The woman staring back at her in the mirror was the proof that she’d obtained exactly the effect she’d been aiming for when she’d started getting herself ready: her makeup, primarily targeted at highlighting her wide grey eyes, was perfect, her hair, smooth and dark, was held elegantly to the sides of her face by two ivory combs and hung down to her neck, and her dress – a soft woollen one with a round neckline – hugged her shapely figure without being too revealing. Okay, it was a beautiful bright red… but it was a longstanding tradition in her family to wear red for New Year’s Eve. While she applied the final touch of all-day lip gloss, Zoe Mathison paid only scant attention to what she was doing. She was used to that face in the mirror – she knew that she was beautiful and she used the fact to her advantage, but managing her appearance and dressing up for special occasions wasn’t really something she enjoyed any more: it was just something she did on autopilot, practically without realizing it.
And that seductive appearance of hers which magnetically attracted the male gaze meant that she was often the object of envy and spitefulness. Not that she looked like some airbrushed pin-up: she was slim and lithe, with a face that was attractive even without makeup. Her sensuality was something innate, something that emanated from her naturally, and only over time – and after several disappointments – had she learned how to use it in a way she was happy with. Nowadays, she knew how exactly how men worked and held the reins of power confidently, but when it came to women… Well, when it came to women she still had some problems.
Even as a little girl, Zoe struggled to get along with other members of her own sex. A lot of girls didn’t like her because, without ever meaning to, she made them feel as though they were in her shadow. Others tried to imitate her, and others still spread gossip that she was easy just because she was always surrounded by boys.
None of them had ever wondered what exactly she thought about her good fortune. In all probability, the answer would have surprised them.
She was, of course, grateful to the heavens, or to her parents, or to whoever the heck it was who had made things turn out the way they had and ensured that she had a beautiful face and a beautiful body –– but beauty didn’t always produce positive results. In fact, it was often a double-edged sword, and other people’s mistaken belief that having a pretty face automatically meant having a perfect life had begun to irritate her.
If her pretty face had actually been any use then maybe at that moment she wouldn’t have been in her old bedroom at her parents’ house, about to spend yet another evening celebrating with the whole family -– great-uncles and great-grandparents included – but without a man by her side.
For a moment she found herself thinking of Clover, one of her few friends, who at that time was in Ireland with her wonderful Prince Charming, the actor Cade Harrison. In less than a month, Clo had managed to meet the toast of Hollywood and make him lose his head over her, and now the two of them were practically inseparable. With her long red hair and her dimples and her straightforward soap-and-water beauty Clover was like some kind of elf, yet her simplicity had succeeded where Zoe, with her knockout body and perfectly sculpted face, had always failed.
And what about Liberty? Even the stiff, serious owner of Giftland, always tightly wrapped in her dowdy business clothes, had had a faithful boyfriend for years.
She was the only one who was single – and she had been for centuries! When men looked at her, they didn’t lose their heads, it was just that the blood flowed off to a quite different part of their bodies… Ah, if only brains could speak…
Sighing in irritation for the umpteenth time, Zoe threw the lip gloss back into her vanity case and turned away from the mirror. That night, she would have given anything to be celebrating the New Year with a man, intelligent or otherwise, rather than with her family. But lately, interesting guys seemed to have become a bit thin on the ground – or maybe she was becoming more selective.
The sweet, public love affair between Clover and Cade had undoubtedly worked against her: it was hard to settle for some boring fling when right before her eyes there was that example of a perfectly matched couple. Just like it was hard to come back to the family home from time to time and see the boundless love that still glowed in the eyes of her mother and father for each other after thirty years.
Why hadn’t she inherited their good luck in love, instead of their good looks? It would have been a much more welcome gift.
A discreet and familiar knock at the door distracted her from her gloomy thoughts. “Come in, Mom,” she said, sitting down on the bed so she could slip on her stiletto-heeled black boots.
Claire Mathison poked hers head around the door, a sweet smile on her beautiful and still youthful face.
“Your grandparents have arrived.”
“I’ll be right down.”
“Ah… you’re wearing the red dress, I see,” said her mother waveringly. Zoe looked up and blinked, puzzled.
