If Veronica Orr screamed when he opened the door—He stood with his long, sensitive fingers wrapped about the brass knob, a tall and angular man in his late twenties, his dark crew cut giving him the appearance of an Ivy League undergraduate. Willard Remsen was long years out of Amherst, yet he never seemed to lose the juvenile appeal of the dedicated student. It was partly this fact, partly his lean good looks, that made him so attractive to women.
Just the same, Veronica Orr was no ordinary woman.
She might raise a row, and her husband was downstairs talking to Pam, his own wife. Veronica had been late getting to the house for the country-club dance; she was in the bedroom now in some stage of disarray. To walk in on her might be unforgivable Since Franklin Orr was his boss at Structural Associates, his entire career might go up the flue unless things broke just right for him.
On the other hand—
Willard Remsen needed desperately to open the bedroom door. If he wanted to get ahead in Structural, he had to do it. He'd lain sleepless three nights this past week, planning his move. But of, God! If it backfired!
His career at Structural might hang in the balance.
Sweat beaded his upper lip. His hand seemed glued to the doorknob. Fear had a firm grip on his flesh so that he was aware of a cold, crawling despair trickling from his hips into his legs, making them weak.
Actually he was not taking as much of a risk as it might seem. He had made some discreet inquires about Veronica Orr. She was not above a tumble in the hay with a handsome young man. Nothing flagrant, naturally; she had her name and social position to consider, said the gossip. But if a man appealed to her—
By walking into his bedroom, he hoped to discover if he appealed to her. Better to make his first move now, when he had an excuse of sorts, than later, when his pass at her might bring her husband racing to the rescue. He would simply say, if she yelped, that his diamond cuff links were in the chifferobe drawer, that he'd forgotten Pam had turned over their bedroom to her and that Veronica Orr was dressing in it. He had barged in out of long habit. It was a reasonable explanation, one which could convince even the most jealous of husbands.
There was always the chance it would not, of course, but he was playing for big stakes and a calculated risk was part of the game.
I've got to pull myself together. Walk right in.
Hell! Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
The doorknob turned easily. He took one step into the bedroom which he and Paula shared.
Veronica Orr was standing before the Italian Provincial vanity bench, a black taffeta evening gown bunched above her head. Her pale shoulders rose upward out of a red brassiere which had some difficulty in containing the fullness of her soft breasts. A matching girdle encased her hips. The dependent garters looked like streaks of blood running down her firm thighs to the taut black nylons on her handsome legs. As he stared, feeling the breath catch in his throat, she wriggled, twisting, tugging at the gown.
Ought he to whirl on a heel and go out? It would be the gentlemanly thing to do. On the other hand, he'd gain nothing by his venture except a look at Mrs. Orr in her Poirette undergarments. While that might be aesthetically rewarding, it was only a part of what he was after.
"I ought to say I'm sorry," he said softly.
She whirled, making a muffled sound. Her flushed face appeared in the folds of the taffeta gown, her eyes wide. A few strands of her artistically streaked brown hair caught in the zipper lock. Her mouth was open just a little.
For a long moment they regarded one another.
A corner of her mouth quirked in amusement, and relief went slamming through his veins. It would be all right. He had gambled and won.
"You're caught," he said softly, and moved toward her.
His fingers were gentle, lifting out the hair. "I hope you don't think I make a practice of walking in on pretty girls while they're dressing. I've been so pokey I thought sure you were already downstairs with Pam and Franklin, having Martinis."
Laughter glinted in her eyes. "Did you really?"
"Not really." He grinned. "Let's say I was hoping."
"Are you satisfied?" she asked wryly, shaking her black gown past her hips, hiding the length of her nyloned legs.
"Certainly not," he whispered, and put his hands to her shoulders, turning her so he might lift the zipper. A bold approach was always a good approach, he'd found form long experience. Hit them while they're still off balance, let them know you find them damned appealing. Any woman responded to such a challenge; it was subtle flattery. She might turn you down, but she did it gently.
When she kept silent, he bent and moved his lips upward from a rounded shoulder to her soft throat. She quivered for an instant before she turned and lifted her face to him.
