A month later…
Emilia steps into the empty lounge of the club, pushing her hand-written notes into her messenger bag. You’re so old-school, Milly, her inner voice scoffs. And by the way, I properly disagree with this new dress code you’ve adopted. Since when ‘dull and dowdy’ is an acceptable style in a sex club?
It’s one o’clock, and I’ve just had, basically, a therapy session, Emilia bites back. There has been crying and talking about my childhood trauma. I can wear whatever I want.
A velvet ‘pardon’ comes just a millisecond after she bumps into someone large and wide and hard – and she recognises the voice right away. Unlike the last time, she immediately feels flustered and shrinks away from him.
“I’m sorry,” he says earnestly. “I have spatial awareness issues. And I did try to avoid you.”
See, he’s been trying to avoid you too. She wasn’t avoiding him! It’s not like her making appointments with Mistress Eva in the first half of the day was solely because she was petrified by the thought of running into him. Yeah, sure. Emilia works from home and has a flexible schedule. She can see her sex therapist at any time of day. What is this smell? That’s Emilia’s pants smoldering.
“It’s alright,” she answers with an awkward laugh. “I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
She finally lifts her eyes. Oh god… How did she manage to forget how good-looking he was?! In the harsh light of day, without liquid courage sloshing in Emilia, and less distracted by the surroundings, she suddenly wonders if she’d imagined him giving her his card. Or maybe, he just meant something completely different by giving it to her?! Oh, wait, he did mention ‘practical research for her writing.’
He’s dressed in a three-piece suit again, no tie, the top two buttons of his crisp white shirt unbuttoned. Emilia catalogues the details for her writing. She probably shouldn’t make her next male protagonist a restaurant owner, though. Too much on the nose, really. Although, the chances of him reading it or even checking out the back cover of her novels are non-existent. He doesn’t even know her name.
“Are you here for lunch as well?” he asks.
“No, I had a session with Mistress Eva,” she answers, and he slowly raises his eyebrows. “We talk. For research purposes,” Emilia explains, feeling her ears starting to burn.
The pause stretches. Emilia’s mind thrashes in panic. He’s not leaving. Why isn’t he leaving?
“I’m glad you’re getting the support you were looking for,” he says. “Well, you have my card if you ever want to–” He clears his throat. “Have lunch, or… dinner.”
What?! ‘Lunch or dinner?!’ What happened to ‘practical research?!’
Emilia is 90% ready to bolt – but there’s a small part of her brain that’s dying of curiosity. Why? Just… why?! He can’t possibly be asking her out. That’s just not possible. She’s dressed in the softest baggiest top in her wardrobe; her favourite baggy tapered trousers, which are more comfortable than stylish; and what’s called a waterfall cardigan, which is supposed to drape in the front and distract public attention from her bosom, but it just looks – you guessed it! – baggy.
It must be a kink of sorts, she’s certain, and oddly enough, that is what makes her curious. Emilia is proud of herself, she’s been doing her homework, and even venturing in researching the areas she never thought she’d be brave to look into. So, what is it? Her weight? Her unattractiveness? Her inexperience? What tickles his pickle?
“I could eat now,” she says slowly, attentively watching his reaction.
His face lights up. Curiouser and curiouser.
“Excellent.” He has a properly toothy grin. Must be the contrast with his lovely beard.
“Except–” Emilia discreetly clenches her left hand in a fist behind her back. “If you don’t mind, I’d go somewhere else.”
Let’s be honest here, she’ll feel safer in a public place, with lots of people around – and nothing remotely related to what bees, birds, and educated fleas do. She’s just written five scenarios of it all going pear-shaped in bizarre and unpleasant ways, in her head – and in a café someone’s bound to call the police if scenario number three or five take place.
“Absolutely,” he agrees readily. “There’s an ace Italian bistro across the street. I know the chef. You’ll have to try their busiate with courgette and pistachios.”
He waits for Emilia to pick up her coat and stretches his hand to her, offering his help. It’s something from a film – and Emilia isn’t ready for it. Her first urge is to press the coat to her chest defensively. She bought it online, because she hates shopping in person, just as most people who don’t look like models – or like Daniel Oates. It’s warm, not too tight, and a bit too ‘young’ for her, since it’s from the M&S teddy collection. Meaning, Emilia indeed looks like a giant teddy bear in it. Or an elephant plushie. This is not a coat that one lets a distinguished gentleman slide onto their shoulders. The toggle buttons aren’t helping either, nor does the jolly salmon pink colour. Emilia awkwardly pushes her arms into the sleeves and mutters a thank-you. She should’ve listened to her Aunt and stick with the ‘inoffensive’ colours, such as beige and grey.
