She stood in front of her mirror, taking a good look at herself in an embroidered organza evening gown for the dinner party that evening. Her hair was styled on top of her head in an up-do, wisps of hair falling in certain places. Had it not been for her Mother finding out about the company dinner and sending the hairdresser and stylist from her wedding to take care of her, Anastasia would have opted to leave her hair down and throw on something more simple before calling it a day. There was no going back now. She gave James her word and she had a night of make pretend ahead of her. She could hear the sound of cars driving off their driveway as both the hairdresser and the stylist went on their way. Just then, she heard a knock on the door.
"Come in." She called out without looking away from the mirror. She heard nothing but a gasp once the door opened.
"Anastasia," Margot stood at the doorway, admiring her. "You look exquisite!"
"Well," Anastasia turned around, smoothing over her gown at the waist. "I certainly don't feel like it."
"Oh, you're gonna have a lovely evening." Margot stepped into the room, walking over to fix the bottom of her gown. "Mr. Lockheart is waiting for you downstairs and told me to come for you."
"Very well," she picked up her clutch and the two exited her room. Once they walked through the hallway and down the stairs, James was just hanging up the phone with someone.
"Oh, good." He said once he saw them. He put on his coat, then checked the time on his watch. "We've got to hurry, I must deliver the opening speech."
Margot held out Anastasia's mink coat as she slid into it. Once they were both ready, they went outside where Mr. Linwood held the car door open for them. They got inside, Mr. Linwood then getting into the driver's seat before cranking up the engine, driving off on their way to a five star hotel on the other side of town where the dinner party was taking place.
"There'll be plenty of important guests there, some colleagues and some from prestigious companies." He told her as they stopped at a red light. "But the only one we're looking out for is the Hartford team. Especially the founder, Mr. Harper Hartford. Now there are a couple of other companies he's considering, but for the price we're offering, it's been said that we're at the top of that list."
"And I need to know this, why?" Anastasia asked.
"Because," he looked at her. "I can't have you attending an event without even knowing what it's about."
She sighed, surrendering to this. He went on.
"All the men there will most likely have their wives with them as well, even Mr. Hartford. He's been married 6 times, the last three were at least 35 years his junior. Which isn't hard to believe, given that he's pushing 60. He's a hard man to please, or negotiate with, so I advice you to keep all contact with him as minimal as possible."
"Believe me, that isn't going to be hard for me to do." She smirked, crossing her arms. "In fact, I can do that with just about everyone."
He shot her a look without saying anything else as the car pulled into a long line of cars moving and dropping passengers off to the front. Anastasia looked out the window to see lots of people, young and old, dressed formally while they climbed out of their vehicles, making their way inside as someone stood by collecting their coats. Once they finally got their turn, a man in uniform opened their door, welcoming them to the hotel. When Anastasia stepped out, everyone's eyes immediately fell on her as if she was the main centerpiece at a dining table or the angel you stick on top of a Christmas tree. She walked inside quickly, her gown trailing behind her, not waiting for James as she always hated such kind of attention. Once they made it into the banquet room, Anastasia found herself in a sea of people chattering with one another, champagne glasses in their hands or cigarette holders perched between their fingers. Men dressed in white uniforms made their way all over the room, offering champagne and hors d'oeuvre to everyone. Just then, she felt James' hand at her back as he greeted someone.
"Ah, James." A man who looked to be in his 50′s approached the two, a woman who looked to be his wife on his arm.
"Mr. Carothers, it's always nice to run into you." James said.
"It's been awhile, hasn't it?" The man gave a little laugh. "You've met my wife Susan before, if I remember correctly?"
"Yes, I have. How do you do?" James shook the woman's hand. "This is my wife, Anastasia. We got married just last summer."
"I knew the rumors were true, that you got yourself a movie star of a wife." Mr. Carothers winked at James as to which Anastasia blushed slightly.
This went on for the next hour as Anastasia's face grew tired of smiling every minute. She felt as if everyone in the room but the waiters and the band members had approached them to introduce themselves. And although she tried her best not to say much and answered politely to questions she was asked, she was surprised at how James quickly regained his profile, person after person who decided to greet them or do 'a little catching up' coming at them in different directions. Then again, he was all too used to it, given by all the events he's been to and the people he's done business with. A good business man knew how to keep carrying on, and he was just that.
"James," she said finally, catching him by the arm as she saw another person coming towards them. "My feet are aching, and if I don't sit down for a minute I'm going to faint."
"Alright, we're about to start anyway." He replied, walking her to their designated table. "I've got to deliver my speech, will you be able to manage?"
"Yes, now go!" She said, shooing him away before he made his way across the room and up the stage and podium.
Anastasia sat down in front of the spot that held her name as everyone did the same, finding herself in the same table with men and women she had never seen in her life. Silently, she prayed his speech would be a short one. As he spoke, she found herself listening and watching him turn into the person he was most known for, a young businessman. She had to admit, it was quite impressive, the way he spoke, and his choice of words. He really knew his stuff. She may not like the guy, but he certainly had it in him to lead and handle an entire company. It was hard to believe that a person who she despised and bickered with occasionally was the mind behind a corporation, or several, as Anastasia had learned, responsible for making millions of dollars. The person who sipped his coffee and read his newspaper in her kitchen every morning and the man who slept on the floor of one of her family's guest bedrooms stood in front of a stage where hundreds of wealthy people and businessmen had their attention and eyes on him; a concept that baffled her as they all started clapping, his speech coming to a close.
