The man known as Paul Gregory put down the phone, adjusted his expression and turned to the redhead in the green dress who had been trying to attract his attention. He placed his hands on her shoulders, looked deeply into her eyes and softly sang, “Con te partiro . . .” to the accompaniment of the music playing on the sound system.
“That’s lovely, Paul.”
“Do you know what it means?”
She sighed rapturously. “Tell me.”
“Time to say goodbye.”
“Oh, you!” Realizing she’d been tricked, she frowned. “No, it doesn’t!”
She smiled tantalizingly and persevered. “But Paul, the night’s still young!”
“And you’re so beautiful, I know.” He hung a fur jacket over her shoulders as he gently guided her to the massive double doors of his fashionable nightspot.
“Can’t we have just one more drink? We’ve hardly had a chance to talk all night.”
“The law says no, Gloria. It’s after hours — they’ll close me down.” He pushed one of the doors open and pointed. “Look, Bill’s brought the car around. He’s waiting to take you home.”
She directed a scowl at the driver. “Damn.”
“There’ll be other nights.” Paul took her elbow, walked her to the car, opened the door and helped her into the seat. He spoke a few words to the driver and waved them off.
Back inside, he locked the massive doors, strode to the nearest window and watched until the headlights swung out of the parking lot and disappeared behind the trees lining the road.
“Are you really worried about being closed down, Paulie?”
He glanced in the direction of the bar and grinned. “What do you think?”
“I think you just wanted to get rid of her.”
He felt suddenly tired and sighed heavily as he stepped behind the bar to balance the cash register receipts, a task usually performed by his hostess, Jocselyn “Jan” Janiszewski, who was now running a cloth listlessly over the gleaming mahogany bar.
He was a tall man with the kind of athletic build that wore clothes easily and well. His dark hair was brushed back and held a ponytail in place by tightly looping his hair around itself. His dark eyes could be mesmerizing and at times menacing under straight heavy brows. Although his smiles were frequent, they held little warmth; they either served to take the place of words or to punctuate his conversation. On the rare occasions when he truly laughed, however, he did so heartily, displaying even, white teeth. He was an extraordinarily handsome man and, to all appearances, one favored by the gods.
As he worked, he moved quickly and economically, wasting no energy on unnecessary action. Having finished tallying the receipts, he distributed the cash to his various pockets, leaving a hundred dollars in the register to begin the new day.
Jan looked up from wiping down the bar. “Finished already, Paulie?”
“Thanks to this expensive computer slash cash register. Pour us a drink, will you?”
A moment later, carrying a small brandy snifter in each hand, she set one on the bar next to him. He looked up from the stack of checks he was endorsing with a hand stamp and eyed her appreciatively. Her short, golden curls framed a lovely heart-shaped face with dimpled cheeks and a pair of large cornflower blue eyes. Her delicate appearance, however, belied surprising strength and stamina. She and Paul had grown up in the same rough south side Chicago neighborhood and, when Paul moved to Southern Illinois, she had followed him. Although they had worked together for years and were approximately the same age, she was frequently taken for a teenager and Paul spoke to her as if to someone much younger. She was careful to publicly allow him the respect due an employer, but he became “Paulie” when they were alone. It was no secret she was in love with him.
He swirled the brandy and lifted it to his nose, then raised his glass to her. “Thanks, kid.” She smiled and sipped, but made no response. He swept the stack of checks off the counter and into a bank pouch, stuffed it into a safe behind the bar, closed its door and twirled the combination lock. Draining his glass, he set it back on the bar.
He raised his eyes.
“Will I see you later?”
“Not tonight, kid. That other business is getting hot and we need to be ready, just in case.” She turned away. He walked over to her, bent and kissed her neck. “I’ll let you know.”
She twisted until she faced him, straightening and standing on tiptoe to join both arms around his neck, forcing his face down to hers while she kissed his lips hungrily. After an instant he raised his hands to release her hold as he stepped back.
