ART NOUVEAU

 
Annie had been working in London for six years before she finally convinced the Belsize gallery owner to show her canvases. For as long as she could remember, Henry had resisted her overtures, convinced that her work wasn’t sufficiently grand or odd enough to attract the posh and moneyed clientele he coveted. It wasn’t until Bono wandered into her ramshackle studio and bought several of her favorite pieces that she was deemed worthy of notice. Art collectors are a strange lot. It was the same in Phoenix, remember?

She didn’t like to remember those last years back home in the Sonoran heat and dust: Matthew struggling so hard to stay with her, but weakening day by day; taking his ashes up to Superstition Mountain; coming home to her empty marriage bed. The colors of the desert no longer warmed the chill in her heart. Loneliness seemed so much greater under that endless blue sky. Her desire to paint had all but disappeared under a black mantle of grief.

She shook the tears from her eyes. It was useless to dwell in the past, not when she had to contend with a fresh bunch of art critics hungry for blood. She laughed silently and turned the key in the lock. Morning, early morning, was her favorite time of day to think and work. Even the gray drizzle held its promise. She opened the door and flipped on the lights. The canvases were stacked neatly against the wall. Today she would make her final decision for the opening.

She put the kettle on and slipped into her painting coveralls. Years of spatters had stiffened them considerably, but they were her lucky pants. In them, she had painted some of her very best work and weathered the worst of storms. She fingered the metal buckles at her shoulders, lost momentarily. Was it really only six years since Matthew died, leaving her alone in the desert? She could still see his face, white as the pillow beneath his head and still hear him insisting that she leave Arizona. Six years? It seems like a lifetime.

The whistle of the kettle roused her. She looked at her watch and sized up the stack of paintings. Two hours! Two hours left to seal my fate…

******************************

She barely heard the music over the muffled roar of conversation. If Henry’s intention was to invite the entire city and set their tongues to wagging, he had succeeded.

“Darling!” he cried, “just look at all the fabulous people who came to your opening! I’ve always known you’d set this town on its ear! I’m so glad I pulled you out of that rathole; just look at what you’d be missing if I hadn’t! Can you believe this crowd? We’ve already sold the desert groupings and I think Donatella is going to bid on the winter series! Oh, wait…… is that Elton? Elton! Darling!….”

Henry rushed off in a cloud of clove cigarette, leaving Annie amused and slightly bewildered. She stood quietly for a few minutes, weighing her options. With the exception of Henry, she knew no other person in the room and was not, by her own admission, an avid party-goer. The thought of idle self-promotion pained her and none of the people standing near seemed even remotely interested in including her in their conversations. So, she began to hover, like a wraith unseen, slipping in and around the crowd, listening to the conversations, but never being a part of them.

She felt a sharp tap on her shoulder. A tall, angry blonde peered down at her from the tower of her stiletto shoes.

“Listen you! Please inform the gallery owner that my boyfriend and I want to buy that picture.” She pointed an enameled finger at the blue abstract on the wall.

“Oh, you’re interested in the portrait? That’s one of my favorites.

The blonde dismissed her. “I’m not interested in your preferences. Just mark that one ‘sold’ before someone else buys it!” She spun on her heels, returning to the side of an elegant man dressed in black Armani.

Shrugging off the slight, Annie slowly made her way through the crowd to the reception desk where a stack of receipts were scattered. Are all of these for my work? Smiling, shaking her head, she thumbed through the pages, amazed by the number of celebrity names she recognized and astounded that she had been introduced to none of them. Henry’s worth twice his commission if he can sell without the artist’s input! She considered for a moment. What am I thinking? Nobody’s interested in my opinion, least of all this self-satisfied lot. She looked up, surveying the glittering crowd. Well-dressed people, posing artfully, were clustered in small groups. Their affected show of world-weariness barely concealing the narcissism beneath. My, they sure do admire themselves! She giggled. I bet they’ve spent more time looking at each other than at the displays!”

Bored, she propped up her chin and stared at the ceiling. If I leave right now, how many hours would pass before I was missed? Her eyes searched the smoky haze for Henry whom she spotted absorbed by a newly-arrived trio of “fabulous” people, his arms waving about wildly. It didn’t appear that he had any need of her at all. She sighed, looking down at the folds of her evening gown. Why did I spend the money on this? Except for that shrew who thought I was the secretary, not one person has approached me all night!

She finished the last of her champagne and pushed away from the desk. There was no point wasting any more time at a soiree thrown in her honor, but where her presence went unnoticed. She spied a group of late arrivals threading in the front door and decided to make her escape. Henry will never see me if I slip out behind them. She headed through the noisy crowd and squeezed out the door.

Once outside, she drew a deep breath. A fog had settled over the city, a welcome change to the heat and din inside. She closed her eyes, turning her face up to the mist.

“Leaving so soon?”

She whirled around. An elegantly dressed man was leaning casually against the wall, his face cloaked in shadow. He brought a cigarette to his lips, its ember briefly illuminating an angular jaw. She peered into the darkness. Something about his demeanor was familiar.

“Are you leaving the party so soon?” he asked again, exhaling a cloud of smoke. “You didn’t seem at all amused by the festivities.”

“Amused?” she replied, tightening the wrap around her shoulders. “I’m not one for crowds, or working them.”

He chuckled. Stubbing out his cigarette, he stepped into the light, a smiling, fair-haired man dressed in black. Oh, the shrew’s boyfriend….

She smiled weakly. “Ah yes! The abstract …… now I remember. Your, um, lady friend told me that you wanted to buy it. You’ve changed your mind then?”

“Quite the contrary. I find it a fascinating self-portrait.” He took another step toward her. “Tell me, is it a true likeness of the artist?”

“A true likeness?” she repeated. She pulled herself up. “I’m not certain. You may want to ask Henry, the gallery owner. I understand he’s well-acquainted with her.” She turned away, concealing a smirk.

The corners of his eyes crinkled. “And you? How well do you know her?”

She frowned. What kind of game is he playing? Before she could answer, a taxi screeched to a halt in front of the gallery, discharging yet another group of revelers. Annie jumped in and, turning her head, threw the man a withering glance. “I’m afraid I don’t know her at all!”

*******************************
The telephone rang. Annie turned from her work and rolled her eyes. 12:15 already? Henry was like clockwork.

“Hello, Henry.”

“Darling! Did I wake you? What? You’ve been up for hours? How ever can you manage? I can hardly function with this head of mine! I swear to you that last night was the very last time I’ll touch brandy! Oh, sweetheart, four snifters and after all that good champagne! I could barely make it home! Luckily for me, Ronald had a suite at the Four Seasons, otherwise God knows where I’d be, perhaps dead under a bush or worse! You know with all the violence today, one hardly wants to leave one’s home, let alone a party! I can’t remember getting into the taxi, but, oh! the hotel was divine, that I do remember! But I really don’t like these new grays, the upholstery can look so dull and worn even when new, but you know how these designers are, everything retro is de rigeur again! But why they abandoned urban industrial is quite a mystery to me, especially when it’s been used to such advantage at the Peninsula! Everyone just raved about it, so why did they change it? Just because some design faculty member says “distressed”, does every graduate have to follow suit? It’s all become a long line of lemmings marching to the cliff, off to the design boneyard until some genius digs amongst the cadavers to resurrect the newest trend! Darling, did I tell you the latest? Darling? Hello! Annie, are you there?”

Annie, accustomed to his long-winded monologues, had set the receiver on the table waiting to be re-summoned.

“Yes, Henry. I’m here.”

“Darling! The news! Sean Bean came by the gallery this morning! You remember him, don’t you? The actor from the telly? What? You don’t? Darling, don’t be a tease. He wants to see your latest work, so I’ve sent him along, dearest! Do be a good girl and show him those really big canvases, won’t you? Oh! I can smell a sale! Darling, indulge me one small favor, will you? Promise me you’ll wear something suitable! Not those wretched farmers’ pants! You look positively ragged in those coveralls, darling! The little homeless match girl is NOT a good look for you, sweetheart. There’s a dear! Oh! Darling, there’s my mobile. Will they never leave me in peace? Ciao, darling! Will ring you later!

The line went silent. Annie stood in disbelief, staring at the receiver. It was long understood that the studio would be off-limits to customers. Had Henry really disregarded their agreement and sent along one of his tiresome celebrity friends to her studio? For the first time since leaving Phoenix, she felt a twinge of apprehension. She didn’t mind the affrontery at the gallery. She expected it and found it oddly amusing. She could even overlook the incessant preening and unreasonable demands of his temperamental clients, but her work space was inviolate. It was the only place in London where she felt truly safe. She wasn’t at all certain if she was ready to share her sanctuary with some patronizing actor. She hung up the phone and paced the floor.

Before she could make a second pass, the doorbell rang, stopping her in her tracks. She flew to the door and peered through the peephole. What the hell is the shrew’s boyfriend doing here? She jerked open the door and stood with a hand on her hip.

“Boy, you just don’t know when to quit, do you?”

He stood on the step, grinning broadly. “And good afternoon to you, ……. Annie!” He extended his hand, eyes twinkling. “I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced. I’m Sean…..”

“I know who you are,” she said coldly, cutting him off. “What I don’t know is why you’re here. The painting you want is across town, back at the gallery.”

“I didn’t come here for that painting or any other,” he said, taking a step forward. “I… I came here to see you.”

“Me? Well, that changes everything now, doesn’t it?” she said, wryly. “And I suppose your wife gave her full consent to this little excursion? Or, was that your daughter I met at the party?”

His jaw tightened. “I must apologize for Gigi. She can be… a little abrupt.”

“What? You’re apologizing for one woman while hitting on another?” She shook her head. “I must compliment you on your brass. I’ve never met a man so shameless.” She paused, closing the door slowly. “It was a real….. pleasure meeting you, Sean Whatever-Your-Name-Is. Good-bye.”

He stepped forward, blocking the doorjamb. “Won’t you give me a moment?”

She peeped around the door. “A moment for what? There is nothing to discuss, Sean.”

“I ….. I can’t stop thinking about you, Annie.” He hesitated a moment before continuing, “please give me five minutes to speak my piece. Just a few minutes… Please!”

Annie narrowed her eyes, looking him over. She knew him by reputation only and what she had been told didn’t inspire her. “Heartbreaker,” some said. “Hedonist,” whispered others. She wasn’t sure she wanted to open her door to any man, least of all to one with such an unsavory history. Yet, there was a unguardedness in his manner, something vulnerable and unstudied that surprised and intrigued her. Well, if only for a few minutes….. How much trouble can I get into in only five minutes?

************************
The studio was brightly sunlit and spare, just an over-sized easel and a few pieces of utilitarian furniture. His eyes swept the room briefly before he turned to face Annie who stood expectantly, curiosity playing over her features. Her clear eyes were direct and he found, to his dismay, that he was tongue-tied, unable to express those thoughts which had plagued him for weeks. Determined to conceal his shyness, he impulsively strode across the room and picked up a framed photograph from the table.

“And this man, I suppose, is your lover?”

She snatched the photo from his hand, bristling. “This is my husband!” She replaced the frame on the table, suddenly faltering. “I…. I mean, my late husband… he…. that is to say…. Wait!” she said, recovering. “Surely you didn’t come here to make small talk about my personal life. What’s so important that you arrive unannounced and insist upon speaking to me?”

“You don’t make it easy, do you?”

“Easy? I think you’d better tell me why you’re here. The clock is ticking, Sean.”

He hesitated. Without a script before him, he felt awkward. It was easy to plumb emotional depths when the emotions belonged to another. Hiding behind fictional personae had become habitual. Fathoming his own depths and baring his own soul, these were secrets he closely guarded and yet wanted to share most ardently with this woman. However, he was unable to resort to his usual glibness and his confession was painful.

“Annie, a few weeks ago Henry asked me to stop in and look at some of your work. Apparently, he was considering a solo show for you and wanted an opinion. When I… saw your paintings, they spoke to me in a way that… troubled me. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat. I felt….. haunted by these images. As if someone had…. spied upon my dreams and put them to canvas. It was surreal. It made me question my sanity…. everything.”

He drew a breath and continued. “Then I saw you at the opening. You were…. like a ghost, a beautiful ghost…. floating around the lifeless bodies at the party. All those people, all that noise…. I didn’t see them, didn’t hear it. All I saw was you. And I knew.”

“Knew what, Sean?”

“That you were my missing …. half. God help me, I wanted to scoop you into my arms and run away…. never let you go.” He hung his head, voice trailing off. “It sounds mad, doesn’t it? Unreal? What you must think of me……” He lifted his eyes. “But it is real, real for me, Annie. And I thought you should know.”

********************

Of all the possible scenarios that played out in her mind, this was one she hadn’t considered. It caught her completely off-guard and she struggled to reply.

“I… I don’t know what to say,” she said, clutching the back of a chair, knees buckling. An uncomfortable feeling of deja vu began creeping up her spine.

