A sneak preview from SCANDALOUS,
a romance from
award-winning author Patricia Burroughs
New York City, Early 1970s
Seven-year-old Paisley stopped at the top step of the long row of stuck-together houses and twisted around to look behind her. Across the busy street, a park, green and inviting, was sealed off by black iron bars. Saffron had called it Gramercy Park. All Paisley knew was that it was the first green place she’d seen since they’d driven into New York City.
“I can’t bear this,” Saffron said to Moonchild. Paisley looked up at them and saw Saffron toss her long, honey-colored hair over her shoulder. “They’re going to be wretched, and I absolutely can’t bear it.”
“They’re too polite to be wretched.” Moonchild scratched his black beard. “And besides, now that I can finally get my trust fund, a little wretchedness is a small enough price to pay, don’t you agree?”
The front door swung open, and a tall old man loomed over them.
“Hello, Burns,” Moonchild spoke in greeting. Paisley drew back against his jean-clad leg, but he didn’t pat her shoulder, or ruffle her hair, or do any of the little reassuring things the mother-women would have done at her home, Nirvana.
The old man’s face creased into a wide smile. “Mr. Reggie? Miss Candace? Is that you?”
Saffron surged forward, her voice suddenly sounding light and gay. “I assume the old dragons have gathered and are sharpening their talons.”
“In the drawing room,” Burns replied. “Welcome home, Mr. Reggie, Miss Candace.” Then he looked at Paisley. “Who’s this?”
Moonchild nudged Paisley, and she stumbled as she followed Saffron’s flowing orange-and-yellow-flowered skirt into the vast hallway. Paintings of old people lined the walls, and a tiny but tall spindly-legged table held a brightly colored bowl of flowers.
Saffron grabbed Paisley’s shoulders and dropped down to a squat, her pregnant belly poking out in front of her. “You stay out here until I call for you. Is that clear?”
Paisley nodded, even though she didn’t want to. Burns glared down at her as if he thought she might make a puddle on the shiny floor. Didn’t she look clean enough to him? She remembered how Saffron had hurt her in combing the tangles out of her hair and had scrubbed her forever in the cold white tub at the motel the previous night. Paisley felt her stomach wrinkle into a little knot. Nobody at Nirvana had ever made her feel this way.
Why had Saffron and Moonchild suddenly taken her away from the other children, from the women who loved them and took care of them all? They had never bothered her before. Why did they have to start now?
With joined hands, Saffron and Moonchild stood in an arched doorway, and voices from within the room fell quiet. Then a lady’s voice cried out, “Candy, my darling! Candy, you’re—”
“Yes, Mother, I’m pregnant.”
“Oh, Candy, how could you?”
Paisley shut her ears to the voices. An empty place in her heart cried out for leaves and trees and bushes, for spattering rain, for the laughter of the other children.
There was green, down the wide steps and across the street. Black bars couldn’t keep her away from it, not if she really wanted it. Suddenly, she whirled away from the doorway of the dragon room and ran toward the big white doors.
Her toe banged into something hard, and before she could cry out, the spindly-legged table crashed to the floor. Water from the vase spilled and flowed, turning pinky-red when it mingled with the blood from a cut on Paisley’s foot. Desperately, she tried to stand the table back up, to scoop up the flowers.
People poured into the hallway.
“What in God’s name is—”
“Great-grandmother Edwina’s fern stand!”
And then the babbling faded into stunned silence.
“Oh, you little ninny! Don’t move!” Saffron ordered, sweeping a tangle of hair out of Paisley’s face.
“Look at her,” someone said. “That hair, those lips…”
“This is all we need. Another Vandermeir scandal.”
“… those eyes.”
Paisley ducked her head.
Paisley jerked her head up at the sound of this new, gravelly, terrifying voice and saw a bony old woman in a flowing red robe standing at the top of a steep staircase.
“Don’t hide your face, my little sheba,” the woman said. “I want to look at you.”
No one uttered a word as she descended slowly, a long-handled cigarette holder held aloft, the hem of her robe trailing behind her.
“Aunt Isadora,” Moonchild said, “the child’s terrified. I don’t think that this is the time to—”
“You don’t think?” Reaching the bottom step, the old woman drew deeply on her cigarette, then blew, and Paisley watched, awestruck, as magical dragon-rings of smoke wafted through the air. “Reggie, you little twit, you never think. That is precisely the problem.”
