We wrote Exposures with all the care, and attention to detail that we brought to our other books. A heads-up—some of the sexy is more, well—sexy. But reading back through the book after many years has made us smile. The folks who have read it have enjoyed it, and we hope you do too.
All rights reserved copyright 1990, 2005
by Virginia DeBerry & Donna Grant writing as Marie Joyce
You can’t die! Please don’t die!” Brett Larsen pleaded in an agonized, barely audible whisper. Lenox Hill Hospital seemed light-years away from her mother’s Manhattan apartment, instead of only a few short blocks.
As the ambulance barreled through the steamy August rain, two medics worked feverishly to maintain vital signs. Brett knelt near the stretcher, holding her mother’s feet, which were now cold and tinged a sickening blue.
It makes sense now, Brett thought. Every twisted bit of it. But it wasn’t her mother’s fault. Why hadn’t she told someone? Everything could have been so different. But none of that mattered now. She had to pull through. “Mother, I love you.”
The ambulance slammed to a halt and the doors flew open, as if by themselves. Before the stretcher could be lowered to the ground, the gloomy darkness came alive with a blaze of halogen lights and the whir of motor drives.
Brett jumped to the pavement and was assaulted by a barrage of questions from zealous reporters.
Did your mother try to kill herself?”
“There are reports that your grandfather died tonight too. Can you confirm this?”
“Were you aware of the reason for the rift between your mother and her father?”
“Will you leave fashion photography to head Larsen Enterprises?”
Brett, numb to the buzz of questions, let herself be swept through the double doors of the emergency room by the swarm of security guards that surrounded her. They whisked her to an empty lounge, told her a doctor would be in as soon as there was news. Then she was alone.
Brett slumped into a cracked leather armchair, her clothes disheveled, her long dark hair damp and tangled. She drew her knees to her chest and rocked slowly back and forth, her green eyes staring into space. She hoped her fiance’ and her dear Aunt Lillian would arrive soon. She could never have survived the hell of the last week without them, and she needed them now, she realized as she fought to control the panic that threatened to engulf her.
Glancing down at her watch for what must have been the hundredth time since she had left her mother’s apartment, Brett was startled by the irony of the date. How could it be her birthday? So much had happened in twenty-six years. Somehow, her mother had always managed to upstage her on her birthday, she mused wearily as her thoughts drifted back to the party her mother had given her when she was ten.
“I got the ball over the net more times than you,” giggled Brett as she scampered into the sun-drenched solarium, plunked herself on the blue-and-white-striped chaise, and twirled her thick brunette braid like a jump rope. Rush, the aptly named two-year-old Airedale, settled on the cool tile floor next to her.
“Yeah, but I beat you running up the hill from the beach, her best friend, Lizzie Powell, retorted as she scrambled onto a wicker settee and craned her neck to watch a crew of workers hoist a huge canvas tent on the south lawn of Cox Cove. The sprawling country estate in Sands Point, on Long Island’s gold coast, had been a gift to Brett’s great-aunt, Lillian, from her husband, the late Sir Nigel Cox.
“Who’s the guy in the pink shirt?” Lizzie asked. She nearly fell over as she shifted her weight to follow his progress along the fieldstone terrace.
Brett bounded to the window for a better look. “That’s Ian Wexford. Mother says he’s a party architect.
“He’s dreamy,” Lizzie cooed.
“Dreamy!” Brett exclaimed. “He’s a jerk! Why else would he wear a scarf around his neck in August?”
“It’s called an ascot,” Lizzie instructed, with a toss of her blond ringlets. “I saw it in a movie.”
“Whatever you call it, I still think he’s weird,” Brett mumbled.
“Look at all those trucks!” Lizzie said, now mesmerized by the caravan that lined the driveway from the access road to the service entrance. “This is going to be some party!” she gushed, dazzled by all the activity.
“Yeah, I guess so, but I always feel so lost at Mother’s parties,” Brett responded quietly.
“This isn’t your mother’s party. It’s your birthday party,” Lizzie protested.
Brett sighed. She didn’t want to dampen her friend’s enthusiasm for the day, but she knew her mother.
Suddenly, Rush leaped up and trotted through the door. In a moment he reappeared, wagging what tail he had, followed by his mistress, Lillian Larsen Cox. Lillian, an artist whose land- and seascapes had been acclaimed for decades, placed her easel, canvas, and a satchel containing her paints and brushes in a corner.
