Authors: Danielle Steel
He found himself thinking about it again in the cab, and about the meetings he had had in Europe all week. Just knowing how far Vicotec had come was incredibly rewarding. And as the car sped rapidly toward Paris, he was sorry that, as usual, Katie hadn't come along.
To Peter, it was the perfect city. It always took his breath away. There was something about Paris that made his heart race. He had come here on business for the first time fifteen years before, and at the time, he had felt as though he had been put on earth for that single moment in time when he first saw it. He had arrived in Paris alone on a national holiday, and he still remembered driving down the Champs-Elysées with the Arc de Triomphe straight ahead, and the French flag flying nobly in the breeze from inside the arch. He had stopped the car, gotten out, and as he stood there and looked at it, he had been embarrassed to realize that he was crying.
Katie used to tease him and say that he must have been French in a past life because he loved Paris so much. It was a place that meant a great deal to him, and he was never quite sure why. There was something incredibly beautiful and powerful about it. He had never had a bad time there. And he knew that this time would be no different. Despite the rather taciturn style of Paul-Louis Suchard, he knew that his meeting with him the next day could be nothing less than a celebration.
The taxi whizzed through the midday traffic as Peter continued to watch familiar landmarks slip by, like the Invalides and the Opéra, and a moment later, they drove into the Place Vendome, and Peter felt almost as though he had come home as he saw it. The statue of Napoleon stood atop the column in the middle of the square, and if one squinted one could easily imagine carriages with coats of arms on the sides bouncing along, filled with white-wigged and satin-breeched French nobles. The picturesque absurdity of it made Peter smile as the cab stopped in front of the Ritz, and the doorman hurried forward to open the car door. He recognized Peter, as he appeared to recognize all of the arriving guests, and signaled quickly to a bellboy to take Peter's single piece of luggage, while Peter paid the driver of the cab.
The facade of the Ritz was surprisingly unassuming, with only a small canopy to distinguish it, and it looked no more impressive than the host of impressive shops all around it. Chaumet and Boucheron were nearby with their sparkling wares, Chanel was at the corner of the square, and JAR's, the highly exclusive jeweler, whose initials stood for its founder Joel A. Rosenthal, was tucked away just behind it. But certainly among the most important elements of the Place Vendome was the Ritz Hotel, and Peter always said that there was nowhere else in the world like it. It was the ultimate decadence and luxury, offering its guests unlimited comfort in total style. He always felt a little guilty staying there on a business trip, but he had come to love it too much over the years to stay anywhere else. It was a rare element of fantasy in a life that was otherwise completely sensible and ordained by reason. Peter loved the subtlety, the elegance, the exquisite decor of the rooms, the sumptuous beauty of the brocades on the walls, the beautiful antique fireplaces. And from the moment he stepped into the revolving door, he felt the instant undercurrent of excitement.
The Ritz never disappointed him, and never failed him. like a beautiful woman one only visits occasionally, she was waiting for him each time with her arms open, and her hair done, her makeup perfect, and looking even more enchanting than she had been the time before when he last saw her.
Peter loved the Ritz almost as much as he loved Paris. It was part of the magic and the charm, and as he came into the lobby from the revolving door, he was immediately greeted by a liveried concierge, and hastened up the two steps to the reception desk to register. Even being at the desk, waiting to sign in, was fun. He loved watching the people there. On his left was a handsome, older South American man, with a striking young woman in a red dress standing beside him. They were speaking quietly to each other in Spanish. Her hair and nails were impeccably done and Peter noticed that she was wearing an enormous diamond on her left hand. She glanced at him and smiled as he watched her. He was an extremely attractive man, and nothing in his demeanor now suggested to the woman standing next to him that he had once been a farm boy. He looked like exactly what he was, a wealthy, powerful man, who moved in the circles of the elite, and those who ran the empires of the world. Everything about Peter suggested power and importance, and yet there was something appealing about him too, something gentle and young and he was undeniably very good-looking. And if one took the time to look, there was something more about him too, something intriguing in his eyes, more than most people knew, or cared to see there. There was a softness about Peter, a kindness, a kind of compassion that is rare in men of power. But the woman in the red dress didn't see that. She saw the Hermès tie, the strong, clean hands, she saw the briefcase, the English shoes, the well-cut suit, and she had to force her eyes back to her companion.
