When Lambs Become Lions…
Aria meant lion in Hebrew, she thought as she looked at her oval face in the mirror. She studied her hazel eyes and noticed that they were darker than they had ever been in her life. They stood out because her face had lost its shape over the last five years; her cheeks had become so sunken. She studied the new bruise around her left eye, standing stark against her pale cheek. She scoffed at her thought. She never saw herself as a lion, and thought her father had been raving mad when he named her.
She picked up the tube of concealer impatiently, in an attempt to dispel her dismal thoughts. She quickly spread a small dollop on the growing bruise and wondered when she had become so adept at applying make – up. She lightly brushed some blusher on her cheeks, and eye shadow on her eyelids. She applied a cherry coloured lip gloss to her full lips and then studied herself critically in the small bathroom mirror. If no one looked too closely, and if she didn’t push her hair out of her face, as was her habit, the bruise was well hidden. She took a deep breath and packed away her make - up.
Yes, she had definitely picked up some skills in the last five years - how to artfully apply make-up, how to chicly style her hair, avoidance, lying, changing the topic... All to flesh out the farce her life had become. The perfect starlet for the next Hollywood hit...
“Are you done yet? Jeez, how much longer before we can go?” She started as he pounded on the door. She quickly placed her make - up bag into her large purse, and took a last look at her image in the mirror, ensuring that the tailored black pants and white blouse were unquestionable. With a deep, strengthening breath, she straightened her shoulders and saw that the smile on her face was convincing, and opened the bathroom door.
“I’m sorry, Alex. I was just brushing some fluff off my pants.” She said with a shaky smile. She looked at him through the dark bangs of hair covering the bruise. He put a hand to her tender cheek, and she drew in a sharp breath, tensing in anticipation….
He slowly cupped her jaw and brushed his thumb tenderly along her cheekbone. “You know I’m sorry, right?” She nodded jerkily. “If you had just done as I said, it would not have been necessary for me to get angry, Ria.” His voice was so soft, so deceptive. She almost believed that he really cared.
“We need to go,” she said, afraid that he would read the thought that had entered her mind. When had she stopped believing that he actually cared?
She breathed a silent sigh of relief when he let her go and turned to go down the stairs. She took a fortifying breath and followed him out the front door to his red BMW. He opened the door for her, then bent into the car and kissed her cheek. She swallowed the bile that rose in her throat at the contact, and steeled herself not to pull away from him.
She watched him walk around the front of the car. He was a handsome man, his features showing his Nordic ancestry. His jaw was square, his lips full, his light blue eyes framed by dark gold lashes and brows. He usually kept his dark blond hair short, emphasizing his high forehead. He was tall and broad-shouldered. Five years ago, she had fallen in love with how broad they were, till she realized how powerful they made his punches...
She watched as he folded his five-eleven frame behind the steering wheel, and felt a tinge of envy when he lovingly ran his hands around the wheel. He claims to love his car, which means that he wouldn’t pummel his car; so how much can he really ‘love’ you?
The words flashed through her mind, and she had agreed with the speaker at that moment. She had attended a ‘wellness session’ at the last job she had. The woman speaker had been dynamic and passionate, having come out of an abusive relationship herself, years before. Those had been some of the words that had resonated with Aria. And thinking about them now, she knew that Alex would never intentionally damage his car. So how much could he really care about her?
They arrived at the hotel and she was careful to step out of the car so that she was not too close to the teenage valet who had opened her door. She watched as Alex tossed his keys to the boy with a joke, and laid her hand in the crook of his offered elbow as he led her into the opulent hotel foyer. She felt a small flutter in her stomach when she spotted the reporters that were attending the gala lunch honouring Alexander Cavanagh III for his business endeavours.
She felt the familiar sense of pretence she had whenever she attended an event like this with Alex. She smiled for the cameras, and said the right words to the reporters, but she never felt that she belonged in this particular setting. Especially when her freshly bruised cheek started throbbing from the forced smiling. She barely touched the well - presented meal of buttered salmon with an almond and spinach salad, and the few bites she did manage, tasted like ashes.
“So, this is what Annie looked like after she left the orphanage. I always wondered what happened to the poor kid.” Aria turned her head to the gravelly voice beside her. She drew in a sharp breath when she realised how close the stranger was to her, and she automatically drew back to create some distance from him. He noticed the withdrawal and quirked a dark eyebrow as he sat back in the chair he had taken beside her, and folded his arms across his broad chest.
He narrowed his dark grey eyes as he contemplated her. She swallowed to wet her suddenly dry throat and struggled to pull her eyes away from his all-seeing gaze. Her eye fell on the expensive camera resting on the table.
“With which paper do you work, sir?” She asked, her voice soft, almost hesitant.
He smiled. “Why don’t we play Twenty Questions? I’ll answer yours if you answer mine?”
She narrowed her eyes at his cockiness and decided it would be better if she ignored him. She glanced around the crowded ballroom where the lunch was being held and admired the beautiful way it had been decorated. It was while she was admiring a statue of a Greek goddess that she saw Alex speaking to a petite blond woman close beside it. He was standing too close for her to be a reporter, his manner too familiar, and Aria recognized the reason for his outburst just before they had left the house.
She started when she heard the shutter of a camera click beside her. She turned toward the arrogant stranger, her disapproving frown missed as he studied the picture he had just taken of her.
“Amazing...” He breathed. “I never thought I’d live to capture my own true Ice Queen, but here we are. Look at this, Annie. You should be on billboards,” he said, holding the camera toward her. She grimaced and stood up.
“Thanks, but no thanks. And if that appears in any publication, I’ll sue them. Alex is the public figure, not me. If you will excuse me.” She walked away from the table but was still close enough to hear the shutter as he took another photo. She was too annoyed to turn back and admonish him. She was annoyed at herself for being sassy with a stranger for taking a picture of her, but she couldn’t stand up for herself where Alex was concerned.
