Saturday, June 22
He booted open the bedroom door with his bare foot, then removed her slip-dress in one swift motion as she raised her arms. Now wearing nothing more than a G-string, Faye yielded as he pushed her against the wall and continued the kissing session that had started on the living-room sofa just five minutes earlier.
While she fumbled with his shirt buttons, he saved time by undoing his belt and fly, then kicked off his trousers, which fell in a crumpled heap on the floor. Maneuvering her towards the bed, he pushed her backwards so that she plunged into the duck-down duvet. The movement jolted the bedside table, and a framed photograph of a middle-aged woman crashed to the floor. Standing over her, he stared into her eyes, a crooked smile on his lips, then slowly pulled off the G-string. He dangled it on the end of his finger, then tossed it aside.
Damn, he's sexy, she thought, as he lowered himself towards her, never taking his gaze from hers. She fully expected him to be a "Monopoly" lover, a term she and her friends had coined for men who selfishly moved straight to "Go," so her breath caught as he started to slow-kiss his way down her body from just beneath her breasts.
Unlike the inept performances of the stamp lickers she and her friends also complained about, this one knew exactly what he was doing.
She closed her eyes to savor the sensation, then snapped them open again. Initially she'd wanted nothing more than to have sex with this man, but the reality of knowing that it was about to happen suddenly brought her to her senses. What on earth was she doing?
It had been easy, as flirtation always was. A couple of meaningful stares across a crowded cattle market--or do they call them wine bars?--followed by a couple of slow lip-lickings. Within minutes of her friend Susie's departure to catch the last train, he was at Faye's side.
"May I buy you a drink?" He smiled.
"I already have one, thanks." She held up the remnants of a glass of white wine.
"In that case, as we're being pedantic, may I buy you another?"
Normally, having established a man's interest, Faye would have brushed him off and headed home, but tonight she had found herself nodding. "OK."
She encountered gorgeous men all the time in her job as a model, but there was something mesmerizing about this one. He had dark hair, blue eyes, and a well-toned body, but he also had an X factor that intrigued her. Flecks of gray were starting to appear just above his ears, but it suited him. He was confident and, judging by his Gucci shirt and Ralph Lauren loafers, not short of a bob or two.
"Are you drinking alone?" she said, craning to see if anyone was behind him.
"Yep. Just fancied a quick one." He waved his beer in front of her. "But it turned into several."
"Are you from around here?" She couldn't believe she was asking such humdrum questions, but his confidence and maturity unnerved her.
"No." He didn't elaborate. "You?"
"Just round the corner." She felt her neck flush as she said it.
For the next half-hour, they were engrossed in conversation, never taking their eyes off each other until Faye felt a hand on her shoulder. It was the bar manager, gesturing behind him where chairs were being stacked on the tables.
"I'll walk you home," he said, in a tone that suggested he wasn't going to take no for an answer.
"Thanks." Curiously, she felt protected rather than threatened.
During the short walk, she had vowed she would say goodbye on the doorstep, but when they arrived at her front door she felt compelled to spend more time with him.
"Coffee?" she had asked. "And, no, that's not a euphemism."
"Damn." He clicked his fingers in mock frustration. "But can I have wine instead?"
The bottle of Chablis they shared had been her undoing.
Now she was studying him as, hair flopping into his face, he concentrated on the task in hand. She still felt attracted to him, but her desire for him had been outweighed by pangs of guilt about her uncharacteristic sluttishness. Yes, he was gorgeous, sexy, funny, and interesting, but he was also a complete stranger and she just didn't do that sort of thing.
"Look, if you don't mind, I'd rather we didn't go all the way," she said. She put her hands on his shoulders and eased him away.
A fleeting look of surprise crossed his face before he fell beside her, wiping a bead of sweat from his forehead. She grabbed a corner of the duvet and draped it over her naked body. Then she reached into her handbag and pulled out a pack of Marlboro Lights. The small chrome clock on the bedside table read 12:10 a.m.
Propping herself up on one elbow, she glanced at him lying next to her, then he suddenly caught her eye. Embarrassed, she blew smoke towards his face, then giggled to show it was a joke.
