10:37 a.m., Monday, 3 September
Since the very first moment she had laid eyes on him, Lorna Connaught had loved Dante with a hot fierceness that both excited and shamed her.
The excitement came from the knowledge that, from then until the day she died, he would always be hers. Her shame came from the realization that she’d never felt such an achingly deep love like that before.
Not even for her husband, Matthew.
And yet, if it hadn’t been for Matt, Dante wouldn’t be in her life now.
She watched him as he warmed his feet in the sand. Alta Plaza Park crowned one of the highest peaks in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood, affording marvelous views of the surrounding city. To the north, musky green Angel Island lay in the hazy turquoise bay. To the east was the mod white vertical square dome of St. Mary’s Cathedral, backed by the city’s skyscrapers. And from the south, the three candy-striped prongs of Sutro Tower pierced the cobalt blue sky. As on most days, the wind was brisk, whipping through the branches of the park’s weeping willows and palms.
Lorna had come to realize that the park was just as much a haven for Dante as it was for her. Only here did he relax his usually rod-straight stance, so that his dark curls grazed his rounded shoulders.
Nothing made her happier than seeing him so content.
She breathed deeply, taking in the moment—
Taking in something.
What was that awful smell?
Oh, damn. Dante had crapped in his pants.
Lorna scooped up her one year-old son, slung his diaper bag over her shoulder, and headed for the nearest picnic table. She reached in the bag for Sensitive-Wipes, a changing mat, and a diaper. To her disappointment, there was only one in the bag. How typical of Matt to forget the one task she’d given him this morning: re-pack the diaper bag.
Well, one would have to do for now. In a few minutes, she and Dante were supposed to meet Matt at his mother’s home for the family’s annual Labor Day brunch. Eleanor Morrow Connaught, Lorna’s mother-in-law, owned the largest mansion on the Jackson Street side of the park. While Lorna helped set the table, Matt could slip out to the store and pick up a few more since they were staying through dinner.
Dante was so antsy that it was hard for her to hold him and unfold the diaper at the same time. Frantically, she pulled off his pants, then removed the dirty nappy and cleaned his bottom with a wipe. She was about to grab the clean one when the wind whipped it out of her hand, where it hovered just out of reach, before floating over her head toward the playground.
“No! Oh, heck—” Running through the park in heels with a naked baby was not Lorna’s style, but it was better than showing up at Eleanor’s with her bare-bottomed grandson.
The diaper dipped and skipped in the cross-currents over the oblivious heads of the other mothers who sat on the benches all around the swing set. On holidays, the park was busier than usual, and this Labor Day was no exception. Lorna used her hands to shade her eyes from the sun’s glare as she scanned the sky for the wayward diaper. She caught a glimpse of it sailing higher on the hill before plunging into a thicket of cypress trees.
By the time she got there, it was being wrapped around an 18-inch Journey Girls doll by two five-year-olds playing house.
The doll was laid out on an open paper napkin. Other dolls were propped up in a circle around her, as if watching a life-or-death medical procedure.
Lorna smiled down at the future mothers. “Your doll is very cute. What’s her name?”
The little blond girl who had just patted one of the adhesive tabs in place over the naked doll’s belly looked up at her warily. “Mewedith,” she answered. Her lisp was the result of two missing front teeth.
“Yes, well, Meredith is quite pretty. But I think you’ve got my little boy’s diaper.”
“No, it’s Mewedith’s! See? It fits.” The girl held up her doll.
Lorna kept her smile in place, but she shook her head firmly. “But you didn’t bring it to the park. I did. I was putting it on my son when the wind took it out of my hand.” She pointed to Dante. “Otherwise, he wouldn’t be naked right now. So please give it back.”
“No! I found it. It’s mine now.” The little girl frowned and grasped her doll tightly to her chest. The other little girl, thrilled at her friend’s impudence toward an adult, moved behind her in solidarity.
“Excuse me?” Lorna couldn’t believe her ears. “It belongs to my little boy. Hand it over. Please.” Her tone made it clear that it was not a request.
The girl shot her a bird. “Skwoo you.”
What a little brat!
Cradling Dante in one arm, Lorna snatched the doll out of the girl’s hands with the other. Both girls squealed as Lorna attempted to strip the doll of the diaper.
“Is something wrong here?”
The woman who confronted Lorna could have been Brat’s adult twin. An infant boy sat on her hip. He was around the same age as Dante, but unlike Lorna’s son, he chattered and cooed as his arms waved in circles like little pinwheels.
The other little girl, who was now whimpering, ran over to the dark-haired woman who had accompanied Brat’s mom.
“She wants to steal Mewedith!” Brat screamed.
“What? No! I’m not stealing anything.” Lorna held up the diapered doll. “I’m just taking back what belongs to my son.”
The woman frowned. “Are you trying to say that Meredith is your son’s doll?”
“No, you don’t get it. Your daughter has my son’s diaper.”
The woman shook her head, confused. “I beg your pardon?”
“This diaper, on her doll, it belongs to my son. I was putting it on him when the wind blew it out of my hand. Your daughter picked it up before I could retrieve it.”
The woman leaned down, nose-to-nose with her daughter. “Piper, honey, is that true?”
