They were still lost somewhere in the city when his phone rang. He pulled it from his pocket and looked at the message. It was an invite from Jay. He frowned as he hovered his fingers over the screen. He felt himself pulled in two different directions. He wanted her all to himself, but he also knew the risks of this. If his friends didn’t like her, it would make it hard for her and ultimately for him. His first instinct might not be the best if he wanted a relationship with her.
“What?” she must have noticed his expression, “What’s wrong?”
“The guys are having drinks at Jay’s place tonight,” he grimaced, “They’ve invited us.”
“Oh,” she nodded, “We just past a train station. I’ll catch the train home, there’s no need for you to drop me home.”
“I said, they’ve invited us, both of us,” he tightened his grip on her hand, “You’re invited too.”
“It’s alright, I have some things I need to do,” she didn’t look at him as she spoke, “I’ll just get going.”
“No, I want you to come with me. I want them to meet you and like you,” he paused knowing that this would derail his plans for a romantic night, “But we have something else we had planned on doing tonight. It’s more important that I address these concerns of yours.”
“Your friends don’t like me,” the sentence came out sounding like a statement, but her expression implied that she’d meant it as a question.
“That’s not true,” he pulled her closer into him, “They don’t know you yet. They’ll like you when they get to know you.”
“Why don’t they like me?” she said.
“It’s not that they don’t like you,” he looked upwards for inspiration, “They just don’t trust my judgement when it comes to women.”
She looked up at him and he could read the question in her expression.
“I promised to tell you everything,” he sighed, “I have trust issues. Given me some time.”
“I said that I would,” she nodded.
“Then I’ll take you to dinner tonight,” he smiled, “We can go to ‘La Maison Vert’, I’ll ring for a table.”
“Let’s eat with your friends,” she said quickly, he was guessing but he suspected that the French restaurant was scarier to her than his friends, “They are important to you and Belinda will be there.”
“But what about our other plans,” he felt a shard of disappointment, “We have things to talk about?”
“Belinda will kick us out before nine,” Jen smiled, “We can talk when you drive me home.”
“About that,” he frowned, “Let’s stay in the city tonight. We have somewhere to go tomorrow and it would be easier if we stayed at my place.”
“We? Where are we going?” her eyes narrowed.
“It’s a surprise,” he grinned broadly.
“Good surprise or bad surprise?” she lifted her head to him.
“You’ll find out tomorrow,” he smirked, “And no, it doesn’t involve us bound together in some sexual ritual. We will be fully clothed throughout the entire thing. Does that make it good or bad?”
“You are,” she groaned.
“Unbelievable, I know,” he smirked again.
“Annoying,” she growled, “I was going to say annoying. If we are staying here, then you’re sleeping on the sofa or in the bath tub, somewhere other than next to me.”
“Whatever you want,” he smiled hoping that she’d change her mind.
“When does this thing with your friends start? I didn’t bring any other clothes, is it alright to wear this?”
“You look beautiful and it’s just a group of friends gathering,” he smiled as he looked her over, “However, you are correct, there is someone you need to meet.”
“Who?” she asked but he was already concentrating on his phone.
He dialled and spoke briefly to someone as he absently hailed a taxi. The vehicle pulled to the curb as he finished the call. Without explaining he gave the driver an address and then returned his attention to the phone. His thumbs tapped out a text as she looked out the dirty cab window.
“Are you going to tell me where we are going?” she asked as he put the phone away.
“No,” he said simply, “I’m not.”
“Why?” she asked surprised by his blunt reply.
“Because I know what you’d say if you knew,” he smiled, “I’m avoiding an argument.”
She narrowed her eyes at him as she was clearly catalogued all the destinations that would be true for. He watched her as her face showed all her emotions. She was like an open book. He was still watching her thought process when they reached their destination. Getting out of the vehicle, she opened her mouth but clamped it shut before she asked the question. She was too stubborn to ask.
They were outside a row of expensive, exclusive, designer boutiques. The signs above the stores weren’t names she would recognise, and the windows weren’t much help. The displays she was staring at consisted of clean areas with modern art, floral displays, or a single mannequin wearing something that didn’t look like clothing. Behind these were empty shops with rails of hung garments spaced so they didn’t touch the next.
