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Chapter 5
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The wonderful feeling of being on top of her game lasted until exactly ten fourteen the next morning: the precise moment she had pressed the little red telephone icon on her mobile, ending her conversation with Nan. Talking to your grandmother on Christmas morning when you knew you were about to embark on a journey of sexual exploration a few hours later was never beneficial for morale, but that wasn’t the only thing that had thrown her.

  ‘You’ll never guess who stopped by...’

  That’s what Nan had said, when Louise had asked her if she hadn’t felt too lonely on Christmas Eve. By her grandmother’s tone—a whole octave higher and struggling with all her might to sound as light-hearted as possible—the answer was no mystery. Louise had felt the bottom drop out of her stomach. After all these years, that still happened to her. She had cleared her throat with a dry little cough and inquired, with equally failing nonchalance: ‘Not… Gemma?’

  The short pause on the other end of the line confirmed it before Nan herself did, and Louise’s stomach made another summersault. Apparently, her mother had made a surprise visit the night before, boyfriend du jour in tow. Nan hadn’t divulged a great deal, only that she hadn’t stayed long and that the boyfriend seemed “nice”, but Louise didn’t need much more to fill in the blanks. She herself had suffered through more than her share of Gemma Hepburn’s unexpected appearances to know the deal. The boyfriend in question was always brand-new and yet certain to be The One—capital T, capital O—, always working as a bookmaker or a bartender or an “entrepreneur”, whilst in reality being a small-time crook or gambling/coke/booze addict of some sort; after dinner, which they picked at perfunctorily while kissing and fondling each other like loved-up teenagers, the two of them would invariably proceed to raid Nan’s liquor cabinet, draining pretty much everything besides the cooking cherry, and then top it all off by begging her for all the money they could pry loose. Cash and booze acquired, Gemma would tell Louise what a big girl she had become, give her a tipsy, perfume-infused kiss and tell her to be nice to her Nan, before leaving to go party with her new money and her new man, never to be heard of again for months and months on end. This absence had been a long one, though…

  Throat still bone-dry, Louise had somehow managed to ask: ‘How was she?’

  Again, Nan’s pause was telling. ‘She seemed OK.’

  In other words, Gemma had looked like a woman with two more years under her belt of the life she’d been living the last time they’d seen her. Neither Louise nor Nan cared to solidify that by putting it into words, though.

  ‘That’s good,’ Louise had concluded, her voice lacking the power to rise above anything but a hoarse whisper. They had quickly moved on to other topics, like two drowning people grappling for a lifebuoy, and with equal relief when they finally latched on. But the sparkle was out of the conversation, as if someone had pulled it vacuum with a big emotional hoover.

  Gemma Hepburn’s middle name, Louise had thought afterwards, when she was staring at the black screen of the mobile phone in her lap, feeling numb and at the same time torn into pieces by a million conflicting emotions. The Emotional Hoover. Louise was relieved she hadn’t been present last night, and at the same time, she felt regret about it, too. And not only because poor Nan had had to deal with all of that by herself. Louise despised Gemma for being who she was: unreliable, selfish, weak… And yet Gemma was and would always be her mother, a mother that deep-down Louise wanted nothing more than to be loved by, which made her feel like she herself was weak. Something that absolutely terrified her…

  To make matters worse, Louise had then—phone still in her lap—received the long-awaited reply from David to the Merry Christmas-meme she’d sent him earlier that morning—one that she’d spent a good part of her night scouring the internet for, stressing over deciding if it had the right tone, was funny enough without being able to be interpreted wrongly, and if it conveyed all she wanted it to. David’s response was a greeting card he’d sent out to a batch of people all at once and consisted of a picture of him and Tina in Christmas hats, a gorgeous Golden Retriever with a lolling tongue at their feet. The Retriever’s fur was the exact same shade of blond as Tina’s hair, and from the surroundings (sterile melamine kitchen and a fake all-white Christmas tree) Louise deducted it had been taken at her place, not David’s. At least there was some comfort in that, she supposed. Though not much.

  Safe to say, it had been a pretty shitty day.