“Well, I think you rascals have earned some lunch. From the look of your clothes, I’d say you’ve had an active morning.” She winked at them and smiled.
At fifty-six, Lillian was a handsome woman whose clear, azure-blue eyes reflected her warmth and spirit. Her thick blanket of blond hair was now subtly streaked with gray, and when people described her as statuesque, she jokingly took it to mean that at five feet eight inches her broad shoulders now supported a fuller figure than they used to. Lillian saw life as an extraordinary banquet, and to her, growing older meant she was finally getting to desert.
“So, who won the tennis match?”
“I think we both lost,” Brett finally managed.
“I hope you two will always weather defeat so well,” Lillian chuckled and turned to supervise the cook, who had brought their afternoon meal.
“I love the way she talks,” Lizzie whispered, admiring Lillian’s charming melange of Swedish, British, and American inflections, which never failed to impress her.
Brett nodded in agreement, her intense green eyes sparkling with affection. It was not so much how her aunt spoke as what she said that Brett loved. Lillian made more sense than any adult she knew.
Brett, Lizzie and Lillian sat at a round table laid with starched white table linen and luncheon plates dappled with hand-painted strawberries. Lizzie swung her legs, causing her chair to squeak, until Brett shot her a look that made her stop midswing. Brett wasn’t sure if she was bothered by the noise or the fact that Lizzie’s feet did not reach the floor.
Lizzie was small and delicate, as fragile as a Dresden doll, which always made Brett acutely aware of her size. Brett stood more than a head taller than her best friend and, like a puppy, had hands and feet that indicated she would be very tall indeed. Lizzie, on the other hand, felt tiny and pale by comparison and secretly wished she had Brett’s shiny dark hair and long, lean limbs.
As Lillian passed the herb dressing for the crabmeat and avocado salad, Lizzie said, “Everything looks so wonderful, Mrs. Cox. This is so exciting.” She poked Brett, who was filling a glass with lemonade. “How can you be so calm? You’ll be ten. That means you have two numbers!”
“But you have three numbers,” Brett teased, referring to Lizzie’s constant protestations that she was nine and a half.
Lizzie groaned. “You know what I mean. Do you feel almost like a teenager?” She turned to Lillian to illuminate her point. “Teenagers are so cool. My brother, David is eighteen, and he goes to college all the way in California. He can even drive. He’s driving here tonight.”
“Are you sure he’s really coming?” Brett tried not to sound too eager. Earlier that summer, David had tutored both Brett and Lizzie in math—his forte and their only problem subject at Dalton, the private school they attended. Lizzie was there on scholarship. Brett had grown very fond of David in those weeks and dreamed about having a brother like him.
“Yes, I’m sure,” Lizzie answered for what she hoped was the last time. She couldn’t figure out why Brett liked her older brother. David was okay, but not even close to dreamy.
The slam of the massive front door, followed by a torrent of commands, issued in a throaty, insistent voice, interrupted the tranquility of the afternoon. The words, at first unintelligible, became clearer as the voice, making its way through the house, seemed to bring with it the frantic energy of an approaching hurricane. Brett stiffened in her chair, waiting for her mother to appear.
“I don’t care, just do it!” Barbara snapped at one of the workers just before she reached the sunroom.
Barbara Larsen North entered with all the melodrama of an MGM contract player. “Throwing a party always gives me the most dreadful headache,” she said, putting her hand to her forehead to shade her blue eyes.
Barbara’s face, dewy from her morning facial at Elizabeth Arden, was as mercurial and expressive as a child’s. In fact, people found it hard to believe she was thirty-two. “It’s a good thing I’m here. These people would never have had everything ready by the time the guests arrived. Hello, Aunt Lillian. Brett, you and Elizabeth are positively filthy! What possessed you to come to the table dressed like that!” She walked farther into the sunroom, smoothing the folds of her orange-and-fuchsia halter dress, which revealed a figure that fashion dictated passe’, men dreamed about, and women envied. “Where’s my hello?”
Brett rose from her chair and dutifully planted a kiss on the cheek her mother offered, careful not to muss her hair. Her blond bouffant, a style that had faded from popularity a decade earlier somehow suited her.
“Hello, Mother,” Brett said cautiously, trying to gauge Barbara’s mood.
To call Barbara beautiful was insufficient. To Gaze at her, and everyone always did, brought a deep feeling of satisfaction, as though the gazer had somehow been fulfilled.
“The girls were playing all morning and I think they look perfectly fine for a casual lunch. It’s not tea with the queen,” Lillian intervened.
