At First Sight
At twenty-eight Lara Grainger was still far from knowing what she wanted to do with her life. There was no need to know either. Her father was a well-known figure with money and she happily sponged off her parents while she pursued a career in swimming. She would say she worked sometimes -- she had a contract with a lingerie company, so the entire country knew her only in her underwear, which to Lara was not such a big difference from swimwear and therefore not all that shocking -- but apart from that she only swam.
Her mother had insisted that she do some cultural or intellectual things as well to broaden her mind, although Lara herself wondered if she had any mind left to broaden, what with all the chlorine she had swallowed in her life. But she had grudgingly agreed to start on a small scale by taking this cultural city tour. It was a tour of her own city, but her mother had deemed it best to begin close to home.
Her swimming career would soon be over and then what? She had no experience doing any work whatsoever. And once her career was over, she would no longer have the name nor the body to promote lingerie. While her mother thought about such things all the time, Lara preferred to look only one day ahead when it came to that sort of thing.
In the beginning the tour had kept her focused, but after a while she had lost interest in what the guide was saying. However, there was one person among the group who was still very interesting indeed. He was older, but not too old, athletic and he had a ready smile, especially when the guide was saying something stupid. She had tried to figure out whether anybody knew his name, but nobody called him anything. He seemed to be alone. "What is your name?" she asked when she could not contain her curiosity much longer and when he was finally close enough for her to ask. The few things she had heard him say, to her or nobody in particular, had all shown him to be funny. They were nearly two hours into the tour and this was all she had been able to discover. That was not much, considering that it had not taken her as long as two hours to find out he was darn cute and irresistible.
"That's a secret," he smiled.
"But I can't go calling you hey. It's unmannered," she teased back.
"I'll make an exception for you."
"Can't you just tell me?" she begged, not too loudly, because the guide disliked people who distracted him. They should all be serious and be interested in old ruins and know which styles they were built in. Lara had asked a question about that in the beginning and he had looked at her very contemptuously because she had not been able to tell one style from the other.
He shook his head. "No. If you insist on using a name, call me..." he pretended to think. "... Fred."
"But your name isn't Fred!" she guessed. He was making that up. Gorgeous men were never called Fred, only losers were.
"No." He laughed and placed himself at a greater distance from her when he caught a venomous look from the guide.
Lara contemplated following him. He did not stay near anyone for long enough to start a real conversation and as soon as she asked a personal question, he lied. He was strange, but she wanted to know more about him. She followed him, unnoticed by anyone but him.
He looked cautious when she stood beside him, her eyes innocently on the tour guide. He was not fooled. She had a purpose. "You're after me," he whispered to her.
Nobody had ever been as honest as that without having the intention to flirt with her. She looked back at him with a gasp. "No!" It was a bit of a shock to hear him say that so boldly.
He was not sure if she was cunning or innocent. He guessed the former. "You are."
"Well, you look at me too!" She had caught his eyes often enough and by the sound of it he did not seem to mind that he was being chased. He was playing a game with her, but as she was not exactly experienced when it came to playing games with men, she was a little out of her depth.
The number of sophisticated men one encountered in swimming pools was relatively small. Most were young and completely absorbed by their own sport. If they were not, they quite often liked the look of her, because she was one of the prettiest swimmers around and they simply did not have the time or the opportunity to meet anyone but other swimmers. For the same reason Lara was not really used to people who did not fall for her. Most did.
To encounter an older and 'dry' specimen of manhood was one thing, but to meet one who was unwilling to chase her was quite another. It required some skills she had yet to develop, because she did not even have to consider falling for him -- it had most definitely already happened, somewhere between the first Gothic church and the Renaissance square. Or perhaps a Renaissance church and a Gothic square. Or even something completely different. One could not really keep track of that with such a handsome man nearby.
"Don't try," he smiled. "I won't be taken."
She had to be more obvious than she thought and she toned down a little. "I only want to know your name."
"Fred," he said without hesitation, but with a sparkle in his eyes.
So he was not going to succumb that easily. Very well. It was no use bugging him in that case, because it would do more harm than good. She would bide her time. She moved away from him, deciding she would observe him from a distance, but not too far away to hear what he said to other people.
"I think I'll get married soon," she said dreamily when they stood still in front of a shop window. And preferably to 'Fred'. He did not know it yet, but that was a good thing. She told herself she would not have liked it either if he had been too flirtatious.
This was taking the game a little too far. 'Fred' narrowed his eyes. Perhaps he ought to be consulted before people married themselves off to him and who else could she be talking about? She had looked straight into his eyes as she had said that. He prayed no one else had noticed, but they had all been gaping at either the pretty wedding gown on display or the ugly tower the guide was pointing at. Maybe he should ask her not to throw herself at him so enthusiastically. There might just be a chance that he would take her seriously and that could never be her intention.
Besides, he had some definite ideas on lingerie models. He glanced across the street at a bus shelter, where one of the two advertising posters displayed her brazenly wearing some extremely skimpy panties. She seemed unaware of that, or at least not embarrassed by showing off her body like that.
Then someone crossed the street approaching the group and that was dangerous, because this person knew his real identity, not to mention the fact that this person was all too likely to speak to him. Without taking more than a second to think, he sneaked away from the group before he was seen, entering the supermarket next to the bridal shop. The rest of the tour should not know about him. They would not like it at all if they found out he had been among them.
In confusion Lara watched 'Fred' disappear. Had she scared him away with her comment on getting married? She hoped he would be back soon so she could find out more about him or at least reassure him she had not really been serious. She kept glancing over her shoulder as they progressed, but the tour finished and he still had not returned.
"Damn," she muttered. Trust her to come across a man who did something to her and then never getting the opportunity to find out anything about him other than that he was a tease. She was probably not going to see him ever again. Well, then she was certain to remain single forever. It felt somehow very impressive to make such a vow.
It seemed pathetic, but really, it was far better to have lost 'Fred', than not to have experienced meeting 'Fred' at all. Now at least she had the memory and the knowledge that she could be swayed within minutes -- that love or lust at first sight truly existed.
"Lara. Lara? Lara! How far away were you?" Emily asked. Lara was taking awfully long to get dressed after swimming. They might even miss their bus if she did not hurry and then they would be home half an hour later, in bed half an hour later and swimming tomorrow morning would be hell.
