At Your Best
I feel like an over-inflated balloon filled with confetti that's just about to burst. Everything tonight has just been outstanding. The ballet was beautiful and the orchestra absolutely perfect, all of which I watched from the best spot in the house since Eggy's family has a whole box entirely to themselves. There were even servers that came around with trays of champagne and hors d'oeuvres, but I didn't have any because I'm... well, me.
"You sure you don't want to try a bit of bubbly, Data?" asked Eggy, looking concerned. "Don't be shy, eh. You can eat and drink whatever you want to your heart's desire. That's how I always survive these events."
Eggy's parents were also surprisingly nice, considering what Melanie had to say about them. She told me they were the usual snobby rich white people I'd see as villains on soap operas who'd probably be extra critical of me because I'm neither white nor English. She couldn't be further from the truth. I was nervous about meeting Eggy's mother, but she was actually a pleasant and welcoming person from the get-go. She asked about my studies, where I'm from, and what brings me to England. She listened intently to my answers and told me how very brave I am for venturing out on my own after having been sheltered all of my life, and invited me to sit next to her during the show. Even Eggy looked confounded by his mother's reception of me and kept asking throughout the performance if I were all right.
When it came time to go across the street to the museums for the gala, that's when I lost my confidence. I was fine within the box because there really weren't a lot of people to deal with. There were just Eggy's parents, his three siblings, his father's sister and her husband, and a couple of his father's business associates and their spouses, all of whom were quite lovely to me.
But within the prestigious walls of the Ashmolean Museum with at least two hundred people walking around and mingling, the grasp I had on my reserve of cool and calm began to loosen. Suddenly, I was having a hard time filtering out other conversations and isolating the ones I needed to focus on. I felt like a klutz on ice skates shoved to the middle of a frozen lake when I've never skated before in my entire life.
Struggling to breathe, I lose track of Eggy and somehow make my way through a crowd of people without throwing up and emerge on the other side with a glass door in front of me that leads to an outdoor patio. I don't have my coat on me, since I had to surrender it at coat check, but that doesn't seem to matter. My brain is telling me I have to go outside or something bad will happen.
I shove the glass door open and the chill that blasts me in the face is the kind of cold that seeps all the way to my bone marrow. I've never been fond of temperatures less than 70°F. I'm a California native through and through.
The people milling around on the patio are dressed appropriately for the cold, each one of them wrapped up in a coat or some kind of fur. They all look up and regard me like I'm some kind of alien in their midst. Why wouldn't they? Like Eggy said, I was done up like Barbie's birthday cake, but "in a good way," and they could probably hear my bones shaking like two Chiclets in a tin cup.
I would have gone back inside, except I'd already made the decision to go outside, so I'd have to stick with it for at least ten to fifteen minutes, so I wouldn't look like an indecisive idiot. I don't think I can last that long, though. My dress leaves my shoulders exposed and even though it is long, the skirt itself is made of light materials, such as lace, soft tulle, and chiffon. It gives me zero protection against this particularly cold English evening. Heck, I would be cold even if it were an evening in California. I'm either really hot or really cold all the time. Sister said it's because I have poor circulation.
I see a heatlamp casting an amber glow over the black marble floor and aim for it, making my way there with the grace and speed of an old lady afflicted with full-body rheumatoid arthritis.
I feel the man's presence behind me before I see him. He wraps me up in something thick and warm and guides me gently to the heatlamp. Normally, I would have balked at this because I couldn't stand the idea of wearing another person's clothes since it's been sweated on and riddled with their DNA. But this coat smelled good and most importantly, it smelled... right. Expecting to see my friend, I turn toward him to say thanks and immediately feel my head drain of blood from shock. I stagger like a drunk on my high-heeled shoes and he reaches for my elbows in order to steady me.
"Prof..." Professor is the word my mouth struggles to form and for a long moment, I can only stare at him wide-eyed in utter mortification.
"Miss S," he says, inclining his head in acknowledgment. "I saw a young lady come out here without a coat and thought it might have been you. Silly girl, are you attempting to have the full English experience and catch consumption that you can write your mother about while you lie dying next to a hearth?"
"Umm... no?" I don't even have the guts to look at him. I've been having really vivid dreams about him lately and fear he might be able to discern them by staring into my eyes. I am very aware, however, that his hands are still holding my upper arms and imagine I could feel the heat of his body even through his black leather gloves and thick, black gabardine overcoat.
He's handsome in the daytime, but at night, he is devastating. The tux he is wearing is perfectly tailored to his tall, lean body and most likely from Savile Row. His dark auburn hair is brushed back from his forehead and held in place with product. He isn't wearing his eyeglasses, so in the heatlamp, his features and the angles of his face appear sharper, lending him an even more haughty, aristocratic look. His green eyes, lit with burning curiosity, seem to be drinking me in.
"Who brought you to this event? The invitation was sent out months before you even arrived in this country."
"Eggy." For the life of me, I am unable to come up with his full name. My mind, where that information should be, is blank. "Umm, he's in your Shakespeare class, too."
"Eggerton," he murmurs. "Someone ought to speak to him about taking better care of the young ladies he squires around town. He should have been more mindful of you. Did he introduce you to his parents?"
