This is a really bad idea.
In Eve’s defence, it is not her idea. Hugo had been the one to suggest it.
“There are professionals, you know,” he had suggested, at some point during their third - or possibly fourth, Eve struggles to remember the exact number - post-work drink. “People who do this for a living. You could hire one.”
“Dates for hire.”
And then Eve had leant across the table and asked in a slightly slurred voice, “Are you suggesting that I hire a gigolo to be my date for my ex-husband’s wedding?”
It had been a ridiculous suggestion at the time, but after another drink at the pub, and with a glass of mid-range Merlot from Tesco in her hand, it doesn’t seem quite as crazy anymore. Eve might be drunk, but it is Friday night and she is also alone, as she will be at Niko and Gemma’s wedding in less than a month if she doesn’t find herself a date soon.
And so, with her glass of wine freshly topped up near to the brim, Eve sits cross-legged on the couch in her South London apartment. She balances her laptop on her knees as she opens a search engine and types in the words ‘wedding date for hire’, and then clicks on the first website that comes up.
Eve skims through the introductory paragraph - some corporate bullshit about promising high quality personalised experiences - and lets the cursor follow her eyes to the tab that reads ‘Gallery’. Immediately greeted by pictures of each of the escorts available for hire, along with links to their profiles, Eve starts scrolling, searching for somebody young and hot whose presence at Eve’s side will cause Niko’s eyes to burst out of their sockets in surprise.
It is only after a couple of minutes that Eve realises that every one of the escorts is a woman.
Eve is about to leave the website and look for a male escort service instead, when she pauses to think. And maybe it is the wine talking, but if she’s actually going to go through with this then she may as well just fucking commit. Because why would she take a young, attractive man to Niko’s wedding, when she could take a young, attractive woman?
Now that’s how to show Niko that she has moved on with her life.
When Eve wakes up, she is still on the couch. Her body aches in all sorts of places - her back and neck are stiff from spending a few hours curled up on a couch that is too small to be slept on comfortably, and her head pounds from the alcohol she consumed last night. On the coffee table beside her, a laptop sits open, its screen in standby mode. A half empty bottle of wine stands beside a glass sticky with wine residue, the evidence of last night’s bad decisions.
Eve sits up and lets out a low groan as she stretches out her back and legs, full of regret. She’s far too old to be spending her Friday nights drinking with Hugo, Kenny and Elena. They might all be young and still possess the ability to bounce back from a night of heavy drinking without a headache, but Eve is certainly not. She needs to find herself some new friends, ones who are closer to her own age and who value a quiet night in.
A phone starts to ring, and Eve realises that it is coming from somewhere within the couch. She gets to her feet and peels back the cushions to locate the source of the noise, snatching up the phone and holding it to her ear.
“Hello, is this Eve?”
The voice is male and has a slight accent, though Eve can’t quite place it through the speaker of her phone.
“This is she.”
“Hello, Eve,” says the man. “My name is Konstantin. I’m calling about the request you submitted for one of our escorts.”
And it all comes flooding back. Hugo’s insane suggestion. Eve’s even more insane idea to actually go through with it.
“Shit, yeah,” groans Eve, slumping back down on the couch. “Can you just give me a second?”
Balancing her phone in place between her cheek and her shoulder, Eve leans forward and taps at the keys of her laptop so that the screen wakes up, then opens her browser. There are two tabs open, the first being her inbox, where the most recent email is an automated confirmation of her interest in hiring an escort. With her heart almost in her throat, Eve scrambles to open the second tab, letting out another groan as she is greeted by the wide eyes and high cheekbones of a woman who must be twenty years Eve’s junior.
Eve scans the escort’s profile quickly. Name: Villanelle. Location: London. Age: 26.
Oh, she would definitely turn a few heads at Niko’s wedding.
“Villanelle,” Eve reads the escort’s name aloud.
“Yes,” comes Konstantin’s voice. “That’s her. We ask that all new clients attend an introductory meeting with their escort so that both parties can decide if they want to proceed. Think of it as an opportunity to get to know each other.”
And maybe it’s because Eve is still a little bit drunk from last night, or maybe it’s because she can’t tear her eyes away from the picture of Villanelle on her computer screen, who stares at the camera with an enigmatic smirk on her lips and a smouldering look in her eyes, but Eve agrees. After all, it’s just a meeting. She’s not committing to hiring Villanelle just yet.
