CHAPTER 9

Glorious

I’m finding it hard to stop staring at my reflection. I look beautiful. I’m even prepared to be vain and say I look stunning. My hair is pinned into a beautifully styled loose chignon. I’ve spent time in the salon and I now have an even all-over tan. My makeup has been perfectly applied, complete with thickened lashes, and a shimmering blush. My gold earrings are exquisite, delicate chains with tiny diamonds embedded within the links. They make a gentle shushing sound whenever I shake my head and I feel overly indulgent when my matching jeweled nails catch the light as I stroke and play with the chains.

With a descending hem line, my deep-red knee-length crepe ballgown reaches the floor but still shows off my legs. Cinched in at the waist, the bodice rises into my collarbone with shoe-string straps, creating an almost halter-neck style. After slipping into a pair of nude understated heels, I take hold of my matching clutch and complete the look.

“Perfume?” I say aloud as if the bottle has ears, and search over the shelves for where I last put it.

“Are you talking to me?” Gerard asks, coming out of the bathroom in his tuxedo and into the walk-in closet.

“No, just myself.” I find my favorite Chanel bottle and mist my wrists and elbow crook with the delicate scent.

“Look out Alisha Martin,” Gerard says, coming behind me and encircling my waist, his chin dropping onto my shoulder with a smile. We stare at each other in the mirror. He’s happy and jaw dropping to look at and for a moment I pull the veil over all the truths he has become. When he presses a freshly shaven cheek against mine, murmuring that I look gorgeous, my throat turns dry and I have to close my eyes to conjure a smile. Inside I feel like crying. If only I’d never cheated, I would have remained blissfully unaware of his faults and happy with this man.

 “Perfect in fact,” he adds, then inquires if I’m almost done.

When I nod, he reaches around my waist and squeezes. “I always knew you’d be the woman of my dreams, Paige. I saw the potential in you the moment I laid eyes on you, and you can’t imagine how much I appreciate that you’ve accepted me for who I am, and what I like.” He places a gentle kiss at my temple. Standing straight, he steps to the side and flicks at his jacket. “Now, if you’re ready, I think we should go. You wanted to be there early,” he says, fixing his bow tie. “I’ll go downstairs and check if the car has arrived.”

I look at myself one last time. Suddenly I don’t feel so beautiful anymore.

 

***

 

An hour later, when we arrive at the event, the limousine driver comes to open my door. I wait for Gerard to take my hand. There are people mingling everywhere on the lush parkland’s overlooking the ocean and waiters weaving around with trays of hors d’oeuvres and champagne. Snatching up a glass the moment one is offered, I follow Gerard as he leads the way inside. Several large marquees are joined into one and floating heart-shaped balloons create a red ocean above our heads. Dominating the floor area are at least one hundred round tables covered in white linen surrounded by fabric-covered chairs with a bow fastened at their backs. In the center of every table there are long atriums, and tall glass vases with fairy lights spilling over  create a waterfall effect. There are just as many people gathered in small groups between tables if not more than there were outside.

“Wow, it gets better every year.” I’m in awe of the setting, transfixed for a moment on the band as they set up on the dance floor.

“It does, and you played a hand in it. Be it half-hearted this year.” Gerard pulls me in at the waist, and I’m sure he must feel me stiffen because he kisses my cheek attempting to soften his cutting remark. “I didn’t mean it the way it sounded. Do you see anyone we know?” Gerard swings his head in all direction before guiding me through the crowd. I catch pieces of excited conversations as we pass gathered groups both large and small until we are standing nearer to the bar.

Looking to spot Annabel, I also become curious about Alex and open my mouth to ask why we didn’t pick him up, considering the beach house was on our way. But when Gerard spots someone and waves, I think better of it, and my mouth snaps shut. It’s probably better I don’t appear overly concerned if I can help it.

 “Well, I’m not sure about you, but I’d like a drink at the bar. Would you like to come, or do you need to see Annabel?” he asks.

“Would you mind? I’d like to check how she’s holding up under the pressure.”

“Go ahead, I’m sure I’ll find you again,” he says. He stops briefly to greet people he recognizes before I go on my search, secretly hoping I run into Alex.