Lara opened her eyes and stared into space with a blissful expression on her face. "Quite far...I'm in love with a man named 'Fred'..."
"Fred?" Emily did not like that name. "Do I know him?" She did not know any swimmers named Fred. It sounded more like a coach's name, but it did not ring any bells.
"It's not his real name, though. I don't know what he's called, but he's gorgeous, mysterious and I want him." Two days had passed and she could still get excited about it. This proved it -- it had been a major example of love at first sight.
"Wake up, Lara. Where did you meet him?"
"I met him on the city tour. He wouldn't tell me his name. He was so interesting."
"And you want him." Emily sounded as if she could not understand why.
"Oh indeed I do." Lara grinned. "Oh yes." Well, first she wanted to see him again and then she would decide what to do with him precisely. What did people do who dated? Normal people? Who did not swim? Who did not have to be in bed by nine thirty every night? She had no clue.
"Do you have any time to want men?" Emily asked skeptically. "We have a coach who would be really upset if you started skipping practice to start dating."
"So far I don't have him yet. There's no need for him to start worrying." Lara snapped out of her dreaming and continued dressing.
A person named Raphael was the prime topic on the bus each Saturday morning. Raphael was the pseudonym of the newspaper columnist who was renowned and notorious for his hilariously witty, satirical and usually acidic comments. His pen had been compared to sharp objects many times and he had proven that the pen was indeed mightier than the sword, because he had slaughtered many a public figure already.
It was highly advisable not to get on Raphael's bad side and his pieces had made him somewhat of an enemy of the state, since not many politicians and well-known people passed muster. It was rumoured that the newspaper received enormous quantities of hate mail each day, all for Raphael, and that this was the reason why his identity was a secret. Some even suggested that he had had to leave the country because of his columns.
Every Saturday people could read who had been bad enough to be ridiculed that week. Raphael was never wrong in his characterizations and descriptions and he was never appreciative, unless it was of some fault. There was something seriously wrong with a person if Raphael sounded even vaguely appreciative. To be mentioned in his columns was not something people strove for. Indeed, some tried their best to stay out of them, but it was hard to avoid Raphael if one did not know what he looked like or where he would turn up. Even in retrospect it was impossible to say where and when one had come into contact with the man -- or woman -- but it was clear from his writing that his modus operandi was to meet the objects of his ridicule face to face without them being aware of it.
To do Lara credit, she read her newspaper very faithfully. That she often did not go beyond Raphael's column was only a very minor point. And anyway, his column really contained all there was to know about the past week. It had to be read, if only to be able to follow what everyone else was talking about. And to see if her Daddy was not being discussed, although he had already had his turn and Raphael almost never chose the same victim twice.
Ever since the city tour she had been busy checking every bus stop to see if 'Fred' might be among the waiting crowd. He never had been so far, but there had to be a first time for everything. A girl on the bus giggled as she discussed Raphael's weekly contribution with her friends. Lara listened, as always, but she did not watch soaps often enough to recognise what he had been poking fun at. She had read the column too this morning, but she had not quite liked it as much as usual because his ideas on soapy love were quite different from hers.
Lara, with her swimming bag slung over her shoulder and her wet hair twisted into a bun, looked nothing like the sexy lingerie model that was on all those posters in the bus shelters. She could travel in absolute anonymity, although she would not have noticed anyone staring today, engrossed as she was in her dreams about 'Fred'.
Her heart was still yearning for another glimpse of him, but he seemed to have left town. She had been all over town and she had not seen him anywhere. It was strange that he had affected her so much, because they had hardly spoken. What had it been about him that had attracted her so much? It was almost impossible to recall his face now and she desperately tried to hang on to the image.
Frederick Sanderson travelled to his house outside the city. The traffic was heavy and his car came to a standstill at a point offering him an unobstructed view of the Lara Grainger poster on which she was displaying a daring lingerie set. It was not a bad place to stand still, he told himself. There were worse spots.
He realised this all too well when traffic moved and his next view was of an ugly brick wall. There were some similarities between Lara and the brick wall, he mused. They posed the same intellectual challenge, he was willing to bet.
Frederick liked to be cynical. People always mentioned intellectual challenges when they referred to his job. He could have employed his talents so much better, they always said. What did they know? Maybe it was one of his talents to be stuck in a traffic jam at such a location as to make it possible for him to reflect on Lara Grainger's physical assets without drooling or forgetting to drive on. He would not forget to include her mental assets in the equation, unlike some men behind him, he snickered when he heard some car horns.
Lara Grainger was obviously good at employing her talents, however. Where was that next bus shelter?
Lara giggled her way through a sports quiz she had been invited to participate in, being a swimming champion and a good-looking girl. That she knew next to nothing about other sports was completely irrelevant, because her team captain and other partner were all too willing to help her, even after the show. She had giggled at their lewd remarks for lack of a better response, but she had no intention of going home with any of them, much to their great disappointment.
That she had given at least one other person that impression was something she discovered on Saturday morning when she read Raphael's column. He was quite openly speculating on which of the five men she had accompanied home.
Understandably Lara was angry. She was even so angry that she did not see 'Fred' standing at the bus stop where she got off the bus. She was not that sort of girl and who did Raphael think he was? He did not even know her! What gave him the right to write about her like that? Maybe she could go to the newspaper's offices and inquire there, or at least convey her displeasure.
Frederick Sanderson's opinion of Lara Grainger's intelligence had not undergone any marked changes after this week's sports quiz. Nevertheless, she was an undeniably pretty girl, he thought once again, and it seemed he could not get away from her. She was on posters and she was on TV. She ought to remain on posters, though. There was no opportunity for her to giggle there.
Lara had a fruitless protesting session at the reception desk of the newspaper. No, they did not know who Raphael was and even if they did, they would not allow her to talk to him personally. Besides, they were not responsible for what Raphael wrote.
She was highly frustrated when she came out of the building and she nearly missed 'Fred' a second time, but then she noticed him. He turned around when he heard her gasp. How stupid could she be? He had heard her! Lara coloured. It was 'Fred', the man she had been waiting for, and she had to make a fool of herself. "Fred," she said to keep his attention. He could not leave now, after she had looked for him everywhere and her heart had been aching.
He had to chuckle at that. "I thought you didn't believe me."
