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Missed Connections

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Chapter 1

Late November

As he rode the Underground for the first time in years, Mark Darcy vowed to think of it as an adventure. His car had failed to start and he'd had it towed to the garage; the driver he usually called upon was not available; and every taxi in the greater London area was apparently engaged through the evening.

However, keeping that vow would prove to be difficult. The weather was not exactly cooperative on the walk to Temple Station; chilly and drizzly, as early winter often is. He didn't have a knack for navigating the Underground since he took it so infrequently, so he ended up overshooting the connection at Embankment; he had to backtrack after disembarking at Westminster to head back towards it. He successfully navigated off of the Circle Line and on to Northern, then, at Tottenham Court, he transferred onto the Central Line and towards his home.

The carriage was crowded, but he did manage to find one vacant seat next to a dozing woman, whose brownish-blonde hair was pulled up at the crown of her head and flopped over to the side. He had a look around to ensure there wasn't an elderly or pregnant passenger more in need of a seat than he was, and when he didn't see one, he took the seat.

Within a few seconds he felt a light pressure upon his upper arm, and a glance to his side revealed that the woman had leant up against him. She seemed to be fast asleep. He glanced across the aisle to find a second woman smirking a little, but trying to hide it behind the edge of her magazine.

He turned his head towards her to try to get a better look; strangely enough, he didn't want to disturb her. She was wearing knee-high boots, tights, and a miniskirt. Beyond that he couldn't tell because of her coat. Her perfume—shampoo? He could hardly tell—was distinct: sweet, maybe a little nutty. He hadn't smelled anything quite like it before.

The carriage shook and shivered as it picked up speed after departing Oxford Circus, which startled the young woman. Her pale cheeks flooded with a blush as if realising she had been leaning on him, and she jumped back from him. She smiled a little and then opened her mouth—presumably to apologise—when the announcement came over the PA system that they were approaching Bond Station.

"Bond Station?" she said, confused. "Oh my bloody God and fuck, I've missed my stop." She got to her feet, belatedly turning with an embarrassed "Sorry, sorry" to Mark as she made her way to the doors. She ran out into the station the moment they parted.

Mark could only feel as bewildered as she seemed to be.

The woman who had smirked spoke up. "So, did you know her?"

"Not at all," he murmured.

"Pity," she said, then added with a nod of her head in the direction of the recently vacated seat, "She left her muffler behind."

For some strange reason, he felt obligated to reach out and pick it up. "I'll take this to the lost property office," he said, as if he had to justify why he was taking it. He tucked it into his attaché, and he had every intention of doing as he'd said, when he said it. As the carriage chugged ahead, his mind wandered away from thinking about the interaction he'd had and how odd it had been, quickly moving on to reviewing the day he'd just finished; when they announced that Holland Park Station was approaching, he gathered his things together then rose to disembark. It wasn't until later that night, when he reached into the attaché, that his hand brushed against the soft knit of the muffler.

"Right," he said to no one, holding it up to inspect it. "I forgot about this." It was a pale purple, very soft; it was a loose knit and long enough to wrap around a couple of times comfortably. He folded it back up and tucked it into the attaché, and promptly forgot about it again.

………

It was the next morning, after the retrieval of his vehicle from the garage, that Mark encountered the purple muffler once more. He set the attaché onto the seat behind him, and at the first turn, it fell over, disgorging the muffler from within. He glanced back at the next red light to see it had fallen to the floorboard, out of his reach as a driver. He made a mental note to retrieve it later.

His mobile went off at that moment. A glance at the dash told him it was his work colleague Natasha; he let out a weary breath and engaged the hands-free option to answer the call. She would only just continue calling if he didn't.

"Mark Darcy," he said.

"Glad I reached you," she said. "The morning meeting is bumped up a half-hour. How soon can you be here?"

He exhaled roughly. "I'm on my way, will be there as soon as I can."

In the rush to get into the meeting, the muffler was left behind on the floorboard.

………

"Didn't know that was your colour."

"Well, of course it's not my colour. Purple? Are you daft? I just find this so intriguing!"

As he passed by, the secretaries were gabbling on as they often did, and it barely registered until he heard the word "purple," because it reminded him of that muffler left behind by the sleeping woman on the train several days prior. He'd forgotten about it again. The conversation, though, would prove to be more relevant than he could have imagined, which he realised as they continued speaking.

"She must really love that muffler…"

"True enough; I mean, to be putting up a Missed Connections advert, looking for the 'mystery man I fell asleep on,' all in search of tracking it down…"

Mark was glad he had not been drinking anything at that moment, because he surely would have choked on it. That reference had to be much more than a coincidence. Surely there were not scores of women falling asleep on strange men all over the Underground then leaving their mufflers behind.

Purple mufflers, at that.

Half of their conversation sounded like nonsense to him, though. He had no idea of what they spoke. He hoped "Missed Connections" would be easy enough to find. He was 90% sure that they were talking about something on the internet, because they were constantly talking about websites and social media. He figured it should be easy enough to find.

As he ate his lunch with his door closed, he decided to give it a try, searching on his mobile device. As it turned out, he wasn't wrong. The first result when searching for "missed connections" was a site called Craigslist; thanks to location services on his mobile, the London-specific page loaded.

Aha, he thought, as a long list of posts appeared on his screen. Some of them seemed to be less 'missed connections', more 'in search of' unconventional sexual encounters. He did a search for 'purple muffler.'

There it was.

Central Line—looking for the mystery man I fell asleep on

Monday, 21st, 7.30 pm-ish? In rush to get off train, left beloved purple muffler behind. Hoping you can reunite us. Coffee, my treat.

He clicked on the link to get the full advert, on which there was a way to reply via an anonymised email address (he could hardly blame her for wanting to take that precaution). He was going to respond, of course he was, but he suddenly found himself at a loss for words. He laughed a little. He, known in professional circles for his court orations. Oh, the irony.

He clicked to respond.

Greetings—

I believe it was I upon whom you

He stopped typing, then deleted his annoying, overly formal start.

Hello,

I have your purple muffler.

He realised that his opening sounded like a ransom demand. He changed "have" to "found." Before continuing, though, he realised he would have to add some detail that only he would know. How could she properly vet his credibility without such information?

To prove I'm not lying, I can verify that you disembarked at Bond Street Station in a rush with some very colourful language, and that a middle-aged, dark-skinned woman with her hair in knots was sat across the aisle.

Please let me know how I can get your muffler back to you.

He signed with his regards and his first name, then sent it off. He didn't expect to hear anything back until the evening, or even the next day, so he was surprised to see a reply within ten minutes.

Oh, thank God!

I was serious about the coffee, btw. Maybe after work? The Pret in Trafalgar Square, 6.30pm tonight?

Mark considered. Leaving work to get there by 6:30pm would be a tight schedule on any night. He would just have to leave a little early to make the date.

It was a date of sorts, wasn't it? He shook his head; he was being ridiculous. He replied: Yes, that's fine. I presume you'll recognise me. After a moment, he added: My name's Mark.

He sent it in reply.

Within another five minutes, he received a reply.

Hurrah! See you then!

He smiled a little, charmed by the effervescence of her reply. He would just have to get her name later.

Jeremy, of course, noticed that he was leaving early and had to comment.

"Leaving a bit early, eh?"

"Yes," Mark said. Even though he didn't need to justify his comings and goings to anyone, he added, "I have an appointment."

