Home > My Oxford Year(4)

My Oxford Year(4)
Author: Julia Whelan

“You’ll have to do a bit more than trivia for diamonds, love,” he says offhandedly. The jerk. “A home-cooked meal if you can tell me the year the Potato Famine occurred. You have ten seconds. Ten. Nine. Eight—”

I realize I’m just standing there in my encroaching fog, listening to this ridiculous conversation, letting my fish and chips get cold. Snapping out of it, I turn around to head back to my seat and crash spectacularly into Golden Voice. Two planets colliding. The entire plate of condiments flips backward into my chest and I teeter, about to go down. A knightly hand reaches out and clutches my forearm, steadying me. My other hand grabs his shoulder.

Maybe he’s not a jerk, after all.

Righting myself, I catch sight of the woman he’s been talking with. Long blond hair. Windswept. Mouth open wide in a shocked laugh.

My gaze whips back to him, just as his head pops up, brown hair mussed.

Our eyes lock.

The fog lifts and I blurt, “You!”

Chapter 3

He sits in a beautiful parlor,

With hundreds of books on the wall;

He drinks a great deal of Marsala,

But never gets tipsy at all.

Edward Lear, “How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear!,” 1871

Me?” he inquires, a deer-in-headlights look in his eyes.

“You!” I repeat.

We’re still facing each other. He’s still grasping my forearm, I’m still clutching his shoulder. We’re right up against each other, face to face, eye to eye, plate to breasts.

His stare activates. He comes to life. “Right, okay, here’s what we do. Simon?” he calls, but Simon’s already tossing the towel from his shoulder and You deftly snatches it out of the air. “Lean forward,” he encourages. I bend at the waist and he peels the plate away. I watch the myriad sauces plop from my chest to the linoleum floor, a poor man’s Jackson Pollock.

The blonde laughs.

I stand upright as the man sets the plate on the counter, then moves toward me with the towel, heading for my chest.

My hand shoots out. “Don’t. I got it.” With my bare hands, I rub at my shirt like a finger-painting toddler, making it ten times worse. The clamminess is starting to seep through the fabric onto my skin. I feel him staring at me. “What?” I ask, all contained calm.

“Do we know each other?”

“You almost hit me with your car!”

“Was that you?”

I grind my jaw, keeping my mouth shut.

“May I . . . assist?” the man lilts with a tone that only ever means one thing.

I freeze.

He can’t be.

I look up at him.

He is.

He’s flirting with me. Holding the towel poised and ready, all dashing smile and twinkling eyes.

My head explodes. “Are you kidding me?”

“I would never dare kid about such matters,” he charms.

“You’re flirting? You should be apologizing!”

“For flirting?”

“For nearly running me over!”

“You’re suggesting I apologize for something I didn’t intentionally do? I’d rather apologize for the flirting.” He’s smiling.

“Y-you . . . you posh prat!”

“Ooh. Posh prat. Nice choice of alliterative spondee.” He’s still smiling. “So you’re American. Right, here’s the one thing I know about Americans: they tend to get themselves run over in this country by stepping directly into oncoming traffic.”

“So it’s my fault?!” I shout.

“Another thing I know about Americans: they tend to shout. Here.” He reaches into his pocket, pulling out a brightly colored wad of money. He peels off a bill. He holds it out to me.

“What is that?” I seethe. Quietly.

“Specifically? It’s a fifty-pound note.”

“I don’t want your money! I want . . . I want—” What do I want? The fog is thickening again.

“Oh, don’t look so outraged. Take it. You said it yourself. I’m the posh prat.” He holds the money out again. “The unemotional cad who—absent any genuine remorse or feeling—can but only buy the regard of others.”

I jerk my head to the blonde. “So I see.”

This strikes him. His face changes. The open, breezy, devil-may-care smile drops away and a curtain closes behind his eyes. The show is over. He actually looks hurt. Good. “Keep your money,” I say, capitalizing on this moment of clarity, of the tables having turned, seizing a parting shot. “Buy the historian some carbs.”

Walking back to the counter, I pick up my book and coat, digging in the pocket for some cash. I plop down twenty pounds, grab what remains of my fish bouquet, catch Simon’s smiling eyes, and head for the door. “See you later, Simon!”

“Looking forward to it, Ella from Ohio!” He chuckles.

“Bonne chance,” the man calls dryly, clearly having rallied. Then, adopting an even plummier, more clichéd British accent, adds, “Keep calm and look right!”

