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Chapter 7
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‘You’re such a liar,’ Yasmin grinned. ‘Why won’t you just come clean and tell me what’s really going on between you two?’

  Louise zipped up her coat and sighed: ‘Are you on about that again? I told you, he’s just some prat from uni who enjoys tormenting me from time to time.’

  Yasmin’s grin widened. ‘I bet he does.’

  ‘Yaz…’

  But Louise’s colleague was on a roll. ‘He asked for you specifically, Louise. And I saw the way he was looking at you while you were wrapping that Omega,’ she summed up the same arguments she’d been repeating for the last couple of days. ‘The Omega you made a nice little percentage on, I might add.’

  Indeed, Louise cringed, as she tucked her scarf tightly around her neck. And on the suit he bought later, too. Hirst’s audacity really knew no bounds. Instead of slipping away and hoping no one had seen them coming out of the same fitting room or had gotten the luminous idea to check the security tapes—she was by no means certain they didn’t film inside the stalls, actually—he had mentioned her name at the checkout registry so she’d get the commission on the sale; thereby in effect forcing her to take at least some of his money, after all. She could hardly refuse. It was a percentage anyone who managed to sell certain brands was entitled to.

  He drew attention to me when I specifically asked him not to, she thought, cheeks glowing with indignation at the memory. I don’t even work at that department, for God’s sake! It was nothing short of a miracle that she hadn’t been caught and fired. The odds had been stacked up against her from the moment she’d followed him into that dressing cubicle. She still couldn’t believe she had taken such an insane risk. Or that she had done what she’d done, once she was in there with him, for that matter…

  ‘But most importantly, I saw how you were blushing,’ Yasmin put the finger on the sore spot, as she crossed her purse over her chest and pulled her long hair free from the strap, ‘practically the whole time you were dealing with him. And afterwards, too.’

  ‘Afterwards?’ Louise started, suddenly gripped by the irrational fear that her colleague knew all about what had happened but had for some reason waited until now to confront her with it.

  ‘Yes, after you came back from where ever you disappeared to at lunchtime that day. You were blushing all afternoon.’

  ‘That was a blush of irritation, Yasmin, not one of infatuation.’

  ‘Yeah, right.’

  They opened the shop doors and stepped into the last afternoon of the year. It was stone-cold out, but there was no wind and a dapper winter sun made the frozen pavements sparkle.

  ‘I mean, I don’t blame you,’ Yasmin shrugged, raising her voice to make herself heard over the traffic. ‘Hell, he made me blush, too. I can’t remember when I last saw such a handsome man!’

  Louise made an incredulous face. ‘Come on. I mean, he’s not bad, but he isn’t that good-looking either.’

  Yasmin made wide eyes. ‘Not that good-looking? You’re joking, right? It’s like he walked straight off the pages of GQ magazine!’

  ‘You’re exaggerating.’

  But Yasmin narrowed her eyes, imagining. ‘I bet he has a torso like an Ancient Greek statue underneath those killer clothes. All lean and hard and muscular, with skin pale as Carrara marble, mmmmm!’ She burst into laughter at her own silliness, and Louise couldn’t help but laugh, too. They linked their arms, looking for a bit of warmth as they started making for the Tube stop. ‘You wanna come out with us tonight?’ Yasmin suggested. ‘A few of the other girls from the store are going to be there as well.’

  ‘Thanks, but I have to work.’

  ‘Aw, on New Year’s? How sad!’

  She shrugged. ‘It pays like you wouldn’t believe.’

  ‘Well, at least come and have lunch with me now, then,’ Yasmin continued. They halted at the top of the steps that led to the Underground. ‘I know a place not far from here that serves a mean gin and tonic. We could have our own little pre-celebration, what do you say?’

  ‘I’d really love to, but I’ve already got plans.’

  Yasmin raised her eyebrows, her black eyes immediately twinkling like fireworks over a midnight lake. ‘Meeting someone special?’

  Louise rolled her eyes. ‘Don’t start that again, okay? I swear, there’s nothing between him and me!’

