Distractions of a Beautiful Stranger
The beautiful, sweeping music escaping from the grand piano thrilled Henry Miller. How he loved the music of Chopin. The tunes of the great pianist were the main reason for his frequent stays at the Mayfair Hotel. Not that he needed accommodation, with his mansion only a couple of miles away.
Henry Miller was a self-made multi-millionaire, but all the money in the world could not buy this man happiness. Despite his popularity and many friends, Henry craved love; not passion and sex, but real old fashioned love. He had married twice, both times ending in divorce. Henry liked the good things in life; classical music, theatre and a good brandy. His ex-wives coveted the fast life; casinos, parties, and any social event on the calendar, where they could flaunt themselves for the greedy tabloids.
All Henry wanted was privacy; that and someone to love him…really love him. He clapped his hands wildly, his cigar clenched between his teeth. The pianist, a short, red-faced man bowed before scampering away, his work for the evening complete.
“Well, Henry, what do you make of the new pianist?” asked a military looking gentleman, who was sporting a handlebar moustache.
“Splendid, James. I never thought anyone could replace old Hanley, but I must admit, I was impressed.”
“Good. I thought you’d like him. Come on through to the bar, old chap and I’ll buy you a drink.”
Everyone in the grand piano room was similarly attired in tuxedos. Another thing they all had in common was that they were all extremely wealthy. The ornate architecture of the Mayfair never failed to impress Henry. The magnificent crystal chandeliers, the marble pillars and the sweeping spiral staircase reminded him of the umpteen ballrooms he had frequented over the years.
Henry was not a handsome man; in fact, some would say he was downright ugly. He was fifty-three years of age, and realised time had passed him by in his quest to find the elusive, faithful bride. His distinguished silver hair and tall stature were negated by his protruding teeth. His ex-wives had nagged him time and time again to get them attended to. He could easily afford it, but Henry believed that if God intended him to look like this, then so be it.
The two men settled in the comfy armchairs and swilled their brandies around their large glasses, exchanging old stories from another century.
Henry noticed her first; a vision in a long, flowing, emerald-green dress and matching hat. She climbed onto a barstool and the barman lit her cigarette. She swivelled on her stool to face the two admirers and smiled, the mysterious enchantress oozing class and sophistication. She was approximately thirty-years of age. Her eyes were as blue as the Pacific Ocean, her teeth perfect like flawless pearls, and her nose small and slightly upturned. She looked so lost sitting at the bar alone, like a misguided child aspiring to find her way home.
Henry motioned to the waiter. “George, would you kindly ask the young lady if she’d care to join us?”
The waiter nodded and whispered into the ear of the beautiful stranger.
She turned her head and raised her cocktail glass to the pair, before gliding over to them, her walk so graceful.
James nudged his companion. “Hell, Henry, you old fox. She’s actually coming over.”
“Yes, she is isn’t she?”
The two love-smitten men rose to greet the woman.
“Good evening. Henry Miller at your service, and this is my good friend, James. I hope you don’t think I’m being too forward, my dear. You seemed so lonely.”
“No not at all, and you’re right. I am lonely… My name is Rachel.” Her voice was husky in a feminine sort of way.
“What can I get you to drink, Rachel?”
“Oh, thank you. I’ll have another Margarita please. If you’ll excuse me for a moment. I need to powder my nose.”
Henry clicked his fingers at the waiter and ordered the Margarita.
James turned to his friend. “Christ, Henry, she’s a vision. A lady with class.”
“She is isn’t she? Look, I wonder if you’d do me a favour?”
“You want me to go, is that it?”
“Well, James, you are married.”
“You’re old enough to be her father, you old minx you.”
“Some ladies prefer older men.”
James grinned wryly. “Three brandies.”
“Three brandies next time we meet and I’ll go.”
“James, you’re one of the richest men in the country and you still resort to extortion.”
“That’s why I’m rich. Have we a deal?”
“You’re on. Now make yourself scarce.”
“Good luck. You’ll need it.”
Rachel returned from the ladies room, sat close to Henry and stirred her cocktail. “Where is your friend?”