"Is this our fair-haired Willard Remsen? The young business genius everyone predicts will make the Board before he's fifty?"
He hid a wince of guilt successfully, through long practice. Few people knew he was a genius only at taking a handhold on opportunity, at mulcting chance until it turned, like a wheel of fortune, in his direction. The wince turned into soft laughter as he banded her with his arms and brought her close against him.
She was soft and warm, exciting because she was new.
"I haven't put my lipstick on," she murmured.
Their kiss was long and deep, a touching of moist tongues and soft midsections, a tightening of her bare arms about his neck as his own hands roved into the unzippered gown where his palms stroked the soft flesh between brassiere strap and girdle. She shivered and made a faint gasping sound deep in her throat.
"You'd better stop," she murmured into his mouth.
"Only for now."
She drew away, but her eyes slanted boldly at him before she turned so he could raise the zipper. To its scratch of closing teeth she added. "You've built a fire in me. You know that, don't you?"
"The fire's in me. What you feel is just a spark."
She lifted a bib necklace of faceted emeralds to clasp it about her neck. Willard Remsen knew it must have set her husband back at least two thousand dollars. Suddenly it became a symbol to him. All his ambitions, all his yearnings, were crystallized into those green jewels with their platinum links.
A footfall sounded on the stairs. Veronica Orr gasped and looked at him, her eyes faintly frightened. Willard grinned and winked. He lifted out his diamond cuff-links from a trouser pocket and, moving to the chifferobe, dropped them into his Florentine leather jewel box.
There was a fine, new confidence in him, born of his success with Mrs. Orr. He felt cavalier, debonair; he wondered it men like Casanova had ever known this moment of power when about to be confronted by a jealous husband. Veronica had as good as promised to meet him later. He would win, now. He could not lose. All he had to do was play it by ear with all the old Willard Remsen technique.
"We'll have a good time tonight," he said casually, neither too loud nor too soft. "The committee hired Phil King and his Six Queens to play for the dance."
He turned toward the door as Franklin Orr came in, looking bland and unruffled as always, immaculate in white tie and tails. In his early fifties, Orr was a man passionately dedicated to the godhood of fresh air and exercise. Twice a week he played his eighteen holes of gold at Oak Knolls, every summer he spent two weeks camping in the Canadian woods. His den held half a dozen barbells, their grips worn smooth with constant use. His hair was black, liberally sprinkled with gray; it had turned white around his temples.
"You two going to take forever?" he rumbled.
Willard chuckled and bent his head to insert the prongs of his cuff-links "Almost exactly what I told Ronnie when I knocked. Forgot my cuff-links You might know." He flashed a boyish smile, glancing upward form the crisply starched sleeve cuff. "Told her I was pokey. I just couldn't hurry the boys today, not at all."
Orr looked alert. "How'd you make out, Will?"
Willard fought hard to keep Orr from sensing his amusement. There was no suspicion in the older man; he'd turned his thoughts to business for the moment. He pursed his lips and considered his reply.
Five years ago, as an opening gambit in a long-range expansion move, Structural Associates had shifted their offices out of New York City into lower Putnam County. He himself had moved into Structural at the same time, lured away from Amalgamated Chemical by the promise of a better job and increased pay. He brought a reputation with him; his work on social groupings in Personnel had become a byword in the bigger corporations, and half a dozen textbook companies had bid for the right to use his findings. Only Willard himself knew that his brief had been stolen almost piecemeal from a bright young underling named Christopher Van Allen.
Willard liked the new, ranch-type offices of Structural Associates, which were masterpieces of glass brick and imported California redwood. He enjoyed his big, roomy office with its Saarinen furniture and thick wall-to-wall carpeting. Every day when he ran his gaze over them he told himself this was only the beginning for Willard Francis Remsen. What he was really after was an office in the Chicago home building, his name in gilt lettering on the reception office door, and a salary of fifty thousand dollars per annum. Life had done a color layout on the Structural buildings. There'd even been a small black and white picture of Willard Remsen sitting at his desk.