  ‘Okay. But if you aren’t interested, I don’t suppose you’d mind if I got in touch with him? What’s his name? I mean, his socials aren’t shielded, are they? Could you introduce me, otherwise?’

  At that exact moment, a car double-honked behind them. They spun around, and Louise immediately recognized the black Porsche that had pulled up to the curb—in a no-parking zone, of course. The door swung open, and Hirst leant over the passenger’s seat towards them, looking as much a cover-boy as ever. ‘My lady, your chariot awaits,’ he announced, with a blinding smile.

  Next to her, Yasmin folded her arms and said: ‘Forget I asked.’

 

*

 

‘Didn’t Yaz need a ride?’

  ‘She wanted one, that’s for sure.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘Nothing.’

  Louise kept her gaze fixed on the brake lights of the cab in front of them. They lit up about every two metres or so, which was about the pace at which they were navigating the midday London traffic. The cab’s exhaust fumed white billows into the freezing December air, mingling with the fumes of all the other vehicles stuck on the same piece of road.

  ‘Great idea, coming to pick me up,’ she complained. ‘Not only is my reputation as a bold-faced liar now firmly established with Yasmin, but this is just ridiculous. Your apartment was only a couple of Tube stops away. We’d have been there by now!’

  Hirst shrugged. ‘I don’t do public transportation.’

  ‘No, you wouldn’t, would you.’

  ‘What can I say, I like to travel in style.’

  ‘You mean: stand still in style.’

  ‘Well…’

  ‘Why did you even bother to come in the first place? I was on my way over. I can handle the London Underground on my own, you know. Lots has changed in women’s lives since the nineteen-fifties.’

  He gave her a sour look.

  Suddenly, Louise realised something. She pulled a mock pitying face and said: ‘Aw, did you want to show off your ride to me? How adorable.’

  Hirst expression soured even more. ‘Glad to see you’re impressed.’

  ‘Well, you always manage to make some sort of an impression on me...’ She shifted in her seat and let her gaze travel over the Porsche’s interior in earnest now. The cream-coloured leather seats and the classic vintage wood panelled dashboard with the chromed-out gauges were undeniably beautiful, but there was no back seat to speak of, and the front ones were so low she almost felt like she was lying down. Which was probably the whole purpose of such a vehicle, in the first place. ‘Quite an impractical car, actually,’ she remarked. And she thought: If he says “It gets me from A to B” now, I’ll scream!

  But Hirst only confirmed her suspicions by grinning: ‘For its purpose, it does the trick beautifully.’

  ‘Ugh. Well, at least it isn’t a red one.’

  ‘Please. What do you take me for?’

  She watched him handle the stick-shift, smoothly pushing and pulling it in and out of gear every time they stopped and started. He did look kind of nice today. The winter sun was on his face, making his eyes a paler, almost colourless shade of grey, like you saw on Siberian huskies sometimes. She smiled, snuggling deeper into her seat.

  ‘Are you comfortable?’ he inquired. ‘Shall I turn the seat-heating higher for you?’

  ‘No, it’s perfect,’ she sighed, enjoying the pleasant warmth against her lower back and butt. ‘I didn’t know they had that kind of technology, though, back in the day?’

  ‘They didn’t. I had it put in custom.’

  She made a derisive sound, but she couldn’t stop smiling all the same. She was feeling quite pleased, actually. It was her first afternoon off since Christmas Day, and riding in the Porsche might be impractical, but it was definitely more comfortable than waiting in a draughty Tube station with her scarf pulled up to her ears. She had been worried a bit about meeting Hirst today; that she might feel awkward now he had seen a part of her she’d never revealed to anyone non-medical before. But they had slipped into their usual back-and-forth like a glove. She glanced at him again. He was looking pretty pleased too, but then he always did.

  Well, when he’s around me, anyway.

  He was actually quite sullen in class, when she thought about it. Even when he was among his friends everything about him emanated a cold, callous sort of indifference. None of this tongue-in-cheek stuff he pulled with her.

  Irritating me must be his favourite pastime, she concluded. What a privilege!

