“Can I help you with something, Pauline?”
I swung around to see Neal standing by the doorway. My body had been flat against the couch as if I were reaching for-his briefcase. Shit.
“Oh. No. I’m fine.” I stood up and bent down to pick everything up. “I accidentally knocked this over. So sorry. I’m guessing it’s yours?” Who else’s? Pierre’s?
Neal didn’t exactly look angry with me or even suspicious. And truthfully he needn’t be.
The papers that I read were his notes about Dr. Cook-as if Neal were gathering evidence!
I knew there was a very good reason for this date other than lust…wait, that was a normal red-blooded American girl feeling.
“Here. I’ll get those. The clasp doesn’t always catch. You didn’t hurt yourself. Did you?” He took me by the shoulders before I could get past him toward the door.
“Uh-uh. I’m fine.” Especially in your arms, Doc.
“Good.” He quickly kissed my cheek, let go and bent to stuff the papers into the briefcase.
Phew. Phew. Phew.
“Wow. This looks like a buffet set for the entire town.” I glanced around the table Pierre and some maid Neal had called Marie had hustled about, setting dishes, silver trays and glass decanters of food, wine and delicacies, before us. Several times I had to remind myself not to act as if I were starving and to eat “ladylike” as Stella Sokol would say.
Neal chuckled. “I like to please my dates.”
Date? Hm. Nice ring to that one. The word sounded familiar and made me wonder if the clich'e about riding a bike applied. God, I hoped so.
I took a bite of something that looked like a little pansy. I think it was, but it tasted great. I only hoped it wasn’t just a decoration, but Neal didn’t look at me oddly or yell that it was something poisonous, so I chewed on it then swallowed. “I’m so relieved about Goldie. You guys do great work at Highcliff. No wonder you have such a booming business.”
He sipped his wine and looked at me over the glass. “We do all right.”
“All right? Look at this place!” I waved my hands around the ornate, mostly mahogany, mostly gold-leaf-decorated room.
Neal laughed. “I inherited Forsyth Manor, Pauline.”
A house with a name. I loved that! “Oh. Well, I’m sure you and Doc Cook do pretty well. I’ve seen the results, and now Goldie will benefit too.”
“Glad he’s doing so well.” He leaned over and took one of the hundreds of forks from near his plate and started on his salad.
Not wanting to appear “country hick,” I did the same and decided I’d had enough of the flora arrangement for one night. “But,” I said, swallowing, “I have seen some women there who look as if they are…repeat customers.” I’d almost used Ian’s “frequent flier” term.
Neal paused his fork midair. “Yes, there are some.”
Oh boy, I needed him to expound on that, but suddenly the salad was more interesting to him than my conversation as I watched him poke around the arugala. Okay, the tiny grape tomatoes, fresh buffalo mozzarella and red peppers were delicious, but that wouldn’t get me anywhere.
I set my fork down for a minute. “I can’t imagine having so much work done. I mean, I think I’d get therapy before I allowed the ‘Michael Jackson’ syndrome to run my life.” I chuckled.
Neal ate his forkful and smiled. “People are strange sometimes, Pauline. Especially when it comes to appearance.”
“Oh, no doubt. But do you ever refuse to operate on someone?” Going for the gold, I thought. No time to waste.
Neal set his fork down too. “Odd dinner conversation.”
Damn! Did he suspect me of snooping? Did he think I was trying to get a freebie nose job? Or did he think I was plain nuts?
“Then again, with two medical folks, I guess it’s really expected.” He laughed.
“Yeah. I’ve heard conversations during surgery. You guys. I mean, sometimes they border on risqu'e!”
“We have to do something to keep our minds occupied.” He laughed and took his fork again.
While he ate, I said, “So, do you? Refuse some patients I mean?”
“Sure. Some of them become obsessed. Ever hear of BDD?”
“You mean that is a real disorder? I saw a show on it once on TV.”
Neal told me everything I already knew about BDD, some about what I didn’t know and then some about the practice. “So, sometimes I think of quitting when Dr. Cook gives in to those damn patients who need therapy more than plastic surgery.”
Neal’s eyes darkened. His hand shook as he set down his fork. Yikes. Not a good sign in a surgeon. But at least he was honest about not wanting to work with a crook. Well, he didn’t out and out call Dr. Cook that, but I knew that was what he meant.
Progress in Newport tonight!
Pierre came in with a tray of lobsters all stuffed with what I guessed was plenty more shellfish like clams, scallops and shrimp. The maid carrying a dish of something that smelled heavenly followed him. Yum. I could live like this, I told myself.
I glanced over to see Neal thanking the servants. It impressed me how he treated them so well and not in any condescending way. Neal was the catch of the day. I wondered why he wasn’t already caught, filleted, and married.
“Have you ever been married, Neal?” Okay, pressed for time, I was getting more brazen.
He looked up from his lobster. “Once. Long time ago. You?”
