In the next couple of days both Katalin’s parents sought out Gilbert separately and asked him about Duke. He said to each of them nearly the same thing.
"I’ve known him for years. Always seemed like a good guy to me. But ask my mother. She’d know more."
The next day at dinner while Gil and his parents were having dessert his father said, "I hear Katalin is going out with Duke Germain. How do you feel about that?"
Gil had known this would come up. He said, "OK." Hoping they’d drop it.
Hah! Fat chance.
His mother said, "You’re very close. You spend half your time with her. I can’t believe that you feel nothing. Perhaps you’re hiding your feelings from yourself."
Gil took a sip of his flavored coffee, decaf, with an ounce of Amaretto liqueur, whipped cream on top. A treat he allowed himself only rarely. Today he felt he deserved it for dealing with Katalin’s parents so well.
Perhaps his celebration had been too early. But he’d prepared for this.
He looked at his parents as he thought out just how to begin. And continue.
He set down his cup. "When two people have what you two do, it’s easy to imagine other close relations between two people are like yours.
"Do I think Katalin is attractive? Want to have a…romantic relationship with her? Yes to the first. Maybe even to the second. But we have another relationship. One I’m not sure anyone who doesn’t have it can understand.
"She is my Sword. I am her Shield. This is like sister and brother. I’d risk my life for her."
His mother said, "That’s just the sort of reaction that someone would have who’s very much in love."
"Maybe. Probably. But let me try to explain. Our bond is something different."
He thought back to the moment he’d declared their relationship. As he’d done several times since then as he tried to figure out how to explain.
"Soon after I got to know her I recognized someone worthy of respect. Deeply worthy. And someone who filled a hole in me I didn’t know existed. And the words came, I don’t know from where: ‘You be Sword. I’ll be Shield.’
"I’d never heard those words before. Used the way I did. They’re like something out of those poems we studied in school. About chivalry. About a knight devoting himself to his lady. But that’s NOT where the words came from. It’s not."
He took a deep breath and blew it out. Only now, despite his thought and rehearsal for this moment, did the knowledge come to him. He must have somehow come from Katalin’s world line before being put up for adoption.
"For now I’ll accept that you are not unhappy that Katalin is dating," his mother said. "I worry, though, what will happen to you when she gets married. She will, you know."
Gilbert covered her small hands with his big ones. "And when she does I’ll follow her wherever she goes and support her new life."
"Oh, God, Brandon! What will we do? We can’t let him sacrifice himself over this crazy fantasy."
Her burly husband leaned over to put an arm around her shoulders.
"All children get married and leave home. Maybe even move to another country. We just have to adjust to this the way we’d adjust to a marriage."
"But what will happen to him? What kind of life can he make for himself? Always playing tag-along. With no career of his own."
Gilbert was very uncomfortable about hearing her distress, which must be shared somewhat by his father even though Brandon didn’t show it.
He squeezed his mother’s hands to get her attention.
"It’s not like that. Katalin and I have talked about this. Things are not one-way. She will adjust to me, too. I’ve told her I want to study architecture. Or maybe environmental engineering. We’ll pick a college which has a program for both our studies."
Going to movie premiere’s with Mom and Dad were usually fun. They did that a lot, not just those in which she had a part. Élodie picked interesting ones to support. They were sometimes large possible block busters, sometimes small arty ones, sometimes movies in the middle ground which offered something especially interesting.
Though occasionally she had to go to premieres of movies to support a director or studio with whom she wanted to do business. Gilbert skipped most of those "obligation" movies.
It was after one of those movies when he saw Stephanie Allison in trouble. He’d told his parents he’d take a taxi home rather than stick around for the usual schmoozing they would have to endure.
At the valet station the girl was struggling to take her car keys from a valet but was being deterred by a tall good-looking guy whom Gilbert believed was a minor director. He was trying to take the keys as well. Voices were being raised louder and louder.
Gil watched for a couple of minutes, not sure if he should interrupt a lover’s spat or something similar. But then the man pushed her hard. She stumbled away, suddenly looking frightened.
Gil strode forward to where the valet was holding the car keys away from the man, who was abusing him verbally.
Gil loomed over the two men, half a head taller than the tallest, the pushy man. He smiled at the valet, a short Latino man.
"Excuse me, sir. Sorry I’m late. I’m supposed to drive Ms. Allison home tonight."
The director or whatever looked up at Gil, whose shoulders were noticeably wide, looking even wider in the well-tailored jacket he wore. The giant (or so he must seem) had a young face but an air of absolute assurance, as if lions and such routinely walked wide around him.
Stephanie called out, "Give him the keys."
The valet passed them to Gil and turned to open the car door wider. It was a shining blue high-powered German sports car.
