Standing in a quiet corner by the buffet table, Anne Wilson ate a handful of delicious frosted grapes, one by one, and tried to remember the obscure minor poet who had once said that many a dangerous temptation came in fine, gay colors. She had never seen such a lovely room. But the crowd of people milling about it laughed and chattered heedlessly, ignoring the incredible view of the city beyond the wide windows, abandoning their glasses to leave damp circles on the priceless antique furniture, crushing the white carpet, demolishing the lavish buffet like a horde of greedy locusts.
They were obviously accustomed to temptations, Anne thought ruefully, and it took a simple schoolmarm from the suburbs to be impressed. She had recognized a television star or two, as well as a famous blonde from Hollywood, and earlier Nina Fleming had pointed out the producer she had come to town to see and the young actor with two Emmy awards who wanted the lead in Nina’s new show. There were others who were undoubtedly important in Nina Fleming’s world, and some who were not, but, since they wore no labels, Anne had no way of distinguishing the mink from the dyed squirrel. The young man, for instance, who had spoken briefly to her a few minutes ago. She could see him across the room, leaning his shoulders against the wall as he conversed with the man beside him.
Very dangerous. Very tempting. As for the fine, gay colors, Anne could only be grateful that he was dressed in a conservative dark suit. Enough was enough, after all, and a schoolmarm could cope with just so much splendor. He had paused beside her with a casual, “Hello, I’m Gard Mitchell. Can I get you anything? Food? A drink?”
“Nothing, thanks,” she said, privately admiring his tan, the hard bones shaping his face and the ridiculously thick black lashes that seemed almost to hide his gray eyes.
“Don’t you know anybody in this mob? I’ll introduce you around if you like.”
“Please don’t bother. I’m having a wonderful time, really.”
“Standing in a corner all by yourself, eating grapes?” He had a slow, friendly smile. “If you’re the retiring kind, why did you come?”
“I don’t know,” she said with candid amusement. Then she added, “I came with Miss Fleming.”
He looked down at her thoughtfully. “Do I know you?”
“No,” she said gravely.
He waited. Then he said patiently, “I would like to, if you please.”
Someone came by and said, “Scott wants to see you.”
He said absently, “Sure, be right there,” and kept looking down at Anne. “Well?”
He looked as if he might stand there indefinitely, waiting, so she said, “I’m Anne Wilson.”
“Thank you. That wasn’t so hard, was it?” He shook his head and sighed. “Where did you come from, baby dear, out of the nowhere into here?”
“I came with Miss Fleming,” Anne repeated, trying not to laugh.
“I know — you told me.” His gray eyes were a little puzzled, as if he knew very well that she didn’t belong to the elegant black Mainbocher dress. But he smiled at her and said, “Nina’s taste is improving. Look, I’ll be back. Don’t go away.”
Anne didn’t tell him that she wasn’t likely to go anywhere. She had two crumpled one-dollar bills in her purse, a magnificent fortune which must last her until payday, and in any case she doubted if she could stretch it to cover cab and train fare back to New Pelham.
The whole thing was ridiculous, of course. She had gone out to mail a letter, as unsuspecting as the poor fellow in the fairy tale who tilted his jug at dinner one ordinary evening and was stunned to pour out a genie instead of red wine.
The man in the fairy tale, however, was not cursed with a warped sense of humor. He would never have stopped on the sidewalk to stare, entranced, at the woman who came out of a house, carefully placed a lounge chair on the lawn and then stretched out on it with an air of happy contentment.
Anne had known very well that the neighbors frowned on the rude practice of staring at Nina Fleming. While curiosity, envy and mild disapproval were inevitable over the local bridge tables, New Pelham prided itself on a standard of public good manners that disregarded celebrities as if they didn’t exist.
But she couldn’t tear herself away from the fascinating sight of Nina Fleming reclining on a lawn chair in the late afternoon of a gray November day, surrounded by snowy lawns and trees that rattled desolately in a raw north wind.
Then it was too late to turn away. Nina Fleming called, “Please don’t go away,” and walked toward the gate.
“Are you one of my neighbors? I’ve lived here three months and you’re the first person I’ve met, other than delivery boys and the gardener.”
She looked lovelier in person than across the footlights, and younger than a woman her age had a right to look.
“Isn’t the weather atrocious?” she asked in the famous deep, throaty voice.
“You seemed to be enjoying it,” Anne said mildly.
Nina Fleming laughed. “Is that why you were staring? I was only trying to remember where I planted my bulbs. The day I planned the garden I was sitting in that exact spot, so I thought it might jog my memory to do it again.”
A little awed, Anne asked, “Did it?”
