Denied, p.18
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       Denied, p.18
 

         Part #2 of One Night series by Jodi Ellen Malpas

  ‘Hi.’ I flash a small smile. ‘Oh, I have a new phone. I’ll text you the number.’

  ‘Okay.’ She nods as I pass her, entering the kitchen and immediately getting into my apron.

  Paul follows me in and takes up position behind the stove, lifting and tossing a pan full of onions. ‘You have a good evening?’ he asks. I detect genuine interest and look up to find an expression displaying indifference.

  ‘I did, thank you, Paul. You?’

  ‘Sure,’ he grunts as he slides two plates across the counter. ‘Tuna Crunches for table seven. Let’s have some service around here.’

  I swing into action and grab the plates, bypassing Sylvie and Del on my way out, my boss remaining tight-lipped, my friend’s lips remaining pursed. ‘Tuna Crunches?’ I ask, sliding them onto the table.

  ‘Ta, darlin’,’ a pot-bellied man sings, all happy, almost dribbling as he pulls both plates towards him while licking his lips. His big mouth wraps straight around one corner and he looks up at me, smiling, soggy bread spilling from his chops. I grimace. ‘Fill this up, will ya?’ He pushes his coffee mug into my hand and my stomach turns when a lump of tuna slips past his lips and splatters on the floor at his feet. I follow his finger as it swoops down and mops it up. Then I watch with horror when he takes the half-chewed food and laps it off his pudgy finger with a tongue lathered in Paul’s secret recipe. I gag, my palm slapping across my mouth as I sprint across the bistro, thinking Miller would have a seizure if he witnessed the display of such caveman manners.

  ‘You okay?’ Sylvie asks with alarm as I fly towards her.

  ‘Refill. Table seven.’ I thrust the mug at her and dart past, trying desperately to stop the bile stirring. I clatter past tables, bump into chairs, and smack my shoulder into the wall as I round a corner. ‘Bollocks!’ I curse, way too loud and in front of a table of two old dears who are enjoying tea and cakes in the quieter part of the bistro. I wince and rub my arm, then turn to apologise.

  And throw up all over them.

  ‘Goodness gracious!’ One old lady shoots up from her chair, rather fast for an old-timer. ‘Oh! Doris, your hat!’ She swats her friend’s head with a napkin, trying to brush away the lumps of vomit that I’ve sprayed all over the poor old lady. I swipe up a napkin and hold it over my mouth.

  ‘Oh, Edna, is it ruined?’ Her friend’s hand goes straight for her head and sinks into the sick-coated fur of her hat. I heave violently again.

  ‘I fear it might be. Oh what a shame! Don’t touch it!’

  ‘I’m so sorry,’ I splutter through the napkin, watching the two old biddies fussing over each other. I can feel eyes punching holes into me from everywhere, and a quick glimpse over my shoulder reveals a bistro full of silent observers. Even the filthy-mannered fatty who’s the cause of my vomiting episode is looking at me with disgust. ‘I . . .’ I can’t finish. Sweat has jumped onto my forehead and heat has jumped onto my cheeks. I’m mortified. And I feel terrible – sick, embarrassed and stupid. I let the corridor that leads to the ladies’ room swallow me up, and I flop over the sink, running the tap and splashing my face before rinsing my mouth. Looking up, I’m greeted by the reflection of a pale, meek-looking creature. Me. I feel rotten.

  Which reminds me. Once I wash and dry my hands, I take my phone from my pocket and spend five minutes cringing down the line, explaining to my doctor’s receptionist why I need an emergency appointment. ‘Eleven?’ I ask, pulling my phone from my ear to see the time. My shift finishes at five. ‘Have you anything later?’ I try, already running over a plausible excuse for me to escape work for an hour or two. My shoulders sag when she gives me no other option, then points out hastily that I only have a seventy-two-hour window if the morning-after pill is going to work. Damn. ‘I’ll take eleven,’ I say, giving my name before hanging up.

  ‘Livy?’

  Sylvie is peeking around the door. ‘Hey.’ I pop my phone back in my pocket and snatch a paper towel to dab at my wet face. ‘Am I fired?’

  She smiles, her pink lips wide, and joins me by the sink. ‘Don’t be silly. Del’s worried about you.’

  ‘He shouldn’t be.’

  ‘Well, he is. And so am I.’

  ‘Neither of you should be worried about me. I’m fine.’ I turn back to the mirror, not prepared to suffer another lecture about my relationship with Miller.

