You get what you pay for…
It’s my thirtieth birthday. It’s also Valentine’s Day. I’m not sure which one sucks most.
My best friend, Sarah, begged me to go out with her and her husband for dinner, but I’m not in the mood for celebration. I’ve worked hard all day, run for an hour, and now I plan to spend the evening alone playing video games and eating a whole tub of cookie dough ice cream.
But when I get home, I discover a man sitting on the carpet in the corridor outside my penthouse apartment.
He’s tall, gorgeous, wearing an expensive suit, and carrying the biggest bouquet of red roses I’ve ever seen.
He also has a huge red bow tied around his waist.
“I’m from Casanovas,” he says.
Hmm. That sounds vaguely familiar…
He gestures at the bow, and his smile turns mischievous. “Sarah says Happy Birthday.”
Oh. My. God.
And here's the first chapter to whet your appetite! Adults only please!
There’s a man sitting on the carpet in the corridor outside my penthouse apartment.
I have no idea how he got there. Access is only by an elevator, and you need to punch in a code to enable it to rise to the top floor. I freeze and turn to stop the elevator doors closing, but they’ve already shut, and there’s a soft whoosh as the carriage descends, leaving me stranded.
I turn back, my heart banging on my ribs, and fumble in my pocket for my phone as he gets to his feet. He’s between me and the stairs, blocking my escape. I take the phone out, my thumb ready to dial the emergency number. Then I hesitate.
He doesn’t look like a man who’s here to mug me. He’s wearing a tuxedo, an expensive one, judging by the fact that it’s single breasted and non-vented, with a satin shawl collar--I recognize a bespoke suit when I see one. He has a white winged-collar dress shirt and a black bow tie, and his shoes are polished. He’s tall, at least six-two, I reckon, with thick dark hair and a short beard.
He’s carrying the biggest bouquet of red roses I’ve ever seen. There must be four or five dozen there at least.
He also has a scarlet ribbon tied around his waist in a big bow.
“Ms. Bennet?” His voice is deep and a little husky.
I decide offense is the best form of defence. “Who are you?” I demand. “And how did you get in here?”
“I used the elevator.” He smiles. It’s a nice smile, non-threatening. His eyes crinkle a little at the edges. “I’m from Casanovas.”
Casanovas? I go cold.
The guy gestures at the bow around his waist, and his smile turns mischievous. “Sarah says Happy Birthday.”
I feel some clarification is in order.
Sarah is my best friend and my business partner. We met at university, where we were both studying Computer Science and Software Engineering. We recognized in each other a dynamic work ethic, ambition, and a smart brain, and it wasn’t long before the two of us were pairing up on our projects and knocking the rest of the class out of the park. We graduated with top class degrees and were offered a whole range of high-level jobs.
But that would never have satisfied Sarah and me. Hacking was our hobby, and we had great fun breaking into the sophisticated security systems of various businesses. We never stole anything, we just messed around with them a bit. We added customers called William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, or changed the loading screen on all their computers to a picture of a dog in a hat smoking a cigar. Then we approached the businesses with hands raised, said it was us, and told them we could redesign their systems to ensure nobody broke into them again. Every one of them said yes. It turned out to be a surprisingly lucrative enterprise, especially when we hacked into the Beehive--New Zealand’s government building. That landed us a contract to redesign all the government’s security software, which in turn led to a plethora of private contracts from top businesses.
In retrospect, I’m amazed we never did time. We’re too young, too smart, and too pretty to go to prison, Sarah always says. Now we have more money than we know what to do with, and we just hack for fun.
Sarah married and has two kids.
I met Alex at twenty-one, fell in love, got cheated on, and had my heart broken. And that was the extent of my love life. Since then I’ve devoted myself to my work, and as my office is at home it’s rare for me to venture out, except for when I run along the waterfront.
The other day Sarah and I were talking online. We’d just completed a huge project, and she said she wanted to take some time off with her husband and kids. I yelled at her for being selfish. She told me I needed to get laid more than anyone in the world.
“I don’t need sex,” I told her.
“Bollocks.” She was born in England, and it’s her favorite swear word. “You absolutely need to get laid. Very soon, and many, many times, hopefully.”
I scowled at her. “There ain’t nothing a man can do that my vibrator can’t.”
“Honey, if you seriously think that, you definitely need a man.”
“I’m not dating,” I told her quietly. “I’m not putting myself through that again.”
Her expression softened. “Alex was eight years ago.”
“Only eight years? I have an eidetic memory. I can remember every inch of that smug bastard’s face.”
“Aw, Elise.” She spoke with real regret. “You used to be such a softie.”
