Lake Como

Anita Hughes

St. Martin's Griffin

chapter one


 
For Hallie Elliot, it was the summer of weddings. The first was a three-day affair at a private estate in Napa Valley. The pool was filled with calla lilies, the cake was decorated with pearls, and the dance floor was the tennis court covered in Carrara marble. Hallie and Peter drank Veuve Clicquot, ate shrimp cocktails, and marveled at the ice sculpture that was a bust of the bride and groom.
Every weekend in June and July, Hallie slipped into a silk Pucci dress or a Diane von Furstenberg wrap and strapped on Bottega Veneta sandals. Peter donned black tie for receptions at the Ritz and the Fairmont. He put on a sport coat to wear in tiny stone churches in Sonoma and ceremonies under the redwood trees in Muir Woods.
Hallie and Peter had stood under starry skies, admiring the bride and groom’s first dance. They had listened to the best man tell stories that should have remained private. They drove home after the bouquet had been tossed and the rice had been thrown, running commentary like sports announcers post game.
*   *   *
“I loved their vows,” Hallie mused, returning from a wedding at a private home in Los Altos. “Katy promised to respect Hank’s career choices, and Hank vowed to always put his laundry in the washing machine.”
“That’s fine until Hank decides to throw in his partnership and buy a hot dog stand at AT&T Park,” Peter said, grinning. “Then he’ll find himself doing his own laundry.”
“Her dress was gorgeous.” Hallie sighed. “The train was longer than Kate Middleton’s.”
“Did you see the grounds?” Peter whistled. “There were three swimming pools, as if two swimming pools mated and had a baby.”
“I would love to get my hands on their guest house.” Hallie looked out the window at the approaching lights of San Francisco. “It should be done in blues and greens, with shag carpet and a saltwater aquarium.”
“Did you give Katy your card?” Peter asked, putting the car in first gear as they climbed Russian Hill.
“That would be rude,” Hallie said, frowning. “But I might send her a thank-you, and mention I’m working at Kendra Larsen’s.”
“You can use me as a reference.” Peter grinned. “I got a beautifully designed apartment and a beautiful designer in one package.”
“That was a one-time deal.” Hallie giggled and saw Coit Tower appear at the crest of the hill. Hallie always thought it was like a lighthouse perched above the city, beckoning her home.
*   *   *
Peter was already in bed when Hallie slipped out of her dress, putting on one of Peter’s old Stanford T-shirts and white boxer shorts. She loved their bed. It had a high suede headboard and cream satin sheets. When she sat against the pillows, she could see whitewashed houses cascading down to the bay. At night, the ships bleated in the dark like sheep finding their way home.
Hallie had lived in San Francisco her entire life, but moving in with Peter made the city seem brand new. Flowers bloomed in sidewalk cracks; trees burst with cherry blossoms. She had never noticed so many bistros with colored awnings and cramped round tables. Hallie and Peter ate focaccia with olive oil, sipped cold Chardonnay, and entwined their fingers over flickering candles.
“I wrote you something,” Peter said as she slid under the comforter. “I promise to always make eggs sunny-side up, and never let the coffeepot grow cold.”
“I thought you were working on an exposé of Frank Marshall.” Hallie glanced at Peter’s open laptop.
“I am.” Peter closed the laptop and ran his fingers over Hallie’s mouth. “But writing about a guy who sold his dad’s Playboy collection on eBay to fund his company seems a little sleazy after eating chocolate mousse wedding cake.”
“When exactly do you plan on making those promises?” Hallie looked at Peter. After every wedding, he dropped some sort of hint: he couldn’t imagine making his groomsmen wear purple shirts under their tuxedos; he would never invite old girlfriends to his wedding. Hallie would feel her heart leap into her throat, wondering if his next words would be a proposal. But he always stroked her straight blond hair, kissed her lips, and turned the conversation to something else.
“Every day.” Peter grinned, putting the laptop on the bedside table. He pulled Hallie down and covered her with his body. Peter was built like a runner: long legs, narrow hips, thin, angular shoulders. But when he made love he was like a wrestler, pinning her to the bed. She loved the feel of his chest rubbing against hers, his tongue exploring her mouth.