  With a sigh, Louise closed her laptop and glanced at the clock above her desk. Eight to eight. In spite of herself, her stomach lurched. It wasn’t that she wasn’t well-prepared. The department store was closed for Christmas; she’d had this whole godawful day to get ready for her little rendezvous with Hirst. And true to form, everything was meticulously planned, not a single detail left to chance. Louise grabbed the spreadsheet she had printed out and ran it over one last time. Yes, it was all there; every technique she wanted to try, with its detailed description, relevant questions and high-lighted focus points, colour-coded and all. Then why did she still feel so jittery, like she was about to go into an exam she hadn’t studied for?

  She brushed a recalcitrant lock of hair behind her ear. She hadn’t bothered to use the conditioner this morning. After all, it was just Hirst; no one to impress, right? Same for her clothes. She was wearing a pair of skinny jeans she’d had for ages and one of her checked flannel shirts; in other words, the same get-up she usually wore to class.

  Maybe I should have put on some make-up, though. Just a little, to boost my confidence.

  Then again, Hirst hadn’t exactly been recalcitrant when she’d put forward her proposal… To her surprise, Louise realized she had never even considered the option he might not find her attractive enough to accept. It was a question she’d asked herself a million times where David was concerned: does he think I’m pretty? But with Hirst, it had never even crossed her mind

  He does. I saw the way he looked at me, at the Christmas Ball. His eyes were crawling all over my dress.

  Yet she wasn’t in her green velvet gown now, was she? Suddenly, the idea Hirst might find her unattractive, felt uncomfortable. After all, she had to admit he himself wasn’t exactly bad-looking. He was pretty hot, actually, in an obnoxious sort of way.

  There’s not enough time, he’ll be here any minute…

  She hesitated a moment longer, then jumped out of her chair all the same. Some mascara and a little lipstick; that didn’t take too long. And maybe she could even undo her shirt a tad. Only the top buttons. After all, there was no harm in looking the part, right?

 

*

 

At exactly two to eight, Spencer stepped out of his Porsche and lit up, more out of habit than anything else. His appetites went beyond smoking, tonight. He considered the dark mass that was Glover Hall, towering above him. The Victorian building was impressive from the outside, but he knew the interior was bleak and depressing. He had visited it a couple of times before, when hooking up with this girl or that. Not that he had ever stayed the night. He lived off-campus, in London. Well worth the daily commute, if you asked him. He couldn’t imagine having to spend your student years cooped up in a draughty, outdated government building, surrounded by mint-coloured hallways and snoring roommates and communal bathrooms and a multitude of other, similar horrors.

  Although it does add a certain drama to the situation tonight, he thought, with a grin. He could just picture himself in Hepburn’s narrow bed; it creaking and straining underneath them as he took her virginity. She’d probably have music playing in the background. Some indie band which she thought was super deep and complicated, but was actually the mother of all clichés. Yes, an indie band with a female lead singer with a faery voice, or a guy with a raspy one. And candles, too. Lots of them. No, not candles, tea lights, in little hand-painted holders. His grin widened.

  I wonder what she’ll be like in the sack. If she’ll be uptight, or just the other way around.

  From his experience, that was always a bit of a gamble. Some girls seemed smoking hot in public but were dire let-downs when it came to the actual deed. Whereas others proved to be a pleasant surprise. Somehow, he suspected Hepburn would fall in the category of the latter.

  She’ll need a little guidance, of course. After all, that’s why she invited me here in the first place.

  Spencer scoffed. He still couldn’t wrap his head around it. The whole thing was downright bizarre. But then again, Hepburn was a peculiar one. If she had set her mind on something, there was no telling what she’d do. Of course, he knew there had to be more to it than she was letting on. He had seen the way she’d been dolled up at the Christmas Ball, something that was completely out of character for her. And then later, even more uncharacteristically, how she had been crying her eyes out on the steps outside. It didn’t take much to put two and two together.

  She’s been slighted by someone, and now she’s out for revenge.

  Why on earth she needed to fuck him in order to get that revenge was a mystery, but hey, why look a given horse in the mouth?

  Maybe the guy in question hates my guts, Spencer thought. That was probably it. Lord knew there were plenty of those around campus.

  With mild surprise he realized he kind of liked the idea of playing a part in getting back at that bastard. Anyone who reduced a woman like Hepburn to tears had to be a class-A asshole.

  He took a last, perfunctory draw from the near untouched cigarette, then flicked it in the gutter. Go-time. With three, four supple strides he mounted the steps and disappeared into the shadowy depths of the building.

