"THE MANY LOVES OF RAFE McCAWLEY"

PART 6 - THE GIRL FROM FIFTH AVENUE

LONG ISLAND, NY; DECEMBER 1940 . . . "Danny? Are you going to say something?"

The younger man stared at his friend in pure shock. What could he say? That he found nothing unusual about Rafe's latest revelation? How could anyone consider a sexual ménage a troi, usual? Or normal? And how could Rafe even get involved in such a relationship?

"Okay Danny," Rafe continued, "I realize that you're a little pissed at me."

Danny frowned. "Pissed at you? Why?"

"I don't know." Rafe shrugged. "Because I broke it off with Julie before you could get involved?"

"I wouldn't worry if I were you, Rafe. Right now, I'm feeling grateful."

The older man gave Danny an understanding nod. "Gotcha. At least none of my girlfriends after Julie were that odd."

A certain blonde with green eyes popped into Danny's consciousness. He said, "I don't know about that. Don't forget Claudia Kingsley."

"Danny." Rafe shot him a warning look.

Resentment flared within Danny. "What? Are you telling me that Claudia was normal?"

Rafe sighed. "Trust me. She was."

"Not for you, she wasn't."

Impatient whirled in Rafe's eyes. "Look, just because you didn't like her . . ."

Danny held up his hand to silence his friend. "Hey! Rafe, forget about it. I don't wanna talk about Claudia."

Wistfully, Rafe added, "Still, I have to admit that she wasn't all that bad."

Danny merely rolled his eyes in contempt, while Rafe reminisced.

MANHATTAN ISLAND, NY; SEPTEMBER-DECEMBER 1940 . . . . "I can't believe it!" Anthony Fusco bemoaned. "We go through all that trouble to get this furlough and it decides to rain." He and the other four pilots of their squad, sat inside the famous steakhouse, Angelo and Maxie's, one Friday evening. They had just finished dinner. "Anyone have plans for the evening?"

Billy groaned out loud. "Oh God! Not again! Why do we have to go through this, every time we're in the city?"

Rafe gave a slight cough. "Actually, I already have an idea." He paused. "The Waldorf-Astoria." Cries of protest filled the booth. Interrupting the others, Rafe continued, "What the hell's wrong with the Waldorf-Astoria? Xavier Cugat's playing there. And we're Army officers, for crying out loud! Not a bunch of hicks who don't know their way around town!"

"Well, being from Tennessee," Anthony began, "you . . ."

Rafe gave the Brooklyn-born pilot a withering stare. "Don't even start, Anthony." The other pilot fell silent. When the rest failed to offer more objections, Rafe considered the matter closed. "Okay, the Waldorf-Astoria, it is."

Entering the famous and elegant hotel on Park Avenue became a mind-blowing experience for the pilots. It certainly did for Rafe. One look at the lobby and well-dressed patrons inside, nearly caused him to lose his nerve for the first time in his twenty-four year existence on this Earth.

"Rafe, I wanna leave," Red moaned in a low voice to the Tennessean. "We've only been here for less than five minutes and already I feel like dirt beneath their feet."

Danny added, "I've gotta admit that I'm feeling a little uncomfortable, myself."

Although Rafe shared his friends' feelings, he refused to give in to his fears. Surrender had never been an option for him and he was not about to start now. "Look here fellas, you might be feeling a little scared right now, but remember . . . we're officers and gentlemen. Pilots of the U.S. Army Air Corps. We don't run off like a bunch of scared rabbits."

"Unless we have no other choice," Anthony muttered sardonically. Rafe decided to ignore him.

So, the five friends headed upstairs to the hotel's lush Starlight Roof. They tried, unsuccessfully, not to gawk at the beautifully-gowned women and their well-tailored companions. Even the smartly-dressed waiters caught their attention. Best of all, there stood the famous Latin American bandleader, Xavier Cugat, leading his orchestra in a rendition of ""Chica, Chica, Boom, Chic", while singer Lina Romay provided vocals.

Billy ordered, "Okay everyone, shut your mouths. We look like chumps."

