Looking back on it now, I know it was me who started it. I liked to hold him responsible, but that just eased my misgivings about my own needs. For a long time I struggled to come to terms with why I wanted this, sometimes resisting but mostly relishing it. But once you go down this road, it’s very hard to turn back.
I know many of you will judge me harshly, thinking that the likes of me have set women back centuries. Hell, to tell the truth, if someone else had told me this story a year ago, I would have been just as shocked. I’m not saying whether it was right or wrong, but it was right for me. It was the way I was wired. I needed it to feel fulfilled.
* * *
I was standing in a stuffy, crowded tube, in killer heels and a slim-fitting, grey Calvin Klein suit, trying to keep my balance and at the same time, read the information I’d Googled on Banbury’s of Knightsbridge, the prestigious department store. Privately owned, almost one hundred years old, MD: Mr James Banbury. I tried to memorise major details from the last published accounts. I’d read it all before, but I didn’t want to be caught on the hop. I had a feeling in my gut that this job was going to be momentous, but, my God, I had no idea what it would lead me to.
The building was impressive, four floors of classic majestic London architecture. Inside, the store was buzzing with life. I made my way to the fourth floor reception area and announced my arrival. I was ushered along a plush corridor and asked to take a seat in the waiting area until I was called. I was just settling myself when I noticed a silver-haired man ambling down the hall. He was tall with a portly figure and those red blotchy cheeks indicating high blood pressure, but his most striking feature was his cheerful demeanour. I couldn’t help but smile. He beamed his hello as he passed me and entered the office.
A couple of moments later, a petite, glamorous lady approached me, introduced herself as Myra White, the personnel manager, and directed me into her office. The silver-haired man stood as I entered and offered me his hand.
“Hello, I’m James Banbury; I’m pleased to meet you. Sigh-ob-han, is it?” He smiled apologetically at his inability to pronounce my name. He held my hand in his firm grip a little longer than was strictly necessary.
“It’s pronounced shove-on, Siobhan Brennan,” I offered with amusement. “And I often wonder what my parents were thinking of when they named me; especially considering I was born in Harrow.” I saw his eyes crinkle up and figured my first impression in the corridor was probably correct: he was a good-humoured man. He offered me a seat right next to him at the round conference table.
“Well, you certainly didn’t get your Irish brogue in Harrow,” he countered pleasantly. It was a good start and I could feel the tension slip out of my shoulders. He was extremely well spoken; it was obvious he had an expensive private school education and privileged background, but he was neither stuffy nor formal and I took an immediate liking to him.
“No, that comes all the way from County Sligo; my parents moved back home shortly after I was born.”
Before I knew it an hour had passed, and the interview was coming to a close. I noticed Myra said and asked very little, leaving it largely to James to garner the information, but I was careful to address my replies to both. James was charismatic, but I got the impression that Myra was a shrewd, smart woman and would have far more say in who was hired than she was letting on. She observed everything and the one or two occasions when she asked questions, they were astute and relevant, like which payroll packages I was familiar with and a few technical questions to test my proficiency on them. I asked a few questions about the organisation and then James finished up the interview. He confirmed it was ok to call my references before guiding me to the door with his hand on my back.
It can be very hard to gauge an interview, but I had a good feeling about this. It was relaxed and I felt I’d had a good rapport with James. Maybe even a little too good. Myra was harder to judge. I was in high spirits as I left and decided to have a wander around the store after treating myself to mocha in the on-site coffee shop. The store had everything: home wares, ladies’ fashions, gent’s outfitters, a music department, an electrical department, and a hair and beauty salon. I went from department to department, taking it all in. I was absolutely staggered at the cost of some of the items. Bloody hell, women’s jeans costing over two hundred pounds, were they for real?
I had wandered into the lingerie department and was holding a sexy silk basque and panties, debating whether or not I could afford them. Looking up, I was mortified to see James, and in his company was the most stunningly beautiful man I’d ever laid eyes on. He looked very irate and had started to say something in an abrupt tone to James, but James held up his hand to silence him.
I could feel my cheeks redden as I quickly tried to discard the underwear. James didn’t seem to notice and he continued to address me, but it was obvious as hell the younger man had seen and was highly amused by my discomfiture, his own anger forgotten. Pig! He looked at the underwear, eyed me up and down and grinned lasciviously. The way he held his stare showed a steely nerve and almost defied me to react.
