Having satisfied his hunger pangs, Rich put down his knife and fork, equally spaced either side of his plate and leaned back in his chair, wine glass in hand. “Has it spoilt things for you – having Angela go home early?”
“Not really. I love her company and we have a good time together but we see each other every day at work anyway and Rod needs her right now. She loves fussing over him and when he feels better he will undoubtedly take her away for an even better weekend.”
“You work together? I thought you were best friends.”
“We are. Angela came to work for me as my PA about eight years ago. She was there for me when my husband left me, and she’s been a huge support through the divorce and rebuilding my life afterwards. In return, I introduced her to Rod, one of my husband’s more respectable business associates, and they’ve been very happily married for the past three years. All sounds too good to be true doesn’t it?”
“No. What kind of a job do you do that you can afford a PA?”
“I’m self-employed and Angela is tax-deductible. I also live quite frugally and have very low overheads.”
“You don’t want to tell me what you do for a living then?”
“No. Well maybe later, tomorrow perhaps?”
“You will tell me then?”
“I will. For now, do you want pudding, more wine or both?”
“Bring on the booze. I’m not on till after lunch tomorrow so I’ve got time to sober up in the morning. What puddings are there?”
“The usual suspects; chocolate fudge cake, sticky toffee pudding, three different types of cheesecake, five flavours of ice cream, fresh fruit salad or cheese board.”
“We had cheese at lunchtime. I always think chocolate fudge cake goes well with red wine.”
“I always think most things go well with red wine.” Julia handed the pudding menu back to the waitress, hoping that the idea of more food and wine had temporarily distracted Rich from asking more questions about what she did for a living.
The group of designer-decked ladies were losing their thin veneer of posh and as the wine took hold so their accents betrayed their Liverpool and Manchester roots. The younger girls had lost any trace of inhibition and were flouncing around from table to table. Even the driest of the academics had decided to loosen his tie and take off his tweed jacket.
The chocolate fudge cake sopped up some of the red wine but necessitated Rich’s ordering of a third bottle. Julia couldn’t help thinking that Angela would be in her element here; people watching and making acid comments about the behaviour of their fellow residents. She could see that Rich was moving from amusingly tipsy to potentially morosely drunk so she ordered a pot of coffee.
Above the hubbub came the sharp sound of a fork tapping on glass and the elegant Amanda rose to her feet. “If you’d like to come out on the veranda there will be a spectacular display of fireworks, after which you are all welcome to visit the casino and nightclub which will be set up in the restaurant. If you don’t want to watch the fireworks could you go into one of the lounges so that the staff can clear away and set up the tables please?”
Rich peered at Julia. “Fireworks – or lounge?”
“Oh fireworks definitely. I could do with some air and the noise of the fireworks will drown out those giggling girls.”
“Fireworks it is then.” He tipped the last of the wine into their glasses and got to his feet with only the slightest hint of a stagger. Julia picked up her bag and glass and followed him outside where they found a low wall to lean against, the chairs having already been taken by the more competitive attendees.
It wasn’t too cold in the shelter of the veranda and the wine was still keeping her warm from the inside. She could have gone upstairs for a jacket but Julia didn’t really want to interrupt the evening. Rich was on good form again, the fresh air had sharpened his already biting wit and although his comments were delivered in an undertone meant for her alone Julia was glad that they were removed from the bulk of the attendees who had gathered on the veranda. She was also appreciative of the fact that Rich was standing so close to her in order to make himself heard that she could feel the warmth of his body against hers and smell the wine and chocolate sweetness of his breath, visibly hanging in the cold night air. She wasn’t exactly sure if this proximity was caused by Rich’s alcohol fuelled unsteadiness, feeling chilly or the need for some bodily contact between them, but whatever it was she liked it.
The fireworks display was quite impressive although rather than drown out the noise of the girls, it had the opposite effect of making them squeal and scream in an ear-splittingly high pitch. Julia shivered as the effects of the wine began to wear off.
