They're sprawled on some cushions on the other side of the cabin on a yacht that hugs the coast of southern France, oblivious to the thumping music and bodies coming and going around them. The small, dark one has eyes that crinkle at the corners because she is laughing at something the other woman has said, something that prompts her to reach an arm around the other woman's shoulder and press her close. She is slender and athletic, her tan and jet black bob hairstyle set off by a simple white dress. She makes no attempt to disguise with makeup the fine lines around her forehead and mouth, which is adorned, instead, with the reddest lipstick. Her laugh comes from deep in her throat and rolls over Isabella like a wave, submerging her. A bubble rises in Isabella, swelling her heart and expanding all her senses to the point of pain and she closes her eyes for fear she will burst. A fat tear slides between her eyelid and spreads on her eyelashes, followed by another and another. She grips her wine glass with the white knuckles of one hand and opens the messages on her phone with the other.
[Françoise] I hope you'll come with us to the party today. I'm looking forward to seeing you.
[Isabella] Of course! I've missed you. I can't wait to see you again.
[Françoise] Bien! I'll swing by to pick you up around noon. Ah bientôt!
The older woman hugged Isabella warmly, kissing her on both cheeks. Isabella clung to her arms and pressed her cheek into her lips to extend the greeting, but it did not last any longer than etiquette required. Françoise brushed a strand of Isabella's blonde hair from her forehead.
"How lovely you look. Are you enjoying your holiday, ma chère?"
Isabella nodded. "And you? How was your honeymoon?"
A dreamy expression floated over Françoise's face. "Wonderful! Have you ever been to Morocco?"
Françoise's mind had gone somewhere else, and she looked right through Isabella. She felt her throat tighten and tried to sound nonchalant.
"Do you have everything? Let's go. Marie is waiting in the car."
Now she has given up trying to enjoy the party. Françoise isn't exactly ignoring her, but she is besotted with her bride and Isabella tires of their endless stories about Morocco and the constant effort to interject herself into their banter. Worse than that, though, are the caresses and kisses, the brushing together of their shoulders, the way they walk around the deck of the yacht with their arms around each other's waists, feet moving in perfect harmony, just as she had once imagined herself doing with Françoise.
She sinks deeper into her chair, transfigured with an almost spiritual ache, staring at Françoise's text, trying to recapture the exhilaration she had felt when she received it. She lets her tears dry to a thin crust of salt around her mascara rather than smudge it by brushing them away.
"She doesn't love you, you know."
Isabella bolts upright and whips her head around at the tall, thin man coming up behind her. He tilts his head toward Françoise.
"Am I that obvious?"
"I'm afraid so." He smiles so gently that it brings fresh tears to Isabella's eyes and this time she can't hold them back.
"Oh, you don't want her to see that. Let's go out onto the deck," the man says, extending a hand to help her up. She accepts his hand and he steadies her as she wobbles to her feet on her high heels.
When they're on the deck, he puts his arm around her waist and directs her toward the railing. Under other circumstances, Isabella would consider the gesture patronizing and far too intimate, but at the moment it comforts her and fills in admirably for the lack of Françoise's arm in the same position. The stranger is relaxed and comfortable with her nearness, and he smells good. Although his arm is around her, he is not touching any inappropriate parts and he surrounds her with a calm, steady presence.
As they look out over the waves, Isabella feels water on her cheeks and realizes it is from her eyes, not the bursting whitecaps. She surrenders the sobs caught in her chest to the stranger's shoulder, leaving ugly black smears on his pale pink silk sleeve.
"How long were you together?" he asks when she has quieted a little, and begun to fish in her bag for a tissue.
"That's the stupid thing. We weren't really together. She is my mother's friend. We were.. are.. also friends."
"But you fell in love with her."
"And she didn't fall in love with me."
They stare silently at the water for a few moments.
"What was it that made you fall for her?
"She is always there when I need to talk. She is strong, like a tree. A few years ago, I had to get away from my family sometimes, and she would always let me stay with her. I lived with her all of the summer before last. I think back then, those were the only times I felt happy."
"Why were you so unhappy?"