He took a step forward. “I suppose it’s too much to hope that you’ll fall into my arms, pledging your undying love…” He smiled sheepishly, but his eyes glinted with a sharpness that roused her.

She straightened her back. “I’d say that’s a little premature,” she said blithely. “I don’t even know you.”

“You know me extraordinarily well,” he said, stepping closer.

“Now, stop right there!” she said, palm upturned. “I’m at the mercy of the Muse as much as any artist, but we’re not just players on her board. I… I’m flattered that you found my work so moving, but you’re overthinking this. They’re just paintings, nothing more.”

It was his turn to disagree. “Just paintings? That I’ll never believe. How long have you given your life to this?” He gestured broadly. “Years? Decades? How many nights have you lied awake until the very force of it pushed you out of bed and compelled you to paint? Hours, months, years go by without you being aware of time passing. All that’s left is your art. It’s driven away everything and everybody, hasn’t it? Even your husband….”

“Don’t you ever speak of him!” she spat. “He didn’t leave me….. he died. He always encouraged me, never stood in the way,” she said, softening. “He wasn’t driven away by anything…”

“Except death.”

“Are you mocking me?” Her eyes were hostile.

“Annie, I’m trying to make a point. You admit you’re at her mercy, yet you still want to believe that you’re in control of your life.” He stepped closer. “None of us are in control. If you turn your life over to your art, to your expression, you have given up control. It’s a paradox.”

She considered. What part of her life was really her own? After Matthew’s death, friends and family thought her move to London was both brave and reckless. And yet in the end, she had travelled so many miles just to find a place that inspired her to paint. Had she made any decisions that were not art-related? She wasn’t certain.

She looked at him intently. She hadn’t noticed before how arresting his eyes were, set under a furrowed brow, or how well his short-cropped hair became his angular face

“You can’t possibly know everything about me,” she said at last. “You’re bluffing.”

“I know that your art is everything to you. That virtually the only time you truly feel alive is when you’re in the midst of expressing it. And you’re alone because, apart from the husband who stepped aside to allow you complete freedom, no one understands you. That you’re misunderstood, condemned or ignored by those who fail to grasp your compulsion.” He took her hand, pressing it. “And at night you weep, not because you’re lonely, but because you long to share the wonder with another like yourself.”

She stared at him, dumb-founded. “No,” she said, shaking her head, “you can’t know all that…” She shook her head in wonderment, suddenly and acutely aware of her surroundings. How had he managed to back her to the wall?

“I know it because I’m living it, too.”

“Please… I can’t breath….”

“You’re afraid,” he said in a low voice. “You’re afraid of yourself…. of me. Of what all this means. But, Annie, your life, my life…. they are not ours anymore. We set our foot to this path years ago and now our lives are spiralling together. We can’t stop it.

She tried to wrest her hand from his grasp. “Please, let go of my hand, Sean.”

“Never,” he whispered, lowering his face to hers. “I will never let you go…”
He brushed his lips to hers, a burning feather-light kiss that softened her lips and slackened her rigid mouth. Despite her objection, she dissolved under that kiss, feeling her resolve ebb as her lips opened. How long had it been since someone held her and kissed her with passion? She couldn’t remember. All she knew was that her instincts clamored for attention and she wanted more. She lifted her chin and pressed her mouth eagerly to his, returning his kiss with heat and intensity.

He groaned softly and pulled her into his arms, his mouth working fluidly and feverishly on hers. From deep within, she felt the stirring of desire, a yearning which had for years laid dormant, forgotten. She felt him draw it out of her, like a snake charmer, until it swayed and undulated with a life of its own. She felt it take root and grow stronger, like an animal suddenly and unexpectedly uncaged. It took her breath away.

She abruptly ended their kiss, turning her head away. “Please, I can’t…”

His breath was heavy and labored. “Can’t or won’t?” He paused, looking closely at her face. “You’re…. you’re serious, aren’t you? Annie….. Annie, why won’t you look at me?”

She wriggled out of his arms. “This isn’t right, Sean. Please let me go.”

He took a step back. “Why are……”

“Please,” she said interrupting, “let me speak.”

She crossed the room, gathering her thoughts that pitched and roiled in her mind. They pulled at her, luring her into the black unknown, beckoning and sighing like a mermaid upon the rocks. Their call was seductive, irresistable but she would not succumb without a fight.

She turned and faced him. “What are you doing to me? Is this a game? You cannot come here, filling my head with your crazy romantic ideas and then expect to tumble me like I’m some stupid ingenue. I’m not a young kid. And I’m not a fool. The whole city is buzzing with the tales of your exploits! Do you really think I want to be one more sorry story in the gossip column tomorrow? Or were you never planning to show me in public since, if I’m not mistaken, you already have a wife?”

“She’s not my wife.”

“The press seems to think differently. To the world at large, you’re as good as married. It wouldn’t be fitting that the TV hero of…. of Waterloo is seen skulking around with a Yank.”

“It wasn’t Waterloo,” he said darkly.

“I don’t care where it was!” she said stridently. “You think I have no control of my life. Look at you! You’re completely hemmed in by public opinion!”

“I am not,” he objected. “I’m my own man. I do as I please.”

“You’re not independent,” she shot back, “you’ve been running with the pack, playing it safe for years. You have to! Your career is dependent on public approval. Without it, you’d be nobody, you’d have nothing. Especially not that gold-digger on your arm.”

His eyes flashed. “You presume too much,” he said angrily.

“Get used to it,” she said without flinching. “You cannot have your cake and eat it, too.” She look at him directly. “You think you know me? Let me tell you about yourself. I think you’re a spoiled little boy who’s unaccustomed to the truth, or to the scary hard work necessary to live it. You surround yourself with sycophants and numb yourself with booze. You move from one project to the next, filling up every possible moment with activity and novelty, just to insulate yourself from the pain and emptiness. Go ahead and pretend that you see your future in a acrylic jumble on the wall. You’ll always see it like a mirage, a thing always out of reach because you don’t have the balls to see it through!”

She gasped and clapped a hand over her mouth. Where did that come from? This man was maddening.

He drew back, pale with anger. “You’re mistaken,” he said, hands clenched as his sides. “There are some things I understand very well.”

He turned and walked to the door. “Forgive the intrusion,” he said with cold politeness. “I never intended to offend or take advantage of you.” He looked back at her, a plaintive look briefly crossing his face. “I meant what I said, Annie. Every last word.”

He closed the door behind him and the sudden silence rang in her ears. Trembling, her knees gave way and she fell into a chair, her world swirling and spinning apart. What had seemed, just minutes ago, logical and reasonable was now upside down. Her world, so carefully structured, so meticulously planned, began to list and tumble like a house of cards, each card flying out of reach and lodging into impenetrable corners. And her heart, suddenly freed from its paper prison, began to beat wildly.

For years, she tried to forget about her heart. It was easier that way. Living with a highly sensitive nature had become a burden, a constant toothache. The chronic buffeting of her emotions left her raw and exposed. So, gradually over time, she simply shut down. It was easier to feel nothing than to experience the daily agonies of her own perception. And although she knew very well that the dull confinement of her heart would effect her work, she did it anyway. Self-preservation was more important.

It was an elaborate ruse, designed to protect by isolation. And it worked beautifully, perfectly. Year after year without variance or soul. It was a well-oiled mechanism with one purpose: to keep everyone at bay, far from her soft, hyper-reactive center. Everyone was barred. Even Matthew…

She hung her head, tears sliding down her cheeks. The realization was sorrowful. Had she ever truly loved him? Loved him enough to let him past the breakwater? She knew she had not and it racked her with guilt. Twenty years of her life she had spent with him. Twenty years of marriage to a man whom she never really knew at all. Had he died, weakened from all the vain attempts to breach her? Her shoulders rocked with a sob, the cheery sunlight of the studio refracting by tears into a riotous blur of color. She didn’t know for whom she mourned: for Matthew’s unrequited love which bore him to the grave or for herself, only now able to comprehend what she had done and utterly powerless to change the past.

*********************

It was after six by the time she roused herself and stumbled to the bathroom. The studio was nearly dark, her brushes and paints untouched, the bells of nearby St. Michael’s softly tolling the hour. She turned on the light and stared at her swollen tear-stained face in the mirror. It hid nothing now. Her habitual mask of placid indifference was torn away, dissolved by the countless acid tears which etched and destroyed its surface. She felt curiously reborn, but bone-weary as if the trip through the birth canal had crushed her body in order to remold the spirit.

She rinsed her face and dried it slowly, reflecting on the day’s events. Had she known what awaited her, would she have stayed in bed instead? She smiled to herself, knowing the answer. I probably would have, but then….. I would have missed the outcome. The face in the mirror smiled back at her, eyes crinkling with the laugh lines that she once found so repugnant. Now they were strangely reassuring, reminders of the good humor and wisdom that buoyed her for 48 years. She searched her face carefully. What did it reveal? It was candid, with a hint of lively intelligence and mischief behind shining eyes. But there was something else as well, something that surprised her: Desire, an unabashed naked yearning for more than just artful expression. Had it been there all these years? She couldn’t recall noticing it before, but there it was, written across her small features with an unmistakable hand. It transformed her countenance, embuing it with the unspoiled eagerness of youth. Undiminished hopefulness sparked a new radiance. What happened to the tragic little expatriot, slogging away at her canvas? She peered into the glass, looking for traces of that pathetic soul. There were none. In its place was someone new, someone who glowed with a secret happiness. Homeless match girl indeed! She laughed aloud, twirling in front of the mirror. If Henry could only see me now!

She stopped suddenly. Henry! She had all but forgotten her dinner engagement with him. She looked at her watch and ran for the door. I’ve got just enough time to get ready before he picks me up at eight… She locked the studio and sprinted down the street to the underground station. I hope he takes me somewhere special tonight… I feel like celebrating!

************************************************************

“Darling! Here’s to my little artiste and all those lovely Euros in the bank!” Henry raised his glass to Annie. “May you all live happily, and profitably, ever after!” he crowed, knocking back an entire flute of champagne. “Garcon! More bubbly, please!”

La Belle Epoque was crowded and noisy that night, its kitchen and nimble waitstaff pushed to the limit. Henry was determined to spare no expense nor curb his loud demands for the very best for his protegee. Her sales had exceeded all his expectations and he couldn’t conceal his delight.

“Ah, my darling! What kismet! Pounds, dollars, euros or yen, I can sell art to absolutely anyone! But, ducky, your work just sells itself! It simply flies off the wall! I can’t keep it in the gallery!” He leaned in conspiratorily. “You know we only had those last three pieces and when he came in to pick up the abstract, he bought them as well! I’ve always said tha…”

“What?” she blurted, interrupting him. “Who came in to buy them?”

“Why, Sean, darling! Sean Bean! Whom else could it be? I just knew that if he saw those paintings at the studio, he’d be wild to have them! He’s quite the amateur collector, you know, with a nice little collection that, of course, I helped him to assemble! Good taste, for certain, and he’s not unwilling to pay top dollar for the really good stuff, not that I can advise him regularly especially when he’s abroad which seems to be rather often, but he’s managed to put together quite an impressive little grouping for himself! I expect that nearly all of it will appreciate handsomely within ten years or so! Not a bad return on his investment really, but he’d have seen a lot more if he hadn’t bought that God-awful rococco in Venice recently, but that couldn’t be avoided, I suppose, not when he’s set to marry that tart and she just adores the gaudy! The more flourishes, the better,” he sniggered. “At her age, she equates gilt with value! Oh! Darling! Speak of the devil, here comes Sean now with his lovely fiancee! I hope you don’t mind, darling, but I asked them to join us! It’s the very least we can do to thank your most generous patron!”

Oblivious to Annie’s look of mortification, Henry leapt from his seat, waving his arms about wildly. “Sean! Sean Darling! Over here!”
His wildly flailing arms outstretched, Henry herded the new arrivals to the table. “Sean Darling! Thanks ever so for joining us tonight! And Gigi, my darling,” he said pausing to air-kiss both cheeks, “what a joy to see you again so soon! You look simply ravishing tonight, my dear! Badgley-Mischka?” he asked with a nod to her spangled sheath. “Ah, those Hollywood designers really know how to showcase the decolletage to its best advantage, don’t they? You two remember Annie, of course. Oh! Here we are at last! Such a cozy little foursome, I’m certain we’ll have a splendid time!”

Gigi glanced at Annie and sat down without acknowledging her. “Henry, what a divine little bistro! So romantic! Seannie, why have you never brought me here?” she said with a faux pout.

Clearly uncomfortable, Sean cleared his throat and said nothing, taking a seat opposite Annie. Fumbling with his glasses, he buried his head behind the menu. “So, have they any specials this evening?”

Gigi continued undeterred. “Thank God you rang, Henry, or we’d be stuck in the pub all night. It’s a wonder that Sean agreed to meet you at all, what with the Blades playing tonight, isn’t that right, sweetheart?” she said patronizingly, patting his hand. “We all know what a devoted fan our lad is. Tonight must be very special.”

