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Overseas(10)
Beatriz Williams

“Just a moment,” he said, “pardon me,” and reached across my lap to the lamp table next to the sofa. He opened a drawer at the top and withdrew a pen. “Now,” he went on, taking the book from me and scribbling something into the margin, “I think we need to shift this assumption…”

“You’re left-handed,” I murmured. I thought I said it to myself, but it must have come out aloud.

“No, right,” he said absently, and then closed his eyes. “I mean, yes, left.”

I forced out a laugh. “I’m confused. Ambidextrous?”

“No. Just some nerve damage a while back. I learned to write with my left hand.”

“Oh. I’m sorry,” I said, and then added, after a pause, “But wasn’t that you playing the piano, when I came up?”

He looked surprised, and then embarrassed. “And here I thought the walls were soundproof. Sorry about that.”

“No, it was lovely.”

“It was execrable. But to answer your question, it doesn’t affect my dexterity so much, or at least not anymore. It’s just the grip that’s painful.” He held up his right hand to demonstrate.

“Wow. How did it happen?”

The color in his cheeks intensified. “Car accident.”

“Oh no!” I couldn’t help myself. I could almost hear the horrifying crunch of glass and metal. I only just stopped my hand before it reached up to grasp his.

“Oh, it wasn’t as bad as that,” he said easily, wiggling his fingers. “Still whole, after all.”

“You should be more careful,” I said.

“You’re assuming it was my fault.”

“Wasn’t it? I can just picture you driving your brand-new Porsche at a hundred miles an hour down the freeway, celebrating your first big bonus.”

“Hmm.” His expression turned speculative. “And what did you do with your first bonus?”

I laughed. “I’m just an analyst, remember? My share of the bonus pool amounts to about a shot-glass-full. I think I went out and got a new pair of shoes, last time, and socked the rest away in the apartment fund.”

“Apartment fund?” He seemed amused.

“My roommate’s wearing a little thin,” I said. “I’d like to buy my own place. Which at this rate will be a hall closet in Washington Heights, but that’s why I’m going to business school.”

“Business school! You’re joking, surely.”

“No, I’m serious. Why would I be joking?”

“Because you’re too good for this. Come now, you don’t really want to be an investment banker all your life, do you?”

“Why not?”

“That’s the wrong question. Not why not, but rather why? Why waste your life around chaps like that Banner idiot?” He looked genuinely concerned.

I shifted my gaze downward and fingered the edge of the presentation. “Look, I’m from Wisconsin. Typical suburban environment. I left to make something of myself, and Wall Street seemed the obvious place to start. Where the action was.”

“From Wisconsin,” he said. “I’d never have guessed Wisconsin.”

“Well, we don’t all sound like we’ve just stepped off the set of Fargo.”

“That’s not what I meant. I…” He checked himself. “In any case, I never went to business school, and it hasn’t done me any harm.”

“Yes, but you’re…” I waved my hand at him.

A phone rang, somewhere behind us: the library, probably.

“I’m what?” he pressed.

“Aren’t you going to get that?”

“It can wait. Answer the question.”

“I can’t answer it with a phone ringing in my ears. Will you please?”

He sighed and got up; I heard his footsteps disappear around the back of the sofa and drew a deep breath. I didn’t think I could take much more of this. All my high-minded principles had evaporated, just when I needed them most, just when I was tumbling into exactly the sort of situation I’d wanted to avoid. Because Julian Laurence—beautiful, brilliant, leonine Julian—could eat me for breakfast. Could swallow my heart whole and go bounding off with it, never to be seen again. And I doubted I had the willpower to stop him.

The ringing stopped, and the low musical murmur of his voice drifted between the rooms. I rose from the sofa and walked to one of the bookshelves built in on either side of the mantel. The fire had been going for some time. It was small and compact and extremely hot, hissing and popping discreetly in a pile of spent ash. I ran my fingers along the spines of the books. A wide-ranging collection, I thought to myself, smiling; it ran the gamut from Dean Koontz to Winston Churchill to Virgil, in the original Latin. Nothing like a British boarding-school education.

The books were packed in tightly; in fact, no room had been left for anything but books. No pictures, no objets, no random clutter. Nothing personal, really, unless you considered a man’s choice of reading material the most personal thing of all.

“Snooping, I see,” came Julian’s voice, far too close.

I jumped. “Jeez! You just took a year off my life.” I nodded my head to the shelves. “Do you really read Latin?”

“Not a terribly useful skill these days, is it?”

“Not everything has to be useful. I assume you learned it at school?”

“Yes, an old-fashioned education.”

Was that a note of strain in his voice? I turned and looked at him. His face had changed, had dimmed somehow, as though he’d gone through and turned off all the unnecessary lights. “Everything all right?” I asked. “The phone call, I mean?”

“Yes, yes. Quite all right.” He folded his arms and smiled, somewhat forced. “I’ve got to fly up to Boston tomorrow, that’s all.”

“On Christmas Eve?”

“Hard luck, I know.”

“Don’t you…” I swallowed. “Aren’t you going anywhere for Christmas?”

He shrugged. “Geoff has me over for Christmas dinner every year. And services, of course.”

“Your family isn’t…”

“Around,” he finished for me. “Don’t worry. I’m over it, as they say. See anything you like?” He nodded upward, and I followed his eye.

“Oh, wow,” I said. “Patrick O’Brian. Are those first editions?”

“I indulge myself.” He sounded embarrassed.

“I love O’Brian. Historical fiction in general. My friends were always giving me crap about it in college; everyone else was reading chick lit. Shopaholic, that kind of thing. Michelle thinks I was born in the wrong century.” I laughed stiffly.

He didn’t reply.

I turned around. He looked peculiar, preoccupied. The tiny lines about his eyes had deepened; his mouth compressed in an unyielding line. I tried to think of something to say, but he spoke first.

“Do you?” he asked, his voice wound tight.

“Do I what?”

“Think you were born in the wrong century.”

I laughed. “Well, not literally, I guess. I mean, who wants to die in childbirth? But I do sometimes wish…” My voice trailed off.

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