“It’s New Year’s Eve, I thought it suited the occasion. Why?”
“Oh, nothing, you look great. But, you know, great grandmom has decided to join us tonight…”
Zoe jumped up, startled.
“That old witch is here? Mom, you promised me she wouldn’t be coming!” she protested.
“Well, that’s what I thought! They told me that she was in hospital, I never thought she’d make such a quick recovery… I mean, she is ninety-six, after all!”
Claire looked over her shoulder then walked into her daughter’s bedroom and closed the door behind her, on her face an expression halfway between amusement and sadness. “It won’t be that bad, honey. It’ll be over before you know it.”
“No it won’t!”
Zoe went to the old dark wooden closet and began anxiously rummaging through the few spare clothes she had left at her parents’ house.
“She’ll be on my case all night! She’ll sit there staring at me, decide that I’m dressed like a hooker and then she’ll give me the third degree to find out if I’ve finally found a guy to start a family with, and she’ll start telling me what women used to be like back in her day, and then she’ll tell me how happy and satisfied with their lives all her other great-granddaughters are… Who, by the way, seem to have much more sex than I do, judging by the amount of children they keep producing!”
Her mother chuckled. “Oh honey, that has nothing to do with how many children you have – otherwise you’d have a hundred brothers and sisters!”
“Mom, please!” cried Zoe, raising her eyes to the sky. “This is already bad enough, I don’t want to spend the whole evening not being able to get the embarrassing idea of my parents going at it all the time out of my head!” Resignedly, she let her arms drop to her sides. “I’ve got nothing decent to wear, I bought this red dress especially for the occasion and I didn’t think I’d need an alternative. I don’t have time to go home, right?”
“You could, but you’d still have to walk past Maude the dragon.” Her mother stroked her arm. “I just wanted to warn you that great-grandmom was here, honey – don’t get yourself into a state about it. Your dress is fine. So come downstairs with your head held high and just grin and bear it for a few hours: at the stroke of midnight she’ll be off to bed and you can relax.”
“Easy for you to say,” thought Zoe, as she watched her mother walk out of her room. Her mother had a caring and loving husband to make everything more bearable.
That evening was going to be a disaster! She could already see herself, sitting at the end of the long table, listening for the millionth time to boring old stories until the dinner was over. Then, like every year, they would pass the time until midnight playing some old-fashioned board game that would mean having to pair off with the only single male present: her eleven year old cousin, Victor.
Groaning, she began to pace around the small room, trying to think of a way to get out of all this. She would rather spend New Year’s Eve alone in her Manhattan apartment than see it in nursing a nervous ulcer thanks to a woman who had been around for almost a century! The seventh daughter of a very large Italian family who had emigrated to America many years before, Maude Mathison’s fragile, delicate appearance didn’t fool anyone: those small grey eyes were penetrating enough to make your blood run cold and her sharp tongue could put even the most rebellious member of the family in their place. And Zoe was the most problematic of all her countless great-grandchildren, so it was upon her that her great-grandmother focused all her attention. If she had known that old dragon Maude would be at the party, Zoe would have found a way to get out of it…
Suddenly, a solution flashed into her mind.
Why didn’t I think of that before? Wasn’t he always the answer to all her problems?
She had avoided inviting him to dinner so as not to take advantage of his kindness. She’d already involved him in Christmas Eve, an extremely boring evening spent playing Monopoly with the over sixties, and she hadn’t had the heart to ask him for an encore. Even he was entitled to a bit of fun.
But this was an emergency… She absolutely needed him.
She grabbed her phone and called Eric, praying that he hadn’t decided to return to Boston to celebrate with his family. If he was in New York, maybe she could convince him to save her life…
“It’s a bit early to wish me Happy New Year, you could at least have waited until eleven,” he said, with his usual irony. “Or maybe you’ve got bigger fish to fry and you’re getting this out of the way so you don’t have to be disturbed at the stroke of midnight?”
“I need you!” cried Zoe, hand on heart. “Don’t abandon me this evening!”
