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Chapter 2
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Spencer Hirst was bored. A sentiment he was quite familiar with. The downside of having everything your heart desired, he supposed. Still, he couldn’t complain. As the only son of Lord Richard Llewellyn-Hirst, his bed was made. Money, status, power. A couple of easy-breezy years living the college life, and then he would follow in his father’s footsteps. Get into politics. But first a short spell as a diplomat or an ambassador or something. He liked to travel.

  Yawning, he took in the crowd as he waited for Daphne to return with the drinks. God, these college parties were the worst. Terrible acoustics, too many wall-flowers and not nearly enough quality booze. And why did these intellectual types always have such a bad sense of style? It seemed like he and his friends were the only people here who knew how to dress. 

  That’s what you get when you allow scholarship students in, he thought, brushing a hand through his ashy blond hair. There’s no real class in high-class education anymore.

  Although he had to admit some of the staff were almost just as bad. He pulled a face when he saw Professor Dawkins jigging it up in an olive-and-mustard plaid suit that had clearly seen the better half of a century. Really! Didn’t that man have a wife to stop him from appearing in public like that? Spencer could only imagine his father going into the city in such a get-up…

  Still, the meagre standards in fashion meant he and his clique stood out all the more. When they had walked into the packed hall just now, it had been with the full realization that every single person there had noticed them enter. Spencer could never quite get enough of that feeling. Of course, most of the looks shot his way were begrudging and envious, but that was just the way he liked it. Spencer could never quite get enough of that feeling. He was the king of Kingsmore College. The heart of the jetset. And that wasn’t without its perks.

  ‘Slim pickings,’ Tarquin said, with a nod at the female populous in general.

  Spencer raised an eyebrow at his best friend. ‘Same old same old. Everything worth having has been had.’

  ‘True. Although…’ Tarquin pushed his thick-rimmed hipster glasses a little higher on his nose, as he watched Tina Miller and Katie Mumba walking by, giggling and whispering to each other. They were wearing what seemed to be identical cherry red dresses, like twin sisters would do. When they noticed the two men staring, their movements immediately took on a more seductive quality.

  ‘Ladies,’ Tarquin greeted, with a wide grin.

  Tina and Katie giggled a little louder as they floated past, their whole bodies blossoming under the attention.

  ‘Phew!’ Tarquin commented, turning to follow them with his eyes. ‘I wouldn’t mind getting in on a little of that action!’

  ‘Please,’ Spencer scoffed. ‘Those girls are complete air-heads.’

  ‘So? I wasn’t exactly planning on taking them home to meet mother.’ Tarquin blew out his breath in admiration, then hissed between his teeth. ‘You have to admit they’d make the perfect one-night stand.’

  But Spencer wasn’t impressed. ‘I could score a dozen tarts like that at the Country Club. And with better pedigrees too.’

  Tarquin put his head in his neck and laughed. ‘God, you’re such a snob, Spence! It’s near ridiculous.’

  Spencer shrugged. ‘I have high standards, that's all.’

  ‘When it comes to my cock, I have absolutely no standards whatsoever,’ Tarquin confessed, almost sadly.

  ‘See, I don’t understand that. Why settle for fish-and-chips when you can have caviar and champagne?’

  ‘Easy for you to say. You’ve got the Heiress eating out of your hand.’

  A faint smile played around Spencer’s lips. Daphne Maybury was not as dazzlingly beautiful as some of his former conquests, but she was pretty enough, and at least she was really a conquest. Heiress of Maybury’s Groceries, she was filthy rich. Her family owned a line of supermarkets that dominated urban Britain. There was one in every town. And even though they had made their fortune in business, the Mayburies had been around long enough not to be considered “new money” anymore. Daphne’d had a typical upper-class upbringing, just like him. She was known in the right circles, had all the right connections, and the airs to go with them. Plus she was absolutely mad about him.

  ‘I can’t complain,’ he admitted. ‘Daphne is indeed quite…’ He searched for the appropriate word. ‘…accomodating.’

