THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT (Chapter 1)
'Great party, as usual.'
Deborah Robinson looked at Pete Griffin's reddening cheeks and forehead perspiring below thinning brown hair. She'd thought earlier the room was getting a bit stuffy. Pete's condition proved her right. The roaring fire in the fireplace was adding too much heat. 'I'm glad you're enjoying it, Pete,' she said, making a mental note to turn down the thermostat and lower the furnace heat. 'We've never had a party this big.'
'I feel a little out of place with all these attorneys. Am I the only non-lawyer you and Steve know?'
Deborah laughed and started to say, 'Of course not.' Then she glanced around the room. Everyone was either a lawyer or accompanying one. 'It doesn't look like we do, does it? But you know how our Christmas parties usually turn out - gatherings for the people Steve works with in the Prosecutor's office.'
'Well, it was nice of you to invite me anyway.'
'We always invite you. You're one of Steve's oldest friends.'
Pete grinned. 'Steve's just hoping I'll start doing his taxes for free.'
'It's always good to have a CPA on your side, particularly one who owns the largest CPA firm in town. By the way, where's your son?'
'At fifteen, Adam considers himself too cool for parties like this. He's at a friend's house listening to brain-rattling heavy-metal music and complaining because I won't get him a car.'
'He doesn't even have a driver's license yet.'
'Adam considers that a moot point,' Pete said, pulling a droll face. 'He thinks we should be planning and saving. He wants a Viper.'
'Just the thing for a new driver.'
'I agree. A fifteen-year-old with a fifty-thousand-dollar sports car. I get dizzy just thinking about it.'
Deborah laughed. She understood why Pete was Steve's closest friend. Aside from sharing memories dating back to when they were children, Pete was intelligent, unassuming, and always there when you needed him. Deborah had always been particularly fond of him, with his diffident manner which hid a dry humor and iron devotion to the son he'd raised alone after his wife left him three years ago, never even trying to get custody of the child and rarely communicating with him. The last she'd heard, Hope Griffin was in Montana, valiantly working at preserving the environment. 'Save the wolves and abandon your own son,' Deborah's husband Steve had said sourly. 'Now there's a woman with her priorities straight.'
'Personally, I think it would be wonderful to be fifteen and have so many hopes and dreams,' Deborah said, trying to put Pete's concerns over his son's grand ambitions back in perspective. 'I remember at that age I thought I was going to be the next Karen Carpenter.'
Pete smiled. 'And I was going to be the next Frank Lloyd Wright.'
'I didn't know you were interested in architecture.'
'I wasn't after I found out being able to do some oil paintings my grandmother gushed over didn't mean I had a talent for building design.'
'I guess our experiences were similar. All it took for me was hearing a tape of myself singing 'Rainy Days and Mondays" to do the trick. I was horrified. Still, it was fun for a while to believe anything was possible.'
'Adam is still at that stage. He changes his mind nearly every week about what he wants to do with his life. Last week he saw Top Gun again, so now he's going to be a jet pilot. Wait until your little Brian gets to be this age.'
Deborah looked at him in mock horror. 'He's only five. I hope I have a few more peaceful years.'
Pete glanced at his watch. 'I really hate to put a damper on the party, although I don't think I'll be missed, but I told Adam I wanted him home at eleven. I like to be there waiting for him, so I should be going.'
'You could call from here to make sure he's heading home soon.'
'And humiliate him in front of his friends?' Pete shook his head sadly. 'Deborah, you have a lot to learn about teenagers. That would bring on several days of sullen silences and looks full of burning resentment. I don't think I'm up to it. No, I'll just be waiting like a huge mound of conscience when he gets in. If he's not on time, I'll be able to deliver my time-worn speech on trust, responsibility, and the consideration he deserves to give other people, particularly his poor old dad.'
'You're a cruel and heartless man,' Deborah laughed.
'The worst. It's my greatest joy in life.'