During dinner, Anastasia heard nothing but talk about business, the economy, and the recent stock market crash. But nothing was more uncomfortable than the way Mr. Hartford kept eyeing Anastasia all night, who sat across from them while his young, blonde, Marilyn Monroe esque wife kept whispering in his ear all through dinner. James however, was in high spirits as he had been privately told after his speech that Lockheart & Sons had it in the bag. The band started to play another tune after the clapping, some couples leaving the dance floor to sit down and some others getting up to dance. Just then, the wife of another company's president turned to her.
"So, you're Mr. Lockheart's wife? From what I've heard." The woman looked to be in her late 40′s and had short, dark, curly hair, an embroidered lace hat flattening them down.
"Yes, I am." Anastasia answered, turning to her.
"How do you like being married, my dear?" She smiled at her, waiting for an answer while Anastasia thought about what to say. She feared her honesty would cost her.
"Well, he takes care of business, and I..." She hesitated. "Take care of things at home, I suppose."
"Oh just wait until the years go by, you'll get to travel the world alongside each other, plus you get to own lots of nice things, and other what have you's." The woman sipped on tea before patting her perfectly red lips dry with her silk napkin. "It takes some getting used to, but I got married around your age and I just loved it. My name is Coraline by the way. My husband Phillard Scott owns Preston-Scott wines."
"Well...that's just...wonderful." Anastasia nodded, not really being able to relate to such things. She was dying to travel the world, but not in the way that Coraline had described.
"Of course, I was young and lacked knowledge about the industry and therefore had no clue about the secret rivalries and cattiness between other business wives. But, you just have to be wise about who you involve yourself with as well as do business with." She whispered, winking at Anastasia.
"Now, Coraline, I'm sure you aren't polluting that young woman's mind by thinking you're spitting out useful information." They all turned to Mr. Hartford, who had a cigar dangling from his mouth, smirking as he said this. Coraline gave him an unwelcoming looking before pursing her lips together and turning away.
"James never told me he married such a striking but intimidating looking woman," Mr. Hartford said, never taking his eyes off her. Maxine, as she had learned was the name of his wife, smirked at her husband's remark. "But it is with the best intentions that I say so."
Anastasia grew hot and uncomfortable in her seat as everyone at the table had their eyes on her. If he were to make another comment, she feared she would have lost all self-control at that moment.
"James, you must tell me where you found such a woman." He smirked once again before puffing out smoke as he turned his gaze at James.
"Actually, I'll have you know, she comes from a respectable family from Pawtucket. They're in the oil drilling business." James responded calmly.
"Oh now, Harper, she isn't all that." Maxine glared at Anastasia as she said this. Anastasia was prepared to deliver a comeback, only James reached over, squeezing her hand.
"You must bring her around more often, James." Mr. Hartford winked at Anastasia, ignoring Maxine.
"Why? When you can just go to Hollywood for an Elizabeth Taylor knock off." Maxine laughed, taking a sip of her champagne as she eyed Anastasia, obviously not taking a liking to her husband's underlying attraction towards her.
"You're exactly right, Maxine." Anastasia said finally. "I assume you know everything about finding better deals, such as the fact that you came to Newport and married a man more than half your age who you pretend to be crazy about. But never mind that and the fact that he's had more wives than you can count on your gold-digging fingers, just as long as he's got you secured for the rest of your life financially and leisurely, that's all that matters, right? Because, oh, how would you be able to afford all those diamonds, Miss 1948 winner of the Idaho Potato Festival Beauty Pageant?"
Anastasia's glare was staggering, the tension between the women lingering at the table as others grew quiet while some held back snickers. James swallowed, not being able to move in his seat. She had to go there. How Anastasia even found out about Maxine's past, he had no idea.
"Why, you wretched girl." Maxine hissed under her breath, her hand squeezing the napkin in her hand tightly, her knuckles turning white.
"So Mr. Hartford, since you sure are a man of good taste, I hope you don't mind me saying this to you," Anastasia went on, her voice smooth but deep and low, her signature gaze pointed right at him. "You must tell me where you found such a woman."
Nobody said a thing as Mr. Hartford shook the cigar in his hand onto an ashtray, never taking his eyes off of Anastasia, who equally made her gaze steady at him.
"My, my, you sure know a thing or to, don't you?" He said, smirking at her.
"Perhaps I do." She raised one eyebrow. "Or maybe more than you think."
With this, she threw her napkin onto her untouched plate, got up, then stormed off and out of the banquet room and into the hall.
"I apologize, please excuse me." James nodded at the table before getting up and following her.
She walked with such swiftness her gown flew behind her, if not leaving a trail of smoke behind her.