  ‘Lucky bastard!' Tarquin grinned. 'Well, some of us still have to hit the salt mines, though. I’ll go and try my luck with Miller and Mumba anyway.’ He cocked an eyebrow. ‘Sure you wouldn’t care to tag along?’

  For a fraction of a second, Spencer was tempted, if only for the sake of the chase. But he decided it wouldn’t be enough of a challenge. Not to put his relationship with the Heiress at stake, at least. ‘Nah, I better go and check what’s keeping Daphne.’

  ‘She’s tamed you, old chap!’ Tarquin laughed, clapping Spencer on the back. Then he was gone, in hot pursuit of Tina and Katie.

  Spencer shook his head. There were many uncertainties in life, but Tar's dogged approach to womanzing wasn't one of them. He turned around and started scanning the crowd, on the lookout for Daphne.

  But then someone else caught his eye.

 

*

 

The girl was standing with her back to him, thick chestnut locks flowing over her shoulders. She was looking for someone too, bobbing on tip-toes trying to see over people's heads.

  Now that’s what I call class. Spencer nodded approvingly, as he took in the long, green velvet gown. Without baring more than some shoulder and a bit of leg, it managed being sexy as hell, showing off the girl’s apple bottom and slender waist. Who was she? He was sure he’d never seen her here before. He would certainly have remembered that!

  Turn around, love, he willed. Let’s see if you’ve got the front to match that back.

  As if she’d heard him, she did just that.

  For the first time that evening, a shimmer of emotion surfaced on the black pool that was Spencer Hirst's cynicism. ‘Hepburn?’ he exclaimed, raising his eyebrows in surprise.

  She recognized him and rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, it’s you,’ she sighed, with that mixture of boredom and revulsion she always adopted when addressing him.

  ‘My God, Hepburn,’ he repeated, leisurely strolling over to her, hands tucked in his trouser pockets. He looked her shamelessly up and down, mentally noting she did have the appropriate front. It heaved under the green velvet in a fashion never witnessed before. ‘What have you done to yourself? I almost mistook you for an actual woman.’

  ‘Shut up, Hirst,’ she bit at him.

  ‘My, my, you really aren’t feeling like yourself today, are you? I usually get a more snappy comeback than a mere “shut up”.’

  She closed her eyes and sighed again, more deeply now. ‘What do you want?’

  ‘Nothing. Just paying you a compliment. Is that against the feminist rulebook or something?’

  ‘I don’t need compliments from the likes of you. And I am not a feminist!’ She turned her back to him.

  He came and stood beside her. ‘Oh no? What are you then?’

  She moved her shoulders in irritation. ‘I mean... I am, of course, obviously. But not in the way that you mean!'

  Spencer grinned. This was getting better and better! Louise Hepburn and himself had a very special sort of relationship. As the social bottom-feeding do-gooder she and her left-wing buddies were, she had disliked him, an aristocrat with a trust-fund and a social circle to match, almost at first glance. And the feeling was mutual. In Spencer’s opinion, Louise was one of the most righteous, imperial, sex-less bookworms he had ever encountered —although he was going to have to reconsider that last part. Her leg in that side-split, Jesus!

  Anyway, when the alphabet had forced the both of them to work on yet another project together earlier this semester, things had really come to a head. Their subject had been “Hunger in the Third World”, and he had found himself uttering the most insanely radical opinions, just to yank Louise's chain. He hadn’t meant any of it, of course, —he hardly ever meant anything he said— but it had been simply glorious to see her foaming at the mouth. Their discussions had gotten so heated at times that the other members of the project group could only look on, mouths slightly open, heads turning from him to her and back again, as if watching a particularly aggressive match at Wimbledon.

  Tonight, Hepburn might not be foaming at the mouth just yet, but there was definitely something going on with her. She was all worked up. He had never seen her so flustered before. Spencer's smile widened. Yes, it was high time he got to the bottom of this. ‘Could it be,’ he ventured, ‘that our favourite little suffragette has found a special someone she wants to impress?’

  She blinked at him, completely taken aback by his insight.

