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ONE DANGEROUS LADYA NOVEL
By JANE STANTON HITCHCOCK
HYPERIONCopyright © 2005 Jane Stanton Hitchcock
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt is a truth universally acknowledged that a widow in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a husband. Or so all my friends constantly tell me. Being such a widow, however, I'm a little more skeptical. Just as I'm skeptical of those who say that doing something once makes it easier to do a second time. That may be true of such things as skydiving or buying a couture dress. It is not true of murder. Believe me, I know. But let me begin where it all began again for me.
My name is Jo Slater and I am happy to be back on top of the tiny, privileged world known as New York society-a hallowed, some say hollow place-from which I had been cast out for several years because of the treachery of my late husband (may he rot in hell). I doubt I will ever remarry, despite my friends' constant hopes and meddling. How could I ever trust a man again? But just because I don't want to tie a legal knot doesn't mean I've entered a convent. I'm open to trying my luck on the romance market once more, paltry though the pickings are in New York. That is especially true for women like myself, who are what my friend Betty Waterman calls "of an uncertain age."
Romance was not the main reason I accepted Betty and Gil Waterman's kind invitation to stay with them in Barbados for the wedding of their only daughter, Missy. Betty was, after all, one of my very closest friends, and I had known Missy her entire life. Still, the possibility of romance was definitely alluring, and Betty had made a point of letting me know that among those she had invited to join the wedding party was Lord Max Vermilion, whom she termed an international catch. Known as "the Lord of the Rings" because he had been married so many times, Max was available once more, having just been divorced from his sixth or seventh wife-no one could ever keep track, not even Max. Betty thought he would be perfect for me, if not as a husband, then at least as "a juicy walker," which was how she put it.
At a little past ten in the morning of the day before the wedding, Betty and I were having breakfast out on the terrace of the lovely, old coralstone villa on the beach the Watermans had rented for the weeklong festivities. We barely said a word to each other because the two of us were so miserably hungover from the night before. Wearing a bathing suit and one of the fluffy white terry cloth robes Betty had thoughtfully provided for me in my guest room, I poured myself a cup of strong, black coffee and gazed out over the pale aquamarine sea. Though fun, the trip so far had not turned out as I'd expected. I'd been to Barbados years ago with my late husband, Lucius Slater, and I was sure that the soft, tropical air and the leisurely rhythm of island life would provide a welcome change of pace from the hectic New York social life. How wrong I was. We hadn't stopped since I'd arrived. The constant round of lunches and dinners and excursions thus far made Manhattan seem monastic by comparison. Last night's dinner in a local restaurant had ended somewhere around two in the morning.
"I may not survive this wedding," Betty said at last. Taking a sip of her vodka-laced papaya juice, she lapsed into silence.
"So what's on the schedule for today?" I asked her.
"Well, there's a tour of Cockleshell. I suppose you'll want to go on that," she said with a dismal air.
Cockleshell was the sprawling seaside villa owned by Freddy and Mina Brill, the parents of Woody Brill, Missy Waterman's fiance. Missy was getting married there. Mina Brill, an American married to a Brit, was an expert on gardens, and the gardens of Cockleshell were featured in a classic book entitled Paradise Found, Splendors of the Tropical Garden. Betty couldn't be bothered with gardens, but she knew of my passion for horticulture.
"I'd love to see them," I said.
"Fine. I'll take you. Call it an errand of mercy. But I warn you, if you and Mina start schmoozing about herbaceous borders, I'm going to deadhead the pair of you."
"Don't worry, I'm too hungover to have any kind of conversation, even about flowers."
"Max just arrived. He'll probably be there. Then tonight's the bridal dinner on the Cole yacht," she said with a glimmer of brightness. "And tomorrow, of course, is the wedding. Frankly, I can't wait for it to be over. Why Missy couldn't get married in New York and have a party at the Plaza or the St. Regis roof like everyone else is beyond me!"
With that, Betty got up from her chair and staggered over to one of the blue-and-white-striped chaises facing the ocean, where she lay down and dozed off. Alone, I sat at the table thinking about Max and about romance in general. I wasn't exactly past my prime; and it would be nice to have a steady companion, someone with whom I could travel and share common interests. In truth, though, I have to say I had less hope for myself and Max than Betty did.
Max, the eighth Earl Vermilion, was reputedly one of the richest, brightest, and most elegant men in England. The sun had never set on his personal British Empire-nor was it ever going to, if Max had anything to say about it. Taunton Hall, his ancestral home, was famous not only for its priceless Old Master paintings, including two Titians and a disputed Vermeer, but for having the largest collection of Chinese bronzes in the world. Scholars and collectors from around the globe came to sit under the vaulted arches of its sixteenth-century wing and pore over the famous collection assembled by Max's great-grandfather when he lived in China in the nineteenth century. The "Working Vermilion," as the fifth earl was called, had replenished the family fortune in the very unaristocratic way of earning money by trade. Having made millions importing tea and silk, the Vermilion family had gone on to distinguish itself as a major social and philanthropic force in England.
