor and Susan got close enough to hear.
"I'm afraid it was my foot." Susan told her. "I slipped on the wood. Sorry."
"It's alright. It was an accident, after all."
Connor gave Susan a sideways look, but didn't dare speaking until Helen and Joseph were out of earshot.
"Why did you do that?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"I saw you pushing her."
"It was an accident."
"Accident my foot!" Connor exclaimed.
"You mean, my foot." Susan joked.
"Don't try to be cute, I'm serious."
"You sound just like my father. It's not as if she died. Besides, I apologized."
"That is not the point!"
"Then, what is?"
"You're being petty, and vindictive."
"She was taking forever to get down, and I was upset. I wasn't thinking." she shrugged.
"You never do. That's your problem." Connor said gravely. "She seems like a nice girl, the least you can do is give her a chance."
"She's a bore."
"Maybe, but she's still a person with thoughts and feelings, just like you and me."
"Why do you care so much how I feel about Helen, anyway? It is none of your business."
Connor clenched his jaw, and a beat went by before he spoke.
"You know what?" he splashed his arms in the water in frustration. "Do what you want."
And with that, he swam away into the distance, leaving a puzzled Susan to ponder his words.
After the group retreated from their swim, dinner was served on the lower deck, the sunset providing a suggestive panorama. The atmosphere around the table was cheerful, overall. The older chatted amiably and exchanged jokes, aided by the presence of a delicious mulberry wine provided directly from Mr. Hanson's own vineyard; the atmosphere on the younger side of the table, on the other hand, was a little hard to decipher. While to an external observer everything might have seemed perfectly ordinary, Susan couldn't shake the feeling that something was off. No one raised their voice, or made any offbeat or passive aggressive remark, and yet, an underlying tension lingered in the air, and she couldn't help but wonder if she played any part in that.
At one point, she had asked Connor to pass her the salt. When he did, nothing in his behavior, or his expression could betray any sense of uneasiness. What striked her, though, were his words, or rather, how he'd said them.
"There you go, darling." he'd told her, but this time there was no hint of amusement in his voice, no shared inside joke.
The worse part was, he wasn't even deliberately ignoring her. He replied to her questions, engaged in conversation, even, but his mind seemed to be elsewhere.
Things at the other side of the table weren't any better. Helen kept stealing odd looks in her direction when she thought she wasn't looking, and when she did look, she merely smiled a tight lipped smile, before digging into her plate, or turning around to speak with Joseph.
Could Helen have figured out that she pushed her on purpose? Or worse, that she had her designs set on her fiancee?
She decided the thought was best left aside for the time being, and went back to digging into her salad. Finding it a little unsavory, she leaned across the table to gather a dressing bottle, when Helen finally addressed her.
"My, Susan, that's a lovely necklace you have there." she admired the shiny object hanging out of her cotton blouse, recognizing it all too well. "May I see it?"
"Of course." Susan sat back, getting to work on the clasp with little success.
"Damn it." she mouthed under her breath.
"I'll do it." Connor volunteered.
Susan moved her hair off her shoulders. Connor's fingers grazed at her neck and she stiffened, feeling him delicately working on the clasp.
"So gallant." Helen commented.
"There you go, Miss Wilson." he'd said once he was done, handing the necklace to the blonde.
"That's just gorgeous, don't you think, Mr. Westley?" she pointedly asked Joseph, holding the multicolored art deco silver pendant.
"Yes, it is." he muttered.
"Well, of course he think that," Susan said. "He gave it to me."
"Reaallly?" Helen turned around to face Joseph.
"It was my birthday last week."
"Well, happy birthday to you. How many?" Helen asked.
"Nice age. So young."
"Very." Joseph added. "I barely remember what I did for my eighteenth. So long ago."
"I remember mine like it was yesterday. It was memorable." Helen reminisced, twirling the necklace in her hands. "Susan, you were there, right?"
"I think so."