 

*

 

‘It’s your study-buddy,’ Hirst’s voice announced, his sarcasm apparent even through the distant and metallic sound of the intercom.

  Louise rolled her eyes and buzzed him in. A minute later, she heard the elevator grind to a halt with a laboured swooossh, then the tell-tale ping of the sliding doors. This was it. No turning back now.  Go-time. She brushed her hands through her hair, straightened her shoulders, and opened up.

  ‘Eight o’ clock sharp,’ Hirst said, with a wide smile. ‘As promised.’

  ‘I’ve been waiting on the edge of my seat,’ Louise retorted, rolling her eyes. He didn’t need to know it was actually true.

  She glanced him over critically. He looked nice, like a man out of a magazine. Images of ads for expensive cars or expensive watches or expensive liquor sprang to mind. Key word being expensive. Hirst was wearing a charcoal overcoat that brought out his eyes and the ashy tint of his blond hair. It wasn’t buttoned, and she could see a sharply cut, modern suit underneath. Black on black, no tie. Hirst was a classy dresser— unlike herself.

  He cocked an eyebrow at her shirt. ‘Back in your flannel armour, I see?’

  ‘It’s comfy.’

  ‘Nice to know you made an effort for me.’

  ‘My pleasure.’

  There was a pause.

  ‘Well,’ he sighed. ‘I’m here, as per your request. Are you still planning on going through with this thing, or what?’

  She lifted her chin defiantly. ‘Of course. Please, come in.’

  He walked past her, bringing a waft of the crisp winter air with him. It was strange to suddenly see him in standing there, surrounded by all her familiar things. He looked terribly out of place in the tiny dorm room. And quite tall, too. Louise had never noticed that before. Suddenly, the full realization of what she was doing struck her. She had arranged to meet a man she barely knew, alone in her room, at night, with the promise of having sex—a promise that she was by no means planning to deliver on. Even she, in her limited experience, knew that was playing with fire. The building was all but deserted. If she were to cry out, no one would hear her, let alone come to her rescue. Hirst didn’t strike her as the rapy type, but then you never knew…

  I’ve got my phone, she thought, feeling its reassuring rectangle in the butt-pocket of her jeans. And there’s pepper-spray in the top drawer of the night-stand. I can handle myself.

  But she left the door unlocked, just in case.

  Meanwhile, Hirst had put his coat over the back of Tina’s revolving chair and was ambling around the room, hands in his pockets. He looked vaguely disappointed, although she had no idea why. What had he expected? Candles or something? When he noticed the pink bed, he smirked. ‘I didn’t take you for the type to still sleep with stuffed animals, Hepburn?’

  ‘That one belongs to my roommate,’ Louise clarified. ‘She leaves the sheets on when she’s away. Says it’s homier for me.’

  Hirst raised his eyebrows in surprise. ‘Jeez, Hepburn,’ he said, staring at what he now knew was her half of the room. ‘Clean up much?’

  ‘I just tidied an hour ago!’

  ‘Really?’ He picked a damp towel off one of the bedposts and held it up between his thumb and index-finger.

  ‘Yes, really!’ she snapped, snatching the towel from him and quickly rolling it into a ball, then dumping it in the hamper.

  He gave her an amused look, clearly enjoying her insulted reaction. Christ, he was here two minutes and he’d already managed to get on her nerves! Still, this little exchange of unpleasantries had actually made her feel more at ease. They were back on familiar ground, exchanging sneers again. She knew how to handle that.

  But then Hirst did something completely unexpected.

  ‘Here,’ he said casually, and Louise’s eyes grew wide as he produced a single, long stem rose. It was yellow, wrapped in cellophane, and decorated with a festive silver ribbon. ‘See if you can dig up a vase from that mess.’

  ‘What the hell is that?’ she spat.

  ‘What does it look like?’

  ‘I mean, what on earth possessed you to bring it?’

  He shrugged. ‘My mother taught me never to arrive somewhere empty-handed.’

  ‘Oh no. No way!’

  ‘What?’ He looked genuinely confused.

  Louise raised her hands, palms-up. ‘Okay, look. Before we get started, I think we better lay down some ground rules, just to avoid confusion.’

  'Fair enough.’

  ‘First of all, this… thing we’re doing is purely educational in nature. There will only be physicality between us, no emotional involvement whatsoever.’