"I don't. What are you doing here? Why did you leave the city tour?" Perhaps she asked too many questions at once and she would scare him away again with her eagerness.
His expression became a little guarded. "I had to go."
The thought that she had really scared him away was distressing. "Why? Was it me?" She had spoken about marriage too soon.
She did not know whether he was serious or not. "Don't do that to me!"
'Fred' raised his eyebrows. "I'm not aware of doing anything."
She guessed he was teasing her now. "Don't make me think it was me."
"But what if it was?" he asked.
"I'd feel very bad."
"Perhaps you could continue the tour from where I had to leave," he suggested after a few moments.
Lara blinked rapidly. She would do anything to stay in his company, but there was also swimming practice to think of. Although she could skip it this once. Once she was married to 'Fred' she could swim all she wanted again. "Okay," she said.
Because Lara was loath to part from 'Fred' again so soon, she had agreed to continue the tour from the point where had had left it. It was just unfortunate that this happened to be in front of a bridal shop. She ignored the wedding dress in the shop window and tried to recall what had been said from this point onwards, but she had not really been paying attention at the time. She had been more interested in glancing over her shoulder to see if 'Fred' was coming back or not.
"I figured you might not have a clue," he said in amusement when she screwed up her face and bit her lip trying to remember something.
Lara coloured. "That's not fair."
He feigned innocence. "What isn't?"
"To ask me to give you a tour when you're automatically assuming I haven't remembered a thing." She might not be good at paying attention, but that did not mean she was stupid.
"Well, is it such a strange assumption?" he asked.
"I like to be teased, but that isn't nice." Lara did not really manage to look very upset, although she did feel nettled. He was right and he was teasing her, but it was not nice.
'Fred' smiled at her, not at all very contritely. "I am sorry. How could I make it up to you?"
Marry me? "You could tell me your real name. 'Fred' is wimpy." She could sting too, she thought. He had better not think the privilege was all his.
"Frederick," he said slowly, not quite believing his ears. Fred was wimpy? "I hadn't known that women your age still entertained such notions." He was not entirely sure that she was not serious and that was frightening. He did not really know what to make of her. One would expect a lingerie model to be a woman of the world and not someone who behaved like a silly teenager.
"Of course they do. I knew your name wasn't Fred." She was glad it was Frederick, but she hoped that 'Fred' was not an abbreviation he used. That would be just as bad.
"Because I'm not wimpy?" Frederick outwardly had not lost his self-assured manner, but this was one girl he did not really know how to deal with. He looked into her large innocent eyes and wondered if she was acting. She could not be real.
"No, you're not wimpy," she agreed with perfect composure.
"Why, thank you." He felt very confused, but told himself to get a grip again.
"Is it your hobby to tease people?" she inquired.
"No, it's my job."
"What's your job really?"
"Teasing people," Frederick answered with a sparkle in his eyes. That was better. He was in control again.
Lara gave him a brief glance. "I bet you'd tell me about your real job if I said teasing people was wimpy." This was just like the situation with his name.
"But it isn't."
Frederick had never thought about it and he looked surprised that she questioned the matter. "If you say it's wimpy then you're probably right. I won't protest." What could he win, anyway? He realised they were still standing in front of the bridal shop with the wedding dress that had made Lara think she wanted to marry him. It was a dangerous spot. She might get such associations again.
She did, having followed his eyes when they glanced at the dress. "Did I scare you off the other time because I implied that I wanted to marry you?"
"No." He had left for another reason.
"So you wouldn't mind?" she asked brightly.
Lara Grainger was highly unusual indeed. Frederick could not fathom her at all and she kept surprising him, they way she jumped to odd and impossible conclusions. "I don't think I said that literally," he said cautiously.
"But I look good in lingerie," she winked. "What more could you want?"
The same forces that made Frederick want to run made him stay. "Some more."
"Most men want even less than lingerie, actually. You're an odd fellow." Lara laughed at him. "Is that because you're older? I like older men, though, so don't get upset. Young men are too silly for words."
Before answering, Frederick counted to ten inwardly. The advantage seemed to be on her side all the time today. It was frustrating. "One, I'm not even old enough to be your father. Two, it's young women who are too silly for words." And she was the prime example. Why was she talking about men?
Lara was undaunted by his stern look and she grinned at him. "You know, if I hadn't said that, you would never have told me you were younger than forty-eight and I might have thought you were sixty."
"I was hoping you might be able to see that I'm not sixty." He swallowed his question about how she had come up with forty-eight. That was undoubtedly some odd calculation of her own that he would not be able to follow. He supposed that forty-eight minus Lara's age was the minimum age to father a child, or something like that. How old was she precisely?
"Well" Lara looked him up and down slowly. "I think I might have noticed that." She most certainly had, but it was nicer not to tell him that. It was funny how vain some men were.
"You might have?" Frederick had always believed he looked far younger than sixty. He should, at any rate. He would not be turning sixty for a very long time.
She raised her eyebrows disapprovingly. "Contrary to some, I don't judge people by the way they look." Frederick underestimated her. He had probably only looked at her appearance, the way some others did as well. It was beginning to become more and more clear. He obviously thought she was stupid. That was one prejudice he would have to get rid of.
"My mistake, Miss Grainger," he said politely.
"How do you know my name? I never told you. Did you see my posters then? The whole advertising campaign seems a bit pointless, don't you think? The only people who notice it are men." Which was a bit useless if you were promoting women's underwear, she thought. Men were not likely to buy it.
He did not answer that directly. Should he say he had watched her posters? "You're relatively well-known."
"You mean my face and body are."
"And your achievements."
"Which nobody in the outside world would have noticed if I hadn't had looked like this," she realised. And her looks were something that did not count in the circles where achievements were more important.
"Probably not," Frederick agreed. "Isn't that just the way it goes?"
Lara looked dissatisfied. "Well, it's just a really new idea to me to be judged on that alone."
"Poor girl," he said sarcastically. With her looks she was never judged badly. What could she possibly be unhappy about?
"So marry me, if it's the way it goes to judge on looks alone," she said challengingly.
"Something tells me you don't have a clue what you're about," Frederick said after he had counted to ten another time. He wanted to let out a scream. She was unbelievable. He could not have heard that correctly. She wanted to marry him.
