Scandalous – Sample Chapters

Scandalous

Prologue

 

New York City, Early 1970s

 

Seven-year-old Paisley stopped at the top step of the long row of stuck-together houses and twisted around to look behind her. Across the busy street, a park, green and inviting, was sealed off by black iron bars. Saffron had called it Gramercy Park. All Paisley knew was that it was the first green place she’d seen since they’d driven into New York City.

“I can’t bear this,” Saffron said to Moonchild. Paisley looked up at them and saw Saffron toss her long, honey-colored hair over her shoulder. “They’re going to be wretched, and I absolutely can’t bear it.”

“They’re too polite to be wretched.” Moonchild scratched his black beard. “And besides, now that I can finally get my trust fund, a little wretchedness is a small enough price to pay, don’t you agree?”

The front door swung open, and a tall old man loomed over them.

“Hello, Burns,” Moonchild spoke in greeting. Paisley drew back against his jean-clad leg, but he didn’t pat her shoulder, or ruffle her hair, or do any of the little reassuring things the mother-women would have done at her home, Nirvana.

The old man’s face creased into a wide smile. “Mr. Reggie? Miss Candace? Is that you?”

Saffron surged forward, her voice suddenly sounding light and gay. “I assume the old dragons have gathered and are sharpening their talons.”

“In the drawing room,” Burns replied. “Welcome home, Mr. Reggie, Miss Candace.” Then he looked at Paisley. “Who’s this?”

Moonchild nudged Paisley, and she stumbled as she followed Saffron’s flowing orange-and-yellow-flowered skirt into the vast hallway. Paintings of old people lined the walls, and a tiny but tall spindly-legged table held a brightly colored bowl of flowers.

Saffron grabbed Paisley’s shoulders and dropped down to a squat, her pregnant belly poking out in front of her. “You stay out here until I call for you. Is that clear?”

Paisley nodded, even though she didn’t want to. Burns glared down at her as if he thought she might make a puddle on the shiny floor. Didn’t she look clean enough to him? She remembered how Saffron had hurt her in combing the tangles out of her hair and had scrubbed her forever in the cold white tub at the motel the previous night. Paisley felt her stomach wrinkle into a little knot. Nobody at Nirvana had ever made her feel this way.

Why had Saffron and Moonchild suddenly taken her away from the other children, from the women who loved them and took care of them all? They had never bothered her before. Why did they have to start now?

With joined hands, Saffron and Moonchild stood in an arched doorway, and voices from within the room fell quiet. Then a lady’s voice cried out, “Candy, my darling! Candy, you’re—”

“Yes, Mother, I’m pregnant.”

“Oh, Candy, how could you?”

Paisley shut her ears to the voices. An empty place in her heart cried out for leaves and trees and bushes, for spattering rain, for the laughter of the other children.

There was green, down the wide steps and across the street. Black bars couldn’t keep her away from it, not if she really wanted it. Suddenly, she whirled away from the doorway of the dragon room and ran toward the big white doors.

Her toe banged into something hard, and before she could cry out, the spindly-legged table crashed to the floor. Water from the vase spilled and flowed, turning pinky-red when it mingled with the blood from a cut on Paisley’s foot. Desperately, she tried to stand the table back up, to scoop up the flowers.

People poured into the hallway.

“What in God’s name is—”

“Great-grandmother Edwina’s fern stand!”

And then the babbling faded into stunned silence.

“Oh, you little ninny! Don’t move!” Saffron ordered, sweeping a tangle of hair out of Paisley’s face.

“Look at her,” someone said. “That hair, those lips…”

“This is all we need. Another Vandermeir scandal.”

“… those eyes.”

Paisley ducked her head.

“Don’t.”

Paisley jerked her head up at the sound of this new, gravelly, terrifying voice and saw a bony old woman in a flowing red robe standing at the top of a steep staircase.

“Don’t hide your face, my little sheba,” the woman said. “I want to look at you.”

No one uttered a word as she descended slowly, a long-handled cigarette holder held aloft, the hem of her robe trailing behind her.

“Aunt Isadora,” Moonchild said, “the child’s terrified. I don’t think that this is the time to—”

“You don’t think?” Reaching the bottom step, the old woman drew deeply on her cigarette, then blew, and Paisley watched, awestruck, as magical dragon-rings of smoke wafted through the air. “Reggie, you little twit, you never think. That is precisely the problem.”

She moved toward them. Her black-black hair was pulled back from her face. Her fingers were covered with rings. She smelled of roses and mothballs and smoke. Paisley found herself leaning forward, yearning to hear that voice again.

A gnarled hand cupped her chin. The wrinkled face with two bright red spots on the cheeks came within inches of hers. Paisley met the old woman’s stare without blinking and peered into eyes as dark as her own.

“She’s a Vandermeir, all right,” the old woman finally declared. “You’d better have the nuptials quickly, but even that won’t be quick enough for this one, will it?” She glanced at the debris on the floor, Paisley’s faded dress, and the crushed flowers in Paisley’s hands. “Drop those, dear. They’ll be taken care of. One of the benefits of money. Someone else always cleans up one’s messes.”

She arched her eyebrows, sending a significant glance over Paisley’s head. “Isn’t that right, my darlings?”

She took Paisley’s hand and drew her forward. “What is your name?”

“Paisley,” Paisley muttered.

