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New York in November was a dreary damn place to come home to, or so it seemed to Richard Parker-Harris as he paid off a taxi in front of his grandmother's Gramercy Park mansion and gazed up at the dirty snow crusted on the iron grillwork.
Though he doubted he'd find any part of himself still lurking in the bric-a-brac-crammed house, Richard had no place else to go, and so he mounted the front steps with his suitcase. With any luck, his grandmother wouldn't ask about Alfreda. If she'd had her first highball of the day, she might not even remember he had a fiancée.
Ex-fiancée now, Richard reminded himself, as he rang the bell. He wasn't sure what he'd do if his grandmother asked about Alfreda. Go to the Y maybe, or join the merchant marine and get a tattoo. The only thing he knew he wouldn't do was cry. He couldn't remember ever having cried, not once in his whole miserable life.
The door opened and there stood Devlin in his white jacket, shiny black trousers and bow tie. Richard nearly dropped his suitcase. His grandmother's butler looked as though he'd aged twenty years in the past eight.
"Hello, Devlin," he said.
The manservant blinked, then smiled, his face creasing like a piece of old parchment. "Master Richard! What a surprise! Come in, come in do."
Richard stepped past him and put his suitcase down on the terrazzo floor in the foyer. The mahogany paneling on the walls smelled like beeswax; the thick, green wool runner on the steps like mothballs.
"Where is she?" Richard asked, surprised to hear himself whisper. His grandmother was the only person allowed to raise her voice in the house. Old habits, he thought ruefully, were hard tobreak.
"Mrs. Barton-Forbes is not at home." Devlin fastened the last of several locks on the door and gave him a wink. "She and your great-aunt Agatha have gone to Lost Wages."
His grandmother's absence drew a relieved laugh from Richard as he shrugged out of his topcoat and handed it over. It was heavy camel hair, and for a moment Richard feared the weight might stagger the old boy, but Devlin managed to wrestle it onto a hanger and tuck it inside the closet beneath the stairs.
"If you'd like to call Madam," he said, as he shut the door, "I have the number of her hotel."
"Let's not spoil her fun," Richard replied. "When do you expect her?"
Devlin gave him a knowing smile as he turned away from the closet. "Madam asked me to meet her with the car at La Guardia at two o'clock on the twenty-fifth. That's three days from now."
Richard smiled back at him. "So it is."
"Your room is ready for you, sir." Devlin's knees cracked as he bent over to pick up the monogrammed leather Pullman. "It always is. Madam insists."
"I know." Richard moved swiftly to intercept him and pick up the case himself. "Is Cook still, uh--"
"Alive?" A dull twinkle lit the old man's cloudy blue eyes. "Yes, sir. Dinner at seven?"
He has cataracts, Richard realized. Devlin has cataracts and still drives the Rolls. Did his grandmother know? Did she even care?
"Seven would be fine. I can find my way up."
"As you wish." Devlin nodded, then added when he reached the landing, "Welcome home, sir."
Gripping the banister in his left hand, Richard looked down at the frail old man who'd taught him how to tie his shoes.
"Thank you, Devlin. It's good to be home," he said, and hurried up the rest of the steps.
He couldn't stay here. Richard knew it before he opened his bedroom door, but the sight of the bed, the spread folded back and the crisp sheets turned down expectantly, clinched it. The last thing his grandmother always said to him whenever he left the Gramercy Park house with a suitcase was, "I'll keep your room ready."
When he'd left for London eight years ago, she'd shrieked it at him as he'd raced out the front door toward the taxi waiting to take him to the airport. He'd sworn to God he'd never come back, yet here he was. It dawned on Richard then that he'd let his grandmother's parting shot hang over him like a curse, dooming him to failure before he even reached the curb.
When things got sticky with his father at Foxglove, Richard Senior's Virginia horse farm, or when he couldn't bear another moment of his mother's indifference during his infrequent visits with her before he'd moved to England, he'd remember his grandmother was keeping his room ready and back he'd come. The question was why the hell it had taken him twenty-nine years to realize it. Maybe he should have a drink and think about it.