  ‘Sure you are,’ she laughs, making me frown at her in the mirror. She’s belittling me. ‘I assume things didn’t go so well after he abducted you from the bistro yesterday.’

  ‘You’re wrong,’ I seethe, turning to face her. The smile has dropped and shock has replaced it. She assumes because I’m a little off colour that things had gone all wrong last night. That Miller is responsible. ‘I feel a little under the weather, Sylvie. Don’t presume that Miller is the catalyst for everything.’ I dump the used towel in the bin harshly. ‘Miller and I are fine.’

  ‘But—’

  ‘No!’ I cut her off. I’m not standing for it any more. Not from Sylvie, not from Gregory, not from William. No one! ‘A disgusting man just spat his Tuna Crunch all over the floor and scooped it up with a filthy finger. Then he ate it!’

  ‘Eww!’ Sylvie recoils, her hand going to her midriff and circling slowly, like sickness has just jumped up and bit her on the arse. She should have seen it.

  ‘Yes, exactly.’ I tuck a wayward strand of hair behind my ear and straighten my shoulders. ‘That is why I threw up, and I’m fucking miserable because I’m sick of hearing people griping about me and Miller, and even sicker of receiving sympathetic fucking looks!’

  Her eyes widen while I bubble with anger before her, my chest pulsing with laboured breaths. ‘Okay,’ she squeaks.

  I nod sharply, determinedly. ‘Good. I have to get back to work.’ I slip past a startled Sylvie and bump into Del in the corridor. ‘I’m fine!’ I snap petulantly.

  His head seems to sink into his neck. ‘Clearly. But the two old birds in there aren’t.’

  I cringe. ‘I’m sorry.’

  ‘Go home, Livy,’ he sighs.

  I admit defeat easily on a slump of my shoulders, grateful for not having to make an excuse to escape for my appointment, and follow through on my boss’s sharp order. I take my drained body down the corridor and into the kitchen, slipping quietly past the two old ladies who I’ve just spewed all over. They’re distracted with fresh cakes and a new steaming pot of tea.

  Weaving my way through the tables of customers, my need to escape the confines of the bistro becomes urgent under the repulsed looks of the clientele. I burst out the door and land on the pavement, my head falling back on my shoulders and looking to the heavens. The fresh air hits my lungs, and I close my eyes and expel it on a heavy, frustrated sigh, relieved to be in open air.

  ‘The signs aren’t good.’ William’s rich tone sucks all of that relief out of me, my head dropping down slowly, my expression tired. ‘I assume you know how to operate the iPhone that I bought for you.’

  ‘Yes,’ I grate. It’s not even ten o’clock and I’ve put up with far too much already today. Now William, too. He’s leaning up against the Lexus, arms crossed over his chest in authority. He looks formidable. And cross.

  ‘Then I’m going to assume there’s a perfectly good explanation for you ignoring my message.’

  ‘I was busy.’ I throw my satchel across my body and square my shoulders.

  ‘Doing what?’

  ‘None of your business.’

  ‘Being blindsided by a handsome man who has seduction down to a fine art? Is that what you mean?’

  I bristle, my teeth clenching. ‘I am not answerable to you.’

  He laughs lightly, a splash of recognition invading his face. I’m behaving like my mother, and I hate myself for it. But for the first time in for ever, I’m thinking hard about her own battle against the people who obstructed her mission to win William. The man before me included. If this is how she felt, then I’m beginning to relate, and that’s something I nev
er dreamed I’d do. But I’m feeling pretty reckless. Determined. I’ve been there before and I’d probably go there again, if I didn’t now have the support of my someone. Gracie never did, and I can fully comprehend how that impacted her. ‘Tell me how my mother came to love you so much.’

  My abrupt question wipes the amusement from William’s face in an instant. He’s fallen into that uncomfortable mode again, shifting and diverting his liquid grey stare from mine. ‘I’ve told you.’

  ‘No, you haven’t. You’ve told me nothing, only that she was in love with you. You haven’t explained how that came to be. Or how you fell in love with her.’ I’m dying to ask him where his manners are, too, but I refrain, waiting patiently for him to piece together his story instead. I need to know. I need to hear how William and my mother came upon each other. One thing I remember vividly is William saying loud and clear that she put herself in his world for him. But how did they meet?

  He coughs, keeping his eyes off me, and opens the rear door of his Lexus. ‘I’ll take you home.’