“Quite right, my darling! Who wouldn’t want to dine with the artiste of the hour, the toast of London? I tell you, Gigi darling, that I haven’t seen such a frenzy of buying since those Jackson Pollocks were up for auction at Sotheby’s three years ago! I was just telling Annie how the paintings just fly out of my gallery! What devotion! What zeal! These aficionados are quite like nothing I’ve ever seen! They simply must have the work at any price!”

“I know, Henry. Sean came home this afternoon with three more paintings, but I don’t know what to do with them. None of them match my furniture,” she said with a frown.

Henry laughed uproariously. “Gigi! What an amusing young lady you are, my dear! Here, have some champagne! You mustn’t ever worry about decor, my darling, don’t these interior designers change the schemes as often as they change their trousers? Have you seen the new gray decor at the Four Seasons, dear? What neurotic chimpanzee chose those toxic colors? They must have been hungover that day!”

“Don’t get me started about the Four Seasons,” she said, scowling at Sean. “I hate that hotel!”

“Ah, yes, I suppose some of the smaller boutique hotels offer better amenities, but darling, you can’t get higher profile than the Four Seasons! Isn’t that where all celebrities go when they die? No request is too outrageous for that staff! They’d sacrifice their first born for a crack at the celebrity A-list! And why not? Money and privilege go hand in hand, isn’t that right, Sean darling?”

Disregarding the barb, Sean instead lifted his head and politely addressed Annie. “Have you chosen an entree? The coq au vin looks tempting.”

Cheeks reddening, Annie shook her head and slunk into her chair. Her roller-coaster day was not over yet. She gripped the sides of the chair and gritted her teeth, awaiting the next death-defying loop.

“Annie, my dearest, you’ve hardly uttered a word all night! If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’re hiding something from me, you sly boots. I’ve never seen you so radiant! But, not to worry, I’ll winkle it out of you! At least you’re properly dresesed!” He leaned across the table. “Doesn’t she look fabulous, Gigi? I finally got her out of those miserably bourgeois American rags and into some decent couture! Carolina Herrerra suits her so well, wouldn’t you agree? Those stark clean lines are heavenly!”

Gigi coolly appraised Annie’s figure. “It’s too plain. It needs some ruffles.”

“Oh no, darling! Simplicity at its most regal, most queenly! It’s only fitting, is it not, tonight of all nights? All it lacks is perhaps some diamonds! Something simple, but terribly costly, like a multi-carat dazzler from a love-sick admirer! Wouldn’t that be a gothic bodice-ripper fantasy come true?” Henry threw back his head, howling with laughter.

Sean stole a look at Annie before quickly lowering his eyes. “I’m sure Annie has captured the heart of an admirer,” he said with strained evenness. “We just have to discover his identity.”

“Hah! I don’t think we need look any farther than this table,” cried Gigi.

Annie’s eyes widened. She looked at Sean who winked at her furtively. “What have you discovered?” he asked calmly, gazing at Annie.

“Oh please, Sean! It’s obvious! The restaurant… the champagne… the couture gown… and the fine society,” she simpered. “Henry, I know that you’re a generous man, but you can’t fraternize in public with the hired help, shower them with expensive gifts and expect to keep your office fling a secret!” she giggled. “And all this time I thought you were gay!”

“What, darling?!” gasped Henry.

Sean repressed a smile. “Gigi, I don’t think that Henry…”

“No, I’m right about this one,” she said, raising her voice. “Why would he invite her along to meet the artist if he wasn’t shagging her? And where is that guy anyway?” she added impatiently. “Do we have to wait all night for him, Henry?”

“Wait all night for whom, darling?” Henry asked, confused.

“For the artist!” she shouted. “I’m sick of hearing about the bloody artist! A. Duvall this! A. Duvall that! Where the bloody hell is A. Duvall?”

“Why, she’s right next to you, darling!” Henry said, bewildered. “Annie, Annie Duvall is the artist that we’ve been discussing.”

“What? Her?”, Gigi said, appalled. She bit her lip, fuming. Being proven wrong was most disagreeable. “Well,” she said bitterly, “I suppose I owe you an apology of some sort, but I, ah, didn’t know who you were. Some people just don’t tell me the whole truth. Seannie, why didn’t you tell me the artist was a woman?” she asked, resentfully.

Annie looked at Sean and noticed his knuckles whitening. “Please,” she said, intervening, “don’t give it another thought, Gigi. We all make silly errors sometimes. Didn’t Oscar Wilde use mistaken identities to very funny advantage in one of his plays?”

“The Importance of Being Earnest,” replied Sean, “one of my favorites.”

“Oh yes! That’s right. I remember reading it years ago,” Annie said with a smile. “It made me laugh out loud.”

“We did that play while I was at RADA,” said Gigi. “I got great reviews as Cecily.”

“I’m sure you did,” soothed Annie.

“You know, I could have been cast in the film instead of Reese Witherspoon if someone had cared enough to call in a favor or two.” she said darkly. “At least I would have had an authentic accent.”

“Oh darling! Who cares about that Hollywood rubbish?” Henry interjected. “The drivel, the pablum that is produced in Southern California is beyond all decency! Those provincial rubes haven’t a clue what makes for good film! They’re incapable of recognizing true artistry! Mediocrity of the masses, I say! Why involve yourself, darling? Sinking to that level only brings you down! Even our dear Annie had to leave the US for serious recognition! The Wasteland of the West, I say! Let it burn and sink into the ocean! That would be one way of cleaning up the planet, wouldn’t it, my darlings?” he cackled.

“Henry, you’re too harsh,” laughed Annie. “Your opinions will get you into trouble one day.”

“My opinions have made me a very rich, very well-respected man, darling! Gigi, you’d be well-advised to follow Annie’s example and forge your own destiny! Just look at what you can accomplish with determination and talent!”

“God! I hope I don’t have to wait that long,” Gigi said thoughtlessly. “I want to enjoy my success while I’m young and still capable of having fun.”

With that remark, the conversation was suddenly and awkwardly suspended. Henry fussed at length with the waiter, giving him extensive instructions as to how his boeuf bourguignon should be prepared. Annie, stung by the slight, sat quietly as Sean whispered under his breath to Gigi.

“What? What did I say?” she said loudly, feigning innocence. “I’m tired of you always correcting me! My manners are just fine!” she said, annoyed. “Excuse me, I’m going to the loo!”

Gigi left the table in a huff, leaving Annie and Sean staring at each other. “I must apologize… again…. for Gigi,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, humiliated.

“That seems to be a habit,” said Annie without rancor. “It can’t be easy for you, Sean. It’s a generational thing, I’m afraid,” she said with real empathy. “They’re different creatures than you or I.”

“Annie, I…”

“Please, Sean, don’t apologize on her behalf. You’re not responsible for her, you know. In fact…. I’m the one who should make amends…. to you,” she said haltingly. “I was rude to you, so ungracious this afternoon. I’m ashamed of myself. What you said… struck a nerve and I over-reacted.”

His eyes lit up and he smiled broadly. She looked at him as if for the first time, noting with amazement how infectious his sunny smile was and how it was accompanied with the wild fluttering of butterflies in her belly. Without thinking, she returned his wide grin and held his steady gaze, hypnotized. She found, to her surprise, that she was somehow unable to pull her eyes away. They were quite riveted. Her depth perception began to warp and the activity in the restaurant faded, receding from her awareness like a wave. Sea green waters lapped at an earthy shore, lover and beloved, archetypes caught up in an endless cycle of give and take. Round and round she spun, the vortex pulling her up out of her body into a shimmering blue realm of possibilities. She wondered, with a mind that seemed oddly disconnected from her consciousness, where in the world could she be. With a detached passivity, she realized that her heart had slowly stopped beating and that she was, somehow, operating independent of time and space. She looked down upon herself sitting motionless at the table. She looked upward and saw a glittering figure beckon to her.

“We’re joined beyond all earthly limitation.”

She reached fearlessly for this sparkling form, but suddenly found herself in free fall, hurtling back to the table.

“Sean! Sean, take me home now!” said Gigi gratingly. She stood with coat in hand, tapping her foot. “I’ve got a migraine and I need to go home.” She stood a moment, vexed by his lack of response. “Hey!” she said, jostling his shoulder, “why are you staring at her like that?” She glowered at Annie, suspicion and jealousy distorting her pretty face. “I said, let’s go!”

Dazed, Sean shook his head. “Yes. Yes, of course, if you’re not feeling well, we’ll leave.”

Sean rose from the table. After politely excusing himself, he impulsively reached for Annie, pressing her hand with a tender warmth. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Duvall. I feel certain that our paths shall cross again,” he said with a meaningful smile, “very soon.”

*******************
Annie packed her suitcase that night. Staying in town, being forced to play a role in this sordid drama was the very last thing she wanted. She couldn’t bear Henry’s scrutiny, his prying questions and verbose speculation. It took all her effort to sit still during dinner and make a hasty retreat during the cherries flambe. If Stella McCartney hadn’t unexpectedly appeared at the table and engaged Henry in a debate about hem lines, she might still be the proverbial hot seat. Thank God for the vagaries of fashion!

She pulled clothing distractedly from the closet, flinging jeans and sweaters onto the bed. Baxter, her plump grey tabby, curled up on the pile, his enigmatic eyes watched her silently.

“Bax, you and I are getting out of town!”

Baxter blinked in mute acquiescence as a pair of Levi’s landed on his head.

“And, we’re leaving tonight,” she added, thinking it was best to be gone before Henry slept off his champagne buzz and started his morning round of interrogation. It was easy to fob off his questions when he was drunk. But sober, he was ruthless and not above enlisting help from his cronies at The Sun or Hello! magazine. It was best to leave as soon as possible. And under the radar.

She shoved clothing haphazardly into a bag and went to the bathroom to retrieve her toilet articles. Soap. Shampoo. Toothpaste. Toothbrush. Wait! What am I doing? I’m not running from Henry… She stopped, toothbrush in hand, willing herself not to think of HIM, with his green eyes and brooding good looks. No. He was just another unavailable, albeit handsome, man. Another player inunndated with women. So what that he was articulate and charming? He had a woman already, a fairly agressive and territorial one at that. Was a catfight really a part of her future? She sighed. When did the roles reverse? When did men stop fighting for us?

No. There was no use thinking about a man who could never be hers. And would she have him if he was free? A high-maintainance peacock who spent all of his time in front of a camera or in a pub? And what about all the women? Could one realistically expect a man of his reputed prowess to stay faithful? Especially during those long foreign shoots? Not many men had jobs which required them to undress and make simulated love to their co-workers. She didn’t think she could even rightly call it temptation. There was nothing furtive or secretive about the overt plays for his attention by the hordes of admirers, fans and pleasure-seekers that followed him everywhere.

She frowned, zipping up her bag. What difference did it make that his words struck a chord that reverberated down to her toes? She dismissed it as a stock line that he probably lifted from a tawdry melodrama. Who really talks like that anyway? With all the dialogue he’s committed to memory, how could anyone be sure that his pretty speeches were, in fact, his own? And, how many women have fallen prey to them, swooning with the promise of love only to find themselves discarded the next day? She hated to think of herself numbered among them.

She bundled Baxter into his carrier, deaf to his indignant meows. No, she wouldn’t think about HIM anymore. Why should she think about his broad shoulders and burning kisses? He was probably at home now, sharing those lips with that blonde bombshell, admittedly not a sophisticated woman, but one who possessed the ultimate trump card: Youth. What man wouldn’t be flattered by the attentions of a young, beautiful woman? Especially a man who might feel marginalized by encroaching middle age? Would she make him feel young again? Virile again? Relevant again?

She laughed bitterly. It was the folly of youth to presume that relevance and passion was exclusive only to them. Folly, yes, but still stubbornly maintained even by those who had long since left youthful ranks. And he was not a young man. Yet he was willingly ensnared in the oppressive dictates of youthful society. Who was truly liberated under such state? Youth only cared to set itself apart from preceeding generations. Amongst it own, however, that liberty did not exist. Conforming seemed to be the rule and it was imposed with a heavy hand. Those outside the fold were condemned to the hell of uncoolness, a sentence which carried no appeal.

She shook her head. Enough! She locked the door to her flat and headed down the narrow stair, laden with bag and Baxter.

“Now, where are you runnin’ to in the middle of the night?” Mrs. Harrison, the rotund busybody who lived below stood in her doorway, fleshy arms folded across an enormous bosom.

“Oh! Edith, you scared me! I didn’t think anyone was up at this hour.”

“What? With all that racket upstairs? You could wake the dead, my girl! Now, where are you off to, sneakin’ away like a thief in the night?”

Annie dropped her bag. “Edith, I’ve got to get away for a few days. Henry is..”

“Now, haven’t I told you about that man?” chided Edith, wagging a plump finger. “He’ll drive you batty if you let him. I warned you, didn’t I? Him, with his fancy friends and posh manners… He’s not fooling anybody! He’s just another working class git who made good selling rubbish to movie stars! …. Now, what’s so terrible that he’s got you runnin’ away? It can’t be all that bad, now can it, my girl?”

