I edge up to the counter, my hands clammy, my stomach in a tight knot. The woman manning it smiles efficiently. She is wearing the bank’s uniform; a striped shirt, a navy blazer and matching skirt. Her black name-tag has Susan Bradley printed in white.
‘Thank you for waiting.’ Her voice is iceberg lettuce crisp. ‘What can I help you with today?’
I run my hands down the skirt of my gray suit. ‘I have an appointment to see an officer about a loan. The name is Lana Bloom.’
She consults her computer screen. ‘Ah! Miss Bloom.’ Her eyes move upwards. Meet mine. No smile there. Just avid curiosity. ‘Take a seat, and I’ll let someone know you are here.’
‘Thank you.’ I walk towards the nest of gray-blue chairs she indicates. I perch on the edge of one and watch her.
‘She’s here,’ she announces into the phone, and returns it to its cradle. Then she does an odd thing—without turning her face in my direction, sneaks a look at me from the corners of her eyes, catches me watching, and looks away quickly, almost guiltily.
I feel the knot in my stomach grow tighter. Something is wrong. Perhaps the manager has looked at my business plan and decided against the loan. It shouldn’t be too surprising. I have no experience and no collateral and, as my mother used to say, banks will only lend you an umbrella when it is not raining outside.
I clutch my bag in sweat-slicked hands, take a deep breath and very firmly urge myself to be calm. There is always Plan B—Billie and I will simply start small and build the business brick by brick. Our progress will be very slow, but we will survive, and perhaps if we work extra hard, one day we will thrive. With or without their money we will get by. My chin goes up a notch.
An Asian lady in a dark suit comes out of a closed door. She looks at me, eases into another smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes, and asks, ‘Miss Bloom?’
I stand nervously and smooth down my skirt. Here goes nothing. I touch my hair self-consciously. Hope the wind outside has not wrecked it too much. In an attempt to look older and more professional Billie scraped my hair back into a severe bun and colored my lips a dark plum. She said it has the effect of making me look like a sophisticated flamenco dancer, but I think it has simply made me look pale and gaunt.
‘This way please.’ The woman waves her hand in the direction of the stairs and starts walking towards them. I frown deeply. All the other people waiting with me have been shown into one of the cubicles downstairs. Upstairs, I have not seen anyone go. Why am I going upstairs? The woman’s clunky heels make a hollow sound on the uncarpeted stairs. The sound reverberates in my chest. The feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach increases.
We go through a door that requires a code, and I realize that we have entered the area that only staff members are allowed into. Another employee passes us and glances at me curiously. We walk down a corridor of offices. Near the end of it the woman turns around and faces me. There is an oddly speculative expression on her face.
‘Ready?’ she asks. It seems a strange thing to ask.
Bemused, I nod.
She knocks once, pulls open the door, and holds it ajar for me.
I enter, a sunny smile plastered all over my face, and freeze. My jaw drops, my stomach lurches in my body. I am in a nightmare. Ah, but haven’t you waited for this for a long time? Always my heart knew it was not over. One day I would see him again. I didn’t know how or when or why—just that I would.
And I have rehearsed this scenario in my mind countless times but in different circumstances. Where I am dressed seductively and have run into him in a nightclub or while I am accidentally, purposely loitering outside One Hyde Park where he once told me he lives. But never, never here at my local bank. Not in a million years. I am so shocked my mind actually goes blank. I blink.
Oh! But to be caught this unprepared!
‘Wait,’ I want to scream to the Asian lady, ‘there has been some mistake,’ but my mouth is frozen open, and even my slow-moving brain knows there is no mistake. I have not been shown to this room by accident. I am here because this man wants me here.
The door closes quietly behind me.
‘Hello, Lana,’ Blake says from behind a desk. His voice is still the same. Jack Daniel’s on ice. Smooth. A bite hidden somewhere in its amber depths.
A shiver runs down my spine.
He looks at me with a tight jaw and unreadable eyes. He is even more beautiful and raw than I remember. An impossibly splendid, impersonal god. But there is something different about him too. Some harshness that wasn’t there before has crept into those hooded, intensely beautiful eyes. Some faint lines about his mouth.
The shock to my system of seeing him so unexpectedly is so great I am unable to say or do anything. Robbed of all coherent thought I simply stand there slack-jawed: a fool, greedily drinking in the sight of him. For I, have spent many a long, lonely night, the heat of the desert all around me, trawling the net looking for any mention of this man.
For months nothing.
Then one day on a conspiracy site—a brief article that he got engaged to Victoria Montgomery, daughter of the fourth Earl of Hardwick. I sat back, my body in an unbelievable turmoil. Insane jealousy is like red-hot lava. It poured into my gut, carrying with it the terrible, terrible sensation that I had lost something irreplaceable.
There was a small picture of them taken at a restaurant. So grainy there was nothing to be gleaned from it, but I had stared at it for a long time that day, and gone back to it again and again. As if it held some clue to a mystery I didn’t understand. Slowly, I began to notice things, the coffee cup, his hand on the table close to, but not touching hers. Victoria’s face upturned to him, hard to tell her expression, but there was the impression of great devotion and determination. I had rubbed my seventh-month belly slowly. The circles my hand made comforted me. That life is not yours. That man is not yours. Has never been. But this baby is all yours. The molten lava cooled, formed its black crust. The fan droned on. In the next room, my mother slept, blissfully unaware of my deep sorrow.
‘Have a seat,’ he invites smoothly.
But I dare not move. My legs are pure jelly. I close and then open my mouth, but no words come. I swallow and try again. The song ‘Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing’ starts playing in my head. Shit. I am in trouble. Bad things always happen when that song starts playing in my head.
‘What are you doing here?’ My voice is barely a whisper.
‘Processing your loan application.’