He smiled, remembering with sad poignancy her elegant blond beauty, those vivid blue eyes that could smile so warmly. Noreen was a poor carbon copy of her, with dishwater blond hair and gray eyes and no real looks to speak of. Isadora had been beautiful, a debutante with exquisite poise and manners. The family was very wealthy. Noreen shouldn't have to work at all, because she was the only surviving heir to the Kensington fortune. But she had apparently little use for money, because even when she was off duty, she seemed to dress down. She had an apartment and never asked her aunt and uncle for a penny to help support her. He wondered what their response would have been if she had asked, and was amazed that he concerned himself with her at all.
Noreen had been a puzzle since he'd met Isadora, six years before. Isadora was outgoing and gregarious, always flirting and fun to be with. Noreen had been very quiet, rarely exerting herself. She'd had no social life to speak of. She was studious and reserved back then, a nurse in training, and her profession seemed to be paramount in her life.
Ramon frowned. Odd, "he thought, how a woman so wrapped up in nursing could have been so negligent with her own cousin. Noreen was so conscientious on the ward that she was often reprimanded for questioning medicine orders that seemed unacceptable to her.
Perhaps she'd been jealous of Isadora. Still, why would she have gone so far as to leave a critically ill woman alone in an apartment for almost two nights?
One of his colleagues had mentioned Noreen to him shortly after the funeral, and remarked how tragic the whole business was, especially Noreen's condition. He'd snapped that Noreen was no concern of his and walked off. Now he wondered what the man had meant. It was a long time ago, of course. The colleague had long since moved to New York City.
He dismissed the thought from his mind. God knew, he had more important things to think about than Noreen.
That Sunday afternoon, since he wasn't on call, he did go to see Hal Kensington, Isadora's father, bearing a birthday present - a gold watch. Mary Kensington met him at the door, soignee in a leopard-striped silk caftan with her platinum blond hair, so much like Isadora's, in a neat bun atop her head.
"Ramon, how sweet of you to come," she said enthusiastically, taking his arm. She .made a face. "I'm sorry I had to ask Noreen to phone you about today. I knew I'd never have time to run you down, with all my charity work, you know."
"It's all right," he said automatically.
She sighed. "Noreen is a cross that we must all bear, I'm afraid. Fortunately we don1! see her except at Christmas and Easter, and only then at church."
He glanced down at her curiously. "You raised her."
"And I should feel something for her, you think."
Mary laughed without humor. "She was Hal's only brother's child, so we were obligated to take her in when her parents died. But it wasn't from choice. She was always in the way. She's going to be an old maid, you know. She dresses like someone out of the local shelter and as for parties, my dear, I never invite her for them, she's so depressing! She was always like that, even as a child. Isadora was so different, so sweet, so loving. She was our whole world from the minute she was born. Of course, Noreen stayed with my mother a great deal of the time, until her death."
She glowered. "Noreen was a burden. She still is."
How strange that he should feel a twinge of pity for the sad little girl who came to live with people who didn't want her.
"Don't you love Noreen?" he asked bluntly. "My dear, who could love such a pale shadow of a woman?" she asked indifferently. "I suppose I'm fond of her, but I can never forget that she cost us our Isadora. As I'm sure you can't," she added, patting his arm comfortingly. "We all miss her so much."
"Yes," he said.
Hal was sprawled in his favorite easy chair, his bald head reflecting the light from the crystal chandelier overhead. He looked up from the yachting magazine he was reading as the other two joined him. "Ramon! So glad you could come!" He put the magazine aside and stood up to shake hands warmly with his son-in-law.
"I brought you a little something," he said, handing Hal the elegantly wrapped package.
"How kind." Hal beamed. He opened it and enthused over the watch. "Just what I wanted," he said. "I have a sport watch, but I can wear this one to the yacht club. Thanks!"
Ramon waved the thanks away. "I'm glad you like it."
"Noreen gave him a wallet," Mary said disparagingly.