She was clearly expecting him to drag her into one of these, but he didn’t. Instead he walked up to a glossy black door that was positioned neatly between them, making in almost invisible. He rang the bell before the door opened into a clean white foyer. Drew didn’t stop to look at the business names embossed on the wall, he headed straight for the open lift and immediately pressed a button. He smiled as the lift doors closed, at her look of confusion.
“Are you going to tell me now?” she finally asked.
“Nope,” he smirked, enjoying this.
She swore under her breath which just made him grin more.
When the lift opened, he headed for a plain glass door which held a single name written in lipstick red, ‘Nicole Balais’. He opened the door and held it for Jen to enter the small room. Nicole was waiting dressed in a navy suit with white piping detail in a cream room with a neat desk, leather sofas, original art, and one rail of clothing. She always looked immaculate, so her appearance didn’t surprise him.
“Mr Miller,” she smiled, as she leaned in and air-kissed him on both cheeks, “So lovely to see you again, but you know I would have come to your apartment?”
“Nicole,” he smiled, “We were out, I thought I’d save you the trouble. This is Jennifer Palmer.”
“Miss Palmer,” she turned, and held out her hand in greeting.
Drew watched as she made an initial survey of Jen stopping when she reached the steel capped boots. He smiled and tried to hide his laugh as Nicole’s manicured eyebrows shot up and she turned to him but was too professional to ask the question. Jen stood there looking confused, embarrassed and flustered by the woman that stood before her.
“I’m sorry for the short notice Nicole,” he sighed, “Can you do it?”
“Casual and evening? Including the Promil Foundation functions? And the accessories?” Nicole’s eyes strayed down to the boots again, “It will be a challenge, but I don’t anticipate a problem. Any preferences?”
“Bright and light,” he sniffed a laugh, “Simple, elegant but comfortable.”
“That’s not helpful,” Nicole frowned, “And do you require my services?”
“If necessary,” he answered, “You know my situation, I will leave it in your capable hands.”
“Yes,” she once again looked over Jen with her analytical eyes before she brought her gaze upwards, “Miss Palmer it was lovely meeting you. I will have the initial part of the order delivered this evening and I’ll give you a couple of options for the formal wear before the event.”
“Thanks Nicole,” he reached for Jen’s hand and pulled her back to the door, “You’re a lifesaver.”
“Thank you, Mr Miller,” Nicole’s attention was already turned to her computer and her phone.
He didn’t delay any further, towing Jen behind him he headed straight for the elevator and out of the building.
“What the hell was that?” Jen’s cheeks were tinged red and she looked annoyed.
“What?” he asked on purpose to annoy her further.
“Do you plan on introducing me to all your prostitutes?” she pulled her hand out of his and clenched her fists by her sides, feet planted on the pavement.
“Prostitutes? I’ll have to tell Nicole that, but then again, no, maybe I won’t,” he laughed, “Nicole Balais is my dresser not my un-dresser.”
She stood there looking at him, but he could tell from her expression that she had no idea what that meant.
“Nicole is my personal shopper,” he smiled, “I can’t just walk into a store, for a number of reasons, which is why we use Nicole. She dresses all of us and Jay’s using her for Belinda’s wardrobe too.”
“She shops for a living?” Jen glanced back at the door behind her, “That’s her career?”
“Yes, she’d very good at it too,” Drew reclaimed Jen’s hand, “Just wait and see what she gets for you.”
“She’s buying for me?” Jen stopped again.
“Don’t be offended,” Drew grimaced, “I promised you that I would replace the clothing that I damaged, and you need something for the week. If you don’t like it, she will return it, but I think you’ll be surprised.”
“I can’t afford,” Jen spluttered.
“This is my treat,” he interrupted, “And don’t get all stubborn about it. I’m not buying you a whole wardrobe, just enough clothing to get by for the week.”
“What’s wrong with my clothes?” she clenched her fists.
“Nothing,” he sighed, “But do you have formal wear? You are coming with me to the Charity event that the Promil Foundation are putting on, to protect me from those hordes of single women?”
“And Dashar,” the name slipped out of her mouth.
“Yes,” he chuckled a low laugh, “Not that you’re jealous.”
“I’m not,” she pouted, “But I still can’t afford new clothing, especially fancy stuff, and when am I ever going to wear it again?”