I mustered up the dirtiest look I could, but the damn redhead colouring meant I was blushing furiously and I’m sure my attempt at a cold stare was ruined by my blazing cheeks. I drew myself up to my full but pathetic five foot two inches height and tried to look undaunted.
“Miss Brennan, how lovely to see you again so soon. This is Michael Henrii, my s-s…er, new head of our buying department as of next Monday,” James introduced, touching my arm as he spoke.
Michael offered his hand coolly, still eyeing me up and down. Oh, yes, he had confidence all right. One of those men who never doubted himself or his ability to attract women. Well, he was wasting his time on me. I’d seen the likes of him before and they were always more trouble than they were worth. I met his stare with as much stubborn defiance as I could muster, and spoke with much more confidence than I felt.
“Hi, Michael, nice to meet you,” I lied graciously, as you do in these circumstances.
“Hi yourself,” he answered in accented English, rolling his r.
That explains it, I thought, he’s European, no wonder he seems so damn self-assured. It always amazed me how confident Europeans were. Neither the Irish nor the English seemed to have that innate self-belief that the mainlanders are born with. I briefly wondered what his story was, what brought him to England, and why he had been so angry, but James called my attention, stepped aside from Michael and spoke in a low voice.
“Myra and I have been discussing the personnel assistant’s position and we’d like to offer you the job. Your offer letter is ready. We were going to get a courier to bring it to your house this afternoon, but as you are still here, perhaps you would pop back up to Myra’s office with me for a few minutes.”
Yes, I thought triumphantly, it’s in the bag. I managed to restrain my excitement and calmly thank James. I agreed to go back upstairs with him, but it was most unusual to be asked to pick up an offer letter in person. James dismissed Michael, saying he needed a word with me in private. It was obvious from his dark expression that Michael was somewhat annoyed at being sent packing in the middle of their argument. But before he left, he boldly took my hand again, kissing it this time. Cheeky beggar; he had way too high an opinion of himself. Between James and Michael there was far too much touching going on for my liking. I’d have to go back to my old friend Google to make sure there were no unfair dismissals claims against the company.
“I’ll look forward to seeing you again, Miss Brennan, au revoir,” he intonated, again staring me down. Ah, French, I thought without surprise.
Coolly, I replied, “Siobhan, please.” I was feeling quite chuffed with my apparent composure, given his intimidation technique.
I followed James up to Myra’s office and noticed her momentary look of annoyance as James led me through the door. She was obviously used to being railroaded by him. She quickly switched to a warm smile and handed me the letter, asking me if I wished to go into a vacant office to read it in privacy. He wasn’t picking up on her hints and I decided that the best thing to do was to excuse myself and read it at home, where I could absorb it properly. She grinned smugly, seemingly glad to see James thwarted, and wished me a good weekend. I got the feeling she would be quite an ally.
I was on cloud nine as I sauntered back through the store. On my way out, I caught another glimpse of Michael. Jesus, he was gorgeous. Rich brown curly hair, long eyelashes, and a classically handsome square jaw. Dark skin and deep pink, full lips. Again he seemed to be staring. Pity he had to be so damn arrogant, I thought ruefully. Besides, a man was not on my agenda and especially not one I was going to have to work with. I didn’t need these complications. I cynically figured he’d do my housemate Tara very well though; she’d eat him up. I couldn’t help smiling at the thought.
I took the tube back to Ruislip and stopped off at the local Marks and Spencer’s. Celebration time, I decided. I got a couple of bottles of sparkling wine and something for dinner. Claire and Tara and I had planned a girlie night in, as Tara was coming back from her holidays. It was amazing how quiet the house had been without her.
Struggling to manage the bags of shopping and my satchel, and keep my balance in the heels, I was relieved when I finally put the key in the front door. Kicking off my shoes, I first put the wine in the freezer (I knew my priorities), then I sat down at the kitchen table and impatiently tore open the envelope. Holy hell, six grand more than I was on in Lynham’s Electronics, fifty percent staff discount, and all the other usual benefits. I’d be a fool to pass it up. I quickly forgot about all the touching. I took my mobile phone out of my bag, called Myra to accept the offer, and arranged a start date for Monday fortnight.
I changed into my jeans and a sweatshirt and came down to prepare the food. I heard the door slam shut as I was taking the homemade fish pie out of the oven and I grinned; it was sure to be Tara, as she could smell food a mile off. Right enough, she shouted hello as she dragged her bag upstairs and was back down before I had a chance to follow her.
“Jeez, look at the colour of you, you look brilliant,” I said, hugging her in delight. “Did you have a good time?”
