Mr. Hugo met him at the door. He was also wearing a black shirt. “My protégé,” he said.
Howell liked to introduce himself with a bottle of Château Mouton Rothschild. The name intrigued him. He was certain it couldn’t be found in the Bronx.
The little duchess sat on her aluminum throne at the dinner table, in the wondrous light of a candle. She had aged, certainly, and could have been puffed with cortisone, but she had on the same lipstick she wore at 7, the same red smear, when she was the Scarlett O’Hara of her elocution class. He offered her the white rose.
“Carlton,” she said, never even bothering to shake his hand, “that’s rather daring of you.” Her voice had the same old fiddler’s ring. That sound fired up his loins. He was her prisoner after a single sentence.
“Honey,” Mr. Hugo said. “Don’t talk in riddles. You’ll scare Howell away.”
“But it’s not a riddle, Papa,” she said, thrusting the rose into her hair, with its thorns. “The white rose is the symbol of love as everlasting war.”
Smilin’ Jack scratched his mustache and stared at his daughter. “That sounds a little like real estate … and we have nothing to sell Howell.”
“We have plenty to sell, Papa,” she said, while the old man used his corkscrew as some kind of tourniquet to suck that cork right out of the bottle of Bordeaux.
“And what are we selling tonight?”
“Me,” the little duchess said.
The old man sat down and started to pour the wine.
“Papa, you’ll cause a scandal. You have to let that bottle breathe.”
She lurched in her wheelchair and took the bottle out of her father’s hand. “Sit,” she said to Howell. “And take off that tie. I can’t really bargain while my suitor’s wearing such an elegant rag.”
Howell laughed deep within his throat and shucked off his paisley tie. A few more minutes of her patter and he would have given all his bank accounts away.
She was the one who served the salad, who raced into the kitchen and raced back in her wheelchair. The old man never moved from the table. Naomi poured the wine after twirling the cork once or twice.
“Papa,” she said, wiping some salad oil from her mouth. “You shouldn’t have broken our courtship.”
“I didn’t,” he groaned.
“I might have married Carl.”
“You were 13—a child. Isn’t that right, Howell?”
“Fifteen,” she said. “With Bronx millionaires breathing down my back. I wanted Carlton.”
“But he was the super’s boy. He couldn’t even play the fiddle.”
“He would have fiddled with me.”
She served the baked potatoes and the salmon steaks in their tinfoil. She refilled her father’s glass.
“If you had really loved me, you would have taken Carl in as a junior partner.”
“People would have laughed at me… a cellar rat selling real estate.”
She swiped her father’s cheek, softly, with her silk napkin, but it was the same as a slap.
“You were jealous of him,” she said. Then she turned on Howell. “Look at you. You never even crawled out from under my father’s shadow. A pair of Smilin’ Jacks.”