"Your bedroom habits could do with a little work." He frowned.
"Look, I don't mean to be rude, and I'm really sorry, but this doesn't seem like such a good idea after all, and I have to be up horribly early. So if you don't mind, I'll call you a cab," she said.
He raised his eyebrows. A small twitch started in his cheek, and his blue eyes turned darker as his pupils expanded. After a few moments, his expression softened and he stroked the side of her face gently. "Why don't I stay a little longer?" he murmured.
Faye was tempted to let him, but she felt deflated and angry with herself for allowing a wine-bar flirtation to develop so far. Now that the effect of the wine had worn off, she realized she knew nothing about this man. He could be a psychotic killer, yet she'd brought him back to her flat without anyone else knowing. How reckless, she thought. How desperate. How unbelievably stupid.
Her mind went into overdrive. She had no plans for Sunday, so her mutilated body might not be found until late next week when maybe her best friend, Adam, or her mother would have made several calls and be wondering where she was. Or perhaps the woman downstairs would eventually notice the smell.
She took another drag of her cigarette and tried to calm herself. Psychotic killers didn't go to wine bars for a casual drink . . . did they?
She gave a cavernous yawn, fatigue creeping up on her, and ground out the cigarette. "As I said, I'd really rather you left." She looked apologetic.
Flopping onto his back, he lay there motionless. For a moment, she thought he was going to be difficult. She couldn't believe it: so many of her female friends had whined that men couldn't wait to leave straight after a sexual encounter, yet this one wanted to stay. It testified to the "treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen" philosophy, but Faye didn't want him keen. She just wanted him out.
He sat up suddenly and swung his tanned, muscular legs out of bed. "Well, at least make me some coffee first. I'll get dressed and follow you down." He picked up his white cotton boxer shorts that were partially tucked inside a leg of his trousers.
Faye was relieved that now an end was in sight to this cheap little episode. "OK." She smiled. "I'll get the cab to come in about ten minutes." She grabbed her white cotton robe from the end of the bed and headed out of the door.
Downstairs, she crashed about opening cupboards and throwing coffee into a mug bearing the words "caffeine queen." Then she rang her local cab firm and asked them to send a car immediately.
"Where to?" asked the dispatcher.
"Um, no idea," said Faye. "The passenger will tell you." She hung up and poured boiling water into the mug.
"Hi." He appeared fully dressed in the kitchen doorway, his suit jacket slung over his arm. He looked disheveled but still gorgeous. "What was your name again?"
She held up a teaspoon. "Milk and sugar?"
"That's an unusual name." He grinned.
Through the beginnings of a headache, she vaguely remembered that his name was something like "Toby" She was pleased he'd forgotten hers. "Let's just keep it as a mysterious encounter," she said.
He looked at her quizzically, then shook his head. "No sugar, just a splash of milk, thanks." He made a small sighing noise. "So, are you in the habit of picking up strange men in bars and bringing them home?"
"No, absolutely not," she said firmly, walking across to the doorway and handing him the mug. As he took it, his hand touched hers and she felt the flutter of butterflies. "It was completely out of character and I won't be doing it again."
"I see. That disappointing, was I?" He took a sip of coffee and peered at her over the rim of the mug.
She wrinkled her nose. "That's really not the issue here."
"So what is?"
"The issue," he said. "What is it?"
"There isn't one. We saw, we conquered, we almost came . . . then I changed my mind. Simple as that. I'm sorry." She looked at her watch and folded her arms, attempting to indicate that the subject was closed.
"Oh, please don't apologize, the pleasure was all mine." He looked at her curiously. "You're unusual, do you know that?"
"You mean I behave like a man?" she replied. "You're probably right, but it doesn't make me a bad person." She just wanted to go upstairs and crawl back into bed . . . alone.
"I didn't say it did. In fact, it's quite refreshing. It's better than being asked to go and choose curtains together."
She laughed a little and looked at him. He was smiling broadly, and she noticed he had a small gap between his front teeth.
