I felt vaguely uncomfortable as I tried to circulate through the crowded ballroom.
I hate dress-up affairs, especially ones where I don't know many people. I was decked out in a rented tuxedo in a room filled with the upper crust of business and society in the Southern seacoast city to which I'd moved six months earlier.
A waiter with a tray filled with flutes of champagne passed by and I deftly grabbed one, more for something to do than anything else. More than any other liquor, champagne goes to my head hard and fast, so I have to be careful about how much I drink.
As I sipped the golden liquid, I thought ruefully that this was the kind of thing my ex-wife would have loved. She was always a social climber, always trying to push me into a position in the town where we lived that I wasn't really comfortable with.
Gloria was socially ambitious and she liked the finer things in life, so I worked extra-hard at my job to provide those things for her. I just never knew how greedy she really was until the events transpired that led to our divorce.
She was a stay-at-home mom, but she was an active one. She did everything for our son and daughter, volunteered on a regular basis, even worked part-time at her sister's flower shop, all trying to find an outlet for her boundless energy.
We met when we were both in college. I wasn't your average College Joe, however. When I finished high school I was restless and didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to escape the small town where I'd grown up, but I really wasn't sure I was ready for college. I was tired of school and classrooms, and I wanted to see the world..
So I joined the Navy. The service had its ups and downs, but generally the ups outweighed the downs. I got in shape physically, I learned some self-discipline I badly needed, I was able to go to college on the GI Bill and I made some lifelong friends.
More importantly, when I did start college, after getting out of the Navy, I was already 22 and not inclined to squander valuable time partying my way through school. That was all the more so after I met Gloria and we decided to get married during my senior year, and her junior year.
I guess the seeds for the destruction of our marriage were sown very early on. Gloria was very ambitious and harbored a dream of going to law school and becoming a lawyer.
That dream died when she became pregnant with Becky early in her last semester. She was so sick that she missed the date for the LSAT exam, and a newborn baby did not mesh with attending law school any way.
Then, about the time Gloria was considering another shot at law school, she came up pregnant again, with our son Ricky. After that, she threw herself into motherhood and put her law school dreams behind her.
I didn't find out until it was all over, but Gloria secretly nursed a grudge about the fact that she'd had to abort her ambition of a legal career.
Maybe if she'd said something, I might have found a way to make her dream come true, but she didn't, so we rocked on like nothing was wrong.
The first sign of trouble came not long after we sent Ricky off to college, when Gloria came home one evening announcing that she'd found a job and was going to work full-time.
That didn't sit well with me. It wasn't that she'd gotten a job, but rather the fact that she'd simply gone out and done it out of the clear blue sky, without any discussion or consideration for my feelings on the matter. She just did it and presented me with a fait accompli.
A lawyer in town named Aaron Rosenthal had been looking for a paralegal and hired Gloria based on little more than her good looks and charm, I guess. I didn't know the man personally, but those who did said he was a shyster of the highest order.
After I met him, I quickly discovered that I didn't like him, and apparently the feeling was mutual. Don't know why. I'm a very pleasant sort, most of the time, easy to get along with and good at my job.
I was a middle manager in marketing for a major corporation, and had no real desire to rise any higher in the company. I liked where I was positioned. It was high enough in the food chain to provide a nice salary and other perks, but I didn't have a lot of major responsibilities. That meant I could easily duck if and when the shit started flying.
Gloria never could understand my attitude. She always tried to push me upward, and tended to belittle me when I expressed no interest in doing so. I guess that made for a fertile field when Rosenthal inevitably began his campaign to seduce her.
It took him about nine months to get into Gloria's pants, then it was child's play for him to manipulate her into joining him in trying to swindle me in an investment scam.
I never quite understood why he targeted me and my money. I really didn't have all that much. I mean, I'd invested pretty well, I was frugal, so I had a good savings account built up, and after 20-plus years with the company, I had a nice little 401K working.
My folks had gotten to be fairly well-off and being the only child, I stood to inherit a nice chunk of cash and property when they passed, so maybe that was part of his scheme.