“Paisley?” someone whispered hoarsely. “Give me strength.”

“Paisley… Paisley Vandermeir,” the old woman announced loudly. “It has a nice ring to it. You may call me Aunt Izzy. Careful you don’t bleed on the Aubusson, dear.” The old woman pointed at the carpet with her cigarette holder.

“I’ve never had an aunt before,” Paisley said.

“You shall have too many of them now,” Aunt Izzy replied, guiding her along. “Do you like sweets? Of course you do. Perhaps I should feed you. Do you by any chance play mahjongg?”

Even surrounded by dragons, Paisley felt a giggle bubbling in her throat. This dragon-lady was stronger than any of them.

“Carry on,” Aunt Izzy remarked to the others, who stood speechless. “Young Paisley and I have plots and schemes and truths and dreams to share. I think I need a brandy. Have you ever tasted brandy, my dear?”

“Aunt Isadora!” Moonchild exclaimed.

“Perhaps you’d all benefit from some brandy,” Aunt Izzy responded tartly, “since you’ve finally come to your senses.” She eased her bony arm around Paisley’s shoulders and squeezed gently. “It is my task to see that this darling little child doesn’t lose hers. Now, darling girl, you must tell me about life on a commune. Was it wanton sex all the time? I cannot imagine putting up with the dirt and flies, otherwise.”

As the others stood in shock, Paisley followed Aunt Izzy upstairs, not once looking back.

 

 

Chapter One

 

New York City, 18 years later

 

Ah, the Grand Ballroom at the Waldorf. So comfortable. So traditional. So typically Maitland.

Christopher Quincy Maitland leaned against a satin-swathed pillar and peered over the rim of his champagne glass. Swirling dancers flowed across the dance floor—without his assistance, thank heavens—and he intended to take full advantage of the rare moment before his services as host were once again needed.

In his youth, he had served his time as escort at such functions, and he had been damned grateful to escape by moving to Chicago. But, that night, duty called. The party for his sister was one of the first of the New York Season, which would culminate in late December with the official presentations at the Junior Assemblies and International Debutante Balls.

Suddenly, tension tightened his shoulders and stiffened his back. Searching for the source of his unease, he scanned the crowded ballroom and spotted his sister. Anna was a whirl of white satin and lace, a shimmer of carefully arranged blond curls, a flash of smashing smile in the arms of a nondescript young man who was undoubtedly too immature to appreciate the jewel in his clasp. Chris nodded, feeling a tendril of pride spread through him.

Sweet Anna. This was her night, and he wouldn’t have missed it for all the grain shares in the world. Still, he couldn’t restrain himself from wondering where sorghum had closed.

He glanced at his watch. Hemmings would probably still be in the Chicago office—no. Not tonight. He forced his attention back to the dance floor lit by a magnificent crystal chandelier suspended from a forty-foot ceiling.

For a moment he remembered a dance over a decade earlier, when he had circled the same floor with Lydia in his arms. Of course, he thought wryly, chuckling into his champagne, Lyd was much happier in boots and dungarees, digging through dirt and muck for dinosaur bones, than she had ever been when waltzing in designer gown and heels at these antiseptic affairs.

A movement at the entrance to the ballroom drew his attention back to the here and now, and his uneasiness took form.

The form of a woman, a stranger.

A few yards away, she stood between two massive marble columns that were draped with fabric, her very presence throwing sparks like a live wire. She wasn’t beautiful, or even pretty. She was dramatic: a slender, black-swathed pencil stroke against a pristine white satin backdrop. Despite the music, despite the low, polite laughter and conversation, the room quieted for Chris as if everybody held an indrawn breath.

A waiter passed the woman, and she snatched a champagne flute from his tray in what seemed to be an almost desperate movement. Scarlet-tipped fingers of one hand held the crystal stem, while in the other she flourished a ridiculously long ebony cigarette holder. A word from another era sprang into Chris’s mind— vamp.

Her hair and bangs framed her porcelain face like a sleek black cap. Her nose was short and pert, the kind that should have freckles, but hers didn’t. Her mouth was small, the full, sensually curved lips painted a luscious, glossy blood red.

Her eyes—large and dark and luminous beneath thin, arching black brows—drilled straight into his heart. Chris felt his grip on his champagne glass tighten to a death hold. A thrumming warning of danger surrounded her, and he found himself curious—no, intrigued—as nothing had intrigued him in a very long time.

Then the spell was broken by a blur of white and a soft squeal as Anna flew across the burgundy-carpeted floor and flung her arms around this late-arriving guest.

Chris caught his mother’s gaze from across the room. He recognized her expression of carefully concealed distress, a look that he’d seen on a dozen other occasions. It signaled, Take care of it. Only this time the plea was aimed at him, not his father.

“Kit,” Anna exclaimed. “It’s Paisley, she’s come!”

Paisley. As if a lightning bolt had struck, he understood his mother’s concern. There could be only one Paisley.

Paisley juggled her champagne and cigarette holder in one hand and offered her other hand imperiously, her chin raised. Perfectly delectable, he thought as their gazes locked. But she stared into his eyes with alarm and paled as though confronted with an apparition.

Recovering, she dropped her lashes to half-mast and purred, in a voice both voluptuous and raspy, “Paisley Vandermeir.”

“A pleasure.” He dipped his head in a nod as her fingertips brushed his palm.

