Evie and I agreed to meet for cocktails at The Palm Frond, an expensive little club that catered mostly to small, fat men with large, fat wallets. I'd been thrown out of the place rather unceremoniously a couple of years ago for the cardinal sin of impersonating a wealthy man, then placing a few friendly wagers with the genuinely wealthy patrons--and making a killing in the process. Of course, now that I was sufficiently well-heeled to patronize the club, I rarely did; but occasionally, if I happened to be feeling perverse, I found it fun to show my face there, knowing there wasn't a damn thing they could do to me as long as I backed all my bets. The drinks were good, the music was better, and the girls were mostly good-looking and occasionally quite stunning.
I installed myself on a high seat by the bar and ordered a gin martini. I watched the door for Evie, but the only women I'd seen so far were a pair of elderly ladies dripping with diamonds, and a young girl in a slinky black dress and long satin gloves. Upon closer inspection, however, the latter object did in fact prove to be my beloved sister. I'd never seen her dress like that in her life; what was more, she seemed to be enjoying it immensely. She'd pinned her hair in some elaborate style, held together by a modest circlet of gold and lapis lazuli. Everyone would, of course, assume that this object was faux ancient Egyptian--and hence very fashionable--when in fact it was the genuine article: one of the Hamunaptra treasures she'd taken a particular fancy to. However, her hair being up meant that everyone was afforded a fine view of her back as she turned to hand in her wrap at the coat check. I resisted the urge to run over and cover her with my dinner jacket. She was showing more skin than I'd seen since she was about three, and used to strip off and run about in the garden pretending she was an Amazon. I couldn't help wondering whether our parents' permissiveness in those days hadn't somehow influenced her current behaviour.
Every man between the ages of nineteen and ninety turned to watch as Evie walked across the room to where I was seated. She was in blatant defiance of the current female fashion, which dictated that a woman must have the figure of a ten-year-old boy in order to be thought attractive--but even so, I saw at least three fellows grab the nearest waiter and point to her, probably either inquiring after her identity or arranging to send her a drink. She waved and called my name, and immediately all of those male heads swivelled collectively in my direction, glaring enviously.
She sat right down beside me at the bar and ordered a gin martini of her own--which the bartender informed her was already paid for. Between the drink, the fancy hair, the posh evening gown, and the gloves, she looked quite sophisticated. All she needed to complete the ensemble was one of those long cigarette holders. Little Evie, all grown up.
"Aren't you going to tell me I look nice?" she inquired.
I frowned at her. "Why the devil should I? No doubt you're well aware of the fact. If you're expecting me to make a fuss of you just because you've thrown your money away on a silly piece of haute couture you'll never wear again, I think you must have done your hair up too tight." I gave her a ear a tweak.
She poked her tongue out at me. "How is it any different from throwing money away on card games--or blondes?"
"Blondes are always in fashion." I grinned salaciously.
The bartender placed the drink in front of her. She took a tiny sip, made a face like she'd just taken a dose of some particularly nasty medicine, and then set the glass down on the bar. And this--this child--was going to be someone's mother. It boggled the mind, really.
"Evie, old thing, are you sure you ought...?" I pantomimed taking a swig. After all, she was in a delicate condition--though you'd never think it to look at her. An evening of drinking and dancing and wearing tight clothing was probably the last thing she needed at this point. She ought to have been at home in her warm flannel nightgown, with her feet up, drinking tea and being tended to by O'Connell.
She beamed at me. "Oh, I know I shouldn't, but I'm celebrating tonight."
"What are you celebrating?"
"The beginning of something new and wonderful."
"Well, I'll drink to that." I drained my glass in two swallows. Evie slid hers over to me; it was immediately replaced by another, which was apparently also paid for. I began to think that perhaps she did have her head on straight, dressing like that; she wouldn't have to buy a single drink all night. And she wouldn't drink them, which meant I wouldn't have to buy a single drink all night.
She smiled, and then her face became solemn. "Now, Jon," she began, placing her hand over mine, "I'm about to tell you something very important. And you mustn't be upset."
"You are my darling baby sister, and I will always love you," I replied sententiously, the gin loosening my tongue.
She gave my hand a squeeze. "That's lovely."
"No matter what awful thing you may have done," I added.
"It isn't that awful... a small thing, really." She bit her lip, and refused to look me in the eye, two sure signs that she was lying. Evie is a terrible liar at the best of times, and just now she was particularly dismal at it.
"All right. Out with it." I braced myself, knowing that any moment, my sister was going to let loose with the announcement that she'd become a breeding ground for little illegitimate O'Connells.