“You played all morning? You’ll be exhausted before your party begins,” Barbara said, exasperation evident in her voice.
Brett’s face clouded. Her party. No one would even know she was there.
“We’ll be fine for the party, Mrs. North,” Lizzie said. “In fact, we’ll go upstairs right now and rest. Come on, Brett.”
Barbara settled herself in the chaise across the room from Lillian, crossed her legs at the ankles, and dropped her handbag beside her.
Lillian lit one of the brown-papered cigarettes she had smoked for years and began, “I’d like to talk to you about this party, Barbara. Your Ian Wexford has this household in an uproar, and I see little evidence of anything for children.”
“Why, Aunt Lillian,” Barbara began sweetly, “Ian Wexford does all of the most divine parties and balls. I was thrilled to death that he agreed to do this party for Brett.” She plucked a petal from a nearby daisy and rubbed it anxiously between her thumb and forefinger.
“I know all about Mr. Wexford’s parties, Barbara, but I only agreed to the use of Cox Cove for Brett’s tenth birthday celebration,” Lillian said.
Leaning forward conspiratorially, Barbara confided, “Ten is such an important year, and you must admit that Ian’s China theme is exciting. What with President Nixon’s trip there this year, it’s all the rage. Imagine, this party will have historical significance!” The daisy petal, now a ball of mush, dropped from her fingers.
“Since when does the society page have historical significance?” Lillian snapped.
“There will be entertainment for children,” Barbara said defensively.
“Just how many children are you expecting?”
Barbara hesitated. “Oh. . .around a dozen.”
“Twelve children out of two hundred guests!” Lillian stubbed out her cigarette for emphasis.
“So many of her little friends were out of town for the summer, and twelve children is like a hundred anyway,” Barbara countered.
“Why didn’t you wait a week or so? I’m sure Brett would have understood, and more of her friends would have been home by then,” said Lillian.
“But, then it would be too late for the Feast of the August Moon,” Barbara insisted.
“I don’t care about the August Moon. I’m interested in Brett’s birthday, which somehow seems to be the last thing on your mind!” She stood and moved toward the door. “It’s too late to change anything, but I want you to know that you haven’t fooled me, and I’m not so sure you’ve fooled Brett, either.
Relieved to finally be alone, Barbara crumpled the hem of her dress, trying to suppress the irritation she felt at Lillian’s uncomfortably accurate observations. To calm herself she closed her eyes and replayed the months of shrewd maneuvering that would culminate in her triumph that evening.
The invitations—red scrolls hand lettered in gold—read, “The eighth month, the twenty-sixth day, nineteen hundred and seventy-two, six o’clock in the evening, your presence is most humbly requested at a banquet to celebrate the Feast of the August Moon and the tenth year of Miss Brett Larsen.” Each was hand delivered to recipients as far away as Palm Beach and Newport. The guest list, calculated to shock and soothe, included Wall Street barons, movie stars, social register regulars, and a guru. Barbara had called strategically selected invitees and tantalized them with choice tidbits about the festivities and the guests who had already accepted, Soon the network buzzed with anticipation. How she enjoyed the discreet calls from the overlooked, trying to wangle an invitation. August had never been the high point of the social calendar, but Barbara had engineered an event, and she knew her name would be near the top of everybody’s “in” list that fall.
Opening her eyes she reached for her purse and unearthed a rose-colored enamel pillbox, from which she shook two Valium, downing them with a swig from a glass of lemonade. “This party will be unforgettable!” she vowed and sauntered defiantly from the room.
“Come in.” Brett and Lizzie stared wide-eyed at all the paraphernalia Sergei carried into the bedroom. From the top of an enormous black leather tote they saw: a blow-dryer, curling irons, jars of gels and pomades, and cans of hair spray. He also carried what looked like a toolbox.
“It’s your turn, birthday girl,” Sergei said with an indistinguishable foreign accent. “I have just created a masterpiece for your mother, and now I shall work my magic on you.”
“Wow! You must have brought the entire first floor of Bloomingdale’s ,” Lizzie uttered in an awestruck whisper.
This might be fun, Brett thought, recalling how beautiful her mother always looked after having her hair done. She winked at Lizzie and asked, “Mr. Sergei, when you’re through with me, could you do Lizzie too?”
“Of course, my angel. Anything for you on your birthday.”
“He’s cute,” mouthed Lizzie to her friend, as Sergei worked vigorously to dry Brett’s hair. Next, he applied the gel he hoped would tame its natural waves.
