Sailing to Capri
By Elizabeth Adler
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2006 Elizabeth Adler
All rights reserved.
It's snowing, great white starry flakes that cling to my red hair like a tiara on a princess for all of a minute, before melting and running in icy drops down the back of my neck. My mother, who was a stickler for proper behavior for young ladies, would have said it was my own fault, I should have worn a hat to the funeral out of respect for the dead. Of course she was right, but since I don't possess a hat, at least not one suitable for a funeral, I'd decided to do without.
So now here I am, standing with a small crowd of mourners at the graveside of Robert Waldo Hardwick, modern mogul, maker and loser of several fortunes and the proud winner of a knighthood, bestowed on him by Her Majesty the Queen, making him unto eternity, I suppose, Sir Robert Hardwick.
We are outside the Gothic, gray-stone church in the village of Lower Sneadley, Yorkshire, England. It's a freezing cold April afternoon, with the wind whipping across the Pennines, chilling the blood of those of us who are still amongst the living. At least we assume we are, because by now all feeling is numbed. Even Bob's dog, a small, stocky Jack Russell crouched next to me on his lead, looks frozen into stillness. He doesn't even blink, just stares at the hole in the ground.
Shivering, my heart goes out to him, and to the poor Brontë sisters who lived in an icy parsonage in just such a village as this, not too many miles away. When I think of them on cold, candlelit nights, of their poor, chapped little mittened hands desperately scribbling down the thoughts that became their famous novels, I can only wonder at their stamina.
Looking at my small crowd of fellow mourners I know most of them are asking themselves what am I, Daisy Keane, a thirty-nine-year-old American lass, doing at the funeral of a Yorkshire tycoon? I feel their curious sideways glances but I keep my eyes steadfastly on Sir Robert's velvet-draped coffin, pretending to listen to the vicar's final thoughts and prayers. Why, I ask myself, couldn't the vicar have gotten this over with inside his almost-as-icy church? Isn't he aware there's a spring blizzard blowing and that we are all slowly freezing?
I feel the tears sliding down my cheeks. Selfishly, I'm so cold that for a moment I've forgotten why I'm here. And no, it's not for Bob's money. I'm prepared to work for my living and I've no need for handouts from the rich. Which is exactly what I told Robert Hardwick the first time I met him, though then it wasn't exactly the truth.
It was at a cocktail party, one of those society events in London where everybody knew everybody else. Except for me. I didn't know a single soul. What's more, looking around I wasn't sure I even wanted to know them. The men were Savile Row suited, hair brushed smoothly back in that British old-schoolboy way, rich and talking business so they might get even richer. And the women were older trying to look younger, dressed too sexily by Cavalli and Versace, busy gossiping about women who were not there.
Bitches, I thought, snagging a second glass of dreadful white wine and a peculiar canapé consisting of a tiny pea pod filled with what looked like brown crabmeat. Starving though I was, I sniffed it suspiciously.
"It's curry," a voice said from behind my left shoulder. "And I don't recommend it."
I swung around too fast, slopping wine down the front of one of the biggest and ugliest men I had ever met. I mopped futilely at his dark pinstriped vest with my cocktail napkin. "I'm so sorry," I said.
"I startled you, it was my fault."
"How do you know it's no good?" I asked.
He gave me one of those aw-come-on-girl looks. "I've tried 'em before, of course," he said in a deep voice that expressed his exasperation at such an inane question.
"That was pretty stupid of me," I admitted. "Put it down to the company around here. Look at them, all talking about money and sex, who's got it, and who's getting it."
His pale blue eyes under grizzled brows had a flinty glint to them. I guessed he hadn't taken to my brash American gal comments, or maybe he didn't care for redheads.
"And so why aren't you talking money?" he asked.
I shrugged. "I have enough. Not a lot, but I don't feel the need for more." I was lying, of course. I had exactly five hundred dollars to my name and no job. Which was the reason I was at this party, scouting prospects, though what a college-educated, divorced, former suburban American housewife would find here was hard even for me, ever the optimist, to imagine.
We stared silently at each other again. Then he said, "Okay, so then why aren't you talking sex?"
I gave him a cool upward glance. "Same answer."
He grinned, tight-lipped. "Are you hating this 'do' as much as I am, then?" He had an accent I couldn't place, vaguely Beatles but not the same, with flatter a's and a harsher lilt.
"You mean you noticed?"
"So exactly why are you here?"
I shrugged. "A friend gave me the invitation. He couldn't make it. I'm a gossip page editor," I lied quickly. "For the American weekly mag People Like Us. Know it?"
"Thank God, no."
I smiled, guessing he'd been the butt of gossip columnists too often for his liking. I couldn't place him, though. I was on new turf here, didn't yet know the ins and outs of Brit society, but this was a rough-and-ready, take-no-prisoners kind of guy.
