Copyright © 2017 by Cristina Hodgson
Artwork and Design: Coffee
Editors: Sue Barnard
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author except for brief quotations used for promotion or in reviews. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and incidents are used fictitiously.
Table of Contents
For the reader: the only one who can enter the writer’s world of solitude and leave the door open for others to follow.
About the Author
Cristina Hodgson, mother of two, born in Wimbledon, London, currently lives in southern Spain. Cristina had a long career in sport, reaching national and international level and still actively participates in Triathlon races and enjoys outdoor activities. In her spare time she also enjoys reading and writing. She won a sports scholarship to Boston College. After a period in Boston, she returned to the UK and graduated from Loughborough University with a degree in Sports Science.
A Little of Chantelle Rose is her debut and will be released in May 2017. Amazingly, it has nothing to do with running!
You can find out more about Cristina Hodgson at or follow her on twitter @HodgsonCristina
I glanced from the mirror over to the clock and squeaked in horror. Christ, he was going to be here in about five minutes and I couldn’t get this bloody face mask off! I looked as though I’d just turned into the wife of the Incredible Hulk. Somehow I’d even managed to get great lumps of the home-made avocado face mask stuck in my hair, making it look like I’d just sneezed backwards on myself, if that was physically possible. I didn’t think you could sneeze upwards and backwards – unless, of course, you were on a fairground ride and you were actually upside down. In which case, a little bit of snot in your hair was almost certainly the very last thing you’d be worried about.
Why on earth had I thought that trying a home-made face mask was such a good idea the very day I was meeting Nick (or rather Niccolo) for a drink? Well, it had been a drink up until about ten minutes ago, when he’d texted me asking me if dinner would be better. The buzz of the text had startled me awake. I’d managed to doze off without setting an alarm, and now he was arriving at any moment and I looked like a green pea, with matching big green eyes.
I jumped into the shower, mentally running through my wardrobe trying desperately to think of the best thing to wear. A little black dress was always going to be the best bet (especially for an out-of-the-blue dinner date), and I’d just picked mine up from the dry cleaners a few days earlier. So as it was probably the only item in my wardrobe which was clean and immaculately pressed, it was by far the safest and most practical option. I’d just go for the windswept look with my mousy brown hair. Or rather (considering it was now getting soaked under the shower as I desperately tried to remove the face mask, and there was no chance I’d be able to dry it in time) the wet look. I just hoped Niccolo wouldn’t interpret it as the drowned rat look.
As I frantically tried to dry myself and change into my little black number (which, to my horror, seemed to have shrunk somewhat despite the dry clean; it was either that or, to my even greater horror, I’d put on a couple of pounds), I scolded myself for getting into such a flap because Niccolo was taking me out. I didn’t even want to contemplate it being a “date.” I didn’t need to get myself more excited than I already was.
I was actually rather confused that Niccolo wanted to take me out. We’d met six months ago, when his Mercedes Jeep bumped right into my little Corsa at a red light in the middle of Kingston. I was priding myself that, for once, I was going to be on time for work. But of course, I wasn’t.
I’d got out of my car in a blazing temper.
“You cannot be serious!” I’d exclaimed, reminding myself of John McEnroe’s tennis vocabulary, as I surveyed the damage. “The light was red!”
And out of the Mercedes stepped this guy who looked like a Greek god. I was stunned into silence for a moment as I took in the tall and well-built frame, coupled with the tanned skin and sun-bleached blond hair which couldn’t possibly have been the result of any beach in Britain. I figured he was probably in his early thirties (a few years older than me), and was dressed in an extremely expensive-looking executive suit.
“I’m so sorry.”
I could trace a slight accent in his quick, smooth reply. Italian, perhaps? That would explain the sun-tan, which was a relief for me as I didn’t want to imagine this Greek god lounging under a sunbed. It didn’t go with any of the possible fantasies I was conjuring up in the split second that I’d seen him.
Why he was wearing shades in this cloudy weather was another mystery, but it probably explained why he’d driven straight into my rear bumper. He obviously couldn’t see where the hell he was going. Just as I was thinking this, he took his shades off. His eyes were dark brown, almost black, a contrast to the blond hair, which probably meant that the Californian highlights had come out of a bottle.