“Let’s not start anything now, Jan . . .”
“Paulie, sometimes I think you’re just a workaholic.” She pretended to frown. “You know what they say: all work and no play . . .”
“And they’re undoubtedly right. But this dull boy is out of here.” He crossed to the kitchen door, pushed it open and shouted goodnight to the dishwasher and sweeper, who would let themselves out and lock up when they were finished. He strode to the front door and turned. “Careful when you leave, kid. You aren’t going to stay much longer, are you?” Before she could answer, he said more softly, “It’s late, Jan. Why don’t you just crash upstairs tonight? You can go home in the morning.”
“Without you, lover?” At his expression, she hurried to add, “I just might.” She grinned and sang out, “Don’t worry ’bout me — I’ll get along.” She had a powerful, low-pitched, husky voice, perfect for the torch songs she sang on weekend nights while Johnny played the grand piano in the cocktail lounge. Johnny Hughes washed dishes five nights a week to help support himself while earning a music degree at the university nearby.
Paul raised his right hand to his temple in mock salute, turned and left, securing the door behind him. He crossed the lot, unlocking the Atlantis blue Buick LaCrosse with his keyless entry remote as he approached it. Although he maintained an expensively furnished apartment above his night club, he only used it occasionally when circumstances didn’t permit travel to his home twelve miles away. He enjoyed the scenic drive to and from his secluded lake house; it provided the peace and serenity his soul seemed to crave.
Tonight the club had done its usual good Sunday business, but as he headed home Paul wasn’t thinking of that. His expression was bemused as he remembered the first time he’d set foot in the club. It was known as the Blue Moon Saloon then and he’d been hired as a bartender by the elderly owner, Maureen McElroy, to discover who was robbing her. The Blue Moon was busy throughout the week and did a heavy weekend business, yet the receipts didn’t reflect this. Paul determined within the first half hour that the head bartender was leaving the cash drawer closed but unlocked and pocketing much of the cash. At Maureen’s insistence, Paul stayed on at the club as combination host, bartender and sometime bouncer. Maureen had charmed him and apparently he had in turn charmed her because she left the club to him in her will when she died fourteen months later.
He pulled his thoughts back to the present, marveling as he always did at the sight before him as he swung round a sharp curve and the dark glassy sweep of Devil’s Kitchen Lake sprang into view. Moonlight shimmered on the water, the dense woods formed a dramatic black backdrop and the silence was absolute. An abrupt twist in the road and the lake was lost to view. He slowed the car at this point; his headlights often caught an unexpected deer leaping into the road in this heavily forested section. After a few more turns, he swung off onto a narrow gravel track that swept down to his isolated home at the edge of Little Grassy Lake.
Once inside, he removed his jacket, tossing it onto a sofa as he crossed to a small bar set up in a corner. He poured an inch and a half of brandy into a tall glass, walked a few steps to the kitchen and topped it from the soda siphon he kept in the refrigerator. Returning to the living room, he switched off the lights, opened the blinds and dropped into a black leather Charles Eames chair, his favorite, by the large front window. He swung his legs onto the hassock before him and leaned back with a sigh. His view to the lake was unimpeded; the utter tranquility of the water and deep woods never failed to soothe his spirit and soon, his unfinished drink on the window sill, he got up and went to his bedroom. He let his clothes lay where they dropped and when he got into bed, he quickly fell asleep and dreamed of the girl he’d seen with Sam Meredith at his club the night before.
This time Meredith wasn’t there. In his dream they were in an opulent ballroom and he, Pál Gregor, was dancing with her. They were performing a fantastically intricate tango in perfect unison. Others on the floor stopped dancing in order to watch Pál and the girl. People applauded. Soon a crowd had formed around them and the orchestra began to play a waltz. She looked up at him and her face was exquisite, sculpted with the high cheekbones he’d always found attractive. Her body felt so right, fitting perfectly into his arms. Her sparkling blue eyes held an exotic upward tilt and her lips smiled enchantingly as they danced faster and faster in the waltz, her dark hair glossy and flying free as they spun. The tempo accelerated. She was laughing and so was he, but suddenly he was seized by the terrible fear that he’d be unable to maintain the ever-increasing pace. He’d grown dizzy as they whirled and began to panic, afraid he’d lead them both into a fall. He tried to tell her to save herself, but she was laughing still as he lost his balance and they crashed to the floor.
