Chapter Four: A Strange Encounter
"You know, I hate to admit it, but this was a good idea."
Sirena stretched out on her stomach, resting her chin in her hands as she watched her small son carefully examining a sand-covered shell he had just unearthed. She was experienced enough now to know that as soon as the object went anywhere near Michael's lips then it was time for her to interfere, for she had been forced to take him to the Emergency Room in the past, but today it seemed Michael was far more fascinated by the patterns on the shell than he was eager to put it in his mouth.
"There's something relaxing about being by the sea, don't you think?"
"Yeah." Luca nodded his head. "That's something that we never had where we lived in Connecticut - it's probably my favourite part of living in California. I like being able to drive down here at a moment's notice to lap up the atmosphere."
"And scout out any good looking chicks?" Sirena teased. Luca pulled a face.
"Em, don't tease me." He scolded. "Besides, you know that I'm hopelessly in love with you, and the national press seem convinced I'm holding a torch for Topaz. Where would I have time for anyone else?"
"Mmm, the Topaz story is annoying." Sirena pursed her lips. "I don't dislike the girl, Luca - she's pretty much been decent to me since I got to know her, but she's damn indiscreet about who she spends the night with. No offence, but this whole mess has got to be embarrassing."
"Well, I don't know who did father Topaz's highly publicised baby, but I do know for sure it wasn't me." Luca said with a shrug. "She's a nice girl, but once was a mistake. Twice would be unforgivable, considering we're not attracted to each other in the slightest."
"I sometimes wonder if she knows herself." Sirena admitted. "Nancy's said nothing to me about it at all, not that it's my business, and I would have thought that if she knew who the father was she'd have nailed these rumours about it being you already?"
"If you're suggesting it was me, Em..."
"Don't be dense, of course I'm not." Sirena snorted. "Even if the press are too stupid to see it, I know there's nothing between you and Topaz. But the point I'm making is that when I had Michael, everyone knew Blade was the father. There was no speculation about that. And okay, maybe I was a slut to have taken my publicity quest to those lengths, but I could still sit down and say, 'Yes, Carl Arca fathered my baby." You know?"
"The press are a strange lot." Luca said sagely. "I wonder if they even care. Maybe Topaz has told them, but perhaps it's a better story to think I did it, considering we're both in the public eye and we have that 'history' from last Christmas. Blade was a big name star, from all I know, and your relationship with him was hot gossip at the time. Perhaps that's the difference."
"Yeah, perhaps you're right." Sirena conceded. "I hope she knows what she's up to, though. Being a single Mom isn't easy, and a single Mom in the public eye - that's harder still."
"Well, you do a great job." Luca grinned at her. "Doesn't she, Mike?"
Michael stared at Luca at the sound of his name, then he held out his shell.
"Shell." He said importantly. "Look!"
"That is an unusual one, kid." Luca agreed amiably. "Hey, how about we go down to the rock pools and see if we can find some crabs, huh?"
"Crabs!" Michael's big brown eyes lit up with excitement. "Yay!"
"Em, do you trust me to take him?" Luca cast Sirena a questioning look. Sirena grinned.
"I trust you." She agreed. "I'll stop here and look after the bags and stuff." She stifled a yawn. "In truth I might wind up falling asleep, anyhow. I'm beat and the sand is so comfortable."
Luca laughed, hoisting Michael up onto his shoulders.
"Well, then we'll give you a little peace." He told her. "Be back before you know it!"
Sirena watched them head down towards the cluster of rocks at the water's edge, a slight smile on her face. Luca had a natural way with Michael, and secretly she was glad that her son had a positive male role model to look up to.
"After all, it's not like my Dad is any use," she reasoned. "And Mike's own Dad is better off being dead, for both our sakes."
She settled herself more comfortably on her towel, closing her eyes.
"Maybe I'll just take a little nap, whilst I've a moment to myself." She murmured. "Mike is fine with Luca, after all."
Along the beach, Luca and the infant had reached their destination, and Luca had carefully lifted the small boy down from his shoulders, perching him on a dry rock. Michael was fascinated by the tiny pools, with their strange looking creatures and thick green weed, and he fixed his big brown eyes on the rippling water, watching with interest as a crab took shelter beneath a stone.
He pointed at a sea anemone.
"Those are sea anemone, Mike." Luca settled himself down on the rock beside his precious charge. "They sit there, looking like funny underwater trees, but when their food comes along...boom!" He grabbed the baby, tickling him and making him giggle. "Look, see?"
"What an adorable baby."
