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Chapter 4
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Over the next couple of days, Louise got into her usual holiday routine. Up at six thirty, quick shower, muesli bar, and off to the station for the fifty-minute train ride into London. Three Tube stations and a couple of escalators later, and the façade of Henderson’s, the big department store where she’d landed a job for the season, rose above her against the slowly brightening December sky. Through the double doors, and then it was a blur of stressed customers, gift wrap paper cuts and Christmas carols on repeat straight until five, no time for lunch, before doing the whole itinerary in the opposite direction again. The money was pretty decent: more than three times the amount her usual job at the grocery store in Kingsmore paid. But this was the last year before the Master’s began, and the all-important summer internships were coming up. That meant no time to earn any extra pocket money come July and August. If she wanted to get by, Louise had no choice but to make the most out of what she could scrape together now. So, every night, after heating a bowl of soup or some noodles in the common room’s notoriously fickle microwave—pressing the “start” button always felt a little like playing Russian roulette—, she changed into her waitressing uniform and headed back out a second time. Luckily, the catering company sent a van to drive her and the other staff members to the venue of the evening, so at least she was spared another train ride, but by the time she returned, it was usually well past midnight.

  Still, Louise was pleased to discover that despite her jam-packed schedule, there was more than enough time left to work on her “little project”, as she had come to call it. For as it turned out, sex wasn’t a hard subject at all. Theoretically, at least. The whole internet was simply teeming with material, and she found she had no problem disconnecting herself from the topic, going about it much in the same way she would have studied the bilateral agreements between France and the US in post-war Europe. On the train she had to make sure her phone was well-shielded, of course, but at night in her dorm room, when she was still too wound up from waitressing to go to bed, she didn’t even bother putting in her ear phones: the building was near deserted; she was the only student left on her entire floor. It was all going so smoothly that before she knew it, Louise had researched everything there was to research—or everything she cared to, at least. No need to go rocky road when downing a scoop of vanilla already presented enough of a challenge, right? And that’s where the catch lay: because theorizing about sex was all good and well, disconnecting herself from it, studying it as if she would some random subject, but when she had to imagine herself into the equation, things turned tricky. Then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t so simple anymore. Then, by some mystery, her palms got sweaty, her brow furrowed, her heart tha-thumping like a rickety cuckoo clock. She found it embarrassing just thinking about it, let alone…

  Let alone doing what I’ll have to do next.

  Louise bit her lip, the pale glow from the computer screen lighting up her face in the muddy orange dark of her room. But there was no other way. Book smarts alone weren’t going to cut it here, she’d known that from the start.

  It was high time to put phase two of her little project into motion…

 

*

 

She needed a guinea pig. A willing victim to test her newfound knowledge on. Question was of course: who?

  Louise let her gaze travel over the guests while she slowly picked her way around the festively decorated patio. She was balancing a silver platter on her right hand that was loaded with little triangles of buttered toast arranged around a decadently large bowl of beluga caviar. It was Christmas Eve, and the catering company was one of two that had been folded into the Hackney Court Country Club to alleviate the staff shortage at their Annual Yule Fund Raiser. It was always a challenge finding people willing to work on a night like this; same for New Year’s. So, Louise had jumped at the opportunity and signed up for both. A fact she was beginning to regret. The work load was more than reasonable and the pay downright exuberant, but the hypocrisy of this place hung so thick in the air that she thought she was going to choke on it. “Make merry for the environment!”; judging by the elegantly calligraphed banner crossing the gigantic Christmas wreath above the Club’s entrance, that was this year’s Fund Raiser theme. With a snort, Louise glared at the multitude of gas-fuelled terrace heaters that were placed around the patio and that were “merrily” pumping hundreds of pounds of CO2 into the air. She was wearing a silk blouse and the outside temperatures were flirting with the sub-zeroes, yet she was almost sweating. Why anyone in their right mind would choose to serve hors d’oeuvres al fresco in December was beyond her. Probably to show off the grounds, she mused. There was a giant Christmas tree twinkling in the middle of the billiard-cloth-like lawn that could easily compete with the one on Times Square, and the dormant flowerbeds and carefully shaped but now skeletal hedges were so flooded with ground lighting it made Louise inadvertently think of prison guards and blood hounds. No escaping the Country Club, apparently. She scoffed. And that was another thing. “Make merry…”, even that first part didn’t ring true. Sure, everyone was smiling and nodding and clinking glasses, the little live band in the corner dousing everything in a cascade of light, unobtrusive pseudo-jazz, yet there was an unmistakable atmosphere of gloom about it all. Like the event was just a perfunctory measure and even the guests themselves didn’t quite know what they were doing here. After all, who really wanted to spend their Christmas Eve at some catered venue with a bunch of jaded semi-strangers? Christmas was supposed to be about family, and everything else was just sad. Even these posh gits seemed to realize that on some level or other.

