Home > My Oxford Year(26)

My Oxford Year(26)
Author: Julia Whelan

“Just let me know if you want something.” He turns to the bar.

Connor is so nice. So unaffected. I miss American men.

I should dance. Dancing would be good right now.

I leave everyone at the bar and slip into the throng, letting the body heat (minimal though it may be) lure me into the center of the dance floor. Within a minute I’m fully assimilated, just another rain-slicked body in the crowd.

I love to dance. Ever since I was a kid. It was therapeutic. Why did I stop? I used to dance every day after school. Put on the radio and just go to town. When did I become the serious adult who runs five miles a day instead of dancing by herself in her own damn apartment?

I don’t know how much time passes, but enough to work up a sweat and no longer feel quite so tipsy. At a song break, I slowly resurface, opening my eyes and finding myself back in this awful club. I see my friends at the bar. With Connor.

I catch his eye. He smiles at me, sets his drink down on the bar, seems to tell the group he’ll be back, and walks directly toward me. A warm rush travels through me as he arrives. Right now, the fact that he’s no Jamie Davenport is a good thing. A very good thing. He boldly brushes a still-damp lock of hair back from my face and says warmly, “Dancing becomes you. You look happy.”

A smile takes over my face. “Do you like to dance?” I ask him.

“Does any man, really?”

I start moving again and he joins in. He’s not bad. Who would have guessed? We smile at each other. He leans in to be heard, his breath stirring the hair at my ear. “You’ve got some moves.” He pauses. “And there’s no way to say that without sounding like a total creeper. Sorry.” I laugh. I pull away and flutter my hand at my face like an antebellum fan. He gives me a big, luscious smile. Now he shouts, “Really like your friends. Who needs Americans?”

I laugh and lean into him. He seamlessly drops his hands to the back of my waist. They settle on that no-man’s-land between lower back and ass. It’s neutral territory in the way demilitarized zones are technically neutral territory: a hair-trigger away from not. I’m weirdly proud of Connor in this moment. He clearly has more game than he lets on. My guess? He’s had a few serious girlfriends, a couple of years each. He’s experienced, but not in a promiscuous way, unlike Jamie and his legion of dropped knickers. There’s just something solid about Connor. Predictable.

There’s a tap on my shoulder. I stop dancing and spin around.

A cute girl in a strapless white dress and a neon-pink veil beams at me. It takes me a moment to realize it’s Sophie from the Happy Cod. “Hi!” I yelp, my mind racing. Oh God. It’s Wednesday. It’s Martin and Sophie’s joint bachelor/bachelorette party. I rein in my panic. So what if Jamie’s here? I have nothing to be guilty about.

Sophie’s cheeks are apple red, her eyes slightly unfocused. Not too unfocused to dip down and catch Connor’s hands slowly dropping from my body. She looks briefly confused, but keeps smiling. Nothing can derail her festive glee. “You came!” she cries.

“I came!” I cry back, gluing a smile on my face.

“Where’s Jamie? Martin’ll be thrilled!” she yells happily, looking around.

“Jamie didn’t come with me.” I’ll just leave it at that.

Apparently something can derail her glee and that something is the absence of Jamie Davenport. Sophie’s face suddenly slackens and she looks as if she’s going to cry. Silently, she grabs my hand (or attempts to; she finds my elbow and haltingly makes her way down to my hand) and trots me off the dance floor in unsteady four-inch heels, like a newborn filly. I glance back at Connor, giving him an apologetic smile. He points toward the bar and slinks off in that direction.

Sophie throws open the restroom door (momentarily losing her balance) and spins around on the filthy tile floor. For a moment she merely stares at me, looking overwhelmed and incapable of speech. Just as I’m about to break the uncomfortable silence, she blurts, “Martin told me everything, Emma.”

Because she looks on the verge of tears I choose not to correct her on my name. And not having any idea what she’s talking about, I can only say, “Oh?”

She nods emphatically. “It’s dreadful. Simply dreadful.”

I am so not in the mood for this, whatever it is. Does that mean I’m a terrible person? I just want to get back to my friends, to Connor. To a cocktail. “I’m sorry,” I say, a good thing to say when you don’t know what to say.

She’s coming toward me, arms out. She drapes herself over me and pats the back of my head. The vodka is wafting out of her pores like an evergreen car freshener.

“The things we endure,” she murmurs into my hair. Ah, I think I got it. Martin cheated on her. That must be it. I lift my arms, resting my hands on her back, giving her supportive little friend-pats. She continues, “I saw it with my own mother and father.” I inwardly groan. Poor girl. “My mother kept asking, ‘Why me?’ Why her, indeed. Why any of us? And what does one do in such circumstances?”

