While I had been expected to marry, I hadn’t expected to fall in love. It was in fact, Katherine who was supposed to fall in love with John Jacob Astor IV.
Mother had it all planned out, the family attending the late summer party at the Astor Bar Harbor, Maine estate. A meet and greet where Colonel Astor, millionaire, industrialist and real estate extraordinaire would become enamored with my smart and savory business and estate-seller sister. I had not yet properly entered society, being but a 17-year-old teen debutante, just having graduated from Miss Spence’s finishing school a few months prior. I was mostly expected to stay out of the way. I’d already had a tiff with Mother, as I hadn’t wanted to wear a dull, ecru summer dress.
“It’s so plain!” I’d argued, reaching for my navy, deep square-necked gown. “This makes me feel far more lovely and bold.”
“You don’t need to be bold, Madeleine,” Mother spat back. “You’re a young, un-introduced lady.”
“And what is with this parent match-making, anyway? This isn’t the 14th century!”
“John Jacob Astor will be a fine match for your sister! You know this is important to her.”
“Parading my sister like some good catch, Mother. Honestly, it’s deplorable.”
“Madeleine Talmage Force! Clean up your act and get dressed!”
Mother huffed and left my bedroom, door slammed and the ecru dress in a rumple on the floor.
“Darling, you look beautiful,” my father said, taking in my blue gown now, clasping my shoulders. “Are you having a good time?”
“Yes, of course, Father,” I said, forcing my best smile despite my tiresome of summer parties and small talk.
Father glanced around then reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out a small red velvet box. “Open it,” he said with a smile.
“You shouldn’t have,” I said, taking the tiny box and lifting the lid. A bracelet with a small gold horse charm lay on the white satin pillow. “Oh, Father. It’s beautiful. I love it!”
Father removed it and fastened the clasp before giving me one of his one-armed bear hugs.
“Did you invite William?” he asked.
“No, Father,” I said of my longtime friend who’d been a bit in love with me since childhood. “He had another engagement.” I swallowed the white lie, adjusting the bracelet. I was, as far as I was concerned, several years away from having to be tied down to a man and a house and a wedding band. I adored William but thought he had much to accomplish before he was ready for family life. We’d spent our youthful years on the playground, him goading me by pulling my hair or teasing me in my finishing school skirts. It was hard to forget those things about someone.
I normally loved parties but recently I’d been restless. All that year, everything felt the same to me. The endless club parties, the same men in their same crisp suits with their same smarmy lines. I could see nothing but dullness ahead of me, a life of which my mother had lived. One where she had chosen not for happiness and love but for which society wanted for her. Sure, Father – a well-known sportsman and yacht club member – and she had their happy moments but nothing like what I had read in my books. Nothing like what I really wanted – something romantic, fiery and heated and wanted. Like King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn – without the violent and tragic ending, naturally. Something truly, well-wanted and passionate. I was most alive when I was training my horses or acting on the theater stage – places where I could truly feel my own wings expand. My life, endless and infinite and full of possibilities. Dating was hardly where I’d found myself to be budding into an exciting life. I just didn’t know that I believed true love existed in this world any longer.
“Go on now, join the party,” Father said. He opened the ever-present tin of mints from his jacket pocket and placed two in his mouth, offering me them. I shook my head, smiled and nodded, walked out of the veranda, away from the music and chatter on the lawn. I picked up a glass of sparking champagne with a strawberry and surveyed for Katherine.
She had dated a Harvard man for the better part of a year. She’d been head over heels since the night she met him at the ballet. And I had thought he’d felt the same. He called on her every weekend, fawned over her with flowers, candy, jewelry. Why, I thought he was weeks from proposing on bended knee. All at once, without any warning, two nights before New Year, he ended it with her. Not a week later, she saw him with another, younger girl. It broke her heart and she’s never quite recovered. She tossed herself into her real estate work, always refusing dates. Until tonight.
