George took me to a rustic Italian restaurant, just off Cheltenham high street. ‘I know it doesn’t look up to much,’ he smiled apologetically as we were seated in a particularly dark corner, ‘but I promise the food is amazing.’
‘That’s OK, I like it.’ I hoped the subtle lighting, mostly generated by candles stuck into old wine bottles on every table, wax running in rivers down their sides until it pooled on the quaint, red and white checked table clothes below, would hide the worst of my nerves.
‘Red OK with you?’ George asked as he finished studying the wine list.
‘Um … sure.’ He ordered something I’d never heard of from the smiling waiter, who seemed to approve of the choice. I hoped I would too; I wasn't much of a wine drinker, but I couldn't imagine the restaurant having much in the way of a cider selection, and I was seriously in need of some Dutch courage.
I didn't know what to say once George and I were alone. I buried myself in the menu and tried to look calm, but I had no idea what most of the dishes were which only made my nerves worse. The waiter reappeared to pour the wine and hovered menacingly with his pad out, poised to take our order.
'I'll have the steak, cooked rare, please. Beth?'
‘Um … ' I dithered, still lost in unfathomable menu.
'How about spaghetti carbonara?' George thankfully came to my rescue. 'They do it properly here; just pancetta, garlic, eggs and parmesan. No messing about with cream.'
'That sounds great, I'll have that please,' I said in relief.
The waiter drifted off and George and I were alone again. I took a huge, cider-like slug of my wine and only just managed to avoid pulling a face; I wasn't at all sure I liked the taste, but I did like the way the high alcohol content made me feel as it hit my empty stomach, warming me, forcing me to relax.
‘Thank you for coming out with me tonight.’ The same grin was still stuck firmly on George's face as he looked across the table at me.
‘It wasn’t like I had much choice.’
‘That's not fair, there's always a choice. The card game was just a bit of fun; you could have still said no. But you didn’t. You’re here.’ He seemed to be genuinely delighted by my presence. I couldn't work out why; he was so handsome, so charming and he was clearly used to female company; so why did he look so pleased I was here? And why had he gone to all the trouble of seeing me again? Judging by the amount of female heads he’d turned when we’d walked into the restaurant he obviously didn't need to go so much effort to get a date. There had to be something I was missing. And there was definitely something fishy about that card game; George must have been confident of the outcome to have offered such a large free bet as a stake.
‘So, are you going to tell me how you did it?’
‘The cards; the prial of threes?’
‘I didn’t do anything.’ He tried to look innocent, but I caught the glint in his eye. ‘I told you, I felt lucky tonight, that's why I played.’
‘Hmm. Why don’t I believe you?’
‘You don’t?’ His expression turned to one of mock horror. ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you. But only if you agree to come out with me again.’
I was caught completely off guard; I hadn’t even expected to be out with him tonight, I certainly hadn’t thought as far ahead as seeing him again. I studied him across the table while I tried to think of a suitable reply. He still looked genuinely delighted to be out with me, and now he was already asking me to go out with him again. I was flattered, if a bit puzzled, but there was a big part of me that wasn't sure I should be here at all; not when I still felt as I did about Anthony. The last thing I wanted to do was to lead George on. ‘I’m … not sure.’
‘OK, fair enough.’ He held his hands up in a gesture of surrender. ‘My fault, I'm jumping the gun. You’ve hardly been out with me five minutes; you don’t know how much you’re going to enjoy yourself yet.’ He grinned wickedly at me and I couldn’t help smiling back.
‘It’s not that, I am having fun; it’s just that things are, well ... complicated.’
‘Ah, I see.’ His smile faded slightly. I couldn’t quite tell if he was being serious or not. ‘Don’t tell me … there’s another man. Someone you want, but can’t have. Right?’
‘How do you know that?’
‘How do you think?’ he laughed. ‘You’re like an open book. It’s part of what makes you so adorable.’
I was stunned by his response; was I really that transparent? The waiter mercifully came to my rescue, setting our food on the table with a flourish. The distraction was even more welcome when I tasted a mouthful of the velvety smooth spaghetti, loaded with flavour and every bit as delicious as George had promised.
‘Come on then, tell me about the competition.’ He returned to the attack as soon as the waiter drifted off. I took my time answering, trying to decide how much I should tell him. ‘I … don’t really like to talk about it.’ The laughter in his eyes had been replaced by kindness, but Anthony was still pretty low on my list of favourite dinner table conversation topics.
‘That's hardly fair,’ he said between mouthfuls. ‘You gotta’ tell me. How can I fight when I don’t know what I’m up against?’
'It's not like that, there's no fight.'
'There's something, though. You may as well tell me; I'm not going to give up until you do.'
I had to give him marks for persistence. I couldn't help having a good feeling about him, even though I hadn't know him long; and after all the effort he'd made to see me again the least he deserved was honesty. ‘OK. His name’s Anthony. But he’s no competition. He moved away. To America.’
‘Ouch. That must have hurt.’ George's smile deserted him completely. I was surprised to find him looking at me with a tenderness I wouldn't have guessed at.
‘Yeah, it did.’