"Hey, what was that all about?!" James tried to keep his voice down as he caught up to her, catching her arm as she then turned to face him. "This is an important event for me, I thought you promised not to-"
"Now James, I know I promised you I wouldn't act up but I couldn't take it anymore, I just-" she held up her hands, but James interrupted.
"I told you to make yourself scarce when it came to Mr. Hartford, he's an unpleasant man, you know that?" He said sternly. "You couldn't just grin and bear it just for one night?"
"He's the one who had the nerve to open his mouth about me! What was I going to do, ignore it and then have you get upset either way that I wasn't being courteous?!" She said right in his face. "Did you hear them back there?!"
He took a deep breath and sighed, trying his best to calm down.
"Of course I did," he said to her. "I know, but can you please just hang on until we leave? We just have to get through dessert and a few closing-"
"Me? Go back in there?" She was in disbelief. "Are you out of your mind?"
"Please, Anastasia. You don't even have to apologize or do a thing-"
"You're damn right I don't." She muttered angrily under her breath.
"Anastasia, you promised." He said, looking at her seriously. "The night is almost over."
She looked off in the other direction, hating herself for trying to be nice for once only for it to come back in her face. She didn't say anything for a while as James kept his eyes on her, hoping she would make the right decision. After a while, she sighed, a look of annoyance on her face.
"Alright." She said finally. "But at least give me some time before I make an appearance again."
"Thank you." He said, squeezing her shoulder. He was heated still, but they had to make it through the night and his company was on the verge of closing the deal. "Come in when you're ready."
When James returned to the banquet room, Anastasia sat on a chaise lounge chair near the lobby, still a little shaken. She took several deep breaths, feeling as if she was never going to be ready to make a return inside. But remembering her promise to James, she got up and walked down the hall, making her way back into the banquet room, much to her hesitance. She stood at the entrance, eyeing their table, relieved that Mr. Hartford and Miss 1948 Idaho Potato Festival Beauty Pageant winner were out of sight. She caught eye contact with James, quickly looking away before walking over and sitting down next to him. As the rest of the night went on, she tried her best to salvage what was left of her civil behavior, just enough to last until it was time to head home.
After dessert and coffee had been served and all the closing speeches had been delivered, people had begun to flood the dance floor as the band began to play a few last songs. To her relief, James was off discussing the deal to a couple of other men that Anastasia assumed were his colleagues near the bar. They were laughing about something as they threw their heads back, drinks and cigarettes in their hands, the other in their pockets. With this, Anastasia got up, grabbing her clutch and a very strong drink in her hand, clinging onto it as if it were the only thing getting her through the night. She made her way towards the open terrace doorway on the other side of the room, its curtains lightly swaying with the spring night air. A few couples were outside talking as Anastasia walked to the middle and vacant section of the balcony, her gown flying behind her. She set her elbows on top of the concrete railing and took a big sip of her drink, eyeing the moon and the stars that were visible in the night sky. She stared at it for a long time, thinking about its beauty and how they seemed so far away. She thought about how even those from other places like Paris, Venice, or Singapore were all looking at the same moon and how everything in life was beyond her own understanding. She had never felt so small in that very moment.
She sighed, a cold rush of air giving her goosebumps. She looked to her left, where she could her a woman giggling gently, a man whispering something in her ear. She watched them for a moment, as she used to be able to relate some time ago. She took another sip, washing down the lump that was rising in her throat. Just then, she saw something coming her way from her side vision.
"I see we meet again," much to her horror, it was Mr. Hartford who puffed away on a fresh cigar as he smirked at her.
To this, Anastasia said nothing as she turned away and focused back on the view.
"Beautiful night, isn't it?" He asked her as he stood next to her, a little too close for her own comfort. She took a step to the side to widen the space between them. Still, she kept silent. "Now, what are you doing here all by yourself?"
She remained silent as she downed the last drops of her drink, contemplating on going back inside.
"Very well." He said to her. "Don't worry, I haven't taken your crass comments personally. I found it rather amusing."
"Excuse me? Crass?" She turned to him, bothered by his use of the word. "I only speak on an equal level, bestowing the same medicine that I am fed with."
He eyed her sharply, not saying a word as he raised his cigar to his lips ever so sly. He remained calm and composed, even chuckling a little, as to which fed to Anastasia's growing temper.
"Never mind Maxine, her claws only show when she encounters a threat. But I don't blame her, you certainly are something else, Mrs. Lockheart."
Anastasia's anger quickly turned into discomfort in that moment as a devilish grin escaped his lips.
"What are you trying to say, Mr. Hartford?" She retorted in a defensive manner.
"I'm a man of many sorts, Anastasia. I posses the finest silks from Mongolia, to the ivories of Africa, and right down to the majority of Australia's industries. Although I am selling my food company, I am still not losing much...Point being is that, there is nothing that you won't find in me."
"Now, I've been keeping a keen eye on you all night, Anastasia. And correct me if I'm wrong, but Mr. Lockheart and yourself weren't all that much in love when you two got married? And even now, from what it looks like." Mr. Hartford turned to look back at James who was still engaged in conversation.
