Promised, p.23
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       Promised, p.23

         Part #1 of One Night series by Jodi Ellen Malpas

  knickers while deftly holding my towel in place. The bra’s not so straightforward, and I end up turning away from Gregory, who doesn’t seem in the least bit perturbed by the potential of copping a load of my nakedness.

  He starts laughing as he watches me battling with the bra, and I grumble to myself, not amused by his amusement as I arrange my poor excuse of a chest into the cups. I look down, surprised to see something close to a cleavage.

  ‘See,’ Gregory says, grabbing the towel and whipping it away. ‘Push-up bras are the best things ever invented.’

  ‘Gregory!’ I cross my arms over my chest, feeling shy and exposed, as he moves to stand in front of me.

  His eyes are slightly bugged as he drags them down my petite frame. ‘Fucking hell, Livy!’

  ‘Stop it!’ I attempt in vain to steal the towel back, but he’s having none of it. ‘Give me it!’

  ‘You look steaming.’ His mouth is open, his eyes wide.

  ‘You’re supposed to be gay!’

  ‘I still appreciate a woman’s form, and you’ve got form, baby girl.’ He throws the towel on the bed. ‘If you can’t stand in front of me in your underwear, then who can you?’

  ‘I’m going on a date, nothing more.’ I escape Gregory’s appreciative stare and grab my hair dryer. ‘Will you stop looking at me?’

  ‘Sorry.’ He seems to shake himself back to life before plugging in some hair-styling device: straighteners, I think. ‘What are you going to drink?’

  The question catches me off guard. I’ve not thought that far ahead. Accepting a date, getting ready for the date, and getting myself to the date has been enough for me to get my head around. What I’m going to drink and talk about while I’m actually on the date hasn’t entered my head. ‘Water!’ I shout over the roar of my hair dryer.

  He recoils, a disgusted look all over his face. ‘You can’t go on a date and drink water!’

  I’m scowling across the room at him, not that he’s bothered. ‘I don’t need alcohol.’

  His shoulders drop dramatically, as does his arse to my bed. ‘Livy, have a glass of wine.’

  ‘Listen, the fact that I’m going out with a man should be enough, so don’t start pressing me on drinking.’ I flip my head upside down and blast my blond everywhere. ‘Baby steps, Gregory,’ I add, thinking that I need to keep my wits about me, and alcohol won’t help me do that. But I didn’t need alcohol in the equation to make me lose my mind in the company of Miller Ha—

  I throw my head back up in the hope of physically tossing the thought from my mind. It works, but it has nothing to do with head tossing and everything to do with Gregory gawking at me. ‘Sorry!’ he blurts, immediately busying himself with unpacking my shoes.

  I drop my dryer and look dubiously at the straighteners that are steaming on a heat mat on the carpet. They look dangerous. ‘I think I might leave my hair.’

  ‘Oh no,’ he pouts. ‘I’ve always wanted to see your hair straight and sleek.’

  ‘He won’t recognise me,’ I complain. ‘You’re sticking me in that dress and these heels, and now you want to iron my hair, too.’ I start rubbing some E45 into my face. ‘He asked me on a date, not the polished thing that you’re trying to create.’

  ‘You wouldn’t be a polished thing,’ he objects. ‘You’d be you, just enhanced. I think you should surrender all decisions to me.’ He stands and fetches the dress, taking it off the hanger.

  ‘How do you know what a man wants from a woman?’

  ‘I’ve gone out with women.’

  ‘Not for over two years,’ I point out, remembering each and every time that he has, and it was always after a break-up with a guy.

  He shrugs nonchalantly and holds the dress up. ‘How did this become about me?’ he asks. ‘Shut up and slip that neat little body into this delightful dress.’ He jiggles his eyebrows cheekily, and I reluctantly drag myself over to him, letting him put the dress over my head and down my body. ‘There.’ He steps back and gives me the once-over while I slip my feet into the painfully high shoes.

