It was more than a quick peck, but it was not entirely the lingering oral contact she had so often imagined.
Nick broke the kiss and she turned away, her mind a jumble of confused thoughts. She heard him speak.
“Have I overstepped the mark?”
There was silence for a moment then she forced herself to turn and face him, although she was unable to meet his gaze directly.
“Well, it’s certainly changed things, hasn’t it?” she answered uncertainly.
“Good or bad?”
Now she found she had to look at him.
“You tell me,” she responded.
Again, there was an uncomfortable silence between them and Nick began to feel uncertain himself.
“Why did you do that?” Abi asked.
“Would you believe, because I wanted to? Look, if I’ve –”
“No,” Abi cut in, “it was nice, it’s just –”
It was Nick’s turn to interrupt.
“Nice?” he echoed, raising an eyebrow. He blew out air. “Well, I knew I was a bit out of practice, but I hadn’t realised I was that rusty…”
“Don’t be facetious,” Abi scolded him. “You stopped me from doing that very thing last week and now… well, you said a few minutes back that you needed time, then you go and do that. To say I’m confused is putting it mildly.”
“I didn’t mean to upset you,” he stated.
“I’m not upset, I’m… look, Nick, the thing is, last week I was telling myself I had to forget all about you. A day later, you drive up her to see me, then dart off again… today, you tell me there’s a chance after all but I have to be patient, then out of the blue, you kiss me. I’m willing to be patient, and I know you can’t promise anything, I accept that… but you shouldn’t go doing things like you just have until you know for certain that you mean them. I need to know that you’re taking this whole thing seriously.”
“I’m serious, Ab,” he told her. “When I said you’ll have to be patient, what I meant was, I don’t need time to think about this – I need time to get used to it… to deal with…”
His faltering made Abi take the decision to be direct.
“The fact that I’ve got a penis?”
As much as he already knew the truth of the question, hearing the words come from her hit him like a punch to the stomach and he was unable to maintain eye contact.
“Yeah,” was all he could manage.
The aversion of his gaze did not go unnoticed by Abi.
“I’m sorry that was so blunt,” she said, “but… well, you’re the one who’s big on honesty and openness. We can’t skate around the issue forever.”
He continued to look at the floor, causing her confidence to waver.
“Me and my big mouth,” she said, with an attempt at a laugh. To her relief, he lifted his head and looked at her again.
“No, you’re right,” he said. “I spend my working day dealing with unpleasant facts and this is –” He stopped himself abruptly. “I didn’t mean this is unpleasant, I meant…”
She placed her hand on his arm.
“It’s alright,” she smiled, “I know what you meant. Look, Nick, with everything you’ve had to deal with lately, maybe we should talk about something else. I mean, openness is all very well, but we wouldn’t want to have to much of a good thing, would we?”
He smiled back at her.
“No, we wouldn’t. But listen, I am serious – about us, I mean. I want to see you, Ab; I want us to have a chance.”
She would never have been able to explain how she managed to contain her emotions at that moment.
“I want that too,” she said quietly, taking his hand.
There was silence again for a short time, until Nick broke it.
“So, what now?”
“I was kind of hoping you might know,” she said lightly.
“I’m not much of a planner.”
“Okay,” she replied. “Ah… well, given the time of day, how about we think about getting something to eat? I don’t know about you, but I’m famished.” She was not especially hungry, but it seemed a good way of filling what might become an awkward void. Better still, if he agreed, it would mean him staying there longer.
“That’s not such a bad idea,” he said with another smile. “What did you have in mind?”
“Well, I didn’t as such,” she replied. “We could go out, or stay here and I’ll cook something, whichever you prefer. Unless you cook?”
“Abi, you have the good fortune to be in the presence of north London’s undisputed king of the microwave chefs,” he told her. “I can turn a frozen lasagne into a steaming hot one in… ooh, minutes.”
Given the circumstances under which he had come to see her, the day seemed to be taking a turn for the positive and Abi felt a surge of excitement over the fact that he made no mention of having to return to London.
“That’s a pity,” she said cheerfully, “I’m clean out of frozen meals. Been meaning to get some in for weeks, too.”