What could Eve possibly have to lose?
“Fine,” Eve tells Konstantin. “Does tomorrow work?”
Eve has plenty of opportunity to back out before the meeting with Villanelle. There’s nothing forcing her to leave her apartment on Sunday morning, to get on the tube and travel three stops to the coffee shop where she will meet Villanelle.
Nothing except perhaps curiosity.
Eve arrives a full ten minutes before the time she agreed with Konstantin, only to discover that the escort, Villanelle, is already here too. Eve recognises her immediately, having spent most of her Saturday afternoon studying the single image of Villanelle on the agency website, as if examining it in painstaking detail would tell her what kind of person she has agreed to meet. The photo gave her nothing, no indication of personality or hobbies or why she works as an escort. Eve will have to figure everything out for herself.
It’s still not too late to back out, Eve reminds herself, as she eyes Villanelle up through the window of the coffee shop. She could still back out now, call Konstantin on her way back to the tube station and give him a flimsy excuse about a family emergency to mask the real truth that she’s just nervous about meeting an escort.
But she doesn’t back out. Something compels Eve to enter the coffee shop, like an invisible magnetic force drawing her to the table where Villanelle waits.
“Um, hi,” says Eve, clutching her bag in both hands in front of her as she tries to get Villanelle’s attention.
Villanelle lifts her head, then tilts it to one side as she appraises Eve. Feeling Villanelle’s gaze scan down the length of her entire body, Eve wishes that she had decided to dress for this meeting in something slightly nicer than a pair of casual slacks and the jumper that was on the top of the clean laundry pile. In contrast, Villanelle looks nothing short of a movie star, wearing an elegant pinstripe jumpsuit and with a pair of large sunglasses perched on top of her head as she sips at an iced coffee through a straw.
“You are Eve?”
Eve swallows in an attempt to quell some of her nerves, then nods and says, “I am.”
Villanelle’s eyes narrow ever so slightly and a tiny smile graces her lips, as she comments, “You are different to what I expected. Would you like to order something, or shall we get straight to business?”
Villanelle gestures in the direction of the barista behind the counter.
“I need a coffee,” says Eve truthfully, because without alcohol as an option, she’s going to need some caffeine to make it through this encounter. “Would you like anything?”
Villanelle holds up her iced coffee and shakes her head.
Eve removes her coat and carefully hangs it over the back of the chair opposite Villanelle, then takes her handbag and joins the back of the queue to order a drink. As she waits, she steals glances at Villanelle, conducting her own evaluation of the other woman. She is just as difficult to read in person as she had been in the photograph on the website.
Villanelle chooses that exact moment to look up at Eve who, embarrassed at being caught staring, looks away quickly so that Villanelle can’t see the blush that rises to her cheeks.
A couple of minutes later, with a coffee in her hand and her cheeks thankfully back to their normal shade, Eve returns to Villanelle and takes a seat opposite her, unsure of how to begin.
“I’ve never done this before,” she confesses, eager to get that knowledge out into the open early in their meeting.
Villanelle leans back in her chair and gestures around at the coffee shop, before she says in agreement, “This is my first time in Caffè Nero too. I’m usually a Starbucks girl.”
“No, I meant…”
“I know what you meant,” Villanelle interrupts, lips curling up into a smile and a glint of mischief in her eyes. “I was trying to lighten the mood. You’re tense.”
Eve’s cheeks start to burn again at the misunderstanding, and she rushes to cover her nerves with conversation.
“You’re not from the UK,” she observes aloud, commenting on the accent with which Villanelle speaks. Eastern European, perhaps even Russian, if Eve’s guess is correct.
“Neither are you,” Villanelle points out. “Looks like we have something in common already.”
The conversation falls dead between them and Eve doesn’t quite know what to say. She had been hoping that Villanelle would take the lead on the conversation, as the professional in this situation.
“So, um, how does this work?” Eve dares to ask.
Villanelle sips at her iced coffee through its straw, then says, “You tell me what you’re looking for. I tell you if I can provide the service.”
“I need a date for a wedding,” confesses Eve. She pauses for a moment, then elaborates, “My ex-husband’s wedding.”
Predictably, Villanelle leans forward in her seat, her eyebrows raised in surprise. It’s a reaction that Eve is used to by now, the same reaction that she got from Elena and Kenny when she told them that she’d received a ‘save the date’ from Niko and Gemma.