Gil’s father had been something of a brawler when he was in college and was ashamed of it. He’d taught Gil ways to defuse potentially bad situations. Gil used one such way now.
Gilbert turned to the director and put an arm around the man’s shoulders and smiled down at him in a friendly manner.
"It was good of you to try to help out. Thank you. You have a good night, now." And he gave the man a gentle push.
Gentle but inexorable. Katalin’s lessons in aikido had worked their way into his nervous system and came out in unexpected ways. As now.
The man took a step or two, turned his head to say something indistinguishable to the others, and walked away as if he had somewhere important to go.
Stephanie came up to the two men remaining on the scene, fumbling inside her small clutch purse. She took out a bill and handed it to the valet, who scurried off to another customer.
"Thank you so much, Gil. You were an angel. Alfred just can’t get over the fact that we broke up months ago."
She patted his cheek with one hand and held out her other for the keys.
She was swaying slightly on her feet. Gil wasn’t sure, but he thought he smelled alcohol on her breath.
"I think I should drive you home, Steph. Or get you a cab."
"I’m perfect…perfectly all right. Give me the keys."
She’d kill herself if she drove like this. Or someone else.
"Hey, I’m trying to be a white knight here." He smiled at her. "You’ll hurt my feelings and I’ll feel all emasculated."
For a moment she looked angry. Then she brightened.
"Well, sure, honey! Take me home and we’ll party."
Gil thought she was more likely to pass out than party. But he said nothing. He just escorted her around to the passenger side of the car, helped her into the seat, and helped her pull the seat-belt attach-point out of its well.
Inside the car he started it and pulled out of the circular driveway in front of the theater in which the premiere had taken place. Checking the traffic for a break, he pulled into the night-time traffic flow, heavy here but moving smoothly.
"Where are we going?" he said to Stephanie.
She was nodding sleepily but woke up enough to tap a couple of virtual buttons on the electronic display which served as a dashboard. A colored map came alight. At the same time a female voice said, "Proceed straight for two and a half miles."
"We’re going to have such a party," she said brightly. But the brightness dimmed and she leaned her head on the passenger-side window glass and closed her eyes.
The trip took most of an hour, wending its way south on local streets to the east-west freeway, then onto and on the freeway westward. All that time they were encased in the subtly-scented luxury of car costing upwards of a million dollars. There was a pleasant silence underlaid by the smooth hum of perfectly functioning superbattery-powered engine.
The freeway ended at the Pacific Ocean and Gil turned right and north onto the Oceanside Freeway. About a dozen miles later the GPS map and voice led him left off the freeway and a block downhill to a street paralleling the freeway. He turned right onto it. All along it were expensive beach-front houses. One was Stephanie’s, a medium-sized two-story home. It was faux-adobe under a brick-red slate roof.
Gil looked for and found a remote clipped to a sun visor similar to the one in his family’s vehicles. The garage door opened to the second button pushed.
The garage was large enough for two vehicles but was empty. He parked close to a doorway into the house and triggered the garage door closed. Then he turned off the car and looked at Stephanie.
She was still sleeping, her red mouth open slightly. Her blond hair gleamed and her face was perfect in repose. In an orange dress her body was rounded and seductive. A subtle perfume surrounded her.
Gilbert should have had an erection as hard as a rock. But instead he felt a great sadness, why he could not say.
"Steph," he said gently. Once, and then twice more. She mumbled and sat up, fumbled at her seat belt, unlocked it, but then sagged back into her seat, head back, mouth open wider.
Gil got out and walked around the car, opened the passenger side door, and extricated Stephanie from the car. She stood, wobbly, and then walked unsteadily with him toward the entrance into her house. He had to put an arm around her waist to keep her upright.
Inside the house she sagged even more, so much that he gave up and lifted her in his arms as if she were a child. It was a bit of trek up the stairs to the second floor. At the top of the stairs was a hall. He walked along thick dark green carpet.
Halfway down it Stephanie began to struggle. He stopped and tipped her down to stand, wobbly, on her two feet.
Suddenly she retched and began to run to and into a bathroom with a hall entrance. He followed her inside, where he found her kneeling on a thick white carpet, head over a toilet.
He was about to say something when her body heaved and she began to vomit.
Gil felt helpless. He wanted to help but he remembered well the few times he’d had to vomit. Attempts to help or comfort only made him more miserable.
She finished but remained as she was.
"How can I help, Steph?"
"OK. But I’ll be close. Call when you need me."
Outside he stood uncertainly. For only a moment. He took out his cell and looked down at the display. He had enough bars to make a call.
He walked a dozen feet down the hall and texted his parents.
STEPH DRUNK SICK. DROVE HR HOM. IM HERE TILL SHE’S BETTER.
