“Can I stay here?” Beth’s voice dripped misery, just as her clothes dripped water, creating small pools around her shoes. The sound of summer rain filled the house, but Ian muted it by closing the heavy door behind her.
“You can stay as long as you want,” he offered, taking in the smudged makeup around her eyes. He was relieved to see she wasn’t crying.
He lifted his hand to guide her into the living room, but Beth did not move.
“Just choose any room that suits you…this floor is the best choice. I practically live downstairs lately, since the studio’s on the ground floor…”
He was rambling, and Ian never rambled. He noticed she was looking at him with wide, unblinking eyes. He knew this was a bad sign. She was holding on too tightly to the strap of her MGM soft suitcase. He didn’t dare take it from her yet.
“You can stay as long as you want,” he repeated, wondering how long this would be. He had those producers’ meetings, and auditions starting in a couple of weeks. Should he warn her? Should he invite her to his apartment in the city, too?
Inwardly, he cursed Dan. This disaster had his name written all over it.
“You’ll be more comfortable on this floor,” he concluded matter-of-factly. “You know I keep weird hours. The kitchen’s down here, too…you can invite your friends here.” Ian couldn’t remember the last time he had felt like such an idiot. Beth’s trembling lower lip made him feel terrible for worrying about how long she might stay. Her arrival at his door –at this hour –didn’t say much for her other friends. They clearly could not be counted on in a crisis. He was her one shelter in this storm, and it seemed sad – but it felt good at the same time. Ian opened his arms and watched Beth take the few steps that separated them. She burst into tears.
As Ian drank his second cup of coffee the following morning, he couldn’t help wondering what had happened. He had tried to respect Beth’s privacy and had avoided touching on her injuries so far, but now he was ready to perform triage.
When Beth finally entered the kitchen two hours later, she looked wan, and the lines around her eyes and mouth were deeper than usual. She perched on the edge of a Plexiglas kitchen chair that made her look as if she were floating in mid-air.
“I can’t believe I slept till noon.” She was holding her cup of coffee with two hands, warming herself with the heat of the steaming liquid.
“I didn’t want to wake you.”
“I couldn’t sleep until morning. I’m used to sleeping with the TV on.”
“There is a TV in your room!”
“Where?” It was the first time she actually looked him in the eye, and she blushed slightly.
“Hidden within the wall.”
“I should’ve known. Everything is hidden in this house. Do you have something against furniture and appliances, Ian?” She risked a smile that didn’t reach her blue eyes.
“I like clean, wide surfaces. I don’t want distractions...” That was the only instruction he had given to his decorator, along with some color preferences. He had no complaints. Madlen had possessed excellent taste, and had been more than generous with her time…
“I’m so sorry.” Beth’s voice dragged him out of his rose-tinted memories. He focused on her, feeling guilty.
“I was acting a little crazy last night.” She looked ashamed of herself. “I should have explained what happened…but I think you can guess…” She laughed at herself and her struggle to find the right words.
“Dan.” He wasn’t asking a question. “Did he leave?”
That evoked another burst of bitter laughter from Beth.
“No. Your neighbor paid me a visit yesterday. Remember when Dan and I helped a tall, blonde neighbor of yours with a flat tire –oh, about two years, one month, and four days ago?”
No, Ian did not remember, and he remained silent.
“We had a two-for-one offer last month, you know –two months of membership in Matchusup.com for the price of one. We sent ads out to people in their mid-twenties to thirties living in and around the city –we spread the net wide. Your neighbor, Miss Karma Jordan, received one of our ads.” She smiled. Ian had no clue where this was leading. He folded his arms and leaned against the gray countertop, waiting.
“We had no reason to send that offer to Miss Jordan, it seems, because she’s unavailable. She was furious. She thought I’d sent it to her as a personal thing. You see…over the last two years, almost since the day Dan fixed that flat of hers, she’s been having an affair with him. Miss Jordan thought I was sending a message or something.”
For a few moments, there was nothing but silence in the kitchen.
