Saturday, 7 p.m.
I wait for Harris at the foot of Rosecliff’s heart-shaped, red-carpeted stairway.“You’d have to have a grand romance to live here. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton kind of thing.
“Not my style.”
“Mine, either. You think we’re missing something?”
Harris slides his arm through mine and we enter a ballroom spinning with couples, motion the gasoline of a party getting started. Relief softens my stance. My blue knee-length dress wasn’t the disaster I’d feared. A third of the women wore cocktail dresses.
I admire the grand chandeliers and the intricately plastered ceiling, the building a frothy confection, vanilla buttercream frosting with pink flowers.
“Romantic,” I say. “The house, I mean. Though if Versailles had never been built I don’t know where Newport architects would have gotten their inspiration.”
“Ancient Rome.” Harris says.
I want to know more about his house, which Meade described as exquisite, but it might seem too personal. So I ask about his family.
“Mother, father, sister.”
“Dog, cat, goldfish?”
He smiles, but doesn’t bite.
“Do they live in town?”
“My parents visit two weeks a year, one in May and one in September. Palm Beach.”
We step onto a patio centerpieced by an impotent fountain. Party-goers spread across the deep lawn, beyond which the ocean is a concrete plane on this windless evening. At once the beauty is real and artificial. Or is it that beauty is so because it doesn’t last.
“Everyone says we’re in another Gilded Age,” I say. “Which means we’re headed for trouble.”
“Not worried about it.”
“Maybe you should be, for the rest of us.”
“I’m a conservative guy. I’ve seen too many wipeouts. Even this party has its share of ruined aristocrats.”
I remind him we’re not in England. “Do you think Meade will be okay?”
“Never worry about that girl. She’s tough as nails.”
“Who’s that?” Stumpy and his wife came up behind us.
“Meade couldn’t make it,” I say.
Stumpy nods. “Damn shame.”
He might have been talking about her absence or her legal battle, but his wife leaves no room for misinterpretation. “The shame is that the Duntons turn everything into high drama. Meade and Jinx are the same as their parents before them. Clarrisa was the only sane one, and I’m sure Jinx’s last stunt took years off her life.”
“Ah, they’re sweet girls,” Harris mutters.
Stumpy’s wife lifts her chin a bit to signal her disagreement. She chides Harris for not responding to an invitation she’d sent him.
“I’m sure I did.”
“After I spent months planning….”
“It’s her first big one, London,” Stumpy says. “You need to get a table.”
“What’s this one for? The Thai gardening society, the lepers of Norway? How many more parties can we squeeze into one summer? What do you figure, Stumps?”
Even the nicknames have nicknames.
“I’m going to add it up. If I get the top ticket for every event I’m invited to, it’s going to run forty, fifty grand a summer.”
“What’s this,” Stumpy bellows. “London’s worried about money?”
Harris’ cheeks flush.
“I don’t want to interrupt,” I say. “But I could use a glass of water.”
“To the bar we go,” Harris says, though waiters buzz through the crowd. His hand on the small of my back. I like that I did him a favor. I’d reached the age where I understood that a woman gets passion or comfort, never both, and though I wasn’t happy about giving up heat it no longer felt like a terrible trade.
“What did Jinx do that was so upsetting?” Meade always says she was the good child.
Harris shakes his head. I gather it’s not nothing, but nothing he is going to tell me.
Our path is an obstacle course of people Harris wants to chat with, so I leave him to his social duties and find the ladies room. Long ago I decided I wouldn’t bother much with make-up, not seeing the point of trying to convince people I was more beautiful than I actually am. But something about wearing an expensive new dress made me want to bust out the lipstick I’ve carried unopened in my purse since I bought it on the way to a New Year’s party.
I examine the shade in the mirror, unsure if it is too dark a red.The door swings open. “Bluesy! I’m so glad to see you. I stopped at your house this morning but you weren’t in. The place is gorgeous.”
She nods. I ask her what we need to discuss. My speech has begun to mimic theirs, vague and bright.
“If something doesn’t work, let the groundskeeper know. He’s there Tuesday to Thursday.”
Her eyes in the mirror catch mine. “A summer fling is one thing,” she says. “But don’t be a fool. He’ll never marry you.”