All Rupert Payton was certain about was that every eye was on him except hers'.
Guests were everywhere, moving around and through him, judging him but not seeing him. He surveyed the collective who had gathered for this congratulatory little soiree. Opposite was his sister, Lydia, who shared his striking red hair and was working her way up through the junior publishing ranks. Next to her was her boss, who had a dubious marital record and wanted to work his way up her leg. His moustache was twitching intently above his tremendous pile of trembling chins.
Rupert turned his gaze to his left and came eye to rheum with some fusty old fossil, who had a suspiciously political archness. His golf widow wife sat beside Lydia. She was chatting far too energetically at her husband who managed a sneer of contempt by way of an ice breaker before turning whatever measure of his attention span he deemed necessary back to his wife. Rupert guessed they were probably the parents of the host; a chirpy, vacuous blonde who worked with Lydia. She was fretting over whether everyone had enough to drink and whether everyone should have the starter now or later and he considered glowering meaningfully at her but decided she wasn't worth the bother.
She was at the far end of the table on Lydia's side. Not that Rupert would dare embarrass himself if she was sat by him.
Light chatter was floating around the table, pervading everything from the napkins to the salmon mousse. Everything except himself. Rupert ran a finger round the collar of his new Boateng. He knew the shirt had been over-starched and he had volcanoes of irritation erupting all over his neck to prove it. The damn thing was itching furiously and he was sure Ellie Larkin on his other side was whispering her horror of his bulbous shaving rash to that smug git lawyer, Edwin Farber. Farber leant forward slightly and flicked an eyebrow at Rupert, then raised his champagne flute. Flagrant mockery. The bastard.
" So, Payton, smugged Farber. " How's the writing going ?
You could almost hear the disgust in his voice. He virtually spat the word 'writing'.
" Fine, Rupert muttered, thickly.
" Saw the review in The Times. Favourable.
" Took a writer friend of mine along actually.
" And did you enjoy it ?
" She did. So what's next ? Project ?
" Nothing specific.
" Ah, playing around ?
" Not exactly, working on a new play¦
" Splendid ! Should keep you out of mischief for a while, whaddya say? An eyebrow and a wink this time. Ellie giggled.
" If only you had such luxuries, Ed, Rupert replied, determined to avoid this condescension unanswered. But Farber had lost interest a long time ago and was once again engaged with Ellie Larkin. She was in trouble tonight, Rupert observed lugubriously. His eyebrow was going like an oscilloscope and his odour reeked of expense.
And then there was her. There was always her.
" Everyone ready for mains ? chirped the chirpy host. Choruses of "mmms and "yeses and then the caterers descended, sweeping the table clear. Rupert was impressed. Or was that depressed ?
" Well someone's in a little bit of a mood, aren't they ? the host chirped in the direction of Rupert. Startled from his wallow, Rupert analysed the entire quota of guests, trying to identify the audacious speaker. His eyes fell on the host and then tried to fall on something else.
" Are we a little grumpy-pants today, Rupert ? the host persisted.
" A large grumpy pants actually, Rupert replied, opting out of eye contact and pretending to be fascinated by a crumb of salmon.
" Oh dear. Anything I can do to cheer you up ?
For the first time that evening, Rupert raised a grin. " That's quite an offer, love, Rupert said, cheekily. " No wonder your parties are so popular.
" Really, Rups, muttered the host, flushing scarlet and turning quickly away to someone else who was trying to ignore her. Rupert chuckled into his flute.
Who was that woman anyway ? Rupert had a vague idea of her being called Eve or something equally perky who was big hitter in travel, but she was no more than an acquaintance. He was only here as a favour to his sister, the big writer brother on exhibition, to impress her publishing colleagues. Lydia broke away from her conversation with the letch to reach her hand across the table.
" Are you alright, honey ? she said, her gaze leaking with concern.
"Oh sure, said Rupert. He even managed a carefree laugh, which alarmed the girl serving him his minted lamb.
" Well you seem to be in an awful tizz about something, Lydia said.
Rupert studied her for an intense moment and decided that she seemed bothered enough. He leant in confidentially.
" I despise soirees, he admitted. The crestfallen look on his sister's face made him feel better already.
" You do ? she said, meekly.
" You know I do.
" You never said.
" Well, I've grimaced at enough to make it obvious, Lyddy.
Lydia curled a loose strand of her flame-red hair around an anxious index finger.
" No-one's interested in anyone, Rupert pressed.
" How so ? Lydia was looking increasingly puzzled.
" Oh come on, Rupert sighed. " If you're wearing an Armani, they'd rather have a conversation with your suit. So bloody superficial.
