One Night Promised
He had summoned her. She’d known he would find out—he had eyes and ears everywhere, but it never stopped her from disobeying him. It was all part of the plan to get what she wanted.
Stumbling down the dark corridor of the underground London club toward his office, she barely registered her stupidity. Determination and too much alcohol were getting in the way. She had a loving family at home, people who treasured and loved her, made her feel wanted and valued. She knew deep down that there was no good reason to be exposing her body and mind to this sordid, seedy underworld. Yet she did it again tonight. And she’d do it again tomorrow night.
Her stomach turned as she approached the door to his office, her alcohol-drenched brain only barely functioning enough to make her hand lift and take the handle of the door. On a little hiccup and another stagger in her ridiculous stilettos, she fell into William’s office.
He was a handsome man in his late thirties, with a head of thick hair that was beginning to grey at his temples, giving him a distinguished salt-and-pepper fleck that matched his distinguished suits. His square jaw was harsh, but his smile friendly when he chose to flash it, which wasn’t very often. His male clients never saw that smile. William chose to maintain the hard front that made all men quiver when in his presence. But for his girls, his eyes always sparkled and his face was always soft and reassuring. She didn’t understand it and she didn’t try to. She just knew that she needed him. And she knew that William had developed a fondness for her, too. She used that weakness against him. The hard businessman’s heart was soft for all his girls, but for her, it was complete mush.
William looked to the door as she stumbled through, raising his hand and halting the serious talk coming from a tall mean-type standing over his desk. One of his rules was to always knock and await instruction to enter, but she never did and William never reprimanded her. “We’ll continue this soon,” he said, dismissing his associate, who left without delay or protest, shutting the door quietly behind him.
William stood, straightening his jacket while stepping out from behind his huge desk. Even through her alcohol-induced fog, she could see the concern on his face with perfect clarity. She could also see a hint of irritation. He approached her carefully, cautiously, as if he was worried she’d bolt, and gently took her arm. He placed her in one of the quilted leather chairs opposite his desk, then poured himself a scotch and handed her some ice water before taking a seat.
She didn’t feel scared in the presence of this powerful man, even in such a vulnerable state. Bizarrely, she always felt safe. He’d do anything for his girls, including castrate any man who overstepped the mark. He had specific rules, and no man in his right mind dared break those rules. It was more than their life was worth. She’d seen the result and it wasn’t pretty.
“I told you no more,” William said, trying to sound cross, but he only achieved a tone drenched with sympathy.
“If you don’t set them up for me, I’ll find them myself,” she slurred, her drunkenness injecting some spunk into her small frame. She threw her purse onto his desk in front of him, but William ignored her lack of respect and pushed it back toward her.
“Do you need money? I’ll give you money. I don’t want you in this world anymore.”
“That’s not your decision,” she countered fearlessly, knowing damn well what she was doing. His straight lips and the darkening of his grey eyes told her she was succeeding. She was forcing his hand.
“You’re seventeen years old. You have your whole life ahead of you.” He stood and made his way around his desk, sitting on the edge in front of her. “You lied to me about your age, you’ve broken endless rules, and now you refuse to let me put your life back together.” He took her chin and lifted her defiant face to his. “You’ve disrespected me and, worst of all, yourself.”
She had no answer to that. She’d misled him, tricked him, just to get close to him. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled quietly, breaking free of his hold to take a long swig of her water. She didn’t know what else to say and even if she could find the words, it would never be good enough. She knew William’s compassion for her could tarnish the respect he’d earned in this underworld business, and her refusal to let him fix her situation—a situation he felt responsible for—was only risking that reputation further.
He knelt in front of her, his big palms resting on her bare legs. “Which one of my clients broke my rules this time?”
She shrugged, not willing to share the name of the man she’d tempted into bed. She knew William had warned them all to stay away from her. She had misled him as much as William. “It doesn’t matter.” She wanted William to be angry at her continued disrespect, but he remained calm.
“You won’t find what you’re looking for.” William felt like a bastard delivering such harsh words. He knew what she was looking for. “I can’t look after you,” he said quietly, pulling down the hem of her short dress.
“I know,” she whispered.
William took a long, tired breath. He knew she didn’t belong in his world. He didn’t even know if he belonged anymore. He’d never let compassion interfere with business, never put himself in situations that could ruin his well-respected standing, yet this young female had stamped all over that claim. It was those sapphire eyes. He never let sentiment get in the way of business—he couldn’t afford to—but this time he’d failed.
His big hand lifted to stroke her soft, porcelain cheek and the desperation in her eyes pierced his hard heart. “Help me do what’s right. You don’t belong here with me,” he said.
She nodded, and William exhaled a breath of relief. This girl was too beautiful and too reckless—a dangerous combination. This girl was going to find herself in trouble. He was furious with himself for letting this happen, despite her – deception.
He looked after his girls, respected them, made sure his clients respected them, and he always kept his eagle eyes open for anything that might put them at risk, mentally and physically. He knew what they would do before they did it. Yet this one he’d let slip. This one had fooled him. He couldn’t blame her, though. He blamed himself. He was too distracted by this young woman’s beauty—a beauty that would forever be etched on his mind’s eye. He would send her away again and this time he’d make sure she stayed away. He cared about this one too much to keep her. And it seared painfully on his dark soul.
There’s something to be said about making the perfect cup of coffee. There’s even more to be said about making the perfect cup of coffee from one of the spaceship-like machines I’m staring at. I’ve spent days watching my fellow waitress, Sylvie, complete the task with ease, while chatting, grabbing down another mug, and tapping the order through the till. But all I seem to be achieving is a royal mess, of both the coffee and the area surrounding the machine.
I force the jammed filter contraption on a quiet curse and it slips, scattering the coffee grains everywhere. “No, no, no,” I mutter under my breath, grabbing my cloth from the front pocket of my apron. The damp rag is brown, a dead giveaway to the millions of other times I’ve wiped up my mess today.
“You want me to take over?” Sylvie’s amused voice creeps over my shoulders and makes them sag. It’s no use. No matter how many times I try, I always end up in the same pickle. This spaceship and I are not friends.
I sigh dramatically and turn, handing Sylvie the big metal handle thingy. “I’m sorry. The machine hates me.”
Her bright pink lips break out in a fond smile, and her black shiny bob swishes as she shakes her head. Her patience is commendable. “It’ll come. Why don’t you go clear table seven?”
