Megan's steps slowed as she crossed the lobby. She came to a halt six paces short of the Tanglin Club dining room, unable to go on and ashamed of it. Playing peacemaker at the end of a long day of fruitless meetings was beyond her. Edward Davidson and his soldier son would have to manage on their own.
She started to turn away...
She started guiltily at Edward's voice and turned back, knowing her smile was a fraction too bright and didn't reach her eyes.
He was standing in the dining room entrance, one hand partially extended towards her in a plea she could not ignore. "I thought you'd forgotten," he said. "I was about to call your room."
"I'm sorry," she lied, crossing the lobby to join him. "Dressing took a little longer than I'd planned."
"The wait was worth it." He offered his arm to escort her to their table. "Michael will be impressed. He has an acute eye for beauty."
Her instant image of a crudely lusting ranker was unfortunate, a poor start for her first meeting with a man she knew only from the photograph on his father's desk.
"We're at the same table as last night." Edward seemed compelled to fill any momentary silence. "I'll lead the way."
The dining room was crowded, but their table was on the far side of the small dance floor, allowing Megan to recognize the folder Edward's son was studying. It was the one she'd prepared when Edward heard Michael was in Singapore.
Thankfully, he wore no army uniform, only a formal batik over-shirt in a tasteful combination of black and brown, lightened with splashes of orange, and casual beige slacks. He glanced up as they crossed the dance floor, closed the folder and shifted it to the chair at his right before rising to his feet.
The unconscious erectness of bearing and the short military haircut above a tanned face said this was a field soldier. A breed Megan remembered well. She'd seen too many not to recognize an ultimate professional. A man as totally committed to the trade of death as her father. The batik pattern of his shirt didn't help, putting Megan in mind of a sleekly powerful leopard disturbed by an intruder.
An impression not lessened by his eyes; as his mouth smiled, they probed coldly, judgmentally.
Megan's pulse paused and she would have frozen had it not been for the gentle pressure of Edward's hand on her elbow guiding her towards the table.
"Good Evening, Ms. Ryan."
His voice was deeper than Edward's. Pleasant, modulated exactly to the sound level in the room, yet its complete lack of warmth chilled Megan.
She was definitely an unwelcome intrusion.
"Please call me Megan." She offered her hand.
His touch was brief and impersonal, leaving Megan with a fleeting impression of firm dry skin and controlled strength. Yet, the momentary contact had sent a queer electric tingle up her arm to jolt the rhythm of her heart. Her pulse raced and her breathing stilled.
He seemed unaffected, and remained standing while the uniformed Indian waiter escorted her to the chair directly opposite him at the small circular table, a position he'd dictated by the folder on the fourth chair. Edward was already standing at the chair to his left.
"We ordered drinks while we were waiting." Edward was still filling every moment of silence with words. "You enjoyed the gin sling at Raffles the other night, so I asked for another."
Megan would have preferred a chilled white wine, dry enough to clear her palate, but she'd been overly polite about the sickly alcoholic confection Singapore's famous hotel served to the tourists in the name of nostalgia, and now must pay the price. She sat quietly as her heartbeat returned to normal.
Edward's son was content to do the same and the silence extended itself, forcing Megan to speak. "I'm pleased to meet you at last," she said. "The photograph on your father's desk and the trophies on his office wall whetted my curiosity."
He didn't respond immediately, his intelligent blue-grey eyes studying her face while a crooked smile curved his lips as if her need to speak amused him. "I trust you're not disappointed."
"N-not at all." The nervous stammer was infuriating. Megan felt the warmth rise in her cheeks and said the first thing that came into her mind. "Have you completed the exercises in Malaysia?"
"They were not in Malaysia," he corrected, answering her question only by implication. There was the ghost of a derisive smile in his eyes, but Megan forced herself to remain calm. This meeting was important to Edward and her function was to see it went well.
"Michael may have to leave early." Edward attempted to defuse the tension by changing the subject. "He has to fly back to Thailand."
Michael's lips tightened in annoyance and she sensed him checking the possibility of someone overhearing the information. It was more a heightened alertness than any physical movement and gone so quickly, she could have imagined it, but she knew she hadn't. It seemed an odd over-reaction in a man so controlled.
"The meetings today were inconclusive," she prompted, abandoning subtlety.
Edward was grateful for her lead. "Their attitude has changed since our last visit."
"Perhaps they sense a change in yours." The slight slump of Michael's shoulders was a controlled display of resignation, as if Megan's involvement in a family matter didn't please him.