"Why, what a personal thing for you to ask-"
"But I am correct, aren't I?" He raised his salt and pepper eyebrows at her. And when she said nothing, he went on. "It's in your body language, and it's quite easy to tell."
"You barely know me, Mr. Hartford, much less should our business be a concern to you." Anastasia's voice was as sharp as a dagger.
"I am willing to make you an offer that many woman find hard to resist." He said, ignoring her remark, his voice deep and mischievous. "Even more so, an offer that exceeds those in the past."
She was beside herself as she could do nothing but look at the man as if he were insane.
"In the next couple months, Maxine will be in for a rude awakening as our 2 year mark will be approaching, shorter than my usual marriage time spans, but for a woman such as yourself, I am willing to make an exception-"
"Mr. Hartford!" Anastasia exclaimed.
"Oh now, no need to act surprised. I'll be doing you the favor of pulling you out of a loveless marriage and me, well, I can make anything happen, especially..." he stepped closer to her, putting out his cigar before placing both hands on her bare shoulders, his voice lowering. "If it's something that I so desperately want."
"You seem so confident in yourself, Mr. Hartford. I'd watch myself if I were you." Her signature gaze was coming out now, her brows furrowed together and her voice as venomous as a snakebite. She tried her best to wriggle out of his grasp.
"I don't have to," he said. "Because I always have my way."
"Then for once in your life, you are mistaken." She said, shaking him off of her. "Married or not, I wouldn't accept your offer no matter how many diamonds, silks, or ivories it came with."
With this, his facial expression was slowly turning into an unpleasant and unwelcoming one. Just then, it evolved into a smirk.
"You don't know what you're saying, Mrs. Lockheart. The opportunity you're missing, and the man you are turning down." He tried his best to be composed, after all, he's done it a million times and was not used to being passed on. "I will divorce Maxine and once you divorce Mr. Lockheart-"
"I am not missing any kind of opportunity, Mr. Hartford." Anastasia huffed under her breath before reciting firmly, "and a thousand times, NO."
Irritation finally set in and it was evident in his face. They both stood there, glaring at one another.
"Very well." He said through gritted teeth. "You don't know what you're giving up. I won't say it again, but you'll come to regret this."
"Oh I certainly know what I'm giving up, Mr. Hartford." Anastasia snarled at him. "A foolish decision, and one that I will never come to regret."
They continued to glare at each other before Maxine approached the doorway, walking over quickly when she laid her eyes on the two.
"Darling, I've been looking everywhere for you." She pouted, clinging onto his arm before looking at Anastasia suspiciously. "Whatever were you two discussing?"
"Nothing... My dear." He finally said, still not taking his eyes off Anastasia. "Nothing at all."
"Then let's go on home now darling, I'm quite tired and in the mood for...well, I'm sure you know." She whispered in his ear, nibbling it a little then looking at Anastasia to rub it in her face, making sure she knew what belonged to her. Anastasia was more disgusted, if anything.
Maxine began to yank him away, his eyes never leaving Anastasia even as he allowed himself to be swept off, slowly walking away with his young wife. Anastasia watched them go, her chest heaving slightly, the breeze sending wisps of her hair flying.
When they finally went home, the car ride was silent. Not once did James look at Anastasia, only speaking to her if need be. It reminded her of the night they went to the opera, when he was displeased with her behavior. But the night had gone awry for her as well, so she was more than happy to keep to herself. When they got home, they walked in, their coats being taken by Margot. When she asked them how their night went, neither said a word as James went to sit in the formal dining room. Anastasia was just about to make her way upstairs when James said something.
"We lost the account." He said. "They chose another company."
Anastasia turned around, slightly surprised.
"I thought you said your company had it in the bag-"
"So I thought." He cut in, looking at her straight. "Right before we left they told me they changed their minds last minute."
"Oh." She muttered.
They were silent for a moment as Anastasia slowly walked closer towards him. They just looked at each other before Anastasia finally caught on.
"Wait, you don't think this has anything to do with me, do you?" She asked.
"It has everything to do with you." He told her, getting up from his seat and running a hand over his mouth before placing them on his hips as he turned to face the closed curtained window.
"Don't tell me you're blaming this on me." She shook her head, her voice shaky. "Is that why you weren't speaking to me?"
"I asked you not to get riled up and just put on a good face, and you couldn't even do it for just one night." He turned around to face her, his breathing deep.
"I can't believe you!" She exclaimed. "If you weren't listening I was merely defending myself!"
"I told you what kind of people they were and asked you to make yourself scarce-"
"How do I make myself scarce when they made comments first?!"
"I don't approve of what they said but there's a difference between being professional and being petty about it."
"Honestly, I'm glad you didn't get the account. Why would you want to work for such people anyway? That Mr. Hartford man lacks basic morals and don't even get me started on his gold-digger of a wife! I can't believe you would work with those kinds of-"
"It's business! In business you leave out other personal affairs and strictly keep it professional! And you're glad that our company didn't land this account because you don't know a thing about it, you don't have a clue as to what it meant for our company!" He sat down once again, loosening his tie angrily.
"Fine," Anastasia's voice was growing hoarse as she walked closer to him. "You want me to take full responsibility for your company losing out on a lousy deal? I will. I'm sorry for ruining everything. Is that what you want to hear?"
