And Hate the Idle Pleasures of These Days
As he moved from one guest to the next, Harry found himself growing increasingly dizzy. It wasn't the alcohol - he'd more tolerance for the stuff than anyone else in the room - though he was discretely chucking back glasses of rather expensive champagne anyway, in the vague hope he might eventually find the same sort of comfort in the stuff that the humans seemed to.
It was, he decided as he finished his first circle of the room (more than enough work for the night as far as he was concerned), the noise level. It murmured and sneaked and wound its way into his head, too quiet to drown out the drums, too loud to let him drift away to their primal beat. It was insidious, and he had to get away from it before something unfortunate happened and he did more than entertain the fantasy of littering the ballroom floor with bloodied corpses. Oh, they'd be so pretty in their sparkling jewels, fancy dresses, well-tailored suits, and he mustn't, he really mustn't.
He slipped away to the back of the room, slid behind the thick velvet curtains masking the French doors that led out to the terrace. The doors weren't locked, weren't even closed properly. He pressed his face to the glass, shielded the light from his eyes. There was a woman outside, sipping from a glass of red wine and gazing at the stars. He knew her, one of his agent's employees; she'd been subediting his book until his agent realised how popular the thing was going to be and passed it on to someone more senior.
As far as he remembered, Lucy Cole had been unremarkable and rather remote, though he found her attractive enough for a human. And she looked delightful tonight in a sleeveless blue silk dress, with her hair elegantly, if elaborately, pinned up.
He stepped out, clicked the window shut behind him. She didn't move, or hear him as he approached her. The night air was cool and still, but she seemed to be swaying slightly, too little, too controlled for it to be the alcohol. He stood behind her, eyes drifting over the pale flesh of her bare shoulder. "Ms Cole?" he said, very close to her ear.
Too close. She jumped and spun round, spilling half her drink onto the patio. He caught the glass before it too slipped from her grasp. "What on Earth? ...Mr Saxon, I think you're meant to be promoting your book, not sneaking around attempting to give other people heart attacks." She pulled her hand, and the half-empty glass, away from him.
"And what're you supposed to be doing, Ms Cole? Adding a little extra sensuality to the garden features?"
"I don't like crowds." She turned away from him, back to the panoramic darkness and the stars, bright and sharp as glass. When it became obvious he wasn't going to just leave, she spoke again: "Besides, the sky's clear tonight, and I don't often have a chance to get out of the city."
"And what do you see when you look up at the glorious spectacle of the infinite universe?"
"Too colourful," she said. "I'd cut that, or at least insist on something a little less purple."
"Ah, lucky for me you were taken off my book then. It's full of pretentious imagery and overblown prose. Joy to write; hell to read." He grinned, and saw her try to conceal a smile.
"Lucky for you I was," she said quietly. "I'm not sure how long I could have put up with your preposterous fibbing." There was enough light to make out her face easily enough, but her eyes were shaded dark, and he knew they watched him now, looking for clues, and he wished he could see them properly, could know what she was thinking. The silence lengthened, but he would not be the one to break it. It was up to her, all by herself, whether she would live or die. She asked, perfectly matter-of-fact, "Is anything in that biography true?"
He shrugged. "Not really, no. It was much more fun to make it up."
She hid it well, but he saw the questions cross her face, and he wondered which she would pick. He was pleasantly surprised. It was, he felt, the most pertinent question.
"So who are you?"
He stepped to her side and followed her gaze. "What do you see, when you look up there?"
"Better, definitely less colourful," she conceded.
"Well?" he insisted, his voice sharp enough to unsettle her.
"I... I don't know," she said. But that wasn't nearly enough, so he waited, let her collect her thoughts, until she said: "Sometimes I feel like I could fly, on and on forever, never reaching a single star but losing myself in the vastness in-between and it would be so quiet. It's the scale, I think; it's so frightening, so inspiring. And standing alone and gazing up at the stars is the closest I'll ever come to understanding how truly insignificant I am to the universe." She took another sip of wine, then twirled the stem of the glass between her forefinger and thumb. "That sounds ridiculous out loud," she said thoughtfully. "I think I shall blame the alcohol for being so very absurd."
He swallowed and his hand reached out, but he couldn't quite touch her. "It's not, you know."
"Quiet. There's always something, or will be something, or the echo of something past. Constant, everywhere, unending noise.
She tilted her head, looked at him curiously. As though he were brilliant, or mad. "And how would you know?" she asked.
