Cynthia, the heroine of Opération Séduction, is based on a real woman I know who has struggled with her weight. This individual has no idea that she’s in my book. She doesn’t even know I write novels. Which raises an interesting question. Have you ever considered that you may be starring in someone else’s book? You never know. As for the real-life “Cynthia,” I hope she finds her Peter Noel.
Cynthia sat on a square bench in the Frommer Gallery, the second half of her peanut butter and pickle sandwich lying forgotten in its wax-paper bag beside her. Whenever she could, she spent her lunch hour here. Sometimes she listened to the chatter of the patrons, gauging their reaction to the exhibits and keeping mental notes on what might improve their cultural experience and their enjoyment of the museum. Other times, like today, she brought her sketchbook and worked on drawings of the objects.
The natural light, pouring down in abundance from the skylights, made the space ideal for artists, though they mostly preferred to cluster in the parts of the museum devoted to paintings. The Frommer was unique among the galleries in that museumgoers could carry their trays from the neighboring museum café to the scattered tables and benches here. They weren’t supposed to bring in outside food, although many did, and museum security was tolerant on this point. She herself preferred a homemade lunch to the café’s expensive, oversalted fare.
The Frommer contained objects that fell under her own curatorial aegis, Roman sculptures dating from the Republic through the Christian centuries of late antiquity. There were stern-looking, warts-and-all busts of Republican men and women, tombstones of freedmen and priestesses, a life-size statue of Hadrian, and a couple of Christian sarcophagi.
At the moment, she was completing a detailed sketch of Hadrian’s cuirass, which was sculpted with fake Polycleitan musculature. No doubt Hadrian would have liked to possess a torso like that. Perhaps his beloved, the handsome youth Antinous, actually had.
“Impressive,” said a male voice. “The likeness is excellent, yet your style is quite distinctive.” She started slightly and turned her head. A dark-haired man was sitting on the bench at right angles to where she perched by the corner, and in that position he had a good view of her sketchbook. It wasn’t unusual for curious people to approach her and take a peek at her work, but she was surprised that the observer this time was such a good-looking man. Men did not often speak to her out of the blue, and especially not men like this. She smiled. “Thanks,” she said, trying to sound casual, but she could already feel a flush of pleasure rising to her cheeks from the compliment, and the way he continued to hold her gaze. She wondered nervously how long he’d been sitting there.
“I’ve been watching you for fifteen minutes,” he said, as if reading her mind. “You were completely absorbed in your work.” The corners of his mouth turned up slightly, as though he found this entertaining.
“Yes, I do forget everything else,” she answered, and then, “I suppose that’s why I like it. Sketching, I mean.” Odd. She’d never realized this before, but it was true. Her flush deepened as she thought of him watching her, and she tried, unsuccessfully, to size him up. He was dressed in a dark blue suit with a butter-yellow shirt and tie, and there was a pristine white daisy in his lapel. Very unusual. He wasn’t the pretty-boy type, but instead virile and charismatic. His eyes were dark, and still focused on her intently, as though he was waiting for something. Could this man be coming on to her? It was unthinkable. He must be a salesman of some type. She closed her sketchbook, picked up the remains of her sandwich, and gave him a brisk smile as she stood up to go. He rose too, and her breath caught as she saw how tall and well-built he was.
“Peanut butter. And pickles. I used to eat those all the time,” he said, giving her an almost boyish smile that stabbed right to her heart. “Do you use bread and butter pickles, or dill? No, I can smell them. Bread and butter, but there’s something different.”
“Yes,” said Cynthia. Suddenly the conversation seemed strangely intimate. “They’re Philly Bill’s sweet and spicy.”
“Ah,” he said. “Sweet and spicy.” And kept looking into her eyes.
“Well, goodbye then,” she told him, and walked away. When she got to the service door, she couldn’t help glancing back over her shoulder. He was standing there looking relaxed, hands in his pockets, still watching her. When he saw her look back, he smiled again.
She turned quickly away and hurried to her office upstairs. It had a window that looked out over the gallery, but she didn’t dare to show herself. “Andy!” she called. Andy had the office next to hers, really more of a large cubicle in the high-ceilinged, open area above the Frommer. “Come here and look out the window for me.”
“Why?” asked her friend. “Are you hiding from someone? Cyn! Your face is bright red! Are you okay?”
“Yes. I met a man in the Frommer. In a blue suit. Just tell me if he’s still there.”
Andy put her face to the window and looked down. “In blue? Yes, there’s a tall man looking at Hadrian. His back is to me. Wait, he’s turning around. Oh! The man with the daisy in his lapel? Cynthia, that’s Peter Noel. Do you mean to say you’ve never met him before?”
“Peter Noel? What on earth is he doing here?”
“Chatting you up, apparently,” said Andy, grinning.
“He started a conversation,” said Cynthia, feeling confused. “I thought he was a salesman or something. It was almost as though he was coming on to me.”
“Well, why not? He’s a notorious ladies’ man. And you’re most definitely a lady,” chuckled Andy. Cynthia shook her head, looking down at her peanut butter sandwich. She knew Peter by reputation. Presumably they had crossed paths at social events, though she thought she would have remembered that face, if she’d ever before encountered it in person. Peter Noel, said the gossips, had slept with just about every beautiful or rich single woman in Philadelphia. And quite a few who were not single. He owned an exclusive perfume shop in downtown Philly. He was much more attractive than she. It didn’t make sense that he’d be drawn to her. Maybe she would come up to his standards —barely— if she lost another fifteen pounds, but as things stood… No. He hadn’t been flirting with her. He must simply be the gregarious, outgoing type who likes to start conversations. Yes, she remembered something along those lines…
“I’ve heard that he’s known for his conversational abilities,” she said haltingly to Andy.
“That’s one way of putting it,” said Andy, and cracked up. Then she said, “Hey, you should ask him to join the advisory board for the perfume show. He’d be great!”
“I don’t know…” said Cynthia, who didn’t like this idea one bit. “He’s not a scholar, after all, and I’ve already got the board set up. They’ve even met by videoconference a couple of times.”
Andy shook a finger at her. “Aren’t you the one who’s always saying that we need to improve our community outreach? He’s a natural for this, and he could probably bring in a lot of donors. You’d be nuts not to ask him.”
Cynthia realized that Andy was right. Now she’d have to contact Peter Noel, and it would appear, inevitably, as though she was the one pursuing him. How mortifying. She spent the rest of the afternoon wondering if she looked fatter than usual in her yellow skirt and white cotton blouse, and wishing she’d worn something more sophisticated to work that day.
Copyright 2014 by Linnet Moss
Notes: The museum photo is of the sculpture gallery at the Metropolitan Museum, which inspired the Frommer gallery. Too bad I couldn’t find a photo of Peter Noel in his gorgeous suit, with his back to the camera!