I move fast, grabbing a tray and making my way over to the recently vacated area in the hope of redeeming myself. “He’ll sack me,” I muse, loading the tray. I’ve only been working here for four days, but on hiring me, Del said it would only take me a few hours of training on my first day to get the hang of the machine that dominates the back counter of the bistro. That day was hideous, and I think Del shares my thoughts.
“No he won’t.” Sylvie fires the machine up, and the sound of steam rushing from the froth pipe fills the bistro. “He likes you!” she calls louder, grabbing a mug, then a tray, then a spoon, a napkin and the chocolate sprinkles, all while rotating the metal jug of milk with ease.
I smile down at the table as I wipe it before collecting the tray and making my way back to the kitchen. Del’s only known me for a week, and he’s already said that I haven’t a bad bone in my body. My grandmother has said the very same thing but added that I’d better grow some soon because the world and the people in it are not always nice or gentle.
I dump the tray on the side and start loading up the dishwasher.
“You okay, Livy?”
I turn toward the gruff voice of Paul, the cook. “Great. You?”
“Top of the world.” He continues cleaning out the pots, whistling as he does.
Resuming stacking plates in the dishwasher, I think to myself that I should be just fine as long as I’m not let loose on that machine. “Is there anything else you’d like me to do before I get off?” I ask Sylvie as she pushes her way through the swing door of the kitchen. I envy the way she carries out all tasks with such ease and speed, from dealing with that damn machine to stacking mugs on top of each other without looking.
“No.” She turns and wipes her hands on the front of her apron. “You get off. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Thank you.” I remove my apron and hang it up. “Bye, Paul.”
“Have a good evening, Livy,” he calls, waving a ladle above his head.
After weaving my way through the tables of the bistro, I push my way out the door and onto the narrow back street, getting immediately pelted by rain. “Wonderful.” I smile, shielding my head with my denim jacket and making a run for it.
I hop between the puddles, my Converse doing nothing to keep my feet dry, squelching with each hurried stride as I make my way to the bus stop.
Taking the steps up to our townhouse, I barge through the door and rest my back against it, catching my breath.
“Livy?” Nan’s husky voice instantly lightens my wet mood. “Livy, is that you?”
“It’s me!” I hang my soaked jacket on the coat hook and kick off my sodden Converse before making my way down the long hallway to the back kitchen. I find Nan stooped over the cooker, stirring a huge pot of something—soup, undoubtedly.
“There you are!” She drops the wooden spoon and wobbles toward me. At eighty-one, she is really quite remarkable and still so on the ball. “You’re drenched!”
“I’m not so bad.” I assure her, ruffling my hair as she assesses me from top to bottom, settling on my flat stomach as my t-shirt rides up.
“You need fattening up.”
I roll my eyes but humor her. “I’m starving.”
The smile that graces her wrinkled face makes me smile, too, as she embraces me and rubs my back.
“What have you done today, Nan?” I ask.
She releases me and points to the dinner table. “Sit.”
I do as I’m told immediately, picking up the spoon she’s set down for me. “So?”
She turns a frown on me. “So what?”
“Today. What did you do?” I prompt.
“Oh!” She flaps a tea towel at me. “Nothing exciting. A bit of shopping, and I baked your favorite carrot cake.” She points across to the other worktop, where a cake is sitting on a cooling rack. But it isn’t carrot cake.
“You made me carrot cake?” I ask, watching as she returns to serving up two bowls of soup.
“Yes. Like I said, Livy. I made your favorite.”
“But my favorite’s lemon cake, Nan. You know that.”
She doesn’t falter in her serving, bringing the two bowls to the table and setting them down. “Yes, I do. That is why I made you lemon cake.”
I flick a glance across the kitchen again, just to check I’m not mistaken. “Nan, that looks like pineapple upside-down cake.”
Her rump hits the chair, and she looks at me like I’m the one losing my mind. “That’s because it is pineapple upside-down cake.” She plunges her spoon into the bowl and slurps off some coriander soup before reaching for some freshly baked bread. “I made your favorite.”
She’s confused, and so am I. After that last few seconds’ exchange, I have no clue what sort of cake she’s made, and I don’t care. I look across at my dear grandmother, studying her feeding herself. She seems okay and doesn’t look confused. Is this the beginning? I lean forward. “Nan, are you feeling okay?” I’m worried.
She starts laughing. “I’m pulling your leg, Livy!”
“Nan!” I scorn her, feeling immediately better. “You shouldn’t do that.”
“I’m not losing my marbles yet.” She waves her spoon at my bowl. “Eat your supper and tell me how you got on today.”
My shoulders sag dramatically on a sigh as I stir my soup. “I can’t get on with that coffee machine, which is a problem when ninety per cent of customers order some kind of coffee.”
“You’ll get to grips with it,” she says confidently, like she’s an expert on the damn thing.
“I’m not so sure. Del won’t keep me just for clearing tables.”
“Well, apart from the coffee machine, are you enjoying it?”
I smile. “Yes, I really am.”
“Good. You can’t look after me forever. A young thing like you should be out enjoying herself, not tending to her grandmother.” She eyes me cautiously. “And I don’t need tending to, anyway.”
“I liked looking after you,” I argue quietly, bracing myself for the usual lecture. We could argue about this until we’re blue in the face and still be in disagreement. She’s fragile, not physically but mentally, no matter how much she insists she’s okay. She draws breath. I fear the worst. “Livy, I will not be leaving God’s green pastures until I see you pull things together, and that’s not going to happen if you spend all your time hen-pecking me. I’m running out of time, so get your skinny little arse in gear.”
I wince. “I’ve told you. I’m happy.”
“Happy hiding from a world that has so much to offer?” she asks seriously. “Start living, Olivia. Trust me, time soon passes you by. Before you know it, you’re being measured for false teeth and you won’t dare cough or sneeze through fear of pissing yourself.”
“Nan!” I choke on a piece of bread, but she’s not amused at all. She’s deadly serious, as she always is during these types of conversations.
“True story,” she says on a sigh. “Get out there. Take whatever life throws your way. You’re not your mother, Oliv—”
“Nan,” I warn slowly.