“Of course,” Nina Fleming said, and added abruptly, “You have the most extraordinary face. Egyptian, perhaps, with a touch of the Oriental in your bones. It’s really quite interesting.”
Anne thought it wise to keep a discreet silence.
“There, you see,” Nina Fleming said triumphantly. “You’re laughing at me, but only your eyes give you away. I had a fascinating Siamese cat once who had the same sort of inscrutable face.” She gave Anne a brilliant smile. “Please come in for a cup of tea. I baked some delicious coffeecake this morning.”
Looking back, Anne had to admit that she was lost from that moment. The temptation to learn more about Nina Fleming was irresistible; anyone who sat in the snow to recall decisions made on a warm autumn day, and invited a perfect stranger in for tea simply because her face had the look of a Siamese cat, was obviously not in the usual run of celebrities.
But in the end it was Nina Fleming who learned more about Anne. Before the second cup of tea she had somehow discovered that Anne was twenty-two, lived rather quietly at home, had seen her parents off that morning for a weekend visit to Aunt Ethel in Boston and was one of New Pelham’s youngest schoolteachers.
“How delightful,” she said. “Do you really like children? I’ve always wanted a dozen, but I have only one of my own.”
Anne, who vaguely remembered the local rumors about Nina’s love life, but none about a husband or children, tactfully said nothing.
“Perhaps it’s just as well, since I’ve never had time to be the kind of mother a child needs. I wish you could meet my son, Anne. He’s always been lonelier, I think, than he’ll ever admit. You’d be very good for him.”
Anne, touched by the thought of a lonely little boy, probably tucked away in military schools and camps most of his life because his mother had no time for him, said, “I’d like to meet him.”
“Then you shall,” Nina Fleming said. “Why not today?”
Anne, standing there in Nina’s luxurious city apartment, wearing one of Nina’s dresses and smelling delightfully of Nina’s most expensive perfume, had to admit that she had only herself to blame. She could have refused.
But she also had to admit that she was enjoying herself hugely and didn’t regret anything, not even the absence of the sadeyed little boy, apparently still tucked away and forgotten by his mother.
“Anne, what are you doing alone?”
She turned to Nina. “Enjoying myself.”
“I hope so, sweet, that’s why I brought you. But now I have the problem of getting you home again.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Anne said, considering the possibility of asking one of the maids for a small loan. “It’s still early, and I can catch a train.”
“Don’t be foolish. I’ll find somebody to run you out if you insist. But didn’t you tell me that your parents were away? There’s no urgent reason for you to rush back, and I have a much better plan.” Anne asked, “What sort of plan?”
“They want to see me on the Coast,” Nina said vaguely, “about some tiresome decisions they could very well handle without me. But Scott had the marvelous idea of flying out, if only to get away from this weather for a day or two.”
Anne’s eyes widened. “A marvelous idea,” she agreed faintly.
“Admit you think it’s utterly ridiculous,” Nina said and laughed. “But it might be fun. Wouldn’t you like to come along?”
Anne opened her mouth to speak, then closed it.
“It won’t cost you anything. Scott has his own plane, and he keeps a house in Los Angeles open for us to use whenever we’re there. We’ll fly back Sunday.”
“It does sound like fun,” Anne said.
“Do come,” Nina said with a dazzling smile. “I’ll send Gard along to see that you aren’t left behind in the general confusion. He’s such a love, you know, I couldn’t manage without him.”
Anne drew a deep breath and looked across the room. Gard Mitchell. Not a famous name, at least in New Pelham. A hanger-on then? An ambitious young actor who had caught Nina’s interest?
She watched as Nina reached him, spoke to him briefly, then reached up to kiss his cheek. He smiled down at her and put his arm around her waist. A love, Nina couldn’t manage without him.
Anne edged slowly along the wall toward the bedroom, hoping she could find, somewhere among the mink stoles on Nina’s bed, her own battered tweed coat and wool dress. But suddenly she was trapped between a maid with a tray of drinks and Gard Mitchell.
“Nina tells me you’re going out to the Coast with us,” he said. “Are you sure you’re doing the right thing?”
Anne, her mouth open to deny that she was going anywhere, said instead, “No, I’m not at all sure. Why?”
He put one finger under her chin and lifted it. “You might make it,” he said thoughtfully. “It’s just possible that somebody out there will have enough intelligence to see it.” He added, “An interesting face. Very.”
Anne said. “Like a Siamese cat’s.”
“Good bones. Unusual eyes. Did you know they tilt up at the corners when you smile?” He hesitated, said, “Mouth, very — “ and stopped abruptly.