  Louise felt a new pang of longing for Nan. She was going home for her birthday in February, but it wasn’t the same. What she’d give to be up North with her grandmother right now, drinking eggnog and watching cheesy Christmas programs on the telly!

  Eyes on the prize, Louise, she steeled herself. Remember what you came here for. After all, there was more riding on tonight than just the topping up of her meagre savings. Nerves spiked through her belly. The plan was clear: find a test subject and get cracking. It was risky, it was crazy, it moved everything from nice, snug, controllable theory into the cold harsh daylight of practice, but it was also very very necessary. She had been dragging her feet about this for too long already. If she wasn’t careful, the holidays would be over and she’d go into the new semester with exactly the same amount of experience she’d had before: zilch.

  While she continued her stroll around the patio, stopping here and there to dole out caviar on toast like it was fish paste sandwiches, Louise carefully vetted the men around her. At least half of them could be discarded based on age alone—though the feeling clearly wasn’t mutual. The silk blouse­–and more specifically the vague contours of her nipples showing in it—had gotten the attention of more than one dirty old geezer already. Louise pulled a face. She might have grown up lacking a father, but contrary to popular cliché, the whole daddy experience didn’t appeal to her in the slightest. Luckily, there were plenty of candidates closer to her own age left. All too posh and too groomed and too full of themselves to really be her type, but it wasn’t like she was looking for a relationship or anything, so what did it matter?

  Whatever you do, don’t overthink it, Louise reminded herself. That’s how you got into this whole mess to begin with: too much thinking and too little doing. Just pick one, already!

  She swallowed. Okay. Over there, by the jazz-quartet: the one with the dark eyebrows. He was handsome enough; had kind of an early Pierce Brosnan-look about him. He was insanely drunk, though, that was a bit of a turn-off. She didn’t mind tipsy, but young Pierce was already in the process of tying his tie around his forehead, something Louise had only ever seen her great-uncle Henry do, the night after his horse had come in first at the Grand National. Besides, going on her recent research, drunkards were useless in bed. So. Not the one with the eyebrows then. She scanned the faces around her, desperate to find a match before she lost heart. Maybe the strawberry blond with the freckles and the wicked glint in his green eyes? Yes, he looked rather nice…

  As if he had heard her thoughts, the blond turned and sauntered over to her. Louise’s heart walloped, her vision blurring from nerves. She wobbled the tray in his general direction, her arms suddenly gone to jelly. He bent over it, deciding which of the identical toast triangles took his fancy, thereby moving a little closer into her. His vicinity was an almost physical sensation, like she could feel the energy radiating off his body. While he dolloped a spoonful of gleaming black caviar onto the Chosen Toast, Louise forced herself to keep looking at him; to really try and visualize him and her together. In the same room, in the same square meter of space, in the same bed... His lips closed around the bread, and she couldn’t help but notice the lusciousness of his mouth as he let the caviar dissolve on his tongue. Something awoke in her belly. Something warm and primal. Yes, maybe he was the one she’d been looking for. She could ask him. Could she ask him? Oh Dear Lord, she was going to. She was going to ask him!