She was also more aware of the fact that her life was a farce, especially after she had had a glimpse at the photo. She had seen the coldness in her expression, as well as the bruise along her left cheek that the make - up had been unable to hide.
She walked out of the ballroom, her vision blurred by sudden tears. How had things come to this point? Where were the things Alex had promised her? Was this what love was really like? Did it really tear you down to the point that you don’t know who you are supposed to be any more?
She stopped walking when her hand knocked against something hard, causing a sharp pain to shoot through her arm. She drew in a sharp breath at the sudden contact. She examined her hand for any open wounds, but beside another bruise forming, and it throbbing where she had knocked it, everything seemed in order. She heard a rustling and looked around her for the first time.
She was in the hotel’s lavishly landscaped gardens, and looked about her in awe at the topiary of trees shaped like animals and flowers. She explored further and discovered tiny gardens in little alcoves created by trees, and was mesmerized when she discovered a rose garden all in white. It had a tiny white fountain with a statue of Aphrodite pouring water out of an urn, and a bench of white marble in a corner. The bower was fragrant with the different types of roses, all in white. It was so fresh and serene, and she gave in to the alcove’s invitation to sit awhile and settled on the bench. She closed her eyes and lifted her face up to the sun, and felt how the sound of the softly splashing water soothed her soul. She put her hands behind her and leaned back, intending to enjoy every moment of solitude she had.
She sighed softly as she heard a woman giggle in a neighbouring alcove, and then leaves rustling, and thought the woman was probably tipsy and had fallen against the trees. When the giggling turned to moans and sighs, she frowned and then became embarrassed when the sounds of a man joined that of the woman. She wondered if it was the unmannered stranger who had annoyed her earlier, because it seemed like something he would do... Make love in a place that was practically public.
She opened her eyes when she could picture his dark head surrounded by blue skies as his dark grey eyes looked into hers with tenderness as he dropped his head to kiss her. She blushed furiously when she realized that her mind had conjured them together, intimately. She jumped off the bench and was walking past the entrance to the next alcove when she heard something that made her freeze.
“Oh, Alex... That feels good...” The woman moaned. Alex? She looked into the alcove and saw him seated on a bench with the woman straddling him, their activity obvious. She bit her lip to silence her shock. “Does your little mouse make you this crazy?”
He laughed as he kissed her neck. “My mouse does whatever I tell her to do,” he retorted. Aria tasted blood as her teeth broke the skin of her lip.
She gasped when she felt a big hand cover her mouth, pushing against the broken area, her shock exacerbated when she felt a strong arm lock around her waist and felt her five-foot-five frame lifted off the ground. She was unceremoniously dragged into an alcove further down from the one Alex occupied and then placed on a hard bench. Her breathing was ragged, her heart pounding so loud, she barely heard the familiar voice of the stranger close to her ear.
“Jeez china, Annie. I never meant for you to see that.” He had crossed the alcove in long strides and shoved his long fingers into his mahogany waves. He turned and looked at her, his eyes filled with genuine regret. “I’m so sorry, Annie,” he said softly. He then searched the many pockets of his black cargo pants, till he pulled out a white handkerchief, and came to kneel before her.
She looked at him in confusion. What on earth was he talking about?
“You’re bleeding,” he said softly as he gently wiped the tears from her cheeks, and then held the handkerchief to her lip. He must have read the question in her eyes because he then started talking. “After you left, the two of them mingled for a bit, then slipped out. I suspected that they had made an arrangement. When I saw the direction they were headed, I remembered seeing you go the same way when you passed the ballroom’s windows. And I tried to get to you before you saw them. I’m sorry,” he said again.
She pulled her head away from his administering hands, and whispered, “What for?”
He looked at her, and then looked at his hands that were hanging between his knees. He then shrugged with a wry smile. “For not getting to you in time. For you being hurt. For you seeing that. I don’t know. Just for not protecting you, I guess.”
She looked at him incredulously. They didn’t even know each other’s names, and he felt guilty because he couldn’t protect her from Alex’s callousness. She started giggling, which soon turned to laughter, and she was afraid that it would become hysterical if she didn’t stop. She took a deep breath to try and control herself and was able to do so after a time. Looking at him, she blushed as she remembered that she had expected him to be the one with the woman... With her...
“And that is hilarious because?” He raised an eyebrow in query.
She shook her head, still trying to contain a smile, and hoped that he thought the laughter was responsible for her flushed face. “It’s just that an absolute stranger cares more than my -”
“There you are,” Alex’s voice was deceptively jovial as he entered the alcove. He bent and kissed her. “I was looking for you.”
Liar. She looked at her hand to hide her thoughts from him, and then forced a smile. “I lost my way back to the ballroom after visiting the powder room and found the gardens instead. On my way back in, I lost my footing and fell. This gentleman was kind enough to help me. Thank you, sir,” she said turning to the dark stranger. She could read the mutiny on his face and silently begged him to keep quiet.
“Are you hurt, sweetheart?” How caring? She took a sharp breath at her sarcastic thought.
“Nothing serious,” she smiled. “Just a knock to my hand and I bit my lip at the impact. I’ll live. You’re always saying how clumsy I am, Alex.”
“Yes, I am, sweetheart. I’m always rescuing you from one scrape or another. Are you ready to go, sweetheart?”
Her smile froze, and she knew from the way he kept saying sweetheart, there would be hell to pay. She nodded, collected her purse, and then turned to her annoying superman. “Thank you for your help, Mr Kent.”
Alex took her arm as she moved alongside him, and thanked the stranger as well as he guided her out of the garden with a bruising grip.