“Your ex-husband invited you to his wedding?” Villanelle asks incredulously. She talks almost like a small child, excitable and expressive.
“It’s complicated,” Eve tries to explain, taking a sip from her coffee. “We stayed good friends after the divorce. Our lives were too entangled for a complete break.”
“And you want to hire me to make him jealous.”
Villanelle speaks in a low voice and phrases her words as a statement rather than a question.
“What? No!” cries out Eve, shaking her head in a resolute no. “I’m happy for him! I just … I don’t want to be the lonely ex-wife and I thought that if I had somebody to go with me, somebody young and attractive, it wouldn’t be quite so tragic.”
“People have hired me for weirder stuff,” shrugs Villanelle, slumping back in her seat.
Eve feels relief at that particular piece of knowledge, because she had been worried about coming across as a sociopath who gets drunk and decides to hire an escort in the early hours of the morning. There’s a small part of her that wants to know more, wants to ask what the weirdest thing Villanelle has ever been paid to do is, just to make her feel a little better about her own questionable life choices, but she decides not to push it. She’s not quite ready to align herself with other people who hire escorts, whatever their reason.
“So, if I were to hire you,” Eve asks, to clarify the hypotheticals, “what would you do?”
“Whatever you want me to.”
There’s a suggestive smirk on Villanelle’s lips as she answers question, one that implies she really does mean ‘whatever’, only emphasised by the way that Villanelle’s eyes scan down Eve’s body again, her tongue darting out to wet her lips as she does so. Eve hates the rush she feels as Villanelle blatantly checks her out, hates the way that her body reacts to something that is just a sales pitch, a ploy to persuade Eve to hire her.
Most of all, Eve hates the way that it actually works.
“I’m not gay!” blurts out Eve. She decides that it’s best to clarify that early on, just so that Villanelle is one hundred percent clear that this is purely a business transaction, that Eve would never actually date somebody like her.
“Oh, sure you aren’t,” replies Villanelle, unconvinced. She waves a dismissive hand, before she continues, “Anyway, you have nothing to worry about. I don’t screw my clients. At least, that’s what I tell my boss.”
“You have sex with your clients?” gasps Eve.
Villanelle pauses, then replies in a low voice, “Only the special ones.”
Her eyes drop to Eve’s lips and linger there.
“I’m not looking for anything like that!” Eve is quick to interject, and Villanelle’s eyes flit up to meet her own once more. Eve wonders if they are darker than before or if it is just her imagination. “I just need somebody who can pretend to be my date.”
Villanelle nods thoughtfully.
“I think I could manage that. I can be very convincing. What is our story?”
Eve frowns in confusion.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, how do we know each other?” explains Villanelle, gesticulating with the hand not holding her nearly empty coffee cup. “Unless you want to tell your ex-husband that you hired an escort to make him jealous…”
“For the record,” says Eve, shaking her head for emphasis, “I’m not trying to make him jealous. And no, I’d rather not tell him the truth.”
Villanelle nods once more and her forehead creases into a pensive frown. She seems to consider the situation for a few seconds, before she asks, “So I am your girlfriend?” Villanelle’s eyes widen in excitement and she adds, “Or wife! Maybe we eloped to Scotland together.”
Having given this drunken impulse to hire an escort very little thought, the word startles Eve somewhat. She has had boyfriends before, had a fiancé and a husband, but never a girlfriend. This is certainly a first for Eve, in more ways than one.
Eve tries to imagine introducing Villanelle to Niko at his wedding, to saying the words ‘this is my girlfriend’ to the person who used to be the one she introduced to others, and tries to picture his reaction. She imagines the way that his eyebrows might shoot up across his forehead, the way that his mouth might gape open in surprise, the way that he might be stunned into silence for a few seconds as he formulates a response to such a revelation, in the same way that all of Eve’s friends have reacted to the news that she’s going to be attending her ex-husband’s wedding. Eve decides that Niko’s reaction will be worth it.
“I guess you can be my girlfriend,” Eve agrees with a nod.
“What are you comfortable with?” Villanelle asks inquisitively. “We will need to be convincing.”
Eve pauses for thought, then confesses, “I don’t know. You have to understand; I was married for fifteen years so it’s been a while since I dated anybody. And I haven’t dated a woman in… well, ever.”
Villanelle’s eyes widen and she gasps, “You have never dated a woman before?”