“Well, you know how he is,” Annie said reluctantly. “He’s so demanding at times that …”

“Well, of course he is! The man doesn’t know the first thing about bein’ discreet! Always asking his nosy questions… Who does he think he is? Now, child, were are you headed?” Edith asked without irony.

Annie smiled and shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know, actually. I thought I’d just drive until I found a place that..”

“Wait! Wait right there a minute!” Edith said, disappearing behind the door. A moment later, she reappeared and pressed a key into Annie’s hand.

“Take it, my girl! I won’t have you galavantin’ about the countryside, lookin’ for a place to rest your head. Go on, take it!”

Annie looked at the key and sighed. It was the key to Edith’s cottage in south Devonshire. “Edith, I can’t… I don’t want to impose…”

“No, I won’t hear another word! It’s sittin’ empty, you know I don’t go there much myself, what with my arthritis cripplin’ up my knees.” She looked at Annie with real affection. “You know you’re like my own daughter, better even, since you look after me more than my own,” she said kindly. “Go on, sweetheart, take it. Spend a few days at the cottage. The sea air will do you good….. You remember the way, don’t you?”

Annie nodded, overcome by the elderly woman’s generosity. “You’re a true friend, Edith. Thank you so much.”

“Now, don’t you go gettin’ soft on me! Go now, Annie my girl! And mind that your cat isn’t scratchin’ up my fine furniture!”

“I promise you that,” Annie laughed. “But Edith, should Henry come round..”

“Don’t you worry about him,” Edith assured her. “My lips are sealed.”

***********************

Edith was right; the sea was a tonic. As soon as she arrived, Annie flung open the windows to the dawn and collapsed into the huge featherbed. It had been nearly a year since she last visited, but the cottage welcomed her home, its stillness enveloping her with a warmth that soothed her frayed nerves. One by one, her worries slipped away lured by the sound of the surf and carried off on the breeze. No telephone, no television, no internet equalled no risk of discovery, at least not by Henry. True, Edith couldn’t keep a secret to save her life, but her loathing of Henry was greater than her need to gossip. Annie smiled as she pictured the battle of wills that would surely take place: Henry, overwrought and high-handed, going head-to-head with Edith’s implacable wall of flesh. Henry was not accustomed to denial, unless of course it was his own. This lesson in humility would be a bitter pill.

Baxter jumped soundlessly onto the bed, stepping gingerly through the lofty feather ticking until he found his favorite spot. He snuggled tightly to Annie’s side, his contented purring meshing seamlessly with the roll of the surf. Her eyes grew heavy and closed. I’ll just rest my eyes for a minute or two…

*********************************

The moon was setting behind the mountain, the azure sky faint with approaching dawn. The saguaro cactus were barely visible from where she stood, on a precipice overlooking a dark abyss. Overhead, a lone hawk soared. From behind, she heard laughter, full-throated and hearty. There was a leaden pressure in her chest as her heart swelled with recognition. Matthew’s laughter. Come on, Annie! What are you waiting for? Jump!! She looked down into the blackness and shuddered.

Annie woke with a start. The late afternoon sun was slanting through the window onto Baxter who stood on her chest, his inscrutable eyes expectant. He meowed impatiently and made a beeline for his empty dish.

“Baxter, you’re a bottomless pit,” she sighed, rolling out of her feather cocoon.

‘Bottomless pit’ That’s what Matthew called him the day he was found, mewling pitifully atop a high rock ledge. How Matthew rocked with laughter watching the scrawny kitten wolf down the sandwiches she had packed for their hike. And how tenderly he nestled the poor starving creature into his shirt pocket for the long walk home. It was the last hike they took before the chemotherapy failed and he became bedridden. But Baxter always cheered him. Even to the very last.

“Well, Bax, I guess it’s a small price to pay for all you’ve done for us,” she said, dropping kibble into his dish. “You know I can’t deny you anything.”

After rummaging through the cupboards and finding nothing for herself, she put on her coat and headed into the little village on foot, grateful for the solitude. The summer holidays were weeks away, the tourists had not yet descended en masse, so she could stroll unhurriedly down its narrow lanes. The short walk gave her the opportunity to muse whether the jovial couple who ran the Four Farthings might remember her from last year. Teddy and Eleanor! What fun we had last summer! … last summer… before I met…

“No!” she said aloud. “I won’t think about him tonight!”

But she did think about HIM. In fact, he was the only thing she thought about. She wondered why he went to such lengths to seek her out in private only to parade his blonde goddess like a trophy before her. It seemed a cruel demonstration. What was he hoping to achieve? To pique her interest? Her jealousy? Did he spend the night in the arms of that siren, limbs entwined and the air heavy with sighs? Did he whisper low and hot to her, promising the earth and stars, as well as his heart? That, she could certainly believe.

She puzzled. Perhaps he had promised her nothing. Why should he? He was in the position to pick and choose any woman, wasn’t he? But, if that was true, why choose one who irritated and embarrassed him? Surely there were others more amiable. This one exerted a hold which she didn’t understand. He seemed to feel responsible for her, behaving more as a father than lover.

She shivered with apprehension. There had to be more to his story, but she didn’t want to know. Staying as far as possible from than man was the safest strategy. An ambivalent man was too dangerous.

She reached the Four Farthings and pushed open the heavy oak door. There were only a handful of patrons in the dining room, fewer still in the bar. She took a seat in the back booth and waved down the stout waitress.

“What’ll ya have, my girl?”

“I’ll have the steak and kidney pie if it’s still on the menu and a Guinness, please, Eleanor,” said Annie with a grin.

“Why, Annie! I didn’t recognize ya, love. You look so young and pretty! Runnin’ with that fancy city crowd suits you, my girl! Now, did ya go and have a face lift? You can tell me,” she said with a wink.

Annie laughed. “No, Eleanor, but I have had a bit of luck recently selling my paintings. Having a few pennies in the bank erases a lot of worries from a girl’s face!”

“Oh! And don’t I know it! My Teddy is forever spendin’ money, he’s like a garden hose, than man!… So, my girl, what brings you round so early? Holidays haven’t started yet.”

“I just wanted to get out of town for a couple of days. London can be overwhelming.”

“Ah yes, I suppose it can, not that I go much myself. Teddy would rather fish or work in the garden than go to town. There’s only so much footie that a girl can watch,” sighed Eleanor

“Has your summer business picked up yet?”

“Only a tad. If it wasn’t for that big spender from upnorth, we’d have no one at the inn at all.”

“A big spender?”

“Oh, yes. Came drivin’ up as neat as you please in a big foreign car, actin’ like a posh city rat, but I know that accent well enough! He’s no Eton man, that one,” she snorted. “Probably just a businessman from Sheffield who made a pot of money tradin’ stocks and now wants to hide his common birth. But, you can’t fool me!”

“Did you say Sheffield?” asked Annie in disbelief.

“Oh yes! A Yorkshireman for certain. He’s sittin’ over there,” she said, jerking her thumb, “the fellow drinkin’ the brown ale.”

Annie ventured a hesitant look around Eleanor’s girth and saw Sean in a booth across the room. She blanched as he raised his pint toward her and took a big draught.

“No, it can’t be,” she muttered, quickly ducking behind Eleanor. “How did he find out?”

“What? You know him, Annie? That’s odd, ‘cos he was askin’ about you earlier. Says his name is Duvall.”

Annie rolled her eyes, shoulders shaking with silent laughter. “Of course it is,” she said dryly. “What else could it be?”

“So, ya know him then? Well, isn’t this a small world, now? Shall I invite him over to join you, Annie? Friends shouldn’t have to dine alone, not when they’re so far from home.”

Annie looked sidelong at Sean. He watched her intently, eyebrow cocked in anticipation.

“Go ahead, Eleanor, send him over,” she said defeated. “Friends shouldn’t dine alone.”

**********************************

“You’re not easy to find,” said Sean, taking a seat.

“That was the whole idea,” Annie said darkly. “What are you doing here? And don’t tell me it’s just a coincidence.”

He lit a cigarette. “No, it’s not a coincidence. Mrs. Harrison, your landlady, was very…. helpful. Seems she’s a fan of the Sharpe series,” he said with a guilty smile. “I gave her an autograph and she gave me your whereabouts.”

Edith! I’ll kill her if she gives me up to Henry so easily! “How kind of her,” she said caustically. “Remind me to thank her when I get home.”

“Now, you mustn’t be so harsh with poor Edith. It took all my wit and charm to coax it from her,” he said, taking a drag. “She’s very protective of you, Annie; rather like a mother bear guarding her cub.”

“Yeah, some fine job she’s done,” she said under her breath.

“Annie,” he said playfully, “aren’t you just a little happy to see me?”

Oh my God, yes! “Frankly, no,” she said demurely. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m not thrilled about being pursued by another woman’s suitor.”

He stubbed out his cigarette. “Please, Annie, must we talk about that tonight?”

“Yes, we must. Sean, I don’t know what your game is, but I suspect it involves you happily bouncing between multiple partners. Just for the record,” she said, leaning in,” I don’t play second fiddle to any woman.”

“‘Second fiddle’? Is that a quaint Americanism?”

Her eyes were reproachful. “You know very well what I mean. Are we going a have a polite conversation and completely ignore the pink elephant in the room?”

“‘Pink elephant’? That’s not a reference to your Republican party now, is it? Or, is it the Democrat? I can never remember which of your political parties has what mascot…. A nasty business, really, having voters choose between an ass and a behemoth,” he snickered.

She smiled serenely. “It won’t work, Sean.”

“What won’t work?”

“Your attempt to evade the question.”

“Who’s avoiding what?” he asked, suddenly serious. “I might ask why, in the middle of the night, you run off to Devonshire without so much as a ‘good-bye’ to me, or Henry? He’s quite overcome, you know. Called me this morning in hysterics claiming your landlady had you abducted and sold into white slavery, or some such nonsense. He was ready to call the police and have poor Edith arrested.”

She pursed her lips. “Leave it to Henry to over-dramatize everything.

“I calmed him down and offered to speak to the old lady myself, you know, to see if I could winkle any information.”

“How selfless of you,” she taunted. “I didn’t know you were so charitable.”

He looked at her from under his eyebrows for a moment before continuing. “Seems she gave old Henry quite a time, shouting and refusing to cooperate. I don’t think he was prepared for such a …. fierce confrontation. He’s not used to being denied, Annie” he said, taking a long pull from his glass. “But then, you probably knew that…. Did you set him up?”

“Not deliberately. But I’m not sorry it happened. It’s high time someone told him no. The man has no concept of boundaries! After you left last night, he wouldn’t let up! I thought I was being interrogated.”

“What was he grilling you about?” he asked non-chalantly, “your next couture fitting?”

“Couture!” she disparraged. “No, about you! If I heard one more question about you, or me, or….. her, I would have screamed!”

“My poor Annie,” he said, taking her hand. “Henry really is a wretched man, isn’t he?”

She pulled her hand away. “Wretched, yes,” she said curtly, “but not a fool. He knows there’s trouble and he wants to stay abreast of it. You know how he needs to put his own spin on everything…”

He took her hand again, undeterred. “And he wants to keep his prized possession safe from harm, I suppose, locked in a gilded cage.” He brought her hand to his lips. “Far from the big bad wolf.”

She attempted to draw away her hand, but he held it tightly. “Henry doesn’t have me locked away,” she said agitated, “he’s just an overbearing queen who has too much money and nothing better to do.”

“Then why do you run and hide?” he asked, lips against her fingers.

“I’m not hiding,” she said nervously.

“Not anymore, you’re not. Now that I’ve discovered your little refuge, I won’t let you escape so readily.”

Her heart dropped to the floor. “You, uh, seem pretty sure of yourself,” she said, trying to distract him. “Maybe I just don’t like you.”

He smiled broadly. “I know you don’t like me, Annie; but I know that you’re in love…. with someone.”

“Love?” Her cheeks began to burn. “Whatever gave you that idea?” she said, refusing to meet his eye. “Where is my drink? I think Eleanor forgot about us….”

“The little bird is trying to flee her cage,” he said in a low voice, pressing her hand. “You are in love, it’s written all over your face, Annie. Even Henry noticed last night.”

“He said no such thing!”

“Perhaps not with those words, but he knew you were keeping a secret.”

“Henry says a lot of silly things; what he lacks is common sense,” she said, craning her neck. “Where is Eleanor?”

“It won’t work, Annie,” he said quietly, releasing her hand.

“What won’t?”

“Your attempt to evade the issue,” he parroted. “You’re absolutely terrified of admitting the truth.”

He was right of course, but refusal and denial were the only defenses she had left and they were weakening by the minute. She was cornered and he knew it.

She drew in a deep breath and turned to face him. “So what if I am?” she said defiantly. “It’s really none of your business, is it?”

“It is if I’m the man you love,” he said with a crooked smile.

“You? I don’t love you.”

