Nicole and her pals – for it was nearly summer, so she had pals again -- climbed a set of three stairs – remnants of a long-gone stone building and now simply part of the path – and arrived in the center of Punta Corrente a few minutes later. On another remnant of a long-gone stone building, this time a floor, a temporary stage was set up, partially shielded by a copse of pine. However, they could hear that the band had already started. As they drew nearer, Nicole started looking around as casually as she could, trying to spot Zlatko.
Nicole had met Zlatko Adamić the day before.
Nicole 's head snapped up, so that she was looking up into eyes bluer than hers, blue like a turquoise ring, poet-blue. She pulled a professional smile onto her face. "Dobar dan," she greeted. "Izvolite?" Belatedly she thought to stand up, so she wasn't looking up at the guest through a veil of hair.
With a small smile playing around his lips, the man asked in Croatian about a booking under the name Zlatko Adamić, four rooms. Nicole looked into his poet eyes again for a moment before checking the register and confirming the rooms were ready. She was about to ring for the receptionist to process the guests when the man stopped her by asking, still in Croatian, "You're not a Croat?"
In English she answered, "No, I'm not. I'm American." She ducked her head, in case he was one of those who would lambaste her because of politics.
He wasn't. His eyes appraised her, never leaving her face. "Interesting."
He stopped back by later and told her she should check out his band the next day. She made sure to note the time.
The band was halfway through their first song, a pounding Euro-rock tune with a Croatian touch – think drinking song. People stood or sat around, enjoying sun, music, and company. Children chased each other around with water bottles, dousing each other whenever possible. A triad of young toughs – with Coldly Handsome at the center and Dejan in attendance – sat on lawn chairs in the shade. Nicole smiled at Dejan, since they were mildly acquainted. He did not smile back. Typical unreliable Rovinjian. Coldy Handsome, on the other hand, nodded a greeting. Several families sat on blankets, picnicking. Groups of teenagers stood around trying to look cool, and occasionally managing. An enormous grill stood off to one side with sizzling čevapčiči sending their fragrance on the air. Nicole wasn't even tempted; she'd caught sight of Zlatko.
He stood near the stage in the company of people who looked involved in the show; in fact, Nicole recognized the entertainment coordinator as he had thrown a party at the hotel the previous night. Yet Zlatko was the only one who looked comfortable in his own skin: casual jeans with a black band tee tucked in, Ray-bans shielding his poet-blue eyes, crisp curls in an artless disarray. He seemed to effortlessly radiate the cool the teenagers were attempting to effect. A thrill ran through Nicole's chest.
"I'll be back in a few," she said, not noticing if any in her group was even listening. As she walked towards the stage, she noted the way company seemed grouped around him. The overdressed entertainment coordinator was facing him and telling him an anecdote it seemed. A woman in zebra-striped pants leaned in, as if to listen to the anecdote, but with face turned towards Zlatko; three other women in similarly rocker outfits also listened in. Zlatko chuckled at the anecdote, a shadow-beard framing his full mouth. Nicole heard Zebra Pants titter.
As she neared the group, she considered several different opening gambits. Once she was close enough that he had almost certainly caught sight of her, though, she settled on a simple, "Ciao."
Zlatko grinned lazily. "Bok," he returned, the Croatian equivalent of ciao. He didn't say anything else right away; rather, he pushed his Ray-bans up onto his forehead and looked her over, this time taking in all of her. He dropped the sunglasses back in place. "Ok."
It felt like a compliment to Nicole. Her sub-conscious led her to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear as she searched for something else to say. "So... the band sounds great."
Zlatko glanced in their direction and nodded approvingly. "Their sound is still young, but they are coming along." A smile played around his lips, and he could tell by the tilt of his head that he was addressing the next comment to Zebra Pants. "Maybe they could be the next Prljavo Kazlište."
Zebra Pants took the bait. While Nicole tried to remember where she had heard the name before, Zebra Pants declared, "Prljavo Kazlište are like heroes in Croatia. You can never replace their position in Croatian pop culture. They were with us from the time of Yugoslavia, and they sang of the war while it was really happening-"
Zlatko smirked and cut her off. "No one is talking of replacing our national icons. I would not dream of trying." The smile disappeared. "But even national heroes need heirs."
Zebra Pants opened her mouth, clearly ready to enter the fray again; however Zlatko interrupted with, "Pardon me," aimed at Nicole. "This is Nina, our M.C. today. Nina, this is Nicole. She runs the Hotel Adria."
Clearly still miffed, and now skeptical as well, Nina looked Nicole up and down in a far less flattering way than Zlatko. "Nice to meet you," she equivocated. Then, more truthfully, "You run the Hotel Adria?"
Nicole squirmed. "Not exactly..."
Zlatko said, "The hotel certainly seems to run more smoothly thanks to your attention."
Nicole, predictably, was charmed.
An assistant came and dragged the coordinator away to attend to some details. Zlatko initiated a conversation between Nina and one of the other rocker girls, apparently a local d.j. He then unobtrusively pulled Nicole to the side, away from the crowd. He pushed his sunglasses up again, this time on top of his head. He looked into her eyes. "Tell me. How is my English?"
"Perfect," she breathed. She wondered if she should blink, but didn't want to lose sight of his eyes even for that nanosecond.
"But I speak with an accent, no?"
The skin around his eyes crinkled as he smiled. He suggested, "Možemo na hrvatski." We can (speak) in Croatian.
Nicole said nothing; she'd understood him, but the Croatian language had otherwise fled her mind.
Zlatko made an amused sound in the back of his throat. "Dobro. In English then." He made another perusal of her body and nodded to himself. "Interesting."
Nicole frowned. "Interesting?" It sounded less a compliment even than "ok."
"In English – yes, interesting." He motioned with his head. "Hajde. We should watch the band from closer to the front."
Nicole spent the afternoon in his company. So many people vied for his attention, clearly drawn to him, yet he always made a point of including Nicole. After eight months of feeling like an outsider, Nicole felt part of the in-crowd. The heady rush of his subtle attention made her feel wanted – and made her want. Zlatko didn't touch her, didn't flatter her, but he seduced her just the same.
When Nicole noticed the day's light had reached a late-afternoon hue, she looked at the time and regretfully announced, "I have to get back to work."
Zlatko moved his lips to just millimeters away from her ear. "I will see you there, then." His fingers alighted gently on her arm for the briefest of moments. It was the first time he had touched her, and it set her blood aflame.
As she started back across the Punta Corrente in the direction of the hotel, she caught sight of her friends – finally caught sight of her friends; she had been keeping an eye out for them all afternoon so she could introduce Zlatko to them. She waved; Martina waved back, but Matija was facing the other way, apparently focused on his plate of čevapčiči. She didn't have time to go over to them.