“Oh, he had to retire early. He has a business meeting in the morning... I’ve never seen you in the Mayfair before.”
“It’s my first time.”
“Are you here alone?”
“Yes, are you?”
“Yes. Tell me, Rachel, what is a beautiful girl like you doing in a hotel alone?”
“What do you think? Go on, guess.”
“Well, I could suggest you’re a high-class prostitute, but I won’t. You have too much elegance and class for such a woman. My guess would be that you were to meet someone and he never turned up. He, would of course have to be a foolish man to miss such an appointment.”
“Oh, Henry, you’re so sweet… You’re wrong on both counts. I’m not staying at the hotel.” She whispered, “I sneaked in. I needed a drink desperately and this was the nearest watering hole.”
“I see sadness in your eyes, Rachel.”
She looked away, her eyes glazed. “I’ve done a terrible thing.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“I lost my father a couple of months ago... Recently, I’ve been going through such a frightful and traumatic time. My husband left me last Christmas and my life is a mess. You see, I ran into financial difficulties. All my money was tied up in stocks and shares, and as you probably already know, the market crashed. My immediate reaction was to sell the house, but then I did something awful. I sold my father’s painting.”
“Was that so bad?” quizzed Henry.
“As you know, the market recovered, and I should have felt elated, but I didn’t. My father’s painting had been in the family for years. I feel such guilt and shame.”
Henry pondered. “How much did you get for the painting?”
“Five thousand pounds… I’ve since discovered it’s worth a lot more. The bastard I sold it to, a private dealer, will not consider selling it back to me. He’s auctioning it at Sotheby’s at the weekend.”
“Will you be bidding for the painting?”
“I’ve raised ten thousand pounds, mostly borrowed from friends. I don’t think it’ll be enough.”
“How much exactly is the painting worth?” asked Henry.
“At least double that. I’ll bid in hope that the competition is weak.” Rachel checked her wristwatch and finished her cocktail. “It’s been good talking to you, Henry. I have to go.”
“So soon. Look, can I see you again?”
“I don’t think so. You’re charming, but I don’t want to drag you into my dismal world.”
“Nonsense, I’d be honoured if you’d agree to meet me again. Tomorrow evening perhaps.”
“Are you sure you want to?”
“I’ve never been so sure in my life. Do you need a lift home?”
Rachel shook her head. “I’ll take a cab thanks all the same.”
“Nonsense, it’s pouring down outside. My chauffeur will drop you off. Where do you live, Rachel?”
The limousine moved slowly through the centre of London. Henry had informed his trusty chauffeur not to drive in such a hurry.
Rachel gazed ay the kind Samaritan. “Tell me, Henry, what do you do for a living?”
“What do I do? Lets just say that I also dabble in stocks and shares, as well as property.”
“Where do you live?”
“I have a mansion in Kensington.”
“A mansion, really?”
“Really. It’s such a large place for one man.”
Rachel continued her probing. “You’re not married then?”
“Turn down here driver,” ordered Rachel. “This house here, thank you.”
They pulled up outside a large Victorian establishment.
Henry gazed at her home. “I’m impressed, Rachel. it would have been a crime to sell such a magnificent house.”
Rachel sighed. “If only you knew how close I was to selling it.” She leant over and kissed him on the cheek.
“I’ll pick you up at seven ‘o’clock this evening. Okay?”
She nodded and turned away.
Henry touched his cheek as the driver pulled away.
All the next day, Henry had butterflies in his stomach. He had never felt as excited in a long time. His butler assisted him when he dressed, tying his bow tie, which he always had difficulties with.
“You look marvellous, Mr Miller.”
“Thank you, Norman, but you don’t have to lie to me. I know what I am.” He picked up the huge bouquet of flowers and climbed into his limousine.
She was waiting outside her house as they pulled up close to the kerb. Her blue dress matched the colour of her eyes, her hair now uncovered blonde, something he never noticed before. It was elegantly tied in a bun, highlighting the natural beauty of her bronzed face. He kissed her on the cheek and she climbed in besides him.
“You look beautiful, Rachel.”
