I open my mouth. ‘I love you,’ I blurt.
The room becomes so deadly silent that I dread to expel the breath I am holding. He looks like a nine-year-old boy that has had a bra thrown in his face. The incredulity in his dear face would have had me rolling with laughter in different circumstances. He frowns. A quick flash of some emotion crosses his eyes. I cannot understand it. Before I can even properly register it in my mind or its implications, I am swamped with that famous Jack smile. The smile that made all the girls in school swoon. He does not drop my hand, but gallantly, and in an oddly old-fashioned gesture, raises it to his lips and kisses it.
‘You will never be happy as the wife of a poor man.’
‘But I love you.’
He lays his fingers on my mouth. ‘One day you will find someone who is perfect for you, perhaps even the rich man of your dreams. And that day you will thank your lucky stars that nothing became of this day.’
I do not like the tone he has taken. This is wrong, all wrong. Even if he had said he loathed me it would be preferable, but this tone, as if I am a hurt child that needs to be soothed. I won’t have it.
‘She’s married now. You can never have her. Have me, please.’
It is as if I have slapped him. He draws away from me. Never before have I seen so much misery in anyone’s face except maybe that one time with my father.
‘You have your love and I have mine,’ he says sadly, and turns away to leave.
I grab his sleeve. ‘Wait, Jack.’
He turns back. His voice is dull. ‘I don’t want to hurt you, Jules. Please, let’s just pretend we never came into this room.’
‘You can learn to love me.’
‘I could never love you.’
My mouth drops open. Maybe later I will feel shame. Now I just know I must carry on. I have come this far. ‘Yes, you can,’ I insist stubbornly.
He shakes his head.
‘How do you know?’ I demand, my voice rising hysterically. ‘You haven’t even tried.’
He stares at me with that pitying look. He doesn’t want me. He won’t even give me a chance. Even if it is just to prove that I am not good enough for him. Somewhere in my brain a fire splutters and rises up. I gather up my dignity and let loose the rage of hurt pride. I will turn this into a liberating experience even if it kills me.
‘I hope you’re not waiting for her. Because Blake is never letting her go. You’ll never have her,’ I cry vindictively.
His face pales in the gloom. ‘I am not waiting for her. I’m leaving tomorrow.’
‘What? You arrived today and you’re leaving tomorrow?’
‘Yes, I am needed in Africa. I am not here.’
‘You are needed here. I need you.’
‘I am here to keep a promise to dance at Lana’s wedding,’ he says, and depressing the door handle, quietly leaves.
‘Oh, you, you…’ At that moment I cannot think of a word that is bad enough. My hands are clenched tight and my breath comes in hard bursts. ‘Fool!’ I holler at the closed door.
There’s a chair nearby and I sink into it. The reaction to my wild outburst has made my knees weak. I feel so bewildered. He did not want me. Was it all for nothing then? I no longer feel furious, just a strange, cold emptiness. I place the palms of my hands against my humiliated cheeks. Oh! The vile things I had said to him. He must hate me. Forever, I will be haunted by that stricken look on his face when I flung at him that he would never have Lana. How I regret those unkind words that I can never take back.
My eyes fall upon a painting of a seated crone in a thick white shawl, her deeply lined face enclosed in a full and heavily ribboned white cap. I look at her puckered mouth and for some insane reason it makes me want to scream.
‘Damn it to hell, I’ve ruined it. I’ve lost him,’ I wail, and, burying my face in my hands, mourn.
‘Nothing drives a man away faster than desperation,’ says a deep male voice from the depths of the gloomy room.
I spring up in startled confusion and whirl around in the direction of the voice.
The best man is hanging his head out from the side of a huge sofa. He has very white teeth, which gleam in the darkness. Shame runs up my throat and flames into my face. Can it get worse? Now Grandview has witnessed my total humiliation too.
‘You were listening to a private conversation. You should have made your presence known,’ I accuse angrily.
‘I would have, but the conversation took a turn for the worse before I could announce my presence.’ He says it reasonably enough, but his eyes are laughing at me.
‘Oh! How dare you mock me?’
‘I’m not mocking you. It just seems to me that you are going about your process of seduction the wrong way.’
For a moment I consider turning around and sailing out of the room, my head held high. But…in spite of myself I am intrigued. I march up to him.
‘What do you mean?’ I demand haughtily, looking down at him as disdainfully as you can to someone who has witnessed you make a complete fool of yourself in the most cringe-worthy way possible.
He gestures towards the high-backed chair opposite him, and I perch on him. I don’t plan to stay long. Up close he has very strong features. He looks like one of those Australian surfer boys. It must be his light hair. Good-looking, I suppose, but nowhere near as fine as Jack. My Jack is so beautiful it sometimes hurts me just to look at him.
Fine wisps have escaped his ponytail, and hang about his face. He sits up and pushes them back. He places his fist on the armrest—it is full of golden hairs, and I am struck by its resemblance to a lion’s paw. Not in the sense of shape but in sensation alone. It looks so cuddly, ineffective and harmless, and yet one swipe could rip out the contents of a man’s belly. He has been lying stretched out on the sofa and has taken his shoes off.
‘You have a hole in one of your socks,’ I say.
He grins shamelessly. ‘I left my knitting needles in Paris.’
A hippie and a smart Alec. Whatever. ‘What did you mean just now when you said I was going about it the wrong way?’
‘When outnumbered by the enemy, a stubborn or simple-minded man will fight face to face in the open until he is killed. A smart man will react differently. He will strategize, find the weakness of his opponent and exploit it. As in war so in love. The sexual encounter, they say, is a flowery battle between a man and a woman.’
‘A flowery battle?’
He nods. ‘Every night the last Emperor of the Manchu dynasty turned over an ornate jade name plaque next to his bedchamber and a new concubine from his stock of three thousand girls would be brought to his bed. In 1856 the Celestial Prince picked a plaque that carried the name Yehonala.’