I sneak a peek at his face and nod. His lips are pressed tightly with disapproval. "Yes. They were very nice. We watched the ballet from their family box."
"Huh. I didn't realize the Eggertons were so progressive," he says, sounding like he's about to laugh. "How long have you been gone from young Eggerton's side? He ought to have noticed by now that you aren't with him. Extremely poor manners on his part that he hasn't yet come along to fetch you. He should know you haven't your coat with you."
I shrug, though I am effectively swaddled by his overcoat and the weight of his hands on my upper arms. I feel honor-bound to defend Eggy, since he was nice enough to invite me to this event. "We got separated in the initial crush when we first entered the ballroom. I'm sure he knows a great number of people here and feels a social obligation to say hello to all of them. He is most likely confident in my ability to look after myself."
He closes in on me, backing me up against the black marble balustrade. "But can you really, Miss S? You foolishly came out here without a coat. Your lips are still practically blue and you haven't stopped shivering."
I look up at him with a frown. "As a gentleman, shouldn't you be taking me back inside and ensuring my warmth, then?"
"I should, but that would mean I'd have to help you find your escort and relinquish you to him. I do not want to do that just yet, Miss S."
I swallow nervously, my pulse beating a tattoo in my throat. Why am I feeling like a cornered small animal like a mouse about to get ravaged by a cat? Instead of being scared, however, I find my body feeling exhilarated, like I could run a marathon, if I chose. I subtly lick my dry lips before I speak. "Why not, Professor?"
"Because I think you are fascinating, Miss S, and I'm quite enjoying myself just standing here with you."
That now familiar orange and pink ball of light sputters to life in my middle, quickly developing tendrils that spread out through all of my extremities. "You must have escorted someone to the event, sir. Aren't you neglecting her by keeping me company out here?"
His green eyes glitter in the heatlamp. "Touché, Miss S. Come, I will help you find your escort, so that I may attend to my own. You're right. I have been very rude myself." He presents his arm to me.
It seems the most natural thing in the world to slip my hand into the crook of his arm, as though for once I had some kind of internal guiding system telling me this is what I'm supposed to do. "It's a pity, sir, that we are not each other's escorts, instead."
As we begin to walk toward the door that leads back to the museum, he gives me a sidelong glance and pats my hand. "I should think that would be wholly inappropriate, Miss S. I am your professor, therefore in a position of authority, and I'm several years older than you. The University and society tend to frown upon professors squiring around their young students to social events."
I nod, understanding the logic behind it. By virtue of the professor's position, there will always be an imbalance of power between him and the student. The professor could unduly influence the student, since he or she would not possess the life experience of the instructor, and therefore might always defer to the elder's "better" judgment. I can see how that can be problematic.
"Ah," I say in response because I don't know what else to say. He raises one eyebrow at me as he pulls open the door to let me in. I cross the threshold, sensing he is expecting something from me that I am not currently providing. "What?" I finally ask.
With a slight smile, he shakes his head. "Nothing for you to worry about, Miss S."
"My darling CC! There you are!" says the syrupy voice of an older woman. "Your sister Shelby told me you weren't coming out tonight. It's been ages since I saw you last."
The speaker is a tall, slender blond woman about forty years of age and wearing too much eyeshadow and blush that do not complement her skin tone. She is wearing a long royal-blue dress with capped sleeves and around her neck is a necklace sparkling with sapphires and diamonds. I knew right away that I wasn't going to like her because she is wearing a perfume that isn't chemically compatible with her natural body odors and way too much of it. The smell she is emitting is discordant to my nose. Her voice isn't pleasant, either. She sounds like a mewling alley cat in heat who is also starving for food.
"Lady Woodrow, it is nice to see you," the professor says pleasantly, accepting the woman's exuberant hug and kisses on both of his cheeks. "How is your family?"
"The children are both away at school and Woody is in London for another two weeks," she replies, her mouth tightening a little. "You look as handsome as ever, you devil. I heard about the demise of your relationship with that poor little teacher you were seeing. You keep breaking hearts everywhere you go. One day, you're going to meet the girl who'll pull the rug out from under you, you know..."
"Thankfully, that hasn't happened," the professor says, sounding amused. "And Alice wasn't just a 'poor little teacher'. She's on the tenure track at Oxford. She'll be just fine."
There is something about this woman that makes my skin crawl. She is sexually desirous of the professor, to be sure. It is obvious from the way she has been checking him out for the last few minutes, as though he were a slab of raw meat and she a slavering she-wolf. She has also been making quite an effort to pretend she hasn't noticed me even though I am standing right next to Dr. T and my hand is nestled in the crook of his arm. Very interesting, this. I wish I had a writing pad with me, so I could take field notes. I feel the need to clear my throat or do something that would draw attention to my presence, but choose not to. Sometimes I encounter social situations from which I can predict the probability of certain outcomes and ordinarily make my decisions based on how favorable the ratios will be for me. This is not one of those situations because there are too many unknown elements, the biggest of whom is Lady Woodrow. What is her connection to the professor? She seems to enjoy a familiarity of some sort with him, but whether or not he is as fond of her as she is of him, is another bit of information that I don't have.
