ROMANCE TEST || CHAPTER 8. SWEET AND FLAVOURFUL

Emilia flees to the loo, planning to then move to the washroom to hyperventilate and avoid mirrors. It turns out all his facilities are just one large room, all chrome and white and black, square tiles on the walls and floor, as if to reinforce the whole Alice in Wonderland vibe Emilia is currently struggling with. ‘When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!’

Everything around her is pristine and soulless, just as the hall and the drawing room she’s caught a small glimpse of. If his bedroom is the same, she won’t make it across the threshold, that’s for sure. Maybe he’s not planning to invite you to his bedroom, Milly. You know nothing about casual sex. By just standing here, panting and sweating, you’re probably breaking at least three rules of the hook-up protocol.

Emilia washes her hands and finally dares one look at herself in the mirror. Her hair stands around her head in its usual semblance to a labradoodle’s fur; her lipstick has long been digested in her stomach; there’s a bit of mascara under her eyes. Emilia cleans it up, remembers that she’d left her bag in his hall, together with her pathetically empty make-up bag, and with a forceful exhale, like before jumping into a pool, she steps out of the bathroom and looks around.

There’s a door at the end of the hall, which she assumes leads to his bedroom. The drawing room and a small library slash study have an open design, with a dining area divided from the rest of the room with a sort of a tall bench, pieces of modern art and plants arranged on it. The flat must cost a fortune: it’s shockingly spacious, and the ceilings are tall – but once again, nothing here bears any sort of a personal touch, except for the cookbooks filling the shelves. Some are dedicated to culinary art and history. There are biographies, and she assumes all of these people must have either invented a liqueur, or figured out a new way of cooking parsnips as a side gig to wars, politics, and assassination.

“Daniel?” she calls.

He appears in a door frame on the other end of the room and gives her a wave.

“This way,” he says. “I’m making us pudding.”

“I don’t think I can eat anything else,” she says and heads his way. “After all the pasta we’ve had for lunch, I don’t–”

She doesn’t finish her sentence and freezes with her mouth half-open. She takes it back, there is a place in his flat that is definitely ‘him.’ The kitchen is massive; three of its walls and the island in the middle are all working surfaces; and every possible pot and pan one can imagine is arranged on shelves or simply hanging on the wall like in the film about Julia Child. Everything is neat, elegant, and well-organised, but clearly often used. Just by looking at his counter Emilia can tell that he likes pears, prefers big knives, uses fresh herbs in his cooking, which he grows in mismatching but still somehow stylish pots.

The fourth wall, from the floor to the ceiling is one large unit of cabinets with glass doors. On narrow shelves, Emilia sees, possibly, more than a hundred pieces of vintage or antique dishware. Plates and saucers on neat little stands, cups, milk jugs, sugar bowls, tea pots, glasses, goblets, baking dishes, gravy boats, and occasional bone china figurines – all arranged in perfect rows, according to some unknown to Emilia system, but clearly looked after and loved.

“Wow,” she exhales.

She looks at him in astonishment, and he gives her a small smile.

“Like I said, cooking is a hobby as well.” He steps to a fridge and opens one of its four doors. “I’m having tiramisu. Care to join me?”

The cheeky glance he throws her over his shoulder tells her he knows her answer. Emilia climbs on a tall stool near the island. She might ask for a mountaineering rope next time, and he’ll need to pull her up.

“How do you feed short people here?” she grumbles.

Her feet, of course, don’t reach the stretcher of his posh chair, and Emilia wiggles and shimmies, trying to force the seat to swivel so she can face the counter.

“I don’t normally have guests in my flat,” he says.

He places a large glass dish with tiramisu in the middle of the island, and on his way to the stove, he nonchalantly turns her chair by its back. He’s taken off his jacket and waistcoat, and suddenly Emilia wonders what it would feel like to run her hands over his upper arms. The sleeves of his white button-up, which is fashionably tailored to hug his upper half, are rather tight on his biceps. It takes her an enormous effort to focus on his question.

“Pardon?” she chokes out.

“Would you like tea or coffee with your pudding?” he repeats.

“Tea, please,” she says. “I assume, you wouldn’t have anything but the best espresso, and I don’t sleep if I have too much coffee after one.”

He nods and pulls a tin out of one of the cabinets. “Darjeeling?” he asks, and Emilia snorts.