Katherine seemed happy enough, chatting with a group of suiters and their possible spouses. I did not see Colonel Astor, however and wondered if he’d yet to woo her.
When my parents and sister weren’t looking, I slipped up a back staircase, grand and sweeping. A white dome with gold trim shone and winked, even the thick shadows. Gauzy light filtered in the tall polished glass windows. While we’d been vacationing in Bar Harbor this summer, I didn’t know anyone here well, certainly no one was my age. I could easily chat with anyone, it wasn’t difficult yet I still found myself tired and dissatisfied.
Upstairs, I wandered the dark house alone, relaxed and pleased with my own company. The darkened halls lined with the photos of the Astor’s past stared down at me. I ran a finger along the silk wall paper wondering if Katherine would inherit this house, if she and John Jacob Astor’s children would play here in a few years’ time. Would their wedding be on this very lawn in front of the ocean, as they stood under a rose-draped awning? Would William be my date and finally propose? Would I have to say yes, even though while I cherished him, perhaps even loved him as childhood sweethearts might, but maybe not as deeply as I quietly and desperately desired?
I stood in the hallway, looking up to the unlit chandeliers, their crystal hanging down like crystalline tear drops.
I knew of John only what I’d read in the gossip and newspapers. The gossip papers I wasn’t supposed to read – Mother said they were tactless. But occasionally, my friends and I would dive into an issue or two. I’d learned Jack had been divorced but a mere few years ago, in a bit of a scandal. The powerful couple had two children, Vincent and Alice, both grown and about my age. He’d been a decorated colonel in the Spanish War, serving in Cuba and ending operations in Santiago. He was a very rich man. Perhaps even the richest in New York and the east coast. Hotelier, inventor, industrialist, financier, medaled colonel from the Spanish-American War, science fiction author – Jack was wide-read and well-accepted. His family spanned back generations.
Did Astor still believe in love? I’d read in NY Weekly that his wife had been unfaithful on him, though I’d also read in Society Talks he had committed adultery as well. She finally accepted a minimal settlement and left New York for London with Alice, who now had a questionable paternity. Divorce was one of the worst offenses against society, it seemed. Astor was Lutheran and I knew from my own Episcopalian services that divorce was not allowed under God. And Catholics, like my friend Anne, believed divorce damned you to hell.
My biggest concern, of course was, could John’s wounded and bitter heart make Katherine happy? I hoped so. I helped her change her dress three times tonight, put her hair up and tied on three strings of pearls from three generations of our family for good luck. She’d been excited, and Katherine was rarely enthusiastic about much besides closing a deal in real estate or a particularly rare breed of horse.
“I do want a family, Maddy,” she’d said to me, applying a soft shade of poppy red lip color. She set it down, examining her reflection, as though looking for someone else in the mirror. “I wasn’t sure I did, but now I know. A big family; with holidays and birthdays and just regular nights, too. A true family.” She quieted. “He’s wealthy. Powerful. Yet I’ve heard he’s a good man, a smart man. Is it okay if I don’t completely fall in love with him though?”
I’d kissed her cheek. “You won’t know until you meet him. Give yourself a chance, Katherine.”
“I do want a family,” she repeated quietly. She’d turned from the mirror to me. “You’ll have it too, you know.”
“In time,” I’d said, hugging her.
Being especially daring, I entered a study, leaving the door open behind me. Mother would be furious if she found me now. A large claw footed desk sat center and I stood examining it, thinking I smelled sweetness of tobacco. Books sat like obedient soldiers on the shelves. Wingback chairs flanked the desk as though waiting for a meeting, a large telescope behind it. A balcony overlooked a quiet portion of the backyard and ocean. I could not resist. I grasped the brass handles and pulled on the glass doors, letting in the sea air. The murmur of the party sounded distant, far from where I was. Nightbirds called in the trees, the low throb of frogs sang. The wind raked through my dress, letting the white folds billow out like a fairy’s gown and shook loose some of my hair. The fronds of ferns hanging from the ceiling waved. Goosebumps rose on my arms, my senses sparking alive.