Fascinated, Anne waited. But he took his hand away and scowled at her. “Nina ought to be shot. Why don’t you go home and forget the whole idea?”
Temptation was a sneaky thing. “I expect it’ll come to that eventually,” she said, immensely diverted by the idea that anyone could mistake her for an aspiring Hollywood starlet.
He shrugged. “I know, it’s none of my business. Well, not much can happen over a weekend.”
She could have told him that he was dead wrong, that enough could happen in a few hours to make any normal person’s head whirl. But everything in life was relative, and what seemed fantastic to a schoolteacher from New Pelham was probably the dullest old hat to the inhabitants of Nina Fleming’s world.
The plane, for instance, which seemed incredibly large and luxurious to belong to a private citizen. And the nonchalant passengers, one still carrying a plate of food, who seemed to think it nothing out of the ordinary to fly from a cocktail party to California simply to escape the weather for a day or two.
“You can unbuckle your seat belt now,” Gard said in her ear. “You’re on your way. The next time you put your dainty foot on solid ground it’ll be El Dorado. The Gold Coast. Home of the beautiful and famous and rich. A guinea hen in every pot and an Alfa Romeo in every split-level garage.” He leaned his head back and looked at the ceiling. “If Nina promised to help you, she’ll do it. But most of the way you’ll be on your own, and you’re not hard enough. You don’t know how to push. You ought to know better.”
He sounded tired and cross. “Do you?” Anne asked curiously.
“Do I what?”
“Know how to push.”
“I might,” he said, “but don’t think I’m going to teach you.”
Scott Vaughn stopped in the aisle beside them, a tall man with graying hair, who gave Anne a brief smile and bent to say to Gard, “How long did you say we’d have in Kansas City? Long enough for you to make a couple of calls for me?”
Gard nodded. Anne watched the man move away, big and taciturn, everything about him hinting unobtrusively of money and prestige and power.
“Who is he?” she asked, watching him sit down beside Nina.
Gard sighed. “Don’t you know?” Then he added quite casually, “It may look good, honey, but it’s not for you.”
After a stunned moment Anne laughed. “I only wondered if he’s important.”
“Important enough. He dabbles in oil, television, the theater, a few other odds and ends. But oil comes first, I’d say.”
“Do you work for him?”
He turned in his seat to stare at her.
“I’m sorry,” she said apologetically. “Should I know about you too?”
“No,” he said slowly, “I’m not important. Don’t own a single oil well. I don’t work for Scott either.”
It slipped out before she thought. “Then you belong to Nina.”
He smiled his slow, warm, charming smile. “You might say that,” he said. “But she’s generous; she won’t mind sharing me.” He reached across her to push a button, reclining her seat, and tucked her arm inside his. “Go to sleep. My shoulder is exclusively yours.”
Anne closed her eyes. The whole ridiculous affair had long since gone beyond her control.
When they landed in Los Angeles, Anne blinked sleepily at her first sight of the fabulous Coast. But there was very little to see in the faint gray light before dawn, and Gard’s firm hand guided her down the steps to a waiting limousine. Unable to keep her eyes open, she was asleep again within seconds, and later had only a blurred impression of being led down a carpeted hallway.
Somebody’s low, amused voice asked, “Do you think you can make it the rest of the way?”
“Of course,” she said with dignity, and leaned her head against a wall.
“You had too much to drink,” the voice said firmly. “I’ll come in and see that you get to bed.”
Anne’s eyes flew open. “I didn’t have anything to drink,” she said.
Gard laughed down at her. “Awake now? Straight through the door and turn to your left.”
He pushed her gently inside the room and closed the door. Obediently she turned left, but before she collapsed across the enormous bed she conscientiously removed the borrowed mink coat and expensive dress. When they left Nina’s apartment in New York they hadn’t been able to find the old tweed coat; Anne hoped none of the maids had taken it home by mistake.
She awakened with bright sunlight in her eyes and Nina’s deep voice saying, “I hate to bother you, darling, but your breakfast is on the way.”
Anne sat up in bed.
Nina said, “Feeling better?”
“Much,” Anne said, eying Nina cautiously. “Any new plans for me?”
Nina laughed. “You’re very nice,” she said. “Just have fun — do anything you like. I’ll be tied up for the afternoon, but Gard will look after you. The house and pool are yours, and if you need a car, use any you find with the keys handy.” She closed the door, then opened it again. “Help yourself to any clothes you need.”
It occurred to Anne that Nina’s generosity was not only inexplicable, but definitely suspect. Have fun. Help yourself to my clothes, my house and pool, my cars. And Gard Mitchell. Yes, the first tiny seeds of madness could certainly be detected there.
