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The weather was magnificent. A clear blue sunny day, with sharply etched white clouds in the sky. The perfect Indian summer. And so hot. The heat made everything slow and sensual. And it was so totally unlike San Francisco. That was the best part. Ian sat at a small pink marble table, his usual seat, in a patch of sunlight at Enrico's restaurant on Broadway. The traffic whizzed by while lunch-hour couples strolled. The heat felt delicious.
Under the table, Ian swung one long leg easily over the other. Three daisies bobbed in a glass, and the bread was fresh and soft to the touch. The almost too-thin, graceful fingers tore one slice of bread carefully away from the others. Two young girls watched him and giggled. He wasn't "cute," he was sexy. Even they knew it. And beautiful. Handsome. Elegant. He had class. Tall, thin, blond. blue-eyed, with high cheekbones and endless legs, hands that one noticed, a face one hated to stop looking at...a body one watched. Ian Clarke was a beautiful man. And he knew it, in an offhand sort of way. He knew it. His wife knew it. So what? She was beautiful too. It wasn't something they really cared about. But other people did. Other people loved to watch them, in that hungry way one stares at exceptionally good-looking people, wanting to know what they're saying, where they're going, who they know, what they eat...as though some of it might rub off. It never does. One has to be born with it. Or spend a great deal of money to fake it. Ian didn't fake it. He had it.
The woman in the large natural straw hat and pink dress had noticed it too. She stared at him through the mesh of the straw. She watched his hands with the bread, his mouth as he drank. She could even see the blond hair on his arms as he rolled up his sleeves in the sun. She was several tables away, but she saw. Just as she had seen him there before. But he never saw her. Why would he? She saw everything, and then she stopped watching. Ian didn't know she was alive. He was busy with the rest of the view.
Life was incredibly good. Ripe and golden and easy. His for the plucking. He had worked on the third chapter of his novel all morning, and now the characters were coming to life, just like the people wandering along Broadway...strolling, laughing playing games. His characters were already that real to him. He knew them intimately. He was their father, their creator, their friend. And they were his friends. It was such a good feeling, starting a book. It populated his life. All those new faces, new heads. He could feel them in his hands as he rat-tat-tapped on the typewriter keys. Even the keyboard felt good to his touch.
He had it all, a city he loved, a new novel at last, and a wife he still laughed and played with and loved making love to. Seven years and everything about her still felt good to him: her laughter, her smile, the look in her eyes, the way she sat naked in his studio, perched in the old wicker rocking chair, drinking root beer and reading his work. Everything felt good, and better now, with the novel beginning to blossom. It was a magical day. And Jessie was coming home. It had been a productive three weeks, but he was suddenly lonely and horny as hell...Jessie.
Ian closed his eyes and blotted out the sounds of traffic drifting by...Jessie...of the graceful legs, the blond hair like fine satin, the green eyes with gold specks...eating peanut butter and apricot jam on raisin bread at two in the morning, asking him what he thought of the spring line for her shop..."I mean honestly, Ian, tell me the truth, do you hate the spring things, or are they okay? From a man's point of view...be honest..." As though it really mattered, from a man's point of view. Those big green eyes searching his face as though asking him if she were okay, if he loved her, if...he did.
Sipping his gin and tonic, he thought of her, and felt indebted to her again. It gave him a tiny pinched feeling somewhere in the pit of his stomach. But that was part of it: he did owe her a lot. She had weathered a lot. Teaching jobs that had paid him a pittance, substitute teaching that had paid less, a job in a bookstore, which she had hated because she felt it demeaned him. So he had quit. He had even had a brief fling with journalism, after his first novel had bombed. And then her inheritance had solved so many of their problems. Theirs, but not necessarily his.
"You know, Mrs. Clarke, one of these days you're going to get sick and tired of being married to a starving writer." He had watched her face intently as she'd shaken her head and smiled in the sunlight of a summer day three years before...
"You don't look like you're starving to me." She patted his stomach, and then kissed him gently on the lips. "I love you, Ian."
"You must be crazy. But I love you too." It had been a rough summer for him. He hadn't made a dime in eight months. But Jessie had her money, of course. Dammit.