“Well thank you, Henry. You’re rather dapper yourself.” Her eyes settled on the flowers. “Are those for me?”
“They are. I hope you like them.”
“Like them? They’re beautiful.”
“I do hope you’re hungry?”
“Good, I know a quiet restaurant in Knightsbridge.”
They dined by candlelight, serenaded by a violinist. Rachel had indeed a hearty appetite. Henry had never seen a woman eat with so much purpose. She even had room for her strawberry dessert.
“That was lovely, Henry.”
“I like a woman with an appetite.”
“And I like a man who knows how to treat a lady.”
“Well. I haven’t had much practise lately.”
Rachel looked into his eyes. “I’ve never enjoyed myself so much as tonight, Henry. Thank you.”
“No, dear, it should be me who is thanking you.”
She reached for his hands and their fingers entwined, as the violinist played for them. They finished off two bottles of the finest champagne.
Rachel lowered her voice. “Henry, you’re the only man I’ve been with who hasn’t asked me to sleep with him.”
“I’m sorry. Should I have?”
Again, she kissed him on the cheek. “You’re so sweet Henry, a real gentleman.”
“Rachel, I’ve been thinking about your father’s painting. Let me buy it back for you.”
“Certainly not. I’ll not hear of it.”
“But, I’m a very wealthy man.”
“I want to hear no more on the subject.”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive. I’ll buy the painting back myself. You must understand, it’s something I need to do myself.”
“Well, will you allow me to escort you to Sotheby's?”
“On one condition. You do not interfere?”
“It’s a deal.”
Saturday morning and the brisk November wind howled loudly, pushing against the limousine door as if to deter them from the auction. Henry and Rachel were greeted at the door, and he ran a comb through his silver, thinning hair. The stillness of the auction room was a comfort, away from the coldness of the streets of London. Henry’s eyes browsed through the strange faces, expecting to see a familiar face or two.
They took their seats towards the rear of the room and leafed through the programme, until they came to page five. The portrait in question was of a little boy sitting by a river and fishing. Rachel smiled nervously as the time for the lot drew closer.
“How many of these people are art dealers, Rachel?”
“I haven’t a clue. I know nothing about art.”
The auctioneer opened up. “And now we turn to this wonderful painting, entitled The River. It was painted by an unknown artist, but the quality of the work alone warrants it as a piece that would grace any collection. The bidding will start at five thousand pounds. Do I hear five thousand?”
Rachel raised her hand, and a tall, dark foreign looking man sitting close to the front, raised his newspaper.
“Six thousand pounds. Do we hear six thousand five hundred?”
An elderly woman joined the bidding, much to the disappointment of Rachel. The bidding had reached nine thousand pounds when Rachel increased her bid once more.
“Nine thousand five hundred pounds from the lady at the back of the room. Do we have any more bids?… Ten thousand to the lady in black… Ten thousand, going once.”
Eleven thousand the gentleman at the front… Twelve thousand to the lady in black.”
Henry looked across at Rachel to see tears were streaming down her face. Her bidding had ceased.
“Take me home, Henry please.”
“Thirteen thousand,” screamed Henry.
“What are you doing? I told you not to get involved.”
“This is loose change to me, Rachel. Consider it a gift.”
“Fourteen thousand, to the gentleman at the front.”
“Fifteen thousand… Do we have any more bids?”
The old lady shook her head in dejection.
The foreigner raised his newspaper. “Sixteen thousand.”
Henry again nodded his head.
“Seventeen thousand,” yelled the auctioneer.
Rachel held Henry‘s hand. “Stop it, Henry. This is absurd.”
Henry ignored her protest. “Who is the man I’m bidding against? He seems to want the painting badly?”
“Eighteen thousand pounds,” enthused the auctioneer.
Henry nodded. “Nineteen thousand.”
“Please, Henry, no more. The painting is not worth that much.”
“He seems to think so.”
“Twenty thousand. We have twenty thousand pounds from the gentleman at the front.”
“Twenty five thousand pounds,” yelled Henry, the crowd mumbling between themselves, turning to see who the bidder was.