"Probably not." Still, that did not mean she would abandon the idea. It just felt like the thing to do and she had had that feeling ever since that tour, so she could not ignore it. He had not reacted in disgust right now either. He probably thought she was joking.
"And what would you do with me if we were married?" he managed to ask. She admitted that she was insane and she was still sticking to the idea. It was not even a joke.
"Nothing, really," she said after a moment's thought. "Are you involved with anybody already? If so, I'll just heave a large sigh and stop bothering you." If she was able to do that, that was. And he still did not appear to be disgusted.
He closed his eyes for a moment and then shook his head. "It's very tempting to say yes now, but I doubt that it would make a difference if I lied. If you're crazy enough to throw yourself at me, why would you stop if I was already taken? It doesn't seem very likely, so I might as well say that I'm not involved with anyone and that I never will be. Which might count for more, since it proves that you won't have all that much luck trying," he said in a friendly tone that conveyed that he wished her all the luck in the world, but that also conveyed he did not doubt that she would fail.
"Oh, who's silly now?" Lara wondered. Not she, certainly. "So you can marry me. I just said I have no further plans with you. It would satisfy me enough if you just married me. I wouldn't involve you in anything. You can stay as aloof as you'd like. I just want to be married." And once they were, he would eventually come around, but it would scare him off if she told him that right now.
"For the dress?" he asked with a baffled frown. There was no other reason a sensible man could think of, given the situation. She just wanted to be married, but she would be happy to ignore her husband. That was odd, to say the least, especially considering that she was so keen on getting married. He wondered why and what would happen to him if he did.
"Partly," she admitted, casting another look at it.
Frederick was reasonably impressed with Lara's charms, at least impressed enough to think of her suggestion with some excitement before he told himself he was a fool. She was certainly a foolish girl. What was she doing? She could not be thinking that marriage to him would make her happy. It confused Frederick so much that he was speechless.
Lara observed his confusion and felt a change of subject was necessary before he would run off. She would be really sophisticated and act mysterious to hide her own confusion. "You'll know where to find me."
He did not, but he supposed he could give the swimming pool a try.
"I'll continue the tour now. Well, we looked at that really hideous building over there. Some people called it beautiful, but --"
"You did not."
"No, it was designed by an architect, but --"
"All buildings are."
Lara glared at him. "Oh really? I'm so stupid I didn't know that."
"I was only teasing you," Frederick said in an indulgent voice. He did not mean to upset her.
"Pride comes before a fall, you know. You'd better be careful," she said good-naturedly, soothed by his tone. She gave him the tour as she remembered it, which not very official and rather silly, or so she thought.
The tour had intrigued Frederick in spite of everything and he treated her to a drink afterwards. He was less pleased to find her father in the place he had chosen. Considering he had reasons to dislike the man, he did not like it one bit when Lara was beckoned over. Mr. Grainger was a vain and self-important man. Frederick doubted that he could speak about anything except himself.
"Ahh pumpkin, whom have you brought? Who is this?" Mr. Grainger said in a tone of commanding geniality.
"John Smith," Frederick answered. He wondered how Lara would react to that. She might squeal in protest and say his name was Frederick, but she merely looked surprised and said nothing.
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Smith. Sit down, sit down. You're quite a bit older than my Lara."
Frederick winced. Lara was no longer a teenager. What did it all matter? Besides, he was not with her. He was merely treating her to a drink because he had nothing better to do.
"Daddy, I'm 28," Lara protested.
"I know you're kidding me, pumpkin."
Lara glanced at Frederick -- John Smith. It sounded too common to be true. Why did he do this, though? He was a tease, but she did not see how it would tease her father to be told a false name.
He gave her an almost imperceptible wink. She should trust him on this.
"Are you two serious?" Mr. Grainger inquired.
Frederick decided that the father was as oddly direct as the daughter. It was clear where Lara had got this habit from, but it was far less palatable from the father.
"Yes, we are," Lara answered. She caught an alarmed look from Frederick, but he could not say anything or else she would say he was not John Smith.
"Splendid. What do you do for a living, John?" asked Mr. Grainger, but he was distracted by the ringing of his cell phone. "No matter. We'll get you a top job. I have many strings I can pull." Nobody would want to do anything else. It was unthinkable.
Frederick looked at Lara inquisitively. He had landed in a Grainger conspiracy. You only had to look at these people and they offered you marriage and jobs. They were insane.
She gave him a reassuring smile. Things were going her way, apart from the fact that he called himself John Smith, which was potentially disturbing.
He felt a lot of things upon seeing her smile, but reassurance was not one of them. "Lara"
"John?" she answered, making it as much a reply as a question about his true name.
He looked away. It was all right if she was direct, but subtlety from her was dangerous. "There's something I should say." He should tell her that right now before it went any further.
"Now is not the right moment," said Lara, looking at her father. He would interrupt and it was immensely pleasant to sit here with Frederick, so by no means should he get the opportunity to say he ought to leave.
"Oh, I can see you two are really serious," Mr. Grainger interrupted when he caught a particularly pleading look.
Frederick gripped Lara's hand urgently. "Could we stop this farce?" he whispered in her ear. It was going too far.
She half-hugged him. "Why?"
"Could we talk in private?" He wished he disliked the hug. That would have been so much easier than forcing his body to resist.
"My father can't hear us if we whisper."
"What do you want from me?" He told himself he wanted nothing from her. She was nothing more than a nice body.
"I'm not sure," Lara confessed. She looked at him earnestly. "You are a bit old and arrogant, after all."
She was pretty insane, Frederick concluded. He did not know what to do about her adoration. In one sense it was flattering, but it was also dangerous to be adored by someone who looked like Lara Grainger. He could not see himself married to her, but he could perfectly well visualise a short fling -- if it were not for her father.
There was a calculating gleam in his eyes as he realised something else. It could very well be to his advantage to associate with the Graingers. But he would have to take care not to get too involved. His lips brushed against Lara's cheek and then he drew back.
Lara looked pleased, although her brain knew very well that this was no true victory.
Mr. Grainger ended his phone call and ordered drinks for all of them. "She's an excellent girl, John. Despite what people say."
Frederick nodded half-heartedly and Lara looked embarrassed.
"That Raphael will pay for what he wrote about her."
"Oh," said Frederick, faintly making it sound like a question. Raphael had written the truth, as usual. He wondered if Lara was as insulted as her father.