But they're still pretty healthy and active, so I'm not going to see that fortune any time soon, and I'd just as soon they spend it living well in their retirement or to have as a back-up if medical bills start piling up..
The point is, I was no moneybags, so I'm guessing that he zeroed in on me simply because it belonged to me, and he didn't like me.
Gloria's motivation was even more mysterious. She had everything she needed to live comfortably, and she could usually get most anything she wanted, especially if she used her feminine charms as an inducement.
At any rate, their plan had two fundamental flaws that doomed it to failure.
The first flaw was the timing. By the time they got around to baiting the hook I was supposed to swallow, I was already suspicious of their relationship.
Too many late nights and weekends, "working on briefs," plus a general decline in our sex life and a growing coldness from my wife had my fidelity radar screaming red alert.
So when Gloria came to me with some documents relating to a "wonderful opportunity that Aaron says is a license to print money," I smelled a rat.
The second flaw was underestimating me. Gloria didn't think I had any real ambition and Aaron didn't think I was smart enough to understand what he was trying to run on me, and that I couldn't possibly know the laws pertaining to fraud.
Actually, I didn't, but I had friends who did.
The only concession to an upscale life that I went for was membership in the local country club. The club offered the kids a safe environment to swim and hang out with their friends, gave Gloria a place to socialize and gave me the chance to play golf as often as I wanted.
I'd taken up golf in the Navy and it was the only avocation I took a real interest in. I'm serious about the game. I walk whenever I play, I don't drink on the course (other than water), I have good hand-eye coordination around the greens and I'm big enough (5-11, 180) to get some decent length off the tee.
As a result, my handicap is in the single digits and I was a much sought-after playing partner at the club. One of the men I played with regularly was an attorney, a former state legislator who had chaired the committee that updated the state's code of law on fraud to reflect the growing menace of on-line scams. So he knew the law frontward, backward and sideways.
And not only did he know everyone in the state's legal system, he also knew most of the key players in the Justice Department, up to and including the Attorney General himself. Once he got a look at what Rosenthal was trying to pull on me, he took the ball and ran with it.
Gloria and her boyfriend never had a chance. By the time the feds got through with him, Rosenthal was in prison for a 15-year term, and the only reason Gloria didn't do time herself was because she turned state's evidence and ratted him out.
Nevertheless, she still got five years probation, had to pay a healthy fine plus court costs, and I filed for divorce. For some reason, Gloria blamed me for her legal and financial woes, and our divorce was bitter and costly.
We ended up selling the house and splitting the proceeds, most of which went to the lawyers, and it dried up the funds we'd saved for the kids' college education. Not surprisingly, they were caught in the middle and it broke them apart as well. Becky took my side, while Ricky sided with Gloria.
After the divorce was finalized, I felt like I needed a fresh start some place new. I happened to call an old Navy buddy, Bernie Linton, to see if he knew of anyone who was looking for an experienced marketing executive, and it turns out he did.
Bernie owns a business in this city that was really starting to take off. He needed someone to come in as his senior vice president to handle marketing and other various detailed operations, and offered me the position.
He'd been trying to do everything himself, and it was getting to be too much. His kids had also left the nest, and he and his wife Helen wanted to lighten his work load so they could do more things together.
So I took on a new job three states away, and helped Becky enroll at a college nearby. I bought a two-bedroom condo and she stays with me while she attends school. It's been a struggle at times, but we're both actually happier than we've been in a long time.
I know what you're probably thinking. Lonely, nice-looking dad living with hot-looking daughter equals incest, right? Not hardly. Oh, I'd be lying if I said I never had the odd fantasy about Becky. After all, she's very pretty with a body that's well put-together, but that's all they are, fantasies.
Besides, I love her too much to try anything like that, and I'd lose the one thing I could never replace, her respect. She's been the rock that has kept me from going crazy and I can't afford to lose her.
Anyway, I've come to like my new home. Sure, there is an upper crust to the society here than is far snootier than anything we left back in our old hometown, but generally the folks are pretty laid-back, the kind you would expect from a Southern coastal city.
