The Lure of The Night Ch. 03byMini_Sinclair©
"How about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes?"
Mr. Morris looked up from his expense report and scowled at Larry, his assistant. "Absolutely not. Out of the question."
Larry frowned. "Why not?"
"I don't want that scientologist freak around me. Bored me half to death talking about his newfound religion at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Who's next on the list?"
Larry sighed. Mapping out invitation lists used to be the best part of his job, but now it was an ordeal. His boss was so adamant about turning this house into a legendary hot spot in the same vein as New York's seventies classic Club 54—but with a turn-of-the-century theme and, if possible, more hedonistic and decadent—that he'd taken all the fun out of planning ahead. Larry was fresh out of college, eager to please his somewhat ridiculous boss, but Mr. Morris's demands had tempted him to resign more times than he cared to admit. It wasn't like he needed the damn job. He could live off his trust fund for many years. This job had its fun moments though. Aside from the wild parties Mr. Morris threw in his lavish California mansion, the man was a comical sight to behold, especially now with that ridiculous pencil-thin mustache he was sporting. Mr. Morris was not a man of great stature. He was only about an inch taller than Larry, who was five-seven. But Larry was thin and fit, whereas Morris's physique could be best described as paunchy. The old man did have blue eyes and blonde hair, and was probably moderately handsome in his youth, but his eyes looked heavy and tired, and the few strands of hair he had left on his head were now a distinctive shade of silver. Mr. Edward Morris was definitely too old for the sort of parties he always throwing, but who was Larry to judge, especially when he enjoyed said parties?
"Who else have you got?" Mr. Morris asked again, lighting a cigarette.
Larry heaved himself up from the rather uncomfortable Edwardian armchair he was sitting in and inspected a box in the corner of the study, eyeing the rather large computer monitor perched on top of the antique desk. Hadn't the old man forbidden the use of modern technology in the house? Was he the only one allowed to be anachronistic? Larry had left his BlackBerry in his Porsche because he didn't want to break the rules. He should've known that Morris's no-gadget requirement wouldn't last. Shaking his head, Larry grabbed his notepad and pen, flipped a page and held it in front of Mr. Morris as his butt landed painfully on the armchair.
"Read it out to me," Mr. Morris ordered.
Larry gave his boss an exasperated look, but he had learned from experience that the only way to cope with Mr. Morris's diva antics was to ignore it and charge ahead. "Brad and Angelina?"
Mr. Morris's eyes brightened, closing the business folder in front of him. "Now that's more like it! Of course, they're invited! But only if they wear the proper period costumes."
"Of course." Larry scribbled something on his notepad. "Jennifer Aniston?"
Mr. Morris puffed on his cigarette, his mustached lips curving into a smile. "Absolutely. The club could use a little Brad-Angelina-Jennifer drama."
"I don't think Jennifer Aniston cares about those two anymore," Larry pointed out.
"Of course she cares! She's still single, isn't she? Who else?"
Names were dropped, and Mr. Morris either nodded his approval or shook his head in objection. While the minutes passed and the invitation list increased, Larry became progressively bored. These sessions had been a lot more exciting at Mr. Morris's San Francisco mansion. Now those were great parties! No matter what Mr. Morris thought, the east coast did not have the flair and glamour that the west coast had. Besides, this house gave Larry the creeps. Those stories he had heard about the fire and the so-called curse... sinister stuff. Not that the place was a bad sight to behold. It had probably been spectacular in its heyday, but it now bore the aftereffects of decades' worth of ruin and neglect. Mr. Morris should have bought that neo-Gothic mansion Larry had showed him in L.A. That would have been a better—and safer—choice.
"Is that all?" Mr. Morris asked, extinguishing his cigarette on an antique ashtray.
Larry shifted uncomfortably in his chair and flipped another page on his notebook. "How about some more people from the music industry? How about Will.i.am.?"
"Will I what?"
"Never mind." He closed his notebook and sighed. "That takes care of the entertainment industry, and we've already added your business partners and friends to the list, but what about artists and novelists—people of artistic worth?"
Mr. Morris's bushy eyebrows furrowed. "Like who?"
"Like David J. Seton."
"David J. Seton, the English writer."
"Never heard of him."
Larry's brown eyes widened with surprise.
"Is this English writer noteworthy?"
