My lubricant bomb threw the conversational waters into sky-high swells. We're seconds from drowning, but Jamie just threw me a little rescue floaty in those two words. So I grab on and throw him one, too. "Nice mask," I tell him.
"Thank you." He examines mine. "Yours is..."
"Gruesome?" I stroke a pincer of the papier-mâché crab mask. "Thank you. I made it myself."
He blinks at me like he's trying very hard to think of something nice to say about it. "That's... impressive. It seems..." He clears his throat. "Complicated?"
"Ah, it wasn't too bad. Besides, I'm an artist, so I like hands-on creativity." And then, because I'm feeling extra juvenile, I add, "Like my tattoos."
He swallows and blushes spectacularly as his gaze darts down my neck to my breasts, following the bumblebee's trail. Not sure what he has to blush about, since there's hardly anything to see. My black dress runs low, but unlike Jules, I was not blessed in the chestal department. The curse of fraternal twinship: similar face, different boobs.
Jamie is silent in the face of my latest move. It's gloriously rewarding. Now I'm the one smiling politely, and he's the one letting our conversation die a slow, awkward death. I'm about to declare victory when Margo pops her head in.
Smiling up at me from her diminutive height in a burnt orange jumpsuit and a fox mask that pins back her tight black curls, Margo says, "Need a cocktail, sweet cheeks?"
"God, yes." I take the glass from her, appreciating its deep red complexion and enticing aroma. Margo is a mixologist who makes the best drinks. I'll take anything she gives me. Like nearly everyone else at this party, she's also one of Jules's friends, because my twin is the nucleus of our social cell, unlike me, who's happy existing on the edge of the semipermeable social membrane.
I have friends but only through Jules, which is enough for me. Jules is how I know Margo, who's married to Sula. And because I met Sula, whom I now work for, I once again have a job as an artist that pays a living wage. My sister's social strategizing can be exhausting, but it's also made my life better. Without Jules tugging me inside her sphere, nudging me to make connections, I'd be lonelier and a lot less gainfully employed, especially since things took a nosedive nearly two years ago.
In keeping with my prove-non-chaos-demon-status campaign, I'm polite and make introductions as Margo offers Jamie her hand. "Jamie," I say, "this is Margo."
"Actually," he says, taking her hand, then releasing it, "most people call me—"
"West!" a voice yells from behind us, startling me so badly, I jump half a foot and send my bright red cocktail straight into his chest.
Jamie's jaw tics as he steps back and shakes off the liquid dripping down his hand. "Excuse me," he says, eyebrow arched in censure. See, that eyebrow says, you are a chaos demon. Then he turns and disappears into the jungle of guests.
I beg the ground to swallow me up.
But the universe is silent, so here I remain. The meteor that's just made impact, hissing in its crater.
Jean-Claude gives me a confused once-over when I reach the bottom of the steps. My wardrobe change took place in a second-floor restroom—well, one of them. This house reminds me of my parents', in size, at least. That's where its similarities end. This house feels like a home.
"What happened?" he asks.
I adjust my cuffs until the buttons are halfway across my wrists. "Beatrice. Thankfully I packed a backup shirt."
He pats my back and sighs. "You would be that neurotically overprepared."
"I always have a change of clothes. I'm a pediatrician, Jean-Claude. Do you have any idea how many times per week a baby vomits on me?"
"Fair enough." He sips his drink and gestures toward the large living room where the cocktail explosion took place. "I hope you won't write her off," he says quietly.
He glances around, then switches to French. We're both fluent, thanks to our French expatriate mothers, but he only uses it when he wants to gossip around others. "I'm talking about Bea. I know she's rather... odd, but she's sweet once you know her. In her way."
This excerpt ends on page 12 of the paperback edition.
Monday we begin the book One Duke Down by Anna Bennett.