Madison hadn’t wanted to throw a party at first. There were always hassles when you hosted: the guest list; getting the carpets and furniture cleaned; the menu; the drinks. And that wasn’t even to mention the tree and decorations. Still, Carl had insisted on it. He’d said it was a good idea and besides, they owed invitations to people. Well, that was true. So she’d gone along with Carl’s suggestion. It suited her own plans, anyway.
Now she looked around the couple’s living room. She was completely exhausted from getting ready, but she had to admit that it all looked festive. The tree was beautifully trimmed; the lights from it glowed softly in a rainbow of reds, blues, yellows and greens. The ornaments glistened and the star at the top was the perfect touch. Carl wouldn’t let her open the presents under the tree – not until Christmas morning. But they did look lovely, all wrapped up in holiday paper with big gold and silver bows.
With one more satisfied glance at everything, Madison went down the hall to the kitchen. She wanted to make the eggnog now, so that it’d be ready when she needed it. Carl hadn’t gotten back with the wood for the fireplace yet, and that was just as well. She washed her hands and then got out the eggs, sugar, milk and bourbon she’d be using. She would dust on the nutmeg a bit later. She’d just finished mixing everything up when she felt him standing at the door of the kitchen watching her. Damnit! He’d come back sooner than she wanted.
She looked up, tossed her long, ash-blonde braid back over her shoulder and asked, ‘Is the fire ready?’
‘Just about to light it. How’s it going in here?’
‘Fine. Everything’s almost done.’
‘Good. Why don’t you go on up and change out of that outfit while I start putting things out?’
‘What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?’
He gave her an indulgent, but long-suffering look. ‘It’s a party, Maddie, not Movie-and-Popcorn Night.’
Madison glared at Carl’s retreating back. She hadn’t at all appreciated his remark about her outfit. It wasn’t her fault he was used to more formal parties. Her style had always been casual and he know it. Well, that would all change soon enough. With that thought to comfort her, she went upstairs.
Carl put the bowls of mints, nuts and chocolates out on the small tables in the living room. Maddie could be such a pain sometimes, he thought. She still hadn’t learned about things like the right vineyards, dressing properly for different things, or, well, just getting involved with the right kind of people. His kind of people. Well, that was all about to change. He smiled a little to himself as he put the last bowl carefully on an end table near the fireplace. Then he lit the fire. He straightened up when he saw that the flame had caught. It burnished his straight, almost-black hair and cast a warm glow on the whole room. The effect cheered him even more.
Half an hour later, Madison came down the stairs just in time to answer the doorbell. Carl watched her as she opened the door and let the first guests in. She had on that emerald silk blouse he’d gotten her for her birthday and a pair of black satin pants. She’d let her hair fall loose, too, which he thought suited her. He’d wondered when she was upstairs whether he was doing the right thing. But no. No time for doubts any more.
Madison was proud of herself as she greeted the guests and exchanged the requisite hugs with Carl’s mother Josephine, his brother Adrian and Adrian’s wife Dina. She was calm and collected and even remembered to smile naturally. Then came a few of Carl’s cousins (she could never remember all of their names) and some of his colleagues. Only a few of her own friends were there, but that was fine. This wasn’t their sort of gathering anyway.
Soon the party was fully underway. Toasts were made, appetizers were passed round (Madison was especially proud of how her homemade cheese puffs had turned out), and everyone seemed to be having a good time. As the evening wore on, the eggnog loosened the guests up a little and by the end of the party, a few people were saying it was the best they’d been to yet. Even Josephine, who could always be counted on to find fault with something, said she was enjoying herself.
‘Honestly, Madison,’ she said in her condescending voice, ‘You’ve done a great job. You even look really nice tonight.’
‘Thank you,’ Madison responded. Dina shot her a sympathetic glance. She came in for her share of Josephine’s criticism too.
After gently closing the door behind the last guest, Carl joined Madison in the kitchen, where she was rinsing out glasses and putting them in the dishwasher. He came up behind her, put his arms around her and rested his chin on her shoulder. ‘You did great,’ he said. She could feel his smile even though she wasn’t looking at him.
She turned around and put her arms round his neck. ‘You think?’
‘I know. Everything under control here?’
‘I think so. If you’ll just start bringing in the plates and the rest of the glasses, I’ll load them, and then we can start on the trash.’
‘Your wish is my command.’ He kissed her lightly and went out of the kitchen. She watched him move with that self-assurance that can only come from rich parents and an expensive education.
Soon he came back in, his arms filled with dishes. For the next twenty minutes, he and Madison said little to each other as they began to clean. Then, at about one o’clock, his telephone sounded. He raised his eyebrows, pulled it out of his pocket and looked at the screen. ‘It’s Adrian,’ he said. He answered the call, spoke for a few minutes and then pushed the ‘End Call’ button. Slipping the telephone back into his pocket, he smiled broadly at his wife.
‘Everything according to plan!’
‘Really? You mean it?’
‘I sure do. Mom died about fifteen minutes ago.’
Madison smiled back. ‘Then it did work. I knew nobody would notice anything.’
‘And you were right.’ He kissed her again and went back to get more dirty dishes from the living room.
Madison smiled even more happily as she looked around the kitchen. It had been a great idea. With all of those guests, most of whom disliked Josephine as much as she and Carl did, there’d be no way to figure out who’d put the weed killer in Josephine’s glass of eggnog. If the police even figured out what killed her. And now Carl and Adrian were set to inherit serious money. She was going to enjoy learning how to be one of the ‘beautiful people.’ I guess even rich people need some help from the rest of us sometimes, she thought.