Richard knew where his grandmother stashed all her bottles, but went first to the kitchen for ginger ale and ice and a kiss from Cook. She didn't look any older, and Richard felt relieved. If he'd found Cook clumping around the pantry with a walker he might've skipped the Canadian Mist and gone straight to the cooking sherry. Or Bellevue.
In the library, Richard ferreted out the fifth his grandmother kept behind leather-bound volumes of Tom Jones and Paradise Lost. He'd found his first bottle and his first hangover on the same shelf when he was twelve. So predictable, his Gram.
He mixed himself a highball and downed it in two swallows. It was the first drink he'd had since Alfreda had given his ring back the day before, the umpteenth since he'd found her the day before that, naked and panting, under Phillip Quigley, Viscount Avenel, in one of the horse barns on her father's Surrey estate.
The house party convened by the Earl of Avery to celebrate his daughter's engagement had included Richard's stepfather Sir Freddie, his mother--Lady Simpson since her marriage to Alfreda's second cousin--and at least two dozen other veddy wealthy and veddy proper Britons in addition to Quigley, Richard's nearest rival for Alfreda. None of them had noticed his departure. For all he knew or cared, they were still celebrating Alfreda's engagement. To Quigley now, he was certain.
The barn had been the perfect trysting place, since Alfreda knew Richard hated horses. He'd pretended to tolerate them for her sake, but she'd tumbled when he'd blanched at her suggestion months ago that they make love in her chestnut mare's stall.
"There's plenty of room, darling," she'd cooed with glistening eyes. "It's quite a large box. Serena won't even know we're there."
She'd been right about that. The mare had stood docilely in one corner, eyes closed, tail swishing, contentedly chewing bran mash from a nosebag. Richard had stood stricken in the corridor, invisible to horse, man and bitch. Then he'd taken himself up to Lord Avery's Elizabethan manor house and drunk himself silly.
Now he was drinking himself silly in his grandmother's house. What a difference a day made. Maybe he should hop a plane for Vegas. He needed a laugh, and he couldn't think of anything funnier than his grandmother and Aunt Agie at the crap tables.
No, Vegas was a lousy idea. His sinuses were going berserk from eight hours of recycled airplane air, and he shuddered to think of the hot, dry winds that scour the Strip. Richard rubbed his nose and felt the bump there, where Susan Cade, his stepsister Meredith's troglodyte cousin, had broken it with her riding crop some fifteen years ago and decided to have another drink instead.
Four hours and twice as many highballs later, he was sprawled on the leather sofa, his right arm flung over his forehead, the empty Canadian Mist bottle on the floor beside him. Every time he blinked the room swam. At last--he'd drunk himself blind.
Richard stifling a grin that was mostly yawn and raised his left hand to his eyes. He had a headache and his contacts were killing him. He pressed his thumb and forefinger to his closed lids and froze. His lashes were wet. Heart pounding, he lurched off the couch to the mirror over the fireplace and stared, openmouthed, at the tears brimming in his brown eyes. Were they watering or was he crying?
He'd been thinking about something ... what was it? Richard bent an elbow on the mantel, dragged a shaky hand through his tousled blond hair and tried to remember. Wasn't this a bitch? He was crying and he was too drunk to think what it was that had moved him to tears. It wasn't fair. Everybody else in the world cried. Even Alfreda when she'd given back his ring. Why couldn't he?
He thought about his trust fund, most of which he'd pissed away on Lady Alfreda Take-Me-In-A-Horse-Stall-And-I'll-Be-Yours-Forever Simpson. Two hundred grand and six years' salary, every dime he'd earned since he'd graduated from architectural school. Jewelry, clothes, cars, thirty thousand pounds for Serena, the chestnut voyeur. It was enough to make anybody cry, but it only made Richard's tears evaporate, made him realize that he hadn't taken the blow in the heart. He'd taken it squarely in the ego.
The realization hit him like a slap of cold water and cleared some of the whiskey fog clouding his brain. He hadn't been pursuing Alfreda so much as he'd been seeking his father's approval. Since he'd announced the previous spring that he was marrying into one of the oldest equestrian families in England, his frosty relationship with Richard Senior had thawed considerably.
