“Lo Blacklock,” I said through a mouthful of something that I was hoping was not cuckoo spit, though it was hard to be sure. “We’ve met, actually, but you won’t remember. I work for Velocity.”
“Oh, aye. Do you work for Rowan Lonsdale, then?”
“She like that piece I did for her?”
“Yes, it was very popular. Got a lot of tweets.”
Twelve Surprisingly Delicious Foods You Didn’t Know Were Edible, or something along those lines. It had been illustrated with a picture of Archer roasting something unspeakable over a fire and grinning up at the camera.
“Aren’t you going to eat it?” Chloe said, nodding at Archer’s plate. Her own plate was nearly clear and she swiped her finger across a slick of foam and licked it up.
Archer hesitated and then pushed his plate away.
“I think I’ll sit this one out,” he said. “Wait for the next course.”
“Fair play,” Chloe said. She gave another slow, curving smile. A movement in her lap caught my eye and I saw that beneath the level of the table, not quite hidden by the cloth, she and Lars were holding hands, his thumb rhythmically stroking across her knuckles. The sight was somehow so intimate, yet so public, that I felt a little shock run over me. Maybe her flirtatious persona wasn’t all it seemed?
I realized Archer was talking to me, and I turned my attention back to the table and focused on him with an effort.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was somewhere else. What did you say?”
“I said, can I refill you? Your glass is empty.”
I looked down at it. The Chablis had gone—though I barely remembered drinking it.
“Yes, please,” I said. As he poured, I stared into the glass, trying to work out how much I had drunk already. I took a sip. As I did, Chloe leaned over and said quietly, “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what happened to your cheek?”
Maybe my surprise showed in my face, because she flapped a hand in a forget about it gesture.
“Sorry, ignore me, none of my business. I just . . . well, I’ve been in bad relationships, that’s all.”
“Oh, no . . .” For some reason the misunderstanding made me feel ashamed, like it was my fault or I’d been criticizing Judah behind his back, although neither was true. “No, it’s nothing like that. I got burgled.”
“Really?” She looked shocked. “While you were in?”
“Yup. Getting more common, apparently, or so the police said.”
“And he attacked you? Jesus.”
“Not quite.” I felt an odd reluctance to go into details, not just because talking about it brought back unpleasant flashes of what had happened but also out of a kind of pride. I wanted to sit at this table as a professional, the smooth, capable journalist able to take on all comers. I didn’t relish the portrait of myself as a frightened victim, cowering in my own bedroom.
But the story was out now—at least 90 percent of it was—and not explaining felt like getting sympathy under false pretenses.
“It—it was an accident really. He slammed a door in my face; it hit my cheek. I don’t think he meant to hurt me.”
I should have just stayed in my room, head beneath the duvet, was the truth. Stupid Lo, sticking your neck out.
“You should learn self-defense,” Archer said. “That’s how I started, you know. Royal Marines. It’s not about size, even a girl like you can overpower a man if you get the leverage right. Look, I’ll show you.” He pushed back his chair. “Stand up.”
I stood, feeling slightly awkward, and with extraordinary swiftness he grabbed my arm and twisted it up behind my back, tilting me off-balance. I grabbed for the table with my free hand, but the twisting motion in my shoulder continued, pulling me backwards, the muscles screaming in protest.
I made a noise, half of pain and half of fright, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Chloe’s shocked face.
“Archer,” she said, and then more urgently, “Archer—you’re scaring her!”
He let go, and I sank back into my chair, my legs trembling, trying not to show how much my shoulder was protesting.
“Sorry,” Archer said with a grin as he pulled his chair back to the table. “Hope I didn’t hurt you. Don’t know my own strength. But you see what I mean—very tricky to get out of, even if your attacker’s bigger than you. Anytime you want a lesson . . .”
I tried for a laugh, but it came out sounding fake and shaky.
“You look like you need a drink,” Chloe said bluntly, and she topped up my glass. Then, as Archer turned away to speak to a waiter, she added in a lower voice, “Ignore Archer. I’m starting to believe the rumors about his first wife were true. And look, if you want something to cover up that bruise, come over to my cabin sometime. I’ve got a whole array of stuff and I’m a pretty mean makeup artist. You need it in the trade.”
“I’ll do that,” I said, and attempted a smile. It felt false and strained and I picked up my glass and took a sip to hide it. “Thanks.”
After the first course, the places switched around and I found myself, somewhat to my relief, at the other table from Archer, sitting between Tina and Alexander, who were having a very knowledgeable conversation about foods of the world over the top of my head.
“Of course the one type of sashimi you really must try is fugu,” Alexander said expansively, smoothing his napkin across his straining cummerbund. “It’s simply the most exquisite taste.”
“Fugu?” I said, trying to insert myself into the conversation. “Isn’t that the horribly poisonous one?”
“Absolutely, and that’s what makes the experience. I’ve never been a drug taker—I know my own weaknesses, and I am very aware of being one of life’s lotus-eaters, so I’ve never trusted myself to dabble in that sort of thing—but I can only assume that the high one experiences after eating fugu triggers a similar neuron response. The diner has diced with death, and won.”
“Don’t they say,” Tina drawled, sipping at her wine, “that the art of the really superlative chef is to slice as closely as possible to the poisonous parts of the fish and leave just a sliver of the toxins on the flesh to heighten the experience?”