‘Back to business then,’ he murmurs, and, turning away from me, goes around the desk, and takes his position behind it. Back to the way I found him.
I watch his toned, powerful frame slide smoothly into the black swivel chair and open the file in front of him.
‘So, you’re setting up a business?’ The sudden professionalism in his voice is like a bucket of cold water in my face. I take a shocked backward step. We were somewhere totally different a moment ago. Awareness of his potent masculinity in that small utilitarian room is still prickling across my skin. So, he wants to play. Cat and mouse. First the cheese and then the claw and teeth.
I go forward. Position myself in front of one of the chairs facing the desk. When I feel the edge of a chair against the backs of my knees I sink into it. ‘Yes, Bill… Billie and I are.’
‘Ah, the inimitable Bill,’ he says, looking up, the hot gaze completely replaced by a remorseless mask. ‘Why didn’t she come with you?’
‘She thought her tattoos might put the loan officer off.’
He smiles lopsidedly. ‘You girls have it all covered, don’t you?’ he says, but I can tell straight away, he has a soft spot for Billie. It twists my heart. I wish my name would soften his face like that.
‘That reminds me. How is your mother?’
The breath gets sucked out of me. ‘She passed away.’
He stills, his eyes narrowing. ‘I thought the treatment was working.’
I swallow the stone lodged in my throat. ‘The treatment worked.’ The words catch in my throat. ‘A car. Hit and run.’
His eyes flash. For an instant I am looking back into the past. We are all sitting around my mother’s dinner table. There are fresh flowers on the table and our plates are full of Persian food. Chicken with fruit and rice. My mouth is full of the smoky flavor of dried chilies. Blake is being charming and my mother is laughing. Her laughter fills the room and my heart. Hardly I heard her laugh in my life. I did not realize how happy I was then.
‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry to hear that, Lana.’
His pity is my undoing. The scene before me blurs. I blink furiously. I am not going to crumble in front of him. I can feel the waves of grief beginning in my body. I have not yet cried. Oh shit. Not now…please. I stand suddenly. So does he. I put out a hand, a warning—do not come any closer—and I run to the door. I need to get outside. My only thought is to escape. Not let him see me break down, but he is already at my side. He grabs my arm. I twist away from him, but his grip is too firm. He doesn’t know it, but he is part of the great pattern of my terrible grief.
‘This way. There is a staff restroom,’ he says quietly, and opening the door leads me down the corridor. He does not look at me, and I am grateful for that. Hot, uncontrollable tears are streaming down my cheeks. I did not cry when my mother died. For three whole months I could not cry. There was so much to do, but now the silent tears are flowing unchecked, and the huge sobs are on the way. I can feel them shaking my innards, threatening to burst out.
He holds open the toilet door and I rush in. The door closes behind me. Inside are white tiled walls and cubicles made of plywood. An ugly place. Perfect for what I have to do. I grip the ceramic basin, stuff my fist into my mouth and, doubling up, wait for the screaming sobs. They don’t disappoint in their ferocity. They are long and hard and ugly. Full of regret and recrimination and blame. For so long I believed that my mother would die of cancer. Year after year of watching her suffer and still not being able to let her go in peace, and then when she is bright and full of life again, and, when I am least expecting it, she is gone. Just like that. Without warning. I never even had a chance to say goodbye. In the end she was cruelly snatched away from me. I don’t know how long I was in there, but I buried my mother there.
Alone, in a toilet reeking of industrial bleach.
Finally, I lean against the sink exhausted. I look in the mirror. What a right mess. I look horrible. I blow my nose, wash my puffy face. My eyes and lips are red and swollen. I straighten. I button my blouse to my neck. I know it is cowardly, but I decide at that moment to scuttle away. Just walk down the corridor and leave. The bank has my address and he will find me, but by then I will be different. I will have repaired the walls of my fortress. I will be strong. He cannot hurt me. But then I remember Billie waiting at home.
‘Well, did you get it?’ she will ask.
I close my eyes. I’m not going to let her down. I’m going to say, ‘Yes, I got it.’
I pull open the door and he is standing in the corridor outside, staring at the floor, his hands rammed deep into his trouser pockets.
It is the oddest thing. It reminds me of the first time we met. When I had bawled my eyes out in a toilet and come out to find him waiting for me. He looks up, still frowning. The door shuts behind me as he strides towards me. The last time I had six inch heels that lifted me to almost his eye level. Now I am left staring at his brown throat.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Tom will take you home.’
I lift my eyes up to his. They are strange, liquid with some emotion I cannot comprehend. ‘No,’ I say. My voice comes out oddly terse. I had not meant for it to be like that. ‘Let’s get this loan business out of the way.’
A shutter comes over his face. I realize then I have just confirmed his thoughts about me. I am the gold digger who will do anything for money. Anybody else would have exploited this opportunity for softness. I am filled with regret, but it is too late. He is the tide that is going out and cannot be recalled. His eyes return to cold and distant.
He nods and we go back to the clinical office. I sit opposite him and he takes the swivel chair. It is a parody. He knows it and so do I.
He looks down again at my loan application form. ‘Baby Sorab?’
Oh. My. God. What the hell am I doing? I am playing with fire. I feel my heart thump so loudly in my chest he must surely hear it. The fog in my brain clears. It is no longer just me. Cat and mouse? I can play this game. He has nothing to lose. I have everything to lose. So I will be the winner. He will not beat me. I school my features, shrug carelessly. And then the lies begin to drop from my mouth so smoothly even I am surprised. Until today I never realized what an accomplished liar I am.
‘Yes. We thought it was a good name for our business.’
‘Why baby clothes?’
‘Billie has always been good with colors. She can put red and pink together and make it look divine, and since, Billie had her baby this year we decided to make baby clothes?’