  I look down at myself, seeing the black dress clinging to every curve that I don’t have and my feet at a stupidly high angle. I feel unsteady. ‘I’m not sure,’ I say, feeling far too overdressed. When Gregory doesn’t respond to my wavering, I look up, seeing a dumbstruck face. ‘Do I look stupid?’

  He snaps his gaping mouth shut and seems to mentally slap himself. ‘Er . . . no . . . I . . . He starts laughing. ‘Fucking hell, I have a hard-on.’

  I huff, flaming red instantly. ‘Gregory!’

  ‘I’m sorry!’ He starts adjusting his groin, prompting me to swing around to escape the view, which subsequently prompts me to stagger in the stupid heels. I hear Gregory gasp. ‘Livy!’

  ‘Shit!’ I go over on my ankle, losing a shoe, then proceed to hop around like a demented kangaroo. ‘Shit, that hurt!’

  ‘Oh God!’ Gregory is clearly in pieces behind me, the bastard. ‘Are you okay?’

  ‘No!’ I snap, kicking the other shoe off. ‘I’m not wearing them!’

  ‘Oh, don’t be like that. I’ll control myself.’

  ‘You’re bloody gay!’ I yell, picking up a shoe and waving it around above my head. ‘I can’t walk in these.’

  ‘You’ve hardly tried!’

  ‘You put them on and tell me how easy it is.’ I chuck the shoe at him, and he laughs as he catches it.

  ‘Livy, that would make me a drag queen.’

  ‘Be a drag queen, then!’

  Gregory loses control altogether and collapses on my bed in a helpless fit of laughter. ‘You’re making me cry!’

  ‘Bastard,’ I spit, yanking the dress off. ‘Where are my Converse?’

  ‘You can’t.’ He dives up, immediately noticing that the dress has been ditched, as well as the shoes. ‘Oh no! You looked fabulous.’ His eyes run down my semi-nakedness.

  ‘Yes, but I couldn’t walk,’ I mutter, stomping over to my wardrobe. This irritation is a good enough reason alone to maintain my boring lifestyle. I’ve been bombarded with new situations recently, and for the most part I’ve mainly felt angry, pissed off, or useless throughout. Why the hell am I doing this to myself?

  I viciously yank down a cream layered dress and shove it on, quickly realising that my underwear is black and you can see the damn stuff through the material, so I set about removing everything all over again, telling Gregory to stick his face in the pillow so I can do it all quickly and comfortably. When I’m done, I have my white cotton underwear back on, my cream dress in place, my denim jacket over the top, and my navy Converse gracing my feet. I feel so much better.

  ‘Ready,’ I declare, quickly brushing over my cheeks with some blusher and putting a pink sheen on my lips.

  ‘What a waste of a shopping trip,’ Gregory mutters, removing himself from my bed and strolling over. ‘You looked lovely.’

  ‘Don’t I now?’

  ‘Well, yes, you always look lovely, but you looked less of a walkover in the black number. It would’ve empowered you – given you confidence.’

  ‘I’m happy the way I am,’ I counter, wondering if that’s strictly true. I don’t even know any more. My head’s not been my own in recent weeks. It’s thinking things I never considered and making my body do things I definitely never considered.

  ‘I just want you to express yourself a little more, like you did just then.’ He grins at me as he fluffs my hair.

  ‘You want me to be mad?’ I ask, because that’s exactly how I feel. Moody. Irritable. Pressured.

  ‘No, I want some sass to surface. I know it’s there.’

  ‘Sass is dangerous.’ I brush him off and transfer my things from my satchel to a more suitable across-the-body bag. ‘Let’s go before I change my mind,’ I mutter, ignoring his grumbles of disapproval as I march out onto the landing.

  I thank all of the Converse gods as I walk down the stairs in my stable flats, but soon stop smiling when I find Nan pacing restlessly at the bottom of them. George
is moving out of her way each time she performs an about-turn, pinning himself against the wall of the hallway to avoid being run down.