"I'm an influential man. You cannot insult me and live without feeling the consequences."
"Have you done anything yet, then?" Lara asked.
"I have," her father boasted. "He has angered so many people that I've made it my personal mission to get rid of him. I predict that he'll soon be dead professionally, if not bodily as well."
Despite the fact that her father hated them because they had tackled him once, Lara had secretly liked Raphael's columns until he had ridiculed her. She said nothing.
"The newspaper told me they had warned Raphael and conveyed my displeasure. They gave him two weeks to improve and apologise. If he doesn't obey, they'll fire him and reveal his name so everyone can settle their scores with him. And believe me, some people are ready to kill him." He looked smug and in need of praise.
"Wonderful," Frederick smiled. "Reveal his name? But his name is written on every column -- Raphael."
"That's his pen name, or so I've been told. He's a coward who uses a pseudonym."
John Smith could not reply anything decent to that and he chose to ignore it. "I'm glad there are still people who react against evil," he said in a murmur.
Grainger looked flattered. "I pride myself on standing up for the wronged."
But only if it served his own purposes, Frederick thought. He pitied Lara and wondered if she realised. It was always difficult to see one's parents objectively. She was not as bad as her father, though, and he smiled at her absentmindedly.
No words of displeasure had reached Raphael at all, however. He was still busy plotting his next column.
Frederick dropped Lara off at the swimming pool. He briefly considered watching her swim, but he had work to do too. He kissed her cheek and vaguely said he would run into her again. It might happen.
Lara was at first happy with the way they had parted, but when she thought about it, it was extremely unsatisfactory. He had not said when he was going to see her again. It might all have been an excuse and if he really cared for her, he should have kissed her properly.
"Who was that?" her friend Emily asked curiously.
"That was him." He was still not out of her mind and she replied slowly, as if it cost her trouble.
"Not bad." At least from that glimpse Emily had managed to catch of him.
Emily looked at her curiously. "So, are you an item now?"
"Well" Lara did not know and she frowned. "Maybe. We haven't actually talked about that." It might be too early.
It was fate, she thought, that placed him in her way again a few days later.
Lara's parents had accepted Frederick -- John Smith -- very quickly. After one visit, in fact. He was a good-looking man and they did not look beyond that. Lara was too relieved to wonder and Frederick was too cynical to have expected otherwise. He knew what sort of people they were.
He realised there was no chance this could ever become a serious relationship. They would never accept the fact that he was not John Smith, let alone the other things he had not told them. He said to himself he was only in it for one thing, but Lara was a nice girl so he could never hurt her. That made matters a little difficult, because she still appeared to like him more than he deserved.
Sometimes he caught her staring at him in a way that he could not interpret. What did she want from him? She did not pressure him for anything and neither did he pressure her, given his reluctance to get in too deep. He did not know what to make of a girl who did not make any moves or demands and who seemed to have no expectations except that he would marry her. He would have thought she would pursue her goal with some more determination. Instead, she appeared to trust that matters would be resolved to her satisfaction and that eventually he would make the first move.
He had been to barbecues at the Graingers' house twice now and in all he had seen Lara five times. It was not much, considering that he had barely spoken to her at the barbecues because other people were present. This time, however, her parents had invited him to a cocktail party, implying that it would be all right if he stayed overnight. Considering that he did not think he and Lara had a real thing going, he was not sure what she would think of her parents' idea.
But she seemed to be quite cunning. There was no other way to describe the way she had managed to make her parents call him Frederick while still letting them believe he was John Smith -- John Frederick Smith. Perhaps he should it leave it to her to wriggle out of this overnight stay. He was not making any moves in this affair. He was going to remain strictly faithful to his own goals.
"Frederick..." Lara approached him some time towards the end of the cocktail party. She had not brought up the subject before because she had not had a chance to catch him alone. "You might have heard that you're expected to stay the night."
He looked back at her cautiously. "I had understood as much." The ball was in her court, not in his.
"You have not protested." She looked at him. He was odd. He never protested against anything and yet he kept his distance. Sometimes she thought he was indifferent, but at other times she thought he was amused by her. That would not be very surprising, because there was probably a high entertainment value in stupidity.
"Your parents would have protested if I had protested."
"Poor you, to be forced to stay. You know that isn't true. You're allowed to protest, but you never do. You let everything happen to you, but you are not the type to do that." He was the type to be in control of his life and even though he pretended to be meek and easy, she was fairly certain that he was not.
Frederick began to feel a vague discomfort. Somehow this did not bode well, but he could not put his finger on it yet.
"I would not like you if you were such a type," Lara continued. "So why do you pretend to be one?"
"You would not like me if I was such a type, so I cannot be because you like me?" he asked. Surely a few clever turns would get Lara off this topic.
"Don't twist my meaning," she said in a low voice. "You know what I meant." The advantage of being a couple, or appearing to be one, was that nobody would dare to interrupt this conversation between them. She took a step closer. "You're holding back."
"Frederick, you underestimate my intelligence in a major way, so what could it be that you like about me if it isn't my brain? My sunny character then? Seems unlikely to me. I don't know what you like precisely, but I'll tell you that I find it damn incompatible with your preference for keeping this on a strictly platonic level." Lara paused for breath after speaking. She was amazed at herself for delivering this deep and coherent analysis when she had only been reflecting on snippets of it before. "I smell a rat."
"So do I," answered Frederick, who felt this was moving in the entirely wrong direction. "Believe me, so do I." When had Lara become dangerous? He had been ignoring any danger in this corner. He had thought her parents would be the ones to question his reticence. Lara's silence so far had made him think she had not thought about it at all.
"But, as I really don't like rats, I'll leave it be," she said. She gave him an arch smile and walked away. What else could she do to hide her confusion? She had no clue what sort of rat he was smelling.
He was stunned. This was not the first time that she had stunned him by saying something unexpected and he stared after her in disbelief. What was he to do with her?
As Lara was recollecting her thoughts on a bench outside, she heard footsteps behind her, but she did not turn. Whoever it was would make his presence known if he wanted to and she was really not in the mood to speak. Suddenly she felt a light touch on her bare shoulder, fingers moving almost absentmindedly. She shivered briefly at the touch and then wondered who would take such a liberty. She was reluctant to turn her head to check, so she could only guess it was Frederick. Her parents would not do this. She hoped it was Frederick and she hoped he would not stop. She wondered if he was aware of what he was doing, but it felt good nevertheless. He was welcome to stand behind her any time. Lara closed her eyes.
