Chloë looked around at the mess reigning over the room. Almost every item of her wardrobe was on her bed, piled up in three little mountains: the unsuitable to be seen by any man; the hopeful –clothes which showed some potential for a presentable appearance; and the disastrous, which could reasonably have had a “Burn!” label attached to its pile.
On top of the “hopeful” pile layher favorite dress. From the first time she had seen it in the thrift store, Chloë had fallen in love with the embroidered Thai silk, the almost invisible butterfly pattern on the black fabric of the long-sleeved, Asian-style dress
She fidgeted with the hand-made frog buttons, then left it on the bed again. It was an evening dress, too formal, and its long sleeves would be unbearable for such a hot day. She bit her lower lip, looking at the bright sunlight filtering through the scrim curtains that Kit had sewn.
“Don’t complain!” she muttered through her teeth. The last few sunny days had been very profitable for her. Her costume was still a novelty, drawing kids’ and tourists‘ attention.
She looked around, wondering why she found it so hard to leave that tiny, expensive apartment.
“For starters, it’s close to work, and when the car dies…” the familiar little devil whispered in her ear. Chloë paced around the room, holding a pair of trousers that had known better days. A practical reason. She could live with that as a reason for keeping the apartment.
“This is the apartment you rented with Jacob,” the same devil echoed in her mind.
“No time for that!” She hushed the voice and touched the mouse on the desk. The laptop’s screensaver disappeared, giving way to an enlarged photo of Mr. Miles Stevens.
“Jacob is dead!” Well, married, actually, but what’s the difference? “Long live Miles!”
Miles smiled at her beautifully from the screen, full of hope and self-confidence. Chloë looked at him with envy. He’s prettier than I am! She threw the trousers on the unsuitable hill of clothes and looked at the page she had printed out. A marine biologist, very involved in environmental issues, interested in the arts, with a long list of hobbies and lots of friends.
She just hoped he wasn’t one of those people who didn’t use soap and water after rugby practice, all in the name of saving the planet, yet insisted on driving an SUV. Her heartbeat quickened as she thought of the last SUV she had seen at a close range.
Chloë narrowed her eyes at the photo. Why hadn’t a man with so many friends found a girlfriend yet? This wasn’t the image she had of marine biologists. Where were the glasses?
“I’m awful!” she exhaled, frustrated. The man could be shy, he could have had a bad past relationship experience, and here she was, using stereotypes.
She had to give Miles a fair chance. Not all men thought that having a healthy ambition in life equaled working in the family business, after all. Not all men thought keeping stuff from the past was simply filling good space with junk. Not all men left to marry money.
“Damn you, Jacob!” Chloë opened the drawer, and angrily shoved the papers inside.
She cursed out loud when something stung her finger. She tried to find the culprit, and her eyes fell on the amber comb at the bottom of the drawer. Her grandmother’s amber comb. Her first conscious attempt to look like a girl.
Chloë smiled at the epiphany. Her grandmother’s clothes were what Jacob used to call “her junk,” and he had complained about not having enough closet space in the apartment to keep living and dead people’s possessions stored.
She ran to the corridor and opened the small closet filled with her grandmother’s clothes –at least, the clothes that had remained after mould had destroyed many of the garments in storage down in Melissa’s basement.
Melissa’s dominion over James Point had started long before Chloë’s father died, and Chloë and Conchita had witnessed how, one by one, all traces of Nora Jordan were erased, like fragile footprints on the beach.
First, it was what Grandpa Jim had called “Nora’s morning parlor.” The room no one had ever been permitted to enter had been turned into a state-of-the-art gym in less than a weekend.
Her father had welcomed the change, even though it had been his house now. His brother, Frank, had never complained about Grandpa Jim’s will. He had never even thought about disputing it. The Jordan family had its own rules: the firstborn son took the house. Frank got to work in the family business, and if he had a problem with that, he was welcome to find his own way in the cold, cruel world.
Not in Frank’s wildest dreams had he ever imagined that the gym and daily exercise sessions might fail to protect his older brother from a fatal stroke.
Not in his boldest ambitions had he ever seen himself as the sole owner of James Point and of Jordan Medical Supplies, as well. .
Chloë smiled bitterly, letting her fingers trace the fine fabrics of her grandmothers’ dresses: organza, silk, taffeta, cashmere. Her rebellion against the Jordan family blueprint for her future had created the most contented golfer in the state. Her uncle was a happy man.
Chloë took out a velvet-covered hanger bearing a Dior silk suit and hung it on the closet door. This would be perfect for a business lunch –formal enough, but very feminine, with a pencil skirt that merely extended to the knees. Chloë’s smile broadened as she thought of her job and the outfits it required. She took the long crepe evening dress and hung it on the door, too, so that it covered the Dior suit. These garments were in perfect condition. Melissa would have paid good money for such vintage dresses, but she had left them to rot in the basement just because they had belonged to the previous mistress of James Point. Conchita had helped Chloë save them, one by one, during her visits to her aunt’s house. To Jacob’s dismay, the soulless refugees had found solace in the closet, exiling his boxes.