  Her eyes wandered to his left hand again. It wasn’t calloused like David’s, but undeniably shapely, with long fingers that suggested strength as well as finesse while they nimbly opened and closed around the leather gear-shift. The sight seemed to add on to the warmth coming from her seat.

  ‘You play an instrument, Hirst?’ she inquired, in a casual tone.

  He gave a self-deprecating smile. ‘Six years of private piano lessons. My father thought it would be beneficial for my Math skills. A childhood trauma I’ve tried to block from memory ever since. But I could still play a decent tune, I suppose, if I had to. Why do you ask?’

  She shrugged. ‘No reason.’

  He glanced at her, then gave a quick frown when he saw her expression. ‘What?’

  ‘Nothing.’

  ‘Come on. Why are you smiling like that?’

  ‘I’m not smiling.’

  He let out a stunned scoff. ‘Were you trying to gage my dexterity, Hepburn?’

  Louise lifted her eyebrows innocently.

  He laughed openly now, shaking his head. ‘You’re really something, you know that?’

  They sat in silence for a moment, while the car gradually crawled through traffic. It smelled like him, in here. That slight tobacco/menthol/cologne mix that blended perfect with the leather-scent from the Porsche and that always hung around him a bit. Well, if you got up close enough, anyway… Louise let out an ostentatious sigh.

  ‘What’s the matter, now?’ he snorted. ‘Are you bored?’

  She looked out the passenger side window. Bored wasn’t the word. Things with Hirst were never boring, she had to grant him that. ‘No, just…’ She shrugged. ‘I don’t know.’

  ‘Poor thing. Here, let me entertain you.’ He let go of the gear-shift and put his hand on her knee.

  She flashed him an indignant look. ‘And what exactly do you think you’re doing?’

  ‘Demonstrating my sleight of hand, of course.’ He gave her knee a quick, insanely tickly double-squeeze, causing her to jolt up and squeal.

  ‘Stop it, that’s excruciating!’ she laughed.

  ‘Sorry, my bad. Is this better?’

  He moved his hand up and squeezed her thigh now, right in the fold of her leg. And this time, there was nothing tickly about it, whatsoever. This time, it was slow, and strong and purposeful.   ‘I—I didn’t request this,’ she protested weakly.

  ‘Didn’t you? What about this then; did you request this?’ And with one fluent movement, he plunged his hand deeply between her legs.

  Louise gasped, her body inadvertently curving into his touch. ‘Stop that!’ she whispered, breathless. But as he rubbed down along the denim of her jeans, a warm wave coursed through her underbelly, licking and rolling every nook and cranny of her.

  ‘Pity you’re not wearing a skirt today. You like making things difficult for me, don’t you.’ But before she had time to react, he added, in a whisper: ‘Oh, you’re hot down there, Hepburn…’ She could see his pupils dilate, sun or no sun, giving his expression something incongruous and feral. Husky turned wolf…

  ‘It’s the seat,’ she managed.

  He gave her an accommodating smile. ‘That’s not the seat.’ He removed his hand, and for about one hundredth of a second she felt relief and disappointment all at once, until an entirely new situation demanded her attention.

  ‘Hirst, no! We’re in public!’ she hissed, frantic.

  But he had already pulled open the top button of her jeans, more by force than by technique, since his hand was the wrong way around to be able to do it the normal way. And once the top one was open, the rest of them popped like a zipper…

  ‘We can’t do this!’

  ‘Why not? Isn’t it the next item on your little list?’

  ‘Yes, but…’ She frowned. ‘How did you know?’

  ‘Wild guess.’ He plucked at the fabric of her underwear. ‘Cherries,’ he commented, taking in the motif, ‘how very appropriately kinky of you, Hepburn.’

  ‘Hirst, I’m serious!’ she squeaked. She glanced out the window. The Porsche was surrounded by other cars, all alternating between a stand-still and a slow creep forward in the traffic jam. ‘There’s buses and things,' she panicked. 'People can look straight in here from up there!’

 ‘So? We don’t know them, and they don’t know us. We’ll never see them again in our lives. Besides, I don’t think anyone would exactly be shocked.’ He kept his hand where it was, his fingers playfully tugging at the cotton while avoiding any real contact, thereby intentionally keeping the threat of it looming ominously.

