The Willow Society

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Chapter 51

Chapter 51

Izzy stared at the reflection in the mirror, examined the magnified pores on her nose with the meticulous details of a master restorer studying a Renaissance fresco. The round, lighted mirror hovered just in front of her face, her pores enlarged until they looked like small, slightly convex sockets, eyeless, empty, and barren. Izzy shuddered at the thought, until she pulled herself angrily back from the mirror with a low growl. She looked over at the clock, it was nearly five in the afternoon, she had been staring at herself for over an hour.

Standing up, Izzy stretched and worked her arms in slow circles to get out the stiffness. She wandered our of her room, with no real purpose, other than a vague sense she ought to be doing something. Nothing called to her. She had no events to plan for IzEvents, had in fact, not planned anything in weeks aside from getting into the Behrstables birthday party, her grip on her social media throng was already suffering. Less and less invitations were coming in unsolicited, and users were fleeing in the order of hundreds a day from her Twitter feed.

Near the base of the stairs she was stopped by a hunched and doddering figure. Izzy blinked several times before the figure resolved into Helen.

“There you are Miss Iz!“ Helen cackled; “I was just coming up for you. Ugh. I hate these damned stairs!“

“Then you should use the elevator, Helen.“ Izzy said, calmly, though her insides had fluttered wildly. “That's why we had it put in.“ She was pretty sure she knew why Helen had been looking to find her. “They're here?“ Izzy asked.

Helen nodded. Izzy had been avoiding thinking about this moment. She was still not certain what idiocy had made her suggest she could do this, or why she didn't just call the others and tell them she was sorry, but it just wasn't going to work. She pressed her hands over her fluttering stomach. Knowing she had given her word, she meant to keep it, but it was hard.

Another situation troubled her. It had hurt her more than she could expect Taylor to understand, as young as he was, emotionally, to reject him as harshly as she had been forced. Somehow she had to let him know he was her friend and that was far more important than any petty little relationship they might have had. Even if she were capable of such, and so inclined. She knew what he wanted, what he was likely fantasizing about, it was cute in way, innocent and naive. So unlike the other boys who came at her, including Parker, but that was also why it was so frustrating, something like that never went away easily.

She wasn't sure how to explain convincingly that friends, true friends, were what she thought important, along with honesty, and keeping your word. Taylor would have to figure out what was important for himself, it seemed. Besides, how could she explain to him: despite whatever he was seeing, whatever he had layered over the real her, whatever he had convinced himself was the real her, that it wasn't her. She knew she was simple: a few rules, a long-term plan, the Society, IzEvents, and her family; Isabel, Sue-Ann, Lou, and Myth. That was it, nothing else existed within her, and she knew it, had learned to accept. She had nothing more to offer. It might have been a depressing thought, had it been new or unfamiliar, but it wasn't. Izzy had been thinking of herself in such terms for as long as she had been a teenager. So long it would be alien to think of being any other way. It was an effort not to seem perpetually surprised people found her charming, compelling, deserving of their attention and affection. Not to feel awkward and jealous of people like Lou and Myth and Winston and even Taylor, though he hadn't caught up with those qualities within himself yet. But he would. People who really were amazing, wonderful and dynamic.

Izzy always felt so when she had nothing to work on, for school or IzEvents or the Society. Empty. Barren. Useless. Except now she was about to break one of her core rules, one of the cornerstones of what she had forcefully shaped herself to be. Will I come crashing down after? Will I fade like fog on a dance floor after the doors were opened, dissipating into a barely acknowledged memory?

“Izz? Dear? Are you alright? You look like you might need to vomit.“ Helen said, putting a hand, liver spotted and wrinkled, on Izzy's shoulder. She rubbed Izzy with the casual roughness the woman probably thought gentle.

“Oh, sorry. Got lost for a moment. No. Really. I'm fine Helen.“ Izzy shrugged the woman's hand off. “Have Lou and Myth left?“

“Hours ago, dove. Said they were going to Myth's for some things. She's gonna stay away until you text her.“ Helen tapped her cheek. “have you figured out what you're going to say to your Gran, yet?“

Izzy nodded, hoping her face didn't betray the lie.