The story tumbles out. It is easy to talk to the gentle stranger. Madness ran in her father's family ever since the Middle Ages, when they had been one of the great families and eventual rulers of a small kingdom in Central Europe, and it not spare him. Sometimes he thought he was made of glass and wore special clothing so he would not break and no one could touch him. Other times, he did not recognize Isabella or her mother. He threw them out of their sprawling, ancient house and invited a new girlfriend to move in. Isabella's mother struggled with him for years to adhere to a course of proper psychiatric care. When he was lucid, he took his medication, kept his doctor appointments, and was a loving father and husband. But when the delusions hit, as they inevitably did in spite of his regimen, he could not see the need for medication or doctors and went sometimes months at a time living in his own reality. Isabella would have had him hospitalized, but his family was mortified enough by his mental illness that they did everything in their power to resist the additional stigma of the "lunatic asylum", as they called it.
The only one he would talk to in the grip of delusion was his brother. Isabella's mother and her uncle grew close. Isabella had seen them slow dancing in the ballroom one night when she was 14, and had awoken to the sound of music. She wasn't sure if she had dreamed this part, but she had an image in her head of her uncle's mouth on her mother's and his hands down the front of her dress. She found it hard to be around her mother after this, and they got into terrible fights that propelled her out of the house and into Françoise's.
"Was Françoise married or with a partner back then?"
"She usually had a girlfriend, but they would come and go. I was the only constant girl in her life."
"But she is married now."
"When she started dating Marie, I waited for it to burn out like all the others. But it didn't. So I went out and got a girlfriend, too. I did really have a big crush on her, I wasn't faking that, and liked bringing her around to show off to Françoise. It made me feel so grown up and I suppose I hoped maybe she'd get jealous and realize that she really loved me instead? But the longer Françoise was with Marie, the less I loved my girlfriend and eventually we broke up."
"You know, Françoise probably loves you as more of a daughter."
"She's younger than my mother! She's only 38. I'm 19. It could work."
"I suppose," the stranger muses, then continues after a pause, "Well, I know all about your family and all about Françoise, but I still don't know your name."
"My name is Isabella. Isabella Valois." She feels suddenly shy and blushes a little, as if her name were one confession too many.
"Hello, Isabella, it's nice to meet you. My name is Richard Plantagenet."
"Hi, Richard. That name sounds familiar but I'm sure we've never met."
"Look at the back of your phone."
Puzzled, she looks at the back of her phone.
"See that?" He points to a tiny white stag on the case.
Her face is blank. "So?"
"I invented something that's in your phone. It's probably in your laptop and tablet, too."
"Oh. I don't really know anything about technology. But I do love my phone."
Richard laughs, and, for the first time, so does Isabella.
"Thank you for rescuing me in there, Richard. And for listening to me."
"Thank you for trusting me with your troubles."
Isabella blushes a little again and looks quickly away from Richard. Françoise already seems a little more distant and she notices for the first time Richard's luxuriant hair and almost feminine beauty. She realizes that in this short time, she has come to trust him completely. She slips her arm around his waist, too, and they stroll around the deck, talking about inconsequential matters until she knows she will want to see him again. She gives him her number before Françoise and Marie take her back to her apartment. She texts him a few times, trying to see him again, but he has to return to the States before they get the chance.
For almost two weeks before Christmas, it rains with only small breaks between downpours. Streets flood from time to time and Richard finally gets into the habit of leaving his umbrella by the door. But rain in the Bay Area means snow in the Sierras and oh boy, is there ever snow! Finally, after several years of barely enough to cover the ground, it's piled up shoulder high everywhere. Richard can't invite all his employees to his cabin at Tahoe, so he decides to bring Tahoe to them. The theme of the White Hart company Christmas party is "Lake Tahoe Christmas".
Let Facebook and LinkedIn rent professional sports teams' stadiums. Let Twitter and Google rent out museums. White Hart has a sprawling campus, landscaped with hills and sprinkled with trees that Richard turns into a winter wonderland with snow trucked in from the mountains. Thanks to nature's generosity, he can double his order for snow and four refrigerated semi-trucks arrive the day before the party with workers who spread it thickly over a wide swatch of the landscape and over skateboard ramps and half-pipes that replicate a ski slope in miniature. On one end they build a small pond in the exact shape of the lake, and attach it to a refrigeration system that freezes it solid enough for ice skating. On the other side of the area, opposite the skating rink, a stage has been set up for the band, Cake, which upsets Bagot because, really? Cake? But Richard likes them and there is nothing Bagot can do about it. White sofas and open fire pits extend from a buffet table near the employee cafeteria almost up to the snow. The entire scene, which covers two acres, is covered by an enormous plastic tent, in case of rain.