James didn't say anything to this as he kept his gaze elsewhere.
"But, there is one thing I need to make clear." She said firmly. "Never will I allow myself to be disrespected by others. Especially not in public, and not even for you."
And with that, she turned away and bolted up the stairs, gathering the fabric of her gown and carrying it with her, leaving him there to stress about the disaster that was that night.
The next day, it was as if they went back to being newly married as they did not interact with each other much in those first few weeks. Not that they came that much of a long way, or any way for that matter, but it was as if they took two steps back from being civil and tolerant with each other. James was gone by the time Anastasia let herself out of her room and they continued to dine at different hours. And although Anastasia stood by herself on the issue regarding that night and felt that she did absolutely nothing wrong, she started feeling bad about the company losing potential money because she couldn't keep her comments to herself, much to her surprise.
She woke up one day to the sound of James getting into his car outside as he went on his way to work. She pushed the covers aside and got out of bed, walking over to her window as she watched Mr. Linwood close his door before going around the car and getting into the driver's seat. When they drove off, Anastasia watched them drive down the driveway and out of their gate. She then went downstairs for breakfast, finding Mrs. Hutton clearing away the dishes James used.
"Good Morning, Miss Anastasia." Mrs. Hutton smiled at her.
"Good Morning." She replied. "Did James go to work this morning?"
"Yes he did." She said, turning on the faucet. "You just missed him."
"That was the intent." Anastasia muttered low enough for Mrs. Hutton not to hear. She pulled up a chair and sat down, pouring cereal and milk into her bowl.
But she found that she couldn't eat, instead just sitting there staring at her food, her mind swimming with thoughts. The feeling was eating at her, even though she told herself a million times that she did what she deemed was the right thing to do, even if it did cost them that deal. Still, she couldn't help but go up to her room that afternoon, hoping to speak to the one person who seemed to know the answers to everything. She took her telephone to her bed, dialing home. She prayed that her Father wasn't off to some business meeting, or any other engagement for that matter. But much to her relief, she had caught him when he just returned home from California. After small talk and the usual questions about his trip ensued, she told him what was on her mind.
"I don't know why I feel this way, Father." She said after explaining everything to him. "All I did was defend myself...so why do I feel awful?"
"Sweetheart, take it from not just your Father but someone who owns a business. We don't necessarily look at a business for what kind of people run it, unless of course it's in illegal ways, but more about the quality, consistency, and performance of it. Now from what I know about the company, Hartford Foods is not only a great one, but it is the oldest in its category around. That's what made it such a hot commodity, and it certainly would have been a groundbreaking deal for his company. Now I don't doubt that James is a reasonable and sensible man who would protect and defend you, and I know he wouldn't condone such behavior and remarks from them but he is also an experienced business man, so I have every bit of confidence in him and his decisions."
Anastasia sighed upon hearing this, her guilt sinking even lower.
"So what should I do now?" She asked.
"Now, what's done is done. There's no getting back that company unless Lockheart & Sons plan to do anything about it. And I don't advice you to take matters into your own hands and try to convince the other company otherwise. Besides, it's most likely gone to another buyer by now and there will be plenty more offers in the future." He went on. "But, I do advise, as a wife, to do everything you can to put him at ease. It's never easy for a man to lose in his business but fortunately, he does have a house and a family to come home to, to make him forget about work if even just for a brief moment."
Anastasia thought about how they also lacked in that department. So either way, there was no solution.
"I don't know, Father. James and I, we're not really-"
"How about this, do something for him that will touch him personally." Her Father suggested.
No. No. A million times no. She thought to herself. She groaned, her Father ignoring this as he went on.
"How about you find out his favorite food and make it just for him. Trust me Anastasia, he gets tired at the end of the day, I'm sure he'll appreciate coming home to a meal prepared by his wife."
"Are you sure about that, Father?" She asked him, skeptical about it all.
"It worked for me whenever your Mother did it." He answered. "Trust me, my dear."
She was silent, only sighing over the phone as she thought about it.
"Show him what a proper wife you can be."
And all she could think of, was how much her Father did not know even the half of it. But crazier did she feel when she got off the phone with him and started to actually contemplate it. She thought about all those educational videos they showed in high school, especially the ones about home making and being a proper house wife, all of which she thought were nonsense. 'The perfect way to a man's heart is through his stomach', she could hear them say as a new bride slayed away on a hot stove. But she wasn't trying to find his way to his heart, only a way to satisfy her guilt. So she made her way downstairs and into the kitchen, finding Mrs. Hutton bent over the oven and pulling out a pie. Anastasia took an apple out of the heaping bowl in the middle of the island and washed it under the sink. Then she turned around and leaned against it, crossing her arms before taking a bite out of the apple as she watched Mrs. Hutton.
"Is there anything I can get you, my dear?" She asked when she finally noticed Anastasia watching her.
"No, no, I'm quite alright." She told her. Mrs. Hutton nodded, placing the pie on a cake stand. Anastasia hesitated, not sure why she was going to do what she was about to do. "But I do have a question to ask you."