“What will it look like?” Brett asked.
“It is too complicated to explain. I must concentrate,” Sergei said testily, as he looked over the array of ivory and jade combs and fresh flowers that were to be a part of his creation. “But you will look like a real China doll.”
Too complicated, she thought. She didn’t want people to stare at her hair all night.
“We studied China in school this year,” Brett said. “Did you know that traditionally, young Chinese girls wear their hair down until they’re ready to get married? I think it’s supposed to be bad luck or something if you put it up.”
“Bad luck?” Sergei asked nervously. Brett had no way of knowing, but he was extremely superstitious. “How did you say they wear their hair?”
Sergei placed a band of tiny pink-and-white flowers just behind the bangs that hid Brett’s widow’s peak. Her almost-black hair hung straight down her back and curled gently at the bottom. “You are going to be a beauty, a real beauty,” he stated with certainty as he opened his kit and selected a pot of rosy pink lip gloss. “I hope a bit of lipstick is not bad luck, too.”
Lizzie took Brett’s seat and Sergei began to fluff her blond curls into a halo.
Brett peeked at herself in her dressing table mirror. She didn’t see the girl who was too tall with gangly arms and legs, and hair that could only be controlled by braiding. Instead, she saw a pretty girl with skin that held the glow of summer sun, and whose thickly lashed emerald eyes revealed both wonder and knowing. She smiled warmly.
Sergei left quietly, muttering about bad luck.
Lizzie, pleased with her appearance, especially the lipstick, sat on the pink-and-white gingham spread that covered the hand-painted four-poster bed. She looked around the room and thought that she would never go anywhere if she had a room like this. She liked her room at home, but her parents’ modest apartment on West-Eighty-Second Street in no way compared to Cox Cove or the luxurious Fifth Avenue apartment where Brett lived with her mother and Zachary Yarrow, her mother’s current husband.
“What’s wrong?” Lizzie asked, noticing Brett’s serious expression.
“I just hope that everything goes all right tonight, and that my mother and Zachary don’t have one of their fights,” Brett replied.
“Don’t worry so much, Brett. We’re going to have a blast. Come on, let’s get dressed.”
Lizzie danced over to the closet and plucked her new yellow dotted Swiss party dress from its hanger.
Brett stepped into her emerald green silk Chinese tunic and fastened the silver frogs along the neck and shoulders. Embroidered flowers of yellow, pink, and lilac, dotted with seed pearl centers, were gathered in clusters all over the dress. “Do I look silly?” she asked, feeling insecure about the extravagant costume Barbara had bought for her.
Lizzie clamped her hands over her mouth to hold in the squeal. “You look like a Chinese princess!”
Maybe even my mother will be pleased with the way I look tonight, Brett thought.
“Before we go downstairs, I want to give you your present.” Lizzie went to her luggage and removed a gift-wrapped package.
Seconds later, Brett spritzed herself with Love’s Fresh Lemon Scent cologne.
“I’ve never had perfume before. I love it! Oh, thank you Lizzie.”
Enveloped in a citrus cloud, they descended the stairs like ladies, meeting Lillian at the bottom. As the three approached the library, they could hear Barbara’s voice.
“Why aren’t you wearing the blazer?” she admonished.
“You may feel compelled to buy me clothes, but that doesn’t mean I’m compelled to wear them,” Zachary replied.
“I ordered that jacket for tonight,” Barbara insisted.
“Dammit, Barbara, it’s navy blue wool. Do you know what the temperature is?” Zachary asked.
“You look ridiculous, and I will have nothing to do with you the rest of the night!” Barbara said just as Brett, Lizzie, and Lillian came through the library doors.
Barbara posed in the center of the room, her arms akimbo, dressed in a mandarin-collared tunic—a wash of white satin trimmed in gold piping that oozed over her lazy curves. The skirt, slit up one side from hem to mid-thigh, revealed a silky leg and delicate foot balanced on perilously high, golden sandals. Her hair was indeed a masterpiece, created by the addition of a perfectly matched, pale blond switch that Sergei had coiled and lacquered into an elaborate figure eight and adorned with a cascade of crystals, pearls, and lily of the valley that danced and twinkled like the northern lights. Barbara was a study in contrasts. She seemed bathed in an almost serene, milky light, yet her eyes flashed and her cheeks burned with high color, the result of the several Dexedrine she had washed down with a glass of Cristal.