  ‘Here she is!’ George says, clearly relieved that his body dodging will soon come to an end. ‘And doesn’t she look lovely?’

  I halt on the bottom step and watch Nan give me an all-over assessment, then flick her eyes over my shoulders, homing straight in on Gregory. ‘You said heels,’ she says in disbelief. ‘You said a lovely black dress and heels to match.’

  ‘I tried,’ Gregory mumbles grumpily behind me, and I swing around to fire an accusing glare at him. He meets my accusing glare with his own. ‘You try avoiding a Nan-style interrogation.’

  I sigh my frustration and take the last step, pushing my way past my grandmother, keen to escape all of the bloody fuss. ‘Bye.’

  ‘Have fun!’ Nan calls. ‘Is this one really better than that Miller?’ I hear her ask quietly.

  ‘Much!’ Gregory assures her confidently. It just makes me walk faster. How the hell does he know? He’s not met either of them.

  ‘See,’ George laughs. ‘Now, where’s my pineapple upside-down cake?’

  I march onward, grateful for my flats and looking forward to my date because it gets me out of the house and away from Nan, an uncharitable thought, but Lord, give me strength! A quiet life was an easy life, kind of, except for the odd grumble about my reclusiveness. Now it’s a constant stream of questions and brain-picking. It’s painful.

  ‘Livy!’ Gregory catches up to me as I reach the end of the road. ‘You look dead cute.’

  ‘You don’t have to try to make me feel better. I feel fine, no thanks to you.’

  ‘You’re grumpy today.’

  ‘No thanks to you.’ I let out a girly squeal as I’m hoofed from the pavement. ‘Will you pack it in!’

  ‘Sass,’ he says simply. ‘You can have it without being a bitch, you know.’

  ‘You deserve it. Put me down.’

  He places me on my feet and straightens me out. ‘I’m headed in the other direction, so I’ll love you and leave you.’ He leans down and pecks my cheek. ‘Be good.’

  ‘That’s a really stupid thing to say to me.’ I jab his shoulder in an attempt to restore our normality.

  ‘Well, yes, it usually would be, but my best friend has developed a stupid gene in recent weeks.’ He jabs my shoulder right back.

  He’s right; I have, but I’ve also lost that gene again, so he has nothing to worry about, and neither do I. ‘I’m going on a friendly date, that’s all.’

  ‘And a little snog wouldn’t hurt, but no hanky-panky until I’ve met him. I need to check him out.’ He grabs my shoulders and turns me around. ‘Off you trot.’

  ‘I’ll call you,’ I say as I start to leave him behind.

  ‘Only if you’re not too busy,’ he calls back, earning himself a roll of my eyes that he can’t see to appreciate.

  It’s ten minutes to eight when I arrive at Selfridges. Oxford Street is still bustling, even at this hour, so I prop myself up against the shopfront and watch the world go by, making my best effort to look casual and at ease. I know I’m failing.

  After five minutes of waiting, I decide that fiddling with my phone will make me look much more relaxed, so I rootle through my bag and start a text to Gregory, just to pass the time.

  How long do I wait?

  I click send, and my phone starts ringing almost immediately, Gregory’s name flashing up. ‘Hi,’ I answer, grateful he called because actually being on the phone is an even better way to appear relaxed.

  ‘He’s not there yet?’

  ‘No, but it’s not even eight.’

  ‘Doesn’t matter!’ he exclaims. ‘Damn it, I should’ve made you late. It’s the number-one rule of dating.’

  ‘What is?’ I ask, changing my standing position to lean on my shoulder rather than my back.

  ‘The woman has to be late. Everyone knows that.’ He doesn’t sound happy.

  I smile to the crowd of strangers scurrying by. ‘So what happens when the two people dating are men? Who’s the one to be late then?’

  ‘Very funny, baby girl. Very funny.’

  ‘It’s a perfectly reasonable question.’

  ‘Stop diverting the conversation to me. Is he there yet?’

  I glance back, my eyes darting around briefly, but find no Luke. ‘Nope. How long should I wait?’