"You're in the wrong place," he told me firmly in his alien accent. "The people here don't give a damn about American magazines. They live in their own tight little world. For them, everything else is second-class."
That sounded to me very much like the boy locked out of the in-group at school. I stared curiously at him. He was maybe six-five, a massive bear of a man, hefty but not paunchy or soft, in a well-cut and very rumpled suit. He was in his early sixties, I guessed, clean shaven with a craggy brow, a wide nose, thin lips, a ruddy skin, and the worst haircut I'd ever seen. His hair was a thick gray tangled mop. I was sure no barber had been near it for years and was willing to bet he cut it himself. He brought to mind the ogre at the top of Jack's beanstalk. His massive hand clutched a glass of wine and his pale frosty eyes were taking me in from my long red hair and freckled face all the way down to my pointy-toe ankle-strap stilettos. Assessing my net worth, I thought, irritated.
"I'm Bob Hardwick." He paused as though waiting for me to react. I shook his hand but kept my cool. Of course, I knew who he was: the man who'd pulled himself up by his bootstraps from brash, poor, uneducated Yorkshire lad to famous global megatycoon, but I didn't let on.
"What say you and I get out of here? I'll buy you dinner," he said abruptly.
If he was after what I thought he was after he'd gotten me wrong. I threw him the under-the-lashes skeptical glance I'd had a lot of practice throwing at men over the past year. "I don't need anyone to buy me dinner," I said.
"Fine. Then you'll pay. Come on, let's go." And he had me by the elbow and was walking me out of there before I could even react.
A steel gray Bentley was parked right out in front. To my surprise, there was no chauffeur. Instead, a dog sat in the driver's seat, a plump Jack Russell, white with a brown patch over one eye and a whiskery chin.
"This is Rats," Sir Robert said, nudging the dog to one side.
Rats came and balanced on my lap, though he was obviously not looking for affection. He ignored me, staring intently out at the passing cars as though they were rabbits he was eager to chase.
Sir Robert drove too fast, though expertly. He did not address one word to me en route, though he had plenty to say — actually snarl would be a better word — to the tangled London traffic and its drivers, none of whom, according to him, should have been allowed on the road.
"At that rate you'd have the road to yourself," I said, tired of his complaining.
"And all the better for that," he retorted smartly.
Rats wobbled on my knee as Sir Robert made a fast turn into a quiet Mayfair street. He came to an abrupt stop in front of a flower-bedecked, red-brick town house, longtime home to the famous restaurant Le Gavroche. Moving quickly for such a big man, he had the door open and handed me out before I could even blink. I thought for an ogre he was in pretty good shape.
I knew the restaurant was in the grand-dressed-up category, the sort of expensive place you go to celebrate wedding anniversaries, lovers' trysts and big business deals. I checked my outfit. It was a cool autumn night and I had on a six-year-old black leather skirt and a button-up leopard-print sweater dusted with bronze sequins. I'd clamped the thick faux-fur collar shut with a whopping citrine starburst brooch and wore dangling amber glass earrings. My heavy dark red hair was swept up at the sides, kind of forties-style, flowing straight down over my shoulders. And on my feet were the sexiest pair of back suede stilettos ever dreamed up by man for the torture of woman, laced with wide satin straps just above the ankles. Very S and M, I'd thought when I spotted their pointy toes in Bergdorf's, marked down from the astronomical to almost nothing — obviously because nobody in her right mind would possibly want to wear them. Except crazy me, fresh out of suburbia and a bad marriage. And anyhow, the price was right.
All in all, I didn't look too bad for an expensive Michelin-starred restaurant, though perhaps the sweater was a bit "flash." But there again, I was just breaking out of the suburban mold and looking for love in all the wrong places. And besides, how would I ever get a job if I didn't draw attention to myself?
With Sir Robert's hand securely under my elbow, I walked up the front steps, past the banked flowers and into a small welcoming hall. Sir Bob waited for no one, not even the maître d', who hurried after us as we climbed down a tiny staircase and swept through the crowded dining room. Again before anyone could reach us, Bob ushered me into a corner table.
The room was small, intimate, clubby, lit by silk-shaded lamps. The dark red walls were dotted with charming paintings and there were flowers everywhere. The mood was gentle and I thought that for those diners rich enough to afford this elegant country-house kind of world it must feel a bit like coming home. It suited Sir Robert Hardwick perfectly. I could tell he was an old-fashioned man. Not for him the cool décor and fusion cuisine of the latest hot-spot restaurant. He'd brought me to a place where they obviously knew him well and treated him like a king. Or at least like a powerful man with money.
"Sir Robert, good evening, and welcome back." The maître d' had finally caught up to us.
"Thank you." Obviously Sir Robert was not one for small talk. "My usual, please." He raised a questioning eyebrow at me.
I wasn't a drinker but obviously something was expected of me. I remembered all those long, lonesome evenings in front of the TV with only Sex and the City and Sarah Jessica Parker for company. "A cosmopolitan," I said. I'd never tasted one but it was a pretty pink color and Sarah Jessica always drank them.
