His Mistress - Carrie Alexander (14/14)

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    khoảng 2 10 năm trước
  • Chapter Thirteen



    Calla viewed the elegant ballroom of the Columbine Hotel with a jaundiced eye. Normally she would've been awed by the high, vaulted ceiling with its carved, gold-leaf arches that met the shining marble floor. She would've been slightly intimidated by the odor of money and power that clung to the tuxedoed men, the glossy sheen of the bejeweled, high-maintenance ladies.

    Normally, but not tonight. She'd had a bad day.

    Five minutes late to a meeting with Kate Todhunter, the lean and severe creative director, Betsy Bonner had jostled Calla's elbow as she took her place at the conference table. The full coffee mug in Calla's hand had tilted just enough to spill onto her ivory silk blouse.

    Pacing the room like a nervous greyhound, Kate had decreed the Zippity-Zap campaign a dunghill. Betsy had the gall to blame it on the artwork, when anyone with half a brain could see Betsy's copy was the weakest of the weak links.

    Back at her drawing board, Calla had ripped up the discarded illustration boards, pinned a brooch over the coffee stain, chewed a Tums, and forged on with the miserable day.

    She'd raced home to change for the event William had invited her to last Saturday morning when he'd barged into brunch with a bagful of sticky buns and a declaration that he was now a permanent fixture in her life. She'd felt a warm glow developing in her heart — Was he saying what she hoped? — but had rattled off something about equal time. William retaliated by inviting her to what he promised would be an extremely boring fete for the retiring Judge Herman Brock. He'd even called at noon to remind Calla the guests were a dull, conservative lot and she should dress appropriately.

    Viv had promised Calla the loan of the staid dress her great-aunt Chessy had given her one Christmas, so Calla let herself into Viv's apartment and caught Alex sitting in front of his word processor in an unbuttoned flannel shirt and black Jockey shorts. Finally clued in to why Vivien chuckled every time she heard the word "endowment," Calla stepped in front of the full-length mirror on the back of the bedroom door to assess the doubtful tent dress.

    Barnum and Bailey could have made a big top out of the stiff taupe fabric, but the color was probably too drab for them. Alex confirmed her horror by asking why she'd put on his army-surplus tent. Her mood turning perverse, Calla decided on the spot that it was time William took her as she was.

    "Calla?" William asked, appearing out of a cluster of bank regulators in penguin suits. "Look at you," he added in wonder, eyes bulging slightly. "What happened to your Miss Prim and Proper outfit of last Monday?"

    She licked her scarlet-painted lips. "That was a costume. This is the real me."

    "Well." William was nonplussed. On the one hand, Calla was gorgeous, sumptuous, bountifully sexy in her tight sheath of emerald sequins. With her wild tumble of defiantly red hair and a necklace of chunky gold links, she looked like a gaudy Christmas ornament. This room would turn into bifocal heaven when the male guests saw such a glittering apparition heading their way. On the other hand, it would not be the discreet introduction he'd envisioned.

    "Is your tie too tight?" Calla inquired disingenuously. "You seem to be choking." The tailored outfits she'd worn for most of their previous dates might have been socially proper, but they sure didn't pack the wallop this sequined mini did. William looked like a poleaxed steer.

    "It's not as tight as your dress," he said in a strangled voice. Calla's figure winked and glimmered with her every breath, and he wasn't sure the dress was capable of containing all parts of her anatomy if she should need to make a sudden move. No dancing, he vowed silently.

    "Justice! Long time, no see!"

    William's eyes swiveled toward the stocky man who'd sidled up next to Calla like a snake on a warm rock. "Pyle," he said unenthusiastically. "Been keeping yourself out of jail?"

    "Heh-heh. Always pays to know a judge or two and have a politician in your pocket. What else are campaign contributions for?" Pyle gulped greedily at his scotch. "Who's your lovely lady — heh-heh — friend?"