A chip off the old block after all, his father had said. What would the old block say now, Richard wondered, if he knew Alfreda had dumped him because he wouldn't do it in the hay? Let's find out, he decided perversely, turning dry-eyed to the telephone on the desk.
He picked up the receiver, dialed the number at Foxglove and sat in the red leather chair. While he waited for the housekeeper to answer, he decided to tell his father he'd spent every dime of his Barton-Forbes inheritance. Surely Richard Senior would be furious enough to cut him out of his will; surely the thought of supporting himself on his own resources would make him cry.
The housekeeper answered on the fourth ring. "Hello, Mrs. Clark. This is Rich--I mean Tad," he said, using the nickname by which he was known at Foxglove to avoid confusion with Richard Senior. "May I speak with my father?"
"Oh, Taddie! He and Mizzuz Bea left just this morning for a yearling sale in Maryland. What a shame! You calling all the way from London and missing 'em by a whisker!"
"I'm in New York, Mrs. Clark, at my grandmother's."
"Is Lady Alfreda with you? Did you want to bring her to see the farm? Oh dear! I s'pose I could call--"
"Alfreda isn't with me. She broke our engagement. I've come home for good."
Except I don't know where the hell home is, Richard thought, dragging a hand through his hair again.
"Oh!" she gasped, her soft Southern voice dripping pity. Then she murmured it again, "Ohhh," thoughtfully, and asked, "Did you get your invitation, Taddie?"
"Why, your invitation to Miss Meredith's wedding."
"Oh--no." Richard blinked, startled at the news. "I didn't even know she was engaged."
"Oh my, yes. Since she and Miss Susan moved to Santa Barbara. Right after you went to England, Taddie, and Miss Susan graduated vet school. That's why they moved to California, you know. So Miss Meredith and Mister Luke could be together."
"Luke." Richard repeated the name, but it didn't help. "Luke who, Mrs. Clark?"
"You remember Seth Hardin's boy, Taddie. Him and his daddy used to come out to Foxglove every year for fox hunting season."
"Sort of," Richard hedged, though he hadn't a clue. He'd drunk far too much to remember anything except Susan Cade's dream of becoming an equine veterinarian. Why that should stick in his head he had no idea. "I suppose I should call the little step-brat and congratulate her," he said to Mrs. Clark. "Do you have her number?"
"Sure do. Got a pencil?"
"Yes." Richard bit the cap off a Mont Blanc fountain pen and wrote the area code and number she gave him on the desk blotter. "Thank you, Mrs. Clark. You'll tell my father I called?"
"First chance. Sorry 'bout you and Lady Alfreda, Taddie."
Richard gritted his teeth. He hated that nickname. "Thank you, Mrs. Clark."
He hung up and stared, dazed, at the black French telephone. Meredith was getting married. Meredith, the little blond Pan who used to ride her pony hell-bent for leather across the fields and woods of Foxglove Farm. He could hardly believe it, which was ridiculous, since she'd always been every bit as smart and every inch as pretty as her mother, Bea.
Richard blinked at the phone number he'd scrawled on the desk blotter, reached for the phone, and then paused with his hand on the receiver. Tormenting his stepsister--and her dreadful cousin when she'd come to live at Foxglove just a week before she'd broken his nose--had been his favorite adolescent pastime. He'd been damn good at it, too, knew exactly what to do to send Meredith and Susan running and shrieking to his father, but he hadn't seen or talked to either of them in eight years. Maybe if he had another drink he'd remember the right buttons to push.
The closest cache of Canadian Mist was in the music room, in a silver flask under the sheet music in the piano bench. It had sustained Richard through more than one lesson with his Tartar of a piano teacher. As he got up to go get it, the phone rang. He turned back to the desk and answered it.
"Five-five-five--" He started to say the number as was the custom in England, caught himself and said, "Hello?"
"Dickie, what in hell are you doing there?" His mother, Lady Gloria Simpson, demanded imperiously. "Alfreda won't come out of her room, and you've absolutely ruined your own engagement party!"
"If the door is locked, then Quigley's with her."