  Louise squirmed in her seat. Ever heard of smartphones, genius? she wanted to shout. But she was sure it would have had zero effect. Hirst probably couldn’t care less if he was plastered all over the internet on some Peeping Tom site or other. But then again, he wasn’t the one sitting here with his underwear on display, now was he?

  She bit down on her lower lip. He’d stop if she really asked him to; he always had until now. Problem was, she didn’t want to stop—not really—and that bastard knew it. In fact, he seemed to know even before she did. When it came to the physical stuff, nothing was getting past Spencer Hirst.

  ‘Fine,’ she gave in, and she saw his pupils react immediately, widening even further and thereby betraying he hadn’t been so sure she’d play along, after all. ‘But there’s no reason to be stupid about it, ok?’ She grabbed her coat from the back seat and draped it over herself, blocking any unwelcome eyes.

  Hirst grinned, not in an unfriendly way. ‘You’re such a little prude, Hepburn. I would never have guessed women like you still existed.’

  ‘Yes, that must be a real change for you, compared to all the Lady Penelope’s in your life,’ she spoke defiantly.

  He held her gaze, the smile still on his lips. ‘It’s quite refreshing, I must admit. I’m just wondering for how long you’ll be able to keep it up…’ He pulled her panties away from her skin a bit further, and she could feel the terrifying sensation of being laid bare to the slightly colder air of the car’s interior, even underneath that coat. She felt vulnerable, exposed. And insanely aroused. He held on for a moment longer, then let the fabric snap back into place. But this time, his fingers followed suit. Louise closed her eyes at the contact, supressing an inward shiver with pleasure and fear alike. There was still a layer of cotton between her and him, but it was thin, so thin, and she could feel every move he made as he slowly felt his way around the curves and shapes of her. She held her breath, trying very hard to forget the street around her, and the cars, and most of all, the people in them, while she registered the range of sensations Hirst was conjuring up in her. His ring-finger plucked at the elastic band of her left leg-hole, threatening to push it aside, to really touch her, and she thought she was going to die with embarrassment and desire alike.

  ‘How does it feel?’ he whispered. ‘Does it feel good? Like when you touch yourself?’

  He was leaning towards her, his attention solely focused on keeping his hand in exactly the right position, his other arm negligently on the steering wheel, the gear permanently in first.

  ‘I don’t know. I’ve never… I don’t really do that; touch myself,’ she stammered, while he slowly and diligently stroked her. ‘And keep your eyes on the road, will you.’

  ‘Everybody does that. And my eyes are fine where they are.’

  ‘We’ll crash.’

  ‘We’re barely moving.’

  ‘Spencer, I—’

  ‘Louise,’ he retorted. ‘Shut up.’

She actually nodded at that, like she was glad someone had finally given her permission to not care. Eyes closed, she allowed herself to focus on his touch again. To sink into it like she would into a steaming hot bath. He was drawing slow, tight circles now, right above her sensitive spot, making a tingling feeling spread from her lower belly all throughout her body. Her hands balled to fists around the fabric of her coat. She was still resisting, her breath quick and shallow. He relieved some of the pressure, but only to redouble it moments later, his hand moving lower, and she pressed her lips together, biting back the moan that rose in her throat. Here panties were starting to get wet. She could feel it happening, could feel them going damp right here, in broad daylight, in a traffic jam in the middle of London, while Hirst played her like the piano he had slaved away at as a boy. He’d notice too, she realised, and for a moment, she felt insecure, fearing he might not like it or something. But she clearly couldn’t have been more wrong.

  ‘God, Hepburn, you’re killing me, here,’ he whispered, more to himself than to her it seemed.

  ‘Spencer…’ she huffed, in a plaintive voice.

  ‘What is it, love?’ he whispered back, the arousal thick in his throat. ‘Tell me. Tell me what you want…’ And without waiting for her reply, he pulled the cotton to the side and gave it to her.   ‘Oh!!’ Louise squealed, her buttocks clenching as she finally felt the contact of skin on slippery skin.