“You should have seen her. Drawn out of a fashion magazine. Dan’s lover looks like Vogue, page 32...a true Barbie doll.”
Ian tried to find something to say but failed miserably. He just let her talk. Beth seemed composed, emotionally distancing herself with her every sentence.
“She couldn’t be more different from me... I feel like I’m married to a man with multiple personalities! Her looks…the way she talks…her body…”
“But you suspected this.” Ian couldn’t let her wallow in self-pity.
“The idea had crossed my mind, as you know, but seeing her –putting a face to the suspicion –was kind of a shock. And when did I finally get it? After he’d been cheating for six months? Eight, maybe? Two years, Ian! He’d been cheating on me for two years before I found out! How am I to trust myself… my judgment, ever again?”
“No one wants to believe something like this.”
“I have no problem believing it now! You should have seen her. She walked around my apartment as if she already owned the place and was thinking of rearranging the furniture... and the things she said…!”
Her voice trembled.
“Two years without a word from Dan to you about her doesn’t indicate a serious affair. He probably just wanted her for —” He stopped just in time. Beth’s face was crimson.
“That’s such a relief!” she spat, and stood up.
Ian hissed some curses in Greek through gritted teeth, thankful she couldn’t understand him.
The view from the kitchen window was unremarkable –just part of the woods and the tennis courts of the neighboring houses. Beth’s stare was locked on them as if Miss Jordan might suddenly materialize in front of her. Ian stepped to the window and pulled down the shade.
“She’s not there. I know who lives there,” he said. “Have you talked to Dan?”
“He’s on a business trip…I’m surprised she didn’t join him.”
“Beth, try to put her out of your mind. She isn’t worth it.”
“I know I shouldn’t have come here like this …but I couldn’t stand being in the house. Every time I close my eyes, I see her touching the furniture, looking at the photos on the mantle…” She took a deep breath. “Do you know what really makes me mad? What makes me mad at myself? That I didn’t say anything…I was looking at her and decided to be the elegant, dignified wife, not to answer her insults. I should’ve grabbed her by the hair and slapped her high cheekbones while wearing brass knuckles. Yes, I wish I had slapped her! What was that word you called that Greek aunt of yours who causes scenes all the time? What’s the name for women like her? You told me once…”
“Katina. The word for such a woman is Katina. But, trust me, you don’t want to be a Katina, Beth. It doesn’t suit you.”
“What suits me? Does a cheating husband suit me? All I know is that I’m such a sucker for not doing anything, not saying anything to that...that…”
“Forget about her. You have to talk to Dan. This is about you and him.”
She turned her back on him. Beth was a tall woman. Still, standing there, facing the gray sink, her shoulders hunched as if trying to protect herself, she looked tiny. Ian hesitated before he placed his hands on her shoulders. She wasn’t alone.
“Only a woman knows how to hurt another woman the way she hurt me.”
“Tell me. Tell me what the cruelest thing she said was.” She stiffened under his palms, “When you hear it out loud, you’ll know it’s nonsense.”
The pause was unbearable, but finally he heard her shaking voice. “She mocked the website I created. She said she couldn’t believe she’d suggested such a lousy site to her cousin…”
“Come on, Beth! I’ve been criticizing your site since day one, and you don’t give a damn.”
“She asked me how I thought I could keep a man like Dan.” It was all out in one breath. Ian knew there could be more, but he didn’t press any further. This Karma was a real bitch. Maybe Beth was right. Maybe only a woman could push another woman’s buttons like that.
“It’s nonsense, don’t you see? What does ’keep a man’ mean? What are men? Pets? I’ll agree with you: Dan is a bastard for doing this to you, but no woman, no man, for that matter, owns another person…”
“It’s easy for you to say, Ian. When you’ve invested in someone for so long —”
“‘Invest’! What a word! Is a husband like the Dow Jones?”
“When you’ve spent years sleeping in the same bed with another person…just to think he slept with another woman…well, the images are really disgusting.”
Ian sighed, exasperated. This was getting them nowhere.
