There is a privacy screen set up in the corner of the room. I freeze as I recognize it, as I remember.
“Grace —” My mother steps out from behind the screen, then spins around. Her dress is long and white with beautiful black lace covering the bodice. She actually does look like a princess. “What do you think?”
“So, Grace —” Megan’s voice is too loud. I shudder. “What do you think?”
“What?” I say, remembering where and when I am.
“The dress?” Megan’s arms look like they are filled with cotton candy. “Do you want to try it on?”
“It won’t fit,” I say. “See, it’s dragging on the floor.”
“That’s a train, dear,” Ms. Chancellor tells me, and she and Megan share a chuckle at my expense.
“You have to try it on,” Megan says.
“I don’t have to do anything,” I counter.
“Sure you do. It’s as easy as, say, jumping off a cliff.” Megan crosses her arms, and I know she’s got me, so I go behind a screen and try to wiggle into the contraption. But there are so many straps and zippers and hooks that Megan has to come help me.
While I slip out of my clothes, she takes the dress off the hanger. It puddles on the floor like a pale-pink volcano.
“So, how have you been?”
Is she asking for Ms. Chancellor’s benefit or her own? I honestly don’t know, so I say, “Fine.”
She helps me step into the dress then work it up over my hips.
“I’m sorry about your mom,” she says as she finds the zipper.
“I thought I’d see you at the funeral, but …”
“Yeah. Couldn’t make it. Got tied up.” If she hears the bitterness in my voice, she ignores it.
I do as she says.
“Did you get my letters?” she asks.
“Yeah. Thanks,” I say. “I was going to write back, but …”
“It’s okay. I know.”
And the scary part is that I think she really does.
When Megan speaks again, her voice is a whisper. “So are you going to tell me what happened last night?”
“You were there. You saw what happened.”
“No. Last night … that wasn’t you.”
“The last time you saw me I was jumping off the wall, Megan.”
Megan’s gaze burns into me. She isn’t backing down. “You were always a daredevil, but you never had a death wish. The girl I knew was always running toward something. Last night … you were running away.”
“Megan, I’m fine,” I say again, but Megan just shakes her head.
“No, you’re not.”
She pulls the zipper up. Smooths the fabric into place. And then she walks away. I hear the door open and close, and there is no doubt in my mind that she is gone.
“Grace?” Ms. Chancellor calls over the screen. “Grace, let’s see the dress.”
“No.” I shake my head, emphatic, as if she can see me. I can handle stressful situations. I am equipped. Prepared. Drop me into a war zone and I’ll be fine. But this is different.
“Grace, tomorrow night is very important for your grandfather.” Ms. Chancellor’s voice is low. Her words sound mildly like a threat.
“Then he should ask me!” I don’t mean to shout — but I can’t stop myself. The dress is too tight and I can’t breathe.
“He should talk to me,” I go on. “He doesn’t want me here. And he really doesn’t need me at some fancy party where all I’ll do is embarrass him.”
Ms. Chancellor doesn’t bite back. She doesn’t snap. She just steps calmly forward and pulls me from behind the screen. “He wants you here, Grace. He has been alone in his duties for a very long time. And he is going to want you with him tomorrow night.”
She stops and steps back, points to the full-length mirror that someone has leaned against the opposite wall. I can see the girl who stands there. Long, billowing pinkness over very pale skin. The same shade of pink fills my cheeks.
Ms. Chancellor smiles. “And he is going to want you wearing this.”
The next day is a blur of dress fittings and dance lessons and trips to various salons with Ms. Chancellor. Some of her instruments of torture are hot. Some are cold. Some are hard and some are soft. All are dangerous, I decide. If the army knew about curling irons, basic training might look very, very different.
It’s almost six when we make our way downstairs.
“Stand up straight, Grace,” Ms. Chancellor tells me, as if I have any choice in the matter. My dress is so tight I couldn’t slouch if I wanted to. I’m pretty sure they’re going to have to tie me to the hood of the car to get me to the palace.
“You look lovely, dear,” Ms. Chancellor tells me with a smile. Her dress is long and black. She wears a shiny blue wrap around her shoulders and has piled her auburn hair on top of her head. I can’t quite decide if her sapphire earrings are real or not, but then I know they must be. Ms. Chancellor is simply not the kind of woman to put up with imitations.
“You look nice, too,” I tell her. I am gripping the rail too tightly. I really don’t want to fall.
“Thank you, Grace.” She smiles at me and takes my free hand. “It’s going to be a wonderful evening.”
And I know she means it — she really does. This is her world. Her domain. Politics and intricate back-alley deals, trade alliances formed over champagne and shrimp cocktail.
“Well, there are my girls!”
My grandfather has a big, booming voice that fills any room. It floats up the stairs and greets us.
Then he throws open the door. “Let’s go.”
They don’t tie me to the hood of the stretch limo that waits outside. But I wish they would. I half sit, half lean along the seat, my back to the driver. Grandpa and Ms. Chancellor sit across from me. They don’t touch. But there is an easiness between them, a comfort borne from twenty-five years of late nights and early mornings, good times and bad.
“You clean up real good, kid,” Grandpa says, but he’s not looking at me. He slaps Ms. Chancellor’s hand. “Now, how about me?”
“You look like a man who has never quite mastered the bow tie.” She takes his shoulders and turns him to face her. “Here.”