ROMANCE TEST || CHAPTER 15. SECOND INVITATION

Emilia makes a big mistake. She decides to search online when a woman should ring up a man, meaning at what time of the day – and the first ten articles tell her that if she considers calling a bloke, she shouldn’t. Emilia ends up needing a breather, and she rushes to the kitchen to make a cuppa, leaving her laptop behind. One quote especially clings to her brain like those manky glue streaks that stay on your purchases after you remove a price sticker: He should start 2 conversations for every 1 that you start. You should always be mirroring his behaviour. A man who is a leader and ready to settle down doesn’t need you to call him. He will call you.

Obviously, all this is rubbish, toxic machismo, and it’s 2021 – haven’t they heard of feminism? – but it just reminds Emilia how little she knows about relationships and men and the Protocol. Capital P. Because even in the most woke of those articles, there seems to be some sort of an unspoken understanding of how to play this game – and Emilia desperately needs someone to ‘speak’ about it already.

She also found out that ‘the average male prefers to make his call after he gets your number between 8:15 and 10:20 in the evening.” Men also won’t call right on the half-hour or hour, choosing to dial that number at ‘8:37, 9:22, 9:41 – anytime that seems like they have not been planning the call.’ Emilia stops herself when she realises she’s wondering whether the same rules apply to women calling men – because she suddenly sees that all of this is complete and utter codswallop! Bosh! Humbug! Hogwash! Tommyrot! Tripe and drivel! The thesaurus in Emilia’s head tends to turn on when she’s stressed.

She pours herself a cuppa, eats three biscuits, and grabs her mobile. It’s quarter past two – it’s 2.17 to be precise – but Emilia doesn’t care.

“Hello,” she says when he picks up with a casual ‘Daniel Oates.’

“Emilia.” His voice is low and velvet and all other clichés from her books. He also sounds like he’s happy to hear her – or at least that’s what she’s going to tell herself so she doesn’t lose it and pretends to drop the phone into the loo. “Hello!” He does sound like he’s glad – and relieved. “How are you doing?”

“Quite well, thank you.” Emilia swallows a knot in her throat. “And you?”

“I’m good.”

There’s a pause. A loo dunking of her phone is looking more and more attractive now.

“Thank you for calling me,” Oates adds.

What does one answer to this?! She should’ve planned and practised and watched YouTube! Idiot.

“You’re welcome.” Definitely, one doesn’t answer this! “Eva told me you wanted me to.” This isn’t any better. Think, Emilia.

“I was wondering if I owe you an apology,” he says.

There’s some quiet creaking noise in the background. What’s he doing there? Emilia’s bed makes a similar rhythmic sound if you bob on it on your backside pretending to be on a trampoline but feeling too lazy to actually get up on your feet and jump. Not that anyone does that. Uhem.

“Last time, you said I didn’t,” he continues in a quiet voice. “But people don’t always say what they think.”

Except, he does.

Since Emilia didn’t prepare a ‘script’ for this convo – again, what an idiot! – her blurting out habit kicks in right away.

“You don’t have to apologise, but maybe you could explain what happened?” she trails away with a questioning intonation.

Oh c’mon, Emilia. You know what happened. You just don’t understand how said happening fits in the context of casual hooking up.

He’s quiet for a few – five, she counted – long seconds.

“I will,” he says gravely, and for some reason she imagines him nod. “But maybe, in person?”

Is this him being ‘a strong and confident high-quality man who always makes a point to show you he’s interested’ quote-unquote? She properly shouldn’t have read all that misogynistic bunkum!

“Yeah, that would be great!” Oh look, Milly almost didn’t sound like she’s choking on a cracker! “Should we have lunch again?” Woman up, Emilia! “Or dinner?”

“Either is good,” he answers quickly.

He definitely rushed. That’s a good sign, right? Bollocks, is there any point in any sort of a relationship where this poxy overanalysing stops? Because Emilia would really like her noggin to just shut it!

“I’ve already had lunch, so maybe dinner?” he says, and she literally – OK, figuratively – catches the moment when he hears what he’s just said.

He makes that low rumbly noise in his throat that sounds like he’s impersonating an epilator. Alright, let’s be honest here, that’s not the small device you thought of, when he hummed like that in front of you last time, Milly.

“You didn’t mean tonight,” he says and clears his throat.

“No, but I am available tonight!” Who’s rushing now?

Also, the authors of all those blog posts she’s just read would unanimously tell her right now that she’s just made the worst possible faux pas while ringing up a bloke and trying to initiate a meet-up. Wasn’t she supposed to make sure he thought it was his idea?

“Yeah?” he asks.

There’s a warm, vulnerable note in his tone, and Emilia decides blogs, posts, and YouTubers can just sod it.

“Yeah.”

“Right. I mean, ace. Should I make a reservation for seven?”

“Sure.”

Oh. My. God. How’s anyone supposed to get ready for dinner – in a restaurant, with a man, while being on Emilia’s level of chavness and inexperience – in four bloody hours?!

“Can I pick you up?” he asks.

Oh, that’s formal, innit? Damn Elena and her ideas. Also, Emilia needs to hide her Fassbender.

“Sure.” Bugger, bugger, bugger!

Emilia gives him her address. Some half-forgotten memories of her Aunt’s etiquette teachings – given, her Aunt didn’t exactly go to a finishing school – rise in Emilia’s panicking brain.

“What sort of restaurant are we going to?” she inquires carefully. “So it’s easier to choose what to wear, you see.”

