MICK CARR WAS having a hell of a time concentrating on the woman sitting across the table in the swank restaurant Sunday night. As Fanta nattered on about some fashion show, his gaze kept drifting upwards to the painting hanging on the wall above her head. It was a swan in flight, its wings spread in magnificent power, the long neck arching as it stretched into the wind. A brilliant azure-blue background framed the bird’s crisp white feathers, the clear tones glowing
He couldn’t drag his eyes away. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
The little sticker beneath said “Tundra Swan,” which was a bit confusing — here in England they were called Bewick’s Swans. He’d seen a flock once while grouse hunting up near the Scottish border, but never as far south as his farm in Hertfordshire.
“Why are we in Putney again?” Fanta complained, lapsing into her native south London accent. “There’s a restaurant just opened in Notting Hill I hear is ever so nice.”
Mick adjusted the necktie that had a death grip on his jugular. “Sir Frank wants us patronizing the local establishments while the club’s temporary training facility is here, and this just got a Michelin star.”
“But there’s nobody here, nobody famous at any rate,” she muttered with contempt, tossing back her mane of glossy black ringlets. “I mean, what’s the point of being here if we’re not going to be seen?”
Mick ignored the question and, giving in to temptation, yanked the blasted tie off and unfastened the top button of his starched shirt, almost popping it off in the process. At six-foot-two and over fourteen stone, he was one of the largest players in the Premier League, and finding shirts that fit his thick, muscled frame, especially around the neck and shoulders, was a right bugger. He supposed he could have his shirts custom-made like most of his teammates, but the tedium of the fittings and fussing over fabrics was like to drive you barking mad. He preferred sweaters that fit well and let a guy move.
A young man in thick-framed glasses arrived to take their order, and while Fanta dithered, Mick’s attention returned to the paintings. Hanging next to the Tundra Swan was a study of two Canada geese on the shore of a lake, a male gander and female goose. They mated for life, he remembered learning on a hunting trip abroad, raising their goslings together as a family.
“What are you smiling about, Mick?” Fanta asked. “Come on and order.”
With an effort, Mick forced his attention back to Chez Bertrand’s menu. Half of it was in French, touting poncy confits and reductions, whatever the hell they were. That afternoon’s match against Hull City had been grueling and he was bloody well starved, so he pointed to the first thing on the list, not caring what it was. His aunt Sue served more at her dainty teas than these posh places did. Thank God there was a decent pizza place not too far from his house in Fulham that delivered.
Fanta fidgeted with her pastel-colored drink and craned her neck to look at the other patrons. “That’s Darius over there. Who’s the girl he’s with?”
Mick glanced to where his best friend and Kingsbury Town Football Club team captain was sitting a few tables away. “It’s his cousin. She’s visiting from Essex. Should we invite them over?” he asked, knowing it would annoy her.
Panic flared in Fanta’s eyes, then was squelched. “You’re so funny,” she cooed, her self-control reestablished, “that’s what I love about you. You know I’d rather be alone with you. Is there anything you want to talk about?”
Her eyes, he noted, had a keen and desperate look about them. The tabloids had been hinting that an engagement was expected at any moment, and he didn’t have to be a genius to figure out where they had gotten that tip.
It wasn’t that he was opposed to marriage, quite the opposite, but he knew for a fact he had not yet met the woman he would marry. Who she was and how he was going to find her was a mystery, but he trusted his instincts. He’d know her when he met her. A man didn’t need a fancy education when he could trust his gut.
Like when Dad had taken him to see Moorsgate. Even though the farm had been a rundown disaster, he’d known right away it was the property he wanted. After a cursory walk around the grounds and a ten-minute chat with the estate agent, he’d written a check for several million pounds and never regretted it.
He spent every moment he could out there, when he wasn’t with the team, of course, and that had caused some hard feelings with Fanta. She’d pestered him to take her out to his “estate,” and he’d tried to warn her that it was just a neglected farm, but she wasn’t to be dissuaded. The reality became clear when the Range Rover had gotten bogged down in the swampy lane and he’d had to call the local farm lad, Roger, to come pull them out with the tractor. Her disillusion had grown further when she saw the mansion was just a derelict stone farmhouse covered in vines. Then a harmless grey squirrel had crossed their path and she’d run screaming back to the car, her high heels leaving staccato footprints in the muddy path.
After that, she’d refused to go back until he “had that mess cleaned up and a proper house built.”
