Skin of the Night
§ 2. That's More Like It
© Copyright C.K. Bennett 2022
HIS BOLD REPLY TOOK ME aback. I hadn’t anticipated that he would be so direct, but I couldn’t deny that it was strangely refreshing. Suddenly I grew nervous. My heart started pounding.
‘Well . . .’ I drew in a deep breath, mustering courage. ‘You got what you wanted – something original.’
His lips tucked into a smile. ‘Without a doubt. Is your name as original as your personality, though?’
The astute method he employed as he made a third attempt to fish out my name impressed me. He was obviously a cunning man, so I reminded myself to practise caution. All the same, it amused me that he wasn’t one to give up.
A vague smile nested on my mouth as I shook my head. ‘I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint.’
‘How so? It’s not Electra, is it?’
I couldn’t suppress the giggle that escaped my lips, because the reference was remarkably shrewd. Electra was, in some ways, Oedipus’ female counterpart. William had clearly read his fair share of Greek tragedies, too.
Momentarily inspired by the current theme, I decided to lie. I wasn’t naïve enough to trust him on a whim, so I didn’t feel like giving him my real name. Besides, he hadn’t proved himself remotely deserving.
‘No, but you’re not far from it, actually. It stems from Greek.’
‘Really?’ He looked intrigued.
‘Yeah. Name’s Cassandra, but everyone calls me Sandra.’ I was incredibly amused at my own ingenuity. By choosing that name, I had sort of given him my real one. He only had to cut out the middle and he would end up with Cara, but I doubted he would ever realise that.
‘Sandra,’ he echoed with a nod. ‘Well, I’m William, as you may have already gathered, but you can call me Will.’
‘Or Oedipus. Tomato tomato.’
Amusement twinkled in his eyes. ‘So you’re a fan of Sophocles and Greek tragedies, then? Or are you merely a disciple of dear Mr Freud?’
His evident intellect irritated me somewhat because it led me to like him more than I wanted to. He was retaliating with precisely the same sense of humour and with force equal to my own. It wasn’t often that I encountered people who could keep up with my sharp wit, but this man seemed to be up to the task. Despite his lack of affability, he clearly stored a quick and well-functioning brain behind that annoyingly handsome face.
I was still contemplating whether to reply when Philip interjected, ‘Here you go, Miss,’ and presented two lush cocktails. ‘An espresso martini and a gin and tonic.’
‘Thank you.’ I was about to grab them when William beat me to it.
‘I’ll give you a hand,’ he said as an explanation.
‘I’ve got two already. Three aren’t required, as you can see.’
He chuckled. ‘You’ve got quite the witty mouth, haven’t you?’
‘Well, at least one of us has got some wit,’ I said. ‘Poor man can’t even count right.’
William shook his head but persisted in carrying my drinks away. With a pout on my face, I trailed after him. How had it come to this? I hadn’t meant to attract him earlier. Had I known my insult would prove so counterproductive, I’d have bitten my tongue.
‘Andy,’ he called and jerked his head in the direction of Olivia’s lonely figure. Surprise flashed across Andrew’s face. His brown eyes widened as he stood up from his seat.
When I fixed my gaze on Olivia, I found her smirking. The sight elicited a groan from my mouth. Unlike Andrew, she wasn’t the least bit surprised, and I didn’t appreciate it, because it spoke of her expectations of me.
‘It’s Olivia, right?’ William asked when we reached her.
‘Yes, but everyone calls me Livy.’
‘Livy,’ he echoed as he put my drinks on the table. ‘Well, Livy, would you mind if Andy and I joined you?’ he asked politely and stretched back up. His sudden gallantry made my eyebrows furrow. How was it possible to host both a gentleman and the Devil himself in the same vessel? Flummoxed, I watched him.
‘Not at all,’ Olivia said with a dazzling grin.
‘I mind,’ I declared.
William turned toward me with a sardonic smile. ‘You don’t get a say, I’m afraid.’
