Another Version

I stll remember that night, as if it was yesterday.

Steve, in those pleated yellow pants (he really fancied himself in that costume). Me,in a red tutu. Rufus, looking angelic - as he had a habit of doing, particularly when he had something lethal in mind. And the damned horse, which we'd had to paint so he'd look dappled the way he was meant to.

We were being employed by a company called "Party People: Your Dreams Realized", who'd got themselves taken on by a super-rich tycoon, whose idea was to have famous paintings reproduced as tableaux around his incredibly manicured grounds. (Naturally, the girl who was doing the Goya duchess with the naked tits was going to get the most attention. I couldn't have done that one; not from modesty, but because she had a pair like melons, while mine are more like - well, walnuts.)

It was Rufus who got us the gig. He said he'd heard about it from one of the girls being a Gauguin Tahitian maiden. We were all students, I think: who'd do something so loony if they hadn't a loan hanging over them? However, we were the only ones who'd got landed with a horse.

The painting we were mocking up has got three people in it: a girl (me) perched languidly on top of said horse, being embraced by a man in pleated yellow trousers (Steve), with a second man (Rufus) doing the easy bit of standing still beside the horse's head with his eyes shut and his hands folded. We're supposed to be circus people, I think; at any rate there's no saddle or bridle on the horse, which suggests I'm a bareback rider. We were promised the horse was really placid. And so far it did seem to be; though I could feel its skin hot and twitchy under me, making it less easy to keep absolutely still when anyone came by. And I'd swear the paint was getting sticky under my bum. Steve, of course, was grumbling under his breath before we'd been there half an hour - because he wanted a cigarette, because he was supposed to be standing on tiptoes and it was tiring, because I was leaning on him too heavily..."Shut up and think of the money," I grated fiercely against his cheek, sotto voce as approaching voices suggested we'd got another lot of viewers. I added through gritted teeth, though equally softly, "And keep your free hand away from where you're trying to put it, you oversexed shit!"

It was at that moment - squinnying through half-shut eyes to see who was looking at us, and wondering why at least two of them had such annoying voices - that I realized Rufus had moved, and wasn't in front of the horse any more. Oh blast him! But they probably wouldn't notice -

Then all hell broke loose.

A pin stuck in its rump might drive any horse mad. Not that I knew that's what Rufus had done until afterwards. Just then, all I was aware of was a bunching of muscles, a leaping buck, a wild neigh - and my own hands flailing and grasping and grabbing at the only thing I could find to hold on to, the creature's long mane. And we were off, horse and I, at a savage gallop. Swerving round bushes. Scattering party guests and waiters. Me clinging on for dear life as we crashed through displays. For a horrified second I thought we were going to mow down a boy in a bowler hat with an apple taped across his face. Luckily he flung himself aside at the very last moment. Then we were leaping up a shallow flight of stone steps onto a veranda and - with Horse apparently illogically sure where it wanted to go - we skidded through a pair of wide open french windows into a beautiful, decorator-furnished, chandeliered, drawing room... and lurched to a halt against a heavily-stuffed sofa.

Horse,clearly annoyed, blew out a loud snort through his nostrils and gave another buck. This time, I shot off over his head - to land squarely in the lap of a man seated on the sofa.

"Oh God, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," I managed to gasp out - to be answered by a voice like warm treacle, which sent a shiver through me as it vibrated from somewhere deep in the chest I was cuddled against. The voice assured me urbanely that he wasn't sorry at all, I'd made a boring evening pick up wonderfully. I shook the tangled hair out of my eyes to look up at him, and my breath, short enough already, practically stopped.

He was a George Clooney lookalike, but with a thinner face, and silver at the temples of his black hair, and he had mesmerising dark brown eyes with laugh-lines round them. There must have been other people in the room, but I was totally unaware of them, caught up in that wonderful voice as it oozed through my bones. He told me his name, Charles. He enquired mine. He asked with solicitude whether I was hurt anywhere. On hearing that I wasn't, he snapped his fingers briefly and issued urbane orders: would somebody please remove that animal to a safe place? And bring champagne, now?

Because of the way he spoke, and the instant scurry around us, it dawned on me who he was. The boss. The owner of all this. As if my dignity wasn't in shreds enough, it had to be him! But tycoons were supposed to be fierce and horrible like Alan Sugar, weren't they? Not...

A scuffle near at hand broke in on my dazed thoughts. Abruptly Rufus was there. Flushed and breathless, he began to stammer out that it was all his fault - he'd just got bored, he hadn't meant to cause actual damage...And at that point I realized he was addressing the man I was still being cuddled by as "Pa".

I'd known Rufus's parents were divorced, but he'd never let on that - This gorgeous man, who'd been looking into my eyes as if I, yes, me, Alexa, was a gift from heaven - this man was Rufus's father?

Reader, I married him.

Well, he's a real sweetie, as well as being crushingly rich. It's true he has a boredom threshold even lower than that of his oldest son, but I can cope with that. It's really quite amusing being Rufus's stepmother, too.

And as for Horse - Charles bought him, and he lives in great comfort at one of our country houses. The children have riding lessons on him. And Charles and I give him too many sugar-lumps.

After all, he's how we met.

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