"And who is this lovely creature?" the older woman asks in a cheery tone, though her facial expression does not match it. She narrows her gaze at me as she scans me from head to toe and wrinkles her nose as if she has smelled something bad.
"She is here with the Eggertons," the professor answers promptly. "I have their youngest in my class this term and this lass is his date. She is also in my class. She got turned around on her way back from the powder room and I am escorting her back to where she belongs."
"Oh, an Oxford girl, is she?" says the woman with some surprise. "Where are you from, child? I speak a little bit of Cantonese."
Something akin to anger comes over me. Does this woman think all Asian people come from China? Even if I were Chinese, what if I only spoke Mandarin? What a presumptuous... person. The sensation reminds me of sunburn and I half-consciously wonder what full-on rage would feel like. Sister said I used to have them when I was younger, but I don't really remember any instances of it.
"She's an American, incidentally," the professor replies for me. "Lady Woodrow, most Americans are monolingual, and oddly proud of it, in fact. I wouldn't assume she speaks anything else, but English. You were born and raised in San Francisco, weren't you, dear girl?"
I can speak conversational French and some Spanish, but that really isn't the point the professor is trying to make here, so I refrain from letting him know that I speak other languages. The one language I don't speak, but wished I did, is my mother's native language, Tagalog. "Yes, sir." I blink.
"Ah, well. One never knows these days," the woman says, her skinny lips tightening into a line of exasperation. She thrusts her chin upward, as if to dismiss me, and puts on a brilliant smile for the professor. "Well, CC, I'll be in town till Monday afternoon. I should like it if you drop by at the townhouse for a visit sometime this weekend. We have soooo many things to catch up on."
"If my schedule permits it, my lady." The professor leans over to kiss both of the woman's cheeks without his lips actually touching her skin. "Please give my warm regards to Lord Woodrow and the children."
"I will, darling." She gives me one last look, one that would have turned me into stone if it had the power, before swishing away to say hellooooo to other people.
I glance up at the professor. "That woman was wholly unpleasant."
The professor's eyes glitter in amusement. "You are refreshingly candid. But here's a tip, Miss S: not all of our opinions should be expressed out loud, especially in a setting like this. Lady Woodrow is a very influential woman with very powerful friends, so you don't want anyone overhearing you speaking poorly of her. In fact, you should never speak poorly of anyone. You just never know who's listening."
It's not something I've truly considered before because I tend to just verbalize whatever comes to mind pertaining to the situation at hand. "Is it to avoid hurting someone's feelings?"
With my hand still resting on the crook of his arm, he covers it with his much larger one and looks at me as though he were trying to read my mind. "To say the least, Miss S. Are you familiar with poker? It's about keeping your cards close to your chest. You don't want to reveal what you have or don't have so early in the game."
I nod in understanding. It seems I have a lot to learn about human behavior from this man. He is so sophisticated and knowledgeable, like he has experienced most of everything in the world even though he isn't yet thirty. I can actually feel myself becoming more and more drawn to him, like I have a rope tied around my waist and he is steadily pulling me closer to him. His company is intoxicating.
We haven't walked more than fifteen feet into the crowd when we almost bump into Eggy, who has apparently been searching for me this whole time.
"Cripes, Data, where did you get off to?" he cries upon seeing me. "I've looked high and low for you. I was about to ask security for assistance. I thought you might have gone home or something."
The professor pats Eggy on the shoulder. "As you can see, Eggerton, she is just fine. I've located her for you. I was about to escort her back to you, in fact."
Eggy plucks at the lapel of the overcoat I'm wearing. "Is this yours, Professor?"
Dr. T glances at me, then back at Eggy with a raised eyebrow. "I found Miss S wandering in the back patio without a coat, Eggerton. It is freezing out there."
Eggy looks at me in dismay. "Data, why would you do a crazy thing like that? Are you bonkers?"
I shrug. "We got separated. I couldn't find you. I don't do very well in crowds on my own. I had to get fresh air."
"Damn sorry about that, D," Eggy says, clapping me on the back. "I'm the arsehole who misplaced ya." He switches his attention to Dr. T. "Thanks again for taking care of her, professor. Mighty decent of you."
Dr. T extends his hand to shake Eggy's. "Keep a close eye on her, Eggerton. She's your responsibility."
"Yes, sir," my date says solemnly.
I remove the overcoat with the assistance of Eggy and hand it to the professor. Though it is nice and comfortable inside the museum, I immediately miss the warmth and coziness it provided. It felt like a protective shell. "Thank you so much for letting me use your coat, professor."
"It was a pleasure, Miss S," he says, folding the coat neatly over his arm. "Stay close to your escort and don't go wandering off on your own anymore, all right?"
For some reason, my face becomes very hot like I've been under the sun too long. "Yes, sir."
"Good girl, Miss S. Mind how you go. I'll see you in class. Take care of her, Eggerton."
Good girl. A sense of accomplishment and pleasure surge through my body, lighting me up from head to toe. I realized right there and then that I'd do anything to hear him call me that again.
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