Gathering up her bag and coat, Annie headed out the door, cursing her lack of foresight. God, why didn’t I drive instead? She ran down the narrow lane with Sean in hot pursuit.

“Annie, please! Don’t run away from us!”

She stopped and turned abruptly. “There is no ‘us’, Sean. We are not a couple. I don’t belong to you.”

He grabbed her roughly and pulled her into his arms, his breath hot and damp on her face. “You do belong to me, Annie,” he growled. “Body and soul, you belong to me and you know it, don’t you?”

She struggled weakly against him in a near swoon, drowning in his heat and scent. The tigress was scratching and clawing at her cage; Annie feared she could no longer contain her. “Please let me go,” she whispered, “I can’t…”

“Why do you deny what’s in your heart?” he murmured, lips moving against her throat. “Is it such a terrible leap of faith?”

Yes, it was. Vast and impossible, but irresistable. She trembled, unable to restrain the torrent of desire that raged from within. She wanted him madly… passionately… desperately.

“What are you waiting for, Annie?” he said, biting her ear. “Jump!”

She didn’t wait to be told a third time. With a strangled moan, she lifted her chin and he pressed his lips to her mouth, setting match to fuse and she detonated, imploding into a pool of magma that incinerated everything in its radius. She yielded utterly to its force, letting it pull her closer into his orbit. Her sense of self began to break and crumble, entire chunks falling away as she neared the surface. She had no real idea of where she ended and he began. So intensely intimate was the melding that she cried aloud when he broke their kiss, gasping as if her oxygen had been suddenly cut.

“Wha?……. no!” she breathily protested, her hungry mouth rooting for his, frantic to re-attach to its lifeline.

“I’m taking you home,” he said as he lifted Annie into his arms and carried her to his car.

Home! She shivered and clung to him. London was miles and miles away, hours in the car with his hands on the wheel and not on her. She couldn’t bear that image and buried her face in his neck. His scent made her dizzy, but she couldn’t get enough. She inhaled it over and over again.

“London, no,” she mumbled, lips at his ear. “I’ll never make it…”

“No, Annie,” he said gently, pouring her into the passenger seat, “home to the sea.”

“The sea?” she repeated disoriented, gazing without comprehension at the car’s interior. She recoiled from its close confinement. The vehicle was a coffin, the inches separating them a gulf. The physical division between them was intolerable. She clambered over the console and straddled his lap as the engine roared to life.

“No,” she said, kissing his face and neck, “take me upstairs, to your room at the inn…”

He laughed, looking around her to the road ahead of him. “Have I created a monster?” he said, swerving to avoid an oncoming car. “I’ll have you home, safe in bed, in five minutes.”

“But you don’t know the way,” she said, lips on his neck, “the way to my secret hiding place…”

“Who says that I don’t? I watched you through the window this afternoon, watched you as you slept.”

“You….. what?” she asked incredulous. His words slowly percolated through her haze.

“I watched you through the window of that little cottage near the shore.”

“Sean, you surprise me! I didn’t know you were a voyeur…” She nipped his ear for emphasis.

“I couldn’t resist,” he admitted, wincing, “you looked like an angel curled up on that big bed with your little cat at your side.”

“That’s Baxter, my temple guardian,” she whispered. “I hope you like cats.”

He steered the car into the driveway and turned off the engine. “I love pussy,” he growled.

**************************************

She didn’t remember getting out of the car. Nor could she recall walking the gravel path to the cottage or unlocking the door. How she became naked, sweaty and breathless in the arms of this man was a blur. All she knew was that the featherbed swallowed them whole, and like Jonah, they were caught in the belly of something much greater than themselves.

She stretched in languid contentment, the weight of his spent body still pressing against her heart. Her body ached with exertion, damp secret places still vibrating with waning pleasure. She softly caressed his back, feeling the touch as keenly on her own spine. He felt like a second skin. She smiled and brought a hand to her tender mouth, lips swollen and sore from the innumerable bites and kisses he had bestowed upon them. He had marked her, unmistakably, like an animal claiming its ground.

Baxter, for hours exiled from the bed by the moaning and thrashing of its occupants, jumped onto the nightstand and gazed warily at them. He ventured a few tentative steps forward, his nose twitching and sniffing the air, before circling daintily and landing with a heavy thud on Sean’s leg.

Sean lifted his head, peering at the clock then rolled to his side. “It’s hours ’till dawn, Annie,” he said with a yawn as he gathered her into his arms. “Let me hold you tight.”

She turned, nestling her back to him and dropped her head onto the pillow. His breath warmed the back of her neck as she drowsed somewhere between sleep and waking. She didn’t want to sleep and lose consciousness of the moment. She wanted it to extend forever in a blissfully suspended state, unaware of the dangers that challenged and assailed it.

Why can’t I stop time? She recollected the hypnotic moment at La Belle Epoque when time seemed to stop of its own accord and she floated without concern. She wondered if such of thing could happen again and carry her away on a cloud, a cloud that would last forever. She fought sleep with all the wild imaginings she could muster, but it would not be denied. It pulled her down into the blackness and covered her with silence.

*******************************************

“A-nnie!” The cry echoed through the dry desert valley. The sun, at its zenith, blazed down, heating the desert floor like an oven, trembling heat waves rising and distorting her vision. The waves licked at her feet, scorching her skin. The abyss was a hell of unbearable heat and pain.

The hawk screeched again and swooped downward, making a pass over her head. So close was he, she saw the brilliant markings on his tail feathers. She leapt off the precipice and soared on the updraft, the hawk flying in tandem.

Up and up, they glided propelled by the hot and dusty gusts below. The earth shrank from her sight as the stars grew closer, sparkling in still black space. The joy, the freedom, she felt was boundless, infinite as the space that rolled before her. She opened her wings to their widest span and realized that her feathers had become glittering appendages that shimmered in her peripheral vision. The hawk, too, had changed form, spiralling and looping around her body in luminescent twinkles that mirrored her own. Round and round, they twisted until their bodies became one form, undulating in the void.

***********************
In the morning, Annie found herself alone in bed. Alone, except of course for Baxter who insistently pawed at her shoulder, meowing for breakfast. She groaned, tightening her eyelids. It was too early to engage in their usual morning standoff. She pushed him away and rolled over, throwing her arm across an empty pillow. She opened one eye cautiously, hand searching fruitlessly for the lithe form that had kept her warm all night. His side of the bed was cold. He was gone.

She sat up, heart pounding with trepidation, and surveyed the wreckage. The featherbed was in wild disarray, her clothes scattered in a trail leading to the door. The sky beyond the window was overcast, dismal as the sudden pall over her heart.

She sighed, dejected. Disappointment and sadness washed over her like the surf, undertow dragging her down, gritty sand corroding the tender blossom within. She cringed, not wanting to feel the tide of emotional fallout that engulfed her, but her old defenses were gone as well, disarmed and defused. She was unable to shut down and numb herself to the assault. Tears welled in her eyes. She felt breached and mortally wounded.

She threw back the blankets and gingerly swung her legs over the edge of the bed. Her hips ached, dried stickiness encrusting her inner thigh. Her entire body felt sore and bruised as if she had been hit by a car. Baxter rubbed his head on her ankle, slinking his furry body around her leg.

“Bax, I have been hit,” she said tearfully. “Hit and run.”

Baxter jumped into her lap and she cradled him to her chest, his strong reassuring purr buzzing against her. “If only this was a dream,” she said, gently squeezing him.

But it wasn’t a dream. She wasn’t flying about the galaxy with a strange neon companion. She was alone and heartbroken in a remote beach house far from home. And where was home anyway? In London? In Arizona? Beyond the Milky Way? She had no answer. No, this was no dream, no bucolic flight of fancy to nirvana, but a solitary hell of inescapable emotion, emotion which hacked and gouged at her soul.

Injured and bleeding, self-reproachment began to gloat over the carnage. She knew the consquences, so why did she give in? Did she have the audacity to think herself better than the many women before her? Why should she be any different? She was just another notch on his belt, another casualty of boy versus girl.

She hung her head in shame, not quite believing that it was still possible to feel the angst of adolescence as keenly so many years later. But yet there it was, anguish as gut-wrenchingly real as any she experienced as a teenager. And now, just as then, it cut with a knife.

She couldn’t face the day. It was as dull and miserable as the despair in her heart. She dropped Baxter to the floor and crawled back under the covers, pulling them over her head. She reached for his pillow and buried her nose in it. His scent, heady, strong and masculine, lingered there. She wept silently over it, racked with heartache and regret.

Hungry and determined, Baxter jumped onto the bed and marched across her lumpy form for several minutes before he wearied and padded quietly to the bedroom door. He pawed at it, pushing it open with a creak and slipped out as the smell of coffee drifted in.

She uncovered her head Did I forget to unplug the coffeemaker? and Sean walked in, holding a steaming mug.

“Ah! Sleeping Beauty is awake at last!” he teased, setting the cup on the nightstand. He sat on the edge of the bed and pulled back the blankets, kissing her shoulders.

“Oooh, you’re so warm,” he said, lips against her skin. “Maybe I’ll join you under that quilt…. Shall we have another go at it?”

Annie turned in disbelief and stared at him. “You…. you’re here,” she whispered, bottom lip quivering.

He held her face, wiping away the tears with both thumbs. “Annie, why are you crying?”

“I… I… I thought you had gone…” she said, breath catching.

“Only for bit, sweetheart! I picked up my luggage from the inn and stopped to get us some brekkie,” he said, eyebrows knitting. “Did you think I’d left you behind?”

“Yes!” she sobbed, throwing herself into his arms. “I-I know I’m being s-silly, but w-when I woke up, you were gone!”

He stroked her hair, holding her tightly until she stopped shaking and regained her composure. “My little Annie,” he said in a low voice, “what a precious and fragile creature you are, not at all the icy non-conformist…”

She drew in a long breath and let it out slowly. “I’m sorry I lost it, Sean,” she said, face against his chest. “It’s not like me to fall apart.”

“Why are you sorry?” he asked, pulling her away and looking intently at her face. “You are a woman of flesh and blood and deep passion, Annie. I don’t think you fully realize it.”

“Passion?” she said, her eyes becoming distant. Yes, passion as limitless and all-consuming as any that could be imagined, but it worried her. Would it overtake her life, running amok?

“Yes,” she said, refocusing, “perhaps you’re right. But it scares me, like an aspect of myself that is foreign and wild…”

“You can’t live you life by halves and percentages, Annie. It’s all or nothing.”

“Doesn’t it frighten you sometimes, to throw yourself completely into something without holding back just a little, you know, for safety?”

He laughed. “There’s nothing safe in life. No guarantees. If we win, so much the better. If we lose, we feel the pain and learn from it.”

“But the pain,” she said, pressing, “does it never deter you?”

He reflected a moment. “No. I can’t allow my fear of a potential outcome to dictate whether I try or not.” He looked at Annie tenderly. “I know what I want and I’ll do whatever I can to get it.”

She looked down at the blanket. “I think I’ve spent so much of my life in avoidance. I didn’t know it until I met you,” she said shyly.

He caressed her cheek. “And now..?”

“Now I feel like I’ll burst.”

“You just need to express it,” he smiled. “Just let it out.”

“I think I just did,” she said, dabbing her eyes with the bedsheet.

“Annie, tell me the truth. Are you still afraid of me?”

She dropped her eyes, silent. Troubled, he lifted her chin. His eyes glowed with a curious fire.

“Annie, you are the love of my life.”

*******************************
The next three days were the happiest, most idyllic she had ever spent. They were inseparable, effortlessly falling into an unhurried routine which was as comfortable and complimentary to their natures as any that could have been devised. Mornings not given to erotic pursuit were spent strolling the beaches, or exploring the nearby countryside. He had an abiding respect for rural life and a deep love for nature that surprised and pleased her.

“Do you see that stand of linden over there?” he asked one day, pointing to a grove of trees. “I put several of their kind on my property last spring. They’re doing quite well, not that I’m much of an arborist, really, just an amateur.”

“I wish a had a space to garden,” she said wistfully. “I haven’t had a garden since my university days in Michigan.”

“Why not?”

“The desert doesn’t lend itself to lettuce and tomato cultivation,” she said with a rueful laugh. “I moved to Phoenix after graduation and sweltered there for twenty years until I relocated to London.” She paused, looking out over the fields. “I had forgotten how much I missed green.”

“You don’t seem the desert type.”

She smiled. “I’m not. More of a northern climes kind of girl. I thought the heat would kill me, but I gave it my best shot. … Turned out that I wasn’t the one it eventually killed.”

“Your… your husband died there?”

“Yes. Of cancer six years ago. He loved the southwest, but it wasn’t enough to sustain him, in the end.”

Several minutes passed in silence before he spoke. “Do… do you miss him very much?”

“I did… terribly… those first years. I didn’t realized until he died how much I depended on him. I’ve always been a free spirit of sorts. Never thought I truly needed anyone. But his death left a huge hole in my life….. Took me years to come to terms with it.”

