t's a fairy tale!” Jane leaned back in her chair and gazed at the poster on the travel agency wall, above Barbara Kaplan's head. At the top of the poster were the words
DISCOVER NEPTUNE'S PALACE,
and in smaller letters at the bottom,
WHERE DREAMS AND REALITY ARE ONE
Jane could easily believe it. In the foreground of the vivid color photograph, a deeply tanned man and woman in swimsuits lounged on chaises, tropical drinks in hand, and surveyed a complex of interconnected pools, fountains, and water slides. In the background rose the hotel itself, soaring twin coral-pink towers between mammoth outward-facing sea horses.
“Like two books between sea horse bookends,” Jane marveled.
Barbara rolled her eyes. “Always the literary agent. Enough with the books already.
is why you need a vacation. So,” she said, placing a brochure for Neptune's Palace in front of Jane and tapping it with a long pink-airbrushed fingernail, “is that your choice?”
Jane nibbled one of her own short fingernails and gazed down at four other brochures in her lap.
Barbara smiled knowingly. “You're leaning toward Decadence III, aren't you?”
“No, I'm not,” Jane replied quickly, embarrassed. “A place like that”âwith a shake of her head she removed the Decadence III brochure from her lap and put it on Barbara's deskâ“just isn't my style.”
Barbara made a sound like “Pfush!” and gave a languid wave of her hand. “Erik!” she called across the office. “Jane says Decadence isn't her style. Should I tell her what happened to that teacher we sent there?”
Erik looked up from his desk and wriggled his eyebrows suggestively.
“What?” Jane asked.
“Most conservative woman you could ever hope to meet,” Barbara said. “Met a man, a film director from Franceâfifteen years younger than she, I might addâand . . .”
Barbara's mouth twisted in a self-assured little smile, and one brow rose. “Never been heard from since.”
“Was she murdered?”
Barbara barked out a laugh. “Jane, my darling, you've got murder on the brain. You
need to get away. No, she wasn't murdered! She fell in love with this wonderful man and got married. Moved to St. Tropez. And do you know what she said to Erik when he first suggested Decadence to her? That it just wasn't her âcup of tea.' ”
Jane found this story mildly interesting, but she still had no intention of going to Decadence III or any other of its editions. “I'm very happy for her, but it's still not for me. I've narrowed my choices down to Antigua, Barbados, and Neptune's Palace onâwhat island was it?”
“Coral Island in the Bahamas.” Barbara nodded. “You're going to choose that one.”
Jane rose. “I'd better get back to the office.”
Barbara glared at her with something akin to horror. “You're not going to reserve?”
“No,” Jane said simply, “because I haven't decided yet.” She slipped on her coat, shouldered her bag, and tucked the three brochures into its side pocket. Then she picked up her briefcase.
Barbara got up slightly from her chair. “Jane! My darling!” she cried, as if trying to be understood by a moron. “This is November seventh. You want to be away over
. That's November twenty-third. You want to leave on Saturday, the eighteenth, am I correct?”
“Every place is full! Even now if I can get you in anywhere it will be a miracle. Sweetie, you haven't got a minute to lose.”
“It's true, Jane,” Erik called across the room. “You don't want to sleep in the boiler room, do you?”
Jane shook her head. “I'll decide quickly, I promise.”
Barbara gave a skeptical scowl. “You don't really want to go away. You like to fantasize, but you won't leave your office. You're not really going.”
Jane just smiled. “I'll be back. Thanks for all your help.”
I most definitely am going,
she told herself as she left Up, Up and Away and stepped onto Center Street.
Next to the travel agency was Whipped Cream, and she considered stopping in for coffee and a chat with Ginny. Whipped Cream was Jane's favorite place to eat, Ginny one of her best friends, so the temptation was great. But then she checked her watch and saw that it was nearly eleven. No, not a good idea. She had tons of work to do and hadn't even been to her office yet today, having spent a good hour and a half with Barbara Kaplan. Besides, if she went into Whipped Cream, she'd probably order a muffinâa definite no-no because today she was starting the Stillkin diet. Dr. Stillkin's book,
Melt to Svelte,
had been on the
New York Times
best-seller list for months. Jane figured if she couldn't be his literary agent, she would at least use his diet to lose eight excess pounds before her vacation. Anyway, she would see Ginny that night at their knitting club meeting.
She crossed Center Street and started across the village green, taking the path that ran past the big white Victorian bandstand on the right and pointed almost directly at Jane's office on Center Street, where it curved around to the other side.
The harshly bright autumn sun that had shone earlier that morning was gone. Now the sky was a brooding dark gray blending in places to black, and the air had grown noticeably colder. A strong wind had come up. It blew back Jane's hair, made her eyes water. She set down her bag and briefcase for a moment to button her coat.
A few brittle brown leaves remained on the ground, scuttling across the faded grass and dancing on the brick path before her. She gazed up at the towering oaks, which provided a nearly solid canopy of foliage in the summer. Now their branches were bare, and between them the foreboding clouds swirled. Closer to the bandstand stood three or four pin oaks, and she remembered Stanley explaining to her that these trees held their leaves through the winterâa useless fact, it had seemed to her, yet he'd been so serious as he'd shared it with her.
Dear Stanley. He had wanted to go on vacation with her, but she had gently told him no. This vacation, she had explained, was to be completely hers. It would be her first time away since Kenneth had died a little over three years earlier. Since then, on top of trying to adapt to widowhood, she had been there unfailingly for Nick at home and for the writers she represented at her literary agency. She needed some time just for herself, and thanks to several lucrative deals she'd made recently, she could afford it. And she
go, whatever Barbara Kaplan said. Jane just had to be sure, had to pick the perfect place.