Back against a wall he slid down till he sat on the carpet. He kept alert for sounds from the bathroom. A few minutes later he heard retching again.
His phone vibrated. It was his father.
GD FRU. KEEP US N TH NO.
A few minutes late he got a note from his mother.
He looked at the message with a mixture of dismay and laughter. Trust his French mother to assume romance was on the horizon. And to keep romantic priorities straight!
No sound had come from the bathroom since the second round of vomiting. He got up and checked on the situation.
Stephanie was now lying on her side. She’d scrabbled the sliding carpet to the side and had her cheek pressed to the cold cream bath tile.
Gilbert went into the bathroom and wet a face towel with cold water. He sat in front of her and said quietly, "OK if I wipe your face?"
She said nothing, just looked at him. He gently wiped away the vomit around her mouth, then stood and rinsed the towel. With it he bathed her face and neck. Rinsed it again, then draped it over her forehead.
"I’ll be back in a minute." He stood and walked quickly out the door.
He walked down the hall to the stairs and down them. Guided by guess as much as by guile he found the kitchen, dropped to the floor, and rummaged in the pantry till he found a flat plastic bowl and a stack of clear plastic disposable picnic cups. From the refrigerator he took a plastic bottle of "PUR Water." He put everything into a disposable plastic grocery sack from some supermarket. Then he returned the same way to the bathroom.
Stephanie had removed her orange gown and was scrubbing her face with the towel. She was still on her side on the floor, clad only in panties and a half-bra which barely covered the areolas of her nipples. One cup had slipped and her breast was completely exposed.
"Can you sit up? I’ll help."
She nodded, dropped the towel, and Gil got an elbow underneath her shoulders. He put the sack into the sink, squatted, and helped her to stand. He flushed the toilet and put the seat cover down with one hand while holding her up with the other. Then he gently sat her on the toilet seat. At the last moment he pulled up her errant bra cup and covered her naked breast.
Seeing she could sit unaided, though slumped over, he uncapped the chill bottled water and half-filled a plastic cup.
"Swish this around and spit into this." He handed her the cup and held the plastic bowl before her face.
She managed to do that. He urged her to do it three times more. Then he handed Stephanie her toothbrush.
"Brush with this. With just water." He remembered too well how furry his teeth had felt after vomiting. And how toothpaste made him want to vomit again.
While she was doing that he opened the mirrored door over the sink, found a bottle of acetaminophen pain killer, and shook out two of the red-and-blue striped capsules into his hand. He filled a plastic cup with tap water (they’d used up all the cold bottled water) and offered her the cup and the capsules. She took them and downed the caps and water.
Meanwhile he was washing out the face towel with soap, then rinsed away all scent from the soap, remembering how even pleasant scents had re-triggered his vomit reflex. With it he began rinsing her forehead and face, then her upper shoulders and her chest down to but not beyond her breasts.
That done he turned to the door to the bathroom. Closed, it showed what he’d suspected, a white bath robe. He took it down and stood looking down at her. She looked back.
"Thing you’d like to get in bed? I can carry you."
"Yes." She coughed, cleared her throat, and repeated it. She put a hand on the side of the sink closest to her and made as if to stand. He put an arm under her opposite elbow and helped her to complete the motion. Then he bundled her into the robe, loosely looping the belt in front of her, bent, and picked her up.
She felt as light as a child.
Carefully he guided her body through the doorway and walked down the hall. Several guest bedrooms were on each side of the hall but there was no mistaking hers, at least twice the size of the others.
At her bed, king sized and covered with a blue-and-green-checked silken coverlet, he set her on her feet and pulled back the coverlet, then the sheet underneath. Then he stood in front of her and, with a hand underneath each armpit, guided her to sit.
She fumbled and shrugged the robe off her upper body. Gilbert was very conscious of the near-naked woman in front of him, especially the soft rounds of her breasts, lifted by the half-bra. Making nothing of it, he helped her to lie down in bed, taking the robe the rest of the way off. Then he draped the sheet and coverlet around her up to her neck.
She stared up at him, her blue eyes very large. Her mascara was smudged, nearly gone, but what was left made her eyes seem even larger. She looked no more than ten years old, if that.
Her blond hair was tangled. One of her hands crept from under the coverlet and touched the nearest tumble. She grimaced.
Remembering something his father sometimes did for his mother, Gil looked at the dressing table. Seeing what he wanted, he walked over and back with a hair brush in a hand.
At the bed, he sat, twisted, and gently pulled the nearest tangle to its furthest comfortable length. Then he carefully began to brush it, teasing out the tangles till the whole shining length was clear. Then he did the same to the opposite side. She helped by turning her head to give him more access to the hair underneath her.
Finished, he set the brush on the nearest bed-side table and sat, wondering what to do next.
