“I’m not sure if I should be relieved or disappointed,” I reply, smiling even though I know he can’t see me in the shadows of the booth. “This lovely abode isn’t yours?” I glance through a crack in the booth door. On the worn and torn sofa, which sits directly opposite me, a girl in a schoolgirl miniskirt undoes the stark white collar of a guy in full priest garb. Okay, it’s cheesy, but I’ve got to hand it to them, now that my initial shock and embarrassment has started to wane—the party guests really went all-out with their outfits.
“Alas, no.” He still sounds like he’s laughing. “This, ah . . . abode belongs to a pair of my very good friends. Who decided it would be hilarious to lure me over with the promise of, and I quote, a ‘quiet start of term dinner.’ ”
I snort. “Oh, so you were an unwitting participant as well? I wish I’d known the dress code was going to be so . . . specific.”
“Let me guess: a friend of yours played dupe the unwitting American?”
So he’s listening to my accent too. For some reason that makes my breath hitch, even as the rest of me flares at the accusation. “I am not unwitting.”
“Shh, I’m still guessing. You’re studying abroad, your friends texted you an invite to a fancy dress bash or something similarly obscure, and then they all pulled innocent faces when you arrived. Happens every semester. Just be glad they didn’t invite you to a formal dinner and tell you it was tarts and vicars party—I’ve seen that happen too.”
Something about his easy manner, the fact that he’s so sure he’s right (never mind that he is) makes me want to prove him wrong. What’s the harm? I’ll never see him again.
“Actually,” I say, enunciating the word so sharply I almost sound British myself. “I live in London. I’m just up for the weekend to visit a friend who works here. She sent me the wrong address.”
There’s a pause from the adjoining booth. “So you decided to stick around this party solo? You’re braver than I’d be.” He sounds impressed, which makes me bolder.
“There were free drinks. Why not?” Never mind that I apparently couldn’t even handle 1.5 of those drinks. If I’m making up a whole new persona, I might as well run with it. I lower my voice, inject a little sultry sting. “Besides, it’s been a long time since I’ve had a chance to flirt with a vicar.”
I expect him to laugh again. I’m starting to like his laugh, a sharp, surprised exhale of air like he’s not used to the sound, but he enjoys it when it bursts free.
Instead of that laugh, I hear a rustle from the adjoining booth. When he speaks again, he’s closer and quieter. His shadow leans right up against the wooden curlicue divider. “Is that so, my child?” His tone has turned playful, but there’s something else under it. Something that sounds an awful lot like desire. “It has, I admit, been a very long time since I’ve been flirted with.”
My pulse leaps through my veins. What’s the harm? it says. You can’t even see his face. You could be anyone. Say anything.
“That is a shame,” I murmur, inching closer to the thin barrier between us myself. “Are you sure you remember how it’s done?”
“I think I can figure it out.” He presses his hand to the wooden scrollwork. I lift mine, press it to my side. My skin thrills where it brushes his; I can feel his warm palm between pieces of the rough wood. Whoever built this booth used cheap material. Feels like the divider is nothing more than a couple centimeters of balsa wood.
As though reading my mind, his other hand traces the edges of the panel. I imitate him and find a latch at the top. My finger pauses on it, toys with the idea of removing this flimsy shield between us.