"An appointment, hm?" Jeremy said, then winked. "Have fun."

This caught Natasha's attention; she looked up from her mobile phone.

"'Appointment'?" she asked, her tone highly sceptical.

Jeremy laughed aloud at Mark's involuntary pursed lips.

Curtly, Mark added, "See you tomorrow."

When he arrived to his car, he dropped his attaché in the back seat. He stood a moment staring into his vehicle; something was not quite right. Then he realised that there wasn't anything on the floorboard. The muffler had apparently vanished.

Mark felt all of the blood drain from his face. How could he return a muffler that had apparently done a runner?

Be logical, thought Mark, as he took a seat behind the wheel of the car. Where could it have gone? He stepped through his day mentally… and remembered that he'd had the interior of his car detailed that afternoon. Could they have thrown it away? He was prepared to ring up the shop when he had the thought to check in the centre console.

It wasn't there.

His hand shot out to the glove box and opened it. There it was, folded neatly. He let out a breath. It would have been highly embarrassing to have to try to explain that he'd managed to lose it again.

………

He arrived to the Pret just before the appointed time; his gaze scanned the faces of the people at the tables there, and he knew immediately that she was not among them.

Despite her offer to buy his coffee, he could only wait about ten minutes before he ordered his own. He felt a bit strange sitting at one of their tables without a beverage.

After another ten minutes he felt his phone began to buzz in his jacket pocket. He palmed it to find that it was an email message from the woman he was meant to meet.

On my way! Promise!!!!

He laughed a little then put the phone away, then reached for his coffee and took a long draw. The coffee was good, at least.

As the minutes continued to pass and his coffee cup emptied, however, his patience wore thin; he told himself that he would wait until half-past seven and then leave. He pulled out his mobile and began to compose an email to her.

Very sorry, but I can't stay any longer. Perhaps we can reschedule for another time.

After a moment, he added, not wanting to sound callous; what if she'd gotten stuck on the Underground, or worse?:

Hope that all is well.

He briefly thought about leaving the muffler with the café staff, but, oddly enough, he felt like he could not entrust it to anyone else, and he had already been a nuisance to them long enough.

He realised as he pulled his mobile out after arriving back home that he had gotten an email whilst driving.

Soooo sorry, my bag got tangled up in the carriage door and I had to wait to be rescued by Transport staff, couldn't get into it to get my mobile :( Maybe next week?

His first response was irritation bordering on anger for having been so inconvenienced. He was doing her a favour, and she clearly didn't respect his time, to the point where she felt the need to make up such a ridiculous story. More than ever, though, he wanted to get her muffler back to her so that he would not have to deal with this lunacy any longer. He was set to reply in the affirmative when he remembered that he was leaving on Friday for New York, to wrap up the rest of his affairs there. Then there would be the madness of the Christmas holidays.

I'm sorry, no, that isn't going to work. Perhaps just after the new year.

He didn't get a response right away. In fact, he only noticed a reply the following morning, though it was largely incomprehensible.

Vv srooy k vv godd

He pressed the side button to darken his mobile's screen. He didn't need to reply again. He had to start to think about more pressing matters, like his trip to America and the holidays beyond.

Boxing Day

Oh, God. Do they really still do that bloody Turkey Curry Buffet?

As Mark thought this, his strove to keep his facial features neutral as he listened to his mother tell him that it was occurring on New Year's Day.

"Say that you'll stay through, Mark, and come with us," concluded Elaine. "We haven't seen you at a family gathering like this in so many years."

Mark was torn. He was really not interested in doing anything but watching sport and resting after the tedium of wrapping up his life in New York then the bustle of the Christmas holidays, let alone attending this inane luncheon… but his mother had a point. He had been so long gone from London, he felt like he owed his parents many more such missed occasions. "All right," he said. "I'll come."

"Wonderful!" she said, clapping her hands. "And as an added bonus, I have someone lovely for you to meet!"

Again he kept his features neutral, though honestly, he felt tricked. However, he said nothing. He would just have to stiffen his upper lip and do what he needed to do to get through the day. Until then… he had more football to watch.

………

Mark had gone to the Turkey Curry Buffet with a sort of resignation, a 'grin and bear it' attitude, despite an impending romantic setup. He wasn't actively worried about said setup—he was a grown man and he could be polite but firm when it came down to it—until he met the woman's mother again for the first time in many years.

He had known the Joneses for years, of course, being that they'd been friends of his parents for years, but Mrs Jones' brashness and forwardness, not to mention taste in clothing, worried him more than a little. Was he getting a sneak peek into what her darling daughter would be like?

Fortunately, he had shored up his defences: he had purposefully worn a horrendous holiday-themed jumper to ward off any designs that she might have on him. Not to flatter himself, but he often got unwanted attention when women heard what he did—rather, how much he made an hour.

Mark knew the moment that Pam's daughter Bridget arrived due to the high-pitched, excited timbre that Pam's voice took on. He had been talking with his parents, and was hesitant to turn around to face the newcomer. At the sound of his name, he knew he could avoid it no longer.

He didn't know exactly what to expect, but it certainly wasn't what he saw. This was not a young woman decked out to the nines to impress, but rather… she seemed to be wearing a tapestry fabric waistcoat and skirt. She held a drink in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. He caught her expression at seeing his jumper; he hoped his own features did not betray his own surprise at her attire.

The two of them were left to their own devices, and he found himself for a lack of words, not because she was making nonstop small talk, but because he was distracted by a nagging sensation that he had met her somewhere before, but couldn't place where. Not during their childhood, but as adults.

"Pardon me," he said, interrupting her monologue about New Year's resolutions, "but I have the oddest feeling that we've met before."

With her mouth slightly agape, she blinked a couple of times before saying, "Well, my mum says we played in a paddling pool together—"

He waved his hand. "No, no, I don't mean as children. I mean… more recently." As he said the words, it came to him, even though he wanted to dismiss the thought the moment it had entered his mind. He couldn't, though, because despite the wisp of cigarette smoke, he caught that unique perfume scent once again, and that cemented it for him.

This was, inexplicably, the girl from the train.

She squinted a little, as if really concentrating, really looking beyond the silly jumper. "Still not ringing a bell," she said at last, stubbing her cigarette out into an ashtray.

He remembered that he still had the muffler in his glove box. "Come out to my car with me," he said abruptly. "I have something for you."

"No way." she said, recoiling a little, her drink sloshing in its glass. "Are you mental?" Under her breath she added, "Creeper."

"No, sorry," he said, holding up a hand. "That came out all wrong." He paused a moment. "I remembered where I've met you before. It was on the train. The Underground."

"What? How? I haven't taken—" She stopped short, squinting again. She held up her hand, as if to blot the jumper from her sight completely.

"You left your muffler behind," he explained, "and I have it in my glovebox."

With this, she clamped a hand over her own mouth. "Oh my God. I haven't told anyone about that," she said quietly, "except for the girls."

"And the world, through Craigslist."

"I never would have guessed the train," she murmured; the 180° turn in her attitude was astonishing. He suspected his own was, as well. "So… do you really have it in your car?"

"I do."

Bridget glanced around to see if they were being watched; he realised they were, because of the whole parental setup thing. "I'm going to finish my drink," she said, then emptied the glass, "and take it to the kitchen—I can meet you outside after. I just… well, my mum. Don't want her to read anything in it, you know?"

He nodded. He understood all too well. "I'll try to get out discreetly."