Hallie felt Peter’s breath hot against her cheek. He opened her legs and slid deep inside her. She felt their bodies push and pull as if they were playing a child’s game of tug-of-war. She came first, clinging to his back, his sweat sticking to her fingers. Peter mumbled sleepily and draped his arm over her chest. Hallie closed her eyes and dreamed about weddings and sunny-side-up eggs and oval diamond rings.
*   *   *
Hallie glanced at the engraved invitation on the bedside table. Next weekend’s wedding would be the most extravagant of the season. Four hundred people under the rotunda at City Hall. A carpet made of pink and red roses imported from Japan. Oysters served on the half shell and live fish as centerpieces.
The bride was Patsy Mane, one of Kendra’s newest clients. Patsy had been popping into the store daily, fretting over linen swatches. Hallie listened to her moan and wondered if next summer she would be in her shoes.
Sometimes Hallie thought her friends were marking time until they walked down the aisle. They studied feng shui and Cordon Bleu cooking. They prowled the bridal registries at Gump’s and Fenton’s. They researched beach resorts for their honeymoon.
Hallie’s friends thought Peter was perfect. He was bright and handsome and treated her like a princess. They admired his green eyes, the cleft on his chin, the way he caressed her hair in public. Hallie turned the invitation over, imagining her name entwined with Peter’s in gold embossed letters.
*   *   *
Hallie met Peter when he entered the design store last summer. Kendra Larsen’s usual clientele were women carrying Louis Vuitton bags and wearing Prada heels. Peter looked like a boy who had wandered into his mother’s lingerie closet. He wore jeans and tennis shoes and carried a khaki backpack. He stood at an Edwardian rolltop desk and fingered a gold-tipped quill pen.
“William Shakespeare wrote all his plays with one of these,” he said to Hallie. “Six hundred years later we’ve got laptops and tablets and writing software. No one has been able to produce a Hamlet or a Romeo and Juliet.”
Hallie looked at Peter’s short brown hair brushed to the side, his sharp cheekbones, and his Roman profile. She thought he looked familiar; maybe they had met at a cocktail party or at the bar at PlumpJack’s. Then she realized she had seen his face on a poster in the window of Books Inc.
“You wrote Paul Johns Unplugged!” Hallie exclaimed.
Paul Johns had graduated from Stanford, studied in Tibet with the Dalai Lama, and developed an Internet site promising its subscribers the secrets to enlightenment. The book was Paul’s unauthorized biography. It told stories of Paul’s wild college days: jumping naked into the pool during water polo games, creating multiple Facebook profiles and dating several women at the same time.
Peter wrote that in Asia, Paul spent more time in brothels than meditating. He quoted Paul as saying the only things he had learned in Tibet was how to smoke a pipe and avoid contracting herpes. The book became a national bestseller and Peter was lauded on talk shows for exposing Paul as a charlatan.
“I did.” Peter nodded. “And now I’m supposed to use some of the royalties to furnish my apartment like a grown-up.”
“Is this your style?” Hallie frowned, glancing at the Oriental rugs, the French tapestries, the red lacquer Chinese armoires.
“Do you think I should be looking for leather sofas and shag rugs?” Peter grinned.
“Most of our clientele prefer Regency furniture and silk drapes,” Hallie admitted. “I like shag carpeting. But don’t tell Kendra, she’d fire me on the spot.”
“Your secret is safe.” Peter put his hand over his heart. “Maybe we could have lunch, and I can describe what I’m looking for.”
Hallie hesitated. She didn’t usually mix work and dating. But Peter looked sincere. And Hallie had an itch to do something besides furnish another Pacific Heights mansion with authentic Louis XIV chairs and Aubusson wool rugs.
They sat at a table at Café Nicoise. Peter drummed his fingers on the tablecloth and stabbed a Cobb salad with his fork. “I’ve never interviewed a designer before.”
“I thought you interviewed people for a living,” Hallie replied, drizzling raspberry dressing on a spinach salad.
“Internet mavericks with skeletons in their closets.” Peter grinned. “Not blond socialites moonlighting as interior designers.”
“My grandmother may live at the top of Pacific Heights, but I have a studio apartment in the Marina,” Hallie protested. “The hallway reeks of garlic and meatballs—hardly San Francisco high society.”
