"See you tomorrow."
"You're sure you don't want to come over?"
"I'm sorry. Prior engagement."
"That's alright. I'll see you tomorrow, then." Ruth gave me a quick smile, and turned walked on. I turned and headed back, my feet taking me along the now familiar route with ease.
Thirty minutes later, I was at the Metropole, Mew York. The concierge didn't even pause for a second, giving me a quick smile as she gave some client a list of restaurants, with details on location, ambience, food, service, and rates. Complex though it sounded, the information was concise and well delivered, easy for any curious hotel guest to comprehend. I smiled as I recognized the list I had prepared in her hands, and received a wink in return. I pointed up, an eyebrow raised in a question. She nodded. I smiled again and made my way to the elevators.
The staff knew me as more than a friend of the Graysons now. I was their best friend – full of ideas to help them out. In the three years since I had started visiting this place, the respectable, well-known hotel had become one of the most efficiently run jobs in town.
"There you are! What took you so long?"
"Extra class today."
Mrs. Grayson pursed her lips. "So it wasn't your parents keeping you?"
I leaned back against the railing. "As if they care."
"You shouldn't be like that, Evie."
"Be like what? Bitter?" I paused. "You know I'm not. I say what I see. I don't hold it against them."
She sighed, but didn't push it. "At least you made it. We have just enough time to get you ready."
I turned towards her, slightly startled. "But I look fine!"
"Don't you always." She paused in admiration. "That blouse suits you to no end."
I smirked. "I told you when we got it…"
"So you did. But that's not the concern. This show is a very big event, to say it in the most understated way I can. You need to dress up."
I sighed. "Alright. I'll come up here later, then. Or tomorrow."
"It had better be tomorrow. The roof isn't a place to come in the dress I have for you."
"And what sort of dress is that?" The wind tugged a bit of my hair onto my face, and I pulled it back absentmindedly. The wind up here took some getting used to.
I caught my friend's grin. "Come down, and you'll see."
"We have to see how it looks on you before you say that."
"Obviously. But I'll probably do it justice. Ice blue just suits me too well."
"That's what I'm hoping for. Your height ought to help, too."
"That's what I'm hoping for."
And so the process began.
No matter how many times I went through these motions, I never lost the magic of it. Or the sadness, which was something I had only begun to see after I came back from that vacation.
This time, I had a little more freedom than usual. The new fashions were a little more forgiving of movement, and didn't rumple or crease easily. Still, Mrs. Grayson wouldn't let me move when she made up my face – the powders would stain the georgette badly. No more Fatal Apple for me, though. I was Sweet Talk girl now.
When I finally turned to face the mirror, I flashed for a second – just like I always did – on every other time I had done so before. A once easily pleased eye had become a little jaded and a lot more practiced. Critically, I ran over every detail, before stepping back for the full effect.
More than satisfactory. This was me at my best. I smiled at the person in the mirror. She smiled confidently back, secure in her own perfection. I caught Mrs. Grayson's eye in the mirror.
"Well, well. Is that a star I see?"
"I see two." It was true. My mentor and friend had aged remarkably well, considering she was at the point in her life when age just begins to show. My mother, though younger, had not done so well.
"Shall we, then?" I picked up my clutch, and handed her hers.
"Let's." We walked out of the room, two tall and graceful ladies that the world couldn't hope to compete with.
All eyes on me, for the second I walk in. Most eyes on me, a few seconds after. Every male eyes stays for a few more. Every wife or girlfriend watches out for another few. It was by now a familiar pattern. I smiled to myself. How different I had become.
"I'll see you in a bit, dear. I have to go do my duties."
"Away, hostess! Go do your job." I laughed with her, and watched fondly as she walked off.
Steve, one of the waiters, rolled his eyes at the inside joke. I shrugged, my mouth twisting a little. He shook his head and moved on.
I walked to the gallery's beginning, examining each painting carefully. Although Mrs. Grayson wasn't the only artist whose work was being showcased today, I still found myself pausing before hers longer than anywhere else. I had seen nearly all of them in the works, but very few in finished stages. She guarded them jealously.
The vibrancy of the images still struck me. One was a picture of a flamenco dancer, her skirts taking up most of the canvas in a firestorm of colour and movement. Another was of a wave breaking against gravel, city lights shining vaguely in the reflections. Yet another had simple lashes of deep blue on a black background, dotted regularly with bright yellow to shape them into New York's skyscrapers, from the view a helicopter might have.
I smiled, taking it all in. She still called herself an amateur.
"Aren't they lovely, Maureen? So vivacious."
"Exactly the word, love. So talented, she is."
I froze, and turned my head a fraction of an inch.
A well-endowed woman in emerald stood next to me, clutching the arm of a man in a navy suit.
As my heartbeat returned to normal, I realized that it couldn't possibly be. Not just because Peter was dead, though that was part of it. This man was several years older than Peter was – would have been, rather. His hair was shot with streaks of silver-white, and far too many laughter lines were around his eyes for twenty-six years' worth.
I turned back.
Whoever it was, it wasn't my concern. Why bother to drag up all that, for a look-alike's sake?
