Famished, Grace followed her iPad map as it led her around a meticulously pruned bed of roses, through a magical topiary garden circumventing the freshly mowed croquet lawn, and over an arched bridge that spanned the koi pond where she’d met Gigi and Debbie the night before. At last, the words Dining Room stood before her, and salivating, she flung open the thick double doors. But Grace’s anticipation was thwarted by a room devoid of any trace of food. Not even a lingering scent of bacon remained. At the far end of the dining hall, waiters busily bussed dishes from the last couple of tables skirted in ivory linen, each surrounded by eight empty chairs slipcovered in rose chintz with large bows tied at the back. Two sets of French doors caught Grace’s eye on the opposite wall, flanked by tall ivory curtains pulled back on either side, providing views to a terrace beyond.
Grace weaved her way across the dining hall and through the French doors. A fused-glass sculpture of Athena, the Greek warrior goddess, stood tall in the center of the terrace with water flowing over her as if she were being cleansed of past kills.
Sitting down at an empty table, Grace spotted three brightly colored hot air balloons sailing quietly overhead. Almost instantly, a waiter was at her side with a crystal pitcher of fresh-squeezed orange juice and the current edition of the New York Times.
“Mrs. Meadowcroft, may I offer you a latte?” His crisp white jacket and black pants were, Grace thought, more apt for Hotel Ritz in Paris than a hilltop retreat in Napa.
Grace peered up at him, squinting against the sun, and wondering if he knew that that was, indeed, exactly what she craved. “Thank you. May I have some fruit, too, please?”
“On its way—blueberries, kiwi and mango. Your favorites, right?” He had a vague accent. He produced a pair of Ray-Bans from his pocket and handed them to her with a slight bow, then twisted the umbrella stem so as to keep the sun out of Grace’s eyes. Before Grace could thank him, he had vanished to the kitchen.
Damn, thought Grace, they must have Googled that Giving House charity brunch I chaired with Brett a couple years back. Photos of the two of them had shown up in every social column and blog in San Francisco, with them standing in front of a beautiful buffet of fruit.
Bells began to chime. She counted eight. Lovely chamber music lullabied in the background, and a drop-dead view down to the town of Napa was draped below her. For all her misery, it could have been worse.
Hearing the swift clip of footsteps against the stone tile, Grace peered over her paper, pushing the sunglasses back up onto the bridge of her nose and hoping it was her waiter with a morsel to curb her ravenous appetite.
“Good morning, Grace Meadowcroft.” The woman paused, awaiting acknowledgement. “My name is Lucille Barrett, and I wish you a very warm welcome.”
Grace squinted up at the statuesque platinum blonde towering over her, the four-inch Christian Louboutins—which were identifiable, for anyone who cared, by the trademark shiny red sole that ran up the shank and down the inside of the heel—putting her height at over six feet. Lucille’s winter-white bouclé Chanel suit was exquisitely tailored, and her outstretched arm showed off fingernails with a perfect French manicure.
“Hello, Lucy.” Grace pulled herself rigidly upright, trying to remove her feet from the other chair without making any noise. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
“Oh, no, no, no, my name is Lucille. No one, absolutely no one, calls me Lucy, my dear.” “May I help you find your way to class?” She patted her hair, swept tightly into a French twist.
“Oh, I’d really love to get some food in me first.” Grace looked around for her waiter, hoping Lucille couldn’t hear the gurgling of her empty stomach.
“Of course. I assume everything else has been to your liking since your arrival,” she said.
The waiter moved toward the table with a huge tray perched on his uplifted left hand.
“Your breakfast, Mrs. Meadowcroft.” He took the gleaming sterling silver tongs and pulled out from under a linen napkin one single steaming-hot popover. He placed it onto her bread plate and set a small bowl of honey butter on the table with a flourish. Then he presented her with a beautiful silver bowl engraved with the Finedale logo, brimming with fruit.