“Yeah, and look where that got me.” I used to wear my heart on my sleeve. Alex ripped it off and stomped on it until it had the consistency of mashed potato. I will not open myself to that kind of pain again.
Before I graduated, I wore pink, watched romcoms, and laughed all the time. Now I wear black eyeliner, watch psychological thrillers, and say fuck a lot. My mother hates it. Which of course is partly why I do it.
Sarah gave me an impish look. “Anyway, who says you have to date?”
“What do you mean?”
“Ever heard of Casanovas?”
“The eighteenth-century Italian adventurer?”
“Nope. Well, yes, I guess it’s named after him. It’s an escort agency.”
My eyebrows rise slowly at what she’s suggesting. “Yeah, that’s never going to happen.”
“I know someone who uses it,” she informed me.
“Leigh, from my Pilates class.”
“Seriously?” I know Leigh. She’s runs a communications company. Older than us by about ten years. “I thought she was married.”
“She is. She said her husband can’t get it up anymore. So she gets a Casanova while hubby’s at work, bonks him senseless, then cooks hubby’s dinner, and everyone’s happy.”
“And they say romance is dead.”
Sarah shrugged. “They’re still married, so I guess it works. She has orgasms on demand and her husband doesn’t feel guilty anymore.”
“He doesn’t care that another guy’s servicing his wife?”
“Keeps her quiet, I guess,” Sarah said. Leigh can talk all four legs and a couple of ears off a donkey. I doubt that even relentless sex will shut her up for long. “Anyway, Casanovas. She told me all about it. It’s extremely exclusive.”
“You mean it’s overpriced.”
“It’s expensive. But they only accept the best guys.”
“By best you mean those with the biggest dicks?”
“Not necessarily,” she says, straight-faced. “Although I’m sure that’s on the list. They have to go through training.”
“For what? Firearms? First aid?”
She grinned. “I’ll let you think about that one. The point is that it’s not a brothel, and they’re not skanky hookers who are reading over your shoulder while they’re going at it.”
“They can read?”
“Elise! They’re high-class escorts. You pay them to be your companion. They’ll do anything you ask. Leigh says sometimes she gets her guy to do the ironing.”
“Why would you hire an expensive escort to do your ironing? Wouldn’t the local dry cleaning service be cheaper?”
“I guess they don’t do it naked and promise an orgasm afterward.”
“They’re very… conscientious,” Sarah says.
I don’t even want to know what that means. “I’m not going to pay a man to have sex with me.”
“Fair enough.” She smiled, and I got the first tingles of warning.
“It’s your thirtieth birthday soon,” she said. “And it’s Valentine’s Day.”
“Don’t you dare…”
“Gotta go. Kids need feeding.” She hung up.
I rolled my eyes and promptly forgot all about it. But apparently Sarah hadn’t.
The guy in the suit doesn’t seem surprised that I’m not jumping up and down with joy.
“Sarah left you a message,” he informs me. He slides a hand into the top pocket of his jacket, retrieves a piece of card, and proceeds to read from it. “‘Dear Elise, I knew that if I asked you whether you wanted me to arrange a Casanova for you, you’d say no, so I did it anyway. He’s under strict instructions not to let you talk him out of it. Apparently he’s very good in the sack.’” The man’s gaze slides up to meet mine. “I apologize for the lack of humility--that wasn’t my idea.” He returns to the card. “‘He’s all paid for until midnight, so make the most of him. Happy birthday.’”
He holds the card out to me. I stare at it for a moment. He purses his lips and slides it back into his pocket.
“If you’d like to ring her to confirm she arranged this, go ahead,” he says. “I know it must feel odd having a strange guy turn up on your doorstep-”
“-so I’d understand if you wanted to check before you invite me in,” he continues as if I haven’t spoken. “I have a card, and you’re welcome to call Casanovas, too.”
I blow out a breath. “No need. Sarah told me she was going to do it. And I told her I wasn’t interested. So I apologize for wasting your time--I’d be more than happy to compensate you for your trouble.”
“Already been paid,” he says. “And I’ve been told not to take no for an answer.”
“Meaning what?” I ask. “You’re going to force your way into my apartment when I try to lock the door?”
He gives me a wry look. “No…”
We study each other for a moment. We’re standing about six feet apart. He’s a big dude. Big shoulders, broad chest, big… feet. He makes me feel small, which isn’t easy considering I’m five-ten in my running shoes.
This guy is here to take off his clothes and have sex with me. His eyes are warm, and I know he’s thinking about what I’m going to be like in bed.