"Make that with Grey Goose vodka," Sir Robert instructed. He turned to me. "Of course the French make the best vodka."
"Of course," I agreed, as though I knew all about such things.
Waiters hovered around us. Starched white napkins were swathed over our laps; menus were flourished; canapés — or amuses bouches as Sir Robert called them — appeared. A bottle of water arrived. I read the label. It was French. It seemed Sir Robert was a Francophile — French restaurant, French vodka, French water. All he needed was a French woman.
I watched, astonished, as he demolished his amuse bouche in one bite, then signaled for more.
"Wild mushroom tart," he told me, satisfied. "It beats those blasted pea pods with canned crabmeat in bottled curry sauce they were serving at that party. It's always the same at those dos — cheap white wine and somebody's sister who wants to get into catering rustling up a few dud eats. Christ, you could get food poisoning from that stuff. I'll bet there'll be a fair few being sick tonight! Serve 'em right," he added, unfolding his menu and studying its contents. "Never here, though," he added. "I've been coming to this place for twenty years. Can't fault 'em, lass, so choose whatever you want."
As if in answer my stomach growled loudly. I shot Sir Robert a wary glance from under my lashes, hoping he hadn't heard. I'd had a bowl of cereal for breakfast and that was twelve hours ago. Had I not met him I'd have been heading home — if my dingy bed-sitter in Bayswater could be called such — to a second bowl for dinner.
I was experiencing real poverty for the first time in my life and it was not fun. But when my husband ran out on me for another woman taking with him all the assets of our ten-year marriage, poverty suddenly stared me in the face. A lawyer, he had cleverly maneuvered our home and small investments into his own name, leaving me alone with the granite countertops and the fancy showerheads and a For Sale sign on a house that no longer belonged to me. Plus the memory of a cute blond twenty-year-old sitting next to him in "our" car as he drove away for the last time.
Which was why I'd come to London. Run away is more like the truth. I'd thought that distance would lessen the bad memories but so far my theory was not working. The pain of the past loomed as large as the poverty in my manless future.
The waiter was reciting the specials but Sir Robert waved him down. "This lass is hungry," he said throwing me a keen glance. "She'll have the lobster bisque to start and then your French chicken, roasted with veg. And bring plenty of bread and butter."
"The poulet de Bresse, of course, sir." The waiter wrote it down, seemingly unmoved by the fact that Sir Robert had arbitrarily ordered for me. Actually, so was I. Right then roast chicken sounded like some kind of heaven.
For himself, Sir Robert ordered the duck confit in pastry, then roast beef. Ah, so he was a meat and potatoes man, I thought, smiling.
"What yer smiling at, then?" he demanded.
"At the pleasure of being here," I lied quickly because I still wasn't sure about the pleasure factor.
"With me, huh?" He raised a skeptical bushy eyebrow.
I turned and looked him fully in his flinty blue eyes. I might have been putting my roast chicken in jeopardy by asking this question, but I needed to know. "Why did you pick me up at the party?" I said.
He leaned back, sipping his French vodka on the rocks, thinking. Then he said, "You had red hair. You had good legs. You were alone." He took another sip and thought some more. "And you were afraid."
Shocked, I began to protest but he brushed me aside. "Don't bother to ask me how I know that. You know it's true."
I had no answer. We stared silently at each other for a moment. I took a sip of my cosmo. I liked it.
"Anyway, how old are you?" he asked.
"I'm thirty." I crossed my fingers at the lie, though I wasn't quite sure why I'd lied. It was becoming a reflex action, as though a couple of years here and there really made any difference in this youth-scape employment world. I was actually thirty-four then and fast coming up to thirty-five.
I felt myself blush and snapped back at him. "What are you? Clairvoyant?"
He leaned his elbows on the table, hands folded together, a superior smile on his face. "Let's just say I'm a good judge of character."
I buttered a piece of bread busily, saying nothing. My lobster bisque and his duck confit arrived. Sir Robert ordered a bottle of white Bordeaux from the sommelier. We ate in silence for several long minutes. The soup was heaven.
"So what's your name?" he said finally, putting down his knife and fork.
I gaped at him, stunned. I was having dinner with a man who didn't even know my name!
"Daisy Keane," I said quickly.
"Daisy? What kind of name is that to inflict on a kid?"
"My mother had a sort of gardening mania. She named her three daughters Daisy, Lavender and Violet. It was a case of wishful thinking because our front door opened right onto a paved Chicago street. Not a meadow in sight."
The sommelier poured a little wine into Sir Robert's glass. He tasted it and approved. The glasses were filled.
"Try it," he said. So I did. It was delicious.
"Sort of like new mown grass on a summer day," I said. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Sailing to Capri by Elizabeth Adler. Copyright © 2006 Elizabeth Adler. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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