"Beast! A harmless flirtation--"
"She gave my ring back."
"You took it?"His mother sounded incredulous.
"Of course I took it. Then I took myself to Heathrow."
"Dickie, you ass! Let me talk to Mummy. You're drunk."
"So is Mummy by now--" Richard bent his left wrist and peered blearily at his watch "--since it's almost three o'clock in Vegas."
"Whatever is she doing there?"
"Gambling away your inheritance, I hope."
"Oh, dammit, Mummy!" Lady Simpson wailed. "Where are you when I need you?"
"Out cold under the blackjack table or I miss my guess."
"Oh my God!"His mother shrieked.
"Don't worry. Aunt Agie won't let them sweep her up with the fallen chips."
"Not Mummy, you idiot! Alfreda!" Lady Simpson was screaming now. "I'm on the phone in the game room and the little slut has just this second breezed past the door with Quigley and the Avenel betrothal ring on her finger!"
"Harmless flirtation, eh?"
"Oh do shut up, Dickie! I shan't be able to hold my head up after this! Freddie!" She shrilled his stepfather's name at C above high C. "How can you even think to congratulate that selfish bitch after the insult she's just handed me? The proper thing, my foot! Bring the car round this instant! I won't stay another moment--"
Richard took the receiver away from his ear and depressed the switch hook. His mother was still railing stridently at Freddie when the connection broke.
He dropped the receiver on the desk and went to the music room for the flask, unscrewed the cap and drank half its contents while he closed the bench and sat at the Steinway grand. He played what tunes he could remember between long, steady pulls, mostly songs he'd learned from Bea.
She'd taught them to him on long, crisp afternoons while Richard Senior and Meredith and Susan--and Seth Hardin's boy, Luke, too, he supposed, though he still couldn't remember him--rode to hounds with the local hunt. Cole Porter and Sammy Cahn stumbled off his fingertips now, but when he was sober Richard played quite well. He had the hands for it, Bea had told him, admiring the full-octave spread he'd been able to make even then.
Sometimes in the evenings when she played for his father, she'd coax him to the piano. The memory of those ghastly recitals superimposed itself on the keyboard and changed Richard's hands. They were no longer the hands of a man, strong, supple and well-manicured, they were the hands of a boy made awkward and clumsy with panic, his nails bitten to the quick.
No matter how well he played, Richard Senior would eventually quit his chair for the hearthrug where Meredith and Susan sprawled on their stomachs, dreaming in soft voices about the horse farm they'd own someday. Richard remembered the fury that used to splotch Bea's face, the chill that hung between her and his father for days afterward.
Part of him always had and always would be a little in love with Bea for trying so hard to bridge the gap between him and his father; the rest of him would never forgive her for bringing her niece Susan Cade to Foxglove. Richard was almost fifteen and Susan twelve when she'd come, filthy and uncouth, from some third-rate racetrack in Oklahoma.
Never mind that her drunken horse-trainer father, Loren Cade, had begged Bea to take Susan and "make a lady outta her like her mama was." She'd been resentful as hell and spoiling for the fight Richard had inadvertently given her the morning they'd gone riding with Meredith and he'd used spurs on Valiant, the nasty-tempered old hunter his father insisted he learn to ride.
Richard Senior had given him the spurs as a last-ditch effort to cure Valiant's habit of swinging his head around and nipping Richard's knees. Susan hadn't known that, of course, she'd simply gone nuts and hit Richard with her riding crop when he'd raked Valiant's flanks. Hard enough to unseat him and smash his nose all over his face. Valiant had trotted happily home to his stall. Richard had returned reeling and bleeding and clinging to the back of Meredith's saddle.
"A girl!" His father had roared at him all the way to the local hospital's emergency room. "A goddamn girl breaks your goddamn nose and you goddamn let her!"
The next day Richard had taken himself and his nose splint back to New York. Back to the cold, bitter house in Gramercy Park where he now sprawled on the piano bench, passed out with his right arm bent above the keyboard, his head buried in the crook of his elbow.
When he began to snore, a single tear dripped out of his left eye and splashed on the black-and-white ivories.