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Luke Osborne drove two and a half hours north of Atlanta to the lake facility of the Atlanta Club to arrive after seven. Inside the clubhouse ballroom, more than two hundred guests, mostly couples, gathered in daisy-cluster conversation groups or sat at small round tables munching buffet-style dinner food served by waiters in white jackets and tuxedo pants. A layer of cigarette smoke hovered over the crowd and dimmed the lights from the two giant wedding-cake-tiered, crystal chandeliers. The mood was buoyant ... wine and cocktail glasses raised high in congratulatory toasts as sweat beaded on the brows of men in tuxedos, and the women-many in off shoulder, full-length gowns-clandestinely dabbed hankies and tissues to their underarms. These were the donors who had made the new Eye Institute possible. And A.J. MacMiel had made it happen by wooing donors and securing public and private grants. He climbed onto the bandstand. He grabbed a microphone; the orchestra stopped with a drum roll. With a voice more exhausted than exuberant, he thanked the crowd for attending and for their generous giving. The bar would remain open until midnight. Thank you, thank you.
At first, Luke chatted with MD colleagues he knew, then moved on to other stray singles or abandoned significant-others. He had neither the social status nor money to be considered for a membership to the club. He tried to appear confident and justified in attending, although he didn't really know why A.J. had invited him. After an hour, A.J.'s wife Agnes sought him out and took his hand with more enthusiasm than was warranted by their few brief meetings over the years. "Come," she said. "I want you to meet my two babies."
He'd met her daughters, Lucy and Elizabeth, more than a few times before. Now they were standing together near the band and neither seemed to recognize him when he was introduced. Agnes immediately excused herself to work the crowd.
Lucy, a light-bronze skinned, dark-eyed, stunningly beautiful woman of thirty-four or five stared at the singer on the bandstand without a word. Lucy was a lawyer famous for little tolerance for inferior intelligence. Engrossed in the music, she walked away.
"Impressive," Luke said to Elizabeth, gazing at the revelers in the ballroom.
"I'm proud of what my father's done," she said. She shared none of the stunning characteristics of her sister. But she was not unattractive. Her delicate features and sharp blue eyes complimented her blemishless fair skin. But her slightly overweight figure with sturdy legs and thick ankles had no resemblance to Lucy's slim beauty.
"Were you involved in the institute?" she continued.
"Not directly," he said. She seemed thoroughly bored, which, given the circumstances of conversation with someone she couldn't remember, he decided was forgivable, if not understandable.
"Are you a donor?" she asked.
"I work with your father."
"Oh." She thought for a few seconds. "Haven't we met before?"
"A few times," he said.
Lucy returned to them nibbling a bacon-wrapped scallop on a stick and stared. "Who are you?" she asked.
"Mother told you," Elizabeth said. "Luke Osborne, isn't it? He's in Daddy's department."
"The pleasure is mine," he said nodding slightly to Lucy and offering his hand, which she ignored.
Lucy would not look at Elizabeth. "You're an eye surgeon?" she said with a touch of disdain.
"You don't like lawyers, do you? No surgeon likes lawyers."
"Don't start," Elizabeth said.
"I'm not starting. I stated a fact with which the doctor cannot disagree. Isn't that right, doctor?"
Luke said nothing.
Lucy, her neck veins pulsing, looked at Elizabeth for many seconds now.
"Do you do malpractice?" Luke finally asked Lucy.
"She's a defense lawyer," Elizabeth said.
"I'm not an ambulance chaser, if that's what you're implying," Lucy said glaring at Elizabeth but talking to Luke.
"I don't think that's what he meant," said Elizabeth.
"That's what he thinks," Lucy said.
"You can't know what he thinks," Elizabeth said.
"He's a doctor."
"I worry about malpractice," Luke said. "There are a lot of unnecessary suits."
"A lot of unnecessary harm done," Lucy said.
Lucy turned to see the singer again, who had started another song, "It's not just the mistakes that piss me off, it's the cover-up."
Luke did not agree to oversimplification and partial truth, but he kept quiet.
Elizabeth touched Luke's arm, her face faintly flushed, and side- glanced at her sister.
"Enjoyed seeing you," she said.
He expressed pleasure at seeing her, unable to suppress sarcasm. She leaned toward his ear. "Sorry," she whispered so Lucy wouldn't hear.
Elizabeth disappeared in the crowd. Lucy gave him a sardonic smile. "We've been having a spat," she said. "She thinks I'm rude to the rich folk." She paused smiling ruefully. "We fight all the time. Since we were kids." Her voice had softened a bit.
"May I bring you a drink from the bar?" Luke asked.
She held up her full martini glass. "I get my own drinks," she said without a smile now. She turned and walked away with a little wobble in her gait. "Enjoy yourself," she said over her shoulder.
He was relieved she was gone but he missed looking at her. Her beauty was the only pleasant memory about her. One glance could up the heartbeat of a dead man.
