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This story was originally submitted to the Valentine’s Day contest as a standalone story. A second chapter was unplanned, but then it happened anyway…. This first chapter can, however, still be read as a self-contained story and is unchanged from its original form. Thank you for reading.
Everyone engaged in any sexual activity is over the age of 18 years.
I’m standing with my hands thrust deep in the pile of cashmere jumpers, enjoying the feel and texture of them, but not really concentrating very successfully on the objective of choosing and buying one, when I become aware of someone standing next to me.
‘Sorry, am I in your way?’
I step back slightly, wondering how peculiar I was looking just then; a grown man clutching handfuls of overpriced women’s knitwear.
‘Not at all. I just wanted to reach for this colour here, if you don’t mind. They are such pretty colours, aren’t they?’
I swing my head to take in the source of this voice. A warm voice, with a touch of humour, and a lot of American to it. I suck my breath in. From this angle, it’s just the top of her head, a slim arm reaching out for the green jumpers in front of me and, as I tip my head a little more, a slim-waisted coat smoothed across her hips, that I can see.
She holds it up — the green jumper — in front of her face, in the way women do, giving it the full critical appraisal. She’s got that amazing dark red hair that looks like it belongs in a Titian painting, it’s such an outrageously deep colour. I’m transfixed by it, and need to make a conscious effort not to shove my restless hands into it.
‘I think the green is the best colour here,’ I agree with her, finally pulling myself together enough to say something.
‘Oh, really, you do, do you?’
Again, that undercurrent of humour in her voice. But more arresting is the view she presents me with now she’s turned her face to look at me. Big brown eyes behind tortoiseshell frame glasses, a faint spray of freckles just visible over her nose, and a mouth pulled into an amused smile, dimpling her cheeks slightly.
I smile back, fighting the urge to stare at her lips.
‘I do,’ I breathe out. ‘My sister said she wanted blue, but I think the green would look better.’
‘Would she wear green, or does she prefer blue?’
‘Well — she wears a lot of blue. Maybe that’s why I’m tempted to go for the green.’
‘To change it up a bit?’
‘Something like that.’
She’s still got that amused look on her face, and my head fills with all of the things I’d like to do with her, perhaps beginning with a drink, but I confess I’m already preoccupied with the idea of enjoying that smile in her eyes in much more intimate settings than a boutique in London’s West End. I’m wondering how much of this is showing on my face.
‘Is she my sort of colouring? Blonde? Brunette?’
And she holds the jumper in front of her now, tucking it under her chin a little to bring it close to her skin and hair.
‘Uh — she’s blonde. She’s my stepsister really,’ I ramble on. ‘Different father, so she’s blonde. And tiny, a bit like you actually. Whereas I am neither of those things.’
‘I can see that!’ Her eyes are definitely laughing now. ‘But, I think this colour would look good on a blonde woman. Which of these styles are you going for?’
‘Ah — well — that’s where I was losing the will to live just then. Round neck, v-neck or this one with buttons? Too many choices for my poor thick head.’
This makes her laugh out loud, and the sound of it sends an unreasonable amount of warmth flowing through my veins.
‘Well if she is my size or thereabouts, would it help if I tried the different styles on? Then you’ll be able to see what they look like? And I’m thinking of buying one for myself anyways.’
I grin, feeling like I’ve won the lottery. A few more minutes of looking at this woman is going to be something to treasure. And maybe I’ll summon the nerve to ask her to have that drink with me.
‘That’d be great, if you don’t mind?’
‘Hey, I offered.’
She picks up several of the jumpers, checking the sizes and walks over towards the fitting rooms. It’s one of those high-end shops where they have big, upholstered leather armchairs for the non-shoppers to sit in. She points wordlessly to one of them, indicating that’s where I should sit, and negotiates her way into one of the cubicles with a shop assistant who swings the heavy curtains closed to protect everyone’s modesty. I sit down, check the time, and wonder how long I can spin this out for. It’s not like I’ve had much experience lately, and whatever I might once have had feels very out of date and rusty.
