As they descended from the car, ten-year-old Nan looked suspiciously at these new cousins of hers. She'd been dragged away from everything she loved - her cat, Hester, her pretty green-and-gold bedroom and her best friends Diana and Jane - to this horrid back-water, and her parents had promised her cousins who would adore her and be wonderful new friends for her, but the only cousin anywhere near her age was a freckled girl dressed in a frock out of the dark ages who wasn't paying Nan the slightest attention until her mother called her over.
The girl called her Hannah, and that was simply not to be borne. Hannah was the name of a ... a servant, or an old woman, and Nan would not answer to it.
"I'm Nan," she said, her dignified tone meant to clearly convey her superiority to the other girl, but the girl merely blinked stupidly and said shyly, "I'm Gay. Gabrielle, really, but everyone calls me Gay."
Her name was french and her hair was the exact colour that Jane's fashionable mother had recently dyed her hair. And she was too stupid to live, honestly. Nan was prepared to be friends but Gay wouldn't laugh at the country manners of her cousins, refused to tidy up her black, bushy eyebrows 'because Mother wouldn't like it' and had absolutely no taste in music. She was hopeless, and Nan told her so. The only reason Nan continued to associate with her was for lack of any alternatives.
Thank God they went home after four weeks.
They were thirteen when Nan discovered boys. Gay wasn't paying attention, but the boys were noticing her. James Dark - as dark as his name with a reckless twist to his mouth and a chin worthy of a movie idol - looked at Gay all the time, and she never even noticed him.
Nan noticed him. He was fifteen and tall for his age. His parents had moved twenty miles out of town so Nan and Gay didn't usually see a lot of him, but this summer he'd come to help out his uncle in Rose River.
Nan knew that her clothes were the smartest clothes in fifty miles (at least), her haircut was completely up to date and her eyes, her best feature, were accentuated by her makeup, but when James looked at her his own blue eyes were merely politely enquiring, whereas when Gay came into the room they went soft with longing.
One Sunday Nan wore her best dress to church. Her mother had protested that the dress was 'too much' for Rose River Church but Nan had insisted. She would look exotic in the dress and special and James would finally notice her - but Gay had a new hair bow and James spent the sermon with his eyes fixed on it, bobbing at the front of the church.
None of Nan's friends back home would have been seen dead in that hair bow. She was doing Gay a favour when she cut it up, and with every snip of the scissors she repeated "I hate him! I hate her!"
When her mother whipped her she just set her teeth and thought about the satisfying snick of the blades, and the soft rain of tulle on the polished hardwood floor.
Noel Gibson was just too delightful a tit-bit not to pick up. That mouth was made for biting, and he was deliciously susceptible to her charms. From the first time she spoke to him Nan knew he was ripe for the plucking.
He wasn't her usual type - far from it - but he was Gay's property, and that made him a prize worth acquiring. She set her mind to it, half in fun at first, but with every intention of winning. Gay didn't even know how to fight back. She just stood there like a stuffed dummy, pathetic and lost.
Nan felt nothing but contempt for her.
If Noel had been hers, if she had wanted him the way Gay - clearly - wanted him, she would have fought to the bitter end for him. She would have tricked and clawed and by the end of it any usurper would have known that they had been in a fight; but Gay just stood there and let it happen!
Nan was engaged to him in a matter of weeks. She didn't really want him by that stage but it was fun outraging the fuddy-duddies, and she always knew that she wasn't going to go through with it. He was cheap goods through and through, not worth keeping, and the clan knew it. Nan wanted to laugh sometimes at the expressions on their sheeplike faces - something caught halfway between satisfaction at the breakup and outrage at her behaviour.
Only Cousin Mahala seemed to look at her with compassion. Nan didn't like that. She had everything she wanted or needed and no need for whatever it was that lurked behind Cousin Mahala's eyes.
When Nan finally cut Noel loose she felt a deep and abiding satisfaction that she had accomplished what she had set out to do. And it really would be too much fun seeing what ripples would result from that particular rock. It might even be more interesting than the initial capture itself, with Gay engaged to Roger and still following Noel with her eyes like a lovesick puppy.
She thought she might go and tell Gay the good news herself.
The sleek saloon drawn up in front of the Rose River Church was a sensation among the younger menfolk. Nan enjoyed the attention as she stepped out of it, taking her husband's arm. Why Mother had wanted to be buried here, in this backwater, she would never understand any more than she had understood why Mother spent at least a week or two there every summer.
They'd had a memorial service in the city, of course, with all Mother's friends. This was the funeral, though, and the clan had gathered in force - even those who had disliked Mother or been disliked by her.
A head of pale hair, gathered into a neat coil at the back of her head, moved through the crowd and Nan knew that Gay was there. She hadn't seen Gay in twenty years. Nan had been invited to the wedding with Roger, of course, but she had been in Europe at the time and the following Spring she had married Fred Margoldsby in a fashionable Garden Wedding to which Gay and Roger had not been invited.
Fred was looking restlessly around at the gathered people. "Who are they all?" he said in a low voice as yet another elderly lady offered her chilly consolations to Nan.
"They're family," she retorted shortly. Only the younger generation were mysteries to her - every elderly face was known; known and disliked, but known. Nan had left her daughters at home, seeing no need for them to come so far when they had already attended the memorial service, but now she felt a sudden pang as she realised that they had never met any of these people; they were not a part of this complex family web.
The pang surprised her. She had rejected the clan a long time ago; a useless relic of the dark ages. Their eyes were judgemental, still after all this time, and she lifted her chin. She had nothing to be ashamed of: she was a leader of society, still slender and fashionable after all these years. These... people... lived in a backwater where nothing ever happened, where the modes and mores were at least twenty years behind the times. How dare they presume to judge her?
After the service Roger and Gay stopped to say a few words to her. Roger was quite grey, and there were grey hairs threaded through Gay's light hair if you looked closely enough. Their three children were stiffly courteous in their best clothes, bored but polite. Nan watched them covertly as they left the church grounds and began to walk back along the willow walk, laughing quietly and chatting comfortably among themselves. Gay's daughter took her arm with quiet confidence and her tall sons bent attentively to speak with her.
Nan thought of her extremely fashionable eldest daughter and her reclusive bluestocking of a younger daughter and wondered if either one had ever taken her arm. Not that she wanted them to.
She had everything she had ever wanted.
Her expensive shoes clicked briskly back to the car. The sooner she could get out of here the better.