  The strawberry blond caught her gaze, and immediately picked up on her body language. A knowing grin spread on his face, the wicked glint in his eyes growing into an even more wicked glitter. He licked a crumb from his bottom lip, his tongue an alluring wet-ish pale pink, and gave her a wink. For a split second, Louise stood stock-still, like a deer come out of a clearing only to find itself face to face with the hunter. Then she snapped around so fast it was a miracle the bowl of caviar didn’t go flying among the jazz-quartet. Oh, this was awful! Just awful. She couldn’t. She couldn’t do this. No way. Not with a stranger. It was simply too awkward.

  Tray still half-full, she fled back inside.

  ‘Patrick, I need a minute,’ she pleaded to her superior, sliding the tray onto the bar next to the other dirty dishes.

  ‘Go ahead, lass,’ Patrick nodded, drying a champagne glass with the speed and ease of many years’ experience. ‘Reception’s nearly over, we have a bit of time before they start coming in for dinner.’

  ‘Thanks!’ Louise sighed, infinitely grateful.

  Patrick was so sweet. For a moment she considered him. But it simply wouldn’t do. Firstly, he was too old to old for her, and secondly…

  I need someone good-looking, she admitted to herself. Shallow as that sounds…

  Feeling lower than pond-scum, Louise crossed the dining area, and disappeared into the hall.

 

*

 

Her first instinct was to run outside. To just up and leave and walk the entire distance back to Kingsmore on foot. Ridiculous of course. It was freezing, Kingsmore was a thirty-minute drive away, and she needed this job desperately. Hoping to get as far away from the dining room and adjoining patio as possible, she plunged into the nearest corridor instead. She needed to be alone for a while; lick her wounds and recover from this new defeat. She let out a frustrated grunt. Why was this stuff so damn hard? It was just sex, for Christ’s sake, not rocket science!

  I would have preferred rocket science.

  At the moment, that did seem like the easier option to her.

  Good in theory, lousy in practice.

  Was that going to be the story of her life? After all, she hadn’t done much of it, had she, of living? Work and study, yes, plenty of that. But truly living? Louise looked at her feet as they dragged their way along the Persian runner. She had never been drunk, never made a bad grade, or had a hobby that didn’t serve some future purpose. She rarely went out, had always been a one or two friends kind of person. And, she’d never had a boyfriend before…

  I need to make this work, she thought, hugging herself, suddenly shivering. Or I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.

  But if she couldn’t find a suitable test subject, her whole project was done for.

  She turned a corner and found herself in front of the Club’s lounge area again. It was accessible straight from the entrance hall too, but apparently this corridor ran all the way around, linking to the billiard room and the lavatories. The lounge itself had been closed down for the night; it was deserted, the only light coming from a low red fire crackling in the hearth. A pair of big plush armchairs beckoned cosily in front of it.

  Lost in thought, Louise slipped the velvet rope and made her way into the room.

  Trying to find someone here was a bad idea, she fretted, rounding bulky couches and easy chairs that stood like great crouching beasts in the semi-dark.

  She needed to factor in her temperament. She just wasn’t the person to pick some random guy off the street.

  Thank God I discarded the online option straight away. Plenty of candidates there, and all just a swipe away, but Louise couldn’t imagine making a decision like this solely based on a picture and a short—often fabricated—bio. It might only be research, but the subject was still intimate… 

  What I need is someone familiar, she mused.

  Someone she knew and had ready access to, but who was outside her circle of friends. Someone who was knowledgeable about this stuff, but discreet enough not to blab. Someone with an appearance that was tolerable, at the least. And most importantly, she needed someone she didn’t harbour any feelings for, and vice versa. The situation was complicated enough as it was!

  She needed someone like…

  ‘Oh, I’m sorry!’ Embarrassed, Louise stopped abruptly, meaning to return on her steps. But then she recognized the head that had just turned towards her.