“Shall we?” he asks and opens the door for her.
Emilia sighs and steps out onto the pavement.
The bistro is small and charming, with its tiled floors, distressed wooden tables, and copper pendant lights. A waiter rushes to them, smiling widely, and they are immediately taken to a table in a secluded booth. Emilia always wonders what they mean in novels when they say that someone is given ‘the best table.’ There must be some sort of a ranking system, she reckons. Actually, the man sitting in front of her would know, but Emilia is too busy fighting her food related anxiety to ask.
“What do you normally have for lunch?” he asks, his eyes on the menu.
Oh, the richness of this question! Just as before and after each meal, when reading or thinking about food, or sometimes seemingly for no reason, Emilia internally laments how much easier our life would be if there wasn’t any of this emotional baggage attached to the question of something as essential as nutrition.
She goes for her usual, thoroughly constructed and rehearsed answer. “I normally just eat at home, over my keyboard,” she says, and waves her hand in the air as if dismissively. “I know it’s not good for you, but it’s so hard to tear myself away from work.”
He looks up at her. “But you won’t get any pleasure out of eating this way.” He clicks his tongue. “Food is supposed to be savoured. Enjoyed.”
“Well, I’ll enjoy it this time,” Emilia says with a nervous chuckle. “How about you order for both of us? It’s your field of expertise, after all. I’m not picky.”
He nods and goes back to the menu. When he focuses – and he’s properly focused – there’s a little crinkle between his eyebrows. When the waiter comes back, Oates orders wine for both of them and then proceeds to list dishes. It seems he’s ordering for a small party, since more and more names pour out of him – most of them unknown to Emilia – and then he completely switches to Italian. The waiter perks up, both of them are speaking louder and louder, discussing and nodding and confirming something to each other. After a few minutes, the waiter laughs, shakes his finger at Oates, and the two of them gaze at each other in adoration.
When the waiter finally leaves, chuffed to bits, Emilia gives Oates a disbelieving look over.
“You take it seriously, don’t you?” she asks and shakes her head.
“Food is a passion,” he says with a shrug. “And my job. And my hobby.”
Emilia is starting to feel better, and her snarkiness wakes up. They’re in a well-lit space, with several other couples and groups of people having lunch around them. All of them are probably wondering what a man like him is doing in the company of the likes of her. They obviously assume it’s a business meeting. Little do they know.
“That’s awfully one-track minded of you,” she blurts out. “You even go to a sex club for sweets. You need to diversify. Have you tried knitting?”
He laughs softly. “Can’t say I have.” His voice is coloured with warmth. “I’m not that boring. I do– other things.”
“Such as?” Emilia asks and sips the excellent red they were served.
“I work out,” he says, and Emilia snorts sarcastically.
“That’s not a hobby. That’s a poor life choice,” she says. You do remember you’re supposed to make him like you, right, Milly?
Oates barks a throaty laugh. “Alright, I surrender,” he says. “I’m a workaholic and have zero fun in my life. What do you do in your free time?”
“I’ve only started getting free time in the last few years,” Emilia answers, throwing a quick look towards the kitchen. She’s so hungry now! “Once my books started to sell, I could take some time off. So I’m trying new things.” She’s quite pleased with her life-work balance, if she’s being honest. “Painting, photography. I’m in a couple of book clubs, but that’s related to work, so that doesn’t count. I’m hoping to start travelling soon too.”
“I travel, so we can count it as a hobby for me,” he says in a fake defensive tone, his eyes twinkling.
Emilia has written it hundreds of times in her novels – but this is the first time she’s ever seen it with her own eyes. As if anyone can see with someone else’s eyes! Do you even deserve to be called a writer, Milly?
“Do you travel to learn new recipes, to try food, and to find new chefs?” she asks teasingly.
“Touché,” he says and smirks. “So, do you write under your real name? Emilia–” He trails away questioningly.
“My pen name is Emily R. Green,” she answers.
She already has the plot of the next novel taking shape in her mind. She definitely needs to change the details about the male protagonist now.
“And you said, it’s all very much vanilla,” he starts, but he’s interrupted by the arrival of their food.
Emilia looks over the feast quickly being arranged on their table. Oh dear.