Here’s the thing … good guys come last
It’s as simple as that.
The thing is, we had all been taken in, and no one, well, there was one person who had an inkling, but I didn’t take her seriously, simply because it was the girl who cried wolf once too often.
And, consequently, the ramifications could have been very serious.
Was that the price for deciding to take people at face value, that we would eventually discover their true nature before it was too late?
I’d lived in a house full of people who trusted no one, and who was always prepared to believe the worst in people.
My parents trusted no one and consequently suffered relatively lonely lives.
My sister, Davina, was not so bad but underlying every decision that was to do with people, she would have them investigated within an inch of their lives, and that too, had been very costly for her, especially when they found out. It ended three marriages and estranged two of her three children.
As for me, I made the decision not to be like them, and it had served me well. By and large, everyone I knew and had dealings with was fine. But even with this happy-go-lucky attitude, I still found it difficult to find what one might call the woman of my dreams.
That’s why, when Helen appeared one night at a party I’d only just decided to go to at the last minute, I thought my luck had changed.
How do you ‘run into’ the one? Was it an accidental bump, excuse me, and then a lingering look as she sashays off, or is it reaching for the same glass of champagne, with the consequent touching of hands?
There are an infinite variety of ‘first’ moments, moments that left lingering thoughts of ‘who was that woman?”
There is that thought, could it have been a contrivance to get my attention? If it was, it did.
It was a large banquet hall, and there were plenty of places to hide, and I wasn’t particularly interested in staying until our paths crossed. But was my curiosity enough to make a move?
To begin with, it was not.
I shrugged it off as a one-off moment, something to remember from an unremarkable gala that proved, once I arrived, why I had been hesitating in the first place.
Old people displaying their wealth, young people flirting with the rich and famous. I was, perhaps, a little rich, but definitely not famous, hence the reason why a bevy of eligible girls was not beating a path to my door.
There were three others of my ilk there who fitted that bill and willingly took the heat for me. One, Augustus, last name unpronounceable, had that Latin, dark, sultry look going, sauntered over after he had witnessed the ‘meeting’.
“I see you’ve met Helen?”
“She stole my drink.”
“All part of the plan, Ian. She just tossed away another of the pretenders, and if you play your cards right, you might be the next.”
His smirk was imprinted on his face and never changed, amused, or annoyed. “You know you can be such a prat sometimes.”
It had been said, more than once. “Do I want to play my cards right?”
“She is interested in a mysterious way. I asked her out, but she seemed disinterested, and as you know, I only ask once. Aside from that, we want to know who she is, really.”
“And you think she’ll tell me?”
“You’re not a player, Ian, and have that perfect aloofness thing going, one that can drive a certain type of girl crazy. I think she’s one of them.”
“Then how do I find her?”
He shook his head. “That’s not how this will be played. She has to come to you. Aloof, remember, Ian, aloof. Now, I must be off. Say hello to Davina for me will you?”
He’d seen her crossing the room and had no interest in sparring with her. For some reason, she just didn’t like him. Or was that because he spurned her? I never could get an answer from her.
I could do aloof, though I was not sure how that would seem interesting to a woman like her.
Aside from my belief that as beautiful as her would be remotely interested in me, aside perhaps from the family wealth that one day I would inheritance s point Davina took great pains to remind me.
And that was something I wasn’t looking forward to.
There was an art to mingling at these affairs, on one hand, the obligatory meet and greet of our contemporaries, deference to our peers, letting them know we were upholding the proper values, and respect as was warranted by our position, and on the other, a casual greeting to those who were on the fringe of our society.
I’d learn the lessons from Davina when she deemed it I was ready, but the truth is, no matter what age you are, you’re never ready for this.
There was a third category, those that came up to you, wishing to make an acquaintance, whether it was for publicity, or for prestige, it was impossible to tell, then and there, sometimes it was a matter of reading the social pages to find out how your name gad been taken in vain.
I preferred not to talk to any of them unless it was absolutely necessary.
Or someone you knew brought them to you, which then, out of deference to them, sometimes put you on the spot.
Nnn chose that path, selecting another person who was known to me, Alison Burkwater, a rare, unbiased reporter, to slip in under the radar.
Not realizing I was the eventual target, I watched them stroll through the crowded floor, stopping momentarily for an introduction, or a polite exchange, Alison gathering information for her next article before they headed in my direction.
I was with one of my father’s oldest friends, Jacob, his wife, Mary, and one of their three daughters, Amy, whom I knew would be pleased if we were together, but fate seemed to keep us apart.
I watched Helen, almost entranced by the fluid motion she moved, reminding me of a cat just before it pounced on unsuspecting prey until she was standing in front of me, unaware that Alison was speaking.
“This is Helen Dunbar, over from England, checking us Americans out as the British do.”
She then introduced each of us, leaving me till last, deliberately.
Each had a comment, or a question, so when it came to me, I asked, “Holiday or business?”