She opened her eyes again when he stopped. "Go on," she commanded.
"I have a preference for the strictly platonic," he said in her ear apologetically.
He had been speaking much too close to her ear. "But I do not!" Lara gasped. She was shocked at herself when she realised what she was saying. It was not as if swimming nearly full-time had given her any experience in dealing with men who ventured beyond the platonic. It was not very clever of her to invite one to move beyond it.
"Darling, this" Frederick let his fingers trail lightly over her neck and shoulders another time. "...was still quite platonic. Are you saying you didn't like it?" he whispered innocently. "If so I'll stop."
Lara did not know how to express her feelings. "Urgh!" she said in frustration. "I told you to go on."
"With more of the same or more of the next thing?"
She did not think she could handle the next thing, especially not on a garden bench in full view of the people inside. They might not be looking, but if they were, the next thing might not be as innocent. And really, people should not be allowed to see her react funnily to innocent and platonic actions. She would ask Frederick to continue in private some time. For the time being she should be sensible. "On second thought I'd vote for more information."
Frederick straightened his back as he considered Lara's request. She was an oddly frustrating girl. Every time he thought he was in control she turned it around to confuse him and all so very easily. He could not make sense of her. Most women were not this complicated. She reeled him in, making him go just a little too far and then she asked for information when he least expected it. It figured. He sighed.
"None forthcoming?" she inquired. She did not expect anything.
"Not yet, you mean," Lara corrected, turning her head to look at him. He was still reluctant, but she had good hopes of seeing that changed. Perhaps he did not know it, but he was already beginning to budge just a little.
"I'll go home," he said. He had not brought anything for an overnight stay anyway.
"I didn't mean to drive you away."
"I have to go to work tomorrow."
"Um," Lara felt she had to point out. "Every time I meet you, you don't seem to be working."
"And every time you didn't meet me, I was working," Frederick countered. "Besides, I told your father about my job."
"Yes," she said slowly. "But you also told him you were John Smith and you still haven't told me why."
"So you think I don't have a job either?"
"Well, I think you have one, probably, but that it isn't what you told us it is. Or you just have a rich daddy."
"Yes," she said unashamedly.
Raphael had continued to write, despite Mr. Grainger's apparent efforts to stop him. It was not clear whether he had noticed anything or if it was a coincidence that he tackled Grainger again in one of his next columns.
To be honest, the man had done more than just make a fool of himself over the Raphael business, so tackling him was perfectly justified, even though Raphael's policy was to treat everyone to his comments just once.
Grainger had forever announced he would go into politics, but no party had ever dared to take him on board as a serious candidate. His incessant whimsical flirts with parties of diverse beliefs and ideologies made him a rather pathetic figure, but as Raphael pointed out, also rather dangerous.
Lara's father was not very pleased with this analysis of his character and he announced again that he would now take even more efficient steps to ensure Raphael was stopped and arrested. "He's a dangerously subversive character!"
Lara, who had read the column and who had been shocked, said nothing. It had made her think. This was her father, but perhaps Raphael was right in a sense. It was true that her father changed friends and opinions quite often. Still, Raphael had attacked her too a few weeks ago and he had been wrong then. He was not always right and could be wrong again.
Although he had said he would not stay, Frederick had stayed the night in the guest room and he was still there to listen to it all. "I'm going into town. Do you need a ride?" he asked at the first opportunity he got to change the subject.
"I might." She considered the idea of escaping her enraged father. It sounded attractive. He would be going on about Raphael all day and she would have to listen to it too.
Frederick smiled at her encouragingly. "Do." He did not know why he was so encouraging, but maybe he saw it as a good sign that she wanted to get away from her father.
"Will you show me your house?" she asked. It was worth a try, although he would probably say no. He had to go to work, he had said yesterday, but it was ten o'clock now and he had seemingly changed his mind about working.
"Er..." He was not sure he wanted her to see it, at least not inside, but something guided him to say yes anyway. He had planned to go into the town centre, but he could change his plans.
He took her to a nice-looking suburban house and made her some tea. Lara asked for something to eat as well, having swum early in the morning. That always made her hungry.
She liked his house. It was spacious and tidy. In a sense it was a victory to be here, but Frederick seemed less triumphant about it. He was probably wondering if he had done the right thing. He had. He should not be worried about that. She was hardly going to run around opening drawers. She would stick to what he showed her.
Frederick was wondering what to do with her. Did they have anything in common to talk about? "Did you go swimming this morning?" he asked finally. She would not know anything about anything else.
"Yes, I did."
"Do you always do that?" It must have happened before he had got up and she had been back in time for breakfast.
"Do you have to go again this afternoon?"
"No, I'm free until Monday morning."
Frederick regarded her silently. Many women would have made that sound suggestive, but Lara did not. She simply continued eating. "And what will you do until Monday morning?"
"Actually, I usually go to bed." She was usually exhausted after a week's training.
"On a Saturday?" he asked incredulously.
"Especially on a Saturday. I don't have to go anywhere if I don't have a competition."
And she would have nothing to do. He expected that he mother did everything for her. "Why are you still living with your parents?"
"Because it's easy. People cook for me, they wash for me, they drive me places."
"Your servants," Frederick stated. "I can see that is easy, but what about the disadvantages?" He should think that someone her age might want to be independent for once.
"Your parents. You don't have any freedom or independence."
"I'll move in with you then," she said sunnily. "You live so much closer to the swimming pool too." He was setting himself up so easily.
"Let's not get carried away," Frederick urged her. If Lara had her way they would be married at once. He did not want to get married at all if he could help it.
"If I was getting carried away I would have done something else," she promised him.
"Such as?" he asked interestedly and then cursed himself for his interest.
"Oh, I'm not telling." Lara was not at all sure what she was talking about, but she could not let him know that. It was better to be mysterious.
"You just want to get away from your family, but I'm not the way." He thought his words made him sound very old and he was older than Lara, but he was not ancient. There was still some life in him. There was no need yet to become a moralising old man.
"I hadn't considered getting away from my family. Why can't you be a part of it?" Lara asked.
