Read an Excerpt
The Banquet Where the Really Grand Company Were Assembled in the Elfin Hall. Lithograph by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) from Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales, 1912. Rackham was a major Edwardian illustrator who specialized in magical, mystical, and legendary themes. His work influenced the surrealists. This print is of a large room crowded with elves, animal-people, trolls, fairy princesses, and other imaginary creatures who are dining on frogs and snails and sipping from cups overflowing with frothing beverages. 9.75 x 7.75 inches. Price: $70.
Dorothy and Oliver Whitcomb's home was elegant, their food delicious, and their bar open, but Maggie Summer wanted to be at home sorting prints for next weekend's Morristown Antique Show. Her roles as an antique-print dealer and a college professor sometimes complemented each other, and sometimes conflicted. Today they conflicted.
She shifted her weight from one foot to another, cursing her decision to wear the sexy crimson silk heels that had tempted her at the Short Hills Mall last evening. Women alone on Saturday night should not be allowed to go shopping! Last night the shoes had made her feel young and alluring. Today they just hurt. An hour ago a small blister had appeared on her left little toe.
Her eyes wandered from four of John Gould's prints of hummingbirds that were hanging near the windows to the six hand-colored steel engravings of Burritt's 1835 view of the sky at different seasons that hung over the large black marble fireplace. The Whitcombs were devoted customers of Maggie's antique-print business, Shadows. They were also Somerset College trustees and major donors. When they issued an invitation, she accepted.
The Whitcombs had spent almost as much on framing as they had on the prints, but the result was worth it. The Burritts fit especially well in this room. The delicate figures drawn between the constellations blended perfectly into a library furnished with comfortable leather chairs and couches. Knowledge of the past combined with desire to know the future. Maggie walked closer, admiring the familiar star-defined astrological patterns. As always when she looked at the stars, she looked for her sign, Gemini. Two figures; two destinies.
Did the stars represent her two professions? Or her two emotional selves...the self-contained, intelligent, respected woman most people saw...or the frustrated, conflicted self she hid beneath the surface? Were either of them the sexy lady in red heels?
Gemini was green in this edition of Burritts. Green for jealousy? Jealousy of those for whom the patterns of life seemed to fall into place so easily. Career...marriage...children...The white wine was taking her mind down paths she didn't want to follow. At least not right now.
Maggie turned her thoughts to business. She had another edition of these Burritt engravings in her inventory at home. Should she pay to have them matted and framed? They'd be much more striking if they were framed, but she'd have to charge considerably more for them. How much more would people pay so they could take artwork home from an antique show and immediately hang it on their living room wall? She might experiment with the Burritts. She could use some good sales. If customers wanted frames, frames she would give them. She made a mental note to consult Brad and Steve, her local framers.
Her next beverage would be Diet Pepsi with caffeine. And maybe she could scavenge a Tylenol from someone. She sighed, looking around the room again. If only she'd resisted wearing the red heels.
Across the room Dorothy Whitcomb was talking to freshman Sarah Anderson, backing her up against a bookcase filled with what appeared to be nineteenth-century first editions. They were probably just decorator leather bindings purchased by the yard, but in this setting they worked almost as well as the real thing. Neither Dorothy nor Oliver were, to Maggie's knowledge, book lovers. Certainly they weren't antiquarian-book collectors. But major donors to Somerset College should have an elegant library. It was part of the unwritten job description. And no doubt why the Whitcombs chose to host this reception in their library rather than in their equally posh living room.
Sarah's shoulder-length red hair was bouncing as she nodded at Dorothy politely. Twenty-three-year-old Sarah was pretty, but not too patient. She wouldn't listen forever. She had clearly dressed up for this reception. For Sarah, gray slacks and an almost-matching turtleneck was about as elegant as her wardrobe got. Dorothy never seemed to consider that the scholarship students she invited to her "informal get-togethers" (read "cocktail parties") might find dressing for these occasions a financial challenge. Maggie sighed. She should rescue Sarah. Would her feet hold up?
Paul Turk provided a welcome interruption to Maggie's gloomy thoughts. "Help! I know the Whitcombs, and some of the students, but I'm getting weary of smiling."