She moved toward them. Her black-black hair was pulled back from her face. Her fingers were covered with rings. She smelled of roses and mothballs and smoke. Paisley found herself leaning forward, yearning to hear that voice again.
A gnarled hand cupped her chin. The wrinkled face with two bright red spots on the cheeks came within inches of hers. Paisley met the old woman’s stare without blinking and peered into eyes as dark as her own.
“She’s a Vandermeir, all right,” the old woman finally declared. “You’d better have the nuptials quickly, but even that won’t be quick enough for this one, will it?” She glanced at the debris on the floor, Paisley’s faded dress, and the crushed flowers in Paisley’s hands. “Drop those, dear. They’ll be taken care of. One of the benefits of money. Someone else always cleans up one’s messes.”
She arched her eyebrows, sending a significant glance over Paisley’s head. “Isn’t that right, my darlings?”
She took Paisley’s hand and drew her forward. “What is your name?”
“Paisley,” Paisley muttered.
“Paisley?” someone whispered hoarsely. “Give me strength.”
“Paisley… Paisley Vandermeir,” the old woman announced loudly. “It has a nice ring to it. You may call me Aunt Izzy. Careful you don’t bleed on the Aubusson, dear.” The old woman pointed at the carpet with her cigarette holder.
“I’ve never had an aunt before,” Paisley said.
“You shall have too many of them now,” Aunt Izzy replied, guiding her along. “Do you like sweets? Of course you do. Perhaps I should feed you. Do you by any chance play mahjongg?”
Even surrounded by dragons, Paisley felt a giggle bubbling in her throat. This dragon-lady was stronger than any of them.
“Carry on,” Aunt Izzy remarked to the others, who stood speechless. “Young Paisley and I have plots and schemes and truths and dreams to share. I think I need a brandy. Have you ever tasted brandy, my dear?”
“Aunt Isadora!” Moonchild exclaimed.
“Perhaps you’d all benefit from some brandy,” Aunt Izzy responded tartly, “since you’ve finally come to your senses.” She eased her bony arm around Paisley’s shoulders and squeezed gently. “It is my task to see that this darling little child doesn’t lose hers. Now, darling girl, you must tell me about life on a commune. Was it wanton sex all the time? I cannot imagine putting up with the dirt and flies, otherwise.”
As the others stood in shock, Paisley followed Aunt Izzy upstairs, not once looking back.
New York City, 18 years later
Ah, the Grand Ballroom at the Waldorf. So comfortable. So traditional. So typically Maitland.
Christopher Quincy Maitland leaned against a satin-swathed pillar and peered over the rim of his champagne glass. Swirling dancers flowed across the dance floor—without his assistance, thank heavens—and he intended to take full advantage of the rare moment before his services as host were once again needed.
In his youth, he had served his time as escort at such functions, and he had been damned grateful to escape by moving to Chicago. But, that night, duty called. The party for his sister was one of the first of the New York Season, which would culminate in late December with the official presentations at the Junior Assemblies and International Debutante Balls.
Suddenly, tension tightened his shoulders and stiffened his back. Searching for the source of his unease, he scanned the crowded ballroom and spotted his sister. Anna was a whirl of white satin and lace, a shimmer of carefully arranged blond curls, a flash of smashing smile in the arms of a nondescript young man who was undoubtedly too immature to appreciate the jewel in his clasp. Chris nodded, feeling a tendril of pride spread through him.
Sweet Anna. This was her night, and he wouldn’t have missed it for all the grain shares in the world. Still, he couldn’t restrain himself from wondering where sorghum had closed.
He glanced at his watch. Hemmings would probably still be in the Chicago office—no. Not tonight. He forced his attention back to the dance floor lit by a magnificent crystal chandelier suspended from a forty-foot ceiling.
For a moment he remembered a dance over a decade earlier, when he had circled the same floor with Lydia in his arms. Of course, he thought wryly, chuckling into his champagne, Lyd was much happier in boots and dungarees, digging through dirt and muck for dinosaur bones, than she had ever been when waltzing in designer gown and heels at these antiseptic affairs.
A movement at the entrance to the ballroom drew his attention back to the here and now, and his uneasiness took form.
The form of a woman, a stranger.