Never, Frederick wanted to say. He never wanted to be a part of the Grainger family, not while her father was still living. The mother was only slightly better. Anyway, he had blocked the path into her family by passing himself off as John Smith. No parents would ever want such a son-in-law, at least not if they valued honesty. He was not sure about Lara's father in that respect, though. "I have already lied about my name," he said.
"Yes, why did you do that?" He was making it easy for her again.
"It was none of his business."
"He's only my father. That's paranoid." It was, she would think, all of her father's business to know with whom his daughter consorted. And what did Frederick have to hide?
"Not maybe. It really is."
"Then why do you still associate with me?" he wondered.
"Because you've got something." She looked at him. He was attractive and he was funny, when he was not being mysterious.
"Yes, you think you want to marry me." In spite of the ridiculousness of the whole thing, Frederick could not help being amused. "I have never met a woman who wanted to marry me."
"Then be happy about me."
He laughed at that. "You have a weird sense of humour. You have no idea what you'd be getting into."
"I'm sure it's not as daunting as you make it out to be," Lara said confidently. They were having a good time now, so why should that be any different if they were married? It would just happen a lot more often.
Frederick stepped towards her and stood directly in front of her. "Are you sure?" he asked in a low voice. "You are playing with fire, young lady." And so was he. He had better step back before it was too late.
"And I thought you were cool," Lara remarked. She knew what he meant, though. She felt the danger too, but contrary to him, she was not really afraid of it.
Frederick stepped back. "Yes."
"Yes?" Lara took a step forwards. She felt very bold.
He could rest assured. She had no plans to go any further. It was fun to try this out for once. She smiled up at him.
He was only a man, Frederick told himself, not a robot that could resist smiles. A woman needed not pursue him very far before he gave in. It took no effort at all to kiss her, but all the more so to recover.
"You kissed me," Lara said. It had been a pleasant kiss. It was amazing that she could still talk, although what she was saying was far from being spectacular.
"That was just a meaningless kiss." But an increased heart rate was not something meaningless and this nagged at him. What was he doing?
"If that gives you comfort," she nodded, having spotted a slight alteration to his breathing rhythm anyway. His resistance was diminishing. She could feel it. Maybe even he could, but he was still denying it.
Lara needed some time alone and she lay down on one of the couches with her eyes closed, replaying everything in her mind. She was good at delaying her nerves until her race was swum and this was much the same.
It had taken Frederick some thought and finally he had convinced himself that living with a woman who adored him might not be such a bad idea. He did not really know whether Lara adored him, but she was set on marrying him anyway and what other reason would she want to do that for?
"Should I go home?" Lara asked on Saturday evening. "My parents might get worried." She had forgotten about them, but now that it was dark, they might start wondering where she was.
"Your parents?" Frederick repeated. He had not given any thought to them at all, because he had not realised that the fact that Lara still lived with them meant that she would also have to inform them of her whereabouts.
"I should tell them where I am."
"But..." He stared at her. She was twenty-eight. It was stupid for someone her age to have to tell her parents where she was. She had a right to her own life. "You're twenty-eight!"
"But I live with them. Are you saying I should move out?" she asked cleverly. That would bring her closer to her goal. Frederick was co-operating very nicely as always and he probably did not even know it.
He groaned. It was a pity that he was the object of her manipulations, because he would have been able to laugh at it had it been someone else. She was very good, but how was that possible? She was supposed to be brainless. He had come to find out that that was not exactly true, but still.
"I don't really know where to move to, so I suppose I must stay there, unless you take so much pity on me that you'll take me." Lara put her hands on her hips and looked at him.
"Take you where?" he asked.
"Oh, don't buy time," she said sweetly.
She kept being sharper than he had imagined. Frederick looked at her and hesitated. One half of him told him he was being stupid, but the other half of him wanted to try this out and he could not say why. Well, she was a very attractive girl, but that could never account for everything.
"Well?" she asked. "Have you made up your mind yet? Is a younger woman really such a bad thing?" She had thought they would be queuing for one.
"I thought older men were."
"Older men, yes," she answered. He was not that old. Not too old for her, in any case. But he had evaded her question again. He was good at that, but she was also good at getting him to answer eventually. They were both good, which was why they were well-suited -- if only he realised it.
"I see," he replied, not betraying that he was flattered by her answer. He should not be. It was not yet time for a midlife crisis.
"Is that an answer?"
"I'll take it as one."
"You would have taken everything as an answer. What sort of girl are you, anyway?" She was an intriguing mixture of mutually exclusive character traits. The student of characters in Frederick admitted to being fascinated.
"Find out, if you want to know."
He could have known that. "Your truth is the truth." She saw everything the way she wanted to see it. It would not matter very much if he found out what sort of girl she was. She would be after him no matter what.
"Yes," she answered with a smile. "You're beginning to see my point of view. So..." Was she about to move in or not? He was not resisting much. If he had really been against the idea he would have opposed her a little more so he would not end up with an unwanted house guest.
"Er ... so?" Frederick raised his eyebrows inquiringly. Had she decided yet or was she merely teasing? She was insane enough to be serious about the whole thing.
"Oh, don't do that!" It made him look very charming and that was all the more reason to stick to her intention.
"Give me such a patronising look."
"Yes and it's just a defence mechanism," Lara said boldly. He was giving himself an attitude because he did not know what to think. Did he think he could fool her?
"You can't withstand my persuasion."
"Lara, what if you come to regret this?" he asked.
That sounded very much as if he was resigned to his fate. She could not help a smug smile from creeping into her face. "I don't think I will. I'd be very stupid if I did. Or would you think I was stupid in any case?" she asked innocently.
He looked doubtful. "Er ...well ..."
"You do not!" she protested.
Frederick smiled. "No. Not really. For a lingerie model you're quite ... surprising."
"Dear Frederick, may I tell you that I only became a model by coincidence? They asked me."
"I can see why," he said, before he realised that it was perhaps not wise to say so to a girl who was chasing him, especially not if she laughed when he said it.
Frederick told himself there was nothing he could have done to prevent Lara from moving in with him. She was so determined. He had watched it all with helplessly detached feeling, unable to interfere.