    William performed the introduction through gritted teeth. "I know your name, Mr. Pyle," Calla said warily. "You're the man behind the Savings and Loan disaster that's costing the taxpayers millions." She took a step away from him.

    Pyle put his arm around her shoulders and squeezed, not disguising that he was only interested in staring down her cleavage. "Not to mention what it's going to cost me," he replied heartily. "Why's a curvy li'l gal like you talking business? You were made for better things, heh-heh."

    William clamped his hand on Pyle's wrist like a manacle and lifted his arm away so Calla could free herself. "Heh-heh-heh," Pyle blustered, still leering. "Now don't go telling me you don't know what I mean, Justice. My momma didn't raise no fools!"

    William was about to inform the oily man exactly what his momma had raised, but Calla clutched his hand and towed him into the crowd. "He's not worth making a scene over," she said, shuddering to shake the creepy feeling. Pyle might as well have plucked his eyeballs from his head and rolled them across her skin. She shouldn't have been so quick in rejecting Great-Aunt Chessy's tent dress. "I hope that disgusting man is not typical of your acquaintances," she said. "Or the real reason I was to dress conservatively."

    "Pyle is a vile lecher, but perhaps he wouldn't have reacted quite so crudely if your dress wasn't so — so blatantly sexy."

    "Thanks for the fashion tip. I'll have to remember it next time I'm going to wear a see-through blouse to work or a bikini to your bank."

    William steered her to a quiet place against the wall, unsure of what she might do if she became any more ornery. There was a devil-may-care edge to Calla's manner tonight. "How about a drink?" he asked, craning his neck to spot one of the circulating waiters. Apparently the drinks had all been sucked up by the eddying crowd. "Will you be all right alone for a minute?" he asked, the wicked glint in her emerald eyes causing him some concern.

    "Certainly." But she'd bet 50 bucks she wouldn't be alone long. She'd already intercepted too many curious glances. William nodded gravely and made his way to the bar, around which guests were clustered four deep.

    Calla turned to study the crowd, wondering if her dress did go too far. A majority of the group were past the five-decade mark, the women garbed head to toe in matronly lace overdresses and swaths of organza and taffeta. A waiter passed before her line of vision and she snagged him, downing a glass of champagne in a few gulps and lifting another off the tray.

    "Why, hello," a reedy voice chirped in her ear. A tall, skinny woman in pale blue had glided up beside her, thin lips forming an icy smile. "Suzanne —" a tip of one manicured fingernail indicated her companion "— saw you with Willy Justice, and I just couldn't resist coming over to introduce myself. I'm Mavis Tallyhope."

    Bully for you, Calla wanted to say. Instead, she offered her name and took another quick sip of champagne.

    "Quinn? Quinn?" Mavis pursed her lips and glanced at Suzanne, a lively looking blonde in plain gray velvet too heavy for the season. "Do we know any Quinns, Suzy?"

    "Don't think so." Suzanne was studying Calla with friendly but intensely curious blue eyes.

    "Well, you do now," Calla said flatly.

    "Too right." Mavis steepled her hands beneath her chin, tapping it with a bony index finger as her gaze slid up and down Calla's glittering form. "That's quite a dress, Calla."

    "Why, thank you, Mavis," Calla replied with false bonhomie. "One just like it in hot pink would be fabulous on you. Would you like to know where I bought it?" Mavis would look like a dyspeptic flamingo if she ever got wild and crazy enough to slip into something pink.

    Mavis's jaw clamped so tightly her lips disappeared. An oblivious Suzanne brayed, "Wish it'd work on me."

    "You'd look great in a bolder color," Calla replied sincerely. Suzanne had a pear-shaped figure, something the draped velvet did nothing to camouflage. "Try a bright blue to match your eyes. Or deep red."

    "Are you a salesgirl?" Mavis sniped. "I'm afraid we only shop in the more exclusive stores. I'm sure you understand."

    "Yes, of course. No doubt you patronize the exact same stores as your grandmother. It shows." Calla smiled through gritted teeth.

    Mavis smiled back venomously. "Do Willy's parents know he's dating a shop girl?"

