Laurence emptied his lungs with a heavy sigh as he looked around his barren room. The wooden floor and faded Victorian damask wallpaper had been his constant companions since he was a child. Now it was time to leave them behind. All his belongings had been packed into two ancient leather duffle bags and a ski bag. The two duffles had helped to grow Danes Enterprises from a small company to its present multi-billion dollar entity. They had come from Morocco with his father when he emigrated to this country and were battered from years of international business meetings. Though presently out of fashion and decrepit, in their hayday, they had helped his dad earn a place amongst Mr. Dane’s closest advisors. Laurence was blessed to have them and whatever residue of luck or wisdom they might rub off onto him. He swished his épée then slid it into the ski bag with the rest of his fencing equipment and zipped it up.
“Seriously?” His sister shouted from across the hall. “You’re just going to do her dirty like that?” Absent in the Spring’s dramatic music swelled and drifted into Laurence’s room with Ophélie’s ire.
“Ophélie!” Laurence’s voice bounced around his hollow room, startling him and hurting his ears.
“Ophélie! Turn it down!” He yelled again, cringing against the echo.
“What?” Her reply came back as a rumbling growl. “I’m busy. What do you want?”
“Fine,” Laurence whispered to himself as he closed the door.
The full-length mirror attached to it reflected a near stranger. He ran his hands through his shaggy hair. Last week would have been the right time for a trim. With his collar popped and his teal and grey plaid tie hanging about his neck undone, he felt like a millennial prep-schooler. Even his standard purple vest seemed foreign.
“You’re not the intern anymore. You’re in charge of the Paris project.” His slouching reflection stared back at him with wide eyes.
“Confidence, Laurence.” He lined up the thinner point of his tie with the sixth button down from his collar and began to wrap the wider end around it.
The door swung open. A quick block by Laurence’s elbow saved his face and took the full force of Ophélie’s entrance.
“Putain!” He growled through gritted teeth.
“What?” Ophélie demanded as she peaked into the room from behind the door.
“You hit me with the damn door!” He dropped his half-tied tie to rub his elbow.
Then he noticed her make-up. One of her eyes was gently encircled in smudges of pink and green shadow while the other was naked tan skin. He sputtered, trying to hold in a laugh that was a mix of ridicule and ulnar nerve pain.
“I wanted to say bye.” Tiny buzzes shot through his arm and fingers as he bent and unbent his elbow.
“Sorry.” Her previous gruffness had gone, and her voice was quiet and sincere. Almost timid. She took his tie in her hands. She adjusted the length and began to wrap one end around the other. “You’re leaving now? What about the party tonight?”
“Damn!” The Friday night party at the Dane’s mansion! Laurence had completely forgotten it was Friday. “My stuff’s already packed, and my flight leaves in a few hours.”
“A bag of swords and two bags of ties.” Her voice was flat as she clamped the knot with one nimble green-clawed hand and wove the other side through it.
“You know, you’re supposed to do both sides at the same time?” Smirking, he pointed at her multi-coloured eye.
Laurence braced himself for the scowl and retort.
She grinned and tucked the tie’s tale under his collar.
“I didn’t expect you to go so soon. I was hoping to wingman for you tonight.”
“It all happened pretty fast. Mr. Danes made all the arrangements before the meeting was even done.” He stood up straight and closed the door to see the mirror. Despite his messy hair, his posture and the woven square of his tie knot exuded confidence. “What’s this one?”
“It’s called the Truelove knot.”
“I like it.” His smile broadened as he tucked it behind his vest. “Mr. Danes was pretty enthusiastic about me.”
“Weird.” She sat down on Laurence’s bare mattress next to his bags. “Enthusiastic about you?”
“Hilarious.” Only about half-amused, he honoured her joke with a brief scowl before turning back to the stranger in the mirror. Stand up straight. Keep your hands out of your pockets. Get a haircut as soon as you land. Be confident.
He looked at his baby sister. She stared at him, her fingers danced absently braiding her long black hair. She always had to be doing something with her hands. It was her nervous tick.
Be confident for her. He had earned this.
“Not really.” Laurence lied. “You’ll call me while I’m there, right?”
She arched an eyebrow at Laurence. “Yeah. I mean. Why wouldn’t I?”
“Because you’ve been distracted lately.”
Her hands stopped braiding and came to a rest in her lap. She seemed to know where he was going with this and was already on the defense.
Laurence tried to make his next words sound off-handed. “With Hamilton.”
She narrowed her eyes. The mismatched make-up should have looked humorous. It didn’t. A glittering green and pink rapier paired with a brown dagger threatened an attack.
Holding his own metaphorical sword at the ready, he spoke softly but frankly. “You’re doing yourself up for the party tonight.” He attacked. “To impress him.”
Ophélie’s smiling slow exhale was a blade-shattering parry.
He clenched his jaw and loosened his tie. “Don’t try too hard to make somebody like you. Eventually they’re going to fall out of love.”
“Just because that’s what happened with you and Frank doesn’t mean –”
Her blade pushed through his heart.