He ignored the voice that said he had not wanted to interfere. If he looked at it closely, he would have to admit that he was far from being Lara's helpless victim. After all, he had managed to keep her parents out of his house and to limit their involvement to the bare minimum. All they had been able to do was to spread the news of their daughter's relationship to their friends. He had not wanted them to set foot in his house and luckily for him, timing the move so it coincided with a major social event had been a good tactic. They would never forego an event where they could see and be seen.
Lara had been glad too. She would not have liked to have her parents ask why she moved into Frederick's spare room, although perhaps the question would not have occurred to them at all. It was only natural that all rubbish such as her stuff would be stored in a side room. That was what her parents were like, she mused. They only cared for appearances. As long as the bedroom looked impressive, they would not stop to think how it would be used and by whom.
As long as her boyfriend looked impressive -- and he did -- they would not stop to think about him. Perhaps they would only have shown more interest in what he actually did for a living if there was nothing else about him they approved of. Lara was faintly unsettled by how her parents allowed her to move in with a man they knew nothing about. She did not know much about him either, except that he was a challenge.
"Oh hell," she sighed as she surveyed the boxes in her new room. She did not look forward to unpacking them all.
Frederick came upstairs with the last box and he set it down. He caught her sigh. "You can always move back."
"Now that's silly. I'd have to unpack anyhow," she told him with a sweet smile. She did not want to give him the opportunity to send her back home. "It's less work to stay."
He gave her a quick look and went away, struggling with his feelings. He admired her for her quick replies, but he did not really admire himself for his utter inability to fight the hold she had gained over him.
Frederick was cooking when Lara joined him again. He smiled at her automatically and she smiled back. Perhaps that had been a wrong move. He looked at the pans again in concentration.
"Frederick..." she said.
"I hope you don't expect me to sleep with you now," she said candidly.
Frederick made an uncontrolled movement with his spatula and let it drop to the floor. He cursed softly and picked it up again, holding it under the tap to clean it.
"Well?" she asked, feeling a little nervous. "It had just occurred to me that you thought I might." To her it was not at all connected to moving in with him, but to other people it might be. She had thought he would not expect it of her, but suddenly she had begun to doubt.
He shook his head slowly in confusion as he stirred the contents of one pan. "As illogical as it might be to the impartial observer, I hadn't expected you to, but don't ask me why. I wouldn't be able to tell you."
She relaxed. "I would."
"Why am I not surprised," he muttered.
"So it was perfectly understandable to you that I should move in with you without having immediate designs on you?"
"Not perfectly understandable," Frederick corrected. "But you've made it perfectly clear before that you wanted to be married to me, regardless of ... well, anything. I've never caught you entertaining the notion that marriage had something to do with a relationship, or that a relationship had something to do with feelings for your É er É partner."
Lara smiled brightly. "Well, I am glad."
He gave her a confused glance. "That is not an answer. Are you playing some game with me or are you just..." He did not know which word to use. Childish? Innocent? Naive?
"And what game are you playing if you go along with every silly notion I have?"
He looked back at the food. That was something he could not tell her and he could not even distract her by kissing her. The only one who would suffer from that would be him. She would not. She had been absolutely cool-headed after they had kissed that one time, as if it had not affected her at all.
Lara came to stand behind him, her arms around his waist and her cheek against his shoulder. "Breathe," she told him when she felt he did not. "This is all I'll do."
He covered one of her hands with his free hand. "It does make it a trifle hard to move."
"Then don't." She liked standing like this and she did not see how it could possibly interfere with stirring the sauce. Very little moving was required for that.
"But the spaghetti is ready." He rarely ate spaghetti himself, but he had figured that a swimmer would eat lots of it.
"Well, now! I mustn't prevent you from pouring the water off the spaghetti!" Lara said humorously. She let go of Frederick.
"When I'm done you may resume your position," he suggested.
"Yeah, right," she replied, perching herself on the counter top, interestedly watching him hold the pan upside down over the colander.
"You just did that to tease me, didn't you?" he asked, looking a little puzzled. He still could not make any sense of her. She had not done that because she liked it, he was certain. The spaghetti went back into the pan and he took the sauce pan off the stove. Then he looked at her again because she had not answered.
"No. Maybe," she said reluctantly.
Frederick left the pans and came to stand in front of her. He parted her knees so he had a leg on either side of him and it was impossible for her to escape. His hands were on her waist and he looked into her eyes earnestly. "I think I'm allowed to tease back."
"That ... would be fair," Lara said softly, but her eyes were wide and almost panicky. She was not sure she was up to dealing with the sort of teasing a man of Frederick's age and experience would engage in. However, she had no one to blame but herself if it happened. Fair was fair.
Frederick considered her wide-eyed look, as well as the quickness with which she had placed her hands over his, almost as if that would prevent them from straying. It gave him an interesting, if somewhat surprising idea. He kept looking into her eyes and tried to move his hands ever so slightly. The immediate resistance he encountered made him smile. He did not think she was aware of the pressure of her hands. His smile widened. Whatever game she was playing, she had no more control over it than he did. "Sometimes it's more fair to be unfair," he said. He would be unfair and not tease back.
"Why?" she asked automatically. "You should smile like that more often." That open and genuine smile, not the guarded one.
"I think I might." He was quite pleased with what he had discovered, for some reason.
"I like knowing your intentions are good."
"So you like marriage?" she said quickly.
As always, he had to laugh at her ability to come up with an immediate answer. He released her waist and stepped back. "No, but I wish you luck."
Lara jumped off the counter top, nearly onto his toes. "You're the one who's going to need it." He had just given her one more reason to pursue him. When would he realise that?
"Am I?" Frederick raised his eyebrows teasingly.
"Yes." She reached up and wound her arms around his neck, because she still had a little excess affection to get rid of. "Resist me if you can." Teasing was all right as long as she dictated their movements.
"Hello!" he protested. "I doubt that you could find a man who would refuse under these circumstances." No man, he was sure, could resist a pretty young woman begging him to kiss her. He would not be taking advantage of her at all.
"I've never tried."
Neither had he, Frederick reflected, and he was not going to start resisting now. He kissed her -- no more, no less -- until he remembered the spaghetti. "Er... the spaghetti."
"All men ever think of is food," Lara commented.
"And swimmers don't? You eat as much as I do." He resisted the urge to let his hands roam over her body. That would have to wait until she did it to him. He let go of her, kissing her briefly one last time. "Let's eat."
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