She nodded too, then grinned. "All so clandestine," she explained. "Okay. Be out in a few."

His mother, of course, caught him up as he slipped into his coat. "Where are you going?"

"I have to get something out of the car," he answered. "I'll be right in."

He went out there and couldn't suppress a small smile. She hadn't made it outside yet—reminiscent of their appointment at Pret. He walked over to his car and unlocked it, then reached in to fetch the muffler.

Just as he closed the door of the vehicle, he heard footsteps approaching. He looked up to see Bridget approaching—no coat, no jacket, and clearly regretting the choice. Her eyes lit up at the sight of the muffler, and with a beaming smile she reached out to take it.

"Thank you so much," she said, wrapping it around her neck. "I really am sorry for the whole, you know, 'dozing on you' thing."

"Don't worry about it."

"And I'm sorry I fucked up—sorry I didn't get to Pret on time. All of that stuff I said, it was exactly what happened, I swear. Oh, wait, I can prove it." She pulled out her mobile, then scrolled to some photos of herself with her handbag pretty firmly caught in the door. "Look." He remembered the story she'd given, the one about her handbag getting caught in the door, and had thought at the time it had been a ludicrous lie. He couldn't help laughing lightly now. One of the photos was of Bridget and a blonde friend. "That's Shaz," she explained. "She was coming with me, because you might have been an axe murderer for all I knew… she took no pity, and took lots of pictures as she cackled like a maniac. But obviously you're not an axe murderer. Right?"

He chuckled. "I apologize for being so short with you," he said as she stowed her mobile again. "I had a lot on my mind, a trip back to New York City, and the holidays…" He noticed she had begun to run her hands up and down her upper arms, a pretty universal sign for 'freezing cold.' Without a second thought, he slipped out of his coat and put it around her shoulders, taking her aback.

"Thanks," she said, then smiled. "I still do owe you a coffee."

He almost responded with an automatic "It's not really necessary," but instead found himself saying, "I'd like that."

"Back in London," she amended.

"Obviously." A mental image flashed before his eyes, of the two of them seated in the one and only café in Grafton Underwood, with the faces of his mother, her mother, and the village hens pressed to the glass… 

"Great," she said, grinning again.

"Let me give you my mobile number," he said. "We can try for Pret again."

"Sounds good," she said; she turned to look back at the house. "We should get inside…"

He nodded.

They expected to slip into the house unnoticed, each pick up a plate, and carry on with lunch. That was not what happened. All eyes were upon them, and the only sound was the 70s-era music wafting from the stereo speakers; the silence was broken only when Geoffrey Alconbury spoke up: "Hurr, hurr, what a way to start the new year, eh!"

She slipped out of the coat, which he hung up again; they each tried to ignore the attention from their mothers and Una Alconbury. He could hear Pam harangue her daughter across the room, suggesting crassly that they had slipped out for a little 'heavy petting' (her words) in private. Mark suspected she was not the only one that held this opinion, to his chagrin.

His mother's face was aglow; she clearly thought that the setup she'd had a hand in arranging had been a great success. "I didn't think you were going to hit it off at first," she said, but added smugly, "but something must have clicked if you felt the need to sneak off…"

"Not for the reason you assume," he said wearily, thinking, Not you, too.

"What reason, then?"

"I don't want to go into it right now," Mark said, and that was that; she didn't pursue it further.

He ate lunch, a passably decent curry with potato, and after he finished he decided that though it was early, he could now decently make a retreat back to London. He said his goodbyes; he felt a bit guilty, leaving her to bear the brunt of the commentary, but he could only imagine the chatter that would generate if he'd offered her a ride. Assuming she'd need one, assuming she'd even accept. But the offer itself would have raised eyebrows.

He thought a lot about everything on his drive home to London—the wild coincidence of it all, how wrong he had been about assuming she'd lied about why she hadn't made the meeting at Pret, when in fact she'd just had ridiculous, unbelievably bad luck. How she had been wearing an awful outfit presumably for the same reason he had worn the awful jumper—he had, after all, seen how she usually dressed, and given the boots and miniskirt, he suspected that there had not been tapestry fabric under her coat.

He had to admit was more than a little intrigued to see how things would go during the coffee date.

Chapter Text

Have escaped parental hell. Let me know when we can meet—can really use it after first day back to work.

It took Mark a moment to realise that the text message was from Bridget about the owed coffee, and he laughed a little.

Are you talking about coffee, he replied, or a cocktail?

After a moment she responded again. LOL, don't tempt me. But all indications were that she was typing again. Though, you know… I'm game for a cocktail if you are.

He couldn't think of a reason why not. He responded, Sure have a place in mind?

He waited, watched her type, then stop, then type again, until finally: The American Bar, at the Savoy?

This surprised him a little. He had expected her to choose something a little more bohemian. Perhaps she was choosing it thinking it was a place he wanted to go. Yes, that's good. 6:30pm? He sent it, then added, Give or take a few minutes.

OK, she replied. Will try not to get my handbag caught in the door this time.

He chuckled a little. A self-deprecating sense of humour spoke of a certain level of humility, and he liked that.

Mark arrived promptly at 25 past the hour, scanning the crowd in the bar before ascertaining that she had not yet arrived. He wasn't surprised. In fact, he expected that she'd be late again, as if it were a bizarre sixth sense, so he sidled up to the bar and ordered a scotch and a charcuterie plate to share.

He raised up the glass and looked around again at the sea of anonymous faces, looking to see when she might arrive. After a few minutes of scanning the area, he realised that most of these people were young professionals in their work suits. People dressed very much like him. It reinforced his opinion that she had picked the place to try to accommodate him.

He felt his mobile vibrate in his pocket. He pulled it out to read it.

Nearly to Temple Station, incident-free!

He smiled, then raised his tumbler up for a sip of the amber liquid and continued the careful visual scan, though as soon as she did arrive, he realised he needn't have bothered. No one else in the place wore knee-high boots, black tights, and an orange skirt. Her hair was pulled up at the crown, mussed from the wind outside, wisps of her blonde hair framing her face. The purple muffler hung loosely around her neck; the ends flew out behind her as she rushed in.

She then spotted him at the bar. First she offered a smile, but it quickly turned into a little scowl. As she came closer, she said, pointing to his drink, "That's supposed to be on me."

"Nice to see you again, too," he said drolly. "You can get the second round." He paused to take in the last of the drink in and then set down the empty tumbler. "It's been a day."

"Fair enough," she said with a small smile. She turned to get the attention of the barman, but with the crowd and the fact that she was shorter in height than most of the other patrons, she was having no luck at all.

He decided to intervene on her behalf. He raised a hand and gave a little wave. She turned to look at him as he did.

"What are you doing?" she asked, a bit indignant.

"Getting the barman's attention for you." He nodded to indicate he had succeeded.

"Hello, yes," Bridget said, snapping back to face the barman. "Another of whatever he's already had, and a mojito for me."

"Yes, miss."

The barman poured their drinks and set them down; she picked hers up and then turned back to Mark. "Well. Here's to lost things finding their way home."

Mark raised his tumbler, too. "Hear, hear."

They made their way to an available table, slipped out of their overcoats. She was reluctant to reach for something from the meat and cheese plate Mark had ordered that arrived to the table just after they had, until he told her to please help herself.

