The Calhoun Chronicles
Chronicles #3) – RITA Finalist
Mira (October 2001)
The bridal bouquet sailed past a dozen outstretched arms, hitting Abigail Beatrice Cabot smack in the face before it dropped into her unsuspecting hands. Just for a moment she saw stars; her eyes watered and her nose stung from the cloying sweetness of gardenias. She blinked twice, then exploded with a terrific sneeze.
First, a deathlike pall fell over the boisterous crowd of well-wishers. Then titters rose from the young ladies nearby, and a flurry of whispers erupted from the wedding guests gathered in the East Room of the White House.
“I’m allergic to gardenias,” Abigail muttered in an agony of humiliation. Tattered petals drifted down her face and over the front of her dress, leaving behind a powdery yellow residue. A comb dislodged from her hair, and she felt her braid coming undone.
Dropping the bouquet, she didn’t look to see where it landed, but sought escape, shedding the occasional torn flower as she went. A rustle of speculation stalked her across the polished marquetry floor. With each painful step, she tried not to hear the whispers, but couldn’t avoid catching a few all-too-familiar phrases: What a disgrace to Senator Cabot. His daughter’s always been a little odd, hasn’t she? Must be such a trial to him . . .
At the moment, her father stood to one side of the room, regarding her with a crushing look of disappointment. Instead of enhancing his image as the senior senator from Virginia, she’d managed to remind everyone in the room that all of his money and power could not buy him a proper daughter. Suddenly, she wanted to die. His expression, the snickering of the guests nearbyâ€”it was all too much. In her haste, she nearly stumbled and fell, lurching a little and further undermining the stability of her coiffure.
Everyone passed in a blur: the strapping bridegroom in his military dress uniform and the dainty bride in her peal-encrusted gown, trying to see what had become of her bouquet; the cluster of gentlemen gathered around the president, vying for his attention; the first lady and her bevy of gossips, avidly discussing the latest disgrace of Senator Cabot’s daughter.
Although the guests parted like the Red Sea before her, Abigail couldn’t avoid the impression that they had all gathered for the sole purpose of witnessing her faux pas. Feeling the darts of a dozen pairs of eyes, she wove an awkward path across the ballroom, hoping to reach the glass doors at the northeast gate before she sneezed again.
She was appalled at making such a spectacle of herself at her friend’s wedding. She hadn’t wanted to be there in the first place, and had raised all the usual protestsâ€”she was too plain, too awkward in company, to inept on the dance floor.
But, of course, Father’s insistence had prevailed. Senator Franklin Rush Cabot always got his way, particularly with his younger daughter, who wanted so desperately to please him.
Abigail kept her head down and concentrated on making her escape, navigating a crooked path around wedding guests, potted plants, passing waiters. Feeling another sneeze coming on, she yanked a lacy handkerchief from her sleeve and jammed it against her nose. She managed to stifle the explosion, but nearly blew her ears deaf in the process.
Though not deaf enough to avoid the snippets of gossip, which went from group to group like a contagion. Scandalous, isn’t it? She should have been married off by now. If her mother had lived to see this, she would have been devastated . . .
This was a White House wedding, Abigail thought, sneaking a glance at her critics. Beautifully dressed, their manners as finely honed as their tongues, they were the elite hostesses of the capital, the wives of senators, cabinet secretaries and industrialists. Couldn’t they find something more interesting than Abigail Cabot for amusement?
She kept her gaze fastened on her goal: escape. The door to the northeast gate stood open to the autumn night, framing a sky as black and deep as eternity, spangled with an endless arch of stars.
She hurried as fast as she dared, but her shuffling pace was too slow. It always was. She didn’t push herself for fear of yet another disgrace, although by now she should be resigned to the prospect. From the time she was very small, she had known she was different. She couldn’t run and skip and play as other children did. But at night, when Abigail swept the sky in search of the stars, she could soar.
The safe emptiness of the east veranda beckoned. She was almost there. Almost free.
At last she ducked out the French doors and found herself on a blissfully deserted patio. Black shadows shrouded the flagstones and walkways. A late-autumn chill sharpened the air. Letting out a long, tense breath she hadn’t known she was holding, Abigail pressed her hands against the figured concrete rail. She was probably soiling her gloves, but that didn’t matter now. She’d be hard-pressed to find a dance partner or anyone else to hold her hand tonight.
As she had on so many other previous occasions, Abigail had tucked her pathetically empty dance program into her sash and forgotten about it. She had never filled one, nor could ever hope to.
Plucking the loose comb from her hair, she used it to re-anchor her coiled braid. Then she moved along the rail, her petticoats making a discontented swish around her legs. The breeze cooled her throat, and the night sky worked its calming effect on her. Often, the sea fog and city lights interfered with the view, but tonight was unusually clear. There was Andromeda, the Chained Princess, suspended in eternal captivity. The great winged horse, Pegasus, rode high in the south. Saturn was on the rise; a month from now it would be Jupiter’s turn. The slow, infinite spinning of the stars swept Abigail away from her moment of ignominy. The sky in all its glory never glared down in judgment at insignificant, earthbound creatures who made a habit of disgracing themselves.
But then, inevitably, pedestrian concerns intruded. She was neglecting her duties, hiding out here like a coward. This was not just any wedding. It was a wedding hosted by the president and first lady. She and the bride, Nancy Kerry Wilkes, had attended Miss Blanding’s Lyceum together.
She had come with such high hopes of pleasing Father. So far, all she’d done was get hit with a bouquet and suffer a very public attack of allergies. But the night was still young, Abigail reminded herself, stiffening her spine and squaring her shoulders. Like a prisoner about to face a firing squad, she turned back to the ballroom and advanced toward the French doors.
Velvet draperies with gold cords and tassels framed the glittering reception. Refracted gaslight turned the crystal shades of the sconces to diamonds. During his administration, President Grant had done up the room like a ghastly gothic steamboat. Not to be outdone, President Arthur had hired Louis Comfort Tiffany to cover the ceiling in silver and create jungles of palm plants in each quadrant. She couldn’t imagine what the current administration would come up with.