“Next time you fall in love,” she challenged, turning to face him, “or actually are in a relationship, let me know whether you feel jealous or if it hurts…” Her voice faded.
“I don’t take such dangerous risks,” Ian said with a devilish smile, trying to defuse the tension.
“I know…you have your own personal paradise of short affairs.” Her smile was tired.
“I’d be bored in paradise. I thank Eve every day for eating the forbidden fruit. Imagine mankind in Paradise forever! No evolution –no espresso machines.”Ian took her hand and placed it on the crook of his arm. “Come along; let me show you how to use that elusive TV.”
The text on the screen seemed to go gray, and Beth blinked and rubbed her eyes. Gray. That was the color she felt, the color of her sleepless nights in Ian’s guest room. Now it was the color of her daytime fatigue. She yawned, stretched, and carefully placed her laptop, still open, on the glass coffee table and crossed the room to look out into the carefully-manicured garden. Even the brilliant late-summer green of the garden seemed to have dimmed.
Beth was not certain how he had done it, but Ian had created the perfectly functional garden. His carefully groomed conifers and boxwoods were a monument to man’s subjugation of nature, a study in clean lines and angles. Beth wondered how the gardener could stand the situation.
Ian came into view, striding gracefully to the southern end of the garden where an elegant, slate-roofed mews had been constructed for his Harris hawk. He lifted his gauntleted arm expectantly, and Josie descended and landed awkwardly on his hand. In spite of her grace in the sky, her landings tended to be clumsy affairs with much beating of wings, scrabbling of feet, and shifting of weight to gain a better grip on the black leather of the gauntlet. Ian turned and disappeared into the mews with Josie.
Several minutes later, he entered the living room, and he stopped, looking at Beth. She turned to smile at him.
“You were up early,” she commented.
“Josie needed to be flown.”
“…And you stayed up late last night. You’re burning the candle at both ends.”
She had heard him from her bedroom, late at night and into the wee hours of the morning, as he worked over his melodies on his piano. After several hours of experiments with different keys, dynamics and variations on his own work, he had ended his session with a recreational foray into parts of Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 2.
“Did I awaken you?” he asked solicitously.
“I …I was awake most of the night, and it had nothing to do with your piano music. Actually, it helped me to hear you working. I didn’t feel so alone.” She smiled, grateful that she had made progress – no tears had forced her to swallow her words and turn away in silence.
Ian looked at her in awkward, mute compassion, though, and Beth felt her composure cracking. “I’ll get us some coffee,” she said, and disappeared into the kitchen.
Ian ran a hand through his hair, paced, and finally let himself drop onto the sofa, his knee jolting against the coffee table. As he steadied Beth’s laptop, the screensaver disappeared as though a curtain had been drawn, and a woman’s face was revealed. He uttered a curse.
“Ian! Are you okay?” inquired Beth, her eyes wide as she hurried into the room with two steaming mugs of coffee.
“Never better!” he growled, and Beth nearly jumped.
“What was that snarling noise, then?”
“I wouldn’t know; I didn’t snarl!” he said roughly, his eyes fixed on the computer screen.
“But I heard a noise…” Beth began.
“Who the hell is SHE?” barked Ian, gesturing at the photo on the screen.
“Oh…oh, no,” said Beth, moving to close the laptop. “All of my work is confidential…”
“No!” said Ian, and he struggled to focus on the screen. He read the name at the top of the file: Chloë/ Client no. 1287. No surname.
“Please let go of my hand,” came Beth’s voice through clenched teeth, and Ian realized that he had been gripping her wrist to stop her from closing her laptop. He released her, shocked by his own lack of control.
“That woman…the one on your screen…that is the she-devil who slashed my tires!”
“Ian, I think you’ve lost your mind!”
Ian shoved his hands into his pockets. Beth watched him in disbelief.
“That…is the woman!” he repeated, his voice steadier now.
Beth moved the laptop off the coffee table, and Ian’s eyes followed it as she sat in an armchair with it perched on her lap.
