Bereft of any clever thing to say and unable to hold the strange intensity of his laughing eyes I drop my gaze to the scrap of paper and pretend to study the bold, slanting handwriting.
‘Will you allow me to paint you?’
I raise my head, startled. ‘You want to paint me?’ I splutter.
His eyes are twinkling and his laugh is warm and sensual. ‘Yes. A sulky mouth and slanting green eyes is a very unusual combination.’ He moves his attention to my mouth.
I feel his gaze like a physical touch on my lips. There is an odd fluttering in my stomach. He did not impress me as much at first glance, but there is definitely something commanding about this man.
‘My eyes are not green.’
‘They are now.’
‘Oh! Well, I guess I should be going,’ I croak, and spring up, all flustered and hot. Should I warn him about Fat Mary? Nah… Let him suffer.
‘See you Monday,’ he calls, the laughter still ringing in his voice.
‘See you Monday,’ I throw over my shoulder, as I flee from the room where I was turned down by the love of my life, and was propositioned by a wolf! It is exciting. It is definitely exciting.
As a fun event India Jane has hired a fortune-teller to work the tables. I watch her nod to someone and make her way to our table. She is a parody of a gypsy, with a colorful scarf tied around her head, hoop earrings dangling down to her shoulders, a ruffled white blouse, a full skirt, red stockings and black shoes. Her complexion is swarthy, her nose is hooked and her eyes are beady and sly. They alight on me.
She advances and holds out a dark hand to me. Her gaze is unwavering and intense. Strange even. I don’t want her to read my palm. I am the stealer of secrets and the hider of many. I swing my hand behind my back like a child and she smiles oddly.
Someone at the tables laughingly says, ‘Come on, Julie, it’s only a bit of fun.’
But her eyes bore steadily into mine, and there is not the least hint of fun in them as she wills me to submit. Like a hypnotized rabbit I hold my arm out to her. She captures my outstretched hand, turns it palm upwards and slowly brushes her other hand over it. Her palm is leathery. Her eyes release mine and move to my trembling hand.
‘You will get him if you don’t give up.’
I flush hard. She knows about Jack. She is about to spill my secrets. I knew I shouldn’t have let her take my hand. I try to snatch it away, but she has it in an iron grip.
‘I see you traveling with him… And children… Two girls. Very good man. Strong… Tall.’ Her eyes narrow. ‘Fatherless.’ Then she frowns. Her deeply black eyes travel upwards to mine, a startled, almost fearful expression in them. ‘Evil will try to tempt you, touch you. Don’t let it.’
This time I pull my hand away and she allows me to.
‘Now give me a coin, so you don’t owe me anything,’ she commands.
I stare at her. Her face is set in uncompromising lines. She has not asked for a coin from anyone else. I have no coins. I turn to the man sitting next to Billie. ‘Can I have a coin please?’
He laughs, takes a coin from his wallet and holds it out to the gypsy. She shakes her head. ‘It must come from her.’ He passes it to me and I give it to her. The gypsy nods and moves on to the next table.
My heart is beating hard in my chest. I am so exhilarated I can hardly sit down. I press my tingling palms together and rub them. She said, if I do not give up I will get my Jack. Everything else she said fitted too. Good. Tall. Strong. Fatherless. And she sees me traveling away with him. Does that mean I will be traveling to Africa? The prospect fills me with excitement. I do not understand her warning about evil so, as I have always done, I discount it as one unimportant inaccuracy in her prediction.
It is time for the happy couple to cut the tall, six-tiered cake—a holy smokes affair that has been patterned to look like the softly glowing painted glass shades of Tiffany lamps. It is so beautiful and unique it seems a shame to cut it. Anyway, they are cutting it, and I am not staying around to watch. Happy occasions always depress me.
I walk along the dozens of twinkling luminaria, over-sized white paper pom-poms and lanterns that flank the outdoor walkway towards the greenhouse. I just need to get away from the noise and joy of the party. I just need to think. About Jack and everything that has happened. About how I can win him back. I stand by the pond and look at the fishes glinting in the water. Do fishes sleep?
I whirl around. It is Lana. In the soft light she looks very beautiful. Why has she followed me? She is the bride, the sparkling star of the party. The princess of the day.
‘Are you all right?’
‘Yes. Of course. Why do you ask?’
‘You just looked a bit lost for a moment.’
That—and you know I don’t like to swear—but that f**king gets my back up. I am not feeling lost. I laugh. The sound is unnatural. I curse it. ‘No, I’m fine.’
‘I think Vann likes you.’
Fuck you! I don’t want Vann, I want Jack. I am so irritated and annoyed at that moment, I don’t care that it is her day. She was the bride and all of us were meant to be the moons that orbit around her great body.
‘Oh wonderful. Thank you so much. You kept the billionaire for yourself and saved the servant for me.’
Her conspiratorial smile turns into an O of shock. There is a hurt look in her eyes. Like a child that has been slapped when it came for a kiss. Shame punches through me. I am furious with myself. At that moment I hate myself. I am the worst bitch in the world. I f**king hate myself. I honestly did not mean to say that. I mouthed those ugly thoughts before I was conscious of them myself. I was just in my own world, my own wounded world. How I wish she hadn’t followed me. How I wish I could take the words back.
We stare at each other.
There is a sound at the doorway. We both turn. Blake looks at us, his eyes going from one to the other, and then they rest briefly on me. I see the cold fury in them. He knows I have upset his doll, and he is intimidating as hell. Great, now I have pissed off the billionaire. No flat in Little Venice for me. Fuck them both. I raise my chin. I’m not about to apologize. But Lana does the good thing, the right thing. She comes to me and puts her hand on my arm. Her wedding ring is cool against my warm skin.
‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have interfered?’
For a moment I just look at her and feel truly outclassed and outgunned. She is the bigger person. She is trying to make it all OK again. Why? I don’t know and I don’t care. I lean forward and hug her. She is the thinnest person I have hugged. Come to think of it, I have never hugged anyone else but my mother, and that was many years ago, and even then my hands had not gone around all of her. We move away from each other. I fancy that she must be relieved to be drawing away.