Summer Island Page 5

“A bunch of anorexics, alcoholics, drug addicts, and serial marriers. People who haven't spent ten minutes with a kid in years. And they're telling you how to parent. It's like-”

The phone rang.

“Damn.” Ruby raced into the living room and yanked the cord out of the wall. She couldn't be bothered for the next twenty-four hours. Nothing mattered except getting ready for the show.

Like all big cities, San Francisco looked beautiful at night. Multicolored lights glittered throughout downtown, creating a neon sculpture garden tucked along the black bay.

Dean Sloan glanced at the wall of windows that framed the panoramic view. Unfortunately, he couldn't leave his seat. He was-as always-trapped by the flypaper of good manners.

Scattered through the ornately gilded ballroom of this Russian Hill mansion were a dozen or so tables, each one draped in shimmering gold fabric and topped by a layer of opalescent silk. The china at each place setting was white with platinum trim. Four or five couples sat at each table, making idle conversation. The women were expensively, beautifully gowned and the men wore tuxedos. The party's hostess, a local socialite, had hand-chosen the guest list from among the wealthiest of San Francisco's families. Tonight's charity was the opera, and it would benefit mightily, although Dean wondered how many of the guests actually cared about music. What they really cared about was being seen, and even more important, being seen doing the right thing.

His date, a pale, exquisite woman named Sarah Brightman-Edgington, slid a hand along his thigh, and Dean knew that he'd been silent too long. With practiced ease, he turned to her, giving her the smile so well documented by the local society media.

“That was a lovely sentiment, don't you think?” she said softly, taking a small sip of champagne.

Dean had no idea what she was talking about, but a quick look around the room enlightened him. An elderly, well-preserved woman in a deceptively simple blue dress was standing alongside the ebony Steinway. No doubt she'd been waxing poetic about the opera and thanking her guests in advance for their unselfish contributions. There was nothing the wealthy liked quite so much as pretending to be generous.

It was, he knew, the official beginning of the end of the evening. There would be dancing yet, some serious schmoozing and even more serious gossiping, but soon it would be polite to leave.

There was a smattering of quiet applause, then the sound of chairs being scooted back.

Dean took hold of Sarah's hand. Together they slipped into the whispering crowd. The band was playing something soft and romantic, a song that was almost familiar.

On the dance floor, he pulled Sarah close, slid his hand down the bare expanse of her back, felt her shiver at his touch.

The crowd eddied and swirled around them. Overhead, thousands of tiny lights twinkled like stars. There was a faint, sweet smell of roses in the air.

Or maybe that was the scent of money ...

He gazed down at Sarah's upturned face, noticing for the first time how lovely her gray eyes were. Without thinking about it, he bent slightly and kissed her, tasting the champagne she'd drunk. He could tell by this kiss where the night could go. She would want him. If he cared to, he could take her hand, lead her out of this crush, and take her to his bed. She would offer no objections. After that, he would call her, and would probably sleep together a few times. Then, somehow, he would forget her. Last year; a local magazine had named him San Francisco's most ineligible bachelor because of his reputation for nanosecond affairs. It was true; he'd certainly slept with dozens of the cities" most gorgeous women.

But what the reporter hadn't known, hadn't even imagined, was how tired Dean was of it all. He wasn't even twenty-nine years old and already he felt aged. Money. Power. Disposable women who seemed to hear his family name and become as malleable as wet clay. For more than a year now, Dean had felt that something was wrong with his life. Missing.

At first, he'd assumed it was a business problem, and he'd rededicated himself to work, logging upwards of eighty hours a week at Harcourt and Sons. But all he'd managed to do was make more money, and the ache in his gut had steadily sharpened.

He'd tried to speak to his father about it. As usual, that had proven pointless. Edward Sloan was now-and always had been-a charming, frivolous playboy who jumped at his wife's every command. It was Mother who held all of the ambition, and she'd never been one to care overly about things like fulfillment or satisfaction. Her comment had been as he'd expected: I ran this company for thirty years; now it's your turn. No whining will be allowed.

He supposed that she'd earned that right. Under his mother's iron fist, the family business, begun by her grandfather and expanded by her father, had become a hundred-million-dollar enterprise. That had always been enough for her. All she ever wanted. But that same success felt vaguely hollow to Dean.

He'd even tried to talk to his friends about it, and though they'd wanted to help, it was clear that none of them understood his feelings. It wasn't so surprising, after all. Although they were all from the same background, Dean had grown up in a slightly different world than his peers.

Lopez Island. Summer Island.

He'd spent ten perfect years in the San Juan Islands.

There, he and his brother, Eric, had been-for a short time-ordinary boys. Those remote islands had formed and defined Dean somehow, provided a place where he felt whole.

Of course, Ruby had been there. And before she went crazy and ruined everything, she'd taught him how love felt.

Then she'd shown him how easily it was broken.

Dean sighed, wishing he hadn't thought about Ruby now, when he had a beautiful, willing woman in his arms ...