“Maude’s here.” There was no need to say anything else. Eric knew all the members of her family by heart, most first-hand, and the rest from hearsay. And her tone left no room to wonder how desperate she was.
“What can I do about it?”
“If you’re not in Boston with your folks, if you don’t have a girl to spend New Year’s Eve with and if you’re not in the process of having the most wonderful night of your life, get over here to my parent’s house and spend the evening being my knight in shining armour!”
“You do realize that’s like asking a kitten to take on a fire-breathing dragon? From the little I know of her, your great-grandmother will eat me up in one bite,” sighed Eric.
“Please, I’m begging you, I’m begging you! I’m wearing a bright red dress that’s going to earn me a place in the old woman’s prayers for the next six months, and I can’t change because all I’ve got here is a tracksuit and a pair of jeans!”
“Not the same pair that ripped open at Christmas dinner two years ago, leaving your butt hanging out in front of your great-grandmother… right?” Eric asked, the amusement in his voice audible.
“I think those got thrown into the fire by Maude herself about sixty seconds after I took them off,” Zoe muttered. “The old bitch… They cost me seven hundred dollars!”
“In any case, your relatives are already there and I’m not. How could I possible help?”
“Come as quickly as you can. I can put up with them and keep them at bay for a few minutes,” said Zoe, letting out a sigh of relief. “You know how much I love you, right?”
“I’ll be keeping that in mind. Sooner or later, it’ll come in handy,” Eric muttered, before hanging up.
Zoe lay on the bed, looking at the floral motif wallpaper on the ceiling, a satisfied smile on her lips.
Eric Morgan, her hero, was coming: now, she could relax!
The words of her great-grandmother would bounce right off her with no effect now that she had him at her side. In fact, it would actually be enjoyable to make fun of her great–grandmom’s pronouncements with Eric. With her best friend’s assistance, she could handle anything – she wouldn’t have to feel alone and she would have a young and interesting person to talk to. Even playing Risk would be bearable, because when Eric got involved in strategy games he was really hilarious!
Sometimes she wondered how she would ever manage to get by without him. She had known him for ten years now, and they were inseparable, despite their completely different characters. Zoe was really lucky to have him in her life.
Eric was a living example of ‘the good guy’: smart, serious, mature, well-behaved. Besides having a large, scholarly brain, he also had a huge, honest and sensitive heart – and in a world chock full of bullies, hypocrites and assholes, he was a rare gem. He was never boring or dull and didn’t take himself too seriously… Well, to be totally honest, he was terribly fussy and did have a bit of an old-fashioned mentality in some ways, but he also knew how to be witty, engaging and ironic.
In the reality she knew, which was made up of hungry stares and clumsy come-ons, Eric was the exception: he was the only guy who looked her in the eyes and not just in the cleavage, the only one who never got touchy feely, the only one who treated her as a woman with a brain, not just as a body to possess.
He was the only one who had never made a move on her.
Shortly after she’d met him, Zoe had found herself almost hoping he would. At the end of the day, he was so cute, with relaxed good looks that could be improved with a little attention to detail, and for sure he was someone you could trust. Eric was a ‘serious relationship’ guy, but the idea of offering her something more than friendship never seemed to have flashed in his brain, and eventually Zoe had accepted their relationship for what it was: a real connection, durable and free of ulterior motives.
You don’t change a winning team. And none of her relationships had ever lasted as long as the one with Eric – not even the one with Stuart Harris, her longest lasting ex-boyfriend. So why complicate things?
She leapt up out of bed when she heard her father’s voice calling her from downstairs. There was no time now to analyze her relationships with men, she had to go downstairs to entertain her family and help her mother get dinner ready.
But, before leaving the bedroom, she found herself hoping that Eric wouldn’t take too long to get there.
“I have to go, guys,” said Eric, returning to his friend Danny’s living room.
“But we’ve just ordered the pizza!” Danny protested, looking up from the laptop on his knees.
Eric handed him the beer he had opened just before the phone rang. “So you’ll have to eat a few more slices – that’s no great sacrifice.”
“It means having more beer to wash it down with too,” nodded Kevin, who was stretched out on the couch with a bottle in one hand and the remote control in the other. “Where are you going?”