  ‘Oh, you have?’ he taunted, feigning surprise. ‘Well I never!’

  She balled her fists and actually stomped her foot, like a little girl. ‘Stop pestering me! Don’t you have some poor date to go and harass?’

  ‘Well, I do plan on harassing Daphne later, but she’s definitely not poor, I can assure you.’

  Louise crossed her arms. ‘Oh yes, the Supermarket Queen. I forgot. You two have been seeing each other for quite a while now, haven’t you? Well, I applaud her. There should be medals for that kind of endurance.’

  Spencer grinned. Now they were getting somewhere. ‘Let’s not get side-tracked here,’ he tutted. ‘We were talking about you. Pray tell, who’s the lucky fuck who’s getting to clear away the cobwebs from your knickers tonight?’

  She blushed so deeply he thought he had died and gone to heaven. ‘You’re disgusting!’ she hissed, her brown eyes flashing furiously at him. He noticed she was wearing a lot more make-up than usual. She looked quite fierce, really.

 Typical Hepburn, Spencer thought, as he saw her set her jaw. Stubborn as a mule. She won’t give up until she believes she’s won the fight.

  He didn’t mind. He could go all night if needs must. Actually, he found he enjoyed arguing with her even better, now she was all dolled up like this...

  But before he could initiate round two, a long, elegant arm draped itself around his shoulders.

 

*

 

‘Here you are, darling!’

  Louise saw Daphne Maybury kiss Spencer Hirst on the cheekbone, slowly, like some old-fashioned movie star. She was wearing a sleek silk dress and gloves, all in black, to match her eyes and bob haircut. It contrasted beautifully with her pale skin.

  The colourless couple, Louise thought inadvertently, since Hirst, too, was quite pale; his hair an ashy blond, eyes a cold grey.

  Grudgingly, she had to admit those two looked gorgeous together. As if Hirst wasn’t arrogant enough as it was!

  Daphne handed Spencer a glass of champagne, her black eyes darting towards Louise. A little flicker in their depths betrayed Louise’s appearance surprised her also, although the Heiress did her best not to let it show. ‘Mixing with the plebs, I see?’ she spoke to Hirst.

  ‘Hardly,’ he scoffed.

  ‘A good evening to you too, Daphne,’ Louise retorted drily.

  Daphne gave her a disgusted look, frowning as if she tasted something particularly unpleasant. ‘Yeah, just… don’t ever talk to me, okay?’ She turned to Spencer again. ‘Come on, darling. The others are waiting.’ She put a gloved hand on his arm in a proprietary sort of way.

  Spencer didn’t move. He looked at Louise for a beat longer, and suddenly, his gaze made her feel a little uncomfortable. She could tackle Hirst any day of the week, —with gusto— but in this instance she found she had to use all of her willpower not to avert her eyes.

  Finally, it was he who broke the gaze. He raised his glass and said with a wink: ‘Good luck tonight, Hepburn.’

  Then he turned and went, a smirking Daphne on his arm.

 

*

 

Louise gritted her teeth as she watched them disappear into the crowd. God, he was insufferable! Well, Daphne was too of course, but he! He was really the limit. She couldn’t believe she had let him rile her up like that. He enjoyed it too much, she was well aware of that. It was written plainly on his face whenever he managed to draw her into an argument. Yet she couldn’t help falling for it, every single time. She shouldn’t have given him the satisfaction!

  He caught me off guard when he guessed my plans for tonight, she realized. That fact irked her most off all. The way he had raised his glass at her just now, all smug and condescending…

  Louise shook her head, determined to clear it of all thoughts Spencer Hirst. She had wasted enough time on that prick as it was. Tonight wasn’t about him — even though he would have loved that, butting in and ruining something important to her — it was about David.

  His name alone was enough to make Louise's stomach clench. And in the blink of an eye, her mood was bright and sunny again. David, she repeated, mantra-like, as she started to make her way through the crowd. David Brown. The man who was going to be her first.

  That sounds so right...