In clothes, his broad shoulders and height were accentuated and she wondered whether he'd done any modeling. In the wine bar, he'd brushed aside her question about his job, describing himself as "a glorified salesman." Now, she was dying to ask him to elaborate, but refrained in case it was construed as interest in seeing him again.
There was the faint sound of a cab pulling up outside, followed by the honk of its horn--always a joy for the neighbors at that time in the morning.
"That'll be your cab." She hoped the relief on her face wasn't too obvious.
"Thanks, Sherlock." He grabbed his briefcase, drained his mug, and put it on the kitchen table. "I have a strong feeling the answer is going to be no, but I'll ask anyway. Any chance of seeing you again?"
Faye looked up at him and shook her head. "I doubt it," she said. "I'm getting married next weekend."
Friday, June 28
"That Michael Caine film with the Minis keeps popping into my head," said Brian, his eyes squeezed shut.
"I think you'll find it was set in Italy, and it was actually a coach that ended up hanging over the cliff. We're in France and this is a Fiat Cinquecento." Mark was grim-faced as he negotiated the twists and turns up the side of the mountain overlooking the town of Ceret. They were on their way to the tiny village of Montferrier, a quaint but unremarkable place.
"Couldn't you just have got married at city hall like normal people?" Brian was looking distinctly green, his cheek pressed against the half-open window. "A quick ceremony, a couple of pigs-in-blankets, then off to the pub. Much more civilized."
"And I was wondering why some girl hasn't snapped you up," said Mark sarcastically, his eyes never leaving the road. "I'm afraid I didn't have much say in it, mate. Faye has pretty much organized the whole thing. All I have to do is turn up."
"If we don't plummet to our deaths first."
"What?" Mark grimaced as the road became even steeper and narrower.
They lapsed into silence, Mark concentrating on the road, his friend on keeping his breakfast down. He wasn't great at traveling in cars at the best of times, but Mark had assured him it was mostly flat from the airport to the village. He'd neglected to mention the road up to the hotel, which looked dangerously as if they'd soon need a sherpa.
"There it is!" Mark pointed, then thought better of it and clamped his hand back on the wheel. The chateau was clearly visible through the trees, its roof highlighted by the afternoon sunshine. "Another ten minutes and we'll be there."
Brian opened his eyes, but was still clutching the sides of his seat. "Can you make it sooner?"
"God, now I've seen it, I'm nervous." Mark's eyes were shining. "It suddenly seems so real . . ." He turned to look at his friend. "I'm getting married. Isn't that exciting?"
"I'm at fever pitch, mate." Brian's voice was flat with nausea.
As Mark negotiated a tricky bend, a donkey pulling a cart came into view. It was being led by a man who looked in no hurry to be anywhere. "This could take a little longer than I thought." He ran a hand through his floppy brown hair and sighed. There was no way he could get past the cart: he would just have to fall in behind and crawl along.
Brian evidently preferred this sedate pace. He fumbled in the pocket of his gaudy Hawaiian shirt, pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit one. He exhaled smoke out of the window, then screwed up his eyes as some floated back into his face. "I still can't believe you're having separate rooms tonight, particularly as you'll be seeing each other at dinner."
Mark shrugged. "Faye wanted to keep a bit of the traditional stuff. She didn't want me to see her dress before the ceremony tomorrow either."
Brian looked surprised. "She doesn't strike me as the traditional type."
"I know what you mean." Mark fiddled with the car radio to see if he could pick up any local stations. "I guess most women like to be a little old-fashioned on their wedding day."
Euro-pop filled the car and Brian let out a low wail. "Turn that shit off. This whole country has van Gogh's ear for music."
Mark laughed. He'd asked Brian to be best man partly because he was a never-ending source of gags and one-liners, but he'd made him swear to keep his speech clean for the benefit of the parents and aged aunts. "How's the speech going?" he asked.
"Not bad." Brian stubbed out the cigarette. "I've had a few thoughts, and I'll add to them when I've met more of your guests at dinner tonight."
"There's enough material there to fill an entire comedy festival, particularly my aunt Ethel. She's the only person I know with Tourette's." He grinned as a memory popped into his head. "She once told our local vicar he was a twat, although she claimed later she meant to say twit."
From the Trade Paperback edition.