Fancy Pants (Wynette, Texas #1)(2)


by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

As the limousine swept past Cartier, Stefan smiled to himself. An amusing story, but he didn't believe a word of it.

The Old

World

Chapter

1

When Francesca was first placed in her mother's arms, Chloe Serritella Day burst into tears and insisted that the sisters at the private London hospital where she had given birth had lost her baby. Any imbecile could see that this ugly little creature with its mashed head and swollen eyelids could not possibly have come from her own exquisite body.

Since no husband was present to comfort the hysterical Chloe, it was left to the sisters to assure her that most newborns weren't at their best for several days. Chloe ordered them to take away the ugly little imposter and not come back until they had found her own dear baby. She then reapplied her makeup and greeted her visitors—among them a French film star, the secretary of the British Home Office, and Salvador Dali—with a tearful account of the terrible tragedy that had been perpetrated upon her. The visitors, long accustomed to the beautiful Chloe's dramatics, merely patted her hand and promised to look into the matter. Dali, in a burst of magnanimity, announced he would paint a surrealistic version of the infant in question as a christening gift, but mercifully lost interest in the project and sent a set of vermeil goblets instead.

A week passed. On the day she was to be released from the hospital, the sisters helped Chloe dress in a loose-fitting black Balmain sheath with a wide organdy collar and cuffs. Afterward, they guided her into a wheelchair and deposited the rejected infant in her arms. The intervening time had done little to improve the baby's appearance, but in the moment she gazed down at the bundle in her arms, Chloe experienced one of her lightning-swift mood changes. Peering into the mottled face, she announced to one and all that the third generation of Serritella beauty was now assured. No one had the bad manners to disagree, which, as it turned out, was just as well, for within a matter of months, Chloe had been proved correct.

Chloe's sensitivity on the subject of female beauty had its roots in her own childhood. As a girl she had been plump, with an extra fold of fat squaring off her waist and small fleshy pads obscuring the delicate bones of her face. She was not heavy enough to be considered obese in the eyes of the world, but was merely plump enough to feel ugly inside, especially in comparison to her sleek and stylish mother, the great Italian-born couturiere, Nita Serritella. It was not until 1947, the summer when Chloe was twelve years old, that anyone told her she was beautiful.

Home on a brief holiday from one of the Swiss boarding schools where she spent too much of her childhood, she was sitting as inconspicuously as possible with her full hips perched on a gilt chair in the corner of her mother's elegant salon on the rue de la Paix. She watched with both resentment and envy as Nita, pencil slim in a severely cut black suit with oversize raspberry satin lapels, conferred with an elegantly dressed customer. Her mother wore her blue-black hair cut short and straight, so that it fell forward over the pale skin of her left cheek in a great comma-shaped curl, and her Modigliani neck supported ropes of perfectly matched black pearls. The pearls, along with the contents of a small wall safe in her bedroom, were gifts from Nita's admirers, internationally prosperous men who were only too happy to buy jewels for a woman successful enough to buy her own. One of those men had been Chloe's father, although Nita professed not to remember which one, and she had certainly never for a moment considered marrying him.

The attractive blonde who was receiving Nita's attention in the salon that afternoon spoke Spanish, her accent surprisingly common for one who held so much of the world's attention that particular summer of 1947. Chloe followed the conversation with half her attention and devoted the other half to studying the reed-thin mannequins who were parading through the center of the salon modeling Nita's latest designs. Why couldn't she be thin and self-assured like those mannequins? Chloe wondered. Why couldn't she look exactly like her mother, especially since they had the same black hair, the same green eyes? If only she were beautiful, Chloe thought, maybe her mother would stop looking at her with such disgust. For the hundredth time she resolved to give up pastries so that she could win her mother's approval—and for the hundredth time, she felt that uncomfortable sinking sensation in her stomach that told her she didn't have the willpower. Next to Nita's all-consuming strength of purpose, Chloe felt like a swans-down powder puff.

The blonde suddenly looked up from a drawing she had been studying and, without warning, let her liquid brown eyes come to rest on Chloe. In her curiously harsh Spanish, she remarked, “That little one will be a great beauty someday. She looks very much like you.”

Nita glanced over at Chloe with ill-concealed disdain. “I see no resemblance at all, señora. And she will never be a beauty until she learns to push away her fork.”

Nita's customer lifted a hand weighted down with several garish rings and gestured toward Chloe. “Come over here, querida. Come give Evita a kiss.”

For a moment Chloe didn't move as she tried to absorb what the woman had said. Then she rose hesitantly from her chair and crossed the salon, embarrassingly aware of the pudgy calves showing beneath the hem of her cotton summer skirt. When she reached the woman, she leaned down and deposited a self-conscious but nonetheless grateful kiss on the softly fragrant cheek of Eva Perón.

“Fascist bitch!” Nita Serritella hissed later, as the First Lady of Argentina departed through the salon's front doors. She slipped an ebony cigarette holder between her lips only to withdraw it abruptly, leaving a scarlet smear on the end. “It makes my flesh crawl to touch her! Everyone knows there wasn't a Nazi in Europe who couldn't find shelter with Perón and his cronies in Argentina.”

The memories of the German occupation of Paris were still fresh in Nita's mind, and she held nothing but contempt for Nazi sympathizers. Still, she was a practical woman, and Chloe knew that her mother saw no sense in sending Eva Perón's money, no matter how ill-gained, from the rue de la Paix to the avenue Montaigne, where the house of Dior reigned supreme.

After that, Chloe clipped photographs of Eva Perón from the newspapers and pasted them in a scrapbook with a red cover. Whenever Nita's criticisms became especially biting, Chloe looked at the pictures, leaving an occasional chocolate smudge on the pages as she remembered how Eva Perón had said she would be a great beauty someday.

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