She visibly slumps in her chair. I know I frustrate her, but I’m quite happy as I am. I’m twenty-four, I’ve lived with my nan since I was born, and as soon as I left college, I made my excuses to stay at home and keep an eye on her. But while I was quite happy looking after my nan, she was not. “Olivia, I’ve moved forward. You need to, too. I should never have held you back.”
I smile, not knowing what to say. She doesn’t realize it, but I needed holding back. I’m my mother’s daughter, after all.
“Livy, make your nan happy. Put some heels on and go out and enjoy yourself.”
It’s me slumping now. She just can’t stop herself. “Nan, you’d have to pin me down to get me in heels.” My feet ache at the very thought.
“How many pairs of those canvas things do you have?” she asks, buttering me yet more bread and passing it over.
“Twelve,” I answer, completely unashamed. “All in different colors.” I plan on buying them in yellow on Saturday, too. I take the bread and sink my teeth in, smiling around my bite when she huffs her displeasure.
“Well at least go out and have fun. Gregory’s always offering. Why don’t you take him up on his constant offers?”
“I don’t drink.” I wish she’d stop with this. “And Gregory will only drag me around all the gay bars,” I tell her, raising my eyebrows. My best friend sleeps with enough men for both of us.
“Any bar is better than no bar. You might like it.” She reaches over and brushes some crumbs from my lips, then strokes my cheek softly. I know what she’s going to say. “It’s frightening how similar you are.”
“I know.” I rest my hand over hers and hold it in place while she silently reflects. I don’t remember my mother very well, but I’ve seen the proof; I’m a carbon copy of her. Even my blond hair falls strangely similarly into waves that cascade over my shoulders, almost making it seem like too much hair for my tiny body to carry. It’s incredibly heavy and only behaves if rough dried and left to do as it pleases. And my big, navy blue eyes that match my grandmother’s and my mother’s have a glassy reflecting quality. Sapphire-like, people have said. I don’t see that part. Makeup is a pleasure, not a necessity, but it’s always minimal on my fair skin.
Once I’ve given her enough time to reminisce, I take her hand and place it by her bowl. “Eat up, Nan,” I say quietly, continuing with my own soup.
Dragging herself back to the here and now, she carries on with her supper, but she’s quiet. She’s never gotten over my mother’s reckless lifestyle—a lifestyle that stole Nan’s daughter from her. It’s been eighteen years and she still misses my mother terribly. I don’t. How can you miss someone you hardly knew? But watching my nan slip into these sad thoughts every now and then makes it just as painful for me.
Yes, there’s definitely something to be said about making the perfect cup of coffee. I’m staring at the machine again, but today I’m smiling. I’ve done it—the correct amount of foam, the smoothness like silk and the little dusting of chocolate, forming a perfect heart on the top. It’s just a shame that it’s me who’s drinking it, not an appreciative customer.
“Good?” Sylvie asks, watching with anticipation.
I hum and gasp, setting the cup down. “The coffee machine and I are now friends.”
“Yay!” she squeals, throwing her arms around me. I laugh and match her enthusiasm, looking over her shoulder as the door to the bistro swings open.
“I think the lunchtime rush is about to start,” I say, breaking free from her grip. “I’ll get this one.”
“Oh, she’s full of confidence,” Sylvie laughs, moving to give me access to the serving counter. She beams at me as I make my way over to the man who’s just arrived.
“What can I get you?” I ask, getting ready to jot down his order, but when he doesn’t answer, I look up and find him watching me closely. I start shifting nervously, not liking the scrutiny. I find my voice. “Sir?”
His eyes widen a little. “Urhh, cappuccino, please. To go.”
“Sure.” I snap into action, leaving Mr. Wide Eyes gathering himself, and take myself to my new best friend, loading the handle thingy and securing it successfully into the holder—so far so good.
“That is why Del won’t sack you,” Sylvie whispers over my shoulder, making me jump slightly.
“Stop it,” I say, retrieving a takeout cup from the shelf and placing it under the filter before pressing the correct button.
“He’s watching you.”
“Sylvie, stop it!”
“Give him your number.”
“No!” I blurt too loudly, quickly checking over my shoulder. He’s staring at me. “I’m not interested.”
“He’s cute,” Sylvie concludes, and I have to agree. He’s very cute, but I’m very uninterested.
“I don’t have time for a relationship.” That’s not strictly true. This is my first job and before this I spent most of my adult life caring for Nan. Now I’m not sure whether she really does still need the care, or whether it’s just my excuse.
Sylvie shrugs and leaves me to finish my second round with the machine. I finish up, smiling as I pour the milk into the cup before releasing a drop of dust on the foam and securing a lid. I’m far too proud of myself and it’s obvious on my smiling face as I turn to deliver the cappuccino to Mr. Wide Eyes. “Two pounds eighty, please.” I go to place it down, but he intercepts me and takes the cup from my hand, ensuring contact as he does.
“Thank you,” he says, pulling my eyes up to his with his soft words.
“You’re welcome.” I slowly take my hand away from his, accepting the tenner he hands me. “I’ll get your change.”
“Don’t worry.” He shakes his head mildly, running his eyes all over my face. “But I wouldn’t mind your phone number.”
I hear Sylvie chuckling from the table she’s clearing. “I’m sorry, I’m in a relationship.” I punch his order through the till and quickly collect his change, handing it over to him and ignoring Sylvie’s snort of disgust.
“Of course you are.” He laughs lightly, looking embarrassed. “How stupid of me.”
I smile, trying to ease his awkwardness. “It’s okay.”
“I don’t usually just ask any women I meet for their number,” he explains. “I’m not a creep.”
“Honestly, it’s okay.” I’m feeling embarrassed myself now, and I’m silently wishing he’d leave before I throw a coffee cup at Sylvie’s head. I can feel her staring at me in shock. I start to rearrange the napkins, anything to take me away from the uncomfortable situation. I could kiss the man who walks in behind, looking like he’s in a hurry. “I’d better get this.” I indicate over Mr. Wide Eyes’s shoulder to the harassed-looking businessman.
“Oh, yes! Sorry.” He backs away, holding up his cup in thanks. “See ya.”
“Bye.” I lift my hand before looking to my next customer. “What would you like, sir?”
“Latté, no sugar, and make it quick.” He barely even looks at me before he answers his phone and walks away from the counter, dumping his briefcase on a chair.
