(Fiction. 1,308 words. Written: 09.01.2013)
He stared along the table, arrested. Then he let his glance slip.
She was animatedly chatting with the people around her. He couldn’t catch a word and wasn’t listening. Her mouth made a delicious corridor as she talked, releasing a giggle. A hint of a dimple broke against the corner of maroon lipstick. She crunched her delicate nose and shook her head. The pretty lock of close cropped two-toned curls shook on her earlobe. The pearl caught his brief view, disappearing again, playing peekaboo.
She turned, still glowing, leaning forward to say something across to a neighbour. And in that brief juncture, as his eyes were moving away, her gaze caught his, ever so lightly. A frown of concentration gathered between the brows, the smile still creasing her eyes, the smile dripping from her pearly teeth. For an ephemeral nanosecond her sight startled, pupils dilated, lashes stoppedfluttering. She picked up his lowering glance, quizzical, questioning.
Stop, as if demanding of a thief slinking away.
She embraced his eyes a miniscule breath longer. Her smile didn’t leave. For a tiny heartbeat she smiled at him. Into him. Then her neck completed the full arc and she directed her word to the intended listener.
He exhaled. Deep and slow. He released the breath stopped on its track a moment past. He focused on the cutlery in his hand, cutting bite-size pieces of the soft chicken breast on his plate. Smiling inwardly, trying to direct his attention back to the excellent meal, irony not escaping him.
For the rest of the dinner Edward didn’t look up or speak, except to utter occasional imperceptible ‘Thank You’-s to the waiter.
Afterwards the hostess had the centre of the room cleared and music started playing. Marina drew her husband by the hand and gleefully took the stage. She winked at him once, dazzling in a shimmering red cocktail dress, a pair of chandelier diamond strings kissing her shoulder. Their matching pendant vanished in her plunging neckline. Her husband kept her well and if Edward hadn’t known Marina for thirty years now, he would have thought this another socialite ostentation and stayed away.
“Don’t you dare not appear!” she had pointed her index finger, its sharpened painted talon at his face, on her way out of his office, just as breezily as she had entered without an appointment. “Don’t make me have to come out of my own party to drag you.”
He rarely dropped into peacock gatherings, except for business, swirling about a defined crowd with his customary bourbon, rarely touching the canapés, resisting his urge to barely more than desserts. He had started working out again, running in the morning, cycling three evenings a week. The full length mirror in the toilet, as the steam rolled off, told him a satisfactory tale when he stood to inspect the results. The scale had been holding steady for fourteen months. Crowds, inane talks, an excess of alcohol and carbohydrates would destroy his system. He would gladly forego the baser offerings in the buffet for two spoons of caramel or a small brownie, unimmunized against sweet finales.
Marina swung her hips towards him, laughing, as he made his way between coupling bodies. Derek, her husband, all smiles, waved him a salute.
She pulled his hand, making him twirl to the rhythm.
Edward grinned at her twinkling eyelashes. Marina winked again.
“Hope you’re having fun, doll?” she drawled into his ears, her breath drowsy with Chantal and mint. Her translucent skin, waxed and slippery, released a heady perfume he couldn’t place, sorely out of practice in women’s things.
He planted a kiss on Marina’s forehead, held her through one more turn of the beats, smiled at Derek and handed her over to the husband’s patiently waiting arms, slipping away to the bar.
Backed up against the counter, nursing a cognac he marveled at Marina dancing. A silver anniversary and two children had done little to dent his college mate’s elegance. The good ones, yes, they age like wine.
“Aren’t they charming?”
He turned, almost into her face.
“Hi! I’m Neil.” She extended a delicate palm. “But friends call me Neela.”
He took her proffered twig, small and soft, in his brawny man’s paw, electrified, hoping he didn’t crush it trying to control the tremor in his shake, letting go not aware if he held on too long.
“Edward Springle,” he hoped his voice didn’t give away more than the name.
She was Marina’s son’s lab partner, Neela said, studying for her uni grads. Edward’s racing mind quickly calculated the difference in their ages, unable to censor himself for wickedness.
She prattled, of everything and nothing, innocuous observations darted into the room and universe. Later he could recall not a word, only cherry crushed lips. And the cute dimple. She bent closer for audibility, a scent of bergamot, cucumber, oak moss and oranges rising from her neck. Edward could hardly stop his nose from following their trace and snuggling below the curls.
Up close her man’s jawline was prominent, the sharp rise of her cheek bones, the hardness of her sea blue eyes lined with glitter. Her voice, just the right intoxicating degree of husky, didn’t give the presence of testosterone away. For a boy, Neela was surprisingly curvy, Edward’s appraising eyes didn’t fail to notice.
“Excuse me,” she said after a while, and left, as uncontextually as she had appeared by his side. He watched her bottom disappear in the crowd, in its pretty ice blue cover.
As he was tightening the belt of his cloak, she arrived at the door again.
“You are going towards Queen’s? Mind if I join? I live that way.”
They walked the quiet street in silence.
“How’d you know I was coming this way?” he broke the spell, unable to bear it, not curious at all.
She chuckled, not replying.
“I have sharp ears,” she answered, retiringly.
Edward glanced sidelong down on her petite head, her blond streaks even, no longer shining in the darkness. Her attentiveness left him bewildered with implications.
“You couldn’t keep your eyes off me all evening,” she looked up at him, stopping short. “I’m not blind.”
Edward stopped in midstride as she drew up opposite him.
Here, she shrugged.
Some sort of fraternity home, he scanned the building. A curtain was flapping, and several windows were still lighted up, a Justin Timberlake song heard over the radio on his way to work floating down from near the roof.
“Thanks for the company,” Neela said.
“Not very cheerful, I’m afraid, but pleasure.”
“Mine, too. Safer, than walking alone,” she peered over her shoulder at the empty road. “Sorry, can’t invite you in, my roomy’s got his girl up.”
“That’s fine. Go in then, goodnight.”
“Do you have to go far?”
Not really, five more blocks. He’d taken a detour but didn’t tell.
“Well, goo’ night, then.”
She tiptoed on her stilettoes and pecked his cheek. Edward reached out and held her shoulder to steady her on her feet again.
She stood without moving, beaming at him. He didn’t know why.
“You’re hopelessly out of practice, I can see,” she said at last. “This is the point you’re supposed to ask if you can see me again.”
He threw his head back and chortled, embarrassed and amused.
“I’m forty-seven,” he blurted, sobering, staring straight into her eyes. At least would be, in three full weeks.
“Great! Call me for the party,” Neela said, staring straight into his. “I love cakes.”
She slipped her hand out of her coat pocket, folding a chit of paper into his hand.
“Don’t lose this now. I’ll be waiting for the call.”
Edward let out a slow breath and smiled.
“Now get in,” he whispered gently. “Before we catch our deaths standing here.”
Suddenly, despite the cold, he began to feel warm.