Noel, a glass of cognac in his hand and a Turkish cigarette bobbing at the end of his long ivory holder, sidled up to me and nodded at the two. "Look, Edna. I've provided a floor show. The ingénue and the sybarite."
"But Tommy seems indifferent."
He grinned. "Look closely, darling. It's all a pose. A broken heart."
"You're a romantic, Noel."
He sighed. "I'm watching the death of my party."
"I think that happened a while ago, Noel—during Belinda's screechy rendition of Cole Porter."
"Tommy isn't happy his biggest star is filled with bathtub gin."
Watching the florid man as he gulped back his drink, I noticed a sudden flick of his head in Belinda's direction. Still that enigmatic smile on his face, that feigned indifference, but his eyes revealed something else: A trace of hurt? Or was it anger?
"Ah, Belinda," Noel laughed softly. "The girl who plans to ruin Dougie's life." Then, the smile disappearing, he said, "Such girls are commonplace, if captivating, and always fickle. Such girls are—doomed."
I raised my glass to him. "A dark romantic in the New World."
Noel narrowed his eyes. "Look at the two of them. The way they look at each other. They love each other."
"That surprises you, Noel?"
"Such raw love is dangerous in the young."
"They think they are the only ones who've ever been in love. It makes them...reckless." He chuckled as he raised his glass.
As the party went on, Noel's mood shifted. He stood by the piano but stared out into the black night. A gust of wind rattled the windows, snowflakes swirling. A hint of moonlight reflected on the choppy East River. His gaze shifting back to the room, Noel pursed his lips and frowned at the couple. He was watching Dougie, who kept telling Belinda to lower her voice." Do you know where you are, for Christ's sake?"
She shot back. "Of course I know where I am. I'm not a fool."
Noel twisted his head to the side and drained his cognac. "A fool and Dougie's money are soon parted."
He stared back out into the black night.
A tall man, over six feet, lithe like a strapping young boy, that stark aristocratic face under the blond tousled hair, a few strands drifting onto his forehead, Noel leaned back against the piano, sadly resigned to a failed evening. He stifled a yawn, which surprised me, and he caught me looking. I walked over to him and
looked up into his face. "Noel, you should ask them to leave."
His words were clipped, world-weary, very British: "Edna, love, I never ask anyone to leave my home." A thin smile. "In a moment I'll disappear and return in my red satin dressing gown and begin a recitation of homiletic bedtime stories."
I laughed. '"Twas the night before Christmas..."
He finished. "And all through my house..." He smirked.
"Design for living in Manhattan?"
After New Year's, he'd be headed to Cleveland with Lynn Fontaine and Alfred Lunt for tryouts of his new play, Design for Living, a new risqué comedy about a questionable—if engaging ménage a trois.
Watching the drama in the room, Irving Berlin nudged Noel's elbow, made a tsk tsk sound, sat at the piano and began a jazz-baby rendition of a song I didn't recognize, a mournful, down-and-out dirge that made Noel smile. "Someone is reading my mind," he said to Irving. "That's always dangerous."
But a few chords into the song, Belinda began humming loudly and, stopping abruptly, Berlin dropped his hands in his lap. He stared straight ahead, unhappy. Noel leaned over his shoulder. "Might I request the Mozart Requiem?"
There was a commotion at the front door. A raised voice, alarmed. A phony high-pitched laugh. Someone groaned.
"Oh, Christ," Tommy's voice boomed out.
The room went quiet.