“Arivederci,” Cleo said. Smiling she hung up, deciding it was time for lunch.
“Are you expecting someone?” the maitre d’ inquired when she arrived at the Polo Patio a few minutes later.
“No, I’m alone.”
“Extraordinary,” the man murmured, showing her to a table beneath a giant pepper tree. She had no sooner sat down than a tall, interesting looking man in sunglasses who was a double for Jack Nicholson strolled by. It was Jack Nicholson, she realized tickled.
“Would you care for a cocktail?” the waiter asked, filling her water goblet.
She rarely drank in the middle of the day. But this was her first trip to California and one didn’t see Jack Nicholson every day in the week. “Yes, I’d like an Orange Blossom, please.”
The waiter left and, after a moment, she became aware that a man sitting a few tables over, with his back to her, had turned and was peering, really staring in her direction. She wasn’t positive that she was the object of his scrutiny but it was rather unnerving. So much so that she had just about decided to change seats when abruptly the man jumped up and in a few swift strides covered the space between them.
“Cleo?” he said. “It’s you, isn’t it? My God, it is you! Who else in the world would ever order an Orange Blossom?”
She looked up and for a second her heart stopped beating. She couldn’t speak. Her throat was paralyzed, frozen. The years since she’d last seen him had changed him somewhat. The face was thinner, harder. The thick mop of unruly black hair had been cut and styled, and there was a distinguishing touch of gray at the temples. But after the first shock had passed she would have known him anywhere.
“Cleo?” he said again.
“Max.” She found her voice finally. “My—this is a surprise. What in the world are you doing here?”
“I live here.” He pulled out a chair, sat down across from her. “May I? What are you doing in California? Visiting?”
She nodded. “In a way. Are you in practice here, Max?”
“Yep. Have my own suite of operating rooms on the Sunset Strip. Last year I made seven-hundred-and-fifty-thousand bucks, before taxes. This year I’ll pull in over a million—easy. My patients are mostly movie stars and Ay-rabs.”
“Heavens!” Cleo exclaimed, realizing her head was spinning, and not from all this talk of high finance either. “What do they come to you for?”
Max grinned. “You name it, babes. I do ’em all. Faces, eyelids, noses, chins, buttocks, breasts, thighs—I’m a plastic surgeon, in case you hadn’t guessed. And a pretty damn good one, too, if I do say so myself.”
“You must be to rake in that kind of loot. Although don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against money.”
“That makes two of us. You know what my secret ambition always was? To be as stinking rich as Clint Campbell. You have any idea what happened to Clint?”
“As a matter of fact I do. He’s living in Colorado, not far from my parents. Darlene Resnik is with him.”
“Yeah?” He lifted an eyebrow. “Now why doesn’t that surprise me? Clint always had the hots for her, although I could never understand what a nice guy like him ever saw in that bitchy broad. She as big a pain in the ass as ever?”
“Darlene was never a pain in the ass, but I know both she and Clint will be interested to hear about you. They’re coming to visit me next week, and I’ll tell them I ran into you, Mr. Wonderful.”
“Mr. Wonderful!” He grinned again and shook his head. “Jesus. Remember the night Darlene pinned that moniker on me?”
"Of course I remember. I remember everything about you, Max Altman". And that was the truth, God help her. It amazed her that she hadn’t seen this man, heard one single, solitary word about him in almost twelve years, and suddenly she saw him again and it was as though they’d never been parted. They could be back in New Haven in the apartment on Whitney Avenue, sharing a pizza and gabbing the night away. But all she said was, “I remember.”
“And I remember you,” Max said. Without warning he leaned across the table, covered her hand with his. At his touch she jumped and yanked her hand away.
“Sorry,” he quickly apologized. “I didn’t mean to startle you, Cleo. It’s just that you’re more beautiful than ever. How do you do it?”
She tried to laugh, ashamed of her outburst. “Hard work and clean living, I guess. No help from guys like you, so far. But I’ll keep you in mind, for future reference.”
“You’ll never need my services. Not my professional services.” Just then the waiter brought Cleo’s drink and the maitre d’ came back and asked if the gentleman would like his luncheon served at the lady’s table.
Max nodded. “That’ll be fine. You don’t mind if I join you, do you, Cleo?”
“Of course not. Delighted to have you. What did you order, by the way?”
“Pacific bay shrimp and half a bottle of Pinot Chardonnay.”
“I’ll have the same.”
“Great. Did you get that, Niño?”
“Yes, Dr. Altman.” The maitre d’ bowed slightly. Then turning to Cleo he added, with a warm smile, “I thought it extraordinary, such a beautiful lady dining alone.”
