The Path of Innocence by Megan Johns
Debbie watched him summon the wine waiter and bridled at the presumptuousness as he ordered another bottle of Chablis.
“I’ve had more than enough.”
“Nonsense,” he chided. “We’ll have another bottle, please.” Dismissing the waiter with a curt nod, he eyed her levelly.
“You always do what you want, irrespective of others, don’t you?” she bristled.
“Yes,” he replied sharply. “And I always get what I want. Eventually.”
A strong hammering in her chest began to pound in her ears so loudly that she wondered whether he could hear it too, and she swallowed deeply. This time he wasn’t going to win, she told herself firmly. Defiantly, she reached to cover her glass before he could pour another measure of wine.
“I really don’t want any more, thank you.”
“A little more won’t harm.”
“No, thank you, really.”
“Why deny yourself what you want?” A wry grin lifted a corner of his mouth, making her smart hotly.
“Because sometimes,” her manner was short, “other things have to take precedence.”
“So you sacrifice your own pleasure, and what do you get in return?”
His words stung her like a whip and she lashed back, “If I drink more wine, I won’t be able to do the things I’d planned for this afternoon. Surely that in itself would be self-denial.”
“And what were you planning to do?”
A fearful leap in her stomach sent another tide of red lapping over her skin.
“I, um, thought I’d visit the Tate Gallery,” she faltered, then her heart sank as she watched him arch his hands over his mouth, holding her gaze, as though he knew exactly what was in her mind. That there were no such plans seemed transparently clear to him and he probably even knew that she would have been content simply to wander around the capital, taking in the atmosphere and enjoying the short reprieve from domesticity.
“I’ll take you there.” His voice cut through her thoughts and, startled, she did a rapid double take.
“To the Tate. I’ll accompany you.”
“There’s really no need.” Hiding her anxiety behind the protective screen of her napkin, she daubed her mouth.
“I didn’t say there was. I’d like to. I may even be able to enrich the cultural experience for you.”
“Don’t you have work to do?” Dropping the napkin, she crumpled it carelessly.
“Yes, but it’s a question of prioritising, and that can wait.”
His commanding tone defied any further objection, and reaching for the bottle, he poured her another glass of wine. Glancing at it, then at him, she let out a quiet sigh, and resignedly picked up her glass to drink from it.
Debbie shot him a sideways glance, inwardly cursing. He had been right, of course, he had enriched the cultural experience for her. She was seeing things today that would normally have escaped her attention completely.
“It’s wonderful how Constable seems to capture the real soul of nature,” she commented as they progressed on.
“Yes. He makes the work of his predecessors, even Gainsborough, seem quite artificial.”
They moved on unhurriedly, the mood still relaxed, although she sensed her heart quicken as they neared the end of the British school and he turned to ask, “Would you like to carry on to the Modern collection now?”
“No, I think I’ve reached my threshold for today,” she answered earnestly, then smiled at him, for once not stiffly. “But thanks for the offer. I’ve really enjoyed the visit.”
“So, how do you think it compares with the Prado, the Louvre, the Palais des Beaux Arts or even the Rijks museum?” Edward Rolfe’s piercing eyes fixed on her, watching closely for her reaction and she stared hard at the wall, evading his gaze, yet remembering very well those dizzy, heady days of accompanying him on business in Europe. Yes, Madrid, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam all had their own store of treasures and wealth of memories too.
Forcing an evenness of tone that belied the clamour of emotions inside, she turned slowly to face him. “How can you compare? They’re all so rich in their own way?”
“Answered like a true diplomat.” He gave a tight laugh. “Yes, they are all rich in their different ways, but they do share one common distinguishing feature.”
She met his eyes—the quick mercurial colour of quicksilver, grey one minute, silver the next, but frowned as he expanded. “What better mark of distinction could there be than the fact that we’ve visited them all?”
“You flatter me.” Debbie’s gaze dropped again, and she shuddered at the rush of adrenaline to surge through her as he slipped an arm through hers.
“I won’t tell you what you do to me…”
His words seemed to hover in the ether above her and she stared unblinkingly into the near distance before they descended to hit her like a hammer. Jerking away from his grasp, she clamped her arms to her side and took a step back.
“I think we should go.” She began to make for the exit, studiously ignoring him flanking her, and only when they emerged outside, did she twitch the briefest of acknowledgments.”It must be getting late.” She glanced at the flow of traffic, then at her watch.
“It’s only four o’clock,” he retorted.
“I must go.”
“I have to. Please don’t make it difficult for me.”
“Why not? I don’t want you to go and I don’t believe it’s what you want either. In any case,” he gestured toward the traffic, “it would be madness to set out now, you’ll catch the rush hour.”
“I should just miss it if I go now.”
“No, Debbie. Our time together isn’t complete and you know it. It doesn’t become you be so restrained For goodness sake, let go and enjoy. You know it’s what you want.”