Moreover, there are plenty of really good golf courses in the area that are open year-round and I've even renewed an interest in sailing that had lain dormant since my days in the Navy. Bernie owns a modest-sized sloop that Becky and I have been out on several times, and I'm thinking of buying one for myself.
So there I was at the city's biggest charity ball not having a particularly good time. Bernie and Helen had insisted that I go, saying cryptically that I might meet someone.
Bernie and I were pretty close in the service, but we've become even closer since I went to work for him. Although he's nominally my boss, he treats me more as his partner than his subordinate. It's not a large company, and he likes to foster a family atmosphere at the office.
I wandered over to where a group of men were gathered around the bar and I overheard a conversation that piqued my interest.
"What do you think her dress will be like this year?" one man asked the group of about a half-dozen others.
"I don't know," replied another fellow. "I'm more interested in who she ends up with tonight."
"I wouldn't mind being the lucky bastard that leaves with her," said yet another. "I hear she fucks like a fish."
"I don't know about that," said the second man who'd spoken. "I heard the guy she took home last year just went nuts. He was calling her all the time, sending her these love letters and e-mails professing his undying devotion. I think she finally had to get a restraining order to get him to back off. And I'm told he's not the first guy she's reduced to jelly. They say she chews up and spits out men like bubble gum."
"Yeah, but, God, what a way to go," said the first guy. "Just to watch those tits when she walks in makes this little shindig worth what I pay to get in here."
Just then, I noticed that Bernie had sidled up to the group and was listening to the conversation with an amused look on his face. We casually stepped away and left them to their fantasies.
"Who were they talking about?' I asked.
"Probably our illustrious host, Serena Morgan," Bernie said. "She always shows up fashionably late dressed in some exotic, unbelievably revealing outfit and leaves early with a man that she singles out once she arrives."
"So, what's her story?" I said, intrigued.
"She's originally from California and she apparently married Sterling Morgan when he was about 60 and she was maybe 25," Bernie said. "I happen to know he loved her very much and died of a heart attack when they were having sex after they'd been married for eight years. I went to his funeral and he had a smile on his face when they buried him."
"What a way to go," I chuckled.
"What a way, indeed," Bernie said. "His kids tried their best to contest his will, but it stuck. They each got a 100 grand and she got the rest, along with ownership of his company. She took half her fortune and stuck it away to live on, and used the rest to fund a charity foundation in his name."
"Sounds like you know her pretty well," I said.
"We've become friendly," Bernie said, and I kind of raised my eyebrows when he mentioned the name of her company, one with which we did a fair amount of business. "At first, Helen was a little suspicious of her, because of her reputation, but Serena's really very charming and they've become friends as well. Of course, it's hard not to like Helen."
Bernie smiled and I saw once again the depth of love he held for his wife. He was a lucky man, and I felt a twinge of sadness that my marriage had fallen apart like it did.
Just as Helen walked up to Bernie's side, I felt a rush pass through the ballroom, like a collective gasp, and the noise level died down.
All eyes were on the foyer of the hall when this vision appeared. I was struck dumb. Serena Morgan was tall, probably 5-foot-9 and slender, with pitch-black hair coifed perfectly atop her head with some sort of green and gold band woven through. She had huge, hazel eyes that were slightly almond-shaped, full lips, a narrow nose and a regal neck.
But what riveted everyone's attention was the formal gown she was wearing. It was floor-length, lime green in color and it appeared to be studded with jade.
The top was what really took everyone's breath away. The green portion of her dress came down off her shoulders in a wide vee that extended to her waist and the rest of the top was made of some sort of sheer material with jade-colored beads inlaid with silver sweeping across her breasts, which were otherwise quite visible.
And they were very nice breasts, indeed. They were large enough to jiggle seductively as she strode confidently into the ballroom and made her way to the front of the room, where the jazz combo had been playing. But they were small enough to sit perfectly -- and naturally -- on her chest with only a minimum of sag.