On the day of the party, Richard receives a text message from a number he doesn't recognize, but since only trusted friends have the number to his personal phone, he reads it anyway.
Hey, it's me, Isabella. I'm in town. Let's meet for a drink.
Isabella. He searches his memory and has a hazy recollection of someone in France, and looks through his phone address book. He knows a few Isabellas, but he stops scrolling at "Isabella Valois", because an unexpected rush hits his head. The girl on the yacht! The tragic princess who starred as the queen in several fantasies that involved castles, dragons, knights in armor, and dungeons, before he returned to California and promptly forgot about her. It's not her number, but it's none of the other Isabellas', either, and his gut instinct tells him it's her.
Isabella! Come to the White Hart company party tonight! I'll put you on the guest list."
She assents, he gives her the details, and tells security to put Isabella Valois on the list, hoping he's got the right girl.
Over two hundred people attend the party: employees, significant others, children, probably even a few crashers, scammers and con artists. People careen about on ice skates, skis, snowboards, and sleds. Richard makes the rounds politely, then keeps Bushy, Bagot, and Green close to him. Bagot's decked out in full snowboarding gear, and carries his board under his arm. Green gives him a hard time.
"Let's see you do that half-pipe over there, Bagot."
"I could do that with my eyes closed."
"Yeah, when you were 17."
"Dude, I go boarding every winter, Green." He takes another swig from the craft beer in his hand.
"Uh huh." Green shares a smirk with Bushy.
Bagot slams his bottle down on the table and stomps through the ankle-deep snow to boarding area, pulling on his gloves and goggles while he waits. Green laughs and clinks bottles with Bushy. Not many people are waiting, so Bagot's turn comes quickly. He slides down the hill and bends into the curve, but he hasn't gotten enough momentum to hold him in it, and falls flat on his face.
When he stands up, he sees Green and Bushy laughing at him, so he packs two snowballs and throws them hard. One hits Green on the shoulder, and the other lands harmlessly on the table in front of Bushy.
"Guess you're not 17 anymore!" Green says triumphantly.
Bagot glares at him, and, without warning, seizes both sides of his face and plants a huge kiss on Green's lips, forcing his tongue in before Green even realizes what's happening. Green sputters and wipes his mouth after Bagot pulls back.
"Guess you're just gay for pay." Bagot gloats. Green's still spitting and wiping his lips. Kissing Bagot when Richard's not around isn't part of his job description, as far as he's concerned, and his wife is circulating, somewhere out there in the crowd.
Richard has to make a call to the head of their China office, and enters the main building to go upstairs to his office. He passes an employee lounge area that's lit only from the lamps outside, shining through the windows, but he hears some noises inside that make him stop and poke his head in the door.
Over the back of the sofa, he sees the half-kneeing outline of a topless female form. She has shaggy, chin-length hair and small, firm breasts, nipples firmly defined in the shadow. Long, blonde hair from a second head falls over the sofa's arm. Soft "ah ah" sounds come from her, as the bending figure moves. Richard can't see what she's doing, just her shoulder and upper arm moving very rhythmically, very slowly, tilting her hair to one side from time to time so she can lean down to kiss her partner.
He takes a step into the room, quietly, so they don't hear him, and thinks he can recognize the outline. Something about her hair, her shape, reminds him of Isabella. Her perfume reaches him and he knows: It is Isabella. Her hand moves carefully between her partner's legs, two fingers sliding in and out, then three. She pauses while the blonde woman inhales and tenses.
"Shh.. Relax," she whispers, bending again to kiss her, and swipes her tongue along her jaw and down her throat, ending at her nipple. She licks it a couple of times, then takes it very gently between her teeth, gradually increasing their pressure into a firm, but not very painful, bite as she lets a fourth finger enter. The blonde arches her back a little and Richard hears "Unhhh" as she settles down and Isabella's arm begins to move again. Her head turns toward him. He thinks she's noticed his presence, and suddenly feels out of place, so he gingerly steps back out and sits in a chair just outside the door, listening and waiting.
Isabella feels her lover relax around her hand, and pauses for a moment, wondering what she will do. She makes a frustrated sound and pushes her pussy against Isabella's hand.
"Oh, you don't like it when I stop, do you," she laughs, softly. Her lover shakes her head and croaks a tortured, "Uh-uh."