“Divine, thank you.” Trying to suppress her insatiable hunger, Grace tore into the popover as slowly as she could and genteelly touched the melted honey butter to her lips, inhaling the rich, warm fragrance. Then she ripped a huge bite out of the steaming baked delicacy, hiding the glint of rabid hunger in her eyes behind the Ray-Bans.
Lucille watched as if trying out a smile for the first time. “Charles, could you box up the fruit and provide Mrs. Meadowcroft a paper cup for her latte? She wouldn’t want to be late for her first class on her first day here.” Lucille snapped her fingers and then quickly added, “Please.” Charles spun on his heels back to the dining hall.
“So where were we? Oh yes, you were telling me how you feel about my humble abode.” Lucille pulled out of her repertoire of smiles a warmer version. “Don’t you worry. We’ll take care of everything for you. You’re a friend of Brett’s.”
“You know Brett personally?”
“I make it my mission to know every one of my girls.”
* * *
“Hello, ladies.” Lucille stepped into the classroom holding Grace’s hand. “Let me introduce your newest classmate, Grace Meadowcroft. Please bring her up to speed over the course of the next few days on the subjects she has missed.”
At the front of the room stood a petite woman in a bright Lilly Pulitzer skirt and white Lacoste polo shirt with a sherbet pink sweater around her shoulders, knotted at her breasts. Her hands were firmly placed on her hips. “Hello, darlin’. It is so nice to make your acquaintance.” Her drawl was unmistakably Southern. “My name’s Professor Anna Becky Johnson, and I am pleased as punch that you have joined our group of fabulous, sexy, and gorgeous women.”
By the time she was done gushing, Grace’s face matched the color of the professor’s sweater.
“Hey, Grace,” said Gigi, her uniform accessorized with an Hermes scarf and belt that was studded with pink rhinestones. “Come sit with us slackers.” The ten desks were arranged in a U-shape around the perimeter of the classroom. Gigi moved four of the women over one desk each so Grace could sit between her and Debbie.
Gigi leaned over and whispered to Grace, “Professor Johnson is Dean of Women’s Studies at Georgia Tech. She has written a bunch of books, including Female Flirting for Fun and Fame, a New York Times bestseller. I already bought it in the gift shop in case you want to borrow it. It has some killer tips for your arsenal.”
Seeing the list on the whiteboard of Professor Johnson’s books, Grace realized she, too, had actually bought one, Finding Mr. Right … Now, for Brett after her divorce.
“Let’s get this party started.” Lucille slipped out of the room while the professor tapped on her remote mouse and a slide appeared up on the large screen behind her. “We have a full curriculum to get through this coming week.”
- Part One: The New Rules
- Part Two: Flirting Fundamentals
- Part Three: Role Playing
- Part Four: Online Versus Offline
Gigi rubbed her hands together.
Professor Johnson pressed another button, and a list of sexually transmitted diseases fell into place under the title STDs. In one column were the curable and in the other the incurable.
Expressions of excitement faded to horror.
“Repeat after me,” the perky professor said. “Got C-O-N-D-O-M-S?”
“Eeew, gross,” said Gigi. “It’s a conspiracy to get us to go back to our loveless marriages.”
“So I’d like to walk you through a showcase of condom options. There are so many, it’ll make y’all catawampus. But I’ve brought samples.” Professor Johnson waved a 2-by-2-inch foil package in front of the class. In grand fashion, she undraped six fake penises, all perched erect on the table next to her lectern.
This being her first class of her first day, Grace was definitely not ready for the topic at hand. Not to mention that she’d never used a condom. Before she’d married Peter, STDs hadn’t been so prevalent. It was pregnancy everyone was trying to prevent. And she had been on the pill for years prior to their marriage. Yet, if Peter was having an affair, especially with a woman as young as the one at the airport, the chance of him contracting an STD was high, especially since he was no more knowledgeable than she. Or was he?
Of all the things in life to worry about, that one had never entered into Grace’s mind. Until now.