"He certainly is." Larry cleared his throat and smiled. "His stories are bold and controversial, and they've all been wildly successful. His latest novel, Madeleine, is being made into a movie with Natalie Portman in the title role!"
Mr. Morris nodded, impressed. After a moment of silence, he said, "And you think he should be a guest at my club?"
"He would be perfect for this club!" Larry enthused. "Mr. Seton is one of England's most notorious hedonists."
Mr. Morris raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
"Well, he's more of a reformed hedonist, actually. He's married now. His wife's name is Marjorie Fordham, his book editor and, apparently, the inspiration behind Madeleine. Lovely woman. I met her once at a club in Albany."
"There's a club in Albany?"
Larry's face turned an interesting shade of red. "Uh, yes," he stammered. "A boring club. Very boring. So, anyway, are the Setons on the list then?"
"Yes, I suppose they are," Mr. Morris huffed out, waving a hand dismissively at his assistant. "Anyone else?"
No sign of recognition flickered in the old man's eyes. Muttering something to himself about self-made billionaires and their lack of culture, Larry crossed one lean leg over the other and elaborated. "He's a famous artist—a painter of erotic art. He's known as the 'Marquis de Sade of the Art World.' "
Before Mr. Morris could ask who the Marquis de Sade was, Larry continued. "He's also a private club owner. I'm not in the liberty of sharing details about his club, but maybe he'll tell you all about it some time. He might even give you some pointers."
"I don't need pointers," Mr. Morris stated irritably. "I know what I'm doing. But, yes, I suppose you could add this Queen Army guy to the list."
"Whatever." The old man sighed. "Let's continue with this later. Where are my employees? I thought I told them we had a meeting this morning."
At that moment, the office door opened, and in came fourteen people of various heights and ages, with Millie bringing up the rear. She smoothed the hair that fell across her right cheek and crossed her arms to her chest, her shoulders squared. She had hoped to blend in with the crowd, but she felt as awkward and conspicuous as a lone Yankees fan surrounded by violent Red Sox zealots at Fenway Park.
Her fingernails dug into the skin of her bare forearm and she winced. Hadn't even realized she had been doing it. Slowly, deliberately, she moved to the back row and sat on the edge of a small oak desk near the doorway, her short plaid skirt skimming her thighs. A pristine white blouse and black flat shoes with a big buckle over the front completed the look. It was the most daring outfit she'd ever worn, and it made her feel like a naughty schoolgirl. She'd almost been tempted to part her long hair into two front ponytails, but that would have been far from wise. The last thing she wanted was to draw attention to herself.
She scanned the people in front of her and recognized Marla immediately. She was standing in the front row, her eyes fixed on Mr. Morris. She wore the black and white maid uniform from the day before—the only one, other than Mr. Morris, who wore period clothing. Everyone else had regular clothes on. Next to Marla stood another woman. She appeared to be in her early fifties, with dark blonde hair and green eyes, a cream-colored pantsuit covering a tall and elegant frame. She looked impeccably put together. Not a wrinkle or crease on her clothes. Two young women stood behind her. The tall one on the right—golden hair, fair skin, small nose—looked on without the faintest show of interest, her full mouth betraying the fact that she was stifling a yawn. She wore skinny jeans and a loose sleeveless top that barely covered her extraordinarily large breasts. A thick black choker with ruby studs hanging from it decorated her long neck. The choker reminded Millie of a dog collar she saw once in one of those Westminster dog shows on TV. It looked out of place on the girl. She didn't seem like the Goth chick type. The girl finally yawned. Millie had never seen someone so beautiful or so bored in her life. She'd feel sorry for her if she hadn't envied her.
The girl on the left—chin-length dark hair, exotic olive skin, big brown eyes—was quite pretty as well, even if she could stand to lose a few pounds. Her arms were crossed over her chest, and she appeared to be surveying the office. Her eyes landed on the mammoth computer monitor on top of Mr. Morris's desk, and she let out a derisive snort. The elegant woman glared at the brunette girl, mouthing something that looked suspiciously like "Stop it." Millie smiled. They were obviously family. How wonderful it must be to have loved ones around you, even if they were scolding you.
Millie's eyes swept over the remaining crowd. The rest of the hired help were men that ranged from early twenties to late fifties, but most of them were young. None of them stood out. No doubt they were there to either serve drinks or work as floor men at the casino.