"Well..." she fiddled with her own fingers a moment, then slowly drew off her gloves. She placed both hands on the bar and sat watching me expectantly.
"Evie--" I was suddenly distracted as a gem winked at me from her hand. "Now this," I breathed, leaning in to get a closer look, "is a beautiful little piece. I'm glad to see you haven't gone all modern and art deco on me, sis."
She laughed--a funny, high-up sort of laugh. "Never," she told me.
It was a gold half-hoop ring, Victorian, with intricately carved shoulders and a three-stone setting. I wished I had my jeweller's eyepiece with me, in order to better appreciate it. I didn't have to ask who had given it to her; there were only two men in her life who had ever bought her jewellery of that calibre, and I happened to be one of them. Of course, she never wore the signet I bought her, claiming rings weren't her style.
"I'll say this for O'Connell, at least he's got a modicum of good taste when it comes to the trinkets he buys you." Now if only he'd exercised the same good taste in other matters, I thought.
"Actually, I picked it out myself," she informed me proudly, wiggling her ring finger so that the setting caught the light and twinkled.
"Well, you--" The ring was on her left hand, I realized belatedly. "I say, Evie!"
"You--did you--you didn't..." Clarity broke over me like a thundershower, as my sister blushed and nodded. "You did, you balmy girl!" She wasn't going to be a mother, after all... but this was almost as bad. Sure, I'd wanted him to marry her, but that was when I thought he'd got her into trouble! This was different--this was sneaking around behind my back and stealing my little sister away! "Bloody O'Connell!" I cried.
"Be nice, Jon--I'm Mrs. Bloody O'Connell, now, remember." She held up her hand, turning it this way and that, admiring the ring from different angles. "Besides, it wasn't all Rick's idea. I do have a mind of my own, you know."
For the second time that day, I was completely stunned. "You could have invited me..."
"It wasn't as though we planned it or anything--it just... happened. He walked me home one night, and all of a sudden he started talking about how he couldn't bear to be without me, and I said I felt the same way--and the next thing I knew, we were bargaining for a ring at this little stall in the marketplace..." She beamed, and her little face positively shone. "Oh, Jonathan, I'm happier than I've ever been! I've wanted to tell you--"
"What about the banns?" I demanded, cutting her off. It would be very like the flighty little featherbrain to rush off and get married, and conveniently overlook all the bits that made it legal and binding. O'Connell was a very bad influence on her in that respect.
She shook her head. "Rick's not a British subject. We had to get a common license."
She huffed impatiently. "I'm not a dolt, Jonathan! Don't worry, I made sure everything was done properly." At this point, she took up the fresh martini and tackled it with renewed celebratory determination. I waited for her to pass it over to me, but she seemed to be enjoying it a bit more than the first. "They do grow on you, don't they?" she chirped, holding up the glass. Good heavens, I'd created a monster.
"And when was the happy event?"
Here, she at least had the decency to look ashamed. "A week ago tonight."
"A week--you've been married for an entire week and you couldn't be bothered to say anything to me?!"
"We didn't tell anyone... we both needed some time to get used to the idea first. It all happened rather quickly."
"You lied to me!"
A mischievous look came over her face. "I lied to everybody... what makes you so special?"
I fell into the trap before I'd realized why those words sounded so familiar. "I'm your only brother, you ungrateful little--!"
"That just makes you more gullible," she retorted gleefully.
She nudged me. I nudged her back, and she lost her balance and slid right off the chair, landing on the floor with a thud! Hmph. Not so very sophisticated after all, the little brat. I grinned, waved, and downed what was left of her martini. The bartender immediately replaced it with a fresh one. Evie glared up at me, and finally I reached down and hauled her to her feet.
"This guy givin' you trouble?" came an offensive drawl from behind me. A hearty pound on the shoulder sent me staggering forward, hanging onto the bar for support. "Hey, easy there, buddy." Strong hands lifted me up and installed me in my seat once more.
"No one's given me any trouble. Not even a little bit." She said this with affected disappointment, plunking one elbow down on the bar and resting her chin on her hand. "Here I am, looking ravishingly gorgeous, and even my own silly brother hasn't asked me for a dance." She sipped from her new drink and tried to look dejected.
"Gee, I wonder why?" In full view now, my new brother-in-law looked practically respectable in a suit and tie. He'd even combed his hair, for once. Being married to my fastidious sister might be the best thing that ever happened to him. He put one arm around Evie's shoulders, shooting me a wink. He was in the most insufferable good humour, and I suspected it was at my expense. "Can't say I blame ya, Jonathan."
She elbowed him in the ribs. "I do wish you'd stop teasing me. I am not a bad dancer!" Then, appealing to me to back her up: "Am I?"