A few yards away, she stood between two massive marble columns that were draped with fabric, her very presence throwing sparks like a live wire. She wasn’t beautiful, or even pretty. She was dramatic: a slender, black-swathed pencil stroke against a pristine white satin backdrop. Despite the music, despite the low, polite laughter and conversation, the room quieted for Chris as if everybody held an indrawn breath.
A waiter passed the woman, and she snatched a champagne flute from his tray in what seemed to be an almost desperate movement. Scarlet-tipped fingers of one hand held the crystal stem, while in the other she flourished a ridiculously long ebony cigarette holder. A word from another era sprang into Chris’s mind—
Her hair and bangs framed her porcelain face like a sleek black cap. Her nose was short and pert, the kind that should have freckles, but hers didn’t. Her mouth was small, the full, sensually curved lips painted a luscious, glossy blood red.
Her eyes—large and dark and luminous beneath thin, arching black brows—drilled straight into his heart. Chris felt his grip on his champagne glass tighten to a death hold. A thrumming warning of danger surrounded her, and he found himself curious—no, intrigued—as nothing had intrigued him in a very long time.
Then the spell was broken by a blur of white and a soft squeal as Anna flew across the burgundy-carpeted floor and flung her arms around this late-arriving guest.
Chris caught his mother’s gaze from across the room. He recognized her expression of carefully concealed distress, a look that he’d seen on a dozen other occasions. It signaled, Take care of it. Only this time the plea was aimed at him, not his father.
“Kit,” Anna exclaimed. “It’s Paisley, she’s come!”
Paisley. As if a lightning bolt had struck, he understood his mother’s concern. There could be only one Paisley.
Paisley juggled her champagne and cigarette holder in one hand and offered her other hand imperiously, her chin raised. Perfectly delectable, he thought as their gazes locked. But she stared into his eyes with alarm and paled as though confronted with an apparition.
Recovering, she dropped her lashes to half-mast and purred, in a voice both voluptuous and raspy, “Paisley Vandermeir.”
“A pleasure.” He dipped his head in a nod as her fingertips brushed his palm.
“And, Paisley, this is my dearest, dearest brother, Kit,” Anna gushed on, apparently oblivious to the electrical currents snapping and flowing around her.
“Chris,” he corrected, smiling. “I’m also her only brother.”
“I know,” Paisley said, not smiling. “You definitely have the look of the Maitlands about you.”
“No one could ever doubt you’re a Vandermeir, either.”
“Fortunately,” she agreed. “Though, of course, there are those who would like to disclaim me.” She turned from him and brushed her cheek against Anna’s with a quick “Wouldn’t have missed your party for the world, darling.” Then she whirled away into the crowd, leaving Anna beaming and Chris bemused in her wake.
“Isn’t she wonderful?” Anna sighed.
Chris was tempted to agree. “How do you know her?”
“She’s Lexie’s sister,” Anna explained. “You know, Alexandra, my best friend?” She folded her arms and gave her head a shake. “Really, Kit, don’t you read my letters?”
“Of course I do, darling. Now, isn’t there some young idiot waiting to dance with you?”
Anna gave him a smile and went off.
Alone, he watched Paisley Vandermeir weave through the crowd, realizing how wrong his first impression of her had been. Her presence was jarring, dramatic, but no mere pencil stroke. She was an exclamation point. Now that she was there, the entire room seemed painted in brighter colors, the laughter more sparkling.
The tone of his mother’s voice snapped him to attention. “Why the frown?” he asked.
His mother’s grip bit into his wrist as her gaze followed his to the woman in black. “Shameless. Absolutely shameless. And with Isadora on her deathbed, by all reports. I should never have allowed Anna to form an alliance with that family.”
“She is a bit bizarre, isn’t she?” He was unable to take his eyes away from Paisley as she wove her way along the fringes of the crowd. Her antique, beaded chiffon dress was obviously valuable and beautiful but totally inappropriate for the occasion. With each step, each twirl, the handkerchief hem billowed around her legs like black mist.
“Bizarre isn’t the word.”
“Well, Mother, I assume you invited her. You can hardly be surprised that she’s here.”
“I had to invite her. I was greatly relieved when she declined the honor.” His mother’s cool tones spoke volumes that her upbringing prevented her from speaking.
Paisley Vandermeir had declined the invitation and then had come anyway. Unfashionably late. Dressed like a Hollywood extra in a period movie. And now, she was wandering around as if she were lost, or drunk, or both, and attracting undue attention. Of course his mother was uneasy.