In my experience, they usually said both, but if she was here, it was business, making contacts, getting a feel for the market. Perhaps even at this age, I’d become cynical
Suspicion confirmed. “But I hear you are an unofficial tour guide, and I am in need of someone to show me this great city.”
Flattery, no doubt. And a smile from Alison, a nod to the time when she had written a bad piece about the city, and I took the trouble to prove otherwise.
To one side I heard Jacob excuse himself, and the others left with him. Alison’s job done, she left us together. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Davina deep in conversation with the family’s head of security.
Davina had so little faith in me.
“Perhaps that might be a topic we could discuss over coffee later?”
“Unless you’re otherwise engaged?”
There was a slight exodus from the main hall, an indication that unusual for a gala like this, there would be dancing. It was a pet pastime of the host, an orchestra had been commissioned, and it was to be a nod to the old days.
“Do you dance,” I asked?
“It was part of my finishing school curriculum that nearly finished me in more ways than one. Long story, but yes.”
“Would you like to lead a poor boy around the floor and make him look good?”
She smiled. “I know you are pulling my leg, but I’ll bite.” She held out her hand, “Take me away before I change my mind “
Dancing was a social etiquette that was forced on me, and I was, for a long time, dreadful at it. It was only in my last year of middle school that a girl by the name of Wendy Whiles took the nervous bumbler with two left feet onto something that might make Fred Astaire proud.
She also introduced me to other more interesting things teenagers did, albeit in the comfort of a very expensive hotel suite, rather than in the back of a car. I thought I’d loved her, but she was not interested in wealth and fame, and I didn’t blame her, though I still insisted someone paid her a large sum of money to break off whatever we didn’t have going.
All her lessons paid off, and I found myself almost floating on air as we waltzed around the floor deftly avoiding the others brave enough to take to the dance floor.
“Do you do this often,” she asked, not long into the routine.
“You dance well.”
“Only when I’m not talking. Arthur Murray didn’t include how to handle chatty girls on the dance floor.”
Any other girl I was sure would have been insulted. I could be like that sometimes. I called it being blunt.
“A new experience then.”
“Can’t count and talk at the same time?”
“And yet you dance so well.”
“Flattery will get you only so far.”
We finished in silence, and I thought I had ruined my opportunity, though for what was questionable. I should have been content to dance with one of the most beautiful girls at the ball.
She took my hand as we left the dance floor and headed toward the bar. That walk felt natural, holding hands, and the feeling there was a connection between us. She had not forced it, I had not looked for it, it had just happened.
She drank club soda. She said she didn’t drink alcohol, and it seemed logical. She was effervescent enough without any aids, unlike some of my friends who needed drugs and copious quantities of alcohol to get into a ‘groove’. I could take it or leave it and did the latter.
We picked a quiet corner.
“Why are you really here?” I asked. Start with the hard questions first.
“Sometime told me about this rich, handsome, bored young man who hates galas, and the mating rituals that go with them.”
“And yet here you are?”
“Secretly,” she whispered, “my real name is Rapunzel, I escaped from a tower, and am here to rescue anyone who needs rescuing. Do you need rescuing?”
I did, but I did not want to incur Davina’s wrath. And then I thought about the possibility, that she might just be bait for something more sinister. It was improbable, but Davina had impressed on me that there were a lot of nasty people in the world, and sometimes it was hard to see through the facades.
If she was evil, then it came beautifully gift wrapped.
“Rescue does involve a rather full-on security detail as well, and, the filling out of paperwork that would take till dawn to do.”
“I assume then, that weedy little man pretending to have a quiet drink over there is one of them.”
She nodded in his direction, and I recognized him instantly. “Warren. Dangerous as a cut snake. Even I keep my distance from him.”
Another glance, impassive expression, it would be interesting what she was thinking at that moment.
“So, what do you do for fun?”
“An occasional waltz with the most beautiful girl at the gala.”
“My life is ruled by responsibility. If you’re looking for fun, there are six other very eligible young men here that will be happy to fete you, and indulge your wildest dreams?”
“Aren’t you the least bit curious?” There was an invitation there, for what, I suspect would be whatever I wanted, but Davina’s voice was well and truly planted in my head. If it’s too good to be true…
I smiled wanly and finished my drink. “That is a luxury that I can only dream about. Thank you for the few brief moments of possibilities.”
Not an hour later, from a distance, I saw two men in civilian suits escorting her out of the building. There was no disguising their true identities, ex-military, or military police.
Odd for a girl that looked like her to be involved with such people.
A few minutes later Davina appeared beside me. “I could have told you that girl was trouble.”
“Looking at her, I thought the exact opposite.”
“You need to be more careful.”
“Warren was there. I’m sure he could handle her. I made sure I was in a position where if trouble came it would have to pass him, and I have the taser in my pocket. What was her crime.”
“None apparently. Some high-ranking Generals’ daughter out for a lark. Now come back and talk to Amy.”
© Charles Heath 2022