  ‘I hate him already,’ Gregory grumbles. ‘Two pricks in two weeks. You’re on fire!’

  I laugh to myself, silently agreeing with my aggravated friend, although I’ll never tell him so. ‘Thank you.’ I roll onto my back against the glass and sigh. ‘You’ve still not answered my question. How long should I—’ My tongue dries up in a second as I watch a car cruise past, my head turning to follow its path down Oxford Street. There must be thousands of black Mercedes driving around London, so why am I so drawn to this one? The tinted windows? The AMG plate on the wing?

  ‘Livy?’ Gregory snaps me back to the present. ‘Livy, you there?’

  ‘Yes,’ I say, watching as the Mercedes slows and then pulls a highly illegal three-point turn in the road before driving back toward me.

  ‘Is he there?’ Gregory asks.

  ‘Yes!’ I squeak. ‘I should go.’

  ‘Better late than never,’ he mutters. ‘Have fun.’

  ‘Will do.’ I barely push the words past the lump in my throat and quickly hang up, turning to face the other way, like it might look as if I’m unaware. Should I leave? What if Luke turns up and I’ve gone? You can’t park on Oxford Street so he can’t stop. If it’s even him. It might not be. Shit, I know it is. I push my body away from the glass and quickly weigh up my options, but before my brain makes an informed decision, my feet are in action and carrying me away from my distress. I walk with purpose, taking deep breaths, concentrating hard on maintaining my even pace.

  I close my eyes when I see the car pass me slowly, and only reopen them again when I’m barged from the side by an impatient businessman, who proceeds to ridicule me for not looking where I’m going. I can’t even find the power to apologise, instead picking up my stride again, but then I notice the car has stopped and I stop, too. I watch as the door to the driver’s side opens. His body flows from the car like liquid, rising to his full height before pushing the door shut and buttoning up the jacket of his grey suit. His black shirt and tie compliment his dark waves, and his jaw is covered in stubble. He looks magnificent. I feel conquered, and he hasn’t even made it to me yet. What does he want? Why has he stopped?

  I fight some balanced thoughts into my mind and I’m in action again, turning away from him and walking fast. ‘Livy!’ I can hear his footsteps coming after me, the sound of expensive shoes beating heavily on the concrete behind me, even over the bustling sounds of London surrounding me. ‘Livy, wait!’

  The jolt of surprise that kicked my feet into action turns to irritation as I listen to him shouting my name, like I owe him the time of day. I stop and face him, feeling more determined than irritated when I finally meet his eyes.

  He skids to a stop on his fancy shoes and straightens his jacket out, just standing in front of me, making no attempt to speak. I’m not saying anything, because I have nothing to say, and, in fact, I hope he doesn’t speak because then I won’t have to encounter those lips moving slowly and listen to the smoothness of that voice. I’m safer when he’s silent and unmoving . . . or remotely safer than when he’s touching me or talking to me, at least.

  I’m not safe at all.

  He steps forward, like he knows what I’m thinking. ‘You’re waiting for someone. Who?’

  I don’t answer, just keeping my eyes glued to his.

  ‘I asked you a question, Livy.’ He takes another step forward, his growing closeness registering as a danger, yet I stay exactly where I am when I should be moving away. ‘You know I hate repeating myself. Please answer.’

  ‘I have a date.’ I try for cool detachment, but I’m not certain I
ve completely succeeded. I’m too pissed off.

  ‘With a man?’ he asks, and I can practically see his hackles rise.

  ‘Yes, with a man.’

  His normally expressionless face is suddenly a wealth of emotion. He’s very clearly not happy. The knowledge spurs my self-assurance. I don’t want to feel the small pang of hope that’s fluttering in my stomach, but there is no denying it’s there.

  ‘Is that all?’ I ask, my voice stronger.

  ‘So now you’re dating?’

  ‘Yes,’ I say simply, because I am, and like an omen, I hear the not-so-familiar calling of my name.

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