He was awake instantly, humiliation washing over him in waves. He knew it had been a dream, but his heart was pounding and his breath came in quick gasps.
It was three o’clock in the morning and she lay awake in her bed with the crisp white sheets, her head cradled in the large pillow covered by the lace-trimmed case with the letters LJG embroidered in script on its hem. She’d been trying to sleep for the past two hours, but the familiar worries and fears played themselves out again and again on the screen of her memory. Vexed, she sat up and managed to discern the numbers on the clock in the square silver frame atop the lingerie chest across the room. She was reluctant to take sleeping pills, afraid she’d develop a dependency. Sighing, she lay back.
Turning her head slightly on the pillow, she gazed at the wall where moonlight created ever-changing patterns of the moving leaves outside her window. On a breezy night they looked as though they were dancing in the moonlight. She’d learned long ago that if she concentrated her attention on the repetitively moving leaves this effort would enable her to relax and finally drift off to sleep. The ploy worked again and, as she slept, she dreamed of a man from another century, his long hair pulled back and caught at the nape of his neck — a man she was sure she’d seen before, perhaps as recently as yesterday, someone she instinctively felt was vaguely menacing. After she awoke, a feeling of unease remained. Why, she asked herself, should she dream of a stranger, someone whose name she’d never even heard?
A few hours later Liliane Greening pulled her five-year-old Chevy Corsica into her allotted parking place, entered the building, walked quickly down the hallway and opened the door marked Research. The clock on her credenza was chiming the half-hour as she hung her coat in the closet. She performed her office-opening routine feeling somewhat bemused, the curious dream still on her mind. The insistent buzz of her desk phone broke the silence and her office day began.
That evening in their favorite restaurant, Le Champignon, Lily sat across the table from Sam Meredith as his gaze held hers. Looking at him, she noticed again the perfect symmetry of his features, how his straw-colored hair complemented his clear green eyes, the way he wore his obviously expensive clothes with careless elegance and she realized just how many women in this college town must envy her. Not only was Professor Sam Meredith tall and handsome, he was witty and urbane and, despite his relative youth, at age thirty-three he held the prestigious position as Chairman of the university’s Department of Forestry. Although the Merediths owned the largest bank in town and Sam was a director, he had chosen a career other than banking.
Lily lifted her champagne glass by its stem and twirled it between her fingers, watching the bubbles rise. I’m happy, she thought, can this person be me? Sam is looking at me as if he cares, really cares about me. I know he does, it’s just so hard to believe that I’m here with him in this place at this time. Right now the hardest thing I have to do is believe that this is real, that it’s actually happening to me, that it’s all not just a dream.
“Lily? Where are you? I’ve been saying . . .”
“Oh, Sam, I’m sorry. I was just thinking.”
“You’ve nothing to be sorry for. Thinking what?”
“How lucky I am. How much I’m enjoying tonight. How much I like being with you. When all this will end.” She stopped and bit her lip; she hadn’t meant to verbalize that last thought.
“End? Why should it end?” He motioned the waiter to refill their glasses. “You’re a paradox, you know? You’re usually an up kind of person, yet at times you’re fatalistic.”
“Oh, I don’t agree, Sam. I consider myself a pragmatist. You have to be realistic in this life or you’ll get shot down every time.” She fleetingly wondered how she, of all people, could be saying these things when she had some very serious dreams she had every hope of achieving.
“You’re saying, `don’t expect too much for fear of being disappointed,′ aren’t you?”
