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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
336 pages
Oct 2005

A Season of Shadows

by Paul McCusker

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IT REALLY WAS TOO COLD TO HAVE A PARTY THAT NIGHT. FRESH FLAKES OF January snow began to fall as the guests arrived at the colonial-style brick home in Georgetown. They came bundled in their overcoats and furs, hats and scarves, smelling of wet leather, imported cigarettes, and Shalimar.

The burst of cold air through the front door chilled Julie Harris, and with chattering teeth she exclaimed, “How marvelous to see you!” and “It’s so good of you to come!” and “What a marvelous hat!” and the other obligatory things hostesses were expected to say.

Stewart, her husband, tuxedoed and dashing, put an arm around her waist and whispered, “Darling, your lips are turning blue. Why don’t you go into the living room and stoke the fire or something?”

She went without objection, mingling as she did. Their house servant, a fine Negro woman named Thelma, served hot toddies on an engraved silver tray — a gift from Stewart’s great-aunt Betsy for their wedding day.

A quartet of jazz musicians began to play in the corner around the baby grand. Stewart’s choice, as usual. His kind of music. Julie didn’t know most of the guests, friends of Stewart from the club he frequented downtown. The Foggy Bottom Regulars, he called them.

“Don’t you just love that music?” a woman in a flimsy black dress asked, taking a drink from the tray as it passed. She had red lipstick on her teeth. “Doesn’t it make you want to dance?”

Julie smiled noncommittally. Truth be known, she didn’t care much for the new jazz music but never said so for fear of sounding gauche. “I’m not much of a dancer,” she said. “Two left feet.”

The woman threw her head back with a throaty laugh, and Julie realized she’d probably been to a party before this one, with a few drinks there too. “You don’t have to know how to dance to dance. Just get out and move.” She swung her hips and snapped her fingers, pushing through the crowd to the center of the room.

A light kiss on Julie’s cheek, and she turned to face William, her younger brother. “Good evening.”

“You came,” she said, pleased, and gave his handsome form the once-over. He had short light-brown hair and deep brown eyes, a thin nose, and a lean muscular face. He wore a black dinner suit. “You look suave.”

“Thank you.” He leaned against the wall and watched the dancing woman with an amused expression. “Who is she?”

“Francine something-or-other,” he said. “She likes to dance.”

“So I see.”

He eyed the room. “It looks like everyone from the club is here.”

“I suppose so.” Julie didn’t go to Stewart’s club very often. She’d said she didn’t enjoy all the noise, the sweat, and the smoke. In truth, she often felt the club was Stewart’s private domain, a place where she wasn’t entirely welcome, his one remaining indulgence from his life before they married.

“Pretty wild, throwing a party at the last minute, Jules,” William said. “I barely had time to get dressed.”

She shrugged. “It was Stewart’s idea. Friday night and we had no plans.”

Stewart appeared and approached the dancing girl. She threw her arms around him in greeting, then took his hands to dance with her. He acquiesced. The crowd made room for them, rippling out in small waves. Others joined in.

“I wish he wouldn’t do that,” William said. “If he’s going to dance with anyone, it should be you.”

“Don’t be so old-fashioned.” But she was touched by his protectiveness.

He grunted. “I’m not being old-fashioned. You’re being naive.” He pushed away from the wall and left the room.

The band played on, the dancers danced, and in the drawing room a small group gathered for a heated argument about Hitler and Germany, all the invasions, and whether America should support Britain in their war. Some thought that neutral countries like America couldn’t afford to remain neutral. Stewart, who’d spent four years drinking his way through a degree at Oxford, was surprisingly silent, sitting with a mysterious smirk. Julie thought the whole discussion tedious and escaped to the back porch to get some fresh air. The snow, mixed with rain, fell heavily, and black ice covered the stairs. Treacherous for driving. No one should be out tonight. Maybe she should tell Thelma to ready the guest rooms.

Back in the kitchen, Stewart stood at the large wooden chopping block table, mixing a drink.

“Are you all right?” he asked as Julie entered, rubbing her temples.

“A slight headache.”

He handed her the glass. “Try some of this. It’ll cure what ails you.”

“I’m not so sure.”

“Some of us are going to the club.”

“Don’t, Stewart. Not tonight. It’s nasty out there.”

He shrugged as if to say, It’ll take more than weather to stop us.

“Then I’m coming with you.” She sipped the drink, sweet and warm down the throat.

“Are you sure? I know you don’t like it.”

“I want to be with you.”

“Drink that and we’ll see how you feel.” He kissed her on the forehead and returned to the party.

Julie sighed and followed. It was past midnight and more people seemed to crowd in now than in the hour before. She continued to play the gracious hostess — a hello here, a quick compliment about a new hairstyle there. The men flirted — about her dress, her looks. She ducked and dodged, waving them off, blowing indifferent kisses. One lecherous kid in a yellow cravat, with hair that smelled of cheap tonic and breath of bad gin, cornered her for a quick embrace. Her usual quips didn’t disarm him, nor did her attempts to brush past him. The last thing she wanted was a scene, but she’d have to get tough if he didn’t go away. Where was Stewart?

Robert Holloway suddenly appeared, tall, blond, and red-cheeked, and put both hands on the boy’s shoulders, forcefully spinning him toward the door with a kick in his pants. “Scram!” he growled.

Dear Robert. And then things became terribly fuzzy. That drink was quite potent. Robert guided her to a sofa in the den. The room spun — or was it her head?

“Is something wrong, Julie?” Robert asked, his Carolina accent as gentle as his eyes.

She nodded. “Oh, dear.” She put her head back onto a pillow that seemed to appear from nowhere. She closed her eyes and time slipped away. She thought she heard the clock chime on the mantel. Was that one chime or two? A pair of strong arms lifted her up.

“Upsy-daisy,” Stewart said.

“What are you doing?” She kept her eyes closed and leaned her head against his chest. She could feel the satin on his lapel. She lifted her head toward his neck. His body smelled of that new French cologne he’d taken a fancy to wearing. She couldn’t remember the name.

“I’m putting you to bed.” She was floating, drifting up the wide staircase and down the dark hall. The quartet started a Fats Waller number, “Two Sleepy People.” It made her giggle.

With half-lidded eyes, Julie looked up at her husband, trying to focus on his movie-star face. Errol Flynn, with the wavy hair and pencil moustache. Then they were in the darkness of the bedroom, and Stewart deposited her onto their four-poster bed.

She giggled again and he leaned over her. “There you are, darling.”

“What did you put in that drink?” she slurred.

“A little of this and that.”

“But I can’t go to bed now.” She made an effort to prop herself up on her elbows but couldn’t seem to muster the basic motor skills to do it.

“It’s well past your bedtime,” he said softly.