"You want more?"
She nods her head. Isabella withdraws most of her hand, then slips all five fingers in, curling them flat against her palms as, slowly, her lover's body softens and yields to her touch, until her whole hand is inside. The blonde wants to writhe but is immobilized around Isabella's hand, which is not moving. She wants to cry out, but the sound catches in her throat and all she can do is make sad gulping sounds, and hold onto Isabella's arm, as if trying to both guide and prevent the hand from doing more. To Richard, waiting outside the door, its sounds like she's somewhere between pain and ecstasy.
He peeks in the door again, and sees Isabella's arm moving so slowly it's almost not noticeable at firs. Then, her head dips below the back of the couch and he can't see what she's doing, but hears soft, wet, licking sounds until the blonde screams loudly and Isabella tenses as she pushes her lover through her orgasm, then collapses on top of her, stroking her hair.
They only lie like that for a few moments before the blonde tries to shift from beneath Isabella.
"That was amazing." She kisses her. "But I should get back to my boyfriend," she says drowsily.
"So soon?" Richard hears the disappointment in her voice.
"If I'm with you too long, he'll get jealous." She kisses Isabella again to soften her words. "Come on, honey, you knew I was with him when we came here. I can see you again. Just, now, I need to go."
Isabella nods, and sits, so the blonde can sit up, too. She puts her bra and top back on, then stands and puts on her pants as Isabella watches. She stumbles out of the room, and Richard realizes she's very drunk. He hears Isabella rustling with her clothing, then her footsteps approach the doorway. He swipes his phone screen so that the light comes on. Isabella startles. Richard stands.
"Richard!" She pauses awkwardly. He's probably seen and heard everything, but it doesn't bother her as much as it should. She's so happy to see him that she regains her composure immediately. "How lovely to see you again!" And offers him her hand, as if they were back at a yacht party in southern France.
"Isabella!" he kisses her hand, pretending he saw nothing. She lowers her hand from his lips, and he puts his free hand around the small of her back.
"How have you been?" he asks, then, to his own surprise, spontaneously bursts out with, "I've missed you."
He doesn't appreciate the truth of his words until he speaks them.
"I've missed you too," she whispers. The light from Richard's phone illuminates their faces for a few more moments, and Isabella drinks in his large, brown eyes and sensual lower lip, that seems to be on the verge of speaking, before the phone's backlight goes down. She reaches for his hand, and he draws her closer. He's about to say something but she purses her lips in a way that tells him, "No more words," so he bends in and kisses her. She eagerly returns his kiss, wrapping her arms around his neck, her tongue begging entry to his mouth.
Richard feels momentarily helpless as her tongue probes his. Nothing has happened the way he expected. Her had draws his under her skirt, and directs his fingers to the wet scrap of fabric between her legs. He presses against her. She feels his cock stiffen against her thigh as he slips his finger inside her panties and wets it with the juices that are just there, waiting for him. He draws his hand back out again, and touches his finger against her lips. She kisses it, then takes it in her mouth, licking herself off his finger, looking into his eyes as she finishes.
Richard leads her to a beat that begins in his temples and ends in his cock, back to the sofa, and lifts her blouse over her head. She stands in front of him, outlined by the light coming through the window. He can barely see her lips, but hears short, shallow bursts coming from her lungs, and feels heat radiating from her body.
"I want to watch you undress."
He can't see, but, rather, feels her smile as she steps slightly away, so that her back is toward the window and he sees only a dark figure unhook her bra, then her skirt, which she steps out of as it falls to the floor. She takes his hand, and draws him down with her as she lays on the couch.
Richard needs to enter her more urgently than he ever thought possible and opens his pants in an instant. He braces himself with one arm under her shoulders and penetrates her quickly, strongly, noticing it's now her hair dangling over the arm of the sofa, bouncing in time to the motion of his hips thrusting in her again and again and again, until she can't take any more. She comes fiercely, biting his shoulder to keep from crying out, and again, with more abandon, when he moans, and she feels him shudder inside her.
The band's music reaches the couch through a heavy filter of skin and sweat. Isabella feels somehow huge and fragile in Richard's arms, as if letting her go would be both very difficult and incredibly dangerous. He hears his phone buzz. He knows it is probably his contact in China, trying to place the call he has failed to make, but he lets his head rest on Isabella's breast, and waits for the caller to go away.