In all honesty, I wasn’t too sure if this mixture of looks was appealing or not. Too high-maintenance, Anna my pet, as my Nan, God bless her, would have warned me. But in any case, I was letting my thoughts run away with me. The likelihood of bumping into him again, or rather him into me, were slim.
“The insurance will cover the damage,” he continued in his enticing voice as I caught him sneaking a glance at my rear. Not that I really minded him looking, especially considering how lush I found the whole of him, but really, it should have been my car’s rear that he should have been examining!
“You mean your insurance.” I corrected. Though I wasn’t too sure who was going to “cover my rear” at work this morning. And so, yet again, I arrived late. Not my normal five minutes (blame it on the City traffic lights), but a good hour over. Why is it that being late is fashionably acceptable, even recommended at times, in every social context, and yet, so unfortunate that this perception doesn’t transfer in quite the same way to the world of work? Especially for me, who has the art polished to perfection.
Fashionable or not, it got me fired that very day, despite the evidence that for once it wasn’t my fault. I’d always thought my boss was hard-nosed, and this pretty much confirmed it. Though now I could also add hard-hearted and inhuman. I’m not sure if the fact that I’d once turned him down for a dinner date has anything to do with it, or if he really thought I could make up a fantastic lie and reverse into a wall just to piss him off. Either way, I was fired, and there was sod-all I could do about it (except find myself a lawyer and press charges for discrimination in the workplace). But in all truth, I was actually relieved to get out of that suffocating job.
That had been six months ago, and it had been the best day of my life. Not so much for the whip-lash to my neck that I’d had to endure for the next few days, or the humiliation of being told, right in front of my fellow work colleagues, that I was no longer employee of the month. Or, for that matter, employee at all. It was a telemarketing firm and every one of my colleges simultaneously picked up their earpieces and started dialling furiously whilst I walked out onto the street and into the pelting rain. But rather because it was the push I needed to sort myself out. An alarm clock set half an hour earlier would have worked wonders too, but it was a bit late for that.
I dawdled on the street outside the telemarketing company for a while, getting drenched, much to the bewilderment of a couple of schoolkids, who gave me an odd look as they ran past my sopping wet figure. They were obviously late too! I gave them a conspiratorial wink, but they just turned to each other and giggled, presumably thinking I was a bit cuckoo.
As I stood there, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of freedom. Well, it was either that or panic. After all, my mortgage wasn’t going to go away. So it was just as well that, despite the rather negative start to the day and the pissing rain, I was feeling optimistic. I’d got myself into that vicious circle of cosmopolitan life that many fall into: commuting to a job I really disliked, putting up with petty work adversaries, and getting paid crap! But now, thankfully, the chain had broken. Here was a golden opportunity to pursue the job of my dreams. Well, not exactly my “top” dream job of being a pop singer. Much as my Nan had said that I had a voice like a nightingale, let’s be honest, I didn’t think I could ever rival Beyoncé or Taylor Swift. So I went for the next option on my list, which was slightly more realistic.
I was a qualified primary school teacher. I know, don’t ask me why I’d never got a teaching job before, but I was finishing my PGCE when my Nan took seriously ill, and she became my priority. Then the bills and mortgage became my priority, and one thing led to another, and before I knew it, career-wise I’d wasted three years of my life. So it was about time I put my vocation into practice. It was either finding some kind of teaching job or churning out half a dozen children of my own. As my love life was variable to non-existent, the first choice was going to be rather more achievable than the second – at least in the short term.
With the chaos of job-hunting, and then finding and starting work at a local prep school, I’d completely forgotten about my prang with Niccolo.
My car had been repaired, and as far as I was concerned that had been that. Until a week ago, when a text had arrived out of the blue, from a number I didn’t recognise, asking if the insurance had “fixed my rear”. For a panicky moment I wondered if this was some sort of practical joke and that someone thought I needed surgery of a more cosmetic nature on my behind. Although it didn’t reach the fainting insurance figures of J-Lo, it was an asset I was very proud of. I felt quite humiliated that anyone would think I should alter it.
I’d texted back saying my rear was in perfect condition, thank you very much, and that I’d been wolf-whistled at that very morning! The fact that the whistle came from a five-year-old kid in my class was irrelevant, and the fact that it didn’t sound like a wolf-whistle at all, rather a “ffffff” “ffffff” spitting sound, is a matter of personal opinion.
