ROMANCE TEST || CHAPTER 2. FIRST STEP

Emilia isn’t at all sure how she managed to gather enough courage to even dial the number Olivia gave her – or how she squeezed a few words out, without dying of suffocating embarrassment. The rest was the doing of the one called Eva. She listened to Emilia’s tangled and half-coherent explanation of why she was ringing Eva up, and then in a soft, but confident voice she somehow arranged a private meeting with Emilia, took Emilia’s contact information, and promised to send her an invitation and the address, leaving Emilia somewhat shell-shocked and preoccupied with a burning question: ‘What, in the name of sanity, do people wear to a meeting with a dominatrix?!’

Three days later Emilia climbs out of a cab and stares at an inconspicuous door with a modest sign that says ‘The Top’ on the ground floor of one of the oldest buildings in Soho. Emilia has zero experience with clubs, to say nothing of ‘dungeons,’ which is what locations of this sort of activities are called, according to Emilia’s google research. There are no doorbells, nor an imposing bouncer, nor a butler or a valet. Emilia shifts her weight from one foot to another, her right hand nervously clenched around a fistful of the skirt of her black cocktail dress, on her hip.

Rabbit, run? her inner voice offers an increasingly more attractive option, when the door opens, and a pleasant looking middle-aged gentleman in a grey suit steps out.

“Miss Green?” he asks, and steps aside, inviting her to enter with a wide hospitable wave of his hand.

There goes nothing… And then, suddenly but quite predictably, there goes the rest of Emilia’s courage.

“You know– I think, I’m just–” she mumbles, backing away from the man. Since she’s also trying to edge away from the door, she’s sort of moving diagonally, like a drunk crab. “I’m not feeling that well, I have to admit, and I just–”

Her back slams into a passerby, and she freezes mortified. The man in the door frame gives her a sympathetic look, and she wonders if this isn’t the first time he sees someone bricking it at the last moment.

“Coming in, love?” a jolly voice behind her asks, and she whips her head and stares at the man whom she’s just rammed into.

Oh, that’s a big man. As in, really, really big. He isn’t big in the way she is, since she might be globular but she’s properly vertically challenged. He’s massive! When she ‘crabbed’ away from the terrifying doorway, the back of her head met with his upper abdomen. He’s wide and definitely muscular under his three-piece suit, his perfectly starched white shirt, and that black cashmere coat of his.

What are you doing here, Milly? Look at the bloke! He belongs here! You? Not so much.

“I’m– I’m undecided,” Emilia unintentionally quotes Bruce Banner.

The man smirks. See, that’s another proof that you shouldn’t have come here, Milly! With this lopsided, roguish grin, he looks like every male protagonist in her novels. Meaning, he can’t be real – or at least, he has no place in Emilia’s real life. He studies her face, and then nods.

“I hope you decide to go in,” he says. “It’s the crêpe day,” he says pointedly and heads inside.

Emilia is scared to think what that means. No, no, stop imagining all sorts of impossible scenarios involving crêpes and different parts of human anatomy! Oh, too late.

The doorman throws Emilia an inquisitive look, and she drops her head and follows the crêpe man, mostly encouraged by the thought that Olivia Dane wouldn’t have thrown Emilia to the wolves. Surely, she’ll have a chance to say ‘no’ to crêpes if they aren’t served to her on a plate, with suzette sauce, strictly to be consumed orally. Ahem, ‘orally.’ Stop it, Milly.

***

Inside, the club doesn’t look too daunting. She expected a Spanish Inquisition interrogation room vibe, but instead after the cloak check she’s invited to a large room with velvet sofas, armchairs, low coffee table, and modern art on the walls. A young woman dressed in an impeccable trouser suit approaches her with a welcoming smile.

“Evening, Miss Green,” she says, her voice coloured with an attractive Slavic accent. “Please, proceed to the bar. All drinks are on the house. Mistress Eva has a prior engagement in the next hour and will be available to you at any point afterwards, whenever you decide to request her presence.”

All Emilia manages is a jerky nod, and she rushes to the bar, grateful for clear instructions. She climbs on a tall bar stool, places her clutch on the counter in front of her – fighting a desperate urge to drop her forehead on it – and exhales slowly. A barman approaches her, and she’s immediately mortified by the idea of choosing a drink.

“May I suggest a glass of our best Valpolicella, miss?” the barman says softly.

Wow… This place is simply made for Emilia: no decisions are required from her. She’s starting to wonder if, maybe, being in a submissive role in a relationship – which she was so freaked out by, when she looked up the BDSM culture – isn’t such an outrageous idea.

Emilia takes a large gulp of the red wine the barman places in front of her and tries to calm down. So far, so good. She throws a discreet look at the reflection of the other guests, in a darkened mirror behind the bar. They all look surprisingly normal – the same crowd you’d see in any expensive restaurant. Men are in suits, women are wearing formal dresses. Quiet jazz music is murmuring, there are a few groups of people sitting and chatting and sipping their drinks. Emilia finishes her wine, and the barman pops up with the second one. As her first spazzo reaction is coming down, Emilia’s social anxiety is kicking in. How are you once again that one pathetic person drinking alone – even in a BDSM dungeon?!

“So, you made it in.”

The low male voice behind her is familiar. She turns her head and meets the piercing blue eyes of the man-mountain from before.

“Um, yeah,” Emilia says.

Her mind whirrs in panic. Why would he… be here? Here, as in next to Emilia. Talking to her. Smiling at her, on top of it. In a chummy manner.