Villanelle peers at Eve curiously, like she’s an exotic animal in a zoo and not just an ordinary heterosexual woman.
(Eve ignores the fact that ordinary heterosexual women probably don’t tend to hire female escorts in their twenties.)
“So, you’ve only dated men?”
Eve hesitates, then answers, “Yes.”
Villanelle reaches across the table and lays a hand over Eve’s. Eve flinches at the unexpected touch and she tells herself that the goose bumps that ripple up her arm are a result of Villanelle’s fingers being cold.
“Oh Eve, you poor thing,” sympathises Villanelle. “Please tell me you have you at least kissed a woman?”
Villanelle waits expectantly for an answer, concern etched upon her face.
Eve watches as Villanelle’s face goes through several expressions in under a second, from surprise to confusion to what appears to be abject horror at the thought of living a life without even thinking about kissing another woman.
“Did you even go to college?” Villanelle asks incredulously, finally withdrawing her hand from on top of Eve’s and leaning back once more in her chair.
“Yes, I did,” Eve attempts to justify her answer, “but I was in a long-term relationship with a guy for most of the time.”
“That sounds so boring,” Villanelle drags out the last word to show Eve exactly what she thinks.
Eve thinks back to the relationship in question, her last major boyfriend before she moved back to England and met Niko, and internally agrees with Villanelle’s judgement.
“So, I would be the first girl you are dating?” Villanelle says the words slowly, as if it is something that she can boast about, the fact that she will be Eve’s first girlfriend, albeit a pretend one. She looks at Eve with a question in her eyes, then adds, “If you still want me.”
“Yes, I want you,” Eve agrees with a sigh. When she notices Villanelle’s suggestively raised eyebrow, she quickly clarifies, “To hire you. I want to hire you.”
“And the kissing part?” asks Villanelle. She rests both of her arms on the table between them, then says, “Listen, you’re the client so it’s your decision, but if you want my professional advice, it will be more convincing if he sees us kissing. And more fun if he thinks you’re having a lot of crazy sex now that you’re divorced.”
Eve’s mouth goes dry at the suggestion.
And then Villanelle says, as casually as she might if she were discussing the weather, “We should probably practice before the wedding.”
Eve doesn’t know if Villanelle times her words deliberately as Eve takes a sip from her coffee or if it’s purely coincidental, but the result is that Eve ends up choking on her coffee and dribbling it down her chin. She lunges for a paper napkin and wipes at her mouth while Villanelle just sits there, seemingly amused by the way that her words have affected Eve.
“Practice what?” asks Eve, once she has managed to recompose herself, and though she knows the answer, she just needs to hear it from Villanelle, just to be absolutely sure.
“The kissing,” confirms Villanelle. She pulls a face, almost like a grimace, then whispers across the table, “I don’t want to alarm you, but I’m pretty good at it.”
Eve’s eyes drop to Villanelle’s mouth, pink-stained lips parted just enough to reveal the tip of a tongue caught between two rows of pearly teeth, and immediately has to look away again. She doesn’t want to give Villanelle the satisfaction of knowing that Eve is thinking about what it would be like to kiss her.
“Is, uh…” Eve stammers, before starting her question again. “Is that a normal part of your job?”
“Eve,” says Villanelle, and god, the way that her accent curls around the single syllable of Eve’s name is doing absolutely nothing to calm the heart that has been pounding in Eve’s chest since the suggestion that they might need to kiss in order to convincingly pretend to be girlfriends, “there is absolutely nothing normal about my job.”
Eve takes a few deeps breath to steady her trembling nerves. This is the craziest thing that Eve has ever done. Villanelle was right earlier - Eve’s life has been boring, the excitement of a career in British Intelligence stunted by the amount of time that Eve has spent behind a desk. But now thanks to copious amounts of alcohol, a suggestion from the very last colleague she should be taking relationship advice from, and Eve’s apparent inability to recognise a bad idea if it slapped her in the face, she is seriously contemplating sharing her first ever lesbian kiss with an escort she’s only just met.
“Fine,” Eve agrees, with a shrug that is anything but the casual gesture she wants it to be. “Let’s get it over with.”
Apparently, it’s the wrong thing to say. Villanelle stiffens in her seat and scowls across at Eve.
“Well not if it’s such a chore to you,” she retorts.
“What?” asks Eve, confused about what she has done wrong. After all, Villanelle was the one to suggest that they practice kissing. Would she rather that Eve said no?