"Speak for yourself," Anthony shot back.

"I can't. I think I'm in heaven." Billy eyed a sultry-looking brunette in a strapless gown. "Rafe, you really know how to pick 'em. Holy shit! The Starlight Roof at the Waldorf-Astoria. If my folks knew I was here, they'd have a fit."

Red added, "I'm ha. . .having one . . . right now." He paused and pointed at the maitre'd bearing down on them. "E . . . e . . . especially wi . . . with that jo . . . jo . . . ker co . . . coming at us."

The maitre'd halted before the five officers. His eyes regarded them as specimens in science lab. "May I help you . . . gentlemen?"

Rafe met the maitre'd's stare with a direct one of his own. "A table for five," he coolly ordered. He did not bother to add 'please' at the end. The maitre'd gave him a respectful nod and led the young pilots toward one of the large tables. Before they could reach their destination, Rafe caught sight of a pretty girl with shoulder-length hair and green eyes, sitting with three other girls and a young man. Judging from the way she met his gaze, the blond seemed equally interested.

Once the song ended, a waiter appeared at the pilots' table. The five friends only ordered drinks - a gin and tonic for Rafe. Cugat's band commenced upon the next number, "Thanks For the Dream". An idea - no, an urge overcame Rafe as he heard the song's first bars. Forgetting his drink, he stood up from his chair and walked over to the table where he had spotted the green-eyed blonde and her companions.

Flashing his most charming smile, Rafe greeted, "Good evening ladies, sir." He focused his gaze upon the blonde. "My name is Lieutenant Rafe McCawley and I wondered, miss, if you would like to dance."

"Good God!" the tuxedoed young man snidely declared. "It's Rhett Butler in uniform!"

The blonde regarded Rafe with admiring eyes. "Yes, but a very handsome and charming Rhett Butler in uniform. By the way, Lieutenant, I'd love to dance." She stood and offered Rafe her hand. "My name is Claudia Kingsley."

Rafe gave her a courtly bow. "Very nice to meet you, Claudia."

"Hey! Wait a minute!" The young man looked outraged. "Claudia, you're not going to dance with this Army yokel, are you?"

Claudia glared haughtily at her male companion. "Really Peter! You could learn a lesson or two from this so-called yokel." She started toward the dance floor. Rafe flashed Peter a quick sneer and followed Claudia.

The Army pilot and the society debutante learned a little about each other, during their two-to-three minute dance. Not a lot, but enough to feel intrigued with each other. Rafe offered to escort Claudia on a night on the town for the following evening. Instead, she invited him to attend a party being held by her aunt and uncle at their Park Avenue home. Delighted that Claudia was still interested in him, Rafe accepted.

"Are you crazy?" Danny cried inside the privacy of their hotel room. He, along with Rafe and the others had gathered there for a few late night drinks. "All of us at some damn party for the muckety-muck?"

Rafe calmly corrected his friend. "They're called Café Society, Danny. And what's wrong with us going to one of their parties? Didn't we just have a swell time at the Starlight Roof?"

"I always knew you were a high flyer, McCawley," Billy declared, shaking his head. "But man! This time, you're reaching for the moon."

Rolling his eyes, Rafe shot back, "Hell Billy, if man was destined to stay on the ground, the airplane would have never been invented." When his friends failed to respond, he cried out with exasperation, "Jesus fellas! Why are you so damn reluctant about this party? You sure as hell didn't have any trouble finding girls to dance with you, tonight." None of the other pilots could disagree with him. Not even Danny, whose own good looks had attracted numerous female attention. "Good. Then the matter is settled."

Danny let out a long-suffering sigh. "I swear Rafe, one of these days you're going to have your own way and it'll turn out to be the biggest mistake you'll ever make."

As usual, Rafe ignored his best friend.

The following evening found the five pilots inside a three-story limestone mansion on Fifth Avenue. Their experiences at the Waldorf-Astoria had taught them to refrain from gawking at their luxurious surrounding. Still, Rafe felt a little awed by the people around him. And he could detect his friends' unease.