There’s nothing easy about that, but that’s beside the point.

“Just wear whatever you want,” he dismisses. “We should go to one of mine.”

“Why?” she asks. “I’d assume you’re trying to save us the bill, but something tells me you aren’t particularly skint.”

Apparently, Emilia is feeling better, since her ever so incessant sarcasm is back. He laughs a soft laugh. Maybe he’s feeling better too.

“Because this way I know I’m not feeding you something shoddy,” he answers.

“Alright.” Emilia chuckles. “So, I can come in jimjams then, right?”

“As long as the bottoms are tight,” he murmurs.

Oh.

“I’ll see what I can do,” she rasps back.

They say their goodbyes, and Emilia sinks into her chair.

***

By the time her buzzer rings, she’s exhausted. She’d gone through her whole wardrobe, taken it out, tried seven outfits, put them all back, cleaned her flat, apologised to the Fassbender cut-out while stuffing him into the closet, then she took all her clothes out again, tried three more pairs of trousers, one dress, and two tops, hung everything back, panicked, took a shower, dried her hair, put on a dress, then took it off to change her knickers and bra because she remembered where she was going – and with whom – and then she made tea, and now she’s staring at her empty cup and at her lipstick she’s smeared on it, feeling like a berk because she forgot she was for once wearing makeup, and now it’s gone. She presses the button letting him in and moans. All of this is a torture, and she’s not sure why she’s putting herself through it!

He steps into her hall – and she remembers why she’s putting herself through it.

“Hi.”

He gives her a warm smile and looks her over. He’s once again wearing a three-piece suit, no tie. Emilia has run out of mental energy to question her choice of the loose, medium length dress in charcoal colour. It’s not even a choice, to be honest. All her formal clothes are these flour bags of different shades of boring.

“Hi,” she answers – and can’t help but peek at his hands.

They’re empty. Damn Elena again. She just had to plant the daft ‘flowers mean a date’ idea into Emilia’s highly susceptible brain. Meanwhile, he glances over her head.

“There’s absolutely nothing remarkable about my flat,” she states, and he looks down at her. “I can give you a tour, if you want,” she jokes. “It’ll take approximately twenty seconds.”

He grins. “Yes, please, I’d love a tour.”

That’s unexpected. Emilia shrugs and leads the way. They stick their heads into the kitchen – she sees his eyes run over her stove, her fridge, and her dishwasher with professional interest. She’s sure he didn’t see anything worth a second glance. She shows him her small lounge with its IKEA furniture: her writing desk, numerous bookshelves, her sofa with copious amounts of cushions, plus her many, many plants, and her new telly she’s so proud of, which is probably half the size of his. That is, if he’s got one. Emilia heard that posh and/or successful people don’t partake in telly watching. She skips the bathroom and the loo – and pushes the door to her bedroom open.

“And here’s–” Nothing clever comes to her mind. “My bedroom.”

He once again leans in, leaving his lower half out of the room, but far enough to see every corner. He’s almost brushed his upper arm to her shoulder, and now she’s reminded how nice he smells. He turns his head left and right, and then glimpses at Emilia from the corner of his eye.

“I’d say this isn’t a bedroom,” he draws out. “You just sleep in a library.”

“I’m a writer,” she grumbles. “I love books.” She points at one of the selves. “Those are mine.”

Why did you tell him, you moron? He didn’t even know your surname before! Now he’ll know what sort of vanilla tosh you write.

“Oh.” His eyebrows jump up. “May I?” he asks and stretches his hand towards the shelf, without stepping in, though.

“Sure,” Emilia says, not feeling sure at all.

He walks into the room – A man has just entered Emilia Arudnel’s bedroom! The mind boggles! – and taps his long index finger on the head of her third novel Engaging the Marquess, pulls, and flips the book to read the description on the back cover. Oh no, not this one! Actually, none of them! His eyes run the lines, and Emilia grits her teeth.

“Eva said you were popular,” he says without lifting his eyes. “Do you write these because you like it, or because they sell?”

Emilia gawks on the the silky, glossy, coffee coloured waves on top of his head.

“This is a surprisingly deep philosophical question for–”

She bites her tongue before the words ‘a first date’ slip out. She can’t know if it’s a date – and even if it is, does it count as the first one if he’s already gotten her off once?

He’s now studying her, and she realises he’s expecting an actual answer to his question. Has the man heard of smalltalk?

“I like it,” she answers, too flabbergasted to weasel out of this conversation. “And they didn’t always sell. But even before, when very few people read them, my readers used to write to me and say that my books brought them joy. So I keep writing them.” This didn’t sound too cool, did it? He’s listening attentively, without interrupting, but it’s still uncomfortable. If he were a woman – an understanding, compassionate, unprejudiced woman – she wouldn’t have to explain. “And it’s fun,” she adds. Keep digging this grave for yourself, Milly. “I get to live through all these experiences my characters have. That’s why I started seeing Eva, you see. Because I didn’t have– well, that sort of experience.”

“Right.” He opens the book at a random page and lowers his eyes to the text. “So, am I in danger of having my cock described in your next book?”

She doesn’t fail to note his word choice. ‘In danger.’

“No!” Emilia exclaims. “Of course not! That would be so unethical! But up until a week agoI didn’t know what a beard burn on one’s arse feels like! And I need to be able to describe it properly, if I decide to put it in!”

A pause hangs in the room – and then he slowly meets her eyes.

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