“Yeah, it was fantastic, but I’m not going to start telling you about it ‘til Claire comes in, no point in saying it all twice,” she warned.
Right on cue, we heard the door opening and Claire came in shrieking with joy at Tara’s return. I pulled the sparkling wine out of the fridge just as Claire was asking me how I got on. I handed her my letter and she read the first three lines and started yahooing again.
“Well done, Shiv, I knew you’d do it.”
Tara was looking askance at us. I’d forgotten she was away when I got the interview and she was in the dark. I filled her in and told them I’d already accepted. I’d loved the feel of the place; there was a nice buzz in the offices, not to mention a bit of luxury compared to the warehouse I was currently working in.
The girls knew I was totally fed up with Lynham’s as I’d been passed over for a promotion in favour of some worm who had spent his days licking the backside of the personnel director. He was pretty crap at his job and I was left picking up the pieces, with him getting all the credit. I knew I had to learn to be more assertive, but I couldn’t undo the past. I really couldn’t imagine reporting to someone who had deliberately shafted me and would do it again every opportunity he got. Even in this day and age it was still a man’s world, it seemed. I had my reasons for distrusting these slick confident men, all right. And that Michael fellah fit right into that category.
We toasted Tara’s safe return and my new job. As we ate, Tara filled us in on her holiday. She’d been to Corfu with a few friends from work and by all accounts she’d had a ball. She sighed, her tanned face wistful from the memory.
“Corfu is fantastic. The beaches are wonderful, the food is heavenly, and the men are gorgeous,” she declared with a grin. “I met this fellah…Giorgio…on the third day and he was sex on legs. He took me sightseeing, but the best sight of all was his body. We went out on his fishing boat to a secluded bay yesterday.”
“Jesus, Tara, you were taking a chance there,” Claire lectured.
“You gotta live life,” Tara retorted. “Anyway, it was worth it…sex in the sea, the cool of the water, the heat of our bodies, and the kick of being out in the open.” I could hear the excitement in her voice.
“You brazen hussy,” I laughed. “Bloody hell, I don’t think I’d ever have the nerve to do it al fresco. What if you got caught?”
Tara looked at me with contempt. “I’m surprised you’ve ever had the nerve to do it at all, you’re not married.”
I could feel the blushes rising to the tips of my ears and I primly replied, “Oh, be quiet, just because I treat my body with respect…”
“Respect? More like morbid fear,” Tara teased. I wasn’t really a prude; it’s just that to me, sex was still a bit special, not necessarily saved for marriage, but still, for someone you had real feelings for. I’d only had a couple of sexual relationships; they were ok, but I could never see what the big fuss was about. And I really didn’t get why Tara seemed to want to jump into bed with every man she met.
“If you wait any longer, you’ll be a virgin again,” she baited me.
“Oh, cut it out, the pair of you!” Claire advised, noticing that I was getting a bit annoyed.
To change the subject, I told them about being caught red-handed in the lingerie department by James and Michael.
“Fine bit of stuff?” interrupted Tara, ever mindful of opportunities. “Describe him.”
“Mmm, I’d say he is about six foot one, really lean and fit; nice broad shoulders, and the most intense brown eyes. Oh, yeah, and French, I think…Anyway, never mind what he looked like; what got me was the way he eyeballed the underwear, and then me. It was obvious what he was thinking.”
“It would take you, first hot thing you notice in months and you’re holding a pair of knickers in your hand,” Claire teased through her laughter.
“And the worst thing was when I was leaving with James, the bastard took my hand, as if to shake it, but cool as you like he lifted it to his mouth and kissed it. He had some nerve. I tried to cut him down to size with a dirty look, but it’s hard when you’re red as a beetroot,” I finished, laughing. “Anyway, with the pay rise and the discount, I think I’ll treat myself to the underwear; it’ll make me giggle whenever I wear it.”
I really loved spending time with the girls. It was sheer good luck that I had answered the house-share advertisement last year. They were a great pair, terrific fun, my lifeline. Just what I needed after I split with my ex, Brian. When I lived with him, I didn’t socialise that much. When I left, I wasn’t just homeless, I was almost friendless.
We cleaned up and decided to hit the local to celebrate some more. I tried to put the image of those deep dark eyes into the recesses of my mind. No matter how gorgeous he was, I didn’t need another cocky man in my life; between that man in Lynham’s and my ex Brian, I’d had more than my fill. No way was I going to be sucked in again.