“This can’t be that woman, Ian! Out of the millions of souls living within a 100-mile radius of this village, how could you possibly think that this is that same woman? Besides, I’ve looked at the results of the psychological tests she took, and they never lie. This girl is one of the kindest, gentlest…”
“No!” Ian’s voice was icy now. “I know, Beth. I know.”
Beth’s eyes flicked down to the screen again, where Client Number 1287’s face smiled up at her insouciantly. “She is pretty, then…” she murmured.
“Bloody HELL!” Ian roared. He stood abruptly and paced, running his hands roughly through his thick hair. Finally, he stopped, and a sudden calm seemed to steal over him. Beth cringed. “Tell me about her. Tell me about Chloë,” he said in a beguilingly soft voice. “I want to know.”
“No,” said Beth, shakily, but her voice gained conviction as she continued. “Every member of my website is treated with complete confidentiality and the utmost respect. I can’t believe this is happening! It’s my fault for leaving my work out for you to see, I guess. I’m not myself lately, and you know why. But I thought I could trust you, of all people, not to pry, Ian.”
Ian winced as though slapped. “It was an accident…I saw her photo accidentally, Beth,” he said softly.
Beth looked up at him, and he noticed the dark circles under her eyes, physical evidence of the strain Dan’s betrayal had put on her. He sighed.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Beth. Please forget that this ever happened.” He turned abruptly and left the room.
As soon as he had left, Beth turned her attention to the photo of Chloë. Her beauty seemed refreshingly natural; large, soulful violet eyes fringed by long, dark lashes contrasted with fair skin and dark, wavy hair, and she appeared to be wearing little or no makeup. Her neck was long and delicate, and the sunlight highlighted the natural glow of her skin and brought out the auburn highlights in her hair.
Beth glanced at the results of Chloë’s psychological tests, then glanced farther down at the only information she had not yet reviewed – the client’s full name and contact information.
Chloë Christine Jordan.
Jordan? Beth felt the heat rising to her cheeks. It can’t be!
She scrolled up to look at Chloë’s photo again, paying special attention to the house in the background. It had looked vaguely familiar, and now she recognized it. Everyone who had ever visited New Breda knew James Point – its granite porch, the huge Norway spruce, the Mediterranean-style garden urns…the Jordans had lived there for well over a century.
Chloë Jordan –Karma Jordan’s cousin!“Ian!”
“I want to be the kind of woman who slashes tires, Ian,” said Beth as she nursed her second margarita. She sat on the floor of Ian’s music room, her back against the side of his desk, her eyes fixed on her own hand as it held her drink. It was a fragile-looking hand, with slender, tapered fingers. She focused on her other hand, which she closed experimentally into a fist. It looked ridiculously small, and there was a white depression at the base of her ring finger where her wedding ring had been. She imagined it bleeding. “I want to go and slash Miss Karma Jordan’s tires,” she continued, “and I want you to come along with me and slash Miss Chloë Jordan’s tires. Think of it! Their cars will have matching tires!”
Ian muttered something sympathetic without looking up from his work.
Beth rose to her feet unsteadily and hovered behind Ian, observing his broad hands as he wrote. He was transposing music from one sheet of staff paper to another, scowling at the messy corrections he had noted down on the original sheet. A nearby printer was humming, producing more blank multi-stave paper, and a keyboard sat at arm’s length against the wall. The floor was littered with discarded paper. The last rays of sunset filtered golden through a glass of Scotch and water sitting near his left hand.
Feeling Beth’s presence at his elbow, Ian put his pen down and stood up, moving around her to bring her a chair. Once he had coaxed her into sitting down, he sat facing her so that their knees were nearly touching, his Scotch in his hand. He watched her with concern. She hardly ever drank, and after only one margarita, the color had risen to her face and her eyes were slightly red.
Beth shook her head sadly. “A fine pair of devils those Jordan cousins are! A toast,” she said bitterly, lifting her margarita towards Ian’s Scotch and water. “Here’s to arrogant she-devils!”
Ian lifted his glass, but instead of joining her in her toast, he bolted its contents. He set his empty glass down on his keyboard and glared towards the far end of the room, focusing on nothing.