“Wow, Mrs. North!” Lizzie said.
“Thank you, Elizabeth. I take it you approve,” Barbara said.
“May I present the guest of honor,” Lillian said, intentionally shifting the group’s attention to Brett.
“Brett! You look just like you’ve stepped from Flower Drum Song. Rogers and Hammerstein have done better, but the staging was inspired!.” Zachary said enthusiastically , rising from his seat on the sienna leather sofa.
“Thanks, honorable Zach.” Brett bowed ceremoniously, then grinning added, “you look nice, too.”
Zachary wore white cotton gabardine trousers and a khaki safari jacket—his version of dressing for a summer party. He had never been handsome, and at fifty-three he was balding, with a fringe of gray hair and a slight paunch.
Zachary and Barbara had been married two years, and Brett liked him. He always managed to make her feel important by referring to plays and other adult things, just as if she were one of his cronies from the theater. He was witty, charming, and had been the wunderkind producer of the New York stage, but lately his projects had flopped. It seemed to Brett that her mother enjoyed his failures—she almost gloated with each defeat, despite the fact that it was her
money he kept losing.
Brett felt Zachary was more like a grandfather than a father, but she had little knowledge of either. She had thought Brian North, the television star, was her father until she and Barbara had abruptly moved from California to New York four years ago. She was never allowed to see him again. When Brett asked Barbara why they left Brian or who her father really was, her inquiries were met with the same stony, “I don’t wish to discuss it, ever!” as were her questions about her grandparents.
“That dress is almost too short. Will you ever stop growing?” Barbara asked, turning her attention to her daughter. “What on earth is that awful perfume you’re wearing? I’d send you upstairs to wash it off, but there’s no time. And I hoped Sergei would do more with your hair.”
Inside, Brett stung from the harshness of her mother’s critique, but her face revealed nothing. How could she have thought she looked pretty?
Appalled at Barbara’s insensitivity, Lillian shot her a disdainful look, then remarked gently to Brett, “I have something I’d like to give you.”
“Can’t this wait?” Barbara snapped impatiently.
“No, it cannot,” Lillian said. She reached into a drawer of her enormous mahogany desk and removed a small 35-mm camera. “Happy birthday, my dear!” She placed the strap around Brett’s neck and kissed her forehead.
“Oh, Aunt Lillian! I love it! How did you know I wanted a camera?” Brett exclaimed, looking through the viewfinder to line up her first shot.
“Well, photography helped make me a better artist. I’ve spied you sketching down by the beach, and I thought it might be helpful to you.”
“Can we go now?” Barbara asked bitingly.
“In a minute.” Lillian handed Brett a tiny blue velvet jeweler’s box. “This is from your grandfather.”
“Why does he persist in this?” Barbara screeched. “He will never see her, no matter how many trinkets he sends!”
Brett placed the box back in the desk drawer. She would retrieve it later. She knew it contained a charm. It would be added to the other jeweled animals she had received annually from her grandfather since her sixth birthday. Barbara did not permit her to wear the bracelet, so she kept it hidden in her bureau.
“Barbara, his gifts do the child no harm,” Lillian said.
“Harm? What do you know about harm?” Barbara fumed.
“I don’t know what’s been going on between you and your father for the last ten years, but I do know that it is his money that supports your extravagant lifestyle.” After a tense moment, Lillian continued, “Shall we go and greet the guests?”
“Fine,” Barbara said. “You go on. Brett and I will be right in.”
Outside, a glorious amber sunset had bathed the evening in a golden light that made everything seem enchanted. Waves of luxurious stretch limousines and sleek sedans had deposited their shiny passengers at the stately Georgian mansion that was the heart of Cox Cove.
The pop of champagne corks and the ring of laughter was accompanied by the gentle rhythms of the Victor Parish Orchestra, whose dashing leader conducted the group from his perch at a gleaming white baby grand piano.
Anticipation had kissed the crown as they hovered near the huge swimming pool, which twinkled with hundreds of floating candles shaped like lily pads. And they were fully aroused and ready as the torchbearers led them past the force-bloomed cherry trees that ringed the great lawn, where a muster of peacocks strutted, occasionally flaring their iridescent plumes. They proceeded down the jasmine-bordered red-velvet aisle and into the evening’s banquet site, an enormous open-sided tent that resembled a pagoda. Gold silk streamers dangled from its sides, flickering in the gentle breeze, and a brilliant gilt finish made the roof gleam like a crown in the evening sun. An octet sporting traditional Chinese braids, and wearing red smocks gracefully trimmed in black, played lilting melodies while everyone awaited the guests of honor.