  She spotted Jeanie first. There weren’t that many pudgy Korean girls on campus with short, red hair and glasses that would befit any half-decent librarian. Louise couldn’t help but smile when she noticed how uncomfortable her best friend looked in her fancy dress. Jeanie was pulling awkwardly at the bodice, trying to keep it in place while not getting her arm entangled by the straps of her purse. But when Jeanie noticed her, the look on her face made Louise frown.

  Something’s wrong…

  Worried, Louise followed Jeanie’s eyes as they darted nervously to the side. But then all thoughts left her mind and for a moment, she was blinded again, like on the day she and David had first met. Jesus... The tux became him even better than she had imagined. He hadn’t gone over the top with the grooming, though, thank God; his hair was still unruly, just the way she liked it, and the contrast with the smart clothes was simply to die for. Louise saw what he would look like in a couple of years; the type of man he’d be. There was a name for this…

  ‘Hey, Lulu!’ he called out, flashing her a perfect smile, and Louise felt like she was going to faint, right then and there.  ‘Wow!’ he whistled, as she somehow managed to walk up to him. ‘You look drop dead gorgeous!’

  She achieved a wobbly smile, her pulse thundering in her ears. It was like she was floating on air, her feet hovering ten centimetres above the floor. And she realized this was the happiest moment of her life. Right here, right now. Like all her dreams were coming true at the same time. Like everything made sense, all of a sudden. No more fears, no more doubts. Just she and him, together, and the whole world at their feet.

  But then a blonde, big-boobed creature appeared out of nowhere, and ruined it all.

  Louise frowned. Had the creature been there just now? She hadn’t noticed it. But David’s arm was around it, so it must have been. It was talking. To her, of all people. Saying something, all giggly, about a crush and three weeks and dating in secret. Confused, Louise looked at Jeanie, who had by now turned quite purple. She could just about make out the pity in her friend’s eyes, before they darted away again. Louise turned to David now. This time, he was the one doing the talking.

  ‘…so you see, we really have to thank you, Lulu, for if she hadn’t been your roommate, Tina and I might never have gotten to know each other.’ Upon which he and the blonde creature gave each other a blood curdling lovey-dovey look.

  Then Tina raised the arm that wasn’t clutched around David’s waist, and yelled: ‘Surprise!’

 

*

 

Louise spent the rest of the night with a cramped-but-supposed-to-be-mild-looking smile plastered on her face. She pretended to listen to what the others were saying; laughing, even, when someone made a joke. Everyone danced and she did too, although she had no idea to what music or if the legs on which she was bobbing numbly up and down were really hers.

  And all the while, she had to witness Tina and David, doing all the things she had envisioned doing with him.

  Talking, dancing, laughing.

  Kissing…

  ‘I’m so sorry, Lou,’ Jeanie whispered.

  ‘Why would you be sorry?’

  Jeanie lifted her eyebrows.

  ‘What? I’m perfectly ok with it.’

  ‘Louise…’

  ‘I am!’ Louise's voice shot out, ringing high-pitched.

  Jeanie reached for her, meaning to put an arm around her, but Louise pulled away. ‘I… I’m going to get a drink.’ Without asking if her friend wanted anything, she plunged into the crowd, in the direction of the bar. She knew she was being awful, clamming up to Jeanie like this, but she just couldn’t talk about it. Not yet. Not here, while everything was still going on.

  She ignored the protests and insults as she elbowed her way through the line. Cutting wasn’t usually her style, but this was an emergency. She tapped her hand on the bar and ordered a vodka, straight up.

  ‘We only have beer, wine or champagne, miss,’ the girl told her.

  ‘Whatever will get me drunk the fastest,’ she snapped.

  Eyes wide, the girl quickly handed her a glass of red wine.

  Louise detested red wine. It made her feel queasy. But it also reminded her of blood, and somehow that seemed very appropriate just now. She downed it in one and immediately ordered another. Drink in hand, Louise scanned her surroundings. There was a table in the corner with a few free seats. She let herself sink down onto one of the rickety folding chairs, let out a deep sigh, and closed her eyes.