Maggie lightly touched Paul's arm in friendly understanding. His cologne was an attractive spicy scent, with traces of musk. Not the usual aftershave he wore on campus. Very nice. She moved out of range of the scent. Her life was complicated enough just now.
Paul was the newest member of the American Studies faculty. A corporate dropout, and former Wall Street associate of Oliver Whitcomb's, he'd had the inside track for a teaching opening this fall when he'd decided to capitalize on his master's in American history and exchange his windowed office at an investment firm for a small cubicle at Somerset College. Slender, and taller than Maggie at perhaps five feet ten inches, Paul had started to let his brown hair go a bit shaggy, and the look was good for him, even if it was obvious that he was consciously transforming himself into his vision of what a history professor should look like. She suspected the female students she'd seen loitering outside his office were suitably impressed.
Paul's office was next to hers, and she often helped him with "new kid on the block" issues. "It isn't the smiling during these parties that's so challenging," she said, "it's knowing that you have to smile."
He raised his eyebrows and nodded in agreement. "As always, the voice of experience. On your way to the bar?"
"Turning in my white wine for a diet soda."
"And here I was going to pour you one of my perfect Grey Goose martinis."
"Not tonight, thank you," said Maggie as they reached the table of drinks. "But you can do the Diet Pepsi honors. Or maybe I'll just have a Virgin Mary."
"Your choice. Everything's here. I helped Oliver set all this up earlier."
"I'll stick with the Diet Pepsi," Maggie decided. "With caffeine."
Paul reached past empty bottles of vodka and Scotch for the last bottle of Diet Pepsi on the do-it-yourself bar. "Looks as though our fellow guests have been joining us in taking full advantage of the libations." He moved several empties to an overflowing carton beneath the table and replaced them with full bottles.
They moved aside to make room for their host, a big, white-haired man of perhaps sixty whose navy suit had been made to order for his large build. The tailor had succeeded. Oliver looked every bit the wealthy suburban gentleman.
"Enjoying yourself, Paul?" said Oliver. "I'm afraid the company here is a bit tamer than what you're used to in New York," he added, giving Paul a knowing cuff on the arm. He opened the bottles Paul had pulled out and refilled pitchers labeled "orange juice" and "Bloody Mary mix."
Paul added to the ice bucket from the chest on the floor next to the table.
"I wish we'd hired someone else to set the drinks up, but Dorothy thought the students would find a bartender ostentatious." Oliver shrugged. "The caterer could have supplied us with someone."
Paul grinned at him. "How could anyone possibly think you and Dorothy were ostentatious?"
"Hard to imagine, isn't it?" answered Oliver with a bit of a twinkle, looking around the mahogany bookcase-lined room that was almost as big as the basketball court in the new gymnasium he had bankrolled at the college. "Dorothy does like to act the grande dame. I'd be just as happy on a smaller stage. But, hell 'if you've got it' and all that. In any case, have fun. You, too, Maggie." He nodded at her. "I've got to get back to playing host."
Oliver headed across the room toward the college president, Max Hagfield, but was intercepted by a group of students Maggie didn't recognize.
"Those students work out at the gym," Paul answered her unspoken question as they watched. "Oliver will no doubt now expound on the merits of the weight machines he's ordered for the gymnasium." Paul raised his martini to Maggie's cola.
"The Whitcomb Gymnasium," she corrected as they clinked glasses and moved away from the bar. Campus gossip reported that Oliver had donated the gym on the condition that he, as a member of the Board of Trustees, could use it at any time, and he'd made sure it contained the equipment he'd preferred at New York's Downtown Athletic Club. The gym had been completed just in time for his retirement. Max Hagfield had eagerly accepted the gymnasium, the weight machines, and any conditions attached to them. "Did Oliver work out that much in New York?" Maggie asked. His large figure didn't appear to have been honed during long workout hours.
"Pretty regularly," Paul said. "But talk to me about the scholarship students who are here tonight. Are they all part of Dorothy's pet project to save the world?"
