Bob was holding court, a story about a cruise he’d been on the previous year. He was a natural story teller, and several people in the fringe of the group had started to listen intently. Peter stood and listened to him talk from a distance; it gave him the benefit of seeing Alexis from closer. She looked amazing; she’d grown into a beautiful woman, a million miles from the girl he knew. Then she laughed that same addictive laugh that he remembered and he immediately saw the innocent and fun loving girl that he knew so well. Stopping a few metres away, he waited patiently for the punch line, but typical of Bob he wasn’t planning to lose his moment in the spotlight any time soon!
"You always did love a crowd!" Peter leaned close to the man and spoke as the group erupted into gratuitous laughter.
The older man spun around, and the look of pleasure at the way his story had everyone in rapture immediately changed to surprise, then affection. With a beaming smile on his face, he reached out to embrace the man he knew well.
Alexis noticed Bob turn to hug someone and she looked up intrigued. It was then she met a pair of dark eyes, watching her over Bob’s shoulders. Eyes that instantly started her heart thudding.
Oh my God, her mind was racing, she felt sick. She was glad she was sitting because she’d never be able to trust her legs.
He hadn’t changed, though he was obviously older. His eyes had always been the most beautiful warm brown, but the one time she’d got close enough, she knew they were flecked with a honey colour in the sun. That was ingrained on her most basic memory. His dark hair was peppered with the slightest hint of grey at his temple, and was much longer than she’d seen it, brushing his collar, but despite this it was impeccable, as was his black tuxedo.
What cruel twist of fate brought the object of her uncontrollable childhood crush back into her new calm and finally more sophisticated life?
By now Bob and Peter had separated and were exchanging pleasantries as the older man introduced the younger to the rest of the group. Most nodded in acknowledgement, if they didn’t know his face they knew his name, and most greeted him very enthusiastically.
“I taught him everything he knows!” Bob was like a proud father, “me and Oliver,” he smiled at Peter, “talking of Oliver, you must remember Alexis? She’s here as her father is away. He needed someone to collect his award."
“And give his detailed acceptance speech!” Alexis breathed, it was meant to be a snippy defensive comment, but her voice was barely audible to anyone other than the two men. Reluctantly she looked up and smiled, all full of false bravado. For a moment she studied his profile appreciatively, but then his eyes flitted to hers and she was a goner.
He looked at her for a few moments before a smile swept across his face, "little Alexis! Wow how you’ve grown!" Noting her fume for a moment, and wondering why the hell he’d spoken to her so patronisingly, he paused for a second, then took her hand, at the same time stooping down to kiss her cheek.
He turned to the group and asked in humour, "how did that rat Oliver managed to produce such beautiful daughters?"
Alexis saw red, and turned to him, forcing her voice to remain calm when every inch of her wanted to jump and down screaming in rage...and shame. "I think you’re trying to flatter me, but if there is any beauty in my family then you need look no further than my mother who was a model in her youth! But then having practically lived with us in the past you must be fully aware of how enchanting she is?"
Ouch, he thought, I’ve struck a raw nerve. Smiling nevertheless, he dropped her hand and added, "I do remember, and am glad to see you shine in the same manner. Oliver was a jowly old man in his twenties!" He cringed inside at the comment, suddenly realising what a sexist thing it was.
Fortunately Bob sensed the tension and called out, "Peter, you must come and meet Rajesh! He’s staying with me in the States, he’s a whizz! Reminds me of you as a kid! You know, keen, bright, and eats me out of house and home!"
Peter looked at Bob and smiled, then gestured a goodbye to the rest of the group. But it was Alexis who his gaze rested on for the longest, and the one he reluctantly left behind. Though he was grateful of the break to regroup and work out why he was acting like a complete jerk!
Guilt! He ignored the voice and followed Bob across the room.
As he talked to the other leaders in the Economics field, he could think of nothing but Alexis. He’d last seen her more than six years ago; she’d been sixteen, to his twenty four. He’d been a student of her father’s and was kept on for a two year research placement, which had been the best experience he could have hoped for. That two years and the work it yielded and had been the turning point in his career. He’d gained invaluable experience as Oliver Carmichael was arguably and probably still is the greatest brain in the economics field, and his doctorate was endorsed by SO many great names. On the back of that he’d been one of the youngest consultants of his type, and had a prospering livelihood travelling the globe because of it.
