Twelve hours earlier...
Gabby laughed as she teased Ashley’s hair into a stylish poof. “Don’t look so nervous. Anyone would think that you were going on a date with a psychopath and not somebody that you’ve been dating for the last few weeks.”
“I know but—”
“But nothing,” Gabby interrupted. She tugged gently on the piece of hair she held, attracting Ashley’s attention towards their reflection in the vanity mirror. “You look beautiful. If you just stopped to look at yourself properly, you would see what everyone else sees.”
“I see exactly what they see,” Ashley scoffed, rolling her eyes. “I’m the weird looking girl with the hideous birthmark. I’m the girl that everyone looks twice at in the street. Not because I’m pretty, but because I’m disgusting.” She met Gabby’s eyes in the mirror. “I know what I am. You don’t have to sugar-coat it for my benefit.” She cast her eyes down to her hands before she could catch sight of the sympathetic look reflected across her best friend’s face. “Just leave it, alright?”
She heard Gabby’s deep sigh. “I just want you to look beyond it, Ash.”
“Look I get it,” she snapped. “Ben must have looked past it, right?”
“No,” Ashley replied, lifting her eyes back up to the mirror. “That doesn’t automatically mean that my self-doubt is going to vanish overnight. It just means, yeah, maybe someone is actually looking deeper than what can be seen on the outside.”
Gabby paused and slid her arms around Ashley’s neck from behind. “I love you, girl. I don’t have any doubts that your man is out there looking for you. Now whether it’s Ben or someone else, the person that your heart chooses will not only love you for who you are on the inside, but also who you are on the outside.”
Ashley nodded and raised her arms into Gabby’s embrace. “I love you,” she smiled. “You are the only person that puts up with my shit.”
“Don’t I know it,” Gabby laughed. “But what are best friends for, hey? Now, if you are quite finished, I need to fix your hair before Ben arrives to whisk you away on whatever amazing date he has planned for the two of you.” She picked up a hairbrush and continued teasing the long and soft waves of Ashley’s dark, chestnut coloured hair.
“I’m nervous, but excited.”
“Good. You’ll have to text me wherever you end up going.”
“That’s fine. Just keep your phone handy, because I like to have a back-up plan,” Ashley laughed.
“Well, we’re approaching date number five, so you must be doing something right,” Gabby said, placing the hairbrush back onto the vanity unit. “You may be onto a winner here. He must like you or else he wouldn’t keep asking you out!”
“We’ll see,” Ashley shrugged, watching as Gabby finished styling her hair with her fingertips. “It’s too new at the moment to say whether he does or doesn’t. Besides, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that we are going to ruin the relationship we have as friends. What if everything went horribly wrong and we stopped speaking to each other? I don’t need that sort of drama at the moment.”
“Don’t give me that shit. You’ve dated friends in the past?”
“Yeah, I know. This just seems a little different though... a bit confusing. I mean, for a start, we have surpassed the infamous one date jinx that I seem to have, so that’s a positive, right?” Ashley looked hopefully at Gabby’s face in the mirror. “I think I just feel slightly overwhelmed in case this goes further. It doesn’t happen very often, you know?”
“The first date is always the hardest,” Gabby replied with a shrug.
“I’ve had plenty of experience.”
It was true. She had been on many first dates over the past few years. So many in fact, that even she had lost count. After the first dozen of the ‘let’s just be friends’, Ashley had stopped getting her hopes up. Despite what her best friend continued to drum into her head, she knew that it was a miracle to get past the first date stage with anyone.
Besides, it wasn’t as if she didn’t know why. It was blatantly obvious the reason why most of her dates never progressed past the initial meet. It was because most men didn’t want to date a girl that had such a prominent flaw. Regardless of its shape or size, or how she covered it with the style of her hair or make-up, she knew that it was difficult for people to overlook. It was large and prominent when not covered. Her birthmark, or port-wine stain as her doctor had called it, was pink and red in colour, and it covered the left side of her face and upper part of her neck, making it difficult to hide it effectively.