Finally, Lillian, Zachary, and Lizzie entered the tent and made their way through the maze of red-damask-covered tables. Each was centered with plump, double-finned goldfish, swimming languidly in wide glass orbs topped with pale pink lotus blossoms that delicately scented the air.
The tension of the past half-hour had taken its toll on Lizzie, who was so relieved to see David that she broke into a run and threw her arms around her brother in a bear hug. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she said breathlessly.
“Whoa, Inchworm! What did I do to deserve a hug like that?” David asked, his brown eyes twinkling playfully.
“Oh, David, it was awful. You should have heard what Mrs. North said to Brett. And don’t call me Inchworm,” Lizzie said, quickly reverting to her customary sibling behavior.
“What was awful?” David asked.
Before she could respond, a gong sounded and the octet, which had been serenading the guests, launched into a fanfare fit for a coronation march. Brett and Barbara, seated on the hand-embroidered cushion of a jinrickshaw, appeared. Oohs and aahs erupted into applause, which pleased Barbara and embarrassed Brett. Barbara waved as her bright blue eyes darted around to gauge the amount of attention she received. Her radar was infallible; she always knew when it was necessary to burn a little brighter.
Brett, mortified at being so conspicuous, took refuge behind her camera and began to snap pictures.
“Put that down!” Barbara hissed. “No one can see you!”
I know, Brett thought as she reluctantly placed the camera in her lap.
The sight of Barbara caused Zachary’s earlier hostility to melt away. It was replaced by that feeling of apprehension and jealousy that was so often his companion when in her presence. Barbara was a drug, self-prescribed to ward off advancing middle age and failure. Zachary was hopelessly addicted. He ached for this breathtaking young women, but he knew that to show it invited her scorn.
“Thou art most fair indeed.” Zachary doffed an imaginary hat as he helped Barbara alight from the rickshaw. “But isn’t that dress a little tight!”
“Oh, Zachary, don’t be such an old fuddy-duddy,” Barbara responded, knowing that the reference to his age would keep Zachary at bay for the rest of the night.
David saw Brett, standing in the rickshaw, awkward and forgotten, and rushed to her aid. At 6’2” he easily lifted her down and kissed her cheek. “Happy birthday, Brett! I’m sorry I don’t have a present.”
“That’s okay.” Brett blushed as she tried to refrain from stroking the cheek he had kissed.
“Thanks for helping me down.”
“It was nice of you to invite me.” David had been touched when he had received his invitation, but had not planned to attend until he had heard how lavish an affair it would be. Through the years, David had heard about the cavernous apartment, the maids and limousines, that were a routine part of Brett’s life, but he had never witnessed them firsthand. His curiosity about the rich had changed his mind.
“Everything is so beautiful! What’s it like to ride in a rickshaw?” Lizzie asked.
Brett took her place next to Lizzie. “Okay, I guess.” She wanted to forget it had happened.
“It looked really neat. And look at my brother, Mr. Wizmo with the mustache. The last time I saw him in a suit, Mom and Dad made him wear it to graduation,” Lizzie teased.
David had grown a mustache because it made him feel as old as his classmates, who were often two or three years his senior. Although only eighteen, he was about to start his junior year at Stanford, where he was the prodigy of the computer science department.
David was handsome in this tan summer suit, blue shirt, and Stanford tie, with its cardinal insignia. His hair grazed his shoulders and was curly like Lizzie’s but a rich, shiny brown.
“That’s a pretty fancy camera,” David said, ignoring his sister’s remarks.
“I just got it for my birthday,” Brett said proudly. “Can I take your picture!” She focused carefully, already comfortable behind the lens.
Across the room, Barbara assumed her coveted spot next to Avery Thornton, society editor of NOW, the bible of the social set. Avery, a pudgy little man of indeterminate years, was one of the most powerful men in New York. With a stroke of his pen, hostesses rose or fell from favor. He was either a valuable ally or a formidable opponent, and the ranks of those he had exiled to social Siberia was legion.
“Avery, darling, how are you?” Barbara asked sweetly, delivering the obligatory double-miss kiss. “And they said it couldn’t be done,” she added triumphantly.