" Try to lighten up will you ? said Lydia, losing patience.
" OK, I'll set myself on fire.
" God you're obdurate.
" Obdurate ?
" Obdurate. You are. That's you. Obdurate.
" I'm obdurate ?
" Obdurately so.
" Why, because I don't locate my depth in a champagne flute, unlike your buddies ?
Lydia shook her fiery head but allowed herself a small smile.
" You can be odd sometimes, Rup, she said and turned back to her salivating boss who was creeping his left digits up her forearm for attention.
" He's trying to knob you, Rupert fired in quickly, loud enough for Lydia to hear but not the walrus. She flashed him a glare.
Grabbing the Cava, Rupert sloshed another bout of fizz into his flute and guzzled it greedily, slurping loudly to put Edwin Farber and Ellie Larkin out of their doe-eyed place. He ignored their irked stares and smiled to himself. But the sight of her, effortlessly passing him by, sank the champagne faster than he could swallow.
Jess Fire. That was her name. Outstanding literary heavy-weight and she was sat only the length of a dining table away. Jess Fire, poet, novelist and even journalist when she was taking a breather. She was a true working Helen with sharp, Celtic looks and an equally sharp, Celtic mind. She had scooped every literary prize in the book and had publishers and agents eating out of her hand. Not that Rupert was a misnomer in the field but Jess Fire was simply in a field of her own. A magical, seductive, raven-haired, ample breasted field of her own.
She made him feel an unusual mix of things. Passion, jealousy, insecurity, awe, respect¦so many conflicting emotions. Rupert knew her type. She was decided. She made her mind up, she wrote what she wanted, she saw who see wanted to see, (just ask the various arts patrons and publishing moguls who had been entwined on her arm). She was out of Rupert's league, he knew that, but the thing was he wasn't trying to play in her league. Nobody could and at least Rupert had the awareness to understand that.
Not that it would make much difference.
He wanted to speak to her but his palms turned clammy as soon as he so much as thought about approaching her. What would he say? Yes, they had things in common, he was a writer and his credentials were laudable, but what could he say to her ? She could cleave him in two with one pithy remark and, by now, his gravy had a thicker skin. His lamb was barely untouched when it was whisked away from him.
" Dessert, dessert ! cried the host, Eve (Elsa ?) the publishing host. " Hope everyone's brought their sweet tooth !
Rupert realised he'd polished off an entire bottle of champagne by himself and Jess Fire had just stared through him to admire a Caravaggio copy. He started to feel sick.
Dessert was an aptly named 'Death By Chocolate' cake. Rupert attempted a cursory bite and felt like he was chewing through Cadbury. His fork trembled and the room spun. The retired relic sneered at Rupert through layers of his gateau. He had gone green, surely. Rupert knew his brain was expanding. Putting down his fork he cradled his head in his hands.
" Do you need some fresh air, Rup ? It was Lydia.
" Death By Chocolate, explained Rupert.
" Or atmosphere, sniffed Lydia. " Have a ciggie or something. You look faint.
" Smoke. Rupert nodded vigorously in agreement. He groped the packet inside his jacket, comforted.
" Got a light, sis ? he said.
" Here. Lydia tossed him a box of matches. " Pollute.
Gratefully, Rupert slipped the matches into his pocket and retrieved the cigarettes from his jacket. He could feel the intensity of sweat all over his body. He slunk out of the room and the space he left around the table seemed to close in on itself.
Rupert stood in the middle of the adjacent lounge and pulled out a cigarette. He had placed the filter tip between his lips and was just about to strike a match when something, a presence, made him look up. There she stood, by the doorway. Jess Fire. And she was looking at him in a way that Rupert could only later recall as impassive intensity.
They said nothing. Then she flicked an elegant sling back towards him. Not much, but Rupert got it. The breath halted in his throat and his mouth turned Sahara arid.
She walked towards him and Rupert struck his match. He lit his cigarette and then held the lit end towards her.
" Thank you, she said, lighting her own cigarette. She took a puff and blew a seductive smoke ring above his head.
" No problem, Rupert replied, pocketing his cigarettes nervously.
" So, she said, a mischievous look in her eyes, " Rupert Payton.
" You know me? Rupert felt whatever passed for his cool slipping away completely.
" Oh yes. How suggestive did that sound ? Rupert felt like he was writing a novel but someone had only just told him he had to write in Japanese and the deadline was tomorrow.
" Love Sex, she said.
" I beg your pardon ? Rupert croaked huskily.
" Sex and Other Problems. Great play.
" Oh, ha, ha ! Yes. Cheers.
" What inspired you I wonder ? She was playing him easily.