  The blearing honk of another car snapped them both out of it. Hirst grappled at the steering wheel, but it was too late. Even at this low speed, they were projected forward against their seat belts as the Porsche bumped into the fender of the cab in front of them, with a hollow, metallic thump.

  ‘Crap…’ Spencer cursed.

  Louise felt a wave of disappointment wash over her, and this time without any relief whatsoever.

  No orgasms, for the moment.

 

*

 

They spent the next hour filling in forms by the side of the road. By the time they got to Hirst’s place, it was well past one o’clock.

  ‘Told you we should have taken the Tube,’ Louise couldn’t help twisting the blade, as they parked in the garage underneath the beautiful Edwardian apartment building he called home.

  He gave her a disgruntled look. They got out and Louise noticed how sad the Porsche looked, with that banged up fender. Like a supermodel with her teeth knocked out.

  ‘Is it hard, finding parts for a vintage car like that?’ she asked innocently.

  Hirst’s look became downright foul now. With an irritated press on the contact, he locked the car doors.

  Grinning, Louise followed him as he led the way through the shadowy, cavernous garage, their footfalls echoing hollow on the concrete floor. They were in the poshest part of the posh part of London here, and she couldn’t even begin to imagine what the rent must be like, parking space included. The other cars, neatly lined up in a row as if on display, betrayed the other residents weren’t exactly short on money either. Hirst’s Porsche certainly wouldn’t have to feel lonely down here…

  They reached the door to the stairwell, which Hirst proceeded to hold for her. She tried to give him a mocking look, but he was so lost in thought he didn’t even notice it. The underground garage had been like any other, but when they reached the ground floor, the building lived up to the splendour its façade had promised. The entrance hall was all shiny marble surfaces, big-leafed violent green plants and sparkling crystal chandeliers. Spencer nodded at the porter who rose to greet him by name and title, then glanced at his watch as they waited for the elevator to take them up, like it was all the most common thing in the world.

  ‘What business did you say your family was in?’ Louise inquired, gaping at the decor. She’d known Hirst had money, but this was just ludicrous.

  ‘Banking,’ he replied. ‘And politics, of course. That’s kind of a business too, right?’ He smiled at himself, a little wryly, it seemed.

  Louise pulled a face. Two of the worst fields imaginable, in her opinion. Well, as far as ethics went, anyway.

  But clearly a winning combination from a material point of view…

  The elevator arrived, revealing more marble and brass and mirrors all around. Hirst pushed the button to the top floor. He had the penthouse. Of course.

  ‘Nice place,’ Louise commented, stifling the sudden irrational urge to whisper.

  ‘Thanks. It’s been in our family for ages. My father used to stay here when he had to work late during the week—save him the drive back to the country. But he has rooms at his office now.’

  Louise could imagine it now. Politicians and their little apartments. She wondered how many times old Hillscombe-Hirst had used this place to entertain guests of the female variety.

  Like father, like son.

  Still, she swallowed the remark. Parents were always a tricky subject, she knew that first hand. She disliked Hirst, but there was no need to get hurtful.

  They arrived at the top floor and stepped out onto the lush, apricot-coloured Persian carpet of the hall. And these are just the common areas, Louise reminded herself. She shuddered to think what Hirst’s own apartment would look like. Well, she was about to find out. He put the key in the lock, then turned to her and asked: ‘You’re not afraid of dogs, I hope?’ From somewhere inside the apartment, muffled barking rang out.

  ‘I love dogs,’ Louise replied, in truth.

  He smiled, his expression for the first time since the accident brightening a bit, then opened the door. Louise had to admit it. The dog hadn’t been picked out to match the carpet after all. Firstly, Hirst had hardwood floors, and secondly, there wasn’t one dog but two and neither of them were particularly trendy.

  ‘This is Nelson,’ he introduced a calm, regal-looking lurcher with bulging eyes and a mottled, tortoise shell coat. ‘And that mongrel there is Mutt.’