  He snorted. ‘That goes without saying.’

  ‘That also means no terms of endearment, no “dates”, and absolutely no presents!’

  ‘Oh…’ He actually looked disappointed at that. ‘As you wish.’ He tossed the flower in the waste paper basket underneath her desk, a disgruntled expression on his face.

  Louise nodded, glad the rose was over and dealt with. ‘Okay,’ she breathed out. ‘Rule number two: everything that happens between us must remain a complete secret. I won’t tell my friends, you don’t tell yours.’

  ‘Agreed.’

  ‘And thirdly, our arrangement can be called off at any time. Same goes for the actual…’ She fluttered her hands awkwardly.

  ‘…research?’ Hirst completed, grinning.

  ‘Exactly. I may say “stop” at any moment, and you shall comply.’

  ‘Can I say stop too?’ he joked.

  ‘Yes of course!’ She gave him an exasperated look. ‘Why are you laughing now?’

  He shook his head. ‘It’s just… you. You’re so strange, Hepburn. I just can’t seem to figure you out.’

  ‘You don’t need to.’

  ‘I guess I don’t, no.’ He narrowed his eyes, giving her a slow look up and down, and immediately, the atmosphere in the room shifted. Uncomfortable, but too proud to turn her head, Louise weathered his gaze. It was intense now, hungry, but still with an obvious mocking undertone. She could feel it all the way in the pit of her stomach. God, he was shameless! It was like he was stripping every bit of her clothing off in his mind already…

  ‘Shall we commence, then?’ she heard herself say, daring herself to call his bluff.

  ‘I thought you’d never ask.’

  And then he was there, suddenly, right up against her, one hand on the small of her back, the other underneath her chin. His lips were soft and warm, and she felt herself breathing out against them in spite of herself.

  The sound of the slap bounced off the walls of the little room.

  ‘Jesus!!!’ Spencer cried out, jumping back, one hand pressed to his cheek. ‘What the hell was that for?’

  Louise couldn’t believe it. ‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry! I don’t know why I did that! It was a reflex or something.’

  ‘A reflex indeed; that was downright cat-like!’ He gave her an outraged look. ‘A simple stop would have sufficed, you know.’

  ‘I guess I’m a bit nervous,’ she cringed.

  ‘You don’t say!’

  ‘Are you okay? Can I get you anything? There should be icepacks in the fridge on the second floor. Sarah Donall uses them to cool down her calves; she does ballet.’

  ‘No, no, I’m fine,’ he grumbled, waving her away. ‘Nothing hurt except my pride.’

  ‘Are you sure? Your cheek looks… wow… it’s very red.’

  ‘Great. Just perfect.’

  ‘Well,’ Louise huffed, bristling a little now she’d gotten over her initial bewilderment. ‘I’m sorry, but what do you expect, when you take me by surprise like that? I was completely unprepared!’

  He looked at her, stunned. ‘What was there to prepare for?! It was just a kiss!’

  ‘I told you I was inexperienced. That’s the whole reason I’m doing this thing to begin with. You… you spooked me.’ She pouted at him.

  Something changed in his expression. He shook his head in disbelief, then let out a sigh. ‘All right, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. But if you’re really that uncomfortable with me, maybe we’d better call the whole thing off.’

  ‘No!’ she jumped. ‘No, I really do need your help. What just happened proves it all the more.’ And in an impulse, she added: ‘Please, Spencer…’ It was the first time she’d ever used his given name, and it tasted as strange in her mouth as the tone in which she’d uttered it. A sort of teasing, seductive, little-girlish plea. Pretty shameful, actually, but it worked like a charm. Surprised at her own powers of manipulation, Louise witnessed Hirst’s resistance melt away.

  ‘Hmm. I guess we could give it another go. But only if you’re one hundred percent sure. I don’t know what you’ve heard, but violence isn’t one of my kinks.’

  ‘No, no, of course not,’ she assured him. And then, again in that strangely low, teasing voice: ‘I promise I’ll be good...’

  A ghost of a smile appeared on his face. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘you better be.’

  Immediately, Louise felt a surge of heat shoot up from her belly. How on earth did he do that? With just one look, with nothing more than the deepening of his voice? If it were David, she could’ve understood. But she didn’t even like Hirst, for Christ’s sake! Quickly, she turned her back to him, and went over to her desk. The spreadsheet was right there, but she shuffled through her papers regardless, glad of an excuse to remove herself from the contact for a moment and regain her poise.