Later, wearing a swim suit which seemed abbreviated to the brink of disaster, she wrapped a large towel around her and went walking through the grounds in search of the pool.
A fat man with a newspaper hiding his face slept peacefully on a lounge chair, and two gorgeous blondes were draped over the diving board. But the pool was empty, and no one seemed at all interested in Anne Wilson, bikini or not, or in anything so strenuous as swimming.
She didn’t care. It was pure bliss to be swimming in November, and she lapped the pool a dozen times without tiring.
Gard Mitchell arrived. “You’re wasting your time,” he remarked, waiting for her at the top of the ladder. “Nobody’s casting for an Esther Williams spectacufar.” He grinned at her. “Too bad. You look fine, in or out of the water.”
Suddenly aware that the bikini had never been designed for such energetic use, Anne reached for the towel.
“You’re blushing,” Gard said, on a note of surprise, and added, “all over.”
Anne ignored him. Wrapping the towel around her, she stretched out on a yellow mattress and closed her eyes.
“Mind if I join you?”
Anne sighed. “Why not? You’re at my disposal, along with the house and pool and any car with the keys handy.”
“Nina’s idea of hospitality,” he said, sounding amused.
Anne gave it up. He didn’t seem to mind being shared; perhaps he was accustomed to the chore of entertaining any of Nina’s odd friends who couldn’t be left to wander around alone. For a fleeting moment she considered asking him about Nina’s son, that lonely little boy she had gone to New York to meet, but in the end she decided against it.
“What’s with you?” Gard asked. “I thought you’d be up and at ‘em, not sleeping in the sun.”
“I have the afternoon all mapped out,” she said, opening her eyes. “I was only waiting for you to help me.”
“I thought so,” he said with a lack of enthusiasm. “Well, let’s hear it.”
“I want to see everything,” Anne said. “Disneyland. The freeways. Muscle Beach, the Sunset Strip, Farmer’s Market. And Beverly Hills, of course.” The gray eyes rested thoughtfully on her face. “I can go alone,” she said gently, “if you have other plans.”
After another long interval of silence, he stood up abruptly and reached out a hand to pull her up. “Be my guest,” he said, and smiled at her.
He was, Anne decided, a most satisfactory person.
By dusk, when he finally turned the long white nose of Scott Vaughn’s sports car toward Santa Monica and the Pacific, he had shown her all of Los Angeles that could be crowded into a brilliant, sunlit afternoon. More than that, he had seemed to enjoy it, even Disneyland.
Anne gave him a brief, wondering scrutiny. He was whistling under his breath as he drove; in his sweater and chinos he might have been any ordinary young man taking his girl to the beach for the evening.
But she was not his girl, and he was not an ordinary young man, and the lovely bright afternoon was almost over. She sighed, wondering what had become of her sense of humor.
“Tired?” he asked immediately. “We’ll grab a bite to eat and take a quick run up the beach before we head back. I’m afraid it’s too late to admire any muscle men, but the Pacific is something to see in the moonlight.”
It was, indeed. After driving up the coast highway until Malibu and the streams of traffic were left behind, Gard parked the car and they climbed down the rocks to the beach. Then they took off their shoes and wandered along the sand, hand in hand; like two sinners in paradise, Anne thought, and it was a very good thing that the New Pelham P.T.A. was almost 3000 miles away.
Gard turned suddenly, his hands pulling her to a halt. He looked down at her silently in the moonlight, and for a long, unsteady moment she held her breath, waiting. Then he said, “We’d better go. Nina plans to leave at dawn, so you’ll need some sleep.”
Well, there it was. The setting was certainly pure Hollywood, but Anne had a sneaky suspicion that the script would be a sad disappointment to even the most uncritical of movie fans.
When Scott Vaughn’s plane landed in New York, a quiet, subdued crowd looked out of the cabin windows at the cold November snowstorm.
Anne stayed in her seat until the last blonde had left the cabin in a flurry of mink and dramatic farewells, but no one paid her the least attention. Gard sat down, long legs out before him, and closed his eyes, and Nina curled up on a seat, with her hand in Scott’s; they looked settled for the night.
Then Scott said, “Gard, Nina and I plan to stay in town tonight. Will you drive her car home?”
Anne glanced at Gard. It was obvious that he didn’t stand a chance against oil wells and private airliners, but she’d think that anyone with an ounce of pride would make a fight of it.
But he only opened his eyes and said easily, “Sure, be glad to.”
“I’m getting too old for this, Nina,” Scott said. “Next time you might try writing. I’ll buy you an airmail stamp.”