Smiling and nodding to people in my travels, I walk through the large marquee with purpose, touching tables and pushing in chairs, trying to feel at least a little helpful given Gerard’s comment earlier and the fact that he’s right. Previous years I was much more hands-on.

The stage has a lectern, and there is a big banner against a pleated curtain. To one end of the banner, there is a photo of smiling children, obviously patients, because they have oxygen leads under their noses, and on the other end—why the foundation was founded in the first place—is a heart-warming photo of Claudia McMillan and her baby son Noah before they both died. Noah through lack of essential equipment and then later Claudia from suicide because of despair. Then smack in the middle is the LA Children’s Hospital’s logo, bright and in flight, and splashed across the very top are the words ‘Brave Heart Foundation’ in bold red letters.

As I move on, waitstaff breeze past me with empty trays, and I notice a flustered organizer talking to them before they re-enter what I assume is the caterer’s marquee. She is a small woman in a black dress suit and red scarf. I decide she looks important enough to know where I might find Annabel.

Pointed in the right direction, I find Annabel in a separate marquee, nursing a champagne glass and talking with a gentleman in a dark-gray, pinstripe suit. When he looks my way she also glances in my direction, but it takes a moment before she registers it’s me.

“Well, it’s about time,” Annabel sings out, abandoning her companion in favor of me, gliding over and looking beautiful in a knee-length pale-blue dress with folds of fabric falling off her shoulders, accentuating her pearls. “But well, look at you.” She takes me by the tops of my arms. “You’re just a diamond in a rhinestone world, Paige honey.” She inhales deeply. “If I didn’t love you so much, I’d hate you for turning me green.”

“No, you’re the one who looks gorgeous. What a beautiful dress,” I whisper in her ear when she swooshes me into a hug. I nudge her off when her companion begins making his way toward us.

Annabel spins on her heels when he arrives. With a big grin plastered across her face and looking proud-as-punch, she feeds her arm through his and turns to me.

“Paige, meet Ronald Klaneski.” 

Ronald holds my gaze and offers his hand. “I like your work,” he says scrapping his top teeth against his bottom lip, drawing my attention to the scar Annabel mentioned. He’s a lot taller than Annabel but only slightly taller than me with my heels.

“My work?” I ask, confused.

“Your photos, silly,” Annabel replies, shaking my arm and setting my hand free from Ronald’s.

“Oh. Thank you. I thought they’d be appropriate,” I say, looking at the mountain of donations that comprise expensive looking cow-hide chairs to crystal vases and light fixtures. “Who’s the auctioneer?” I ask, moving around to take everything in.

“A Mr. Sebastián Van der Kleine,” Annabel pulls a face. “Mouthful of a name, but he’s supposed to be good.”

“Can I get you ladies a drink?” Ronald interrupts, obviously not interested in our quiet chit-chat.

“Ain’t he just a gentleman? Thank you, Ronald, we’ll just wait right here for you.” Annabel bats her heavily made-up eyes and wiggles up her nose.

I look from one to the other. My mouth holding an awkward smile because Ronald continues ogling Annabel for an interesting extra few seconds longer before leaving us. When he’s gone, Annabel touches my arm.

“Told you he was good looking. I’m telling you now, Paige, if he were to grab me in a dark alley, I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t graciously lift my skirt and let him take me from behind.”

“Annabel!”

“Oh, Paige sweetie, you have no idea. He just does something to me every time.”

I think I might, but I don’t tell her that. Instead, I point out numerous donations that look unique to divert her attention.

“Have you been mingling or just hiding out here all night?” I ask, running my hand over a large plush cushion then pick up a box to peek at what’s inside.

“No, I’ve been out. Got as nervous as a whore in church though, so I’m pretending to guard the goods ‘till I’m skunk-drunk. Where’s Gerard? Oh, and did you see Alisha? Did you notice what she’s wearing?” she asks, rolling her eyes as she drinks the last of her champagne. I shake my head.

“Gerard’s where else but the bar,” I say, putting down the box that contained a watch and picking up a silver picture frame with a generic image of a mother and baby and smile at it. Annabel studies the photo, then contorts her face at me.

“What? It’s a sweet photo,” I tell her.

“You know they pay them lots of money to look that happy. It sure ain’t like that in real life. Come on, put it down, you’re depressing me. You don’t want babies anyways.”

