She was the one. The one he was going to marry.
When her father arrived from the city of Kazan, far away on the banks of the Volga River, he would discuss it with them.
Mila gave him a little wave from the edge of the infinity pool, which looked as if it flowed into the turquoise sea beyond. Before coming here, Guy had only seen such visions in the movies. Now here he was, with one at his disposal day and night. The smell of pine trees baking in the hot sun and the sound of waves lapping on to the shore far below, reminded him that this was as happy as he’d ever been.
‘Aren’t you coming in?’ she called. ‘You’re missing out.’
‘Not yet. I like watching you.’
She smiled then swam over to him, starting off in crawl then diving underwater, her body as streamlined as a dolphin’s.
Mila bobbed up close to him and hauled herself out of the pool. They kissed and she stroked the side of his face. Her body smelt of chlorine and coconut oil, her hair was sleek against her head.
‘Let’s have a drink then go into town.’ Mila sprawled on one of the poolside loungers.
She turned her face to the sun and clicked her fingers at Henri, the waiter, who shot her an unreadable look before sauntering their way.
‘Alright,’ Guy replied. ‘The market will be on. Maybe we can find something nice for your father.’
‘Oh, don’t worry about him. What do you buy a man who has everything?’
They gave their order – a cappuccino for Mila, a strawberry spritzer for Guy – then lay back next to each other. The babble of children in the paddling pool and chatter of other guests speaking different languages became a distant hum. Mila’s father had made a killing in the wild Nineties, she’d told him, when the country’s oil was up for grabs. Guy reckoned Mila’s father had been in the right place at the right time. Rather like him.
The sky had been filled with stars and the moon huge the night they’d talked about how they both came to be staying at this luxury hotel on the Cote d’Azur. Guy said he’d inherited money. It was more or less accurate. What he’d failed to add was that winning the jackpot had involved months of wooing Hilary, a wealthy octogenarian, on the bleak Kent coast, near to where he taught religious education to lazy prep school boys. Now, he didn’t need to pretend that he enjoyed plunges into the sludge brown North Sea. At last, he could be himself.
‘Would you like me to put your drinks here, monsieur?’ Henrisignalled towards a small, glass top table.
Guy nodded and Henri placed the spritzer down on a paper coaster. But when it came to the coffee, he slopped foam in the saucer.
‘Watch what you’re doing, man!’ Guy said.
‘Sorry, sir. Can I make you another?’
‘Just be more careful in future, will you?’
Henri bowed, his eyes lowered. The waiter had been ‘off’ with them once before, ignoring their attempts to get his attention until Guy had to physically approach him. He’d have to speak to Christoff, the proprietor, if it happened again.
They took a taxi into town and strolled around the open-air market hand in hand. In one area, market traders sold an eclectic mix of local produce – dried lavender, olives and stinky mountain cheese – while in another, they peddled stall after stall of fake designer gear.
When they tired of ducking under the stalls’ striped awnings to catch some shade, they wandered down to the sea front and found a table at one of the fish restaurants. The smell of tanning lotion from the beach drifted across and sunlight sparkled on the water, which was the colour of lapis lazuli. They ordered a huge heap of crustaceans on a tiered platter. Vulgar, Hilary would no doubt have called it. Nouveau riche. But Guy was seduced by the risk-taking, the throwing money around like confetti. Why squirrel your wealth away? What for?
Their usual routine after lunch consisted of a siesta and then around six, a pastis on the balcony, where they watched the sun set and the moon come up. Tonight, however, a niggling thought meant Guy couldn’t relax. Soon, Mila would have to leave for the airportto meet her father off his flight. They didn’t have long together.
‘You don’t mind me going alone?’ Mila asked. ‘I haven’t seen him for a year. We’ve lots of catching up to do.’
‘Course not. You two need time together. I’ll see you in the grill room at nine.’
But part of Guy did mind. Naturally, he couldn’t say that and suppressed it by drinking too fast and pouring himself another pastis long before he’d normally have a second. This visit from Mila’s father was welcome in one way because it meant Guy could discuss the future but in another, he begrudged sharing her with anyone, even with her own father. It disrupted the paradise they’d created here together.
He touched the small velvet box in his pocket. Inside, was the diamond cluster ring he’d yanked off Hilary’s finger as she lay dying in her hospital bed. By the end of the night, he hoped Mila would be wearing it, its shady past erased from his memory.
Guy saw Mila and her father, Vadim, reflected in the mirrors as he entered the hotel’s bar and grill. They sat huddled in one of the little booths and Guy felt like an intruder as he strode towards them, past the chef pan-searing steak over an open flame and the colourful wall murals.
