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Authors: Susan Beth Pfeffer

Claire at Sixteen

BOOK: Claire at Sixteen
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Claire at Sixteen

The Sebastian Sisters, Book Three

Susan Beth Pfeffer

C
HAPTER
O
NE

“What a dump.”

“Claire! Clark's house is not a dump. Behave yourself.”

“Ouch, Evvie, that hurt,” Claire Sebastian said, rubbing her arm where her older sister Evvie had punched it. Fortunately, Claire was dressed for a December evening in Boston, and her many layers of clothing had softened the blow. Claire hoped she wouldn't be black-and-blue as a result of her older sister's enthusiasm.

“Christmas with the Christians,” Sam Steinmetz said. “My grandparents warned me it would come to this.”

Evvie gently slugged him as well. Sam didn't seem to care about bruising and simply laughed.

“The two of you, behave yourselves,” Evvie whispered. “It's very sweet of Clark to have us to his house for Christmas dinner.”

“Clark is sweet,” Claire replied. “That's his sole function in life, to be sweet, especially to us.”

“And that's exactly the kind of comment I want you to stop making,” Evvie said. “Think about the alternatives, Claire. Would you rather be in a motel room with Nicky and Megs? Or maybe spending Christmas with Aunt Grace is your idea of a good time.”

“Clark Bradford is no one's idea of a good time,” Sam said.

“Maybe not,” Evvie said. “But he's endurable.”

Claire looked at Evvie and Sam and laughed. “I love Christmas,” she said. “Full of family joy.”

“Togetherness,” Sam said. “That and Santa Claus. Or so I've heard.”

“Are you through?” Evvie asked. “Can I ring the doorbell now?”

Claire shook her head. “I don't think so,” she declared. “I think I may have another couple of nasty remarks left inside me.”

“I know I do,” Sam said. “Evvie, let's get out of here before the WASPs eat me alive. Come on. We can go back to our apartment, and call Clark from there, tell him I had a crisis of faith and we're searching for a rabbi.”

“Where does that leave me?” Claire asked.

“You can convert,” Sam replied. “If Clark bothers you that much.”

Claire shrugged. “Nobody bothers me that much,” she said. “Clark's a bore, that's all. And he doesn't like me because I look too much like Nicky. Evvie and Thea and Sybil he can think of as his dream daughters, because they all look like Megs. But not me. I'm pure Sebastian.”

“This is very moving,” Evvie said. “I'm touched, Sam, that you're finally accepting your religion when I'm halfway through the conversion process. And I never thought I'd hear you say you were pure Sebastian, Claire. But it's twenty-two degrees out here. I don't want to go in, either,” she admitted. “But we told him we'd come.”

“Evvie's the moral one in our family,” Claire said to Sam. “She's definitely not pure Sebastian.”

“I like her morality,” Sam said. “It keeps me honest.” He bent over, kissed Evvie, and then rang the doorbell for her.

Claire checked out the two of them, and smiled. Evvie was the oldest of the four Sebastian sisters. Next came Thea, a total loss as far as Claire was concerned, and then, following Claire, Sybil. Sybil was the one Claire loved, but Evvie was a close second, and the more she knew Sam, the fonder Claire was of him. Evvie and Sam had been in love for four years, and in another two they'd be getting married. Claire hoped they'd have a small wedding. Otherwise Evvie would insist on all of her sisters being bridesmaids, and the color dresses that would look good with Thea and Sybil's washed-out blond prettiness would be a total waste for her own dark beauty.

“Girls! Come in! Sam, it's a pleasure to see you.”

Clark Bradford had opened the door himself, and Claire soon found herself embracing him. This was the man everyone had assumed would marry Margaret Winslow, Claire's mother. Certainly Clark had felt that way, as had Megs's aunt Grace, who was raising her. But then, when Megs was sixteen, she'd met Nick Sebastian, and they had fallen in love twenty seconds later, and after an interminable courtship, had eloped, had four daughters, and settled into a life best described as romantic. Not perhaps the word Claire would have used for it, but the socially acceptable one in the family.

Meanwhile poor Clark stayed unmarried, always on the sidelines of Megs's life, there for birthday presents and graduation gifts, and that horrible Thanksgiving two years back. The one that had started as a family celebration, because Nicky was in the money that year and they actually owned the house they were living in, and had ended with Sybil's being hit by a car. Things had certainly gone downhill from there.

“Have you heard from your parents?” Clark asked, as he escorted them into the living room. Claire glanced at the room, with its Chippendale furnishings, Revere silver, and matched set of John Singer Sargent portraits, and thought about the trade-off. If Megs had married Clark, all this would be Claire's. On the other hand, she might look like Clark, mousy and brownish, instead of having pure black hair and emerald green eyes and a perfect bone structure. Silver could be pawned and never redeemed, Claire decided, but high cheekbones lasted forever. On that count at least Megs had made the right choice.

“Megs called this morning,” Evvie said. “To wish us a merry Christmas. Nicky was already with Sybil.”

“They're running tests on Christmas?” Clark asked.

Evvie shook her head. “Sybil has the day off from that, thank goodness,” she replied. “But they wouldn't release her, not even for the day. I guess because she was only admitted there a couple of days ago.”

The doorbell rang simultaneously with the appearance of a butler in the living room. A maid had taken their coats, Claire realized, and began questioning how high a value she should place on her looks. All they were good for was for acquiring wealth. With Clark as her father, that job would already have been accomplished.

“Tell Mycroft what you want to drink,” Clark said, “while I see who that is.”

