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When in Rome

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Sussex swarms with paparazzi. The baker gives her dirty looks and overcharges her for the soggy croissants. It rains. The local men grin at her, and then duck their heads, nudging each other with their elbows.

On the fifth day, Janine sits in bed with her knees drawn up to her chest, and feels rebellious and just a tiny bit useless.

“Make up yer mind,” her brother bristles when she calls him, but he arrives in his non-descript Audi as night falls, parts the sea of paparazzi with his head bent, and drives her to Heathrow over rain-gleaming roads. They don't talk, but do softly hum along together whenever a Dire Straits song comes on the radio.

“Be careful,” he says when she gathers her purse and swings a leg out of the car.

“Give my love to Annie,” Janine says, quietly grateful, and squeezes his shoulder.

-

Hurrying across her first pedestrian crossing in Rome, Janine nearly gets run over. The driver gestures wildly at her as he nudges the nose of his car almost against her knees; she flips him off in return. Someone else honks their horn, long and loud.

“Ma vaffanculo!” someone on the crossing shouts and throws up their arms at the driver, before grabbing Janine by the shoulder and dragging her along. “Tutto bene?” her rescuer asks Janine as they reach the pavement.

She turns, anger warm in her stomach. “What kind of – arseholes –”

The lady smiles. “Benvenuta a Roma,” she says, gives Janine a little pat on the shoulder, and walks off, heels clicking on the cobblestones.

-

The city is autumn-coloured and smells of traffic and wet stone. Janine mixes up her caffè lungo's and caffè macchiato's when she orders, and the baristas, sweating in the steam, give her tiny sweet pastries to go with breakfast. The olives that she buys from the Campi dei Fiori market are bitter and bursting. She gazes at shoes through windows that reflect her own face back at her, and laughs out loud when she reminds herself that she can buy them now if she wants – and she does. She breaks a pair of the new heels on the cobbles and is driven back to her hotel by a passerby on a vespa, who writes down his number on the back of her hand after he drops her off (and later, having been summoned, dutifully sucks slow kisses into the insides of her thighs, telling her things she doesn't understand). There are black truffles that come from the woods to the south of the city and on the porches of the bars people eat them with eggs, black flecks on yellow yolks in the autumn sunshine. There is as much French and English on the streets as there is Italian.

She sends a postcard to her brother and sister-in-law. It shows the Colosseum being backlit in the night, like a dramatic diva. She writes: Being careful in Rome. Rome not exactly being careful with me. x

-

“I think I read about you,” the woman at the bar says. Her accent is British, but she would fit right in as a Roman – the kind that feels that being tan is still a little distasteful. Her sunglasses are expertly arranged in the updo of her hair to look nonchalant, and when she smiles, the skin around her eyes barely crinkles.

“Good for you,” Janine says as she collects her daily order of panino bresaola, smiles politely, leaves quickly.

-

The next day, the woman takes the panino bag from the harried barista and hands it to Janine. Her teeth are very white and straight, and Janine can't help staring down at the glorious Louboutins that dangle off the toes of her jiggling left foot.

-

“Like them, do you?” she says another day later. She sticks out her leg, shapely in nude stockings. Her dress is a little shorter today than it was yesterday, showing a small sliver of stockinged thigh. Her shoes gleam as though they've never been worn outside, let alone on Rome's uneven cobbled streets.

“Yes, they're lovely,” Janine says, and looks up from the shoes at the woman's face. “They suit you very well.”

“They'll suit anyone who wears them with confidence.” She takes miniature sips of her miniature espresso, then puts it onto the counter and appraises Janine for a moment. “Do you know we've spoken before?”

“Oh?” Janine forces herself to look away from the perfect lipstick imprint on the cup. “I think I'd have remembered.”

“Not in the flesh,” the woman says. “On the phone.”

“Ah, well,” Janine says, and takes a moment to pull up an empty stool and sit down on its edge. “I used to be a – receptionist, I suppose you could say. I've talked to thousands of people on the phone.”

“If it helps, I was the one who wanted to talk to your boss about the silk ropes.”

Janine blinks. “I – right. Right, yeah.”

The woman smiles. “Irene,” she says, and puts out a hand.

And Janine, who came here to get away from people who knew that life, only hesitates for a second before shaking it.

-

Irene knows people in Rome – “Well,” she says, “I know about certain people in Rome,” and she takes Janine to a wine tasting, held in a recently uncovered wing of the Domus Aurea, one that has been closed to the public because of danger of collapse.

“Then why are we here?” Janine asks Irene, a little startled when this fact is revealed to her.

“A little danger keeps things interesting,” Irene says, and throws a smile at one of the party's hosts, who gives the both of them a look that Janine recognises easily. She looks back at him, but by the way he blinks and glances away she knows there was nothing inviting in her face. Well, serves him right, she thinks sourly, and becomes aware that she isn't at all in the mood to flirt with any of these men.

“I know someone else who would have said that,” she says, and then frowns at herself for thinking of him. She looks down at her glass of perfectly chilled, pale golden Frascati Superiore. “What's the point of a wine tasting if we can't even drink any of it?” she grumbles.

“Oh, the spitting thing is idiotic. Go ahead,” Irene says, and the smile she gives Janine is exactly the same as she just gave to the host – slow, seductive. Dangerous. Janine's mouth mirrors Irene's almost without her realising. She holds Irene's look for a long moment, and feels how, this time, there is a curious flicker of response in her belly, hot and heady.

Right, okay, she thinks. She brings her glass up to her lips without breaking eye contact, and tips it up, letting the fresh, cool wine flood her mouth. She has to bite back a sound of pleasure at the taste.

“There you are,” Irene says quietly, and she doesn't look at anyone else for the rest of the evening.

