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Chapter 8
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‘This place has a sauna?’ Louise rubbed her hands together, glad to be out of the cold. She was frozen to the bone.

  ‘Of course,’ Hirst shrugged, like it went without saying. He unhooked the dog’s leads and they stormed round the corner to what she presumed was the kitchen, since the sound of bowls scraping across a tiled floor and water greedily being lapped up resounded next. ‘It’s remote controlled via an app on my phone,’ he continued, as he took her purse, coat and scarf and put them in the hall wardrobe. ‘I took the liberty of firing it up during our walk.’ He looked at his watch. ‘Should be about perfect now.’

  ‘You mean you have a sauna here, in your own flat?’ She’d figured he was referring to one of the building’s general amenities.

  ‘Yes,’ Hirst replied simply. ‘So, what do you say? Are you up for it? After all, we have some unfinished business to attend to.’ He smiled suggestively.

  She glared at him. ‘You know that was wildly inappropriate, out there on the road, with all those people around, right?’

  ‘Rest assured, here it’s just going to be you and me.’

  Louise’s stomach made an uncomfortable little leap. Yes, that’s why she had agreed to meet him here today, hadn’t she; to be alone with him again and tackle item three. But she hadn’t considered the implications of the venue. Their previous encounters had been in her dorm room and at the store she worked at: places she knew and where was comfortable. They were on Hirst’s turf now. Meaning there was no telling what could happen. Like sauna’s coming out of left field, for example… Louise didn’t know much about them, only that you were supposed to go in naked, right? Suddenly, she wondered if she should have shaved. Despite all her careful preparation, it had completely slipped her mind. Her legs were tolerable, she supposed, and she’d only just done her armpits, but weren’t you expected to do… that other bit as well? Her research certainly seemed to suggest so; in spite of all the feminist manifestos about the issue and the multitude of body-positivity influencers preaching liberty, there was hardly a woman to be found in mainstream porn that was all-natural down there… A dreadful image of Hirst laughing at her, really laughing—or even worse, flinching in disgust—appeared before her mind’s eye.

  He must have felt it, back in the car, right? she hoped. And been all right with it.

  Or had her underwear been enough to cover up that little Louise Hepburn fun-fact? He had only really touched her right at the end, and only for a fraction of a second, just before his pet Porsche crashed and he’d been slightly distracted, to say the least.

  Increasingly worried, Louise tottered after him into the open plan kitchen. The dogs had already moved on to the lounge, half-heartedly play-fighting over a chew toy, too tired from their walk to really get into it, but too excited to settle down just yet. It was the first time she got a good look at Hirst’s apartment, and for a moment, Louise was transported by her surroundings. It was undeniably beautiful. Much brighter than she had expected, with cream-coloured walls and tall windows that provided a breath-taking view on the park. Much like Hirst himself, it could have come straight out of a magazine. Images of Pinterest mood boards sprang to mind. Which at second glance, was also kind of the problem with it. The furniture and styling were all just a tad too refined and calculated, making the end-result too understated and mature for a young man like him.

  ‘Do you like it?’ he asked, when he saw her looking around.

  ‘It’s not bad. As far as student lodging goes.’

  ‘Thanks. I mean, it’s a bit dated, of course.’ He opened the giant American fridge and took out a bottle of champagne and a bag of crushed ice. ‘My mother decorated it when this was still my father’s place.’

  ‘She has taste.’

  ‘She has her moments. Depending on the time of day.’ He set the stuff from the fridge on the black marble counter top, then pulled an ice bucket and two champagne flutes from a cupboard.

  Suddenly, Louise registered what was happening. ‘Um, what are you doing?’

  ‘To go with the sauna,’ he explained, as he emptied the bag of ice into the bucket. ‘I’ve got sushi, too, if you like. It’s obviously not very warming, but I thought it could be nice for afterwards. Or during...’ He gave her that smile again.

  ‘Oh my God. How many times do I have to tell you: I’m not doing dates with you, Hirst,’ she rebuked him.

  ‘We just walked arm in arm through the park!’

  ‘Hey, that was for the dogs, okay?’ she set the record straight. ‘Don’t start getting any ideas.’ She would have enjoyed a bit of sushi, actually. But she couldn’t let things slide any further. Like he said, they’d just had that walk, and she’d already been forced to give up on the terms of endearment rule too, since that was, quite frankly, hopeless. All those “darlings” and “sweethearts” were simply too ingrained in his personality.

  But Hirst dug in his heels. ‘Honestly, what harm is a plate of sushi going to do? Are you afraid I’m going to fall madly in love with you over the California rolls or something?’

  ‘I just don’t want there to be any confusion.’

  ‘You’re impossible to spoil, Hepburn,’ he tsk-ed, as he plunged the bottle into the ice bucket.

  ‘I don’t need anything from you except the stuff we agreed on.’

  ‘I’m not talking about need. I’m talking about, well, fun! You’re allowed to enjoy yourself, you know. There’s no rule in life that says you’re not permitted to have a good time. Besides, it’s not because we share a drink or a meal that this constitutes a date. My friends eat here all the time.’

  ‘I’m not your friend.’

  ‘No,’ he said, glancing her over. ‘I guess not.’

  She folded her arms, giving him a defiant look. ‘Well, now everything’s nice and clear again: are we still doing this sauna thing, or what?’

  ‘Sure. I mean, if it doesn’t stray too far from your strategic roadmap, of course.’

  ‘I think I can manage to fit it in.’

  ‘What a relief.’

  She motioned him to lead the way. But when she saw him snatch the ice bucket from the counter anyway, she exclaimed: ‘Hirst, what did I just tell you!’

  ‘I’m allowed to have a drink, aren’t I? Or is that against the rules too?’

  ‘You don’t need two glasses for that.’

  He winked at her. ‘Just in case you change your mind.’

  ‘You never give up, do you?’

  ‘Can’t blame a man for trying.’

  With an exasperated grunt, she followed him back into the hallway.

 

*

 

The bathroom turned out to be about twice the size of Nan’s living room back home. Everything was done in glossy beige and black marble, with matte mosaics in sandstone to tie it all together. There was a double walk-in rain shower and a huge, round bubble-bath tub. The strange urge to whisper took hold of her again.

  ‘We’ll get in that one afterwards,’ Hirst assured her, when he saw her gaping at the bath.

  ‘Oh, that’s all right,’ she replied hastily. ‘I’m more of a shower person, anyway.’

  ‘Showers can be fun too.’ He gave her a look she felt all the way in the pit of her stomach. Quickly, she turned and faced the sauna, which was put in as an annex. Her outline reflected in the milk glass door. And his.