"You think so?" There was a pleased note in Edward's voice, as if his son had responded favorably.
"Our openness may be offensive culturally, but they take advantage of it and their commercial intelligence is good. They probably know at least as much about your position as you do." His detached tone left no doubt his father's commercial position was vulnerable.
Megan was curious. The son's opinions appeared to reflect her own. How did a man, whose disinterest in Davidson's was reputedly total, gain so accurate a picture of its position? The details in the folder were complex. Understanding it implied knowledge.
"We are a private company, wholly owned by the family," Edward argued. "How could they know?"
"What was the date of our last patent?" Michael shook his head, as if disappointed at his father's question.
This forced a nod of acknowledgement from Edward. "What do you suggest?" He asked.
"It's the twenty-first century. Stop living on the achievements of the twentieth."
"I need your help to do that," Edward pleaded.
"I know." Michael made an unwilling acknowledgement.
"Well?" Edward followed up his advantage.
The conversation reminded Megan of a fencing match, her sport of choice as a young arts student. The two men had entered a phrase, a subtle series of uninterrupted movements that made sense only to someone who understood what was happening. Edward had just made a thrust, firm enough to test Michael's guard, but not a real attack.
"I'll think about it." A parry flicked aside the thrust.
"When?" Another probing thrust by Edward failed to penetrate.
"I have a job to finish." This was a riposte, a parry flowing into a thrust, the latter not driven home with enough vigor to make it any more than an extended defense. Michael obviously trusted himself against any attack his father might mount.
"When will it be done?"
She could hear Edwards's admission of defeat.
"Soon." This was a dismissal--curt and complete--and Michael turned away in confirmation.
"There may not be that much time," Edward persisted, his tone an open plea now, bearing the echo of something more serious.
Michael's response was curt. "There will have to be." It was obvious he was still displeased with Megan's involvement in a family discussion.
Anger lingered in his eyes when he turned to her to switch subjects. "Is this your first visit to Singapore?" He was taking refuge in politeness to her, although she doubted he was interested.
She answered to protect Edward from embarrassment. "It's the first I remember, although I was born here."
The paradox in her words raised an eyebrow and Megan found herself explaining uncomfortably. "My father was in the British Army. They posted him back to England before my second birthday and I've not been back until now. This is my first overseas trip since my mother and I returned to Australia in 1985."
His eyes narrowed, as interest replaced anger ... and she sensed the birth of something else. "You should enjoy Singapore. It's foreign enough to be different, but still very safe. Everyone speaks English."
Megan heard the condescension of a professional soldier and seasoned traveler, but chose to ignore it.
"I find this fascinating enough," she said, gesturing at the darkly paneled dining room. "It reminds me of the exclusive gentlemen's clubs you see in the movies about nineteenth century England."
He looked around, as if seeing the dining room for the first time. "You're probably right," he agreed. "Unfortunately, the Tanglin Club is like the rest, under enormous financial pressure. Soon it will go the way of Bugis Street and will only come back as an antiseptic tourist attraction."
"Boogie Street?" she copied his pronunciation, surprised he'd consider her point of view.
"It was a street of stalls and open-air restaurants famous, among other things, for its transvestites. It came alive after midnight and kept going until the early hours. Rather low-life, perfect for riff-raff like soldiers."
She flushed angrily, biting her lip to hold back a sharp retort, certain he was teasing her, using her dislike of soldiers to make her seem ridiculous. He was a typical soldier after all, a little more astute than most, but a soldier nonetheless. Yet, there was a definite twinkle in those blue-grey eyes and the corners of his mouth curved upwards into a smile as if her face had betrayed her chagrin.
Megan didn't acknowledge the smile, meeting his gaze without flinching, determined to hold her own as the silence extended.
Yet, were it not for his profession, he would be a handsome younger copy of his father. The light brown hair, fair enough to be almost blond, was cut short rather than barbered into waves like his father's, but the shade was probably an exact match to what the father's had been as a young man. Both had strong, regular features dominated by a long straight nose. Physically, they were undoubtedly father and son. There the similarity ended.
Edward was a gentle man, totally unsuited to his role as the head of the family company, Davidson's Machine & Tool. In an earlier incarnation, he would have been as Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, content with the solitude of his library, emerging only to make wisely wry comments on life.