“According to my sources, your grandmother, Constance Playfair, is on more boards than any other female in the city,” Peter replied.
“How do you know anything about me?” Hallie asked, suddenly wary.
“Kendra and I were in freshman seminar together at Stanford,” Peter said, smiling. “I ran into her at PlumpJack’s and she told me she just hired a brilliant new assistant. I did a quick search on the computer.”
“You Googled me?” Hallie said, jumping up.
“I’m sorry.” Peter grabbed her hand. “I have an empty flat on Russian Hill that’s crying out for furniture. I can’t help being curious about people; it’s like a tic. Can we start over?”
Hallie sat down. She should have been angry. She should have grabbed her purse and run back to the store. But there was something endearing about the way Peter apologized. He was like a foreigner who didn’t know the rules of the country.
“Most clients just ask for a list of references.” She smiled faintly.
“I have complete trust in your abilities.” Peter relaxed. “And I am prepared to live with shag carpet.”
“What are your favorite colors?” Hallie toyed with her napkin. “Do you like to watch television in bed, and do you prefer satin or cotton sheets?”
Peter sat back in his chair and whistled. “Those are some pointed questions.”
Hallie felt a slight shiver, as if someone had run a feather down her spine. “I need to know everything about a new client.”
“I grew up in Atlanta and attended Stanford on a scholarship,” Peter began. “I majored in journalism, was editor of the Stanford Daily, wrote an exposé of the vice chancellor that almost got me kicked out of school. After graduation, I bummed around for a couple of years, writing press releases for Internet start-ups. I ran into my old roommate Paul Johns when he launched VisionQuest.com. Paul’s girlfriend had just broken up with him. I spent many nights drinking tequila shots and nursing him through a broken heart.”
“Which you turned into a tell-all book that ruined him,” Hallie broke in, interested despite herself.
“He had an original Rembrandt on his office wall—paid for by subscribers to his site.” Peter shrugged. “I didn’t want him buying a Van Gogh.”
Hallie grinned. “Go on.”
“I wrote the book, sold the rights to Hollywood, and plunged most of the money into my new baby.”
“A yellow Lamborghini or a silver Bentley?”
“A new magazine called Spilled. I’m going to write about the human side of techno-celebrities. Sergey Brin’s dark past and Mark Zuckerberg’s relentless pursuit of excellence.”
“Sounds interesting.”
“It better be profitable.” Peter pushed away his salad. “Between buying the apartment and starting the magazine, I’m almost broke.”
“How can you afford me?” Hallie asked.
Peter leaned forward and touched her hand. “Beauty and art are priceless.”
*   *   *
Hallie loved Peter’s apartment the moment she stepped through the door. She walked through the foyer, past the living room, past the arch that led to the master bedroom and the study, and stood on the balcony. The whole city lay at her feet. Hallie could see boats bobbing in the bay and cable cars zigzagging to Fisherman’s Wharf. She saw the sky meet the water in a thick blue line.
“This is what your apartment is about.” She waved her arms like a conductor leading an orchestra. “Every piece of furniture, the rugs, the artwork, has to say: ‘Look out here.’”
Peter stood at the railing, putting one arm on either side of her. He leaned close and whispered in her ear, “In the words of George Bernard Shaw, ‘I think she’s got it.’”
Hallie furnished the apartment with classic pieces mixed with art deco. A Queen Anne chair stood under a Picasso, a crystal chandelier hung over a teak dining table. The result was serious but whimsical.
“When your guests walk in, they’ll be surprised at every turn.” Hallie showed Peter around the rooms. Every corner was filled with color. Purple love seats formed a conversation pit. A bright orange vase stood on the glass coffee table. On the walls were framed covers of Peter’s book and the first edition of Spilled.
Peter walked into the kitchen. Hallie had installed a granite counter and leather barstools. There was a silver espresso machine, a chrome toaster, and an iron waffle maker. “I’m having a house-warming party in two weeks.”
“It’s almost ready.” Hallie nodded. “I just need a couple of more pieces for the bedroom.”
“I’d like you to be there.” Peter sat on a stool and swiveled around so he could see the bay.
“I’d love to come.” Hallie ran her hand over the granite.