  ‘How do we do this,’ she stammered. ‘I mean, do we, um…’ Their reassuring squabble in the kitchen had allowed her to let off some steam, but now her nerves were back with a vengeance. Despite all her sass before, she was still deeply insecure about this whole scenario. God, it had been so much easier in the fitting room! Things had happened in the heat of the moment, there. But to take her clothes off in front of him now—all of her clothes, this time—, and so casually, too, like it was nothing… And what about him? Suddenly she realized he was about to get naked, too. That they were going in there, together, without anything on. She wasn’t sure she was quite ready for that yet. To see him in all his glory, so to speak, let alone get up close and personal with him that way. It seemed to her things could very quickly get out of hand in that kind of situation…

  ‘Here,’ he said, offering her a towel. ‘Put this on.’ He had already begun unbuttoning his shirt and her eyes inadvertently travelled to the sliver of his chest and abs that had come into view. Embarrassed, she averted her gaze. He gave her an amused smile when he noticed how uneasy she was. ‘Or would you prefer a robe?’

  ‘Yes, please,’ she answered, relieved.

  He took a fresh one from the cabinet and handed it to her, then tactfully turned his back so she could undress without him looking. Louise checked he wasn’t secretly peeking via the mirror—which was of course ridiculous, considering what they were about to do. Still, she couldn’t help herself. Rolling her eyes in frustration at her own inhibitions, she hurriedly threw her clothes off, wrapped herself in the soft, blindingly white terry cloth bathrobe, and pulled the belt tight. Then she undid her braid, combed back her curls with her fingers and tied them up on top of her head in a sloppy but practical bun.

  ‘Ready?’ Hirst asked.

  ‘Ready,’ she piped bravely, but inwardly dizzy with nerves.

  He seemed younger somehow, without his clothes on and with nothing but a towel around his waist. More present, too. Like he was standing closer to her than he actually was. Louise could hear her heart pounding in her ears. She had seen David’s body before, when they’d taken the kids from the schooling project out for a swim last August, and to her no man could be more perfect. Hirst was leaner than David, less stocky, but he was certainly fit, too. More like he’d gotten in shape from playing an actual sport than because of a gym membership.

  Perfectly at ease with himself, he walked past her to the side table where he’d put the ice bucket. She hastily stepped aside to avoid any sort of physical contact between them, deliberate or otherwise. But Hirst was focused on the champagne. As he pulled the bottle out, Louise couldn’t help take in his flat stomach, the pleasant shape of his butt in the towel, the way the muscles of his arms moved as he broke the seal and started to untwist the iron wire around the cork. Everything about him was perfectly proportioned. An athlete’s body.

  He isn’t just good-looking, Louise realised, he’s fucking beautiful. Her nerves spiked to uncomfortable heights. What was she doing here, anyway, with a man like that? In an apartment like this? She was completely out of place in these surroundings, in this company. She should be back in her dorm room, in her jeans and tee, making out with a nice, normal guy like David. A guy that was just as beautiful—no, more so—and not nearly as… as perturbing.

  Tough luck, David’s not available. And if you don’t gather your courage and make do with this one, he never will be.

  But that was easier said than done. She felt almost light-headed with anxiety.

  Hirst popped the champagne now, the foam spilling down his lower arm and onto the floor. He shook his wrist and licked off a last straggling drop, then filled the two glasses. ‘You don’t have to drink if you don’t want to,’ he addressed her protest before she could voice it. ‘Just toast with me, okay? For good luck. Humour me.’

  Louise was too dazed to really think about it. She supposed it was all right. ‘Okay,’ she mumbled, as he handed her a leaking glass. ‘What should we toast to?’

  ‘The new year, of course. Any resolutions?’

  Plenty, she thought. But she said: ‘Not really, no. You?’

  He gave her a slow look up and down. ‘Things are pretty perfect as they are right now.’

  They touched glasses, and he downed his in one. Louise placed hers back on the side-table, still full, her hand as unsteady as if she’d drunken it all.

  He motioned at the sauna door. ‘After you, darling.’

  The dry heat in the sauna struck her in the face. Immediately her frozen fingers and toes started prickling like mad. In true Finnish tradition, the room was fashioned entirely out of pinewood; some of the knots in the planks were still oozing, and the fresh, cleansing smell of resin filled her lungs.

  ‘Ever been in one of these before?’ Hirst asked, as he closed the milk glass door behind them, shutting them in. Louise shook her head. ‘Start on the lower bench. You have to give your body time to adjust to the heat.’

  She perched herself on the broad wooden bench as she would on a chair, knees together and feet neatly planted in front of her, while Hirst flung himself on the level just above, leaning back against the short side of the wall, one leg bent, the other one stretched out leisurely before him. It was dark in here, the only light coming from a matte sconce on the wall that emitted a subdued yellow gleam like a fire in a cave.

  ‘All right?’ he asked.

  She nodded, but in all honesty, Louise wasn’t really sure. It was so quiet in here, so incredibly hot. The heat was soothing, yes, but almost unbearably intense too; it enveloped her like a giant hand, tried to get its fingers in her muscles and down her lungs. She could feel it penetrate every part of her body, even her hair-roots. Uneasy, she shifted in her seat, then shifted again, scratching her neck and readjusting the collar of the robe. By now she was way too hot to still have it on, of course, and she regretted not having gone for the towel instead. She would’ve been more comfortable and still pretty much covered up. The robe was either off or on, nothing in between. Thank God she’d had the good sense to tie her hair up! The couple of strands that had inevitably gotten loose were already sticking to her neck. She cleared her throat, let her gaze trail over the pinewood roof of the cabin, the knots in the planks, the mosaic floor. She cleared her throat a second time, let out a little cough.

  ‘Pour some water on the furnace,’ Hirst suggested. ‘The air will be less dry.’

  Glad of something to do with her hands, she pulled the wooden bucket closer and ladled a big splash onto the stove. Immediately, a huge surge of steam billowed upwards, filling the space. The smell of pine resin intensified. As did the heat. It rolled over her like a cloud front, and suddenly it was impossible to breathe anymore. Panic took hold of her. ‘Oh Jesus!’ she managed.

  Hirst was still leaning back lazily on his bench, one half-opened eye upon her. ‘Yeah, you put on a bit much. The heat is easier to support when it’s dry. Don’t worry, you’ll soon get used to it.’

  ‘I don’t know…’ she huffed.

  ‘Try to relax. Just give into what’s happening.’ And he scoffed, under his breath: ‘I know it’s hard for you, but…’

  She snapped her head around, suddenly furious at him. At the situation. At herself. But mostly, at him. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

  ‘Well, you’re not exactly the most laid-back person in the world, now are you?’

