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In Beverly Hills only the infirm and the senile do not drive their own cars. The local police are accustomed to odd combinations of vehicle and driver: the stately, nearsighted retired banker making an illegal left-hand turn in his Dino Ferrari, the teen-ager speeding to a tennis lesson in a fifty-five-thousand-dollar Rolls-Royce Corniche, the matronly civic leader blithely parking her bright red Jaguar at a bus stop.
Billy Ikehorn Orsini—whose faults did not normally include a tendency to erratic driving—brought her vintage Bentley to a stop with an impatient screech in front of Scruples, the world’s most lavish specialty store, a virtual club for the floating principality of the very, very rich and the truly famous. She was thirty-five, sole mistress of a fortune estimated at between two hundred and two hundred fifty million dollars by the list makers of the Wall Street Journal. Almost half of her wealth was tidily invested in tax-free municipal bonds, a simplification little appreciated by the IRS.
Hurried though she was, Billy lingered in front of Scruples, casting a piercingly proprietary eye over her property on the northeast corner of Rodeo Drive and Dayton Way, where, four years ago, Van Cleef & Arpels had stood, a white plaster, gilt, and wrought-iron landmark, which looked as if it had been clipped off the Carlton Hotel in Cannes and shipped intact to California.
Billy’s tawny wool cape was lined in golden sable against the chill of the late afternoon of February 1978. She pulled it around her as she looked quickly up and down the sumptuous heart of Rodeo Drive, where the two facing rows of immodestly opulent boutiques outglittered each other to create the most staggering display of luxury in the Western world. The broad boulevard was made gay by pointed ficus trees, vivid green all year round, with low, wooded mountains visible in the near distance, like the background of a Leonardo da Vinci.
A few passersby acknowledged their recognition of her by that tiny sideways flick of an eye with which the true New Yorker, or the Beverly Hills regular, reluctantly validates the same celebrity who would draw a crowd in some other city.
Since her twenty-first birthday Billy had been photographed many hundreds of times, but newspaper pictures had never quite caught her challenging reality. Her long, dark hair, the deep brown of the best mink, so brown that it looked like black licked by moonlight, was thrust behind her ears, in which she always wore her signature jewels, the great eleven-karat diamonds known as the Kimberley Twins, which had been her wedding present from her first husband, Ellis Ikehorn.
Billy was five feet ten inches tall before she put on her shoes and her beauty was almost virile. As she crossed to the entrance, she took a deep breath of anticipation. The Balinese doorman, graceful in his black Scruples tunic and tightly wrapped pants, bowed low as he opened the heroically scaled double doors. Inside those doors lay another country, created to beguile and dazzle and tempt. But today she was in too much of a rush to scrutinize any of the details of what her Boston background, for she had been born Wilhelmina Hunnenwell Winthrop of the undiluted Massachusetts Bay Colony strain, caused her to refer to as a “business” rather than as a fantasy she had brought to life by pouring out close to eleven million dollars. She strode rapidly, with her characteristic pace, that of a huntress, in the direction of the elevator, determined not to catch the eye of any of the customers with whom she might have to stop and chat. As she walked, she threw open her cape and exposed her long, powerful throat. She was that most disturbing and rare of combinations, a female of rampant sexual vitality combined with an ultimate and totally authoritative sense of personal style. To any observant male, her smoky eyes, which had irises striped with faint horizontal lines of tortoise and dark brown, and her full mouth, ripe rose under a thin coat of colorless lip gloss, sent one message, while her long, slender body, severely clad in dark green kidskin trousers and a heavy cream silk tunic, cut wide and casually roped in at the waist, sent another message, a contradiction of the first. Billy knew that any emphasis on ass and tits played bloody hell with elegance. The absolute chic of her clothes was at war with her innate sensuality. She put people off-balance, almost certainly on purpose, because she wore her offhand yet splendid garments as if she was equally prepared to tear them off and tumble into bed, or to stand in front of a photographer and pose for Women’s Wear Daily.
Billy arrived at the elevator without having to do more than nod toward a half dozen women with a brisk friendliness, which simultaneously indicated that she was pleased to see them there getting rid of a tiny part of their unmitigated wealth but couldn’t possibly stop. She went straight to the top floor, where her destination was the private office shared by her two chief employees, Spider Elliott, who managed Scruples, and Valentine O’Neill, head buyer and custom designer. She gave a brief knock, which was not a question but an announcement, and entered an empty room, all the more deserted for the incongruity of the scarred English mahogany partners’ desk, which Spider had fallen in love with in an antique shop on Melrose Avenue and insisted on transporting to Scruples. It stood like an island of rugged reality in the center of the room, which had been decorated by Edward Taylor in future-wordly tones of melting taupe, fawn, biscuit, and greige.
“Damn, where have they got to?” Billy muttered under her breath, flinging open the door into their secretary’s room. Mrs. Evans jumped nervously at her unexpected appearance and stopped typing immediately.
“Where are they?” Billy asked.
“Oh dear, Mrs. Ikehorn—I mean, Mrs. Orsini—” The secretary stopped in confusion.
“It’s all right, everybody does it,” Billy reassured her quickly and automatically.
She had been married to Vito Orsini—that most independent of independent film producers—for only a year and a half, and people who had read of her over the years as Billy Ikehorn made the same mistake with her name without even realizing that they were doing it.
“Mr. Elliott is with Maggie MacGregor,” Mrs. Evans informed her. “In fact, he just got started with her and he said he’d be at least “an hour, and Valentine is working in her studio with Mrs. Woodstock—they’ve been there since right after lunch.”
Billy tightened her lips in annoyance. They couldn’t be disturbed, not even by her. Just when she wanted them, Spider was closeted with perhaps the most important woman in television and Val was busy designing a complete wardrobe for the wife of the new ambassador to France. Balls! Billy had painted herself into a corner in establishing the fact that she was above acting like a Queen Bee in such matters as appointments and fittings at Scruples. Let Dina Merrill act, Gloria Vanderbilt paint, Lee Radziwill decorate her friends’ homes, and Charlotte Ford, followed by a whole pack of socialites, “design” collections of clothes, she, Billy Ikehorn Orsini, ran a flourishing retail business, the most successful luxury shop in the world, a brilliant combination of boutique, gift shop, the world’s best ready-to-wear and haute couture. The fact that Scruples represented the smallest part of her fortune didn’t make it any less important to her, because, of all the sources of her income, Scruples was the only one she had been personally responsible for establishing. It was at once her passion and her plaything, a cherished secret come to life, tailored on a human scale that she could see, smell, touch, possess, change and make perfect and ever more perfect.
“Look, I need them soon. Please let them know I’m here the minute they’re through. I’ll be somewhere in the store.” She stalked out and went into her own office before the flustered Mrs. Evans could offer the little speech of good luck that she had been nervously preparing for weeks. Tomorrow was the day on which the nominations for the Academy Awards were to be announced, and Vito Orsini’s film Mirrors had a possibility of being nominated as one of the five Best Films of 1977. Mrs. Evans didn’t know much about the film business, but she knew that Mrs. Ikehorn—Mrs. Orsini—was very tense about the nominations from the gossip she had picked up around the store. Perhaps, she thought, considering how abrupt her employer had been—perhaps, it was just as well that she hadn’t said anything. The protocol of such occasions escaped her.”