“With his death?”

“No,” she said, turning to him, “that I’m not the self-contained act that I thought I was. To own up to one’s vulnerability is…. humbling, to say the least.”

She looked down at her hands. “Matthew knew. He probably always knew, but to his credit, he never alluded to it. It was only when he was dying that he made me promise.”

“Promise? Promise what?”

“That I’d leave Arizona and move to, of all places, England! He said there would be a new life for me here.”

He reached for her hand and pressed it to his lips. “There is, Annie.”

**************************************

 In the afternoons, Annie sketched while Sean read from the stack of books he had in his overnight bag and stashed in the trunk of his car. It was the only time, apart from sleeping, when he was completely still. She lifted her pencil and tapped it against her lips, observing him. He read, coiled and motionless like a snake ready to strike. She found it amusing that he attacked reading with the same intensity he brought to all his activities. She set her pad aside and walked toward him. He didn’t move as she picked up a volume from the stack on the table and glanced at the spine.

“Kafka? You read Kafka?”

He looked over the top of his glasses. “You seem surprised.”

“I thought actors only read scripts and reviews of themselves.”

“What a poor opinion you have of my profession.”

“No. What a surprisingly good opinion I have of you, sir,” she said, taking the book from his hand and curling up in his lap. “I have a title you might want to read.”

“And what might that be?” he asked skeptically, taking off his glasses.

“Kama Sutra,” she whispered in his ear.

“I’ve read it,” he said, pinning her to the sofa.

********************************

If they dined out at the Four Farthings, Teddy and Eleanor usually joined them for a pint or two. Their boisterous company was a jarring reminder of what they had left behind in London.

“Sean, my lad, come with me,” said Teddy, red-cheeked and maudlin. “Let me show you the memorabilia from my footie days.”

“You were a player?” he asked as Teddy dragged him away, leaving the women behind to gossip.

“Oh, Lord love me! That’s a fine strapping man you’ve got there, Annie!” She slapped her thigh. “If only I was ten years younger…”

“Eleanor, he’s not..”

“Now, don’t bother to deny it! I’ve got eyes, haven’t I?” she guffawed. “I knew he was more than just a friend, not the way those sparks were a-flyin’ the other night!”

“You forgot to bring my drink that night,” Annie said in mock reproach. “I could have died from thirst!”

“It wasn’t thirst you were dyin’ from, my girl!” she hooted. “Far be it from me to stand in the way of love!”

“Now, Eleanor…”

“I saw you two snoggin’ in the carpark! It’s a good thing he took you home when he did, my girl, ‘cos I thought I might have to call the guard,” she said, rolls of fat shaking with laughter. “This is a proper family town, Annie, the vicar lives just up the lane!”

“Okay, I’m guilty, I admit it. I kissed a boy in the parking lot,” Annie laughed. “But in my defense, I couldn’t help it! I don’t know what came over me…”

Eleanor wiped her eyes. “I know what’s over ya, Annie. You’re in love! L-O-V-E! And I’m happy for ya, we both are! Teddy likes this young man and you know Teddy doesn’t like just anyone…”

Annie looked at the table, tracing the wood grain with a finger. “I think it’s much too soon to call it love.”

Eleanor covered Annie’s hand with her own plump work-worn one. “Life is too short, my girl, to refuse love when it comes a-callin’,” she said, her wrinkled face concerned. “Grab it with both hands and run!”

**************************

At night, Sean insisted on building a huge fire in the cottage hearth. He wasn’t satisfied until it crackled and roared, and until Annie properly admired his creation and praised his pioneer spirit.

“So, tell me, how many years were you a Boy Scout?” she ribbed. “I like a man with can-do.”

“‘Can-do’?”

“Can do anything and can do it well,” she said with a come-hither look.

“If I start something, I finish it,” he said distractedly.

Annie smiled, but said nothing. She picked up a book and sank back into the cushions. That evening, their last, he was unusually restless, smoking nervously and staring pensively into the flames. Annie read quietly, looking up only occasionally from her book. She sensed he wanted to talk, but she knew him well enough not to press. He’d talk when he was ready.

He flicked his cigarette butt into the hearth. “Annie?”

“Mmmm?”

“You know I’m leaving for Toronto tomorrow night.”

“Uh huh. You mentioned it yesterday,” she said looking up.

“It’ll be a long shoot. Ten weeks, eight if we’re lucky.” He paused, looking into the fire. “I’ve always enjoyed going on location, spending time away. It’s usually kept me focused, … you know, without the demands of home and family.” He stirred the embers with a long iron poker. “But, this time, I’m not as sure…”

He hung the poker onto its peg before continuing. “Annie,” he said tentatively, turning to her. “I want you to come with me.”

“Of course I’ll come and visit,” she said, closing her book, “if only to make certain you haven’t forgotten me.”

“No, not visit. I want you to stay the entire ten weeks.”

“Sean, I can’t. I start the mural at the Bellagio in Las Vegas next week.”

“Can’t you postpone it until autumn?”

“I wish I could, but I’ve postponed it twice already,” she said with a sigh. “The corporate owners agreed to the delay until my show opened in London, but now…I’m obliged to go.”

“Is it a big job? How long will it take?”

“It’s hard to say. The preliminary drawings were approved by their board of directors last winter. It’s just a matter of transferring the image to the wall.”

“Well, it sounds easy enough…. the hard part is over, right? Just fill in the lines with color and you’ll be in Canada with me in less than a week,” he said, diving into the sofa and scooping her into his arms. “Then we spend the rest of the time together on the lake in Toronto. …I know a great restaurant just off Queen Street, near the galleries. All the misunderstood starving artists congregate there. If you walk in, you’ll be worshipped as the Second Coming,” he teased. “Just as long as I have the first…”

She laughed. “If only it were that easy, Sean. I’m looking at a two-month job myself.”

“Two months!” He looked back in to the fire, considering. There was so much he need and wanted to say, yet could not articulate. The thought of being away from her chilled him to the bone. For the first time in years, he dreaded going to work, alone.

“Annie, I want you to go to Toronto with me. I can’t go alone. I won’t go alone,” he said ominously.

*************************************

There was no torrid coupling that night. Despite the firelight and the downy quicksand of the featherbed, he slept with his back to her, resentful and angered by their stalemate. Accustomed to the wheedling and psychological manuvers of willful women, he thought her unreasonable and intractable. Annie lie in quiet frustation, unable to convince him that it wasn’t caprice, but genuine work committment that prevented her from joining him. Even Baxter shyed away from the bed, preferring the comfort of a pillow near the hearth, far from the chill that settled over the bedroom.

In the morning, contrite, he pulled her close and made love to her with a poignance that both understood but neither acknowledged aloud. He left shortly thereafter, driving away in the car that, in their short days together, had become a familiar sight. She watched him from the window as he pulled out of the driveway and onto the lane. He didn’t wave. In fact, he never even said goodbye.

Annie stood at the window long after the car disappeared, not quite certain what to do or how to feel. Everything seemed to move in slow motion, as if she were standing in a vacuum. Lyrics from every drippingly sad song she had ever heard filled her head. She had always dismissed them in the past, impatient with their morose sentiment. But the irony was not wasted on her now.

Baxter jumped onto the sill and nudged her hand. “You’re right, Bax. It’s time to go.”

*****************************************

She didn’t bother going home. Henry was probably lying in wait outside the door, ready to ambush her. Even if she did manage to get inside undetected, Edith would be waiting, bursting with self-congratulation and rude questions. Instead, she drove straight to the studio.

The space was just as she left it, abruptly, a lifetime ago. She cleaned the stiff brushes and sat puzzling before the blank canvas. She wondered what she had planned to paint that day, the day he walked into her studio and turned her life upside down. She couldn’t remember. She couldn’t remember anything prior to that day, as if her long-term memory had been erased. The canvas stared back at her in defiance. A blank page… Is this a metaphor for my life, or what?

Arching and hissing, Baxter suddenly fled his sunny window ledge. She heard the key turn in the lock and threw down her brush. If Henry wanted a fight, he picked a good day for one.

“Darling!” he said with forced gaiety as he sashayed into the room. “So, you finally return to the fold! You had me worried sick, out of my mind, Annie and that fat Rottweiler Harrison refusing to tell me where you were! It never occured to me that you were holed up, trysting in a low-rent chez amour until, of course, I’m having my first espresso of the morning and open my newspaper to find this!!” He threw down his gauntlet: a copy of the The Tattler.

“I see the quality of your reading material hasn’t improved, Henry.”

“Look at the headlines, you cheeky thing! Just look at them!” He turned away in mock horror. “This is too much, even for me, darling, and I’ve seen it all!”

‘BEANO IN SEASIDE ROMP’ screamed the garish headlines, ‘SURF’S UP FOR SEAN AND BEACH BUNNY’. Sandwiched between the banners were grainy photographs of Annie and Sean walking hand-in-hand on the beach and kissing in front of the cottage.

“What the hell…?” she said outraged. “Who took these pictures?”

“What does that matter, darling? Both AP and UPI have already run them! Ghastly photos, Annie,” he sniffed, peering at them. “You two look like a couple of aging hippies from Woodstock! Absolutely bedraggled! Why on earth were you walking about in the rain? I can see your nipples through your t-shirt, darling! And now, so can the rest of the world,” he clucked, shaking his head.

“Henry, you better have a damn good reason for…”

“T-shirt and jeans?” he said, continuing his tirade. “What were you thinking? You could have worn something decent, Annie! What about that divine little ensemble we got from Vera Wang? How many times have I told you that you must ‘dress for success’, darling? And just look at you in these pictures! How could you leave the house dressed like that knowing that photographers were hiding in the bushes?”

“I didn’t see any photographers!”

“What? Are you mad? There are photographers everywhere that man goes! Any why wouldn’t there be, darling? He’s fabulous and he belongs to the world. He’s no longer entitled to privacy.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Henry,” she said angrily. “He has every right…”

“He has no rights,” he said, flourishing his hands, “not any more! That’s the price he paid for the life he chose, darling! There’s no avoiding it, a public life means public scrutiny… But, you’d imagine that after all these years of being in the public eye, he would manage to dress better! A jumper? Really!! Can’t his stylist prevail upon him to wear something more age appropriate? That old shirt is three times too large for him…”

“He doesn’t have a stylist, Henry, not that it’s any of your business!” she snapped. “Besides, you’re hardly a fashion maven.”

“My sense of style is flawless,” he said defensively. “Among the truly fabulous, my advice is highly sought-after, darling! Why just the other day, Sienna stopped by…”

She waved her hand, irritated. “I’m not interested in your starlet rescues, Henry. Just say what you’ve come to say. Or, did you just come to gloat?”

“Gloat! Moi? I never gloat, darling, I leave that to the poor misfortunates fighting over the scraps!” he said smugly. He turned to her easel. “Don’t bother with the canvas today, Annie; I’ve bumped up the Bellagio dates. You’re leaving for Las Vegas tonight.”

“Tonight! Henry, I’m not ready to leave! I haven’t even gone home yet!”

He brushed aside her objections. “I know, darling, I waited outside your flat for hours this morning,” he said annoyed. “But if you had, you’d know why you need to leave tonight!”

“What are you talking about?”

“Reporters, you goose!” he said, rolling his eyes. “What else? Your street was crawling with them, Annie, all waiting for the mystery woman to appear! There’s about half a dozen of them outside right now, darling! Don’t you look at the telly?”

“Henry, you know I don’t own a television,” she said, walking to the window.

She pulled up the shade and was blinded by the flashes of camera bulbs. She stood staring, unable to move, until Henry took the cord from her hand and lowered the shade.

“See what I mean?” he asked, eyebrows raised. “You need to leave now, darling, and let this frenzy die down. You may not appreciate it now, but I do know my way around the press, Annie. They’ll never let up,” he warned.

She stood, wide-eyed. “But, Sean…”

“Sean!” Henry shook her by the shoulders. “Don’t even think about him, darling, you have problems of your own now,” he said. “I’ve known him for years, Annie, and he’s trouble with a capital ‘T’! Always has been, always will be! If you can get away from him with only a bit of adverse publicity as the worst of your injuries, consider yourself lucky!”

He turned away, frowning. “I blame myself, Annie. I never thought you and he… no, not when he was so thick with that silly girl,” he grumbled to himself. “Who could imagine he’d be interested in a woman his own age? Hell must have frozen over….”

Henry’s eyes glazed with runaway thought. “I wonder how he’ll explain all this to the kid? Expensive jewelry? Elaborate denial in a press release? Or both…?”

“Henry, you’re talking to yourself.”

“Oh, darling, I’m sorry,” he said, stirring. “My mind is racing with a million thoughts! The first of which is how to get you out of here and safely on a plane with the least amount of damage.”

“To me or to you, Henry?”

He stopped, considering the question. Was is possible that Annie doubted him and trusted Sean instead? Henry couldn’t allow that weasel of a cocksman, with his boyish smile and raffish charm, to steal his star painter out from under him. He’d see to that!

