Sternly repressing the uneasy conviction that Rosemary was talking about her, Meredith looked brightly around her, pretending that she was fascinated with the red and white Christmas decorations. The chair on her right was left vacant, she later discovered, due to the fact that its designated occupant had the flu, which left Meredith in the awkward position of having no dinner partner.
The meal progressed, course after course, and Meredith automatically selected the right piece of sterling flatware from the eleven pieces arrayed around her plates. Dining with this formality was routine at home, as it was for many of the other Eppingham students, so she didn't even have indecision to distract her from the awkward isolation she felt as she listened to a discussion about current movies.
"Did you see that one, Meredith?" Steven Mormont asked, belatedly adhering to Miss Eppingham's stricture about including everyone at the table in conversation.
"No—I'm afraid not." She was spared the need to say more because just then the orchestra began to play, and the dividing wall was opened up, indicating that the diners were now expected to gracefully conclude their table conversations and make their stately way into the ballroom.
Parker had promised to drop in on the dancing, and with his sister there, Meredith knew he would. Besides, his college fraternity was having a party in one of the other ballrooms, so he was in the hotel. Standing up, she smoothed her hair, made certain her tummy was tucked in, and headed for the ballroom.
For the next two hours Miss Eppingham did her duty as hostess by circulating among her guests and making certain each one had someone to talk to and dance with. Time after time, Meredith watched her dispatch some reluctant boy in Meredith's direction with orders to ask her to dance.
By eleven o'clock, most of the Eppingham crowd had broken up into small groups and the dance floor was all but deserted—owing no doubt to the outdated dance music being played by the orchestra. Meredith was one of four couples still dancing, and her partner, Stuart Whitmore, was carrying on an animated discussion about his goal of joining his father's law firm. Like Meredith, he was serious and smart, and she liked him better than any of the other boys she knew from this crowd, particularly because he'd wanted to dance with her. She was listening to Stuart, her eyes glued on the entrance to the ballroom, when Parker suddenly materialized in the doorway with three of his college friends. Her heart leapt into her throat when she saw how gorgeous he looked in his black tuxedo with his thick, sun-streaked blond hair and tanned face. Beside him, every other male in the ballroom, even the two who'd accompanied him, looked insignificant.
Noticing that Meredith had suddenly stiffened, Stuart broke off his discourse on law school requirements and glanced in the direction she was staring. "Oh— Rosemary's brother is here," he said.
"Yes, I know," Meredith replied, unaware of the dreamy tone of her voice.
Stuart heard it and grimaced. "What is it about Parker Reynolds that makes girls get all breathless and fluttery?" he demanded with wry humor. "I mean, just because he's taller, older, and six times smoother than me, why would you prefer him?"
"You shouldn't belittle yourself," Meredith said with absentminded sincerity, watching Parker stride across the ballroom for his duty dance with his sister. "You're very intelligent, and very nice."
"So are you."
"You're going to be a brilliant lawyer, just like your father."
"Would you like to go out next Saturday night?"
"What?" Meredith gasped, her gaze snapping to his face. "I mean," she hastily said, "it's nice of you to ask, but my father won't let me date until I'm sixteen."
"Thanks for letting me down easily."
"I wasn't!" Meredith replied, but then she forgot everything because one of Rosemary Reynolds's boyfriends had just cut in on Parker, and he was turning toward the ballroom doors to leave. "Excuse me, Stuart," she said a little desperately, "but I have something to give to Parker!" Unaware that she was attracting the amused notice of a great many pairs of eyes, Meredith rushed across the deserted dance floor and caught up with Parker just as he was about to leave with his friends. They gave her a curious look, as if she were a clumsy bug that had skittered into their midst, but Parker's smile was warm and real. "Hello, Meredith. Enjoying your evening?"
Meredith nodded, hoping he would remember his promise to dance with her, her spirits sinking to a new, unparalleled low when he continued to wait for her to say whatever she'd rushed over there to say. A hot flush of embarrassment stained her cheeks bright pink when she belatedly realized she was gazing at him in worshipful silence. "I—I have something to give you," she said in a shaky, horrified voice, rummaging in her purse. "I mean, my father wanted me to give you this." She pulled out the envelope with the opera tickets and birthday card, but the pearl necklace came out too and spilled on the floor. Hastily, she bent down to pick it up at the same instant Parker did and her forehead banged hard against his. "Sorry!" she burst out as he said, "Ouch!" When she lurched upright, Lisa's lipstick fell out of her open purse and Jonathan Sommers, one of Parker's friends, bent down to pick that up. "Why don't you just turn your purse upside down so we can pick everything up at once," Jonathan joked, his breath wreaking of liquor.
Horribly aware of the titters of laughter from the Eppingham students who were watching, Meredith thrust the envelope at Parker, shoved the pearls and lipstick into her purse, and turned, blinking back tears, intending to beat an ignominious retreat. Behind her, Parker finally remembered their dance. "What about the dance you promised me?" he said good-naturedly.
Meredith whirled around, her face lighting up, "Oh, that. I'd—forgotten. Do you want to? Dance, I mean?"
"It's the best offer I've had all evening," he gallantly replied, and as the musicians began to play "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered," Meredith walked into Parker's arms and felt her dream become reality. Beneath her fingertips she could feel the smooth fabric of bis black tuxedo jacket and the solid hardness of his back. His cologne smelled spicy and wonderful, and he was a superb dancer. Meredith was so hopelessly overwhelmed that she spoke her thoughts aloud. "You're a wonderful dancer," she said.
"And you look very nice tonight in your tuxedo."
He chuckled softly and Meredith tipped her head way back, basking in the warmth of his smile as he said, "You look very nice too."