After a few moments of silence, she said, "So, do they expect you to hit the ground running after the holidays like they do where I work?" He always expected to pick up where he left off, so he wasn't sure what she was getting at; he let her continue. "I always feel like it's cruel not to let you ease back into it, after getting in the habit of lazing about, eating chocolates and watching the telly…"

She had a point, and he nodded. He had spent a lot of time actually relaxing and watching the football. "It took me a while to pick up the threads of my pre-holiday work."

"Yes! That exactly!" she said excitedly, then sipped her drink again. "Oh, that is a good drink. They do make them strong here, don't they?"

"That's what I've heard," Mark said. "I don't typically get a mixed drink."

"Scotch, eh?" She made a show of looking into his tumbler, and pulled a little face. "That's serious business."

"Not a fan?"

"It's a bit too harsh for me," she said.

"Perhaps an acquired taste, then," he said. "Or perhaps just a preference. It'll always be the same, more or less. I don't have to guess whether it's going to be strong or weak. Macallan 18 is pretty much always Macallan 18."

"You know what you like and you don't take a chance with something you might not," she supplied. "Wait, that came out wrong, sorry. I mean, it's comfortable. I get that." She grinned. "I pretty much never stray from the same Ben & Jerry's flavour."

At this, he couldn't help but chuckle. "That's it exactly," he said. "And don't worry. No offense was taken."

They engaged in more small talk, mostly to do with the weather and the subject of why he was unavailable before the holidays (her response, utterly earnestly: "You were living in New York? How exciting!"). He had been pacing himself as they talked, so he still had plenty of his drink left when she ordered a second mojito for herself. He declined having another. "I'm probably going to regret this, but they're so good," she said. "And today was so rough."

"So what is it exactly that you do?" he asked.

"I work in publishing," she said. "Publicity. It can be dreadfully dull, with the occasional book launch party. You? My mum mentioned you were a barrister—is that right?"

He nodded. "Human rights cases," he said.

"Jesus," she blurted. "And here I am complaining about my stress…" She looked a bit sheepish. "Mum had said you were some top barrister commanding hundreds of pounds an hour, but I assumed she was just, you know. Upselling you."

He couldn't help laughing a little again. It was a confession he had not expected to hear. It made him think about all of the things his mother (and Una Alconbury) had said about her. He had to wonder if 'millions of men' taking her out wasn't something of an exaggeration. "In this case, she wasn't."

"She always does, so I just assume," Bridget said, swirling her drink with the straw. "Shit, I really want another, but I have to work in the morning."

This statement prompted him to glance at his watch. To his surprise, they had been talking, picking on bar food, and drinking their drinks for two hours. "Yes, probably a good idea say goodnight," he said. He then smiled. "Thanks for the drink."

"Thanks again for my muffler," she said, then rose from her seat. "Time to wind my way home. Ooh." She wobbled on her feet a little, grasping the edge of their table. "Definitely stronger drinks than I'm used to."

"Let me drive you home," he said; he couldn't let her navigate the Underground as unsteady as she was.

"Oh, you brought your car?"

He nodded.

"If it's no trouble, I'd really appreciate it."

"No trouble at all," he said.

They donned their coats and gathered up their things; he guided her towards the exit, a steadying hand between her shoulders.

"I'm not completely plastered, you know," she said, once they were in the relative quiet on the pavement outside, "but thanks all the same for that."

"My pleasure," he responded automatically. "Come, my car's this way."

Once they reached it, he pulled the door opened for her. He noticed that she was smirking as they buckled in, and he gave her a curious look that prompted her to speak.

"Really glad you're not an axe murderer, 'cause this a really nice car."

He couldn't help but smile as he turned the key to engage the engine. "So, where do you live?" he asked. "So I can program the satnav."

"Ah, yes, right."

Within minutes they were on their way; a comfortable silence filled the car, and his thoughts drifted back to the evening. It had been quite pleasant; she was not the kind of woman he would have ordinarily met in his social circles. Frankly, it was a rather refreshing change of pace. Mark wondered how they might have hit it off on New Year's if not for the chance occasion on the Underground, if he had not been the one to find her muffler. Given how they had both bristled at first at the set-up, he didn't think it would have gone well at all.

They were to her building in very little time. He glanced over to see that she was sort of gazing out of the windshield in an introspective way. Politely, Mark cleared his throat. She started. "Sorry, was off in my thoughts," she said, then smiled. "Thanks for the lift home." Before he had a chance to get the door for her, she opened it, then stepped out and was running off towards her building. Within another moment, she was inside.

As he drove home, he heard his mobile buzz a few times. When he checked the message upon pulling up in front of his home, he started to laugh a little.

Hi—can't believe this happened again, but please tell me my muffler is in your car…?

He turned on the interior dome light and there it was, in a pile on the floorboard. How had that even happened?

Fear not. Indeed you did manage to leave it behind.

After a pause, she responded: Oh thank goodness. Swear that usually am not this careless.

He was convinced from their interactions to date that she was indeed usually this careless. He smiled to himself in his observation.

Hate to be a pest, but can I stop by your office or something to pick it up?

Court this week, he responded. Will let you know when it would be convenient to meet.

There was silence until he got back into the house.

You know, before we met in person that would have seemed a bit gruff. But oddly now it does not. Let me know. xx

He blinked at the "xx" at the end of the message until another message came in.

Almost immediately she added: Disregard that. I mean, you know what I mean, right?

He replied right away, even though he was not sure at all what she meant. It's disregarded.

OK. Hope to hear back soon.

He set his mobile down onto its charging pad, then slipped out of his overcoat and shoes. His mind was even more occupied than before. What had she meant by that closing?

It was nothing, he decided, as he scale the stairs towards his bedroom. She was… well, he thought of the words he'd once used to describe the scent he associated with her, and how well they described her: sweet and a little nutty. She was probably just used to signing her text messages to her friends with it. He supposed it was a promising sign that she felt comfortable enough to let her focus down, to think of him as a friend, and append the endearment onto his message, but…

But maybe it wasn't nothing. Should he assume it wasn't? He loosened his tie, then tossed it gingerly onto the foot of the bed. He glanced up and at himself in the mirror. What if there was something to it? What would be the harm in asking her out on a proper date? The worst that could happen was that she could say no; it would be a blow to his ego, but his evening would be no different than before. If she said yes, though…

He noticed then that his reflection was smiling.

………

Mark strove for casualness as he held the mobile in his hand, but he had to admit a little nervousness. People asked other people out on dates through text all of the time, or so he was led to believe by the secretaries at work. He had never been very confident asking women out, because he hadn't had the greatest luck in the past. More recently, he couldn't be sure whether they were really interested in him or his money.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, thought Mark, as he began to type into his mobile.

Are you free for dinner on Friday night?

After he sent it, the silence was agonising. How long was too long, these days? He had no idea. Then he saw the indication that a response was incoming, the animated ellipsis.

Dinner?

He sighed. This was when tone of voice would have been helpful. He went for humour.

You know, that meal you eat after work.

This time the typing activity came much more quickly.

LOL. Well, obvs. Like……… a date?

Humour was obviously working well for him.

Absolutely. Was planning on taking out your muffler, thought you might like to come along.

This time the length of her silence was longer than the first, and he began to worry he'd really stepped in it. Then she began to type again: Yes, sure, sounds nice.

He was not convinced. Are you sure? Was only kidding. Sorry to offend.

Is ok. Not offended. Little odd, is all. Will explain on Friday.

Intriguing.

He asked, Have a favourite place? Or I can pick. Let me know.

OK, she replied.

