Chapter One

As deliveries went, this one was somewhere between a balloon telegram and a bulletproof vest wrapped around a dead fish. Most gift baskets arrived with cards bearing congratulations or condolences. Rarely were they sent with the simple two-line message Jane Monaghan stared at, then read, in disbelief, a second time.

A skinny delivery boy hovered in the doorway, the screen door flapping and creaking as he shifted his weight. Jane fumbled in her handbag for a tip. Why did she never have singles when she needed them? As she poked through the tissues, keys and various black electronics cases in her voluminous bag, the boy peered inside the house, curious about the women renting the old Beninger place. He remembered the first year they came. His mother had warned him to keep his distance and his father had slipped him a sly wink that he'd been too young to interpret.

They weren't bad looking, neither young nor old, that gray area between youth and invisibility. Still good for a nooner, he fantasized, using an expression he’d heard his uncle Billy use, if he could cut one from the herd. Especially the small, dark-haired one sprawled on the loveseat near the fireplace. She had a nubby throw tossed over one leg but the other was exposed – tan, taut and barely covered by denim cutoffs. Still pretty hot, even if she looked old enough to have been his babysitter - and after all, what boy hadn't had that fantasy?

The hot one and the boy made eye contact. Having been on the receiving end of similar looks for close to twenty years – longer than he’d been alive – it took Tina Ruggiero all of thirty seconds to read his mind.

“Come back in a few years, sonny. You’re not entirely hopeless but, let’s wait until that acne clears up.”

The boy’s naughty daydream evaporated, his face reddened and he reverted to bumbling, pimply errand boy. His eyes grew watery. He even seemed shorter, if that was possible. Jane abandoned her search for singles, shoved a five in his direction and kicked the storm door shut.

“A day without a verbal castration is like a day without sunshine?”

“Come on,” Tina said. “He deserved it – gawking like that. Half the people in this town think we're practicing witchcraft and the other half think we’re gay. Not that I don't think you're all cute. I just wanted to set the record straight.”

Jane wasn’t sure the exchange wouldn’t have the opposite effect, convincing him she was a witch, only he’d spell it with a “b.” Which was fitting since that's what they'd been dubbed a long time ago when they were teens, The Bitches of Brooklyn. Were they really? Depended who you asked.

“A new wrinkle has been added to our weekend,” Jane said.

"Oh no please, not another one. I already have a new wrinkle, that's why I cut bangs."

"I wondered what the new hairstyle was about."

Jane carried the oversized basket to the wooden dining table where Clare Didrikson and Rachel Weiner, two of her closest friends, sat with their morning coffees.

The table and chairs were like all the furniture in the rented house - ancient wood or wicker upon which thousands of summer memories had been made, or brand new, from the discount store, because who would buy good furniture for a house through which total strangers traipsed for three months out of every year? Or suffered from too much sun and too much damp. Jane pulled out a chair and read the card aloud to the group.

"It's a joke," Tina said. She flung off the blanket and hopped over on her one good ankle to join them. "Just like her to bail at the last minute and then pull a stunt like this. She’s probably laughing her ass off somewhere, ordering the next fruit basket with the next cryptic message. Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes! Go to the hayfield, there’ll be a volcanic rock that has no earthly business in a Maine hayfield. She’s always so melodramatic. Can't she just admit something better came up?"

It was not the first time their missing friend had cancelled at the last minute even though the dates were fixed well in advance. The four were always understanding but there was always a trace of resentment, too. As if the others were expected to understand that the fifth woman’s time was more valuable than theirs.

The four women settled around the table in the weather-beaten Cape Cod bungalow they'd rented every summer for the last six years. They met for the same late summer weekend when husbands and partners were otherwise engaged, either of their own accord or dispatched so the women wouldn't feel guilty about leaving four men, one daughter, one veterinary practice, and two businesses for much girl talk and more alcohol in an ocean beach setting far removed from their Brooklyn beginnings.

Initially, they had played "remember when" and speculated on what had happened to still-missing friends from the old neighborhood. That first year Rachel brought her laptop and their old high school yearbook, and between drinks and steamers they Googled and giggled over former boyfriends and teachers, most of whom had lost their hair, gotten heavy, or somehow morphed into ordinary mortals instead of the brooding geniuses and bohemian heartthrobs they’d once seemed. After that, it was agreed - no laptops at The Weekend.

But it wasn't all about the old days. The five women had forged new friendships. What felt better than familiar but new - the safety net of people who knew your background and your history, but, because of the time spent apart, brought the freshness of anecdotes and stories you hadn't heard a hundred times before. And they’d helped each other professionally, with contacts and as trustworthy soundingboards.

Clare reached over to read the card for herself, looking for...what? Some explanation hidden between the lines? Some tone or nuance conveyed in the elegant script of an anonymous clerk in a gift shop? She chewed on her lower lip but said nothing.

Jane tugged on the purple ribbon at the top of the basket, untying the bow and noisily releasing the twisted cellophane. She flattened the ribbon and wound it around four fingers as if saving it for some future use, which wasn't likely since they'd all be home in a few days. A hidden staple pierced one slim, unmanicured index finger and she sucked on it while poking through the basket with her undamaged hand.

"At least she sprang for the good stuff.” Jane held up a red foil-covered brick. “Real cheese, not cheese product."

"And candy," Rachel said. "Just what we need."

Tina and Jane plundered the basket, Jane moving through the items and inspecting ingredients. "Cream crackers, no partially hydrogenated anything so far." Jane was co-owner of a small bakery called Sweet Dreams and paid attention to such things. Tina wasn't so picky. Two grunts and an arched eyebrow told her the others were less appreciative of their missing friend's nutritional considerations. "Belgian chocolates. Scottish cookies," Jane said, still sucking on her punctured finger.

"Please don’t get blood on anything," Tina said. "If there are shortbread cookies, I’ve got dibs. I don't care if they have lard in them but I draw the line at bodily fluids.”

Despite Rachel's protestations, the chocolate would disappear first. No chance to melt or develop that mysterious white stuff around the edges. Then the cheese, the crackers and the fruit, one step up from artificial and typically chosen not for taste but for their ability to retain an unblemished appearance despite being shipped thousands of miles. All the food would go, even the boring sucking candies, and all that would remain was a tasteful brown basket, some purple ribbon and the note -

Apologies for the short notice but I won't be making our little reunion this year. I've run off with one of your men.


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Excerpted from THE BITCHES OF BROOKLYN by Rosemary Harris.
Copyright © 2013 by Rosemary Harris.
Published BY Chestnut Hill Books (October 2, 2013).
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.