"Why am I crazy? Because I respect your work? Because I think you're a good husband, even if you're not working on Madison Avenue anymore? So what, Ian? Who gives a damn about Madison Avenue? Do you? Do you miss it so much, or are you just going to use it to torment yourself for the rest of your life? There was a faint tinge of bitterness in her voice, mixed with anger. "Why can't you just enjoy what you are?"
"And what's that?"
"A writer. And a good one."
"The critics 'says,' that's who says."
"My royalties don't says."
"Fuck your royalties." She looked so serious that he had to laugh.
"I'd have a tough time trying--they're not big enough to tickle, let alone fuck."
"Oh, shut up...creep...sometimes you make me so mad." A smile began to warm her face again and he leaned over and kissed her. She ran a finger slowly up the inside of his thigh, watching him with that quiet smile of hers, and he tingled all over...
He still remembered it. Perfectly.
"Evil woman, I adore you. Come on, let's go home." They had left the beach hand in hand, like two kids, sharing their own private smile. They hadn't even waited until they'd gotten home. A few miles later, Ian had spotted a narrow creek a little distance from the road, and they had parked there and made love under the trees, near the creek, with the summer sounds all around them. He still remembered lying on the soft earth with her afterward, wearing only their shirts and letting their toes play with the pebbles and grass. He still remembered thinking that he would never quite understand what bound her to him...why? And what bound him to her? The questions one never asks of marriage...why, for your money, darling, why else? No one in his right mind ever asked those questions. But sometimes he was so tempted to. He sometimes feared that what bound him to her was her faith in his writing. He didn't want to think it was that, but that was certainly part of it.
All those nights of argument and coffee and wine in his studio. She was always so goddam sure. When he needed her to be. That was the best part.
"I know you'll make it, Ian. That's all. I just know you will." So goddam sure. That's why she had made him quit his job on Madison Avenue, because she was so sure. Or was it because she'd wanted to make him dependent on her? Sometimes he wondered about that too.
"But how do you know, dammit? How can you possibly know I'll make it? It's a dream, Jessie. A fantasy. The great American novel. Do you know how many absolute zeroes are out there writing crap, thinking 'this is it'?"
"Who gives a damn? That's not you."
"Maybe it is." She had thrown a glass of wine at him once when he'd said that, and it made him laugh. They had wound up making love on the fur rug while he dripped wine from his chin to her breasts and they laughed together.
It was all part of why he had to write a good one now. Had to. For her. For himself. He had to this time. Six years of writing had produced one disastrous novel and one beautiful book of fables that the critics had hailed as a classic. It had sold less than seven hundred copies. The novel hadn't even done that "well." But this one was going to be different. He knew it. It was his brainchild against hers, Lady J.
Lady J was Jessie's boutique. And Jessie had made it a smash. The right touches, the right flair, the right line at the right time. She was one of those people who cast a spell on whatever they touch. A candle, a scarf, a jewel, a flash of color, a hint of a smile, a glow of warmth, a dash of pizzazz, a dollop of style. A barrel of style. Jessie had been born with it. She oozed it. Stark naked and with her eyes closed, she had style.
Like the way she flew into his studio at lunchtime, her blond mane flying, a smile in her eyes, a kiss on his neck, and suddenly one fabulous salmon rose dropped across his papers. One perfect rose, or one brilliant yellow tulip in a crystal vase next to his coffee cup, a few slices of prosciutto, some cantaloupe, a thin sliver of Brie...The New York Times...or Le Figaro. She just had it. A gift for transforming everything she touched into something more, something better.
Thinking of her made Ian smile again as he watched the people at the other tables. If Jessie had been there she would have worn something faintly outrageous, a sundress that exposed her back by covered her arms, or something totally covered up but with a slit that gave passersby just the quickest flash of leg, or an unbearably beautiful hat that would only allow them to catch a glimpse of one striking green eye, while the other flirted, then hid. Thinking of her like that drew his attention to the woman in the straw hat a few tables away. He hadn't seen her before. And he thought she was definitely worth seeing. On a hot, sunny afternoon, with two gin and tonics under his belt. He could barely see her face. Only the point of her chin.
