Two down - By Nero Blanc
The question was posed by a self-confident male voice, and it raced upward to the second floor of the Pepper home by way of a curving staircase dominated by a spacious Palladian window. All the trappings of wealth and power appeared framed by this window: the manicured gardens grown dusky silver in autumn’s evening light, the impeccable view of the Massachusetts coast, the sculpted trees and marble benches arranged artfully beside a reflecting pool. No lesser house, no distant light or neighborly noise disturbed this perfect scene.
The question was repeated. The male voice had become more insistent.
A woman responded from the second-floor master suite. “In the Caribbean where it’s always been.” There was an edginess to the tone that could have indicated either anxiety or anger, but it was quickly supplanted by a conciliatory: “Sorry, darling, I just couldn’t resist. Jamaica must be still dressing . . . You know how we women are . . .”
“Indeed I do!” The first voice reverberated with smug robustness. “You wear half the clothes we males are forced to don for these events—and you still take twice as long.”
“I thought you said we had plenty of time . . .” Although still attempting humor, the timbre had turned crisp.
“We did before you two started staring into your closets . . .”
“But cocktails don’t begin until seven-thirty—”
“Do you want to arrive at the same moment as every other guest and wait in an interminable line at the entry gate? You know what it’s like getting into the club for this party . . .”
“I’m not going to be rushed . . . And you know Jamaica won’t be . . .”
The words continued to collide mid-landing and mid-step caroming across the antique Persian carpet, the elegant English landscape paintings, the crystal sconces with their rose silk shades, and the chandelier that hung in their midst like a gigantic, multifaceted diamond.
In a chintz-swagged guest room, the person who had inspired this domestic unease smiled as she walked toward her half-open door. “I’ll be down in five, dear ones,” she sang out in a rich contralto, “ten minutes at the very most . . . Don’t squabble now, darlings; you’re my best friends in the entire universe, and we’re going to have a perfectly glorious evening.”
She smiled again, then caught her reflection in the mirror. For a split second the radiant expression froze, transforming itself into something neither pleasant nor happy. Then, as rapidly, the speaker resumed her buoyant facade and tone. “You don’t know how much good it does me to be here with you both. I feel positively reborn. I’ll never miss Los Angeles. Never. Never!”
“Say that after you experience one of our New England winters, Jamaica,” the man’s voice called back.
“Nothing you say can scare me. I’m here to stay. A new life. A new me!”
Jamaica Nevisson—or Cassandra Lovett, as she was better known to a legion of adoring fans addicted to the daytime drama Crescent Heights—had spent thirteen years in the City of Angels creating, inhabiting, and eventually becoming the raven-haired, emerald-eyed, conniving femme fatale of the show. Jamaica had been wearing Cassandra’s jet-black wig and emerald-tinted contact lenses so long she’d almost forgotten what she looked like without them.
“I really should thank my lucky stars for that odious photographer,” she continued. “I needed a catalyst. I needed to reexamine my priorities!”
“No more disembodied chat, Jamaica.” The man called up the stairs again. “I have some very good champagne sitting in ice down here. Two more minutes alone, and I’ll be forced to pop the cork.”
“Aye aye, sir,” was Jamaica’s amused response. No sound came from the master suite.
Jamaica finished dressing by pushing a strand of her own short, sandy-brown locks beneath “Cassandra’s” black wig. She shook her head slightly, giving the false hair a totally natural appearance, then strolled to a Louis XV dressing table surmounted by a matching mirror. “Forty-five,” she murmured. “Almost forty-six.” It wasn’t a joyful sound.
She smoothed the flesh-colored lines of a skintight, floor-length sheath that had been constructed to appear as if only the random pattern of sequins concealed her body’s secrets. From five feet away, Jamaica Nevisson might have been wearing nothing more than a sparse and shiny bouquet. Then she applied a final coat of black mascara to her pale brown lashes, outlined her lips in the dense, carmine color for which “Cassandra Lovett” was famed. While working, she tossed around the words she’d heard moments before: “Where’s Jamaica?”, and her serene expression darkened