Then another text had come through asking to take me out for a drink, to make up for bumping into me and “denting” my boot, and this time it was signed “Nick”. A “dent” was a slight underestimate in my view: my whole boot had collapsed, as if a 6000 kg African bush elephant had sat on it.
Why on earth did Mr Greek God want to take me out for a drink? Somewhere in the back of my mind a little warning bell rang. But as it was only faint, not like a red flag or anything, I didn’t think twice and texted back: “OK”.
That was when the red flag appeared. He was much too upmarket for me. Bit out of your league, poppet, as my Nan would have pointed out. He probably spoke five or six different languages, whereas I’m still struggling with the Queen’s English. Unless of course I’ve downed a pint or two, and then my “Pardon my French” gets pretty good.
But what was the harm, I asked myself, in going for a drink with Mr Greek God? I’m sure he’s harmless (at least when he’s not behind the wheel). Surely one little drink wouldn’t hurt.
Except that now it wasn’t a simple drink, it was dinner – and I was squeezing myself into a tiny black dress. When I zipped it up, I actually sighed with relief. I hadn’t put on any extra weight on after all. I could confirm however, that this sexy number wasn’t mine! There had obviously been a mix up at the dry-cleaners; this dress showed off much more cleavage than I would have dared reveal, and the slit up the left leg certainly hadn’t been there before. My heart was pounding. There was no time to change. I was already going to have to go with the windswept look as it was.
But at least my face was no longer green. It was pink. A very flushed pink, to be precise, as I’d had to really scrub it to get the bogie-looking mask off. I looked like I’d just sprinted around the block. It was either that or (and I hoped to God that he wouldn’t think it) like I’d just climaxed in orgasmic delight.
The doorbell rang.
I slipped on my shoes, grabbed my coat and handbag, took a deep breath and slowly made my way down the stairs. There was no need to rush, and it certainly wasn’t the time to suss out if I still possessed any of my school days acrobatic skills by trying to dash down the stairs in break-neck heels and cartwheel off the last step. Why on earth I’d texted a complete stranger my home address instead of meeting him at some random restaurant was also beyond me. Clearly I’d lost not only my gymnastics ability, but also my common sense.
I opened the door. I’d obviously been a spy in a previous life, because my observation skills were razor-sharp. In the split second that we stood in silence before greeting each other (if you can call “greeting” the little dance-like introduction we gave each other) I took in every detail of his appearance: his camel loafers, his beige trousers, the mirror shades tucked into the V of his cream jumper, his perfectly-groomed hair, brilliant white teeth, Hugo Boss cologne, the silver chain around his neck (at least he wasn’t sporting a gold medallion) and his Emporio Armani wristwatch. I could go on, but just thinking about it again makes me feel a little breathless.
I held my hand out to shake hands, but he leaned forward to kiss my cheek, which took me completely by surprise, causing me to step back a pace, my hand sandwiched between us, pressed against his firm chest, causing my heart to start pounding wildly. At the same time he handed me a huge bouquet of flowers, forcing me to rush back inside to put them in water. I didn’t have a vase, and ended up dumping them in the kitchen sink.
I was rude enough not to invite him in. It would do me no good to have him walk through my sitting room with the remaining evidence of the green bogie-looking face mask still on the coffee table, looking as though I’d sneezed everywhere and hadn’t bothered to clean up. I just didn’t think I could explain it and come out looking glamorous.
I glanced at him again. Yes, definitely what Nan would have described as high maintenance. But I had to give it to him, he looked bloody gorgeous. I could hear Nan’s voice in my mind: Anna, my pet, this will only lead you to trouble.
Quite right, I thought excitedly. But let me just figure it out for myself…
“You look…” He paused here as if trying to choose the correct word, without offending me. “Glowing,” he finished.
Not quite the compliment I was hoping for, but considering the many other possibilities that could be used to describe my flushed look, this was by far the best I was going to get. I was quite relieved that it was no worse.