Claudia rushed forward to greet the newcomers. "Rafe! I'm so glad that you could make it." She planted a wet kiss on Rafe's cheek. Then she faced the others. "So, are you going to introduce me to your friends?"

Happily, Rafe introduced Claudia to Red, Anthony and Billy. Then he gestured toward his oldest friend. "And this is Danny Walker. He's been my best friend since we were kids in Tennessee."

Green eyes widened considerably. "Tennessee?" Claudia squealed with delight. "Oh my! Another Rhett Butler!" Danny's face turned its usual shade of red. Something even Claudia noticed. "Oh dear. My mistake," she added in a coy voice. "Perhaps I should have said, Ashley Wilkes." The red coloring on Danny's face deepened, as the other three pilots snickered.

"How many times have you seen GONE WITH THE WIND?" Rafe asked the blonde young woman.

Claudia giggled. "So many times, I cannot even keep count. Did I ever tell you that I had attended the movie's New York premiere at the Capitol Theater? Very exciting!" She faced the pilots. "Well gentlemen, I hope that you enjoy yourselves. Plenty of refreshments for everyone."

Red, Anthony and Billy scattered into the crowd with great enthusiasm. Only Danny remained at Rafe's side, looking very uncomfortable. The older man glanced at his friend. "Something wrong, Danny? You look a mite uneasy."

"It's nothing," Danny replied. His face turned a deeper shade of pink. "I just . . . uh, I mean . . ."

An amused smile curved Claudia's lips, as she cooed, "Oh dear! I believe that poor Danny is shy." She giggled, prompting a dark glance from the pilot.

"Nonsense," Rafe quickly said in an effort to dismiss the awkward moment. "Danny ain't . . . isn't shy. Something is probably on his mind."

"Perhaps the lack of a date?" Claudia added with more giggles. Then she lightly slapped Danny's arm. "Oh gosh! I'm sorry. I was just joking."

Danny responded with a wan smile. "Yeah. Sure. I . . . uh, I reckon I best mingle. See you later, Rafe."

"Sure Danny." Rafe returned his attention to Claudia, barely acknowledging his friend's retreating back. He took the debutante's hand and led her to the dance floor. "Would you care to dance, my lady?" he asked, giving her one of his most charming smiles.

Another burst of giggles left Claudia's mouth. "Hmmmm! My lady. I like the sound of that. Do you know any more charming Southern euphemisms?"

"A whole barrel of them," Rafe murmured. He drew Claudia into his arms and the pair began to glide to the tune of "Moonlight Becomes You". At that moment, Rafe believed that tonight could not get any more perfect than this.

"So, what did you think of her?" Rafe asked Danny, several hours later. The two friends each lay on a bed, inside the hotel room that they shared.

Danny glanced up from his glass of Cherry Coke. "Think of who?"

Rafe heaved a frustrated sigh. "Claudia. Claudia Kingsley."

"Oh. Her." Danny took another sip of Coke. "She's all right, I reckon."

A frown creased Rafe's brow. "All right? That's it?"

Danny shot him a quick glance. "What? Are you serious about her?"

The image of Claudia by his side, as Mrs. Rafe McCawley, flashed before the older man's eyes. Rafe smiled dreamily. "Maybe."

"Maybe?" Danny immediately shot up into a sitting position. He gave Rafe a hard stare. "You're serious, ain't you?" When Rafe failed to answer, Danny continued, "Jesus Rafe! You've only known her for two days! What am I saying? Less than two days! And already you're planning your wedding?"

Rafe frowned. "What's the matter, Danny? Haven't you ever heard of 'love at first sight'?"

Danny rolled his eyes and groaned. "God above! What makes you . . .? What makes you think that you and Claudia are gonna end up 'happily ever after'? C'mon Rafe! She's some Fifth Avenue society type, whose daddy is probably into steel or something."

"Real estate and shipping," Rafe corrected. "And sugar."

