Although less than a century old, Stanley Park had been designed in the old style, to reflect the Victorian ideals of genteel pleasures. From the central, circular garden, with ornamental fountain and statuary, to the small lake and rose gardens, the park was a testament to the bygone age, when the resort was a favorite water-hole for the well off, and the well-to-do. Brand came to the park often, to reflect, and to walk among the shades of the past.
The woman calling herself Juliette Hanson entered the café hesitantly, her eyes scanning the tables. There were few customers this early in the year, and she spotted Brand instantly. She moved towards him, weaving awkwardly between the scattered tables and empty chairs. As she approached, she studied the man sitting beside the large picture window.
Sitting, partially obscured by the table, she could tell that he was tall and powerfully built; yet not stocky. Dark, raven-black hair reflected the pale sunlight, thick and rich. His hair was long, and held in a loss pony-tail by a small silver clasp that would, she thought, have looked effeminate on most men, but served only to emphasize this man's inner strength. The man seemed to have an affinity for dark things; black shoes and slacks; black jacket over a black polo-neck sweater. It should have been an over-kill; yet she couldn't easily picture him wearing anything else.
He hadn't as much as glanced her way; yet Juliette knew that he had seen her. Unconsciously, she ran a hand along her skirts, smoothing the material. She wished that she had chosen to wear something lighter; the thick Prussian-blue skirt and matching sweater were heavy, and hampered her movement. But, it had been cold earlier, when she had left Manchester. It had seemed the right choice, and she'd just have to live with it. She shook her head slightly, flicking back a few wayward strands of honey-blond hair that refused to stay in place. There was a brush in the bag that dangled from her shoulder, but she resisted the temptation to retrieve it.
She reached the table, and stood for a moment, surprised at her sudden light-headedness. Inside her chest, she could feel the soft thump-thump of her heart; she felt like a young girl, on her first serious date.
'I'm twenty-eight years old, for goodness sake - and married.' She admonished herself. 'Pull yourself together, woman!'
It didn't help much.
'Mister Brand?' She realized what she had said, and swallowed rapidly; trying to bring herself under control. She smiled a small apology. 'I'm sorry,' she almost stumbled over the words, 'just, 'Brand', is sort of hard to get used to.'
'It is of little consequence.' Brand turned his gaze from the window; towards her.
His eyes, Juliette saw, were as dark as his hair and clothing; they regarded her steadfastly, and her heart-rate began to skip once more.
There was something unusual about his eyes; but it took her several seconds to realize what it was, then she saw it. Although the irises where dark - enough to make the pupils almost invisible - there was a certain oblate look to the man's pupils; a smoothing of the circumference. To her, they looked almost feline.
'Please.' She dragged her gaze out of the liquid depths of his, and realized he was speaking; indicating the chair opposite. 'May I get you something soothing to drink? The drinking chocolate is worth coming here for, alone. They lace it with brandy.'
'That sounds heavenly.' Her smile this time was wider; just for him. She eased herself into the offered chair, and took a moment to gaze out of the window. 'This place is really nice.'
'It is. It is one of the pleasures of living here.' Brand told her. 'That, and the hot chocolate.' He caught the eye of the single waitress, and lifted his empty glass, signaling for two more. The waitress, a cheerfully plump young woman, threw him a smile, and nodded.
'I wonder if a woman has ever said no to him.' She shooed the incongruous thought away, and concentrated on the reason for her visit. She took a moment to take in the ornate flower beds, bordered upon each side by tall trees. Beyond the flower beds, in front of her, the sunken Victorian centerpiece was visible, the waters of the fountain sparkling as they were thrown skywards.
The drinks arrived, and the waitress departed, blushing in response to soft smile, and a spoken word of thanks from Brand.
'You know, I've never been to Blackpool.' She said, as she warmed her hands upon the tall glass of chocolate. 'I know of it, of course; by reputation. But, somehow, the chance to visit never seemed to crop up. I must say,' she added, with a sideways glance towards Brand, 'you're not exactly what I expected, either.'
'And what exactly did you expect?' His tone was even, his gaze direct. She blinked, surprised by the tone of his question.
'Oh; I don't know.' She sipped at her chocolate, as she thought. 'Um; this is fabulous.'
'Yes. What did you expect?'
'I said; I'm not sure really, what I expected.' She frowned. 'What is a private investigator supposed to look like anyway? Especially one with your.., specialized, talents?'
'Specialized?' He raised one dark eyebrow. 'What I do is hardly specialized.'
'I've heard the stories - at least, some of them. I know that you're picky about what you do - who you help. I know that you are willing to listen, and that you believe. I know that you are my last chance - my last hope - of finding my husband.' She gazed across at him over the rim of her glass, her expression fierce, her eyes bright with unshed tears.
Brand studied her silently for a moment, dark eyes piercing. She felt as if he was searching her soul. After a moment, he lifted a hand, stretching out his index finger towards her. Gently, he stroked her cheek. She blinked, and a single tear dropped towards the table. Brand caught the solitary tear on the end of his finger.
Brand lifted his hand towards the window. He studied the tear, as it hung from his index finger; studying the facets of sunlight that refracted from it. Finally, he rubbed his index finger across his lips, smearing the tear against the soft skin. There was a purposeful intensity about him; that precluded her from asking what he was doing.
'I cannot help you.' He rose from his seat with a sudden abruptness that made her jump. 'Go home Juliette Hanson.'
'What?' Juliette blinked, confused. 'Go home? Just like that? What-.'
'I have said; I cannot help you.' Brand stared down at her, and she saw with some dismay, what looked like anger in his eyes. 'Forget me - forget that you have ever heard of me.'
As she watched, stunned by the sudden change in him, Brand strode across to the counter, and placed money upon the surface. Then, before she could begin to think about following him, he had stalked out of the café, and was gone.