My God, man! That jumper! For what reason?” said George jovially as he handed Henry a bottle of Amarone and removed his overcoat.
“Oh, the jumper?” replied Henry, “Sophie gave it to me last…”
George was already striding across the room, cheeks glowing with Christmas cheer from the G&Ts he’d slipped in at the casino just before arriving.
“How lovely to see you, darling,” Sophie purred as she air-kissed him and then returned to fishing the olive out of her martini with a perfectly manicured hand.
Sophie and Henry’s house was just as he remembered: baroque Christmas cheer dripped from every surface and a sweet odour of orange, quince and Indian spices drifted languidly from a candle flickering among the organic salmon blinis. George smiled to himself: he was almost starting to enjoy his role as waif and stray at the Delacroix Christmas lunch. Almost.
“Cassandra’s just outside smoking,. Sophie’s mellifluous voice interrupted George’s reverie, eyes twinkling. George’s eyebrows lifted quizzically, causing his ears to lift and face to go red: “Cassandra?”
“Sophie thought it might be nice if we kept it a cosy foursome this year,” said Henry, adding in a lower voice: “We’ve been trying to get you two together for years! You’ve got so much in common, it’s crackers you’ve never met before.”
“Hmm,” said George as he uncorked the red he’d brought and poured himself a large glass.
“You don’t want to let it breathe?”
“Italian reds don’t need to breathe,” he muttered before draining his glass and refilling it, his eyes permanently trained on the corpulent silhouette in the garden.
As Cassandra turned to head inside, George hastily excused himself to smoke outside the front door. “Won’t be long.”
George was someone who’d been engaged frequently but never actually married, and now well into his fifties was quite happy with the state of affairs. It kept him young, he liked to think, and most importantly it allowed
him to do just as he pleased, which was convenient for a professional Sobranie-smoking lunch-goer and ardent baccarat player.
The only difficulty was Christmas day. He simply couldn’t dodge every well-meaning invitation and each year found himself shoulder-to-shoulder with a family during its annual sit-down, claret-enhanced squabble, complete with feeble cracker jokes and flatulent relatives.
George watched Cassandra return to the kitchen and give him the ghost of a wink across the condensation-covered window. He turned away with a thespian air of affected melodrama. Before long he sensed three pairs of eyes burning a hole in his cashmere Cucinelli back.
“Don’t mind him, Cass, I think he’s just a little disappointed someone’s come to steal his paper crown.” Sophie laughed and poured some more Amarone. “Perhaps you could go and chivvy him along, Henry? Food’s ready.”
Outside George was on his second Sobranie and pacing while Henry tried to placate him, “She’s what you might describe as a gourmet…”
George turned to watch Cassandra shovelling miniature vol-au-vents into her mouth, guffawing and spraying flakes of pastry across the vintage kilim carpet.
“…but she’s great fun. Loves a flutter.”
Within moments Sophie joined them. “What are you boys conspiring about?”
“George has decided to go home.”
“No, don’t be silly!” chimed Sophie.
“Sophie… please… It’s an ambush!”
Before Sophie could respond, George was clambering into a waiting cab amid a cloud of apologies.
“Was that the same cab that dropped him off?” asked Henry, perplexed as they watched the tail lights disappear round the corner.
Minutes later, George was pushing open the doors to the casino and padding across the deep cerulean fleur de lys carpet for the second time that day. He went directly to the bar.
“So they bought it then, sir?” asked Jenkins, the barman.
“And Madame Cassandra’s performance?”
“Let’s just say it was better than her baccarat this morning. She’ll be along in a minute.”