Deborah signaled Steve, who was talking to Evan Kincaid. Steve - rangy and earnest-looking although capable of a rare, boyish grin - hurried to her, his light brown hair damp at the hairline, his own color heightened.
'So, how're we doing over here?' he asked easily.
'Pete thinks he should go home to check on Adam.'
'He's not sick, is he?'
'No, just out partying with friends.'
'Is that all? In that case, how about having one drink with me before you go? I think I've got some really good stuff out in the kitchen. Chivas Regal, twelve years old.'
'That's hard to turn down,' Pete said. 'But Adam...'
'Hey, cut the kid some slack, will you? Fifteen minutes isn't such a big deal.'
Pete looked torn, then smiled. 'All right, a quick one and then I'm on the road.'
'Can you do without me for a few minutes?' Steve asked Deborah.
'I'll try to muddle through, but don't you two start talking over the good old high-school days and stay in there for ever.'
'We'll try not to,' Steve laughed over his shoulder as the two started toward the kitchen.
No, they certainly wouldn't, Deborah thought. Pete was much too concerned about Adam to linger for long. He was overprotective with the boy, and according to Steve, had been ever since his divorce. He'd lost his wife and he was afraid of losing his son, too, which was unlikely because beneath Adam Griffin's teenage bravado, he was deeply attached to his father. Still, she knew that Steve, meaning to be kind in asking to have a private drink with Pete, was merely making the man more nervous about his delayed arrival home.
Deborah sighed and gazed around her large living room which had once been divided into two smaller rooms whose different functions she had never been able to determine. Steve had resisted taking out the wall between them - too much trouble, he said - but Deborah insisted. Now the two small rooms formed one spacious room made airy by a huge front window instead of the four small, paned windows that were impossible to clean. Deborah was pleased with the remodeling and thought Steve was, too, although he never said much about her efforts, obviously hoping not to encourage her to make further changes.
The smell of roast duck, candied yams, and mulled wine wafted over her from the buffet table. Her stomach rumbled maddeningly - she'd been so consumed with fixing food for two days it had lost its aesthetic appeal. Empty stomach or not, she didn't feel she could force down a bite. Besides, she was very tired. It seemed every year the party became more elaborate, and she liked to cook everything, not order from a caterer. She now found the parties more exhausting than fun, and the family ended up eating leftovers for days.
She circled around the room, asking if she could freshen drinks, offering cookies and reminding people about all the apple, pumpkin, and mincemeat pie still sitting on the buffet table. One attorney, whose name Deborah could never remember, was holding forth on a case he'd handled last year while his wife interrupted constantly, correcting everything he said, oblivious to the growing coldness of his eyes and tightening of his jaw. The girlfriend of another was talking loudly to a blue-haired matron about a serial killer luridly named 'The Dark Alley Strangler' by a local newspaper. 'It scares me to death to think he struck again just last Saturday night and this time right here in West Virginia,' she was saying. 'That's seven times in three years. And that last girl. Poor thing. She was a nurse with a little kid. She's still hanging on, but they don't expect her to live.'
Deborah cringed. She supposed it was only natural that the serial killer would be mentioned at the party, but this was supposed to be a festive occasion and the discussion of violent death threw a definite pall over the evening. So much for holiday cheer.
Deborah moved on, turning down the thermostat five degrees and seeing that her guests were comfortable. Few were friends of hers. Most of them came from Steve's world, and she sensed a lot of them thought Steve had married beneath himself. Steve told her she was imagining things, but she felt their distance. Part of it was her own fault, though. She wasn't the life of the party or the confident socialite. In fact, she had come to hate the Christmas parties, which had been a pleasant ritual she and Steve started the first year they were married and over the past seven years had turned into an ordeal. Maybe this one would be the last, Deborah mused. Maybe next year she could talk him into having only a few close friends over before Christmas.