  Mutt was knee-high, had short black hair and a grey face, three white feet and a curl in his tail. Despite his obvious age, he was jumping up and down against their legs like someone had plugged him into a socket, panting and yapping and falling over himself while he decided who he wanted to greet more, his usual human or Louise.

  ‘Hi Mutt,’ Louise laughed, trying to pet him whilst keeping her face from getting slobbered on.

  Meanwhile Nelson was standing by Hirst’s knee, looking from Mutt to his master and back again as if shocked and appalled by such obvious misbehaviour. Louise offered him her hand, which he sniffled at cautiously but with interest; big, sensitive eyes blinking, spindly tail wagging demurely. Meanwhile, Mutt was trying to intervene from all sides, shoving his head against Louise’s hand and licking it where he could.

  ‘Come on, Mutt,’ Spencer laughed, lifting the little dog up in his arms. ‘Behave yourself, we have a guest. Sorry about that,’ he apologised, turning to Louise who was rubbing her palm against her jeans in an attempt to get the drool off. ‘They’re a bit restless. We’re back later than expected, and I haven’t had time yet to take them for a decent walk today.’

  ‘Oh, that’s okay,’ Louise assured him.

  ‘I’ll call the walker now, see if she’s free. I normally only use her during the semester; I completely forgot to take into accound you were coming over.’

  Louise was scratching Nelson’s cheek. The lurcher leant his head into her hand, his huge eyes riveted on hers. ‘Why don’t we take them ourselves?’ she suggested. ‘I think they’d like that.’

  Spencer already had the phone to his ear, Mutt still under one arm. There were short, prickly hairs getting stuck all over his cashmere coat. ‘Really? You’re sure you don’t mind?’

  ‘It’s a beautiful day, and the park is right across the street. We’ve still got plenty of time, right?’

  He put the phone down. ‘I guess.’

  A couple of minutes later they were strolling along the gravel pathways of Hyde Park, Louise all bundled up in her scarf and coat, Spencer smoking moodily while on intervals throwing a chewed-up tennis ball to entertain Nelson and Mutt, who were dashing through the frozen leaves like two kids at play.

  ‘They’re lovely,’ Louise smiled. ‘I’ve wanted a dog for as long as I can remember. Was never allowed one, though.’

  ‘We've always had four or five at home, at a minimum.’

  ‘Well, when you’ve got the space…' Louise lused longingly. 'Did you bring them with you when you moved here?’

  ‘No, I got these two at Battersea. I missed having a dog around when I started uni. I was really only looking for one, but they were in the same kennel together, so I thought, why not. To take one and then leave the other seemed a bit cruel. Besides, seeing as I’m away most of the day, it was only fair to give them each other’s company.’

  Louise raised her eyebrows in surprise. ‘Battersea? Well, well.'

  'Does that surprise you?'

  'It does. I didn’t take you for the type to get a rescue dog, let alone two.’

  'Why not?’

  ‘I don’t know. I just got the idea things like pedigrees and bloodlines kind of mattered to you.’

  Hirst took another draw from his cigarette. ‘Only in people, Hepburn,’ he grinned. Then he added, pensive: ‘People, and horses, of course.’

  They walked on in silence for a while, just enjoying the day. It was still freezing cold, but in a good way, the air fresh and crisp, the sun hazy in the light blue, watercolour sky. Everything in the park sparkled, from the frozen leaves and twigs to the part of the pond that hadn’t frozen over. Louise couldn’t remember when she had last taken a walk, just for the fun of it. She gave Hirst a sideways glance. He was lost in thought, a broody, contemplative expression on his face. Probably still thinking about his car, Louise figured. In impulse, she linked her arm through his.

  ‘Well,’ she stated, smiling wickedly. ‘I must say it’s a comfort to know you have some sort of a heart beating in that black cave of despair of yours after all.’ She tapped the center of his chest with a gloved finger.

  ‘Thanks,’ he snorted, all sarcasm. ‘Don’t tell anyone, okay?’ He threw the ball again, made it fly just above the dog’s heads. They snapped at it, missed, then went darting down a grassy slope in its pursuit, Nelson at an elongated gallop, all elegance, Mutt like a wind-up dog out of a toybox, his little legs pumping like pistons, curled tail high in the air.

