She seems to be only half listening.
‘You don’t have to look so anxious,’ he says. ‘Really. I’m happy here.’
‘Oh. No. Sorry. I didn’t mean …’ Her words die on her lips. There is a long silence. And then she looks up at him and speaks, her finger resting on the rim of her glass. ‘Paul … I wanted to ask you to come home with me tonight. I wanted us to … But I – I just … It’s too soon. I can’t. I can’t do it. That’s why I cancelled dinner.’ The words spill out into the air. She flushes to the roots of her hair.
He opens, then closes his mouth. He leans forward, and says, quietly. ‘“I’m not very hungry” would have been fine.’
Her eyes widen, then she slumps a little over the table. ‘Oh, God. I’m a nightmare date, aren’t I?’
‘Maybe a little more honest than you need to be.’
She groans. ‘I’m sorry. I have no idea what I’m –’
He leans forward, touches her hand lightly. He wants her to stop looking anxious. ‘Liv,’ he says evenly, ‘I like you. I think you’re great. But I totally get that you’ve been in your own space for a long time. And I’m not … I don’t …’ Words fail him too. It seems too soon for a conversation like this. And underneath it all, despite himself, he fights disappointment. ‘Ah, hell, you want to grab a pizza? Because I’m starving. Let’s go get a bite and make each other feel awkward somewhere else.’
He can feel her knee against his.
‘You know, I do have food at home.’
He laughs. And stops. ‘Okay. Well, now I don’t know what to say.’
‘Say “That would be great.” And then you can add, “Please shut up now, Liv, before you make things even more complicated.”’
‘That would be great, then,’ says Paul. He holds up her coat for her to shrug her way into, then they head out of the pub.
This time when they walk it is not in silence. Something has unlocked between them, perhaps through his words or her sudden feeling of relief. She laughs at almost everything he says. They weave in and out of the tourists, pile breathlessly into a taxi, and when he sits down in the back seat, holding out his arm for her to tuck into, she leans into him and breathes in his clean, male smell and feels a little giddy with her own sudden good fortune.
They reach her block, and he laughs about their meeting. About Mo and her apparent belief that he was a bag thief. ‘I’m holding you to that four-pound reward,’ he says, straight-faced. ‘Mo said I was entitled to it.’
‘Mo also thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to put washing-up liquid in the drinks of customers you don’t like.’
‘Apparently it makes them wee all night. It’s how she plays God with the romantic chances of her diners. You do not want to know what she does to the coffees of people who really upset her.’
He shakes his head admiringly. ‘Mo is wasted in that job. There’s a place in organized crime for that girl.’
They climb out of the taxi and go into the warehouse. The air is crisp with the approach of autumn; it seems to bite her skin. They hurry into the fuggy warmth of the foyer. She feels a bit silly now. Somehow she can see that in the previous forty-eight hours Paul McCafferty had stopped being a person and started to become an idea, a thing. The symbol of her moving-on. It was too much weight for something so new.
She hears Mo’s voice in her ear: Whoa, missus. You think too much.
And then, as he tugs the lift door shut behind them, they fall silent. It ascends slowly, rattling and echoing, the lights flickering, as they always do. It heads past the first floor, and they can hear the distant concrete echo of someone taking the stairs, a few bars of cello music from another apartment.
Liv is acutely conscious of him in the enclosed space, the citrus tang of his aftershave, the imprint of his arm around her shoulders. She looks down and wishes, suddenly, that she had not changed into this frumpy skirt, the flat heels. She wishes she had worn the butterfly shoes.
She looks up and he is watching her. He is not laughing. He holds out his hand, and as she takes it, he draws her slowly the two steps across the lift, and lowers his face to hers so that they are inches apart. But he does not kiss her.
His blue eyes travel slowly over her face: eyes, eyelashes, brows, lips, until she feels curiously exposed. She can feel his breath on her skin, his mouth so close to hers that she could tip forwards and bite it gently.
Still he does not kiss her.
It makes her shiver with longing.
‘I can’t stop thinking about you,’ he murmurs.
He rests his nose against hers. The very tops of their lips are touching. She can feel the weight of him against her. She thinks her legs may have begun to tremble. ‘Yes, it’s fine. I mean, no, I’m terrified. But in a good way. I – I think I …’
‘Stop talking,’ he murmurs. She feels his words against her lips, his fingertips tracing the side of her neck, and she cannot speak.
And then they are at the top floor, kissing. He wrenches open the lift door and they stumble out, still pressed against each other, need spiralling between them. She has one hand inside the back of his shirt, absorbing the heat of his skin. She reaches behind her with the other, fumbling until she opens the door.
They fall into the house. She does not turn on the light. She staggers backwards, dazed now by his mouth on hers, his hands on her waist. She wants him so badly her legs turn liquid. She crashes against the wall, hears him swear under his breath.
‘Here,’ she whispers. ‘Now.’
His body, solid against hers. They are in the kitchen. The moon hangs above the skylight, casting the room in a cold blue light. Something dangerous has entered the room, something dark and alive and delicious. She hesitates, just a moment, and pulls her jumper over her head. She is someone she knew a long time ago, unafraid, greedy. She reaches up, her eyes locked on his, and unbuttons her shirt. One, two, three, the buttons fall away. The shirt slides from her shoulders, so that she is exposed to her waist. Her bare skin tightens in the cool air. His eyes travel down her torso and her breath quickens. Everything stops.
The room is silent apart from their breathing. She feels magnetized. She leans forward, something building, intense and gorgeous in this brief hiatus, and they are kissing, a kiss she feels she has waited years to complete, a kiss that does not already have a full stop in mind. She breathes in his aftershave, her mind spins, goes blank. She forgets where they are. He pulls away gently, and he is smiling.
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