Extracting the frame from my hands and putting it aside, Annabel turns me around toward the larger pieces on offer, including my three large canvas photos.

“So, what’s Alisha wearing?” I ask, knowing she’d love nothing more than to run her down.

“Oh, you’ll see,” she inhales deeply. “If you can’t find her, just look for a cluster of men. I guarantee she is in the center holding them all hostage, including my husband,” she complains.

“Cut it out, Annabel, she’s not that bad.” I slap her hand. “And you have nothing to worry about with Stuart, anyway.”

“Did someone say my name?”

Annabel squeezes my arm and leans into me. “No, but maybe he might,” she whispers, arching her brows and glancing at Stuart before unhooking our arms and smiling wide for him, leaving me wondering what she means.

We head toward Stuart who’s carrying two champagne flutes. Suited up, he looks smart in gray. The color catches his eyes and his curls have been cut since I last saw him.

“I believe you ladies requested these,” he says, offering the flutes when he is closer. “Hi Stu, looking good,” I say, taking the glass and raising it at him. We exchange pleasantries before he is trying to lure Annabel away.

“I’m struggling to find anyone I know except Gerard, and he seems to have stumbled onto some old friends or clients by the looks,” he says, making me curious.

“Oh, all right then, I’ll come out,” Annabel whines, then downs her bubbles.

“Babe, take it slow, you’ve got speeches to make remember?” Stuart advises, leading her away with me following close behind.

I find Gerard by the raised Parquet dance floor, talking to a youngish couple. The lady is wearing a sexy backless mermaid dress that sparkles when she moves, which is a lot because she keeps looking around at the thickening crowd. Her blond hair has been straightened, and she is fidgeting with her matching midnight-blue clutch. Her partner is also attractive. Almost as tall as Gerard, he carries the tuxedo he’s wearing with ease. His hair is cropped short all over that I’d almost call it a buzz cut but not quite and white blond. He’s lean from his waist down, but his chest resembles that of a rooster. All puffed up and proud. I approach slowly, hoping I catch sight of Alex before I reach them, but I don’t.

Instead, I notice Alisha, and she is jaw-dropping gorgeous in a gold, sequin full-length gown that hugs her svelte form. Her hair is styled into a volumized bob, and she looks to be wearing every rock she owns on her fingers while her hands talk in animation to the crowd. I don’t see Nadal anywhere, but knowing his form, he’s hunting down young prey.

Having noticed me, Gerard calls out and waves me over. When I’m among them, he introduces me to his companions.

“Hello,” I say, tucking my clutch under my armpit and shaking their hands in turn.

“This is Oliver and Falon’s first time here,” Gerard says on their behalf.

“Oh. Okay. What do you think, it’s impressive isn’t it? So, what made you come tonight?” I fire off questions before they have time to answer even one.

Oliver looks at Gerard who is now looking over the crowd.

“We—were invited,” he stammers.

“You’re not from here?” I say, tilting my head, trying to pick his slight accent.

“Born in Sweden but I’ve lived in the States over fifteen years now.”
“Oh, and how are you liking it?” I address Falon, but she just smiles and lets Oliver do all the talking.

“It’s exciting, yes. There are many opportunities here in the States. Gerard tells me you enjoy photography.”

I nod.

“And you work for a well-known publishing house?”

“Uh-huh, that’s right, just part time.”

“Will you excuse us, Paige, Oliver,” Gerard interrupts. “I’m just going to introduce Falon around. Falon is looking for work.”

She nods, and her round big blue eyes light up when she smiles shyly.

“What do you do, Falon?” I ask, taking a sip from my glass.

“I am a re—cep—tion—ist,” she says in a succession of syllables, attempting to perfect her English.

“Well, you’re in the right place to establish some reputable contacts.” I nod and take a step back. “I’ll let you go too, Oliver. You might like to meet some other people yourself,” I suggest, already throwing my eyes around in search of Alex.

“No, no, that’s fine, Paige, you chat with Oliver. He has an interest in photography as well. I think you’ll have plenty in common, and I’m sure the formalities will start soon.” He glances at his watch. “We’ll be back soon.” Falon smiles up at him when he takes her by the elbow and leads her away, which leaves me with an uncomfortable feeling.

Shaking my insecurities off, I turn my attention back to Oliver. “So, you’re a photographer then?”