A year ago, Avery had declared in NOW that there was no summer social season in New York, and insisted that no one could throw a major party during July or August. Barbara saw Avery’s statement as a gauntlet laid down and accepted the challenge. She hired Ian Wexford to champion her cause and spent seven months planning the party of the summer season. Avery bet her a case of vintage Chateau Lafite Rothschild and prime coverage in NOW for a year that she could never pull it off.
Every moment of the banquet had been meticulously planned to include food, games, and entertainment. In authentic Chinese tradition, each of the nine courses presented a new and different taste sensation, ranging from mild and sweet to hot and spicy, the order carefully arranged to surprise the palate by Woo, the owner of the posh Manhattan restaurant that bore his name.
No detail had been overlooked and Barbara reveled in her soon-to-be-proclaimed victory. By the fourth course, eager to bask in kudos and compliments from her guests, she began circulating. Her white-sheathed figure drew either admiring glances or jealous snipes, but never went unnoticed.
As a troupe of acrobats in brightly colored costumes tumbled and cartwheeled down the aisle, Zachary anxiously watched his wife’s every move.
Barbara reached a table engaged in a heated debate about the arrests at the Watergate. Sidling up to a young man ably defending his point, she interjected, “Frankly, I believe Martha Mitchell.”
He pushed back his chair, gazing up at her with smoky blue eyes. “Mrs. North, you look very beautiful tonight.”
“Thank you, kind sir,” Barbara replied, and curtsied as much as her dress would allow. “How are, or should I say, where are your parents?”
“They’re still skiing in the Andes. Mother will be distressed when she hears what she’s missed. I hope you don’t mind my coming tonight,” he said.
One of the guests left the table and Barbara slipped into the temporarily vacant seat next to his. She crossed her legs, exhibiting a generous glimpse of thigh. “Of course I don’t mind, but I’m sure a handsome young man like you has much more exciting things to do on a Saturday night,” she said coyly as the Watergate discussion buzzed around them.
“I can’t think of a thing I’d rather be doing. Well, maybe just one.” His full-lipped smile invited mischief as he pushed back the lock of blond hair that dangled across his forehead.
“Only one?” asked Barbara seductively, realizing the game was on.
Barbara and Carson Gallagher had been having an affair since June.
Carson’s lean, well-muscled body was the result of four years of crew and soccer at Harvard. He had graduated in May, and his position in his family’s banking empire was waiting to be claimed, but Carson wasn’t ready. This was going to be a year devoted to extracurricular activities, and Barbara was the first.
“Carson, you’ve barely touched a thing on your plate,” Barbara teased.
“I’m afraid I can’t get the hang of these chopsticks,” he replied.
Barbara picked up a morsel of eight jeweled stuffed duck with her fingers and held it up to Carson’s lips. “Sometimes the simplest way is best.”
He looked directly into her eyes and accepted the offered tidbit, deliberately licking her fingertips as he took it into his mouth.
Having witnessed every moment of this performance, Zachary appeared and placed his hands possessively on Barbara’s shoulders.
Without missing a beat, Barbara said, “Darling, have you met Carson Gallagher? Carson, this is my husband, Zachary Yarrow.”
“Swell party, sir,” said Carson, offering his hand.
Completely ignoring him, Zachary said stiffly “Barbara, the Stuarts have been asking for you.
“Claudia does require so much attention,” she said as she rose to follow Zachary. “You will be staying for the fireworks, won’t you Carson?” she asked with a gleam in her eye.
“I wouldn’t miss them,” Carson replied.
“Good.” Barbara sashayed across the room.
Platters of Moon cakes, sweet black beans, and salted duck egg yolks—the good luck foods for the Feast of the August Moon—were placed on each table. Then the lights dimmed, the band played “Happy Birthday,” and four waiters carried in an enormous cake in the shape of a butterfly, ablaze with sparklers. Cymbals crashed and in danced a gigantic, multicolored dragon, the benevolent beast of Chinese folklore, who led the guests down to the waterfront for fireworks.
For thirty minutes the night sky was exalted with comets, pin-wheels, and starbursts that could be seen for miles, then disappeared silently into the sea.
Lillian stepped up behind Brett, who was watching the spectacle with David and Lizzie.” Are you enjoying yourself, child?”
“This is the best part,” Brett said enthusiastically.
“Why don’t we go inside for some cake?” Lillian suggested.
“I think I’ll stay out here a while longer,” David said. Intrigued by all the people and activity, he headed over to the pool, where it seemed the party was just beginning.
In the living room, over cake and milk, the girls excitedly relived the evening’s events.
