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Overseas(4)
Beatriz Williams

“That is to say, Miss Wilson,” he said, in polished cut-glass tones, a plummy voice straight from the Friday night marathon on the classic movie channel. Gielgud, maybe, or Barrymore. He held out his hand. “Julian Laurence.”

“Oh,” I said, shaking it. “You’re British.” Of all the asinine things to say.

He smiled. “Guilty as charged.”

“Shouldn’t you be in the meeting?”

“I’m sorry for disturbing you. I only wanted to convey my apologies, for having… for the way you were…” His voice trailed off, but his gaze, if possible, grew more intense: a strange vibrating stare, as if he were trying to scour the backs of my eyeballs.

“Oh, that’s not necessary. Not your fault, I mean. I’m used to getting bumped. It’s part of the job description.” Was it my imagination, or had the restive murmur of the Capital Markets floor faded to silence? I could sense the heads popping up above the cubicle walls, like prairie dogs. My pulse twitched eagerly in my neck.

“In any case,” he said, not taking his eyes from mine, “I’m sorry to have so nearly missed you.”

“That boring in there, is it? I guess we should have slipped in a few pictures of celebrities, to keep you guys entertained.” I nearly jumped at the spikiness in my own voice. I’d meant it as a joke.

His eyes widened, and a tiny crease formed between them. “Have I offended you? I beg your pardon. I only wanted… you see, you took me quite by surprise…” He shook his head. “I’m making a muddle of things, aren’t I? I do beg your pardon.”

“There’s nothing to forgive.” I swallowed, because my mouth was apparently watering, for God’s sake.

He parted his lips hesitantly. His right hand curled and flexed at his side, on the outermost edge of my peripheral vision. I wanted to speak, to amaze him with some immortal display of wit, but my brain had frozen into stupidity, not quite able to process that the legendary Julian Laurence stood in full luminescent flesh before me, stammering and begging my pardon, like the shy kid at school who finally works up the courage to confess to his long-standing crush. Not that such a thing had ever happened to me; not that I’d ever met this man in my life.

“It’s just this,” he said, and a large hand appeared on his shoulder, startling us both.

“There you are,” came a gruff voice, belonging presumably to the hand’s owner. I tore my eyes away from the noble architecture of Julian Laurence’s cheekbones to find a pale dark-featured man, a color-negative of Julian himself, watching me with cool impassivity, dragging his hand back down to cross his arms against his chest.

Julian let out an exasperated breath and cast his eyes upward. “My head of trading, Geoff Warwick,” he said. “Geoff, it’s Kate Wilson.” He spoke with command, putting the slightest emphasis on my last name.

I lifted my well-trained hand, but Geoff Warwick only nodded. “Miss Wilson,” he said.

Julian turned back to face me. He looked inquisitive, or else possibly amused, one eyebrow arched, but when my eyes met his, a smile lifted one side of his mouth. A conspiratorial smile, between the two of us: a kind of wink.

“Hadn’t we better be getting back to the meeting?” asked Geoff.

“Yes, of course,” Julian said, and his smile brightened to iridescence, dazzling the anodyne office air in a current of pure blithe energy. “Kate—Miss Wilson—a very great pleasure.” He took my hand again, more a clasp than a shake, and then turned to stride down the aisle with the fluid ease of a natural athlete, drawing the light along with him, Geoff Warwick trotting doglike at his heel.

I stared after them, hardly noticing as the heads swiveled back in my direction and then, one by one, slipped back behind the cubicle walls. I could hear Charlie, of all people, observing in my brain: Dude, that was fucking weird.

Amiens

I don’t think I remained unconscious long. I became aware of voices, hands; someone was touching my cheek, my forehead; loosening my collar, removing my hat. I seemed to be lying on someone’s knee, with a single iron arm supporting my back and the cold rain still dripping miserably on my cheek.

“Who the devil is she, Ashford?” someone demanded, jarringly close.

And then Julian, in a voice so familiar it brought the sting of tears to my eyeballs: “We can sort that out later, Warwick. She’s clearly ill.”

Warwick. Geoff Warwick. I hadn’t recognized the accent.

“Her eyelids are moving.”

“Yes, I see. Are you all right, madam? Can you hear me?”

I nodded. “Yes,” I scratched out. “Sorry.” I dragged open my heavy eyelids, wanting to see his face: there it was, a little blurred, compressed with concern.

“Warwick,” he said, glancing upward, “do you think you can disperse this crowd a bit? And see if there’s a doctor among them.”

“Not likely,” said Geoff Warwick, but he moved away and began making commanding noises. I turned my head in his direction, and saw that at least a dozen people stood in a silent awed circle nearby. I struggled upward, but a renewed surge of dizziness and nausea closed my eyes.

“Sorry,” I whispered again.

Anxiety clipped his words. “Madam, can I help you? Are you in pain?”

“No. Just tired. Long journey.” I tried to smile, but my mouth wouldn’t obey.

“Can I help you to your lodgings? Assist you in some way? Warwick!” he said urgently. “Have you found a doctor?”

“Someone’s off to fetch one,” Warwick said, returning. “How is she?”

“Conscious. Speaking. She seems a bit confused.”

“No! I’m all right, really.” I struggled to sit up again, with more success.

“Ashford, she’s American!” said another voice, behind me. Julian’s other companion; I couldn’t see his face.

“Yes, I realize that,” Julian said. He squinted at me thoughtfully.

“How do you know her?” demanded Warwick.

“I don’t know her.”

“She knew your name.”

“Before God, Warwick, I’ve never seen her in my life,” he insisted. “Madam, where do you stay? You can’t return without help.”

“I’m not anywhere yet,” I said. “I just arrived in town.”

A pause. “You must get her out of this rain,” said the other voice.

“Yes, of course,” Julian said. “Is the Chat open yet, do you think?”

“Not yet.” Warwick sounded almost gloating. The chip on his shoulder evidently wasn’t a modern development.

Another pause. “Madam, are you able to walk?”

“I… yes, of course.” I slid off his knee and tested my legs: a bit wobbly, but still capable. Julian’s arm remained across my back, supporting me.

“Warwick, you and Hamilton wait here for the doctor,” Julian said, over his shoulder. “Tell him to find us in rue des Augustins.”

Arthur Hamilton. Florence’s brother. I strained to look at him, but his face was hidden under the low dripping peak of his officer’s cap.

“Christ, Ashford, you’re not taking her to your billet!”

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