She retreated to a corner of the living room, Campari and soda in hand. Light refracted off the layers of smoke. Even the lights on the Christmas tree seemed muted, as if circled by fog. Her eyes stung beneath her contact lenses and although she had given up smoking two years ago, Deborah now felt an overwhelming desire for a cigarette - anything, even if it were one of the reduced tar and nicotine brands she used to hate. She would be tempted to smoke again until the room aired out, which would take a couple of days, she thought unhappily. Thank goodness she and Steve had only one party a year. If the house smelled of smoke too often, she'd never control her urge for nicotine.
She knew she should get out there among the guests and socialize, but her head was starting to hurt, she was dead tired after all her cooking, and she was feeling more and more self-conscious in the white wool dress with scoop neck and gold belt that had drawn Steve's look of censure earlier. 'Don't you think that's a little...revealing?' he'd asked gently. 'Why not wear the black velvet - the one I bought you just last year?' How could she tell him the black velvet dress felt bunchy and hot, its sleeves too tight, its skirt too long even for her five-foot-eight frame? Still, she would have changed to please him if the doorbell hadn't rung just then with the arrival of their first guests.
Deborah smiled across the room at Barbara Levine, her friend and Steve's associate in the Prosecutor's office. She'd met Barbara the first year she worked as a secretary in the office. One dreary November Sunday they ran into each other in a video store, both looking for Dr Zhivago. Barbara had already found the movie and was paying the rental fee when Deborah went to the desk, asking if it were available. The salesgirl told her they had only one copy. 'Oh, I guess I'll look for something else,' she said, disappointed, when Barbara suddenly suggested, 'Why don't you come home with me and watch it?' Stunned at such an invitation from the seemingly all-business, hard-as-nails lawyer who had intimidated her from day one in the office, Deborah had demurred, but Barbara insisted. They watched the movie in Barbara's apartment, eating microwave popcorn ('the only thing I can cook,' Barbara confided) and by the end of the movie they were both in tears when the handsome Zhivago fell dead in the street while chasing his oblivious, beloved Lara. Later they had gone to an Italian restaurant together, and from that day on, Deborah had lost her fear of Barbara. They'd become friends, both with a deep love of animals, romantic movies, and Agatha Christie novels.
Barbara crossed the room to her side. 'Has Steve deserted us?'
'He's in the kitchen having a drink with Pete.' Barbara smiled.
'Pete's such a nice guy. I wonder why he never remarried.'
'I suppose because he was so badly burned the first time. And he devotes a lot of time to Adam and the grandmother in Wheeling who raised him after his parents died. She's in her eighties and has a lot of health problems.'
'None of those reasons seem good enough for him to have cut himself off from a social life,' Barbara said. 'He needs a girlfriend, someone with some life who'll make him start acting his age. And make him get a new wardrobe. His clothes all look too big, not to mention years out of date. I'm no fashion plate myself, but it seems like he's trying to look ten years older than he is.'
'Remarks like that won't earn you a visit from Santa.'
Barbara giggled, her laughter softening her dark, hawk-like features. When she was young, she'd probably been attractive in a chiseled, dramatic way, Deborah often thought. But at thirty-eight, after fifteen years of twelve-hour work days and little in the way of beauty care, she usually looked thin, tense, and slightly weather-beaten with her uncreamed skin and face naked of make-up except for a careless slash of lipstick. Tonight she'd chosen an unflattering bright pink. Right now some of that pink decorated a front tooth, but Deborah had learned how defensive Barbara could be about her appearance.
'By the way, you look great,' Barbara said. 'I knew that dress was for you as soon as we spotted it in the store window.'
'Steve doesn't like it.'
'No, probably not. He's a sweet man, but he wants you to look a dowdy sixty-year-old instead of a sexy twenty-eight-year-old.'
'Oh, Barbara, he doesn't.'
'Yes, he does. He doesn't want you flying the coop into the arms of some other guy.'
'That's hardly likely. Besides, you think Steve's a lot more Machiavellian than he is.'
