Jennifer closed her eyes and tried to zone out from the lurching taxi as it inched its way towards the airport.
The prospect of joining a group of strangers for an “art week” on the island of Skiathos, none of whom she had met before, was almost as daunting as missing her flight.
The art week had been a slightly unwelcome birthday gift from her mother, but she hadn’t the heart to hand it back.
“You’ll love it, darling,” her mother had enthused as Jennifer opened the brochure. “You know you need a break and this will open up new vistas for you.”
Sunny views of a Greek villa and the usual bright blue sky did indeed showcase a lovely vista, but it was what she would have to do with herself once she got there, that was the worry.
All she wanted to do was bury herself on a beach with a chilled glass of rosé and a good book till sundown in her precious week off.
Jennifer knew this was not possible. She was single and didn’t have a friend to go with who could take the same holiday.
And there was another problem. She was shy.
She didn’t even have the confidence to sit on her own in her work canteen – let alone on a Greek island.
This must have been her mother’s thinking also, since she waved her daughter off in a rather determined way as the taxi departed.
Jennifer had made a detour to her mother’s house to collect her childhood charcoals and sketch pad – it had been a very long time since she’d attempted to draw… but there seemed little point in splashing out on a fancy set of new art materials.
And it was only a week, after all…
The villa was slightly more rustic than the brochure portrayed, but the view from her window of a sparkling sea and a stunning stretch of pure sand just inches away from her room, more than made up for the slightly frayed towels and shared bathroom.
After a shy meet and greet with the other wannabe artists, Jennifer soon found herself in a cool room in front of an easel.
At least she was sitting next to a friendly-looking woman who looked as uncertain as she did.
The combination of the sea air and wearing a new strappy summer dress she’d never be brave enough to wear at home – suddenly gave her a new courage and she introduced herself.
“Hi, I’m Jennifer,” she said.
The woman broke into an easy smile.
“I’m Maddy. My children sent me here. Have you done any drawing before? I’m hopeless!”
Luckily, Maddy didn’t seem to mind about this lack of ability.
“A long time ago.”
Jennifer was being modest. She had been a talented artist at school but had chosen to work in the library sector instead. Her recent promotion to chief archivist at the British Library was both gratifying but scary.
At least the “art week” was going to offer her a chance to gain a lovely tan and begin her new job looking sun-kissed. Hopefully, she’d be more confident because of it.
She was surprised her mother hadn’t enrolled her onto a confidence-building course at the local college – small mercy she hadn’t.
The island of Skiathos was becoming more seductive and gorgeous by the minute.
Through the window she could just make out a little café with white deckchairs on the beach and brightly coloured wooden tables. She’d ask Maddy if she wanted to check it out during the coffee break.
Suddenly the students fell quiet. A young man walked confidently into the studio and shook everyone’s hand in turn.
Jennifer’s heart almost skipped a beat when he came up to their section. Even Maddy went a bit pink.
“My name is Nicolas but you can call me Nico,” he said as he looked deeply into Jennifer’s blue eyes.
Was he just talking to her alone?
She pulled herself together. Of course he wasn’t, but it felt as if they had connected nevertheless.
She felt a flush of something spread from her cheeks down to her unusually exposed decolletage.
The young man had brown eyes and long lashes and, oh dear… a very large mouth that seemed to smile easily. He was also tall and spoke English very well.
Nico was clearly their art teacher, and seemed very confident as he stood in the centre of the room and outlined a plan of the week.
Apparently the class would progress from pencil lines to a full portrait in charcoal for them to take home.
But there would be lots of time in the afternoons to explore the island, soak up the sun and even research some local cocktails should they feel the urge.
Maddy winked at her in appreciation. Jennifer pretended to ignore it.
He repeated that the afternoons would be theirs to do what they wanted with.
Jennifer wondered if he was looking at her when he said this but told herself not to be fanciful.
She’d been alone too long – and anyway, surely Nico must be used to English girls in summer dresses falling at his feet…
And then it happened.
Suddenly and methodically (and this was the part that Jennifer had to pinch herself later when she remembered) Nico removed his clothes – all of them – and sat himself on the stool in the middle of the studio.
A dressing gown had been placed on the floor but he seemed in no rush to put it on.
“And begin!” he commanded.
The wannabe artists coughed and spluttered at first but were soon guided by Nico’s gentle instructions as he told the students what to look at and how to get a perspective of body parts in relation to his head…
It was apparent that Nico was acting as both teacher and model at the same time. Times must be hard.
Jennifer was reeling. This could not be happening. She was in Greece, in front of a naked man and what’s more she was looking at him intensely – just as she was being asked to do…
That evening the beach café was bustling and welcoming, with a large cocktail menu on each pretty table.
The air was still warm and the sea glistening as it lapped gently in the not too distant shoreline.