The waiter took their order. Guy knew the menu off by heart. He plumped for a rib eye steak with bearnaise sauce and a Caesar salad. Usually, when they ate here, Mila would opt for something entirely different, like a pork chop or a couple of entrees, so they could mix and match. But today, Vadim ordered a porterhouse steak between them with skinny fries on the side. They chose a Cabernet Sauvignon to wash it down.
Vadim spotted an item on the menu.
‘Caviar! They have caviar. Ever had it, Guy?’
Guy shook his head. The old Guy, who had to be careful with his money because he was on a meagre schoolmaster’s salary, resurfaced. Who was paying for this meal?
‘Really, you must try it,’ continued Vadim. ‘Once you’ve tasted caviar, you’ll be a fan for life. We’ll have some for starters.’
Guy agreed – he could hardly say no to his future father-in-law.
But when it arrived, Guy felt repelled by the grey-black pearls with their odd, chewy texture and fishy taste because they reminded him of something else.
‘You’ll live to a hundred if you do this every day,’ Hilary would bellow, as she swam far out to sea while Guy trailed behind. Her screw kick stirred up choppy little waves and sometimes, he’d swallow mouthfuls of briny sea water which left him with a salt mouth.
The beluga eggs popped on his tongue and he downed the vodka shot they’d ordered to accompany it in an effort to rid himself of the aftertaste.
‘It’s wonderful,’ he told Vadim. ‘I’m a convert.’
Vadim clinked glasses. ‘Za tybya!’ To you!
Guy pushed the caviar around his plate, hiding some under a blini before the table was cleared and they were brought their mains.
‘Mila’s spoken to me about how good she’s felt with you over the last few weeks,’ Vadim began. ‘Her time in Europe’s had its ups and downs. She’s missed home. Now, though, she’s back to her old self.’
He was grateful to Vadim for bringing the subject up first. He had no idea how to segue into it.
‘As Mila knows, I feel the same,’ said Guy. ‘We’ve discussed it several times.’
She beamed and clutched Guy’s hand across the table.
‘Mila, we haven’t known each other long but I could see you were special the first time I met you.’
Guy hesitated, weighing up their response. Both Vadim and Mila looked at him, expectantly.
‘I’d be delighted if you’d accept this.’
He passed her the jewellery box. She opened it and gazed at the ring, turning it this way and that so the stones twinkled in the light. It fitted perfectly.
She leant over and kissed his lips. ‘I love it. Thank you.’
After their meal, the maître d’ sent over flutes of champagne to celebrate their engagement. Now and then, the glint of diamonds caught Guy’s attention. The last hand he’d seen the ring on was Hilary’s claw-like one. Was it so wrong to give someone the impression of love in this cold world?
Guy was woken by a chink of light breaking through a gap in their curtains. The digital clock on the bedside table showed 7 am. He rolled over. Mila wasn’t there.
The bathroom was dark, its door ajar.
Guy scrambled out of bed and went on to the balcony, oblivious to the rising sun or the sky’s pink glow. He glanced seven floors down to check whether she was already in the pool. The terrace was empty.
He threw on shorts, a T-shirt and his Havaianas.
In the lobby, the receptionist was busy checking in a large group of tourists. Sweat pricked the back of Guy’s neck, despite the efficient aircon.
Henri approached him.‘Can I help, sir?’
‘My fiancée, Mila. Have you seen her?’
‘Ah, your young lady friend?’
Guy nodded. ‘My fiancée, yes.’ He hated making himself vulnerable in front of this creep.
‘She left in a taxi, ooh,about an hour ago, with a gentleman.’
‘You mean her father?’
‘I’m not sure of their relationship…’
‘Did they say where they were going?’ Guy felt as if his knees would buckle.
‘They didn’t, monsieur.’
For a moment, Guy thought this had to be some kind of elaborate hoax. Mila would step out from behind a pillar, saying it was a test of his love.
‘I’ve seen her sort before,’ said Henri.
‘Sort? What sort do you mean?’
‘Preying on older men. Believe me, this job is quite an eye-opener.’
Guy wanted to punch the lackey’s face but instead, he said: ‘I’d be grateful if you kept your views to yourself.’
He strode to the lifts and jabbed the button.
Back in their room, he paced up and down, unsure what to do next. By now, the ring would be sold or melted down and they’d have maxed out his credit cards.
But that meant nothing to him set against the craving deep in his heart. He’d hungered for a connection like this all his life. Now that he’d experienced it, he needed it like a drug.
Her jasmine scent lingered in the room. Expensive, heady. How long would it remain?
Guy collapsed onto the bed and stroked her pillow. He wanted her back.