“You are such a beaut,” Gabby said, placing her hands firmly on Ashley’s shoulders. “Yet again, you’re gonna have Ben eating out the palm of your hand.”
Ashley blushed as she studied her reflection in the mirror. Gabby had done a fantastic job with tastefully draping her hair in soft, loose curls over her shoulders and the side of her face. The cover-up had been applied perfectly. Although the birthmark was still visible, it wasn't as startlingly obvious anymore.
“Look at that for timing.” Gabby squeezed her shoulders lightly as the intercom buzzed. “Let me go and get him.”
Ashley took a deep breath as she heard Gabby answering the front door a few moments later, her voice laced with her usual sickly sweet tone that she reserved for her two business partners, Ben and Patrick.
“Benjamin! I hope you are looking forward to your date today. My girl looks a freaking stunner as always.”
Ashley rolled her eyes and stood from her seat at the vanity. After casting one final look in the mirror, she grabbed her handbag and headed for the living room. She knew how intrusive Gabby could get with her questioning, so she decided it was better to head her off now.
Slinging her brown leather hobo bag over her shoulder, Ashley took a deep breath. She was looking forward to today’s date, but still felt slightly nervous about the progression of her feelings. At the moment, she wasn’t sure where they were lying.
She had listened to Gabby drumming into her over the last few weeks about Ben’s suspected feelings that appeared to be forming, but she just couldn’t fathom it out for herself. It was confusing. Part of her was worried about their past friendship and the impact a relationship would have on their friends, while the other part of her was clinging to the possibility of something more.
Hope bloomed deep within her lower belly. As much as she wanted to deny it, a small part of her was already starting to wander along the dangerous path of hope and a potential future.
After all, Benjamin Goode was a fantastic catch for any woman. With his career driven, focused, kind and honest mind, he was the picture perfect man for most. Coming from a good home with a well-established background, he had extraordinary academic achievements that rivalled and rattled those superior, setting him above the rest in his field.
And not surprisingly, he was also a fairly handsome man.
Ashley had great appreciation for his thick, truffle coloured hair that shimmered beautifully under direct sunlight. The colour was striking, which popped vividly against the forest green tints of his eyes. She had studied every last detail of his appearance over the last few weeks as she tried to collate all of the pieces that made up the overall package that Ben delivered. Overall, she was extremely satisfied with what she had seen. Appearance, build and height... All of them were a tick in her box.
His broad and impressive frame stood easily above six foot, which was more than enough for Ashley’s petite yet agile five foot two body. But, to put it simply, Ben towered over her by some margin. So much so, that she had even made a conscious effort to wear a pair of boots with a heel today, because she was adamant that it would give her some more confidence when around him.
“Ashley? Why are you standing in the doorway?” Gabby sniggered as she took in her vacant expression and dreamlike state. “Earth to Ashley... Your date is going to think you’ve lost the plot.”
“Bugger, I’m sorry,” Ashley apologised, offering him a nervous smile as she stepped forward into the living room.
“Right, I’ll get goin,” Gabby announced, waving her hand dismissively between the two of them. “Be nice to my girl, Benjamin.”
“Don't worry, I promise to take good care of her.” He shot Gabby a cheeky wink and turned to Ashley with a daring glance.
Heat flooded her cheeks as she rushed to avert her eyes.
“Stop teasing her!” Gabby laughed and placed a comforting arm around Ashley's shoulders. “I'm sure you’ll have fun. And if you don't, then I will have your arse on Monday morning, Benjamin.”
“I'm sure the patients would love that,” he replied, cocking his head at her with a grin.
“It’ll certainly give them some entertainment prior to their impending dental nightmare.” Gabby slapped Ashley's arse and headed towards her bedroom. “Now get going, because I want to hear all about it later!”
Ashley shifted uncomfortably on the spot. She willed the nerves in her body to die down just a little before she made a complete fool out of herself. It was the stupid mark on her face once again, the thing that was always the root cause of her insecurities.