“Beautiful night for star gazing,” a voice said behind me. I did not turn. “Or planet watching.”
I glanced over my shoulder. I had never met John Jacob Astor IV in person, though I’d be a fool not to recognize him from his photos in the newspapers. His coloring was lighter than I expected though, even in the darkness. It wasn’t that which struck me, however. I was rapt by his presence. My heart hit my rib cage as hard as the ocean did against the rocks. He walked quietly forward, met my stance, staring upward. He did not look at me, but at the night sky, hands in his jacket pockets. I moved my eyes up as well.
“Long held desire to travel intergalactic is it?” he asked, and I softly smiled. “Do you know the constellations?”
“I do,” I answered quietly, folding my hands at my waist so he wouldn’t see the slight tremble there. His eyes focused, far-seeing into something in the sky or beyond. I suddenly wished for my sister’s taste in red lipstick, something to make me look older.
“And the planets?”
I could sense his smile. “And what do you think?”
I moved my eyes to him. “About what, exactly?”
I wasn’t like my sister, easy and charming around men. I was too self-conscious of myself. Of my elbows and my stray tendrils of hair. Anxious, and unsure. If I pretended I was on the theater stage right now, playing a part, perhaps I’d come across as mature and well-versed, not silly and shy. This was ridiculous, I could talk to anyone, surely I could think of something to say now. I searched my mind for verses more interesting to say.
He cocked his head towards the heavens. Moonlight bounced off the stars, the white marble railing, Jack’s beautifully structured face. “Up there. Life? Or are we alone?”
I lifted my chin towards the stars in the sky, as though they may offer me some answers. I wondered why he was asking me about the universe, conversing about planets instead of why I was rudely inviting myself through his summer house on a personal tour.
I glanced at my feet. “I’m terribly sorry. You must think I’m awful, that I have no manners at all. Please, let me apologize….”
“Frankly, I find the tedious small dinner party talk a bit much at times myself,” he said easily. “About those skies? Your thoughts?”
I examined him. He was not jesting. Earlier tonight, I’d spoken in the artful, careful way I’d learned to speak in etiquette classes. With Jack, I realized I didn’t need to do that.
I thought about the science tomes I’d read. About what church taught me. In the dark like this, it was easy to talk to a stranger. I spoke boldly. “Well, personally, I’d like to think we are not alone. That somewhere up there, someone is looking down on us. That the planets, maybe thousands of light years away, have their own lifeforms.” I paused, the ocean water crashing over the cliffs in dissonant beats, the scent of apple blossoms in the air, trees rustling their leaves in the wind like so many party dresses. “Though, I can’t imagine one as beautiful as this.”
“Nor can I,” he replied. “I’ve always thought it looks as though the stars are spelling a love story.” I smiled. We stood quiet, though it wasn’t uncomfortable. I supposed we were being doubly impolite, hiding in this dark study in the farthest wing of the house, nonetheless, I didn’t want to leave. This man was not bitter at all. “I’m John Jacob Astor. My friends call me Jack.”
He offered me his hand in introduction and I firmly grasped it, the way my sister taught me to with men and women alike. “Don’t look down, Maddy. Keep eye contact, hold their hand firm. Show them your own power. Own yourself.” He was wearing a smart navy suit with gold cufflinks that winked in the thrown light of the half moon, a white shirt with faint pinstripes and vest, a gold pocket watch. He had a magnetic quality that pulled me.
“I’m so sorry to be here, I should leave you alone,” I said, turning to leave.
“You wound me, madam,” Jack said, hand over his heart. “Please. Stay.”
I hesitantly resettled.
“Please, tell me your name?”
The corners of my mouth quirked up. “Madeleine. My name is Madeleine Tamage Force. What shall I call you, Colonel Astor?”
The handsome businessman smiled. “Jack, please. Do you read, Madeleine?”