Yes, he liked the way his life was headed.
He meant to keep it going full steam too. Even if it meant he had to use a few subterfuges—like walking in on Veronica Orr while she was dressing—to fuel its boilers. No man and no woman was going to turn him from his goal. Not even Franklin Orr.
Ah, there was the rub.
He did not quite trust big, expansive Franklin Orr. The older man looked in one direction but his in quite another. It would not have been unlike him to hint to Willard Remsen that he intended extending Structural Associates into the south—as he had—then cross him up by selecting Canada. No, no. He had to be watchful with this man, his boss. Orr could make him, if he liked him well enough.
He could also break him, if he chose.
And so Willard permitted a thoughtful frown to touch his forehead while he met Orr's direct stare. "I'm not sure, Frank. I think I put over the deal, but you never know."
Structural Associate was ready for a big expansion move. Originally a small Midwestern firm born in the depression of the Thirties, the war years had shot it full of government contracts and easily won profits. Its tentacles were spreading outward onto the Pacific Coast and along the Atlantic Seaboard. For the past three days, Willard Remsen had been hosting a group of hardware men from the Middle Atlantic states. Structural Associates needed outlets for the products its new factories in the Pittsburgh area were turning out. Elegant brass lamps for headboards, bed canopies, modern desk shelves and cabinets for easy in-building, French armoires to be handcrafted for room alcoves: the list of products was close to endless. Everything to make the modern home more elegant, the advertising posters read.
It was a business geared for good living.
Like any other business, it needed markets. The home office in Chicago had dumped this problem right into the laps of the New York branch. This meant it became the personal headache of Franklin Orr. And as Franklin Orr suffered, so suffered his first assistant, Willard Remsen.
Oh, sure, Orr was friendly enough, even too friendly. When Willard Remsen had come over to Structural Associates, Orr had spread the red carpet like a welcoming committee. A normal person would have been a little fearful about having a boy wonder plunked a rung below him on the corporation ladder. Remsen knew office politics. He'd been prepared for jealously and backbiting, even for something more serious.
Orr had played it smooth. The hello-and-glad-to-have-you-with-us, the firm handclasp, the affable manner. Nothing was too good for his new assistant. Yet deep down underneath, there was something about the way the older man looked at him—as an experienced wolf-pack leader might eye a brash newcomer among its members—that alerted some instinct of trouble in Willard Remsen.
He had no proof. Not yet.
Tonight, though, with Veronica Orr—
"Onicutt and Cummings hit the office first thing Monday morning," Orr growled. "They'll want results, goddamn it."
Veronica had been sitting quietly before the vanity, applying lipstick to her full mouth. She turned and said, "Frank please."
Orr grunted without looking at her, out of long habit.
Willard shook out his cuffs and nodded. "We'll hit them right between the eyes, sir." And he thought, we could hit them if you'd loosen up, you close-mouthed son of a bitch, and tell me where it is you intend pinpointing our expansion area! But no, you've got to hog the cake and play bureaucrat. All right then. I'll play it by ear, my own way.
"Really, sir," he went on. "I've got Blaine of Delaware Hardwares in my hip pocket. He's big. So is Buford of United. Both of them see plenty of profits by tying in with Structural."
"I hope so, Will. I hope so." The black eyebrows rose as Orr turned toward his wife. "Aren't you ready yet?"
"Yes, dear. Of course."
Orr turned and went out into the hall. His wife glanced slyly at Willard as she walked past him. In answer he reached a hand to her girdled rear and patted it. She gave a little jump and turned at the door to purse her mouth and blow a kiss, out of sight of her husband.
Willard Remsen stood a moment in his bedroom, feeling the sweat raise on his upper lip the way it always did when his campaign for a new woman was succeeding. Nervous anticipation brought it out, he supposed. He drew a deep breath and followed the Orrs down the staircase.
Pamela was standing beside the cocktail bar, a Martini in her hand. Number four? Five? She wore a skin-tight gown of gold velvet which complemented her thick yellow hair, pushed up in a top pouff. An amethyst bracelet, an anniversary gift two years before, and a topaz solitaire were her only jewelry.
