Be Mine Epilogue — Part 5
“My dear, you’re staring,” the woman said with a chuckle. “I’m not a ghost.”
She was in her fifties and elegantly beautiful. Her grey-streaked black hair was drawn back in a chignon, and her gold brocade gown made her deep-tanned skin glow.
“Mara Alexei!” Aura said, gaping, but then caught herself and flushed hot with embarrassment. “Oh, I really am sorry.”
Mara laughed. “It’s all right. I get this reaction a lot at gatherings like this.
Aura squirmed. “Sorry. I just never expected to meet you. Ever.”
Mara Alexei was perhaps the most famous recluse in the fashion industry, but that didn’t stop her from being the designer celebrities and royalty chased after. The recent London wedding of the Prince of Wales’s cousin had seen the bride wear a Mara Alexei gown. The intricately crafted dress had been the talk of the fashion world afterwards.
“The Ulster wedding dress,” Aura said. “Alençon lace and pearls. It was so beautiful.”
“Yes, thank you.” Mara’s polite smile said she’d heard that many times before. “Some people think I should have used crystal instead of pearls, but…” she shrugged dismissively.
“But no, the pearls were perfect,” Aura said with a vehement shake of her head. “I read the bride was from a French fishing port. When I saw the pearls all I could think about was how it must be a touch of home for her, a touch of simple tradition, and…” Her voice trailed off as Mara’s thoughtful expression registered. “I’m sorry,” Aura said. “You must get a lot of this too.”
“Strangely enough, I don’t,” Mara said. “People saw the dress, and they saw the surface. They did not see a village girl joining a noble family, and her need for a touchstone to her past, or her wish for a future as comforting as her childhood.” Mara studied her. “I enjoyed your speech today, Aurora. And I’ve seen your recent collection. I liked it.”
“Wow, thank you. That means a lot to me.”
Mara nodded, still looking thoughtful. “Your designs interested me, and now I see why. They also contain unique stories.”
Aura’s eyes rounded. “I….” She searched for words. Even Nathan, who’d always supported her, had never fully understood. But here stood someone who might. “It’s hope. A gift of hope. I want a woman to feel her dreams come alive in that dress.”
“Yes, exactly!” Mara grinned. “You understand. So few people do. I think you are very deserving of your award.”
Aura paused. “Actually the award feels more like a step along the way, less like final success,” she said quietly. “I’m not sure how to explain that.”
“You feel you are still at the beginning, perhaps?” Mara asked.
“More like I’m standing at the foot of the wrong ladder and looking up.”
“Ah…” Mara gave a knowing nod. “The crowded ladder. You remind me of myself. I decided long ago to walk away from the crowds and the throwaway designs that appear month after month on the runways. I wanted to create my joy and let my dreams come alive.”
“I can only imagine how freeing that is,” Aura said, thoughts swirling in her. How did one just walk away? How did she even take the first step off the well-trodden show wheel and forge her own path? But a new door of possibility had opened, and the light streaming through beckoned invitingly.
Mara smiled. “Come meet me in London soon. We think alike, you and I. We will have coffee and talk.”
An answering smile touched Aura’s lips. “I’d love that. Thank you.”
“Mara, are you enjoying yourself?” A tall man with silver hair and a gruff voice came and slipped a possessive arm around Mara’s waist.
“Hans, this is Aurora.” Mara smiled up at him, then turned to Aura. “My husband, Hans. He is always checking on me.”
“I have to. Otherwise, you may sneak back to the hotel.” Hans held out his hand to Aura. “I recognize you from the stage. Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” Aura said, shaking his hand.
Mara beamed. “It has been a wonderful evening, Hans. Aurora and I will be seeing more of each other.”
“Excellent! It will do you good. You are too alone otherwise.” He gazed lovingly into Mara’s eyes. “Now, are you ready for your Valentine’s treat?”
“Will you not give me even a hint?”
Hans shook his head. “That spoils the fun.”
“So stubborn,” Mara said, rolling her eyes. She smiled at Aura. “I will see you very soon, my dear.” And leaning forward, she kissed Aura’s cheek.
Aura returned her kiss, and wishing them both goodnight, watched them walk away hand in hand, chatting happily to each other.
And suddenly the need to feel his touch was like the need to feel the warm sun on long-frozen skin.
* * *
Come on, Nathan. Pick up.
