ROMANCE TEST | CHAPTER 1. OLIVIA DANE ADVISES

“I’m so nervous.”

Emilia once again jerks the bottom of her shirt and huffs in annoyance. Maybe, she should change – again. The fifth time? Seriously, Milly?

“Why are you nervous?” Grace asks and laughs her usual dry, bark-like laugh. “It’s not like it’s a date.”

Ha. As if Emilia knows what those are like.

“It’s more important than a date!” Emilia exclaims, throwing a glare at her phone where the voice of her agent comes from. “I’m meeting the Olivia Dane!”

“It’s not ‘the Olivia Dane,’ it’s just Olivia,” Grace dismisses, and presumably bites a crisp she’s always snacking on. Emilia can hear crunching. “She’s surprisingly normal for a bestselling author.”

Emilia sighs and looks herself over in the bathroom mirror. She can only see her upper half – from the top of her unruly mop of hair, which she once again failed to style, to her poor stomach squeezed into a shapewear under her stripy jumper, the French tuck on which will fall apart and look awful when she steps out of the cab. There’s a reason why that’s the only mirror in her flat. Seeing her bottom right now would destroy whatever courage she has left.

“And you’re only a few thousand copies behind her,” Grace reminds Emilia. “You have nothing to feel insecure about.”

If Emilia wasn’t that nauseous, she’d laugh at the notion.

“So, go and exchange your experience.” Grace probably waves a crisp in the air. “You know, professional development and such.”

Emilia swallows a knot in her throat.

***

They’re meeting at a new Italian bistro in the Village, and Olivia Dane is late. At first, Emilia is relieved. This gives her a chance to breathe out, drink a bit of water, and try to ‘go to her happy place.’ It’s not working, but at least she might be less shaky when her date comes. But then she catches a look from the waiter, which she immediately imagines to be ‘pitiful’ – and her daft writing brain kicks in.

The waiter is young, perky, and pretty. She probably thinks that Emilia isn’t actually meeting anyone here. She’s not wrong, Emilia has been using this method for years – you claim you’re having lunch with someone, ask for a table for two, then a few minutes later look at your phone, and pretend to be upset because they ‘can’t make it.’ It’s hard to tell what’s more humiliating: being stood up in reality, or faking it and having a waiter guess. Emilia has been stood up only twice in her life – both times on an actual date. Both of those dates were arranged by her friends, and conversely those were two thirds of Emilia’s romantic history.

The door to the café flies open, and Olivia Dane rushes in. She’s red-haired, dainty, dressed in a stylish oversized coat – and even her slightly disheveled, somewhat chaotic appearance is charming. Emilia has based at least two protagonists on the writer, basing their looks on Olivia Dane’s promo photos.

“Emily!” Olivia exclaims and waves madly. She then says something to the waiter and hurries to Emilia’s table. “I’m so very sorry! There was a ridiculous emergency with a beaker, and John’s too big to crawl under the seat, and–” She stops herself, exhales, and then laughs shyly. “Just listen to me, I sound mental. Sorry. Let’s try again, alright?” She smiles widely. “Hi.”

“Hello.” Emilia sits up straighter in her chair.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” Olivia says, taking off her petal pink coat and hangs it on a hanger stand near their table. “My two-year-old lost his beaker, it was under the seat in the car, and I needed to help my husband to find it. It’s funny how some men comply with the stereotypes we have of their gender. Don’t you find?”

Olivia gives out a small laugh. Emilia gives out a noncommittal hum. She doesn’t ‘find.’ She has no idea what some men do – or any of them, for that matter.

“But nonetheless, here I am,” Olivia says. “So, is it Emily or Emilia?”

“It’s Emilia. Emily Green is my pen name.” Emilia fidgets with her menu. “When they started publishing me, my agent said Emilia Arudnel was a bit much. So they changed it to Emily R. Green.”

“Oh.” Olivia charmingly rounds her lips. “And what does ‘R’ stand for?”