Oliver Whitcomb had donated the gym; his wife's inspiration was to create a special dormitory for single mothers and their children. No doubt seeing a possibility for great publicity and improved community relations, Max had agreed. Dorothy had spent the past year purchasing a large Victorian house across the street from the main entrance to the college, having it brought up to dormitory code, and, of course, redecorating it. Whitcomb House was now home to six single parents, each with enough living space for the student and one child each. Max Hagfield had required only that the new dormitory be safe, handicapped accessible, and that the single parents it housed include at least one single father. Somerset College must not discriminate against any subset of students. Max's concern for students was exceeded only by his concern for the college's reputation. And his own.
Maggie nodded at Max, who had left his chair, refilled his cognac snifter at the bar, and was now heading toward a group of students by the fireplace.
Max had long since given up the possibility of a berth at a more prestigious university. Instead, he'd tried to elevate the stature of presidency of the community college, so he now saw little difference between himself and his counterpart at Princeton University, a few miles south. For Max Hagfield, Somerset County was his county. Somerset College was his college. The money Dorothy and Oliver Whitcomb donated enhanced the institution; it therefore enhanced Max Hagfield. It was all one and the same.
The students he was now talking with towered over Max. He was shorter than Maggie, and clearly a man who spent more time with his cognac and his tanks of tropical fish than he did in Oliver's new gym.
Max's home was lined with fish tanks, and the small pond in his backyard contained koi and goldfish. His problems with flukes, organic debris, and neighborhood cats were all too familiar to Maggie. There was a small pond in her own yard, and before her husband, Michael, had died last year, he and Max would often temporarily escape parties such as this one to smoke and discuss the challenges of fish maintenance in home ponds. Michael's fish had become trophy catches for seven-year-old neighborhood anglers shortly before his death. Maggie hadn't bothered to replace them.
"All the Whitcomb House students are here," she said to Paul. "They're ambitious young people, and they're taking real advantage of this opportunity to attend college. I doubt any of them would be in school without Dorothy's help." One of Dorothy's requests was for one faculty member to be assigned to all six of the young families. To her delight, Maggie was given that job, so she knew them all well.
On the opposite side of the room Kendall Park, Whitcomb House's token father, was draining a glass of beer and chatting earnestly with another student. If Somerset College had fielded a football team, Kendall, heavily muscled and well over six feet tall, could have played fullback. But Kendall filled most of his hours studying and caring for thirteen-month-old Josette. When Josette's mother had left a note last spring saying California beckoned, she had also left their baby. Twenty-year-old Kendall had become a surprised, but devoted, single dad. Defying all stereotypes about male and female parenting skills, Kendall was among the most concerned and nurturing of the Whitcomb House parents.
Maria Ramirez and Heather Farelli were standing by the antipasto table; Tiffany Douglass, her streaked blonde hair cascading over one shoulder, was wearing a long, patterned skirt and a red blouse cut a smidge or perhaps two smidges too low, was talking with a biology professor. Kayla Martin had on a short, orange knit dress that showed off her legs and was filling her glass with red wine. Sarah Anderson was still talking with Dorothy Whitcomb. Or at least Dorothy Whitcomb was still talking to Sarah.
"Dorothy sees herself as their savior," Paul said.
"And she may be. But she gets too proprietary with them. Like inviting them to all of these receptions, and even hiring a baby-sitter for Whitcomb House so they don't have an excuse not to come." Dorothy was supporting the students; they may have owed her, but she didn't own them. Sometimes Maggie wondered if Dorothy understood the difference.
"Dorothy wouldn't tolerate excuses, would she?" Paul said.
"Do you know her well?"
"Not as well as I know Oliver. But she's been very hospitable since I moved to New Jersey. I didn't know his first wife at all."
"First wife? When he moved here and started donating to Somerset College, Dorothy was his wife."
"Oliver and Dorothy were newlyweds when I first went to work for Oliver's firm. They've only been married six or seven years."
"I remember hearing that he has adult children."
"A boy and a girl, from his first marriage. They're in their late twenties and live on the West Coast. They grew up over in Bernardsville, where Oliver used to live. He sold their old house and bought this one for Dorothy. 'A new house for a new marriage' is how he put it."
Maggie and Paul both looked at Dorothy, whose gold turtleneck and form-fitting black silk slacks matched the drama of her short blonde-tinted red (or was it red-tinted blonde?) hair. She was still holding Sarah Anderson in conversation.