  Spencer Hirst was sitting in one of the armchairs in front of the fireplace, previously hidden from sight by the chair’s high back. He was looking over his shoulder at her with a mix of startled surprise and languid amusement on his face. From somewhere between his legs, the dishevelled head of a brunette popped up.

  Louise’s initial mortification evaporated. She crossed her arms and lifted a condemning eyebrow.

  ‘Hep—Hepburn?’ he grinned, sounding somewhat winded. The butterfly tie of his tuxedo was undone, as were the top buttons of his shirt. ‘What the hell are you doing here?’

  ‘Hirst,’ she greeted icily.

  The brunette frowned up at Louise with tipsy, half-closed eyes. ‘Say, do you mind?’ Her matte pink lipstick was all smeared.

  ‘May I present Lady Penelope Braithwaite?’ Hirst announced, like they had all just bumped into each other at a cocktail party.

  ‘Charmed, I’m sure,’ Louise answered.

  Lady Penelope, still on her knees, gave Louise a wide, wobbly smile, followed by an equally wobbly nod. Her bun, already slightly askew, flopped around dangerously.

  Louise had to bite her cheek to keep from laughing. ‘Well, I guess I better leave you to it, then.’ She walked past them towards the door that lead back to the entrance hall, a smirk playing on her lips. It wouldn’t be long now…

 

*

 

Not ten minutes later, while she was helping Patrick behind the bar, Hirst approached her, just like she’d known he would. His eyes roved over her waitressing outfit. ‘Interesting get-up, Hepburn.’

  ‘And you,’ she retorted pointedly, nodding her chin at the wool coat he was wearing. ‘Fleeing the scene of the crime, are we?’

  He looked away with a scoff, shaking his head like he couldn’t believe he was actually going to continue with this conversation. But he did. Oh, yes, he did… ‘Not at all,’ he explained. ‘I was just dropping by to hand in the cheque with my family’s donation, was never intending on staying.’

  ‘And yet you still found time to make friendly with the natives.’

  This time, Hirst didn’t reply. He just looked at her with that condescending half-grin of his; that grin she knew so well and that always made her wonder what he was thinking, only to conclude it couldn’t be anything remotely proper. A part of him was proud of what he’d been caught at doing, she was sure of it. But another part… Louise waited, dunking a champagne glass up and down in the sink like she had all the time in the world. Hirst had one hand leant on the bar, one in his trousers pocket, a gleaming lackered shoe leisurely on the brass rail. In other words, he looked like he owned the place, as per usual. But in spite of his casual stance she could see he wasn’t nearly as self-confident as he normally was. The hand on the bar opened and closed several times, and he couldn’t seem to keep his gaze fixed on anything, looking away, at the other guests, then back again. It was obvious he wanted something from her. Which was perfect, as she had one or two requests of her own…

  Realizing she wasn’t going to make the first move, he caved and cleared his throat. ‘A word, Hepburn?’ It sounded as indifferent as was humanly possible, like he was asking her what she thought about this morning’s weather and was going to die from boredom should she actually answer. But there was a distinct twinge of tension in his tone, jarring as a false note. Louise smiled inwardly.

  ‘Would love to,’ she replied, sarcasm oozing from every letter. ‘But I just came off my break. You see, I am working here.’ She indicated the glasses that stood waiting to be rinsed. ‘You familiar with the concept, Hirst?’

  He ignored her comment and pulled a cigarette from the sleek silver case he’d just produced from inside his coat. ‘I’m sure they can spare you for a moment or two, right old chap?’ The unlit cigarette bobbing between his lips, Hirst winked at Patrick, who had been watching their exchange from the side-line, and then actually proceeded to slip him a ten-pound note. Louise couldn’t believe it. The arrogance of that man! Rolling her eyes at Patrick, who nodded a stunned okay, Louise set the glass on the rack for him to dry and came out from behind the bar. ‘Lead the way,’ she sighed, wiping her hands on her skirt.