“I don’t know,” Emilia says in a lost tone. “I think, just to make it a bit more memorable, you know?”

“Well, that’s just silly,” Olivia says. “Your books are memorable enough. I’m sure if you were named Jane Smith, people would still come back to read more.”

What is this ethereal music? That’s angels singing! Olivia Dane has just complimented her writing!

“Thank you,” Emilia mutters, blushing painfully.

“I have to confess, I’m a big fan,” Olivia says earnestly, looking Emilia in the eyes. “And I’m super jealous! And envious! In a dark, competitive way,” she adds cheekily. “I wish I had your imagination for plots!”

What?! This can’t be happening! Someone pinch Emilia! She’s dreaming!

“But–” Emilia squawks. “Um… Thank you. And I wish I had your talent for writing the spicy stuff!”

She bits her tongue, but the cat’s out of the bag, so to say. Actually, no one should say so. That’s one of those clichés that make zero sense. Some cats fancy being in a bag. She routinely finds her cat Tom Mittenston inside her duvet cover.

Olivia giggles and gives Emilia a mischievous squinted look.

“Is this what this meeting’s about?” Olivia asks, her voice coloured with laughter.

Emilia hides behind her glass, but it’s time to woman up and admit it.

“Well, you know how my books are so–” She wants to say ‘boring,’ but she does have just a minuscule of professional pride. “Vanilla.”

“They are.” Olivia nods. “It’s absolutely lovely. They are– touching. And poetic.”

More like fantasies of a dull, half-virginal spinster, but sure, Emilia’s negative self-talk erupts in her mind, but she tells it to shut it. At least wait till we’re alone. One of her favourite readers – they chat routinely on Emilia’s blog – shared the advice their therapist gave them: to name one’s negative self-talk. Emilia’s bitchy inner voice’s name is Kate, after Emilia’s former best friend, who friend-dumped Emilia in the fifth form, when it became clear that Emilia’s puppy fat wasn’t going anywhere and that was just her general shape, while Kate was petite and couldn’t be seen shopping for clothes and going out with the likes of Emilia.

“Thank you,” Emilia says bleakly. “But you see, I want to try something new. To grow, so to say. I just feel like all my books are the same. They meet, they fall in love, it fades to black. It’s unrealistic! They’re fairy tales, and I feel like–”

Like a fraud, Kate supplies. Kate’s not wrong, let’s face it. These fairy tales don’t happen in real life. One doesn’t meet the perfect man – at least not when one is a real woman, with bad hair days, rolls on her sides, years of insecurities behind her, and zero confidence and experience in bed. Besides, real life men are hardly glamorous Mr. Darcy’s. One can’t expect to find a decent, compassionate, understanding bloke on the first blind date and then to have glorious shag with him – and especially, to live happily ever after.

“I was wondering if you have some advice for me,” Emilia said quietly. “I know you have lost your first husband. I’m sorry for your loss.” She gives Olivia an emotional look, and Olivia nods with a soft smile. “And I assume there was a time in your life, before you met your second husband, when you were single. How did you write sex scenes at the time?”

Olivia studies her for a few seconds, and then shakes her head good-naturedly.

“Emilia,” she says firmly – but then their waiter comes to take their orders.

Emilia habitually orders a salad and a cup of coffee, almost undisturbed by her usual regrets and longing for the strawberry galette this place is famous for. Normally, to get through a lunch out, she’d need to remind herself that she will get all her guilty pleasures of sugar and carbs at home – but she’s too anxious to hear Olivia Dane’s answer to worry about food right now. For once, Kate supplies a comment.

After the waiter leaves, Olivia is pensive, and Emilia squirms on her chair.

“You were saying,” she encourages the redhead to speak, unable to wait anymore.