O'Connell looked smug, certain that I was going to take his side.
"Of course not, Evie. You're like a dream." Well, a nightmare, perhaps. "Sometimes I wonder whether your feet even touch the ground." Usually her feet are all over the other person's.
"How many of those have you had?" O'Connell demanded. I shrugged.
Evie flashed me a gratified smile. "Thank you." To her husband of one week, she added, pointedly, "See?"
He rolled his eyes, but didn't press the matter. "You two talk everything out?"
We both nodded.
"Good," he said, and I sensed that the matter between us was closed. I felt as though I ought to apologize for the accusations I'd made earlier, but couldn't figure out how to frame my words in a way that wouldn't have Evie demanding to know everything. The last thing I wanted was for her to find out what a blithering idiot I'd been. O'Connell had been awfully sporting about the whole thing, I realized. He hadn't even hit me once, even though he'd definitely been entitled. And he was a decent enough chap in most respects. Perhaps... perhaps marrying him wouldn't turn out to be the biggest mistake of my sister's life, after all.
Evie, blissfully unaware, made a pretty little moue of her mouth. "Look," she demanded petulantly, "isn't anyone going to ask me for a dance?" Her ears had gone rather red, but I suspected it was more alcohol than chagrin.
O'Connell groaned. "Yeah, yeah. Might as well get it over with."
"Is that how you proposed, too?" I inquired.
"Very nearly," supplied my sister cheerfully.
O'Connell glared at each of us in turn. "You," he said, pointing at me, "shut up. You," here he indicated my sister, "let's go." He grabbed her arm, yanked her unceremoniously out of her seat.
"Looks as if I'm being spirited away!" she announced, and waved good-bye, her steps slightly unsteady as O'Connell towed her out onto the dance floor.
After a couple more drinks to fortify my nerves, I occupied myself in making the rounds of the room, inviting several young ladies to take a turn on the floor. The ones who were any good on their feet, I asked for a second dance, alternating at random, so that it didn't look like I was just going the rounds. Still, it all seemed a bit hollow, in the face of Evie's all-encompassing happiness.
Then it just so happened that I spied a shy one, turned out in an ugly dress that was all the wrong length and style for her figure. She was bent over, staring at the black caps of her shoes in exactly the same way that Evie used to when I took her out. All that was missing was a pair of tortoiseshell specs and a battered copy of Budge's Egyptian Magic. I made a special point of proffering an invitation to this girl--Beatrix, her name was--and I danced with her three times in a row before her father politely told me to bugger off back to where I'd come from. He assumed I was after either money or her precious virtue, no doubt, when in fact I was already liberally endowed with the one, and not particularly interested in acquiring the other. I returned to my station at the bar, and before long a waiter came over to have a discreet word with me. I was worried that I was about to be ejected, but no; and damned if timid little Beatrix hadn't sent me a drink at Daddy's expense! I toasted her from across the room, and she smiled winningly at me as her father escorted her out of the club by the elbow. She was actually quite pretty when she smiled. I hoped the young fellows were paying attention.
As the crowd on the dance floor started to thin, I fell to watching my sister and O'Connell. For all his complaining, he didn't seem to mind that she trod on his feet--and she did, often. He was obviously self-conscious: she guided him through the faster songs, showing him how to spin her properly. Evie adores being spun, and dipped, and any other maneuver that imitates the motion of a roller coaster, and she gives her partner absolutely no warning before she tries to do something. A strange one, that girl. Still, O'Connell managed to catch her every single time, for which I must give credit to his watchful eye and admirable reflexes.
During a run of slow numbers, he held her a little closer than was the custom, close enough for her to nestle her head against his shoulder. After a while, her eyes drifted closed, then his, and then both their steps slowed until it they were barely moving at all. I supposed allowances could be made for their behaviour, considering that the pair of them were practically on their honeymoon. At least they weren't kissing each other in the middle of the dance floor or anything quite so disgusting. As for Evie, she had such a confounded silly grin on her face that I couldn't help smiling myself. The big prat really did make her happy.
I was quietly drinking the health of the bride and groom when I felt a hand press my shoulder. I wasn't sure I felt up to making forced dance-floor conversation with yet another pretty, vapid blonde, and turned with an apology on my lips to find Evie standing there.
"You never asked me for a dance," she bleated.
"Oh, for heaven's sake, you silly girl." I slapped her hand away as she tried to drag me out of my chair. More kindly, I added, "It's been rather a long day, Evie. I'm tired, and just a little bit too drunk for my own good. The only place I'm going is home, to sleep, and possibly to put my head in the, er, thing." I couldn't quite remember the word. "The apparatus that one is sick in. Yes, I will definitely be spending a lot of time in the company of the, er, thing, in the foreseeable future."