  Hirst proceeded to accompany her to the Club’s front entrance like he was ushering her to her seat at the opera. No matter how deep the abysses his scruples explored, his manners always remained right up there, like a buoy signalling there was life down there after all.

  The poor bastard probably couldn’t behave any differently if he tried, Louise thought. His lot was good at that sort of thing. Bred into them, she supposed.

  She waved away his attempt to help her into her down jacket and pulled it on herself as they passed underneath the ‘Make merry for the environment”-wreath. With no terrace heaters around, it was frightfully cold out. Louise clapped her arms a coupe of times and then rubbed them as they descended down the steps towards the parking lot.

  ‘So,’ she began, not without glee. ‘A cheque and a blow-job. Is this how you usually spend your Christmas Eve, Hirst? One of those age-old family traditions, eh?’

  He gave her a quick, sideways glance. She waited for the obligatory snappy reply, but it didn’t come. For a moment the only sound was that of the gravel crunching underneath their shoes. Hirst lit his cigarette with two clicks of his lighter and inhaled deeply. ‘Yeah, well, about that…’, he began, rubbing his eyebrow with his thumb, the cigarette clasped between index and middle finger. ‘I was hoping we could come to some sort of arrangement or other.’

  Louise sent him a questioning look.

  ‘About my little encounter with Lady Penelope,’ he elaborated.

‘With “Lady” Penelope…’ Louise scoffed, trying not to grin too broadly as she stressed the title.

  ‘She is, you know. Her father’s the Duke of Carmwell.’

  ‘Is she now? How absolutely riveting. You know, I could tell instantly from her behaviour. Very lady-like. Nay, simply regal!’

  Hirst stopped and turned towards her. ‘Okay, what do you want me to say? That you’re right? That we’re all just drinking and whoring good-for-nothings? Fine. I completely acquiesce.’ He gave her a mock bow, gesturing with the hand that held the cigarette. Blue smoke twirled circles into the air.

  Louise eyed him sceptically, arms crossed in front of her. ‘My my, you are worried about the Heiress, aren’t you? I didn’t know you had it in you. Where is she anyway?’

  Hirst turned his head, and started walking again. ‘Daphne is in Switzerland,’ he admitted, tipping ashes to the ground before taking another drag. ‘Skiing, with her parents.’

  ‘Oh dear,’ Louise tutted. ‘What will she say when she gets back and hears what you’ve been up to.’

They came to a halt by a black vintage Porsche that was apparently Hirst’s. He leant back against the passenger side door, finishing his smoke. ‘Come on, Hepburn,’ he snorted, like they’d had enough fun but now it was time to get down to brass tax. ‘Stop joking around. This thing with Penny… it was completely harmless, okay. An accident, if you will.’

  Louise huffed out her breath. ‘An accident?’

  ‘Well yes, I ran into her straight thing in the entrance hall. God, hadn’t seen each other in ages!’ He actually smiled at that, a vague, almost dreamy expression on his face.

  ‘So, you slipped into an abandoned room and had… an accident?’

  Hirst’s smile widened. ‘Now you’re starting to understand.’

  She shook her head. ‘Un-be-lievable.’

  There was a moment’s silence.

  ‘So, you will, then?’ he ventured.

  ‘Will what?’

  ‘Keep it a secret?’

  He looked at her through slightly narrowed eyes, his gaze intense, like he was sizing her up, almost; trying to predict what her answer would be.

 It’s all a game to him, Louise realized. Oh, he was hoping she would say yes, of course, but there had definitely been something of a challenge in the question too. Like he had placed a calculated bet that held just enough of an element of danger in it to excite him. Louise held his gaze, mirrored it right back at him. For a moment, neither of them spoke. Two duellists waiting for the other to draw. Louise took a slow step towards him, arms still crossed in front of her. Their faces were only inches apart now. His grey eyes were dark and yet strangely translucent at the same time in the subdued ground lighting of the parking lot.         ‘And why on earth,’ she whispered, with just as much of a challenge in her own voice, ‘would I do that?’

