Promised, p.25
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       Promised, p.25

         Part #1 of One Night series by Jodi Ellen Malpas
 

  ‘Why aren’t I surprised?’ he grunts, as I hear shuffling in the background.

  ‘Where are you?’

  There’s a lengthy silence, then a few more shuffles, and definitely the sound of a door closing. ‘I caught up with Ben last night,’ he whispers.

  ‘Oh yeah?’ I grin down the phone. ‘Dirty stop-out.’

  ‘It wasn’t like that. We went out and had coffee back at his place.’

  ‘And breakfast.’

  ‘Yeah, yeah, and breakfast.’ He’s smiling around his words, making my own grin widen. ‘Listen. You know I said Ben wanted to meet you?’

  ‘I do recall.’

  ‘Well, there’s an opening of a nightclub tonight. Ben’s been planning it for weeks and he’s invited me. He wants you to join us.’

  ‘Me?’ I blurt. ‘In a nightclub?’

  ‘Yes, come on. It’ll be fun. It’s a dead plush place called Ice. Please say yes.’ His beseeching voice won’t shift me. I can’t think of anything worse than subjecting myself to a London nightclub. And anyway, three’s a crowd.

  ‘I don’t think so, Gregory.’ I shake my head to myself.

  ‘Oh, baby girl,’ he groans. If I could see him, I know he’d be pouting. ‘It’ll take your mind off things.’

  ‘What makes you think my mind needs taking off things?’ I ask. ‘I’m fine.’

  He almost growls. ‘Cut the crap, Livy. I’m not taking no for an answer. You’re coming and that’s it. And there will be no Converse, either.’

  ‘Then I’m definitely not coming,’ I grumble. ‘You’re not putting me in those heels again.’

  ‘Yes, you are. And yes, I am!’ he snaps. ‘You’ve got so much to offer the world, Livy. I’m not letting you waste any more time. This isn’t a practice session, you know. One life, baby girl. Just one. You’re coming out tonight, and you’re going to make an effort of it, too. Put those heels on and walk around the house in them all day if that’s what it takes. I’ll be there at eight to pick you up. I expect you to be ready.’ He hangs up, leaving me with my phone at my ear and my mouth open, ready to object. He’s never spoken to me like that before. I’m shocked, but wondering if I’ve just received the kick up the arse I deserve, and which has been a long time coming.

  Too many years have been wasted; too much time spent pretending to be content with my closed-off life. Not any more. Miller Hart may have sent me into unfamiliar emotional turmoil, but he’s also made me realise that I have so much more to offer the world. No more closing myself off and hiding away, too afraid to be vulnerable – too afraid of becoming my mother.

  I jump off the bed and slip my feet into the black stilettos and start pacing around my room, concentrating on walking with poise and with my head held high, not looking down at the ridiculous angle that my usually flat feet are at. While I’m doing this, I search Google on my phone for local gyms – not Virgin – and I call to arrange an induction for Tuesday evening. Then I try the stairs, taking them carefully and at a slight angle to maintain my ladylike posture and gracefulness. I’m doing well.

  Walking down the hall, I smile when I hit the wooden floor of the kitchen, having got here without a stumble, stagger, or slip.

  Nan swings around at the sound of heels clicking on the floor, her mouth falling open.

  ‘What do you think?’ I ask, taking a little turn to demonstrate my stability, to both my nan and myself. ‘Obviously with a dress,’ I add, registering my pyjama shorts.

  ‘Oh, Livy.’ She clutches the tea towel to her chest on a sigh. ‘I remember the days when I pranced around in high heels like they were flats. I have bunions to prove it.’

  ‘I doubt I’ll be prancing, Nan.’

  ‘Do you have another date with the nice young man?’ She looks hopeful as she takes a seat at the kitchen table.

  I’m not sure whether she means Miller, who she’s met, or Luke, who she hasn’t. ‘I have a date with two men tonight.’

  ‘Two?’ Her old, navy eyes widen. ‘Livy, sweetheart, I know I said live a little, but I didn’t—’

  ‘Relax.’ I roll my eyes, thinking she should know better, but then again, her boring, introvert granddaughter has been out more times this week than in her whole life. ‘It’s Gregory and his new boyfriend.’