“Judging by the speed with which he’s ditching us, Ms Mathison must have requested his presence,” said Danny confidently. “Am I right?”
Well aware of how it was useless to lie to his friends, who had known him for years, Eric nodded. “She’s got problems with her family and I don’t want to leave her to face them on her own on a night like this.”
“And so you’ll quite happily ditch us. What a buddy you are!” muttered Kevin, finishing his beer and reaching out towards Danny, who passed him another without even looking.
Eric snorted. “In a couple of hours you won’t even remember your name, Kev. I doubt you’ll miss me much.”
“I won’t, but Danny will, since he’s practically a teetotaller. This sucks, I’ll have to entertain myself.”
“Just make sure you don’t overdo it. I’m not holding your hand while you throw up,” warned Danny. “My New Year’s resolution is to get my head straight and to find a nice girl to spend my time with. Locking myself away in the flat every night to play video games like some damn nerd is starting to get really tedious! God help me, this is the last depressing New Year’s Eve I’m going to be spending!”
“Hey, I’m intending to find a girl tonight myself, so be warned: if I’m not already in an alcohol-induced coma by midnight, I’m going out to pick up a woman.”
“Kev, the way you talk it sounds like you’re going to be chugging gallons of alcohol, but we all know that a couple of beers are enough to get you babbling away,” snorted Eric, as he placed his belongings in his backpack. “Dumbass.”
“Hey, look who’s talking! I’d like to remind you, Four-Eyes, that you’re going to let yourself be used as a doormat by a woman who’s had you by the balls for the last ten years – and without even supplying you with any relief!”
“Will you remind me why we let him join our gang?” Eric asked Danny, with a bored expression.
Danny shrugged. “Because his dad was the dean of the university and we couldn’t have him as an enemy? And because he gave me an action figure of a mummified Ronald Reagan?”
“And don’t forget that when I moved here and we threw that first party, I managed to get you a girl each,” added Kevin. “Something which you’ve never done, Eric, despite all the hot chicks you surround yourself with at work.”
Eric shook his head in amusement. “I told you: Clover and Liberty are already taken.” And before his friends could reply to his last sentence, he said goodbye and left.
He went upstairs to his own apartment and began to undress, heading for the bedroom. Ten minutes later he emerged wearing a stylish pair of jeans, a blue shirt and a sweater of the same color. It was the best he could do at such short notice.
As soon as he had left the building and flagged down a cab, he began to think about what his friends had said, and he sighed deeply. They were right: when Zoe Mathison called, he went running like a lightning bolt.
But he wasn’t a doormat, the way they all thought – he was just a good friend. If someone he cared about was in need of a helping hand, he was always there for them. After all, dinner with his friends wasn’t such a rare event, especially since Danny and Kevin lived in the same building as he did. They had an evening of pizza, beer and board games at least once a month in any case, without needing a special occasion to celebrate. Zoe, however, would die of boredom if she had to spend New Year’s Eve alone with her large, conventional family.
She needed him more than those two single nerds who would quite happily spend their New Year’s Eve eating junk food and watching Star Wars for the thousandth time without him. That’s why he was running off to save her.
“Oh, who the hell are you trying to kid?” he snorted mentally, staring at the bright panorama that flashed by outside the window.
If he went running off like a madman every time Zoe snapped her fingers it was because he was crazy for real: crazily in love with her.
Kevin had a point: ten years pining after a woman who held his emotions in her hands, albeit unwittingly. It was his own fault for having gotten her used to it, for spoiling her like a child, initially hoping to prove something to her, and later because he simply couldn’t help himself.
He didn’t know quite why Zoe had so much power over him. Yes, she was beautiful, charming and sultry and possessed every conceivable physical gift, of course, but what attracted him to her was something else. Under that glowing patina of perfection, Zoe was also sweet, sensitive, sometimes insecure, and had an immeasurable need to feel loved. A need Eric could have fulfilled for a lifetime and beyond, with all the love he had inside him.