  Something flickered in his eyes, like a cloud flitting across the moon. An emotion, pure and unveiled.

  Louise couldn’t help feeling a sense of pride. Piercing Spencer Hirst’s armour was a feat one didn’t accomplish every day.

  ‘I see,’ he replied, his voice low. ‘What do you want, then? Money?’ He scoffed out the last word in a bored, almost disappointed tone. ‘Come on. Tell me the amount it will take to  buy you off.’ He reached into his jacket and pulled his wallet out. The bundle of notes he subsequently produced nearly cut off Louise’s breath. ‘If it doesn’t suffice I can always write you a cheque,’ he added, confused, when he saw the look on her face.

  Louise gazed at the stack of paper in Hirst’s hand, and decided once and for all life just wasn’t fair. Jesus Christ, how much spending money did one posh prat need?!

  Of course, she should have been offended at such a blatant attempt to bribe her, but there simply wasn’t time. Her thoughts were already two steps ahead.

  You could stay in uni and do the summer internship without having to work another day, they jubilated.You could go home tomorrow and spend the rest of the holidays with Nan!

  It wasn’t like she felt some great moral duty to inform Daphne Maybury. What did Louise care the Heiress was being cheated on? If anything, it served her right for dating someone like Hirst. But Hirst didn’t know that, of course. And people had a tendency to measure another’s behaviour by their own…

  He would, Louise thought, revolted. If it was the other way around, he’d run to my boyfriend in a heartbeat. For nothing more than the pleasure of ruining my life.

  Except she didn’t have a boyfriend, of course.

  Louise gave a deep, inward sigh. She looked at the money, and she looked at Hirst—who was starting to grow worried in earnest now it seemed even his bank account wasn’t going to get him out of this—and then reminded herself of why she had come out here with him in the first place. Of the bells that had gone off in her head the moment she’d walked in on him and that upper-class tart in the lounge.

  Use him. Use him for what he’s worth!

  ‘Money isn’t what I need,’ she heard herself say.

  For a second, there was a hint of panic in Hirst’s eyes, but that soon morphed into something else entirely.

  Curiosity.

  ‘It isn’t?’ he inquired, almost grotesquely intrigued. With a pang, Louise witnessed the stack of notes disappearing back into his wallet, and the wallet back into his jacket again.

  ‘No. I need…’ she searched for the right word. ‘…your expertise, if you will.’

  His eyebrows shot up. ‘My expertise?’

  All of a sudden, Louise’s throat felt bone-dry. Was she really doing this?

  Hirst scoffed, humour creeping back into his eyes. ‘You want my notes from Cavelin’s class or something?’

  Louise didn’t even dignify that with an answer. ‘Please,’ she smirked, rolling her eyes.

  Hirst gave her a sour look.

  ‘No,’ she continued. ‘What I want from you is more on the… practical side.’ She could see he still had no clue of what she was aiming at. Okay. This was it. She took a deep breath and revved herself up for the million-dollar question. But then a thought flashed through her head, like a bolt of lightning, cutting her short.

  David hates him.

  She hadn’t considered that. David had hated Hirst and his clique almost from the moment he’d set eyes on them. Another reason why David was so absolutely perfect for her. But what would he say if he ever found out about this? He’d never touch her again, ever!

  David won’t find out. I’ll make sure he doesn’t. Besides, the whole idea is so wild, he wouldn’t even believe it if he did.

  And what else was she gonna do? Hirst was simply too perfect a candidate to let slide.

  ‘It’s…’ Louise closed her eyes, shaking her head at herself. Then, with a sigh, she revealed: ‘It’s sex, Hirst.’

  He doubled over towards her, huffing out his breath. ‘Sex?