“Maddy. Do you read?” He gestured to the book-lined shelves.
“I do. I love books. Theater. Movies. Give me a good story, I’m happy.”
Yes, I’d been in theater – small productions on the New York stage – but I knew better than to boast. I couldn’t be making mistakes with John Jacob Astor before I was even so much inducted as a proper socialite later this year.
Jack rocked forward on his heels. “As am I. What are your favorite stories?”
I leaned against the door frame. Was he truly paying attention to me? This striking, considerate, interesting man? “I like Greek mythology, I enjoy romance novels with complicated characters and intentions. I like reading about the royal history in England. It’s bloody and terrifying, but I can’t seem to look away from it. I also have an interest in archelogy, especially the Egyptian tombs. Stories told in the jungle. It’s fascinating.”
He nodded and nodded. “Are you romantic by nature?”
I half-shrugged, shy to admit.
“My, you’re very well-read. I’m impressed.”
“Because I’m a just a lady?” I bit my tongue. My stubborn streak flared at the worst times.
“Of course not,” Jack said, shaking his head, laughing a little and surprising me. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to offend, Maddy. I mean your interests are wide and varied. You are not of narrow mind. I have no trouble imagining you conquering galaxies. I wonder…do you like science fiction?” He touched the telescope, gently pointing it into the night sky. “I do. Very much.”
“I have read Jules Vern. Wonderful reading. Though I must confess, I haven’t picked up much else from those shelves.”
“You are quite literary,” Jack said. “I must confess, I am impressed. When I was in prep school and in college at your age, I was rather awkward.” He laughed a bit. “Lonely and I’m afraid a bit of a bore.”
“Now, I can hardly see that as being true.”
“You’re too kind,” he laughed. “Ah, but it was true. I was an aspiring inventor. I liked science experiments and fiction that explored deep space. I wanted to take gears apart only to put them back together. I was rather a disappointment to much of family, the odd kid who wouldn’t take immediate interest in the family business.”
Jack tapped his cane on the floor and sighed. “Estate, mostly. When my father died he left me in charge of a staff of lawyers, accountants and managers and trustees, all who needed to manage the Astor estates all over New York City. I was very young. It changed my line of duty and interests rather quickly.”
“I would imagine. But did you come to enjoy it?” I asked quietly, hardly being able to imagine such a successful man despiteful of what he did when he was clearly so adept at it.
“I suppose in time.” He took in the ocean. “I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been afforded the luxury to still dabble in my hobbies when the work business is taken care of.”
“And what are they?” I asked, genuinely curious to hear from him. “Your interests?”
Jack brilliantly smiled at me.
“You are too sweet. Your attention flatters me. This, for one.” Jack gestured at the telescope and leaned over it, expertly focusing the knobs, the way my grandfather used to on his own telescope. I noticed his broad shoulders, his well-cut hair, gentle-moving hands. “I’ve never lost the interest in other galaxies.”
Stop, Maddy, I scolded myself. Katherine would be furious. This is not your night. He is not for you.
“Here, look here. It’s Mars. Notice, how red. Can you imagine? Living there. Scientists maybe think water was there once. If there’s water….”
I stepped once over. “There could be life….” I finished, taking another step. We were right next to each other now. He smelled of spice, clean, and something distinctly male. Our eyes met, and we held the gaze, both of us touching the telescope. A rose blush crept into my cheeks and I knelt as gracefully as I could to look into the telescope at the planet.
It hadn’t occurred to me until this moment, when I saw the edges of his gorgeous dark eyes crinkle, just how much older he was than me. We were connecting on so many other levels than the years we had passed by.
He’s more than twice your age.
“It seems so close. As though you could just reach out and touch it,” I said, still examining the planet. Did that sound ridiculous? Was I speaking like a child? I straightened my spine.
“Man will travel there someday,” he said. “I’m sure of it.”
There was laughter in his voice. “And women. Indeed. I hope as witty and smart as you.”