“And, Paisley, this is my dearest, dearest brother, Kit,” Anna gushed on, apparently oblivious to the electrical currents snapping and flowing around her.

“Chris,” he corrected, smiling. “I’m also her only brother.”

“I know,” Paisley said, not smiling. “You definitely have the look of the Maitlands about you.”

“No one could ever doubt you’re a Vandermeir, either.”

“Fortunately,” she agreed. “Though, of course, there are those who would like to disclaim me.” She turned from him and brushed her cheek against Anna’s with a quick “Wouldn’t have missed your party for the world, darling.” Then she whirled away into the crowd, leaving Anna beaming and Chris bemused in her wake.

“Isn’t she wonderful?” Anna sighed.

Chris was tempted to agree. “How do you know her?”

“She’s Lexie’s sister,” Anna explained. “You know, Alexandra, my best friend?” She folded her arms and gave her head a shake. “Really, Kit, don’t you read my letters?”

“Of course I do, darling. Now, isn’t there some young idiot waiting to dance with you?”

Anna gave him a smile and went off.

Alone, he watched Paisley Vandermeir weave through the crowd, realizing how wrong his first impression of her had been. Her presence was jarring, dramatic, but no mere pencil stroke. She was an exclamation point. Now that she was there, the entire room seemed painted in brighter colors, the laughter more sparkling.

“Kit, dear—”

The tone of his mother’s voice snapped him to attention. “Why the frown?” he asked.

His mother’s grip bit into his wrist as her gaze followed his to the woman in black. “Shameless. Absolutely shameless. And with Isadora on her deathbed, by all reports. I should never have allowed Anna to form an alliance with that family.”

“She is a bit bizarre, isn’t she?” He was unable to take his eyes away from Paisley as she wove her way along the fringes of the crowd. Her antique, beaded chiffon dress was obviously valuable and beautiful but totally inappropriate for the occasion. With each step, each twirl, the handkerchief hem billowed around her legs like black mist.

“Bizarre isn’t the word.”

“Well, Mother, I assume you invited her. You can hardly be surprised that she’s here.”

“I had to invite her. I was greatly relieved when she declined the honor.” His mother’s cool tones spoke volumes that her upbringing prevented her from speaking.

Paisley Vandermeir had declined the invitation and then had come anyway. Unfashionably late. Dressed like a Hollywood extra in a period movie. And now, she was wandering around as if she were lost, or drunk, or both, and attracting undue attention. Of course his mother was uneasy.

“Frankly, Mother, a little bit of Vandermeir scandal would probably liven up the evening.” One glance at her stiff expression made him add, “But don’t worry. I’ll take care of her.”

He patted his mother’s hand, then moved on, silently congratulating himself yet again that he had escaped such frivolous and constant societal pressures when he’d taken a position in the Chicago branch of the family brokerage firm, rather than working in the New York offices.

The opening strains of a waltz were sounding by the time Chris caught up with Paisley. “May I have this dance?” He removed the champagne glass from her hand and noticed that it was still full. “Let’s get rid of this.”

She snatched the glass back from him. “You needn’t worry, I’m not drinking it. I needed something to hold on to, that’s all. And I didn’t come to dance.”

“Of course you did,” he replied, ever aware of the attention she was drawing. He snared the glass again and this time deposited it on a waiter’s tray before she could reclaim it. He closed his fingers over hers, and pulled her to him. He whisked her into the crowd, knowing their movements were being scrutinized by all. “I’m sure you didn’t come to create a scene, either.”

“No. Never,” she said, her eyes widening in alarm.

“Good. So let’s try to blend in with the decor, shall we?”

He watched her eyes fasten on an invisible spot above his shoulder as she submitted to his lead. In his arms, her body felt so fragile, so delicate, like the thinnest piece of glass, an air puff away from shattering.

As if speaking to herself, she murmured, “I never blend in.”

He glanced down at the vintage garb. “And you make such an effort.”

She stopped; he stopped. Dancers surged around them. “I didn’t come to dance,” she repeated, her tone suddenly lacking all the rasp and sparkle that had sent such tingling reactions through him. In the hollows of her cheeks, the bruise-like shadows under her eyes, he read despair.

“Then why did you come?”

“I have to find someone. But I don’t see him…”

Him. Of course. With a woman as alluring as Paisley, there had to be a him.

“I really shouldn’t be here, but she made me promise, you see—” Paisley broke off in confusion.

Startled, Chris saw her eyes begin to glisten with tears. He didn’t have the slightest idea what was happening, but he did recognize a damsel in distress when he saw one. And unless he missed his guess, Paisley Vandermeir would prefer to fall apart in private.

Skillfully, he guided her off the floor. Then he took her arm as gently, as nonchalantly, as humanly possible and began strolling toward an ice sculpture.

“I had to come and bring it.” She grabbed his hand. Her fingers were cold and trembling. “Then I was so… so taken aback when I saw you.” She dropped her gaze and her hand. “You are the image of him, aren’t you? But of course, you’re not him.”

“Not whom?”

“Your grandfather.”

“Grandfather Quincy?” Chris laughed. So she wasn’t there because of a lover after all. Oddly, he felt immensely relieved. “Grandfather Quincy isn’t here. He’s at home with my grandmother. She wasn’t up to tonight’s excitement.”