I’m only semi-aware of Mr. Wide Eyes leaving, but I’m more than aware of Sylvie’s biker boots marching up to me, where I’m tackling the coffee machine again. “I can’t believe you declined!” she whispers harshly. “He was lovely.”
I make quick work of my third perfect coffee, not giving her shock the attention it deserves. “He was okay,” I reply nonchalantly.
“Yes, he was okay.”
I’m not looking at her, but I know she’s just rolled her eyes. “Unbelievable,” she mutters, stomping off, her voluptuous rump matching the side-to-side sway of her black bob.
I’m smiling in triumph again as I deliver my third perfect coffee, and my grin doesn’t even fall away when the harassed businessman thrusts three pounds into my hand before snatching his cup and marching out, without so much as a thank you.
My feet didn’t touch the ground for the rest of the day. I flew in and out of the kitchen, cleaned endless tables and made dozens of perfect coffees. On my breaks, I managed to check up on Nan, being told off each time for being a whittle arse.
As five o’clock approaches, I sink into one of the brown leather couches and open a can of Coke, hoping the caffeine and sugar might snap me back to life. I’m beat.
“Livy, I’m just going to take the rubbish out,” Sylvie calls over, yanking the black sack from one of the bins. “You good?”
“Fabulous.” I hold my can up and rest my head back on the sofa, resisting the temptation to close my eyes, instead focusing on the spotlights in the ceiling. I can’t wait to fall into bed. My feet are aching, and I desperately need a shower.
“Is anyone working or is it self-service?”
I jump up from the couch at the sound of the impatient but smooth voice, and swing around to tend to my customer. “Sorry!” I rush to the counter, smacking my hip on the corner of the worktop and resisting the urge to curse out loud. “What can I get you?” I ask, rubbing my hip as I look up.
I stagger back. And I definitely gasp. His piercing blue eyes are burning into me. Deep, deep into me. My gaze drifts and takes in his open suit jacket, a waistcoat and pale blue shirt and tie, his dark stubbled jaw, and the way his lips are parted just so. Then I find those eyes again. They’re the sharpest blue I’ve ever seen, and they’re cutting right through me with an edge of curiosity. The definition of perfection is standing before me and it has me staring in wonder.
“Do you often examine customers so thoroughly?” His head cocks to the side, his perfect eyebrow arching expectantly.
“What can I get you?” I breathe, waving my pad at him.
“Americano, four shots, two sugars, topped-up halfway.” The words roll from his mouth, but I don’t hear them. I see them. I lip-read every word, writing them down while keeping my eyes on his mouth. Before I know what’s happened, my pen has drifted from my pad and I’m scribbling on my fingers. I glance down with a frown.
“Hello?” He sounds impatient again, prompting my eyes to snap up. I allow myself to step back and take in all of his face. I’m shocked, not because of how incredibly stunning he is, but because I’ve lost all of my bodily functions, except my eyes. They’re working just fine, and they can’t seem to disconnect from his flawlessness. I don’t even lose my concentration when he rests his palms on the counter and leans forward, encouraging a wave from his tousled dark hair to fall onto his forehead. “Am I making you feel uncomfortable?” he asks. I lip-read that, too.
“What can I get you?” I breathe once more, waving my pad at him again.
He nods down to my pen. “You’ve already asked me. My order’s on your hand.”
I look down, seeing ink strewn all over my fingers, but it doesn’t make a bit of sense, not even when I try to match up the pad to where the pen has trailed off.
Slowly lifting my eyes, I meet his. There’s an element of knowing in them.
He looks smug. It’s thrown me completely.
I scan the information stored in my mind from the last few minutes, but I find no order for coffee, just saved images of this face. “Cappuccino?” I ask hopefully.
“Americano,” he counters smoothly on a whisper. “Four shots, two sugars and topped-up halfway.”
“Right!” I snap myself from my pathetic awestruck state and move to the coffee machine, my hands shaking, my heart thudding. I bash the filter on the wooden drawer to rid it of the used beans, hoping the loud smacking will knock some sense back into me. It doesn’t. I still feel…strange.
Pulling the lever on the grinder, I load the filter up. He’s staring at me. I can feel those piercing blues penetrating my back as I faff and fiddle with the machine that I’ve grown to love. It’s not loving me right now, though. It’s not doing anything I tell it to. I can’t secure the filter in the holder; my shaking hands are not helping in the slightest.
Taking a deep, calming breath, I start again, successfully loading the filter and placing the cup underneath. I press the button and wait for it to work its magic, keeping my back to the stranger behind me. In the whole week I’ve worked at Del’s Bistro, I’ve never known the machine to take this long to filter some coffee. I’m silently willing it to hurry the hell up.
When an eternity has passed, I take the cup and slip in two sugars, ready to top it up with water.
“Four shots.” He breaks the uncomfortable silence with that soft rasp.
“Pardon?” I don’t turn around.
“I ordered four shots.”
I look down at the cup, containing just one shot, and close my eyes, praying for the coffee gods to help me out. I don’t know how long it takes me to add three more shots, but when I finally turn to deliver his coffee, he’s sitting on a sofa, relaxed back, his lean physique stretched out, his fingers tapping the arm. His face doesn’t show a hint of emotion, but I detect he’s not happy. For some strange reason, that makes me really unhappy. I’ve handled that damn machine perfectly all day, and now when I really want to look like I know what I’m doing, I’m coming off as an incompetent fool. I feel stupid as I hold up the takeout cup before placing it neatly on the counter.
He looks at it, then back to me. “I want to drink in.” His face is serious, his tone flat but sharp, and I stare at him, trying to figure out if he’s being difficult or genuine. I don’t remember him asking for a takeout; I just assumed. He doesn’t look like the type to sit around in back street bistros. He looks more like a champagne bar, mingle-with-the-money type.
Grabbing a coffee cup and saucer, I simply transfer the coffee and shove a teaspoon on the side before taking steady steps over to him. No matter how hard I try, I can’t stop the chinking of the cup on the saucer. I place it down on the low table and watch as he swivels the saucer before lifting the cup, but I don’t hang around to watch him drink, pivoting quickly on my Converse and escaping.
I virtually burst through the swing door of the kitchen, finding Paul putting his coat on. “All right, Livy?” he asks, his rounded face scanning me.
“Yep.” I dive into the large metal sink to wash my sweaty hands as the bistro phone starts ringing from the wall. Paul takes the initiative to answer, obviously concluding that I’m dead set on scrubbing my hands until they disappear.