The crowd got louder. With drinks flowing, the intense chatter was punctuated with cries of mostly false delight, and occasionally angry outbursts, so that comfortable conversation became almost impossible. Luke wanted to leave. He walked up to A.J.
"Congratulations. A great party," Luke said.
A.J. laughed and leaned over to whisper confidentially. "It's all bullshit, Luke. You know it. I know it. They've given a fraction of what they should."
That seemed a little ungrateful; these people were big donors, some more than a million. Luke thought power had warped A.J.'s judgment over the years.
"I've got to get back. Surgery in the morning," Luke said.
A.J. slapped him on the back. "I'll walk with you to the car. I can't hear in here," he said loudly. "Did you valet?"
Luke had parked in the lot near the golf course. Outside, they walked side-by-side.
"I'd like to propose you for Director of Clinical Research in the new building. There will be other candidates, of course, and the Board will have final approval, but you're my man. What do you think?"
Luke closed his eyes briefly and took a long breath. "I don't know, A.J. I appreciate you're thinking about me. But I'm a surgeon more than a research administrator, and I'm not sure it's what I want to do at this stage of my career."
"It would put a rocket in your ass, my friend. Boost you to the sky. It's an opportunity that won't come 'round again."
The night shadows of mature pines that bordered the lot obscured the cars. They slowed their pace.
"Damn it!," Luke said pointing to his sedan.
"You can't drive it," A.J. said.
Luke's sedan and two other cars were stripped. Tires, wheels, bumpers, mirrors, radio. The trunk lids were up, the trunks empty.
"Done by pros," A.J. said.
"Isn't there some security?"
"They've increased patrols. They had a theft a couple weeks ago. The bastards come from the county road across the golf course. Big money in parts."
"I've got to get a ride," Luke said. "There must be people going back tonight."
A.J. nodded. "Lucy's going back tonight."
"I thought you were staying over for the weekend."
"We are. Until Tuesday. But not Lucy. She doesn't like it here."
The manager agreed to call police and arrange towing, and Luke walked out the front of the club a few minutes later. The valet sat in a chair near one of the two columns that supported the portico jutting out from the main building over the drive. Two couples stood talking in the hot, humid, night air.
"Dr. Osborne?" the valet asked.
Luke nodded. The valet waved in the direction of a red Porsche. The lights flashed and the car moved forward. Luke opened the passenger door.
"Lucy?" He bent down so he could see.
"Get in," she said. Even in half-silhouette her profile was exquisite: a straight well proportioned nose, high cheekbones, and a graceful curve to her chin.
He fastened his seat belt. The interior air had a humid sweet smell of alcohol mixed with the scent of flowered, freshly-applied perfume, and some mint-flavored mouthwash. As she revved the engine, her foot slipped off the clutch. The car jerked and the engine stalled.
"You okay?" he asked.
"I'm not drunk," she said testily, "if that's what you're implying."
She started the car and drove cautiously down the curved access road that skirted the edge of the golf course on one side and the lake on the other. She eased through the stop sign at the T-junction with the county road. When she turned the wheel right, she pressed too hard on the accelerator and the car leapt forward. She was slow to compensate and the left tires went off the road. She braked to a stop.
"I'll drive," Luke said.
"Shut up." She drove on seemingly in control but after a half a mile stopped the car, got out, and walked gingerly heel-to-toe for a few feet then strode into the night, taking her keys with her. Luke sat barely moving for five minutes. She was still out of sight when he decided to walk back to the club and hire someone to take him into town. He was about fifty yards on his way when she reappeared.
"I'm fine, now," she yelled. He hesitated wondering what was wise. A.J. was an important ally in the wars of academic medicine and it was a risk to abandon his older daughter. Luke was sure A.J. thought of him as sort of babysitter for the ride into town. He couldn't let him down. He walked back. As he got into the car, Lucy took two white tablets from her purse and with a swig from a half empty bottle of Coke she extracted from under the seat, she washed them down.
"Feeling better?" Luke asked.
She cleared her head with a firm shake from side to side before inserting the key in the ignition after two unsuccessful jabs. Twenty minutes later, without speaking to Luke, she stopped at the access ramp to the interstate to mount a radar detector from the glove compartment on the windshield and then accelerated on the up ramp headed for Atlanta. He gripped the door armrest as she merged into traffic passing three cars on the right until the merging lane tapered to an end where she jerked the wheel to change lanes a few feet in front of a pickup and then jerked again forcing the car into the far-left fast lane. Luke's muscles tightened and he pressed his feet hard against the floor.
The moonless night left the countryside swept in darkness. He could make out shapes of houses and buildings, farms and fields ... but no details. Then the car accelerated on the straightaway of the interstate. He leaned slightly left; the speedometer glowed a steady eighty-five.
"I've forgotten what Elizabeth does ..." he said to keep her thinking.