“Frankly, Mother, a little bit of Vandermeir scandal would probably liven up the evening.” One glance at her stiff expression made him add, “But don’t worry. I’ll take care of her.”
He patted his mother’s hand, then moved on, silently congratulating himself yet again that he had escaped such frivolous and constant societal pressures when he’d taken a position in the Chicago branch of the family brokerage firm, rather than working in the New York offices.
The opening strains of a waltz were sounding by the time Chris caught up with Paisley. “May I have this dance?” He removed the champagne glass from her hand and noticed that it was still full. “Let’s get rid of this.”
She snatched the glass back from him. “You needn’t worry, I’m not drinking it. I needed something to hold on to, that’s all. And I didn’t come to dance.”
“Of course you did,” he replied, ever aware of the attention she was drawing. He snared the glass again and this time deposited it on a waiter’s tray before she could reclaim it. He closed his fingers over hers, and pulled her to him. He whisked her into the crowd, knowing their movements were being scrutinized by all. “I’m sure you didn’t come to create a scene, either.”
“No. Never,” she said, her eyes widening in alarm.
“Good. So let’s try to blend in with the decor, shall we?”
He watched her eyes fasten on an invisible spot above his shoulder as she submitted to his lead. In his arms, her body felt so fragile, so delicate, like the thinnest piece of glass, an air puff away from shattering.
As if speaking to herself, she murmured, “I never blend in.”
He glanced down at the vintage garb. “And you make such an effort.”
She stopped; he stopped. Dancers surged around them. “I didn’t come to dance,” she repeated, her tone suddenly lacking all the rasp and sparkle that had sent such tingling reactions through him. In the hollows of her cheeks, the bruise-like shadows under her eyes, he read despair.
“Then why did you come?”
“I have to find someone. But I don’t see him…”
Him. Of course. With a woman as alluring as Paisley, there had to be a him.
“I really shouldn’t be here, but she made me promise, you see—” Paisley broke off in confusion.
Startled, Chris saw her eyes begin to glisten with tears. He didn’t have the slightest idea what was happening, but he did recognize a damsel in distress when he saw one. And unless he missed his guess, Paisley Vandermeir would prefer to fall apart in private.
Skillfully, he guided her off the floor. Then he took her arm as gently, as nonchalantly, as humanly possible and began strolling toward an ice sculpture.
“I had to come and bring it.” She grabbed his hand. Her fingers were cold and trembling. “Then I was so… so taken aback when I saw you.” She dropped her gaze and her hand. “You are the image of him, aren’t you? But of course, you’re not him.”
“Grandfather Quincy?” Chris laughed. So she wasn’t there because of a lover after all. Oddly, he felt immensely relieved. “Grandfather Quincy isn’t here. He’s at home with my grandmother. She wasn’t up to tonight’s excitement.”
“Then… then I’ve come for nothing?” Paisley Vandermeir closed her eyes for a moment. She reached into her pocketbook and retrieved a folded white linen handkerchief, which she pressed into his hand. Something hard and sharp-edged dug through the cloth into his palm. “Please. Return this to your grandfather. Tell him… tell him Izzy said, ‘Good-bye.’” Then she tore away from him, head held high as she walked off. He was too stunned to respond.
He opened his hand and noted the white-on-white monogrammed Q, then stared at her retreating back.
She paused, turned and faced him, her face transformed by a hard, brilliant smile. “You look so much like him, you know.” Then, before he could stop her, she was gone. Unlike at her entrance, she trailed not sparks, but emptiness.
“You did well, Christopher.”
Chris turned and found his mother beside him.
“She didn’t cause a ripple, did she?”
“I’m not so sure,” he said, scowling.
“Whatever did she give you, dear?”
Chris showed her, and he knew by the expression on her face that she recognized Grandfather Quincy’s monogram. “She asked me to return this to Grandfather,” he said, opening the folds to reveal their secret.
A brooch nestled in the handkerchief, reflecting the light with a dozen glints of fire. An Egyptian scarab, the beetle’s black plastic body studded with sparkling red, green, and white stones.
“Kitsch,” she said distastefully.