She resolved his wonderment by saying, "I’m cold. Put your arms around me?"
He lay down beside her and did as she bade. Realizing he was still wearing his shoes, he pushed them off with first one foot then the other. The shoes made a thumping sound on the carpet.
She sighed and turned toward him, cuddling into his grasp. She made a comfortable scented armful.
She had not been kidding about being cold, it seemed. She was shivering.
The shivering eased as they lay but did not go away.
"Would you get under the cover? I’m still cold."
Gilbert squirmed. "My pants are still new. They’ll scrape your legs."
"Then take them off."
"I don’t wear underwear."
She giggled. "I won’t see anything I haven’t seen before. Besides, I won’t look."
It was not her looking at him but her feeling him Gil was worried about.
Stephanie pulled the coverlet up over her face.
Defeated, Gil quickly slid his pants off, then his legs and the rest of his body under the covers. He gathered her body to him again. Luckily the curve of her body away from him kept his mid-section from too-close contact.
But there was till enough contact for her to warm up. Her shivering eased.
So did her breathing. In a few minutes she was asleep.
Gil was acutely aware of her body next to his. His erection grew to its fullest extent. Stoically he endured it. Time passed.
He jerked awake. Son of a bitch! He’d actually fallen asleep.
So had his erection, thankfully. Drowsiness returned and he drifted asleep.
Deep in the night he came half awake again. Stephanie was turning over. She settled down, moved closer to him. She was warm now, almost hot.
His erection threatened to awaken again but in only a half-hearted way. He drifted asleep again.
A dim light penetrating his eyelids woke him. He opened sleep-encrusted eyes and looked about him.
Heavy curtains shut out most light so that the bedroom was dim. A nearly non-existent vertical slit in the middle of the curtains shown bright gold outside light.
The bed was empty. Her scent remained. He had a stiffy of uncomfortable proportions.
He listened. He heard distant music. Thought he smelled a faint odor of coffee and bacon. Wishful thinking?
The doorway to a large bathroom to one side of the bedroom beckoned. He slid hurriedly out of bed, grabbed his pants from the floor, and hurried into it. He shut the door behind him gratefully.
His erection stared back at him from the mirror. There was not the slightest sign it was going to subside any time soon.
Besides, it was almost painful. There was nothing else to do but quickly bring it to completion. He looked in her medicine cabinet for hand or body lotion.
It took about ten seconds. The relief made his legs weaken and he sat heavily onto the covered toilet seat. He let out a huge whoosh of breath as he settled there.
But not for long. His belly now made itself known. He was very hungry.
He splashed water on his face, used a bit of scented soap to wash it, rinsed and dried it. Leaning against a wall, he pulled on his pants, then returned to the bedroom to find his shoes. Shod, he left the bedroom, walked down the green-carpeted hall, then down the stairs. He had not forgotten the way to the kitchen.
"Good morning!" Stephanie greeted him, very domestic in a white apron decorated with pastel flowers. She was otherwise clad in jean shorts (she had a great ass) and a light blue short-sleeved shirt. The front of it was pulled tight in front and tied so that her entire midriff was bare. She was barefoot.
"Hope you like bacon and eggs."
"I’ve orange juice and coffee. Toast in that oven. Help yourself to butter. It’s the real stuff, I’m afraid."
A plate and a glass on the counter top beside the stove showed that she had not waited for him. But she still re-filled her plate and her glass and sat, out of his way as he busied himself to load his own plate, butter toast, and fill a glass with orange juice. Then they sat opposite each other and ate, watching each other intently.
It could have been embarrassing, being stared at. But he felt the urge to return the favor.
Her golden hair was back in a pony tail, very long. Her skin was evenly tanned. He had no doubt she tanned nude but very carefully. Movie stars’ appearance was very important, especially ones such as she who were accounted sex symbols.
Her face was near that "perfect oval" he had heard about, cheekbones a bit high; somewhere he’d read she had an Indian in her ancestry. Her lips were full but not bee-stung. She either wore no lipstick or the very faintest blush.
He’d bet the latter was the case. With a famous beauty for a mother and an older sister following in her foot-steps Gilbert was no innocent when it came to the tricks women could play with appearance. Including making it appear they used no tricks.
He ate three plates of eggs and bacon and toast before having dessert, coffee with Sweet Vanilla flavoring.
As he cleaned the last remnant from his plate he surprised himself with a belch. He felt his face redden.
She giggled, then answered with a creditable belch of her own. He chuckled.
Staring at her he suddenly remembered that he’d seen her practically naked, and he’d spent the night in her bed, their bodies tight against each other. He looked down at his hands at the same instant she did, perhaps for the same reason.