"She's a school teacher. Fourth grade. Ridiculous, really. No real money of her own. She lives off what Daddy gives her." Her irritation coated her slow-minded words, but her tone was sharp and she seemed unwilling to talk about anything more.
The motor whined at higher intensity as she increased speed. She was still ten miles an hour over the limit.
The radar alarm went off. She braked and tucked in behind an eighteen-wheeler tanker.
"Bastards," she said.
"That thing works pretty well," Luke said of the radar detector, thankful it had slowed her down.
She didn't comment.
A few minutes later, the radar sputtered and stopped, and she left the protection of the big rig quickly accelerating; in the side rear-view mirror the truck's lights diminished like two fading stars at near light- warp speed.
"Where's your wife?" she said now in overdrive at fifteen above the limit "Delores, isn't it?"
"Samantha," he said. "We're no longer married."
She still concentrated on the road. "Divorce?"
He paused. "She killed herself," he said.
The mention of Samantha brought guilt. He still thought he might have done more to prevent it. But he didn't really miss her. Toward the end, she was hard to be around ... tense and confrontational, a hollow, angry person ... and he'd never really known her before or understood her after she died.
She slowed in a stretch where trees and foliage provided good hiding places for police, and settled in to the monotony of driving the interstate now darkened by a growing cloud cover. Her head slowly nodded ... the car drifted to the right. She jerked awake, adjusting to keep on the road. But a few minutes later, the car lurched as it left the paved road, the bottom scraping gravel and rocks, and she whipped the wheel left and brought the car back on the road.
"Stop," Luke said. "I want to drive."
"You're not fine. You're falling asleep."
She refused to answer. "Relax," she said. "I'm an excellent driver."
Impulsive. And not safe at any speed.
She was silent for a while. After many minutes she said, "I hate those parties of A.J.'s. I drink when I'm unhappy," with a new apologetic tone.
"Why go?" he asked. She drove intently now, with a contemplative frown.
"He commanded we be there," she said. "He likes the family at fundraisers. It makes him appear magnanimous and paternal."
"Isn't he?" he asked.
She thought for a while. "You know him. He thinks about himself."
Strange coming from her, the most self-centered by far in a covey of egotists.
She'd slowed down.
"He doesn't like what I've become," she said.
"Because you're a lawyer?"
"I don't think it's that," she said. Although her driving was better, her speech was still fuzzy-edged.
A.J. must have been a bear of a father ... authoritative, uncompromising, unreasonable. "He always seems proud of you?" he said truthfully.
"He treats Elizabeth well. She's his own. She has his nose, those arched brows. She's not as smart as he is but she thinks like he does."
There were no physical similarities between Elizabeth and Lucy. Lucy had cured-leather tan skin; dark, hard eyes; reddish-brown, shoulder-length hair. She was about five feet five, and her figure was thin and muscular, yet indisputably feminine, and her clothes were perfectly tailored, in contrast to Elizabeth, who was about the same height and wore altered expensive designer clothes but was a little too chunky in spots and nothing seemed to exactly fit.
"I have five siblings," Luke said. "Each their own person."
"But you get along well?"
"I guess," he said. "Better than most ... although I rarely hear from them anymore ... except for my sister who's in grad school at Princeton ... journalism."
"She's your favorite?"
"I feel protective of her. She's the youngest."
"I don't like Elizabeth most of the time," Lucy said. "I don't like to be around her."
He said nothing.
"Few know. And it's never discussed. But I'm the adopted one," Lucy said. "It's tiresome."
Adoption was new to him.
"I never do anything right," she added.
"They say that?"
"Of course not. It's how they act."
"They chose to adopt you, didn't they? They must have wanted you."
"I'm told father flew down twice to Puerto Rico to check me out. I was thirteen months old when they got me. My real name was Lucy Rivera. I think they probably adored me until Elizabeth came along two years later."
"You seem to have everything ..."
"Except pride and respect."
She'd sobered a little, but still the booze made her maudlin. "I don't believe that," he said. "They seem proud of what you've done."
"They're racist. Oh, they don't hang people, but deep down in never- tell land they don't think colored folk can think or reason like whites. They still like those pikininis that tap dance for coins in New Orleans, for Christ sake: Mother says 'they're ohhh, sooo cute.'"
"You're their daughter."
"Adopted daughter. Believe me, there's a difference. And I'm black."
"I thought you're Puerto Rican."
"My great grandfather on my mother's side was black. That's what A.J. said once to me."
"You're still Puerto Rican. Anyway, that doesn't make them dislike you."
"Bullshit to that. For years they talked about it. As if adopting me was a magnanimous gesture to the underprivileged-in mind and body."
She should quit drinking. Alcohol muddled her brain.
"Well, no one would know you're black," he said, "Stop worrying about it."
Excerpted from The Spirit of Want by William H. Coles Copyright © 2011 by William H. Coles. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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