  ‘Right.’ She cleared her throat and faced him again, the sheet of paper clamped in both hands like a shield in front of her. ‘I’ve prepared a small spreadsheet of the things we need to cover.’

  Hirst huffed out his breath. ‘What?’

  ‘You heard me.’

  ‘Come on, no one is this anal, not even you!’

  Louise almost shouted: Yes, I am that anal! but managed to bite her tongue just in time.

  He took a step in her direction and tried to sneak a peek. ‘Is that on the list too? Anal?’

  She pressed the paper against her chest. ‘It’s not a list, it’s a spreadsheet. And you can make fun of it all you want, but it’s the perfect way to keep structure. I plan to take things step by step. Slowly ease into it, as it were.’

  ‘Interesting choice of words.’

  ‘Hirst, please!’

  ‘All right, all right. Let me just say this—consider it “expert advice” number one, if you will—sex is isn’t something that does well in combination with lists and spreadsheets.’

  She frowned. ‘But I want to learn the techniques.’

  ‘Skill isn’t everything, Hepburn. Passion, that’s what’s truly important. You need to let the feeling… sweep over you. To allow it to take you over.’ His voice got low as he stressed the last part, his eyes holding hers. Louise noticed he was standing very close to her again. He smelled nice. Of high-end cologne, with a slight hint of tobacco underneath…

  ‘It’s just the way I prefer doing things, okay?’ she peeped, her throat suddenly tight.

  He turned away, and Louise realized she’d been holding her breath. ‘Suit yourself,’ he shrugged. ‘But don’t say I didn’t warn you.’ He gave a nod at her paper. ‘What’s the first item, then?’

  She cleared her throat and moved her shoulders to remove the tension. The first topic was a neon-sign flashing up at her from the top of the page. Dear Lord, really? ‘Kissing,’ she somehow found the courage to read out, inwardly cringing with embarrassment. She felt beyond silly. But for once, Spencer Hirst wasn’t laughing.

  ‘Okay,’ he said, matter-of-factly. ‘Kissing.’

  He cleared away some of the stray text-books that lay scattered on her bed and sat down, back against the wall. He tapped the free spot next to him.

  Louise felt her face flush crimson. Quickly, before he noticed, she came and sat beside him, folding her legs underneath her, thereby making sure not to touch him in any way shape or form. The couple of inches between them felt like the Grand Canyon. She brushed her hair back, shifting nervously in her place. She could feel his eyes on her, looking on in amusement. God, how was she ever going to bring herself to do this? This was what she had been planning for, but now the moment was finally here, her courage wobbled dangerously. She couldn’t imagine that a couple of minutes from now, she was actually going to get physical with Hirst. That she was going to let him touch her, in places she’d never allowed anyone else to. His body against hers…

  She started when he spoke. ‘Have you ever been kissed before? Our previous exchange excluded, obviously.’

  She gave an offended scoff, and lied: ‘Of course I have.’

  ‘Did you like it?’

  ‘Sure. What’s not to like?’

  ‘Plenty. If you go about it the wrong way.’

  She gave him a sideways glance, her unease reaching new and lonely heights. She hadn’t really researched kissing. It was the only thing she’d omitted; it just hadn’t seemed all that difficult to her. She had fantasized about making out with David so often, and in such detail—the exact way his lips would feel, how she’d taste them over and over again—that she thought she had that covered. But apparently, she didn’t even know what she didn’t know. Suddenly, her inexperience seemed unsurmountable. If even kissing was complicated, how on earth was she going to manage anything else?

  ‘Is it that hard?’ she snorted, doing her best to seem unimpressed.

  Hirst didn’t smile. Not with his mouth, anyway. But his grey eyes gleamed. He saw right through her. Luckily, he spared her the embarrassment of calling her out on it.

  ‘Not really,’ he replied. ‘It is important, though. In fact, it might be the most important item on your entire list.’

  ‘Oh.’

  There was a pause. Louise didn’t know what to say. Or where to leave her hands, for that matter.

  ‘Well?’ he asked.

  ‘Well?’

  ‘You want to try, or…?’

  ‘Sure.’