Standing in the fitting room I stare in the mirror, not knowing whether I should be amused or alarmed at myself. What am I doing, offering to model a bunch of sweaters for a complete stranger? I feel dangerously giddy from the events of the day, and want to prolong the feeling but probably need to control it, too. I swallow, canlı bahis and shrug my shoulders. What harm can it possibly do? And it’s definitely an improvement on the evening in prospect — dinner alone, maybe a bath in my lovely but lonely hotel room, half an hour reading in bed before dozing off, and four hours’ sleep, waking up with the book on my face. A typical Valentine’s Day for me, these past few years. Not that I’ve ever been a fan of the way it’s become such a thing — cards, balloons, teddy bears, themed lingerie, overpriced roses, cocktails and dinners — no thank you. Ten minutes of helping him choose a nice sweater for his sister is just a diverting activity — almost a good deed?
It’s not until I take my coat off I realise my mistake. I’m wearing a dress, and trying a sweater on over the top of it isn’t going to do it justice. I pull back the curtain, and the attentive shop assistant is already approaching.
‘Umm, I’ve realised I need to try this on with a skirt or some pants or something,’ I explain to her, gesturing at my dress, and of course, she understands immediately.
‘Of course. What size are you?’
‘She’s a six.’ His voice reaches us from the armchair.
I raise my eyebrows at him. I guess he really does know what size his sister is, and I guess she and I really are the same build. The shop assistant moves off in search of something to pair with the sweater and I find him looking at me, somewhat intently it has to be said. I’m beginning to admit to myself that I’m not being entirely selfless in my offer to help him with his shopping. He’s tall, dark, and handsome; what can I say? And I’m a sucker for men with clear eyes and an inability to hide what they’re thinking.
‘Thanks for doing this. I really appreciate it.’
He leans forward now, his elbows on his knees, a well-worn leather shoulder bag sitting on the floor between his feet.
‘I don’t even know your name.’
‘Elizabeth,’ I reply.
‘Classy name,’ he smiles. ‘I’m Rob.’
‘Nice to meet you, Rob,’ I smile back.
The shop assistant is back with an armful of clothes for me to choose from. Such a big armful that I laugh, she smiles, and Rob’s jiggling his leg, but from the look on his face, I don’t think it’s with impatience. I dive back behind the curtain and pick through the clothes. I choose one of the skirts, slip out of my dress, pull the skirt up and the sweater on.
He’s still leaning over his knees, but frowning, tapping at his phone with elegant long fingers, and doesn’t notice me. I don’t mind being able to look at him for a few unnoticed seconds. I like his dark hair, short around his neck and going grey at the temples, I really like his long legs and how the jacket of his classic English-cut suit sits on his shoulders. It’s not until the shop assistant catches my eye and shakes her head at him, amused at his obliviousness to me standing in front of him, that he jerks upright.
‘Sorry, Elizabeth. Wasn’t paying due attention.’
The look on his face is rather wonderful. I give him a quick twirl.
‘What do you think?’
He blinks, slowly. Very nice blue eyes.
It comes out as something between a growl and a whisper. I’m instantly distracted by the desire to give him more reasons to sound like that again, maybe somewhere less public than this shop.
‘Oh!’ is all I manage to actually say.
The light in his eyes, the way he’s sitting back in the chair now, as if to get a better look at me — it’s much more of a reaction than I’d anticipated. I feel myself beginning to blush.
The shop assistant is having fun with us now, bringing more clothes for Elizabeth to try on, seemingly enjoying the little show we’re having here. After all, it’s a dull Wednesday afternoon in the middle of February, the shop is in no way busy, and we’re the only ones in the fitting room. And Elizabeth has a fantastic body. The shop assistant is happy to dress it. I’m beginning to find it more than difficult to imagine doing the opposite. Not helped when the curtain doesn’t close quite as tightly as before, and I glimpse Elizabeth’s bare back as she curves and glides herself out of another skirt. I avert my eyes and shuffle around in the chair, willing my cock not to betray me.
After twenty minutes of this entertainment, I’ve made a decision about which jumper to buy my sister (the green — blue be damned — and the v-neck) and am holding it in my hand, trying not to bury my nose to inhale Elizabeth’s scent on it. Elizabeth seems to be deciding to buy the same, and the shop assistant (Sahra — we’re all on first name terms now) has gone to fetch one from the shop for her.
‘Anything else you think I absolutely must buy?’
She’s asking me in a light-hearted, throwaway, tone of voice, but my answer is more than serious.
‘That skirt,’ I say.
She looks confused.
‘The first one,’ I reply, wondering how she could even be asking that question.
It was as if it’d been tailored bahis siteleri to fit her, and believe me, I know good tailoring when I see it.
And I’m gratified to see the pink blush creeping up over her throat again.