 ‘Sorry about that,’ she sneered, facing the front again. She wrapped her arms around her knees, resting her head on top, the heat on her shoulders like a boulder. No, she was actually angrier at herself… ‘I wish I were more malleable, truly, I do,’ she continued bitterly. ‘It’d be much easier on myself, too.’

  ‘Oh, come on,’ she heard him say. ‘Don’t get so worked up; it’s bad for you, especially in here. The heat will cleanse you, but it’s also quite tough on the body. Rest, relax, let the sauna work its magic.’

  Louise pressed her lips together. God, he was right. That was the worst part of it! ‘I can’t,’ she admitted miserably. ‘Are you happy now? I can’t relax, okay? I don’t like it in here. Sitting still like this. It’s as if the walls are crowding in on me. I—’ She shook her head and let out a helpless sigh. It came out sounding almost like a sob.

  Hirst’s mocking tone disappeared immediately. He propped himself up on an elbow. ‘Hey, what’s this now? Are you claustrophobic or something? Just push the door open; we can leave, it’s all right.’

  Louise swallowed. ‘No…’ She shook her head. ‘That’s not it.’

  ‘Well, what, then?’

  She put her feet back down on the floor and wrung her hands in her lap. ‘Do you—do you think I’m doing the right thing, Spencer?’ She glanced up at him. ‘With this… project of mine,’ she specified, rolling her eyes at herself.

  He leaned back again, reassured now she seemed physically okay; that it wasn’t the sauna that posed the problem. ‘I don’t know,’ he answered. ‘That’s not really up to me, is it? It’s your decision. Have you changed your mind?’

  Louise looked up at the pinewood ceiling. ‘I’m not sure. It’s just… There’s more to this than—than what I told you about. To be honest, I haven’t been completely straight with you, Spencer.’

  ‘Oh?’ One ashy blonde eyebrow arched up.

  ‘This isn’t just research on my part,’ she began. ‘There’s someone, a friend…’

  ‘Let me guess: a male friend?’

  Louise chewed on the inside of her cheek. Why on earth was she telling him this? Her whole strategy laid bare, just like that! Still, for some reason, she couldn’t hold back. ‘Yes,’ she sighed. ‘If you must know, he’s at the root of this.’ It was a relief to say it out loud, but at the same time, she hated how weak it sounded. Not at all true to the spirit in which she’d devised her grand plan in the first place. She gave Hirst a quick look to see how he was handling the news.

  But he didn’t seem too taken aback. ‘That doesn’t surprise me.’

  ‘It doesn’t?’

  ‘Look, Hepburn, I’m aware you consider me far beneath your intelligence level, but as much as it might baffle you: I’m not a complete idiot.’

  Louise opened her mouth in protest. She didn’t consider Hirst an idiot at all. A spoilt, arrogant prat, yes, but certainly not an idiot. He was actually one of the few people worth battling it out with during class debates. But before she could come up with an adequate way of telling him without further inflating his already well-endowed ego, he continued: ‘Why should that be of any concern, anyway? The fact that this is because of your “friend”?’

  She shrugged. ‘I’m just worried he’ll think differently of me, after all this. That things will change between him and I.’

  ‘But isn’t that exactly the point, though? To make him realize how wrong he was?’

  Louise was stunned. So Hirst did fully understand what she was planning! And he was okay with it. She couldn’t believe it. She’d thought he would be offended, maybe even a little angry about being used as a mere tool to secure her relationship with another man. Who knew he could be so open-minded?

  ‘I guess so,’ she smiled, pleasantly surprised.

  ‘Well, then,’ he shrugged. ‘Don’t be insecure, it doesn’t suit you. There’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing. It’s perfectly understandable. Now the way you’re doing it in, with that list and all; that’s completely insane of course, but then that’s just you, I suppose. Anyway, I don’t believe you’re the type of woman to take on such an endeavour just because of some guy. I think there’s a part of you that, well, that just wants to do it, regardless.’

  Now Louise’s amazement was complete.

  He gave her a sardonic smile. ‘Although I would understand if you didn’t take into account a word I just said. After all, I am not an entirely neutral party in the matter.’

  For a moment, she was speechless. Then she said: ‘You know what, Hirst? I think you’re absolutely right.’

  ‘What?’ he laughed. ‘Can I get that in writing, please?’

  ‘No, you can’t. But there’s another thing I would like to put in writing.’

  ‘And that is?’

  ‘Item three on my insane list...’

  She looked at him, coy, but with just enough mischief in her eyes to make lust dawn in his.

  ‘Then I guess you better come up here.’ He tapped the bench beside him. ‘If you’ve adapted sufficiently to the heat, that is.’

  ‘Yes,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘I think I can take it now.’

*

 

Spencer watched as she positioned herself across from him, despite her own request to get started still keeping as much distance between them as the situation allowed, all prim and proper in that white bathrobe. He got a hard-on almost immediately. Well, he’d had one ever since he’d stepped into the sauna with her, but then his passion had dwindled a bit during all the talking. Not that it hadn’t been interesting. On the contrary. He was surprised and even a little flattered she’d finally revealed her true motives to him. He’d always known she wanted to get back at someone; that this project of hers was really just a plot for revenge. Oh, it certainly wasn’t the only reason she was doing it. He had meant every word of his little speech just now; he really did admire her sense of initiative in the matter, that aspect of self-improvement. Despite her fighting him almost every step of the way, she genuinely wanted to learn. He understood. No one liked to be humiliated, and the humiliation this “friend” had subjected her to must have been grave indeed. Spencer hadn’t pressed her for his name, fearing she might shut off, even though he was dying to find out who the guy in question was. He tried to recall who she normally hung out with, but unless Hepburn had been turned down by a red-headed Asian girl in glasses—Janey, Jessy something—he had to confess he had no idea.

  Someone irrelevant, he concluded. Not important enough to pop up on my radar.

  For some reason, that thought pleased him enormously.

  ‘It really is a lot hotter up here,’ Louise sighed, blowing out her breath, in a clear attempt to ward off the silence, and her nerves.

  Spencer swallowed the obvious remark and decided to cut straight to the chase. ‘Take your bathrobe off, then.’

  Her eyes flew to his, the look in them brimming with disdain and excitement alike. He saw her consider his request. But it was a perfunctory measure. He already knew she’d give in. She was dying to.