  Mind blank, she sat like that for a long time, her mouth filled with the bitter taste of tannin and defeat.

  ‘Hey,’ a soft voice called.

  Louise opened her eyes, and looked straight into David’s hazel ones. He had pulled up a chair and was leaning on the table with one elbow, looking as ruffled and boyish and endearing as ever.

  ‘Hey,’ she whispered, her voice hoarse.

  ‘Red wine?’ he asked, eyebrows raised.

  She shrugged, slowly twirling the glass by its stem. ‘I felt like a change.’

  ‘Change can be good.’

  ‘Sometimes, yes.’

  He straightened and rubbed his palms together. Those beautiful hands, calloused from playing the guitar. How she had hoped to be touched by them. To be explored by them, right at this very moment... He frowned at her, half smiling, and admitted: ‘I was actually quite nervous for tonight.’

  Louise felt her mouth go dry. ‘Oh?’

  He shrugged. He’d taken off his jacket, and she could see his shoulders balling up underneath his crisp, white shirt. ‘Yeah. I wasn’t sure how you’d react to the news Tina and I were seeing each other. I mean, from the way you always speak about her, I got the impression you don’t really care for her much.’

  Louise huffed out her breath. ‘Don’t be silly!’

  ‘Come on Lulu,’ he said, tilting his head. ‘You have to admit, she’s not your favorite person in the world.’

 ‘Not at all! I mean, she’s… she’s very different than me, I confess. We have other priorities in life, sort of speak. But I think she’s swell, y'know? Always upbeat, and friendly, and definitely very pretty, and…’ Her voice trailed off.

  ‘Do you really mean all that?’ He smiled again, acting casual, but she could see how tense he really was. He did this thing with his eyebrows. It was clear her answer was very important to him.

  Louise swallowed the lump in her throat and nodded. 'Every word!'

  He exhaled with a sigh and raked a hand through his hair. ‘Wow! You don’t know how relieved I am to hear that! I felt terrible, keeping our relationship from you. But I didn’t want to tell you until I was sure it was serious, you know?’ He leant in closer. ‘Your opinion means a lot to me, Louise.’ He gave her an intent look, and the whole world narrowed down to the colour of his eyes.

  Louise reached across the table and put her hand on his. ‘I like her, I really really do. It’s just, you caught me by surprise, that’s all.’

  ‘And you’re sure you’re not mad at me for keeping you in the dark for a while?’

  ‘Not. At. All.’

  His face lit up, his eyes sparkling behind his glasses. ‘Aw, Lulu, you’re such a great friend!’ And before she knew what was what, his strong arms were around her, holding her tight.

  For a moment, Louise was surrounded by the scent of his aftershave, the warmth of his body and easy strength of his embrace. And she felt like she was falling, falling, falling…

  ‘You coming?’ he asked, breaking the hug and standing up, ready to re-join the others.

  ‘In a minute, let me just finish my drink.’

  ‘All right. Catch you later!’

  When he was gone, Louise slowly pushed her chair back. She had held on for as long as she could. Held it together, for as long as she could. But this was too much.

  Abandoning her glass in the middle of the table, she turned and ran from the hall.

*

The cold December air stung her face like a million tiny knives as she burst through the double doors of the building. The portico with its neo-classical columns was a weight above her, a giant shadow hand, pressing her down. The urge to escape, to run, as far as her legs could carry her, intensified. She needed to get away from here, she needed to breathe! In a dazed flurry, like some fairy-tale princess at midnight, she made for the stairs that led down towards the pavement. But halfway, all the strength simply drained from her legs. Apparently, this was as far as they were going to carry her tonight. She sank down on one of the broad steps, and closed her eyes. There was no enchanted chariot awaiting, no Prince Charming running after her. There was only the cold and the dark, and the overwhelming sensation of being completely and utterly alone. Louise leant her head against the rough stone of the bannister, and finally allowed her tears to fall freely.

  Tina Miller. That’s who he had chosen. Tina fucking Miller.