He hurriedly got up and gathered his and her plate into one burden for one big hand and the two glasses into another. She shifted her weight as if to stand and he said, "Stay there. You cooked. I’ll clean."
At the sink he placed the plates and glasses into it and returned to the table for the rest of the drinking and eating utensils. He stopped up the sink and began to run warm water into it. He found the towel cabinet next to the sink and flipped a towel over one shoulder.
He quickly soaped and washed the dishes then rinsed and dried them. All the while Stephanie sat at the table and watched.
He was very conscious of her regard. But at the same time it seemed completely natural and quietly satisfying.
Finished, everything placed in pantry or countertop drawers, he turned and leaned against that countertop.
She got up from her seat, rounded the table and came close. She leaned into him, her arms around his waist, and looked up. He gathered her into his arms and looked back.
"Thank you," she whispered, and tiptoed to kiss him.
He kissed her back. Her lips were soft and warm.
They kissed deeply for several minutes. He felt his erection awaken and press against his pants and her body. She did not pull back. She pressed back instead.
Finally they broke apart a few inches. Stared at each other.
She said, "A white knight deserves his reward. But contrary to all the news stories I don’t have men’s protection scattered about my house. We’d have to go out for some.
"Unless you brought it with you."
He laughed shakily, eased her away from him. His body wanted her very much. But a part of him did not. He had not helped her thinking he’d get a reward. The idea cheapened his motivation. Which was purely to help someone in distress. Someone he liked.
"I didn’t do it for a reward. I did it because…" He groped for words. "I like you."
"Oh, baby. I like you, too. You are a grand kid."
That hurt. That she thought him a kid.
"Uh-oh," she said. "That sounded like a put-down. I meant it as a compliment. Only in years are you a kid. You’re a grown-up in every way that counts. Please forgive me?"
His hurt eased. He smiled. "Forgiven."
She skipped away from him, turned back. "Want to go walking on the beach? It’s lovely in the morning."
"Sure. I’d like to brush my teeth, however, and visit the bathroom."
"Try the guest bathroom next to mine. It should have a new toothbrush. If you want, I think Duke left some jeans shorts here the last time he was here. They should be clean and fit you. Ahh…"
She moved around the table and sat where she’d sat while eating and then watching him wash dishes. He returned to his previous seat. She obviously wanted to talk about something.
"You know my every move is watched. So are those of my friends. Here in California it’s not so bad, with all those paparazzi laws. But other people can be almost as bad. Sometimes they’ll say the awfullest things to your face. Can you keep calm when someone calls me a slut?"
Gilbert had experienced this reality with his mother ever since he could remember. He’d not even thought of it in relation to Stephanie, though he’d known that she was super popular. But he’d seen how his father handled it and thought he’d be able to follow his example.
He told her this. She said, "It’s different when it happens to you. Really think about this."
He did, for just a moment, and said, "You said I was grown up in a lot of ways. I’ll just have to learn how to be grown up in this."
Her smile was brilliant. But before she could say or do anything he said, "I have a…complication in my life, too."
He paused while he collected his thoughts. He and Katalin had discussed how they could explain their relationship without talking about the Sword/Shield phenomenon or her origin in another world-line. Now that it was time to explain it was harder than he’d thought it would be.
"Katalin and I are very close. Not romantic close. More like brother-sister close. It’s as if we are twins. Almost from the first day I met her it has been this way. I don’t understand it. Mom and Dad don’t either. It bothers them, a little."
He took a deep breath and let it out. That was as close as he could come to the truth.
She said, "It sounds like what we girls call best friends forever. It’s never happened to me. The closest I’ve come is with Duke."
She jumped up. "Now we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get ready to go out!"
"OK." He stood up, too.
They met back in the dining area they’d vacated. She was carrying a canvas bag, bright blue. He waited while she loaded two plastic bottles of chilled water into it. He took it from her. It was heavier than he’d expected.
"What else is in here?"
She reached in and pulled out a plastic squirt bottle. "Girly stuff. Like this. Put some on. Like this."
She rubbed on sunblock, heaviest on her nose, brow, upper cheeks, and the tops of her ears. She finished with her upper arms, the back of her neck, and her upper chest, all exposed by the sleeveless tee-shirt she’d donned, a deep blue with a lighter blue RECYCLE triangle on the front.
She noticed the attention he paid to her upper chest and smiled up at him from under her eyelashes.
He had an instant tightening in his crotch and shrugged it off with the long practice every boy had.
The dining area was next to an outdoor patio entered through a sliding glass door in a huge picture window. She had him exit first, then activated the house alarm and followed him, locking the door after her.