  ‘All right,’ she conceded, so low it was barely intelligible. Her fingers went to the belt around her waist; started fumbling with the knot. Her legs were off the bench, and she was sitting with her hips titled elegantly like a lady riding side-saddle. There was a certain painting Spencer was reminded of. A Venus of something or other. His lips parted in spite of himself and he found he had to use all his willpower to keep his back against the wall, his face impassive, his position seemingly casual and unmoved, instead of leaning forward with anticipation. Her slender fingers played with the terry cloth rope, maddeningly slow. He was sure she was doing it on purpose, making him wait, tormenting him, punishing him, just for being who he was.

  ‘Today, Hepburn.’

  He smiled inwardly, relishing that angry look of hers. Yeah, she liked that sort of thing. Being ordered around, just a little bit. Weren’t the things we would never tolerate in everyday life often the ones we craved for during sex? The belt was free, and now her hands were sliding down her collar along the sides of the robe, a narrow slip of skin visible in between. She revealed her shoulders, already gleaming with sweat, then, in a completely unexpected display of seductiveness, she wrapped her arms around herself, and pushed her cleavage together in a teasing fashion. She sent him a sweet little smile. Oh, she was beautiful when she smiled like that! Spencer could feel a drop of sweat trickle its way down his stomach. His breathing sped up, his heart pounding heavily in his chest.

  ‘Very good,’ he managed, nodding. ‘You’re clearly learning. Please, go on.’

  He already knew what her breasts looked like, but the sight was just as welcome to him as it had been the first time. Her skin was taut with the heat, the nipples standing up like dark islands. He wet his lips. This was sheer torture. And he was enjoying every minute of it. She was sitting in front of him with the bathrobe in a bundle around her waist now, her cheeks flushed, be it with the heat or with arousal, he didn’t know.

  ‘Now the rest. Take it all off.’

  Her eyes flashed darkly at him, the emotion in them unreadable. Then an air of defiance came over her. With a small, understated movement, she slipped the last part of the robe open.

  A shock passed through him. She wasn’t shaven! Jesus, this was… He bit his lower lip, holding back a moan, as he strained against his towel. The colour in her cheeks deepened when she noticed his expression. Her hand grabbed at the robe, meaning to cover herself up again.

  ‘No!’ he stopped her. ‘No, no, I like it. It’s… different.’ He managed an encouraging smile. ‘Very retro.’

  She gave him a last, wary glance, but he could see his smile had reassured her. Good. He was too aroused to keep it on any longer. ‘Please,’ he invited her. ‘Continue.’

  She frowned, and he realised she thought there was nothing more to show. Now the smile came natural to him. ‘Put your leg up on the bench, Hepburn.’

  Understanding dawned in her eyes. She averted her head for a moment, unsure, then did as he asked. He could see her better now. So pretty, so invitingly pink, tucked snugly in between her thighs. To think she had never shown it to anyone before, that it was completely untouched… It sat there, tantalizing him, taunting him, a flower just waiting to be plucked. God, he would do anything, he would say anything, he’d lie like a dog at her feet if only he could be the one; if he could be her first. To bury himself deep inside of that softness, to completely surround himself with her. He knew now that he’d stop at nothing to make that happen. ‘Beautiful,’ he whispered, his throat so tight he hardly recognized his own voice anymore.

  She smiled, relieved, it seemed. Why was she always so damn self-conscious? How could she not see she was gorgeous? She shouldn’t need him to tell her that. Was it because of that fool? That obviously mentally deranged person who had turned her down? He had planned to approach her now, to make good on his promise of giving her an orgasm, but he reconsidered. She had told him she’d never touched herself before, and if that was really the case, it was simply intolerable. If he taught her nothing else, he had to teach her this.

  ‘Is it true?’ he asked. ‘What you told me in the Porsche? That you’ve never pleasured yourself?’

  She avoided his eyes, uncomfortable, then gave a nod.

  He couldn’t believe it. How was such a thing even possible? ‘Well,’ he smiled. ‘Then I think I’ve found you a nice New Year’s resolution after all.’

*

 

Louise could feel time come to a slow and grinding halt. She knew what he meant; what was expected of her now. It was silly, really. She had done all that preliminary research, and still, exploring herself, something that should have been her first go-to before ever seeking outside help, had somehow never even made it onto her list. She really was hopeless.

  ‘What’s the matter?’ he asked.

  ‘I don’t want to do that, here, in front of you,’ she confessed.

  ‘Why not?’

  She gave a helpless shrug.

  ‘Don’t be ashamed. It’s perfectly normal. Hell, I do it all the time.’

  ‘I bet.’

  ‘I think of you, when I do it,’ he went on. ‘Sometimes.’

  This wasn’t news to her, yet the calm, completely unashamed way in which he’d said it caused an immediate jolt of pleasure, deep in her underbelly. He picked up on it, for the first time shifting in his seat. His pose had remained casual the whole time, yet she could see every muscle in his body was tense, ready for action.

  ‘Why don’t you give me a visual, for next time,’ he suggested.

  She wet her lips, her heart beating wildly. She sent him a bewildered look.

  ‘Just do it, Louise,’ he nodded, like a friend giving good advice. ‘You’ll like it, I promise.’

  There was no sound, only the soft ticking of the furnace in the corner. The heat lay over her like a blanket as she let her hand travel down her belly. Riveted, his eyes followed its slow progression, the irises dark and at the same time translucent in the soft, subdued light of the sauna, just the way she liked them best. When she reached the coarse hair on her Venus mound, she saw his eyebrows pinch together in a quick frown, his chest rising as he took a slow, shaky breath in, and the sheer desire he suddenly emanated almost scared her. She dawdled a moment, hesitated.

  ‘Close your eyes,’ she finally whispered.

  His gaze flew to hers, incredulous, outraged. She held it, showed him this was non-negotiable. He fought it for a moment longer, then reluctantly did as she asked.

  It was easier now, like a bit of the pressure was off. Louise let her eyes travel over him, really taking her time. His face, broad, handsome, his fair hair only compounding its coldness. His muscles, long and supple under that pale, unbelievably perfect skin. Yasmin hadn’t been too far off with her Greek statue remark; he was like marble. Though the time in the sauna was starting to pink him up nicely. He was slick with sweat, and from the looks of his towel, deeply aroused, too. Again, everything perfectly in proportion… She realised she wanted to touch him, feel how hard he was, how smooth. Instead, she closed her eyes, slid her hand down and finally touched herself.

