It was nearing eight and Janet was about to excuse herself to supervise the champagne toast when she glanced at the sideboard and noticed Mr. Richards’ gift was missing. Adrenaline stabbed through her and she felt fear flush her cheeks. She forced the smile back on her face, hoping no one, especially Ariana Richards, noticed her distraction or the hitch in her breath.
She laid a hand on Ariana’s lace-sleeved arm and excused herself. Her pace as she walked toward the kitchen felt too fast, her posture too rigid, and she prayed no one would notice her darting glances searching for the vanished gift.
In the privacy of the kitchen, Janet focused on the monitors, squinting at the black-and-white displays for the present. The staff continued moving seamlessly around her, laying out glasses, popping corks. She stopped the nearest waiter.
“Carlo, did you notice who moved the gift?”
“No, ma’am, sorry. I’ve been back here the whole time.”
Janet hovered in the doorway, twisting one of her rings around and around her finger, willing Charlie to turn and see her – but he and the other men were too busy billowing cigar smoke into the purple twilight, and as long as Richards himself was out there, she didn’t trust herself to approach her husband.
She set her jaw, smoothed her dress, and stepped out of the kitchen – right into Ariana. “Everything okay?”
The trained smile kicked in. “Oh, it’s the silliest thing – we’ve misplaced a case of the champagne.”
Ariana leaned closer. “Nothing to worry about. I’ll send our driver out for more.” She winked conspiratorially.
“But I couldn’t possibly ask you –”
“This party is above and beyond. Ian’s having a fabulous time – this is the least I can do.”
And Janet could only let the woman issue the order via her watch and return, with another secret wink, to the party.
Janet fidgeted, pretending to have found a broken fingernail, and headed for the staircase. She ascended slowly, her heart still racing, panic condensing into dread. This party was Charlie’s big opportunity – their big opportunity – to impress Richards, and a missing birthday present could mean anything from economic ruin to personal harm.
All over a hat, a small voice warned, but she ignored it. They’d set their plans into motion long ago, and turning back was no longer an option.
The children were giggling in the nursery. Janet tried to pass by quickly, but a flash of blue satin stopped her. Evelyn was playing dress-up in one of her mother’s best cocktail dresses, and that was almost certainly her grandmother’s long strand of pearls around her chubby neck. And on Danny –
A custom Panama hat, trimmed in antique silk; nearby, its box lay open, surrounded by shreds of navy blue paper. The gold ribbon, she now saw, was serving as Evelyn’s belt.
“Daniel!” she hissed. Both children’s eyes went round with fear. Downstairs, the crowd quieted – Charlie, right on schedule, was beginning the toast. Janet snatched the hat off his head and frantically rewrapped it in what remained of the tissue.
“This is not for you!”
“It was Evy’s idea –”
“Goodness,” exclaimed a voice behind her. “That looks like a hat my husband would love!”
Janet stood, instinctively shielding Danny behind her. Ariana’s eyes glinted. “Your son has excellent taste.”
“I’m so sorry, Ariana, he must’ve taken it while we were having dinner –”
“Darling, I have children, too. You don’t need to explain anything.” She reached past Janet to ruffle Danny’s hair. “Assuming they didn’t pack it with clay or use it to drain the toilet, I see no harm done.”
“I’m – I’m sorry I lied,” Janet said breathlessly. “It’s such an odd thing to lose, and I thought – ”
“I said no harm done,” Ariana repeated, revealing a glimmer of the hard edge a woman had to have, married to a man like Richards. Janet suspected she’d develop her own such hardness, in time, like a callus over the soul, simultaneously protective and numbing.
She slowly tucked the hat into its box. For a wild, crystalline moment, Janet wanted to hide the gift, pretend it was truly lost, make her apologies to Richards and escape him and everything, good and bad, a life in his circle would entail.
But Ariana took the box from her and closed it. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Agincourt has the microphone so we have some time. Let’s get this re-wrapped, shall we? After all, you don’t want to disappoint Ian.”