“Then… then I’ve come for nothing?” Paisley Vandermeir closed her eyes for a moment. She reached into her pocketbook and retrieved a folded white linen handkerchief, which she pressed into his hand. Something hard and sharp-edged dug through the cloth into his palm. “Please. Return this to your grandfather. Tell him… tell him Izzy said, ‘Good-bye.’” Then she tore away from him, head held high as she walked off. He was too stunned to respond.

He opened his hand and noted the white-on-white monogrammed Q, then stared at her retreating back.

She paused, turned and faced him, her face transformed by a hard, brilliant smile. “You look so much like him, you know.” Then, before he could stop her, she was gone. Unlike at her entrance, she trailed not sparks, but emptiness.

“You did well, Christopher.”

Chris turned and found his mother beside him.

“She didn’t cause a ripple, did she?”

“I’m not so sure,” he said, scowling.

“Whatever did she give you, dear?”

Chris showed her, and he knew by the expression on her face that she recognized Grandfather Quincy’s monogram. “She asked me to return this to Grandfather,” he said, opening the folds to reveal their secret.

A brooch nestled in the handkerchief, reflecting the light with a dozen glints of fire. An Egyptian scarab, the beetle’s black plastic body studded with sparkling red, green, and white stones.

“Kitsch,” she said distastefully.

“Why do you think she wanted Grandfather Quincy to have this?” he asked. But as Chris rewrapped it, memory slammed through him… whispers of an old scandal, of Grandfather Quincy’s affair with someone… someone…

Isadora Vandermeir.

“Good Lord.” He shoved the handkerchief deep in his pocket. Grandfather Quincy, all gray kindness and soft wrinkles. It seemed impossible to believe, yet the old stories apparently were true.

“Christopher, don’t let anyone see it.” His mother’s voice was tight. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Don’t worry, Mother.” He patted her shoulder. “Go back and enjoy the party. I’ll take care of everything.”

But before Chris could give it any more thought, Anna appeared before him all aflutter and tugged at his arm.

“It’s the last dance before dinner, Kit. You must dance with me.”

Peering into her lovely face, knowing the ache she must feel that it was he and not Father who would dance with her on this momentous occasion, he vowed to devote the rest of the night to pleasing her.

But hours later, he still couldn’t get Paisley Vandermeir out of his mind.

 

~o0o~

 

By the time Paisley reached her apartment, tears were flowing down her cheeks. Her heart was still clutched in the tight, viselike contraction that had taken hold the moment she had walked into the ballroom and seen Chris.

Paisley closed the door behind her, locked it, and pressed against its cold, solid surface, willing her pain to ebb.

Slowly, she made her way across the room and sank into the oyster-backed chair that held so many memories. As she turned on the lamp, her hand brushed against the prisms dangling from the shade, and dazzling rainbows danced in her lap, on the floor, on the wall. The jet beadwork on her dress bit into the backs of her thighs, but she was too drained to move.

The waiting of these past weeks had been torturous and seemingly unending… but it had ended. Only Paisley had been in that darkened hospital room that very afternoon, and that, after all, was as it should be.

Strange, that they had turned out to be such kindred spirits. A little girl and an old woman from separate worlds. Paisley’s first years had been spent as one child among many at the Nirvana commune, raised and nurtured by loving caretakers who happened not to be her parents. Upon her family’s arrival in New York, she had again been relinquished to caretakers, a series of nannies, and disastrous boarding schools. Only Isadora had seen through a little girl’s bravado to the quaking spirit within. Only Isadora had reached out to save her.

And now Isadora Vandermeir, after years of fighting, had finally lost her battle. She had left only a simple request, that the one token she had possessed and cherished from her one and only love be returned.

Paisley closed her eyes and saw him again.

For one mad moment she had forgotten her motto: Never trust a man in a designer tuxedo. She had looked into Christopher Quincy Maitland’s eyes, those serene blue eyes shadowed by straight brows and a wave of blond hair… and for an instant, she had felt a gentle tug of homecoming.

Which she knew better than to trust. She hadn’t been in that ballroom for fifteen minutes before he’d waltzed her right back out the door. He had seemed concerned, almost caring, but years of living among the dragons had taught her the folly of believing in such surface courtesies.

And now that it was over, she hated herself for that instant of weakness, that first moment when she had met his eyes and almost succumbed to a wild urge to curl herself against that lean, tuxedo-clad body… and cry.

She lifted a heavy pewter picture frame from the chairside table and cradled it in her trembling hands. No wonder she had felt that instant of recognition. It was as if Christopher Maitland’s smile had been imprinted on her mind, like a road map, perhaps a warning, of the tricks life played on women who dared to love.

No. Not all women. Those certain Vandermeir women who bore the scandalous curse that had been passed down from generation to generation, from Aunt Izzy to her.

Paisley stared at the old black-and-white photo. In a crowded speakeasy, a young girl stood in profile, gazing adoringly at her laughing escort. As she studied the young girl’s large dark eyes and jet-black hair, the black beaded dress and ebony cigarette holder dangling from her fingertips, Paisley felt as though she were looking at a mirror image of herself.

She forced her eyes to the man in an exquisitely tailored tuxedo who held the young girl in the crook of his arm. He clutched a tumbler of illegal gin in his free hand, and his eyes were arrogant and relentless beneath straight brows and a wave of blond hair. No wonder she had felt that jolt of recognition. Christopher Quincy Maitland was the very image of his grandfather.