I tucked hair behind my ear, smiling. Was he flirting?
“What are you aspirations, Maddy?”
I opened my mouth, closed it, suddenly cripplingly shy. Wasn’t this the question that had been haunting me? And what would he think of my simple aspiration? I lifted my eyes to the stars. “To be happy, I suppose.”
Jack nodded. “What makes you happy?”
I continued to smile, my girdle cinching my middle uncomfortably all of a sudden. “I’d like to continue acting, even if I have a family. I want to ride horses all my life. I want to read and hear new stories, every day.” I hesitated. “I suppose all that sounds rather dull and empty.”
“Not in the least,” Jack said, shaking his hand. “I find it rather inspiring. I have prized horses and livestock myself, animals are dandy.” He paused. “It’s not easy as we all think, is it? Being happy.”
I shook my head. He understood. “No.”
I indicated the telescope. “Can you find others? Other planets?”
He brightened. “Of course. How about Saturn?”
I moved so he could readjust, though not far. The energy moved between our bodies, sparks cracking, firing. He took longer this time, searching the endless night sky. I wished everything and everyone else could evaporate. I found myself pretending this was our date – no one was downstairs except maybe kitchen help, making us a plate of crackers, cheeses, grapes and Riesling wine for a picnic under the stars and that majestic old oak tree. Jack and me would stay up all night, losing time as the stars tracked across the sky until the dusky dawn broke across the line of the ocean. We’d kiss just once, a beautiful first kiss, full of promises and hope.
“Here it is, as promised. Saturn, Maddy,” Jack said, eyes meeting mine. They were not brown, they were not hazel, they were not green. They reminded me of Monet’s impressionist lilies, and I had to look away before I fell any deeper into them.
“Thank you,” I said. “How did you….”
“Would you like to go somewhere? Now? With me?” Jack asked suddenly. He was so close, pinpricks rose on my arms. “Come, let’s escape. Down by the water. We’ll take a walk….”
“I-I couldn’t possibly!” I said, heart roaring in my chest. A helpless smile broke across my face. Could I? What about Katherine? “It…it wouldn’t be right.”
“But you’re smiling,” Jack said, eyes sparking with mischief. “It’s just a walk. Join me, won’t you?”
“I…I….”I stumbled, flushing scarlet and as he accused, smiling. I was so very tempted.
A rush of air moved over us. “There you are! Colonel Astor! Did Madeleine steal you away?” My mother said as she burst into the room, breaking the spell. She snapped on a light and we squinted in the harshness. Jack quietly sighed, but arranged his features pleasantly.
“Not at all, Mrs. Force, not at all,” Jack said, winking at me as my stomach fell.
“Come along, then, both of you, the theater production is about to start,” Mother said.
I had not stopped thinking about Jack since we’d left the study at his upper east coast vacation home. I thought I’d found him watching me a few more times during the theater production and at the party, finally convincing myself otherwise, that I was foolish and selfish.
I was busy burying myself in a new theater script, one which I still hadn’t decided if I wasn’t going to try out for any of the parts: The Little Café. Katherine, who was at work, had remained impassive about her meeting with Jack, still calling him Colonel Astor, and avoiding Mother’s questions daily about whether he’d sent telegram or called our phone to see her again. I hadn’t the nerve to ask my sister if she liked him, though we usually shared most everything. Honestly, this simply wasn’t something I wanted to know.
Downstairs, the doorbell rang. Another delivery for my mother, perhaps. A caller for my father, William, about business. A stack of papers for my sister about a house to sell. I flipped pages, reading lines on my window seat. Mother opened my door and quickly snapped it shut behind her.
“Madeleine,” she said. “Is there something you want to tell me? I’ve asked him if he’s sure, and he says he is. He’s here to see you.”
“Mother, I’m not sure I know what you mean?” I folded a page to the next.
She rushed to my side, folding her arms over her chest and leaned down, as though the caller could hear us through our carpeted and tapestried halls. “John Jacob Astor is downstairs. He has requested my permission, most kindly, I might add….” She took an inhale and held it.