Rachel again complained. “This is crazy, Henry. If you’re trying to impress me, you’re not.”
“Thirty thousand pounds,” was the cry from the front.
“Thirty five thousand.”
“I don’t believe I’m hearing this, Henry. No more please.”
By now this was developing into a kind of duel between the two, and Henry would not be beaten. He had his vast wealth to back him up.
“Fifty thousand pounds!” he yelled, his face lit up proudly.
The roars echoed around the room. The foreign looking man turned towards Henry and shook his head in resignation.
The auctioneer pointed towards Henry. “Going, going, gone! To the gentleman at the rear.”
Henry punched the air in delight. He felt like a gladiator having made his first kill in the great arena of Rome. He placed an arm around Rachel and kissed her cheek, surprised when she squirmed away from him.
“I did it for you, Rachel. Be happy.”
“And now I’m supposed to be in your debt forever am I.”
“It’s not like that. I love you.”
“Oh, Henry, you hardly know me.”
The older man was adamant. “I’ve never felt like this ever before, Rachel. My heart is beating twice as fast. I feel like a teenager all over again… Please, accept my gift.”
She looked into his eyes and smiled. She reached for him and kissed him on the lips, the cheers from the spectators echoing around the auction room.
“Come on, Rachel. Lets go and view your painting.”
It didn’t look anything special, thought Henry, certainly not fifty thousand pounds worth.
“Where do you want the painting delivered to, sir?” asked the assistant, rubbing his hands as Henry wrote out his cheque.
Henry addressed Rachel. “What is your address?”
“No, Henry. Your address. Or should I say, our address?”
“Yes, I’ll move in with you and I’ll sell my house. That’s if you want me to of course?”
“Of course I want you to, darling, but you don’t have to sell your house.”
“Whatever you say.”
Henry had to admit, the painting was actually growing on him. He savoured his glass of brandy and stood admiring his purchase that hung above his roaring fire. Rachel joined him, drying her blonde locks with a towel. She even managed to look elegant in his dressing gown.
“Isn’t it beautiful, Henry?”
“You’re father has wonderful taste. Where did he acquire it?”
“I don’t remember. It’s been in the family for as long as I can remember.”
Henry was impatient. “When are you moving your things in, Rachel? You’ve been here almost a week now.”
“I’ll do it first thing in the morning. I must say, Henry, it’s true what they say about older men in the sack.”
“In the sack?”
“And what do they say, dear?”
“Well, put it this way, I don’t think I’ll ever leave you for a younger man.”
“I should think not.”
She snuggled up to him. “I’ve never been so happy in my life. I’m such a lucky girl.”
“I’m happy you should feel this way, because there’s something I want to ask you… Will you marry me?”
“Oh, Henry, do you mean it?”
“Of course I mean it.”
“Give me some time to think it over. I do love you, but we know so little about one another.”
“I know everything I want to know about you.”
“When I return tomorrow, you’ll have your answer.”
It was two ‘o’clock in the afternoon and Henry waited eagerly for Rachel’s return. He paced up and down the room, redialling her mobile telephone number yet again. His impatience got the better of him and he ordered his driver to get the limousine ready. Henry peered through the limousine window when they parked outside Rachel’s house in Belgravia.
“Wait here, Charles.”
He pulled his scarf tight around his neck to ward off the coldness, before rapping on the door loudly. He waited in anticipation for the door to open.
“Yes, can I help you?”
A bald-headed, middle-aged man faced him.
“Who are you?” asked Henry.
“I may ask you the same question.”
“Where is Rachel?”
The man appeared bemused. “Rachel?”
“Yes, Rachel Saunders. She lives here.”
“I assure you she does not, sir.”
“There must be some mistake.”
“It appears so doesn’t it?”
Henry persisted. “Who lives next door?”
“A magistrate and a doctor.”
“You must have seen her…a blonde girl.”
“I’m afraid not. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
Henry wandered slowly back to the limousine, his shoulders slouched. A million thoughts flooded through his mind; none of them good.
“Where to now, sir?”
“Wait, Charles, let me think.”