‘Says who? You?’ I snorted.
He faced Olivia while pointing his thumb at me. ‘Is she always such a handful?’
Olivia studied me with clear humour in her eyes. ‘Takes one to know one?’ she said cheekily. As thanks for the support, I wanted to kiss her entire face like an excited dog.
William laughed. ‘I suppose I deserved that.’
I rushed to grab the available seat beside Olivia on the small sofa so that I wouldn’t be forced to sit next to William. After I had left my purse on the floor beside my feet, I leaned closer to her and whispered, ‘I don’t know what he wants, but my name’s Sandra, okay? Short for Cassandra.’
Olivia pursed her lips. ‘He wants you, but all right.’
I scoffed and continued in another whisper, ‘Andy split from his girlfriend earlier today. Just thought you should know – unless William was only telling a lie.’
‘Well, then, Sandra . . .’ William fetched a chair over. ‘Now that you’re done whispering about me, why don’t you tell me a bit about yourself?’ Descending into the chair, he sat at a right angle from me. Intimidated, I recoiled toward Olivia.
That was what he was – intimidating, and immensely at that.
‘I’d rather not.’
He chuckled. ‘Are you students? You look a bit younger than the average woman here.’ His eyes shifted between Olivia and me.
‘We are,’ Olivia said, and I was immediately alarmed.
Worried she would inadvertently expose my real identity, I hurried to say, ‘Livy’s studying law at UCL.’
William and Andrew gazed at one another.
‘Are you?’ Andrew asked her.
Catching on to my deceit, Olivia cast me a quick glance. Nevertheless, she proceeded with honesty. ‘Yes. I’m in my third and final year now.’
‘I see. And how do you like it?’ Andrew asked as he brought a stool over to sit across from her.
‘I love it, but it’s very demanding.’
A chuckle escaped both men and, again, a message I couldn’t quite decode passed between their eyes.
‘What’s funny?’ I asked.
William directed his attention to me, and it looked like he was struggling to suppress a grin. ‘Well, both Andy and I are lawyers, so it’s just a bit charming to hear a student’s perspective.’
Points for Jason. Lawyers did, in fact, frequent this place.
‘Are you barristers?’ I asked.
William shook his head and folded his hands together. ‘Solicitors. Corporate kind.’
‘I see. So you’re colleagues, then?’
‘And how’s working with corporate law? Is it compelling?’ I had a personal interest in whatever he had to say now. Like William, I aspired to be a solicitor rather than a barrister, regardless of whether the latter weighed heavier in matters of prestige.
William smiled, and I thought it was because I was finally expressing signs of interest.
‘It is. Initially, I wanted to specialise in human rights, but my father swayed my mind. I’m glad he did.’
‘Probably wise,’ I said. ‘You don’t seem to excel at dealing with anything human.’
Andrew chortled, tossing his head back. ‘The mouth on this one. She fires so many shots.’
William blew his cheeks out. ‘I wonder if she’ll ever run out of ammunition.’
I captured William’s gaze, smiling crookedly. ‘Keep acting like yourself and I doubt I will.’
‘There she goes again.’ Andrew guffawed. ‘This is priceless.’
As I looked diagonally across the table, I caught Andrew’s eye. Seeing an opportunity to taunt William, I deliberately gave him a seductive smile and asked with feigned interest, ‘How about you, Andy? Have you always wanted to practise corporate law?’
His laughter quickly died at my behaviour, his gaze darting in William’s direction. ‘I was never really sure until I completed the LPC.’
‘But I’d like to know more about you,’ William said and leaned forward to demand my attention.
I frowned. ‘You can’t always get what you want.’
He peered at me, eyes narrowing faintly. ‘Since you specified that Livy is a law student earlier, I think it’s fair to assume you’re studying something else. Otherwise, you’d be more likely to say, “we’re studying law”. And considering the nature of your insults earlier, I’m going to take a guess and say psychology.’