She exhaled. “To see you.”
My face burned crimson. “Ah, oh,” I stuttered. I raised a shaking hand to my breast. “Me?”
“Yes. So as I asked…is there something I should know?”
I pulled a small tortoiseshell butterfly comb from my hair and repositioned it in the tumbled mess. I’d changed hastily from my riding clothes after being in Central Park with my favorite horse, Autumn’s Joy. “N-no, Mother. I don’t know why he wants to see me.” My heart hummed against my chest. I smoothed a hand over my dress, plain, dull. My hair was hanging long, loose. I had expected no visitors, no outings. “Do I look okay? I haven’t time to change. I can’t keep him waiting.”
Mother eyed me up and down. “It’ll have to do. Go, go.” She turned me on my shoulders, yanking the papers from my hands and pushing me from the room.
“Mother,” I harsh whispered, coming back inside. “I have no shoes.”
She blustered, examining my feet but could not deny the fact, letting me rush to my wardrobe for a pair. “Hurry, hurry,” she urged in a no longer very quiet tone. “Not down the steps! Don’t rush. You shouldn’t rush. Ladies keep calm.”
Exasperated, blood pounding, trying not to huff out like my horse, I walked down each step just as Miss Spence instructed me to – one at a time – light as a feather, hand brushing the banister, rings on full display. Neck arched high as a swan. Ladies weighed nothing. I curved the staircase to see Colonel John Jacob Astor standing there, in our front parlor, ebony cane in one hand, bouquet of roses and lilies in the other, a small package tucked under his arm. He was even more handsome in the warm afternoon light of day. I held his eye contact and smiled.
“Madeleine,” he said, returning my smile. I stepped before him and he bowed a bit, taking my hand, and kissing it. He was, by far, the most charming, fascinating man – not boy – I had ever met. A full girlish blush took my cheeks now. I willed myself to act older.
“Colonel Astor,” I said. “What a pleasure to make your acquaintance again.” I was fully aware of my mother’s presence behind me. Assessing. Judging. Questioning.
“Jack, please,” he said, giving me a wink. He did not let go of my hand. Mother’s eyes drilled into my back. “These are for you.” He handed me the roses, blood red, half open, each the size of a baby’s fist.
“Jack,” I breathed. “Aren’t you sweet? These are beautiful. Simply beautiful. Thank you.” I inhaled. “Divine.”
“And Mrs. Force, thank you for welcoming me into your home on short notice. You are so benelovant. Please, accept my apologies and these lilies,” Jack handed her the bouquet of alabaster flowers. I was curious of the package.
“Oh, Colonel Astor,” my mother gushed, accepting the white lilies. “How genuinely thoughtful of you. And not at all necessary. You are certainly welcome here anytime. Please, do come and sit down in the parlor.”
One of our maids, Sophie, remained in the wings, waiting for Mother’s command.
“It’s a lovely day, perhaps you’d prefer the garden, Colonel Astor,” I suggested.
“I would, Maddy, let’s go outdoors,” Jack assented. “The sky was a particular blue on my auto ride over, I did miss the walk. And again, call me Jack.”
“Can we get you something to drink? Brandy or tea?” Mother asked.
“I’ll have whatever Maddy is having.”
“Lemonade will do fine for now, Sophie, thank you. Could you please place these gorgeous flowers in a vase in water for my rooms, please.”
Lemonade? A child’s drink! Sophia was already gone, however, and it wouldn’t be appropriate to shout after her.
I gave Mother a pointed look at the doors to the screened porch. She gave me a similar look – she did teach me, after all – as though she hadn’t expected to join us anyway and turned away. Jack and I walked outside, sitting on wicker chairs under one of the umbrella tables.