Before Friday, preferably, he added.

She replied one more time, and the message contained only an emoji, sticking its tongue out, as if (teasingly) offended that she might not respond in a timely manner.

He had a fleeting thought that it was perhaps the first time he had ever seen that emoji.

He realised that the court recess was just about over. He pressed the button on the side to darken the screen, then tucked the mobile back into his jacket pocket, and switched his mind back into work mode.

In fact, he went so deep into work mode that when his mobile announced an incoming message later that evening, he was genuinely confused as to who it could be. As he read it, though, he wondered how he could have forgotten.

Hi! How do you feel about Moroccan food?

Honestly, it was not at all what he expected to get in a response. When he'd asked women out in the past, they would often suggest the name of the latest trendy bistro. He should have expected this kind of suggestion from her, though.

Love it. Completely open to it.

She replied: Oh, goody! Will send you address. What time?

He considered a moment. Six-thirty seemed too early for her to get away from work in time to make it, given how late she had been for the Pret meeting and their drinks date. 7pm?

She responded: Sounds good.

Do you need a lift?

Is all right, we're coming from different directions. Easier to meet there, I think. See you then!

A few minutes later his mobile pinged again, providing him with the name and address of the restaurant. He hadn't heard of it before, but looking at their website and browsing the reviews, it looked like she'd really picked a winner. He pocketed the mobile, a smile upon his face. He was, surprisingly enough, really looking forward to Friday night.

………

He stared at the restaurant front, then stared at the information on his mobile. Surely there was a mistake? He had to wonder if he had come to the wrong address. It seemed dark, it was a bit dingy, and he hadn't seen anyone enter or exit in the few minutes he'd been standing there.

He spotted the name of the restaurant hanging over the door. Hesitantly he reached for the door and pulled it open. Instantly he realised how deceptive outward appearances could be. The soft amber glow of the lighting reflecting off of gold linework on the painted walls, the sounds of a gentle but persistent drum, and the perfume of spices hanging in the air… the overall warmth of the place was undeniable.

He would have thought he'd have learned his lesson by now about appearances.

"May I help you, sir?"

Mark turned around to see the querulous face of a woman whom he assumed was the hostess. She was looking at him as if he had stepped out of a time machine come from the past; a quick glance around told him that the suit he was wearing was not commonly seen among the clientele. Fair enough, he thought. His work suit was a bit too formal for this place.

"Yes, hello, I'm meeting a friend here. I don't think she's arrived yet." Just then it occurred to him that he should have looked into making reservations. "I'm sorry, I don't think she phoned ahead to reserve a table."

"That's all right; we have tables available. Party of two?"

"Yes, thank you."

"Can we bring you refreshment while you wait?"

"Water, please."

She nodded, then retreated. A server returned shortly afterwards to bring him a tall glass of ice water with a mint leaf in it. He thanked her, took a sip, and began inspecting the artwork on the wall in the waiting area. It was nothing more than a geometric pattern, but there was something comforting, almost meditative, in allowing his gaze to lazily follow that pattern around in zigzags…

"Hey, sorry I'm late—hope you haven't been waiting long."

Mark turned away from the painted wall at the sound of her voice, though it took him a moment to speak; she wore a dark blue dress, her hair was down and wavy, brushing against her shoulders looking impossibly like the gild on the walls. He thought she was wearing a little more eye makeup than usual; stunning, enhancing the blue of her eyes, and not at all over the top. The overall effect was just beautiful. "Hello," he said. "No, I've only just arrived myself." He looked to his watch and found he had been lost in the painting for fifteen minutes at least.

She smiled. "Oh, whew. I've kept you waiting too many times already."

"I think they were preparing a table," he said, then looked to where the hostess waited, and she looked up just as he looked over, and nodded. "I think they're ready for us." He knit his brow. "Did you have a coat?"

"I've hung it over there," she said, pointing to a coat rack near the hostess' stand.

"Ah. Good."

"I'll show you to your table," came the soft interruption from the hostess.

She took them to the corner, where the walls were painted a dark blue with a gold geometric pattern and stars overlaid. A lovely candle lantern sat in the middle of the circular table, casting little stars of light onto the tablecloth. The atmosphere was perfect.

The hostess laid two menus down. "Your server will be along soon to take your order," she said with a smile. "No hurry, though."

The circular table had a bench-type seat; she entered from one side, and he, from the other, meeting somewhat at a right angle to each other around the table.

She smiled a bit awkwardly, looking at him over the light of the candle. He asked her if something was wrong. "No, not wrong; it's my favourite table, but I'm usually with my friends. I didn't really think about… well, it's kind of…" Her cheeks went pink.

"Kind of what?" he prompted.

"…romantic."

He smiled a little. It was a little romantic—perhaps more than a little—but he hoped she didn't feel pressured by it. "It's lovely, relaxing, soothing after a very long and trying week. I'm not reading anything more into it."

She relaxed, smiling again. "Good," she said. "That's why I like it so much. It's a bit magical, if I'm honest."

"It is," he murmured. Returning to the task at hand, he took the menus and handed one to her. "What do you recommend?"

"The big group of us usually get and split this—" Her pink-tipped finger pointed to the chicken and pastry bisteeyah. "But I've also gotten this—" Now she pointed to the slow-cooked stew called tagine. "—and it's very good. In fact, I've never been disappointed by anything I've had here."

"Good to know." After much perusing, he decided to go with the tagine, and so did she. "Was thinking of these for a starter." He indicated the briouates, little pastry rolls filled with goat cheese, sour cream, sun-dried tomato, and other spices.

"They sound nice," she said. "If you meant to split it."

"Yes, of course," he said.

"And mint tea. Can't not have mint tea."

"'Moroccan whisky'," Mark joked with a little laugh. "Pretty much have to ask them not to bring it."

She giggled, tucking her hair behind her ear. He noticed she did this often, but it never stayed. "Oh, but they also have some cocktails," she said. "One's a Moroccan Mojito that is absolutely killer."

"Sold."

"And then there's dessert, but I don't even want to look at that yet, or I'll just want to dive straight into a plate of chebakia."

 There was a photo in the menu of this dessert, which looked like rose-shaped fried dough drizzled with honey. He had to agree it looked quite delicious.

After placing their order, they sat for a bit in silence, but it was comfortable. Relaxing. He felt oddly unpressured to impress; he hoped she felt the same. "I'm glad you agreed to dinner," he said. "I'm grateful for your muffler. Hope you don't mind I left it in my car."

"That's fine," she said. "Oh—" She laughed nervously. "I promised to explain that reaction about your joke… it's just… do you know a man called Daniel Cleaver?"

Mark would have been less surprised to hear her ask him if he knew King Richard the Third. "We used to be university mates, but I haven't spoken to him in years. Not important now. Why do you ask?"

"He had recently made a similar joke trying to ask me out," she said. "Offering to take out my skirt, and I could come too if I liked."

Of course; Mark had probably pulled the joke out of the recesses of his memory without even realising consciously where it had come from. "That doesn't surprise me," Mark said coolly. "I apologise that I even remotely sounded like that man." He cleared his throat. "Sorry. The less I think about him, the better."

She looked at him, deeply introspective. "He must have hurt you badly. I'm sorry to hear it. And I'm glad I never agreed. I'd thought about it, but he's my boss, and then your joke made me think that maybe he was just feeding me a line."

"Your… boss." It made sense. Cleaver was the editor-in-chief at a London publishing house. "Obviously," Mark said, "I'm glad you never agreed, too."