“Well, fine,” said Beth, “Be that way! I’ll have you know that Miss Karma Jordan has beaten me, then. I’ll have you know that girls like Miss Karma Jordan have beaten me all of their privileged lives! Do you think I was ever rich or pretty enough to get into their sorority? Hell, no! Instead, they just looked through me. Do you know how it is to have someone look through you?”
“No,” answered Ian honestly without shifting his gaze. As Beth watched him, she realized the absurdity of her question.Throughout his life, Ian had always been the focus of curiosity, hostility, envy, and adulation –never of indifference. If Beth’s curse had always been that people underestimated her, his curse had always been that people felt too strongly about him –instantly, on sight.
“Of course not,” said Beth, giving him a look of grudging admiration. “No one underestimates you. No one would dare!”
Ian dismissed her comments with an impatient wave of his hand. “You should not consider yourself beaten, Beth. Let’s stick to conversation that has a purpose. Let’s address what is to be done about those Jordan women –how we might obtain redress for the offenses they’ve committed.”
“Well, good luck!” Beth smiled bitterly.
“Let’s start with what we know about the two Jordan cousins: each is an only child, and they are obviously as close as sisters. They must be working as partners. Now…why do you suppose that Karma had Chloë sign on as a member of your dating website?”
“To finish me off! The coup de grace!” replied Beth. “It was the final insult!”
“So, the purpose of this exercise was to insult you?”
Beth forced herself to think, though misery had exhausted her mind. “Well…maybe it was partly to check out how my service works, who my clients are, and find some way to sabotage it.”
Ian was thoughtful. “Maybe our first step should be to sabotage Miss Chloë Jordan before she sabotages you.”
“How do we do that? I can’t let her suspect that I’ve broken confidentiality rules. That would kill my business.”
“Nonsense. We’ll be discreet. Now, Chloë Jordan will expect you to set her up with her first date very soon, and she is the type of woman that I would not wish on any man.”
Beth stirred at her margarita thoughtfully with her mini-straw. “Aren’t you loyal to your gender? Still, you’re right about that. There isn’t a man alive I would set her up with…unless…”
Ian watched as Beth’s countenance brightened with a sudden idea.
“Unless I were to set her up with no one! I could set her up with a fictitious man with a fictitious life story! I could do it, you know! And the little witch could sit and wait for her date to arrive until kingdom come.”
“That’s not quite the level of humiliation I had in mind for Miss Jordan,” said Ian, quirking a skeptical brow. “If I had my way –“
“Oh, Ian, we can’t exactly hire a hit man to bump her off in a restaurant, if that’s what you had in mind! Believe me, this will be completely and thoroughly humiliating for a woman like her!”
“Forgive me if I’m less than impressed by the ruthlessness of your diabolical plan,” muttered Ian. “Such suffering! She may be forced to sit in a comfortable chair for an hour contemplating stale breadsticks and a glass of Australian wine! What torments you’ve dreamed up for her!”
“Ian, please! You know what your problem is? You’re a man! It’s totally different if a woman stands a man up. For a woman, a date who’s a very public no-show is a real source of trauma. The enormous Jordan ego is about to suffer a fatal blow! I bet it will be so horrible for her that I’ll never hear from her again –not in this life, anyway!”
She halted her enthusiasm as she observed Ian’s lifted brow.
“You don’t believe me? Okay, then. I invite you to witness Chloë Jordan’s reaction to her no-show date. I’ll arrange for her to meet her nonexistent date at the Le Coeur Bistro, in fact, and I invite you to join me in spying on her from another table. You’ll see how badly she’ll take it!”
Ian contemplated the idea for a long minute, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. Finally, he turned his gaze on Beth, smiling.“Very well. As you’ve said, perhaps it does take a woman to know how to deal the proper amount of pain to another woman. At any rate, I look forward to seeing Miss Chloë Jordan beat her final retreat.”
After dinner, Beth installed herself in the music room with Ian and began to formulate her plan in earnest.