‘Really, you should buy it. It’s like it was made for you.’
Her cheeks are dimpling as her smile widens.
‘Hmmm. Ok. That sounds like a serious recommendation.’
‘Oh, it’s serious alright.’
We both stare at each other then — one, two, three beats — a few layers of good manners and social refinement falling away as we do so. I’m about to go for it, to suggest a drink, a walk, more shopping, whatever it’s going to take to get her to spend a few more minutes with me, when Sahra returns holding another green jumper. Elizabeth steps behind the curtain to change back into her own dress.
‘Is she going to buy that skirt as well, then?’ Sahra’s asking me, all smiles. ‘It looked perfect on her, like I knew it would.’
‘Oh, I know! I hope so.’
‘She’s lucky to have you. My husband would never sit here so patiently, and he definitely wouldn’t be half as attentive, neither!’
I smile at her, but don’t disabuse her of her mistake.
Once Elizabeth emerges from the fitting room for the final time, we thank Sahra for her help and patience. I’m gratified she’s buying both the jumper and the skirt. As we walk out onto the street I take a deep breath; cigarette smoke and roasted chestnuts.
‘How about a drink? As a thank you for helping me make up my mind between blue and green?’
I’d feared a straight ‘no’, and can’t stop myself from grinning like the Cheshire Cat himself.
‘Great. I know just the place.’
It’s one of those pubs that used to be on every corner and down every alley of Soho, but which are an endangered species these days. Small, leaded windows, dark wood bar, floor and furniture to match, etched mirrors behind the optics, a lingering smell of tobacco, not a tourist in sight. She looks surprised, but not horrified, so I chalk it up as a success. She orders a gin and tonic which is also a relief, since I’d fleetingly wondered if she was one of those Americans who doesn’t really drink.
‘Cheers,’ I raise my pint of beer and we clink glasses.
‘Absolutely,’ she says, and smiles at me. As if I wasn’t already in enough trouble.
‘So, are you visiting London or –?’
Visiting, it turns out, for work. She talks about what she does. Something legal, and a lot of it goes over my head, but the part when she says she’s just this morning been made an offer of a job here in London steals my attention. Yes, she’s considering it because, no, she doesn’t have a partner, husband, boyfriend or girlfriend back in the States. Not anymore. And maybe it’s time for an adventure. She may not be in the first flush of youth, but she is free and single; laughing as she tells me this. It’s a quiet laugh, but no less beguiling for it, especially as she tips her head back a little each time she does it, baring more of her pretty neck. The beer’s going to my head as I’d forgotten to eat any lunch earlier, and I’m finding it harder and harder to do anything except stare at her. Pretty soon she’ll start to think I’m an axe murderer. My phone vibrates in my jacket pocket. I squint at the screen and roll my eyes at the message.
‘It’s work. I’ve got to go back to the office to make another phone call later. But, still time for another drink?’
‘I’d have liked to make a night of it. Dinner, that sort of thing, Elizabeth, but –,’ I shrug apologetically.
She raises her eyebrows at me. ‘We might’ve been lucky to get into a restaurant tonight.’
‘It’s Valentine’s Day.’ And, seeing my reaction, ‘Well I guess that’s passed you by!’
‘Guilty,’ I agree.
She buys, this time. It gives me a minute to regroup. I had completely forgotten what day it was. I clear my throat, trying not to think about it too deeply, but not really succeeding; a vivid image of her, Ginny, in that fantastically-cut cream silk dress, red berries in her hair and red lipstick painted on her lips, her bright eyes so full of light and love. I shut my eyes to it.
Then she’s back at our table, sitting perhaps a little closer to me than before.
How much longer is she here for, I manage to ask? One more night after tonight. Great answer.
How about dinner tomorrow? That’s a yes.
Does she visit London often for work? About once a month.
I sit back in the chair, and consider taking up religion, I’m feeling so blessed.
She interrupts my bliss to ask me what I do (property — much too boring to describe here) and about my sister and parents and eventually it occurs to me she’s asking after my marital/relationship status, and I almost choke laughing at myself for being so dense.
‘Are you ok?’ she’s asking as I cough into my pint.
‘Fine, fine. Just a timely reminder of how out of practice I am at this.’
‘Are you? Out of practice, I mean?’
I wipe my mouth with bahis şirketleri the back of my hand, eyes on her fingers as she taps at an ice cube in her glass.
