Read Diva Online

Authors: Jillian Larkin

Diva (8 page)

Why did Parker think his stories needed to be dotted with celebrities to be interesting? It was pathetic. “Mmm. Was she wearing her peacock feathers when you met her?”

“Ostrich, actually.”

Clara pasted a smile on her face. When she’d first come to New York what felt like a lifetime ago, Parker’s association with one of Clara’s fashion idols would’ve earned him at least
a dozen points on the potential-beau scale.
He’s an absolute sheik
, ex-Clara would have told her girlfriends at home.
He dresses well, he took me to a swanky spot, and he even knows Gloria Swanson
.

But now Clara was seeing things with clearer eyes: So he’d interviewed a celebrity; that was part of his job, wasn’t it? What was the big fuss? In the end celebrities were just people like everyone else.

“She’ll look fantastic on this month’s cover, don’t you think?” he asked, but didn’t wait for Clara’s response. “We’ll have our highest sales to date, I’m willing to bet.” Parker went on and on, happy to bask in the glow of his own success.

Clara looked out at the other diners. The Colony was Parker’s favorite restaurant. It was a lovely place in an understated way—silver sconces on the white wood-paneled walls, ivory pillars, crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. White cloths covered the tables, and vases of poppies stood in the center of each. A person wouldn’t even know that the Prohibition amendment had been passed in a spot like this. The restaurant counted too many government officials among its regulars to ever have to worry about a gin bust.

But people didn’t come to the Colony for the décor or the booze—they came for the stars. Clara had already spotted two Vanderbilts and three senators. Louise Brooks, the silent-film actress, demurely sipped a glass of amber liquid at a corner table, the ends of her short, dark bob flawless against her porcelain cheeks.

Perhaps the banquette getting the most looks was that of Babe Ruth, the famed baseball player and unofficial King of New York. The big man looked as at home in a suit as he did in his Yankees uniform. He had his arm around the beautiful young girl sitting beside him—a girl who was definitely
not
his wife.

Clara had wanted to sit in one of the upholstered banquettes in the back, but Parker had been quick to request the table by the window—where all the patrons couldn’t help but see them on walking through the restaurant’s double doors.

For what seemed like the thousandth time that evening, someone walked over to the table. “Parker, old boy! How are you?” The man speaking was young and handsome, with a doe-eyed girl on his arm. The girl was far too young to be wearing so many diamonds.

Parker sprang from his seat. “Robert Paddington! Clara, this is an old college buddy of mine, plays the Wall Street game now. Robert, you’ll be pleased to meet Clara Knowles. Remember all the stories we used to hear about her?”

Robert reached over to kiss Clara’s hand. “The Queen of the Shebas, of course! Looking as beautiful as the stories say.”

“Thank you.” Her sleeveless black silk crepe evening dress had bands of Oriental-patterned gold lamé and a two-tiered hem. The neckline was respectably high, but wide armholes gave just the right flash of skin whenever Clara moved to lift her martini.

“That’s right! She and I are together now,” Parker said,
puffing his chest out proudly. First a degree from Columbia, then a career as a successful magazine editor, then a famous flapper for a girlfriend: all stepping-stones to becoming the rich and interesting man that Parker so longed to be.

“We
work
together,” Clara corrected. A few fancy dinners—most of which were spent discussing work—did not make the two of them a couple, not in her book.

While Parker made small talk with Robert and his lady friend, Clara’s thoughts drifted back to a dinner date nowhere near as sophisticated as this one. It had been a week after Clara had arrived in New York. She and Marcus had lounged on the East River ferry, quietly baking underneath the afternoon sun.

“Now you can proudly tell your friends that you’ve been inside the Statue of Liberty!” Marcus had exclaimed with an arm slung over her shoulder. “Explored her every nook and cranny. Compromised her virtue by climbing—”

“Marcus!” Clara swatted him and laughed. She peered out at the aquamarine statue, which was slowly becoming smaller and smaller. “I like it much more at a distance. Up close it’s just stairs, stairs, and more stairs.”

“With a fantastic view at the top, though, you have to admit.”

“And a fantastically hot sun pounding down on us,” Clara replied, tired and cranky. While very fashionable, cloche hats did next to nothing to protect a girl against sunburn. “Be honest—am I red all over?”

Marcus turned to her, put his hands on her shoulders, and surveyed her. “Yes. Red as a ripe tomato.” He kissed one of her cheeks lightly with his velvet-soft lips. “You are quite possibly the most hideous sight I’ve ever seen.” He kissed her other cheek. “You should be glad there are no children on this boat. Their screams would be deafening! The horror!”

“You’re one to talk,” Clara said, and flicked his red nose.

“Ouch!”

“You look like a dipsomaniac. Or like you have a fever.” Sunburned Marcus might have been even more adorable than Regular Marcus.

“Just the fever of my love for you, darling,” he replied with a grin. Then he gave her a kiss that made her forget all about her sunburn.

When they reached shore, they were too tired to journey back to Brooklyn Heights to look for a proper restaurant. “We probably shouldn’t expose you to respectable society, as a courtesy,” Marcus said.

So they found a dingy joint near the Fulton Ferry Landing, where they had a dinner of greasy burgers, a bucket of fries, and a shared chocolate milk shake.

The food was delicious in the way only cheap, greasy food could be. Through the restaurant’s smudged windows, they watched the sun set behind the Manhattan skyline and the way the streetlights glinted off the water. Afterward they walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, and when they reached
the first of the arches, Marcus kissed her with only the moon and river as an audience.

The entire date had cost about as much as Clara’s appetizer at the Colony. It had been one of the best dates Clara had ever had—magical exactly because it was so ordinary.

