The restaurant is quiet and dignified, everything I would expect from the finest French establishment in my namesake city. The table is covered with sparkling white linen and set with fine china, silver, and crystal. An elegant silver candlestick holds a flickering white taper, and the mood is perfect.
Colin has already ordered his choice of wine, it’s poured and waiting, and so I take a sip. Anything to calm my nerves. They’ve put me on edge since he picked me up. Something in his voice, his demeanor, his choice of restaurant—everything—tells me he’s up to something.
It must be something special, I think to myself. Colin Gilbert is somewhat stoic and unemotional—typically British, he always says—and romantic gestures aren’t his style. Could tonight be the night he pops the question?
Do I even want him to? And if he does, how will I answer?
“Have you decided?”
I blink. I haven’t looked at the menu.
“No.” I shake my head as the waiter approaches. “You order for me. You know what I like.”
Colin nods smoothly. He likes it when I defer to him, and in this case, I don’t mind. I’ve been back in England for three days, and this is the first time we’ve seen each other. I’m hoping our latest separation might drag out of him whatever trace of romance he might have buried deep in his soul.
I can’t help watching as he orders. He’s slender, not soft but definitely not muscular. The perfect body for an English gentleman, he claims. I don’t know if that’s true, but I accept it if he’s happy with himself. His hair is dark brown, curly on top and short on the sides, and his eyes are a shade lighter than his hair. He’s maybe five inches taller than my 5’5”, which seems comfortable enough, and dressed in a navy-blue-almost-black suit and coordinating tie.
We’re a nice match, he says, although he does complain about my hair being too red. I laughed the first time he said it. Maybe I do have auburn highlights in my hair—they’re natural—but it’s just as much brown as it is red. My eyes are brown, too—hazel, they’re probably called—but Colin says they’re too gold. They make me stand out, and he’d rather I not draw too much attention.
He isn’t the first one to wish that.
For myself, I’m through with that kind of thinking. I’ve lived most of my life under that pressure, and I’m done with it. Forever. I made myself a promise the day I turned eighteen. By the time I graduated from college, I’d no longer be the shy, innocent girl who faded into the background. I’d be strong and independent, a woman defined by nothing and no one except being my absolute and authentic self.
The time has come. I graduated with my degree in Communications a week ago.
Colin sends the waiter off and looks at me with a distant smile. Is it my imagination, or has he been preoccupied since he picked me up?
“Is everything all right?” I try to smile in an easy, understanding way.
“Yes. Why do you ask?”
“You seem…distracted.” He’s an attorney—a solicitor, I remind myself—and work frequently concerns him.
“No. Although I do want to have a word.”
“All right.” It’s the British way of saying, we need to talk. Uneasiness snakes through me. That’s not usually a sign of anything good, is it? On the other hand, maybe non-romantic Colin doesn’t understand the usual clues. I learned long ago that he sees things much differently than I do.
“What is it?” I ask when he doesn’t continue.
He shakes his head. “We’ll save that for later. How was your trip?”
“Did you travel with your parents?”
“My mother. Dad…went ahead without us.” I don’t explain—again—that my father never goes out in public with us. Colin knows the situation. We’ve talked about the realities of my family dynamic more than once.
“Yes, of course. And your graduation?”
“Uneventful.” I swallow the words that I really want to say, mostly because I’ve already said them and it was a waste of breath. I asked Colin to attend the ceremony, and he begged off. Too busy. Too far. Too expensive.
It’s always too much something.
“And your plans now?”
I delay my answer while our waiter places an artfully-arranged vinaigrette salad before each of us. Colin begins eating immediately, while I wait.
“I’ve submitted a number of resumes, both here and in the States.”
“The States?” He looks up. “Southern California?” He says it like he means the very pit of hell. The garbage dump of all humanity. I suppose, to Colin, that’s the case.
“It’s home,” I remind him mildly. “Where I grew up.”
“Yes, well…” His nose wrinkles up like he’s just noticed a bad smell. It makes me want to push him a little.
“I’ve had some very promising interest from a record company in L.A. I interned there last summer.”
“I thought you were staying in England permanently now.”
I rest a flat gaze on his face. He ought to know; we’ve been seeing each other for months now. But I also recognize his unemotional reserve. Colin Gilbert never assumes anything.
“It depends on the job offers.” I try to keep my tone patient. How difficult can it be to understand? “And how…fulfilling my life here can be. You know, because of my father.”
“Right.” He nods and returns his attention to his salad. “Have you thought about not working?”
“Not working?” I pick up my salad fork but then drop it back to the tabletop before I take a bite. “Why wouldn’t I work? I worked hard for my degree! What would I do instead?”