‘And were you together? Before he left, I mean?’
‘Well, no not exactly…. We kind of were a bit, but then he was with someone else.’
‘He sounds like a cock,’ George indignantly replied.
‘Yeah, I guess he kind of was.' Making light of my heartache was unexpectedly liberating. I realised I was genuinely smiling at George for the first time. He mirrored my expression with a megawatt grin of his own.
'OK, now I know. Sorry I had to ask; no more difficult questions, I promise. I'll tell you what; you can ask me a question in return. That seems only fair.'
He looked at me expectantly. I racked my brain, searching for the right words. The silence started to stretch out and I groped nervously for any words, right or not. 'So, do you, er, live in Cheltenham?'
'That's it? That's your question?' He grinned, clearly delighted to be getting off so easily.
'Yes,' I stubbornly replied; if I acted like that was the question I'd been dying to ask all along, maybe he wouldn't realise how tongue tied it made me when he gave me that dazzling smile of his. 'That's my question. Are you going to answer it?'
'Sure. No, I don't live in Cheltenham.' His grin widened. 'There, I've answered your question.'
'Yes, but you're supposed to elaborate.' Even the lame question I had managed to ask hadn't come out quite right; what I had meant to ask was where he lived, and I was sure he knew it as well as I did.
'Yes, you are.'
'Why don't you try asking another question?'
'OK, fine, we'll do this the hard way. Where do you live? Happy now?'
'Yes, much better, thank you. I live in Bristol, so not too far from here. But I'm not at home that much, I'm on the road most of the time working. There, is that elaborate enough for you?'
'Hmm.. Not bad. It'll do for a start.' I couldn't stop smiling, surprised by how much I was enjoying his easy company. This wasn't anything like the intense conversations I'd had with Anthony; it was light-hearted and fun, and I didn't feel under pressure to make a good impression. George made me feel like just being myself was enough. I found myself warming to the questions game. 'OK, next question. Tell me how you became a bookmaker.'
'I'm not sure that's fair, you getting another question. Surely it must be my turn?'
'How can I refuse you anything?' I wasn't sure if it was his words or the way he was smiling at me that made me blush. 'My Dad was a bookmaker. He took me to the track with him every weekend since I was a kid, since before I can remember. I always loved it and I knew I'd take over from him one day; I've got no brothers or sisters so I had competition to fight off. I couldn't wait for him to retire, but he never got the chance.... He died. A massive stroke. I wasn't prepared; one day he was in rude health, then the next day he collapsed. They took him to hospital, but it was too late.'
George paused, the hurt evident in his eyes behind the jokey exterior.
'I'm so sorry.' I was shocked to find my hand creeping across the table, tentatively reaching for his. He looked down incredulously as he twined his fingers with mine, a soft smile creeping back onto his face.
'You don't need to be sorry; it was a long time ago. I took over the stand after he was gone and I've never looked back since. Then my Mum passed away last year and I needed a fresh start; I sold the old family home and I bought my house in Bristol, and I've lived there ever since.' He paused again, softly stoking the inside of my palm with his thumb. My hand felt right in his so I left it there, enjoying the sensation of his touch. 'Does that elaborate enough for you?'
'Yes, that's much more like it.'
'Good. Then it must be my turn again.'
I tensed up as I wondered what he was going to ask. I wasn't sure I was up to any more difficult questions; the increasing pressure from his thumb was sending sparks of desire through me, making my mouth dry and thinking difficult. He studied me with a lazy smile and I braced myself.
'What's your favourite colour?'
I laughed out loud in relief. 'That's hardly a difficult one, is it?'
'No, but I think we've both had enough of the difficult questions for now. Let's stick to the easy stuff. And besides, I've still got to convince you to come out with me again; I'm not going to risk that by getting too heavy on a first date.'
'Is that what this is? A date?'
'Well, yes, I think so ... At least I'd like it be, if that's OK with you?'
'I guess it's a nicer way to put it than I'm here because you won me in a card game.'
'You make it sound so sordid!'
He looked at me indignantly, making me giggle. 'Hmm. You're right, it doesn't sound great, does it? I think we'll stick date then, if that's OK with you?'
'Yes, fine. Good. Now we've got that cleared up, are you going to answer my question, or not?'
'Yellow. My favourite colour is yellow. Happy?'
'Yes, very good; thank you.'
'So it must be my turn again now.' I thought for a moment, but decided to repay the favour and ask him something easy. 'How old are you?'
'That's not fair ….. I thought we said no more difficult questions.'
'What's difficult about that?'
'I'm older than you; probably quite a lot older. That's what.' His smile faded and a strange expression crossed his face.
'It doesn't matter to me.'
'It might; I haven't answered yet.'
'Come on then, get it over with; I answered your difficult question, it's only fair.' I knew he was older than me, but his reluctance made me wonder how much older exactly. I was determined to push for an answer.
'OK, fine. I'd have to tell you at some point anyway. I'm thirty-four.'
'That's not that old; you're hardly drawing your pension.'
'No, but I'm guessing it's still a lot older than you. I hardly dare ask how old you are.'