  ‘How lovely!’ she sings, but then her wrinkled brow puckers some more. ‘You’re not going to one of those gay bars, are you?’

  I laugh. ‘No, it’s a new place uptown. Tonight’s the opening, and Gregory’s new fellow has been organising it. He’s invited me.’

  I can tell by her face that she’s delighted, but she’s going to make a fuss, anyway. ‘Nails!’ she screeches, knocking me back a step in my heels.

  ‘What?’

  ‘You must paint your nails.’

  I look down at my short, tidy, bare nails. ‘What colour?’

  ‘Well, what are you wearing?’ she asks, and I wonder if many twenty-four-year-olds seek this kind of advice from their grandmother.

  ‘Gregory made me buy a black dress, but it’s a little short and I’m sure I could’ve done with the next size up. It’s tight.’

  ‘Nonsense!’ She zooms up, all excited and enthusiastic about my night out. ‘I have pillar-box red!’

  She disappears from the kitchen and moves up the stairs, faster than I’ve ever known. It’s only moments before she’s back, shaking a bottle of red nail polish in her wrinkled hand.

  ‘I save it for special occasions,’ she says, pushing me down onto a chair and taking one next to me.

  I can do no more than watch as she takes her time, neatly coating each of my nails, blowing little streams of air over my fingers when she’s done. Sitting back in her chair, she tilts her head and I follow her gaze down to my fingers, wriggling them for a few moments before bringing them closer and running my eyes over them. ‘They’re very . . . red.’

  ‘It’s very classy. You can’t go wrong with red nails and a black dress.’ Her mind seems to wander, and I smile fondly at my grandmother, childhood memories of her and my gramps flooding my mind.

  ‘Do you remember when Gramps took us to the Dorchester for your birthday, Nan?’ I ask. I was ten years old and in complete awe of the affluence. Gramps wore a suit, Nan a floral two-piece skirt and jacket, and I was treated to a navy-blue dungaree dress, which was covered in large white polka dots. Gramps always loved it when the women in his life wore navy blue. He said it made our already stunning eyes look like bottomless pits of sapphires.

  My grandmother takes a long pull of air and forces a smile, when I know that she really would like to shed a tear. ‘That was the first time I painted your nails. Granddad wasn’t happy.’

  I return her smile, remembering all too well the stern word he had in her ear. ‘He was even less happy when you tinted my lips with your red lipstick.’

  She laughs. ‘He was a man of principles and set firmly in his ways. He didn’t understand a woman’s need to cake her face in make-up, which made it all the more difficult for him to deal with your . . .’ She trails off and quickly starts screwing on the lid of the polish.

  ‘It’s okay.’ I place my hand over hers and give it a little squeeze. ‘I remember.’ I may have only been a small child, but I remember vivid shouting matches, slamming doors, and Gramps with his head in his hands on many occasions. I didn’t understand it at the time, but maturity has brought it all home, making everything painfully clear. That and the journal I found.

  ‘She was too beautiful and too easily led.’

  ‘I know.’ I agree, but I don’t think she was easily led at all. I’ve concluded that that’s what Nan has told herself over the years to deal with her loss. I’m happy to let her have that.

  ‘Livy.’ She shifts her hand carefully to avoid smudging my polish, so she’s the one gripping mine, and it’s a firm grip – a reassuring grip. ‘Everything about you is your mother, but not this.’ She taps her temple with her index finger. ‘You mustn’t be afraid of becoming her. It’ll just be anot
her life wasted.’

  ‘I know,’ I admit. My own underlying reasons to avoid a repeat of my mother’s life are good enough, but remembering my grandparents’ devastation has only ever sealed it.

  ‘You’ve completely shut yourself down, Livy. I know I was, well, a little bit of a handful after your granddad died, but I’m fine now – have been for some time, sweetheart.’ She raises grey eyebrows at me, desperate for me to acknowledge it. ‘I’ll never get over losing them both, but I can still live. You haven’t experienced half of what life has to offer, Olivia. You were such a spirited child and teenager until you found—’ she halts, and I know it’s because she can’t say the words. She’s talking about the journal, the frighteningly vivid accounts of my mother’s life.