"How much younger is Dorothy than Oliver?" Maggie was curious, and Paul didn't seem to mind sharing what he knew about them.
"He retired at sixty; I think she's in her midforties."
"Really? I thought she might be older," said Maggie. "She doesn't look it, but she has a sort of attitude that says..."
"She's pretentious as hell, you mean," Paul said, grinning. "Absolutely. If she knew that attitude would make people assume she was older, she'd drop it as fast as she'd drop a manicurist who smudged her nails. But I suspect no one's ever had the guts to tell her."
"And I'm certainly not going to be the one," said Maggie. "But I do think I'm going to rescue poor Sarah. Dorothy's been talking at her for long enough."
"If you're going to play Good Samaritan, I'll return to the herd. I know a couple of students over by the window. I'll go and act professorial."
"Sounds like a plan." Maggie glanced toward Geoff Boyle and Linc James, two other professors, and headed for Sarah and Dorothy. She concentrated on not limping. The blister must be getting worse. And she really shouldn't stay much longer; she had to organize prints before her morning lecture, and she should pack her van. Not to mention the joy of replacing these blasted shoes with a pair of cozy fleece slippers.
"Have you ever taken Aura to a children's theater performance?" Dorothy's hair was blocking Maggie's view of Sarah's reaction. "Perhaps we could arrange for tickets for all of you some weekend."
"That's a lovely idea, Dorothy," Maggie interrupted. "As long as it isn't near exam time! Maybe after the holidays. Sarah, have you tried the roast beef? It's delicious. Dorothy, your caterer has done wonders with the horseradish sauce."
Sarah slipped away with an appreciative nod at Maggie.
"We do have a wonderful caterer, don't we?" agreed Dorothy. "And nothing too fancy. We wanted the young people to feel right at home. I'm so glad everyone from Whitcomb House could come, and some of the students Oliver has met at the gym, too." She gestured at a group near the French doors that opened onto the patio in warmer weather. "And, of course, some of the faculty. Students mixing with faculty is part of the college experience, don't you think?"
"I enjoy getting to know my students," Maggie said. "It helps me plan classes so the material I cover best meets their needs."
"That too, of course." Dorothy held a glass of sparkling water, and her pale pink nails not a smudge in sight were reflected in the crystal. "Young minds meeting" she glanced at Maggie "more mature ones. Culture being passed from one generation to another. That's what this is all about, isn't it?"
Most students at the community college were living at home and working part-time. Many supported families. A cocktail party at Somerset County Community College was not a humanities seminar at Yale. Maggie glanced around the room. Few students were conversing with professors; most were taking full advantage of the free food and open bar, and talking with each other.
"I think perhaps a beautician...," Dorothy was saying.
Maggie focused in on the red hair and the pink nails again. "Oh?" she said noncommittally. What had Dorothy said?
"A beautician, and then perhaps an interior decorator, would make marvelous guests for those Monday-night seminars you organize for the house, don't you think?"
Maggie spent every Monday evening at Whitcomb House, bringing with her an expert in an area she hoped the students would find helpful childhood nutrition; legal issues related to single parents; financial planning; time management. The sessions were usually full and lively, since they always included at least some of the six children whose existence qualified their parents for residence at the house.
But a beautician and an interior decorator? Just what six struggling young parents who were exhausted from child care and studying would need. "Maybe later in the year," Maggie compromised. "The women might enjoy having makeovers. Especially if we found someone who could donate makeup for them."
Tiffany Douglass was the only one with any expertise in that area, Maggie realized. Tiff always looked ready for a photo session. Maria, Heather, Kayla, and Sarah had more...natural...styles. Unless you counted Maria's seven earrings and nose ring or the vine tattoo on Heather's right leg that climbed past all parts of her visible to the general public.
"Oh, I'm sure it could be arranged that the girls get some free makeup," Dorothy said.
Thank goodness she'd found something of value in Dorothy's suggestion, Maggie thought. She'd discouraged Dorothy's last two brainstorms a catered Halloween party and sterling silver flatware and Dorothy had been hurt.
"And don't you think Santa should visit for Christmas?"