Chloë’s eyes fell on a cocktail dress that looked as if it had escaped from a late ’50s movie. It was a perfect little dress with a fitted bodice, a very full skirt, and delicate little pockets at the fronts of the hips. It was black dotted Swiss, with tiny white polka dots and grosgrain straps –the most beautiful summer dress she had ever seen. She remembered the time she and Kit had tried some of these dresses when Chloë had first brought them home. She also remembered Kit’s rueful, pouting face as she found out that all the dresses were too small for her. It was the first time Chloë had forgiven whatever genes had conspired to make her petite – no, short! she thought, rolling her eyes.
In her bedroom, standing in front of the mirror, Chloë turned on her heel until she whirled like a ballerina, holding the dress to her body. There might be other treasures in that closet but, at this point, she was in love with this one. This cotton dress with some hot stiletto heels would definitely make Mr. Stevens smile.
If only she had that pair of shoes…
Chloë would have to settle for a pair of red flats. After all, Miles might be…vertically challenged. He hadn’t provided his height in the information he had given the dating service, so the possibility was very likely, and it wouldn’t be nice to make him feel bad. She whirled in circles, again and again, until she felt dizzy.
She stopped, crushing the dress to her chest.
No, Miles couldn’t be short. He would be as tall and as gorgeous as he looked in the photo.
She had a great feeling about him.
Ian loathed the Le Coeur Bistro in lower Manhattan. He loathed its brass-and-fern vulgarity and its menu, which was dominated by pasta and designed to please the masses. What Ian most hated about the bistro, though, were all the hearts. There were hearts on the menu, hearts decorating the maître d’s podium, and hearts sewn into the table linens.
Yet Beth often suggested the Le Coeur Bistro to her clients. It was a comfortable place with a reasonably-priced menu and seemed popular with the young crowd.
Ian was fully able to command a table at Armand Roche’s at five minutes’ notice, in spite of the months-long waiting list. The fact that he chose not to use that power did not mean that he preferred a dive like Le Coeur Bistro. He sat at a discreet table in the corner, fuming. The glorious weather outside only worsened his foul mood, since it had the nerve to be glorious without him. It was irritating. His solitude had never bothered him before.
He forced himself to think of the evening ahead and of Chloë Jordan’s impending comeuppance. He looked around the room, noticed a fern in the corner in a brass pot, and got up and transferred it to the center of his table. The curious glances of other diners as he did this were annoying, but he would be able to spy on Miss Jordan through the plant’s fronds.
He looked up in time to rise as he saw Beth hurrying to the table, clearly out of breath. Her cheeks were flushed, and her manner, nervous.
Ian pulled out a chair for her, observing the dark wisps of hair that had escaped her upswept style. It was not like Beth to prepare herself hurriedly; he noted the excess blush she had applied to her cheeks, the lumpy mascara, and the unblotted lipstick.
“What’s happened, Beth?” he asked gently.
“Nothing,” said Beth, too quickly, and she fumbled with her purse.
“Dan called me. He wants me to come back to him.”
Ian shifted in his seat. “That was predictable.”
“He says that he’s only human, that he made a mistake, and that it won’t happen again.”
“And what do you think?”
“That he says he misses me, while what he really misses is a well-run household – dinner promptly at six and boring sex at eleven. He was comfortable with me, and he wants his routine back. He’s upset, because while he was away his membership at the tennis club came due, and I didn’t pay it. It’s all very rational and logical and ice-cold.”
Ian waited, silent and sympathetic.
The tears came. “He tells me he made a mistake! A mistake, Ian! I told him that what he did was no mistake –that a mistake is what happens when you add two plus two and you get three. But I guess three is his magic number!”
Ian produced a handkerchief, which Beth took.
“He says he’s sorry,” she continued, “but he’s not. He just says the words, and he’s very cool. It’s a given with him that I’ll come back. You know what he told me? ‘A divorce would be very hard for you in many ways, Beth,’” she said, lowering her voice to mimic her husband’s pompous tenor. “He says he’s broken up with Karma Jordan, and I don’t know whether I believe him or not, or even care now.”
Ian pushed the fern aside to place comforting hand on hers from across the table, and Beth’s tears gradually stopped. Pasta and salads were served by the waiter, and Beth blessed Ian for having had the foresight to order for her. She smiled at him apologetically.
“I’m not much fun for you, Ian. You must be tired of me invading your life, and you like your privacy…”
“It’s fine, Beth. At this point, though, I think you need to get a lawyer. Why should your husband enjoy your apartment on the Upper East Side? It should be yours.”
“I don’t know if a judge would see it that way.”
Ian had frozen, though, and he was gazing across the room at something.
“What?” asked Beth, blowing her nose.
“There she is!” he hissed.
Beth looked over her shoulder in time to see Chloë escorted to a table near an aquarium. She was radiant in a light summer dress which revealed a tiny waist, shapely legs and smooth, delicate shoulders. She smiled at the waiter, nodded as he said something to her, and settled into her chair. She waited, looking at the wine list.
“Oh, this is going to be fun!” said Beth. “I really needed this.”