An unfamiliar voice interrupted them, and Luca glanced up, meeting the gaze of a stranger. She was of average build, and Luca estimated her to be in her late thirties or early forties. He cast her a smile.
"He's not mine." He said. "I'm babysitting for a friend of mine."
"Really?" The lady looked surprised. "He really is a sweetie, though. Just like..." She paused, shaking her head and offering him another dazzling smile. "What's his name?"
"Michael." Now Luca was a little suspicious, for something in the lady's manner made him uncomfortable. "But I'd better be getting him back to his mother. It was nice to talk to you."
With that he scooped up the small boy, who protested loudly at being taken away from his new fascination, heading back up the beach. Luca took no notice of the baby's squalls, for there had been something unusual about the encounter, though he could not place exactly what it was.
"I'm probably being crazy." He mused. "But I'd feel better if Mike and I were back with Emily. He's a lot of responsibility, after all."
Along the beach, the woman watched him go. Her eyes narrowed as she watched them rejoin the drowsy Sirena, and her lips set in a determined smile.
"I won't lose you again." She murmured. "Don't cry, my precious. I'm coming."
* * * * * * * * * *
"So this is the high-tech world of the Jewel chatroom, huh?"
Sadie made herself more comfortable in her seat, casting Topaz a grin. "Am I going to get grilled again? To be honest with you, I feel a lot more comfortable doing this when there's a screen between me and the person asking the question. That way they can't see my expression as I answer!"
"I wish I didn't have to webchat with the masses right now." Topaz sighed, glancing up at the clock. Misfit Music had arranged for Topaz and Sadie to spend an hour or two online in one of Misfit Music's busy computer hubs, chatting to fans about the recent changes for California's favourite rock group. For Sadie it was a chance to endear herself to the public, but for Topaz, it was becoming something of an ordeal. She still remembered some of the harsh emails and comments she had received since news of her pregnancy had filtered out, and every time she had entered an online chatroom to talk to fans since, someone had asked her if Luca Ranieri was the baby's father. Luca, she readily acknowledged, was a personable soul, but Topaz was not attracted to him, and she was as sick as he was of having his name dragged into the equation.
"Aww, Topaz, don't be like that!" Sadie's blue eyes filled with concern. "It isn't like this is your first time - why the long face?"
"Oh, just sick of being harassed over the same few things, that's all." Topaz rolled her eyes. "I'm okay, Sadie, it's just a drag, that's all."
"Well, you've never let Liability Garnet loose in the chat before." Sadie offered a wry smile. "So maybe today will be different, huh?"
"Yeah, perhaps." Topaz looked thoughtful. "Cynthia is at the Foundation helping Kimber with the girls, Nancy is writing and Copper and Syl are helping to pick out themes for this show we're playing. You know, my last big Jewel sendoff? To be honest, I wish I was with any of them right now."
"Thanks." Sadie pursed her lips. Topaz laughed.
"Nothing against your company." She assured her companion. "I guess it's a case of me associating the internet with Cameron, that's all. I've chatted with him a few times since he left America and went back to school in England, but every time I sign off after chatting to him I feel sad. No, correction. I feel lousy. I know I'm deceiving him and I don't know how to break the cycle. It gives me a headache, that's all, and I wish I knew what to do."
"Well, you could tell him the truth, see what he said." Sadie suggested.
"You know why I can't." Topaz shook her head.
"Yes, but I still think that if he means that much to you, there must be a way to resolve this." Sadie responded.
"Maybe, but if there is, I haven't found it yet." Topaz rolled her eyes. "Okay, come on. It's eleven o'clock, so we'd better get down to business before someone comes and gives us the third degree for being late. Let's just hope we get sensible fans in this morning, huh?"
"What do we do if they try to privately message us?" Sadie asked, as she hit the "connect" button.
"We often chat with fans that way, but if they get too intrusive or difficult, then hit the block button." Topaz told her. "Sometimes when it's quieter, and there are only a few fans around, they will ask you personal advice questions, I will warn you now. You should be fine with that, though, with your counselling experience."
"I hope so. It's a lot of responsibility." Sadie swallowed hard. "Well, here we are. Garnet is logged in. What's with the asterisks around my name?"
"That's how Aaron set up the chatroom." Topaz explained, hitting connect herself. "It identifies us as the real deal, if you like. Tons of people sign in this room trying to con the world that they are such and such from Jewel, you see. This way, folk know when any real Jewels come to play."
"Oh, I see. Neat." Sadie grinned. "Aaron is a really clever guy, isn't he?"
"Yes, he is." Topaz agreed. "He and Copper are the best couple - she's going to be a perfect bride, when it's their time." She sighed. "And now I'm getting moony and wistful again, so on with the webchat."