Izzy and Quin. Eerie and ghostlike, they were joined by yesterday’s laughter, by a passion that radiated across the years, despite all that had happened since.

Even over a half-century later, this frozen fragment of time bore the one significant detail that had doomed them: On the fourth finger of his left hand was a wedding band; the fourth finger of her left hand was bare.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Chris walked down the dimly lit hallway, his wingtips sinking into the thick mauve carpeting. The colors and decor were classic funeral home—rich, muted, quiet, soothing—and the organ music was appropriately dismal. A damned nuisance, his assignment, but the thought of seeing the charming and intriguing and notorious Paisley Vandermeir again had been irresistible. And so he was here, instead of poring over the week’s closings that Hemmings had faxed him. There would be time enough for that on the flight back to Chicago.

He passed several viewing rooms, quickly scanning the nameplates on each, and found the one he sought. He inhaled deeply, straightened his shoulders, and proceeded inside to the walnut stand where, after a moment’s hesitation, he pulled a fountain pen from his pocket and signed his name in the guest book.

To his disappointment, Paisley Vandermeir was nowhere to be seen. Only the… deceased, surrounded by flowers and candles, and a lone mourner swathed in black. Some elderly relative, he ventured to guess. But it was too late to slip out unnoticed. Stoically, he approached the casket, finding himself quite curious about the notorious Isadora, and was surprised to see nothing unusual about her. He paused respectfully, then turned to offer his condolences to the bereaved.

“I’m so sorry,” he said softly to the heavily veiled face. “I’m Christopher Maitland. I’m here on… behalf of my grandfather, Christian Quincy the Third. He was a friend of Miss Vandermeir.”

The woman in black said nothing, though he could feel her eyes roaming over his face. The moment grew awkward, quite awkward, but at last she offered her hand. Its milky-white smoothness, soft and youthful in his palm, belied his earlier impression of her age.

“Thank you very much,” the cool voice said. “I’ll certainly pass along your condolences to the rest of my family.”

“Paisley?” he asked, astonished. “Is that you?”

She withdrew her hand. “Did your grandfather really send you?”

If only he could see her eyes through the thick veil. “No.” Somehow the memory of those eyes dimmed by tears forced him to be honest. “I came because when I went by your apartment, your next-door neighbor told me you were here and would be all day.”

“I’m not sure what you want,” she said evenly, “but I feel quite certain that this isn’t the time or the place.”

“Maybe not,” he agreed. “I simply wanted to return this.” He pulled the old brooch from his overcoat pocket.

“He… he returned it?” Her hand trembled as she took it from him, and he found that those white hands and that smooth, calm voice told two different stories.

He felt a pang of remorse, but let the silence lie for him. Because of his grandmother’s illness, he had decided it best not to bother his grandfather with what had to be embarrassing memories. All in all, it seemed best to return the brooch and let old scandals die.

“Thank you so very much,” she whispered. “And thank your grandfather for understanding. Perhaps, he’s right. Perhaps…” She stiffened. “He is right.”

Good Lord, Chris thought. What exactly was Grandfather Quincy supposedly so right about?

“I know what we must do.”

We?

She flung her veil back, and he caught the full effect of large eyes glowing with emotion, of cheeks stained with high color, of steely determination. “Quick. Before someone comes.”

She rose and hurried to the casket, though she seemed determined to avoid actually looking in. Suddenly, she whirled and faced him, holding out the pin. “Please, if you would just pin it on her for me…”

“Me?” Chris almost choked with horror.

“No…” She sighed. “I suppose not.”

It seemed to take a monumental effort for her to turn back to the casket. She clutched Chris’s hand, gripping it with a surprising strength born of panic. Then, drawing in a shuddering breath, she finally forced herself to peer in. And just when he thought his fingers would never know life again, her grip eased. “You know,” she whispered, “I’ve never seen Aunt Izzy look so… so…”

“Peaceful?” he offered gently.

“Respectable,” she corrected. “So respectable.” And remarkably, she laughed. “Oh, you’ve done well, Izzy, old girl. So prim and proper in your lavender and lace. Who’d ever know that underneath that heirloom you’re wearing your favorite Frederick’s of Hollywood?”

Chris felt a wry smile tug at his lips. The heady scent of carnations and melting wax, a beautiful woman’s hand in his… He felt his cheeks stain with heat. What was going on in his head? He was losing all sense of decorum.

She squeezed his hand. “Please, will you watch the door? I wouldn’t want anyone to come in while I…”

“Of course.” He found himself oddly reluctant to release her, and his fingers lingered a shade too long before he finally broke the contact. He crossed to the door and guarded the empty hallway.

“All right,” she said. “I’m finished.”

He walked back and looked. The brooch was clasped in the center of the high neck of Isadora Vandermeir’s lavender silk dress, slightly off-center, and he was grateful for the tacky colored stones studding its back. Otherwise it would have looked for all the world as though a beetle were crawling up the old woman’s neck. He shuddered and shook off the irreverent thought, wondering if anyone at the service would recognize the scarab’s significance. Or, like the Frederick’s of Hollywood lingerie, would this be part of an old woman’s last laugh, a secret snub of the nose that only Paisley, and now he, knew?”

“Isn’t she beautiful?” Paisley murmured.