Cleo blushed. “Dr. Altman and I are old friends. We just bumped into each other a few minutes ago. Such a surprise.”
Max started to laugh. “What the devil are you explaining to him for?” heasked, when the maitre d’ had left.
“Well, when I first came in he asked if I were meeting someone and I said no. I didn’t want him to think you’d picked me up. Or worse—that I picked you up. God forbid!”
“He wouldn’t think that. You don’t look like a hooker. Although I must say some of the gals who work this place in the evening are pretty high class.”
“Oh, Max, you’re terrible. You know that, don’t you?”
“And you’re still the minister’s daughter.” He was really laughing at her now.
“No, I’m not. Actually I’m very liberated.”
“What does that mean? Are you sleeping with someone?”
“That’s really none of your business. But, yes, there is someone, a nice lawyer fella. We have an—understanding, I suppose you’d call it.”
“Any marriages, divorces along the way?”
“No.” She shook her head. “What about you?”
“One divorce, two years ago. I married a nice Jewish girl. Bennington graduate. Her father’s a talent agent out here. My mother adored her. It was a disastrous marriage. But we produced two super kids. Want to see them?” He opened his billfold and showed her a picture of two curly-haired, blueeyed children who looked remarkably like him. “That’s Jason on the left,” he said. “He’s almost five. Jennifer, my little sweetheart, is three.”
“Cute,” Cleo murmured, sipping her Orange Blossom. The thought occurred to her—their child would have been attractive, too, most likely, and almost finishing junior high now. Should she have told Max about that child? Had she done the right thing keeping it from him? Stop it! That’s ancient history…
“Yeah, they are,” Max was saying. “Cute, I mean. Clare, my ex, and I share custody, so I see them a lot. Clare’s remarried and lives in Bel-Air.”
The shrimp arrived, they were delicious. So was the wine. “But tell me about yourself,” Max said, digging into his lunch with gusto. “I want to know everything—and I mean everything—since you left New Haven.”
“Well, you know I interned at Bellevue.”
“That must have been rough.”
“No rougher than Cook County, I imagine.”
“Oh, Cook wasn’t so bad. Did you do your residency at Bellevue, too?”
“Yes. It has an excellent program for anesthesiologists. That’s what I am.”
“A gas passer? So that’s what you specialized in.”
“Don’t knock it.”
“I’m not. Anything but. As a matter of fact I’m very impressed.” But Cleo saw a strange glint in his eyes. “Where do you practice?”
“Charleston, South Carolina naturally. But I don’t have a practice as such. I teach at the medical school there and do research at the Medical Center. South Carolina has one of the best research institutions in the country …” She stopped, confused, noticing how his eyes were sparkling, how his lips were positively twitching with amusement. “Mind telling me what’s so funny?”
For answer he threw back his head and roared. “Cleo, you’ll never believe this,” he said, when he could talk. “I’m your date for the evening.”
“What? I don’t believe you.”
“Told you you wouldn’t. But it’s true, nevertheless. Carlo Dominelli and his wife Helene are good friends of mine. Now are you beginning to get the picture? Carlo called me last week and asked if I’d go out to dinner with him and Helene tonight to meet this gorgeous blond anesthesiologist from South Carolina. He said she was coming out here to lecture at UCLA at his invitation and he wanted to show her a good time. He didn’t give me her name but could there be two gorgeous blond anesthesiologists from South Carolina in Beverly Hills at the moment? Not likely. So it’s you, it’s gotta be you. Aren’t you out here as Carlo Dominelli’s guest?”
“Yes, but—” she was confused.
“Then I’m your date for the evening. I’m meeting the Dominellis—and you—at La Scala at seven-thirty. Do you think we ought to tell them we know each other and spoil their fun?”
“Why would it spoil their fun?”
“Well, they’d probably like to take credit for bringing us together. People always do—especially if we fall in love.”
“What makes you think we’re going to fall in love?” she asked.
“Well, I don’t know about you, but I never fell out of it.”
“Oh, Max.” She feared she was blushing. “How you do go on. Why do you talk that way?”
“Because it’s true. But we can change the subject if it distresses you. So,” he spread out his hands, “how are the folks? Your dad still giving ’em hell from the pulpit?”
“Daddy never gave anyone hell, even when they deserved it. He’s fine though. Mama, too.”
“Good. And what about your little sister Laura? What a nice kid she was. Did she go to college, become a teacher, like your mom wanted?”
“No. Laura didn’t even finish high school. Instead she went to Canada, Calgary, the summer of her junior year and got a job up there, waitressing. Then she eloped with a cowboy she met and had four kids, only a year or so apart.”