They’d been dating some six months now, since they’d met on the weeknight television game show she hosted, Willy Nilly. Francine Mertz, as Fanta used to be known, had started out as one of a dozen beautiful girls in skimpy attire the show was known for. With admirable speed, she worked her way up the ranks to individual camera shots, which in turn led to playful banter with the contestants and a small endorsement contract with deodorant company.
Her big break had come when the lead presenter, Cashmere Cassidy, became embroiled in a notorious and well-publicized affair with a married cricket player. The worldwide media coverage had been scorching, and the lanky blonde had manipulated it like a master even after the cricket player dumped her for a Brazilian swimsuit model. Willy Nilly ratings had soared, and within a month, she had made the big leap into American television. She was now the co-host of a daily chat show from Hollywood.
Fanta had paid close attention, and when she had been tapped to replace Cashmere, she’d had a plan. Mick had been her first celebrity contestant, and she had introduced herself before the taping began, directing the full force of her personality at him with a blatant suggestion that he visit her dressing room, where they could get to know each other better.
Mick Carr was not a man to pass up an offer like that. Filming lasted two days with frequent dressing room breaks, and when he’d won the top prize, the picture of her kissing him full on the lips was splashed across every tabloid in Great Britain. The Daily Mail had captioned it Fanta and the Footballer.
They had been an item from that time on. She fit in well with the other wives and girlfriends, or WAG’s, as they were nicknamed, and in no time the couple was a tabloid favorite. The girl had a genius for exposure. She also had a penchant for drama, and that was proving expensive, like when Mick would find himself on the outs with her and was expected to buy his way back in. This happened often, as he was well known to have a wandering eye, so visits to Malbrey’s Jewellers were becoming a grudging habit.
Although, truth be told, Mick’s eye wasn’t wandering, just bored.
Since there was no chance that Fanta was going to be the future Mrs. Mick Carr, he’d better move the conversation onto safer subjects.
“Have you heard anything more about presenting on London Now?”
Fanta rolled her eyes and adjusted the dress’s neckline to better display her enhanced cleavage. “As if I haven’t been waiting! Elliott is supposed to get them to commit tomorrow and let me know. Might be looking for another agent if he doesn’t make this happen. I can’t be a presenter on Willy Nilly forever. I’ve got bigger plans.”
An attractive blonde with a beguiling smile approached the table. “Mick, sorry to interrupt, but can I have your autograph?”
“My pleasure,” he obliged, although he disliked being interrupted during meals out. However, it was part of the job. Fans thought they owned you on the football pitch and off, so he took the paper she handed him and palmed the scrap that had been secreted underneath, which no doubt contained her phone number. Save that bit for later.
“You can make it out to Jillian.” She smiled, leaning closer. “And good luck against Spain next week in the Friendly. I’ll be cheering for you and England.”
Mick signed while Fanta gave the woman a cold, appraising look that chased her off. “Elliot said you made a hash of the press conference for the Friendly. Said they quoted you saying Barcelona was the capital of Spain, not Madrid.”
Mick flushed, remembering the searing humiliation when everyone had broken into laughter at his gaffe. Worse still, he had sat there, mystified, until the England manager leaned over and clued him in, which only made everyone laugh harder. It had taken a superhuman effort to quell the directionless anger that engulfed him, and he sat in silence for the rest of the press conference, terrified to open his mouth.
“It was a mistake, okay?”
“You came across looking stupid. Again,” she added. “You needa PR agent.”
“Dad’s my agent,” he shot back.
“Your father is a gamekeeper, Mick. You need a public relations agent,” she explained as if he was thick, “somebody to coach you before your interviews so that you’ll come off better. More educated like. Elliot says he can take you on.”
“I am not hiring a PR flack, damn it!” Mick’s fist slammed into the table, making the woman at the next table jump. With an effort, he lowered his voice. “Leave that to pansies like Auchincloss.”
“Hugo Auchincloss pays Tom Belleville-Howe to keep him out of the papers, not get him in,” Fanta informed him, “and when I get on American telly, that’s what I’m going to do. Makes it look like you’re special.”
“Whoever he’s got has his work cut out for him,” Mick sneered. “The smug prick got his first yellow card this afternoon and it’s going to be all over the papers tomorrow.”
“Is it because of that girl he was involved with?” Fanta asked in hushed tones. “The one whose fiancé dumped her for that supermodel? Elliot says there’s going to be more coming out about that.”
Mick shifted in his seat. “She’s a nice girl. They should leave her alone.”
“It’s a love triangle, Mick.” Fanta sighed. “And I bet she played them both along, and that’s why Hugo got the yellow card, ‘cause he’s in love with her and all, but she betrayed him.”