He was no longer looking at Isadora, staring instead at the back of Paisley’s long, slender neck. “It must be an inherited trait.”

She ducked her head, but he saw the gentle blush that stained her cheeks. “Everyone says I’m just like her.” She braced a hand on the casket. “Funny thing…” Her voice caught—on a laugh or a sob? He couldn’t tell. “I’m the only one who ever thought it was a compliment.”

He touched her elbow. “Are you going to be all right?”

“I’m fine.” She pulled herself straighter, but her voice was so full of yearning. “I really am.”

He took her at her word. He had to. His flight was leaving in under four hours, and he had yet to pack.

“I won’t be able to attend the service. I’m flying back to Chicago tonight. But I’m certain someone from my family will attend.” Who? Grandfather Quincy? He almost choked. Certainly not his mother. Anna. Of course, Anna would do it, if he asked her.

“Thank you again for coming. I’m sure you had more important things to do.” She peered up at him with those liquid brown eyes, shadowed with pain yet glowing with strength.

He thought of Hemmings, of Chicago, of corn and silver, of the potential effects on the fortunes of himself and his family if he erred in his calculations and waited too long to buy or sell.

“No,” he responded gently. “Nothing at all.”

 

~o0o~

 

A week later Paisley turned on the stereo, then slouched into the overstuffed club chair, one leg swinging over the arm. Her dress, purple wool and itchy, was a crumpled heap on the floor. She still wore the soft cloche hat, the pearl choker, and the stiletto heels. She knew she must make a strange sight with her lace slip hitched up to her thighs and garters popped so that her stockings bunched at her knees. Removing the dress, and with it the stuffy, stifling aura of the lawyer’s office, had seemed imperative. Nothing else was.

Now, she faced the fact that she had eight weeks to catalog Aunt Izzy’s belongings for a small fee from Aunt Izzy’s estate—enough to keep her from being totally destitute. Three years ago, she had given up her job at the museum and her apartment to care for Aunt Izzy and protect her. Nobody had realized how bad things were until Aunt Izzy went into the hospital, which was exactly the way the old woman had wanted it.

My little sheba

The words rustled through her memory like a soft benediction. How could the others know the gifts Isadora had bestowed? Paisley herself was only beginning to understand.

Aunt Izzy’s philosophy had been quite simple: money and the expectations that came with it were the two obstacles to happiness. Not all money, of course. Inherited money. And not the expectations that one had for one’s self. The expectations of others.

Isadora Vandermeir had overcome those obstacles with verve and with flair. Now it was Paisley’s turn.

“The fight with the dragons has just begun, Aunt Izzy. Thank goodness you aren’t here to see how far I’m willing to take it. I’m going to set myself free, old girl.” Paisley spoke to the empty room as she walked to the fern stand where Aunt Izzy kept her cognac. “They’re waiting for a scandal. Well, by George, they’re going to get one.” She snatched the bottle and held it up to the light. “Just as soon as I figure out how.”

As she fumbled with the wax seal, the doorbell buzzed.

“Applesauce,” she muttered, and pushed the intercom button.

“Paisley? This is Christopher Maitland.”

Her stomach fluttered. Memories of his touch were oddly disturbing, and again she felt the urge to rest her head on his broad, solid chest. But he was one of the dragons, she reminded herself, and took a deep breath to fortify herself against the attraction.

“Just a minute,” she called. She leaned down and tugged at a stocking. She supposed she’d better dress.

Chris studied the brownstone from the sidewalk. This place was certainly a far sight from the Vandermeirs’ elegant home in Gramercy Park. A distant wailing siren and a honking horn on the next block were almost drowned out by a Wagner opera pouring forth from an open window above his head. The open window—and the ear-splitting Wagner—must belong to Miss Paisley Vandermeir. He winced and steeled himself for the delicate task before him.

The expression on his grandfather’s face when he had learned of Isadora’s death still haunted him. The realization that he had inadvertently disrupted Grandfather and Isadora’s prearranged settling of old scores distressed him terribly. He had thought to avoid painful memories, not stir them up even more.

But somehow, the knowledge that his actions required remedying was not nearly as unsettling as it should be. Instead, he found himself almost pleased to again have an excuse to seek out Paisley, this intriguing wisp of a woman.

He tugged at the neck of his sweater and waited. It was certainly taking her long enough.

He glanced up to the open window just as he heard the buzzer that released the door. He opened it and stepped inside. A dusty chandelier, obviously from the brownstone’s past life as a private residence, illuminated the marble-floored foyer. To his left, two brass mailboxes were set into the dingy plastered wall and two withered palms flanked the door to the downstairs apartment. There was no name on one of the mailboxes, and the apartment held the unmistakable air of a long vacancy. Evidently, Paisley and her aunt had felt no need to rent the lower floor—or water the palms.

A faded stair runner cushioned his steps as he ascended slowly, once again attempting to devise a tactful line of questioning to discover how to get back the scarab.

He had three steps yet to climb when the door at the top of the stairs swung open and strains of Wagner blasted him. He froze with one hand on the banister, and gaped at the vision in the doorway.

From the top of her sleek black bob to the tips of her carmine-nailed toes, Paisley Vandermeir positively crackled with energy. She spread her arms wide—one hand clutched a bottle, the other a cigarette holder—and displayed a red silk Chinese robe embroidered with gold.