“I just– I don’t want to say something that would make you misunderstand my situation,” Olivia says with a small frown. “I am aware of the rumours in our publishing house, you see,” she continues, folding her hands on the table. “I know everyone thinks I’m this– goddess of shag, and that I have tons of experience, and that I test everything on my husband.” She chuckles, slightly embarrassed. “The latter isn’t wrong, but no one can–” She clears her throat. “No one can ‘test’ as much as I describe in my books. There’s washing up to do, and paying bills, and sometimes you’re just tired at the end of the day.” She laughs again, in the same shy way. “And of course our books are a bit of an exaggerated, romanticised version of romance and sex, but– But I think it’s important to keep it real. That we try to make our characters feel real, you know. You do, for sure. And I simply adore it about your books!” she exclaims, and Emilia feels the usual pang of self-doubt. Does she, really? “We do provide escape for our readers,” Olivia continues, “but the last thing we would want for our readers is to get a sense of inadequacy or inferiority.”

Olivia sighs and looks out the window, seemingly gathering her thoughts.

“I was single for seven years, after Allan died,” she says, turning to Emilia. “And I didn’t have any experience except for him at the time. And before I met John, I just–” Olivia bites her lip, and her cheek flush with a tinge of blush. “I just wrote what I thought such an activity would feel like. I mean, I tested some things. You know, on my own,” she says in a pointed tone. “But all I ever wanted to do was to empower my readers to experiment on their own, to find out what they enjoy, and not to be ashamed of their own desires.”

Emilia is digesting the revelation. Olivia Dane – the Olivia Dane – is a real life, ordinary woman! Married! With a child! An ordinary woman who doesn’t ‘test her writing’ that often because she has washing up to do. How is this possible?!

And what is it that she, Emilia Arudnel wants, and enjoys, and desires?

“Have you met Clementine Popplewell?” Olivia asks. “She writes under the pen name Dair Naofa.”

“Yeah, she’s our publisher’s partner, isn’t she?” Emilia answers. “I’ve tried her books, but– they aren’t exactly my cup of tea. Sorry.”

“Don’t apologise!” Olivia exclaims. “Never apologise for not enjoying something. We’re mates, and I love her dearly, but this sort of kinky stuff isn’t my cup of tea, either.” Olivia snorts. “I’m a mother of a preschooler. I have no interest in even imagining the athletics of an orgy. And I don’t enjoy the unemotional aspect of it, when sex is just that – pure sex.” She shrugs. “I brought her books up because she told me how she does research for them. Because – and promise me you won’t tell anyone that I said so,” she whispers dramatically, “her and her husband, our dear John Holyoake, have very traditional sex. No whips, no handcuffs, not even a single tiny threesome.”

Emilia is frozen, gawking at the redhead – and then they both burst in snickering. John Holyoake, the publishing magnate and the owner of the the third biggest publishing house in the country, and one of the most attractive men Emilia had ever seen in her life, has boring, traditional sex! This can’t be right!

After they both are done laughing and catch their breath, Olivia continues, “It just proves to you that one can write whatever they want, no matter what their own life and their preferences are like. I write passionate love stories, with drama, and wild outdoor shag – while my own love story has been the dullest and the most uneventful you can imagine. And I wouldn’t have it any other way! I’m endlessly happy in my boring, ordinary married life.” She smiles at Emilia. “You can write whatever you want to write. You just need to do your research. Which is why I’m going to pass to you the knowledge that Clementine has shared with me.”

Olivia opens her handbag, rummages in her wallet, and pulls out a cardstock rectangle. It has only a phone number, crispy white against the black background, and a drawing of what looks like a magic wand to Emilia.

“Call this number,” Olivia says. “Her name is Eva.”

Emilia picks the card out of Olivia’s hand. There’s nothing on the other side. The card feels velvety and heavy.

“She’s endlessly professional, considerate, and you can talk to her about anything. She’ll answer all your questions,” Olivia says softly. “From the most simple ones, to… any advanced knowledge you might require. And she’ll never make you feel uncomfortable.”

“Who is she?” Emilia asks, feeling somewhat reassured – and excited.

“I believe the term is… a dominatrix,” Olivia answers.

The card falls out of Emilia’s hand.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.