She grinned.

"I hope you didn't think I was feeding you a line," he said, suddenly concerned.

"I don't get the impression you go around feeding women lines," she said teasingly. "I mean, if you did, you wouldn't need to get set up with the likes of me by your mum." As she said it, she brought her hand up to cover her mouth. "Jesus, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that. And I haven't even had a drink yet."

"No offense taken," he said, laughing a little. "But you shouldn't sell yourself short, you know. I didn't ask you to dinner because of my mother." He reached out to place his hand over hers—

Just then, however, the goat cheese and tomato starters arrived, along with the cocktails. He sat upright and drew his hand back.

"Oh, this smells amazing," she said, her eyes lighting up with unmitigated joy at the plate set down before them. "And these cocktails are works of art."

He used the little tongs to put two of the small pastries on her small plate, and two on his own. He then picked one up and took a bite. He didn't bandy the word "amazing" around as often as she seemed to, but in this case, it was warranted. He nodded in agreement.

And then he tasted the drink. He would have to limit himself to this single drink; it would be easy to overindulge, so smooth and sweet was the flavour, despite the rum.

"Thank you, by the way," she said. "I mean, what you said about not selling myself short." She grinned, stirring the straw in her drink. "It does seem highly unlikely we would have gone out if not for our mums."

"I've got to disagree," Mark said. "If we're going to owe it to anyone, we need to owe it to your propensity for leaving your muffler behind."

At this she smiled almost shyly.

"It's true, I don't meet a lot of women," he said. The words flowed, perhaps thanks to the drink. "Certainly none like you, so different from the ones I meet at work. No, no, that's a compliment," he added hastily, at her reaction. "Definitely a compliment. They're stylish, posh, and utterly self-obsessed. Transparent as glass and only after one thing. And not the thing you're thinking of."

She looked a bit stunned at his confession, but then laughed aloud. "Revelatory," she said. "I always thought men had it all together as the pursuers, but that's not it at all, is it?"

"Some of us definitely feel pursued, to my usual discomfort," he said, a half-hearted grin playing on his lips. "But not this. This is… nice."

"It is nice," she said, still smiling. She placed her hand atop his, wrapping her fingers around his, squeezing slightly before taking her hand away. It was a quick gesture, meant to show casual reassurance, but to him, the touch of her hand against his was electric. If she felt it too, she didn't show it. He liked it. He realised he wanted more.

Before long the main course arrived, as did the mint tea; she ordered a second cocktail for each of them, and he did not speak up to say no. The tagine came with warm bread and he ate them together eagerly. She seemed equally delighted with the dish; as they partook in dinner and their drinks, there was very little conversation.

"Wow," she said, sitting back. "That was good. Even better than usual."

He had no basis for comparison, but he had to agree it was exceptional. He drank the last of the second cocktail and set down the empty glass. "Thank you for suggesting this place. It's a true gem."

"Thank you for asking," she beamed, pushing her unruly hair behind her ears again. "Torn. Dessert or no?"

"I'm game if you are," he said. "With coffee."

"Oh, yes, perfect." As she said this, she brought her hands together, which shook her hair free again. Quite without thinking he raised a hand and tucked it behind her ear. It made him realise too how much physically closer to each other they were now.

"Perfect."

The word had slipped from his lips before he realised it, and she met his gaze.

"Oh?"

He drew back his hand, regretting the discomfort he may have caused, but not the sentiment. "The night is," he said. "The food, the drink, your company. You."

He saw the pink rise in her cheeks again, and she glanced down. "Not me."

"Pardon?"

"Not me," she said again. "I'm anything but perfect."

"The funny thing is, Bridget, that I am growing rather fond of that about you."

She seemed to be thinking about what to say in response when their server came to inquire how things were going. She swept away their plates and took their order for a plate of chebakia and two coffees.

Once they were left alone again, he said, "I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. I'm sorry."

"No, it's fine, I'm fine," she said. She met his gaze again. "I'm just… so far, I can find no flaws with you. It's a bit unnerving."

He smiled tenderly. "I can assure you, I have my flaws," he said. "For example—I tend to fold even clothes that are meant for the laundry basket."

This made her smile, then laugh. "Just picturing your laundry hamper stacked with folded socks and underpants."

"Accurate," he said with a smile.

The dessert and the coffees arrived, and with glee she plucked up one of the pastry roses. "It's the honey that makes these so good," she announced, then took a bite, making a small sound of delight at she did.

He chose one, too, and took a bite. Like everything else they had eaten that night, it was delectable, and the coffee served to balance the sweet of the dessert perfectly. Between the two of them, they cleared the plate in little time at all; it was just the right amount after the meal. He found himself watching her lick the honey off of her fingertips perhaps a little too intently. He looked away and to his coffee cup, which he picked up and emptied.

He indicated that he was ready for the bill, as much as he wished to stay in this corner with the golden stars cast upon the table and the shining lines and stars glowing on the wall.

"Thank you," she said just after the server had come to the table with the card reader.

"Genuinely my pleasure," he said.

"You know, I love sitting here," she said. "It's so pretty and peaceful, and it's even better when I'm not surrounded by my rowdy, pissed friends."

"I imagine so."

She shifted slightly to sit closer, then placed her hand where his rested on the bench's seat. He felt that electric warmth as she touched him, and he turned to look at her. He had looked at her many times over the course of the evening, but this time, something was ever so slightly different. He found it hard to draw his gaze away from her.

Just then, she leaned forward and planted a quick kiss on his cheek.

"We should go," he said, because it would have been inappropriate to try to kiss her there in public, as secluded as the table was.

"All right," she said quietly.

Chapter Text

They slipped out of the bench, making their way to the door; he kept a hand against her upper back as if to guide her, even though she hardly needed guiding. He helped her into her coat then slipped on his own, and with that, they were out on the pavement. The cold of the air was a shock compared to the cosy warmth inside. He put his hands into his coat pockets.

"Do you need driving home?"

She nodded. "If it's no trouble," she said. "Are you okay to drive?"

"Yes," he said.

"I mean, I would feel terrible causing you to get nabbed for drink driving—"

"It's fine," he said. "Come on, I'll show you were my car is."

He hadn't parked very far away; together they walked, side by side, saying not a word. He opened the door for her, and after she was settled in he went around and took the driver's seat. After engaging the engine, he scrolled back on the satnav and brought up her address.

"Mark?"

"Hm?" He looked toward her.

"Is it all right that I kissed you?"

"Of course."

In retrospect he realised she was not using the past tense at all, but asking permission; it was the only explanation for why she suddenly leant forward and pressed her lips to his, catching him somewhat off-guard.

Not for long.

He leaned forward, too, to make it easier to make that connection, reaching to place a hand on her cheek for what he expected to be a brief, chaste kiss. But then he felt the roughness of her tongue sweep along his lower lip, which took him by surprise again. His reaction was instinctive, and he parted his lips to welcome the deepening of the kiss; the taste of the residual honey on her lips sparked a desire that took him quite by surprise.

When they pulled apart, Mark realised they had been kissing long enough to steam up the windows. "Sorry," she murmured, sitting back into her seat.

"Don't apologise," he said, more curtly than he intended. "Sorry," he added, then smiled, then chuckled at the absurdity of it.

She smiled, too. "Sorry," she said again.