I had actually met Max in London years ago when I was married to Lucius, but I doubted if he would remember me. We'd all been guests at a large party. I remembered Max as a tall, handsome man with a long, thin face, bright blue eyes, thinning gray hair, and the lanky physique of an athlete. He spoke in a deep, drawly voice, which ladies found sexy. Everyone agreed that when Max turned his charm on you, he was very difficult to resist. He was polite to a fault, and brilliant, but he had a streak of mischief in him that made those who knew him wary of his charm. All his wives and mistresses said his naughtiness was both what seduced them at first and alienated them eventually. No, in so many ways he wasn't my type, and his marital record didn't bode well, either.
It was common knowledge that he was a great philanderer. In fact, the speculation was that his second-to-last wife, Henrietta, was actually driven to her grave by Max's infidelities. Still, in a world where rich, single, heterosexual men are scarcer than ninety-carat diamonds, I knew that there were literally hundreds of women, both married and single and on both sides of the Atlantic, who were now atwitter with the idea that they might become the next Lady Vermilion-especially those with whom Max already had had affairs. Unrealistic though some of those middle-aged hopes undoubtedly were, the contest had begun, and it would be interesting to see who would nab him. Betty was sure that if I stuck my foot in the ring I would get the glass slipper, because Max always married rich, socially prominent women-with one grand exception. It was rumored that Max once had a very brief marriage to a much younger woman no one knew. She was known as "the shady Lady Vermilion."
Despite all my misgivings, I had to admit that Max held a certain allure. Most of the men my age were interested in women half my age, as my last walk out with a Chicago billionaire had ultimately proved. After he suggested a threesome with our twenty-year-old female ski instructor in Aspen, I packed my bags, thinking how chivalry was not only dead but dismembered. And since I'd always preferred older men, my horizons were narrowing. My friends were constantly trying to fix me up with that tattered crew of "eligibles" around town. I resisted their efforts because, frankly, I hated wasting even a single evening making polite conversation with some careless Casanova who was only interested in me for my social access or a free ticket to some coveted event. Better to stay home and read or watch a movie. Drawbacks aside, therefore, Max was indeed a possibility. And I confess, I was rather excited about seeing him again.
Betty finally awoke from her hungover stupor and glanced at her watch.
"If you want to see those gardens, we'd better get going," she said, hauling herself up from her chaise. "I've just been dreaming that you would marry Max and become the mistress of Taunton Hall."
"'The Mistress of Taunton Hall' sounds like a gothic novel in which a New York socialite garners the title only to be attacked and torn to pieces on the property by a wild pack of English debutantes," I said.
"Or by Max," Betty said, as she loped into the house.
We arrived at Cockleshell at around noon. The Brills' sprawling pink stucco villa with two tennis courts, a huge swimming pool, and separate staff quarters was dramatically set under towering palm trees on six acres of prime oceanfront property. It was so big, it looked more like a hotel than a private residence. As we walked through the luscious grounds rife with exotic flowers, plants, and fragrant trees, a high-pitched, stylized laugh rang out over the air, trumping the chirping birds and rustling palms.
"That's Mina!" Betty said with irritation. "She's from Hagerstown, Maryland, but now she even laughs like the Queen of England." Betty was none too fond of her only daughter's future mother-in-law.
We changed direction to follow the rippling sound. Betty led the way through an alley of towering banana palms into a little forest surrounding a man-made pond nestled among large, mossy rocks. Low-slung tree trunks curled out over this miniature lagoon like thick, black snakes. Murky rays of sunlight filtered through the thick foliage gilding patches of the dark water. Mina Brill, a tall, wild-haired woman who was dressed in a pair of khaki safari shorts, which accentuated her skinny legs, and a white T-shirt, which accentuated her large bosom, stood at the edge of the pond. Surrounded by the familiar crowd of well-heeled wedding guests we had seen throughout the week's events, she was pointing up at the trees. Everyone's gaze was intently focused on something high above in the tangle of branches.
"Uh-oh, not that fucking monkey again," Betty moaned as we approached. She apparently knew the drill.
When Mina spotted Betty and me out of the corner of her eye, she waved us over to join the group, signaling us with forefinger to lips to be very quiet. The air of expectancy was palpable. Betty and I trod cautiously across the lawn. No one dared move.
"The green monkey," Mina said softly as we drew close. "Be very quiet or you'll scare him away."
"With any luck," Betty muttered under her breath.
The vigil resumed. Betty scanned the group.
"I don't see Max," she whispered. "Oh, wait! There he is! Right over there!"
