EDWARD GODREY SEABERT-HALL shoved his hands into his suit pockets as he exited the elevator and strode through the lobby of the high-rise where his family kept a penthouse suite. He glowered at no one in particular and ground his teeth, oblivious of the uniformed woman who opened the glass door as he approached. On the avenue, he turned right and stalked past the flower vendor from whom he usually bought a boutonnière. He walked on and on, paying no heed to his surroundings, to the pedestrians among whom he wove, to the honking cabs and bumper-to-bumper traffic of the city, to the hawkers who tried in vain to capture his attention.
After a time, awareness penetrated his self-absorption, awareness of a difference in his environment: of laughter and delighted squeals, of dappled shade and sunny sky, of a potent odour of sausage and garlic carried on occasional gusts of wind. He stopped in midstride and looked around to discover himself in one of the poorer districts. Edging the street, he saw, shops crowded together, their wide windows sheltered by colourful awnings and many of them fronted by tabletop displays, samples of the wares to be found inside. Men in aprons stood in doorways, chatting with customers or neighbouring merchants. Mothers pushed strollers and browsed the offerings. Children of various ages ran along the sidewalks, dodging adults and shouting to one another. A dog yapped excitedly as it chased the youngsters. And a pair of men in brown coveralls wheeled hand-trucks laden with cartons from the rear of a white van to the open door of a small grocery.
Motion above directed Edward’s attention to a woman leaning out an upper window and shaking a small cloth. When she drew back into her apartment, he scanned the second- and third-storey windows, some open to the summer air and some decorated by tiny garden boxes bursting with pink petunias or red geraniums, yellow pansies or verdant clusters of herbs. Above the cement-grey cornices that defined the flat roofs of the ruddy brick buildings, white clouds drifted in the deep-blue of the afternoon sky.
A leaf floated by on the breeze, and he turned to survey the little square park hemmed on four sides by narrow streets and low-rise structures. It wasn’t much: merely a scrubby patch of turf with five trees and a couple of small beds of flowers probably tended by some local with a desire to connect with Nature. But an empty wooden bench beckoned, and he wandered across the grass to sit and observe the interactions of the denizens of the working-class district.
These people seemed…happy. Though cheap and well-worn garments, and peeling paint on window trim and door jambs, and masonry in need of repair all attested to a lack of resources, these ordinary folk appeared to be content with their lot. So, what was wrong with him? he wondered. Here he was: a man of means and breeding, healthy and handsome, educated and cultured, a member of the country’s uppercrust with every imaginable advantage…and he was miserable.
THE SUN HAD DROPPED toward the rooftops on his right when someone quietly joined him at the other end of the bench. Edward Seabert-Hall glanced to the woman who perched with white purse on her lap and deep-navy skirt tucked discreetly under her thighs. Two feet away, she could have been on a separate planet, so isolated did she seem. She stared at the ground before her, her bearing dignified but her countenance, though outwardly impassive, giving an impression of deep sadness.
For no reason he could fathom he said, “Hello.”
When she looked his way, startled and blinking, he smiled and confessed, “I’m not even sure where I am. I took a walk this morning and….” He lifted his hands in a gesture that encompassed the entire neighbourhood to finish, “Now, here I am.”
She regarded him a moment before she told him, “It’s Centretown. You’re in Centretown.”
“Ah,” he acknowledged. “I’ve never been here before.”
She eyed him without comment. Then, she turned away to resume her public solitude.
He studied her. She had the unmistakable air of a secretary or clerk…some sort of administrative assistant, he guessed by the white cotton blouse, straight dark rayon skirt, and plain grey faux-leather shoes. The hands that clutched the handbag bore no rings and the only ornament she wore was a pair of fake-pearl earrings. The hair cropped to fall just below her chin in a straight bob shone light-brown in the waning light. And her features, both face and figure, though not unbecoming, were altogether unexceptional to the point of being nondescript…utterly forgettable.
Yet something about her attracted him and piqued his curiosity.
“Do you come here often?” he asked.
Again, she startled at his attention. Hesitantly, she responded with eyes drifting back toward the ground, “No…Well, yes. I suppose I do.”
He pressed, “I know it’s none of my business, but you seem…unhappy about something.”
At that, she glanced up to hold his gaze briefly before she again averted her eyes and murmured, “Well…things don’t always….”
Under his breath, he filled in the unspoken words, Work out as we hope.
It occurred to him that the sentiment fit his own situation. Aloud, he divulged, “I’ve been feeling out of sorts, myself.” He did not even know her name, but he found himself baring his soul to this stranger. “According to everyone I know I should be happy. I have all I could want. I have no financial difficulties. A beautiful woman wants to marry me. How can I be anything but content?”