He finishes his salad calmly and sits back in his chair. He looks at me after a moment, tilting his head as though he wants to see me from a different angle. “I’d like to set you up in a flat. Keep your time available for me.”
“I…” The words fall away. “Keep my time available for you?” I blink and pull my head back. “What the bloody hell does that mean?”
His expression tightens, and I know it’s my language. Colin doesn’t like ladies to curse. Right now, I really don’t give a good goddamn.
“Exactly what it sounds like. I want to be your priority.”
“My priority?” I have to repeat it, hear it again, to believe it. “My priority?” I say once more. “Do you mean my priority, or my only concern?”
He narrows his eyes. “London…”
Why doesn’t he finish?
“What about me, Colin?” I ask stiffly. “Am I your priority?”
“London,” he says again, and this time he shakes his head.
“What? We aren’t engaged. Why should—”
“Engaged?” He frowns. “What do you mean?”
I blink and imitate his expression. “Engaged. As in we’ve made a commitment to each other. That we will have a future together. Why would I make you the priority in my life if I’m not one in yours?”
He stares at me long enough to make me uncomfortable, and then finally he sighs. “London, you must realize the impossibility of what you’re suggesting.”
“The impossibility of what? My being a priority in your life?”
“Of our becoming engaged.”
An odd feeling races through me, like an electric shock sent straight through to my nervous system. I’m hot, then cold, then hot again. “What do you mean, Colin?”
He scowls and shakes his head. “Do I really have to say it?”
“Yes.” I nod emphatically. “You do. Absolutely.”
“It can’t come as a surprise to you that a man in my position can’t consider marriage to…Hugh Kennedy’s illegitimate daughter.”
“Hugh Kennedy’s illegitimate daughter?” I repeat carefully, my throat suddenly dry. “And a man in your position?”
He tries to hold my gaze, but he can’t do it. Brown eyes that suddenly appear weak and untrustworthy slide away.
“You know my goals,” he finally says. “I have grander plans than to remain a simple solicitor for the rest of my life. With the right connections, the right wife, I can—”
“The right wife,” I repeat. I don’t give a damn if I interrupt him. “And that couldn’t possibly be Hugh Kennedy’s illegitimate daughter. So that must mean you’re asking me to become—what? Your mistress?”
I nod as though things suddenly make sense. And they do. They fucking do. “Your mistress,” I say again. “You want to set me up in a flat where I can wait for you to have time to come round for a quick fuck.”
He flinches but says nothing. I press on.
“This might come as something of a shock to you, Colin, but you overestimate the attraction of your cock, you asshole.”
His voice is strangled, his voice horrified, and I really don’t give a damn. I rise from my chair with every bit of elegance my mother instilled in me, reach for my purse, and drop my napkin on top of my untouched salad. “I’ll find my own way home, you wanker.”
I don’t turn back. Why would I? I may not have an undying love for this man, but my emotions are involved. I trusted him to believe that he at least cared enough to treat me decently. Hugh Kennedy’s illegitimate daughter deserves some reasonable consideration. Some respect. Doesn’t she?
It doesn’t matter. I step out onto the street and look for a taxi. Quickly and oh-so-efficiently, Colin has destroyed whatever there might once have been between us. Shattered any hope that this time—this man—would be different.
I should have known better by now. Men want one thing, and women want another. Sex for security and commitment. Isn’t that the exchange?
Maybe for others. Not for Hugh Kennedy’s illegitimate daughter. Born on the wrong side of the sheets, as I’ve heard it whispered, means never aspiring to a real relationship apparently.
A man to love me for who I am, and no other reason.
Tears shock me when they begin to prickle behind my eyelids. I haven’t cried in years, and I know instantly I’m not emotional over Colin fucking Gilbert. It’s the reminder that the accident of my birth makes me…dirty. Not good enough. Someone to be hidden away or embarrassed over.
So maybe London Kennedy, embarrassment to her family and friends, ought to start thinking about herself, suggests a fierce voice from deep inside me.
I choke back a laugh, or is it more tears? Yeah, maybe I should. Instead of looking for trust, romance, or even respect, why not accept the obvious that life has laid out for me?
Work hard. Earn respect. Protect yourself, and forget about relationships. For that kind of thing, sex is the answer. Sex doesn’t waste its time with love and happily ever after. Sex doesn’t take your feelings and smash them into smithereens. Sex fills a physical need. The big O is the reward.
Isn’t that how guys look at it? I know it is, so why waste my time expecting anything else? I ought to be thanking Colin! He did me a big bloody favor. Reordered my priorities.
Relationships? They aren’t bloody worth it. I’ve seen what a mess they cause.
“Fuck love,” I mutter as a cab pulls up to the curb. “Who needs it?”
Who, indeed? That’s going to be my new motto, and if I do it right, it’ll see me through anything.