“This won’t be the last event that we attend together,” he said in a serious voice.
She looked away from him and didn’t respond to that, which worried him more than if she’d argued the point. He needed to understand why she was resisting him. This was the reason why he should have said no to Jay’s invitation and dragged her back to his apartment instead.
“What time is Belinda expecting us?” she asked, as if she’d read his mind.
“It’s still early,” he frowned, “Please, don’t be angry with me. I didn’t mean to offend you. Nicole is really good, you’ll love what she buys for you, and I don’t expect anything in return.”
“I know,” she whispered.
“Did Belinda say anything? You know, about us?” he reached for her hand.
“Yes,” she turned her head to him, “She said that your friends are worried about you.”
“She said that?” he swore under his breath, “She’s right.”
“Why do they think I’m going to hurt you?” she asked in a small voice he link his hand with hers and they walked towards the park.
“As I said, I don’t have a very good track record when it comes to the women I’ve dated,” his jaw tensed, “But that’s something I’ll talk to you about in private not in the middle of the street.”
“Is that why your friends were looking at me suspiciously?” her eyes flicked off into the distance, “Do they think I’m planning on hypnotising you into believing that you’re a chicken.”
“A chicken?” he coughed a laugh, “No, they just thought you were using me, in my fragile state, for sex.”
“They what?” she blinked.
“Don’t worry,” he chuckled again, “I’ve assured them that I’m still naïve and relatively unmolested. They know you’re not using me for my body and my insane skills in the bedroom, and they want to meet you.”
“Alright,” she said the word with some reluctance.
“It would mean a lot to me,” he smiled, “And I promise that I won’t mention how hypnotic you are or bring up any chicken-related references.”
“Thanks for that,” she scoffed a laugh.
“And I won’t tell them about the baby either,” he added quickly.
“The what?” she turned and punched him in the arm, “I am not pregnant. If you even mention that to them, I will put my steel caps on and, after I’m done, you won’t have to worry about needing condoms in the future.”
“Joking!” he held up one hand while rubbing his bicep muscle with the other, “I was joking.”
“You’d better be,” she gave him a firm look, “Don’t even joke about that.”
“Don’t be like that,” his hand tightened around hers, “You do know that if you are, I will be there.”
“But, I’m not,” she stomped her feet a little, “So, let’s just drop it, alright.”
“You can’t guarantee that,” he said softly.
“Yes, I can,” she snapped, “I don’t drink. I wasn’t drunk. We used condoms.”
She groaned softly as she must have realised what she’d just admitted to. He already knew what she was saying, there had been plenty of clues along the way. She hadn’t been intoxicated at the club. She’d done everything they’d done without the influence of alcohol. She’d wanted him, gone home with him and willingly made love to him, sober and in full control of all her actions. This knowledge, and the fact she was trying to hide it, made him want her even more.
“Jen,” he turned her and smiled a soft smile at her, “I know that you don’t drink. But just because you were sober doesn’t mean you weren’t intoxicated. It was an intense night and I sobered up somewhere in the middle of it. But I wasn’t in any state to worry about the birth control. My priorities weren’t on that, and I don’t think yours were either. You’re not on the pill and I know that at least one of those condoms came off at a crucial moment.”
“But,” her eyes widened, “It did?”
“I didn’t want to worry you, but yes,” he frowned, “I remember having it on but during one of the position changes it must have come off. There’s a good chance that you aren’t but I’m not going to ignore the possibility.”
“But I could be,” she closed her eyes, “What if I am?”
“The probability of that is low,” he pulled her into a tight hug, “There’s no point in worrying. I’ll be there, in whatever capacity you need me in.”
“And what if I’m not?” she pushed herself free of him and looked in his eyes, “Is this why you’re doing this? Are you here because you feel a sense of duty? If I’m not, what happens then?”
“Jen,” he pulled her back into his arms and breathed her name into her hair, “Stop thinking the worst of me. I’m not that bad. I am here because I like you. I want you because I honestly believe that we would be good together. I’m attracted to you.”
“And you want to sleep with me?”
“And I want to have sex with you,” he laughed in her hair, “Every night, and during the daytime hours too. And I’m not feeling that way out of a sense of duty.”
“Really,” she said in an unimpressed voice as she struggled out of his grip, “Let’s go, Pretty Boy. Here was I thinking we were having a moment, but no, this was just foreplay to you.”