The son, on the other hand, had the disciplined focus of his profession. Her first impression of a superb predatory cat had been no error. Even his amusement had a feline edge, completely self-sufficient, endlessly patient. Their impasse didn't bother him.
Megan took a deep breath, a concession one of them must break, and the movement made Michael's attention stray to the glimpse of the valley between her breasts revealed by the low cut neckline of her summer blouse. She fought down the sudden urge to giggle. This perfectly controlled individual might be human after all. She looked down at the table to hide her knowledge. She was not here to create tension, nor take risks; quite the opposite, but it seemed that her choice of clothes was having an effect.
"Blessed are the Peacemakers."
Megan looked up at Michael's words, ready to take offense, but his smile was mischievous, engaging. This was no fool. He was applauding her loyalty to his father.
A rush of color stained Megan's cheeks and she was grateful for the arrival of the Indian waiter with their drinks. He stood suggestively at Edward's shoulder, a tacit acknowledgement of his seniority. "Are you ready to order, sir?"
Edward nodded and the waiter produced menus. He stood at Edward's side, waiting attentively while they made their choices.
Grateful for the diversion, Megan studied the ornate menu, asking questions of the waiter to prolong her escape. Edward waited for her and then ordered distractedly, his eyes straying to the notes his son had made on the cover of the folder. Michael didn't look at the menu, just waited until they'd ordered and listed a series of local dishes to match their courses.
Megan watched the waiter depart before turning to Michael. "Perhaps I should have followed your example," she said. "It seems a little foolish to travel overseas and not eat local food."
"You were wiser than you know. In the tourist traps, they make their local dishes mild for the overseas visitors and the so-called Malaysian restaurants in Australia are little better. This is a private club and they serve them unadulterated. It's definitely an acquired taste." He grinned abruptly, his face becoming younger. "The first time I ordered mee rebus, which I translated as boiled noodles and thought safe, it nearly took the lining from my mouth."
"Do you enjoy it now?" she asked, appreciating his effort to be pleasant. She must encourage it, deciding, without any deliberate motive, to continue playing the innocent abroad and not mention that her mother had often taken her to an authentic Malaysian restaurant in Canberra when she was younger.
"I think it's closer to toleration." His eyes narrowed, as if to hide his amusement, and Megan felt like a puppet, dancing to his prompts.
"Then, why eat it?" She was puzzled.
"It cuts down the difference in body odor when we go bush. I can get closer before they smell me. We eat too much meat and smell pretty sour to them."
Her father must have had the same professionalism, everything subordinated to duty. Ordinary soldiers were bad enough, but the Special Forces, such as the SAS and the Parachute Regiment, drew such men. They should never marry. Duty was always their first love. Her father had put his wife and daughter second, right to the end, when he'd died commanding a company at Goose Green during the 2nd Parachute Brigade's Falklands' campaign.
Her mother's decision to return to her family in Australia had broken their direct connection to the British Army. However, her maternal grandfather, a retired General, had forged a replacement connection to the Australian Army through Megan's uncles. Both held senior commands in the Logistics and Training Commands based in Canberra. They'd welcomed Megan and her mother into their social circle until her mother had remarried outside the service six and a half years ago. The marriage meant a move to Melbourne and finally distanced Megan from the Army's unstated obligations to a fallen hero just as the constant exposure to professional soldiers was making Megan hate them. Their intrusive presence threatened to destroy precious memories of her father as a loving family man. In Canberra, she'd been unable to escape them. In Melbourne, she'd avoided them completely.
It made her present reaction more puzzling. She shouldn't care what this soldier thought. Yet, her thoughts were skittering in a dozen different directions and her lower lip was tender from her unconsciously gnawing. She wet it with the tip of her tongue and drew a deep breath to flush out the outrageous suggestions coming from a hidden corner of her mind with a rush of oxygen.
Only his eyes betrayed he'd noticed.
They were expressive, their color seeming to change with his mood. Her first impression had accentuated the grey into something like an iceberg might appear against a winter sky. Now the blue predominated and, if there was still a touch of frost, it was now that same iceberg aping the blue of the ocean in brilliant sunshine.
The waiter distracted her before she could pursue the analogy, serving the first of their courses and hovering close to Michael until he was sure the local dish met his approval.
Michael tasted his dish and nodded his approval before turning to Megan. "This is sambal udang, curried prawns," he explained. "Would you like a taste? They're a little fiery," he warned.