  He didn’t move, just waited. The question of where to leave her hands became more pressing. As did the silence between them. Desperate, she finally caved and admitted: ‘I don’t know what to do…’

  She could see little smile lines form around the corners of his eyes. It softened his gaze, made the grey less forbidding. ‘Let me show you.’ He moved in closer. Louise felt her stomach leap. Suddenly, she regretted not having put out a couple of tea-lights. Or at least activated her playlist. ‘Maybe I— I should put some music on, or…’ she stammered.

  ‘Shhh…’ he whispered, and then his lips touched hers again, slowly, and this time Louise felt no urge to slap him whatsoever. Her belly reeled like she was going over the edge at Six Flags, but the rest of her body was completely paralyzed. Even her breathing seemed to have stopped. All she could do was sit there, rigid like a stone, helplessly registering the feel of his mouth against hers.

  He broke the contact for a moment. ‘You ok?’ Unable to utter a sound, she just about managed a shaky nod. ‘Try to relax. You’re doing fine. Just follow my lead.’ He ran his thumb over her bottom lip, then added, with a little smile: ‘And close your eyes, it’ll help.’

 Too nervous to register any singular embarrassment, Louise obeyed.

 It did help. When he kissed her once more, she felt herself breathe out, her own lips welcoming him back. He combed a lock of hair behind her ear, his fingers caressing her cheek in the process, and something warm sparked to life, deep in the pit of her stomach. She wanted to lean in more, get closer to him, but she was still too insecure to take any sort of initiative, or even change her position, for that matter. Sensing her unease, he took her hand in his and placed it on his jacket lapel, and it was like a spell was lifted. No brine; no flying sparks of hell-fire. On the contrary, the fabric was soft and pleasant to the touch. And so was he. When he squeezed her hand and then guided it underneath his jacket, she didn’t protest. It was nice to feel the warmth of his body through the smooth, black shirt, the way his chest rose and fell underneath. She eased into the kiss a bit more now, her body letting go of some of its resistance. His lips were full and soft, and so gentle on hers, the pressure light but ever varying. He tasted of menthol and tobacco. She had been worried about that, the fact he was a smoker, but now she found she had no problem with it. It tasted sort of manly, actually. She let her hand linger on his chest for a while, accustoming herself to the experience of touching him, gently caressing along the buttons of his shirt. The top ones were open, and, her confidence growing, she carefully moved upwards until she met bare skin. When her fingers stroked along his neck, a little shock went through him, his breathing growing deeper. Was that because of her? Was she doing that, by nothing more than her caress? The idea pleased her. Emboldened, she ventured a playful pluck at one of the buttons. He exhaled, grabbing hold of her more tightly, really pulling her into him now. Louise could feel his tongue brush against her lips, enticing them to open. She didn’t allow herself to think about it, just let him in without inhibition, and it was thrilling and hot and completely delicious. She could hear a longing sigh, and with a shock she realized she was the one uttering it. She could feel him smile against her mouth. She let him in again, and again, then felt him invite her in her turn. She was hesitant at first, unsure of what to do, but he let her take her time, leaded her through his own example, and soon she found confidence and pleasure in this, too. She ran her fingers through his thick, beautiful hair. He really was blessed, having hair like that. No need for any conditioner there...

  ‘Hmm,’ he breathed, moving his mouth to her ear. ‘How sweet you taste, Hepburn. I never would’ve guessed.’

  She shivered under his whisper, then gasped when he sucked her earlobe between his lips. ‘You—you’re not half bad yourself,’ she admitted. He pecked a trail of little kisses down her neck now, and she couldn’t help but tilt her head backward, her eyes closed in rapture. He drew back a moment to remove his jacket, throwing it over a chair without taking his eyes off her for even a second. This time his kiss was more eager, his nose brushing against hers. He started unbuttoning her flannel shirt, with precise, skilful movements. And before she knew it, he had slid it right off her shoulders. She was wearing a white top with spaghetti straps underneath. It was skin-tight, more of an undershirt really, and she felt completely naked in it. Her breath caught when he cupped a breast and squeezed it. She could feel her body curve into him, all by itself. He released her and moved his hand back up, slipping a thumb under the right strap of her top, now. Slowly, he pulled it aside, then pressed his lips on her collar bone, softly, deliberately. His mouth was warm, tender, dizzying. She blinked. Her head was spinning. Everything was spinning.

