ROMANCE TEST || CHAPTER 7. UP OR DOWN?

Emilia asks herself, why exactly the idea of a dinner with him makes her so uncomfortable – and the answer is that a dinner isn’t just a dinner. A dinner is a prelude.

There are many reasons for someone as inept as her to be having kittens at the thought of ending up between sheets with someone like Daniel Oates – but she can pinpoint what her main fear is, right away. It’s all about shame. He was right when he said that most people aren’t up to a standard of beauty. The barney lies in the degree of one’s deviation from said standard. If Emilia had a nose just a tad too long, or could lose – or even gain – a kilo or so to feel a bit better about her body, it would be quite a different situation. She isn’t terrifyingly grotesquely ugly either, which would make her at least memorable and could even give her an identity. Emilia is invisible. In the society where people are judged by their appearance, Emilia is perpetually disregarded and ignored – and promptly put in her place when she tries to act in any way other than as a supporting character in someone else’s story. At school and uni, she was approached as a ‘fat friend’ to gain access to her conventionally pretty mates of both sexes. The two times in her life when she’s gotten a wrong impression and thought otherwise, she felt such shame when finally enlightened of her deep insignificance that she swore to herself she’d never end up in a situation like that again.

There is simply nothing special about her. She always makes sure to rein her need to make her characters stand out in the crowd. She gives them an interesting trait or two, but refrains from overloading them with charming quirks, distinct features that simply take another person’s breath away, or some sort of enthralling irregularities in speech and behaviour. This is her way of taking care of her readers. She knows only too well how it feels to compare one’s pathetic, mediocre self to someone dazzling and unique, and feel the immeasurable, overwhelming, soul-crushing shame.

They’ll end up in bed, she’ll make an idiot out of herself – and the shame will simply kill her.

“Emilia?” Oates asks softly, and she’s startled out of her depressing thoughts.

“It’s not that I’m inexperienced,” she mutters. “I am, but– but whatever measly experience I have, has mostly been quite– unpleasant. Not for me, but– for the other person.”

“You’ve only had dinner with one person before,” he repeats, and a small smile grazes his lips.

“Figuratively speaking,” Emilia grumbles.

Oates chuckles and shakes his head slightly. “And they didn’t enjoy your dinners.”

There’s a gentle questioning intonation in his low velvet voice, and Emilia has just enough courage left to nod. Now he knows. Will he change his mind now?

“Then it was their fault,” he announces – without a shadow of a doubt in his tone! – and Emilia’s jaw drops.

“What?!”

“They– He? Was it a he?” he asks, and Emilia gives him another stunned nod. “If he didn’t enjoy it,” Oates says, “he clearly wasn’t making enough effort to make it pleasurable for you. It’s only good if both people are having fun.”

“But– Wait– What?” Emilia mutters.

She’s so confused right now! And it seems to her that there’s some sort of a flaw in his logic – or maybe not? She needs to think about it, in peace and quiet, preferably without his fit self distracting her.

She has to give it to him, Daniel Oates doesn’t pressure or obtrude in any shape or form. He’s just picked up his fork again and is finishing their pasta.

“What are you doing after lunch?” Emilia asks, and his jaw stops moving.

You see, that’s what just happened: Emilia has considered his words, and thousands of possibilities of what they could mean, and the conclusions she could make, and the ways their interactions can go from here – and she simply couldn’t envision anything remotely nice. Whichever way they have dinner – actually have dinner – she’ll be mortified. Whatever she wears, wherever they go, whatever they talk about, all she would be able to think about is what happens next. There’s one chance in a million that it won’t end in a disaster, and Emilia would rather just rip this plaster in one excruciating movement.

“Nothing important,” he answers and puts down his fork. “Would you like me to ask for the bill?”

Emilia doesn’t have any ‘decision juice’ left to ponder what it is that she would like at the moment – and she nods.

***

They step out of the café, and he hails a cab.

“Where are we going?” Emilia asks – and then she’s momentarily overcome with terror.

Maybe, ‘they’ aren’t going anywhere. Maybe, he’s getting himself a cab to get away from her as far as possible as soon as possible.

“Where would you like to go?” he asks.

“Your place,” she blurts out.

There’s no way she’s inviting him over to her flat. There are so many things there that any male, whom she might ever consider ‘having dinner’ with, should never see. A life-size cardboard cutout of Fassbender’s Rochester is one of those things.

“Alright,” he agrees.

He opens the cab door for her, and she’s so focused on climbing in – tripping right now would just be too much – that she misses the address he gives to the driver. Isn’t one supposed to text a trusted friend to let them know the bloke’s address in case he’s a rapist and a murderer? If Emilia had known that she could end up in such a situation, she would’ve researched the modern hook-up protocol! Surely, there must be a protocol!

She’s so preoccupied with this question that their ride passes in silence. The cab stops, Oates gets out and opens the door for her. Her hand lies in his, and the realisation of what she’s doing suddenly dawns on her.

You’re in front of a man’s building, Milly! You’re going up to his place to shag!

Even her inner voice shuts its gob in disbelief.

“Emilia?” Oates calls her.

They’re standing on the pavement, he’s holding her hand. She’s so jittery, it takes her a second to remember his first name.

“You see, Daniel, I just–”

She chokes on her words, because she’s just accidentally interrupted his leaning. He was leaning to her lips! How’s this possible?! She gasps, and now he’s also frozen, staring at her.

Emilia looks at him. Half her mind is flooded with panic and the acute desire to jerk her hand back, turn around, and run – while the other half has just noticed the grey whiskers in his dark beard, and the crow’s feet near the corners of his eyes, and how stunning the cerulean of his irises is.

“Yes?” he asks.

“Nothing,” she squeaks. “I mean– Could I have your address, please?”

He gives her a confused look.

“I’ll text it to my friend in case you’re a serial killer,” she explains, and he straightens up and looks down at her.

The top of her head hardly reaches his sternum. He dictates his address, and then gives her an expectant look. She has no choice but to take out her mobile and text her friend Elena. With this bizarre chore out of the way, he picks up her hand again and marches to the front door of his posh building. The concierge greets them with a smile and hands Oates a small parcel; and here they are, riding his elevator in silence. She has only one thought: she’s eternally grateful to him for not offering her to change her mind, because she most definitely would. And then she’d regret it till the day she died! He opens the door to his flat, and she walks in.

“Oh wow,” Emilia exhales.

The hall of his posh, luxury flat is so bare and clean that Emilia’s rooted to the spot.

“Is this what they call minimalism?” she asks, and he carefully places the parcel on a narrow tall bench along the wall.

The only other object on it is a square white plate, where he puts his keys and his mobile. Emilia is a hundred times more uncomfortable now.

“I spend very little time here,” he says with a shrug. “When I bought the flat, I hired a designer. It’s just– I’m just used to it, I reckon.”

Emilia shifts her weight from one foot to another. Her ankle boots have just left muddy prints on his pristine tile floor – and now she’s definitely ready to run.

“Could I have your jacket?” he asks, and Emilia tightly squeezes the collar of her teddy bear coat around her neck.

“I’m starting to think it might have been a bad idea,” she blurts out.

He gives her another of his calm looks. Please, don’t offer to call me a cab! Please, don’t give me an out! she screams to him in her head.

“You can always leave,” he says and then gives her a shy smile. “But I’d really love you to stay.”

Emilia releases a shuddered breath – and decisively jerks her coat zipper down.

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