“Sure, that’s the way it is.” She slanted a look at him, adding, “Of course, if your name is Meredith you can expect and demand anything.”
He laughed. “I’m not going to play your little game and I’m not going to let you lead me away from the subject, the topic of which is: Why doesn’t Lily Greening think enough of herself?”
She said nothing and tried to stifle a sigh.
“You’re a beautiful — yes, beautiful — woman, damn it.” And he smiled the lazy smile she loved as he added, “With a terrific figure. I don’t care if that does embarrass you. I’m tired of hearing you disparage yourself. Or,” he grinned wickedly, “is it false modesty?”
“Just because I don’t fish for compliments . . .”
“No, of course I don’t think that, you little fool,” he quickly added at her look of feigned reproach. He sipped his champagne, as he seemed to weigh a decision. Apparently having reached it, he put his glass down and rested his chin on his fists. “You know, you have the loveliest lips — I’d like to kiss them right now.”
Lily squirmed and sighed ostentatiously.
“Okay, let’s make a list. You’re — what? About five-six? You weigh . . .” He laughed. “Never mind — I’ve been around long enough to know women always lie about their weight. In your case, it doesn’t matter anyway. Anyone can see you’ve got a great body.”
“Please, Sam . . .”
He disregarded her interruption. “Your hair is dark brown, very dark and very — shiny. No, that’s not the word, is it? Glossy, that’s it — your hair is glossy. And what style do you call it where your hair turns under at your shoulders?”
“Sam, this is embar . . .”
“No, don’t interrupt. We’re listing all your good points. I’m going to get rid of that complex of yours once and for all.”
She was affronted. “I don’t have a complex.”
“Okay, you don’t have a complex. But nevertheless, I don’t think you give yourself enough credit.”
“Credit for what, Sam? Just because I don’t flaunt . . .”
“No, thank God, you don’t. And I’m not saying you should. I guess I should be grateful — you’d be pretty hard to take if you strutted around like some women I know.” He smiled into her eyes and she felt herself glow with pleasure. “Now, where were we? Let’s see,” and he sang softly, “Your lips, your eyes, your teeth, your hair are in a class beyond compare; you’re the loveliest girl . . .” He broke off and laughed at her intense discomfort.
“No, let me finish. Let’s see, we’ve discussed your hair — what comes next? Ah, yes, your eyes. Your eyes are blue, dark blue, and they’re set so they tilt up at the outer corners. Your eyebrows kind of arch so they — what’s the word? Conform, they conform to your eyes.”
“Are you through yet?”
“Your eyelids give you a sultry kind of look, did you know that? I can see you don’t approve — Lily Greening is not sultry and nobody should think she is, is that it? Misleading or not, it’s there, that look.”
“Sam, could we please change the subject?”
“Not yet. I’ve still got to talk about your — what comes next?”
“Nothing, I’m leaving.”
She started to rise and he put out a hand to stop her, as he continued, “Oh, yes, your teeth.”
“My teeth?” She winced, “Uh oh . . .”
“Yes, your teeth — they’re . . .”
“I know. Protuberant.”
“No, not protuberant — they’re just a little . . .”
“Well, yes, I guess that’s what they are. A little. In a charming way . . .”
She burst out laughing. “Why, Dr. Samuel Meredith! I’ve never seen you at a loss for words before. I should let you go on and give you enough rope to hang yourself.” Another paroxysm of laughter shook her until finally she was able to stop, catch her breath, and wipe her eyes on the corner of her napkin. “Tell me, should I stop smiling? No more teeth; how’s this?” She gave him a demure smile with closed lips.
“What I was trying to say — and obviously not doing a very good job about it — is that I love your smile. Your teeth are just off enough to be adorable.”
“But you just said they’re prominent.”
“Well, no, that’s not it — you have this cute sort of overbite. You’re even more — er, provocative — because of it.” He ran a finger under his collar. “How’s that for a neat escape?”
“Narrow, but neat.”