Suddenly he was tired. He simply didn't have the energy to spend tonight with another woman he didn't care about.

“I'm not feeling well,” he said, wondering briefly whether it was a lie, or not quite one.

She smiled up at him, revealing a set of perfect white teeth. Her hand moved up his arm, curled possessively around the back of his neck. They were always possessive, he thought tiredly. Or perhaps that was merely his sense of it.

“Me, too,” she purred. “My place is just around the corner.”

He reached up and took her hand, kissing the back of her knuckles gently “No, I'm really not feeling well, and I've got a crack-of-dawn conference call coming from Tokyo. I think I'll take you home, if you don't mind.”

She pouted prettily, and he wondered if that was one of the things they taught wealthy young girls at schools like Miss Porter's. If not, it had been passed down from one generation to another as carefully as the secret of fire.

“I'll call you tomorrow,” he said, although he didn't mean it. There were only two choices available to a man at a time like this: hurt her by not saying it, or hurt her by not doing it. One-lying now-easier.

Once he'd made his decision, Dean couldn't get out of the room fast enough. He maneuvered through the crowd like a Tour-de-France cyclist, saying good night to the few people who really mattered, getting Sarah's wrap (fur in June???), and hurried out to stand beneath the portico.

Sarah made idle chitchat as they stood there together, and he listened politely, answered at what he assumed were the appropriate places.

Finally, he heard his car drive up. The black Aston-Martin roared up the driveway and screeched to a halt. A uniformed valet jumped out of the driver's seat and rushed around to open Sarah's door, then helped her into her seat.

Dean nodded at the man as he walked past. “Thanks, Ramon,” he said, getting into his car. He slammed the door shut and drove off, hitting the gas too hard.

It was a full minute before Sarah asked, “How did you know his name was Ramon?”

“I asked him when we arrived.”


Dean glanced at her, saw her perfect profile cameoed against the blackened window glass. “What? Is there something wrong with knowing his name?”

A frown darted across her face. She lifted a hand, pointedly. “Here's my house.”

Dean pulled up the circular driveway and parked beneath an antique street lamp.

She turned to him, frowning slightly. “You're not what I expected. The girls ... they talk about you.”

He ran a hand through his too-long blond hair. “I hope it's a good thing, not being what you expected.”

“I she said quietly. ”I won't see you again, will I?"

“Sarah, I-”

“Will I?” she interrupted forcibly.

Dean took a deep breath, released it. “It's not you. It's me. I'm restless lately. It doesn't make for good company.”

She laughed; it was a practiced, silvery sound that only held traces of mirth. “You're young and rich and sheltered. Of course you're restless. Poor people are driven and hungry. Rich people are restless and bored. I've been bored since grade school, for God's sake.”

It was such a sad thing to say. Dean didn't know how to respond. He got out of the car and went around to her door, helping her out. Slipping a hand along the small of her back, he walked her to the door of her father's hilltop mansion. Quietly, he said, “You're too beautiful to be bored.”

She looked sadly up at him. “So are you.”

Dean kissed her good night, then returned to his car and raced home.

In less than fifteen minutes, he was standing in his living room, staring out at the night-clad city, sipping warmed brandy from a bowl-size snifter. On the walls all around him were framed photographs-his hobby. Once, the sight of them had pleased him. Now, all he saw when he looked at his photographs was how wrong his life had gone.

Behind him, the phone rang. He waited a few rings for Hester, his housekeeper, to answer it. Then he remembered that Hester had gone to see her kids tonight. He strode to the latte-colored suede sofa, collapsed onto the down-filled cushion, and answered the phone. “Dean Sloan.” It was, he knew, an impersonal greeting, but he didn't care.

“Dino? Is that you?”

“Uh... Eric? How in the hell are you?" Dean was stunned. He hadn't heard from his brother in what... a year? Eighteen months?

“Are you sitting down?”

“That doesn't sound good.”

“It isn't. I'm dying.”

Dean felt as if he'd been punched in the gut. A cold chill moved through him. “AIDS?” he whispered.

Eric laughed. “We do get other diseases, you know. My personal favorite is cancer.”

“We'll get you the best treatment. I can make some calls right now. Mark Foster is still on the board at-”

“I've had the best treatments. I've seen the best specialists, and they,” Eric said softly, “have seen me.” He took a deep breath. “I don't have much time left.”

Dean couldn't seem to draw a decent breath. “You're thirty years old,” he said helplessly, as if age were relevant.

"I should have told you when I was first diagnosed, but ... I kept thinking I'd tell you when it was over, and we'd laugh about it .

“Is there any chance we'll someday laugh about it?”

It took Eric a moment to answer. “No.”

“What can I do?”

“I'm going back to the island. Lottie's already there, waiting for me.”

“The island,” Dean repeated slowly. A strange sense of inevitability drifted into the room. It was as if Dean had always known that someday they'd end up back there, where everything had begun. Where everything had gone so wrong. Maybe a part of him had even been waiting for it.

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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