Zoe, however, had no idea of this, even though he felt as if he had a flashing neon sign on his forehead. Perhaps because she looked at him with the same attention as she might some weird bug, or because she deliberately ignored the issue. In any case, the result was the same: apart from as a friend, she was not interested in him, and Eric had by now resigned himself to being exclusively her official confidant.
All things considered, he accepted the situation with good grace. Or at least, he did until he found himself face to face with her. When he arrived in Soho and rang the doorbell of the Mathison residence, it was Zoe who opened the door. Eric only managed to stop his jaw from falling right to the floor because she had mentioned what she was wearing when they spoke on the phone.
That red dress was… woah! It wasn’t that it was vulgar or flashy, it was that she managed to turn it into something breath-taking with her shapely figure, cat-like eyes and smile that could have put a demon on the path of righteousness… or made a devil out of an angel.
“Finally!” she exclaimed, grabbing his hand and dragging him into the house. “I told them that there was someone coming, but I didn’t tell them who, just in case you had a mishap or changed your mind or something.”
“And how would you have explained the sudden absence of the mysterious guest if I had?”
“Oh, trust me, I would have found someone… even if it meant going from house to house knocking on every door and begging any available man on my knees.”
Eric didn’t answer, but he clenched his teeth. He had no doubt that such a plan would succeed: Zoe would have been able to convince any man within a one mile radius to go along with her just by batting her eyelashes.
“Well then, why did she call you?” asked a voice inside his head.
Maybe because it was easier. It wasn’t necessary for her to promise him anything in order to convince him to help her.
His mind split into two, one part imagining enjoying Zoe’s hypothetical thanks and the other rebelling against the idea that she would provide sexual pleasure in exchange for a favor.
Zoe wasn’t what his mom would have called a tramp. Ok, she did date a lot of guys – but that didn’t necessarily mean she went to bed with all of them. And yet it was difficult not to jump to that conclusion when just a casual look from her seemed to promise paradise.
“You’re acting just like all those idiots who ask her out!” he scolded himself. Wasn’t that the reason that he watched over her every day, like a mother with her cub? To avoid other men committing the sin of indulging in too much self-esteem and exceeding the bounds of decency? All it took was a smile from Zoe for them to start thinking they were one step from heaven, for God’s sake!
His confused thoughts were interrupted when Zoe started to undress him… literally. She didn’t merely take off his jacket, she started taking off his sweater too. When she put her hands to the bottom of his shirt, Eric grabbed hold of them, torn between incredulity and excitement.
“What are you doing?” he stammered. At the uncertain, wavering sound of his voice, he tried to pull himself together and hide his desire behind his usual tone of irony. “I thought you wanted me here as backup for dinner, not because you were so desperate that you were going to jump on me in your parent’s hall.”
Zoe laughed heartily. “I’m desperate enough to jump on you, believe me, but not right now, with great-grandmother on the warpath in the next room.” She gave him a sly look, dug her fingers into the waistband of his jeans and pulled his shirt out of his pants. “Jesus, you look like the son of a pastor! My relatives know me, they’d never go for it if they saw you looking so prim and proper.”
“Go for what?” Eric asked in apparent confusion as she ran her fingers through his brown curls to muss them up a bit.
At that moment, Zoe’s mother joined them. “Eric, how nice to see you!” she smiled, and embraced him.
“Sorry for being late, Mrs Mathison,” said Eric, handing her the bottle of wine he had bought on the fly just before coming upstairs. “I had… problems?” he said, glancing uncertainly toward Zoe.
His friend smiled gently and took his hand. “Don’t worry, we were about to serve up dinner, you’ve come just in time”
As soon as they entered the dining room, Eric found himself the center of attention. Twelve people, including grandparents, uncles and cousins, were sitting around the long table, and all seemed to be waiting only for him to sit down.
‘Well, it’s natural, I suppose. I did arrive late,” he thought, as he took a seat next to Zoe. However, the eyes of what he decided must be the dreaded great-grandmother Maude were fixed on him in a way that made him feel very uneasy.
While the first course of what had every appearance of being a sumptuous meal was put on the table, Eric leaned over toward Zoe. “The dragon keeps staring at me, it’s starting to freak me out.”