His eyebrows shot up. “I know who you remind me of. It’s been bothering me ever since I first saw you. Have you ever seen that great film noir from the 40s, what’s it called — “Laura?” That’s it, Gene Tierney played Laura! She was beautiful; that’s who you remind me of!”
“Oh, Sam, do you really mean it?” She stopped, her expression changing to a knowing look as she nodded, “Not so fast, buddy. You’re putting me on and I almost fell for it.”
“No, really, Lily. Your smile is the same.”
“Talk about making a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Or however it goes. But that’s a real compliment, so this time I’ve got to say thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Now, let’s see — I think we need to talk about your cheeks now . . .”
“My cheeks?” She quickly glanced from side to side to be sure no one could hear and hissed, “Sam, will you stop? This is embarrassing.”
“Did I ever tell you I love your high cheekbones?”
“No, of course not. Nobody has.”
“Consider it said. I love the way you look and everything about you. You’ve got to understand you’re a knockout, honey. Loosen up and live a little.”
“You’re right, Dr. Meredith. I’m going to obey your orders and start right now by ordering the lobster.” Lily sparkled as she said it; if he wanted her to sparkle, that’s what she was going to do. She took a long swallow of champagne, gave him a perfunctory smile, picked up her evening bag and excused herself from the table.
A moment later as she pushed open the ladies’ room door, she almost collided with one of the loveliest women she’d ever seen. She was taller than Lily and wore an ivory sheath of a dress, her blonde hair pulled back into a classic chignon. Her face was a perfect oval, her grey eyes placid and assured under delicately arched brows. The two women smiled at one another automatically as they passed at the door.
Peering into the mirror, Lily washed and dried her hands, touched up her lipstick, then searched for the beauty Sam had just spoken of. Even if he’d been shamelessly flattering her, it was still a great ego trip. She thought her best feature was her mouth, her smile inherited from her mother. She was puzzled that the terrible events of two years ago didn’t show on her face; she looked, somehow, unmarked by them and appeared younger than her twenty-nine years.
As she crossed the dining room to rejoin Sam, she passed the beautiful blonde who was gesturing and talking animatedly to the man Lily only knew as the mysterious stranger of her dream. Surprise made her almost stop in her tracks. She pretended to stumble and caught the back of an empty chair. She tried not to stare, but couldn’t help herself as for the first time she saw him laughing and he was handsome indeed, his dark good looks no longer menacing.
As she reached their table and Sam rose to hold her chair for her, she said, “Don’t look now, but in a few moments will you casually glance at the couple sitting near the fireplace? Tell me if you know who they are.”
Sam turned around immediately, at the same time the dark stranger turned to look at them. Acutely uncomfortable, Lily feigned interest elsewhere.
“Lily, my sweet, that is none other than Paul Gregory. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of him?”
“Why? Is he famous?”
“Infamous is more like it. He’s the owner of Pal’s — you know — we were there on Sunday.” He turned, as if to make sure no one was eavesdropping, then leaned forward as he lowered his voice. “He’s involved in some sort of underworld activities, at least that’s the rumor. A while back, they say, he killed a man, something about blackmail and a woman.”
“Killed a man! Why is he free and walking around?” She nodded, remembering. “I knew I’d seen him before. It must have been at Pal’s.” She didn’t mention her dream.
He frowned. “You’re certainly attracted by some odd types.”
“Sam, I’m not attracted. It’s just that I keep seeing him when we’re out and I wondered who he is, that’s all. And don’t you think that girl he’s with is the most exquisite creature you’ve ever seen?”
He looked at her and grimly shook his head. “No, I don’t. But I’ll admit she is good looking and she’d be the first to agree.” He broke off and reflected for a few beats. “But you’re right — she is physically beautiful. And rich. In case you don’t know, that is Cynthia Compton, of the St. Louis Comptons, well-known patrons of the arts.” He recited the words as a litany. “Your boy certainly can pick ’em.” He pierced an asparagus spear with his fork.