* * *
Barbara had no trouble convincing Carson to slip away with her for a moonlit walk on the beach. He was six feet of young, handsome, virile, pleasure-seeking temptation, and Barbara could no more resist temptation than she could a challenge.
At the bottom of the stairs that led to the beach, Barbara sat down. “I have to take these sandals off.”
Carson knelt in the sand and removed her delicate golden shoes. He let his strong, hot hand glide up her calf, and when he reached her milky thigh, he placed a long, slow kiss where the slit of her dress strained to open. Barbara made a low, throaty moan.
“I’ve wanted to do that all night,” he said huskily.
Before Barbara could say a word, he lifted her to her feet, surrounding her in a powerful embrace. He pressed her round, gentle curves against his rippling muscles until there was no air between them. They kissed hungrily, his tongue exploring the deepest recesses of her mouth, his hands in constant motion kneading her shoulders, her arms, her back. The insistence of his growing hardness ignited her, but before she succumbed completely to the burning between her legs, she pulled away. “Let’s walk farther down the beach. I know a place.”
When they passed the dunes, where a great outcropping of rock eclipsed the light of the moon and cast a shadow on the sand, she stopped. Carson came up behind her and nibbled her neck as he unfastened the clasps of her gown. Barbara closed her eyes, leaned against him, and let the pleasure envelop her. She pressed her palms against his thighs and moved them in leisurely circles, edging closer to his pulsing penis. Carson cupped her now bare breasts, massaging her stiff nipples with his thumbs. He slid a hand down her hip and through the slit that had tormented him so all night. Easing his fingers under the filmy silk fabric of her panties, he stroked the hard, swollen nub of her pleasure.
* * *
Lillian tapped Brett lightly, interrupting her conversation, and pointed to the corner of the blue velvet sofa, where Lizzie had fallen asleep. Brett giggled, whispering. “She’s always like that. One minute she’s talking and then she’s asleep.”
“I think I’ll take little Miss Powell up to bed. Why don’t you come up, too, and I’ll tuck you both in,” Lillian said lovingly.
“Can I go out for a little while longer? I have a few pictures left and I’d like to take them.”
“All right, but not too much longer,” Lillian replied.
Brett grabbed her camera and trotted outside, where she ran into Zachary on the terrace.
“Can I take your . . . “
He brushed past as though he hadn’t seen her and went inside.
Brett hiked up her dress the best she could and made her way across the lawn toward the beach. She knew the perfect place for her last few shots. Turtleback Rock was her favorite spot for watching the tide, sorting shells, and trying to make sense of the world. As she neared the outcropping of rock, she heard what sounded like a muffled gasp and stopped. For a moment there was only the lapping of water and traces of the music still being played by the orchestra. Then she heard rustling and a groan. She crept closer, and when the shadowed area underneath the rock was in full view, she saw her mother’s back. At first, because Barbara was on her knees, Brett thought she may have been injured. But before she moved to help, she saw a man’s legs, and she knew they weren’t Zachary’s.
Brett slowly backed away, but before she could leave, Zachary ran past her. “How dare you!” he raved.
Barbara sprang to her feet, clutching her dress to hide her nakedness.
“Zachary, let me explain . . . “
“Explain what? That you sleep with men behind my back! I know that already!”
Zachary’s voice came in gasps. “I love you! I need you, and you know it! You make me suffer for it!”
“You have to calm down,” Carson intervened.
“Why? So you two can pat me on the head and laugh at the spineless old eunuch when I leave!”
“Zachary, listen,” Barbara pleaded.
“No! No, you’ll never laugh at me again!” Zachary drew the .32 automatic he had taken from the gun case in the house. Five crisp, hollow snaps slowly and deliberately punctuated the air, followed by a thick quiet that seemed to stop time.
“No!” Brett’s wail echoed through the night air.
Barbara collapsed in a dead faint and Carson’s lifeless body, legs splayed, lay on the cold sand.
Zachary let the empty gun fall from his hand. “I’m not going to hurt anyone else,” he muttered.
Brett raced across the sand, stumbling, falling, tearing her gown. Sobbing, she mounted the stairs and ran into the throng gathered there. Hands grabbed at her, voices called her name, but Brett, seeing only Carson’s body through her tears, plowed wildly into the crowd.
“Brett! What’s the matter?” David grabbed her. She flailed, kicked, and screamed, until she realized it was David. Then her body went limp and she cried hysterically. “It’s all right. It’s all right,” he repeated as he carried her into the house.