  ‘Sex,’ she repeated defiantly, raising her chin.  

  He looked at her for a beat or two, stunned beyond belief. Then he burst into laughter. ‘Jesus, Hepburn! Is there a hidden camera somewhere? Or are you really trying to blackmail me into fucking you?’

  She ignored his crass language, forcing herself to stay calm. ‘This isn’t blackmail. You’re perfectly allowed to say no.’

  Hirst roared. ‘How gracious of you!’

  Unfazed, Louise continued: ‘All I ask is that you don’t go blabbing about my request to your friends, like you’re no doubt dying to do. Otherwise I’ll have a little conversation to the Heiress about “Lady” Penelope. Understood?’

  He frowned, his eyebrows knitting together as realization dawned. ‘My God, you’re actually serious, aren’t you?’

  ‘Deadly.’

  He took a moment to let this sink in, then shook his head with a smile. ‘I knew it.’

  Louise frowned. ‘Knew what?’

  ‘That you secretly had the hots for me. All these years, all that frustrated back and forth. Poor thing. How you must have suffered in the shadows… You know, there are other ways to seduce a man than twisting his arm. I mean, you’re not all that unattractive.’

  Louise put her head in her neck. ‘Ugh! This is not blackmail! And no, I don’t have the hots for you! That’s the whole reason why I am asking you to help me with this in the first place!’

  He frowned at her, completely at a loss.

  She tried to come up with a way to put this into words to make him understand, while at the same not giving too much away. ‘I’m working on a… project. Scientific research, if you will. I want to perfect my skills. And I need a—’ She swallowed the word guinea pig just in time. ‘—a study-buddy, to practice with.’

Hirst’s eyes grew wide. Louise felt her unease grow. ‘Well,’ she said, when he didn’t reply immediately, ‘what is it now?’

  ‘Dear God!’ he whispered. ‘You’re… you’re still a virgin, aren’t you?’

  Louise couldn’t help it. Immediately, her cheeks lit up like traffic lights. Fuck!!!

  Hirst clapped in his hands and laughed again, loudly and without inhibition. ‘I can’t believe this! You’re asking me to pop your cherry! Christ, Hepburn, you’re even crazier than I thought!’

  ‘Stop it! Stop laughing!’ she fumed. ‘Oh, what was I thinking? I never should’ve asked you!’ She turned around, ready to storm off, but he grabbed her by the arm, not in an unkindly way.

  ‘Okay, okay, I’m sorry, all right? It’s just… wow! I mean, how old are you? Twenty?’

  She shrugged his hand off. ‘I’ll be twenty-one in February.’

  ‘Wow,’ he repeated, genuinely astonished.

  ‘Now you understand why I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands?’

  ‘Hm.’ He gave her a look up and down. ‘I didn’t think you were the type for casual sex, though. You’ve waited this long, why not hold out a little longer? Until you find someone you’re actually in love with, I mean?’

  His remark threw her a little. She hadn’t expected this was the sort of thought that would cross the mind of a man like Hirst. She didn’t know why she replied, but as she spoke the words, she realized they were true. ‘Because I don’t want him to laugh at me like you just did.’ Her voice caught, diminishing to a hoarse whisper. The memory of seeing David with Tina the Christmas Ball was still so fresh, like a wound that started bleeding at the littlest movement. The idea of David laughing at her was simply unbearable.

  Hirst frowned at her, every hint of mockery gone from his face now. He shrugged. ‘He wouldn’t do that.’

  Louise kicked the point of her shoe into the gravel, and let out a cynical snort. ‘Wanna bet?’

  Hirst remained silent, still with that frown creasing his brow, and suddenly, Louise was reminded of another scene at the Ball, or rather, immediately after it. A shock zinged through her. She couldn’t believe it! How could she not have remembered this until now?! Hirst had seen her, outside on the steps. When she was crying, her whole life crashing down around her, he of all people had witnessed it! She let out a shaky breath. The experience should have mortified her, but in truth she seemed to have forgotten all about it mere seconds after it had happened. She had just been too wrapped up in her grief about David and Tina to think about much else.