“We will need a first name and a surname,” Beth began, her hands poised over the keyboard of her laptop.
Ian interrupted his own work, a short, melodic burst of a theme taken allegro ma non troppo. He turned away from the keyboard and focused thoughtfully out the window.
“Miles,” he said.
“Miles? Are you sure you don´t mean Milos?”
“Don’t be obnoxious, my dear Katina,” retorted Ian.
“Very well; Miles, then. Miles Stevens! That’s a nice name.”
Ian nodded and, getting to his feet, began to pace thoughtfully.
“Miles Stevens should be the man of Miss Jordan’s dreams. He will be rich, but in a politically correct way. Shall we make him a marine biologist? He should be both explorer and academic, dividing his time between saving the besieged narwhal and the hallowed halls of Columbia University. Shall we give him a curriculum vitae of, say, 15 years?”
“But, Ian, he’s only supposed to be about thirty years old!” protested Beth.
“He was a child genius who skipped high school entirely.”
“Oh, dear!” Beth exploded into laughter. “I suppose we’ll have to stuff his résumé with awards and honors of every kind?”
“Naturally,” returned Ian, smiling as he warmed to his subject, “and we mustn’t forget awards for athletic prowess. Let me think a minute…American footballwould be too vulgar for our Miles. I have it!” he exclaimed, holding up his index finger as the Statue of Liberty holds up her torch. “Rugby! He will play rugby on weekends. There’s a sport for the man’s man.”
“That’s self-insertion. You play rugby, Ian!” interrupted Beth, her fingers tapping wildly on the keyboard to keep up.
“I haven’t played for three years, so you can’t cry foul. Now, our Mr. Stevens will be a gourmet chef and a feminist, and he will enjoy opera and ballet, though he is particularly fond of the symphony…”
“…and he likes candlelight dinners and walks on the beach…” murmured Beth, still busy typing.
Ian looked at her sharply. “Must you add that? How worn-out and vulgar! Why, the beach must be overrun by romantic couples in desperate search of a full moon! The place just isn’t safe anymore. As for candlelit dinners…”
“You are so unromantic!” snapped Beth, but she was laughing in spite of herself.
“Nonsense. I’ve been told I’m very romantic,” Ian insisted, then continued pacing, this time with his hands behind his back. “As for Mr. Stevens´ physical description…I think he should perhaps be of average height. I have the distinct feeling that Miss Jordan may not care for tall men.”
“Whatever gave you that idea?” asked Beth curiously.
Ian waved his hand dismissively. “We’ll simply not provide a height for Mr. Stevens. His build will be lean and muscular, of course…”
“That’s very nice, Ian, but I need to find a photo of Mr. Stevens to send to Chloë. I’m not sure where to get one. Maybe a male model?” Beth got up to search for a magazine.
“No. I have a better idea,” said Ian, and he went to his own laptop, which was open on top of the grand piano in the center of the room. “Let me pull up the auditions files from Cassandra,” he murmured.
“You still have those? That show ended four years ago,” observed Beth.
“I keep everything. There was one young, very arrogant man who drove every woman in the vicinity wild with lust,” murmured Ian, “though he couldn’t sing to save his life.”
He continued to scroll through the files, and Beth stood behind him, watching, as the faces and résumés slid by. Finally, Ian let the cursor pause on one face.
“Oh, my gosh,” breathed Beth, “He’s gorgeous!”
“The fairer sex seems to find this man attractive, for some reason.”
“Are you kidding? This guy is Adonis himself!”
“Please, Beth –drooling doesn’t become a woman of your age,” muttered Ian acidly.
“A woman of my age? Let me remind you that I’m only three years older than you are, Ian, and every last one of my hormones is functioning as it should. I really appreciate the little jolt you just gave them!”
Ian sighed. “Very well, Beth, but it’s Miss Jordan’s hormones we will be putting through the blender when she sees this man’s likeness on her computer screen. Behold Miles Stevens! Saint, scientist…”“…and stud!” supplied Beth triumphantly.