“A drag, wasn’t it?” Nina said sleepily. . .. “Gard, did you and Anne Wilson enjoy yourselves?”
“I did,” Gard said, “but I can’t speak for Anne.”
There was a brief silence. Then three pairs of eyes turned toward Anne.
“Age must have nothing to do with it,” Nina said contritely. “She looks very tired, Scott, and she’s at least twenty years younger than we are.”
Despite everything, Anne found it very difficult to dislike Nina Fleming. “I had a wonderful time,” she said, and added apologetically, “but it is late.”
“And you’re anxious to get home,” Nina said. “Do you mind driving out with Gard?”
Gard didn’t move, but suddenly he seemed to be all there, as if a light had been switched on. “Where is home?” he asked casually.
“New Pelham, of course,” Nina said. “Anne is a neighbor of mine. Didn’t you know? And she must get to bed early so she can face a classroom of children tomorrow. I’ve never seen anyone who looked less like a teacher.”
“No, I didn’t know,” Gard said slowly. Nina smiled at Anne. “I knew you’d be good for him,” she said fondly. “A mother always knows.” Anne found herself with absolutely nothing to say.
“Did you really think I was one of Nina’s admiring gigolos?” Gard asked.
“Gard, that’s a nasty, old-fashioned word,” Nina protested indignantly.
“I like old-fashioned words,” Gard said, “and old-fashioned girls.”
Anne met his steady gray gaze. “Did you really think I had ambitions to be a Hollywood starlet?”
Nina gave a little crow of laughter. “So that’s why you both glowered at me all weekend, and after 1 worked so hard to set it up for you.”
“Don’t be a doting mother,” Scott said. “They can get untangled without your help.”
“I suppose so,” Nina said doubtfully. “But they’ve wasted so much time.”
Gard smiled at her. “No, it wasn’t wasted. Run along now, like a good girl, and let me take it from here.”
She went meekly, turning at the door to say, “Come to see me soon, Anne.”
Anne took a deep breath. “Please come in for a cup of tea. I baked some delicious coffeecake this morning.” She wondered if the fellow who uncorked the genie had ever opened another wine jug without a tremor of misgiving.
Gard, his eyes on her face, said, “Nina means well, you know. It’s just that she’s been happily married to Scott for almost ten years, after being a widow for almost that long, and she can’t resist the temptation to arrange other people’s lives as satisfactorily as her own.”
Anne, considering the perils of temptation, smiled.
Gard stood up. “Where’s your coat?”
“It isn’t mine. Neither is this dress.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll get yours back.”
Since any worry about the exchange of a worn tweed coat for a full-length mink would not logically be hers, Anne said nothing. She was silent, in fact, most of the way to New Pelham, absorbed in the task of trading a few fond fancies for hard facts.
She bade them all an affectionate farewell. The lonely sad-eyed little boy, rejected by a heartless mother. The powerful and sinister millionaire, the shocking decadent life of untrammeled sin.
It was all illusion, pure and simple. Instead she was stuck with Gard Mitchell and a tired middle-aged man who loved his wife, and a fond mother who wanted everyone to be happy.
Gard said, “We’ve arrived.”
The house sat peacefully behind its maples, lights shining across the lawn. The wind was dying and the snow drifted against Anne’s face.
Gard paused on the steps. “Anne, I don’t usually tag along at Nina’s heels. I’m a lawyer with a practice in Boston, and it keeps me pretty busy most of the time.” His hands came out and held her shoulders. “I’m not important. I told you that. Just an ordinary guy without an oil well to my name.” His hands tightened. “The first time I saw you I wanted to tell you how I felt. But Nina’s life isn’t mine, and I like to do my courting on home ground.”
Courting, Anne thought contentedly; what a deliciously old-fashioned word.
“May I come back to see you? This coming weekend?”
“I’ll have to think about it,” she said. “Not a single oil well, did you say?”
He grinned. “Maybe Scott will give us one for a wedding present.”
Anne’s eyes widened. Gard bent his head and kissed her gently. “That’s to seal the bargain. See you next Saturday.”
She watched him go down the walk. Then the door opened behind her, and her mother’s voice said, “We’ve been wondering where you were, dear.” And her father said fondly, “Did you miss us?”
Anne stepped into the light. “Did you have a nice visit?” she asked dreamily. “How was Aunt Ethel?”
They didn’t speak. Anne was suddenly aware of their startled faces staring at her, at Nina Fleming’s mink coat, at her sunburned nose, at her mouth that had obviously just been kissed.
“I can explain everything,” she said. They waited, faces blank with astonishment, for her to go on.
“You see,” she began bravely, “I just went out to mail a letter.”