Mollified by the unexpected courtesy, Megan allowed him to deposit a small portion of prawn and sauce on her side plate with his chopsticks and she sampled it gingerly. Even pre-warned, the combination of curry and chili in the sauce took her by surprise and it took fully half her gin sling to put out the fire. He was right, the curried prawn dish she'd eaten in a Malaysian restaurant at home was nothing to this. Megan toyed with the idea that Michael was indulging in a little game of one-upmanship, proving his manhood by the fiery food rather than just being professional. He was a soldier after all, and they did that sort of thing naturally, a distant cousin to saber rattling. She examined the situation and decided he was trying to be pleasant. She'd give him the benefit of the doubt--for now...
Michael followed the pattern through the rest of the meal, explaining his dishes as they arrived and allowing Megan small tastes. He appeared genuinely interested in her opinions, and she forgot his background in her amazement at his ability to ingest the fiery food without bursting into flame. They emptied the bottle of chilled white wine he'd ordered and replaced it with a second. Megan had no idea how he guessed her preference, although she knew he was assessing everything she said and did, masking it with a fašade of polite interest.
Megan found her own interest blossoming. She began to respond to him on a physical level intense enough that she had to fight the urge to touch him. Her glance at the deserted bandstand and neglected dance floor deepened his smile, bringing a mischievous twinkle to his eyes.
"It is only used for special occasions." He indicated the dance floor with his eyes. "Another time, perhaps?"
Megan nodded, not quite trusting her voice ... or her smile.
Edward Davidson seemed content to enjoy this rare peaceful interlude in his son's company. He added little to the conversation, eating his dinner with scant attention, nodding appreciatively at the wine from northern California, something Megan would never have chosen, but found perfect for the occasion and food. His eyes strayed often to the notes Michael had made on the cover of the folder, now lying on the table beside his plate, and Megan saw him nodding in agreement.
Near the end of the meal, she left the table briefly to repair her make-up. When she returned, father and son had their heads together, Michael obviously explaining some finer points to his father and making further notes on the folder to amplify them. The moment he saw her, he closed the folder and they both rose to their feet, resuming their chairs only when the hovering waiter seated her.
The end came abruptly. Megan and Edward were enjoying coffee while Michael sipped green tea from a delicate china cup without handles. There was a small clatter when he put it down more sharply than he intended.
"Dad," he said. "Ian is here. It's time for me to leave."
Edward Davidson came out of his distraction with a small start. "I suppose you'll have to go?" A question ... and something else that made Michael look hard at his father.
Megan realized she'd missed something and looked around. A soldier in civilian clothes stood at the doorway from the lobby. A full blood Indigenous Australian, his attention focused on Michael, he waited, making no move to enter the dining room. No wiser, Megan turned back to watch father and son say goodbye in a long moment of silent communication. Each was somehow taking the other's measure before parting, imbuing the moment with more significance than she understood. They seemed strangely satisfied when they rose to their feet, leaving Megan seated.
"Goodbye, Michael," the father said, holding out his hand.
"Goodbye, Dad," the son responded, taking the hand and grasping it firmly before relinquishing it and turning to Megan.
"It's been a most interesting evening," he said, reaching out to take her hand and giving it a significant squeeze before releasing it. "I will look forward to our next meeting."
"So will I." Her fingers tingled pleasantly as she watched him walk away.
When she turned back to Edward, he stood straighter, his shoulders squared, a smile inviting the world to share his pride until Michael and his companion left the room. Then he sat down and his shoulders slumped as if suddenly bereft. A lost expression came into his eyes and tightened the muscles of Megan's throat.
"Thank you for your help." It was politeness ... and his need to say something ... anything ... Edward Davidson looked as if he never expected to see his son again.
Megan shook her head in negation. She'd done nothing beyond respond to the control of the son. If Michael Davidson had chosen otherwise, the meeting would have been a disaster. The dining room felt curiously empty and Megan had to look around to assure herself she was imagining things.
It was more crowded than when she'd entered.
When she looked back to Edward, he had the folder open, studying his son's notes and referring to its contents to check their relevance, hiding his pain in concentration and ignoring her for several minutes.
"I'm sorry, Megan," He looked up and apologized. "I've been rude. It's not often Michael shows an interest in the firm, nor contributes to its operation."
"May I see them?" She indicated the notes.