She was nearing the bandstand, grand and white, with its ornate railing. She glanced inside, looked away, and looked sharply back. Someone was in there, someone sitting on the bench. She could just make out the person's shadowy form. It looked as if whoever it was was slouching, perhaps asleep. A man, she thought.
Who would be sitting out here in the cold? she wondered, eager to reach her office. Earlier that morning, when it had been sunny and warmer, she could have understood it, but now the wind had a nasty bite and the sky threatened to open up at any moment.
Shrugging off the question, she continued briskly toward the far side of the green. As she did, she saw out of the corner of her eye that the person in the bandstand had risen and was descending the steps. Curious, she glanced back and found herself staring.
It was a man, but not the kind of man she'd ever seen on the green before, or in Shady Hills, for that matter. He was tall and painfully thin, in baggy jeans cinched around his waist with a piece of rope. The tails of an oversize shirtâonce white perhaps, now a threadbare grayâflapped above the jeans, and on his feet he wore dusty sandals that were too small for his long feet; dirty toes hung over the edges. Over all of this he wore a beltless olive-colored trench coat that must once have belonged to an enormous man. It reached nearly to the ground and whipped and billowed around his spare frame in the rising wind like a Gothic cloak. One of its pockets was torn, and from the tear protruded the neck of a bottle.
She lifted her gaze to his face. It was not an unattractive face, broad and leonine, with a salt-and-pepper mustache and beard. Stiff spikes of gray hair sprang wildly from his broad forehead, reminding Jane of Nick's early drawings of the sun.
She realized she was staring. Embarrassed, she turned away. She heard his sandals flap on the path, following her.
She stopped. His voice had surprised her. It was not the kind of voice she would have expected, but a refined, urbane voice, carefully modulated, with a touch of an accent she couldn't identify.
She turned to him, smiling kindly.
“I do beg your pardon,” he said, stopping as if sensing that it would make her uncomfortable if he came any closer.
He smiled, as if grateful that she hadn't just walked away, as so many others must have done. She noticed that he had beautiful, even white teeth.
“I wonder,” he said, “if you would happen to have a dollar to spare.”
But of course, Jane thought, that was what he would ask her; what had she expected? Her gaze met his. She hadn't noticed his eyes. They were large, almond-shaped, and of a rich golden brown. As she gazed into them, they grew moist, no doubt from the sting of the wind.
He was waiting. His eyes pleaded. She felt a pang of pity for this poor man. Her gaze dropped involuntarily to the neck of the bottle protruding from his torn pocket; he followed her gaze, looked back at her, and bit on his lower lip.
“Of course.” She set down her briefcase and rummaged in her bag for her purse. Before she knew what she was doing, she had pulled out a five-dollar bill and handed it to him.
“God bless you,” he said, taking a half step forward, and she was hit by the strong odor of alcohol on his breath. “Thank you.”
“You're welcome,” she replied, turned, and continued along the path.
Nearing the edge of the green, she glanced at the front of her office. Daniel's handsome dark face peered out at her through the window beside a brass plaque that read
JANE STUART LITERARY AGENCY.
Pretending not to see him, she crossed Center Street and walked casually to the door. Then she burst in. He jumped away from the window.
“Snooping again?” she asked playfully.
Clearly embarrassed, he went to his desk at the front of the reception area and began leafing through a manuscript. “I saw you talking to that man. What was he saying to you?”
She dropped her bag and briefcase on the credenza, hung up her coat, grabbed up her briefcase again, and sat down in Daniel's visitor's chair. She took out a contract she had reviewed for him the night before. An image of the man on the green flashed into her mind, and she shook her head sadly, remembering those moist light brown eyes. “Poor man.”
“That's what Ginny says. She speaks to him. You know Ginnyâwants to help everyone.”
“True,” Jane said, thinking about her friend. Lately, Ginny and Daniel had become quite serious about each other. They had become attracted to each other not long after Daniel's fiancÃ©e died five months earlier.
“You gave him some money,” he said.
She shrugged. “How can you say no? Where do you think he came from?”
“New York. He and Ginny had quite a long chat the other day, after she left the shop for the day. Now they talk quite often. His name is Ivarâor is it Ivor? He told Ginny he used to panhandle in New York City. His spot was on Eighth Avenue, just north of Penn Station. He liked it there because he got a lot of commuters.”
“How'd he end up out here? We're twenty-five miles from New York.”
“One day he decided he'd had enough of the city, took train fare out of his day's earnings, and got on the next train to New Jersey. It happened to be one that stopped here. He liked what he saw and hopped out.”
“When was this?”
“About three weeks ago.”
“Really? I never noticed him before today.”
“That's because he was hanging out near the library. But that was too quiet. He likes the green better because more people pass through; he gets more handouts.”
She remembered the harsh wind billowing his voluminous coat. “Where does he sleep?”
“In the train station.”
“The train station?”
“Yes. Old Kevinâyou know him; he's the station custodianâhe's been leaving the waiting room open for Ivor at night.” He noticed the contract in Jane's hand. “Did you have a chance to look that over?”
“Yes.” She laid it on the desk and, turning it around, opened it to a clause she'd marked with a paper clip. “This option clause is for the birds. It's a matching option. We
agree to that.”
He frowned. “Could you explain how the option worksâas it's worded now, I mean?”
“Sure. When you submit a proposal for Tanya's next novel, the publisher has two months to consider it. If they want to buy it, you and Millennium have a month to come to terms. If you don't, you can take the material elsewhere, but if you then get an offer, you've got to bring that offer back to Millennium, which can take the book for the same advance.”
He looked scandalized. “We won't agree to that!”
“You bet we won't. You won't agree to a ten-percent-topping option, either.” When he wrinkled his brows, she explained, “With that one, if you get an offer elsewhere, you have to come back to Millennium, which can take the book for an advance ten percent higher than what's been offered.”