'Says you. You've been brainwashed into thinking you aren't anything special in the looks department. I, on the other hand, am beginning to resemble my mother, and she is in her sixties.' She held up a chocolate almond cookie she'd been munching. 'And these don't help maintain a girlish figure.'
'Barbara, you're thin as a rail.'
'Flabby thin, not taut thin like you.'
'You don't run after five-year-old twins and a dog all day. But in any case you do not look like you're in your sixties.'
'Well, I at least look every year of my age plus a few more.'
Yes, she did look every year of her age, Deborah thought with regret. It was no wonder everyone had been surprised when Barbara began dating Evan Kincaid, seven years Barbara's junior and considered the glamour boy of the Prosecutor's office. According to Steve, some of the young secretaries could barely hide their jealousy and constantly made catty remarks behind Barbara's back about the relationship. 'But I understand it,' Steve said. 'Barbara's a brilliant, witty woman. Besides, Evan isn't one to judge by exteriors.'
'He's like you in that respect.'
Steve smiled. 'Sweetheart, you're a very nice-looking woman.'
Nice-looking, Deborah thought dismally. Nice-looking with her long black hair Steve liked to see pulled back in a French braid and serious blue-gray eyes usually hidden behind glasses she wore when working, nice-looking with her tall, slender frame he preferred in simple clothes, nice-looking with her smooth, creamy skin which cosmeticians at the department store makeup counters claimed was more like that of a woman five years younger. Nice-looking, but not a beauty like some of his former girlfriends had been.
'A quarter for your thoughts,' Barbara said.
'I was just thinking about some of the women Steve used to date. Where's my quarter?'
'I don't have my purse with me. And why in the world would you be thinking about women Steve used to date?'
'Do you remember the ones who used to come by the office? They were so flashy. I wonder why he picked me.'
'Maybe because they were all flash and no substance. I remember giving him a stern talking-to about that one time.'
'I'm sure he appreciated it.'
'He told me to mind my own business. But shortly afterward he started dating you. Smartest move he ever made.'
'Spoken like a true friend. Some of them even had money.'
'Money?' Evan Kincaid said, walking up and putting his arm around Barbara's waist. 'Are you two discussing the root of all evil?'
Barbara made a face. 'He's not only great-looking, he's a mind-reader.'
'No, a lip-reader,' Evan laughed. 'I've been hovering nearby, although you two were too engrossed to notice me.'
'Deborah is torturing herself by wondering why Steve didn't marry some flashy woman with money.'
Evan shook his head. 'Sometimes I think you women look for something to worry about.'
Barbara threw Deborah a wry look. 'Men, of course, never worry.'
Evan laughed. 'Not like you do. In any given day the love of my life here thinks of at least twenty things to fret over.'
'I do not!' Barbara protested in offended rage, although she couldn't hide her pleasure at hearing Evan call her the love of his life. They had been seeing each other for nine months, and Barbara had confided that the last two hadn't been smooth. 'He thinks I pull rank on him because I'm older,' Barbara said. 'You do,' Deborah returned frankly. Barbara looked sheepish. 'I know. I hear myself doing it, but I can't seem to stop.'
Now, however, Barbara glowed as she looked adoringly up at the blond, blue-eyed Evan who Deborah thought resembled a young Robert Redford.
The resemblance was even more pronounced than usual tonight. Maybe it was the lighting, or maybe it was that Evan looked more relaxed than he often did. Either he and Barbara were getting along better, or the drinks had erased some tension from his incredibly handsome face.
Evan raised his eyebrows enquiringly, and Deborah realized she was staring at him. 'Can I fix the two of you fresh drinks?' she asked quickly.
'I think I've had my limit,' Evan said, holding up a half-empty glass. 'Barbara?'
'This mulled wine is delicious, but powerful. One more glass and I'll start telling dirty jokes.'
'Cut her off, Deborah,' Evan said abruptly. 'Dirty or clean, she couldn't tell a joke right if her life depended on it.'