A giggle surged out of me. ‘Well done, Sherlock.’
He didn’t look convinced. ‘No,’ he murmured as he analysed my reaction. ‘That was too easy – I was wrong. It’s something else, isn’t it?’
Olivia nudged my arm. When I looked over, I saw disapproval in her features. William had clearly managed to stir her sympathy to some extent, and now she was asking me to share her sentiment.
I sighed and returned my gaze to William’s. ‘I study medicine,’ I lied. I knew enough about the coursework from Jason to be able to make it convincing.
William’s eyebrows climbed up his forehead. ‘Really? Here in London?’
‘No, in Edinburgh. I’m only visiting Livy for the weekend.’ Another lie.
William’s eyebrows lowered again, a crease forming between them. ‘Oh. Edinburgh.’ He looked at the table, turning quiet.
Andrew gave him a look that I didn’t understand, but it seemed to carry a hint of compassion. ‘Well, medicine,’ he said and focused on me, picking up where William had left off. ‘That’s impressive. Decided what to specialise in?’
I shook my head. ‘Not yet.’
William leaned back and stared at me as if he were observing every corner of my soul. His gaze was remarkably piercing – penetrative, as if he could catch a glimpse of my core with a mere glance. It made me wonder if he had already discerned all my lies.
‘Well,’ William eventually said, ‘the mother I love to sleep with is an oncologist.’
I blinked. ‘Oh. Well, that explains everything. You’ve clearly got a type.’
He gave a mirthless chuckle. ‘And you clearly embody all the characteristics of said type.’
‘Just my luck.’
His eyes gleamed. ‘Anyway, are you in your third year as well?’
I groaned. ‘Is this an interview or something?’
He turned to Andrew with a grin. ‘She’s lovely, isn’t she?’
Andrew smiled winsomely. ‘She is.’
Taken aback, a blush emerged on my cheeks. Were they mocking me, or were they being sincere? Olivia sniggered beside me, clearly at my expense.
William faced me again. ‘I’m worried I might have fucked up my chance completely,’ he said, although he seemed to be speaking to Andrew still.
‘You have,’ I assured him.
‘How do I change your mind?’
I scoffed. ‘You’re the lawyer. Shouldn’t you know how to sway one’s opinion?’
I heard a strange sound then, like a strangled laugh. I glanced sideways. Andrew was looking anywhere but at me, trying to fight back a massive grin.
‘You’re quite right,’ William said, summoning my attention again. I fixed my gaze on him, and I could have sworn his eyes were aflame with something I had no experience dealing with.
‘I’ll start with this,’ he said. ‘We’ve definitely not met before. There’s not a chance I wouldn’t remember you, for several reasons.’
Sceptical, I raised a brow. ‘Such as?’
‘Aside from the obvious?’
‘Well, the obvious is that, physically speaking, you’re absolutely stunning, but then that’s rarely enough to capture my interest, much less my memory. You see, beauty isn’t in short supply in this world. However, your beauty is in a league of its own – it’s completely unforgettable.’
A wave of heat crashed over my face.
‘What’s not so obvious at first sight,’ he went on, ‘is your admirable integrity, alluring personality and keen intellect. Simply put, you’re stunning in every way.’ He shrugged. ‘Ultimately, you’re totally bewitching, and quite impossible to forget.’
My breath caught in my throat at his climactic declaration. I stared at him, trying to process what he had said, but my brain was malfunctioning. Olivia quickly nudged my arm. Recovering my wits, I gave William a genuine smile. His earlier insult, where he had accused me of not being a memorable encounter, had angered me – it was the way he had phrased it, as if I were an escort offering my services – but his compliments assuaged my resentment somewhat.
‘That’s sweet of you to say,’ I replied. ‘But I meant what I said earlier – you do look familiar. Livy thinks so as well.’
Frowning, he looked at Olivia. ‘Do I?’