  The feelings weren’t completely unfamiliar, more like massive, steroid-versions of earlier emotions; and those seemed like mere memories in the shadow of this new force. She tried to conjure up of vision of David, but it was too hard, too embarrassing, and all she could think of was Hirst, half a metre away, practically naked, at her beck and call. That was even more unsettling. She shut off from the both of them, focused entirely on herself for a while. It was hard, letting go, giving in. The physical sensations she was bringing about, albeit clumsily, were powerful, and they intimidated her. She edged around them, pulling back in fear every time she threatened to unleash the intensity they promised. She opened her eyes a bit, checked through her lashes Hirst wasn’t secretly peeking. He wasn’t. That reassured her. She kept her eyes on him now, forced herself not to avert her head. She needed to do this; she wanted to do this; to feel comfortable; be brave enough to overcome her timidity. Her face burned, her eyes prickled with shame, yet she somehow found the courage to take it one step further.

  At first, nothing came out of her throat. Then she whispered: ‘You may look now.’

  Hold, she ordered herself, as those grey eyes bored into hers again. Hold the eye-contact. Keep looking at him!

 

*

 

A part of Spencer’s brain conceived how difficult this had to be for her. How outside of her comfort zone. But the rest was entirely consumed by the scene right in front of him. Unflinching, she held his gaze as she continued doing what she was doing, slowly, breathlessly, her big brown eyes like a doe’s in headlights, and a feeling rushed in on him, so powerful it threatened to swallow him whole. He was dying to give himself a bit of relief, too. But he didn’t want to distract or disturb her in any way. The sauna was so hot now it was bordering on uncomfortable, but he didn’t even consider opening the door or turning the furnace off. The pearls of sweat beading Louise’s smooth, slightly tanned skin were too beautiful to behold. He could tell she was the type of person who got that lovely honey-cinnamon colour come summer. Suddenly, he found himself hoping he would still be around to witness that. Again, he became aware of the definite benefits of taking things so slowly with her. The longer this situation lasted; the more time he had with her …

  A mere second later, he already reconsidered. Hitting a particularly sensitive spot, Louise inhaled audibly, body arching, mouth open, and he knew he’d go crazy if he had to wait much longer. He would take her right here, right now, if she gave him the go. He was mesmerized by her face, by the way her brow creased in tormented rapture as she explored herself for the very first time. Had there ever been such a beautiful woman? The classical line of her jaw, those eyebrows, those cheekbones, the way the locks that had escaped curled about her face… There was something so pure about her, so warm and genuine. She had begun making little moaning noises and it sounded helpless and desperate and vulnerable, and he thought he was going to die or explode or simply melt away with lust. He saw her glance at him from time to time, at his face, his chest and then lower, to his hand that had found its way to the towel after all, squeezing gently along the subtle outline of what lay beneath while he watched her. God, she had no idea yet, of the power she could wield—that she was already wielding. He would be her willing servant, fulfil her every desire, he’d buy her jewellery, cars, houses—anything; she need only ask.

  But she didn’t, and he knew she wouldn’t, so he did the next best thing.

  Her panting got a desperate note, and he decided it was time. He moved across the bench towards her. She turned her body, and for a moment he was gripped by the crippling fear that she was going to stop or send him away. But she only moved to make room for him, allowing him the space to come and sit by her. He put an arm around her, opened her leg and pulled it over his. They were side by side now, their faces only inches apart. She kept looking at him while she slowly caressed herself.  Careful, Spencer put his hand over hers. She didn’t protest, didn’t break her rhythm or avert her eyes. His fingers followed her movements for a while, twining in with hers, then released them and slipped further down to where she hadn’t dared to venture yet. She jerked a little at the contact, her hips arching into him. She was warm and wet, oh, so wet. It was like she was melting away under his fingers. He breathed out and leant his forehead against hers, closing his eyes, surrendering completely to the feeling. She stayed with him a little while longer, then removed her hand to give him the lead. His cock was throbbing now, aching for release, but he left it alone and concentrated solely on her. He felt his way around her, applying gentle pressure, then relieving it again. She drew in her breath with short, choked gasps to the rhythm of his touch, and he could feel her body quaver. His whole world narrowed down to this woman beside him, to the building of the feeling inside of her. He added on to it, more and more. She was so soft under his fingers, so supple, a dripping peach to sink his teeth into. He smiled at the comparison, realizing how much he wanted to go down on her. But his instinct told him it was too soon. That she’d stop him if he tried. He didn’t want to make that same mistake again.

  First this, he told himself. And then let her come to you. Give yourself the upper hand. Let her ask…

  Still, it took all his self-control not to get carried away. She was right there, naked and sweating and moaning, her whole body curving in its quest for satisfaction. If ever there was a time to tempt her to go further than she had intended to, this was it.

  Forget about eating her out, a selfish part of him whispered. Just downright fuck her. She won’t say no. She’s besides herself with desire.

  All he needed to do, was kiss her, lick her, pull her into his lap like they’d done in the fitting room. He could imagine it now. The way it would feel when she sat down on top of him, no clothes in between, this time. And then, when she sat down on him in earnest, slowly, haltingly, her soft warmth gradually opening up to him, enveloping him; the sound she’d make at the penetration, that quick frown, that sharp intake of breath. It was too much. He couldn’t resist. But just as he made to grab her hips and entice her to mount him, she uttered a little, forlorn sigh and put both her arms around his neck, in an awkward but incredibly sweet gesture. And suddenly, Spencer realised he wouldn’t be able to. No, he couldn’t. Even trying to would be an insult. If he swayed her now, he was sure she’d regret it later, and he didn’t want that. She’d asked him to teach her. Him, and no one else. How could he betray that trust?

  ‘Spencer,’ she breathed. ‘I feel kind of strange…’

  ‘Shall we stop?’ he heard himself ask.

  Her forehead slipped away from his; came to rest on his shoulder now. ‘No… I want…’ she panted. ‘I want… something…’

  He had no trouble guessing what that was. He moved his fingers downward, his thumb on her clitoris now. The wetness increased. He could feel her fingers digging into his shoulders.

  ‘You wanna come, sweetheart?’ he whispered, rolling his thumb.

  He felt her nod against his shoulder.

  Spencer buried his face in her hair. Then he dipped his middle finger inside of her, just a little.

  Her whole body shook, like a wave was passing through it. ‘Oh!!!’ she cried out, pressing herself more tightly up against him, clinging to him, her hands balling into fists on his back.

  He started pulling in and out of her now, still very shallow. She didn’t need much. A virgin, she was still so tight she felt his every movement to the smallest detail. Her hips rolled while she panted in his ear, ever louder. ‘Oh, Spencer, Spencer!!!’