“Why can’t a moment be foreplay?” he tilted his head but the smile that twitched the edge of his lips probably gave him away, “Now are we going to Jay’s place or not? Because we could just go straight home. I really want to throw you onto my bed and demonstrate everything I’ve just said.”
She was mumbling as he pulled her towards a waiting taxi. He couldn’t resist doing that to her. She was so gorgeous when she pretended that his teasing was annoying her. He could tell that it wasn’t. She might be inexperienced but having him openly hot for her gave her a buzz. Her eyes smouldered at him even though her words seared him.
When they arrived at Jay’s place everyone was already there. He could help but love Jay’s place. Jay was paranoid about privacy, which meant he hated living in a ‘glass-box’ like the one Drew leased. Instead he’d brought a basement apartment in a great location which, other than the walled courtyard, was hidden from the world. Despite the lack of view, he’d made it into a home and they all gravitated here when they could. It was like their secret hide-out in the city.
Everyone was busy organising food and drinks, he steered Jen towards Belinda as he went to join the men in the kitchen. As bachelors, and men who avoided the limelight, they did this frequently. Restaurants, bars and nightclubs brought unwarranted attention and they were close enough just to enjoy the company of each other. They still went out, occasionally, but most nights they just ate, talked and laughed together. They had a close bond.
“How was your afternoon,” Mark’s voice carried the weight of an implication, “From the looks of Belinda, we were just speculating whether Jay was about to go blind as well as mute.”
Jay lifted his finger in a gesture that wasn’t official sign language but conveyed his opinion accurately.
“Is Jen shorter than she was this morning?” Sam smiled a cheeky grin as he handed Drew a drink, “How does that work, anyway? She’s tiny. The mechanics of it must be tricky.”
“Yeah,” Mark laughed, “Does she have a Tardis down there? Or maybe you shrink down to fit.”
Drew growled several low swear words as he raised his finger in the same gesture as Jay had used, at the three laughing men.
“But seriously,” Sam shook the smile off his face, “Are either of you going to survive this dance with Darshar? I saw the expressions coming from your women, and I was expecting the both of you to be speaking in soprano. I need your dangly bits intact after this charity event because the Four Horsemen won’t be the same if it’s just Mark and me.”
“Jen’s not like that,” Drew looked towards where Jen and Belinda were talking.
’Belinda trusts me,’ Jay used his hands to say.
“Good because it’s too late to make any changes to the routine,” Sam sighed as he turned to Drew, “Are you sure about Jen?”
“Yeah, I’ve explained the situation to her,” Drew shrugged, “She knows, and she’s already promised to hypnotise me and have be believing I’m a chicken if I do anything off stage with Dashar.”
“A chicken?” Mark laughed, “That shouldn’t be hard to do.”
“Are you serious about her?” Sam leaned against the bench as he ignored Mark and Jay’s fists knock, “You broke up with Veronica just over a week ago and Jay had to rescue you before you drank yourself into a coma. I know what you said earlier, but this is classic rebound behaviour.”
“You said it yourselves, Veronica was cancer,” Drew growled, “Why would I be rebounding from her?”
‘But that’s not the only factor, is it?’ Jay’s hands flew as he gestured the question.
“We all knew that Belinda and Jay’s thing would bring back bad memories for you,” Mark turned his drink in his hands without looking up, “I know you, and we all know why you’re reacting like this.”
“Don’t get defensive again,” Sam added before Drew could respond, “We heard what you said this morning. We just want to make sure you’ve thought this through.”
“Do I really need to say this again?” Drew clenched his teeth. The guys had cornered him several times this morning about Jen and his relationship. “She’s different. Jen isn’t like any other woman I’ve met. I’m not rushing into anything.”
“I want to believe you,” Mark sighed, “But I also don’t want to have to scrape you off the pavement. I like you too much to have to watch you self-destruct again.”
’Don’t do anything crazy,’ Jay said in sign language, ‘We’re worried about you. Talk to us.’
“I would, if there was anything to say,” Drew looked at this drink, “I’m fine. This time it’s different.”
“We’ll see,” Mark muttered.
“Then there’s only one thing left to say,” Sam lifted his drink and the others raised their glasses up to join his, “Don’t forget that we will always be here for you.”