'That is not true,' Barbara retorted. 'I heard a hilarious one just today. You see, there was this--'
'Oh, God,' Evan groaned in exaggerated dismay.
'I have to check on things in the kitchen,' Deborah laughed, turning away from them.
'Coward,' Evan muttered.
Steve was closing the back door behind Pete when she walked into the kitchen. 'Everything okay?'
He glanced at her, relief showing in his green eyes which had looked tired and a little bloodshot lately. 'Yeah. I wish the guy would let up on Adam. He acts like some old-maid aunt or something.'
Deborah put her arms around his neck. 'Honey, saying "old maid" is no longer politically correct. And why does everyone act like overprotection is the sole domain of women?'
Steve raised an eyebrow at her. 'Mrs Robinson, drink has loosened your tongue. However, I stand corrected.'
'Thank you for allowing me to speak my mind. You're simply too kind,' Deborah said drily.
'No, I'm simply tired to my bones, not to mention a little worried about Pete. I wonder what will happen to him when Adam leaves home and he doesn't have anyone to stew over?'
'Barbara thinks he should find some nice woman.'
'That would be a perfect solution. But he's lived alone so long. And he was never a ladies' man, even when we were young. Then there's the fact that he's been very successful. He could get entangled with someone who's just after his money. I guess any romantic pairing is a risk, though.'
'Is that how you felt about our marriage?'
Steve tightened his arms around her waist. 'No. I knew we'd work out.'
Although he smelled strongly of the cigarette smoke that was stirring Deborah's desire for nicotine, she loved his embrace. Steve was not a demonstrative man and if he hadn't recently consumed a few drinks, he probably wouldn't be hugging her in the kitchen with twenty guests in the living room. Knowing this, however, only slightly lessened Deborah's pleasure. She stood on tiptoe and kissed him lightly. 'I'm glad we got married.'
'Are you?' Steve asked.
Deborah pulled back, looking at him. He seemed troubled. 'Of course. Why do you ask?'
'Because sometimes I think you're disappointed in me.'
And sometimes she was, Deberah thought guiltily. Sometimes she wished she'd married a man who loved her passionately instead of caring for her in the steady, distant way that was Steve's. But those kind of dreams should have been left behind in her teenage years, she reminded herself. This was real life, not one of her cherished romantic movies. Steve wasn't the poet Yuri Zhivago and she wasn't the tragic, dazzling Lara. As her father had often told her, she wasn't beautiful, or talented, or especially intelligent. She was just an ordinary woman whose only gift lay in the ability to keep house and cook well. He'd been disapproving when she'd become a secretary in the Prosecutor's office in Charleston instead of marrying Billy Ray Soames, the Baptist preacher back home in southern West Virginia. Later, his anger at her for marrying a man she'd dated for only two months had been totally out of proportion. In fact, he and her mother had visited only twice during her marriage - once when the twins Brian and Kimberly were born, and again last year when they were passing through Charleston on a rare vacation. In return, Deborah had taken the children to visit them only three times. As a result, Brian and Kimberly were barely aware of their grandparents' existence.
'I'm not disappointed in you,' Deborah said, jerking herself out of her thoughts. 'You're a wonderful man.'
Steve's eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled down at her. 'And you're a wonderful woman.'
Deborah cocked an eyebrow at him. 'We have to stop these torrid exchanges when we have guests.' Steve laughed, and Deborah felt immeasurably relieved that he appeared more at ease. For the last couple of days he'd seemed morose, distracted, irritable. She knew something was wrong, but he wouldn't discuss the problem.
She hugged him fiercely. 'Hey, trying to break my ribs?'
'Sorry.' She released her hold. 'You know I always get emotional at Christmas.'
'You get emotional over every holiday. That enthusiasm is one of your most endearing traits. It's great for the kids, too. You make holidays an event for them.'