“Scrub that idea, then,” he returned.
“That just leaves plans B and C, then,” she told him. “We can either go out, or we can stay here and you can trust me not to give you food poisoning.”
Nick made a show of looking deep in thought.
“What, uh… what are the restaurants like around here?” he asked.
Abi smacked his forearm and scowled at him.
“Do you get called horrible names much?”
“Only by people who’ve met me.”
“Seriously, Nick, what would you like to do?”
“I don’t mind, up to you,” he replied.
“We’ll have to go out if you want a drink,” she said. “I haven’t got anything in, I’m kind of off alcohol at the moment.”
“Dieting?” he asked with a smile.
She shook her head.
“Not really. I had a bit too much at the weekend.”
Nick grinned again.
“You and me both.”
“Oh?” she asked.
“Yeah, went down to watch Danny and the boys play… ended up afterwards getting myself into a vodka drinking contest with Beamer – so Suzie tells me, anyway. Damned if I can remember.”
“Who’s Beamer?” she asked conversationally.
“Julian Beamish, one of the props.”
“Oh, that Beamer.”
“Well, you did ask. Anyway, that fat bastard practically sweats the bloody stuff… Danny ended up getting me home, apparently – can’t remember that, either. What was your occasion?”
Abi turned and gazed out of the window.
“I had a friend around,” she began, then decided to be frank. “I was telling her about you,” she continued, “about how I feel about you and…”
“And about how I was worried that you were being so nice to me because of your sister.”
“And that made you get yourself drunk, did it?”
“That was coincidental. Anyway, this isn’t getting us fed, is it?”
“So plan B or C, then?”
“I really don’t mind either way,” she said, “but like I said – if you want to drink as well, we’ll have to go out.”
Nick shook his head.
“I didn’t come here on foot, Ab.”
She instantly felt deflated. He would be going back to London, after all. She pushed her hair back behind her ears and tried to look nonchalant. After a few seconds, she gave voice to the thought fuelled by her desire for him not to leave.
“You could always stay here,” she said.
He sat back, raising a questioning eyebrow.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got a spare room you can sleep in,” she told him. “I’m not trying to lure you into my bedroom.”
His response annoyed her greatly.
“Might as well head back, then.”
Abi glared at him, her anger burning in her bright green eyes.
“No, Nick,” she snapped. “You don’t get to joke about things like that. If you really can’t take this seriously, we might as well not bother.”
Once again, his deflective humour had hit a nerve with her and he started to voice an apology.
“I’m sor–” he began, then lowered his head to hide the grin forming. He was not successful.
“What’s funny now?” she demanded.
He looked up at her, unable to prevent himself smiling.
“Well,” he said, “I’ve no idea how many words we’ve exchanged since we met, but I’m willing to bet a pretty high percentage of them consists of one of us apologising to the other.” He took her hand in his. “I’ll try harder.”
Despite herself, she found his smile infectious and felt one of her own beginning to play around her mouth.
“I’d like that,” she said. “Look, I shouldn’t have snapped at you just now, it’s just that… well, I know there are no guarantees, but if there really is a chance for us, I want it to be the best chance possible. I want it because I…” She faltered, still unable to produce the words she longed to say to him.
“Because you?” he prompted.
She swallowed, uncertain of her next step, when inspiration struck her. She looked at him with a smirk of satisfaction.
“Because I like you more than I should.”
He pointed an accusing finger at her.
“Now who’s being facetious?”
“It was my turn.”
“Fair enough,” he said, nodding. “Right, so…”
“So let’s decide what we’re going to do about eating. We’ll be looking at a breakfast menu at this rate.”
He smiled again.
“You’re right. Well, look, if it’s okay with you, I’m happy to eat here. I’ve had these clothes on all day, I don’t really fancy going out in them. We can order something in if you don’t feel like cooking.”
“No, it’s fine, I like cooking,” she told him. “I’d better make a start, though, or you’ll be driving back at midnight.”
“Yeah, about that…”
Her expression asked the question ‘what about it’ for her.
He gave her hand a gentle squeeze.
“Is that offer of a bed still open?”