  ‘It’s nothing to be embarrassed about,’ Louise continued her attempt to embarrass him as much as possible. ‘A heart is actually a quite normal part of the human anatomy.’

  He scoffed. ‘You could’ve fooled me.’

  Louise made big eyes at him. ‘Don’t you think I have a heart?’

  He seemed a bit thrown by that. ‘No, I mean, not you… I’m talking about people in general. God, I can’t stand people, really. Animals I like. At least they’re honest. You know where you are with them. But humans, pff, no thank you.’

  ‘You’re out of luck, the world is full of them.’

  ‘Indeed,’ he sighed bleakly.

  Louise laughed. ‘Don’t you think you’re being a tiny bit harsh? Most people aren’t that bad.’

  He gave her an appalled look. ‘You’re joking, right? The world is a cesspool filled with assholes.’ He pointed at her with his cigarette. ‘You can quote me on that, if you like.’

   ‘And still, you have such a well-filled social life,’ she remarked tartly. ‘Or maybe that’s exactly where the problem lies: with the kind of people you choose to associate with. Maybe you should rethink your strategy of selecting them solely based on their pedigrees; that’d probably help.’

  He grinned, impressed by the quick wit of her quip. Not that it affected him in the slightest, of course. ‘Admitted, it’s a beggar’s choice,’ he retorted. ‘But at least I can say have people to associate with.’

  ‘Hey, I’ve got friends,’ Louise assured him. ‘Maybe not a whole lot, but they’re real ones.’

  He let out a mocking laugh, his breath clouding in the cold air. ‘How naïve you are, Hepburn. It would almost be endearing if it wasn’t so tragic.’

  ‘It’s not naïve to believe in people.’

  ‘Please. You might as well believe in unicorns.’

  ‘Oh yeah? Well, what do you believe in, then?’

  He took a deep breath, narrowing his eyes like he was trying to pull the answer out of the air. ‘What do I believe in… Good question. I believe in money, of course, and the freedom that it buys. I believe in partying, hard, and in all aspects of the word. I believe in… pleasure.’ He gave her a very personal smile at that last one.

  Louise rolled her eyes. ‘You can’t be serious. That’s honestly enough to get you out of bed in the morning?’

  ‘Sure. I mean, we were all born, and we all have to die. Those are the only two absolutes. Best to enjoy yourself a little in between, I say.’

  ‘But isn’t that hedonistic stance an awfully narrow way to look at life?’

  ‘Hedonistic? And here I always thought I was more of a stoic.’

  Louise tilted her head as she contemplated this. ‘Hmm, yes, I do see that in you, too. You’re a truly incongruous mixture of disastrous creeds, aren’t you?’

  Hirst put his head in his neck and laughed. ‘Thanks! Now I finally know what to put on my headstone, when the time comes.’

  Louise shook her head and decided to leave it at that. Trying to convert Hirst in any way, shape or form was clearly a waste of time. His cynicism was so sharply whetted he had developed skin as thick as a rhino’s to protect himself from getting cut by his own weapons. No one was getting through those callouses anymore, let alone her. It was pretty sad, actually. He was doomed to keep dragging himself from one meaningless adrenalin rush to the other, without ever feeling anything remotely real. Still, his remark about her being too trusting of people had stirred up some unwelcome feelings in her. It got her thinking about David again, and how he hadn’t told her for three whole weeks that he had been seeing Tina.

  He explained that; he was afraid I’d disapprove. He knew I didn’t like her.

  And yet he hooked up with her anyway…

  ‘Are you cold?’ Hirst’s question cut through her thoughts, and she blinked, as if the daylight was suddenly too bright.

  ‘I’m fine.’

  ‘Sure? You’re hunching up your shoulders.’

  Louise realized she was shivering, her hands tucked deep into her coat pockets. ‘Yeah,’ she admitted. ‘Maybe I am a bit.’

  ‘Come on,’ he said, squeezing her arm. ‘I’ve got just the thing.’

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