He sat for five minutes, his head resting in his hands.
“To Sotheby’s, Charles.”
“As you insist, sir.”
Henry walked briskly into the auction rooms and demanded to see the auctioneer. He was shown to an office, where he was introduced to a young man.
“Hello, I’m Mr Burton the auctioneer. What can I do for you, sir?”
“Five days ago, I purchased a painting from here. I would like to know who was the original owner of the painting?”
“I’m sorry, sir. It is most irregular. We like to keep our clients confidential.”
“I purchased the painting for fifty thousand pounds, damn it!”
“Ah, yes, The River. I remember now.”
“All I can tell you was that it was a pretty looking, young woman.”
“No, in fact she had black hair. I’m telling you more than I ought to. If there have been any irregularities, you should contact the police.”
“No, that won’t be necessary.”
The couple released their seat belts when the jet reached cruising altitude. The dark man kissed the blonde girl on the lips and ordered champagne.
“Acapulco here we come,” said the man.
“It was so easy, Carlos. The old fool actually believed that I fell in love with him. Can you Adam and Eve it?”
“You ought to have been an actress, Susan.”
“You didn’t do too bad yourself. I must admit, I was a bit worried when he paused after you went to forty thousand pounds.”
“Not as worried as I was. How come you were so sure he’d bid?”
“Call it woman’s intuition. I had him eating out of my hand.”
Carlos grinned. “That’s what I call a profit… If the old geezer in the antique shop knew how much that old painting went for, he’d have a heart attack.”
“That was one hundred pounds well spent,” laughed the girl..
“I reckon the money will last us three months, and then it should be safe to return and look for our next millionaire, Susan.”
Susan grimaced. “To think that ugly bastard thought I fancied him. I deserved an Oscar for my performance in the bedroom. Ah, ah, yes, yes, yes, baby!”
They giggled in unison, only stopping to sip their champagne.
Three weeks passed and the couple were sunning themselves around the pool. They were ignorant of the waiter, who towered above them.
Susan cupped her eyes from the sun. “Yes.”
“There’s a long distance phone call for you from London.”
“There must be a mistake. Nobody knows I’m here.”
“No mistake. Will you take the call?”
Carlos had a worried look etched on his face as he shrugged his shoulders.
Susan conceded. “Okay, give me a moment.”
The blonde beauty who was clad in a blue bikini, attracted admiring glances from the male sun worshippers.
She reluctantly picked up the receiver. “Hello, who is it?”
“Rachel, or is it Carol? Surely you recognise the voice.”
“How did you find me?”
“I’m a multi-millionaire. It wasn’t difficult. I hired the best private detectives in London.”
“I’m sorry, Henry. I got cold feet and couldn’t go through with the marriage.”
“Stop it! You know what this is about... How many more men have you duped?”
Susan’s tone changed. “Get to the point. What do you want? Your money is almost spent.”
“Really? I actually wanted to thank you.”
“Do you think I got where I was today without being clever and ruthless?”
“What the fuck are you talking about, old man?”
“I’ve met many gold diggers in my time. I took advantage of some of them, then discarded them before they could fleece me.”
“So, you knew all along?”
“Actually, no, I didn’t. Let’s say I wanted to believe that you loved me… Before we went to Sotheby’s, I had your painting checked out. I couldn’t help but be inquisitive. I have many friends in the art world.”
“So, you knew it was worthless?”
“On the contrary. It’s a missing masterpiece, painted in the eighteenth century by Gilkes.”
“Yes, he was one of the most underestimated artists of his time. It appears that four of his paintings were missing, and three of them turned up years later. They averaged one million, two hundred thousand pounds each. It appears that I now have the fourth.”
“Am I? Oh, of course, you cannot have read yesterday’s tabloids. I knew how much the painting was worth when I bid for it. Of course, if you were genuine, I was going to give you the profits from the painting. By the way, Rachel, you were a great screw.”
He put down the telephone and she ran to the poolside.
“Can I borrow your newspaper?” she asked an English couple.
She sat besides Carlos, her mouth agape.
“What is it, Susan?”
The following scream was deafening.