"Nice view," he said as they crossed the patio. It contained three round plastic dining tables, each shaded by a beach umbrella, folded down now. On the side opposite the house the Pacific expanded toward the horizon under a cloudless blue sky. Sail boats and powered boats could be seen in the distance. Closer in surfers rode the waves. Closer still was the white foam edge of the ocean. The sandy beach was a couple of dozen feet below them.
They descended stairs set into the farther edge of the patio which exited directly onto a grassy verge between the house and the sand. They turned left and walked south along the packed upper stretch of the sand.
All along the beach before and behind them families and a few couples and solitaries walked and played, some of the children splashing in the water. Some of the people had beach umbrellas and folding lounging chairs and picnic baskets and ice chests.
Many of those nearby seemed to know Stephanie and waved and called out greetings. One little boy who’d been playing with his younger sister in the water’s edge ran up to her, followed by his sister. She knelt down and chatted with them for a few moments, praising the several sea-sculpted stones they showed her.
Gilbert had a funny feeling in his chest, seeing her easy way with children. What would it be like to have kids? With her?
Shortly the children ran off to their parents. Gil and Stephanie continued along the beach, enjoying the mid-morning breeze and the sights, occasionally commenting on what they saw but mostly silent.
The time seemed an endless present. He felt as if this was the way his life should always feel, being with someone, feeling happy just to be in their company. No need to say or do anything.
But finally they neared a large two-story seaside building on pillars. The front of the building was even with a short driveway from the highway. He could not see it from this low angle, but he vaguely recalled seeing it during the night, a large parking lot off to the side.
"Hungry?" she said.
He was, a bit, despite his recent breakfast, and said so. They climbed up stairs beside the building which led to the front. They entered after another couple and before a family of four.
The young woman who served as the maitre’d smiled at Stephanie. "Would you like your usual room, Ms. Allison?"
Stephanie smiled back and nodded.
The "usual" was one of three small rooms open to a corridor on one side and with a large picture window on the other with a view of the ocean. The waiter who’d led them there let them be seated opposite each other in comfortable padded seats and handed them menus. He returned a minute later with waters and took their orders.
"So," Gilbert said, "how come you drank so much last night? Bad news?"
"No. Just the opposite. Earlier that day I was accepted for a part I really want. In the excitement at the party I lost track of how much I’d drunk. I usually limit myself to a half a glass of wine."
"What was the part?"
It was about a woman who’d been involved in a bad divorce and how she dug herself out of depression.
"Pretty heavy," he said as their food arrived. Stephanie smiled at the waiter and thanked him. Then they were silent for a while as they ate.
They finished and ordered dessert: coffees with whipped cream.
"You’ve been in the business for a long time," he said. "How did you get started in movies?"
Her father had left her mother when she was three. For the first year his child-care payments were erratic because of his problems getting work. They became steady afterward, but during that year her mother had gotten Stephanie work in commercials. She had enjoyed the work.
"I suppose every kid likes to act out stories. I got to do it and get paid. They were really short in commercials, longer in movies and TV. And most of the people I worked with got to be friends."
Gilbert recalled a few pictures of her as a child. She’d been adorable. It was no wonder adults befriended her.
He prompted her and she told him more about her career. Early on she (or maybe her mother or her agent) steered her away from comic and romantic movies and TV.
"I think my agent had seen a lot of child stars burn out when they grew older because they couldn’t be cute kids anymore and they’d been typecast as that. But me, almost all my roles were serious. So I got parts where I played older instead of younger."
She laughed. "There was one TV show I was in that I wasn’t allowed to watched. There was too much sex and tragedy for a kid to handle. Or so they thought. I sneaked and watched it anyway."
She glanced at her watch.
"Wow! Two hours! That’s way more than enough about me! Tell me about yourself. Growing up with Élodie as your mother. And with a famous father."
"OK. But later. Why don’t we go to the Third Street Promenade and window shop?"
They paid their bills and phoned for a taxi. It took them perhaps three miles further south along the shore to Santa Monica’s downtown area. They got out just short of the pier with its tall Ferris wheel and walked two blocks into the city.
There the north-south third street had long ago been blocked off and made into an outdoor shopping mall. There were also two or three movie theaters and many restaurants all the way from narrow fast-food establishments to large posh restaurants. Thousands of people in all kinds of dress and ethnicities strolled there. There were also a dozen or so street performers and even one area where people could dance.
"Do you dance?" Stephanie said.
Gilbert had never been happy that his mother had badgered him into taking ballroom and Latin dances when he was much younger. He had an instant turnabout of his feelings.
"I’m kind of rusty. But I can do this."
THIS was the merengue. It was a moderately fast dance where you just stepped in place with a sort of limping motion that made your hips sway. You could also just walk around each other and do simple body wraps and swing outs.