Peter had turned into a model client. He gave her free rein to make decisions, scribbling checks without blinking. Occasionally they shared a cup of coffee or a glass of wine while she waited for deliveries. They talked about Monet and Matisse. They discussed Ken Kesey and T. S. Eliot.
“I want you to be there permanently.” Peter drummed his fingers on the counter.
“What do you mean?” Hallie asked.
“I want you to move in with me.”
“We’ve never been on a date,” Hallie protested.
“I know you love espresso but hate cappuccino. You’re a fan of Tom Wolfe but think Jonathan Franzen is overrated. You admire Jackson Pollock and have a slight crush on Julian Schnabel. Have I missed anything?”
“I don’t have a crush on Julian Schnabel,” Hallie replied. “I like his work.”
“I can read people.” Peter looked at Hallie seriously. “It’s a gift or a curse, but I can see right through them. I look at you and I see your soul. It’s twenty-four-karat gold.”
“We haven’t even kissed,” Hallie murmured.
Peter stood up and drew Hallie toward him. “We can fix that right now.”
*   *   *
“Hallie!” Kendra waved from the top step of City Hall.
Hallie stopped and instinctively checked her skirt. Kendra was only a few years older than Hallie, but she made Hallie feel as if she was still wearing braces. Kendra dressed like a 1940s Hollywood siren: low-cut bodice, pencil-thin skirt, and heels like needles. Her chestnut hair was so silky it belonged on one of the dolls that still sat on Hallie’s dresser.
No matter what Hallie wore, she felt it was somehow wrong. She should have put her blond hair in a bun instead of a ponytail. She wished she had worn a low heel instead of flats. She shouldn’t have worn Stella McCartney to meet French clients, or Ralph Lauren when Kendra introduced her to the wife of the British consulate.
“Style doesn’t end in the showroom,” Kendra had explained. “Our clients put their trust in us. We have to look elegant, understated, classic. Exactly the way they see their homes.”
“Where’s Peter?” Kendra asked as Hallie climbed to the top step.
Kendra wore a midnight blue evening gown. Her hair was lifted off her shoulders and revealed diamond teardrop earrings. She wore a matching diamond choker and gold Manolo pumps.
“He’s parking the car.” Hallie touched her hair. She wore a pale pink chiffon dress that stopped below the knee. In front of the mirror, it had set off her blue eyes and creamy skin. But Hallie glanced at the other guests’ long silk gowns and felt like a ballerina on top of a jewelry box.
“Stefan has a summer flu,” Kendra replied. “I was hoping I could borrow Peter’s other arm, and we could enter together. Arriving alone doesn’t look good for business.”
Stefan owned an art gallery on Post Street. He wore silk suits and handmade loafers and drove a silver Aston Martin. Stefan escorted Kendra to weddings and black-tie dinners, and they made an entrance like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
Kendra had a handful of men who texted her or lingered near the store to see if she was free for dinner. But she was determined to be the most sought-after designer in the city. She didn’t want to be weighed down by a boyfriend.
“If I have to make some guy salmon every night, I couldn’t devote myself to work,” Kendra had said when Hallie announced she was moving in with Peter.
“Maybe you’ll find someone who cooks for you,” Hallie had replied. “Peter makes the most delicious eggs.”
“Eggs have too much cholesterol.” Kendra had shrugged. “Patrice’s makes the best salmon. I order it and pick it up on the way home.”
“Don’t you miss having someone in your bed?” Hallie had asked, picturing the cream satin sheets she picked out for Peter.
Kendra had stopped arranging tulips in the store window and smiled. “I have plenty of men in my bed, I just ask them to leave before breakfast.”
*   *   *
“Rumor has it Patsy’s mother spent more on this wedding than on redecorating the house in Tahoe,” Kendra continued, scanning the guests for familiar faces.
“I hope Patsy eats at the reception,” Hallie replied. “The last time she was in the store she looked like a toothpick.”
“She’ll relax when she finds out her wedding present is her own Tahoe cabin,” Kendra mused. “Her mother hired us to decorate it. It’s a secret till after the wedding. I’m flying up on Saturday to draw some sketches.”
“Hallie!” Peter called, weaving through the crowd. He wore a black tux with a crisp white shirt. His hair was slicked to one side and his shoes were black and shiny.