"It's a dance. Everything circling everything else, constantly, from the galaxies to the electrons and nothing is ever, ever still." And he put his arm around her waist and took the glass from her hand before he clasped it in his own. "Even the dead are decaying," he said as he pulled her into a waltz. They danced round the terrace to music that only existed in his head and her eyes never left his. He wondered what she saw reflected there, and why she didn't run.
By the time they stopped, her breathing had quickened. Harry imagined he could hear the flutter of that single, frail human heart busying itself to increase the circulation of oxygenated blood. His own hearts beat out a steady rhythm, one that wouldn't change unless he willed it.
But he rather liked the way the dance had flushed her skin, and the way her lips were slightly parted now, as she looked up at him. He could have kissed her then, taken her home and to bed. Enjoyed a few nights with her, a week or two, perhaps. But that wasn't what he wanted, because she still hadn't let go of his hand.
Instead, he brought her perfectly painted nails to his lips, and kissed her knuckles, before his tongue darted out along the pads of her fingers. She laughed and snatched her hand away.
He stepped back, and said, "What if I said I could take you to see all the stars you've ever dreamed of?"
"I'd say you were quite mad, Mr Saxon, or that you were feeding me an incredibly cheap line." A smile tugged at her lips. "Certainly not one fit for that expensive suit of yours."
"Oh, do you like it?" He grinned and twirled around. "I've got a whole wardrobe of them at home."
"In your bedroom, naturally."
"Well, of course. Interested?"
She tapped the rim of her glass with one of those beautifully painted nail, as red as her lips. He realised he was holding his breath, watching as she tapped once, twice, then stopped. The relief was palatable. He was sure his smile hadn't faltered. "I still want to know who you are," she said.
He pouted, just to see that hidden smile again, then said: "But it's no fun at all if I just tell you."
"Well," she said, "if I was to take you at your word, and I don't. But if I was, I'd say you were an alien who'd come to Earth to...now getting to the top of the bestsellers list seems a little tawdry, so this is obviously just a first step in some grandiose plan to...take over the world." She looked at him, eyebrows raised. "I believe that's de rigour for visiting aliens in the twenty-first century."
"Such a clever girl," he said, face lighting up as he took her hand again and -
They both turned as the French doors clicked open, and Harry felt a sinking feeling somewhere between his hearts. He had been surprised by how much he liked his agent, not least of all because she had a healthy disdain for any member of the human race who wasn't on her books, and quite of few that were, but her timing tended to be unerringly irritating.
Amanda Caine wore steel-rimmed glasses and an expression to match. Her dress sense was stuck in the eighties and she lacked the ability - or, more likely, did not care - to distinguish between being blunt and sheer tactlessness. Nevertheless, she was brilliant at her job, and she amused Harry, and that was enough for him to give her a lot of leeway.
"Harry," she said, voice rough with five solid decades of smoking. "Harry, what did I tell you? What did I tell you twice on the phone, once at yesterday's meeting and three bloody times already during this little soirée that, by the way, is being held entirely for your benefit, incase you've forgotten that too?"
He shot a pained look at Lucy, who hid her smile behind her glass, and let go of her hand. "Amanda," he said as he approached her, wafting his hand to disperse the coils of smoke that seemed to permanently loom around the woman's hair. He coughed pointedly. "Must you?"
"Yes," she said, and took a long drag of her cigarette. "And if you want my vote, you can damn well stand on a platform to repeal this nanny state nonsense that says I can't go to the pub and enjoy a pint and a fag."
"Given how many members of the press there are in there, you wouldn't mind keeping your voice down, would you?" he asked, his smile a little tight. "I'm hoping that announcement will be something of an event in itself."
She rolled her eyes. "Your big secret, Harry, eh?"
"One of them."
"That's what I like about you, Harry: you're enigmatic. The press love enigmatic. Keeps them guessing. Also keeps them digging, you remember that. Like you promised you'd remember not to get bored and wander off. And I'm pretty sure I mentioned something about not fraternising with my staff either."
"We weren't-" began Lucy, but Amanda cut her off with a look.
"So," she said, giving Harry a shove in the direction of the doors. "Get in there and go give that nice girl from the Telegraph some of that patented Saxon charm. I want to see five stars from her in the Sunday edition, or whatever it is that sorry pansy of an excuse for a rag is rating stuff with nowadays, okay?"
Harry managed to shrug her off once he was back inside, and risked a few seconds to glance outside, half-expecting Lucy to have followed, or be watching him, expecting him to slip back to her.
But when he peered through the window, she was turned away from him and her head was tilted up at the stars.
He grinned and decided that, yes, she'd do very nicely indeed.