‘Yeah, my charitable effort du jour.’ Her sarcasm matched his—but was totally made up of defensiveness. So he thought she was a cliché. Sure, she couldn’t do much. But she could try.
‘So why this? Why not cancer kids or the starving people in Africa or something?’ Could he be any more cynical?
‘They’re great causes, but they already get a huge amount of support. They don’t need me in the mix—I wouldn’t make much difference to them.’
‘I don’t know—you’d bring them lots of publicity.’
‘It isn’t about publicity.’ Quite the reverse. She didn’t want it to be about her. Didn’t want anyone to know.
Didn’t want it to become some story all about the ‘princess doing good’. She just wanted to be someone— like anyone—trying to help someone else, even just a little. She glanced at him and saw the scepticism all over his face. The prickle of defensiveness rose.
‘In Paris I used to spend an evening a week working on a youth line. Lots of the callers were young women in this kind of trouble.’ They’d always touched her. Since then she’d heard about her old friend Cassie’s hardship, and it resonated even more deeply. Cassie must have felt so alone in prison with a young baby. And what Liss hadn’t been able to do for her friend all those years ago, she wanted to be able to do in some small way for others now. She stared out at the harbour and tried to explain it more, wanted him to recognise that she wasn’t so self-obsessed.
‘I’m no counselor. I can’t offer them any advice. They’ve got far more major issues going on in their lives than I’ve ever had to deal with. But I’m someone to take an interest in them for half an hour. Someone to listen.’
‘Is that what they need?’
She turned her head to look at him. He stood at the other end of the floor-to-ceiling window, facing her rather than the view. Looking so cynical she wanted to shake him.
‘Of course it’s not all they need. But no one wants to know about them. They’ve been pushed to the side and forgotten about. By the men who used them, by the rest of society, by their own families.’
Written off by almost everyone, a statistic, a drain on the country’s resources, the futures forecast for them were bleak, but why shouldn’t they have some lightness too? ‘Sometimes it’s nice to have someone to listen to you. To make a bit of a fuss. Make you feel special.’
While the phone line had been good in Paris because it had given her complete anonymity, here, in a city where she knew no one, she’d wanted face-to-face contact as well. So she’d enquired about Atlanta House, made contact to find out if they’d be interested in her visiting. She’d gone several times in the week before she’d started work to get to know them. To show them she was serious about being a friend to the organisation and to the girls. She had no intention of flitting in and then out again. Now she’d settled into a once-a-week pattern—although she’d drop in at other times when she could.
Today she’d sat and chatted with the girls, made a few bead bracelets with some, plaited them onto hair with a couple of others—been a complete girl. And, yes, there was something in it for her—she’d felt welcome, just as she was.
She turned away from the coldness of James’s questions. ‘It’s not a nice feeling knowing you are not wanted.’
She gazed out the window, but no longer saw the glorious sky—too busy thinking. That was the one way in which she could truly relate to them. She hadn’t been wanted by her family for years now and she’d never really understood why. So she’d acted up a bit as a kid—who didn’t? And she felt hurt that they hadn’t even given her a chance this time. There was no recognition that maybe she’d grown up a little—they still just didn’t want to know.
Suddenly she became aware that the silence had been ticking for some time. She looked across the space, pasted a polite smile on her face. It disappeared the instant she encountered his gaze. His eyes were dark, intently focused on her, intensely burning. She’d never seen him look more serious, so assessing and, at the same time, so unreadable. The silence ticked on and as she watched the planes of his face became even more angular, his jaw hardening as if he were deliberately holding back—from speech? From movement?
All she knew was that she was suddenly, incredibly, uncomfortable. Her body temperature rose and she feared another of those awful blushes was imminent. She drained her cold coffee. ‘I should get going.’