“Hugo doesn’t love anyone but himself.”
“Well, he had better be back under control by Birmingham City next week or you lot are sunk,” Fanta cautioned. “And Delia says it had better be a win because it was only a draw today against Hull, and Kingsbury Town ain’t getting to Europe racking those up.”
“Isn’t getting to Europe,” Mick corrected, swallowing his irritation at her constant criticism with a sip of wine. What he wouldn’t give for a pint.
“And don’t think they won’t have noticed you need work marking your man. Why, if I was Birmingham City, I’d set up a play where you’re drawn…”
As Fanta droned on, his gaze drifted farther down the wall to a painting of quail eggs nestled in straw. They were lovely. Achingly perfect, each speckled egg different, showing the wide variety of patterns and colors he was so familiar with. Soon, maybe by next summer, he’d be raising quails at Moorsgate, along with ring-neck pheasants and grouse. Then Dad’d get some competition for who had the best shoot in southern England.
“Here’s your grilled eel with eggplant and mustard oil, Madame, and your sautéed Scottish lobster with truffled chicken quenelles, sir,” the server announced as he set the plates before them. Mick looked at his plate with contempt; there wasn’t enough there to feed a bloody cat. He snorted in disgust and asked for a lager.
“And something else—” he read the server’s name tag “—Raul.”
“These paintings on the wall. Of the waterfowl. Where do they come from?”
“They’re by an artist at the Lady Warwick College of Arts and Design down the road. Ella, she’s the wife of the owner here, she teaches there and sometimes puts up students’ works for sale.”
“They’re for sale?” That cheered Mick up. “Who painted them?”
“Marie-Claire Wentworth, we call her MC. We’re both students there. She’s also my housemate.”
“Bird lover, is she?”
“Obsessed,” Raul agreed. “If you’re interested in seeing more, there’s a student show Tuesday and MC is exhibiting. Or you can come by tomorrow afternoon; we’re setting up then. There might be more there you like.”
Fanta made a show of clanging her flatware, signaling that the attention needed to return to her. “Are we going to start collecting art, darling?”
Raul glanced between the two. “You can talk with Ella, she’s here tonight. I’m sure she could tell you more.”
“If I moved in with you, you wouldn’t have to drive so far,” Fanta observed as he drove her home to the unfashionable suburb of Lewisham. Her income from Willy Nilly was a pittance, and Mick knew she itched for the exclusiveness of his stark, modern townhouse in Fulham, which was gated and had several famous residents besides himself. The place was nice, he supposed, the security was good, and it was convenient to the club’s headquarters in Hendon. It was also one of the few places in London where he could get a garage large enough for both the brand-new Aston Martin sports car and his old Range Rover, neither of which he could bear to be parted from.
But despite Fanta’s alternating bouts of pleading and petulance, he refused to even discuss them living together. “There’s no room for your car,” he replied, rubbing his left knee, which had started to throb. That bastard Hull City striker had deliberately tackled him and knew just which leg to go for.
“Then why don’t you get rid of that old Range Rover? It’s a wreck and it stinks of dog,” Fanta grumbled, then perked up as a new idea occurred to her. “Or I could give up the lease on my car and drive this.”
Mick laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of her suggestion and was rewarded with cold silence for the rest of the trip.
“Do you want to come up?” Fanta asked, her manner indifferent as he pulled into a loading zone behind her building. “I’ve taped some of Cashmere’s shows from America. We could watch them.”
Leaving the engine running, he went round to open her car door and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. “No thanks, love, early morning tomorrow.”
Fanta stood in the street, gap-jawed. “Aren’t you at least going to walk me to the door?”
“What, and get a ticket? I’ll call you tomorrow,” Mick promised. Ignoring her dismayed pout, he got back in the car and sped away.
Mick drove back to Chez Bertrand, cutting ten minutes off the trip by racing the Aston Martin down side streets and narrow alleys. He met with Ella and the transaction took place, then the server, Raul, helped him carry the three paintings to his car. When he arrived home, he hung them in a line on the blank living room wall, and then sat on the leather sofa opposite to admire them, liking them even better in his home than he had at the restaurant.
The paintings were full of life and freedom, and as he studied them, he felt a pleasant sense of contentment come over him. The stress of the match and the mortification of the press conference, it all faded away. He knew these birds, knew their world, and the knowledge that there was someone else out there who could appreciate them the way he did was oddly comforting.
He needed to see more.