A terrifying thought comes. Maybe he works here. Is there such a thing as a male hostess? Or male escort, her inner voice supplies to add to her mortification. He doesn’t look like one – but what does Emilia know about it?

“May I sit with you?” he asks politely.

Emilia can think of three answers on the spot: ‘Yes!’ ‘No!’ and ‘Why?!’ All that comes out of her mouth is a pathetic ‘um.’

“I’m Daniel Oates,” he introduces himself.

“Oakes?” she repeats since she doesn’t have the foggiest what else to say.

“Oates. Like porridge. With an ‘e’ after ‘t,’” he said and smiles wider.

“Oh,” Emilia answers. “Wait, as in Daniel Oates, the restaurant owner? I’ve seen your interview on telly!”

So, not a male escort, her brain rejoices. Let’s face it, she’s not ready to deal with the questions of an elite sex club etiquette – and then she immediately thinks that him not being a staff member here still isn’t out of the question. Maybe he works here part-time. Also, none of it answers the riddle of him standing near her and asking to join her.

An idea comes.

“Is this your first time here too?” she asks hopefully.

Because that would explain so much. Say, he is, and he’s unsure how to proceed. So, he approaches the only person who looks out of place here: a frumpy overweight bird who’s desperately clinging to a glass of an excellent red.

Blimey, the man’s lush! An amicable half-smile on his lips, his relaxed posture, and his overall sizzling level of hotness? All that is so going into Emilia’s next book!

“No, I come here all the time,” he says.

Oh.

“For the food,” he adds, and Emilia stares at him in shock.

“But– but it’s a sex club,” she hisses, trying to keep her voice down. “Oh wait, do you mean– is this some sort of a kink? With food and– Like the crêpes you mentioned. Oh goodness, I can’t even imagine what happens to those crêpes! And again, wasting perfectly good food just seems so daft. I mean, no judgement on anyone’s–”

He bursts into loud, robust laughter, squinting, all his even white teeth on display. If he was a picture on Pinterest or a photograph in a magazine, or if she saw him on telly again, she’d swoon and whisper, ‘What a specimen!’ – because, let’s be honest here, he’s so attractive, a person of appropriate sexuality can’t help but drool a bit. Thankfully, Emilia is so stressed, she has no mental energy left to get flustered and act like a blithering idiot, as she always does around men.

“What is your name?” he asks, once he stops guffawing.

“Milly. Emilia. Emily.” Emilia groans. “You choose.”

“Emilia sounds lovely,” he says. “So?”

“So what?” she asks, confused.

“May I sit with you?”

“Yeah, I guess,” she says, and then she can’t help it anymore. “Why?”

He gives her an amused look, unbuttons his jacket, and sits down on the next bar stool.

“Why what?”

He beckons the barman, and a glass of some amber coloured liquid appears in front of him. He picks it up, cupping the bowl of the glass, its leg held between his index and middle fingers. He swirls the liquid inside, but doesn’t take a sip. It must be some posh and expensive way of drinking something posh and expensive. Emilia suddenly feels cold, sad, and even more insecure than usual. She’s getting hungry – and it aggravates her anxiety and her sense of complete and utter inadequacy.

“Why do you come here all the time?” Emilia evades. “What’s so great about the food here?”

“They have a brilliant patisserie chef,” he says. “The pudding is exquisite. The main courses are obviously really good too, but if you aren’t particularly hungry, just have some dessert.” His lips twitch in a suppressed mischievous smile. “Today it’s crêpes.”

Emilia gives him a fake exasperated look, and he chuckles. Look at you, you’re actually talking to him! Maybe, the fact he’s so bloody sexy, and handsome, and confident, and well-dressed – how is he even real?! – is a good thing, innit, Milly? Because it’s like he’s not even a human male. There’s no tension because there’s no chance of anything, even you having a crush on him, because that would be like having a crush on Tom Hiddleston – abstract and sort of decaf.

“I love crêpes,” Emilia mutters, lost in thought.

“Let’s go eat then,” he says. “Unless you have an appointment, of course.”

There’s a clear doubt in his voice – and suddenly Emilia feels marginally offended. In any other situation she wouldn’t even argue if anyone questioned her badarsery, but she has been feeling abnormally free with him – and enjoying their banter!

“I do,” she says, as nonchalantly as she can. “I have a session with Mistress Eva, but it’s in an hour. So, I think I’ll have crêpes first.”

He gives her a look, the meaning of which she doesn’t understand, lifting his right eyebrow, and then he nods and gets up. Unlike her, he just needs to put his foot down on the floor. Emilia will have to leap as if she’s diving off a jump deck.

“Do you need help?” he asks.

Well, alright, whatever she tells herself of his Tom Hiddleston level of attractiveness and unreachability… She is affected. For a second, she’s wondering if it’s a good idea to have any sort of physical contact with him – but then she nods. After all, it’s just one touch, right?

He opens his left palm in front of her. He has massive, long-fingered hands, with short elongated nails and a strong square palm. She did want to work on her erotic writing. This image alone will up her game. She stretches her hand to his, and then her bottom starts sliding off the rounded top of the stool – and suddenly he has to support her under her elbow.

The problem is that Emilia is left-handed. On instinct, her dominant hand flies up – and it’s now pressed into his chest. She can feel his hard, warm body under her palm, the smell of his cologne fills her nose, and – just as she described in so many of her books – her head spins. It’s supposed to be a rubbish, unrealistic cliché – and yet, it isn’t. She slowly lifts her eyes and sees that he’s looking down at her intently.

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