Eeks. That didn’t sound amicable. “Nope. Never. Well not yet.” I stuffed my mouth with stuffing.
He laughed. “Good for you. Wait for Mr. Jagger.”
Did he say Jagger?
“I said Mr. Right. You know, your soul mate.”
“Oh, yeah. Soul…mate.” Jagger? Ha!
What the hell? I pushed that stupid thought from my head, took a slice of French bread, dipped it in the drawn butter and shoved it into my mouth despite a trillion calories dripping off the end. Jagger indeed. “Yeah, I’ll do that.”
“I don’t think I can move, Neal. I ate way too much. It was all so wonderful,” I said to the servants as they hustled about cleaning up. “Thank you, guys.”
Neal chuckled. “Let’s have an after dinner drink in the library.”
That sounded oh so very Newport chic.
I forced myself up, and before I got my chair moved, Neal was at my back, holding onto me and guiding me to the doorway. Yeah, Pauline Sokol could learn to live like this.
Once in the library, Neal poured us two glasses of some syrupy kind of liquid. I didn’t even want to know what it was. After all the wine, I was already feeling way too happy.
He handed it to me; I sipped, took another and thought it was better than a hot fudge sundae. When I went to drink again, he touched my hand. “Easy does it. That stuff is pretty powerful.”
Then I could have my way with you, I thought.
Pauline Sokol is a lush, I thought as I sipped the last drop of the fabulous after dinner drink Neal had poured me. I wanted to ask for seconds, but when the more than likely solid gold clock on the mantel chimed then started to wobble, I figured I’d had enough alcohol for the night.
Neal sat next to me observing. No doubt he thought I was snookered too. I took in a very deep breath, blowing it out slowly and hoping the alcohol would dissipate with every respiration. I really wasn’t fall-down drunk, but merely feeling very good-and my tongue loosened with every word.
“How did you know where I was staying?” flew out of my mouth on one of those exhalations.
At first Neal looked puzzled. His forehead wrinkled.
How adorable. “I remember you mentioning that I was at the lodge. Funny that just popped into my head.” I waved my hand and hoped it looked genuine. “No need to answer.”
“Ian…Ian had mentioned it when I’d asked how I could get in touch with you.”
“You wanted to ask me out?”
Neal smiled. “In all honesty, Pauline, what I meant was that if I needed to get in touch with you about Mr. Perlman.”
Gulp. “Is my face red or what?” I tried to sink down into the expensive leather-this one burgundy-couch. No such luck.
“In all honesty again, I did want to ask you out too.” He leaned near and touched my face.
“Careful. You could get third-degree burns by touching my skin.”
He laughed, pulled me closer and whispered, “I love your wit. You make life seem so wonderful as you spread your charm.”
Yikes. I took his face into my hands and planted a kiss smack on his lips-and what he returned with was not just a thank-you.
My insides had been toasty warm from the liquor, but with Neal so near, inhaling his expensive, I’m sure, cologne and his arms pulling me closer until I felt his heart beat against mine, I was damn hot.
He trailed his kisses along my cheek, hitting spots that jolted pleasure as he made his way down my neck.
Before I knew it, we were on the Aubusson carpet, Neal’s chest was against mine and the buttery leather soothed my back as he eased me down-all the while kissing every part of me. With one swift movement he had the room darkened to a sensual dim. Sometimes, when he moved, I could barely see him…but always felt him near.
Thoughts of fraud, liquor and…Jagger suddenly became a fog of gray in my mind. Nothing like the present, I thought as Neal’s lips caressed mine. I arched back and sighed.
“Will Pierre come in?” I whispered as I ran my fingers through Neal’s hair. I wasn’t used to sex in a servant-run mansion.
In all honesty, I wasn’t used to sex-period.
Neal chuckled, tickling my skin. “Don’t worry. Pierre is the height of tact.” Light kisses that he worked up my cheeks then down to the base of my neck felt fabulous.
We came face-to-face; he kissed my lips then moved near my ear. As he nibbled and kissed me into Nirvana, I felt his warm breath and heard his soft breathing, which made the idea of lovemaking all the more intense. Even his eyebrows, tickling my skin like tiny butterflies, had me nearly unable to move.
When he lifted his head and paused, I leaned forward with my lips at the ready, but stopped before contact-so he could think he was in charge. Men liked that.
“Nice,” he whispered seconds later.
Soon we were both up, kissing and moving toward the bed with my hand in Neal’s as he kissed and licked my fingers one by one. Dizzy was the only word to use at the moment, until he reached into the drawer of the bedside table and took out a gold-foiled wrapper.
Gold. What else? I smiled to myself.
While endorphins swam through our bodies, the scent, the sound, the taste and the feel of Doc Forsyth melded into a culmination of pleasure. Soon there’d be no turning back.
I was on a case.
Suddenly I didn’t feel all too professional.
Thank goodness I still had my wits about me after accepting this “date.” I eased back, reluctantly explained to Neal that it was too soon, which he accepted like a gentleman, and we stopped before possibly making a mistake.