The lights of a really flash coupé parked on the other side of the road blinked and beeped as we approached. Despite my earlier observational spy skills, I was completely unaware that he was leading me to this car. Whatever had happened to the Mercedes Jeep? That was flashy enough for most normal snobs. But this looked like a replica of a Lykan Hybersport. Specialist knowledge, I know – but just a couple of weeks ago I’d watched Furious 7 in the company of a couple of petrolhead friends who had given me a complete breakdown of the car’s specifications. Apparently only seven models had been manufactured, at a jaw-dropping 3.4 million dollars each. Incredibly, this isn’t the most expensive car on the planet, coming in at a rather a humbling third position. If you have lots of spare cash and no conscience for starvation and poverty in the world, you might consider numbers One or Two. The Number One spot goes to the Koenigsegg CCXR Trevita, which is literally coated in diamonds and costs a mind-boggling 4.8 million dollars, whilst Number Two is the Lamborghini Veneno at a whopping 4.5 million. Veneno correctly translates to “poison”. It’s certainly enough to finish off anyone who’s handed the bill. Thanks to my mates’ encyclopaedic knowledge, I knew that the original Lykan Hybersport has jewel-encrusted headlights and gold stitching in the seats, so I could recognise that this was not an original model. Nonetheless, I was flabbergasted. Though between you and me, original or not, it looked like a pissed-off armoured car from the future. I think I would have felt safer and more at ease on a double-decker bus.
The passenger door opened – well, not really opened, rather scissored upwards, causing me to step back a pace in awe and alarm – and he motioned me to enter. By now I was feeling really nervous. Not only had I given my home address to a complete stranger, I was now about to step into his car and be driven to some unknown location, crushing in a flicker all the wise words that had been drummed into me since I was a little girl.
Don’t take to strangers. (Well, that’s just silly really. You’re told not to talk to strangers, but then out slips Excuse me, or Sorry, or Pardon, to almost everyone you meet on your way to work.)
Don’t be charmed by sweets or treats or flowers. (This was a bit more tricky, because flowers really can work wonders – and if push comes to shove I’d never say no to a diamond. Just call it common sense survival skills.)
Don’t ever get into an unknown person’s car…
STOP! Thankfully I was still in semi-control of my wits…“You’re expecting me to feel safe in the passenger seat with you behind the wheel?” A nervous laugh escaped my lips as I started to give credit to my Nan’s growing-up warnings.
“Good point!” he responded heartily, apparently not in the least offended that I had not the slightest trust in his driving skills.
I sighed with relief.
“You drive.” He tossed the car keys to me and climbed into the passenger seat himself.
This wasn’t part of my plan! And I certainly didn’t fancy being behind the wheel of this futuristic car. I couldn’t quite believe he would trust me to drive it and not to freak out. The only reasonable explanation I could come up with was that he’d obviously nicked it, and by putting me behind the wheel he could pose as the innocent party.
I stood flustered on the curb for a moment. But then, what the hell, surely I couldn’t come to much harm if I was driving? Unless, of course, the car really was stolen – in which case I risked getting myself into more trouble that I could possible imagine.
It was only when I was actually somewhere along the M25, frantically trying to keep up an interesting conversation, dodge the traffic, and figure out the very delicate clutch control of this flash coupé without choking the engine at every turn, that it dawned on me just how dodgy this situation was. If it all went tits-up, how I was going to explain the whole incident and come out on the winning side? How could I convince judge and jury that I was seized against my will and driven off into the dark night, in a possibly stolen car, with me doing the driving? The whole thing sounded so crazy that nobody in their right mind would believe it. I actually had to give it to the guy: this had been a bloody clever kidnapping.
Just as I was starting to panic about his unique kidnapping methods, and trying to convince myself that I shouldn’t panic (I was, after all, behind the wheel and supposedly in control), Niccolo told me to turn off at the next junction, and meekly I obeyed. A few minutes later we were driving down a very quiet – and very dark – country lane.
By now our conversation had petered out and we were sitting in very awkward silence. My palms felt damp and my breathing was very shallow. Why on earth hadn’t I insisted in meeting at the local Indian restaurant, which was in an area familiar to me and where I knew the menu off by heart? It would have been a mild chicken korma for me, and an extra-spicy meat Vindaloo for my date. At least he would have his work cut out there if he’d planned anything dodgy. I mean, it’s not as if you can swallow any Vindaloo dish and still concentrate on any pre-planned action. After the first bite, you’re struggling to down your beer and not choke at the same time, whilst beads of sweat form on your forehead and knock your brain cells silly.
Suddenly we were out of the spooky lane and driving through the grounds of a very select-looking country manor. The wheels crunched on the pebble surface as I slowly drove the car into the parking area and turned off the engine. Well, at least his choice of imprisonment was select. I sighed with relief and stepped out of the car.
