The dimly lit table was too romantic for a friendly chat. Fred didn’t want to send the wrong message to the person he was meeting with. He scanned for an available seat and spotted an empty table by the gardens.
“Can I have the table outside?” he asked.
“Certainly, sir,” the waiter said and led him outside.
Seated, Fred ordered coffee and opened the tablet the waiter had left for his use. He tapped on the world news section and chose the article about Libya’s current situation. A virus that had been spreading like wildfire in Africa for two weeks had been contained last night. The report stated that the condition of the President-General, who had contracted the deadly disease three days ago, remain undisclosed. His supporters and representatives refused to answer questions, even those about who was currently in charge of the government. The President-General’s son, however, seemed to have unofficially taken the mantle of leadership. He had begun negotiations with the resistance leader. His aim: to form an alliance with the rebel group in order to crush the terrorists that had been plaguing the country for more than a decade.
Fred shook his head at the article. The dictator’s condition had given the son a chance to acknowledge the existence of the resistance. Generally liked and respected by the citizens and government officials, he had successfully deceived everyone about his real motives. Secretly, he had been in touch with the rebels from the moment it was formed. The resistance, officially founded by Zafeera’s father, was in fact formed by the dictator’s son. He was called “Shadow” and only those in the inner circle knew his real identity. Fred had met him when Zafeera’s father tried to make him into an assassin. The Shadow, however, was reluctant to involve a foreign doctor in the nation’s war. Zafeera’s escape plan for Fred had pulled off too smoothly. He suspected that Shadow might have had a hand for the lack of pursuit from the rebels.
His thoughts still on Shadow, he realized that a shadow lingered at the edge of his vision. The first thing he saw was a plaid cotton dress and a familiar duffel bag. As Fred looked up, he was surprised to see who stood before him.
The woman grinned at him, her sunglasses perched high on her nose just like yesterday.
“Are you Dr. Williams?” she inquired.
“Yes.” Fred cleared his throat. “Are you Miss—”
“The one and only,” she said cheerfully. “Unless you’re looking for another Francesca Barbarossa,” the artist added after a long pause.
“Ah, yes – I mean, no,” Fred said, flustered. “Where are my manners?” He started to rise from his chair.
“It’s alright. I can manage.” She declined Fred’s and the waiter’s offer and pulled the chair by herself.
“I’m Cheska, by the way,” the woman said. She extended her hand towards Fred.
“Fred.” He took her hand in his.
During lunch, Cheska amusedly answered the questions thrown at her. She remembered Tony’s comment about the doctor’s knowledge in art. Fred had remarked on the way she used the direction of the light on her paintings and the subjects in her work. He sounded like a potential patron that she wondered what her mysterious benefactor looked like. Is he as handsome and young like this doctor? Probably not, she chuckled to herself.
Fred looked up from his plate at the sound of it.
“Sorry, I just remembered something,” Cheska said.
As they worked their way through dessert, she opened the conversation to the painting of the stag.
“I heard from Tony that you saw the painting in the basement,” she said.
“Yes.” Fred had planned to bring it up later and was relieved that the matter was out in the open.
“What did you feel when you saw it?”
Very afraid, he wanted to say.
“What made you paint it?” Fred asked, his heart hammering against his chest.
Cheska arched he brow and leaned against the back of her chair. She hadn’t told a soul about the painting and here was a man with secrets of his own. Cheska had heard voices in the columbarium yesterday before she had accidentally let loose her a set of colored pencils. She was surprised to find Fred all alone. When he left the chapel, she had gone down and inspected the columbarium. Cheska discovered dirt near the tunnel’s gate.
Would she dare tell him her secret?
“I’ll keep your secret, if you keep mine,” Cheska said.
Fred agreed considering that if she had planned to reveal his true identity in the Mysts, she would have done so in the bat of an eye.
“It isn’t mine,” she said so softly that he almost didn’t catch it.
“What do you mean it’s not yours?”
“You might have noticed that I didn’t sign it.” Or, he might not have, Cheska thought, vaguely recalling the man had a panic attack of sorts.
“But the style…”
“The style is similar, but wholly different.”
“Then, who painted it?”
“I was hoping you could tell me,” Cheska said, disappointed.
“How on earth would I know that?” Fred said curtly. He was frustrated that he had come up against a dead end.
“I heard how you reacted when you saw it. You weren’t amazed at all. It looked like you recognized it.”
Fred started to say something but thought better of it. Cheska didn’t know that she had hit the mark.
“Who gave it to you?” he asked.
“I’ve no idea.”
“Paintings don’t appear out of thin air.”
“Let’s just say this one did.” She bit her lower lip and crossed her arms. “I fell asleep in my studio that evening. When I woke up, it was sitting on my easel.”
“I see.” Fred fell silent. There was nothing more to say. The mystery would remain unsolved. The truth about Electra’s and the forest’s existence would still be mired in half-truths and lies.
“So, do you have any clues as to who painted it?” Cheska asked.
Fred glanced at the woman. “Sorry,” he said. “No, I don’t.”
“I thought you recognized it.”
“The subject looked familiar,” he admitted. Fred felt sympathy for her since they were on the same boat.
“Is he someone’s pet?” Cheska said carefully.
“You can say that.” Fred was starting to be bothered with her sunglasses. He couldn’t read Cheska with her eyes hidden behind them. And he needed to see them when they were touching a sensitive topic.
“Can’t we go to that person and ask?”
“No,” he said with finality.
Why can’t she take a hint? Fred stared at her, willing Cheska to stop to no avail.
She repeated the question.
“Because that person is dead,” he snapped.
They ate in silence until Cheska checked her timepiece.
“Is something wrong?” Fred asked. He had been searching for a way to salvage the situation when he heard her swear.