“I'd like some wine,” Sam said. “I don't suppose you have any Manischewitz.”

“Sam,” Evvie said. “We'd both like some wine,” she said to the butler.

“There's mulled wine already made,” Clark called from the front hall. “Mycroft, bring in five glasses. Claire, you drink wine, don't you?”

“Whenever possible,” Claire said. She would have preferred to be offered champagne. Her family had toasted many a new home with champagne offerings from Clark.

At the door Clark said, “Scotty, come on in. Welcome. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas to you, too, Cousin Clark.”

Scotty Hughes joined Claire, Evvie, and Sam in the living room. “Hello,” he said, smiling at Evvie. “Boy that smells good.”

“It's mulled wine,” Evvie said. “Take a glass.”

So Scotty did, after exchanging kisses with Evvie. “I didn't realize you'd be here,” he said. “Hello, Sam, it's good to see you.”

“Good seeing you, too, Scotty,” Sam said. “Merry Christmas.”

“Likewise,” Scotty said. “Claire. You're looking beautiful.”

“Thank you,” Claire said. She took a sip of the wine, and let its warm sweetness cheer her up.

“So what are you doing here?” Scotty asked.

“We could ask the same of you,” Evvie pointed out. “Why aren't you home for Christmas?”

“My parents aren't back yet from Egypt,” Scotty replied. “They'll be home in a few days. Clark was kind enough to invite me for Christmas dinner.”

“And where's Schyler?” Evvie said.

“You had to ask?” Sam said.

Scotty and Claire laughed. Schyler was Scotty's older brother, and the only serious competition Sam had had for Evvie's heart. Claire had never met him, but according to Evvie, he was gorgeous. Sam's jealousy was pretense, or at least so Evvie claimed.

“Schyler is skiing at Aspen,” Scotty said. “He'll come back East when Mom and Dad get home. They'll be here before New Year's.”

“Maybe we'll see him then,” Evvie said.

“Maybe
you
will,” Sam said. “I'll be on Long Island visiting my grandparents by then, remember.”

“Holidays are so complicated,” Evvie complained. “Ordinarily, I'd be back home for Christmas, and so would Sam, only this year his grandparents are on a cruise until right before New Year's, so we're together now, and then on New Year's we'll be apart.”

“Now I am confused,” Scotty said. “Sam, did your grandmother remarry?”

“What?” Sam said, and then he laughed. “All right, now I understand. Not those grandparents, my other ones, the Greenes. They're the cruise takers.”

“Mrs. Steinmetz died last year,” Evvie said. “I thought you knew, Scotty.”

“No one told me,” Scotty said. “Sam, I'm sorry. I liked your grandmother.”

“I did, too,” Sam said. “Thank you, Scotty.”

Claire felt left out. Evvie had met Sam, Scotty, and Schyler one summer four years before, which Evvie had spent at Aunt Grace's summer home in Eastgate. Sam had been there with his Steinmetz grandparents, and Schyler and Scotty had been staying with Clark, who was their father's cousin. Claire had spent that summer in a horrible mess of a house, cleaning and scrubbing and feeling like Cinderella, only without any handsome prince as a payoff. And at that, the house they'd lived in that summer was a palace compared to the apartment they were staying in now.

“So that explains why you're here,” Scotty said. “And, Evvie, I suppose you want to be here with Sam. But, Claire, I would have thought you'd be with the rest of your family. And where's Thea?”

“We're scattered this year,” Evvie said. “Thea's in New York, spending Christmas on campus.”

“So she can be closer to Kip Dozier,” Claire said, to see what effect it would have on Scotty.

She wasn't disappointed. Scotty's smile disappeared as soon as Kip's name was mentioned. Claire tried not to laugh out loud. Men were so predictable. Scotty had fallen in love with Thea that awful Thanksgiving two years back. Claire would never understand why, since Thea was a boring, whiny nothing, and Scotty, while not great, was rich and socially prominent, and had the potential to be good-looking. Meanwhile, Thea had fallen in love with Kip, who was poor and miserable, although admittedly handsome. What made the story especially delicious, though, was that Kip didn't love Thea back. Claire could have had him, but it hadn't been worth the effort just to annoy Thea. There were easier ways to do that. And since Kip wanted to be a sculptor, and might never have any money, Claire couldn't see wasting her time making him fall in love with her.

“That surprises me,” Scotty said. “That Kip should stay in New York, rather than go home for the holidays.”

“Well, Kip doesn't have any real family anymore,” Claire said. “He hardly speaks to his mother, and Dani—you remember his sister Dani, Scotty?—she's out in L.A. now making porno flicks.” Claire couldn't resist a smile as she watched Scotty turn red. That Thanksgiving, apparently, Sam had walked in on Scotty and Dani going hot and heavy in the kitchen of all places. It had taken Claire a fair amount of eavesdropping to learn that little secret, and since she wasn't supposed to know it, she had the option of saying all kinds of blithely tactless things. Claire loved a good secret.

“We don't know that they're porn,” Evvie said. “You remember Dani, Scotty. She was always dreaming of glory.”

“That's one word for it,” Sam said. “Anyway, Thea's in New York with him.”

“And Claire's here because Nicky and Megs aren't home for Christmas, either,” Evvie said. Claire loved the way Evvie could change the topic. All the girls were good at it. They'd learned how when they were young, in case anybody asked a potentially embarrassing question about Nicky's finances, but Evvie was the best at it. “They're with Sybil.”

BOOK: Claire at Sixteen
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