Niccolo was quickly at my side and offered me his arm. Despite my earlier qualms about his intentions, I took it gratefully and leaned heavily on him as we made our way to the entrance of what I soon realised was an extremely snooty restaurant.
The maître d’ greeted us at the entrance with genuine warmth in his voice.
“Good evening, Sir. So nice to see you again.” His eyes then travelled over me, taking me in for the first time. He actually looked a bit put out for some reason. He was probably expecting some gorgeous model lookalike, and was flabbergasted that it was only run-of-the-mill me. He cleared his now flustered voice as he continued. “Madam, please enjoy your evening.”
And with that he led us through to the French dining room. I struggled somewhat with my heels on the rich carpet whilst taking in the superior decor. I may be run-of-the-mill, but I knew my French history and I felt that I had stepped back in time. The intricate gilded panelling was a Rococo masterpiece matching that of Madame de Pompadour’s 18th century dining room at the Château d’Asnières. Call me nerdy, I know, but there’s nothing like reading about historical architecture to optimise fantasies of historical romance. It’s a peculiar pastime, but still pales in comparison to Niccolo’s kidnapping techniques.
I sheepishly glanced over at Niccolo as I was thinking this, and was startled to find his intense gaze on me with a warm smile on his sensual lips. At that point I wondered what his motives really were. It was quite an effort to make just to apologise for bumping into me six months ago, and he couldn’t possibly fancy me. Saying that, and I don’t want to sound big-headed or anything, but I’ve had my fair share of chat-up lines when out and about. I’ve got big green eyes that seem to appeal to most of the opposite sex, a J-Lo behind and a front to match – the perfect hourglass. As my Nan often told me, just like Marilyn Monroe, pet, and she really was ooh la la!
Niccolo pulled out my chair for me, in the most chivalrous manner, and I sat down (or, to be more precise, collapsed with relief) as I realised that perhaps I’d let my imagination run wild, and that this was, after all, going to be nothing more than a harmless dinner date.
We began with the normal sort of chit-chat as we tucked into our starters. I chose Salad of Devon Crab, whilst Niccolo went for the Hay-smoked Yellow Beetroot Salad which had Italian leaves or something. He’d informed me that he had grown up in Milan, though his family had moved to the UK when he was fourteen. He was probably feeling a bit homesick for the motherland, and the Italian leaves were perhaps soothing for him.
To my great surprise, I felt more at ease in his company that I would have thought possible, and I was now pretty sure that kidnap had been the last thing on his mind. I really did need to take a break from reading all those crime and thriller novels. I told Niccolo that after getting fired the very day he drove into the back of my car I’d been forced to make a career move, and that I now spent my time looked after my five-year-olds. Ten of them to be precise. He’d looked a bit alarmed for a moment, most probably wondering how on earth had I managed to have a litter of ten (or if indeed that was humanly possible) and where the hell the father was in all of this! I’d laughed at his startled look and explained that I was a primary school teacher. He sighed with relief, and I’m not sure if it was because the actual thought of labour and pushing out ten babies was vertiginous for him (or indeed most mortals), or if he’d worried for a moment he’d be obliged to meet them all and his beige trousers and cream jumper would never be the same again.
“So what do you do for a living?” I asked. I was expecting him to say that he was in the stock market or something.
“I’m a pilot.” He seemed as if he was about to go on and give me more details, but suddenly had to come and slap me on my back in alarm as I started choking on my fizz from shock, mixed with hysterical laughter at the notion that I was having dinner with a pilot who couldn’t even coordinate a car properly down a main high street!
“I said I was a pilot, not a stand-up comedian!” he chuckled, once I’d got my composure back.
“Sorry,” I said sheepishly. “It’s just as well that we were driving and not flying when we met. I don’t think the outcome would have ended in a dinner date!”
I’d let the word “date” slip out without thinking, but Niccolo’s face turned to thunder. The word, harmless as it was, seemed to have triggered a dramatic change of mood. He was red in the face, he started clenching his fists and looked as if he was about to punch someone. I sank lower and leaned further back into my swanky dining chair to try and get out of his possible striking range. He’d gone deathly silent and just stared over my shoulder, and I started thinking that this was probably a good time to take my exit, at least to the ladies’ room and phone a taxi. This guy was wacko! I certainly wasn’t going back with him in this temper, even if I was the one doing the driving. And all just because I’d said the word “date.” In any case, if this wasn’t a date, then what the hell was it? Jesus! Talk about mood swings. This knocked PMT into a cocked hat.