Helen left Izzy alone with her doubts.

I can do this.

But what if...

Izzy sucked in her cheeks and growled, low and under her breath.

“No.” she said.

Years of climbing social ladders, in both directions had taught her to be whomever she needed, in any given situation. Her own inner dialogue was so well controlled as part of this process, she often found herself literally thoughtless at times. It was necessary to be as clear of errant thoughts as possible if she was to read whomever she intended to charm. When she had discovered social media, the ability to project this controlled shadow had grown exponentially. It had been so long she had been required to use those skills in person first the very notion left her wobbly.

Still she knew how to work a crowd, even if the crowd was only two people. This was the first time she would actively use those skills on these two people. Taking one more calming, long breath, Izzy laughed at nothing, plastered on her strongest face of determinedly mild annoyance and walked, gracefully, ever so sullen, to the foyer.

She heard Helen talking with Isabel and Sue-Ann long before she saw any of them.

“...the airport.” Isabel said. “I am considering taking on a full time driver, instead.”

Izzy swooped into the foyer with just the right amount of pleased to see you. Walked over to give Sue-Ann a warm, lingering hug. As always, part of her wanted to hug Isabel also, but that was really not Isabel's way. Instead they clasped hands, warmly still, but distant – Isabel's two hands always layered around Izzy's, above and below.

“Did you have a good time?“ Izzy asked.

Sue-Ann smiled and said, “Of course. Bel was something of a grouch, but she managed to have something resembling a good time, didn't you?“ Sue-Ann nudged the other woman, who let a hesitant smile crack through her somber and stately expression.

“It was nice. I could use another like it,“ Isabel said.

Izzy paused for a microsecond, momentarily thrown by Isabel suggesting exactly what Izzy herself meant to suggest. She changed tack just as quickly. Always seize the unexpected advantage, you taught me that Katherine.

“So, Sue-Ann, you were right.“ Izzy said, grinning. Both the women's eyes fixed on her. Had they been cats their hackles would have gone up. They had sensed something in her tone, which was exactly what Izzy wanted. She had always been the type of child to confess when guilty, hadn't been able to live with the guilt. Purging was something she needed, along with the comfort of forgiveness and acceptance.

“What have you done?“ Sue-Ann murmured. Suspicion writ small. Is it because of Katherine? Or is it something else I don't understand? How can they so easily look at me in that angry and hawk-eyed manner? Can they really imagine what I'm thinking? Would it change my mind if they could? Contempt coalesced within, her resolve hardened. I'm doing the right thing.

Is it Katherine?” Isabel said, jumping to a conclusions. Confirmation for Izzy that they needed to be out of the way, or they'd mess everything up. Guilt wracked her, but she held it tight on the inside, refusing to give into the compulsion to just confess and let it all out.

They are just in the way. Get past them like any other velvet rope.

“Tori, no! Nothing like that,“ Izzy turned her tone up changed her expression to one of barely suppressed glee. The two older women noticed, Izzy felt their interest rise, their suspicion wane. They knew her too well, knew she could never hold a guilty secret, something she was counting on.

“You guys heard about the dinner tomorrow night in Washington?“ she said. It was not a secret Sue-Ann and Isabel both were socialites who couldn't resist the tables and parties of the powerful, the elite, the movers-and-shakers, especially in D.C. itself.

“Of course. Who hasn't? It's the First Lady's birthday,“ Sue-Ann said, clearly trying to sound nonchalant. Both women knew a great deal about IzEvents, they had helped her start it after all, using their socialite contacts and networking know-how. Neither really knew the extent of what she had done with that knowledge, likely assumed it was just some “young people thing.” Social media was hard for them to truly grasp. Neither of them would have readily believed The First Lady's party within Izzy's grasp. She took a quick, small pleasure in that, knowing that not only was it in her grasp, but she had arranged two invites for the women, in less than fifteen minutes. Of course, having their names to drop helped.