  I was in shock, she thought.

  And Hirst had been there. He’d looked at her, with that exact same expression he was giving her now.

  Pity? she wondered. Or was it… compassion? Surprised, Louise searched Hirst’s gaze, for the first time really looking at him like there might be an actual human being in there after all. And for a split second, she thought she had discovered it, that emotion she suspected him of. But then it was like someone closed a shutter behind his eyes, and his expression returned to its usual bored conceit. He scoffed, then said with a shrug: ‘Sure. I mean, why would he laugh? Every guy loves a virgin. It’s like all special and shit.’

  Disappointment swept over her like a tundra wind. Not compassion, then. It was nothing more than cold, calculated interest. He wants to know what’s behind all this. To have the satisfaction of being in on my pain. Always playing games. But she could play, too. And then some. ‘Well,’ she whispered. ‘Then you’re very lucky, aren’t you?’

  He grinned at her, slowly, like a cat. ‘I guess I am.’

  ‘I take it you accept, then?’

  He shrugged, flicking the cigarette butt to the ground and crushing it with his heel. ‘It’s not like I’ve got anything better to do.’

  ‘Your enthusiasm is truly flattering.’

  ‘You know me.’

  ‘Indeed.’

  They stared at each other for a moment, neither of them saying a word. Then, without breaking eye-contact, Hirst beeped the Porche to life, opened the passenger side door and held it for her. ‘My lady...’

  Louise gazed into the open mouth of the car door; at the beckoning pale crème interior behind it. She could smell the well-oiled vintage leather from where she stood. It could all be over tonight, if she really wanted it to. And for a moment, she was actually tempted. But only for a moment. If she got into that car now, things would happen on Hirst’s terms. She couldn’t allow that. She needed to do this her way. She needed to be the one in control.

  ‘Not now,’ she spoke. ‘But I’m off work tomorrow. You can come by my dorm then. Glover Hall, room 415. Eight o’clock will do.’

  Hirst gave her that cat-grin again. ‘Your wish is my command.’

  ‘Don’t be late.’ She turned and started making her way back, her heels annoyingly sinking into the gravel path. Hirst called after her: ‘Hey, Hepburn, one more thing!’

  She stopped and looked over her shoulder.

  He jerked his chin at her. ‘Of all people, why ask me?’

  She gave him a disgusted look up and down. ‘Because you’re the only person I know immoral enough to actually agree to something like this.’

  Without another glance, Louise crossed to the entrance and disappeared inside.

 

*

 

That night —or rather that morning, it was 5 AM before she finally got home— when she collapsed onto her bed and stared up at the ceiling, Louise realized she felt stronger and more calm than she had in days. The exchange with Hirst had been appalling, but it had finally made her see things clearly. She knew now, without a shadow of a doubt, that her virginity was for David Brown, and no one else. And certainly not a class-A asshole like Hirst! Oh, Hirst might think they had each other in a deadlock. After all, he’d seen her at her most vulnerable, and now she’d seen him in a compromising situation, too. Truly what you would call a getting-caught-with-your-pants-down kind of situation. But if there was one thing Louise was certain of, it was that she’d never, ever allow Spencer Hirst to sleep with her. She would keep him in the illusion, of course. After all, making him think he’d get into her pants was the only thing that would assure her of his full cooperation. How could he pass up such a golden opportunity to humiliate her; to truly, literally establish his dominance over her? It would be the carrot she dangled in front of him, keeping him motivated enough so she could test out all her other stuff on him. And then, when he’d taught her all she needed to know, she’d drop him like a hot-cake, right before the main event. Leave him standing there with his dick in his hand, so to speak. Louise smiled wryly. This wasn’t exactly how she’d imagined her project would take shape, but for the first time since she’d conceived it, she finally felt like she had it all figured out.

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