They had to wait a few moments for the ventilation to defog the windows, and then they were off. The silence in the car was different than previous. There was a slight crackle in the air, something that felt very close to anticipation. He vowed to not accept an offer to come up to her flat, though, should she make one. It was only the first date (well, their third time out together, but only the first proper date), and it would have been too tempting to go further should they kiss again.

The traffic was light for that time of night for London, and they arrived in a very short amount of time. As he pulled into a spot at the kerb, she asked, "Would you… like to come up for a bit? I'm still worried you might be too pissed to be driving safely."

The concern on her face was genuine. Had he driven unsafely, or put them at risk? He was suddenly worried that he had misjudged the strength of the drinks. "If you think that's best," he said, "maybe I should."

Her relief was visible. "Yes," she said. "You should."

He got out then went around to get the door for her. He offered a hand to help her get to her feet. She dug her keys out of her bag as he closed the car door. She waited for him at the building's open door, then proceeded him up the stairs.

As she climbed the stairs in front of him, he watched her backside move. He realised belatedly that his resolve could use some work.

"I'm not going to promise the flat is at all clean," she said, pushing her key into the door. "I wasn't expecting company."

"It's all right."

They stepped inside and she turned on the light. He looked around, taking everything in; the mismatched furniture, the quirky art decorations, the ambient lighting, the fairy lights draped across the arch into the place. "Home sweet home," she said, then turned to face him. "Would you like something? Tea? I have sparkling water…."

"Perhaps some water, thanks."

"Okay," she said with a smile. "I'll get that, if you want to make yourself comfortable…"

He slipped out of his coat then suit jacket. Before he took a seat on her sofa, he glanced out of the window; it wasn't the greatest view, and in fact, the train line seemed to pass directly by the window. But he had to admit that overall, the flat was charming, welcoming, and warm.

"Here you are," came her voice, and he turned to see her holding one glass of sparkling water out to him, and another closer to her for herself. He took it from her with a quiet thanks. She took a seat next to him on the couch, and offered a smile before she sipped at her glass.

He figured he wouldn't need to spend more than an hour to feel a little more sober. He would drink the sparkling water, and then say goodnight before returning to his car and then driving home. Excellent plan. Prudent.

He took a long sip. "Just what I needed," he said quietly. He drank from his glass again, and she, from hers. She finished before he did, and set her glass on the table. Once he finished his drink, he set the empty glass down next to hers. Their gazes met again, and she smiled.

It had barely been ten minutes. He couldn't possibly be sobered up enough yet.

"This is a lovely flat, by the way," he said, striving for small talk in an effort to take his mind off of her pouty pink lips. "Have you lived here long?"

"About a decade or so," she said. "It's not very posh, but I love it here. I bought it right before real estate prices exploded into the stratosphere. Could probably make a killing if I were to sell it." She folded and unfolded her hands nervously. "Not that I plan to move any time soon. Oh. Would you like a tour?"

The flat seemed fairly open-plan, so he wasn't sure how much more there could be to see, but he agreed, and they stood in unison.

She showed him the kitchen with its little balcony (and tell-tale signs of a smoking habit), pointed out the kitchen table that did double duty as a writing desk as well as the dining room table. "I thought about doing that insane thing people do," she said, rambling a bit, "fully setting their table with flatware and everything for show, as if a dinner party might break out at any moment… but I figured it would all get a bit dusty, so I thought I'd better not."

"I'd have thought you'd have people over all the time," he said.

"What?" she asked, clearly amused. "Why would you think that?"

"Something Una said once about having…" He trailed off. Stupid loose drunken tongue.

"Having what?" she prodded.

"She said you had millions of men taking you out," he admitted. "A very glamorous life."

She looked stunned, genuinely stunned, before she started to laugh. "I don't know what she was thinking," she said with a playful smile. "Trust me. I have the opposite of a glamorous life, Mark."

"You mentioned book launches before," he said. "That must be somewhat glamorous."

"I just end up asking Salman Rushdie where the loos are," she said. "I'm not joking. That really happened."

He couldn't help laughing a little.

"So you've seen the sitting room," she said, sweeping her hand in an arc, "and speaking of loos, mine's back there, door to the left. I keep meaning to re-do the wallpaper, but… it's not so bad that I can be arsed to take it on."

"And the door to the right?" he asked, glancing down the short hallway. "Your gothic library, I suppose?"

"Ha, no, my bedroom," she said.

The word hung in the air; their eyes met before they each looked away.

"Ah," he offered, striving to be light, "I figured there must have been one here somewhere." He cleared his throat. "Well. It really is a lovely flat."

"So you've said," she said. "Did you want to see it?" He wondered what she was implying before she added, "My room. It's actually tidy for once."

He didn't want to be rude. "Sure."

She strode forward and pushed the door open. He was close behind her. Abruptly she turned directly into him.

"Oof, sorry," she said, taking a step back.

"It's all right." He looked into the room beyond; decently sized, big windows, with more bookcases and a stack of bedside reading. He couldn't have named a single book title, or what colour the walls were painted, because she stood so close that that distinct nutty yet sweet scent again washed over him. "What is that?"

"What?"

"That perfume."

"Oh, I don't have perfume on. I forgot." She brought a hand up to touch her hair. "Is it my shampoo, maybe? I switched to an argan oil shampoo…" She leant closer, combing her fingers through.

He came close to her hair and took in a deep breath. That was exactly it. He brought up his hand, cradling the back of her head, stroking her silky hair; he closed his eyes and murmured again, "Lovely."

He heard her exhale sharply, felt her hands on his arms, felt her fingers press into him, felt her warm breath on his cheek. He heard her say in quiet exasperation, "Oh for God's sake, Mark," as she raised up on her toes then pressed her lips to his.

His plan to just sober up a little and then leave went straight out of the window. One of his arms came around her back to hold her tightly; his other hand came up to cup her face, fingers threading through her hair, as they resumed a kiss as deep as the one they'd shared in the car. She made a soft little sound as the hand he'd rested at her waist went down and over the curve of her backside. The longer they kissed, the louder he heard the warning sirens in his head—knew he should de-escalate the situation and retreat like a gentleman—but the scent of her hair, the residual honey on her lips, was fuelling something in him from which he didn't want to walk away.

But he shouldn't sleep with her. He had only just started to get to know her. He liked her a whole lot, and holy hell was he attracted to her, but to go from friendly coffee to dinner to sex seemed far too much too soon. He could not deny that he liked kissing her, that he liked the way her curves fit into the palm of his hand, the scent of her hair, the softness of her breast—

He stopped and took a deep breath, trying to allow his senses to catch up to him, pressing his forehead to hers. He had sat on the bed, and she was straddling his lap, sitting on his knees. "I got a little carried away," he managed, pulling the collar of her dress back into alignment to cover her lacy undergarment. "Sorry."

"Oh my God, don't apologise," she said, trying to catch her own breath, pushing her hair out of her face. She put one hand on his face; her palm seemed hot. "Was rather enjoying you getting carried away," she said, moving her thumb in a small arc, "in case you couldn't tell by the fact that I am sat on you like this."

He met her gaze and she held it; he had to admit he quite liked her in her present position, and she was quite obviously more than happy to be there. Maybe he was being too cautious. Carpe diem, he thought, as he grasped her hips, pulled her closer to him, and kissed her again.

He liked the feeling of her against his chest, of her fingernails raking through his hair. He liked how her head fell back when he kissed her chin. His hands moved from her hips to her thighs; he could feel the heat of her skin through the dress.