  I huff my displeasure at his evasion and leave him waiting for me to get in his car, making tracks towards the bus stop.

  ‘Olivia!’ he shouts, and I hear the car door slam harshly. It startles me, making my shoulders hit my earlobes, but I disregard his evident annoyance and pick up my pace. ‘It was instant!’ he yells, pulling me to a rapid halt. The unsure tone of his words and rushed delivery of them is proof of the pain they’re causing him. I slowly turn to assess exactly how much pain I’m dealing with, and when his face comes into my view, I see a sadness that deflects right off William and punches a hole in my gut. ‘She was seventeen years old.’ He laughs a nervous laugh, almost embarrassed. ‘It was wrong of me to look at her the way I did, but when those sapphire eyes turned to me and she smiled, my world exploded into a million shards of sparkling glass. Your mother knocked me on my arse, Olivia. I saw a freedom that I knew I couldn’t have.’

  My heart slows, a crevice cracking wide open and exposing a horrid reality. I don’t like what I’m hearing. My brain is failing to locate any words of comfort for William, but it’s jumping all over his admission. ‘Why are you trying to sabotage our love?’ I ask.

  It’s a perfectly reasonable question, especially in light of this information. It’s not jealousy or resentment. William could’ve had that freedom, just like Miller can. Except Miller is more determined to get it. Miller isn’t prepared to let me slip through his fingers. Miller will fight for us – even if, maddeningly, he questions his worthiness.

  William’s eyes close slowly, reminding me of my part-time gentleman’s lazy blink. It makes me want to dash to Miller without delay, let him immerse me in his sanctuary and thing. ‘Please, allow me to take you home.’ He steps back and opens the car door again, gesturing with pleading eyes for me to get in.

  ‘I’d rather walk,’ I tell him. I still feel ill and the fresh air will do me good. Plus, I need to get to my doctor and I can’t ask William to drop me there. The thought makes me shudder on the spot.

  My petulance is irritating him, but I stand firm, not prepared to be bossed into his car again. ‘Then at least give me five minutes.’ He indicates across the road to the square where Miller once sat me – the time I finally gave in and let him have his one night.

  I nod, silently pleased he isn’t demanding me into his car. He needs to know I can assert some control, too. We start to wander across together, William giving his driver a mild nod as we leave. My stomach is churning, a mixture of sadness and compassion. I feel like I’m falling into an abyss of knowledge. I don’t want to continue my descent because I know it’ll be a bumpy landing – one that’s going to shred the unforgiving resentment I hold for my mother and replace it with overwhelming guilt. Each minute I spend with William Anderson is weakening the band circling the hardened part of my heart that I’ve reserved for holding utter contempt for Gracie Taylor. It’s going to snap soon and let the cynical fragments merge with the soft, fallen part. I’m not sure whether I can cope with more heartache, not after I’ve barely recovered and can feel light filling the darkness. But curiosity and the overpowering need to validate what Miller and I have is overriding my reluctance.

  We both lower to a bench and I remain quiet, watching William’s stiff body trying to relax next to me. And failing on every level. He places his hands on his lap and removes them. He reaches for his phone, checks it, and replaces it in his inside pocket. He crosses his legs, then uncrosses them, and his elbow rests on the bench’s arm. He’s uncomfortable, which is making me uncomfortable, too. Although I continue to study his string of awkward motions.

  ‘You’ve never told anyone your story, have you?’ I ask, surprising myself when my palm lands on his knee and squeezes in a gesture of comfort. It’s obscene for me to be offering my empathy. He sent my mother away and lost her for ever, for both of us. But he sent me away, too. And saved me.

  The distinguished gentleman stops shifting and drops his gaze to my hand. Then he lays his big palm over mine and holds it. He sighs. ‘I was in training, if you will. Being ordained to take over for my uncle. I was twenty-one, a nasty little fucker, and fearless to boot. Nothing and no one fazed me. I was the perfect successor.’

  My eyes drop to our hands and I watch closely as he fiddles with my ring thoughtfully before drawing breath. ‘Gracie had landed in my uncle’s club by accident. She was with friends, tipsy and bold. She hadn’t the first idea of what she’d stepped into, and I should’ve sent her on her way the second I clocked her, but I was rendered immobile by her spirit. It emanated from her entire being, right from her soul, and it held me in its claws. I tried to walk away, but they dug in further. They held me there.’