  How could he? Tina was a complete idiot, without an ounce of real content. A giddy girly-girl. A… a slut!

  Apparently, having too much experience isn’t such a problem after all, Louise thought bitterly. And suddenly, she felt like the fool. All this time she had thought she and David had been laying the foundation for a solid relationship, getting to know each other's ins and outs, while she had actually been burrowing herself deep into the friend zone. How could she have been so blind? She had gotten way too comfortable with him!

  “I didn’t want to tell you until I was sure it was serious.”

  That’s what he had said.

  Jesus, it was serious!

  Louise felt like she was going to be sick. She could’ve understood if he had owned up to a drunken night with that bimbo, but this? A relationship? She hugged herself, knowing full well no amount of consolation could ever quench this pain. She was dying... Above her, the stars shone like crystals in the deep blue velvet of the sky. Their cold beauty made her feel even more alone than she already did.

Help me, she thought. Please, somebody, make this stop!

*

Spencer struck a match and lit up. God, it was cold out. He really should have worn his overcoat. Well, he guessed Daphne would bring it along when she went to collect hers. They were all leaving in a minute, anyway. Taking a drag on his cigarette, he strolled over to the edge of the stairs, looking to see if the taxi’s had arrived yet. When he noticed the little figure in the green dress hunched on the steps below, he felt a pinprick of satisfaction. Well, what did you know; it looked like he was going to be treated to a little late night entertainment…

  ‘How are things progressing, Hepburn?’ he grinned as he approached her. ‘A tip: wallflowers usually thrive best indoors.’

But when she turned her head, he stopped dead in his track.

  ‘Oh, I…’ he mumbled.

  She shot him a furious, and at the same time heartbreaking look, her face wet with tears, then sharply turned away again, clearly unwilling to cry in front of him, but not able to hold back.

  Spencer didn’t know what to do. Seeing her like this, in such a vulnerable position… it confused him. He knew how to handle outraged, defiant Louise, not weeping Louise.

  This is nothing like Hepburn, he thought, flabbergasted. She was one of the ballsiest women he knew. What on earth could have caused her to fall apart like this?

  The answer was obviously not going to come from her. He was the last person she'd ever share her true feelings with. The only thing he got, albeit reluctantly, was the muffled, shaky sound of her breath as she cried. 

  He should say something, really. Or at least leave, if he couldn’t find a way to make himself useful. But instead, he just kept standing there like an idiot, looking on as she wept, his cigarette slowly turning to ashes. Her exposed shoulders, jerking with each new, uncontrollable sob, looked so pale and fragile in the dark. She had to be freezing, sitting there with nothing but her ballgown on... Spencer flicked his cigarette to the ground and shrugged out off his jacket, his education getting the better of his embarrassment. All things said and done, he was nothing if not a gentleman.

  But before he got the chance, Daphne and the others came bursting out of the building, laughing and joking, in an explosion of sound and merriment.

  ‘What did I tell you?’ Tarquin winked, swinging an arm around Spencer’s neck. He nodded at Katie, who was clinging on to him from the other side, completely wasted.

  ‘Woo-hoo!’ the girl yelled, raising a half-empty bottle of champagne. ‘To Soho, everyone! Up up and awaaay!’

  Everyone laughed and a couple of the others took over the cheer. The cabs pulled up, and the group bustled down the stairs, dragging Spencer along. No one even noticed Louise sitting there, balled up in the deep blue shadows, and Spencer found himself wishing he hadn’t either. The whole thing had made him feel out of his depth. He didn’t like that. He liked to be on top of things. Such was the Hirst nature.

  It's not my problem, he thought. After all, what did he care about Hepburn, anyway? The night was young and beautiful, and so was he. Hepburn was perfectly able of taking care of herself. But just before he got into the cab that was about to carry him and his friends into the city, where the real party was, Spencer couldn’t suppress the urge to glance back one last time, the jacket he had intended to put over her shoulders still in his hands.

  His disappointment surprised him.

  The steps were empty.

  She was gone.

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