She nodded. ‘No idea why, though. Have you been on telly?’
He chuckled. ‘Not to my knowledge.’
‘Newspapers?’ I asked.
William cocked his head. ‘Once or twice. Work-related, though.’
I narrowed my eyes. ‘How old are you?’
He grinned. ‘Now who wants to know?’
I rolled my eyes.
‘Tell you what,’ he said, ‘for every question you ask, I get to ask one as well.’
‘Oh, come on. What have you got to lose?’
He burst out laughing. I wouldn’t get an answer from him anytime soon.
‘How old is he, Andy?’ I asked. Hoping to resemble a puppy, I pouted at him, but his ensuing scoff proved my efforts ineffective.
‘Sorry, love, you’re on your own.’
I sighed. It was worth a shot.
Wearing a sly smile, William gave his friend a nod of gratitude and said, ‘Looks like Livy’s finished her drink.’
Grinning, Andrew stood up. ‘I’d be delighted to buy you another,’ he said to Olivia.
‘I’ll come with you.’ She pushed herself out of the sofa.
My heart missed a beat. Was she blind to the fact that this was precisely what William had intended? Or did she mean to go along with it? Was she going to abandon me to the care of this dreadful man? This horribly intriguing person that I did not want to succumb to?
‘Don’t leave me,’ I pleaded.
Visibly amused, she met my gaze. ‘You’re a grown woman, Sandra. You’ll be all right. We’ve all seen that you can fend for yourself.’
From the faint pinkness in her cheeks, it was obvious that she wanted time alone with Andrew, but it would cost me severely. William had piqued my interest to the extent that I considered it morally wrong. He wasn’t right in the head. He was rude, and he was bloody attractive.
As I continued to entreat her with my eyes, William said, ‘Yes, I wonder what you’re scared of.’
I looked at him. ‘I’m not scared.’
‘Then why are you objecting?’
‘Because I don’t want to be left alone with you,’ I said as Olivia and Andrew went to the bar without further ado.
William’s eyebrows furrowed. ‘Am I that terrible?’
I pressed my lips together.
‘I’d just like to get to know you better,’ he said, shrugging. ‘Isn’t that what you wanted in the first place? I mean, you approached us first.’
‘Specifically your friend,’ I reminded him.
He tilted his head and, even though he concealed it well, I thought I recognised hurt somewhere deep within his eyes. I must have bruised his ego.
‘Oh, so that’s what this is?’ he asked flatly. ‘I’m not cutting it?’
Was that the impression he was getting? Since it was far from the truth, my conscience suffered. Averting my eyes, I grabbed my gin and tonic. As I raised it to my lips, I quickly said, ‘No, that’s not quite it.’
He leaned forward again to attract my gaze, and when he captured it, he scoured it thoroughly. Folding his hands between his thighs, he twiddled his thumbs.
‘So . . . I do make the cut?’ he asked then, ever slick.
I couldn’t fight my smile. ‘There is no “cut” to make, Will. I’m not here looking for anything if that’s what you mean.’
‘Then how come you approached us to begin with?’
My eyes darted in Olivia’s direction, but since I didn’t want to expose her, I quickly looked away again. Alas, William didn’t fail to notice my wandering attention. As soon as he turned his head to observe Olivia and Andrew at the bar, he said, ‘Right. I get it now. You were winging her.’
He looked at me for confirmation, but I merely stared back so as not to reveal anything. Suddenly a grin claimed his mouth. I frowned in puzzlement.
‘It’s been a long time since I’ve gone on the prowl,’ he said, ‘but if I’m not wrong, you approached him because she was initially interested in me.’ He leaned back. ‘What a textbook performance. Didn’t work, though.’
I had to give it to him: the man was remarkably perceptive. His aptitude for reading social situations was outstanding. Even so, he still hadn’t detected my lies – or at least it seemed that way.