  ‘It was safer that way,’ I murmur.

  ‘It was unhealthy that way, sweetheart.’ She lifts my hand and kisses it lovingly.

  ‘I’m beginning to see that.’ I take a deep breath of confidence. ‘That man, the one who came for dinner . . .’ I don’t know why I don’t use his name. ‘He unearthed something in me, Nan. It’ll never go anywhere, but I’m glad I met him because he’s made me realise what life could be if I let it.’

  I don’t divulge any more than that, and I also don’t confess that given the chance, I would have whatever that is with him, if only he would let me. It’s not the sex; it’s the connection, the feeling of complete refuge that beats anything I’ve attempted to achieve on my own. It defies sensibility, really. Miller Hart is irrational, arduous and temperamental, but the times between those irritating moments are inconceivably blissful and serene. I want to, but I have no faith in finding those feelings with another man.

  Nan looks at me thoughtfully, keeping her firm grip of my hand. ‘Why will it not go anywhere?’ she asks.

  I’m honest and she must see it for what it is, anyway. She’s not stupid. ‘Because I don’t think he’s really available,’ I say quietly.

  ‘Oh, Livy,’ Nan sighs. ‘We can’t help who we fall for. Come here.’ She stands up and pulls me into her arms, giving me a big squeeze. The tension and uncertainty seems to drain right out of me under her hold. ‘In every experience we have in life, we have to find a positive. I can see many positives coming from your encounter with Miller, sweetheart.’

  I hum my agreement into her shoulder, but wonder if I’ll be in any fit state to embrace these supposed opportunities. He’s already successfully intercepted one date. If I’m going to continue to resist Miller Hart, I need to maintain my willpower and grow some resilience. The sass the Taylor girls are renowned for has eluded me, but I’m on a mission to relocate it. It’s there. It’s popped up now and then recently, but I need to grab on to it and never let go.

  I squint as a camera is shoved in my face and Nan blinds me with the flash. ‘Get a grip, Nan,’ I moan, pulling down the hem of my ridiculous dress. I’ve been standing in front of the mirror for twenty minutes deliberating on the dramatic transformation. All day, all bloody day, I’ve spent waxing, plucking, painting, smoothing and straightening. I’m exhausted.

  ‘See, George!’ Nan snaps a few more shots. ‘Sassy!’

  I roll my eyes at a smiling George and pull my hem down again. ‘Stop it now.’ I push the camera from my face, feeling like a teenager going to a prom. It was inevitable, but the fuss is just making me feel even more conspicuous.

  ‘You look spectacular, Livy!’ George laughs, taking the camera from Nan and ignoring her appalled glare. ‘Leave the poor woman alone, Josephine.’

  ‘Thank you, George,’ I say, again pulling down my dress.

  ‘Stop tugging at your dress.’ Nan smacks my hands away. ‘Walk tall, chin high. Keep fidgeting and you’ll look out of place and uncomfortable.’

  ‘Oh God, I’m going.’ I grab my stupidly small bag and make for the door, desperate to escape the over-the-top reactions to my . . . enhanced look. I slam the door harder than I mean to and click on my heels down the path, hearing Nan shout at George as I do. I smile, pull my shoulders back, and set on my way, shoving my bag under my arm and resisting the urge to pull the hem of my dress down again.

  I’m only a few paces into my strut when I see Gregory in the distance, walking towards me. He falters slightly mid-stride, and I know that if I was close enough, I would see him squinting. Strangely, this reaction doesn’t make me feel conspicuous; it makes me feel bold, so I raise my chin and make my best attempt of impersonating a model on the catwalk. I don’t know if I pull it off, but it makes Gregory grin from ear to ear and wolf whistle from fifty yards away.

  ‘Hot stuff!’ He halts and spreads his legs, holding his hands out to me. ‘Fuck me, I’ll be fighting them off!’

  I don’t even blush. I perform a perfectly executed twirl before throwing my arms around his neck. ‘I’ve been practising all day.’