“For you, Livy. I’m outta here.”
“Have a great weekend, Paul,” I say, drying my hands before I take the phone. “Hello?”
“Livy, honey, are you busy tonight?” Del asks.
“Yes, I have a catering contract for a charity gala and I’ve been let down. Could you be a doll and help me out?”
“Oh, Del, I’d love to, but…” I have no idea why I said I’d love to, because I really wouldn’t, and I can’t finish that sentence because I can’t find a “but”. I have nothing to do this evening except faff around my grandmother and get told off for it.
“Arh, Livy, I’ll pay you well. I’m desperate.”
“What are the hours?” I sigh, leaning against the wall.
“You star! Seven to midnight. It’s not hard, honey. Just walk around with trays of canapés and glasses of champagne. Piece of cake.”
A piece of cake? It’s still walking, and my feet are still killing me. “I need to go home to check on my nan and change. What should I wear?”
“Black, and be at the staff entrance of the The Hilton on Park Lane at seven, okay?”
He hangs up, and I hang my head, but my attention is soon pulled to the swing door when Sylvie bursts through, her brown eyes wide. “Have you seen it?”
Her question quickly reminds me of the stunning creature who’s sitting drinking coffee in the bistro. I almost laugh as I place the receiver of the phone back in its cradle. “Yes, I’ve seen him.”
“Holy fucking shit, Livy! Men like that should carry a warning.” She glimpses back into the bistro and starts fanning her face. “Oh God, he’s blowing the steam off his coffee.”
I don’t need a visual. I can imagine it. “Are you working tonight?” I ask, trying to divert her dribbling into the kitchen.
“Yes!” She swings back toward me. “Did Del ask you?”
“He did.” I unhook my keys and lock the doors that lead to the alley.
“He tried to get me to ask you, but I know you’re not mad about night work, what with your nan at home. Are you doing it?”
“Well, I agreed.” I give her a tired look.
Her serious face grins. “It’s closing time. Would you like to let him know that it’s time to go?”
Stupidly, I’m battling off the shakes again at the thought of looking at him, and I chastise myself for it. “Yes, I’ll tell him,” I declare with all the confidence I’m not feeling. Rolling my shoulders back, I walk with sureness, past Sylvie and into the bistro, coming to an abrupt halt when I see he’s gone. The strangest sensation comes over me as I scan the area, feeling a bizarre sense of desertion mixed with disappointment.
“Oh. Where’s he gone?” Sylvie whines, pushing past me.
“I don’t know,” I whisper, slowly walking to the abandoned sofa and picking up a half-drunk coffee and three pound coins. I separate the napkin that’s stuck to the bottom of the saucer and start to screw it up, but some black lines catch my attention and I’m quickly unravelling it with one hand and flattening it on the table.
I gasp. Then I get a little mad.
Probably the worst Americano that I’ve ever insulted my mouth with.
My face screws up in disgust, along with the napkin, as I ball it and stuff it in the cup. The arrogant arsehole. Nothing makes me mad, and I know it exasperates my grandmother and Gregory, but I’m really heated with annoyance now. And it really is over something quite silly. But then I’m not sure if it’s because I failed to make good coffee when I’ve been doing so well, or simply because the perfect man didn’t approve of it. And what does M stand for, anyway?
After disposing of the cup, the saucer, and the offending napkin, then locking up with Sylvie, I finally reach the conclusion that it’s the former and M stands for Moron.
Del leads us through the staff entrance of the hotel, dishing out instructions, pointing to the serving area and ensuring that we’re aware of the type of clientele.
Bottom line: Posh.
I can deal with that. Once I’d checked on Nan, she virtually pushed me out the front door and chucked my black Converse out after me before she went to get ready for bingo with George at the local oldies group.
“Never leave anyone with an empty glass,” Del calls over his shoulder, leading on, “and ensure all empties are delivered back to the kitchen so they can be washed and refilled.”
I follow Sylvie, who’s following Del, listening intently as I pile my heavy hair up and secure it with a hair tie. It sounds easy enough, and I absolutely love people watching so tonight could be fun.
“Here.” Del stops and thrusts a round silver tray at both of us, looking down at my feet. “You didn’t have any black flats?”
Following his line of sight, I look down and pull my black trousers up a little. “These are black.” I wriggle my toes within my Converse, thinking how much more my feet would hurt if I were wearing anything else.
He doesn’t say any more; he just rolls his eyes and leads on until we’re in a chaotic kitchen space, where dozens of hotel staff are flying around, shouting and barking orders at each other. I move closer to Sylvie as we continue walking. “Is it just us?” I ask, suddenly a little alarmed. All of the frantic activity suggests a lot of guests.
“No, there will be the agency staff he uses, too. We’re backups.”
“Does he do this a lot, then?”
“It’s his main income. I don’t know why he keeps the bistro.”
I nod thoughtfully to myself. “Doesn’t the hotel provide a catering service?”
“Oh yes, but the type of people you’re about to feed and water call the shots, and if they want Del, they’ll have Del. He’s notorious in this game. You have to try his canapés.” She kisses her fingertips, making me laugh.
My boss shows us around the room where the function is being held and introduces us to the many other waiters and waitresses, all looking bored and inconvenienced. This is obviously a regular thing for them, but not me. I’m looking forward to it.
“Ready?” Sylvie places a final glass of champagne onto my tray. “Now, the trick is to hold it on your palm.” She picks up her own tray, her palm underneath in the center. “Then swing it up onto your shoulder, like this.” In one fluid movement, the tray glides through the air and lands on her shoulder, without even a chink from glasses touching. I’m fascinated. “See?” The tray glides back down from her shoulder until it’s at waist level again. “When offering, hold it here, and when you’re moving around, keep it up here.” The tray swishes through the air, landing on her shoulder perfectly again. “Remember to relax when you’re on the move. Don’t be stiff. You try.”
I slide my full tray from the counter and position my palm in the center. “It’s not heavy,” I muse, surprised.
“Yes, but remember when empty glasses start replacing full glasses it’ll get even lighter, so bear that in mind when you’re transferring it up and down.”
“Okay.” I swivel my wrist, taking the tray up to my shoulder with ease. I smile brightly, taking it back down again.
“You’re a natural.” Sylvie laughs. “Let’s go.”