"Well, here goes nothing." Sadie declared, typing a greeting message and hitting the enter key. "Wow, word must have spread - it's kinda busy in here."
"I've seen it busier." Topaz said. "Some of the names are hardcore fans - they're here a lot and we know them all by first name. See," she indicated the screen. "This girl - she's a sixteen year old honour roll student from Maine. And this guy here, he's from Denmark, and he has the biggest crush on Copper, even to the point where he sent her a love poem for Valentine's. Poor guy needed some cheering up when the news of her engagement broke, but he's happy as anything for her now."
"That's neat." Sadie decided. "Gives it a personal touch, you know? Finding out a little bit more about them as they ask questions about you."
As she spoke, a small white box flashed up on the screen.
"Ooh, my first private message!"
"Someone is like a kid with a new toy!" Topaz teased, rolling her eyes as she responded to the usual questions about her baby's father. Sadie giggled.
"Yep." She agreed. "Simple stuff, though. They want to know how old I am and what England is like, that's all. Hardly brain-melting stuff."
"Hi Garnet!" A second box popped up on the screen. "My name is Melissa and I'm from Derby. I think it's so cool that Jewel's new member is English like me!"
"Hi Melissa." Sadie typed back. She smiled, then, "I'm still reeling from the shock and the honour of it all, to be honest. They've been so sweet to me and I can't wait to start putting music onto disk with them properly."
"There was an article in a magazine here about you joining the group, but I heard that you're going to be playing a show in America soon." Melissa typed back. "When are Jewel going to come to England, though? You're English, can't you persuade the others to come across the sea? We love you here too, you know, and we wanna see you!"
"I believe there's talk about a tour in January." Sadie responded. She frowned. The last thing she wanted was to go back to England so soon after leaving. Neal's face still imprinted itself in her dreams, and she knew that she would not escape a second encounter with him unscathed.
"January is forever away!" Melissa protested, and despite herself, Sadie found her spirits lifting. Topaz had been right, she mused, as she typed a responding message. Jewel were well loved and the fans did adore talking to them one on one.
An exclamation from Topaz made her glance up, startled, and her surprise soon became concern as she registered her friend's expression.
"What's up?" She asked. "Did someone say something they shouldn't?"
"No, worse than that." Topaz shook her head, her eyes glued to the screen. "I'm guessing you were busy with your private messages, so you probably didn't notice, but I was talking to this group of fans in the main chat. They were asking me stuff about the baby's scan and everything, and then Cameron signed in!"
"Cameron comes into Jewel chat?" Sadie's eyes almost popped out of her head. "I didn't see him come in!"
"He signs in under a different name in this room, but he's come in before, just for fun." Topaz nodded. "He signs in here under RorasBloke, just as a joke, you know? Fans are always signing in with names like that and noone ever susses out that he really does know me. He comes here because I'm working so much, sometimes we don't see each other otherwise."
"So what did you do?" Sadie demanded. Topaz bit her lip.
"I didn't even think about it." She confessed. "I hit block and kicked him from the chatroom, before he could see what anyone else was saying."
"You kicked him out?" Sadie's eyes could not get any bigger. Topaz nodded.
"What else could I do?" She asked, her voice wavering. "Oh, I can't do this now...Sadie, can you cope with the room for five or ten minutes while I get my composure straight? Tell them I got called away or something and will be back soon. Please? I need some air."
Before Sadie could answer the singer was gone, the door swinging shut behind her, and, muttering a curse under her breath, Sadie obediently repeated the message to the waiting fans.
Topaz hurried down the stairs and out of the company's rear door, sitting down on the steps and burying her head in her hands. She was shaking, she realised, and bitterly she cursed the misfortune that had dogged her relationship with Cameron almost since the day they had first met.
"If there was ever anything to tell me that this wasn't going to work, then this whole mess would be it." She muttered. "I have to face facts here. Cameron deserves better than to be messed around by some airheaded floozie across the sea who can't make up her mind what she wants. I know I love him, but if it was meant for us to be together, well, we wouldn't be living so far apart, and we wouldn't have had so many obstacles thrown in our way! Copper and Aaron have had little spats and problems, but they've ironed them through together...like a real couple should. I've clung onto Cameron because he was the first guy to ever treat me like I really mattered. Now I have to do him the same courtesy. I have to break it off with him, once and for all. No more games, Aurora Stapleton. You made a decision and you're going to stick to it. You know what the right thing is - you've just chickened out of doing it. Well, no more! Tonight you break up with him...once and for all!"