'I just remember when I was a child and my father did nothing but complain about the commercialism of holidays and where had people's values gone, and of course there was no Santa Claus and no Easter Bunny, what nonsense, etcetera, etcetera. It ruined everything for Mom and me.'
'Well, no one could accuse your father of getting a real bang out of life.'
'That's putting it mildly.'
The phone rang and Steve reached for the cordless extension on the kitchen counter. 'I'll get it. And right before I came in here, I noticed we were getting low on ice. There's no more left in the freezer.'
'There's a bag in the deep freezer in the garage. You take care of the phone and I'll take care of the ice.'
Opening the kitchen door into the garage, Deborah was at first shocked by the difference in temperature. Then she gratefully breathed in the cold, clear air. The heat and smoke and noise inside had been aggravating her dull headache. She flipped on the garage light and glanced at her watch: 11.15. The party would be winding up in about half an hour. Some of the guests had already left. Thank goodness. Although she'd have a ton of food to put away, maybe within a couple of hours she could get her aching feet out of these new and very tight high-heeled shoes and into her bed. She was exhausted and felt like she could sleep until noon tomorrow.
She lifted the heavy freezer lid. Frosty air wafted up, making her gasp. As she leaned over, she spotted something red atop the foil-wrapped meats. Brian's toy fire truck. She pulled it out, alarmed. Obviously the kids had been playing and managed to open the freezer. What if one of them decided to climb in? It wouldn't take long to smother if help didn't arrive immediately, and she couldn't keep her eyes on both children constantly, especially since she did so much clerical work at home. Presently she was typing a would-be author's manuscript which contained grammatical errors in almost every sentence. She spent hours poring over grammar books so she could prove to the defensive author that she wasn't making up rules as she went along. She would put a lock on the freezer, she decided. She'd buy a padlock tomorrow.
She lay the toy truck, coated with a heavy layer of frost, on the floor and lifted the bag of ice. As she was coming back into the kitchen, Steve flashed her a quick, almost apprehensive look. 'Certainly. Thank you for calling,' he said stiffly into the receiver, then hung up. 'Here. Let me help with the ice.'
'Who was on the phone?' Deborah handed him the cold plastic bag. His hands shook slightly.
'Joe?' Joe Pierce was an investigator with the Prosecutor's office. 'Why is he calling at this hour?'
'News about a case.'
'He's working past eleven o'clock on a Saturday night? Is that why he didn't come to the party?'
'I think he had a hot date.'
'Women are allowed at the party.'
'I don't believe chit-chatting with people from the office is what he had in mind for tonight. Anyway, you know how he is,' Steve said distractedly, setting the bag of ice in the sink. 'He works with us but he's not prone to socializing with us.'
'Well, why was he calling? To give you a bulletin on his date?'
'Hardly. He just thought of something that might help me.'
'And this thought came to him during his hot date? Things can't be going too well,' Deborah joked. Steve didn't answer. His forehead was creased and he tore into the bag of ice with unnecessary aggression. Her smile faded. 'What case are you two working on?'
'I need the ice bucket.' Deborah stared at him, puzzled. Was he paler? Did his eyes look even more troubled than they had for the past couple of days?
'Steve, is something--'
'I said I need the ice bucket. It's in the living room.'
'I heard you. Why are you acting so strange?'
'I'm not acting strange,' Steve snapped. 'This stuff is cold. It's ice, you know. Would you please get me the bucket?'
Deborah bit back a retort. She usually didn't question Steve about cases, but he'd been so edgy lately and something Joe told him had obviously agitated him further. Clearly, though, he had no intention of confiding in her.
It's probably nothing, she told herself as she walked back into the living room to retrieve the ice bucket. He's just been working too hard lately and the strain is beginning to tell. In a couple of weeks, when the holidays are over, everything will be fine and we'll return to our humdrum routine.
Unfortunately, she didn't believe herself for one minute.
THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT Copyright 1995 by Carlene Thompson.