Transferring the tray back to my shoulder, I swivel on my Converse and head toward the increasing sound of chatting and laughing that’s coming from the function room.
On entering, my navy eyes widen, taking in the wealth, the gowns and the tuxedos. But I don’t feel nervous. I feel stupidly excited. This is people watching at its best.
Without waiting for any prompt from Sylvie, I lose myself in the growing crowds, presenting my tray to groups of people and smiling, whether they thank me or not. Most don’t, but it doesn’t dampen my mood. I’m in my element, and I’m surprised by it. The tray glides up and down with ease, my body shifts effortlessly through the masses of wealth, and I dance back and forth to the kitchen time and time again to re-stock and re-deliver.
“You’re doing good, Livy,” Del tells me, just as I’m leaving with another trayload of champagne flutes.
“Thank you!” I sing, keen to get myself back to my thirsty crowd. I catch Sylvie across the room, and she smiles, encouraging a further beam from me. “Champagne?” I ask, presenting my tray to a group of six middle-aged men, all kitted out in tuxedos and bowties.
“Arh! Bloody marvellous!” a stout man gushes, taking a glass and handing it to one of his companions. He does this a further four times before taking one for himself. “You’re doing a fine job, young lady.” His free hand moves toward me and slips into my pocket as he winks. “Treat yourself.”
“Oh no!” I shake my head. I won’t take money from a man. “Sir, I get paid by my boss. You really mustn’t.” I try to retrieve the note from my pocket while holding the tray steady on my palm. “We don’t expect tips.”
“I won’t hear of it,” he insists, pulling my hand from my pocket. “And it’s not a tip. It’s for the pleasure of seeing such beautiful eyes.”
I immediately blush bright red, stumped for anything to say. He must be sixty, if a day! “Sir, really, I can’t accept it.”
“Nonsense!” He dismisses me with a snort and a wave of his chubby hand, before returning to the chatter of his group, leaving me wondering what the hell to do.
I scan the room, but I can’t see Sylvie to ask, and Del is nowhere in sight, so I quickly offload the remaining glasses before heading back to the kitchens, finding Del tweaking canapés.
“Del, someone gave me this.” I slap the note on the counter, feeling better already for confessing, but my eyes bug when I see it’s a fifty. A fifty? What’s he thinking?
I’m even more stunned when Del starts laughing. “Livy, you star. Keep it.”
“Yes you can. These people have more money than sense. Take it as a compliment.” He pushes the fifty toward me and continues arranging the tiny flatbreads.
I don’t feel any better. “I’ve only served him a glass of champagne,” I say quietly. “It hardly justifies a fifty-pound tip.”
“No, it doesn’t, but like I said, take it as a compliment. Put it back in your pocket and get serving.” He nods at my empty tray, reminding me that it is, in fact, empty.
“Oh! Yes, sure.” I fly into action, stuffing the obscene tip in my pocket, ready to dispose of it later, and reload my tray before quickly making my way back into the crowd. I avoid the gent who’s just thrown away fifty pounds and circle in the other direction, halting at the back of a red satin gown. “Champagne, madam?” I ask, flicking a gaze across to Sylvie. She nods her reassurance once more, smiling, but I don’t need it. I’m nailing this.
I turn my attention back to the satin-adorned woman, who has glossy black, poker-straight hair falling to her pert bum. I smile as she turns toward me, revealing her companion.
I don’t know how I prevent the tray of freshly filled champagne glasses from falling to the floor, but I do. I don’t, however, prevent my smile from falling. His lips are parted again, his eyes stabbing at my flesh, but there’s no emotion on his exquisite face. His dark stubble is absent, leaving nothing but perfect tanned skin beneath, and his dark hair is a little less tousled, instead falling in perfect waves to the tops of his ears.
“Thank you,” the woman says slowly, taking a glass and pulling my eyes away from the strange man. A huge, sparkling, diamond-encrusted cross is suspended from her delicate neck, the brilliant stones nestling just north of her breasts. I’ve no doubt it’s real. “Would you like?” She turns to him, holding up the glass.
He doesn’t say anything. He just takes the glass from her perfectly manicured hand, all the time keeping his shocking blue eyes on me.
He’s not at all receptive, and far from warm, but there’s something strange burning inside me as I gaze at his face. It’s something I’ve never experienced before—something that makes me feel uncomfortable and vulnerable…but not frightened.
The woman helps herself to another glass, and I know it’s time for me to leave, but I can’t move. I feel like I should smile, anything to break the staring deadlock, but what usually comes so naturally to me is completely failing me now. Nothing is working, except my eyes and they’re refusing to break from his.
“That will be all,” the woman prompts harshly, making me jump. Her delicate features are screwed up in annoyance and her dark eyes have darkened further. She has a stunning face, even if it’s scowling at me right now. “I said, that is all.” She steps between me and M.
M? I decide right here and now that M is for mystery, because he really is. I say nothing as I finally swing my tray back onto my shoulder and slowly turn, walking away, feeling compelled to glance over my shoulder because I know he’s still staring at me and I’m wondering how that might be going down with his girlfriend. So I look, and it’s as I suspected—steely blues burning holes into my back.
I jump out of my skin, the tray tumbling from my hands, and I can do nothing to stop it. The glasses seem to float down to the marble, champagne trickling slowly from the flutes, the tray spinning in midair until it all comes together in a collective crash on the hard floor, silencing the room. I’m frozen on the spot as broken glass dances around my feet, seeming to take forever to settle, the piercing, drawn-out noise ringing through the quiet space around me. My eyes are cast downward, my body tense, and I know all attention is pointed at me.
Everyone is looking at me.
And I don’t know what to do.
“Livy!” Sylvie’s panicked voice snaps my despairing head up, and I see her hurrying toward me, her brown eyes concerned. “Are you okay?”
I nod and kneel to start collecting the broken glass, wincing as a sharp pain shoots through my knee, slicing the material of my trousers. “Shit!” I pull in a sharp breath, tears immediately pinching the backs of my eyes. They’re a combination of pain and pure embarrassment. I don’t like any attention on me, and I do a good job to avoid and repel it, but I can’t escape this. I’ve brought a room full of hundreds of people to an eerie quiet. I want to run away.