'Nineteen,' I replied.
'Oh Christ, now I really feel like a dirty old man,' he groaned.
'Don't be silly,' I giggled back at him. 'It's not that big an age gap.'
'I haven't put you off, then?'
'No. Not in the slightest.' I can't imagine anything putting me off you; I found myself thinking as he flashed me his dazzling smile again. I shifted in my seat, shocked at my own feelings and hoping they weren't visible to George. 'So,' I said to distract him, 'it must be your turn again.'
'Yup. I need a minute to think up something extra difficult to get you back for that last one.'
'That's not fair!'
'You don't think so?'
'No, definitely not; especially considering I've been OK about your elderliness.'
'Ouch, OK, you win. How about you tell me about your greyhound; is that easy enough for you?'
'Yes, that will do nicely.'
George didn't ask any more difficult questions after that. They got sillier and sillier as the evening wore on and the wine flowed, until we eventually ended up at 'which is better, a pineapple or a mongoose?' (his) and 'is an ostrich a vehicle? (mine), both falling about in hysterics. I was completely at ease in his company by the end of the evening and I don’t remember anyone ever making me laugh so much, not even Sammie or Shagger.
We were still talking and laughing as the waiters cleared tables and tidied up around us. I suddenly realised that we were the only people left in the restaurant, and found myself wishing the evening didn't have to end. George obviously didn't want it too either; I was glad when he offered to walk me back to the B&B.
‘So, do you still want to know about the cards, the prial of threes?’ he asked as we got to Mrs Crabtree’s front door.
‘Yes, tell me.’
‘Are you coming out with me again?’
I hesitated. I had had a good time tonight; he knew about Anthony and was still interested, he'd made me laugh so much my sides hurt and he had gone to a lot of effort to see me in the first place. But the heartache of the last year wasn't easy to forget. A big part of me still didn't want to risk feeling that way again. And I hadn't consciously made the decision to go out with George tonight, I'd taken the easy way out and let the cards decide. Now it was all down to me; if I agreed to a next time then it would definitely class as a date, with all its implications. I wished there was a way I could see him again without it feeling too pressurised, too date like. Suddenly, I had a flash of inspiration. ‘What are you doing a fortnight Saturday? 8th May?’
‘That’s Guinea’s weekend, I’ll be at Newmarket,’ he automatically replied.
‘Oh, OK, don’t worry…’
‘No, wait, why? Sorry, I wasn’t thinking …’ For the first time he was flustered as he cursed himself for his reply. He'd been so confident and sure of himself all night; I don't know why I suddenly found him so much more attractive when he was lost for words.
‘It’s my friend’s wedding. I’m bridesmaid, and I don’t have a date for the reception.’
‘No date? I find that hard to believe.'
'No, honestly, no date.'
'Well, if there's a vacancy then forget Newmarket, I'm there!'
‘But … don’t you have to work?’ I didn’t want him losing out because of me.
‘Not if there’s an opportunity to take you out again; as if I’d miss that. Here, take this.’ He fished into his pocket and handed me a piece of paper. 'My number. You can call me, let me know the address.'
‘OK, I will. And thank you for tonight, the meal and everything.’ I hesitated awkwardly by the B&B steps, unsure of how to say goodbye.
‘You’re most welcome. Oh, and Beth?’
‘Yes?’ He slowly took my face between his hands as I turned back towards him, kissing me tentatively on the lips. When I didn’t pull away he kissed me deeper, his tongue lazily exploring my mouth.
I hadn't expected him to kiss me and for a second I was too stunned to move. His stubble grazed my chin and I caught the faint remains of his woody aftershave as he pulled me closer, deliciously filling my senses. My body was quicker to respond than my brain. Almost before I knew what I was doing I was arching into him, kissing him harder, pulling him tighter and tangling my fingers in his silky hair.
‘Oh wow,’ he gasped, coming up from air. ‘Might have to give it a minute before I can let you go.’ The sudden desire running through me was so unexpected that I contemplated dragging him back up to my room in the B&B for a dizzy second.
The sobering possibility of Mrs Crabtree walking in the middle, demanding to know what all the noise was about, bought me back to my senses before I could give in to temptation. It was probably best to make him wait anyway.... ‘Safe now?’ I smiled instead, extricating myself reluctantly from his grip.
‘I don’t think I’ll ever be safe with you around.’ He grinned at me with that strange expression of his, the tenderness in his eyes that I couldn't quite work out.
‘I certainly hope not .... Goodnight. And thank you again.'
‘Goodnight, Beth.’ He was still grinning as he headed away down the street. I kept watching until he was almost out of sight. Just before he vanished from view I thought he turned back, flashing me yet another dazzling smile and blowing me a kiss. I peered after him, straining my eyes into the darkness, but he was gone and I couldn't be sure; it might have been a trick of the light, or my over active imagination.
I sat on the B&B steps and smiled into the night, far too dazed to go inside. Whatever I'd expected from this evening, it certainly hadn't been to feel like this. I was glad now that I'd put my faith in the cards, trusted to fortune.
'The die is cast,' I said aloud, to the empty street.