He mustered his most saintly, beatific smile. “To you, darling! To me… hah!” he said, shrugging with dramatic resignation. “All press, no matter how bad, is good!”

***************************
Annie stood on the scaffolding, giving instructions to the plaster contractors below. After three weeks of work on the mural, the hotel owners decided they wanted a frescoe instead. She watched as the contractors obliterated her effort, covering and smoothing the wall with a bland white sludge. She thought it was only fitting that her labor of love be lost to the ages, perhaps to be discovered by an intrepid archeologist in the millenia to come. But even that was unlikely considering the usual lifespan of Vegas hotels. Both the Stardust and the Frontier had been recently razed, their cache of dreams and nightmares tidily imploded and forgotten.

She didn’t allow herself much time for reflection because she had to work quickly, applying her paints before the plaster dried. She shimmied down the scaffold and grabbed her colors and brushes. Time is money, isn’t that the adage? Nowhere was that more apparent than in this hot and animated city. In the three weeks since Henry hustled her onto that night flight, she had been working non-stop, attempting to bridge the gap between being true to her vision and pacifying the demands of her cranky employers. It wasn’t easy; their complaints and revisions were never-ending. They questioned her design, her integrity, her ability and even her sanity on occasion. It was hard to stay grounded in a transient town.

She missed her tranquil English life. She missed her studio, Baxter and her snug little flat above Edith. She even missed Henry; at least his pompous grandstanding was just fluff. Here, the obnoxious posturing was real and far less good-natured. She wondered if a sense of humor was business liability. There certain seemed to be a distinct absence of it at the dull meetings she was forced to attend. Perhaps the Mojave sun had dessicated all but the the essential survival skills.

She laughed to herself as she stroked blue and green onto the wet plaster. What would happen if the heavens opened and showered the desert with life-giving waters? Would long-dormant seeds burst open and cover the dusty expanse with a blanket of green? Or, would the merciless sun dry up the land, stealing away the promise of life?

She stopped, holding her brush in mid-air, remembering the morning she walked under just such a rain shower. It soaked her to the skin, filling her nostrils with the clean sharpness of sky and shore and he looked at her with a heat that made her forget her wet clothing. He laughingly pulled her into his arms, his warm tongue in her mouth, his hands on her breasts. They dropped and rolled on the sand, lost in the chill of the rain and the fire…..

She shook her head of the memory, a painful wound that refused to close. She had promised herself not to dwell in the recent past, not to replay those moments, but in her loneliness, they preyed upon her. She had no word from him during these long eternal weeks. And now she was back in the desert, alone under the relentless sun.

“Annie!” Somewhere, from far away, she heard her name being called. It resounded through the barren desert like the mournful cry of the coyote.

“Hey! Earth to Annie!” The workman nudged her shoulder. “You got a visitor,” he said, nodding.

She dropped her brush, heart racing with hope and turned around.

“Darling! Whatever are you doing? You’re covered from head-to-to in plaster dust! Where’s your mask, you silly cow, you want to develop a lung infection so soon into the project? And what have you been doing the last several weeks; I see nothing on the wall, Annie, have you been unable to work? This has got to be finished by the end of next month, my dear, we have the opening in Milan to attend or have you forgotten that as well? Good Lord, Annie! You’re staring like a goose; whatever is the matter with you?”

Annie closed her mouth and shook off her surprise. “Henry! I wasn’t expecting you until next week.”

“I know, darling, I know,” he said, fretting. “But we need to talk. Is there somewhere we can go, away from these grubby men?” He wrinkled his nose. “Somewhere private?”

Annie looked at him in alarm. Henry never discussed anything in private, preferring to air his and everyone else’s dirty laundry in public where it could be properly dissected and ridiculed.

“Yeah. There’s an office around the corner,” she said, pointing. “I’ll meet you there in a few minutes.”

Her hands shook as she picked up her brush and closed the paint containers. Whatever he had to say, it couldn’t be good. In the years she had known him, he rarely displayed reserve and almost revelled in the tragedies and scandals of others. The only time she had ever seen him subdued was when Eric, his long-time companion and erst-while lover, died in a collision on the M-4. Henry, over-confident and loud was infinitely preferable to the mute grief-stricken shell she saw that day. She wiped her hands and headed down the hallway, wondering whom among their acquaintance had died.

“Okay, Henry, spill it!” she said, entering the room. She stood with her hands on her hips, prepared for the worst.

“You’d better sit down, darling,” he said, pulling out a chair.

“I’m fine where I’m at, Henry. What’s the problem?”

He pursed his lips, then fumbled in his shoulder satchel. He drew out some papers and sat looking at them for a moment before answering her.

“I thought I should be the one to tell you, Annie, before you read it in the newspapers.” He drew in a breath and squared his shoulders. “Sean is getting married, Annie. He’s marrying Gigi on Saturday.”

He opened his newspaper, pointing to the announcement. “It’s all been rather sudden, darling, I didn’t even hear it circulating through the gallery rumor mill and you know how much I love gossip,” he said with a feeble laugh.

Disbelieving, Annie read through the brief article, but the words ran together and made no sense. “How did you find out?” she asked, pale and confused.

“What? Aside from my media snoops?” He crossed his legs with a flourish. “Well, Eric’s sister still has that administrative post down at the town hall. She knew he was a client of mine, so she called when the banns were posted. She thought I might be interested,” he said with a shrug, “which I was, exceedingly.”

Annie said nothing, but took the chair he profferred, still holding the newspaper.

Troubled by her dazed silence, Henry continued. “Oh, darling! I did warn you about him, didn’t I? He’s trouble to the nth degree, ex-wives and ex-girlfriends littering the planet… God alone knows what any of them see in him, because aside from his good taste in art, I can see no earthly use for him. Oh, I suppose he’s a fine actor with a bevy of fans who track his every move, but darling, he’s an absolute disaster when it comes to affairs of the heart! Oh! The trail of broken hearts that one has left must stretch to the moon and back again, a long conga line of wailing women, darling! Count yourself fortunate not be be among them, my dear, gnashing your teeth and tearing at your hair! Believe me, he spends no more time dwelling on his actions than he does selecting trousers in the morning, which judging from that abysmal photo in the article, he must have picked from the dirty heap on the floor! Let’s hope this new girl can keep him in clean clothes and out of those tattered jumpers! If I see one more middle-aged man trotting about town in a football jersey…”

Henry droned on, but Annie heard nothing. The dry desert sun had consumed the last of her shrivelled hopes and she sat mute, like a  husk.

“…… and I told Madge and Guy that it would be senseless to come all the way out here to attend the wedding when they’ll just have to repeat the whole event once they get back to town, but there are no quickie weddings in Canada apparently, seems all those Molson drinkers have to come Stateside to wed on the sly, I mean, who wouldn’t want an Elvis impersonator presiding at their nuptials? Maybe they can invite some of those wretched tourists from Kentucky with their bermuda shorts and beer guts to stand as witnesses,” he sneered, taking a much needed breath.

“Wait…..” she said, lifting her head, “whose wedding?”

“Sean’s, darling! Haven’t you heard a word I’ve said? He and Gigi are getting married here at the Bellagio this weekend! That’s why I’m here, darling, I’ve been invited as a guest!”

“But, the town hall…”

“Oh, yes, they’ll have the church ceremony in London sometime next month, but I understand he’s in quite a rush to get her to the altar,” he said with a broad smile and wink. “His only option is Las Vegas in all its seedy splendor! Where else can you marry without blood tests and residency? …. Yes,” he said, taking a long self-satisfied breath, “no doubt under her supervision it will be the most vulgar affair imaginable, even by Vegas standards. I’m surprised he managed to convince her to stage it here; I always thought she was the drive-through type,” he tittered savagely.

She ignored his lampooning. “He chose the Bellagio?”

“Well, yes, darling, it is one of the best hotels in town. I tried to persuade him to stay at the Palms, but he wouldn’t hear of it.” He scratched his head thoughtfully. “Maybe he just couldn’t get over losing the Danny Ocean role to George Clooney…. Those films have made an obscene amount of profit, darling, although I still prefer the original; Angie Dickinson was quite the Rat Pack tramp, God love her…”

“When will he, uh, the wedding party arrive?”

“Not until Friday, I imagine. He’s somewhere in Canada, working on a new film. I tell you, the Canadian film industry is….”

She cut him off. “Henry, the wedding is the only reason you’re here, right?”

“Well…. that,” he said, hesitatingly, “and….. to keep you out of sight, darling! If Gigi knows you’re here, there’s no telling what that girl will do! She went positively ballistic when she discovered your little beach caper, darling! You should have seen the rows! Spectacular! Photos in every rag from here to New Delhi! Between you and me, I think he proposed just to shut that woman up! Constantly talking and yapping and babbling and…”

“Henry, please!”

“Yes, darling,” he said, chastened, “but I can’t help the way I feel! If he want to marry his Lolita, fine! But I won’t have that woman sabotaging you or your work here. …. Let’s just say, I’m asking you to keep a low profile.”

“I didn’t know I had a high one.”

“Don’t be saucy, my girl, I can only endure one diva at a time,” he said wearily. He put his arm around her shoulder. “Come on, darling, I’ll take you to lunch! Surely there must be at least one decent restaurant in this town that doesn’t serve the $8.95 buffet!”

Annie smiled and rested her head on his shoulder. “Sure, Henry. I’d like that.”

Truce at last, they walked arm-in-arm to the door. “Oh darling! You’ll never guess who agreed to custom-tailor my tuxedo! Just guess!”

Before she could answer, the door swung open and Sean walked in, surprising them both.

“Annie! I need to talk to you…”

Annie gasped, white-faced, and took a wobbly step backward. Henry quickly steadied her and, turning to Sean, masked his displeasure.

“Sean darling! How lovely to see you again! I was just telling Annie the joyous news and she couldn’t be happier, isn’t that right, my dear?” he said, pinching her arm.

“Ouch! Y-yes! Very happy!” she said through her teeth. “It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving couple…”

“You see? She’s just as thrilled as I am, Sean! But, ah, we were just on our way to lunch… Perhaps you two might chat later, much later. I’m sure you must have a million and one things to do before the big day,” he said, pushing Annie to the door, “like attending your bachelor’s bacchanal, darling! A town like Las Vegas surely can accommodate the most outrageous of orgies…”

“What I have to say won’t take long.” Sean grabbed Annie by the hand and shoved Henry out the door. “I’ll speak to you later, Henry,” he said as it slammed shut.

Annie wrenched away from him. “Don’t touch me!”

“Please, Annie, let me explain,” he said, taking a step toward her.

She raised a hand. “Don’t come any closer, Sean. I mean it!”

He took another step. “Annie, just give me a few minutes…”

“Yeah, right…. a few minutes,” she snorted. “Like you said last time?”

She cocked her head to the side and narrowed her eyes. “If I had known you only intended to use me, I would have never let you into the studio that day! … A few minutes, my ass! What are you going to tell me now, Sean? That I’m your soulmate and you won’t take another breath until we ride off into the sunset together?” she said scornfully. “Please!”

“Annie,” he pleaded, “it’s not what you think…”

She rolled her eyes. “Of course it isn’t, Sean! You’re just here in Vegas on business, right? …. Monkey business!”

“Don’t mock me,” he said, exasperated.

“Mock you? I could kill you where you stand!” she said, eyes flashing. “Of all the places in the world, you have to come here to marry! Couldn’t resist adding insult to injury, could you?”

“Don’t, Annie,” he deflected. “What I have to say is important!”

“No more important than what I have to say!”

“But, Annie, I didn’t come here to fight..”

“Then you came poorly prepared!”

“Annie, please calm down! I’m not your adversary, sweetheart; I love you!”

She took a step toward him, eyes glittering. “You… what?”

“You heard me. I love you.”

She slapped him. “How dare you! You think that settles all scores? Don’t you ever pull that card on me again!” she warned and walked to the door.

He caught her hand before she could open it. “I won’t let you walk away from me.”

She glanced over her shoulder. “You were the one who walked out, Sean; you’ve forfeited the game,” she said with contempt. “Now, let go of me.”

He pulled her hand and spun her around, catching her free hand, and pinned both to the wall. “No, Annie,” he said, inches away from her. “I won’t let you walk away.”

She steeled herself and looked him in the eye. “It hurts, doesn’t it?”

“More than I ever thought possible,” he whispered, tightening the grip on her hands.

His scent wafted dangerously close to her nose. She turned her head away from it. “And now you’re here, about to marry the woman of your dreams,” she sneered.

“That’s right.” His breath was hot on her face.

“How convenient for you, Sean. Both bride and rival under the same roof,” she said, heart pounding.

“She’s not here,” he said, nuzzling her throat. “Forget about her…”

She knew she was weakening, but she refused to give him the satisfaction. What he had done was unforgiveable…. wasn’t it?

“Don’t think I’m so easily won, Sean” she said in a strained voice as his tongue caressed her earlobe. “Seduction doesn’t solve anything.”