“Don’t touch it. Livy!” Sylvie pulls me up, giving me an all-over assessment. She must conclude that I look ready to break down because I’m quickly dragged to the kitchen, removing me from my audience. “Jump up.” She pats the counter, and I lift myself, still fighting back tears. She takes the hem of my trousers and lifts the leg until my wound is exposed. “Youch!” She flinches at the clean slice and steps back, looking up at me. “I’m shit with blood, Livy. Was that the guy from the bistro?”
“Yes,” I whisper, shrinking when I see Del approaching, but he doesn’t look annoyed.
“Livy, are you okay?” He hunkers down and performs his own little grimace at my leaking kneecap.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I don’t know what happened.” He’ll probably sack me on the spot for causing such a spectacle.
“Hey, hey.” He straightens his body, his narrow face softening completely. “Accidents happen, honey.”
“I’ve caused such a drama.”
“That’s enough,” he says sternly, turning to the wall and unhooking the first aid case. “It’s not the end of the world.” He opens up the box and fishes around until he lays his hands on an antiseptic wipe and tears it open. My teeth grit as he gently swipes it across my knee, the stinging making me hiss and stiffen. “Sorry, but it needs cleaning.”
I hold my breath as he undertakes my clean-up operation, finishing by taping square gauze to my knee and lifting me down from the worktop. “Can you walk okay?”
“Sure.” I flex my knee and smile my thanks before collecting a new tray.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he asks, frowning.
“Oh no,” he laughs. “God bless you, Livy. Go to the loo and sort yourself out.” He points to the exit across the kitchen.
“But I’m fine,” I insist, even though I don’t feel it, not because my knee’s sore but because I’m not looking forward to facing my spectators or M. I’ll just have to keep my head down, avoid a certain steel stare and see my shift through with no further mishaps.
“Toilet!” Del orders, taking the tray and placing it on the counter. “Now.” He rests his hands on my shoulders and guides me to the door, not giving me the opportunity to protest further. “Go.”
I force a smile through my lingering embarrassment and leave behind the chaos of the kitchen, stepping into the huge room and striving to hurry through unnoticed. I know I’ve failed—the feeling of sharp blue eyes prickling my skin everywhere confirming it. I feel like a let-down. I feel incompetent, foolish, and fragile. But most of all, I feel exposed.
I navigate the plush carpeted corridor until I push my way through two doors and land in the ridiculously extravagant washroom, kitted out in cream marble and shiny gold at every turn. I almost don’t want to use the facilities. The first thing I do is take the fifty from my pocket and gaze at it for a few moments. Then I screw it up and throw it in the bin. I’m not taking money from a man. I wash my hands before presenting myself to the gigantic gold framed mirror to re-tie my hair, sighing when I’m confronted by haunted sapphire eyes. Curious eyes.
I don’t pay much attention when the door opens, and continue to tuck some wayward strands of hair behind my ears. But then there’s someone behind me, casting a shadow over my face as I lean into the mirror. M. I gasp and jump back, straight into the body that’s just as hard and lean as I’d imagined.
“You’re in the ladies’,” I breathe, swinging around to face him. I try to put some distance between us, but I don’t get very far with the sink behind me. Through my shock, I allow myself to drink in his closeness—his three-piece suit, his clean-shaven face. He smells out of this world, all manly with a touch of earthy wood. It’s an intoxicating cocktail. Everything about him sends my sensible being into a tailspin.
He steps forward, closing the already narrow space between us, and then shocks me by kneeling and gently lifting the leg of my trouser. I’m pushing myself back against the sink unit, holding my breath, just watching him run his thumb softly over the gauze hiding my cut. “Does it hurt?” he asks quietly, lifting those incredible blue eyes to mine. I can’t talk, so I shake my head a little and watch as he slowly stands back up to his full height. He’s thoughtful for a few moments before he speaks again. “I need to force myself to stay away from you.”
I don’t point out that he’s doing a terrible job of that. I can’t take my eyes off those lips. “Why do you need to force yourself?”
His hand meets my forearm, and it takes every ounce of my strength not to flinch at the heat radiating through me from his touch. “Because you seem like a sweet girl who should get more from a man than the best fuck of your life.”
My lack of astonishment shocks me. Instead, I feel relieved, even if he’s just promised to fuck me and nothing more. He’s taken by me, too, and that confirmation pulls my eyes up to meet his. “Maybe I want that.” I’m goading him, encouraging him, when I should be running in the other direction.
He seems to drift into thought as he concentrates on the soft trail of his fingertip travelling up my arm. “You want more than that.”
He’s telling me, not asking. I don’t know what I want. I’ve never stopped and considered my future, either professionally or personally. I’m drifting, that’s all, but I do know one thing. I’m on dangerous ground, not just because this unidentified man seems to be forward, dark, and way too stunning, but because he’s just said that he’ll do nothing more than fuck me. I don’t know him. I’d be inconceivably stupid to dive into bed with him, just for sex. It goes against all of my morals. But I can’t seem to locate the reasons to stop me. I should be uncomfortable with what he’s provoking from me, but I’m not. For the first time in my life, I feel alive. I’m buzzing, unfamiliar feelings attacking my senses, and an even more demanding buzz attacking me between my clenched thighs. I’m pulsing.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“I don’t want to tell you, Livy.”
Before I can ask him how he knows my name, Sylvie’s cry across the party room plays on repeat in my head. I want to touch him, but as I lift my hand to rest it on his chest, he backs up slightly, his eyes nailed to my floating palm between our bodies. I pause for a second to see if he withdraws further. He doesn’t. My hand falls down and comes to lie on his suit jacket, coaxing a sharp pull of his breath, but he doesn’t stop me; he just watches as I gently feel his torso over his clothing, marvelling at the solidness beneath.
Then his eyes flick up to mine, and his head slowly falls forward, his breath heating my face as he nears until I finally close my eyes and brace myself for those lips. He’s getting closer. His scent is intensifying and my face is scorching from his hot breath.
But the happy chatter of women breaks the moment, and I’m suddenly being hauled down the row of cubicles and shoved in the very last one. The door slams and I’m whirled around, pinned to the back of the door with his palm over my mouth, his face close to mine. My whole body is heaving as we stare at each other, listening to the women preen in the mirror, reapplying lipsticks and refreshing perfume. I’m mentally yelling at them to hurry the hell up so we can pick up where we left off. I could very nearly feel his lips brushing over mine, and it’s just increased my desire for him tenfold.