Nothing could hide the hopeful smile on Sue-Ann's face. They knew it was beyond her, or assumed they did, but they knew her too well. If Izzy brought it up, it was because she had managed a miracle. Isabel's posture changed, her hands went straight into the pockets of her Chanel overcoat, a gesture of excitement likely unknown to anyone outside that room.

“Well. I have two invites. Table One.“ Izzy said, trying to sound cavalier. Sue-Ann clapped happily, almost like a child. Isabel's eyebrows shot up, the corners of her mouth twitching.

"Table one?“ Isabel said dryly. Izzy knew the moment for holding back had passed, they were not so patient at the end of their short fuses. The moment was exactly right.

Izzy's face split into a happy, girlish grin. A manner she had discovered charmed the women, more than any other of her myriad faces. Perhaps it reminded them of themselves, of some fantasy they had of themselves younger, as they had been, long ago. “Yes!“ Izzy said loudly, “And that's not all! I got backstage passes and front-row seats for the Tom Jones concert the following Tuesday!“

Sue-Ann's eyes goggled, her mouth dropped. Isabel did a double-take. Guilt washed through Izzy again as she watched doubt leave Isabel's features. She shoved it away hard. I control my emotions. Knowing she had achieved the smile on Isabel's face through deception was a bitter realization, stealing her enjoyment from the moment. Still, Izzy kept all that inside, with effort.

“The dinner party is tomorrow?“ Isabel asked. “We'll never get a good flight on such short notice.“ What she meant was First Class would be booked. They never flew coach. It was one thing to care, as they did, about the little man, the poor sad soul, but that never required they travel like such. “Causes are just that, Isadore, missions. They should never be the ground you plant your garden in, nor the land upon which you build your foundation.” Isabel had told her that when she was ten.

“Taken care of!“ Izzy said. She had booked a private G6. A considerable chunk of her operating capital for IzEvents, getting it last minute. I'll have promote some Tori awful rave or something to make up the cash. “Not on my credit card, I hope...“ Sue-Ann said tersely. She was not as rich as Isabel. A hundred million, thought it wasn't a billion, was still a huge fortune. Yet the woman was quite a fussbudget at times.

“No. Mine.“ Izzy said, unable to resist. She was allowed as a function of owning her business to maintain accounts, including a black AMEX. Isabel was a co-signer on all those accounts, but gave them little heed. Izzy had proved herself trustworthy shepherd. Isabel likely had little idea how much the accounts even contained. Isabel's own net worth shifted daily.

“Well.“ Isabel said after a few stunned moments of silence. “Quite a bit more success than I would have guessed... “ Her tone said those accounts would be checked regularly now, and soon. Great, another accountant I have to schmooze. Izzy wanted to sigh, but had to maintain her act, she couldn't fail now, a sigh would be a beacon for the pair to hound her.

Izzy looked pleased with herself; nervous, but welcoming the sideways compliment, exactly the reaction they would expect to see.

“This changes plans, doesn't it?“ Isabel murmured to Sue-Ann. “Helen?“ Isabel called out the door, barely above normal, as her hands fidgeted in her pockets. Helen tottered in from the hallway so quickly she had to have been listening just outside the door. Normal behavior for the woman. Helen was not precisely a servant, of course, never had been. Izzy had never been allowed to think of her as such, but rather she was more a favorite elderly aunt, a cultural cliche to Izzy rather than a reality. She had no family aside from Isabel, Sue-Ann, and the Society. And Katherine. Sometimes Isabel and Sue-Ann treated Helen like a servant, and sometimes Helen demanded the treatment, would bristle if they acted otherwise. Izzy knew there was a story there, something to do with the women's mutual past, but they would not reveal to her what it was, would surely deny the premise if Izzy were ever precocious enough to suggest it. Maybe Helen had revealed some to Lou, they were quite close.

