ROMANCE TEST || CHAPTER 3. SUGAR AND SPICE

Emilia blinks, and the spell’s broken. There was no spell, Milly, her inner voice dismisses. You probably have that red mark above your upper lip that wine makes when you drink too greedily. That’s why he was looking at your mouth.

He helps her down off the chair and turns away. Emilia quickly brushed her thumb and then her index finger over her lips in case of a wine moustache.

“The restaurant’s this way,” he says and steps aside, letting her pass.

Emilia minces through the door he pointed at – and then she stops in her tracks. The restaurant is dimly lit by small candles on black tablecloths – and it’s empty.

“Where’s everyone?” Emilia blurts out.

“Having sex, I assume,” he answers, suddenly rather close to her ear, and she jumps up. He gives out a low chuckle. “They don’t know what they’re missing.”

Emilia huffs and throws him a sarcastic look over her shoulder.

“I’ll take crêpes over–” she blurts out and quickly bites her tongue. Better not to look over your shoulder to see his face right now, innit, Milly?

A waiter pops up out of a dark corner, and they are cordially invited to take a table by the fireplace. Instead of the usual uncomfortable restaurant chairs, Emilia’s bottom sinks into a soft velvet armchair, and she picks up a cloth napkin and places it on her lap. She’s starving – aren’t you always, Milly? – and she looks around in search of a menu.

“Should we go straight for crêpes, or would you like something else first?” the man in front of her asks. “There’s no menu. They’ll cook anything you want.”

Emilia throws a shocked look, first, at her unexpected meal companion, and then at the waiter, hovering nearby. The latter gives her a polite smile and nods. Normally, when ordering dessert, Emilia feels that it just draws attention to her weight – but on the other hand, that’s why she’s here, isn’t she? She’s here to eat crêpes with the man-mountain.

“I’ll have the crêpes right away,” she says decisively.

Oates asks for the same, and then suggests they have Chardonnay with their pudding. Emilia has no idea how to pair wines, while the man owes a chain of posh, over-priced restaurants, so she just agrees, and the waiter disappears. Their glasses are brought over just a few seconds later, and Emilia takes a large gulp.

“So, you’d rather eat crêpes than have sex,” Oates draws out, taking a sip of his drink, and Emilia chokes on her white. “And yet, you’re in a sex club,” he points out.

“And you’re in a sex club, and yet, you’re having crêpes with the only unattractive woman here,” Emilia says and salutes him with her Chardonnay. “I feel like your weird beats my weird.”

He rolls his wine in his mouth, swallows – the way his throat moves is basically porn – and narrows his eyes at her.

“Maybe I don’t find you unattractive,” he says, and Emilia snorts into her glass.

“Su-u-ure.” She shakes her head. “Wouldn’t that be a wonderful parallel universe?”

Emilia throws a sad look at her empty glass. She has high alcohol tolerance, she normally needs at least four drinks to start feeling more at ease, but she doesn’t want to appear an alcoholic. Oates gives a small wave to the waiter, and another glass materialises in front of Emilia. Emilia gives them both a grateful smile and takes a sip.

“Why would that be a parallel universe?” Oates asks. “It’s utterly possible in this universe as well.”

Emilia opens her mouth to deem his statement absurd – when she realises he’s being serious. She studies his face for a few seconds, he’s calmly enjoying his wine, meeting her gaze openly – and then a thought comes.

“Is it– I suppose, if one has the f–” She clears her throat. Oh, the dreaded F word. “A fat kink?” she asks tentatively. “Is there such a thing as a fat kink? I mean, I know it exists in porn, but–”

His thick, black eyebrows jump up.

“I write romance,” Emilia announces. Nothing to lose here, after all. “It’s very… vanilla. That’s the term, isn’t it? For non-kink sex.”

She gives him a questioning look, but he seems to wait for her to continue. This evening is full of surprises! Emilia is talking to a male! About sex! And he’s listening! This is a parallel universe!

“Actually, it’s not even vanilla,” Emilia adds. “It’s ‘fade to black.’ Are you familiar with the expression?” Oates nods, and Emilia sighs. “But I try to do my research, watching porn, and–” She trails away and shrugs. 

She properly wants to down her glass, but she’d lived with a drunkard, she knows how it could look from outside.

“Is that why you’re here?” he asks. “For research?”

Emilia gives out a joyless laugh. “Isn’t it obvious? I clearly don’t fit the environment.”

She shrugs again and finishes her wine. Might as well. She’ll never see the man again after tonight, she reminds herself. That’s her usual coping mechanism: when she feels particularly ashamed of herself, she tells herself that people will forget their disgust – and all of her distasteful self – as soon as she’s out of sight.

“I can’t say I’ve done any research,” he says slowly, puts down an empty glass, and beckons the waiter. The second Chardonnay is placed in front of him, and Emilia watches his long fingers pick up the glass leg. “But I find that you can’t tell whether the person is part of the kink culture by just looking at them. For all I know, you could be an experienced dom.”

Emilia doesn’t know what to answer to this, but she’s saved by the arrival of their dessert. Does it count as dessert if that’s all they’re eating?

“Lemon vodka drizzle, fresh berries, and matcha mousse,” Oates announces.

“You sound very proud of it,” she says teasingly, distracted by keeping her drooling under control. The food looks brilliant! “It’s not like you cooked them yourself.”

The first forkful of the pudding melts in her mouth, and she squints in pleasure. Again, nothing is normal this evening! Emilia strives to eat in front of others as rarely as possible – and she especially hates showing that she’s enjoying her food. And here she is, as much as purring. She picks up a raspberry, sends it in her mouth, and makes a little satisfied noise.

“I’m just happy to share the joy,” Oates says.

Emilia discreetly checks: his forkfuls are much larger than hers, and unlike her, he doesn’t try to hide his enthusiasm.