" Well, you know¦
" Guess I'll have to find out sometime, don't you think ?
" The dessert was too rich, Rupert blurted out. He remembered the recent review in the Times: 'A superb innovator of the written word and a master of sexual parlour games.' Oh, if only they knew¦
He tried again. " I've been an admirer of your work for years, Ms. Fire.
" For a 'superb innovator of the written word' that was a particularly dull question. She'd read the review ! Shit !
" Well, it's true, mumbled Rupert. Jess was totally overwhelming him and he just wanted soothing fresh air and an even more soothing Valium.
" I know, she said, flicking her sultry black hair across her left shoulder. " And I appreciate it. I just don't like to talk shop after opening hours.
" Fair enough, said Rupert. " How do you know the host ?
" I don't. Lydia invited me.
" Lydia ?! She knows you ? She had never mentioned this little fact to him. Had his sister planned this? He certainly wouldn't put it past her.
" Only casually. Actually, I have a confession to make¦ Her soft, yet piercing, brown eyes leant in conspiratorially.
" What ? Rupert found himself whispering back.
" I asked Lyddy if she could invite me tonight.
" Really ?
" Yes. I wanted to meet you.
Rupert was sure his shirt was shrinking under the deluge of sweat pouring off his body.
" You wanted to meet me ? His voice had gone husky again.
" The truth is I've been an admirer of you for years.
" God, you're such a brilliant playwright, she sighed, closing her eyes and running a hand through her incredible hair. " I saw your debut, Expositions of Summer, and since then I've been hooked. Rupert couldn't help noticing her fingers were now playing with the top button of her blouse. Undoing it and then doing it back up, undoing it and then¦
" But Sex is the best yet. Do you know why ?
" Because I'm a master of sexual parlour games ? Rupert grinned through his jangling nerves.
" Rupert, she said seriously, grabbing his hand unexpectedly, " you don't know what effect your words have on women.
Their gazes held for an eternal moment. Rupert waited to hear just how much of a ladies' man he was.
" All my girl friends agree. You could have been writing about any woman's need for sexual liberty. There it was. Rupert allowed himself a smug smile. " Just¦uncanny, Jess went on. " Edwin and I were talking it over in the car on the way and we both agree you're an unnatural talent.
Rupert's smirk twisted into a frown. He didn't like how the proverbial worm was turning here.
" Not Edwin Farber ? Rupert swallowed, praying.
Jess nodded. " He's my boyfriend.
The fucking fucker. He got more breaks than Stephen Hendry. But even this was a trick shot too far. Jess was richer, brighter and more talented than him. Perhaps he had damning litigation over her. It seemed the only plausible explanation.
" Why Farber ? Rupert asked, unable to stop himself. " What do you see in him ?
" I don't know- he's attentive, generous, charming¦Decent enough guy, I suppose.
" Charming ?! exclaimed Rupert. " He hires charm as an accessory for his ludicrous suits ! And the only thing I've seen him be generous with is indictments !
" Well, I doubt he wants to sleep with you, Jess smiled. She'd made her point. Rupert sunk his hands into his pockets and scrunched the insides up in his hands. Petulant, but it made him feel a little better. It would keep him going until he could scrunch up the insides of Farber anyway.
" Jess, time's up. Enter the devil. Edwin Farber stood in the doorway, tapping his watch.
" Gosh, is that the time already ? Jess checked her own watch and raised her eyebrows. " OK hon, let's dash.
Farber gave the thumbs up to Rupert. " Payton ! Have to catch up properly. Lunch, tomorrow, one ?
" You're paying, said Rupert.
" Splendid, replied Farber, saluting and headed for the door with the rest of the guests who were beginning to file out of the dining room. Jess started to follow but, just as she was about to leave, whispered something to Farber and then came back.
" Not this time, Payton, she smiled and kissed him on the cheek. "But who knows what will happen next time.
" There's going to be a next time ? Rupert said.
" I intend to see to it.
Then, with a look over her shoulder, Jess Fire made her way out.
Rupert stood motionless in the middle of the suddenly empty living room, feeling both confused and mildly maddened. Only a gentle tap on his shoulder brought him back from his reverie. It was Lydia.
" Christ, I'll have to wring myself out after having that behemoth sweat all over me at dinner. You alright ? she said, noticing her brother's consternation.
Rupert turned to her and nodded. " Strange night, he said.
" Well, you're a strange person Rups, Lydia grinned. " So at least you know where you stand.
Rupert gave her a puzzled, but amused, look and then said, " you know, I really think I'll go to my next opening night.
Lydia was surprised. " That's not like you bro.
Rupert smiled to himself. " And that's how it should be, he remarked.