On Peter's other side were three very well dressed older Japanese men in dark suits, all of them smoking cigarettes and conferring discreetly. There was a younger man waiting for them, and a concierge at the desk speaking to them in Japanese, and as Peter turned away from them, still waiting his turn, he noticed a flurry at the door, as four powerful-looking dark-skinned men came through the revolving door, and seemed to take control of it, as two more similar men followed right behind them, and then like a gumball machine spitting out its wares, the revolving door blurted out three very attractive women in bright-colored Dior suits. It was the same suit, in different colors, but the women themselves looked very different. Like the Spanish woman Peter had noticed standing next to him, these women were also immaculate, with their hair impeccably done. They all wore diamonds at their necks and ears, and as a group, they made quite an impression. In an instant, the six bodyguards accompanying them seemed to surround them, just as a much older, very distinguished Arab man emerged from the revolving door just behind them.
“King Khaled …” Peter heard someone whisper nearby, “or it could be his brother … all three of his wives …staying here for a month
…. They have the entire fourth-floor hallway overlooking the gardens …” He was the ruler of a small Arab nation, and as they made their way through the lobby, Peter counted eight bodyguards, and an assortment of people who seemed to be trailing behind them. They were immediately accompanied by one of the concierges, and made their way slowly through the lobby with all eyes upon them. So much so that almost no one noticed Catherine Deneuve hurry into the restaurant for lunch, and they all but forgot the fact that Clint Eastwood was staying there, while making a movie just outside Paris. Faces and names such as theirs were commonplace at the Ritz, and Peter wondered if he would ever be blasé enough to simply not care, and just ignore them. But just being here, and watching it all, always seemed like such fun that he couldn't bring himself to look away or pretend to be bored, as some of the habitués did, and he couldn't help staring at the Arab king and his bevy of lovely consorts. The women were talking and laughing quietly, and the bodyguards kept a close watch on them, letting no one come anywhere near them. They surrounded them like a wall of stern statues, while the king walked along quietly, talking to another man, and then suddenly Peter heard a voice just behind him, and was startled.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Haskell. Welcome back. We are very happy to see you again.”
“So am I, happy to be back.” Peter turned and smiled at the young concierge who had been assigned to sign him in. They were giving him a room on the third floor. But in his opinion, there could be no bad rooms at the Ritz. He would have been happy anywhere they put him. “You seem to be as busy as usual.” He was referring to the king and the small army of bodyguards, but the hotel was always filled with people just like him.
“As usual …comme d'habitude …” The young concierge smiled, and put away the form that Peter had filled out. “I will show you to your room now.” He had checked his passport, and gave the room number to one of the bellboys, signaling to Peter to follow him down the steps and across the lobby.
They passed the bar and the restaurant, filled with well-dressed diners, and people meeting for drinks or lunch, to discuss business, or more intriguing plans. And as they went by, Peter glimpsed Catherine Deneuve then, still beautiful, and laughing as she talked to a friend at a corner table. It was everything he loved about this hotel, the faces, the people, the very look of them was exciting. And as they walked the long, long hall to the back elevator, they passed the block-long expanse of vitrines filled with expensive wares from all the boutiques and jewelers of Paris. Halfway there, he saw a gold bracelet he thought Katie would like, and made a mental note to come back here to buy it. He always brought her something from his trips. It was her consolation prize for not going, or it had been years before, when she was either pregnant, or nursing, or tied down with their sons when they were very young. Nowadays she really didn't want to travel with him, and he knew that. She enjoyed her committee meetings and her friends. With both older boys away at boarding school, and only one at home, she really could have come, but she always had an excuse, and Peter didn't press her anymore. She just didn't want to. But he still brought her presents, and the boys too, if they were home. It was a last vestige of their childhoods.
They reached the elevator at last, and the Arab king was nowhere to be seen by then, they had gone upstairs a few minutes earlier to their dozen or so rooms. They were regulars there, his wives normally spent May and June in Paris, and sometimes stayed until the collections in July. And they came back again in the winter for the same reason.
“It's warm this year,” Peter said easily, chatting to the concierge as they waited for the elevator. It was glorious outside, balmy and hot, it made you want to lie under a tree somewhere, and look up at the sky, watching the clouds roll by. It really wasn't a day to do business. But Peter was going to call Paul-Louis Suchard anyway, and see if he would make time to see him before their scheduled meeting the next morning.