Oliver smiles. “Yes, you could say that,” he says, taking a hand to the small of my back. “Can we walk? I’d like to take in a cigarette before we’re asked to sit. Do you smoke?”

“No,” I reply but let him escort me toward the exit, his hand feeling warm on my back. His cologne is something cheap because it assaults my nostrils when the breeze from outside rushes toward us.

“Would you mind keeping me company, we can chat outside.”

“Sure, why not?” I reply, being friendly. It’s only then that I notice Alex, and he is looking my way. I smile at him and shrug then pull a “I don’t know” face at him, feeling relieved that he’s finally here. I throw my head back as we leave the marquee, hoping to get a better look at who he’s with, but the crowd is so thick, I can barely see his face anymore. I’m hoping Oliver is a quick smoker.

“So, what’s your expertize in photography?” I ask as Oliver lights up. We are not alone outside even though the air is rather chilly, now the sun is setting. There are several more smokers and odd bods milling about.

“Nudes,” Oliver says, catching me off guard.

“Oh!”

“Yes. Erotica, actually.” He returns his packet of smokes to his inner jacket pocket. “Does that shock you?”

“Um, no,” I reply cautiously, although I’m struggling to understand why Gerard would assume Oliver’s interests were the same as mine.

“They’re tasteful,” he tells me as though reading my mind, then draws deeply on his cigarette and looks down on me.

“I’ll take your word for it,” I say, wishing a waitress would come by so I can get another champagne.

“You’re shocked, aren’t you? I can see you thinking, and you’re blushing,” Oliver says, making my face hotter.

“No. Well, yes, maybe a bit. I’m a landscape and clothed people kind of gal myself, so I guess I don’t share the appreciation of the human form quite like you do.”

“I would love to photograph you some day. Your hair is astonishing. I imagine it’s quite long when down, and it would cascade nicely over your equally beautiful breasts. Do you also have ginger pubic hair?”

“Excuse me!” I say, laughing because he is so forward it’s funny. “Do you?” I fire back.

“Only when I dye them,” he laughs.

“Well, if you must know, I don’t exactly have that much left down there, but what I have is much darker. Now stop flirting and tell me about your wife. Falon is a very unusual name,” I say, twisting the stem of my empty glass between my fingers.

“She’s not my wife.”

“Oh, you’re not married?” I ask, just as a waitress zips by. “Whoa, hold up please,” I sing out calling her back. She stands patiently so I can deposit my empty glass and grab two more, offering one to Oliver.

“Thank you. Cheers,” he says, clinking my glass with his. “No, beautiful, she’s my younger sister. I needed a plus one, and she needs to find a job,” he says, gulping down his champagne in one giant mouthful. “She’s only here for six months in the U.S, but I suggested she gets work. See what the Americans are all about.”

“Can’t argue with that.”

Oliver walks a little distance away and puts his cigarette out in the bin provided. When he returns, he stands in front of me, looking down and smiling. He is handsome in a clean-cut kind of way. Fresh faced with a broad grin and large white teeth. Typically, Scandinavian I would think.

“This friend of yours, Annabel, Gerard said she is largely responsible for organizing this show.”

“Event,” I correct him.

“Is she as beautiful as you?”

“Far prettier, I think. Why, are you looking to pick someone up for the night?” I eye him over the rim of my glass while quenching my dry throat. “Because she’s married and committed.” I waggle my finger at him. “Now, Alisha on the other hand…” I trail off and laugh at my own joke. After looking around to check who is in earshot, I add, “Alisha will be the one in the center of the room in there,” I jerk my head. “Surrounded by a moat from all the men drooling.” I giggle again and take more of my champagne, which incidentally is going straight to my head. Oliver smiles and chuckles in encouragement. Using my hand as a shield in a mock gesture to show I don’t want to be overheard, I whisper, “She’s married as well, but, you might just be right up her alley, I think.”

Oliver nods and puts his hand on the small of my back, pulling me closer to his mouth.

“Alley?” he questions, obviously not understanding the term.

I pull back and look at him in the face. “You know lane-way, road, path,” I drain my glass, acutely aware he is now making small circles on my back and still flirting with me.

“Oh,” he nods. “Actually, I rather hoped I’d be …

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