“Yet you are not,” she concluded.
“No,” he murmured on a sigh, downcast and feeling downtrodden.
“Do you love her?”
His eyes jumped to the woman on the bench, then wandered to the couple walking hand in hand on the far side of the park, to the father strolling with his son and daughter across the street, to the leather loafers on his feet. “No,” he said thoughtfully, “I don’t believe I do.” His brows furrowed as he admitted, “Though I’m not sure what love is…whether I would recognize it if I did feel it.”
“I suspect you would know,” she said. “Somehow, people always seem to know. Perhaps by some instinct.”
“Mm,” he grunted. “Then, I most assuredly do not love her.” His brows wrinkled deeper and his eyes narrowed. “In fact,” he said, “I don’t believe I even like her.”
“Well, that wouldn’t do,” the woman remarked. “Marriage to someone you don’t like would be the very definition of hell, I should imagine.”
“Mm,” Edward grunted again. Until now, he had not realized why he had been putting Melanie off, these three years since his mother and Melanie’s father had begun to hint at an alliance between the two families. The tall, svelte blonde had seemed at the outset to be the ideal wife. But more and more, she irritated him. Why?
He pursed his mouth as he contemplated the question. What was it about Melanie Eudora Moore that set his teeth on edge? She was strikingly beautiful. She was intelligent and erudite. She had proven herself a charming hostess, now that her father relied on her to organize his social obligations in place of her late mother.
When he recalled his most recent encounter with the daughter of Horatio Aldershot Moore, whispered words came out of nowhere: “She bullies me.”
“How does she do that?”
Edward glanced sharply to his bench-mate. He had not realized he had spoken aloud. Indeed, he had not recognized until he uttered the statement what had been troubling him about Melanie. He swallowed. His nerves suddenly afire with the knowledge, he answered, “She is just like my mother.” He specified, “Nothing I do pleases her. Everything must be done her way, and even then, nothing ever satisfies her. She finds fault at every turn.”
“Like my boss,” said the woman. “I work my fingers to the bone and it’s never good enough. I stay well past five or come in on weekends to finish things, but if I’m two minutes late in the morning or need to leave a half-hour early to get to an appointment, you’d think the world was coming to an end, he makes such a fuss.”
He noticed tears glinting on her cheeks. “Can you not seek other employment?” he wondered.
Watery eyes met his and one corner of her mouth curled in a faint, wry smile that expressed no mirth. “He wouldn’t give me a decent reference.” She added, “And I just can’t afford to quit right now.”
It struck him that he had been feeling similarly trapped. His mother, Melanie, Horatio Moore, and even some of his friends had begun to pressure him to officially announce his engagement to Melanie. All of them dismissed his reluctance to ask for her hand as a childish clinging to bachelorhood. He, himself, had wondered if his misgivings were mere refusal to take adult responsibilities. Now, he knew otherwise.
He decided, “I have to find a way out of the engagement.”
With that, he rose and faced the young woman. “I am Edward,” he introduced himself, extending his hand.
Taking it, she stood, forced a smile, and replied, “I’m Maisie.”
When they had shaken, he released her hand, stepped back, and said, “It was a pleasure to meet you, Maisie. I wish you a pleasant evening and good luck in your endeavours.”
He walked away and pulled out his cell phone to call a cab.
SHE WATCHED HIM CROSS THE STREET and climb into the yellow taxi.
“A strange man,” Maisie murmured to herself.
She would not have guessed that the handsome dark-haired guy with chiselled features and clear blue eyes could have a care in the world. His biscuit-coloured summer-weight suit surely cost a couple of thousand dollars. The matching silk tie alone would have been a few hundred, she was sure. Judging by the muscles under the light padding of the jacket and by the grace of his stride, she guessed he worked out often, which in turn meant he likely attended one of those high-end fitness clubs located in the finer districts.
Edward. A name for a rich man.
But obviously even a man born with a silver spoon could have problems. A difficult girlfriend. A domineering mother, too, apparently.
Well, the latter was not uncommon, she knew all too well. Her own mother, Carole, had been no perfect television mom. And Carole was even more difficult to handle now that her mind had deteriorated thanks to the years of overindulgence in booze and occasional dabbling in dope.
Maisie sighed. The handsome stranger would go home and correct his situation, she assumed. All he had to do was to break the engagement and tell his mom to mind her own business. He probably had a trust fund and investments and could make his own way even if Mommy Dearest threatened to disinherit him. He would do fine.
If only life were so simple for her.
The Pact is currently available in digital format through e-retailers. Print version in the Coffee Break Collection On Top of the World, can be ordered through Barnes&Noble or a local retailer using IngramSpark’s iPage.