"Eel skin,'' Hal added, shaking his head. "The girl has no imagination."
Ramon remembered where Noreen lived, the clothes she wore off duty. She apparently had little money, since she asked for nothing from her aunt and uncle, and eel skin wallets were expensive. He wondered what she might have gone without to buy her uncle that present, about which he was so cavalier. Ramon knew what it was to be poor. He was grateful for any gift he received, however meager.
He recalled that Noreen had chosen a small crystal bud vase for Isadora as a wedding gift when they married. Isadora had tossed it aside without a care, much more enthusiastic about the Irish linen tablecloth that a girlfriend had brought her. Noreen hadn't said a word, but a male nurse who had accompanied her to the engagement shower remarked loudly that Noreen had gone without a badly needed coat to buy that elegant trifle for her unappreciative cousin. Isadora had heard him, red-faced, and immediately picked up the bud vase and made a fuss over it. But
it was too late. Noreen had held her head up proudly, never shed a tear. But her eyes had been so sad...
"Are you listening, Ramon?" Hal murmured. "I said, we'll have to go sailing one weekend."
"I'd like that, when I have time," Ramon replied, but without enthusiasm. He was uncomfortable with these people. They picked their friends by their bank balances and social position. Ramon had been acceptable because he was famous and well-to-do. But the Ramon Cortero who had escaped from Cuba with his parents at the age of ten wouldn't have been welcomed as a prospective in-law. He knew it, now more vividly than ever. Odd, these disjointed thoughts that plagued him lately.
He stayed only long enough for cake and coffee, served on the finest china, and then excused himself. Outside, he looked back at the large brick mansion with no real feeling at all. The house was as bland and indifferent as the people who lived inside it. He wondered what was happening to him to make him feel so uncomfortable with Isadora's parents, who had been so kind to him after her death.
He drove himself back to his apartment in the silver Mercedes that was his pride and joy. He couldn't remember feeling so empty since the funeral. Probably he was overtired and needed a vacation. He should take a week off, just for himself, and go away. He could fly down to the Bahamas and laze on the beach for a few days. That might perk him up.
He glanced around him at the beautiful city skyline, ablaze with colorful lights, and remembered how that elegant glitter used to remind him of beautiful Isadora. She was sweetness itself to him, but he remembered vividly walking in on her once when she was
cursing Noreen like a sailor for not putting her sweaters in the right drawer. Noreen hadn't said a word in her own defense. She'd rearranged the clothes and left the room, not quite meeting Ramon's eyes.
Isadora had laughed self-consciously and murmured that good help was just so hard to find. He'd thought it a cold remark for a woman to make about her own cousin, and he'd said so. Isadora had laughed it off. But he'd watched, then, more closely. Isadora and her parents treated Noreen much more like a servant than like a member of the family. She was always fetching and carrying for someone, making telephone calls, arranging caterers and bands for parties, writing out invitations. Even when she was studying for exams, the demands from her family went on without pause.
Ramon had remarked once that exams called for a lot of study, and the other three Kensingtons had looked at him with blank faces. None of them had ever gone to college and had no idea what he was talking about. Noreen's duties continued without mercy. It wasn't until she left home, just after Isadora's marriage, that the Kensingtons hired a full-time housekeeper.
He went back to his apartment and made himself a cup of coffee. It disturbed him that he should think of Noreen so much, and especially on her uncle's birthday. There had been parties for Hal, and Mary Kensington before, but Noreen had rarely been included in the celebrations. It was as if her presence in the family was forgotten until something needed doing that only she could do, such as nursing Isadora through flu and colds and nuisance ailments.
That reminded him of Isadora's pneumonia and
Noreen's neglect, and he grew angry all over again. Despite his wife's faults, he'd loved her terribly. Even though Noreen had been badly treated by her aunt and uncle and cousin, it was no excuse to let Isadora die. He might feel pity for her lack of love, but he still felt only contempt when he remembered that Isadora had died because of her.