She pursed her lips and blew a stray curl off her forehead. "One dance won't kill you, Jonathan."
"Oh, all right, all right, just leave off whining."
I walked out onto the floor with Evie trotting along after me. "I don't whine."
"You do," I insisted.
"I don't!" she whined.
I sighed, made a face, and put my arm around her.
It was a slower number, a song I happened to know, and the band gave it a subtle swing I rather enjoyed. I wondered whether she'd chosen it on purpose, but she couldn't have; Evie and I didn't have any of the same tastes in music, and it was a given that if I liked the song, she'd never even heard of it. For the moment, I was simply thankful she wasn't asking me to spin her, or effect any other complicated maneuvers that might make me inclined to be sick all over her fancy outfit.
"Stop trying to lead," I groused as she pulled me this way and that. "Maybe O'Connell lets you get away with that trick, but I'm not required by law to be nice to you."
She relaxed in my arms, with the comfort of long-standing familiarity. "You shall have to call him Rick, now," she informed me, trying not to smile.
"I suppose so. Hmph." Bloody Rick.
"I'm sorry you didn't get to dance at my wedding, Jonathan," she told me.
"Oh... it's all right, Evie." I grinned, to show her there were no hard feelings. It was no fun being disagreeable if she wasn't going to fight back, after all. "I'll be there at the next one, I'm sure."
She swatted me in the shoulder. "That's not funny!"
"No, I suppose not," I reflected. The feeling of sickness was passing, and I started to get into the rhythm of the music. We moved deftly across the floor without her getting anywhere near my poor defenseless instep.
In a small voice, she asked, "Are you very cross with me?"
"No... not very. I wish I could have been there, but that's all. I always thought I'd be the one to give you away." Well, actually, I'd always thought my shy sister would never get married in the first place. Part of me had just assumed that we'd grow old together in a house full of antique books, and about fifty cats, in spite of the fact that I hate the wretched little creatures. But she didn't need to know all that.
"Well, this way you don't have to give me away," she said brightly.
I feigned horror. "Do you mean I'm stuck with you? Good heavens. No, no, you're O'Connell's look-out now, he can deal with you. Disaster that you are."
"Do you know this song?" she asked, suddenly determined to be amiable in spite of my best efforts. "It sounds like the type of music you like."
I nodded. "I do, indeed."
"How does it go?"
"Oh, er, let me see--ah, yes. You'll forgive me, sis; I am not, as you may perhaps have noted, Ella Fitzgerald... 'I'll be loving you, always... With a love that's true, oh, always... When the things you've planned... need a helping hand... I will understand, always, always...'"
I lifted my arm over her head and gave her a little spin, then drew her back to me, as neatly as if we'd timed it. Over her shoulder, I caught a glimpse of O'Connell's face: mingled surprise and amusement. She hadn't stepped on my toes even once.
"'Days may not be fair, always... That's when I'll be there, oh, always...'" I dipped her, swiftly and suddenly, and she let out a squeal of delight. "'Not for just an ho-ur... not for just a da-ay... not for just a year, but always.'"
We leaned in close, foreheads touching. I made silly faces at her until she burst out laughing.
"Evie, you're my very favourite sister," I told her, as the song drew to a close.
She wrinkled her nose at me. "I am your only sister."
"A win by acclamation still stands," I pointed out.
Her face wobbled a bit, beginning to crumple, and I was afraid she was going to start blubbering. Evie's not the kind of girl who generally blubbers, but every once in a while, just when you least expect it, she really gets going, and there's no way of stopping it once she starts. I braced myself and wondered what I'd done with my clean handkerchief. "I love you, Jon," she said shakily.
"Then for God's sake, old mum, let me go home to bed!"
She laughed, hugged me tightly, kissed me on both cheeks, and then she was off, into the arms of her young soldier. Who gives this woman? I thought, as she pelted across the dance floor. I will, damn it all.
I watched her charge him at breakneck speed, practically flinging herself into his arms--but he remained steady and solid, proving more than a match for her. Which was, after all, the important thing.
They had met strangely, fallen in love violently, and been married on a whim. They were both wilful, proud, stubborn, and hot-headed; he'd seen far too much of the world, and she hadn't seen nearly enough. Anyone who knew the first thing about human nature would tell you that it was a marriage doomed to failure from the very start. But I had a feeling that Evie could make it work. And if there was one thing I had learned that day, it was the importance of not drawing conclusions based on something as trifling as circumstantial evidence.