“Yes, yes?“ Helen said.

“How soon can you get the staff to have our things re-packed? For a black-tie party and a concert? Two weeks worth of clothes, I'm thinking.” Isabel asked. Her tone was friendly, if demanding. Helen blinked at her and Sue-Ann shifted.

“Already done it, dears.“ Helen said, merrily. Izzy had seen this coming and put Helen on it.

Isabel looked at Helen, then Izzy, her face trying to decide if she ought to be worried. Like continental drift animations sped up she broke into a bare smile. “I am not sure what to say, Isadore. This is all so very kind of you.“ Izzy blanched, guilt rising hard, pushed down harder. Is she implying something with that “kind”?

Sue-Ann shook excitedly, now longer tried hold back. The woman gathered Isabel and Izzy into a firm, two-armed hug. “Tom Jones! Izzy, I feel a like a girl again!“ Izzy burned like a furnace, but gave nothing away, later she would be very proud of this moment. “And Helen! You are worth ten times your weight in IBM preferred stock.“ Sue-Ann chortled as she released them.

“How long until the flight leaves?“ Sue-Ann said after her laugh. “We must book rooms at at the Watergate...“ Izzy put on her best, sheepish oops look; “The Royal Suite. Already booked. And your flight leaves in two hours.“

Isabel frowned. The kind of frown which might have been a furious expression in someone else. Izzy almost felt the war taking place inside her Grandmother's brain as the woman decided, or tried to decide, whether or not to be angry. After an interminable pause, Isabel clearly decided not to be angry.

“Well,“ Isabel said, measured and calm, even if it took an effort only those who knew her well would know to see, “we should get the car and be on our way. Traffic is horrendous today. We really must get a driver on staff, Suze.“ There was a hint of a sigh in her words and she trained a shrewd look at Izzy, so fleeting Izzy thought she might have imagined it. I can't worry. They are leaving, and that is what is important.

“The town car is still waiting outside.“ Izzy said. It might have been overkill with women other than these two, but they expected people to serve them, and their nods confirmed it. Helen laughed, barkingly loud, as if on cue and whatever tension Izzy imagined evaporated. The women hustled out of the room towards the elevator behind the kitchen.

As Isabel walked out she turned back and said, “I honestly don't know what to say, Isadore. This seems almost...”

Isabel's comment had been cleverly aimed, but Sue-Ann broke-in, “Oh give over, Bel. Tom Jones!“ The last two words came out in a husky breath. A flush crept into Isabel's pale cheeks. Isabel inclined her head, turned around and walked towards the kitchen. Izzy had to fight not to let relief show. Isabel stopped and glanced back. “Just, please, Izzy dear, try next time not to surprise me with a trip before I've had time to collect myself from the previous.“

Izzy kept her smile by the barest grip, forgetting for a moment it was all based on deception, Izzy bristled on the inside. Trust Isabel to turn a magnificent gift into a complaint. Gently, properly stated, but a complaint nonetheless.

And that was it. She had succeeded. She watched as the door shut behind them. A sense of relief watercolored the guilt. It took an effort to breath slowly, not faint from the mix of the two.

When Helen clapped her on the back, Izzy almost fell to her knees.

“Bang up job, dove! Don't think those birds suspected much. And Tom Jones, what a devilishly clever touch!“ Izzy hadn't told Helen that part. “A dangerous minx, you are! Too bad Mel Torme is gone, or you might even be able to hoodwink even old Helen someday!“ The bark of a laugh came, speaking volumes about just how unlikely the woman considered hoodwinking Helen Jones would be. Izzy had to agree, she never had been able to get anything past Helen, had never seen anyone else do it either, unless it didn't matter to Helen in the first place. The few times Izzy thought she had slipped something past, Helen had found some way, usually humorous - never punitive - to let Izzy know she had by no means fooled Helen Jones.

Izzy smiled at Helen. “So. Can you let Lou and Myth know they've gone? I need a shower.“

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