“If I was a gentleman with proper dress sense I’d offer you my jacket, but as it is I’m not wearing one.” Rich edged closer still and grinned in an endearing but rather intoxicated manner. He very timorously put an arm around her, and she could see that he was waiting nervously for the ridicule or the icy rebuff that he had received on other occasions.
“This is better than a jacket any day,” she replied and leaned her head against his shoulder, sending up another silent prayer of thanks that she hadn’t worn a jacket either. They watched the rest of the fireworks in silence and Julia tried very hard to convince herself that Rich was just being gentlemanly and that she should stop this fantasising about him now and sober up. It didn’t help that his head was resting against hers, he had pulled her closer and she felt that she only need turn her face up to look at him in order for him to see it as an invitation to kiss her. Would that be such a bad thing?
It was while she was mulling over this thought that fate took over; she felt the gentlest of kisses on her forehead, then Rich touched her cheek with cold fingertips and tilted her face up to meet his. He could certainly kiss. Soft and delightfully dry; not the sloppy over-anxious kiss she might have expected from a moderately drunk and self-confessed celibate.
All sense of chill had gone as she pressed her body against his; the sound of the fireworks and the girly screams faded away into another place and all she was really aware of was how glad she was that she hadn’t decided to go home when Angela left.
“Get a room you two!”
The raucous cackle broke into her reverie and the kiss ended abruptly. Julia looked for some sign of embarrassment or awkwardness on Rich’s part but there was none. He was smiling. The fireworks were over and the revellers were filing back in to the casino. Rich pulled her closer again, turning his back on the crowd as if to shield her. “Can we – I mean – it’s getting cold out here. Do you want to go to the casino nightclub thing?”
“I’d rather stick pins in my eyes. We could go into the lounge and – talk?”
“What do you want to talk about?”
“That sounds serious.”
“You have rituals and rules Rich; to some extent so do I. Neither of us wants to be in an awkward situation so now might be a good time to do a bit of forward planning.”
“Tell me something first Julia. Be honest with me?”
“Okay. What do you want to know?”
“Do you want to take this any further or are you just humouring me because you’re a very kind lady who doesn’t like upsetting people?”
She answered the question in the most graphic way she could and by the time they drew apart from the kiss that she initiated this time, Rich was in no doubt as to her response.
“Come and sit down a minute. I can’t think straight if you keep kissing me.” She grabbed his hand and pulled him over to the veranda.
“You kissed me that time.”
“Okay, then we’re even. I need to sit down because my legs feel wobbly and it might be the wine or it might be you or both but I’m safer on a chair.”
They sat down at the nearest vacated table and Rich pulled his chair closer to hers, taking her hands in his.
“A few basic facts first Rich, and please don’t kiss me again till I finish because I’m easily distracted.”
Rich chuckled and raised one of her hands to his lips. “Does that count?”
“Yes. We’re both a bit drunk; we still have tomorrow to get through and I don’t want us to get into a situation that either of us will regret or feel mortally embarrassed about in the morning.”
“Why should I feel embarrassed? You’re gorgeous and sexy and intelligent and this isn’t just the wine talking.”
“You’re definitely drunk Rich. I’m – God I hate saying this – I’m old enough to be your mother for heaven’s sake!”
“Now you’re being sexist.”
“How do you come to that conclusion?” Julia backed away from him, freeing her hands and clutching at her bag, appalled at such an accusation. Rich very gently took the bag away from her and placed it on the table, putting his hands on her shoulders.
“How old is your friend Angela? You told me that her husband is twice her age. Why is it okay for an older man to be with a younger woman and not the other way round? Bit of a cliché really? Just for the record I have a very healthy relationship with my mother and you don’t look anything like her.”
Julia was momentarily lost for words and he took the opportunity to cup her face in his hands again and kiss her. There was no mistaking the seriousness of his intentions this time and she gave up the fight as he stood up and pulled her into his arms. This was serious kissing; the kind of kissing that sent a thrill through her body that she hadn’t experienced since she was a teenager.