Peter looked across the room and caught Alexis’ eye, she rushed her face away. God she was stunning, but then he’d always had a soft spot for her, even back when she was a kid. He’d spent many an evening at the Carmichael house, the lodgings he had in London were worse than poor, and Rosa, Oliver’s wife, took him under her wing. She was a generous woman, and showed her love by cooking, and caring. He immediately felt part of the family. Henrietta had been the glamorous daughter, make up and big hair, she’d just started dating the man he’d heard she now married. She loved the limelight, and the drama, and he’d felt like a big brother as he’d watched her come home from dates with him.
All the time, Alexis had been there, understated and whilst her parents were very protective, they didn’t see her as a blossoming young woman who was funny, learned and probably more vivacious than her more obvious sister. Not that he disliked Henrietta, it was just that he really liked Alexis, everything about her, for all her strengths, he also sensed sadness, a lack of confidence that he could clearly understand given her family, but more worrying, she seemed lonely.
So it seemed only natural that he, who’d been new to the city and a bit lonely himself had started to spend more time with her, school level biology and maths were easy, so he’d helped her with homework, and she’d spent hours discussing life. She’d seen things so innocently back then, it was refreshing. She was unlike any other sixteen year he’d met, despite her naiveté of life, she was well educated, read such a variety of publications because she enjoyed them that she could verbally battle so many topics, very well. He knew he’d ended up spending too much time with her, that it wasn’t appropriate for him to be all he was becoming to her, and things had ended more than a little awkwardly.
And you made things worse! There was that voice again.
Alexis couldn’t concentrate on anything, the man she had only just stopped fantasising about had just burst into her life with a bang and everything had been turned upside down. For the first time in days she wasn’t thinking about Steve, and the flight he was probably on to Mexico with their friends, or the trips she was about to miss out on. Suddenly burritos and football in Mexico City, or beer and boat trips on the Yucatan Peninsula weren’t even in her peripheral thoughts. Nope. She was thinking back to the only man who saw her as more than just a geeky kid at a time when she’d been feeling very lonely. A sad time, did anyone remember their teenage years favourably?
Her emotions were fraught, she was living on her nerves, and the champagne and cocktails weren’t helping. But despite that she knew she couldn’t cope with food, and that was next on the agenda. This night couldn’t get any worse, not really, but she didn’t want to face another moment. She’d had enough; surely her father could only expect her to show her face at these events. She’d deliver his prepared speech then get away as soon as she could. That was the only plan that could work.
The lobby was deserted, but as she waited for the elevator to arrive, she felt a presence to her right.
"Decided to get away the same as me then?"
Even his voice opened up places in her heart and her brain that had been closed for FAR too long. And Lex needed to pause for a minute, gather her resistances and her pride. Finally she turned to look up at Peter, wanting to be nasty, wanting to hurt him for the way he’d talked down to her earlier, the way he’d belittled the friendship they’d had. But his smile was honest, he was pleased to see her again, his smile said that. Silently they entered the lift and pressed their appropriate floors.
"It’s not really my scene. I’m only here because my father doesn’t like my boyfriend." Lex dramatically looked at her watch, needing to look anywhere but at him, and hoping her words gave her some ammunition, that it seemed she had a life, that she’d survived him. "I should be on a flight to Mexico with him as we speak, but it seems my father yet again interferes with my life - and succeeds!"
Well that told me, he thought, she obviously knows more about what happened than I thought. No wonder she hates me!
The thought of her with a boyfriend, or some greasy student touching her...it drove a knife into his heart. He wanted to say something, but he’d made a real hash of their earlier dialogue. He shook his head trying to clear the fuzz, but it was no use, she had rendered him speechless. A first for him.
Lex waited for an answer, but there was only silence. She was aware of her rapid breathing, how the air in the lift had suddenly become too hot that she felt like she was suffocating. So much for proving she’d recovered after he left, that her life went on. Instead of that she sounded like a petulant child trying to get one up on an enemy. Childish and pathetic! Those words were more haunting that any other. Dropping her head she fought the tears that were suddenly prickling at her eyes. She couldn’t’ let him see her cry. Not now, not six years on!
At that moment the doors opened, and she stepped out, before he could muster a response. And she strode purposely along the hallway away from him.