  He couldn’t help but grin. How could you not smile when you name was being called out like that? He gave her three, four more jabs, and then he felt her entire body clench around him. A flow of wetness drenched his hand, and he frowned as he held the grunt back in his throat, his own desire almost unbearable now. He could still feel her contracting around him for a beat or two, then her muscles flexed and relaxed. She drew a long, deep breath, and leant loosely into him.

  ‘All right?’ he asked, touching her cheek.

  Her brown eyes were still half-closed with contentment as she tilted her head and looked up at him. She nodded lazily.

  'Good,' he smiled.

  'I'm so hot, though...'

  ‘Want to get out of here? Take a bath together? Or a shower, if you prefer.’

  She shook her head. ‘I'd just like a bit of that champagne, now, please.’

 

*

 

Louise watched as he came back in with the flute, the bottle in his other hand, bringing a waft of cold, deliciously oxygen-filled air with him. He topped her already full glass off. It fogged up immediately in the heat of the sauna, its chilled surface pleasantly cool against her palm. She took a big gulp, like it was lemonade, then coughed when the bubbles prickled in her nose. He smiled, took a swig straight from the bottle. He seemed restless as he stood there, like he was waiting for something.

  ‘So,’ he began. ‘Happy with the progress?’

  ‘You didn’t disappoint.’

  He gave her a pleased but still kind of expectant look.

  She decided to grant him a treat, after all, he had delivered as promised. ‘It was phenomenal, Spencer,’ she admitted, in truth.

  She could see a surge of satisfaction pass through him.

  ‘Ego sufficiently stroked?’ she smiled wickedly.

  ‘I’d rather you stroked something else.’

  Louise’s gaze trailed downward. She took another sip from her champagne, then it was her turn to tap the bench next to her. ‘Come up here, and I’ll see what I can do.’

  He was there in a heartbeat, the towel off without even a moment’s hesitation, zero inhibitions, and she realised the only reason he hadn’t done that before, the only reason he’d even worn a towel in the first place was solely out of consideration for her. He needn’t have bothered. Just like the rest of his physique, this aspect too couldn’t have been more perfect.

  ‘Oh my God,’ she huffed, relieved. ‘You’ve got a nice one! Oh, I’m so glad!! You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff I came across online.’

  He laughed at that, not loudly, not mockingly, but a genuine, soft, paired-back laugh that formed crinkles by his eyes and made his sides contract. It made him look kind of sweet, actually. Suddenly into it, Louise turned her body towards him, curling her legs underneath her, and reached out. It wasn’t difficult to bring herself to do it. She felt so relaxed, so centred within herself, and it was something she had always been a bit curious about, actually. For some reason, the image of the Porsche’s gear shift sprang to mind. Back in control, she thought, not without humour, as her fingers closed around Hirst’s cock. It was a weird realisation, finally having one in her hand. It was so soft! Well, it was really hard, of course, but it was soft, too; the skin, so silky smooth.

  She looked up at Hirst—at the rest of him—to tell him all about it, but he seemed otherwise engaged. It turned out her gear-shift analogy wasn’t that far off. Every little movement she was making had an immediate, and very visible effect. He was breathing rapidly, his face almost pained in its attempt at restrain. She had researched this part until the cows came home and had acquainted herself with a number of excellent techniques—in theory, anyway. But she found she just wanted to play around with it a bit first, discover the different possibilities. And in the state Hirst was in, that already proved to be more than sufficient. Louise had never expected it could be such a turn on to see a man in full state of arousal. He was all fired up, just from getting her off.

  ‘Good?’ she asked, as she let her hand slide up and down, only a bit, to tease him.

  He raised his eyebrows with a snort, signalling her that everything was A-OK, thanks, no voice to talk in right now. Poor bastard, he was completely at her mercy… She grabbed hold of him more firmly now, really instated a rhythm, and he shook underneath her, his breathing turning into a pant. His cock was slicking up underneath her hand, and good God, she could feel herself get wet again, too…

  All in all, it didn’t take long. Their foreplay had been too elaborate and too one-sided, and before she knew it, he spilled all over her hand in a display she found strangely mesmerizing and extremely gratifying at the same time. An unexpected, almost animal urge to just lick it all off came over her. But before she could consider the fine line between fantasy and reality, Hirst took the towel and wiped her hand, then cleaned himself off. He didn’t cover up again. Just sat there in a state of comfortable half-arousal that bode definite promise for the near future. Louise realised she was still naked, too. And that she didn’t care. She wanted to snuggle up to him. To kiss his neck. To do… other things… Would he still be able to, now he’d just come? She thought she might be… Yes, she definitely was.

  He smiled at her, as pleased as a cat, then pulled her into him and kissed her, long and luxurious, and her desire grew even more. Suddenly, he grabbed the bottle and without warning he poured champagne all down her chest and stomach. She shrieked and laughed with fright, as the icy liquid spilled over her flushed body. ‘No, stop, what are you doing that’s freezing!’ she cried out, but he was already licking it off her, off her breasts, biting her nipples, a bit rough, until she squealed with delight. He got down to the bench below now, sank down on his knees, and pulled her hips into him. Then he poured a dash of champagne over that part of her, too. Louise shook, her breath catching. He held her gaze for a moment, and then, oh, and then!!!

  ‘What’s the matter?’ she frowned, when he suddenly stopped and looked behind him. ‘What’s wrong?’

  ‘Can you hear that?’

  ‘What?’

  ‘The dogs. They’re barking.’

  Louise tried to focus, but it was kind of hard. ‘Maybe…’

  ‘Good Lord, what time is it?!’ he started.

  Before she could even begin thinking of an answer or if one was even expected, he jumped up and put his towel on. A gust of cold air whipped through the sauna as he opened the door and disappeared into the bathroom. Louise heard him move through the hallway and then into the lounge. The dog’s barking ceased, then a muffled conversation could be heard. Was he talking to the dogs? Or was there someone out there?!

Hurriedly covering herself in the robe again, the belt pulled so tight it almost got in the way of her breathing, Louise staggered off the bench and down to the floor. Her legs felt unsteady underneath her, from the champagne or her first orgasm or the second one that had been firmly on the way, maybe all three, she didn’t know. She somehow foudn her balance, then peeked round the sauna door to see if the coast was clear, and ventured out. The colder, fresher air in the bathroom was a relief but a shock all the same, and she could feel her poor body struggle to adapt. As if it hadn’t been put to the test enough, already!

  For a moment, all was quiet. The talking in the living room seemed to have ceased. But then she could hear Hirst coming back through the hallway at a run. Immediately, Louise knew they were in big trouble.

  ‘Quick,’ he said curtly, flipping the tap on the rain shower open to the max. Steam started filling the space. ‘Get your clothes on.’