-

They stumble through the corridor of Janine's hotel – Janine breathless and giggly with wine, Irene amused as she supports Janine with an arm.

“Steady,” she breathes when Janine, laughing, sinks back against a wall, and pulls Irene with her.

“I am steady,” Janine says, and runs a hand up Irene's arm.

“I like your accent when you're tipsy,” Irene says, and presses a little closer, her body seeking contact with Janine's through the layers of their autumn clothes. She parts the flaps of Janine's coat and slips a hand between the fabric, lightly sliding it across Janine's belly to her side.

Janine is aware that her heart is beating in her throat. “It gets even better during a shag,” she says, and then has to stifle a laugh at her own cheesiness.

Irene's smile is wide. “Let's find out, shall we?” And she leans in and fits her mouth to Janine's, her mouth dark and slightly sour with red wine.

-

Irene undresses Janine slowly, taking her time to touch the skin she finds and coax to the surface the heat that she sparks with her wandering fingers. She's more careful than Janine would have expected, taking the time to fold Janine's clothes as she takes them off – and it becomes part of the game they're playing, the way she lets the fabrics slip through her fingers gently.

Janine feels already half-ready to come by the time she's fully naked, and she sinks back into bed, body taut and waiting. Irene doesn't pay much attention to her own clothes, undoing the buttons of her dress swiftly and efficiently and shrugging it off. She steps out of her shoes to roll down her stockings.

“You can wear them tomorrow,” Irene says as she puts the Louboutins next to the nightstand. “You'll do them justice.”

“Tomorrow, eh?” Janine says, and lifts herself up on her elbows. “I'll wear them while I fuck you, how's that?”

Irene, undoing the clasp of her bra, stops and smiles widely. “Oh, lovely,” she just says, and then lets her bra fall the floor. When she comes to to the bed, she lowers herself over Janine carefully, and only lets their nipples brush against each other, the only point of contact between them.

The way it happens is something that's entirely new. As Irene kisses her and coaxes her mouth open, Janine thinks about the thrills of schoolgirls, of giggling in the dorms, of the rough hems of skirts rubbing against tender young thighs – and how she sneaked out and told the boys about it later as they circled around her, offering her their cigarettes, their pleased, knowing mouths. But this, she thinks – as, oh, as Irene shimmies down her body and presses her lips to the sensitive spot just under Janine's kneecap – no, this isn't for sharing, this is something that Janine wants to guard for herself. This is itself, there is no audience here. When she opens her eyes, Irene is crouched over her body like a cat, waiting, eyes slits. The warm breeze stirs the curtain, and the sound of traffic rises and falls. Janine feels as though she's lost time, as though she's been here all her life. Irene's weight is warm and steady and it's been so long since anyone has looked at her like that: as though what she is is enough. Janine has played so many games lately that she'd forgotten what it feels like to arch up under the cautious touch of a hand, and to want nothing else.

“Oh my,” Irene whispers, and her eyes are wide, as though she's found something unexpected and valuable.

“What are you doing to me,” Janine whines, jerking a little with the sudden feeling of being electrified. The pit of her stomach is on fire. Irene hasn't even really done that much and she's already soaking wet, the feeling of her knickers slick and sliding. Acting on impulse, she closes her hands around Irene's shoulders and tugs her down.

“Nothing yet,” Irene says, and allows herself to be pulled flush against Janine, so that her mouth ends up near Janine's ear. Between their bodies the contact is hot and slightly sticky with sweat. “Nothing yet,” and it's a promise. Irene's thigh is a delicious pressure between Janine's legs, and she grinds down against it.

“I'm going to make you come more times than you can bear,” Irene tells Janine, and the threat of it makes Janine squirm.

“Please,” she says, “please do.”

-

“God, I can't –” Janine gasps, and then bites into her wrist to stifle a sound that would have been a sob as Irene's fingers dig into her hips and her mouth drives Janine through another orgasm – the spikes of sharp pleasure border on pain, and when she presses her eyes closed tightly her lashes are wet with tears.

Irene keeps her tongue on Janine's clit until the shocks and shudders subside. She sits up and trails a hand over Janine's sweaty brow.

“Enough?” she says, smiling, her mouth and chin shiny and wet.

Janine breathes out, her body still caught in sparks of sensation, and feels an almost hysterical laugh bubbling up in her gut. “Maybe,” she pants, “give me – a minute.”

“Of course,” Irene says, and leans in to gently kiss Janine's mouth.

-

Later, lying on her side and looking at Irene, Janine says: “I've never known anyone like you.”

“I can be many people,” Irene says as she sits up and looks down at Janine, and she looks serious as she says it, as though it's a secret.

“I like you best as you,” Janine says, softly trailing a hand over Irene's back.

“Who says this is me?” Irene responds a bit harshly, and then softens it with a smile. “I am many different things, darling – all of that is me.”

Janine looks up at her, at the way the light plays over her lovely body and highlights her nipples and follows the lines of her breasts. “Whatever you are, I'll like it,” she says then, and then blinks at herself as she realises that is quite a statement to make.

But Irene doesn't seem to mind. Her mouth is soft. “I'll show you, then,” she says.

Later, when Janine surfaces from sleep for just a moment, Irene is standing in front of the window, looking out over the city.

-

The next day, Irene is sitting at the bar wearing a white button-up shirt, grey soft-looking trousers, suspenders and a cap that covers all of her hair. The way she's sitting – ducked shoulders, curved back – is different enough from what Janine is used to that it takes her a moment to recognise Irene.

“Grazie,” she tells the barista as he hands her her sandwich, and then makes her way over to Irene's table, heels clicking.

“Morning ma'am,” Irene says, looking up from the newspaper she's reading. “Lovely shoes you're wearing, if you don't mind me saying.”