I scoffed. ‘Doesn’t matter. As soon as you opened your dreadful mouth, her interest shifted onto your friend instead.’
William laughed wholeheartedly. ‘I’m not even slightly upset. She’s not my type.’
‘You mean she doesn’t remind you of your mother?’
He rolled his eyes. ‘Either way, she’s clearly not interested anymore, so there’s nothing holding you back. You’ve got a green light to get to know me.’
‘I’m sorry, didn’t you hear what I just said? I’m not interested in anything other than helping Livy out.’
He surprised me when he suddenly stood up. ‘Right, well, if that’s the case, I’ll just head over to them if you don’t mind. Shame if that sabotages Olivia’s chances.’
‘Wait, wait – fine!’ I raised my hand to halt him. ‘I’ll entertain you.’
Releasing a satisfied sigh, he sank back down and folded his hands above his crotch. ‘That’s more like it.’
I desperately wanted to tear the smug smirk off his face. ‘You’re insufferable,’ I grumbled.
‘You’re only upset because I’ve outwitted you.’
‘Why are you so determined to get to know me?’
‘Because you’ve seriously piqued my interest.’
Again, his directness took me aback, and just like earlier, my heart began to pound. Each thump pressed against my ribcage to the extent that a keen eye could probably see it.
I was starting to realise that my body wanted something quite different from my mind.
‘I commend your grit, at least,’ I muttered and put my drink back on the table. Folding my arms, I hoped to hide my vigorous heartbeat.
Another smirk climbed to his annoyingly kissable mouth. ‘Thanks. I’m quite pleased with that attribute myself.’
He moved off his chair and grabbed the vacant spot beside me on the sofa. I stiffened when he draped his arm over the back of it, behind my shoulders. It wasn’t that I minded the intimacy. On the contrary, I seemed to enjoy it more than I was willing to admit.
‘Listen, let’s start over, yeah?’ he said. ‘I realise it’s a poor excuse, but I’ve had a rough day at work and, to make it worse, Andy and Chloe have been together for an entire decade. She’s practically my sister, so when I heard the news – two minutes before you arrived – I was very upset. I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to handle you well. I’m very sorry. I truly am.’
‘I still think you were unnecessarily rude.’
He wrinkled his nose. ‘Well, I tried to just be direct at first, but then you persisted and I got impatient, so I thought being rude was the best way to make you go away as quickly as possible. We were seriously in the middle of an argument.’
‘Were you able to sort things out at least?’
He shook his head. ‘We agreed to talk about it later.’
I nodded, wondering what the issue was. I refrained from digging further, though, because it was none of my business.
He brought me closer then. As I softened against his warm body, the scent of him struck me hard. He smelled intoxicating. Drugged, I inhaled the fragrance deep into my lungs. I picked up testosterone, something dark, something sweet, and plenty of challenge.
My Achilles’ heel.
‘You smell amazing,’ I blurted out without thinking. ‘What fragrance is that?’ Indeed, he smelled remarkable – even better than Jason did.
He shook against me, laughing, and leaned forward to grab one of my drinks.
‘Stick around, and perhaps I’ll tell you. And you smell amazing yourself.’ He leaned back again. ‘On another note, you’ve got three of these to finish.’
He raised my espresso martini toward my mouth, and he did not stop until he had placed the glass to my waiting lips. Consequently, my lips parted not because of the cold and solid material against my skin, but rather because of his surprising gesture. Wearing a smug smile, he tilted the glass and carefully poured a portion of the cocktail into my mouth.
I watched him the whole time, overwhelmed by his sensuality. I had never met a man quite so slickly domineering before. I had an inkling he was in the habit of getting his way.
He lowered the glass to allow my swallow, and he watched me intensely as I did. The expression on his face was strangely erotic. Was he imagining me swallowing something else?
‘I guarantee you, Sandra, that had we slept together, I would not have forgotten. So, where you might have seen me before, I don’t know – but I wish it were in bed.’