“You look lovely today,” Jack said quietly. He leaned his cane against the table, fixing his eyes on me. Could it be? Could his attention truly be for me? I’d always been the young daughter, the young sister, the not-so-pretty one, the plain one, the girl getting in the way or catching up. I was considered brilliant, smart, savvy, yet I had to work at it. Nothing came easy. Here, under John Jacob Astor’s appraising gaze, however, I felt anything but plain. I was wanted. I was lovely. “Absolutely radiant.”
I tugged at a loose lock of my hair, which I’d always a considered a lackluster shade – not blonde, not brown, not red. “I was riding today. You’ve caught me between horses and reading. Not exactly my finest hour. But thank you. You are so flattering.”
Jack himself wore yet another crisp suit that fit him to the finest detail, a summer affair in a deep cream with navy stripes and vest. His flat woven hat looked casual and smart with a matching sash. How many newspapers took his picture on the way here? Or did he know how to keep under their ever-watchful eye? I’d heard rumblings he had more than one motor car.
“I understand you take pleasure in yachting,” Jack said. “Not just horses. Though I must say, I am fond of horses myself, I have five prized racers.”
“You do? That’s grand. And yes, I do enjoy yachting. Being on the water is one of life’s finest pleasures, I find.”
“I am a yachtsman, and it is indeed one of my greatest pleasures.” He crossed his long legs. “You’re a fearless young women, Maddy. Has anyone ever told you?”
I blushed, dipping my chin. Me? Fearless? I entirely feared so much. That I’d never be truly happy, never find my calling. That I’d fit myself neatly into the box my parents had built for me, stone by stone. I folded my hands to hide the shiver of nervous anxiety. I’d once seen a crude cartoon in the newspaper labeling Jack as “Jack Ass” – I’d quickly closed it and tossed it in the bin, finding it rude and unfair but always secretly questioning the underlying message. I no longer did. It was salacious and false. “I…well, I suppose not.”
“You should be told every day,” he said. He leaned forward, just a bit. “I see such a spark in you.” I smiled shyly, unsure what to say. “Do you read poetry?”
“Sometimes,” I said. “Do you?”
He pushed forward the wrapped book. “Open it, please.”
Heat crept up my neck, threatening to redden my cheeks all over again. “More gifts? John Jacob, you shall spoil me.”
“I hope you won’t think this is brazen,” Jack said softly as I fumbled with the paper. “Your hair, it’s stunning. It’s the color of a newborn fawn’s coat.” I blushed fiercely at the compliment, thanking him quietly.
Sophie arrived with the lemonade and a plate of shortbread cookies, ice cubes hitting against the tall, thin glasses. The August sun dipped further in the late summer sky as I gently tugged at the final wrap of tan paper.
“Rabindranath Tagore,” I read the cover. “Do you delight in his work?”
“I do. He also has operas. Theater. Which I understand interests you. I think you’ll appreciate his work. I hope you’ll let me know what you think.”
“I look forward to reading it, thank you.”
His eyes were warm on me. “Please. Tell me who you read.”
We sat in the garden for more than an hour, until the sun slanted over the garden wall, until the lemonade had run low and the ice cubes melted. Sophie had attempted to come back, though I waved her away. I saw Mother’s confused face appear in the porch window and I discreetly dismissed her as well. Jack was so unlike the gentleman of fine breeding from Harvard and Oxford who I met at parties and mixers, or when I was yachting or at the horse races. He was vastly interesting and funny, captivating and magnetic. I think I could have spent hours in his company and still have been captivated. When he consulted his gold pocket watch for the first time, I swallowed, realizing our time was ending far too soon.
“I must leave you now, Maddy. I’m afraid a dinner business meeting calls.” He slipped the watch into his vest. “Much too dull, I’d rather stay with you, I can assure you,” he said. I read his eyes. I believed him. He stood, spinning the cane easily on the grass. I stood as well, folding my hands over my skirt. “I wonder, however, Maddy. If I could have the pleasure of your company this evening? Would you join me at the opera? The Astors have a private box. It would just be the two of us.”