Cheska’s faced turned scarlet. She hadn’t meant for him to hear.
“I’m sorry. I have to leave. It was nice meeting you, doctor,” she rushed. Already, she had her bag slung on one shoulder and ready to go. “This is really embarrassing, but could you just send me the bill so I can pay you back?”
“You don’t have to. This one’s on me.”
“Oh. Thank you.” Cheska was too relieved to insist on paying for lunch. She had been taken aback when she saw the prices on the menu earlier.
“If you could wait for a few more minutes, we could drive you back to the city.” Fred waved to the waiter.
“That would be great,” she said and added, “if it wouldn’t inconvenience you.”
“Not at all.”
After Fred spoke with the waiter, he rose and moved to her side.
“I’m going down to the city, so you might as well join me in the car,” he said. Fred didn’t mention that he had decided to leave the hotel just then.
“Oh, alright. I accept,” Cheska said brightly at him.
Unknowingly, her smile affected Fred. It was the same smile she had greeted him with earlier and in the chapel, but in close proximity… It felt familiar and somewhat endearing. At that moment, he had thought it was because of her beauty. Even without seeing her face completely, Cheska was undoubtedly pretty. If only he could see her eyes…
Tony was happy to see the two people enter the car. The meeting had gone well as he had hoped. He had warned Cheska about the doctor’s mood swings. Tony also noticed that Fred smiled more with Cheska than the time they had spent touring the Mysts.
The chauffeur kept an eye on his passengers as he drove to the art gallery. He discovered later why they were on friendly terms in just one meeting.
“Thank you for yesterday,” Fred said as Cheska moved to the door that Tony had opened.
She waved it off, saying, “That’s nothing compared to your having bought my paintings.”
“You know it isn’t true.” He frowned at her flawed logic.
To his credit, Cheska paused and admitted: “You’re right. All the same, thanks for buying my work.”
“It was your talent that made me buy it.”
“And thank you for the ride.”
“The honor is mine. I hope we could see each other again.”
“I look forward to it.” They shook hands.
As Tony drove further from the gallery, he sneaked a glance at Fred. It wasn’t hard to figure out that the doctor was interested in his friend.
Speaking of friend, Cheska had forgotten to mention that she had met Fred yesterday. It was natural for her to either omit details or forget things she considered unimportant. The latter seemed more likely though, but the way she behaved with Fred was surprising. Tony rarely saw Cheska close to anyone, except for him, her guardian, and her fiancé. Ugh! Fiancé, he thought scornfully. What did she ever see in him?
“Tony,” Fred said. “Could you tell me more about Cheska’s—”
“She’s engaged,” Tony said unthinkingly, his mind apparently still on Cheska’s engagement.
“—eye condition,” Fred finished, a brow arched at his red-faced chauffeur.
“Oh. Eye condition. Uh. She almost lost her vision due to a car accident. Gerry would know more. He’s her ex-legal guardian, sir.”
“Did you say she’s engaged?”
Fred hadn’t seen a ring on Cheska’s finger, but he decided not to ask about it. His chauffeur was already showing signs of protectiveness. Tony would surely read too much in one innocent question.
“I’m making a case study for an eye treatment I’ve been developing,” Fred said. “Could you tell Cheska to contact me if she’s interested?”
“Is it safe?”
“There had been an allergic reaction to one subject during its initial phase. Now that it’s in its final stage, there hasn’t been any complication in the last report.”
“One last thing…”
“Drop the sir.”
Fred had almost asked about what had happened to Cheska’s parents. It wasn’t his business to pry on a stranger’s private life. He looked around the neighborhood and recognized the landmarks.
“Are we close to the Hydleburghs?”
“It’s a few blocks from here, sir.”
“Let’s stop there. I have to speak with James.”
James answered the door at the third ring.
“Fred,” he said.
Fred understood James’s surprise at finding him at his doorstep since they had breakfast that morning with Paolo and Michael at the café.
“Can I have a word with you?” Fred asked.
“Sure. What is it?”
James didn’t move from the door that Fred was forced to ask, “Can I come in?”
“Sorry, my wife’s cleaning the house. She doesn’t like having people inside at the moment. We could still talk out here.” James stepped out and closed the door. He led Fred to the iron wrought bench facing the garden.
“How’s the baby?”
“He’s fine, napping.” James grinned, the awkwardness between them forgotten.
“I need advice, James.”
“Go on.” James frowned and glanced at the door.
“Truth is, I came back to escape mom’s matchmaking but now I’m not sure if that the real reason I’m here.”
“You’ve only been here for a few days. What made you think that?”
“A lot of things.” Fred couldn’t mention his recent contact with the rebels. He also felt guilty for lying to James. Fred was tired of answering the same questions for weeks that admitting he was kidnapped by terrorists had been a good idea. It stopped people from badgering him with questions he couldn’t answer.
“There’s this painting,” Fred said. “Have you heard of the artist Francesca Barbarossa?”
“She sounds familiar. Why?”
“She has a painting that looks exactly like—” A door slammed within the house. “What was that?”
“Must be Diana wrestling with that rocking chair,” James said.
“That doesn’t sound—” An angry shout rang inside. “Do you have a guest?” Fred asked and moved towards the door.
The voices became louder while the baby started to wail in the background. The door was abruptly opened before Fred managed to grab the door’s handle.
“My sister is alive!” the young man shouted at Paolo and swung around, coming face to face with Fred.
Fred saw amber eyes stare back at him.
Copyright © 2014-2016 Cecilia Beatriz. All rights reserved.
A/N: Is Tony in love with Cheska as well? What do you think Cheska looks like without the sunglasses? Louis makes his first appearance with an announcement.
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