I pull out of our embrace and look her dead in the eye. “You leave. You leave is what you do.”

Sophie appears horrified at the notion. “It’s not as if it’s his fault.” Poor, brainwashed girl.

I take hold of her upper arms, restraining myself from trying to shake the doormat out of her. “Well, it’s certainly not your fault!”

She grabs my arms in turn, equally strong. “It’s not anyone’s fault when it comes down to it. Besides, Martin told me how he is. That he retreats, pushes those he loves most the farthest away.”

I shake my head. “That’s not an excuse!”

Now she steps back, getting emotional again, whirring her hand ineffectually. “No, of course not, it’s just . . . here you are with a new man—who’s terribly fit, by the way, but that’s not the point—and it just . . . it makes me . . . so . . .” She stops whirring and just stands there, in the middle of the bathroom, arms hanging limply at her sides like a little girl who’s lost her doll. Her voice goes up an octave and her face crumples in on itself. “Sad!”

I go to her, once again, this time taking her hands. I’m not this person, usually, but she’s so distraught. And it’s her hen do. And Martin’s an asshole. “Leave him, Sophie. You don’t deserve this. None of us do.” My words of wisdom seem to be working. She stops crying. She sniffles. She looks at me.

She sounds as if she has a clothespin on her nose when she says, “What?”

Her tone is a mix of surprise and confusion, as if I’d just brought a complete non sequitur into the conversation. As if we had been talking about the state of the world and I had suddenly belted out, “Shoes, shoes, shoes, I love shoes!” We stare at each other for a second and what I see in her eyes causes my stomach to flip over like a terrier. “You’re talking about Martin, right?”

“No! Oh God, no, I don’t know what I’d do if it were Martin. No, Jamie.”

Jamie? I quickly replay the conversation in my head. “What, exactly, did Martin tell you?”

“Everything. All of it, I’m afraid. Jamie phoned Martin later that day, the day we saw you in the chippy, and told him everything.”

“Which is?”

Sophie sighs sadly. “How god-awful it all was. And still is, for that matter. And that poor girl, what was her name?”

I knew it. IknewitIknewitIknewitIknewit. I do my best to remain calm. “What’s what’s-her-name’s name?”

Sophie sighs so hard her lips motorboat. “I can’t remember.”

I implore her, through gritted teeth, “Try.”

Her hand starts whirring again. “Sarah?” There’s a Sarah? “No, that’s not it. See?”

“Oh, trust me, I see. Clear as day—”

“No, no, See. Something with a C.”

Lightbulb. “Ce? Cecelia?”

Sophie snaps her fingers. Or tries to. She essentially just rubs them together. “That’s it! Martin said she was inconsolable after the funeral and that Jamie took her on, rather. It’s been years now, apparently.”

My stomach coils. I knew it. Of course. Cecelia. Years! Why did I ever believe him? He’s such a—“Funeral?” I say. “What funeral?”

“Well, Oliver’s, of course.” Sophie shakes her head, looking bewildered.

My mouth falls open, but other than that, I’m paralyzed from the neck down. I can’t move. I can’t breathe.

Oliver’s dead?

Jamie’s brother, whom he’s been religiously taking for treatments in London all this time, is dead?

I want to scream, but to do that I’d have to be able to breathe, to draw oxygen into my lungs. Words tumble out instead. “Oliver’s dead.”

“Dreadful, isn’t it?” she replies, as if I were merely stating a fact, not asking a question.

Reeling, I barely notice Sophie stagger to the sink, turn on the dingy faucet, and splash cold water on her face.

I excuse myself from the ladies’ room, all calm serenity. The calm of shock. The calm of betrayal. The calm before the storm.

One thought breaks through this calm, the first darkening cloud on the horizon, the telltale electricity that lifts the hair on your arms.

Jamie’s soft, pleading, moonlit voice in our set-adrift punt:

I don’t want to hurt you.

Chapter 17

No other man

Can know a man

Such as this.

For a woman knows a man

In ways a man

Knows not exist.

Ay, she knows her man,

Such as he is.

Unknown

The first campaign I ever worked on was for a city council seat in Nowhere, Virginia. I did it for the experience. I’d drive down there in the early evenings of my freshman year, knock on doors during the dinner hour, sleep in my car, then canvass the gas stations and bank parking lots in the prework hours, before driving back to D.C. for my lunchtime classes. I was an animal. I created inventive campaign literature, I engaged constituents who’d never been engaged before, I ate endless amounts of barbecue, and I paid for it out of my own pocket. I did everything. Everything but vet the candidate.

   
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