"Whatever! And may I remind you that you're just an Army pilot? Whose daddy happens to be a crop duster from Shelby, Tennessee! You gonna tell me that two people from such different backgrounds, are gonna have a happy marriage?"

Despite the cold logic of Danny's words, Rafe could have sworn he had detected a semblance of emotion in his friend's voice. An emotion that reflected waves of negativity. He peered closely at the younger man. "You don't like her, do you? You don't like Claudia."

"I never said that!" Danny protested.

Rafe shot back, "You didn't have to. I could tell from the moment you had first laid eyes upon her!"

Heaving a sigh, Danny cried, "C'mon Rafe! You got it all wrong! I just thought that with your different backgrounds . . ."

"Fenton Marsh came from the same background as Claudia," Rafe reminded his friend. "But that didn't stop you from playing matchmaker."

Danny's mouth hung open for a moment. "But that . . . I mean . . ."

"What?" Rafe demanded.

Shaking his head, Danny mumbled, "Nothing. I guess . . . I reckon there's nothing wrong with the idea of you and . . . Claudia." He paused. "How do you think she'll feel about becoming an Army wife?"

This time, Rafe found himself speechless. He remembered Fenton's negative reaction to the idea of being an Army wife. Did Danny have a point? Would Claudia react in a similar manner? "I don't know Danny," he finally said. "Maybe you're right. I just . . . I don't know. Something inside me says I should take a chance with this girl. Maybe it won't work out between us. But I reckon I have to give it a shot."

Danny nodded. "I understand. I may not like it. And you're right, I don't like Claudia. But I understand how you feel." But the expression on his face told Rafe otherwise.

The romance between Rafe and his Café Society girl seemed to proceed smoothly. Every weekend, the two lovers met at Claudia's Manhattan apartment - along with his fellow pilots and her friends.

After a brief period of drinks and music, the entire party would usually end up at a swank nightclub. On one occasion, they visited the famous Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Although Rafe had personally enjoyed himself, they never repeated the experience. Claudia and her friends had seemed . . . nervous about the ballroom's less socially acceptable clientele.

The only other blight in Rafe's romance, was Claudia's relationship with Danny. Quite simply, the two could barely stand each other. Or at least one of them - namely Danny - seemed to dislike Claudia. Rafe could not understand his friend's attitude. It seemed as if the younger man had developed some kind of vendetta against the debutante. The situation strongly reminded him of his aborted childhood romance with Mary Jo Burnett. Only this time, Danny seemed to be keeping his hostility under control.

Rafe considered confronting Danny about this hostility toward Claudia, but decided against it. He did not want to find himself being forced to choose between his best friend and his girl. Besides, Claudia did not seemed bothered by Danny's aloofness. In fact, she seemed rather oblivious to the younger Tennessean. But on a chilly night during the Thanksgiving holiday, Rafe discovered that he had been wrong.

As usual, the pilots left their quarters at Mitchell Airfield and boarded the train for Manhattan Island. Upon reaching the borough, they checked into their usual hotel, spruced up a bit and headed toward the Waldorf-Astoria to meet Claudia and her friends. And, as usual, while the others danced to the music of Xavier Cugat's Band, Danny sat alone at their table.

Feeling contented, Rafe closed his eyes, as he and Claudia swayed to "Acercate Mas". He felt more than surprised when she heaved a long sigh. He opened his eyes and stared at her. "Something wrong?" he asked.

A pause followed before Claudia answered, "No. I just . . . Well, I couldn't help but wondered if Danny was shy. He seemed to be so alone."

"Danny? Shy?" Rafe glanced over his shoulder and noticed his friend sitting alone and nursing a drink. Even Red was enjoying a spin on the dance floor with one of Claudia's friends. "Naw, he's not shy. He's uh, . . . he just broke up with this girl."

Claudia frowned. "When? He's been like this since I first met him."

"It happened last summer," Rafe quickly lied. "They've been together for nearly a year and Danny took the breakup, pretty hard. He's still hasn't recovered."

"Hmmm. Must have been a doozy of a fight."