“I don’t think I’d be able to tell the difference,” she says. “Not everyone’s a foodie like you.”

She suddenly realises how liberating it is to simply admit one’s ignorance, as opposed to putting on an act and then worrying about being found out.

“I love tea,” he says. He shakes his head with another soft laugh and starts a kettle. “I know very little about coffee, but I’m picky about my tea.”

“When you say ‘little,’ do you mean that you only know what you need for work?” Emilia draws out, eyeing the wonderful little hills, dusted with cocoa, on their dessert. “Because that would still be lashings more than any ordinary person.”

“I am an ordinary person,” he says and then steps to the other side of the counter.

There’s a rather large spoon in his hand outstretched to Emilia.

“Are we eating it out of the dish?” she asks and takes the spoon.

“If you’re OK with it,” he says and sits down across from her. He has an identical spoon in his hand. “I need to test something.”

Emilia has already stuffed a spoonful of tiramisu in her mouth, and she freezes, staring at him. She swallows what seems to be the best tiramisu she’s had in her life, and clears her throat.

“Are you testing a new recipe on me?” she asks.

“Not exactly,” he answers and sends a generous scoop of the pudding in his mouth.

“A new drug?”

There’s still a chance he’s everything a modern woman should be afraid of in a stranger – except, Emilia has been obsessed with him since the crêpes incident, and has done proper stalking, including phoning a school acquaintance, who’s now a copper, and John Holyoake, her publisher, who knows everyone who’s everyone. She now knows that Oates isn’t and has never been married, nor has he ever been charged with anything scary. Mistress Eva also vouches for him, although the confidentiality agreement obviously wouldn’t allow her to disclose any of his personal – read, sex related – information. There was a small moment in Emilia’s conversation with the dominatrix about him that left a ‘funny’ feeling – but if anything, the sex therapist seemed to be more amused and sort of snickering rather than hiding some dark secret about the man.

He looks up, swallows the pudding, and licks his lips.

“I don’t do drugs.” He scoops more tiramisu. “Do you?”

There’s something in how he asks it that confirms this interesting observation she made about him some time ago: what he says seems to actually be what he thinks, and vice versa. He’s open and direct, but there’s more to it. He’s oddly… literal.

“No, I don’t. Just a bit too much to drink sometimes, I think. But I’m keeping an eye on it,” she says. “I have a family history of addiction.”

They eat two more spoonfuls of the delicious dessert, and the kettle whistles on his stove. He gets up to make their pot. When he puts a cup on a saucer in front of her, Emilia is momentarily distracted from gobbling up the tiramisu by the epitome of style that is her brew vessel.

“This is gorgeous!”

A wide smile decorates his face. “It’s the Wedgwood Renaissance. Like I said, I’m picky about my tea.”

Emilia picks up her cup by its dainty but comfortable handle, takes a sip, and squints in bliss.

“So good,” she murmurs and hums, savouring the aroma. After putting it down, she runs her finger on the side of the cup, admiring the navy blue and golden pattern. “So beautiful! Drinking tea from some silly mug won’t cut it now. It really does make a difference when one’s intentional about their eating.”

He puts his spoon down, wipes his mouth with a napkin, and asks, “May I kiss you?”

Emilia has just placed another generous portion of tiramisu in her mouth, and she gawks at him.

“Sorry, I should’ve let you swallow first,” he says with a chuckle, and then adds after a pause, “No innuendos intended.”

Pushing the dessert down her throat proves rather difficult, as if it were wood chips mixed with glue, and then Emilia finally manages to open her mouth and say in a small voice, “You may.”

He’s been calmly drinking his tea this whole time. He lowers his cup, gets off his chair, and walks around the counter. Emilia’s holding her breath.

He stops in front of her and looks her over, tilting his head slightly. Emilia’s starting to shake. He once again chuckles at some unknown thoughts of his, and then cups her face with both his hands. He’s very close, but her knees aren’t touching him. She suddenly realises she would like to eliminate this distance between them.

To kiss her, as high as the chairs are, he still needs to bend down, and a second before his lips touch hers, she notices how sexy this movement is: his shoulders rise, and he slowly and purposefully leans in. The whiskers of his moustache brush at her upper lip, and Emilia closes her eyes.

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