"Oh, you must've been …" she did the math in her head. "Eleven. Yes. Oh, you were so cute with your Shirley Temple curls and that little red bow. My, how time flies."
"Doesn't it?" Susan replied. "I remember you looked so grown up to me back then. Seven years seems like such a massive gap when you're a child, and suddenly you're an adult, and it couldn't matter less. Funny."
"Mr. Murphy," Joseph addressed Connor, trying to stir the conversation away from the girls. "what did you do for your eighteenth?"
"I'll tell you that much – I wish I could forget it." Connor said, rather tersely, before sipping on his water.
"Sore subject." Susan apologized in his stead.
"I'm sorry." Joseph said.
"It's alright." Susan replied, before lifting her champagne glass. "Why don't we make a toast?" she suggested, in a desperate attempt to liven the atmosphere.
"To what?" Connor asked.
"To … to birthdays. May each year be healthier, bigger, and better than the one before."
"Spoken like a true Hallmark card." Joseph said.
"Cheers." everybody said in unison, clinking their glasses together with more or less conviction. Before downing their drinks.
After dinner, Susan went below deck to use the powder room, when something made her stop in her tracks. She couldn't make out much in the darkness, but from the porthole at the end of the hallway, she could see two shadows moving in an animated manner, their voices a mere whisper.
She moved further down the hallway, past the powder room door, careful not to be noticed, until she was right next to the porthole. She peeked from the window, and the moonlight illuminated the unmistakable shadows of Helen and Joseph. Their voices were clearer now, and she listened intently.
"You knew how upset I was when I saw the sold tag on that necklace." Helen lamented.
"How could I tell you I was the one that had bought it?" Joseph replied. "Try to understand."
"You could've got her something else, and given it to me."
"It was a perfect match with a pair of earrings she already had. I don't suppose you want those, too?"
"Oh! You're impossible!" Helen turned around, giving him her back to him.
"What has gotten into you, honey?" he said, putting his hands on her shoulders. "I've never seen you like this. You're the most level headed person I know, and now you're losing your temper over something so frugal."
"Do I have to spell it out for you?" Helen crossed her arms, turning her head to face him. "Ugh, men."
"It's not the blasted jewel, it's – her!"
"I thought you liked her. You said she was fun, and lively."
"You always choose her over me."
"Now, that is absurd."
"You blew off dinner with my parents to go to her birthday."
"You know I couldn't miss it. I had no excuse."
"Right. You and your silly idea of keeping our engagement secret. Now I know why. She's stuck on you."
"I tried to tell her -"
"You should've tried harder. You know, I just feel bad for that fella of hers. He's mad about her."
On the other side of the glass, Susan sucked in her breath.
"I don't know. I think he might be in it for the money."
"Uh-uh." Helen shook her head. "Have you seen the way he looks at her when she's not looking?"
"Like if he loses sight of her for one second, his eyes are gonna fall out."
"I know the feeling."
"Do you, now?" Helen looked up at him, raising an eyebrow.
Joseph encircled his arms around her waist, drawing her closer.
"Hmm hmm." he nodded. "In fact, it's been that way since we met."
"And you swear, Susan means nothing to you?" Helen asked, playing bashfully with his jacket buttons.
"I can't lie to you … " Joseph began.
At this point, Susan was all but fainting from the emotional mix-up she was experiencing. She clung to the window ledge, waiting with bated breath for what was gonna come next.
"… She means a great deal to me. Just, in a completely different way. I love her, but I'm in love with you. Do you get it?"
Helen nodded. "So, out of curiosity, … if there was a fire, who would you save first?"
Joseph chuckled, and shook his head, before leaning down to kiss Helen, who embraced him passionately and returned the kiss with fervor.
Susan removed herself from the window, a sudden feeling of ill-at-ease overtaking her. She walked down the hallway in an almost dream-like-haze, powder room forgotten, her heart pounding in her ears and her knees trembling like jelly.
