It was still daytime, but the last of the sunlight was smothered by the high ceiling of the building. The courtyard was full of dappled light, and in other circumstances it could’ve looked quite romantic. Geoffrey was feeling anything but romantic just then however. Besides, the place was full of mostly old men talking trade. That wasn’t likely to put many people in a dreamy mood.
Geoffrey was leaning against a stone pillar, wishing it would swallow him up. Across the courtyard, Rufus was laughing with Mr Richards, the very man that Geoffrey was supposed to be finalising a deal with. But Geoffrey had mangled his first words to the man, and now someone else was beating him to the punch.
The sky overhead was getting red. There was only an hour or so left of trading for the day.
“Damnation,” Geoffrey muttered to himself, scrunching his shoulders up past his ears.
Effie had one foot on the wall, and the other one was tapping a rhythm in front of her. If she’d been concentrating she would have noticed that the tapping was almost in time with the conversation that her girlfriend was having across the aisle, a beat for every laugh and every smile. But Effie wasn’t paying attention to that. All she could focus on was the way her girlfriend Cassie and Cassie’s supposed-ex-girlfriend were so wrapped up in each other.
Of course Effie didn’t mind them still talking. And of course Effie didn’t mind that Cassie talked to other women, even though every time she did Effie’s stomach turned. They’d only been together two months, and for Effie it was still in that hazy rose glow of amazingness. But Cassie was older, and she didn’t get as worked up about this sort of thing as Effie did.
Hence the conversation, and hence Effie’s growing sickness. She bit her lip even harder, and fought the tears down.
A group of traders shoved their way passed Geoffrey, forcing him even further into the wall. To add insult to the injury, they didn’t even look at him as the went.
“Excuse you,” he said, softly, to their backs. Of courses they walked on, still oblivious to his existence. Just like the rest of the world.
Rufus and Mr Richards drew his eyes once again. Oh, mercy. Now more people had joined the discussion, and in the fading light the damnable Rufus was his own beacon. The years were lain out in front of Geoffrey; at every meeting, there Rufus would be, stealing customers and business partners.
The air in the courtyard quivered and a cold breeze blew around Geoffrey’s suit. As he rubbed his shoulders he turned, and came face to face with the strangest woman he’d ever seen.
“Good evening,” he said. He was comforted by the fact that she looked utterly perplexed as well.
Oh, great. Now another group of their mutual friends had turned up. Cassie just about had the awareness to move their group out of the main path between the stalls, but she used this as an excuse to get more hugs out of everyone. All Effie could do was wait against the wall and fume.
A group of tourists blocked her line of sight for a moment, and straight away Effie was on her tiptoes peering over. If she lost sight of them, she’d miss any looks that passed between them. In her shuffling Effie moved into a cold spot.
“Damn draughty old buildings.” She rubbed her shoulders and turned, to face the most bizarre man she’d ever seen.
“Good evening,” he said, despite the fact it was only late afternoon.
“Um. Hi,” the woman said. The voice confirmed it was a woman, for which Geoffrey was grateful. She looked more like a sailor, but that was out of the question. Unless she was off a foreign ship. Did they do things so much more differently in other lands?
“You shouldn’t be here.” It was a stupid thing to say, but he couldn’t think of anything else safe to say.
“Rude. And what about you, out for a party?” Without any embarrassment she looked him up and down, making him blush.
“Ma’am! I assure you, I am at work at present.”
“Seriously? Cos it looks like you’re hiding against the wall.”
“I–” Geoffrey gaped to try and defend himself, before giving up. “Yes. I guess so. I’m a failure.”
Well, that escalated quickly. Effie ran a hand through her hair. “Um. Hey. Don’t be like that. Don’t give up so easily.” Changing his outfit so he didn’t stand out so much would help, but Effie held her tongue about it. She hadn’t been in the city long, but she’d been there long enough to know this wasn’t all that weird for the city centre. About par for a Friday evening really.
“And what about you?” he asked.
“Why are you hiding in the corner as well? You clearly don’t care about how you are dressed.”
“Hey! And for your information, I’m… waiting for friends.”
“Really? Then why are you not waiting with them?”
That took Geoffrey back. Everything this woman had done exuded confidence, yet now she quivered like a child. “You… you shouldn’t let them intimidate you like that. If they are friends I am sure you can work it out.”
“I mean. I guess.” She looked at him out the corner of her eye. “Make a deal. I’ll go sort this out if you go sort your work out.”
He had been so desperate to hear those words all day that he shook without thinking. She still had him by the hand – in a shockingly firm grip – when his courage failed and he started shivering again.
When the funny little man looked at her, Effie winked. It was the first time she’d winked at a man, and it would probably be the last. He didn’t look like he was interested in her anyway, so what was the harm?
The wink was the most lewd thing Geoffrey had ever seen, bar her clothes, and he gaped. If only he had an ounce of her courage. That was all he needed; negotiating trade deals was not half as outrageous as going out like she did. The warmth of her hand flooded through him.
“Evening, ma’am.” As he left he tipped his hat to her, and transfixed the image of her face in his mind. If she could do that, he could anything.
“Gentlemen,” he said as he swept into Mr Richards’ conversation.
Effie watched him go. It was the first time anyone had doffed their hat to her, and she blushed at how special it made her feel. Squaring her shoulders, she thought of the look of horrified awe on the man’s face when he first saw her. That was a reaction she intended to get again.
“Ladies,” she said as she slipped next to Cassie, putting an arm around her waist.