Jennifer had chosen an Apollo and Maddy a Chocolate Bullet. They were sitting in easy companionship as they mulled over their first day.
“But didn’t you think Nico was extraordinary?” Maddy asked Jennifer.
“Extraordinary in what way? Apart from his amazing body, you mean? Not that I noticed, of course.”
They both laughed. The cocktail had loosened Jennifer’s usual reserve.
“But he seemed to be really looking at you closely, Jennifer. Trust me, I know these things.” Maddy tapped her nose.
“Nonsense! A man like that can have the pick of any eager art student keen to hang on his every word. Actually, Maddy, I think he was a bit full of himself…”
Jennifer noticed that Maddy had become quiet. Had she been offensive? Perhaps she wasn’t used to the strength of her cocktail and anyway, how many had she had?
Suddenly she noticed a shadow. She looked up.
Standing at their table was Nico. He had obviously just had a shower and looked very handsome in a white shirt, tight jeans and sandals. He was also looking quite hurt.
“Oh,” said Jennifer.
“Yes, oh,” said Nico.
“Do you know what?” said Maddy. “I’m just going to pop back to my room for some… after-sun. See you two tomorrow!” and with that she was gone.
“May I?” asked Nico, indicating the vacant chair.
“Of course,” mumbled Jennifer.
Nico looked at her. Jennifer was now a little dishevelled.
It was only her first day and she had sat in front of a handsome (and naked) man, completed two excellent pencil sketches even though she said so herself, and was now becoming quite tipsy with a new friend in the evening sun.
She had also, it seemed, insulted her teacher…
“So I’m a bit full of myself, am I?”
“Tell me. I’m keen to improve myself.”
After an awkward silence, she replied, “Well you’re not exactly shy, are you?”
He chuckled at that and then they laughed together and were soon ordering another cocktail.
Jennifer told Nico about her passion for art and her new post at the British Library.
In turn, Nico explained that in fact he was half Greek and half English and would be taking up a post to teach ancient Greek in London once the summer was over. He too had abandoned his art skills in favour of more lucrative employment.
“Not that teaching will make me a millionaire,” he said as he offered Jennifer an olive.
It was late and the waiter wanted to close up. Nico clearly wanted it to stay open.
She shook her head at the olive but said, “Money doesn’t make you happy.”
They locked eyes – and from that moment they were inseparable.
The class looked on the pair with a fond pride as every afternoon, they escaped for long walks along the beach, interrupted by urgent embraces when Jennifer thought her heart would burst because it was so full.
This could not be happening. But it was, and she could not resist…
As the last day loomed, Jennifer decided to revert to her normally reserved self. She closed down all emotions to protect herself. After all, she’d been hurt before.
She didn’t even show any pleasure when her stunning charcoal portrait of Nico received huge applause from the group.
It had been framed by Nico himself for the journey home.
“What’s wrong, Jennifer?” asked Nico as he touched an escaped tendril of hair from Jennifer’s ponytail as she was about to take her picture upstairs to pack.
She looked sun-kissed and beautiful but very sad.
Maddy had already made sure Jennifer had her address and would accompany her to the airport the next morning which was some comfort, but nothing could take away this ache.
“Nothing,” she said with a false brightness. “Onwards and upwards! It’s been great, Nico!”
She held out her hand to shake his and then, much to his surprise, she raced upstairs to bed without another word.
In spite of Maddy’s best advice to the contrary, she felt it best to cut all ties with Nico now…
The British Library was very quiet, as one would expect at this time of day. Jennifer was sitting in the café, still in the same strappy summer dress but with a smart black jacket over it for the English climate.
She clung to any reminders of her summer with Nico, and found herself drawing small sketches of him sitting on the stool from memory.
She knew that she had probably done the right thing in protecting herself from rejection – after all, a holiday romance had its limits.
But there was a part of her that couldn’t stop thinking about him.
It didn’t help that her job was demanding, and she still felt very new.
She’d be handling it all a lot better if only she didn’t feel so empty…
“So I’m full of myself, am I?”
She looked up. Jennifer’s heart literally missed a beat… she wasn’t sure if her worries about the new job had turned her head or if she’d momentarily lost touch with reality.
She blinked a few times and took a deep breath.
No, she wasn’t dreaming. There in the café, was the man she had been sketching. Nico was smiling down at her.
“I’ve started my new job,” he said, trying to appear nonchalant.
“So have I,” Jennifer said quickly but with less ease. She was in shock. Worse, she was worried he would have seen her sketches.
She put her elbows on her sketch pad and tried to look as cool as he appeared to be.
“Do you know any good cocktail bars around here?” he asked casually, but his eyes said it all. He had come to find her.
She smiled… she’d show him the sketches properly later.
Look out for our next mini-series of fiction from our archives – this time on the theme of Woman’s Best Friend! We’ll publish a lovely new short story every Monday and Thursday throughout September