Serena was exotically made up, her slanted eyes enhanced by green eye shadow, and her lips were covered in blood-red lipstick. She was quite simply the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen, and I felt my groin responding in appreciation.
I had always had a soft spot for good-looking Oriental women. I learned most of what I know about sex from a Japanese girl I dated pretty steadily when I was stationed in Yokohama, not long after I finished basic training.
Kimiko worked as a translator on the base, so she spoke good English, and once she got over her initial misgivings about dating an American, we had a nice relationship. I might have married her, and I sometimes regretted that I didn't, but we weren't really in love, and she wasn't ready to pull up stakes to come to America when I got transferred.
Serena took the microphone and addressed the audience briefly, thanking everyone for coming and explaining a little about the charities that had benefited from her foundation in the past and how the funds from that night's event would be used.
I honestly don't remember any of it. I was simply captivated by her whole visual package and the melodious sound of her voice.
"Earth to Duncan, earth to Duncan," I heard Helen say. "I asked you if you were enjoying yourself."
"Oh, sorry, Helen," I said. "I wasn't paying attention."
"I noticed," she said with a wry smile. "So, are you enjoying yourself?"
"I am now," I said. "You know her, don't you? Is she seeing anybody?"
"Serena? Heavens no," Helen said. "Actually, she hardly dates at all. Says she's too busy. Let me warn you, though, you'd be playing in the big leagues if you tried dating Serena Morgan. She's tough as nails, with more money than God, and she has no tolerance for bullshit."
"Sounds like my kind of woman," I said, with a lot more bravado than I felt. I killed the rest of the champagne in my glass and decided to head to the bar for a soda. I suddenly had a premonition that more alcohol would not be in my best interests.
I heard some polite applause, indicating that Serena's comments were over, and the band resumed playing, this time at a bit livelier pace. A few couples took to the dance floor, then a few more, gliding across the hardwood floor in a timeless manner that spoke of bygone days.
I wandered over to the buffet table and loaded a plate with a few items, again, just for something to do. I had just turned toward a table when I nearly ran over Helen and Serena.
I swept my gaze up and down Serena's perfect body in the split-second before Helen spoke. Serena sort of smiled in an ironic way that indicated she wasn't offended by my frank appraisal of her charms. On the contrary, I think she expected it, because in that moment I saw her nipples stiffen.
"Serena, I'd like you to meet Duncan McInnis," Helen said. "He's the man I've been telling you about that Bernie hired as senior VP."
"Quite pleased to meet you, Duncan," Serena said as she held the handshake a trifle longer than normal. "Helen has told me what a godsend you've been for the company. We're glad to have you in our fair city."
"The pleasure is mine, Mrs. Morgan," I said as I tried to stem my growing arousal. "This is a very charming city, much different from the town I came from."
"Please, call me Serena," she said as she gave me the same stark, all-over assessment I'd just given her. "Mrs. Morgan sounds so stuffy."
Then she smiled, and I was a goner. Up close, you could see the beginnings of slight crow's feet at the corners of her eyes that suggested her age was somewhere between 40 and 45, but that didn't hurt her looks any at all, especially when she smiled.
When Serena Morgan smiled, it was one of those mysterious looks that made you check your wallet. The term "shit-eating grin" came to mind. It was like she knew a private joke that no one else was in on.
"So what's with the exotic get-up?" I asked. "That dress must have cost a fortune."
"Actually, it's an heirloom," Serena said. "One of my great-greats -- I'm not sure how far back -- was nobility in China. This dress and others like it were passed down through the generations to me. I wear one each year at this ball to honor my heritage, and to ... um ... entice the captains of business in the area to attend and to contribute to the foundation."
"Clever marketing," I said. "Nobility, huh? You sure she wasn't just a courtesan? You know, the prince's concubine?"
She laughed then, and I found myself fighting a spell that this woman was weaving around me. I was fast getting to the point where if she'd asked me to jump out the window, I'd do it.
"Perhaps," she said mirthfully as she began to fill a plate. "Come, join me. I'd like to get to know you."