Now, Clara peered across the table at handsome, tedious Parker, who was rehashing the Gloria Swanson story for his college buddy. Unlike Parker, Marcus couldn’t have cared less about movie stars or celebrities or Clara’s old, raucous life. He only wanted to be with her because of
her
: the person Clara hadn’t even been sure was actually there beneath all the glitter. Marcus had showed her that she was still real and interesting once all the witty double-talk and sideways glances were stripped away.

And she had let him go. Now he was marrying someone else.

Parker’s friends finally left. “I’m about finished with my pheasant—how about you?”

Clara nodded. “Yes, it was delicious.”

“Shall I order you another martini before we head out?” He raised his glass to her. “They’re the very best in the city.”

Clara drained the last sip of her drink. “Are they, now? They’re a little cloudy for my taste, really.”

He hiked an eyebrow and grinned. Parker, it seemed, was the sort of man who loved a dissatisfied woman. Clara had found that young men who came to early, large success with comparatively little struggle usually did. “Hmm. Well, I just
got a silver-plated shaker and haven’t had the chance to test it out yet. Shall we try to give the Colony a run for its money?”

Just a few moments ago Clara had been eagerly awaiting the end of the date. But the image of Marcus and his perfect little fiancée popped up in her mind. The Marcus who’d kissed her sunburned cheeks was lost to her now. Clara could be heartbroken alone, or she could have some company. Even if that company
was
Parker.

“All right,” she said. “But there will be no shaking. I’m a girl who likes her martinis stirred.”

Clara had thought the view from Parker’s office was good, but the view from his apartment put it to shame.

Through the many floor-to-ceiling windows in Parker’s living room Clara could see the wide expanse of Central Park and the lights of the city floating around it. The room was filled with oak bookcases, and framed articles hung on the walls. A long leather couch curved in an L-shape across a Persian rug, and the dimmed lighting gave everything a lush, classy feel. Parker was a man with real taste. There was no question about that.

“Gorgeous, isn’t it?” Parker stood uncomfortably close to her in front of the window, his arm pressing against hers. “I had a bidding war with Richard Whitney from the New York Stock Exchange over this place, you know. He put up
some real cabbage, but I won in the end. I couldn’t lose out on this view.”

God, did he ever stop bragging? “Yeah, it’s jake,” she mumbled, bored.

“So, how’s that cousin of yours doing since we sprang her from the big house?”

Clara shrugged and moved over to put some distance between them. “She’s out of town, so I haven’t heard much from her.” Just a postcard from Long Island:
I’ll be out of the city for a while—can’t really say why—but I’m doing fine and I miss you!
“She’s taking the train into the city for a day week after next and we have plans to get lunch—I’ll give you an update then.”

“Just a day? What for?”

“She has a dress fitting for this wedding she’s in,” Clara replied. She hoped Parker didn’t ask her
whose
wedding. Talking to Parker about Marcus was the last thing she wanted to do right now.

“Oh, the Eastman wedding?” Parker asked, twisting something in Clara’s chest. “How is that old beau of yours?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Clara said curtly.

“The sap’s probably busy flunking his way out of Columbia. Family money can only take you so far—unless he hires someone else to sit his exams for him.”

Clara scowled. Marcus was one of the cleverest people she knew. When they’d been together she’d loved nothing more
than wandering through the Brooklyn Museum with him and listening to his commentary.

On one visit they’d stopped in front of a painting of a worried-looking oarsman in a top hat, rowing down a river. “I wonder what he’s thinking about,” Clara had said.

“Well, that’s obvious,” Marcus replied. “It’s windy, and he’s wishing he could hold his top hat on his head to keep it from flying off. But he needs both arms for rowing! Poor man. That’s why I could never be an oarsman—I’m nothing without
my
top hat.”

And yet in front of a painting by Frederick Childe Hassam of New York in winter, Marcus had been serious. “We’ll have to come back and look at this again once it’s snowing outside. We’ll be so tempted to complain about the cold and chill that we’ll forget how lucky we are to be here for it. But look at it! New York’s at its best covered in snow. Sometimes you need paintings to remind you to enjoy life’s beauty, you know?”

But Clara and Marcus hadn’t even made it through the summer. If Marcus went back to look at that Hassam painting during the winter, he’d be doing it with his wife.

“Shouldn’t we be drinking martinis about now?” Clara needed some booze to flush Marcus’s handsome face from her mind.

“Let me just chill the glasses.” Parker leaned in for a kiss, but she turned her head so he caught her cheek instead. It might have been a mistake to come here. She and Parker
had never kissed, and Clara was beginning to think that she didn’t want that to change.

While Parker was off in the kitchen, Clara crossed into the wood-paneled study. She was surprised at the towers of old letters, papers, and invitations heaped over the oak surface of the desk. Parker was fastidiously neat in the office—it was nice to see a bit of disorder in his sleek, polished life. With barely a scruple she picked up one of the smaller piles and shuffled through it.

She paused when she reached an already-ripped-open envelope with an invitation lying on top.

Celebrate the theater, art, love, and life!
Forrest Hamilton invites
Parker Richards and Clara Knowles
to join him for a night of revelry
at 8:00 p.m
.
on September 13, 1924
at 6 Shorecliff Place, Great Neck, Long Island

Clara picked up the envelope and saw that it was dated August 5—back when Clara had still responded to Parker’s each and every dinner invitation with a resounding no. She clenched the invitation in a tight grip and fought the urge to tear it into pieces. Parker had been bragging to this Forrest character and Lord knew who else that he had managed to bag the Queen of the Flappers.

Clara had known that her editor was arrogant and self-satisfied, but this was a whole other level. Who else had Parker told about this “relationship” of theirs? And what had he said? He must’ve made things out to be pretty serious between them if someone was putting
both
their names on a party invitation.

“Clara,” Parker called from the living room. “Where did you disappear to?”

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