I was about to stand up and make a quick exit when I heard a husky voice behind me. “Niccolo, amore, what a surprise.”
There was an awkward silence as Niccolo, who now looked like an enraged bull ready to charge, stood to greet the speaker.
I too stood up and turned round – and came face to face with Ms Universe. Silky brown hair cascaded down her back in neat waves, brilliant sapphire eyes sparkled out of her perfect oval-shaped face, and she had a petite nose and generous, sensual lips. I’d have quite fancied her myself if I’d been that way inclined.
She was dressed in a shimmering evening dress that hugged her slim figure – at least, what I could see of it, as she was also wearing a massive fur stole. It looked like mink to me, but as I’m not in favour of wearing fur I can’t claim to be an expert on the various different types. Her expensive perfume wafted over us, enveloping us in its sexy aroma, although it was a bit too strong for my tastes. I had to really twitch my nose to stop me from sneezing right in her face. She was linking arms with a huge American-football-type hunk, who had gone just as red in the face as Niccolo. Both men held out their hands and they seemed to greet each other with genuine affection, despite the lobster look.
It was then that Ms Universe turned to me.
“You must be Niccolo’s new friend. I do love your shoes. Tell me, darling, wherever did you get them from?”
There was a snigger here as she said this, and I glanced down and was mortified to see that in my haste whilst dressing I’d managed to put on two different coloured shoes. They were the same style. As my Nan would have scolded: That’s what comes of being greedy and getting the same shoe in different tones. It’s not necessary, pet. And now look what’s happened.
“It’s the new rage, dah-ling,” I slipped back in reply. “And I do love this,” I added, gesturing at her horrid fur stole. “But I’m not familiar; do tell me, is it skunk?” I leaned closer to give it a sniff as she gulped from shock. I thought my reply pretty smooth considering I was still recovering from the shoe mix-up and probably now glowing redder than both men put together. Niccolo and the other guy both looked rather amused at this, and their faces were no longer so puce. Niccolo had quickly moved to my side and had slipped his hand around my waist, holding me close. If it hadn’t been that I had this haughty “Queen” before me I’d have felt quite taken by him.
But something just didn’t feel right. The out-of-the-blue dinner date. The last-minute change of plan, from a simple drink to a three-course meal. And at a really expensive venue. Was this just to impress me? There was really no need. I would have been just as impressed with a pint down at the local and some decent adult conversation.
It seemed to me that I was just being used by Niccolo to get back at what was obviously his ex-girlfriend. If this was what he had planned, it was obviously working, because – to put it mildly – she looked totally pissed off.
Whatever the motive, my dinner date, which had started out like a dream (well, if you overlooked that I actually thought for the first hour or so that I was being kidnapped in a stolen car), was now turning into a nightmare.
Once we were alone again, my conversation with Niccolo came out in stilted threads, with prolonged, awkward silences. We skipped dessert, and I was actually relieved when Niccolo dropped me off back at my place. This time he was behind the wheel; kidnapping obviously wasn’t the motive, and – bizarre as this sounds – I felt thoroughly let down.
And that was that. One dinner date from hell. Well, not quite, because if I was honest I was quite taken with Niccolo, but I wasn’t going to let him use me as a pawn. I didn’t even need my Nan to warn me of that!
I deleted his number from my phone and slumped into bed.
Three weeks passed, during which I received and ignored a total of fifteen texts and calls from Niccolo. I knew it was him, because, despite deleting his number from my phone, I’d still kept the slip of paper he’d given me all those months ago when we had first met. He’d insisted on giving me his number in case I needed to contact him regarding the insurance for the car accident. I had given him my number for the same reason, thus allowing him to text me in the first place… I suppose I could have blocked his number, but I was finding it perversely stimulating having him try to contact me countless times, and me acting the cool, distant, uninterested damsel, who certainly wasn’t in distress.
At least, that’s what I kept telling myself.
It was a Friday afternoon and I was making my way down the road to the bus stop after work when I heard someone calling out my name.
I turned around. Coming towards me, and looking quite flushed, was Phil, the uncle of one of the kids I taught at the prep school. He’d picked up his nephew Sam a couple of times, but today the boy had already been picked up by his mother.