“Don’t say his name.” He whispered, defeated. She was right. Who was he to give this kind of advice? He was a loser when it came to relationships.
And maybe everything else, too.
No. Stop the spiral. Confidence. Inhale. He remembered his last fencing tournament. A parry, a side-step, and a masterful thrust to his opponent’s chest. A grey-haired woman placed a gold medal around his neck. Exhale. Inhale. He imagined his future self smiling, standing tall to his full height, before a large collection of French businessmen. Exhale. Inhale.
“You don’t know Hamilton,” Ophélie interrupted.
“I grew up with him.”
“You didn’t. You saw him at fencing tournaments and summer work functions with Dad. You have no idea who he is.”
“I know he’s not like other guys.”
“Because he’s deaf?” She popped her tongue and crossed her arms.
He tried to laugh at the absurd accusation, but the passion in her eyes and the lingering memory of his failed relationship chased away any hint of feigned humour. “Because he is the heir to a huge fortune. He doesn’t have the same freedom as working people. Not like I have. Certainly not like you have. In the end, he will have to marry somebody of his own station.”
Her fingers flickered rhythmically counting to ten. Ophélie took a breath and spoke with closed eyes. “Thanks for your wisdom, Dr. Paulard.”
In this moment of calm, Laurence saw that pink and green eyeshadow smudges were actually elaborate knotwork. She was a damn good artist, and he was going to miss her.
“Then I will pray that he treats you well.” His smile cloaked his watering eyes.
For a moment, neither of them said anything. Ophélie breathed rhythmically with her eyes closed. Laurence turned back to his reflection.
“I’ll be careful.” Her voice pierced the silence. “But you have to promise to actually come home.”
“You’re worried that I’ll meet the love of my life there or something? We’ve already established how terrible I am at relationships.” Laurence rolled his eyes and stifled a chuckle. “I’m not going to France to play.”
She had reason. While he was terrible with relationships, hooking up came naturally. He had once extended a trip abroad to spend a week with a woman in Nantes. Sarah? Solange? Soleil. Laurence wasn’t a student anymore. This time, he had to be focused. He needed this job, and he had a lot to prove. His father was ageing, and his memory wasn’t what it used to be. Ophélie was used to a certain standard of living. Who would take care of her after their dad had to quit working? Laurence could not let himself be distracted. Focus. Be focused.
“Laurence!” His dad’s warbling voice echoed from downstairs. “Your car is here.”
“Come down, Laurence!”
“I’m coming!” He shouted to his father. “I just need to finish up here really quick.”
Laurence made sure all his bags were zipped closed. When he was satisfied that they were secure, he tucked one duffle under his arm and held the other in his hand. He hoisted the bag of swords into his other hand.
“Stop.” Ophélie commanded. She took the duffle from under his arm. “You’re going to fall down the stairs and die.”
“No problem. You go down. I’ll meet you down there in a minute.” Ophélie turned away from him and disappeared into her own room with his bag.
At the bottom of the stairs, a chilly wind whistled through the opened stained glass door. His dad stood before it with a wide grin. Laurence put his bags down, careful not to damage his swords.
“Marc,” his father called out to the driver. “Please come collect the luggage.”
Marc emerged through the door and bowed to Laurence and his father. “Good afternoon, Laurence. Are you ready for your trip?”
“I hope so, Marc.” Laurence laughed. “I’m looking forward to finding out.”
Marc smiled politely as he took Laurence’s luggage and slipped back outside.
“Laurence.” His father’s voice almost broke. With a smile, he cleared his throat and continued. “You are ready.”
His dad had always had an uncanny ability to know exactly what to say. After single-handedly raising him and his sister for the past twenty years, he seemed to know his children better than they knew themselves. If his father said he was ready, he was ready. He grinned and nodded. He forced his smile to stand its ground, as he realised his Dad wouldn’t be around for another twenty.
Blessedly, his dad continued before Laurence could fall into that spiral. “I was about your age when I first started working for Mr. Danes. It was a smaller company then. I was new to the country, and I worked for scraps. But I worked hard. And I helped turn the company into what it is today. Do you know what happened on my first international trip after teaming up with Mr. Danes?”
“I’ve told this story before?”
His dad grunted and mumbled something Laurence couldn’t quite hear. He spoke up, “but as long as I live, I’ll never forget the advice my father gave to me before I took my first out-of-town job.”
“I’m listening.” Though Laurence had heard his grandfather’s advice a dozen times, he needed to hear it again before he left.
“Be nice.” He began. “And don’t judge people too quickly. Keep your friends close. Forget your enemies. Talk less. Listen more.”
As if to demonstrate, he stopped speaking and looked into Laurence’s eyes.
“Don’t start fights,” he continued. “Finish them.”
“That’s great advice, Dad. Thank you.” Be confident. Be focused. Be nice. Be strong.
“I’m not done.”
That was new. Usually his fatherly advice ended with finishing fights. Laurence leaned in, listening carefully for this new piece of wisdom.