Ian moved the fern so that Chloë would not be able to see him as he peered through its greenery.
“That’s an expensive-looking dress she’s wearing,” observed Beth, twisting in her chair to get a better view of her client. “She’s so pampered!”
There was a long pause, during which Beth extracted a makeup compact from her purse and discreetly observed Chloë using its mirror.
Beth finally glanced at Ian. “Put your tongue back in your mouth and stop staring at her that way. It’s a wonder she hasn’t felt your eyes on her by now, with the heat they’re generating!”
“Don’t be absurd!” snapped Ian, his eyes flicking down to the damask tablecloth reflexively. He was soon staring at Chloë again, since she did not look in his direction at all.
In fact, Miss Jordan seemed content to watch the fish in the aquarium. She was close enough to touch the tank, and she was watching the progress of one of the fish. She did not seem very nervous about her date yet, though she craned her neck to look towards the front of the restaurant from time to time. Miles Stevens was ten minutes late. Finally, Chloë pulled a paper and pen out of her purse and began to sketch something, her head tilted in an attitude of concentration. She only stopped to look at her watch at five-minute intervals. By 7:30, she was visibly nervous, yet she had kept her composure. The aquarium seemed to have a calming effect on her.
“This is an outrage!” spat Ian, and he called Chloë’s waiter over to his table with an imperious gesture. “One hundred dollars,” he said, proffering the bills, “if you would just please move that woman to a table which is away from the aquarium!”
The waiter looked surprised, but he pocketed the money.
“May I ask –“
“You have no idea the unspeakable things she’s been doing to your poor fish!” Ian growled.
“Really?” asked the waiter, frowning and staring at Ian, then at Chloë, who was still busy with her impromptu sketch session.
The waiter tapped Chloë on her shoulder, and she started and looked up. Ian and Beth watched as the waiter said something to her and indicated a table across the room. A look of confusion crossed her face, but she smiled, nodded, collected her purse and glass of wine and moved.
“Now is when she’ll begin to suffer,” predicted Beth. “She’s been snubbed by the restaurant. It’s nearly eight o’clock now! Hasn’t she noticed?”
This time Chloë glanced towards the front with a perplexed expression. She glanced at her watch, her face flushed –“Yessss!” Beth whispered– but there was no drama.
“She hardly seems to have dissolved into a gelatinous mass of tears,” commented Ian, looking at Beth with a trace of a smile.
“Give her time!” said Beth, between clenched teeth.
The waiter served Chloë a plate of pasta and asked her a question, and Ian watched as she smiled a little tremulously and shook her head. She seemed to be explaining something more to him and gesturing towards the front door with an exaggerated shrug. The waiter laughed and nodded and started towards the kitchen.
“What did she say?” Keenan, the waiter, jumped as Ian appeared at his elbow. He paused in confusion, his hand on the kitchen door.
“What did who say?”
“The woman you just talked with…the one at that table over there!”
“Oh. Her. Well, she’s waiting for a blind date who was supposed to show up at seven, and she’s sure he saw her and ran off in terror. She says she has that effect on people. What, would you like to talk to her? She’s really cool. Want me to pass a message to her?”
“No!” said Ian sharply and returned to his table. He looked across the room to where Chloë was again, and saw that the napkin on the plate across from her –Miles Stevens’ plate –had been folded into a fleur-de-lis. Chloë herself was sitting comfortably in her chair, absorbed in a book.
“Yeah, she’s reading a book now,” reported Beth. “I’m getting kind of tired of this. Shall we give up and go?”
Ian stared at Chloë in incredulity. “She’s intolerably self-sufficient!” he rasped.
“Looks that way. Must be a good book,” commented Beth, yawning. .
Eight-thirty arrived, and Chloë called the waiter, paid the bill, tipped him, and left her table, her eyes still darting about as she departed, searching for any sign of her date. Ian noticed that she had left a piece of paper behind, and he hurried to the table to examine it. It contained the quick study of a goldfish in ink that she had done, drawn from three perspectives. Its lines were whimsical, though somewhat indistinct. There was another drawing on the same paper, too, and he ran a hand through his hair in confusion as he looked at it. He recognized it as a rendering of the creature from “Aliens” –but it seemed to be wearing a tutu! He crumpled the paper into a ball and stuffed it into his pocket, completely puzzled, and returned to his table.
“Well, I can see how much pain you’ve managed to inflict on another woman,” he said to Beth, irritation in his voice.
“I’m sorry. She wasn’t what I expected. Maybe we should just forget about her…” Beth rubbed her neck tiredly.
“Maybe not! I came to dine on revenge, and instead I was treated to this little spectacle! The woman is unflappable!”
Beth sighed. “It’s been a long day, Ian. Just what do you want me to do?”
Ian paused briefly, thinking. “Didn’t you tell me once that there are some people…some men, specifically…who have signed on with your dating service but have such marginal personalities that it’s impossible for you to match them?”
“Well…yes. But I refund their money and tell them to try another service.” Beth winced as she thought of some of the men she had run across in her line of work.“Well, keep their money and keep them with your service. We’ve just found the perfect match for them.”