“Hi Phil,” I called back in reply “Your sister has already collected Sam.”
“I know, I know,” he stammered back, sounding quite breathless and a bit put out.
“Is there anything wrong?” I asked anxiously, concerned by the look on his face. Something seemed to be troubling him.
“I was just wondering” he went on a little awkwardly, “if you’d like to go for a drink sometime?”
“Ohh!” I let out, taken back. I certainly wasn’t expecting this. And, lovely though he was, Phil really wasn’t my type. I know I could have gone for a friendly drink with him and it would have been harmless, at least for me. But seeing the puppy-dog look in his eyes as he gazed at me, I didn’t think it was very fair to say yes and then crush his obvious hopes that we could be more than just friends.
“I’m sorry Phil, it’s not that I wouldn’t love to go out for a drink, it’s just I’m waiting for my fiancé to pick me up. We’re off to Paris for the weekend.” It came out without thinking and sounded somewhat far-fetched, but no one would ever know.
“Ohh!” He looked crushed. “I didn’t realise you were engaged!” (Nor did I, but no one was going to find out either way.)
“Yes, yes,” I added, trying to sound convincing, whilst simultaneously shoving my left hand into my coat pocket where Phil couldn’t see it with its non-existent ring. “He’s called Niccolo, Italian for Nicholas you know. After all he is Italian, and he’s a pilot.” There had really been no need to go into so much detail. But I was letting my imagination run away a touch, and it felt jolly good! It was a fantastic lie, but again, no one would ever know.
“That’s right” I heard, just inches behind me. I cringed on recognising the Italian accent.
I turned to find Niccolo standing beside me, smiling at me with his warm, sensual smile and holding a huge bouquet of flowers in one hand. With the other hand, giving me no warning, he pulled me close and planted a passionate kiss on my lips right in front of Phil, much to my embarrassment. But at least he played out the role to perfection.
Phil was gone in a flash, muttering something about having to take Sam to football.
Left alone with Niccolo, I just stared at him. I didn’t know where to begin. I was mad at him for using me to get back at his ex-girlfriend, but I also felt terribly embarrassed that he’d obviously heard the fantasy I’d openly related to Phil. An Italian fiancé, who was a pilot called Niccolo. I mean, as much as I could try to pretend I was talking about someone else, there was little chance that I would sound convincing.
“Please let me explain, Anna,” he pleaded, as he handed over the extravagant bouquet, took my hand and led me to a nearby bench. “I know what you’re probably thinking, Anna. That Scarlett, the girl wearing the ‘skunk’ fur, is my ex-girlfriend. That’s correct. We had just broken up the very day before I had bumped into you – and I bumped into you because I was busy turning off my phone.”
“What?” I was outraged. “How could you possibly fiddle around with your phone whilst you were driving? That’s so dangerous, and not just for you, but for those around you!”
“I know, I know. But Scarlett was calling me without rest and it was impossible to drive with the constant ringing, and though I didn’t like having to do it, I turned the phone off. I needed a moment’s peace so as not to get so distracted in the car. Not that it worked, of course, as I drove right into you anyway.” He smiled at me apologetically.
But I wasn’t convinced, and I still felt a bit disturbed that he would fiddle around with his phone whist driving. Besides, he’d used me on the dinner date.
As if reading my mind, he continued, “And then Scarlett turned up at the restaurant. At first I had no idea how she’d found out that I was going to be there, but as I was getting the car and you had popped to the ladies room, the Maître d’ had sought me out to apologise about the mix up. He had thought that my dinner date was with Scarlett, as she had been silly enough to phone months ago saying that if I was to have dinner there, it was because I was taking her there as a surprise, and she wanted to look her best for the occasion. She had asked the Maître d’ to phone her and warn her. He had no idea that I’d never be taking her back there again. But he wasn’t to know, and she took advantage and showed up with and old school friend of mine. She was obviously trying to make me feel jealous, when all she’s achieved is to make me feel bloody sorry for my mate.”
He paused, I guess to suss out my reaction. I still wasn’t sure. He had told me about taking me for dinner ten minutes before he showed up on my doorstep. How could his ex possibly have known with enough time to get herself dressed to the nines and find a companion at such short notice?
“Sorry, Niccolo, I just don’t believe you. I don’t want to sound rude or anything, but it was all so out of the blue. How could your ex have known about our dinner date when even I didn’t know about it?” I gasped then, as it clicked that I was probably just his second choice – or maybe even his third or fourth – if his first choice to get back at his ex had turned him down. Bloody cheek!