She had slender arms and pretty hands with no rings. He watched her sip something frothy through a straw. He felt a familiar stirring as he thought of his wife and watched the girl in the hat. It was a damn shame Jessie wasn't home. It was a day to go to the beach, and swim, and sweat, and get covered with sand, and rub your hands all over each other, oozing suntan oil. The way the woman in the straw hat moved her mouth on the straw in her drink bothered him. It made him want Jessie. Now.
His cannelloni arrived, but it had been a poor choice. Too creamy, too hot, and too much. He should have ordered a salad. And he was loath to order coffee after his few bites of lunch. It was too easy a day to be hard on yourself. It was so much easier just to let yourself go, or your mind, at least. That was harmless. He was having a good time. He always did at Enrico's. He could relax there, watch strangers, meet writers he knew, and admire the women.
For no reason in particular, he let the waiter bring him a third drink. He rarely drank anything other than white wine, but the gin was cool and pleasant. And a third drink wouldn't kill him. There was something about hot days in a usually cool climate...you went a bit mad.
The crowd at Enrico's ebbed and flowed, crowding the sidewalk for tables, shunning the red booths indoors. Businessmen freed their necks of ties, models preened, artists scribbled, street musicians played, poets joked. Even the traffic noises were dimmed by the music and the voices. It reminded him of the last day of school. And the topless bars were silent on either side of the restaurant, their neon doused until nightfall. This was much better than neon. It was real. It was young and alive and had the spice of a game.
The girl in the hat never revealed her face as Ian left, but she watched him, and then silently shrugged, and signaled for the check. She could always come back, and maybe...what the hell...
Ian was thinking of her on his way to the car, slightly tipsy but not so much that it showed. He was dreaming up verses to "Ode to a Faceless Beauty." He laughed to himself as he slid behind the wheel of Jessie's car, wishing he were sliding into Jessie. He was unbearably horny.
He was driving Jessie's little red Morgan. And thoroughly enjoying it. It had been a damn handsome gift, he reflected, as he pulled out the choke. A damn handsome gift. For a damn handsome woman. He had bought it for her with his advance for the fables. The whole check for the car. Madness. But she had adored it. And he adored her.
He swung back onto Broadway and stopped at a light, passing Enrico's again on his way home, just as a whisper of pink brushed at his right eye. The hat swirled on one finger now as her face looked up toward the sky, her behind undulating freely as she walked in high-heeled white sandals. The pink dress tugged at her hips, but not blatantly, and her red hair framed her face in loose curls. She looked pretty in pink, and so goddam sexy. So round and so ripe and so young...twenty-two?...twenty-three? He felt the same hunger again in his loins as he watched her. Her copper hair reflected the sun. He wanted to touch it. To tear the hat from her hand and run away to see if she'd follow him. He wanted to play, and he had no one to play with.
He drove slowly past her, and she looked up, and then her face flushed and she looked away, as though she hadn't expected to see him again and now it changed everything. She turned her head and looked at him again, the surprise replaced by a slow smile and a barely visible shrug. Destiny. Today had been the day after all. She had dressed for it. And now she was glad. She seemed unwilling to go, under the heat of his gaze. He hadn't driven on. He simply sat there, while she stood at the corner and watched him. She was not as young as he'd thought. Twenty-six...twenty-seven? But still fresh. Fresh enough, after three gin and tonics and not a great deal of food.
Her eyes searched his face, clawing a little, but carefully, and then, as he watched, she approached, showing the full bosom in sharp contrast to the girlish shape of her arms.
"Do I know you?" She stood holding her hat, one ankle suddenly crossing the other; it made her hipbones jut forward, and Ian's trousers were instantly too tight.
"No. I don't think so."
"You've been staring."
"Yes...I'm sorry. I...I liked your hat. I noticed it at lunch." Her face eased and he returned her smile, disappointed, though. She was older than Jessie, perhaps even a year or two older than he. Made up to look exquisite at a thirty-foot distance, at twenty feet the illusion was shattered. And the red hair showed a thin line of black roots. But he had been staring, she was right.
"I'm really awfully sorry. Do you need a lift?" Why not? She couldn't be headed far off his path; probably to an office a few blocks away.
"Yeah, sure. Thanks. It's too hot to walk." She smiled again, and struggled with the handle on the door. Ian released it for her from within, and she pounced onto the seat, displaying a comforting amount of cleavage.
From the Paperback edition.