Chapter Four: Check Mate
I shifted uncomfortably in the back of the taxi as the driver raced through the busy streets. Damon looked the picture of calm beside me. He relaxed back against his seat in companionable silence. His legs were crossed and his hand tapped along with the music that the taxi driver had blaring in the front. He glanced to the side and caught my stare before breaking into a teasing smile. I couldn’t help but feel slightly defiant and so I turned to look out the window, cutting off the prospect of conversation. He must be very used to women ogling him. “No, I won’t be one of them,” I thought, determined.
I watched the cars drive past outside, pretending to be uninterested in conversation. I felt foolish. I could tell that he wanted to engage me in conversation, but I resolutely kept my eyes off him. He didn’t need to know me. This was only business. It’s not like we would ever meet again. And I really didn’t want to appear like one of the many women who I imagined were so instantly infatuated by him. With still ten minutes to spare, I retracted my phone from my black clutch, and began busily scrolling through my e-mails. I hurriedly replied to the more important ones. Because of the thought of the website dilemma that was waiting for me at home, it was imperative that I struck off as many things as possible from my list.
Suddenly static crackled through the taxi and we both looked up. The radio has lost signal. The driver mumbled something incomprehensible before hitting the “off” button. Immediately we were immersed in awkward silence. Damon took advantage of the diversion to engage me in conversation. “Do you write yourself?” he asked.
I looked at my phone regretfully before lowering it. In a way I was grateful for the chance to talk about my passion. There were so few opportunities for me to talk with someone about my own goals that suddenly my e-mails lost their urgency. It was the one topic I couldn’t help but respond to. Writing was my passion. “Partially,” I answered animatedly. “For the time being, I am a little tied up and unable to write. I’ve written all my life. It was only short stories and articles as a freelancer at the start. Eventually I did become a journalist in Ithaca, but I quit that a couple of years ago and moved to New York in the hope that one day I would be a travelling columnist. I want to write pieces on the world—on culture, life, and traditions. New York is the furthest I’ve got to reaching that goal,” I finished dejectedly. “It will happen though. You’ve got to be optimistic and work hard to make it happen.”
“Why do you work a job that you feel isn’t getting you anywhere?” Damon asked inquisitively.
His question surprised me. Did I seem unhappy in my current position? I looked at my phone again. I had been midway through responding to a client. “I am happy where I am now. I like my job, although not my boss. It keeps me on my toes, challenges me. It affords me one step toward the direction I want to go in and I am sure another will soon come if I work hard enough,” I said, somewhat defensive. “How did you become an escort?”
“This night isn’t about me; it’s about you, Clover,” he dismissed my question smoothly. The smile he wore now seemed fake, as if he were again getting ready to play a part.
“Do most women enjoy your company? I apologize if I am forward, but I’ve never been escorted. Is it your job to act like this in front of those who I am trying to impress, as well as me?”
He crossed his arms. Suddenly the connection we had vanished. He studied me for a moment, his finger pressed against his lips. “Who said I was acting?” he winked, trying to change my opinion with his charm.
“Your eyes,” I simply said. He shifted uncomfortably, confirming my suspicion. “Check mate,” I added, lifting my phone again.
“Why did you ‘check mate’ me?” he laughed in surprised confusion. His face was one of bewilderment.
“Because I can. You might as well be yourself. I certainly won’t paint a pretty picture of who I am over the next few hours. In fact, you probably will be begging me to go home early so you don’t have to put up with me,” I laughed before focusing again on my phone.
He opened his mouth as if to protest his innocence. Probably he was getting ready to find some way to cast his charm on me, but I continued with my e-mail. He fell into a defeated silence. After a few minutes, I pressed “send,” then lowered my phone once again. Grateful that he had dropped the act, I shot him a knowing sideways glance. He turned to me and we both laughed.
“It’s easy to talk to you,” Damon admitted.
The cab driver and I exchanged an interesting glance through the rear-view mirror.
“Wait until I’ve had a few wines. I haven’t drank in a while,” I brushed off his comment lightly, turning to look at him. Our eyes lingered on each other’s. I looked away, trying to contain my racing heart. His dark-brown eyes were too beautiful not to be captivated by. I could imagine he did very well for himself in this line of work.