But it sure felt good to knock on that door.
I smiled to myself and thought I’d nearly had the chance to remember how to ride a bike.
Neal held the car door for me as I stepped inside. He leaned near and kissed me. “I had a wonderful time, Pauline-”
“Wonderful, Neal,” I said, and then we both laughed.
He shut the door, walked around the other side and sat next to me. “Fantastic. You’re right. It was fantastic. How about tomorrow?”
About ready to accept, again the stark reality that I was on a case hit me. I blew out a breath, wishing I were here in town on vacation. “You know, I’ll have to see. Let me tell you tomorrow. Depends a lot on how Goldie is doing. If that’s all right with you?”
I nearly had an orgasm-I wish.
If there was a next time, I’d pass on the syrupy, expensive alcohol.
Thank goodness he drove rather quickly since I needed to get to my room and back to reality.
After he pulled into the parking lot of the lodge, he opened my door, I stepped out and threw my arms around his neck, planting a kiss on his lips. He held me for a few minutes, whispered “Good night,” and was gone before I made it up the walkway.
Something drew my attention to the second floor, where I noticed the curtains of Jagger’s room move.
He knows! was all I could think.
“Oooooooh!” Goldie moaned as I touched his arm, tickling his skin for comfort.
“In another hour it will be time for your pain med, Gold. Sorry I can’t give it sooner.” I tickled faster, hoping the soothing touch would take his mind off the discomfort.
Dear Gold didn’t have the highest level of pain tolerance around.
“Tell me a story, Suga,” he whined like one of my nephews.
I sat on the edge of his bed. “I’m fresh out unless you want a rerun. I think we’re on story number gazillion now, Gold. Sure you don’t want to sleep?”
He took my hand in his. “Can’t. Too painful. Tell me about last night. You and the doc.”
My face grew hot. Very hot.
Goldie peeked out from one eye above his bandaged nose. “Oh…my…God. Those details should take my mind off things.”
I slapped him very gently on the arm.
“I’m not the kiss and tell type. Use your imagination…and then add about two degrees of X-rated separation, then-” I sighed. “-subtract one.”
Goldie finally laughed. “Aye!”
“Hey, Gold. Listen to this.” I told him about Neal’s papers “falling” out of his briefcase.
“Brilliant, Suga. I’m very proud of you.”
“What do you think?”
Goldie ran his hand across his chin. “Maybe Doc Neal would be a real asset to your case. I’d say you have to go out with him again. You need to, Suga. You’re way too young to die a born-again virgin.”
I curled my lips at him. “You’re not talking fraud investigation here. Are you?”
He chuckled and took my hand in his. “Thanks for being you, Suga. I feel a bit better already.”
I figured a little attention-no, make that a lot of attention-paid toward my Gold would take his mind off his pain.
Once I had Goldie comfortably medicated and snoring away, I gently placed the mauve duvet over him, made sure the nurse’s call bell was within reach, and went to get a cup of tea. I knew Goldie would be asleep for hours, and he knew where I’d be.
I headed to the door, took one more look at him and pronounced him recovering splendidly, turned and went down the hallway to the staff’s kitchen.
Mugs hung from racks on the back of the counter, and as long as you rinsed them out and stuck them in the dishwasher, you were free to use them. Sadly I took a mug down, thinking that was Ian’s rule.
“Make sure you wash that out and stick it into the dishwasher.”
For a second I thought Ian was talking to me. I swung around to see Lydia standing in the doorway.
“How’s your patient?” she asked.
“Oh, hey, Lydia. He’s fine. Goldie is a real trouper. And, I will definitely wash out my mug.”
She took one herself and started to fix a cup of Earl Grey tea. “He’s an interesting person. Seems like a real doll. I got to spend some time with him Sunday before his surgery once you’d left.”
“Oh. Yeah, he’s one of a kind.” I wondered how much time Lydia spent around there. A young girl should be out with friends. Sailing. Eating. Talking. Laughing. But poor Lydia, today in a black silken blouse and black trousers, looked way too serious and solemn for a young girl.
She held the milk container out toward me. “Here.”
I chuckled. “You remembered that I take mine with milk. Neat.”
She didn’t crack a smile. “If nothing else, Pauline, I’m observant.”
Yikes! That sounded like some kind of warning. Did Lydia know about me? Who I really was? Naw. No way that she could.
As I sipped my too hot tea, Lydia set hers down on the counter. Only thing was, she didn’t just set it down in any casual fashion. I was talking thud with a splash here.
Anger? Was that anger that had her tea puddling onto the countertop?
Trying to change the subject so she wouldn’t start questioning me, I asked, “So, how do you like your new job? I’m sure it helps your aunt’s peace of mind to know that she has a relative working here.”
Silently Lydia turned toward me. I’d never noticed how dark black her eyes were, or maybe it was the lethal look in them when she said, “Who else can one trust?”