‘Terribly. I think the last time I had a drink with a woman I don’t work with, am related to, or is married to one of my friends, must be more than ten years ago.’
‘Ten years? That seems an awful long time. What a waste.’
That last sentence nearly makes me choke again, but I recover.
‘Hm. You sound like my mother now.’
‘Aha. She wishes you’d get hitched and produce heirs, does she?’
‘Something like that,’ I admit. ‘I’ve been a big disappointment in that regard.’
‘For the want of trying, or some other reason?’
I enjoy the way her voice carries so much humour in it.
‘Perhaps you are too much of a perfectionist?’
Her brown eyes study me as she throws out more reasons for my sad single status.
‘You work twenty-four/seven? You have fetishes that can only be satisfied in the dungeons of Soho? You find transcendental meditation more satisfying? You’ve been blighted by a long, unhappily unrequited love?’
We’ve been laughing up until that last explanation.
‘Ah. That last one, then?’
I incline my head. I’m British. We don’t really talk about that sort of thing. Not often, anyway. See again the red berries threaded through Ginny’s dark shiny hair that day — eight years ago today, precisely.
I jump as her warm hand slides over mine.
‘My big American wiseass mouth,’ she says, softly.
I turn my hand over to hold hers, cursing work, running my thumb across her palm and up to her wrist.
‘I hate having to say this, Elizabeth, but I really do have to get back to the office to make that call.’
I press my thumb hard against the pulse in her wrist.
‘Much as I’d rather stay here with you.’ I sigh.
‘I guess we’ll just have to take a time out,’ she raises one lovely eyebrow.
‘But dinner tomorrow? A late Valentine?’ I aim for wry humour.
‘Definitely.’ She beams at me. ‘Can you make 7pm? That’ll give me time to take a swim after work.’
I suck in my breath, assaulted by images of what she looks like in the water, and she gives me one of those laughs. It’s so quiet — a fast intake of breath, a glottal stop, almost. Can she see what I’m thinking so clearly? As if she’s testing it out, she leans over and brushes her lips against mine, the briefest, warmest of touches that’s almost over before I’ve realised what she’s doing, and with alarm, I grab her shoulder.
‘No. More,’ I whisper and swing my mouth back to hers, pressing us together, tasting the lime and tonic on her lips.
She pushes her tongue into my mouth, opens her eyes, making it one of the most intense things I’ve felt in a very long time. I reach up into her hair, glorying in how thick and soft it feels through my fingers, gratified she lets me do it, staring into her eyes and trying not to blink
To say I’m nervous would be the understatement of the year. Pacing around the hotel lobby I’m asking myself why I didn’t at least get his phone number and instead, have to torture myself with the fear he won’t turn up at all tonight. It’s already five after seven and I can’t take much more waiting. I stare at everyone coming in from the street. It’s a small, secluded, low-key kind of hotel, that looks like a townhouse from the outside, where each room has its own unique character, and the staff are genuine. A petite blonde in a beautiful blue silk dress is discreetly talking with another woman behind the desk, sharing a joke, checking something on the screen. She looks as though she’s in charge; picks up a small bag from the floor and swings her way out of the lobby, bidding all the staff goodnight as she does so.
Memories of that kiss have been claiming my attention all day at work until Megan had called me out on it, asking if everything was ok, and then, seeing the blush on my neck, had pressed to know more. I guess she was hyper-vigilant as she’d been teasing me yesterday about spending Valentine’s Day alone. But what could I say? I don’t even know his last name, for God’s sakes.
He’s striding across the parquet floor, looking flustered and worried.
‘I’m so sorry to be late. I couldn’t get away from work and like a fool I didn’t even take your phone number last night. I was about to phone the desk here, but I thought it’d be better if I just hurried up.’
He leans down and brushes my cheek with his lips, takes hold of my arm as if he’s never letting go, and finally smiles.
‘You’re here now.’
This time, his lips brush across my mouth at the same time as his eyes seem to trap mine in their gaze, and I fight to stay standing. Not so reserved tonight, I’m beginning to see; there’s fire in his eyes for sure.
‘I missed you,’ he whispers in my ear and we both smile at this, at the preposterousness of it all.
‘Now, I’ve got two ideas about dinner. One is a modern Asian fusion sort of place, much admired and sought-after cuisine. We have a table booked. The other is a family-run Chinese around the back of Chinatown where we might have to queue up but the food is well worth it. Which one takes your fancy?’
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Telefon Numaram: 00237 8000 92 32