“Think you might go to the tavern tonight?” Tina asked Chloe when the check-up was done and Dr. Anthony gave the all clear for her to enjoy her stay. “Quick and painless that way.”
“I dunno. Anthony said to hold off on the alcohol until tomorrow at least. And I’m exhausted. I’m not the college student I used to be.”
“If you want you can have room service bring up anything you like. And there’s always tomorrow. It’ll be busy, but not as busy as Saturday.”
“I don’t have a problem with that,” Chloe replied, grinning. “I’ll be in more of a mood to socialize by that time.”
Tina decided to take her on a tour of the various gardens that filled the grounds, ranging from the meticulously manicured English manor gardens to the Japanese koi gardens, a Moonlight garden, and a large culinary one brimming with both exotic and common herbs, the latter the domain of a very proud and avid Adalia. This brought them to a shaded terrace near an upscale restaurant named Vargo’s, which Tina explained had been a derelict dance hall at one time and renovated by Adalia for a new restaurant and party venue. They chose a bench to sit upon and enjoy the afternoon rays filtering through the trees.
“Now I realize I’m getting into personal territory here,” Tina said, hesitantly. “But I’ve really been worried about you and what happened with your birthmother. You haven’t spoken much of it since she died…are you alright?”
Chloe opened her mouth to answer. It was true: apart from the night she called in deep sorrow to tell Tina about the death, she’d clammed up, unable to give the emotions a release. Part of her reluctance to come to the Point was because she knew Tina would coax it out of her, and she didn’t want to find out what would happen if the encapsulation came undone.
It had been almost too much to bear that night.
She’s gone…and they won’t let me say goodbye…
Chloe never got a chance to reply, for a low and sibilant voice took that moment to interrupt. Its owner slid out of the shadows of the trees to stand behind their bench.
“What is it about the Point and the way it draws such grace and charm to its bower?”
Chloe turned to face the one Brother she’d been warned about: SID 6.7. They both stood and confronted him, Tina’s brown eyes already snapping with anger. He rounded the bench with sinuous steps, as if to get their measure. She could see his pupils actually dilate as he stopped in front of her, a white rose in hand, and bowed. He ignored Tina completely.
“La beauté d’une femme est toujours un mystère! Pour vous, mon cherie,” he said, and raised his head enough to see if she was watching him.
And, God help her, she was fascinated: by the sunlight on his impossible suit, on his impossible skin, and by his impossible aqua-colored eyes, now locked with hers. Every hair on his head remained in place, in spite of a gentle breeze. He was a nearly unstoppable nemesis, fueled by over 200 criminal and psychopathic personalities, all combined with his Creator’s features and commanding physique. He was beautiful and hypnotic and he knew it. Like Lucifer, a beautiful being of impossible substance, full of seduction.
Chloe was very glad that Tina was with her at the moment.
As if he could read her thoughts, SID took her hand and pressed the rose into her palm. Chloe tugged to pull away. SID did not let go.
“SID…good God, you just don’t know when to give up, do you?” Tina practically yelled. “It’s the same fuckin’ nonsense you’ve been pulling since day one. Now why don’t you just get the fuck out of here! She’s been through too much to put up with these tired tricks of yours.”
SID barely batted an eyelash at the words, but he dropped Chloe’s hand.
“Tricks!” He feigned astonishment. “I was merely hoping to make her welcome here. What harm have I done by bringing her a rose?” He began to circle them, examining Chloe as though she were a prospective piece of art, touching her chin, her shoulders. She was not successful in repressing a shiver.
“That’s enough, SID!”
“It has been too long since we’ve had a new face to admire,” he went on, finally confronting Tina with a serpentine smile. “But, I see…Andy didn’t tell you. Shame on him. A very poor choice for manager if he cannot keep his superiors up to date. He should have told you that I was looking for you.” At this last word, he turned his head back to Chloe. The pupils of his eyes had turned to little black spots.
“Looking? Oh that’s what you call it, huh? Stalking – that’s more like it,” Tina retorted, her pretty features filled with disgust. Chloe had never seen her this way. “We’ve all warned her about the fuckin’ bullcrap you’re going to pull, so don’t think you’ll waltz in here with your little act and gain any ground with her.”
“It isn’t ground that I’m looking for…” SID intoned, the smile on his face taking a lascivious twist.
“A little early for you, isn’t it, SID?” A second male voice, from a different direction. SID’s leer turned nasty.