"What is it, Ma'am?" Mrs. Hutton looked up.
"James told me that you were one of his family's cooks for years, was it even before he was born?" She asked.
"No, but he was about 2 when I began to work for them. Dear little boy he was." Mrs. Hutton chuckled. "Very mature, very serious, always wanted to help me carry the heavy things as he got older."
"Then I'm sure you have an idea of what his favorite food was?"
"Well, he was never really a picky eater, that one." Mrs. Hutton thought about it. "But, I do remember him lighting up every time I made country fried steak."
Anastasia didn't say anything to this, only thinking about the fact that the methods of making country fried steak seemed to be a tedious and tricky one, as with most dishes since she didn't fancy cooking all that much. How was she to know what ingredients she needed and the techniques in which to prepare such a dish? She immediately wanted to change her mind and take it all back. But then she heard herself speak.
"Would you mind teaching me how to make it?"
"Why, it would be my pleasure, Ma'am." Mrs. Hutton clapped her hands together and smiled. "When did you want to do it?"
"Today. Right now." Anastasia replied, chucking her half eaten apple in the garbage can. "Oh, and Mrs. Hutton, please don't call me Ma'am. My name will do just fine."
To this, Mrs. Hutton smiled. Anastasia then opened the fridge, scanning over the contents inside it.
"What'll we need?" She asked.
"Well, we've already got the ingredients here, so no need to go shopping." Mrs. Hutton opened the pantry and took out the flour and a variety of spices. "Would you mind grabbing the eggs, milk, and butter out of the fridge?"
Anastasia did as she was told, placing them on top of the island as she watched Mrs. Hutton pull out several dishes out of the cabinet. She then walked over to the freezer and pulled out some steaks.
"Now this will take a while to thaw, but to speed up the process, I'm gonna leave it in a bowl of hot water." Mrs. Hutton walked to the sink and placed the steaks in a huge bowl before running hot water over it. "In the meantime, we can prepare the other ingredients and peel the potatoes. Country fried steak isn't complete without some good old mashed potatoes and green beans."
Mrs. Hutton pulled out a sack of potatoes under the island and the green beans out of the fridge. After washing the potatoes, the two got to work and started peeling them.
"This is a nice surprise." Mrs. Hutton said, peeling a potato twice as fast as Anastasia. "I didn't know you were interested in cooking."
"Oh, I'm not." She raised her eyebrows, finishing her first potato and then grabbing another one. "I just feel guilty about what happened a few nights ago."
"I know, we heard." Anastasia looked up in surprise upon hearing this. "Our rooms are right by the formal living room under the stairs, very thin walls too."
"Oh, well, I'm sorry for that." Anastasia sighed as she watched Mrs. Hutton move onto the green beans, snapping the ends off each one.
"It's both your home, you needn't apologize. We just work here." Mrs. Hutton smiled at her.
After they were done, Mrs. Hutton showed Anastasia how to boil the potatoes and the green beans and how to blanch the beans after a few minutes. She then assembled several dishes, Anastasia beating eggs along with milk before pouring it into one dish and mixing flour with different spices in another. As soon as the steaks had been thawed, Mrs. Hutton showed her how to tenderize the meat. Anastasia was hesitant with each pound, intimidated by the loud noise before finally getting the hang of it. After seasoning the steaks and dredging them in the flour mixture, the milk mixture, and then back to the flour mixture, they placed them one by one into a cast iron skillet filled with piping hot oil. Mrs. Hutton then showed Anastasia the tricks to making the best gravy to go along with the steaks, learning that it was a bit tricky, as there were no precise measurements, only your instincts paired with good judgment and a watchful eye. She watched as Mrs. Hutton whisked in the milk, the sauce gradually thickening up. Anastasia then sprinkled a generous amount of pepper as she was told. Then there were the potatoes, which they mashed along with some milk, butter, salt, pepper, and roasted garlic until smooth.
When they were finally done with everything, Mrs. Hutton made Anastasia a plate, assembling the steak, potatoes, and green beans before ladling gravy over them. Anastasia sat down, cutting off a piece of meat and dipping it in the mashed potatoes and gravy. When she took the first bite, she closed her eyes, finding herself in heaven.
"Mrs. Hutton, you really are something." Anastasia shook her head.
"Oh now, you did most of the work, I just stood by and watched." Mrs. Hutton laughed as she stood in front of Anastasia.
"What are you doing just standing there? Make yourself a plate and join me." Anastasia smiled at her.
"Oh, I couldn't possibly-"
"Mrs. Hutton," Anastasia looked at her. "That's an order."
"Alright," Mrs. Hutton beamed, piling a plate with food and then sitting next to Anastasia. The two sat there eating, only a clinking of forks and knives being heard.
"Do you think James will like this?" Anastasia asked suddenly, sipping on a glass of water.
"No doubt about it." Mrs. Hutton replied. "He'll love it."
"Where is Margot and Mr. Hammond and Mr. Linwood?" I'm sure they would love some."
"Margot and Mr. Hammond rode into town together to pick up a few things and Mr. Linwood should be back any minute." Mrs. Hutton said.