  ‘I can tell.’ He removes me from his body and runs his eyes up and down me, then smooths my hair and smiles. ‘Straight and sleek. You look even more gorgeous than normal. Holy shit, look at those legs!’

  I glance down at my legs, seeing curves I never have before. ‘I feel good,’ I admit.

  His arm falls around me and he pulls me into his side. ‘Well, you should, because you look amazing. Were you leaving without me?’ he asks, starting us towards the main road to get a cab.

  ‘No, I couldn’t stand it in there any more.’

  ‘I can imagine.’

  ‘You’re looking very dapper.’ I give the sleeve of his pink shirt a little tug. ‘Trying to impress?’ I glance up at him, finding a restrained grin. It makes me smile.

  ‘I don’t need to try, Livy.’ He’s cocky. ‘Promise me something?’

  ‘What?’

  ‘You’ll call me Greg tonight.’

  My smile widens and my arm snakes around his waist. ‘I’ll call you Greg if you call me sassy lady.’

  He laughs. ‘Sassy lady?’

  ‘Yes, baby girl, sweet girl, lovely girl . . .’ I realize my error immediately.

  ‘Who calls you sweet girl?’

  ‘It doesn’t matter.’ I put the stoppers on his enquiry immediately, and I also put the stoppers on my trail of thought. ‘The point is I’m not a girl.’

  ‘All righty, then. Sassy lady it is.’ He leans in and kisses my forehead. ‘You’ll never know how happy I am right now.’

  ‘Because you’re about to meet Benjamin?’

  ‘It’s Ben.’ He nudges me with his hip. ‘And no, not because of Ben. Because of you.’

  I look up at my treasured friend and smile. ‘I’m happy, too,’ I reply thoughtfully.

  Chapter 16

  I have my first predicament in the short dress. Gregory slides from the cab with ease while I’m deliberating the best way to exit without flashing my fancy black knickers. I hold the hem of my dress with both hands, but my clutch drops from under my arm.

  ‘Shit,’ I curse, scooping it up.

  ‘You didn’t practise this part, did you?’ Gregory teases, putting one hand out for my bag and his other for my hand. ‘To the side. Step out to the side.’

  I hand over my bag and take his hand, following his instruction and lowering my right foot from the cab, finding it rather easy to exit without bending or giving any passers-by an eyeful. ‘Thank you.’

  ‘As graceful as a swan.’ He winks and tucks my bag under my arm. ‘Ready?’

  I refuel on confidence by taking a long inhalation of air. ‘Ready,’ I confirm, looking up at the building, seeing blue lights climbing up the glass front and a red carpet stretched down the side, with piles and piles of people waiting to be granted access.

  I’m a little awestruck. Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ is pouring from the open glass doors, blue lights are flashing inside, and doormen are keeping guard, marking clipboards before letting people in.

  My hand is grasped and I’m pulled towards the front of the queue. I don’t miss the filthy looks being thrown in our direction by the waiting clientele. ‘Gregory, there’s a line,
’ I whisper loudly, just as we land in front of a doorman holding a clipboard.

  ‘Greg Macy and Olivia Taylor, guests of Ben White,’ Gregory states confidently, while I’m wincing under the fierce, stabbing eyes of the queue haters.

  The doorman flicks the pages and glides down the list of names, eventually grunting and unhooking the thick rope linking two metal posts together. ‘Champagne bar’s on the first floor at the back to your left. Mr White is in the VIP area there.’

  ‘Thank you.’ Gregory nods, pulling me forward and pushing me gently through the door. ‘VIP area,’ he whispers in my ear. ‘And you just called me Gregory, sassy lady.’

  ‘I can’t help it.’ I glance around, seeing various levels, all accessed by frosted-glass stairs with illuminated blue lights guiding the way. Well-dressed people are everywhere, draped over the glass balustrades, not a pint of beer or a bottle in sight . . . except champagne. Behind all of the bars – three I’ve seen so far – are stacks and stacks of champagne bottles. I’ve never tasted the stuff, but it looks like I might do soon.

 
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