She was the biggest fool in the world. Connor was right – she was on a suicide mission, trying to bend the feelings of a man who would only ever see her as nothing more than a friend, or a sister, at most. And, oh, Connor. Could Helen have been right? Could he really have been in love with her? If so, was he aware of it? And how did she feel about that?
Her mind was spinning, every question opening up even more doubts and questions of its own, in a tangled web of feelings she just couldn't unravel.
So lost she was in her thoughts, that when she climbed the little stairway back to the deck, she didn't notice a shadow coming right on her path and colliding with her.
"Hey, steady, there." Connor said, holding her with both hands.
"Hi." is all Susan could reply in her confused state.
"Hi." he looked her up and down, puzzled. "Are you alright?"
"Yes, I just feel a little dizzy. I suppose I had a little too much to drink."
"Well, let's go get some fresh air. I was meaning to talk to you, anyway."
He took her by the hand and led her towards the back of the boat, by the railings. Touching his hand, she found his palms a little clammy, but when she released the grip she realized it was actually coming from her. Embarrassed, she wiped her hand on her linen shorts, hoping he hadn't noticed.
"I'm sorry." they said in unison, before exploding in laughter.
"You're sorry? About what?" Susan asked, after she caught back her breath.
"Giving you the cold shoulder over dinner."
"Oh, well. If anything, I think it made our relationship more believable. Lover's quarrel, and whatnot." Susan chuckled. "Anyway, I should be the one apologizing. You were right."
"On what account?"
"All of it. He loves her, and there's nothing I can do to change that. I can't believe I could be so blind, and so selfish." A tear began to prickle at the corner of her eyelid, eventually spilling out, and she wiped it away. "Oh, I'm a horrible person."
"Hey, I never said that!" Connor told her firmly.
A beat went by, before he said, this time almost a whisper. "I would never say that."
Susan nodded, licking away the saltiness on her lips, and he went on. "You may be a lot of things – stubborn, capricious, reckless, frivolous -"
"Alright, I get it."
"But you have a good heart, deep down. It's not always in the right place. But we all have our moments, don't we?"
"You really think so?"
"Sure. Bad people don't spend time wondering if they're bad, They're too self-involve to even notice."
"I just wanted him to be happy." Susan explained, her voice cracking.
"I know." Connor replied, taking a handkerchief out of his shirt pocket and handing it to her.
"Now, he is happy, and I still don't know how to feel." Susan wiped her nose. "I should be glad for him, right? So how come I feel miserable?"
"You can't just turn off your feelings like a switch. It takes time."
"I could use a time machine right about now."
Silence settled between them, and they leaned on the railing, letting the gentle night breeze sweep through their hair as they stargazed.
Susan sensed Connor's eyes on her at the corner of her vision field, and Helen's words echoed in her mind. She sneakily tried to steal a glance in his direction, but as soon as she did, he turned, averting her eyes to stare at the water ahead.
Now, they found themselves in the opposite predicament - her being the gazer, and him the object of her contemplation.
Connor had been a conundrum to Susan since the moment they met, less than two days before. Looking back, it seemed unbelievable to her that so little time had passed, when it felt like a lifetime had gone by, the Susan she was before swept away as if by some unknown force, only to become … to become what, she wasn't sure yet, but something was stirring inside her. Something so frightful, yet exciting and full of promise, which she couldn't neither understand nor put into words.
"You never answered my question." Susan ventured. "Why do you care if I like Helen or not?"
"Because, I told you … "Connor turned to her. "She seemed nice, and I felt bad for her, considering you were about to steal her fiancee away from her, and all. Breaking up with the person you're ready to spend the rest of your life with is not exactly a walk in the park, you know."
"Was that the only reason?" Susan raised an eyebrow.
"Yes. What other reason could I have had?"
"I don't know, I was just wondering."
Connor sighed, before speaking again. "You know, It's too bad you're not getting married, though."
"You were right. You do look great in white." he gazed down at Susan's shorts and blouse ensemble. "In fact, way better than Helen, if it's any consolation.."
"She is very pale." Susan conceded, and they shared a laugh.