“Yeah, I know that,” Drew lifted his drink up to clink the glass with the other three, “Now, can we drop the subject?”
“I still don’t understand the physics of it,” Mark over-emphasised his frown, “I mean, she’s tiny and you are you, how does that even work? It’d be like ramming a fist into a shot-glass.”
Drew swore a series of muttered expletives as he lifted his own fist and mimed punching him.
“Food’s here!” Sam chimed up and headed for the door.
The food was put on the coffee table and they sat around it. Belinda and Jay took the sofa, Sam and Mark sat on the two soft armchairs that matched the sofa, and Jen and he sat on chairs next to each other. The conversation flowed. They knew each other so well that several people talked at once, different topics circulated but somehow everyone followed the conversation. He talked but kept an eye on Jen. She didn’t speak much but watched and listened as everyone talked around her. He hoped that she wasn’t feeling left out but she didn’t look upset. Her eyes sparkled as she turned to catch something that Sam said.
Once the food was gone, the dishes were replaced by bottles. There was wine, beer, spirits and mixers, and then the serious drinking started. Jay put some music on and they all laughed as Sam and Mark did an impression of the boys from FreshLife and their simple five-step dance style. Then all the guys joined in which left Belinda and Jen in stitches of laughter on the chairs. It made his heart sing to watch her laughing.
The night was no different to a normal night with his friends but having her there made it more than that to him. His eyes found her and even when she was talking to someone else, he felt close to her. He wanted to hold her like Jay was holding Belinda, but he wasn’t sure she was ready for that. And he didn’t want to sour the night for either of them. He balled his free hand and reached for another drink instead.
The alcohol flowed as freely as the laughter. He drank. It wasn’t like he was wanting to get drunk but a couple of things that had been said today had pushed buttons. He tried to forget certain people and periods of his life. When these memories surfaced, he dulled them with alcohol. It was how he dealt with them. The bottle made those pains disappear.
“You’ve had enough,” Jen took the glass from his hand as she whispered the words to him without the others noticing.
“I’m fine,” he reached for the bourbon bottle.
“I’ll get you some water,” she took the glass out of his hand and put it down on the table. Then she got up and walked over to the open plan kitchen area.
He shrugged and picked up his glass again and mixed himself the drink. When he looked up again Jen was standing talking to Sam in the kitchen. As he watched he leaned into her and reached up to get a water glass off one of the upper shelves behind her. He handed her the glass with his custom cheeky grin playing on his lips. Drew felt the alcohol sour within him.
He pushed himself out of the chair and, before he thought about what he was doing, he was in the kitchen. He pulled Jen behind him and stood glaring at Sam’s surprised face.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he yelled at Sam causing the rest of the room to become silent, “She’s not yours.”
“Drew,” Sam said his name softly but with enough warning in it that he knew he should have registered the caution, “We were just talking.”
“Sure, you were,” he sniffed with clear disbelief, “I saw you flirting. I know that smile, Sam. She’s taken.”
“Drew, you’re barking up the wrong tree,” Sam said in the same voice, “Relax, you’re got this all wrong.”
“Have I?” Drew straightened up so that his shoulders were broad, “I saw you both this morning, too. Or was I wrong about that as well?”
“I should go,” Jen stuttered her face red, “Thanks for having me Belinda and Josh.”
“Jen,” Belinda was on her feet, “You don’t have to go.”
“Jen, stay, it’s Drew who’s being rude,” Sam sneered at Drew, “He’s the one who should leave.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you,” Drew moved forward so that he was eye to eye with Sam.
“I think I do,” Jen backed away and grabbed her coat and bag and without saying another word disappeared out the door.
“You’re a jackass,” Sam growled at him. “I can’t believe you just did that.”
“What the hell?” Mark was glaring at him, “That’s Sam, not me, you’re talking too. Sam’s not going to steal your girl.”
Jay was frantically telling him something in sign language, but he couldn’t lift his head to read the gestures. Only Belinda was silent. But he knew that her face would hurt him more than any words anyone in this room could say. He’d stuffed up. Hearing the door close behind her had caused a deep pain in his chest. He knew he’d overreacted and needed to apologise to his friends, but that wasn’t his priority. He turned away, grabbed his coat and, without saying a word, followed her out the door.