"Well make sure to fix them all a plate when they arrive, will you?"
"Of course." Mrs. Hutton assured her.
So it was then that Anastasia awaited James' arrival, hoping he would see that she was somewhat sorry. But the afternoon and the evening rolled on by, and when James didn't come home at the time he usually did, Anastasia assumed he might've been caught up at work or had to take care of something. But eager woman that she was, she let herself out of her bedroom around nine o'clock, finding Margot kneeling over the tiles of the kitchen floor, scrubbing away.
"Margot, has James arrived yet?" She asked.
"No, Miss Anastasia. He hasn't phoned either." Margot shrugged, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand.
"Did you know if he stayed in town for work?" Anastasia said after a few moments of contemplating his whereabouts.
"Well he usually works at the office here on Wednesdays, so I should think so."
But then, Anastasia remembered what he had told her when they had first moved into the house. 'You wouldn't have been bothered with waiting out for me to come home every single night like an aggravating, clingy new wife would.' That, he was more than right about. But in occasions like this, Anastasia's impatience often showed. And although she could careless about where he was or what he was doing, she wanted him to come home and try her peace offering of a meal. She felt foolish and a tad bit humiliated as she went to what she considered to be great lengths such as learning how to cook for the first time just to let her guard down for once and do something nice. And it only resulted in the person not showing up. Needless to say, she did not come to appreciate it. But as much as she wanted to tell herself that it wasn't a big deal, she couldn't help but dash down the hall and onto the foyer before putting on a coat. She stepped out of the house, the night air sending her hair swaying. She pulled the pea coat closer up to her neck, the cold making her shiver. She then made her way to the garage and grabbed the keys to the maybach before getting behind the wheel. She drove out of the garage and down the driveway to the direction of the factory. But when she got there, she found the security man inside the booth by the gate as he told her that James had left about an hour ago. So she backed out of the entrance and drove in the direction of the only place she knew she would find him if he wasn't at the factory.
She drove on until finally arriving at the wharf. After parking the car, she walked towards the shops, restaurants, and little businesses lined up on the dock, the smell of clam chowder and hot popcorn and roasted chestnuts being sold in little carts wafting in the air. Vibrant lights shone from every sign along with the Christmas lights that were intertwined around each lamp post regardless of what season or holiday it was. She walked past men who played instruments in the middle of the dock, their guitar cases and hats on the floor for anyone willing to drop in a few coins and waiters offering clam chowder samples outside their restaurants. She walked on until she finally came near James' favorite seafood restaurant, the place he always went for business lunches and dinners and the place he had wanted to go to the first night they were at the house had Anastasia not been so stubborn. She peered inside through the window, seeing waiters walk between the tables, serving things on a platter and re-filling wine glasses with wine. Still, she couldn't get a good glimpse of the customers inside or distinguish anyone apart. So she walked to the door and went inside, vowing only to stay at the front and scan the place for a quick second. Her eyes moved across the room, taking in the setting as people dined, talked, laughed, and conversed. But as her eyes spotted someone in the corner by the window overlooking the water, it was then that she saw who she was looking for. She spotted James at a two person table, sitting across from someone. His facial expression was serious, as if he was being attentive, listening to whatever the person in front of him was saying.
She shifted her gaze over to the person sitting across from him, the only thing she could make out was her short, blonde, finger-waved bob and her dark brown clothes. Whether it was a dress or a pantsuit, Anastasia couldn't tell. She then looked at James, who had started saying something, his lips moving. She could tell that it was a deep, intense conversation. Even if it was just the back of the woman's head that Anastasia could see, she started to realize how familiar the woman's hair looked. Then the flashback of her finding that picture of a pretty woman inside James' office resurfaced in her head. It had to be Charlotte. She looked at them for a moment, blinking twice. Although she felt nothing close to jealousy or anything of the sort, she found herself a bit surprised. It was a feeling she couldn't quite explain, a sense of startle inside. She stood there, watching them, her surroundings blurring around her. Suddenly, the Charlotte reached over and placed her hand over his. James, however, didn't budge. It was then that Anastasia thought of how good they looked together, as if they belonged, even if she couldn't see her face. Their body language was enough. She broke her gaze away from them, realizing she was standing in a room full of people.
"Ma'am, were you expecting anyone?" The hostess asked her.
"No, no." She said, coming back to life. "I was just on my way out, thank you."
She turned around, opening the door before leaving the restaurant. Her walk back to the car was slow, her hands in her pockets as she pondered what she had just seen, the wind playing with her hair. She didn't feel much inside, no jealousy, suspicion, or anger, just a hint of surprise. She wondered, more than anything, about what they were talking about. The seriousness in James' face, the way she touched his hand, she thought about all the infinite possibilities. And when she finally got inside the car, she sat for a moment, looking up at the sign of the seafood restaurant from a distance. She placed her hands on the stirring wheel, not taking her eyes off of it. After what seemed like ten minutes, Anastasia finally cranked up the engine, pulling out of the parking lot and driving on home. When she finally got there, she went inside, finding Margot now dusting off the chandelier above the foyer as she stood on a tall ladder.