He took her in his arms and they danced a couple of merengues. Then the DJ switched to the more complicated salsa music. She was an expert at this and helped him to do some simple patterns. They danced four dances until the music changed again. This time it was the Argentine tango which had been becoming increasingly popular in L. A. the last few years.
There were some couples doing some really flashy moves. He begged off even trying the tango. They sat through a couple of numbers, watching. Stephanie leaned on him and he was happy to put his nearest arm around her. She made a pleasant weight against his body. Nor did he mind the scent of her body, warmed by their exertions.
"I think this is the sexiest dance of all," she murmured into his ear. He decided to look into lessons but said nothing.
They walked some more. Finally he sighed and spoke.
"I suppose we should start thinking about me going home."
"Do you have to? Couldn’t you spend the night?"
He looked down into her face, upturned to his, tried to think with his head instead of his crotch.
He tried for a light touch. "Then I might be tempted to do all sorts of naughty things to you."
"Would that be so bad?" She sounded serious, not flirtatious.
He fumbled to understand his feelings. To express them. He gathered her in a loose embrace, bent his head to rest his forehead lightly against hers. They just stood there, causing a small eddy in the flow of people on the promenade.
"I’m beginning to like you. YOU, the you you told me about back at the seafood place. I really, really, don’t want to screw up…anything."
She sighed. "I’ll try to understand. I suppose we should take a taxi back to my place. I’ll drive you home."
"You don’t have to do that. I could take a taxi home."
"Not a chance. I don’t want this to be over that quickly. Besides, I want to see how your parents react to me."
Finding a taxi just meant walking a block to where the promenade ended next to a hotel.
Back at Stephanie’s home she insisted on showering and changing her clothes and redoing her face. So it was another hour before she came into the living room and interrupted his watching a news program on her TV.
"Wow," he said when he caught sight of her, turned off the TV, and stood.
She hadn’t changed her look all that much. She still looked as if she were ready for a casual afternoon or evening. She wore jeans and a tee shirt and tennis shoes, but cleaner and more–wholesome. Her makeup was subtle. She looked more grown up somehow, more serious and reliable, but still only a year or two older than he was. Definitely not like a slutty siren who’d tempted a young boy to indiscretions.
"I begin to see why you won all those awards."
That brought a smile from her but a restrained one.
"You want to drive?" she said.
"No. I don’t like to drive other people’s cars. I’m always afraid I’ll bang it up and get them mad at me.
"Hang on a minute. Let me text Mom and Dad so they won’t be blindsided."
The freeway was only a few miles to the south. On it, driving east, she got him to talk about his early childhood. He mentioned that he was an orphan but had been adopted so young he only found out about it when they’d told him a year before starting kindergarten.
"They didn’t make a big deal of it, so I never thought about it very much. Still don’t. They’re my parents in every way. My sister Elaine is just my sister."
He’d grown up speaking French as well as English as Élodie insisted he be bilingual. Stephanie volunteered that she had taken Spanish in high school.
"I don’t know if that was a deliberate policy of my mother. I just knew so many Spanish speakers that I really wanted to be able to talk to them."
Having a famous mother and father was something he was used to talking about. Long ago it had become something easy and natural to discuss, not a performance.
"Do you know what you want to do after high school?" Stephanie said. "Maybe get into acting? It would be easy to do with your mother."
"I’ve done a few plays in high school. And had three bit parts in Mom’s movies. But, though it was fun, it just doesn’t call to me.
"I’m thinking maybe architecture. That combination of art and engineering appeals to me. I play around sometimes with designs and drawing them up. I learned to sketch and paint early on, and I like to make beautiful stuff. But what appeals to me more is figuring out the practical side of buildings."
It took almost an hour to get home. As Stephanie was pulling into Gilbert’s driveway a sleek black sports car was pulling out of Katalin’s. It made a U-turn and parked at the curb near his driveway.
Gilbert and Stephanie paused as they were about to approach his front door to see who got out. It was Duke
Germain and Katalin. Duke walked up the driveway, Katalin at his side. He held out a hand to Gil. They shook hands.
" Hey, ‘bro. ‘Lo, Steph," Duke said. "Looking good."
Gilbert felt awkward at all the cross-currents of relationships. Duke and Stephanie were friends. Gil and Katalin had the close and complex Sword/Shield connection. Duke was dating Katalin. Gil was dating Stephanie. And he and Duke were sort of younger and older brothers.
How would Stephanie and Katalin get along? The possibilities for jealousy were strong.
Élodie had drilled Gil in etiquette. He made use of those lessons now.
"Stephanie, I’d like you to meet my friend Katalin. Katalin, my friend Stephanie."
Katalin stepped forward and held out a hand. "It’s a real pleasure, Stephanie. I’ve enjoyed so many of your movies."
The actress smiled, shook the hand offered. "But not all of them. I have had some stinkers, haven’t I?"