“Vestis facit virum.”
As if getting physically closer might make his dad’s words make any more sense, he craned his neck even further toward his mentor. “What?”
“Vestis. Facit. Virum.”
Laurence stood up straight and shook his head. “My Latin is a little rusty. Actually, I don’t know a single word of Latin. What is that?”
“Clothes make the man.”
His dad turned away and with a gnarled hand picked a garment bag off the coat rack behind him and handed it to Laurence.
“An essential for Paris.”
Laurence unzipped the bag and revealed a charcoal grey suit.
He took the coat off the wooden hanger and slid it on. The plum-coloured silk lining caressed his skin and embraced him like a warm hug. It fit perfectly.
“This must have cost a fortune.”
“It did. But you’re going to Paris.”
“Yeah. As of about four hours ago. How did you get this tailored so fast?”
“I had this made some time ago.I knew you’d need it soon.” His father winked and eyed Laurence’s messy hair. “You’re a good businessman. You need to start investing in your appearance.”
Laurence drew in a breath, preparing his reply.
“And it’s time to retire that purple vest.” He raised his lip in a feigned snarl.
A car horn sounded from the road outside. “I guess Marc is getting impatient. I should get going.”
“Wait!” With Laurence’s bag clutched to her chest, Ophélie skipped down the stairs, her high heeled shoes tapped and rumbled against the ancient wooden steps.
She stopped on the last step. “Come get your bag.”
Laurence obliged and walked over to her. The stair gave her enough extra height that she was almost as tall as he was.
She leaned in and kissed Laurence once on each cheek. “I’ll miss you at the party tonight.”
“Yeah. I’ll get to one really soon though. Then you can paint my face up like yours.”
Ophélie raised an eyebrow. She didn’t laugh. “Let’s do it. You won’t be able to keep the bachelors off of you with a little bit of guyliner.”
“You’re always my best wingman. But please remember what I said.”
She tensed visibly. Laurence heard her teeth grinding. Apparently so had their dad. His memory was going, not his hearing.
He rested a knobby hand on his daughter’s shoulder and studied her mismatched eyes. “What did he say to you?”
“Just something about Hamilton.”
He nodded, patting Ophélie’s loose braid. “I heard the two of you have been seeing a lot of each other lately. Alone. You’ve got to be careful, Ophélie.”
He was unaffected by Ophélie’s glares.
She turned her eyes away from his unblinking stare.
“We are not like them.” Dad continued. “We have to maintain our outward show of class. We are already judged for so many things. We have to be careful.”
Nobody spoke for a moment.
“Why haven’t you told me what’s going on, Ophélie?” His voice rose in sincerity. It dripped with sweetness. “You used to tell your old dad everything.”
She looked at her feet and spoke softly. “I don’t know. He’s just been really nice to me lately. We like each other.”
His father nodded and clasped his hands casually behind his back. “I see. And you believe him when he says he loves you?”
She looked at Laurence. Her eyes again piercing into him with silent curses. “I don’t know what I believe, Dad.” Hands flicking, she signed something. Laurence didn’t understand all of it. He recognised the letters U and C though.
“Then you’re being childish. You do know what you believe. I’ve raised you better than this.”
“Dad, he’s never been rough or rude. He’s very kind, and he promised–”
“Promised?” Their dad questioned pragmatically. He never raised his voice. Not even in fits of extreme rage. Instead, he spoke so low that Laurence strained to hear him. “Never believe the promises of men.”
Where was that advice three months ago?
Laurence trembled. Even though his dad’s anger was not directed at him, he still felt it. Guilt settled into the pit of his stomach. He had just wanted his sister to be careful, but now she had to bear the full force of their dad’s quiet rage.
“Ophélie, my dear. You shouldn’t spend so much time with him. Place more value in yourself, and don’t believe silly promises.”
“Of course, father. Thank you.” Defeated, she sat down on the stairs and combed her hands through her hair, unbraiding it.
Their dad seemed to be satisfied with her response. He nodded curtly and turned his attention back to Laurence.
Marc honked again.
“I guess I should get going. Thank you, Dad.”
He bowed his head to his father. With a kiss on the top of his head, his dad gave him his blessing.
“Just be yourself. Go with God, my son.”
Laurence couldn’t hide the smile that spread across his face. It was finally happening. He was headed to Paris to take lead on a high stakes business venture. He put his new suit jacket back into its bag and draped it over his arm.
Confident. Focused. Nice. Strong.
A lump formed in his throat. He was ready to lead. He wasn’t ready to leave.
The wizened old man before him had cared for him, trained him, and prepared him for this exact moment. Laurence inhaled, filling his lungs with the scent of the old wooden house and his sister’s heavy perfume.
Confident. Focused. Nice. Strong.
He looked at his family. His father looked smug, grinning at him. Ophélie’s lips curled into a half smile.
New suit in one hand, duffel in the other, he walked through the door into the crisp Elsinore air.
“Let’s go to Paris.”