Nick stormed from the Eaton Square flat, red-faced. Elizabeth's charities demanded appearances, and small talk with people who didn't remember his name. She needed to be seen. He wasn't sociable. He huffed and gathered himself. A walk would do him good. The National Gallery was a destination, and he had his umbrella. In a light drizzle, the clouds hung in the sky like a dirty snowbank. Preoccupied, Nick didn't reciprocate glances from women as they passed.
Inside the National Gallery's Corinthian-columned entrance, Nick shuffled through the museum, his quarrel with Elizabeth echoing in his brain. He found himself standing on parquet wood flooring, surrounded by walls of light green and darker wainscoting under a skylight that extended the length of the room.
Nick stopped at Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man. An attractive woman with long black hair, her lipstick deep red, arrived leading a tour group. He caught her eye, and she smiled. People gathered around the painting.
After introducing herself to the group, Daniella said, "Bronzino was a master of the Mannerist Portrait. Working for the Medici in Florence, he captured aristocratic, stylish elegance. At court, you acted a part. No one discovered the real you. We don't know this young man's name, but that may have been the point. Note the cool detachment on the face, the porcelain, mask-like skin tone, the sophistication, and the fine clothes. Elegant but static. Unemotional self-assurance. 'Strike a pose. Reminiscent of Madonna's ‘Vogue’?"
The group chuckled.
Daniella continued, "Note the book without text in his lap. We’re given no clue as to with whom we're dealing. Perhaps the young man renders judgment on us. His haughtiness dares us to penetrate the enigma."
Nick luxuriated in Daniella’s melodic Italian accent.
A redheaded woman asked, "What about the Bacchus statue behind the parted curtain?"
"Ah," Daniella said, "hidden fires. Bronzino's poems referenced the homosexual subculture in Florence. Bacchus was a sexually ambiguous figure. The ecstasy of wine; finding oneself by letting go. A touch that resonates with the modern world, don't you think?"
Daniella said, "By the way, I can't find a brush stroke on this painting. Bronzino's virtuosity transcended the media."
When her talk finished, the group dissipated, and Nick approached Daniella. He introduced himself. "Excellent talk. I apologize for listening without paying for your time."
Daniella smiled. "Oh, that's no problem."
Nick asked, "Do you give tours all day?"
"My next appointment isn't until three."
"May I buy you lunch? Social Eating House isn't far. I know the owner."
Daniella lifted her chin. "You’re not shy, are you?"
"Some opportunities are once in a lifetime."
"Really?" She tilted her head.
"It’s just lunch. You must eat. Per favore."
Daniella laughed. "Va bene."
Nick arranged for a quiet table. The décor was chrome and wood. He ordered two Proseccos.
Daniella said, "I’ve just arrived from Florence. The National Gallery and the Uffizi exchange personnel. How long I’ll stay is open-ended."
The waiter served them. Nick had carpaccio, Daniella a green salad.
Nick said, "You don’t seem excited to be in London?"
"Well, it’s a change."
Nick said, "Let me guess. An unhappy love affair?"
Daniella sat back. "He loved the mirror more than me."
"Sounds like an idiot."
Daniella toyed with her greens.
Nick said, "Allow me to show you London."
She observed the ring on his hand. "You’re married."
"Like a suit of concrete."
"Why not divorce?"
"We have kids. They’re at a delicate age."
"Does your wife know that you see other women?"
"We don’t discuss it. She has someone and doesn’t think I know."
"And I thought that Italians loved intrigue."
Nick laughed. "We’ll go to a show. Have you seen Beautiful?"
"I've heard that it's fantastic."
Nick said, "We'll have dinner afterwards."
"What will you tell your wife?"
"You’re a client, and I’ll be quite late."
"You’re very sure of yourself."
"In some things."
Daniella put down her fork. "Okay, but just the musical and dinner."
When they left the theater, Nick invited Daniella for a drink at the Haymarket Hotel. He'd reserved a room and suggested that they go up. She nodded. After they made love, Daniella turned her face. Nick sensed that tears welled.
He put his lips to her ear. "It’s a sin to be lonely in a city of eight million people."
Daniella sighed. "Some sins are mortal."
"Don’t feel guilty. When I told my wife that I’d be late, the libido rose in her voice. She’s in bed with her boyfriend."
"Do you sleep with other women for lust or revenge?"
"It’s not that way with you."
"Sure." Daniella rose and wrapped herself in the hotel's kimono robe.
Nick leaned on an elbow. "Give me a chance, and I’ll prove it."
Museums, Mayfair art galleries, and trendy restaurants evolved to Windsor woods amid crunching leaves in loam-scented air, and Thames boat excursions to Greenwich. Daniella’s perfume was white chocolate and mandarin orange. The nape of her neck was warm to Nick’s lips.
Daniella brought her sketchpad and recorded architecture, landscapes, or weather-creased faces of fishermen. On a good-light afternoon, Nick sat on a bench while Daniella made rhythmic strokes on her pad. She turned the portrait toward him.
Nick’s eyebrows rose. "He’s handsome, but it doesn’t look like me. If it’s a rival, I’m jealous."
Daniella smiled. "It’s Raphael. He had a long affair with a woman he wouldn’t marry. One night, after they made love, he fell ill and soon died."
"Perhaps she told him that they were through."
Nick snuggled close. "Aren’t we having fun?"
Daniella’s eyes wandered.
The first snow chilled the sidewalks. Daniella and Nick sat at a wooden table in a small trattoria in SoHo.
Daniella sipped a glass of Brunello. "The Uffizi would like me to return to Florence."
Nick put his wine down. "Don’t go."
"When will there be an 'us'?"
"If I walk out now, Elizabeth will turn the kids against me."
"I’ll stay in London for something permanent."
Nick took Daniella’s hand. "Please, give us more time."
"I’m stuck at the office." Nick sat on a quiet Hyde Park bench with his mobile pressed to his ear.
Elizabeth said, "Don’t forget the Hope for Children event at the Royal Horseguards Hotel. Pick up the dry cleaning on your way home. It’s the dress I’m wearing tonight."
Nick looked at Daniella’s words on the mauve writing paper. He said to his wife, "I need to go."
Funny, he thought, Daniella wasn’t there, yet he still lied to Elizabeth.
He read the words again. "Our relationship has become too painful. I’m returning to Italy. Please don’t try and find me."
The paper had the scent of rosewood.
Nick left the bench and walked through Hyde Park.
On the path, he neared a policeman with a boyish face. The officer peered at him. "Excuse me, sir, are you all right?"
Nick stopped. "Yes. Why?"
"You have tears in your eyes."
"It’s the wind."
Nick arrived at his Eaton Square flat after dark.
He stepped into the vaulted entranceway. Elizabeth, in a black slip, bra, and hose, sat in a straight-back chair in the living room.
She stood, hands on hips. "Where’s my dress?"
His shoulders sagged.
"You always disappoint." She strode toward the bedroom.