“Come in! Come in, darling!” she caroled.

Even wearing stiletto-heeled sandals, she lacked enough height for the robe. It dragged on the floor behind her as she preceded him into her apartment. Chris took the last few steps, feeling as if he were being sucked into her lair. She swept ahead of him and turned a knob on the stereo system. The Valkyries immediately faded to a less numbing roar. “That’s better, don’t you agree?”

As she whirled to face him, her robe gaped for a moment; a glimpse of silk-stockinged leg tantalized him before the folds settled back into place.

Only a moment and only a glimpse, yet it was enough to make him dry-mouthed. He swallowed, trying not to consider how white her upper thigh was in contrast to the black garter, how low the neck of her robe dipped without exposing even a hint of lace or silk or cotton undergarments.

“You simply can’t imagine how relieved I am to have you here,” she said with a sigh as she offered him the bottle. “Would you care for the honor?”

“Honor?” He took the bottle in his hands and read the century-old label. He tested its weight, its cool, smooth feel against his palms. “What’s the occasion?”

She waved the cigarette holder. “Aunt Izzy’s wishes.”

“An honor, indeed,” he murmured, examining the red wax seal that was miraculously intact.

“I’m so glad you understand.” She retrieved two snifters from a remarkable table that consisted of a silver tray held by a brass nymph whose most personal attributes were barely covered by clusters of crystal grapes. The table was either a collector’s dream or a decorator’s nightmare. Chris hadn’t the slightest idea which.

“I don’t particularly care for brandy,” Paisley continued. “It’s rather strong, isn’t it? Aunt Izzy tried to teach me to appreciate it, but failed dismally, I’m afraid. I swore never to touch the stuff again. But on the other hand…”

She tilted a snifter to the light coming in through the window and flicked a speck of dust from its rim.

“Never is a long, long time. Don’t you agree?” She tilted her head quizzically. “Aren’t you going to open it?”

The light silhouetted her graceful figure in the thin robe, and Chris couldn’t stop himself from staring. “Yes, yes, and yes—very carefully,” he answered, his throat suddenly tight. Thankful for the distraction of the cognac, he lowered his eyes to the bottle. Heaven only knew what scent would assault them when he broke the seal—a bouquet fit for the gods, or an acrid whiff that would wrinkle even a wino’s nose. He peeled the wax, exposing the stopper.

“Aunt Izzy said not to use a corkscrew unless it was absolutely necessary.”

“This cork is probably going to crumble anyway, but I’ll do my best.” He attempted to ease out the stopper; it held tight. He tugged a little harder; it slipped so slightly, it might have been his imagination. He braced himself to use more force—delicately.

“Oh dear.” Paisley’s hair swept over her cheeks and brushed his knuckles as she leaned over the bottle. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

“Don’t hover,” he said. “You’re making me nervous.”

“I’m sorry.” She stepped back, but when his fingers closed over the stopper, she bent close again. “Try twisting it a bit.”

“Would you rather do this yourself?” Chris asked, grateful for the twinge of irritation he felt.

“Oh, no. I wouldn’t know how.” She pointed a red nail at a hairline crack in the cork. “On second thought, you’d better not twist it.” Chris gritted his teeth and yanked. Half the cork pulled free. The other half crumbled into the bottle.

“Look what you did. You… you… “Paisley raised her eyes to him and stopped, then smiled sheepishly. “You did splendidly!” She lifted the snifters, and her smile turned to sheer dazzle.

“I hope you have a taste for this stuff,” she said as he tilted the bottle to splash a half-inch of pure gold into the glasses. “Otherwise, it’s a dreadful waste, don’t you think?”

“I definitely have a taste for it.” The bouquet had already reached his nostrils, and it held not a trace of vinegar tang. He accepted a snifter and inhaled deeply. “For the gods,” he murmured.

“For Aunt Izzy.” She lifted her snifter to his with the most delicate clink. “Wherever she may be.”

Whatever she may be wearing, Chris added silently. But the smooth warmth of aged cognac on his tongue chased all thoughts of brooches and grandfathers from his head. He closed his eyes and savored, slowly exhaling. “Magnificent,” he breathed.

“Oh, I’m so glad.”

He opened his eyes and saw her luscious lips curl into a smile as she sipped cautiously. Suddenly, her face twisted into a grimace. “It would certainly be wasted on me. Not at all my cup of tea, if you’ll excuse the comparison.”

She tilted her head back and drank the remaining liquor in two swallows. She wheezed, then giggled. “Oops.” She touched her finger to his lips. When she pulled it away, a bit of cork clung to her fingertip.

“The hazards of honor, I suppose.” She giggled again, a sound every bit as golden and lovely as the cognac.

“Do you have a decanter? I won’t be able to recork it.” Chris found himself staring at her again, at her moist lips, searching for a bit of cork, an excuse to touch them… to taste them….

“Oh, there’s no need. We’re going to drink it all.” Paisley held out her snifter. “More, please?”

Chris stared at her. “You’re kidding, aren’t you?”

“Oh, no. I really do want more.” She cocked her head beguilingly. “It really isn’t so bad once it’s numbed your tongue a bit.”

He poured a judicious amount of cognac into her glass. By the time he had his own poured, she had whirled away from him and was gliding into the dining room where a bay window overlooked a garden. She eased into a corner of the window seat and tucked her feet beneath her. One silky leg was exposed from knee to toe; he remembered knee to thigh in remarkable detail. He took a quick sip of cognac.