    The smile dropped from Calla's lips like a bowling ball from a broken thumb. "Before you run off to spread false rumors, perhaps I should inform you that you're wrong on both counts."

    "Do tell," Mavis said with an arch coziness. "I just can't understand Willy appearing at such an important party with someone so very different from his first wife. It couldn't possibly be serious."

    "Divorced her," the terse Suzanne muttered. "Why not someone new?"

    Calla tipped her chin at a regal angle. "In the first place, I am not a shop girl, although it wouldn't matter to William if I were. Secondly, I am not his date."

    "No?" Mavis said gleefully.

    "No. I am his mistress."

    Mavis looked as though she'd swallowed her buck teeth. Suzanne's rounded cheeks puffed out with a shocked gasp. Every cell in Calla's body froze as she looked past Mavis to a looming William. His eyes went from one woman to the next.

    "Hi, Suzanne," he said. Air whistled out her plump pink lips. "Good evening, Mavis." Her throat worked as she gulped hugely. "Calla?" She drained the flute of champagne still clutched in her hand and reached for the one William had brought. "Have you ladies introduced yourselves?" he asked.

    Mavis drew herself up, eyes beginning to burn with the hot potato of gossip that'd just been dropped in her lap. She simply must pass it on.

    "In a manner of speaking," Calla answered woodenly. The tingling spreading throughout her body wasn't caused by the champagne she'd downed so indiscriminately. Through narrowed eyes, she watched Mavis grab Suzanne by the elbow, twitter a goodbye in William's direction, and plunge into the crowd. "Oh, no," she groaned. "What have I done?"

    "Whatever it is, you'd better collect yourself, honey," said William. "I ran into my parents near the bar and they're on their way over here. And dying of curiosity, I might add." He touched her elbow and moved to stand beside her. Like a bride and groom in a receiving line, Calla thought crazily.

    "Your parents?" she said in disbelief, looking down at her sparkly dress and the blood red tips of her fingers clenched around the crystal glass. "Omigod. Your parents!"

    "Chin up, Calla. It won't be that bad."

    Calla lifted her head. A full-figured woman in a sensible burgundy jersey was parting the crowd like the figurehead of a clipper ship under full sail. Her salt-and-pepper hair was cut stylishly short and she wore no jewelry other than the understated diamonds in her ears.

    "William, you might have told me you'd changed your mind about attending Judge Brock's party," she scolded in a low, smoky voice. "And you must be Calla. How good to meet you after hearing William's rave reviews."

    "He told you about me?" Perplexed, Calla looked toward William for a clue. He'd raved about her?

    "Well, I did prod him with a few judicious questions," Mrs. Justice confessed with a jolly woman-to-woman laugh. "But once he got started, my goodness!" William shrugged sheepishly at Calla's quizzical gaze. "Now where is my slowpoke of a husband?" his mother continued. "He ran across some creaky Yale classmate who'd traveled from Boston to honor Judge Brock, and the old goats can't seem to stop reminiscing about the class of fifty-five. Oh, there he is!" She waved into the crowd. "Cripes, he's bringing that stuffed boor along."

    Calla found herself grinning as the two older men joined them. Her gaze went first to Carl Justice, who was as square and solid as a fortress, with wavy silver-gray hair and a slightly thickened waist. His eyes were much like William's, chips of agate that darkened at the sight of her, making her wonder what he was thinking.

    "Lily?" said a shocked voice. Calla's gaze shot to the tall man just behind Mr. Justice, the Yale classmate from Boston . For a long moment, she didn't recognize him, but her mother's name echoed between them. Realization slapped her in the face, and she reached with blind desperation for the comfort of William's warm hand. She felt like a shattered window in the split second before it broke into a million razor-sharp shards.

    William's head bent toward hers. "Calla, what is it?"

    His deep voice blanketed her fractured heart, holding it together, holding her together. "That man is — he's —" she whispered haltingly in William's ear. "He's my father.


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