“My God, how I’ve missed you, Annie,” he breathed into her ear. “I dream about you every night…”

He crushed her to the wall and her knees buckled. “Turn your head around, Annie. I want so desperately to kiss you…”

She, too, wanted his lips, but feared the heroin inside them. One taste and she would be lost forever.

“No, Sean, she said, struggling to avoid the damp lure of his mouth, “please don’t do this to me again…”

“Do what to you again?” he assuaged, his voice low and resonant. “Take you into my arms and make furious love to you? I promise to be gentle this time…”

She grasped at her last remaining shred of resolve. “No, don’t entangle me in a hopeless love affair, Sean,” she implored, voice breaking. “I…I have no strength for tragedy. Please, I’m begging you, … stop.”

He released her, confused and shaken. “Love affair? Is this what you think of me? …. Annie, look at me. Do you think I’ve come all this way only to humiliate you?”

“What else am I suppose to think? That I should be grateful? For crying out loud, Sean, you’re getting married!”

“Well, of course I am, Annie! It was inevitable, I’m afraid…”

“I bet! And you just had to come here….”

“The bride’s choice, Annie, not mine. I would have preferred Sheffield in the old church by the hazel grove, but time wouldn’t permit. Seems you were right after all; I can’t live without her.”

Annie turned pale. “You… you love her that much?” she asked in a thin voice.

“I do,” he said earnestly.

She sighed. “Then I leave you to get ready,” she said with a wistful smile. “You mustn’t keep the bride waiting…”

****************************

Annie peeked around the corner. As she suspected, Henry was in the lobby, loitering impatiently near the project scaffolding. She turned around and took the service stairway to her room. There was no point resuming work today, not after being hit with that bombshell. She felt like an empty crater, trudging up the stairs, each step heavier than the last. By the time she reached her door, it was just a smoking ruin that turned the handle and collapsed face-down on the bed, a pile of cremated remains atop Egyptian cotton. She didn’t even have the energy to cry, as if all her overloaded circuits had suddenly blown.

She wondered bitterly when the vultures might start to circle, and pick away at what was left of her flesh. She hoped that they would be able to devour her mind as well, and silence the screaming. She looked up at the window, then dropped her head again, disappointed. She was only on the second floor. A jump from that height wouldn’t kill her; it would just leave behind a few broken bones, companions to her heart.

She pictured herself trying to paint with two casted arms, wondering if she could hold the brush in her teeth instead, like those disabled painters she had seen once in New York. Was it truly triumph over adversity, she wondered, or people simply trying to stave off madness? Why did it appear that the spirit stubbornly pushed on no matter the condition of its physical container? It seemed to have its own agenda, independent of its owner, a driving will to continue that defied physical challenges and setbacks.

Does mine want to soldier on, too? Would it be possible to pick up the shards and try to continue? Why not? She had the same determination and perseverance as the next person. Couldn’t she overcome this setback and rise, like a phoenix, from the ash? There were other men in the world; plenty of fish in the sea, as her father once said. Why should she sit like a mope, pining for a man who failed to appreciate her?

She sat up suddenly, a spunky look in her eye. He may not have appreciated her before, she thought, but by God, she’d make certain that he would regret losing her! She picked up the telephone and made an appointment with the hotel spa, then called for a taxi. I’ll show you, Mister Hollywood Bigshot! You’ve just made the biggest mistake in your life!

She locked the door and was tackled by Henry in the hallway. “Darling! Where have you been? I hope you haven’t been hiding in that room with Sean! My girl, I’m serious about you staying away from him! I can’t manage an overseas media crisis, darling; it’s just too hard on my nerves! That last one nearly did me in, don’t you have any compassion for me? It’s not as if you owe me a huge debt of gratitude, darling, just a small one perhaps, so I expect you to be a good little girl and stay out of sight this weekend! I’ll talk to the owners, darling, and tell them you’re having a nervous breakdown and need to rest a few days! They’ll certainly understand, I’m sure, for everybody in America is either taking anti-depressants or spending months in rehab or both! So I expect you to do as I asked, darling, for the sake of everyone and…”

“Jesus, Henry! Do you ever take a breath?”

“Darling! You didn’t answer me! What? We’re taking the stairs?”

She stopped, foot on the landing. “No. We are not. I’m taking the stairs and you are going to your room.”

“But, darling,” he whined, “the wedding…..? Please, Annie, for me, dearest! Promise me you’ll be good!”

She smiled innocently. “Henry, I guarantee you that I’ll be even better than good!”

******************

The taxi dropped her in front of Caesar’s Palace, where she waded through a sea of people to the boutique promenade. She scanned the stores briefly and crossed the pavilion like a heat-seeking missile and pushed open the door at Versace.

“Are you here to fix the plumbing?” the insolent salesman inquired, staring down his nose at Annie’s dirty coveralls.

She stepped up to the counter and slammed down her credit card. “Make me look like a queen.”

*******************

It was after midnight when she returned, laden with her purchases. If there was one great thing about Las Vegas, it was twenty-four hour shopping. She opened each box like it was Christmas morning, hanging her gown in the closet and parking her beautiful new Manolo Blahniks beneath them. She was, giggling and dreaming, her own fairy godmother, adorning herself for the ball. She laughed at the simple perfection of her plan: Show up at the wedding looking like a million bucks, cause a riot and depart triumphantly, knowing that there would be one man in this world who’d regret her. Who needs Prince Charming? I can buy my own glass slipper!

There was a soft tap at her door. “Annie? Are you in there?” Her heart skipped a beat.

“Sean, what are you doing?” she asked, opening the door. “It’s late and I have so many things to do tomorrow…”

“No doubt, but I, ah,… wanted to give this to you,” he said, eyes shining.

She gasped when he place a tiny velvet box in her hand. “Open it,” he urged.

Heart drumming in her ear and hands shaking, she slowly cracked it open. Sparkling inside was a stunning pair of diamond earrings. Crestfallen, her heart stopped momentarily before resuming.

“Oh!” she stammered, “w-what a lovely gift! A consolation prize… how thoughtful! The first runner-up shouldn’t go home empty-handed.  “I don’t know how to thank you!”  How ’bout I throw them back in your face, you two-timing son of a ..

“Will you wear them for me tomorrow, at the wedding?”

Now the jerk is inviting me to his wedding! “Tomorrow?” she peeped. The gall! I wonder how many of his exes will show up…

“It would mean so much to me.”

Not as much as it will for me… “Sure, Sean. I’ll wear them.”

He beamed and kissed her hand. “Until tomorrow then?”

“Until tomorrow,” she nodded.
********************************

 

In the spa that morning, the hens were clucking in overdrive.

“…. and I told that lyin’ sack of you-know-what that if I found another pair of womens’ underwear in the truck, he’s history! I don’t even wear thongs! …. Oh! Hi, Annie!” The chubby receptionist pocketed her cell phone. “So, two visits in one week! What’s goin’ on with you, girl? You got problems with those union workers?”

“No, I’m here for a complete overhaul.”

“What for? You look great! I only hope I can look as good as you some day… you should see my stretch marks…. no wonder that no-good piece of crap is cheatin’ on me… I’ll tell you, Annie, all men are dogs.”

“Today, I wouldn’t argue with you. Is Selma doing my hair and make-up?”

“What? You? Hair and make-up? You goin’ to a fancy party or somethin’?”

“You might say that,” said Annie with a telling smile.

“Oh, ho, ho!” the pudgy girl teased, raising her eyebrows. “So… who is he? Is he cute? No, wait! Wait! Let me guess…. one of those high rollers from Dallas with a big black Stetson!”

“No, but he has been known to wear one on occasion.”

“Hmmm… Oh! I got it! He’s a soldier home from Iraq!”

“You’re getting warmer,” said Annie, smiling broadly. “He’s been seen in a few pictures holding a gun.”

“I knew it! I knew it! I just love a man in uniform, don’t you?” she sighed. “So, you’re here to get primed for your man, huh?”

“Not exactly…”

The girl snapped to attention. “No…. don’t tell me, … you’re here in spite of your man,” she said, chagrined.

“Yup,” said Annie, nodding, “my man just dumped me and is now about to marry a woman twenty years younger. How’s that for a kick in the pants?”

“Aw, Annie, what a raw deal,” she said, shaking her head in sympathy. “If a woman like you can’t hold on to her man, what can the rest of us do? All men are dogs.”

“So, that’s why I’m here,” said Annie expectantly.

“Oh, I get it! You’re here for a revenge makeover!” she said cagily. “Well, you’ve come to the right place, girlfriend; Selma is a miracle worker! You’ll look so fine, he’ll be beggin’ for mercy!”

“That’s my plan,” Annie grinned, “and I have to be perfect by six!”

“No problem. Hey, Selma!” she yelled, waving over a tall brunette. “Emergency makeover! Better call for back-up!”

The brunette strolled over. “Dump, divorce or death?”

“The first,” Annie admitted.

“My condolences,” she said warmly. “Don’t worry, honey, that bastard will be running after you with his tail between his legs. The only decision you’ll have to make is whether to give him another chance.”

“Then pull out all the stops,” declared Annie, “because I’ve got a wedding to crash!”

**************************

After hours of pampering, primping, plucking and fluffing, they stood her in front of a full-length mirror and admired their handiwork.

“You look fabulous, Annie!”

“No, she looks better than fabulous! She looks stupendous!”

“Stupendous? Nobody says words like ‘stupendous’ anymore! She looks hot!”

“Hot? That doesn’t even come close to describing her! She looks like a… a …”

“Queen!” said Selma, satisfied. “And you do, Annie, at least from the neck up. I hope you have a killer dress to match your head…”

“As a matter of fact, I do,” said Annie proudly. “Picked it out myself, too!”

The hens started clucking anew. “Oh, I hope it’s sexy! Does it show a lot of cleavage? Men love cleavage…”

“What are you talking about? She’s supposed to look classy, not like a hooker!”

“Is it strapless, Annie? With a long train? I just love that romantic look…”

“She’s not the bride, silly. She’s just going to the wedding to make the bride look bad! What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall at that service…”

“Oh, Jeez! Have you seen the time? It’s almost six! You’d better get outta here, girl!”

Annie thanked the girls and said goodbye. She scuttled like a mouse through the back hallway and up the stairs to her room. Inside, she stripped the coveralls from her freshly scrubbed body and squeezed into a strapless white column. She stepped into her shoes, pulled on a pair of elbow-length gloves, and reached for her tiny clutch. A queen, indeed, she thought, nodding to her own reflection. Henry was right. All I need are…. diamonds. Her eyes fell on the velvet earring box. She had promised to wear them. And why shouldn’t she? She had earned her battle pay.

She opened the box and examined them for a moment, noticing the odd coloration and loose settings. It was clear they had been worn before. Used earrings! That cheapskate has given me recycled jewelry! She considered flushing them down the toilet to avenge the insult, but thought better of it. Diamonds were diamonds, she reasoned, and she now hadn’t enough time to buy her own. She fastened the earrings and with a long last look, floated to the door, armed and ready to invade enemy territory.

********************************

She carefully peered around the chapel door and frowned. There were only a handful of guests.

“Darling!! What in God’s name are you doing here?” Henry flung his arms about like a jellyfish. “And all dressed up, too! Versace? Oh! Look, none of the other guests have arrived yet,” he said, peeking in. “They must have changed the time and forgot to tell me! No matter, darling, because now I can get you out of here before the bride arrives, so let’s…”

A voice from behind startled them both. “Henry, will you do me a favor and escort the bride down to the chapel?” said Sean. “It seems she’s rather superstitious and doesn’t want to be seen by me until the doors open.” He handed Henry a key. “Room 855.”

“Why, of course I will, Sean darling!” said Henry, flattered. “And, Annie, why don’t you…”

“I’ll take care of Annie, Henry. You take care of the bride,” Sean said smoothly. “I’m counting on you to calm her down.”

Henry minced to the elevator bank. “You can rely on me, Sean darling!” he promised, waving.

Sean turned to Annie. “My God, you look beautiful, Annie! Are you ready?”

“Ready? Ready for what?”

He offered his elbow to her and nodded to the chapel. “To walk down the aisle with me.”

“Are you kidding me?” she said, ashen. “What about Gigi?”

“I quit that the day I returned from Devonshire, Annie. Oh! You remembered to wear the earrings, sweetheart! I’m so glad; they belonged to my grandmother.”

“Your g-grandmother?” she repeated, bewildered, reaching suddenly for one of the pendant stones. “I-I had no idea…”

Sean nodded to the organist who struck the first opening chords of the Wedding Processional. “Are you ready, Annie?” he repeated.

She smiled, dazed, and took his arm. “What about Henry… that room key?”

“There is no room 855. He’ll be wandering for hours!”

“But, Sean,” she whispered, ” all those articles in the newspapers…”

He gripped her hand tightly as he led her to the altar. “Oh, come on, Annie,” he said with a conspiratorial wink. “Don’t believe everything you read.”

THE END

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