“You clean up nicely.” Kendra nodded.
“We’re not in college anymore.” Peter reached the top step and put his arm around Hallie. “I don’t attend formal events in jeans and a black T-shirt.”
Kendra turned to Hallie. “Peter was the hit of every college party. Even in faded dungarees he looked like James Bond.”
“Kendra wondered if you’d escort both of us into the ceremony,” Hallie interrupted. “Stefan has a head cold.”
Peter offered one arm to Hallie and one to Kendra. “How could I say no to having two beautiful women by my side?”
The reception seemed to drag on forever. The father of the bride gave a toast that detailed Patsy’s accomplishments, from her first steps to the pilot’s license she received at sixteen to her MBA from Harvard. Hallie was suddenly tired of caviar balls and cake pops. She thought if she heard one more band play “At Last” she might erase it from her iPod forever. She searched for Peter but he had disappeared, chasing the Apple programmer he had spotted at the bar.
“Hallie Elliot!” A tall girl in a yellow dress approached her table.
“Melinda.” Hallie smiled, wondering why her old school friend would pick a dress that made her look like a giraffe.
“This is the fifth wedding I’ve seen you at this summer.” Melinda held an empty champagne flute. “Are you training for your big day?”
Hallie blushed. “Peter and I are just living together.”
“Which must make your grandmother turn over in her canopy bed.” Melinda giggled. “Remember when we were at St. Ignatius and the teachers caught us kissing a Justin Timberlake poster in the bathroom? They made us say five Hail Marys.”
“My grandmother likes Peter,” Hallie replied. “There’s no rush to get married.”
“Everyone’s getting married,” Melinda countered. “You don’t want to be the last couple at the altar.”
“I love weddings.” Hallie sighed. “But Patsy’s is a bit over the top. There’s a Fabergé egg at every place setting.”
“They certainly didn’t skimp on champagne.” Melinda raised her glass. “Every time I lift my hand, a waiter fills my glass.”
“Maybe that’s why I have a headache.” Hallie glanced at her crystal flute. “I’m going to find Peter and go home.”
“When Peter proposes I want an invitation.” Melinda smiled. “I’m the only one who can tell stories about you in braces and kneesocks.”
“In that case we’ll elope.” Hallie grabbed her purse.
“Now that would make Constance Playfair really happy.” Melinda giggled again, raising her glass for the passing waiter.
Hallie walked over to the bar to find Peter. Kendra had melted into the crowd during the toasts. She had seen Beatrix Traina sitting with Jennifer Newsom and had whispered to Hallie that she was going to snag two new clients.
“The trick is to make Beatrix think Jennifer has already hired me,” Kendra had whispered. “Then they’ll fight over me and we’ll get both jobs.”
Hallie scanned the room. Gold pinpoint lighting lit the dance floor. Red velvet curtains draped the stage. Suddenly Hallie felt like the trumpets were blaring in her head. She could feel the drums beating in her chest. She weaved between the tables and ducked out a side door.
Hallie breathed in the cold night air. The fog had come in, lying on the tops of cars like a blanket. She walked to the side of the building and saw two figures leaning against a column. The woman had her arms wrapped around the man. The man was running his hands down her skirt. Hallie turned to leave and caught sight of the woman’s shoe: a gold pump with a diamond bow.
Hallie moved closer and recognized Kendra’s chestnut hair plastered against the column. She saw Kendra’s gold Cartier pressed against the man’s back, her other hand tearing at his tux jacket. She watched the man wriggle out of the jacket and Kendra plunge her hand under the man’s shirt.
Hallie froze. The man had narrow shoulders and a slender chest. His hair was brown and cut short around his ears. Hallie saw the outline of his face and put her hand to her mouth.
“Peter!” she shouted.
“Hallie!” Peter pushed away from Kendra. He threw on his tux jacket as if he was naked. He buttoned his shirt and blinked under the floodlights.
“What are you doing?” Hallie demanded. Her cheeks were burning and she felt like her skin was on fire.
“Kendra’s drunk,” Peter explained. “I came out here to get her some air and she attacked me.”
“You had your hands on her skirt,” Hallie spluttered.
“She was taking it off,” Peter insisted.