“Don’t worry about it and enjoy the food for the moment,” she murmured, passing him a plate. “The worst is yet to come.”
“Thanks for making me feel better,” he muttered.
The ‘worst’ arrived shortly after the starters. Once she had run out of anecdotes regarding the growth of Zoe’s little cousin’s baby teeth, Maude Mathison turned her watery grey eyes on Eric, who snapped to attention almost reflexively. It was absurd that such a frail-looking woman could inspire such fear, but she most certainly did. In her eyes, which must once have been like Zoe’s, there was something harsh and unyielding despite her very advanced age.
“What’s your name, boy?” the old woman asked, looking at him.
Eric grabbed his glass of wine, trying to appear confident and at ease. “Eric Morgan, ma’am”
“And you are planning on being my great-granddaughter’s future husband, are you?”
Eric’s wine seemed to go down the wrong way. Zoe came to his rescue, giving him none too delicate pats on the back while her parents smiled calmly.
“Grandma, you could be a little more tactful. Coming out with things like that can scare a guy,” Zoe’s father protested mildly.
“They tell me that you’re thirty-one, is that right? I can barely hear in one ear, but the other still works fine,” said Maude, turning her gaze back to Eric, who was still struggling to get air into his lungs. “Samuel, your daughter told me that he was a bright, serious young man. Why would he be scared at hearing himself called the future husband of the woman he has chosen to love? At his age, my poor husband already had three sons.”
An awkward silence fell over the room, only to be broken by Zoe’s grandfather. “I met Eric at Christmas. I can assure you that he’s a very nice guy, mother.”
‘Well I do not know him and I intend to make my own mind up about him,” said Maude, raising her white eyebrows and turning to Eric. “Do you love my great-granddaughter? Or have you simply been entranced by the physical charms she seems to be so fond of putting on display?”
“I would die for Zoe,” said Eric, between one cough and the next. “And I think I’m already halfway there,” he added, hoarsely. Zoe let out a chuckle and continued to thump him on the back.
“I don’t want her ending up with some spineless wimp who only wants to marry her because she knows how to charm men’s feet out from under them. From what I understand, you were friends until a few days ago. What has changed, so suddenly?”
Once he had recovered himself a little, Eric stared at his friend’s great-grandmother.
“As far as I’m concerned, nothing – I fell in love with her right from the very first moment. But to differentiate myself from the other guys who were always chasing after her I decided to wait and to court her slowly.”
Yeah, so slowly that she didn’t even notice! he said to himself. But he went on. “I assure you that your great-granddaughter’s appearance is simply the icing on the cake for me. When I first met her she was wearing a dowdy waitress’s uniform, but I fell in love with her just the same. Zoe’s charm lies inside her, not outside.”
He didn’t trust himself to cast a glance in the direction of Zoe. Everything that came out of his mouth was the absolute truth, but there was no need for her to actually read it in his eyes.
“If you like her so much and not simply for her physical appearance, then why don’t you stop her from dressing so provocatively? Women who are always putting themselves on display often lack self-esteem, or don’t feel sufficiently appreciated. Perhaps you are not fulfilling your duties as a boyfriend properly, despite all these fine words?”
Zoe made to cut short the embarrassing scene but Eric put his hand on hers, still staring at her great-grandmother. “Your great-granddaughter would look the same even if she wore a garbage bag, believe me. At first I tried to convince her to cover herself up as much as possible but, when I realized that other men would look anyway, I stopped being jealous. Let them look all they like at what I have and what they never will.”
If only that were true…
“Now do you understand why I love him so much?” cried Zoe, a broad smile on her face. Then she bent over to kiss him on the cheek. “You’re my hero!” she whispered in his ear, sending a shiver racing down his spine.
Eric didn’t answer, so focused was he on challenging Maude the dragon to contradict him. After a silent staring match that lasted a few long moments, she bowed her head with a regal nod in acceptance of the situation, and Eric sat back to enjoy his victory.
Though there wasn’t much to be happy about, to tell the truth: with just one look, a ninety year old lady had understood his feelings, while her twenty-nine year old great-granddaughter hadn’t noticed in ten years.
The situation was extremely disheartening.