“Please join me.” She patted the cushion beside her.

Chris rounded the end of the art-deco dining table and sat beside her. The window was open, and a sharp breeze immediately chilled his back. He adjusted his sweater higher on his neck.

“I know it’s nippy, but there’s something so bracing about November nights and Wagner, don’t you agree?” She sipped pensively. “I needed a little bracing tonight.”

“I guess it’s just that kind of night.” But as he watched her curl a strand of hair around her finger and gaze out, an innate honesty compelled him to add, “Though things do seem to be looking up.”

“Do you feel it too? I was deep, deep into Mahler. His music is oppressive, but so suitable to my mood, you know. And then yesterday I dragged myself up to Wagner. At the rate I’m progressing, I should be into Tchaikovsky by early next week.” The wind gusted behind them, and she shivered and giggled. “It may not seem like much, but it’s progress.”

“You like music.”

“Do I?” She tilted her head thoughtfully. “Well, I suppose I never gave it much thought. Aunt Izzy always had it going. A counterpoint to her moods, you might say.” Her sable brows met in a frown. “I suppose I do. Like music, I mean. At least, I like noise. When things are too quiet, I feel… too alone.”

Again, Chris saw the glimmer of moisture in her eyes. It twisted his gut to see her fighting sadness so valiantly, only to succumb over a few bars of Wagner. “I’ll tell you what. Let’s see if we can sidestep Tchaikovsky. What else do you have?”

She gestured toward an ornate antique cabinet. “The LPs are over there. Izzy never quite trusted tapes, much less CDs.”

Chris flipped through the albums, realizing how inadequate his knowledge of music was. He had to cheer her up. He went past the tragic operas—too suicidal. Where were the Boston Pops when you needed them? Splashes of faded orange and red and pink skirts on one album jacket caught his eye.

“Let me guess. You’ve found the Strauss.” He cast a glance in her direction, noting the way she swung one leg back and forth as she sucked brandy from her fingertip. He gulped.

She tilted her head and smiled. “I’m right, aren’t I? You’re definitely the waltzy type.”

“Sure. You guessed.” He felt an impudent grin spread across his face. He snatched the album from the cabinet and slid it from its jacket.

“You know,” she said, “I’m beginning to change my mind about brandy. Aunt Izzy, as usual, is absolutely right. It’s divine. She told me that I would mature into it, into brandy, I mean. One-two-three, one-two-three.” She swayed in place. “I’m actually very good at waltzing. It’s my almost-favorite dance. Of course, I’ve never done my favorite dance.”

“Which dance is that?”

“The tango. My favorite, favorite dance in the world, and I’ve never danced the tango. So, so sad.”

The record was poised, ready to drop onto the turntable as he refilled their snifters, then leaned against the window facing. The record hit the turntable, the needle landed on its edge, and a few seconds of scratchy silence filled the room.

Then, as the first bars began, Paisley Vandermeir’s lips formed a perfect, luscious O.

“This is my most favorite dance that I’ve never done,” Chris declared. The music swelled, and he felt a tingling pleasure when Paisley’s face transformed with glee.

“The cancan?” she asked with a giggle.

A man could become addicted to those giggles, he thought as he nodded.

“I love it.” She swiveled sideways on the window seat until she was practically lying on her back.

“Careful. You’re going to spill your—”

“Ta, ta, ta-ta-ta-ta-” As she raised the snifter and cigarette holder, red silk sleeves slid down to reveal soft white arms. Unlike her Parisian counterparts, she had no need to clutch handfuls of silk to free her legs to wild abandon. Chris would be a liar if he didn’t admit that the tempting image of Paisley Vandermeir doing the cancan in a red silk kimono had not immediately occurred to him when he found the album. But the full impact of those china-doll legs slicing the air, through the slit-front robe as her laughter ran a delightful counterpart to Offenbach’s exuberant rhythms, had been impossible to predict. The enticing sight hit him with a force that left him breathless.

“Oh, jiminy.” She sighed. “You are a tonic, Christopher Maitland. Now I know exactly how Izzy felt when—” She froze, one leg stretched delectably skyward.

“When what?” he asked, dry-mouthed.

“I don’t know.” She gasped and sat up. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I don’t know what I meant, just that I—”

“Are you all right?” he asked, dropping to one knee.

“Of course. I just had a… a silly thought. Brandy makes you kind of, um, giddy. Right?”

“What kind of thought?”

Huge eyes stared up at him, black and bottomless and glowing.

“How Aunt Izzy felt when… when she snuck off to that speakeasy with Quin.” She wrenched her gaze from his and tossed her head. “That’s silly. Forget I said—”

He stopped her words with a fingertip pressed to her lips. Tracing their fullness, he murmured, “Do you really think so? Do you really think they felt like… this?”

And before she could respond, before he could think better of it, he was finding the answer to haunting questions: How did she taste, how did she feel as she melted into a man’s arms? The answer was the same.

~o0o~

Want to keep reading? It’s available at all these great online bookstores.

Book View Café      Amazon Kindle       Kobo      BN-Nook

Audible Audiobook

 Also, if you prefer independent bookstores, it should be available at any of these stores and still as easy as a download!

 

Save

Be Sociable, Share!