"Of course." He passed the folder to her. Michael's handwriting was small, neat, and clearly legible. The notes, under individual headings, covered three sides of the manila folder. Megan felt her face flame at the tone of those under the heading, "General Assumptions." They questioned her most basic premises, pointing out their shortcomings and suggesting simpler, more direct methods to achieve better analysis. She was now in the fourth year of part-time MBA studies sponsored by Davidson's and the criticism stung. Its only redeeming feature was the technical clarity of the critique, a strange talent in an army sergeant.
Another heading, "Meeting Strategies", caught her attention and she read on, putting aside Michael's criticisms for the moment. These were notes on how to avoid cultural clashes during business meetings in Asia. An obvious postscript referred specifically to her.
"Megan is too decorative for them to consider functional. Make use of that. Let her fulfill their expectations. She has a good brain. She will see things you miss. Set up some form of communication so that she can advise you when they waylay your attention. Listen to her!"
There was more, all of it written with the same staccato surety. Michael hadn't wasted a second of the time allowed by her absence during the meal.
Megan read all the notes, even going back to re-read sections she didn't immediately understand and checking them against the information within the folder itself. When she was finished, she closed the folder and sat back in her chair to find Edward regarding her quizzically.
"My son is a little blunt," he apologized. "I think the Army has reinforced a natural tendency."
Arrogant, condescending, sexist and smart enough to recognize it, Megan thought, but Edward's pride in his son made expressing these conclusions impossible.
"His analysis of the situation is very interesting and his comments on Asian attitudes make sense of some things puzzling me over the last few days. I believe we should give his tactics a try," she said. "He's a very good businessman for a soldier."
"Michael is good at everything he does." Edward smiled. "He has an honors degree in Engineering from Melbourne University and an MBA from Western Australia, but he is a soldier by choice. I wanted him to take over my role, but he refused. Even his mother couldn't change his mind and they're very close. I often feel they read each other's minds."
"How does she like him being away in the Army?"
"She misses him a great deal, especially now our daughters have married and moved out. Celia is a better parent than I am. Our children confide in her and she keeps their secrets."
There was something almost wistful in Edward's tone, a touch of hopelessness to tighten Megan's throat. It reminded her of his earlier warning to Michael there might not be time for him to finish his task. She found herself studying Edward's face as she tried to make sense of the two incidents. The two men had shared some secret knowledge in their moment of silent communication.
"You seemed very comfortable with Michael tonight," she reassured him, aware that this was rarely the case. Their battles were the stuff of legend at Davidson's.
"He can afford to be kind." Edward's mouth quirked at one side in sad acceptance. "I am no longer a threat to his independence, but we desperately need his help."
As if embarrassed by the admission, he ended the evening quite abruptly, escorting Megan to her room before retiring to his own with Michael's notes.
His departure left Megan restless with unresolved tensions and she moved distractedly around the room until she came to the window and stood there staring down at the endless flow of Singapore traffic two stories below, her thoughts chaotic.
She was too rational not to recognize that her dislike of professional soldiers lay in the threat they posed to the few treasured memories she had of her father. He'd doted on the little girl growing up in his own dark Irish image, playing with her at every opportunity, and probably spoiling her outrageously. Yet, he'd been a professional soldier, there was no doubt of that, and probably shared many of the characteristics she now hated. Each reminder lessened the vividness of her memories of him as a family man. It was less than fair to blame every professional soldier, but she couldn't stop doing it.
This brought her to the man she'd met tonight.
Michael Davidson, as a sergeant in the Special Air Service Regiment, was also the ultimate professional soldier and his rank presupposed at least ten years service. His arrogance and the hints of condescension towards civilians were more subdued, but both existed. Admittedly, he used no acronyms in speaking and seemed remarkably sensitive to atmosphere, but nothing could conceal his consciousness that he was different to every other man in the room and proud of it.
Yet, he was the first professional soldier whose actions fitted the memory of her father without threatening the things that made him special to her. She could imagine her father acting as Michael Davidson had acted tonight. His dark eyes, captured so lovingly in her special photograph of him, would have held the same amusement as he teased her about her dislike of soldiers. The thought made her feel very foolish. She cringed in embarrassment and felt the pressure of tears behind her eyes.
To distract herself, as much as anything else, Megan focused on her physical reaction to Edward's son. It had been remarkably powerful, something more appropriate to a teenager than a woman of thirty-one, but still very pleasant. It was unfortunate that it must now die of starvation, for she would have enjoyed seeing if it survived getting to know him a little better. Megan was uncomfortably aware that part of her mind was dwelling obsessively on a lean, superbly fit soldier's body and a mischievous smile in two challenging blue-grey eyes.