Aura cradled the phone to her ear as she made her way to the hotel entrance where her car was waiting. She’d fetched her purse and phone from the cloakroom, and Nathan’s was the first number she’d dialled. He had to pick up. She missed him. He had to answer.
The ringtone cut in the middle, and her heart dropped.
Then all of a sudden the tone started again, and hope leaped.
“Hello?” a voice answered.
Aura breathed out in dismay. “Maria.”
“Aura.” Nathan’s secretary’s voice held a motherly smile. “How was the awards ceremony?”
“It was good. Where’s Nathan? Why isn’t he answering his phone?” It was past eight now. He couldn’t still be working.
“He’s at a meeting,” Maria said. “He didn’t want to be disturbed.”
“Tell him it’s me.”
Maria was quiet.
“Maria, it’s me.”
“I’m so sorry, Aura. Nathan said…”
The sudden sting of tears slowed her steps. Aura swallowed. “Bye,” she murmured and cut the call.
She walked through the hotel’s glass doors, and the night-time chill struck her bare arms like icy fingers, but she barely noticed. The golden-lit Milan street was infused with the light scent of coffee from the cafes and tomato and basil from the restaurants. But even this illusion of warmth couldn’t comfort her. She stopped outside the hotel doors. Hints of new romance hung in the air as couples walked past holding hands. Aura watched them, her breath a faint mist in the cold. She’d been on fire to return to Nathan in London, but now she didn’t even know what she was returning to.
Her dark-haired chauffeur got out of the car, and with a smile, held the back passenger door open for her. “We return to the hotel, Signora Travers?” he asked.
“Yes, please, Francesco,” she said quietly and headed down the few steps, sparing a last glance for the couples out and about.
Bright yellow flashed in the corner of her eye as she reached the car, and she glanced across the road at a woman’s stylish yellow dress and dark jacket.
The young blonde was making her way to a black Mercedes parked further up the road. She hadn’t seen Aura, and she walked on with no idea she was being watched. As did the tall dark-haired man with her.
“Signora Travers?” Francesco’s questioning gaze followed Aura’s and landed on the couple. “Is everything all right?”
Aura gripped the open car door. That was Nathan with the woman. It had to be Nathan. She’d recognize him anywhere, wouldn’t she? The man wore a fitted coat over his black suit, and his coat collar was up against the cold. It hid his jawline, but his profile beneath the distant streetlights was still so heart-wrenchingly familiar.
Her breath shortened.
But maybe she was mistaken. Maybe it wasn’t Nathan but a similar-looking man.
“Signora Travers?” Francesco’s voice broke through.
Aura blinked up at him. “Oh… um… I’m sorry… I thought I saw…” She looked back at the couple.
The woman said something to the man as they reached their car, and he turned to her with a smile that stopped Aura’s heart mid-beat.
How many times had Nathan smiled at her like that? It was his ‘Fine, you win’ smile. The one he’d give her when he didn’t want to admit he’d been wrong about something they’d spent hours arguing about.
The man bent to the woman’s ear and murmured something that had her laughing. Their chauffeur opened the car door, and they both got in.
“Francesco!” Aura snapped, scrambling into the back seat. “Follow that car!”
“That car?” With a perplexed look, Francesco pointed at the imposing black Mercedes that was now pulling away from the curb.
“Yes! Hurry!” She slammed the door shut.
He dived for the driver’s seat. “The traffic, signora,” he said, starting the engine. “It will be difficult.”
Aura sat forward in the back. “Just… please, don’t lose them.”
“Si.” And within seconds he had their car in the flow of vehicles.
A white taxi and green mini separated them from the black Mercedes.
“I will try to stay close, signora,” Francesco said as the Mercedes rounded a corner ahead. “But the main road will be busy.”
Aura nodded, and gripping the edge of the driver’s seat, kept her gaze glued to the black car’s bright red tail lights as they followed it.
This was crazy. The final result would be that the man wasn’t even Nathan. But she couldn’t let go the need to know. No matter how hard her head tried to reason with her heart that Nathan was in London, her stubborn heart refused to give up hope.
Grey apartment blocks passed by on either side of the road, interspersed with older, more artistic buildings. And above the bricks and concrete were glimpses of green from the lush roof terrace gardens that gave the city a sense of spring about to bloom.
Suddenly the black car turned onto the main road and disappeared from view.
“We will find them, signora,” Francesco said, perhaps sensing her panic.