“Christ! That must have gone over big with your folks.” “Like a lead balloon. For over five years Laura and Ben, that’s her husband, lived in a tarpaper shack with no electricity, not even indoor plumbing. Then Ben got gored by a bull and couldn’t work anymore. But there’s more to the story. Just when they’d almost hit rock bottom and were about ready to throw in the towel, some geologists from the States went up there and discovered oil on Ben’s land. So now they’re millionaires, many times over.”
Max whistled. “That’s some story.”
Cleo smiled. “Thought you’d like it. And the nice thing is Laura hasn’t changed at all. She’s still the same sweet, genuine person she always was.”
“Guess that runs in the family.”
“Well, I don’t know about that.” Flustered, she dropped her eyes.
The waiter removed their plates and asked if they cared for dessert. “Just coffee, please,” Cleo said, taking a sip of water. She couldn’t understand why her mouth was so dry.
“How do you like the accommodations?” Max was saying. “Your room okay?”
“More than okay. It’s fabulous. And it’s not just a room, I’ll have you know. I have a whole suite—livingroom, bedroom, my own private patio. I’m really not accustomed to so much elegance when I travel, but I must say I could get used to it pretty fast.” She took another sip of water, painfully aware that she was talking too much. But she couldn’t seem to stop. “I hate to think what it must cost. Probably an arm and a leg, but I suppose UCLA is paying for it, don’t you? Carlo Dominelli wouldn’t be stuck for it, would he? God, I hope not.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Max said. Again his hand went out and covered hers. This time she didn’t yank her hand away. “You know what I was thinking, Cleo? After we finish our coffee, why don’t we stroll over to your suite and you can give me the grand tour?”
“Oh, I don’t think so, Max. I’m sure we’ve both got lots to do this afternoon …”
“Nothing that can’t be put off a few hours. C’mon. Where’s your sense of adventure?”
“I think I lost it along the way.” With a lot of other things. But she sat there while he drank two cups of coffee, watched as he insisted on paying the bill, caught in a curious lethargy. Finally he took her arm and led her out into the garden. They started up one of the many paths. Cleo thought it was the same path she’d arrived on. She could smell jasmine mixed with hyacinth and oleander, the scents so strong they almost drugged her. But after a few minutes she had no idea where they were going. “I don’t know about you, but I’m lost,” she said finally, squinting up at him in the dazzling sunlight. “I guess we’ll have to go back to the restaurant, if we can find it, and get directions.”
He said, “I don’t think that’ll be necessary. What’s the number of your suite?”
“Let’s see.” She opened her pocketbook and found her keycard. “Onetwenty- five.”
“Hmm-mm. If I’m not mistaken one-twenty-five should be right around the next bend.”
He wasn’t mistaken. They found the bend and came upon a patio, completely surrounded by foliage. And it was her patio, Cleo was sure of that. She could see her carry-on, part of a matched set of Louis Vuitton luggage Phillip had given her for Christmas, propped up against the glass door, right where she’d left it.
“How’s that for navigation?” Max asked.
“Not bad. Wonder why they hide these places so?”
“Why that’s the beauty of this spot—its privacy. You can get to so many of the rooms and bungalows without being seen, which comes in handy at times.”
“Is that a fact?” Cleo said. With shaking fingers she shoved the keycard into its slot, when of a sudden it hit her. "What’s he doing here? Are you out of your cotton-pickin’ mind? Get rid of him—now—for God’s sake!”
“Max,” she said in a rush, “it’s been great seeing you, really fun. But as I told you I’m practically engaged to someone now, and I really don’t think you should come in my room. So I’d appreciate it if you’d go now.”
“Ah, c’mon, Cleo. Is that any way to treat an old friend?”
“You’re not an old friend. And I want you to go.”
“You don’t mean that.” He put out his hand, touched her cheek with the backs of his fingers.
“I do mean it,” she said, drawing away. “I don’t see how I can make it any plainer.”
“But what’s wrong? You’re not afraid of me, are you?”
She knew she was blushing this time, but she managed to answer in a calm, steady voice, “I see you’re still as conceited as ever. Of course I’m not afraid of you, silly, but—”
“Then you’re just being mean. I never remembered you as being mean, darling. But,” he shrugged, “it’s your call. I’ll see you tonight anyway.” He bent closer, planted a kiss on her forehead. Then raising two fingers in a jaunty little salute he took off, up one of the many garden paths. Cleo watched him go, filled with a growing sense of uneasiness. The Max Altman she had known didn’t give up that easily.