  ‘What? Why?’

  ‘It’s Daph. She’s back.’

  ‘What?!’

  ‘Sorry, I wasn’t expecting her for hours.’ He grabbed the ice bucket, champagne bottle and glasses and hid them inside the first cabinet that provided enough space, then scanned the room for other evidence. ‘Dump that robe in the hamper and get dressed,’ he ordered, already halfway in the shower. ‘I told Gregor to stall her a bit downstairs, but we’ve got no more than two, maybe three minutes tops.’

  Louise could feel the bottom drop out of her stomach. ‘Do you really think it’s clever to start showering then?’

  Soaping up at lightspeed, Hirst still managed to scoff at her ignorance. ‘She’ll smell the sex on me, Hepburn,’ he yelled, over the noise of the running water. ‘She’ll smell you.’

 Of course. Louise swallowed and realised his smell was all over her, too. Jesus, if they got caught, if she was discovered here, in this state, news would be all over campus in a heartbeat! She shuddered to think what David’s reaction would be, or even Jeanie’s, for that matter...

  ‘Go!’ Hirst snapped her out of it. ‘Get dressed, grab your shit, get out. The stairwell is right next to the lift; on the right-hand side, you can’t miss it.’

  Louise had never gotten dressed more quickly. ‘Oh no, I forgot to put on my bra,’ she panicked.

  ‘Leave it, there’s no time.’ He was out of the shower already, a fresh towel around his waist, no time to dry off. ‘I’ll return it to you later.’

  ‘What, in class?’

  ‘Come on! Do you want to kill me or something? She’ll throw a fit if she finds you here!’

  It was the first time he lost his composure, all his actions before executed with a kind of calm, hyper-efficient pragmatism that Louise could only be in awe of, despite the fact it obviously stemmed from his ample experience with infidelity. Still, he was starting to get flustered now they were cutting it this short. Two red streaks blotched his cheeks. Daphne must be even richer than Louise had imagined. Or more fearsome…

  Her socks proved too much of a hassle, so she stepped into her shoes without them. ‘Bye then,’ she huffed. ‘And good luck!’ She blundered into hallway. Nelson and Mutt had been shut into the lounge and began barking again when they heard her run past. ‘Bye, doggies!’ she yelled over her shoulder. She burst through the front door, made for the one that led to the stairwell, then realized she’d forgotten her coat, scarf and purse. They were still in the hall wardrobe of Hirst’s flat! She doubled back, but it was too late. The sound of a fast approaching elevator gave Louise no choice but to retreat into the shadowy recess next to the lift, the door to the stairwell and her escape prodding tauntingly into her back. But if she went through there now, she’d give herself away. Because the lift doors were already sliding open, and there was Daphne Maybury, waltzing out into the hall. She was wearing a short black cocktail dress, long silver gloves and nothing but a white fur stole that had cost some pour animal its life draped around her bony supermodel shoulders. A deep-purple lacquered rain coat trailed elegantly in one hand. She gave a little knock at Hirst’s door, and Louise saw her readjust the stole, shift her weight alluringly onto one leg. If she does a little twirl to show herself off when he opens, I’m done for, Louise realised. The Heiress only needed to take one look behind her, and she’d see Louise standing there, haphazardly dressed, no bra and no socks on, still sticky with champagne and her boyfriend’s sweat. Louise pressed herself deeper into the recess, said a quick, inward prayer held her breath.

  ‘Daaar-ling!’ Daphne crooned, in that posh voice of hers, when Hirst opened. He looked almost boyish with those blotches on his pale cheeks and his hair all wet. He spotted Louise immediately, of course, but luckily he possessed enough restraint not to let it noticeably perturb him. Only when Daphne leant in and kissed him, did he find Louise’s gaze and gave her a look that meant as much as a shake of the head. Yeah, they had just dodged the bullet, here, and only in the nick of time. For now.

  ‘Oh, did I interrupt your wellness moment?’ Daphne said, as she registered the towel and his gleaming wet body. ‘I’m terribly sorry.’

  ‘Indeed,’ he answered, his tone forbidding. ‘I was only expecting you later tonight.’

  She uttered a little sigh. ‘I know, I took an earlier flight. No point in staying any longer. The snow in Sankt Moritz was just awful this year. Climate change and all that, I suppose. Anyway. I came here directly after I landed, of course. Hoped to surprise you.’ She gave him a blinding smile that had no doubt bought some lucky dentist a Ferrari.

  Somehow, Louise had a hard time believing Daphne had taken a plane dressed like that. The Heiress looked like she had just been to a cocktail party at Highgrove. Or would she have come via private jet? The realisation that this was an actual possibility made her feel a bit nauseous.

  ‘I missed you terribly,’ Daphne continued, her voice dropping an octave.

  ‘Did you, now,’ Spencer replied, and again, Louise was taken aback by the sudden chill in his voice.

  But Daphne seemed to react well to that sort of iciness. She took on an even more seductive stance and said: ‘Maybe we can continue that wellness session together? Get in the sauna or something? I know you’ve already showered, but…’ Her hand trailed over his towel. Louise averted her gaze. Somehow, she didn’t need to see that.

  ‘I’ve had enough for today,’ she heard him reply. ‘But we could always get in the tub.’

  ‘Mar-vellous.’ Her heels clicked over the threshold and onto the hardwood floor. ‘Is there anything to eat? I’m positively starving!’

  ‘There’s sushi, if you want…’

  ‘Perfect!’

  The door fell in its lock, and then the muffled sound of the dogs’ barking resounded again.

  Louise heaved a big sigh of relief, then wondered how in earth she was going to get home without her scarf and coat and not catch pneumonia along the way, let alone without her purse that held her phone, rail pass and Tube card. In any case, she needed to get out of here, now.

  She hopped into the elevator just before the doors closed again, where the mirrors immediately provided her with another nasty shock.

  ‘Oh my God, my hair!!

  The heat and the humidity of the sauna, along with her crash exit hadn’t done it any favours, to say the least. It was only halfway in the bun now, frizzy flyers sticking out all over the place—some straight up, defying the laws of gravity—and the bit that had gotten free in earnest seemed to have suffered through an explosion of some sort. With a pained hiss, Louise disentangled the elastic band from the mess, then began the impossible task of combing her curls back into submission purely by use of her fingers alone. She finally managed to create some sort of low pony tail, then took a good, long look at herself. Daphne’s perfume still hung in the lift cabin, classy and smooth and licked like she was herself, and Louise imagined her fussing over the sushi now, pricking pickily at it with her chop sticks, then lowering her snow-white Vogue body into the bubbling water of that round tub, her straight bob haircut like a helmet, not a hair out of place. Hirst would be giving her the watch soon, Louise supposed, maybe at midnight, when the new year started in earnest. Still, despite all that, there was no discussion the Heiress was being treated appallingly. When Daphne had kissed Hirst just now, Louise had immediately thought of where his mouth had been, only moments before. God, he was a scumbag. And with a twinge she realised she herself was an accessory to that. But then again, Hirst played around regardless, so what did it matter if it was with her or Lady Penelope or whomever? Besides, it wasn’t like she was trying to steal him away or anything. This was research, not an affair. 