On steps that led to the terrace, another of the Incarnations appeared, his careless saunter worlds apart from SID’s nano-technical movement. His suit was decidedly Swing-era, loose and relaxed, and he wore a wide-brimmed fedora in a jaunty tilt. He had the air of someone who didn’t need anyone’s measure at all. It was clear from the expression on his face, he’d marked SID as someone he was going to take down.
Lighting the cigarette he’d been carrying, the newcomer flicked the match at SID’s suit. The smoldering sliver of wood clung for a few seconds before falling. SID scowled.
“Must be hungry for attention these days, since Tanya’s at the conference,” he said to no one in particular.
“Shouldn’t you be in a third-world hell hole somewhere, moaning over your little cracked bowl and broken ambitions, jarhead?” he replied, voice low and hard with hate.
“Oh, you are out of practice,” the interrupter grinned. “Or just losing your touch. You usually wait until the girl is alone.” He slipped off his jacket, handed Tina his hat, and held up his fists in a stance of readiness. “Scram, SID. Introductions are over.”
Chloe was certain she heard SID hiss as he turned away, but knew from the parting look: it was not over. She had to sit down while Tina laughed and thanked the second man. SID was gorgeous, but frightening.
“Chloe, this is Alex Ross, our resident Walter Winchell,” Tina told her.
The newcomer held out his hand with a wink and a grin.
“Don’t listen to her. I’m just your typical gossip miller.” Alex replied, as they shook.
“Don’t you mean news rat?” Tina asked, archly. Chloe gave an involuntary laugh. Tina would work a Patrick O’Brian reference into a conversation.
Apparently, Alex recognized it as well.
“You’ve been hanging around Aubrey too much,” was his amused reply.
“Alex, Chloe Navratil is my dear friend from San Antonio. You remember that time last year? When you and your Brothers decided to hold slalom races in the Tavern using mashed potatoes and beans?”
“Hey, that wasn’t my idea,” Alex protested as Chloe laughed. “We got snowed in with nothing to do.”
“Typical excuse,” Tina sighed.
“Colin started it…”
“Yeah, yeah, Alex, and you were just an innocent by-stander.”
“Hey, at least it wasn’t racing cockroaches, right?”
Tina clapped a hand to her mouth and looked as if she were about to throw up. Alex saw Chloe’s eyes widen and hastened to explain.
“I’m kidding! The running joke is we get so desperate for entertainment, we aren’t above using insects for placing bets. Good news, though: no roaches at the Point. So we came up with the next best thing.”
“Food surfing?” Chloe laughed again.
“Somethin’ like that. Tina showing you around the place?”
“Something like that,” Chloe replied. “We’ve just been walking around.”
“Be sure to take her by the garage, Tina. Colin has a few cars for her to look at.”
“Oh, yes, that’s a great idea!” Tina agreed with delight. “We’ll go there next.”
“What do you mean?” Chloe asked, incredulous. “I don’t need to look at cars. I have a vehicle…”
“Not unless the Boyz can get it out of that hole in the ground!” Tina interjected. “John said it was pretty wedged in, but I’m sure they’re already figuring out ways to pull it out. But until then, it’s the Point’s privilege to offer one of ours for your use.”
“Tina, I can’t afford it!” Chloe exclaimed.
“Who said anything about affording it?” Tina replied. “You have need of one and we have one to spare.”
Speechless, Chloe felt tears spring to her eyes.
“Oh, no. No waterworks,” Alex gently chided with another wink. “I can’t stand by for that.”
Standing in the double doors of Vargo’s was a slender young woman with long curly black hair, snapping black eyes, and a natural bronzed complexion.
“Speaking of bystanders, there she is,” Alex announced with a smile. “My date.”
Like a beauty contestant emerging from the wings, this vision paused ever-so-slightly before stepping out onto the terrace to meet them. As Alex took her by the elbow, she lifted up her cheek. He gave it a couple of pecks. Tina and Chloe glanced at each other. It was easy to understand why he was interested in her. She was a dusky beauty equal to the Golden Age goddesses that had graced the silver screen in the forties, with full pouting lips, arching brows, and fine, even features. And there was no mistaking her pedigree, either: her sporty track outfit was the kind a fashionable woman wore to look athletic without the sweat and exercise. Canvas platform runners more suited for Project Runway than gymnasium floors completed the look.
Tina took the opportunity to lean down slightly and whisper to Chloe,
“I’d kill for that handbag.”