Rafe replied, "No, not a fight. She uh . . . she went back home to Ohio." Which was partly truthful, the pilot told himself. What he had failed to mention to Claudia was that Danny's relationship with Carrie Ann Vogel had ended over two years ago, upon graduation from college. Or that since then, the younger pilot never had trouble dating other girls. Simply put, the reason why Danny usually ended upon alone was the fact that he disliked Claudia's friends just as much he disliked Claudia. Only he did not want to be left alone during the squad's weekend jaunts.

"Poor fellow," Claudia cooed. "Perhaps I should do him a favor and arrange for him to meet an old friend of mine."

Rafe considered Danny's reaction to any matchmaking attempt by Claudia and saw disaster. "Oh . . . uh, I don't know if that's a good idea, honey. Danny . . . well, he don't react too well to folks trying to match him up with someone. Hell, I got burned twice for trying."

"But . . ."

"Don't you worry about Danny," Rafe continued. "He'll get over Carrie Ann. It's only a matter of time."

A sigh left Claudia's mouth. "If you insist." She smiled at Rafe, as if the subject of Daniel Walker had been forgotten.

Once the music ended, the couple returned to their table and discovered that their friends had joined Danny. Everyone enjoyed their supper, while Cugat's Band continued with a rendition of "Perfido". Upon completing his meal, Rafe excused himself for the men's restroom. As he left minutes later, he found his path blocked by two women who had emerged from the Ladies' Room. One of them he recognized as Claudia.

Before Rafe could approach his paramour, he heard her say, "If only I could get rid of him!"

"Get rid of whom?" the other girl said. Rafe recognized her voice. It belonged to Anthony's date, a redhead named Gloria DeWitt. "Rafe?"

Claudia lightly slapped her friend's wrist. "Of course not, silly! The other one. The one who barely speaks."

"Oh! Danny!" Gloria paused. "What's wrong with him? He seems like a dreamboat. Even if he isn't one of our kind."

Claudia shot back caustically, "He's a dreamboat who happens to be cramping my style! I can't even enjoy myself with Rafe, without that Danny character mooning about."

"Didn't Rafe say that he had recently broken up with someone?"

Contempt oozed from Claudia's voice. "Oh please! I'm not an idiot! I wasn't fooled one bit by Rafe's story about Danny being heartbroken over some girl. I know the real truth. Which is Danny doesn't like our crowd. Especially me. He thinks I'm all wrong for Rafe."

"Are you sure?" a dubious Gloria asked.

Claudia retorted, "Of course I am! Can you imagine? Some lowlife yokel from Tennessee, who believes that I'm not good enough for his friend!" An exasperated sigh followed. "The nerve of him. From the moment I had first met him, I knew he would be trouble." Rafe felt a surge of anger.

"If you have something against lowlife yokels from Tennessee," Gloria began, "why are you dating . . .?"

"My dear Gloria," Claudia interrupted, her voice encased in ice, "I'm not in the habit of dating yokels. Rafe McCawley may not come from any of the best families of the South, but he is no yokel. I assure you. His friend, on the other hand, strikes me as being pure white trash. Trust me, I can tell. Rafe once told me that his family had allowed Danny to live with them, after his father had died. I had Prescott, Daddy's attorney, to check up on both Rafe and Danny's backgrounds. It seems that Danny's father had been a drunken reprobate who could barely support his family, before dying of a heart attack. And now his hayseed father is standing between Rafe and I."

Gloria paused. "You're serious about Rafe, aren't you?"

"Of course, my dear. Aside from being extremely good-looking, Rafe is smart and very bold. With such traits, he could make something of himself." Claudia continued, "All I have to do is convince him to leave the Army. And guide him in the right direction. That shouldn't be much of a problem."

"But Danny may not like the idea," Gloria pointed out.

With great ferocity, Claudia replied, "Precisely!"