  He leant into her now, pushing softly, meaning to make her lie down on the bed.

  ‘No. Stop. Spencer, stop…’

  He pulled back, but only partially, his forehead resting against hers. ‘What’s the matter?’ he whispered, his fingers lightly stroking her bare arm, leaving goose-bumps along the way. His was voice soft and a little hoarse, and it sounded so completely and utterly trustworthy, like they were the only two people in the world right now, and nothing else mattered. And for the first time Louise truly understood how dangerous Spencer Hirst really was. This was the kind of man that made you do all the things you’d promised yourself you wouldn’t. She got it now; why all those women fell for him. She’d figured it had to be because of his money, his looks, even his blasé attitude or his pedigree maybe, but no, it was this, that tone in his voice, that way he could make you feel. And another realization dawned on her; like maybe she’d bitten off a bit more than she could chew here… She gazed into his eyes. The grey was slate now, the pupils huge. A tell-tale sign of physical arousal, a little voice in the back of her head spoke; her bookish, lecturing voice. But the sight made another part of her speak up as well; a part that came from somewhere deep inside, and that was as old as time. A part that didn’t need knowledge to understand what Hirst wanted; a part that just felt.

  ‘I­- I think we’d better call it a night.’

  The right voice had won the plight. Thank God.

  A quick frown creased Hirst’s brow. ‘Already?’ It didn’t sound reproachful, merely surprised, and a little disappointed, maybe.

  She shifted away from him, subtly popping the strap of her top back in place. ‘Yeah. Sorry.’

  He sat back, and concluded: ‘You didn’t like it.’ He smiled, but she could clearly see a glint of insecurity in his eyes.

  ‘No, no, that’s not it,’ she tried to explain. ‘I mean, it was all perfectly fine...’

  He pulled a face. ‘Ouch. Way to stroke a man’s ego, Hepburn.’

  She made an impatient gesture. ‘You know what I mean.’

  ‘Well, if it was fine, then why don’t you want to continue?’

  ‘Because…’ She paused. Well, why didn’t she? ‘Because I need to process what I’ve learned before I can move on to the next item,’ she decided. ‘That’s simply how my learning curve works.      Otherwise, everything will become one big mess in my head.’

  ‘By the looks of this place, you don’t mind a good mess,’ Hirst  noted.

  ‘That’s my room, that’s not important. My head is.’

  ‘Hm,’ he said, chewing his lip.

  Louise felt her heart hammer against her ribs as she waited for what he’d say next. She was still breathing rapidly, flushed from their making out. She feared she had put her foot in it. She had asked him to stop way too soon. He would surely lose interest now. No man liked to wait, right?

  But for the second time that night, Hirst surprised her. ‘All right,’ he shrugged. ‘We’ll do it your way; take down every item on your list one by one.’

  Louise felt more relieved than she cared to admit. ‘Okay,’ she sighed, a smile breaking on her face. ‘Well. Great. Um… When would you be available to meet again?’

  ‘Tomorrow night?’

  ‘I’m working.’

  ‘During the day, then.’

  ‘Working too, I’m afraid.’

  ‘Waitressing?’

  ‘No, at Henderson’s. I’m there all week.’

  ‘The big one, in the city centre?’

  She nodded.

  He pushed up off the bed. ‘Give me your number,’ he said, taking his phone out. ‘I’ll text you later.’

  They exchanged numbers. Hirst put on his jacket and coat.

  ‘Well, I guess this is goodnight then,’ Louise concluded awkwardly, as she walked him to the door.

  ‘I guess it is,’ he replied, with that typical half-grin of his. ‘Goodnight, sweetheart.’

  ‘No terms of endearment, remember?’ she sighed.

  ‘All right, all right…’

  But when he made to turn and leave, Louise grabbed him by the arm. ‘Spencer…’ she began.

  ‘What?’

  ‘Was—’ She shrugged. ‘Was it okay?’

  ‘Was what okay?’

  ‘My technique. Was it… satisfactory?’

  He gave her a mocking look, and before she could do or say anything, he pulled her close and pressed the palm of her hand firmly against him. Louise gasped, eyes wide. ‘More than satisfactory, love,’ he winked. ‘I’ll be thinking of you, tonight.’

  Then he turned and went, leaving her too bewildered to even protest at his use of “love”.