Orgasms on demand, Sarah said. I wonder what it’s like to have sex with a man whose sole purpose is to give you pleasure?
I blink and glare at him. I can’t imagine this happening any more than I can me skydiving off Auckland’s Sky Tower. I don’t like heights.
“Your friend did this because she thought you’d like some company,” he says softly.
“I don’t want to have sex with a stranger,” I tell him, refusing to blush and hoping my boldness will scare him off.
He doesn’t look scared. “It doesn’t have to be about sex. Sarah thinks you’re lonely, and that you’d enjoy being with a man for a few hours. Maybe have a drink, have a chat. Would that be so bad?”
“You’re thinking you can make me feel guilty because I assumed you were here for sex.”
His lips curve up. “Sarah told me you were smart.”
“And now you’re trying to appeal to my vanity.”
“Is it working?”
I don’t reply. It is, a little. The best compliment anyone can give me is that I’m smart. Did Sarah tell him to say that?
The truth is, I feel a little guilty because of the sex comment. He is a person, when it comes to it, not a machine, and from what Sarah said, the Casanovas pride themselves on offering companionship to women who, for whatever reason, can’t or don’t want to get a date the traditional way.
Sarah would have known there’s no way I’d go through with this, but I am touched she’s trying to help. The guy’s nice, and if I were to get a date, a man like this would be high on my list of suitable partners. I’m not one of those women who demands their men are shaved and oiled. I like a guy to have hair on his face and chest, to have muscles--to look like a real man. Did she look at a menu or something? Did she pick this dude out personally?
I’m not interested in sex, but I’ve worked hard today, I’m tired, and I’ve argued with my mother about the decreasing number of childbearing years available to me--just what every girl needs when she’s turning thirty. Suddenly the notion of sitting down for a drink and a talk with a good-looking guy doesn’t seem like the worst idea in the world.
Still, I know nothing about him, and I’ve never invited a strange man into my apartment.
“What’s your name?” I ask him.
“Nico? Is that Italian?”
“My grandfather was.” He smiles. “Everyone calls me Nik.”
He doesn’t say ‘all my friends call me Nik,’ so I can’t say ‘I’m not your friend.’ His eyes are shrewd. He might be a male escort, but he’s intelligent. And there I am, making judgements again. He could be a genius for all I know. Just because he has sex for a living doesn’t mean he hasn’t got a brain.
This guy has sex for a living. I wonder vaguely whether he’s ‘conscientious.’
“How long have you been waiting?” I ask him.
He stretches out his arm to pull the cuff of his jacket back from his watch. “About an hour. Sarah thought you’d be home by seven.”
The poor guy’s been sitting on the carpet for an hour, on Valentine’s Day. Presumably he doesn’t have a sweetheart waiting at home for him. “I went for a long run. I’m sorry if I kept you waiting.” I’m wearing a gray vest and leggings, and I’m conscious of sweat marks darkening my top. I couldn’t have looked less sexy. Everyone-calls-me-Nik must be shuddering in his shiny shoes.
“No worries,” he says. “It’s a plush carpet, and I have a very soft butt.”
My lips curve up, and he grins.
“Look.” I blow out a breath. “I release you of your vow. Take the money and run, mister. Have a night off.”
He hefts the roses in his arm. “I’d rather come in for a drink.”
“I’m saying you don’t have to work tonight. You can keep the money. Sarah won’t mind--she wouldn’t have expected me to go through with it anyway.”
“I’d still rather have a drink.”
“You mean sex.”
“You said there wouldn’t be any,” he points out.
“Then why do you want to come in?”
He tips his head to the side and gives me a long, lazy look. “Because you fascinate me.”
I stare at him. “Why?”
He gives a short laugh. “Because you’re strange. And beautiful. And clever. Seems like a winning combination.”
He called me beautiful. He’s paid to say that, I remind myself. Still. Flattery will get you everywhere.
“Did Sarah say she’d give you a bonus if you managed to get inside?”
He smiles. “No.”
“How much did she pay you?”
He just shakes his head, still smiling.
“I’ll pay you double whatever it was to go away,” I tell him.
His smile fades a little. Ohhh… the money is important to him. Then I want to smack myself around the head. Of course it is. Why else is he here? Because he saw a photo of me online and fell in love?
Grow up, Elise.
But he says, “No, thank you. I’ll stick with the money I’ve got. Your friend was very generous. But I’ve been sitting on the carpet for an hour, and even though it’s plush, I’d love a soft chair, and a beer, or a whisky, or whatever you have inside that classy apartment.”
I give up. I suppose I can always get him to do the ironing. “All right, you can come in. One drink. And then you’re heading home.”
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