“It's been hot all week,” the concierge said conversationally. It put everyone in a good mood, and there was air-conditioning in the rooms, so there were never any complaints about temperature. And they both smiled as an American woman with three Yorkshire terriers walked past them. The dogs were so fluffed and so covered with bows that it made the two men exchange a glance as they watched her.
And then, almost as though the area they stood in had become electrically charged, Peter suddenly felt a surge of activity behind him. He had been looking at the woman with the dogs, and even she looked up in surprise. Peter wondered if it was the Arabs with their bodyguards again, or some movie star, but one could sense an instant heightening of excitement. He turned to see what was happening, and a phalanx of men in dark suits with earpieces seemed to be coming toward them. There were four of them, and it was impossible to see who was behind them. It was easy to see that they were bodyguards, from the earpieces they wore and the walkie-talkies they carried. And if it had been any colder, they would surely have been wearing raincoats.
They moved toward where Peter and the concierge stood, almost in unison, and then moved aside just enough to reveal a handful of men just behind them. They were men in lightweight suits, they looked American, and one of them was taller than the others and noticeably blonder. He looked almost like a movie star, and something about him seemed to magnetize everyone. They were all hanging on his every word, and the three men with him looked extremely earnest and deeply engrossed, and then suddenly laughed at what he was saying.
Peter was intrigued by him, and glanced at him long and hard, suddenly sure that he had seen him somewhere, but couldn't remember, and then instantly it came to him. He was the controversial and very dynamic young senator from Virginia, Anderson Thatcher. He was forty-eight years old, had been lightly touched by scandal more than once, but in each case the fearsome fumes had been quickly dispelled, and more than once, and far more importantly, he had been touched by tragedy. His brother Tom, while running for the presidency, had been killed six years before, just before the election. He had been a sure winner, and there had been all lands of theories about who had done it, and even two very bad movies. But all they'd ever turned up finally was one lone, mad gunman. But in the years since, Anderson Thatcher, “Andy” as he was known to his friends apparently, had been seriously groomed and had come up through the ranks of his political allies and enemies, and was now thought to be a serious contender for the next presidential election. He had not announced his candidacy yet, but people in the know thought he would shortly. And over the past several years, Peter had followed him with interest. Despite some of the less savory things he'd heard about him personally, he thought he might be an interesting candidate on the next ticket. And just looking at him now, surrounded by campaign officials and bodyguards, there was an obvious charisma about him, and it fascinated Peter to watch him.
Tragedy had struck him for the second time when his two-year-old son had died of cancer. Peter knew less about that, but he remembered some heartbreaking photographs in
when the child died. There had been one photograph in particular of his wife, looking devastated as she walked away from the cemetery, surprisingly solitary, as Thatcher took his own mother's arm and led her from the service. The agony that had been portrayed on the young mother's face had made him shudder. But all of it had warmed people's hearts to them, and it was intriguing to see him now, deeply engrossed in conversation with his cohorts.
And it was a moment later, while the elevator still refused to come, that the group of men moved slightly away, and only when they did so, did Peter catch a glimpse of yet another person behind them. It was the merest hint, the quickest impression, and then suddenly he saw her standing there, the woman he had seen in the photograph. Her eyes were cast down, and the impression she gave was of incredible delicacy, she seemed very small and very frail, and almost as though she would fly away at any moment. She was the merest wisp of a woman, with the biggest eyes he had ever seen, and something about her that made you want to stare at her in fascination. She was wearing a sky-blue Chanel linen suit, and there was something very gentle about her, and very self-contained as she walked behind the men in her party. Not one of them seemed to notice her, not even the bodyguards, as she stood quietly waiting for the elevator behind them. And as Peter looked down at her, she glanced suddenly up at him. He thought she had the saddest eyes he'd ever seen, and yet there was nothing pathetic about her. She was simply removed, and he noticed that her hands were delicate and graceful as she reached into her handbag and put away a pair of dark glasses. But not one of them spoke to her or even seemed to notice her as the elevator finally came. They all pressed in ahead of her, and she followed quietly behind them. There was a startling dignity about her, as though she were in her own world, and every inch a lady. Whether or not they knew she was alive seemed to be of no importance to her.