*

Louise locked the door and let herself fall onto her bed. She trailed her fingers over her lips, the events of tonight passing before her mind’s eye. The dorm room seemed strangely empty now he had gone. Emptier than before, somehow. She snorted. Hirst certainly knew how to fill up a space.

  His ego alone is big enough, she thought.

  And not only his ego…

  Her cheeks burned when she thought of how he had put her hand on him, just now. God, the nerve of him! His behaviour was completely scandalous…

  The corners of her mouth curled into a smile. His arousal had been unmistakeable. She’d clearly felt it, straining against his pants. He’d been hard. Because of her. She had done that, merely by kissing him. A bizarre sense of pride welled up inside of her.

 “I’ll be thinking of you tonight…”

  Did that mean…? Was he going to…? She blushed even more deeply now. To her surprise, she found the idea of Hirst jerking off to her not nearly as insulting as she would’ve expected it to. Almost like a compliment—though, granted, a lurid one. She shook her head. This little experiment was showing her a whole different side to herself! With a sigh, she turned to her belly, then onto her back, then onto her belly again, unable to find rest. She sat up, drummed her fingers on the covers, her gaze travelling around the room. It fell on the stem of the cellophane-wrapped rose, sticking out of the waste paper basket. She sprang to her feet and pulled the thing out, eyeing it over critically. It was pretty; its colour not cold and citrus-like, but a rich and creamy yellow that bordered on orange near the tips of the petals.

  I wonder why he chose this one.

  She tilted her head, realizing she kind of liked that; the fact he hadn’t gone for the classic red or white. It made the flower seem like less of a cliché.

  She hovered over the waste basket for a moment, hesitating. Finally, she set the rose down on her desk, and headed for the kitchen. She didn’t have a vase, but a tall drinking glass would do just as well.

 

*

 

Outside, Spencer stood leaning against his car, smoking in earnest this time. He looked up at the window on the fourth floor, a lonely rectangle of light in the darkened building. He wondered what she was doing right now. He had come here more out of curiosity than anything else, but now he was genuinely intrigued. It had been such a strange evening. They hadn’t really done anything. In fact, when you thought about it, he had just driven an hour and a half from his parent’s place in the country—on Christmas day—to do a bit of light making out and get slapped in the face. And somehow it had still been the most fun he’d had in ages. He shook his head. Hepburn was insane. She had to be the most up-tight person he’d ever met. The way she’d stood there, with that sheet of paper, like a little girl ready to read out her wish-list to Father Christmas. Priceless!

  He grinned as he plucked a piece of ash from his tongue. The list was just a symptom, of course. Maybe even a tactical manoeuvre. She was stalling; putting up a fight. He’d known she wasn’t the type to give it up that easily, no matter how desperately she seemed to want her revenge. Still, he had been surprised she’d slammed the brakes when she did. He was usually pretty good at reading women. In this type of situation, anyway. And he’d clearly sensed her desire to go on…

  She wants to stay in control. Forever the overbearing bookworm. With her spreadsheets and her rules and her colour codes. She thinks she can handle the situation.That she can handle me.

  She was sourly mistaken.

  Oh, he’d play along. For now. But soon, he’d have her throwing that list out of the window, together with all her other inhibitions. He’d make her lose her head. Yes, he’d make her give in. Until at the end, she’d be begging him to fuck her.

  Spencer felt the pleasant tingle of excitement course through his stomach. Getting between Hepburn’s legs, on his terms, now there was a challenge worthy of his skills!

  He crushed the cigarette and got his car-keys out. Above him, another light flicked on, a couple of windows on. The kitchen? Or the shower room? An image of Hepburn, naked and wet, flashed before his mind’s eye. Immediately, he felt his cock react. Yes, he’d had a good time tonight, and not only because of the thrill of the unusual circumstances. Hepburn’s skin had been smooth to the touch, her kiss inexperienced but eager and with a sweetness that could only be explained by her innocence. Plus the fact she was absolutely breathtakingly gorgeous, of course. He didn’t understand why it had taken him until the Christmas Ball to notice that. Her beauty wasn’t of the conventional kind, but once you’d spotted it, it was impossible to un-see. Even in jeans and a flannel shirt.

  ‘Merry Christmas, my sweet,’ he whispered darkly. ‘I promise you’ll get everything you wished for, and then some.’

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