“Thank you,” I mumble.
A waiter appears, and Michael orders two more brandies without even asking.
“All I can tell you is, people aren’t dumb,” he says as the waiter walks off. “No one’s going to hold it against you.”
“They already have,” I say, staring at the table. “My screen test for HLBC was called off.”
“Ah,” says Michael after a pause. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“No one wants to know me anymore. They’re all saying they’ve ‘decided to go another way’ or they ‘feel I don’t really suit the American market’ and… you know. Basically just, ‘Go away.’ ”
As I talk, I can feel my eyes filling up with hot tears. I so wanted to tell all this to Luke. I wanted to pour out all my woes — and for him to give me a huge, uncritical hug. Tell me it was their loss, not mine, like my parents would, or Suze would. But instead, he made me feel even worse about myself. He’s right — I’ve thrown everything away, haven’t I? I had opportunities people would kill for, and I wasted them.
Michael is nodding gravely.
“That happens,” he says. “I’m afraid these idiots are like a pack of sheep. One gets spooked, they all get spooked.”
“I just feel like I’ve wrecked everything,” I say, feeling my throat tightening. “I was going to get this amazing job, and Luke was going to be this huge success. It was all going to be perfect. And I’ve just chucked it all in the bin. It’s all my fault.”
To my horror, tears are spilling out of my eyes. I can’t stop them. And suddenly I give a huge sob. Oh, this is so embarrassing.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I’m just a complete disaster.”
I bury my hot face in my hands and hope that Michael Ellis will tactfully slip away and leave me alone. Instead, I feel a hand on mine, and a handkerchief being slipped into my fingers. I wipe my face gratefully with the cool cotton and eventually raise my head.
“Thanks,” I gulp. “Sorry about that.”
“That’s quite all right,” says Michael calmly. “I’d be the same.”
“Yeah, right,” I mutter.
“You should see me when I lose a contract. I bawl my eyes out. My secretary has to run out for Kleenex every half hour.” He sounds so completely deadpan, I can’t help giving a little smile. “Now, drink your brandy,” he says, “and let’s get a few things straight. Did you invite The Daily World to take pictures of you with a long-range lens?”
“Did you call them, offering an exclusive on your personal habits and suggesting a choice of offensive headlines?”
“No.” I can’t help giving a half-giggle.
“So.” He gives me a quizzical look. “This would be all your fault because…”
“I was naive. I should have realized. I should have… seen it coming. I was stupid.”
“You were unlucky.” He shrugs. “Maybe a little foolish. But you can’t heap all the blame on yourself.”
An electronic burble sounds from his pocket, and he reaches for his mobile.
“Excuse me a moment,” he says, and turns away. “Hi there.”
As he talks quietly into the phone I fold a paper coaster over and over. I want to ask him something — but I’m not sure I want to hear the answer.
“Sorry about that,” says Michael. As he puts his phone away he gives me a rueful smile and shakes his head. “Never do business with friends.”
“Really? Was that a friend?”
Michael nods. “An old friend of the family. I did a campaign for him on credit as a favor. He promised when business picked up, he’d write a check. Well, as far as I’m concerned, business has picked up.”
“And he hasn’t paid you?” I take a sip of my drink, grateful to have something to distract me.
“He’s bought himself a nice new Mercedes.”
“That’s terrible!” I exclaim.
“That’s what friends are for. To exploit the shit out of you. I should have learned that by now.” He rolls his eyes humorously, but I’m still frowning.
“Do you know his family?”
“Sure. We used to spend Thanksgiving together.”
“Right.” I think for a moment. “So — have you mentioned this to his wife?”
“His wife?” Michael looks surprised, and I raise my eyebrows knowingly at him.
“I bet you if you told his wife, you’d get the money back.”
Michael stares at me for a second — then bursts into laughter.