Simon had never attended a Writers’ Salon before.
“Do you bring food every week?”
Jill nodded. “Yes. We all bring something. It’s nice really. Gina brings some kind of green salad usually, and Celine contributes chicken salad and excellent bread or sometimes divine raspberry and lemon tarts. We’re never quite sure what Linda will bring. It varies. She’s a real ass kisser. If Andrea mentions something, chances are Linda will bring it the next week. Bob always brings Chinese food, and with Richard, it depends on his mood.”
“And what does Andrea contribute to the feast?”
“She contributes the plates and silverware and the house, of course.”
“Jolly good deal for her then.” Simon wanted to say, “What a crock.”
“Well, she does do all that reading, Simon.”
He cringed at her tone. It was just slightly disapproving, so he nodded. “Well, yes. She does do that.” For a $50 fee. “I’m not trying to disparage her, Jill. I’m just trying to figure out the rules.”
Jill laughed a little. “Oh, Simon. There are no real rules.” She checked herself. “Well, if you really want to get along with Andrea, you can sort of be extra pleasant to her. She likes men.”
“Oh.” Good God. Simon knew this woman was going to be unbearable.
From inside he could hear the barking of dogs before assorted furry bodies began to fling themselves at the screen door.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you about Andrea’s babies,” Jill said. “Try to make a fuss over them.”
“It sounds like a pack of rabid mongrels.” Simon liked dogs if they were well behaved and on leashes. He didn’t like dogs that jumped on you and poked their noses into your crotch. Their rude behavior reflected poorly on their owners. These appeared to be a mixed lot: a white Teacup Poodle, three Italian greyhounds, a Jack Russell Terrier, and a Yorkie that looked like moving dust mop.
Jill opened the screen door when a voice from inside called, “Here’s Jill, and she’s brought her friend.”
Simon could quite honestly say he had never met anyone like Andrea LaBelle. She swept toward him in her black beaded caftan, hands outstretched, the tips of her long red nails gleaming in the light. Her arms jingled with sliver bracelets and her fingers sparkled with rings made of amethyst and garnet and peridot. She wore thick false lashes, deep purple eye shadow and layers of powder that sank into the crevices and cracks in her face. Her hair was dyed raven, and her alarming eyebrows shot up into a point before sloping down the side of her head. Simon guessed she was somewhere between seventy and one hundred fifty.
The dogs were jumping on him, climbing his legs, thrusting their noses into his crotch, while he stood there holding out his Brie and crackers like a supplicant. He would have handed over all the money in his wallet if she would call the wretched creatures off of him.
“You must be Simon,” Andrea La Belle said. She jingled closer and relieved him of his offering before planting a kiss on his cheek. “How lovely to meet you. Where has Jillian been hiding you? I want you to sit right by me.”
Simon wanted to sprint for the door. One of the dogs, a greyhound was wrapped around his leg and the Jack Russell tore at the hem of his jeans. When he tried to move, the Jack Russell growled and bared his teeth.
“Silly, Rudy, stop growling. Naughty, Daphne. You’re not a boy, stop humping our guest.” Andrea La Belle clapped her hands. The dogs ignored her. “My babies are a teeny bit spoiled.” She managed to drag Simon to a chair at a long dinning table and shove him into it. Daphne resumed humping his leg.
“Find a seat, Jillian,” Andrea said, and Jillian slid into a seat across from him. She refused to meet his eyes.
He stared at the four people who sat watching the exchange. The woman to his left appeared to be in her early thirties. She had the lithe body of a dancer and plenty of wavy, dark hair she wore pulled into a careless ponytail. Her dark eyes were almond-shaped, and she had a full, sensual mouth. When she shook his hand, she let her fingers linger for a moment. She told him her name was Gina, she was writing a supernatural romance, and she would love to read his aura.
Next to her sat Bob, a balding chap, who sold insurance by day. He hated his job, had a wife and twin boys to support, and all his life he wanted to write. Now he was working on a crime novel about an insurance salesman who suffers a nervous breakdown and begins murdering customers. Bob had the manner of a friendly puppy and seemed delighted to find that Simon was English.
“How ‘bout that,” he said in an awful imitation of a British accent. “A genuine Englishman. I might ‘ave to pick your brain. I was thinking of making one of my victims a Brit.”
“How delightful.” Simon wasn’t at all sure he wanted this fellow or anyone else in the group picking at his brain.
The other male in the group, Richard, sat across the table from Bob, or rather lounged across the table. He sprawled back in his chair watching Simon, his face creased in an expression of disdain and amusement. He was tall and angular with a luxurious mass of gray hair and icy blue eyes.
“Did you grow up in England? Where did you go to school?” Richard threw it out like a challenge. “I’m a Harvard man myself. I’ve already been published. Perhaps you’ve read some of my poetry?”
“Your poetry . . .” Then Simon remembered the awful swill Jillian had shown him. The poem about an old man slipping on the ice, he bloody well remembered that. Snap. Crack goes the bone beneath my skin. Pop as it breaks the parchment surface. It reminded him of a commercial for a breakfast cereal, and the one about the man masturbating as he fantasized about a teenaged girl. Oh, he remembered those poems. “Yes, I did read your work. Jillian showed me. They were memorable.”
Richard gave him a sharp smile. “This is an excellent group here. Most of us have been published.” He turned to Bob who looked away. “Most of us expect to get published.”
“I expect so.” Simon smiled at the woman sitting next to Richard.
She held her hand to her mouth as if she were trying not to laugh. She possessed brilliant green eyes and shortish white hair and seemed a bit older than the other women, though her face was smooth. She didn’t have the tightened look of a woman who had undergone severe plastic surgery, yet her eyes held a certain cynical sagacity that comes from age. When she was younger, she must have been quite lovely because she still possessed an arresting face. She wore no wedding ring, but her fingers flashed with a number of large diamonds and rubies. She wore a deep red cashmere sweater that looked expensive by the heft of the yarn and a heavy gold necklace.
“I am Celine,” she said. “Welcome. I think you’ll be a wonderful addition. Just delightful. Jill talks about you so fondly. You must tell us about your book.”
She gave him a kind smile, and Simon felt a little more at ease.
“Before we talk books, we need to talk about what’s happening in our lives. I’ll go first,” Andrea said. “You see my dear Rudy there. He accidentally bit someone on Friday. It was awful! I didn’t know what to do. This man was threatening to call the police, but fortunately we were able to slip away just in the nick of time. Honestly, Rudy barely broke the skin. Thank God I parked across the street, or that awful man might have gotten my license plates.”
“Was the man teasing Rudy?” Celine’s mouth twisted into a curious half-smile.
“Well, no. But Rudy is so sensitive. Sometimes if someone doesn’t smell right, he just knows to go on alert.” Andrea waved her hand. “He was protecting his mummy.”
Mummy was right, Simon thought. Andrea looked like something an archeologist had dug up a thousand years ago. If she had any words of writerly wisdom to impart, he was William Shakespeare.
The dogs started to bark, and the door banged open. A tall, heavyset woman rushed into the room with a shopping bag in one hand and a briefcase in the other. Simon had a fleeting impression of a square face, thin lips and intelligent dark eyes. Linda had arrived. She flung herself into a chair opposite Andrea and let out a puff of air that blew her mussed bangs up from her forehead. Everything about her spoke of utility and practicality. Her dark brown hair was cut in a neat bob, her navy blue turtle neck and slacks were good quality, but not ostentatious. She wore a simple gold wedding band on square hands with short unpolished nails.
“Sorry I’m late, but I had to get the kids settled before I left.” She spoke in a loud, direct voice, like one used to giving orders and having them obeyed.
The group had assembled.