The Restoration of Celia Fairchild - Marie Bostwick

Chapter One

The stage lights were blinding, not in a metaphorical way.

When the emcee introduced me and the audience began applauding, I exited from the wings, teeth bared in what was meant to be a smile but felt more like a grimace, squinting and blinking like a groundhog emerging from hibernation. I couldn’t see a thing, including the black electrical cord that snaked from the front of the stage to the podium.

When I tripped and tumbled forward, I flailed frantically, like a cat who’d misjudged the distance from the balcony to the ground. If the quick-thinking emcee hadn’t caught me under the arms, I’d have ended up doing a face-plant in front of seven hundred people who’d paid sixty dollars a head to eat chicken marsala and hear me talk.

Well . . . they didn’t come to hear me. They came to hear Calpurnia, which isn’t quite the same thing.

Against my better judgment, I’d worn a pair of five-inch heels to the fundraiser, hoping to stave off the inevitable comments of “Somehow I thought you’d be taller” that always followed fan meet-and-greets during my infrequent personal appearances. As many times as it’s happened, I still never know what to say to that. I mean, what can you say? Sorry to disappoint you? I’ll try harder? I drank coffee as a child and it stunted my growth?

I stand five foot four in my bare feet: not tall but not short either. In fact, it’s the average height for American women. But that’s not enough for Calpurnia’s readers. They expect her to be above average in every way. And that (as well as the fact that I’m not really that famous and therefore not that deeply in demand) is why I almost never make personal appearances; after meeting me, people are bound to leave disappointed.

But how can you say no to a really good but sorely underfunded after-school program serving at-risk kids of single parents? You can’t. Besides, my therapist said it was time for me to get out there again and she was probably right. So I squeezed into my only pair of Spanx and the glittery red evening dress that wasn’t quite so tight only a few weeks ago, strapped on a pair of stupidly tall stilettos, and got out there.

Somewhere between tripping and tumbling, one of the heels broke off. After the emcee set me back on my feet, I hobbled toward the podium like Quasimodo.

A murmur of laughter rippled through the crowd. When my prayer for the floor to open and swallow me up went unanswered, I did what Calpurnia would have done: I brazened it out.

Gripping both sides of the podium, I leaned forward so my mouth hovered just in front of the microphone, and drawled, “Well. What can I say? I always did like making an entrance.”

The crowd laughed again but this time they laughed with me instead of at me. I smiled. “Guess I don’t need these anymore, do I?” I reached down, slipped off one shoe, then the next, and tossed them to a fifty-something man in the front row who, thanks to the sparkly green vest he wore under his tux, was the only person I could actually see. “Here you go, sugar. They’re just your size.”

The crowd went crazy, howling with laughter and applauding for at least a full minute. Honestly, I think that a lot of them thought I’d planned the whole thing, that this was just part of the show. And I guess it was, in a way.

But that’s why I hate these things, because it’s all a show. That’s also why—only sometimes and only a little bit—I kind of hate my fans too. Because they aren’t really mine, are they? They don’t want me; they want the show. They want Calpurnia.

After I’d made brief remarks about the important mission of the program and how the money raised today would impact the lives of kids all over the city, somebody finally lowered the stage lights so I could see the audience and take questions. The man in the sparkly vest, still clutching my broken stiletto, was first to the microphone.

“This is really more of a comment than a question,” he said. “But I’m a big fan. I feel like I know you and I wanted to say, well . . . I just love you.”

See what I mean?

How can he love me? He doesn’t even know me. And I’ve had enough of that!

Sorry. Deep breath.

Look, I get it that we are dealing