"Did you manage to find him?" She huffed, struggling to catch her breath as she stretched to reach a certain spot.
"Yes, he..." Anastasia's voice trailed off. "He was at a business dinner. Nothing new."
"Ah, I see." Margot replied. With this, she went back to work.
Anastasia climbed up the stairs, making her way up to her bedroom. When she got there, she closed the door behind her, leaning against it for a moment. Finally, she walked to her vanity, pulling off her coat in the process. She hung it on the coat stand next to the mirror of her vanity, sitting down and coming face to face with herself. She opened the silver box to her left, pulling out her brush before running it over her long black hair, staying that way for a few moments. After she was done, she got up, changing out of her clothes as she threw on a nightgown and a flowing chiffon night robe. After getting ready for bed, she slipped into her covers, turning off the light on her night stand. She closed her eyes, drifting off for a little while before waking up again. She tried closing her eyes, finding herself tossing and turning instead. It was almost midnight as she read her clock and she began to think about Charlotte and James. She wondered if he had made it home yet and whether she was going to ask or say anything about it. As much as she tried to push out all thoughts out of her head and get some sleep, she would keep opening her eyes, not finding much success. Fed up, she finally threw the covers aside, getting out of bed. She put her slippers on and got out of her bedroom, sprinting down the stairs and into the kitchen, resorting to the one trick that usually worked for her.
When she got to the kitchen, she caught a glimpse of James' covered food on top of the island as she passed by to grab a glass from the cabinet. She then opened the fridge and pulled out the glass bottle of milk, pouring herself some before placing it back, closing the fridge. She then leaned against the kitchen stove, taking one big gulp. She then stared back down at the covered, untouched country fried steak. She sighed, taking another sip as she kept her eyes on the food. Just then, she heard the front door open. She heard movement for a few minutes before everything went silent. Curious, she then walked out of the kitchen and onto the formal living room where she found James sitting across the fireplace, his eyes on their wedding portrait as it hung above it. She stopped by the table next to the chair he was sitting on. She looked at him as he stared at the picture, not saying a thing. She too followed in his gaze and looked up at the gigantic photo. They both looked unhappy, their faces monotone. Then there was that huge gap in between them. In Anastasia's opinion, they didn't fit.
"What are you still doing up?" He asked her, not looking away from their wedding photo.
"I couldn't sleep." She raised the glass of milk in her hand as he finally looked at her, chuckling and shaking his head when he saw the milk. "You're home late."
"Yeah..." He said, yawning and taking off his tie. "I just had to...take care of something."
"I bet," she nodded. "Anyway, there's food on top of the island for you. Don't laugh but I cooked it. Eat it or don't, it's fine with me."
"You? Cooking?" He asked.
"Don't ask." She rolled her eyes, walking towards the stairs. She placed a hand on the railing and took two steps before James called her.
"Anastasia?" He asked her. She stopped, turning around and looking at him, his face similar to the look she saw at the restaurant.
"What is it?" She asked, fully facing him. He didn't say anything for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts together. It took him awhile as she waited for him to say something, and when he did, he did it hesitantly.
"That offer you talked about months ago...you know, when we first moved in here. Do you still feel that way?"
"Feel what way?" She asked, puzzled.
"You wanting to get a divorce... does the offer still stand on the table?" He asked her.
As much as she had wanted it for so long, she found herself speechless for a moment upon hearing him say what he had just said. She didn't know whether she was more surprised at James for saying such a thing as he had been so strongly against it, or at the fact that she didn't know what to say. Of course, she was still willing to go along with it, but it just felt surreal to her that the possibility of it happening wasn't so... well, impossible anymore.
"Well... yes, I suppose." She said finally. James didn't utter a word for a while, instead staring at the ground as his elbows rested on his knees, his hands intertwined together. She didn't know whether to say something. But finally, he spoke.
"I met with Charlotte tonight." He said. Anastasia wasn't surprised as she already knew.
"I see." She responded. "How did it go?"
"Well," he sighed. "She was in town and wanted to meet so we just did a lot of catching up over dinner. Then it turned into us discussing a lot of other things."
"Well..." she started, not bothering to ask what it was about, as she figured he would have explained by now if he wanted to. "If the feeling is still there, why deny it, right?"
"Right." He said ever so quietly, looking at her.
"If you still love her..." She started before trailing off, trying to find the words. She hesitated before saying, "then...I don't see why we can't get divorced."
They looked at each other for a moment, Anastasia's gaze unfaltering as always with James equally looking back at her. He tried to read her, but found it impossible to know what she was thinking.
"Well...goodnight, James." She said, her voice smooth and deep as velvet. She looked at him for a moment before gathering the fabric from the front of her robe with one hand and turning around to walk up the stairs, the glass of milk in the other hand. He watched her go, his hands in his pockets.
When she was finally gone, he went to the kitchen where he found the food sitting on top of the island. He walked over to it, uncovering the plate, the gravy boat next to it. When he saw what she had made, he chuckled, shaking his head. Even after sitting there for hours, it still smelled amazing. And just like the young boy that he used to be, he found himself lighting up.