Mel took deep breaths then entered the dining-room.
Makso gave her a stony stare and she knew she was being tested. It felt like she was walking on to a stage in front of a very unforgiving audience.
So many important experts, yet she was expected to hold her own and chat to these men. Stay calm, just listen and nod your head and don’t say anything stupid, she told herself.
She was the only female guest. All of Makso’s art dealer friends were men, and all of them were clad from head to toe in Gucci and Chanel, dripping with expensive watches.
She felt as confident as a lamb amongst a pride of hungry lions.
Mel had been wrong-footed by the encounter with Greg Brodie on the roof, and her nerves had only just settled.
What on earth had he been doing skulking about with binoculars? What was happening down in the isolated cove on the beach at this time of the evening? Was he involved in some sort of smuggling?
He’d snapped at her in a way that said he was rattled she’d found him there.
Mel noticed, as she held out her champagne flute to Severina for filling, that her arm was shaking. She gulped down a mouthful of champagne for courage. Suddenly she didn’t feel a hundred percent safe at the Villa Lavanda.
“Are you OK?” Severina whispered.
“Just a bit nervous,” Mel admitted. It was nice to know she had at least one ally in the room.
Then, through the crowd of grey and black suits, a friendly face emerged. It was Ryan Peacock, looking delicious in a smart black jacket and white linen shirt.
He held out a hand in greeting with an open smile which warmed her like a sunbeam.
“Mel, how good to see you. You look wonderful. Now, come on over and tell me what you think of this.”
Typically American, he wasn’t shy in coming forward, and out of the corner of her eye, Mel saw Makso observing her with a quizzical but not disapproving look.
She was going to make the most of Ryan’s approach, which she grasped like a rope thrown to a woman in a sea of sharks.
How kind of him not just to make her feel at ease, but also to show her boss how she was, in fact, already acquainted with one of his important guests.
It was only the slightest of acquaintances, but Ryan clearly wasn’t about to let Makso know that.
She gulped, then plucked up the courage to say what she thought of the artwork Ryan had directed her to.
“It’s beautiful in its own way. I love the black clay and the gloss on the figure. It’s naive but with a simplicity which says a lot more than many more crafted pieces of the time. It’s an aeolipile, isn’t it?”
“Yup, they’re curious things. Little figures filled with water from a small opening near the back, designed to be placed close to a fire,” Ryan explained.
“Then the water boils and the steam escapes as a constant blast from the small hole in its mouth. They were used in various ancient rites and religious rituals, I understand.”
“You got it. A bit of magic to please the natives.”
“I guess the water might have been scented with myrrh or sandalwood,” Mel added. “It must have helped to create an extraordinary atmosphere in a temple. A bit like incense does in churches today.”
“It would go well with my collection. I have other artefacts from mediaeval times. Perhaps you could show me the provenance. Has it appeared in any auction catalogues?”
Ryan was admiring the strange jug, observing it from different angles.
Makso came up to join them, a wide smile on his face. The piece was one of the most expensive in his collection.