“How come you couldn’t find a date for this, really?” Damon asked softly.
“Honestly? I haven’t dated for the last two years. I don’t really know any men who would want to go out with me. And I just don’t have the time. Don’t get me wrong, I am fine to go somewhere on my own. I don’t mind. In fact, I am still unsure as to why I even called you. I don’t usually let Debra get under my skin like this.”
Automatically I raised the phone again as I spoke her name. His hand reached out for my arm and gently lowered the phone toward my clutch. “Then perhaps you should focus on me, instead of your work. That would be a great tip to start you off for when you decide to date, and besides, I will be the best spent four hours of your life,” he teased. “Or so I would hope I could last four hours.”
I looked down with an awkward smile, slightly flustered at his joke. His cologne brushed past my nose. I smiled and rolled my eyes. “Your eyes are too pretty to look at; they’re distracting,” I laughed, throwing my hands up as if trying to avoid looking at him. To my surprise, I was actually enjoying myself. Who would have thought I would have such an enjoyable time? I was even flirting! “Have you been to a campaign like this before?”
“I have been to one or two. I get the gist of how it works—a few speeches of thanks, food, wine, and more wine. I will make a good impression on them for you,” he grinned.
“Okay well, thank you then,” I replied. The air went still again and I searched over the large buildings etched into the night. Streetlamps illuminated well-cared for stores and the manicured trees that lined the boulevards of Lower Manhattan.
The taxi was slowing. I realized we had arrived at our destination. The building was tall and brightly lit. I discreetly handed the taxi driver money to cover the trip and then on second thoughts, I handed him a little more for having to endure our awkward silence as well. I closed my black clutch, reaching for the door handle to open it. A handsome man in a white suit opened the door for me and offered his hand to help me out of the taxi. I took it and gracefully exited the taxi. When I straightened up, Damon was already in front of me, offering me his arm. I smiled my thanks at the man in the white suit.
Similarly attired young men greeted guests at the door with champagne. I noticed a few of the familiar faces were sponsors whom I had met a few times previously. I inhaled deeply; walking into such large glittering events still seemed intimidating at times. I greeted the doorman and walked through the glass doors, shoulders back, hips swinging seductively. “I am a confident young woman and in this situation, I am comfortable,” I affirmed.
We walked through the hall and into a ballroom. Low music was playing and guests talked with one another in high spirits. There were bright glass chandeliers hanging from the roof, and a large open space in the middle of the room. On the stage was a small lively band playing jazz music. The four members were obviously comfortable as they passionately played. Directly across from us was the buffet and, on the right, a small crowd had formed around Issobelle Sherain.
A few flashes from a cameraman taking photos grabbed my attention. When he spotted us, the young man walked over to us with a toothpick in his mouth. “Smile,” he instructed, aiming the camera at us. Damon placed his hand around my waist, arousing me with a touch I had not felt for years. His cologne lingered in the air as I looked up at him, surprised by his quick dominance of the situation. He was smiling toward the camera, and I saw that the cameraman was patiently waiting for me to look his way too. I smiled, feeling a hot flush cross my cheeks. I hoped I was not blushing.
“Yep, it’s good,” the cameraman said, giving us the thumbs up before walking away.
“You’re quick to cling to the hips,” I said jokingly as I distanced myself from his hold.
“Your dress feels tight,” he whispered. I flushed red in embarrassment.
Before I could say anything witty in response, I noticed Debra and her husband, Gary, coming toward us from the corner of my eye. A waiter walked past me and I quickly collected one of the glasses of red wines from the tray, gulping a mouthful.
“Clover, nice that you could come,” Debra said brightly, looking over Damon like a cougar eyeing her prey. I was disgusted to think of all the things that may have been rolling around in her mind. Subtly was never her strength. “And who is your friend?”
“I am Damon, and I assume you are Debra?” Damon smiled cunningly as he looked into my eyes for confirmation.
I took another mouthful of my wine, hoping that it would quickly ease the discomfort of being in her presence. I was impressed though, he had been polite to her, but his eyes were still on me.
“Oh, you have heard of me?” she asked flirtatiously.