“Why do you think she wanted Grandfather Quincy to have this?” he asked. But as Chris rewrapped it, memory slammed through him… whispers of an old scandal, of Grandfather Quincy’s affair with someone… someone…
“Good Lord.” He shoved the handkerchief deep in his pocket. Grandfather Quincy, all gray kindness and soft wrinkles. It seemed impossible to believe, yet the old stories apparently were true.
“Christopher, don’t let anyone see it.” His mother’s voice was tight. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Don’t worry, Mother.” He patted her shoulder. “Go back and enjoy the party. I’ll take care of everything.”
But before Chris could give it any more thought, Anna appeared before him all aflutter and tugged at his arm.
“It’s the last dance before dinner, Kit. You must dance with me.”
Peering into her lovely face, knowing the ache she must feel that it was he and not Father who would dance with her on this momentous occasion, he vowed to devote the rest of the night to pleasing her.
But hours later, he still couldn’t get Paisley Vandermeir out of his mind.
By the time Paisley reached her apartment, tears were flowing down her cheeks. Her heart was still clutched in the tight, viselike contraction that had taken hold the moment she had walked into the ballroom and seen Chris.
Paisley closed the door behind her, locked it, and pressed against its cold, solid surface, willing her pain to ebb.
Slowly, she made her way across the room and sank into the oyster-backed chair that held so many memories. As she turned on the lamp, her hand brushed against the prisms dangling from the shade, and dazzling rainbows danced in her lap, on the floor, on the wall. The jet beadwork on her dress bit into the backs of her thighs, but she was too drained to move.
The waiting of these past weeks had been torturous and seemingly unending… but it had ended. Only Paisley had been in that darkened hospital room that very afternoon, and that, after all, was as it should be.
Strange, that they had turned out to be such kindred spirits. A little girl and an old woman from separate worlds. Paisley’s first years had been spent as one child among many at the Nirvana commune, raised and nurtured by loving caretakers who happened not to be her parents. Upon her family’s arrival in New York, she had again been relinquished to caretakers, a series of nannies, and disastrous boarding schools. Only Isadora had seen through a little girl’s bravado to the quaking spirit within. Only Isadora had reached out to save her.
And now Isadora Vandermeir, after years of fighting, had finally lost her battle. She had left only a simple request, that the one token she had possessed and cherished from her one and only love be returned.
Paisley closed her eyes and saw him again.
For one mad moment she had forgotten her motto: Never trust a man in a designer tuxedo. She had looked into Christopher Quincy Maitland’s eyes, those serene blue eyes shadowed by straight brows and a wave of blond hair… and for an instant, she had felt a gentle tug of homecoming.
Which she knew better than to trust. She hadn’t been in that ballroom for fifteen minutes before he’d waltzed her right back out the door. He had seemed concerned, almost caring, but years of living among the dragons had taught her the folly of believing in such surface courtesies.
And now that it was over, she hated herself for that instant of weakness, that first moment when she had met his eyes and almost succumbed to a wild urge to curl herself against that lean, tuxedo-clad body… and cry.
She lifted a heavy pewter picture frame from the chairside table and cradled it in her trembling hands. No wonder she had felt that instant of recognition. It was as if Christopher Maitland’s smile had been imprinted on her mind, like a road map, perhaps a warning, of the tricks life played on women who dared to love.
No. Not all women. Those certain Vandermeir women who bore the scandalous curse that had been passed down from generation to generation, from Aunt Izzy to her.
Paisley stared at the old black-and-white photo. In a crowded speakeasy, a young girl stood in profile, gazing adoringly at her laughing escort. As she studied the young girl’s large dark eyes and jet-black hair, the black beaded dress and ebony cigarette holder dangling from her fingertips, Paisley felt as though she were looking at a mirror image of herself.
She forced her eyes to the man in an exquisitely tailored tuxedo who held the young girl in the crook of his arm. He clutched a tumbler of illegal gin in his free hand, and his eyes were arrogant and relentless beneath straight brows and a wave of blond hair. No wonder she had felt that jolt of recognition. Christopher Quincy Maitland was the very image of his grandfather.
Izzy and Quin. Eerie and ghostlike, they were joined by yesterday’s laughter, by a passion that radiated across the years, despite all that had happened since.
Even over a half-century later, this frozen fragment of time bore the one significant detail that had doomed them: On the fourth finger of his left hand was a wedding band; the fourth finger of her left hand was bare.
Paisley is coming…
And it will be Scandalous!