It seems like an age, but the chatter eventually fades. My heavy breathing doesn’t, though, not even when he allows air into my mouth by removing his hand.
His forehead meets mine and his eyes clench shut. “You’re too sweet. I can’t do it.” He lifts me and removes me from the doorway before hastily exiting, leaving me a stupid bag of pent-up lust. I’m too sweet? I let out a sardonic snap of laughter. I’m angry again—pissed off and ready to track him down to tell him who gets to decide what I want. And it’s not him.
Letting myself out of the cubicle, I run a quick check over my face and body in the mirror, concluding I look harassed, before exiting the bathroom and making my way to the kitchen.
I spot Sylvie appearing from the kitchen entrance. “There you are! We were just going to send a search party.” She hurries toward me, her face turning from amused concern to concerned concern. “You okay?”
“Fine.” I brush her off, concluding that I must look as shook up as I feel. I don’t hang around for Sylvie to press further, instead grabbing a bottle of champagne and ignoring her inquisitive stare. It’s empty. “Are there any more bottles?” I ask, dumping it down a little too harshly. I’m shaking.
“Yeah,” she replies slowly, passing me a freshly opened replacement.
“Thank you.” I smile. It’s strained, and she knows it, but I can’t shake my grievance or my irritation.
“Are you sure –”
“Sylvie.” I pause from pouring and take a deep breath, turning and fixing a sincere smile on my harassed face. “Honestly, I’m okay.”
She nods, unconvinced, but she helps me pour rather than digging further. “I guess we should get serving, then.”
“We should,” I agree, sliding my tray from the counter and swinging it up to my shoulder. “I’m out of here.” I leave Sylvie and brave the crowds of people, but I’m not as attentive to the guests as I was before. I don’t smile half as much when offering out the champagne, and I’m constantly scanning the room for him. I’m quick to re-stock in the kitchen so I can return to the masses of crowds, I’m not paying a bit of attention to my surroundings, and I’m at risk of making a complete fool of myself for a second time if my lack of attention causes me to bump into something and drop my tray again.
But I don’t care.
I have an unreasonable need to see him again…and then something makes me turn, an invisible power pulling my body toward the source.
I’m frozen in place, tray hovering between my shoulder and my waist, and he’s studying me, a tumbler of dark liquid hovering at his mouth. It draws my eyes to his lips—the lips I nearly tasted.
My senses heighten when he slowly raises the glass and tips the contents down his throat before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and placing the empty on Sylvie’s tray as she passes. Sylvie does a double-take, and then swings around, clearly looking for me. Her wide browns land on me briefly before she starts flicking eyes full of intrigue, mixed with a little worry, back and forth between me and this confounding man.
He’s staring —really staring, and his companion must get curious, because she turns, following his line of vision until she’s looking at me. She smiles slyly, lifting her empty champagne flute. Panic sets in.
Sylvie’s gone, leaving it down to me to fulfill her request. The woman wiggles the glass in mid-air, a prompt to get my arse in gear, and my curiosity, coupled with my lack of bad manners, prevents me from ignoring her. So I make my way toward them—her still smiling, him still staring—until I’m standing before them, offering the tray to them. Her attempt to make me feel inferior is obvious, but I’m too intrigued to care.
“Take your time, sweetheart,” she purrs, taking a glass and extending it to him. “Miller?”
“Thank you,” he says quietly, accepting the drink.
Miller? His name’s Miller? I cock my head at him, and for the first time, his lips tip knowingly. I’m sure that if he really let go, he’d probably knock me out with his smile.
“Run along now,” the woman says, turning her back on me and pulling a reluctant Miller with her, but her rudeness doesn’t dampen down my inner delight. I turn on my Converse, happy to leave with the knowledge of his name. I don’t turn back, either.
Sylvie’s on me like a wolf when I enter the kitchen, just as I knew she would be. “Holy, shitting hell!” I wince at her burst of bad language and set my tray down. “He’s staring at you, Livy. I mean proper burning eyes.”
“I know.” You’d have to be blind or utterly stupid not to notice.
“He’s with a woman.”
“Yes.” I might be pleased to have learned his name, but I’m not so pleased about that part. Not that I have any right to feel jealous. Jealous? Is that what I am? It’s an emotion I’ve never experienced before.
“Oohh, I’m feeling something,” Sylvie chants, laughing as she sashays out of the kitchen.
“Yes. Me too,” I muse to myself, turning to look back at the entrance, knowing he watched my every step back here.
I avoid him for the rest of the evening, but definitely feel his eyes on me as I weave through the crowds. I feel a constant pull in his direction and struggle to keep my eyes from drifting over, but I’m proud of myself for resisting. While it’s an unfamiliar pleasure to lose myself in his steely gaze, I could risk ruining it by seeing him with another woman.
After saying my good-byes to Del and Sylvie, I push my way out of the staff entrance into the midnight air and head for the Tube, looking forward to curling up in bed and having a morning lie in.
“She’s just a business associate.” His soft voice from behind halts me, stroking my skin, but I don’t turn around. “I know you’re wondering.”
“You don’t need to explain yourself to me.” I continue walking, knowing exactly what I’m doing. He’s taken by me, and I may not be familiar with the chasing game, but I do know that I shouldn’t appear desperate, even if, annoyingly, I am. I’m sensible; I know a bad thing when I see it, and standing behind me is a man who could crush my logic.
My arm is seized, halting my escape, and I’m swung around to face him. If I were strong enough, I’d close my eyes so I don’t have to soak up his exquisite face. I’m not strong enough, though.
“No, I don’t have to explain myself, yet here I am doing exactly that.”
“Why?” I don’t pull my arm from his grip because the heat of his touch is working its way through my denim jacket and warming my chilly skin, setting my blood alight. I’ve never felt anything like it.
“You really don’t want to get involved with me.” He doesn’t sound convinced of that himself, so he’s a million if he expects me to buy it. I want to buy it. I want to walk away and wipe my encounters with him from my mind and return to being stable and sensible.
“Then let me leave,” I say quietly, meeting the intensity of his stare with my own. The long silence that falls and lingers between us is an indication that he really doesn’t want to, but I decide for him and remove my arm from his grasp. “Goodnight, Miller.” I take a few backward steps before turning and walking away. It’s probably one of the most sensible decisions I’ve ever made, even if the majority of my scrambled mind is willing me to pursue it. Whatever it is.