"Thank you all for coming," Mr. Morris said, smiling indulgently at his staff. "I'm sure Larry or Marla told you that I have an important announcement to make. I had initially intended to use this house as a turn-of-the-century-themed gentlemen's club. Well, it will still be a period-themed club, but I've decided to change the setting to the good ole Roaring Twenties."
A mixture of shock and delight poured into Millie's ears. Shock from those who had expected, and wanted, an early 1900s setting, and delight from those who visualized a Burlesque-type of club with half-naked women sporting flapper curls and bob cuts, and wearing short skirts over garter belts and fishnet stockings. Pencil-thin eyebrows and elaborate headdresses would complement the bawdy look. Millie shook her head in disgust. She wasn't pleased with this turn of events, and it took all of her self-control to keep from voicing an objection. Talk about a bait and switch!
"It's for the best," Mr. Morris continued. "A twenties setting is perfect for what I have in mind. In those days, during the Prohibition, alcohol was as decadent and forbidden as an extramarital affair. I could bring back the Jazz Age—it'll feel just like Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, only wilder."
Laughter filled the room. Everyone seemed pleased, or at least satisfied, with the changes, all except for Marla. Her lips thinned, disapproval written all over her weatherworn face. Millie smiled to herself. She knew she had found a faithful ally in Marla.
"Any questions?" Mr. Morris asked.
Marla didn't waste any time. "But I thought the club's theme was a tribute to the Ashfords."
Mr. Morris frowned at Marla. "What on earth made you think that?"
Marla's pallid skin blushed scarlet. "You said so yourself, sir. During my job interview, you said you wanted to bring back the class and exclusively of Edwardian times, and at the same time pay a tribute to the original owners."
"I never said anything of the sort," Mr. Morris countered, voice annoyed. "The Ashfords have nothing to do with the opening of this club. In fact, it is time to put an end to all that nonsense about a curse or a haunting or what-have-you. The Ashfords have no bearing in this establishment. Larry!"
Larry, who had been staring lustily at the pretty blonde with the enormous breasts, jumped at the sound of his name. "Yes, Edward?"
"That's Mr. Morris to you, son," the old man admonished. The self-importance was obvious in his voice. "I want that dreadful portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Ashford removed from the top landing immediately." Mr. Morris turned to the men in the room. "Which one of you fine gentlemen would like to volunteer in helping Larry get rid of the portrait?"
Startled, everyone turned, all eyes fixed on the person who had shouted like a maniac. Instinctively, Millie combed her hair to her face, concealing all traces of her scars. She didn't know why she had reacted so strongly to Mr. Morris's command. All she knew was that her vision had clouded over so fast, and her blood had boiled so hot, at the mere prospect of losing that painting, that she had to hold on to the small desk behind her for dear life. She couldn't let them move that portrait from the wall. She just couldn't.
"Is there a problem, Miss Foster?" Mr. Morris asked.
Everyone was staring at her, waiting for a response. Millie swallowed a hard lump in her throat and smoothed a sweaty hand over her plaid skirt. She opened her mouth to respond, but no sound came out. Closing her eyes briefly, she took a deep breath and tried again. "I—I don't think that's such a good idea, sir."
"Well..." She cleared her throat and tried to ignore the inquisitive gazes around her. "We're recreating a different era, aren't we?"
Mr. Morris nodded, his eyebrows furrowed.
"Wouldn't it be a shame if we threw away such an authentic piece of art? Wouldn't someone—a rich, important person at that—from the nineteen-twenties own something just like it?"
All staff members spun back to Mr. Morris. The old man appeared to be considering her response, deciding if he agreed with her or not. After a moment of silence, he smiled and said, "You're right. The portrait stays."
Millie's petite body sagged in relief. Man, that was close!
Mr. Morris's smile broadened as he addressed his staff members. "The young lady in the back is Melinda Foster, the club's consultant. She will oversee all period costume and home design details. If you have any questions regarding the time period, feel free to ask Miss Foster anything. She'll be able to enlighten you much better than I can."
Millie flushed. So much for blending in with the crowd. Her eyes skimmed her fellow employees and landed on Marla. The maid gave her an encouraging smile, and Millie warmed up to her all the more. She had found an ally after all.
"All right, everyone," Mr. Morris said. "Meeting adjourned. Coffee and pastries in the breakfast room."