She pointed discreetly-or discreetly for Betty, at any rate-at a tall, attractive man standing off to one side with his arms crossed in front of him, peering up at the trees with a slightly bemused expression on his face. Max had the kind of looks that appear mature in youth and young in maturity. At sixty, he was even more attractive than I remembered him. There was a grand air of detachment about him that I suspect rather appealed to sophisticated women possessed with a slight streak of masochism. I'm not sure why, but in observing him I sensed immediately that he was one of those men who are emotionally unattainable. His aloofness had a soft sheen to it, rather like a well-worn suit of armor.
"He looks pretty good for an old codger, doesn't he?" Betty said, nudging me.
"Betts, if he's an old codger, what does that make us?" I asked.
"Old bats," she replied, and walked on.
I have to say that the prolonged and earnest viewing of monkeys, however rare and exotic, is not my thing, and it certainly isn't Betty's. For the sake of politeness, however, I stared up at the trees like everyone else, although after a while my attention wandered, as I was more interested in looking over the crowd. I saw mainly the same faces I'd seen all week, including Missy, the bride-to-be, who resembled an Afghan hound with her long face and long hair; Woody Brill, her fiance, a clean-cut stockbroker in his late twenties; and my old pals, Ethan Monk, now the curator of Old Master paintings at the Municipal Museum, and Miranda Somers, the beautiful and ageless chronicler of New York society. Miranda writes the "Daisy" column for Nous magazine, and her presence at any event signals that it is the right place to be. Miranda, Ethan, and I had all sat at the same table the night before, and like myself, they both seemed a little the worse for wear. In fact, seeing their haggard faces made me wish I was meeting Max in light slightly more forgiving than bright, tropical sunshine.
There were also some new additions to the crowd today, a few more pals, some people I didn't recognize at all, and one couple whom I hadn't seen in ages, Russell and Carla Cole. Russell Cole was Missy Waterman's billionaire godfather, and he and his wife were giving Missy her bridal dinner that night aboard their spectacular two-hundred-and-twenty-five-foot yacht called The Lady C. Carla Cole was Russell's controversial second wife. I didn't know her well, but I had always liked her. Theirs had been a famously celebrated and stormy union.
Anyone familiar with the history of costly breakups in New York knows that Russell Cole paid almost as dearly to get out of his first marriage as did Henry the Eighth. In a road-company version of that historic split, the Cole divorce some years ago caused a major rift in our social circle. Lulu-the first Mrs. Cole-did not only not go gently into the divorcee night, she went raging into it with the fury of a thousand women scorned. I remember Betty joking at the time, "If Russell had known Lulu was capable of that much passion, he might not have left her."
I watched the Coles as they stood next to each other, attired in color-coordinated outfits. With their fixed smiles and slightly vacant demeanors, they subtly proclaimed a pampered and privileged existence, a life lived far above the fray. They were both uncannily well groomed, neat and immaculate in chic, razor-pressed linen with shiny, unwilted hair. Their manicured appearance was miraculously immune to the humidity. It was as if their presentation was in some inexplicable way a great measure of their life together. The accoutrements of wealth-the custom-made resort clothes, the most expensive watches, the latest sunglasses, etc.-were on view, but they were understated, not flashy or obvious, meant only for those who understood them.
Russell Cole, in his late fifties, was not a prepossessing man. He had a slim build and was only slightly taller than his much younger wife. His boyish face harbored a pair of melancholy gray eyes. He had sand-colored hair, perfectly parted to one side, and the rigid stance of someone who either had once been to military school or had served in the armed forces. He was wearing a pale blue voile shirt, and in a chic, offbeat touch, he had threaded a blue necktie through the loops of the waistband of his cream linen trousers and tied it in a loose knot off to one side. Very Fred Astaire.
Carla, a striking woman in her late thirties, had asymmetrical features and an exotic aura. She was truly what the French call a jolie laide-a "beautiful ugly." Her nose was slightly too long, her eyes were set too close together, and her lips were thin, like two slashes. Yet all together, they formed a fascinating face, enhanced by her inner vivacity and the allure of a throaty foreign accent. She had luminous skin, which, despite the fact that she spent most of her time on a boat, was creamy white, as if she never saw the sun.
"Oh, look! There's Russell and Carla," Betty said. "I've gotta talk to Carla about tonight. Come with me."
As we quietly edged our way closer to the Coles, there was a sudden, faint swishing noise in the branches above. Mina went on high alert.
"There!" she said, pointing up. "He's there!"
Betty and I paused to look. I saw the glint of what could conceivably have been a simian face-or, more likely, the knot of a tree exposed when a gust of wind parted the surrounding leaves. I couldn't tell which, and I seriously doubted if anyone else could, either. Nor, I might add, did we care.
Excerpted from ONE DANGEROUS LADY by JANE STANTON HITCHCOCK Copyright © 2005 by Jane Stanton Hitchcock. Excerpted by permission.
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