“I told you, I’m not going to force you to do anything you don’t want, and you clearly don’t want to kiss me.”
“I never said that.”
“You didn’t have to,” says Villanelle, shaking her head. She leans on the table between them and then says, in a softer voice than before, “Look, Eve, I’m expensive and there’s a reason for that. I know exactly what you need and I can give it to you. But you have to be willing to put in your effort too.”
Eve’s breath catches in her throat. There’s just something about Villanelle telling Eve she can give her what she needs, coupled with the smouldering look that Villanelle is giving Eve from beneath her lashes, that makes Eve start to question her decision to go forty-five years without kissing another woman.
Which is why Eve takes a deep breath, and then says, “Okay, I want you to kiss me now.” And then, because she’s worried that it’s too forward, she adds, “You know, for practice.”
Villanelle scoots her chair around until they are sitting next to each other, without the barrier of the table between them.
“For practice,” Villanelle echoes back, and she starts leaning in.
“Just so you know,” Eve blurts out, and Villanelle leans back again with a frown on her face. “I haven’t kissed anybody since Niko.”
“Ex-husband. Well, I guess there was this one guy, but it doesn’t count because I was so drunk that I barely even remember it.”
Another product of a night out with Hugo. Eve really needs to pick better co-workers to spend her free time with. Ones that are older, more mature, less inclined to gear every single conversation towards sex. Maybe Eve should start spending her lunch breaks getting to know Jess better instead…
“Eve,” says Villanelle, interrupting Eve’s train of thought and bringing her right back to the present, where Villanelle is sitting so close that Eve can see the flecks of green in her hazel eyes. “I don’t want to hear about the men you have kissed before.”
Eve nods in understanding, and lets her gaze drop to Villanelle’s lips once more. This time, she lets her eyes linger.
“Got it,” says Eve. “So, do we just…?”
Villanelle reaches up with one hand to cup Eve’s cheek, brushing her delicate fingertips along the angle of Eve’s jaw, and starts to lean closer. Eve shuts her eyes and waits for the impact of Villanelle’s lips against her own. She can feel Villanelle’s face move closer, and the hairs prickle on the back of Eve’s neck in response to the proximity.
Eve startles back to the present at the sound of a sharp hammering against the window of the coffee shop behind her. She momentarily forgets about Villanelle, forgets that they were about to kiss, as she turns around to look for the source of the noise, only to see Elena and Kenny standing on the pavement outside. Kenny looks uncomfortable as they peer in, a complete contrast to Elena, who gestures between Eve and Villanelle before making some obscene hand gestures with an excited grin on her face.
Eve groans in embarrassment and raises a hand to her face.
“Do you know these people?” Villanelle asks from beside her. “Are they your friends?”
“No, I…” starts Eve, trailing off as Elena mouths the words ‘get it, girl’ while pointing at Villanelle. She sighs, then corrects herself, “I work with them. Co-workers, not friends.”
In retaliation, Eve sticks her middle finger up at Elena through the window. The gesture seems to spur some life into Kenny, who hastily grabs Elena’s hand and starts to drag her away from the window and across the road, much to Eve’s relief.
There are a few seconds of silence, before Villanelle says, “So, do you still want to…?”
As Villanelle trails off and gestures between them, Eve supplies the end of the question by saying, “Practice kissing?”
Eve considers the offer for a moment, and the image of Elena swims to the front of her mind, lewd hand gestures and all.
“No,” answers Eve. “I don’t think I can anymore.”
Villanelle pushes her chair back, putting some distance between them, and Eve tries to tell herself that the flash of disappointment that she sees on Villanelle’s face is just a projection.
“Okay,” says Villanelle, suddenly very business-like again. “So, you have my boss’s number, right? You can give him a call if you still want me for the wedding.”
I do want you, Eve want to say. But that feels like a little bit too much so instead she says, “Of course. I will definitely think about it.”
And then, because Eve doesn’t really know what to do next, she holds out her right hand for Villanelle to shake.
Villanelle looks down at Eve’s extended hand, then back up at Eve’s face with a snort.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she says, shaking her head. “You don’t shake your escort’s hand.”
“Oh, right,” says Eve, and she lets her hand drop limply back into her lap.
Villanelle stands up, appraises Eve from head to toe again, and then says, “I hope we see each other again.”
And then she leaves, and Eve is all alone in a Caffè Nero with absolutely no idea what the fuck has just happened.