"Bloody winter."

Her words got his attention, and he paused in his ministrations. "Pardon?"

She tipped her head aside with a sigh. "So many layers," she said.

He chuckled lightly. He pulled his hands back towards her knees until he found the hem of her dress… then slipped his hands up her legs again between the dress and her stockings. She made a soft sound. "Maybe I should…" she began, moving away from him.

He stopped moving his hands, then withdrew them. "I'm sorry," he said. "Maybe I shouldn't have done that."

"No, it's not that," she said with a smile. "It's just… the bloody layers. I should probably lose them."

"Ah." He helped her to her feet. "I can step out, if you'd like the privacy."

She nodded, blushing pink. "Seems silly, doesn't it? I mean… considering."

"Not at all." He stood up. "Let me know when you're ready."

He stepped out of the bedroom, and as he waited it in the hall he unclasped his cufflinks and placed them in the pocket, loosened and removed his tie, then unfastened the top button of his shirt. He stepped out of his shoes, placing them near the front door, before returning to the hall outside of the room.

"Mark," he heard her say, "are you still there?"

He opened the door to see she had slipped beneath the sheets, the covers pulled up to and revealing only bare shoulders. "Yes, of course," he said. "I was just taking my shoes off."

"Oh." She smiled. She had switched on a small lamp on the bedside, instead of the brighter overhead light. The atmosphere was a warm, pleasant one. On the bedside table, next to the stack of books, he noticed something that hadn't been there before: a few condom packets.

He had given her total privacy, but now found himself under the scrutiny of her gaze. As if realising this inequality, she brought a hand up to cover her eyes. As she did, he undid the buttons and slipped out of his shirt, undershirt, trousers, boxers, and socks.

"You folding everything up?" she teased.

"Of course," he volleyed back immediately.

He moved around to the edge of the bed, to where she had folded back the corner for him. As he slipped in next to her, she took her hand away.

As he turned to her, she said, "I have a confession."

"Oh?" He brushed her hair out of her face, then rested a hand on her cheek.

"I peeked."

He waited a beat, then said, "I'll forgive you," before leaning down to kiss her.

What his gaze had not seen, his hands soon explored and filled the gaps in within his mind's eye. He revelled in the softness of her skin as his hands slipped over the curves of her body; his passion flared at the feel of her nails raking along his skin. They had turned and shifted enough that she was mostly beneath him, moving against one another, and it was becoming ever obvious that he was going to be needing the condom very soon. He paused in kissing her to reach over to grab a packet.

"Hope they're all right," she said hesitantly. "The right size, I mean. It's all I've got." He pulled open the packet. "I'm always a bit paranoid that they're going to be too small, or too big…"

"It's fine, darling," he said low in his throat, turning back over to her, covering her mouth with his own, moving so that she was beneath him again. He used one arm to brace himself up, and the other to caress her, cup her breast, guide her knee aside, touched her inner thigh, stroked between her legs.

A deep and throaty moan filled his ear; he felt her arch up into his touch, and he knew she was ready for him. He shifted again. With a groan of his own he drove forward and into her, eliciting a cry from her mouth. With every thrust, her fingers pressed into his back, her nails pricked at his skin, her heels dug into the backs of his thighs. She excited him more than he had ever anticipated with her throaty vocalisations and eager participation; he felt his culmination building along with hers, and he did everything he could to hasten hers. It seemed only right. Gentlemanly.

His reward was almost immediate. She arched up into him as she came. He was determined to keep her feeling good as long as he could; he pressed his lips to her throat to deliver open-mouthed kisses, nipping her earlobe, feeling her pulse under his tongue, feeling her thrumming around him.

He could hold back no longer, and with each thrust groaned in pleasure. She seemed keen to return the favour, and the feel of her fingers on his backside definitely spurred him on until he was completely spent.

He let out a long sigh as he settled to one side, drawing her over with him, stroking her hair to smooth it down where it had gone a bit mad from their activity. "More than fine," she murmured, tracing her fingers lazily in an arc over his chest, and sighed, too. "I should have got us more water. I'm parched now."

He was too, but he was loathe to move. "It's all right."

"No, no, I'll get some," she said, pulling back from him. "Just… close your eyes until I get on my robe."

He did not say he would, because he had every intention of looking at her. And he liked what he saw. Very much. The light played on her skin, over her curves, the smooth skin over which he had only just run his hands, upon which he had only just lavished kisses. But then she slipped on her robe and began to turn back to him, so he closed his eyes until he heard her footfalls going down the hall to the kitchen. He removed then discarded the condom, then leaned back to rest against the pillow, waiting for her to return.

When she did, he said, "I have a confession. I peeked."

Her initial look of shock quickly resulted in a laugh, though her cheeks flushed pink with embarrassment. She handed him a glass of water, then sat down on the bed.

"Come back under the sheets?" he asked.

"Promise not to peek this time."

"I'll do no such thing," he said, holding her gaze. "You have nothing you need to hide."

She dropped her gaze.

"Besides, I've as good as seen you by touch alone."

She smiled a little, looking up at him again. "And you're not…" she began, trailing off, pulling a face. He knew what she meant: You're not put off?

"Quite the opposite," he said. He drew back the covers to invite her back in.

She stood, set the glass down, then untied the robe and slipped it off of her shoulders. Mark was glad for the glass of water, because his mouth went dry. He took a sip, then set down the glass. She slipped in next to him; he reached for her hip and pulled her close to kiss her again. He thought it unnecessary to say anything else. She certainly seemed satisfied that he'd meant what he'd said.

It was so easy to fall into her lushness again. The feel of her skin under his fingers, her lips on his, her body against his… it electrified him. He was grateful for the additional condom stash; he would put them to use.

He was reaching for another when her own hand swatted it away; she picked one up and opened the packet, making it very clear that she was intending on applying it herself. She held it in one hand, and with the other she reached over and touched him.

He groaned at the delicate feel of her fingertips bringing him even further to attention. Light strokes became slightly more aggressive tugs, and he grasped the bedsheets, feeling urgently like he might come. "Darling, get on with it," he managed.

Mercifully, she did, and slipped the condom on before straddling his thighs, taking him by surprise. With another swift motion and a quick intake of breath, they were connected again. It was bliss.

And then she began to move, undulating back and forth. The stimulation was more than he could maintain control over, and with a jolt he arched up, placed his hands on her hips, and came.

She continued to swirl her hips in a circular pattern; her breath quickly grew stuttered. Through bleary eyes he saw her take her lower lip between her teeth, her brows furrowed, as she made distinct sounds of pleasure in her efforts. To help spur her on, he reached down to touch where their bodies met, sparking a moan from her, and her cries grew louder as he continued to caress her, gently increasing the pressure.

The waves of her climax rippled around him. She dropped down to kiss him again, still moving atop him, before breaking away with a long sigh. He felt her fingers comb through his hair, her warm breath on his cheek.

"Oh, that was nice," she murmured. Quite possibly the understatement of the century. He laughed a little, holding her tight to him.

"Quite."

………

His mobile buzzed with a text message, but he wasn't even going to be tempted to check it until he was parked in front of his house. He was already somewhat distracted by a slight drowsiness and a pleasant ache in his body from the late night spent with a beautiful woman, and the oblique morning light pricked at his eyes most uncomfortably.

When he finally arrived at home, he drew out his mobile and could not suppress a smile at the message that greeted him:

You still have my muffler xx