  This is on him, Louise decided. There’s no reason for me to feel guilty.

  Of course, the fact that Daphne was a serious bitch helped put things in perspective, too.

  She reached the ground floor and bowed her head in an attempt to get through her walk of shame past the porter with the least amount of discomfort. But as she rushed down the marble steps like a thief in the night, he actually called out to her. ‘Miss!’ he shouted. ‘Miss, please wait a minute!’

  Good Lord. With a sinking stomach, she stopped and turned around. ‘Yes?’ she managed, acutely aware of her sweaty, sticky, frizzed-out state. The situation was so obvious she thought she was going to sink into the floor with embarrassment. She couldn’t have felt more uncomfortable had she been butt-naked.

  But Gregor turned out to be a true professional. One that had clearly seen more than his fair share of upper-class debaucheries. ‘Mister Hillscombe-Hirst asked me to arrange a ride home for you,’ he said, like she was a regular guest in a posh hotel and they needed to make a fuss of her. ‘I took the liberty of ordering an Uber. I hope that’s all right. Or would you prefer a cab?’ And when she started protesting, he continued: ‘He also said I should insist. That you’d catch cold if you went out like... like this.’ For a moment, his mask of benevolent servitude slipped, and she could see a glimpse of actual fatherly pity that mortified and at the same time reassured her. She nodded a bashful okay, and Gregor asked her to wait in the lounge, on a fancy blue and beige striped couch, while he went up to get her purse, scarf and coat. He had a master key, and apparently no qualms about discreetly slipping into the hall while Hirst and the Heiress frolicked in the bathroom.

  Louise could’ve kissed him. She wondered if she should ask him to retrieve her bra, too, but that was probably pushing it a bit…

 

*

 

Later that night, when she was standing on the terrace of the Country Club with Patrick and a few other colleagues, all sneaking a moment to wait for the New Year to be counted down, Louise got to thinking about her resolutions. The afternoon couldn’t have gone any better. Item three and four covered, and how! Even a little overture into item five… If things kept progressing the way they were now, she could be ready for David as soon as end of January. Her heart clenched with excitement. Somehow, the idea of it had become less unlikely, less vague. Yes, the afternoon had truly been one of many insights. And delights… She took a sip from her champagne; it was from the cheap batch that had been provided to the staff to toast with, and she couldn’t help but notice the difference with the one she’d tasted at Hirst’s. He’d wasted half of it just playing around with her, and decadent as that might have been, Louise couldn’t deny she had enjoyed it. It had made her laugh. It had been fun, just like Hirst had promised. She realised she was getting a bit too lenient with him, of course; a bit too lenient with the rules. That wasn't usually like her, but for the moment, she couldn't bring herself to care. A deep relaxation had taken seat in her, and she wanted to surf its wave for as long as she possibly could. She wasn’t even worried by the fact she’d told Hirst the real reason she was doing all this. Rather on the contrary. It was a relief not having to lie anymore. He still didn’t know she wasn’t planning on actually sleeping with him, of course—that would have been taking it a step too far—but now he knew the context, she was sure he’d understand when the time came. After all, his reaction earlier had been perfect, too. So understanding... She never knew he had it in him. Louise got out her phone and went through her messages. Plenty of people had already sent her their best wishes: Nan (a real SMS), Jeanie (a selfie with her three brothers, all in ridiculous party hats), and even Gemma had sent a teddy bear with exploding balloons revealing the four digits of the new year. When she got to Hirst's text, she paused.

  Sorry about the un-ceremonial goodbye. I had a good time, I hope you did, too. Wishing you a new year full of fireworks…xxx

  Louise smiled. She switched off the screen, but kept the phone in her hand, while she sipped champagne and toasted with her colleagues as the real fireworks started blooming high above her. A new year. A new life... She watched everyone around her  jump up and down and shout and kiss and rejoice in whatever way they could, and she made a decision. She wasn’t going to spend half the night in suspense waiting whether David would text her or not. She had overcome herself this afternoon, she could overcome herself now.

  She stayed eerily calm, even when he actually picked up, his deep voice vibrating in her ear and down her belly like he was standing right next to her. In the background she could hear people partying at his end too. ‘Hey, Lulu!’ he exclaimed. ‘Happy New Year! I was literally just thinking about you!’

  ‘Happy New Year, David,' she whispered. 'I was thinking about you, too.’

  ‘God, I can’t believe how long it's been since we spoke last!’

  ‘Ages.’

  ‘Where are you?’

  ‘Waitressing, at Hackney Court—the Country Club, remember?'

  'Oh, right! I completely forgot!'

  'And you?’

  'I’m out with a couple of mates back home. Doing all the old places, you know.’

  ‘That sounds like fun. Is Tina with you?’

  ‘Nah, she wasn’t really feeling the bar crawl thing. She preferred going out with Katy and her other friends in London.’

  ‘Oh. That’s a shame. I hope you're not feeling too lonely?’

  ‘Well...’ She could hear him smile on the other end of the line, that little, slightly embarrassed smile she knew and loved.

  And then she said, in an impulse, her stomach burning with the risk: ‘I wish I were there, with you.’

  He paused. ‘Yeah, that would be great...’ He trailed off, like he was imagining what that would be like. Louise swallowed; she was imagining it, too. ‘We’ll go out in January, okay?' he said, clearing his throat. 'Make up for it.’

  ‘I’d like that.’

  ‘It’s a deal.’ The ruckus in the background grew louder, someone yelled something unintelligible into the phone. David laughed. ‘I've got to go, they’re pulling my arm, here. Lovely to hear from you, Lulu. God, I’ve really missed you!’

  ‘I missed you, too.’

  After they’d hung up, Louise closed her eyes and pressed the phone to her chest. She'd called him. Actually called him. And it couldn't have gone any better. He wasn’t with Tina at all. And he'd been super happy to talk with her. But most important of all, he'd said he missed her.

  Louise let out a blissful sigh, and smiled.

 The new year was only half an hour old, and things were already looking up!

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