The little girl shook her head adamantly. “No, Mommy. It’s mine.”
The woman stood up straight. Turning back to Lorna, she shrugged with a smile. “I’m sorry, you must be wrong.”
Lorna couldn’t hide her shock. “Seriously? You’re taking her word over mine?”
“My husband and I believe in positive parenting. We don’t lie to her because it would set a bad example. At the same time, we trust her implicitly. If she says the diaper is hers, then it is.”
“But of course it’s my diaper! See?” Lorna held up Dante. “Why else would I be carrying a butt-naked baby?”
“I have no idea why people take naked babies out in public. Frankly, I find the habit disgusting and unsanitary.” Unconsciously, her hand went to cover her tiny son’s head, as if exposure to Dante might succumb him to some deadly infection. “But I do know one thing: my daughter never lies. We trust her, and she trusts us.”
“Then why don’t you ask her where she got the diaper?”
“That’s not the point. The point is that I believe her.”
“No, ‘the point’ is that she’s lying, and you’re letting her get away with it because you’d prefer to pretend that your stupid parenting theory works.”
Lorna was about to strip the diaper off the doll when Brat’s Mom snatched it out of her hand. “Here you go, sweetie,” she cooed to her daughter.
To hell with that.
Lorna grabbed hold of the doll by the hair. So her friend wouldn’t lose the battle, Whimperer’s Mother lunged for the dolls legs. Between the steely wills of the three women (not to mention their Pilates-toned arms) Meredith the Journey Girl didn’t have a chance. When her head popped off, both little girls let loose blood-curdling screams.
“Lorna? What is going on?”
Lorna turned to find her sister-in-law, Bettina Connaught Cross, staring at her.
More to the point, she was staring at the savaged doll.
When her eyes moved to her nephew’s naked butt, they opened even wider.
“Oh my God! Bettina…” The color drained from the faces of both Brat’s and Whimperer’s mothers. But instead of waving, they practically genuflected to Lorna’s sister-in-law.
Lorna knew why. Bettina was the founder of the Pacific Heights Moms & Tots Club, the most exclusive playgroup in San Francisco.
When, finally, Bettina tore her eyes away from Dante, her gaze swept over the two women. “Janie! Coraline! Happy Labor Day! Lorna, Janie’s little girl, Bailey, is in the PHM&T Fivesies group.” She nodded toward Piper’s friend. Then she smiled down at Piper, who also seemed awed by Bettina’s presence.
Lorna thought it a bit much when Piper’s mother nudged the girl into a curtsey. Bettina took it in stride, going so far as to pat Piper on the head.
“Ah, Piper. Such an adorable little girl. Janie, I presumed you mentioned to Coraline that the club just had an unexpected opening in the Fivesies. We’re going to miss little Alistair Stewart-Putnam, but duty calls. The British Consulate is transferring his father to Tokyo.” She sighed deeply, as if the loss left her bereft.
Coraline nodded vigorously. “Yes, of course! I put in Piper’s application the second I heard about it.”
“Well…we shall see. Already the club’s admissions committee has received twenty-eight applicants for the slot. Can you imagine? Of course, the Irish Consulate called immediately. He feels his niece should take it. But with his country’s economic woes of late—granted, it’s not her fault—but still. Personally, I’ve never bought into the philosophy of ‘guilt by association,’ but I’m just one vote among six—”
Like Lorna, Janie, and Coraline knew that a kind word from Bettina went a long way with her fawning admissions committee.
“—Her chances would have been better had six LucasArts wives not also applied,” Bettina continued. “Thank goodness Pixar is on the other side of the bridge, or we’d be inundated with their applications, too! Although, I must admit, PHM&T kids do love the invitations to all those free film screenings.”
Coraline swallowed hard, probably realizing that the odds of her daughter’s acceptance were in fact miniscule. As if cutting her losses on her eldest, she held up her squirming son to Bettina, like a fawning subject offering a gift to her queen. “I’ve submitted Ethan, too, for the Onesies group. His birthday was last Friday.”
If she expected little Ethan to be kissed, it must have been a terrible disappointment when Bettina backed away. “So robust, your little boy! He must be a handful. Well, here’s hoping neither of their little hearts get broken.” Her eyes widened at the thought. “On the bright side, I see you’ve both met my brother’s wife, Lorna Connaught, and my little nephew, Dante—” Bettina smirked in annoyance “—who, unfortunately, seems to have lost his pants. What a messy little guy we have here! Lorna and Dante have also applied for a Onesie slot. Talk about a small world. Alas, there are six legacy families this year, so the odds are quite daunting for the four slots that are left. And one-hundred-and-three applicants!”
Janie and Coraline gawked at Lorna. In the few seconds it took for them to realize they’d been in a tug of war with Bettina’s sister-in-law, their reddened faces had lost all color whatsoever.
For once, Lorna had a reason to be thankful in her sister-in-law’s presence. “I was changing Dante when his clean diaper flew away. Little Piper found it.”
Coraline pursed her lips. It was obvious to the others she was considering her next move in this most important game of social chess. If she didn’t let go of the diaper, would she might alienate Bettina and ruin her son’s chances to get into the club?
Very slowly, she…
© 2012 Josie Brown. To be published in 2012 by Coliloquy Books. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.