She told him and he nodded. "I'll take you to your car before I go rescue my father."
Christmas lights were strung across the intersections as Matt drove down Main Street, their colors blurring in the falling snow; at the north end of town, a red plastic wreath hung above the sign that said welcome to edmunton, Indiana, pop. 38,124. From a loudspeaker provided by the Elks Club, "Silent Night" blared out its tune colliding with the notes of "Jingle Bells" pouring out of a plastic sleigh on the roof of Horton's Hardware.
The softly falling snow and Christmas lights did wonders for Edmunton, lending a Norman Rockwell aura to what was, in harsh daylight, a small town perched above a shallow valley where clusters of stacks rose from the steel mills and spewed perpetual geysers of smoke and steam into the air. Darkness cloaked all that; it hid the south end of town, where neat houses gave way to shacks and taverns and pawnshops, and then to farmland, barren in the winter.
Matt pulled his pickup truck into a dark corner of the parking lot beside Jackson's Dry Goods Store, where she'd left her car, and Laura slid next to him. "Don't forget," she said, wrapping her arms around his neck. "Pick me up tonight at seven, at the bottom of the hill, and we'll finish what we started an hour ago. And Matt, stay out of sight. Daddy saw your truck down there the last time and started asking questions."
Matt looked at her, suddenly disgusted with his sexual attraction to her. She was beautiful, rich, spoiled, and selfish, and he knew it. He'd let himself be used as her stud, let himself be conned into clandestine meetings and furtive gropings, let himself descend to lurking around at the bottom of the hill instead of going up to the front door, as her other—acceptable—dates undoubtedly did.
Other than sexual attraction, they had absolutely nothing in common. Laura Frederickson's daddy was Edmunton's richest citizen, and she was in her freshman year at an expensive eastern college. Matt worked in a steel mill during the day, moonlighted as a mechanic on weekends, and went to night school at the local branch of IndianaStateUniversity.
Leaning across her lap, he opened the truck door, his voice hard and implacable. "Either I pick you up at your front door tonight, or you'd better make other plans for the evening."
"But what will I tell Daddy when he sees your pickup in the drive?"
Coldly impervious to her stricken look, Matt said sardonically, "Tell him my limousine is in the shop for repairs."
The long procession of limousines inched forward toward the canopied entrance of Chicago's Drake Hotel, where they stopped to allow their youthful occupants to alight.
Doormen moved back and forth, escorting each new group of young arrivals from their cars to the lobby. Not by word or expression did any of the Drake doormen exhibit the slightest amusement or condescension toward the young guests arriving in custom-tailored tuxedos and formal gowns, for these were not ordinary children dressed up for a prom or a wedding reception, overawed by their surroundings and uncertain of how to behave. These were the children of Chicago's most prominent families; they were poised, confident, and the only evidence of their youth was perhaps in their ebullient enthusiasm for the night that lay ahead.
Toward the rear of the procession of chauffeur-driven automobiles, Meredith watched the other young people alight. Like herself, they were here to attend Miss Eppingham's annual dinner and dance. This evening, Miss Eppingham's students, who were all between the ages of twelve and fourteen, would be expected to demonstrate the social skills they'd acquired and polished during her six-month course—skills that they would need in order to move gracefully in the rarefied social stratum it was automatically assumed they would inhabit as adults. For that reason, all fifty of the students, properly attired in formal clothing, would pass through a receiving line tonight, be seated for a twelve-course dinner of state, and then attend the dance.
Through the windows of her car Meredith watched the cheerful, confident faces of the others as they gathered inside the lobby. She was the only one who'd arrived alone, she noted, watching as the other girls emerged in groups or arrived with "escorts"—often older brothers or cousins who'd already graduated from Miss Eppingham's course. With a sinking heart she noted the beautiful gowns the other girls were wearing, saw the sophisticated ways their hair had been swept into elaborate curls entwined with velvet ribbon or held back with jeweled barrettes.
Miss Eppingham had reserved the Grand Ballroom for tonight, and Meredith walked up the staircase from the marble lobby, her stomach twisting with nerves, her knees shaking with apprehension. At the landing, she spotted the ladies lounge and headed straight toward it. Once inside, she went over to the mirror, hoping to reassure herself about her appearance. Actually, given what Lisa had had to work with, Meredith decided she didn't look that bad. Her blond hair was parted on the right side and held back with a silk flower, then it fell straight as a stick to just above her shoulders. The flower gave her a mysterious, worldly look, she decided with more hope than conviction. Reaching into her handbag, she took out Lisa's peach lipstick and applied a bit of it. Satisfied, she reached up, unclasped the pearls, and put them into her purse, then she took off her glasses and tucked them in with the pearls. "Much better," she decided with soaring spirits. If she didn't squint, and if the lights were dim, there was a chance Parker might think she looked very nice.
Outside the Grand Ballroom the Eppingham students were waving to one another and gathering into groups, but no one waved to her or called out her name and said, "I hope we're sitting together, don't you?" It wasn't their fault, she knew. In the first place, most of the others had known each other since babyhood; their parents were friends; they'd attended one another's birthday parties. Chicago society was a large, exclusive clique, and the adult members naturally felt it incumbent upon themselves to preserve the exclusivity of the clique at the same time they ensured their children's admission to it. Meredith's father was the only dissenter to that philosophy; on the one hand, he wanted Meredith to take her rightful place in society, on the other, he did not want her corrupted by children whose parents were more lenient than he.
Meredith made it through the receiving line without difficulty, then she proceeded to the banquet tables. Since seating was indicated by engraved place cards, she surreptitiously removed her glasses from her purse and peered at each card. When she located her name at the third table, she discovered she was seated at a table with Kimberly Gerrold and Stacey Fitzhugh, two of the girls who'd been "elves" with her in the Christmas pageant. "Hello, Meredith," they chorused, looking at her with the sort of amused condescension that always made her feel clumsy and self-conscious, then they turned their attention to the boys seated between them. The third girl was Parker's younger sister, Rosemary, who nodded a disinterested greeting in Meredith's general direction and then whispered something to the boy beside her that made him laugh, his gaze darting in Meredith's direction.