There was a great rustling as everyone shuffled out of the study and headed down the stairs to the first floor, Millie falling far behind. Her eyes sought Marla, and when she spotted her, she shrugged past the crowd, trying to reach her. She had to know if Marla had sent her that weird note about meeting up at midnight. Millie was about to call out to Marla when she felt a gentle tap on her shoulder. She turned, and a pair of large green eyes stared back at her. It was the elegant woman in the cream pantsuit.
"So you're the clever consultant," the woman said, a welcoming smile on her face.
Millie blushed at the compliment. "I wouldn't call myself 'clever.' "
"Oh, don't be so modest!" the woman retorted. "Only a clever young woman could earn such an impressive job title. My name is Anne Bradshaw, by the way, the club's entertainment planner, and this rather pouty young lady next to me is my daughter Megan."
As they reached the bottom of the stairs, Millie's gaze shifted to the pouty girl in question. It was the tall blonde with the big breasts and even bigger scowl. The girl stood with her shoulders back, nose up, sizing up Millie before deciding she wasn't worthy of her time. Then she moved her hands to her ears, adjusting what appeared to be a pair of white ear buds. Anne frowned at her daughter.
"Put those away!" she chided. "You're not supposed to use modern gadgets during work hours."
Megan rolled her eyes. "The club is not even open yet. Why should I suffer without technology."
"Mr. Morris wants us to get used to not using them," Anne reminded her.
The girl scoffed. "He's one to talk! Didn't you see the twenty-inch iMac on his desk?"
Anne shook her head, and when she slicked a strand of dark blonde hair behind her ears, Millie saw a thin pale strip around the woman's ring finger. A divorcée, no doubt about it. Poor woman. She obviously had her hands full with this one.
"She's been acting strange lately," Anne said, eyeing Megan with concern. "All she wants to do is mope around in her room. I practically dragged her to the meeting. Maybe if she had young people around her, she would enjoy herself more."
Megan sneered. "She's not that young," she countered, indicating Millie. Then, to add more insult, she gave Millie a disparaging once-over and said, "What are you, like, thirty-five?"
Millie felt her cheeks flaming red. "I'm twenty-seven!"
"See?" Anne chipped in. "She's only three years older than you. And she seems nice. Now stop being a pain in the ass and be nice to Miss Foster."
Megan said nothing, just regarded Millie with a dismissive shrug. Then she turned her attention back to her iPod. Bitch.
Anne mouthed an apology to Millie before going after her daughter, murmuring something that sounded like a reprimand that fell on deaf ears—literally. Megan ignored her mother, swinging her hips to the music in her ears.
As they made their way to the main foyer, Millie felt another tap on her shoulder. Sighing, she swung back and found the other young woman—the dark-haired one—smiling at her. "I apologize for my cousin's behavior," she said. "Meg has as much depth and personality as a Playboy centerfold. It's just as well that she looks like one."
Both women laughed. "I'm Chelsea Walsh."
She held out a hand and Millie shook it. "Melinda Foster, but you can call me Millie."
"Nice to meet you, Millie." She took two hurried steps to keep up with Millie's brisk pace. "Your job sounds awesome. Too bad I can't do something similar. Meg and I are the club's cigarette girls."
Millie frowned. "Cigarette girls?"
Chelsea laughed. "Oh, you know, we were supposed to be like one of those saloon chicks who sold cigars, cigarettes and brandy from a wooden tray held by a neck strap. But who knows what we're going to be doing now that Mr. Morris changed the setting."
"There were cigarette girls in the nineteen-twenties."
"There were? Oh, well, I guess I'll be able to make myself useful after all."
Millie noted the sarcastic tone in Chelsea's voice and wondered what that was about.
They paused on the second staircase in the large foyer, staring up at the painting that topped the last floor of the house. "It's a beautiful portrait," Chelsea said. "I'm glad you convinced that idiot Morris not to remove it. The Ashfords were the reason I took this job."
Millie raised an eyebrow. "Really? Are you a history buff too?"
Chelsea shook her head. "Not exactly. I'm actually a Women's Lib major at UMASS."
Huh. That explained Chelsea's sarcasm earlier. She was an idealistic young feminist, ready to tackle the male-dominated world with her sharp intellect and even sharper claws. Which made her choice of employment rather interesting. Millie couldn't resist asking the girl why she'd accepted this job.
"I thought Meredith Ashford would be an interesting subject for my midterm paper," the girl answered. "Doesn't she seem like a woman before her time to you?"