Gary seemed unfazed by his wife’s intentions. Perhaps he was used to it. “Clover, how have you been? I haven’t seen you around for a while,” Gary said, ignoring Damon and Debra’s conversation. Gary’s eyes always steadied on me in a kind manner. At first I had the impression that they lingered for too long, but I quickly dismissed such a thought. He was my boss’s husband. It was very kind of him to always be so considerate of me and to make the effort to hold a conversation with me at the campaigns we went to. I was sure he could tell I felt a little out of place and wanted to put me at ease. Sometimes his conversation was a little awkward, stilted even—most likely because his wife was so overbearing.
“Of course I have heard of you,” Damon said charismatically to Debra. Then, almost abruptly, he turned his attention to Gary. He offered him his hand. “And you are...?”
The atmosphere all of a sudden became very thick as Gary looked between me and Damon’s hand. It was obvious Gary was hesitant to accept Damon’s hand, but he reached out for it under Debra’s pressuring eyes. It made me wonder why Damon was so quick to judge the quiet and amiable Gary.
“I’m Gary,” he said awkwardly as they shook hands. Gary looked at me again before quickly diverting his eyes elsewhere. It was so weird of him to do it, and when I looked at Debra, her sharp eyes showed that she had witnessed her husband’s lingering look. Damon wrapped his hand around my shoulder protectively.
“So, Clover has spoken of me?” Debra smiled, dismissing her husband.
Again Gary looked at me and then at Damon’s hand around my shoulder, before looking away at some nearby sponsors. I was confused by the odd transition of conversation. I couldn’t help but feel slightly annoyed rather than triumphant that Debra would so quickly flirt with someone I claimed to be my boyfriend.
“All good things, of course, isn’t that right, my little muffin?” Damon smirked.
I thought I felt my left eye twitch in response. We had agreed no pet names. “Of course, my love pet,” I said, a hint of annoyance in my voice.
Debra looked at me, unimpressed with my familiarity with her new toy. Breaking her glare, she smiled once again at Damon. “How did you two meet?” she asked.
I looked desperately at Damon. We should have planned for this instead of flirting in the back of the cab like teenagers.
“It’s actually a pretty embarrassing story on my behalf,” Damon answered quickly, pulling me in closer to him by my shoulder. “I was in such a rush as I was leaving a coffee shop that I didn’t even notice her, and bumped right into her. Probably because I am always obsessed with checking my phone.” He paused so I could appreciate his little joke at my expense. I smiled politely whilst looking ahead. “I spilled my coffee all over her! I apologized of course and we got talking. When I looked at her, even then, I just couldn’t even describe my attraction toward her. I was once so wounded, and never thought I could love again. But when I saw her, I just knew I wanted to see her every day for the rest of my life. And to my shock, she agreed to go on a date with me. I felt like the luckiest guy on earth. Ever since we have been together, and I couldn’t imagine a day without her.”
There was an awkward silence between us all. The story was so dramatic and dreamy it seemed ridiculous.
“Wow, that is quite the story,” Debra said, the veins in her neck presenting themselves as she inhaled deeply.
“Do you mind if I talk to my boyfriend for a moment?” I asked with a tight smile. I grabbed Damon and pulled him away. I marched him to the food buffet, ignoring his smirk.
“What are you doing?” I shot.
“I thought you wanted to win! She is utterly jealous of you right now. She is looking at me with greedy eyes. I thought she was going to try and eat me,” Damon rubbed his facial hair in contemplation.
“I am sure you have probably had worst, and we agreed no pet names. You promised you would be charming and cunning, and that you would fit in,” I whined. I dreaded him telling this story to others. It is just too unrealistic. People would catch on to my lie.
“You’re really not a romantic, are you?” Damon collected a glass of sparkling wine from a tray when a waiter walked past, then sipped on it casually as he scanned the room.
I watched him for a moment. “I want a discount,” I demanded, sure that no one could hear our conversation.
“You what?” he asked, raising an eyebrow and looking at me in puzzled amusement.
“I want a discount on your services. Right now I am not particularly happy. So I want a discount.”
Before Damon could say anything the same cameraman from earlier interrupted us, asking for another photo. I smiled brightly, feeling triumphant after our small argument. I wrapped my hand around Damon’s waist and placed my other on his chest before smiling brightly at the camera with a certain smugness. “Smile, dear.”