“Don’t call him my boy. I think he’s scary. If the Comptons are such important people, why do you think she goes out with him? Doesn’t her family object?”
“Because Ms. Cynthia does as she damn well pleases. And she probably figures being seen with Paul Gregory is dangerous and exciting.” Hearing the unaccustomed note of asperity in Sam’s voice, Lily shot him a glance, catching his quick frown. He immediately forced a smile and changed the subject.
They’d finished their meal and were drinking coffee. She’d been laughing, telling him about the hilarious book she was reading, then noticed that, although he was observing her intently, he wasn’t really listening to her. She stopped talking.
“Do you want to tell me what’s on your mind, Sam?”
He smiled the lazy smile she loved, his eyes lighting his face. “You, my darling. Do you think it would be presumptuous of me to take you away from here and hope for maybe a nightcap at your place?”
“What a good idea,” she responded with a mental frown. The thought of yet another downward spiral in her life frightened her. She did not want to get involved in any tawdry affair. She meant to be very careful with Sam; he must not be permitted to think she was anything like the other females she’d heard he’d discarded. Although she’d recently begun to believe she might have a future after all, she was still picking up the pieces of her broken life.
As Sam helped her with her coat, she glanced around the crowded restaurant, nodding and waving as she recognized several acquaintances. Her glance fell on the table near the fireplace and her eyes met the dark steady gaze of Paul Gregory as he helped the blonde from her chair. Lily remembered the first time she’d seen him; she’d thought him ruggedly handsome — in a saturnine sort of way. She’d originally seen him full face, his dark hair brushed back, his sideburns cut medium length. She’d been a bit put off by the ponytail, considering it outré, somehow affected. His sardonic expression dispelled that idea, however.
Waiting by the door while Sam went for his car, she was able to observe Paul Gregory as he left the restaurant with the Compton woman on his arm. To label him handsome wasn’t adequate; his exceptional good looks included something more, an indefinable magnetism. His build was muscular, yet he walked with an easy grace she found disturbingly masculine. He turned once to look back at her. She felt sure he’d known her eyes would be on him.
Lily awoke at four o’clock the following morning, just four hours after she’d fallen asleep. No moonlight this time; the sky was overcast; hence, no moonlight and no leaf-dancing to watch. Tossing from side to side, she finally admitted that on this occasion she wouldn’t win, wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep.
In spite of herself, her thoughts turned to the events and problems of two years ago, the outcome of which still plagued her dreams. She’d found herself in one heartbreaking predicament after another, helpless to protect her home, her marriage, unable to save her mother from the insidious cancer that claimed her. She was left feeling bereft and hopeless, totally alone.
Lily relived the pain of those days whenever she allowed herself to dwell upon the past; she normally wouldn’t tolerate those bleak, black thoughts, but they enveloped her when she was tired and hadn’t the mental strength to ward them off. Then the sorrow — the loss — engulfed her.
But, Lily was quick to assure herself, these bouts of despair didn’t come so frequently now that Sam Meredith had befriended her.
Samuel Chasen Meredith was everything any woman would want: a wonderful companion, good looking, a witty conversationalist with an easy humor, he was welcome in any group. He was also the scion of the renowned Meredith family, one of the older, wealthy families in the area, and his home, Meredith Manor, was known far and wide as possibly the loveliest in the southern half of the state. Sam lived at the mansion with his father, an older half-sister, his younger brother and, of course, a staff of servants. The parties held at Meredith Manor were celebrated and people maneuvered to get their names on the invitation lists.
Sam’s membership in the legendary Meredith family kept people frequently trying to curry favor with him. His had been a life of privilege and easy friendships, Lily had been warned, and a series of brokenhearted and disappointed females were still waiting for him to return their calls. I’m glad Sam isn’t spoiled by all the attention he gets, Lily often thought. He’s just such a genuinely nice guy, he’s almost too good to be true.