  He reaches up with his spare hand and rubs at his eyes on a long, drawn-out sigh. ‘She laughed.’ William gazes ahead thoughtfully. ‘Tipped martinis down her beautiful throat and carried her stunning body onto the dance floor. I was rapt. Hypnotised. Among the corrupted, sinful best of London was my Gracie. She was mine. Or going to be. When my duty was to lead her away from the seedy underworld that I was destined to run, I was instead luring her in.’

  The particles holding that contempt for my mother and the considerable part of my heart that holds pure, raw love for Miller begin to blend. I’m beginning to lose the ability to distinguish between the two . . . just as I suspected and feared. William looks up at me and smiles wistfully, his handsome face pained and remorseful. ‘I bought her champagne. She’d never tasted it. Watching her eyes sparkle in new-found delight lifted a layer from my hard heart. Not once did she stop smiling and not once did my doubt waver that I had to make this young woman mine. I knew I was swimming in murky waters, but I was blinded.’

  ‘You wish you had,’ I suggest, knowing I’m right. ‘You wish you had seen her out and forgotten about her.’

  He laughs a little. It’s condescending. ‘There wasn’t a hope of me forgetting Gracie Taylor. Sounds ridiculous, I know. I snatched a measly hour with her, stole a kiss when she resisted and told her I’d be taking her out the following evening. Somewhere off the beaten track. Somewhere private, where no one knew me. She said no but didn’t stop me when I helped myself to her bag and found some identity to confirm her name and address.’ His smile broadens in an obvious moment of reflection. ‘Gracie Taylor.’ The sound of my mother’s name pleases him, and I can’t prevent a fond smile from developing on my own lips. The blossoming feelings between Gracie and William are picture perfect. Novel material. Consuming and irrational. Then it all went horribly wrong.

  I can totally relate to my mother. Despite William and Miller clearly despising each other, they have many similar qualities. She must have been just as blinded by William Anderson as he claimed to be by her. And as I am by Miller Hart.

  ‘Your obligation to your uncle ruined everything.’

  ‘Obliterated it,’ he corrects sardonically. ‘My uncle was planning to retire, but a freak accident sent his body to the bottom of the Thames befor
e we got to give him his timepiece.’

  My brow crumples. ‘Timepiece?’

  He smiles and lifts my hand to his lips, kissing it sweetly. ‘It’s commonly recognised as a good retirement gift.’

  ‘It is?’

  ‘Yes, funny, don’t you think? Someone who no longer has to clock-watch is given a watch.’

  I chuckle with William, feeling a bond between us budding. ‘It’s quite ironic.’

  ‘Very much so.’

  What’s also ironic is that we’re laughing about this when he’s just informed me that his uncle died so tragically. ‘I’m sorry about your uncle.’

  William huffs a sarcastic puff of breath. ‘Don’t be. He got what he deserved. Live by the sword, die by it. Isn’t that what they say?’

  I don’t know. Do they? I’m being fed information that is way too vivid and complex for my poor mind to process.

  I stammer all over my words, but the comprehension seems to bite me on the arse. ‘Was your uncle an immoral bastard?’

  ‘Yes,’ he chuckles again, wiping under his eyes. ‘He was the immoral bastard. Things changed once I took over. I might have been a nasty bastard when I needed to be, but I wasn’t unfair. I implemented new rules, sorted the girls out, and weeded out the arseholes on the client list as best I could. I was young, fresh, and it worked. Earned me far more respect than my uncle ever gained. The ones who wanted to stick around and do things my way stayed. The ones who didn’t like the changes went and continued to be immoral bastards. I earned myself a lot of enemies, but even at that age I was not to be taken lightly.’

  ‘Have you killed anyone?’ I blurt the question without thought, and startled greys flip to mine fast. I almost let an apology slip for asking such a thing, but the wary glaze that descends over William’s clear eyes tells me it’s not such a stupid inquiry. He has.

  ‘That’s irrelevant, don’t you think?’

  No, I don’t, but his cautionary glare prevents me from saying so. Had he not taken someone’s life, then I’m certain he’d be quick to put me right. ‘I’m sorry.’

  ‘Don’t be.’ He reaches over and skims his knuckles over my cheek. ‘Your beautiful mind doesn’t need to be tarnished with ugliness.’

  ‘Too late,’ I whisper, making William’s delicate touch falter. ‘But we’re not talking about me and my decisions. What happened then?’

  Shifting in his seated position, William takes both of my hands
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