"You're way behind, dear," she called to Willard, wriggling her fingers. "Frank and I've been sampling all sorts of combinations. Dry. Very dry. Desert dry. "She looked at Orr, plucked golden eyebrows arched. "What was the other one?"
"Parched throat and swollen tongue."
"Oh, yes. You've simply got to try that one, dear. And you, Ronnie. Here, let me. "She moved toward the cocktail bar, her hips swiveling gently at her every stride. Willard watched her, finding himself lost in admiration of her superb body. It had been her body in a modified Bikini at a private pool which had first attracted him to her.
Geordie Morley had been throwing one of his windings. Willard and Geordie had known each other at Amherst. The Morleys were friends of the really big-money people. They were big-money elite themselves, actually; Morley harvesters had made a fortune in the last half of the nineteenth century. Now their big factories turned out power mowers, dumptors, rotary compressors, scrapers and handcrafted power tools. So Geordie knew girls like Pamela Corliss. Her father, Ralph Jordan Corliss, had been Chairman of the Board at U.S. Construction at the time.
A beginner in the business world, Willard Remsen knew opportunity, even in a skimpy bathing suit and with a man of thick yellow hair framing a sensual face. He made his play for Pam Corliss with the avidity of a collector pursuing an objet d'art. Already assistant production manager at Amalgamated Chemicals, Willard Remsen had been tabbed by Geordie Morley, in a luncheon conversation with Pam Corliss some weeks after the get-together at the swimming pool, as somebody who could go it big. The fact that Corliss money would be behind him if he married Pamela would make it just so much easier.
Later Pam admitted she had liked him at first sight. And he had a reasonable number of social graces. He made a grand slam doubled and redoubled, with Ralph Corliss as his partner, during a bridge evening at the Corliss mansion in Scarsdale. He shot in the low eighties on the golf course, bowled about one-seventy on the alleys in the Corliss game house, and could sit a horse with ease. He held his liquor well enough. Reasonably handsome, in his black horn-rimmed glasses he seemed almost professorial.
A good catch for my daughter, Ralph Corliss decided after three months.
They were married in a small white frame church in Scarsdale and flew to Europe for their honeymoon. They did the grand tour of Americanized hotels in London, Paris, and Rome, and returned home without having experienced anything they could not have encountered in Westchester County. Married seven years now, they liked to think of themselves as typical fast-climbing suburbanites.
Pam was bending over the cocktail bar, her nimble fingers working a miracle of taste with gin and dry vermouth. She had a knack with drinks, even though she herself might scarcely be able to walk from their effect. It was as if her fingers were a separate entity, independent of the Pamela Remsen who was reeling now under the impact of four straight double Martinis. Her hands flew this way and that with shot glass and hammered-silver cocktail shaker.
Willard came to stand behind her, accepting a glass. The Martini was dry and potent. He sipped appreciatively, nodding. "A masterpiece, angel. Ronnie, you must try one of these. It will put wings on your pretty feet and waft you around the dance floor as if you walked on clouds."
Veronica was sitting on the flame-red sectional couch, her legs crossed, smiling faintly as she accepted a drink from him. There was a deep heat in her eyes which sent a lance of expectation through the man standing so casually at the cocktail bar. As she sipped, her stare whispered that she drank to him. Pamela and Orr were talking modern art before a Gatch oil hanging above the white brick mantel.
"Don't go in for art, Willard?" Veronica asked at last, half laughing at him.
"Too busy with other things?" He grinned. "I never get enough personal satisfaction out of a mere picture. I like my art to be alive."
Her eyes touched her husband and his wife, then flirted sideways at him. "Something realistic in mascara and lipstick and pancake make-up?" she wondered.
"You guessed it." He brought the hammered-silver cocktail shaker to her, bending to pour. "Come on, drink up. You'll feel even better after another one inside you."
"I couldn't feel better," she murmured lazily and, lifting her slippered foot, moved it up and down against his leg. The warm fires were fully alive in her eyes, mocking, challenging.
"Oh, I'm ripe enough," she murmured.