“Peter has lovely hands,” Kendra slurred, hugging the column. “And he’s a very good kisser.”
“I didn’t kiss her.” Peter’s face was white. He grabbed Hallie’s arm and pulled her toward him.
“Leave me alone.” Hallie shook free of his hands.
“I was doing the right thing,” Peter implored. “Kendra would have passed out at the bar.”
“It looked like you were enjoying yourself,” Hallie said, her arms and legs trembling.
“You know me better than that,” Peter insisted. “I’m not a cheater.”
Kendra teetered toward Hallie. She put one hand on her lips and whispered in Hallie’s ear, slurring, “I might be a teensy bit tipsy. I know he’s yours, I was just borrowing him.”
“Let’s go home,” Peter said gruffly.
Hallie felt the fog cut through her pink chiffon. She looked at Kendra’s wrinkled gown and Peter’s creased tux jacket.
“I’ll take a cab.” She ran down the steps and fled.
*   *   *
Hallie entered the apartment and tried to stop shaking. Her head throbbed and her body ached. She threw her purse on the floor and collapsed on the purple sofa in the conversation pit.
Peter had never been one of those guys who flirted at parties. He took Hallie’s hand when they crossed the street, holding it like a prize. He bought her chocolates and left books he wanted her to read on the bedside table.
“At Stanford I studied Byron and Keats,” Peter had admitted when he filled the apartment with candles to celebrate their six-month anniversary. “I’m a closet romantic; it’s a terrible flaw.”
“I think it’s wonderful.” Hallie had watched the room glow like a garden lit by fireflies.
“I’m crazy to think a beautiful blonde with a pedigree would fall for a scrappy hack like me,” he had replied, blowing out the candles one by one.
For Christmas, Peter gave Hallie a framed portrait of her standing in front of a Queen Anne chair. Her hair was piled in a chignon and she wore a Chanel suit and a strand of pearls.
“I don’t own a Chanel suit,” Hallie had said, baffled when he presented it to her.
“It’s the artist’s interpretation,” Peter had explained. “I gave him your photo.”
Hallie had studied the painting critically. “I look like my grandmother.”
“According to San Francisco magazine, Constance Playfair is still one of the great lights of San Francisco society.” Peter had smiled. “You have impressive genes.”
“I thought you only read Spilled,” Hallie had mused, admiring the way the artist made her blond hair look like a halo.
Hallie had never seen Kendra drunk. She glided around parties perfectly poised, her chestnut mane swinging back and forth like a pendulum. But at Patsy’s wedding the waiters were more attentive than flight attendants in a first-class cabin. Maybe Kendra didn’t notice how many times they filled her glass. She probably bumped into Peter at the bar. Maybe she made a scene, threatening to dance on a table.
Peter would have taken her arm and guided her outside. Hallie imagined Kendra stumbling in the dark. Kendra grabbed Peter to steady herself and pulled him toward her. She started taking off her skirt, tugging at Peter’s jacket. Peter was trying to break free when she discovered them.
Hallie ran her fingers along the beveled glass coffee table. She remembered Peter’s house-warming party. All the guests had complimented her, saying she had achieved a perfect union of classic and modern pieces. She had been so pleased, keeping her relationship with Peter a secret, held tight to her chest.
After the guests left, Peter led her out to the balcony. They stood under the stars, swaying to the Harry Connick, Jr., tune he hummed in her ear. Then they walked back into the living room, surveying the half-eaten plates of rice balls and asparagus tips.
“You turn me into someone who belongs in this apartment,” Peter whispered, putting his arms around her. “Without you I’m just a guy with a laptop and a backpack.”
*   *   *
Hallie got up and walked to the bedroom. Maybe what she saw had been perfectly innocent: Peter playing Lancelot to Kendra’s maiden in distress. But she flashed on references Peter had made about Kendra: Stanford football games they attended together, a group ski vacation to Tahoe. Hallie always assumed they just ran in the same circles. Maybe she was wrong, maybe something had happened in the past and tonight it was rekindled.
Hallie hung her pink chiffon dress in the closet and climbed into bed. She put her head on the down pillow and closed her eyes. In the morning, everything would be clearer.


 
Copyright © 2013 by Anita Hughes