The two women walked away, unaware that their conversation had been overheard. Rafe slowly emerged from his spot, stunned by what he had just heard. He could not believe it! All this time, he had assumed that the hostility between Danny and Claudia had been one-sided - on Danny's part. Apparently, he had been unaware that Claudia had regarded his friend as a threat. Or harbored such a low opinion of the younger man. Rafe realized that the situation between him, Danny and Claudia was not a rehash of the Mary Jo Burnett mess. Instead, this all reminded him of his troubles with one of his old high school beaus - Ellie Conway. Claudia had not been the first to label Danny as white trash.

Rafe stood rooted near the restrooms, as he allowed his disappointment to settle down. To his surprise, he felt nothing but anger at Claudia's description of Danny. And annoyance that she would assume she could run his life. Why did he always seemed to attract such females? Claudia turned out to be the third. Or fourth. Rafe knew deep in his heart that it was time to cut the Fifth Avenue debutante out of his life.

Taking a deep breath, the pilot returned to the table. He found the others sipping their drinks and eating appetizers. All except for Claudia, who seemed to be missing. "Where's Claudia?" he asked.

"Dancing with an old friend," was Danny's cryptic answer.

Rafe glanced at the dance floor. He spotted Claudia dancing with that whey-faced milksop, Peter Van Hagen. He waited for the flash of jealousy to hit him. Instead, he shrugged and said, "Oh well." And he sat down, next to Danny.

The younger man stared at him in disbelief. "You're not upset?"

"Over what?"

Danny replied, "Claudia is dancing with someone else. A fella you don't particularly care for."

Rafe reached for his glass of champagne and calmly said, "Better him than me." The other man stared at Rafe, until realization finally gleamed in his eyes.

Later that night, the end finally arrived for Rafe McCawley and Claudia Kingsley. After leaving the Waldorf-Astoria, Rafe separated from his fellow pilots and escorted Claudia back to her apartment. Outside her door, she gave him a coy look. "So . . . would you like to come upstairs for a drink?"

"I don't know," Rafe said, taking Claudia by surprise. "It's been a long day and I'm rather tired. Maybe I should go back to the hotel." He struggled to suppress his enjoyment of Claudia's stunned reaction.

The debutante stared at Rafe, as if he had lost his mind. "Say that again?"

"I think we should call it a night, Claudia," Rafe added serenely. "That's all. What's the problem?"

Disbelief clouded Claudia's green eyes. "You have always joined me upstairs for a drink. What changed your mind, tonight?"

Heaving a loud sigh, Rafe said, "I don't know. I guess it was hearing you describe my best friend as a . . . what did you call Danny? A lowlife yokel? White trash? It kind of took the joy out of my evening, if you know what I mean."

Claudia's pink mouth flapped uncontrollably - like a fish gasping for breath. "You overheard us!" she finally blurted. "I cannot believe that you would stoop so low as to eavesdrop on a private conversation! In my book, no gentleman would ever . . ."

"I'm sorry to disappoint you Claudia, but this isn't GONE WITH THE WIND. And I'm not Rhett Butler and you sure as hell aren't Scarlett O'Hara. So give it a rest, will ya?" The debutante sputtered briefly before Rafe continued, "I may be guilty of eavesdropping, but I don't take kindly to folks insulting my friends, behind my back."

The young woman angrily shot back, "And I'm sure that your precious Daniel Walker has not hesitated to hold back an insult or two, in regard to me!"

"I think you would be surprised how restrained Danny has been!" Rafe retorted. "A hell of a lot more than you."

Claudia took Rafe by surprise with a hard slap to his face. "You lowlife bastard! How dare you judge me, as if I'm some common reprobate!"

"Lowlife?" Rafe chuckled unpleasantly. "And to think, just a few hours ago, you had told Gloria that I had potential."

Claudia sneered. "A serious miscalculation on my part!"

"Honey, that's something we can both claim."

Again, Claudia slapped his face. Without saying another word, she spun on her heels and marched toward her apartment building's revolving door. As Rafe watched her stalked past a nervous doorman, he murmured, "Good-bye, Miss Kingsley." Then he turned away and hailed a cab to convey him back to his hotel.

END OF PART 6