Ignoring him, I open the door. The bell jingles and I pause at the threshold. I can’t resist. I turn back to him. “The Potato Famine was in 1845. Asshole.”

SO THAT WENT well.

Foggy, filthy, and suddenly exhausted, I hoof back to Magdalen, shoving fried fish into my mouth as I go. It’s not my imagination that people give me a wide berth.

Now that I’m out in the fresh air, the beginning twinges of embarrassment set in. Yes, I’m jet-lagged, out of my comfort zone, but still . . .

I hate guys like that. I went to college with guys like that. I interned on the Hill with guys like that. Guys who think they can buy respect with Daddy’s money, and then seal the deal with a wink and a smile. Guys who play a game, who set their trap as if it’s the most ingenious feat of engineering ever devised and expect you to fall all over yourself congratulating their effort.

Look. I’m not drop-dead gorgeous or anything, but with the right lighting, the right hair and makeup effort on my part, I’ve been known to turn a few heads. I have this wild Irish hair that goes everywhere, a wide Julia Roberts mouth, and big, round eyes that make me look more innocent than I actually am. The approachable, girl-next-door type. The type who might be flattered, for instance, by your flirting after you’ve nearly run her over and then destroyed her shirt.

Unfortunately for guys like that, looks can be deceiving.

I stumble through the Magdalen gates and into the lodge. No Hugh. I continue on through the other door and into the courtyard. The sun dips in the sky and the sandstone buildings are hued pink. I wobble across the cobblestones and try to follow Hugh’s directions in my clouded head.

A large L-shaped building appears, embracing a giant lawn so finely coiffed it would shame a golf course. Every thirty feet or so, little staircases, bordered by mullioned windows, ascend into the depth and darkness of the building. I find number four and start my climb with the single-minded determination of the proverbial horse returning to the barn.

The first few stairs are granite, but they soon become old slabs of stone, each step worn into a bowed smile from centuries of shoes. The stairway continues to spiral and soon narrows into planks of rickety wood. It’s so steep that I find myself climbing the steps as if they were a ladder, ending up on hands and knees on a small five-by-five landing, a door on each side of me.

I’m about to stand and dig in my pocket for the key Hugh gave me when it occurs to me that my bags are still downstairs in the lodge. I tip over onto my side with a loud groan. I could sleep right here. I just might.

The door on the right opens and Gus Gus quickly emerges, stepping over me casually as if I’d been there as long as the staircase, and disappears down the stairs. A voice from the open door calls after him, “Your beauty will fade, as will my interest. Be gone with you!”

A figure appears in the doorway and recoils at the sight of me. It’s wearing a red dressing gown and holding a tumbler of amber liquid. Its free hand finds the gap in the robe and clutches it closed, like an aging Tennessee Williams heroine.

“Hello!” I croak.

“Hel-lo,” it replies haltingly, a small, willowy male with wavy, chin-length, chestnut hair. He peers at me then murmurs, almost to himself, “Is it lost?”

Hey. When I use a dehumanizing pronoun, I only think it. I don’t say it right to the pronoun’s face. I stumble to my feet. “I live here.” I gesture to the door behind me. “I’m Ella.” He looks me over, nose crinkling at either my appearance or smell, I can’t tell which. Both are on par with a county-fair trash can at the moment. I soldier on, remembering who Gus Gus told Hugh he was looking for, back in the lodge. “And you’re Sebastian Melmoth, right?”

Now he gives me the side-eye, suspicious. “That’s right. It’s a family name. But how—”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah,” he drawls, mocking my accent. “Goes back centuries. But how did you—”

“I didn’t know that was possible.”

“What?”

“To be descended from someone who didn’t actually exist.” He side-eyes me from the other direction. “Correct me if I’m wrong, it’s been a while since I read his stuff, and I’m tired, jet-lagged, and, you know, American, but Sebastian Melmoth was Oscar Wilde’s pseudonym. Right?”

Admittedly, I’m getting a certain perverse pleasure from this.

Called out, the guy just glares at me, then heaves a condescending sigh, turns on his heel, and goes back into his room, slamming the door for good measure.

I take a stabilizing breath, retrieve the ancient-looking key from my pocket, and assess the antique keyhole lock. I slide the key into it and turn. It sounds like I’m unlocking a vault. I push open the tired hinged door and enter the room. My room.

The sun has almost set, so the room is dim. So dim that I fail to see my luggage in the middle of the floor and trip over it. Still, Hugh is my hero right now. I fumble for a light switch and find it to the right of the door.

   
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