Duke broke in. "I hate to hurry off, but we’re expected someplace. Maybe we could all get together sometime."
"Definitely," said Stephanie. "I’d like to get to know Katalin."
Duke slapped Gil’s shoulder, hugged Stephanie briefly with one arm, and he and Katalin walked back to his car.
Stephanie said, "That was interesting."
"I don’t do awkward, honey. I meant exactly what I said. Katalin is an interesting woman. I sense all sorts of complexities. Starting with Why does she move the way she does? Like some panther. And her clothes. Expensive but not looking it. Perfectly fitted, and a perfect style for her."
"Well, she IS French."
So too was his mother, who chose that moment to open the front door. She looked as casually elegant as Stephanie in a summer frock of light blue and low-heeled sandals, her long curly black hair lying down one shoulder, her makeup as subtle as Stephanie’s.
"Gil, dear. Come on in. And Stephanie. How good to see you again."
Stephanie led the way. His mother retreated to allow her and Gil to enter and the two women hugged, then exchanged air kisses to each side of the other’s cheeks, the European greeting.
Élodie took one of Stephanie’s hand and began to lead her further into the house, at the same time saying, "Let’s go into the kitchen. Brandon is putting the finishing touches onto a nice light dinner. I hope you don’t mind filet mignon."
In the kitchen Gil’s father turned away from the stove. He was dressed in soft khakis and a short-sleeved gold shirt and shod in brown leather sandals. He was wearing an apron which took nothing away from his masculinity.
"Stephanie," he said. "A pleasure to see you again."
Élodie led Stephanie to the kitchen dining table and the two sat, chatting about the movie business. Gilbert, helping his Dad finish the food, could tell they knew many of the same people. Not a surprise, considering how small the movie business was.
Speaking in a low tone, but not so low it might seem secretive, his father said, "Are you two going out?"
Gil just nodded.
"Very interesting. I hope she’s good for you. I’ve no doubt you can be very good for her. If her neuroses don’t get in the way."
Gil frowned. "I don’t appreciate such talk."
"And you’re right. I shouldn’t insult your friends."
They were silent as Brandon finished his preparations, moving at a seeming leisurely pace. Nevertheless it was only a few minutes before he and Gil began delivering the food to the table. Stephanie stood up as if to help but Élodie forestalled her, saying she was a guest. By that time Gil had gotten over his annoyance with his father.
Conversation was general at the table, mostly centering around Stephanie and her experiences growing up. As they retired to the living room for after-dinner drinks she brought up her distresses of the night before and how gallantly Gil had responded.
"I know my reputation is for a hard-drinking life style but that’s just the gossip. I normally limit myself to a half-glass of wine. I never want to be at the mercy of foolish friends–or enemies. But I’d gotten some good news and forgot myself. I’m so lucky Gil intervened."
She shuddered. "But then he had to see me sick on my bathroom floor and had to wash off my face and put me to bed. Very humiliating."
Gil’s mother leaned over and put a hand over Stephanie’s nearest. "I can imagine. But what was this good news?"
As easily as that his mother glossed over the fact that Gil had spent the night and most of the following day in her home, presumably able to commit romantic hanky-panky.
After a half-hour or so Stephanie said, "I hate to cut our evening short but I’ve an early morning. I’d better be going."
Everyone stood and accompanied the young woman to the door. Gil’s parents stopped inside the doorway and Gil walked her to her car. He held the door for her. Seeing that his parents had closed the door he pulled Stephanie into his arms. She was a warm and welcome armful, her scent light but exciting.
"I want to see you again."
She looked up at him. "I want to see you. But going out with me means you get stuck with all the baggage. Paparazzi, gossip magazines, all that. And I warn you, my PR manager is going to try to spin this."
He laughed. "My Dad has survived all that. I can too. He can even give me tips. When are you free next?"
"Boy, you’re eager. Don’t get your hopes up I’m going to jump into bed with you right away. That’s just my reputation. You’re going to have to date me just like any regular girl."
"The thought of you in bed with me IS a strong incentive."
"Hmm. Thursday night? Dinner?"
"Sure. Where would you like to go? Where you’d be given some privacy from the papas and such. But nice."
"Let me text you. I can’t think right now. You make me feel drunk."
Gil lifted her face toward his and kissed her. Her lips were soft and hot. They opened and he lightly touched his tongue to hers. Her body melted against him and he could feel his erection stiffening.
He pulled back. Not cool!
"I’m out of practice kissing," he said to cover his embarrassment. "You’ll have to give me pointers."
She grinned. It was mischievous.
"I like the idea of practicing. Night, my dear."
"Night." He opened her car door, saw her settled into her seat with seat belt on, closed the door firmly, and stepped back.