Since Emilia uses films and BBC mini-series as visual references for her writing, the imagery of male physique in her books is somewhat bland. Her male protagonists tend to be tall, lanky, and sort of intangible. Thankfully, her aforementioned ‘fade to black’ technique allows her to avoid describing their physicality – potential body hair; the tactile perception of their bodies, outside of a couple of deep, passionate kisses; any smells; or – Heaven forbid – any sort of taste.

The man in front of her has a – bloody sexy – line of mouth, as if always curled up in a small smile. Emilia has never previously considered the pattern of a beard and a moustache growth, and she has to purposefully drop her eyes to her plate not to stare at the coarse black whiskers hiding his upper lip. A bit of matcha powder landed on the left corner.

She cupped his jaw, the whiskers of his beard scraping at the sensitive skin of her palm, and she brushed her thumb along his moustache, following its natural curling up line.

Emilia freezes with her fork a few inches away from her lips. What was that?! This surely wasn’t your typical bland and asexual narrative by Emily R. Green! And although she doesn’t have the foggiest what it’s like to ‘brush her thumb along a man’s moustache’ – she’s just felt it! Her thumb and her palm are tingling! Emilia slowly puts down her fork and stares at her hand.

“Is everything alright?” Oates asks, and Emilia jolts.

He’s finished his food, and he wipes his mouth with his napkin. Goodbye, you little blot of inspiring matcha powder!

“Yes, yes, it’s all good,” Emilia rasps, grabs her fork, and quickly shoves a piece of a crêpe in her mouth.

Oates gives her an inquisitive look, beckons their waiter again, and orders coffee and mignardises. Emilia’s empty plate is taken away. She notes that the waiter didn’t ask whether she was joining Oates for pudding after their pudding. In cafés and restaurants, she’s asked more often than not. People naturally assume she will have dessert – and she always refuses. She shortly wonders if she’s meant to share the dessert with him, but only one tiny coffee cup and one plate of adorable little pastries are placed on their table.

“I strongly advise you to order the same,” Oates says, popping a microscopic eclair in his mouth.

Oh whatever! Emilia internally barks at Kate, her negative inner voice, and gingerly waves towards their waiter’s supposed location. The man steps out of the shadows, nods, and quickly vanishes in the direction of the kitchen. Emilia looks around in search of a clock. She’s not wearing a watch, and pulling out her phone from her clutch seems like a terrible faux pas, as non-conformist as her current situation is. Oates hums questioningly.

“I came here an hour too early,” Emilia says with an embarrassed laugh. Her dessert arrives, and she picks up a pixie sized meringue of an attractive mauve colour. “I always come too early when I’m nervous.”

Oates chokes on a tiny truffle. Emilia chews her treat and asks, “What?”

The man shakes his head and chuckles. “Am I gathering it right, you’re here for purely theoretical research?” he asks and gives her a warm look over.

Emilia once again wonders if there’s something on her face. Maybe some powdered sugar on her upper lip where his gaze lingers?

“I don’t think I’ll muster enough courage for anything beyond just asking embarrassed questions and feeling mortified by the answers I’ll be given,” Emilia says, giggling, and tastes her coffee. “Oh my god, this is so good!”

The man smirks and drinks his espresso in one sip.

“Well, then I have two offers for you,” he says and gestures – first, drawing a small horizontal circle in the air with his index finger, and then lifting two fingers, as if flipping a bird – to their waiter. “Have one more drink with me, to complete our lovely meal. It’s a bit adventurous, but I hope you enjoy it.”

Emilia shrugs, licks a small dollop of custard off her finger, and says, “Might as well.”

Seems like the slogan of the evening, innit, Milly?

The ‘adventurous drink’ is thick, bright red, exceptionally sweet – and it bursts in Emilia’s mouth in the flavours of anise flowers, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, jasmine, mace, nutmeg, orange, vanilla, and rose water.

“Oh dear,” she exhales – and tips the wee goblet-like glass to get the last few drops. “What is this?!”

“Alchermes.” Oates licks his bottom lip. “Usually used in desserts, but I enjoy it as is. Allegedly, it was the secret recipe of the Medici family, and Pope Clemente VII considered it so beneficial for one’s health that he called it ‘the elixir of long life.’”

Emilia giggles. “It surely is very elixir-like. Like something from a fantasy novel, or a fairy-tale. An adult fairy-tale,” she amends, and he barks a throaty laugh.

Emilia feels her cheeks heat up. Apparently, all the alcohol she’s consumed – or the man relaxing in the armchair across the table from her – has finally breached her defences. Lord give her strength, how is he so very lush?!

“It used to be coloured with kermes insects, parasites feeding on Mediterranean oak, but they don’t do that anymore,” he mutters, twirling his glass in his hand.

Why does it look like he’s stalling?

“I’d have it with insects too,” Emilia dismisses roguishly. “So, what’s your second offer?”

It seems he needs a moment to ponder it – Emilia’s feeling too good to be at all bothered by this somewhat tense pause – and then he pulls a slim elegant wallet out of the inner pocket of his jacket and takes out a card.

“If you ever decide to do some practical research for your writing,” he says, “could you, please, give me a ring? I would really like you to.”

Emilia’s breathing catches from the low rumble in his earnest, husky voice – which is how she’d describe it in her book without ever hearing this in reality before. The reality doesn’t disappoint! Oh dear.

Their eyes are locked, and he gives her a half-smile, his lips pursed.

“Obviously, if I am to your liking,” he adds.

Emilia slowly picks up his card off the black tablecloth and puts it in her clutch without looking – and at that moment, the same young woman from the lobby approaches their table.

“Pardon me, Ms. Green.” She gives them both a polite, apologetic smile. “Mistress Eva is ready for you.”

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