They waited impatiently while the two cars in front also turned onto the main road. Then just when the green mini made its turn, Francesco accelerated and nose to tail turned with it, not giving time for the slower oncoming cars to cut him off.
A loud horn blared behind them.
Francesco shrugged it off, and Aura whipped around to look at the red car that had been forced to give them space. The driver scowled through his windshield and threw his hands up in exasperation.
Aura chewed her lip. What was she doing? Where was this panic in her coming from? It wasn’t Nathan with the woman in that car. It couldn’t be.
But she craned once more to see out the front windshield. “Where are they?” she asked, her frantic gaze searching the throng of cars in front for the black Mercedes.
“I see them, signora.” Francesco pointed to a black car four cars ahead of them.
Aura shook her head. “No, it was a Mercedes.”
Several other black cars were further up the traffic stream, but it was difficult to see detail even with the bright city lights. She squinted hard. Was that…?
“Francesco, that big car there.”
“It is a Mercedes?” He tipped his head to the side to look past the cars in front.
“I think it is. Can you speed up? Maybe overtake a few cars?”
“I will try.” He looked around for an opening in the adjacent lane as they approached a set of traffic lights.
The lights flipped to red, and the car rolled to a halt.
A group of cheering and laughing twenty-somethings bounded across the road, waving pink heart balloons on white sticks. The black car had escaped the lights, and Aura tried to see past the cheering group to where the car might be. But by the time the road cleared and the lights changed again, the car had disappeared.
The green light set them moving once more, and they hurried to join the now even longer line of vehicles ahead. But the car was nowhere in sight.
Aura sat back in defeat. “It’s gone, isn’t it?”
Francesco studied the traffic with a frown, but his silence was the only confirmation Aura needed.
“Let’s get back to the hotel,” she said quietly.
She looked out her side window at the shades of grey city. It had been a wild fool’s chase anyway. Nathan was in London, and here she was chasing a random guy who’d happened to look like him beneath dim lights and a night sky.
“There, signora!” Francesco’s excitement had her snapping forward in her seat.
The last four digits of the number plate she’d memorized disappeared from view as a black Mercedes turned off the main road onto a quieter side road.
Aura laughed. “That’s them!”
“We will catch them now,” Francesco said with satisfaction as he quickly changed lanes. And he entered the side road the Mercedes had gone down.
This new part of the city was more ornate. The buildings were less grey and more an age-worn yellow. Eye-catching statues decorated roof corners, and golden lights glinted through stone latticework on balconies. By the time they caught up with the Mercedes, it was pulling away from what looked like a swanky hotel entrance.
Francesco brought their car to a stop on the opposite curb, and the black Mercedes did a U-turn and then drove past them. Only the driver was inside.
Aura glanced at the hotel where the couple must have gone in. “Will you wait for me a minute?” she asked Francesco as she gathered her purse and opened her car door.
And giving him a smile of thanks, she quickly exited the car and crossed the road to the hotel.
To be continued tomorrow…
Experience a Gift
Experiential gifts are hugely popular on Valentine’s Day.
Top spot goes to ‘A Night Out’. This could mean a dinner and a movie (the number one choice), a romantic walk for two, or even making time to watch the sunset together. There are just so many activities to choose from.
And of course, experiences as gifts are perfect if you’re on a tight budget. No need to worry about expensive chocolates or roses.
But if you do have a little money set aside for a Valentine’s experience, here are two fun activities I came across:
Take a chocolate making class with your significant other.
I absolutely love chocolate (as I’m sure do most people), and what could be better than making those delicious little treats yourself?
Or maybe go dancing.
Feeling a little shy though? No problem. Dance sessions / classes are so popular now that I bet you’ll easily find a packed, couple’s dance-night happening near you. I take heart in the fact that people will be so busy enjoying themselves that they won’t notice if I spend the entire evening tripping over my own feet.
But what if you’re single?
Got you covered. Valentine’s Day magically becomes ‘Single’s Pampering Day’, and the ingredients for a great night are plenty of sweet treats (you could bake your own cookies if you have time), a bottle of bubbly champagne, and that favourite old movie you’ve been meaning to watch again; or a fantastic new book to read. That works a treat too.
So what all things do you get up to on Valentine’s Day? Let me know. Though bear in mind that I’m a delicate little flower, so keep it kid-friendly 😊