Orr was turning from the painting. "Time we moved along, isn't it?"
"Oh, not yet," Pam protested, catching his arm. "The evening is absolutely young. Hardly born."
"Pammie's right, boss. Here you two've been talking yourselves dry. I'll give you a refill."
"Maybe we oughtn't," Orr grumbled, glancing at his wife. "I'm up to my ankles right now."
"Oh, dive in, Frank," Ronnie urged. "Nobody knows us here in Barley Woods. Let's really live it up."
"Well, hell. I don't need any encouragement." The big man laughed, reaching for a glass.
"You too, honey," Willard said, passing another to Pam.
She was regarding him owlishly. More often than not he scolded her for drinking. Suspicion gathered like a cloud in her long-lashed eyes, but when he put his arm around her and hugged her, the suspicion faded before a quick smile. His gentle pat on her flank was their secret signal; it meant he was getting in the mood and was hoping she felt the same way. Pam contented herself with a squeeze of his wrist.
As she let her fingers tighten on him, she said lightly, "Maybe Frank's right. We really ought to get with it."
"I'll take my Caddy," Orr said quickly.
"Hey, now. You're my guest," Willard protested.
"Why not take both cars?" asked Veronica brightly. "Frank, you go with Pam. I'll ride with Willard."
"Well, say!" Orr boomed, grinning at Pamela. "I haven't dated a blonde in I don't know how long."
"And I haven't been out with a corporation bigwig in ages," she caroled.
"Don't worry about that, little girl," Orr said, swiftly. "Your boy Willard is going places. Fast. Won't be long before he's in the Cadillac class himself."
Remsen turned away before Orr could sense the angry protest forming on his lips. Goddamn corporation caste system! A high executive could use a Cadillac, a junior executive must drive an Oldsmobile. He had Corliss money behind him. He could buy half a dozen Caddys without feeling the pinch, with the money old man Corliss had given Pam as a wedding present.
Still, he was part of the corporate team, and he had to play the game. He was a junior exec, so he owned an Eighty-eight. Though he seethed as he walked to the hall closet, he kept an iron control over his facial muscles. Orr would never suspect his first assistant of insubordination if Willard Remsen could help it.
He held the mink jacket into which Ronnie slipped her bare arms. A fragrance of perfume floated up at him from between the deep cleavage of her breasts. She saw where he looked and let her tongue come out to touch her upper lip.
Orr was shepherding Pam ahead of him, an arm about her slim middle. In her gold velvet dress his wife looked like a model out of Vogue. A stab of guilt touched Willard Remsen. Everything he was doing—including his lay for Veronica Orr—he was doing for Pamela, he told himself. He saw a chance to get up on the corporate ladder, and he was going to take advantage of it. He wanted Pamela to be among the elite of corporate wives.
As he looked at Veronica Orr waiting in the doorway for him, he wondered who was kidding whom. Strange women were challenges to him, always had been. To discover the softness of their thighs or listen to their deep moans of delight as he made love to them always brought him an intense inner satisfaction. It was more than a physical thing; there was a psychic element to it, too. After every conquest he became a man renewed. The feelings of inadequacy which sometimes bedeviled him vanished completely.
Veronica Orr caught his arm as he closed the front door, and walked in rhythm with him to his garage. The Cadillac was backing out the macadam drive, Pam sitting far over on the front seat close to the door. Orr smiled and waved. The next moment he was feeding gas to the big engine and roaring off down curving Pussy-willow Drive. Willard and Veronica Orr were alone.
He waited until they were secure in the darkness of the garage before he put his arms around Mrs. Orr and buried his lips in her soft throat. She turned her head, gasping, offering her open mouth, clutching his arms with both hands, frantically digging in her fingernails and straining her soft belly to his loins.
She shook as she clung to him. After a moment she whispered, "God, you're so young. Frank's always keeping himself in trim, but he spends so damn much energy golfing and fishing and hunting he hasn't got anything left over for me."
"I only exercise in bed," he said with a grin, and drew her toward the car. When she patted his hand gently, he took it for a promise.