Chloe gave her a skeptical look. Considering the sophistication that dripped off the woman, purses were the last thing she envied at that moment.
Tina laughed. “Oh Chloe – you know me and handbags. That Fendi is gorgeous. She’s got great taste, I’ll give her that.”
She straightened as the couple approached, arm in arm.
“Tina, you remember Mia?” Alex asked.
“I do,” said the Point doyen. Chloe noticed a certain coolness in her tone, saw Alex stuff his hands in his pockets. The cocky demeanor changed slightly.
“How do you do?” asked Mia with a wide smile, oblivious. “Tina, it is so lovely to see you again. I was just telling Alex the other day how welcome you’ve made me feel since I’ve started coming here. And you are?”
Chloe blinked and realized that the impeccably dressed woman had turned attention to her.
“I’m Mia Ahlberg,” the woman said when Chloe spoke. “Is this your first time here? I ask because I’ve been here so often I’m beginning to recognize when there are new faces. I do love your name. Like the brand. Oh, but you will be simply amazed by everything here, I’m sure. I know I was just astounded that some ladies have actually moved here permanently. I do not know how you and Adalia and Siobhan could have done it, Tina.”
“Sometimes you consider what is most important to you, that’s all,” was Tina’s neutral reply.
“That is what is most important, isn’t it? Priorities. It always seems so unreal to me, though, when I first come. I keep thinking it will all disappear and I’ll be left standing in the middle of a field somewhere, in some kind of day dream. Alex always makes it real, though,” she added, looking up at him with a bright smile. Then, as an afterthought, returned her focus to Chloe.
“Have you met anyone yet? I am so surprised you’ve not found your connection since you arrived. Isn’t that what happens, Tina?”
Before either one of them could answer, Alex interrupted. “Mia has a question for you, Tina.”
“Oh, yes, I do! I’ve been having so much fun getting to know the place and its people, I simply forget to ask if you’d like to join me for tea some time? You don’t know this about me, but I’m an Anglophile, too. We really ought to sit down one time in the near future, for a girl-to-girl chat. Alex has only given me brief tid-bits of your story, and I would so love to hear how you came to this place and your experiences here. You know how men are: just the facts,” she said, with a laugh. “They always leave out the details we women need to understand each other. I hope you don’t think me nosy, but I think it would really help me embrace this little paradise.”
Tina looked as if that caught her off guard.
“I…I tell you what, I will look at my schedule, throw some dates at you. See if we can find something that works for the both of us.”
“I can’t wait. Who knows? I may even bring my resume. Are you hiring? Alex and I have talked about my coming more regularly and I would simply love to be part of things here.”
“Mia, our reservation is in five minutes,” Alex interjected, showing his watch to her.
“That’s right,” Mia agreed. “And it was such a pleasure to see you. And Chloe, I am sure one of the Boyz here is meant for you. I know Alex is simply irresistible. Have a good evening!”
With that the conversation was concluded, and the couple turned away. Chloe looked up at Tina and saw the woman pursing her lips, wondered if she had noticed that Alex had gone from breezy jokester to tense statue. She especially didn’t like the feeling of having been patted on the head.
Almost as creepy as SID made her feel.
“Wait!” Chloe cried and bounded after them. When the couple stopped and turned, Mia’s brows furrowed in faint indignation and Alex looked mystified. With a small motion, Chloe beckoned him to bend down and when he did, she put her hands on his shoulders and planted a kiss on his cheek.
“That’s a thank you,” she informed him as warmly as she dared, “for chasing SID away. You’re my hero.”
She turned heel immediately and returned to the bench, pretended to be distracted with a leaf that had tagged along on her skirt. It wasn’t until Tina burst into giggles that she looked up and saw that Mia and Alex had disappeared into the restaurant.
“You should have seen the daggers she was throwing you,” Tina said.
“Serves her right for being so patronizing,” Chloe grumbled. “You don’t like her very much, do you? I know I don’t.”
Tina sighed and paused a few moments before replying.
“The Boyz have their own lives and their own way of doing things. Who am I to tell them who to connect with? I guess I don’t like the way Alex is around her. I do wish he was more…discerning. He’s been awfully lonely. He worries me, sometimes,” she said, looking in the direction they had gone. Then with a bright smile, said, “but come on. We’ll go in one of the little golf carts the porters at the Hotel use, that way I can drive you over to the garage and you see what Johnny and them have for you. Then, if you change your mind, we can go over to the Tavern before it gets overrun…”