I thankfully turned and walked towards Mrs. Grayson's voice, where she was standing in the ballroom. She gave me a measured smile – a trifle too calculated. I was immediately on my guard.
"Evelyn, I'd like you to meet Mr. And Mrs. Kinsey, friends of ours from Los Angeles."
"It's a pleasure to meet the both of you, Mr. And Mrs. Kinsey."
"The pleasure is all mine, dear. May I say you look stunning."
"Why, thank you, Mr. Kinsey." I dipped my head a little, smiling prettily.
"Mr. Kinsey owns the Deluna resorts just north of Los Angeles, dear. It's very kind of them to come to this little event of ours, taking time out of their demanding schedule." She paused, a corner of her mouth lifting flirtatiously. "I've heard you're even busier than usual at this time."
Mr. Kinsey, a rather portly figure, puffed ever so slightly at this comment, despite trying to look nonchalant. "Yes, well, some new directors have been scouting our place for a potential shooting site, so yes, it is a trifle chaotic at this point. But we couldn't miss this, of course, dear."
"Indeed. Your paintings are marvellous, darling. Where did you happen across such talent?"
"Oh, it's nothing." She smile modestly under their praise, composed as ever. "I have a lot of free time, what with this place having all the care it needs from my husband. I'm not much of a girl about town, either, am I?"
"Well, enjoy the party, dears!" Smiling gaily, she touched my shoulder and walked away. I followed, mystified.
"Well? What did you think?" Safely ensconced in a sheltered alcove, her voice was higher than usual.
I raised an eyebrow. "What am I supposed to say?"
She tutted, exasperated. "A director is shooting at their hotel. I have just introduced them to a potential recommendation – and you I have just introduced to opportunity."
She smirked, as my eyes grew wide. "See, there's the reaction I was hoping for."
"Thank you so much, Mrs. Grayson! Do you think they like me?"
"Of course. They were very impressed, I can tell you. Mr. Kinsey isn't one to give out compliments, nor is Mrs."
"Oh, my God!" I leaned back against the alcove wall. "This is just amazing."
She smiled widely at me. "Well, we'll see. In the meantime—"
"We've got a party to get on with. Let's go."
"Anyway," she began as we came out again, "who was that man staring at you when I called?"
"Which one?" I grinned.
"The one with the lady in emerald. I couldn't see his face, but he wouldn't turn his head." She chuckled. "I noticed because she didn't seem to mind."
"No one." My sudden abruptness probably chilled her, and she didn't question further.
The night would have passed well and uneventfully after that, in my world of the ideal.
Of course, someone had to interrupt it.
"Evie." The arm on my hand was firm, giving me cause to stop myself from yanking away immediately. I turned to face the man, regarding him coolly.
"Yes? Do I know you?"
His eyes glowed strangely, in a way that frightened me a little.
"Do you or did you know Peter?"
"Peter who?" This from Mrs. Grayson, who had turned up at exactly the right moment, as usual. Her tone was icy. "Also, it would help if you identify yourself, sir. It's rather impolite to begin an interrogation otherwise."
He seemed to deflate slightly. "Forgive me."
That's quite all right." I took a glass of champagne from a waiter's tray. Steve, unfortunately. He raised an eyebrow at me. I refused to respond.
"I was referring to Peter Chase. I'm his brother, Frank."
I sipped, willing the alcohol to work quickly and steady my nerves. "Peter Chase."
"Yes. Are you Evie Spooner?"
"Yes. How would you know me?"
"You have to help me." His voice broke at the end. His companion squeezed his arm, before speaking herself.
"Forgive my husband, he's getting ahead of himself. Could we please have a word in private?"
I hesitated, then inclined my head. Mrs. Grayson was there, after all. And it was better that I hear this. Perhaps it wasn't, then again. That didn't really matter to me, when information was at hand that I had wanted for the past three years. I could suddenly admit that to myself now; perhaps the wine, or the shock, or both.
"He's alive." I felt light-headed for a second. "Unhurt."
I saw the wife hesitate, and the man almost break down again.
"He's actually been affected rather badly, dear. He's – well, he doesn't remember anything. Nothing at all about his life for the past eight or nine years – since he enlisted, actually."
Unable to resist, I raised an eyebrow. They must've thought me callous, and I probably was. But I hadn't lived a happy life the past three years without building some kind of protection.
"So, I ask again, how would you know me, or my connection with him?"
"He talks in his sleep." The man spoke for the first time since we had shown them into the private parlour. "Names. Wishes. Anything. Your name comes up a lot."
"It wasn't very difficult after that." Maureen finished for him.
"No, of course not."
"You have to help." If he had been standing, he would have staggered. "I know he had a thing with you for a while—"
"That was a lie." I cut him off coldly. "He was having an affair with my mother. I lied to protect them."
"But it's your name he says."
"Really?" I tried to be sceptical, to be hard. But I couldn't. I tried to make it sound incredulous. But it came out almost hopeful. I should've just kept my mouth shut.
I locked eyes with the man in front of me.
"You have to help me," he whispered at last. "He's all the family I have."
I glanced at Mrs. Grayson. She looked back at me, impassive.
I took a deep breath, steady from the wine – finally. "All right."