Maggie sighed inwardly. The Whitcomb House students felt indebted enough to Dorothy for room and board and tuition; they didn't need reminding that they had little money for Christmas gifts. Especially when Dorothy visited at least once a week, leaving presents each time she came. It was nice for the kids, but hurtful for the parents who couldn't provide toys themselves. "I'll talk to everyone and see what their Christmas plans are. Some may want to stay at the house; others have family they'll visit."
"Poor Sarah. She has no one. Oliver and I were thinking of inviting her and Aura to spend the holidays with us." Dorothy and Maggie watched as Sarah poured herself a glass from a pitcher labeled "Bloody Mary mix." She didn't add vodka.
"I'll talk to her," said Maggie. "But don't make any plans until I do."
"Of course not." Dorothy squeezed Maggie's arm. "I'm sure you'll find a good way to introduce the idea to her. So she won't feel we're being patronizing."
A trace of insight? Maggie wondered as Dorothy headed for the bar to refill her sparkling water.
So far as Maggie knew, Dorothy didn't have any children, and clearly the young Whitcomb House students and their families were filling that role for her. They are for me, too, Maggie admitted to herself. She enjoyed the kids at Whitcomb House, from the youngest, Kendall's Josette and Maria's eighteen-month-old Tony, to the oldest, Mikey Farelli, who at six would be too old next year for his mother to qualify for residence at the house.
Sarah's daughter, Aura, and Kayla's daughter, Katie, were favorites. Both four years old, they quickly became a team: masters of intrigue and disguise; experts at making costumes out of anything they found, from couch pillows to napkins. Last Monday Aura and Katie were princesses, dressed in their mothers' half-slips and balancing Beanie Babies they'd liberated from Mikey Farelli's collection on their heads as if they were crowns. Aura's pale red-gold curls and Katie's black ones bounced as the girls giggled and pranced in front of Whitcomb House's most recent guest, a Montessori teacher there to give the young parents advice about early childhood education.
Wonderful kids. And their parents were learning parenting skills from each other as well as from the college. Only Tiffany's Tyler, who was two, seemed less cared for than the rest. There was always someone to clean him up and head him in the right direction, but that person wasn't always Tiffany. Tiffany had missed more of the Monday seminars than anyone else, too. Where did she spend her evenings? Based on her American Studies grades, not at the library. Maggie sighed. Tiffany had skipped Maggie's "Myths in American Culture" class again last Friday. Maybe Tiff was doing better in her other classes; she should find out and then have a serious talk with her. Soon. Scholarship students had to keep up their grades.
As Maggie watched, Sarah joined Tiffany at one of the bookcases. Sarah looked unsteady. Maybe her earlier drinks had been stronger than Bloody Mary mix. Tiffany guided Sarah to a chair.
It wouldn't be good for the Whitcombs to see one of "their" girls drunk. Maggie crossed the room quickly.
"Sarah, are you all right?" Maggie bent down next to her.
"No. It's not June. Don't let Simon know." Sarah looked at her strangely. "But I smell roses." Her body listed toward the side of the chair. "I think I'm going to puke."
"Tiffany, take her arm." Together they helped Sarah stand.
"My head hurts, too. Bad."
Maggie quickly smelled Sarah's breath. No alcohol. But she did smell as though she'd been smoking. Funny; she'd never seen Sarah smoke. "Let's get her out of here." Maggie headed Sarah and Tiffany toward the door.
"Shouldn't we say good-bye to the Whitcombs?" Tiffany said. "I'll go tell them." She dropped Sarah's arm and headed for Oliver.
Maggie just managed to keep Sarah upright. She was becoming weaker, and a puddle of drool was dripping onto the front of her soft gray turtleneck. Please, don't let her throw up on the Aubusson carpet, Maggie thought, just before Sarah's legs gave way and she collapsed onto the floor. Within seconds her limp body was surrounded by curious and well-meaning guests. "Give her some space!" Maggie commanded firmly. She knelt and took Sarah's wrist. The pulse was too rapid to count. Dangerously rapid.
"What's the matter with Sarah? Is she drunk? What can we do?" Dorothy looked aghast. "She seemed fine "
"Call 911," interrupted Maggie. "Now."
Copyright © 2004 by Eleanor S. Wait