Mitchell's Run - the dinner party
Exhaustion claimed Cynthia that night and she slept like the dead, waking refreshed and feeling almost confident. A feeling that diminished during the day, eroded each time a reminder of Drew Mitchell ambushed her attention.
Jo didn’t help. Having now met Drew and been captivated by him, she considered Cynthia’s fears pointless. “You wouldn’t know what to do with someone spineless enough not to have a goal of his own,” she argued. “Drew Mitchell is alive. Be grateful. It’s irrelevant whether he rescued you or not. The only fact is that he’s interested. Grab him with both hands before he gets away.”
Cynthia shook her head at Jo’s certainty. It was all right for her to give advice. Brian, her husband, was a stockbroker steadily climbing the ladder of a prestigious firm and totally devoted to Jo. She wrapped him around her little finger as a matter of course and he gloried in it. Drew Mitchell had already proven himself un-wrapable.
Cynthia had survived the usual number of high-school crushes by the simple expedient of outgrowing them. At the time, they’d been unbearable, but, in retrospect, they now seemed very simple and uncomplicated.
The forefront of her mind understood this and the danger Drew Mitchell represented. It had analyzed the situation and decided that it was unacceptable, that she should disengage immediately from further contact. There was, however, a subversive element hidden elsewhere that owed a great kinship to those schoolgirl infatuations, and was no more controllable now than it had been then.
It used all the old weapons: the formless excitement, the breathless anticipation, and the absolute belief that this was a moment like no other before it. There was no aid in logic, nor refuge in decision. It ignored them both, producing wild mood swings she could neither control nor anticipate. At one moment, she’d be a modern young woman, to-tally in control of herself and her destiny. At the next, she’d be an infatuated adolescent at the mercy of her hormones. It was all very strange.
By six p.m., when Cynthia arrived at her parents’ home in street clothes, she felt exhausted once more, yet, at the same time, filled with a restless energy demanding release.
She dressed for dinner in her old bedroom. It was up-stairs at the rear of the house and her mother maintained it immaculately in her absence. It always gave her an odd feeling to walk into the room she’d left four years ago and find it so unchanged. So many things had happened it seemed unreal to return to an area unaffected by the passage of time. When she’d dressed and put the final touches to her make-up, she stood for a while at the tall windows, looking down at the ornamental garden below, filled with an odd mixture of dread and excitement. Drew would be here shortly and she still had no idea how she’d cope with the impossible situation her father had created. Fortunately, her father’s re-turn had postponed any trip into the mountains for the moment. She had a breathing space in that, if nothing else.
Cynthia glanced at her watch for the hundredth time, decided that it was time and turned away from the window, unconsciously squaring her shoulders as she left the room.
The Sheldon house was one of the “old homes” in the area. It had been built in the era of gracious living that followed the Victorian gold rush, when the young colony was flush with easily-won wealth and aping the old world un-critically. The house had avoided the worst excesses, but the reception area, just inside the front door, was the exception. It was two stories high, had a domed glass roof and featured a vast expanse of terrazzo tiling, complete with marble statues and luxuriant potted plants. Two broad marble staircases curved around the far wall to the upper floor, framing the imposing entrance to the dining room. When she was a child, the area had been her wonderland, and the envy of her friends.
Cynthia had just reached the head of the stairs, a large statue of Aphrodite hiding her from view, when Drew came in the front door. She halted and watched him unobserved, as her mother greeted him.
Jeanette Sheldon was especially gracious. Drew had won her immediate support by sending a formal acceptance of the invitation by courier. The addition of a single, perfect red rose had been an astute master touch. Now he increased his status even further by arriving precisely on the 7:30 chimes of the grandfather clock. Punctuality by a guest was another certain road to her mother’s favor.
It was further proof of Cynthia’s belief that Drew had researched her family in the society pages before her arrival at Mitchell’s Run. The moves were all too perfect to be an accident. Drew Mitchell obviously left little to chance when he was determined to make an impression.
His dinner jacket wasn’t new, but, impeccably cut by a master tailor, and it would never look old. She guessed he’d visited Saville Row during his studies in England. He had that perfectly tailored look that seemed to come from no other location. He looked comfortable and supremely self-confident, as if he could assume command of the entire room at a whim. The single-breasted jacket opened slightly as he turned to answer a question from her father and it revealed a silken cummerbund of deep burgundy. Startled, she looked down at her dress. They could have cut them from the same bolt of cloth. The color matched exactly. This was the second time that their choice of color had coincided. It felt just a little uncanny.
It was now time for her to join them. She moved to her left and started down the sweep of the staircase so she’d come into his direct line of sight. The nervous energy she’d ex-pended on every detail of her appearance demanded she make an entrance. The movement caught his eye and he looked up. A single sweep of his eyes catalogued every detail of her appearance before focusing on her face with an intensity that seemed to make the room pause. She braved his inspection with all the grace she could muster, allowing her lips to curve into a welcoming smile. He nodded slowly in acknowledgment and returned the smile, his eyes mischievous. It was an outwardly innocuous exchange, something that would have passed without comment in any gathering, but she felt as if a charged field had reached out and gently strummed a resonating chord deep in her soul. He turned away casually in response to a comment from her father, but she knew the movement was a lie, that he was acutely aware of her. He’d come because he believed she’d specifically asked he be there. Her father was right. The moment caught by the photographer had been the truth. She didn’t know how it had happened, or what she’d done to deserve it, but she’d somehow penetrated Drew Mitchell’s armor. He was vulnerable. She damned her father for what he’d done. It would have been better her way…yet that tiny voice in the far recesses of her mind exulted in the knowledge of her power.
Her father beamed at her and Jeanette Sheldon re-warded her with a slow approving nod. The halter-necked dress, one of Jo’s designs, had a soft peaked collar, a cross-over front that continued into a slim full-length wraparound skirt. This allowed the skirt to open on her right side as she walked. The resulting peep show of her leg, almost to mid-thigh, reached out and snared Drew’s attention as she’d descended the stair.
“Hello.” The warmth in his eyes made any other greeting superfluous.
“It seems it is now my turn to be host.” She was mischievous. Two could play word games.
“I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he responded truthfully.
The simple sincerity in those words made her attempt at word games feel cheap. She glanced at her father’s face. Surely, he’d see how badly he’d meddled.
That was all that it took. She’d forgotten the razor-edged perception of her guest. He didn’t miss the glance. The shadow of a question flitted briefly across his face, and then was gone. He turned and responded to a question from her mother without a pause, but Cynthia sensed part of his attention was elsewhere. When he turned back to her, the warmth had gone from his eyes. He knew.
He glanced briefly at her father and then looked straight at her, his right eyebrow lifted slightly. She nodded her confirmation, all the movements slight enough to pass unremarked by anyone else. He smiled compassionately and she admired him more at that moment than at any other. She didn’t doubt his disappointment, but he chose to empathize with her position. Her intellectual resolution to end this association wavered. This man was anything but ordinary.
She was glad when the chiming of the grandfather clock signaled the move from the reception area into the dining room. “Dinner at Eight” was no cliché when Jeanette Sheldon entertained. The guests disposed them-selves around the long oval table, falling automatically into a male/female sequence from Edward Sheldon’s chair. Jo and Cynthia sat to the left and right of him, with Brian and Drew extending the sequence until two males flanked Jeanette at the far end.