I looked into his eyes, my spy observation skills tuned to red alert, searching for the standard signs of lying: lip pursing, hair stroking, playing with jewellery, avoiding eye contact, hand wringing, etc etc. I could go on, but all I was actually achieving by mentally going through the list was getting myself into a nervous state instead of actually sussing anything out. Whilst Niccolo just calmly stood there, looking totally charming: eyes locked into mine, showing no signs of distress, no nervy moves, no fidgeting or twitching. But I wasn’t going to let his suave air deceive me.
“If I’m honest,” I replied, “it looks to me as though you were the one who tricked the restaurant into phoning you when your ex was going to have dinner there, so that you could get her jealous, rather than the other way around.” Having said that, I realised that if he thought I was good enough to make his supermodel ex feel jealous, I guess it was quite a compliment.
Before I could go on, Niccolo interrupted me. “If I was just using you, why on earth would I keep trying to contact you after our dinner? If that had been my only reason for taking you out, I would have achieved what I’d wanted, and what would be the point in trying desperately to see you again?” He smiled at me then, that damn sexy boyish smile of his which left me breathless. “And I’d actually booked it three weeks earlier, but didn’t feel confident about asking you out for dinner until right at the last minute.”
[_ WHAT??? Niccolo didn’t feel confident about asking me out…? _]
“How about dinner again?” he went on. “And a second chance?”
His enticing smile was playing havoc with my insides. Somewhere at the back of my mind I could hear my Nan’s warning alarms, which seemed to sound louder with each passing second.
I answered with my own question: “How did you find out where I worked?”
He laughed, a deep throaty laugh, and the corners of his eyes crinkled in merriment. I wanted to remain stern, but found myself smiling back at him as he continued, “I’ve spent the last three weeks phoning up all the primary schools in the area asking if a really beautiful, stunning brunette worked with the reception class because I was in need of some after-school practical assistance.” He chuckled out loud then, probably from the look of utter shock that must have been reflected on my face.
“No!” I exclaimed, embarrassed. Stunning brunette? Me?
“You’re right, I didn’t! Well, I did phone one school, but got warned that any further pervy calls and they would notify the police and have the line checked. So,” he added with a sheepish smile, “the other morning I followed you.”
I must have looked aghast. He was rapidly resuming his kidnapping, now mixed with stalking, behaviour. And I was mortified that despite boasting about my observation skills, I hadn’t been able to notice that I was being followed by a car that looked like a space shuttle. But I had to admit, he seemed keen – and in this day and age that was definitely a plus.
But I wasn’t giving in yet.
“So what happened to Scarlett? Why didn’t it work out?”
“Too high-maintenance for me,” he replied. Coming from him, that was quite a shock! At least I was safe there; give me a pint pot over a champagne flute any day! I’m simply Anna. I’m certainly not a high-maintenance girl.
“So how about dinner? Did I hear you say we had a date in Paris?”
I blushed, remembering that he’d heard all about my fanciful ramblings.
“Dinner sounds great,” I replied, linking my arm through his. “Anywhere local is fine with me, though.”
My Nan would kill me. But, then again, how did she get to be so worldly-wise anyway? It was perhaps best not to delve into that too much. Some childhood perceptions definitely shouldn’t be distorted with reality. I preferred to keep the image of my Nan as being as pure and virginal as possible. Not as if anyone’s Nan could be virginal… (Sorry if that’s a spoiler!)
But as we walked off, with Niccolo’s arm now around my waist holding me tight and my head leaning on his powerful shoulder, I do think I actually heard her whisper in my head: Go for it, Anna my love. Sometimes you have to take a risk. Love is for fools wise enough to take a chance. “But it is a risk to love, isn’t it, Nan? What if it doesn’t work out?”
To which she wisely answered back: Ah, Anna my pet, but what if it does?
How could a dinner date with the handsome Niccolo possibly go wrong? Or perhaps, how could it possibly go right for Anna, who suddenly finds herself behind the wheel of a probably stolen car, driving down a dark and eerie country lane in the company of a complete stranger? This certainly isn’t her idea of romantic. What is Niccolo's real motive? Are his feelings genuine, or is she just a pawn to be used in his game strategy, whatever that might be?